From the author: Warning: Grossness! Bedsores! And artist self-esteem! A man is trapped in his own home by a monster who implants him with inspiration and harvests him.
Something in my head begins to beat - like a heart, like a drum, something red and invigorating and most importantly present. I awaken to the organic rhythm, and my vision focuses for the first time in months. My consciousness assembles clumsily, as though dispersing dreams from a restless night in an attempt to assemble the reality of wakefulness. It takes me a moment to realize what dispelled my fugue, but eventually my scattered senses seize on the single active object with me in my living room: the television. Thalia is on TV.
She chats and smiles with a late night talk show host, as beautiful as the day we’d met. I can’t make any sense of what she’s saying. The camera flits between Thalia and the gel-haired host, and I can see something on the host’s desk that seems important. The camera switches back to Thalia again before I can make it out. I lean forward in my bloodstained hospital gurney and try to harness my attention.
Panic begins to swell in my chest, and it starts to smother my butchered senses. Instinct tells me that if I cannot find the reason my subconscious dragged me from the raging undertow of catatonia to lay me on the calm shore of lucidity, high tide will soon claim me and I will be lost again. There is something that I need to see, to understand.
I watch Thalia’s mouth, study it closely, searching for answers. I can see those lips as they had spoken to me when we first met, cooing when I told her I wanted to be a screenwriter, and smiling when I had, at her request, promised her to never give up on my art. My own mind is distant, but memories of that monster remain as clear as though they had happened yesterday. Another one of her cruelties.
“Now, I hear that someone’s making a movie out of Scratch. Is that right?” the talk show host asks with a mischievous smile. Thalia responds with a coy grin, and playfully shakes her bangs over her face to hide behind the curtain of thick black hair. A few members of the audience cheer.
“I’ve been in talks with New Line Cinema, yes,” Thalia replies, brushing her hair back when the noise dies down. “I can’t give you too many more details than that, though. Very hush-hush. I’m not really even certain if it’ll work out. They’ve bought rights to the script and all that, but these things tend to fall through. I’ll be heartbroken if it does.”
“Oh, sure, and so will your fans!” the host says, turning expectantly to the camera. I flinch as his eyes meet mine. The audience cheers again. And then I see the book propped on his desk; see it enough to read it for the first time. The cover says Scratch: The Devil’s Earthly Occupations. Thalia’s book. My story. She was turning one of my stories into a movie.
Noise rises in my throat, emerging at first as a pathetic rasp. I clutch the sheets, tendons in my neck flexing as the pressure builds. The pain and betrayal of the past few months surges up through my lungs, and eventually the hissing issued from my throat deepens to a roar. The dry walls of my throat throb as the raw and unused surface is bombarded with noise, but I do not care.
I scream, my lips bared past my teeth. I release the soiled bedsheets to clutch at my head, my hands pressing down on the scarred and scabbed surface of my hairless scalp. Spittle flies through my field of vision to patter on my sheets like raindrops. My breath runs out.
I breathe in again, with difficulty. I scream again. My heart pounds and my muscles constrict. This outrage is what truly awoke my dormant brain. This will give me my freedom.
I lose my breath a second time and the pause is long enough to hear the conversation on the television once more. I glance up, my chest heaving. I don’t want to hear any more, but perverse curiosity affixes my attention.
“Now, this is a softball question to ask a writer,” the host says, leaning across his desk, “But I’m sure that everyone’s curious. Every book you write is so fresh and different from the last. Every time I ask one of my critic friends to tell me what genre you’re supposed to write, they can never agree because your bestsellers are all so, you know, diverse. So I’ve gotta know - where do you get your ideas?”
The question makes me want to scream again, because I know the answer all too well. She’s not the writer. I’m the writer. But something else occurs to me first: Other than myself and the television, the house is completely silent. If Thalia were here, she would have heard me. But she is gone, and for the first time in months, I am truly awake.
“Well, that’s a story full of codependence and regret,” Thalia says. The host leans closer, his chin in his palm. “When I was younger, I’d get ideas for stories all the time and share them with other people. I never got to writing them down myself. Didn’t learn how, didn’t have much interest. So when I got older, I started dating a lot of artists. I told them my ideas and they loved them. They’d use the ideas, too, and they actually got very successful, and I was happy for them. But after each one found their success, they’d decide that they needed me... well, a little too much.”
“I assume that didn’t last long,” the host says with a chuckle.
“Longer than it should have,” Thalia replies.
The host practically leaps out of his seat in surprise. “What? What a load of bull-” he shouts, his protests overpowered by the bleep of a television censor. The camera cuts briefly to the vocalist for the show’s house band, whose eyebrows raise at the outburst. Any audience members not already cheering pepper the stage with laughter.
I turn away from the television and attempt to hoist myself up, but my arms are weak and something has stuck my legs to the surface of the stiff cot mattress. I throw the thin, stained sheet off my lower body and almost vomit when I witness the damage caused by months of immobility.
Bedsores have hollowed out my legs, eating away at the skin to expose what little remaining fat and muscle lie beneath. The open sores have partially scabbed, affixing themselves to the cot, and I reach across my body to tenderly pull them free. They do not come away easily, but my inciting anger pushes me past the agony and my fingers are eventually able to separate the discolored pink crust from the linen.
Behind the anger, fear seeps into what few cracks in my ravaged brain that my fury refused to fill, and I am suddenly very aware of what may happen if Thalia finds me awake. There will likely be no punishment, of course. She is not the punishing type. But she would know that I am lucid, and that I have purpose, and she may think that there is still something left for her to claim.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for that to sound critical of you,” the host continues. “But you’re so talented! I own all your books, and they’re amazing! Thinking about someone taking advantage of you, just... wow. It’s really frustrating!”
Thalia laughs at this, and although I cannot see her on the television screen I can feel her coursing through my mind, and the rage and fear lurches to a savage halt. My hands stop pulling my wounded body free from the cot. My lungs stop drawing breath. My heart nearly stops beating.
Her teeth. Her lips. Her voice. My purpose vanishes in the art of her laughter. The world fails to go black, but for a moment I am once again a prisoner in my own body. The gaps torn in my brain fail to meet. I am still.
The reedy voice of the talk show host brings me back. He is once again singing Thalia’s praises for my ideas, her stolen work, and the audience loves them both for it. The anger returns, and my body regains its motivation. In one frantic movement, I roll away from the cot and off of the hospital bed.
I hear, rather than feel, the dull tear of scabs from the rough mattress cloth as the bedsores in my ankles, buttocks and shoulder blades separate from the fabric. There is a moment of weightlessness as the fall confuses my sense of equilibrium, and then the crashing pain of my impact against the tile floor. Nothing breaks that I can tell, but the pain of my plaque-softened teeth slamming together when my chin strikes the ground is dizzying. The ache in my bones begins as soon as my head starts to clear. There is no time for rest. I have lain still long enough.
I reach one hand forward and drop my arm down against the tile floor in an attempt to crawl forward. Pain continues to rocket through my body, though it at least drowns out the noise from my television. I try to focus. I need to find the door. If I can make it outside I can scream for help, or, failing that, just drag myself to the road and let a car roll over me. At least then I could die on my own terms.
As I look around my house I cannot shake the feeling that something is missing. Thalia hasn’t changed the living room much since she imprisoned me, but unlike my own decrepit body she has at least taken some effort to maintain it.
I glance to a bronze picture frame of my smiling family standing outside my school after my graduation from the University of Southern California. We all stare at the camera and grip my diploma, offering it to the lens as proof of my potential. I can recall this day, but the memory falls through my emotions like a penny down the center of a well, never touching the sides.
An expensive leather jacket hanging by the door, a gift from my sister after a rejected proposal. A framed photocopy of my first check from my first writing job as a copy editor at a small publishing company. The empty feeling persists as I search for the front door, and when I cannot find it, I realize the source of my unease: Nothing here is mine anymore. I’m a stranger in my own home.
The years of familiarity, of sentiment and attachment are gone. I have lived in this house for five years, since the death of my parents and the distribution of their estate which I used as a down payment. A house built on the pain and effort of becoming a writer in a world that neglects art, and nourished with my love for the struggle. Now, it feels like I could hold any object in this house without ever actually getting to touch it.
A few months comatose would not be enough to wash away everything I knew about this place. I reach a trembling hand to feel my scalp, brushing my fingers against the knotted terrain of scars. Thalia has done this to me. After months of torture at her hands, I can no longer even feel sentiment. Reduced to a stranger in my own home, I share more resonance with the fetid hospital cot than I do with a house I have lived in for half a decade.
My anger begins to rebuild anew, and I smother it. I cannot waste my time belly-down on the floor, no matter how tempting it may be to indulge in the life-giving rush of my rage again. Thalia cannot find me here.
I pull myself forward once more, but a shriek of pain through my body stops me. The fall has done more damage than I had originally supposed. My bones still ache from the impact, and when I reach out my left hand to continue crawling forward, I notice that half the nail of my index finger has broken off. Black blood gathers at the jagged yellow edge above the pale, unprotected skin.
I work past the pain and pull myself onward, at the cost of my sense of direction. The alien room spins above me, its corners stretched into smeared brushstrokes of agony and tilted on impossible axes. The pain in my bones, in the opened sores on my back, in my wounded pride and my damaged brain; every sense conspires with Thalia against me. Only the remaining ember of anger at her betrayal drives me onward. After what seems like hours, I reach a hallway with a lone door at the end and crawl toward it.
I reach my arm up and brush against the polished metal handle with my fingers, toggling it without turning. I push myself up with my other arm to reach, but the creak of my softened ribs almost flattens me again. Finally my fingers wrap around the handle, and I feel the door swing open. I fall forward onto my hands, expecting the warmth of sunlight or the insistent tug of a breeze, until I get a good look at what lays beyond the door.
It’s not outside. It’s another room. And unlike the rest of my house - remembered but unfamiliar - I do not recognize this room at all. Dark, expensive hardwood is set into the floor, and the polished charcoal planks shimmer like obsidian in the glow cast by clusters of candles at each corner of the room. Waist-high glass cabinets line the other three walls, each containing rows of plants which I can only see through silhouette in the room’s dim light. While my eyes adjust, I hear trickling water coming from a small fountain set in the wall opposite from me.
I peer closer at the cabinets, and something about the closest plant catches my eye. Behind the glass door, it catches the light strangely, as though its leaves are coated in fresh paint. I glance behind me, back into the house I can no longer feel. Perhaps it’s still not too late to cut and run. How much am I willing to risk for a weak promise of answers? Perhaps too much.
I pull myself inside the room, leaving the door open behind me. My eyes continue to adjust as I reach the nearest plant, but even as I grow closer, I cannot make sense of what I see. It sits under an orange light set in the top of the cabinet, nestled in a bone white marble pot.
A red stem travels upward from a bed of dark soil to split into numerous branches terminating in plump grey leaves. The leaves are webbed with thin purple veins throbbing just below the surface, causing its body to tremble rhythmically. What I had mistaken for wet paint was really the glistening greys, reds, and pinks of exposed flesh, shimmering healthily under the glow of the cabinet light.
I reach out and brush my fingers against the glass. The organism is repulsive, but unlike the foreign halls of the house behind me, the plant feels as familiar to me as my own body. I look down the cabinet row to the other planters that share its shelf and see a variety of bushes, ferns, and flowers, all quivering in sync with the monstrosity before me. Turning back to the first plant, I notice two more details that give me pause: the ribbed indentations of a single dainty bite mark in the surface of one of its leaves, and a brass plaque set into the shelf underneath.
I lean down to read the plaque, but as with my attempt to recognize Thalia’s book, my focus requires some effort to muster. I eventually force my focus to assemble the ingrained script into letters I can recognize, cobbling the words The Antebellum Ghoul together from the haze of brass. The title sounds familiar, but it does not come quickly enough to seize my attention.
I move to the next pot, which houses the tangle of bundled red fibers wound into a crude, meaty bush. Grey bulbs flower at irregular points across its surface, one of which has been bitten away at the stem. The plaque below it reads Diesel Bridges. The shuddering flower to its right is titled The Fancy-Free Ballad of Jittering Moxie, and, to the right of that, Sugg’s Laws.
I finally reach the plant at the end of the row, clinging to the cabinet for support. It is a tulip-headed organism, missing a large segment of flesh near where the stem joins the bulb. I tilt my head to read the plaque below.
“Scratch? A story about the devil?” Thalia had asked when I told her the idea. We were in bed, her fingers tracing circles across my chest. “Hasn’t that been done before?” The memories barely feel like my own.
“Yeah, but that’s the point, right? He’s been so many things! A lawyer, a musician, a magician, a salesman - an immortal walking the earth trying so many different jobs, but all with a single purpose. It’d make for a hell of a résumé.” Thalia had laughed, and upon hearing her I practically leapt for the notepad on my nightstand, flooded with ideas. Less than a month later, she tied me down and opened my skull to take Scratch for herself.
Comprehension creeps into my brain, and I pull myself back down the line to the first plant, The Antebellum Ghoul. I press my palm against the glass cabinet door, slide it aside, and reach to grasp one of the Ghoul’s petals between my thumb and forefinger. The leaf shudders at my touch, but stills back to its steady thrum after a moment. I find myself unsurprised that its movements coincide with the rhythm of my own heartbeat.
I pull at the petal, and it comes away from the branch with a slow, wet tear. I turn it over in my hands, examining the way the purple webwork of veins gather at a fold on its underside to form a ridge of discolored bruises. Before I can understand what I’m doing, I raise the petal to my lips and sink my teeth into its surface. Even the effort of biting is painful, and my teeth barely survive the pressure needed to break past the membranous outer skin to rend the meat beneath.
I swallow. Once the flesh slides its way down my esophagus I begin to recall the story of The Antebellum Ghoul as I had imagined it: a tale of nazi officers stalked through the streets of London by a cannibalistic monster. I had presented this story to publisher after publisher, and each time it was curtly and condescendingly refused. Eventually, I gave up and shut it away. Flat scenes of titillating gore continue to wind their way through my thoughts, but once the bolus of meat and memory reaches my stomach, the memories distort as Thalia’s influence trickles in.
The image changes dramatically; I can see a woman in pre-war France luring unsuspecting men into her apartment to kill and eat them. After a life of luxury, she claims to a naïve lover that their bodies are the only thing she is still able to taste. When the Germans invade, she feasts like never before. I hear a memory of Thalia’s laughter as I find myself becoming more absorbed in the idea of this new story than I ever had in my own conception. I tear away another bite of the petal, letting details, characters, and settings flood my mind.
With the story come memories - of mine, and of Thalia’s. Mine are welcomed back to the folds of my brain with open arms, reintegrated as though they were never gone. I receive Thalia’s memories the same as Ghoul, like a movie reel projected on the walls of my subconscious.
She is older than I could have ever imagined. As the first storytellers regale moon-eyed hunter-gatherers with stories of the earth’s creation, she and her eight sisters emerge from the loam. They nurture the sages’ early tales before going their separate ways, eager to nourish creation across the planet. Thalia embraces scores of artists over the centuries, her voice lilting inspiration to them through lips a lover’s breadth from their ears. Quills, charcoal stubs, pens and pencils are set to paper, and works equal parts beautiful and hilarious are born. But one day, as she lies with a paramour, she gets the news: one of her sisters has been killed.
I stumble to another shelf and open the cabinet, this time to a miniature red tree with grey berries and a plaque that reads Olympian. I don’t recognize the name or the story, but they’re hardly the first unfamiliar things I’ve encountered today. I tear four of the berries away and shove them into my mouth, and almost gag as my tongue probes through their pulpy ground beef texture.
I witness the story of a young athlete, granted immortality by the Greek pantheon to champion their majesty through ages unending. Gods and crowds demand he work himself to exhaustion for their entertainment, while he begs for a death that will never come. Eventually, Greece falls and its gods with it. He finds himself free, but purposeless.
More memories return alongside the story. Images of my own life are overlaid by images of Thalia’s fingers wrapping around prison bars as she watches a tired man hunched over a writing desk. All but one of her sisters are dead. She will be next.
Blood from the berries flows past my decaying teeth to coat my lips. I only need to see one more thing before I can be certain - I grab the fleshy plant by its stalk, wrap one hand around the pot, and pull the small tree free in a burst of dirt.
When the plant’s roots are released to the open air, they twitch and flex impotently as though grasping to recover the dirt that has fallen away. When they cannot find purchase, they curl inward, weaving themselves in a loose net around their core. And there, beyond the tightening cluster, lays a wrinkled gray piece of tissue. It’s Olympian’s true source - a sliver of my brain, pulled from my skull between Thalia’s fingers and cultured by her inspirations into a mockery of nature.
She was never a writer. She would have been nothing without me. And she brutalized me, ruined me, in order to tell my stories as her own. The rage rises inside me again, and this time, I do not stop it.
I reach an arm behind the pots on the shelf and sweep them outward, bringing them crashing to the floor in an avalanche of meat and dirt. Thalia never earned these. Segments of my seedling brain rise in small gray crests from the spilled soil, and around them the nerve-roots flex in feeble alarm.
I dive into the pile, shoveling portions of meat into my mouth and swallowing what few pieces I don’t need to chew. I feel the grit of potting soil between my teeth but only stop to spit out a destroyed tooth. As I eat, I feel the magnitude of worlds beyond the scope of my own fallow ideas, sparked by my flaccid intuition and nurtured by Thalia’s enchantments. Ghoul’s aftertaste lingers at the back of my throat, the memory of the story I’d failed mixing with the stories I could never write. Regret gasps beneath the weight of my rampage, but the anger remains. I want to consume. I want to destroy.
I do not know how long I feast, but after what feels like an aeon spent tumbling through a shelf’s worth of fabricated universes I hear a woman’s throat clear behind me.
“How’d you get in here?” she asks. “Take a wrong turn?” Her voice evokes an immediate seizure of fear, but that is swiftly drowned in the undercurrent of my fury. I turn to face her and bare what remain of my teeth.
“You fucking parasite,” I croak. The sound of my voice, dry and wretched and muffled by a mouthful of meat, surprises me. “You’d be nothing without me.”
Thalia simply laughs, as rich and self-assured as she had been on television. I flinch as though struck, and the implication of her laughter hits me: She didn’t need me. She could have grabbed any wordsmith off the streets to serve as cattle for her butchery. All I had was my purple prose and easy living off my parents’ inheritance.
My shame as a failure, my pain as a victim, my anger despite my feebleness, all hastily assembled into a shamble of self-righteousness, crumble to their pathetic components in the face of Thalia’s curt ridicule. Just one laugh. No words needed, just context and timing. My grimace fades and my gaze drops downward.
God, I wouldn’t be in this mess if I could write the way that Thalia laughed. I blink at the thought. A grin splits my dumbstruck face, and I laugh too in a short, hoarse bark. I was trying to indulge in self-pity, but the more I turn the idea over in my head, the funnier it seems. I give another dry chuckle and Thalia raises her eyebrows at me. I look up to meet her gaze, which is warm but tinged with derision.
“Why did you need me at all?” I ask. A moment ago I would have been frustrated by how meek my voice sounded in my moment of rebellion - but now I recognize that it is simply the sound of a failure arriving at the end of a long death that began at his college graduation. Thalia clucks her tongue and walks to me, and before I can consider crawling away she has gathered me up in her arms. I bite my lip as the crook of her elbow comes to rest against the exposed flesh of one of my bedsores, but I do not cry out. Thalia carries me to the door, and after a few steps finally speaks again.
“I’m just built different, babe. I give other people inspirations to craft their stories with. Can’t use it myself. The hands that crafted me just didn’t want me to create on my own.” She turns slightly so that my head doesn’t hit the doorframe. “My sisters were happier with their lot in life, before they died. But art is more than inspiration or passion. If it were, they wouldn’t be dead. Artists hunger. They’re ravenous to create. Eventually I got hungry myself, took up my own pen, and figured out a loophole.”
“The plants?” I ask. We are heading back to the cot, to resume my imprisonment. I can no longer find the energy for fear. We both know that there isn’t anything left for Thalia to take from me, and my escape leaves her only one course of convenient action: death. At long last, I am finally more trouble than I am worth.
“Yeah, the plants,” Thalia replies. She pauses and turns back to the dim room. “It felt like less of a crime to steal stories from you, you know? You weren’t doing anything great with your ideas. So many stories that would have been brilliant if they had been written by someone other than you. So I swooped in and saved them. For me and for you.” Her words are true enough to hurt, but my shriveled dignity is too far gone by this point for it to find purchase. My expression must have changed, because she rolls her eyes.
“Oh, come on. If I gave you the fame you wanted, would you really have let me go? You would have done the same to me, if you’d had the chance. I just beat you to the punch.” I want to dispute her, but the tranquility of my approaching death makes her point seem inconsequential.
“There we are,” she says, laying me down in the cot. I look up at her, waiting for the end. But Thalia’s full lips are pursed in puzzlement, and she is looking at me as though there is something about me she can’t quite understand. “How did you get out, anyway? I was almost positive you weren’t going to get up again.”
Thalia runs her fingers over my stubbled, scarred scalp, her tapered fingers tracing the puffed trenches of stitches in my skull. I am not sure what to say. The spark of concentration in her eyes begins to run veins of panic through my pre-mortem serenity. There is no way this could not be over.
I look past Thalia to the jacket hanging on the hook at the other end of the room - a treasured gift reduced to a stage prop. There is nothing left for her to take.
“Here we are,” Thalia says under her breath, her searching finger stopping at a particular lump in my scalp. My heart stops. Before I can protest, I feel the searing pain of my skull splitting as Thalia pulls me apart with her hands. Somewhere far away, I can hear myself scream, but my eyes stare forward. She will find nothing.
Thalia forces her fingers through the trench in my skull and presses them against my brain. The tips of her nails close gently around a fold, and then pinch. My rage flares up again, unbidden and invigorating. That second heartbeat swells anew, building within my body to a manic crescendo. I could do anything as long as I nurtured this ardor - I could overpower Thalia, I could escape, I could create wonders. And then she begins to pull.
The fury is torn out of me from the pit of my groin through the tip of my scalp, carved from my body and pulled free by the keystone bundle of nerves still twitching between Thalia’s fingertips. I grasp for my anger, try to find myself again, but there is only lobotomized calm.
Perhaps I was better off without it. It was clownish, after all. So much childish indignation dressed as righteous power. Thalia could do with it what I could not. She could harness my sound and fury with her butchery and continue creating true beauty, the likes of which she or I would be unable to make on our own. And my stories would no longer die.
I can accept my place in this process as Thalia has, both of us slaves to the thankless black comedy of creation. As I slip back into into the depths of my coma, I laugh, my face slack. Thalia laughs with me.
This story originally appeared in Modern Comforts.