Pulling Your Strings

The Master

rating: +30+x

The buzzing of the yellow light seemed to almost drown out all thought, as David stared blankly at the anatomy book he had scrounged up from behind the desk, his phone near-useless on low battery. The page showed a cut-away diagram of the skull, emphasizing the massive space of the nasal cavity; where every other causeway into the body met and mixed. A big, empty room where nothing happens. Sort of like a receptionist’s desk, he idly thought as his gaze wandered over the vacant chairs and tables on the dirty-gray linoleum of the waiting room.

He wasn’t exactly a receptionist, as it would be strange for a morgue to have one, but he monitored the comings of goings of staff, medical professionals, and cops, took messages, directed vistors, and generally maintained a disposition of “hurry up and wait.” For the most part, it was a boring job. The only thing that really broke through his malaise was the arrival of new bodies.

As they were drawn up on their gurneys, zipped up in white body bags, he would often try to guess who was underneath. Whether they were young or old, how they died, and how long they had been dead. Some were easy, based on either the cloying smell they left behind—sometimes like burnt pork or soggy spoiled bread—or the terribly small size of the bag, both of which made David’s stomach clench in recollection. He would often try to connect the body bag to something he had heard on the radio, like the missing swimmer they found, or a pile-up on the highway. But he couldn’t pry. Legally and morally. Just theorized in his head, a private game to while away the hours until he finally punched out.

He had had this job for a while, summer break and some of the winter near Christmas, and he was starting to get a sense of the ebb and flow of death that occurred throughout the year. Higher near the Super Bowl and other holidays, lower during summer months. As the leaves had been showing signs of yellow, and the wind seemed just a bit more biting, David knew there was going to be a slight uptick again, more bodies rolling through those double doors.

He was jolted out of a half-trance—rolling a pencil stub on the cheap desk—by the slamming open of the double doors, a gurney barging against the heavy oak, being pushed by two grim EMTs. They were hurried, and without even the usual greeting they sped past David, the gurney’s wheels squeaking, into the sterile hallways to the morgue proper. But he could hear snippets of their frantic conversation held in undertones.

“Damn psycho…”

“…Buried under his house for how long…”

“…All chained up, all medieval like that…”


David sat up, cursing to himself. He didn’t get a good look at the body bag. He leaned back and flicked on the radio, twiddling with the knob, and cruised through the stations, but there was nothing on the air but interest pieces and bluegrass.

Reluctantly, he turned back to the anatomy book, keeping half an eye on the blue-tiled hallway, his mind nibbling at the gossip he overheard. Victim of a serial killer, maybe? Roleplay gone wrong? Might be an out-of-towner. Couldn’t be anyone he knew, he would’ve heard about it. No Amber Alert, either.

Time passed, and David mused. Finally, a far door swung open down the hallway, and the EMTs exited, in deep discussion with the chief ME, Lefner, their shoes clicking against the tile and echoing down the empty hallway as they walked. David tried to catch their eyes, but a withering look from one of the EMTs stopped him. They finished their conversation with a brisk handshake each from Lefner, before leaving, the heavy oaken doors silently sliding back into place in their wake.

Lefner stood still for a moment, staring through the window towards the parking lot. David leaned forwards. “I’m not normally one to pry, but what’s the story with the new body?”

The doctor didn’t acknowledge the question. “Theo will be replacing you for the night shift in…“ He checks his watch. “An hour. EMTs are going home, and I, for one, have enough on my plate as is. Don’t have the energy to deal with this John Doe tonight. You alright holding down the fort?”

David nodded his head and leaned back, disappointed. “Uh, yeah, yeah, of course. I’ll be fine. Still have more reading material.” He gestured to the shelves of medical journals behind the desk.

Lefner doesn’t crack a smile. “Have a good night.” With a flurry of his white coat, he, too exited through the double doors.

Silence fell in the morgue again, except for the buzzing of the yellow lights. David rolled the stub of the pencil in between his fingers, pensive. His question wasn’t answered, and he didn’t get a good look at the body. He opened the medical textbook, and forced himself to read.

Page 400-something-or-other, about metatarsals and phlanges. David was bored out of his skull. He looked out the window. With an empty waiting room on one side of glazed glass and the occasional sugar-high costumed kids across orange-lit streets on the other, there was nothing interesting to be seen. His phone buzzed. Anna, his girlfriend.

Coming over tonight?

He noted the battery percentage slipping into the single digits.

Maybe. Finishing shift in half hour. See you at 11?

U know it :)

David was in the middle of typing a reply when his phone stuttered and froze, the screen turning black and flashing the low battery icon. He let the phone clatter to the desk, frustrated.

He couldn’t focus on the book, and his phone was dead. He half-heartedly scanned the bookshelves, but nothing grabbed his attention. The clock ticked away softly on the wall, the red needle jerkily moving in its circular orbit. An hour, Lefner had said. The ticking of the clock, the buzzing of the lights, the soft whirring undertones of the ventilation. He was bored out of his skull.

But underneath it all, there was something else. There was a noise underneath the buzzing of the yellow lights, something quieter, more irregular. The sound irked David as it danced at the edge of his hearing, a formless sound that just barely evaded definition. But, as he strained his ears, he was finally able to put a finger on the sound. Tapping. Inconstant, arrhythmic. The sound would stop, maybe for minutes at a time, and he would almost forget about it, but then it would start up again. It wasn’t constant, a regular beat, and that somehow annoyed David more than the droning of the lights or the whirring of the ventilation.

The lights he could get used to, a white noise that disappeared into the background, like the cicadas that were omnipresent just weeks before, now nothing but empty chitinous shells on the ground. Again it waned in strength, and David began to read again, but just as he got to the second paragraph, it reappeared, the faintest of drumbeats on his ears, and he took a deep breath.

With a grunt, he lifted himself out of his seat and looked down the hallway. It sounded like the tapping came from the morgue proper, down the blue-tiled hall, with its clean, white walls and smooth metal doors. David looked at the clock on the wall. 9:30. Half an hour left. He rapped his knuckles in staccato against the desk, thinking.

David looked at the clock again. The minute hand hadn’t moved. He was energetic by nature, maybe a front desk job wasn’t the best fit for him, but it was walking-around money. He was also impatient. Curious. Jittery. He couldn’t wait.

David got out of the chair and walked slowly down the hallway, painfully aware of the squeaking of his sneakers against the blue-tiled floor, echoing down the empty corridor. The soft tapping slowly became louder. David felt irrationally tense, like he did when he was a kid, and had to get a drink of water in the middle of the night, peering down that long hallway from the safety of his bedroom, just to make sure there were no monsters hiding in the dark. But this hallway was evenly lit, with not a shadow in sight, everything washed out by the yellow, buzzing light. So how come he felt so tense, as if a shambling skeleton were to waltz around the corner?

He walked a bit more. Louder. He could pick out the detail of the tapping now. It sounded like a doctor, tapping a metal syringe full of poison. A loose tooth, pried out of a rotted jaw to chisel a way out of a metal box. Or maybe just a loose screw, rattling in the air ducts. The sound faded a little bit. He paused, and walked backwards for a moment, ending in front of the door the John Doe had entered but never left. The door the EMTs had come out with such grim expressions.

David tapped his foot rhythmically on the blue tile, his hand hovering over the handle. As his hand brushed against it, he drew back, looking up and down the hallway, and spotted a fire extinguisher. He leaned over and grabbed it out of its alcove, holding it at the ready as he again reached out with his free hand for the handle. David licked his lips. He’d never actually gone into the morgue proper before, in his year of working there. David had only observed the corpses and doctors entering and leaving. "C'mon, it's not that spooky, you bastard," He muttered to himself, as he adjusted his grip on the extinguisher. For some reason, he wasn't encouraged by the sound of his own voice.

He quietly, slowly, leaned on the handle, slightly pushing the door open, just wide enough to fit his head inside. Cold air blew against his face as he looked into the fridge.

No movement at all. The smell, dampened by the cold, tingled his nostrils. A sickly sweet, extremely specific smell, that for all his life David could not draw a comparison to anything similar. He adjusted his grip on the handle as he contorted his head around the door, still holding it half-way shut. He just noticed the tapping had stopped.

He slowly swept the room, extinguisher in both hands. He felt foolish with it, but at the same time comforted, a large blunt club as a security blanket. The room was large and cold, the ventilation hard at work keeping the bodies at a low temperature. Gurneys were organized in rows, with long, narrow white bags on top. A meat locker.

He crept up the rows, trying to look up at the walls and ceiling, for whatever was making that tapping sound. But his eyes were drawn to the bags, lined up like cars stuck in traffic, and the writing on the slick white exterior.

Roth, R. GSW.

Allen, W. Auto Accident.

Doe, J. Unknown.

He stopped, and suppressed a shudder. The bag for this one was unzipped, and the arm of the corpse had fallen out of it, laying on the metal edge of the gurney. Lefner and the EMTs were talking about it, maybe they examined him and forgot to close the bag back up. He wanted to grab that arm, shove it back into its bag, and run back to his desk. But another part of him pulled him back, pointing out the gray coloration of the skin, the slimy texture of it. The sickly smell that plagued the other bodies was more potent on this one, more pungent. Off. Like it had already begun to rot.

Even lost in thought, David couldn’t have missed it. In the empty room, in the empty morgue, with blue-tiled hallways that make the smallest shift, the smallest cough echo, even with the rattle of the ventilation and the buzzing of the lights, he couldn’t have missed it.

The tapping.

The rotted fingernail tapping on the gurney.

John Doe’s fingernails, bulging from pus and serum pooling underneath their keratin sheaths, bitten and worn by maggots and worms and other things that crawl and eat and die in the dirt, rattling against the metal gurney.

He could see through the skin, through vermin-eaten parts of the arm to the muscle itself, individual fibres tensing and relaxing spastically, making the corpse’s nails tap.

But it wasn’t a corpse.

The shaking, the tensing, the movement, spread through the thing’s entire body, shaking in a seizure, rattling the cart and filling the room with noise, loud, banging, crashing, noise.

David backed away, his legs shaking. He remembered the extinguisher he was holding, but on the one hand this thing is having a seizure, but on the other he might get in trouble for messing with a corpse. It’s probably illegal to do that, an idle thought surfaced in the turbulence of his frantic brain.

His grip firmed on the metal club as the body stiffened and sat upright, as if struck by a bolt of lightning. The bag squealed with displeasure as it was forcefully unzipped, and the head slowly came into view as the bag slowly worked its way off of the corpse, its cloudy, glassy eyes gleaming in the harsh light.

The man looked dessicated, as if he hadn’t had a drink of water in weeks. His eyes were sunken, almost hidden in their deep pits. His teeth were black-rimmed and yellow, dehydrated skin pulling tight against his skull, making him look gaunt and hollow. Patches of flesh had fallen away, leaving oozing shiny sores in their place. David gagged as he saw wriggling underneath the skin on its scabby chest, maggots having already made their filthy home inside of the creature.

David forced himself to swallow, his mouth suddenly dry. “Uh, sir? Are you alright?”

The thing looked at him with its glassy eyes, and worked its jaw, as if trying to figure out how to talk again. Through gritted teeth, and with a ragged whisper. “Wa-ter.”

“Sir? You want some water?”

“Wa-ter.” It was like his jaw was wired shut, as he forced the word painfully through his teeth.

Okay. Okay. David tried to calm himself as he walked shakily over to the sink, grabbing a stainless steel bowl and filling it with water. People had been declared dead and taken to the morgue before. They weren’t vampires or what have you. This was probably completely normal, and the man just needed medical attention, that’s all. David peeked back over his shoulder, and he saw the man, slowly swinging his legs over the gurney, and resting them the tiled floor. With effort, the man toddled to his feet, trying to get his bearings after being zipped in a body bag for hours. David noticed, with some revulsion, that his feet left greasy, red prints on the blue-tiled floor.

David turned the faucet off and approached the man—who looked much taller than David now that he was upright—and offered the bowl to him. The man grabbed the bowl and lifted it above his head, pouring it into his mouth, splashing water everywhere. He gulped it down greedily, though he didn’t open his mouth, the excess of pure water trickling down his cheeks and neck, making his open sores glisten in the incandescent light.

David glimpsed a phone on the wall. “Sir, we are going to have to call the hospital, you look like you need a doctor, like, really bad. Do you know your name, relatives that we can call, anything specific that is—“ But he was stopped suddenly as he was enfolded in a hug from the man.

Its limp, sparse hair fell acrossed his face, and its long arms completely encircled him in a strong, tender bear hug. David lifted a hand and patted the man’s shoulder in reciprocation, and nearly gagged as he felt slimy, necrotic skin squelch against his hands.

“Yeah, I’m glad you’re alive too, but let’s get you to a hospital.” He tried to dip out of the hug, but the man tightened his grip, his thin, emaciated arms belying their strength. He pulled tighter against David, to the point that he could almost count each of the man’s ribs by touch alone. The man’s breath quickened, pops and crackles could be heard inside of his chest, as if his lungs were half-filled with fluid. David eyed the fire extinguisher, where he put it down next to the sink.

“Hun-gry.” The man forced out the word in his monosyllabic way.

David blinked, his pulse quickening. “Excuse me?”

The man lifted his head from David’s shoulder, and locked eyes with him, his cataract-filled eyes were so close, he could see that they were dried and scratched, like glass rubbed with sand. He realized the man hadn’t blinked once since his revival.


Now, for the first time, the man opened his mouth. And David screamed.

The inside of his mouth was worn ragged, all of the skin bitten and fretted until it was nothing but ragged flesh. His breath was hot and rancid, a mixture of disease and crushed ants, a smell that bit at the nose and made him almost retch. But the worst part was his tongue, or lack thereof. Sitting perched in the center of the man’s mouth, surrounded by teeth like a king on his throne, was a large insect, rooted to the place where his tongue should be. Its top was a dark red, the color of spoiled blood, and its underbelly was a pale white. Its exterior was smooth, layered chitin, with many different segments and scuttling legs, disappearing into the back of the mouth, and its long antennae brushed against the two front teeth. At the sudden stimulus of light flooding into the mouth, the centipede, it was a centipede, reared up, its many-legged segments writhing and twitching, masticating a bit of torn gum between its two mandibles.

Pinned in place, David struggled against John Doe’s grasp as the insect, hesitantly, cautiously, extended out of the man’s mouth, its many legs rattling a wooden staccato against its teeth. David clapped his jaw shut as its antennae brushed against his lips. Its large, bulbous eyes gazed up into David’s own, and unfolded two strangely shaped front legs from its underside. The legs were long and flat, held more like praying mantis claws, the inside edges coated with a strange, shiny substance. The centipede rubbed them together, and without the filter of teeth and lips in the way, David could suddenly detect a strange vibration as it spoke, like the buzzing of angry bees.


He had had enough, and with a frantic clenched-teeth screech, David shoved the creature off of him, its fingernails scraping at his side, and ran for the fire extinguisher, leaning down to pick it up before slamming and rolling against the opposite wall. The creature was flailing backwards, the centipede quickly withdrawing into the corpse’s mouth as it regained its balance. The corpse straightened and stared at David with its dead-white eyes, twin-shines glimmering with hostility inside its slack-jawed mouth.


With a strike that jarred his arm, the extinguisher that connected with the temple of the man carried the force of David’s charge and his frantic downward swing, and both he and the creature tumbled. He winced in pain and grabbed his shoulder, which twinged painfully from the sudden motion of the attack and the jarring strike. He could see the creature laying on the ground in his peripheral vision, the blue tile spattered with red blood, the soles of its feet worm-eaten and rotten, skin peeled and hanging in strands. As he caught his breath, the adrenaline making his legs quiver, out of the corner of his eye he saw the feet stir again. He righted himself and readied the dented extinguisher. When the creature stood back up, though, he had to stifle a scream.

The creature’s head, which was worse for wear before he struck it, looked horrifying now. From the point of impact, a jagged crack ringed around the crown of its skull like a fragile hollow eggshell. The top of its head had collapsed inwards, and its eyes now appeared like they were perched on the rim of a bowl, held only by a set of atrophied, distended muscles, staring lid-less at David, its gangrenous lips pulled back in a twitching snarl.

As it readied to charge, David could see that its skull was completely empty, save for a small, pulsating mass pooling at the bottom of its head, encircled and contained by the rest of the parasite’s body, its many-legged segments pulsating and writhing, massaging what remained of the corpse’s brain. David realized with a mixture of disgust and horror that not only was the centipede controlling the body, it was eating the brain, pulping and consuming the fatty, protein-rich mass, and using the last bits of the corpse’s energy to find its next victim. And now it was almost finished with its appetizer, it wanted to move onto his.

Regardless of what he saw, the blow he dealt to the corpse gave him a sort of frantic energy, an adrenaline rush that filled him with confidence and made him feel twenty feet tall. His eyes darted to the side, and he saw the edge of the gurney behind him. He quickly calculated a plan, and at the last second tried to dodge out of the charging monster’s path, in an attempt to make it trip over the gurney, so he could strike at it again while it was prone. However, his adrenaline-addled brain glazed over the tiles, which were slick with dark red concoction of blood and bile, and with his quick movement his sneakers slipped out from under him, the fire extinguisher clattered to the ground as he lost his grip, and in a reversal of fates he found himself tackled by the zombie.

The zombie was over him, its wiry and tattered limbs wrestled with his own. He grabbed the zombie by the shoulders, surprisingly heavy given its state of decomposition, and pushed it up, away from his vulnerable flesh. It was a wild animal, clawing at his arms and sides with cracked nails, its eyes teetering precariously from their fleshy perch, the centipede stretching from its mouth, legs twitching, antenna brushing against his lips. Thick gobs of saliva and phlegm cascaded down the centipede’s segments, dripping all over his face. His eyes burned on contact from the spit, and with a hoarse yell and a burst of flagging energy he threw the zombie to the side.

He staggered to his feet, but the zombie was on him again. He dove for the fire extinguisher, and turned around just in time to block a swipe from It with his forearms. He riposted with a second blow to the head, and the zombie went down a second time, its jaw at an odd angle and teeth scattered like loose marbles on the floor. He jumped on top of it, raising the extinguisher to club its head to pieces, but screamed as a white hot pain lanced up his body. He looked down to see a gnarled, bony finger pierced through his thigh, twisting and drilling to the bone, a bloody rose blooming on his filth-encrusted jeans. Through shattered teeth and broken jaw, the corpse almost looked it was grinning, the centipede playing a happy rattle on its remaining incisors.

With a frighteningly strong and swift motion, the corpse got back on top of David, pinning him to the floor with wiry scabby limbs. It heaved with exertion, and produced a hacking cough, spraying a plague of maggots and mucus and filth out of its mouth onto David’s face. But with a bent, crooked hand, It brushed a sweaty hair off of David’s brow gently, almost lovingly. David screamed through clenched teeth as the creature slowly lowered his head to meet David’s own, the parasite waving its mandibles and legs friendly-like as It reached into his mouth, using its large front claws to pry open his stubbornly clenched jaw, and muscled its way inside. He felt a sharp bite on the base of his tongue, and he stopped screaming, as a paralytic agent flooded his system, his limbs limply dropping to the floor, and his head rolling back, held in place by the gentle embrace of the corpse. His body went numb, and refused to respond, as the centipede crawled further into his mouth. He didn’t feel the pain of It drilling through bone, but he knew. He didn’t feel it when the parasite bit off his tongue, but he knew. He felt the pressure inside of his head as It crawled inside, pouring more and more of its mass into his mouth, but never filling it completely, the corpse going limp as It relinquished control. He knew It was inside of him, inside of his brain, rooting around his memories and motor responses, playing with axons and dendrites like a child with a Christmas toy. He knew when It found what it wanted, when his hand, uncertain and shaking, lifted into the air of its own volition. Of Its volition.

The doorbell rang, the single clear note echoing throughout the empty house on the crowded lane. Anna was on her laptop, editing her resume for the nth time. She looked up, a pearly white grin amid a sea of freckles. It must be David! She half-walked, half-skipped to the door, idly checking her phone on the way. She paused before the door, scrolling through a bunch of missed calls from her parents within the past few minutes. She looked through the window and saw David on the front porch. Anna threw open the door.

“Hey, David!”

But it wasn’t David.

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