Holly wasn’t certain if the support group was helping her come to terms with the new realities of her life, or if she was just spending one night a month mutilating strangers in an orgy of violence because she didn’t have anything else to do. Left to her own devices, she mused that chaining herself to a radiator was an option.
Unfortunately, her apartment lacked a radiator. She owned a wrought iron bedframe, but handcuffing herself to the bed wasn’t a permanent solution. Plus, the bed frame had wheels.
Standing in front of Cliff’s Cafe on a Thursday evening, Holly wondered if the others had such thoughts. They didn’t talk much during meetings. In fact, the only person who really did any talking was Cliff.
Like every month, Cliff would let them into the meat locker, chain the door and leave them till morning. When the sun came up Cliff would be waiting, a “good morning” on his lips, a mop in his hand and a pot of coffee waiting in the kitchen. Cliff would clean up, and those that could left some money.
Cliff always said “thank you.”
The sun was setting on Holly’s back. Cliff was closing up the cafe and when he noticed her gave a little wave. So sincere was the smile on his face that Holly allowed herself to forget that he would be cleaning up steaming entrails later.
In the sea of confusion that Holly found herself adrift in, Cliff was a lighthouse of optimism and understanding.
She waved back, an act that felt like permission for him to stop waving. Passing a lightswitch on the wall as he approached the door, Cliff reached out with one finger and turned it off. Darkness filled the restaurant, save for the lighting of the kitchen.
He flipped the sign on the door from “Open” to “Closed.” He nodded, and Holly headed to the alley out back.
Cliff was waiting, leaning against the brick wall and smoking. He wasn’t bad looking, with messy blonde hair and a bushy beard. Early fourties but in healthy shape, Holly thought, other than smoking.
“Those things’ll kill ya.”
Holly smiled, but it felt wrong in her mouth. She was forgetting how. Cliff noticed her expression and exhaled, smoke masking his face.
She stopped smiling. Keep it polite but sincere. Getting close to someone like Cliff would be as bad for her as it might be for him. She was searching for something to say when footsteps rang down the alley.
Approaching were Stuart and Paul, the brothers. They had the same look, dark haired and sallow cheeked. Stuart wore a tracksuit with black stripes, baggy and loose. Paul was in sweatpants and a sweatshirt with cartoon strawberries on it. They were a matching pair of idiots, but Holly couldn’t help but admire their utilitarianism.
“Hello, Holly.” Stuart was the talkative one.
“Holly.” Paul was the quiet one.
She nodded, and Cliff put out the cigarette on the bricks behind him.
“Shall we head inside?” He didn’t wait for an answer, simply stepping into the yellow light of the kitchen. Holly was last to follow and had to step through the collective body odor of Stuart and Paul. She suddenly admired them less.
The group assembled within the hour. Marcy and Tina, Edward, Troy, Stuart and Paul, and Holly. Lucky seven- or it would be, if not for the twenty-something with Troy tonight. Troy introduced her as “Laurel, first time.”
Laurel had dyed lavender hair and a black denim vest covered in illegible band logos. Troy said he “found her on the way home last month, after group, all fucked up,” and knew that she needed their help.
Laurel nodded along with Troy’s narrative, avoiding eye contact with the rest of the group. Names were exchanged while Cliff collected up the four-foot length of industrial chain that he called his “insurance.”
There was no ceremony. The eight stripped down to outfits of minimal modesty, Holly keeping her leggings and two sports bras on while shucking off her jacket and t-shirt. The brothers Stuart and Paul were in boxers and undershirts, Troy in a tank top and basketball shorts.
Marcy and Tina wore compression shirts and pants. If the circumstances were different, Holly might have found their matching outfits cute.
Edward was the least dressed, standing in a pair of black boxer-briefs, his ample stomach hanging over the edge of his underwear and causing the elastic strip to fold over.
There wasn’t any sexuality to their states of undress. It was a platonic arrangement. That was something she liked. To be Holly, alone in a room, no matter how many people were there.
Laurel wore a pair of black bicycle shorts and a black bra, her body graffitied with tattoos that in faded navy blue and dark green. Holly remembered how strange it felt her first time standing amidst the group semi-nude. She sucked air through her teeth and looked away.
The freezer wan’t cold, but the hum of air being pumped in filled the chamber. They were packed in tightly, even though there were no shelves. If Holly extended her arms she would touch at least three other people.
It would be claustrophobic if it wasn’t familiar. Cliff gave a comforting smile to them, chain in hand. He asked if they wanted the light off. A moment of fear crossed Laurel’s face.
“On,” Holly blurted.
As Cliff closed the door the light above remained on despite a grunt of protest from Troy. The clanking of chains was muffled through the heavy door, and there was no escape until Cliff’s “good morning” indicated the night’s end.
Tina was first to start, rubbing her temples in a vain attempt to alleviate the pressure. Marcy rubbed her back and cooed words of comfort – “everything-will-be-okay” and “you-are-so-strong,” meant for Tina but brought Holly some small relief by proximity.
Tina’s agony cascaded through their ranks. Troy was dry-heaving and Marcy’s platitudes became labored breathing. Stuart and Paul’s stink, assaulting Holly’s senses. Edward was stoic, his discomfort only visible as muscle tics. Laurel was hunched in the corner, soundlessly sobbing.
As Holly’s higher faculties faded she had a twinge of melancholy for Laurel, but there was no time as the moon rose outside.
Holly was gone, and there was something else.
Each pore in her body felt pierced as though by a serrated needle. She heard the pulse of blood in her acquaintances’ veins. Her jaw broke, her bones and muscles burned. The scent of blood was intoxicating as the others’ faces twisted and broke into shattered visages of pain and feral hunger.
Holly saw her hands clasping Troy’s face, thumbs in his eye sockets. Something bursting in her grip.
Distant howls and screams.
The taste of Edward’s flesh.
Tina’s piercing shouts.
The splash of warm blood on clenched teeth. Someone tore a handful of flesh from Holly’s arm and she plunged her hand down their throat. Slick talons, wet bundles of something in her hands. Steam rising from entrails.
The hum of the freezer.
The buzz of the light above them.
Above the chaos Holly felt something come into focus. Laurel biting, howling, and screaming.
The scent of Laurel’s blood, cut with nicotine with a hint of heroin.
Laurel’s face, her mind trapped behind the curtain of veins throbbing in the whites of her eyes.
Holly’s hands clutching Laurel’s lungs like wet dishrags. Laurel’s terror behind the bloodlust.
Holly was the last one standing, slick with blood and offal. She saw her claws on their corpses, tasted blood staining her lips. Laurel’s sightless eyes stared at Holly, absent of light.
When the change passed, the bodies of the fallen hissed and regenerated. Fur sloughed from the piles of dead flesh and Holly felt herself wither. Troy was tucking his penis between his legs in a clownish attempt at modesty while the brothers hugged and wept. Laurel’s body was the last to reconstitute. Holly alone made it through alive and as the others reformed she watched Laurel’s body regenerate.
Outside, the sound of clanking chains as Cliff unlocked their homemade cell.
Cliff was standing in the locker’s doorway with a mop in his hand and a “good morning” on his lips. Holly knew Cliff ran the support group for several years before she showed up, but she wasn’t sure how he remained so positive. As always, Cliff left a stack of wet wipes on the island in the center of the kitchen, a small courtesy to the lone survivor.
The others regenerated without much in the way of lingering blood spatter. This was because Holly devoured much of their flesh in the course of the night, and the newly grown skin had not been exposed to the storm of violence. Holly was surprised to see Laurel’s tattoos did not appear on the canvas of her flesh as she reformed, but there was much Holly didn’t know about their condition.
As the group was pulling on clothes, Holly poured coffee and stretched. Cliff began to clean the freezer, humming tunelessly.
Holly’s eyes wandered over Cliff as he cleaned. He was crouched, and under his soft t-shirt Holly saw the muscles of his back. His gloved hands picked up globs of rent flesh and dropping them into a mop bucket.
She was feeling pangs of hunger already. She wondered what happened to the viscera she choked down in her frenzy – had it withered to dust in her belly? Did the caloric needs of her transformation burn it away? These were questions that were better left to whatever scientists would one day vivisect her. For now, she was simply Holly – hungry and messy.
As the rest of the group was dressing and cleaning up, Laurel was pouring herself a cup of coffee. Holly watched over the lip of her own mug, trying to divine any details about Laurel’s life.
Laurel sensed her, and their gazes met. Holly turned away, the image of Laurel’s lifeless eyes rising up through the fog of the night. She set her mug down and shouted to Cliff.
“See you next month.”
Cliff sang to whatever song was in his head, “Take it easy.”
Outside, Holly took a moment to breath in deeply. A sour smell assaulted her senses. She looked for the source.
On the sidewalk a few feet from the door a bearded man in sweat stained and sun faded clothes sat. His back was against the brick wall of the cafe, adjacent to the wide window. He looked at Holly, and snorted.
“You look like shit.”
“Yeah,” she muttered, unable to dredge up the malice to respond in kind. She pulled her sunglasses from her coat pocket and caught her reflection in them. Dreadful.
“That your place?” he muttered, looking over his shoulder. “Do you have a bathroom in there?”
“No,” she responded to all his questions, sliding her sunglasses on and striding away.
Holly headed to her usual day-after spot. When she arrived at the diner, she was relieved to see it was as decrepit as ever. “THE HIP JOINT” was a small favor the universe gave her – to be disgusting and invisible in a public place. To be alone in a room, no matter how many people were there.
The bell above the door clanged as she entered. None of the bikers at their booth looked up, nor did the waitress that was the sole visible representative of the diner’s staff.
As she slid into a booth a fantasy of stacked pancakes filled her head, right up until Laurel walked through the door.
Holly sighed, but there was no escape. Laurel slid into the booth, the plastic surface of one enamel badge on her vest whispering as it dragged across the lip of the table.
“Holly, right? Can I join you? I was getting sick of looking at what’s-his-name’s dumbass grin.”
“His name is Cliff.”
“Whatever. You go there a lot? That fuckin’ group or whatever.”
“Once a month.” Holly did not attempt to conceal her irritation. The waitress returned with two glasses of water, then postured with hand on hip to indicate that she wanted them to order. Holly pointed to a picture of pancakes on the flimsy laminated menu. The waitress looked at Laurel.
“Steak and eggs, rare and sunny side up.”
The waitress gathered up their menus while a brief expanse of silence settled on their table. Laurel spoke again.
“So, you ever kill anybody?”
Holly was raising her glass to her lips when Laurel spoke. She gulped down a mouthful of ice water.
“Me neither.” Laurel seemed disappointed. “How’d you end up with those guys, anyway?”
“Cliff.” Holly omitted the details – shirtless in the alley, crawling and howling. Cliff throwing a bag over her head, hitting her with something heavy. The first “good morning.” The horrific realization she was not alone.
“How’d you get the thing?” Laurel’s phrasing was strained. Words felt insufficient when discussing their condition.
Suddenly there were plates on the table, the waitress setting their meals down and trotting to the biker table again. Laurel poked at the steak and stared at Holly.
“Laurel, I get that you want some foundation of shared experience here. This can’t be personal or intimate. There isn’t room for that. We meet, we drink coffee, we try not to look at each other. We are slaves to this thing, as much as any addict. There’s no escape.”
Holly sighed. It was the longest chain of words she’d spoken in months. She was clenching her knife with white-knuckle intensity but relented. Blood flowed back into her fingers. She looked up.
Laurel’s face was a mix of anger and disappointment.
“Impersonal? That’s a joke. You know what’s personal? Looking me in the eyes while killing me.”
Shock must have registered on Holly’s face, but Laurel didn’t relent. “I saw everything, smelled those nasty brothers’ guts. Those chicks tryna comfort each other while their teeth are falling out. Worst of all, your hands,” Laurel gesticulated wildly, searching for the right words.
“That grin on your face.” Laurel’s chin quivered. “You say it isn’t personal. I don’t know what else it could be.”
“Normally, we keep the lights off.”
“Christ, that’s worse.” Laurel stirred egg around her plate. The steak had gone cold. Holly cleared her throat.
“You said I was grinning? What do you mean?”
Laurel pushed her plate away. “You’re gonna get that for me, right? On account of me being new and all.”
Holly didn’t answer, trying to remember the meeting. She had grown accustomed to the carnage. One memory rose to the surface: The smell of Laurel’s blood, spiked with heroin.
“Because if you don’t plan on covering the food, we’re going to have to run for the door here.”
“Are you on drugs?”
Laurel’s expression flowed from disbelief into rage.
“What the hell? What are you, my mother? Screw you,” Laurel hissed.
Laurel uncoiled from her seat and moved towards the door. Holly watched Laurel pass out of view, then back into view as she walked by the big glass window at the front of the diner. Laurel did not look back.
Holly motioned for the check.
The whole day was hers, but within the hour Holly was back home and flopping down in her bed. The impact caused the wrought iron bed frame to bang against the wall. She mused it’d been a while since she heard that sound. Her mind wandered and for a moment she saw muscles moving under thin t-shirts, knotted flesh concealed by easily torn fabric. She rolled over and exhaled.
The mercy was Holly had the day off from the curio shop, able to lay in bed staring at the crack in the ceiling and thinking about Laurel’s outburst until falling asleep.
She woke, staggered around her meager apartment aimlessly for a few minutes, opened the refrigerator and took a beer and drained it before crawling back into bed.
She stared at the crack in the ceiling until she fell into a restless sleep. She repeated this sequence long after the sun went down and until it rose again. Her dreams were of running free, unburdened and breathing deep.
With the sun rising in her window, Holly showered and brushed her hair and teeth. She avoided eye contact with the mirror. She knew she looked rough, and each month she felt rougher. Her best efforts to avoid her reflection occasionally faltered, and she saw dark crescents forming under her eyes and a roadmap of creases in her forehead. She smeared on eyeshadow to make restlessness appear a fashion statement, pulled her jacket on, and headed to work at the curio store.
So it went, for 28 days and 28 nights. The sun rose and set and the moon blinked away and swelled. Her boss made vaguely sexual comments (calculatedly below the threshold where she could call him out), she flopped in and out of bed.
The exhaustion faded from her face. She began to feel human again. Her thoughts were always the same, contemplated in the middle of the work day or while staring out the window with a coffee in hand; would she die of old age? Was there a cure for her condition? What would happen if she cut her own eye out – would it regenerate with the next full moon?
What if she slit her own throat?
Exactly on time but somehow always sooner than expected, the day on the calendar with the white circle was upon her. She woke to her phone buzzing impatiently. She dropped it over the edge of the bed and rolled onto her back, her eyes tracing a tiny crack in the ceiling. Was it larger than before?
Holly requested the day off recurring each month, so she didn’t have to deal with his carefully prepared entendres. The afternoon was hers before the night rose over Cliff’s Cafe.
Leaping from bed, she threw on a pair of leggings patterned like black denim, a pair of sports bras and a baggy white t-shirt. Framed in her mirror, Holly noticed no dark circles under her eyes.
The drinking and somnambulism paying off, she thought. She felt uncharacteristically positive.
Wandering the neighborhood that afternoon, the crisp spring air cooled the sun’s touch on her face. She couldn’t place whatt elevated her mood. It wasn’t the night that awaited, trapped in the darkness and murdering acquaintances. It wasn’t the gnashing of teeth or taste of blood – she felt a sour bile in her throat contemplating it.
Her walk lead her to the cafe as the sun was setting. Tonight, like every month, Cliff would let her into the meat locker, chain the door from the outside and leave her there till morning. It would be Cliff’s smile waiting when that door opened, a “good morning” on his lips, a mop in his hand and a pot of coffee in the kitchen for her. That made her smile.
The transient from last month was leaned up against the cafe, a monolith to Cliff’s patience. He lit up as she walked towards the entrance.
“I knew you work here.”
Holly stopped, saying nothing.
“No place else is open, let me in. I gotta shit.”
Holly laughed out loud at the directness of it. She wished she was so bold.
“It’s not my place. If I were you, I wouldn’t hang around.” She raised an eyebrow. “It’s dangerous.”
He scoffed and stood up, his pants loose around his waist. He shuffled down a nearby alley, muttering profanity.
Holly stepped towards the window of the cafe. Inside was Cliff, turning chairs over on tables. He didn’t notice her, and she watched him. She wondered if she could give up meat and was running through protein alternatives when a shadow appeared in the service window, backlit by the kitchen light.
It was Laurel, purple hair in a topknot and hands tucked into the pockets of her denim vest. Laurel looked past Cliff, right at Holly, no emotion on her face. Laurel’s presence caught Cliff’s attention and he waved, but Laurel barely acknowledged him before walking out of view again. Holly felt her temperature rise.
Cliff turned towards the entrance where Holly stood and she turned her face away before realizing that wasn’t going to work. When she looked back up, Cliff had the front door wide open and the “Closed” sign turned.
Holly was caught off guard by that. They normally came in through the back door in the alley in a march of anonymity. Holly smiled, and for once it didn’t feel wrong in her mouth. She walked in, past Cliff, and towards the light in the kitchen. She caught Cliff’s smile out of the corner of her eye.
Laurel was sulking, sitting on a folding chair against the wall that separated the kitchen from Cliff’s office. The expression on her face was unpleasant and focused. The others trickled in over the course of the next hour.
Tina and Marcy were first to arrive, Marcy already hovering around Tina, preparing for the suffering to come. The brothers Stuart and Paul were next, both wearing second-hand sweatpants and sweatshirts. Stuart’s had a picture of a cat and was too large. He saw Holly looking at it and made an gesture she assumed meant “it was the only one they had in my size” or “I love cats.”
“Yeah,” he said. Talkative as ever. Looking at Stuart and Paul, Holly realized she might be heading down a grim path.
Troy came next, in a tank top and basketball shorts as per status quo. He walked over towards Laurel but was rebuffed by her blank expression. Edward was last, coming in as the sky was turning gray outside.
Piling into the meat locker, Holly was the last to enter. As Cliff was looping the chain through the handles of the meat locker door, Holly reached through the opening of the door and caught his arm.
“Can we talk, in the morning?” She almost choked on the words. All things considered, this sentence was the most frightening part of her evening. Cliff smiled and nodded. He opened his mouth to speak when from the front of the building there was the banging of a fist on glass. He turned and looked over his shoulder, towards something Holly couldn’t see. The banging was insistent. Cliff started to move away to see what the commotion was about when Holly squeezed his arm.
Cliff, distracted by the noise, almost walked away without closing the padlock through the chain. He snapped it shut with the door still open and Holly watching.
“I’ll be right back, I promise,” he said, pushing her hand into the abyss of the unlit meat locker as he closed the door between them. He did not ask if they would prefer the lights on or off. In the dark, Holly could feel disgust oozing off of Laurel. She could smell it. Laurel’s blood reeked of it.
This was the first indicator of the moon’s position. Holly was getting used to the signals the change was coming, like the moment before she knew she’d drank too much. In the coal blackness, the only sound was the buzzing of the air intake and the heavy breathing that Holly assumed was Troy. He always got so worked up. He made it worse for everyone.
The huffing and puffing in the freezer had an effect on its occupants like someone throwing up on a crowded bus. The support group, shapeless in the dark, began their chorus of pained noise. Tina started moaning and Marcy began talking to her in a soft tone, the kind Holly felt most people saved for talking to birds. The smell of Stuart and Paul’s second-hand sweatshirts burned Holly’s nostrils.
The sharp stink was becoming normal to Holly, familiar. In fact, all of the sensory assault was becoming common, soft and safe.
The sound of dry heaving, a call: My name is Marcy, or Edward or Holly, and I turn into a monster.
The twitching of muscle or spasming sob, a response: Hi, Holly.
The meeting began. Laurel told her story in howling screams that cut through the fray. Edward pulled his skin off in big heaps and threw it to the ground, naked in the darkness. Marcy and Tina in a binary star system of mutual destruction, the brothers reeking of co-dependence and Troy trying to find anyone at all that would care. Everyone screaming and spinning in the dark, looking for something that could not be found in that place.
In a moment of clarity, soaked in blood and steaming in the sarcophagus of the meat locker, Holly thought of someone outside. An island in the sun. A place outside the obtenebration, a place unpunctuated by anger.
Holly’s hazy thoughts were disrupted by the sudden impact of someone hurling her against one of the walls of the meat locker, which surprisingly gave way to the force. A beam of golden-white light pierced the dark of their cell, illuminating them in all their wretched seeming. Laurel’s face, twisted into a snout and tongue lolling out. One of Troy’s eyes, mutilated by an unknown talon and gushing ichor. Holly rose.
They flooded towards the light, demons looking up at heaven and grasping for release. The chain padlocked in haste, their seal almost undone. Holly’s own hands, slick with gore and plunging into the light. Out there was what they wanted, the thing that could not be found in the locker. For some, understanding and acceptance. For others, love or independence. The taste of human flesh.
The chain was loose around the handle of the door, and through dim eyes Holly could see the kitchen. Hands surged past her face, snouts pushed against each other trying to find an exit. Wavering shadows, their blood pulsing in their veins, voices raised in the cafe’s dining room. Holly pressed against the door, her hands fumbled at the chain with their own will. Cliff’s shouting, followed by the voice of the homeless man from outside yelling something about a bathroom. Cliff’s face was close, close enough to kiss, close enough to lick, close enough to taste. Grasping claw, and screaming, the sound of metal unwinding against their collective fervor.
The chain came unbound, the lock shattered, and they were free. Cliff’s voice transmuted into a scream, then was interrupted. Things were all out of order, somehow wrong. Holly holding Cliff in her arms and pressing her face to his, something warm flowing over her. Edward in the air, coming down on the other man and tearing something off him. Marcy and Tina gathering with Stuart and Paul like a family dinner table. Laurel and Holly brushing muzzles over Cliff. Troy skulking up to join them. In a way, something inside Holly cried out, it was picturesque.
The dawn was unkind. Fur and tooth sloughed away and sense returned. Holly was last to rise from the bog of their madness, and as she returned there were panicked voices clamouring around the cafe. She was gasping and panting, wet and cold, and someone was looking at her, shouting something.
“Holly, get it together. We need to leave. Now.”
Troy, too close, reeking of offal.
Holly’s eyes moved away, to Laurel. She was sitting on the floor, purple hair matted and tangled, arms wrapped around her knees. Holly couldn’t tell if she was sobbing or laughing, but Laurel was calico with gore. Holly looked down at her own hands, held by Troy. Slick and red.
“We have to go, we have to get out of here.”
Holly pushed Troy away, stumbled to her feet and dry heaved. Edward was gone, Marcy and Tina nowhere to be seen.
Across the cafe was the body of the homeless man who once lurked outside, hollowed out and torn asunder. Closer to Holly, Stuart and Paul were throwing a tablecloth over a pile of gore, a fair-faced and dead-eyed Cliff disappearing behind the spotted cloth that would be his shroud.
Holly stood in mute and stunned silence as the cloth blossomed crimson. She felt a mix of disappointment and fulfillment, as though she had got what she wanted but not how she wanted it. She choked, but pushed it down.
Laurel looked up at Holly through mascara-haloed eyes, shoulders hunched.
Holly scanned the cafe, freckled with blood as well as scraps of flesh left to rot where it fell. She thought of all that flesh, the months of meetings, where it all went. Where was it all kept? The evidence of their baseness and cruelty, swept up and hidden away by Cliff’s steady hand. She wanted to ask him many things, but now she would never know.
“What do you mean, ‘now what,’ Laurel?” Troy was waving his hands wildly. “We need to go. Are you coming?”
Laurel stared at Troy for a moment, then nodded weakly, capitulating to his plans.
“Yeah, yeah,” she muttered, rising to her feet. She crossed the cafe, boots squeaking on the wet floors, and grabbed Troy’s arm. “Let’s go.” There was resignation in her voice. She looked at Holly, lips twitching as though to speak. No words came, and she tugged on Troy’s arm.
“Holly, come on,” Troy’s voice, a whisper.
Holly shook her head. There was no escape. Not today, not tonight, not in a month when the moon grew fat. This was the end of it, the inescapability of her horrors. The reality of it all was oppressive, but at least it was no longer concealed.
“No, I’ll stay. Go.”
Troy fumbled for words, but another tug from Laurel and they were gone. Then there was just Holly, and it was as it was before. Holly, alone in a room, no matter how many people were there.