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RATS didn’t taste nearly as good as he hoped they would—even spiders were tastier. He managed to choke the third one down, pulling the tail out of his mouth as if it were an unpalatable length of spaghetti. He put this in the little plastic bag where he had already stowed the heads and skins and guts and paws of his other rodent-prey, then closed the bag with a knot. That done, he sat down and waited for the energy to rev through him as he knew it must. This time it hit him hard, making his veins fizz with the force of it. This was so much better than anything he’d gotten from bugs and lizards. He got up and paced around the basement, suddenly too full of vitality to be able to remain still. It was everything that he had hoped, and that thrilled him.

When the call came for dinner, he made his way up the stairs, the bag of innards and skin at his side. After his feast he was almost convinced he could levitate, so full of life was he. Everything in him was alive, from his hair to his toes. He felt like a hero in a comic book, or maybe an action hero. His step was light and he was smiling as he emerged from his haven. In the kitchen he looked about, smelling all the odors with an intensity that made him feel dizzy. The salty aroma of Hamburger Helper seemed overwhelming and yet unsatisfying—the beef was dead, robbing it of its savor. Since eating the rats he knew it was only living meat that would satisfy him.

“Henry! Wash your hands!” His mother’s voice—along with her choice of words, since she only called him Henry when she was stressed out—warned him that she had had a rough day at the clinic.

“Okay!” He stopped at the sink and rubbed his hands on the cake of glycerin soap in the dish over the faucet. It reeked of artificial flowers and he wrinkled his nose in disgust.

“And turn the heat down under the string beans!”

“Okay!” he answered; he rinsed his hands and dried them on a paper towel. He went to the stove and adjusted the gas flame under the saucepan.

“The table’s set,” his mother called as a kind of encouragement. “Your sister will be down in a minute. She’s changing.”

Henry made a face; just the idea of his sister made him want to puke, but he would not let any of it show. He licked his teeth, hoping no scraps of his meal would remain; he was not in the mood to answer questions about his basement activities. Let them think he was playing or studying or whatever they assumed he did down there.

“I could use some help with the salad.”

Salad! he thought contemptuously, but spoke meekly enough, “Sure, Mom.”

“There’s lettuce in the fridge. I’ll slice a couple tomatoes and if you’ll wash and tear up the lettuce, we can use the last of the buttermilk ranch, or the creamy Italian. You can choose the one you like best.” She had gone to the cupboard and taken down the bottle of vodka and was now pouring herself about three ounces into a small water-glass. “I need to relax tonight,” she said, by way of explanation. She drank about a third of the vodka without ice, which wasn’t like her.

“Something bad happen today, Mom?” Henry asked, knowing she wanted to talk. He retrieved the lettuce from the refrigerator and made sure it wasn’t too brown.

“Things are always happening at the clinic,” she said, and Henry realized whatever has taken place, it had been very bad. When she sounded like that, it meant something pretty awful.

“What about getting another job?” he suggested, knowing the answer.

“The only other jobs I could get pay less. Working with those patients—the mental ones, in the locked ward—I earn more, and we need the money.” She bit her lower lip then made herself smile. “I guess I’ll just have to make the best of it.”

“Well, it’s not fair,” he said as he thrust the lettuce under the faucet and turned on the cold water, pulling the head apart. Why, he wondered, was this called butter lettuce? It wasn’t anything like butter. He made a pile of the leaves and waited for his mother to say more. He began to pull the lettuce-leaves apart, remembering how sweet it had been to pull the rats to bits. He tried to imagine the soft green leaves were muscle and sinew and bone, but it didn’t work and he was left to try to remember how good it had felt to kill the rats.

“Did you have a good day at school?” His mother sounded slightly distracted, but he answered her anyway.

“I guess so. I got a ninety percent in geometry and Mister Dasher said my English paper was better than the last one.” He told her the good parts and left out the things Jack Parsons had called him in gym, and the bad grade he’d got in the American History quiz. There’d be time for that later. He looked around for the salad bowl and began to put the torn lettuce into it. In spite of the lowered heat, he could smell the green beans charring in the saucepan.

“Good for you,” she said, going to work on the tomatoes, taking the time to make the wedges all about the same size.

“So how was the clinic?” Henry asked, trying not to be too obvious about it.

“Trouble, a lot of trouble. Old Missus Chuiso got out of the day room and into the pharmacy and started taking everything she could get her hands on. They had to pump her stomach, and there were a lot of upset people on the locked ward. The violent ones needed extra medication.” She sighed. “Half of them aren’t really crazy, they’re senile, or they have brain damage, like Brian Bachman, who went over the handlebars of his motorcycle into a tree. He has seizures, bad ones, and he can’t stand up straight.” She had another drink, this one longer and deeper than the previous one. Henry knew it had been bad—she always mentioned Brian Bachman when it was bad. “I told Doctor Salazar that we ought to separate the crazy ones from the senile and damaged ones, but he says we don’t have the budget for it. It would be better if we did something to make the place better for them.”

“But it’s county, Mom, and you say that’s like charity.” He scowled, thinking that it was stupid to argue with her when she was like this, but unable to stop. “The Thomas J. Doer Memorial Clinic is for people who can’t afford—”

“I know, I know,” said his mother, refilling her vodka glass. “But it’s not doing any good, and in some cases, like poor Missus Chuiso, we’re probably making things worse. Not that there is anything we can do for her.” She sighed as she drank again. “It’s so disheartening to try to deal with her. You should have seen her—well, maybe you shouldn’t—they had to put her in restraints because she kept fighting them, even though they were trying to save her. She’s miserable, and she’s all alone. She needs someone with her all the time, but we don’t have enough personnel to do that.”

“You do a great job, Mom; the best anyone could,” Henry told her as he took the buttermilk ranch dressing and held it out to her. “Do you want to toss it?”

“No; you do it.” She tossed the tomato wedges into the torn lettuce and went to wash her hands. “The Hamburger Helper is almost ready.”

“Great,” Henry said, though the thought of something so dead left him feeling queasy. He needed something with life in it.

“Just put it on the table. We can toss it before we serve it.” She was beginning to sound a little mellower, but not so much that Henry could refuse dinner with impunity. “I’ll find a bowl for the string beans.”

“Okay.” He took the salad into the small dining room—it was really more of an alcove off the living room—and put it on the small round table. He thought it was disgusting, and his feeling showed.

“Why are you making such a face?” his sister asked as she came in from her room. She was extravagantly made up, with two bright colors of eyeshadow above her black-lined eyes. Her cheeks, although they had no need of augmentation, glowed with blusher and her lips were painted a brilliant crimson.

“Because you look like a clown,” he answered, knowing it would silence her.

“Ha ha ha,” she said sarcastically. “I suppose you know what makes a girl look good?”

“I know what doesn’t,” Henry said pointedly. He started back toward the kitchen, not wanting to have another fight with his sister.

“How’s Mom?” his sister asked, suddenly subdued.

“Upset. Don’t make it worse, okay? She’ll just drink more if you do.” He has kept his voice down, but he had the uneasy feeling that he had been overheard.

“So you think I’m going to cause trouble?” she challenged.

“I hope not.” As he went back into the kitchen, he saw his mother top off her glass with more vodka. “Aw, Mom.”

“I won’t have any more after this glass,” she said, sounding resentful, which Henry knew meant she was getting drunk.

“Do you have to?”

“You bet I do,” she answered him sullenly. “If you knew what I go through.”

Henry had heard all her complaints before, but he held his tongue. “What about the string beans?”

“In the blue bowl,” she said, pointing in the general direction of the sink counter. “Put some butter on them before you take them to the table.”

Henry did as he was told. The exhilaration of the rats he had eaten was beginning to fade, the strength leached out of him by the deadly sorrow and anger that filled him and his mother. He watched the butter run over the string beans and tried to conjure up an appetite for the meal without success. He pointed to the skillet of Hamburger Helper, saying, “It’s starting to scorch.”

“I’ll take care of it.” She removed the skillet from its burner, muttering as she did, “If your father would pay his child support on time, we wouldn’t have to eat crap like this.”

“It’s okay,” said Henry, knowing it wasn’t.

The dining room light had only one bulb burning, but it was enough to illuminate the table. As his sister and mother took their seats, Henry did his best to look hungry. He sat down last of all. “Smells good, Mom,” he said with false enthusiasm.

“It smells burnt,” said his sister.

“Margaret Lynne,” their mother warned her.

“Well, it does,” said Margaret Lynne.

“I’ve had a hard day,” said their mother patiently. “Can we at least eat in peace?”

“Okay,” said Margaret Lynne in a tone that made it clear it wasn’t. “Sure. Anything you say.”

“Okay,” said their mother, and put some salad on her plate, then reached for the string beans. “I hope you’re not planning on going out tonight. It’s a school night, and you know you need to study more than you do.”

“Mo-ther,” said Margaret Lynne. “I’m only going for an hour or two. And it’s not like I’m doing anything wrong. I told Melanie that I’d help her with her geometry.”

“Dressed like that?” Their mother was not convinced. “If your father saw you like that, he’d—”

“Well, he can’t see me, can he?” Margaret Lynne asked defiantly. “He hasn’t seen me for five months now. He doesn’t give a shit about what I do!” She flung down her napkin as if it were a gauntlet.

“Margaret Lynne!” their mother exclaimed. “You will not use such language at the dinner table!”

“Why not?” Margaret Lynne flung back, her eyes beginning to fill with tears of rage. She pushed her chair back and rushed out of the dining room, heading for the door. “I’ll be back later!”

Their mother sat still for a long while, then drank the last of the vodka in her glass. “I don’t know what to do with that girl.”

Henry put his fork down. “Mom. I’m not very hungry.” He sounded apologetic, but he was secretly relieved: he didn’t have to invent a reason for not eating. “I’ll be down in the basement, if you need me.” He got up slowly, not wanting to seem too eager.

“Oh, no, Henry. You don’t have to run off.” She reached out and took his hand. “I want you to eat. You need to eat.”

“Maybe later,” he said as gently as he could.

“We can’t afford to waste food in this house,” said his mother, spooning some of the Hamburger Helper onto her plate. “Remember that, Henry.”

“I will, Mom,” he assured her. “I’ll nuke something a little later. Just put the leftovers in the fridge.”

“Okay,” she said, accepting defeat for the moment.

Henry smiled, knowing what good bait the Hamburger Helper could make. He went back into the kitchen, his plate in his hand, and put it on the edge of the sink for later. Then he headed down for the basement, planning to set some more traps.

* * *

Two weeks later, Henry caught a squirrel, and the charge he got out of eating it was way beyond what he had hoped for. It was much, much better than the rats had been! He thought it was delicious—and entirely superior to bugs and spiders. He relished every morsel of it, and vowed to catch more of them as soon as possible. But he also realized he had taken a terrible risk, hunkering down in the city park behind a thicket of rhododendron. Someone might have seen him, and that wouldn’t do at all. They’d probably make him stop eating the things that gave him life. No telling what Mom would think, working with the nuts at the clinic. She might even think he was a bit crazy himself. He had to be careful: he didn’t want to get caught. People wouldn’t understand, he knew that. So he hid a trap deep in a clump of hawthorn bushes in the Veterans’ Park, and hoped it would snare another squirrel for him; he’d check it on the way home from school.

Halfway home he came upon his sister and a group of her friends gathered around a four-year-old red Mustang convertible. Three senior boys lounged in the car, enjoying the obvious admiration Margaret Lynne was displaying as she leaned provocatively on the hood of the car, her boobs almost falling out of her skimpy tank-top.

“Hey, Margo, isn’t that your creepy little brother?” the owner of the Mustang asked, grinning at the way Margaret Lynne reacted.

“Yeah,” she said, sounding disgusted. “That’s Henry.” She made a gesture to him to go away. “He’s always trying to horn in where he doesn’t belong.”

“Hi, Margaret Lynne,” Henry said, as if he hadn’t heard any of the slighting, hurtful things she said.

“Margaret Lynne?” the Mustang owner echoed in delicious ridicule. “Does he always call you Margaret Lynne?”

“Yeah,” she admitted as if confessing to a major lapse. She began to pout.

“And you let him?” the boy hooted.

“I know, I know,” Margaret Lynne said, trying to recover some of the ground she had lost. “But Mom insists.”

“So, Margaret Lynne,” the Mustang owner exclaimed, “you’re only Margo at school.”

“And other places,” she said, beginning to pout.

“Hey, good for you.” His false praise stung Henry as much as it chagrined his sister.

“Shut up, Craig,” Margaret Lynne told him. She shoved herself off his car and stood with her back to him. “Just shut up.”

Watching all this, Henry felt his new-found strength slipping away. He ducked his head in anticipation of the blow he knew would be coming, but he didn’t step back—that would be too humiliating, and it would leave Margaret Lynne without anyone to champion her. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets and stared at her, trying to keep his mouth shut without seeming to be too much of a fool.

“Hey, Margaret Lynne,” Craig called out derisively. “Better keep an eye on that brother of yours. Who knows what he could say to someone who cares.” He started his Mustang and drove off in triumph.

“You little bastard!” Margaret Lynne shouted, rounding on Henry. “You screwed all this up for me. I hope you die!”

“I didn’t mean—” Henry said, trying to placate her.

“Sure you did!” She lifted her hand and brought it down on his shoulder with more impact than he had anticipated. It took him aback and he tried to maintain a stoic disposition while she continued to rail at him. “You wanted me to look like a slut, didn’t you? You like to make me look bad. You did this on purpose!” She swatted him again.

“I don’t!” Henry protested. He started walking toward home, feeling completely dispirited. He wished he had another squirrel to eat, to bring back his vigor and restore his sense of dominion in the world.

“Yes, you do. You just did. Craig will tell everyone about my name, and everyone’ll laugh. This is just impossible! I can’t stand it!” She had started to cry, her wrath increasing with her tears; she was working herself up to a fine tantrum. “You just couldn’t shut up, could you? Oh, no! Not you. You had to keep talking. I asked you not to, but you didn’t listen!” Her weeping increased. “You’re turning my life to shit, and you like it!”

“No, I don’t,” Henry insisted, “really, I don’t.”

“Of course you do,” scoffed Margaret Lynne. “You’re a turd, Henry. Just a turd. And it’s Margo! Not Margaret Lynne!” She tossed her head and hurried ahead of him, doggedly ignoring him as he tagged after her.

* * *

Mother took her time getting up, emerging from bed ten minutes before Henry had to leave for school. She put her hand to her head. “God. I shouldn’t have drunk so much last night,” she mumbled as she headed down the narrow hall to the bathroom where Henry was finishing brushing his teeth. “Can you hurry it up, Henry?” She was feeling woozy now and she didn’t want to throw up on the hall carpet.

A single glance told Henry his mother was in rocky condition, so he said, “Sure. You bet.” He spat into the sink and gave his mouth a quick rinse, then left the bathroom to her. “I’ll be on my way to school in a couple of minutes.” He went toward his room, wondering if he had time to check his traps in the basement before he had to go.

“Good. Great.” She closed the bathroom door, saying, “Make sure your sister’s up.”

“Okay,” said Henry, who knew Margaret Lynne hadn’t been home all night. “See you this evening, Mom,” he called out as he went to the kitchen and pretended to make himself a bag lunch. As he left the apartment he heard his mother start the shower. It was going to be a long day.

School was eleven blocks away, but he could cut that short by taking the walk through the city park; it took up two blocks and was in need of upkeep, which suited Henry just fine. He moved steadily along and was almost out of the main cluster of trees and shrubbery when he heard a little sound, hardly more than a whisper, from the bushes under the Stone pines. He stopped still, listening with all his senses, his thoughts keen as the high, tiny sounds that he struggled to identify. Succumbing to his curiosity, Henry left the walkway and ducked under the branches, hoping against hope that he would discover something worthwhile, and trying not to be seen as he sought out the source of the noise.

It was a baby jay, not much bigger than the egg it had hatched from not very long ago. It was trying to lever itself upright on its toothpick legs, but could not coordinate its effort enough to do more than flop about clumsily, its beak open in obvious hunger.

Henry knelt down beside it and gently took it into his hands, all but mesmerized by the tiny bundle of pinfeathers and need. He brought the little jay up to his face. “Can’t let you lie on the ground. Something’ll get you there.” He smoothed the outsized head and made soft cawing noises, reassuring the baby bird before he broke its neck and reached for his pocketknife to flay and gut the tiny creature. He forgot about school, about his mom at home, about everything, as he took the new, sweet life into him.

* * *

“I want to go live with Dad,” Margaret Lynne announced at dinner that evening. She and their mother had had a dreadful argument when mother got home from work, followed by sullen silences and put-upon sighs from both combatants. Henry had listened to it all from the safety of the basement, but now he could not escape the tension that filled the cramped house like summer lightning.

“If your father agrees, then you might as well. Maybe he can do something with you.”

“Well, I’ll call him tonight,” Margaret Lynne said, a bit nonplused to have her mother concede so readily to her demands. “But I mean it, Mom—I’m going to live with him.”

“If he agrees, it’s fine with me,” she reiterated, sounding worn out.

Margaret Lynne grinned. “Do you want to come with me, Henry?”

But Henry had no wish to get dragged into this. “Let’s see what he says first,” he answered cautiously.

She shot him a single vitriolic sneer, then tossed her head. “I’ll talk to you in a little bit,” she promised nastily.

“Just tell him hello for me,” said Henry as he got to his feet and made an apologetic gesture. “Sorry, Mom. I don’t have much of an appetite.”

His mother studied him for about ten seconds, then said, “All right. You may be excused. Take your dishes to the kitchen and make sure you put the food into leftover containers.”

“I will,” he promised her. When he had finished in the kitchen, he headed down into the basement where he was hoping to find something in one of his traps. He really needed to get some life into him. To his disgust and alarm, he saw no mice, no rats, nor anything else waiting for him, so he sat down and began to work on a new trap. He had the thing half-assembled when he became aware of Margaret Lynne’s voice raised in pleading indignation.

“But why not? ... Da-aad ... But you promised ... You’ve got to help me! Come on, Dad ... I know it’s a long way! Sixteen hundred miles. See? I know ... I don’t care if it is. School’ll be over in a month or so ... It’ll be like vacation ... I can come then, and it won’t matter ... I’ll take the bus or have someone drive me. You won’t have to ... It’s so hard. It’s like being in prison! You know how Mom is ... But I’ve told everyone I’m going to live with you and ... Oh, God, Dad, you don’t understand!” The receiver slammed down and Henry could hear his sister crying. A few minutes later, her bedroom door thundered shut and the house fell eerily silent.

Henry knew that he had to be very careful; Mom would be upset now and that meant she would get into the vodka again; there was a full bottle in the fridge—Henry had seen it. Mom was in her room now, changing from her work clothes to the pale-blue sweats she preferred of an evening after dinner for watching TV or videos of old movies. With all this fighting with Margaret Lynne, Mom would be more depressed than ever, and Margaret Lynne—Margo—would be furious at everything for days on end.

She should have known better, Henry thought. Dad didn’t want to see them, not really. He had a new wife and three new kids and he didn’t want to be reminded of the hard years with Mom. Dad had left and that was all there was to it. He went into the kitchen and took a liter of soda from the fridge and got ready to go down to the basement. It was better to keep away from the conflicts between his sister and mother. He’d longed for something good to eat, something with life in it that would strengthen him for the next couple of days. His trap in the park had remained disappointingly empty and his appetite was sharpening with every passing hour.

“Hey, Mom!” Margaret Lynne shouted as Henry began his descent. “Mom! I’m going out!”

“Be back by nine tonight, missy. It’s a school night and your grades—” Her words were cut off as the front door slammed.

The basement was cool and dark, friendly to Henry. He found a mouse in one of his traps, and after a brief hesitation, he got out his pocketknife and began his snack, finding the little life more sustaining than he had hoped at first. When his meal was done, he sat down at his old laptop—the last gift from his father, some three years ago—and began to record his meal and response. He read back through the files, finding solace in the information he had gathered about all he had eaten, and realized that it still wasn’t enough. Gradually he began to think about larger meals, anticipating the thrill he would have from them, and the power that would possess him. “Almost like a super-hero,” he said aloud, and put his hand over his mouth, as if the sound of the words would compromise his potency. Carefully he turned off the laptop and sat in the dim basement, contemplating the problems of catching bigger prey.

* * *

The puppy had a bloody paw, and its coat was dirty—it was little more than two months old, clearly abandoned and beginning to fail. It whimpered with hunger, a mongrel with no promise of handsomeness or charm. Henry bent and picked it up, looking around to be sure no one saw him do it, and slipped the puppy into his jacket pocket. He had a half-formed plan to eat the pathetic little animal, but as he walked home, he could tell that the animal had little energy to offer him. He decided to stop and get some milk for the puppy, and something to eat, to fatten him up a bit; the way he was now, there wasn’t much vitality in him. He’d have to bring down his old jacket for the animal to sleep on, too, and find some way to make sure he didn’t make too much of a stink: Mom might be drunk some evenings but her nose still worked. He continued to plan as he made his way along the sidewalk, his mind only on the puppy squirming in his pocket. He wished he had more than two dollars with him, but he decided he’d manage somehow.

In the market he saw his mother—she was buying some stuff for dinner, and, of course, another bottle of vodka. He was careful to avoid her, not wanting her to find out about the puppy, so he hid out behind the onions and potatoes until he saw her leave. Then he bought a pint of milk and a small packet of dog-kibble. When he finished paying for it, he had thirty-four cents left, and he had no idea what he’d buy lunch with the next day. All the more reason to get the puppy ready to eat. It was going to be a hard few days.

When he arrived home, he headed for the basement at once, his nerves strained just the way Mom said hers were at the end of the day. He could hear Margaret Lynne’s CD player blaring out an electric-guitar-and-drum with three voices wailing about disappointed desire and the general unfairness of societal pressures on young lovers. Most of the time he was pissed off at her for causing such a rumpus, but now he was glad for her defiance, for it assured him more privacy than he had expected. “Okay,” he said to the puppy as he took the little mutt out of his pocket and set him down on the floor. The little dog began to sniff out his surroundings, then found an upright pillar and urinated on it.

“Hey!” Henry cried out. “Don’t do that. I’ll bring some papers for you. But you can’t go around doing that. Mom’ll notice.”

The puppy looked up at him and whined.

This was going to be difficult, Henry realized, but he was determined to carry on; he had so much to gain and he’d waited for so long for such splendid opportunity. The puppy was everything he had been hoping for.

“Henry!” his mother called from upstairs. “Are you down there?”

“Yeah, Mom,” Henry called back. “I’m on the computer.”

“What?” She was shouting now to be heard over the clamor of the boombox. “What are you doing?”

Henry raised his voice and repeated himself, holding his breath, hoping she wouldn’t try to investigate.

“Make sure you do your homework!” his mother yelled.

“Yes, Mom,” Henry told her, and looked over at the puppy. “I’ll do it.”

“You’re a good boy, Henry,” she told him, her voice lowered but still loud enough to be heard.

“Thanks, Mom,” he said, mistrusting her praise. He waited for the greater part of a minute, as if there was a possible hazard in her good opinion. When nothing more happened, Henry went to put out food and milk for the puppy, selecting a Styrofoam burger container from among his collection on a rough basement shelf for the kibble. “You can start out with this.” He was careful to move quietly, making an effort to keep the puppy from romping around too much, and hoping he wouldn’t howl or whimper or bark or anything like that. “You gotta be quiet,” he admonished the little dog. “You’re not supposed to be here.” He wondered briefly if he had made a mistake in bringing the puppy home, then decided that he needed to learn how to catch and fatten prey. “You eat your food. I’ll bring down paper for your piss and poop. Just be quiet. It’s important that you—” He reached out and took the puppy’s little muzzle in his hand, closing the puppy’s mouth.

The puppy whimpered and gave a tentative wave of his tail.

Henry shook his head and went to get one of the old deli pint containers. He put this on the floor next to the kibble and poured half the milk into it. “You can drink this. I’ll bring you more water.”

The puppy began to devour the food, only interrupting himself to lap the milk. He was clearly famished and wanted to stuff himself. It was good to see him eat so eagerly—he would be fat and sassy soon, and he would be full of life. Henry patted the puppy’s head, anticipating the day he would reap the harvest he was sowing now. How great he would taste! And the energy he would provide! Henry thought he might not be able to contain it all, and that made him feel sick and excited at once. He went over to his rickety old chair and sat down, already thinking about what he could eat tonight that would sustain him while the puppy improved. He was getting hungry for life and he wasn’t sure he could wait for the puppy to reach a size and vigor that he longed for.

By the time Henry left the basement he had taken up the first layer of old papers. The house was silent, Margaret Lynne having gone out an hour ago. He stopped in the kitchen and took a half-finished Whopper with everything from the fridge as a stopgap meal. It wasn’t enough to give him what he sought most, but it was better than nothing. He went off toward his room, pausing in the living room where his mother was asleep in front of the television, which had the late news on. He washed up in the bathroom, doing his best to keep quiet. He decided not to wake his mother, for that would mean helping her into bed, and that was more than he wanted to do. It would be at least a week before the puppy would be ready, and he would have to be very careful in the meantime. If only school weren’t still in session, he could spend the time making sure the puppy wasn’t discovered. He noticed that Margaret Lynne wasn’t home yet. This meant trouble tomorrow, he knew, so he would have to get up early and take care of the puppy before things exploded at breakfast. All these possibilities kept him unpleasant company as he got into bed.

* * *

“Oh my God!” Henry’s mother exclaimed from the top of the basement steps. She swayed a little and blinked against the darkness. “How can you? What are you doing?”

Henry looked up from his half-consumed meal. There was blood on his chin and shirt, and the skin and guts of the puppy lay at his feet on the last of the papers. He was so elated by what he had been eating that he was unable to conceal anything he had done or to comprehend what his mother was staring at. “Mom?”

“Henry. What ... you ... you’re eating ...” She started down the stairs, her face fixed in shock. “That looks like—”

“Just leave me alone, Mom,” Henry pleaded, alarmed by the shock he saw in her face. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”

“Not wrong?” Her distress was increasing as she was increasingly aware of what he was doing. “It’s raw! And still alive!”

“It’s good,” said Henry, not even her outrage enough to stop the power from the puppy’s life surging through him, making him feel strong, almost invincible. “It’s not important.”

“It’s terrible,” said his mother, coming down another two steps. “Eating raw meat!” She peered at the mess around him. “What’s that at your feet?” The color drained from her face. “I thought you were doing fine, that it was Margaret Lynne who was causing all the trouble.” Her indignation was marred by a slight slurring of the words.

For once Henry didn’t want to be compliant. He got to his feet, spilling the sections of the butchered puppy onto the floor. “Now look what you made me do.” He lowered his head, staring up at her from under his brows.

“Henry!” His mother wailed out his name, her face set into a mask of anguish. She reached out, shaking her fist at the boy.

“Leave it alone, Mom—I know what I’m doing,” Henry warned her, convinced that he could persuade her to see his point of view if he only had the chance. “It’s nothing to bother about.”

“You’re sick! God, you’re sick!” she muttered. “You need help.”

“I’m fine, Mom,” Henry said, more sharply than before.

“And you’re dangerous,” she went on as if to herself. “Bachman isn’t anything compared to you.”

The mention of the brain-damaged patient at the clinic was too much for Henry, who stood up straight. “It’s nothing like that!” The puppy’s vitality made him brave, and he faced his mother without feeling the need to appease her.

“It’s disgusting—disgusting!” She reached for the flimsy banister and almost had it when she lost her footing, tumbling down the stairs to the concrete. Henry could hear her bones break, and saw that she was still breathing though her eyes were glazed and there was blood around her head.

“Mom!” Henry shouted, and hurried toward her.

She was trying to talk, but failing. Only her hands fluttered a bit, but there was no control to the movement. Henry knelt beside her, helplessness washing through him in a debilitating tide. Her eyelids flickered but then they stopped; she was still breathing a little.

“Oh, oh, Mom!” Henry started to cry, but then he sighed as he realized what he would have to do. He went back and found his pocketknife, hoping it would be up to the task ahead of him. She still had life in her, and that life would endure in him; it would cancel her dying—for she had to be dying—if he could get some of her into him before her heart gave out. He couldn’t do anything else to save her. “It’s for the best, Mom. Let me take your life into me. You’ll see: it’ll make us both strong.” He sliced at her arm; the limb flopped once, like a beached fish, and he continued to cut until he had a strip of skin and muscle. He began to chew on it, finding it salty and a bit stringy at first. The wonderful energy began to well in him, making him light-headed. There was blood everywhere, and he was afraid she would bleed to death before he could take all her life into him. “Hey, Mom. You’re the best!” The puppy was nothing compared to his mother. He didn’t know how much more he could eat, there was such vitality in his mother’s body, and it filled him as nothing ever had before. He continued to eat as the life ran out of her, and left her an empty corpse.

By the time Henry had packed his mother’s body into a large plastic trash bag, he was already making plans, anticipating the hour when Margaret Lynne would be home. She was so full of life, he thought, and it would sustain him much longer than poor, exhausted Mom would do. School was out tomorrow, and no one would miss Margaret Lynne—they’d think she was with their father. He began to hum as he neatened up the basement, contemplating the hour when Margaret Lynne would arrive and he could once again embrace life to its fullest.

About Renfield’s Syndrome

There really is such a condition: the compulsion to eat bugs, small animals, and other creatures in the belief that their lives will strengthen the devourer. I wanted to see how far I could push it.

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