by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Think of it like the best macaroni and cheese you’ve ever had. No neon yellow Velveeta and bread crumbs. I’m talking gourmet cheddar, the expensive stuff from Vermont that crackles as it melts into that crust on top. Imagine if right before you were about to tear into it, the mac and cheese starts talking to you? And it’s really cool. It likes Joy Division more than New Order, and owns every Sonic Youth album, and saw you in the audience at the latest Arctic Monkeys concert, though you were too stoned to notice anything but the clearly sub–par cheesy mac you’d brought with you.
And what if he—I mean “it”—were really hot? Tall and lanky and weirdly well muscled, with bright blue eyes and ginger hair? So, he smells like the best meal you’ve ever eaten, but you kind of want to bone him too. Can’t have it both ways. You aren’t a necro. But a boy’s got to eat—maybe you could just nibble a bit at the edges? A part he won’t miss, and then fuck the rest of him. Eat an arm or something. He can still fuck with one arm. Not that well, though. Probably wouldn’t like it. Okay, a hand. Who ever needed a left hand? Then you remember that Jack—that’s his name, the mac and cheese—plays lacrosse. That’s probably where he got all those yummy muscles. You need two hands for lacrosse.
A pinky? Damn, you might as well starve yourself.
And you had it all planned out. You and Jack have shared an art class for the last three weeks. You were going to admire the mobile he’s been making (a twisted metal tower dangling with shattered CDs and beer tabs), look deep into his eyes, invite him back home with you to play Halo or smoke hash or whatever, and then devour him in the woods off of Route 25. Those woods are the local hunting range. You’ve done it at least a dozen times before, though not to your actual classmates at Edward R. Murrow High, your newest school.
Liking your meal too much to kill him? That’s a first.
“Pizzicato Five?” you say, catching on to the tail end of Jack’s sentence. “Who’re they?”
His eyes light up. Not literally, but they get really large and you can see the blue of his irises all spangly and flecked around his dilated pupils. Bug eyes, you usually call that look.
“Dude, they’re awesome,” he says. “Harajuku pop. Yeah, I know, you’re thinking about that Gwen Stefani crap, like, ‘I totally thought Jack had better taste,’ but don’t worry, this is the real stuff. It’s all ironic and postmodern. James Bond on a Nipponese acid trip in a bukkake club.”
“Wow,” you say, ’cause honestly you can only deal in monosyllables at this point.
“Hey, we can walk to my place from here. You wanna come over? I have a few of their albums.”
So you don’t get anywhere near Route 25. Which is good. You don’t want to eat him, and you can still smell your leftovers there. The whole thing is weirding you out. You—I don’t know—you like him. Like like him. You think you had a little sister once who would say it just like that. You don’t remember eating her, but you can’t be sure. And what would Jack think if he knew you were some monster who couldn’t even remember if he ate his sister alive?
So you try to be engaging and charming and basically not stupid. You get into an argument about Belle and Sebastian.
“Sure, I like some of their stuff,” he says, smiling as though he knows you don’t agree. “The Life Pursuit has some great songs on it.”
“Twee copies of the Smiths aping Jonathan Richman’s airy earnestness and none of his insanity.”
He laughs, and you stumble on the grass. “Hold back, Grayson,” he says.
Jack gives you a long look, and there you go again, your heart beating too fast, pupils dilating, and you don’t really understand it, but that smell of his? That crusty mac–and–cheese aroma? It just got about a hundred times better. When he breathes in and out, it’s like he’s exhaling the essence of his marrow, the rough gristle in his joints, the blood that pulses as it rushes past the tanned skin by his collarbone.
He’s cutting through some woods behind the school, down an old deer path or something, and you’ve been too busy ogling his ass to pay much attention.
“Hey, what street do you live on again?” you ask.
“It’s off of Boward. I just like to cut through here sometimes. ‘I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.’”
“Dylan?” you guess.
He stops abruptly in between two trees that still have about half their leaves. His smile is sort of sad. “Robert Frost,” he says, and you don’t think this is a good time to mention that you’ve never heard of him. Probably some emo folkie like Sufjan Stevens.
“Grayson,” he says, his hands deep in his pockets. With anyone else it’d be fidgeting, but with Jack right now, the gesture is more like Please fuck me.
Your voice is sort of a squeak. You can smell the impending sex like it’s a bum in the park.
Then Jack goes and starts laughing again, and takes his hands out of his pockets. “It’s funny. Everyone thinks you’re weird,” he says. “But you’re all right, Grayson.”
“Hey, you, too.”
And you think, okay, a fuck would have been better, but you sort of like the idea of listening to this Nipponese acid trip album with him. He still smells like the best meal you’ve never tasted.
The sad tale of how I, Philip A. Grayson, became infected with a brain–devouring prion and was subsequently partially cured.
Part the first. I don’t know who I was. I don’t know how I caught it. The prion, I mean—this twisted, misshapen little bit of protein with even less autonomy than a virus, but one hell of a bigger punch. Ever heard of mad cow disease? They told me my prions are only found in bacteria that gestate at the bottom of landfills at high temperatures. It has to enter the host through the mucus membranes. That means it has to be drunk, snorted, dripped, or anally inserted. Yeah, I don’t want to know what the fuck I was doing either. It’s too bad, really, that I remember my name.
Part the second. I’ve killed a lot of people. I ate all of them, brains first. Not because I live off of gray matter or something, but because that’s the best part. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea. They loved brains so much they nearly killed themselves with this other prion: transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. They called it kuru. Laughing sickness. Talk about dying happy.
Part the third. My prion is too rare to have a name. Like kuru, it mods my behavior in a major way. Well, I don’t know if you noticed, but it makes me want to eat people. Most of the time it gets rid of all of its host’s higher brain functions to make the whole devouring people compulsion work better. Frontal lobes and Joy Division obsessions tend to be pretty incompatible with the sudden overpowering urge to eat your girlfriend’s eyeballs.
Part the fourth. These scientists got to me before the mad proteins had a chance to do more than nibble. They gave me this drug that half–worked. My prions can’t reproduce, and they can’t devour my brain, but they still rattle around in there, jumping up and down on my amygdala every time I smell a human. The prions gave me these hyperactive pheromones, so I can do this thing where I lean in and smile and people go all bug–eyed and it’s like they turn into zombies or something. Well, until I start to eat them. You’re probably wondering why these benevolent scientists would part–cure me and then let me go into the world to seduce/eat people with my mostly intact brain functions. Don’t be stupid—of course they didn’t. When they figured out what had happened, they locked me in some padded cell. I ate the security guard and escaped.
One last thing: About that frontal lobe the parasite didn’t quite devour? I lost enough that I don’t feel too bad about killing people. The way of the jungle and all that. It only bothers me sometimes. Like when they love Joy Division. Like when they laugh.
Jack’s place is a little intense. It’s a stone mansion on a cul–de–sac of its own, with Pentagon–style security. One ten–digit code to get through the gate outside, a different twelve–digit code to get through the front door. You half–expect the knob to check his fingerprints.
“Dude,” you say when the fort seems to have been breached, “this place is scary.” There’s not so much furniture, but every beige and mauve piece looks like it cost a fortune. Jack shrugs, a little uncomfortable. “My dad,” he says. “He’s obsessed with security. His friends keep calling him about some escaped nutcase that might be in Colorado. He’s gotten paranoid.” You feel sick, but try not to show it. Those scientists have tailed you for a year. What are the chances they’ve finally caught up now?
“What’s your dad do?”
“Ex–CIA,” Jack says. “Shattered his hip five years ago, so now he mostly does consulting.”
When you climb the staircase, you catch a whiff of gunpowder, but the only weapons you see are older—a row of antique and modern swords mounted on the wall.
“You know how to use these things?”
Jack sighs. “Sure. Dad’s made me do weapons training since I could walk. Guns, swords, martial arts. So long as there’s a potential for violent death, he’s interested. It’s all bullshit, really. Fake heroics so you can pretend you’re not really killing people. ‘One, two! One, two! And through and through / The vorpal blade went snicker–snack!’”
“Frost?” you say, though you know you’re wrong and you can’t wait for him to tell you so.
He smiles. “‘The Jabberwocky.’ Lewis Carroll. Dad likes that one ’cause it’s all about slaying an evil beast. You know, I think he’s happy about this nutcase on the loose? Always before it was rabid animals and no–kill tournaments and—Yeah. It’s a fixation.”
He looks away, holds himself too still, and you wonder what he’s not telling you about his dad’s “fixation.” Then he shakes his head and leads you the rest of the way up the stairs. Jack’s room is like a huge middle finger up the ass of the rest of the beige–on–white medicated–Vail–yuppie house. Every inch of wall space is covered with posters. A few sports stars but mostly musicians. Pete Townshend holding up a bloody hand; Gorillaz with their animated tongues lolling; Johnny Rotten grinning like a redheaded demon pixie; all of Devo with their weird space suits and jerky, vacant expressions. There’s a walk–in closet in back, and when he opens it, you see a few thousand CDs and vinyl albums lined neatly against the wall.
“I’ve got a few hundred gigs of MP3s, but vinyl is better, I think.”
And if you weren’t turned on before. “Fuck me,” you say. “This is amazing.”
He grins at you, awkwardness forgotten. “I’m lucky. So long as I practice, Dad tends to leave me alone.”
His killer sound system includes a subwoofer about the size of your torso, so the first notes of the recording are suitably deafening. He lies down on his thick beige carpet and then looks up at you, a gesture that might be an invitation if it weren’t so wary. You wonder what he thinks of you, and if you needed more evidence that something weird is happening here, that would clinch it. Part of the benefit of frontal–lobe–devouring prions is not needing to worry what the hell other people think. That’s a human thing. Not whatever you’ve become.
You sit down next to him. He smiles a little and leans back on his elbows, closes his eyes. You watch him. The floppy ginger hair falls over his forehead, almost concealing a long, thin scar that runs from his hairline down to his left ear. He nods in time to the screeching, childlike vocals, the swinging sixties rhythms, the psychedelic atonality.
“James Bond on a Nipponese acid trip,” you say, softly.
He opens his eyes, and now they’re not buggy at all. They’re hard and fierce and iced. He looks like he might kill you or kiss you. You hold your too–slow breath and realize that you don’t care which.
“I knew you’d like it,” he says.
The air comes out in a rush. You lean back against the carpet and look at the inside of your eyelids. You see red, like always. Muscle and bone and the crunch of your oversize molars tearing through. That’s what Jack would have become if he hadn’t mentioned Joy Division at the end of class. And even now you can feel the heat of him beside you, the soft exhale of his pores, the smell that’s a little sweat and a little detergent and some shampoo with a surprisingly girly flavor—coconut? Hibiscus? How could someone who uses hibiscus shampoo look so suddenly dangerous? He moves abruptly. You wait like you might fall on a blade.
But no, the door is opening, someone else is in the house. Slowly, too slowly, you turn around.
“Jackson,” says the man who must be the father. He wears khakis the color of his furniture, and a brown polo shirt. “Your target is still clean.”
If Jack was icy, his dad is absolute fucking zero. His eyebrows are so large and thick they cast his recessed eyes in deep shadow, like a pit. His mouth is pursed, not enough to be called a frown, but damn if you don’t want to run straight out the window and make excuses later. Jack glances at you and then back at his dad. He turns off the CD, and the sudden silence is louder than any high–decibel subwoofer. You can hear his dad’s breathing, as slow and icy as the rest of him. Ex–CIA. He was probably their go–to for those “enhanced” interrogations.
“Sorry,” Jack mumbles, unrecognizable. “I was getting to it.”
“I can see,” says the ice man. “I’ve just heard from Miller again. That creature they’re tracking definitely passed through here. I need you to be ready.”
“Sorry,” Jack says again.
The dad turns to you now, all cool speculation. You know without even trying that there’s nothing your special pheromones can do to thaw this guy. He thinks you’re a cockroach. He wants to stamp you out. Can he tell what you are just by looking? But no, it’s impossible. If he knew, he’d shoot you on the spot and tell Jack to clean the mess.
Ice man leaves, a slight hitch in his step. Jack takes a deep, shuddering breath and slams the door shut.
You whistle. “He like that every day?”
Jack glances at you and then away. His blue eyes dilate for no reason, and blood blossoms in his cheeks like roses. You swallow.
“He’s… you know.”
You try to imagine life with someone like that. Your failure to do so feels like something broken, something sucking and desperate. Because you know the ice man—as only one cracked soul can recognize another.
“‘But my dreams, they aren’t as empty.’” You can’t sing, so you just say it. But you remember the rest of the line: “‘As my conscience seems to be.’”
Jack starts, like someone poked him, and then sags against the wall. He laughs, but it doesn’t sound like laughter.
“My dad hates The Who,” he says.
“Your dad’s a dick.” For a moment you think he might take your hand.
I said I don’t know who I was, but that’s not strictly true. No invading twist of genetic code is that efficient. My hippocampus has been wiped pretty clean, but fragments remain. Hell, for all I know I remember everything, and just suppress it, like Iraq vets who can barely find Baghdad on a map. But here’s what I think I know. I had a sister. She was younger than me and dumb in that dumb little sister way, which means that she’ll probably grow up to be a neurochemist and invent the cure for spongiform encephalopathy. But I remember her loving Boy Meets World and High School Musical (all three) and the direct–to–DVD Olsen twins movies (in particular Passport to Paris). We had a dad, but I don’t know what he did. No mother, as far as I can tell. Dad had a thing for banana plants. He refused to buy regular Chiquita bananas, but he’d bring home any other variety he could find: tiny brown ones, giant green ones, skinny orange ones with flesh as hard as an apple and as sour as a lime.
He had a greenhouse filled with banana plants that fruited about once every two years, and the fruit was never edible. “They’re going extinct, you know,” he would say to me and my sister in the supermarket, tapping the clusters of normal yellow Cavendish bananas he’d never allow in the house. “A few more years and human carelessness will have destroyed every banana plant on earth.” Why? Some sort of cancer that turns them red and as hard as bricks. I know more details, but you don’t want them. Same old story since Noah: Humans are lousy stewards of the earth.
I don’t remember if I ate him. I don’t remember much of anything until I woke up in that lab. Just snatches. Hunger slicing through my muscles like an itch that could only go away if I peeled off my own skin. Blood like steam off a lake, warm and misted in my nostrils. And meat, raw and salty, filled with bones that caught in my throat and brains that slid down like oysters. Everyone is anonymous when I pull them apart. No one has a name when I eat them. Not even my father. Not even my sister.
Not even Jack.
The girl two seats down from you in the bleachers thinks you’re cute. You are cute—probably even before the prion problem, and certainly afterward. She has short brown hair and a nice–ish smile, though you could do without the braces. Those make nasty marks if she decides to fight back. You decide to smile after the second time she glances over her shoulder and giggles.
You have to eat sometime, after all, and the Jack situation has, in practical terms, made you go hungry. Mac–and–cheese himself is running across the field now, yelling at one of his teammates to pass him the ball as he guns for an opening in the opposing team’s lines. His green jersey is drenched in sweat and clings to his muscles in a way you know makes you look as bug–eyed as the girl with braces. You’ve overheard enough to know that she’s a good mark—here from out of town, visiting some friends. If you do this right, you might get to stay in Colorado for a few more weeks, at least. It’s funny—you usually care about finding a new town as much as you used to care about finding a new supermarket. Just another place to buy meat.
On the field Jack violently checks another player. They fall to the churned–up turf while the ball sails into the net. The crowd cheers, even though Jack gets fouled. The goal is good. Jack is a lot more violent on the field than he is off of it. But then you remember that strange, fierce way he looked at you for a moment yesterday afternoon. You remember the scar on his forehead and his ice man dad.
At halftime he comes over to the bleachers, breathing hard and grinning. A few other students give him high fives. You hang back, knowing he sees you and wondering if he’ll say something. It’s Saturday. You’ve never come to a game before. The whole field smells ripe, hundreds of walking, talking, laughing Happy Meals, and even from a few feet away, Jack smells better than all of them. For a moment you contemplate leaping over the bleachers and just eating him in front of the whole crowd. You’d probably get at least a few bites in before the police come. Maybe they’d even use deadly force, seeing as how you’re clearly a rabid beast, and finally solve all your problems. Saliva pools in your mouth. Jack looks up at you.
You won’t eat him. No matter what.
“Grayson,” he says with a half smile. He climbs the bleachers and sits next to you. “You like the game?”
You breathe very slowly. His arm brushes against yours, slick with his sweat. You have such a raging hard–on you can only hope he doesn’t look down.
“Nice,” you say. “You always that aggressive?”
Jack shrugs, but his grin is pleased. “If I need to be. We’re winning, aren’t we?”
Jack looks at you quickly and then away, and once again you’re enthralled by his countervailing waves of awkwardness and ferocity. “Grayson, about yesterday… my dad…”
“He’s not here, is he?” you say, playing at being scared, though actually the ice man does sort of scare you.
Jack laughs. “God, I hope not. Dad barely tolerates extracurriculars. He thinks I should be training… Hey, you want to go into the city with me tonight? I’ve got an extra ticket to Modest Mouse.”
This would be marginally appealing even without the additional bonus of Jack, but you look back down at the braces girl, now chatting with her friends. Your hunger is starting to feel like that first time, a longing that cuts into your muscles and makes the world turn red. You can’t go much longer without a meal.
“Sorry,” you say. “Can’t.”
You know you ought to offer a better explanation. Homework or community service or a part–time job. But you don’t want to lie to Jack.
So you hurt him instead.
“Okay,” Jack says. He looks away. The game is starting again. He walks back onto the field. Deliberately, knowing he’s still looking, you move so you’re right behind the girl. You smile at her.
“Haven’t seen you here before,” you say.
She goes bug–eyed. She blushes. You can smell her blood like it’s already broken the skin. “Visiting from Boulder,” she says. She says other things. You can’t quite hear her. Jack is staring at you from the edge of the bench. Even from here you can see the ice in those blue eyes. Like he wants to kill you.
You arrange to meet the girl—she has a name, but you try not to remember it, easier that way—in the parking lot in an hour. You tell her about some concert you have tickets to, would she like to come? In a converted farmhouse just outside the town limits. You wonder why you always get away with this routine. Like none of these girls or boys ever actually listened to a thing their guidance counselors told them about date safety. Sometimes you want to shake their shoulders and yell, “Hello? Doesn’t this sound strange to you?”
Whatever. You’re hungry.
The game is almost over when Jack’s dad walks onto the field. His limp is more obvious now, but it doesn’t make him less threatening. The referee stops the play and yells at the ice man for a few moments before deciding it’s hopeless. Jack doesn’t say anything, just walks off the field with his shoulders stooped. You wonder what’s happened—did he forget target practice again? You wait for him to come back, but instead he grabs his gear and leaves with his father. He glances at you once. You can’t see his face from so far away, but somehow you know he’s afraid. I need you to be ready, the ice man said yesterday. Ready to kill a monster?
You’re not as careful as you should be when you meet the girl after the game. You don’t check if anyone sees you leave together. You don’t even bother to have a conversation once she gets in the car. The doors are locked. The prions have done their job—she has entered a permanent bug–eyed state. Her pulse speeds up like old faithful when you look at her. You’re pissed that you have to do this. Angry like you haven’t been since you first woke up in the lab. About the normal life stripped away, at the maniac left behind. You want to be at that Modest Mouse concert with Jack so bad your stomach hurts. But you can smell the food beside you, and the urge to eat it now, at the intersection two blocks away from school, is almost overpowering.
It’s dark by the time you get to the woods. By now even braces girl is starting to get a little worried, but you tune her out. You don’t like it when they scream. Really, you don’t like it when they’re alive at all. Best to just knock them out and be done with it. But you hate to mess up the car, so you make up some excuse about the engine breaking down and stop in the middle of the gravel road. You know from experience that no one will find you.
“Hey,” braces girl says, “I think I want to go back home. This is a little—”
“Yeah, hold on, I have to see what’s wrong with the car.”
She nods, nervously. You get out, pretend to look at the engine, walk back around to her side. “Something’s smoking,” you say. “I should probably call for a tow. Could you get out for a second? I think the number’s under the seat.”
She nods, reassured, though you sure as fuck don’t know why. This is the worst part. The last moment they trust you, when some part of them must know they shouldn’t. She opens the door.
She gets out.
The prudent serial killer’s guide to avoiding the cool, yet bureaucratic, hand of the law.
- Move around! Superheroes call them lairs; police officers call them crime scenes.
- Blend in. In colonial Massachusetts a Quaker living alone with cats had a front–row ticket to a witch trial. In twenty–first–century America, a solitary lifestyle is still a sign of deviance. I’m about seventeen, so I go to high school. Lots of high schools. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to forge credentials, and all the teachers love a good student.
- Vary your targets. I know, the victims are supposed to be the telltale heart of serial killing. The fatal flaw: Every killer likes their type. Bad idea. I’ve eaten big jocks and old ladies. I’ve raided funeral parlors (not recommended: formaldehyde is to corpses what the Kraft factory is to Vermont cheddar). I’ve even put an ad online!
- Use your brains! Or someone else will eat them for you.
The girl stares at you. You stare at her. The hunger feels like knives delicately inserted into your stomach and pushed through your spine.
And then she shrugs, takes a step forward, and kisses you. Perfect opportunity. A kiss is like a non–prion version of eating someone. But you just clench your fists and return it. Why not? The braces aren’t so bad. You imagine she’s Jack. That’s better.
“Grayson,” says Jack. “Step away from her.”
The girl breaks it off first, looks over your shoulder, screams. You turn around, a sudden warmth dulling the sharp edges of your hunger. Jack stands in front of the thick row of trees on the side of the gravel road. He has a gun. Despite the prion problem, you haven’t had much interaction with guns in your life. This one looks big and black and shiny. Jack looks like he knows how to use it.
“Funny, I didn’t peg you for the jealous type, Jack.”
He grimaces, but the blush staining his neck and ears probably isn’t caused by anger.
“What the hell are you doing? Are you robbing us?” The girl’s voice is so high she’s nearly squeaking. She’s reaching out, like she might hold you for support. But you look at Jack, his steady hand and his big black pistol, and think that might not be the best idea.
“I’m saving your life,” he says.
For a moment you can’t hear a thing—not your frantic pulse, not your labored breath, not even Jack as he says something to the girl and gestures with his gun.
You wish he would just shoot already. You wish he would just fucking kill you.
But the girl, trembling now, shuts the hood and opens the driver’s side of your car.
“The keys are in the ignition,” Jack says. “Drive home.”
“But the engine…”
“Go.” She shuts the door. The car starts without a problem. She backs down the gravel drive, slowly at first, then so fast she nearly careens into a tree.
You and Jack are alone. He still holds the gun.
“Grayson… it’s true? What they said about you. What you—”
“Yeah, of course it is. Why the fuck else would I be out here?” You close your eyes. “Hurry up, will you?”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m putting the gun down.”
“So you can stick me with your samurai sword?”
“I’m not going to kill you.”
“Why the fuck not?”
“Open your damn eyes, Grayson!” The gun is in a holster around his jeans. His hair is spiky with dried sweat, but he’s changed out of his lacrosse uniform. His face is flushed red, like he might cry.
“We’ve got to leave. I put Dad off, but he’ll be here soon.”
He turns without another word and walks deeper into the woods. He’s quiet, though you can’t see how. When you follow him, the cracking leaves and twigs sound like an earthquake. Ten minutes later you reach his car. It’s parked in the middle of a road that’s little more than two ruts of packed dirt. You get in. You’re not sure what else to do. He drives smoothly, carefully, and yet with the same steady fierceness you’ve sensed in him all along.
“Jack, if you’re not going to kill me, you have to let me go.”
“Dad’s decided to get you on his own. He’s been nuts for something like this ever since he got invalided out. It’s not safe for you.”
You have to laugh. “Safe? Do you really know what I am?”
There must have been something in your voice, some tremor, because Jack looks at you now for the first time since you got into the car. “Grayson… they said… ZSE is rare, but there’s a few cases each year.”
“Zombie Spongiform Encephalopathy.” Zombie. That’s what Jack thinks you are. “You should kill me. Your dad wants you to kill me, right?
“Isn’t that why we’re running away from him?” You don’t even recognize the road signs now. He’s gone far off the highway, down some long country roads bounded only by soybean fields and great tubes of hay.
“Why are you so damn interested in me killing you, Grayson?”
“Why are you giving a ride to a raving cannibal?”
“Why, it isn’t true?”
“You sound just like him!”
“Then maybe he’s right.”
Jack abruptly slams his foot on the brake. The car skids a little on the deserted road before shuddering to a halt. When he turns to you now, he is crying, though you can tell he doesn’t know it.
“I watched you decide to not kill that girl.”
Is that what happened? You shrug, deliberately. “I’ve killed dozens of others.”
“Maybe you’ve changed.”
“Maybe I’m not that hungry. Maybe she smelled like brussels sprouts.”
“I don’t believe that.”
You’re very close to him now. Close to his long–sleeved T–shirt, his flushed cheek, his gun. “Why, Jack?”
“I don’t know. ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ and Harajuku pop and Ian Curtis—”
Hands and lips and teeth, and you’d forgotten—no, you’d never known—this way of knowing someone, this dissolution of self, this autophagy.
His shirt rips, but you’re careful with his skin.
Ian Curtis killed himself on the eighteenth of May, 1980. You might think this ironic of the lead singer of a band called Joy Division, but actually their name is a reference to prostitution in Nazi concentration camps. (Which might explain why their iconic song is called “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”) He hung himself, a death of slow asphyxiation, of utter helplessness for long minutes until he finally, mercifully, lost consciousness. There are certain theories of suicide that propose that the more self–loathing one feels, the more violent the method one chooses.
Elliott Smith (folksinger) stabbed himself in the heart with a kitchen knife. Nick Drake (folksinger) OD’d on antidepressants. A qualitative difference in self–loathing? Please. When you decide to check yourself out, the difference between a gun and a rope is how long it takes to tie the knot.
You stay in motels. And not the kind with friendly signs in primary colors and “Kids Stay Free!” deals on weekends. These motels have sputtering neon spelling “vacancy” and long rows of rooms, identical as LEGOs. The bathroom floors are coated with grime spread thin by lazy efforts to wipe it away. Sheets are haphazardly laundered. The second night, you see a bloodstain that covers half the floor. It blends well enough with the carpet and you don’t tell Jack. You’re hungry and you don’t like to remind him of what you are.
Jack pays for the rooms, and no one asks questions. For a last–minute escape, he’s managed well: a few thousand in cash, a box of emergency food supplies in the trunk, two swords, and three more of those big, black guns. You nearly vomited when he offered to let you use one. Now you just try not to look at them.
You haven’t eaten human flesh in ten days. You might have snapped before now, but Jack bought a haunch of pork from a local butcher. He couldn’t look you in the eye when he handed it to you. “Second thoughts about your charity case?” you asked, and felt the hollow reward of his silence.
Pork works. Not as well as warm human flesh, not even close, but at least you can keep away the worst of it, the insanity you remember from those first moments with the prion. Whatever madness you feel, whatever longings you have, are bound up in what you and Jack do late at night on scratchy sheets, and the only music you share is the hum of the hallway ice machine, the occasional rumble of pickup trucks speeding by on the country roads. During the day there are no lingering glances, tentative hand–holding, butterfly kisses. During the day you’re the zombie and he’s your keeper. At night he’s still afraid of his father, but at least he lets you see the fear. It descends like an army. It makes him pace up and down the room, makes him cry, sometimes vomit. You hate what he won’t tell you, and you hate knowing anyway.
The third night, his father calls. This is not the first time Jack’s cell phone has buzzed, not the first time he’s gone too still and too pale and you’ve wondered how much his ice man father did to him. But this time Jack picks up.
“I’m not coming back,” Jack says. He’s trying to sound tough, but you can see his fears as clearly as you can see his scars in the moonlight.
“I trained you for better than this.” Jack likes his speaker volume the way he likes his music: too loud. I can hear every word his father says.
“You trained me to be a monster.”
His father is silent for a few seconds. “You’re in room 303 of Jimmy’s Truck Lodge in Osler. I’m about ten minutes away. Let me finish this, Jackson. The boys at the agency have orders to kill that creature and anyone with him.”
“Dad, you’re not—”
“You should let me finish this.” The line goes dead. You wonder for a moment what he’ll do, but Jack doesn’t even hesitate. He rushes you out the door. It’s not hard to leave quickly—everything important is in the car. Jack is steady, so iced and cool that you wonder how much longer before he’s just like his father. Maybe that’s what this is really about—not loving you, not a sense of fair play, but one last, desperate ploy to not become a monster.
He gestures angrily at you. “Get in!”
“If I stay behind—”
“And anyone with him, remember?”
“Your dad wouldn’t…”
“Will you bet my life on it?”
“I could bite you. Make it look authentic.”
“Fuck you, Grayson.”
“Why does it matter? I’m a fucking zombie! You think even this cure they gave me will last forever? What the hell is wrong with you? Let your ice man dad kill me, and you can run away somewhere and have a decent life with some decent people.”
Jack isn’t steady now. He punches the door—solidly, enough to hurt. “You’re the only person— Fuck. You know, don’t you? Get in the car. Please.”
You knock him out.
It’s brief and efficient, to the jaw. You know how to incapacitate people. He only has time for one wide–eyed stare before he slumps into your arms, unconscious. You carry him back into the motel room and rip his shirt. You figure the shoulder’s as good a place as any. But when you look down, the light illuminates another scar, still–pink marks from stitches running across his collarbone. You swallow back bile and rip his shirt some more. Hopefully that will be enough.
Ice man is standing in the doorway when you turn around.
“So that’s what this is about?” he says. Of course you couldn’t fool him.
“No. Not really. I guess I never… I don’t know what they’ll do to him. Not if they think you two…”
“You stopped me from feeding,” you say.
“That didn’t look like feeding.”
“What would you know about it?”
He cocks his head. Then nods. “Okay. I stopped you from feeding.” You don’t think you’re imagining the hint of relief in his voice, the subtle loosening of tension in his arms. Then he shoots you in the shoulder. You just want this over with, but Jack is moaning on the bed, and you went through way too much trouble for him to ruin this now. You rush the ice man, which surprises him enough that he falls onto the concrete outside. You run past him, feeling the blood dripping down your arm, but not much else. The prions are good about pain. A few other guests have opened their doors at the noise. The ice man lets off another shot. It misses you.
You rush to a large, empty space at the edge of the lot. You don’t want to make this too obvious. It shouldn’t be much work for him to hit your head from this distance. But the next shots are so wide that you can’t even smell the lead.
“Come on,” you mutter when the ice man just stands there. Then he falls down. Jack stands behind him, jaw bruised, gun smoking. There’s a hole in the back of his dad’s head, and you can smell it from here. “You okay?” Jack asks, after you jog up to him. But he’s the one who’s shaking. Someone shrieks. The night clerk talks rapidly into his cell phone.
“I think the cops are coming,” you say.
“Yeah. It’ll probably take them a while.” You both look down at the corpse. Jack hauls him inside the room.
“Hurry up,” he says. You only have time for the brains, but that’s okay. They’re the best part.
We live in a little cottage in Mexico now, in a village so tiny that only the residents have heard of it. There’s a beach with good fishing, and a market once a month an hour away. Jack spoke some Spanish before, and we’re picking it up well enough. We go into town for the Internet, where Jack sells Mexican handicrafts on eBay.
I bought him a guitar for his birthday, but I ended up playing it. When I practice, he jokes about how good he’s getting. I wrote him one song, and sometimes I like it. I haven’t played it for him yet. Even now, it’s hard for me to guess what will make him go still and icy. Sometimes I think a part of him hates me.
I know Jack will kill me if I eat again. I imagine it sometimes, when I stare too long at some plump girl in a bikini and her smell reaches back into that prion part of my brain and I can feel the old hunger tearing at my skin. I imagine him playing Joy Division, Ian Curtis’s mournful voice almost scraping against the speakers, “Do you cry out in your sleep / all my failings exposed,” and Jack’s tears smear my lips, and I get just that last, ecstatic taste of him before the blade goes snicker–snack.
About the Author
Alaya Dawn Johnson is a Nebula award–winning short story writer and the author of six novels for adults and young adults. Her novel The Summer Prince was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Her most recent, Love Is the Drug, was awarded the Andre Norton Award. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Asimov’s, F&SF and Zombies vs. Unicorns. She lives in Mexico City.