Brian was in a bad place. There had been a period, one that had lasted far longer than it should have, in which he’d convinced himself that he could coexist with the parasite. Control it, even use it to his advantage. But he had been wrong, and he knew that now.
He was standing in front of the mirror in his bathroom, looking at a monster. His veins were prominent and dark, capillaries spreading over every inch of him like black cobwebs. There was not an ounce of fat on him, but his muscles were ropy and dense, giving him the odd misshapen look of a starved bodybuilder. He’d just tried to file down his teeth – the fifteen or so that remained at any rate, but the result was broken looking stubs that were still as sharp as pins. He had successfully cut his nails that morning, but the process had been deliciously painful and there had been blood. His eyes were huge in his skull, and he no longer felt the need to blink. They missed nothing, and his sense of smell and earing were tuned to the sounds of life for kilometres in every direction. He was living in a different world.
The time had at last come when he could not feed from himself, and it wasn’t just because his whole body was torn, burned and cut, many of the wounds still open and oozing blood. He’d caught and killed a rat from under the house, and while he’d taken his time, he doubted the satisfaction would last longer than a couple of days. Then what? Two rats? A cat? It would be that or die, he knew.
It was a hot day, but Brian left the house dressed in a black hooded jumper and track pants. It would only take a casual glance at him for someone to see something was badly wrong. His blood temperature had dropped several degrees, so the heat didn’t bother him too much. Nothing came close to matching the furnace inside him, anyway.
He meant to go for a walk, maybe through Westlake. It was hard to think, these days, but walking helped. Today was no different, or it wasn’t at first. He went, shoulders hunched, eyes fixed only on the next few feet of the path, past the cliffs, the forest, the lake for which Westlake was originally named. Over one of the rolling hills (on the opposite side of the lake to the one on which the boy Zane was almost murdered), and then out through a low wooden gate and onto Caspian street. Everywhere seemed deserted, though it was school holidays. People were getting scared, even in broad daylight.
After the park, he let his mind drift and his feet took him in their own direction. He thought mostly of Elyse, and also of death. A dark, quiet part of his mind reminded him that there was always suicide, but another part asked: what about her? It was a difficult question to answer, and he still hadn’t come to any kind of satisfactory solution, or any solution for that matter, when he realised he hadn’t moved for some time.
He was at Westlake primary, only that was impossible: he had started out barely an hour ago, hadn’t he? And even at a jog, it would have taken almost two hours to reach the school from his house. He took his phone out of his pocket at checked the time. One thirty. He’d left the house at one. Not possible. I wasn’t running… was I?
It was holiday time for the year tens and above at Westlake High School, but the primary schoolers didn’t finish the year until mid December. It was lunchtime, and children flooded the school oval in their dark blue uniforms and red hats, playing cricket and chasey and yelling at the tops of their voices. Behind the cricket nets the ground sloped steeply away to meet a wooden fence, and gum trees blocked this area from the metal fence and the road beyond that. Brian stood there, hidden in the shade. I don’t remember hopping that fence.
But he didn’t move. Instead, he leaned against a tree near the nets and watched the children play. There were no particular thoughts in his mind as he stood there. It was becoming harder to focus, and more and more his default state was one of passive receptiveness. He moved in reaction to things, acted according to instinct and gut feeling, and as a result patches of life were blind to his memory, like the walk to the primary school, for instance. Time flies when you’re having fun, a voice said in his mind, out of nowhere.
In the short time he watched, two fights broke out in the schoolyard. The first one wasn’t so bad, two of the older boys laying into each other over a disagreement in their game of soccer. A teacher standing at the sandpit intervened fast enough, though with her back turned she missed a younger boy holding another’s head in the sand, laughing and shoving sand in his mouth until he choked and coughed it out, crying. The second fight started near the jungle gym, and it was four on three, two of them girls, and there was plenty of blood before a couple of teachers managed to tear them apart and march them up to the sick bay. One girl had blood running from her ear, but she wasn’t crying. In fact, all the kids were smiling. One of the teachers hit a boy on the back of the head, quite hard, for no reason.
There was only the sandpit teacher left, now, and she was preoccupied with those trouble makers, already settling another dispute between two boys who’d kicked over each other’s sandcastles. Brian’s gaze moved to a boy sitting on a bench not far away. He was alone, snapping twigs in his hands and placing them beside him in some pattern Brian couldn’t discern. An outcast.
It would be so easy, wouldn’t it? One arm around the neck, hand over the mouth, and pull backwards. They’d go rolling down to the bottom of the slope. Then he would get on top, collapse the airway with a well aimed fist, break some ribs into lungs with another, and then get to work. It’d all be over in a few minutes, sure, but what minutes they’d be! He’d once eaten half a chicken in less than ten minutes, this would be like that. Rushed, but satisfying nevertheless.
Brian stood and stared at the kid, his eyes boring into him until he was sure the kid had to look around, had to feel the hairs on his neck pricking up or something, but he didn’t. It was so long, didn’t the lunch bell go at two? But when Brian checked his phone it was just one forty.
He broke out in a cold sweat. All his sweats were cold, these days. He clenched his fists, unclenched them, looked at the road, then back at the kid, then up at the blue sky. Maybe if he did it, he wouldn’t remember it. He’d have one of those mini blackouts, and then when he came to he wouldn’t have to blame himself. He could blame it on the parasite. It was still horrible, sure it was, but at least then he could still live with himself. If he blacked out, it was the parasite working, not him. He’d have a free conscience and he wouldn’t be so damn hungry anymore.
The boy took his hat off and swept the sticks into it, and then put it on the bench. He said something to himself in a low voice, and then looked out across the oval, hand over his eyes. A girl was pulling another girl’s hair and making her cry.
Brian took a step forward, then took a step back. He curled an arm around the tree and gripped it, hard, as though a hurricane was imminent and it was the only thing rooting him to the earth. Think, Brian. What the are you thinking, man? Think about where you are, what you’re doing. Get the fuck out of here.
But he didn’t move. Slowly, his arm relaxed and fell back by his side, and then he was just standing and staring again, eyes fixed on the boy to the exclusion of all else, leaning so far forward he might fall on his face at any second. A tear rolled down his cheek. His teeth were gritted so hard his jaw hurt, and they were sharp enough to cut into his gums.
A hand fell on his shoulder.
He turned, shocked that someone had managed to sneak up on him, when he could hear conversations happening on the other side of the oval and smell the sweat on the skins of a hundred children. Hell, he still had the tang of blood in his nostrils from that last fight, yet here she was, right next to him, looking into his eyes like an angel from heaven: Elyse.
‘Brian, what are you doing here?’
He let out a breath of relief and pulled her into a tight embrace, feeling her heart beating almost as fast as his. She smelled like oranges and blood.
‘Thank Christ you’re here,’ he whispered, his voice harsh. He led her further down the slope, deeper into the shadows. She looked at his tear stained face and just shook her head. ‘Oh, Brian. What are you doing?’
‘I don’t know. I just want this to end, you know?’ He looked at the grass at watched a tear fall onto one green blade.
‘It’ll end soon.’
He looked up at her, and behind the same despair he felt, the same helplessness, he saw hope. ‘What do you mean? Your blood test?’
‘Not back yet. Steph and the others, they figured some things out. We’re gonna meet them in the forest today.’
‘Oh, man.’ He hugged her again, and although the relief was there, it was nothing more than a little cold water on a burn. The dread would return soon enough. And the hunger. He kissed her, and she kissed him back for a minute or so before she pulled back.
‘There isn’t much time, is there?’ she asked.
He looked at her full, red lips, and thought about how nice it would be to eat them off her face, maybe draw one of his long nails across her unblinking eyes, and he shook his head. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said.
She took his hand, and they left the school grounds and the screaming children behind. The kid on the bench didn’t see them go.