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As aesthetically satisfying as it felt to sit in his windowseat with a heavy book in his lap, his cigarette smoke being pulled out into the night on the breeze, moonlight washing one half of the page, the yellow of his lamp the other side, Jon was finding himself close to admitting to he was just not getting Kant.

Usually he chewed slowly but steadily through books regardless of their difficulty, but this one was all seeds. Every single word was meaningful in a very particular but alien way. Perhaps a German way? It was exhausting.

It was, so close to the day he was meant to leave for school, frightening.

He took a last drag, looking upward like someone having deep thoughts--deep comprehending thoughts--then blew out his smoke, and ground out the cigarette on the brick of the outside wall.

He stood, swinging his arms, and twisting out the tension in his lower back.

Jon was not going to read the Cliff's Notes on A Critique of Pure Reason. He just wasn't. That would be more embarrassing than just admitting he'd never read it. If someone wanted to talk to him about Kant, he could be sort of vague and arch about it-- Oh, people still read Kant?--or maybe just humble himself and let the other person explain it. No one was going to make fun of him for not having read Kant, right?

He took the book to the floor, laying on his back with his feet against the wall, as if concentrating his blood in the upper half of his body would help him think. It didn't.

To bed, then. At least he was tired enough by this time not to care he wasn't understanding the text, and pages finally started to turn under his fingers. His eyes began to droop. The book drooped too, falling open on his stomach. He had just enough energy to reach over and fumble the light off.

The moonlight was so bright, he could have kept reading. If Gran had given him the second floor room back when he'd come to live with her, he could have read on after lights out and consumed so many more books over his lifetime. Everything would be different now, Jon thought drowsily. He'd understand transcendental idealism.

Maybe he could style himself as a Socratic fake idiot type on campus, whose fake idiocy lured the smug into confronting the emptiness of their own knowledge. He'd smile mysteriously and nod as their foundations crumbled beneath them, and their eyes would widen in awe. Everyone would be too off-balance to suspect he was actually a real idiot.

Jon floated in the cool cone of moonlight coming in the window, thoughts breaking apart and reforming into odd shapes. When a hand reached upward to fasten itself to the outside of the window, he decided he was having a dream.

It was a creepy image, he thought, as a second hand joined the first with a faint, moist slap, but he was lucid enough to decide he wouldn't be frightened. It didn't have to become a nightmare. He waited to see what his mind would come up with next.

A third hand. Huh.

More followed. He watched as the arms bent, dragging first a head, and then a neck and torso into view, silhouetted against the night sky. The figure struggled with the window sash in an amusing way, trying to coordinate getting it open without detaching too many of its hands from the glass.

Eventually it figured things out and tumbled in through the open window and out of sight past the end of Jon's bed. Jon drifted on for a while, waiting for some other thread of thought to expand into a real dream. To his frustration, he was becoming more awake instead. He shifted, blinking, and opened his eyes fully, finally considering his open window.

The window he remembered closing after his last cigarette.

There was a dark shape at his bedside, something like a head and shoulders. Jon turned on the lamp. It was a head and shoulders. The boy, crouching at Jon's bedside, wearing the same red and white striped rugby shirt he'd worn the day he'd pushed Jon into the dirt and taken his book, smiled at him.

No raced along Jon's nerves. It was a scream like a train whistle and it was a piano dropping from a blue sky to flatten him. It was a dream. He had to be dreaming.

A hand covered Jon's mouth before he could scream. It tasted peppery and chemical against his numb lips.

"Shhh. We don't want to wake the old lady, do we?"

Jon tore at the boy's arm and a hand caught each wrist and forced them over his head. Three hands, total. Three! He tried to scream, and the hand muffling him pushed down harder, grinding his lips into his teeth, forcing him firmly back into his pillow. He couldn't help the blind panic that made him buck and thrash. He didn't want to die! He didn't deserve to die. Jon had been a child, half the boy's size, and the Spider had been a monster. Something that shouldn't exist, something that could do impossible things. Forget fighting it himself, he couldn't have even got the adults to believe--

But you never even tried, did you?

The boy slung a leg over Jon's body, pinning him to the bed, and it was over. He felt his strength trickle out of him like cold water, like his body had serenely accepted its death. The book hit the carpet with a muffled thud.

"That's right. Quiet down. You going to scream if I take my hand away?" the boy asked. "No you're not. You're much too clever for that, aren't you?"

Jon didn't know that he was that clever. He wasn't sure he'd be able to help himself. The boy considered Jon, reading the answer in his eyes. Another hand rose to Jon's forehead and smoothed back his hair in a parody of soothing. Jon convulsed as if he'd been shocked.

"Alright there, I'm not here to hurt you. You or granny." He experimentally lifted his hand from Jon's mouth. Jon licked his lips, grimacing at the peppery taste of the boy's hand lingering on his skin. The boy let one of Jon's hands loose so he could scrub at his mouth.

"H-how are you alive? What are you?" Jon managed at last. Though his voice was steady enough, there was no breath behind it.

“Still a rude little shit, I see. No 'How've you been, Roger? How's your mum, Roger?'"

"This can't be real," he said uselessly. The boy's elbow was digging painfully, undeniably, into his ribs. Jon could have counted the pores in the streak of light the lamp painted on the bridge of his nose.

“Lots of things are real that shouldn’t be, Einstein. Me. Mr. Spider. He was realer than real.” The boy looked almost wistful for a moment.

“W-what did he…what did he do to you?”

“Not what you were hoping.” The boy’s smile turned mean.

"I wasn't- I didn't…I didn't know what would-" His voice sounded weak and insincere. Or maybe it was Roger's unimpressed eyes bearing down on him, forcing a deeper truth out of him. Jon had been horrified. But he’d also struggled to make himself feel sorry enough. Once the initial horror faded, once the boy’s mother had stopped coming around to whisper with Gran over the kitchen table and cry on her shoulder, it had been a relief to have Roger gone. There was no other way to describe it.

"Sorry," Jon finished, insufficiently. He cleared his throat and tried again. "I really am sorry, Roger." Maybe it would sound truer if he stuck to bald facts. "I can't begin to imagine-"

"Shut up." Roger's tone was more genial than his words. "I don't want your sorries. All I want is a little favor. We can call it even after that."

Jon licked his lips again. "How little?”

"Tiny. Nothing at all compared to my saving your skin."

A bubble of panic began wobbling upward from Jon's stomach. He didn't like the familiar mischief in Roger's eyes. "What sort of-"

Roger's mouth dipped to cover Jon's, many too many hands seizing him to clamp him to the bed, hold him still. A kiss. Roger's lips were cool and dry. Jon was frozen, breath stopped, thought stopped. He tasted that same peppery chemical from Roger's hands on his breath.

Then his mouth was suddenly full, cheeks bulging with foul, burning fluid. Roger's hands--some of his hands--were on his face, sealing his nose shut, sealing their mouths together. Jon's tongue wanted to retreat down the back of his throat to escape the burning bitterness. He felt the liquid suck up into his sinuses as he struggled, stinging his eyes. He bucked against Roger's weight, trying to scream, desperate to expell what was being forced into him. Jon's free arm thrashed, pushing at Roger's immovable face, groping beneath the pillow beside Jon's head, was caught by one of Roger's hands and forced back down.

Another hand closed around Jon's neck. Then Roger stroked downward firmly but gently, like Jon was a dog swallowing a worm pill. Against his will, Jon could feel his body relax. It was relax or choke. It was so hot--so much hotter than Roger's body felt atop his. Was it a chemical heat, like liquor? 

Another surge of fluid filled Jon's mouth and started to flow down his unresisting throat, and this one was something different. Salty, like sweat or worse. And thick. So thick it would clog his throat and he'd suffocate on it. Jon's eyes bulged in alarm.

Roger's hand continued to stroke his throat, patient and steady. He finally pulled his mouth away from Jon's, but another hand sealed over Jon's lips before he could expel any of the foul fluid. Jon's only hope was in working his free arm slowly, slowly loose of the grip Roger had on his sleeve. Beneath the pillow, reach for the cool, plastic handle he knew was there, and hope it hadn't shifted too far in his struggles…

"Go on, there. Take your medicine," Roger cooed down at him, "That's a good--"

Jon drove the carving knife into Roger's neck. It sank in with a noise like a plastic jug being stomped on.

Instantly, the hands holding Jon down released him. Roger arched backward, his eyes rolling back in his head. A long dry creak issued from his throat, making the handle of the knife tremble in Jon's hand as he followed Roger's roll forward, tensed and ready to stab again and again and-

But the other boy's eyes were greying, limbs--back to two arms--locking into crabbed-in curls, twitching uselessly. Roger was done. 

Twice-killed.

Jon tried to pull the knife free, but the sides of Roger's wound pinched the blade like a broken crab shell. He braced his free hand against Roger's neck, trying to touch as little of his skin as possible, to pry the blade out. It came with a scrape and a metallic squeal.

The blade was streaked with something gluey and cream-colored. Whatever it was Roger had been forcing down Jon's throat. A runner of it stretched between the blade and the bloodless crack in Roger's neck before sagging toward the coverlet in a swinging loop, then snapping. It looked like-

Jon knew what it was, despite trying very hard not to know what it was. He could feel it warm inside his stomach, gumming the back of his throat. He swallowed convulsively, then realized he shouldn't have. He should be trying to get it out of him.

Jon sat trembling for a moment, fingers so tight around the knife his knuckles were sore. Then, as if wound to the snapping point, his foot shot out, kicking Roger's body off the end of the bed. He should have landed with a substantial thump, even given the carpet, but his body clattered beneath his clothing when his body hit. Chitinously. 

Darting a look at Roger's…husk, Jon dashed for the door to his little attached bath. He bent over the toilet and tried pointlessly to vomit. Stress and disgust should have his stomach roiling, but the...the stuff sat too comfortably inside him, still warming him from the inside out. There was something troublingly snug-feeling about it. Cozy. A full breadbox.

Jon gargled mouthwash and tried not to think about whatever was going on inside his body. He stowed the knife beneath the sink. Put the fallen book neatly back on his bedside table. No, it didn't bear thinking about right now. He had the much greater problem of Roger's body to consider.

It sat curled in on itself on the bedroom floor where he'd left it. Jon knelt for a closer look at the wound he'd made. Hairline cracks extended from the hole, nearly meeting on the other side of Roger's neck. Jon had been closer than he'd realized to wrenching Roger's head from his shoulders when he'd pulled the knife free.

Jon imagined pushing his hands into the hole and forcing the crack wider until the head snapped off, then shuddered in disgust. No. Horrible. Horrible and unnecessary. It was dead. Completely still. There was no breath whistling through the hole.

Jon pulled a spare bedsheet from his closet, spread it on the floor, and tried to push the husk onto it. It was lighter than expected, rigid, and rolled right off the far edge of the sheet, hitting the wall with an avalanche of rattles. Jon bit his knuckle to hold back a wild laugh that would surely have woken his grandmother. 

After sweeping the carpet with spread fingers to make sure no little bits of Roger had snapped off, Jon lifted the sheet-wrapped body to lean on his hip. It was easier than he expected it to be. Roger was no larger than Jon and, curled as he was, was compact enough for to hold aloft with one arm. How had Roger even managed to pin him to the bed? So much for hysterical strength, he thought.

Though now that the struggle was already over, Jon had all the strength he could have wanted. He was so juiced with adrenaline, he was practically levitating. His heart was thrumming a precision engineered rhythm inside him. His fingers and toes tingled electrically.

Adrenaline, hmm? Just adrenaline?

Jon eased the bedroom door open, mindful of the creak, and left it cracked so he could negotiate the narrow staircase by the light of the lamp. He bundled a trailing edge of the sheet closer around the body so he wouldn't trip on it.

The way he was feeling was norm--well, not normal. Nothing about what was happening was normal--but it was, at least natural, wasn't it? He'd had a bug-monster that looked like his dead bully puke down his throat and he was about to sneak out in the dead of night and dispose of its body. If that wasn't enough to goose the limbic system, what was?

These primal responses were crude. A fist thrust blindly into the nervous wiring and yanked. There was nothing unnatural about

his dick standing stabbing-hard, sensitive head unsheathed, scribbling precum across the crotch of his pajamas

feeling some sort of…survival-excitement.

Jon put it out of his mind as he stepped down onto the first darkened stair, bracing himself to do what he had to do.

-The Next Morning-


The next morning, Jon woke feeling so perfectly normal, he had to check for the presence of the knife under his bathroom sink to reassure himself he hadn't dreamed the attack the previous night. It was still there. The goo on the blade had turned dry and flaky in the night. Disgusted, Jon wiped it away with a piece of tissue.

His grandmother had cooked breakfast. She made coffee, which he usually didn't bother with, but decided to drink black that morning. He poured its astringency into his stomach, imagining it scouring away the remains of that thick warmth Roger had forced into him.

"Have you seen the keys to the Skoda?" Gran asked. "I meant to go to the nursery before it got hot, but I couldn't find them earlier."

Jon knew where they were. His pajama pocket, on the floor of the bedroom. "You couldn't take the Fiesta?"

She rolled her eyes at him over her eggs. "I could have, but that's hardly the point. Jonathan, you can use either car, I really don't care, but I've told you a thousand times, put the key back on the peg when you're done."

Jon fled upstairs to grab the keys, paging through excuses. Mr. Roberts called me in yesterday because I forgot to turn in my name badge. I went out for a drink after you were asleep. I realized one of my books was overdue.

When he dropped the keys in Gran's hand, she didn't ask what he'd needed them for, and he held himself back from volunteering anything.

"Thank you, Jonathan."

"Do you mind if I take the Fiesta to the beach today?" he was startled to hear himself ask. He hadn't thought he was planning on going, and it wasn't the kind of trip he'd bothered asking permission for in several years. He felt himself color guiltily, and hid his face in his coffee cup.

The surface, as he drank, was like black water.

"As I said, just put the keys back when you return," Gran said with conspicuous patience.

"R-right. Do you need me to get you anything?"

"From the beach?" Her bristly grey brows rose on her brown forehead. "Now that you mention it," she said after a moment's thought, smiling stiffly, "bring me a few more pretty shells for the walk."

It was a beautiful morning, the short drive, made longer by having to brake for meandering holiday makers. If Roger had washed back onto the beach in the night, he would definitely have been found by now.

Jon knew what he was doing was a truly terrible idea. Worse, it was a cliche. The killer returning to the scene of the crime.

He parked at a public lot and wended his way carefully down the cliffside, thongs slapping the rock. He wiped his sweating palms on the towel draped over his shoulder, glad he'd thought to bring his sunglasses.

He began to wander along the soft, white sand, casually up the beach toward old Boscombe pier, peering out into the brilliant greenish water. It was already so warm, waders in bright suits dotted the ocean. The line of shells left by the receding tide looked well picked over. Nothing big or impressive.

Jon took his time, unusually conscious of the possibility of being noticed by someone. Act natural, he repeated to himself, as he bent to pick up a tan scallop and turn it over in his hands looking for flaws. He slipped it into the pocket of his trunks with a smile before moving on to a bluish sliver of mussel peeking out of the sand a little ways ahead. He bent to examine it. Broken down the middle. Someone had stepped on it and crushed it, the brittle edges like the hole in Roger 's neck. He couldn't stop himself from picturing the oystery mucus that had slid out of it. Jon caught himself, schooling his face into an expression more appropriate to discovering the pretty shell he'd wanted was broken. Then he realized the appropriate expression was no expression.

Jon straightened to his feet as a group of little girls rushed past him off in the direction of the pier. Past the dark pillars, he could see a small group beginning to gather on the beach. He was still too far off to make anything out and started to move closer, trying not to look particularly interested.

"Slow down, girls!" a thickset middle aged man bellowed, nearly clipping Jon with his elbow as he hurried past, holding a couple of beach bags.

"W-what's happening down there?"

"How am I supposed to know?" the man said, turning over his shoulder to favor Jon with a mildly contemptuous look. He turned back and hurried on, still talking. "Somebody pulled something weird out of the water, I guess."

Jon's heart was racing by the time he dipped beneath the shadow of the pier. Up ahead, the group of gathered beachcombers was a dark blur against the brilliant sand. Jon reached beneath his sunglasses to wipe the sweat from his eyes.

The knot of people abruptly began to disperse, and Jon saw, as the group moved away, a man in conversation with a police officer, a fishing rod stuck in the sand nearby.

"You're too late," one of a pair of old women said as she passed him, "the cop made him throw it back."

Jon's heart gave a vertiginous flip behind his ribs. "What was it? What did he catch?"

"It was a little shark," the other woman said, "probably a pup. He's trying to get out of the citation, pretending he didn't know what he caught."

"I warned him," the first woman put in. "Come on, Janet, before that cop decides to write a few more."
 
Jon's legs were rubbery beneath him. He made it to one of the dark, waterstained support pillars and collapsed against it. There he stood, head back, eyes closed, feeling it tremble against his back, transmitting the tide. 

It's not him. It's not him. The tide went out and carried him off. Or the water got into the chinks in his carapace and he sank to the bottom of the sea, and the fish nibbled him to pieces like a cricket. It's NOTHING to do with you, anymore.

Eventually, he felt steadier. Opening his eyes, he saw both the officer and fisherman had moved on, though the sand was still disturbed where the crowd had gathered.

He had enough shells to fulfill his errand. It was past time to head home. He should never have come to begin with. Jon rounded the pillar, looking up the beach toward the tide line. There, a little past the line, where the shadow under the pier was deep and blue, he saw a humped shape, about the size of a body.

No, he corrected himself, as he drifted slowly closer, it was a body. Almost the next instant, he realized the body wasn't Roger's. It was bare-legged, in a baggy tee with some cartoon mascot on it, and powder blue shorts. A woman, curled on her side, head resting on what looked like a duffel bag or backpack. 

She was at least middle aged, though the bottle red of her hair didn't show any gray. A tramp? If she'd spent the night beneath the pier, it was odd she hadn't woken and moved on yet. But if she were an ordinary vacationer who'd chosen to nap under the pier, she wasn't quite dressed for it. She was dead to the world, eyes gummed shut, mouth hanging open.

Or just dead, Jon thought with a chill. He pictured Roger floating back to shore, revived by the water, hunting the beach. He'd stayed alive somehow for ten years. Jon knelt by the woman's head, reaching out tentatively to nudge her shoulder.

Her body rolled slightly beneath his fingers, but was otherwise still. He could see no mark of trauma on her. There was sand stuck to her face, her lips. Jon leaned closer suspiciously, listening for her breath, alert for the sweet odor of alcohol.

His nose caught the odor of something else. He froze. A ripple went through him from the crown of his head to his toes.

Then his mouth was on her neck, and this close, he could tell yes, she was alive. She tasted alive--salt and ammonia and warmth under his tongue. Her carotid thrummed between his teeth, and had his jaws really been about to close around it? Had they? Had he even moved? He must've because here he was with her neck between his teeth. And why wasn't she waking up?

He thought he took a breath in, but something filled his mouth, and he realized it wasn't a breath but a drink. Hot, thick and fatty as the richest stock, boiled and salted and seasoned for days. Delicious. He swallowed. He hadn't bitten her. She couldn't have slept through that, and his mouth was still open, teeth inches apart. He hadn't bitten down, he was certain! But her blood was filling his mouth so quickly, it was all he could do to keep sucking it down. 

She didn't wake. Didn't move. Jon's internal panic receded further and further as his throat worked.

When he moved his tongue, the top of it pressed into...something. Something flat and rigid, almost plasticky, he could feel the serated edges of it. Some sort of mouth knife. Pressing his tongue further forward, he prodded at the fleshy seam where the knife split her skin and felt it roll under the pressure of his tongue. A fresh surge of blood filled his mouth, and he drowned.

The next thing he knew was frustration. He was hunched forward, hands in the sand, back bowing with the effort of sucking, but there was nothing left to suck. The moment he realized what he was doing, he lunged backwards, tumbling onto his ass in the sand. He felt a rattling recoil in the base of his neck as the mouth-knife slid back into him.

She'd never woken up. She'd never felt it. Her grey, caved-in face wore the same lax expression as when he'd knelt to-

To check on her. To make sure she was alright.

To make sure...to MAKE SURE?!! Well, you're sure now, aren't you?

He ran out of the shadow of the pier into the sunlight. Scrambling in the soft sand, arms swinging wildly for balance. Running felt different, he realized distantly, and not just because panic was buzzing through him, making his extremities light and numb. His sense of balance was off. He was heavier. His belly sloshed on each downstep.

The toe of his sandal caught a mound of sand, and he went down hard. He couldn't breathe for a long moment, lungs punched out. When Jon opened his eyes, a close-up field of sand filled his vision. A landscape of boulders, magnified by the closeness. Mixed among them, twisted white shapes, delicate, like broken sculpture.

A gust of breeze brought gull noise and the muddle of distant human voices to his ears. It blew sand into his eyes. Jon sat up, wiping his face on his arm.

He got to his feet and walked slowly, without looking back, to the car.

 

-Later, at Home-

 

Jon sat on the couch.

His grandmother was out. The insipid babble of some panel show filled the living room. The lights were off, early afternoon sunlight filtering in through the curtains. A half-empty glass of water stood on the endtable beside him, next to the few shells he had managed to pocket before-

Water was unsatisfying.

If he couldn't turn himself in to the police, he should at least make an anonymous call to the emergency line. A woman collapsed under the pier, not sure what I saw, she needs help...

But she didn't need help, of course. She was laughably beyond help. You couldn't look like that and live. You couldn't live with a gallon of your blood in someone else's belly.

He imagined that was what pressed him into his seat--the weight of her blood. That was what was making it so hard to go to the kitchen and pick up the phone.

The front door opened.

"Jonathan! Help me unload the car."

Now that he had an order, It was easy enough to get to his feet. He grabbed the shells in nerveless fingers and shuffled into the kitchen. His grandmother was hanging her keys next to his on the peg. She turned to him.

"Thank you, Jonathan. I see you remembered the keys." She hung a net bag of shopping on the back of the nearest chair.

"Of course I did, Gran. I got you some shells, too."

"Don't put them on the table! Let's leave those outside."

"I washed them when I got home." Jon marveled at how normal he sounded. He almost thought she'd noticed nothing, when she froze mid-motion.

"Jon, are you slouching?" She crossed toward him in two quick steps. "Sloppy. Shoulders back! Tummy in!" Her finger jabbed his stomach, and he tried to suck in. It didn't make much difference. Gran looked at his midsection suspiciously, peered into his face, then shrugged and turned away.

That night, the portion on the plate Gran set on the TV tray in front of him was smaller than usual.

Jon said a silent thanks. He knew it smelled delicious--Gran was a good cook and it was one of her regular dishes--but his senses were wrong. The vegetables were sweet as burning plastic. The meat smelled like the agar gel they'd grown bacterial cultures in back in year nine Biology, somehow both sterile and offensively biological. Every small, dry bite he brought to his lips was a struggle to swallow.

Fortunately, Gran was intent on the evening news and didn't notice Jon was more pushing food around his plate than eating it. The milk was drinkable, at least, if watery. Jon wished it was guilt ruining his appetite, but knew otherwise.

On the television screen, suddenly, footage of the beach, Boscombe pier stretching out into the azure water. Jon thought it was odd the station's sound engineer had the sound of the tide turned so high he could barely hear the newscaster over it. Then he realized it was the sound of his blood rushing in his ears.

"Hmm. Odd for the children to kick the mother out of the house," his grandmother said, knife sawing against her plate. "Something must have gone badly wrong in that family." She considered a moment, chewing her bite of chicken, then pronounced her verdict. "Poor thing."

Had her blood mixed into his, swelling its volume? Was that why it was pounding so loudly in his ears? Jon was shrinking back into the cushions, the room growing darker. The tv tray slid away from him. The screen became a flickering blur, two of every three words lost in the rush.

...found...pier...officer...no indications...natural...

"Did you see any of the commotion when you were at the beach?"

...heat stroke...

"Jonathan!"

He turned to her. "What?!" he snapped, before he could stop himself.

"Did you see the police at the beach earlier?"

"I saw a fisherman get a citation for catching a shark."

"I meant," a bit impatiently, "did you see her taken away? Was there an ambulance"

"I saw her."

Eyes widened. She set her knife and fork down, and leaned toward him intently. "Did you? Are you su-"

The rest was lost as several things happened so quickly they seemed simultaneous. The smell from under the pier--the one that had issued from the sleeping woman--was suddenly here, in the living room. It reached into Jon, snaked down around the back of his hard palate and snagged in his throat like a fishhook. He actually felt the mouth knife slide out of him this time, with a convulsive gagging motion. He barely managed to stop its point between his lips, covering his mouth and leaping away from his grandmother. Jon's feet tangled in the legs of the tv tray and it went over with a thud, pitching the plate of meat and vegetables across the carpet.

"Good lord, Jonathan! What-"

 He threw himself to the floor after it, scrabbling at the mess, trying fractically to retract the blade. His tongue pried at it, trying to push it back down his throat.

"S-s-s-sorry. I-" Jon's voice rattled, then steadied as the blade retracted. "I was startled. "

"By what?" By this time, his grandmother had moved her own tray aside and was beginning the painstaking process of crouching to help.

"It's not...Gran, sit back down. I can handle it."

"You're just grinding it into the carpet now."

He scurried into the kitchen, away from her. As she'd knelt beside him, he'd caught another faint whiff of that horribly appetizing aroma. It was definitely coming from her.

"I-I-I'll get the cleaner." 

This time, he managed to swallow back the knife before it could emerge--before it could become any more than a rattle right below his larynx. It was speaking that kept it retracted, he realized. As long as he was talking, it had to stay chambered inside him. In the kitchen, filled with the lingering stomach-turning odors of cooked meat, it was easier to keep it at bay. He felt almost normal as he searched beneath the sink for something to clean the grease out of the carpet with.

"It's the yellow spraybottle, Jonathan."

He could keep it together as long as he could keep from smelling that mysterious aroma again. Checking the doorway, he reached for the bottle of fairy liquid behind the tap. He rubbed a lemony line of it onto his upper lip, before grabbing the spraybottle and a roll of paper towels and heading back to the living room.

Almost immediately, the soap began stinging. When he inhaled, it may as well have been uncut ammonia, fiery and stunning. His eyes watered.

Wiping his wet eyes on his sleeve, he handed off the spray bottle and paper towels, then grabbed the plate of ruined food from his grandmother. Already alert to his odd behavior, she noticed his wet eyes.

"What on earth's gotten into you, Jonathan? Are you...I hardly think I was that sharp with you, was I?" She rose to a knee.

"I'm fine, Gran," Jon blinked rapidly, taking a step backward. Trying to breathe shallowly through his mouth, he swiped at the soap with his free hand. "You should get that before it sets." Maybe it was a poison to him, now that he was…

"Is this about university? Are you...anxious about leaving?" The pause was heavy with dismay at the possibility of his having an internal life.

"It's not about university." In some backwards way, the parody of tears his body had been forced into was doing things to him emotionally. He was trembling, rooted to the spot. He couldn't look her in the face. Jon blinked hard, looking up at the ceiling, feeling real tears coursing hotly down his cheeks.

"Was she- was the dead woman at the pier...was she still alive when you saw her?" Gran's voice was the softest he'd ever heard it.

"Yes." A sob wrenched out of his throat. At least it wasn't the knife. "And no."

"Yes and no," she repeated slowly.

"Before and after."

Jon told her everything. Pacing. More and more dry eyed and steady as he went on. She listened in such complete silence, he was able to pretend she wasn't there at all, which helped. Made it possible to say things he'd never said aloud before. He ended at the very beginning of it all, with Mr. Spider.

"Well," she said after he'd finished, after a long pause. "Well, you've certainly given me a lot to think about."

"Sorry." Not the first sorry of the night.

"Why don't you go lie down, Jonathan? You must be very tired."

Grateful to be dismissed, Jon climbed the stairs to his room and fell into bed. He wished he was more tired. He wished he could stop noticing the big window with moonlight pouring through, imagining the hand reaching up out of the darkness, stop noticing the full, contented swell of his stomach.

-The Next Morning-


His grandmother had folded the load of laundry Jon had done two nights ago--the one with Roger's sheet in it--and set it atop the washer. The sheet was on the top of the stack, a neat pink flowered square, like a poison pen letter. 

He checked the washer and the dryer, finding them both empty. So she was just doing the unneccessary tidying she did when she was agitated. Didn't mean she wouldn't still peck at him for leaving the laundry to sit.

"Jonathan?" from the kitchen. "Come have some of the breakfast before it's cold."

He warily entered the kitchen and moved a pile of old newspapers to sit at the chair across from her. She'd made eggs and bacon, as she did on the weekends. He served himself from the rancid pile. His stomach was roiling with hunger and nausea.

"Any plans, Jonathan? I could use you in the garden today."

Plans? Did he have any plans? Well, there was the train to Oxford in a few days. That was still a plan, he supposed, left over from when making plans had seemed to make sense.

"No."

"No what? No plans, or no, you won't help?"

He broke the yolk of his egg, staring at the globules on his fork.

She broke the silence, voice too sharp, "Jonathan-"

"Gran, did you...have you had the chance to think about what-what I told you last night?"

She closed her eyes and blew out her nose, composing herself. She set her knife and fork down.

"Jon," she said finally. Strangely. She seldom called him Jon, only in moments of warmth. She opened her eyes and extended a hand across the table in his direction. They were too far apart. He leaned forward to reach toward her. Did she want to hold his hand? No. Her fingers disentangled from his, then flattened it to the tabletop. "Five more days until you're off to school."

He nodded. "That's the plan."

"I spent some hours last night investigating the resources they have to offer you."

Resources? For a stunned moment, he thought she meant people for him to eat. Seeing his face, she stopped, considered, changed tack.

"I know I've not always been the tenderest guardian."

"Right..."

"But I want you to understand it's not due to any lack of affection on my part."

Her sudden effusiveness was embarrassing. He looked away, flustered. Her hand seemed to grow heavy on his without warming it.

She went on. "It's down to a...I suppose I'll call it a personal deficiency. I've ensured you've been fed, provided for, and safe, but, well, that's the extent of my capacity. It was different with your father, you know. It was a simpler time. Children were simpler, and I still had your grandfather, of course."

Jon had never heard his grandmother sound so lost. He had no idea what she wanted from him. "Alright..."

"Once you leave for school, however, you'll be in an environment where you can be supported in all the ways I've been unable to. Do you see?" Her hand tightened on his and she forced a smile.

"No." His mind had hung up several sentences back, "The-the late seventies were a simpler time? You can't mean... politically?"

"Psychologically. Ordinary people didn't...well," she seemed to find her point and went on more decisively, "Back then, you were either mad or you weren't."

"You think I'm mentally ill." Beneath the table's edge, Jon's free hand spread across his stomach. He pressed gently into the bulge beginning to form beneath his skin, reassuring himself it was still there. Real.

"I'm sure I couldn't say. That's exactly my point! I'm an old woman, Jonathan. I was a secretary until I married. I've no understanding of psychology, let alone child psychology."

"I'm not a child."

"Of course not. I misspoke." Was that another apology? Good lord, she really was rattled. "What I meant is that I find your generation especially confounding. You're so involved in your fantasy lives. The internet...maybe it's some daft game of pretend your friends on the internet have roped you into. Or your emo music-"

"My emo music?"

"--of course, we had countercultural music, we had all sorts of outlandish science fiction films growing up, but they weren't so lurid. So vivid. The special effects in-"

"So that's your theory? I've confused The Crawling Ones or something with-"

"It wouldn't be the first time! The screaming nightmares you give yourself-"

Jon snatched his hand from under hers and clutched at his middle, fingers worrying the fabric of his shirt. "I wish this was a nightmare. I truly wish it was."

"It's my best theory," she said, defensiveness straightening her back. "As I've said I'm not qualified to make that determination. I'm not qualified to help you."

"You could start by believing me." He was ashamed by how thready his voice sounded.

"How can I believe you when every part of your story contradicts all sense, and countless facts I know firsthand to be true? How did you go unseen doing your wicked work, Jonathan? Why did the news report that woman's death as heat stroke? Why are you insisting Roger Collins was eaten by some sort of ridiculous book-monster when-"

"You're right." Jon leapt to his feet, heart racing. She had been leaning toward him in her intensity, and a wisp of the delicious smell had curled toward him, making his throat tighten around that ready knife. "Silly of me. Nothing happened yesterday. Monsters aren't real. I'm especially not turning into one. I must have a-a summer cold or something. Or I read it in a book."

"Jonathan," she called after him as he hurried toward the door, "just hold it together for five days. It's all I ask."

"I'm getting cigarettes." He grabbed his wallet and was out the door, letting it slam behind him.

As he strode toward the store, his anger slowly started to change direction, turning its critical eyes back on him.

You insist you're an adult and then strew your problems in front of a sick old lady. Ridiculous.

What had he expected her to do? Kiss it better? Even if she had believed him, what could she have done about it? Call the police? He could do that himself. It was inexcusable he hadn't already done that himself. Instead, he had pushed responsibility onto her because he was scared. He didn't really want-

"Jon!"

Oh, it was Mr. Smith across the street. He loved to tie Jon up in endless, chummy conversations about things like football or political conspiracy theories, or did Jon have any girls yet? What a shame Jon didn't have any girls yet.

Jon smiled tightly, gestured at a nonexistent watch, and hurried on. He'd probably have to give up fifteen minutes or so to the man on the way back, but hopefully it'd be more bearable once he had a cigarette.

Looking up, Jon noticed for the first time how nice a day it was shaping up to be. Everyone who lived on Jon's street wanted a walk. Everyone seemed to be out enjoying the weather.

That wasn't strange, was it? It was a weekend, after all. Even if it wasn't yet ten.

Jon swerved off the pavement, walking in the narrow street instead.

"Jon! Hello!" One of his neighbors, a woman a few years older than him with a baby swaddled on her back, waved and looked like she was prepared to intercept him. He ducked his head and rushed on.

Her, he didn't know. Had only seen her a few times, and was a bit startled she even knew his name.

Jon's street wasn't a particularly neighborly one. Gran’s generation complained among themselves about the students taking it over--their noise, how many were crammed into each subdivided house, how a person barely got to know them before they were gone, not like how it used to be around here--because they were too genteel to complain about immigrants. Most people kept to themselves or their own cliques. But on this particular morning, for some reason, everyone was friendly.

It wasn't limited to Jon's steet. As he got closer to the commercial street, more and more people met Jon's eye as he hurried past. Waved. Their paths swerved towards his. He wasn't imagining it. Even in the open air, he caught threads of that horribly attractive human smell. Faint, endurable, but-

It made him very aware of his hunger--of the knife chambered in his throat. His breath rattled faintly.

Jon began to sing quietly under his breath as the corner store came into sight and felt the lump in his throat gradually loosen. His vision narrowed to the goal as he rushed toward it.

“Hey, you! You buying cigarettes?” A bleach-haired teen in a cowrie shell necklace leapt from a low brick wall to block his way. Jon tried to swerve around him, and the kid reached out his hand to grasp him by the shoulder.

“What do you want?” Jon tried to figure out where to aim his face so he wouldn’t smell him, then settled for shielding his nose and mouth behind his hand.

A ten pound note appeared in the kid’s hand. “They’re on me,” he said, conspiratorially close, “if you get me a pack of Marlboro Gold.” He was a stranger, maybe a year too young to have been at school with Jon.

“Fine!” he snapped, just to get away, and snatched the note from the boy’s hand. He heard the kid mutter something under his breath, but he was inside the store in the next moment, and could finally breathe easily again. It was cool and dimly lit inside, and empty, except for Mr. Hyde, who conducted business from behind a cloudy yellow Perspex barrier. Jon completed his transaction quickly, using the boy’s money, and headed back outside.

He fairly flung the box at the kid on his wall, and hurried onward. His hands trembled slightly as he fumbled with the plastic wrapping on his own pack.

“Hey!”

Oh, fuck it. Jon ran.

“HEY!” Angry this time. Rubber soles pounded after him.

Jon turned down side streets, ducked between houses. He couldn't go back the way he'd come, couldn't risk leading the little delinquent to his door

invite him inside, tilt his head back in the cool dimness of his front hall, open his neck and drink

which would be practically begging for an egg in the mailbox or a broken window.

Never athletic at the best of times, Jon was beginning to flag. The hunger lanced from his gut to his lungs on every downbeat. His breath was already coming in gasps. He darted across the street ahead of a car and into the shady park with the duckpond in the center. Jon hunkered down between a couple of hedges and waited.

After a couple minutes, it became clear he’d lost the kid, whose lungs were probably in no better condition than Jon’s. He relaxed, folding his legs, and managed to extract a cigarette from the pack, only to drop it in the dirt. God he was hungry. The lump in his throat felt sharp-edged, enormous.

What had the kid even wanted--the thirty pence change? Why the hell did everyone suddenly want to be close to Jon? At least there was no one in sight now.

He grabbed the cigarette, shook it off, limped to a nearby bench, and lit it.

Later, Jon couldn’t even remember his first drag past the supernova of pain that engulfed him. He was convulsing helplessly, coughing like his lungs were being pulled apart. Nausea coursed through him in waves. His stomach, his heart, his liver, his brain, were all rolling violently inside him like bottles cut loose across the deck of a ship.

He couldn’t get a breath in. Things only went out. Air from his lungs, snot, tears, spit. His spasms began to subside only when his oxygen-starved mind began to drift along the fuzzy gray edge of unconsciousness. He hung there for a while.

At last, his consciousness began to return. His right cheekbone hurt in a familiar way. A tart sting. His cigarette had burnt him. In the same moment he realized he wasn’t just dizzy from air loss--he actually was lying on his side. He closed his fingers, and there was grass beneath his hands.

Between coughs, he made himself take tiny little sips of air. Arms shivering, he tried to raise himself up, then collapsed back onto his side.

Well, strike that off the list of viable appetite suppressants.

“Tom?” As he heard the word, the gorgeous smell blanketed him. Jon opened his eyes. “Oh, wait, sorry. It’s John, right? You alright? Want me to call your gran?”

Gregory from two houses down was bending over him, dressed in running shorts and a tank top with sweat circles under the arms. Jon tried to speak, but a rattling hiss was the only thing that emerged. 

Gregory dropped to a knee, dark brows knit on his flushed forehead. “Can you tell me what happened?” Jon’s rattle deepened. Good lord, the man was beautiful. Delicious. Plump and pink, sunburned red on his muscular upper arms, the heat of his quick, strong blood and surge after surge of that wonderful smell rolling off of him.

As if called to Jon’s yearning, Gregory bent over him. He was so close Jon could see the beads of sweat glistening in his mustache.

“What’s that in your mouth, John?”

Jon’s arms rose in a curve as unbreakably adoring as Canova’s Psyche to loop around Gregory’s neck. He drew him down and drank.

 

-That Night-

 

Jon made dinner that night, because his grandmother had made it the night before, and that was their arrangement. He’d decided on a green salad, au gratin potatoes from a box, and a couple slabs of whitefish from the freezer. His grandmother came back from her walk as the gravy the potatoes floated in was beginning to thicken.

“It’s fishy in here! Jonathan, turn the fan on when you’re cooking.”

Jon wandered over to the refrigerator for no reason except to stay away from his grandmother as she leaned over the stove to turn on the hood fan.

“It’s got another five minutes.”

“I’m exhausted! The heat out there is-“ Gran dabbed at her face with a paper towel she’d wet under the tap, “incredible. Takes it right out of you. And the park was taped off, so I went all the way up to Spa Road and back instead.”

“Yes. I ate Gregory from two houses down in that park.” Jon moved back toward the stove as Gran drifted toward the living room. He picked up the spoon. “I suppose his body was found.”

Gran rolled her eyes and huffed. “Well, serves me right trying to have a nice conversation! I’m going to sit down. Would you bring my plate in when it’s ready?”

“Sure.”

Jon stirred the potatoes, noticed they were beginning to stick to the bottom of the pan, and turned off the heat. He pulled the fish, swimming in butter and dill, from the oven, and made her plate. He hesitated, then left his own empty, and carried both to the living room.

She’d found some romantic comedy from the 90s on telly. Jon unthreaded his apron from around his neck as he took his place behind his own tv tray. Clumsy with his new weight, he jostled the tray as he sat.

His grandmother grabbed the edge of the tray, steadying it. “Careful Jonathan! We don’t need a repeat of last night.” Though her hand rested inches from his plate, she didn’t notice it was empty. Nor did she notice his shirt straining across his stomach, his fly held shut with a rubber band.

She turned back to the movie, tucking into her meal. “Did you hear she’s planning to retire? Just had twins, you know.”

“Oh?” Jon shifted, trying to get comfortable. His belly rested atop his thighs now. He kept expecting to hurt—growing so much so fast should hurt--but only felt...constrained. Like his skin was a cozy, but too tight jumper.

“I imagine she's far less eager to be seen in sexual trash like her last film now that she’s a mother.”

“Hmm.”

“This is nice, Jonathan. You seasoned it differently, didn’t you?”

“I found some dill in the back of the cabinet.” He’d crushed the spice between his fingers, trying to figure out whether it had gone off, or it was just his sense of smell being weird again. Apparently, it was fine.

Jon didn't have a full length mirror, so later, after his shower, he tilted the mirror above the sink and backed himself as far back against the opposite wall as he could to see his body. Survey the…the changes.

Well, he didn't seem to be growing extra arms or forming a carapace, at least. He saw himself grimacing at the sight of his belly in the mirror and stopped. There was something performative about the expression. Like he was making a show of hating the sight of himself, when he didn't. He didn't quite know how he felt about it. Worry was no small part of it, but so was some odd fascination. He caught his hands hovering above his abdomen and folded them behind his back instead, where they couldn't get into any trouble.

He noticed how he balanced his body differently, knees apart. There was an inward curve to the small of his back that hadn't been there before, a complement to the proud swell in front. His body shaped a familiar iconography he was reluctant to read. At least, he reassured himself, it didn't say "spider." It really shouldn't have mattered what exact kind of monster he was now, but it did. It did.

Spiders don't suck blood, he thought. Spiders don't...don't inflate like this.

Jon pulled on the dressing gown he'd found in a box of his grandfather's old clothes when helping Gran move rooms. He went to the shelf of encyclopedias he'd kidnapped from the study, and eased TI to TZ free. 

It was all in there in black and white; the lifecycle of a tick. He'd remembered correctly--they were arachnids. Maybe Roger hadn't been quite the right raw material to make another Mr. Spider out of. Or maybe Jon himself wasn't?

If it hadn't been enough to see that illustration of the little blood-engorged body, there was a microscope picture of his own mouth knife as well. It was called a hypostome. Jon supposed it was nice to have real word for it, a less childish term.

He methodically read the article beginning to end. 

The inset describing the tick's lifecycle, especially, made certain connections Jon had been trying hard not to make absolutely impossible to ignore. When he was done reading, he shut the volume with a snap, and sat, eyes shut, hands fisted atop it, breathing with controlled steadiness.

When he was ready, he opened his eyes and opened his dressing gown. He brought his hands up to rest at the apex of the curve, bracketing his navel. Then he pressed.

Jon's abdomen was firm. He knew that already from how his waistband, the cord of his dressing gown, lay atop his flesh instead of cutting into it. But it wasn't just the firmness of fluid under constraint. As Jon pressed more insistently, he felt a shifting inside himself. It was a very particular shifting. A shifting that was, specifically, many small round things moving against each other.

It was late enough the street outside was still. Jon's gasp was shockingly loud in his silent room. His hands retracted from his body with a guilty speed. His face was so hot it throbbed. Between his legs, there was an echoing throb.

His fingers zinged with the urge to touch again. To push firmly into himself, to push those little round somethings against each other, against all his sensitive insides, just really goosh around in there-

Jon reached, with stiff deliberateness, beneath his stomach, between his thighs, and took his half-hard cock in hand. And squeezed as hard as he could bear. Then again, until black and white bloomed behind his eyes and another gasp tore from his throat.

No more dithering about this. You're calling the police. Tomorrow, you're calling and turning yourself in.

If he couldn't make himself do it because it was the right thing to do, he would do it because he had to do something to stop the process Roger had started inside his body.

Pregnant ticks died laying their eggs, after all. Fat little ripe grape bodies disgorged hundreds of eggs, deflating like raisins, then stopped living from sheer exhaustion.

If it's not enough to not want to kill people, do it because you don't want to die.

Even Kant couldn't bludgeon Jon to sleep that night.

 

-The Next Day-

 

The next day really did not bear thinking about.

 

-The Day after That-

 

Jon sat in the window seat looking out at the bright street outside. He stroked his hands absently, left over right over left, over the bulge of his belly and thought dark thoughts. He was stroking himself because the purr of languid pleasure running through his body made those thoughts bearable, or maybe he'd started thinking the dark thoughts to punish himself for the pleasure. He had lost track.

His legs were drawn up and frogged out to either side so he could fit within the window well. No matter how he sat or stood or lay, none of the bits of him fit right around the smooth, spherical enormity of his belly. The only trousers that would stay on at this point were his swimming trunks, with their elastic waist. He wore his grandfather’s oversized dressing gown belted around his middle to cover the  gap beneath the hem of his straining tee shirt. Not that anyone saw the gap. Nobody noticed anything odd about how he looked.

Once he was dead, the spell of obliviousness over everyone else would be broken, though. His grandmother would come up to check on him, and find him lying on his bed like a crumpled tube sock with a bunch of larval ticks crawling all over him. He hoped she’d take the chance to move into one of those nice independent living communities he’d seen flyers for. The house would probably have to be burnt down.

The left hand followed the right. The muscles of his shoulders gradually unhitched again. His head dropped back.

Gran was out of the house for the day. It was another sunny day out, and she had a neat little social circle, and those were just justifications for the fact that she was out because Jon wanted her to be.

Just as the knocks on the door kept coming for no other reason than

MR. SPIDER WANTS MORE

his hunger.

He both was very glad she was out, and fairly miserable about the fact that he could make her go. Because if he could make her go, it meant that making everyone else stay away was just a matter of wanting it enough.

Jon had learned his will wasn’t the undivided thing he’d assumed it was. He was certain he wanted to stop. He'd made the decision to stop--several times now, in fact. He'd made the gestures.

And yet.

The knock came again, louder. Not a child this time, knocking to run away giggling. Or a neighbor's friendly shave-and-a-haircut. Not a polite knock. This one was loud and authoritative like a police knock. He recognized the attitude, of course.

Well, Jon thought, you can't just eat two cops and not expect them to come around and check up.

Maybe they'd sent one with a firearm this time. Maybe he'd explode like a carnival balloon hit by a dart when they shot him.

Go on. Get the door. This is a knock you can answer.

Jon stayed. His hands petted on methodically. Maybe, he thought as an enticement to go to the door, maybe there will be a coverup this way. He was pretty sure the woman under the pier being reported as heat stroke was a coverup. Maybe that would spare Gran. She could remember him as her smart boy who got into a good school, and took a summer job to save up for his fees, and dutifully made dinner on his designated nights.

The cop had become impatient and come around to look in the window. He was big and blocky, squinting against the sun so hard his eyes were like apple seeds in his white face. He gave Jon a severe look and Jon realized the sun was falling through the window onto him in such a way he wasn't as invisible as he'd assumed. He gestured sharply to his left and Jon realized he was indicating the front door.

The other two had come in uniform, and relaxed attitude. This one wore no uniform, but looked official in some nonspecific way, with his dark, square-shouldered jacket and close-cropped grey-blond hair. There was nothing relaxed about him. A detective? Military?

The detective disappeared from view. Jon's heart raced, and he wiped sweating hands on the hem of his gown. Here was the real thing this time. Jon could feel the difference--the grey, thick-fingered hand of justice pressing down on his shoulders.

He was terrified. As sincere as the desire to be stopped felt, Jon still couldn't make himself go to the door and let the detective in. It wasn't until the hammering started up again, so hard the little crystal dish of lemon drops rattled on the hall table, that he was finally able to go to the door.

He had a strategy this time. Jon turned his back to the door, crossed his wrists behind him, and awkwardly opened the door to the detective. He quickly gripped each sleeve with the opposite hand.

"You. You'll. Y-You'll want to cuff me before you come in, especially if you haven't brought backup," Jon said, facing down the hall away from the detective. He couldn't smell the man yet, but his sense of danger was so heavy his lungs felt like concrete.

"Cut the cheek," the detective replied, shoving past Jon and down the hall. "This can go just as easily as you let it." He turned back to Jon at the end of the hall, and Jon saw he was holding a clipboard with a few forms on it.

A veil of his breath and sweat trailed beneath Jon's nose, and Jon had to growl and choke down his rising hypostome before he could manage a "yes sir."  He twisted his hands behind him to clasp each wrist tightly. He was distracted enough trying to hold himself in check, it took several seconds to register cheek.

The detective pointed in toward the darkened living room. "Your television in there?"

"Yes sir," Jon said again, but the man had already disappeared through the doorway. Jon blinked. "Wait."

He heard the television come on, then the detective apparently scrolling through the channels before turning it off again. The man came back through the doorway and strode toward Jon looking displeased.

"Right. Care to explain why we've got no current television license on file for this household when I'm seeing a set with an aerial?"

"I…w-what?" Jon swallowed convulsively as the man leaned foward, peering critically into his face. "'We?' Who's…y-you're-" the rattle in his throat smoothed as he spoke, "you're one of those fucking BBC people!"

Oh no. Oh no no.

"The language is uncalled for."

"Get out of here, for god's sake! It's not safe- it's not safe for you to be here."

"Right. Well, fill this out, I'll collect payment, and you can get back to your business."

A form was thrust into Jon's face. He grabbed the clipboard to keep it from bopping his nose, choking back his hypostome. He pushed past the man, burying his face in his elbow, and careened down the hall into the living room.

The room, of course, was still full of the man's scent.  It was a hot day out, and he was wearing that heavy dark jacket. Clouds of it were billowing out of his collar.

"S-s-s-stay back!" Jon warned, losing half of his words in the rattle. "I'll get you the damned license! I'm looking for it now. She's got it here somewhere. She must."

The man had followed him into the room, ignoring Jon's warning. "I don't have all afternoon, you know."

"I said stay out of here! Get in the hallway. I'll bring you the license once I find it."

Jon dropped to his knees, checking the television cabinet, rifling through the drawer inside, pushing aside piles of old VHS tapes in search of anything official-looking.

Jon's fingers trembled with the knowledge he could have the man's neck between his teeth in milliseconds. The tangle of junk in the drawer slid out of focus before his eyes. Frustrated, he pulled it  out and upended it, the rifled the pages of the manuals that had been stacked within. Nothing that looked like a license.

"Would 'she' be Brenda Sims?"

"Yes. That's her. She'd have paid."

"She's ignored no less than three letters."

"She must have assumed they were a scam, because she's definitely already paid! What does it look like? Is it a color? Is there a...a seal or a picture or something?"

Jon was so wrenchingly hungry he could have cried. He felt so empty it felt like his heart was being squeezed. The air stirred as the man came closer.

"Please!" Jon tucked his face into the neck of his shirt. "I don't know where she keeps it. Just - just come back when she's home."

"Is she your landlady?"

"She's my grandmother."

"I'd love to be on my way, son, but your grandmother is facing a summons and a judgement of up to a thousand pounds if we don't resolve this today. Her account is in arears going back to 2000."

"That's fascinating, but if you don't get out of here, I'm going to eat you." Jon lumbered past the man on hands and knees, and pulled the drawer out of the end table. Even less in here. Certainly nothing that looked like a license.

"I'm sure she had every intention of being responsible, but we know how the elderly can get overwhelmed and lose track of things." Jon wasn't looking at him, but he felt the man wave his hand through the air in an illustrative way. It sent a particularly thick ribbon of scent rippling through the air. Jon let himself groan, long and loud, because it helped keep the knife down.

If he could just get away long enough to clear his head…Jon got to his feet, face still buried in the neck of his tee shirt, and dodged around the man into the kitchen, then through the door toward the stairs.

The man followed. "This is not one of those matters where you can just bury your head in the sand and hope it goes away, you know."

Jon realized he was still clutching the man's clipboard and hurled down the stairs behind him, hoping he'd fetch it. No luck. The man followed him up the stairs.

"We can and will bring the full force of the law to bear on freeloaders. As the homeowner, your grandmother will be the one who suffers the consequences."

"What do I have to do to make you leave?!" Jon pleaded. He knew, of course. If he wanted the man gone badly enough, he would go, just as Gran had.

"As I've said, all we need to do is get the household paid up and I'll be on my merry way." Jon tried to close his bedroom door, and the man insinuated a foot just in time. "That'd be a lovely thing to do for your gran, I think." A hand followed, curling around the edge of the door, forcing it open. "Spare the old dear a lot of unpleasantness."

Jon rocked backward, looking for a way out. Corner himself in the bathroom? Let himself tumble backwards out the window? "L-l-listen, I...I can't. I just can't handle this right now." He forced his hands through his hair in agony, growling, gripping so he wouldn't reach for the man. "You need to - godammit! You need to GO!"

"No, son. You need to get your deadbeat mouth off the government tit."

"My god, you're really determined to deserve this."

"Now quit wasting both our time with this silly tantrum." The man approached, arms spread in appeal. Jon retreated, foot behind foot until his back hit the wall. "Let's go have a seat at the table like a couple of adult men-"

Jon looked deperately for something hard and moderately heavy to hurl in his direction. The Kant? No, it was a library book. He saw nothing else close at hand but a dusty throw pillow and an almost as dusty teddy bear in a tee shirt that read "Grannies are magic!" in childish font.

"-and work out an arrangement."

The scent of the man slammed into Jon like a wall. He was trapped between two walls. Jon's eyes rolled upward in silent appeal. He shuddered.

"What do you say, son?"

"I'm sorry."

A still moment like the strobe of a bright light, the man frozen in it, in his relative stillness. His eyes were wide, like a child who'd had a bottle rocket go off in his face, but Jon was the rocket. 

Then the man's head hit the floor, choking off a shocked cry, and Jon was on top of him, the man's wrists in his hands, the man's throat hot and thrumming between his jaws. The man was much taller than he was. Much stronger, too. But Jon was very motivated and very pregnant.

Then man bucked beneath Jon when the hypostome slid into him. Jon rolled forward, grinding his body, the mass of his belly, into the man, and the man gave way beneath him, ribs fairly creaking. He tried to whip his head away from Jon, but Jon had exactly as many hands as he needed to hold him still.

And it was so good surging down Jon's throat, flushing and warming him. Filling him. It was good. And the man writhed and gurgled beneath him, slowly deflating as Jon and...and his brood grew, and it was good.

It was spiritual and it was blissful and it was peaceful and it was visceral, because every sublime delight was carried by rusted, ungainly infrastructure of the carnal. And it was good. And dirty and shameful and cruel and horrible and warm and sopping wet like all the most good things.

But, quite suddenly, it was enough.

Jon realized that he could stop. He didn't particularly want to, but…

He was still there. He hadn't been swept out of his head by the carmine flood this time. He was still very much in his mind and his body. He could feel the stubble of the man's neck beneath his tongue. Faintly taste something bitter on the skin, behind the sweat, that might be cologne. Or maybe some medicine in the blood? It was a bit like a crushed paracetamol.

For a moment he froze, not drinking. Confused. He could have enough, it seemed. There was a limit.

He ratcheted his jaws open. Slowly retracted his head, feeling the hypostome slide out of the man's neck.

The man gave a weak little cry beneath him as the tip of the blade slid free, and Jon swore as a gout of blood gushed from the slit in the man's neck. This had never happened to him before. He'd never been able to pull himself free while there was still blood pressure. While there was still blood.

Jon pressed his wadded up dressing gown to the wound, took the man's hands in either of his--limp, cold, blue-nailed--and tried to make him hold down on the cloth. The man flopped feebly, fighting him. His eyes were fluttering, head rolling against the carpet. His face was moist and white as a cheese left out on the counter.

Jon slapped his cheeks lightly. "You there. Hey." Only then did Jon see the nametag. "Stelfreeze? Can you hear me?"

The first aid kit. They had one, didn't they? They had once. Jon remembered sticking plasters all over himself once upon a time, before he'd realized Gran didn't laugh at things, and then he'd never seen it again.

The man was bleeding all over his dressing gown. Would soon be bleeding all over his carpet. Jon made a high, distressed noise.

There was tape in the other bedroom--painter's tape. Jon had meant to paint the room a masculine color and move in, had bought all the supplies, but then had never got around to it.

The man had stilled in the mean time. Well, he would do what he could, Jon thought, feeling a wave of post-feeding lassitude wash over him. All anyone could do was do what he could.

He made a hash of it. It wasn't tidy. But at last, a bulging wad of fabric circled the man's neck, anchored in place by tight loops of tape. It did seem secure, at least.

He sat back on his heels looking down at the man stupidly. This was quite a problem. Not as big a problem as a corpse, but a much more…delicate one. The thought of killing the man the rest of the way crossed his mind but was as viscerally disgusting as it was morally disgusting. Now that he was done, he was done. Not another drop.

“Jonathan! We have guests! Come downstairs and say hello!”

Fuck. Of course. Of course she'd choose now. Jon fell forward onto his elbows, hands fisted in his hair. "I still want you gone. Why are you-" Well, after fifteen years living together, there should have been no doubt remaining whose will was stronger.

"Coming!"

Dreadfully, he heard the heavy stump of her foot falling on the first stair.

He straightened back up, wincing as his popped out navel dragged against the carpet, making his nerves spark weirdly. "Gran, I'm coming!"

And so was she, by the sound of it, unsteadily and effortfully.

"Goddammit! You're going to kill yourself on the stairs!"

The man, Stelfreeze or whatever, groaned weakly, eyes fluttering. Jon staggered to his feet, slammed the bedroom door and locked it.

"Did you just close a door in my face? In my house, Jonathan?"

It was hardly her face. From the sound, she was only halfway up the stairs.

"I'll be right there, Gran!" Jon dragged the top half of Stelfreeze into the closet, listening to her clump ever closer.

"Open this door immediately!" She rapped on it. "I have something to say to you."

"Don't you always," Jon muttered, folding the rest of Stelfreeze into the closet. He tugged the accordion doors as far closed as he could, and made a quick, fruitless sweep for something to throw on top of his dishevelled tee and trunks. Never mind that, he decided hastily. Not as though anyone would notice.

"Yes?" He said, cracking the door, allowing himself to look put out. "What was so incredibly urgent? I said I'd be right down."

She glared right back at him, looking cross and slightly sunburnt. "We're going to need to have a very serious talk about your inability to clean up after yourself."

He blinked at her. A little bubble of hysteria rose up inside him. He caught it behind his fist before it could break out of his mouth in a full donkey laugh. Oh right. He had torn the living room apart, hadn't he?

"Sor-" he nearly broke, then swallowed it back. "Sorry about that, Gran. Where do you keep the television license, by the way? Just out of curiosity."

"Over seventy fives don't have to have one. Come now." Squinting, she flattened his flyaway hair with her palms. "You embarrassed the hell out of me leaving the house in that state. The least you could do is come downstairs and say a few hellos and get the tea ready."

Right. Should be easy enough. Jon took his grandmother's arm on the stairs, listening to her natter about the snacks she wanted him to bring out for their guests. He could catch his breath, think about what to do with Stelfreeze. Maybe the man would come to and seize the opportunity to run away, Jon hoped.

"Do we still have the mini-pastries, or did you finish them off?"

"I haven't had any more. They're awful."

He followed her towards the living room--he must pull out the brie she’d bought last week, melba crackers, hard sausage in the back of the drawer, bring all that out, Jonathan, and then cut up a few of the strawberries, they were such a nice batch of strawberries--and Roger was there.

Jon spotted him over his grandmother’s head. Roger was there, sitting on his grandmother’s flowered couch, where Jon and Gran ate dinner together every night, next to a tired-looking middle-aged woman.

Gran sat herself in Grandfather’s recliner, which neither of them touched, ordinarily. Jon fell against the door frame. The floor felt like it was swaying beneath his feet.

“What are you doing here? How are you still alive?

“And what can Jonathan get for you?” Gran was asking. “He was just putting some tea on. Or-it’s a bit late for coffee, isn’t it? We’ve got a cider or two somewhere…”

“Tea would be nice. Thank you, Jonathan.” The woman, who he now realized was vaguely familiar, glanced his way with glazed eyes. “Goodness, you’ve grown.”

Roger’s eyes roved over Jon’s body with penetrating intimacy before settling on his middle. “He certainly has.”

“What is he doing here?” Jon looked wildly to Gran. His voice was so thin, he was unsure for several moments whether he’d actually spoken at all. Neither the woman or his grandmother acknowledged his question, but Roger’s smile widened a bit.

“Don’t be too hard on Brenda. I invited myself.”

“Why?”

“I thought I’d stop by with mum to see Little Einstein off to school. And see how that favor’s coming along.”

He was still wearing that same stupid shirt. The one he’d been taken by Mr. Spider in. The one he’d been wearing when Jon had tumbled his body over the pier rail into the ocean. It was unmarked, unstained, just like Roger’s skin, which showed no sign of the knife wound.

"No," said Jon. "This is not allowed. I refuse everything. This is stupid."

“You must be bigger than Roj.” Roger’s mother went on.

Roger's eyebrow ticced. “Bigger around.”

“That’s what comes of lazing around the house all summer,” Jon’s grandmother said airily. Lazing! The unfairness of this finally punctured Jon’s daze. It had been less than a week he’d been quit from the supermarket, and she’d agreed it would be good to take a few days to read up and prepare to go off to school, and Jon was on the verge of saying so, but Roger’s mother was hustling Roger to his feet, and the two of them were induced to stand back to back to see who was actually taller.

Jon was close enough to feel the heat of Roger’s body at the points they nearly touched, and to smell that peppery insectile—arachnid, he corrected himself—odor that surrounded him. The smell was different now, though. Comfortable. If people smelled like food, it only made sense monsters smelled like people. It spoke to his new instincts just as clearly as the tempting odors human exuded, but in a different timbre. Caressing instead of commanding, trailing gentle fingers along the inside of his skin. He jerked away.

“I think he’s got an inch or two on you.”

Roger smirked at Jon’s wary posture. “Doesn’t mean I can’t take ‘im.”

“Boys,” Jon’s grandmother said warningly, as though Jon had done something.

Roger’s mother flicked at Roger’s bicep with the back of her hand. “Just how old are you supposed to be anyway?”

“Yes, Roger,” Jon said, “How old are you? What have you been doing with yourself for the past…ten-”

“Twelve.”

“-twelve years? You rather,” Jon hesitated meaningfully, “dropped off the map.”

“Didn’t I mention?” Jon’s grandmother put in.

“You didn’t.”

“I must’ve.”

“I’m certain you didn’t." Jon said through clenched teeth. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Roger leering at his belly again. He just managed to stop himself from tugging the hem of his shirt down.

“He works at his dad’s firm,” Roger’s mother said.

“I’m a paralegal,” Roger clarified proudly.

“After he ran off to his father’s in Brighton, Jim called and asked if I wanted him sent back or put to work. I told him to put the boy to work.”

“Like a fucking slave. Seventy hours a week, fifty one weeks a year.”

“Roj!” Another flick of the back of the hand. “Watch your mouth.”

"How fortunate daddy has a firm," Jon said. “There’s something-hm…thematically appropriate in it, isn’t there?”

“Jonathan, why don’t you make the tea.”

“No, how about Jonathan explains what he meant by,” Roger’s voice took on the same nasal tone he’d always used to mock Jon,“’hm…thematically appropriate?’”

“I'm just wondering whether the Spider made you a parasite because that's the quality of character he had to work with.” Jon wasn’t sure how much of what he was saying was reaching Roger’s mother and his grandmother. From their faces, they could tell he’d said something rude, but didn’t seem to understand the particulars.

“Big talk from a future drain on the state.” Suddenly Roger’s hands were on Jon, firm and hot on either side of his navel. “How many little ones d'you think are packed in there, anyway? I heard the dole tapers off after the first fifty.”

“Jonathan will be studying Classics at Balliol,” Gran said to Roger’s mother.

“Well, that sounds exciting,” she replied politely. “What’s that all about? Greek and Latin? Is it more the history or-”

“Hope they’ve got family housing.” Roger’s hands were moving lightly over him. His face was too close. Jon wanted to recoil, but couldn’t. “Do they frown on unwed mothers? Lock ‘em away in the slut dorm, just like this, barefoot in a tight little shirt.” His shirt rucked up under Roger’s hands. Flesh brushed flesh. Roger licked his lips, voice dropping. “Jesus, you’re about to pop, aren't you.”

Jon broke, slapping Roger’s hand away. Nightmare. This is a nightmare. A red alert blared through his body. Nightmare. I need to get away.

“I-I-I-I’ll, I’ll get the tea,” and at the inanity of that, he colored violently, but he was already fleeing into the kitchen. And Roger was loudly volunteering to help and following on his heels, so Jon darted through the other doorway, down the hall to the stairs, and up to his room, and bless adrenaline, because even swollen up like a monstrous water balloon he’d never moved so fast in his life. The door shut seconds ahead of Roger, and Jon punched the flimsy lock and braced his heels against the floor, holding it closed. He waited.

There wasn’t long to wait. The door shook against Jon’s back as Roger leaned against it. “Aww, come on, Jonboy-“

“Jonathan.”

“…right. I was just kidding around with you a bit.”

“W-why did you come back? If it’s revenge you wanted-” Jon broke into shuddering laughter, then tried to muffle it behind his hand. "You've had it."

“I don't want revenge. I just want my kids.”

Nothing he could have said could have confused Jon more deeply.

“Your…kids,” Jon repeated numbly. “Your kids?” He wasn’t sure where to put the emphasis. “But what you said-what you said about family housing-“

“Jesus, I told you that was a joke. You don’t want them, do you?”

“I want them-” Jon gulped air, “-out of me. I want this to never have happened.”

“Great. I can do that. I get them out of you, I go on my way, favor repaid, we're square, and you can pretend really hard this never happened. But you have to let me in.

No, Jon thought, he would not be doing that. He moved his hand to the door knob silently and gripped it. He waited for the knob to shake under his hands, to feel Roger’s body careen into the door. When he heard Roger’s steps recede instead, his heart only hammered more wildly. Where was he going? Pretending to retreat to draw Jon out? Feet on the stairs, and a few moments later he heard Roger’s voice briefly join the murmur of feminine voices in the living room. Should he run? Could he make it to one of the exterior doors before--

The next instant, Jon heard the opening and shutting of kitchens cabinets, then Roger's feet on the stairs, and knew he’d missed his moment. He should have snuck back downstairs. Even if he couldn’t have escaped, maybe whatever Roger wanted to do to him was something he’d balk at doing in front of his own mother.

Now he was locked in zugzwang. Out the window, disaster, at the door, disaster. In the closet, in the bathroom, under the bed--no, he couldn't even fit under the bed. Every possible choice lead to his end and the only difference was in degrees of ignominy.

“Jonathan.” The hair on the back of Jon's neck slowly rose. Roger’s voice held the same silkiness it had when he’d first coaxed Jon to swallow that foul liquid, pinned to the bed. “Let me help you with this.”

Jon managed to bite his tongue. You’ve done enough.

“I got a toothpick from the kitchen. I can pop it in the lock and have the door open right now, but I’m not going to do that. You know why?”

Pause for a response. Jon turned carefully and added his other hand to the doorknob.

“Because I want you to open it yourself. I want you to trust me with this.” A massage. “I really do just want to help you. I’ll collect my kids and go. We both want that, right? Everything will go back to normal.”

Normal? Was it still possible? Jon squeezed his eyes shut, carefully controlling his breath. Silent, silent. I’m not here.

“Fucking say something! I know you’re in there!”

Silent.

Jon heard him lick his lips. When he spoke again, his voice was low and taut as a cello string. "I can smell the sexy fucking stink of you right through the door.”

"What a fantastically ill-advised thing to say to me."

A triumphant chuckle. “There’s Einstein. Ready to negotiate?”

“Here’s my position. Go away and I won’t stab you again.” The carving knife was still beneath the bathroom sink. Jon might be able to get it in his hand before Roger could spring the lock.

“Because it worked so well the first time.”

“It certainly looked like it hurt.”

A waiting silence fell outside the door. Downstairs his grandmother and Roger’s mother chatted on. They’d do so for however long Roger pleased, Jon assumed. His thighs and forearms were starting to burn from holding the door. The new weight of him didn’t help. A bolt of hot agony lanced his left knee, and Jon barely stopped himself from collapsing.

“I wouldn’t try to cut them out of you, if that’s your plan,” Roger said at last. “Like you said, it hurts.”

Cut them out? Jon wrinkled his face, perplexed. Was it a threat? It didn’t sound like one.

Is that your plan?”

“It’s really none of your concern,” Jon spat. He let himself relax against the door, just to give his shaking knees a moment’s respite.

“You could just leave them in. I kind of like that idea. You’ve got a pretty shape like this.”

Jon had never been so grateful for a door as his face flamed. Roger, unfortunately, went on. “Leave it long enough, and they’ll probably hatch inside you and crawl out on their own. Or maybe they’ll stay inside, latch on like ticks do."

No, oh no. Now Jon was seeing it. Ticks biting him in his soft pink insides, swelling with blood until they blocked his airways. Crawling over each other's blood-bloated bodies, into his lungs, his throat, the insides of his nasal passages…

"Never seen anyone decide to just leave them in before," Roger went on. "It could be interesting.”

“Y-you…you’ve seen this before?

“Didn't I say I know what I’m doing?”

Jon opened the door. He stood looking at Roger, who’d braced himself against the doorframe. The toothpick Roger had mentioned tumbled to the hall carpet as his mouth fell open in surprise.

“Right,” Roger said, mastering himself. He clapped his hands together briskly and started forward. "You won't regret this."

Too late.

Jon stopped him. "Tell me exactly what you're suggesting."

"I'm going to squeeze your stomach to make you puke up the eggs." Roger reached into his back pocket. "We'll put them in this." He shook out a heavy black garbage bag. Jon recognized it as the brand Gran kept under the kitchen sink.

"That's it? Really?"

"Really."

"I can do that myself."

"Can you? I've got you well beat when it comes to grip strength." With a sound like a castanet flourish, Roger’s other four arms unfolded around him. "Am I supposed to just sit on my hands while you fumble around?"

"Fine. Alright, fine," Jon said. He caught another flicker of surprise in Roger's eyes. Well, why start making good choices now? It’s not as though there are any. "Let's get this over with."

Roger pressed him towards the bed eagerly, all six hands reaching forward.

“Wait!” Jon wanted to be close to the knife. He scrabbled for an excuse. “This is going to be messy, isn't it?"

"Just break out the old rubber sheets, right? Should be no problem."

Roger actually recoiled at the force of Jon’s glare. “We’ll do this in the bathroom,” he insisted.

“Right.” Roger put all six hands up placatingly. “Your show, mate.”

He let Jon lead the way into the bath. "Christ, this place. I feel like I understand much too much about you." He disdainfully pinched the doily covering a little pot of ancient potpourri. "Can't believe this pastel shithole will be the first thing my kids see."

"Shut up." Jon was about to tell Roger to get on with it, but suddenly he was, pressing the length of his body against Jon's back. His main pair of arms slid beneath Jon's to cup the underside of his belly.

"Mmm." He felt Roger's breath warm against his ear.

"W-what are you-"

"I don't get to touch something that smells like you every day. Let me-" Roger's fingers curled, and Jon became uncomfortably aware of how close they were to his penis.

Please don't get hard right now. PLEASE.

Jon trapped Roger’s hands under his own. “Keep it professional, please."

“So none of this?” Roger turned, pressing his lips into Jon’s neck.

“No.”

“No, none of that, or no, it’s fine?”

“None of that! Obviously.

“Right. Well, what about a bit of this?” Another of Roger’s hands dropped toward Jon’s waistband, and he slapped it away. Roger chuckled against his neck, and Jon could feel his chest shake where his back was pressed to it. A panicked heat washed over him. The nightmare just kept unfolding, expanding into unexpected and mortifying dimensions like a Roentgen cabinet, horny secrets tumbling out of the little trick drawers and hidden panels.

“Stick. To the plan. We agreed on.”

“What if I told you it was part of the plan?” Roger teased, but all six hands settled obediently on Jon’s abdomen.

“I’d stab-“

Roger's fingers flattened back out, then stroked upward over his belly in a smooth motion and, for a moment, that upward motion was the only thing keeping Jon on his feet at all. His knees wobbled. His head fell back, lolling against Roger's clavicle. Or some analogous piece of chitin, whatever.

"How's that?"

Jon was relieved he couldn't answer because he might answer honestly. Roger didn't need his permission to keep going, though, his hands falling back to Jon's stomach to stroke upward again. And again. And again.

Jon moaned. He couldn't stop himself. Couldn't think, suddenly, why he'd want to.

This was different than the hot little zap of pleasure Jon had accidentally sparked when he'd been prodding his stomach. Different than the relaxing buzz of his own hands light on his body. For one, there were six hands, moving firm and fast. For another, Roger knew what he was doing.

Jon didn't know if it was experience, instinct, or something else that made Roger so good at it. Maybe an imposition of will, like the one that sang victims toward him? But Jon didn't much care. Roger's hands were unravelling him, thread by thread, and it felt incredible. It was nicer than drinking blood, even, he realized, and marveled that that was a thought he was capable of having.

"I could almost like you like this." Like what? Panting and speechless, Jon supposed. Pushing hinself greedily into Rogers hands. There was such a genuine affection in Roger’s tone, Jon thought he must have spoken half-unconsciously. Like when he’d said those…things in the living room. About the tight little shirt.

Jon caught their reflection in the mirror from the corner of his eye. God, Roger had been right. He made some kind of picture, tee shirt caught up above his middle, showing inches of shiny-taut skin between his hem and his waistband. Big as a fucking house. Ripe to bursting. The size disparity made his helplessness in Roger's hands more embarrassing.

One pair of hands began to lift his tee shirt over his head while another looped beneath his belly to hook into his waistband. He was being undressed. Add that to the lump pressing against his bottom, and even his endorphin-sodden brain could figure out what Roger was driving at.

"Wait."

"What?"

"You're a monster," he said calmly, as his head popped out of the neck hole of his shirt.

"The brain on you-“

"Shut up," Jon snapped. "I'm trying to think." Roger's hands froze, gripping the waistband of Jon's pants. The fabric dragging against the head of his cock wasn't helping his concentration.

"And I don't like you," he went on deliberately, like an overenunciating drunk. "You're the worst person I've ever met."

"What's your point?" Roger sounded a little on edge. He was hitching his hardened whatever-he-had against Jon's ass in subtle, shifty little movements, like he could rub himself off against Jon without his noticing.

"Just thinking aloud."

Roger made a little noise that could have been questioning or just stimulated. He was still rubbing against Jon, but getting less sneaky about it.

"And considering this is all your fault to begin with-"

"Depends what 'this' you're talking about, doesn't it?"

"-you don't deserve my gratitude for your so-called help. As a matter of fact, you shouldn't have anything you want. Ever." Jon finished decisively.

As true as that was, he wished it felt more urgent. Nothing felt urgent at all--just soft and tingling and good. Even spite, which had never failed Jon before, was gone. There was no room for it around all the eggs stuffed inside him.

"Mmm. Shouldn't you have what you want, though?" Roger's hands, distractingly, began to stroke slowly over his stomach once again.

Jon blinked. Well, no, actually. He shouldn't either.

"You're a brick, carrying all these eggs for me." But he'd killed four people, though. Maybe five? And it wasn't as though being a vehicle for more monsters to enter the world was, in itself--Roger nuzzled Jon's neck again and he flinched away, troubled.  Neither of them deserved to have sex, they were both-

Wait. There was something wrong with that thought. Again, Jon clamped his hands over Roger's.

"Would you stop that?! I can hardly think straight!"

Another pair began once again to tug on Jon's pants, letting his cock pop free. "I always think better with my pants off," Roger said helpfully.

"Roger-" he said warningly.

The pair of hands that had come to rest on Jon's belly began to move again. Another hand fastened around his cock. Two more caught him under the armpits, just in time to catch his weak-kneed body. Roger let him down in a controlled fall to support himself against the counter.

Bent forward, Jon felt a thumb sink into his unresisting asshole.

“What. I didn’t-”

“I’ve got to push the eggs out from the butt end, too.” Roger protested. “It’s like a…a whadyacall? Like a reverse vacuum.”

“I’ve never heard such-”

"Thought it’d be a lot tighter back here,” Roger went on approvingly. A couple experimental fingers followed the thumb. Jon could feel his sensitive body stretch freely as  Roger crooked his knuckles. He flushed, avoiding his own eyes in the mirror.

“I-it’s whatever you did to me. Something to do with the pregnancy.”

"Don’t get defensive, alright? It’s heaven." He wasn't looking at the mirror when Roger sank into him. “Gaaaahhhh, you’re like warm butter.”

"Shut. Up." Jon panted. It was so much. The eggs were shifting inside him to make room for Roger, pushing him to the sweating point, sending waves of heat and shivers chasing across his taut skin.

"Fuckin’ incredible."

Jon tried to tense around Roger—offer some sort of resistance--but between the hands stroking his abdomen, and the skillful fingers moving rhythmically up and down his cock, he could barely manage a flutter. It was all he could do to keep his elbows locked and not faceplant into the mirror.

And then Roger started squeezing.

When Jon had imagined what Roger meant to do, he'd pictured a six-armed bear hug. This wasn't that. It was a deepening of the rhythm Roger had been stroking into him, a slow application of inward and upward pressure. Each hand would press firmly into the the little flat triangle of pelvis beneath his belly, pushing back into him, toward Roger's cock, pushing precum in drips of ones and twos out of his own, gathering up a head of pressure under Jon's belly, before carrying it up, through, and out of him. And then another hand would repeat the gathering of pressure. Inside him, the eggs moved against each other, dozens of points of pressure rubbing  against him from the inside. Sparking inside him. The pressure rose. Jon felt it concentrated around where Roger was buried inside him, working slowly in and out.

It was too much. He had to close his eyes against the intrusion of the light, the only door he still had the power to close. So much mass stuffed into him. So much being moved around inside him. So much unasked for pleasure. There was no outlet for the pressure he felt building inside him, and he was suddenly certain his mind would give before his body. He couldn't feel this good. He wasn't made for it. It was too hot to hold, so he melted down. Too heavy to bear, he collapsed. 

And Roger's hands still moved, manipulating his unresisting body.

At some point his eyes slipped open again. It was too much effort to keep them closed. He barely recognized himself in the mirror--he looked like he'd been literally fucked stupid with his slack mouth and dark, glassy eyes. Six strong hands moving over his lovely full belly. Too full.

He split.

He watched his eyes open wide as the first egg rose up his throat, swelling it from inside, and slipped into his mouth. In a moment of addleheaded panic, he almost swallowed it back down again, but Roger was swiftly spreading the black plastic bag he'd brought in the sink beneath him, and Jon took the cue to let it drop from his lips.

Oh, it’s orange, he thought in surprise as a second egg fell beside the first. The pictures in the encyclopedia hadn't had any color. Like salmon roe. They were quite pretty--jelly looking, and shining wet, about the size of cricket balls. He liked them. Was oddly proud something so pretty had come out of him.

A second followed. A third. He didn't bother counting. There were so many, he couldn't feel the discrete difference as each fell from his lips, but instead a long, luxurious sigh as the pressure inside him released.

And the eggs fell, gleaming and bright into their makeshift nest, like they were dropping off a coveyor belt. They were all perfect, all the same. They fell one after another. He watched the pile grow with pride. And grow, until it seemed impossible he'd held so much.

Jon was too lost to pinpoint when the sensation shifted. But when he heard his own thin whimpers between each egg, he realized what he was feeling was pain and that he had been for some while. Did the pleasure recede enough to reveal the muscular wringing that had been running underneath it all along, or was it that his nerves just didn't know how to parse pleasure that strong and pain was the nearest approximation?

It didn't matter, because it wasn't going to stop either way. Not when the eggs were still dropping from his mouth in an endless ellipsis with barely a moment to breathe between. Not when his body was weak and boneless, nothing more than a sleeve, a tube, to hang in Roger's manipulating arms, and have things pushed out of it. And if he somehow, by some miracle, got free of Roger, he couldn't escape what Roger had started inside of him. Roger was still shepharding the process along, yes, but the rhythm had been written in Jon's own body, and it would not stop.

Something brushed against his ear. Roger making infuriating, patronizing, completely inadequate little shushes. One of his hands combed through Jon's hair.

Don't touch me unless you're going to kill me.

Instead of a scream, another pretty, shining egg.

I hate you. I hate you! I'LL KILL YOU!

"Iiiiii-" he began, over the murmur of Roger's sweetheart and you're doing so good, and, instead of the rest of the words, the cramp bore another egg up and out of his mouth. The pile shivered gold and orange in Jon's watery vision.

There were already so unimaginably many.

"Haaa-"

"Shhhh. It's alright, darling. You're doing just-"

Another was coming. Everthing between his balls and his lungs knotted and released in a slow, rhythmic wave. With the force of his breath behind it, the next egg overshot the pile and rolled across the sink to rest against the mirror. One of Roger's hands scooped it back onto the top of the pile, shifting Jon's body to reach around it.

His vision was greying. Better not to try to speak-- wasted air. There wasn't much to be had. It was hard to get anything in. Everything was coming out. Even Roger was slipping out of him, Jon realized distantly. Letting something slick trickle down the back of his thighs. This part was taking all of Roger's concentration, apparently. Jon's eyes had slid mercifully shut at some point, and there was no further question of any form of resistance, however slight. The pain ran through him on and on.

But not, Jon eventually realized, forever.

The rhythm began to wobble apart, eggs coming more slowly. Though the cramps were so deep now, they sucked at his bones, they were coming between lengthening periods of respite. There were several long seconds after each egg when Jon could shiver in his own cold sweat and breathe.

"Two left," Roger said in the longest lull yet. His hands had slowed their motions, pushing deep into Jon's softened abdomen and holding firmly. It was what his body needed, somehow. A break. Roger's embrace was holding the cramps at bay for the moment.

Jon tried to say something, watched his mouth move silently in the mirror. His hair was clinging to his forehead in dark curls. The effluent of his mouth, his nose, his eyes, glistened down his chin and across his chest.

Roger said it himself. "That's right." Jon could feel each of the eggs inside him, Roger's fingers on the eggs, right through the skin of his belly. "It's almost over. Just two more."

There was rust all along the jagged edges of Jon's voice when he managed to speak. "Do it."

He couldn't decide later whether it would have been kinder if Roger had just kept going. Maybe it would have killed Jon if he hadn't had those minutes to breathe and recover first. Whatever the case, the last two cost him the most. They took Jon to depths of agony beneath the floor of what he'd imagined was possible. There was raw, dirty grit there underneath the tiles Roger pried out of his sanity. It was grey and hard and went down forever. There was screaming that may not have been audible.

But when Jon came back to himself, his ears were ringing, so maybe it had been.

He was on the floor of his bathroom, clammy skin molded into the stamped vinyl. At least it was fairly clean, Jon thought. Or had been. Roger had been kind enough to drop him such that his own discarded clothes were pillowed under his face. Not kind enough to clean him off. His face was starting to feel gritty and tight as tears and snot dried. Gummy runnels of cum clung to his thighs. There was a clot of it cold between his big toe and the next one over where it had run all the way down. He noticed more cum on the front of the sink cabinet. It was probably going to discolor the varnish.

The murmur of coversation traveled up through the floor into his ear, followed by a burst of laughter.

For the moment, he didn't hurt, but he had an acute sense of danger around trying to move. His eyes rolled toward the sink cabinet, where he'd stashed the carving knife. It was less than two meters from him, but may as well have been miles 

Roger was doing fine, of course. He'd tucked his cock and his extra arms away at some point and seemed to be getting ready to leave. Jon watched him lift the bag of eggs, black plastic stretching between his fingers at the weight, but holding. He noticed Jon.

"Oh, you're back."

"I hate you."

"Alright. Want a towel or something?"

"Die writhing, you-"

"Fine, mate! Just thought you looked cold."

"-seeping pustulent boil on the face of creation. You eight legged obscenity."

Jon watched Roger turn swiftly away to hide a giggle. He threw the bag over his shoulder and headed out the bathroom door. "Right, well, have fun at school. Cheers."

The door closed. Jon let his head drop back into the little pile of clothing. Slowly, between winces, he raised his free arm enough to snag a corner of his tee shirt and scrub his face with it.

He realized he hadn't actually heard Roger's footfalls on the stair the same moment his voice called from the bedroom.

"Err...Jonathan?" The door opened again. "The guy in your closet's not looking great."

Jon sighed, dragging his hand down his face. "No. I imagine not."

What now? What the fuck now?

"…alright. Well, uh…" Roger went on after a while, "want me to take care of him?"

"What, kill him?"

"No! Jesus. I mean take care of him. Like, get him to hospital?"

"If you would." His voice was thick through his aching throat. He swallowed, and that hurt. It felt sharp.

"Right, well." A moment of hesitation followed. Jon was still rubbing at his eyes, watching the light burst. He wished Roger would just go. "You suck at this, by the way. You're going to half-kill a man and leave him in your closet? You really are the classic book smart idiot, aren't you?"

"I suppose I should have killed him the whole way and stuffed him in the garden shed."

"Been a bit smarter, yeah."

"Well, it's filling up in there, so excuse me if-"

"You're joking."

Jon finally looked up at Roger. There was a stunned expression on the other man's face. Apalled and…impressed?

"What?"

"You're telling me you're…there are corpses in your gran's garden shed? Like, right now?!"

Jon had levered himself up onto one trembling arm and stopped there. He couldn't yet go on, but refused to collapse back to the floor.

"Oh, I suppose you have a professional corpse disposal system, do you? Meat grinder? Bathtub of acid? Well, I've been a monster for all of half a week, so forgive me if I'm still getting up to speed."

"You're really not having me on. You killed people."

"You k-kill...you kill people. You're a bloodsucker."

"Well, yeah."

"You kill people." Jon's vehemence knocked the rust off his voice, and it came out too clear and too loud. He suppressed a cough, knowing he'd collapse if he gave in.

Roger shot a look at the partially open door behind him, and stepped closer before replying, more quietly, "I never killed anyone, mate."

Jon's mouth worked silently for several seconds. "How?"

"Whaddaya mean, 'how?' A little nip here, a little nip there, then send them on their way. It's not that hard if you have a little self control."

"I WAS FUCKING HUNGRY!"

"R-right. Right, mate," Roger's hand was up in the same warding gesture from earlier, but it seemed more genuine this time. "Listen, I-I've never been...'s'not like I've ever been pregnant. I was just surprised. Not...judging. Honest."

"B-but-but the other...the other people you've done this to…the other ones you've gotten…" There was total incomprehension in Roger's eyes. He'd forgotten he'd even lied. So Jon was his first after all.

Roger knelt in front of Jon. "Listen, I'm sure you only did what you had to for the--for our kids. I'm grateful. Truly. I'll...say, I'll even get rid of the bodies for you? How's that?"

Jon didn't know what Roger decided to do. Roger left at some point while he was crying without consulting him any further. Must have been awkward for him. By the time Jon's sobs broke apart into coughing, the afternoon light through the yellowed eyelet curtain was shading toward evening. He could no longer hear any conversation downstairs.

It started in his lungs, but lodged sharp in his throat. He convulsed, rolling onto his knees and elbows, despite the screams of protest from his abused muscles, and retched. And coughed.

And felt something tear loose and slide out of his mouth like some backwards afterbirth. The hypostome.

Jon looked down at it. It was a cloudy amber color like something dredged up by the tides and dried to leather by the sun. There was a little scrill of blood and flesh at the base of it, where it had torn loose from him.

Maybe it was really over, then. Jon let himself fall back to the floor, reaching to tug a towel from the wall rack over his body. Or maybe it wasn't, but there was nothing he could do but wait to find out. What would happen would happen. 

 

-Afterward-

 

What happened was nothing.

Jon spent the next days avoiding his grandmother as much as he could and recovering. He told her he was sick, and at the sight of him, she agreed.

He hobbled downstairs the second day at her insistence he eat something. He knew she would try the stairs if he didn't come down.

Jon hid himself beneath his largest tee shirt, the one he'd now been wearing for several days. It was as stretched out and distorted as his body was. As he gingerly lowered himself into the kitchen chair across from his grandmother, he noticed the distasteful wrinkle of her nose. He hoped he didn't actually smell, but didn't care that much.

The rice porridge she'd made tasted the way it should--starchy and comforting.

He found himself tottering aimlessly from room to room as he recovered, like there was something he'd forgotten and once he saw the right object or slant of light on a wall, he'd remember what it was. He checked the garden shed and found it empty. He thought that may have been it, but his brain was still astir with disquiet.

"Jonathan, for god's sake, sit down."

"I'm regaining my strength."

"Use the exercycle."

"You hate the noise."

"Your stirring the house up is worse. And put on some real clothes."

The mention of real clothes jogged his memory. "The book! It needs to go back before tomorrow."

The damned thing was too thick to fit into the drop slot, so Jon took it inside. It was the first time he'd been close to other people since-

And it was fine. Fine! He felt a satisfying sense of completion handing the book off to the librarian, even if he'd never finished it. Had that really been it, Jon wondered as he went back into the open air.

Some of it. It was better. There was still something missing, unfinished. But maybe that was just what leaving home felt like.

By the time he got on the train to Oxford, Jon was mostly recovered. He could walk without limping and stand with his shoulders back for minutes at a time.

Following some mental template of how these things were supposed to go, he brushed a kiss against his grandmother's cheek at the platform. She twitched backwards, raising a hand to her cheek, but didn't look displeased.

"Alright, Gran?"

"Right. I'll see you at Christmas, Jonathan."

Jon didn't have to make an effort to lose himself in schoolwork. He stepped off the train, and Oxford swallowed him. He overheard other students talking in the library late one night about how far away home felt. About Oxford as a dimension, as a whole world, and home and childhood feeling like something read about in a book a long time ago. He almost said something from the neighboring desk where he sat alone. Yes, it's exactly like that.

And if Bournemouth was a book, closed for now, but sitting in arm's reach on the shelf, his four days of monsterhood at the end were a few little scraps torn out of some outlandish tabloid. Vivid and disturbing, but impossible. Things that never happened, or never happened so much, or that way.

He knew how he could make it real. He knew how easy it would be to find local news coverage of his victims' deaths, if he looked. He did not look.

He didn't even dream of those days, though the old nightmare about Mr. Spider still featured in the rotation.

The only evidence it had ever happened at all was on Jon's body, and he'd always found it easy enough to ignore his body. He'd healed most of the way to his orginal state, the elastic matter of his flesh gradually shrinking back into shape. Or something close to it. For the finer details--the stretch marks, the soft ladder of rolled skin climbing his narrow torso--there was dim lighting when he showered and tilting away from mirrors. Not because the sight of his body disgusted him, or made him scared, or guilty.

No, it made him wonder where his children were.