Penn is an ex-con and he needs a job, but on one fateful night he gets more than he bargained for when a maniac wants his SKIN! And that's before we even get to the monster...
The Worm Has Turned by David O’Hanlon
Music by Ray Mattis http://raymattispresents.bandcamp.com
Produced by Daniel Wilder
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Penn scratched at the burgundy paint of the park’s picnic table with his thumbnail. He hated waiting almost as much as he hated being broke. Unfortunately for him, waiting was the only way his bills were getting paid. Penn’s employment history consisted entirely of community service and eight years on a prison farm. Car jacking and armed robbery didn’t look great under the ‘special skills’ portion of his resume. So, he waited. “Hi,” a tiny voice squeaked beside him. “I’m Ed.” Penn looked over at the boy who had slipped onto the bench beside him. He was scrawny, with oversized glasses and a shaggy mop of brown hair that filled the space between the lens and his eyes. His shirt was striped intentionally with horizontal bars of color—and unintentionally with vertical runs of ketchup. The offending condiment was drying around his mouth where it seemed to break away into the constellations of freckles that covered his entire face. Penn sighed. There was no way this kid had any friends to go bother instead. “You don’t look like an Ed,” Penn said. “Here with your folks?” “Nope,” Ed replied. He stared up at Penn, clearly not intending on giving up more information. “What’s your name, mister?” “Everyone calls me Penn.” Penn hadn’t meant to answer, but part of him felt the need to give the kid a break. Life clearly wasn’t. “Shouldn’t you be playing? The swings look fun,” he suggested. “I’m allergic to just about everything and I have basically no immune system.” Ed shrugged his narrow shoulders. “The swings give me motion sickness, anyways.” “Then why are you at the park?” “Got nowhere else to be. Mom says her cats are allergic to me too and that I should give them a break. What about you?” Ed scooped the hair to the outside of the glasses so he could see a little better. “You’re too old for swings.” “First of all, no one is too old for swings.” Penn held up two fingers. “Secondly, I’m working.” Ed nodded sagely. “What job has you sit in a park?” “The kind that requires solitude.” “Oh,” Ed sighed. “I’d be really good at that job.” “Jesus Christ, kid.” Penn pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ve seen Lifetime movies that were less depressing than you are. Do you want some food?” “Just had three hot dogs,” Ed chirped happily. Penn looked the frail little boy over suspiciously. “Where’d you put them, in your pockets?” “I have a really high metabolism. I can’t gain weight.” Ed’s face soured then perked back up. “It’s kind of nice because I could eat all the ice cream I wanted if I wasn’t lactose intolerant.” Penn’s eyes rolled on their own. “Of course you are. Is there anything you don’t have wrong with you?” “It’s probably safe to say I don’t have gigantism.” Ed snickered. Penn’s stone face cracked and he busted out laughing. He patted Ed on the shoulder. “Well done, kid.” Ed poked Penn’s right forearm. “That’s a neat tattoo. Does it mean something?” Penn glanced at the arabesque design whose floral pattern twisted from the back of his hand to just past his elbow with a lion-like creature roaring in the center. “Yeah. It’s Burmese. That’s where my grandmother was from. She raised me, so I did this to remember her. She had an amulet with the same symbol that she wore everywhere. She said it was magic and protected her from evil.” “That’s nifty. Do you believe in magic?” “Not particularly. You?” “Of course.” Ed took a bag of gummi worms from his cargo pants and set them on the table. “Today is National Gummi Worm Day.” “That a real thing?” Penn asked. “Sure.” Ed opened the bag and plucked out a red-and-green worm. He put it between his buck-teeth and slurped it into his mouth with a giggle. Penn smiled at the boy. It wasn’t an expression he got to use much. “I guess that’s a holiday I could get behind.” “It’s also Give Something Away Day.” “I’m generally on the other side of that one.” Penn snagged one of the boy’s worms with a wink. “Then you’re in luck.” Ed took another bag of worms and set it in front of Penn. “I want to give you these.” Penn’s eyebrow lurched at the gesture. “Why?” “Because that way I can celebrate both holidays at once. It’s more efficient.” “No, I meant why give them to me?” Penn stared at the bag like it might explode. “There’s plenty of kids here.” Ed turned on the little bench and waved a bony hand across the expanse of the park. Kids shrieked and ran around, old men played chess under the trees, couples picnicked in the open areas, and a group of teens sold pot next to the forgotten volleyball court. Ed slurped another worm. “We’re the only two that are here alone,” he said between chewy bites. “I think that makes you worth sharing with.” “Correction, you’re a Hallmark movie.” Penn rubbed the kid’s head. “Guess we’re not alone now. Thanks, Ed.” “No problem.” Ed pointed at a man walking toward them with a large envelope tucked under his arm and a gravestone expression on his square face. “That guy needs friends more than I do.” “Oh, shit.” Penn stood up and dug in his pocket for second. He pulled out his last five-dollar-bill. “That’s my boss. Happy Give Something Away Day. Now, go get you some non-dairy ice cream.” “Don’t forget your worms. I think you’re going to need them.” Ed smiled and took the money. “Want to hang out tomorrow?” Penn tucked the gummi worms into his pocket and nodded. “Yeah, kid. We’ll meet here tomorrow, same time.” Ed checked his watch, which was struggling to stay over his hand. “Roger, that.” Ed jumped up and hugged Penn around the waist. Penn stood perfectly still, not sure of what to do before deciding on a simple pat on the back. “Stay safe, Ed.” He walked away from the boy and went to meet the grim gentleman. “Bye, Penn.” Ed waved frantically and trotted away. “Who the fuck is that?” the man asked with nod in Ed’s direction. “An undercover cop,” Penn replied. “He’s really good, don’t you think?” “Listen, wise ass, I can find any number of cons to get in on this. I’m talking to you as a favor, so when I ask a question, you give me a straight answer.” “Chill, Richter.” Penn took the envelope from him. “He’s just a lonely kid looking for someone to talk to.” “No shit he’s lonely. Look at the little loser,” Richter said. “I’ve seen bigger abortions.” Penn smacked his lips and turned the envelope over in his hands. “You know, just because we’re criminals, doesn’t mean we have to be pricks.” Richter smiled at him. It wasn’t the kind of smile Penn shared with Ed. It was the kind Penn saw on inmates right before they stuck a sharpened toothbrush in someone’s throat. The expression was a morbid scar across Richter’s face and his words oozed like septic pus. “I heard you tell him to be back here tomorrow. Maybe you were just playing nice, but he’ll be here regardless. You’re going to go do your homework and be ready for my boys to pick you up and you’re going to cut the biggest-dick-in-the-cellblock routine.” Richter pressed two fingers into Penn’s chest and leaned closer. “Or tomorrow, I’m going to come here and I’m going to rip that little boy’s guts out to decorate the goddamn see-saw. This job goes off, smooth and by the numbers. Say ‘yes, sir’ and get moving.” Penn glanced at Ed waiting in line for the ice cream. “Yes, sir.”
The job was not going smooth or by the numbers. Richter’s boys showed up at Penn’s apartment and took him to the fancy downtown apartments. The three of them rode the elevator to the seventeenth floor in their AES coveralls with their respective equipment stashed in toolboxes marked with the electric company’s logo. Only the seventeenth floor didn’t look like the pictures in Richter’s packet. The three men panned their flashlights around the darkened space. Penn noticed the painter’s drop clothes on the floor and the paper that masked the windows from the overspray first. Then he noticed the lack of overspray. Where there were supposed to be apartments, there was only exposed pipes, conduit, and two-by-fours marking off their future locations. Not only were the units unlived in, but they were nowhere near being ready to paint. “Anyone else got a bad feeling about this?” Penn asked. “Zip it,” the larger man on the crew said in a voice like shattering glass—high and coarse with an accent of the danger it brought. “Maybe we got the wrong floor.” “Yeah, I’m sure that’s it,” the other reassured him. Sweat beaded his brow above the snake tattoo that cut down the left side of his face. “We just got off on the wrong floor.” “You’re both idiots,” Penn grunted. “Unless we’re stealing power tools, we’re in the wrong building. The package said this place was fully rented.” “Obviously they didn’t count the floors that were under construction,” the big one said. Penn leaned on the frame of a future kitchen counter and dug the bag of gummi worms from his pocket. “When one of you geniuses figures out which floor we’re supposed to be on, let me know. How about that?” “What are you doing?” the man with the face tat asked. “Taking lunch.” Penn put a pair of the delectable worms in his mouth. He shook the bag in his direction. “I should probably share since it’s Give Something Away Day.” “That a real thing?” Snake-face asked. “Of course.” Penn swallowed half the mouthful. “It’s also Gummi Worm Day. No one thinks the drop clothes are out of place?” “They’re in the perfect place,” someone said. The words carried through the darkened hallway like a chill breeze that slapped Penn across the face. He recognized the voice. It sounded different, but there was an unforgettable ice in the tone. It was the same tone he’d used when he threatened Ed at the park. Penn eased his toolbox onto the unfinished counter. Richter was hiding in the shadows. Penn’s thumb worked the latch blindly while he tried to spot his benefactor. The metallic snap of the pistol action was all the sound they heard. The big man went down with a cry. The drop cloth soaked up the arterial spray as fast as it could gush from the hole in his neck. Another sub-sonic, suppressed shot struck Snake-face in the knee and a third caught him in the hip. The toolbox toppled with a crash and Penn’s hopes disappeared as fast as the revolver skittering across the bare concrete. He dipped into the alcove and tossed his flashlight in a lazy arc so it looked like he ran away. The diversion didn’t work. There wasn’t another shot. The loud clack of a switch being thrown illuminated the construction site. Penn chanced a look in the direction of the gunfire. A naked man sauntered down the corridor as if he weren’t committing mass murder. No. That wasn’t right. It wasn’t a naked man. It was Richter, wearing the skin of a naked man. The neck hole sagged loosely away from Richter’s throat, giving the costume away. Thick, black stitches danced across the patchwork suit, uniting islands of tattooed skin. Snake-face was crying louder and the big guy was growing quieter. He stripped off his beanie and pressed it to the pulsing neck wound. His bald head was adorned with faded flames. Penn stared at them for a moment and then back at the approaching lunatic. Between the tribal art of the flesh sleeve and the silenced pistol in Richter’s right hand, was his own bare forearm. Penn’s eyes flicked to his own and his stomach threatened to purge itself at the realization. The three thieves were the missing accessories for Richter’s psycho chic outfit. Penn backed away from the opening, groping wildly for the revolver. His hand landed on the cellophane bag of gummi worms instead. He gripped them tightly. Richter would go after Ed even if he got what he wanted. Penn took another hunkered step back and his heel bumped the walnut grip of the Bulldog .44. The subtle sound of the steel spinning on the concrete warmed his heart. “Come on out, Penn,” Richter hissed. Penn’s fingers curled around the weapon and he eased through a gap in the two-by-fours. The big thief made it to his feet only to plummet straight back to the floor with an anti-climactic plop. Richter looked like a man on a Sunday stroll as he made his way to Snake-face. He knelt on the man’s back and set his pistol on the floor. Penn hadn’t noticed the object in Richter’s other hand until it reflected in the work lights. The polished sweep of German steel gleamed with malevolent purpose before disappearing into warm meat. “Shhh. So much screaming, Shawn. Just be cool.” Richter drew the blade from his kidney and pressed the edge to the snake’s tail. “Be cool and give me some skin.” Penn bit his lip until it bled in a vain attempt to calm himself. Between his ever-quickening pulse and the breath he held onto for dear life, his chest felt like it was about to explode. He watched helplessly from the shadows of the soon-to-be-dining nook. Snake-face, Shawn, screamed weakly while Richter worked the blade along the cheekbone and scrapped the artwork from his face. “Do you like to watch, Penn?” Richter asked. “No shame in that. You can’t escape. Your fate is inescapable, but the amount of pain you endure is dependent on whether or not you come out here and accept it.” He held the severed flesh up to examine it in the light. He pressed it to his cheek and shuddered with an ecstatic moan. “Really wish you’d given me something a bit more useful, kid,” Penn whispered while he flexed his fingers around the bag of gummi worms. He eased back the pistol’s hammer and lobbed the bag like a hand grenade. The delicious, fruit-flavored snacks struck a light and dislodged the bulb casting darkness over the macabre scene. Richter rolled away from Shawn, snatched his pistol from the floor and fired in one deft motion. Penn’s second attempted distraction failed more spectacularly than the first. It only gave away his location, in fact. His vision flared from the pain of the tiny bullet tearing his ear in half. He fired at Richter, but the flesh-adorned fiend moved too quickly and the bullets struck nothing but shadow. Then he disappeared entirely. Penn pressed a hand to his wounded ear and made his way through the wilderness of wooden framework like a big game hunter. He tried to anticipate Richter’s path, but pain and fear overrode higher brain functions. He knelt into darkness and opened the cylinder of the revolver, dumping the cartridges into his bloody palm and sighed. He laid the five empty casings on the floor silently and slipped his last bullet into the chamber. “Hey, Penn!” Richter called out. The empty space made his voice echo in every direction. “Didn’t you say it was Give Something Away Day? Here’s your opportunity. It’s such a pretty piece of flesh.” “Oh, I’m going to give you something, Richter,” Penn whispered and eased the cylinder shut. “Right between the goddamn eyes.” Penn continued his search. Something banged behind him. He spun with the weapon ready. There were less lights. Another one crashed to the floor and cast the entire area into an obsidian void. Skin slapped frantically across concrete as Richter sprinted somewhere in the other direction. Penn’s mind raced with the terrifying thought of Richter having an accomplice moving in the abyss. Something stirred with a wet, disgusting slurp. Penn’s stomach twisted. The reptilian part of his brain told him to run straight for the elevator. Until it wasn’t an option anymore. Richter’s blade bit into the back of his thigh and unzipped the muscle. A plumber’s bright, red wrench dislodged the pistol from Penn’s hand. Richter kicked him in the chest, sending him crashing through the framework and to the floor. The wrench clanged next to his head and Richter placed a victorious foot on the thief’s chest. “I always get what I want, Penn. The only thing your little game did was ensure you’d still be awake when I take it.” Richter stomped on Penn’s ribs until he heard the wet pop of the breakage. Penn rolled to his side and coughed between pained groans. More lights went out. He tried to crawl away even though he’d seen the futility of it twice in the last fifteen minutes. That damn noise came back—moist, sickly, peeling somewhere out there in the expanding gloom. Richter stepped over him and towards the darkness. “Did you bring someone else?” Richter growled. “Who’s out there?” Penn forced himself to sit up. Knowing the new arrival wasn’t a friend of Richter’s was somehow scarier. He cried out as a new pain fought for dominance over the surmounting wounds. He held up his arm but saw no injury—only his tattoo. The burning intensified and rushed along the floral sprawl. The ink wept from his pores like black rain falling around the mystical lion. The drops ignited as they rolled off his arm and splashed to the floor. Penn’s broken ribs raged in retaliation to his terrified screams. Someone else was screaming too. Penn peeled his eyes away from the melting tattoo and looked at Richter. The lunatic was twirling about, shouting profanities and half-questions. Waves of color swirled across the floor in green and red pools just ahead of the creature. A moment before, Penn didn’t believe anything would ever surprise him again if he survived the night. The fifteen-foot gummi worm proved him wrong. Richter slashed at the worm and the blade parted the gelatin with no effect except a wet smack. It dipped away from another cut and slithered grotesquely around the killer. It constricted around his body and towered over him, looking down at its ensnared prey with a featureless head. The blank, red end pulsated and split into a gaping maw that slid over Richter’s body. Penn watched Richter struggle and scream soundlessly inside the colored, translucent torso of the gummi monster. The struggle made an awkward mac-and-cheese squish in the otherwise silent construction site. Penn forced himself up, keeping his eyes on the beast. The silver tip of Richter’s fillet blade poked through the gelatinous material and dragged down. Richter pressed his arms through, then his head. Penn limped backward to the elevator. The beast squirmed wildly as Richter removed himself in a twisted cesarean rebirth. He dropped to the floor with a scream that was part victory, part agony. His skin suit smoked and peeled away from his own bright, red flesh. Richter’s lips sagged away from his teeth. His blond hair fell away in clumps and the screams became all about the agony. Acidic, fruity fumes drifted towards Penn, fueling his need to escape. The mouth of the oversized fruit snack slurped around Richter’s feet. “Happy Gummi Worm Day, motherfucker.” Penn jabbed the elevator call button. The green tail end of the worm swung around, parted and slid over Richter’s head until the creature formed a flavorful ouroboros with the lunatic dissolving inside. The elevator dinged and Penn fell through the doors, leaving Richter to his fate.
Ed’s face split into a toothy smile as Penn limped toward the picnic table on his crutches. Penn looked at the bench below him and optioned for sitting on the table instead of attempting the plunge. He rubbed the broken ribs and returned the boy’s smile. “I told you we’d hang out today.” “Yeah.” Ed’s eyes teared up. “No one ever hung out with me twice before. I’m glad you’re okay.” “I guess I had a little help from a friend.” Ed giggled. “The red and green ones are my favorites.” “I got a lot of questions, Ed.” “Magic is just a toy without a battery.” The boy patted Penn’s blank forearm. “Want to go get some hot dogs?” Penn grimaced as he stood and tilted his head toward the hot dog cart across the greenway. “Of course, we need to get some hot dogs. You have a very high metabolism.” “The highest!” Ed jumped up and hugged Penn. “Thank you for coming back.” “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be, kid.” Penn tousled Ed’s hair. “Just got one thing that’s bothering me.” “What’s that?” “There’s no more crazy holidays coming up soon are there?” “Plenty of them. Today is actually Corn Fritter Day.” Ed took a bag from his pocket and removed the last gummi worm from it. He looked at it thoughtfully before slurping it up like spaghetti. “Next month there’s National Clown Day.” “Clown Day?” Penn stopped in his tracks. “How about we just skip that one?” “Yeah, that one’s a little creepy.” Ed nodded and tucked the empty bag into his pocket. A cool breeze brought a momentary reprieve from the July heat. A Frisbee flew across their path with a golden retriever in hot pursuit. Penn looked around the park at the old men playing chest, the teens selling weed, and the kids playing games. Then he glanced at Ed. No one was there alone anymore. The two friends continued their arduous journey to the hot dog vendor, laughing and carrying on. Ed clapped his hands excitedly as they arrived. A sandwich board was painted with a picture of a dancing sausage. “Would you look at that, Penn? Next Wednesday is National Hot Dog Day!” The End
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