I could still hear the snoring from down the hall. My dad wouldn't be waking up for another two hours, which was a good thing this morning, as I wouldn't have to make any kind of normal conversation with him before school. He worked regular 9 to 5 hours most days as a mechanic, and he picked up weekend shifts sometimes when funds were getting a little low for the necessities – beer, apartment, electricity, food. Pretty much in that order. Which was my my after school job at the used bookstore down the street served a double purpose of helping me save up for college and paying for groceries pretty much every week. Most of the time I could remind myself that I had it pretty good, but sometimes the bitterness caught up with me. I tried to shrug it off, filling my head with “I'll get out of here for college”, and it worked this time, mostly because I immediately became distracted by thoughts of “how will I even survive tomorrow when I'm turning into some kind of leper”. At least my priorities still seemed okay. This thought kept me going through the rest of my morning ritual. By the time I was ready for breakfast, I had achieved a much calmer state of mind.
My dad was still snoring away when I stepped out of the bathroom and made my way down the hall to the kitchen. I opened the fridge and peered in, reaching for the milk to prepare my usual bowl of cereal. My hand paused on the handle of the plastic bottle. I sighed and pulled it out, setting it on the counter. I wasn't really hungry, and the cereal just seemed like a bother this morning, but I had learned that if I didn't eat it, by about an hour before lunch I'd be ready to gnaw off my own arm. I tried to keep quiet as I prepared my small meal, finishing it off with a glass of orange juice that was a few days past its expiration date. It looked like a shopping trip would be in order soon. One more thing to worry about.
Checking the time to make sure I still had a few minutes, I sat down and started eating, staring off into space rather than reading a book, like I usually did in the mornings. It looked like today was going to be a lost cause, learning-wise. I couldn't concentrate on anything other than the events of the last few hours for more than three seconds. Before I realized it, I had eaten the entire bowl. I finished off the last of my juice, and put the glass down, frowning as my stomach made a weird gurgling noise. A moment later, the glass fell to the floor, bouncing rather than breaking, which I would have been grateful for had I not just started having the most painful cramps of my life. A gasp escaped me as I pushed back my chair and fell roughly to the cracked linoleum curling up into the fetal position and holding my breath, my eyes scrunched shut as I tried not to scream.
I managed to pull myself up into a sitting position, taking a few shallow breaths, and using the table to drag myself the rest of the way off the floor. I staggered over to the sink, meaning to splash some water on my face, but right as I reached it, I leaned over and emptied my entire breakfast into the chrome bowl. Tears were running down my face and I couldn't catch my breath as a warm light orange milk/juice combination poured out, little undigested pieces of cereal making a swirl of brown in the liquid. When I had finally expelled what looked to be my entire breakfast, I stood gripping the counter and waiting for the tears to stop running down my face. I hadn't been hungry before, but I was positively starving now. I sent one longing look at the fridge, then started a hasty cleanup. Luckily, most of it had ended up in the sink, and the rest just looked like slightly discolored spilled milk pooling on the cheap flooring. My cleaning was fast, but efficient, honed from years of cleaning up after my dad's kitchen mishaps, and my stomach didn't lurch once, just growled at me in a constant background hum. Be thankful for small favors, I suppose. I had just managed to throw the last of the paper towels in the trash when I heard a car pull up to the curb in front of the apartment. Jason knew not to honk or ring the doorbell, lest he face my wrath at my father being woken early. If there was one thing my father was not, it was a morning person. He was more of an after work, four beers deep person, and I had found out long ago that waking him before the last minute he had to get up led to a dark cloud over the rest of my day. Much easier to obey the crappy rules my life had imposed upon me.
I cupped some water from the faucet and rinsed out my mouth. Grabbing my bag, I rushed out the door, closing and locking it quietly behind me.
Jason was sitting in his idling Camry, indie rock blaring as he strummed his thumbs on the steering wheel. I threw my bag in before getting in myself, digging through it for some gum as he sped away toward another school day. Only nine more left until summer break, and then it was a full time job and taking the bus every day. Joy.
“Any new developments?” he shouted over the music.
I rolled my eyes and turned down the volume to a reasonable level for actually having a conversation. Popping a piece of cinnamon gum into my mouth, I gave him a tight smile.
“Had a little trouble with breakfast this morning.”
Jason raised an eyebrow at me.
“Couldn't seem to keep it in my stomach.”
“Do you think it's because of last night?”
“Doubtful,” I replied, cringing as he sped through a red light, “I don't feel sick or anything. Maybe the milk was bad.”
He made a face at me, tearing through another red light and pulling to an abrupt stop behind the line of cars waiting to enter the school parking lot. What was, for everyone else in the world, a ten minute drive, took my best friend about five minutes. I would have pointed out that one of these days he was going to get us killed, but somehow I didn't think it would go over very well on this particular morning.
Our car slowly got to the front of the line, and he maneuvered us through traffic and into the junior parking lot, which was really more of a field of rocks and dirt at the far end of the football field. Apparently only seniors and faculty had nice cars, not that I could complain, having no car to speak of. I glanced at the clock on the dash. Ten minutes until first period, just enough time to grab something out of the vending machine. My stomach rumbled at me, but I didn't know if I was feeling that adventurous just yet. Starving until lunchtime seemed preferable to puking in the hallway. I followed Jason into the school, bracing myself for what was sure to be one of the most surreal days of my life.
I don't know what I was expecting, but the utter normalcy that greeted me was definitely not it. While everyone was acting the same as they always had around me, my whole world seemed off tilt. I had never really had enough time to make a lot of friends, and for once I was grateful. The only person who would have noticed already knew as much of the story as I did. I kept my head down and concentrated on my work, and by mid-day, I almost felt normal again, except I was still starving. By the time lunch rolled around, I was completely willing to risk vomiting up a lung for a cheap cafeteria burger. Since I had been too distracted to make a lunch that morning, it looked like the burger would be my only option.
My “friend” Marci intercepted me in the lunch line, her brown curls bouncing and her short skirt towing the line between “slutty” and “allowed in school”. I always thought of her as Jason's friend in my bitchiest moments, since I was 99% positive that she was nice to me only so she could get close to him. It had baffled me until he had confided in me that he had considered spreading a rumor that he was gay, if it would get her off his back. Marci was smart enough to pick up on his signals, and seemed to have decided that if she could worm her way into every aspect of his life, he would change his mind. Step one was apparently getting close to his friends. Lucky me. Oh well, even if she was the most jarringly perky person I had ever met, at least she was nice. And liking Jase showed good taste, I supposed.
“Hey Tricia,” she said over the roar of the cafeteria.
I gave her a little wave and a smile. I made an effort to be nice to her because, let's face it, I didn't really have many people to talk to anyway. She squeezed into the spot behind me, taking advantage of a large group of girls paying more attention to some nearby swim team members than the lunch line.
“You're looking a little pale,” she said, studying my face.
Damn. I guess some people did know me well enough to notice. I rubbed my stomach unconsciously.
“I think I ate something bad earlier,” I replied, hoping the concern would end there.
Marci frowned at me, and the expression looked so out of place on her face, it was a little startling. Her big brown eyes gave me another once over, and I could almost see the moment when she decided it didn't matter anymore. I kept the sigh of relief in my head.
“Is Jason joining us for lunch?” she asked, looking around for him.
I decided to ignore the part where she assumed we would be eating lunch together. It had become a pretty regular thing this school year. I could say one thing for her, she was persistent. I shrugged and grabbed an orange plastic tray as I finally got to the actual food part of the food line.
Marci perked up at that, giving me a smile and grabbing a tray for herself. I took what I assumed was a burger that had been flattened after being thawed, and dropped it on my tray. It landed with a “thunk”, reminding me, once again, why I chose to make my lunch ahead of time. Cheaper and edible was a preferable combination. Marci was following right behind me, bypassing the burger for a sad looking salad. The trials of being popular. Every day for her was a salad day. I looked balefully at the soggy fries and made a promise to myself to leave lunch five minutes early and grab a candy bar from the machine in the front hall. What did I work so hard for, if not to avoid the trials of cafeteria food. I grabbed a diet soda, the one thing I had in common with Marci, and paid the bored looking student volunteer, leading the way to my usual table near the back of the room. Marci followed on my heels, and I could almost hear her internal squeal when Jason sat down right before we got there.
“Hi Jason,” Marci greeted him with a smile as she set her tray down next to him.
He gave her a small wave, but all of his attention seemed to be focused on my face. He raised his eyebrow in the universal signal for “well?” and I shook my head, giving a pointed glance toward our lunchtime companion. He frowned, but didn't press the issue. Instead, he turned his attention to Marci, pulling a sandwich out of his bag that looked fifty times more appetizing than my own fare, and settling into his lunch.
“How are classes going for our fearless cheerleader?” he asked, and I had one of those moments where I could almost get why she followed him so devotedly.
Tuning out the conversation, I put my focus completely back on my complaining stomach. The grumbling was so constant, I was practically injecting my own monologue into their discussion. I pulled my burger apart and studied the buns. The bread was covered in grease, and looked even less appetizing than the patty, but beggars can't be choosers, as my dad liked to tell me at least once a week. After reconstructing my sad little lunch, I took a bite. Luckily, it didn't taste half as bad as it looked, and in short order I managed to down the whole thing. The grumbling in my stomach got louder, and the burger started to feel like it had been made of lead. Jason and Marci were still involved in a surprisingly two-sided conversation, which died off so abruptly that I was distracted from my discomfort.
“Are you okay?” Jason asked with a frown that was mirrored on Marci's face.
Not trusting myself to speak, I shook my head as the pain turned to nausea. I quickly jumped up from the table, knocking my tray to the ground with a loud clatter, and took off for the bathroom across the cafeteria, not even noticing the stares from the students I ran past. The bathroom was mercifully empty when I got inside, and I barely made it to the first stall before the contents of my stomach came pouring out. The burger did not taste as good the second time around.
I was kneeling in front of the toilet, trying to catch my breath, when I heard the door swing open. It barely registered as I wiped the tears from my face and flushed the toilet, feeling a little better as my lunch disappeared from view.
“Tricia?” Jason's voice echoed around the tiled room, “please tell me what's going on.”
“I don't know,” I said hoarsely, a giggle threatening to erupt at the absurdity of the entire situation.
Picking myself up off the hard floor that reeked of lysol, I turned to my oldest friend, who had a look of such concern on his face, that I almost let the giggle out, just from sheer frustration.
“You're in the girl's bathroom.”
“Not the first time,” he replied, managing a faint smile at my attempt to lighten the mood.
I sighed, the giggle completely gone and being slowly overtaken by a blinding panic. Ignoring Jason for the moment, I moved past him to the sink to rinse my mouth out and splash some cold water on my face. The hunger was still there, stronger than before. The hum had become a throbbing pain in my gut, and now my head was pounding.
“I really don't know,” I repeated to Jason's reflection in the mirror, “I don't know anything anymore.”
“I think that's enough school for today,” he replied, handing me a paper towel to dry my face. “Let's get out of here.”
I nodded my agreement and tossed the paper towel in the trash as I followed him out of the room. We walked through the crowded lunchroom, past a confused Marci, and out into the blinding light of what should have been a beautiful spring day, had my world not been falling down around me.
Jason led me to his dusty blue Camry quickly, and I felt like I was losing my mind when all I could think of was how convenient it was that there were no teachers around to ask us if we had permission to leave campus. I suppose following so many rules for so long had ingrained a crazy work ethic into my brain. We didn't speak until we were sitting in his front seat, doors locked for good measure. I could feel his concern practically vibrating off of him, and kept my eyes on my hands, which were resting in my lap, and wouldn't stop shaking. I gave up and looked over at him just as he lost it and started into a very un-Jason-like freak out.
“What the hell is going on?” he practically shouted, making me jump.
“I don't know,” I answered in a wavering voice.
My eyes went back to my shaking hands.
“I think I'm losing my mind,” I added, my voice now strained.
I could tell he was staring at the side of my face, but I couldn't bring myself to meet his gaze.
“Seriously, Trish, something is up. And not just what was up last night. Something new. Please tell me.”
“I don't know!” I yelled, regretting it before I'd even finished.
This wasn't his fault, or even his problem, and here I was taking it out on him. I couldn't get a handle on myself. My whole body was shaking, and my stomach felt like it had a huge hole ripped through it. A throbbing pain that flared up the more I noticed it. I shut my eyes tightly and tried to push the pain away, to concentrate on giving him answers. It helped enough to keep me from doubling over and wanting to die. But just barely.
“Sorry,” I whispered, finally meeting his gaze.
He looked pale and worried. No wonder. If he was half as spooked as I was, he was still hiding it well. I lifted up the hem of my t-shirt and looked at my stomach. The stitched up holes were still there, looking paler than they had hours earlier, but still criss-crossing my skin obscenely. Jason stared at them from his seat, his mouth pressed in a thin line, his nostrils flaring. I couldn't tell if he was angry or scared. A little of both, I assumed.
I dropped my shirt and pulled it back into place.
“I can't eat,” I said.
It was as good a place to start as any.
“My stomach feels like it's being cut out with a spoon.”
Jason frowned at me. Obviously he didn't appreciate the metaphor. A little too much humor, perhaps, but it was the first thing I thought of. A dull spoon. Inch by inch. I kept this thought to myself.
“Okay, so, maybe you're sick or something. Because of the attack.”
“The attack I can't remember that left me lying bloody in an alley when I should have been dead.”
It wasn't a question. We both knew I shouldn't have been there. It was ridiculous. Completely nuts. But there I was, talking to my best friend while half my blood and most of my stomach lay behind a dumpster in a dirty alley.
He started the car and the radio blared to life. We both ignored it, looking at each other with identically shellshocked eyes. He shook his head and pulled out of the space, speeding out of the lot and onto the street.
“My dad's at work by now,” I said over the music.
He didn't acknowledge me, except to turn left instead of right at the first stop sign, heading toward my apartment.
The five minute trip felt like hours as I tried to distract myself from the pain. If I didn't figure this out soon, it would reach the point where I wouldn't be in a state to even think anymore. I broke my arm once when I was ten by jumping off of the swings at a park near Jason's house. We had snuck down the street when his mom was on the phone. I had to walk all the way back to his house with the limb at an awkward angle. He had run ahead of me to get help, but I was determined to get back to his house on my own. I had managed to get halfway there, every step jostling the bone. I always assumed that was the worst pain I would ever feel. This was competing with it. I didn't want to pass out, but screaming was quickly becoming an option.
The car stopped at the curb in front of my door, pitching me forward in my seat, my seatbelt digging in and making me wince. Jason glanced over at me before getting out and coming around to my side. I managed to pull myself out, dragging my bag behind me. I looked at it for a moment, trying to remember how it had gotten there. Jason must have had it with him when we left school. I had been so distracted, I hadn't even thought of it until now. He was definitely going to have to act as my brain today. I didn't know what I would have done had I managed to leave my keys in the cafeteria. With the way things were going, kicking in the door probably would have seemed like a good idea.
I dug my key out of the front pocket, leaving it unzipped and not caring if everything else fell out in my haste. Jason closed the car door behind me with a slam and followed me to my door.
“What the hell?” I said as I stopped in my tracks.
Apparently kicking in the door wouldn't have been necessary. It was standing slightly ajar, the room within dark. Jason pulled me back and took my place. He put his hand on the weathered wood, pulling a flake of faded blue paint off in the process. He slowly pushed it open as I peered over his shoulder into the darkness. There was silence from inside. He flipped the light switch just inside the door, flooding the room in a bright yellow glow. I breathed a little easier when it appeared to be empty.
“We should check the other rooms,” he said in a hushed tone, indicating for me to stay behind him.
I nodded my agreement. Nothing in the front room appeared any different from when I had left for school in the morning. The old faded sofa sat in its usual place, bookended by two mismatched tables. Even the TV was still there, the one thing in the entire apartment that might actually be worth stealing. Jason led me quietly across the room toward the hallway. I stopped him as we passed through the kitchen area. He gave me a questioning look, and I grabbed two knives from the knife block on the small counter. Pulling them out as slowly as possible, I managed to avoid the scraping noise they usually made. I handed one to him, and he gave me a slight smile before turning his attention back to the dim hallway. Now suitably armed, we headed toward my bedroom door.
I held my knife up higher and willed my stomach to stay quiet as Jason gripped the doorknob with his free hand. He turned it silently and held it still. He glanced back at me once, making sure I was ready.
He threw the door open, flipping on the light as it slammed against the wall. We both blinked as our eyes adjusted to the suddenly bright room. The suddenly bright empty room. Jason let out a nervous giggle that died off as soon as he saw my expression.
I was looking at my bed with confusion. Everything appeared to be exactly as when I had left that morning, except there was now a plate sitting square in the middle of my dark blue comforter. On the plate was, well, possibly a figment of my food deprived imagination.
“Is that a meatloaf?” Jason asked, his voice rising an octave in disbelief.
Nope, not a figment.
“There's a note,” he added, crossing the room and picking it up from where it lay half hidden under the mysteriously appearing dinner plate.
“What the hell,” he said, mostly to himself, as he scanned the paper.
His hands were shaking as he handed it over to me. The adrenaline had made him almost as shaky as I was. I took the note from him and read it aloud, my voice booming in the quiet room, the traffic muffled this far from the busy road out front.
“Eat this. It will take away the pain. Drink what I left in the refrigerator. It will take away the injuries.”
I rubbed the cuts through my shirt and looked back at the food on the bed.
“I feel like doing a whole mess of drugs would actually make this day less confusing,” Jason said, another nervous laugh escaping, “Why does someone break into your place to leave you a meatloaf?”
“Maybe I'm late for a very important date.”
Jason snorted his amusement.
“I don't think they're still here if they left a note,” he said, frowning, “but I'm gonna check the rest of the rooms. I'll meet you back in the kitchen.”
I nodded, stepping past him to get the plate to take back with me.
He paused at the doorway, “If you hear any strange noises, feel free to come save me.”
He headed off down the hall as I went back to the kitchen, my stomach getting louder as the smell of cooked meat wafted over me.
When Jason got back from his quick room check, I was standing by the kitchen table looking into an open thermos I had retrieved from the fridge.
“Oh, hell no,” I said, studying the contents.
“What is it?” he asked, replacing his knife beside mine in the wooden block.
I held it out to him with such a disturbed look that he hesitated before taking it. He gagged when he got a look at what was sloshing around inside. A tangy odor was emanating from the shiny silver thermos.
“Yeah, so, someone broke into your apartment to tell you to eat a meatloaf and drink a cup full of blood. This is the most normal day ever.”
He slammed the thermos down on the table, splashing some of the thick liquid over the side. It landed on the light wood in quiet splats, leaving dark red circles behind. Holding my left hand over my hurting stomach, I grabbed some paper towels with my right, wiping up the mess, distracted by the thought of it drying and leaving bloody rings on the clean surface. I threw the paper towels away and turned back to my presents.
“If it will help, I'm totally going to have to eat that,” I said, cringing as the pain amplified again.
Jason looked at me like I had just told him I was the queen of England and my head was an elephant.
“You have no idea who left that. It could be poisoned or something.”
“You have no idea how bad this hurts,” I replied with a gasp.
The pain was now coming in waves. I grabbed the meatloaf, thankful that he stood back, not trying to physically stop me. I pulled a big chunk off of the corner and stuffed it in my mouth, hardly chewing before swallowing it down and going for a second piece. It was literally the best thing I had tasted in my entire life, like water to someone who just crawled through the Sahara.
“Oh my god,” I said, my mouth full as I stuffed piece after piece in, “this is amazing.”
Jason just stared at me from his spot by the sink. I tried to slow down, but I plowed through until there was nothing left on the plate but a few crumbs. I licked my fingers to get the taste to last a little longer. As my mind cleared and I came back from my food euphoria, I realized that not only had the pain stopped, but my hunger was down to a dull ache again. I couldn't keep the smile off my face. It was like I had spent the entire day with a pounding migraine, and suddenly realized that it was gone. The relief was overwhelming.
Jason had remained silent through the entire ordeal. He was continuing to stare at me, a disturbed look on his face.
“What?” I asked him, still on the high of sudden relief.
“Want to follow that by chugging a cup of blood?” he asked, his voice flat.
He was freaking out. He appeared completely still from the outside, but after a lifetime of knowing him, I could spot all the signs. His jaw was clenched, and his hands were in fists. He was holding himself as far from me as possible without actually showing his discomfort by moving away. And his voice held none of the permanent humor that invaded every moment, even his most uncomfortable. He was back in full-on freak out mode, even worse than before.
I stopped trying to get every bit of the meat off my fingers and peered into the cup of blood.
“Ug,” I said, shaking my head in disgust, “no thanks.”
Even if it did actually smell pretty good. Blood smelling good was pretty much the opposite of the day before. Before I had woken up covered in it, I couldn't even look at blood without practically passing out.
Jason was still standing ramrod straight, staring at me with wary eyes. I suppose if I had been in his position, I would have acted the same, but he couldn't possibly understand how much pain I had been in for the last few minutes. If eating a stranger's meatloaf was the cure, I was all for it.
“Sorry,” I said, even though I was still tempted to believe anything the note writer had to offer, “I think if you were in my position, you'd be going a little more on faith here.”
He still stared at me for a moment, finally relaxing his stance. “Well, you didn't drink the cup o' blood, so I guess you're not too far gone.
I nodded, trying to avoid even looking in the direction of the thermos. We stood there awkwardly for a moment, until Jason grabbed the cup and poured it down the sink. He was holding his free hand over his mouth and nose as he did so, so I assumed it smelled pretty bad. You know, if you weren't a total freak like me. To me it smelled tangy and sweet. Sort of like really concentrated fruit punch. I had to stifle a giggle at that imagery. No reason to send him screaming into the street.
He turned on the faucet until all of the traces of it were gone, rinsing the cup as well. I sighed when the water ran clear. One less thing to have to deal with for now. He left the cup in the sink and walked stiffly past me to the living room area, collapsing on the sofa with a sigh. I went and joined him, now that I could finally take a breath without wanting to scream.
“So this is totally screwed up,” he said, turning to face me.
I snorted and leaned back on the couch, rubbing a hand over my face. “You could say that.”
“Maybe we should see if there's anything back at the alley, now that it's light out.”
I shrugged. That worked as well as any half-baked plan I could come up with.