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“The leeches are falling for the love letters your veins write to them.” A guttural voice whispers, shredded vocal cords vibrating.

They wake up again. Their eyes feel pasted shut as they tear them open. Their empty stomach churns with acid, the shafts of molten gold coming through the window nearly burning their skin. It’s warm and humid and they swear they can hear the termites digging in the woodwork, their ears so finely attuned to the delicate performance of the surrounding life, only emphasized by the constant, inhuman silence. Making noise in this place always felt to them like falling through ice, the cold shock sending them reeling.

They enter the dining room, a simple, dreaded plate resting on the intricately carved oak table, built for many more people than this singled-out life. They sit, picking up the toast. A delicate golden glaze of marmalade is brushed across it evenly with such care one would almost say it was a loving gesture. Three strips of bacon, a golden brown, rested diagonally across the china plate. Two fried eggs, goldenrod irises resting in alabaster scleras, eyes staring up, taunting. The food tasted of rot and smelled like rain. A constant, grinding reminder, every day, always the same. They had shattered the infuriatingly pristine white plate, refused to eat, spilled it outside for the forest to claim. It always came back. The sandpaper toast with orange viscera, chicken egg eyes, and three strips of crisp flesh. Their stomach boiled with the meal, eating them from the inside.

They lace their boots, open the door, and breathe in the smell of life. The twigs crunch underfoot, coniferous trees towering over them and providing shade from the relentless, angry brightness. They felt like a shaky surgeon, unsteady hand carving a scalpel through muscle and tendon that resisted parting. The ferns they brushed past moved quickly to seal the cuts left behind by their path. The soil seemed hesitant to be imprinted upon. They didn’t stop walking, the deafening silence of the woods driving them on.

The sun had reached its zenith in the sky when they finally heard their neighbor greet them, a rustling of the foliage signifying its presence. They didn’t care to look behind them, pressing forward, fully intending to remain ignorant to their companion. It followed, a relaxed gait brushing past ferns and low-hanging pine boughs. Life seemed to follow it, the hum of flies and dulcet songs from a choir of finches parting the air behind them. They didn’t bother turning around, knowing they would only be greeted with a gaping absence.

The sky had blushed with gradations of violet and rose by the time they rested. Seating themselves on a fallen tree trunk, lungs heaving and muscles pulled taut by overuse. It had been a short day, irritation with the persistent proximity of their partner having slowed their pace by a fraction. They slid to the forest floor, the dirt greedily reaching for them as they rested, exhaustion penetrating the marrow of their bones and sucking them dry. Dry eyes stared up at the darkening sky, fluttering to the comfort of the ambient noise accompanying their neighbor. They drifted off, vaguely perceiving the smell of rot before becoming dead to the world again.

“The tapeworms crave to embrace your stomach like an old friend.” A gasping whisper, smile audible, rattles through the air. They wake up and press out of a mattress beckoning them back. The sheets feel like tendrils drawing them back, almost begging. Their feet ghost across the floor, refusing to lose time. The plate sits, a spot of black mold ever-present on the pristine table. The laces of their boots are tied neatly and their stomach churns with the meal, long intestine squirming in discontent. The viridian pines sickened them. They looked at the ground, not caring for the coniferous reminders of their entrapment. The warm reek of sap invaded their lungs as they walked, olfactory nerves forcing them to perceive the thick odor.

Their neighbor joined them early that morning, a cackling murder of crows following them this time, accompanied by the caterwaul of locusts. They pressed forward, pretending they didn’t notice how their hiking partner matched the rhythm of their steps, a gesture that might be akin to camaraderie in a different situation. They fiddled with the mustard sleeves of their sweater, pulling the worn cotton over their now callused hands. Today, the wind was less kind, a steak knife sliding flesh off the bone, gliding through cotton, and brushing alabaster ribs. They walked with shuddering steps until the sky had become glassy obsidian, and then farther. The stars sprawled over the sky, a waxing crescent moon illuminating a now dark and silvery world. The locusts drowned any other sounds, and at some point orchestrated a tune similar to a lullaby. They sat in a clearing, legs burning with lactic acid. They fell inert to the cold glow of the moon and a symphony dragging them into unconsciousness.

“The woodlice are waiting to get high off the gases of your bloated body, love.” The clouds had darkened the early dawn sky, notes of gold barely breaking through sleepy blues and grays. The stairs were cold as they descended, rejecting them with every step. They sat in the intricately constructed chair, rosettes carved with care into the back by an unknown carpenter. A moment of deliberation was spent staring into the mess of food, swearing the marmalade wriggled in their vision. The bacon looked off, a dismal greyish tone resting across the strips of fat and flesh. They hunched over slightly, their stomach distorting itself in protest as they stood, leaving the plate untouched. The flies could have it.

The mud pulled at their feet like a dog thrilled to see its owner, licking and biting at boots worn by exhaustion. It felt ravenous as they pushed further, letting entropy carry their feet as they journeyed past gossiping fungus and huddles of moss. Their neighbor followed from afar that morning, the croaking of frogs echoing over the rough bark of cedar and pine. The mournful cries of vultures accompanied them, grinding on their ears, unused to noise above the soft whisper of locusts and amphibians.

They stopped early that day, worn down by irritation that tickled their lungs and tapped at the inside of their skull like a persistent bird, hungry and tenacious. Their sleep didn’t come easily, paranoia populating their brain with images of vultures pulling tissue off muscle and spilling organs across the soil. “Darling, the worms wait patiently to see you, they miss the embrace of flesh and muscle.”

They woke with a headache, feeling shriveled. They took the morning to rest in the soft sheets, ignoring the way the rings of wood on the log cabin walls seemed to dance and crawl. The soft cotton smelled of lavender and lemon verbena, a delicate fragrance they had blocked from their conscious thought until now. They rose from the bed, disturbed by the comfort of it all. They didn’t bother with the comestibles, ignoring the jerky shudders of fruit flies on the cold spread. Their boots were topped with neatly tied laces, jerking with urgency as they left the disturbingly comforting home.

Their neighbor was waiting, matching the rhythm of urgent steps like a shadow, vultures seeming to have returned in greater numbers. The crooning and melancholic calls sounding almost yearning. Their sleeves were wrinkled by anxious pulling, hands covered in defensive walls of yellow cotton. They felt like their skin was slipping off their muscle, a suit that chafed and wrinkled in all the wrong places. Their blood felt coagulated and curdled, weighing each step as they desperately increased their pace. Salty globules dribbled down cheeks nipped by chilled air, forcing into their mind a twisted notion that the house would be so lovely to come back to when they fell asleep.

Their boot was tugged back behind them by a wayward root. A dull thud resonated through trees, looking back and jeering with rustles of needles and bark. Mud smeared across the soft yellow fabric, staining it a dark russet. The impact of their fall seemed to silence the cacophony, the vultures holding their breath, suspended. The world turned for a moment, the irritable twisting of an empty stomach complimenting the feeling that molasses had drenched their skull, thick and sickeningly sweet. They expected to hear the taunting calls of vultures, the hesitant steps of their neighbor. But after a moment of careful listening, it seemed even the woodlice had died back, hibernating in shallow shells of wood, pausing halfway through their decomposition.

Hideous sobs tear out of their throat, face flushed with hatred. Their fingers curl into the dirt, a desperate animal craving stability. A small body curled in a fetal position, a newborn faun not yet standing. They craved so badly to close their eyes but were bathed in horror at the thought

The neighbor was thrilled, elation hanging thick in the dead air. “You are the flesh that maggots fall in love with every night, dearest.” Their vision is winding and reforming, a kaleidoscope of decay and rot appearing. They look down to see the maggots, waltzing in their stomach, a dance of starved glee as their very flesh is ravaged. Tapeworms hug intestines with deadly affection. They open their mouth to scream but it has been filled with leeches. They wriggle and writhe, weighing down their lungs with wet shifting, the turbulence of life. They’re collapsing. There are mushrooms everywhere, there’s moss on their clothes, they’re rejoining the soil and being devoured by the grass, feeling the harsh tear of herbivorous teeth, an endless cycle of pain and consumption. Viscera spills from their stomach, fertilizing the soil. A rank, abattoir stench permeates the air, their eyes watering.

They are becoming the ground that this thing will walk on. They always have been, they will be, they are. They understand. They’ll live on. They make their journey into the next phase, joining the consciousness of the leeches and the maggots, each tick swelling with their lifeblood. They fall in love with every creature consuming them, the freedom of defeat a sweet taste on their leech-infested tongue. What a sweet symbiosis