By M. Elizabeth Ticknor

This is the first story I penned when I started writing with an eye toward professional publication. The story has changed so much from its initial incarnation that it might as well be a completely different tale at this point. It gave me something to focus on when I was first trying to get into the game, and I would have loved to sell it, but at this point I’m ready to let it go.

♦ ♦ ♦

A dead man fell out of Reagan’s closet, wrapped in a silk sheet–the same top sheet that had been missing from Reagan’s bed when she woke that evening. She stumbled back, eyes wide. This couldn’t be happening. Not again. Not now.

It had to be a mistake. A prank. Her boyfriend, Bryce, had a twisted sense of humor–maybe he’d set this up.

Reagan took a moment to steady her shaking hands, then touched the body. The skin was cold–too cold by far–but it felt unnervingly real. Not a prank, then. Reagan bit her lip, steeled her nerves, and turned the corpse over.

Bryce’s eyes stared up at the ceiling, soulless and vacant. Cause of death was easy to determine. Reagan was all too familiar with the signs of excessive blood loss; the pallor and marbling of Bryce’s skin were clear evidence of exsanguination.

No wonder Reagan felt so full.

Her throat tightened; she choked back a sob. Bryce was dead, and it was her fault. She wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t–couldn’t–come. She clenched her fists until her nails dug into her palms, but the action proved unsatisfying. Her pain receptors had numbed decades ago.

She laid Bryce out on the bed to examine him properly. She needed a better understanding of how things had gone wrong.

Bryce’s shoulder-length auburn curls did little to conceal the web of bite-marks across his neck and shoulders–some fresh, far more of them old. The most recent marks were deep and jagged rents in his flesh rather than playful marks of passion.

Reagan traced her fingers along the wounds mournfully. This should never have happened. She’d been so careful. They’d managed everything so well–at least, until last night.

She couldn’t keep Bryce’s body in her apartment. Taking him back to his house wasn’t an option, either. Sooner or later the police would come, with questions and accusations she couldn’t safely answer. Bryce needed to be gone by then.

She fumbled for her phone and dredged up the number for her old cleaner, Robert Holloway. She called three times before he answered. The gruffness in his tone held an unspoken threat of violence. “What?”

Reagan forced a semblance of calm and joviality into her voice. She couldn’t afford to break down–not until after the situation was dealt with. “Hey, Bobby. How’s it going?”

“Who the hell–Reagan? Reagan Doyle, is that you? You ain’t called in so long, I figured you’d seen the sunrise.”

“I’ve been keeping quiet. I had–” Reagan sucked in a sharp breath as she dredged up an appropriate phrase. “–I had a slip last night. You still in the cleaning business?”

“Not exactly. I’m into networking now. I know a guy who knows a guy, you get what I’m saying? Ten percent finder’s fee, two percent of the hassle.”

“I’ll need you to find me a good cleaner, then.”

After an hour and a half spent emptying, scrubbing, and disinfecting Reagan’s closet, a knock rattled her front door. She flinched at the noise and rushed to invite the unwanted but necessary guest into her home.

An amber-skinned woman in a white shift stood in the hallway, bobbing back and forth on her heels to the rhythm of a song Reagan couldn’t hear. Her tall, bony frame was comprised mostly of points and angles, a sharp contrast to the obsidian curls that ran wild down her back. When she spotted Reagan, her hazel eyes gleamed and an oddly manic grin split her face.

Reagan bit back a curse. She’d expected Bobby to send a man of considerable musculature and bulk. This was far more likely to be a new neighbor than her cleaner, although why anyone would want to introduce themselves at this time of night was beyond her.

Reagan leaned against the doorjamb, braced the door to keep it from swinging open further, and plastered a smile on her face. “Good evening! How can I help you?”

The woman in white curtsied. “You’ve got that backwards, Miss Doyle. I’m to help with your cleaning problem.”

Reagan’s false mirth fell away, replaced by a scowl. “No offense, but you don’t look like you’re up for the type of cleaning I need.”

The woman’s lips broke into a toothy grin as she pushed past Reagan into the living room. “Nothing is ever as it appears, Miss Doyle. My name is Alma LaVoie, and I will be your cleaner this night.” She took a seat on the couch and crossed her legs at the ankles. “Close the door so we can speak plainly.” Once it shut, Alma slipped into clinical neutrality. “Where is the corpse?”

“In the bedroom.”

“And how did you acquire it?”

“There was an accident.”

“Was there, now?”

The hairs on the back of Reagan’s neck prickled. “I’m no killer.”

“The hunger of the beast is carved into your aura, Miss Doyle. I’m trained to sense such things. You’re a predator, and predators hunt. That’s the way of things.” Alma leaned back in her chair, her posture regal in its precision. “Tell me how it happened.”

Reagan’s brow furrowed as she struggled to remember the events of the previous evening. “Bryce and I had gone out to celebrate. Last night was our six-month anniversary.” They’d decided to visit Elysium, a warehouse-turned-nightclub, on Retro Night. Bryce had teased out his curls to get that classic hair metal look and donned a leather jacket, blue jeans, and a Metallica tee. Reagan had gone full glam, with layered shirts and pedal pusher pants in clashing shades of pink, orange, and green. They’d looked so young together, so full of life. The memory was torturous, now.

Alma cast a sidelong glance in Reagan’s direction. “You were actively involved in this man’s life? That’s a stupid mistake for someone like you to make.”

Reagan’s stomach tightened. “It wasn’t supposed to go this way, alright? I never meant to hurt him.” She’d first met Bryce eight months ago at B.D. Riley’s Irish Pub. His wild enthusiasm had enthralled her. They’d started seeing each other after several weeks of mutual flirting. “He liked the thrill of it. Being fed on. I was always mindful of his health, never took more than a taste. It’s just–he had a bit much to drink last night, and things got out of hand. I thought he’d just gone home when I woke up this evening. I don’t remember killing him, but…” Reagan scrubbed a hand across her jaw. “I never meant for things to go this way. Not with him.”

Alma’s level stare was thoroughly unsettling. She didn’t even blink. “Your intentions don’t matter. You killed someone whose life you made a lasting impression on. Unless I take drastic action, you run the risk of being prosecuted for murder. Show me the corpse.”

Bitterness welled in Reagan’s mouth as she led Alma into the bedroom.

Alma clucked her tongue as she examined Bryce’s body. She sounded disappointed, like a dog-owner whose pet had soiled the carpet. “You’ve certainly left your mark on this one. It’ll be difficult to hide. But the body is fairly fresh, less than a day old. Yes. This will do.” She glanced at Reagan and motioned toward the door. “Leave us. This work isn’t for your eyes.”

Reagan set her jaw, resolute. “I want to see it. I want to see what you do to him.”

Alma frowned. Her disapproval seemed to darken the very air around her.

Reagan sucked in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “This isn’t some one-night stand gone wrong. This is a man I spent more than half a bloody year with. That may not seem like much to you, but it’s the closest I’ve come to a meaningful relationship in ages. I need to know what you do to him. Please.”

Alma studied Reagan long and hard with that unblinking gaze, then wrinkled her nose and sniffed disdainfully. “It’ll cost you extra.”

Alma laid a series of unlabeled tubes and jars out on the bed, followed by a ritual knife made of bone. She hand-mixed pigments with methodical precision. The final ingredient for each color was a few drops of her blood, drawn from her fingertips. It soaked into the mixtures without a trace, but left the paints more vibrant for the addition.

She held an ivory mirror in one hand and painted her face with the other. When she finished, her skin shone with white greasepaint, accented with black whorls that mimicked the hollows of a human skull. Her eyes shimmered like liquid gold, surrounded by black sockets and highlighted with red flower petals.

Alma painted Bryce’s face similarly, then placed her hands on his temples and chanted in a language Reagan had never heard. The words were coarse and guttural, but Alma’s voice imbued them with melodic resonance. Ambient static built in the air until it set Reagan’s small hairs on end.

Bryce twitched and convulsed like the victim of an electric shock, then lurched into a sitting position. For a moment he seemed wonderfully alive. Reagan’s whole body tensed with the thrill of anticipation. Had Alma revived him?

Bryce’s head lolled back at an unnatural angle. His eyes fluttered open, bleached of color, milky white against black hollows. Reagan’s flicker of hope fled.

Alma tilted Bryce into a more natural position and kissed him gently on the forehead. “Welcome back, bright-soul. Do not fear. Your work this night will be short. I seek only to lay this body to rest.”

Bryce’s mouth drifted open, but the only sound that emerged was a wet gurgle.

Alma stroked Bryce’s cheek, then shot an icy glare in Reagan’s direction. “Has your curiosity been satisfied?”

Reagan swallowed hard, then asked, “What are you going to do with him?”

“You left him. He couldn’t handle the pain. He’ll write a letter explaining as much and jump off the Pennybacker Bridge. If all goes well, his body won’t be recovered until it’s bloated and fish-eaten.”

Reagan grimaced. “I’d like a better end for him than that.”

“It’s the only way, unless you’re eager to explain the strange manner of his death to the police.”

Reagan shuddered. She didn’t want to consider what might happen to her if her condition were made public knowledge. “Do what you have to.”

Alma pressed her lips into a thin line. “You should tread more carefully in the future. You chose a dark path this night.”

“You think I chose this?” Reagan’s voice shook. “You think I want to kill people? That I like bleeding them dry?”

“I think the illusion of powerlessness can be comforting. You’re a sentient creature. You made the decisions that led you here.”

“I know! Believe me, I bloody well know.” Reagan ran a shaky hand through her hair. “I had it under control. I was regimented, and then…” She gestured at Bryce and choked back a sob.

Alma took Reagan’s chin between a thumb and forefinger. Her gaze burrowed into Reagan’s eyes for a full minute before she spoke. “The beast has burrowed deep within you, but I may be able to excise the monster from your belly.”

Reagan’s eyes narrowed. “What? How?”

“I hold a measure of power over life and death. You sit on the threshold of both. I know a ritual that might cure your condition.” Alma pursed her lips. “It also might kill you. The choice is yours.”

Reagan might not be able to bring Bryce back, but she could prevent herself from harming anyone else. Better to die than risk killing another. She set her jaw and looked Alma in the eye. “What do I need to do?”

♦ ♦ ♦

Alma’s house was a refurbished Victorian affair with meticulously maintained white paint and black shingles. Despite the darkness of the evening, the vibrant garden that surrounded the front porch echoed the sort of beauty found on magazine covers.

Alma guided Reagan through the side door, down stairs reinforced with slip-resistant treads, into the basement. It was large but unfinished, with earthen walls, blacked-out windows, and a poured-concrete floor. Roots and herbs hung from the rafters. Age-yellowed jars lined wall-mounted shelves, filled with everything from crab shells to rust, nettles to finger bones.

Reagan whistled long and low. “So much for normal.”

“This from the woman who keeps dead men in her closet.”

Alma led Reagan to a smaller room that adjoined the main basement. There were no windows. The only furnishings were a pull-string light moored to the ceiling and a metal loop embedded in the poured-concrete floor. Scratch-marks and gouges marred the inside of the wooden doorframe.

Alma glanced at Reagan. “This won’t be pleasant, but it’s necessary. The beast slumbers now. If I’m to remove it, we must give it time to wake.”

Alma slipped two sets of manacles through the loop in the floor. The shorter pair bound Reagan’s ankles, while the longer restrained her wrists. There was enough give that she could lie down, but not enough that she could reach the door. Once Alma seemed satisfied Reagan was secured, she left Reagan alone in the dark.

With no light and no clock on the wall, there was no clear way for Reagan to keep track of the hours that crawled by. Eventually, hunger sharpened her hearing to the point that Alma’s heartbeats thundered down through the floorboards. Reagan started counting them as a way to pass the time. She worried at her fetters whenever her focus slipped. The chains remained strong, but the concrete showed signs of weakness.

Ka-thump, ka-thump. Ka-thump, ka-thump. Three thousand, seven hundred and twenty-eight beats since she’d started to keep track.

The pattern grew faster, accelerated by movement. Alma’s bare feet glided down the basement stairs. Reagan pulled her knees up to her chest and rocked back and forth in an effort to maintain control.

Alma opened the door, already made up in full skull-painted regalia. “How do you feel, Miss Doyle?” Her mask of calm was betrayed by the hammer of her pulse.

Reagan bared her teeth and snarled, “I’m starving.” The words rang harsh in her ears, filled with longing and revulsion. It took every ounce of self-control to keep from tackling Alma and ripping her throat out. The urge to suck every ounce of blood from her still-pumping veins was nigh overwhelming.

“Then it’s time.” Alma stepped into the room, daubed her fingers in a bowl filled with an herbal paste, and traced symbols on Reagan’s face and chest. She hovered so close it made Reagan’s teeth ache.

Reagan’s mouth drifted open of its own accord. She clacked her teeth together fiercely. No. No biting. She had to see this through–she owed it to Bryce. Deep breaths. She shuddered and worried at the inside of her cheek with her teeth, willing her semblance of calm to return.

Alma finished the markings and began to chant. There was power in those words. Reagan felt them take root within her and pull her inner predator to heel. She sagged with relief, gasping at the reprieve.

Then Alma unsheathed her ritual knife and sliced the blade across her left hand. The scent of blood filled the room. Everything slowed to a crawl. Reagan couldn’t just smell the blood–she could taste it in the air. Hunger clawed at her mental defenses, dragging her toward the brink of frenzy despite Alma’s half-worked spell.

Alma held her hand above Reagan’s head. Reagan quivered with anticipation.

A single crimson drop spattered against her forehead.

It was too much.

A tortured roar escaped Reagan’s lips. She lunged for Alma. The knife clattered out of Alma’s hand and skittered off into the dark.

Reagan’s chains hampered her enough that Alma was able to jump out of the room, but the loop shifted in the cement. Reagan gathered up her chains and pulled. The metal ring snapped free with a crack. Reagan charged out of her cell and intercepted Alma halfway to the stairs.

Alma backed away and spoke sternly, her voice raised in warning. “Reagan! You don’t want to do this. You said it yourself. You want to stop!”

The statement rang hollow in Reagan’s ears. Starvation brought purpose and the promise of satisfaction. She stalked after Alma, lips curled into a predator’s snarl.

Alma ran for a window on the opposite side of the basement. By the time she arrived, Reagan was already there. They danced back and forth around the room. Alma grabbed for jars of spell-casting ingredients. Reagan knocked them out of Alma’s hands. Alma made a second attempt at the stairs. Reagan seized Alma’s leg and pulled.

Alma careened down the steps. Her hands and face tore open as they dragged across the anti-slip treads.

More blood.

Reagan flipped Alma over and straddled her waist. Alma struck Reagan with her fist, clawed at Reagan’s neck. Reagan lifted Alma up by the throat and slammed her back to the ground. There was a musicality to the way her skull cracked against the floor. Her struggle waned to a flutter. Her breath became ragged even as her heart surged in her chest.

Reagan leaned in close enough for her lips to brush against Alma’s neck. “God, you smell delicious.” When she shifted her mouth, Alma’s carotid artery pulsed against her lips.

Alma’s eyes regained a portion of their fierceness. “I’m no meal for the likes of you.”

Reagan heard Alma’s voice in one ear and her heartbeat in the other. The beast quivered with anticipation as Reagan’s teeth broke Alma’s skin.

Alma punched Reagan in the ear. The impact was harsh and unexpected. Reagan pulled away with a growl. Alma’s fiery gaze focused on her. “Control yourself!”

The beast flinched. A portion of clarity returned.

Reagan needed blood–she needed it now–but the beast could be fooled, if only for a moment. Reagan bit into her own wrist. The contents of her veins were so used up after her extended confinement that they might as well have been filled with old motor oil. She gagged, but forced herself to drink enough to regain clarity. She shoved Alma away and barked, “Run!” She didn’t have long–a minute, maybe, before her body rejected the false nourishment and she slipped back into full-scale frenzy.

Alma ignored Reagan’s warning. She snatched up her ritual knife, cut open a fresh gash on her hand, and drew a symbol on Reagan’s forehead. She rattled off an incantation with no attempt at grace or decorum.

Reagan curled, ready to pounce–and every nerve in her body flared in unison. The blaze of agony brought her to the floor. Her heart lurched. Her lungs burned. A pair of voices echoed off the basement walls. One was Alma’s. The other must be hers, but it sounded wrong, somehow. She’d certainly never known herself to scream that hard.

♦ ♦ ♦

Alma wrapped a blanket around Reagan and pushed her toward a lime-green leather couch. The unnatural, gut-wrenching hunger of the beast had faded, but a hollowness remained in the pit of Reagan’s stomach. A quiet, ever-present ache pulsed through her body. Alma guided Reagan into a sitting position and pressed a mug that smelled of hot water and flowers into her hands.

Reagan grimaced and tilted the mug to get a better view of its contents. Thin green leaves floated in the bottom of the cup. “What’s this, then?”

Alma’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “Jasmine tea. Drink.”

Reagan swirled the pale liquid around in the mug. The leaves shifted and swayed with each movement of her hand. It gave her something solid to focus on besides the weight of emotion that had flooded in to fill the void left by the beast’s absence. Guilt, happiness, fear, relief–all tainted with a persistent undercurrent of grief.

All at once, a surge of anger rose within her. She clacked the mug down on the coffee table and pushed it away. “I’m not thirsty.”

Alma sat beside Reagan and placed a hand on her knee. “You will be. Give it time.”

Reagan pulled away from Alma’s touch with a snarl. “Don’t.”

Alma blinked. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t try to comfort me. I don’t deserve it.”

Alma’s brow knitted. “Is this about earlier? You couldn’t help yourself. The beast–”

“It doesn’t matter. I should’ve been able to hold it back.”

“You and I both knew the dangers.”

“Bryce didn’t.” Reagan tucked her legs up against her chest, clutched them with her arms, and chewed at her lower lip until it bled. The metallic tang made her gag. “What if it comes back? The hunger. The need.”

“Then you’ll return to me and I’ll help you tame it.”

“You won’t be around forever.”

Alma smirked. “I’ll be around longer than you think.” She picked up her own mug and sipped from it daintily, every motion poised and calculated. “We’re connected now, you and I. The ritual we performed tonight imbued you with a portion of my power. I took a portion of your curse in turn. Burdens are made lighter when they’re shared.”

Reagan’s eyes narrowed. “You didn’t tell me that was how it worked.” Was Alma just using her as a means to an end? Had this been the plan all along?

Alma shrugged. “You didn’t ask. But it benefits you as much as me, no? You get the chance to live without the beast gnawing away at your soul, and I get to channel its power toward more constructive ends.”

“You should have told me.”

“And you should have asked.”

Reagan mulled Alma’s words over in her head, trying to reconcile her frustrations. Technically speaking, whether Alma was using her or not, she was still better off for it. That didn’t mean she had to like it, though.

A spark of hope kindled in her heart. She uncurled and turned to face Alma. “Could you bring him back? Bryce, I mean. If you can do something like this, then maybe–”

Alma shook her head mournfully. “Bryce was too long dead by the time you called. His body was beyond salvaging.” She caressed Reagan’s arm. “You’ll learn to live without him.”

Reagan batted Alma’s hand away. “I don’t want to.”

“Yet you must, if you’re to honor his memory.”

Reagan shivered and pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. “It hurts, losing him. It hurts like fire.”

“That’s as it should be. Pain is a part of life. We hurt. We ache. We feel. You’ll grow used to that again in time.”

“I hope you’re right, Miss LaVoie.”

“Alma, dearheart. No point in being formal with friends.”

Reagan arched an eyebrow. “Is that what we are, now?”

“I should hope so. I don’t invite strangers into my house. Now drink. It will make you feel better.”

Reagan considered Alma’s words long and hard. She hadn’t had a friend in a long time. Perhaps it was worth letting Alma in.

She picked up the mug with shaky fingers and took her first sip of tea. The scalding heat burned her tongue, but the pain was strangely comforting. Hot, salty tears traced paths down her cheeks. She gasped, then sobbed, with joy as much as sorrow. For the first time since the beast had coiled itself around her heart, she found herself able to cry.

♦ ♦ ♦

The End