The paper had to run something, of course, but there simply wasn’t much for Beck to go on. Nobody official had made any kind of real assessment. The government— city, county, or otherwise— hadn’t offered a statement other than a vague one that Beck translated from politician speech as “we’re as baffled and weirded out by this as you are.” The vacuum of real news had been filled by a pile of that pop culture news, the kind that is satisfied with using social media posts as sources. That kind was fine, Beck thought, especially for human interest stuff. She didn’t begrudge them the competition for this story.
“People Keep Finding Animal Blood and Guts in Random Places in This Little Town, and It’s Seriously Weird,” read the Buzzfeed headline Beck saw circulated the most, the headline that had thrust the town of Harper, Tennessee into the national spotlight. Twenty-four hours after that headline ran, the editors of the Harper Herald had a long discussion at the table in the middle of the newsroom. Few meetings were closed-door in a newspaper office—the only time that happened was for the rare private matter, like a performance review. When the meetings were at the big table, it meant that anybody could slide into a chair and participate. There weren’t any takers on that unspoken offer this time. The Herald reporters weren’t afraid of the weird. Far from it, they were enamored by it. But, they had no truck with the ridiculous waste of time this story was.
Beck could hear her editors’ conversation as she typed up a few briefs for the next day’s paper. The four of them argued over whether it was better to keep plugging at it—to just write something, anything, every day—or write a solid centerpiece about a the birth of a new urban legend and Harper’s strange fifteen minutes of fame. After an hour, they decided on the latter. Beck’s spirit drooped when the Metro editor, Bill Zeiger, walked towards Beck. Three of the editors probably thought she would be excited to have the piece, since it would almost certainly be circulated nationwide, maybe worldwide, by the Associated Press. But, Bill knew his newsroom, and Bill knew he would be the best person to deliver bad news.
“You heard all that?” Bill said, resting his chin on the frame of her cubicle. His fingers gripped the frame on either side of his cheeks, making him look a little like the old Kilroy Was Here graffiti from World War II.
“Yeah,” Beck said back without looking up at him.
“You wanna do it?” Bill asked.
“No,” Beck said, knowing it didn’t matter. Bill just chuckled and walked back to his desk.
Beck spent the rest of the day tracking down Ivan Mills, one of the first social media posters, and messaged him for an interview, which he eagerly agreed to do the next day. People hate to talk about themselves, even the good stuff, but people will talk about Amazing and Weird things that happened to them until they run out of breath. Beck sneered at the thought as she walked to the front door of the house where her first interview was. She sneered at the Buzzfeeds and Daily Buzzes and everything else that has the word “Buzz” in its name who took the easy way out and wrote about things being interesting, not things that are interesting. Her sneer deepened when she realized that was exactly what she was doing now and, deep inside her, a little voice questioned if she was just angry that they had scooped her.
Beck pushed the doorbell button. It creaked chimelessly under the pressure of her finger. She waited for a moment, taking the time to adjust her bag that contained her notebooks, pens, business cards, and a small, simple digital camera she carried around in case something big happened and a real photographer wasn’t around. She waited a few more seconds, then rapped fist on the door. Its solid wood stood strong against her knuckles. The door had a prismed window built into its center, one that kept the details of the home away from her, but let her see that there was no motion in the house’s front hallway. The door wasn’t what Beck would describe as fancy, but it was likely pricey. The whole house had the same feel of not being elegant, but still of quality in a way. It had vinyl siding, but it was good vinyl siding. It had a metal roof, but it had a new metal roof. It had two stories, a respectable-sized lawn (perhaps professionally seeded or sodded, but not professionally maintained), and a well-waxed Lexus sitting in the driveway. Not the most expensive Lexus she’d ever seen, but a Lexus all the same.
She saw a shape through the prism move closer to the door, then push it open. The blob turned into a fit man wearing a blue collared polo shirt, the look of a man who was expecting a guest but didn’t want to dress up like he did for work. He reminded her of David Wallace from The Office.
“Heeeeeey!” Ivan Mills said, too excitedly for Beck’s taste. “Are you Beck? Esther Beck?”
Beck matched his energy. “I sure am!” she said with a smile and an extended handshake that Ivan vigorously accepted. Ivan invited her in and she accepted, following him towards a tasteful den filled with houseplants and clean furniture and posed family photos. It looked like an Ikea store.
But, Ivan didn’t lead her into that room. Instead, they continued down a hallway until they came to what Beck figured was once the door to a garage, but was now re-purposed as another room. The Lexus outside was just parked in the sun and there had been no garage door on the house.
Ivan opened the door and Beck almost felt her legs weaken as a sickening wave of nostalgia washed over her. Was it nostalgia? No, nostalgia was wistful. Happy. Beck felt loss. What was the word for that? Saudade, that was it. The memories that flooded her mind weren’t repressed memories, but they were memories she didn’t want to remember. They filled her with sadness and fear, but they were tinged with the sweet silver lining of familiarity that comes with nostalgia.
The room was slightly lower than the rest of the house and had three steps leading down from the door Beck was standing in. It was starkly different than the pastel-colored, yuppie-flavored home she had just walked through. The walls were covered in cheap fake wood paneling. The carpet was an ugly shade of beige, stained by years of spilled snacks and beverages. A huge, overstuffed couch that slumped slightly toward its forward-left corner was placed in the middle of the room. A recliner, a cushioned desk chair, and a ratty wicker chair accompanied the couch. None of the furniture matched. A television, DVD player and piles of DVDs adorned the wall the door was cut into. The other walls hosted two taxidermy deer heads, a gun rack, and an ocean of kitschy hunting-themed knick-knacks, many with cringey slogans written in ugly fonts like “In this house, we prey before meals.”
“I guess you could call this my man cave,” he said. “I hate that name, but I don’t know what else to call it. My space, I guess.”
Beck straightened up. She realized Ivan had taken her into a very private part of himself, a place he might not go so far as to call a secret, but also something he didn’t wear on his sleeve, either. As a reporter, she appreciated that.
“You’re a hunter?” Beck said, offering it more as a statement than a question. She didn’t need to write that detail down. She wouldn’t forget.
“Yeah, a little,” Ivan replied, descending down the steps into his room. “Honestly, I barely do it, but I like the culture. My upbringing, I guess. You?”
“No,” Beck said, following him. “My Dad was, though. Growing up, my whole house looked like this room.”
“Oh yeah? Where did he hunt?” Ivan asked.
“Black’s Pocket, usually,” Beck said, growing uneasy with the questions about information in the Restricted section of her brain.
“My Dad was crazy about it. Used to go to these secret meetings all the time with other hunters where’d they’d do these goofy little made-up chants and dances, like the Water Buffalos on The Flintstones,” Ivan said.
“My Dad did that, too. Although I wouldn’t call them ‘secret.’ He’d practically yell ‘I’m going to my meeting!’ every week before heading out the door.’”
“Oh, hey, maybe they were going to the same meeting. That’d be pretty crazy if our dads knew each other,” Ivan said, moving through the furniture toward a fairly nice-looking bar cabinet. It wasn’t at all unusual that their two dads who both liked hunting, a popular Midwestern pastime, would have had some kind of interaction in a small city like Harper. But, Beck didn’t say that out loud.
“I lost my Dad about 20 years ago,” Ivan said, clinking two ice chunks into his glass. The bar cabinet was the only furniture in the room that didn’t look like a Craigslist giveaway or like there was a nicer version of it somewhere else in the house.
“Same,” Beck said. Worried she would come off as rude or cold, she quickly added, “I miss him.”
Ivan nodded. “Take a seat,” he said after he finished constructing his drink. None of the chairs were actually dirty, per se; on the contrary, Beck got the impression the room was vacuumed and dusted regularly, and that the stains only gave it the illusion of griminess. Regardless, the wicker chair seemed the least messy, so she chose it and began pulling her interview supplies out of her bag. She clicked her pen and set the point onto her notebook, causing a tiny dot of ink to bleed from it onto the paper.
“You wanna drink?” Ivan asked. Beck wasn’t sure he was asking if she wanted a drink or to drink, but she supposed it didn’t really matter. Ivan opened a door on the cabinet and pulled out a decanter of brown liquid. “I’m gonna have one because I took the day off.” He smiled as he popped out the top of the decanter and filled himself with the aroma of whatever was in it. Beck politely declined.
“Have you been getting a lot of online attention?” Beck said, ready to take notes.
“Some. Nobody’s making those weird memes about me, or whatever they’re called” Ivan said, clinking ice cubes into his glass. “I guess maybe because I wasn’t in any of the pictures I took. But, I wrote that big post on how creepy the whole thing was and that got shared a bunch. I’m getting a bunch of Facebook messages and things from conspiracy theorists. The amount of spam I’m getting has tripled at least. Have you read that post?”
“Oh, yeah, for sure. So I kind of know what happened to you,” Beck said. This was a little bit of a lie, because she had avoided looking at the pictures and would continue to do so for as long as she could.
“But, pretend I don’t know anything and tell me the whole thing from the top.”
“There’s almost nothing to tell,” Ivan said, taking a seat on the ugly couch with his drink in hand. “Two days ago, I was about two blocks down the road from here on my way to work, and the car lurched weird when I stopped at a stop sign, like there was something heavy sloshing and bumping around in the trunk.
“I pulled into a gas station parking lot and opened the trunk and there was just—“ he sputtered for a moment, waving his hands in the air as if trying to summon the words with a magic spell. He wasn’t careful with his animation and spilled a little of the drink on the sofa, possibly adding a new stain to its collection. He wasn’t making eye contact with Beck.
“—animals! In the trunk of my car! All dead, floating in what I assume was their own blood. And it—“
Ivan gestured widely again as he became visibly flustered.
“—poured out of my car and all over the parking lot!”
Beck remained calm, but tried to sound interested. “What kind of animals?”
“I think it was birds, mostly? I remember seeing a couple of ducks,” Ivan said.
“Were they all…?” Beck paused to find the word. “…Fresh?”
Ivan understood what she meant. “No. Mostly, but there were some decaying, I think. I don’t know exactly, because I threw up pretty quick and slammed the trunk down.”
“I can imagine,” she said sympathetically. “What did you do with it?”
“I called 911,” he said. “I mean, it wasn’t really an emergency, but I didn’t know what else to do. The dispatcher didn’t give me any pushback, though. Didn’t ever act like they didn’t believe me, either. I guess skepticism isn’t really their deal.
“Anyway, they sent a couple of folks from animal control and they cleaned my trunk out. Then I ran it through a car wash about a dozen times.”
“The Lexus outside?” Beck asked, looking up from her notebook. Ivan nodded.
“Can we go look at it?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said, grunting as he rose to his feet.
Outside, Ivan popped the trunk and it swung open. Beck thought she saw his face flinch a bit. The inside of the trunk was spotless and an acrid cloud of bleach fumes assaulted Beck squarely and sharply enough to make her back up.
“Oh, sorry,” Ivan said, laughing. “Yeah, I don’t know what the animal control guys hosed this down with, but it killed everything. I thought I was just gonna have to sell the whole car, but damn if it isn’t cleaner than when I bought it.”
“Do you think it was a prank?” Beck asked, her composure regained and notebook at the ready.
“That’s what I thought at first,” Ivan said, sighing with resignation. “But, then the same stuff started happening to other people in town, I guess? Like that old lady that found a bunch of squirrels and stuff in her bathtub. I don’t know any of those people.”
“I don’t understand. Why would that matter?”
“What, that we don’t know each other? Wouldn’t that rule out a prank?”
“Not necessarily. Maybe it’s someone just hitting random folks. Or, maybe you’re connected in some superficial or really specific way that you’re not aware of.”
Ivan stared ahead. “Wow,” he said. “I guess I hadn’t thought of that. That’s kinda spooky. I guess I just thought it was some crazy nature thing like when all those birds died out west and the scientists said they all died from blunt force trauma, like they all ran themselves into trees and telephone poles for some reason they couldn’t figure out.”
“I think I’d be more spooked if it was natural,” Beck said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to worry you. I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ivan said, breaking out of his trance. “I’m not scared, really.”
“Not at all?” Beck said, purposely being a little rude. “I guess I figured that’s why you were home today. I thought you were taking a few mental health days.”
“It was disgusting, for sure, and pretty creepy” Ivan said quickly. “But, it’s not keeping me up at night. I took a day off because it made me, like, actually physically ill. And, I’m kindof a workaholic and I had a bunch of use-it-or-lose-it vacation days built up that were about to expire, so I figured I’d take a week off and focus on my 15 minutes of fame.”
He stopped talking for a second while he bit his lip and shook his head, staring at his concrete driveway. He turned his head to look back at Beck.
“It was so gross, though,” he said, almost whispering.
Beck asked him a few more questions about his personal life—questions to flesh out his “character” in the story, as she did whenever she was writing a big feature piece like this that wasn’t explicitly hard news. She thanked Ivan, shook his hand, and drove back to her office.
She wrote what she could, but it wasn’t really enough. There was no way Danielle Davis, the Executive Editor of the Times, would be satisfied with a half-baked government statement, some drivel about social media posts, and quotes from one colorful character. She might be able to squeeze it by the other three, but not Davis. She needed something better, and had to find it before Friday, although she might be able to convince them to give her until Saturday if they valued the story enough.
Beck got her miracle the next day. She was tapping out her daily news story, a tepid 500-word article on a skin-and-bones city council kerfuffle over whether city bidding policy had been followed when purchasing new fire engines when the Managing Editor, Carl Isom, practically skidded into her cube. Carl was a runner and not easily excitable, so the sight of him being out of breath was jarring for Beck.
“More animal blood and guts,” he said gleefully. “Grab a photog and get down there. Email me a breaking from your phone ASAP.” He said “ASAP” like it was a word, ay-sap.
“Can we even run those pictures?” she said, hoping in the back of her mind that being difficult would mean they would give the assignment to someone else. She didn’t mind rolling up her sleeves for a nasty story, but she would have preferred the work be spread around a little so she wouldn’t be the go-to for “piles of dead animals” stories.
“Don’t worry about that, just get down there,” he said. He turned abruptly and left, leaving the conversation dangling in the air, an annoying habit Carl had exhibited in the entire 16 years she had been at the paper.
Beck put her hands on her desk and pushed herself up, her body protesting the assignment as much as her brain. She gathered her things and trudged to the photographers’ area in the adjacent room. Gary Carlisle, an award-winning photographer who had taken several shots that received international attention, was sitting in front of a Mac eating an unpeeled peach. Beck’s heart sank into her stomach. This would be a disgusting waste of Gary’s time and talent.
“Hey, Gary,” she said sheepishly. Gary barely looked up at her with the disdain all the photographers shot at all the reporters. “You wanna go take pictures of animal guts?”
One silent, awkward car ride later, Beck was knocking on the front door of a double-wide manufactured home (they are not trailers in the newspaper business unless they are made to be hitched behind a truck. If it doesn’t have wheels, it’s not a trailer). A heavyset woman answered the door, and Beck introduced both herself and Gary, who preferred to speak as little as possible when working.
“Yurr hurr about th’ backyard?” the woman grunted. “Yurr wantin’ ta see it?”
“Yes, please,” Beck said, allowing a little embarrassment to creep into her voice. Sometimes, when trying to get someone to do a favor for them, reporters will let a person believe they have all the power and that doing you a favor makes them a hero. People will like you if they do you a favor and you express excessive gratitude. In fact, they will like you much more than if you had done them a favor. It’s called the Benjamin Franklin effect, and Beck played it so well its smooth-talking namesake would have probably hit on her.
The woman grunted a positive sounding grunt, then re-entered her front door, waving at the pair to follow. She led them the short distance from the front door to the back door. In the moment inside the home, Beck swiveled her head instinctually to take as much in as quickly as possible. The home was cluttered, but not disgustingly so. On the wall hung an old hunting rifle that had clearly not been used in years and was now a dusty wall decoration. Beck didn’t know much about guns, but she recognized a shape—a brand logo?—that was engraved in the stock on many of her father’s guns. Tiny glass animals, cutesy and vaguely religious porcelain sculptures, and a menagerie of other tacky knick-knacks stood on every flat surface. Among the knick-knacks, a single metal piece stood out; it was of a humanoid figure grasping two confronting beasts, as if it were mediating a conflict between them by strangling them both to death. The piece looked almost ancient, and its details were worn down so that it was difficult to tell exactly what kind of animals the humanoid figure was grasping, although Beck thought she could make out wings and horns. Another suadade memory clawed at her, a similar statue that sat on her childhood home’s mantle. That statue was cast in fake gold, its animals were clearly birds, and its humanoid had four arms, but otherwise they were unmistakably supposed to be the same artistic motif.
Beck shook herself out of her memories and hurried through the back door. The backyard had a fence and one of those above-ground pools you can buy at Wal-Mart that come with a little salt filter and ladder and are filled with hose water. A tattered vinyl tarp covered the pool. Other people were already in the yard. The woman who opened the door walked over to join other people dressed in plain civilian clothes, likely her friends, family, and neighbors. A single police officer stood close enough to the pool to indicate that he was watching it, but far enough away that to broadcast that he was also afraid of how disgusting it was underneath the tarp. Beck took a similar stance, but Gary stood near the pool, fearless. Two people wore white protective suits, likely so they could perform the same job as the animal control agents that cleaned Ivan’s trunk. The crowd of civilians were whispering to each other, but otherwise the yard was eerily quiet.
The two protective-suited people walked slowly over to opposite sides of the pool and began gingerly pulling the tarp off. Suddenly, they both tore it off and stumbled away from it, their arms shielding their faces from an unseen attack. A second later, everyone else in the yard understood why. Even outdoors, the smell filled the air. Gary had been standing much too close in order to get his shot, and he retched up his peach.
Beck ran to him, putting an arm on his shoulder. Even with the tense relationship between reporters and photographers, Beck and Gary had worked with each other long enough for the touch to be welcome.
“You okay, Gary?” Beck said.
“Fuck, it’s awful,” Gary heaved. “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” Gary had covered car crashes where victims’ limbs had severed and rained down around the crash site. It was no small thing for him to qualify the scene in the swimming pool that way, even if it was hyperbole.
Beck said nothing, she just patted his back and stared at the pool. It was filled perfectly to the brim with what reeked of blood mixed with animal fat. Like Ivan had described, there were also numerous animal carcasses in it, mostly bucks and does, in various states of decay.
“We’ll never be able to use these pictures,” Gary said after another heave. “I won’t let them. I’ll delete them. I’ll burn the memory card.”
Gary straightened up a little and turned his head toward Beck. He couldn’t turn his head enough to make eye contact, but the intent was clear. “You must have a solid stomach. How are you not totally repulsed by that?”
Beck didn’t dare reply.
Beck nervously played with her phone in the waiting room. Her eyes drooped, but embarrassment kept her from dozing off in public. Frustration played its part, too—it annoyed her to no end that she could fall asleep at her desk, but not in her bed. Beck had always had trouble sleeping—the stress and sometimes horror of being a reporter kept her up some nights—but since seeing the swimming pool two days ago she had not had more than minutes-long naps.
A short woman wearing glasses poked her head into the waiting room. “Esther?” she said with a sweet voice. It was strange for Beck to hear someone call her by her first name, but she stood up anyway and followed the woman back to a cozily decorated office. There was a plaque on a desk bearing the woman’s name—Dr. Olivia Farrison—but Dr. Farrison did not sit at it. Instead she retrieved a tablet computer from its drawers and sat down in one of the cushy armchairs. She welcomed Beck to sit anywhere, but Beck felt she was actually nudging her toward the sofa, and she complied with the notion.
“I guess I was expecting one of those weird reclining couches,” Beck said with a nervous laugh.
Dr. Farrison returned the chuckle. “Real mental healthcare professionals don’t usually have those. Sigmund Freud had one, and the image stuck.”
Beck managed a polite “oh.”
“Have you ever been to a therapist before, Esther?” Dr. Farrison asked sweetly.
“Please, call me Beck,” Beck said. “Nobody uses my first name. I don’t much care for it, honestly.”
“Why is that?”
“Aside from it being a Hebrew name, despite my family having no traceable Hebrew ancestry or culture? It sounds antiquated. Like I’m named after an old lady.” Beck expected Dr. Farrison to tap a note about this onto her tablet, but either Farrison was making a mental note or this truly was just an icebreaker.
They talked for a while, mostly about the anxieties that work had piled on Beck for years. Beck felt genuinely relieved to get all of it off her chest and wished she had made an appointment years ago. Close to the end of the hour, the conversation hit a natural lull and the room fell silent while Dr. Farrison spent a few seconds tapping her notes into her tablet.
“I don’t usually ask my patients this, Beck, but you seem like you have a strong constitution and you seem to value directness.”
Beck nodded and waited for her to continue.
“Why did you decide you wanted therapy?” Dr. Farrison asked, her eyes making steady contact with Beck’s.
“I didn’t, really. My boss wanted me to,” she said. “She’s got a kind streak, probably a liability in the newspaper business. She seems like she’s seen her share of newsroom nervous breakdowns.
“But, going to someone for an hour twice a week to just talk didn’t sound like the worst thing in the world, so I didn’t push back. And, I’ve been having trouble sleeping, so I thought you might be able to fix that.”
Beck spent most of the hour talking about the stress of work, mostly the enormous weight of the duty of a reporter, even one in a small town.
“Have you always had trouble sleeping?” Dr. Farrison asked near the end of the session.
“Yeah. Ever since college. Back then, I couldn’t even consider going to sleep before 2 a.m. But, it’s been worse this week.”
“Did something happen?”
An alarm sounded in Beck’s brain. This question felt like a probe, like a hairpin trying to jimmy a locked door open inside her. Beck pushed the feeling away.
“I’m covering those weird appearances of the dead animals all over town,” Beck said.
Dr. Farrison looked surprised. “Are those real? I thought they were just wild rumors.” The word “wild” sounded extra deliberate to Beck, like Dr. Farrison was taking great care not to say “crazy.” It would not be becoming of a mental health professional, Beck supposed, but it might have been a better idea, anyway—Beck did not appreciate the accidental wordplay of “wild” in this context.
“As of a few days ago, I can confirm that they are very real,” Beck said. “Or at least one is real. It’s possible the other accounts were fake, and then one person decided to make it a reality.”
“Did that bother you?”
“Are you asking if it was traumatic for me?”
“Yes,” Dr. Farrison conceded. “I don’t like to use that word until it’s time, but that is what I was driving at.”
Beck stared at the floor. Dr. Farrison’s eyes were locked on her. Even when Beck looked elsewhere in the room, she could always feel the eyes waiting for hers to come back.
“Maybe not in the way you’re thinking,” Beck finally said. “I…”
Beck opened and closed her mouth several times, struggling to put into words how she had felt when the animal control agents removed the tarp from a swimming pool that would be burned if the owners had any sense. Finally, the words came spilling out.
“I liked it.”
Dr. Farrison did her best to look unfazed. “Can you elaborate?”
“It was appealing. Everybody—poor Gary—was vomiting and running away from it, and it just… it looked so good to me. Not the vomiting, obviously, but the—the stuff. It wasn’t the mess that was traumatizing, it was me.”
Dr. Farrison’s mouth hung slightly open and her brow arched high on her forehead, although her eyes remained heavy-lidded. What was she thinking? Did she wonder if Beck was a psychopath? The thought had crossed Beck’s mind more than once.
“I think you should come back tomorrow,” Dr. Farrison said, snapping out of her momentary stupor. She clicked off her tablet and stood up. “I know we’re not scheduled, but I have an opening and I think there’s a lot to talk about here.”
Beck just nodded, shook the doctor’s hand, and left.
Beck might have enjoyed the rest of her day if it hadn’t been for her exhaustion and new, very real fear that her mental health was in actual trouble. Everything went perfectly at work. Everyone called back, everyone answered her questions honestly and thoroughly. There had been a buzz happening around the cops reporter’s desk all day as editors chattered about a rash of missing persons, but Beck could not summon the strength to care about any assignment other than hers. By 3 p.m., two editors had read and approved her daily story. At first, Isom wanted her to help on the missing persons story, but Davis vetoed it and told Beck to go home and get rested. And by God, Beck was determined to follow orders. She made a mission checklist:
She completed all the tasks, though not in order, checking off each as she went. The hardest task would be the last on her list. She lay in her bed, willing herself to be comfortable. Like every night for a week, she felt unsafe in her bed. When she fell asleep at her desk, she felt comfortable. It felt like a treat, whereas falling asleep at night felt like a scary commitment.
She willed her toes to relax. She moved up to her calves, then her thighs. She relaxed her finger tips. She felt like she was sinking into her mattress. She felt hungry. She tried to resist the feeling—she had always had a taste for late night snacks, but had tried avoiding them lately because she suspected it was contributing to her insomnia. But, it grew stronger, more specific. She craved a warm, bitter taste on her lips. A peppery, fatty taste, like the delicious hot and sour soup from China Café. Her mouth longed to slurp down a whole bowl at once, no spoon.
Her eyes were closed, but she knew an infinite pool—no, a lake—stretched beyond her eyelids. She dipped her hands into the water and found it wasn’t water at all. It was warm and a little thick, like tomato soup. She cupped her hands and brought them to her mouth, obeying her cravings, letting it run down her throat. It wasn’t hot and it wasn’t cold, nor was it the unappealing mediocrity of room temperature. It was exactly the temperature she wanted. She felt she could drink the entirety of the endless, delicious lake, and attempted to for what felt like hours.
The sun touched her eyelids, which in turn cast light into the world inside her mattress. Her hands felt wet and cold. She brought them up to her closed eyelids found she could see clearly now, even through the fuzziness of the sunlight. Her hands were covered in crimson from fingertips to forearms. She struggled to look beyond the shore of the lake, to see what she had been pouring into herself. The lake was the same crimson as her hands, as was the cloudy sky above her. Both the sky and the lake touched black crags on the horizon. In the distance she could see once mighty, now dead mastodons and other massive beasts ancient man had hunted for food. Their corpses rose out of the crimson lake in a semi-circle. In a closer semi-circle in front of the prehistoric beasts, other dead animals floated in the crimson lake. They were smaller than the mastodons, but still large things like rhinoceros and buffalo. Each ring was the same; the animals were arranged so that the ones closest to her were small and the ones far away were large. The closest meat was attractively butchered animal parts. Little cubes of stew-ready meat floated at the shore. Some of them were cooked. In the ring closest to her, chunks of meat chopped into delicious-looking cubes floated in the red lake. And once again, just as she felt with the swimming pool, she felt appetite where she should have felt revulsion. And once again, the shame came—not at the sight of the lake, but at herself.
In the middle of the lake stood a figure she could not quite focus on. It was the shadow of a human, but it seemed to have four arms. In two of its hands it held a massive deer carcass by the throat and antlers. In the other hands it held a bear aloft as if it weighed nothing. It said something in a language Beck could neither understand nor identify. It sounded like a question asked sternly, but not urgently, like the asker wanted an answer immediately, but was not afraid of not getting it. As if Beck was the one who should be afraid of not answering. The figure asked the question louder, its unworldly consonants splashing through the bloody lake.
Beck’s real eyes open suddenly. The lake was gone, replaced with her dark bedroom ceiling. Her body ached and protested. She was drenched with sweat underneath the heavy blankets piled on top of her. She had been spared the endless torture of a sleepless night, but she felt no more rested than when she laid her head down. She screamed in frustration and punched her pillow.
Beck slumped on Dr. Farrison’s sofa. She balled the pillows underneath the right side of her rib cage. Her heavy-lidded ennui from Tuesday was replaced by a cranky tiredness, much like the parents of small children must feel. Or, the children themselves, Beck thought sourly. Dr. Farrison noted all of this on her tablet. Beck’s exhaustion would have been obvious even to people who weren’t trained to look for subtle clues to personal problems.
“Do you remember what we were talking about last time?” Dr. Farrison asked. She almost felt afraid to ask the question, as if it were a trigger that would snap the creature in front of her out of its stupor and send it into a rage.
Beck remembered all too well, and the time for keeping things to herself was over. “Yes,” she said. “I had a dream about it last night.”
“About the…” Dr. Farrison trailed off, trying to find a common term for the Harper’s new disgusting phenomenon. More cases had popped up in the last 48 hours, enough to wear away the skepticism of even the most cynical.
“Yes,” Beck said flatly, trying to avoid Dr. Farrison’s omniscient eye contact. “I was eating it.”
“Well, I’m not an expert on dreams, but I do know enough to tell you that they are sometimes exaggerations of our desires. You said the stuff was visually appealing to you, so your subconscious interpreted that as—“
“No,” Beck cut her off. Dr. Farrison stopped talking immediately. She had seen Beck’s face before, and she was about to spill her guts. It was Farrison’s job to let her.
“My dad—my father—was a hunter, like a lot of dads in this town,” Beck said, gesturing toward the air in the last part and indicating that she was welcoming Dr. Farrison to agree with her.
“Of course, mine was, too. Went to the lodge with the other hunters in town every week,” Dr. Farrison said, quickly shutting up again and polishing off her statement with a few enthusiastic nods. Beck continued in her tired, monotone voice.
“He was good at it, too. Most nights we ate what he killed. I despise hunting, Dr. Farrison. But, I have a taste for wild game. I was raised on it.”
Farrison considered interrupting to reassure her that emotions and memories are complicated, and that it was completely normal to associate a swimming pool full of gore with a childhood memory, but she decided against the lie. Beck was lying down at this point, her arms crossed over a pillow she was clutching to her chest. Her eyelids had drooped the whole time, but now they widened, staring at the ceiling. They were cat’s eyes, Farrison thought. But not the eyes of her pet cat, Milly. They were like the stray that came around begging for the cans of tuna Dr. Farrison gave him. His eyes were sad and hungry and vicious all at once. Dr. Farrison loved that cat with all her heart, but she would never let him into her home. She was afraid of him.
“About once a month, the meat freezer would get full. There’d be little bits and chunks from when we’d cut a bird in half or left a shank off when preparing dinner. That stuff built up over time, and the freezer just wasn’t that big. So, my father would gather up the bits, thaw them, chop them up, and make his signature dish.”
Beck breathed slowly and loudly through her nose. Dr. Farrison felt like she almost knew what Beck was about to say. It was a memory from the future, written in the air in front of her backwards so that Beck had time to say the name before Farrison could fully read it for herself:
The words stung Dr. Farrison. She remembered a dream she had as a child where countless wasp-like insects, engorged by the nightmare, filled her bedroom. She could still feel their stings, hear her own panicked wails. She felt the madness of the nightmare in the room now. She felt hypersensitive; she could hear the artificial air of the central air conditioning whistle past the vent in the upper part of the south wall of her office. She could see dust settle on her bookshelf, on her little propped-up bronze pendant depicting Menoan, the Lord of Animals, holding two birds by the neck. She had found that in her parents’ house, and her mother had begged her to “take the ugly old thing,” and now she wondered what had possessed her to display the anxious, violent thing in a place of mental health and healing.
Beck’s words should have been innocuous. She hadn’t called it “Death Stew” or “Blood Stew.” But the words chilled Dr. Farrison anyway as they froze the air, because now there was finally a fitting name for it all. All the disgusting madness in the town and in the woman in front of her that had started out as a funny story and had become a fever dream. A name from the future and the past she swore she could have remembered if she’d had another moment.
“It should have been repulsive. It was just rice and a peppery, fatty broth, probably chicken stock with egg in it, and every kind of meat in the freezer shredded or chopped into little cubes. It wasn’t just duck soup or venison soup. It was everything. Wild turkey, fox meat, everything in one pot. I lapped it up every time. I haven’t had that soup for 40 years, Dr. Farrison, and I hadn’t considered that fact once until I saw that swimming pool.
“I know that, realistically, the two are not the same. That if I had dipped my hands in the swimming pool and took a sip, I would have spit it out immediately. It would have tasted like rotten blood, a flavor that must be unimaginably revolting. But, that didn’t stop me from wanting it.”
It was silent and cold in the office again. Dr. Farrison heard her own heavy breathing. She felt a fatigue in her muscles and a cold sweat on her forehead. She felt like she had the flu, even though not 10 minutes ago she had felt fine.
“I don’t know that I’d call my father abusive, but he wasn’t kind. He never injured me, never really did more than slap me around a little bit. I never even got so much as a bruise. He’d push or kick me if I was in his way and didn’t move fast enough for his liking. He’d call me stupid and worthless. Maybe not the worst things to be called, but it hurt anyway. I don’t think I ever felt truly unsafe in my home, but my father wanted me to be afraid of him and I let him have his way.
“He used to say he’d put me in the stew if I misbehaved. I think it started as a joke when I was very small, and I may have even thought it was funny. But, it became threatening as I got older. I remember him slapping me and screaming, ‘I will put you in the stew, and maybe you’ll finally contribute something, Esther.’ He sounded serious. He sounded like he was telling the truth.
“When I was sixteen, I finally talked back. He had just come back from one of his gathering with his hunting buddies, which always put him in a strange mood. He was filled with power and violence that was thrashing against his insides, trying to get out. I always wondered if they smoked something at those gatherings. Maybe that’s just what empowerment looks like in an asshole. I was supposed to be helping with the stew by chopping up who-knows-what meat into cubes, but I was so busy screaming back at him that I cut my finger. I tried to bandage it up, but my father grabbed it. His hands were rough and strong. I can still feel the calluses on his palms and the tops of his fingers from where he held his rifle for hours at a time. He pulled me over to the pot and just let me bleed into it for a minute, then he threw a hand towel at me, pointed to the bathroom, and finished the stew without saying anything else.
“I ate it. I didn’t tell Mom. And I think I didn’t tell her because I wanted it again. It was the best batch he ever made.”
"Tell me more about your father," Dr. Farrison said, denying every screaming voice inside her that told her she did not want to hear more.
"He took me to one of his hunting lodge meetings," she said. "I was barely old enough to remember anything, but it’s been coming back to me over the past few days. Maybe because I haven’t been sleeping. Maybe in place of dreams, my brain is digging up my memories out of a vault.
"I remember there being a lot of men there. I think there were at least a hundred. And we’d all met at the lodge, then hiked out to this big clearing in the woods. Some of the men set up torches, like it was a Klan meeting. My father and a few other men put on taxidermied animal heads like they were masks; my father put on a stag’s head that hung over the mantle, except when he took it down for these meetings.
"He took me by the hand, and he led me to the middle of the circle of men. There were pictures drawn on the ground with white spray paint. I can still smell it. Then they sang songs and chants in a language I didn’t understand. It was gibberish nonsense, for all I know. I remember thinking the torches seemed to glow brighter, and that all the shadows the men cast had too many arms.
"He had a good hunting year after that."
Dr. Farrison waited for a long moment before speaking. She wanted to be sure the story was over. Beck was beyond her help, but it was her job to listen.
“Ms. Beck, I’m going to refer you to a psychiatrist,” Dr. Farrison said, swallowing hard. Beck didn’t react, not even to being called “Ms.”
“I know that’s not easy to hear, but I think you need diagnosis and possibly medication. But, if you act on this now, you can get ahead of the issues early and get treatment.”
“Whatever,” Beck said. She moved to get up, but didn’t look at Dr. Farrison. Once Beck had left the office, Farrison told her receptionist to cancel the rest of the appointments for the day, and waited fifteen minutes before leaving so that she would be sure not to see Beck again.
“What should I tell them?” the receptionist asked.
“I have the flu,” Dr. Farrison said. She was separating two blinds with her fingers to spy on her parking lot and did not stop doing this to answer the receptionist.
Beck stood in the middle of her kitchen in a tank top and underwear, staring into her refrigerator, willing something to appear that would satisfy her hunger. Why did she have so many vegetables? Disgusting.
It was dark in her kitchen except for the light from the fridge that threw Beck’s long, thick shadow on the wall behind her. She looked at the microwave next to the fridge. 2:14 a.m. She hadn’t even tried to sleep tonight, what was the point? She would just go into work early and leave late and take naps during the day. It didn’t sound like a great life, but it would work.
She was thirsty. If she couldn’t find something to eat, she could at least do something about that. She grabbed a glass from her cabinet, turned on the faucet, and stuck it underneath until she could feel that it was full enough. She put the glass to her lips and tilted her head back, only to spit in the sink a moment later.
The spit wasn’t out of disgust, but from surprise, like when a drink isn’t what you were expecting, like somebody put apple juice in a soda can. What Beck tasted in her glass was unexpectedly delicious.
Beck flipped the light on above her sink and examined the glass and the liquid running from the faucet. A red, sludgy substance spat out of the faucet, spattering over the stainless steel of the basin. It filled her glass, too. She swiveled her glass in her hand, feeling the heft of the liquid. She smashed the glass in the sink, shattering it and sending glass bits flying through the kitchen. She stepped on several as she ran out her front door, not bothering to close it behind her.
Beck had been a reporter in Harper longer than many people had lived there, and knew much more about its infrastructure than most. She knew which parts of the city were prone to flooding during the April rains. She knew which part of the city had utility poles that were well past due for replacement. And she knew the location of the water tower that served the faucets in her home.
It was nearly five miles away, but Beck did not even consider driving. She ran. Faster than she ever had. The tiredness had left her. She felt the lean protein of her father’s soup in her muscles where it had lain dormant for four decades, waiting for the night she would need it. Her pace never slowed. She stripped off the few clothes she was wearing and arrived at the water tower naked. She did not remember her name, her job, or her age. She only knew this single, screaming instinct.
She climbed the ten-story ladder two rungs at a time with a speed that would impress any athlete. She clambered to the top of the slippery dome and ripped off the padlock guarding the hatch with her bare hands. She heaved the hatch open and looked inside with new eyes. All she needed was the sliver of moonlight above her to see the tower filled almost to the brim with the red broth. She saw an arm, a leg, organs. Whole human bodies. Ivan. The woman from the home with the above ground swimming pool. Farrison. Their naked corpses clutched their sculptures and pendants, covered in the red, greasy matrix they all floated in. She looked on the ones who arrived before her with jealous rage, but it turned to feral glee when she realized why she had to be last, why she had to be the final, perfect ingredient. At last, a good batch after all these years.
She teetered on the edge of the hatch, leaning forward just slightly. She felt callouses on a rough hand on her back push gently, finishing the job and tipping her into the hole. She didn’t fight it. The silent night air began to rush past her ears. The stew seemed to rush towards her, as eager to meet her as she was to meet it.
She opened her arms and her mouth as wide as she could.