by Lisa Tuttle
Dinner was the real problem.
Mornings, it was easy to rush out of the house without eating; when it wasn’t, when her mother made an issue of it, she’d eat an orange or half a grapefruit. At lunchtime she was either at school or out so there was no one to pressure her into eating anything she didn’t want. But dinner was a problem. She had to sit there, surrounded by her family, and eat whatever her mother had prepared, and no matter how she pushed it around her plate it was obvious how little she was eating. She experimented with dropping bits on the floor and secreting other bits in her sleeves or in her pockets, but it wasn’t easy, her mother’s eyes were so sharp, and she’d rather eat than suffer a big embarrassing scene.
Her brother, the creep, provided the solution. He was always looking at her, staring at her, mimicking her, teasing, and while she didn’t like it at any time, at mealtimes it was truly unbearable. She honestly could not bear to put a bite in her mouth with him staring at her in that disgusting way. Her parents warned him to leave her alone, and shifted their places so they weren’t directly facing each other, but still it wasn’t enough. He said she was paranoid. She knew that even paranoids have enemies. Even if he wasn’t staring at her right now, he had stared before, and the prospect that he might stare again clogged her throat with fear. How could she be expected to eat under such circumstances? How could anyone? If she could have dinner on a tray in her room alone, she would be fine.
Her mother, relieved by the prospect of solving two family problems at once, agreed to this suggestion. ‘But only for as long as you eat. If I don’t see a clean plate coming out of your room you’ll have to come back and sit with the rest of us.’
It was easy to send clean plates out of her room. After she’d eaten what she could stomach she simply shoved the rest of the food under her bed. Suspecting that the sound of a toilet flushing immediately after a meal would arouse her mother’s suspicions, she planned to get rid of the food in the morning. Only by morning she’d forgotten, and by the time she remembered it was dinnertime again.
It went on like that. Of course the food began to smell, rotting away down there under her bed, but no one else was allowed into her bedroom, and she knew the smell didn’t carry beyond her closed door. It was kind of disgusting, when she was lying in bed, because then there was no avoiding it, the odour simply rose up, pushed its way through the mattress and forced itself upon her. Yet even that had its good side; she thought of it as her penance for being so fat, and was grateful for the bad smell because it made her even more adamantly opposed to the whole idea of food. How could other people bear the constant, living stink of it? The cooking, the eating, the excreting, the rotting?
When she could no longer bear the enforced, nightly intimacy with the food she refused to eat, she decided it was time to get rid of it. Before looking at it, she decided she’d better arm herself with some heavy-duty cleaning tools, paper towels, rubber gloves, maybe even a small shovel. But when she opened the door of her room to go out, there was her mother, looking as if she’d been waiting awhile.
‘Where are you going?’
‘What is this, a police state?’ Hastily, afraid the smell would get out, she pulled her door shut behind her. ‘I want a glass of water.’
‘From the bathroom?’
‘No, I thought I’d go down to the kitchen and get a glass. Why, aren’t I allowed to go to the bathroom?’
‘Of course you are. I was just worried – Oh, darling, you’re so thin!’
‘Thin is good.’
‘Within limits. But you’re too thin, and you’re getting thinner. It’s not healthy. If you really are eating – ’
‘Of course I’m eating. You’ve seen my plates. I thought they’d be clean enough even for you.’
‘If you’ve been flushing your good dinners down the toilet – ’
‘Oh, Mother, honestly! Of course I haven’t! Is that why you’re lurking around up here? Trying to catch me in the act?’ She realized, with considerable irritation at herself, that she could’ve been flushing her dinner neatly and odourlessly away for a couple of weeks before arousing suspicion, but that it had now become impossible.
‘Or throwing up after you eat – ’
‘Oh, yuck, you’ll make me sick if you talk about it! Yuck! I hate vomiting; I’m not some weirdo who likes to do it! Really!’
‘I’m sorry. But I’m worried about you. If you can eat regular meals and still lose weight there must be something wrong. I think you should see a doctor.’
She sighed wearily. ‘All right. If it will make you happy, I’ll see a doctor.’
She was just beginning to feel good about her body again. She didn’t care what the doctor said, and when he insisted she look at herself in a full-length mirror, wearing only her underwear – something she had not dared to do for months – she was not grossed-out. The pendulous breasts, the thunder-thighs, all the fat, all the jiggling flesh, had gone, leaving someone lean, clean, and pristine. She felt proud of herself. The way the doctor looked at her was just right, too: with a certain distance, with respect. Not a trace of that horrible, furtive greed she’d seen in the eyes of her brother’s friends just six months ago. The look of lust mixed with disgust which men had started giving her after her body had swelled into womanhood was something she hoped she’d never see again.
‘How long since you had a period?’ the doctor wanted to know.
‘About four months.’ She was pleased about that, too. You weren’t supposed to be able to turn the clock back and reject the nasty parts of growing up, but she had done it. She was in control of herself.
In reality, of course, the control was in the hands of others. As a minor, she was totally dominated by adults, chief among them her parents. After the doctor’s diagnosis that she was deliberately starving herself, she was forced to return to the dinner table.
Resentful and humiliated, she pushed food around on her plate and refused to eat it. Threats of punishment only strengthened her resolve.
‘That’s right,’ she snarled. ‘Make me a prisoner. Let everybody know. Keep me locked up, away from my friends, with no phone and no fun – that’s really going to make me psychologically healthy. That’s really going to make me eat!’
Bribes were more successful, but her parents either weren’t willing or could not afford to come up with a decent bribe at every single mealtime, and she simply laughed to scorn the notion that she’d let someone else control every bit of food that passed her lips for an entire week just for a pair of shoes or the use of the car on Saturday. She didn’t need new clothes, CDs, the car, or anything her parents could give her, and she wanted them to know it.
Now that the battle zone was marked out and war had been openly declared, food was a constant, oppressive preoccupation. She was reminded of food by everything she saw, by everything around her. Hunger, which had once been the pleasurably sharp edge that told her she was achieving something, was now a constant, miserable state. She no longer even controlled the amounts she ate; she ate even less than she wanted because she couldn’t bear to let her mother feel that she was winning, that anything she put in her mouth was a concession to her. She couldn’t back down now, she couldn’t even appear to be backing down. If she did, she would never recover; her whole life would be lived out meekly under her mother’s heavy thumb.
Lying in bed one night, trying to get her mind away from food, she realized that the smell which permeated her mattress and pillow and all her bedclothes had changed. A subtle change, yet distinctive. What had been a foul stench was now . . . not so foul. There was something interesting about it. She sniffed a little harder, savouring it. It was still far from being something you could describe as a good smell – it was a nasty smell, not something she’d want anyone else to suspect she could like, and yet there was something about it which made her want more. It was both deeply unpleasant and curiously exciting. She couldn’t explain even to herself why the bad smell had become so pleasurable to her. It made her think of sex, which sounded so awful when it was described. No matter how they tried to make it glamorous in the movies, the act itself was clearly awkward and nasty. And yet it was obvious that the participants found that embarrassing, awkward nastiness deeply wonderful and were desperate for a chance to do it again. It was one of the great mysteries of life.
She wondered what the food under her bed looked like now. All the different foods, cooked and uncooked, pushed together into one great mass, breaking down, rotting, flowing together . . . Had it undergone a change into something rich and strange? Or would the sight of it make her puke? She had decided she was never going to clean under her bed – her refusal, although unknown by her mother, was another blow against her – but now, all of a sudden, she wished she could see it.
There was a movement under her bed.
Was it her imagination? She held very still, even holding her breath, and it came again, stronger and more certain. This time she felt as well as heard it. The bed was rocked by something moving underneath. Whatever was moving under there was coming out.
Although she’d turned out her lamp before going to bed, her room was not totally dark; it never was. The curtains were unlined and let in light from the street, so there was always a pale, yellowish glow. By this dim, constant light she saw the man who emerged from under her bed.
Her heart beat harder at the sight of him, but she was not frightened. There might not be light enough to read by, but there was enough to show her this man was no ordinary serial killer, burglar, or rapist from off the street. For one thing, he wore no clothes. For another, he was clearly not a normal human being. The smell of him was indescribable. It was the smell of rotting food; it was the smell of her own bed. And, she did not forget, she had wished to see what her food had become.
He made no menacing or seductive or self-willed motions but simply stood there, showing himself to her. When she had looked her fill she invited him into her bed, and he gave himself to her just as she wanted.
What took place in her bed thereafter was indescribable. She could not herself remember it very clearly the next day – certainly not the details of who did what to whom with what when and where. What she would never forget was the intense, sensory experience of it all: his smell, that dreadful stench with its subtle, enticing undercurrent, that addictive, arousing odour which he exuded in great gusts with every motion, and which, ultimately, seemed to wrap around her and absorb her like the great cloak of sleep; the exciting pressure of his body on hers, intimate and demanding and satisfying in a way she could never have imagined; and her own orgasms, more powerful than anything she’d previously experienced on her own.
She understood about sex now. To an outsider it looked ridiculous or even horrible, but it wasn’t for looking at, and certainly not by outsiders – it was for feeling. It was about nothing but feeling, feeling things you’d never felt before, having feelings you couldn’t have by yourself, being felt. It was wonderful.
In the morning she woke to daylight, alone in her deliciously smelly bed, and she felt transformed. She suspected she had not, in the technical sense, lost her virginity; far from losing anything, she had gained something. She felt different; she felt expanded and enriched; she felt powerful; she felt hungry. She went downstairs and, ignoring as usual her mother’s pitiful breakfast offering, went to the counter and put two slices of bread in the toaster.
Wisely, her mother did not comment. Her brother did, when she sat down at the table with two slices of toast thickly spread with peanut butter.
‘What’s this, your new diet?’
‘Shut up, pig-face,’ she said calmly, and, yes, her mother let her get away with that, too. Oh, she was untouchable today; she had her secret, a new source of power.
At lunchtime the apple she’d intended to eat wasn’t enough, and she consumed the cheese sandwich her mother had made for her, and the carrot sticks, a bag of potato chips, and a pot of strawberry yogurt. Sex, she realized, took a lot of energy, burned a lot of calories. She had to replace them, and she had to build herself up. Now that she had a reason for wanting to be fit and strong she recognized how weak she had become by not eating. She wouldn’t have to worry about getting fat, not for a long time, not as long as the nightly exercise continued.
It did continue, and grew more strenuous as her strength, her curiosity, her imagination, all her appetites increased. She no longer feared getting fat; on the contrary, she was eager to gain weight. She wanted to be stronger, and she needed more weight for muscle. More flesh was not to be sneered at, now that she knew how flesh could be caressed and aroused. She ate the meals that were prepared for her, and more. She no longer had to be obsessive about controlling her intake of food because it was no longer the one area of her life she felt she had some control over. Now she controlled the creature under her bed, and their passionate nights together were the secret which made the daytime rule of parents, teachers, and rules, bearable.
Her nights were much more important than her days, and during the night she was in complete control. Or so she thought, until the night her creature did something she didn’t like.
It was no big deal, really; he just happened to trap her in an uncomfortable position when he got on top of her, and he didn’t immediately respond to her attempts to get him to move. It was something anyone might have done, inadvertently, unaware of her feelings – but he was not ‘anyone’ and he’d never been less than totally aware of her every sensation and slightest desire. Either he’d been aware that he was hurting her because he’d intended it, or he’d been unaware because he was no longer so much hers as he’d been in the beginning, because he was becoming someone else. She wasn’t sure which prospect she found the more frightening.
The rot had started in their relationship, and although each incremental change was tiny – hardly noticeable to someone less sensitive than she – they soon demolished her notion of being in control.
She was not in control. She had no power. She lived for her nights with him; she needed him. But what if he didn’t need her? What if one night he no longer wanted her?
It could happen. He’d started to criticize, his fingers pinching the excess flesh which had grown back, with her greed, on her stomach and thighs, and she could tell by the gingerly way he handled her newly expanded breasts and ass that he didn’t like the way they jiggled. When he broke off a kiss too quickly she knew it was because he didn’t like the garlic or the onions on her breath. The unspoken threat was always there: one night he might not kiss her at all. One night he might just stay under the bed.
She didn’t think she could bear that. Having known sex, she was now just like all those people she’d found so incomprehensible in books and movies: she had to keep on having it. And she knew no other partner would satisfy her. She’d been spoiled by her food man for anyone else.
She began to diet. But it was different this time. Once not eating had been pleasurable and easy; now it was impossibly difficult. She no longer liked being hungry; it made her feel weak and cranky, not powerful at all, not at all the way she’d used to feel. This time she wasn’t starving to please herself and spite the world, but to please someone else. She went on doing it only because she decided she preferred sex to food; she could give up one if allowed to keep the other. And by promising herself sex, rewarding herself with explicit, graphic, sensual memories every time she said no to something to eat, she managed to continue starving herself back to desirability.
This suffering wouldn’t be forever. Once she’d reached her – or his – ideal weight, she hoped to maintain it with sufficient exercise and ordinary meals.
But the sex that she was starving herself for was no longer all that great. She was so hungry it was hard to concentrate. His smell kept reminding her of food instead of the sex they were engaged in. Except when she was on the very brink of orgasm, she just couldn’t seem to stop thinking about food.
And as time went on, and she still wasn’t quite thin enough to please him, not quite thin enough to stop her killing diet, she began to wonder why she was doing it. What was so great about sex, anyway? She could give herself an orgasm any time she wanted, all by herself. Maybe they weren’t so intense, maybe they were over quicker, but so what? When they were over she used to fall asleep contented, like someone with a full stomach, instead of lying awake, sated in one sense but just beginning to remember how hungry she still was for food. As for arousal – what was so great about arousal? It was too much like hunger. It was fine in retrospect, when it had been satisfied, but while it was going on it was just like hunger, an endless need, going on and painfully on.
She didn’t know how much longer she could bear it. And then, one night, she went from not knowing to not being able. When her lover climbed into bed with her, swinging one leg across her, holding her down as he so often did now, keeping her in her place, the smell of him made her feel quite giddy with desire, and her mouth filled with saliva.
As his soft, warm, odorous face descended to hers she bit into it, and it was just like a dinner roll freshly baked. She even, as her teeth sank into his nose, tasted the salty tang of butter.
He did not cry out – he never had made a sound in all the nights she had known him – nor did he try to escape or fight back as she bit and tore away a great chunk of his face and greedily chewed and swallowed it. She felt a tension in him, a general stiffening, and then, as, unable to resist, she took a second bite, she recognized what he was feeling. It was sexual excitement. It was desire. He wanted to be eaten. This was what he had wanted from the very first night, when he had pressed himself, first his face and then all the other parts of his body in turn, against her mouth – only she had misunderstood. But this was what he was for.
She ate him.
It was the best ever, better by far than their first night together, which had seemed to her at that time so wonderful. That had been only sex. This was food and sex together, life and death.
When she had finished she felt enormous. Sprawling on the bed, she took up the whole of it and her arms and legs dangled off the sides. She was sure she must be at least twice her usual size. And the curious thing was that although she felt satisfied, she did not feel at all full. She was still hungry.
Well, maybe hungry wasn’t exactly the right word. Of course she wasn’t hungry. But she still had space for something more. She still wanted something more.
The springs groaned as she sat up, and her feet hit the floor much sooner than she’d expected. She was bigger than usual; not only fatter, but taller, too. She had to duck to get through her own bedroom door.
She stood for a moment in the hall, enjoying her enormous new size and the sense of power it gave her. This, not starving herself and not having secret sex, was true power. Food and eating and strength and size. She knew she wanted to eat something more, maybe a lot of something more before the night was over. There was a smell in the air which had her moist and salivating with desire. She licked her lips and looked around, her fingers flexing, but there wasn’t much of interest in the hallway. A framed studio portrait of the family hung above the only piece of furniture, a small table with a wobbly leg. On the table was a telephone, a pad of yellow Post-it notes, and a gnawed wooden pencil. The taste of the pencil was as immediately familiar to her as the salty tang of her own dandruff and sloughed skin cells beneath a nibbled fingernail, and did about as much to satisfy her hunger. The shiny, dark chocolate coloured telephone wasn’t as easy to eat as the pencil had been, but she persevered, and had crunched her way through more than half of it before the unpleasant lack of taste, and the discomfort of eating shards of plastic, really registered. She finished it anyway – it was all fuel – and then sniffed the air.
From the bedrooms where her brother and her parents slept drifted the rich, strong, disturbing smells of sex and food. Aroused and ravenous, she followed the scent of her next meal.
About the Author
Lisa Tuttle began her career as a published writer in the early 1970s, and won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer of the year in 1974. She’s the author of seven novels and more than a hundred short stories. Born and raised in Texas, she has lived in a remote, rural part of Scotland for the past twenty-five years. Her first novel, Windhaven, was a collaboration with George R. R. Martin published in 1981. This was followed by a horror novel, Familiar Spirit, in 1983. Unable to stick to one well-defined genre, although most of her work features elements of horror and/or dark fantasy, she went on to write novels of psychological suspense (Gabriel and The Pillow Friend), science fiction (Lost Futures), and contemporary/mythic fantasy (The Mysteries and The Silver Bough) as well as books for children and young adults, and non-fiction (Encyclopedia of Feminism and Heroines). (more…)
About the Narrator
Kat Day is a PhD chemist who was once a teacher and is now a writer and editor. By day she mostly works as a freelance editor and proofreader of scientific materials, with bits of article and book-writing thrown in. By night she… mostly does all the stuff she hasn’t managed to do during the day. She’s had articles published in Chemistry World, has written science content for DK and has produced scripts for Crash Course Organic Chemistry. Her fiction can be found at Daily Science Fiction and Cast of Wonders among others. You can follow her on Twitter at @chronicleflask , or check out her blogs, The Chronicle Flask and The Fiction Phial. She lives with her husband, two children and cat in Oxfordshire, England. She thinks black coffee is far superior to tea. The purple liquid on the stovetop is none of your concern. Kat joined the team in 2019, and became assistant editor in 2021.