Vermifuge was a short story written by Lorelei Shannon and released on Sierra's website as a free promotional for Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh in 1996.
The complete story can be read below with Lorelei Shannon's kind permission.
Vermifuge by Lorelei ShannonEdit
It was still quivering when she set it on the table. Gus stared. Happy birthday to me. Now I'm gonna barf. "Eeyow. Look at that little pink sucker." Tom poked at the sushi with his chopstick. Ethan looked ill. "I can't believe we came here. This isn't food." "So drink some more sake. You'll think it's a cheeseburger." Tom downed his drink, just to make the point. He turned to Gus and grinned. Gus smiled at Tom weakly, wondering how he got roped into this. Tom poured himself more sake and raised his cup. "Happy birthday, man. You're officially old." "Thanks a lot. Just remember, thirty-five is waiting for you, too." Tom grinned in his crazy way. "Not me, dude. I'll slit my throat first." Gus sipped his sake, smiling faintly. That's what you think, you cocky little shit. "Okay, how do we eat this stuff?" "Watch-ay-voo," said Tom, flourishing his chopsticks. "It's as easy as one--" he deftly seized a California roll. "Two--" He dunked it in his soy sauce. "Three." He popped it in his mouth and munched, smiling around bulgy cheeks. "Yeah, but how do you tackle these big ugly ones?" Gus pointed at the cuttlefish with his chopstick like a biology teacher indicating a badly dissected frog. Tom was sucking down another sake. "Well, you're supposed to swallow it whole. But if you can't--" he leered. "You take bites!" "Okay. I'll try anything once." Gus reached for a California roll. "Anything? Even, say, having a red-hot poker shoved up your ass?" Tom laughed explosively. "Oh man." Ethan shook his head. "Don't get wasted, Tom. We gotta go back to the office." "I'm fine." Tom toasted him, winked, and knocked back the alcohol. Gus finished his California roll, and decided it was pretty good. Time to go for the serious stuff. He put a grip on one of the weirder pieces of sushi, and hefted it. It nearly slipped out of his chopsticks. Gus shifted his grip to the middle of the thing, then discovered he couldn't maneuver it into his mouth. He gave up and grabbed it with his fingers. Here goes nothin'... The meat was good; kind of subtle. Gus had trouble biting it in half, though. It stretched. He finally managed, and decided it was okay. For raw fish. "Y'know," said Tom as he snatched up a roll of brilliant orange smelt roe with a quail egg on top, "One time I heard about this guy who ate some sushi that nearly ate him back." He looked at his friends darkly and gobbled the roll in one bite. A yellow trickle of egg escaped from the corner of his mouth. Ethan, who had managed to choke down a California roll and was contemplating the white rice, rolled his eyes. Tom was offended. "No, really!" he protested, around a mouthful of fish eggs. "I mean it. This dude ate some really fresh sushi, and it had these worm eggs in it." "Oh, God, Tom, shut up." Ethan looked pale. Gus stared at Tom. Worm eggs... Tom made a wiggling worm with his finger. "So he ate these worm eggs, but didn't know it. A few weeks later, he felt really sick. You know, his stomach was hurting and stuff. So he went to the doctor, and they said it was his appendix. They rushed him to the operating room, and when they cut him open, this big, fat, huge worm stuck its head out of his stomach and started waving around." Ethan set his chopsticks down with an air of finality. Gus stared. "It was really something, you know? Like, the whole operating room puked and stuff." Ethan shook his head. "Thanks for that charming story, Tom. Check, please!" Gus stared. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard his grandmother, screaming out his name. Worms, Gus-Gus, worms... Knocking over his drink, he ran to the bathroom and was violently sick. Gus's boss let him go home early. He wasn't feeling well, and it was, after all, his birthday. Gus gritted his teeth on the escalator to the ground floor, clutching the sticky handrail for balance although he hated to touch it. He felt like he might pass out. Sweat beaded his forehead as he drove. Gus felt like hell. He found himself thinking long thoughts of his bed, cool sheets, and maybe a little 7-Up to soothe his stomach. Gus took in a deep, shuddering breath. He could see Belinda and Carly's surprised, happy faces through the kitchen window as he pulled into the driveway. Gus felt his face pull into the helpless grin he wore every time his daughter smiled at him. The front door opened, and six-year-old Carly bounded out--followed closely by a black-and-white puppy. "Daddy Daddy!" Carly squeaked. "Happy birthday, Daddy! You're home early! Can I keep Trixie, Daddy? Can I keep her?" Gus looked at Carly's hopeful face, then up at Belinda, who stood in the door. He glared at her, mock-accusingly, and she shrugged and grinned. "Where'd you get her?" he asked. "Clara, at school. She couldn't keep her cause her mom's 'lergic to dogs and she was so cute and can I keep her?" "Well," he said, rubbing his chin, "Since she's a used dog, I guess we have to. Nobody would want a double-used dog." "Yay! Yay!" Carly danced around wildly with Trixie. The puppy snapped at her shoelaces, making the little girl laugh. Belinda smiled at Gus. There they were, the dimples that made his heart pound and his mouth go dry every time he saw her in fourth period French. That was so many years ago. So how come it still works on me? he wondered, and had to smile back. Belinda kissed his cheek. "Thanks, Gus," she said. "You bet." They locked eyes. "We still going out?" "You bet," she said, and winked at him. Suddenly, Gus felt better. Gus felt fine. In fact, he could hardly remember what had been wrong in the first place. That night, after dining, drinking, and hot, sweet sex, Gus slept badly. He dreamed of his grandmother. She towered over him as she bent down and held the cup to his lips. Her hand gripped the back of his head and the stuff was coming closer and he know he was going to puke or die and "Come on, Gus-Gus, open up..." He woke in darkness, shivering. He didn't get back to sleep for a long, long time. Despite a fuzzy tongue, Gus felt okay the next morning. He watched Belinda sleep for a while before he even got out of bed. He was smiling by the time he got out of the shower, grinning as he pulled on his socks. There was a tap at the bedroom door. "Come in, short person," Gus called. The door opened, and Trixie raced in, followed by Carly. The little dog leaped up and licked Gus on the mouth. "Carly, control your hellhound!" he laughed. The little girl looked offended. "Trixie's not a hellhound. Trixie's a good girl." "Well, tell your good girl to let go of my sock, hmm?" Gus cooked breakfast for his family that morning. In the middle of frying bacon, he remembered something he had heard about pork and parasites. He cooked the bacon until it was crumbly. He still couldn't eat it. Gus crossed his arms as he rode the escalator up to his office. He always considered the handrail unclean, and it looked particularly nasty today. Its surface was mottled, and he could see stuff stuck in the grooves of the rubber. Gus shuddered, and looked away. Tom wasn't at work. He had called in sick with stomach cramps. "No wonder," said Ethan, looking sour, "considering how much he drank." Gus thought he must be right. But Tom had eaten more sushi than Gus and Ethan combined. All it took was one little egg... Totally ridiculous. Right?
Carly's face was worried as she looked up at Gus. "We took Trixie to the vet today. She gots worms." Worms. Gus's stomach tightened, twisted. He looked down at the pup, who was sitting on his foot confidingly. He looked at the pup, who had licked his mouth... Gus grabbed Trixie so suddenly that she yelped. He held her at arm's length, and ran for the door. "Daddy!" shouted Carly. "Daddy, don't!" Belinda was right behind him. "Gus, what the hell--?" He threw the door opened, and tossed Trixie out. The puppy landed on her stomach, hard. The breath was knocked out of her in a squeak. She looked at Gus guiltily over her shoulder, and made him feel like an absolute shit. He slammed the door. Carly was crying. Belinda was mad. "Dammit, Gus, why'd you do that? Trixie's not contagious. You can't get worms from a dog." Belinda looked at him, arms crossed, lips tight, waiting for an answer. He was silent. "Gus, she just has to take this powder. That's all." She waved a little paper packet in front of his face. Gus drew back. "She'll be fine out there." His voice was flat. "It's warm outside." Belinda opened her mouth to say something. Gus turned his back on her and went into the bathroom. As he was washing his mouth out with soap, he heard the front door slam. Gus couldn't eat the next morning, which was fine with Belinda, who conspicuously fed his breakfast to Trixie.
Carly stared across the table at Gus with wide, accusing eyes. On his way out the door, Trixie jumped up on his leg. Gus shoved her down.
Gus went through his day in a daze. He made mistakes. He snapped at people. Tom was still out--stomach flu, the receptionist said. Gus didn't want to think about that. But by the time noon rolled around, he discovered he was famished. Gus went into the lunchroom, fishing in his pocket for change. He looked at the array of candy bars, chips, and plastic-wrapped sandwiches in the machines. He leaned forward, trying to decide if the ham-and-cheese were fresh enough. It didn't look that great. The cheese had slid to one side, and the ham was curled at the edges. Condensation beaded the inside of the plastic. No, he'd take a pass on that one-- Never eat anything wrapped in plastic, Gus-Gus. It's bad for you. You know what that wet stuff is, on the inside of the plastic? It's worm breath, Gus. He gulped in air, suddenly dizzy. He started to laugh, because it was just so damn stupid. Then he remembered his grandmother's face when she told him. Gus wasn't hungry anymore. He bought two cokes and went back to work. By three o'clock, he thought he would die of starvation. In a flash of brilliance, he decided on popcorn. It goes into the microwave, after all. What could survive that? Gus thought about popcorn on the way to the lunchroom. What made it pop, anyway? Something in the kernel. Gus remembered the Mexican jumping beans he had as a boy. They had little--worms--in them... Gus bought another coke instead.
On his way home from work, Gus stopped at the store and bought twelve bulbs of garlic, a can of air freshener, a frozen dinner, and an orange. Belinda made roast chicken and wild rice that night, as a peace offering.
Gus wouldn't eat it. He took his TV dinner out of the freezer and popped it into the microwave. Frozen to nuked. Nothing could live through that. He let it cook for fifteen minutes.
It was almost inedible, black and bitter and crunchy, but Gus devoured it. He went to bed early, because Belinda wasn't speaking to him and Carly stuck out her tongue every time he looked at her. He made sure the door was shut, so Trixie couldn't push it open in the night. After a while, he slept. Gus woke up from an unremembered nightmare, shaking, drenched in sweat. He leapt out of bed, ran to the bathroom, and threw up his incinerated frozen dinner. When he could walk again, Gus went to the kitchen. He chose a heavy saucepan and ran water into it. He put it on the stove, and began to peel and chop his bulbs of garlic. Methodically, he minced the garlic into a pulp. As he scraped it into the boiling water, Gus remembered.
"Grandma, I don't want it." "It's good for you, Gus-Gus. You're looking a little peaked." "Grandma, please. I hate it." "I know you do, pumpkin seed. That's why I put sugar in it." "Sugar doesn't help. I hate it." "Gus-Gus, do you know what worms can do to you? They can eat your insides. They can do worse things than that. Our family has a problem with worms, you know. That's why we have to take the Medicine, every spring, without fail." "I know." "Your Grandfather had the problem, pumpkin seed. He was stubborn, and didn't take the Medicine. He died. You weren't even born yet, but I remember, Gus-Gus. It was the worms that got 'im." "I know." "Here. Drink the vermifuge." "What's a vermi-fuge, Grandma?" "Worm-killer, sweetheart. Drink up, now. You can have an orange, if you drink it all." Gus always did. It wasn't much, just a swallow or two, but the garlic would stay with him for days. He could smell it on his breath and in the grease of his fingers. Sometimes he thought he would turn into a giant bulb of garlic. But it was better than having worms, right? Grandma knew best...
The sludge in the saucepan was boiling. The level of the liquid had gone way down. Fat bubbles burst in the goo, releasing noxious belches. The garlic tea was ready. Gus took a bag of granulated sugar from the cupboard and ripped it open. He poured some in the saucepan, and stirred until the sugar melted into the mix. Gus chose his favorite mug, the Garfield one that Carly had picked out for him. He lifted the saucepan carefully, and filled the mug to the top. He had to let it cool off a little. He blew on the surface of the stuff, watching the ripples in the viscous liquid. Just getting that close made his eyes water. Gus put the cup to his lips. He took a big mouthful, and had to clench his teeth to keep from spitting it out. Shuddering with nausea, he swallowed. Gus finished the mug in three big gulps, then sat gasping on the floor trying to keep it down. When his stomach stopped heaving, he filled his cup again. He paused. Gus opened the cupboard where Belinda was storing the new puppy's things. He took out the little packet of powder. Staring at the black kitchen window, Gus stirred it into the vermifuge.
Gus winked at Carly over the breakfast table. Her mouth twitched. He made a face at her, and she giggled. Belinda, carrying a plate of fruit and muffins, looked at him dubiously. "You're in a good mood this morning." "Yeah. I am." He reached out and stroked her arm. "I'm sorry, babe. I was just--stressing out, I guess. I'm better now." Belinda smiled at him, and his heart pounded like it always used to. Like it always would. Gus held out his arms for a kiss. Belinda got within inches of him, and stopped. "Phew. You smell like a whole Italian restaurant. What did you eat last night?" "Yeah, Daddy. You smell bad. The kitchen smells bad. The whole house smells baaaaaad!" Carly giggled. Gus froze. Belinda was looking at him, her head tilted to one side. Think, think, think! "Garlic. Bread. I made some garlic bread." Belinda kissed him soundly. "You used to hate garlic! Well, I'm just glad you ate something." Trixie stood up on his leg, begging a bite of his English muffin. Gus gave her some, and scratched her behind the ears. Gus ate his breakfast and had seconds. He kissed his family goodbye, got into his car, and faced the morning traffic with a smile.
Tom showed up to work, late and bedraggled. He woefully admitted to eating in a Mexican restaurant with a "B" health card, and swore off tequila and cheap tacos forever. Gus and Ethan gleefully tormented him all morning. Gus made up for his mistakes, smoothed feathers he had ruffled, and finished coding two important projects by ten o'clock. When Ethan popped in to ask whether Gus wanted anything from the catering truck, Gus decided to go with him. Gus picked out the biggest apple danish he could find. He dragged his prey back to his cubicle and munched as he worked, getting his computer keyboard sticky. Gus saved the fruit center for last. Holding the carefully nibbled goodie his left hand, typing awkwardly with his right, he bit in. Apple goo dripped down the front of his shirt. "Damn," Gus muttered. With a sigh, he decided to eat the last of the culprit before going to the men's room to wash. He held the danish fragment with both hands, just in case.
Raised it to his mouth. Saw the worms. They twisted slowly, suspended in the yellowish glop. They were fat, bloated and white. One was sitting on a chunk of apple, weaving back and forth. One was crawling out of the slime, onto the pastry, toward his finger-- With a choking gasp, Gus dropped the danish. He wiped his fingers on his pants again and again. The worms were still moving, creeping away from the pastry. Gus stomped and stomped until the floor of his cubicle was covered with a thin, sticky paste. Gus was very close to vomiting. Sweat popped out on his forehead. He sprinted for the water cooler. Grabbing a paper cup, he filled it with cool water, and gulped it down. Gus was going for a second cup when he saw them. Long, hairlike worms floated gracefully in the cooler like willows in the wind. Their little black heads were barely visible, their tiny mandibles opening and closing. Gus was sick on his shoes. Somebody screamed. Looking around like a cornered animal, Gus wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and bolted for the door.
Barely able to stand, Gus gripped the escalator handrail, closing his eyes in revulsion. It moved under his hand. Gus opened his eyes, and the handrail was pulsing and he suddenly realized the reason he hated it was because it looked like a giant, bloated tapeworm... Gus screamed. He reached the bottom of the escalator, and fainted.
"Bummer," said Tom, as he helped Gus out to his car. "I guess it really was the sushi. You sure you don't need a ride, man?"
"I'll be. Okay." Gus was gasping for breath. Tom insisted on driving him home.
The house was empty.
"Belinda?" Gus called. "Carly?" He had never wanted his wife and daughter more in his life. Gus stumbled into the kitchen for some 7-up and saw the note on the refrigerator. "Dear Gus, We lost the pup's worm meds. We went to the vet's for more. Back soon, love, Belinda." Gus slumped against the wall, tears clouding his eyes. "Belinda," he moaned. The cramps hit him hard. He doubled over, screaming. He had never felt pain like that in his life. Ever. The worms, Gus-Gus, the worms are eating you... He collapsed, crying. A wave of nausea struck him, and he gagged violently. His stomach clamped down. Moaning, Gus threw up. Little translucent balls rolled out of his mouth and scattered across the kitchen floor. Worm eggs! His brain screamed. Worm eggs! He blindly smashed at them. They burst, and the stench of garlic filled the kitchen. Not worm eggs. Garlic tea. Encapsulated garlic tea. Not believing, Gus reached for one of the balls. His fingers wouldn't spread. They were fused together. "Nooo!" Gus wailed. He beat his flippered hands on the floor. His skin was burning. First it was like a rash, then a sunburn, then a dip in a bathtub of acid. A thin whine slipped between his teeth as he ripped his clothes from his body. His skin was oozing something. Gus began convulsing. His jaws snapped open and shut. His thoughts were growing dim. He opened his eyes a slit, just before he lost consciousness, and saw his grandmother sitting at the breakfast bar. Our family has a problem with worms, you know...
The dirt is cool, and smells sweet. The wooden beams that support the house brush along his segments as he coils and uncoils, coils and uncoils. He wonders where he should be right now. He samples the dirt with his shiny mandibles. It isn't right for him. He tried to eat the garbage in the kitchen pail. That wasn't right either. His hard skin tightens, pulls away from the earth. It has begun to feel too cold. He craves warmth, moisture. He wonders when his wife and daughter will come home. He slowly undulates, weaving back and forth. But how, he wonders, will I ever fit inside them?