From Keep It Inside & Other Weird Tales
Crown of Slugs
My brother often took things too far, like jokes or binge drinking, and conquering his fears was no exception. I keep him in a jar now with breathing holes punched in the metallic screw-top lid. I don’t know how much longer Seth will live. He can’t talk anymore. He just writes in a rudimentary scrawl.
We talked about our fears. Seth said that his vertigo doesn’t impact on his life. So, he could live with his fear of heights. He doesn’t believe in evolution. But he does think that life adapts to its changing environment in small ways. I now know this to be true. I just think ‘small ways’ is an understatement given what’s happened. He said, “Petra. You can’t go on fearing mice and spiders. You should immerse yourself, through therapy, to overcome your emotions.” I did.
I talked about spiders and I described the small rodents. Then, I watched videos as I bit my nails. I listed the good points. They play a part in food chains. Then finally, after breaking the therapist’s nose, I petted a mouse and let a tarantula edge its way up my arm. I felt so empowered. I booked a family holiday to Spain. I thought Seth would wobble at the thought of flying. But he said the clouds cushioned his fears as he couldn’t really look down. He’ll never fly again. He’s changed since that flight that he said ‘wasn’t a problem’.
Seth took some elective modules in Cryptozoology, at East Yorkshire University, towards his Degree in Anthropology. I know that Coelacanths have since been discovered after they were long thought extinct. I really didn’t believe in devils or The Loch Ness Monster though. Not then. Now, I think that anything is possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘Area 51’ housed aliens.
Seth was finally due to leave Hellen Salads after eight years. He managed to get a job at the Holiday camp near Goadley. But it got closed down. The Press said that there’d been a lot of murders there. Some of our neighbours talked about unnatural things. I’m sure they’re just old wives’ tales. People have nothing better to do than gossip. So, Seth had to reapply for his old job.
From a young age, my brother poured salt or boiling water in the garden. Mam used to go mad at the slug carcasses scattered everywhere. “Are you scared of them?”
He laughed. “No! I’m just repulsed. I hate the way they rear up and slowly explore.” He told me about an incident where one of the factory lads had chucked one at him. The dirty big black slug clung from his fringe as Seth bent forward. He screamed and shook his head to shake it off. Then he gave the lad a good hiding.
I can imagine how the lad had found out though. I often caught Seth in a trance as he watched a slug on the patio. It was so bad that he couldn’t touch Shaun Hutson’s debut book cover or the sequel: Breeding Ground. We talked about immersion. I reminded him how I learned to remove house spiders by gradations. Seth was resolute. He could never go down that path. Then he talked about Stanislavsky.
I don’t know much about Method Acting but Seth became infatuated. He read about its psychological effects and how it helped the practitioner to ‘get into character’. It wasn’t long before I found Seth on his stomach. He wanted a slug’s perspective on the world. I said, “I think that you’re taking this a bit too far.”
Seth laughed with the clichéd, “There’s method in the madness.” He was on his belly again, propelling himself, like some bizarre gym exercise. Not long after, a lump became a growth on his belly. His arms and legs were losing muscle mass too. Entropy kicked in.
I remember us giggling at Cronenberg’s The Fly and I’ve read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I can’t think about Samsa’s fate now. I had asked Seth to give his ideas up. But he was determined. He used his arms and legs so little that he eventually lost them. The belly foot took over. His skin became more mottled and darker too. Eventually, his world became smaller as his single-minded attention focused on overcoming his revulsion. In short, he became that which he hated. Seth is a slug.
I suppose the irony is that I now stand transfixed as Seth did. His only means of communication was a slow scrawl of slimy broken English. After the tears and the horror, I brought myself to let him out in the rain-drenched garden. I watched for blackbirds and hedgehogs as my brother felt his way about. I realised that he’d really changed, one day, as he ascended a tree. He’d quite forgotten his fear of heights. I soon forgot the time. I had to forget that this leopard slug was my brother as a mate found him.
The second slug had picked up Seth’s trail. It nibbled and nipped his detritus covered tail. They pulsated forward to the nearest branch. I had to forget this was my brother having sex. But it was quite a wonder as the two slugs wrapped around each other, like a snail’s helix, on their silvery thread. They danced mid-air for hours. Then, I watched a penis emerge from behind their heads. They each looked flowered like an exotic orchid. These too seemed to dance, as each slug penetrated the other. It was difficult and fascinating at the same time. I had mixed emotions as both penises tried to untangle. The mate then bit my brother’s cock off and he became a girl. This act of apophallation happens a lot, I later discovered. It was quite a gruesome shock watching it. The slugs then dropped free-fall into the leaves below them. The amputation writhed like a chopped worm. It was very much still alive.
My brother became a lot more withdrawn after the castration. He wanted to be called Shoala. The name was traced repeatedly before she laid her eggs outside. Soon, I had more nieces and nephews than I could count; the hatchlings were too numerous. Shoala spent more time at the rim of her jar when it was too dry outside. I couldn’t understand her anxieties. Then she took me to the same tree where her member was dismembered. It still writhed. I let Shoala write ‘territorial’ in her snake-like slime writing. I followed, my sister, the slug.
She oozed over to a discarded house brick at the foot of the tree. As she disappeared, I lifted the brick and almost dropped it in disgust. About the size of a toad, the small abomination was slightly more human than gastropod. It was a man-slug king. Around its sticky temple were my sister’s children. They formed a dancing crown on the thing’s head. It was trying to usurp my sister. She has her own patch.
The slug-thing reared its head. Shoala hung back. Then the abomination struggled. It writhed as something tightened around its neck. I wanted to look away. I was torn. I watched the grip tighten and the thing keeled over.
Shoala died soon afterwards. In death, she became my brother again. I took Seth’s body to the Cryptozoology office and left the carcass to be examined. Professor Grimshaw assured me that he’d treat Seth’s body with the upmost respect. I didn’t tell him the whole story. Indeed, sometimes, I awake sweat sodden to feel the sensation of a penis constricting my neck.
I don’t know much about the virus. I just need some milk. It’s late and I’m not keen on popping to the shop at this hour. At least the nights aren’t so dark. It’s still warm at 10.30pm. I close the door behind me. There’s the neighbour’s rubbish strewn across my lawn. They never get their bins out on time. I cross the road and realise I’ve forgotten something. The bathroom window is still open. I shouldn’t be gone long.
The back of the shops is awful at night. There’s usually someone going through the industrial waste bins looking for anything the charity shop has slung out. Sometimes, people drink there or inject where it’s quiet. There’s always crap everywhere once people have rooted through the cast offs. I usually cross over. Even though I don’t have to. I manage to avoid any encounters doing this. It smells of rot.
I cross onto the other path. It’s poorly lit in those shadows behind the shops. I see shapes. The hairs on my nape stand up as a shiver makes me shudder. They’re just strange. I can’t work them out. I pass, quickening my step. Then, I cross back and get some milk from the convenience store. Heading back, I can hear them rummaging through the bins. Those strange shapes, behind the shops, on the other side of the road. I hurry home to make a brew. As I unlock my front door, I feel really uneasy. But I can’t say why. It’s just a hunch. The stench of fish hits me as I lock the door behind me.
The rancid stink reminds me of a virus that’s been in the news. It’s world-wide. The virus has been altering people’s appearance and behaviours. I try not to feel negative. But I can’t locate the smell. It’s like that around the charity shop bins. I don’t know. I put the milk on the kitchen side. I flick the kettle on. A noise. A bang from the bathroom. I freeze. Someone is shuffling in my bathroom. There are people in my bedroom too. What the hell? I listen. Then I pick the biggest knife up. My palms are sweaty. The kettle is too loud.
Whoever the noisy bastards are, they’re quite light on their feet. It sounds more like the scratching of large rats. I take a deep breath. I charge through to the bathroom. There’s no point holding back. There’s a strange shape over the bath. I stab. I stab and I stab and I stab like someone who has had their personal space violated. There are shrieks of death throes from the strange shape. My hands are sticky. I’m about to flick the light on when I’m clawed.
I try to struggle. There’s the stench of rot. The light through the open window picks their pinched features out. They’ve got narrow eyes and whiskers. I’m seeing things. But the rat people pin me down as I drop the bloodied knife. They’re upon me. More man than rodent, the virus is turning them into vermin. They scurry about. They have strength in numbers. I’m bundled up to the loft space in the roof. The rat people bind me with electrical cables. I’m gagged. No-one will know I am here. My mother hasn’t phoned in months.
I try to break free. It’s the first time I’ve sat still in ages. The rat people are everywhere. They’ve taken over my flat. As my mind works overtime to think about escape, I notice something strange about myself. The electric cable cuts into my wrist as I gasp in horror. I am one of them.
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