One~Two~Three~Four~Five


Lately strange sounds have been coming from the walls of the house of the man with the terrible eyes. At night there is scratching, faint yet unmistakable scratching of what sounds to be thousands of scurrying feet traveling through the walls, above the ceiling, and beneath the floorboards. When he is home, he sees movement out of the corners of his eyes. Darting, black shapes that are gone when he turns to look.

At first, he thinks he is imagining it. He finds himself lending less and less credence to his senses these days. But one morning, after a week of bearing with the noise and religiously taking the pills prescribed by his doctor, he lifts his shoe off the ground and five beetles, each as long as his index finger, as wide as half dollars, and as shiny-black as polish scatter beneath the sofa, making familiar clicking noises as they go.

For a moment, he stays very still, his breath caught in his throat. Then, he slips his shoe on and grabs his keys. He cannot be late for work, so he resists the urge to lift the sofa and find the bugs and, instead, leaves, locking the door behind him.

* * * * *

Fifteen minutes later, he's in his cubicle looking up exterminators in a phone book begged off the woman at the information kiosk in the lobby. After all, he reasons, if there's five bugs, then there must be more; there's no way the noise he's been hearing was caused by only a handful of then.

He is debating whether or not to make some calls right now to price check, or whether he should wait until he is off work when the door to the room is opened by a severe looking man in a blue suit.

"You're needed," he says in a deep voice.

He closes the phone book and follows the suited man out of the room, up the stairs to the fourth or fifth floor, and into the now-familiar interrogation room.

Inside the otherwise empty room are three pieces of furniture: a table and two chairs, one on either side of it. There is also a security camera in the corner, but he doesn't count that. There are three men already in the room when he and the severe suited man arrive: two large men with shaved heads and arms as thick as hams and a scruffy, brown-haired man handcuffed in the chair. The two stand on either side of him, preventing him from leaving.

He enters the room and sits in his usual spot across from them and, after a nod from the man in the suit, removes his sunglasses. He looks at the handcuffed man, straight in the eyes, and does nothing else.

The man in the handcuffs blanches.

"I'm not saying anything," he says, looking at the man in the suit. One of the big men grabs his hair and forces him to look forward. "I'm not saying anything."

"You will," says the man in the suit. "Don't worry."

It takes five minutes or silent staring for the man to start begging.

Let me go. I didn't do anything. Please stop it.

After another five minutes, he's screaming. After fifteen minutes, he's tearfully confessing to every irrelevant sin he's ever committed. He's as broken as he can get without permanent damage. All of this is par the course for the man with terrible eyes, and he reaches for his sunglasses.

"What are you doing?" snaps the man in the suit.

"I- well he's talking. I was going to go back-"

"Not until I say you can. Keep looking." To the man in the handcuffs, he says, "Tell me about the order."

"I d-don't know anything."

"Don't play stupid. How did you get into Iotech?"

"S-stole an I.D. badge," the man in the cuffs says.

"You stole it?"

"N-no. They- they gave it-" He starts to wipe his nose on his sleeve and is stopped by the second large man.

The man with the terrible eyes sits there awkwardly, being very carefully disinterested in what they were saying.

The bugs, he thinks. Should I try traps and sticky paper first, or just go straight to an exterminator?

He'd gotten the names and numbers of a few likely candidates from the phone book, but he hadn't had the chance to call about prices. Maybe it would be better to start with roach motels-

The man in the suit is yelling. "Who is your leader?"

"I don't know!" says the man in the handcuffs.

"There must be a name. What is it?"

"I don't know! I don't-"

The man in the suit grabs the back of the man in the handcuffed head and slams his face down on the table. There is a loud crunch and when his head is brought back up, the man in the handcuff's nose is broken and bleeding.

"Tell us. How many of you are there?"

"Hey," says the man with the terrible eyes. "Don't you think that's a little-" His voice is small, and everyone ignores him.

"I don't know! They don't let us talk to each other-"

One of the big men casually backhands the man in handcuff's head.

"Hey," says the man with the terrible eyes, feeling deeply uncomfortable. "You shouldn't-"

"I'm going to ask you nicely one more time," says the man in the suit. "How many of you are there?"

"I don't-"

They smash his head against the table again.

"Stop it!"

The man with the terrible eyes slams his fist onto the table, rising to his feet as he does, and glares at the man in the suit. The big men move as though to come around and stop him, but he looks at them and they freeze, faces drawn and pale. He turns his attention back to the man in the suit, who does not meet his eyes.

"He says he doesn't know. He doesn't know! Leave him alone."

They all look away from him, not daring to risk meeting his eyes.

"I think," says the man in the suit, looking at a spot on the wall, "That it's time for you to return to your cubicle."

It's an obvious dismissal. He ignores it. "Only if this guy- what's your name?"

"A-Andrews," stammers the man in the handcuffs.

"Only if Andrews comes with me. I'll walk him to the door."

"Mr. Andrews is in possession of pivotal information-"

"Then we have a problem, because I'm not going to sit here and let you beat someone up."

He glares at the man in the suit. The man in the suit looks pointedly at the spot on the wall.

"I think," he says, pulling a cellphone out of his suit's breast pocket. "That we may need some divine interference." He dials a number and says into the phone, "Yes, sir. We have a problem." He listens for a moment. "Yes." He hangs up. "He's on his way," he says to the rest of the room.

They wait, and several silent minutes later, the Supervisor enters the room. He is a tall man of average build and nondescript features. His hair is hair colored, his skin is skin colored, and no matter how many times he sees him, the man with the terrible eyes cannot recall, exactly, what those colors specifically are. His eyes are brown, though. The man with the terrible eyes got a good look at them, just once, but he cannot forget how deep and brown they were.

"What seems to be the trouble?" the Supervisor says cheerfully.

The man in the suit rises, full bluster. "Your dog is-"

"I wasn't talking to you, Randall."

The man in the suit- Randall- deflates instantly. The Supervisor turns to the man with the terrible eyes and says, "well?"

"They're hurting him," he says awkwardly. "He doesn't know anything, but they're still beating him up. Look," he points at Andrews.

His Supervisor says, "Randall, is it true?"

"We believe him to be holding back pivotal information-"

"I don't know anything!" Andrews says.

"He's telling the truth."

"How do you know?" says his Supervisor.

He doesn't. Not really. But he doesn't want them to torment the man any more than they already have. "I just do," he says.

His Supervisor meets his eyes. There are dark, almost black rings around the Supervisor's irises. There are dark squiggles that almost look like cursive writing that circle around his pupils. The brown is just as he remembered it, deep and dark with flecks of amber. They look at each other levelly, and he finds himself hoping that his Supervisor cannot read minds.

His Supervisor looks away, towards Andrews.

Blood drips down Andrews' face, and already bruises are starting for form around his right eye and left cheek.

"Well then," the Supervisor says. "I suppose that's that. Turn him loose and get back to work."

"But sir-" starts Randall.

"I said let him go."

The whole room watches as Randall bites back a reply and turns a ruddy shade of pink then, finally, nods.

"Yes, sir," he says haltingly, as though through gritted teeth. One of the big men pulls a set of keys out from somewhere and unlocks the handcuffs.

"Anton," the Supervisor says. "Please escort Mr. Andrews to the door."

The man with the keys- Anton, apparently-'s face is completely unreadable. "Front or back?" he says.

There is a weight to the question that everyone but the man with the terrible eyes understands. Andrews pales.

"Front, please," says the Supervisor, smiling.

Anton grabs Andrews' arm and leads him out the door.

"Is that all?" the Supervisor says.

"Yes," says Randall.

"Good." He looks at the man with the terrible eyes, this time looking at a spot somewhere on his forehead. "If there's any more trouble, you know my number."

"Yes sir," he says, relief flooding his chest. His Supervisor leaves, and Randall says, "get back to your cubicle."

He is all too happy to oblige.

* * * * *

On the way to the cubicle, he makes a discreet detour to the front lobby. Anton and Andrews are standing at the front door. He watches. A tan soccer-mom van pulls up and Andrews almost runs into it, helped in by a few apparently friendly hands. The van squeals loudly enough to be heard even from behind the glass, and drives off fast enough to leave black marks on the road where it took off.

Anton takes out a walkie-talkie and speaks into it, and before he can turn around, the man with the terrible eyes heads back to his cubicle.

Nothing of interest happens for the rest of the day.

* * * * *

When night falls, he is at home.

There are roach motels set up strategically around the house, the night outside is calm, and he is sitting serenely on the sofa, eating a bowl of microwave macaroni and cheese and listening to music on the radio. It's pop music in a different language by people he does not recognize but does not dislike. He has no idea what the song is about, but the beat is catchy and it blocks out the silence, so it's good.

He is reading a technical manual about how to repair 180 model Threadline (TM) sewing machines while he eats. He does not particularly want to read about sewing machines, but when he went to the half-empty, knee-height bookshelf that came with the house and picked what the cover said was an anthology book about real-life heroic animals, he found that the inside was a sewing machine manual.

In fact all of the books- only a couple dozen or so total- are manuals on the inside. A book that is supposed to be full of nature poems is actually a French instruction manual for installing a satellite dish. Another that is supposed to be a novel about an old man dealing with issues and things is actually a technical manual from the 80's on building computers from complicated computer-y parts. He doesn't question why all the books are like this.

He is just bringing a spoonful the orange glop to his mouth when the radio suddenly fills with static several times louder than the music had been. He jolts, and the spoon slips from his hands and clatters onto the floor.

Before he can reach down, several beetles dart from beneath the sofa and swarm over the spoon. A split second later, and they're gone, as is the macaroni. He picks up the spoon and finds that the previously smooth steel now has a new texture. When he holds it up to the light, he sees tiny indentations along the surface.

Bite marks.

The thought comes unbidden, and he wishes he could send it away again. Slowly, he gets to his feet. He unplugs the radio, which has not yet stopped blaring static, and can barely muster up the slightest bit of surprise when the radio stays on, still filling the room with noise. He turns the knob to adjust the volume, and the volume remains the same.

With a sigh, he turns around and sees that what had been left in the bowl is now gone, and a dozen beetles are darting back beneath the sofa. He kneels and looks under the couch and sees only clear, empty carpet and the underside of the sofa. There are no bugs.

Through the static, he can hear the chitinous clicking of insects. It's in the walls and in the floor. The house is swelling with it- the walls are moving as though breathing, and the sound of static and bug meld together, getting louder and louder, until he can no longer tell one from the other.

Eventually, the noise stops. It stops all at once, leaving his ears ringing and the house completely silent. Eventually, he gets up. He hadn't even noticed that he'd at some point slunk to the floor, curled on his side- and goes to the kitchen. There, he digs around in the medicine cabinet that is filled with vitamin supplements he's 90% certain he didn't buy until he comes across the pills his doctor- a person he'd never met but who apparently knew everything there was to know about him- had prescribed after the Hole incident.

One minute and half a glass of apple juice later and the pills were down. Two pills now, another two in six hours if symptoms persisted. No more than eight pills a day or else his stomach would bleed and his kidneys would turn into spleens- or something like that. His only regret is that he's not allowed to get drunk now, because the clicking in the walls has started again and it's getting louder and he would really like a drink of something stronger than apple juice.

He settles instead for more apple juice. Then he grabs his jacket, his keys, and he leaves the house, not bothering to lock the door behind him. The car won't start. A small beetle squeezes its way out of the ignition, followed by two more. He pops the hood. There are beetles in the engine. Hundreds of them. He slams down the hood and walks briskly away.

The only place he can think to go is the park nearby, so he does. It's late and dark and the park is empty. The only lights are from the few streetlights still in working order. They all flicker when he passes under them, but only one goes out. He goes to his usual napping spot on top of the hill, beneath a tree, and falls asleep.

* * * * *

In the dream, thousands upon thousands of beetles are climbing on him. Some bite him, testing to see if he is as easily devoured as the macaroni. They crawl and nudge their way under his jacket, under his shirt, until he can feel hundreds of legs like pinpricks on his skin. Many of them cluster around his eyes. They want his eyes. They try to burrow into them, try to eat them, but his lids are keeping them out. He does not dare open his eyes to see them for fear that they will devour them. He does not dare open his mouth to scream for fear that they will go inside.

They move, and he moves with them.

* * * * *

He wakes up disoriented half-fallen out of bed. His legs are tangled up in the sheets, and the blankets are on the floor. Pillows are by his head, which is touching the floor. He groans and pulls himself up. Pain hammers against the inside of his skull- is he hungover? He doesn't remember being drunk. He doesn't remember anything after getting home from work yesterday.

He gets shakily to his feet, and notices that he's still wearing yesterday's clothes. That's fine; he often falls asleep in his clothes. But why on Earth did he go to bed in his jacket? He doesn't remember. He puts his hands in his pockets, searching for some clue. Tiny legs brush lightly against his fingers. He yanks his hands out.

They are covered in black beetles. He yells and shakes them off. They go scurrying under the bed. He tears off the jacket and it lands heavily on the hardwood. Hundreds of beetles stream out of it and to the bed. A chill, a shiver, and finally a deep, gut-churning, spine-wrenching shudder course up his back, and his shoulders break out in goose bumps.

He runs a hand through his hair, and beetles fall out. He chokes and runs out of the room, into the bathroom. He doesn't bother taking his clothes off while he showers. There are no more beetles on him- at least none fall out- but he still makes sure to turn his pockets inside out and run them under the water just in case.

The car is working. For a second, he is surprised that it is. But he doesn't know why he thought it wouldn't- it just had a tune up a few weeks ago.

He gets in and leaves.

* * * * *

Nothing of interest happens at work.

* * * * *

On the way home, he stops by the store. When he gets home, he closes what needs to be closed, packs what needs to be packed, and launches three bug bombs in the house. His gas-mask is on, everything is sealed, and he tells himself that he's sticking around to watch what the beetles will do. What he doesn't admit to himself is that he wants to make sure that the only thing they do is die.

At first, nothing happens.

The house fills with gas that stinks even through the mask's filter. Then the sofa moves.

It bubbles angrily, as though there are things beneath the cloth surface of the cushions moving. Then it screams. It howls in a thousand voices of indefinite gender, indefinite age, and indefinite species, but they are definitely screams of pain. And, he realizes, anger.

The floorboards bend and twist, as though things below it are trying to get out. The noise grows louder. He tries to block his ears, but it doesn't help. The noise isn't in his ears, it's in his head. Something wet trickles down the side of his neck. He touches it and his fingertips are wet with blood. His eyes, which had been struggling to maintain focus, suddenly lose.

The last thing he sees before blacking out is a multitude of beetles swarming out of the couch.

* * * * *

The house is quiet when he wakes up. The windows are open, his mask is off, and the air is clean and free of all traces of poison. The only sound he can hear is the high-pitched tweeting of birds outside. He sits up. The carpet where is face had been is splotched with blood. He licks his lips. His nose had been bleeding. His mask is a few feet away, and it's completely thrashed. It's a nearly-unrecognizable shredded lump and the only reason he knows it's his mask is because of the color and material. It looks like it had been run over with a lawn mower.

A quiet, yet constant, pain draws attention to itself. His arms hurt. As do his legs. And face. And neck, and hands, and everything else that can possibly hurt. He pushes up his sleeves and sees that his arms are covered in red welts. Swollen bug bites. Most are bleeding. All hurt now and will itch later. He gets to his feet and checks himself in the bathroom mirror.

His face is covered in welts, except for the area around his eyes, which gives the impression that he is some kind of swollen, blistering, bleeding creature wearing a raccoon-mask of clean skin. Quick inspection reveals that his neck, chest, shoulders, and legs are also covered in the bites.

He scrubs himself off and then goes to the medicine cabinet in the kitchen where all the vitamin supplements are, hoping to find a first aid kit, or itch-relief, or scar preventative or something. The remains of the bug bombs, all three of them, are in the middle of the kitchen linoleum. Like the mask, they have been torn to shreds. Unlike the mask, they are made of metal.

They can chew through metal he thinks.

His stomach churns.

They can chew through you.

But they didn't. He looks at the welts on his arm and feels his skin burn.

The message becomes painfully clear: don't try that again.

* * * * *

For the next few days, nothing happens.

He has stopped sleeping at home. He tried to sleep at the park, but kept waking up in his room, or on his front yard. When he tried checking into a hotel, the same thing happened. He doesn't know how he gets back home, but assumes he's sleepwalking. Even when, over the weekend, he bussed two cities away and tried to stay at a motel there, and still woke up in his bed, he tells himself he sleepwalked back.

He hopes he's sleepwalking. If he's not sleepwalking, then it means that something else is bringing him home, and that is a prospect he really doesn't want to consider. So he tells himself that he's been sleepwalking.

In any case, he's found that the only place where he can fall asleep and wake up in the same place is the car, so long as the car is parked in the driveway. So every evening, he bundles up some blankets, takes them out to the car, and sleeps fitfully in the back seat. Then in the mornings, he takes the blankets back inside, gets ready for work, and leaves the house.

The beetles have not interfered.

* * * * *

On Monday of the second week, after a particularly long interrogation session (not with Randall. He has not seen Randall since that day with Andrews, which is fine by him) and a poor night's sleep (a combination of nightmares and neighborhood car alarms kept waking him up), he goes inside the house, turns on the radio, and accidentally falls asleep at the kitchen table during dinner.

He wakes to the sound of glass shattering, and for one addled moment, he thinks it's him, that he is the one fragmenting apart and splitting into thousands upon thousands of brutal shards, being scattered across a sterile metal floor. And the feeling is familiar.

But the thought is gone in seconds and he is up and running and by the time he makes it into the living room, he's completely forgotten the thought, the feeling, and the dream that must have triggered it.

There is a man in the living room. He is bulky and wears a black sweatshirt and black jeans and although he wears no mask, his face is hard to see, as though blurred by a personal censor bar. The window on the front door is broken; he'd apparently smashed through the glass with thickly-gloved hands and unlocked it from the inside.

"Who are you?" says the man with the terrible eyes.

"I'm your new best friend," says the intruder. Although his face is unseeable, he still gives off the impression of a smile. A mean smile. A smile born out of watching someone else fall down stairs, or hitting a squirrel with a car. "Get your pants on," he says. "We're going for a ride."

"What do you want?"

"It's not what I want. Some friends of mine would like to meet you, and I'd guess you'd want to make yourself presentable first."

"I'm not going anywhere." He tries to glare at the intruder, but he cannot see the man's eyes. Looking at his face doesn't seem to have any effect. For the first time, he finds himself unable to frighten someone he wants to be frightened, and a bubble of unfamiliar panic rises in his chest.

"Yes, you are," the intruder says. "Either you can go the polite way or I can get mean, but either way, you're coming." The man unloops an odd looking device from his belt, and it takes a moment to register that it is a taser.

He runs, trying to get to the phone hanging up in the kitchen. There is a sensation of all-consuming pain, the smell of burned flesh, and then darkness that doesn't last long, but disorients him. When his eyes un-cross, he's in the middle of the living room, being half-dragged, half-carried out of the house by the intruder, who has his feet.

It hurts to do more than breathe, but he wheezes out a weak, "No. . ." And feebly shakes his head side to side- the closest he can come to flailing.

The couch throbs. He's not sure if it's just his eyes playing tricks on him, or if it's really happening.

"Shut up," the intruder says. "Don't be such a- ow!"

The intruder stops and drops him heavily onto the floor. "Son of a bitch," the intruder says. "Something bit me." He shakes his hand, and a small black beetle falls onto the floor. The intruder swears and steps on it with his big, black, boots. It leaves a red smear on the carpet.

"Oh no," the man with the terrible eyes squeaks. He struggles to sit up and, failing that, he tries to crawl away.

"Hey, where'd you think you're going?" The intruder grabs his arm. "Don't- the hell?"

Bugs are crawling over the man's boots. They skitter up his legs. He lets go and curses.

"What the hell?" The intruder shouts. More and more bugs appear from under the sofa. "What the fuck?" he screams.

Within seconds, the intruder is covered entirely with beetles. No skin or clothing can be seen through the writhing swarm, and he screams. There is no sound, but he must be screaming, because there is the shape of his mouth being open. Beetles crawl into his mouth, and around his mouth, and the only noise that can be heard is the incessant clicking of their feet and the rattling of their shells as they scrape past one another.

The man with terrible eyes watches in horror as the combination of man and bug slowly loses its definition. The head is no longer obviously a head, just a top. The arms are no longer arms, but shallow lumps protruding from the sides of an even greater lump. Then even those are gone, and it is nothing but a slowly shrinking pile of beetles. Then from pile into mound, until the beetles are all on the floor, and there is no trace of the intruder.

He is not breathing. He doesn't realize he is not breathing until he nearly chokes. He coughs, and the beetles swarm over him.

Like the intruder, he screams. Unlike the intruder, the beetles do not enter his mouth, and stay away from his nose. It is just like the dream, only this time there is no pain: they aren't biting him. He swipes them away, trying to get them off his face and arms and everywhere else. The ones he gets fall across the floor, and stay obediently away from him. He doesn't notice this at first.

At first, he is screaming and swatting and shaking them off his head and out of his hair. When it finally registers that they aren't eating him, he continues to swat and swipe and shake, but he doesn't scream quite so much. Then, when they are all off him, he notices that they are all sitting, all staring at him. He cannot see their eyes- if they have eyes- but he knows they are watching him. They do not move. For a long moment, the only sound in the room is his heavy breathing.

"What?" he croaks eventually, voice hoarse from the yelling. "What do you want?"

The beetles swarm forward. He yells and backs away, kicking until his back is against the wall. "Stay back!"

They stop. Again, the room fills with silence and heavy breathing.

"You understand me?"

The insects do not answer.

"You sorta understand me?"

There is no reply.

"Are you going to kill me?"

The beetles say nothing.

He brings his knees up under his chin, wraps his arms around his legs, and tries not to scream.

"Go into the hole," he croaks. "The one in the back yard. Go there and don't come out."

The beetles pointedly ignore him. He points to the sofa. "Then go back under there and don't come out."

There is a flurry of movement as the entire horde- several thousand beetles at least- hurry under the sofa. He watches, amazed, as they pour themselves under the cushions like clowns entering a car. There should not be enough room for them- there isn't enough room for them, but they all fit and soon he is left relatively alone.

The silence is deafening. He knows they're still there, but they make no noise.

"Fine," he says, getting to his feet. The pills are still in the kitchen. He takes two and then goes to his bedroom. He throws himself onto the mattress and is asleep in seconds.

He was getting really sick of sleeping in the car.

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