CHAPTER 3 : Plastered

“It was all a dream,” thought Rother.

Startled back from sleep to sudden wakefulness, he had felt a flood of relief surging into his head and chest for all of half a second. “Just a dream.” he said aloud, hoping to convince himself.

Almost immediately, however, he caught sight of his reflection in Mercy’s make-up mirror. He could see that several tiny white-headed critters were now poking out through the skin of his face and neck, all of them writhing slowly.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was certain that he could feel something, some things, moving through his veins, as though they were exploring the interior of his body. A nervous shiver ran throughout his flesh.

He was unsure of how long he had been asleep. Maybe a couple of hours he guessed. What other changes, he asked himself, might have taken place in that time?

Slumping back down onto the pillow, he raised his hands in front of his face. “Fuck!” he whispered. “Oh, shit.” The backs of both hands were now infested. Rother slowly turned his hands around and noticed that there were none of the tiny creatures on his palms or on the insides of his fingers.

“Yes,” said the voice in his head, the voice of his infestation. “I thought you might still have some use for those areas, so I’ve left them alone for the moment.”

Rother tried to think chronologically back through the events of recent hours. Much of it was already a blur, but he could recall sticking a waterproof plaster over the first of the punctures in his face. He wished it hadn’t been a Little Mermaid promo special edition, but those were Mercy’s favourites. He had made a swift mental note to get some plain ones on his next shopping trip, then wondered if there could ever be another shopping trip.

What should he tell Mercy? What might she believe? Should he show her what was under the plaster? How could he possibly explain about the tiny head which he had flushed down the toilet in his first moments of revulsion? What to do? What to do?

The voice of his infestation had advised him to simply explain it to her. “After all,” it suggested, “honesty is the best policy.” From the way the phrase was expressed, Rother was sure it had picked up that cliche from his mind. It was a deeply disturbing thought, that his memory was evidently entirely accessible to his parasitical infestation but, he told himself, probably not as alarming as the simple fact of the parasite’s existence within him. He was slightly comforted that he could clearly differentiate between his own thoughts and the voice of the parasite, but immediately found himself wondering if that state of affairs would continue.

“Yes,” said the voice. “It will continue for as long as you wish it to.”

He could not imagine circumstances under which he might not be able to distinguish both identities, but decided not to pursue that notion just yet.

“Probably wise,” said the voice.

Rother shook his head and wondered if he would ever get used to having a second voice in his head.

“Oh, yes,” said the voice. “For as long as you wish.”

Hearing that seemingly innocent, potentially comforting, phrase for the second time, Rother shivered. “For as long as I wish? What’s that supposed to mean?” he thought, aware that he was now indulging in thought-talk with his new companion.

“Surely,” responded the other voice, “the meaning is self-explanatory.”

Rother had been about to disagree when Mercy appeared in the bedroom doorway, still delightfully naked. “I suppose,” she said, “if I’m going to be slaving over a hot stove, I’d best slip into something less comfortable.”

He smiled for the first time since he had become aware of his invasive parasite, and was pleased that the sight of a naked Mercy was enough to distract him, even if only for a moment or two, from whatever it was that was happening to him.

“You really should tell her,” advised the voice, and Rother found himself almost agreeing until he realised that he didn’t want Mercy to see him in his present state. He turned his head away from the door and stretched out one leg so he could swing the bathroom door shut.

“Hey,” shouted Mercy. “What’s that about?”

Lacking any better explanation, he yelled back, “I don’t want you to see me right now. I look a mess.”

“Awww. Cut yourself shaving again?” She pouted. “Need me to kiss it all better?”

“It’s actually a little bit more complicated than that,” he responded, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as he could.

Mercy pushed on the door from the outside, but he kept his foot in place, holding it shut. “Leave me alone.”

More than anything he wanted to reach out, enfold Mercy in his arms, and tell her what was happening to him, but he couldn’t overcome his determination not to be seen.

“Don’t mind me,” said the voice in his head.

“But I do,” replied Rother.

“You do what?” asked Mercy playfully. “Want me to kiss it all better?”

Realising he had spoken his thought aloud, Rother tried to rescue the moment with what he hoped was an enigmatic chuckle. “No, no. It’s just that it’s a bit bloody.”

Mercy pushed the door again more firmly. This time, it opened a few inches. Mercy peered through but quickly pulled back, grimaced, and her eyes widened involuntarily. “What the hell is that?” she asked.

“What?” asked Rother, but he knew exactly what was disturbing her. She was staring wide-eyed at his face with an expression which was more one of horror than surprise. Quickly, though, she modified her response and stepped into the bathroom.

“Yeuchh!” she said. “You’ve got some kind of … you’re breaking out.” She took a second or two to fine tune her choice of words. “You’ve got these gross whiteheads sprouting on your face. So vile. When did that all start?”

Rother took several steps back in shock, then wrenched his body quickly away from Mercy again as she gripped his shoulders. “No!” he grunted. “Please, no.”

“What do you think it is?” She sounded alarmed, almost frightened.

“I don’t know,” replied Rother. “What do you think?” Mercy’s seesawing responses had set him wondering. He couldn’t rationalise it, but it was almost as if she had expected to see what she did. He shrugged her hands off his shoulders and pushed her back through the bathroom door. “Just give me a minute.” He slammed the door shut between them and slid the bolt across.

She shouted through the door, “Are you OK, Doogle? I’m sure it’s just some kind of breakout, some infection, like big whiteheads or something like that.” Her voice sounded consoling, but a shade too dismissive, as if she was trying to make light of something she knew was serious. “Let me take a better look at it.”

Despite her anxiety about Rother, as she spoke, she was slipping into her favourite dark market knockoff Belong t-shirt, and couldn’t help wondering if she would ever be able to acquire a genuine one, even though she knew there was no way she would ever join The Belonging. “No way,” she whispered to herself. “Those people are crazies.”

By now, Rother was attempting to make a detailed examination of his face in the mirror. Sure enough, there was yet another eruption on his skin and, even as he looked, the top opened up and a tiny mouth pushed through, followed by those pale antennae, the little black eyes and a rounded head.

“Jesus H. Christ on a dildo!” he exclaimed.

“No, no, no,” responded the voice, its tone irritatingly patronising. “It’s just another of me.”

This was one of the points at which Rother’s recollection of recent events became particularly fuzzy and indistinct.

He could vaguely remember trying to calm down both himself and Mercy without opening the door. He remembered her saying, “Chill down, Doogle. I’m sure it’s just a rash. Maybe an allergic thing? Have you eaten anything unusual lately?” Again, he couldn’t escape the feeling that she was underplaying what she was really thinking, but there was no way he was going to let her see the way his face was being ravaged.

He needed time to think it all through, try to rationalise what was happening to him and where it might lead, where it might stop … if ever. Was he simply going insane? But Mercy had seen his face, even if only briefly, and her first reaction had been of horror. Or was that too just all part of his madness?

Somehow, he had eventually managed to convince her to get dressed, go off to her work at the Hu Foundation, and leave him in the bathroom. She had sounded anxious as she called out to him, “Doogle, are you sure you’re all right? I can stay if you want.”

He had cut her short. “No, no. It’s best if you go. I can look after myself. You know I can. I promise I’ll get a doctor if I think I need one.” Despite his words he was becoming increasingly convinced that he was beyond any imaginable medical help. If there was any kind of solution, it would have to be resolved between him and his parasite.

“Call me if there’s … anything,” she yelled from the other side of the apartment. “Any … development. Anything, you know?”

He had listened out to hear Mercy close the apartment door, and then remained silent a while longer to be sure she had gone, before he allowed himself to think about exactly what was happening to him.

If this was a normal morning, he’d be injecting his first shot of insulin for the day but, staring at his face in the bathroom mirror, he knew that diabetes was no longer his worst problem. Maintaining some semblance of his sanity was.

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