Love Among Dead and Crawling Things

It’s been three months since I even bothered to look at a highway billboard: too often they feature bloated bottles crawling on a Caribbean beach or twitching in a dusky-hued tavern.

John Broklesby, Illustrated Common School Astronomy 1857

I tell myself to avoid liquor stores and I’ll never see the maggots again. Bars, too, are ignored simply by setting the car to autodrive and letting it chauffeur me past windows of neon-hued temptation. It’s been three months since I even bothered to look at a highway billboard: too often they feature bloated bottles crawling on a Caribbean beach or twitching in a dusky-hued tavern.

But sometimes the trigger creeps on me in unexpected places. Like in the hotel lobby’s men’s room, when I hold out my hands to the soap dispenser and it shoots sanitizer into my palms and the stink of alcohol hits me and suddenly I’ve got maggots wriggling all over my hands.

It’s all I can do to keep my dinner down; the airport café clam chowder slides greasily around in my stomach. I thrust my hands under the faucet, scrubbing furiously in the scalding water. The drain swallows the soap, my hands are pink and steaming as I raise them to the light, but the maggots are gone. Every last trace of them expunged.

I stare past my steaming hands to the mirror over the sink.

A well-dressed reflection stares back. Black suit jacket, blue shirt, black slacks, blue tie, and my sweating red face. I retreat from the soap dispenser as if it’s a spitting cobra. All it would take is my shadow tickling its sensor, and then the aroma of alcohol in the air will be back …

A sour burp rises from my uneasy stomach. Still making a cautious retreat, my shadow triggers the paper-towel dispenser and I snatch the unrolling sheaf, dab my forehead and neck, soak up the sweat. When next I review my reflection, the panicky glint has faded from my eyes. The flushed pallor has subsided.

Then I depart the bathroom and return to the hotel lobby, where I meet a woman who sees zombies wherever she goes.

Beyond the lobby windows, Canal Street has become a seething wall of Mardi Gras harlequins and jesters. It’s another world out there — a riot of tribal masks and party hats and the Juggernaut-crawl of parade floats like giant alien gods. The hotel’s rotating glass doors insulate this air-conditioned lobby of black marble and leather sofas; it could have been the lobby of a stately mausoleum, populated only by myself, a pair of uniformed security officers at the reception desk, and the solitary woman occupying one of the sofas.

The woman’s eyes flick anxiously to me.

I instantly recognize the sick, haunted look in those eyes. Rabbit eyes, I think. The paranoia of perpetual prey.

Following this initial reaction, though, the woman abruptly relaxes. There’s a visible wave of relief. She sees that I’m not part of her waking nightmare, that I’m just a normal guy, that I’m —

— just like her.

She’s trigger-set too!

“Hi,” I manage.

She takes a breath. Her face is slick with sweat, but she manages a small, wounded smile. “I see I’m not alone here.”

I know what she means by this.

She indicates that I should sit beside her with an inclined gesture of her hand. Outside, a parade float shaped like a hideous, grinning clown crawls past the hotel like a nightmare on wheels.

“I’m Candice.” She smiles weakly and extends her hand. Her bright eyes flash with keen awareness, darting over my suit and tie and polished shoes, and she adds, “Not the only one working on Mardi Gras, I see.”

“I have a sales conference bright and early tomorrow.” I shake her hand. “My name is Tim.”

“You just get into town, Tim?”

“My flight landed two hours ago. Had one of those delicious airport dinners, washed it down with a coffee, and now I’m in a holding pattern until sunrise.”

Candice’s generous lips widen into a smile that suggests her experience in New Orleans has been a mirror of mine: the existence of the traveling salesperson, nomad of the new century. It’s a life of grabbing sustenance at the quickest watering hole before shuttling off to a new locale, a new deadline, a new boardroom suspiciously similar to all the ones that preceded it. Candice wears a navy blue jacket and matching skirt, white blouse and conservatively bland earrings. We regard each other in silent, frank interest; two bottom feeders who have stumbled into each other in the muddy silt of an undersea trench.

“What triggers you?” she asks at last.

“Alcohol,” I say, shocked at how easily the confession comes. The admission just leaps out like something spring-loaded. “Whenever I smell it, or see … um … the usual stuff.”

“Usual stuff?”

“Beer bottles. Wine bottles. Martini glasses.” I conjure a small, nervous laugh. “The clinic gave me a list of checkboxes to indicate what I wanted to add to the trigger. I went right down the list: mug, snifter, and flute.”

Candice’s deep, intelligent eyes flicker in desperate hope. “Does it work for you?”

“You mean does gripping a giant maggot with both hands and sucking from between its mandibles keep me away from the bottle? I was implanted three months ago and haven’t touched the stuff since, so yeah, it’s working out.” I notice the sweat on her forehead, the hunted look in her eyes. “What about you?”

“I see zombies.”

I almost laugh, but the look in her eyes stops my outburst.

“Really?” I ask.

Candice holds out her left hand. “I’ll show you … if you care to sightjack with me?”

The connection feels like hot oil bursting in my head and eyes. The wi-fi contact points let out a whump! as they engage, and suddenly Candice and I are staring through each other’s eyes.

The security guards at the reception desk are zombies.

Perhaps that’s too broad a description. They look like slimy husks afflicted with a disease that keeps them barely alive while forever rotting. They speak to each other through lips of festering sores. Their eyes leak with syrupy yellow pus. One guard stretches his arms and lets out a yawn, and I see the soft tissue of his neck opening like Venetian blinds to reveal the esophageal pipe and veiny overlay. The other guard is laughing at something on the security monitor, and his face is the worst: eyes bulging out like some mutant approximation of a hammerhead shark, and the lower half of his face is a chewed and ropy mess hanging loosely around a skeletal jaw.

I’m looking through Candice’s eyes, so when she glances away from the terrible guards and fixes her sights on me, I see myself. Plain, ordinary me. No different from when I considered my reflection in the bathroom mirror.

I squeeze my left hand, causing the overlay to fade until I’m seeing with my own eyes again.

I stare at Candice.

“But … but …” I begin, aghast. “What are you keyed to? Security guards?”

Candice takes a breath, as if she’s wearied of having to explain it. “I want to surround myself with certain people in life. I’ve had boyfriends and girlfriends and even family members who … um … subscribed to different beliefs, had different values, possessed certain political persuasions. Interacting with them only made me miserable. I decided a while back that I needed to cultivate people like me.”

“But what triggers you? I mean, for me its specific visuals and smells, but you … do you even know those guards over there?”

“Don’t need to,” she says cheerily. “Their online profiles are public.”

I blink.

“I’m always connected,” she explains. “My implant automatically matches everyone I meet to their profile, if it’s available. Then it conducts a quick scan of their listed interests, background, books they’ve read, films they’ve seen, stations they’re tuned to. Depending on what’s listed there …”

“They turn into a zombie,” I finish for her, hardly believing what I’m hearing.


I squeeze my left hand again. Once more, I’m in her head, looking through her eyes. Seeing my own astonished, disbelieving expression.

“I’m not a zombie,” I observe.

“Your profile must fall into my preferences,” she says, and then adds with some trepidation, “Unless your online profile is set to private, in which case my implant has nothing to get a read on.” I can hear the questioning in her voice.

“Candice, would you take a look towards the window, please?”

She obliges. Her vision swings away from me to regard the cheering Mardi Gras crowd on the other side of the glass. I see tall hats and crepe streamers, garish half-masks and party horns. I see leering skeletal faces, flabby gray skin hanging down in loose rags around necks. Decaying corpses dance and kiss and entwine.

“I’m not sure what to say,” I whisper.

She squeezes her hand and suddenly she’s sharing my eyes now. She watches herself opening her purse, digging one hand into its contents, snaking past a makeup case, hot pink plastic key-ring, and drab pocket-mirror. Her fingers pinch the zipper of a side pouch and slide it open. She reaches within and extracts something to examine under the lobby’s lights.

A swollen white maggot, several inches long and as thick as the 99-cent nipper it was representing. It jackknifes its body between her fingertips.

“God,” she exclaims, dropping the thing back into her purse with a shudder. It squirms against her pocket-mirror, leaving a trail of slime. “I think that could get anyone to stay dry!” She looks at me with sympathy. “Did you have a bad experience with maggots, once? Is that why you chose this image?”

I swallow the lump in my throat. “When I was little, my dog Jackson was my best friend in the world. He was stubborn, energetic, and a whole lot of trouble.”

“You’re a dog person too!” Candice exclaims, and then looks embarrassed. “I’m sorry, please continue.”

“Well, Jackson was also a skilled escape artist. Loved to run off into the woods and have doggy adventures. He always came back after a few hours, muddy or covered in leaves, but he came back … until one hot July evening, when I realized he had been gone longer than usual. I went out searching for him, shining my flashlight at every goddam tree. There was no sign of him. I shouted and shouted, but he didn’t answer.”

Candice touches my hand.

“It was two days before I found him. He had fallen into a narrow ravine. I thought he might be sleeping — I prayed he might be sleeping! It took me an hour to figure out a way down to him, and as I got close, the smell hit me …” The chowder bubbles in my stomach. “I was so upset, I tried shaking him awake, and that’s when I saw that his fur was crawling with …”

Silence overtakes my words. The parade slides past the windows: floats shaped like lunatic cartoon things, grinning and glowing.

“That must have been traumatic,” Candice says sympathetically. She hasn’t moved her hand from mine, and our fingers interlace. “Like Gilgamesh.”

I look at her in surprise. “What?”

She blushes. “Ancient Sumerian king. His best friend Enkidu died, and he was so distraught that he refused to bury him, and—”

“And so he left Enkidu unburied on a funeral pyre for several days,” I say excitedly. “Each day he wept over his friend’s body, begging the gods to return him to life. And then one morning when he went to make his daily prayer, he noticed that Enkidu’s nose is twitching!”

Candice beams happily. “He thought his prayers were answered! Thought his friend was coming back to life!”

“But then—”

“A maggot popped out of his nose,” she finishes. “And Gilgamesh suddenly understood that we all die. That we’re all—”

“Part of the same destiny.”

We stare at each other in open amazement.

“You are the first person I’ve met,” I say, breathless, “who knows that legend so readily!”

Candice grins marvellously. “Same here! I’m a geek for mythology. When other girls my age were reading The Baby-Sitters Club, I was diving into Hero With A Thousand Faces.”

I laugh heartily, a real laugh that comes from my belly.

“You have a nice laugh,” she notes. “I get so tired of the phony tittering I hear at work!”

“Tell me about it! Every sales conference is the same: polite handshakes and waxen grins, and conversation reduced to cliché and platitude. Reciting a stale script!”

“‘Life’s a stage,’” Candice says.

“‘And all the men and women merely players.’”

She’s practically glowing now, her interest almost painfully frank. “You’ve got to be an English major! Where did you go to school?”

“B.U.,” I say.

Candice’s smile falls away like party confetti. “You mean … Boston University? In Massachusetts?”

“Yeah. Why?”

She shrinks back from me.

Instinctively, I squeeze my left hand, hitching a ride once more through her eyes.

My face has changed. I’m now a thing with flesh the color of skinned sausages, black and rotted, red and inflamed, pus erupting from plague sores.

“I … I … have to go,” Candice mutters, and she leaps off the couch and bolts out through the spinning door.

I stagger after her. “Wait a minute!”

By the time the door spins around to let me out, she’s long gone, melted away into a crowd that is sucking on enormous maggots. The sidewalk is littered with discarded larvae. I turn sharply away, and my gaze alights on the Canal Street balconies overhead, where groups of friends are holding long, stringy maggots that wriggle in their hands as they squish them together in celebratory toast. They drink and laugh and point to the crowd. The crowd, I realize, is pointing back at them with expressions of astonishment or disgust. Some even point and gape at me.

I wonder what everyone is seeing.

Brian Trent’s work has appeared in Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Escape Pod, Cosmos, Nature, Crossed Genres, and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.

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