People often speak of having butterflies in their stomach. It is a quaint figure of speech, aptly capturing the gut-fluttering nervousness can cause.
Unfortunately, in Kyla’s case, it was more than that. To her, gastric lepidoptera were not an odd cliché, but an all too literal, all too uncomfortable, reality.
It wasn’t a problem she’d been born with, or had as a child. It started when she turned thirteen. Kyla wasn’t superstitious, but for her it really was an unlucky year. Her birthday was in June, and by October she’d started experiencing the fluttering swell that would only continue to intensify throughout the following months.
It had been earlier, though, just after the start of the school year, that she’d gotten her first glimpse of the parasitic caterpillar responsible. Of course, she’d had no idea that’s what it was at the time. She’d woken from a dream of flight, trailing elation and vertigo alike in her fall into consciousness, to find this tiny, blue worm inching steadily across her pillow. She’d never seen anything like it before, but was more fascinated than horrified.
Its vibrant colours, its innocuously wriggling body, its little roundish yellow head with two tiny black eye-like spots, none of this suggested to her that this odd little caterpillar was a rare, invasive parasite of human beings. Curious, still feeling residual elation from the wings she’d worn in dreams, she’d poked at the little blue intruder, turning on her bedside light to study it briefly. It continued its persistent inching; she’d assumed at the time it was coincidence that it inched toward her, but soon came to know better.
She’d picked it up in her hand, let it wriggle slowly along her palm, tiny limbs tickling her, and she’d chuckled at its cuteness. Then she’d gotten out of bed, autumn air cool on her bare legs after she threw off the comforter, and popped out her window’s screen briefly, returning the caterpillar to the freedom of the outdoors by leaving it on her windowsill before replacing the screen.
It wasn’t until late October, after the gastric flutters had come a couple of times, that she saw the caterpillars again. This time she woke just as dawn had begun to pry open the night sky, and even as consciousness suffused her she felt acute frustration, for it drew her out of an ultra-vivid dream of hotly tonguing (something at the time she’d never actually tried) the gorgeous, slim-hipped and dark-eyed Gil from her biology class.
For an instant, she’d thought a fragment of that dream-kiss had impossibly followed her up from sleep, but no; she soon understood that two of the little blue worms had infiltrated her mouth, were wriggling between her slightly open lips and teeth, inching their way deeper into her.
She screamed and spat them out on the floor, and without thinking she seized a Kleenex, used it to pick them up, and rushed to flush them down the toilet. By the time she jiggled the flusher, her father was at the door, asking if she was OK.
She lied and said yes because she didn’t know what else to say, but laying awake in bed after that, watching anxiously and nauseously as the sun inched its inexorable way up from the lip-line of the horizon, she began to suspect the connection between the blue worms and her gut-flutters. As though confirming her suspicion, the flutters flared up more violently that morning than they’d ever done before.
The flutters became more frequent and more intense then, occurring whenever she was stressed or excited, states that, I’m sure you recall, happen frequently when you are the unlucky age of thirteen. They began to cause Kyla deep distress.
She told her best friend Kris first. Initially, Kris disbelieved her, told her to stop making up stupid stories. Later, when Kyla kept insisting it was true, Kris told her she was crazy, and that they couldn’t be friends anymore. In the meantime, Kyla had told her parents, who immediately began worrying not about the bugs in her belly, but about her “state of mind,” assuring her that puberty was a tough time, emotionally, but that she would be OK.
Though Kyla knew they didn’t believe her, either, they agreed she should be checked over by a doctor. Their family doctor of many years, Dr. Alcott, saw Kyla a week later, and gave her what he described as a “thorough physical examination.”
Kyla wasn’t sure which was worse – the cold, stiff way he prodded and pinched her, or the condescending way he refused to outright admit that he thought she was making it up, gut-flutters, blue worms and everything.
He found, he assured them (he spoke about her, but to the ‘rents), nothing physically wrong, and suggested that she speak to a “specialist.” Kyla’s Mom then took her from the room while Dr. Alcott gave her father “the necessary details.”
In the meantime, as though her telling Kyla they could no longer be friends wasn’t bad enough, Kris had decided to widen the breach between them into an abyss by spreading stories around school. When Kyla entered the halls the next day, it was to be asked by a howling gaggle if she was pupating yet. Her humiliation was only matched by her surprise that these losers, sexting their way through bio, even knew what that word meant. When she realized later that some of them, at least, thought it meant getting your period, she felt only faintly vindicated.
She became “Crazy Kyla,” which evolved quickly into inventive variations like “Creepy Kyla,” “Crawly Kyla,” eventually morphing into the slides-easier-off-the-tongue “Crayla.” Kyla’s peers were as skilled at portmanteau-play as they were at casual cruelty, that version following her unshakably through what remained of her high school career, although she nevermore mentioned the flutters or the caterpillars to anyone else at, or even remotely connected to, the school.
The emotional fall-out of all this social exclusion caused Kyla’s flutters to intensify further, and the sensation became more than she could bear. She was so terrified of their onset, that her agonizing over them was enough to trigger an episode of the flutters. And every time the flutters became acute, she felt like she was losing her mind, and she was sure that her guts were just going to flap up her throat and out her mouth, leaving her to die in agonized humiliation from the absence of a digestive system.
The one glimmer of light in all this freakish angst was Gil. He didn’t seem disturbed by Kyla’s status as a pariah. In fact, where he’d barely spoken to her before her infestation, he seemed drawn to her since. A week after Kris broadcast the rumours around school, Gil added her as a friend on Facebook. A week after that, he said hello to her, twice, in the halls.
Even if his motivation was primarily morbid curiosity, Kyla wasn’t going to inspect this gift angel’s pinions.
O, Gil. He was all angles, dark eyes, and smile-gleam. He was all symmetry and lean muscles and mystery.
A week after that he sent her a message on Facebook, asking her to meet him following school on Friday, in the field across from the parking lot.
It took superhuman effort for Kyla to buck her shyness, shatter her pessimistic reserves, swallow down the storming moths in her belly, and agree to meet him.
She thought, maybe, maybe, this could actually be OK? Maybe, she could find some kind of happiness, despite her condition?
School that Friday was sustained torture, of course. Kyla’s heart hammered relentlessly all day, her mouth so dry she couldn’t swallow a bite of her lunch without washing it down with several gulps of water, and the moths fought and fluttered nonstop. Kyla didn’t think they could get any more unsettling.
But when the buzzer rang at three and the students were set free, they did, of course; the moths became a mass of throb, seething unbearably at the center of her being. It seemed incredible their rustling was not audible to the other students stuffing their way down the corridor and out the door with her, but none of them seemed to hear; they just shouldered past with their usual mingling of disdain and indifference.
Kyla swallowed drily, her throat feeling like a clumsy boy-scout was using it to attempt his first friction fire. She pinched and smoothed her dress, just above her belly, absently. She imagined sewing up her frayed nerves with threads of silver and steel, or inflating herself like a portable mattress from a plastic pump of courage.
Then she was across the parking lot, waiting beneath the copse of trees they’d agreed upon. The moths were a maelstrom of stick-legs and wet-paper-wings, displacing her organs, and she felt faint, her face surely ghastly with its sweaty flush.
He made small talk, and she made desperate efforts to reply, every word she forced out threatening to drag frenzied moths with it.
They went for pizza, and it dawned on Kyla awfully that with the ceaseless, expansive surge of the moths within her, she would never be able to fit food in her stomach, let alone retain it there. She felt her belly brush the edge of the table, the dilation of those collective wings distending it further and further, as though they were, in fact, inflating her.
Once, twice, Gil’s feet bumped Kyla’s gently beneath the table; then their knees came into contact, stayed that way, and o, those dusty wings called forth such a storm down in her!
By the time they’d eaten their pizza (she’d managed a slice, but could feel its dense, cheesy remains buffeted about by the winged mass below), she was sure she looked six months pregnant.
Six months pregnant with an army of alien invaders. Maybe she had a future on the reality TV circuit. She’d never seen that angle covered, before.
She thought for a mad moment about placing Gil’s hand on her belly, so he could feel the moths (see, dear, the little ones are kicking!) but swallowed the impulse. It gurgled about uneasily below, mingling with the pizza and, probably, the dust cast off by a thousand wings.
They walked together for some time, and suddenly it was almost eight, and the sun sank. He suggested they sit on a bench in a moon-drenched park, with the wind tripping through the trees, drawing strands of hair across her face that he delicately tucked aside. Then he leaned in and kissed her.
For one stunning moment, the night quietly moving around her, his mouth moving against hers, the moths within fell still, fell silent, and she felt herself drift in the warm, wet wonder of that kiss.
Then she clutched her stomach suddenly as she felt their creeping, papery mass convulse in a way they’d never done before. Before she could pull back from the melting insistence of the kiss, she felt the wriggle and scrape of tiny legs, the dusty tissue of struggling wings welling in her throat. Then she felt a pinch of fire and a burst of blood as he bit into her lip in shock, the first of the moths forcing themselves into his open, unsuspecting mouth.
She tried to pull back, to break their kiss, but his mouth was locked on hers, his lips and teeth grinding against hers, his arms locked around her torso, his hands fastened violently on her back and shoulders, each finger digging into her flesh. She could feel the convulsive energy of his grip, knew it was not deliberate. His muscles were locked as though an electric current tore through them, and the moths pushed unabated up her throat, undeterred by her gagging, and she felt them squirm by the hundreds from her mouth into his.
Panic-flooded, Kyla finally broke away from Gil’s convulsive clasp, a trickle of moths still crawling from her mouth, taking precariously to the sky, their saliva and bile-wet wings struggling against the unfamiliar force of the breeze. Gil fell to the grassy ground, gagging, choking, clutching himself, a few broken-winged moths scattered around him.
Her hope for some small happiness shattered as she stared at him in horror, that hope turning out to be nothing more than a fragile vessel containing the dust of total despair, dust that had come from the wings of a legion of monstrous moths.
Kyla ran shrieking from the park, leaving Gil gasping for breath, reeling to comprehend what had happened.
She ran home, lay herself down in a heap of leaves and grass behind the backyard shed, getting her breath, struggling against the moth-storm that razed her belly unabated. It was inconceivable that so many of them had fled her body, and yet enough still remained to cause these apocalyptic flutters.
It was all too much. She had to still the moths, had to still her thoughts of Gil, of what they’d done to him. Of what she’d done to him.
Kyla rushed into the house, rushed by her cocktail-sipping parents, saying she’d tripped over a rake in the yard, needed to bathe, and brushed off their questions about her “date.”
The bathroom. She began running hot water into the tub. She needed to cleanse herself. Her nausea persisted, and she flung open the lid of the toilet, retching into the bowl, once, twice, three times. A gob of moths, stuck together by bile and saliva, slopped from her mouth into the toilet. She stuck her fingers down her throat, retched again. This time, just small clots of dough and cheese, strings of saliva tinted with red-purple moth-dust.
Peeling off her clothes, she felt like something crawling from a cocoon. She pressed her belly, which was only slightly bloated now, evacuated of some of its invaders, but she could still feel the kick and prickle of the moths milling around within.
Kyla rifled through the medicine cabinet while the tub filled. She discovered the sedatives she hadn’t realized her mother had a prescription for tucked behind tampons and toothpaste on the top shelf. No doubt her mother had needed the prescription since the stress her cray-cray Kyla’s psycho-moths had caused. Kyla swallowed what remained of the bottle and crawled into the bath.
After a few minutes, as she lay soaking in the scalding water, a dizziness seized her that felt totally different from the flutters, and it seemed that between them, the pills and the bath would work, would finally force the moths to settle.
Then her eyes glued themselves shut, and her heart sank down, out of her body and into the ground below the tub, and her lungs filled up with wet heat. Kyla didn’t remember much after that, and couldn’t say with certainty why she didn’t drown.
But based on the vivid fragments of memory that eventually fluttered up from her subconscious, she wove together a pretty persuasive speculation. She had vague, fragmentary recall-flickers of warm water flooding her mouth and eyes, followed by a strange heaving in her stomach that spread rapidly up her throat and into her mouth. Bile-damp wings, their tissue delicate but shockingly strong, pushing water up her throat, out her mouth, fanning air back in its place….flickers of her face being tickled by tiny insect limbs, lacy antennae and damp, dusky purple-red wings with moon-silver venation.
She was overdosed on downers, true, and her parents, the doctors, everyone she was stupid enough to tell, insisted that these were not memories, were merely hallucinations. But Kyla knew these impressions were real, as real as the moths themselves. And while she didn’t fully remember, and she certainly couldn’t fully understand, what happened that night, she was nonetheless sure, down in her belly and in her bones, in the primordial muck of her being, that her body’s unwanted guests had saved her from herself.
Her parents, of course, claimed not to have seen any insects in the room when they discovered her there, half-conscious, her skin water-shriveled, her pupils contracted to pricks in her glazed eyes, her lips and fingertips blued. No insects, and no evidence that there had ever been any insects. The doctors backed them up, insisting that they had examined her thoroughly, and there was “no somatic basis” for her “belief about these butterflies.” Moths, she corrected them, although she wasn’t really clear on the difference at the time. She’d just gotten in the habit of thinking of them as moths.
The next day, Kyla, “suffering from delusions of formication” was admitted for in-patient psychiatric evaluation, and placed on suicide watch. While, despite the horror of her situation and what had happened to Gil, Kyla had never intended to kill herself, she had to admit that, between the pills and the bath, it must certainly look as though she had.
Ironic that the anxiety that had driven her to that, the desire to drown out the flutters, had largely evaporated as Kyla reflected that the Lepidoptera had saved her life. Sure, she was aware they did so for their own no doubt selfish reasons – after all, parasites that lose hosts too quickly don’t have such an easy go of things. But still… it felt good, knowing her survival was important to the Lepidoptera. She still felt terrible about Gil, though, and asked about him insistently until her mother reported that they’d called the school, and Gil was fine.
Looking uncomfortable, her mother then told her that she’d since spoken to Gil’s parents, and he denied having been out with Kyla at all that night.
When you subtracted her grief at his callous lie from her gladness at his being alive, Kyla wasn’t sure what you got.
Even Gil was now afraid to bear the taint that was Crayla the Crawla. She supposed she couldn’t blame him. She’d barfed a flood of flying insects down his throat, after all.
But somehow, now, Kyla had the resolve to live with this revelation.
Gil might have abandoned her. But she had something that never would.
From that night forward, Kyla’s relationship to her tiny tenants changed. While they still distressed her, sometimes, she also started to experience them as something… uniquely hers. Something that made her different from everyone else she knew. Something…magical.
Once she managed to convince her shrink that she wasn’t a threat to herself, and that furthermore her belief in the Lepidoptera had merely been a transient delusion caused by a period of high, but still typical, adolescent stress, Kyla was released back into her parents’ care, back to the casual humiliations of school, and things went, basically, back to normal. Kyla-normal, of course, but still, that was something.
As far as the ‘rents and everybody else in her life were concerned, Kyla was over the whole flutter-thing. Too bad she couldn’t kick the nickname Crayla at school, and too bad that the lovely Gil was now yet another cold-shoulder topped with a hostile glare, but she didn’t care so much, because quietly, in her own time, in the increasingly vast space of her own mind, Kyla was determined to understand and master her condition.
She began thinking deeply about her moths. She decided her instinctive distinction was sound, since moths were nocturnal, butterflies diurnal, and she’d only ever seen the Lepidoptera, and their caterpillars, at night. But despite them being more moth than butterfly, she knew “moth” remained a mere approximation, since their life-ways were clearly unlike those of any known species. Despite a great deal of intensive Googling and many a fugitive library search, she never found any solid scientific information about them; in fact, she never found any tenuous information about them. They were an exotic lacuna, uber-cryptids, so well hidden they weren’t even suspected to exist.
Nevertheless, she’d come to some tentative conclusions on her own, glad she hadn’t texted away her bio classes. The caterpillars were obviously obligate parasites, requiring a host body in which their metamorphosis into moths could occur. The host body would nourish the creatures in their pupa-state, until they were able to assume the next, likely last, phase of their life-cycle and fly away, either into the environment, or into (as had happened with Gil) a different host. Perhaps they were ordinarily parasites exclusively of some rare species of mammal that these particular specimens were for some reason unable to locate? Such hyper-specialized parasitic relationships were not all that uncommon in the insect world, after all.
For reasons she couldn’t yet fathom, Kyla evidently provided a serviceable substitute to their usual hosts. Perhaps it was just that this fall had been the first time the caterpillars found themselves in this area, or perhaps they had been here all along but their normal host species had died out in the area.
Maybe they normally colonized bats. Kyla had read that North America was losing most of its bats to some fungus, so that would make sense.
Or perhaps some change in her had caused her to become palatable to the caterpillars in a way she’d never been before. Given the period of onset of her infestation, it was possible that, along with the usual secondary sex-characteristics, puberty had given her body something that attracted the little blue worms.
It sure wasn’t her underwhelming bosom, Kyla thought wryly. Maybe her fresh crop of acne? Menstrual blood? Didn’t it attract bears and sharks? Or was that a myth? Could it attract bugs, too? Or maybe some hormonal shift, detectable in her breath, or sweat? Maybe she was a mutant who secreted moth pheromones?
The cause was beyond her, but something had changed, causing the little worms to inch in through her nose, mouth, ears, and who knew where else. Kyla’s research and speculation so occupied her attention, it took her nearly a week to notice when Gil stopped showing up for school.
She asked a few of her less-hostile peers, a couple of teachers, if they knew where Gil was, but that got her nowhere. Nobody seemed to know anything. She tried texting him. Nothing. She was going to message him on Facebook, but learned his account had been closed.
In the meantime, the worry and stress his disappearance caused started the moths storming again. They hadn’t been this bad since the park-bench and bath-tub misadventure, which magnified Kyla’s worry. Just as she’d started to adjust to her condition, finally started to feel some acceptance of her state, this had to happen.
It went from bad to worse when they found the thing in the park.
It was discovered by a jogger. He’d later tell reporters that at first he thought it was some Halloween prop, belatedly disposed of there. When he got closer, he thought it was a partially deflated sex doll. When he got closer still, he screamed, threw up, and called the cops.
They tried to keep it quiet until they could figure out exactly what it was, and who it had been, but before long, it was all over the news.
It was a body, a human body. Most of one, anyway. According to the news, it was a full skeleton, and most of the skin, of a young adult male of fairly slight build.
It had been found in the park where they had walked that night, where they had kissed. Where Kyla’s moths had invaded Gil’s mouth.
The frenetic pulsations of the moths in her belly reinforced Kyla’s dawning fear. She knew whose body it was, although her conscious mind did its best to deny it.
Two days after its discovery, her fear was confirmed as an update broke, announcing that dental and medical records had confirmed the body was Gil’s.
The body was Gil, or had been, once. They still had no idea what had killed him, or what had been done to his body to bring it to this bizarre state.
Kyla collapsed. Any hope she’d had that Gil’s disappearance had nothing to do with her was devoured by this confirmation. She didn’t know how it was done, but she knew what had done it. And it was all her fault.
She had brought destruction to her dark-eyed angel, and she couldn’t….
She rifled the medicine cabinet first, but of course her parents kept no drugs in there, not since her supposed suicide attempt. She rifled their room, too, to no avail.
Desolated, directionless, she wandered the suburban streets. She walked by the school. It had been Gil’s school. It had been her school. Now neither of them would ever return there. She walked by the pizza place where they’d eaten.
Finally, inevitably, her numb legs carried her to the park.
She had been expecting to see evidence of the ongoing investigation into Gil’s death. She’d even entertained thoughts of turning herself in to the police gathered there, demanding they examine her, insisting that Gil’s killers were fluttering about in her belly. She knew she’d never be believed, but the need to try was urgent, its intensity matched by the panicked scrabbling of the moths.
But there were no police, no investigators, no yellow tape, no sign of an investigation, no sign anything had happened here at all.
The park was quiet, empty, as it had been that dreamlike night of her one and only date with Gil; the one and only date of her unlucky, but hopefully mercifully short, life.
For if the moths did that to Gil as they moved off into the next phase of their lives, surely it would soon happen to her, too?
Kyla sat on the bench. It bit coldly into her through her jeans. She didn’t bother wiping at the tears that tracked, first hot, then cold, down her face. Strange that it hadn’t happened already, really, the moths having lived in her for so much longer than they had in Gil. Why had he been cored out by them, left like a burst balloon around a bundle of bones?
Why was she still here?
Her mind moved over possibilities, grateful to be drawn further from the unbearable ache of her guilt and grief.
Different body chemistries? Did the moths metabolize differently between male and female hosts? Did they perhaps incubate only in females, and consume males for nourishment?
God. Was she basically Typhoid Mary? Would the moths use her to move from male to male, consuming each in turn, but leaving her alive, their precious carrier?
There was an ineluctable logic, there, and Kyla felt the truth of the thought in the convulsions of the frightened moths within.
That left her only one option.
One way or another, she had to end this, end herself, tonight. Without pause, her mind tripped furiously over options.
Before she could focus, the flutters erupted into something catastrophic.
Her stomach lurched, then her lungs. All her organs were violently squeezed aside. Her ribs creaked, stretched agonizingly. Just as they had when she kissed Gil.
A wet groan erupted from her mouth, the moths’ rustle and chitter audible beneath it.
Kyla clamped both hands over her mouth.
They were forcing their way out. They could feel what she was thinking, and they wanted to escape.
She pushed herself painfully to her feet, began to stumble. The river. The river was only a kilometer from here. She could run to the river, throw herself in. They’d kept her from drowning in the tub, but the river was cold, the current was strong – they couldn’t possibly keep it from claiming her life, could they?
Staggering across the park, Kyla raised her eyes, silently begging the cold, black heavens for help. That was when she saw it, something passing over the pasty, acne-pocked glow of the moon.
Something flapping, far off, high up. Something big.
She stood, swaying, staring up. It passed away from the moon, becoming visible only as an opacity that momentarily killed the light from this or that twinkling star. She could hear its wings beating, now. Not as a bird’s does, nor a bat’s.
Within her the moth-storm did not abate, but changed; its churning intensity turning into something less painful, something more… powerful.
A prickling awe crept from Kyla’s belly, suffusing the rest of her body, the rest of her being, and her flutters climaxed.
Her stomach heaved outward, her ribs stretching further, spreading outward like unfurling wings.
Kyla raised her head, opening her mouth to the night, and screamed.
The scream was nearly silent, composed as it was not of sound, but a jet of wet moths, their wings beating urgently. The great, fluttering form circled lower, lower, its wings, more than three metres across, heaving powerfully, blowing the hair from Kyla’s face, buffeting her body with its force.
Its six naked legs glistened beautifully, its coiling digits clasping for her. Its feathery antennae felt for her in the darkness and cold, gentler than any human touch had ever been.
As it hovered above her, rhythmic thrum of its wings pulsing like an alien god’s heart, she suddenly recognized him.
Gil had pupated, had passed through to the winged freedom on the other side. Kyla became a buzz of elation that had only been weakly anticipated by her dreams of flying.
Her angel had come for her, after all.
Her angel. But it had been her kiss that had given him the powerful, powdering wings that were his destiny, that were their destiny, together.
She raised her arms like twin antennae, her face wetly shining. At first she thought it was with tears, before realizing it was some new fluid, thicker, smoother, sweeter than any human exudate. Her whole body was slick with it, lubricating itself, preparing for the molt to come. This suppuration, rich with that rare scent, intoxicated both of them. Its draw was the only gravity he now needed to obey.
His six limbs linked around her, his forewings folding over her, his hind-wings continuing their powerful beat, raising her from the grass. His spiral proboscis unfurled, glistening tip gliding into the open flower of her mouth. Around them, a thousand moths moved in unison, wings stirring the night, welcoming the metamorphosis this singular commingling would bring.
A Sean Moreland lives in a suburban menagerie, and has published numerous essays, primarily on cinematic and literary horror, as well as poetry and short fiction, most recently in Lackington’s and Despumation. He is founding editor of Postscripts to Darkness (http://pstdarkness.com/). He teaches part-time in the English Department at the University of Ottawa. You can follow him on twitter @omnaes