Naegleria Fowleri infects people when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose. This typically happens when people go swimming, diving, or when they put their heads under fresh water, like in lakes and rivers. The amoeba then travels up the nose to the brain, where it destroys the brain tissue and causes a devastating infection called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, which is almost always fatal. — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022
◊ ◊ ◊
Larvae twitched in the plunge basin, their translucent bodies clinging to the water’s wonky skin of reflected jungle and sky. The city, a two-hour drive away, was at least forty degrees Celsius. The mountain falls were considerably cooler. Troops of Formosan macaques gossiped above the swimmers. Blue magpies wielded garnet beaks and dove viciously after winged bugs too small to see.
Gary had heard rumours of a drowning in this spot from a local buddy. If it was in the papers, Gary didn’t read them. He couldn’t. Some of the foreign teachers at his school had learned enough Mandarin to buy bubble tea and dumplings, but language was not his muscle. It was hard enough for him to keep his English prepositions and pronouns straight, let alone Mandarin. A year out of film school, he’d never planned to teach, but when a friend in his graduating class began posting tropical videos from lush Taiwan, Gary messaged him to learn that all he needed to get hired was a university degree. Gary’s affable tone over videoconference charmed the recruiter, who was used to seeing nerves crack up applicants. Gary quit his overnight job at the alarm-monitoring station just outside of Toronto and counted down the weeks till he’d never have to bus home in the morning sun from work again. With enough savings in his account to ward off catastrophe, he planned to be free of chronic exhaustion in this country where, his friend had promised, modest achievements would be sufficient for him, as a foreigner in a land that welcomed foreigners. In his enthusiasm, Gary had downloaded a dictionary app and learned the basics: ní haǒ and wǒ yǎo. Hello. I want.
Gary watched his American companion, Vincent, haul his body out of the water. A cool aura around the rise of Vincent’s shoulders vibrated with negative ions created by the crushing water at the falls’ base. Gary reached for his DSLR and snapped a candid. Vincent struck a pose, too late, but Gary took another one and Vincent picked his way over to his side, cheek pressed into the crook of Gary’s neck as they admired the photo. The other swimmers paid them no mind. Gay marriage had been legalized in Taiwan a month before and the men had nothing to fear. Even the risk of drowning couldn’t find a foothold in Gary’s normally anxious mind. The high sun mottled the pool. Vincent took it upon himself to climb the slippery rocks up to the ledge and hurl his body off the top. He whooped and disappeared with a big splash, then resurfaced, spewing a plume of water into the buttery air. Gary went next, his wet swim shorts sticking to his thighs.
As the pull of the rock pool seethed around him, he kicked and found only water below. Sunlight reached down into the speckled murk where the larvae danced. Gary surfaced with a gasp.
They air-dried on their scooters, tank tops snapping in the wind. Vincent took the lead. Storm clouds trundled behind them, nipping at Gary’s ears and bare calves with wet teeth. Pineapple fields and abandoned gas stations grew in stature then fell behind as the young men sped past the occasional transport truck.
◊ ◊ ◊
The morning after the falls, first thing, Gary ran down to 7-11 for coffee. The snake’s twisty corpse was still draped across his doormat, maroon tongue laughing, scales brittle in death. It may have been on its way to a nighttime snack when it died—Gary lived alone behind the fish market—and he’d avoided disposing of its body all last week. What had killed it, a stray dog? Parasites?
Gary’s apartment consisted of four tiny floors: a kitchen/living room on the first floor, bathroom and laundry on the second, bedroom on the third, and an open-air patio on the fourth you had to climb a ladder to get to.
The buxiban school that’d hired Gary wasn’t the right fit and they’d canned him. Talking around, he surmised the schools were all the same—strict guidelines about what to teach and how to teach. It wasn’t the what that bothered him, but the how. The curriculum moved at such a panicked pace there was no way, in Gary’s opinion, to sink any of it into his students’ brains. He wanted to make an impact. He’d spent nights obsessing about all the ways he was failing the students by complying with the school’s rote demands. Now he had no impact, and he wasn’t even making money. He’d had to apply for a provisional six-month visa. As he sipped his coffee at the kitchen table, he clicked through the English-language forums looking for film work, or a job at the arts pier, but you had to be bilingual. He closed his laptop and climbed the two flights of stairs to his unmade bed.
On his pillow, the trail of something had wended its way, glistening and pearlescent, across the cotton, like snot on a forearm. He registered disgust in some faraway region of his brain but felt muffled against it, as though the discharge marking his pillow was an entirely natural occurrence. He grabbed the pillowcase by the corners, shook the pillow out, threw the linen into the machine, waited for the water to rise and poured in enough bleach to eat holes through the sheets.
He hung his things to dry on the patio. When the stain didn’t wash out—becoming hard and flat like dried glitter glue instead—he grabbed his scooter helmet and headed to IKEA.
◊ ◊ ◊
On the afternoons when Vincent and Gary didn’t go on excursions, they played ten-pin bowling. Vincent’s pins clattered while Gary rubbed a flecked fourteen-pounder and watched him spin and cheer. A girl in the next lane bent into her swing and her short striped skirt swirled around her tanned legs. Gary hadn’t been with a girl since Canada, but he still liked to look. He caught a glimpse of the crease under her butt.
“How’d your job interview go at that kindie?” Vincent asked.
“I didn’t go.” Kindie teaching meant early mornings and three-year-olds and inane nursery rhymes. Vincent had been keen to get Gary out teaching again, and Gary was grateful, but ultimately, he recognized the importance of staying true to himself and following only where passion might lead.
“Do you still want me to keep an eye out?”
“Nah, I’m good. I’m thinking I might take a few weeks to work on my film. Get some footage together.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The first night sleeping in his new sheets, Gary dreamt of a movie theatre, of giant dancing water striders whose feet formed divots in the glass surface of the big screen. A waiter brought him popcorn, panna cotta, beer, meat pie, and a whole baguette, cut into slices with a plate of oil and vinegar, right there on a plastic tray to his plush seat in the dark theatre. The dream of gluttonous abundance grew a fuzz of dread as he realized he was being fattened for a water-strider smorgasbord. Gary woke jerkily to a half-full can of beer on his bedstand. A careless mistake—the little cockroaches hadn’t yet travelled up the pipes from the kitchen, but it was only a matter of time if he kept doing this. He jogged downstairs, rinsed the can out and ran back up to get dressed. The sunlight splitting his curtains pinged opaline slime on his fresh white pillowcase. A sinuous shape had formed there. A word, star, lay over the indent of his head in purple pastel ooze. He touched the S, brought the ooze to his nose. It smelled like swimmer’s ear, vaguely clinical and gross.
Usually, Vincent shared the bed when he stayed over at Gary’s, but that night he’d come home late from the bar and fell asleep on the couch downstairs playing on Gary’s PS4. Gary had given him a key to the apartment only a few days after they’d first met on a boat cruise for EFL teachers. Gary lived close to the mountain, close to the nightclubs, so they usually ended up at his place. Vincent had roommates and Gary didn’t. When Gary woke up in the morning to the hours old Coming over text from Vincent, he tried to be quiet padding downstairs on the creaky staircase, but the espresso grinder woke Vincent, who reached for the T-shirt he’d tossed aside in the night and pulled it over his head with a yawn. Gary handed him a cinnamon-dusted latte in his favourite mug. (It was wide at the base with a phrenological design of a brain divided neatly into parts.) No sugar, Vincent was sweet enough. Vincent crinkled his eyes into a smile as a thank you.
“What’s that?” Vincent pointed his chin at the pillowcase laid out on the floor.
“Tell me you see it. You see it, right?”
They both looked at the pillow Gary had spread out onto the floor, its snaky stain glinting softly.
“Is this some arts and craft project?” Vincent walked away towards the fridge. “A film thing?”
“No. Look what it says.” Gary squatted down next to it and touched the now tacky substance.
This was the second stained pillowcase.
“I’ve been having weird dreams this week. One sec, there’s another one upstairs.”
The first pillowcase had been laundered and was folded in Gary’s closet. He ran to get it, taking the stairs two at a time. When he came back down, he spread the first pillowcase out next to the second one, where the word star was visible in pastel purple and moon white. The stain on the first pillowcase was indecipherable in yellow and silver.
“It’s coming out of my ear while I sleep.” Gary was sure of this now.
He’d seen the pastel goop glint on his earlobe while brushing his teeth that morning. And he could feel something changing in his brain, as though suddenly aware of more drives than had occupied him before. He’d been feeling less anxious, but more attuned to the softness of bed, the frothy bitterness of espresso, the pellucid canopy of his neighbours’ trees filtering the sun over his doorstep. It was like all the dark corners of his mind were leaking out into the light of day. He wondered if the gooey pillows were trying to tell him something.
“It says OK.” Vincent touched the straw-coloured stain, now flat and and dry. “Look, there’s the circle.” He outlined the raised letters of his lover’s dried, glittering stain. “And there’s the K.”
Gary noticed the flatness of Vincent’s nail beds, the wide fingers. Then from milk-healthy nail to strong tendon to sinewy bronzed forearm. He took in the quizzical attentiveness of Vincent’s knitted eyebrows.
Gary thought: How lucky—how lucky I am to have this person in my life. How good it is to be cherished and understood.
“I didn’t even see the word in that first one,” said Gary. “Wow. But yeah, I see it now.”
Vincent took out his phone, got directly above the OK pillowcase, straightened a wrinkle, snapped a pic. “The light’s better on the patio. You up for a little photoshoot?”
Vincent grabbed both pillowcases and put them over his forearm like a waiter presenting a bottle of champagne.
◊ ◊ ◊
In the right hands, with the right content, a name spreads through social media like a virus in a way we all know too well by now. Such was the case with Gary’s pillowcases. Vincent, a natural aesthete, was skilled in photography, composition, and captioning, and Gary continued to dream gelatinous words. Every day a new white pillowcase flapped on the clothesline. The local neighbours were starting to talk to him, testing out their English and pointing into the sky at the pillowcases lined up like a fleet of sailboats leaving the harbour. Vincent set up a new Instagram account for Gary: @oneirowords.
“What’s that mean?” asked Gary.
“Dream sailor,” said Vincent.
He set up a new website, too. The mini-tripod Vincent had ordered online arrived. He finally convinced Gary to produce a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the dream-word pillowcases. Together, quibbling over which thumbnails were the best, they posted videos of cautious ribbons worming out from the dark whorl of sleeping Gary’s inner ear, finding their way onto the pillow like piped buttercream finds itself on top of a cake. Worth. Tender. Value.
After several months of Vincent managing the accounts, he taught Gary to do it himself. It’s more authentic that way, Vincent had told him. It’s better to be direct, be yourself. The local film festival was coming up in a few weeks. Gary had no real film project to submit, nothing to peddle aside from his limited-edition pillowcases, and demand far exceeded supply anyway. He could only dream so much. But the indie film festival was a good opportunity to network.
◊ ◊ ◊
Vincent and Gary went to the festival together. Vincent’s summer was over, and he was busy with school, so they were seeing less of each other. It was mid-September and still very hot for dressing up fancy, but Gary wore corduroy pants with wingtip shoes and Vincent trimmed his beard.
A big screen blazed opposite the fiery sunset on the arts pier. Rows of attendees in metal chairs were flanked by a red carpet cordoned off by a red velvet rope. The boats in harbour rocked behind them. A short film of animated kitten-capitalists wearing mini top hats transforming into lynxes with pig snouts drew gasps from the audience. A black-and-white piece played: a woman whose mouth filled with static when she spoke. A heartwarming film showed an alcoholic teen reconnecting with his birth mother. Gary didn’t see anything as avant-garde as what he had to offer: his dreams come true, come sticky.
After the screenings, Gary and Vincent hung around to chat and have a few beers with the directors and festival goers. A young guy in a stiff black blazer, clothing way too formal for the stuffy September night, turned out to be the director of the black-and-white static short. Gary showed him @oneirowords, which had gained over a thousand followers. Modest, but not nothing.
“Have you started selling these yet?” the director asked.
“I’m waiting,” Gary said, shuffling his wingtips. He’d had a headache all week and wasn’t feeling up to receiving advice.
Vincent jumped in to help Gary out. “The words don’t come every day. Can’t price the thing right if you can’t predict supply.”
“Zopiclone. That’s what you need,” said the director.
“What’s that? An agency?” Vincent asked.
“Sleeping pills. Go to the psych clinic on Yucheng Lu. Say you have insomnia.”
Vincent clapped Gary on the back. “That’s it! You just need that proper REM sleep.”
Gary felt Vincent’s hand tuck lower in the back of his corduroys and reached behind his back to hold it. The coarse familiarity of that hand—what a balm to him. The ocean slapped the harbour and a breeze rolled in. The director handed Gary his business card. Gary had learned Taiwanese etiquette: take the time to look, consider it in detail.
◊ ◊ ◊
Gary first took the zopiclone a week later in the 7-11 across from his apartment, immediately after the appointment on Yucheng. The director was legit and knew a visual arts agent in Taipei.
“We’ll get you on that track,” he’d said. “Galleries, the whole thing. These pillowcases are gonna be hot shit.”
Gary was alone in the 7-11, paying his bills and grabbing a chamomile tea before bed. His plan was to hit dreamland as soon as he got home, so he popped the pill right there in the store. The medication labels were all in Chinese, but he’d looked the drug up online. Classified as a sedative-hypnotic, it was supposed to take twenty minutes to activate. It took less than three. His legs turned to mashed potatoes in the 7-11. He collapsed in front of the hot dog steamer.
He woke in his bed, the morning pouring in. On his warm pillowcase: disconnect. Three platinum syllables, curlicues and flourishes like a little girl’s writing. Complexity, precision. The pill shit worked.
◊ ◊ ◊
Gary’s first pillowcase sale put a hundred and fifty thousand NTs in his bank account, almost seven grand Canadian. The director’s agent contact had hooked it all up. That pillowcase wasn’t even one of the better ones. It was from his pre-med period: miss u, dull pastel, wobbly lines.
His rickety medicine cabinet, spots of rust at its hinges, was now stocked with prescription bottles, and he kept a fruit basket full of foil pill sleeves by his bed. He’d also taken to keeping a bowl of two or three purple passionfruits on his nightstand with a knife and spoon. They were filling and sweet, and he’d gotten hooked when they were in season. He was barely ever hungry anymore, and passionfruit was all he could eat that didn’t make him nauseous with the new sleep and anti-anxiety meds. At first, he’d served himself the yellow passionfruit guts over ice cream or cooked it in meat sauces, but now, fresh from a dream, he’d slice one open, crack it wide, and slurp it like pudding, tangy and sweet, kernels crackling in his mouth like roe.
Targeted ads began to catch his drift: eye masks, white noise machines, silk pyjamas.
◊ ◊ ◊
Christmas break arrived. Gary wasn’t going back home and neither was Vincent. Gary’s pillowcases had been selling well. He was ready for a break from the pharmaceuticals, but stopping was complicated. The air mattress blew up easy, and the two of them covered Gary’s bedroom floor with cushions and blankets. Vincent had gotten his hands on some MDMA and they planned to watch the stars dissolve from Gary’s fourth-floor patio where they’d hung multicoloured lights and tinsel for the holidays. The brown crystal drug crumbled like demerara sugar. Gary pressed a pellet of it into a piece of toilet paper, then twisted the top into a parachute and handed it to Vincent. Gary did the same for himself and they held them out, cheers-ed the little wraps (which looked like innocuous tiny paper fishes or bath bombs) and swallowed.
They went up to the patio. Vincent lay on his back with his arms behind his head and sang “O Holy Night.” He had a great voice, a resonant tenor with good vibrato. Gary lay beside him and looked up. Stars bobbed in the dark wave of night.
Vincent rolled onto his elbow, looking up at Gary cautiously. “Is it hitting you yet?” Vincent’s hair was getting long. It was a good length for him.
It was Gary’s first time trying MDMA too, but it wasn’t a first for him like it was for Vincent. Gary was getting the hang of experimentation thanks to all his new meds: the timing, the self-awareness that introduction of a drug requires. Some of them were slower-acting, like the paroxetine he’d gotten the travel-clinic doctor to prescribe for depression. His dreams had changed in tone: cinematic fight scenes, dramatic framing and Tarantino speed cuts. The more vivid the dreams, the trippier the colours. The sharper the gooey cursive. His legs had lost muscle and got tired on the stairs up and down his apartment. He’d started bringing enough food upstairs with him for a couple days at a time, though he wasn’t eating much anyway. He didn’t burn through many calories in sleep.
“Do you think it’s safe to take with that stuff your agent gave you?”
“It’s fine. I’m not going to take my work meds tonight anyway,” he lied. Gary scratched his nose, an effect of the opioids he’d started taking a couple weeks before. They seemed to make the ear goo smell better, gave the words a hint of anise. “It’s my vacation!”
Vincent didn’t return his smile. “Be safe, you know?” It was the first time he’d expressed anything but enthusiasm for the work.
Things were changing and Gary felt helpless; he wanted to preserve this part of his life, the easy comfort and companionship he’d found with Vincent. He nodded. His agent had been sending corticosteroids and beta blockers in the mail. The agent took twelve percent from sales, which was fair by industry standards. Gary’s newer pieces were selling for over ten grand Canadian and shipping internationally. Purpose, legacy, and towering sold as a triptych to a collector in Switzerland.
“I killed my exams, by the way.” Vincent said, not taking his eyes from the night sky, a strained hurt present in his voice.
It was the perfect weather for silk pyjamas. Gary could not remember asking Vincent about school. The breeze lifted the long fronds of the neighbour’s slim-limbed, towering tree, and they scratched against the sky, a sound like tinsel. Gary’s stomach rose and he remembered that day long ago at the falls, all those mosquito babies, Vincent smoking a cigarette with wet fingers on the edge of the mountain pool. “I’m sorry if I’ve been distant lately.”
“You have been distant. I get it, though. I’d probably be doing the same.” Vincent sat up. “Are you ever going to see a real doctor about this—tell them what’s actually happening? Your dreams and goo and shit? Like, I know it’s awesome but it’s not exactly normal. What happens in the long term?”
“I’m sorry.” Gary stretched his body next to Vincent’s, found his hand, ignored his question. “You had school, though, you’re busy too. If this is an issue for you, why didn’t you say anything before? Is it just the money that bothers you?”
A round of firecrackers shot off in the distance and it sounded strangely like duct tape being pulled from a wall—a ripping apart.
Vincent, in turn, ignored Gary’s question. “My parents are visiting from Iowa for Lunar New Year. Come to dinner with us. You really should meet them. They’d like you. They want to meet you.”
Gary said nothing and began to map Vincent’s warm contours with firm, kneading motions of his palms—the current, he was the current. Gary said yes, yes I’ll meet them. Then Vincent and Gary melted into one another the way sand submits to the ocean, the way dreams submit to wakefulness: reluctantly, absolutely.
◊ ◊ ◊
Gary’s agent called, right after he swallowed his evening cocktail of pills. Gary put him on speaker. Vincent had gotten Gary a pill organizer for Christmas as a truce. It was large as a textbook, a pastel rainbow like the words that issued out of him. He ingested a whole row every night and kept discovering more miracles within himself. The congealed words were full-on scratch-and-sniff now. The olfactory cortex codes memory with scent, and his recent pillowcase pieces were wonders in sensory recall: cut grass, the horror of toad guts in the blades; Vincent’s hair on Christmas night, the lemon-basil of his soap. The Christmas holiday had ended and Gary was back to work, which meant back to sleep. He warned his agent to make the call quick; once these bad boys kicked in, there was no guarantee he’d remember the conversation. He got out his notebook and pen, ready to take notes to guard against forgetfulness.
“There’s a retreat,” his agent said, “a sleep clinic in Taipei. I applied on your behalf for the grant and we got in.”
Gary pulled his body pillow tight, arranged his bed things around him. Water glass, pills, white-noise machine, diffuser, moon lamp, eye mask, tissues, cell-phone charger, a bowl of strawberries. Passionfruit was no longer available in the grocery stores.
“You in? We can get you producing three a day. They have crazy compounds up there too. It’s a great opportunity. I have buyers lined up.
“It’s four hours away.” Taipei was known for being fast-paced and cold compared to Kaohsiung, though Gary supposed he’d be spending his whole time inside anyway.
“You’ll have a personal chef, cleaning service. Netflix is interested in a one-episode doc as part of a spotlight series they’re doing. The trip’s only three weeks.”
Gary opened his calculator app to figure out what his profits would look like, but the numbers were too high and too complicated. That wasn’t a bad thing. “Alright. Let’s do it.”
Gary woke up disoriented, twenty-four hours after his last sleeping pill, to three texts from Vincent, each sent an hour apart.
Babe, where are you?
You said you were coming? My parents are excited to meet you.
If you do this now … I swear to god.
◊ ◊ ◊
The water striders could talk.
Guys, Gary said. They couldn’t hear him; their reedy voices drowned out his own. All they wanted to discuss were Fibonacci numbers, fortune-telling by fractal, and the mathematical origins of chaos.
Guys, this is important!
Their antennae shivered in his direction.
Our legs are useless on hard surfaces.
Their beady eyes stilled. One of them approached him; the dismembered body of a larval mosquito dripped from the jaws of her elegant mouthparts. Young man, she said, eyeing his choppy sea of dream blankets, who of us is interested in hard surfaces?
Gary’s fingers ached, his jaw was sore, and his joints were connecting painfully with the mattress. He turned his face into the pillowcase, barely able to think, a clanging, metallic headache ripping through his skull, and accidentally smeared the goo that had coiled there. It smelled like freshly shampooed scalp, herbal and zesty, and milky soap, and like the tang of lover’s sweat at the end of a languid day, tinged with the breezy rot of a passing garbage truck. He pushed himself up from the bed and read the word with difficulty—a mottled neon of vertical lines and insipid loops. Lonelier. He heard it in Vincent’s rumbling voice.
Margo LaPierre is a neuroqueer poet and literary editor. She is Arc Poetry’s newsletter editor and a member of the poetry collective VII. Find her work in The Ex-Puritan, CV2, Room, Arc, filling Station, CAROUSEL, PRISM international, and elsewhere. She won the 2021 Room Poetry Award and the 2020 subTerrain Fiction Award.