To Inherit Hunger
by Crystal Lynn Hilbert
By bedtime each night, empty-eyed cartoon characters tumbled over her mother’s slippers. At six, Jillian didn’t understand words like “hallucinatory manifestation disorder” and “early onset”. She giggled at Helga Hog dancing in her fluffy ballet costume and clapped her chubby hands when Henry Hog splashed in an imaginary mud puddle she could almost see.
She didn’t know to worry about the way her mother’s eyes squinted against the soft glow of the bedside lamp or the knuckles she pressed hard into each temple, hands trembling with the effort, until the brightly colored Hog family faded to sketchy wisps, then shadows, and finally into nothing at all.
“Just a headache, honey,” her mother would say and Jillian, still trusting the magic in kisses, believed she could cure her with a peck between the eyes.
Now, standing in her mother’s dated kitchen with an empty-eyed Detective D’Onofrio from her mother’s favorite police procedural looming over casefiles on the kitchen table, Jillian ached for that blissful childhood ignorance.
“How long has this one been going on?” she asked.
Slapping down a casefile, Detective D’Onofrio announced a new theory. Her mother shrugged without looking up from the sausages on the stove. She had thirty-odd years of practice at ignoring hallucinations.
“Don’t worry about it, darling. There’s no harm in it.”
Don’t worry? Oh, she’d love to not worry. It’d be a relief to see this creature as some friend of her mother’s instead of the progressing symptom of an incurable disease. But Jillian couldn’t help noticing her mother’s very new, very nice dress and Detective D’Onofrio wasn’t an unattractive man. She needed to be sure.
“Does your doctor know they’re happening at all hours now?”
“It’s not that constant. I’m just tired, honey. I didn’t sleep well. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“It’s a full-body manifestation, Mom. A complex human manifestation —”
Her mother dropped the kettle too hard onto the burner, sending shadowy birds exploding from the sunflower painted cupboards. She forced a smile, just a hair too bright. “Are you staying? Would you like tea?”
As if he were following their conversation, Detective D’Onofrio leaned back from his case files. He looked up. Jillian’s stomach clenched. On instinct, she flinched away, something primal in her hindbrain scrambling away from that sightless, TV-static gaze. But the detective’s eyes followed her aborted sidestep into the kitchen counter. His head twitched sideways, fixed on her, staring —
No. No, he wasn’t. Of course he wasn’t. Jillian shook her anxiety off. Detective D’Onofrio was a hallucination projected from her mother’s mind, born of illness, loneliness and a fondness for procedural dramas. He wasn’t real; he couldn’t stare at anything.
Rolling her shoulders, Jillian steeled herself against her own random irrationality. She looked at her mother instead, smiled in a way she hoped was comforting.
“Sorry, mom. I can’t stay. I just wanted to check on you before work.”
“Alright,” her mother said. “Drive safe.”
But as she opened the back door, Jillian swore she saw his head turn ever so slightly, tracking her as she left.
• • •
“Her manifestations are fully formed,” she snapped by way of greeting, forty-five minutes into an unsatisfying lunchbreak spent hunched awkwardly on a step-stool in 610.0 — 616.9a of the university’s research library, her mother’s doctor finally on the phone. “I think it might have been interacting.”
Papers rustled on the other end, the familiar slap of a manila folder falling open as the doctor settled in.
“With your mother?”
“With me. Maybe.” Jillian stared at a severely wilted salad — uneaten leftovers from yesterday’s lunch, also spent on the phone with various doctors and pharmacies — and tried not to think of the implications. “It felt like it watched me leave.”
“Are you sure? Manifestations interacting outside of the host is … well, I’m sure you’ve done your research. It’s the most common marker of end stage HMD.”
“But they don’t interact with her. Or — or she doesn’t interact with them? And I’ve never seen them touch anything.” She thought of the case files covering her mother’s kitchen table and viciously prodded a soggy tomato. “At least, never anything real.”
“HMD is a difficult disease, hard to track and harder to treat. It’s new. There are few drugs, few studies. Traditional dementia medication just doesn’t work on it and what treatments we are sure of — avoiding visual media, group therapy, Memantix — your mother refuses. She’s disinterested or outright noncompliant.”
“So declare her unfit!” she hissed, hands clenching so tight she heard something snap and threw down her plastic fork in two broken halves. “You don’t understand. I’m all she has — I can’t just do nothing and watch her decline. Make her take her meds!”
“I can’t. That’s the problem, Ms. Becker. Your mother is still mentally sound. She has perfect motor function, intact memory, and she is fully aware when and what she is hallucinating. She is not unfit, she just … doesn’t care to change.”
Disgusted, head throbbing, Jillian hung up.
• • •
When in doubt, resort to food. Feeding someone’s problems away was practically a family tradition. Chicken and dumplings for a cold, potato casserole for a loss, grandma’s German chocolate cake for particularly problematic visitors — there was a kind of magic in the right dish in the right moment. Jillian didn’t know which of their carefully hoarded family recipes to throw at rampant, manifesting hallucinations but at least she had an idea of where to start.
“Why are you bringing me groceries?” her mother laughed as Jillian waddled through the back door carrying her body weight in white plastic bags. “I don’t need you to feed me.”
“Good. I need you to feed me,” she said, grunting under the strain of hauling all of it onto the scuffed kitchen table at once. “I’ve got such a craving for grandma’s dumplings and I don’t remember how to make them. I brought the stuff.”
Her mother watched her, leaned in the kitchen doorway, safely ensconced in pink terrycloth and out of the new skirt that looked too much like dressing up for a date with dementia.
“Funny,” she said. “The doctor told me you called him today. I don’t suppose your suddenly forgetting a recipe you grew up on has anything to do with that?”
She looked … good, Jillian decided, sneaking glances out of the corner of her eye as she unloaded the bags. Lucid. Only groceries filled the table — no various hallucinations roosting or accusing — and she dared to hope a little.
Hope was a peach pit, sweet enough to choke on. Jillian swallowed it down. She smiled.
“What, I can’t miss my mom?”
It was a good night. The kind of night that made her think about remission and delayed progression before she buried those thoughts right back where they came from. They cooked, they ate, they sat on the couch like nothing hurt and talked about her job, her mother’s new book club — and maybe they’d take a yoga class together in the fall. They were free for her and discounted for family, what with her job at the university. Wouldn’t it be nice to meet new people? New, real people?
Every now and then Jillian saw a bird darting in corner of her vision, but the shadow of a bird wasn’t a whole, grown man and so she took it as a good sign. A very good sign. For half a minute, she forgot to worry.
She asked, “How have you been doing on that new stuff Dr. Deliote gave you? What was it, Memantix?”
And her mother glanced away. Jillian’s stomach plummeted. She knew that look. When she was little, it usually preceded a headache and dancing pigs.
“It made me too foggy.”
Jillian swallowed and swallowed but the hope she’d stupidly let sprout rotted in her throat.
“You stopped taking it.”
“Yes. It’s fine though. The doctor said he’d find something else. Apparently, there are some new clinical trials starting soon —”
“That you don’t qualify for!” Jillian snapped, teeth gritted. “Mom! Noncompliance makes you ineligible for everything. Don’t you want to get better?”
Her mother didn’t often make eye contact — eerie-eyed hallucinations broke her of the habit — but she met Jillian’s eyes now, searching, an inscrutable twist to her mouth.
“You were too young to remember meeting my mother. She died at fifty-four. You were just a few months old,” she said. In that moment, she looked like a bad photograph of herself — a picture left too long in the sun, crinkled and blurry. “I’m going to bed.”
“Mom —” she started, but her mother only shook her head. She kicked into her slippers abandoned by the coffee table and walked into her bedroom.
Over her retreating shoulder, Jillian saw big shadows shifting. Reflections glittered in the glass bottles on her dressing table, cast by headlights passing on the street outside. Not the outline of broad shoulders, surely. Not two dully gleaming TV-static eyes waiting in the dark.
“Mom,” she insisted, “what does that mean?”
Rather than answer, her mother shut the bedroom door. But then, Jillian didn’t need an answer. In the shifting silence of the empty living room, Jillian realized she already knew.
Grandma died at fifty-four. Her mother would be fifty-six in the fall.
Closing her eyes, Jillian pressed her fingers against the pounding in her temples. Around her, the swallows her mother had left behind swooped in circles, diving at imaginary gnats.
My mother is almost fifty-six — the thought echoed over and over, in time to the throbbing of her heartbeat in her teeth, but Jillian swallowed down the fear. She would find a way to fight this, to cure or postpone it. There had to be a way, had to be something. She didn’t know how, but this was her mother. She’d think of something.
Turning off the living room lights, Jillian dragged her heavy childhood quilt off the back of the couch. She spent a long time with it pressed to her face, smelling the memory of cartoon-tainted bedtimes. Their empty eyes haunted her, even with hers closed.
She didn’t get much sleep.
• • •
Yet another unsatisfying lunchbreak found Jillian seated among yet another unsatisfying pile of medical texts with nothing new in her notebook to show for it. She’d read these books before. She’d read other books, ten times apiece, ordered in from distant libraries. She’d even stolen a master’s thesis on hallucinatory manifestation disorder from the office of a thankfully forgiving coworker. None of it told her anything she didn’t already know.
The disease presented with a predictable progression. It began as auditory hallucinations before moving into occasional visual hallucinations, making early stages of the disease easily misdiagnosed as standard dementia. The visual hallucinations manifested as simple constructs first — cartoons were common — then developed into defined characters with which the patient empathized. Over time, the hallucinations became visible to others, then audible, tangible to the patient, then tangible to others. End-stage HMD often involved the hallucinations becoming violent toward the patient, even able to inflict actual harm, though infuriatingly, no one understood the mechanics there.
Some studies hypothesized that the frequent presentation in families with a history of degenerative diseases suggested a genetic component. Other studies came up inconclusive time and time again. It was not contagious — not viral or bacterial — yet susceptible persons in close contact with an affected sufferer routinely showed a higher propensity for developing the disease.
Jillian spent longer than her lunch break in the library, lost several pens when she threw them in frustration, chewed her lip until a too-sharp tooth set it bleeding. She couldn’t face her students today, an ocean of emotions blistering just under the surface of her skin. Better to stay hunkered down on her familiar step stool and at least try to find something to stop her mother slipping away in front of her, because the alternative involved screaming into the face of the inevitable and Jillian couldn’t — she just could not today.
Everything about this stupid disease felt so infuriatingly intangible. She needed facts; Jillian could work with facts. But everything about HMD stayed so stubbornly slippery.
Why didn’t anyone know more? What were the medical professionals even doing? This thing only started seventy some years ago, people hallucinating out of the blue with such vehemence they made other people hallucinate too. Visual, audible, tangible hallucinations shouldn’t be possible — certainly shouldn’t be shareable — and why wasn’t it bigger news? Why wasn’t it more studied? Why was it just … just something that happened, like this was normal or something? This wasn’t normal.
There was nothing normal about a childhood of bedtimes filled with the hollow-eyed after-images of whatever cartoon she’d watched that day over peanut butter sandwiches with the crusts cut off —
And Jillian wanted to call the doctor again. He couldn’t be trying everything — he wasn’t trying anything — and she just wanted someone to answer her questions. She wanted to know why. She wanted to know —
To know when. How long. How long did she have left?
Jillian took a deep breath, untangled her fingers from her hair and tried to look like a normal person not having a breakdown in the middle of the library where any of her students might walk by and witness it.
“Okay,” she whispered to herself. “Okay. If this was a math problem, where would I start?”
She felt safe with math. Math problems made sense. There was always a formula. Even if it hadn’t been discovered yet, there was always a formula somewhere, eventually, that explained whatever universal machinations the numbers described.
So then, she would make a formula. She just needed to find the facts. The disease followed a strict progression? Well, she could map the progression. She could make a protocol against which to grade the levels of severity day by day and take an average across time —
Jillian snatched up her notebook, threw her pile of books onto a nearby return cart.
She would make this make sense.
• • •
Jillian let herself in. Her mother paused the police procedural she’d been watching, looked over the arm of the couch at her with an eyebrow raised.
“You could call first, you know.”
“You’re not supposed to —” Jillian started, but gave it up. Noncompliant, the doctor had said. Her mother knew what she wasn’t supposed to be doing, she just didn’t care to stop.
“Don’t lecture me, Jilly,” she snapped. “I’m tired of slouching around like a consumptive Victorian, no TV, no novels — can’t get too excited lest I catch the vapors.”
Retrieving her notebook from her messenger bag, Jillian ignored her mother’s pursed lips, the rising ire in her voice.
Instead, she said, “Can you touch him?”
Her mother leaned back. She frowned. “What?”
As if summoned, Detective D’Onofrio strode in behind her, his shoulders filling up the rarely used dining room. He had a crate full of folders with him that he slammed down on the table.
“Can you touch him?” Jillian said, biting every word.
She opened her notebook to a dog-eared page in the middle where she’d written a checklist of disease progression down the side in careful block script. For a moment, her mother stared at her like she’d grown two heads. Her eyes darted between Jillian’s determined face and her notebook. Then realization kicked in. Her jaw locked in anger.
“No,” she snapped, slamming the remote down. “No, Jillian, I am not doing this. I am not going into this with you. My disease —”
“Our disease.” Jillian stared at her, hand clenched on the pen tight enough to bend it and her heart thundered in her chest. “Our disease. Our genetically inherited disease that you think grandma had, that you know you have, and that I will probably start showing symptoms of within the next what — year? If I’m lucky? When did it start for you, mom? You had headaches all the time before I started school and I know I was seeing your hallucinations by the time I hit kindergarten.”
“I’m not talking about this with you. I want to ignore it! And I know you hate that, I do, but I want to have a — a month for myself before I die, Jilly, where I’m not worried about what I see and what it means.”
Behind her, Detective D’Onofrio rolled out a whole bullpen, conjured a witness to loom over and files to read and Jillian couldn’t think with all the noise and the fake people in the room, her heart clawing at her ribcage, adrenaline frosting the edges of her vision.
“I don’t understand you. You could have years! You could stay away from the stupid TV and take your medicine and do the clinical trials and have years —”
“Of boredom. Years of boredom and nurses and — and classes down at the senior center with an aide you hired to wheel me around because I can’t be trusted to walk in case I get lost chasing my imaginary friends!”
“They could find a cure!”
“They could find a guinea pig, you mean. This isn’t your decision, Jillian.”
“Until it is,” she shouted, struggling to think past all the people yelling and the damn birds swooping around, but she forced her vision to narrow on her mother. “Until you get so batty that you can’t make sound decisions for yourself anymore and medical guardianship falls to me and it becomes my decision — until they’re all my decisions — and I don’t see why it has to get to that so soon. Mom, can you touch them?”
Her mother crossed her arms, steeled her jaw.
“It’s not any of your business, Jillian,” she said and what patience she had, Jillian lost.
“Oh for fucks sake —” She rounded on the detective, swung at his head. Her hand sailed through unimpeded, without even a swirl of mist to mark its passing. “Well, great, that’s something. Not tangible to others yet, so you’re not end stage.”
She strode across the room before her mom could protest, snatched her arm in its terrycloth sleeve and swung her hand up into the spinning cloud of starlings.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing —”
The birds crashed on, unhindered. Jillian let her arm drop.
“And not tangible to you either,” she said. “Jesus, Mom, was that so fucking hard?”
And she expected her to argue, to scold her language, to something — but instead her mother’s face just … dropped. She looked up at the cloud of birds, then back to Jillian, her skin pale and eyes stricken.
“Honey,” she said, throat tight. “There’s nothing there.”
• • •
In the face of everything she’d ever feared coming true, Jillian … went to work. She stood at the whiteboard as she always had, teaching college freshmen calculus and trigonometry — sine, cosine, tangents reliably unchanging year after year.
I’ve been waiting for this, she thought, feeling like a fragile thing suddenly insulated in a wad of runny newspapers. Time to stop running from it.
She graded her tests, marked off problems. And now that she wasn’t spending all her effort trying to outpace it, here in the peace of her office, with her safe, predictable equations sprawled under her hands, Jillian could finally breathe enough to stop and think —
Sometimes formulas looked like they worked, numbers moving around where it seemed like they were supposed to. It was only at the end of the equation, with a parabola that wouldn’t graph, that you realized the answer didn’t make a bit of sense. Hallucinatory manifestation disorder wasn’t a tidy algebraic expression, but that didn’t make it any less an equation.
Struck, Jillian paused, looking up from her tests. She thought about the disease, its presentation and progression — sufferers hallucinating so hard that others could perceive their hallucinations; the disease spreading in close quarters, yet not contagious; seeming to be inherited, but with no genetic marker —
And only first recorded in 1945, in soldiers back from World War II.
Jillian stopped. Slowly, she put her pen down on her desk and felt the plastic crack beneath her shaking hand, leaving a bloody ink-stain over some poor freshman’s calculus test.
Hallucinatory manifestation disorder was an equation. And suddenly, she knew where the formula went wrong.
• • •
“It’s almost like … like it doesn’t originate from inside the mind at all,” she explained, pacing her mother’s kitchen. “It’s not a problem from the inside manifesting outward. It’s something outside manifesting in. It didn’t start until after World War II. I don’t think it’s a disease at all. I think it’s something born in war, brought home. Not a sickness but … but a thing, eating its way in.”
Bent over a steaming mug on the kitchen table, her mother shook her head. She looked small and exhausted in the streetlights filtering through the window, the damp glow from the stove hood illuminating the hand she threaded through her graying hair.
“Honey. That’s impossible. We’re sick, not haunted. I know it’s hard at first, being stuck with this thing. The first stage is always denial.”
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Jillian understood she sounded crazy, but the idea caught under her breastbone, bright and undeniable, and she couldn’t let it go.
“How is it impossible?” she pressed. “Up until 1940 it was impossible to hallucinate so hard that other people saw it too, and they still don’t know how the human brain can do that. They can’t reproduce it. They can’t, because they’re doing the math wrong.”
“Your father served in World War II, didn’t he? It’s not genetic, Mom, but that doesn’t mean it’s not inherited.”
Determined and vicious, Jillian grinned. She stopped her pacing long enough to drop her messenger bag on a chair, kick off her shoes. And then, turning on the detective filling up the doorway with his big shoulders, she met its TV-static stare head on.
“You’re old, aren’t you?” she demanded. “You came back with Sergeant Becker. We don’t see you at first, as children, because you haven’t eaten your way in yet. You haven’t worn us down. That takes time, doesn’t it? Takes time to work your way under the skin?”
The creature glanced her — she was sure of it, saw its attention flicker ever so briefly from its fixation on her mother and she knew. It saw her. This wasn’t some pale hallucination.
Jillian remembered the fairytales she read in college, remembered salt and garlic and cold iron —
She thought, hey, why not? — and picked up her grandmother’s cast iron pan from the stove.
Immediately, Detective D’Onofrio’s eyes snapped to hers.
“Jillian — ?” her mother started.
“What are you?” she demanded, hefting the pan.
Detective D’Onofrio darted forward. Behind her, Jillian heard her mother gasp, her feet hit the floor.
It reached for her wrists, her neck, and ancient softball instinct took over. Jillian wound back, swung from the hips.
The pan connected. Detective D’Onofrio distorted, smoking, screaming. The kitchen filled with the stink of an electrical fire, burning hair. Jillian lifted the pan again and the creature shrunk back. It lost the human shape, turning briefly into some pale and long-limbed thing, static eyes enraged. Shape hazy, it fled into the deeper shadows of the living room beyond and disappeared. When it went, not even the swooping birds around their heads remained.
Teeth rattling with adrenaline, hand gone numb around the pan, Jillian laughed.
“What about now, Mom? You still think we’re just sick?”
She turned, expecting to find her mother as shocked and — and hopeful as she was but instead, she found her mother looking stricken. She looked horrified, eyes scanning the living room for any glimpse of her monster and Jillian’s heart plummeted.
“You already knew,” she said.
Her mother gathered herself, sat back at the kitchen table despite looking like she wanted to be anywhere but.
“That you weren’t sick,” Jillian insisted. “Did you already know?”
Her mother glared. “Of course not.”
“But you suspected.”
Her mother puffed up, jaw tight and ready for a fight. But the moment passed. She deflated, sank back down against the kitchen table. Sighing, she closed her eyes.
“It wasn’t possible. All the doctors said it was impossible.”
Slowly, Jillian set the pan down. She eased out a chair, sat down next to her mother, trying to shake some feeling back into her hand.
“What did it do? Did it tell you, or …?”
“What — ?”
“He,” she said again and looked up, a little of the fire back in her gaze. “He’s male, whatever he is, and he didn’t tell me. He didn’t. He just … knew. Things that I didn’t.”
“Its’s a psychic leech, mom. You probably just forgot —”
Her mother shook her head, lips pursed. She stood, put her mug in the sink for something to do with her hands.
“My mother rarely talked about the war. Daddy wouldn’t talk about it at all. But Esser knew what plane my father flew. He knew where he crashed. I — I didn’t even know he had crashed until I looked up his service records.”
“Esser? Oh god, mom. You named it?”
“Him. And no. He — I don’t know — it’s just his name. I didn’t think he was … real, but it was — it was nice. I thought, there’s no cure for it anyway, so what’s the harm? I might as well.”
Jillian looked at her mom, twisting the hem of her nightgown beneath her robe — and it was a new nightie, a nice one — and Jillian felt sick. She thought about the other day, her mother standing at the stove dressed pretty, her hair done up —
And D’Onofrio at the kitchen table.
She tried to think about the moment she came in. He’d been standing over the folders —
No. He hadn’t been standing. He’d stood up, she realized. He’d stood up and the files on the table appeared and she hadn’t paid attention because she’d assumed he was just … repeating lines.
But they’d been talking. Right before she opened the door, she’d heard her mother laugh.
“You think it’s stupid. I know,” her mother said, staring at the hard wood floor with her jaw rigid. “I don’t need the lecture.”
Jillian knew she held her jaw the same way when she got angry. It irritated her even more but even still, she couldn’t stop herself from doing it.
“He’s infecting me, too. I’m seeing birds every time I come here.”
Her mother had the decency, at least, to glance guiltily away.
“He doesn’t mean to. He’s just … it’s the way he’s made.”
“He killed grandma! Hell, he followed grandpa home from the war, did he kill him, too?”
“He doesn’t mean to!”
Jillian stared at her in horror, something a little like betrayal, like disgust clotting up her throat.
“And that matters? The difference between involuntary manslaughter and outright murder matters to you right now, when he’s wearing the skin of a TV detective and eating your brain as we speak?”
“You don’t understand. You’re not sick yet,” her mother said, pulling her robe tighter around herself. “There’s no cure for this —”
Jillian shoved back from the table, jolting to her feet. “You’re not sick, Mom!”
“I know you think you can fight every battle, but you can’t, Jillian,” she snarled back. “Sometimes you have to resign yourself to what you have. I have you. I have this. I might as well enjoy it.”
Jillian stared at her, at this unfamiliar person her mother had become. Hallucinatory manifestation disorder wasn’t a disease, but that didn’t mean her mother was in her right mind either.
That’s fine, Jillian told herself. She couldn’t fix a disease, but she could fix this. She just needed to pin the creature down, to figure out the equation that made it, that brought it here. What attracted it that first time on the battlefield? Out of all the people who must have stumbled past its den once upon a time, why her grandfather? Why follow him home?
“It knew grandpa crashed,” she said slowly, more to herself than her mother, thinking out loud. “Grandpa didn’t talk about the war, so it must have seen him crash. It must have been there.”
Her mother glanced at her, frowning. “So?”
“So why follow him home? It eats — what, emotion? Empathy? Why else would it look like …” Jillian looked up, realization dawning. “Like the thing you want to see. It looks like the thing you most want to see. And grandpa had just crashed his plane. He had to have been a mess. He’d have been in shock —”
He’d have had an open mind.
That’s all it needed. It just needed to open the mind. Fear, love, empathy — whatever it took to lower the defenses so it could get inside.
Jillian picked up the cast iron pan again, wondering if her granny had ever introduced it to the monster’s face, her fingers tingling painfully on the cold metal, whole body buzzing with anticipation.
“Jillian, what are you doing?” her mother asked, following her to the doorway.
It was almost the truth. Jillian walked into the darkness of the living room and closed her eyes. Remembering the yoga class she took last summer, she focused on her breathing, slowed her thoughts. She let her arms hang loose, the pan a dead weight at the end of her arm.
She could feel the creature pacing on the edge of her awareness. Restless energy twitched from the nearby hallway, back by the bedrooms. Jillian felt it moving — bigger than it seemed, older, and so, so hungry. Hungry without end or hesitation.
Its attention flickered to her mother briefly, here and again, but Jillian kept her mind an empty field. It preferred her mother, she knew, but she could feel her mother’s wary eyes and complicated emotions in the kitchen doorway, no longer the easier mark.
Jillian breathed. The creature moved closer. She felt it step into the living room and let it play chicken with the edges of her awareness, taking darting little steps toward her and away. In the gray space of her unmoving mind, she came away with the impression of teeth, a narrow face, rows upon rows of sharp little teeth…
And hungry. So hungry she felt it like a physical pain, pressing behind her eyes.
Jillian breathed. Carefully, just a flicker in the darkness, she thought of Helga Hog.
The hunger stepped forward. Jillian opened her eyes. She found a cartoon pig lit by the bathroom nightlight standing in the open doorway, something slithering in those TV-static eyes, a jump rope twined loosely over one pink hoof. It smiled at her, no teeth at all in that little cartoon head.
“Can Jilly come out to play today?” it asked in a sweetly British chirp —
And it wasn’t very smart. Teeth might have saved it.
Jillian smiled back. Her mother knew her too well. She leapt forward, hand outstretched.
But two feet tall was an awful lot easier to fight than a six-foot-something man. In one smooth motion, Jillian hefted the cast iron up over her head and slammed it down.
The pig melted where the cast iron touched it, the stink in the smoke that poured off it overwhelming. Jillian pressed down and the hunger pressed up to meet her, shape twisting up and out into the broad shape of the detective. It grabbed for her hand but couldn’t make its fingers close — swung at her instead, bloodying her nose. Two hands clenched around the handle of the cast iron, Jillian swatted its smoking hands away.
She heard her mother shout behind her. The hunger shouted back, something desperate and garbled — sounded like German, but Jillian knew enough German to know this was nonsense, just a poor facsimile of speech. However it communicated, whatever brainwave it chattered on, she must have damaged its ability to skitter into their minds.
She slammed the cast iron down.
The hunger’s left arm hung useless at its side — an opening. Jillian darted in, aiming for its face.
Her mother screamed, “Leave him alone!”
She barely heard. With a clear shot at its head, she brought the cast iron down, again and again and —
Her mother grabbed the pan and wrenched it away from her, slapped her full across the face. Jillian wheeled backward at the blow, her shoulder hitting the wall. On the floor beside her, the creature choked and gurgled, stared at her through the one TV-static eye still functioning. Seeing her momentarily incapacitated, it seized the opportunity, dragged itself away and back into the darkness, a slick trail of shadow soaking the carpet in its wake.
“Mom, what are you doing?” Jillian shouted, groping for the pan.
But her mother stared at her like a stranger, hands shaking and tears streaking her face.
“Get out,” she said. “Get the fuck out.”
“You’re not sick, Mom. It’s doing this to you and it’s almost dead. Just give me the —”
“Get out!” her mother screamed. She hefted the pan back and threw it, missed Jillian by a few inches and dented a chunk out of the wall instead. “Get out, get out, get the fuck out of my house!”
Jillian considered staying, considered fighting. But she looked at her mother’s wild hair, her heaving shoulders — and this was not a rational woman.
Despite the ringing in her ears, in her hands, Jillian scooped the pan up from the ground before her mother could find anything else to throw. Grabbing her shoes from the back door, she fled.
• • •
Jillian started softball at ten. Clumsy as she was, with her long, ill-fitted limbs, a coach had gotten frustrated at her devastating lack of hand-eye coordination and saw fit to swear at her about it. Her mother had immediately punched the man in the face.
In her right mind, her mother would never have let the hunger touch her.
But that, too, was just another part of the equation. Parasites always wormed their way deep enough to avoid dislodging. So Jillian went. She drove away — just a couple blocks — and left her car in the Superette parking lot. It barely took fifteen minutes in the slithering dark to walk back, to let herself into the yard through the broken latch on the back fence, to slip into the deeper shadows of the gazebo.
Shaking with adrenaline and a fury that surprised her, she hunkered in the darkness there and waited. She could just barely see around the corner of the house, her mother loading up the trunk of the car with rolling suitcases and Jillian knew that she’d leave in the morning. She probably would have left now except that her Lasik surgery had left her with poor night vision and the hunger wasn’t in any kind of shape to drive. In any case, Jillian didn’t plan to give it the chance.
Somehow, she knew in her bones this thing would be hungrier tonight than it had ever been, looking to repair the damage she did, leaving her mother in more danger now than she realized — than she cared to understand. If she let her mother run in the morning, Jillian knew it would be the last she saw her outside a pine and velvet box.
It took a lot to wait, to hide in the worn-down gazebo with the taste of her own blood in her mouth, knowing what the monster inside was no doubt doing, but Jillian did. She lingered in the back, where the lilac trees grew wild and bushy, branches threading their way in and out of the spindles. Sitting there, where she used to come to read as a teenager unafraid of cartoon pigs and police procedurals, Jillian gripped tight to the handle of the cast iron pan, her hand gone pink and painful with the pressure. Her heart thundered in her throat, but she forced herself to stay calm. It would feel her out here if she wasn’t careful.
Driven by a hunger of her own, she counted her breathing and focused, very carefully, on exactly how she intended to kill it.
Soon, the light in the living room flicked off. Upstairs, her mother’s bedroom light went on, then off, the dull glow of the bedside lamp replacing it. Shapes passed in front of the curtain and paused. Jillian held motionless, cross-legged in the deep shadow of the gazebo. She knew from old experience that no one could see her here unless she wanted to be seen — the gently shifting leaves masked her outline too well to discern.
She wondered how much the hunger remembered of her childhood, but the shape left the window and after an hour, the bedside lamp turned off.
In the darkness, Jillian grinned with mean satisfaction. If it had paid attention to her at all beyond the dancing pigs, it would have known to wait. She grew up in this house; she knew how to creep in at 3 a.m. so her mother didn’t hear it.
Sneaking occasional, careful peeks at her phone, Jillian gave her just enough time to be soundly asleep. She kicked off her shoes outside the back door and padded into the kitchen barefoot, dusting off teenage motor memory to avoid the squeaky joints in the floor.
She didn’t know much about monsters — she knew less about this one in particular — but she grew up with as much witchcraft and ghost stories as any other little girl. A quick rummage through her mother’s cabinets netted her a Costco-sized container of Himalayan salt. Her heart squeezed a little, caught in bitter fondness for her mother’s love of bargains. She’d be pissed when she found out Jillian wasted most of an almost new jar —
Her mother — the mother who punched softball coaches for swearing at her kid — would be more pissed to find out she’d let this inherited leech kill her.
Jillian steeled her resolve. Salt in one hand, cast iron clenched in a shaking fist, she crept into the hallway and up the stairs. She nudged open her mother’s bedroom door with the end of the cast iron pan. It squeaked slightly, but the figures in the bed didn’t stir.
She found the hunger half curled around her mother’s still form on the bed. Hazy, still injured, stuck somewhere between the gaunt thing with too many teeth and Detective D’Onofrio, it slept with its face buried in her hair, mouth to her scalp, clutching her close with gangly arms and legs too long and too clawed to be human.
It didn’t notice her enter. What she could see of her mother under the loop of its arm looked pale and drained, lips practically white.
Jillian crossed to the bedside. In one smooth motion, she tossed a thick stripe of salt over the length of its entire body. Smoke billowed from its skin. Shrieking, it woke, tried to fling itself away and only managed to fling her mother from the bed.
It hurt Jillian to ignore the thud as her mother hit the ground unmoving — why isn’t she moving? — but she couldn’t afford to hesitate. She jerked the bottle again, covering its front with the last of the salt, catching it full in its distorted face.
Detective D’Onofrio lunged. It aimed for her throat, but even freshly fed, its injuries left it weak and slow. Jillian dodged, threw the empty jar of salt at it. Expecting cold iron, it winced, giving her enough of an advantage — Jillian stepped under its arm and pressed the flat of the cast iron into its chest. She didn’t know if it had a heart, but most things did.
Shoving her whole body into it, Jillian pressed the hunger back against the bedroom wall as it screamed and writhed and raked its claws over her back, trying to throw her off. She planted her feet, bare toes sinking into the darkening carpet, and rammed herself closer — heard ribs crack over the sound of its screaming, her own screaming, her hands searing.
It grabbed her head, jerked up her face — to eat, to speak, to try to get into her head, Jillian didn’t know. The cast iron seared through the last of its ribs, broke through to fleshy heart. It looked at her, almost tender, a claw grazing her cheek —
And its heart started to burn.
Eventually, the screaming stopped. The body dropped to the ground, no longer Detective D’Onofrio or anything else. Just a gray, withered hunger, gaunt and ancient, a cooking pan-sized crater smoking in its chest.
Jillian let the pan slip from aching fingers to thud onto the ground. Driven by strange instinct, she reached into the chest cavity, wrapped her still-tingling fist around its heart. It took some tearing to wrench out the half-burned organ, but she managed.
Looking at the thing in her hands, a hard and shriveled ruby, suddenly, Jillian wanted desperately to eat it. She wanted it so bad it brought her to her knees, longing to bite down, to rend, to taste that shadowed blood —
Whole body shaking from the effort, Jillian dropped it in the pan. She fell to the floor and watched from eye level, agony in every bone, gut screaming, as it shriveled and burned, curling like old paper.
When the last of it flaked away into smoke and ash, the body on the carpet disappeared, leaving her hands clean. The gashes on her shoulders and back no longer bled — were no longer there, she found, testing gingerly — but they ached, worse almost than her strange hunger, throbbing in time to the pulse in her hands, despite the sudden lack of blood or monster.
Weak, shaking with adrenaline and her strength spent, Jillian crawled away from the still-smoking pan, around the side of the bed to her mother. She fumbled at her neck, exhaustion making her clumsy, until she found her pulse.
Alive. Still alive, only unconscious. Jillian dragged her mother as much into her lap as she could manage, stroked the hair back from her face with fingers that felt like careless lumps of meat, looking for damage, for tooth marks or scars. She found her mother drained but whole — found her healthy — and she wanted to cry for joy, wanted to wake her …
Only, she couldn’t remember a time before she started seeing little pink pigs dancing her to bed and Jillian realized she didn’t really know how her mother would react to this. She’d been dressing up for brunch dates while it slowly killed her, so hell, she’d probably been at least a little in love with it, what with thirty-some years spent together …
And Jillian went still. She stared at her mother, her hair a halo on the carpet, her own slightly too-long fingers threading through it — slightly too-long fingers, now hive-riddled and burnt — and felt horrified, felt shocked —
Felt ravenous —
Thirty-some years spent together — and eighteen of those raising a child.
A child without a father? Or a child with an impossible father?
“Jesus, Mom,” she whispered, cold to her bones. “What did you do?”
And hungrier than she’d ever been, alone with her helpless mother, Jillian didn’t trust herself to move.
Copyright © 2020 by Crystal Lynn Hilbert