***TRIGGER WARNING*** Once again, I want to warn you that my stories are in the horror/thriller genre, this one being specifically a science fiction thriller. There are strong themes of self-harm and suicide that may be disturbing to some readers. Use your own discretion before continuing on.
“It’s official,” Jesse said to me as he walked in the door to our apartment, his voice dripping with excitement, “we got the funding, we’re heading out in two weeks.” My mind moved to the endless hours of fundraising that my brother has done in the last four years.
“That’s amazing, I’m so happy for you,” I said, trying to keep my voice from showing the jealousy that was coursing through my veins. I was unsuccessful.
“Look, I’m sorry. I know how badly you wanted to be a part of this.” His tone was genuine; I couldn’t stay mad at him if I tried, and he knows that.
“If only my older brother hadn’t helped me blow out my ear drum way back when,” I said as I punched him in the shoulder. When I was eight years old and Jesse was ten, we got in a tandem biking accident. He shattered his wrist, and I blew out my eardrum on the impact of hitting the ground. We both recovered just fine, but I’ve struggled with hearing issues and any major pressure changes ever since then, which wouldn’t have really been an issue, except Jesse and I had made plans to explore the Mariana Trench, and going that deep into the ocean was completely out of the question for me. We spent the entirety of our childhood making plans detailing just what we’d discover, and now, here he was, on his way to realizing that dream. Without me. It was hard not to be bitter.
“I swear, I really am excited for you. No more fundraising, thank God. You know you’re gonna have to recap the entire thing to me, right?” I said.
“Of course, I’ll be keeping a detailed diary just for you, Amelia,” he reassured me.
The next two weeks of preparation were absolute hell. Who knew that getting ready for a three-week expedition at the bottom of the ocean would be such a hassle? I hardly had time to talk to my brother before he was halfway around the world prepping for this groundbreaking deep-sea dive. He went down with two of his closest friends from school, Macy and Brooke, who were like the older sisters I never had, and his fiancé, Aaron, who was like another brother. Considering that they’re two of my three roommates, it’s been pretty quiet in our apartment, but that’ll be changing pretty quickly when they get back tonight.
I find that I can’t keep myself occupied, the anticipation is absolutely killing me, so I decide on a nap to keep myself from completely going crazy. I’m awakened by Jesse jumping on my bed, just like when we were kids.
“I’m back!” He shouts at me, ripping me from my dreams. I don’t have time to be angry for it because I’m so excited to see him. I pull myself from the warmth of my covers and throw myself into my brother’s arms. His duffel bag falls to the floor with a thud.
“That didn’t sound so good,” I say as he carries me into the kitchen. Aaron and Macy each hold a massive cup of coffee along with their giant backpacks. I hop out of my brother’s arms and sprint to them, careful not to hit their mugs, but as I pull us into a group hug I feel drips of coffee running down my back. I’m too excited to really care. It takes me a moment to realize that the group is less one than it should be.
“Wait, where’s Brooke?” I ask as I pull away. Macy’s eyes flit to Jesse in a subtle move that I wasn’t supposed to see. “Did something happen?” Aaron lets out a sigh.
“She decided to head back to her parents’ house. She wasn’t feeling that great for the last week, you know how her depression gets sometimes. Didn’t help to be out of the sun for so long. I think she’s just in a slump, but she’ll be fine,” Aaron explains slowly, but there’s hesitation in his voice. I feel Jesse’s arm around my shoulders.
“I think we all went a little crazy down there. I’m not sure if I remember how to actually interact with regular people,” Jesse says with a laugh. He turns to Macy, who still has a strained look on her face, “do you wanna get some sleep here before you go home? I don’t want you falling asleep while driving.”
“Nah I should be fine, I slept pretty well on the plane and I’ve had plenty of coffee. I’m ready to be back in my own bed,” she says as she forces a smile that doesn’t quite reach her deep brown eyes.
“Well, thanks for helping me carry stuff in,” Jesse replies, hugging her shoulders.
“Oh, I didn’t to it to help you, I just wanted to see Amelia.” Macy gives me a wink and plants a quick kiss on Jesse’s cheek. She reaches out and squeezes Aaron’s hand, and then she’s out the door, almost as quick as she came.
“Macy may have been able to handle the jetlag, but I’m not. I’m gonna get some sleep, let you two catch up,” Aaron says. He looks for a second as though he has more to say, but he leaves without another word.
“Okay, am I crazy or is there something going on that you aren’t telling me about?” I ask my brother.
“I think we’re all just on edge about Brooke. Being down there took her to a really dark place,” he says softly. I think back to her darkest years, hardly able to get out of bed, paralyzed with depression. “I think it’ll all work itself out now that we’re back on solid ground. I even got a little dark being stuck in there for so long.”
“But it was cool wasn’t it?” I can’t help but try to change the subject. I’ve been waiting to hear about this trip since I was five years old. I see Jesse’s eyes light up with that child-like sparkle. “Come on, it’s time to tell me everything.”
“It was surreal. It felt like we were descending forever, but somehow we just kept going.” He pulls a notebook from his duffel bag, and I see that he was serious about keeping a detailed journal for me. He begins into a long-winded description of the exploration itself, explaining how they collected samples and kept the submarine from imploding due to the pressure. He tells me about the species they brought back up with them—seven aphotic species of coral, some sort of turtle-like animal, a few types of fish, and a leech that’s so tiny it’s almost microscopic—and goes on and on about just how little they were truly able to accomplish. “It’s crazy, there’s all of this ocean surrounding us, and we’ve hardly explored any of it” He tells me how the four of them were driven almost insane by the close quarters and the awful food.
“Can you take me into the lab tomorrow to see the samples you brought up?” I can hardly contain the excitement I’m feeling. A sly grin spreads across his face and he reaches into his bag yet again.
“I’ve got something even better,” he says as he pulls a tiny jar from the bag. “You’ve gotta see how cute these little guys are.” When I look at the jar I see about seven tiny, bright green leeches swimming through the water. “I know they’re leeches and all, but they’re too small to really do any damage.” He screws the top off of the jar and dips his finger into the water. The leeches flock to his finger, nipping hesitantly at his finger nail. When he pulls his finger out, one stubborn leech clings on, and I’m completely mesmerized. He shakes it back into the water and secures the lid.
“Isn’t it amazing?” He says as he sets the jar down on the counter next to the sink. From a distance, you can’t even see the creatures flitting through the water.
“I can’t believe you brought it here!” I find myself whispering, as though someone in the house will get my brother in trouble for taking this sample home.
“They’ll never even know it’s gone, we brought so many of these little guys up, and they reproduce like crazy. Plus, I’ll have it back first thing in the morning,” he reassures me. Suddenly, he twitches just a little and paws at his ear.
“You okay?” I reach for my own bad ear instinctively.
“Yeah, I’m fine, my ear’s just been bugging me a little. I think it’s the pressure change. I don’t know how you deal with this regularly.” He shakes his head and scratches at his ear again. “I really wanna continue this recap, but the jetlag is threatening to kill me. I gotta get some sleep.”
“Roger that. I’ll just read the journal summary,” I say as I pick up the notebook from the table. Jesse plants a kiss on my forehead and walks to his room, once again scratching at his ear.
Most of the journal details the scientific procedures they used, but I notice a section that talks about Brooke’s sudden change in demeanor. Jesse writes about her suddenly withdrawing from the group, constantly muttering to herself. I’m taken aback when he mentions finding cut marks on her arms. Apparently, when she withdrew, she began talking about suicide, something that she hadn’t mentioned since her last extreme bout of depression. I notice that Jesse mentions her complaining about her ears, saying they itched like crazy, also citing the pressure change as the cause, but surely that’s just a coincidence.
I must’ve drifted off on the couch, because suddenly I’m being shaken awake by Layla, our fourth roommate.
“Jesse didn’t wanna wake you, but him and Aaron left in a hurry about an hour ago. He told me to have you call him when you woke up.” I’m horribly disoriented, surely because of my distorted sleep schedule. I pull the notebook off of my chest and shut it, looking at the mess of bags in the kitchen. The clock on the wall reads 6:43am.
“What are you doing up?” I ask her when I realize how early it is.
“They woke me up when they left, and I haven’t been able to sleep since then. You should probably call him, he seemed pretty upset,” she says as she moves to the kitchen and starts loading dishes into the dishwasher. When I look at my phone I see that I have four missed calls from Macy, and a text from Jesse that reads ‘come to the hospital when you get this.’ That’s enough to jolt me out of my haze. I pull a clean sweater over my t-shirt and leggings, grab my keys, and head for the door.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Layla asks me before I run out. I nod, and she quickly follows behind me. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“I have no idea. Why wouldn’t he wake me up?” I start the car and head down the road toward the hospital.
“He seemed really out of it. He kinda snapped at me actually. I dunno, it was weird, he’s never done that before,” Layla explains. I’m speeding, but there’s no traffic so we’re there pretty quickly. She dials his number and hands the phone to me as we pull into the hospital parking lot.
“What is going on?” I ask as Jesse picks up the phone.
“Are you at the hospital?” I can hear the tears in his voice.
“Yes, I—” He cuts me off by telling me the room number before I can finish speaking and hangs up immediately. I glance at Layla, and suddenly we’re running across the parking lot and into the hospital. When we reach the waiting room, I see a doctor talking to who I assume must be Brooke’s mother; she has the same pale blonde hair and perpetually surprised look on her face. Jesse, Aaron, and Macy are huddled close behind. Layla and I rush to join the huddle, and I just barely hear the end of the doctor’s spiel.
“—did everything we can,” she says softly. Brooke’s mother erupts into sobs, and after giving her a light touch on the shoulder, the doctor walks away.
“What the hell?” I whisper as I pull Jesse aside from the group.
“Brooke killed herself.” He’s unceremonious in his presentation. I expect to see sadness in his eyes, but there is only emptiness. This is not my brother. Where is my brother? Aaron drives Layla home in my car, and I ride with Jesse. He’s itching at his ear almost constantly. The ride is silent aside from my stifled sobs. When we finally reach home, there’s a heavy silence over all of us. Layla has to leave for work, and Aaron goes right back to bed. He doesn’t want me to see the tears streaming down his face, but it’s impossible not to. I cuddle up on the couch, not quite sure how to process anything. I’ve almost drifted off when Jesse yells to me from the kitchen.
“Amelia! Come here!” I run to the kitchen to see him holding an empty jar. The jar that held the leeches. “Did you dump this out?” I shake my head. “I wasn’t even supposed to have these here! I could get in so much trouble!”
“Jesse, it’s fine, if no one knows you took it, no one will know it’s gone!” I back away from Jesse. I’ve never seen anger like this in his eyes. He slams the jar down so hard I can hear it crack. His eyes are full of fury, but before he can open his mouth he twitches and paws roughly at his ear. “Maybe you should get that ear checked out?” I’m eager to change the subject. I can’t believe the leeches got dumped, but there’s really no use worrying about it now.
“I just need a few days for my ears to get used to the pressure up here again. If it’s still bugging me in a couple days, I’ll go in.” I give him a stern look, my eyebrow raised. “I promise. You can even come with me.” His voice has softened again, and suddenly there are tears in his eyes again. I pull him into a hug just as the sobs come. I can hardly breathe through the tears, but somehow that seems fitting.
Brooke’s funeral is quiet and awful and beautiful. Her mother can’t even look at Jesse. It’s as though she blames him, somehow. I don’t agree with her, but I understand. I don’t know how she’s even functioning. When Jesse, Aaron, and I get back to the apartment from the funeral, we turn on the news and watch in silence. I’ve almost drifted to sleep when a story shocks me awake.
“MASS SUICIDE AT LOCAL COLLEGE” the headline reads. The anchor talks about the seven students who mysteriously committed suicide in what seemed to be a cult-like pact, but investigators haven’t been able to find any other evidence of cult activity. The thought makes me shudder. Suicide has been all too real lately. Aaron sees me shudder as the story progresses, so he flicks the TV off and grabs my hand. He doesn’t say anything, but the gesture is enough. I shoot him a weak smile but as he returns it he flinches and scratches his ear.
“Okay, you two need to see a doctor about that,” I say, thinking off Jesse pawing incessantly at his ear. Just watching them scratch at their ears makes mine itch.
“Just give it some time, Amelia, we’re fine,” Jesse says, yet again. His voice is tinged with annoyance, a tone I’m not used to coming from him. He stands up and stalks off to his room without another word. I want to follow him to figure out what’s going on with him and these mood swings, but I need to get to work. I’m tempted to call in sick, sure they’d let me miss, but I decide it might be better to have the distraction. I go to tell Jesse goodbye and when I reach his door I can hear him muttering to himself. It causes me to pause, but I knock and enter his room anyway.
My blood immediately runs cold. He’s holding a knife to his wrist, just barely hard enough to draw blood. He’s completely entranced, his lips still forming words without any sounds coming out.
“Aaron!” I screech. Jesse still doesn’t look up. I hear Aaron shuffling in the kitchen, a muffled “coming” reaching my ears. “AARON!” Jesse finally looks up at me, his eyes as wide as saucers and full of fear.
“They won’t be quiet,” he whispers to me, pushing the knife further into his skin. “They won’t leave me alone!” and suddenly he’s slicing deeper and deeper. I dive across the room onto him, wrestling the knife from his hands. There’s a deep cut on my hand but I can’t even feel it. He wrenches the knife away from me and I can’t stop him from pulling it to his throat. I’m practically on top of him, but I know that any sudden movements could trigger him.
“Jesse,” I say softly, trying to calm him down. “Who won’t be quiet?” Tears are running down his cheeks but there’s no sadness in his eyes.
“The voices. They’re in my ears, they’re in my head. I need them to be quiet,” he says, still barely above a whisper. Aaron appears in the doorway and instantly freezes.
“Jesse,” he whispers.
“Don’t try to talk me out of this,” he says, pressing the knife into his skin. “I love you both, but I need them to stop.” I reach slowly for his hand but I’m too late. Aaron pulls me away from him as I scream. Nothing could have possibly prepared me to witness that. Sobs rack my body and as far as I know I don’t stop until long after the cops take his body away. Aaron doesn’t leave my side the whole time, but there are no tears in his eyes. He doesn’t say a word the whole time, stoically silent. The only indication that he’s even still breathing is the steady tickle of his breath on my neck. He doesn’t let go of me until I’m finally done crying. I’m about to put myself to bed when I hear Aaron whisper under his breath.
“What?” I say quietly, my voice hoarse from sobbing.
“The voices…” he says shakily.
“The ones Jesse heard? What about them?” He shakes his head.
I think I hear them too…” he whispers when he thinks I can’t hear him anymore. I want to turn around, hold him, tell him everything will be alright, but I can’t bring myself to deal with this yet. Not after the day I’ve had. I barely catch him pawing at his ear as he turns to retreat to the couch. I make a mental note to force him to go to the doctor tomorrow.
The rest of the night is a blur. Someone calls my parents, I’m not sure who. The scene keeps replaying in my head, refusing to grant me any peace. Only after hours of staring at my ceiling am I finally granted the release of sleep.
When I wake up, I see that Layla’s watching the news, and I notice a headline about another mass suicide; this time it’s a family. Six of them, all taking their lives together. What the hell is happening here? I think to myself. Something is not right.
Aaron is sitting at the table, staring blankly ahead as he drinks his coffee. His hand hardly leaves his ear, scratching so hard I can see little cuts around the back of it. His nails are ragged, rimmed with red.
“Aaron, let’s take you in for that. Your ears should have adjusted by now.” I reach my hand out to him and he takes it, but he never looks up, never makes eye contact. I pull him to the car, to the ER, to the waiting room, and finally to an exam room. He’s like a zombie, silent the entire time.
The doctor takes a look in his ear and suddenly there’s a perplexed look on his face.
“What is it?” I ask him, my concern growing.
“There doesn’t seem to be any pressure damage but there’s…” he trails off.
“That’s the thing, I’m not sure what it is.” He reaches for an instrument and slowly pushes it into his ear, carefully. Aaron doesn’t even flinch. He’s practically catatonic. The doctor pulls it out, and suddenly everything starts coming together.
There’s a tiny, wiggling green leech on the end of his instrument.
“That’s… that’s one of the leeches they brought up from the Mariana Trench,” I say, my eyes widening. I feel a twitch in my ear and scratch at it, but surely that’s a coincidence. It’s like when you hear of someone having lice, and suddenly you can feel the bugs crawling all over you.
“There’s probably at least thirty more on his ear drum, and who knows how much further into his head they’ve gotten. I think he needs a CT scan.” The doctor orders it up, but everything is a blur. The gears in my head are whirring at a hundred miles an hour. When the scans come back, we see that the leeches have reached the part of his brain controlling personality, as well as impulse control. “I don’t even know what we could possibly do at this point. They’re in so deep…” He writes a prescription for an anti-parasitic drug and some pain meds that are supposed to stop the itchy feeling, but these leeches are uncharted territory.
I take Aaron back home and tuck him into bed, loading him up on the anti-parasitic drug first. Then my brain starts working.
It gets in through your ears. That’s where the itching comes from. And then it burrows deeper, until it can alter your personality. It makes you withdraw from everyone. The impulse control portion of your brain is shot once it’s in there. The voices Jesse heard were delusions, auditory hallucinations. And instead of killing you on its own, it has you do the dirty work.
I explain my theory to Layla, whose eyes go wide. All the pieces are falling into place. It’s when I see her that I remember the jar of leeches on our counter, the ones that got dumped into the city’s sewer system. I think back to Jesse telling me how fast these leeches reproduce. Shit.
I’m drawn out of my internal panic when I hear a thud coming from my room, where Aaron is supposed to be sleeping. Layla looks at me with wide eyes and suddenly my internal panic turns external. We run to the room only to find him laying peacefully, the bottle of pain pills lying empty next to him. I can’t fight the scream of anguish that escapes my lips. It’s cut short only when I feel another twitch in my ear. I hear a whisper from Layla and whip around, only to see that she’s not there. She’s in the other room, calling the cops yet again.
“No,” the voice calls to me, “we’re right here.”
“No…” I whisper to myself, unable to stop the word from escaping my lips.
“Oh yes,” it murmurs back to me, “we’re not going anywhere.”
I sit down on the bed next to Aaron’s lifeless body.
“Do it,” they say, “we’re already too far in.”
The whispers are already drowning everything out, probably because of the pre-existing holes in my ear drum. They’re right. They’re in deeper than I could ever hope to fight.
I lay my head down on Aaron’s shoulder and close my eyes as the whispers take over.
I’ve been mulling over this concept for quite some time, and I’m thrilled to finally have it out on paper (or, a blog post, technically). I hope you enjoyed, feel free to share, and please, let me know what you think in the comments!
Stay tuned for more updates,
xoxo, second sister suzie