"The Troop" by Nick Cutter
The Troop's Last Trip
The boys of Scout Leader Tim's troop have all been together since they were five years old. This will be the last outing for the 14 year olds as they move on to more important matters than Boy Scout trips in Nick Cutter's "The Troop."
What should have been an easy trip where the five boys could collect the last of their badges quickly turns sinister as Tim, the towns only doctor, comes across a man shambling out of the water that stinks of the fruity smell of decay. The man appeared to be waterlogged as if his paper-thick skin was rotting off him. Something withering under his graying serpentine-like skin caught Tim's watchful eye. It would be unethical to keep a man in such condition away when he needs severe medical care, but Tim isn't sure what the stranger is wasting away from, and he hopes the contagion is something that he can avoid passing on to the boys.
After weighing his options and the stranger's pleas for anything to eat, Tim lets the stranger into the cabin and warns the boys to not emerge from their room no matter what they hear. The boys argue about being locked down in a bedroom in their bunks and decide to listen at the door to what sounds like someone crunching on bones. The boys remain locked behind the door until daybreak as the sickly sweet smell that wafts off the stranger's decaying skin fills the cabin enough to choke the boys and Tim. Tim tries to further examine the stranger while he is resting and is horrified at his findings.
The stranger followed the light towards the cabin. So hungry...He had eaten animals that he found along the way, licked the slime off of the rocks on the shore but nothing would stem the deep hunger that seemed to be splitting him in two. He forced himself on, until reaching the cabin in hopes that the group might have something that he could sink his teeth into.
The Starving Man
Articles spoke of a man so severely starved that an electrical cord was holding up his pants. The stranger arrived in the diner seizing the breath of the waitstaff as they got a whiff of his stinking body that seemed dwarfed under a layer of tee shirt and jeans. The man ordered not just one, but four of the Hungry Man Breakfast specials. After woofing down all four platters, he then ate the restaurant out of eggs and had a few side orders of toast to wash it all down.
No one could keep their eyes off the stranger. Where was he putting all this food in his tiny frame? Why was he so hungry? Why did the man look like his flesh was melting to his bones as if it was made of pale candle wax?
After eating all the food that the diner could afford him, the man walked into the parking lot and stole a truck and later a boat coming to shore where the troop was having their outing.
So hungry, so so hungry. The words seemed to be a voice speaking in the strangers head. Saying the phrase over and over again like a mantra that pushed him forward. He was crying out, seeking anything that could be food.
Tim didn't know what to make of the stranger. He watched in horror as a snake-like creature whipped around in the man's insides as he slept. The ragged breath that escaped his mouth smelled of sewage, and Tim was worried the man may have a bowl obstruction or have a section of intestines that had fallen away. He decided against his best interest to do a surgery on the man and then get help.
Tim allowed one of his troop members who was experienced with taxidermy to aid in the cutting. They screamed in horror as a ball of what appeared to be tapeworms exploded from the incision in the man's thorax as they removed his stomach.
Previously, the man had coughed on Tim, and the spot where the phelm hit his cheek still burned at the touch. Within hours, the boys began to think that Tim was coming down with something as he didn't look right. After the death of the stranger, the boys forced Tim into a closet until they could figure out what to do.
During his brief period alive in the cabin the stranger had eaten all the food, and it was hard to find anything that hadn't been contaminated. A small cooler of food was put outside for safe keeping.
Inside the closet, Tim felt his hunger raging inside his body, so hungry, so so hungry. He began to look for anything that he could eat to take his mind off the situation, off of the boys that kept him locked inside.
Stripping the wallpaper from the walls, Tim began to fill his mouth with the paper and dried glue.
So hungry he couldn't take it anymore.
It wasn't long before the boys began to have the same symptoms, one by one.
What was left of Tim didn't even look human after the worms exploded out of his chest.
Shambling around the island, the boys tried to keep their sanity as they slowly turned into their own version of the stranger. All they understood was that something inside the man had exploded outward, infecting everyone with this hunger that couldn't be quenched- even if it meant having to kill to satiate the hunger.
The background of the infection was written about in article sections and interviews with scientists, doctors, and others. The professionals were studying both the surviving boy and the stranger before he had broken loose. A new fad diet pill was being researched by studying the effects of a mutated tapeworm.
Divided into both dominant conqueror species that were programmed to seek out new hosts and a strain that was used to reproduce quickly inside, the diet regime, would if approved, deliver unbelievable results in the matter of days.
Too good to be true even.
The stranger, one of the first human test subjects, lost so much weight in the matter of days that he went from an XL shirt to clothing hanging off him like a tent. By the time he had reached the diner and eating them out of everything on the breakfast menu, the man had taken to eating rocks, roadkill, anything to keep him feeling full but that feeling never came as he had stretched his stomach so far the lining had torn and bile was leaking into the spaces between his organs.
As the man's body began to eat itself as a means of staying alive, he was just hoping the people at the cabin would be able to give him more food.
Instead he set off an epidemic.
Over the course of two days everyone was eradicated with the exception of one boy. The boy had lived only to find out that his life was now being studied, and his own mother was afraid to touch him.
He will always remember the horrible creatures that his friends and scout leader became on that trip. He hopes that there will be a cure for him as there is not enough food in the world to ever allow him to truely feel full.
"The Troop" reminds me a bit of "Cabin Fever" and "Thinner"—both in good company with the feel of the book. Where I had no idea where it would be going when the stranger arrived or even what the stranger would be, . The way Nick Cutter writes in graphic detail of the smell and look of the man's wasted body makes me think of the best special effects in zombie movies. I could almost smell the putrid scent and taste the sweet rotting smell.
It doesn't get creepier than this, especially knowing that there is still no cure at the end of the book and that the infection was engineered as a weight loss study. Creepy, indeed.