Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
The day that the worms finally came, Mya wasn’t surprised.
She’d been telling her therapist, her psychiatrist, her mother – anyone who would listen, really, about her problem for years, and not a single one of them understood or believed. All of the pills and talk therapy and doctors and art therapy and ECT in the world could not dissuade her from her belief.
Mya was dead. She was absolutely sure of it.
The idea had trickled in and out of her consciousness at first, unraveling into a teasing little thread of information that would flicker away the moment she paid too much attention to it- some much like the rest of the ideas, the notions, the voices, that would invade her reality’s timeline, stubborn as old ghosts.
This particular concept – that Mya wasn’t really alive anymore – had made itself apparent to her in her early twenties, when she’d had her temperature checked at the doctor’s office for a check up before yet another psychiatric referral. There’d been the scale, first, and of course she’d been underweight. Mya was always underweight, but the last month had seen a drop in ten pounds and that had been her mother’s biggest worry, and her old psychiatrist had not seemed nearly as concerned. And now here they were, jumping through insurance hoops to find another person to give Mya new drugs, new words, and ignore the things she said.
“Hm,” the nurse had muttered, more to herself than to Mya, shaking the thermometer a bit and frowning. “This thermometer’s glitchy. I’ll be back with another.”
She’d left the room, and Mya had hopped from her spot on the paper-covered exam table and grabbed the thermometer. It had left alone upon the counter, the disposable plastic sheath still around its metal tip. She popped it back in her mouth, and then read the results. 94.6.
It isn’t broken, a little voice had whispered slyly, rubbing up alongside the back of her skull, you’re just not like them. But you already knew that, didn’t you? You don’t have to tell them. You know they aren’t going to listen.
The nurse didn’t come back to try again before the doctor arrived, and in that time Mya had quickly slipped the thermometer, sheath and all, into the pocket of her jeans. The doctor hadn’t taken Mya’s temperature either. She’d simply discussed the weight loss, Mya’s sleeping habits, her blood pressure – which of course had always been low. Mya said nothing about her discovery, and gave the answers she thought were what the doctor wanted to hear, all the while thinking about the thermometer in her pocket and the knowledge growing in her head.
That had been five years ago. She checked her temperature daily now. It was one of the few things that gave her comfort, a sense of tangible security in a world that she did not trust to keep her safe. According to her secret thermometer, hidden in the smallest slash in her mattress she was 72 degrees today. Room temperature. She slipped her tool back in its home and tucked the sheet back over the hole. She had to be very, very careful, as her mother had taken the others over the years, when she had first discovered Mya in the middle of this secret ritual. She had not believed Mya the first time, or any of the following ones, and had refused to even look at the evidence on the little digital screens before throwing them away.
Mya made her way to the bathroom she shared with her mother, and stared into the mirror. A pallid, straw-haired girl stared back at her, features sharp, bruise-like smudges of violet beneath her dark, unfocused eyes. Her skin looked mottled with grey, and the few freckles she had stood out in stark relief, pinpoint reminders of what had once made her a little copy of her mother. She leaned forward, watching the spiderweb of a dark vein in her cheek, poking it. Picking. She hadn’t noticed it last night, and it was bothering her now. She pressed again, just a little, just to…
The vein squirmed beneath her finger. Not like any vein she had before. She scowled and picked a little harder, but it slithered away beneath the surface and out of view. She made a face, sighed, and leaned away, itching the back of her hand. Her skin had been flaking off a lot, lately, not that anyone seemed to notice, or care. She’d find pieces on the floor, in her bed, on her pillow. She hid them in the drawer of her nightstand, but if her mother ever found them, she had said nothing.
Her mother appeared behind her in the mirror, glass of water in one hand, Clozapine dose number one in the other. Mirror mother had a third hand that patted Mya’s shoulder, but Mya had learned that discussing these subjective realities upset the people around her more often than not. Keeping quiet kept peace.
“Your face is red,” her mother remarked softly as Mya took the glass, and dutifully swallowed her medication down with tepid tap water. “What happened? Is it allergies again? Have you been using the cream the dermatologist gave you?”
“My veins are falling out again,” Mya muttered, then winced. “I had a pimple,” she added quickly, louder, awkward. She set the glass too-hard on the counter and the sound reverberated against the tile walls. “I’m breaking out again. The meds.”
“You… Mya. Mya, we talked about this.” She’d heard, for once.
“Yes.” She ducked away and darted out the door, clumsy but quick, hiding her shaking hands in the sleeves of her baggy pajama top.
Her mother watched her go, biting the inside of her cheek and swallowing to try and rid her throat of the lump that seemed to have taken root there whenever she set eyes upon the gaunt shadow of a thing that had slipped inside her daughter’s skin years ago.
Later, when Mya was alone watching cartoons on television and her mother was out in the garden weeding, Mya noticed a shadow in the corner of her vision. It… squirmed. She blinked repeatedly, but the bright, angular characters on the screen did not come back into focus. She rubbed her eye, grumbling, and blinked several times.
Another strange little shadow crawled across her vision, taking its time and blocking the screen for a moment with an unfocused haze that made her eye water. She grit her teeth and rubbed harder; stars exploded through her vision, but the awful sensation and the blur simply would not go away. She pushed herself awkwardly to her feet and wavered down the hall and into the bathroom, slapping at the light to turn it on, leaning over the counter and holding open her eye, peering so close to her reflection that her breath fogged her image over.
She wiped at it with a sweaty hand and leaned in, searching, her nose almost pressed to the surface.
A thin black worm squirmed from beneath her upper eyelid and plopped of its own volition wetly into the sink, disappearing into the drain before she could grab it.
Of course. Of course, of course. She was surprised she hadn’t noticed it sooner. Maybe they’d been hiding. Maybe they’d been there forever, and she was only just now able to see.
She gave a soft, short sigh and leaned back, closing her eyes and breathing through her nose to calm her jangled nerves.
When she opened her eyes again, her vision was clear, but the strange black veins were back beneath her skin, stark contrast under the sharp fluorescent lights.
Not veins at all, no. Those were worms too. Surely they weren’t just in her eyes. That’s not how decay worked. She leaned forward and poked her cheek. The sensation of the thing beneath her skin pushing away from her sent a shiver down her spine, made her teeth clench and her ankles hurt. Her near-empty belly gurgled; she swallowed hard and gave another slow inhale and exhale. After the nausea passed, she peered over her left shoulder, towards the still open door, and called, “Mom?” Silence.
Her mother was still outside.
Good. She had quite a lot of work to do, and very little time to do it.
The second worm put forth a valiant struggle against its capture and expulsion. She’d given up on her short bitten fingernails and had resorted to dull tweezers and then a blunted nail file before settling on her mother’s cuticle nipper, which she’d found after a quick, furtive search through her mother’s zippered makeup caddy. It had proven to be a much more efficient tool for the task at hand.
She grunted with the effort as she dug beneath the flesh of her cheek, grasping the creature by its tail – or maybe its head – she didn’t really know worm biology – and pulling. It felt longer than the first worm, and when it came free she dropped it into the sink- which she had plugged this time, to prevent an escape.
The worm thrashed about wildly, searching for shelter. She wiped the nipper clean with the flowered hand towel on the counter next to her failed tools and leaned in, searching for the next. Maybe if she could get rid of them all, she wouldn’t be sick anymore. Maybe she could find a way to be alive again. For all she knew the worms had caused everything. She’d seen those videos on national geographic. They were parasites. They ate things up from the inside. Worms could really do a lot of damage if you let them get out of hand.
The third she found just beneath her scalp, and she ended up pulling a chunk of her hair out trying to remove it, not that that mattered much to her. Sticky tendrils of red-stained blonde feathered the sink, providing the worms with something to climb through in their quest for freedom.
Her face was sore, and her hands were slippery with blood, but the worms and their odd little pitter-patter-slither against the cold ceramic of the sink urged her onward. She had to get them out. She had to finish this. Maybe no one else had cared enough to fix her, but she could do this herself.
Mya had lost track of time and count when she heard her mother pounding on the now closed, and locked bathroom door, demanding to be let in. She ignored her, tongue out and to the side, hyper-focused on her task, nippers deep in a little pit dug above her clavicle, tugging at another of the slippery little invaders. She could swear it was squeaking at her, or maybe it was just the sound it made against her bone. She’d chased it from a spot just under her ear but this time she’d corned the damned thing. She had a good half of it pulled out when the door burst inward, and her mother stood in its frame, pale and wild-eyed, a look of cold horror spilling across her dirt-smudged, sweaty face. The glass and pills in her hands fell to the floor, forgotten, shattered at her feet.
“It’s okay, mom, I’m almost finished.” She turned, offering up the nippers and their prey, giving the long, dangling tendril of segmented nightmare a wave in her mother’s horrified direction. “I think I finally got them all. I’m definitely going to be alive again, now. Aren’t you happy?”
Mya’s mother screamed at the same time her daughter’s eyes rolled back and she crumpled to the ground, leaking bright red across the tile floor and into the soft purple bathmat under her prone form.
Time dissolved, and Mya rolled her head lazily to the side, reaching out for her dropped nippers. She brought it weakly to her throat, trying to find her last excision point, to make sure it had been cleared of its awful guest.
“MYA NO!, I’m sorry, I don’t know, I don’t know how long she’s been hurt, I was just outside in the garden…” Her mother pulled her hands away, speaking into a phone pinned between her shoulder and cheek.
“Yes, Clozapine… schizophrenia… her new psychiatrist thinks Cotard’s syndrome, but I never thought…. She would something this severe… I don’t know, oh god she’s lost so much blood, please hurry…” Her mother gagged then at the sight of shreds of skin, tendon, and what looked like vein lying bloody in the sink.
Mya heard only snatches of conversation as unfamiliar hands- too many hands- were upon her, lifting her. She floated through the hallway, blearily attempting to reach out a blood-slick hand to her mother. “Worm… I got… I’m alive.”
Her mother was sobbing.
“No… be… I got them. I….” Her voice felt wet; her words thick and slow and she was suddenly aware that she could not feel her toes, her fingers. She was terribly cold, and yet, her insides felt hotter than ever. She could feel her heart, burning, beating frantic…. everything shifted to black, in the gaping bright maw of an ambulance, full of harsh beeps and hurried voices and disembodied faces filling her vision. She heard her name, urgent, felt hands on hers- hands she could not grip, and she ran the other way, into the warmth and quiet and dark, away from worms and metal.