TINDER was a lost cause. He had over two hundred matches and none of them wanted to meet. The most recent, Dana, 22, less than a mile away, shot him down so hard Paul had to put his phone down and reconsider his life.
Sorry… you don’t look tall in ur pics, Dana, 22, less than a mile away said.
I’m 5’7, Paul replied.
Must be 6’4 to ride, Dana, 22, less than a mile away said.
Paul rolled over onto his side, careful to keep his feet off the bed so his freshly polished brogue shoes wouldn’t get dirt on his comforter. It was 10:24 PM.
What happened? I used to get new ass all the time, Paul thought. I might not be the tallest or richest guy in San Francisco, but so what? Tell a girl here you’re co-founder of a science fiction-themed indie rock record label, and their pants practically grow tentacles and climb off on their own.
Everyone has dry spells. I just need to get out of the studio more, and back in the game.
He was walking out the door of his building to go to the bars solo when his phone buzzed in his pocket. It was a new match: a cute brunette with wide eyes and a seashell smile named Linda, 24, less than a mile away.
You look like trouble, Linda, 24, less than a mile away said.
LOL that’s my line, Paul replied.
That’s my usual opener.
Figures, Linda said.
So, gorgeous, are you just on this for an ego boost, or can we grab a drink tonight?
Linda took a whole ten minutes to respond. While he was waiting, Paul looked at his own pictures. He liked the one where he was drinking beer on the beach in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand the best. In the picture, he was tan and sporting an eight-week beard. His chin looked great. Paul thought it was his best physical feature, like a young William Shatner in the first season of Star Trek. His dad had a great chin, too.
Paul was about to un-match Linda when her message bubble appeared. I’m with my friend. We’re at Costarella’s. Come meet up!
On my way, Paul replied.
Linda sent him a smiling poop emoji, and Paul knew he was in.
He hailed a Lyft and was at Costarella’s in exactly twelve minutes. It should’ve been eight, but there was deadlocked traffic a few blocks from the restaurant, a line of cars rubbernecking an ambulance where a pair of EMTs was loading a pale, gasping man onto a stretcher.
Paul caught a glimpse of the man just as they were closing the door. His eyes were parched and bloodshot. His pupils looked like tiny barbed raisins. He looked excruciatingly thin, like he was dried out. His pants were covered in vomit and something else Paul didn’t want to think about. There were dozens of tiny puncture wounds covering the man’s face and arms.
Junkies, Paul thought.
As if reading his mind, the Lyft driver, an Indian man named Patel, said, “San Francisco… beautiful city, but it has a bad homeless problem. This is the third overdose I’ve seen tonight.”
Paul shook his head in disgust. “I know. I hate it. Why can’t they do that shit somewhere where people don’t have to see them?”
The Lyft driver shrugged.
It didn’t occur to Paul until later that night, that the man he’d seen being loaded into the ambulance was dying.
Costarella’s was a trendy seafood joint turned after-hours bar in the Marina. Paul didn’t see Linda and her friend when he walked in, so he pulled up a seat at the bar and ordered himself a double Jack Daniels on the rocks. It was eighteen dollars. Paul promised himself he’d take it easy tonight. That was when he saw the chubby brunette girl sitting alone at a table in the back corner of the bar.
She had wide eyes and a seashell smile, a deep tan like she’d just gotten back from vacation. It was Linda, alright, but she was twenty pounds heavier than in her pictures. Paul felt his heart drop and thought, Great, another catfish. Oh, well. She’s kind of pretty. I guess I could be into it.
Paul approached her and said, “Linda?”
She half-stood and smoothed her skirt awkwardly with one hand while extending the other for Paul to shake. “Omigod, Paul. Hi.”
“Hey, Linda. So formal. What are you drinking?”
“Oh, omigod, I’m not. This is water,” Linda said.
“And… this is a bar.”
“I was waiting for you. Sit down!” She patted the chair. “I’ll get us a round.”
He hesitantly took a seat, deciding whether or not he was going to pull a runner on her. She’s chubby, and has really hairy arms, but I’ve settled for worse, especially off of Tinder. At least, she has a cute smile. But she’s so bloated. Did she eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s before meeting up with me?
Still, it had been a three-month-long dry spell. Paul decided to stay.
A moment later, Linda returned with two glasses of whiskey. She handed one to Paul.
“So, where’s your friend?” Paul said.
“She went home.”
Linda sat down. “So, what do you think? Do I look like my pictures?”
“Sure,” Paul said.
Linda flashed him her seashell grin. “You’re a lot hotter in person. I really like your chin.”
Paul stroked his beard dramatically. “So. This fine patch of German-Irish face forest is the reason you matched me, huh?”
“I’m a sucker for beards.”
“It wasn’t my big muscles or my towering height?” Paul said, immediately regretting it. I sure hope she takes that as a joke. He pretended to flex his right bicep just to drive home that he was kidding.
Linda smirked. “Uh, no. I’ve met a lot of tall, buff guys on Tinder. I wanted to meet a guy with a nice chin. And you have one, so…”
Paul grinned. “So.”
Linda winked. “So, Paul, what do you do?”
“I’m co-founder of a science fiction and fantasy-themed indie rock label.”
“Oh, how cool! I love science fiction.”
“I’m recording an EP for a band called The Body Snatchers, actually.”
“Far out! That totally sounds like my jam.”
“I work in molecular biology.”
“Doing what, exactly?”
“Uh, mostly gene blotting, but not really the traditional kind. It’s complicated, and honestly, it would bore you.”
“You’re talking to a guy who has the RNA tree of life tattooed on his back.”
“I do. Check it out.” Paul stood, turned around, and pulled up his shirt, revealing the faded black ink. Linda oooh’d.
“How about you? You have any tattoos?” Paul asked, sitting down.
Blushing slightly, Linda turned over her wrist, where the words Gene Catcher were written in blue ink.
“Gene Catcher? That’s a little weird,” Paul said, running his fingers over the ink.
Linda rolled her eyes. “It’s an inside joke. My parents were weird. Whenever my mother tried to talk to me about sex, she’d couch it in these huge, life-or-death terms, like, Remember, sweetie, whoever you sleep with will be giving your children a whole chromosome, better make it good. For the way she talked about it, you’d think my mom was trying to breed the fucking chosen one or something–Paul Atredes, since you like science fiction. But it isn’t that big of a deal. Sex is fun.”
Paul snapped his fingers, smiling. “Dune. I got that reference.”
Linda stared into the bottom of her empty glass. “Anyway.”
An hour and six rounds later, Paul was drunk. They were sitting closer together now, her knees in between his. Linda was talking about how she ran away from home at sixteen and hadn’t seen or heard from her parents since. But Paul wasn’t listening.
She’s so cute. And she’s staring at me like she wants me. If I don’t kiss her soon, I’m gonna blow it. I can’t believe I thought she was fat earlier. That body is a ten.
Paul cupped Linda’s face in his hands. Linda stroked his chin, closed her eyes and said, “Kiss me.”
Paul kissed her. Her tongue flickered inside his mouth and he felt something sting the tip of his nose. Paul opened his eyes. Hers were still closed.
Did she just bite my nose? How could she bite my nose with her tongue in my mouth?
Paul suddenly felt hot. Queasy.
Linda looked skinnier than she had a second ago. When they’d met up, she had a beer belly and a double chin, hadn’t she? That was only an hour ago. The tan girl sitting in front of him was petite and thin, just like her profile pictures showed.
Paul felt another gas bubble rise in his belly. He rubbed his nose. It hurt. But he was drunk and horny, and she was stroking his hand.
His stomach rumbled louder. Paul sat back and clutched his abdomen with both hands.
“Hey, are you alright?” Linda said.
“Just (hic) drunk,” Paul said with a burp.
A sudden, sharp pain cut through his stomach like he was giving Cesarean birth to a xenomorph.
“Hey. Seriously. You look pale,” Linda said. Her hands were on his forehead. The black coils of hair on her arms seemed to rise, reaching for his eyes.
Food poisoning. Shit. What the hell did I eat?
Paul brushed her hands away. “I’m fine. Come here.” He kissed her even deeper than before.
In five minutes, the stomach pain had advanced to full-blown nausea. Paul stopped thinking about the dull ache that nipped the tip of his nose or the strange, wire brush texture of her hair. Paul’s only thought was getting through the next hour without diarrhea.
But she’s so hot. This girl could be a model. She’s way out of my league.
He lost his train of thought when he noticed Linda nuzzling his neck. “I’m pretty drunk, too,” she said, pulling back. Her eyes were balmy and bloodshot. “You wanna go back to my place? I know a funny YouTube video you’ll like…”
Hey! That’s my line.
A wave of nausea hit Paul, crashing down from the dryness of his mouth to the shaking depths of his bowels. No. Not here. Not yet.
“I’m down,” Paul said. “Let’s go.”
A block away, her hand slipped down the front of his pants. “I want you,” Linda said in his ear. “I don’t want to wait, Mr. Hot Shot Sci-Fi Rock Star. Why don’t you engineer somewhere for us to fuck?”
I need to lie down. I need a shower. No. I haven’t had sex in months. I need to do it.
“Wait until we get home,” Paul said.
“No. When I want something, I get it,” Linda said. She pulled him by the hand towards an old Victorian house with a huge wrap-around porch nearby. All the lights were off.
Pain separated his thoughts into staccato bullets.
“We’re in public.”
“So? Never stopped me before.”
Halfway across the front yard, his legs wilted under him. Just need… to lie down…
“Alright. But we need to be fast,” Paul said. He climbed the stairs to the porch, lay down and unbuttoned his jeans.
Linda seemed oblivious to his distress. She was too busy unbuttoning his shirt, stroking his face, kissing him. The dull ache he’d felt on the tip of his nose spread to his eyes and arms. He was too weak to do anything but lie still.
When he opened his eyes, their eyelids were attached.
Paul felt Linda get on top of him. Something ticklish and wet wrapped around his scalp. He felt a sudden, violent stinging all over his skin, like alcohol poured over a scratched-open wound. With great effort, he managed to push her off him and break free.
Linda’s eyelashes had grown long enough to entangle his entire face. They protruded from her eyes in long, black filigrees as thin and supple as the hair on her head, swaying like little antennae as they searched for him.
Paul screamed and rolled backward down the stairs. The little clasps of her eyelashes snapped and went with him. They wriggled and curled on the driveway next to him, still searching for a grip.
“The fuck…?” Paul said, stumbling to his feet. His fingertips grazed the blood seeping out through the dozens of tiny cheesecloth holes puncturing his skin.
In the darkness of the porch, Linda giggled.
He scrambled to pull up his pants.
“I’m sorry,” someone on the porch said. “You’re so nice. It’s just… when I want something, I get it.” The voice wasn’t Linda’s.
He didn’t look back until he was three blocks away. The street was empty, a rolling sine curve of quaint San Francisco houses and bars falling away to a sea of diamond lights sparkling over the Bay like stars. He knew she was chasing him. She hadn’t been able to quite get everything she wanted – she’d taken some, but there was hunger in the voice that had called down to him from the porch.
What’s happening to me? He thought. I’m going to die. Oh, God. I’m going to die. What did she do to me?
Paul searched his body for wounds. He had dozens of tiny pinpricks on his eyelids, the tip of his nose, and his forearms. There wasn’t much blood, but his clothes were ruined.
She took something from me. What? I’m bleeding a little. I’ve still got my wallet. I’ve still got my…
Somewhere up the street, he heard her giggle. As with the voice on the porch, it wasn’t entirely female. There was more bass, more gravel, like ten voices recorded on separate audio tracks and played back simultaneously.
Paul ran. He crashed through the door of the nearest business. It was a Chinese restaurant. Tables of gasping people dropped their soup dumplings to cover their mouths with their hands. He pushed his way into the kitchen, bowling over a waiter carrying a steaming plate of General’s Chicken. A fry cook cursed loudly at him in Chinese.
She’s going to come back for me. She’s going to find me. This is really happening.
He lurched for the kitchen’s back door. Two wild-eyed Chinese chefs blocked his path. One was wielding a cast iron frying pan. Paul found what he was looking for and snatched the biggest butcher knife he could see off the magnetic hanging rack.
They think I’m crazy, Paul realized.
The chef slashed at him with the frying pan, hitting Paul in the arm. Paul gasped, but didn’t drop the knife. He circled crab-wise until his back was to the door, then tripped and stumbled backward into an alleyway, where he expelled everything in his bowels from both ends all until there was nothing more to expel.
Sirens bellowed on the adjacent streets. He tried to stand and run, but his legs felt disconnected from his body, the misfiring signals in his brain trying to control a multitude of scattered pieces. Everything burned. The strength drained from his body with every stumbling step.
A girl in a blue dress walking towards him on the street saw him and lurched backward in disgust.
Paul grabbed her desperately. “Please, help me. Help me.”
The girl kicked him and ran the opposite direction, stopping halfway down the block to yell, “Go die under a bridge, ya stupid bum!”
Paul couldn’t feel his limbs anymore. His shoulder and guts were distant satellites, the pain growing number with every second.
I’m going to lose consciousness soon. And I don’t think I’m going to wake up.
Paul got up and stumbled aimlessly toward anything, anywhere that could save him, past families, businessmen, bachelorette parties all whispering and covering their noses when they caught his foul waft. A group of frat boys on a bar crawl threw a beer bottle at Paul’s head.
He didn’t recognize the person gazing mad-eyed back at him in the glass of the shop window where he stopped to hold himself upright. His reflection looked haggard and deranged. Jesus. I look just like that guy they were putting in the ambulance. Same hair. Same poked-up skin. Jesus, it’s hot. This fever I’ve got must be a hundred and five.
The word “death” lingered in every errant, feverish thought, despite his conscious effort not to think it. The sweltering heat of his body only drove it deeper into his mind. I’ll never get the label off the ground. I’ll never get big arms in the gym. I’ll never get-
Paul leaned against the shop window and vomited blood, bright red streaks showering down the glass. It reminded him of a science fiction movie he’d seen once, where the victims of a zombie virus vomited blood during the first stages of infection. The blood in that movie had looked as fake as the zombies’ latex flesh. Paul’s blood looked wrong, too; it was thin, and runny, like dried egg whites; only, he hadn’t been infected. Linda – or whoever she was – hadn’t given him anything, but rather taken something away. Like she’d done it to the man who Paul had seen die.
It had to be her. He looked exactly like the dying junkie, right down to the bodily fluids covering his pants. It’s what she does. She takes what she takes, and we die, like in that one movie, Species. But that was about an alien who was trying to destroy the human race by breeding us out of existence. No, this Linda – or whatever her real name is – is more like a Body Snatcher, except she isn’t trying to infiltrate us. She does this for fun.
I still have time to stop her.
Two blocks up and around the corner, Paul saw the man sitting in the window of a Starbucks.
Paul recognized him instantly. He was tall and handsome, with big, muscular arms, a good tan, and a seashell smile. He was bloated, like he’d just eaten an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s. He was using the free Wi-Fi to swipe Tinder profiles on his iPhone. And he had Paul’s chin.
Paul hid the knife as best he could against the side of his leg and slid nonchalantly into the coffee shop. He approached the man, lifted the knife, and stabbed him in the shoulder. He meant to stab him through the heart, but weak as he was, Paul had to sort of slump over into the man with the blade outstretched.
The man with Paul’s chin saw the attack coming and slid easily to the side. He looked down at the knife, then back up at Paul. His eyes narrowed and he set his iPhone gently down on the table. His grip closed around Paul’s wrist. It felt like a thousand-ton vice, burning hot and inhuman.
Slowly, the man with Paul’s chin pulled the knife out of his shoulder. As soon as the blade left skin, the flesh knitted and the wound closed. In an instant, there was nothing but a minuscule dribble of blood to show it was ever there.
Paul recognized the man’s voice when he spoke. It was like Linda’s, only deeper, broader, the kind of voice a starship captain would have, or the singer of a band.
“You surprise me,” the man who had Paul’s chin said. “You of all people should know my flesh is fast-knitting. That was the first one I ever got. I have all the variants, too. Y’know how many thousands of years that took? Lemme put it this way, Paul: there’s a reason I’m the only one around who still has it.”
Paul stared at his hand where it was locked in the man’s grip, the skin quickly turning from white to oily purple. He was too hot and sick to do anything. All around him, people were screaming. The man with his chin didn’t seem bothered. He let go of Paul’s hand. The knife clattered to the floor, and so did Paul.
“Y-y-you t-took m-m-my ch-chin,” Paul said.
The Man With Paul’s Chin casually picked up his phone, returning to the message he’d been typing to Janice, 24, two miles away, which said: You look like trouble.
Someone was sitting on Paul’s back. A different man, an onlooker. He couldn’t move if he wanted to. Locking both of Paul’s wrists behind his back in a bouncer hold, the onlooker asked the Man With Paul’s Chin, “Hey pal, you alright? Looks like this asshole cut you. There’s blood on your shirt.”
“Just fine, thanks. Lots of crazy junkies in this city,” the Man With Paul’s Chin said.
“Well, the cops will be here any minute.” The onlooker nudged Paul in the ribs with his knee. “You hear that? Have fun trying to get high in the joint, you sick bastard.”
The Man With Paul’s Chin gave the onlooker a seashell smile. “Honestly, I think what he needs is an ambulance.”
You stole my chin, Paul thought as the coffee shop ceiling faded to black.
A small crowd gathered outside to watch as the paramedics loaded Paul’s body onto a stretcher under flashing blue lights.
“Another one,” one of the paramedics sighed.
“You still don’t think it could be ricin?” the other said.
“Y’know, I thought about your little theory, while we were loading that D.O.A. a few hours ago, and you know what conclusion I came to?” Paramedic A said.
“You need to cut your TV time to one hour a night.”
Paramedic B zipped the body bag closed. Beneath it, Paul’s face looked like a pale, dried-out sponge.
The paramedic wagged his finger. “Then how do you explain those other cases in China? Russia? Johannesburg? Mexico City? All the D.N.A. in their bodies, simultaneously destroyed. Gone. Poof. Like it was never there. Dead in a matter of hours.”
“That’s just bullshit you read on the Internet. Wait until the autopsies come back. It’s dope. Something we haven’t seen before. Ricin? Sure. And this is Walter Fuckin’ White.”
“Nah. I’m tellin ya, it’s a cult, and they use ricin to poison their victims. It’s the only logical explanation. Unless it’s aliens….”
Paramedic A grunted, and nodded for the other to help him lift Paul’s stiffening corpse into the ambulance.
Somewhere else in the city, Janice, 24, two miles away, waited outside her apartment building for her Lyft to arrive. She hoped the new guy she was meeting up with for drinks liked her shoes. Costarella’s was a nice place, so she’d worn her best Jimmy Choos, the black strappy ones with the rhinestones that showed off her calves.
She stuck her feet out and pointed her toes to admire them. Her calves were smooth and strong from twenty-one years of competitive dancing. Her mother was a dancer, too. Janice thought they were her best feature.
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