Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Brain Parasites, Part Three


My phone buzzed at 6:30 a.m. Rachel kicked me in the ass. I rolled over and managed to hit the right button. “Hello? Uh—”
“Russell’s dead.” Jolene’s voice sounded lifeless too.
Oh no. I lurched up. “What? I mean  . . . what?”
“He wasn’t . . . he wouldn’t wake up.” She sniffled. “I couldn’t wake him up. And he wasn’t breathing . . .”
We sat in silence for 10 seconds. Finally I managed a question: “What do the doctors say?”
“A cerebral  . . . thing? Just like that old woman in the park. I don’t know. I had to call his parents, my mother, and then . . .” She sobbed.
“I’m sorry.” I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“I have to . . .” She blew her nose. “Sorry. There’s all this stuff to do. Just send me your bill.”
Bill? Right. “Look, we’re square. I’m going to keep checking this out—”
“Do whatever you want. I can’t . . .” Jolene hung up.
“Wha . . .?” Rachel rolled over. “What’s going on?”
“Russell’s dead.” I stood on shaky legs. “Same thing as the woman in the park. Goddamn it.”
“Oh, no.” Rachel clutched my shoulder. “Are you okay?”
I grabbed some sweatpants. “I need coffee.”
I sat at my computer, trying to think of what to do now. Damn it!
Rachel came up behind me. “You okay?”
“Not really.” I drummed my fingers on the desk. Maybe I should have done something different. Maybe I could have saved him. I closed my eyes. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this at all. “I should have been an accountant. Like my mom and dad wanted.”
“You’re lousy with math.” She punched my shoulder. “Hey, I think  they’re hiring down at McDonald’s. All you’d have to do is push buttons. Want to go?”
All I’d have to ask was You want to supersize that? My mother would be so proud.
“Not yet.” I picked up my phone to call the clinic.

“So what do I do?”
            “Come here tonight around 9 p.m.,” Reid said over the phone. “Bring whatever you need to sleep comfortably.” He chuckled. “Some of our patients bring stuffed animals. Anyway, you’ll lie down in a sleep room and we’ll attach some monitors to your head, and you’ll be given a mild sedative to help you sleep. Then we’ll monitor your brain wave activity throughout the night, and in the morning you can go home. We’ll analyze the results and call you.”
            “Will there be anyone there?”
            “Yes, we have staff on hand throughout the night. If you need anything, or decide to leave, someone will help you.”
            Nuts. That meant I wouldn’t be able to poke around. “Okay. I’ll see you tonight.”
            Rachel wasn’t happy.
            “Are you crazy?” She didn’t even punch me, so I knew she was mad. “This is as stupid as sticking your hand into a jar of flesh-eating fungus—oh wait, you did that. I forgot who I was talking to. Are you nuts?”
            “First, I’m not going to take any sedative.” We were eating dinner—meatless burgers and salad. “And I’m not going to stay there all night. There’ll be people around, so I can’t snoop as much as I want, but maybe I’ll get an idea about whether they’re up to anything.”
            “I should go instead of you.” She bit into her burger. “I could pick up something, maybe.”
            I shook my head. “It’s too dangerous—”
            Now she slugged me. “See what I mean?”
            “Ow.” I’ve faced vampires and demons, but Rachel has a meaner punch than any of them. “I just meant—”
            “Fine. Whatever. I’m going to watch all of Daredevil and tell you every single spoiler. Jerk.” She looked at my plate. “Are you going to eat the rest of your salad?”
            I pushed it over. “Knock your socks off.”
            Rachel’s phone buzzed. “Hey, Gary, what’s up?” She put it on speaker. “Tom’s here.”
            “Hi, Rachel, hi, Tom.” Gary had a friendly voice. “I took a look at that sleep machine. It looks fine—I mean, I’m not an expert on that kind of tech, but I didn’t find anything out of the ordinary for a sound system. The one thing was that there’s an extra stream on each of the tracks, just under the white noise.”
            “Like something subliminal?” I looked at Rachel.
            “Maybe.” Gary coughed. “The stream itself is short, about 30 seconds, but it repeats over and over again. Maybe it’s nothing. I mean, this is supposed to help you sleep, right?”
            “That’s what they say.” I nodded. “Thanks, Gary. Send me a bill.”
            “Nah, it’s a favor for you guys. I’ll bring it back tonight.”
            “Thanks.” Rachel hung up. “Nice guy.”
            I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want another fight before heading to the sleep clinic.

Terri walked me down the hall to one of the sleep labs. She was just as cute as before, even with the ring through her nostril.
Inside the lab a wall of electronics loomed over a hospital bed. “There’s a restroom over there.” She pointed to a door. “Did you bring any pajamas? If you like, there are gowns in that drawer.”
            “Just a book.” I set a copy of Infinite Jest on a table next to the bed and put my phone on top of it.
            “I’ll let you change and get comfortable.” She smiled.
            “Uh, wait.” I leaned against the edge of the bed. “Are those—cameras?”
            Lenses pointed down from three corners of the room.
            Terri nodded reassuringly. “We just need to watch your sleep behavior. Don’t worry, it’s all completely confidential.”
            I’d signed some forms. “Okay. I just . . . you know . . . roll over a lot.”
            Terri giggled. “That’s fine. It’s not like I watch them. Just the doctors.”
So I got undressed, except for my boxers and socks, and tied a hospital gown around my neck and waist. Then I sat down on the bed, nervous. It was like waiting for surgery. Or worse.
            After ten minutes I heard a knock on the door. “Come in!”
            It was Terri again. She carried a tray with a pitcher of water and a small paper cup with a pink pill. “Are you comfortable?”
            I pulled  blanket up. “Uh, I guess so.”
“All right.” She set the tray down on a nearby table and started sorting through strings of wires. “I need you to pull everything down to your waist.”
Okay. I pushed the blanket back down.
Her hands skimmed across my forehead and scalp as she plugged in the wires, one by one. “These are long enough for you to get to the restroom, if you need to,” she told me. “Just be careful not to pull any of them off. If you do, you can probably push them back on, but if you lose more than one or two, call me. Or whoever’s on duty. I go home at midnight.” She lifted a typical call-button device that dangled over the side of the bed.
The door opened again. “Everything okay here, Terri?”
“Just finishing up, Dr. Usher.” She attached a final wire to my chest. “There. All done.” She patted my arm. “You okay?”
“Just fine. Thanks, Terri.”
“Sure thing. Just one thing more . . .” She bent down next to the computer wall. “This will help you sleep. It’s called the Nyx. The latest model.”
She pressed a purple button. This Nyx was as big as a microwave oven, with black sides all around. “There we go. Sleep well.”
“Thanks.” I vaguely heard wind and waves in my ears. I rubbed my eyes. I had to stay awake.
Usher pointed at my phone. “We discourage patients from looking at screens before they go to sleep.”
            “That’s just in case my girlfriend calls.” I patted my book. “This one puts me to sleep in 15 minutes.”
            He nodded. “I’ve tried that book three times. Never got past the first chapter.”
            “It’s just you and her?” I rubbed my head cautiously.
            “Terri’s off at 10:30, but there’ll be another staffer working. And I’ll be here all night. Napping, like you.” Then he picked up the pitcher and poured water into a tall plastic cup. “This will help you sleep.”
            “What is it?” I picked up the pill.
            “A mild sedative. Not habit forming. Just to help you relax.” He smiled.
            I popped the pill into my mouth. And under my tongue. Then I took a long gulp of cold water. It tasted funny. Would Usher check under my tongue to make sure I’d actually swallowed the pill? They did that Orange is the New Black.
            But Usher was at the computers, pushing buttons and adjusting dials. “All right.” He stepped back. “I’m going to turn down the lights. Try to relax and get some sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”
            “Thanks.” I laid back. “Say good night to Terri, okay?”
            He grinned. “Sleep well.”
            I closed my eyes. Keeping the pill under my tongue was harder than I’d expected—and I kept wondering how much of it was dissolving into my bloodstream anyway.
            After a few minutes I rolled onto my side and spit the pill out onto the pillow. Then I spent ten minutes breathing shallowly, thinking about Rachel. I actually drifted off . . .

A pinprick of light stabbed my eyes. I tried to blink. What the—?
            A spidery shape dropped down toward my face. I couldn’t close my eyes. I couldn’t move as it wrapped its long thin legs around my head. My scalp, my ears, my neck, my throat, my cheeks . . . my eyes.
            Don’t fight, said a voice inside my head. Let us come. Relax and let us come.
            Me: “Who are you? What are you? What do you want?”
            We are seshai.
            Me: “What—what does that mean? Where do you come from? What are you doing?”
            Let us come.
I tried to scream. But the spider legs were deep down inside my throat, cutting off my air. I choked. No. No!

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