“Won’t you help me?”
The voice quavered. It was as desperate as the trembling hand that was raised, palm-up, towards Jacob.
“Of course I will,” he said softly, reaching down. The fingertips of the woman suddenly snatched themselves out of reach.
Kicking her one good leg against the ground, she shoved herself backwards. Her other leg dragged behind unnaturally. Fear kept her eyes wide as it lined her entire face. Someone had hurt her very badly.
“Hey … hey …” Jacob knelt in front of her, trying to be as nonthreatening as possible. If she kept trying to drag herself away like this, she was going to injure herself even more. “I’m not going to hurt you. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“Won’t …” her breath shuddered, her teeth rattled, and the rest of the words came out in a sob, “…you help me?”
Her arm, still outstretched towards him, shook violently. Jacob reached out and gently cupped his hands around hers. He felt the trembling fade away as her hand rested against his fingers. He watched the fear fade from her eyes, replaced by an apologetic bent to her brow and mouth; she still looked ready to burst into tears.
Jacob could hardly blame her. She had clearly been through something horrid. It was only natural that she would have fear and desperation at war in her. She had nothing to be sorry for.
“See?” Jacob gave her the softest smile he had to offer, “It’s okay. Now, I’m going to call 9-1—”
A convulsion shot through his hands into his chest. Pain erupted from its center. Everything beneath his ribs seized.
Slowly, it all began beating, breathing, pulsing again. But it was wrong. The rhythm was off. Like it was all floating. Like he was floating.
His knees unbent. His legs took steps. Behind him he could hear the woman’s quavering plea—Won’t you help me? Won’t you help me?—but he soon floated beyond that, as well. Places passed around him, maybe people did too, until he heard something snap in his leg. He stopped floating. He never felt himself hit the ground.
Awareness seeped back into the edges of Jacob’s vision. Strange shapes pushed through the fog to become familiar. Imposing heights became rooflines and street lamps. Circling beasts became windswept leaves. And finally, the shape hovering above him coalesced into a human with gentle, worried eyes.
“Hey man, you alright?”
Relief washed over Jacob. His leg was on fire, and the rest of him hurt from striking the ground. A friendly face was exactly what he needed. He was going to be okay. And he’d make sure the woman was, too. A grateful smile began to pull at the corner of his mouth.
Something pulsed from his heart toward his fingertips. Eager to be free. Eager to spread.
His hand, of its own volition, lifted towards the man in front of him, palm up.
Cold dread counted its way up Jacob’s spine.
He tried to snatch his hand back, but the effort only set the limb trembling.
He tried to call out a warning, but the words forming in his throat were wrong.
He tried to fight the words, but the effort only set them quavering.
“Won’t you help me?”
October 2018, Havok Magazine published the above story, my first paid gig as a fiction author! The process of writing “Won’t You Help Me” was, for me as a writer, an adventure in genre, specifically in the overlap of science fiction and horror.
Over the past ten years, I’ve been dragged into an appreciation of horror kicking and screaming, which is rather appropriate. There are certain subgenres that I simply will not engage with, but the horror creators I love tackle fascinating themes, and I’m a sucker for a good monster design. Those were the pillars that I would rely on as I began to craft this story.
To create the concept, I turned to Doctor Who. My introduction to this show were the episodes that leaned heavily into horror, like “Blink” and “Midnight.” What stuck with me about these episodes – and ones like “Deep Breath” – was that the threats relied on something simple but instinctual.
You’re safe, as long as you don’t blink or breathe. Something as mundane as someone repeating your words is now terrifying. That’s what I wanted for my theme: simple yet ever-present in people. Working through various traits, I settled on one of my favorites.
How can I make compassion horrifying?
There are many ways, of course. People take advantage of compassion everyday, and false kindness is used as manipulation likewise everyday. But there’s no way I could unpack either of those ideas in flash fiction with any sort of justice. I needed another force outside of people. I needed a monster.
The Leucochloridium paradoxum flatworm transfers from host to host, prey to predator, by changing the behavior of the prey host. L. paradoxum forces the prey to expose itself to draw in the predator. Once the prey is devoured, L. paradoxum settles into the body of its new predator host, continuing its life cycle.
While the behavior and purpose of the monster was fully formed in my head, I didn’t spell out the details in the text of “Won’t You Help Me.” A test reader’s feedback resulted in a second version in which I pieced together an explanation of what this monster was. At first I was disappointed, feeling like I failed in the first version at the classic “show don’t tell.” But the solution I came to – a scattered nature documentary-like commentary throughout the tale – grew on me quickly. Suddenly, I had two versions of the story that I loved very much and couldn’t decide which to submit. Once again, a test reader came to the rescue.
After reading both versions, they pointed out that the additional commentary was fascinating, but took away from the terror of the original version. That’s when I realized I had written one story for two different genres.
Now genre is a slippery thing; it’s more like a spectrum or a set of tools than a taxonomic classification. “Won’t You Help Me” – both versions – pulls from the toolkit of both horror and science fiction. It relies on the emotion of horror, but that horror is birthed from looking at science and asking “what if?”
Flatworm L. paradoxum’s cousin, L. misericordia, has a similar life cycle. By controlling its hosts’ behaviors, the flatworm spreads from one host to another in order to reproduce. However, L. misericordia cannot transfer from prey to predator as its chosen host has no natural predators. So L. misericordia has evolved another method to lure in new hosts.
Adding in the commentary put equal focus on the “what if?” It pulled the reader out of Jacob’s experience to explain the monster. Again, I still love how I did the explanation. I love my little monster, and I would love to hear Richard Attenborough calmly explain its life cycle. I think my second version is a solid science fiction story. But I wasn’t submitting a story for a science fiction issue of Havok. I was submitting a horror story.
The reader’s advisory textbook Genreflecting (7th Edition) defines horror as “quite simply… an emotion.” The editors compare it to the romance genre because the point of horror and romance is to elicit an emotional reaction. The commentary on the monster strengthened my story as science fiction, but it undercut the emotion. Jacob’s experience and emotions needed to be central. Confusion, relief, fear, and of course:
There is a reason scientists have named it L. misericordia, after the Latin word for “compassion.”