Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Earworm's Song

The Earworm's Song
By Michael Cannata

                He sat quietly in his favorite chair listening intensely to a song no one else in the room could hear. He knew every word and had since the first day he had heard it. It was called, “Sneaky Ways.” When he first heard it years ago it stuck in his head. He liked it a lot. It was one of those one-hit-wonders that raced to the top of the charts, stayed there for a few weeks until everyone on earth had heard it at least one time, and then just vanished from the airwaves… never to be played again, except at weddings and other such festivities so people could do the dance that it spawned
                For most people it was forgotten as quickly as it was learned. But for him it was the beginning of a decade long struggle to get the damn song out of his head. He’d heard it enough times that he easily learned the rhythm and the lyrics. He would almost always hear it on the morning drive to work and would sing it to himself all day as he sat in his office.

                Gradually, the song became a part of his everyday train of thought. He found himself humming it at inappropriate times. At important office meetings he had been asked several times by his boss to stop his ridiculous humming. He tapped his fingers incessantly to its beat. Eventually he was fired because his constant singing was disrupting the office.

                He couldn’t get the song off of his mind. And slowly it drove him out of his mind. After about a year he smashed his car radio because it seemed to be on every channel. After two years he would shut off every radio and TV at his office and then his home. No matter what he did he would always hear that evil, insipid melody ringing in his ears.

                He learned there was even a medical term for his affliction. “Earworms” Also known as "Musical imagery repetition", "Involuntary musical imagery" and "Stuck song syndrome." It afflicted many people throughout history. It had driven people to murder and had even saved the life of one man stranded on a mountain. Scientists had a lot of theories about what started earworms but they had no idea how to stop one once it started.

                He followed all the popular recommended antidotes. He tried solving crossword and Sudoku Puzzles. He would read until his eyes could no longer stay open. Regardless, as soon as he stopped, that song would start up again as loud as if it was playing on a stage.

                Sitting in his chair he watched the blood drip from his hands; Dropping slowly, to hit the floor in perfect time to the voice from the worm. For weeks now he had refused to leave his room. His wife was becoming worried, almost panicky at the way he seemed to be listening to something just beyond her range. She knew about his earworm problem but had always chalked it up to his inability to relax. He was always so restless to begin with. Lately, over the years, he had taken to incessantly singing or humming some crazy, silly song that had been big on the radio over 10 years ago.

                His wife wasn’t going to worry any more though. When she turned to him in the kitchen she was as angry as he had ever seen her. Yet when she opened her mouth to curse him all that came out were the words of that insane song in perfect pitch. In that moment he knew that she had been infected as well. He couldn’t bear the thought of her suffering the same fate as his. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to control his own panic but it only served to amplify the sound of the song.

                When he opened his eyes he was sitting on the kitchen floor holding his wife’s head in his lap. The large steak knife protruded from her left ear… or what was left of it. When he cut off her head it was still screaming the words to “Sneaky Ways.” He tried to help her by digging into her ear canal to kill the worm but all it seemed to do was make the singing louder. He couldn’t get close enough to the damn worm with such a large knife.

                He made his way back up to his room, stopping at the utility closet on the way. By the time he was back in his chair he could hear a pounding on his front door. It was the police. His neighbor must have called them when he heard the commotion that cutting off his wife’s head caused.

                He didn’t have much time so he had to act quickly. He had figured out the perfect way to get to the earworm. He raised the foot long ice pick and set it gently into his ear. With one powerful blow from his fist he drove the ice pick into one ear, through his brain and out the other. On the end of the ice pick was along slimy piece of tissue that he believed in all his heart was the earworm itself.

                He had finally killed the musical demon. As he slowly slipped into a blissfully quiet embrace with death he savored what he had craved for so long; the sound of silence.


By Michael Cannata

                    Her smile was the greatest Christmas gift he'd ever received. They named her "Joy."

                She was born on Christmas Eve during a storm that was fierce and furious as it fought them all the way to the hospital. Her mother nearly died during the 14 hours of labor she endured trying to deliver her. The doctors joked that it was like she was doing her damndest to stay warm and resist coming out into the world. Maybe she knew what was ahead.

                He and his wife had tried for years to have a child. She suffered several miscarriages and soon they decided that her health was more important than their dream of becoming parents. They settled into a quiet but loving life and focused on each making the other as happy as possible.

                In a twist of fate, years after they had put the thought out of mind, she unexpectedly became pregnant. He was both thrilled and terrified. He worried that his wife wouldn't be able to handle the stress of delivering a baby, or the pain of losing another one. To the contrary, his wife wasn't worried at all. There was no question or hesitation, she was having this baby and it was going to be the most beautiful child ever born… And she was.

                They were happy beyond belief and spent every moment together indulging and pampering Joy.  But his wife began to become ill frequently. Soon, it became obvious that the delivery had done more damage than they realized. Gradually his wife grew weaker. She survived the delivery but it took a toll she would pay with her life, sooner than expected. It took so much of her strength just to get through the days but she never complained. She made the most of every moment she had to spend with her precious Joy.

                 Her mom passed away when she was five. He was left to raise her on his own, a job he always felt he had failed at miserably. He continued to provide everything his daughter needed, but he fell short when it came to giving her what she wanted the most… his affection. He wallowed in his own self pity and as his daughter grew he just seemed to get angrier. Joy looked so much like her mother that when he looked at her it just made his wife's absence more painful. He missed his wife so much that he also missed much of the life he should have been sharing with his daughter.

                Joy always seemed to be smiling and she was popular with all the kids in her schools. Yet, as her circle of friends grew larger, his friendships seemed to slowly wither away. He stopped going out with the couples he and his wife had spent so much time with
                After her mother died, Joy began to feel her father slipping away. She was too young to understand why, but she knew it when she looked in his eyes. His sadness was like a dark shadow that always hung between them. Nothing she did, no matter how many times she told him she loved him, he always seemed out of reach, even when she hugged him fiercely. She grew older while he just seemed to grow old
                Eventually, she went to college and gradually the passing time pulled them further apart. He rarely visited her at school. She got a job that took her away from home. Over the years she tried to stay in touch with her father and keep him in her life as much as possible. When she met the man she would marry she tried to include her father in her life. But her father never made any effort to get to know him. The first day her father met her husband was her wedding day. It was also the last day she saw her father. He left the next day and he never called or wrote after that.

                It took ten years before her father realized how much he needed her again.  A storm, just as furious as the one that had brought him, Joy, had cut the power; As he sat alone in the dark a beam of moonlight came through the window and settled on the only picture he had of the three of them together.  He had lost his wife, but his daughter had lost even more. She had lost her only chance to have a family. As he drove through the storm he hoped it wasn't too late to have her back.

                On Christmas Eve he stood anxiously at her door. He had been too afraid to call and ask her if he could come for fear that she would turn him away. She would have been completely right if she rejected him now as he had done so often to her. He didn't expect to be forgiven. He only hoped she would give him the chance to tell her how sorry he was and how much he loved her.

                As the door opened, he didn't see his wife anymore. He saw Joy and the family his wife had given him. His tears were matched by hers as he realized it was still true.

                Her smile was the greatest Christmas gift he'd ever received.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Replacements

The Replacements
By Michael Cannata

I can hear the Replacements as they come and go, prowling the corridors outside the locked laboratory doors. They are patiently waiting… waiting for me to join them. We all know it's inevitable. Even my death can't prevent it from happening. In fact, it would only speed up my transformation. I am the last member of my team that still survives in the form we all once shared. I'm still human.

My name is Peter Lindsey. Not that that means anything anymore. Anyone that I ever knew, or knew me, is gone. They've been replaced. I've been locked alone in these rooms for six months. I have more than enough water to last a lifetime, but the food stores are getting low. If the rest of the team hadn't succumbed to the pressure and were still with me we all would have starved months ago. But survival isn't a matter of concern any longer. The greatest need I have is to share contact with another living creature, regardless of how different. Being alone is becoming more than I can bear. In a language that is more like a sense than a sound, I can hear them talking to me through the walls.

Along with the other members of my team, I've been isolated in our laboratory for over a year. The risk of contamination reaching us before we could finish our work demanded that we lock ourselves away from the rest of humanity. We were safe as long as we stayed confined to the laboratory and its closed atmosphere. The plan was to stay in here until we could discover a cure for the disease that was killing the human race. As usual the only flaw in the plan was found in our human nature.

In the end, our fate was determined by simply opening a door that should never have been opened. I don’t know who finally lost control and opened the door, but I can’t blame them. I had fought the urge almost every day myself. The need to breathe fresh air, no matter how dangerous, had become overwhelming for everyone. The madness of the isolation finally conquered our reason. If I hadn't been shut away in the isolation lab I’m sure I would have followed them.

We set out to find a cure for the disease that had wiped out most of the world's population in the last two years. We succeeded in our goal. The cure sits in a set of vials locked in the freezer; a cure that could have saved everyone. But now, in the end, it will benefit no one. The results of our work revealed a truth beyond anything we ever imagined. Unfortunately, that truth was far more horrifying than anything we ever imagined as well.

 Initially, our greatest fear was that we would run out of resources before we could develop a cure. Once we realized that the source of the cure lay inside our own DNA, we knew that we could reverse the plague. But by then it was too late. Now, as I sit alone contemplating my future, my mind keeps going over the events of the past two years. Hopeless, the only thing I can do now is write down the story before I become a replacement myself.

No one knew for sure how or even when the "aliens" arrived on the planet. The first reports were of two ships that came to rest in synchronized orbits above the poles just at the edge of space. Whether they were actually physical crafts could never be confirmed. They appeared on radar but they had no outline that would allow us to see their true size. At night they shone brighter than the moon. During the day they appeared like small suns. Shining, but casting no light. Soon, the first two were joined by four others like them. They settled at equal distances above and along the equator.

They brandished no weapons, showed no signs of open hostility. They made no attempt to communicate and responded to none of the efforts by the nations of the Earth to contact them. They merely sat in place while the people of the earth waited in growing panic. In a short time, monitoring stations at the Arctic and the Antarctic began to detect changes in the atmosphere. Soon, the cities along the equator closest to the ships began to notice the change in the air. According to reports, the change, subtle at first, eventually became so strong that it could be tasted in each breath.

Gradually, the physical symptoms of the toxins in the new air started to infect all the people in its path. Populations closest to the sites where the ships hovered were the first to experience a range of strange and terrifying mutations. They lost all need or urge to eat, but they drank copious amounts of water. Quickly, once infected, they became listless and weak. Their skin began to blister and expand in a way that made it appear to wrap itself around the body it once covered. Eventually, their skin hardened and became almost like a cocoon, impervious to heat or cold and almost indestructible. Once the infection reached its peak the people would become motionless and remain dormant inside for about 48 hours.

After the period of "incubation," as the scientists called it, the cocoons would open and a creature would emerge. The Replacements, as they came to be called, were unlike anything ever seen before; Different, yet somehow familiar. Humanoid in form, they possessed physical features not found on any creature on the earth.

They were thin and hairless and had the largest, darkest eyes ever seen. While intimidating, once a person looked at them they were overcome with a sense of warmth and peace. Their face had two small openings in an almost flat patch of flesh where the nose should be. Their mouths were small and lipless. Instead of speech, it seemed they communicated with sounds that resembled a strange yet soothing type of music; Voices that spoke in melody along with whistles and slight chirps.

The people of the earth had never seen anything like them before. They looked both terrifying and intriguing. Yet, despite their intimidating appearance, none of the creatures ever harmed anyone they encountered. They were giants that emanated a gentleness that was almost palpable. They didn't conquer us, they converted us.

They nurtured each new form as it emerged from the cocoon and grew to maturity within a week. Fully matured, they were a consistent seven feet tall. For every cocoon that transformed successfully, the human inside emerged, replaced by a new being. They seemed to be androgynous with no way to distinguish between male and female. How they reproduced without a host remains a mystery.

It was clear that their only weapon was the ability to change the atmosphere and its composition. As time passed it became obvious; it was all the power they needed to bring mankind to its knees. Soon, the air we all took for granted began to change. The all encompassing atmosphere that we have floated in, like fish in the sea, was replaced by a new mix of gases. The replacements drew deep breaths and became stronger and more invigorated as they basked in the air they created. The new atmosphere that was Manna to them was toxic to humans. As the level of the toxin increased, we died as they thrived.

When the scientists of the earth finally understood the threat we faced, they launched their best efforts to build sealed research environments. They constructed sealed shelters and sanctuaries where the best minds in science could be locked away and protected until they could find a means to defend us from the "attack." Known as, The Apocalypse Teams, by the time we were secured in our laboratories most of the world's population was beyond help. Each team communicated by radio as we tried to coordinate our research efforts.

Despite our best efforts, each team became victim to the effects of the new air. It has been months since I've had any communication with the other sites. All the radios have fallen silent. We never got to tell anyone of our success.

It was my team, Apocalypse Team 5, which discovered the horrible truth. The only way to protect ourselves from the alien threat was to surrender our own humanity. The animals on the planet never seemed to be affected by the changes. We soon discovered that it wasn't just our bodies that were susceptible to the gases; it was our consciousness that made us victims of the disease. It was our superior DNA, our greatest advantage over the animals of the Earth, which proved to be our greatest weakness.

Our research revealed that we shared almost identical DNA with the Replacements. The difference was smaller than that between a chimpanzee and a human. The only way to avoid being transformed into a product of the cocoons, to prevent someone from becoming a Replacement, would be to alter their DNA. But the radical change would result in changing a human into an animal.

It became clear; the human race faced not merely attack, it faced assimilation.

The creatures we saw as invaders were anything but. They were not foreign beings from another galaxy. Based on all the scientific evidence we studied, the "aliens" weren't alien at all. They were native to our own planet. They were a new and improved version of human beings. As they've waited for me to join them they have revealed their story to me; Singing their tale to me through the walls, through the air, in that melodious speech.

Millions of years ago, when our ancestors were still walking on all fours, they came to this planet in search of a new home for their race. They set in motion a plan to inhabit the earth; a plan that would take millions of years. Only a few of them arrived in the first ship. Others would follow.

They were the last of their race; there was only one way to ensure their survival. They had to use the primitive species that would eventually evolve into humans as living incubators. Gradually, over the eons, they manipulated our genetic composition.  With their help, we evolved in leaps and bounds. We evolved in ways faster than science has ever been able to explain until now.

The visitors were not infecting us; the toxins in the atmosphere were merely activating a hidden strand of our DNA that had been sleeping dormant in our genes since the beginning of mankind itself. Throughout time, we've carried their genetic code as unwitting hosts. The creatures that we saw as insane mutations that consumed human forms are actually the new inhabitants of this planet. They are the next stage in our "evolution."

We were the ones that were diseased, not them. Their form was bizarre and hideous. To us they looked like something out of a Hollywood movie. Invaders from some distant galaxy, inhabitants of a freakish dimension where life forms grew in ways we could only dream of. Through our work we discovered that, what they are now, is what we have always been destined to be.

These are the last words that will ever be written by someone who knew the human race before it evolved. They are my last words. As far as I know, I am the last of what we once called Modern Humans; the last man alive on the earth. The rest of my team stalks just outside the walls. Nourished by the new air, free of their cocoons, their genetic transformation complete, they wait. They are not pursuing me, they are waiting patiently. They await my death knowing that it will not be the end of me. The DNA strand will see to it that my body remains animated long enough for my new consciousness to take over. I will join them on the planet they will now call home.

It was not anything they brought with them. It wasn't merely the changes to our atmosphere that triggered the changes. It was Time. Human beings had reached the point where their genetic structure, one that had been carefully manipulated eons ago, was ready. Once we started to breathe in the toxin we began to undergo changes that could not be stopped.

The invaders are not aliens, they are our forbearers. They are what we have always been destined to become. Like any of us, each one is an individual. Yet all of them are connected by a collective consciousness.  They hold no aggression against their fellow species. They have no delusions of Gods or religions that pit one against the other. They have no need of war. Their nature is one of peace and their future one of prosperity. They have a physical life span that is measured in centuries rather than years. Their beauty exists in their hearts rather than their appearance. They not only express love, they are love personified.

Sadly, as humans are prone to do, we were blind to that. We only saw the change they brought, and, as it most often has throughout mankind's history, that change inspired fear.

Before they arrived, I always believed that the human race was doomed to a future of endless war and strife. The violence of terrorism had spread at a pace where it was only a matter of time before some madman unleashed the sort of biological or nuclear attack that would result in the death of millions, if not billions of people.

People all over the world had reached a point where they no longer trusted their own government leaders. Weapons of mass destruction were rumored to be held by every nation and their use, once imagined, was now anticipated. The Internet once heralded as the new frontier in communication that would allow the voices of peace to be heard, had become a platform for hate speech and disinformation. Conspiracy theories were running amuck. People no longer knew what to believe.

Political leaders no longer represented the interests of the people as much as the interests of their party. Rather than keeping the peace they were intent on keeping their position. Religions and their followers no longer seemed interested in spreading the word of God. Rather than seeking truths to believe in, they focused instead on promoting their religious beliefs as truth.

Instead of rallying together to fight the aliens that threatened the Earth, the people broke off into armed mobs and turned against each other. The scientists that worked feverishly to solve the problems the invasion caused were denounced and attacked as blasphemers.

The media insisted on fueling the fear by running stories that only made the situation worse. Factual reports were abandoned and replaced by the most extreme speculation and opinion with no basis in truth. The outside world has descended into madness.

When I finish writing these last thoughts down I will save these notebooks in a safe place. I'm not sure why. I doubt they will ever be seen by another human like me. Once I enter my own cocoon, the human race as I knew it will cease to exist. When I am ready, when I can finally accept my fate, I will open the door and take a deep breath of the new air that the rest of the new human beings have been basking in. I will finally see the sun again.

Perhaps the fears that I have lived with most of my life will not be realized. Maybe life will be better once I accept my fate. The Replacements hold a promise of change that we as a people never thought possible… peace.

I hope that I'm not wrong about what the future holds for me. I hope that I will, in fact, still be me when I emerge from my cocoon. Above all, I hope, more than anything I have ever hoped for, that finally, I will not be alone anymore.