This is an excerpt from a collection of short stories titled Zunder Tales
If you like this story, please consider buying the collection in the link at the end of the story.
Tony remembered purchasing a sushi platter from the 7/11, but this was not uncommon in Southern California. By this I don’t mean it was common. Not uncommon is not synonymous with common, given that the majority of Americans do not eat sushi on a regular basis, and even less are ready to make their purchase of sushi at a 7/11, but clearly there was a market for it or it would not be offered. So, given these premises, it must be assumed that enough people are willing to eat convenience store sushi in order to justify it, but not enough that an entire industry of drive-through, fast-food sushi could service it. Ergo, it was not uncommon.
On the other hand, Tony was entirely common. He had never eaten sushi prior to the events that are about to unfold. He did however make purchases at 7/11 in a typically common and normal manner. He also ate rice on occasion with a dash of butter and salt for flavor. He watched Jeopardy five nights a week and was proud to know that rice was the world’s most common grain. He drove an A-Class Mercedes, so that he could say he drove a Mercedes while not standing out as overly ostentatious in his middle-lower-upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of the Greater Los Angeles Area. He was average in height and build. Five feet, ten inches was exceptionally common for a white male. He was slightly underweight at 160 pounds but made up for it with average cholesterol and blood pressure like clockwork at 120/70 at his physical every other year for the past 12 years since graduating high school. He was an accountant. He appreciated the decent wage it provided without any real requirement of rocking the boat or doing anything uncommon.
If Tony were asked to describe himself in one word, he would say fastidious. He liked that he knew the meaning of fastidious in the same sense that he liked knowing bits of random facts about rice. He rarely used fastidious in a sentence. Common people don’t use the word fastidious.
I would call Tony boring, but I don’t wish to cast him in a bad light as he is the protagonist in this story, and protagonists are meant to have some redeemable qualities or at least invite empathy from the reader. Tony’s ex-girlfriend would call him boring, and she did the night of Tony’s adventure in sushi. Tony’s ex was similarly common in demeanor, build, and assets. She had worked in a competing accounting firm. It was actually the recent breakup with Caitlin that prompted Tony’s quarter-life crisis and heavy soul-searching that preceded his purchase of 7/11 sushi. She walked out of Tony’s suburban starter-home and shut the door briskly enough to assert her position of righteous irritation but not enough to announce to the neighbors that there might be any sort of discord. The fight had been over his rejection of a fuchsia coffee tables with inset mirrors in the most recent mail out from Ikea. Common people did not buy fuchsia coffee tables with inset mirrors, especially when they had already bought the one requisite item that terribly common people buy to demonstrate they are not terribly common. In this case, it was a set of Snoopy and Woodstock salt and pepper shakers. Caitlin, though entirely common, had recently met a member of Greenpeace who disrupted her common, every day sensibilities and made her think twice about being entirely common. Tony wasn’t the first guy to have his girlfriend leave him for a Greenpeace protestor, but that didn’t make it hurt any less.
Caitlin’s words cut right to the core of entirely common Tony, because they targeted his incredibly common values. He went for a drive. In his soul searching, Tony drove at a moderate speed down the hill, around the corner, and parked precisely between the white lines of the third space on the right side of the building. Tony was about to engage in a not uncommon act designed to announce his quiet rebellion against the forces of commonness. Unfortunately, as a common person, he had failed to exercise diligence in his decision to act with not-uncommonness. Sushi is meant to be kept cold. Tony’s act of not-uncommonness became an act of uncommonness, for while people may eat warm sushi and they may eat convenience-store sushi, no one other than Tony has ever purchased sushi that was both warm and on the shelf of a convenience store. Had he been a common sushi eater, he would have known that something was off about it. Instead, he became the unwitting carrier of a tapeworm.
The Life and Times of Tapeworms
There are various types of tapeworms found naturally. They tend to prefer a wild host of varying types and enter the gut of humans through consumption of tainted meat. For example, taenia solium is known to infect pigs and the taenia saginata tends to infect cows. As any person who took a high school biology class would note, the shared genus of these two types of tapeworms make them closely related along with several other members of the taeniidae family along with types that affect rabbits, lions, etc. solium and saginata are the most common in developed nations which tend to have an aversion to eating rabbit, dog, and lion. Even in countries with advanced regulatory regimes, up to one-quarter of livestock is said to be infected, though the cultural mores of cooking meat make infection in the United States and Europe quite rare. Of course, taenia solium is almost unheard of in Islamic countries which forbid the consumption of pork.
Tony’s tapeworm was from a different group of tapeworms under the genus diphyllobothrium, which tend to infect fish. Tony’s choice of a salmon and cucumber sushi roll would make most experts conclude that he had been infected with diphyllobothrium dendriticum or diphyllobothrium latum, both of which are known to infect the North American salmon supply.
Regardless of their genus, the life cycle of tapeworms is similar. The proverbial “which came first, the tapeworm or the egg” has never been quite settled among microbiologists who struggle with such philosophical dilemmas. For brevity, we will say that the eggs of tapeworms exist in the feces of infected animals. They may be free eggs or in the form of proglottids which are detached segments of a tapeworm visible to the naked eye and described as sesame seed-shaped. Either the eggs or proglottids are consumed by intermediate hosts which are subsequently consumed by animals further up the food chain. For example, a cow eating infected grass would be an intermediate host and the human that eats beef tartar or beef carpaccio becomes the definitive host. Grass itself can be an intermediate host in the case of foie gras, which is actually the liver of a goose or duck and not grass at all. On that side note, tapeworms are exceedingly rare among poultry, though large numbers of geese were wiped out in 1921 from hymenolepis tenuirostris, when observers noted the flock growing increasingly emaciated and suffering from diarrhea. This is puzzling, in the sense that those who have ever suffered from a Canada Goose infestation of an urban park or golf course, would find it hard to know when a goose has diarrhea. Rest assured, if you ever need to eat uncooked foie gras, you may do so without concern for tapeworms and it is readily available at numerous North American urban parks and golf courses.
Once infecting the definitive host, the eggs become larvae and the larvae become adult tapeworms which reside in the small intestine. The adult tapeworm consists of one or more proglottids. Each proglottid contains both male and female anatomy, and they may produce asexually among themselves and sexually with adjacent worms, though this varies based on the species. In the case of diphyllobothrium, it typically reproduces asexually.
The tapeworm subsists on nutrients taken from the host. Its microscopic grooves latch on to the small intestine and is able to absorb all it needs from the consumption of what has already been digested by the human. The needs of the tapeworm are minimal at first. In 1934, Moe, of the Three Stooges, ordered four slices of burnt toast and a rotten egg quipping that, “I gotta tapeworm and it’s good enough for him!” Of course, as it consumes nutrients, the tapeworm continually expands in size, often reaching lengths of 30 feet. A tapeworm of this size would be made up of nearly 3,000 proglottids, each containing thousands of eggs. At this point, the tapeworm actually becomes a serious health hazard and prompts severe vitamin deficiencies in the host.
However, the weight loss factor has led to its use as a method of fad dieting in different historical periods. Snake-oil salesmen in the late 1800s were the first to attempt such marketing methods advertising that they could help reduce overall fat, the “enemy that is shortening your life.” Some have theorized that this is actually the origin of the word shortening such as that on a can of Crisco, though etymologists have debated the term at length. The use of tapeworms receded with the advent of modern medicine, but it has made a resurgence as of late, most notably by certain members of the Kardashian family suggesting it as a viable diet plan.
For liability purposes, publishers have required a disclaimer here that the use of tapeworms for dieting purposes is incredibly dangerous and not recommended. While only 20 percent of people lose weight through the use of tapeworms, certain kinds of tapeworms actually penetrate the small intestine and enter the bloodstream causing cysts in the brain that can lead to paralysis and death. Medical professionals recommend portion control and moderate exercise of 20 minutes per day, five days per week as the best method of losing weight.
Tony also did not sexually reproduce, at least so far as it came to mounting his girlfriend, Caitlin. Throughout their three-year relationship, she had insisted that she was waiting for marriage, but in reality, she was regularly mounting others behind Tony’s back. In fact, as of this writing, Caitlin is routinely mounting her Greenpeace protestor in his yurt. If he knew what she was doing, Tony would have been quite upset. However, he would take some satisfaction in the fact that the yurt smelled like fish and she would suffer three UTIs in the first six months of her new relationship.
On the same night as his ingestion of warm convenience store sushi, Tony decided that he should set himself on a course of change and self-improvement. It was not enough to reorganize his books by original copyright date. He needed to work on his physical appearance. He first went to a local department store to walk the hygiene aisles. While he was a meticulously neat person, he had developed a unibrow. While the unibrow reflected a certain sense of concentration when focusing on a quarterly profit report, it was not good for a man recently freed from the bonds of a relationship. He pondered several types of trimmers and eventually settled on a Philips Norelco Multigroom Series 3100 for $25.99. He also took a trip to an upscale men’s store and bought three pairs of stain resistant slacks and five new wash-and-wear shirts that made him look quite dapper, despite his not-yet-trimmed unibrow. He tossed out his vast array of ready-made meals and visited Whole Foods to concentrate on organic groceries, trying out vegetables he had never heard of and fruits that predominantly resembled his ex-girlfriend’s vagina.
Satisfied with all these purchases and already walking with a gait filled with confidence and kale, he made his way back to his car before being accosted by an enthusiastic young man handing out coupons outside the GNC.
“Hi, Sir! Coupon!”
“Um, sure. What do you sell?”
“You’ve never been into a GNC?”
“I’ve never actually heard of a GNC.”
“Well, I’m Todd! Come on in and let me show you around. Do you work out?”
“I’ve never exercised all that much and I want to get in shape.”
“So, you want to get ripped?”
“I’m not sure. I’m starting from pretty much nothing. I don’t want to get too big, but I do want to impress girls.”
“Curls for the girls, glutes for the sluts. I’m gonna get you jacked.”
“Jacked is good?”
“Jacked is fat, my brother.”
Being completely unaccustomed to the world of supplements, stimulants, and legalized steroids, Tony was also unaccustomed to the barrage of workout-oriented slang coming from the worker at GNC.
“So, do you lift bro?”
“Do you mean weights? I’m going to start, I think. Should I? I mean I want to get healthy and stuff.”
“So, to lift good you need to boost that T. Let’s check out these T boosters first.”
Tony was quickly lost in the vast array of terms he suspected were made up purely for the sake of selling supplements. While none of the products sold at the GNC contained steroids, they promised proven results of boosting the body’s natural production of testosterone*, though the asterisk was indicative that there were no proven results and that the statements had not been approved by any sort of regulators like the FDA. It was probably for the best that GNC had not subjected itself to FDA review only for the fact that how does one quantify one’s daily allowance of sarsaparilla root? Could he not just drink a Sioux City Sarsaparilla and get the same results?
“Sarsaparilla root? Could I not just get a Sioux City Sarsaparilla and get the same results?”
“These ingredients have been carefully tested in very specific amounts so that they interact at a metabolic level to produce synergetic results.”
Tony spent about 30 minutes in GNC with Todd explaining the ins and outs of several groups of substances, pre-workout shakes, post-workout shakes, pre-post-workout shakes, protein supplements, and Tony walked out the door with a suitcase worth of supplements worth close to $1000. Once having lost a lucrative scholarship during my undergraduate studies, I can personally attest that the level of caffeine and Vitamin B Complex consumed if Tony took all the pills and drank all the shakes would sustain him for two weeks if he ate nothing else. The author does not advise this course of action, but has avoided substantial student debt across approximately thirteen years of higher education.
For liability purposes, publishers have required a disclaimer here that the use of GNC products for dieting purposes is incredibly dangerous and not recommended. The primary ingredients are various forms of caffeine and B vitamins. Most other ingredients are completely harmless or entirely made up, but a few have been demonstrated to be entirely dangerous. Among these is dimethylamylamine (DMAA). Only 20 percent of DMAA users lose weight, but among certain users, it has caused depression, anxiety, vomiting, loss of consciousness, chest pain, paralysis and death. Medical professionals recommend portion control and moderate to strenuous exercise as the best method of getting jacked.
Todd from GNC had introduced Tony to Todd the personal trainer. It seemed that the world of personal trainers and sports nutrition wad dominated by men with single-syllable names with hard consonants. Todd the trainer introduced Tony to the world of fitness and had Tony on a strict regimen of working out six days a week with one cheat day.
The Beast Within
Tony’s tapeworm was unique in that it could not reproduce, asexually or sexually. Due to the increasing inbreeding among farm-raised Atlantic Salmon in the United States, certain populations of tapeworms were being born entirely sterile. Tony’s tapeworm would never know the pleasures of asexual procreation or the joys of offspring that are felt by microorganisms.
Tony took to working out with a zeal. As stated, he was an entirely common fellow, and while he was not super fit, he was in relatively healthy shape. When a relatively healthy person begins consuming large quantities of Vitamin B Complex and several hundred milligrams of caffeine a day, it becomes easy to take workouts seriously. He had enough savings that he took a leave of absence from work. Instead of crunching numbers, he did crunches, able to do more than a thousand in one set. He often would often hold 45-pound weights while doing crunches in an effort to increase abdominal muscle mass. Todd the trainer walked him through all the major muscle groups and appropriate exercises. Tony was most interested in power lifting, so Todd walked him through how to safely lift large amounts of weight. Todd was insistent on productive cardio and had Tony on the treadmill for 20 minutes before every work out to increase blood flow and oxygenation. Tony was less interested in toning, but Todd talked him in to making some basic efforts toward body sculpting.
“Bro, you’ve got down the basics, but if you really want to look good out there and attract the chicas, you need to tone. We are going to do some small weights working very specific muscles to give you an overall ripped appearance.”
Despite promises of small weights working on specific muscles, Todd seemed to only care about doing curls. Todd always stood directly behind him with a baseball cap worn backwards offering unhelpful tips on how to do a proper curl.
“Use your biceps, bro.”
While Tony had never been into working out prior to this transformation, he was certain that biceps were the only muscle used in doing a curl and he found this statement to be entirely useless.
For those who have taken diet supplements, there is a tendency to take more and more as the results taper off. Tony became increasingly toned or “ripped” but he failed to develop significant muscle mass necessary to become “jacked.” It seemed that the vast concoction of supplements was being devoured by the tapeworm. Normally tapeworms merely survive on the average diet; suffice it to say that Tony’s tapeworm thrived. Without having to constantly expand into a chain of proglottids, the tapeworm began to increase in girth. Normally frail and prone to breaking, the tapeworm began to gradually toughen. The grooves normally serving to cling to the side of the small intestine began to resemble appendages—two to be precise.
As Tony increased his dosage over time, more and more physical development occurred. However, what we care about is the Frankenstein moment. The spark of sentiency that took the tapeworm from a girthy and pulsating mass to a character worthy of prose. We have no clear scientific explanation of exactly the moment that the tapeworm became sentient. I have my suspicions and firmly believe that it was the sarsaparilla root contained in the GNC Progene Daily Complex that created the synergetic connection necessary for sentiency. Regardless, the tapeworm slowly began a path toward self-awareness. In subsequent interviews, it described the first moment of consciousness as “tingly.”
It is said that fetuses are aware of their surroundings in the final stages of development. Words spoken in proximity to the womb are understood. The circadian rhythm is already set based on the habits of the parents. In the case of the tapeworm, this was certainly the case. It too began to work out, along with Tony. With each repetition of Tony’s frequent exercise, the tapeworm also began counting and working in time. Its appendages were able to do pullups and pushups, and its continuous abdomen could do an endless number of crunches. Listening to Todd drone on, the tapeworm learned about isometrics which made much more sense in the fluid-filled digestive tract with significantly less gravitational resistance.
Tony began to notice a sense of abdominal discomfort during the more intense phases of the tapeworm’s exercise. Gastric distress is perhaps a better term for it. He felt as if his small intestines were being twisted in knots, possibly because of attempts of skipping rope by the tapeworm. It was after a particularly vigorous round of 50 burpees that Tony said to Todd that he needed to stop.
“I need to go home.”
“Why bro? You gotta get that heart rate up”
“I just don’t feel right. I feel like I’m about to shit all over the gym.”
“This isn’t planet fitness, bro. I will seriously judge you if you mess up my gym.”
“See you tomorrow.”
Tony was sweating profusely as he drove home to his loft apartment. He started to make a protein shake and fell to the floor in agony. Writhing and clawing at his stomach, he had the urge to vomit from both ends and did so, desperately pulling off his pants and crawling to the bath tub.
It is said that men can never experience the pains of childbirth. In fact, a kidney stone working its way through the urethra is the only thing which even comes close, and women who have had both labor pains and kidney stones would place the latter in a very distant second place for discomfort. Tony had never birthed children or had a kidney stone, but he was confident in noting that it was the most painful moment in his life before he passed out on the bathroom floor, wrapped around the base of his low-flow toilet.
The Morning After
Tony woke up slightly fatigued from sleeping on the cold tile floor, but he felt much better. Aside from some soreness in his abdomen, it was as if he had never been sick at all. However, he was famished, having fallen ill early in the afternoon the previous day and passing out sometime the night before. He quickly showered and walked naked to the kitchen, a reasonable action given that he lived alone.
He froze at the site of a four-foot tall worm rummaging through a box of Vanilla Life cereal.
“Whoa, bro! Put on some pants!”
“Put … on … pants … bro.
“Oh, right … Okay.”
Tony turned away from the kitchen into his bed room and briefly rummaged about in his closet to find a recently purchased pair of chinos. He sat down on the bed to put them on and decided that it would be best to lay down and close his eyes. He was clearly dreaming.
“Knock, Knock, Bro!”
The worm-like creature was standing in the doorway.
“What the hell are you doing in my apartment? What are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where did you come from.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I was just here. I wasn’t and then I was.”
“You’re telling me, bro.”
“Why do you keep calling me ‘bro’?”
“I don’t know, bro. I just want to get ripped and feel the burn.”
“Is there any cereal left?”
“You were eating my cereal earlier.”
“Oh, that. Yeah, I don’t know what a lot of things are.”
The nascent consciousness of Tony’s Tapeworm was verbally stunted as it had come of age. So, to speak it only had the voices of the two Todds admonishing Tony to lift more and take more supplements for its model. In fact, as the conversation progressed, Tony felt a sense of déjà vu from the tapeworm basically cycling through everything he had been hearing in the last few days from the Todds.
“You got any T-booster I can have? I am craving that jolt.”
“Yeah, it’s there, by the sink.”
The tapeworm had no legs to speak of, but did have two protruding appendages that served as feet to balance him as he bounced about the room in search of the supplements. He looked at Tony and said, “Come on!”
“I don’t understand what you want.”
The tapeworm seemed oblivious to Tony’s entreaty to dialogue and began to dump several scoops of protein powder into a blender, about six times the recommended dose for an average size adult human.
Tony realized that the tapeworm was just repeating dialogue from a recent video put out by Rich Piana regarding Mutant Mass.
Mutant Mass is a revolutionary, top-secret, experimental,
muscle mass gainer that delivers extreme, abnormal mass-
building results. If you’re destroying the iron in the gym to
build massive, mutant-like proportions of skin-stretching
muscle and inhuman strength, then Mutant mass is a must
for your mass-building arsenal. Every powerful, military-
strength serving of Mutant Mass delivers a potent dose of
anabolic macronutrients – including exclusive Mutant Pro to
shift your body into a state of virtually limitless growth.
The tapeworm smashed about the house for a few more minutes, ignoring Tony almost entirely. Tony was still fatigued and reluctant to do anything about the ruckus. When the tapeworm knocked over a small bookshelf, Tony got upset.
“I think you need to leave.”
“Come at me, bro.”
“Come at me, bro.”
“No, I mean, just go out of the house. Take all the supplements with you and go.”
Tony gathered all the supplements into one large rucksack. He also gave the tapeworm the things he would need to survive on his own, a few hundred dollars in cash, some elongated pillow cases that Caitlin had bought for some decorative throw pillows, and half a dozen tank tops and t-shirts. The tapeworm’s trunk-like shape below the waist would not likely fit in conventional clothing, but the pillow cases included a draw string that would work as a belt. He also gave away a MET-Rx baseball cap that the tapeworm immediately put on backwards. Finally, he gave up a vast array of skincare products that Caitlin left behind.
Tony said goodbye and the tapeworm just grunted his way to the front door.
Tony didn’t see the tapeworm after that. In fact, it was several years later that he saw a clip on YouTube of a fight at the 2017 LA Fit Expo that he was certain he saw the stump-like, muscle-bound creature hopping around. If you find this video, you’ll see it too.