Bogleech.com's 2013 Horror Write-off:
" Bug Mountain "
Submitted by Ian Tews
A cool breeze blows down from the north, taunting me. I keep doing this to myself, fantasizing about taking that first step but never doing it. This time, I think, I'm finally going to-
"Hey buddy." Kyle interrupts my ruminating. "Hey don't get all lost in your own head again."
"You ain't much fun to drink with when you're all depressed." He's right. I feel bad for all the times I've done this. At least we're not drinking yet.
Our friend Shawna should be here any minute. Somewhere in the darkening wilderness she has a hiding place even Kyle and I have never seen. Away from the communal stills where we ferment rice into alcohol, and some of that into vinegar, she makes her own booze from wild plants. Community alcohol is mostly used as a disinfectant. It's for killing the germs on our hands, our skin, our hair. It's for cleaning our knives and utensils, anything that touches food, any tool we might cut ourselves with. Shawna's weed wine is privately made, privately owned, privately consumed.
I look up at Kyle, but it's getting hard to see. Magenta fades to indigo and clusters of stars appear like pale lichens on a field of dark boulders. I don't want to stay silent, but I don't know what to say. "Tell me something funny," I finally blurt out.
"Oh jeez, I don't know. I can't just think up a joke on the spot like that." He thinks for a moment while I mindlessly pick at the callouses on my hands. "Shit, why don't you tell me something funny? I'm up all night with a crying baby. You go a couple weeks without sleep, you won't find much of anything funny anymore." I hadn't really thought about it until now, but Kyle is looking pretty ragged. A few months ago he was a healthy twenty-two year old, but now his body's become decorated with the scars of parenthood. Exhaustion has slowed his reflexes. New scrapes and bruises seem to pop up daily on his arms, legs and torso. Any one could become infected. We probably shouldn't waste any alcohol drinking. "So that's my excuse. What's with you?," he asks. "It seems like every little thing pisses you off."
It's true. For the last two days I've been growing more and more irritable. I've been trying to busy myself with jobs that let me work some of it out. Today I ground flour. From sunup to sundown I smashed dried pine cambium with a rock. Some years the crops do poorly and nearly half of our food comes from pine trees. We eat the inner bark, the needles, the seeds. I've been pounding away, furiously, looking to everyone else as if I'm ungrateful. Angry that I have to eat pine trees to survive. It's not why I'm angry. "It's been fifteen days," I finally say.
"And? Tomorrow you'll get it over with and then you won't have to think about it for a while." If not tomorrow then the next day, I think, or the next. I hate waiting, knowing it's coming soon, but never knowing exactly when. It's never been more than twenty-one days, or less than thirteen. "Nobody's holding you down right now, so enjoy tonight."
It dawns on me that I should drop the subject and move on to something else, but then I ask, "How are you going to explain it to your children, when they're old enough?" He thinks for a minute. I start to worry that I'm irritating him.
"Explain what?," asks Shawna, announcing her arrival. Her slender silhouette emerges from the black landscape of angular rocks and stunted trees. "Sorry it took so long," she says. "I ran into my little cousin and she just started reading the big book. She had so many questions." Shawna sits down on a flat rock facing Kyle and I. "I didn't want to tell her where I was running off to."
"So how'd this batch turn out?," Kyle asks.
"Oh, jeez. Sorry!" She quickly passes the hollowed out gourd full of liquor to him. "I couldn't find any berries so I sweetened it with flowers as much as I could."
"It's good," Kyle says, taking a second drink before passing me the gourd. "Nate here is due for another doctor's appointment.
I take a drink. It's not a sweet as other batches, but it's smoother.
"I'm just doing what my parents did for me," Shawna says, pausing for a drink. "I tickle my kids a lot, and I tell them that one day the bugs are going to tickle them too, but it's ok because the bugs won't hurt them. It's going to happen whether they want it or not. I'd rather they not be scared by it."
"I just don't see why it has to happen at all, " I say.
"I don't see why it bothers you so much," says Kyle.
"We all go through with it," he replies. "And nobody watches when they do it to you. And it doesn't take that long. Just daydream about something else for a little while. You're always daydreaming anyway."
The booze keeps circling around. "My mom had an uncle," Shawna started, "who thought the bugs were stealing his sperm to breed some kind of hybrid slaves. He thought that when they finally succeeded, they'd have no more use for us and kill us off. He went off one day to find proof, and nobody ever saw him again."
"So what are you saying? That he was crazy? Or that he found something they didn't want us to know?," I ask.
"She's saying that you're going crazy," Kyle answers. "I think she might be right," he teases. "Are you getting the madness? Are you hearing voices, telling you what the bugs are secretly up to? Where they come from?"
I drink some more wine. "Where do they come from?," I ask. "How did this whole thing even start? They don't even speak."
"They don't need to," says Kyle.
"I don't think we're ever going to find out," says Shawna, "And I don't want to see you end up like all the other people who fixate on it." Everybody has a story, somebody knew somebody who went crazy asking questions and met a bad end. Everybody has a story to scare their children. "Remember Rita's mom?," asks Shawna. "We were pretty young but my mom told me about it when I was older. Rita's mom believed that there was a race of devil-men hiding in the jungles below. They used their evil powers to transform into bugs so they could come up here and have their way with us. She used to tell Rita that her real father was a devil-man."
I look downhill, though in the dark I can't see much. We're on the wrong side of the mountain anyway, the eastern slope. The western side gets more rain, has denser foliage, more mosquitoes. The western jungles could hide all manner of hybrids and shapeshifting devils. The eastern side is drier, more open scrubland. When the bugs leave us they go downhill, beyond our reach. Below our homes and our farms, the heat of the air is unbearable for any length of time. Our border shrinks in summer and grows in winter. On exceptionally cool days, we visit lower altitudes. We forage for food, and hunt for artifacts left behind by our ancestors. But we've never found the bugs' hiding place.
"No wonder Rita turned out like she did." Kyle's voice pulls me back to reality again.
"Oh crap," says Shawna. "Don't tell her I said anything."
"I try not to talk to her," Kyle replies. "You know," he says, his voice getting playful again, "I heard that the bugs used to be human. They were people who got lichen disease so bad it metamorphosed them. And now they come up here because part of them is still human, and they're trying to put their souls into our bodies to be human again. Or maybe they just like touching us."
Somewhere out there lie the remains of lichen victims, men and women who couldn't fight off a skin disease that many of us suffer minor bouts of. Bodies slowly disappear beneath dry, black crust. Exiled to the lower eastern slope in a last ditch effort to cure themselves with dry heat. Some return, some don't.
"Of course I don't believe any of that," he goes on. "Whatever they're doing they've been doing my whole life and I've always been healthy. I haven't died of the flu, never had lichen disease. So I'm going to keep on thanking Bug God, smiling when they tickle me and not eating insects."
"They're not really insects," I try to explain. I'm starting to feel the alcohol. "I mean, I know they're kind of shaped like a beetle," I have to pause. I'm talking faster than I'm thinking, brain needs to catch up. "But, I mean, they don't have eyes like an insect." I don't know if they have eyes at all. They have little holes scattered over their bodies, with several clustered together at the front end. The little holes open and close, randomly and not in unison. Sometimes, when you're face to face with one, the holes stop puckering. They lock their gaze on you.
"Well they're more like insects than they are like people." Kyle is a bit more religious than Shawna or I. "This is a bug's world," he tells us. "You go down in the jungle and there's insects everywhere. Way more insects than birds and lizards. You go down the east slope it's the same thing. The rest of the world is even hotter, so if anything's living further down it's probably all bugs. Us humans are stuck up on this one little mountain. And then we've got these giant bugs checking up on us. So if there is a God, I'm pretty sure that God isn't a man. It's some kind of bug. I don't know, maybe like a queen ant or something."
"I like that," says Shawna. "I like that your God is a she. Shawna belches and it smells like flowers. "Excuse me. I don't really know what to believe. But when I think about it, whatever the bugs' interest in us is, it's something they need us to cooperate with. I mean, I've never seen one move very fast. I'm sure we could outrun them if we tried. And they keep coming back, so whatever it is, it's better for them not to hurt us. And to keep us healthy if there's anything they can do that helps with that. So I'm ok with it. So that's what I'm going to tell my kids."
"Well said," says Kyle. "You know, I think our friend here just needs to be desensitized a little."
"What are you talking about?," I ask. Before I can react, he lunges sideways and pins me to the ground.
"I'm a big old friendly bug and I'm gonna tickle you!" I struggle and squirm but Kyle's always been stronger than me. "Where is it boy? Where's that one little magic spot? I'm gonna find it!" He knows where it is, that one spot on my side, between the bottom of my ribcage and my hip. He knows where to poke me to make me thrash around but he doesn't go right for it. His twitching fingers circle it, then move in closer and circle it again. "Is this it? No, how about here?"
Shawna laughs hysterically. "I think you're getting warmer!"
"Oh I think I found it! Here it is. I found your ticklitoris!"
Kyle and Shawna can't stay out very late. Both have families to get home to. I linger under the stars for a while. I wonder if the many twinkling specks are the puckering eyeholes of some great Bug Goddess, watching over us.
Our little flagstone hovels aren't far from here, maybe a couple hundred feet away. I can't see them in the dark, but I know the path. I know where I am by the silhouettes of familiar shrubs along the slanted horizon. My sides still ache from laughing. Body sways as I stumble along the path. I don't worry about waking anyone. The conversations of millions of insects drowns out my footsteps. Insects. Chirping. Clicking. Out in the wastes, the rocky, inarable scrub. When I was a child I caught a lizard while playing out there, then cried all afternoon when my mother killed it for food.
I picture Lichen victims creeping about in secret. Inhuman shapes needing only to pause in the darkness to escape detection. Maybe in time they would be unrecognizable even in daylight. Have they always been there? I see them moving about on all fours, limbs and bellies covered in long dark beards. Scaly growths jut outwards from their sides like shelves of fungi on a tree. I know I am only looking at boulders and bushes, but in my mind their pale faces are looking back at me. Halfway between a bug and a person. A human skull somewhere beneath a thickening layer of pasty grub-flesh. Eyes, ears, nose and mouth are gone, replaced by a random smattering of pockmarks.
I hurry home, frightened by my own visions. Are there some alive out there, sneaking up here at night? Watching over the families they've been forced to abandon? Longing for human interaction? Driven mad by the smells of women and men pouring down the slope? By the mere thought of being touched?
Today I will be brave. When you're five or six years old, your parents tell you to be brave. The bugs won't hurt you, they say. If you don't cry and don't complain they give you a treat, something tasty usually. Maybe toy if you're really lucky.
I finger the carved wooden beads of my necklace. I don't have a bug charm. That's the other thing they give you when you're brave. A small wooden disk with an image of a bug carved on it. Some children's parents are real artists, carving intricate detail into their charms. For some, the image is only a circle with a few dots inside and surrounded by radiating lines. Believers in Bug God wear their bug charms centered amongst all their other beads. Other people wear them on one side or the other, grateful for what the bugs supposedly do for us but not considering them to be all mighty. Some of us don't wear them at all.
First light sends me and everyone else to work. One-hundred some tanned, slender bodies flee the coming heat. We head for the western slope, still in the mountain's shadow for the first few hours of the day.
They say that a long time ago everybody looked different. Some were darker, some lighter. Some were taller, others shorter. Some were more muscular, or fatter or thinner than others. Some people lived into their seventies or eighties or even longer.
With each generation we all look more and more alike. We all have medium brown skin and similar proportions. No one is dramatically burly or bulky. Eye and hair color still vary some, though blue eyes and pale hair are becoming scarce.
What clothing we wear does little to differentiate us. For one thing, it's hot enough for most of the year that working in clothing would be unbearable. For another, soil is precious and can't be wasted on non-food crops. Making cloth is labor intensive, and there's only so much leather you can get from a squirrel. It takes a few to make a decent modesty flap.
The necklaces are how we set ourselves apart. People wear beads carved with the names of family members, or with images of their favorite foods, animals, etc. They wear symbols from their favorite stories and songs, and symbols that only mean anything to themselves and maybe a close friend or lover. Shawna, Kyle and I each have a small blue bead, carved in the shape of a gourd. It's our little secret, one we've never explained to anyone else. Shawna made weed wine with blue berries and flower petals once and the vibrant color left a stain on the hollowed out drinking gourd. We'd already had the little wooden gourds carved, to commemorate our secret drinking trysts, and decided they'd be prettier if we stained them blue.
I walk alone, crossing the southern slope, following my long shadow west. People are spaced out on the trail, in sight but far enough apart that I can't hear conversations. Not all of us are morning people. Some talk quietly, some commute in silence. Grackles hop amongst the bare rocks, hunting for baby lizards and snakes basking in the sun. In places, we've arranged wide expanses of flat rock for sun-drying mosses and food for storage. Clumps of nettle grow wild here and there, edible and useful for making twine once the stingers are disabled by boiling or wilting.
I don't turn my head as I walk. I don't want to draw attention to myself. I feel my pulse quickening and my muscles tightening, my arms want to fight and my legs want to run. Instead I try to appear calm. To my left I can see an unmistakeable shape standing out in the open, nearly centered in a circle of flagstone. It faces away from me, but that doesn't matter. They can see in all directions at once.
A low dome of pale tan flesh stands atop an unknown count of legs, hidden away behind a skirt of long, dark quills. Trailing behind is a short, fat tail, covered on the sides by more bristles. The whole beast is roughly as long as a man is tall, and about nipple height at the summit. A rough cuticle grows over the carapace, with a texture not unlike that of lichens on tree bark.
I pass by slowly, afraid that even slightly altering my pace will draw its focus. It doesn't move. My heart is so loud I'm surprised that blood doesn't burst through my skin to relieve the pressure. I will be happier once my next appointment is behind me, but I never want it to come.
The bug remains still, torturing me without even acknowledging me. At any moment it could turn around and start shuffling towards me, and give me that look. They do not speak, they do not sign. The only thing they communicate is when it's time for you to follow them to a secluded spot, and let them have their way. They straighten their front legs to raise their front end up, and their facial pits gape. Seeing you, smelling you, whatever it is they do. Their beard of probe tendrils twitches ever so slightly, eager to slither into you like snakes wriggling down a burrow.
It doesn't move until it's nearly out of my sight, and then a sudden spasm shakes its whole body. Without thinking I swing around to look, destroying my attempt at cool indifference. The bug still doesn't turn. It stands there vibrating its legs. I've seen this many times before and it shouldn't startle me. I shouldn't have turned. It rattles its quills, releasing a cloud of fine dust into the column of warm air rising from the rocks.
I've long wondered why it is they do this. Is it releasing spores? Germs? Some kind of drug to control our minds? Maybe that's why people are so willing when the bugs come for them. Maybe there's just a few of us it doesn't work so well on.
Ahead of me there's a second bug, this one standing at the edge of the path. It's still some distance ahead. I wonder how long it's been there. Did it appear while I was distracted?
There's a few other people between me and it. As each one nears the creature I hope they will be the one summoned. A woman passes, but the bug doesn't give her the signal. A teenage boy approaches it, and the bug raises itself ever so slightly, expands its facial pores for a better look, and my breathing stops. I want to believe so badly that I'll be spared, but part of me knows the bug hasn't raised itself up high enough yet, it's only looking and not yet signaling. Then it lowers itself down and the boy passes. I'm next.
The distance between us closes, though I don't know how I continue walking. I feel disconnected from my arms and legs. My violent heart has quieted so much that I wonder if it's beating at all. My body wants to play dead. I've been spotted by a predator, targeted and I can't flee.
I keep walking a few steps past it, even though it is very clearly signaling to me. I don't do this deliberately as a challenge. It's because I'm so paralyzed with fear that I don't react. When my legs finally stop, I turn slowly with my head down. My captor leads me away from the path. Uphill and behind a rocky outcrop, out of sight of passersby.
I should have laid down right in the middle of the path, I think. Let all the people see what they allow and yet many of them try not to think about. Let the children see what awaits them, and let their parents try to explain how they could let this tradition persist. Without actually knowing if it benefits us in any way.
Still feeling weak, I strip out of my squirrel hides and lay face down on a patch of bare dirt. A bristly leg pushes my feet apart. The beast needs access to the entire network of tunnels and caverns that permeate my being. Its probes are soft, gentle and very slender, but the first push is always uncomfortable. Then it's in, making its way deeper and deeper. Navigating twists and turns, pausing occasionally to examine some point of interest. This first exploration is the easiest. Intestines have plenty of wiggle room. Their inner surfaces are used to the touch of solids. The real struggle begins when they flip you over. Pain must be endured, panic suppressed.
Today's exam will be very thorough. Sometimes they let you off easy, only tending to the digestive tract and the nose/throat/lungs. My last few sessions were relatively short.
The first wormlike probe is withdrawn and disappears behind the beard of fresh clean ones. Whether it's pulled back inside the creature's body or merely folded beneath it to be cleaned I do not know. When the probes are not in use, they dangle like a beard below the grubby face. The beard is little more than a foot in length, but many more feet of tentacle materialize when needed. They are thin, some of them fine threads, allowing the lumbering beasts access to the most delicate passageways of human anatomy.
This time, the initial poke is not the most painful moment. I clench my fists, grit my teeth and begin to sweat profusely. I absolutely must remain still. How on earth am I supposed to daydream through this? At least fear has me shriveled and the worm doesn't have far to travel. Or so I hope. The tunnel forks ahead. I wait with hellish anticipation to see if it'll take one of the shorter paths through the bladder and up into a kidney, or one of the longer trails that loops up, over and down to the testicles. For a time I'm not even sure, but then it becomes clear. It's taking the right loop. I look around for a stick to bite, but no such luck.
It goes on. Maybe there's something wrong with Kyle. Maybe he doesn't feel pain the same way I do. When the little explorer finally begins his slow ascent, he leaves behind him a trail of dull pain. It aches everywhere he's touched. The retreat is every bit as slow as the advance, except for maybe the last inch of the journey. A high pressure stream of urine forces the worm back into the daylight, and sprays all over the inside of my left thigh.
The bug clambers forward. Leg bristles rustle and sway. Trapped amongst them are dried leaves, twigs, and torn remnants of spiderwebs. I'm sure many an insect is lost in that dense undergrowth. Maybe some live their entire lives in there, fed by the ever growing collection of detritus. How is it that we've come to believe these antagonists keep us healthy? They're animals, and not even clean animals. Birds preen. Even shit eating flies scrape the filth from their legs.
I feel the small object poking at the back of my throat, and reflexively swallow, pulling it deeper. I hold my eyes closed tightly, breathe steadily, and dig my nails into the dirt. I wonder what's down there now that wasn't there the last hundred times they violated my esophagus. The tendril pulls back out. I'm never prepared for the sensation, like a string of vomit crawling up my throat. I start coughing and my eyes open. I'm just in time to see a pair of meaty palps reaching forward from below the bug's head. My session isn't over.
I was hoping we'd at least skip the eyes today. I was hoping that I could keep my eyes closed until this is over. Today is not my lucky day. My eyelids are gently held open. I have no choice but to see.
Miscreation stands over me. I lay flat on my back and look into its face. Flaky, translucent skin forms a loose crust over pitted sponginess. Its visage would be unforgivable even upon a grub, barely large enough to see, and hidden from all eyes beneath a rock too large to ever move.
I am pinned to the ground, restrained by unseen limbs and the weight of a body at least twice that of my own. What monstrous appendages dangle over me from between those pairs of villous legs? The undersides of these raping devil-men has always been a mystery.
A slender face worm, dark, living string, gently pushes itself under the lower lid of my right eye. The tendril is oily and slides in carefully without chafing. I struggle anyway, involuntarily, but I am powerless. It isn't painful. It just feels like there's something pressing against my eyeball that shouldn't be there. A lump, a bit of debris. A wriggling larva, crawling under the orb and into the socket.
The sun is still low in the east, leaving my captor and I in the western shadow of the mountain. The soft light does the beast no favors. I stare into the gaping pores and they subtly change shape. With no words exchanged I tell it every dark thought its touch stirs within me. I pronounce my judgement with hateful red eyes.
Kyle's Bug-God meets my heresy not with wrath, but with sadness. It hurts it to see that I don't understand. It can't tell me in words, only with actions that confuse and scare me. It wants me to know things it could never explain, and to feel the opposite of all it makes me feel. I hate when they give you this look.
For several minutes after the last probe is withdrawn, the dumb animal still straddles my naked body. They always make you wait before finally trundling off, to select their next victim or retire to a place that we're not supposed to follow them to. I wonder if people used to fight back. Maybe they hold us down to make sure we know that we're powerless. Maybe it calms people so they don't lash out as soon as they can get back up. I don't know. When it's gone, I dress myself and clean up as best I can. As angry as I was just minutes ago, what's done is done and my mind switches focus all too quickly. This is why I never escape. I survived and now it's time to get on with life. Rage dissipates once the danger is gone, though I know it will come back again and again.
I pass a family on the path, lifting their four year old daughter onto a bug's back for a ride. The same bug that was just on top of me. Everybody does this to teach their kids not to be afraid. My parents did it to me. And I say "Hi," and I smile as I walk by. I don't tell the child what awaits when she grows a bit older. I don't condemn the parents. Why?
I find Kyle working in the rice fields. Our forefathers and mothers built steps into the western slope. The jungle is cleared in a wide horizontal band, offering a view of other, greener mountains rising from the morning fog below. The rice plants aren't very big yet, maybe six inches above the surface of the ankle-deep water. We don't say much at first besides "hello," and "good morning." I get to work, pulling up weeds and checking for damage to the mossy retaining walls.
Kyle is quiet, and at first I assume he's gone another night without much sleep. Then I notice that Rita is working on the step above us. "Good morning Nate," she says.
"Good morning," I say quietly. I'm sure Kyle isn't talkative because he knows Rita will butt in.
"The Lord sure has given us a beautiful day."
I'm silent. I don't even know how to respond when people say things like this. Especially right now. Rita wears a long skirt made from dried grass and a baggy sleeveless top woven from various plant stems. While I respect her ingenuity, the long skirt seems impractical. She has to keep lifting it out of the way so it won't snag the young rice plants.
Kyle lifts his own garments out of the way, only he does it to pee. He goes right where he is, into the shallow water we both stand in. It's actually good for the plants, so long as the urine is diluted enough. Most of us just go in the rice paddies while we're working.
Rita conspicuously averts her eyes. "You could at least warn me," she says, "or better yet do that in private."
Kyle rolls his eyes. "Bug God doesn't care," he tells her. "Bug God loves our bodies. Bug God wants us naked when he comes to visit. Bug God checks every last part of our bodies to make sure they're healthy and working good." He shakes the last few drops off before covering up again. "Man God-"
"The Lord your God Jesus Christ," she interrupts.
"Man God," he continues, "wants us spending all our time telling stories about him, singing songs, building temples, sewing clothes. Scaring our children. Bug God lets us work. Bug God lets us take care of ourselves, grow our food, fertilize our crops. He only wants a just a bit of our time now and then."
"Don't you see what they're doing to you?," she asks.
"I just looked," he says, "and everything's still in order."
"No," she says. "They do disgusting things to us, over and over until most of you don't react anymore. Until you're numb to perversion and you think it's ok to walk around nearly naked andů relieve yourself on front of everyone. Until you think sexual deviation is all just fun and games."
"Well praise the Bug God!"
"No!" I don't know why Kyle taunts her like this. "The bugs don't obey God," she says. "We have to learn to control ourselves, and to reject all evil influence in our lives. We'll never be allowed off this mountain if you keep acting like that." I start to work faster as her voice becomes smug.
"So, your god made the world hotter because he wanted us to wear more clothes? Is that what you're saying?"
She ignores Kyle's question and continues preaching. "You don't know where they came from, and yet you trust them."
"I trust them more that I trust you," he retorts. "Being naked keeps us alive. When you Man-God believers convinced everyone to put on more clothes, we wasted cropland on fiber plants. We wasted time weaving cloth. Weeds grew tall, there was too little food and people collapsed from overheating." Bug God believers love to bring this up. The older religion almost got us all killed. Thankfully we stopped listening after a couple of deaths and managed to recover. As far as the Man-God believers are concerned however, that battle may have been lost but the war on bare skin is far from over.
Rita gets furious every time he reminds her. "Better to die righteously and go to Heaven than to live a few years longer in sin and go to Hell."
"Rita," Kyle says, "when you die that's it. No more you. If you don't want to have any fun with your body while you have it, that's fine with me. But stop trying to ruin life for the rest of us."
Again, Rita doesn't really respond to what he says, instead reiterating another one of her talking points randomly. "Do you really believe that everyone just forgot when the bugs showed up? That a whole generation of people agreed to let them violate us regularly and couldn't remember why? That not a single person asked until everyone who did know was long dead?" I hate it when Rita says something that actually makes sense. I know it doesn't make anything else she says true. Still, I hate that I agree with her on this one thing. "If it's all good, then why was it kept a secret?"
"I'll tell you what I do know," Kyle says after a short pause. "I know that growing food keeps us alive, and building temples doesn't. I know that being naked when it's really hot is better than wearing a lot of clothes. I know that my family is healthy and the bugs don't hurt us. And I know that your religion had a lot of power back when the world went to shit. Man-God believers were in charge when billions of people died. So I don't really care what the bugs are doing. I don't care if they're shoving their bug dicks in me. I don't care if they feed my corpse to their caterpillars. I don't have to worry about war. I don't have to worry about getting murdered or getting robbed or being somebody's slave. Whatever people were worshipping before the bugs showed up didn't fucking work."
The argument goes a while longer, but eventually tapers off. I never join in, but it gets me thinking. We're always told not to follow the bugs downhill. Is that because it's too hot, or because we'll see something we shouldn't? Are we banned because we might bring back a deadly disease? If the bugs never talk, how could they tell us what not to do?
Three bugs shuffle along the path in the early morning. There's something off about their gait. Perhaps it lacks the slight hint of childlike clumsiness. Perhaps the star field of pores isn't twinkling. Their focus doesn't bounce around between every person and object they pass. They aren't taking in the world, only moving through it.
When Rita's mother was alive, she told her daughter, "The bugs will take my body when I die but my soul will be safe with God. They can't touch that. You try to resist, you scream and you yell when they come for me. So God and everyone else knows that you don't approve of my body being desecrated. But know that when they drag it away, it's not me anymore. I'll be somewhere bright and beautiful."
Rita did as her mother said, though she was very young at the time, maybe nine years old. Rita and her siblings screamed things about hell and judgement that I doubt the bugs could understand.
"I will teach you right from wrong so long as I'm here to do so," her mother told her. "Though the written word of God was stolen from us by a cowardly Devil worshipper, he still speaks in other ways. Pray that you will hear him. Pray that the voice you hear is his own, and not the Devil whispering in your ear."
Rita's brothers and sisters look uncomfortable but remain quiet. Two bugs gently roll her body onto the back of the third. Her dry grass skirt crinkles. Her necklace hangs off to the side. A large wooden cross in the center, and a bead for each of her family members. No favorite foods, no favorite animal, no secret memories.
In the last eight days a plague has descended upon us. We call it the flu, though we don't really know. Rita is the third person to die, and another thirteen are sick. Kyle and Shawna are healthy, thankfully, and so are their families. The sick are quarantined in their homes, isolated from everyone else. All of the casualties have been over thirty, so we still have hope that the rest will recover. Few people live beyond thirty-five, and it's been generations since anyone's made it to forty. Sometimes the plagues make many sick but claim few lives, sometimes they take nearly everyone they touch.
"We're lucky," says Shawna, maybe to me and maybe to reassure herself. "We're lucky they take our dead away. How many more of us would get sick if we had to bury them ourselves?" I wonder if she sees my eyes and guesses what I'm thinking. I watch the bugs as they carry Rita's diseased corpse away from us, down into the eastern scrub before heading south and then, I assume, west. The heat will keep us away, and the dense forest of twisted, moss covered pine trees and lush ferns will hide any ghastly rituals from our sight. "Please don't," she says.
"We have a right to know," I tell her.
"A lot of people are sick," she reminds me. "We need to bring them food, and water, and herbs." She's right, of course. Right now that's far more important than satisfying my curiosity.
We cook rice and vegetables for the sick and deliver it just outside their doors. They don't emerge until we've retreated, but still we all hold our breath when we are close. Kyle helps us fill jugs of water and pack herbs for tea, but he doesn't come to make deliveries. He has an infant at home, and she is too young to fight off any infection he might be exposed to. The rest of us take our chances.
Later that morning Shawna takes a break from work to go make some pine needle tea for her family, to boost their immune systems just in case they've been exposed. "I'll bring you some if you'd like," she offers.
"That would be great," I say. "I'm going to go gather some moss, in case we run out."
"Always thinking one step ahead," she says. "See, that obsessive brain of yours comes in handy sometimes." We use dried moss for bandages, because it absorbs fluids and also prevents all manner of nasty things from growing. The flu doesn't cause wounds or blisters, but the stress during an outbreak and the grief of losing loved ones makes people more susceptible to Lichen infections. Those need to be kept clean and dry.
Outbreaks are always stressful. First the old die, and then sometimes, the children. Then we wait, for weeks, to see if others will recover, and who else will fall ill. We've all been sick. We've all waited day after day, obsessing over each new symptom. Struggling with days long fevers, dehydration, choking on our own mucus. Every bubbling cough frightens us, even when it comes from someone else. We lay awake each night wondering who will be dead in the morning. We guzzle tea and broth and endless herbal potions in the hope it'll buy us more time. We clutch the carved wooden beads of our necklaces and think of family and friends, as if those emotional attachments will shield us from death.
With every funeral, we think to ourselves, "Which God did they reject? With which transgression did they cross the line?" There never seems to be a pattern, though some people ignore whatever they must in order to pretend. Are there men or beasts in the sky? Do they let us live merely to watch us tremble? Do they drink in our fearful praise, or the warmth of our soft innards, and then offer us no aid in exchange for our devotion? Do we struggle only to earn a delay in our inevitable punishment? Do they simply grow bored of us and drop us for younger followers?
I start to get angry as I head for the pharmacy. It's the biggest building in our village, though it's little more than a scaled up version of our one room flagstone cabins. It's on the eastern slope, uphill from our homes. I need bags to collect moss. We keep dried herbs, moss, cloth for bandages, and the few books we have in the pharmacy. The bags of moss absorb any excess humidity, keeping mold from growing. Our ancestors didn't bring many books with them. They hadn't planned on staying up here for more than a few years, or so we're told. We have volumes on wilderness first-aid, how to grow your own food, and how to use medicinal herbs. Then we have what we simply call "the big book." It's a massive, tedious narrative full of bizarre words like "economy," "partisan," "blog," and "propaganda." It describes a terrifying world where thousands of people murdered millions of people so a few people could live like Gods. The air and the water were poisoned and the world itself set on fire.
The scariest part is that we don't even know which passages are true. We read it because it's the only glimpse we have into the history of our world. It tells us what everyday life was like once, but the great wars it describes may not have happened. We're taught that it was a warning, an imagined outcome of real mistakes. We know it isn't all true, but it's all we have to go on. We imagine the truth is not too different from the myth. And so we hope that when the world became hot, many people escaped to the far north and to the land of Antarctica, just like what happens in the book. But we don't know.
When our ancestors fled to the foothills they didn't know exactly what was happening. They only knew they were in danger. They brought something with them called a radio which has long since been lost. It was some kind of box that allowed them to hear the voices of people far away. So they waited and listened for a sign that it was safe to return to civilization, but eventually there were no more voices.
Frustratingly for us, the big book makes no mention of bugs. It makes no mention of bug religion. There is little reference to animals or plants of any kind. Nearly every important thing in our lives hardly seems to have existed in the world before. Most of us only read it once in our lives, and many never read it at all.
I've spent weeks with the big book, desperate for answers I had nowhere else to search for. I kept hoping that if I reread the pages I'd come to understand some hidden meanings I had missed the first time. I found no answers about the bugs, nor any explanation for the beliefs in Man God or Bug God. Some people say that the great die off was the wrath of Man God. Some say it was man's fault, and the bugs came afterwards to save the few of us remaining. I don't understand where these ideas came from. The big book has many passages telling us how we should live. Many stories of people who committed certain crimes and how they were punished, or not punished. Some of these are quoted often, some never mentioned. In the pharmacy, I check the all the books for any signs of mold growth by quickly flipping through the pages. Everything looks clean, so I place them back in their cupboard and gather a few empty sacks. And then I just sit down and lean against the wall. I feel like my joints are eroding and my muscles drying out. Every day we're on our feet from dawn until dusk. Sometimes I wish I were sick, just to have a full day of sleep.
I pass a bug on my way to the forest. I'm too exhausted to be mad, or scared. I walk passed without looking. I have important work to do. Only once I'm amongst the trees, it doesn't seem so important anymore. All I want to do is rest. I'm in a quiet place, in the shade, away from chattering voices and loaded glances. Then I hear footsteps approaching.
It's only been eight days. It's never been less than thirteen before. It takes me a minute to even process what I'm seeing. The bug is signaling to me. I turn, and take a few steps away, and start peeling moss off a log and stuffing it into a sack. I feel a soft tapping on my back. I step over the log and keep going about my business without looking behind. Another tap.
I swing around rather dramatically and yell, causing the bug to back up. "No!" It stands up tall again, pores dilated. "I said no! Get the hell away from me!" I back up further and stand there, staring, tears in my eyes.
The bug freezes, as if in disbelief that anyone should ever react as I just have. That horrible mockery of a face melts just a little. Gone is that dumb excitement they always have when they come for you. I've broken its heart. And it turns and shuffles away.
I should have known Kyle would be mad. For some reason I just thought he'd tease me about it. And then I'd feel better. "Why now?," he demands. "Why now, when people are sick, and three already died? This isn't the time to see what you can get away with."
It doesn't help that the three of us are boiling water for tea to bring to the quarantined. This is the third time today. We have to make sure they get enough to drink.
I look to Shawna, she just seems confused. "I don't know what to say," she finally says. She doesn't look so angry at least.
"Well I know what to say," says Kyle. "Go find yourself a bug right now and tell them you're sorry. You go sprawl out naked in front of one and hope they give you a second chance."
"Kyle calm down," Shawna says.
"You both saw what happened to Rita. Nate you should know better."
"Hurry up." He cuts me off. "Before the sun goes down." It's already low in the west.
"Kyle, calm down," she repeats. "Nate, I don't know if anything bad is going to happen, but I'm scared. I know you don't like what the bugs do. But think about the world before. We live so much more peacefully than people did without the bugs."
"And we don't live half as long as people did back then," I say. Why am arguing now? I should shut up, do what they say, and hope my friends forgive me.
"There's a lot of reasons we might not live as long," she says. "All the poisons they dumped in the air and the water are supposed to linger for centuries. And we don't have all the medicines they had. And there's so few of us. People used to choose who they had children with. We have to marry the person we're least related to. We're all closer to each other than our parents were, and we get sick more, and when we get sick it's worse."
"But we take care of each other," she continues. "We work to survive, not to make other people wealthy. I think some of that is because the bugs humiliate us. Nobody thinks they're too special to do their part. Nobody thinks they deserve power."
Before I can respond we see a bug going by, maybe thirty feet away. They don't often visit us in the village, except for funerals. This one is alone, though. Its business is with the living. I stand up and take a step towards it, then stop. I don't know how to approach it. I don't know what to say. "It's time to kiss and make up," says Kyle.
He comes up close behind me and starts waving. "Hey! Over here!" The bug keeps trundling forward. The pores along its side expand and contract again in a slow wave as it passes. Its eyes are following us. "Hey bug! My friend's real sorry about this afternoon! He's got some real tasty kidneys for you." The bug pauses, shakes one of its legs, and then resumes its walk.
Kyle grabs both of my arms and holds the behind my back. "Hey!"
"Don't struggle," he says. "Hey bug!" He pushes me forward, forcing me to march towards it.
"Kyle!," Shawna shouts. "You're going to make it worse. You know how he fixates on things. Just give him a few days to think it over. I'm sure they'll come back, and he'll lay down next time and we'll forget all about this. He can't be the first person to ever say no."
There are other people around, cooking at other fires nearby. They're all looking at us. "I don't want to worry about it," he says. I don't even struggle. I just stand here, not wanting to make any more of a scene. The bug moves further away from us.
Kyle lets go of my arms and I take a step away from him. "Hey buddy," he says. For a minute I watch the bug and don't respond. "Hey I think I felt something on your arm." Without having to think about it I look at my left arm first. right inside the elbow. It's the same place I got it the last two times. There isn't much to see yet. The skin is dry and scaly but it hasn't spread far or started changing color. "Shit," says Kyle.
"Go wash your hand with vinegar," Shawna tells him. "Rub garlic on it. Do it a few times a day for the next week."
"Shit," he says again.
"Don't touch anyone," she continues. "Don't scratch any itches. Don't rub your eyes."
"What if my baby catches it?"
"Wash your hands now. Don't touch her for a week."
I've had it twice before, when each of my parents died. I kept it clean and bandaged. Both times it went away in a few days. I was younger then. Flareups later in life are more threatening. I need to clean and bandage myself and stop getting worked up. Stress makes it worse. Inbred immune systems don't fight it well. If the crust starts darkening I'll have to be quarantined.
"They knew you were sick," says Kyle. He takes a few steps, heading off to get first aid supplies, then turns back to face me. "That's why it came for you so soon."
A cool breeze blows down from the north, taunting me. Lichen infections spread faster when it's cool and humid. Cool days used to be fun. They meant exploring the lower slopes of the mountain. Searching for new food. Scrounging the ruins below. Wandering the crumbling buildings in search of tools and books while terrifying the children with ghost stories. I count the cool days each winter, in hopes that each year gets a little better. One year, I tell myself, it will stay cool for several months and I'll be able to hike north through the foothills.
Kyle and Shawna come to see me, bringing more supplies and food. The middle half of my left arm is hidden under a bandage stuffed fat with moss. I don't want them to see how bad it's gotten. It twitches under its wrapping. It wants sunlight and air.
"Your going to beat it," Shawna tells me. "People have come back from worse. Just try to take it easy. I don't know, watch the sunrise or something. Get a lot of rest."
"I will," I say. "I'm sorry." I hate putting them through this. It's hard enough having friends die randomly when you thought they were fine. But this will undoubtedly be more stress for them. I'll be out of sight, far downhill. Wandering around in debilitating heat. Hoping I stay with it enough to care for myself. Staring for hours at the thalli on my arm. Wondering if I gave it to Kyle. "Are you ok?," I ask weakly, afraid to hear him answer.
"I'm clean," he says. He pus his hand on my uninfected right shoulder, after an awkward moment of starting to raise his right hand, realizing he'd be touching my left arm, then finally raising his left hand instead. "You're going to come back. Good as new. And maybe next winter I'll come hiking with you. We'll go farther than we've ever been. We'll find more people." I know he's just saying it to encourage me. He can't leave his family to go exploring. And he knows that I always talk about heading north in the hopes of escaping the bugs. It's never been about finding more people, that's just what I say to convince others to come with me. Kyle doesn't want to leave the bugs.
"I brought you something," says Shawna. She hands me a little cloth sack filled with bunches of different herbs. "I thought you could try an experiment. See if any of these kill it faster. If one thing doesn't work, try something else. And maybe try smothering it with clay. Suffocate it. I don't know. When I was little and I had it on my foot, my mom told me it's just a living thing, like an animal. She said I didn't do anything wrong. Some other kids told me I was bad. Or that I wasn't praying sincerely enough. Mom said it's just like a fungus growing on a tree. The tree isn't wicked, the fungus is just hungry."
"I love you both," I say. I mean it. I don't say it enough. We always say it when we're sick, because too often it's our last chance. I don't think this is our last goodbye, but it's getting sad and uncomfortable. I need to get moving.
When I've traveled a good distance downslope I stop for a rest in one of the few bits of shade. It's time to clean the arm and change the bandage. It's not my arm anymore. It's something else. A separate being. It throbs under its binding, aching to be released. I expose it and give it a bath. The vinegar burns. Good. Let it burn.
I wonder why the bugs never seem to get ill. Real insects get sick. I've seen it. We gather beetle pupae and dry them for food, though some people refuse to eat them for religious reasons. Some pupae have odd growths emerging from their heads. Little horns. Branching twigs. Sometimes we find the dried out husks of insects with soft fuzz spewing from cracks. Why don't the giant bugs ever get sick? And what do their babies look like? And their pupae, if they have such a thing. Night brings a chorus of crickets. Moths and night birds punch little black holes in the clouds of stars above. The moss packing in my bandage has sopped up a day's worth of sweat and holds it against the scaly arm. I strip it all off and lay it out to dry. I can't see if there's new growth, but the arm feels stiffer, heavier, slower to respond. Fleeting sensations of pressure, as if it's being squeezed, occur at random. Sometimes in rapid succession, sometimes hours go by with nothing and I start to think it's healing.
My squirrel hides too are holding in moisture. They come off to dry as well, at least while it's dark and I am alone. And suddenly I feel vulnerable.
Animals come out at night. If only we humans could see so well in the dark. Small mammals and the snakes and spiders who hunt them are smart enough not to exert themselves under the sun. They make no sounds. Only patches of silence moving through the field of chirping gives them away. Unseen creatures move close to me. Fluttering things crash into me. Devil men stalk through the darkness. Grotesque bug queens drag their bloated bodies across the badlands in search of new caves. Foliose Lichen people surround me silently, poking from time to time to see if I'm asleep yet. The soft touches of their thalli tickle like blundering insects. I merely flinch when I should be running. Sleep comes and goes all night. I dream of monsters and disease. Restraint and paralysis. Raping Beast Gods and hateful Man Gods. Days pass. Throbbing turns to stabbing pains. Stabbing becomes sharper, more frequent. Nights go by with fitful sleep. The herbs do little. I run out of vinegar. In a last ditch effort, I eat the entire last head of garlic at once. The first few cloves feel like a punch to the stomach. By the time I finish, I'm curled up on the ground sobbing.
Another sleepless night. Stabbing every few minutes. I feel like my blood is vibrating. It's worse if I lay down so I wander aimlessly. I don't know why I have so much energy. I don't sleep and I can't remember the last time I've eaten. I wonder what the bugs are hiding. We're told not to follow them, but the bugs never speak. They don't write and they only have a few basic gestures. I wonder if they ever actually communicated that we're not supposed to follow.
I take Shawna's advice and watch the sunset. Or was that supposed to be the sunrise? Oh well, it's more calming than I would have imagined. There's a storm to the west, far enough away that tiny bolts of lightning seem to swarm through the clouds. From time to time, my arm jerks backwards, away from the knife it thinks is stabbing it. The sun passes behind the storm clouds and for a while it's dark. It emerges again between cloud and horizon, blurred by sheets of falling rain. Another stab. And another.
I wonder where the bugs came from. I know the earth was once home to many wonderful creatures, but where do they fit? Are they spiders, insects, what? A fungus controlling some other being? Are they from another planet? Stab. Were they created by men? Are they biological weapons? Was their behavior designed to humiliate people, to crush the will of so many peasants? Stab. Are they mutants, made by pollution or radiation? Were they human once? Stab stab. How did such an unlikely organism come to be?
I'm supposed to be watching the sun rise. Most of the rain falls on the western slope, so I'm supposed- Stab Stab Stab!- to be on the drier eastern slope.
The next stab comes between my shoulder blades. The one after that is on the left side of my neck. My body jerks around with each shooting pain, trying to escape. I wandered all the way around to the western slope without even knowing. Stab. I don't know how I missed it. I look around and realize I'm surrounded by ferns and wildflowers. The branching crowns of trunkless trees sprout from in-between boulders. Slender limbs make a half-hearted effort to grow skyward before curving back down and snaking along the ground. Stab! Is the parasite driving me to seek humidity? Stab! I'm a full day's walk from where I should be.
Why is it getting so much worse? I was healthy a few days ago. I've always gotten over it before. Were the bug visits really keeping me healthy? Did they make me sick when I made them mad? Can they do that? I'm screwed. I'm completely screwed. Stab Stab Stab Stab Stab! It- Stab!- came for me eight days after the previous visit. It knew I was sick. It knew I was weak, somehow. It would have healed me. I have to find them.
Stab. Stab. What if they infect us with Lichen, and then medicate us with each visit? So we can never leave them. So we can never refuse them. How does the old rhyme go? I haven't heard it since I was little.
there was a young man who didn't like bugs
he hated their kisses and hated their hugs
and once, in a rage, he threw quite a fit
and had to be dragged, to his next visit
I wander, directionless as the Lichen spreads. New patches spring up on my legs and torso, spreading and darkening quickly. Sometimes I collapse right out in the sun. Burned skin peels. Fresh pink skin is soon overgrown.
I don't remember sleeping or waking up. I just find myself conscious sometimes, wondering where I've carried myself. When the sun rose or when it set. When it started raining. When blackness covered the last patch of humanity on my stomach.
Sometimes I see bugs in the distance. I approach them but they act as if they don't see me. Is this revenge, or is a diseased man simply of no use to them? Am I spoiled like moldy fruit? Would my tubes and tunnels taste foul to them now?
I fade into awareness staring and the ground. Pale stones, pale bones. A rocky patch surrounded by jungle. No soil and no plants. There are bleached bones scattered amongst the rocks. Large bones. Human sized.
Bugs sit still in the distance, half hidden behind clumps of reddening bracken. Did they eat the flesh off these bodies? Or was it the flies and the crows? Stab stab stab.
If I live long enough I may find out. If I don't starve to death or dry out like a leaf. If I don't wander off and come to somewhere else.
I try to stand but find that I can't. The left leg is useless. It feels no more stabbing pains, but and it doesn't repined to commands. The left arm is a thin woody stem supporting a sparse growth of blackish fronds. Pains still shoot through the right limbs, parts of the body and the face. I am becoming something inanimate, save for the thoughts moving through my head.
The right arm and leg pull me toward a squat boulder nearby. I lean forward and fall onto it. It's a struggle to sit up, but I'm rewarded with a clear view of the graveyard. At least as clear as I'll ever get. The left eye sees light and dark, color and movement. Shifting clouds. Only the right eye still sees shapes and textures. Only the right eye can turn to follow movement. Only the right eye can still focus or blink.
I will sit here and wait, as long as it takes. As long as I last. There doesn't seem to be any hope of recovering now. There is, however, hope of questions being answered. New pieces of the puzzle may soon fall into my lap. So I wait.
Unknown time passes. Wind pushes me but the body holds fast. It has adhered itself to the rock.
Bugs come and go. Sometimes they sit motionless for hours. Do they eat? Do they work? Do they mate?
Bugs come. They carry a body. He lays there, stiff, atop a giant, pale, mushroom cap dome. I've wanted for so many years to know what happens next. As morbid as it is, I'm awakened by the excitement. Stab stab stab! I'm more alive than I've been in quite some time. My brain stirs. Thoughts grow again like new shoots after the first spring rain.
I start to run through a list in my head of all the men who were sick when I left the village. It's hard to see the face from my perch but I can't move closer. They stop about thirty feet away from me and delicately roll the corpse onto the bare ground. He lands face up, thankfully, giving me a chance to study him.
He doesn't look like any of the men who were quarantined. I can't decide who he looks like at all. His eyes have retreated into their burrows. Barely a bulge remains beneath the lids. The flesh of his cheeks has melted, poured down the sides of his skull, and hardened under his sideburns. His chin has been pulled down so it's almost touching his right collarbone. The unnatural posture obscures his jawlines and leaves deep creases in the pinched flesh of his neck. Blue. There is a little blue bead on his necklace. My mouth barely cracks. Lips just begin to part, then move no further. The wail doesn't come. I'm not sure if any air flows out. I dream that I'm screaming. And then gradually a hum builds in my throat, barely audible, finally escaping as a muffled cry. The body thrashes in protest, as violently as it can, which is not very.
Bugs come, emerging from the brush. They are drawn to Kyle's body. They surround him. I flail about and hiss. The right arm flops lamely like an infant's. Kyle's body shakes.
I realize I can't hear very well anymore. As the days passed, the wind in the leaves and the footfalls of bugs has grown softer and less distinct. Until now I didn't notice. I must have imagined the sounds I was expecting to hear. Now I hear muffled thumps. Loud, fuzzy wind.
I don't want to be here anymore. Try as I might, the body cannot be torn free. The bugs ignore my cries. Kyle's body shakes. I see glimpses of it through the gaps between surrounding bugs. His arm flops over and my heart jumps. He's waking up. He's fighting.
He's not waking up.
I don't want to watch this. I don't want to know. I don't want to know if the bugs are eating him, laying their eggs in him, or sacrificing him to their own primitive God. I don't want to know if they raise us until we breed, then slaughter us for some ceremonial meal. Harvest festival.
All I can do is close the right eye. I do so with all the strength and fury I possess. The left eye still sees movement. Clouds come together, pause, shake, pause. The sound is more shapeless than the image. Stab stab stab! Vibration travels through the rock, through my bones. In my mind it is the snapping of limbs, the tearing of flesh. The garbled voice of my friend. The mind creates Kyle's tone and inflection, but no intelligible words.
When we were fourteen and fifteen years old, Kyle fell and cut a deep gash on his arm. He was calm, I was terrified. I begged him to go clean and bandage it. He teased me instead, pulling the wound open and closed with his fingers. Showing me the ragged edges of broken skin. Letting the blood flow. "Stop! You'll get an infection!," I cried.
He pulled it open and closed, making it talk to me. "Hey handsome," it said in a girly voice. "I'm a woman today. How about I make you a man?"
Nothing is funny when you haven't slept in weeks.
I see clouds moving, light and shadow. And I see that wound on teenage Kyle's arm. Opening and closing. Bleeding. And I hear squishing. And crunching. And stifled speech. Mfhgh thgnffhthg nnghtnfthth.