He has to drink. They watch as he accepts, as brother smiles. All fraternal sweetness, conciliation. No more war, no more bad blood. He has to drink. The eyes demand it, the desperate, silent screams. Though he knows what worms will be born in his belly, what eaten-hollow thing will walk away from here, if he does.
They don't see, for all their urgency, their idiot, aching need for things to be whole and pure:
There is no undoing what's passed between them, the wounds they've done one another beyond scarring, let alone healing. Wounds with words, for the most part: vile, venomous things slurred at christenings and funerals, behind one another's backs, to whoever will listen.
This last attempt to synthetically sew them together the most blatant, the most pathetic. As though it matters, given what's happening out there, in the world.
He even dared hope there might be some small commonality in that: the pair of them reluctantly united by their incredulity, the sheer disbelief that the zoo they call "family" could be so concerned by what doesn't matter, what never has.
But no, he saw the moment he arrived: the mask Frankie wears, the part he plays, though it must feel like a costume woven from living spiders, a thing of splinters. Smiles and embraces, words whose synthetic sweetness is carcinogenic. He sees the game; an old one, in many respects, that Roger is a past master at: a play of innocence, of regret, for the peanut gallery: Mom and Dad, Aunt Trish and Uncle Warren. The niece and nephew who are now young adults, hair and clothes somehow too plastic-pristine, eyes glassy: those of psychotic dolls.
Of course. Weary the moment he steps through the front door; weary and weak. The last battlefield, where the corpses of the murdered lost have long since dissolved, where their ghosts echo so distantly, fading, fading with every passing year.
Those old wars: vicious, violent, even in childhood: perhaps even moreso, for their lack of restraint, their inability -and unwillingness- to hide mutual contempt. The only time he remembers bloodying another, being bloodied in his turn, that he remembers feeling hate so profound, it bubbled up inside, washing his bones and organs black, threatening to spill out of him, bursting him like some septic boil.
It has changed since then; congealed, calcified, become something harder and more sepulchral. Hate as a living fossil, a form of cancer, that will never be excised, can never be cured.
Only through absence, abandonment. They all know it; blame him for daring to leave them, forgetting them, making a life for himself beyond the tribe. He sees it on every face, as they urge him to smile, to accept the lie of brotherly love, the frothing, fizzing vessel.
Don't they know? Can't they see? He wants to scream at them through his smile, to shatter it and the masks they all wear, to rip them naked and show them the wounded, screaming truth of themselves.
Frankie smiles, as sincere as a prosperity minister begging his flock to empty their wallets. They love him, always have; love him for staying, for looking after Mom and Dad, for maintaining the garden and house when they couldn't.
For simply existing, whereas Jason. . .Jason's a ghost, a trespasser in the temple, who brings heathen word of a world they've never believed themselves part of, that they've never wanted to know.
Haven't you seen what's happening out there? Don't you know? He could scream it into their faces, scream until he's hoarse and breathing blood. They won't care; the state of humanity and the world beyond their borders of less concern than Christmas cards and token phone calls.
They know, of course: they must've seen for themselves. Those the worms have claimed.
He's seen them, writhing in red and bruise-purple knots from grass and brick and concrete, clumped together in trees and branches, worming their ways up from cracks in the road and pavement, swaying like undersea creatures, in some strange currents that only they can detect. Knotting, twining together, the music they make a migraine-hymn.
He was lucky: at home the first day, away from the main areas of outbreak. No one able to determine how and why; where they came from, why they proliferated so suddenly, why some areas were spared whereas others. . . From what he's read on the internet, the fragmentary photographs and video footage he's seen, some places are still totally cordoned off, the military brought in to make sure no breaches occur. A few days ago, a fifteen year old and his girlfriend were shot somewhere outside of Burton. Yesterday, a Mother was mowed down in front of three children on the edge of Hartlipool.
No terror, no rising swell of panic: if anything, a dreaming distance, everything slightly unreal, a dream of a dream of a nightmare. He remebers feeling this way on 9/11, watching the towers fall on TV, when Princess Diana died, when the Prime Minister was knifed to death on live TV last year. Nothing real, nothing he might see firsthand or touch or taste. A play of tragedy, a confection as ludicrous as any pantomime. Part of him still believes none of it, that any world that might allow it and the million other atrocities that TV and radio and internet insist on would be too sick to survive this long.
The worms. Accounts on every news station, on myriad YouTube channels and live-streams: people finding them everywhere, waking to houses festooned with them, their pets and children smothered by them. Others not waking at all; the infestations claiming them before they can so much as stir. Entire towns and villages subsumed in a single night, the creatures emerging in such density, they cover land and houses, choke roads and rivers, smother entire counties in their undulating mass.
But they don't care. It's a problem that will be solved, eventually. Like homelessness or the floundering economy, rising temperatures and sea levels: someone else's business, the purview of better, smarter people.
All they care about is that he drinks, that he smiles, that he kisses them goodbye and promises he'll call in a day or two.
They've seen. They don't believe it, but they've seen: what happens to the ones the worms infest. Everyone has; impossible to avoid it, camera-phone footage on every news broadcast, flooding the internet: people screaming, seeping, people that are all bruises and black, blistering flesh. People that aren't people anymore, by any meaningful definition: hunched, hissing, sloughing things, matter trailing from them, their bodies bursting with every step. Inside? More of the worms, their bodies made incubators for the vile things. The aspiring film-makers cursing, running, as they realise their jeopardy. Some making it, some not, the phones flying from their hands, as things they might have once known as neighbours, as family, bear them down, gibbering and gasping, pressing malformed mouths to their victim's own, more fervent than lust-maddened lovers.
The worst footage he's seen the most intimate: shakey, grainy images of the same, parasitic process: the infected seeking out family members, spouses; anyone and anything that might make a viable host for their beloved disease. The intimacies that follow more vile than any rape, even more intrusive in their violations: biting or tearing apertures where lover's lips refuse them, ripping open faces and bellies and writhing backs. The braver documentarians seeking out places cordoned off by the government or military, sneaking past sentries and through hastily erected wire fences, recording every step of their trespass. How the worms became public knowledge, how the denials of newspapers and television were exposed as the most repugnant propaganda:
Footage of places not only infested with the worms, but by what they made of their hosts: black, swollen, shambling things, that look like bags of rotten meat, tumorous masses with withered, sore-pocked legs, some of them dragging themselves across the ground by ravaged hands and fingers, others writhing in emulation of the parasites that squirm from their mouths, their eye-sockets.
The worst, the very worst he's seen, not the myriad testimonies of atrocity and forced infection (though some of them have been so vile as to make him nauseous) but those of the strange communions between the diseased: images of the infected gathered together around heaped piles of their infested kin, those that haven't survived the process, their bodies surrendering, hearts giving out, minds dissolving, before the worms might make something more meaningful of them. The recorders gagging at the sight, some openly vomiting, unable to contain themselves. Around the heaped high piles of infested, human offal, circles of the infected still-living, their delirious swaying in time with some silent music, the same that the worms themselves dance to, seeming to rejoice in.
The footage soon becoming illegal to view; people purportedly arrested, teenagers and housewives and children, entire families dragged away for the crime. No reportage of such via TV or newspapers: footage existing on-line, uploaded surreptitiously, not to mainstream venues, most of which have revised ther policies to designate such material as "obscene." Instead, to murkier depths and recesses of the internet, places where it might be disseminated, becoming like an infection in and of itself: viewed and viewed and viewed again, by those curious and perverse enough to seek it out.
And yes, he numbers himself amongst them, seeking out new uploads when he comes home from work (the place a madhouse with so many absentees, so much work to do. The last couple of weeks back-breaking, soul-crushing), promising himself that this will be the last session, the last and last, insisting that he's already pushed his luck too far, that he'll wake to find himself dragged from bed, handcuffed and blind-folded before long, shepherded to whatever undocumented sites the powers-that-be have prepared for his over-curious ilk.
So what? A part of him still hopes, still believes in the smiling lies of tabloids and TV: that the situation will be sorted, that the powers-that-be know how to handle it. Tomorrow, he'll wake to a world purged of such sickness, humanity already beginning to smile and forget, commenting over its coffee at the craziness of it all.
And, perhaps, in five years, maybe ten, it'll be nothing but a story, somethingt that kids read about in history books before snorting laughter, moving on.
But the rest . . . the wiser part of him, knows far better: there'll be no morning after, no hung-over oaths of never again. No neurotic denials. This is the end. Of everything. There've already been fragmentary reports of the worms outside of the cordoned areas, in other countries. For all he or anyone knows, they could be everywhere by now, waiting to stir, for whatever unspoken call or genetic imperative roused their siblings.
Only a matter of time.
But they . . . they don't care. Won't speak about it, save to tut and sigh over the TV of a morning before they head out into the back garden to dig and weed and smoke, before they shamble off to the paper shop, groaning at the splinters in their joints, the stories splashed across the front pages. More lies, purchased, home-made. The latter always the very best.
All they care about is this: the smiles, the play of reconciliation. After this, it won't matter if he and Frankie don't see one another for a year or more, a decade. Lies of texts and telephone calls will suffice, at least until the next summons, the next desperate intervention.
Even if they know it's all a play, a pantomime for their benefit.
He can't deny the pressure of their eyes, their quiet desperation, though he knows what the bastard's done, what froths and ripples in the mug he holds. Were there some hope, some promise of tomorrow he believed, perhaps it would be easier, perhaps he could work up the breath or passion to sustain himself in spite of them.
As it is, he shudders, gags as the first mouthful of bitter, lukewarm liquid flows down his throat, almost spits it over his brother's hyena-grinning face, laughing as the worms seek out his eyes, his open and screaming mouth.
He swallows, living strings writhing in his gullet, already multiplying, anchoring themselves to his flesh, which is their flesh, now, perhaps even moreso.
He'll stay here tonight, in his old room. Lie awake, feeling them knot and swell and chew. Maybe it'll hurt. Maybe he'll have some of the dreams he used to experience in that bed as a boy or teenager. It doesn't matter. By tomorrow, there'll be no dreams save what worms proscribe, what they weave through the warping, tumescent meat of his mind.
Dreams he'l no longer be afraid of sharing.
George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.