"Can you talk to this guy, Valerie?" asked Lisa in a dramatic whisper. "He creeps me out big-time."

"Why?" Val asked her. She snapped off the latex glove and pulled it down over the margarine container with the stool sample.

"He smells like liquor," she told her. "And there's another smell, I don't know if it's him or his cat. Smells rotten."

"Smells like infection," said Lisa.

"Not one of our clients?" Val wanted to tell her she had to handle it. Sooner or later she would have to realize that they didn't only work with the cute, well-groomed fuzzies, that they had customers who stank and patients with massive infections.

But today, judging by Lisa's face, was not the day for that. Lisa was shaken. She looked like she was trying hard not to vomit into the sink.

"Definitely not one of ours. He walked in carrying a cat in a cardboard box. I think he's homeless. I'm not joking, Val. He stinks."

"Okay, let me talk to him. But you owe me one. You have to take Mrs. Henderson and Ginger Snaps tomorrow."

"No problem. Thanks, Val."

"See if you want to thank me after you meet Ginger."

She went out to the front office, and smelled it immediately.

The guy did look kind of homeless, but he wasn't the usual kind of homeless. Young, for one thing. He could have been one of Val's classmates. He wore an enormous gray hoodie and faded jeans that were all but shredded. Both were decorated with generous grease and dirt spots.

His knuckles were horrific split ravines. He looked like he had been punching a brick wall a while back. In those ravaged hands he clutched a cardboard box that mewled plaintively.

The man and the box stank of corrupted flesh. It wasn't the worst miasma of infection Val had ever encountered, but it was up there in the top ten for sure.

Val clenched her jaw to keep from grimacing, and asked him "how can I help you?"

Not that she would be able to help him right then. Doctor Little had already left for the day. All she could do for him right now was set up an appointment for the next morning.

"My cat got worms," said the wreck, letting out a breath of alcohol that almost managed to overpower the reek of infection. He was missing several teeth, Val noticed.

"Worms in the stool?" Val asked. That would be great. If the guy saw worms in the stool, they were most likely tapeworm. They could give the kid a couple of droncit pills and get him the hell out of there.

"No. On her face," said the kid, setting the box down on the floor in front of Val.

Val felt her heart sink. Worms on her face meant maggots, most likely. She hated maggots.

But she swallowed her disgust and knelt down by the kid and opened the box, expecting the worst.

It was worse.

In her first week as a vet tech, a client had brought in a stray cat that had lost an eye and had maggots all over its face, crawling out of its ruined eye socket. Its face had been sticky with weeks-old blood and pus. It was barely able to lift its head, mewling pitifully and trembling, its remaining eye caked shut with a brown discharge. The cat hadn't known where it was. There was nothing do but euthanize it as quickly as possible.

That cat had been lucky compared to the thing Val was looking at now. That one had been missing an eye. This one was missing a face.

"Her name's Fluffy," said the kid. "Can you help her?"

Help her? The only thing that would help this thing that used to be a cat was a bullet through the remains of its head. Val's breakfast wanted to come up. She bit her lip.

"Uh. I don't know. I don't have a doctor here," she managed to say. "He left for the day already.' Her hands were shaking as she closed the box to hide the thing from sight before she threw up all over it.

'Can you help her?" the kid asked again.

"I... I don't know, sir. Why don't you come into the exam room, and -"

She swallowed hard, forgetting what she had wanted to say.

Once of the things was on her thumbnail, and it wasn't a maggot.

"Excuse me," she mumbled, taking a step back. She flicked her hand, but it stayed where it was.

"Can you help her?"

She ducked into the lab.

The thing wiggled and ooched off her fingernail. Onto her skin.

She wanted to scream.

"What is that?" Lisa asked her, and Val jumped.

"I don't know," she said, reaching for a paper towel with her left hand. A very small part of her was still thinking about the thing in veterinary terms, and that part noticed that it didn't tickle or anything. In fact, she couldn't even feel it on her finger.

Even when she saw blood welling up around the worm, she didn't feel a thing.

"Lisa. Call Doctor Little. Ask him if he can come back to the office. Tell him we've got a cat to be euthanized, and some kind of weird parasite."

While she spoke she was grabbing for the tweezers on the shelf above the centrifuge.

"Is it a maggot?"

Val snarled. "I don't know what the fuck it is! Now call Doctor Little!"

She still couldn't feel it.

She laid her right hand flat on the counter and tried to pinch the worm with the tweezers, but they slipped right off it. Swearing under her breath, she put the tweezers closer to her skin and tried again.

The worm flailed around, and more blood puddled up around it, and she still couldn't feel a thing.

She could hear Lisa in the background, talking to Doctor Little. Again, close the tweezers carefully over the creature's head, pushing down a little to grab it under her skin. Blood running now. She was digging into her flesh. She couldn't feel it at all.

Like a tick, the thing must carry an anesthetic in its saliva.

Then she had it.

"Gotcha, you little bitch." She tugged gently, and the little wriggler emerged from her thumb, blood sticking to its tiny, sharp mouthparts.

"Doctor Little's going to turn around," said Lisa.

"Give me a fecalyzer," Val ordered, pointing with the tweezers at the drawer where they were kept. "Did he say how far away he was?"

"No. But he can't be too far, he just left fifteen minutes ago." Lisa opened a collection tube, and Val dropped the thing into it and held it up for a better look.

"That is a fucked-up little critter," she whispered. "That cat's in trouble. The kid might be in trouble, too."

"What do you mean? What is that?" Lisa was wide-eyed with disgust.

"I have no idea. Never saw anything like it. But it seems to like me."

The thing had originally had a bluish hue, but now it looked ashen. It had shrunk, too.

"Val, look at your hand," Lisa gasped.

She had been too busy looking at the bug to notice that her thumb was swelling up. And something was happening under her skin. Little blue worm trails criss-crossed her thumb all the way down, leading down to her palm.

She turned her hand and saw more blue trails heading towards her wrist. The fecal tube slipped out of her fingers, which might have been strands of spaghetti for all she could feel them.

The front door opened and closed, its bell tinkling.

"What was that?"

Lisa took a look around the door of the lab. "The guy left."

Val swore. The critter was definitely shrinking, its pale body shriveling like a used condom. The blue trails on her hand, meanwhile, were more pronounced than ever.

"Go catch him. He's got to stay."

"Catch him?" Lisa asked, just as if Val had suggested she drink drain cleaner.

Over the years, Val had found that there were only two ways for a person to respond to any emergency, whether it was a fire on the stove or a dog that had jumped through a plate glass window and trying to bleed to death on your waiting room floor. You could soak up the scariness, freak out and go to pieces, or you could grit your teeth, react to the emergency and freak out later. She had also found that certain people were born to freak out and would never be worth squat in an emergency. Lisa, for example, showed every sign of being a world-class freak-out queen.

She would have to talk to Doctor Little about that later on. Right now, she would have to deal with the situation. Doctor Little was on his way. All she needed to do was make sure the cat was still there when he arrived. Which it wasn't.

Evil words chased each other through her head.

Damn it.

Fuck it.




She ran for the door, her right arm swinging like a dead weight.

"Sir!" she called.

He was turning the corner by the time she got out the door. She called out to him again, but he acted like he hadn't heard her.

She followed him, walking fast, down the block to a huge apartment building.

"Sir!" she shouted.

Finally he stopped and turned to face her. His features were hidden in the deep hoodie. She felt dizzy for a moment, and she tried to grab a signpost she was just passing, to steady herself, but her arm was dead. She fell against the signpost.

The kid in the hoodie stood over her, looking down with something like a smile.

"I knew you'd help us," he said, reaching down.

She tried to tell him that he had to come back to the clinic so the doctor could look at Fluffy, but the words wouldn't come out right. The sounds she emitted sounded more like a chimpanzee imitating human speech. The guy seemed to understand, though. He nodded.

"We have to get the others first," he told her patiently, pulling her up by the arm.

"Others?" It sounded more like "Uu-uh?"

There were others?

"Come on, I'll show you." He tugged on her arm.

No. No no no. This was not good. Now it wasn't just her right arm that wasn't working, it was her whole body. Her legs seemed to be just about able to carry her limply when he dragged her, not strong enough to resist or do anything she really wanted them to do. She couldn't talk properly. And now her vision seemed to be going weird. The edges of everything were darkening.

Most bizarrely of all, she wasn't fighting him off. She knew she didn't want to go into the building with him, but she couldn't pull away from him. It was as if her body had decided not to bother.

For a second she thought about toxoplasma, the bacteria that apparently made rats forget to be afraid of cats. But this wasn't the same. She was afraid. She just couldn't get her body to do anything about it.

The kid pulled her through the door into a foyer that had seen better days, to an elevator that clanked alarmingly as it ascended three floors, to a wretched-looking hallway painted old-school hospital gray, with dark green industrial carpeting to complete the picture, and finally into a chilly apartment that smelled like being inside an abscess.

Her lunch shot up through her throat before she could even think about stopping it, and she curled over and fell to her knees.

"I know it smells," said the kid. "You get used to it, though."

I don't care what happens, I am never getting used to that, thought Val. But her mouth wasn't letting her say the words. She could only moan, and even that hurt her throat.

She could lift her head a little bit, but not turn it. All she could see from there was a dark economy-class living room decorated in classic cat lady style. There was a litterbox near her, right by the door, a couple of scratching posts and a hideous yellow sofa overshadowed by several multi-level cat condos.

The noise was horrific. Caterwauling, was the only appropriate word. Cats yowling, mewling, growling. Within seconds, they swarmed around her and the kid.

Tabbies, calicos, tuxedos. A couple of Persian-looking things and an enormous Maine Coon mix. They were all emaciated and looked greasy. The longhairs were matted so badly they would have had to be shaved to get any relief. Not that anyone was going to shave these cats.

Not one of them was walking right. These cats didn't slink around. They crawled and hobbled, stumbling over their own paws and lurching into each other as if they were blind. And many of them probably were.

The little blue worms had eaten most of their eyes.

A tiny little calico kitten came right up to Val and nuzzled her face, and Val would have screamed if she could have. The kitten's tongue was the same temperature as the air, and the most nauseating smell she had ever imagined wafted out of its gullet. While it rasped at her cheek, a trio of worms dropped onto her face.

Immediately her face went numb. The darkness that had been hovering around the edges of her vision started creeping towards the center, like thickening fog piling up around her. She could still see things straight ahead of her, but they were blurry and darkened, little more than vague shapes and motions.

"They get so hungry," the guy complained. "They're always hungry. Always running around, meow meow meow, it sounds like that damn commercial where the cats is all singing."

"You can't keep them like this," Val tried to tell him. "Especially not with those parasites." But the noises that came out of her mouth bore little resemblance to English.

"They ain't parasites. They're more like, whatchamacallit, symbians. They keep my babies alive. They'll keep you alive, too."

Something was tickling her left side. It was soft, insistent, getting more annoying by the second.

The kid laughed strangely. "Tickles, huh?"

She hadn't even said anything that time. How did he keep responding to her?

"I told you, they ain't parasites. They take a lot, but they give back, too. I can hear what you're thinking. The worms translate it. We all know what we're thinking."


What the hell was that tickling? It had started on her right leg now, too.

"Lemme show you," the kid offered. He crouched down and took hold of her head, twisting it around so she could look down at her left side and see what was tickling her.

"I told you, they get hungry."

She had never seen so much blood.

He laughed at that. "Don't worry, it gets much better afterwards."

After a while, she discovered that he was right. It did get better eventually.

But she was so fucking hungry.

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