Do you know what it’s like to be hungry? I don’t mean when your stomach growls and you go to Taco Bell and get a burrito. I mean the kind of hungry when you haven’t eaten in days, and even then it was garbage from behind the 7-11. I mean the kind where you see a stray dog and salivate thinking about what it would look like roasted. If you can answer “no,” you should consider yourself lucky. I can’t. You see, I ran away from home when I was seventeen, and… well, I won’t bore you with the sob story. That’s not what I want to talk about. It should suffice to say that I’ve been on the streets a few years. When you’ve been out here that long it starts to get to you. You walk through neighborhoods at night and you see these nice white houses with full refrigerators, kids and parents tucked tightly into warm beds and you start to think about how unfair it all is. You start to think that maybe to get what they have, you’ve got to take it. That’s why me and a couple of jerks I hang around with broke into that house. That’s why I killed the boy and his mom.
My name is Stingy. At least that’s what the fellas called me. I suppose it’s because I don’t like to share, but hey, there isn’t much to go around. Just then, I was bunking with Dale and Pigpen. We called him Pigpen because of the Peanuts character, sure, but also because he stank like shit. Dale was the smart one of the three of us, or at least I thought so. They’re both dead, now, I think, but at the time we were getting along okay; better than most of my previous roommates–a term I use loosely. We were bunking in an alley off 6th and Red River in behind a bar so we could hear the music. They threw out good food and even some booze once in a while, but once they figured out we were there, they stopped.
Once the food dried up, we took to walking. Some nights we would walk for miles. We’d dig through dumpsters, panhandle a bit, and generally try to improve our lot. Not that it’s ever improved for long, mind you. On the night in question, we walked farther than we ever had before, all the way out of the city, in fact. It’s calming to watch the lights fade behind you, the storefronts and gas stations slowly replaced with pretty little houses with fenced-in yards.
I stopped outside one of them. I’m not sure why. It looked just like the one next to it. It’s like I could smell something different about it. Maybe that’s bullshit and I just got tired of walking, which seems more probable.
Dale and Pigpen walked on ahead of me, sticking close to the long row of white picket fences until they noticed I wasn’t with them.
“Stingy, the hell you doin’?” Pigpen asked.
I kept my mouth shut and kept staring at the house. I saw the two of them coming back to me out of the corner of my eye. When they were right next to me, Dale put a hand on my shoulder.
“Pisses you off, doesn’t it?” He asked.
“Just looks nice,” I said.
“C’mon, guys,” said Pigpen in a nervous whisper, “we can’t stand too long, or the police’ll bust us.”
“At least they feed you in the lockup,” I said.
“Well, it pisses me off, anyway,” Dale said like he wasn’t really talking to us anymore. He was staring across the well manicured lawn to the house.
“What does?” I asked.
“Every one of these shits has a job where they step on someone else to get what they got. Every one of these shits uses too much water and throws away food when they’ve eaten too much. Then they sleep comfortable as a lamb, wake up the next day and do it again.” We stared at Dale as he spoke.
“I know,” I said. “Ain’t fair.”
“Just pisses me off, that’s all,” Dale said.
Pigpen wasn’t saying anything, but he was shaking. He always got nervous when Dale talked like this.
“Me too,” I said. I tried not to think about it too often, but Dale’s words rang true.
“You know,” said Dale, “we could just go in there and take it.”
“Take what?” I asked.
“Hey, now,” said Pigpen.
“Whatever we wanted,” said Dale.
“That’s enough,” said Pigpen.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“We could fill our bellies,” said Dale.
“Dale,” said Pigpen with growing urgency, his eyes growing wide in his dirty face.
My stomach growled. “I’ll bet they have enough stuff in there for us to pawn and live like kings,” I said.
“I’ll bet they do,” said Dale.
“Stingy,” said Pigpen and looked at me with pleading eyes.
Dale glared at Pigpen. “Shut the fuck up,” he said, cold and low. “I know you got no guts, boy, but you’re coming with us, or you’re getting the hell out of here.”
Pigpen looked at the ground. I knew he’d stay. He was a simple fellow and didn’t have anybody else.
“Better,” said Dale.
“I don’t think we ought to do it at night,” I said. “There’s probably folks in there.”
“There ain’t no car in the driveway,” Dale said. “They’re probably out. If they ain’t, well, we got this.” He patted his side where he kept the gun. It was a dirty little revolver that he had lifted off some prick downtown with intent to pawn, but had kept. He said it was to protect us.
“I don’t like that at all,” I said. Pigpen was shaking harder.
“Look, I don’t mean we should shoot anybody,” Dale said. “We just gotta scare them so we can get away. Look, I’ll even let you hold it,” he said, handing it to me.
This was one of those moments where, in hindsight, the friction of a heavy decision slowed time’s passage giving space for a thousand thoughts to be reviewed and discarded. I stared at the gun with great intent. It was not shiny. It was worn and matte. I didn’t know much about guns–still don’t–but I could tell it had six chambers, five loaded. It was heavy in my hand. It was a machine built for only one purpose. Its design was efficient; three fingers slid around front of the handle, the thumb behind, the last finger landing effortlessly into position in front of the trigger. It felt built especially for me, and this made me feel powerful. I knew that we could go in to this house that was not ours and have what we wanted, holding this gun in front of us like a banner, and we would be allowed passage, and as long as I was the one making decisions about its use nobody would be hurt because I was incapable of really hurting anyone. My stomach grumbled and I tasted the garbage in my throat.
“Okay,” I said, locking eyes with Dale.
Pigpen hung his head, and I heard him whisper something unintelligible.
Without another word, we turned and began in lockstep to make our way up the front walk. The world seemed to hush itself as it does at the least opportune moments. The white stillness of the house loomed ahead of us as we approached, its blinded window eyes accusing us of everything we were about to do. I was suddenly fearful, but closing my hand tighter around the gun’s handle had a stabilizing effect.
Dale and I stepped up to the porch at the same time. Pigpen lagged, continuing to whisper to himself.
“Have you done this before?” I whispered to Dale.
He said nothing, but nodded, pulled a large folding pocket knife and bent to work on the front door latch. In a few minutes, and with more noise than I’d hoped, the door swung free, the last audible crack echoing into the deep darkness beyond.
The experience of stepping into someone else’s home without permission is strange, all the elements familiar but their configuration a mystery. There was a television, a couch, a bookshelf, all illuminated in yellow stripes where streetlights projected their glow through the drawn shades. The blackness beyond those points of light was near absolute, with only the yellow outlines of occasional household sundries–a coffee maker here, a table lamp there–made hyperbolic against the shadowed backdrop. My boots with their soles worn to nothing still thumped against the floor and the sound was deafening in the quiet dark.
Dale and Pigpen entered behind me, and their stumbling intrusion came with much unnecessary racket. I swung around, glaring at them. Dale held Pigpen by the sleeve of his jacket. Pigpen’s eyes were wide and his lips were moving soundlessly. I locked eyes with Dale and whispered, “Shut the hell up.” He nodded and held his index finger up to his lips.
Despite some designs I entertained on taking things to sell, I had come to eat, so I headed to the kitchen. It was separated from the living room only by a counter, so I could see the stainless steel of the refrigerator reflecting the street lamp as though the light were its own. It was a beacon, and I fluttered to it like a moth. Dale and Pigpen followed suit, this time attempting to control the noise of their clomping feet. I pulled open the door and gasped as the bright white light and cold air blasted from inside. I tried but was unable to recall the last time I saw the inside of a refrigerator, but even in my youth I never remembered mine being so full. Deli meats, cheeses, cold beer, fresh tomatoes; I began to reach in and grab things, salivating at their nearness, and piling them in the crook of my left arm. By God, I would have a feast.
Dale’s heavy hand landed on my right shoulder and squeezed. I jumped at the surprised and swung to face him and whispered, “Don’t scare me!” Dale, however, did not reply, and was not looking at me. He was staring at some point in the darkness.
I followed his gaze to my left, and before I set eyes on the boy, I heard him say, “Daddy?” I dropped the food in my left arm with a loud clatter and cursed, swinging the weight in my right hand upward in instinctive defense. The refrigerator door swung closed, dousing the light and reinstating the yellow glow from the windows as the chief source of illumination. Silhouetted in the blackness of a bedroom door, I saw him just ten feet away in the hallway beyond the kitchen. He could not have been older than seven. I stood still, as did the others. My breath was ragged.
The boy screamed. My hand contracted. I will not pretend he attacked me. He made no movement other than to open his mouth and let out a scream that will haunt me for the rest of my days. I am sure I will hear it when I die. The boy screamed. My hand contracted.
I had almost forgotten about the gun, but it was still there. I felt the trigger compress, heard the unoiled mechanisms rotate into place, and the shot fired. The fire from the barrel lit briefly the fear stamped onto the boy’s face and the sound roared like a beast.
The boy fell. I began to shake. There was silence and a ringing in my ears. Dale and Pigpen did not seem to breathe. The next sound I heard was more screaming, this time older, feminine.
A woman came out of the darkness of the hallway, sprinting, a Louisville Slugger over her head. I yelled, “No, no!” She did not stop. She did not slow as she passed the body of her son. She instead continued at me. Dale and Pigpen ran, breaking rank behind me and making for the living room and the front door. I was cemented in place, my legs so heavy with terror that movement was more of a thought than a potential reality. The woman, dark haired and fair skinned, was close enough now that I could see the rage in her face, her eyes wide, her mouth gaping into a screaming maw. I pulled the trigger again. There was another flash, another explosion of sound, and then another silence. A black spot appeared in the center of the woman’s forehead and she fell, disappearing into the darkness pooled on the floor of the kitchen.
I shook. Tears stung in my eyes but refused to fall. My heart beat in my ears and my eyes and my chest. My face was hot. My legs found strength and they ran without my command. I stumbled over the food I dropped and my hand shot forward to catch myself, and in doing so, touched the woman where she lay still and lifeless. I recoiled and spun, sprinting from the kitchen, through the living room and out into the night. I saw Dale and Pigpen were across the street as they disappeared into the line of trees there. I followed suit, the hot night air tearing at my face, and as the shadow of the woods engulfed me, I collapsed.
I don’t remember much for a little while. I know I vomited. I know I cried, because my cheeks were tight where the tears had fallen and dried. I know I didn’t move from just inside the tree line, but I’m not sure for how long. The police never showed. I’m sure I would’ve remembered that.
What I do remember begins with headlights. They turned on to the street and only missed catching me in their sweep by a few feet. I scrambled to a sitting position, my back against a tree, and faced the house across the street. The car, an old silver Honda, pulled into the driveway. There’s the missing car, I thought. Someone was coming home to the mess I made. I felt sick. My head spun. The tears flowed again, but I didn’t weep. I was still.
A man got out. He was not as young as the woman had been. He was tall with a full beard and thick glasses. He wore ratty old shorts and a thin t-shirt, and carried a plastic bag from CVS.
His flip-flops slapped against his heels as he made his way from the driveway to the porch. He stopped when he saw that the front door was slightly ajar. Dale had done a little damage to the frame with his knife, and I imagine the man noticed that, too. He pushed the door open. I heard him yell something into the house–probably the woman’s name. Nobody answered and he walked quickly inside. I saw a light come on in the front window. I watched and was unable to turn away.
There was silence for a beat, then a scream. No, not a scream. A roar. It was the roar of a tortured beast, and it was loud. I held my hands to my ears when it became painful. It did not stop. The roar became so loud that I thought my head would explode from the pressure of it. The windows in the house shattered. The street lamp exploded and the street went dark. The lights inside the house went out and in their place a blue electric glow flickered, growing brighter until it cast blue rectangles through all the windows in the house onto the lawn. The light became more intense until it was bright white and blinding. My vision blurred and I thought I would pass out from the ever increasing roar. I could feel heat from the light. The wind around me swirled and pressed me against the tree. There was a crash as lightning arced from the sky and struck the roof of the house, and then silence. Darkness. Stillness.
I ran. Tree branches slapped and clawed at me. Logs and rocks tripped me. I heard sirens through the ringing in my ears, but I did not fear them. I feared what I had awakened.
“Who are you?” A voice asked.
I was dreaming.
“Who are you?” The voice repeated. It was a man’s voice, deep and quiet.
I remained silent.
“Did you do this?” He asked.
“Do what?” I answered.
“Did you kill them?”
There was silence. I could see nothing.
“Why?” He asked.
“I was hungry,” I said.
“Who are you?”
I was silent.
“Then, burn,” he said.
The sun was hot on my face. My legs hurt. I was wet with sweat and condensation, and my back felt like it was on fire. I opened my eyes and saw golden sunlight dancing in the treetops. The breeze was pleasant. The birds sang.
I killed a little boy. I killed his mother.
I rolled over onto my front and sat up on my knees.
The woods looked strange in the light of day. I hadn’t even been aware that these woods were so big, but I couldn’t see anything but trees. It was the damned fog, or was it smoke? It moved like smoke, but I couldn’t smell it. I only smelled damp earth.
I didn’t remember which direction I was running when I came in, and that made my decision easy. I would walk in one direction until I found the edge of the woods or water, and I would follow one of those back to the city.
The crunch of the leaves underfoot was rhythmic and unceasing. The ground was carpeted in them and they became my soundtrack, broken only by the crack of an occasional twig. There was nothing else. The birds had stopped their song when I stood up. The fog/smoke was beginning to block out the sun as it became thicker. The tops of the trees disappeared into it.
Ahead of me, there came a crackling and a flicker of orange. There was fire in my path. The fog/smoke was thick here, and hid the flames from view. I continued forward.
The fire was just barely alive at the edges of a charred black circle that covered the floor of a massive clearing. The scentless smoke rose from the bed of charred leaves and grass. I stepped over the circle’s flickering border and made for the charred, heaped shape in the center. I knew what it was and drew in a sharp breath that I held until my heart beat quickly.
It was Pigpen, burned and blackened and dead, his once kind eyes glazed white and staring upward. His skin was black and shriveled everywhere but his face which was smeared with soot and ash. Only scraps of clothes hung on his prone frame.
I felt my chest jerk into an unexpected sob and a grieving pressure filled my head and shoulders. I knelt next to my friend, confused and terrified, and remembered the blue glow from the house, the lightning bolt. This was vengeance, but Pigpen hadn’t deserved it.
“Thanks a lot, Stingy,” Pigpen said, his blackened, dead lips cracking open in a wicked smile. I shouted and fell backward, scrambling a few feet on my hands. Pigpen’s body didn’t move. His eyes didn’t blink. Only his mouth moved when he spoke. “Pretty sure I remember telling you not to listen to Dale.”
“Christ, Pigpen,” I said between gasps. “You aren’t dead.”
“I am, too,” he said. His voice was full of gravel and dirt, low and broken. “Don’t really matter, though. I just wanted to tell you that I told you so.”
“I don’t know what’s happening, Pig, but I’m sorry,” I said.
“Ain’t sorry enough,” he said. “No matter. He’ll come for you soon enough.” His jaw slacked and his smile faded.
“Who?” I asked. “Who’s coming for me?”
Pigpen wasn’t talking. That was as it should be. I stood and looked around me. The smoke was so thick that I couldn’t see the edge of the clearing anymore. The ground was black to the extent of my vision.
“Daddy?” The voice came from behind me and I spun. A little boy stepped lightly out of the fog. He couldn’t have been older than seven. He screamed, and a moment later, his chest exploded. Gore spattered onto the forest floor behind him, and he dropped.
“No!” I screamed and sprinted to him. “I’m sorry! God, I’m sorry!” I fell down beside him and grabbed his shoulders.
Flame exploded from his body where I touched it and climbed up my arms. The pain was instant and white hot. I screamed and recoiled, but it was too late. The fire engulfed me quickly, searing my flesh. As I stumbled through the clearing, I held my hands out in front of me and watched them blacken, prune, the skin withdrawing from bone. My clothes fell away. I dropped to the blackened ground. I was no longer able to scream, but the pain still vibrated through my nerves. My vision faded. Feeling dulled. All was black. All was silent.
“Who are you?” He asked.
“Who are you?” I replied.
He was silent. Another dream. Either I was blind or it was impossibly dark.
“You’re the man who came home. The boy’s father,” I said.
“Yes and no,” he said.
“Am I dead?” I asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I was silent.
I woke up certain that the voice I heard in my dream had been lying and that I was dead, but the water lapped against my face, and the darkness of my dream gave way to the red glow of the sun through my closed eyelids. I was lying in mud, and there were rocks, and they hurt. Water lapped along my right side, and it was cool, and that was pleasant.
I opened my eyes. I was in a shallow creek bed. The green grass of the forest floor began to my left, and to my right, the creek meandered past. The sun was still diffused through the thick fog that lay over everything and limited my vision. No birds sang. No animals made any sound. No wind blew. I could hear only my breathing and the water, and the crunch of the rocks and leaves below me as I sat up.
I looked at my hands, expecting them to be black and charred. Instead they were pruned with wetness and cleaner than I was used to. My clothes were in tact, if soggy. It was as though I hadn’t burned, hadn’t died screaming, hadn’t watched my flesh melt away. Maybe it was a dream, or maybe a hallucination.
Dale floated face down in the creek, his lifeless body bobbing against a rock a few feet upstream. His dirty red baseball cap had been stained almost black by the soaking water. Part of me expected this, but it still made bile rise in my throat. I got to my feet and waded into the water in his direction. At its deepest, the creek came to my waist, and the current was not strong. My legs ached from running the night before–or was it two nights–but I still reached Dale easily. I hooked my arms under his and pulled him to shore.
Kneeling next to him in the mud, I turned him over and stared at his pale, bloated features for several minutes, expecting him to speak. When he did not, I began to stand. Then his mouth moved.
“Shouldn’t have let you hold the gun, boss,” he said. His eyes didn’t move, just stared forward, blind and glazed. No other muscle in his body gave so much as a twitch, but his mouth formed words.
“Guess you shouldn’t have,” I said. “Do you know what’s happening?”
“God damned wizard,” he said.
“Wizard,” I said.
“Ayuh,” he said by way of confirmation.
“You know that sounds crazy,” I said.
“You’re talking to a dead man, boy,” he said, water dribbling from the corners of his mouth.
He had a point.
“Wizard,” I said.
Dale was silent, which was better. The normal sounds returned. My breathing was ragged. The trickle of the creak was louder now as it flowed faster over the rocks. The level had risen, and I began to imagine I knew what was coming. I felt a tear tickle my cheek.
“Damn it!” I yelled upward into the invisible tree tops. “I’m sorry!”
Nobody answered. The water grew louder and now, several feet from where the bank had been, water was splashing against my shoes.
“Did you hear me?” I screamed, my voice cracking. “I’m sorry!”
I thought of what the man said in my dream. Not yet.
When I looked back down, I saw her standing across the clearing just beyond the tree line. She was dark haired and wore a long white silken robe. In her left hand she gripped a wooden baseball bat so tightly that her knuckles flushed bright white.
I knew her. She stood with her hand on an invisible doorframe just as she must have before she ran at me from the darkness. I drew my breath quickly. Can I save her? I thought. What if I could? Could I undo my mistake?
Before my mind made a formal decision, my feet rushed forward. I stretched my arms in her direction as I sprinted for the trees where she stood. “No!” I screamed. “Stay there!”
She jumped and her eyes blinked violently as though she had heard a sudden loud sound. When her eyes fluttered open again, they were huge and frightened and she began screaming, roaring toward me. She raised the bat over her head.
“Stay there!” I screamed back, kicking up leaves and dirt as I ran. I dove for her. I wrapped my arms around her chest and felt her silk robe press against me. For a moment she seemed stunned, and then a hole appeared right between her eyes. Her face was inches from mine and blood spattered against my forehead and covered my arms as the back of her skull exploded sending gray matter everywhere. I fell to the ground with her and wept.
Her screams and mine, and the blood pumping in my ears, had covered the sound of the oncoming flood, but now it roared from behind me. When I turned, I saw the wall of dark water approaching a second before it hit me. I was a rag doll in the grip of the current and it threw me, shook me, slammed me, until the water had settled into its new home and allowed me to float free. I opened my eyes to find I was floating far enough above the ground so that I could not see it, and that I was surrounded by submerged trees whose leaves and branches floated as though in slow motion. My chest burned for air, and I began swimming upward.
I saw the light and could see ripples playing on the surface when the hand wrapped around my ankle. I yelled silently in surprise and let go of a large bubble of precious air that I watched float the surface. I struggled with the hand’s iron grip, and looked down to find its source. She floated below me, dead and pale and smiling, and placed her other hand higher on my leg, pulling me downward as though she were climbing a rope. My chest was screaming as she pulled me down low enough to face her and I began to spasm. I grew still in her embrace.
“Who are you?”
“Why do you keep asking me that?”
Silence, but not total darkness this time. I was in a room, dimly lit. It was little more than a concrete box. Someone sat across from me in a plain gray chair. He was all black, only vaguely outlined in whatever light was allowing me to see where I was. He put his head in his hands, elbows on his lap.
“I’m tired,” he said.
“You’re the man who came home,” I said. “The boy’s father.”
“Yes and no.”
“You said that before. What does that mean?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m the boy’s father.”
“But you’re not a man,” I said.
“What are you?” I asked.
“Are you sorry for what you’ve done?” He asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you regret it?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes, I regret it,” I said, “but not because of this… whatever you’re doing. I regretted it the second it happened. If you weren’t going to kill me, I’d probably kill myself.”
“Why did you do it?” He asked.
“Because I was hungry.”
He gulped in air and then let it out in a ragged sob. He was crying. The outline of his shoulders shook lightly.
“Are my friends dead?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Why did they die first?”
“They were easier. Usually, you ask a man their name and they’ll give it to you, but you…”
“I’m Stingy,” I said.
“Right. That’s a good word for it,” he said, now weeping outright. “You know, I’ve been alive a thousand years. I’ve watched empires rise and fall. I advised kings, rode dragons, grew entire forests from a single seed, but I couldn’t keep that boy alive. I couldn’t save him. My wife, either. I couldn’t bring them back. My whole life I have done the impossible, but nobody loved me. Not until her. Not until my son. You took them. From me!“
“No,” I said. “Stingy is my name.”
“You need that to kill me, right? Like you did Dale and Pigpen?” I asked.
He was still silent, but raised his shadowed face from his hands.
“Do you think I want to keep living?” I said. “What the hell am I gonna do with myself if I do? I got nothing. I killed your family for some fucking sandwich meat. What kind of life do you think you’re taking? I wish to God you would end this. Do you know, the last two times you made a run at it I was hopeful? I thought that was it, but you just kept on talking. Why, if you aren’t the most long-winded son-of-a-bitch…”
The lights went out.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You’ll never be sorry enough,” he whispered.
When I woke up, there were dogs barking. My stomach rolled with hunger. I opened my eyes and saw the sun shining bright and clear through the tree tops. There was no fog, no water, no smoke. The birds sang loudly. My head ached and my legs hurt. There was a dull pain in my back where I was laying on something hard. The gun.
The barking got closer until it was nearly upon me. I sat up and looked around as a swarm of police came through the trees and stopped when they saw me. They drew their guns.
This is how he kills me, I thought.
“Stay where you are!” Said one of the officers, a young man with little more than blonde stubble for a mustache. He looked nervous.
I reached behind me where the gun was tucked snugly in the waistband of my pants. Might as well.
“Put your hands where we can see them,” the kid yelled.
I brought the gun out from behind my back and fired a shot into the air. The whole world sounded like a string of firecrackers, and the bullets felt like fists. The pain is not as sharp or as piercing as I thought it would be. Not at first. To me it felt like being punched hard. Then the weakness. Then the darkness.
When I woke up, there were dogs barking, and I swear I could hear a man laugh. I still wasn’t dead. Maybe I can’t die at all. Maybe I’ll die a hundred times.
I got away that time. I managed to hide in the woods until the dogs dragged the cops off in a different direction. It’s been days and I can still feel the fire on my skin, the water in my lungs, and the bullets in my chest. They hurt, but not as much as the hunger. It sits in the pit of my stomach like a rock and no matter what I eat, I haven’t been able to stop it. I don’t imagine I ever will.