The entire room seems to rock but they know it’s just them, just the cheap headboard clattering lightly against the wall. Their lovemaking is electric – or is that the static hum of the light bulb that hangs naked over them? When he comes, her whole body seems to tighten around him, her arms wrapped firmly around his shoulders, her legs intertwined with his until it feels like he's falling into her, becoming swallowed whole by her embrace. Then the euphoria clears and he realises he is merely lying on top of a hooker, and a bored one at that. She looks up at him, as if to query whether they are done here, and the unflinching eye contact makes him queasy.
Out in the hallway, Eli exhales heavily, his itch scratched. A familiar glow settles under his skin, but the satisfaction he feels is as empty as that of the man on the other side of the wall. Sometimes you eat simply to keep going. It unsettles him, the frequency with which his hunger has been surfacing these last few weeks. It seems that every time he passes a building where somebody inside is indulging in personal fantasy, or two lovers are grabbing a moment of urgent pleasure, he is drawn to it. The energy created in such an instant has proven irresistible, and Eli has known for a long time now that other people do not feel such a pull.
For most, sex is about the physical sensation, the gratification of the self. Eli learned the appeal of this as an adolescent, just like everybody else. But he learned at the same time that what he felt on the surface wasn’t necessarily what nourished him. It was during somebody else’s release that he sensed their soul open, and felt something inside himself reach out and grab at their essence like a greedy child.
Eli’s early lovers, following a night in his bed, always awoke with a feeling of fatigue, of faint illness. As if a tiny portion of their life force had been diminished. Of course they would dismiss this thought with an empty laugh, and a day or so later the memory of it would fade as they were restored.
There are no lasting effects. The mantra that Eli mouths to himself day and night, to abate the guilt and to justify doing it again. And again. They always recover, so long as it only happens the once. Eli has never been bold enough to attempt feeding on the same person more than a couple of times; the after-effects become more pronounced, take longer to shake off, and God only knows what after that. Until Jerome, he’d made a habit of not staying around for long enough to find out.
Of course, Eli sleeps with Jerome. They make love; they do insane things to each other in the shower; they have dozy and stale morning sex. But Eli has never reached into him and taken what he needs. Doing that, treating Jerome like someone he could use, no different from any of the others, it would sully the only pure thing Eli has ever had. He would sooner die.
It’s colder tonight than it has been in weeks. The night air gets under the thin cotton of his shirt and stays there, chilling him to the bone, his heady afterglow already dissipating. The guilt will seep in faster this time, he can tell. Like floodwater under a door. At least there was no actual physical contact on his part this time. Although a petty justification like that falls flat against all the other times that there were.
He is only a few streets away from home when he passes Anna. For a while he’d had a theory that she was like him. Some nights he’d see her in the bar alone, pale and languid. Other times, her complexion would have a healthy flush and she’d be laughing with her companions. And for somebody who spent so much time in a restaurant, she didn’t eat a lot. Hungry for other things, perhaps. But Eli hadn’t even been able to begin to think how he could broach such a subject with anyone, much less somebody like Anna. And so he’d said nothing, and after a while his theory fell by the wayside.
The high has completely worn off by the time he reaches the apartment block. Back to reality. He feels his belly growl, and he tries to remember the last time he ate. The entire day had been spent painting, and Jerome had taken the lunchtime shift so as soon as he got home they’d shut the bedroom door and not opened it again for hours. His boyish mouth twitches into a dirty smile. He wishes that could be enough. More than anything.
He knows something is wrong as soon as he opens the door to the apartment. He feels it in the pit of his stomach, and elsewhere. The sense that tells him when he needs to feed, now it’s telling him there is something in the bedroom. Something sick and malignant that doesn’t belong there.
Eli races across the living room and through the bedroom door. Jerome lies on the bed, fast asleep. At first, Eli mistakes the shadow on his chest for a trick of the light. Then it moves, and a pair of yellowed eyes fix on him. Eli realises he has disturbed something, and whatever that thing on the bed is, it doesn’t appreciate the interruption. How the fuck did he think it was a shadow? Perched on Jerome’s torso like a cat might be, only three times the size with long spindly arms and squat hind legs, it is more solid, more visible than it was a moment ago. While at first its body had seemed shadowy and insubstantial, now it glistens like tar. Eli’s first thought is of a gargoyle, or a gremlin. A broad grin exposes a mouthful of crooked teeth the colour of charcoal. A stretched, misshapen nose further distorts its wretched face.
He wants to scream. He wants to yell his head off, to wake Jerome and call for help, to run back out of the bedroom as fast as he can. But he stays rooted to the spot. Not entirely from terror, but rather out of curiosity. What in hell is it? Its narrow amber gaze has not strayed from Eli, as if it is just as fascinated and repulsed by him as he is by it.
“Get out,” Eli says, more calmly than he would have thought possible. “Get away from him.” Jerome’s expression is one of pain, and fear. Unconscious or not, he is suffering at the hands of this creature. Eli takes a step forward, then another. The closer he gets to the thing, the more his right hand itches, closing into a fist and then opening, fingers outstretched.
Where did that come from? He doesn’t have time to ponder the question; the creature has turned back to face Jerome, as if it knows it is only a matter of moments before Eli reaches the bed, and it needs to finish its unholy business. It places a gnarled, slick hand on Jerome’s chest, and the gesture is so familiar to Eli that he feels sick to his stomach.
It is feeding.
Any trepidation he’d felt up until now vanishes. He bolts over to the bed, arms outreached, ready to throttle the creature if necessary. Anything to stop it from taking from Jerome what he had been so careful all this time to honour. Its eyes snap back to him and it lets out a hideous, eldritch shriek. By the time Eli’s hands close around the air where its body had been, it has vanished. It simply isn’t there anymore.
“No,” Eli barks. “No!”
“Wha...?” Jerome is waking up. Eli sits down on the mattress beside him and pulls him into a hug, one that is tighter than is comfortable for either of them.
“I’ve been having some fucking weird dreams,” Jerome gasps. “Some pretty twisted stuff, actually...” He is short of breath. Eli can’t meet his eye. Jerome’s skin is pallid, drenched with sweat. Eli has seen this before, has been the cause of this in others. His cheeks flush with shame, and he buries his face in Jerome’s bare chest. His boyfriend’s arms close around him, then he feels Jerome lower himself back onto the bed. Eli pulls his feet off the floor and lies down next to him, even though he has never felt more awake.
“Sleep,” he says, as if Jerome is the one who needs reassuring. “It was just a bad dream.” Jerome grunts something non-committal in response.
You didn’t tell him.
Eli ignores that thought, and tries to expel the other one, the one from earlier. The impulse he’d felt to beat whatever life remained in that creature right out of it.
He’s never seen anything like it before. Something that ugly, that inhuman – it can’t be real. And yet, he had not panicked, or reacted with terror. He’d been curious. Because as grotesque as it was, it was the closest he’d come to anything even remotely similar to himself. And just like that, the thought crosses his mind. The hunger he feels, the need he gets. The possibility that he’s just seen its true face.
“That’s not me,” he whispers to himself, so quietly that a dozing Jerome does not hear him. “Not even a little bit.”
Then why, when it looked at him, did its eyes flash with something akin to recognition?