Jordan didn’t sleep all night. He lay naked on his bed, drenched in a sweat that was boiling and freezing at the same time. It was like having a fever the temperature of the sun. The fan turned slowly above his bed, and beneath its comforting thwup, thwup, he heard every sound in the neighbourhood. He heard his father’s snores and his mother’s soft breathing, a rat scuttling over tiles and the quiet paws of the cat that hunted it. He heard a muffled conversation in one neighbour’s house, the clack of billiard balls in the other’s, and smelled dirt and sweat on the players. He heard a baby crying three, no four houses away.
His senses were sharp, but specific. Evolved to find specific sources, for specific purposes. They were showing him sources of food.
He gripped the blankets with both hands, panicking, dying, forcing himself to stay where he was, and the night passed by torturous seconds. He stayed when the sun touched the sky, and his ears rang with a thousand bird calls. He stayed while his parents made breakfasts and cleaned up and headed reluctantly to work, the conversations of ten or so families reaching him, the sound of food being shovelled into forty mouths and being chewed, the smells of bacon and human skin and dog and cat hair filling his nostrils.
He listened to his parents get in their cars and drive away, and then he got up.
He walked unsteadily downstairs, hand trailing on the banister for support, and made his way through the kitchen to the back door. He slid it open and stood on the threshold, morning sunlight pouring over him. It warmed him a little, but the blood was ice cold in his veins.
He stood for a long time in the sunlight, drenched in a lake of cold sweat, the world spinning around him like the world’s worst hangover, his knees shaking with weakness, and realised he was dying. The tip off was the way his heart was beating like a drum without any rhythm: Thump thump… Thump. Thump. Thump Thump Thump………. Thump.
It was a few minutes before he realised he could hear another heartbeat besides his own, very close by, and it was a lively one, too. Excited. Full of blood and life. Slowly, as though he had a bowling ball hanging from his neck, Jordan looked up, squinting in the sunlight.
Solly was there, tongue hanging out, tail smacking the washing line he was tied to in time with his heartbeat. When he saw Jordan looking, he barked once, as if to say good morning old buddy! It’s been so long! But Jordan couldn’t smile back. All he could do was groan and slam the door shut.
So weak. He sat down on his couch and turned the television on, and tried not to think about the burning inside him. He was certain now that it wasn’t an illusion – there was a real, actual fire inside him, and it was burning him by inches. Or if not a fire, then the bright red sparks you see after you’ve put the fire out, the ones that just burn and burn and never seem to go out. He could see them embedded in his muscles and bones and liver, just burning on and on, flakes of black and white charcoal floating off in his bloodstream. That would explain why the veins in his arm were so black.
He went to the fridge and grabbed a raw steak and a six pack of his Dad’s Victoria Bitter. Somehow he knew the steak would be better raw. The VB was to put out some of the cinders.
The day wasted away, and Jordan finished the six pack and got another one, and a pack of lamb cutlets, which he munched on while watching he didn’t know what. He wasn’t really looking at the television anyway, just the screen. The images were there, but he didn’t see them, didn’t hear the words. His mind was drifting elsewhere. Rather, it had been drifting before, hovering on the edge of consciousness and rationality, and now it was moving further out to sea.
He watched nothing and sipped beer and thought of nothing at all, nothing but the burn. Images popped into his head unbidden, the way they do when you think of nothing. A starving man would have thought of hamburgers and cheesy pizza and fried chicken, but Jordan’s starvation was of a different nature, and the images were of a different type. I’m sick. I should see a doctor. Only a doctor couldn’t give him what he needed.
After the second six pack, he went back to the sliding door and opened it. So much time had passed – it was already pretty dark. No one would see anything. No one would know. Solly lifted his head, eyebrows raised quizzically.
Jordan went back into the house and rooted through the garage without really thinking about what he was doing. When you were hungry enough you didn’t care what you ate, as long as it filled you up. He ended up grabbing a roll of duct tape and a small hatchet his Dad had used to cut down a dying tree in the front yard.
He went back out to the sliding door and stood on the threshold just as he’d done earlier. He was shaking really bad now. He took out his phone to check the time – six thirteen – and dropped it on the bricks. His parents had left around midday, which meant his dad would be home around eight thirty or nine, and his mom an hour later. Two hours.
Jordan took two steps outside, then dropped down on all fours and vomited into a large flowerpot. For a moment he was afraid he saw blood, but of course it couldn’t be – his blood was black, and this was red. It was just the raw meat.
Thump, thump thump thump… thump. Thump thump. Thump……….. thump. His vision was narrowing, as though it was too much of an effort to see everything at once. Only the important things were visible: the brick stairs leading up into the back garden, the washing line, Solly.
He picked up his tools and took the stairs carefully, feeling those embers burning all the way. He’d lost much of the muscle he’d gained, but there was enough to get him the rest of the way. After this, it’s all over. If I do this, I’ll do anything. Don’t do it. Please, please don’t. I’m dying. Fuck. Die then, just don’t do it.
But the instinct to survive is the most powerful one there is, and when he reached the top of the stairs Jordan stretched out the duct tape. Solly was standing now, whining slightly, wanting to run up to him and lick him, but the leash was holding him back.
Jordan hovered just out of reach for a minute, unsteady, fighting it until everything he had left to fight with was gone, and he was empty. ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry, buddy.’ He stepped in, curling an arm around Solly’s neck and cutting his whines short a moment later with the roll of duct tape. Solly shook his head around, annoyed, and looked up at him with mournful eyes. It was almost as though he knew what was happening, was pleading with Jordan. Hey, best friend, why’re you doing that? What did I do to you?
He was still looking up at him with those sad eyes when Jordan, vision now diminished to a pinpoint, his legs so unsteady he was a few minutes from falling down and never getting up, brought down the hatchet.
The last shred of humanity in his mind squealed like a rat in a cage, telling him to make it quick, put Solly out of his misery before he had a chance to register any pain. Only that wasn’t how it worked, was it? No pain, no gain. He had to eat something, even just a little. If he made it quick, Solly would have died for nothing, it would be like hunting a deer and then letting it rot out in the sun.
So he chopped Solly’s front paws at the forearm and tied shreds of his shirt around them to stem the bleeding. He had to make it worthwhile, didn’t he? The rat won out when he took the hind legs, though, and he left out the tourniquets. He was already filling up on the pain, felt his belly swelling with it. It wasn’t in the belly, though, it was somewhere much deeper, a need much more fulfilling. A fire that only went out when you poured blood on it.
He eased up a little after that. Once you tapped in, the pain kept coming without much further encouragement, and he sucked up every ounce, the parasite within crooning with satisfaction. He dropped the hatchet and stood up, kicking the squirming, dying animal in the ribcage and watching the pool of blood spreading and soaking in the grass. A minute or so later and he was full enough that the parasite stood back and let his rat conscience take charge. He picked up the hatchet and took a few swings into Solly’s neck, and it was over at last.
Jordan collapsed on the twitching body of his childhood friend and hugged the torso, feeling the quickly departing warmth beneath soft fur and sobbing. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, over and over, for all the good it did. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Please, I’m sorry.’
He didn’t know how long he was there for, but when he started to come back to himself it was full dark. His head was spinning and he felt hollow, no longer a human being but an empty puppet that had, for now, control of its own strings. Even so, he felt more normal than he had in so long. The burn was gone, not just reduced but gone completely. He’d lost the reach of his senses that had tormented him only a few hours ago, so that he felt almost deaf and blind, though he could probably see and hear better than most people on earth even then. He stood up, leaning against the washing line for support, looking up at a cloudy sky and resisting the urgent desire to vomit.
When it passed, he looked back down at Solly, poor Solly, lying at his feet in five separate pieces. Shit. He should have planned this better. He could put the pieces in a garbage bag, but how was he supposed to explain away the bloodstained grass? He could dig the earth up there and say Solly did it and ran away. Suspicious, but that was all he could do. He hadn’t even thought about this, why? Because you were dying, that’s why. All you could think about was killing.
He was shaking from residual adrenaline, but he no longer felt weak. Hell, he was getting stronger by the second. A few hours and he’d be in condition to run a marathon or lift a hundred kilos. He grabbed some bags from the kitchen, being careful to use paper towels under foot so he didn’t get blood on the tiles, and managed to fit what was left of Solly easily enough into two of them. He set them aside and stepped back to appraise the dark patch in the grass.
A hose, that would do it. Drench the ground there, when the water evaporated the blood would mingle with the soil, look just like dirt. Then he just had to open the side gate, so he could say he left it unlocked and that was how Solly escaped. And have a shower and throw away his clothes – that one was probably more important.
First, he picked up the bags, hefted them over his shoulder, and headed back into the house. He’d stick them in his room, wait until his parents fell asleep, and then bury them in the back garden. Couldn’t risk the garbos finding that, could he?
He moved slowly, head down, deep in thoughts, most of which were really about Solly, the dog, the friend, than Solly, the corpse. Fresh tears made tracks in the blood on his face as he made his way through the kitchen, and he paused with one hand on the banister at the bottom of the stairs, shaking.
You can still take yourself out. There’s always that. There’s lots of ways. You could drink the bleach from under the sink. Or cut your throat. Or slit your wrists with your knife and bleed out. You could steal your dad’s car and drive into a wall. Or Matt’s house, yeah. You could do that.
The front door opened, and Jordan spun around, shocked. His father entered. He took one step and then froze in the doorway, taking it all in. He looked him over, slowly, noting the blood that soaked his clothes, the black lumpy garbage bags over his shoulder, the utter terror and exhaustion written in his features.
Jordan lowered the bags to the ground, but he hadn’t tied the one holding Solly’s torso properly and the weight of the dog’s body pushed at the opening. It didn’t fall out, but the familiar cream coloured fur was there in full view.
All coherent thought fled Jordan’s mind in those moments of silence, and he said: ‘He ran away.’
His father closed the door behind him, and turned the key in the lock.