As the archetypal bumper-sticker proclaims: "Being Paranoid Doesn't Mean That They Aren't Out To Get You."
In the world of the paranoiac, the world is nothing but a teetering rockslide: impending destruction always hovering just a moment away. Their world is one full of traps, deception, plots, conspiracies, and death where everyone is literally out to get you. Some have suggested that a daily tablespoon full of this viewpoint can actually be a survival trait: In our capricious and elaborate world a certain degree of suspicion and caution will allow us to live to be frightened another day. Others suggest that this view is nothing less than narcissism stretched to a penultimate degree — that we are so special, so unique, that the universe and it's all-present Men in Black (replete with Black Helicopter and Satellite Brain-Ray Beam gift set) have no choice but to squish us flat. But the real terror is lurking just beyond that. As anyone who has studied nature can attest, the world and all its creatures (great as well as small) really are out to get us. Some of their attacks are easy to defend. Into daily battle we go, armed to the teeth with antibiotics and the unshakable knowledge that:
— If we cross against DON'T WALK we'll be turned into chunky salsa — Milk the consistency of raw cement is not good — Playing on the freeway is bad — Sticking our fingers into electrical sockets is definitely a once-in-a lifetime thrill
With those bits of arcane law filling our grey matter, we are equipped to know how to survive to see tomorrow. Yet there are creatures on this globe that can snuff us out like a cheap candle in a stiff wind.
I don't mean the cartoon ferocity of the lion, tiger, or bear that proclaim their dangerous potential with a growl, roar, or screech. No, the critters I’m talking about lurk in dark silence, ready to strike with either the barest of warnings or none at all, and with absolutely fatal venom.
Some you've undoubtedly already heard about, and will prompt little more than a dismissive scoff. Yeah, big deal: rattlesnakes, cobras, black widows — either you can hear them coming, avoid going to India, or simply not stick your hands into dark places. "Ha!" is my response to your smug, assumed knowledge of nasty things. "Ha!" I offer up against your ignorance of the real terrors that are lurking out there, ready to strike. The truth is, rattlesnakes, cobras, and black widows are nothing but mere annoyances: fatal only to the truly stupid or very sick. Dangerous, sure, but usually deadly only to Darwin Award winners.
But there are other, nasty little things out there that are as vicious and deadly as they are quiet and unassuming. Say, for instance, you happen to be happily walking through the low surf merrily picking up and discarding shells, looking for just the right one to decorate your desk back at the office. With no warning at all, however, you feel a sharp sting from one of those pretty shells, a sting that quickly flares into a crawling agony. With that quick sting, the cone snail's barbed spear has insidiously injected you with one of the most potent neurotoxins in existence. Nerves short-circuited by this infinitesimally small amount of juice, in seconds the agony of where the stinger struck has faded into a heavy numbness. A relief, perhaps, but then it spreads and moments later the paralysis has seized the entire limb. Then the breathing troubles start … and then, simply, your heart stops beating. Yes, there are anti venoms available, but, frankly, with something that can kill in less than four minutes you'd have to carry it in your back pocket to survive. It wasn't just a fondness for these pretty shells that lead the CIA to develop a weapon using this venom to dispatch enemies.
We'll be back to the ocean in a moment, but for the next dangerous denizen we have to visit the steaming Amazon. Now I know what you're thinking, "Gee, what would I be doing out there in the jungle primeval?" To that I say that you're not paying attention to the lesson: it isn't so much that these things are where they are, but that they exist to begin with, and carry their lethality in such innocent packages.
That frog over there, for instance, that tiny, brilliantly colored tree frog. Doesn't he look like some kind of Faberge ornament, there against that shocking vermilion leaf? Wouldn't such a natural jewel look just gorgeous in a terrarium back home?
Pick him and you could be dead in a matter of minutes. One second frolicking in the undergrowth, the next spasming and foaming on the jungle floor. No stinger, no bite, and no venom: just the shimmering slime covering his brilliant body. The natives in these here parts capture these poison arrow frogs (carefully) and coat their blowgun darts with that slime — and knock full grown monkeys out of the trees with a single strike.
Back in the windswept sea, sharks announce their presence with a steady da-dum, da-dum, da-dum of background music, rattlesnakes, well, they rattle, while lions, and tigers, and bears (oh, my) as I’ve said, roar and bellow. These dangers are loud, almost comical. They parade their danger. But as paranoiacs know, these are nothing but part of the grand deception — they make us believe that everything fatal comes with sirens of intent, or brilliant warning labels. The real monsters are more devious than that; they lurk on the other side of invisibility, never make a sound, and kill you faster than the sound of that first note in John William’s Jaws theme.
Cone shells can be avoided, and brilliant frogs warn of their fatality, but there’s one last terror I’m eager to mention that doesn’t roar or display its danger at all. Let's take one final swim, shall we, this time off the coast of Australia? Incredible blue waters, shimmering sandy beaches, shrimps on the barbie … Skin divers rave about the Australian coast … those, that is, who never let their guard down for an instant.
Paddling in the crystal sea, enjoying the cool waters, the warm sun, it's easy to miss this monster, especially as it's almost as clear as the ocean. Chironex fleckeri doesn't sound so terrifying, does it? Chironex fleckeri: a tiny jellyfish found off the coast of Australia and southeastern Asia. Only about sixteen inches long, this jelly's tentacles carry thousands of nematocysts, microscopic stingers activated not by ill-will but by a simple brush against shell, or skin. Make contact and they’ll fire, injecting anyone and anything with the most powerful neurotoxin known to man. Stories abound of swimmers leaping from the cool Australian seas, skin blistered and torn from thousands of these tiny stingers, the venom scalding their bodies and plunging them into agonizing shock. The sting of a chironex fleckeri — also called the box jellyfish or sea wasp — is described by the experts to be a most horrifying torment.
Luckily it doesn't last long. Take that to heart dear, innocent reader, as you dog paddle through the ocean, walk on the beach, or trek through the forest, safe in your ignorance that the world doesn't hide terrifying, hideous deaths. The hideous agony of the box jellyfish’s sting doesn't last long.
Not long at all. In fact, the burning pain is over in just about the time it will take you to read this last paragraph (and you don't have to be a phenomenally slow reader), not even enough time to reach shore and call for help. Maybe as the venom works itself into your system, causing your nervous system to collapse, you'll realize that paranoiacs are right: that there really are dangerous things out there, things that'll kill you by pure reflex, just by crossing their paths. Thirty seconds isn't a long time, not long at all. But sometimes life, and death, lessons can come in very short periods.
M.Christian (www.mchristian.com) has written 300+ short stories, edited 20 anthologies, is the author of five collections and five novels.