“I believe it necessary for this young man to witness firsthand the suffering of others,” said the judge sentencing Ethan Nguyen to community service in the cancer ward. His sudden ability to see the cancer around him in the form of monstrous insects, however, was far more than he or the judge intended or expected. Join Ethan on his nightmare descent into disease and discovery in this story inspired by “Caterpillars” by E.F. Benson.
About 10,500 words long
99 cents on all platforms
Release date August 4, 2015
Read an excerpt of the story below. (The “try a sample” function on Amazon other platforms cuts off before the story actually starts due to length and formatting for some titles. Plus, the samples here at Barrow City are carefully selected, not necessarily always the beginning of the story–and they’re usually longer, too!)
a Barrow City story
“Want anything to read?” Ethan asked, parking the cart just inside the door.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “What have you got on that wagon?”
“A little of everything,” Ethan said.
“You got any Reader’s Digest on there?”
He located one, took it from the cart, and approached Mrs. Brown’s bedside. He started to hand it to her, but jumped back and let go just before she got a hold of it. He bent to pick it back up, sure that he’d imagined the thing he’d seen. Shaking his head as though to clear it, he stood back up with the magazine. “Sorry about that, Mrs.—”
He froze, wide eyed.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. She seemed completely oblivious to the huge bug that had just crawled out from under her covers.
How can she not see that? Ethan wondered. It was about four inches long, and the yellowish-green color of a particularly unhealthy glob of snot. There were ugly, irregular bumps all over its wriggling body. It looked more like a like a caterpillar than anything else, but instead of the spindly, insectile legs of a caterpillar, this thing had crablike pincers along its disgusting body.
The pincers bit into Mrs. Brown’s skin with every multilegged step. They drew no blood that Ethan could see, but they dug right through the thin fabric of her hospital gown and appeared to be sinking deep into the flesh beneath.
She looked down to where he was staring, right at the bizarre insect. “What?” she asked again, sounding confused.
Deciding that he must be hallucinating from the weed, Ethan stammered “Nothing, sorry.” He handed Mrs. Brown her Reader’s Digest and turned, walked hard into the cart, recovered, then pushed it out into the hall.
Ethan entered the next room, his hand shaking so much that he had difficulty grasping the knob to turn it.
“Hey,” the man in the front bed said, looking up from the book in his lap. He looked only a few years older than Ethan.
“Hi,” Ethan said. “I’ve got the book cart. You need anything new?”
“Oh, no,” said the man. “Thanks. I’ve got a ways to go in this one yet, and I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“OK,” Ethan said.
“He might want something, though,” he suggested, gesturing to the other bed.
The person in the bed was sleeping, the blankets pulled high. He was so thin and frail that it was difficult to discern a body under the covers at all.
“I think he has a magazine over there that he’s done with,” the man in the front bed went on. “Maybe you can see what it is and switch it out for another issue of the same?”
Ethan nodded at the suggestion, not knowing a tactful way to argue with it. He crossed the room, which felt like it grew hotter and stuffier the closer he got to the sleeping patient. Once he reached the bed, he looked on the nightstand for the magazine in question, but there was nothing there but a plastic pitcher, a cup, and one of those curved dishes for puking in.
He was about to walk back to the cart and leave when he noticed the corners of several glossy pages poking out from under the blanket; the patient must have fallen asleep while reading. He glanced over, and saw that the other man was watching, could see that he’d found the magazine. He couldn’t ignore it now.
He looked at the face on the bed in front of him. Wisps of grey hair fell across a blemished and pockmarked scalp. The man’s eyes were closed, darting back and forth under his lids, dreaming. There was just enough of one skinny shoulder visible above the blanket to tell Ethan the man’s hospital gown had either slipped partway off or was absent all together.
Ethan reached towards the magazine, hoping to retrieve it without touching the old man’s skin. He pinched the protruding corner of the pages between two fingers and pulled, but it wouldn’t budge. He tried not to think about the glossy paper sticking to the man’s clammy bare chest.
Knowing he had no other choice, Ethan moved his fingertip-hold from the magazine to the thin blue thermal blanket and pulled it down to where he approximated the bottom edge of the magazine would be. He then repeated the gesture with the beige blanket underneath the blue one. At last, there was just a white sheet between him and the magazine which, loathsome as the thing was to him, was his ticket the hell out of the room.
He yanked the sheet back and, to his horror, saw at least a dozen of the same caterpillars he’d seen on Mrs. Brown, swarming up and down the man’s right side and across to the middle of his bony chest. They were all at least twice the size of the one that had been crawling on Mrs. Brown, some close to a foot long.
Ethan jumped back and cried out, not picking up the magazine. He knew from his experience with Mrs. Brown, and from the fact that the guy in the other bed looked confused as to why the library boy had just jumped and shouted in terror, that nobody but he could see the vile creatures. He knew they were just hallucinations, but knowing this didn’t make him any more capable of picking up the magazine. He grabbed a random periodical from the cart without even looking at the title, threw it down on the bedside table, and all but ran from the room.
In the next room, both patients were crawling with the caterpillars; Mrs. Smith in the front bed had three of them crawling on her chest, and Miss Claridon, who was new on the ward, had one in her hair.
When he got to Mrs. Rock, he found her covered from head to toe. She chatted merrily from underneath them, oblivious, while small ones wriggled in and out of her nose and mouth.
At that point, Ethan left the cart where it sat, ran to the bathroom, and threw up.
He told Jen he was sick, and left for the day. He needed to get home and wait for the Majik Vision, or whatever it actually was, to get out of his system. Then he had to go find Eddie and kick his ass.