When the need comes, it cannot be halted. It consumes everything in its path.
I buried my head in the soft pillow. The dark hung over me, filled with gentle shifts, quiet creaks. The blanket lay heavy on my back and it pushed me down, further and further, yet no closer to the unconsciousness, the blissful unawareness, I desired. It was a nagging at the back of my mind, a thorn that would not leave me be. It would come soon. It would return as it did every night, every day. Inevitable as the dawn which followed, it was on its way.
It was there.
Sudden as a cloud across the moon, there it was. My throat was lined with sandpaper, my tongue a dry sponge. I could barely suck in a breath through the bone-dry inside of my mouth. It cracked, it burned. I needed water, needed it more than anything. I would have killed for it.
Such was it's curse. The curse of hunger, of thirst, of need.
I heaved myself up, fumbled for the door-handle. The darkness of the hall was eternal and I pulled myself along, the gentle sounds of night cut by my rasps. The bathroom was so far, unreachable. But I had to get there. I needed water, more than the breath that further dried my throat.
A flash in the corner of my eye, a shape. My heart thumped hard, the sensation deep and hollow in my chest. I pulled in another stream of air, but it only made the pain greater.
Water. Fluid. Anything to stop this.
The door fell back under my hands and I wrenched the tap on, jammed my head beneath it and gulped down the cool liquid. It flowed through my body, it filled me with ice. My head pounded as the blood in my neck chilled, but I ignored that one small discomfort because the pain, the agony, in my my throat, was dissipating. It was gone. At last.
I fell to the floor, gasping for the air my lungs craved. I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand, but I had not spilled a single drop of the precious liquid. My head spun, but with relief. And the pain was gone, like it had never been.
But the agony had been real. I knew because it had watched the whole struggle, watched and done nothing, watched as a vulture watches a lion make a kill.
All the time, it was there.
It hung over my shoulders, eyeless face turned toward my own. It knew my need, my suffering, because it was the cause. It did nothing to help. Nothing. I could have spat at it, but something held me back, a chill in my heart. For so many had told me it was not there, it was not real. I knew it was as real as my pain, which those same people also denied, but this thing never touched me to cause my suffering. Just hovered, in darkness or light, and watched. Somehow, it would always watch, no matter where I was it would materialise moments before the need struck and the pain began. And then it would go.
I waited for it to repeat its usual routine, to fade back and vanish like it really had been some nightmare.
But it didn't.
It hung there, it stared with no eyes. It watched.
My blood turned to ice. My pulse sounded, a loud rush in my ears, and stole my breath from me. No. No, it had to leave. It had to go. How was I meant to live with it there, always watching me? It was shameful enough it caused my desperation, how I would so suddenly need. That my need would hit me before other people made my heart sink, my cheeks burn. With the shadow gone I could forget – it was all too easy to forget, to slip into blissful unawareness. But if it was always there? I would not have a moment without thinking of it. And if other people saw it with me... They would know, more than they already did. At this moment, my colleagues were aware I would disappear on occasion, that I would just stride from the office to wherever my need took me. But they didn't know that the need was the cause. They didn't see me sprawled on the floor, dying of thirst or hunger. They saw nothing and so they only knew subconsciously that something was very, very wrong with me.
But if this, this thing were with me? Then they could no longer repress their knowledge, no longer ignore the facts. They would see, they would know.
And that was more than I could bear.
I made to move back, to drag myself to my feet, but it approached so suddenly, I released the door-handle and fell back. It drifted close, its body indistinct and featureless. I pushed myself across the room, as far from it as I could go, but my back pressed to the side of the bath and I was trapped. Sweat trickled under my hairline, cold before it dripped from my chin. My breaths came in short, sharp gasps. It felt like my heart would explode. It was so close, staring, empty. It was a mirror of the need it forced upon me, the need which was all-consuming emptiness. It reached out with fingers that were not there, so close I could feel them stir the air next to my cheek.
Then it was gone.
The breath left my body in a sudden rush and I clasped my head in my hands. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I thought to anyone, anything, that had made it leave. The swell of grateful emotion came so strong, laughter bubbled from my lips before fading to a choke as the recently consumed water returned to my mouth.
I hung over the sink and purged myself of the liquid. Now the need was no more, my body purged itself. I hacked and choked into the snow-white basin, eyes squeezed shut, though not enough to prevent tears from streaming down my cheeks.
Why me? That was the question which filled my mind each time the need came on. Why should a normal person like me be struck down by a condition no one had heard of, that no one believed was real? Doctors looked at me like I was mad if I went further than to describe pain. If I spoke of that thing, they would place their paper and pen onto the desk and watch me with a troubled, or even panicked, look, as if I were wont to leap up and begin proclaiming the apocalypse. Some prescribed medication, others a long holiday, both of which I refused.
Yet, maybe they were right to act that way.
The thought caught me off-guard and I recoiled from the sink. No. It was real, no matter how much people doubted me. It was real and it was ruining my life with its curse. The only way to move on, to get through this, was to get rid of it. The question was: how?
I perched on the side of the bath and frowned at my knees. Now there was something like an inkling of a plan forming in my mind, my pulse slowed. I had suffered this curse for so many years, alone, cut off from the rest of the world. All because of it. But I never once thought to just rid myself of it; it seemed so huge, so powerful, like nothing could move it. Yet it did disappear each time after my need was sated, like a memory leaving my mind. Although this last time it seemed almost as if it were trying to stay, struggling against whatever force dragged it back into the place from which it came.
But how could I keep it there? How could I forget? It would only return once I felt a new need. No, there had to be another way.
There was. It hit me like a fist. Of course! It was never there until the need arose, thus the method I could use to defeat it was to never feel the need in the first place. I only had to prevent the sensation of need from entering my body. It was so simple!
But I would need to predict the need, notice a pattern in how it materialised. I held my hand up before my face, counted down on my fingers.
This time it was water. The previous had been salad. The time before that had been the colour blue. Before that, the sensation of touching hair. Before that –
The list went on, but to my amazement I had retained an exact memory of each instance, despite the blankness which followed each. My heart leapt and I darted from the room. Paper, I needed paper. I could write everything down, put all the occurrences in order, and then – and then –
I tore sheets from my desk and grasped the pencil. My hand moved on its own, scrawling in uneven letters. I only noticed the rising sun as a slight irritation in the corner of my vision. My hand hurt, but it was so far away, smothered by waves of excitement, only the faint sting of an insect bite.
More and more sheets I ripped out, filled and hurled across the room. It must have been mid-morning by the time my pace slowed and I began to collect the others from the floor. There wasn't enough space for them laid out, so I shifted the table, chair and bookcase into one corner before I spread the paper.
Done. The pages stared up at me and I stared back. But no matter how long I examined them, with the scrawls of small writing, there was no sign of a pattern. I noted two or three starts, but then it trailed off to nothing. I squeezed my eyes shut, popped them open. No, there was a mistake. There had to be a pattern, I was just looking at it wrong.
I flipped the pages around, mixed them into so many different orders I must have repeated the same ones many times. I moved them about until my wrists burned and my eyes filled with bitter tears.
The energy left me and I collapsed onto my knees. After all of that, no result. I was so stupid. Of course I couldn't get rid of it that way. And even if I knew a pattern, wouldn't those outside still think me strange in my action to prevent it appearing? Preventative measures would stand out almost as much as the curse itself. This was all useless.
I grabbed the pages and tore them to shreds, not stopping when the paper sliced my skin and drops of blood stained the cream carpet. When the paper looked like a child's attempt to make fake snow, I sank back and clutched my head.
Then it came over me. The heaviness. I sank forwards until my cheek brushed the floor. No. Not now, not yet. I'd lost track of time and this was the result: another attack. Another need coming on. What would it be this time? Could it be any worse than the last? I sucked in a breath, but the air was thick like syrup. My head spun so badly I wanted to be sick, but my body was frozen.
And it was there.
My time was up. This would repeat over and over, an endless cycle. I would never be allowed a normal life – never. This was all I had to look forward to until I died.
Grief gripped my heart and I let out a whimper, tears bubbling in my eyes. This was too awful, too cruel. There had to be another way. Anything, anything –
I slowly raised my head. There it hung before me, the dark, eyeless space watching my every move. It was here. It watched me. It forced its need upon my body, a body it did not have.
I was the body. It was what I contained. No, what I should have contained.
Suddenly, everything was clear to me. That was the problem – it was outside. If I wanted to be rid of it, it needed to be inside its body. No prevention, no patterns or plans. It was so much simpler than all that.
Yet, as the thought entered my mind, it shifted. Its nothingness moved to hang over me, its form leaning down. I recoiled from the shadow, but it kept coming. It knew. It knew and it was trying to stop me.
Fire sparked in my gut. It burned through the pain which clawed at me. The pain came from its fingers, wrapped around my body, racked me with convulsions of agony. But that was not close to enough. It was the one who caused all this, made me suffer as I was, as I had for so many years. It was the one in the wrong.
The rage came, burning hot, unstoppable. I rose to me feet, my legs weak beneath me, but enough to hold my weight. And now it was its turn to recoil, to pull back from my hands. But it could not escape. I grabbed it, held it tight. My touch caused the same pain. I saw it, an ugly purple bruise, spreading through its form.
It began to writhe, to twist. Cracks appeared through its form as if it were a mirror dropped onto concrete. It released a soundless scream – of terror.
I felt no pity. I lifted its shattered remains and gulped them down, forced it back to where it should have been. I gnawed through its body, its neck, until only its head remained. It did not watch me now. It averted its gaze, its eyeless face contorting in fear. It knew as I did it had seconds left. I bit down one final time.
And then it was gone.
And so was my need.
It filled the hole which had so consumed me, made all the worse by its appearance each time, a reminder of just what I lacked.
I licked its remains from my lips and, as I did, it began to vanish from my mind. Like a morning fog as the temperature rose, it dissipated until, finally, nothing remained.
I blinked, once, twice, and stared at the papers on the floor. What had I been doing? Making a list? I drew my brows low. Something niggled at the back of my mind, but I couldn't put my finger on it. There had been a reason, of that I was certain. But what it was... Well, that escaped me.
It was like an after-image I could never again focus on. A half-remembered idea.
A shadow of a memory.