by Mark Andersen

The house seemed empty, and they’d searched it thoroughly. All the same, Frank had not given up. There were methods he knew to find what he needed. He was standing in the center of what had once been an isolated third floor bedroom. They’d scoured the basement, first and second floors, even broken open walls that seemed recently repaired.

The search hadn’t taken long. The house was long abandoned and was almost empty. The floorboards were littered with dust and mottled mold. The walls were split and buckled by water damage and repeated freezes and thaws. The only furniture was broken. The cabinets had been shattered. There were few hiding places.

“Gleet," yelled Frank. A shuffle and grunt answered from below. “Bring him up here, I have some questions." There was more shuffling, then sliding, then the rhythmic thumps of one man hauling another up a flight of narrow stairs. There was a pause at the landing when Gleet adjusted his grip. Frank clasped his hands and waited.

Afternoon sun slanted in through a broken window. Dead leaves lay curled in the corners. Spots of dust danced lazily in the damp air. Gleet appeared in the doorway. He was naked and dragging the corpse by the hair and collar. Gleet’s body, thin and hard, was lined with ropey muscles and scrawled with scars. Gleet disliked clothes and was in the habit of disrobing whenever he could. His shoulders rippled as he yanked the corpse over the floor. When he dropped it, the skull hit the floor with a sharp knock. Gleet looked at Frank, curiously.

“Did you know," started Frank, pulling bottle from his jacket, “that maggot colonies are hives? Like ants. Or wasps."

Gleet straightened, interested. He cocked his head like a confused beagle.

“I know," said Frank. “It’s true though." He held up the jar, an old jam jar, for inspection. Behind the glass was a mass of pulsing, pale maggots. Frank shook it gently, as Gleet leaned in for a closer look. The tangled clump rolled over itself. He passed the jar to Gleet who twisted the top off, sniffed it and passed it back.

“Like ants," continued Frank, “the maggots can communicate in a rudimentary way. Individually, they’re nothing, but the hive mind is greater. The sum, the parts, you know how it is. Lift him please? Tilt his head back. Little further. Thank you."

Frank cupped one hand under the man’s mouth and funneled white worms into it. He looked up at Gleet who obediently gave the head a gentle shake and they watched the twitching clump break apart and disappear into the throat and sinuses.

“Lay him down," said Frank. They stood over the still body and waited. “You have your knife?"

Gleet stomped down over the stairs and came back moments later with a heavy cleaver. He offered the blade to Frank who shook his head. Frank was looking at the body as if he could watch the working worms through the skull and skin.

“There was a professor in the 1950s who almost caught on to the worms. McConnell. He discovered that a flatworm could gain the memories of other flatworms by devouring them.” Gleet, listening intently, looked from the corpse to Frank and back again. “Of course, what’s the sense in absorbing the memory of a worm? What does it know? Alright, open the skull please, and we’ll see what Mr. Clortho has to tell us."

Gleet sat cross-legged on the floor and lifted Clortho’s head by the jaw, face to face like a stern parent. He held the face at arm's length and swung the blade down into the skull where it protruded like a mohawk. Another swing, parallel to the first. He twisted the blade back and forth a few times and pulled it out. He went about the business of peeling away the scalp, revealing the slick bone beneath, riven by two deep, straight cracks. The narrow strip of bone between these splits he knocked loose with the handle of his cleaver. He slid the fingers of both hands into the gap and pried the skull up and out with a wet crunch. The opened braincase was alive with maggots.

“One flatworm," said Frank as he crouched by the mess, “can’t tell you much, but the hive mind might."

He began to pluck the maggots from the soupy wreck of brain like berries from a bush. When he’d gathered a small pile in his cupped hand, pink and wet, he lifted them to his lips and slurped them into his mouth. He rolled them over his tongue, trying to distinguish the taste of worm from that of Mr. Clortho’s grey matter. He swallowed and waited. A moment later it came to him.

“Of course," he said. “He ate it."

Waiting for no further prompting, Gleet opened the dead man’s belly with the cleaver, tunnelled his long fingers inside, groped about for a few moments and then withdrew. He was holding a tiny gold ring. He passed it to Frank who wiped away the ichor on his jacket.

“Thank you, Gleet. I’ll be downstairs, when you’re finished." Already, Gleet’s scarred penis was stiffening as he climbed onto the corpse. Frank slipped the ring onto his finger, admired it in the dusty light from the window, and skipped jauntily down the stairs.