Thirsty – a short story by E.J. Babb

I was around five when I first noticed it.

“Mummy, the water’s moving.”

 “What’s moving?”

“The water.”

My mother lowered her newspaper. “The water’s moving? I don’t get what you mean.”

I pointed to my glass. The water, which a few moments before had been clear and still, was now filled with tiny translucent flakes, like orange pulp, floating and swirling and drifting about. The closer I got to the glass the more of it I could see, like glitter catching the light. I felt sick – I had almost taken a sip. I could easily have swallowed some of it.

“There’s nothing moving in there,” she said, picking it up to take a closer look. “It’s just water.”

“But look. There’s bits in it.”

My mother held the glass up to the window. She still couldn’t see anything, but she got a clean glass out of the cupboard anyway and filled it with fresh water from the tap. I pushed it away. There were even more flecks swimming in that one.

“You’re being silly now,” she said. “You’re probably just seeing little bits of dust. Or the light is making it look funny.”

But it wasn’t dust or light or anything like that. It was fleshy shavings of matter and it shouldn’t have been in there.

I cried and refused to drink for the rest of the morning, so my mother took me out to buy a special jug with a filter. She showed me how it worked and said it would catch anything that tried to get into to the glass that wasn’t pure water.

I remember shrieking when I saw it hadn’t worked. There were so many flecks I imagined them gathering together and clogging my throat. I retched.

“For god’s sake!” She poured another glass and closed the blinds. “Now drink it. You can’t see any bits in there now, can you?”

But I could. In fact, I could hear them.

For a while, fruit juice was the perfect compromise. It looked pure even in the dirtiest glass, and it was the only form of liquid I agreed to drink for many years – until I was nine. One lunchtime at school I was sucking on the straw of my apple juice carton when I felt something blubbery and cold slide onto my tongue.

I spat out a reddish-brown glob onto the cafeteria floor. I screamed.

“What is it?”

Kids started to crowd around me, scrabbling to see what I was so horrified by. Then a dinner lady came over. A few teachers too.

“Are you okay?”

“What happened? Did anyone see?”

“She just spat on me!”

I couldn’t look at the phlegmy, fatty lump for a second longer. I ran out of the cafeteria, heaving and gagging. I never drank juice again.

The headmaster called my mother to tell her about the incident in the cafeteria, and then she told him about my problem with drinking. After a lot of talking, it was agreed I was to see a therapist.

The only thing the therapist helped me with was my ability to lie. Whenever I mentioned the flakes or congealed lumps, it seemed to take every ounce of strength the therapist had not to roll her eyes at me. So I simply stopped talking about them. After a few sessions I told her I couldn’t see them anymore and she believed me. I just had to avert my eyes and allow everyone else to guzzle down their chunk-filled beverages.

I moved on to cans of fizzy drink after that. The bubbles helped to weaken the memory of the reddish-brown glob swilling around my mouth in the cafeteria, but I always sucked the liquid slowly through my teeth and made sure every can was poured into a glass first. I studied all drinks before, during and after every single sip, which got me a few odd looks, but my mother was just happy to see me drinking again.

I stopped going to therapy.

When I was fourteen, my mother and I moved up north to be closer to my grandparents. I enrolled at a new school, but my old habits remained. Particularly at lunchtimes. I would wait until the last ten minutes of the lunch hour before heading to the cafeteria, hoping to avoid stares and mutterings as I examined my lemonade in between bites of a sandwich. At my old school I was guaranteed solitude at this time, but on my first day at the new school I noticed two girls sitting in the corner of the hall. They watched me suspiciously and ate slowly, chewing like goats.

This happened every day for the first two weeks. On the Monday of the third week, they marched straight up to my table the moment I sat down.

“Are you anorexic?” one of them asked.

“What?” I said. “No.”

“But you eat funny.”

“I don’t. I have a problem with…drinking.”

“Oh. Well, I’m anorexic. I’m Lacy.”

I found it comforting that the girl introduced her illness before her own name. Like me, her issues had become her identity. There wasn’t room for much else in her life.

“I’m Hannah,” the other girl said, shaking my hand, and I couldn’t help but smile at the strangeness of two fourteen-year-olds greeting one another so formally. “I’m not anorexic or anything.” She sounded a little disappointed with herself.

The three of us became friends. Three freaks together, encouraging and revelling in each other’s strangeness. Looking back, I suppose we were close because of the sheer amount of time we spent together, but we never really talked about why we did what we did. Why we were who we were. We bonded over our symptoms, but never disclosed the root cause.

And yet, while we were never true confidants, for two years everything in life was much more tolerable thanks to Lacy and Hannah. For the first time in my life, I had two people I could call my friends.

Then came the best – and worst – summer of my life.

I was sixteen. My group of friends had tripled somehow, and we had all unconsciously agreed to spend the six weeks of summer together in the fields near my house. It was perfect. We talked for hours, I had my first kiss there, we listened to new music every day and, rather surprisingly, I did a fair amount of underage drinking.

I was petrified when I was given that first cold can of cider, but I didn’t allow myself to get the glass I always had with me out of my bag. I didn’t press my ears to the aluminium to try and hear the flakes gathering and swirling. I didn’t heave at the thought of some unknown mush clogging up my throat. I just calmly prised open the can, like everyone else had done, clamped my teeth shut and poured the cider into my mouth.

The tangy, sweet cider trickled onto my tongue and fizzed before sliding smoothly down my throat. The more I drank, the more confident I felt. There was nothing waiting for me inside the can. Maybe this had all been in my head.

When I finished that first can of cider, I had another, and another, and another, and before I knew it I was free. I had never thought this kind of life could exist for me, and it was so liberating it became the only thing I ever wanted to do. The only thing I ever thought about. Drinking on that field showed me what life could really be like, and I was so excited for it. I wanted more. I wasn’t afraid.

We drank most days that summer, and in the last week before college was due to start, we drank every single day. We were weary by mid-week but, as we knew this was to be our final gathering before sixth form, we wanted to get really wasted.

Then it was Friday, which was to be the biggest party of the summer.

Cans were distributed. We toasted to our futures and I took a big swig, no longer bothering to filter the cider through my teeth. I hadn’t done that for weeks.

Before I had a chance to swallow, I felt a quiver on my tongue. I stood still for a moment, my mouth full of cider, wondering if I had imagined it. But then it happened again. A tiny little flutter against the roof of my mouth, as if a moth was flapping its wings.

I spat the drink down myself, and my friends only stopped laughing when they saw the horror in my eyes. I ran over to a tree and made myself throw up as I replayed the feeling of that flutter hitting the back of my teeth over and over and over.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Was there something in the cider?”

“Do you feel sick?”

“Shall I call your mum?”

I shoved them all away and checked the front of my t-shirt. There was cider and a splatter of vomit, but nothing else. Then I walked over to where I had been standing and fell to my knees, searching in the wet grass to find something, anything that could prove what had just happened.

Had it flown away? I had to find it. I couldn’t hide from this any more, I couldn’t keep ignoring it and moving on.

“What are you looking for?”

“There was something in my drink,” I said.

There was a chorus of disgust.

“What did it taste like?”

“It was something flying. A small insect, with wings. I need to find it.”

I stood up and snatched a can from the nearest person. I fished my glass out of my bag and slowly poured the cider into it.

Even in the moonlight I could see them, plain as day. The small pulpy flakes that I had first seen at five years old had grown into gelatinous pupae with rows of partially developed wings. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them, fluttering clumsily in the liquid as if it were air.

I almost dropped the glass, but Lacy’s hand steadied me. She smoothed my hair from my sweaty face and leaned in, trying to see what I could see.

“What’s in there?”

“Can’t you see it?”

She shook her head.

“Look, the things flying in there! Look at them! Their little feelers and eyes…oh god, I feel sick.” I looked up to see that some of my friends were still gulping down their cans of cider. “Stop! What are you doing? They’re all full of flying maggots!”

My glass was passed around, but each face transformed from disgust to confusion.

“Is it the bubbles, is that what you mean?”

“I can’t see anything.”

“Me neither.”

“Flying maggots?”

“Seriously, have you taken something?”

It wasn’t the fact that they couldn’t see them that bothered me, it was that they continued to drink. I started slapping cans out of hands. I loved these people, each and every one of them. I didn’t want to see them die. And I told them that.

A little while later, an ambulance arrived. My friends watched solemnly as the paramedics helped me into it, and Lacy said she would call me the next day. I knew she wouldn’t. She couldn’t look me in the eye. We never understood each other. Not really.

At the hospital the doctors did a lot of tests, including a drug test. Then they tried to make me drink a cup of water teeming with those winged maggots, so they had to sedate me.

I have no idea what I said after that. After years of suppressing my thoughts and feelings I must have said something wrong, because they decided to keep me in for a few days for my own safety. Maybe it was even for a few weeks, I really don’t know, it’s all a blur. All I know is that they kept me on a drip and didn’t let me see anyone except for my mother.

I was transferred to different beds, units, wards, hospitals – I couldn’t keep track of where they sent me. My mother had to explain to every member of staff that I was only to receive fluids intravenously, and the nurses would tell me how silly I was being every time they had to change the bag. I got good at dismissing that feeling of shame they tried to impose on me.

Three years ago, I was moved to a permanent care facility after being given a vague diagnosis of psychosis. I’ve been here ever since, lying in a bed, attached to a drip. It’s miles away from my mother and my grandparents, so they’re not able to visit much. I’m glad. I hope they feel a sense of relief with the distance between us. I hope the love and affection they once felt for me has been replaced with a dull ache, a gnawing worry, and I hope that worry is fading. I hope they wish things were easier. I hope they wish, deep down, to be free of me. That I was free of myself.

I wish this, more than anything, because earlier this evening a nurse came to change my drip. She wheeled in a trolley carrying a squishy bag of fluid, and she parked it next to my bed. She started chattering about something inconsequential, then she looked up at me.

I saw them in the whites of her eyes. I saw them, crawling and flapping and slithering over each other. The fat, winged maggots now had legs and were covered in tiny hairs. They pulsed and twitched in the shiny wetness. They were inside of her, millions of them.

Before I could react, something else caught my eye. A translucent wing was hanging out of one of the nurse’s nostrils, its veins reflecting the artificial light. It was trembling slightly, trying to hide from me.

I could hear them. Squelching and pattering over each other, their maturing wings beating against her insides. Their legs scraped and dug into her flesh. She was full of them. She was a hive. She was riddled with them.

She narrowed her eyes, and as she did so I could hear them squelch as they compressed together.

“What’s wrong with you?” the nurse asked. “You’re not going to give me any trouble today, are you?”

She picked up the bag of fluid from the trolley, and when it was close enough I could see that it was brimming with eggs. It was like a sloshing bag of frogspawn. Those squishy little orbs were quivering, ready to hatch.

“Get away from me,” I said.

“Don’t cause trouble.”

“Get away.”

“Am I going to have to call the doctor?”

“Do what you want, but you’re not getting anywhere near me with that.”

As she snorted angrily, the tiny little wing shuddered and disappeared back up her nostril.

“Fine,” she said, walking towards the door, “I’ll go get Doctor Harris.”

I pulled my blanket up to my neck so that I could peel off the bandage taped to the ditch of my arm without being seen. I then slowly withdrew the needle and held it in between my thumb and forefinger. That’s when Doctor Harris came in, the nurse close behind.

“Is everything okay in here?” he asked, perching on the edge of the bed. “What seems to be the problem?”

His eyes were so full of those legged, winged maggots that it looked like TV static. He bared his teeth and they flitted over them, scuttled over his gums, venturing down onto his lips. He was completely infested.

I acted as quickly as I could. I thrust the needle into one of his eyes, causing hundreds of them to spill out onto the bed. I leapt up quickly before they could touch my skin.

The nurse screamed, so I grabbed her head and rammed it hard against the wall to quieten her. More of them spilled onto the floor, but I had slippers on and could walk over them. I felt them burst beneath my feet as I made my way out into the corridor.

I had no plan of what to do next. Up until that point I always thought I’d live out the rest of my days in that bed, so I had no idea where I wanted to go. I certainly didn’t know who I wanted to see.

The fire escape was just around the corner, so I ran up the stairs to get to higher ground. I’ve no idea why, it must have been some sort of instinctual reaction.

When I got to the tenth floor, I felt it was time to stop. I was out of breath and I had to process what was going on. I found an empty doctor’s office, which was thankfully unlocked. I went inside and shoved a chair against the door.

I’ve been here for the past hour. I’m writing this email on a laptop I found on the desk to send the word out to as many news broadcasters as I can think of. I don’t know what good that will do. I’ve run out of options. I just need people to see what I can see.

They’re yelling at me to come out now, shouting all sorts of bargains and threats. They’re telling me they want to help me.

It’s too late for that.

I can see them. In the reflection of this screen. The jelly of my eyes is trembling with their movements. I keep touching them with my fingertips, and I can feel the warmth of them.

I can smell them too. A dank, earthy smell, it’s all over me. On my clothes. In my hair. I can’t smell my own scent anymore. They’re eating me, removing me, bit by bit.

There’s only one thing to do. Smash the chair through the window. Then I can jump.

It started to rain. I went to the window to check the thickness of the glass, but they’re already out there. They’re in the droplets running down the window.

I’m trapped. I either stay here and get eaten alive, or go out there and get eaten alive.

They’re bubbling within me, scratching to get out.

I’m ready.

I just wish I wasn’t so thirsty.

Emily created Dystopic in July 2012 after requiring an outlet for her love of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. Her debut novel 'These Unnatural Men' was self-published in 2018.

6 thoughts on “Thirsty – a short story by E.J. Babb”

  1. Wow.

    I’m sitting in my car, parked outside my house after a visit to Tesco, saw that you’d posted this and decided to just have “a swift look” before I went indoors.

    And then I couldn’t stop reading until the end!

    The only word I can muster is “enthralling” 🙂

    Congratulations! It’s an excellent piece 😉

    1. Thanks so much Mike, and for your recommendations on Facebook. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I hope nothing from your Tesco shop defrosted…!

  2. Hello Ms. Babb,

    It’s been a long time. (I reviewed a few old movies, and you were kind enough to post them in your blog.) Saw your short story, and stopped to read. I’m glad I did. It was great. Lots of suspense, and a fantastic ending. Hope all is going well with you. Hope the big projects are going… the little ones are obviously successful. One of these days I’ll write you a proper letter.
    Best always


    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Dave, and I’m really looking forward to hearing from you soon! 🙂

  3. Read this in bed, squirming under the covers. What a great premise – repelled by the very thing we need for life. It reminded me of a quote I read somewhere, written by someone with an eating disorder, in which they pointed out that other addicts can give up and avoid the substance they abuse but she couldn’t, she had to come to terms with ingesting the thing she abhorred and feared.

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