Elyse clipped her finger and toe nails with a pair of pliers and then disappeared back into her room. She didn’t like looking in the mirror any more. Her eyes were wide and it gave her face a starved, haunted look. Her dental retainer didn’t fit any more – her teeth were spaced too far apart, and some of them were sharp enough to bend the plastic.
She scanned a hundred internet sites, about parasites, about diseases, about serial killers. She read stories of people who had been kidnapped and tortured to death, and forced herself to stop. It was making her so hungry. She read magazine after magazine from a pile beside her bed. She called to make an appointment for a blood test the following day. She thought about Jimmy and Ray, and what they were doing now. Already months had passed in that other world. She wondered what they were eating, what they were doing to each other.
In the end, she was just waiting for Brian to call, and she didn’t have to wait long. If she was this restless already, he must have been going out of his mind. She’d just finished dinner – a once delicious home made lasagne that tasted like compost wedged between slabs of old cardboard – when he called.
‘It’s getting sooner,’ she said before he had a chance to speak.
‘I know,’ he said. His voice sounded thick, a tone she was beginning to recognize. He was struggling.
‘I haven’t healed from last night yet.’
‘Me either. It’s getting quicker though, the healing? Isn’t it?’
‘Not much. Not enough, anyway, if we keep going like this.’
‘Yeah. Stay longer this time and we’ll think about it. We’ll work something out, okay?’
‘I’m on my way.’
She told her mother she was going to bed with a headache, stuck some pillows under her bed sheets, packed an overnight bag and crept down the hall and out through the side door of the garage. She had a suspicion her mother knew she’d snuck out last night, and judging by the tentative looks and thoughtful frowns, she had a feeling her mother also knew where she went. That was fine by Elyse. Better her parents thought that and silently disapproved than know the truth.
Moving was easy for her, but like so many things now it seemed to add to her hunger. The feeling of power as she hurried over the pavement, so light on her feet she could clear a fence at head height in a quiet leap. Her eyes picked up on the slightest movements in her peripheral vision, and whenever she saw something the burn surged inside her. She saw a bird eyeing her from a tree branch as she brushed by and she came close – so close – to grabbing it and biting it’s head off, just to feel that sweet release, whet her appetite. A moment later it had flown away and she picked up the pace, sick with herself.
She hopped easily over Brain’s neighbour’s back fence, landing like a cat on the soft grass, crossed the yard, scaled a young oak and ran along the topmost branch, stepping easily onto Brian’s window sill. She tapped against the class with her toe, both hands gripping the brickwork to keep from falling. He lifted the window open and she slid inside like a shadow.
As soon as she was in, she pushed him against the wall and kissed him, hard – much harder than he had when he’d infected her, and he responded with a smile and a sharp bite on her bottom lip that drew blood instantly. His light was off – his parents probably thought he was out at a Matt’s or Dale’s – but the moonlight was more than enough for them to see by. Brian said he could see at night just as clearly as he could in the day, that it was the same difference as standing in the shade or the sunlight. He pushed her gently backwards and brought a finger to his lips. ‘No noise, remember? What did you bring?’
She dropped the bag on his bed and started taking things out. There was no real need for so many, except that the variety helped, somehow. Like different kinds of pain fed them in different ways. Sometimes she’d even get a craving for a burn or a deep cut like she used to crave chocolate or ice cream. She had a bunch of different knives, scissors, needles, matches.
He’d already laid his out on his desk, the heavy duty stuff like the wood saw and the hammer and the butcher knife, plus a bunch of other things. Her eyes lit on a coil of rusty barbed wire beside his computer and she picked it up, while he pulled off his shirt behind her. ‘Where’d you get that?’
‘Like it? Neighbour put it out on a junk pile. Probably off an old fence.’
She turned around, her excitement faltering a little as she saw the results of the night before. It was bad, but she knew even before he lifted her top over her head that she would be worse. He’d had his fun with her for longer, and she needed less than him to be satisfied.
‘Shit,’ he said, running a hand over the scars in her stomach. He hadn’t cut his nails the day before, and they were sharp enough to cut glass. She shivered. ‘We’re in trouble, aren’t we, Elyse?’
‘Yeah.’ She reached out for the pair of scissors and held them up like a dagger. ‘Me first.’
They were sharp – the reason she chose them, and, gripping him by the wrist, she got the point all the way through the gristle in his palm, pushing so hard they ended up falling backwards onto the carpet, him stifling sounds of agony and her trying to hold back a little – slow down. Of course, it was a useless effort. Once the first bite was taken, the next was inevitable, and the next, and the next.
Eventually, she just gave in. She kept to the knives, because that was just what she craved, and she was cruel with them, re opening the wounds she’d made last night, dragging them in slow spirals over new flesh, making an artwork of his torso. She found his shin bone with the point of a paring knife and worked it down the side, sawing at it slow, relentless, blunting the knife, watching him arch his back in silent agony. All the while, feeling the dam walls breaking inside her, extinguishing the burn and filling her up. Scratching the itch. At last, she sat back, dark blood up to her elbows, and smiled. They were both covered in icy cold sweat.
Brian groaned and sat up, pushing her roughly against the side of the bed and standing up, a little wonky on his feet. ‘You’re alright?’
‘Yeah,’ she was a little sleepy, but she’d managed to hold off enough that there was still some of that lingering burn left in her, for what would come next.
‘Good.’ He reached out to the desk with blood streaked hands and came away with the saw in one hand and the coil of barbed wire in the other. ‘My turn.’
Later, they lay sprawled out on his bed, letting the blood dry in the breeze from the window, their bodies already starting to close up the wounds, repair the damage. Too slowly, though, much too slowly. Elyse rolled over and winced as the new scars stretched and dry blood crackled and flaked. Once you were good and satisfied, pain just felt like pain. Brian turned to look at her, his eyes bright and aware, but shallow in a way, more like an animal than a human. Totally unselfconscious.
‘Brian?’ she said, for a moment not even sure he was aware of her.
‘We’re running out of time.’
‘We can keep it up a while longer, though. I kind of want to, you know? Don’t you?’
‘No,’ she said, nowhere near as certain as she sounded. She felt as if the voice in her head, the familiar reasonable voice that had always belonged to her, was dying. ‘It’s playing with fire. Pretty soon these night visits aren’t going to be enough. You know that, don’t you? What will we do then?’
‘We’d never hurt anyone. I mean, we’d just never hurt anyone, right?’
She thought about seeing the bird on the way there, wanting to grab it and bite its head off, and said, ‘I’m not so sure.’
He sighed and propped himself up on his elbow. He watched her with those shallow eyes, one hand moving slowly across her chest and belly, feeling the damage he’d done in such fervour just minutes ago. The barbed wire had made deep gashes, taken chunks out in some places. ‘You’re probably right,’ he said.
‘Of course I am. Think about it now, Brian, while you still can. Because if you’re anything like me, your mind changes when you’re… what do you call it?’
‘Yeah. When I’m hungry enough, that’s all I think about. It’s only times like now that I feel like I can think properly. And right now I’m thinking, the longer it goes on the more hungry we’re going to get, until we never feel like this anymore. We’ll do something horrible and still be hungry afterwards, and then we’ll do something worse and still be hungry after that. We’ll end up as one of them.’
‘But look at us, Elyse. Even when we’re hungry, we can still control what we do, right? It’s like deciding to eat salads instead of hamburgers. We’ll make a system of it – find people who really deserve it.’
‘I don’t think anyone deserves what I want to do. Besides, what if we have trouble finding someone? If you’re starving and all you see is hamburgers, you’re going to eat them, aren’t you?’
She stared at him, at those bright eyes, and it struck her how far he’d already gone. Collateral damage. She decided not to tell him about the blood test, or anything else she’d talked about with Steph. If he was thinking like this now… The more he knew the more likely he’d try to stop it. He was becoming brainwashed. The parasite was eating the parts of his brain it didn’t want and adding parts of its own.
Instead of talking, she nodded and gave him a nervous smile. ‘We’ll think of something, anyway,’ she said.
He hugged her and she stared over his shoulder at the moon. She wondered if there was a door that would take them back, so they could lie on those barren white plains and hurt no one ever again.
It was a long time before she slept, and when she woke up, the first sparks of the fire were beginning to kindle.