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Earth Worms Excerpt

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Excerpt from Earth Worms

    Just before he died, Jarad Kane was having a fun and interesting afternoon.
   It was also the afternoon he found the canister floating in the shallows of the Salish Sea at the edge of a waterfront park.
   Before that, he had been entertaining himself with something he called singing. There was not another soul within hearing, except a few offended gulls.
   “Bye and bye, pie in the sky....” The teenage boy tilted his head back and sang terribly, but loudly into the crisp, clear air. He often sang made-up songs that caused his parents and little sister to protest, profusely. Jarad did not have a singing voice, and his creativity in fashioning words to non-melodic tunes was an exercise in aural and intellectual futility. But, he had fun.
   Jarad Kane was a senior at Oak Harbor Prep School. For the past year, Jarad had lived on a large island in the Pacific Northwest. He’d grown to love the cool, fresh air, and the myriad hiking, kayaking, and fishing opportunities. He did not feel quite so isolated as island living might sound. There were two ferries and a bridge to the mainland.
   Whidbey Island was, in many respects, a hidden gem, a soft portion of paradise tucked away in a corner of Washington State, slightly Northwest of Seattle. About 60,000 residents and quite a few more seasonal tourists enjoyed an all-natural, organic Disneylandesque landscape. The island was home to six state parks and a national park reserve. Crime was low to moderate in the Island’s largest city, Oak Harbor, and even less elsewhere on the island.
   Oak Harbor was strategically placed between Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria. The Olympic Mountains, to the south, provided a partial rain shadow for the central and northern portion of the island, cutting Seattle’s annual average rainfall in about half for Coupeville, the Island County seat. Oak Harbor, a few miles north of Coupeville, had average rainfall just slightly higher. This rain shadow was a secret the locals were determined to keep. As a popular tourist attraction, the island filled substantially during the summer months. It seldom felt grossly overcrowded, however, as so many other tourist havens tended to be.
   It was an ideal place to raise a child. Unless, of course, that child was a military-brat teenager.
   While he loved island living, Jarad found that a large part of that paradise, in his eyes at least, was embodied in the loving personality of one Ashley Newman, also a senior at OH Prep. She added nicely to the scenery, in Jarad’s biased opinion.
   They got along well. Jarad liked her and perhaps quite a bit more. But he also had his doubts and worries. Ashley was outgoing and popular, and a straight-A student. This was about two grade levels higher than Jarad’s average, and he was painfully aware of the disparity. Despite that, they dated frequently. Most days, they also had lunch together at school. 
   Jarad was not a fan of her female friends, who often advised Ashley to drop him in favor of a boy from a list of approved male students, most of them athletes. So far, Ashley had ignored the advice, but Jarad couldn’t avoid seeing real or imagined cracks in her loyalty to him.
   Despite his average standing in most academic subjects, Jarad excelled in one area. He loved auto mechanics. The school offered a good series of auto shop classes, all of which he’d taken. The young man drove a car he’d rebuilt from a totaled vehicle, and he was justly proud of the Chevy’s reliability and power. He spent a great deal of time maintaining the vehicle in tip-top condition, while keeping his expenses carefully in line with his income, which, much of the time was pathetically anemic.
   The time Jarad spent on his vehicle, Ashley had informed him on several occasions, might have been better spent with her. Jarad agreed, but an automobile engine did not intimidate him nearly as much as Ashley’s dark blonde hair, pert nose, and lopsided smile. It was that penetrating smile that often made him feel like the bottom slice of bread in a week-old ham sandwich.
   Jarad was not especially athletic. He was tall and thin, with a pale complexion. Hair and eyes were brown. His face was pleasant and relatively clear, only occasionally giving birth to a dreaded zit.
   Had his coordination and confidence been a slight bit stronger, he might have been a standout on the basketball team. He was quick, with long, thin fingers ideally suited for handling a basket-ball. But the ball, all too often, refused to go where his hands sent it. He was a competent substitute on the Varsity team, but didn’t get enough playing time to be considered a real athlete.
   In some respects, he had a self-discipline that few high school students had yet achieved. He knew part of that was derived from his parents. He was a Navy brat born and raised. In17 years he’d lived in three different countries and attended five schools. He made acquaintances easily but was nevertheless shy. His mom was formerly an EA-18G Growler (Airborne Electronic Attack Aircraft) pilot who now taught aircraft maintenance as a DOD contractor at NAS (Naval Air Station) Whidbey. His father, still on active duty, was an officer and a Naval dentist at the base hospital.
   Haphazard self-discipline can carry a high school student only so far. He was a slovenly housekeeper and often had to be metaphorically beaten over the head to get him to clean his room.
   In addition to his lack of singing skills, Jarad liked loud, experimental rock music that also drove his parents...and his little distraction. Still, they were a close family and enjoyed each other’s company.
   A new interest had taken Jarad to the beach at Joseph Whidbey State Park the afternoon he found the canister. He parked his 2010 Camaro LS at the beach pullout. He took out his backpack, unzipped it, and retrieved his new Canon M9i mirrorless digital camera. He spent an hour in the crisp April sun shooting closeups of beach rocks just as the incoming tide washed over them. The resulting images, after careful processing, were almost kaleidoscopic in their color and vibrance.
   He also got some good photos of a great blue heron as it waded in a large tide pool. Jarad edged as close to the bird as he could, snapping photos until the heron screeched at him and flew away, giving him a chance to get some great in-flight shots. He trusted the camera’s technology would keep the bird in sharp focus as it soared off, close to the incoming waves.
   He searched for other photo opportunities, both close-up and landscape, or, rather, seascape. It was getting along toward dinner time, and he was about ready to pack up his equipment and head for home. He took one last look around.
   That was when he spotted an unusual object floating up and down on the waves nearby.
   It was a little larger than the water bottle on his bicycle, except it was a dull silver rather than ruby red. Jarad watched the object bob up and down in the surf, wondering if he should wade out and retrieve it. The water at this particular location was shallow with a wide beach at low tide. It was a relatively calm day, and the tide was beginning to retreat.
   Someone may have left whatever it was on the beach at low tide, or, he thought, it might be something that had floated across the Pacific from the recent earthquake in Japan. That decided him. He took his camera back to the car and locked it in the back seat.
   Kane took off his shoes and socks and gingerly walked over the rock-strewn sand. He took a dozen steps into the shallow water that was cold enough to make him hiss. He used his foot to push the canister toward dry land, noting that it was not a water bottle, nor did it have any writing on the top or side. It was hexagonal in shape, with six flat edges, about 14-inches long and five or six inches in diameter.
   He picked up the object and was immediately surprised at how heavy it was. He took it to one of the large driftwood logs that littered the beach. He sat down and examined his prize. There were no markings on it at all, no scratches or dents. He shook it and was rewarded with complete silence. Because of the substantial weight, he assumed there was something inside. He looked around to see if the object belonged to someone else, but the beach was unoccupied except for a couple way down at the north end, walking their dog.
   Jarad studied the canister closely, turning it side-to-side and examining each end. He shook it again, but there was still no movement. He noted a seam about an inch from the top, and it looked like the thing unscrewed. He tried, first one way, then the other. It finally came loose, turning clockwise rather than the opposite, which made him think again that it might be of Japanese origin.
   After a half-dozen turns, the top came off in his hand. At first, the boy was disappointed. He would have liked the canister to be stuffed with high-denomination currency, or perhaps some sparkly jewelry. What he saw was a wad of gray gauze-like fabric. He also caught a faint musky odor, and his light brown eyes squinted as he tried to see inside.
   He looked around and noted the parking lot was empty except for his own vehicle. Far down the beach, the dog walkers were disappearing into another part of the state park. Jarad was alone.
   Carefully and slowly, he pulled the fabric out of the canister. He felt a slight resistance then the wad of gauze came out in his hand. He knew that strange cloth held something because that’s where the weight was.
   Kane set the canister, now feather-light, on the ground. Something...there was something several inches long but indistinct inside the fabric. Still squinting, Jarad slowly unwrapped his prize. It certainly wasn’t money, and it didn’t sparkle. As he lifted the last layer of fabric away, he saw...well, damned if it didn’t look like a very large, extra-thick, but dead earthworm. Except earthworms didn’t usually weigh a pound or more. That thing must be incredibly dense, he thought.
   He studied the thing for a long moment. Similar to an earthworm, it didn’t have a discernable head, and no eyes or appendages. He gently touched it with a small piece of driftwood, but whatever it was didn’t move. It certainly looked dead. He was disappointed and almost tossed the whole thing back into the water, but thought better of it.
   Then he made the last mistake of his life.
   Curious, he reached out and touched the thing. The worm came to life and with lightning speed, sank small fangs into Jarad’s thumb. The boy hissed in pain and jerked his hand back, but the worm was still attached, falling wetly against his fingers.
   “What the...” his voice trailed off.
   With a terror that hit the pit of his stomach like a physical blow, Jarad realized two things. First, this was not an earthworm, nor anything he’d ever seen or heard of before. Secondly, he realized he could no longer move. He was paralyzed. He tried to call out for help, but his lips and tongue were no longer working. His hands lie limply in his lap. Within the sight of his vision, he saw the worm wiggling and crawling its way, in imitation of an enormous inchworm, up his wrist and onto his arm, then disappearing into his shirt sleeve. Its weight was such that he could feel the thing wiggling higher up his arm and onto his shoulder. When it reached his neck, Kane’s breathing became ragged and spittle drooled from between his slack lips. Try as he might, movement of any kind eluded him. He couldn’t even shake in fear.
   Had he been able, Jarad would have trembled in revulsion as he felt the worm ooze across his cheek and over his lips. It reached his right nostril, elongated itself so that it would fit, and began to wetly and slowly slither inside. He could feel it, moving around, making its way higher, up into his nasal passages.
   His screams were mental, his mouth still closed. Surprisingly, Jarad felt no pain as the thing dug and oozed its way up into his cranial cavity.
   The last thing Jarad did feel was a sharp pain inside his head. He heard a muffled crunch. It was the last thing he heard. His body stopped breathing, the heart froze in mid-beat. With muscles tight and stiff, the corpse made one last involuntary twitch and pitched forward face-first into the sand and rocks.
   Haq’qak pushed his way into the human’s brain, settled himself between the amygdala and the hippocampus, and took control. Tiny, feather-like tendrils erupted from his body and wiggled their way into all parts of his host’s brain. A sticky excretion from the worm’s tail end sealed the entrance it had made into the human’s brain, protecting it from dirt, sand, and bacteria. The substance would eventually dry to bone-hardness.
   Haq’qak released a chemical that counteracted the paralysis. Then he restarted the heart and lungs. The boy’s body jerked, and the mouth loudly sucked in a deep breath and some sand. The body slowly came back to life. Haq’qak tipped the body on its side, opened the eyes, and made sure all the bodily functions had been revived. The body that had belonged to Jarad Kane shook and twitched for a short time, then the limbs slowly began moving purposefully.
   Of the entity that was Jarad Kane, there was no trace. Haq’qak released more fibrous sensors that entered the occipital lobe, the corpus callosum, and the cerebral cortex, accessing and taking control of the human’s thoughts and memories. The being that had been a teenager named Jarad let out a high-pitched squeal, sat up and wiped sand from his face and hair. He carefully regained his perch on the log. He spit a couple of times to remove the rough grains in his mouth. He looked around to make sure the takeover had not been witnessed. He was still alone in the park.

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