Welcome back to Free Fiction Friday at A Little Something... Wicked. This week is sort of special. I was invited to submit a selection for a fiction anthology, the proceeds of which will all go to charity. Every story in the anthology, titled Stardust Always, is inspired by the lives and careers of either David Bowie or Alan Rickman. The charity that's been chosen is St. Jude's Hospital. The event can be found here. The release date is set to coincide with National Cancer Survivors' Day, June 5th.
I chose to write a short piece inspired by The Hunger. As a forewarning, this story isn't erotica. If you enjoy it, please consider purchasing the anthology.
by Tucker McCallahan © 2016
"Oh my god! It's like walking onto the set of Evil Dead!"
"The original or that shitty remake?"
"Either. Wow. Is there a trapdoor that leads to the basement?"
"It's called a root cellar." I dropped my bags onto the dirty floor and gave my two companions a tired glare.
"Scary." Tina flipped a light switch and jumped when it worked. Light flooded the main room of my grandparents' cabin. She gazed around and made a face. "And this is your idea of relaxation?"
"No." I stretched and went to open a window. "I wanted to come alone, remember?"
"Uh huh." Rick strode through the room, one hand pulling the large cooler and the other dragging his suitcase. "You're not well enough to be alone."
"Thanks for the reminder, Captain Buzzkill."
"Be nice." Tina's hand trailed across my shoulders as she headed for the door. "We love you, remember?"
I said nothing. In seconds, Rick returned from the kitchen and went back outside to help Tina unload the rest of our gear. Standing there alone, the depression I couldn't seem to shake rose up and owned me. Nothing was worse than waiting to die, and lately, that's all I'd been doing. This trip, coming up to the mountains, was supposed to make me feel better. So far it wasn't working.
We devoted the next few hours to making the cabin habitable. Nobody had used it since my grandmother died, so we had twenty years' worth of dust, dirt, and rodent droppings to dislodge. My energy flagged after less than an hour, and Tina sent me outside to get some fresh air while she beat an area rug like it had personally offended her.
The view of the mountains was spectacular. The cabin was far enough into the foothills to be considered remote, but civilization was only about an hour away. As I stared down into the far valley, I realized what had been pristine land when I was a child was now covered with houses.
It made me feel old.
I walked around the cabin, intending to enter through the back door. As a kid, I'd loved this place. My memories of it were full of fun, adventure, and magic. Now I noticed the gutter had rotted off the roof, and the forest had encroached to crowd up against the back of the cabin. The clearing I had played in was gone, consumed by multiflora rose shrubs. I shuddered. Getting through that bramble of thorns would require a flamethrower at this point.
I went back inside. Tina chattered at me, but I ignored her. I went back to the bedroom I'd slept in as a kid and uncovered the tiny twin bed. The old mattress stank like mold and felt damp to my hands.
"I inflated an air mattress in the other bedroom, babe. Why don't you go lie down in there and I'll get this room set up?"
Rick stood in the doorway, a roll of duct tape around his wrist and a Dewalt cordless drill in his hand. He'd taken his button-down off and wore a plain white T-shirt that already showed his perspiration. He was everything a healthy man in his mid-forties should be, and I hated him just a little bit for that. I forced out a thank you and went to what had always been my grandparents' room.
I didn't think I'd be able to sleep surrounded by the scent of decay and memories of dead relatives, but surprisingly enough, I drifted off quickly, birdsong and the hum of Rick's drill in my ears.
"Wake up, sleepyhead."
I blinked and rolled to find Tina leaning over me.
"Hey." My mouth was bone dry. "What time is it?"
"Four-thirty. Why don't you get up and help me make dinner?"
I climbed off the air mattress with Tina's help. My left shoulder hurt. The damn port they'd put in for chemo always ached if I slept on my side. I caught a glimpse of my reflection as we went into the kitchen and ran my hands through my hair; the back was sticking straight up. Tina giggled at me.
"I liked the bedhead."
"Oh yeah, I'm a stud."
"Always." She kissed my cheek and pointed at the counter. "Why don't you make the salad?"
"He went hunting."
"He's hunting alone?" My face showed my shock. "He doesn't know these woods!"
"Calm down, Grizzly Adams. He's got his cell." She chuckled. "He doesn't want pasta tonight, and I told him if he wanted something else he'd have to go kill it himself."
"Mornings are the best time to hunt around here."
"Well, when he comes back empty-handed, you can razz him mercilessly about his lack of knowledge and skill."
We managed to light a burner on the gas stove without setting the cabin on fire. Tina sautéed slices of zucchini for the pasta sauce while I cut up cucumber and tomato. Before we knew it, dinner was ready and the sun was dropping toward the horizon.
Rick was nowhere to be found.
Tina stood between the cabin and the SUV, her phone held aloft as she sent yet another text message.
"Service sucks here!"
"Do you know which way he went?"
I sat on the edge of the sagging porch and loaded the clips for my Beretta. The M9A3 was new, and I'd never fired it anywhere but at a range. Vivid memories of my grandfather shooting coyotes from this porch played through my mind as I loaded the gun and slipped the spare clips into my pocket.
"No. Over there?" Tina waved her phone toward the thick woods that crowded the cabin. "Do you think he's ignoring me?"
"He's probably not getting the texts."
"I don't think you should go looking for him."
"And if he fell or sprained an ankle, and he's sitting out there waiting for help?"
Tina chewed her lip. I could almost hear her thoughts. She was worried I wasn't well enough to go tramping around the woods, and she was right. I didn't have the stamina for it, and the sun was sinking.
"I'll go with you."
"What if he makes it back to the house?"
"We'll leave a note."
"Tina, have you ever gone hiking?"
"It's getting dark. You'll slow me down."
"Look. If I don't go now, I'll run out of daylight before I run out of energy."
She dashed over to the SUV and grabbed a huge roadside flashlight. I slid the gun into its holster and took the light from her.
"I won't be gone long."
"What happens if you don't find him?"
"You drive out of here, and as soon as you get a good cell signal, you call the cops."
"OK." She wrapped her arms around her torso. If she kept gnawing on her lip she was going to make it bleed. "Go."
I slipped the light into my backpack and brushed my lips over Tina's. I had no idea what Rick took with him when he left; Tina hadn't paid attention. I wouldn't have gone anywhere without a first-aid kit, matches, water, and a good knife, but I'd spent every summer here for over a decade. Most of the wildlife was harmless, but we had cougars, coyotes, foxes, rattlesnakes, and copperheads that weren't so innocuous. I'd grown up with a healthy respect for wild animals.
I walked straight into the trees, checking the setting sun as I went. I really didn't have much time before I'd be walking blind, and a sense of urgency propelled me forward. Rick, Tina and I had been a trio for over twenty years. A pang of guilt hit. Rick agreed to this trip because of me. I hoped like hell he wasn't hurt.
Forty-five minutes later, twilight had fallen. I needed to turn back. My lungs burned from the thin mountain air. My lower back and thighs were on fire, too. I stopped where I was and swung my backpack off. I cracked open a bottle of water and took a pain pill. I capped the bottle and was zipping the pack when the sound of running water filtered through the rest of the forest noises. I'd made it to the creek.
As a kid, I'd traced the creek up and down the mountain. I could follow it through the woods to the clearing that wasn't clear anymore, and then make it back to the cabin. The idea of skirting an entire field of brambles and thorns didn't thrill me, but it was better than walking blind in absolute darkness. Heartened that I had physical landmarks to guide me back, I headed for the water.
I almost tripped over Rick.
My guts surged up into my throat. He wasn't hurt; he was dead. I knelt, swallowing the bile and blinking back tears, and pulled the big flashlight from my backpack. I looked him over, trying not to touch him. He was very pale. Blood had leaked from two rips in his throat and pooled under him.
Staring at the injury, the image of a cougar sprang into my mind. Cougars used their big paws and claws to trip their prey, and then held it down while delivering a kill-bite to the throat that usually broke the neck. They had massive fangs and a jaw powerful enough to drag down elk and moose.
I shone the light around. I couldn’t see any drag marks or signs of a chase. Rick's rifle lay on the ground not two feet away. I forced myself to shine the light on my dead lover again. He had no other injuries, not even to his hands. If the animal was hungry, there would've been flesh missing. If Rick had surprised it or run from it, he would've been clawed up. My confusion and grief turned to fear. Full darkness had fallen. Hungry cougar, spooked cougar, feral cougar–I'd take D, none of the above.
Looping the light's carry strap over my arm, I shrugged the backpack up onto my shoulders and picked out the edge of the creek. I needed to get back to the cabin. Tina would fall apart over this; we'd been preparing for my death, not Rick's. We had to call the county sheriff. We'd have to tell Rick's parents and his brother. I wept as I walked, guilt, grief, and anger snarled in my head.
Hiking back took forever. When the glow of the cabin's electric lights finally appeared in front of me, relief spread through me like an antidote. I found a burst of energy I didn't know I possessed, made it to the porch, and stopped.
The front door was wide open.
Fear flooded my mouth with an awful bitterness. The sweat down my back and over my forehead suddenly felt ice cold. I drew the Beretta, thumbed off the safety, and moved through the doorway.
The living room was a mess. The coffee table looked like kindling. A standing lamp lay on its side, shade askew, bare bulb spilling light across the floor.
Tina lay on the floor. At first I couldn't make sense of what I saw. My brain needed time to put the puzzle together. Somebody crouched behind Tina, as if holding her in an embrace. Its mouth pressed to Tina's throat, and as I brought the gun up, it glanced up at me, its mouth smeared with blood.
"Let her go."
It ignored me, lowering its face back to wounds identical to the ones I'd seen on Rick.
"I will shoot. Let her go."
When it continued to ignore me, I took aim and shot it. My bullet hit its shoulder, punched through, and ended up in the hallway wall behind it. It stared at me, though it didn't stop sucking at Tina's neck. I emptied my clip into the thing with no effect.
I reloaded. I didn't know what else to do. This thing had no fear; not of me, the noise, or the gun. I'd just chambered a fresh round when it let go of Tina. She slid out of its arms onto the floor with a dull thud.
"Save your bullets."
I froze. Its voice was musical. I couldn't tell if it was male or female, and it didn't really matter. Its face was as beautiful as its voice.
"You aren't in any danger." It seemed to think about its words and then smiled. "Well, not danger from me anyway."
"You just killed my family. I think I'm pretty much fucked."
"I don't know what that means."
"It means I don't believe you."
"I do not require your belief." It gazed at me, its nostrils flaring as it inhaled. "You are...wrong."
"Wrong." It stretched slowly, its body undulating like a serpent though it appeared to be fully human. "Unwell."
"I have cancer."
"You are unfit for feeding."
That struck me as funny. This thing was telling me the same thing I'd been telling myself for months: I wasn't good for anything. The adrenaline I'd been operating on ran out, and fatigue swallowed me as I laughed hysterically. I backed up against the wall beside the open door, gun up. I tried not to choke on my laughter as I slid down the wall to sit on the floor.
The androgynous creature stood and approached me.
"You are dying."
"Yes." I struggled to get a good breath. "So it doesn't matter whether you want to eat me or not."
The thing sank down beside me. It touched my face with a slender finger.
"Do you wish to die?"
"If you could life forever, would you wish it?"
"What's the catch?"
"I do not understand."
"What's the price for living forever?" I glanced at Tina. She never moved or made a sound. "Nothing good comes without a cost."
"True." It regarded me with interest. "You presume living forever would be good."
"Better than dying."
"You presume death would be bad." Its gaze followed mine and landed on Tina. "She enjoyed our communion."
"Doesn't look like it. Looks like she fought like hell."
"Some fight." It shrugged. "Some do not."
"Guess that depends on how badly they want to live."
It looked into my eyes and my pulse sped. It had no iris, just solid green eyes with a vertical pupil like a snake. Its voice came out in a whisper.
"How badly do you want to live?"
That was the question I asked myself repeatedly over the last year. Every time I went for radiation, every time I had a chemo drip, every time I begged off doing something because I felt like crap, I asked myself if it was worth it–if I wanted to work so hard to beat the disease that might win anyway.
I had my answer, finally.
"Bad enough to fight for it."
"Nothing good comes without a cost."
"You would fight for such a small amount of life."
"You would wish to live forever then?"
I thought about it. If I was willing to fight for my life now, what would I do to live forever, to never face death? But even as I thought the question, my brain clicked on and I voiced my answer.
"I don't want to watch anymore people I love die."
"Are their deaths more important than a stranger's passing?"
I blinked; it was a good question.
"To me, yes, but to the universe, I suppose not."
"You know." I gestured with my hands, the Beretta still clutched in one. "Life. The universe. Everything."
"I do not understand."
"You don't spend much time around people, do you?"
"For many years I lived among men." It sat back on its haunches and studied me. "In another land, across the water. Things were different then."
A long silence passed, and it wasn't comfortable. I didn't like the way it stared at me, unblinking and contemplative.
"You never told me the price for immortality."
"You would not pay it."
"I'd have to kill people, wouldn't I?"
"All living things must feed."
It took great care to move slowly. Its cool fingers stroked my face. Its touch was soothing, almost lulling, though my heart beat so fast it seemed to stutter and trip.
"Think of it. You could join me. Live free, go where you choose, do what you choose."
"What about family? Lovers? Children?"
"The families of multitudes will live in you."
"Because I killed them."
"Their lives will sustain you."
Despite the depression I'd suffered for months, this wasn't a difficult choice at all. I didn't want to die, but I certainly didn't want to spend eternity eating people alive, like cancer. I shook my head, never breaking eye contact with the strange creature.
"Then I shall leave you to your slow death."
It rose with uncanny grace and walked out the open door into the night. I trembled so hard against the wall it hurt. The relief of surviving was almost as strong as the guilt of it. I made myself take slow, even breaths and tried to slow my fluttering heart.
An arm snagged me from around the edge of the door.
I slid through the doorway to end crushed up against the creature's chest. Its arms were steel bands, its breath hot on my throat. I fought like a madman, but it didn't budge. Its shriek hit my eardrums like shards of glass. The fingernails on one of its hands grew into talons. With one stab, it pierced my throat.
All the heat flowed out of me. I shivered uncontrollably, clutching at it. Dizziness swept over me and knocked me off my feet. Pleasure coursed through me like a morphine injection. I was floating in perfection and had no desire to move. I was going to drown in bliss.
Its face appeared in front of me, hovering like an apparition.
"Why?" I whispered.
"It's what I do."
Using one of its talons, it sliced its wrist and pressed it to my lips. Unable to resist, I lapped at what flowed into mouth. It chuckled.
"What we do now. Together. Forever."
Inspired by Whitley Strieber's novel and the David Bowie film, "The Hunger."
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Once again, thanks so much for reading! Comments are, as always, craved and appreciated.
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