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Estimated reading time — 11 minutes

I frantically threw my shirt off my head, covering my bare chest and staring down at the fabric on the ground as my heart played a tune. I had felt the bugs inside the shirt as I was putting it on, but none emerged from its openings. My skin still crawled and adrenaline still darted through my veins and tickled my nerves. Bugs. Tiny bugs. They conquered my life. Crawled, slithered, and buzzed their way into every thought I had.

They were everywhere at every moment of the day. I’d take a sip from my drink: bugs shot up the straw and into my mouth. A bite from my food and they were pummeling down my throat and eating their way out through my intestines. I would shower: bugs emerged from the drain hole and swarmed my feet. They sprinkled out through the showerhead and made nests in my hair. I would sleep: disrupted bugs from my pillowcase tunneled into my ears and wiggled out my nose, mouth, and eyes.

A dreadful circumstance I found myself in, persistently tormented by imaginary insects. I knew they were imaginary, for every time I’d feel their tiny legs dance across my flesh, I’d slap or scratch my skin but the parasites always remained. It drove me mad at first, diseased in a frantic mania I’d spend hours picking and digging nails into my inflamed epidermis. I’d bleed and bleed beads of blood that the bugs would swim in.


I even tried drowning them, submerging myself into the boiling hot bathwater and soaking for half the day. But they swam, and as they swam they reproduced and laid their eggs, which hatched in the span of a few minutes. They flocked to my body, frantically kicking their insect legs until they’d reach me like an island and crawl up to catch their breaths. But they would never drown.

I learned to accept them. It was almost impossible to ignore the constant tingles and pricks on every surface of my body, but I managed, and over time, I noticed they wouldn’t bother me as much if I stayed calm and still. It became a game where I’d block out every itch and tickle until it became unbearable, and eventually, I was able to hold out longer than ever.

One particular night, I lay in bed in my dark room doing my best to block out the tickles on my skin as my mind wandered to sleep. That’s when I felt them, behind my eyelids. They wormed their way through the thin skin that separated my eyelids from my eyeballs. It forced my eyes open, what an uncomfortable feeling. They’re not real. I had to reassure myself to preserve my sanity.

But the movement persisted and as it did, my eyeballs twitched and tingled in discomfort. I rushed to my bathroom mirror, planting my feet on the frigid, tiled floor and toying at my eyelids. I pulled them outward and raised my chin up to look underneath. Cream-colored maggots squirmed and inched across my bare eyeball, irritating the sclera and causing me to blink away tears.

Scratch them out. An impulsive thought rang in my head but I would not surrender. I knew better than to believe these parasites were real. Countless times I’ve asked strangers if they could see the vermin fragmenting all along my body, but their answers were always the same: “What are you talking about?” “ Are you okay?” “Do you need me to get you some help?” “Get away from me, freak.”

That night, I didn’t get a wink of sleep, and the morning after only ushered in more insects to accompany my drowsiness. The imaginary bugs decided to take shape as mosquitoes today and swarmed me up in a cloud of bites and buzzes. I felt their tiny stings which made me itch and itch until my skin was a flaming crimson. But there were no bumps, no visible marks that would prove their existence.


I couldn’t leave the house like this, it was the fourth day in a row and food was nearing a shortage but I couldn’t stop scratching. “Leave me alone!” I screamed and batted at the frenzy of mosquitoes but they were right back on my skin. Pinpricks of blood beaded up on my face and limbs and I knew I needed to try everything in my power to disregard their bites. I launched myself face-first onto my living room sofa and held my breath in hopes I’d pass out.

And then everything stopped: the buzzing, the biting, the itching. The only sensation I felt was the burning inflammation of my flesh where I had been scratching. I opened my eyes and whipped my head around in search of the mosquitoes, but they had vanished. In a fit of shakes, I raised myself up from the couch and stared down at the blood-stained cotton. Too many times I had curled up scratching on the tarnished thing, shedding my DNA onto the fabric and leaving it there to soak and soil.

But the bugs were gone for now which meant I only had the span of a few minutes before new insects would emerge to agonize me. I was still oozing red but I had no time to waste. I would pick up a few cups of instant noodles and a case of water, that’s it. I didn’t want to be out in public too long and risk causing a scene if the bugs should return.

My shoes and coat were on and I was out the door before I had time to let my conflicting thoughts settle. The grocery store was a two-block walk from my one-bedroom apartment and I anticipated making it a short walk. I speed-walked the whole way, not too fast so as to not draw attention to myself. The last thing I needed was for the police to be called for a complaint against my erratic behavior. It didn’t help that I was covered head-to-toe in fresh scratches either–they’d probably mistake me for some streetside tweaker.

I was welcomed by the supermarket’s ungodly bright fluorescent lights and still, the insects did not bother me. I remained a calm composure as I paced the colorful aisles stacked full of grocery items and focused on the ground, avoiding eye contact with fellow customers in fear that they’d take notice of my restless mania. I was distinctly aware of my appearance.

Dark bags underline my eyes and contrast against my pale, scarred skin, teeth chattering in anxious clops, a shield of tangled, greasy hair from weeks of neglect, and clothed in a filthy, oversized gray hoodie. Anyone passing me wouldn’t hesitate to think I was a homeless man. Hell, I felt like one.

I spotted the instant noodles and beelined for them, snatching a pack of them up in my arms and heading to the front of the store to collect a case of water. But then, I felt a tickle on my ankles. No. Please, not now. A steady glance down proved exactly what I imagined. A multitude of long legs darted about my ankles and spread up my calves. The worst of all the imaginary vermin that plundered my mind were the spiders. They were the hardest to ignore.

They reigned their terror across my body, skewering my flesh with agonizing fangs and injecting pretend poison into my veins. I felt every excruciating second of it but I couldn’t react, not now. I was rushing now, I didn’t care what the others were thinking and I pretended they weren’t watching in a stupor as I sprinted across the market.

By the time I arrived at the register with my supplies, the arachnids were sneaking up my pant leg and frolicking through my leg hair.

“Will that be all?” The teenage cashier with her wispy, blonde hair and braces gawked at me as I ran up in noticeable hysteria.

“Yes, yes, thank you. I’m in a rush, sorry.” I spoke back concisely as an indication for her to hurry it along. But her procession continued painfully slow as the spiders made their way to my thighs.

Back out on the street, I was scampering home as fast as I could. The spiders bounced with my steps until one finally had the courage to bite me. It set off a chain reaction as they all began puncturing my legs violently. I faintly heard them hiss as they ejected their venom. “Fuck!” I couldn’t help but cry out.

I pummeled through my front door with such force that the doorknob caved a dent into the wall. I didn’t care, nothing mattered except for the bugs. I just needed to calm myself down. Once again, my face was plunged into my sofa as I tried to keep still and control my breathing. In. They’ll stop soon. Out. Just a little longer. In. God, why won’t they stop? Out. It hurts.

Then there was another sensation, a buzzing from the inside of my ears. I felt something tunneling its way out, it vibrated aggressively in my canal. Zip. Something flew out. I jolted my head to the side as more and more vibrating plagued my head. Zip. Zip. Zip. One after another, hornets popped out from my ears and surged my head, landing on my face and in my hair. They gyrated their thin wings in a cacophony of whirring and droning.

Stay calm. Don’t let them bug you. Ha. “Bug,” get it? My stomach feels weird. It was churning like spoiled butter and I felt bile rising in my throat. No. I’ll startle them. I tried and tried to hold back the vomit but it was aggressive, stronger than me. It reached my lips and spewed out before I had time to react, but it wasn’t the remains in my stomach–that’s right, I haven’t eaten. There couldn’t possibly be anything in my stomach. So what was ejecting from my mouth? Beetles.

In an assortment of colors and sizes: scarabs, stags, and longhorns all gushed from my body like an unclogged pipe. I had no control over my body after that. Moths flew from my nostrils, worms wiggled out of my eye sockets, red ants emerged from my rear end, and cicadas entangled themselves in my hair.


The tiny assailants ambushed me all at once: the spiders bit, the hornets stung, the red ants lit a fire underneath me, the cicadas and moths clung on and antagonized me, the worms left slimy entrails down my cheeks, and everything went black at once.

Pale blue fluorescent lights, clean, white sheets, and a loud, periodical beeping. The last thing I remembered was the insects crawling in and out of my orifices, now I was in a hospital bed. What happened? There were tubes pumping clear liquid into my veins and an oxygen tube up my nostrils. The first thing I noticed in the hospital was that there were no bugs. No tickling, no tingling, no buzzing, no biting.

I repeated a silent prayer in my head as I felt the sensation of my skin burning and my head aching in a way I’d never felt it ache before. I struggled to piece things together but I must’ve blacked out and done something to myself. I heard the hurried tip-tapping of flats clopping across the linoleum floor, and sure enough, a young, petite nurse emerged in the doorway of my hospital room and immediately shot me a sympathetic smile.

“You’re awake. How are you feeling, hon?” She arrived by my side and began toying with my many tubes while actively avoiding eye contact. I oddly appreciated that she did.

“Fine. What happened?” I answered bluntly. I could’ve told her I was having the worst headache of my entire life and my skin felt like someone peeled it off raw, but I needed to know what happened to me first. She let out a prolonged sigh and put her hands on her hips while she stared at the IV in my arm.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened sweetheart? Neighbors reported that you were rolling around in the road last night screaming to ‘get the things off you.’” Finally, she met my gaze and raised a questioning eyebrow. I didn’t know how to answer her. I couldn’t just tell her I blacked out and entered a state of psychosis thinking there were bugs all over me. So instead, I said:

“Must’ve been sleepwalking,” I let out a quiet chuckle but quickly realized it only made me look more like a liar. Her mouth turned into a thin line as she gave me an “Oh really?” look.

“Could I please get something for my head? It hurts like Hell.” I changed the subject so she wouldn’t question me any longer.

“I’ve already got you on 5 milligrams of Morphine. Let’s wait to see what the doctor says.” She flicked my IV tube and exited the room. Her departure was immediately followed by the doctor’s arrival. A middle-aged, handsome man with round glasses greeted me with a loud, “Hello!” My head pounded at his words and I wanted to shout at him, but it wouldn’t help my case considering I was found rolling around in the street.

Before he had a chance to ask me how I was feeling, I started up with my relentless pleas for pain medication, pointing at my head and squeezing my eyes shut to prove my point. He gave me the same look as the nurse, doubtful and concerned.

“I suppose we could give you a CT scan and make sure you didn’t hit your head.” Though it wouldn’t relieve the pain, I was grateful for the offer. I was eventually given something to help me relax, but nothing too sedating and it didn’t stop the pounding in my brain.

Inside the CT machine, I closed my eyes and shut my brain off, almost dozing off. Here they come. The tickles. This can’t be happening. The CT machine warbled with its loud swooshing noises and beeps. And faintly, I heard a slight clicking. I couldn’t move my body or head in the claustrophobic space, but I felt the tickles on my chest.


Then, something buzzed loudly and knocked against the walls of the machine. I spotted it in the corner of my eye, a wasp. It saw me and beelined for my forehead, landing and twitching its butt up and down in between my eyes. Then, sting. I shot up and slammed my head against the ceiling of the machine. “Get me out!” I shouted at the doctors who stood behind a glass wall in another room. The machine began ejecting me but there were more wasps waiting for me on the outside. They were stinging me in a matter of seconds.

I hopped off the bed of the machine and threw myself from corner to corner in the room, I couldn’t see anything over the yellow and black horde circling my head. Hospital staff rushed in and subdued me before I could start scratching myself again. I felt a prick in the back of my thigh and assumed it was another sting from the wasps, but when I felt lightheaded and weak in the knees, I knew they had sedated me.

The doctor’s voice had awoken me this time. He was in a deep discussion with one of the nurses and talking hysterically. His once friendly, buoyant demeanor was now replaced with a hectic, paranoid composure. He spoke quickly but stopped as soon as he saw my eyes flutter open.

“Mr. Muata, I know you must be exhausted, I don’t blame you.” I took notice of the pitiful look on his face like I was some man slumped over on the street. “We have unfortunate news regarding your CT results. If I may ask, have you been experiencing hallucinations? Specifically insects?” I don’t know how he figured it out so quickly. I must’ve slipped up and said something in my psychosis. Anyway, it was time to come clean.

“Yes, for the past year now, I’ve been seeing them all over my body but I can never kill them. They sting and bite me. That’s why I scratch off my skin. It hurts, doctor.” I already knew what he was going to say. He’d tell me I was suffering from schizophrenia or delusional psychosis or some other strange mental disorder.

But instead, he surprised me by saying, “I thought you’d say that. You see.” He flipped around a file in his hands and revealed to me an X-ray scan of my brain. It looked like any normal human brain except for the little dots that littered the entire organ.

“Those little dots–I’m appalled to even say this–are bugs. We’ve never seen anything like this before. We believe you’re suffering from a new, rare parasitic disease in which these little organisms tunnel through your brain’s cells and cause hallucinations. But they aren’t regular hallucinations considering you can feel them. We want to conduct a few follow-up tests to make sure the disease isn’t contagious– or worse–could be fatal.”

This can’t be real. Brain bugs? Yes, I felt them now, tickling and biting my brain causing it to throb and pulsate in pain. “How do we get them out?” I asked him, praying for a positive answer. “That’s the thing, we won’t fully be able to. These critters are so deep in your membrane that removing them would put you at risk of permanent brain damage. We’re so sorry.” The doctor’s voice cracked and I almost thought he’d burst into tears. He sounded as upset as I should be. “But just remember, the bugs you see are not real, Mr. Muata.” He gulped and his jaw quivered as he spoke.

But now I had an explanation, a reason for my delusions. Sure, I might be dying but at least I’m not crazy. I felt the little legs but I wasn’t frightened this time, I welcomed their presence. The tingles were on every inch of my skin, they swallowed me up in a black horde. Ants. They wouldn’t hurt me, they were here to comfort me under my condition. My brain soothed for a second and I knew the guys up there were allowing me a few moments of peace. I was grateful.

I was still staring at the doctor when I noticed where he was looking. He was eyeing me up and down with a wild look in his eyes. I don’t blame him, I was patient zero of this new, dreadful phenomenon. I told him he could go and let the ants cover me like a blanket as I closed my eyes. They didn’t try to crawl into my openings, instead, they just rested on my skin and slept with me. Maybe, I would finally find peace.

As the doctor made his exit, he was panting like a dog and sweating bullets. What could this disease mean for the rest of the world? Certainly, the man inside the hospital room was going to die, no doubt about it. What man could possibly survive having living insects in his cranium? The doctor was hyperventilating now, he was mortified. He couldn’t tell anyone. The man covered in ants lying still in the hospital bed…he saw them too.

Credit: Mia Gridley

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