“Last night I dreamt I was being chased by Dali’s tigers.”
The man twisted uncomfortably on the small leather sofa. It was surely meant for the opposite affect, but ever since that night – the night of the fire – he had a hard time relaxing. He was restless, angry, and haunted by terrible dreams.
“What does that even mean?”
The psychiatrist was a gaunt scarecrow of a man who wore granny spectacles of the type John Lennon popularized, and alternated between utter silence and lengthy exposition, crossing and uncrossing his stork-like legs as if he was terribly itchy from a bad case of crabs or else had to pee desperately. He nodded as if he’d been asked a yes or no question, and then pulled a handkerchief out of his breast pocket with which to clean his glasses.
“I’m familiar with the painting, Andrew,” he said. “Tigers jumping out of each others’ mouths, jumping out of a fish, and growing nearer a woman sleeping in the nude. Beside her is a pomegranate being picked at by a bee. There is so much symbolism there I don’t even know where to begin.”
Andrew coughed and rubbed his left forearm. It still burned, and it was getting worse. Angry red lines snaked their way up his arm to his shoulder. The antibiotics weren’t doing anything.
“I don’t know anything about a pomegranate or a naked woman, Doc. It wasn’t that kind of dream. It was just tigers jumping out of each other and chasing me, hunting me, and all the while, they were falling apart.”
“Hmm,” the doctor said with another cross of his stick-figure legs, “what do you mean, falling apart?”
“They were dying,” Andrew said. “They were rotting, and pieces were falling off them, but they just kept coming, kept trying to eat me.”
“Trying to eat you,” he repeated. “Why do you think they were trying to eat you?”
“They were hungry,” Andrew replied, and as if it had a mind of its own, his stomach growled with hunger as well.
“It seems they’re not the only one.” The doctor gave Andrew a friendly but concerned smile. “Have you been eating?”
Andrew shook his head. “I’m starving. But anytime I try to eat, I feel sick.”
“That’s not good, Andrew. You have to take care of yourself. Even your dreams seem to be telling you that you need to eat. You need to eat – or die.” The doctor finished cleaning his glasses and put them back on. “Your dreams all seem to be a consistent theme, Andrew. Hungry predators that cannot be satiated – tigers that rot, wolves that will not die, dead sheep coming back to life and grazing in fields of blood – you need to eat, just as all things need to eat to survive. That you are not eating worries me that you want to harm yourself. Tell me – do you still blame yourself for the fire?”
The fire. Andrew didn’t want to talk about the fire. Just thinking about it made his arm burn all over again, as if the fire were happening right then, and not a week earlier.
“They didn’t charge me with anything,” Andrew replied. “They just sent me to you.”
“That’s not what I asked. I know the police don’t blame you for the fire. But what about you? Twenty-seven people are dead. How are you feeling about that?”
“Those weren’t people,” Andrew muttered. “They were—”
“One of them was your wife, Andrew.”
Andrew remembered. He couldn’t save her. There were too many of them, and they came all at once. He recognized every face, and yet he saw no recognition of him in their wild red eyes.
“One of them was a cop,” Andrew said. “One of them was a minister. One of them was my old Little League coach. I knew these people. I killed them.”
“It was an accident, Andrew. You aren’t responsible for those people’s deaths.”
Pastor McCullough had come back from some overseas missions trip the week before the fire. Andrew didn’t know where he had been, exactly, only that when the minister’s kids came knocking door-to-door asking for donations, he and his wife had caved and kicked in $100 to help clothe lepers or cast out demons, or whatever it was missionaries did these days.
“When he came back, he was different,” Andrew told the doctor.
“The minister – McClaren, was it? Yes, you’ve told me this before.”
“McCullough,” Andrew corrected. “He was crazed, wild-eyed. Talking to everyone he came into contact with about the strange things he’d seen. Talking about strange communion and strong wine.”
This is my body, take and eat. This is my blood, take and drink. Whoever eats of my body and drinks of my blood shall never die.
“Sounds like he had some kind of profound religious experience,” the doctor said. “Did you and your wife attend his church?”
“No,” Andrew said. “I mean, maybe at Christmas. It’s a small community, Doc. Everybody knows everybody. Pastor McCullough was an okay guy. He wasn’t one of those hellfire and damnation preachers. Hell, he was part of my fantasy football league. He wasn’t the type prone to – what did you call it? Profound religious experiences.”
“So what do you think happened to him?”
“I think he got sick,” Andrew said, irritated. “I think that wherever he went, he caught some kind of bug they didn’t know to inoculate for, and he brought it back with him.”
Andrew rubbed his arm and winced. He was lucky he got out of the house with only this one injury. He’d been reapplying anti-bacterial cream every day, but it didn’t seem to be healing.
“Can we talk about what happened the day of the fire?”
Andrew twitched and twisted on the doctor’s couch. His stomach was screaming with hunger, and his head pounded, each heartbeat a tribal drumbeat in his ears.
He’d been in the shower when they came. He’d heard what he thought was a scream, turned off the water and called his wife’s name.
“No one ever knew how to say her name,” Andrew said. “When I first met her, I called her See-oh-ban, and she let me keep calling her that for a full month, laughing at me behind my back. She thought it was cute. I fell in love with her Irish lilt and laughter right away, and didn’t care that she was having a laugh at my expense. She was my Siobhan – the lovely girl from across the pond, and after our first night together, I never got her name wrong again. She never stopped teasing me about it, though.”
“What happened to your wife, Andrew? Can you talk about it?”
Siobhan was in the kitchen, drinking coffee and reading the gossip column of the tabloid rag she’d picked up at the supermarket the day before. She’d been in the middle of reading an article about celebrities who were secretly transsexual or some other nonsense when they came in. Andrew didn’t know if they’d knocked – the idea of polite monsters made him laugh inappropriately – or if they’d just stormed in, but it seemed to be the entire neighbourhood. He recognized Mrs. Stevens, who had some sort of cosmetics business and who once came on to him, showing up at his door after Siobhan had gone to work, wearing a thin cotton sundress and nothing else. Andrew had been terribly tempted – the woman was incredibly attractive. She’d asked for a glass of ice water, and when Andrew offered, she brushed him off and said that it was no bother; she’d get it herself. Andrew sat and waited for her, and after deciding she was taking an awfully long time to get a glass of water, he went to the kitchen, where he found her standing in front of the open freezer door. When she turned around, her erect nipples pressed against the thin cotton of her dress, begging to be let out. She held an ice cube in one hand, sucking on it suggestively.
Andrew had summoned every ounce of willpower that day to make her leave, but the sight of Mrs. Stevens’ eager breasts had never left his memory, occasionally being the subject of masturbatory fantasies of what might have happened.
But when he saw her in his kitchen that morning, her perfect breasts were slick with blood, and seemed to have several bites taken out of them. Mrs. Stevens herself was digging her expensively manicured nails into his wife’s throat, while his next-door neighbour savaged Siobhan’s face with his bare teeth.
Pastor McCullough – Dave to his friends and family – had his face between Siobhan’s legs in a grotesque parody of cunnilingus, tearing into her soft flesh and ripping pieces off with gory teeth.
“He looked up at me, and it was like he was dead. His eyes were dead, and I knew he saw me, but he didn’t see me, does that make any sense?”
“What happened to your wife, Andrew?” The doctor asked again, puzzled by what Andrew had said.
Andrew looked at the doctor and trembled as he remembered. There were so many of them, all crazed and bestial. They tore at her flesh and lapped up her blood like wolves. Or tigers. When Siobhan’s body stopped twitching – they had eaten her alive – they turned their attention on him. Of course, he hadn’t told the police any of this.
“What happened?” The doctor repeated in a voice surely intended to calm Andrew, but he was beyond pacification. He was burning up, the memory of the fire boiling his blood.
“They killed her.”
They took her body and ate; they took her blood and drank.
“The people from your neighbourhood?” The doctor asked, scribbling something in his notebook.
Andrew nodded. “They were changed. They—”
They were feral. They poured through his open door, drawn like sharks to the blood. Mr. Deckard lay on Andrew’s front step, a half-dozen people tearing at his abdomen and fighting over his bloody entrails. Pastor McCullough made a shrieking sound and all heads turned toward Andrew, who stood naked and stunned at the bottom of the stairs, his bath towel fallen away.
“What do you mean, they changed, Andrew? Changed how? What reason would they have to hurt you or your wife?”
They were hungry, Andrew thought.
“All things need to eat to survive,” he said, and the doctor sighed.
“No, Andrew, I’ll not encourage this delusion. I want the truth. What brought those people to your house that day? What happened to your wife? What started the fire, and what role did you have to play in all of it?”
“I ran,” Andrew said. “I was scared, and I ran and hid in the basement. I locked the door behind me, but they were too much.”
“Why were they there, Andrew?”
“Hungry!” Andrew hissed, clenching his fists on the leather of the sofa.
Andrew had fled naked across the kitchen, barely escaping the grasp of Mrs. Stevens for the second time in his life, and managed to open and close the door to the basement behind him without letting any of them in.
As soon as his feet touched the cold stone of the basement floor, he knew he’d made a mistake. He hadn’t been thinking and he’d trapped himself. The door to the basement wouldn’t hold for long, and that was the only mercy he could think of – that at least his incarceration in his own basement wouldn’t last.
“I started the fire,” Andrew confessed to the doctor. “I was afraid, and I knew that they were coming for me, and I couldn’t let them escape. They were sick, you see—”
“The police said that all the bodies were in the basement, Andrew,” the doctor argued. “And yet you escaped.”
Andrew nodded. “I started the fire. I turned the furnace up full, and I spilled the leftover paint thinner that had been sitting down there since last summer when Siobhan was re-finishing her old crib. We were going to try to have a baby, you see, and—”
Andrew could hear the door beginning to splinter, and the fire had already begun to eat away at the basement. He’d cornered himself behind a wall of flames and waited for the monsters to come for him. He’d thought he was ready to die.
“There was the basement window,” he said. “It was small, but I was desperate. I thought that if I could reach it, I might at least have a chance to get away.”
“And so you did,” the doctor agreed. “But at the cost of all those lives, Andrew.”
“I told you, they weren’t—”
“Yes, we’ve been over this before, haven’t we? They were monsters. Your friends and neighbours turned into cannibalistic monsters that killed and ate your wife. Except tell me this, Andrew – if this was some kind of sickness, some kind of disease – why have there not been any other cases reported?”
Andrew started to stand up but then clenched his stomach in pain. Through gritted teeth, he snapped, “Because I lured them all into the basement and burned them all up! I got them all! You should be thanking me, doctor! I’m a goddamned hero!”
“I see,” the doctor said, unbothered by the man’s outburst. “I wonder then why you are so burdened with guilt.”
A knock came at the doctor’s door, and a young woman in light purple scrubs poked her head in.
“It’s time, Doctor,” she said, pointing to the clock on the wall, which indicated that an hour had passed.
“Ah yes,” the doctor agreed. “Well, Andrew, I shall leave you in the good care of Nurse Matheson until next time. You really do need to eat, my friend. It’s taking a toll on you. You’re positively sickly. We can only do so much with intravenous fluids.”
“We keep trying, Doctor,” the nurse said, shaking her head, “but he won’t touch anything.”
“Yes, well,” the doctor replied, “we’ll keep trying, won’t we? The body won’t let itself starve. He’ll get hungry enough to eat sooner or later.”
Andrew awoke in his hospital bed burning with fever and covered in sweat. His head was still buzzing with the sound of a thousand flies. He was having trouble thinking straight. He’d close his eyes and seem to lose consciousness, but for how long, he didn’t know. He’d awakened from a dream about rotting sheep – they were bleating and crying as they jumped over a burning fence, and as they ran toward Andrew, he could see the empty sockets of their eyes, crawling with maggots and black buzzing flies. Instead of being repulsed by the gruesome sheep, Andrew felt an insufferable hunger, and woke with a ravenous appetite.
His arm was still covered with bandages, but the burning and itching was so terrible that he clawed at the tape. He’d gotten a little singed when he ran through the fire toward the basement window, climbing up on the washing machine in order to smash the window out with a ballpeen hammer that had once belonged to his father. He broke away all the glass – it wouldn’t do for him to be gutted by a stray shard of glass – and managed to fit himself through the open window frame, the creatures scratching and tearing at his bare feet. He pulled himself free of the basement and collapsed in his backyard, feeling the heat of the fire cooking the soles of his feet.
“Hunreeeee,” something said, and by the time Andrew turned, a walking corpse that was once his beloved Siobhan had fallen on top of him, biting his arm with what was left of her mouth.
He’d screamed and beat her head in with the hammer, bringing it down again and again until she’d stopped moving. Then he’d passed what was left of her body through the open basement window, where a dozen greedy hands took her remains for their last supper.
Andrew tore the gauze off his wound and stared at the broken circle of teeth marks, raw and red, with streaks of infection like a spider’s web tattooed up his arm, making its way to his heart.
“So hungry,” he growled in a voice he no longer recognized. The nurse had given him a call button, and told him to ring it when he needed anything. He really needed to eat, she’d told him. She told him to ring for her when he was ready to eat.
Andrew rang for the nurse.
“So very hungry.”