By Jack Pencille
It happens slowly, as most infections do. There’s a bite somewhere you overlook, healed before you can connect the dots. Then come the night terrors and sweating, a dryness of mouth and a hunger for something. Of course, you just roll over, check the time on your phone (lately it’s been anywhere from two until four in the morning), chug one of the ten bottles of water you go through””unconsciously or half-awake””in the night. For a moment, you imagine something salty and tasting like pennies would better quench your thirst.
You pull a single throw blanket up over your naked body, up to your chin but leaving your calves uncovered.
It’s the week before midterms though and, in spite of the fever coursing through you, you keep it all to yourself. It’s nothing you haven’t dealt with before, being a junior in college. You take something for the fever, some DayQuil to get through the worse symptoms, and make sure to keep juice on hand at all times.
It helps but only barely.
You’re hungry all the time but you chalk it up to long nights in the library and long nights preparing presentations. It’s not uncommon for you to skip a meal. Didn’t one of your friends say protein helps keep hunger down? That must be why you’re craving a rare steak at one-thirty in a bed full of notecards.
On Sunday night, you go out for a late-night drive, ordering chicken nuggets and a burger. When you get back to your dorm room with your nocturnal loot, you scarf down the nuggets and carefully extract the beef from the burger, chewing happily as you set to work, the bun and pickles, forgotten as you peruse online journals to help you write your English Composition essay that’s due next Thursday.
You shrug it off, sip some iced black tea, and go back to studying for another half an hour before turning in for the night.
Then began the weight loss.
At first, it’s blissful. You lost some of the weight that lingered around your belly, your thighs, your hips. This little bug you caught had done what hours spent at the gym, months reading up on the new diets and years of deprivation could not. You felt lighter, healthier in a way. You smiled more, were noticed more by those previously unobtainable attractive people. And nothing felt better than being flirted with by people you could have only admired from afar.
Which transformed into panic and fear and illness soon enough.
A thigh gap was nice, but you kept shrinking away, unable to keep weight on. Your abdomen keeps shrinking to the point where people ask where you got your corset and, flustered, you have to explain you’re just sick right now. But people think you’re tightlacing like it’s going out of style again.
Elation turns to exhaustion and everything aches terribly, right down to the bone. Your fingers and lips turn blue and you’re always cold like a corpse in a blizzard. Wearing a sweater to every class as spring break approaches is far from ideal.
If you had water to sweat, you probably would have if you weren’t freezing to death.
Word gets around that you’ve become some supermodel who’s too good for food.
You have to cover up the blue that tinges your edges, always spending more and more hours at the mirror. You always miss a spot near a nail bed””and who knew human nails could be so brittle””or a blotch that crops up near your temple””and hair can be just as brittle””attacking each new bruise of frost with foundation and powder and spray.
In desperation, you try everything and try to find something to slake your constant hunger, constant thirst.
Energy drinks and vegetables come right back up in a haze of acid green as you kneel before a porcelain god.
You reach, fumble really, for a liver you bought on impulse, your blood crying out for the blood hidden behind cellophane. Starving and rabid, you shove the entire organ into your mouth, chewing, blood gushing over your lips as you try to keep it restrained, slurping up every drop.
You lick the Styrofoam clean and your belly cries out for more.
From then on, you keep a healthy selection of meat in your mini-fridge: Chicken thighs and breasts, liver when you can afford it, ground beef, pork chops. Fish never quite does the trick, though, so you stop trying. Plus, it’s more expensive and you’re still living on a college budget.
You spend spring break holed up in your room, simply gorging yourself on meat without gaining too much weight. And, no matter how much you eat, you’re always hungrier for more and it gets harder and harder to cut yourself off from the addictive squelch of soft, yielding flesh under your teeth.
They grow sharper, something you hadn’t anticipated. Meat and teeth, you assumed, had a relationship like concrete and knives, former dulling the latter.
But with the influx of meat and blood, your body becomes healthier. Thin and hungry, but lean like a predator proper. Once again people found you attractive, inviting you to join them in study groups and casual hangouts.
Girls, you notice, always smell so soft and inviting. Boys smell like power and hardness. Everyone else””in between, both, or neither””always smells soft, like you’d just love to run your tongue up their pulse, nibble at their shoulders.
You got asked out once.
It took forever and a day to get ready, soaking in a tub that smelled like cherry blossoms and warm vanilla, making your skin soft and silky. You shave all the hair that cropped up from malnutrition, making yourself a sleek creature. Polishing your teeth””they never seemed to dull anymore, always sharper the more you gorged yourself””you grin at yourself in the mirror with a wide maw, too many fangs, drool running over your chin before you dabbed at it like someone of good breeding.
Tonight, you were going to be worthy of love, however fleeting.
Naked, you select the outfit that made you look best, deep purple accented with gold, sliding soft fabrics over your exposed skin. You look in the mirror and realize you are such a regal creation: Agile and powerful, handsome and lean.
Stepping out, arm in arm with your beloved, you can’t help but notice the way they smell.
“Is it a new cologne?”
You feel your face grow hot with the typical embarrassment of being unobservant. One gentle, subtle inhale and you realize it’s the way you imagine they’d taste: soft and warm, inviting and powerful all at once. It makes your head spin and you clutch their hand in your dizziness. The mention something about you being clumsy and you laugh without showing your teeth.
They drive you out to the woods, where the two of you can be alone. The stars are big and bright and the moon just between half- and three-quarters-full. You curse the center console for dividing you two, hand resting over theirs. Were your nails always so sharp, so akin to claws?
They murmur something about a constellation, soft and quiet as though forests demand a dampening of sound the way libraries do. It’s a silence you are willing to entertain, content to offer a shoulder for them to lean on.
When they lean in, it’s not just smell anymore but a palpable taste lingering in your mouth, sending a cascade of drool over your chin. You want, need, crave more.
And it’s over before you can blink.
Your teeth sank into their throat, blood welling up in your mouth, pushing back the tide of drool. And you bit over and over, rending epidermis from muscle from bone from cartilage. You snap open their lower jaw, holding it like a burger as you slurp out the marrow, crunch the bones to get at more. When you’re finished with the jaw, you move to the skull draining it of the delicious gelatin that was once a person your thirst finally quenches. A collarbone pops off like part of a child’s toy and you chew as dogs chew bone-shaped biscuits.
You devour them wholly, constantly grasping and reaching and tearing for more, eventually leaving only nails and teeth and clothes and bloodstains.
Then it sets in, hot and guilty and shameful in your newly-filled belly, which gurgles a note of thanks for your servicing the most primal need. You scramble out of the car, screaming but to no one in particular.
How do you run from a monster when the monster is you? Not just something that coopted your skin, but really and truly is you?
And, for the first time, you’re no longer hungry.
Something tingles along your scalp, just along the hairline. You claw at your flesh, tearing chunks of bloody, velvety skin. The bone that branches off from your skull sets you off balance and you scream again from disorientation and from pain and from fear.
But you will be starving as soon as the meal digests, which shouldn’t be long at all. This you know as birds know how to migrate or as plants know how to follow the sun.
And you’ll be just as hungry as you were before. Pork and chicken and beef can only sustain you for so long, perhaps less now that you’ve had a true meal in your mouth and settling in your stomach. In fact, the thought of shoving animal meat into your monstrous face makes you want to retch but you don’t want to not be full
But for one intoxicating moment, you’re sated.