First Publication 2009
“I wonder if this little guy has been impregnated by a wasp?" Jeff inched a small twig toward the caterpillar, who in turn, rose up in an attack stance.
“What?” Morgan prayed she had misheard her husband, but deep down she knew she hadn’t.
“The Glyptapanteles wasp,” Jeff said, dropping the twig and turning to her. “They use mind control on caterpillars, you know.”
“I see.” Morgan sighed quietly and joined Jeff by the caterpillar's tree branch.
“That particular wasp will inject eggs inside a caterpillar. After impregnation, the caterpillar goes on with its life while the baby wasps feed off its innards. The wasps eventually drill their way out of the caterpillar and spin cocoons on the branch next to him. The wasps will grow into adults inside the cocoons. ”
“Ew.” Morgan scrunched up her face. “And I thought human birth was painful.”
“It gets better.” Jeff beamed with excitement. "The caterpillar doesn’t die after the wasp babies drill out. It sits on the branch and guards the cocoons. The caterpillar won't eat or roam away. It disregards its own self-preservation in order to protect the wasp cocoons. If a predator comes close—like that twig, I used—the caterpillar will rear up and attack the intruder. When the adult wasps finally emerge from the cocoon, the caterpillar's job is complete—and it dies.”
“Fascinating,” Morgan said. “Well, I guess we should—”
“I know! Somehow the wasp has the ability to make the caterpillar its bodyguard, like I said, mind control.” Jeff leaned closer, examining the branches. “I don’t see any cocoons here though…”
“Nope. No cocoons.”
Morgan had known what she was getting into when she married a biology professor from Beaver Country Community College. She supported his love for his work, but there was a time and place for everything, and sadly, Jeff was no longer able to find balance between work and play. That was the whole reason they were visiting the cabin this weekend.
“This sort of mind control actually happens often in parasites throughout the wild. Venom or secretions chemically change the host's behavior, but I don't think scientists will ever have it completely figured out—”
“Honey.” Morgan did her best to give a warm smile. “Let’s not forget why we’re here this weekend. I want to enjoy nature—not learn about it.”
“Sorry, I thought you enjoyed this—”
“I do.” Morgan took his hand in hers. “I do. Sometimes it's too much though. This weekend, I want to sit with you on the rocks and watch the brook trickle by without learning how algae supports all aquatic life. Or hold hands and gaze up at the night sky without an astronomy lesson. It takes away some of the magic and wonder.”
“I do get carried away sometimes.” He pulled her into his chest and wrapped his arms around her. "Let's get to the creek. After we set up at the cabin, we can have a nice romantic evening. I have a plan.”
“Thanks, Professor Dillon.” She nuzzled and kissed his neck.
After arriving at the water's edge, they spent a little over an hour relaxing on giant boulders and skipping stones. On a few occasions, Jeff stopped himself from rattling off facts about the Black Moshannon Bog, which was also located in the Pennsylvania Wilds not far from them.
Watching her smile and feeling her body soften next to his, boosted Jeff’s confidence. Their lack of intimacy hadn’t been easy on him either. Jeff knew it was one of the reasons he prattled on about useless biology facts. He was trying to fill the void that had grown between them. He was failing, but perhaps this trip was just what they needed to rediscover the spark.
Before any boredom or awkward moments could slip in, Jeff suggested they get back to the cabin to set up for the evening. On the hike back, he saw the plan unfold in his head, and it was going to be a beautiful night.
Once their gear was stored at the cabin, Jeff pointed to the fireplace. “I’m gonna get some logs going, throw down a blanket, and pour two glass of champagne.”
“You know just how to treat a lady.” Morgan caught sight of the hatchet hanging by the fireplace. "Is my big, burly woodsman gonna chop some wood for us?"
Jeff puffed out his chest and they both laughed—he might have tipped the scales at one sixty five if he was soaking wet. “Luckily they’re some pre-chopped logs. It’s getting dark and with my luck, I’ll miss the wood and bury the blade in my leg.”
“So romantic,” she teased.
Morgan placed her hands on his chest. “Why don’t you get that started, while I take a shower.”
That was a good sign. “Deal.”
They kissed and Morgan sauntered away to the bedroom. Jeff watched her until she closed the door, feeling a longing for her that had been dormant for weeks.
There was something special about being up north again, in the cool, fresh air, and the cabin which had become a meaningful hideout from civilization for the both of them. Despite being a state park, most of the land was privately owned, and there were rarely any hikers or tourists to bother them. A small number of paths ran from the main road, but they were unpaved. Their closest neighbors, in the rural Pennsylvania forest, were miles away.
The isolation was never a problem for the couple. If anything, it added extra spice and excitement to the magic moments they had created over the years. Jeff had proposed in front of the very fireplace he now readied. Five years ago, he had used the same one-kneed stance to start their life together that he now used to light the kindling.
He watched the smoke rise past the discolored bricks. The sight and smell of the flames allowed all the happy memories to flood through him, and in their wake, the tension of the past year washed away. With the flames rising, Jeff laid out a puffy quilt and several pillows. He popped a chilled bottle of Perrier Jowet and filled two flutes.
Quite pleased with himself, he surveyed the romantic—
A piercing scream rang through the cabin.
Jeff rushed to the bathroom and found Morgan flat on her back on the floor, her legs splayed on the rim of the tub. The glass shower door was broken, and Morgan was flailing her arms violently about her face.
"Get it off of me"
"Morgan!" Jeff knelt next to her, trying to grab hold of her arms. "It's me."
She struck him twice before calming. He nestled her head in his arms and she bawled.
“It's okay, Babe. I'm here. You're all right."
"It got me," she choked out between sobs. Her eye’s were red and wild. "It got me…"
"Nothing's got you." Jeff stroked her head.
She pulled back. "Look, " she said, wiping translucent goo from the side of her mouth.
"It's just saliva," Jeff said. “Come on, let’s get you up and cleaned.” Slowly, he raised her off the floor, careful of the shards of glass.
"It attacked me!" Morgan pressed her shivering, wet body against his.
"Let me see your back.” Jeff examined a few minor scratches on her right shoulder blade and lower back. "Thank God you're okay. That glass could have sliced you to ribbons if you fell on it the wrong way.”
"Jeff.” She pulled away and looked into his eyes, her body still heaving with adrenaline. "You're not listening to me! I. Was. Attacked!"
"Honey, no one is here. You're just in shock."
“It wasn't a person," she said slower, trying to regain composure. “It was some kind of animal! It jumped at my face and I tried to scream, but my mouth..." She took several deeps breaths.
“Your mouth...?" Jeff waited patiently, not wanting to push her into hyperventilation.
After another thirty seconds, her body deflated slightly and her voice became more even. "I don't know. It felt like an eternity, but I suppose it was only on me a few seconds. I don’t know though. I blacked out when I fell, but I thought I came to right away. This thing was on me and I felt wetness—I was gagging on it. I managed to hit it away and scream."
"Probably just a large tarantula, " Jeff said, wrapping a robe around her naked body. "We need to spray the place again. That's all."
“Oh God, it was horrible. What if it put venom in me?” The color drain from her face as she vocalized her fears.
"Let's warm you up by the fire and I'll take a look around. His voice was soothing and his touch gentle as he lead her by the waist.
"You don't believe me, but it was huge. Way too big for a tarantula."
Jeff propped her up in the arm chair near the fire and used the quilt to cover her body. He kissed her forehead and returned to the bathroom. Inside the tiny room, he picked up the glass, keeping his eyes peeled for any unwanted intruders. Jeff knew that Morgan had a touch of arachnophobia, and a seven-inch tarantula, including leg span, would probably send her into a tizzy—especially if she surprised the spider and it defended itself.
A smaller part of him, however, feared that Morgan was right though, and she had actually been attacked by an animal—a tiny raccoon or squirrel. If so, there was another fear. Rabies.
He threw the last of the broken glass into the trash can and hoped that when he returned, Morgan would be calm enough to explain what really happened, and could give him a better description of the creature.
As he was about to leave the room, a shadow moved behind the ceramic base of the toilet, catching his eye. He froze. The shadow remained stationary. Slow and quiet, Jeff bent and picked up the small waste basket in his hand. Whatever it was, maybe he could catch it.
Back on the chair, Morgan felt drained. It was not calmness though, perhaps exhaustion from her freak out. Morgan knew her reaction was justified. Whatever had leapt on her, it wasn’t a spider. Similar in some regards, but not a spider. She tried to replay the events in her head, but the images refused to focus. Something was wrong. This was venom or rabies was affecting—
Jeff entered the room but he didn’t say anything, just stood there for a moment, watching her.
"Did you find anything?" she asked, her voice weak.
"Yeah, " Jeff said.
"Relax. It was a raccoon. Just as I thought."
A trickle of relief. However, her skin had been punctured, and the threat of rabies still loomed. If there was any way to avoid the miserable shots… "Did you catch the raccoon?"
"No. I chased it through the bedroom and it got out the window.”
Morgan hung her head.
"Don't worry.” He knelt beside the chair. "I'll take you to the doctor as soon as we get back, and you'll get the shots, just to be on the safe side. I'll take off from work and stay with you the whole time."
Her eyes welled up with tears. "Take me home, please."
"I can't do that, not tonight. Trying to navigate the forest paths without light is dangerous. One mistake and we could slide down an embankment. Be trapped overnight."
Morgan hated that he was right. She smiled, trying to be brave. “Tomorrow then. First thing.”
"Why cut the trip short?" Jeff stood up and moved toward the fire. "Let's spend the next two days like we planned and then we'll see the doctor as soon as we get back. After all, we know it's just a raccoon.”
“What?” Morgan’s heart sunk.
"The incubation period is 10 days up to a whole year for rabies. And that's if there’s a transmission of the virus. You have nothing to worry about. Let’s salvage the weekend, salvage us.” He smiled. "Now how about I fix you something to eat?"
“Something to eat? You can’t be serious! A raccoon just knocked me out of the shower and drooled it’s frothy rabies into my mouth!”
A spasm gripped her stomach, and Morgan doubled over in a bout of nausea. “I think I’m gonna be sick.”
Jeff stroked her neck. “I’ll bring you some water.”
Morgan heaved dryly. “I want to throw up. Bring me a bucket or something.”
“That’s not a good idea.”
He started toward the kitchen.
Morgan stuck her finger down her throat, hoping to induce vomiting. She did not know if that was the right action to take, but she felt something gross inside of her, and thought that if it came out, she would feel better. She wretched dryly and only managed to spit out saliva.
"What are you doing?" Jeff stopped, turned, and ran to the chair, pulling her hand away from her mouth.
"Maybe I did get something down my throat. Puking it up will make me feel better." Tears were rolling down her cheeks from the strain to vomit. "I've never done this before, but I think I have to push harder."
She raised her finger again, praying that success would alleviate the pain.
"No!" Jeff restrained her hand.
"Jeff, hell are you doing?" Her tear-soaked face pleaded with his cold stare. "I need to try. Why can't you help? Something is wrong with me, can't you see that!"
“This is natural—”
“Something is wrong with me. Can’t you see that?” She broke his hold and returned her finger to her throat.
Jeff jerked his head around, searching the cabin. He leapt toward the fireplace and grabbed the hatchet off the wall. In a swift motion, he pulled Morgan's hand from her throat before any vomit was extracted, and slammed it against the wooden armrest.
Holding her forearm tightly, Jeff swung the hatchet down, burying it about halfway into her wrist. Morgan let out a piercing scream as the blade cracked bone and severed tendons.
Everything froze as Morgan stared in terror at her hatchet-wielding husband, his face dotted with her flecks of blood. Then, Jeff pulled the steel from her lacerated anatomy. It exited her flesh with a sickening squish and the world restarted. Morgan screamed again.
Jeff's lifeless eyes did not blink as he brought the weapon up above his head for another attack. Bloodied flesh hung from the sharp edge as it followed the same trajectory back into Morgan's mangled body. The second blow separated the hand from the arm. The disembodied appendage bounced off the quilt on her lap and fell to the floor, rolling twice and smearing thick blood across the carpet.
Jeff snatched a partially burnt log by its uncharred side. He knocked it against the brick fireplace, causing the fiery end to fall off, leaving behind bright red embers. In less than two seconds the burning embers were pressed against the bloody stump, cauterizing the sliced ulnar and radial arteries. Morgan watched speechless, her body convulsing with fear and shock.
Jeff dropped the burnt log back into the fireplace and stared at his wife. "Sorry honey, but I didn't know what else to do."
Morgan finally found her voice and let out a series of short, high pitched screams.
"I couldn't let you do it,” Jeff tried to say over her.
Morgan's shrill screams intensified when she caught sight of her hacked off hand lying on the ground. Her sobs grew uncontrollable and she choked, unable to emit further howls.
"Now if you could just listen to me, we can put this behind us."
"W...w…why?" Morgan stuttered.
"Let's get you that water." Jeff walked back to the kitchen and Morgan craned her neck to watch him. The cabin was dark except for the fire and moonlight. Despite the poor lighting, Morgan could see dark patches covering Jeff's neck and the top part of his white shirt. He filled up a glass of water and returned, placing the cool glass in her left hand.
“Why…why?” It was the only word she could manage to get out.
Jeff made no response, yet a hissing noise emerged from all around them. Morgan's head circled, trying to pinpoint the source of the noise. Shadows moved across the cabin's walls from the flames of the dwindling fire, distorting her vision. Amidst the dancing shadows, she saw objects moving. From high corners, behind sinks, and near the floorboards, large dark shapes appeared and crept toward them.
Morgan recognized them as the same type of creature that attacked her earlier. As they drew closer, Morgan saw that each creature had a blackish-brown body, slightly larger the size of a man's fist. They moved on thick legs that extended from either side of their circular bodies, holding them above the ground, and propelling them like slow moving crabs.
Jeff stood motionless as six of the creatures advanced. Now, they were close enough for Morgan to see that their heads and eyes were similar to that of a tarantula, but the two large pincers they sported on the sides of their mouths were much larger than anything found on a spider. Morgan wanted nothing more than to jump to her feet and run, but she was still too shocked and sickened to move from the chair.
The largest of the creatures scurried past Morgan's feet and up to her severed hand. The over-sized crab-spider hybrid let loose another hissing noise and took hold of Morgan's dead fingers with his two pincers. Horrified, she watched the animal drag her lost limb across the floor, back toward the kitchen. The remaining creatures replied with a similar hiss that sent shivers up Morgan's spine, then all withdrew back into their hiding places within the cabins' dark walls.
Jeff stood with his back to Morgan, watching their retreat. Now that he was closer to the fire, Morgan could tell that the dark stain on his shirt was blood. She leaned forward, trying to get a better look, without causing him to turn around. There were two puncture wounds on the back of his neck responsible for the blood. It looked like something was inside the bite marks.
Jeff turned around and stared at her. "They seemed very pleased."
"Jeff, " Morgan spoke as calmly as she could. If they were going to live through this, she had to ignore the pain and disbelief she was experiencing. "You have been bitten by one of those things. I think they might be poisonous. Why don't you come over here and let me look at your neck.”
Jeff made no attempt to move, he just stared at her. Whatever the creatures inhabiting their cabin were, she doubted that even Jeff, in all his nerdy insect wisdom, had come across a species such as these. Obviously, the bite and venom had the ability to confuse and disorient victims. Perhaps they injected something at the base of his neck.
"I think you’re a little confused because of the venom. That can happen. Please look at me. Fight the venom. We need to leave."
Jeff’s face seemed to soften. He walked toward her as if finally understanding. More hissing rang out from within the walls. The hisses came at a much higher frequency than before, resembling a shriek. Jeff stopped and went erect.
"Jeff, baby, please!" Morgan ignored the pain welling up inside the pit of her stomach. It felt like she was digesting broken glass.
"They need you, " Jeff said and moved toward her again.
Morgan screamed when she saw the fire reflecting off the steel hatchet. She kicked out her leg, but it got tangled in the quilt, making the blow to his shin ineffective. She kicked the blanket to the ground and was able to land her foot into Jeff's crotch, bringing him to his knees with a groan of pain.
Morgan threw the glass of water at him and struggled to her feet, dizzy and queasy, trying to get past him. She tripped on the quilt bunched at her feet and tumbled to the floor. Attempting to break her fall, Morgan put out her hands, realizing too late she only had one left. When the ground contacted her tender, exposed stump, she screamed and writhed in pain on the carpet next to the fire.
Jeff composed himself and seized her moment of weakness by rolling Morgan onto her back and pinning her to the ground. Sitting on her legs, Jeff brought her left arm above her head and held it tightly against the carpet.
"Jeff," she said in a soft tone, hoping to reach him. "I love you. What are you doing?"
He responded with a quick swing of the hatchet. The searing pain radiated from her wrist up through the rest of her body. The carpet did not provide a solid cutting surface, which resulted in the laceration barely penetrating the carpal ligaments. Jeff hacked at the limb in a frenzy, missing his mark several times. Morgan slipped into blackness when the hand finally detached from her forearm.
* * *
Morgan’s eyes opened and she saw Jeff sitting pensively in front of the fire. His head was down. Night had faded away, and an eerie pre-dawn haze penetrated the gloomy cabin.
It was a dream. A horrible nightmare. I fell in the shower and he's been watching over me ever since.
She thought she heard Jeff speak softly, but she did not see his lips move. The noise continued to grew louder. Jeff was not the speaker.
I know that sound.
Jeff’s head snapped up at the sound of her cries.
"We were so worried we lost you." Jeff walked over to her. "Blood loss can take a person fast, but I felt confident I did a good job."
Morgan’s senses returned fully, and with it came the pain. Not sharp and piercing like earlier, but dull, throbbing spasms throughout her body. Morgan looked around, feeling paralyzed below her neck. She hung her head in disgust and defeat. Her mind was so overloaded by what she saw that it was unable to make a fast connection between the horror and its meaning.
First, there was a rope around her chest, securing her to the chair. Next, on the ground were at least ten creatures, greedily feasting on human flesh. Morgan saw her right hand, picked clean to the bone, with one crab-spider attempting to find a few last shreds of sustenance.
Her left hand, still rich with meat, sat in between two more of the monstrosities. One foot was eaten away except for pink nail polish across its toes, and the other foot, much fresher, was just being started on. The two biggest crab-spiders were in a corner working on what looked like an arm. Jeff stood watching the smorgasbord as if he saw this sort of thing all the time. His glazed over expression belonged to the creatures—his body was merely a shell.
To keep her mind off the pain and impending death, Morgan thought back to their hike through the woods and remembered Jeff's comment about the wasp: They use mind control, venom or secretions...scientists don't know exactly how it works. Happens a lot in nature.
Wasn't that what this was? Mind control. Jeff loved animals, but not enough to kill his wife for them. Perhaps getting bitten and controlled might have been better than being attacked and drooled on. Which fate was worse? Dismembering your lover, or being dismembered?
Morgan doubted there would ever be a Discovery Channel documentary on this unique animal, whatever it was. Its venom was strong enough to control humans an impressive feat.
Too bad Jeff is their slave. He would have been fascinated by the creatures. Morgan chuckled at the irony despite the pain.
The word 'slave' kept thoughts of the wasp and caterpillar's relationship in Morgan's head, and she realized in horror that Jeff was not being forced to kill her—she was being used as food, but she was being kept alive.
"Oh, God." she breathed as her blood-depraved mind made the last connection.
It did spit something into my mouth!
Searing pain exploded inside her stomach. She tried to scream but could only choke on blood that bubbled up into her esophagus. Underneath the bathrobe, her pulsating stomach tore open, revealing tiny pincers searching for air. The flesh ripped further and miniature crab-spiders crawled out from their bloody womb.
Jeff watched four babies exit his dead wife's eviscerated bowels to join their family. Like the poor caterpillar, Jeff's job was done. He had protected the womb and fed the kin. The venom released him, and Jeff expired, falling to the floor, no longer useful except as food.
S.C. Mendes will be featured in Robert Essig's newest anthology Chew on This! Please can check out his novel The City available from Blood Bound Books. All profits from the novel go to support St. Judes Chidren Hospital. Learn more here