Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
This story has themes of body horror and describes insects.
I only had to go five metro stops but, even so, I settled next to one of the car doors and continued reading a story I’d started that morning about hypnosis in modern times. We passed through a station where people got on and off the train, and I felt a swirl around me, but I didn’t take my eyes off the page until a lady asked me the time. She wasn’t from around here; I knew that from her tone and accent, which I immediately recognized as Uruguayan or Argentinean.
Looking at her in order to tell her that I didn’t know the answer confirmed that, in fact, she was not a “normal” lady: she was shorter than me (I’m 1.55 meters), and she had a very slender frame; her skin, tan, as if she had tried to get rid of the whiteness by spending many hours under the sun. Her hair was naturally red, sparse, but arranged so that it could cover part of her nose and the hole where her eye should be. To be honest, I was quite startled when I noticed these two features. Her nose was completely buried in the middle of her face; the nostrils barely protruded under the cheekbones, making me think of a shark or some abyssal fish. Her eye, the one that the scanty hair tried to cover, and which was very small for the cavity that contained it, looked like a shiny black pearl impaled on the sharp point of a tiny bone protruding from what should be her lower eyelid. But no. No eyelids. Nor eyeball. Only the dry, black hole, and that pearl. I tried to hide my expression of astonishment and say something, but no words came.
I don’t know if she noticed but, instead of seeming bothered or uncomfortable, she insisted on getting the answer:
It must be about 3:00, right? It’s not 4:00 yet?
I understood that this was my chance to react and I confirmed that yes, it wasn’t yet four, while I looked through my bag for my cell phone. At last I found it at the bottom, under the umbrella, my wallet, and my notebook, and I pressed the button to illuminate the screen, which in fact said 3:20.
I showed it to the lady, who made a face that I assumed was a smile and, staring at me with her left eye, the one that was an eye, she said:
I knew it, I knew I was going to deliver the order in time. Listen: I left at 2:15, I tied the box to the cart I use to go to the supermarket, and I arrived at the parking lot where they keep The Hearse so that they could give me the container that goes inside the box. Packing it is a mess because inside is the little bug I have to deliver, surrounded by a liquid that stinks terribly, you see, and since it mustn’t break or be exposed to any light, they wrapped it in a black blanket and surrounded it with these white plastic balls… What do you call them? Unixel? …
Unicel, I interrupted her, not knowing how to explain that there were only two stations left before I had to get off, but she continued:
Yes, and then, when I had the bundle ready, I asked one of the men who sent the delivery forms what time it was, and he looked at me very seriously, as if to say, “Yes, now you’re safe.” He looked at his watch and said, “2:45, Mercedes.”
I was glad that idiot remembered my name, but then I thought, “Of course, how could he not remember since I’m the only one who has survived so many late deliveries.”
Then she was silent for a moment and I could look at her again, now without fear but rather with intrigue. I was going to ask her if that had anything to do with what had happened to her face and, as if guessing the thought, she resumed:
You wouldn’t know, but when you deliver a bug even one minute late, it wakes up and makes a mess of the container and the box until it gets out and you have to find a way to catch it and put it back in, because, you see, if it stays here in this environment for too long, it will die or become deformed, poor thing. And the punishments the owners will inflict on the delivery person are also severe. But the ordeal of grabbing it and packing it up again is terrible. It bites, it scratches, it spits poison at you, and its skin secretes an — I don’t know what — it leaves burns on whatever part of your body it touches, which in time turn into little red spots, look …
And yes, I couldn’t help looking more closely at what, at first glance, I thought were age marks or some kind of skin disease on her arms and part of her neck and chest which, I now noticed, had two slits similar to the ocular cavity where, I suppose, there had once been a pair of breasts.
I think my expression of shocked horror was evident, because, touching my arm as if to comfort me, she said:
Don’t worry, it wasn’t very painful. One day I discovered that if I cradled the bugs against my chest, they calmed down and slept like babies … Imagine, I never wanted to have children, and I ended up offering my breasts to these rascals. I couldn’t feed them, but the heat emanating from my body, especially after racing to catch them, was enough to keep them calm. The thing is that they stayed there until I reached the place where I had to deliver them and, when I left them there, my skin didn’t even feel the itching and burning from their drool, because of course they fell asleep during the journey and drooled horrors. But today nothing of that will happen.
Look, she said pointing at the subway map with a finger missing the first phalanx, I only have to change to the brown line and go two stations. Then, get out and walk a couple of blocks behind the church with the gargoyles on its towers, you know it, right? The owner of the bug will wait for me in her back garden at 4:00.
I followed the route she pointed to and noticed that I’d already gone two stops past my destination. I don’t know why but, when I realized that getting back would be annoying at that hour, I decided to offer to accompany her. Sometimes this happens to me when I’m in situations that break my daily routine: if they are strange in themselves, I want to see how far they’ll go. Fortunately, only once did this end badly, though I should take into account that the bad consequences lasted for three years.
Mercedes stared at me somberly with her left eye and then nodded slowly, warning me:
Come if you want, but if you waste my time and the bug escapes, you’re the one who has to chase after it, are we clear?
Once again, almost automatically, without even looking at the clock to know how much time was left, I said yes. We got off at the next station and walked through the corridors to change trains. I had been through them many times, but now they seemed eternal.
As we walked, I looked at the box. Nobody would imagine what was inside: it was a thick box, the kind used to pack wine bottles. It had no wrappings or anything other than the ties, which Mercedes had tied very well. She clearly had a lot of experience with knots.
Mercedes advanced steadily and quickly, but without seeming like she was in a hurry. At last we reached the platform and I couldn’t help checking the time on the huge clock. 3:45.
We’re doing okay, right? She asked me when she noticed I had checked the time.
Yes, we’re okay, I replied, as I watched the train arriving with almost no people on it. It seemed strange to me that if her work depended so much on the time, she wouldn’t wear a watch. Then I thought it made perfect sense: having the weight of time so close would surely lead to more anxiety if something caused a delay. We went on in silence, perhaps because we were both anxious to complete the assigned task well.
Suddenly I felt the gaze of her left eye on one of the tattoos on my arm.
How pretty, she said. Did it hurt when …
Her question was interrupted by the train suddenly braking. The lights went out shortly after that. Our immobility made the tension grow more dense in the darkness, which seemed to extend into our bodies.
It can’t be, I thought, and then I said it, and then I almost yelled it when, several minutes later, the box began to shake violently, until the ties burst and a circular lid went flying out along with a thing that I don’t know what to call.
She had said bug to have some kind of name for it, but it was closest to a harpy, like the ones in books about mythical monsters … I couldn’t believe it.
It truly reeked.
It ran under the seats, causing panic among the few people who were already very nervous after being underground for so long. I had no idea how I was going to grab this thing and put it back in the jar and then into the box. Mercedes heaved a very big sigh that showed her enormous fatigue and frustration and, touching my arm again, she said:
Don’t worry, this isn’t your fault. I’ll go.
Before I could say anything to her, she was already chasing the bug, and I saw her go out the window.
No! I managed to scream, but Mercedes turned to look at me with her left eye and, as a farewell, let out one last, Don’t worry. It’s not going to get away from me.
The lights came on again and I saw it run through the transparent door, leaping the tracks with animal agility. I don’t remember seeing her climb through the window to cross to the other side.
The people were cornered at the end of the car, and I just wanted to get to the next station and run to where the owner of the bug was waiting for Mercedes and tell her not to be angry, and not to despair, that she was coming, that she would definitely arrive soon with her order.