Photo by janan lagerwall on Unsplash

Everyone is frightened of something irrational.

If you ever meet someone who tells you they don’t scare easily or nothing makes them uneasy, then they’re either a liar or they aren’t looking hard enough. We all have our fears, our paranoid nightmares, the things that make our hearts race when an unfamiliar bump in the night is heard. None of these things can ever hurt us in reality, not always, anyway. They’re like Familiars. We can embrace them, accept them, learn to live with them, or we can let them eat away at us until we’re consumed. I thought I understood my fear, had it under control, but now I’m thinking it may destroy me anyway.

I am frightened of insects. To a paralyzing extent. I once had to be talked down from moving out of an apartment I had just signed a lease on because I found a cockroach in the bathroom on the first night. I looked it up. Entomophobia. That’s what it’s called, and that’s what I got. I even know where it came from.

I was three years old. It was the Fourth of July, and my parents had taken my infant sister and I to see the fireworks in the park at the town square. It was crowded, and on top of that, the fireworks were loud. My sister wasn’t a fan and started screaming right away. I didn’t notice. I was too fixated on the colorful explosions lighting up the night sky above me, my eyes glued to the fireworks, cloaked in red and blue overalls, a great big carnival lollipop in my right hand. I’ve seen pictures from the night it happened. I looked like a cartoon. The screaming became too much and my mother tapped me on the shoulder, snapping me out of my trance.

“C’mon, let’s go, Cassie’s too upset,” she said, anxious, feeling judgmental eyes on the back of her neck while Cassie screamed in her ear.

“But it’s not over yet,” I said, my voice cracking, threatening to scream just as loud or louder than my sister.

“We can still watch the fireworks from the car, sweetie,” promised my mother, wavering on a thin tightrope between keeping it together and breaking down, herself. I was oblivious to those feelings at the time, but I hadn’t yet reached my rebellious “No!” phase, so I took my mother’s hand with my free one and stood up with her. While miraculous cracks and booms could be heard behind me, I let my mother lead me out of the sea of upturned faces, oohing and ahhing at the colors bouncing off their cheeks and foreheads.

We exited the ocean of people, reaching the stretch of a green field that stood between us and the car. My father was a few paces ahead of everyone. I could barely make out his form in the darkness until a firework would illuminate him in color. Everything went silent for a moment, and then I heard one more great big, thunderous BOOM, and I let go of my mother’s hand. I looked to the sky and saw a supernova of a firework, the color of the sun, raining down and dissolving into smoke. I was in slack jawed awe. As the silence returned, I felt a new sensation, something tingling at the tip of my toes.

I looked down, and through the darkness, I could see that I had stepped on an anthill. It was a fire ant hill, but at the time, I didn’t know or care about that information. The ants had put aside their work, for the time being, to begin crawling up the leg of the beast that had just destroyed the fruit of their labors. They were already covering my left foot, digging underneath the straps of my sandals, and were well on their way up my leg, disappearing underneath my shorts and worming their way up my torso. They were fast, so very fast. “They want my lollipop,” I thought before the fireworks finale began.

The noise of the finale was so loud, I didn’t hear my parents shouting at me, trying to get my attention. All I heard was the cacophonous symphony of hundreds of fireworks exploding in the sky, and all I saw was my body slowly being enveloped in a cloud of thousands of ants, colored in red, green, blue, and yellow. The ants bit me in waves, starting at my toes, leading up to my face, where they were starting to crawl up into my nose. No one knew at the time, but we sure found out that night that I was allergic to Fire Ant venom, Piperidine, I looked it up. I blacked out after that, but I’ve been told in great detail what happened next. My parents running across the field to me, my father picking me up, watching my tiny frame balloon into anaphylactic shock, the rush to the hospital, the wreck we almost got in on the way, and the fact that if we had arrived at the hospital even a second later than when we did, I would be dead.

That is the only memory I have from my early childhood. It’s mostly pieced together from the two versions of the story my parents have told me, stitched between fragmented images floating around in my brain, but I’ve always found it fascinating that every few years or so, I’ll dream about that night again.

So yes, that would be why whenever I see an insect of any shape or form, I tend to freak out, maybe even overreact, depending on who you ask, but I’d say a near-death experience is a pretty great reason to scream like a child and run out of your sister’s wedding reception because there was a caterpillar on the table.

But that’s all it ever was, just a phobia, just an irrational fear, just like everyone else has, and after years of living with it, I finally accepted it for what it was: just an emotional birthmark I was stuck with, but nothing that could ever hurt me again. At least, that’s what I thought it was, anyway.

It all started again a few weeks ago. I woke up from a dream, the dream had returned again, and saw the prophetic glow of 5:45 AM staring back at me, and I knew it was only a matter of time before that 6:00 AM alarm began to ring. It wasn’t enough time to go back to sleep, so I just laid there in bed, and let the dream melt off me, like water off a duck’s back.

I felt something in my right ear, the one that was face down on the pillow, like something dislodging itself. It was some earwax I thought at first, but then I felt movement, like whatever had escaped the ear canal was now trying to get away from the outer ear.

“Oh god, the fleas are back,” was my first thought. My wife, Anjelica and I had just moved into a new house, and with it came fleas, that had started out just on our cat, but had spread to all corners of the house. Every waking moment, I could feel them crawling in my scalp, nibbling at my neck. I’d almost had a nervous breakdown. Thank god for Anjelica taking care of the matter as soon as possible. We stayed in a hotel, the first weekend in our first house together, while the place was debugged.

This couldn’t be a flea though. Whatever it was, it was too big, but it was definitely creepy crawler. I felt the pins and needles in my toes and legs whenever I’m near bugs. I thought of the ants, lit by fireworks, and a nervous sweat broke out.some kind of creature. I lifted my head and turned my bleary gaze down to the pillow. It was hard to see in the dark, but there was something crawling across the white cotton sheets. Without hesitation, I reached to the nightstand and switched on my lamp. There it was, illuminated at the corner of the mattress, searching for escape: an ant, copper-colored and almost as big as my thumb, its feelers waving back and forth, its head craned upward, and I swear to God, it felt like it was looking right at me. I couldn’t help it, I screamed. I threw the covers off and fell out of bed, waking Anjelica up. By the time she had talked me down to a relatively calm state, there was no ant to be found on the bed, beneath it, between the mattress and the bed-frame, or anywhere else in the room. Anjelica convinced me it had to be a lingering remnant of the dream. I had been dreaming about that night after all. Reluctantly, I laid back down in the bed, but my eyes stayed open until the piercing sound of my alarm clock rang.

The following day, I was still thinking about the ant. I knew ants didn’t live very long, but the thought of that thing surviving and hiding somewhere in my house made my stomach flip in a complete 360-degree angle. On top of that, I felt something crawling on my arms, my legs, the back of my neck, all day long, slapping myself in the middle of a meeting, doing my best to laugh it off like it was no big deal to my co-workers.

I couldn’t fall asleep that night, so I took two sleeping pills and returned to the bed. As I waited for the drugs to kick in, I thought of the ant again, and where it possibly could have come from. My horrible brain entertained a disgusting thought. I had felt it inside my ear. Now it’s possible that I rolled over onto it while it crossed the pillow before I woke up, but I specifically remembered the sensation of dislodging in my ear, like it fell out of there. No. No no no. That’s impossible. It was probably climbing up into there when it fell. Right? I couldn’t argue with myself any longer. The meds started working, and I blacked out.

The next day, all I could think of was that final thought from the night before: “It was inside your ear. It fell out of your ear. It came out of your head.” I was washing my hands at the bathroom sink when I felt that similar crawling, scratching around the inside of the ear. I hit my opposite ear and jerked my head down to the sink a couple of times like I had water trapped inside it. Sure enough, something fell into the porcelain basin of the sink. Fluorescent light flickered from above as I watched the unmistakable form of a big copper ant rolling around on its back, right itself, stop, and look directly up at me. I turned on the hot water and took pleasure in watching it swirl down into the drain.

I was doing the dishes later that night, when I felt a tingle in the back of my throat. I coughed, bringing my hand up to my mouth. Something flew from my lips and hit the back of my hand. Instinctively, I caught it. When I opened my grip, I found a copper ant looking up at me. It went straight down the disposal.

Understandably, Anjelica took the more reasonable side of the debate when I told her there were ants crawling inside me. I told her there was no other explanation. I’d even caught one this time, literally. She told me we probably just had an ant problem now. First fleas, now ants. Basic homeowner stuff. We bought ant traps and booked an exterminator appointment for the next day. The exterminator couldn’t find anything. The ant traps didn’t kill anything. The house was purged of all demonic insects with holy insecticide, but the sensations of something crawling over my skin only got worse. Sometimes I even found little red bite marks, under my chin, beneath an armpit, between my fingers. I tried to dismiss them as body acne, but they itched something terrible. I’d scratch them raw until they’d finally pop with a little burst of pus.

It didn’t help that over the next few days, when I was actually able to catch one of the bastards, no one was around. I found one crawling out of my nose while in a bathroom stall at work. I found another on my arm one night when Anjelica had left to visit her parents for the weekend. As I washed my hair one morning, at least three fell from my scalp, but they had disappeared down the drain before I could get Anjelica to poke her head into the bathroom.

I stopped telling Anjelica about the ant appearances after a while. I never told anyone else, either. Just imagining saying those words out loud to anyone, let alone Anjelica, made me feel even crazier, even if my audience were to listen and understand, I knew there were only so many free passes before the men in white coats were called in.

For three days, I just gritted my teeth through these ants, crawling all over me, crawling into my orifices, coming out of my orifices. That’s where they had to come from, right? There was no other explanation. Somehow, the fire ants from my childhood had made my insides their home, and considered it time to leave. Sure, you think it sounds crazy, but until I heard a better theory, that’s the only one I could find any merit in.

It was becoming more and more difficult to act like everything was okay around my loved ones and colleagues. If I thought it was bad when I felt the ants crawling out of me and on top of my skin, it was even worse when I began to feel them inside of my body. I could feel them moving around, pulsing, underneath my skin. They were swimming through my bloodstream. They were eating at my organs. They were nesting in my brain. I became irritable and moody. My attitude would change at the drop of a hat. Anjelica became increasingly uncomfortable being in my presence. My employment was dangling by a string. One more wrong move in the office, and I’d be staying at home, which couldn’t have been something Anjelica was looking forward to.

Then one weekend, Anjelica left town on a business trip.

“Are you sure you’ll be alright?” she asked as she met her taxi outside the house, and I helped put the last of her bags inside the trunk.

“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me at all. If anything, I’ll just be bored,” I assured her while she stepped into the cab.

“Okay,” she said, a worried expression on her face, “call me if anything goes wrong, I’ll be back in a heartbeat.”

What both of us said was untrue to an extent. I really didn’t think I was going to be okay, and Anjelica knew she couldn’t just drop everything at the conference to come flying back because her nut-job husband felt something weird tickling the back of his neck. But they were polite things to say, the things we wanted to hear, and that’s what we were to each other, mostly these days, polite.

That night, I tried to go to sleep early, but I couldn’t make it happen. When I closed my eyes, all I could see was my body, without skin, covered in those fire ants. They were feasting upon my flesh and gnawing away at muscle. I turned over, and saw a skeleton, picked clean, and still covered in the ants. What were they doing inside me? Was this revenge on a little three year old boy who accidentally destroyed the product of all their labor? Just for spite? I knew these questions were pointless. I wasn’t an idiot. But the real answer to the question was simply that this was just nature following its instincts. There was no prejudice involved.

Somehow, that still didn’t make much sense, or make me feel better for that matter.

Staring up at the ceiling of the bedroom, I felt it start at my toes, and work its way up my legs. It was subtle at first, but the more it went on, the burning could not be denied. They were biting me, from the inside. My legs spasmed violently. I threw the covers off and ran into the bathroom, stopping for a moment when the ant brigade reached my chest. I doubled over at the sharp pain in my heart. The pain was coming from everywhere. It wasn’t just skin deep, they were biting muscles, ligature, organs. It felt like I was having a heart attack, but no, a heart attack would make too much sense. That was too practical. It was the ants.

I threw myself into the bathroom door and stumbled onto the cold floor. I stood up and flipped on the mirror light. What met me in the mirror was my own face, but with a new feature. My skin was coursing, rippling. The ants’ numbers had grown and they were practically bursting from me now. They were running up and down my arms, my chest and my back, up my neck. I felt a tickling in the back of my throat. My stomach turned and I vomited bile into the sink. Squirming around in the bile was nothing less than a handful of ants. I turned on the hot water and watched them swirl down the drain. I could still feel stragglers crawling in my teeth. I turned back to the mirror and opened my mouth. I could barely see anything inside my mouth that wasn’t crawling or pulsating. I washed them out with water and spit, but there were always more of them, coming up from the throat.

They were pushing their way out of my eyelids now. They were crawling out of my nose. And all the while, the biting from inside was still happening. I could feel them gnawing away at me, letting their poison seep through my veins. I was getting woozy. There was a shaving razor sitting on the edge of the sink. With what little strength I had left I broke open the razor and picked out a blade from inside. I put it to the left corner of my chest and dug into the skin. I felt crunching as I hit some ants along the way. I took the blade away from my chest and took a look at myself in the mirror.

The long cut ran from shoulder to shoulder. There was hardly blood. Maybe just a few little drops here and there. What poured out instead like waves of water from a geyser was handfuls of ants, pushing out of skin, crawling over each other, dripping from the wound. For the briefest moment imaginable, I felt happy for the first time in a very long time. A weird rush of relief ran through me. The pressure had left the dam. And still I was empty. My head grew faint and I collapsed to the floor. The ants crawled over every part of my skin. They reached the floor and spread across the bathroom floor like spilled blood. The last thing I remember seeing was lines of ants crawling up the walls. Blood sure couldn’t do that.

Waking up again in a hospital bed was probably more surprising to me than anyone else in the room. Before I’d passed out on the bathroom floor, I had reached an acceptance of death. Apparently, fate decided to spare me. Anjelica had a weird feeling ever since leaving that morning. She could tell something was wrong. And when Anjelica gets one of her hunches, I’ve discovered it’s usually best to listen to her instincts. She’d called an emergency hotline from her hotel room. They found me in the bathroom. Covered in blood.

Blood, right.

I asked the doctors if they’d seen any ants in the bathroom. They politely declined to answer that request. Apparently I’d been saying something about ants when they found me on the floor that night, too.

Since that night, I’ve been going to therapy again. It’s helped, a little, but I’ve never been able to shake the unease that’s haunted me like my own shadow since that night. Anjelica has been wonderful, but she doesn’t look at me the same way anymore. No one does. My friends, co-workers, what’s left of my family. They all still see the man screaming about bugs, covered in blood, ruining a perfectly good linoleum floor. There’s still smudges of red in the corner I spot from time to time.

But all in all, I guess I can’t complain. I feel stable enough. I’m a lot more open with Anjelica and my other loved ones. Most of the time. Every other couple of nights, I’ll wake up and feel something in my ear. I’m quick enough now to grab it immediately and hold it up to the bedroom lamp, careful not to wake up Anjelica. Sure enough, it’s always an ant, squirming in between my fingertips. They’re still there. They’ll never go away. They’ll be crawling through my bloodstream until the day I die. I’ll never truly be free. At least I’ve finally got some control over them now, I guess. I crush the ant between my fingers, and flick its husk into the corner, where the cat will probably eat it.

I go back to sleep.

Writer, filmmaker, and comedy performer living in Winston-Salem NC. I write fantasy, horror, flash fiction, and film/television/music reviews.

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