In order to get the love of my life to spend any time alone with me, I had to pretend I didn't love the leech. It was about as hard for me as it is for a man who owns nothing but bright rainbow silk and brand-name shoes to pretend he's not gay. The ironic part is, I gave up all self-pride for empty pleasure, when I could have derived real pleasure all the time just by keeping it - but for a string of decisive moments, I thought I loved her more.
The leech was everything to me, as its suppression is now. I shaved my head bald for a time, displaying the jagged leech-scars along my scalp for all the world to see. I wore home-made "leech pride" t-shirts, my favorite declaring "Look Ma, I've got a leech!" And whenever I noticed that my revered guest had taken control of my thoughts or my words, I listened, and most of the time allowed it to continue.
You do not know you have a leech until a certain age. They should tell you what it is in Health class, at about the same time as they're telling you what sex is, or reinforcing the fact that families come in all different types - but they avoid it like the plague. Your parents do, too; Heaven forbid that you discover the simple version of what makes grown-ups tick, let alone the complex one. You just listen to them fight and eventually endure wrenching divorce proceedings, drawing no connections, blaming yourself as most kids do. For a child to be born with a leech, at least one parent must be a host. Looking back, it will be easy for you to tell which one.
As you mature, you pick it up slowly. The topic of the leech is too smutty and taboo even for college humor - you start to hear the smallest of indirect references, but no one says anything up front about it. You begin to be aware, though, of something on the fringe, a spectre of discomfort with the category of thoughts you had unquestioningly believed were normal... and then you decide that this spectre must have a name. Most figure out that their fantasies are forbidden, and then spend the rest of their lives suppressing them without ever trying to understand them. A few discover leech websites and forums online, alone in their rooms at night with their heads compulsively twisting over their shoulders, dampening keyboards with sweaty palms. Once they learn, unlearning is difficult; still, some try their hardest. Others join the forums and read the websites, and begin to lead a secret double life on the Internet. Only about a half percent of hosts fully understand that the leech is not a parasite; it is a way of life.
As a member of that half-percent, I met a salty, harsh, unforgiving sea of sameness in mainstream society. Serious employers would not hire me, or they'd let me go as soon as I took off my hat. McDonalds would not hire me. The only place I could find work within a 20-mile radius (aside from a software engineering company, bypassed because all I have is a useless English Lit degree) was Spencer's Gifts. Hiring discrimination is illegal when based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, but that law says nothing about me.
So why did I put up with it? Because leeches are romantic, philosophical creatures desperate for deep and meaningful connection. I extended my greatest empathy to the leech in order to fully understand - and hopefully experience - this profound connection with another. Beta-leeches may only make such a bond with alpha-leeches. Leeches are sexless, and both types of leech can inhabit either gender of host, but only the union of an alpha and a beta produces a new leech. The alpha leech lives in the R-complex or reptilian complex, the primitive layer of the brain responsible for violent, cold-blooded, instinctual displays of social dominance — for example, a full-grown male lion coming to a new pride and killing all the cubs. An alpha-leech host has an overstimulated R-complex, making him or her more aggressive and ambitious. While the alpha-leech does not cause leech scars, it does render female hosts infertile. Most of them consider this advantageous — they have companies to run. The beta-leech calls the brain's limbic system home, the layer responsible for senses, emotions and empathy. It secretes a special basic liquid (carrying the microscopic beta sex component) into the blood vessels serving the brain. The base in the blood causes it to be unusable by the body. Luckily, this blood does not return to the heart. Instead, it slowly begins to make its way up through the skull's protective layer of fat and then through the skin of the scalp. This does not occur until the beta-leech has time to mature, which is why babies don't have leech scars. The beta matures more slowly than the alpha, taking an average of fourteen years to the alpha's twelve. It also takes a few months for the basic blood, directed by the beta's "sperm" (which move with cilia rather than the flagella of human sperm) to reach the skin's surface and burn through. Since the base kills platelets and new skin cells trying to form, leech scars do not heal. The base also makes red blood cells unable to hold oxygen. Thus oxygen that hits leech scars enters them and travels through the plasma to the protective fat, through which it enters the bloodstream; thus, the brain gains just as much oxygen as it loses from the leech scars. Finally, the base kills white blood cells, but also most infections tempted by their absence.
My own leech scars emerged early, when I was thirteen. I had a thick head of dark brown hair, but I started to notice that it was extremely painful to wash my hair with shampoo, and that the shower started to smell like burning flesh. My mother told me that I was a big boy, big enough to stop using shampoo and just rinse my head with water. She also bought a lemon formula for me to use on my scalp, the kind marketed to naturally lighten blond hair, to neutralize most of the base. (My father was removed from my life by way of restraining order). At the time the scars emerged, the leech began to feed me fantasies.
I daydreamed of beautiful, inadequately clad women as most teenage boys do, but occasionally, one of them would extend her tongue and lick some part of my skin, and every inch of me would tingle when the burning sensation identified her as an acid-tongued alpha host. Then she would hold my head in her hands, parting my hair, and run her tongue sensually over my scars. This was beyond excitement, beyond satisfaction... it was bliss.
(In a side note about alpha hosts, when they become teenagers and start producing acidic saliva containing the alpha sex component, they gain the freedom to use especially foul language in front of their parents. Since washing the mouth out with soap merely tastes salty to them, they have an opportunity to be figuratively "acid-tongued" as well.)