Paul O’Neill is an award-winning short story writer from Fife, Scotland. As an Internal Communications professional, he fights the demon of corporate-speak on a daily basis. His works have been published in Crystal Lake’s Shallow Waters, Eerie River’s It Calls from the Doors anthology, the NoSleep podcast, Scare Street’s Night Terrors series, the Horror Tree, and many other publications. A forthcoming novella, The Other Side of Midnight, is being published in Leamington Press’s Novella Express series. His second collection of short stories, With Dust Shall Cover is out now. You can find him sharing his love of short stories on twitter @PaulOn1984.


by Paul O’Neill


It all started with the wasps that Ben found.

I’m thinking that least today is a nice day for escaping school. I lean the back of my head on the thick tree, stare up at the leaves and the blue sky beyond. The belting sun has the air all green with summer. The taste of it mingles with the coppery blood still slugging its way down the back of my throat.

They got me pretty good.

I let out a sigh, set my chin against my knee. I’m such a wimp for running away.

A black shape hovers at the edge of my vision. A wasp. It whirs like a miniature Spitfire. It’s looking at me, wondering whether to sink its sting into my flesh, add to my bad day. My lungs panic at the breath I’m holding onto as the wasp moves deeper into the trees.

The River Dourie burbles a few paces from me. Every now and then, I can feel its spray on my arms. I’ve come here to lick my wounds. Couldn’t think of anywhere else to go to be alone. I watch the water carry away empty crisp packets, crushed cans of fizzy juice, beer.

Ross and Elisa messed me up bad. My eye’s still swelling up. Elisa got in a kick to my nuts that still has me feeling like I’m gonna chuck my guts up. Just a few days ago, we’d been inseparable.

No matter how I keep my lips locked shut, our secret seems to pour out of my eyeballs. I feel the heavy emotion when a parent or teacher would ask the question, pause at the way I answered too quick. No, I didn’t know what happened to Ben. Hadn’t seen him the day he went missing. Why you asking me?

Ross and Elisa saw all this. Knew I couldn’t keep it up for much longer. How could they lie with such ease? They hardly seemed bothered by the whole thing.

Earlier today, just after gym class, Elisa tripped me up. I’d just about got my bearings when Ross sat on my chest, locking my arms by my sides. Elisa sat on my legs, pinning me down as Ross smashed my face, first with his fist and then his elbow. The way they giggled through the whole thing was the worst. They lived for stuff like this.

“If you squirm out the truth to anyone, Ollie,” Ross had said, yanking a fistful of my dark hair, drawing me closer, “I’ll end you. Got that?”

“We’ll burn your house down. Boom, boom,” chimed Elisa, punching me between the legs.

I wince at a fresh twitch of pain on my swollen face. I’d have a shiner tomorrow. Something to show off. Something else to lie about.

My phone’s not vibrated in my pocket yet. How long before the school notices that I’m not there and phone her? Tell her another kid is missing.

“Can’t keep it in any longer,” I tell the thick air. “I can’t. Doesn’t matter if they lock us in Broadshade, we need to—”

A slice of pain makes my whole body jerk to the side. A wasp’s sunk its stinger in the back of my hand. Its long body tenses, relaxes. I slap it with the back of my other hand. It whirs by my head like an alien spaceship ready to go again. It sizzles with malice.

When it finally leaves, it vibrates the air inches from my ear, tingling my skin. The sensation makes me tense up my neck so hard it hurts.

A red mound is already growing on my hand. It couldn’t have measured the target better. Bang in the centre of the back of my hand. X marks the spot.

I can feel a sweat coming on. I settle back against the bark of the tree and look above. When the branches move, the sun sends lances of light about the wooded area like a disco ball.

When did life become so heavy? I guess one thing can change everything.

The summer holidays are almost here. That normally means the four of us would be out adventuring. We aren’t indoorsy people. And it would be me leading the way, thinking up where we were going.

Ross and Elisa are the mad ones. They’d escape their house with a bottle of booze. Didn’t matter what kind. Then they’d dare each other to do crazy, stupid things. They lived in their super-competitive twin world most of the time.

I’d be behind them, seeking animals to stalk. I had a thing for them, you could say. I always want to see how close I could get to the animals, but Ross and Elisa always ruin it by scaring them away.

And Ben would watch.

I suck in a wobbly breath. Ben with the floppy red hair. He was always so quiet, in his own world, saying the strangest things that would strike a conversation dead. And—

“Whoa, what the…”

It sounds like there’s a colony of wasps buzzing inside my skull. Numb spreads its cold tendrils through my blood. I suck in a second breath, this time more deeply. I concentrate on the far off sound of the river, blinking away the dizzy spell.

I stand.

I don’t tell my legs to do that. I look down at them, tell them to bend so I can sit back down and wait out the green feeling swamping my bowels.

My body feels like stone; like I’m looking down at someone else’s limbs. Pins and needles dot my skin all over the lower half of my body. As quickly as it came, I suddenly regain control of myself.

I sit back down. The buzzing of the wasps fades. I look around, expecting to see a black swarm of them hovering nearby. Nothing.

“Damn wasps,” I mutter, hugging a knee to my chest.


I had us out exploring at the weekend when it happened. Ross and Elisa didn’t give a toss about nature, but liked finding overgrown spots that no one else dare venture so they can one-up each other, or just get drunk.

The scent of the tall grass. The sun-bleached stone. The thistles so high they towered each side of the path. The Merrydown cider the twins chugged. The pollen riding the air. The flooding panic. It all came back to me. Hard to believe it was only two days ago. Everything’s changed.

I stumbled across a deer. An actual big boy. I hushed the twins and stalked forward like a lion watching a gazelle, inching closer, using the cover of the high grass. Somewhere behind us, Ben mumbled to himself, stared deeper into a shadowed space under a large bush. 

Can’t believe how close I got. I’ve seen a hundred crappy paintings, but no one could capture the way the sun dances off a deer in summer. I got so close I could see its black, black eyes. One wrong move and it would dart away forever.

Closer. Could I touch it? Just one more step and I could slowly reach out a hand, stroke its sweat-steaming fur. Had anyone done that before? Would it skewer me with those antlers?

“Venison!” Elisa ran at us, hands waving above her head like a rampaging zombie. “Get in my belly.”

The deer zig-zagged through the brush. After a hurt moment, I couldn’t help join in the roaring laughter. Ross cracked jokes about a deer barbeque. Elisa pretended to be a deer getting shot, falling to the ground, which set us off again.

All except Ben.

Ben wasn’t what you’d call a laugher.

I can still remember the chill as if the sun had been blotted out. Ross glared at Ben, seen that he was too busy in his own world to join the fun. An oily grin spread up Ross’s face, revealing gritted teeth.

“Hey, mop top,” Ross called. “Lost your tampon in that bush? Why’d you even come here with us? Harsh our buzz, man. Oh, I know. Mummy chucked you out the house so she can invite all the men over.”

“Gotta pay the bills somehow,” chirped Elisa.

The cackles took on a menacing lilt. I stepped over to Ben, stood by his side. “Don’t listen to those crows.” He didn’t seem to register I was there, only swayed on his feet like a strong wind would blow him over. “What you looking at?” I asked.

“Wasps in there,” said Ben, raising a shaky, ill-looking hand. “Not like the ones I’ve seen around here. Wasps are magic, you know. Been here millions and millions of years. We’re too scared to look at them.”

Ross hovered behind us. His voice was full of challenge, but I noticed he was keeping his distance. “Fuck wasps right in the hoop.”

“Aye, they’re devil bugs,” said Elisa. “Straight from hell.”

“Girl at the school got stung once. Puffed up like a fungus marshmallow. Nearly died. Honest, I saw it.”

“Well, I know a man who was stung, and it exploded his heart right out his chest.”

“Aye? Well, I know—”

I twisted round, waved my hand at them. “Would you two quit for just a sec. Go finish that cider or something.”

I watched them move away, but not before noticing the calculating look in Elisa’s eyes. She was always plotting. I didn’t fully turn my back on them as I spoke to Ben, trying to snap him out of his hushed trance.

“Ben? You okay? Seem kinda… spacey.”

The ground dropped away down a sharp decline where Ben was staring. When I stepped closer, the buzzing made my hair stand on end. I could feel it in my gums. Something primal urged me to grab Ben, get him away from the hundreds of wasps that seemed to be searching the ground just a few feet from us.

“They’re a superorganism,” said Ben. “They dance as one. Can’t you feel it? No one understands wasps. They get bullied. A world without wasps isn’t a world at all. Do you see how long they are? You ever seen a wasp like that about these parts? I…I can hear them. They’re calling to me. Calling.”

“Answer the call then, dickhead.” Ross shoved Ben in the back so hard I heard his neck click as his head was forced backward. I couldn’t react in time. Ben sailed for a second, everything happening in slow motion while his scrawny arms spun, looking for something to grab, finding nothing.

When Ben hit the ground, the wasps exploded. Their buzzing changed to a static roar that filled my brain. Ben makes noises that I didn’t think a human could make. A desperate, lonely keening noise as the wasps enveloped him.

Ross scrabbled back, swearing in fright. I looked down at Ben, terror soaking my muscles. I wanted to go down to help Ben.


“But I froze,” I say, watching the welt on the back of my hand reach ant-mound status. The river continues to burble a steady rhythm. Sweat drips from my forehead into my eye. I wince it away.

If I’d hurtled down that incline, grabbed Ben, pulled him away, maybe he’d still be here. We’d have come away sore from wasp stings, but we’d be safe. Instead, I did nothing. Just watched until Ross and Elisa hauled me away, already warning me to say nothing. Ben was never with us. He’s not our type.

“I left you, Ben,” a sob breaks out, folding me up. “And it’s killing me.”

Ben’s face was all over the papers. All over the news. The school wouldn’t shut up about him. Wouldn’t stop asking questions. And I knew the truth. Knew he was probably lying dead with those angular, sharp-looking wasps eating him up, feeding him to their larvae.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I say, wiping my tears.

My phone is going ding, ding, ding. Mum’s found out about me skipping school.

Just come home, sweetie. Mummy loves you. I’ll cook you up batches of mac and cheese. The stringy way, just the way you like. Just come home, okay? I won’t be mad about school. Come home. Xx

“Argh!” I drop the phone. Another wasp sting, this time on the back of my neck. Another on the tip of my ear. My thigh. Arm. Hand. The wasps attack, make me dance and jerk about.

They’re hovering, humming a death promise. It’s like I can feel their attention light me up like a searchlight. They’ve stopped stinging me, for now.

My body feels like it’s trapped in a sludge-filled nightmare. I want to swipe at the waiting wasps, kill them for piercing me with those stingers. My arms become heavy trunks, falling to my side. I blink, my vision doubling. The wasps are just like the ones Ben had been so taken with. The superorganism.


I turn, nearly fall over in my clumsy state. “Ben? That you?”


The trees are swimming around. My stomach tightens, threatening to send watery contents out my gob. I stifle a burp, try to keep my eyes locked on the mob of wasps, but my eyelids want to close. White hot pain redoubles all over my skin.

“Ben? Where are you?”

I’m not where you left me to rot.

“I know. I…” I’d gone to check that place yesterday. There’d been no sign of Ben, the wasps, or anything.

I rub at the center of my forehead, will myself to breathe. I didn’t trust myself to take a step forward, as it felt as if my legs were made of putty.

“Listen,” I say, holding a hand out to the wasps, wondering why they stopped stinging me, “I’m sorry. Really. You’ve no idea. Tell me where you are. I’ll come get you. We’ll go back together. We…We’ll be nicer to you.”

Ben was a good kid, but he made himself a target. Always saying weird things when no one asked him. Like telling me one day over lunch that bees were nothing more than wasps who forgot how to eat meat. How ants were wasps that forgot how to fly. How their superorganism was more complex than ours and held discoveries we could only dream.

My leg moves. I’m not the one doing it again. My lower body has a mind of its own.

“Hey!” I call out. “What’s happening?”

Come see me, Ollie.

The wasps move in beside me. They have a metallic smell that taints the air around my head as they station themselves about me. They seem to be guiding me like military fighter jets.

“Ben? Where are you?”

You’ll find out. We’ve got some treats for you.

“We? Cut the crap, man. What is this? If you’re alive, just come back out. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. We won’t ever hang out with Ross and Elisa anymore. They’re both arseholes.”

We saw what they did to you.

My hi-tops hit a gravel path filled with red clay stones. A wasp flutters beside my ear, making jitters run down my spine. It stings me. Others land on my shoulder, pump me with their stingers. I’m helpless. They’re doing this to me, controlling me, and all I can do is watch.

“I didn’t push you,” I call out. “You know I wouldn’t have hurt you like that.”

But, you watched, didn’t you? And you left me to die. Die beside these wonderful beings.

I yelp and stutter and seethe in breath as the wasps come for me, each stinging me again and again. Their bodies light up in the sun like armour plate. The venom is riding my blood, giving everything over.

I’m a zombie. The superorganism has made me a zombie and is leading me to where?

“What are you gonna do to me?”

Come to me.

“How have they kept you alive?”

The pain as the wasps sink fresh stings into me reaches new heights. I can’t jerk or twist or slap them away. The agony ripples through me, turning everything inside into swelling fire. Warmth spreads down my leg. I’ve pissed myself.

The wasps have me.

“I’ll bring you home, I promise,” I call out. “Doesn’t matter what’s happened. It’ll be all right. You have to forgive me.”

My forced movements stop so abruptly I almost fall over. I feel like a piece of plywood standing on end. One shove and I’m down.

Forgive you? You all left me.

“I’m sorry.”

Too late, Ollie. Too late.

The words swamp my stomach. “Too late?”

My legs move of their own accord again. The sounds of stones under my trainers are loud as a funeral march. I’m crying again. Hot tears dripping down my face.

My pathetic moans and pleading makes no difference. The wasps guide me to a huge sewage pipe at the side of the river. The filthy water spews from the rusty pipe. Fetid spray dots my face as I’m led to a muddy bank.

Ben’s body is here.

He looks like a dead fish. His white eyes glare at me, tortured. I want more than anything to sink to my knees and close his eyelids, do him one final solid, but I’m denied. The wasps continue to stab my back, my legs, my face.

“You’re dead,” I say to the gathering of wasps. “How…”

They welcomed me in. I am everything here. You should see the things I see. Taste the things I taste. I’m alive in ways you’ll never be.

The image of my mum’s heartbroken face comes to me. “Let me go. My mum. She—”

Oh, I’ll let you go. But not yet.

“How is this even possible? What are you doing to me?”

My superorganism brought me powers.

More and more wasps fill the space. The density of them affects the air around me as they spin, taking turns to light me up in fresh, hot agony. I can feel my mind almost give out.

“Don’t kill me. Don’t.”

I will have my revenge first. And then you can… sleep.

“What are you going to do to me?”

We’re going for a trip to see the twins. I’ll make you kill them, slowly. Then we’ll feed them to my babies.

“Please, let me go. I can’t.”

I fight with everything in me to take back control of my body, but it’s useless. Under the power of the superorganism, I march away from the dead body of my friend, and toward town.

The wasps cyclone around me and fill me with their zombie venom.