Tony stared out the window, frowning, his fingers poised over the keyboard. Barely a whisper of air was floating in from between the half-open blinds. Grumbling, he made a mental note to buy a fan.
Looking back at the screen, he read the line he’d been typing before the deja vu had washed over him like a wave of rotten air from a garbage truck.
“Help me!” it read, cursor flashing just over the “Add location to post” button in the status window.
“I’m melting!” he completed, posting it to his feed, where it joined several hundred other Facebook posts about the weather. With good cause. It was one of the hottest summers on record.
He scrolled down his feed, scratched his lower back and yawned. Apparently, he’d joined far too many Facebook groups, because there was only one post from an actual friend for every three pictures from a fan-page.
“I don’t need a fan. I already am one,” he chuckled, mock-staring at his open hand as if the mysteries of the universe could be divined from the intricate blue veins running through it.
Weddings… babies… he groaned. Everyone was up to something. People were posting pictures of exotic locales and blurry photos of neon-lit club nights. For a minute, he felt a twinge of jealousy, until he sat back and really thought about it. He didn’t much like travelling. Clubs were noisy, expensive and annoying. And weddings and babies? They had their own host of issues. Besides, he’d gone camping only last week.
He and his friends weren’t the picture-taking types, but he’d really enjoyed himself. Yet, even with his pals, he only enjoyed camping for about three days. It got tiresome waking up on the inevitable rock that snuck under his tent at night. Tony figured the lumps must have been part of some campground regulation that was written after an angry attendant had had to clean the broken bottles out of a site for the four thousandth time. Still, better rocks than glass.
He continued scrolling, until his eyes flickered past a breakup notification. A breakup notification posted by Celine. Tony smiled. A while ago, they had worked together at a coffee shop. He’d always had a crush on her, but one of them was always in a relationship at any given time. But, they had fun when they hung out, so they kept in touch. Now, by horrible serendipity, they were both unattached.
“That sucks!” he replied to the post, “I’m sorry to hear things didn’t work out. You okay? Hang in there!”
Now, all he had to do was message her later today to see if she was okay and suggest they hang out in a few days. It had been a while, but he didn’t care if it looked suspicious. They got on really well, and she could always just say no. It wasn’t really about jumping into a relationship; it was about seeing if the foundations of a future one existed. If all else failed, they’d have a good laugh.. She probably needed a guffaw or two about now.
He sighed. And maybe part of him was tired of being single. He hadn’t had the heart to look into a new relationship since Rachael. She’d really done a number on him. Unforgettable lady. Still, something about old love rekindled the spirit.
Shrugging, he closed Facebook and hopped on Tumblr. Browsed Reddit. Tweeted. And cycled back to Facebook. A small field of garish red embedded with a white number popped up beside the tiny globe in the top right of his screen.
He’d expected as much. You don’t post on a pretty girl’s breakup status and not expect to get flooded with notifications. He clicked “More Comments” –geeze, there were a lot– and scrolled up, reading from the bottom.
What he hadn’t expected were the type of responses. Between posts of “Sorry babe xox <3” and “Call me, wifey! :-D” were lines like “WTF Tony!?” and “Tony, that’s so fuxxin ruuude.” It took a second to process. What the hell were they talking about? He didn’t think anything he’d said had been offensive. As he read, he started to dread each new comment. Had he said something he shouldn’t have? But, as apprehension waned, anger took its place. What right did they have?!
Finally, he came to his post. It read: “That sucks! I’m sorry to hear things didn’t work out. You okay? Hang in there! Just remember, now that you’re single, you can go out with me. Or, we could just fuck. Whatever. He was an asshole anyways! :-D”
Tony’s breathing halted for a second. What the fuck? He didn’t remember writing that. He was friends with the guy! Well, he checked his friends list, he had been, anyways. But, seriously, what the hell? Had his fingers kept moving or had his brain stopped working? He quickly deleted the comment, but the damage had been done.
There was really no way to talk himself out of this. It would be subtle, but he’d been branded. Trying to get in touch with her would only make things worse. With a heavy heart, he removed her from his friends list and closed the browser.
What the hell had happened? He walked downstairs and threw some pizza pockets in the microwave. Okay, sure, maybe his intentions weren’t entirely pure, right now, but they would have been totally fine in a couple of months. He could have waited; she was worth it.
He pulled the snack out of the microwave and leaned on the counter, working at the stress-knot in his back between bites. Whether it was from the heat, sleeping on a rock or just stressing about finding a job once he was finished this last year of college, it wasn’t right that he should have a sore back now. It was the middle of summer! Then again, he had been doing an awful lot of sitting.
Tony thought about going for a walk but decided against it. Who knows what would happen if his brain short-circuited again and he ended up running into traffic with his pants down.
So, he sat himself down in front of his computer, opened Chrome and habitually clicked on Facebook. Crap! He winced but shrugged it off. Sooner or later, he’d have to get back to his life. Consternation furrowed his brow as he stared at the screen. For the time he’d been away, he had an awfully large batch of new messages and an unusual number of notifications. He cracked the messages first.
“Dude, you’ve been acting weird. Everything okay?”
“What the hell, man? You drunk or something?”
“Calm your tits, boi. Shit’s not that bad.”
There were a lot of those. Tony did nothing but blink for a second. Even his mother, who tried her best to ostensibly respect his internet privacy, wrote, “Tony, it’s your Mom. Is everything alright? Your father and I are here for you. You can call or come home anytime. Love, Mom.” Another tide of deja vu washed over him. It was like he was twelve again.
He looked down at his fingers and back up at his notifications, a tight knot forming in his stomach and back as he moused over to the notifications button and clicked. A tide of blue spilled down the page. Comments. Comments on comments. All within the last hour. What was going on and, ugh, what the hell was wrong with his back?! Stretching wasn’t helping. Should he go see the doctor? He craned his neck over his shoulder and gaped.
His mind refused to take it in all at once. The back of his shirt was shredded. A large chitinous mass sat huddled between his back and the chair. Long, black, wiry fibers sunk into his skin, latched to his spine. Pulsing, round boils burbled beneath the body of the thing. Domes of shining black dotted its surface. Those dots swivelled towards him as two small appendages moved busily across his back.
Tony screamed. He screamed in a way he hadn’t thought possible. Primal denial fused with animalistic rage as he looked around for something, anything, to pry at the thing. To stab. To obliterate it. He swivelled frantically around in his chair and forgot what he’d been looking for. It was weird. He knew he’d been worked up about something. Right! What the hell was going on with his Facebook account?
As he clicked through the comments, he got the strangest feeling that he’d done it before, but they glowed blue with the hearty reassurance that they were new notifications. More troubling than that, though, were the posts on his wall… by him.
“I didn’t do it! None of you bastards believe me! Some friends you are!”
“I’m so done with you guys. Just fuck right off!”
“I can’t take being alone anymore. I can’t. I just can’t. Goodbye.”
“No one’s even going to miss me.”
His account had posted all over people’s walls. On statuses. On pictures. Spewing digital vitriol through the internet.
“Guys!” he wrote, “It wasn’t me! I’ve been hacked!” but he could tell by his friend count that that wasn’t going to reach nearly as many people as it needed to. How many would believe him? No, that was silly. People got hacked all the time. But, as he read, he realized that there were far too many personal references embedded in the sickening barrage of self-loathing insults and passive-aggressive, self-centered rants.
Anna’s High School braces. Derek’s drug-dealing side-business. A rape charge. A cheating girlfriend. A disloyal husband. He’d known so many of these people so well. Well enough to unleash a flurry of horrible secrets for the world to see. To open old wounds. To massacre old friendships. Twitter. Tumblr. It was the same all over. It looked, to all the world, as if he’d had a mental breakdown. He started deleting it all, but he knew it couldn’t matter. It had gone too far, too fast.
Maybe he was having a mental breakdown. He didn’t remember any of this. It must have taken hours to sow this much hatred. He stood up, stretched –his back was still killing him– and paced. He tried making some phone calls, but no one was answering. What time was it? Late, much later than he’d expected.
There was really nothing he could do. He shut his accounts down. At least, that way, they couldn’t do anymore harm until he could figure out what to do. Tonight, he would just curl up, watch a movie and fall asleep. Hopefully, this would all make sense in the morning.
But first, had he brushed his teeth? He felt like he had. He remembered sitting in his chair and wondering if he’d done it. He checked his breath in his palm. It was minty, so he must have. Huh, he really was losing it. No. No, that sort of thing happened all the time. Getting up to do something and forgetting what you were going to do. Losing something you were just carrying. Just a trick of consciousness.
He put it out of his mind and flopped into bed. Oof! Okay, maybe not on his back. It had been so sore all week. Was this what getting older felt like: you couldn’t just sleep on any old patch of ground you pleased? He wasn’t that old, though. It was probably all the sitting; that’s why it was getting worse. Yeah, that was it. He would go jogging tomorrow. Who was he kidding? He’d go for a walk tomorrow. Maybe get a slurpee. It was incredibly hot out, after all.
Tony settled on his stomach, wrapped an arm around a pillow and turned on his laptop. He groaned and rested another pillow under his pelvis. Yeah, he was going to the doctor tomorrow. Turning on a Donald Glover routine he’d torrented, he slowly, but surely, fell asleep with a smile on his face.
Until, in the deep darkness of a sleeping laptop and an exhausted heavens, he awoke with a screech of unrelenting pain. His eyes glazed over as his back twisted with a sordid, bursting torment.
“AuuugughAAAAWEEEEEE!!” burst from the wretched cavity of his mouth. Frantically, he threw off his covers and clutched at the burning center of his lower back. Pain drilled through him, coursing explosions of agony coming in unending waves. He wrenched his neck around, grasping with his fingers.
His hand felt his back, but his eyes saw the ebony domes his fingers traced over. From a hole in its blackened central mass, a wash of ichor spewed over Tony’s back. Two small appendages emerged from the pit and began smearing the substance over the shuddering boils in his skin.
Tony screamed and ran for the bathroom, pulling open his bedroom door and trying hard to remember why he was going to the washroom in such a rush. He didn’t have to go. He was sweating and his back was killing him, though, so maybe he’d thrashed out of a deep sleep to get some painkillers. It was really bad now. He didn’t think it was a good idea to wait until morning; it was best to head to the emergency room now. Some of his friends might not answer if he phoned, but one of his less-angry buddies was bound to read a text if he sent it.
He grabbed his cell off the dresser and mass-texted with shaking fingers, “Ii NeED to grt 2 emerg room Cna u pikc me up? Pleaaese?!” Someone would answer.
He was becoming a pitiful thing, doubled over with soul-wracking pain. He sank to his hands and knees on the carpet and wept. What was wrong with him? This wasn’t fair. He hadn’t done anything. It was unthinkable that poor posture could cause this much pain.
“Nnnnaurgh!” he moaned, beating his fist against the unyielding floor’s carpeted surface.
He focused his eyes forward, grunting and growling through the worst of it. “P-pain-killers…” he managed, compelling… commanding himself to move. Desperate for any solution.
Something moved on his neck. He snatched at it with the annoyed anger that only the truly helplessly outraged can muster. A tiny, black creature of chitin and green goo oozed out from between his clenched fingers. His eyes widened through the pain. What the hell was this?!
He ran into the bathroom and found that the place was absolutely destroyed. The curtain and rod were torn from their perch, accessories and products were scattered across the room. The towel and rack sat in a lump in the middle of the floor, and the far wall was covered with splotches of the same green ooze that now covered his fingers. All thoughts of painkillers were gone. His frozen, pain-wracked body refused to move, only his neck managed to pivot towards the mirror.
And, as he noticed, the pain intensified. Quivering boils on his back were bursting open, and crawling out from the tiny craters of flesh they left, mingled with ichor and blood, were more things like the creature he’d crushed in his hand. Many more. They swarmed towards a black mass of shivering chitin rooted in the hollow of his lower back.
The creature’s bottom half was anchored in his body, a twirling mass of fiber disappearing into his buttcrack — he didn’t want to think where. Another mass of the fibers melded into the middle of his back and invaded the nerves of his spine. Both masses converged on the bulk of the thing and vanished into a sodden vacuum of blackness that palpitated with its own Eldritch animation.
Its eyes swivelled on him and jittered. Was it… was it laughing?
Tony’s mind folded; he knew only agony. His body collapsed into a convenient position on the bathroom floor.
A car-horn split the night; someone was outside.
But, there was nothing left of Tony to answer. The thing rode him to his bedroom window, his body responding with adroit resignation. It left several of its brood behind to seed another swarm; they skittered into the warm, dark places of Tony’s bedroom.
The Tony-puppet pushed open the window and jumped, landing on his feet, his knees giving way slightly with a sickening crack. The grass didn’t cushion the fall from the top floor of his family’s townhouse very well, but it didn’t matter. The thing only needed him to convey them to a cozy, dark place where it could raise its young, letting them devour the host-body as they grew. His system had grown resistant to the numbing venom it had drip-fed into his veins, but that was okay. Its host was shackled to pain now, not ignorance.
It drove Tony’s body to jump the fence. Jeff, who had grown impatient waiting for Tony and was walking up the front steps, only glimpsed the bent form for a second as it mounted the fence, a shadowy black lump lashed to its back.
“Tony?! Hey!” he shouted, “Is that you?”
He picked up his phone and called Tony. The void yielded no answer.