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Travel Bug

One shared look from across the smoky bar, and they’re putty in each other’s hands. It’s an instant connection, the kind that future lovers don’t normally get until they’ve at least had a chance to meet, for sparks to fly. Tonight, none of that is necessary. Maybe they’d call it love at first sight if they had a chance to think about it. Or perhaps if they thought hard enough, they could reason through what’s really going on. But they won’t. They’re too blinded by their own attraction to think about anything else. It’s working perfectly. Nature is running its course.

Hannah is there for her friend’s birthday. Before her trip to Southeast Asia, Hannah and Rhonda had been inseparable. But Hannah’s adventure changed her in ways she doesn’t fully understand, and Rhonda made a lot of new friends while she was gone. These girls are a lot like Rhonda. They’re wearing tight, short dresses and lots of makeup, but they seem friendly enough. A few of them go out of their way to make Hannah feel welcome. Despite her anxieties of returning to this environment, she’s having a very nice time. By the time she sees him, her defenses are down. She’s feeling good. It’s the most opportune time to meet someone special.

His heart pounds at the sight of her. He’s at the bar alone, and he’s just put down his phone after reading a text: I’m really sorry man. Something came up at work and I have to go. Total bullshit, but I can’t lose this job. He’s feeling bored, annoyed and lonely. But when he sees Hannah, he doesn’t feel any of that anymore. Even from across the room, he can tell that she feels it, too. This surprises him. His wife was the only woman he ever read so easily. The young backpackers in Asia had seemed like a different species. They found him charming anyway once they learned he was traveling to escape his grief. Hannah’s is the first face that makes him truly forget. Now, his defenses are down. He’s feeling good. It’s the most opportune time to meet someone special.

He’s never been the type to approach a girl at a bar, let alone an entire group of them, but before he realizes it, he’s making long, confident strides toward them. She sees him coming and grins, feels something like butterflies, but more intense. The other girls notice him too, and they look him over, trying to decide if they’re going to entertain his advances. Little do they know that he isn’t the slightest bit interested in them. But of course, he must be polite. Isolating a woman and ignoring her friends is no way to make a first impression.

“Hello,” he says as he approaches. “My name is Kyle. My buddy just bailed on me, any chance I could join you for a moment?”

The bar is loud, but his words ring out clearly. He isn’t the most handsome man, but he isn’t ugly either. He’s wearing an unassuming white t-shirt and dark blue jeans. Simple, different from the ostentatious getups of the men who usually approach them. Really, though, it’s his casual confidence and honest delivery of the words that make him attractive. They nod in approval, and he takes a seat at their table.

He can’t believe how natural it all feels. He talks to the girls, listens to each of them and responds with interest. He doesn’t start with Hannah, but he does give her a playful wink. She listens to everything, desperately wondering when he will speak to her. Her palms are sweating in anticipation. Eventually, he finds an organic moment to single her out. They are sitting off to the side of the group where no one else can hear them.

“Finally,” he says, leaning toward her. “You know you’re the real reason I came over here.”

She laughs, flooded with relief. It seems silly that she could have doubted it.

They begin to chat and learn basic things about each other—what they do for a living, what their passions are. It all sounds superficial, but they enjoy it anyway. They would enjoy doing or saying anything to each other, but they are still perfect strangers, and they must start somewhere. It seems a little strange to have such a surface conversation when they already feel intimately connected, but the subtext is clear: this is all part of the ritual, and in order to reach the conclusion, they must follow it step by step. It’s a game that human beings have played since the dawn of their species, and it is one they consider a sacred tradition.

They eventually realize that they have been talking only to each other for half an hour. Rhonda and her friends are no longer paying attention to them beyond an occasional side glance. They’re both waiting for the other to make the next move, but the game must go on a little longer. The conversation shifts to travel. And who would’ve guessed, they’ve both recently been to Southeast Asia. They discover that they were in the region at nearly the same time. Could their paths have crossed? It isn’t likely, but that doesn’t stop them from comparing timelines. This leads Kyle to a pretense for progressing their night. He doesn’t really need one. He could ask her directly and she would agree to go home with him, but she appreciates the gesture.

“I collected a lot of art from Thailand,” he says. “I set up a gallery in a room of my house. Would you like to come over and see it?”

She is ecstatic, full of writhing butterflies and covered in gooseflesh. Of course she agrees. This is what she’s wanted since the moment she laid eyes on him. But she is here for her friend, so she hesitates when he stands to leave.

“I have to say goodbye.”

When she turns to Rhonda, her old friend meets her gaze with a sultry and mischievous look. She’s only teasing. She’s actually happy to see that adventurous spark return to her friend’s eye. She’s grinning ear to ear while Hannah stammers out her excuse.

“Hey Rhonda,” she starts. “I’m so sorry to do this on your birthday, but Kyle has this art collection. . .”

Rhonda stands up and cuts her off with a hug. “Hannah,” she says, “please give me the best birthday gift ever by going home with this dude and telling me all the dirty details tomorrow, okay?”

Hannah blushes. She wonders if Kyle overheard, but when she looks back, he’s still standing at a respectful distance. He raises his eyebrows questioningly, and she turns back to her friend.

“Thanks, love,” Hannah says. “We’ll get together later this week. Just the two of us.”

They share one last hug, and Hannah says her obligatory goodbyes to the others. They all know what she’s doing, and in other circumstances, it would embarrass her. Tonight she doesn’t care. She’s already been away from Kyle for too long. She tells him she’s ready to go.

He grabs her hand and leads her out. It’s late October, and a chill has gathered in the air. Hannah shivers, and Kyle drapes his denim jacket around her shoulders. It’s a sweet moment that makes her cheeks burn with pleasure. He leads the way to his car and opens the door for her.

The car warms up, and she stops shivering, relaxes into the seat, and looks around. It’s a nice car, sleek and sporty. What did he say he did for a living again? A software developer? She’s already forgotten, but it doesn’t matter. They got that part out of the way already. She’s warm and giddy, a little drowsy from the drinks and the heat coming from the vents, but she knows she’ll have plenty of energy once they arrive at his place. Then Kyle says something that chills her.

“There’s a really cool village in the north, maybe an hour from Chiang Mai. Khon Chae, I think it was called. Not much to it, but it was really relaxing and peaceful. I have great memories there.”

Why does the mention of this place bother her? It seems awfully innocent. He barely said a thing about it. But the name of the village sits in her mind in an ugly way. Khon Chae. She knows she’s heard it before, but she can’t place it. He looks at her expectantly, gauging her reaction. He doesn’t know why he brought it up. Silently he wonders why he is waiting for a reaction, but he shakes it off and continues onward.

She, however, cannot shake it off. He continues to speak, but a pit forms in her stomach. But it makes no sense. She didn’t even go to this place. 

Then, another sensation. Something feels like it darts down her arm, under the skin. The sensation is gross and unpleasant but gone in an instant. For a long moment she stares at her arm, but it doesn’t happen again. 

A few disturbing images flash in her head. A dream she had during her trip. An awful nightmare that had left her feeling sick to her stomach for days.

What made this dream so unnerving was how real and mundane it felt at first. In it, she sat in the common room of her Bangkok hostel. Despite being in a big city full of social backpackers, she was alone. She heard music and chatter upstairs, but the party just wasn’t in her, and she was preparing to go to sleep early. 

A guy walked in from his room and immediately engaged her in conversation. She could still somewhat picture him. He was British, a skinny fellow with short black hair and glasses. A bit of a nerd, but he was charming. They talked for a while and had a few drinks. She regained her affable demeanor, laughed at his jokes and listened to his travel stories. She thinks hard about their conversation until it hits her. He told her where he had just come from: Khon Chae. She shudders, but still doesn’t understand why.

At some point he mentioned that he couldn’t sleep in dorms and that he always sprung for a private room, then raised his eyebrows suggestively. Though out of character for her, she went for it. They giggled as he grabbed her hand and led her to his room.

Here the memory becomes choppy and distorted. He was suddenly aggressive. She remembers him shoving his tongue into her mouth so deep that it made her choke. And it had a rough, stiff quality to it that didn’t feel like any other tongue her mouth had received before. She remembers lying naked with him on the bed, but his body was impossibly lanky, more so than when they’d started. Even in the dim light, she could see that his skin was an unnatural shade of gray. The last thing she remembers is him on top of her, his face immersed in shadows, but she got the peculiar sense that his features drifted and swirled around themselves, as if loose on his head. Something long and thin entered her, but inside, it twisted around as if it had a life of its own.

Then she woke up from that horrible nightmare in her own dorm bed, the sheets soaked in sweat. It seemed so real that she felt she had to investigate. She asked the receptionist at the front desk who had rented the private room that night, but the girl said it was unoccupied. She barely recalled the guy’s name and asked if he was staying there at all, but no one had heard of him. That was the end of it. It seemed impossible anyway, but the dream was so vivid that it stayed with her. Perhaps that’s why she doesn’t go out anymore. Since then, the idea of sleeping with a man has disgusted her. Until tonight, that is.

Meanwhile, Kyle has been blabbering away, completely oblivious to the fact that Hannah is reliving her worst nightmare. When she realizes this, she is embarrassed. She quickly tries to piece together what he is saying based on context. It isn’t like her to be so disengaged. The gross feeling lingers inside her, but she won’t let that stop her. She won’t let some meaningless association stop her from getting what she believes she deserves.

“It’s just me here,” Kyle says as he pulls into a driveway. “Sadie and I were going to raise kids in this house. I can’t quite bring myself to put it on the market.” 

They go in the front door and he gives her the tour. It’s immaculately clean and organized. The kitchen has a granite island with a fruit basket, and the dining room table is big, made of oak. Next to it is a curio cabinet made of the same grain, full of Delftware and ornate silverware. “My grandmother’s,” he says. The living room has smooth black couches that face each other rather than the television. It’s a wholesome place, but it somehow feels sterile, like a hospital room. 

He senses that the tour isn’t exactly fanning her flames, so he finally makes his move. He pulls her close, gives her a long, passionate kiss.  Her heart pounds, and she forgets all about that horrible dream. They’re both aroused and ready for this to happen.

He takes her by the hand and leads her up a staircase and into a spartan bedroom. It doesn’t look like he does anything but sleep here. She wonders briefly if it used to be full of intimate decorations and photos of his wife.

As she reclines on the bed, he removes her shirt and positions himself on top of her. She feels that same sensation that she felt in the car, something crawling under her skin, but this time, it is all over her body and shooting across her in a frenzy. She looks down at her bare torso and sees the shifting lumps under her skin. He stops and stares, his mouth hanging open.

“It’s really true,” he says, wide-eyed. “I sensed it. I don’t know how, but I did.”

His face is glowing. He looks like a kid that just ripped open a Christmas present.

“You got it there too, didn’t you?” He looks into her eyes, his fingers caressing her squirming flesh. “In Thailand?”

It isn’t Kyle talking anymore. Something has awakened in him and is no longer allowing him control.  His voice is different, the words and inflections are those of some other entity. He is still in there, but buried, his mind warped by the dormant force.

She feels herself nod. She’s frozen by fear of her own body and confusion at Kyle’s delight. She has no idea how to react. She now knows that something sinister connects them, but it is too late for her to do anything about it. There’s a tickling sensation at the base of her neck and she feels the whole mass of what is inside her start to slither back down her spine. All she can do is lie there. Puzzle pieces begin to fit together in her mind. No wonder he saw something in her that he didn’t see in her friends. No wonder their attraction was so electric. Two beings in desperate need of a union had finally met, but neither was Hannah or Kyle.

“The girl who gave it to me hated it.” He turns his attention back to her churning stomach, caresses it like a precious gem. “She thought she could give it away to me, that she could pass it on and be free of it. She thought she was cursing me, but now I think she gave me a gift. She gave me you.”

Hannah is silently panicking. She feebly lifts an arm and tries to push him away, but she’s losing control to the thing inside her. Her hand rests gently on his shoulder. She tries to say something, and he puts a finger over her lips. She starts to cry.

“Hannah, I need you to understand something.” He rests his head against her belly. When he feels the wriggling mass he moans lightly. “I’ve never felt this way before. Not even with Sadie.” It’s almost a whisper. “Do you feel this too?”

She wants to scream. She wants to run away from this place, to cut this thing out of her body and throw it in the dirt. Then she wants to rip it apart. Stab it. Set it on fire. Anything, as long as it dies. Instead, without meaning to, she nods. It is true, after all. She’s never felt this way before. He looks up with tears in his eyes.

“Oh, Hannah.”

He stands up from the bed and takes her hands to help her sit up. He takes his shirt off, and she can see it in him too, slinking around across his ribcage toward his groin. The thing in her must be able to see him through her eyes because it grows more frantic. He pulls off the rest of his clothes, then tenderly removes her jeans, bra, and underwear. Now, they’re both fully nude, standing still while the creatures wriggle wildly within them. He pulls her closer, holds her hands. The two creatures want to touch. They both move up and down, exploring the humans’ torsos in tandem, looking for a way out. Finally they find their exit. Hannah watches the head of Kyle’s cock open like a flower in bloom. The slimy tendril comes out of her vagina and slithers against her wet thigh for a moment before reaching out to meet it. They hover between their hosts for a moment, becoming acquainted.

Then he lays her down again, his hands gentle and loving. She’s sweeping his body with her fingertips. She feels her passenger enter him. He unleashes a passionate cry and she can see the pleasure wash over his face. Euphoria washes over his expression, and he no longer seems present. And in that moment, he looks beautiful to her. Perfectly masculine and powerful. The dread and horror fade entirely as their glorious congress slips something new inside and fills her with a chemically induced bliss. She starts to cry out again, this time in rapture, something beyond lust and fear and every other petty emotion that humans feel. She wonders why she was so afraid to let this happen, to let nature take its course. Natural, yes, that’s how it feels.

They go on like this all night. The good feelings don’t stop. Not when he sloughs off the excess skin from his face and arms. Not when the tendril that emerged from her splits apart into a writhing Hydra. Not when their blood mixes together and pools on the mattress. Not even when he orgasms, and she can’t believe that a climax so powerful is possible. And when what’s left of Kyle finishes its work and falls off the bed, having fulfilled its destiny, she lays there, glowing in ecstasy while she listens to her spawn recongeal on the bedroom carpet and begin its new life.

It’s small now, but it will grow very quickly. Soon it will perfectly resemble a human adult. Yes, for a time it will even believe itself to be one. It will inherit memories of events that never occurred, people and places that never existed. At this new stage of the life cycle, it is of vital importance that they are not discovered. Soon, though, it will not matter.

The creatures have chosen their breeding ground wisely. So many young backpackers, all high on hormones and adventure, all ready to make rash decisions and carry seeds to new horizons. When this lovely young thing is fully grown, it will go out in search of a mate, perhaps at a bar or a party. Someplace where people are letting their defenses down and feeling good, when it is the most opportune time to meet someone special.

This story can be found in the collection Splinter and Other Stories.

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