This story is by Brigitte Kelle and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Helen put the phone down and picked up her battered brown handbag. Credit card, Medicare card, mobile, tobacco – that would have to do. She was in a panic.
Five minutes till the bus comes. I can’t miss it. I’m in the shit this time.
This was her third bout of Dengue fever, and it had been tracking as expected when she first contacted the hospital. Fever, migraine, aching limbs. Breakbone fever they called it locally, the pain was no joke. But now there was this damned itch. It felt as if a tiny bug had started wriggling beneath her skin at the back of her neck. Her fingers had prodded and kneaded every millimetre of skin and she’d bent herself in half trying to see it in her bathroom mirror. Nothing. That was when she’d checked the bus timetable and called the hospital again. Told them she’d be down that day.
Helen had heard that hallucinations crept up on you the more you fell to the fever. The subtle reality of it frightened her. I do not want to be hallucinating out here on my own. I’d prefer a bug. Something real they can pull out, give me an antibiotic and send me home.
She lived alone in a converted shipping container high up on the cool Tablelands of Queensland. Dwellings were few and far between. The nearest tropical diseases hospital was below on the coast. Just one road led down the mountain, twisting uncertainly through dark tropical rainforest.
As she stepped under the dirty plastic roof of the bus shelter, she pushed her thumb and fingers into her closed eyes. No relief. The gouging pain simply pushed back. The afternoon rain started. The sound was uncomfortably loud in the shelter and the reduced visibility made her uneasy. Jesus I’m jumpy. She shouted with fear as two fast moving yellow eyes rose out of the rain, a dark mass threatening behind, but quickly realised it was the bus pulling in. She found a seat near the driver and sat rigid, eyes closed, breathing steadily.
In. Out. On the way to the hospital now. In. Out.
She scratched at her neck absentmindedly and felt the heat increase. Why is there never any aircon on Tableland buses? Most of the windows were open and the only difference this made to the airless humidity inside was to make the seats wet. None of the handful of passengers complained. The cool rainwater helped dilute the heavy heat.
Opening her eyes, she watched the tropical downpour blur the rainforest into a dark wall following every twist of road. The bus began to swerve alarmingly and Helen looked up in time to register the front windscreen tipping to the left. She slid rapidly from her seat, unable to check her speed, and shattered her cheek on the opposite chair rung. The crash was loud and clumsy. Helen heard a scream. The worst part was the snipping at her neck Not now, oh help!
Helen gradually opened her eyes. It was difficult to see. Night came in fast here – black like a pillow pressed into your face. The thick rainforest canopy held back the main force of the rain but it pushed relentlessly through, filtering painful wet pinpricks onto Helens broken cheek, rousing her.
She began to open her mouth to call for help but clamped her hands over it instead, mumbling in awful pain. Her fingers touched a hard hot mound that was the left side of her face.
She stood up carefully and turned full circle. She couldn’t hear any other sound through the wet. As she felt her way around the outside of the broken bus frame she stumbled over a body. How much time has passed? She kneeled down to find a pulse. She realised she couldn’t tell if her fingers were slipping on rain or blood. Her eyes had adjusted slightly and she could see the shape of a man. She didn’t remember seeing him on the bus but she hadn’t been looking then. The man’s eyes and mouth abruptly opened and a high wail came from both. Helen fell back in surprise and then mewled in fear through her clenched broken teeth as feelers poked out from the man’s mouth and an enormous insect began to haul itself out. Its eyes were like high beam prey finders, which waved back and forth momentarily and then fixed onto Helen. She almost vomited in shocked terror and in a pure survival reflex picked up a large stone and smashed it into the creature, four, five times. The last time she lifted the rock it was gone. She stared at the shiny black pulp underneath, a few teeth visible. Where is it? She rammed her fingers into the ruined face but felt only flesh, bone.
Water cracked behind her. She spun and stood quickly. A person stood before her, eyes and mouth opening. She heard the high wail again, feelers beginning to poke from the mouth and she hurled the stone into it. Staggering as she fumbled in the scrub looking for another weapon, the high pitched wailing struck up close to her face. She balled her fists and went at the creature hard, terror fuelling her assault and smashing the insidious centipede into lifeless fragments.
“Are you OK?” Helen shook the person as she stared at the carnage on the forest floor, but they seemed unable to respond. “Are you OK? What the hell is this?”
Helen stood back, holding the person at arm’s length. Her hands ached horribly. Slowly she registered what she held. A tree? A great yellow mahogany. Even in the darkness she could see where she had hit, where her skin had split and bled.
Helen staggered back to the bus and the dark shadow prone on the ground. The broken face. She desperately looked for signs of life. Dead. She couldn’t remember if he had been dead before. I did this. Her mind began to prickle with horrified disbelief. I did it. I killed this person. Did I?
She froze as she realised she was violently scratching the back of her neck. There’s something running around under there. No. There’s not, no there’s not. Oh God.
Red and blue light began to flicker across the crash scene.
Helen wrenched her jaws open and choked, “Help!”.
Agony blasted her neck and her ears vibrated an alien wail.
She clawed at her wide open mouth with horror as two long feelers began to emerge from the opening.
It’s not real. It’s impossible.
Helen gagged as the creature kept hauling itself out, grotesque and petrifying.
Red and blue flickered again. She collapsed to the ground and began to crawl towards the lights, the creature dangling from her mouth.
It’s not real. It can’t be real.
She emerged from the streaming undergrowth, suffocating.
Across the road from her, a team of local Police were huddled together. News of a mutilated body found at the crash site, had just been radioed in and they were hurriedly gearing up, donning bulletproof vests, checking firearms.
Guns. Oh thank Christ.
Helen began heaving towards them. The beast erupted from her mouth.
“Kill it! Kill it!” she tried to scream but the sound that came from her mouth was a loud wailing.
The Police reacted quickly to the noise and moved warily towards her as one unit, weapons drawn. To Helen’s corrupted mind, their tactical armour and winking headlamps began to morph into a colossal arachnid. She watched in despair as the humans dissolved into legs and fangs, stalking across the slick bitumen. Her mind was all but lost to the hallucination.
Oh God. It’s not going to end.
The spider began running towards her. The guns are still there. Get a gun. Get a gun. Like a mantra, over and over.
The spider was upon her and Helen fought with the invincible strength of the insane. Far outside her terrible delusion the startled police found themselves amidst a free-for-all with a bleeding, screeching woman.
Get a gun. Get a gun.
In the pandemonium a gun was smashed across her broken cheek. In agonised fury she tore the gun away from its owner and turned it onto them. The spider retreated instantly. She stood alone, gun held high, bleeding and paranoid. The sound of a two-way radio calling for help barely reached her through the engulfing downpour.
Hysterical, she felt scratching under her eyelids. Pain tore her eyes. Oh God, they’re swarming in me. There was a quiet pop and soft warmth spilled over her cheek. Her eye was gone, a chitinous insect disgorging itself from the socket.
A scratching in her ears drowned out all other sound.
Helen racked the slide of the gun.
You have to get out of me. Now!
She pushed the gun deep into her eye where the bug was still swaying and pulled the trigger.