Today’s short story was guest written by Mike Spivak, author of It’s Only Another End of the World!
Non-cannibalistic Dinner Parties
It was going to be a good night. I could feel it.
Luck had been on my side from the moment I met her at a bar. She was drop-dead gorgeous and just a bit shy, but when I approached her she smiled like she had just won the lottery. Guys may gush to each other about tits and ass, but there’s no bigger turn-on than feeling wanted. That was the start of a beautiful night.
Thirty minutes of drinking and chatting at the bar and she suggested going back to her place. For a coffee, of course, there was no Netflix back then. I couldn’t believe my luck. And ten minutes after entering her house she was taking off her clothes and nibbling softly at my bottom lip.
But suddenly she stopped, coughing and choking on something, clutching at her throat. I panicked and patted her on the back, hoping it would not force me to call 911. Instead, she jerked to the side and hurled on the floor, sickly yellow vomit peppered with bits and pieces of food. “Oh shit,” was all she could gasp, her eyes firmly closed in pain.
“Oh man…” I said, looking around. “I’ll get something to clean this up.”
“No, no…” she insisted before another wave of nausea forced her to puke again. Only by propping herself against the wall she avoided falling on the floor. That’s when something I saw caught my attention, then my breath. I stared at it, trying to imagine any other explanation for it being there, but I couldn’t.
Among the remains of her food spewed on the floor was a human finger. It was a pinky, severed at the first knuckle, its nail broken but still visible. It couldn’t be mistaken for anything else, and where it was severed, cartilage and bone were barely visible under the blood and yellow gunk.
I stared at the finger, then back at her, growing increasingly terrified. She looked back at me, irritated and in one fluid motion pounced at me and grabbed both my arms before I could react. Her grip was absurdly tight, cutting my circulation as I struggled, uselessly. All I could do was shout for help, but her reaction to that was even worse.
Her head split open, like a flower in bloom, revealing long pink tendrils inside her empty skull that undulated as they tasted the air, like the tongue of a snake. There was also a chitinous maw, like an insect’s mouth, chittering from deep inside the throat of her former head that now splayed open like a revolting starfish. The scream died in my throat, frozen in pure terror. The creature tilted its eyeless head inquisitively.
“So, um… Can we still have sex?” she asked. “Or did that just break the mood?”
Her head closed in again, reassembling into a perfectly ordinary human head, one with an anxious expression. “Uhh, look. This never happened! It was all, um, special effects! Just like in Hollywood!” She grinned nervously, to which I stared at her in utter disbelief until her smile faded. “Shit… You’re not buying any of this, are you?”
“What the hell are you?” Was all I could answer, still dumbstruck.
She snorted, clearly offended, before hesitating for a moment and looking thoughtful. “It’s hard to explain, but my kind has existed in the shadows for ages. We call ourselves Kharzerai, but really that’s just a different way the Slitherbiters called us when the Silver Empire was…”
Her explanation trailed away into silence as she noticed my utterly confused expression. She frowned and rolled her eyes before giving the abbreviated version. “I’m a bug-lady that eats people. Occasionally,” she added, a touch defensively.
I screamed, begging desperately for help. She looked mortified and immediately placed a hand over my mouth. “Shhh! You don’t want the neighbors to come over, trust me!” She spoke, sounding truly scared for the first time in our conversation.
“Oh god…” I whispered. “If they do, will you eat them too?”
“No, they might eat me instead.” She clarified.
That shut me up. And with that simple exchange of words, my life was ruined forever
“They’re scary, really scary,” she muttered, gesturing wildly while sitting on the bed next to me.
“So these… Things. Thingies. Are they all bug-people too?” I tentatively asked.
“No, no,” she said, “there’s others. Slitherbiters, Wendigos, Nice Men…”
“Nice Men?” I asked, holding back a nervous laugh.
She let out a frightened shudder. “You don’t want to meet the Nice Men,” she said, shaking her head for emphasis. “They’re not very nice. At all.”
“Why are they called the Nice Men then?”
“Would you call them ‘Sadistic Motherfuckers” to their faces?” She asked, eyes wide. “Trust me, stick with ‘Nice Men’. Much safer.”
“So…” I spoke softly, trying to wrap my head around that terrifying idea, “if I scream… Those things will come and kill you?”
“Or you. Horribly. Or worse,” she was rambling now, staring into the distance, frightened. Her eyes darted back to mine, “so please, PLEASE, keep quiet? You REALLY don’t know what’s out there.”
“Is… Is that the whole building that’s like this?” I asked, bewildered. “Is this you guys’… Secret base or something?”
She chuckled at that, and it was her turn to look bewildered. “Secret Base?”
“Or hive, or… I don’t know,” I muttered. She laughed again.
“Think bigger,” she said.
“What, a few buildings? Or… Or what?”
“Eh,” she waved her hand from side to side, “If I had to guess… Half the population of the world is not actually human.”
There was a brief, terrifying pause as her words sunk in, like an iceberg into the ocean depths. The gargantuan, monstrously impossible implications lurked in the dark depths far below the surface of her nonchalant words contained.
“That’s… That’s bullshit,” I said weakly, not even able to convince myself.
“Well, I don’t know for certain, but… Umm. There’s a lot of us.” She shrugged, then looked at me, concern creaking her face into a frown. “And technically you guys are not supposed to know.”
She was staring at me while she said that, which made my mouth dry as my breathing quickened. I thought, not for the first time, of escaping but I couldn’t move. I was afraid to even raise my voice, which trembled as I asked, “Are you… Are you going to kill me?”
She squinted, struggling with an internal debate before burying her face in her palms with an exasperated sigh. “Uuugh! I should, but… I just can’t! I really can’t” She shook her head, still covered by her hands as if trying to dislodge a thought stuck on her mind. “It’s like watching a pig play in the mud, and it’s SO CUTE! And they taste so delicious, but then this really cute one’s just staring at you and it’s adorable I… I can’t just kill it. I can’t kill you.”
It was an odd thing, being compared to bacon. “So. Can I live then?”
“Ugh… I suck as a predator,” She chuckled before looking up with an expression of pity and uncertainty in equal measures. “Sure. Sure, why the hell not?”
She got up and walked to the living room. I froze for a moment, not daring to believe this was happening, before following her quickly to the front door of the apartment, which she had opened. I slowed and stopped at the entrance, hesitating, afraid to move.
But she did nothing but wave goodbye to me. “Go. Be free,” she whispered, her expression betraying sadness behind her weak smile. “Live a long and happy life.”
I took a step, then another, before finally breaking into a run. I ignored the elevator, running down three flights of steps before I left the building. When the fresh air outside hit my face, my heart brimmed with energy I had never felt before in my life. I was alive. Somehow, I was still alive. My breath quickened, my heart pumped harder than ever before and I had to stop myself from whooping with joy.
Part of me wishes the story would stop here. I forget her, move on, live a happy life, the end. The art of having a happy ending is a simple one, just end at the right time. Continue the story for too long and, eventually, it will have to end in death.
While I survived, my mind was shaken by the experience with the insect creature in the apartment. What she had shown me, and told me, haunted me. I slept uneasily at night, frightened of monsters for the first time since I was six years old. Slowly but surely, that night tainted the rest of my life beyond repair.
I couldn’t trust other people. When I looked at them, I kept wondering if they were hiding something hideous under their flesh. Something that shouldn’t be. What were their thoughts? Did they see me as another person? As meat, prey or worse?
And it got worse. I saw things in the corner of my eyes that I could neither confirm nor fully banish. Staring and hushed whispering. Previously innocent oddities, like a coworker who ate all his food in a few quick bites or a janitor who always kept her left hand inside her pocket, no matter what took sinister undertones. I grew aloof and withdrawn, which only worsened my paranoia. Even if they were fully human, how could I relate to these innocent people, oblivious to the terrible things lurking beside them? How could I explain what I had seen?
My life grew cold and lonely, haunted by some unseen presence that I could feel, but not see, hiding underneath flesh and skin. Yet, no matter how cold, I dared not go close to others for warmth. I was afraid of monsters.
So it was much to my surprise that I found myself, a year later, returning to the apartment of the monster I met that night.
“Oh, It’s you!” She said, after opening the door. “Wow, this is a surprise!”
“Can I come in?” I asked, leaning on the wall next to the door. I might have been a bit tipsy when I decided to return, but I was not about to disgrace myself in front of the only person – sorry, creature – that I trusted.
“Yeah, sure!” She opened the door with an eager expression, that quickly turned into a worried one as her eyes darted inside her apartment and then back at me. “Hope you don’t mind if it’s a bit messy?”
“Oh god,” my heart sank with fear. “Don’t tell me you have someone’s body in there…”
Turned out she had left empty take-out cases around the house and hadn’t swept in a week. I couldn’t tell whether I was relieved or disappointed to discover that.
That night we talked a lot, but I can’t remember the details. We drank as we talked and I was well beyond tipsy at that point. I do remember begging for her to help me. To make me forget what she had told me or to teach me how to tell apart the inhuman from those like me. Unfortunately, she could do neither, which she admitted with a nervous frown, awkwardly patting me on the shoulder for comfort. What I had lost that night could never be regained.
When I woke up the next day, she was rushing to and fro, complaining on how hungover she was as she reassembled her face and got dressed. I was gently shooed out of the apartment before she left herself, waving me goodbye. Two things stuck to my horrified mind, as I walked to work. Firstly, I had slept in the apartment with that cannibal thing, completely at her mercy. The second was that I had promised to see her again.
And I went. Soon it became a weekly thing; a friendly routine. We politely avoided certain topics while discussing our daily lives. Curiosity was strong between us, as we asked each other questions on how we saw things. She was amused by my reactions whenever she told me the details of her non-human life and delighted in sharing weird tidbits of her experiences. What she told me fascinated and repulsed me in equal measure. Stories of entire cities where the creatures were an open secret, or of how she had never met her mother, instead being taught by one of her egg-sisters how to blend in and pretend to be human. We talked about our lives, our past and our hopes for the future.
“So,” she asked one evening, leaning in with an eager smile, “did you ever do something romantic once? Like, to a girlfriend or a woman you liked?”
“I guess,” I said, staring back at her and shrugging. “We’ve all done this or that when we were young.”
“Oh? Come on, tell me more,” She insisted.
“Well, ok, this happened a while back,” I said. “I was sixteen and really fancied this girl. But she was out of my league so I had to get creative. I managed to land on a science project with her and hatched a plan. I bought some flowers, hid them inside the project, and hid a sappy love note inside the flowers. My plan was to ask her out then.”
“Woah, you really did that?” Her eyes were wide in amazement.
“Yup. Complete disaster. The flowers got squished inside the fake house in the project and the note got damp and unreadable, which is a blessing looking back since the poem was so lame,” I scoffed. “But I kept my cool and told her that I was ready to re-do the project by myself to make up for it. And I said I would buy even prettier flowers and ruin them even more when asking her out next time.” I chuckled, remembering her reaction. “She laughed at that, and we hit it off. She asked me out for real one week later.”
“Oh, nice!” She was amazed at my silly story, sporting an excited grin. “What happened next?”
“About a month in I found out she didn’t want to have sex until after marriage. That turned out to be a dealbreaker, so I dumped her.” I looked away with an embarrassed shrug. “Sorry, but that’s how it went. Goes to show: romance is overrated.”
“No, no, that’s great!” She said, her enthusiasm not diminished in the slightest. “First you did a romantic gesture, but it didn’t go as planned… But then it did! And then you found other differences that made you break off! Wow… It’s amazing!”
“Is it?” I asked, nonplussed.
“We don’t get stuff like that with my kind,” she confessed, her voice dropping to a self-conscious mutter. “We have mating dances, which are nice, but very strict and formal. But human relationships are so random and messy and… It’s great!”
“Huh, that’s one way of seeing it,” I said.
“I mean… I’ve read about it and watched it on TV, sure.” She looked at me earnestly, “but it always felt distant, you know? Like it’s happening in another world. But you describing it to me here? In person?” She chuckled, eyes shining bright. “It feels real.”
Despite myself, I smiled when she said that.
As my enjoyment of those nights with her grew, my life became more miserable. Others noticed my strange mannerisms and I refused to touch anyone. I received an official reprimand from my supervisor for the first time, due to my behavior. And at night I still had trouble sleeping.
“Gee, that sucks!” She said, commiserating with me. We were at her apartment again, sitting at the table and eating curry, which we had prepared together. She took a bite and looked down, pensive. Her shoulders slumped slightly as she asked, “do you blame me for ruining your life?”
There was a dreadful silence, which stretched as I was torn on how to answer her question. In the end, I chose honesty. “Yes,” I answered.
She deflated further, not daring to look at me now. “Yeah,” she agreed, her voice quiet. “I guess that makes sense.”
“But there’s more to it than that. If I had never met you I would have been happy and innocent, sure, but… I would also be easy prey. Like a lamb to the slaughter. I mean…” I stumbled, searching for the right words to use. “I… What I am trying to say is. I’m glad to have met you.”
There was another awkward silence, and if she was cheered by my words she did not show it. She was the one to break the silence. “It’s difficult for me too.”
Frowning, I asked, “how?”
“A couple of weeks ago I asked one of my sisters if one of us could have a relationship with a human,” she chuckled, without any mirth or warmth. “She had some choice words for that. ‘Deviant’, for one. It’s… She didn’t understand at all. I think I’m the only one who sees any purpose in treating humans as more than prey. I’m just weird, I guess. I’ve never met any other sister like me.”
“So you’re alone,” I said, not taking my eyes from her. “Just like me.”
“Also, I… I haven’t fed. Recently,” she said, very quietly, as if afraid someone else would hear.
“Wha… Wait. You mean people?”
She nodded. “I can eat other things, but if I don’t devour… Well. I am slowly starving now,” she confessed. “I think I can last… A few more months, maybe?”
“What?” I got up from my chair in alarm, completely floored by what she had told me. “Does that mean… You’re dying?”
“I shouldn’t have told you,” she frowned, looking embarrassed. “I just wanted to enjoy our time left, not bum you out. It’s… Look, it’s fine. I made peace with it,” she said, finally looking back at me with a small smile.
But I couldn’t smile back. And after a tense moment, I cleared my throat, willing the words out of my mouth. “Kill me,” I said.
“Huh?” Her eyes widened as her smile vanished.
“My life is already messed up, I’m lonely and everybody laughs at me,” I blurted, like a dam bursting, my words flowed like a flood. “My family doesn’t know what’s going on and my colleagues avoid me, and… I’m afraid. All the time. Look, no one’s going to be too bothered. Just do it. Eat me.”
“No!” her expression curled into a bewildered scowl. “Not anymore and ESPECIALLY not you!”
“I’m not worth starving to death over,” I chuckled, shaking my head. “Trust me, no one cares if I die. Go ahead.”
She stared at me intensely before reaching a conclusion. Her head split open, revealing the unsettling emptiness inside as her tendrils tasted the air, writhing gracefully as she moved closer, making me back away. “It’s my choice,” she said. “They don’t choose who I am, you don’t choose, nobody chooses but me.”
I forced myself to look back at her, shivering. “But… You’re going to die.”
She shrugged, such a normal gesture for an unnatural creature, with a cricket-like clicking coming from her throat. “I’ve made my peace with that.”
I looked away, overwhelmed by emotion, and took a deep breath to calm myself down. “You’re so stubborn,” I said, punctuating with a small laugh.
She fiddled with her hands, looking incredibly awkward as only her clicking and chittering filled the silence. “Can’t help it. It’s who I am,” she said at last, her voice but a whisper as her shoulders sagged. She looked crestfallen, despite her inhuman face.
I gave her a hug. It was the only thing I could do for her.
We met even more frequently after that, spending as much time as possible, talking about our memories and our hopes, each hoping they could save the other from loneliness and death. We clung to each other, like a drowning man to a fellow swimmer, hoping to be saved. We knew it wouldn’t last, yet in the late hours of night, addled by the lack of sleep and food, we could at least pretend.
It was a short-lived dream. Therefore, I shouldn’t have been surprised one day to get a call from her, a few hours before our usual meeting time.
“They found out,” she whispered into the phone. “I’m not going to live the night. Listen! Do. Not. Come here tonight. It’s not safe.”
I was stupefied, struggling to regain my wits. “I… No. I’m not letting you go through that alone,” I replied.
“I need you to live,” she said. “I have a last request for you.” There was a small pause, I was too stunned to reply so she added “… please?”
I swallowed my bitterness “What do you want me to do?”
“I want a grave. Nothing fancy, a little pile of stones and some flowers would do,” she let a tiny laugh, rueful. “Kharzerai don’t have stuff like that when we die. I want to be special.”
My heart sank. “What about the situation right now? Are you sure there’s nothing I can…”
“Just make sure I am remembered. Please, it’s…” her voice stopped. I had no idea in what state she was on the other side of the line. I would never see her face again. “It’s all I can ask for right now.”
“I promise. I’ll do it,” I told her, sounding more confident than I felt.
Her voice had a hint of a smile as she replied, “thank you for the last few months.” Then the line went silent before hanging up. I had to excuse myself to the bathroom to avoid causing more of a scene than I already had.
Of course, I ignored her advice. After a couple of drinks, I went to her apartment one more time. Knocked on the door and waited and waited for anyone to answer. To see her face on the other side telling me it was all a misunderstanding, just a prank.
But no one answered.
I was forced to give up, walking down the stairs with unsteady steps. I almost bumped against a trio of perfectly innocent and normal men, who all smiled at me in a very normal and unthreatening fashion. There was nothing unnatural about them whatsoever. One of them poked at my neck playfully with his finger, in a non-suspicious and ordinary manner. This amused the three nice men, who all laughed normally and walked away, leaving me to stumble home. By the time I returned, I had forgotten all about them.
I kept my promise, a little cairn with flowers. A week didn’t pass by without fresh ones from me. It’s been ten years.
Shame I couldn’t keep it up. It started with a wet cough, persistent and painful. Then my throat swelled up and I could barely swallow my food. The doctors ran their tests and concluded it was an unusual form of throat cancer, just in time for it to get worse and spread to the rest of my body.
Now I’m in a hospital bed, waiting to die. I wonder if, at my last moments, I will see her again? Is there a heaven for bug-ladies as well? Ridiculous thought. I was never very religious even before my belief in reality was shattered, why should I believe now?
Yet I couldn’t help but hope that I will see her face one more time, through God or dark powers or oxygen deprivation. In a world I know so little of, is it far-fetched to hope we can be reunited, somehow? Might we meet again in another place?
I guess it’s time to find out.
This story was guest written by Mike Spivak of It’s Only Another End of the World. If you liked this short story leave a comment and check out the author’s site! Check in next week for my own entry and for a chance to choose which of the stories (not including my own) that was the best in this series!