The cows are back again. All seven of them, with their sunken, hunger-bright eyes and their ribs poking sharply through red-brown hides. They stare at her unblinkingly, unmovingly, and Eri wonders if they see the same clash of starvation and madness in her expression that she sees in theirs. She wonders if starvation and madness are different names for the same disease.
“Whatcha looking at, Er?” Vivian’s voice comes from behind, and a moment later, the woman herself — shapely, smokey-eyed, and wry-lipped — follows.
Eri acknowledges her with a slight nod but doesn’t turn from the window. “Just taking in the view.”
“Gorgeous, isn’t it?” Vivian stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Eri, leaning close to the glass. Outside, sunshine pours molten gold over rippling grass and splashes of wildflowers. Farther out, pine trees bristle for miles, while mountains stand proud and brilliant. Only Eri sees the blights on the land, never eating despite their obvious need and the abundance surrounding them.
“I’m so glad we planned this.” Vivian flashes a grin, her dark curls glossy in the light.
Eri finally forces herself to look at her best friend of over ten years and hopes she doesn’t sound flat when she says, “Me too.”
“What a beautiful view.” Danny strides into the room with his usual bravado, and Vivian bursts with pleasure as he wraps an arm around her waist and pecks her on the cheek. “The landscape is pretty, too.”
Vivian giggles and leans into him. “So charming. Did you come up with that all by yourself?”
“I’m insulted you’d think otherwise.” He squeezes her playfully before looking at Eri. “Are you ready? I just finished packing our lunches.”
It takes a beat too long for Eri to shake off the darkness that settles leaden over her shoulders and stirs in her gut. “Yes, we should go.”
“Great. We’ll meet you outside.” Danny, exuberant as he is ignorant, leaves hand in hand with Vivian.
Eri turns back to the window. In the meadow, a cow lifts its head and lets out a long, mournful moan.
She can’t remember exactly when she started seeing the cows, only that it was around the time Vivian began spending weekends at Eri’s dorm. They’d been inseparable for years — ever since Ms. Jackson’s seventh grade science class, when fearless Vivian helped timid Eri pull open the flaps of a frog’s stomach for dissection — and Vivian had seen no need for that to change just because Eri was off to college in a neighboring city and Vivian was still working retail, unsure if she wanted to study fashion or go to cosmetology school or just kiss a new boy or girl every Friday night.
Her visits brought all the energy Eri adored Vivian for: feisty, passionate, bright. Eri relished her friend’s runaway laughter and dazzling confidence, the way she pushed Eri to go to that party or try on that lipstick; and in return, she knew Vivian loved Eri’s steadiness and focus, her still waters to Vivian’s storms. “I’d get lost at sea if not for you, Er,” she’d sometimes say, squeezed next to Eri in her tiny dorm bed or as they ate ice cream on the floor at 2 a.m. “You give me somewhere to come back to.”
Eri never understood, in those moments, how she could both love someone so fiercely and fear she’d never escape them.
I will always be her shadow, Eri thought with terrible certainty one night after Vivian charmed a free appetizer out of their waiter and left her number on a napkin in big, bold handwriting. I will never be the one they want, I will never be the one they choose.
She had secretly hoped to remake herself in college, be more than an accessory to her strikingly beautiful friend; but how could she turn away Vivian, her Vivian, the one who’d taught her how to walk in heels and style her limp blonde hair? The one who’d held her while she sobbed after Benjamin Gardner literally laughed at her invitation to the girls’ choice dance — and then egged his car that night, consequences be damned? The one who sometimes stumbled through the door drunk and crying because she’d fought with her mom again, her dad had come through town again, she’d been broken up with again? No, she couldn’t do that. Not to her Vivian, not to her sister in all but blood.
Somewhere in the throes of life changing, Eri began seeing the cows. Perhaps she struggled remembering exactly when because their appearances were never startling or even all that distracting; it was like they’d always been there, simply waiting to be noticed. It was immediately obvious to Eri, though, that no one else could see them — if seven emaciated cows really were standing on the campus library lawn, or on the football field sidelines, or outside her dorm while she waited for Vivian to return from a date, she was sure she’d hear some whispers, at least, some confused conversations between bookshelves or on bleachers.
She worried at first that something was wrong with her mind. Should she tell Vivian, her parents? Should she seek professional help? But the cows never did more than come and go, watching her with gaunt eyes. Occasionally one would shift on its bony legs, maybe offer up a desolate groan. They were never difficult to ignore. So as long as they only stood and stared, as long as these hallucinations — what else could they be? — never became worse, Eri saw no reason to alarm the people who loved her best. And she certainly saw no reason to risk getting noticed in all the wrong ways. Soon the cows were an ordinary part of her background, as unremarkable as the grass or sky.
Weeks turned into months turned into years. Eri moved from freshman dorms to upperclassmen apartments, sinking deeper into schoolwork and her part-time math tutoring job. Vivian continued visiting, trying her hand at various pursuits along the way: culinary school, yoga instructor certification, jewelry making. Eri kept seeing the cows. And life would carry on this way indefinitely, she thought, with Vivian in front of her and the cows behind her and Eri caught somewhere inbetween, not quite invisible but not quite seen, either.
And then Vivian met Danny.
It started the usual way: one party or another that Vivian always knew about, her effortless flirting and dancing and pulling Eri into all of it. She winked at the handsome guy near the drinks, invited him to join her with a wave. He came as if drawn by a magnet — people always came to her — and they swayed and laughed and later kissed into the early morning hours. It was a typical weekend for Vivian, pretty and pleasured, and for Eri, watching with a dull ache while the cows stared inside through a window.
She didn’t bother remembering his name, assuming he’d disappear after a week or two like all of Vivian’s flings. But he stubbornly stuck around. One night turned into three turned into an entire month with no signs of stopping; Vivian stayed with Eri as often as her ever-changing schedule allowed, and he regularly drove the two-hour round trip between their cities. Vivian giggled more and glowed brighter and practically floated when she walked.
It was more than that, though. Eri realized it when the latest guy — she still wouldn’t learn his name — showed up unannounced at her door on a night Vivian was gone, pizza box in hand, and said, “Hey, can I come in?
Eri looked at him blankly. “Vivian’s not here.”
“I know.” He smiled sheepishly. “I just feel like we’re not really friends yet. You’re important to Viv, so you’re important to me, too.”
She was almost touched in the moment before she was insulted. “You don’t have to put on this show. Vivian’s already smitten with you.”
She began closing the door, but he caught it with one hand. “Wait, please? I’m sorry. What I meant was —” he flashed that sheepish smile again “— Viv talks all the time about how amazing you are. And I like getting to know amazing people.” When Eri looked at him skeptically but didn’t close the door, he pressed forward. “C’mon, at least eat some pizza? You can kick me out after if you still think I’m an ass.”
So Eri let him stay, and they ate pizza and talked — a bit reticently on her part, at first, but with increasing ease as his warmth and sincerity drew her out. And that was the night she became friends with Danny O’Sullivan. He’d been as good as his word ever since: keeping her company through long nights of studying whether Vivian was around or not, texting her encouragement before big tests, coming to her rescue when her car broke down halfway between campus and her parents’ house. A real friend, someone who made her feel cared about, wanted even. Not the way Vivian was wanted — Eri wasn’t sure she could give men what they were looking for, if they ever looked for it in her — but it soothed some of the rawness in her chest.
She worried briefly, early on, that Vivian might be jealous of the time Eri spent with Danny. But her face was beatific when Eri confessed. “He looks out for you when I’m gone?” she said, and her voice was high and her eyes shiny. “Eri, is he real? Does someone this kind actually exist?” Her breath hitched, and she turned away. “I wasn’t sure good guys were out there. And I never thought one would choose me.”
Eri only knew half of that feeling. Outside, the cows appeared in their customary line, bellies piteously shriveled and heads bowed low.
Months became years again. Danny and Eri graduated and took jobs in the same town, and Vivian moved in with Danny. The three of them often shared meals, saw movies, went hiking or swimming or skiing. Sometimes Eri thought the cows were appearing more frequently: every time she felt the emptiness of the seat next to her, after every dead-end first date, during the course of every inconvenient, unreciprocated crush.
She thought, too, that they might be growing more restless — stamping discontentedly anytime Vivian asked if she’d tried this or that way of meeting people, huffing with frustration whenever Vivian said, while wrapped in Danny’s arms, that an independent woman like Eri didn’t need a relationship, anyway. Of course I don’t ‘need,’ she nearly snapped each time. I want. And that’s so much worse.
For the most part, though, the cows were as they’d always been: starving, silent, still. And if thick, choking darkness welled up in her chest with each appearance, more dense and debilitating each time, if she was barely making it to her car before the tears came hot and fast, what of it? She was ignoring the cows. She was managing.
And that was the state of her life when Danny called Eri about spending the weekend with him and Vivian at his family’s cabin in the mountains. It was a trip they made frequently, often with several of the many friends Danny and Vivian had accumulated over their years together. But something was different this time; Eri heard it in the subtle, electric thrill speeding up Danny’s voice. “I was thinking we could hike the Bridal Veil Falls trail, have a picnic at the top, and then relax awhile before dinner. How does steak and a cabernet sound?”
Steak and red wine? “Delicious,” Eri said. “What’s the occasion?”
Danny laughed jubilantly, confirming her suspicions. “Just promise me you’ll take pictures, okay?”
“Of course,” Eri answered, then said her goodbyes.
She wasn’t surprised when she saw the cows’ suffering bodies through her window, a plea in their eyes like they thought she could undo their state of famine. Anger, irrational and sharp, flashed through her. You stupid cows, she thought. How do you expect me to fill your hunger when I can’t fill my own?
Eri, Vivian and Danny hike to Bridal Veil Falls under a brilliant sky. The air is fresh and crisp, invigorated with the scent of pine needles; the trail crunches with rocks and twigs, foliage brushing their knees. It’s a sublime morning, like nature itself is smiling on Danny and Vivian. Eri feels sick.
Danny and Vivian walk hand in hand while Eri follows close behind. She glimpses the cows through the trees every few yards but gives them little attention; she’d be more surprised, today of all days, if they weren’t hovering.
“Hey Eri,” Vivian calls over her shoulder, “did you ever give your number to that cute barista you told me about?”
Eri flushes but keeps her voice level. “I don’t think he’s interested.” She doesn’t particularly feel like telling the entire truth — how, pale and trembling, she’d written her number on a napkin and shoved it at the barista who made her coffee each morning, and how, with a pitying smile, he’d promptly handed it back to her and said, “Sorry, sweetheart, you’re not really my type.”
“He never texted you? Is he blind?” Vivian says, indignant on her behalf. “I’m sorry, Er. But you definitely deserve better than a guy who can’t see what’s in front of him.”
“Thanks,” Eri says, but she’s thinking how Vivian, with her swaying hips and easy confidence, would’ve gotten much more than a simple text.
They reach Bridal Veil Falls by noon, named for the gauzy, delicate stream tumbling over a sheer cliffside. Vivian moves towards it, but Danny hangs back, giving Eri a significant look. When Vivian turns around, they’re both ready: Danny on one knee, ring box open, and Eri frantically snapping pictures on her phone, afraid of losing one priceless second.
However Danny imagined this proposal, Eri is certain that Vivian — with her joyous gasp, widening eyes, and hands over her mouth — exceeds all his expectations. Danny’s voice is husky with emotion. “My center of gravity shifted the night I met you. Every day since then, I’ve thought I couldn’t get any happier, and every day, you’ve proved me wrong. You astonish me, Viv, with your passion, your empathy, and your strength. And I can’t fathom spending my life with anyone else. Vivian —” He momentarily chokes, eyes glistening. “Vivian Rachel Stewart, I love you with everything I am. Will you do me the tremendous honor of being my wife?”
Tears run freely down Vivian’s face, rivaling the falls behind her. “Yes,” she finally manages. “More than I can ever say, yes!”
And then Danny is slipping the ring on her finger, they’re both laughing and crying and kissing til they can’t breathe, and Eri is thrilled for them — life is so exquisite sometimes, it’s so extraordinary when people choose each other — but she knows what’s next for her. The pressure is building, the cracks are widening; the dam breaks, and there it is, the inevitable rush of darkness in her chest. Not for you. Never for you. She’d known her happiness for them, sincere as it is, could not be unadulterated. She’d known the riptide of her wanting would not care how important the day or how significant the event.
They celebrate over a picnic lunch, the mood as effervescent as the champagne Danny brought for the occasion. They’re about to start the trek back when Danny pulls Vivian close, staring at her with profound, infinite hunger — the kind of hunger that doesn’t gnaw a person to their bones at night, Eri thinks, the kind of hunger that gives and doesn’t take.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Vivian says with a laugh, stroking his cheek. “You made sure of that.”
“I know,” Danny says, “I just never want to forget what you looked like when you agreed to be mine forever.”
Vivian’s face softens with a depth of emotion beyond Eri’s experience; and then they’re kissing again, more fervently this time, but more reverently, too, like they both can’t quite believe that this unspeakably precious person exists and is theirs.
The cows seem closer on the way down the trail, more present somehow. They’re not flickering in and out of sight, Eri realizes; rather, they’re plodding steadily along beside her, though they keep to the edges of the trees. The change doesn’t sit well with her, small as it is. But her friends’ newly-engaged bliss is as dazzling as Vivian’s diamond in the sunlight, and she so desperately wants to be part of that brightness, to let it sear away her shadows, and so what if the cows are a bit nearer? She will not let them ruin this happiness for Vivian and Danny, she decides, even if they must ruin it for herself.
They reach the cabin and there are phone calls to be made, social media statuses to be updated. Eri sends the pictures to Vivian and Danny, then listens from the couch as the two ecstatically share the news with everyone in their wide, wide circle. The cows return to where they stood that morning — no, Eri sees, they’re a few yards closer. It unsettles her more than she likes, even more so as the afternoon passes and they’re still there, hour after hour. The knot in her stomach tightens. They’ve never stayed so long, even on the weekends when Vivian had more requests for dates than time to go on them, even through the months in which she told Eri all the technicolor details of falling in love with Danny.
She tries to ignore them, but it’s like the cows’ proximity is making her chest collapse, amplifying the darkness and its insidious croon in her ears. You will never be proposed to. You will never wear someone’s ring, you will never thrill someone with the word “yes.” You will never call everyone you know to tell them that it’s finally happening for you. These aren’t new thoughts, certainly not new feelings; but damn if they’re not more potent than ever before, digging their claws into the soft flesh of her lungs, chewing through her heart valves with ghastly, grinning teeth.
She forces herself to focus on Vivian, who’s dreamily listing off ideas for the wedding. “We’re thinking late spring or early summer of next year. We want an outdoor ceremony — around here, maybe, or in a garden. I haven’t quite settled on the colors, but I’m leaning towards pastel pink and pale gold. And roses to match, on every table and in my bouquet…” She sighs with a smile on her lips, eyes half closed; then they fly open with a delighted gasp. “Will you be my maid of honor?” She grabs Eri’s hand. “You’re the only sister I’ve ever had. Please? It would mean the world to me.”
“Of course I will,” Eri says, a bubble of warmth momentarily disrupting the darkness. How can she deny Vivian anything when her face is so earnest?
“Thank you, Eri!” Vivian pulls her into a hug. “And when it’s your turn, I hope you’ll let me return the favor.”
The bubble immediately bursts. The darkness screeches angrily, gouging bloody trenches through her chest. She mocks you, she pities you, she knows you will never be chosen and she resents the burden of your ugliness, your uselessness, your not wanted-ness —
Eri abruptly pulls back, startling Vivian. “Er? Are you alright?”
“Just a little tired,” Eri says with a weak smile. “I think I’ll go lie down for a bit before dinner.”
Vivian relaxes. “I might do that, too. I’ll get you when Danny starts the steaks, okay?”
“Okay,” Eri agrees, then retreats to her room. She pulls down the blinds, shutting out the cows’ soulless, haunted stares. She flips off the lights, lets the air still around her. Then she sinks to the floor, head pressed to her knees, fingers wound through her hair, and shudders with the effort of pulling herself back from an edge that feels dangerously like madness.
The cabernet is delectable, the steaks grilled to tender perfection. Danny lays a white tablecloth and lights candles and puts a red rose in a vase between his and Vivian’s plates. There’s a third plate, too, on Vivian’s right, and Eri feels like a rather unattractive wall fixture as she dutifully fills the space they’ve made for her.
To Danny and Vivian’s credit, though, they include her in the conversation, insisting she be present. Eri tries to welcome the distraction, but the corners of her mouth feel weighted with lead.
Fortunately, they’re too wrapped up in discussing their wedding party to notice if her smile is less than sincere. “Your brothers and their wives, of course,” Vivian says, and Danny agrees emphatically. “And Amy and Jared, they’ve been good friends to us. Perhaps Lauren and Jaycee, too?”
“Garret, Tyler, and Kyle,” Danny says, naming his childhood best friends. “You met them and their girlfriends on our Malibu trip last summer, remember?”
“Yeah, they were a lot of fun,” Vivian says. “And you met Matt and Scott when they came through town a few months ago, right? They just tied the knot themselves, maybe they’d have photographer recommendations…”
On and on they go, swapping names and relationships like they’re as abundant as air, like lovers are picked as easily as flowers. Smoke is filling Eri’s lungs, shortening her breath and blurring her vision and the darkness is louder, louder, louder every moment. They will never say, “Eri and someone.” You will always be their only single friend, they will always have to fit in your one around their twos. You will only ever fill in their backgrounds, you will always be a side character in their story —
As if reading her thoughts, Vivian pipes up with, “Don’t worry, Er. You can bring whoever you like as a plus-one.” She smiles playfully. “Who knows? There’s plenty of time between now and the wedding for you to meet someone special.”
The darkness roars. Eri stands abruptly, running for the bathroom. She’s going to be sick.
She barely hears Vivian’s concerned “Eri?” or the bathroom door slamming shut behind her. There’s only the toilet’s gaping mouth and the harsh overhead lights, the violent hacking that shreds her throat as she vomits again and again — more than she’d eaten for dinner, more than should fit in her body, she’s sure. And there’s the darkness thundering relentlessly through her, taunting her with flashes of Vivian’s sparkling eyes and teasing lips. You insult her with your presence, you degrade her with your plainness. She was born to be chosen, and how dare you exist next to her? Not for you, never for you, never and never and always alone…
When the wet, shuddering retches finally stop, Eri kneels over the toilet, gasping and trembling and leaking tears from the corners of her eyes. A gentle knock sounds against the door, followed by Vivian’s voice. “Eri? Are you alright? Oh hon, I’m so sorry. I should have realized earlier that you weren’t feeling well.”
Eri isn’t listening, though. She’s staring at the toilet bowl’s contents with a sort of detached bemusement, because whatever she threw up doesn’t remotely resemble Danny’s cooking. It’s viscous and disturbingly black, floating on top of the water like oil. She wonders if anything she ate is the culprit, but immediately dismisses that idea. She wonders if she’s caught some kind of rare disease, but dismisses that idea, too. Perhaps she already knows; perhaps that’s why she’s not surprised when she looks in the mirror.
The darkness coats her lips and chin, dripping onto her neck. The tears have left gray tracks over her cheeks; her hair’s taken on a grubby cast. Her skin is sickly white, her veins starkly blue and violet. And her eyes — sunken, bruised, and damningly black — shine hunger-bright and pain-mad, just like the cows’.
Eri falls backwards with a hysterical giggle. Just like the cows, she looks just like the cows now. She glimpses her teeth in the mirror and bares them for a closer look — each one filed to blade-sharp points, each one slick with the tarry substance. Her laughter doubles. Her darkness is visible, it’s bursting out of her, and isn’t it grand to finally be worth noticing? What will Vivian and Danny say when they’re not the most striking people in the room?
Vivian’s knocks become more insistent. “Eri, please, talk to me. Are you alright? Do you need anything?”
Eri stumbles to her feet, not bothering to flush the toilet or wash her mouth. Let Vivian and Danny see all her monstrous glory, let her be undeniable, just this once. She opens the door with a sense of impending triumph — and is entirely unprepared for Vivian to not so much as flinch. “Hey, I was getting worried about you. Are you feeling any better? Do you think it was something you ate?”
Eri stares at her numbly, her tongue supplying an automatic response. “No, it wasn’t anything I ate.” Vivian still doesn’t see her. Not the aching, not the cows, not the darkness literally ejecting itself from her body — she’s still just Eri, still just a supporting cast member in Vivian’s life, and why is she never more than that? Why does Vivian get to eat and drink freely while she starves?
The darkness rises with ugly vengeance; but instead of expelling itself through her mouth, it drops to her stomach and bottoms out. Eri is no stranger to wanting. She’s felt every shade of longing known to lonely girls; she has always been more intimate with desire itself than with any person. But this — this. This is a freefall through Tartarus; this is violence on her belly, in her blood. This is a hunger so wild it will eat all the guests if it’s barred from the feast, and Eri is no longer pulling back from the edge. She’s throwing herself over it.
“I asked Danny to put the kettle on,” Vivian is saying. “I thought some ginger tea might settle —”
“I don’t need tea,” Eri snaps, staggering past her. “I’m hungry.”
“Hungry?” Vivian says, following her. “Er, you just threw up your guts. Are you sure food is a good idea right now?”
“I’m hungry,” Eri insists. She lurches into the kitchen and Danny turns from his place at the stove, smiling sympathetically. “Hey, how are you feeling? Viv said you —”
“Get out of my way.” Eri shoves past his stupid, sloppy smile and reaches for the well-stocked snack cabinet. Granola bars, trail mix, jerky — she tastes nothing, just tears off wrappers and rips open packages as fast as her shaking hands can manage. The granola bars go down in two bites or less, the trail mix is gulped like water, the jerky is swallowed in unchewed chunks. Hunger. Hunger. Hunger. She trembles with its ferocity, nearly doubling over as it stabs her again and again. How can any living thing, human or beast, feel this and still exist? How can her heart keep beating, how can her lungs simply push and pull air?
She’s vaguely aware of Danny and Vivian standing behind her in shocked silence, a little more than friendly concern in their expressions now. Outside, the cows stamp and toss their heads, lowing one after another with increasing agitation. They cast long, skeletal shadows in the fading light, and Eri wonders if her body will eat itself, too, if her bones will eventually join the cows’ mad chorus.
She sweeps the snacks aside in disgust — they’re only worsening the hunger, offending it with their pathetic attempts to satisfy. She needs something… meatier. Rawer.
Eri stumbles to the refrigerator, scattering plastic and half-eaten refuse as she moves. It seems to snap Danny out of his reverie, since he steps closer and places a hand on her arm. “Eri, please. You’re not well. You —”
“Don’t touch me,” Eri snarls, yanking her arm away, and she doesn’t miss how her voice doesn’t sound fully human, how Danny and Vivian flinch backwards with wide eyes. Can they see her darkness now?
But it doesn’t matter anymore if they can or if they can’t. She flings the fridge door open, pawing desperately through its contents for something, anything, to staunch the cataclysmic hemorrhaging in her gut. There — an uncooked steak, bright and red as a blood moon. She grabs it with both hands and tears into it with feral vehemence.
“E-Eri,” Vivian stutters, sounding well and truly frightened now, “what’s wrong with you? Please, tell us how to help.”
Eri slams the fridge shut. She’s devoured everything worth offering up to the hunger and still it rages through her innards, savage in its wanting. Her eyes dart desperately from cabinet to cabinet, fingers winding through her hair. There’s more food here, there has to be, the hunger is barbaric and brutal and screaming and screaming —
“Eri.” Danny cuts steadily through her panicked thoughts. “Take some deep breaths. Everything will be all right.” He holds his hands out like he’s approaching a rabid animal. “We’re your friends, remember? We want to help you.”
A harsh, choking sound fills the kitchen, and Eri realizes it’s her broken-glass laughter. “Of course you’re my friends. All I’ve ever had is friends.” And then she’s yanking cupboards open and ripping out drawers, shattering their contents against the tile floor, hurling silverware and measuring cups and that idiotic kettle put on to boil as if some damn tea could fill a void deep as her lifetime. She thinks a window breaks; she thinks the cows’ bellows grow louder; she thinks she’s on her hands and knees, swallowing anything that will fit into her mouth. Plastic packaging, scraps of paper, ceramic shards — let her bruise, let her bleed, just let the hunger be filled, just let the screaming stop —
Thick arms wrap around her from behind. Danny hauls her to her feet, shouting, “Viv, call 911! She’s hurting herself!”
Eri thrashes in his grip as Vivian shakily dials. “P-please help, it’s my friend. She’s having some kind of m-mental breakdown, we need an ambulance…”
“Eri, please, please,” Danny breathes in her ear, over and over. “It’s me, it’s Danny, I’m your friend —”
With startling, sudden strength, Eri twists hard and throws Danny off. He trips backwards and catches himself against the table, and Vivian whimpers into the phone, “Please hurry.”
Danny straightens slowly, storm clouds gathering on his face. “Eri, that is enough.” All gentleness is gone, replaced by what Eri immediately recognizes as fierce protectiveness of Vivian. She’s aware, too, of the furious thunder of Danny’s heartbeat; the fleshy balloons of his lungs, their rapid in-out, in-out like fists tightening and relaxing; the rich, salty meat of his muscles and the organs quivering hotly beneath them. There’s blood in her mouth, she realizes, and the hunger likes it. The hunger demands it.
Quicker than thought, quicker than breath, Eri lunges at Danny. The darkness surges, giving her claws, and she sinks them into the soft tissues of his belly.
Vivian screams. Danny gasps, a terrible, retching sound. His eyes are bright with betrayal, and Eri almost feels triumph — finally, she’ll be the last person someone thinks of before they fall asleep — but in the same moment, he defies her by turning to Vivian as he collapses. “Vivian,” he murmurs, reaching for her, “my Vivian.”
And then he’s gone, and Vivian is shrieking hysterically, her phone on the floor and the operator’s words hanging uselessly in the air, and Eri is trembling because even in her supremacy, it’s still her dearest friend he notices, it’s still her he chooses. When Vivian runs at her with unhinged fists and wild eyes, Eri sends her flying without a twinge of remorse, merely watching as she hits the opposite wall and slumps into unconsciousness.
But the hunger doesn’t let her dwell on any anger. The feast is laid out, she’s a guest at the table, and she tears open Danny’s stomach — no need for Vivian’s fearlessness now — to begin. The intestines are slick and syrupy, the kidneys sweet and sour, the liver a fatty treat; she gorges on his innards with relish, and though the hunger is by no means silenced, it’s quieted to a manageable purr. The relief is euphoric, and Eri wonders what else the hunger might reward her with. Does the secret of what men look for in women lie somewhere between Danny’s spleen and pancreas? Is it in how his gallbladder bursts with sour bile on her tongue? Will she learn, in the crack of his bones and the taste of his marrow, how to be desirable?
Eventually, Eri plucks out his heart — the obvious place to get answers, but perhaps not the incorrect one — and sinks her teeth into it like a ripe plum, the juices flowing past her mouth and down her neck. But though his lifeblood is a fine wine in her throat, though pleasure shivers through her skin, no new knowledge strikes her mind, no lightning obliterates her solitary existence.
She keeps digging, then, through lungs and ligaments and arteries, through veins and nerves and glands. Will she find what she’s looking for in the vocal cords that spoke such sweet love to Vivian? In the eyes that never left her, the ears fine-tuned to her every inflection? In the brain saturated with her face, her scent, her touch?
At last Eri lifts her gore-streaked mouth. It’s not enough. She’s chewed the best of Danny’s flesh, left only gristle and bone, and still the hunger demands more, becoming louder every second she doesn’t feed it. Outside, the cows are writhing and wailing — otherworldly sounds, the kind no animal has any right to make — and Eri raises her voice with theirs, an inhuman howl she shouldn’t be capable of producing. It’s happening, she’s joined the mad chorus, and is this the sum total of living? Mania and suffering and hunger, always, always the hunger?
A soft moan draws her attention — Vivian is stirring. She blinks blearily, wincing as she tests her limbs and slowly stands. Eri doesn’t move, slathered in blood and viscera. She sees the moment Vivian registers the wreckage, the carnage, Danny’s carcass and Eri beside it. She watches as Vivian gasps, doubles over, spills tears in a dark parody of her earlier joy. She studies how Vivian’s lips open first for a scream that doesn’t come, then for violent, earth-shattering sobs — sobs like the sun has gone out, like the stars have been cut from the sky. And that’s when Eri swells with triumph, because Vivian finally, finally feels hunger.
Vivian sinks to her knees, her cries rising to a fever pitch. “Why, why, why?” The words slur into a high-pitched keening. “Why would you do this, why?”
Eri watches her for a long, resentful moment. “Because there are people like you who are wanted,” she says. “By men, by women, by everyone. And there are people like me —” she laughs harshly “— who do the wanting.”
Vivian is hyperventilating now, eyes darting from Eri to the door to the jagged edges and kitchen utensils strewn around her. Whatever she’s about to attempt, the hunger will get there first — it’s boiling in Eri’s belly, choking her chest and mouth, and she should be angry that nothing sates it, but the terrible truth is that she enjoyed butchering Danny and she’ll enjoy this, too. The darkness swells, her fingers are claws, and then they’re sheathed in Vivian’s chest.
She hears Vivian’s last gasps, smells her sweat and blood and the perfume that was a gift from Danny; she sees the shock and betrayal on Vivian’s face — and the sudden surge of love, right before she fades. “Eri,” she whispers, “my Eri…” And then she, too, is gone, and Eri is left with the bittersweet taste of receiving her wish.
The hunger hums as she consumes Vivian’s body, content as long as it’s gnawing through muscle and fat and bone; but Eri knows now that Vivian’s death will mean no more than Danny’s. When she reaches Vivian’s heart, she bites eagerly into its ripe flesh, but there are no secrets here, either, no siphoning of Vivian’s charm and beauty. Just the carrion stench of death, and whatever monstrosity she’s become.
Only when it’s over, all too soon, does Eri hear how the cows’ unearthly bellows have become agonized screams. She crawls from Vivian’s husk to the window and drags herself up, just enough to see through the broken glass — to see massive, bleeding chunks missing from the cows’ shoulders and haunches. They’re tearing into each other, she realizes, thrashing and mauling, but she’s unsure if their frenzy is driven more by the pain of being devoured or by the desperation to devour anything, no matter how unnatural.
She looks at herself, then, at her scrawny limbs and sunken stomach. There’s meat and marrow here, too, she thinks, and viscera for the taking.
She could wait; police cars and an ambulance are undoubtedly making their way up the canyon right now, carrying fresh food. But the hunger doesn’t want to wait. And maybe she doesn’t, either.
So Eri slumps backwards, into the slaughter, into the hunger, and lifts an arm to her mouth. She feels nothing, just blood bursting on her tongue and a pleasant chewiness between her teeth. And when that’s swallowed, she tears off more.
“I’m so hungry,” she murmurs around skin and bone. “I’m so, so hungry…”
Marie Brown is the pseudonym for a writer in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her former and forthcoming publication credits include Hole In The Head Review, Tiny Seed Literary Journal, Agape Review, The Ocotillo Review, Fleas on the Dog, Thimble Literary Magazine and KAIROS Literary Journal.
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