I'm sort of a cliché.
The college student on a fixed budget, living in a cramped room with throw rugs in the form of haphazardly discarded sweaty clothes. Yes, I stock up on Ramen Noodles, yes my last three relationships ended essentially because of money. The lack of, that is.
The fact is I didn't really WANT to go off to college, but it was one of those things in life where there just isn't a Plan B. My parents had never been, all four of my grandparents hadn't, and WOE UNTO THEM if I decided to bum around for a few years after high school! To further the trope, I even used that "finding myself" line on my Dad, to which he replied that I'd have more fun finding college girls.
So there I sat, in a crappy little room in a run-down family home divided into separate rented spaces of questionable legality.
I could hear everything though the walls. Televisions, Gaming, the College Girls who, as it turns out, were way more interested in each other than yours truly. I can't say I have any resentment in that department, though, it would be hard for me to describe my looks without amalgamating two or more lanky cartoon characters from decades past.
I was a Biology major, so if you think about it the various strange, multi-colored cultures spawning throughout the unkept corners of my living space made a sick sort of sense. If anyone ever checked up on the state of the place, not that anyone ever had, I could easily claim my very life was some mad scientist experiment.
Basically what I'm getting at is that I was ass-poor.
When I ate Ramen, it was store brand Ramen. The kind that doesn't cook right and tastes like important documents run through a corporate shredder. I often figured that actually might be part of their business plan. "We cut trash removal costs and pass the savings onto you!"
My ventures in the nearby supermarket were mercifully quick. Passing by the extravagances that "normal" people enjoyed, I methodically worked my way through the cheap knock-offs. Magic Charms cereal, Coolitos Chips, Dr. Fizzer soda, my shopping list read like a pad of "Wacky Packages" stickers.
This last trip, however, they didn't have Dr. Fizzer in stock. Seven Score? Yes. Mountain Folk? Yup. Even the lazily named Cherry-erry was there. "Cherry-erry". There's something that sounds like a board of Executives just wanted to go home that night.
I was irked that my crappy store brand no-label product wasn't in stock, because what the Hell, but I didn't focus on it for long before absently snagging a six-pack of "Sour Cola". The stark green and white cans, displaying little lemons and limes, just seemed the least ridiculous of the group. "It's cola. It's sour. Let's move on with our lives."
I didn't give the purchase another thought until late that night - or rather, early the next morning - when I was stuck on the conclusion of a research paper that was already dangerously close to being turned in late.
Frustrated with myself, I decided to take a brief walk around the room... maybe several laps given the puny dimensions.
I got a Sour Cola from the closet with a fridge in it that did not deserve being called a "kitchen", and popped it open. It fizzed and hissed, spilling foam over my thumb, which I quickly sucked away in full acceptance of my piggishness.
I took a few sips, pretending this distance from the computer was what I needed to really get a handle on finishing the project.
Over the course of this very important process, I downed all but the last dregs of the can. The passage of time was now measured in the dying hiss of the carbonation and the ratio of "full" to "empty".
I begrudgingly sat down at the computer once again and threw back the last of the beverage.
I nearly choked as something slick and oval-shaped slipped past my defenses and down my gullet. Something had been in the bottom of the can, and in that split second all I could picture was a cigarette butt.
I spent some quality time in the bathroom wretching, but nothing came up. Whatever garbage had been carelessly tossed into the Sour Cola vat was now beyond retrieval. Thank you for being so careful, lazy-eyed Hobo brought in off the street and somehow made quality control supervisor.
In the end, I comforted myself by noting I'd probably swallowed plenty of worse things without even realizing it.
When I finally finished that assignment, it was pretty much time for class.
I snagged a can of the hideous brew and brought it with me. Don't laugh unless you've lived on the edge like me. It didn't TASTE that bad, and I was already planning to call the company and make a complaint - ensuring a free coupon in the mail or a replacement which would be my standard flavor.
You have to roll with the little speedbumps in life and figure out how to work them to your advantage.
I popped the can before class and held it discreetly. That way as the Professor droned on, I wouldn't cause a sudden POP and HISS from the back of the room that would shake the other students awake.
I nursed the drink throughout class, always cautious to hide what I was doing. It's not so much that I actually cared if I got chewed out for breaking one of Professor Hardass' insane laws of the land. I just didn't need the hassle after the all-nighter I'd just pulled.
Somewhat dazed and dopey... and not listening at ALL... I worked my way to the bottom of the can once again.
This time, almost subconsciously, I shook the can to make sure nothing was in the bottom.
Klink, klink, klink...
I felt like wretching again, right into the platinum blonde bun that belonged to the uptight little chick in front of me. Maybe it would muffle the sound, right?
As I peered into the can, I could see the dark outline of an oval-shaped object at the bottom, half-submerged in yellow-green liquid that was now starting to remind me of bile.
Not feeling particularly careful or courteous at all, I spilt the remaining soda out onto the carpet at my foot, and the object along with it.
From the distance of eye to floor, it looked like the end of a cigar. The butt. Brown, rounded, kind of stubby. When I palmed the thing and studied it closer, even more disturbing details were revealed.
The brown stub was thicker at one end than another, and thin lines swept across its surface in parallel vertical patterns. The thick end of the thing had three dark marks upon it that looked vaguely like the proper placement for tiny eyes and a mouth.
It looked like a cocoon or some other sort of pupa.
I did wretch. Hard. I describe the strength of the involuntary spasm rather than the frequency or the duration because it was just that - a single, quick, hard clenching of what seemed like my entire body working in unison to rocket the very essence of my being out of my stomach and onto the platinum bun.
Nothing but noise emerged, a great, loud "RARP" that echoed, shook everyone awake, and died in the eerie sort of silence that makes you wish instead for the routine normalcy of a scolding.
The Professor asked if I was alright, but it was in that accusatory way. "Young man, are you alright?" Spoken, of course, while looking over his granny glasses and down his nose at me. Quite a feat with my posterior seated several rows above him. I suppose he'd had practice.
"I'm fine," I said louder than necessary, "I have to go." I added.
I handed my work in and did just that.
Back at home, I had gathered at least enough of my wits to now concern myself with lawsuits and viral videos more than the uneasy nature of my stomach. I placed the pupa in an empty jelly jar (save everything!) and put it on the window sil.
I couldn't decide what to do first - or maybe I just didn't KNOW what to do first. Call the company? Would that make them offer me a settlement, or give them time to put their lawyers on notice? Should I call a lawyer? Would I have to pay him upfront, or would he be willing to take a cut of whatever we wrung out of the shady, twisted "Sour Cola" alchemists?
These thoughts fell aside as I turned to the kitchen. The other cans.
I popped open all four of the remaining cans and sat them in the sink until they stopped fizzing over. Then, I poured each into separate drinking glasses.
Four cans. Four glasses. Four pupae. Every can in the entire six pack had been mispackaged with a creepy little stowaway!
This was as good as gold, and I knew it. I took photos of EVERYthing. The one in the jelly jar and all his brothers, still in the glasses, still in sparkling yellow-green stasis.
THEN I called a lawyer.
"All of them?" They had put me right through to one of the Partners... or whatever he was... the second I told the secretary about the magnitude of the problem.
"Every last one!" I replied, giddy.
"That can't be an accident. I mean, I've been doing this for a long time - and that is NOT an accident."
"Yeah," I nodded at the phone for some reason, "I didn't think of that, if it was a mistake there wouldn't be a one to one ratio of pupa to canister. The odds of that happening by anything other than design is very unlikely."
Silence on the other end.
"You're right." I repeated, severely simplifying the jargon.
"There have to be more," the Laywer mused, "I smell a class action suit."
We talked for hours. It was probably the longest phone conversation I'd had in months, and I almost felt like we were going to end up coyly volleying "No, YOU hang up!" back and forth.
The Lawyer told me to preserve the pupae as best as I could, to save the cans, to save the soda, to take more pictures, everything. So that's exactly what I did. I used latex gloves and kitchen utensils to gingerly hoist the little buggers from the glasses and put them all into the jelly jar together. Then I put foil over the glasses to preserve the soda itself.
The pictures... there were SO many pictures. Together, separate, against a ruler, against a quarter, I photographed those things maybe a hundred times.
It was during this process that I made note of some odd factors.
All the pupae from the glasses were exactly one inch in length. The pupa from the jelly jar was nearing two inches. Slight variations in length didn't concern me that much, but I still found it odd that the one I had taken out soonest was now the largest.
As I studied the tiny, dessicated-looking bodies... kind of like those preserved "bog people" they occasionally fish out of the mire and put on display... I figured that perhaps this was just an effect of the first pupa drying out, though I couldn't think of how lack of moisture would cause it to expand.
Perhaps the pressurized interior of the can was responsible for the size shift. That seemed more likely. They'd all fizzed over as if they were shaken, so that pressure must have been at play here.
The next morning, after dreams of dramatic courtroom scenes and tons of money had danced through my head, I was in for a shock.
Within the jelly jar, all of the pupae had expanded. I double-checked what I could see with my own eyes, and found they were creeping over three inches, now. They'd expanded in girth, as well, which was disconcerting.
They were too big to safely store in the jar now, so I lined them up on the windowsill and just stared at them for the longest time, completely amazed.
More photos... I needed more documentation. I was meeting the Lawyer that day, he'd even cleared his schedule when he heard about my lucrative troubles, and I wanted to show him photographic evidence of what now had me dumbfounded.
"Holy shit." the Lawyer remarked loud enough for everyone in the restaurant to hear him.
"I know, right?" was my helpful response.
The Lawyer sat across from me in the booth, studying the photos on my digital camera. He had gone through two plates of "unending flapjacks" and sausage. I wasn't hungry at all, just antsy. His chubby, ruddy face and booze-warmed nose made him look like a disgusted, beardless Santa Claus.
I figured it was ironic since he was about to bring me a lot of cash.
"Can I take these?" he asked, gesturing to the camera itself, "I just want to e-mail them to a friend of mine. He's an expert on bugs, works for an exterminator and testifies in a lot of my slum lord cases."
I shook my head and grimaced, looking at the camera with a strong sense of attachment. It had been a gift when I'd left home, and was probably the most valuable thing I owned.
"I can wait for you send me the photos," the Lawyer continued, "Or we can get started on this case ASA-fucking-P."
"Alright." I leaned back and gestured at the camera as if it were nothing. After all, I was probably going to be pretty rich soon.
"Okay, and the things." the Lawyer held his hand out.
I hadn't brought them. The pictures were clearly enough, right? Apparently I had misjudged the situation.
I shook my head again and the Lawyer dropped his hand to the table with a thud. He shot me a disappointed look.
"Kiiiiid." he groaned as if I was stabbing him in the wallet.
When I got back home later on, I didn't hesitate. I stormed right over to the window intent on grabbing the weird little whatsits and wrapping them up for transport.
Unfortunately, they were gone. A writhing sensation of dread gripped my insides as my plans suddenly fell apart.
The window had been broken and glass now hung in shards like a mangled, razor-sharp grin.
I couldn't believe this was happening. Someone had broken in, and without so much as touching anything else, had STOLEN the little things!
Was it the company? I suppose they could've found out what happened and were now trying to screw me out of what I was due... or maybe it was the Lawyer or one of his henchmen, maybe the exterminator, cutting me out of a handsome payday.
There was a rustling in the shrubs outside the window, and that was all I needed to see. I shot out of the room as fast as my skinny legs could take me, through the hall, out the front door. I even shoved aside one of the other residents, a stoner, who had popped out to see who was sprinting around.
It wasn't long before I was at the tree line, at the shrubs, staring into the thick woods behind the house. I could hear someone moving away, fast. Frantic, now, I followed through the thorny vines and overgrown weeds.
I thought I lost the thief at one point. Everything was deathly silent, and as I stood still, listening, I realized that he was probably doing the same... waiting to see if he'd actually heard someone following.
Thankfully, the movement of dead leaves clued me into the mystery man's location once more and I followed as quickly as I could without making too much noise.
I came to a swampy, damp clearing in the woods where I could get a better view all around me. I was irate now, cut up and bleeding from thorns and itching, especially about the face, from mosquitoes and invisible biting flies. My guts were churning with a mix of anger and anticipation.
I swept my gaze back and forth at eye height, looking for any sign of someone standing in the shadows or poking their face out from behind a tree.
Then, I heard the squishing sound of the soft Earth and looked down. Right at the center of the clearing, where I hadn't even thought to look, was one of the pupa.
It had grown to about a foot in size and was undulating across the boggy ground, leaving a trail of displaced muddy soil and flattened moss.
I could scarcely believe what I was seeing.
It was alive.
It was moving.
It was a foot long.
I followed slowly, curious now as to what this thing actually was and where it was headed with such... purpose.
Whatever was inside the dry-looking shell maneuvered itself across the ground steadily, only stopping to blindly work its way around rocks and the bases of trees. It wasn't long after the clearing that I was close to losing it once again in the overgrowth.
I watched the thing reach the edge of a quarry, something I'd never even known was there. It seemed abandoned, now, devoid of machinery or any sign of workers. It was now just a several hundred foot drop into a wet, dank pit that spanned an implausible distance.
The pupa undulated to the edge and, before I could reach it, continued off. I looked over the side as the thing fell end over end down the steep slope of stone and dirt.
Above and beyond the ghastly horror of the situation, I could only bring myself to repeat one basic thought in my head - There went my huge cash payout.
The pupa slid into the water at the base of the man-made cliff... and kept going. It seemed completely unphased by the fall.
Then, all around me, one by one, the others emerged from the brush and took the identical base jump off the ledge. One after the other they skidded to a stop and rolled into the water far below.
I got the eerie feeling that I was standing in the middle of some secret PLOT that had always been intended to unfold exactly as it was now. RIGHT now.
That was the end of them. There was no way I'd find them, now. No way to know what they were, where they were going, or what they'd do when they got there.
Perhaps it was better this way, right?
Maybe I was better off NOT knowing what these impossible, insane things would become. Was this all really for the best?
Do you think this is a happy ending? That even though this was disturbing, it's all okay because nobody got hurt? That no real pain of torture was inflicted on anyone?
If so, you forgot about the one I swallowed.