AND DROWN MELANCHOLY
by Scarlett R. Algee
The headache has lasted nineteen days.
Nineteen days. Charlotte can count every one of them. It had started the day after she’d spiked her Coke a little too vigorously and stumbled into the pond at the company picnic: an insidious little pressure behind her eyes and above her upper teeth. Sinuses, she’d thought, the consequence of snorting out a noseful of stinking, muddy water. It had taken two days to get the gritty feeling out of her mouth and the eye-watering bouquet of algae and catfish out of her nasal cavities.
By then, she’d realized it wasn’t her sinuses.
Migraine. That’s been the consensus, over the last seventeen days, of two general practitioners and a neurologist. Charlotte’s inclined to agree with them; she doesn’t have the throat-quivering nausea, not yet, but the auras are there, little flecks and zags of color that flit in and out of the edges of her vision like UFOs, eluding her most concentrated efforts to focus on them, jiggling and dancing with every throb between her temples. The pain’s there too, rasping at the backs of her eyeballs, thrumming between her teeth, jackhammering the inside of her skull so hard she expects to blow out bone dust with every breath. The doctors’ solutions had been bed rest, Tylenol, and time; Charlotte’s boss had watched her zombie-shuffle into work, glazed and tight-jawed, right up until yesterday and had suggested a week off instead. That suits Charlotte fine: it lets her sit home in constant dark and slug down the pain with booze and the oxycodone left over from last year’s dental surgery. Not the wisest combination, she knows, but it’s the only thing yet that’s even taken the edge off.
Charlotte lolls in her overstuffed recliner, her third extra-tall double-strength rum and Coke close at hand, waiting for the pill she’d sucked down to kick in. The late-night news program is the only thing she’s found that isn’t too bright or too loud; she’s got the volume low, just enough to pick up, to occupy the one sliver of her brain that isn’t threatening to explode from her ears. Even now, at midnight, with all the blinds closed and all the lights off, she can only squint in agony at the screen for a second before giving up and closing her eyes.
“Now for an update. Medical researchers believe they may have found a parasite responsible for the nation’s recent outbreak of drowning deaths. Some of the footage you’re about to see may be disturbing to some viewers.”
Charlotte slits one puffy eye open, then the other. The news anchor is a bottle blonde with a weary gaze, and her voice has pitched up with urgency. Nearly two hundred people have drowned across the country in a month, all of them seemingly accidents, all baffling. There’d been talk about it at the office three weeks ago, when the number had been a few dozen, rumors and jokes about some secret cult urging its members to suicide in pools and bathtubs; she’d even had a few barbs thrown her own way after the pond incident, suggesting she circle her backyard pool with a padlocked fence just in case God or aliens gave her the urge. The scene switches to a bearded bald man, Dr. Something-or-other, wearing a lab coat over his suit in a book-crammed office, and Charlotte tries to focus.
“Surgeons have extracted worms from the brains of some recent victims.” His voice is flat with practice, and the scene cuts away, to the shore of a lake. Somewhere in Tennessee, if Charlotte’s cramping brain reads the caption right. The voiceover continues: “The specimens haven’t yet been positively identified, but there are early signs that they may be a species closely related to Spinochordodes tellinii, a hairworm known to cause similar behavior in …”
Charlotte tunes him out. Her gaze is on the scene, eyes open wide now: a man in a green T-shirt and purple shorts lies leaking on the ground, recently dredged up, circled by emergency personnel. His face is a smeared slate blur, the concealing effect growing into a pixelated muddle of bruise tints as the camera zooms in; but the blur doesn’t cover the sand, caked like packed brown sugar in his sodden blond hair, or the blackish trail of lumpy blood that has drooled from his left ear. Charlotte stares, momentarily fascinated, as the blood continues to ooze.
“…not yet sure how this animal has evolved to infect humans, or how infestation begins. However, reports from victims’ family members suggests symptoms …”
On the screen, someone is shaking out a white sheet over the drowned man’s body. The camera shifts away, but not before Charlotte catches sight of a military-style boot, so shiny it reflects the red crawl of the ambulance lights.
“… dizziness, stiffness, lack of coordination … behavioral changes in the presence of water …”
Between the boot and the body, partially obscured, is a long, thin creature that lies coiled in a heap: the unnamed parasitic worm, Charlotte supposes, though it’s like nothing she’s ever seen. No worm could be this slender, an overcooked strand of brown spaghettini sauced with blood and black flecks. It squirms visibly, and the sight makes her sore brain twinge in sympathy. A blue-gloved hand swoops into the scene, bundling the worm into a clear plastic bag. Charlotte’s eyes ache, her vision joggling momentarily. She blinks hard, seeing spots, and drinks off her rum and Coke.
She needs more Coke. Grimacing, Charlotte eases out of the recliner, leftover ice rattling in her glass as she sways. She starts jerkily toward the TV, then remembers she’ll need its light to grope her way round the kitchen–thank God for open floor plans when you’re too drunk to navigate properly.
At the refrigerator, dull warmth begins at the top of Charlotte’s head and paints its way down the inside of her skull. Her stomach does a little flip and her jaw relaxes; finally, finally, the oxycodone has made its appearance and she can forego the rum. She pours her soda with shaking hands, trying not to weep from sheer relief.
Back in her recliner, fresh drink at the ready and television still droning low, Charlotte falls asleep.
Charlotte awakens to three realizations.
The first is that there’s light seeping through the blinds, cool and grey as though the sun’s gone into hiding, and that the television screen is frozen in a garish striped test pattern. Both are still far too bright for her liking, and she scowls as her eyelids snap immediately into the squint she’s worn for nearly three weeks. The second is that opening her eyes has roused the pain again, a more frenetic throb than last night, one that vibrates her eardrums and crackles along her jawbone under her teeth; reflexively, she grinds her molars.
The third is that she’s madly thirsty.
Charlotte fumbles for the glass of Coke she’d poured up earlier. The tumbler slips through her fingers and she snatches at it, but it thuds on the floor. She sits up, groaning at the stiffness in her neck, and looks over the side of the recliner; the heavy glass is intact, but there’s nothing on the carpet beneath it, not a spill, not a droplet, not a fragment of melting ice. She hadn’t even sipped at it before she’d fallen asleep, she’s mostly positive of that. Now it’s empty and she doesn’t remember drinking it.
“God.” The word comes out thick, and Charlotte gingerly rubs her hands over her face, wincing when she gently prods her eyelids. Her tongue feels glued to the roof of her mouth, prying loose only with effort, slipping over the foul sour-sweetness coating her teeth. Suddenly her thirst is a knot in her gut, twisting and raw. Water. She needs water.
Charlotte gets to her feet clumsily, nearly pitching to the floor as she gropes to pick up her glass. Getting the tumbler in one hand, and holding the back of her head with the other, she totters into the kitchen, away from the rainbow stare of the TV. In the dimness she scrabbles for the tap and swallows saliva. The aura’s not elusive now; it streaks her vision, bloody red and dazzling.
Water. Cold. It slops over her hand as she wrestles the glass under the faucet. Her brain squirms in her skull, a live thing all its own, a pulsating mess of knife-edge pain. She drinks with her eyes closed, and the red streaks elongate and snap, turning white, becoming stars that cast off sparks with every swallow. She fills and empties the glass six times, only stopping when her stomach threatens to rebel, but it’s not enough.
It’s not enough. Her brain is on fire; she can feel the fever slithering through its shell of protective membranes. Her tongue is a swollen sponge, her throat a desert, her skin a withered root aching for moisture. She drops the glass into the sink. More. She needs more.
Charlotte lurches toward the sliding doors that open into her backyard. There’s a fence–isn’t there a fence? No, that was a joke, a joke. She works the lock with graceless hands, frustration welling from her arid throat in a croaking wail, until the door bursts open and she collapses onto the lawn.
Dazed, she lies there a second; it’s barely daylight and the grey is comfortable. But the grass is wet and her tormented nerves shriek, waterwaterwater. Charlotte drags herself upright, takes three steps toward the pool and falls again, her vision swarming with whirling sparks, pressure building in her skull as though her brain’s begging to be let out. A swim. That’s all she needs. Just a swim, and she’ll feel better.
Weeping, blinded, she begins to crawl.
© Scarlett R. Algee, 2015, 2020