by Beth Cato
illustration by Darryl Knickrehm © 2013
Despite the bitter autumn chill, Jonah's kiss warmed Allison's lips and sent unaccustomed heat swirling through her belly. Gravity didn't weigh her steps as she hopped up to the front porch. He had kissed her. He had held her hand and kissed her. Allison squealed and spun in a dizzying circle.

Feet away, the walls of her house shuddered. Something heavy smacked against the inner window, unseen behind the thick cover of nailed plywood. In that instant, the heat from the kiss evaporated and reality grounded her like an anvil.

Grandma.

Allison flung open the screen and fumbled with the key to unlock the doorknob and both deadbolts. She jumped inside. Glass squealed and crunched beneath her flats.

"Shut the door!" screamed Mom.

Allison kicked the door shut and slammed the locks in place. Grandma's solid weight impacted against Allison's back, sending a gush of air from her lungs. The doorknob gouged her gut. Grandma's knobby fingers inched up her arms towards her neck. The buzzing sound grew louder; the earthy, indefinable odor more potent.

Then Mom was there. With a sharp squeal, Grandma released her hold. Allison slipped around just in time to catch Grandma as she slumped to the ground. Mom stood there, panting, her hair electrocution-wild. A syringe gleamed in her hand.

"She took an extra long nap and was too quiet when she woke up and then I couldn't catch her." Mom blew stray hair from her lips, tears filling her eyes. "Her first Kafka rage."

"So how long were you chasing her--oh." As Allison heaved Grandma onto the couch, she finally had a good look at the room. Broken glass littered the floor. Two side-tables lay broken, one leg embedded in the wall like a spear. Through the arched doorway to the dining room, she saw more overturned chairs and the light of the gaping refrigerator door. Grandma had broken things before or tried to bust out, run towards lights outside, but nothing like this.

The rage. The next symptoms... no.

"Oh, Grandma." Allison stroked Grandma's shorn scalp.

"Looks like she has some cuts and bruises. I need to take pictures of her and the room and then I can sweep up this glass."

"You should have called me," Allison said.

"Like I had a chance," Mom snapped. "But no, you had to go on your little date. I hope you enjoyed it, because you aren't having another one for a long time. She always seems to respond best to you." Mom gnawed at her inner cheek as she stared at Grandma.

"Mom! That's not fair!"

"Life's not fair. You're sixteen, Allison. You'll have plenty of time for boys and all that nonsense later on. Go grab the digital camera for me."

Glass crunched underfoot as Allison stalked towards the hall. Like Mom had any place talking to her about boys, seeing how Dad left, seeing how Mom hadn't even attempted a date since Y2K.

But maybe Mom was right, too. Maybe Grandma had missed Allison. Maybe that was why she flipped out. Maybe this wasn't "the rage" doctors talked about. Maybe it was something... weird. A tantrum. That's all.

She made a slight detour to shut the fridge and reset the childproof latch. The office door was open, which meant Mom must have been working when Grandma's rampage started. No surprise there. Mom tried to squeeze in freelancing whenever she could. The monitor was darkened in screensaver mode, the green light beneath blinking like a heartbeat. Allison grabbed the camera from its dock.

She took pictures as she walked through the house. A new hole in the wall. She stopped in the doorway to the living room and took in an empty spot on a high bookshelf. That broken glass used to be her great-great grandmother's vase. The one that used to be Grandma's favorite.

It was just a vase.

There were no curtains over the board-covered windows. A Plexiglas shield covered the TV, and that was frosted and scratched. Any shelves were bolted to the walls, cupboards secured with childproofing snaps and locks. Mom leaned against an open cabinet beside the TV, set something inside, and shut the door. A shot of whiskey, probably. As if Allison didn't know. Mom would probably finish off the bottle when Allison was in bed and bury the evidence at the bottom of the recycling bin, as usual.

Grandma sat up on the couch. Her eyelids blinked as she stared dully into space. Her crudely-shorn hair lay flat against her skull, dull metal grey against pasty skin. Her shadow cast against the front door revealed the truth. Long antennae curved from her head and arced a foot in height. Two mandibles protruded from her face and worked at the air. From her shoulders, diaphanous wings clung to her back and stretched the length of her body and through the couch itself. None of that was visible to the human eye, of course. Not yet. Light revealed the strengthening curse, that Grandma's body had become the husk of a soul-stealing bug.

That was the proof that Grandma suffered from Kafka Syndrome.



Grandma used to be Loretta Christiansen. Retired letter carrier for the United States Postal Service. Sunday school teacher for thirty-five years. Widow of Johann Christiansen. Mother of one. Grandmother of one. Game show junkie.

Really, when Allison thought of her grandma and who she truly was, her game shows were the first thing that came to mind.

"Come on, you banana brain," Grandma would yell at the TV. "The answer's the Mississippi River! The Amazon isn't even on this continent." Grandma had declared that Alex Trebek was dead to her after he shaved off his mustache.

Funny and old game shows were the best of all. Checkered bell bottom pants and big hair were standard issue, along with cheesy orange studio sets. Allison was crestfallen at age ten when she realized no other kids knew about Match Game 75 and Charles Nelson Reilly or the hilarity of the Whammies on Press Your Luck.

Oh, how Grandma would laugh as she watched, light and feminine and free, and descend into giggles and wheezes.

One day as Grandma and Allison walked the two blocks from school, Allison saw Grandma's shadow. The horns were mere nubs then, the wings like little fists from her shoulders.

Allison wasn't scared. She reached for Grandma's hand and squeezed, and stood close enough so that the shadow couldn't be seen.

The curse had been on Grandma and others for decades and the victims never even knew. Back in the early '70s, some group of animal rights radicals laid a sleeper curse on laboratory workers in five states. Their goal: make the workers become their own test subjects. By the time the illness manifested in shadows decades later, there was nothing magic or medical science could do.

Grandma had delivered mail to all the labs within the complex. For some reason, the Asian cockroach room's curse was the one that clung to her soul. Ate it away.

But Allison swore that sometimes a flash of clarity returned to Grandma's eyes. Sure, she might not be able to talk anymore, or laugh. She ate with her fingers gathered like pincers. Sometimes she hissed when surprised. And at dusk, she fixated on the lights outside, especially the ones reflecting on the lake behind the house--so they boarded up the windows. That attraction made the Asian cockroach different from other kinds. They hungered for light.

They were also supposed to be really strong flyers.

Allison refused to think about that final stage. It was a long ways off. But there were only some five thousand people under the curse, a few hundred with the Kafka variant. No one knew the exact timeline. Doctors said that most would die during that final physical transition, anyway.

Until then, Allison had Grandma to love and care for, and that was all that mattered.



The next morning, the house looked normal again. Spartan. The sharp stink of fresh paint made Allison's nose run.

With the phone to her ear, Mom paced along the bay window in the dining room. "I know you're still building the Kafka wing, but this was her first big incident of the rage. Yes, I read the report--no, we aren't sending her to that lab. The whole point of that curse was to force her to be some lab animal, damn it!" She took in a deep breath. "Sorry. Sorry. She signed a living will before--uh huh. I'm sorry. Last night was just really rough and..."

Oh. Mom was talking with the people at that special home for National Lab curse patients. It was down near the University of Washington. A really nice place. They were building it for compatibility with a dozen different curses-in-progress.

Mom's voice slurred. Maybe the person on the phone wouldn't notice. Allison's stomach clenched in a knot. She hated mornings now.

Mom trailed a hand down her face. "Yes. Yes. Thank you." She pressed a button on her phone and set it down on the table, staring at it between her fingers.

"No progress?" Allison asked.

Mom's lips worked for a second and she shook her head. "They can't build it any faster. Other than that, they said we can sedate her more if necessary. I just..." She looked away, blinking, her head bobbing slightly. "Hey, don't you have that biology test today?"

"That was last week. But all of my homework is done. I had everything taken care of before my date, remember?"

"Oh yes. Your date. That's right, it's Monday morning." Mom stared at where the calendar used to hang. Now only a few gouges from tacks marked the spot. "I'm losing my mind."

"You could drink less." Allison tried to keep her voice light.

"That's none of your business." Mom made no such attempt at levity.

"It is if I hear you slurring like this first thing in the morning."

Mom sucked in a sharp breath, the sound so like Grandma's cockroach hiss that it sent a rush of cold along Allison's spine. "How dare you. I'm an adult. I'm in complete control of how much I drink. It helps me sleep. Last night I needed all the help I could get, after that."

Allison grabbed an apple from the fridge and made a quick retreat towards the front door. She couldn't bear to even look at Mom.

Grandma was still asleep on the couch, her jaw gaped open. Asleep, she looked so normal.

"Hey Grandma," Allison whispered, her throat hot with tension. "I've gotta go to school. I'll miss you. Maybe this afternoon we can hang out?" Without waiting for an answer, she planted a kiss on Grandma's forehead. It was a shame the game show channel had changed their whole line-up a few months before. All their old shows were shuffled around.

"Allison. She's gone. This is just a shell--"

"Don't say it. I'm sick of you saying that."

"Reality's going to crash down hard on you when it comes, Allison. You can't be in denial forever."

"Denial? I know Grandma's sick--"

"She's not sick, damn it, she's gone! Dead! That's not her on the couch, get it?"

It was the whiskey, it was that stupid whiskey that made Mom all awful every morning. Allison backed up to the front door, her nails digging into flesh of the apple in her palm. She swung her backpack onto one shoulder and fled. She hit the sidewalk running fast enough that the tears tipped from her eyes and flew away without touching her cheeks.



"Come on, Grandma. It's time to get ready for bed."

With her hand curled beneath Grandma's armpit, Allison walked her down the hall. They staggered together, Grandma's steps small and shuffling. She fitted Grandma in fresh disposable underwear and a pink paisley nightgown that snapped up the sides. Then she guided Grandma to her room. Mattresses sat on a bare concrete floor. Scratches gouged the walls. Allison tried not to see it, tried not to compare the room to how it used to be with its dense '70s wood furniture and Currier & Ives prints on the walls.

She tucked in the old woman, taking care to layer the blankets and cover her wrinkled feet.

Allison laid a hand against Grandma's cheek. By Mom's account, it had been an okay day. Nothing good, nothing bad. Allison's day--well.

"Jonah asked me to go out with him on Friday," Allison whispered. "I didn't say no, not straight out. I mean... I know how he'd react. He's a cool guy, really. But..." She could only say "no" so many times. Most of her old friends had moved on for that very reason, or were content with just hanging out at school, never mentioning the possibility of anything after.

"It's hard sometimes, you know? But I know Mom won't let me go."

Grandma's teeth bared in a grimace. If her shadow had been visible, no doubt those pincers would be working as if they could bite. But there was no shadow. Just Grandma.

"Good night, Grandma. I love you." She planted a kiss on her forehead.

Allison shut the door and bolted it on the outside.

Mom was holed up in her office, working frantically on her work backlog. Probably would be until late. Allison disgorged her backpack's contents onto the couch and turned on the TV. She had already gotten a decent start on her homework by staying late after school--not like she was in a rush to get home for more quality time with Mom--but the terrors of algebra awaited.

Out of habit, she picked up the remote and flicked it to the game show channel.

"--Match Game Marathon!" boomed an overly-pleasant announcer.

Allison's head jerked up.

A Match Game Marathon this Friday. Twenty-four solid hours of bell-bottoms and orange-shag goodness. Grandma would love this!

From the office, the chatter of computer keys continued, punctuated by dark, indecipherable mutters.

Mom wouldn't agree. Mom would say it was pointless, that Grandma wasn't in there, that it was all just a waste of time. She would yell and rant and do everything she could to make sure the TV stayed off. Allison's hand clenched the remote as if she could strangle the plastic. Grandma would love this marathon. If anything could coax her out of her shell, this would be it. Mom had even said Grandma responded best to her.

Mom needed to be out of the house that night.

Grinning, she reached for the phone and dialed up Mom's best friend, a friend who'd already pestered Mom for months to cut loose and relax for sanity's sake. "Hey, Shayna?" she said. "Allison here. Mom's really needing a break. You think we can tag team her?"

A few minutes later, she hung up. A devious plot was already underway. Shayna knew how to score tickets for some overnight bed and breakfast deal over in Leavenworth this Friday night. If Shayna had already shelled out the money, Mom would be more likely to cave in and go. It'd still take a few days to wear her down, but Allison knew it would work. On some level, Mom knew she needed a break, too. This was the excuse.

Allison finished up her homework as the TV droned in the background. For the first time in ages, she hummed aloud, a smile on her lips. This Friday was going to be the awesomest night ever, for all of them.

When Allison crawled into bed, she was still smiling. An incessant buzzing sound shivered through the wall. Grandma slept one room over, her breathing like a mob of a thousand mosquitoes.

Down the hallway, the door clicked open. From the living room came the soft thud of the opening liquor cabinet and the clink of glass. Mom was getting ready for bed, then.

Allison stared at the blackness of the ceiling. Her happiness dwindled away as a sick knot resumed its normal place in her stomach. Mom was the one who was really gone, not Grandma.

The terrible susurrus continued from next door, from Grandma. "It's just buzzing," Allison whispered, as if saying it aloud made it true.

She drifted to sleep, and the buzzing droned on.



"I shouldn't go." Mom clutched her suitcase handle and paced the living room. "You know what happened on Sunday—"

"She's been fine all week. If it gets to be too much, I'll call 9-1-1," Allison said. "Now go. If Shayna has to shut off her car to come get you, the neighbors might call 9-1-1 before you even leave."

Mom laughed, the sound abrupt and nervous. "Yeah. Riding tied up in the trunk might look suspicious."

"Go." Allison held open the door and pointed to the sidewalk.

Mom ducked her head like a chastised child, casting glances over her shoulder as she walked halfway along the path. "If you need me—"

"I'll call. Go!"

Allison bolted the door and stood there, shivering. It was going to be awful cold tonight. Through the peephole, she watched the car drive away. Mom was probably crying now, apologizing to Shayna, saying she shouldn't go. Shayna would keep driving.

"Well, Grandma, this is our big night," said Allison. Grandma sat on the couch with a slack jaw. Her dead eyes stared ahead at the television.

"That's right, it's TV time! We've already missed some twelve hours of the marathon. We're slacking." She powered on the television and squealed as she sat down beside Grandma. "Look at Charles Nelson Reilly in that snazzy red suit! Geez, I think I saw Brett Somer's dress on sale at the mall last week. And you said the '70s would never come back in fashion."

Grandma buzzed softly. Allison leaned against her knees and giggled as she watched. "Oh, gosh. I'm surprised that comment made it past the censors then. That was awfully double-edged, even for now." Rain drummed a soft rhythm above their heads. Another episode came on, then another.

"That was a cop-out answer. That could have been smarter or funnier." Allison shot a furtive glance at Grandma, in search of agreement.

"Charles Nelson Reilly! Best player ever! Remember when I showed you the song Weird Al made all about him? Wasn't it awesome?"

"That hair. Crazy. Did she stick her finger in a light socket or what?"

Buzzing answered. Only buzzing.

Two hours passed; three.

Grandma's laughter wasn't there. Grandma wasn't there.

Allison turned off the television. She stared at the black screen. Through the marred protective glass, she could see their reflections. Grandma's expression never changed.

Grandma was really gone.

The realization was quiet. Cold. Back when the diagnosis first came, Allison had tried to joke that the curse wasn't real until Grandma had wings. Now she understood. It wasn't about how Grandma looked, or even her shadow. It was about... Grandma.

She stood. In the blank screen, she saw Grandma stand as well. Grandma pivoted, hunch-backed, and dove at the taped-together lamp on the end table. It crashed to the carpet, and in a blink, the room was cast into darkness.

"Grandma?" No. This wasn't Grandma, not really. It wore her skin, but soon, it wouldn't even wear that. Mom had injected Grandma before she left--her regular dose with a little extra.

It wasn't enough to quell the rage.

There was a long, cockroach hiss and the shuffling of feet and Grandma was there, those hands scratching at Allison's neck.

She sidestepped. Grandma grunted, swinging towards her. Allison retreated towards the TV. Lamp shards skittered and crunched underfoot. Pain pierced the sole of her right foot, followed by the intense warmth of blood.

In scant grey light, Grandma advanced, her feet wide like a sumo wrestler. Her mouth gaped, glare reflecting from her teeth. Her gaze--empty. No hatred. No malice. Allison was just... a thing. A target. Prey?

Grandma was gone. Dead. She was dead. She wasn't in that body anymore.

Anger rippled through Allison and clogged her throat. Anger at the hippies and their curse, anger at Mom and her alcohol and her work, anger at doctors for doing nothing. Anger at Grandma.

"You were supposed to fight this!" Allison yelled. "You're supposed to still be in... there!"

Grandma launched herself forward. Allison slipped aside, her bloodied foot tacky on the carpet, and Grandma plowed into the liquor cabinet. It rattled, glass tinkling and liquid jostling.

Allison hated that cabinet. Hated it. She turned, throwing her shoulder into the cabinet. It rocked against the wall, unable to fall because of the straps securing it in place. She hugged it with both arms and yanked with all of her body weight. The cabinet pulled from the wall. Then Grandma was there, tackling her. Allison met the next wall with a grunt. The cabinet crashed into the carpet at Grandma's heels.

Mom could buy more alcohol. She undoubtedly would. But there was something amazing about hearing those bottles shatter. There was just enough light to see a gush of dark fluid seep through to the floor, as if the cabinet itself bled.

"You should have laughed during Match Game," Allison whispered. "You would have laughed."

How long would the curse drag on? How many months, years? How long would this thing wear Grandma's skin? How long until--that Asian cockroach emerged? The wings. The antennae. The shadow come to life. And Mom--how would Mom change? What facade would she wear?

Nausea punched her in the stomach. Suddenly it was all real. All too real. Grandma hissed, and Allison stepped back. Her bare feet kicked through more pieces of the lamp. Pain zinged all the way up her leg and caused her to gasp. If she made it across the room to the switch, Grandma would go for the light instead. That would distract her until...

Light. Outside, the light would be on down at the dock. A light that attracted clouds of bugs.

The awfulness of the thought froze her for a moment. Then the fumes of weeping liquor stung at her nostrils, and she knew what she would do.

She glanced at the door to the back patio. The story poured into her head: she would say she heard that old tom cat on the porch, that she opened her door to check. That Grandma attacked her. It was close to the truth. That they had fought throughout the room and then ended up back at the door. The door that lead to the stairs and the lake and the light and the cold, rainy night.

Allison staggered across the room and towards the door. Grandma's nails gouged at her neck. An earring ripped free from Allison's lobe. She worked the locks as Grandma's body dragged from her arm. The door swung free, iciness a wave over her skin.

Grandma hissed, grabbing Allison's neck with both hands, and shoved. Allison's head met the hardness of the doorjamb. Stars danced in the middle of the room as she fell to her knees. The loosened snaps of Grandma's gown clacked at Allison's head level.

"You're free," Allison whispered. "Go."

Then, the old woman was out the door, her bare feet smacking on wet cement. Allison forced her head to turn.

Rain fell in wavering sheets. Out on the nearby lake dock, a single yellow light stood as a sentinel. Grandma, hunched, was like a gray shadow in the blackness as she scurried away. The unsnapped gown trailed behind her like wings. Then she met the stairs. She tumbled, feet over head. Allison listened to the rasps of her own breaths. Grandma's head was visible again, barely. She still worked towards that brightness below, just like the Asian cockroach she was.

Allison could have screamed for help. She would have, if Grandma had been somewhere within that frail shell.

A slow ooze of blood coursed Allison's cheek. She lowered herself to the frigid linoleum before the door. The gallop of her heart was louder than the buzzing had ever been. She quivered as she heard a distant splash, and clenched her eyes shut. The light from the dock still burned through the blackness, and as the minutes passed and the chill sank in, the relentless rhythm of the rain soothed her like a lullaby.



© 2013 Beth Cato


Beth Cato is an active member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, with stories in Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories, and many other publications. She's originally from Hanford, California, but now resides in Buckeye, Arizona, with her husband and son. Despite how often her husband's co-workers beg, she will not quit writing to bake cookies all day long. Information regarding current projects can always be found at http://www.bethcato.com. Sometimes those projects do include cookies.



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