Stomach bug, and an unnatural event

by Roseleigh Priest

Stomach Bug

 

Something buzzed passed Illy’s left ear. She ignored it. Distractions were irrelevant in her currently elevated state of existence. She breathed in, focusing on the feeling of her ribs expanding, cool air rushing over her parted lips. She held it in. One, two, three. She released it. One, two, three. She rolled her shoulders, lips parting to draw in another breath. She swallowed a fly.

 

She swallowed a fly

 

Her eyes flew open. Her calm evaporated. Some frantic, animal instinct took over, convinced the unexpected invasion could be countered with violence. She clawed at her neck, hacking, pounded her chest. The fly was still in her throat, like a tablet swallowed dry. The wings were fluttering against her oesophagus. Insectile death throes. Should she throw up? Could she make herself throw up? She knew it was theoretically possible, but she’d never tried it. The idea freaked her out. Before she could seriously consider plunging her fingers into her mouth to poke at her tonsils, her body took executive control of the situation and she convulsively swallowed. The fly finished its fatal slide into the darkness of her digestive system. 

 

Illy sat, stunned, staring blankly at the wall. A corny poster of a pentagram and a cartoon cat stared back. 

 

‘Fuck,’ she rasped. 

 

Struck by the absurdity of her situation, she laughed, mostly to avoid crying. She was sitting crisscrossed on a pink yoga mat in her living room. An exorbitantly expensive scented candle burned in front of her. Sage and citrus. Her tongue was tingling. Without really thinking about it, Illy unlocked her phone and called Cass. 

 

‘What’s up bitch?’

 

‘I swallowed a fly.’

 

‘Interesting life choice.’

 

‘It wasn’t intentional,’ Illy told her firmly, as if this had seriously been up for debate. ‘Not on my part; I guess the fly might have been suicidal.’

 

‘Can flies be suicidal? Do they even have, like, proper brains to get depressed with?’

 

‘The fly isn’t the point.’

 

‘Do you think you’ll digest it, or is it like eating gum?’ Cass continued, on a roll. ‘Like, will it still be whole when-’

 

‘I hate you,’ Illy declared, flopping back. ‘I shouldn’t have called you.’

 

‘You love me. And you have, like, no other friends ’cause your weird and think you can cast spells with hot sauce and old boxers.’

 

‘I was drunk, and we don’t totally know that didn’t work. It’s not like Jake would tell us if he got an itchy crotch,’ Illy defended herself half-heartedly. 

 

‘We can dream. You want to get lunch?’

 

‘I’m never eating again. I have trauma now.’

 

‘Seems impractical, but okay. What about I grab my nail polish and we have a self-care movie marathon?’

 

‘Cheesy horror?’

 

‘The more fake blood the better. I’ll be there in, like, twenty.’ Cass hung up without waiting for confirmation, which Illy took as her sign to heave herself off the floor. 

 

She blew out the candle and rolled up her yoga mat. Then she collected blankets from her bed and the linen closet to pile on the couch, a small mountain of soft fabric to nest into. That done, she sat on her coffee table and browsed Netflix until she found a movie that promised kickass cheerleaders and gratuitous vampire violence. She loaded it. 

 

Nothing left to do, she sat in the silence of her apartment, hugging herself. She liked her apartment, usually. It was small, and worn, and the building’s water heater broke every other week, but it was full of her stuff; her mismatched furniture, her grandmother’s porcelain tea set, her photo albums, her cheap art, her childhood teddy bear, her dying plants. The longer she sat there, trying to soak in the comfort of familiar things, the less the silence sounded like silence. It became charged. It started to buzz. 

 

Illy stood abruptly, deciding she would dust. She grabbed a cloth and attacked her shelves, dragging her finger across every surface to test their cleanliness as she went. Trying not to think about the tiny carcass dissolving in her stomach acid. An obsidian orb shined on her bookshelf, wiped free of dust. She picked it up. The cool, slick surface of the stone sliding against her fingertips was calming. It was almost enough to make her forget the metallic taste lingering in her mouth. 

 

Cass flung the door open, scaring Illy so badly she dropped the orb. It fell directly on her big toe. She swore.

 

‘Sorry,’ Cass said, dumping a bag of nail polish on the coffee table and collapsing on the couch. ‘How big was this fly, exactly?’

 

‘Seriously?’ Illy asked, hobbling towards her.

 

‘I’m just trying to get the right mental image.’

 

‘I didn’t see it. My eyes were closed.’

 

Cass arched a brow. ‘How do you know it was a fly, then? Could have been a bee. Or a stinkbug.’

 

‘It sounded like a fly.’

 

‘Solid evidence.’

 

Illy organised the nail polish bottles into neat, colour-coded rows, then snuggled in next to Cass under the blankets. She reached for the remote and pressed play. A bouncy pop song blared. A cheerleader was flung into frame, her tan legs stretched into a split, her pom-poms extended. About ten minutes in it was revealed the vampires were the scorned chess club, determined to take the cheerleaders as their immortal brides. There were three deaths in the first fifteen minutes. The cheerleaders made DIY stakes out of rulers and table legs and were unexplainedly all extremely skilled at close-range combat. Nobody called the police. 

 

Illy snorted, watching one of the nerdy vampires get pushed out a third-story window straight onto a spiked fence. She was uncomfortably warm under the blankets, her armpits dampening, the backs of her legs slickening with sweat, but she didn’t feel like moving. The nervous energy was finally starting to dissipate; she was almost hungry. Her stomach grumbled. 

 

‘Nails?’ Illy asked.

 

They chose their colours. Pink and black for Illy, teal for Cass. Illy painted Cass’s nails first because it would be faster with just one colour. The pungent smell of nail polish clogged her nose, making her stomach roll. She’d always wondered why they couldn’t make the smell less intense. She’d pay stupid money for caramel scented nail polish. 

 

‘I’ll have my fangs in your swan-like neck,’ one of the chess vampires hissed on screen.

 

A cheerleader hefted her stake, sneering. ‘Not, like, in a million years, weirdo!’

 

Illy’s stomach grumbled again, audibly. Cass grinned at her, then blew on her freshly painted right hand while Illy finished the left. On screen, a cheerleader and a vampire grappled in a science classroom, the cheerleader’s skirt riding up to show a sliver of underwear. Illy rolled her neck and felt something crunch at the base of her skull, a sinewy feeling. She grimaced. The rub of fabric on sweaty skin was making her itch, so she put down the nail polish and pushed the blanket away. As she bent over, her stomach rolled violently. She groaned.

 

Cass looked at her, brows wrinkled. 

 

‘You alright?’ she asked.

 

‘I think I need some water,’ Illy said. Then she gagged. 

 

‘Oh shit,’ Cass yelped. ‘Hold on.’

 

Cass jumped off the couch and raced for the kitchen. Illy gagged again, this time feeling something in her throat. She swallowed it back down. 

 

‘Do you even own a bucket?’ Cass yelled from the kitchen, frazzled.

 

Illy moaned, unable to move, or tell Cass the bucket was in her wardrobe. Her stomach was writhing. It was like no nausea she had ever experienced. It felt like something was literally moving inside of her. The movie was still playing, the sound grating now, her head spinning. She pressed a hand to her stomach. It felt bloated. Stiff, like she’d eaten a massive meal. 

 

Illy opened her mouth, unable to hold it in any longer. She vomited. Instead of the hot, chunky liquid she was expecting, something thick and cold and slimy slid out. She blinked through teary eyes at the floor below her. A pile of maggots squirmed between her feet. Tiny, gleaming wet bodies, inching their way across her floorboards, under her coach, over her toes. Cass ran back in, holding a mixing bowl, and saw the maggots. She screamed, in concert with a cheerleader being mauled on the TV. Illy didn’t scream. She couldn’t, she was still vomiting, an endless torrent. There were so many. Surely too many to fit inside her.

 

‘Help,’ she croaked, then expelled more maggots.

 

Cass climbed onto the couch next to her, stepping over the maggots, crying, obviously terrified. She still reached out to hold Illy’s hair back with one hand and used the other to unlock her phone. Wet nail polish smeared as she called emergency services. 

 

‘An ambulance, please, my friend is vomiting…’

 

Illy was vibrating. Tiny tremors, starting at her core and spreading out in waves. The maggots finally stopped, but she still felt bloated, full. Something was still in there. 

 

‘No, you don’t get it!’ Cass yelled into her phone. ‘They came out of her. She ate a fly, and it like, bred, and now she’s puking maggots.’

 

Illy felt something inside her, something coming up. Something climbing up. They escaped her throat and swarmed the inside of her mouth, crawling over her cheeks, her tongue, the back of her teeth. Wings beating. Her lips parted. She already knew what would emerge. A cloud of flies flew free, wet with her saliva, and maybe her blood. The buzzing was so loud. Like a hundred radios broadcasting static. They circled her apartment in a massive, amorphous cloud, emitting a high whine like a jet engine before take-off. An airborne atrocity. She sent out a prayer to God. Then, when nothing changed, she sent prayers to other gods, too; any deity she thought might make it stop. 

 

‘Holy shit!’ Cass cried, batting at the flies. ‘It’s, it’s flies now, hundreds of them. Is the ambulance coming, please I, I don’t…’

 

They didn’t look right. The flies. They weren’t the sort of dull, beady black housefly she was used to. Their bodies were gem-like. Blue, green, yellow, red. Their abdomens were longer than a fly’s, too, and curved downwards. Similar to a wasp, and about the size of her thumbnail. They were beautiful. Abhorrent. They had come from inside her. 

 

The flies finally stopped. Illy felt hollow. Mercifully empty. She slumped sideways into the blankets, devoid of energy, hurting all over. She saw the movie, still playing. A cheerleader was being disembowelled. Her intestines spilled across dirty linoleum floors, wet and spongy and glistening. Illy felt a pang of sisterhood. 

 

‘I’m not on drugs!’ Cass screamed, sobbing. 

 

On the floor, the sea of maggots was doing something strange. Through her blurry eyes she could see them bloating; their bodies ballooned, darkened, hardened, sprouted wings. Rapid maturation. A full lifecycle on fast-forward. Once the last maggot had undergone its unnatural metamorphosis, the flies began moving with a new sense of purpose. They went for the exits. The air-conditioning vent that led to the building’s connected system, the gap under her door, her windows. She could hear the ping, ping, ping of their carapaces hitting the glass over and over. Then, finally, crack. The windows shattered. The creatures escaped into the street, hundreds, thousands. She heard people shouting. 

 

Soon, all the flies were gone but one. The solitary buzz was deafening in the newly quiet apartment. A shiny golden fly hovering alone. Illy saw Cass’s screaming mouth, still trying to convince the phone operator she wasn’t high or delusional. White teeth, pink tongue. Her open, screaming mouth, on full display, like an invitation. 

 

Illy watched, helpless, as the golden fly flew in. 





An Unnatural Event

 

A circle of darkness opened above Bell’s desk, and a stack of soul intake forms fell out of it.

The portal closed. Bell put down his crossword and stared at the paperwork, despair welling in his chest. He’d been a Grim Reaper for a year now, but he still wasn’t used to the endless admin – and it was endless. Someone was always dying somewhere. After a long moment of consideration, he leant forward, picked up the stack, opened his drawer, stuffed the paperwork inside, and closed the drawer again.

 

That done, he went back to his crossword. He was stuck on an eight-letter word for ‘a terrible event.’ The third letter was ‘L’, so it wasn’t disaster, and he was pretty sure it ended with a ‘Y’ so–

 

Another circle opened, this time only one file falling out. A Soul File, with a red label marking it as URGENT. He grimaced, putting his crossword aside; he wouldn’t get away with stuffing this one in a drawer. Bell picked up the file, the black cardboard scratchy against his fingertips. He flipped it open, skimming it.

 

Name: Darcy Anna Lane.

 

Age: nineteen.

 

Place of death: Stafford Street intersection, Lichfield.

 

Cause of death: hit by a car.

 

Time of death: 12:37.

 

Bell blinked, mind stalling. He pulled his phone out of his pocket to check the time. It

was 12:18. He stared at the screen. The numbers blinked over to 12:19. 

 

‘Styx!’ Bell cursed, jumping out of his chair.



He grabbed the file, scooped up his scythe, and started running. Heads poked curiously out of cubicles to watch him pass. Bell despised the office. It was windowless, and colourless, and it always smelled suspiciously musky. He imagined it was similar to the insides of coffins: dark, cramped, and full of dead people. The thing Bell hated most about the office right now, though, was how maze-like it was. He dashed into a narrow hallway filled with filing cabinets. One of them was glowing. Another was rattling ominously. There was all manner of strange magic here. He had been told there was an Old God living in one of the basement levels, but he had never had the nerve to go looking. He turned into a new hallway, then skittered down a rickety staircase. He reached a wooden door, a plate nailed to it that said: LOST AND (NEVER TO BE) FOUND.

 

He ducked inside. The room was filled with rows and rows of shelves cluttered with miscellaneous junk abandoned by departed souls. He passed a tea set, a cricket bat, a box of TV remotes, a dog collar, a toy horse, a rocking chair, a kitchen knife, a family of taxidermy racoons, a parachute, and a clown puppet. He burst out another door into yet another hallway. He took a few more turns, before he finally reached the last door, this one labelled: LICHFIELD DEPARTURES.

 

He entered. It was a small room with a single desk in the middle and an elevator behind it. Leopold sat at the desk, his wrinkled face creasing like scrunched crepe paper as he frowned at Bell’s dishevelled form.

 

Bell stumbled up to the desk and smacked down the assignment file.

 

‘Darcy Lane,’ he gasped, leaning against the desk to catch his breath. ‘Twelve thirty-seven.’

 

‘It’s already twelve twenty-six,’ Leopold scolded. ‘Honestly boy. In my day–’ 

 

‘Pass, please!’ Bell said desperately.

 

Leopold grumbled, pushing his spectacles up his long nose. He opened the assignment file.

 

‘Seems to be in order,’ he muttered. Bell tried not to cry.

 

Leopold unlocked the top drawer of the desk with a key he kept on a chain around his

neck. He fished out an Earth Pass, a gold card embossed with a black hourglass and two crossed scythes. Bell snatched the card and stumbled over to the elevator. He hit the down arrow repeatedly.

 

‘That won’t make it come any faster,’ Leopold told him unhelpfully.

 

The elevator doors opened. Bell jumped in. There was a slot inside the elevator, and he inserted his Earth Pass into it hurriedly, almost dropping it. There was a ding. The doors closed, and he descended, painfully slow. The funeral march played softly from invisible speakers, mournful violin harmonising with Bell’s huffing breaths. The elevator stopped; the doors slid open. He burst out like a cannon ball.

 

The entrance to Lichfield was on Bird Street, in an abandoned building across from the Registration Office. Bell hurried around to the side of the building and found a line of bicycles, steel frames gleaming. He wasted a few seconds fishing out his phone to check the time. It was 12:31. Trying not to hyperventilate, he swung his leg over a bike, inserting his scythe into a slot near the rear wheel. He turned the bike to face the street and started pedalling.

 

Bell cut through Beacon Park, then skidded onto the Western Bypass and rode in the middle of the street, hunched over his handlebars. A car was driving straight at him. Seconds later they collided. The driver sneezed as she passed through Bell’s incorporeal body. He let out a whoosh of breath as the intersection came into view, lights still green. Cars were zooming through it unimpeded, and he couldn’t hear any screaming, so he was going to assume he wasn’t late. He skidded to a stop, squawking as the bike almost came out from under him. He grabbed his scythe and lurched off, not bothering to put up the stand. He pulled out his phone. It was 12:36.

 

Bell’s shoulders drooped.

 

‘Thank Death,’ he muttered. He gazed around, hoping to spot Darcy.

 

He saw a teen walking towards the road, her braids a bright, sulphur yellow. Bell figured it was a safe bet that was her. She reached the road, talking to someone on her phone. She seemed angry at whoever it was. The traffic lights turned red, and she strode into the street without looking up.

 

Bell resisted the urge to close his eyes. He hated this bit.

 

A black SUV with tinted windows sped straight through the red light, not slowing at all. Darcy didn’t even see it coming. It hit her straight on. Darcy went rolling across the road and the car zoomed onto the highway.

 

Then it was out of sight.

 

Bell checked his phone one last time. It was 12:37. He slipped it back into his pocket, tugged his hood over his head, and started walking. The street was in uproar. Traffic had stalled, and people were getting out of their cars, running towards the fallen girl.

 

‘Didn’t even slow down, the bloody bastard.’

 

‘Call an ambulance! Someone call an ambulance!’

 

‘I know CPR, let me through!’

 

Bell reached the centre of the crowd. The body was sprawled awkwardly on the

tarmac. The yellow braids were stained red. Someone was doing chest compressions. Darcy herself was at the centre of the chaos, calmly crouched over her body like a curious crow. Her face was studded with titanium, metal gleaming against her dark skin: snakebite, septum, bridge, eyebrows. Her makeup was smoky, her fingers heavy with rings. He hoped she didn’t fight him. She looked tough.

 

‘Darcy?’ he called, voice cracking.

 

She looked up. Bell lifted his hand and gave her an awkward wave, then lowered it quickly. Why had he done that? That was weird. He was being weird. He cleared his throat, shuffling closer.

 

‘I know you’re probably a little confused right now.’

 

‘Holy Hell,’ Darcy breathed, eyes dragging over his scythe. Her accent was thick, her vowels shifting and stretched, rolling out of her mouth like water. American, he was fairly sure.

 

‘Not Hell, I promise. That isn’t…’ he trailed off. Now probably wasn’t the time to get into the metaphysics of it. ‘Don’t worry about the scythe, its mostly decorative, I don’t know why management makes us lug them around.’

 

‘You’re a Grim Reaper,’ Darcy said, standing to examine him. He shied into the shadow of his hood.

 

‘Oh, well.’ He hugged his scythe. ‘I suppose.’

 

Darcy leaned back, laughing. ‘This is golden.’

 

Bell adjusted his feet, bracing for a swing. He had fibbed about the scythe. It was just

that people generally took it badly when you said you were planning to swipe a giant, bladed weapon at them. The truth was that most souls didn’t need to be reaped, they passed on naturally. Some souls, though, were stubborn. They clung to their mortal tether, the cord connecting them to Earth, and attached themselves to the living like parasites. Poltergeists, feeding off the pain and terror of the living. That’s where the scythe came in. A quick cut to sever the tether.

 

Darcy tracked his movement, her mouth pulling up into a grin. Her snakebites gleamed, and so did her teeth. ‘I wouldn’t bother.’

 

Bell blinked. ‘Not to be blunt, but you are…’

 

‘Dead,’ Darcy supplied.

 

‘That,’ Bell agreed. ‘You can’t stay here. But your file says you’re good for a Paradise Package. Or you can petition for reincarnation. Lots of people like coming back as cats because you get to keep the memories of your mortal life.’

 

‘Sounds great, but I’ve got stuff to do,’ Darcy drawled. She was playing with her necklace, a leather cord with a crystal pendant. It sparkled as she spun it, like a shard of light. 

 

‘This isn’t a voluntary service,’ he told her, adjusting his grip. 

 

He had to make sure he didn’t clip any of the spectators. The scythe would work on their mortal tethers too, which made reaping in crowds awkward. Bell swung. The blade of the scythe sung as it sliced through the air, the bone-white metal cutting straight through Darcy’s misty body. Nothing happened. There was a long moment of silence.

 

‘That usually works,’ Bell admitted. Darcy snorted, stepping back again.

 

Two police officers had arrived while Bell and Darcy spoke. Bell could hear a wailing siren getting closer and closer. An ambulance. He lunged forward and swung again, almost clipping a woman in a floral skirt weeping near the body. Still nothing.

 

‘It’s horrible,’ the floral woman wailed. ‘My horoscope warned me I’d witness an unnatural event today.’

 

Darcy stepped on her body’s head, chunky boots disappearing into the skull. The ambulance was close now. Darcy closed her eyes, clutched her crystal pendant, and began to chant. Wisps of light emerged from the surrounding crowd, drawn towards Darcy. Bell watched people pale, slump, bags grow beneath their eyes. A strand of grey sprouted in the floral woman’s hair. Darcy was draining their life force.

 

‘A witch!’ he realised, too late.

 

On her corpse, the same pendant began to glow. Bell started cutting wildly, overhead swings that bisected her shoulder to hip, over and over and over. Nothing.

 

‘This kind of magic has consequences!’ he warned her desperately, still swinging. ‘Dire one!’

 

‘I’ll risk it,’ she said. Her features were getting hazy, blurring at the edges. It was like he was looking at her through a window covered in raindrops.

 

Then she was sucked back into her body. And the body came to life. She heaved, lungs convulsively sucking in air, heart racing, blood flowing. People cheered.

 

‘Impossible,’ an officer spluttered. He was more right than he knew.

 

The ambulance pulled up, at last, and EMTs piled out. Darcy was fixed into a neck brace and carefully loaded onto a stretcher. Her eyes cracked open, hazy. She looked right at Bell and smiled, blood dribbling from her lip. The ambulance doors slammed, and it drove away. Bell stood frozen. He watched the blue and red lights fade as the crowd dispersed, show officially over. He was vaguely aware of the police officers getting traffic started again.

 

‘No, no, no,’ Bell jolted into motion. He sat down, head in hands.

 

Ridiculously, he thought of his crossword. An eight-letter word for ‘a terrible event.’ He knew the answer, now.

 

Calamity.

 

The paperwork for this was going to be terrible.



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