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By Robert Stahl
The buzzing in his head had been building for hours, a terrible droning like bees behind the skull. Will Graves sat at the desk in his bedroom staring at the open history book. His stomach gurgled. The hunger was like a rat chewing him away from within, like an expanding pit of blackness that wanted to swallow him up. Soon, his mother would leave for work. Then, he would feed. He glanced up at the wall clock, sucking in his breath as a lightning stab of pain twitched through the ligaments in his neck. Any action, not matter how slight, was agony. 9:15 p.m. the clock read. Come on mom, Will thought, don’t be late for work.
“I’m heading out,” his mother’s voice called from the hallway. “Please don’t stay up too late studying. I know finals are tomorrow, but you need your rest.”
“Okay,” he replied. If she only knew—he hadn’t read a word all evening.
“There’s lasagna in the fridge. Don’t forget to eat.”
“I won’t,” he said. She had made him his favorite meal again. Too bad he would only be sending it down the disposal later.
Mrs. Graves, who worked the night shift at a local bakery, stepped into her the doorway. “I’m serious, honey. Eat something. You’re practically skin and bones. You haven’t been taking care of yourself since you got home from the hospital last month. Promise me.”
“I promise, mom.” Yes, tonight he would eat, for sure.
She curled up her nose. “God, it smells like something died in here. We’re going to give the house a good cleaning this weekend, and we’re going to start right here in this room.”
Soon, Will heard her car purring in the garage. He got up too quickly, his knees popping like firecrackers, and made his way to the front window to watch as her car’s taillights disappeared into the darkness. Back in his bedroom, he knelt beside his bed, pulled a black sweat suit out from under the mattress and spent the next few minutes putting it on. With the increase in police patrols lately, the extra cover would be a necessity. He tugged a dark stocking cap down over his head for good measure and then walked clumsily into the living room. His stomach gurgled, twitching in anticipation of the coming meal. “Settle down,” he said. “Dinner’s on the way.” He turned off the outside lights, casting the yard in shadows, and opened the front door.
Otis Collins, his best friend, was standing there clutching a textbook and a ratty three-ring binder.
Both boys jumped. The binder flopped open, vomiting loose paper all over the doormat.
“Shit!” Otis cried. He was a chubby boy with thick auburn hair. “Will, you scared me half to death.”
Will snatched the hat off his head and thrust it deep into his pocket. “What are you doing here?”
Otis stooped down to pick up his things. “Thought we could study for the history final. You do realize it’s tomorrow, right?” Gathering the papers, he stood again to look at Will. “I should have called before coming over, but I thought you’d just say no. I’m just worried about you, is all. We both know your grades have been lousy lately. You know, since the . . . ”
“It’s alright to say it, Otis. Since ‘the attack’.”
“Right. Look, if you fail the test tomorrow, you’ll have to repeat 10th grade.”
Will opened his mouth to protest, but the buzzing got louder. It was becoming difficult to think.
Otis squinted. “Why are you dressed like a ninja?”
“I’m, uh, going jogging.”
“At this time of night? Look, you can goof off tomorrow, when the test is over. Tonight, we exercise your brain.” He pushed past Will and stepped inside. “You coming?”
An owl hooted from the woods nearby. Owls were natural predators. Will decided the call was a warning to its winged brothers, a signal that the hunt was about to begin. He stared off into the night. Damn it, could Otis’ timing be any worse? Will wanted to scream at Otis. He wanted to say a million different things other than what he said next:
“Yeah,” he offered meekly. “I’m coming.” Then he closed the door and followed Otis into the house.
The attack had happened two months ago. Will had been walking home from Otis’ house after playing video games all Sunday. Walking alone at night didn’t bother him. Actually, it was the opposite; the darkness had its own rewards, like the meteor shower the two boys had seen just the night before. He and Otis had been chasing fireflies when they saw several streaks of light blazing across the sky. UFOs, the boys thought first, but then realized the lights were falling bodies of some kind, meteors or comets (they couldn’t remember which were which) streaking towards Earth. The objects—five in all—passed directly over them and disappeared into the horizon on the other side the freeway. Will swore he heard one of them crashing into the woods, but Otis told him he was hearing things. They crossed the busy interstate and searched for debris but never found anything. Before long, Will started to wonder if he’d really heard the sound in the first place.
So, Will was hoping for a little more of that interstellar action as he made his way home, walking with his head hitched back and his eyes turned straight. Later, he realized that’s why he didn’t see the stranger at first. But he heard him soon enough, some guy moaning in the ditch on the side of the road. Will’s first thought was the man must be a drifter—drunk, by the looks of it. As Will walked closer, he decided the guy might not be drunk after all. Something else was definitely wrong with him, though. He was having some kind of fit, thrashing around all crazy-like, and when Will got close enough to see his eyes, well then he did get creeped out. The eyes bulged from their sockets and the man’s face seemed gaunt, almost emaciated. His tongue was gray and lolling from side to side. He was either on drugs, or worse yet, some kind of lunatic. Either way, Will decided it was best to keep his distance, to hurry home so he could call the cops.
Will had just moved to the opposite side of the road when the stranger charged at him. On he came, moving faster than lightning, growling and slobbering, lips pulled back to reveal his bleeding gums and rotten teeth. Will was too surprised to even scream. That horrible face strained forward, those vacant eyes glaring, and that awful mouth open, gnashing and biting like an animal. The stranger wanted to eat him—somehow, Will knew that—and he managed to twisted away; but not before the mouth closed down on his neck. A chunk of skin and muscle tore loose, accompanied by unimaginable pain, and there was blood, so much blood. Will started thinking he was going to die right there, except just then a pair of headlights came around the bend. It was a police car—right on time—and the door flung open and a gunshot rang out Bam! and then two more Bam! Bam! The last thing Will saw before he blacked out was the stranger’s head exploding in a rain of bone and blood.
When he woke up in the hospital days later, his doctors told him he was lucky to be alive. They said he’d lost a lot of blood that night, that he’d died on the stretcher in the ambulance. But he hadn’t been dead for long. Somehow, before they could inform his poor mother of the loss of her only child, his motionless heart started pumping blood again, and, miraculously, Will Graves returned from the dead.
In the kitchen, Otis was rummaging through the pantry. He always knew where Mrs. Graves kept the good stuff. Grunting with pleasure, he emerged with a box of snack cakes. “Mind if I have one?”
Will nodded, watching Otis tear the package open and gobble down the sugary treat inside. It was hard not to like Otis. After all, the two had much in common. Both of the boys had been raised without a father. Will’s own dad had died of cancer during Will’s childhood, and Otis’s had stepped out for a newspaper seven years ago and never came back. Also, both of their mothers worked nights to make ends meet; Mrs. Collins was a waitress at a smoky cocktail lounge. Neither boy had it easy growing up, but Will always thought he got the better end of the deal. Still, for someone who could have been really messed up, Otis was okay. Well, he could be little slob sometimes, but otherwise he was all right.
Otis finished the cake and pulled out a bag of chips. “Starving,” he said, shoveling a handful of Ruffles into his mouth. Will pretended not to notice the crumbs as they fell to the floor. “You hungry?”
The words hung in the air. Will crossed the kitchen and stared at his own reflection in the window. “No,” he said. Had it been a harmless question, or . . . ? He could try force something down, maybe that would throw Otis off track. But the food would go down like jagged bits of glass. Later, he’d only regurgitate the undigested bits.
Something was different inside his body, had been ever since he’d gotten home from the hospital. There was only one thing that sated him now; only one thing took the pain away.
He wasn’t sure how the idea first entered his head, but he knew when. One night after returning home from the hospital, after tossing and turning for hours, he opened his eyes in a dream-like state, hungry and uncomfortable. He was only half-aware of crawling out of bed, raising the window, and sneaking out into the night. He moved quietly in the darkness, slipping through brambles and wet grass until he came to a stop in a ditch. The carcass of a dead squirrel lay at his feet, its rear flattened by a passing automobile. He stooped over, his hands moving as if possessed by an external force, and picked the thing up. Within seconds, he’d cracked the poor thing’s head open and raised it to his lips where he began sucking on the walnut-sized nugget of cranial matter inside.
The next morning when he’d woken in his bedroom to find the rodent’s blood caked under his nails, he knew he had been cursed.
For weeks, he fed on the brains of dead animals until they no longer satisfied him. Then his nighttime excursions took him to local graveyards, where he dug through yards of dirt with his bare hands, using strength he’d never possessed before, smashing into coffins, dragging corpses out of their eternal resting places, bashing their heads open to feast on the brains inside. The act wasn’t something he enjoyed; fetid brains were tough like scrambled eggs and had a coppery taste to them, like licking a dirty penny, but they made the buzzing stop and took away the pain in his limbs.
In the kitchen, the buzzing ramped up while Otis munched another handful of chips. To Will, the noise sounded like a giant stomping through a gravel pit. He swooned, grabbing at the counter to steady himself.
“You okay there?” Otis asked.
Will moaned. He wasn’t okay. Not at all.
Otis shrugged and took a seat at the kitchen table “How about we get started?” he said, motioning for Will to sit next to him. “First question: Which tribe of warriors, fueled by starvation and natural disasters within their own walls, invaded and conquered most of Asia and Eastern Europe in the 13th century?”
A pang of hunger erupted inside Will’s tummy, starting in his gut and radiating out to his nerve endings. His skin felt like it was on fire.
Otis stared at him. “Will?”
“I . . . don’t know.”
“Tsk. The Mongols. That was an easy one.” Otis crinkled his nose. “Phew! It reeks in here. Mind if I let some air in?”
Otis slid open a window, letting the muggy May air settle into the room. He sat down, took a long look at Will and then pushed the binder aside.
“Buddy, you haven’t been yourself lately,” Otis said. “Not since that night.”
Will scowled. Bringing it up once was one thing, but twice?
“That cop said you died in that ambulance,” Otis said.
Will shoved his seat back, ignoring the sudden pain. “Oats, do we really have to talk about this right now?” “Oats” was a nickname Will came up with when the boys were five. Otis hated it.
“Yeah, I’m afraid we do. You’re not the same guy I used to know.”
“Dude, people come back to life. It happens.”
“Yeah, sure,” Otis said. “On TV shows, or in comic books. If they do it in real life, it’s usually because they’re on an operating table with a team of doctors working on them.” His voice rose sharply. “People who have just had their throats torn open on the side of the road don’t just suddenly come back to life!”
Otis’ cheeks had gone red. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I got carried away. Anyway, tell me what happened to the guy who attacked you.”
“Not much to tell,” Will said. “That gunshot messed up his face pretty good. The cops couldn’t identify him. Just some drifter, I guess. They don’t know why he singled me out. Because I was there, probably.”
Otis glared at him. “That’s not all,” he said. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard about ‘the Brain Thief’ that’s been on the news?”
Oh shit, Will thought.
“Everyone’s talking about it,” Otis continued. “Someone, or something, has been digging up graves around town. Corpses are being found with their brains missing. Strange isn’t it? The timing? That it all started after you got out of the hospital?”
“Otis, this is —”
“Let me finish!” Otis pushed up his curly bangs. “You’ve been acting weird lately. Christ, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen you eat something. Buddy, I’ve been watching you. Over the course of a few days, your body goes through a cycle. You start to get all thin and sickly-looking. And your mood gets pretty foul. And you smell bad sometimes, like something dying.” He lifted his shirt to his nose. “Actually, you smell bad right now.”
Will didn’t smell anything. “Get to the point.”
“So, over a few days your body gets all—I don’t know, starved-looking. And wouldn’t you know, these spells of yours coincide with the string of graveyard incidents all over town. And every time this vandal strikes—well, the next day, you look fine. That smell goes away and you seem happy and healthy. Everything goes back to normal, for awhile. Then it all starts over.”
Will gripped the edge of the table for balance and stood up. It was getting heard to breathe. It felt like the walls were closing in.
Otis stood up, too. A breeze filled the curtains and they billowed behind him like a shroud. “You see how fucked up it all is? We don’t know anything about that guy. What if there was something horribly wrong with him?” His voice trembled and he looked as if he were about to cry. “Will, what if that guy was a zombie?”
“A zombie?” Will huffed. “Seriously?”
“Maybe instead of dying on that stretcher, you came back to life as one of the undead, cursed to eat brains in order to survive.”
“Jesus,” Will interjected. “Oats, there’s no such thing as —”
Otis would not be silenced. “The way I figure it, a zombie would have to eat every few days, else his body would start to decompose. I figured that if you were a zombie, then maybe you’d want to be a nice one instead of an evil one. Knowing you, you’d probably hold off on the hunger as long as you could. But you wouldn’t be able to hold off forever. Eventually, you’d have to give in. And when you finally did, you’d never want to hurt anyone or anything. You’d probably force yourself to live off of things that were already dead, like animals. Maybe even human corpses.”
“Oats, there’s no such thing as zombies, okay? If that guy were a zombie, where would he have come from?”
“I don’t know. Terrorists, possibly. Or maybe it was that meteor shower we saw. I don’t have all the answers. But I can’t find any other way to explain it.”
“Dude, you sound nuts.”
Otis’ face screwed up. Now tears did come, hard and wet, rolling down his cheek. “Something’s happened to you, man. You’re different now, is all I’m saying. I want to help. I just want my friend back.”
Will said nothing.
“I want you to do something for me,” Otis said, sniffling. “I want you to stand right there and tell me I’m wrong. Look me in the eyes and tell me you’re not a zombie.”
Will felt the world tilt under his feet. Sweat broke out on his forehead, liquid fire on his already hurting skin. His heart was beating in his head, causing the bees to buzz louder. He wanted to break something, wanted to turn and run out into the night to sate his hunger.
Also, some part of him wanted to surrender. He was tired of being a freak, tired of foraging for rotting brains in the dark like some kind of monster. Maybe he should come clean with Otis. Maybe then, the nightmare would end. On the other hand, who knew what the world would do to him? He might wind up in some hospital, or worse yet, a lab. He didn’t want to be their guinea pig, strapped to a table with scientists poking at him. What would they do, with their scalpels and saws, to find out the science behind his condition?
“Bro,” Will said flatly. “You’ve got to stop reading so many comic books.”
Otis slumped. For a moment, he seemed like an air mattress with a hole in it. But after a long pause, he looked up. He was grinning, a wide smile stretched across his chubby cheeks like all of the world’s problems had been lifted off of his troubled young shoulders.
“I guess I sound a little wacky right now,” Otis said. “I’m sorry I ever brought it up.”
The hunger inside Will settled into a dull ache. For the next few hours, he tried to ignore the dreadful droning of the bees.
In the morning, it was time to ready themselves for school. Otis grabbed some cookies from the kitchen and the boys set out, taking the shortcut through the woods behind Mrs. Crumley’s house. The sun shone brightly, casting everything around them in a golden, warm glow.
“Beautiful morning,” Otis said, finishing off the cookies, coming to a stop on an embankment overlooking a creek. He put his hands on his hips like some fat mountain adventurer. Sunlight peeped through the line of pine trees and glinted across his hair, crowning him in a halo of dirty gold. “What a view,” he said.
Will was silent. He could no longer hear Otis over the droning. The bees were, furious, like someone had kicked up their nest.
Otis tossed a pebble into the creek. “I’m sorry about all of that stuff earlier, man. I shouldn’t have doubted you.”
Silently, Will removed his clothes and stepped naked on to the pine needle covered path. He found a rock the size of a football and picked it up, feeling its heft. He crept up softly behind Otis. Raising the stone over his head, he brought it down hard. There was a horrible crunching sound, like a bag of ice cracking against a concrete floor. Otis fell face down in the dirt and his right leg began to twitch.
Will struck again and again with the rock until Otis’ body stopped moving. When he had finished, he knelt above the smashed skull and dug out the fresh cranial matter with his hands.
The taste was intoxicating!
The meat was warm, juicy, and so tender, almost melting against his quivering tongue. Already, he felt the succulent tissue invigorating his body. The pain in his head and limbs subsided, and soon went away altogether.
When he had scraped out the last bits of his meal and licked his fingers clean, he dragged Otis’ body into the bushes and made his way down to the creek.
Will made it to class just as the bell was ringing. He took his seat in the back row next to Otis’ chair, which sat empty. Mr. Holladay handed out the final exams. “Does anyone know where Mr. Collins is today?” he asked. Will glanced at the door and shrugged.
Mr. Holladay signaled for the exam to begin, and Will’s classmates got to work. But not Will. He stared casually around the room. Mr. Holladay looked at him quizzingly. Then, with a furrowed brow, he turned his attention to a stack of papers on his desk.
Will was miles away. He could have cared less about world history at that moment. School wasn’t going to matter, not anymore.
He was staring at all of the beautiful heads around him, carefully studying the perfect, bony craniums atop those young, unknowing shoulders. His mouth began to water as his eyes caressed every delicate indention, every line, every curve, thinking that only a bit of hair, skin, and a thin wall of bone separated him from the warm, savory meals inside.
Will licked his lips. He was never going hungry again.
This story first appeared Creepy Campfire Quarterly, January 2016.
Edited by Marie Ginga.