I'm a sort of "Paranormal Exterminator." There's one job I can't stop thinking about.

Written by Jonathan Wojcik

First thing's first: I don't deal with or believe in ghosts, demons or any of that supernatural stuff. Forget anything you've seen in movies or heard about in urban legends. Most of my coworkers just refer to our cases as "monsters," but that never sat right with me either, because when I think "monster" I think "creature," and not everything I encounter at my job makes sense in those terms either. The things we study and exterminate are so bizarre we have to advertise as other services entirely, sometimes as if we're "ghost hunters," sometimes even as if we offer alternative medical advice. We have some sort of specially trained phone center that runs every caller through a million questions before they're forwarded to whoever they really need, and maybe one in a thousand calls turn out to be our unique jurisdiction.

My coworkers, mostly younger than me, like to draw comparisons to things like the Ghostbusters, Van Helsing or especially the Men In Black films. We certainly seem to operate under some bigger, more powerful organization that keeps a lot of what we do out of broader public consciousness, but it's not at all as high tech or sexy as erasing people's memories or putting Will Smith in a suit. Our office shares a strip with a Subway, an antique mall and an embroidery shop, we operate out of a banged-up white van and the most indispensible equipment we're given has proven to be shovels; good for squashing, bashing, chopping, nudging, scooping, and of course digging a good hole. Why they couldn't have police or firemen or even garbage men handle the same problems, we really don't know. Maybe our chain of command goes all the way up to some government conspiracy, which would explain how masterfully they keep what we do from ever entering mainstream consciousness.

So what's an example of a "monster," you ask? The office guys give them technical-sounding names and a numerical ranking system that's never made any sense to any of us "technicians" as they call us, so we give them our own colorful nicknames that are easy to remember. One for instance we called "skinquilter." It was a report of someone's fur coat "trying to escape," and they had pinned it down under a brick until we got there. Ben, my frequent partner, had seen something similar before so we let it go and followed it to an empty house where we found hundreds, thousands of other furs, sheets of leather, anything technically made of skin just fused together into one big "quilt" covering the walls and floors and furniture. It was all rippling and pulsing and kind of breathing, and we eventually found a big "core" or "heart," a big jelly sack, under a lump in one of the bedrooms. We're usually under strict order to "terminate" whatever we find as quickly as we possibly can, since we never know what it might be really capable of at any moment, so one good stab with a shovelhead (told you) and all the skins stopped moving. It was an easy one, nothing that tried to eat us, no hidden defense mechanisms it had the chance to show off, but I knew that house was still too clean and new and full of belongings to have been empty for long, and I'm sure if I had wanted to look closer, a few of those skins might have been a lot fresher than a fur coat.

So was that what most people would call a "monster?" Just some thoughtless, immobile slimy glob that empty skins impossibly flock to like a magnet? I don't know. I've seen some things that were more along the lines of "creatures," sure; something they nicknamed "Second Cousin Itt" was a huge caterpillar-like tube of hair that dug up graves and sucked the bodies out of their caskets, but once we chopped it up it didn't even have organs. It turned out to be nothing BUT hair, all the way through, from hundreds of different dead people, and we never figured out where the rest of its meals went or even why it "died" when we cut it apart. I've seen a big knot of rubbery hoses that rolls around aimlessly, spraying this pink gas that blisters skin like a bad sunburn - Ben called that one "Shitty Tangela" the moment he saw it, after something from his Pokemon Go, and it just stuck. I've even seen a couple things that walk around on honest-to-god legs, like what the internet called the "Nightcrawler" and dismissed as a bad puppet effect. Those little guys have cropped up a few times around the country and are pretty much harmless, but someone warned me never to let a dead one touch my bare skin, and they wouldn't tell me why.

Most things, however, are much more abstract, much closer to Skinquilter or even harder to put into words. I've seen crawling blots of colored light that drink gasoline, shimmering crystal structures that reproduce through thunderstorms and things that can eat you alive through their shadows. Once, we cleared a junkyard of this purple, fuzzy tissue that didn't even move, but any kind of metal it came into contact with would almost instantaneously change into more of it. This one earned the name "Purple Peter Eater" in memory of Peter, at the time our oldest and most battered shovel.

Most are only "class 1" cases. I'm not sure, but I think they give Class 1 to anything that's easy to dispose of and never actively attacks anyone. We can't make heads or tails of how they sort some of the higher classifications, it all seems pretty subjective, but class 5 and above is when things start to get serious, when we start questioning why they aren't sending in the feds or at least supplying us with more advanced gear. The kinds of things they'd make horror movies about if they were all out of sane and marketable ideas.

This brings us to my nemesis, of sorts, my "white whale." It's one the office underwhelmingly calls "Unstable Replicator," which doesn't tell you a damn thing of importance, and most of the team more tastelessly calls "Kid Cuisine." Only Ben and I find the name unfunny, probably because we have children of our own, though the big difference between Ben and I is that I don't find any of our cases funny. Or interesting. Or "cool." I can see how someone would, but to be honest, even the "harmless" ones positively terrify me. I hate that we don't know where they come from or what they are, that we don't even know if they're unrelated random freaks of nature or all have some unifying source. I especially hate that there's seemingly SOMEONE, somewhere up the chain, who probably has answers they don't deem us worthy of knowing, even as we keep putting our lives on the line for them. The only real reason I keep doing what I do is that however these creatures or phenomena enter this world, I want to contribute to taking them out of it...especially this one.

I was there for the very first "Replicator" call. A mother of two had talked to doctors, exterminators and even police in her effort to figure out what was hurting her babies, a two year old boy and an infant daughter. She'd even been investigated by child services, but they agreed the wounds looked more like very bad "bites," a severe allergic reaction to something like bed bugs or fleas. The problem was, their mother was retired from pest control herself. She even had a degree in entomology. No one took her seriously that there were no insects or leeches or vampire bats or any documented organism in all the world that would ever leave these particular bites, and then I guess a friend of hers recommended us.

Those bites were awful. The kids were miserable, nearly baseball-size red swellings on the boy's left arm, lower back, and the girl's right leg, the surrounding skin cracked and flaky. At the center of each was an X-shaped scar. Not a wound, but pinkish scar tissue, which was strange, because according to their mother the bites were already scarred like that when she first saw them, every morning that a new one had appeared. She was even keeping her kids in bed with her, and they were still attacked every few nights without waking up. Six bites in total now, three per child, with older bites having faded quickly. She had even set up cameras just about everywhere, but it only proved how stealthy the attacker must have been. Of the two bite events caught on camera, the bite location hadn't even been exposed; once was on the baby's back exactly where she'd been lying down, and there was nothing to be found in the bedding. Another was on the older brother's leg where he'd been sitting in a plastic chair. It was as if the entity could reach up through solid matter.

What disturbed her (and myself) most of all was that on two other occasions, she had dozed off in the middle of the day, not having gotten much sleep in quite some time, only to be woken by a scream. Another bite, this time while her children were wide awake and playing. By the second such incident, she realized the attacker never had been going after the kids in their sleep. It had always been waiting to feed only when she slept. I can't describe how sick that made me feel. It was a display of intelligence far beyond any bloodsucking animal, and far beyond the usual mindless pustules and biofilms we catalogue. Needless to say, she'd been skipping all the sleep she could for several days now, and it was already impacting her health.

Unfortunately, bites alone don't help us locate the perpetrator, and nothing else seemed amiss. No weird smells, no slimy trails, no strange noises. She said she'd already turned her home inside-out looking for anything else amiss, and even our two dogs (Mulder and Scully, though they were both girls) found nothing of concern around the house. Cases like this were rare, since a lot of our "monsters" aren't terribly mobile or just not wise enough to stray from the scene of the crime. When we did find signs of activity but no physical specimen, the boss liked to call it a "bloop," after this mysterious animal sound they used to record in the ocean. (He also liked to remind us that the bloop apparently turned out to be fish farts, as an aside)

We all hated bloops, because we were required to put effort into searching for a cause but we almost never came up successful. This case was already getting us down, because someone - a couple of sweet little someones, at that - had already been harmed. We wanted badly to find the source but we had no idea what to look for or where it could be hiding; it could be the size of a mouse, for all we knew. It could be something that burrows way, way down into the earth between attacks. It could even be a "true mimic," a monster perfectly resembling something mundane, though there had been no known case of a mimic that convincing, at least not yet.

We promised we would do everything in our power, and we intended to of course, but we all suspected deep down that we would disappoint her, that she'd have to move out of her family home and pray the mystery bloodsucker stayed behind. We spent a solid week searching the neighborhood, asking residents if they'd been having any similar problems under the pretense of a rabid bat report. We took shifts watching the kids while the mom could get some sleep, and we were all relieved to find out that this really worked. It really didn't come if an adult was awake in earshot. We just had to volunteer this service on our own time, since the higher-ups weren't willing to pay us for "babysitting." Heartless pricks.

Some of us kept searching off the clock, too. Especially Ben and I, but still...nothing. And we couldn't all keep up the free security duty, either; we still had our own lives, some of us our own families, and of course other jobs to take care of. It was eventually down to just Ben, myself and one other tech.

By then, our client and I had become fast friends, bonding over parenthood and favorite authors and hearing her fascinating anecdotes on insects and spiders. I'd even visited a couple of times on my days off, swapping work stories. She told me about different kinds of symbiosis, how cockroaches are a lot cleaner than people think they are, how overuse of pesticide created the ultra-resilient bedbugs that now terrorize North America. She even knew about a group of sea snails, from her brief delve into marine science, that reminded her of her case; apparently some snails use an extremely long, thin proboscis to feed on the blood of sleeping fish from a safe distance.

I didn't want to scare a fellow parent too much with the full details of my job, but I let her in on some gently abridged Class 1 stories; things that could almost pass for unusually large slime molds or invasive worms. As a biologist she sounded intrigued to say the least, and I admitted I'd been thinking about quitting for some time - that there would probably be a new opening soon, and they could probably use someone with her kind of knowledge, but I also admitted it could be seriously dangerous work, and we both knew that kids come first. It's why I had wanted to quit, after all, before something took my head off or sucked out my liver, not that I put it in those words exactly. My daughters were at least lucky enough to still have my partner, but "bug lady" as she was known to her neighbors had been going it alone since her second was born.

It was on the night of one such visit that Ben was lined up to watch the kids, but the conversation with my newfound friend had become so engrossing that we both lost track of time. Both of us had kept saying we should probably turn in, that I probably needed to get home, only for some other new talking point to crop up in the midst of our goodbyes and reboot the gossip for another hour. Before we knew it, it was getting so late that I thought I may as well take Ben's shift. I didn't want to cut short our visit and make the forty minute drive back home when it could have been another forty minutes of long overdue socializing. It had been so much fun, it slipped my mind altogether that I had already worked late the previous night, and here I was promising thoughtlessly that I could stay up through another.

I realized my mistake when my friend finally had to tuck into bed, and suddenly I was alone with only my phone, my acute awareness of how tired I actually was, and the soft snores of a tiny family who had just put their safety entirely in my hands. I told myself it was fine, that I'd had plenty of coffee, that if I started to feel sleepy enough I could switch to standing up or listen to a podcast...and the next thing I knew, I was awoken from deep slumber by a shriek of panic. Not one of the children being bit, but the shriek of their mother, my friend, when she woke up early morning to a pale and barely responsive son, a larger than ever "X" scarred into his thigh. The apologies I stammered as I rushed to them felt shameful, and it hurt worse that she'd later apologize to ME for keeping me over so long, that she was blaming herself for my incompetence.

The rest of that morning was spent at the hospital, me in the waiting room, my friend - if I even deserved to be her friend - remaining with her child in intensive care. It was three of the most torturous hours in my life before I finally heard he had regained consciousness, but that he'd needed an emergency blood transfusion, and he would have an extended recovery time.

It cost them their home. I couldn't blame her for taking her kids and fleeing as far as she possibly could, even leaving every single personal item behind in the chance that this monster could be hiding or camouflaging virtually anywhere. I've never been all that religious, but I thank God it didn't travel with her after all, that it never struck her family again once she moved in with her sister on the East coast. I know because she's still kept in touch with me, still evidently enjoyed staying friends, even leaving me an open invitation to come stay with them if I'm ever in the area. I like our little chats and phone calls, but I can't escape the guilt that still gnaws at me every time I hear her voice. Guiltier still when I told her that nothing new ever came of her case, because that was a lie, but the truth isn't something she should ever have to hear.

It was almost six months later that one particular new call made my blood run cold. This time was a four year old, already bitten twice, and this time our employers set them up in a room for a few weeks of quarantine, hoping the thing would move on or starve or at least be drawn out of hiding, but by the week and a half mark we were still empty handed, and I'd been taken off the case when it became clear I was starting to obsess over it, spending too much of my free time combing through the client's home again and again. I was put on temporary survey duty, our most easygoing field job, scoping out the more ambiguous calls that most often prove to be false alarms or pranks.

It was practically a paid vacation, and I did welcome the excuse to take it easier. At least until the anonymous report that came in one Monday evening, someone who didn't wish to be identified but found something "seriously ****ed up as hell" in the basement of an old warehouse. Whether they were a licensed property manager or an illegal trespasser was none of our business.

I was the only one available for survey at the time, and I curse that luck as much as I'm also, in a twisted way, forever thankful it was me.

The warehouse was fairly remote, surrounded mostly by woods, but I knew the route all too well; my dear friend had lived in that very district, just a mile from where those woods began. Coincidence, I figured, but I couldn't help remembering that case, passing by so many landmarks we had turned upside-down searching for anything out of the ordinary, anything that might be connected to that invisible vampire.

As soon as I entered the building, my hairs stood on end. I thought I could hear something, faintly, so faintly it could have been anything from the wind blowing over an old pipe to someone singing gospel, like when you can hear little fragments of human voices from a radio or a television in another room. But the way it got my heart racing...I think my subconscious mind knew exactly what it was. I probably should have called backup, but I didn't want to waste anyone's time over some ambiguous noise and an instinct, so I checked around for anything like a basement door...and by the time I recognized those sounds, I couldn't even think clearly enough to call anyone. All I could feel was a single-minded, knee jerk surge of alarm I had felt only once in my life and had hoped never to experience again; the panic I felt when I heard my own son wailing in pain with a broken leg.

This wasn't the same sound, but when you hear what you're certain is a human child crying in the creepy basement of an abandoned building, it's fight or flight. Either you're superstitious enough to think of ghosts and hauntings and already halfway home with piss in your pants, or you're realistic enough to think of human trafficking and child abuse and you're tearing through that basement door and down that rickety old stairwell without an atom of concern for your own safety, so overwhelmed with parental instinct that everything's a blur before you find yourself at the source of that awful, awful sound, like I did, practically teleporting from the ground floor to a basement where I suddenly found myself frozen, standing paralyzed with my heart in my throat and my flashlight shuddering in my hand.

I knew that child's face.

And his baby sister.

...And her older brother.

...And his baby sister. And his baby sister. And her older brother....

Ten, fifteen, twenty before I started to lose count and I finally screamed, crumpling to the floor in what must have been hysterics at what I was looking at. The same two children but not the same two children. There were too many of them and too many other things wrong, things I couldn't get myself to process as I just kept screaming, hunched into a ball at the base of the stairs as my flashlight danced madly over the subterranean hellscape.

I don't know how long I was there. It must have been a long time, and they must have gotten worried when I hadn't reported back or answered my phone, and pretty soon at least someone else was screaming. Another someone else was retching. I recognized Ben's usual expletive of "Jesus H. Christ" but cracked and weak, missing his usual deadpan nonchalance.

The two kids had been "copied," more or less.

We had seen monsters try to recreate or imitate people from time to time, forming faces or arms out of unearthly flesh and nauseating protoplasm, even something we found growing a whole headless human body in its womb-like interior, but none of us had ever seen anything this complete, or on this grand a scale. Half the basement was filled with the shapeless mass of flesh, even growing up the walls and over some of the exposed plumbing, and its entire surface was formed from copies of those children we had all gotten to know so well. Their proportions weren't consistent...there were infant faces bigger than basketballs, stretched torsos, branching legs, elongated necks and random scatterings of facial features, but they were at once all too perfect, because they were all very much alive.

Every nose was sniffling. Every eye was gushing tears. Every mouth was contorted in the unmistakable grimace of a small child in pain, and all of them were sobbing. It was weak, terribly weak, the raspy cries of little voice boxes stretched to their limit. I don't know when someone started weeping, maybe it was me, maybe several of us, and I was dimly aware of a few people fleeing right back up the stairwell; I'd later find out that it was one poor rookie's very first and very last job, never even so much as texting a formal resignation. We couldn't blame him. We had all seen a lot of sick, disturbing, unexplainable things at this job, but this was the most nightmarish any of us would ever recall. Only the most jaded of us kept calm, but still through faces white as ghosts as they examined the mass.

I was able to pull it together, thankfully, as some of the team tested "the subject" for consciousness. The "clones" didn't react to speech or to contact and their eyes didn't follow light, so it was concluded that they weren't self aware, but I don't think any of us were willing to point out that this only proved their senses weren't in working order. There was no precedent for a monster replicating a human mind to any degree, but then there was no precedent for a monster replicating a body advanced enough to cry, either, even if it was some sort of mindless reflex action. Mercifully, the boss agreed that we wouldn't have to do anything more than gather data, that the rest would be "taken care of" by the "cleanup team" we'd never been allowed to meet, and he assured us that whatever they were going to do, it would be swift.

By that point, my horror had long been giving way to something else, a stronger and much more focused emotion, and the details I'd picked up on through the fog of my disgust were falling neatly into place. I of course knew what was to blame for this affront to God, we all did. It couldn't have been anything other than that unseen stalker I now knew had been collecting the blood, the genetic information, of those same two children, and now at least one more victim that we'd heard about, one that it may very well have already begun copying elsewhere. I recognized something else, too: so bizarre and sickening was the heap of half-formed anatomy that I was still the very first to point out the presence of those familiar, cross shaped bites, hundreds of them, albeit much larger and much darker than we'd seen on the original kids. Their ragged, gaping centers were encrusted with congealed blood, some still oozing rivulets of crimson that wound like macabre rivers through forests of twitching fingers and hills of veiny scalps before pooling to the floor.

"A food supply" I said aloud, the rest of the room going quiet as it sunk in. One of the new techs agreed, almost a bit too enthusiastically for my taste, infodumping for a solid minute about ants or termites that start their own "farms" from tiny samples of fungus. I almost wanted to smack him, snap at him for trivializing something so hideous, but I remembered my friend, and wondered if that sweet and witty bug lady would have only made the same observation. I'd have to ask that newcomer's name...he was only backing my assessment with a scientific precedent, and just the kind of niche wisdom we needed more of. Besides, he really wasn't what angered me. That's what I'd been feeling for a while now, as the initial shock quieted down; steadily mounting anger.

I could never forget that this creature, or god forbid creatures, had been at least intelligent enough to strike defenseless children when their parents fell asleep, as well as keep away whenever we were watching. Nor could I overlook that this basement was such an ideal place to grow the copies in relative secrecy; that choosing it took far more calculated effort than any stupid creepy crawler I'd previously tangled with. I was again the first to make any of these observations out loud, setting off a clamor of hushed discussion and speculation, even excitement at the prospect of a "smart one." We had always talked around the office about what we might do if we met something indisputably self-aware, if we would ever encounter any of those rumored monstrosities one might communicate with on any higher level than a slug.

But I didn't care. A child had nearly died on my watch, another was now going through the same torment and my own two girls were likely waiting up for me to come home well past bedtime. I thought of how I'd feel if I could see one of their faces in that squirming, whimpering, abominable mass around me, and I knew then and there I would never sleep soundly again until I was certain that the Bloodfarmer, as I'd personally come to call it, was nothing but an oozing smear on the end of someone's shovel...all the better if that someone could be me.