Eating Our Hearts Out

"If I'm sick of being a victim, but not cut out to be a hero, what does that make me?"

Scotty Matthews is an alcoholic- he’s used to waking up miles away from his university campus with no memories to explain where he was or who he was with. As he tries to recover from one night of drinking, though, he realises he doesn’t feel quite right. He has nightmares he can’t explain, sickness he can’t suppress, anger he can’t control, and- worst of all- hunger he can’t satisfy.

Scotty needs to know what happened to him that night, but he only has two leads- a neck wound that probably came from a broken bottle, and a vague image of a girl, taken from a dream and friends who aren’t sure what they saw. Scotty tries to convince himself she was just another drunk student at a party, but he’s soon forced to accept the far darker truth. Not only is she a monster- she’s turned him into a monster too.

And if he wants to get his symptoms under control, he’s going to need her help.

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Author's note

Hello!
This is a little trigger warning. "Eating Our Hearts Out" is a vampire story, but there isn't any sparkling or ballroom dancing, and the violence goes a HECK of a lot farther than a bit of vanilla stalking. This story is packed with blood, guts, violence, pitch-black humour and an unhealthy amount of cannibalism alongside themes of alcoholism and drug addiction. Also, both my protagonists make morally questionable decisions to say the least. If you're squeamish, proceed with caution. If none of that bothers you, then please have fun reading! Jem :)
AA

19. Player

"He told me pretty girls like me should smile more often,” she says, laying her head on my chest. “So I smiled at him. With my fangs out.”

I laugh.

We’re wrapped in her black satin blankets, our bodies tangled together, looking up at the pink-washed ceiling. We never stopped, as it turned out, but not because we couldn’t—because we didn’t want to. It’s been a week since we kissed for the first time, and every day has only made me surer I won’t ever be able to leave her. I knew it was already too late when I kissed her. Actually, I knew it the second I stepped back inside that door. For me, righteousness always ends in pain, and so it can’t help but feel wrong. But being with her makes me feel right, so, so right. Happy, for the first time in my life. Yesterday, down on the sofa, she paused the film we were half-watching to lean towards me and say into my ear she wanted to be with me forever. I told her I wanted it too. I don’t care about the killing, the drinking, the eating, the addiction, anymore. Because I love her. And besides, now I let her talk without interrupting with some grand moral speech, a lot of her stories are goddamn funny. Especially the ones about the guys in the nightclubs.

“And then I killed him.”

I look down at her, stroking her hair. “Yeah. I guessed.”

She giggles quietly. “I told you about the guy, uh… last week. Right?”

“Yeah.”

“The one who thought I was a… whatever he said.”

“A harpy.”

She grins up at me. “Yep.”

“Harpies are birds.”

“They… what? He thought I was a bird?”

“A vulture.”

“Huh.” Maria snuggles into me. “Well, that’s just rude.”

“I…” I say softly, wrapping my arms around her. “Would’ve laughed if I’d been there. Probably.”

“Maybe you should come with me next time.” She stiffens against me, screwing her eyes shut for a split-second. I hug her closer. Now she’s let me in completely, I see every blip of the hunger she used to hide from me. It’s constant. It’s always hurting her. I can’t believe she manages to hold it down as long as she does before her resolve breaks. Worst of all, every time her hunger comes, my head tries to copy. “Because, uh… perhaps you need to see… what I do.”

I frown. “Why?”

“So you can know for sure you’re not being an idiot staying with me.”

“I already know the answer to that,” I say, afraid at the prospect of seeing her hunting. And why? Am I afraid I’ll change my mind? Am I afraid I won’t be able to control my own hunger? “Maybe I am, but I don’t give a shit. I love you.”

She moves her head off my chest and I cup her chin, pulling her in and pressing my lips to hers.

“You are an idiot, Scotty,” she says when we pull away. Then, she leans forwards and kisses me again, bringing her hand to my cheek. “Is that how you want to spend the rest of eternity? Smitten with a bloodthirsty maniac?”

I look at her. “I’m not smitten with a bloodthirsty maniac. I’m smitten with my weird blonde best friend who likes to draw and swing in playgrounds like a five-year-old.”

“Well.” She pulls a face. “You might change your mind if you ever see me doing it. I think… I’d feel better if you came with me. Once. I want to know you know you’re picking the right life. Throwing away your past and present and future and freedom and moral compass and stuff for the right reasons.”

“I never doubted it.”

She smiles, but the smile stretches into a wince as she stiffens against me again. I can’t stand the thought of her in this much pain.

“Hey,” I say. “Go.”

She looks up at me. “I only ate three days ago.”

“If it’s hurting you, you… can’t suppress it.”

“I’m scared. I’m scared of letting it get worse.”

I pause, trying to think of something reassuring to say. All that’s running through my head is how much worse can it get?

“It won’t. I can’t stand you being in pain. You have to take care of yourself.”

She sits up. “That’s exactly what I said to you a fortnight ago, remember? But you didn’t break.”

“No.”

“But I’m going to.” Maria lets the sheets fall into her lap and I reach out to draw circles with my fingers on her back. “I do have an idea.”

I sit up too. “What?”

“Well, technically it was your idea,” she says. “D’you remember when you first moved in? You told us we should try targeting people who deserve it. And it was actually a good idea. I think I should try going further out. To the bad side of town. The really bad side.”

I smirk at her. “Maria, the bad side of town follows you wherever you go.”

She laughs. “I know, but I’m kind of starting to feel bad for nightclub fuckboys. If I keep going the way I am there won’t be any left in Aberdeen, and wouldn’t that be a rotten shame? I should target the roughnecks. The worst of the worst. If I can.”

“I…” I trail off. “I think that’s a good idea. A great idea, even.”

She hits my arm. “Coz you came up with it.”

“Well, yeah, but I’m proud of you for thinking it.”

“Guess I should take what I can get.” Her grin softens. “Thank God I’ve got you now, my love.”

The word sends a shiver of sugary warmth through me. When Maria calls me love she says it carefully, spelling it out like it’s sacred. In her mouth, it’s the most gorgeous word in the English language.

I can’t tear my eyes away from her as she gets out of bed and goes to the wardrobe. God, she’s so beautiful—I can’t understand why it took me so long to fall in love with her. I can’t understand why I didn’t fall in love with her the moment I met her. The old Scotty was an idiot. I’m so glad he’s gone.

I leave the room to get changed. Once I’m done, I’m stupid enough to look in the mirror before I remember I’ve got no reflection again. If I could see myself now, would I like what I saw? I sit down on my bed. Maybe Maria’s right. Maybe I should go with her. If she is planning to head over to the bad side of town, I’ll worry about her till she comes back, even though no force on Earth could threaten her. Maybe what I mean is that I’ll miss her.

I don’t want to see her doing what she does, but that might be the old Scotty speaking again. That self-righteous twat. Yesterday, after Maria helped me clean up the mess in here, throw away all the mirror shards, scrub the carpets, pull the shredded door from its hinges, I told her it was me and her against the world. How can she ever believe that, if I’m too scared to come and help her through the worst part of her day? It’s not like I have to watch. And what if the blood breaks you? It’s not like I have to give in.

After a few more minutes, Maria’s bedroom door opens, spilling pink down the stairs. I stand up. She smiles weakly at me when she comes out, wearing her old black jeans and t-shirt with her hair tied back in two bunches behind her ears.

“I, uh… I’ll see you later,” she says. Her face doesn’t twitch, but when the pain hits her again, it dulls her eyes. They’re dark indigo, her eyes. I realised yesterday. But the hunger chars them black.

“No, I’m coming with you,” I say. She looks at me in surprise. “If you don’t mind. If I won’t get in your way.”

“Mm.” She smiles. Some of the cloudiness in her eyes blows away. “I’d like that.”

Once we’re outside the front door, the cold wind bites down on my face. Maria knots her fingers through mine and squeezes my hand. I look at her nervously, and she looks down at her feet as we walk down the road. She spits out her hair as it starts to blow across her face. The horizon sucks the last shreds of deep-orange sunlight from the purple sky, and I blink as its sting seeps from my eyes. Maria starts to skip slightly, swinging our clasped hands back and forth, and when I wrap my arm around her shoulder, she leans into me. To a random bystander, we’re just another young stupid couple out for a walk, oblivious to the dangers of the night. I smile. It’s astonishing how happy I’ve made her—intoxicating, even. I’ve never felt anything like it before.

It’s a long walk, but I enjoy it. I only grow sick with apprehension once the brick houses have twisted up into concrete flat blocks and curtains and warm glows have become broken windows and splashes of graffiti. The air swells up with the barking of dogs, the whining of sirens, the slamming of doors, and the smells of dead leaves, spilt petrol and rainwater. I look down at Maria for the first time in fifteen minutes or so. We’ve been talking, but not meeting each other’s eyes.

“So what’s the plan?” I murmur.

When she looks up, the colour’s gone from her face. “Uh…” she says softly. “Well, when I’m doing this sort of thing, I usually lie in wait. Somewhere dark. I try to vary it so they don’t notice patterns when they find the bodies. I don’t know,” she looks around, “if there’s anywhere like that around here. Looks like it’s mostly deserted.”

“Yeah.” She’s right—we haven’t passed a single person since leaving the house. I squeeze her hand again as she stumbles, trying to shake off the pain as soon as she’s straightened. “Don’t worry. We’ll find somewhere soon.”

She looks up at me. “Scotty… you shouldn’t be so okay with this.”

“Well, I am,” I say truthfully. “So shut up.”

We come to the mouth of the road and I look both ways across the junction. I follow Maria’s eyes towards the skeleton of a bus shelter on the other side of the road. This is the main road. The city centre’s to our right, the suburbs to the left. Someone’s bound to walk past eventually.

“How about that bus shelter?” Maria says.

“Yeah.” I tug her hand. “Well, I mean, it’s see-through.”

“Yes, but it’ll hold the rain off us.”

“Yeah.” The rain’s still heavy enough in the air to spit on my face, and the smell of it is thick.

We cross the road, interrupted by nothing but the distant rumble of traffic. I’m starting to get used to this buzzing hum of silence in my ears, spookily unbroken by my breaths or heartbeat. The bus shelter only has two panels of glass left in it—the rest’s sparkling in the grooves of the pavement, crunching under our feet.

“Okay.” Maria sits down on the bench and huddles into me as I join her. I wrap my arms around her. When she speaks again, there’s a slight giggle in her voice. “The trap has been set.”

I look down at her. “The trap?”

“Well, I mean… it’s not really a trap. I suppose it’s more a case of leaping out and grabbing someone as they pass. I dunno… d’you reckon this is dodgy enough?”

I look around. This is a main road, but it’s lined with houses, a few of which still have their lights on.

“Oh, yeah,” I lie.

I hope she’s quick. I want to go back home.

We sit in that bus shelter for half an hour, never seeing a single soul. The damp film of water on the seat soaks right through my clothes, spreading aching chills right down to my bones, and my fingers grow so numb I can barely lift my hand to take Maria’s when she moans softly with pain again. Her hunger grows rapidly, making her curl into me and press her face into my shoulder. I hug her close, but there’s nothing I can do to make her feel better. Nothing but wait. Hurry up, I think. Hurry up. Someone.

Anyone.

 “Jesus,” Maria murmurs. “Your hands are freezing.”

I look down at her. “No shit.”

Then, she looks to the right, down the road, and sits up. “I think someone’s coming.”

My veins chill at the change in her voice.

“They are?” I try to look down the road, but the glass side of the shelter is too grimy. I only hear the faintest drumming of footsteps from outside, growing louder. My chest floods with cold sickness.

Maria gets up from the bench and wanders to peer around the side of the shelter. Then, she ducks back in.

“Who is it?” I ask.

She doesn’t reply for a few seconds. “A guy by himself.”

I want to ask her a million more questions, but I can’t cough the words up into my throat. I haven’t got long at all before the footsteps reach us. Before that person’s walk cuts short. Before she kills. Before I watch her kill. Maybe I should look away.

The footsteps get louder and louder and louder and Maria clenches her fist, her claws glinting as they slide out, then vanish. I grip the edge of the bench, willing and willing whoever’s on the road to change direction. I’m fine, but not ready. Not yet. I watch Maria in silence. When she speaks again, the hunger in her voice makes me shudder.

“I’m taking it. Stay there.”

I grip the bench tighter.

Then, all in the space of a few seconds, a shadow dents the edge of the bus-shelter and Maria disappears and there’s a scream. And suddenly she’s there on the far side of the pavement, her shadow pulling away from the other. I never saw her move.

The man’s scream cuts out—no, wanders into silence, slow and pitiful as can be—and Maria retracts her teeth—no, Scotty, she RIPS free; look at all that fucking blood and that missing chunk of his neck, all black and pitted and spraying red like a bad prosthetic—and for a sickening second, he stays on his feet, his mouth slack and his eyes wide enough to catch the orange streetlight. I want to look away, but I can’t. I thought I’d break when I saw his face, but I still feel fine. I don’t know him. I won’t till the report comes on the news tomorrow.

He falls. Thump-crack. Maria goes down with him, dropping easily to her knees in the growing red mess on the pavement and burying her head in his neck again. I don’t flinch. Maybe I’m in shock. It doesn’t feel that way, but maybe it’s not meant to. I glance behind me, trying to feel the horror in the marrow of my bones, creeping up on me, running its clammy hands up my arms or whatever. Nothing.

After a couple more seconds, Maria freezes against the ground. She pants as she raises her head, her mouth and her neck and the bottom of her hair soaked with red; her eyes are gone, rolled up into the back of her head, glossy and white and blank. I see her splintered mess of teeth, but that’s not all—she’s grinning, her mouth a gaping black hole, her lower jaw lolling loose. As she clutches her hands to her chest, her entire body loosens. Her breaths calm, and stop. Her claws and teeth retreat. Her eyes close. Her smile slowly slackens and narrows, growing from monstrous to relieved.

I swallow.

Well, she’s definitely not hurting anymore.

She plunges her head down again, and this time, she doesn’t stop. Animal moans and sighs and growls start trickling from her in a liquid slurry, and under that, the sounds of dripping and squelching and snapping. Oh, fuck. I thought I could watch, but I can’t. Or at least I shouldn’t. So I turn and clamber over the skeleton of the bus shelter and, as the unspeakable noises grow louder behind me, I walk away.

Even as I stand there with my back to the carnage, the blood froths in the air, embracing me, trying to pull me to it. Its smoke and salt and molten metal. Its gorgeous warmth and seeping, crawling euphoria. God, I forgot how it felt. It doesn’t madden me anymore—doesn’t fog my rational thoughts or tear my body away from me—but it still makes me ache. I don’t see it as blood. Every time I remind myself it’s blood, I want it a little less. But God, I crave the feeling. I only ever had it once, down by the river all that time ago, but I still remember every detail of that plastic water-bottle of dead blood. I imagine that sensation stronger, harder, faster, heavier, casting me afloat and then yanking me under the surface. I imagine it not just seeping through my skin but puncturing me all the way down to my core. The strongest drug in the world. I want it. God, I do. I still do. The way it’s made Maria a slave doesn’t sway my thoughts. I mean, look at her now. I cover my face with my hands. Being good’s boring. Being good didn’t stop all those people getting killed, did it? Being good won’t stop anyone else from getting killed. It only makes it hurt more, Scotty.

I take a single step towards the red pavement, pressing my mouth as the smell grows stronger. Then, I stop myself. I look at Maria, moving slowly against the ground, sighing as she eats. I can wait till she’s done. I can watch all that blood spilling onto the pavement, watch that body twitching under hers like it’s still fighting, watch those sightless, cloudy marbles of the man’s eyes, for as long as she needs me to. She asked me to come with her, so I’m going to wait, and I’m going to come again whenever she wants me to. I don’t care who she kills. I just want her to feel better when she comes back, even if it only lasts a day.

 

 

As we walk home, I desperately hope I’m only calm because I’m blocking out what I saw, but it doesn’t seem that way. It seems as though everything’s crystal-clear in my head, and I just don’t care. Walking with Maria is awkward—as soon as I drape my arm over her shoulders, she seizes the other and wraps herself up in it, pushing herself as close to me as she can. I don’t want to think about why she’s so high. I want to pretend she’s normal for a second, and I’m normal too, and she just overdid it a bit on a night out. I’m doing my job as whatever it is I am to her—her boyfriend? Maybe—and helping her get home safely. I love her. I feel even closer to her when she’s giggly and loose and clumsy like this—when she needs me. I can’t help it.

My mind’s a mess as we muddle the keys in the lock and stumble into the hallway as one bulky body. I think she’s nearly sober again, but she’s still laughing. At something I said two minutes ago. I love her laugh. I should be thinking about the hideous noises she made under that lantern, and the ones that poor man made too, but I’m… not. I’m horrified, I guess. Shock, guilt, fear, regret, blah blah blah blah. It’s all in my head, but only because it needs to be.

“I’m going up to my room,” I say, letting go of her the moment we’ve walked into the living-room. I assume she’ll head straight for the shower, but she doesn’t.

“Okay, see you up there,” she says.

I stop on the stairs and turn to look back at her. We’ve been spending our nights in the same bed for the last two weeks. Even if we’re only lying down on the covers with our arms around each other, even if we don’t sleep at all, we’re always together. I shouldn’t want her anywhere near me right now, but I do. From the way she’s standing there in the middle of the carpet in her card-stiff clothes and her blood-charred hair, I can tell she’s sober, but trying to cling to the high. On the way home, I found myself wishing we were both off our heads on it. I’m always the one with the burden. I wouldn’t be feeling so utterly sick right now if I could let go, just once.

She smiles at me, so I smile back.

“I guess I should say I’m sorry,” she says. She means it, but it’s not what I want to hear.

I sigh. “No.”

“Oh, okay.”

I walk up the stairs and wait for the sound of the bathroom door slamming, but it never comes. I lie down on my bed, propping my head up on my pillows, my hands folded over my stomach. My thoughts start to weigh far too heavy on me—oh God oh God oh God, the way that man’s eyes bulged as he wandered forwards on elastic legs, the way Maria swooped down on him, crushed him into the pavement like a bug, the way the blood flowed, at once liquid and solid and gas—and prevent me from relaxing. I don’t want to be alone in this room another second. I hope she comes up soon.

A few minutes later, I open my eyes, noticing a strange buzzing sound coming from downstairs. It could be the radio in the kitchen, or the wind outside, but it doesn’t sound quite like either. Cautiously, I peel myself away from my duvet and go downstairs, turning across the hallway into the living-room as the buzzing gets louder and starts to waver up and down. Maria’s lying down on the carpet. She’s washed the blood from her face, but she’s still wearing her sodden clothes. Her arms are thrown out around her head and her rusted blonde hair’s spread in a halo. She’s singing loudly at the ceiling.

I have to force myself to swallow a smile.

What has she done to me?

I watch her for a few minutes, leaning against the doorway with my hands in my pockets. She’s been in this world for two hundred years, and nothing can hurt her. Nobody could hold onto guilt for that long. I listen to the words she’s singing—they’re about the sky turning red and Heaven burning down and angels crawling up from the ground. If she feels my eyes on her, she doesn’t move.

Then, I need to be closer to her. In a trance, I walk across the room and lie down on the floor next to her. The carpet’s itchy on the side of my neck. I don’t care. The blood’s still heavy in the air; I don’t care. I wasn’t drawn by that. She silently rolls over to press herself against me. The tips of our noses touch, but our lips never do. She tangles her legs around mine and I snake my arm around her waist. A few seconds later, she starts to sing again. I focus on the sound of her voice as I look into her eyes, because I’m sure it’s the only thing keeping me sane. We killed someone. We killed someone, and Maria ate him, and now she’s singing to me. This is how people go mad, isn’t it?

A grin starts to grow on her face, but I never smile back or laugh. I just watch her till I start to fall asleep in her arms. Then, she prods the tip of my nose with her finger.

“You sleep funny,” she says.

I squint at her. “Thanks.”

“With your mouth open.”

“Haven’t you seen worse?”

“Oh, yes. I’ve seen worse from you. I’ve seen so much worse.” She wraps her arm around my neck, tangling her fingers into the hair at my nape and gently pulling me closer. “Didn’t stop me falling stupidly in love with you, did it?”

I breathe out, trying to relax enough to let the warmth fill me up. I’ve seen worse from you too, I could say, as the image of her jagged-mouthed and slack-jawed and empty-eyed and blood-splattered pulses through me again, but I don’t.

“Do you really love me?” I murmur.

I still can’t believe it. I can’t believe, after all this time, someone loves me.

“I mean…” Maria trails off, looking upwards. “I guess, maybe… love isn’t the right word for it. Now you mention it.”

“Oh.” My heart sinks slightly. I guess maybe it’s too early. Way too early. Two weeks. “Okay.”

“It’s not melodramatic enough,” Maria says. “Love’s just… love. You know? It’s just love. Love’s just that sappy sugary crap they go on about in the movies. That doesn’t compare to what you make me feel. There just… isn’t a word that’s quite right for that.”

“Huh,” I say, looking into her eyes and smirking. “Well, there’s always adore.”

She grins back. “Should’ve known you’d have an answer, you bookworm.” There’s a pause. “Are you okay?”

“Huh?” I say. “Yeah. Yeah, I… I’m fine.”

She looks a little surprised, but relieved. “Really?”

“Yeah.”

I am. I really, really am fine. With her. With all of it.

 

 

Hopefully, it’ll be a little easier to watch tonight. I’m still waiting for the gravity of what I witnessed last week to come crashing down on me, as it ought to—it hasn’t. I’ve seen all the shit on the news, I know his name, I know he had a family, I know I watched him die, I know what I’m doing and what she’s doing is terribly, horribly wrong—at least by the law’s standards—but that’s all I seem able to do. Not react, not regret. Just know.

The man I watched Maria kill was named Kyle Morrison. He had two kids, a boy and a girl, and a wife. He wasn’t a criminal, even though Maria and I thought we had a genius fucking plan to ambush baddies worse than us despite the blatant fact there are no baddies worse than us. Kyle was out that late on that side of Aberdeen to buy milk, for God’s sake. As I watched the report, my mind never properly connected the guy on the news to the body I saw on the pavement, even though I knew full well they were the same person. It’s not like that night didn’t feel real or felt like a bad dream or whatever; it’s real as anything in my head. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I’m glad I didn’t freak out, because Maria was right next to me on the sofa, fumbling through the TV guide, calm as anything.

All week long, ever since I agreed to come with her every week, she’s been thanking me, over and over, telling me having me there with her is going to make her Hell nights less hellish. Despite the little prickles in my nerves—which, so far, are the only feral reactions I’ve had towards Maria’s killing—the thought I was helping her kept me warm. To me, the term Hell nights fits fairly well—when I watched poor Kyle stiffening and then slumping like a broken puppet, when I watched her slaughter him so casually, fall to her knees in his thick black puddle so easily, when she was covered in all that blood and when she let it splatter her like rainfall, when she was blank-eyed and splintered-mouthed and when the bloody relief emptied her body of every last scrap of the girl I fell in love with, I couldn’t help but understand why the people she grew up with thought she was some kind of demon. But I can’t understand why she calls them her Hell nights, because I still remember the way she mindlessly grinned after the kill, and the way her body loosened and her sighs grew sweeter with every drink, and the way she giggled and snuggled into my side on the way home, and the way she spread herself out on the carpet to sing her delight at relieving the pain. She’s never admitted it to me out loud, but I know that whenever she feeds, she reverts to that supposedly long-forgotten time she adored being wicked.

“How you feeling?” I ask, wrapping my arms tighter around her as she shudders and curls up against me. We’ve been sitting on this park bench, in an alcove under a flickering lantern, for an hour, and she waited till she’d started to twitch with the pain before asking to come out at all. Her eyes look black in the lanternlight and her face is too pale and her lips are grey. She hasn’t eaten for eight days—the same amount of time that drove her to murder. This is the worst I’ve ever seen her.

She looks up at me and says softly, “Like shit.”

“Don’t worry. Someone’ll come,” I say. “And if we have to wait too much longer, we can go somewhere else.”

“Mm.” She wraps her arm around my waist. “Thank you,” she whispers.

It’s okay, I want to say, but I just trace circles on her shoulder and kiss the top of her head. Why the hell is it okay?

We wait there for another ten minutes, and though Maria doesn’t make a sound, she starts to grip me tighter. I do the same to her. I’m starting to get worried—I remember the week she starved herself and then went mad in the middle of her class. Those two poor students—Gemma and Logan—are still the country’s top story. I’ve seen pictures of them now. She clearly enjoyed skiing, as in every single photo she’s grinning on top of a mountain, stuffed into a padded coat, and he clearly enjoyed taking photos of himself, as every single one of his is immaculately framed and crisp.

Maria moans softly and I get up, gently tugging her with me. “C’mon,” I say. “Let’s find somewhere else.”

“No,” she says, batting at my arm. “No, wait a second. Ssh! I hear something.”

I look down at her. She’s right; my ears are prickling with the sound of footsteps. I sit back down, but she stays standing. She peers around the corner of the alcove. Then, she ducks back in and looks at me.

“She… he’s alone,” she says.

I ask, “Why’d you say she?”

She looks at me, her mouth pressed tight. “Because I’m not sure. He’s kind of small and skinny. I think it’s a guy.”

“A young guy?”

“Uh-huh.” She absently licks her lips.

“And that makes it… what? Better?”

“That he’s a guy?”

“Yeah.”

“I dunno.”

With a slight plink, the lantern over us pulses once and then goes out, drenching the park in inky black and turning the raindrops bright silver. When I look back at Maria, I’m unnerved I only see the thin white lines of moonlight over her hair and one shoulder. I finger the fabric of my jeans. I hate the dark.

“You sure he’s alone?”

There’s a long pause. Then, “Yeah.” Her voice sounds further away than before.

“You sure he’s up to no good?”

This time, she audibly sighs. Her breath crystallises in the air. “Oh, yeah. Definitely. I’m taking it.”

She clenches her fist and her fingertips catch the meagre light as the claws slide out, then disappear in a flash. She drums a finger on the side of her leg in thought before hurrying out onto the path, running straight into the man before he can pass. He grunts in shock, then gives a loud sigh of irritation. In return, Maria yelps, then laughs. My chest bleeds a little colder as I process the second voice.

“Gosh, I’m so sorry!” Maria says.

“God. Be more careful. Idiot,” the second voice replies, and my head grows lighter with fear as I recognise it. It’s not a man. It’s a woman. I can see her shape now: tall, skinny, hands rammed into pockets. In my head, I beg her to speak again.

 “Yeah,” Maria murmurs. “The lamps.”

I dig my fingers into my thighs.

The woman dips her head and tries to sidestep Maria, but Maria jumps in front of her. Their shadows blend into one with a growl and a hysterical squeak of fear that sucks the warmth right from me. “Let me go! Ah! Ah!” the girl wails, and my heart drops down onto the pavement. “Let me GO, BITCH!”

Yeah, I was right.

It is her.

Then, with another fizz and pop, the lantern conveniently relights, and the lumpy silhouette in front of me becomes two girls. I bolt to my feet in shock, my eyes fixed not on the face of the thrashing, screaming, red-haired girl in Maria’s arms, but on Maria. I don’t need to look at the girl again; I know who she is, and I should’ve known before we’d even got here that something like this would happen to us. Maria’s eyes are still dark with hunger, but fearful and pitiful. She, of course, recognises Olivia too.

“Scotty?” Olivia says, craning for a glimpse of who’s holding her. “What—what—let me GO!”

I choke back another scream.

I look at Maria. Why hasn’t she killed her yet? I realise why in an instant—she’s too afraid. She’ll let Olivia go if I tell her to. When… when I tell her to.

A million thoughts surge into me in a millisecond.

The first is that Olivia’s not wearing a coat; she’s dressed up in her favourite sparkly silver shirt—the one she’s worn to every school disco and date for as long as I can remember—and tight studded jeans, betraying the fact she’s been at a nightclub. She must’ve decided to walk home alone. Stupid, stupid girl. The second is that she’s fighting like mad. Maria’s too strong for her, but she’s bellowing and squirming like a trapped animal, trying to bite at the arms around her waist and neck.

The third is that I’ve never seen her afraid before. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen either of them afraid before. It’s surreal.

“Let her go,” my head says, but it’s not enough to push the words out of my mouth. The sight of her makes my blood boil. I haven’t seen Olivia in nearly three months. I thought I’d never see her again, but here she fucking is, her deep scowls and hysterical shrieks biting into my head and making poor Maria chew her lip in agony as she waits for me to help her. Help them both. No more than ten seconds can have passed, but I’m already sure that the moment we release her, Olivia will tell the world. She’ll tear us down. Ruin us. Just as she always has, and just as she promised she would. The moment Maria lets Olivia go, we’re over, forever; I know it; she knows it; Olivia knows it. Maria’s shaking with her and looking up at the stars, too frightened to look at me. I hate seeing her frightened.

Seeing it in Olivia, though…

“Scotty,” Olivia says, her mouth wide, her eyes wider. “Scotty. Scotty. SCOTTY!”

“Scotty.” Maria pleads without looking me in the eye.

My thoughts snap back into focus. I know what I have to do; it’s suddenly clear in my mind, after so long. I’ve been letting Maria get away with this shit for months. Last week, I even watched her, and said nothing.

What’s the difference between that, and…

I nod at Maria and mutter, “Do it.”

Maria’s reaction is instant. She cracks her jaw and grows her teeth and buries her head in Olivia’s neck, but even as Olivia screams and gasps, she twists, digging her nails into Maria’s hands and wrenching herself free from her arms. She’s out. She’s going to get away. She stumbles into me, clutching her blood-soaked neck with one blood-soaked hand, and our eyes meet. Olivia’s been a part of my life for seven years. Maria, only one.

I gave the order. What’s the difference between that, and…

Viciously, I grab Olivia by the front of her shirt and shove her back into Maria, who seizes her throat in her mouth and pushes her down and rips her apart in an instant.

Blood and screams and growls spray up into the sky and down again, flowing over the pavement, crawling to me. I clamp my hands over my mouth and sob, once, twice. It’s not enough to make anyone feel sorry for me.

Maria stops dead against the ground and then sits back on her heels, her throat bulging as she swallows. I don’t realise how painfully tight with hunger she was until she loosens; the relief’s strong enough to loll her arms at her sides and arch her back and make her groan up at the sky. I should be fixed on the body at her feet, but I’m only staring at her, and even though the monster’s taken her over once again there’s no horror for me to feel. I watch her sluggishly rub her eyes, seemingly oblivious to the red pixels she’s covering her face in. God, the blood’s alive in the air. God, I should be scared by the way it flutters my eyelids and grinds my teeth. But I’m not.

I cover my face with my hands and sit down on the bench; I’ll let Maria think I’m traumatised, if she’s paying any attention to me whatsoever through the thick red gauze of her frenzy, though I’m really just trying to keep the gorgeous smell of the blood from my nose and mouth. I can’t give in. Not tonight. That’s Olivia on that path; I can’t think of her this way. I should be disgusted by the fact I’m not upset. By the fact I didn’t stop it. The fact I pushed her back. The fact I killed her. In the end, though, the only thing disgusting me is the fact I’m not disgusted at all.

All this time, I assumed it was easy because Maria was only killing strangers.

I was wrong.

It’s still fucking easy.

I glance back at Maria, crouching in her six-foot red circle under the lanternlight. She’s moving against the ground more slowly now; her hysterics have gone and if I call out, she’ll hear me. I’m not so sure she’ll answer, though. I’m scared out here on my own. Just as usual, all I want is for her to come back.

I turn around to face the path fully. The air seizes  my face and I press my mouth to stop the taste from snaking in. Then, my eyelids droop a little as something inside me drags me closer to Maria. When she looks up at me, her beautiful face ruined by all that ugly black and red, her eyes widen. She’s not high. Not even close.

I let go of my lip with my teeth and take another step closer. Maria mumbles something, looking from her bloody hands to the bloody ground to me, and then, as I take another step, she starts to panic.

“No,” she says softly, her voice flat. “Go away.”

“It’s okay,” I reply. “It’s why I came again, isn’t it? To get used to seeing you like this.”

“Not… not… no!” she says, forcing her bloody hand up and the bloody smell through me like fire through dry grass. It eats me. Then, she jumps to her feet. “Scotty. Scotty. No. Stay back.”

“It’s okay,” I say. Something inside me reaches out for that red path, willing it closer. “It’s okay. I…”

“Get away,” she says firmly, even though the blood’s slurring her and her eyes are vacant. “Get away from her, Scotty. Get away!”

For the first time, I look at Olivia properly. She’s so covered in blood she could be anyone, and oh, Christ, the smell of it. Maria’s not batting me away because she’s ashamed of what she’s doing. She’s afraid of what I’m doing.

“It’s okay,” I repeat.

“No, it’s not!” Maria presses both her fists into my chest and shoves me backwards. I stumble, startled by a prick of anger, and try again, but she desperately grabs my arms, leaving two bloody handprints on my sleeves. I stumble beyond idle curiosity; the anger makes me want it. “No. No. Get away. Look at me. DON’T look at her, look at ME!” Maria yells.

I stop. I look at her.

“Don’t give in now, love,” she says. Her voice is pleading, but the look in her eyes is slumped with scarlet longing. “Don’t. I know… I know it’s impossible. But once you start, you… you’ll never be able to stop. Trust me, please.”

Shakily, Maria lets go of me, staring up into my eyes like she’s afraid I’m about to lunge, but I don’t move. She’s right. And she’s saved me again.

“You have to trust me,” Maria says, her voice rapidly hardening. “Trust me. God, trust me. And if you can’t, which I wouldn’t blame you for, then just… watch me.”

She stares into my eyes for a couple more seconds, and I stare back, confused. Then, she bites her lip and slowly raises her blood-soaked hand back to her mouth. My veins chill as she sucks her finger, running the others along her chin as her eyes narrow and roll out of focus. She doesn’t even know she’s doing it.

She sucks another finger, clearly oblivious to me watching. Then, with a sigh, she falls back to her knees in the red and snaps her head down. My legs are shaking as I walk backwards to sit down. I grip the edge of the bench as hard as I can and crane my head far, far back to look up at the stars.

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