On the night before he turned thirty, Leo Weiss had a dream that a giant insect sliced off the top of his head and laid an egg in his brain. The next morning, when he told his girlfriend Carly about the bug, describing its backward knees, serrated-scythe arms, and overlapping jaw, she reminded him that dreams are nothing more than a side effect of the brain’s strengthening and pruning of neuronal connections.
“That’s true,” Leo said, nodding along to her words, as if he understood what she was saying. “I’d totally forgotten about that.”
“Yeah, well, a lot of the brain is simply turned off while we’re asleep anyway, so you probably wouldn’t have remembered it even if you wanted to,” she said, bouncing out of bed and shimmying into her jeans. “That’s why it’s nearly impossible to tie your shoes and do easy stuff like that in your dreams.”
For the past three years she’d been studying to be a neurologist, and he genuinely enjoyed listening to her talk about her passion. It somehow made him feel like he was more than just a short-order cook in a crappy diner, having found a girl like that. Still, he felt off. His body ached, and his head was all swimmy. For the rest of the day, he found it difficult to walk in a straight line.
Two years later, while working an eight-to-two during Sunday brunch at the diner, a sizzling minefield of sausage patties crackling on the flattop before him, the warm wooden handle of a grease-smeared spatula gripped loosely in each sweaty hand, Leo closed his eyes to stretch his neck and suddenly found himself waking up on the floor of the employee break room with a pair of uniformed cops looming over him. Behind the cops stood his fellow grillman, Jose. A splash of bright red blood slashed across Jose’s cheeks, and his deeply tanned hand pressed a bag of frozen peas to his left eye.
For the first four or five minutes after Leo woke up to this scene, nothing made sense: for starters, Leo’s head felt as if it had taken on about a hundred pounds of water weight and was now much too heavy for his neck to hold up; next, there was the breathless exhaustion that robbed him of his air and that crushed his thoughts down to fragmented half-sentences absent of context and understanding; then there was the disorienting fact that, upon first opening his eyes and finding himself on the floor, he initially thought he was waking up in the soft comfort of his bed after a good night’s sleep, an illusion that was quickly shattered by the jarring disconnect between that assumption and the frighteningly confusing reality that slowly replaced it; and as if that wasn’t enough, there was the spiky pulse of pain throbbing hotly in both his tongue and bottom lip, and the disconcerting sound of his normally clear speaking voice tumbling from his mouth as the unintelligible slur of a drunk.
So, with all these odd, frightening things crashing over him all at once, Leo closed his eyes and lay back on the cool tile and tried to stay calm as his anxiety and confusion slowly bubbled over into a full-on panic attack. And it was here, in the trembling dark behind his closed eyelids, that he remembered, for the first time in two years, about the dream insect and the egg it had laid in his head.
But it wasn’t until the next day, when he was safe and secure in a hospital bed, his right wrist handcuffed to one of the towel-wrapped railings at his sides, that his good friend and fellow grillman, Jose, finally told him what had happened the day before: apparently Leo had been flipping a sausage patty and talking about the Jets when he suddenly went crazy, started screaming, and attacked Jose with one of his spatulas. Seconds after that, Winston, the diner owner’s son, tackled Leo from behind, dragged him into the break room, and called the cops.
Hearing this, Leo felt sick with guilt. He apologized to Jose and told him how he had no memory of any of that, neither the talk about the Jets nor the scream nor the attack, and even if he did, he never would’ve done anything like that anyway, he just wasn’t that kind of a person, he liked everyone, especially Jose, he wouldn’t even still be at that crappy diner if it wasn’t for Jose making each shift fly by with those hilarious stories about his crazy in-laws and mischievous son; no, all of this had to be the work of that goddamn insect and that stupid egg it had laid in his head, it had to be, that was the only real explanation; but as he tried to say all this to Jose, Leo discovered that his tongue still didn’t work right and so his words came out as mush that neither man could understand. From here Jose nodded slowly and raised his hand to scratch at the fat wad of white gauze taped to his injured left eye, but he stopped a few inches before his fingers got there. Following this he told Leo that he knew the attack was probably nothing personal, that he knew Leo was a good dude and all that and that the attack had probably just been brought on by stress or whatever, what with Leo and his girl Carly breaking up last month, but then Jose explained how his wife had threatened to leave him if he didn’t press charges, so in the end, the whole thing was out of his hands anyway.
Nothing like this had ever happened to Leo. He was the only son of two of the most beloved high school teachers in his hometown, and he’d never been in a fight in his entire life. Nor had he ever wanted to be. For as long as he could remember, he’d possessed the same inexhaustible well of calm patience and good humor that had helped his parents earn the love and respect of even the most troublesome students in Topine Central High School. As a die-hard New York sports fan, basketball and football were the only things that ever got Leo’s blood going, but even then he always went out of his way to keep things civilized and to give his hated rivals the respect they deserved: (“Montana and Manning are great, no doubt, but come on, Jose. It’s Brady. End of story. It’s not even a question. And believe me, I know better than anyone. I’ve been watching that guy murder my Jets for almost twenty years now…”).
Later that day the police came to Leo’s room and formally charged him with assault in the first degree and some other things that were hard to remember because there were a lot of them. Then a tech took him to another part of the hospital for an MRI and other head scans.
The next day Leo’s tongue felt worse than ever before. It had swelled up overnight, and now it was so big he could barely close his mouth.
Sometime in the afternoon a neurologist came to Leo’s room to talk about the results of the brain scans. It was Carly. This was the first time he’d seen her since she broke up with him last month, and as she talked, she looked at every single thing in the room except for him.
“The tests came back normal,” Carly said, looking very expert and professional in her white coat and flower-patterned blouse. Seeing her like that, looking just like a real doctor and everything, Leo finally understood what she had meant last month when she said that they were just too different to be together anymore. “Your bloodwork is within the standard range and your brain scans were unremarkable.”
“So what happened then?” Leo tried to ask, but his tongue was still too thick to form the words, so he grabbed his unused napkin from lunch and scribbled the question on that.
“Based on my evaluation of the evidence, I think it’s clear that you were conscious and lucid and in full control of your person during the attack. If I were you, I’d throw myself on the mercy of the court and beg for forgiveness,” she said, in a coldly clinical voice that betrayed no emotion. “But that’s just my opinion.”
From here she started to stride quickly out of the room, but before she could get away, Leo grabbed the elbow of her white coat and stopped her. Now he wrote a second question on the napkin, the question he’d been waiting all day to ask someone:
What about the insect and the egg it laid in my head?
Seeing this, her face flushed red.
“For the love of God, there are no insects or eggs inside your head,” she said, wrenching her arm free of his grip. Now she sighed heavily and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Just get a lawyer and plead down for a reduced sentence. You clearly did it, so just ‘fess up and get it over with. And stop telling people there are insects and eggs in your head or whatever. If you keep saying that, everyone’s going to think you’re crazy. And if they think you’re crazy, then they’re going to think I’m even worse for having—” She stopped herself here and finally looked down at him. At this her face scrunched up into a scowl of disgust, but this expression didn’t last long; a moment later her expert mask of professional disinterest smoothed the sharp lines of emotion from her face. “Just do what I said. It’s your only option at this point.”
Feeling rotten and foolish, Leo took Carly’s advice. If the scans showed nothing abnormal in his head, then there probably was nothing weird in there. But if that was the case, then why did he attack Jose for no reason? And why couldn’t he remember doing it? And why did he feel so strongly that something related to the dream insect really was inside his head?
Either way, once the date of his hearing arrived, Leo pleaded guilty to assault and some of the other charges in exchange for a reduced sentence. Since his tongue and mouth had not yet healed, he entered this plea through words he wrote on a pad of sticky notes. In exchange for this plea he was given nine years of prison time, down from the possible max of twenty-five. Weeks later, on the day before his thirty-third birthday, Leo’s parents dropped him off at the Topine Correctional Facility in upstate New York. That night he slept surprisingly well, considering the thinness of the mattress and the sharp bedsprings that jabbed into his back and butt and kidneys no matter which way he lay. Then, sometime before morning, he dreamed about the giant insect again.
This time the insect was smaller and the top of Leo’s head was already gone. At first the insect buzzed up out of his open head and circled his supine, paralyzed body a few times, its translucent wings humming dissonantly in the still air. Then it landed on his chest and started sawing away at his sternum with its serrated-scythe arms. Soon the bug reached pay dirt and his chest cracked open with a little pop, the two halves of his breastbone splitting wetly, his shiny red heart beating silently in the dry air of his prison cell. From here the insect turned around, jammed its needle-tipped abdomen deep into his heart, and laid an egg in there. Moments later Leo woke up with a jolt, his body drenched in sweat, his heart smashing away in his chest, but this time he heeded Carly’s advice and kept the dream to himself.
Days later, while waiting in the cafeteria chow line, the rotting-mushroom scent of his roommate Lance’s body odor filling his nostrils, the heavy thud of pain in his still-not-healed mouth pulsing to the rhythm of his heartbeat, Leo closed his eyes to stretch his neck and suddenly found himself waking up on a cot in the prison infirmary with his arms and legs shackled to the frame. Looming over him was a pair of prison guards, the various chains and zippers of their complicated uniforms hanging down over his face. Behind the guards stood his roommate, Lance. A dark red stain of dried blood slashed across Lance’s cheeks, and his tattooed hand adjusted the fat wad of gauze taped to his left eye.
This being the second time Leo had experienced this stuff, everything made more sense: yes, his head once again felt like it had been filled with a hundred pounds of water; yes, he could neither breathe nor think very well for at least twenty minutes; yes, some new part of his body had been inexplicably injured during the blackout (it was his right arm this time, he couldn’t lift it anymore); and yes, he saw the dream insect the next time he closed his eyes; but instead of letting his anxiety take over like it had the last time, he simply let all of this bad stuff just kind of flow over him without resistance. At least that way, Leo hoped, this terrible experience would be over quicker. And soon enough, after about twenty minutes of deep discomfort and disorientation, the bad stuff passed and he was himself again.
Following this, the guards explained what had happened: Leo had been standing in the chow line with Lance, talking about the Knicks, when he suddenly went crazy, started screaming, and attacked Lance with his bare hands.
As punishment for this second attack, the court added an extra five years to Leo’s sentence, bringing it up to fourteen years in total.
Despite this, there was some good news to go with the bad. The good news was that for the rest of his sentence, not one other inmate ever laid a finger on Leo. Apparently the attack on Lance had proved that Leo was not a dude to be messed with. In the weeks following, Lance made it known that he would seek revenge on Leo for the attack, but then the two worked out an agreement wherein Leo would settle his debt by paying for all of Lance’s cigarettes for the remainder of both their sentences.
And this was all very good for Leo, because after the second blackout, he could no longer use his right arm. Adding that to the seemingly permanent injuries to his mouth and tongue, he knew he wouldn’t have survived very long in this place if even one other inmate had thought him a weakling to be targeted.
So for the next few years, Leo minded his own business and stayed out of trouble. He decided there was no point in fighting against something he had no control over, so he tried his best to stop worrying about the dream insect and the eggs it had laid in his body. After all, no amount of anger or self-pity was going to get him out of here any quicker, so it didn’t make much sense to get all riled up for no reason. Some days this attitude worked; many days it didn’t. But he knew that the important thing was to find a way to make the best of this awful situation.
And according to everyone he asked, the best way to do that was to stay busy. So that’s what he did. He started by taking various jobs in the prison cafeteria, and after a while, he learned how to do everything in the kitchen with only his left hand. Soon after that, in an attempt to relearn how to speak with his abnormally giant tongue, Leo began reading every book the prison library had on speech therapy and language acquisition. It took a long time, but by the beginning of his fourth year inside, Leo could talk well enough for nearly everyone to understand what he was saying.
Five years later, near the end of his ninth year of incarceration, Leo was granted an early release from prison and was discharged into the custody of his parents. Since he had not had a blackout or violent outburst in half a decade, the parole board allowed him to be released under the condition that he undergo mandatory psychological counseling to mitigate his violent tendencies.
The first five sessions of his counseling went very well. The therapist, Barbara, was a wise, patient woman in her sixties who had long, silver hair and a soft, comforting voice that reminded Leo of the smooth glide of silk over skin. At first Leo felt awkward and fidgety in this new, uncomfortable situation, revealing the most intimate details of his life to a total stranger, but after a while he found himself looking forward to the quiet stillness of that office and the time he spent in there talking about anything and everything on his mind: his blackouts, the terrible aftermath of the two violent incidents, his time in prison, his fear of the future, and the crushing anxiety he still felt nearly every moment of every day in anticipation of the next blackout. By the end of the fifth session, he even worked up enough courage to bring up the dream insect and the eggs it had laid in his body, but on that occasion, Barbara’s words offered no help at all: (“Well, in uncertain situations like that, I always tell myself to just do the next best thing…”). It seemed that in this department, the most important one of all, he was on his own as usual.
A few days later, on the night before his forty-second birthday, Leo once again dreamed of the giant insect. This time the horrible creature cut off his feet with two clean snips and laid an egg in each of the fleshy stumps left behind.
Upon waking up from this dream, Leo realized that this was the end. No longer could he think or talk his way out of his problems. Because of this thing living inside him, he was going to do something horrible to one of the people around him, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. And since his world was now comprised entirely of Barbara’s quiet office and his parents’ two-story Dutch colonial in the country, they were the only ones left for him to attack.
So before the sun had a chance to rise on the morning of his forty-second birthday, Leo slipped out the front door of his parents’ house and set out into the pre-dawn gloom. A cool blanket of summer mist hugged the wet grass, and the air was alive with the reedy chirps of millions of insomniac bugs.
Hours later Leo reached the edge of town and came upon a dense forest in full bloom. By now the sun was a smoldering disk of gold nosing above the edge of the world, its blinding rays filtering through the vine-wrapped trunks of elms and oaks and maples and pines. The air around him smelled of fresh mint, rotting wood, and wet mud.
As he trudged through this landscape, the dense underbrush of hobblebush and skunk cabbage tugging at his legs, Leo braced himself for the moment it would happen: the scream he would never hear, the feeling of waking up in his bed, the view of the trees slowly creaking above, the dense bucketful of water sloshing in his head, the fear and the confusion and the absence of breath; but when it didn’t happen, when the dream insect cruelly kept him waiting for the terrible moment he knew was coming, he began to wonder what that sadistic creature would try to make him do this time, here, in this beautiful natural environment with no one around to hurt. Would the insect force him to sprint back to his parents’ house and attack them? Would it compel him to build a fire and burn the forest down? Would it run him headfirst into the sturdy trunk of an oak? What would it do? And what could he do in response? What kind of a life could he ever hope to lead with this thing inside of him, pulling the strings in his head? Thinking this, he stopped walking, closed his eyes, and listened; but there was no response outside of the click and sizzle of summer cicadas, the lilting call of a morning songbird. Apparently, he was going to have to figure it out on his own.
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in A-Minor Magazine, After the Pause, Barren Magazine, Maudlin House, Pithead Chapel, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music.