Hunger

by Lisa Poh

I’m lying in this yard. It’s raining, and I’m wet and muddy. Fog is everywhere. Don’t remember why I’m here. I try to get up but something yanks me down. It’s a cuff. Somebody’s handcuffed my wrist to a garden pipe. Leaning on the pipe, I get up again on two feet. When I try to walk away, my hand gets stuck half-way through the metal ring. Wriggling it doesn’t work. Kicking at the pipe doesn’t work either, and I fall over again.

The grass smells like mud. The rain makes me slippery. The fog lifts, and I make out the shape of the house in the rain. A tall white square with a pointed green roof. Green shutters and a green door.

The door, it calls to me. Then I remember. I’m staking out the house.

Because there are people inside.

Tengo hambre. I’m hungry.

I jangle the handcuff on the pipe. This time, I don’t fight the cuff. I pull the hand up for a closer look. One of the fingers has a ring with a shiny stone on it. A diamond, that’s what it’s called. But that’s not the finger I want. I take the short finger, the thumb, and snap it off at the base. It makes a loud crack. I’m good at breaking bones. Now the thumb hangs loosely by its skin. I fold it over the other fingers and my hand squeezes out of the cuff.

I hobble, one step after another, to the house, to the green door. But when I get there, I can’t go in. The door-lever doesn’t turn no matter how I shake it. I feel the jambs for a way to get in but the door is hard and solid.

Por favor, I’m hungry,” I plead as I rattle the lever, thump against the door. “I’m so hungry.” Nobody comes.

All round the house, I grope at the windows and the siding for a way in, until I come to a veranda. There’s another door there, up some steps. It stays shut although I knock and knock. In the door, there’s a small glass panel. Through it, I see a hallway leading to dark rooms, and at the end, more steps going up.

They must be upstairs, my mind tells me.

Then I notice the things left on the side of the veranda–a square can, a sheet of paper, a blanket. The tin weighs my hand down. Its label shows a cow, but my eyes can’t focus on the words. I feel giddy trying to read. But anger rushes out as I stare at the picture of the cow.

They’re mocking me. I can hear it–the sniggering. High, giggling laughter.

Niños.

I’ll give them something to laugh about.

With all my strength, I swing the heavy can back and then smash it against the door. The glass pane at the top of the door cracks, but stays in place. I slam my body against the door. Twice. Three times. The door doesn’t budge.

They’re laughing at me now. I take the sheet of paper and rip it to shreds. The blanket is harder to destroy. My broken thumb flops about in its sac of skin trying to tear the cloth. I jab holes in it, and then throw it aside.

Only the can is useful. I hurl it at the windows, all around the house. The glass breaks but still I cannot get in. White grills block every single window. All I can do is press my face against the bars to shout, “I’m hungry! I’m so hungry!”

From far inside, I hear noises. It takes me a long time to remember it, the sound of crying.

#

Someone is coming.

In the back of my mind, I recognise the rolling crunch of gravel. It’s a car. I decide to hide. The long grass in the yard slopes downwards from the driveway. I lay down there, out of sight.

A white car turns into the yard. It spins a circle to face the way out. A man wearing blue and black gets out, gun in hand.

“Hello?” he calls out. “Nina? Anybody there?”

I arrange my body in the grass to look broken and injured, start moaning a little.

He turns his head. I moan louder. The man comes closer, sees me lying in the grass and mud. “Nina?”

“Help me,” I croak. Words I remember to be magic.

“Nina, what happened?” he asked, coming closer. The gun remains trained on me. “Did they get you? Where are your children? Are they safe?”

“Help me. It hurts,” I whimper, reaching my right hand up to him.

He lowers his gun and leans over. In that moment, I grab at him, tripping him down into my arms. His gun goes off into me as he falls, but it doesn’t matter because finally, it’s time to eat. I bite into him–the taste of flesh is electric. All my senses light up. Hot blood gushes into my mouth, overflowing, dripping. As he jerks and twitches against me, I rip his shirt open and bury my teeth in his chest.

#

The sun had set, and I was sated. With the feeding, I had started to regain some sense of myself. At some point, I looked down on the face of the body I had been feeding on, and realised that I knew him.

A name floated to mind, grew stronger.

Eddie.

I remembered picnic tables, balloons, a barbecue. Janet, his wife in a flowered dress. A birthday cake with trick candles that lit back up after he blew them out. The candles had been my idea.

Eddie, my friend.

With that memory came another realisation; that his blue uniform, now soaked with dark, drying blood, was the same uniform that I was wearing, under the mud and grime. Emblazoned on his chest was a large badge of a river flowing under a star, and the words that I could now read: FALSE CREEK POLICE DEPARTMENT, FLORIDA.

I pushed the body away and scrambled to my feet. I wanted to retch, but it wasn’t something my body did anymore. My body liked what it had just ingested.

Instead, I remembered more things. Like why I was lying in the back garden, with my wrist cuffed to the garden pipe.

It was my set of cuffs, and I was the one who had cuffed myself there.

Now I recognised the house as my own, the two-storey farmhouse Joe and I picked out years ago, when we moved up north from Miami into False Creek, when times were happy. The house where we raised the kids together, where I raised the kids now, alone.

The glass in the door didn’t break because it was storm-proof, installed after the close shave we had with a tornado two years ago.

The grills had been more an act of a single mother’s paranoia last summer, when my house was spray-painted with obscenities calling me spic, puta, dyke. As a cop, I’d heard worse before. But whoever it was had come to my house and frightened my kids, and that spooked me. We weren’t close enough to our neighbours to get help quickly if anything happened.

The kids.

None of the lights in the house had been turned on, but I knew they were still inside, still awake. My children: Luisa, Nadia and Javier. They were probably watching me, had probably been watching it all.

#

I found the blanket on the front steps, the can of corned beef lying in glass beneath a window. The label was gone, and it was almost dented beyond recognition. I spent the night gathering up and piecing together the scattered shreds of the letter my children wrote to me.

As the sun started rising, I tried to read it. I didn’t get the giddiness now. Maybe because I wasn’t so hungry. Maybe it was the blood. Some parts of the letter were missing, or had disintegrated in the damp, and most of the words were no more than smudged markings. But still I pored over them, to make out isolated words: “Mom,” “scared,” and “help.”

I cradled the dented can and blanket to my chest, and cried. I understood that the food could no longer feed me, and the blanket could no longer give me warmth. But what mother would hunt her own children?

Eddie’s corpse was still lying there in the front yard. I made myself go back to it to search his body. His phone was useless by now, the batteries soaked. His walkie-talkie was still working, but no one responded, even when I tried all the channels. It was the same when I used the radio in the patrol car — just the empty crackle of static.

His gun was where it had fallen after he’d shot me — False Creek PD standard issue, a .40 caliber. I had the same one, but had thrust mine into Luisa’s hands, together with the keys to the house and my store of hunting guns and ammunition. By then, I was in the throes of the change, and there wasn’t enough time to explain what was happening.

I touched my bullet wound — a small dark circle in my abdomen. I should be dead.

One small bite on my upper arm had changed everything. The girl we pulled over on the highway had been hysterical, in panic, desperate to escape. It was such a small bite. Just part of the job. Driving home in my own car that day, I hit a concrete barrier. I was usually a good driver. I should have known then that something was wrong.

Eddie had come for us. He knew my car was in the repair shop and that we couldn’t get away. And look at how I repaid him. Que Dios me perdone, my mother’s old words came to mind. But my faith was faded, and my guilt insurmountable.

Still, I whispered the words, “Forgive me,” as I pressed the gun to Eddie’s head and pulled the trigger. Nothing I could do would help Eddie now, but so long as I was here, I had to keep my children safe.

#

In the backyard, I washed myself at the pipe with the useless cuff hanging from it, trying to rinse what blood and mud I could out of my hair and uniform. I knew I couldn’t wash away what I’d become, but I didn’t want to face my kids caked in gore.

Dripping with water, I approached the back of the house again and called out, “Luisa, Nadia, Javier! Can you hear me?”

I didn’t know if they had woken up. I didn’t know if they had slept at all.

“If you can hear me, stay on the second floor! Stay upstairs where you’re safe! But come to the window so you can hear me. I don’t know how long this will last.”

Three pale faces appeared at the window. Their features were indistinct, but I knew their shapes by heart, knew that it was my eldest, Luisa, who had her arm over Nadia, who hung back, half in shadow. My heart tightened as I saw the smallest face, with little hands pressed against the window. My baby, Javier, was only five years old.

Luisa opened the window. Her long black hair was tied up, and her eyes and nose were red. “Mom? Is that really you?”

Sí, querida, it’s me–for now. I don’t know how long this will last. Have you called your father?”

“We tried, but he’s not answering. We called everyone–Grandpa, Tío Ramón, Tía Inés — no one’s picking up.” Luisa’s voice trembled as she spoke.

Estate tranquila, help is on the way. I’m sure of it. Your father must have lost his phone.” For the children’s sake, I hoped Joe was alive, was fighting his way here.

“But listen to me, Luisa. You’re in charge now. Por si acaso, and I mean just in case only, if Daddy doesn’t come, you need to find the maps, study the interstate routes, and find your way to safety. Take all the guns. You’ll have to use–” I forced myself to choke out the words, “Use Uncle Eddie’s patrol car. I’ve left the keys in ignition.”

Luisa was crying. “Mom, I only just got my learner’s license. I don’t know if I can do this.”

Claro, puedes. You’re a good driver. Stay strong.”

My sixteen year old, she was too young for this. But what choice was there?

“Listen, kids. This is the last time I’m going to talk to you as Mommy, all right? I’m sorry, I’m sorry for everything that happened. The change was too sudden, too fast. I didn’t have time to say goodbye, so I’m saying it now. Where is my Nadia? Show me your face again.”

Nadia leaned forward out of the window. She brushed her long bangs out of her eyes.

“You look after your brother, never let him out of your sight! ¿Entiendes?

“Okay,” Nadia said. She never spoke much, but she always kept her promises. Nadia was my tough eleven-year-old cookie. When Joe and I got divorced, Luisa was distraught, but Nadia kept going on, demanded that we carry on with daily life. I called her my little cop. Nadia would keep Luisa strong.

But for Javier–oh, my baby–I couldn’t control the sob that came. Luisa lifted him to the window so I could see him better.

“Javier, mi hijito, be a good boy, always listen to your sisters okay?”

“Mommy!” Javier said, trying to wrestle his way out the window. “Why can’t you come inside?” He didn’t understand that I wasn’t human anymore.

“Listen, kids, this is very important. I’m not your Mommy anymore. Don’t let me or anyone like me into the house, whatever we say. I’m dangerous, and I will kill you if you come near me. Do you understand? I won’t care who you are.

“If anyone gets close, shoot him first, in the head. Remember this, always in the head.”

#

I didn’t tell them where I was going but I think they knew. I walked away from the house onto the road to be out of sight from the children. I didn’t want to waste any more time. The hunger was coming back.

The sun was high in the sky. The town road ran straight down from the hill past my house towards the river crossing. There was not a single car to be seen. A small breeze rustled the trees. It was like any peaceful Sunday afternoon.

The barrel felt warm in my mouth. The last words I exchanged with my children echoed in my mind. Les quiero. Les quiero. With all of my heart, I love you.

I was going to shut my eyes. But a silhouette appeared against the bright horizon, stumbling over the top of the hill. It was Eddie’s wife, Janet, dishevelled, shoeless.

I put the gun away and ran towards her. “Janet!”

“Where’s Eddie?” she said. “I can’t find Eddie.”

Her eyes were unfocused. She didn’t recognize me. I didn’t know how to start apologizing, until she said, “I’m hungry.” Then I knew it was too late.

Past her shoulder, more people were coming. Ten, maybe more. They were no longer human. They were like me.

They would want my children. Together, they could break down the door and enter the house.

“Janet, I’m so sorry. For Eddie. For this.”

She shed no blood when I shot her in the forehead, just fell heavily without another sound. I made my way towards the mob, fighting to stay focused on my aim. I’d pick off individuals first, with the bullets I had left. And then it’d be hand-to-hand.

Every one I killed was one less for Luisa to deal with. And if they killed me, I’d at least have died doing what a mother was meant to do.

#

It’s dark now. So many bodies lie around me, but there’s nothing to eat. My left arm is gone. I don’t feel any pain. The only thing that hurts is the hunger.

A light comes on in the house, on the lower level. Yellow spills out a side window, shining on wet grass.

I snap stiff. The house. That’s what I’m fighting for. The prize belongs to me. I creep towards the light, near the back of the house.

The room is called a kitchen,
I remember. It is full of shelves and cabinets. Through the broken glass, I watch the little boy. He’s standing on a chair, reaching for a box on a shelf. He takes the box, tucks it under his arm, climbs down.

With both hands, he swings open the door of the fridge, takes out a carton. His cheeks are pink. His little hands are fat and soft. He turns around, sees me in the window, and freezes.

Mijo…” I said, faintly remembering the words to coax a child. “My baby…”

“Mommy?” asked the boy.

“My baby,” I said, touching the bars between us. “My baby, help me… I’m so hungry…”

He hesitates. The fridge stands open behind him. Then he holds out the things in his hands.

“Do you want milk and cookies?”

Sí, sí… Come here.”

He comes to the window but he is too short. So back to the chair he goes. He puts the milk and cookies on it, and drags it over, inch by inch, to me. All the time I am waiting.

The boy scrambles onto the chair. One arm scoops the boxes. The other arm leans on the back of the chair for balance. I wonder which one tastes better. Just a bit closer, and my one good hand will pull his little arm through the rails to my mouth. It wouldn’t be much. Not nearly enough. But I’m too hungry to care.

Steadying himself on the chair, the boy straightens his knees and begins to hold out the things in his arms to me. I throw out my hand–catch his wrist, pull it to me–but at the same time, someone jerks him back with force. I pull, but the person on the other side pulls harder. As the boy’s arm breaks free from my hold, it scrapes hard on the broken glass of the window pane. He cries out with pain. I shriek back with frustration. Then the hunger takes over. Eat whatever there is. I fall to licking up the bits of flesh and blood on the glass and over the windowsill.

#

The taste in my throat brings a sharp tinge of shock. I look up. Javier, his arm streaming blood, was sobbing. Nadia, her arms around him, had backed up against the opposing wall. Her fingers were locked together, white-knuckled. Her face twisted in revulsion as she looked up from Javier to me.

Milk had splashed across the kitchen floor. In the middle, the box of cookies lay where it had fallen from Javier’s giving hands.

Luisa burst into the room, gun in hand; she saw me, saw the kids backed away against the wall. “What happened?”

“Javier slipped away while we were sleeping. He came down here, because you wouldn’t let us take all the food up,” Nadia said in a clenched voice. “Aren’t you going to shoot her?”

Luisa glanced at me, stepped forward and then back, away from the spreading puddle of milk. She had rings around her eyes; she looked like she hadn’t been sleeping much, looked ashamed for having been caught sleeping at all.

“Shoot her!” Nadia said. “Like she said!”

“She protected us!” Luisa snapped back. “You saw them. There were so many. She fought them for us. Inside, she still knows who we are.”

“She just tried to attack Javier!”

“She can’t help what she does! That doesn’t mean we should kill her. She’s our mother!” Luisa turned to me, “Go! Or I’ll shoot you.”

Before I could respond, a car horn blared, loud and strong, from the front of the house. The kids started. Moments later, someone started rapping on the front door.

“Nina, kids, are you there? It’s me! Open up!”

Joe had made it after all. He was finally here.

“It’s Daddy!” Nadia said.

Luisa jerked her chin in the direction of the door. “Take Javier. Make sure it’s really Dad, and that he’s… still normal. Then find the first aid kit, and dress the wound.”

Nadia scrambled up, stopping only to grab a towel off a hook to wrap around Javier’s arm. Casting a last wary look at me, she carried Javier out of the kitchen.

“Go!” Luisa shouted, firing a shot past me.

I stumbled from the window. But I didn’t leave. I made my way to the front of the house, and crouched there in darkness near the door, listening to Joe tell the kids, “It’s going to be all right now. It’s going to be all right.”

#

I wanted to be happy. Joe cared. He had come back. And now he was taking the children. And I would be left alone with the house, a rotting corpse wandering its empty rooms.

I’d already lost everything. Joe had no right to swoop in and take the children away from me.

They’re my children. Mine.

I want revenge.

I want flesh.

The bodies in the yard. There’s a knife on one of them. And I know what to do with it.

#

I hear them carrying things to the car. They’re calling instructions to each other. Someone slams the hatch shut. Everyone is getting in, shutting the doors. The car engine starts. Wheels start rolling, then stop.

The car doors open again. The crunch of boots on the gravel as the man gets out to inspect his car.

“I don’t know why I didn’t notice this. Both the back tires are almost flat.”

“Can you change them?”

“Stay in the car!” A pause. “They may have been pierced.” A longer pause. “I only have one spare.”

“Can we take a tire from the other car?”

“I’ll take a look. We might take the other car instead, if it runs.”

The footsteps are slow, wary. I know there is a shotgun out, ready to shoot. I hear him opening the driver’s door of the patrol car.

“Doors are unlocked. Keys are here.” The engine starts to hum. “The car’s in good condition. Fuel tank’s nearly full.”

He gets out, leaving the engine running, starts walking around the patrol car. “The tires look okay.” He comes round to the trunk. The lid is stiff. He takes a breath and heaves it open with both hands.

This is when I lunge out at him. My only arm pushes back the barrel of the shotgun before he can reach it, and then I’m ripping out chunks of soft tissue and cartilage from his neck. My legs clamp around him. My mouth fills with the taste of meat. I don’t notice when we hit the ground. He fights me, but I’m too hungry to let go. He weakens, losing too much blood. I’m lapping it up as the juices run down my chin. I feast like never before.

Then I become aware of a screaming that goes on and on.

It’s my little boy, in the backseat of the other car, his mouth an open O, his eyes transfixed. His sister is holding him to her, white-lipped, silent.

I look into the eyes of my oldest, who is standing steps away from me, her gun aimed dead centre on my forehead. Her face is a hot mess of tears, but her hands are steady, just like I taught her.

She hesitates. I never told her how much she was like me, never told her that she was my secret favourite. She’s got to grow up now. Everything counts on it.

“Please,” I say.

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