If you have been directed to this page, it is for your convenience in reading this story without Kindle download, and is for your information only. So PLEASE DO NOT SHARE THE LINK OR THIS TEXT, without permission -JT - thanks.



A Trilogy of Obsession
Allison M. Dickson
Kindle Edition
Copyright © 2014 Allison M. Dickson

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please return to the retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Cover Illustration, “Captured Heart 2.0” courtesy of ReaperXXIV at Deviant Art.

Visit Allison’s website:

Follow Allison on Twitter or Facebook:

Other Works by Allison M. Dickson
The Last Supper
Colt Coltrane and the Lotus Killer

Stories and Collections
Wicked Brew: 9 Tales of Misdeeds and Regret
At the End of Things: A Collection of Stories
Phantasmic Flashes (and other synaptic misfires)
Colt Coltrane and the Harrowing Heights of Hollywoodland

Table of Contents

Part I: Taste
Part II: Sweetness
Part III: Love Feast

Author Remarks

Part I

Marah tossed a handful of loose dirt into her husband’s grave and listened to it spray across the cheap steel coffin lid. Stepping back and brushing her hand absently on her sensible black dress, she realized this was it. The strangeness and horror of the last year and a half of her life was now over. Bruce was in that box, destined to become subterranean worm food.
Grief and despair nibbled at the edges of her mind, but nothing could penetrate her thick valium cloud. Marah was grateful to Ruth for slipping her the little pills over the last few days, starting in the hospital waiting room when a doctor young enough to be her kid brother came out to the waiting area and broke the news. Your husband didn’t make it, Mrs. Amherst. I’m so sorry. Bruce had succumbed to a throat wound delivered by a disgruntled student with a cheap pocket knife, allegedly over a bad grade, said the police. The injury itself was shallow, survivable even. But the toddler in blue scrubs who had attempted to save her husband’s life said Bruce had bled out before the ambulance arrived. He suspected a bleeding disorder mild enough that it had gone undiagnosed “until a significant enough trauma had occurred.” Marah could only shake her head when asked if she’d known anything about her husband’s medical history. They had never gotten around to discussing such things. And given the nature of their marriage, she was pretty sure they never would have.
The doctor didn’t need to know that, though. He also didn’t need to know that Marah might have inadvertently killed her husband, and that the pip squeak who stabbed him had only rushed along the inevitable. If she had loosed that little detail, he might have prescribed her something stronger than valium. Thorazine, perhaps.
 The drugs rendered her incapable of crying, but she dabbed at her eyes anyway as the reverend delivered the final words of the generic, beatific poem she’d selected for the occasion. It sailed through her head without bothering to stick, and that’s why she’d chosen it. She wanted no vibrant memories of this day, or of Bruce. In time, she hoped all the memories of him would fade.
But you’ll never really forget, she thought. You’ll never forget what you did to make him love you.
That thought was enough to let in a small wave of shame-laced agony. It washed over her like a caustic tide, threatening to buckle her knees, but when the firmness of Ruth’s hand encircled her arm, the world swam back into focus. She let her friend guide her away from the graveside before the other mourners could assault her with their murmured condolences and tear-stained faces. If another person attempted to lay sympathy on her, if she had to look into one more pair of moist doe’s eyes, it wouldn’t matter how much dope was coursing through her veins. She would dig her claws into them and start ripping with a jackal’s fury.
They stopped next to the black Town Car that Marah had rented for the short procession, and she turned to Ruth. “I’m not going to the party.” The word party felt wrong in her mouth. It seemed a ritual of food and celebration was all wrong here, following the tragic and untimely death of a younger and well-respected man. Bruce hadn’t died a hero. He’d died broken and afraid, and not entirely in possession of himself.
Ruth didn’t balk. Just nodded as if that’s what she’d expected. There were no doe’s eyes on this one. “That’s fine. Steve is handling all that. No one’s expecting you to be social, so if you want to go, let’s go.” Steve was Ruth’s husband. He was also on the college faculty, teaching sociology, and the two men had regularly played pool together on the weekends. The friendship between the two wives, manufactured as it was, became natural enough after a few months of regular lunches and pedicures. They had just enough in common to keep their conversations pleasant, but their respective marriages couldn’t have been more different. Ruth and Steve were about as natural and loving a couple as one could find outside a Hollywood movie.
The driver stepped out of the car to open the door for them. “Where to, ladies?”
“Just take me home.” She dreaded being alone in the apartment, but she couldn’t bear another night at Steve and Ruth’s. She would have to face the place down eventually, test her mettle. A long sleep was what she needed. Then she would pack her things in the morning and go stay with her uncle back east. It wouldn’t take long to be on her way. She didn’t have much.
After a silent ride, Marah paid the driver and stepped out of the car. She was surprised to see Ruth get out as well, but the woman arched her eyebrow. “You don’t think I’m going to let you be alone right now, do you? C’mon. I’ll make some coffee. Steve can pick me up after the wake.”
It looked like she would have to wait for that nap after all, but she had a feeling it wouldn’t have happened anyway. Not once she picked up the scent of Bruce’s cologne in his pillow. “All right, let’s go.”
The inside of the apartment was a still-life portrait from three days ago, when Bruce had been drinking coffee and grading essays. His mug was still sitting on the dining room table, and one of his ties was draped over the back of the armchair in the living room. He’d always liked to take it off as soon as he got in the door, and Marah would usually collect it and re-hang it on the rack in his closet. Right now, she could barely bring herself to look at it.
“You have a seat and I’ll make the coffee,” said Ruth. 
She took a seat at the end of the dining room table opposite Bruce’s cup. When Ruth went to pick it up, Marah jerked. “No. Leave it. Please?”
Ruth frowned for a moment, but then the wrinkle between her eyes smoothed in understanding. Still no doe eyes, though. Thank God for that. “You got it, hon.”
Ten minutes later, they were blowing on steaming mugs of Bruce’s favorite dark roast. “I have to say, Marah, you keep one hell of a clean house. I could probably apply my makeup in the reflection on your floor.”
Marah grinned, but her stomach took a sick turn. It took a lot of work to keep the place so nice. So much dirty work. “I think it’s a form of OCD.”
“I’m sure Bruce didn’t mind. I recall him being a bit of a neat freak too.”
Of course, Bruce had never known the extent of it Ruth’s compulsions, though he had probably suspected something, perhaps late at night when he was all alone in his thoughts, wondering how in the hell he of all people ended up married to a woman he never loved.
“Earth to Marah. You still with me, girl? Too many valiums?”
Marah popped out of her pensive daze and took a sip of coffee. She winced at its sweetness. Ruth always had a heavy hand with the sugar spoon. “I’m fine. Just thinking about how Bruce and I even ended up together in the first place.”
“What do you mean? You two were a great couple. Smart, attractive. Seems natural enough.”
“I always used to think we’d be a perfect match. But I’m afraid Bruce never did.”
Ruth leaned forward. “What do you mean?”
How far down this road was she willing to go? No one knew the real story of their bizarre courtship. She barely understood it herself. But the valium was giving her courage, or at least the loose lips to make her think she had courage.
“He never loved me. Not really.”
“That’s utter nonsense.” 
“Think back to the times you and Steve spent with us, especially the last few months. Then try to think of one time he ever put his arm around me, held my hand, kissed me on the cheek.”
Ruth waved a dismissive hand. “So he’s not into PDA. Big deal. You’re feeling low and thinking low thoughts. That’s perfectly understandable.”
“There’s more to it than that. Believe me, I know for a fact he didn’t love me, because he told me he didn’t, long before we walked down the aisle.”
The shocked “O” of surprise on Ruth’s face would have been funny if Marah had felt capable of laughter. “Tell me you’re joking.”
“I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me go back to the beginning.” She paused, gathering her courage and hoping the drugs would hold out just a little longer. If she was going to exorcise this demon with words, now was the time.
“Hang on a sec.” Ruth got up and went to the little hutch near the table where Marah kept a small stock of alcohol and got the bottle of brandy. After pouring a generous dollop in both their cups, she sat back. Marah wasn’t sure if the addition of booze would knock her out, but it seemed like a win either way.
 “All right. Let’s hear it all. And don’t leave out a thing.”
Marah sat back in her seat, letting her mind drop into the strange waters of the past. “I loved him from the moment I saw him. Did I ever tell you that?”
“Yes, you did.”
“You thought it was just a sappy romantic thing.”
“Well, sure. We all say things like that about the people we love.”
“You’re right. But this time I meant it literally. It was a physical force. The moment I laid eyes on Bruce Amherst, his spirit bonded to mine and created some kind of chemical reaction in my brain. Like hydrogen to a flame. I knew with the certainty of gravity that he was going to be part of my life one way or another.”
Ruth smiled. “You make it sound almost supernatural.”
It was, but clearly the woman couldn’t relate. And maybe that was for the best. Marah had since come to have different feelings about love at first sight. It was a dangerous thing, like a truckload of nitroglycerin on a dirt road. Ruth hadn’t witnessed Marah’s infatuation bloom into obsession. And later, madness.
“You know I’m not a religious person, Ruth, and I’ve never seen a ghost or a devil in my life, but the first time I saw Bruce was probably the closest I ever came to feeling the presence of something higher than me.”
“You’re in your twenties. Everything feels dramatic and intense then.” Ruth was only thirty-three, but she spoke with the know-it-all intonations of an old woman. Marah wanted to slap her, but she let it pass.
“Yeah, I’d considered all that. At least in the beginning, when my feelings for him felt like a harmless schoolgirl crush. But it wasn’t long before things turned weird.”
“Weird how?”
Marah gulped down her spiked coffee like the medicine it was and Ruth topped her off. “After that first semester was over, I decided I was going to work a little harder to get into his graces. I used any excuse I had to email him. I parked my car next to his in order to increase our odds of running into one another on campus. I asked around about his local hangouts so I could set up chance encounters.”
Ruth shrugged. “So you were a little bit of a stalker, and a weak one at that. I don’t think any of that would qualify you for a restraining order.”
“Over time, we did manage to connect in public. We shared a number of drinks. Lots of laughs. It was clear he was starting to regard me as a friend, and I’m pretty sure he was fond of me.”
“Of course he was fond of you. He married you, didn’t he?”
Marah wanted her to shut up, but shock would probably silence the woman soon enough. “I learned after about six months of this little game that human feelings take up physical space. My heart and brain felt stuffed with my love for him, to the point where I was only a shell of my former self. I’d all but dropped out of my classes. The thought of staying in for the night and avoiding a chance to cross paths with him was terrifying. But in all that time, he never once hinted he wanted me as more than as a friend. I’d been around the block enough by then to know how a man acts when he’s interested in a woman. In fact, he was different around other women. More touchy feely, more gregarious. He always treated me like one of the guys. I wasn’t deluding myself.”
“So what turned it around?”
“One night, I hit a wall. I knew I couldn’t go on the way I was anymore. I couldn’t hold onto my feelings any longer, because they were drowning me. Have you ever written a declaration of love to someone you knew would reject you?”
Ruth shook her head. “I don’t think I’d ever be able to do that. It must have taken a lot of courage.”
“It’s a bit like slicing your heart out of your chest and stomping on it. But like I said, those feelings were taking up physical space. If I hadn’t done something to relieve the pressure, I think my love for him would have killed me.” Ruth was grinning, but Marah wasn’t using hyperbole. She let it slide. There would be plenty of opportunities for dropped jaws in a bit. “So I wrote him a letter that laid it all out on the line. I even gave him an easy way out by saying I knew he wasn’t capable of returning my feelings. I always wanted to make things easier for him. Even at my own expense.”
“That’s love, dear.”
Marah wondered about that, but she didn’t say anything for a minute. Just sipped her coffee and pondered the nature of human love.
“So? What did he say?” Ruth was leaning forward again, like someone waiting for the big reveal in a suspense movie.
“That I was right. He had no romantic feelings for me, but considered me a dear friend.”
“You’re kidding me!”
“I told you. He never loved me.”
Ruth sniffed. “I suppose there’s no accounting for taste. So then what happened?”
Marah sighed and poured another measure of brandy in her cup. There wasn’t any coffee to dilute it in, but that was fine. The next part was going to be the hardest to tell, because it would almost certainly mean the end of her friendship with Ruth and anyone she told. But maybe that was best. She needed a clean break from Bruce and what was left of his life.
“I wish I could say that things grew easier, that letting my feelings out had opened up some free space in my head and heart, but it was only a new kind of pain. I think it was because no matter how much I told myself he didn’t love me, I’d always held onto a secret hope that I would be wrong. That he’d just been better at hiding his feelings.” She felt a little hitch in her chest at that, but rode it out on the brandy wave.
“Not to mention how awkward it must have made things between you.”
Marah nodded. “Definitely. I felt like I had lost my best friend. A good week went by where I didn’t even leave the house. Sad music, sugar, and chick movies filled my days. At one point, I began to think living was just pointless. When you’re rejected by the person you love most in the world, you naturally start to think you’re not worth anything. I briefly considered suicide.”
“You didn’t!”
Warmth filled Marah’s face, and it wasn’t just from the alcohol. If Ruth was exasperated this early into things, then the rest of it would likely give her a heart attack. “I still drove by his apartment building from time to time just to see if he was home. The sight of his truck, knowing where he was, always had a way of soothing me. I remembered thinking then, as I sat there in my car gazing at his small black SUV while the rain pattered on my windshield and The Cure droned away on the radio, that I would give anything to smell his cologne again. So I decided to chance that the door to his truck was unlocked.”
“You didn’t!” Ruth exclaimed again, like she was stuck on a loop.
“I did. I knew there would be no hope for me if he’d had an alarm on the thing, and it would have been silly to expect him to have his door unlocked in the parking lot of an apartment complex, but it was like something was looking out for me. Like something wanted me to get into his truck.” Marah knew exactly what that something was now, even if she couldn’t explicitly identify it.
“What do you mean something? Like divine intervention?”
“I don’t think it was so divine. Anyway, I climbed into the passenger side and closed the door, and then sat there hunkering down like some ghoul. My own car was still parked in the middle of the street with the lights on. If anyone had happened along or if he’d looked out the window—”
“You’re crazy. I can’t believe you did that.”
“Tell me about it. But I could smell him, and it made all my anxiety melt away. I sat there a couple minutes, just taking him in breath by breath. Then something took hold of me. I can’t say what it was, even to this day, but I felt like I was being motivated by something alien. Something other. Before I could stop myself, I leaned over into the driver’s seat and started licking the leather.”
She stopped talking to gauge Ruth’s reaction, and it was as expected. Jaw dropped, eyes wide and round like dinner plates. Marah pressed onward. At this point, the only way out was through. “That wasn’t all either. My tongue touched everything he might have touched. I licked the back of the seat, the headrest, the steering wheel, the buttons on the stereo, the gear shifter. I even licked the console, where his elbow likely rested when he was driving.
“There was no thought about how it tasted. I was like some kind of salivating succubus with no concept that what I was doing was weird or wrong, at least not then. I was centered purely on consuming him in any possible way.”
More silence as Marah rested herself a bit. She’d done it. She’d ripped the bandage off the wound. Now to see how badly it would bleed.
Ruth took a good minute to respond, but her glassy eyes, pale cheeks and small voice said it all. “My God, Mar. What on earth possessed you to do such a thing?”
Possessed was a good word for it, actually. “I wish I knew.”
“At least tell me you didn’t lick the floor board or the gas pedal!”
Marah sighed. “I’d be lying if I did.”
“You didn’t!”
“I wish you’d stop saying that.”
“Sorry, hon. I just don’t know what else to say, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So what happened after that?”
Marah was relieved Ruth hadn’t run screaming from the room yet. It gave her the strength to continue. She would never reveal certain details to her friend. Like that she’d had splinters of fir needles in her tongue, and that she’d become sexually aroused while she was doing it and climaxed so hard at the end that she lay shuddering against the door for a few minutes.
“I finished up and slipped quietly out of the truck and back to my car. As soon as I was in, I sped away and pulled into a space around the corner so I could get myself back under control. My heart was racing, my skin hot and tingling. I felt dizzy and euphoric. Like I’d just . . .”
“Been fucked hard and put away wet?”
She jumped a little, startled at how well Ruth had nailed it. “I guess that’s one way of putting it.”
“You’re acting surprised? Imagine how I feel.”
“Sorry, it just caught me off guard, that’s all. You don’t swear much.”
Ruth poured herself more brandy and took a big sip. “I might have to start now.”  
“Well, it didn’t end there.”
She nearly choked on her swallow. “What? Don’t tell me you licked more of his stuff.”
“After that one time, I was hooked. It was like a new compulsion had been awakened in me, and it was hungry. Like the worst craving you’ve ever felt in your life multiplied by a hundred. Maybe even a thousand. I tossed and turned all that night from the agony of it. The next day, I went to the campus and found out where he was teaching his latest class. Abnormal psych, ironically enough. I lingered nearby until the class let out and hid behind a pay phone until I saw him walk out as well. When he was a good way down the hall, probably headed toward the coffee stand, I darted inside. No one was there, but I knew my time was short. There was no telling who would walk in, and if it was him, I was finished. I would never recover from that humiliation. I was just thankful his desk was at the back of the room, away from the door, rather than right inside it.
“I got down on my knees and began to lick the cloth seat. His cologne was wafting from his coat hanging from the chair back, and it drove me even crazier. Lint from the upholstery dried out my mouth, and the rough fabric chafed my tongue, but I spied a bottle of water on the table and took a quick swig. Then, because he probably drank from that same bottle, I licked around the opening and wherever his hands might have touched it before I turned to the whiteboard tray. His dry erase markers were on the tray there, and I began sucking on those too.”
Ruth gasped, but Marah ignored it.
“The problem was I was going so fast that I wasn’t thinking and I accidentally jabbed one down my throat far enough to trigger my gag reflex. It seemed again like something was looking out for me, because it brought me back to my senses and I stopped. Just as I was putting the markers back on the tray, the door hinges squeaked behind me.”
Ruth was sitting with her hands bunched between her breasts, like the suspense movie had turned into a horror, and the teenager sneaking up the dark stairway had just come face to face with the machete wielding guy in the hockey mask. “It was him, wasn’t it?”
“Yep. He said, ‘Mar? Is that you?’ And I turned to face him for the first time since I’d sent him that letter. The secret of what I’d been doing the last two days felt as plain and hot on my face as a fresh rancher’s brand.”
“What in the world did you do?”
“I played it as cool as I could, of course. I told him I had a class in the same building and noticed him walking out of the room as I was coming in, and I decided to stop by and say hello. He seemed satisfied with that. Happy to see me, in fact. None of the weirdness I’d expected was there. In fact, he came forward and gave me a hug. I could on one hand count the number of times in our odd little friendship that he’d hugged me. I was too stunned to react. But something was different between us. To the point where he looked at me for a few seconds and said, ‘You look good, Mar. I don’t know what you’ve been doing these last couple weeks, but it suits you.’”
Ruth gasped. “He didn’t!”
“He did. And because I was feeling too shocked by the whole conversation to do much else, I decided to end it there. I told him it was good to see him and good luck with his class. Then he asked if I’d be at The Hub this week. That was the bar he and I met at most often before. I had stopped going there for obvious reasons. I didn’t say anything. Just smiled and left.
“Once I was clear of the room, I fled the building in a panic, certain he would have picked up one of his pens or his water bottle to find it slick with my saliva and come after me. But he never did. And later that night around ten or so, I got a short text from him.”
“What did it say?”
“Where are you?”
Ruth’s eyes widened. “That’s it?”
“I felt a rock drop in my stomach and my heart started pounding a thousand beats a minute. Those words didn’t tell me anything. For all I knew, he was onto me and my jive. With numb fingers I typed back that I was home, and asked what was up. Ten minutes later, he responded back with, ‘Wanna come over? Watch a movie?’”
Ruth didn’t say anything, but her mouth could have held an ocean liner the way it was hanging open.
“My skin was running waves of hot and cold, and my first instinct was to say I was busy, but my fingers weren’t listening. I typed back that I’d see him soon. Then he came back with, ‘Don’t you want my address?’ So I said of course, though I knew it as well as I knew my own. Forty-five minutes later, after a shower and a fresh application of makeup and hair products, and agonizing over about fifty different outfits, I was out the door and on my way, the whole time screaming, ‘His apartment! I’m going inside his apartment!’”
“Why do you suppose he was inviting you over now, of all times, after everything that had happened?” Ruth asked.
“I wondered the same thing, though the rogue part of me, the one with the active tongue, knew damn well why he was asking me.”
“You’re saying it had something to do with licking his stuff?”
“I wasn’t certain then, but later on I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
“I’m getting there, hold your horses. And make more coffee. This brandy is going to knock me out cold.”
While Ruth was in the kitchen, Marah kept talking. “He answered the door in sweats and a t-shirt, which was the first time I’d seen him dressed so casually. Seeing him in such an intimate setting was the most incredible feeling, though. I’d wanted that since the first time I saw him, but the compulsion to touch his things with my tongue was almost overwhelming. Once inside, my mouth cramped like someone in a desert getting the first sight of a spring.
“He led me into his small, neat living room and had me sit on the leather couch while he went into the kitchen to get drinks. As soon as I heard the clink of ice cubes on glass, I leaned down and dragged my tongue along the entire length of the sofa. My heart slowed a little after that. Enough for me to relax with him for a bit and let the vodka tonic he’d poured me go to work.
“I’d expected him to sit on the other end of the couch, or maybe in the armchair next to it. Bruce never spared the opportunity to put personal space between us before. Not this time. He sat close enough to me that our shoulders were touching.”
Ruth came back to the table with another carafe of coffee and poured them each a cup. She didn’t spare the brandy in hers, but Marah held her hand over her mug to keep it booze-free. Her speech was already slurring a bit, and she needed a clear head for what was coming.
“Well, isn’t that what you’d wanted the whole time?” Ruth asked. “It sounds to me like one way or another, he was coming around. Maybe he’d realized the error of his ways.”
“I tried to reason that initially, but it just didn’t hold up. His entire demeanor had changed. You don’t go from six months of high-fives and bro hugs to squeezing together on a single couch cushion. That was never Bruce’s style, even in the best of circumstances. You know how he was.”
Ruth sighed. “True. He wouldn’t even share an arm rest at a movie theater if he could avoid it.”
“Exactly. So a few minutes into the movie, I couldn’t take it anymore, between his changed behavior and my weird new fetish that seemed to be occupying my mind more than ever. So I excused myself into the restroom, and after splashing some water on my face, I looked in the mirror. My face was maybe a little pale and shell-shocked, but otherwise presentable. I did notice a small blood spot in the corner of my right eye, though, and it looked like I’d maybe burst a blood vessel or two.”
Ruth was peering into Marah’s eyes. “Yeah, I think I noticed that for a while, but didn’t know what it was. It’s still there.”
“Yeah. But before I could give that too much thought, I glanced down at his toothbrush standing at attention like a solitary soldier in the fight against gum disease, and an insatiable hunger overcame me. I snatched it up and began sucking on the bristles. Afterward, I licked the sink handles before moving on to—”
Ruth halted her in the universal sign of “talk to the hand.”
“Please, please tell me you didn’t lick the toilet. I’ve barely been hanging on through this whole sordid story, but that will send me right over the edge.
Marah sighed. “Of course I didn’t. I do have a line, you know.”
That was a lie, of course, but the relief on Ruth’s face was worth leaving that detail out. It wouldn’t do to have the woman bolt before the story was done. Truth was she did lick the toilet. First the lid, then the seat, and finally the rim. The faint smell of urine should have turned her stomach, but it only drove her harder. Then she got down on all-fours and began to lick the floor. This was probably the most arousing thing of all. “You know the saying people use when they’re crazy about each other? That you’d kiss the ground he or she walks on? It was that in the most literal sense.”
“But the germs, Mar! Didn’t that ever cross your mind? You were licking a bachelor’s bathroom floor, which is probably about as filthy as a cat’s litter box!”
“I didn’t notice. Didn’t care. Whatever nasty parasite of obsession was feeding on my brain at that point, the last thing it was concerned with was being sanitary.”
“Did you ever get sick?”
“I did, but not for that reason. I’ll get to that in a bit. At any rate, I was busy digging my tongue deep into the corner behind the door when I heard a knock. ‘Everything okay in there?’ I shot to my feet, heart pounding, eyes bulging. Yes, I was fine, I said. My voice was a little froggy from the dust, hairs and other unmentionables in the back of my throat, but a quick rinse took care of that. And because resistance by that point was absolutely futile, I gave the doorknob a good lick before heading back out. I saw that he’d stopped the movie, and was just sitting there on the couch grinning up at me in a way that gave me chills, and not in a good way either. After a brief debate, I took my original seat again. His eyes sparkled when he looked at me. In the room’s dim light, he reminded me of a hungry predator about to pounce on his prey. I felt his hand high on my leg, and I yelped. He didn’t ask if I was okay, didn’t ask what was wrong. It didn’t matter anymore that I’d wanted him from day one. Right then, he wasn’t the man I knew, and I was afraid of him.”
“What did he say?” Ruth asked.
“He leaned over and said, ‘I love you, Mar. I guess I always have. And you also smell so damn good.’ Then he kissed me, and I let him, because of the large part of me that still wanted him more than my next breath. But my rational half was afraid of the monster I might have awakened in him. I wanted to flee every bit as much as I wanted to stay.”
“Or maybe the grass was greener for you,” Ruth offered. “Maybe it’s easier for you to love something you can’t have than to risk losing something you can. So when you have what you want, the thrill is gone.”
Marah shrugged. “There may be something to that too, I suppose, but I’m certain that my instincts were reacting to the . . . otherness of him. When we made love, if that’s what you want to call it, it was brutal. Primal. I let him do whatever he wanted to me, let him fill whatever holes he wanted to fill, and go as hard as he could go. He grabbed fistfuls of my hair and yanked so hard I discovered bald patches the next day. We clawed, growled, slapped, bit. I let him use me until tears streamed down my face from pain and exhaustion, and when he was done, he flopped down on me, barely conscious, drenched in sweat. No cuddling afterward, no sweet pillow talk. He’d spent his seed in a howling rage and fell into a deep sleep. I used that as a chance to try and sneak out before he woke up.”
“As hurt and tired as I was, though, the compulsion to consume everything he might have touched was as strong as ever. In the darkened room, I found myself licking the switch plate, the dresser drawer handles, the doorknob. I managed to draw up enough willpower to stay out of his closet, where I would have undoubtedly been lost until morning licking his shoes and ties and belts. I drove home in a daze, determined to end this strange obsession once and for all. I was done with Bruce and my insane fixation. I’d dropped classes over this whole thing, and I was running out of money. Rent was a week and a half late and I couldn’t remember when I’d last paid my other bills. It was time to get my life back under some sort of control.”
“But that didn’t work,” said Ruth.
“Not for lack of trying. I avoided him for two weeks after that. And that’s when I got sick.”
“Sick how?”
“I was withdrawing from him like a junkie coming off of heroin. I was a sick, shaky mess. Raging headaches, muscles that screamed with agony. I vomited until it was nothing more than blood-flecked bile and finally dry retches. I’d hear his voice so clear in my head, certain and terrified he was really there, so I turned up the TV good and loud and buried my head in pillows. My phone rang almost constantly at first, but then I just pulled the battery. If I’d seen it was a call from him—and it always was—or if I listened to one of his voicemails, I’d only feel worse.”
“He really was like heroin.” Ruth’s eyes were wide, fascinated. Like they wanted to disbelieve, but couldn’t.
“I wasn’t just being melodramatic. Like I said, he was a drug. And apparently I was now a drug to him. We were feeding each other. I wondered if he was feeling just as ill as I was, and I never did find out. We never compared notes. Every day, I would get a half dozen emails asking why I was doing this to him, why I wouldn’t believe that he loved me, that he would do anything to win me back. He started driving past my place, just as I had driven past his for all those months, and that’s when I knew I was in serious trouble.”
“Did you think he was going to hurt you?”
Marah thought of the brutal sex they had, the bruises and furrows in her skin. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“So how in the world did you go all the way from there to the altar?”
“You know what happens sometimes when an addict tries to go cold turkey, aside from vomiting, shakes, and hallucinations?”
“Bingo. I hadn’t eaten in close to a week. Everything I put in my mouth came right back up again. I was dehydrated. I knew if I didn’t at least get to a hospital for some fluids, I’d be dead. But I was too weak to walk down my apartment steps, let alone drive, so I decided to take a shower and then call for an ambulance. Only, when I was stepping out of the tub, I lost consciousness and came to on the bathroom floor some point later in a puddle of my own piss, and blood in my mouth from where I’d bitten my incredibly tender tongue. Thankfully not clean through, but close.”
“My God, Mar!”

“I was in the hospital for nearly a week. They thought I was bulimic. I let them think that, because the truth would have had me in a state hospital faster than I could say straitjacket. Then, a couple days before I was released, I smelled his cologne and there he was, holding flowers. His were eyes full of adoration, like a dog that just wants his owner to love him. The way I probably used to look at him. I also realized that with him there, I felt instantly better. Strength that hadn’t been there for days was flowing through my body again. He was my cure. But my mind couldn’t take another second of what I’d just been through, so I just crumbled and gave into it completely.

Before I could say more than his name, he was covering me in kisses. And the part of me that I’d hoped was dormant, the part that recently had me on my knees licking his bathroom floor, was rolling in ecstasy.
“I’d gotten what I wanted. I had finally won the man I’d loved from the first moment I laid eyes on him. And it filled me with shame and defeat. He proposed to me the next day, and of course I accepted. There were few people to inform, what with my parents both in their graves, and my remaining family an uncle who was in charge of a small trust fund I wouldn’t get until I was twenty-five. Bruce’s family was equally minuscule, so we just flew to Las Vegas and did the deed there.”
“And all this time, were you still, you know, licking?”
Marah nodded. “I had to, even with my injured tongue. If I went more than a day without it, the shakes would set in again. Panic attacks, nausea. I was hooked through the gills, and I did it every day while he was off at work, after making careful note of the things he touched most. His computer keyboard, his morning coffee mug, his silverware and toothbrush. In the evenings, when he was showering after work, I took care of his phone and his keys. When we were eating our meals together, I would distract him long enough to switch utensils with him while he wasn’t looking.” She grinned. “My food always tasted better off his fork.”
“And what about him? Did he ever find out about it?”
“Not that I’m aware. But after a while, it seemed he was starting to develop a tolerance. Not long after our six month anniversary, I noticed the shine going out of his eyes. There were some nights he’d wake up in a cold sweat, and he didn’t think I noticed him looking at me, shaking his head, and then scooting so far over to the edge of our bed that a breeze would have blown him off.
“Not long after that, he stopped initiating sex. Then he stopped being able to do it altogether. I never complained about it, though. I knew what was happening.”
“Was the same thing happening to you?” Ruth asked. “Was your drug wearing off?”
“No. I think it was because I’d always loved him, and he’d been dazzled into it. It didn’t matter how much and how long I licked—I had the shiniest floors, you noticed them yourself—it just wasn’t enough. He would go off to work, leaving me with a mumble and a perfunctory shoulder squeeze, come home, eat a dinner I’d spent half the day cooking, and go to bed. I could tell he didn’t want me there, but he was too kind to tell me to leave. And then, just when I’d decided I was going to do just that, the morning of in fact, I got a call from the college administrator’s office telling me he’d been stabbed. And you know, I think he died because he wanted to. It was his only way to be free of whatever this was.”
“That’s crazy. You heard the doctor. He had hemophilia.”
Marah gave her a deadpan look. “After all the craziness you just heard, do you really believe that?”
The silence drew out like string on a long spool. Finally, Ruth spoke. “I don’t know what I believe. I’ve never heard such a bizarre love story.”
“That’s the thing, isn’t it? There wasn’t a damn bit of love in it. We were possessed by something.”
“Is it gone, do you think? Do you still feel the urge?”
“No. I think his death broke the bond between the monster living in my brain and him. I feel sad he’s gone, but it’s a distant sort of thing, and it’s not just the valium doing that. Mostly I’m relieved.”
Ruth reached out and patted her hand. “Well, I’m glad you told me. I think you needed to get that off your chest.”
Marah grinned. “So are we still friends?”
“Of course.”
But there was a flatness to her voice, wasn’t there? Oh, Ruth would try to be there for her, but a connection had been severed in the telling of her tale, and eventually the phone calls for lunch and pedicures would stop. Probably right away once the whole thing sunk in on her, like when she told Steve. And of course, she would tell Steve. Real husbands and wives tell each other everything.
 A knock at the door punctuated the end of the conversation, and Marah got up to answer it.
Steve stood in the hallway, a gentle expression on his open, honest face. He wasn’t as handsome as Bruce had been, but one look at him, and you just knew he’d never hide anything or shut anyone out. It was so unlike Bruce’s face that Marah wondered how she ever could have fallen in love with such a cold and closed off man. Ruth didn’t realize how lucky she was. But maybe she would now.
“Hey, Mar. How are you holding up?” He stepped inside and gave her a hug. There had been many hugs the last few days, but this was one she felt willing to accept.
“I’m better. Ruth and I were just drowning ourselves in coffee and brandy.”
“Should I leave you two to continue? I can always come back later.”
Ruth shot up out of her chair fast enough to nearly topple it over. “That’s okay, dear. I’m sure Marah would like to take a nap after I talked her ear off.”
Of course, Marah had done most of the talking, but she got the picture, and didn’t bother to correct her. “Yeah, I could use a little rest. Thank you for being here, Ruth.”
The woman gave her a strained grin. “Anytime.” She made for the door, no hug this time. Steve frowned after his wife, but gave Marah a quick peck on the cheek.
“If there’s anything we can do for you, we’re just a phone call away,” he said.
Marah knew the offer would be rescinded within the next hour or two, and any call from her would go unanswered. Not that she intended to call. “I appreciate that.”
Ruth practically yanked Steve out the door, and Marah listened to their footsteps fade down the apartment building’s hallway; the clack of Ruth’s heels the rapid staccato of a barely restrained jog. The muffle of their voices was difficult to make out, but Marah got the gist. I’ll tell you later. Just get me out of here.
Marah sighed and went into the bathroom. Her eyes were glassy, and that red blood spot was still there, and if she looked closely enough, she could see others starting to pop out. She really needed to sleep, but there was something she had to do first. The place on her cheek where Steve had kissed her was tingling. Breathing a heavy sigh, she slowly wiped at the spot and placed her finger in her mouth.


Part II

I’m lying awake after another nightmare about killing my wife. Four nights in a row this week, the same dream. In it we’re sleeping, and I roll over and climb on top of her, wrap my hands around her throat, and squeeze squeeze squeeze, crushing her hyoid bone to powder—I feel the sensation so vividly even now the memory of it makes my skin tingle with something akin to lust—until the horrible thing living inside her, the thing that has also now infected me, is dead. And when I’m sure I’ve finally killed her, put her out of our collective misery, I look down to see her staring up at me smiling. The whites of her are eyes glowing, wide black pupils glittering, as her tongue rolls out of her mouth like an impossibly long slug. She speaks and the words sound choked and grated coming out of her pulverized larynx, but they’re coherent.
“One last taste, Bruce. One last taste.”
The dream dissolves as that tongue reaches up to touch my cheek, warm and moist and wrong in every possible way. I sit up in a cold sweat and look over at her sleeping benign form and wonder how aware she might be of her husband’s homicidal ideations. Last month, I saw a doctor and told him I’m feeling more aggressive than usual and smelling things that aren’t there. Strawberries, to be precise, but I’ll get to that in a bit. He ordered an MRI to check for a brain tumor. As a psychologist, I know that is standard procedure. Phantosmia, or phantom smells, are most closely associated with the onset of brain cancer as well as epilepsy, but the scan came back negative for growths or clots or any other abnormalities. The doctor and I agreed it was odd that I smelled something sweet. Most sufferers have the opposite experience, a putrid rotting stench that keeps them from being able to eat. That wasn’t me. If anything, I’ve been eating more than usual. Meat, especially. I asked him to write me a prescription for good old-fashioned Xanax, as well as Abilify, an antipsychotic. He didn’t bat an eyelash.
The pills keep me sedate enough so I can function day to day. I can go to work and even sit in the same room or lie in bed with her without completely losing my shit. The only problem is, they don’t dull the smell all that much, and they haven’t stopped the nightmares either. If anything, those have only grown worse.
I can’t be the only one feeling this way. How could Marah not know our marriage and everything about this relationship is fundamentally wrong? That something outside us is controlling it? Of course, she might, but she hasn’t said anything and I haven’t gotten up the courage to ask her. We never really learned proper communication, the backbone of any normal relationship. But tell me how is this particular dinner conversation supposed to happen? “Hey hon, can you pass the potatoes? Also, I think I might be possessed by a demon that’s forcing me to fuck you half to death three or four nights a week.” Instead, the unasked questions sit between us like an invisible pregnant force, much like the one controlling us now. Perhaps deep down we’re afraid that if we question what’s happening, something will come forth and end us both before we have a chance to fix it. It’s a dangerous holding pattern.
I can tell Marah is struggling with something too. She seems brittle now, like an illustration of one of those smiling wives from the 1950s with the pearls, the glazed eyes, and possibly a hatchet hidden behind her back. She also seems to be developing a subtle speech impediment, like her tongue is a little swollen, though like the scent it’s worse some days than others. All these feelings are worse at night. I feel more vulnerable to this force now than at any other time of the day. Between the hours of ten and six, it’s all about survival. I scoot as far over to the edge of the bed as I can, determined to get through the rest of the night without her touching me, and I bury my face in my pillow because I especially don’t want to smell her, and that helps a little. The thing is the smell is in me now. It’s permeated every pore. It lives on me like an invisible blanket. If I get any benefit at all from blocking my nose, it’s at best in my head, like scratching at an amputated limb to help with a phantom itch.
So I lie here, enduring hours of silence punctuated by her sleeping breaths, the ones I so desperately want to cut off so I can be free. I have to wallow around in my increasingly dark thoughts, drowning in the hopelessness of it all, feeling the “otherness” of this thing, whatever it is, clinging to my brain like an invisible remora. That thing whispers to me, warning what might happen if I try to leave her again. Oh I have tried, believe me. So did she, early on. The results were a disaster, and it’s why I lie here night after night pondering her death. But I can’t do it unprovoked. I’m not a murderer at heart. However, if she touches me... The brush of her hand will almost certainly set off a Rube Goldberg contraption of brutality, and my murder fantasies will no longer reside in the confines of my head. I not only want to kill her, though. I want to hang her upside down and cut her open from stem to stern and release her defilement like a hunter releases a deer’s entrails, just to make sure it really is out of her and that it has no other host to infect.
And the real mind fuck of it all is it would be a mercy killing, because this woman used to be a dear friend to me and I know this person is not her, not any more than the person who brutalizes her with sex every other night is me. No one outside this perversion of love and marriage could possibly understand. No one could ever comprehend that the only escape from the thing squatting inside our minds like a diseased toad is death. I would welcome it for myself, in fact, and in the last couple weeks I’ve pondered suicide the way a freezing man ponders the warmth of a fire. But I can’t yet, because I need to see this through. And because it really should be her to go first. It all started with her, with Marah. She’s the mother of it.
So yeah, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a smell. It comes in waves like a tide, but the faintest essence of it is always there, keeping me in a constant state of tension. You know how smart realtors bake cookies on the day of an open house in order to tempt buyers? That’s what Marah is doing, but isn’t cookies. It’s a sweet musk, like sex in a bathtub full of strawberries. I don’t think she realizes it. I’ve asked her before what sort of perfume she’s wearing, and she swears up and down she doesn’t wear any. “I don’t like too many scents,” she says, and I believe her. I’ve smelled her soaps and hair products and deodorants, and none of it resembles that strawberry sex musk that, for the last six months or so, has filled my head when I’m in the same room with her.
Whatever the scent is or its source, I’m convinced it’s making me aggressive, hypersexual. I hurt her when we’re together, and I like it. She likes it too and she always begs for more, and in her cries of pleasure and pain, I beg her to hurt me back. She obliges by digging her nails in deeper and scraping until I can later feel my skin hanging from my back like tattered ribbons. She sometimes bites too and licks away the blood. Always with the licking. Her tongue has touched every inch of me. She has no boundaries, and that’s probably a good thing because if she’d resisted at all… I can’t say what would have happened, what I’d be guilty of. After we finish, limbs shaking, muscles depleted of every last drop of energy, bodies pink from our blood-tinged sweat, the sheets a complete ruin, I still have to fight to keep my bruised dick at bay as that smell permeates my pores, coats the inside of my nose and mainlines straight into my brain, whispering, “Fuck her fuck her fuck her more…fuck fuck fuck fuck.”
Only, I’ve think I’ve fucked Marah for the last time. It’s gotten so I can’t even tell the difference between fuck and kill. It used to be the orgasms brought a feeling of satiation. The meaning of the word orgasm, “little death,” seemed more apt than ever. But this thing inside me has grown resistant. Now I want to feel the life run out of her. Just the fantasy of it arouses me, despite my knowledge that there is nothing normal or natural about this. I need help, but who do I consult? A doctor or a priest?
Okay, enough of this wallowing. If I haven’t killed myself yet, it must mean I’m fighting to survive. It means I have to trace this thing’s origins a little more so I can fix it. I’m a proactive kind of guy. I like finding solutions to problems. Murder, suicide… these things are copouts. I just have to keep that in mind when the moon rises every night.
I remember when I first noticed that strawberry sweetness. It was before we got married, of course, and even before I ever laid a hand on her that wasn’t a friendly shoulder pat in the middle of a bar. No, the smell came well after that, during an awkward gray area of friendship that happens between two people when the discussion of taking it to the next level doesn’t go very well. She wrote a letter confessing her long-held feelings for me, and I rebuffed her. It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to imagine myself with her. What man doesn’t? Our mutual friends certainly thought we were a good match, and on paper we were. Both intelligent people with similar taste in music and movies and politics and disturbing jokes. It’s just that no matter how hard I tried to put those thoughts into my head, of being a boyfriend or a lover to her, I came up blank, the same way I have come up blank with every person who has ever tried to get inside my heart.
Am I painting myself a bit unsympathetic when I say I haven’t had a real relationship in about twenty years? It worried me more about five or ten years ago, when the rest of my colleagues were settling down and having kids, but I’ve grown comfortable with my life and my choices in the years since. Some people need people, but I never have. Not in that way. This makes me seem aloof and even cold, but that isn’t my problem.
No, I’m not gay. That’s the number one assumption people make about me, and it doesn’t bother me, but despite my reticence about commitment, I am sexually attracted to women. My porn collection easily bears this out. I’m not living in the closet, but I do confess to liking walls and privacy. My house, my things, my schedule. Mine. I’m a selfish bastard. Now that I’m pushing forty, that pressure seems to be lessening a bit. My mother has stopped expecting a wedding and subsequent grandchildren from me and has now set her sights on my younger brother, the one who seems to be living the perfect cookie-cutter existence all the way out in Wisconsin with a pretty blonde wife and a budding law career. All of this is a roundabout way of explaining why I told Marah all those months ago “it’s not you, it’s me,” a cliché but the truth, dammit. But there was no convincing her of that, I’m sure. Do all women blame themselves for not being pretty or thin enough to win the man they want? That’s rhetorical, of course. I’m a shrink. I know the answer.
Her love letter angered me a little, to be honest. I’d expected better from her. And how dare she put me in such an awkward position? What gave her the right to rip our friendship out from under my feet like that? Things had been pretty great before then. She wasn’t only a drinking buddy. She was a confidant, a kindred spirit. There were no expectations, no need for me to be someone I wasn’t so I could win my way into bed with her. About a week after the letter, I became even more distraught over her display of nerve. I came to believe that I’d misjudged her emotional literacy. I certainly never led her on or gave her any reason to think I would have the same feelings. She knew this. She even admitted in the letter she did, so why didn’t she just keep her damn mouth shut and let her little college professor infatuation play out? It was selfish, and the worst part was she said so herself and did it anyway, because her selfishness was, and I quote, “an act of self-preservation.” The hyperbole pissed me off too, as if she were dealing with something truly dire like a fucking brain tumor.
But the friendship did mean something to me. I might grumble about forming intimate connections, but I’m not a complete monster. I trusted her. I loved how she listened deeply in a conversation instead of just waiting her turn to speak. I miss that about her even now, because she’s lost it. It isn’t that she stopped listening. It’s that listening is all she does. Like she’s hypnotized, fixated. A servant waiting for her next order.
I’d still been working through the shock of the love letter when I walked into my classroom one day to see her standing there. Hindsight tells me she looked guilty of something, though I can’t say of what. I smelled that sweet scent . . . And the thing is I know I’d smelled it before earlier that morning when I got into my car. In retrospect, I wonder if she’d been in there, but no matter. My drive to work had been a distracted mess, and I nearly plowed into someone after running a red light. Without a doubt, she was the source. And I had to touch her then.
But it was more than that. For the first time since we’d struck up our friendship, I wondered what it would feel like to press myself against her and breathe her in. A brief image of bending her over my desk flashed through my mind and I felt like someone had tossed a bucket of cold water on me. The post-letter awkwardness that had been worming through my gut every time I set foot on campus or walked into any of our old haunts vanished as if it had never been there, and I could see the surprise painted on her face too.
Marah was nothing if not perceptive. It’s one of the many reasons I liked her. She’d expected the same awkwardness and was just as surprised as me that she wasn’t getting it. But something had driven her to come here anyway, just like something was now pushing me toward her and opening my arms so I could welcome her into an embrace I didn’t specifically ask for but wanted anyway. It was hard to let her go, but a vestige of my reason and self-control remained.
That was the last I would see of it.
We exchanged a few words and she left in a bit of a hurry. I think my behavior surprised her more than it surprised me. The strawberry essence of her remained, though, and it stayed with me, nestling itself into my head, telling me I had to see her again. Alone. It got so I couldn’t teach without thinking of how I might get her alone so I could bury myself in that heady cloud again. I wanted more. Oh God how I wanted more.
I remember going home that day with my head in a complete haze, and all I could think of was Marah. Marah. Marah. It was a chemical preoccupation like nicotine, a craving that festered itself through fidgeting and rocking back and forth and nervously bouncing my knees up and down. I had to see her again, right that second, or I would come out of my skin. I tried guided meditation to see if I could settle myself down. The trick is to imagine a ball of white light on the toes, and then letting it gradually roll all the way up to the head, where it floods everything with peace and tranquility. I also had New Age music pumping through my speakers to enhance the effect, and even though these techniques had always worked for me before, it was useless then. Telling myself not to think of Marah, not to contact her, was like trying not to sneeze after inhaling a handful of black pepper. Before I could move that imaginary light even halfway up my shins, I was on my computer typing out an email asking her to come over here, my fingers flying over the keyboard so fast I couldn’t stop them before hitting “Send.” I’d already decided to myself that if she wouldn’t come to me, I would go to her.
But I knew she would come. She would do anything I asked because she was in love with me. Even set herself on fire, I would wager. She might even do so now, but I need to stop thinking such tempting thoughts.
It’s more than a little frightening when your mind is forcing you to act against your will, particularly if you’re a shrink. After ruling out a brain tumor and any other physiological causes for the phenomenon, I pulled out out the handy old DSM-IV and started looking up diseases of the mind. I should have felt at home in this world, but I came away even more disillusioned. The easy go-to is schizophrenia because of the olfactory hallucinations, the delusion of possession, but I fit none of the other diagnostic criteria. I don’t have the disordered thinking or the blunted affect (at least apart from what the Abilify is giving me). Delusional disorder is a more distinct possibility, but I’m putting that on the back burner for now because the meds simply are not working, and if it was this disease, they should be. I could play with dosages, but for right now I’m not convinced. Dissociative identity disorder is a tempting diagnosis, because it certainly feels like I’m sharing my mind with a separate personality, but the problem is I’m very much aware of its presence and there are no instances of lost time or forgetfulness. It’s just riding around like an unwanted passenger.
I have also considered bipolar with accompanying satyriasis, but the research on hypersexuality is controversial, and it merely describes the effect rather than the cause. Furthermore, it only seems to have one particular target: Marah. In fact, I couldn’t focus on another woman if I wanted to. What it most reminds me of is Alien Hand Syndrome, a highly unusual disorder where a person feels like one of their hands has gone rogue and starts acting involuntarily. However, in my case it’s my mind and my libido and there is no definitive name for such a thing. Maybe I could come up with one and be the hero of every rapist and philanderer out there, but even now after everything that I’ve been through, everything I’ve done, this thought repulses me.
All this leads me to start considering less conventional forms of diagnosis, like demonic possession—a stretch for this lifelong atheist. Even as a kid, I had trouble swallowing myth. Santa Claus was a source of nightmares about home invasion rather than the joy of presents. Even if there isn’t an actual demon, perhaps through some ritual or exorcism I can convince my mind to overthrow whatever is ailing it. There is a student in my abnormal psych class. Serge LaFontaine. He moved up from Haiti a few years back after an earthquake wrecked his village. The other students jokingly call him the Ramen Shaman, but he definitely doesn’t look like any joke. He has a face like a stealth bomber: black and all sharp angles. I don’t know if he’s actually a shaman or into any other sort of voodoo religion, but I keep thinking I should at least talk to him. What else do I have to lose at this point other than professional credibility or whatever remains of my sanity?
That was very odd, and I’m not sure how I feel about it all yet. He knew things about me and my situation without prompt, and they were too sharp to write off as sharp intuition, the sort that television and carnival “psychics” are best known for.
When class ended, I flagged down Serge and asked if he could stay behind for a few minutes. His solemn nod seemed knowing, like he’d been waiting for me to ask him just that, and already I was feeling off-kilter. I hurried out the last few stragglers, the ones who like to stick around and make small talk while I pack up my things. Marah had been one of those, back in a more innocent time. I closed the door and locked it to keep anyone else from walking in.
“Thank you for staying,” I said. “This won’t take long.”
“Something troubles you, Doctor Amherst.”
“Good guess,” I said, though the matter-of-fact observation wasn’t a stretch. I’ve looked terrible for months. My body has a wasted and stringy appearance like an aged rock star. The hair on my head is thinning, skin sallow and dull. My eyes are hollowed out and bloodshot, and I’m pretty sure there are more gray whiskers than brown in my ever-present stubble. I’m thirty-eight, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking I’m fifty.
“I don’t know how to ask this without sounding . . .” What, racist? Ignorant? Crazy? One of those. I had to tread carefully. “People call you a shaman. Are you?”
Serge’s face cracked open in a smile so wide the whole bottom half of his face looked like piano ivories. “The Ramen Shaman, at your service,” he intoned with his thick Caribbean accent and gave a little bow.
“It’s not a joke, then?”
“The students have their clever phrases, for they do not understand the culture. I am not a proper shaman. That would be my mother down in Haiti. But I still see things in my own way.”
“Do you see something in me?” I asked. I didn’t want to give him too much information ahead of time. That’s how the charlatans work their pseudo-magic.
“Are you sure this is what you want? Ignorance is like a layer of skin. Once it’s stripped away, what remains is raw and painful.”
I was growing apprehensive, my skin crawling. The man had a force around him impossible to ignore. If he was a fake, he was a damn good one. But it was too late to tell him never mind and then go about my business. I needed to know what he saw, even for curiosity’s sake.
“Yes, please. I’m asking you because I’m out of options, Serge. I need to fix this.”
“I understand. Be very still, Doctor Amherst.” He placed his long and spidery fingers on top of my head and closed his eyes, taking deep breaths. A chill passed through me, swift and frigid like instant February. Then he jerked his hand away and studied me for a minute, concern painted into those sharp angles. It took me a moment to realize I was holding my breath, and I let it out in a big whoosh.
“What is it? What do you see?” I said.
“I am afraid you are sharing a very nasty demon with someone. Your wife, I believe. You are married, yes? I don’t see a ring on your finger, but do I see a bond.” His eyes searched my face for confirmation, and he must have found something there—likely shock—because he went on. “She feeds it with her compulsion, but she does not know. Not truly. It forces you both to act in ways that are . . . profane.”
I gaped at him, not prepared for this flood of information, all of it so spot on. I wanted to believe it was still a hoax or that someone had put him up to it, but I had approached him, not the other way around. “How can you see all of this?”
“It is a gift. Or a curse, depending on what I see.” The tone of his voice suggested the latter. “I can feel the pull of what’s inside her from here. Can’t you?”
“I always feel it. I used to crave it. Now it fills me with rage.”
“That is its way with many of these. Hunger demons are what my mother calls them, but not all of them have names, or at least that anyone ever recorded. They are legion.”
A sick relief filled me right then, because he could see so much. He knew. And if he knew, then maybe he could help me get rid of it. “Can we kill it?”
Funny how I automatically considered him an expert in all things paranormal. I thought I was the teacher, but I was alien territory here.
“I cannot say for sure. My mother may have more information on this. I will speak with her and then I will contact you.”
“Just know I’ll do anything to be rid of it,” I said, noting the begging quiver in my voice and hating the way it sounded. “I feel like it’s killing me.”
“That is because it is.”
The words hit my gut like a stone fist and I couldn’t say anything. It wasn’t that I was surprised by the statement itself, but the bald and calm nature of its delivery. But of course this…thing (I struggle to call it a demon myself, even now) is killing me. I know it with the certainty that I knew, perhaps from the first time I looked over and saw Marah Jones sitting attentively in that first Psych 101 class nearly two years ago, that she was going to be someone I would know, for better or worse. It was killing us both, probably, a parasite feeding and sucking us dry. Or maybe it was sucking me dry and fattening her up with its poison. That was a chilling thought.
“You seem to be taking this all in stride, Serge,” I said.
He shrugged. “These things are a fact of life for those who see. I cannot control it. Only observe what I can.”
My intellectual half was begging me to denounce him as crazy, a phony. It’s what we do in my field. But I accepted his words at face value, because no one looked saner or more collected than the man standing before me.
“What can I do for you in exchange for your help? A’s on every assignment? A glowing letter of recommendation to a Master’s program?” I wasn’t joking.
“I haven’t helped you yet, Doctor. Do not worry yourself over such things. Just… try not to do anything rash. I know you have been thinking dark thoughts.” He asked one last question. “Is the scent sweet? Like a fruit?”
I sat down on my chair, weak in the knees. “Yes. Strawberries.”
“Okay. I will speak with my mother and we will talk soon.”
I don’t really remember him leaving. I just sat there with my head spinning until the next adjunct faculty member came in to prep for his class. Steve Church, sociology. I made the usual pleasantries with the man. He’s a friend, and his wife Ruth seems to get along okay with Marah when we go out for occasional meals or movies. The ritual of the double date is something I have never adjusted to and doubt I ever will. Especially when the double date is with a real couple like Steve and Ruth, who are genuinely affectionate and easy with one another. I hate them a little for their normalcy, to tell you the truth.
“Staying a little late, I see,” Steve said. He set down his satchel and looked at me with a little crease between his bushy blonde eyebrows. I could tell he wanted to ask if I was okay, but he wasn’t an idiot. He knew I wouldn’t answer honestly. I appreciate it when people know me, at least a little, but I’m not going to involve Steve in this problem. For all I know, the illness or parasite (or demon, as Serge insisted) could be contagious.
I walked into the kitchen this morning and found Marah down on all fours licking the floor, and suddenly all this started making some kind of sense. She seemed completely oblivious to everything else, least of all me standing right behind her watching her head bob up and down as she lapped at the linoleum like a crazed hound. Little moans escaped her with every lick, reminding me of how she sounded during sex. Worst of all, the whole room smelled like a thick strawberry cloud with an underlying salty tang of post-coital sweat. The scent was the strongest it had ever been since Marah and I had started down this absurd path together, and now I understood why.
I wanted to grab her raised ass and tear into it with my teeth. I wanted to ruin her. My erection felt like an iron ingot in my pants, but somehow I tore myself away from the scene and stumbled out of the kitchen and eventually out of the apartment. I drove over to a coffee shop on the other side of town and ordered a latte and biscotti I didn’t want, and now here I sit, over and over again the scene of Marah licking that damn floor playing through my head, by equal turns revolting and arousing.
This has to be the compulsion Serge was referring to, how Marah feeds the thing controlling us both. It has turned her into some kind of succubus by proxy, if there even is such a thing, and I can’t escape the certainty that I should have killed her while in the act. The knife block had only been a few feet away on the kitchen counter, the handle of the longest specimen sticking out like an invitation. I imagine unsheathing the eight inches of carbon steel and watching it gleam briefly in the morning light before burying it in her back, or perhaps at the base of the neck, cutting off the spinal cord so she dies faster. At least offer her that much in honor of our old friendship, or what little of it I can remember now.
I have to smile at this fantasy, so gruesome like all the others that have preceded it, because there was a brief time when all this started that I didn’t think I could live without Marah. After our first night together, she tried to break things off. I think that violent union scared her as much as it scared me, but she’d flipped a switch in my mind and there was no turning it off at that point. Being apart from her even for those few days was a bit like a heroin junkie going cold turkey, and it nearly killed us both. She later told me she didn’t eat or sleep for days after that first night, but I knew about the seizure that finally landed her in the hospital because I’d been standing outside her apartment, peering into her living room window like a common stalker, determined to make her at least talk to me. I saw her go into her bathroom and when she didn’t come out after forty minutes I beat my way in, an unthinkable feat for a guy who is five-nine and about 165 soaking wet, but I guess you could say it wasn’t exactly me behind the driver’s seat at that point. The thing in my head was determined to reunite with the thing in hers, to complete the circle of consumption. Even though the doctors didn’t know the cause of her symptoms, I did.
I proposed to her before I knew the words were in my mouth, and when they came out it just seemed perfect, the only possible answer to our dilemma. I wanted nothing more than a spiritual and legal bond that would hold us together forever and allow us to feel for the rest of our lives that seething and painful ecstasy of our first night together. She checked out of the hospital the next morning and we were on a plane to Vegas that night. Bing, bang, boom. Everyone was shocked when word got out. Particularly people who knew me best and knew my predilection for bachelorhood. And here I am months later, that seething ecstasy reduced to nothing more than pain. And hate.
My head heavy with the weight of half a year without real sleep or relaxation, I lay it down on the cool table. It feels good to rest my eyes in a place that doesn’t smell even remotely like strawberries and sex. Just benign, fair trade coffee beans and the patchouli from the hippies who frequent this joint. Someone taps me on my shoulder and I slowly look up to see one of my students standing there. Mark Sobba. Weird kid, a fucking Prof groupie too. He’s signed up for every class I’ve taught in the last year, but once abnormal psych is done, there won’t be any more for him to take and I’ll finally be done with him. I won’t have to feel his blank slate gaze tracking my every step across the front of the room or hear his donkey laugh at even my lamest jokes. I normally feel pleased when a kid passes my exams, like I’d done something right, but not this one. He’s not passing because he wants to do well. He’s passing because he wants to impress me. Because he wants to be beer buddies or co-child molesters or animal torturers, or whatever fucked up shit he does in his spare time. I guess in many ways he’s not unlike Marah had been, but with her it felt natural given our similar wits. And Marah wasn’t so . . . blank. This Sobba guy, however, is a twisted Talented Mr. Ripley type who would probably cut off my skin and wear it as a suit if given half a chance.
“Doc! I didn’t expect to see you here. How freakin’ cool is that?”
His eyes look like the dusty black buttons on an old widow’s dress. Classic sociopath pretending to be human. I wonder if he even realizes it. Probably he does. “How’s it going, Mark?”
“Good good. Hey, you graded the midterms yet? It’s been, like, a week since we took them.”
Fuck. I had a pile of scantron sheets in my briefcase I hadn’t even looked at since test day. PowerPoint and Freud DVDs had been saving my ass lately and most of the kids probably loved the lack of homework compared to my usual course load, which had always been demanding but fair. But it was all catching up with me now. There were tests and essays to grade, and some of the students were going to start demanding mommy and daddy’s money’s worth.
“They’ll be ready next class. Promise.” I sip on my coffee, hoping that would be the end of this unwelcome social visit. Just go away, Mark fucking Sobba. Just go away.
He sits down and I imagine him instead of Marah in all of my murder fantasies, a quick shuffle of choke, stab, maul, slice and dice. “So cool to be finally hanging out with you in public. I know you hang out with your other students at bars and stuff. Didn’t you even marry one of them?”
My hands ball into fists, nails biting into palms. “Marah wasn’t my student when I married her, Mark. Are you insinuating something?”
“Nope. But it’s the same difference, though. You met her in your class and you’re friends with your students is what I’m saying. But that’s cool.” He leans forward, his button eyes gleaming a little. “Did the chick you married fuck you for an A? You can tell me.”
I recoil like he just slapped me. “What the fuck, Mark?”
He honks a laugh that echoes louder through the coffee shop than their industrial size bean grinder. “I’m just kidding with you, Doc. You used to be better at jokes. Man, you are one of the funniest teachers I’ve ever had. I’m gonna miss our classes together. Kinda makes me hope I fail this one so I can take the class again.”
And with that horrible possibility swimming around in my head like a tiger shark, I’ve about had enough. Standing up, I say, “I don’t think you’ll have a problem passing.”
His grin is sheepish, false modesty playing about as well on his face as a porno in preschool. “Yeah, I guess we’ll have to see. I got a D on the mid-term. If I fail this one . . .”
I leave the coffee shop. Sobba doesn’t follow, but the weight of those flat, shiny eyes remains on my back as I go.
I walk listlessly around town, trying to do anything to avoid going home but wondering anyway exactly what she might be licking now. It occurs to me how many times I’ve kissed that mouth after it’s been who knows where. The kitchen floor is dirty enough, but what about the bathroom? The toilet? My stomach churns and I burp up a caustic mix of coffee and bile. Stumbling over to the grass, it all comes up after a single retch. My phone alerts me to a message as I’m spitting and avoiding the curious glances of people walking by. I find a park a few blocks up, and I take the nearest bench so I can check the message. It’s an email from Serge.
Doctor Amherst. I have your answer. Can we meet?
Oh thank God. Hastily I type back yes please, meet me at this park, and he answers back he’ll be here in fifteen minutes.
I can barely hold still. This could all end today for both Marah and me. I imagine we’ll be able to get some kind of annulment, a quick dissolution for a marriage that happened under the influence of something sinister and wrong, or whatever the nearest legal equivalent of that is. We have no shared bank accounts or credit cards or anything like that. Washington is a community property state, but I don’t think Marah is the type of person who would contest anything property related. After we sign the papers, we can move on with our lives. No friendship would be possible, I don’t think. In fact, I would prefer it if I didn’t remember this part of my life at all. After everything I’ve dealt with, I think I can deal with a blank spot in my memory of my disastrous marriage. I’ll have to leave the college, of course. Maybe find work somewhere north of here. Or in a different state altogether. Marah doesn’t have many roots here other than what she cultivated at the university, but if nothing else she can probably go live with her uncle in the Midwest or something while she gets her life straight, at which point she can meet some nice, milquetoast Iowa farm boy and live happily ever after.
Serge sits down on the bench next to me a few minutes later, snapping me out of my rare idealistic daydream. The Haitian can’t be older than twenty-one, but he looks ageless, like an idol carved out of obsidian.
“Good afternoon, Doctor.”
“Hey. You spoke with your mother?”
A nod of his god-like head. “Yes.”
He turns his eyes on me. The whites are yellowish, making the irises and pupils look like scrimshaw paintings. I try not to let his unpleasant vibe deflate my hopes, but then I know better deep down that my fantasy of a new life a moment ago was delusion. I never was a very positive guy.
“My mother tells me to tell you she is sorry, but there is nothing that can be done. I too am sorry, Doctor Amherst.”
My mind spins like a top and for a minute as I try to find words. I’m shocked. “What do you mean nothing can be done? You can’t, you know, exorcise it or something? Aren’t there rituals? Chicken blood? Goat heads? Come on!”
He shakes his head. “It is not something that can be purged. It hasn’t just weakened your spirit. It has become your spirit. And it is the same for your wife.”
I feel the rage burble up and spill out of my mouth before I have a chance to stop it. “She’s not my wife, goddamnit! Stop calling her that!” A woman pushing a stroller throws a quick glance our way before hurrying off, her blinding white mom-Keds a blur on the pavement.
“I’m sorry, Serge. Of course she’s my wife. It’s just . . .”
“You don’t love her.”
“It isn’t that simple.” Of course I did love Marah once. Not as a wife or a lover, but there was love there. Something that I once thought was more profound than what you’d found in a garden variety marriage, at least from my side of things. Now it’s just love with all the good parts stripped away, a sick dependency that brings out the worst in us both. “Did she do this? Can you at least tell me that? Did she somehow, I dunno, welcome this thing on purpose?”
“Most of these creatures visit the most vulnerable among us. Her soul’s most special and secret doors were open and it flew in. I suppose in this case she must have been heartsick over something. Was it you?”
Those words make me feel guilty, though they shouldn’t. It wasn’t as if I could make myself fall for her overture, and I sure as hell had no control over her feelings for me. I also hate the maudlin implications of all this. Should love really be so fucking painful and complex? To me, it’s more of a sales game. If no one wants to buy what you’re peddling, you move on. What’s so hard about that? This fate business was invented by romance novelists and advertisers. Or maybe I’m just a callous bastard. Either way, I never asked for any of this.
“What do I do now? I suppose I can just leave her.” Those words feel hollow, untrue. There would be no leaving. There would only be death. Serge wastes no time explaining what I already know.

“You would most certainly die, as a man in a desert dies soon without water. Your spirits are inextricably bound for better or worse. However, I do have one thing.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a thin gray stone. It has a hole through the

middle and a piece of twine looped through it, turning it into a necklace, I assume. “You can wear this around your neck or keep it with you. It is an adder stone. Ancient form of protection against evil. It will not make the urges go away completely, but you will be less vulnerable to the scent. Less aggressive. Perhaps it will make your situation more bearable, while it is still yours to bear.”
My heart feels shattered. This can’t be all there is, this trinket, a hokey form of spiritual palliative care. I take the stone—it’s unnaturally cool in my hands—and I slip the twine around my neck. The strange pendant lies against my chest like an ice cube that doesn’t melt. “What about Marah? Doesn’t she get one?”
“The adder stone would have no effect on her. Only one thing will help her now.” 
We both know what that is, but neither of us says it. Serge stands and gazes down at me, and I feel even smaller and more pathetic in his shadow. “I don’t know you, Doctor, but I do not need the gift of sight to see you carry many secrets and burdens. The maze of your heart is an enigma to you more than anyone else. But I believe you are a good man, at essence, or you would have succumbed to the urge to murder her long before you sought my help. My advice is different from my mother’s. Would you like to hear it?”
“Try to love your wife. The thing in you feeds off of misery and breeds hatred. If she is a good woman, she cannot be impossible to love. You may not kill the demon this way, but you may pacify it. You may live a long life together. There are many worse things in this world than having someone in your life to love.”
Over the last couple weeks, I’ve noticed major differences. In fact, it was almost immediate. I can still smell the effect of Marah’s licking rituals, but the effect feels muted. The stone is far more effective than the anti-psychotics, which I have now stopped taking. We have had sex a few times, but it is far less violent. Almost perfunctory, in fact. Normal. Marah seems to notice too, but she doesn’t say anything and I see no benefit in broaching a discussion about it at this point. Perhaps the demon is in its final throes. I don’t want to disturb that.
I do notice a look of restrained desperation in her eyes now when we share meals or try to converse about our days, like she knows something has changed, but can’t say what it is. She doesn’t know about the stone. I don’t always wear it as a necklace. Just having it nearby or under my pillow if we’re in bed seems to suffice, but I think the thing in her knows and it’s scared. After we finish with sex, I get up and shower and then go into the other room to watch TV while she does whatever she needs to do. If she’s lapping at my pillow or toothbrush handle or bedside water glass, I wouldn’t know for sure, but I sense she is. I sense she’s picking up the pace to make up for something, but it is as if a thin membrane has been inserted in between us. I hope our time out of the mutual lust fog is making her come to certain realizations. Maybe it will make things easier while this whole thing plays itself out.
Of course, I can’t say completely whether this is merely the stone at work. Knowing what I know about the human mind, it could very well be another placebo effect. I studied adder stones after Serge gave me mine and they seem like pure hokum, something druids used to chase away evil spirits or prevent nightmares. But it remains cold, no matter how long I hold it between my hands, and given everything else, it isn’t really that much more fantastical than demonic possession. Placebos are considered as powerful as any drug to an open mind. Or one desperate for solutions.
Without sex and fantasies of murder clouding my mind, I’m starting to find my center. I’m sleeping without nightmares. I’m finding the humor in things again. Best of all, I don’t feel as resistant to the idea of constant companionship. Our scratches and bite marks and bruises and other physical reminders of our brutality are also healing. I would almost venture to say my marriage with Marah is bordering on something normal. But it isn’t completely. Something is at work only we can sense, and the silent chess game between us continues to play itself out as we eat our meals and express our niceties and go about our daily routines. I’m not sure how it’s going to end, quite. I’m just doing my best to remember what Serge told me. I’m going to try to love my wife.
The damage is done. Now, at the end of the spring semester, I can feel it more than I ever have. For awhile, I thought we would be okay. I thought I could find a way to abide Serge’s wisdom. I thought I could eventually love Marah or at least be content with her, but I think that glimmer of hope was just a temporary reprieve from the ultimate hell waiting around the next bend of this ruined road of a life. To put it more succinctly, I’m just goddamn exhausted. The adder stone has worked to keep my more carnal urges at bay, but somehow the scent continues to sap me dry and now all that remains is a husk. Why can’t I just be normal? So many people live in hopeless, dead-end relationships and they abide it. They find comfort in the small things. But I guess they don’t have demons eating them from the inside out, do they?
I can see Marah losing her spark too, though she’ll never say it. She just keeps cleaning the house in her own unique way and serving up elaborate dinners that she thinks will help ameliorate the gulf that has grown between us. She doesn’t think I can see her switching out our silverware when we eat so she can run her busy tongue all over it, and I’m happy to maintain the illusion of my ignorance and leave her be. Eventually she’s going to stab herself in the back of her throat with a fork or a steak knife and bleed out. At least that’s what I hope, because I no longer have the energy or the will to kill her myself.
I thought at first I might be depressed, which would be understandable given the circumstance of being a prisoner in my own life. There is a stash of old Lexapro in my medicine cabinet, something I got from my first days out of grad school when I thought then I had a true grasp of what it felt like to be “stuck,” and I’ve been taking them just to see if they help. They might as well be sugar pills at this point. This isn’t clinical depression. This is the end of the road, a steadily approaching end. Serge had said the thing was killing me, and he was right. The last time I spoke with the Haitian, he stayed after class and asked if the adder stone was still working. I told him all my urges were dead. He nodded and said, “It won’t be long now, Doctor Amherst. I am sorry.” I told him he had nothing to apologize for. This was never his burden to bear.
Even Mark Sobba managed to work some concern into his dead eyes when he handed in his final exam. “Been partying extra hard, Doc? When do I get an invite?”
Of course, it was all about him. I can’t remember what I muttered, but I remember thinking something along the lines of, “Fuck off, creep.”
And here I sit, running the final exams sheets through the scantron reader an hour before the last class I’ll ever teach. I haven’t spoken about my approaching expiration date to anyone else, but the dean has requested a meeting with me for next week and I think that topic might be on the agenda. If I’m around next week.
I glance at the grades as they spit out of the machine. Most of the kids have passed the class, which is a relief. But there is one black spot on the curve, and it surprises me at first. Mark Sobba, the self-styled star pupil, the guy who has done everything he can to get in my good graces both socially and academically, has a 30%. It’s the only F I have known him to get in the three classes of mine he’s taken. Though he didn’t do so hot on his midterm either, scoring a D if I remember correctly.
Then I recall our last conversation. Kinda makes me hope I fail so I can retake the class.
My stomach curdles. That little son of a bitch.
I don’t know why I’m so mad. It shouldn’t matter now. It’s not like I’ll be around for the fall semester anyway, but I’m just so tired of being manipulated. I was blind to Marah doing it way back when. Maybe it was because she was a girl. Maybe it’s because, deep down, I really was attracted to her. I guess I can admit it now that it really doesn’t matter. How fucked up is that? But this little sociopathic fan boy isn’t going to get away with it so easily. Oh no. Mark Sobba will never get one over on me.
I grab another scantron sheet and fill in most of the correct answers before carefully forging his name and running it through the machine. A-minus. He will pass my class and move on to greener pastures. It’s a small and meaningless victory, but I’ll take all I can get now.
“You’re a fucking asshole.”
I pick up my head from my desk, not realizing I was actually asleep until I wipe a runnel of drool from my chin. My joints creak as if they’ve been unused for months instead of a couple hours. Jesus, the dreams were terrible this time. Lots of tongues and teeth. I’m still tingling from all the taste buds scraping along my skin like sandpaper. How long have I been out? I set a video for the class to watch after handing them back their exams, and now the desks are all empty. The clock reads twenty past five. I should have been out of here a half-hour ago. Steve Church will be in soon to prep for his evening soc class. We haven’t talked much lately, and that has been intentional. I don’t want him to see me this way. He would skip the questions and drag me straight into a hospital.
“Did you hear me, Doc? I said you’re a fucking asshole.”
Oh shit. That’s right. Someone’s in the room. Mark Sobba is standing in front of the desk, scantron in one hand, the other one in his jacket pocket. I may be most of the way dead, but I know what this is about. I’ve been busted.
“Mark, I did you a favor. Trust me.”
His dark eyebrows knit together in a frown and I think briefly of Mr. Spock. Then I realize what an insult that is to the honor and mind of the wise Vulcan. “That’s bullshit. You think I don’t know why you did what you did? You’re trying to push me away. Trying to get rid of me.”
I don’t want to do this anymore. I just want to sleep, and I feel certain the next time I close my eyes, I won’t wake up. It pisses me off that my last real memory when I finally do go will be of a verbal showdown with this puling little weirdo. “I’m not going to be here next semester. I’m trying to save you the trouble of retaking the class with someone who isn’t me. Okay?”
There. The truth. That ought to please him, make him understand and maybe even a little contrite. Of course, if I wasn’t so sick, if I was going to be back next semester, I’d have some explaining to do. But who has time for ifs anymore? And why can’t he see for himself that I’m fading fast? I’m like the brittle last leaf hanging onto the tree at the end of November.
“No,” he says. And at first I don’t get it. Then I realize he’s refusing my answer, telling me it’s not okay. Nothing I’ve said has made any difference. He wants to be pissed and persecuted, so by God, he’s going to be pissed and persecuted. “You’re lying. You’ve always done whatever you could to push me away. You go out and party all the time with your other students. Fuck, you even got married to one, and me you just push aside like garbage. I’ve gotten the most participation points. I show up every class. I’m smarter than those other little fuck faces could ever be, and you’d rather spend all your time being Doctor Cool with them. Like I said, you’re a fucking asshole. Tell me I’m wrong!”
I glance up at the clock. It’s going on five-thirty. Marah is probably busy setting the dinner table. Pot roast tonight, one of my favorites even though I haven’t been able to eat much lately. She always knew my favorites, even before this whole nightmare began. I don’t remember any of hers. Couldn’t name a single one right now, in fact. It could be my failing state of mind, but I’m not letting myself off that easily. The truth is she cared a hell of a lot more for me than I ever did for her. I just soaked it all up and gave her nothing in return but an engraved invitation for the thing living in her brain.
I can see the hand in Sobba’s pocket moving. I know what he’s thinking of doing. At least I hope so. God, please let it be that. Only one way to be sure, though.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right about one thing, Mark. I’m an asshole. I’ve always been an asshole. Telling me that isn’t going to change anything, though. You won’t be taking another class of mine, and you and I will never be friends. I wouldn’t want to be your friend, even if I wasn’t your teacher, because you’re a creep. You’re also very likely a psychopath, the kind of guy for whom guys like me are brought into court to give expert testimony, usually after some girl has had her throat slit and her tits cut off. You’re that guy, Mark. People never make friends with that guy. Especially people like me.”
The words started out in monotone, but I found a little fire about halfway through and now I’m waging a full-on rant. It’s the most alive I’ve felt in weeks. He’s trembling right now with mounting rage and I like to think it has its own scent. Something sharp and pungent, like gasoline. Maybe there’s another hunger demon for that.
“I’m selfish. I’m probably even a little vain and cruel. I’ve hurt people I care about and I’ve been a cold son of a bitch to people who care about me, but even so, I’m not you. Someone recently told me my heart is a maze, but yours is a complete void.”
Tears are springing into his eyes. His face is red going on purple. “Shut up! Just shut up!”
I realize I’m winding him up, jerking off his emotions until he ejaculates a huge wad of fury, and all I hope results from it is me sleeping forever. Just a few more tugs. So close. Just a little more.
“I’m pretty sure you were born defective, and your mother undoubtedly sensed it. Let me guess. She didn’t hold you much, did she? Certainly never breastfed you. She ignored you through most of your childhood, which only made your defect worse. Daddy was probably the same, if he was even there at all. But it doesn’t change the fact that written into your genetic code was the destiny of what you are now: a lost, simpering, pathetic little freak.”
Mark starts screaming and everything slows down now. It’s that illusion of the brain exploited so well in movies like The Matrix, where people move as fast as turtles to avoid speeding bullets. But I won’t be avoiding anything this time if I can help it. Dimly, I am aware of Mark Sobba rushing forward as his hand whips out of his pocket to reveal the thing he’d been concealing ever since he came back here to contest his fake A-minus. Not a gun like I’d been expecting, but a knife. It’s little more than a pocket knife, really, and a cheap one at that. But I have a feeling it won’t take much to send me packing. My body is about as weak as my spirit, and I have just about enough of that last thing left to make sure he at least nicks an artery.
He’s aiming for my chest, like an idiot, but I grab his hand and bring the blade into my neck. I think he tried to pull back at the last second, but he didn’t anticipate I’d use the last reserves of my strength to impale myself. It hurts like hell, but it doesn’t matter. Pain has been pleasure for far too long, and now the blood is spilling. First it’s just drops, but soon after the freshets begin. My body has been waiting for this release, and it’s crying out its thanks in sanguine gratitude.
There is a commotion of screams somewhere outside all this, but I don’t really hear it. I look down to see the bump of the adder stone beneath my shirt outlined in blood and I know it’s time to let go and welcome the darkness. I just hope that wherever this next journey takes me, even if the final stop is Hell itself, there won’t be a single fucking strawberry.


Part III
Love Feast

On a frigid Christmas Eve, Father Shaw concluded his thirtieth Midnight Mass to his tiny parish on the outskirts of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a part of the country with about as many Catholics as there were skyscrapers. Though they were few, they were also faithful, many of them traveling over an hour with the threat of a blizzard in order to attend services. The Father said a special prayer that none of his flock succumbed to the weather on the way home, but these people were hardier than most, managing to thrive for generations in a rugged land that still in many ways lagged about twenty years behind modern society. Few if any would show up for dawn Mass, especially if the weather didn’t hold out. Already fat flurries swirled around outside, harbingers of the torrent soon to come. At least they would have a white Christmas this year.
He led the procession of worshipers to the church doors, where he would see them out into the night, shaking roughened ranchers’ hands, kissing powdered cheeks, wishing each of them a Merry Christmas. A few of the blue-haired ladies wanted to stay behind and discuss church business, but Shaw gently led them out as well, warning them of the coming storm, and promising to discuss the upcoming bingo night and fish fry with them next week. The last of the ladies, Esther Mitchell, lagged behind the others and took Shaw by the elbow, whispering, “Father, did you happen to see the newcomer tonight?”
At first, Shaw wasn’t sure to whom Esther was referring. Often while delivering his sermons, the faces in the crowd blended together into a singular blob. But then . . . there had been a grain of sand in the pudding, hadn’t there? A woman who sat while others stood, who didn’t sing the hymns, who had refused the Eucharist. A woman with a face like a pale moon in the dim candlelight, framed by a limp mop of mousy brown hair. A woman with eyes almost too big for her face, the skin clinging tight to the ridges of her cheekbones and eye sockets in the classic look of someone who was at the very end of a nasty, wasting disease. Likely cancer.
The Father saw many such types wander in over the years. Bestowed with a keen knowledge about the hour and manner of their deaths, they often sought peace, or a reassurance that once the darkness came over them, it wouldn’t really be the end. Many times, they weren’t even Catholics, but they identified with aspects of Catholicism from what they’d see in movies, the discrete priests in their confessionals, the holy symbols and ceremonies that felt almost universal in the spiritual sense.
“Where is she?” Shaw asked.
Esther nodded her head back in the direction from which she came. “Still in there, I believe. Just in the back pew. I don’t know that she’s well. She certainly doesn’t look it. And alone on Christmas, too, poor dear.”
“All right, I’ll see to her.”
“Should I stay? I can make coffee. Besides, you really shouldn’t be out here all alone with bad weather coming in.”
“No, Esther. Don’t worry yourself. I would rather have you get home ahead of this storm. Besides, Father Daniels will be here soon.” At least he hoped. Daniels was the younger priest who would one day take over when Shaw decided to retire. They shared the rectory behind the church and typically delivered the Midnight Mass together, but Daniels was called out to deliver last rites for a parishioner who had been ill for a long time. God willing, the young man would be back before the roads became too treacherous.
Esther shook snowflakes out of her carefully curled coif and pulled her coat around her frail body. “Well, I suppose you’re right, Father. This is going to be a big storm, I’m afraid, and I do have my dog to look after. Have a Merry Christmas.”
He kissed the old woman’s cheek and watched her carefully navigate the salted walk to the parking lot. Once Esther’s barge of a Cadillac pulled onto the highway, Shaw realized there wasn’t another car that would belong to the other woman. How had she gotten here?
Shaw went back inside.
He spied her sitting where Esther said she’d been, her head bowed, hair hanging down in greasy chunks. Judging by her stillness, he couldn’t tell if she was praying or sleeping. Regardless, he decided to give her some time alone. As he was walking toward the pulpit to gather his materials, he heard a meek voice echo from behind him.
“Can you help me, Father?”
The words came out poorly formed, as if her tongue were a dead weight in her mouth. He turned around and gazed upon a hideously drawn face. In the dimness of the sanctuary, shadows pooled in the deep hollows of her cheeks. Her clothes were little more than shapeless rags swallowing an emaciated body. Most disturbing were her lips, which were cracked and colorless like desert hardpan.
“What troubles you, dear?”
She uttered a nervous giggle, and it sent a chill through him. There was something a little unbalanced about that laugh, and combined with the late hour of the night and sound of the wind howling around the eaves, he felt an uncharacteristic trepidation in a place that had served as his home for over thirty years. In fact, he wanted her to leave. It went against every charitable fiber in him, the idea of sending a clearly ill woman out into a blizzard in the wee hours of Christmas morning, but the emotions were there, and he could no more deny them than his own faith.
“Oh, where to begin. I told this story once before, but it didn’t go so well. And . . . and it hurts to talk.”
He imagined it must with that ruined mouth. “Then what can I do?” Shaw walked a little closer to her, cautiously, the way he would approach a stray dog that may yet bite.
“You can get this demon out of me,” she said.
He gaped at her, unsure whether she was being coy about her obvious illness or if she truly did believe a demon possessed her. In any case, Shaw was increasingly convinced in the woman’s lack of stability. “I’m afraid that isn’t how it works, miss.”
“Yeah, I figured as much. I’ve seen The Exorcist. You need Vatican approval and all that.”
In Shaw’s nearly four decades as a priest, he’d encountered only two instances of people who claimed they were possessed, but it turned out they suffered from schizophrenia rather than some supernatural plague. “Do you truly feel you’re in need of an exorcism?”
Her tongue darted out briefly enough to lick her lips, and it had to be a trick of the light, because the flesh looked all wrong, swollen and pale like a bleached fish. Certainly his nerves were getting the best of him.
“I don’t know what I need. Maybe a confession. Can we do that?”
He cleared his throat. “I must ask, are you a Catholic?”
She grinned again, stretching those cracked lips until he was certain he could hear them creaking like old leather. The intent of her expression was undoubtedly one of shyness or embarrassment, but the result was ghastly. “No. I was never anything, I guess. Until now. Now I just know there is something . . . other. Something beyond me. And I need to talk to someone spiritual before I d-d-die.”
Her face broke apart and she sobbed into her hands. Shaw’s apprehension gave a little. The woman was clearly suffering a great deal, and she needed an ear. He’d been a priest for over half his life and had offered counsel to hundreds of lost souls. If he couldn’t do that now for this poor soul, Catholic or not, then what good was he, really? “I can’t offer absolution, but I can certainly listen. We could go into my study. I have brandy or I can make some coffee. That’s more comfortable than a confessional booth anyway.”
She nodded and wiped her eyes. “That sounds nice. Thank you.”
“I’m Father Shaw, by the way.” He held out his hand, but she shied away from it.
“I’m Marah.”
He mused on the name, which was that of a city in the Bible where the Hebrews fled during the Exodus, also known for being the site of a well filled with bitter water.
She stayed just behind him, hunched over, her arms folded tightly around herself—a defensive posture if he ever saw one—as he escorted her on the short walk to his office. “Feel free to take any chair you like.” He went over to the small Keurig coffeemaker in the corner and started brewing their cups.
“Such a tiny little church out in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
“Yes, we are a small parish, but strong. How did you find us? Are you from the Jackson Hole area?”
“Oh, no. I’ve been slowly making my way east, since my husband died. I have an uncle in Illinois I had hoped to stay with, but I’m not so sure now. A trucker picked me up in Billings and said I could ride with him as long as I wanted. I remembered it was Christmas, and I guess I felt like I needed to go somewhere warm and quiet. I saw this church.”
Shaw noted the disjointed nature of her narrative. She was obviously skipping details, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what those details were. “Is your trucker friend going to be back for you?”
She started playing with her fingernails. “Oh . . . I don’t think so. Our relationship turned sour. I have a funny effect on men, I guess you could say.”
Their coffee finished brewing. He took a dollop of brandy in his and asked if she would like the same. “Yes. You know, it’s funny. When I spoke of my predicament with a friend of mine back in Washington, we also drank coffee with brandy.”
Shaw thought of bitter water again and said nothing. He carried her mug over, and she stared at it for several seconds before finally taking it, as if unsure she even wanted to touch it. Finally, she did, but she sat it immediately down on the desk, as if she wanted to touch it as little as possible. “I have trouble handling some of the things people touch,” she said. “I’m sorry. I should have mentioned that.”
Shaw took the chair beside her rather than the one behind his desk, so their conversation wouldn’t seem so formal. He also couldn’t deny that he wanted to be a little closer to the exit, if need be. The woman felt dangerous. He sipped his own coffee and hoped the brandy would calm him some. “Do you have a fear of germs? If it will make you feel better, I do believe in the credo of cleanliness being next to godliness.” He cracked a grin to show an attempt at humor, but Marah didn’t appear to notice. The wooden crucifix hanging on the wall behind his desk chair had grabbed her attention.
Her tongue darted out again, and this time Shaw was sure it wasn’t a trick of lighting. Her tongue was albino white, and it made a rasping sound against her lips.
Clearing his throat, he pressed forward. “So what is it that you’d like to talk about?”
“Do you really believe in God, Father? That there is an actual being up there watching all the craziness on this earth unfold and doing nothing about it?”
“I don’t think I would be much of a human if I hadn’t experienced doubt from time to time. Faith is ever a work in progress.” Her words about God watching the madness and doing nothing did strike a chord with him. In his own crises of faith over his long years as a priest, he felt a sense of helplessness about the state of the world, like he was a child in the hands of an ambivalent God, which seemed somehow worse than an angry one. His faith regularly waxed and waned, and currently he found himself in a waxing phase. Perhaps it was because he was getting too old to carry a load of cynicism on his back.
She turned from looking at the crucifix to him. “What about demons? Do you believe in those?”
He shuddered a bit, because up until meeting this woman, he would have been more unequivocal in his response. “I guess I can’t say for certain. Demons or other malevolent spirits were once blamed for a whole host of maladies we can now say are medical or psychological disorders. The Church doesn’t entertain such thoughts much these days, though they may still perform exorcisms if they meet very stringent criteria. There is always a possibility that such things, I suppose.”
“You almost sounds like an agnostic. I guess I expected priests to be firmer in their beliefs.”
“Most of them are. Out here in God’s country, though, we have a little more room to walk with our thoughts. I certainly believe in God, but the extent of his influence on our daily lives is always up to a certain amount of debate. Just don’t quote me to the local Archbishop.”
She watched him intently as he spoke, and it was the first time he’d looked directly into her eyes. The irises seemed to be unevenly shaped, like the edges of fried eggs, and she had several red petechiae in the whites, like someone who had strained so much it burst the delicate blood vessels there. It was the sort of gaze that made him want to reconsider that particular set of beliefs. “Marah, I don’t mean to be rude, but why exactly are you here? Clearly you are in need of some kind of aid.”
“My husband died last year when one of his students attacked him, but I killed him long before that. I guess if I put it simply, this thing got in my head, and it infected us both.”
The wind howled again, and a cold draft seeped in through the old windows. Shaw wished he’d added more brandy to his coffee. “What sort of thing do you mean?”
“Not long after Bruce’s funeral, things went south with a couple close friends of mine for the same reason . . . my friend’s husband.” She shuddered but didn’t elaborate. “Anyway, that’s when I realized the problem was much bigger than I thought. I was getting ready to leave town when one of Bruce’s former students found me. He was a Haitian shaman who had tried to help him in the weeks before he died. He called it a hunger demon, and said it had infected us both, and that his death hadn’t been enough to kill it, because it truly belonged to me. It will kill me before too long. I can feel it inside me. My body is just a weakening shell now.”
Shaw’s first inclination was skepticism, but Marah spoke with so little affectation that it was clear she believed every word. There was also what Shaw’s eyes told him, that this woman was afflicted with something he couldn’t just explain away with a mental diagnosis. As such, he allowed himself to be pulled into her tale. “What does this hunger demon, as you call it, do exactly?”
“Let’s just say I have developed this strange compulsion.” That white and battered tongue peeked out again, and Shaw could see it was peeling and pitted with scars too. He felt certain this compulsion of hers was tied to it somehow. “When I perform this act, it causes men, at least some men, to behave out of character. My husband and I really shouldn’t have been together. I know that now. There was once a time that I would have done anything, anything at all, to make him love me. And this thing saw that and exploited it.”
“And you still have this compulsion?”
Her face crumbled briefly, but she didn’t break down. “It’s still there, oh yes. It has killed several men. No, I have killed several men. That trucker friend, I told you about? His body is probably being buried in a snow drift right now about a quarter mile from this church.”
Shaw’s mouth went bone dry and he set down his coffee cup before he could drop it in his lap. “Marah, just so I can just get this straight, are you confessing to murder?”
“You could call it self-defense. He was trying to rape me. Of course, he never would have done that if I hadn’t stupidly sipped from his water bottle instead of mine. I’ve tried to be so careful, but if I have just a single taste now, it sets the whole thing into motion and I am powerless to stop it.”
She looked at Shaw with a whole world’s worth of sorrow painted onto her face, but in that there was something else in her eyes, wasn’t there? A cunning mischief, a gaze that said she didn’t want to do anymore wicked things, but once she started, she was going to enjoy them.
“What do you mean if you have one taste? Taste of what?”
“I could show you, but it would almost certainly kill you.” A smile curved those ruined lips.
Shaw stood up suddenly. “I think you need to go now, miss.” He hadn’t planned that response. In fact, he’d intended to bring it up a bit more gently after she’d had some coffee, but he no longer felt safe. The church itself no longer felt safe. Not while she was looking at him that way, speaking of murdered men and hunger demons. He had never performed an exorcism. Had never even seen one being performed, in fact. His life had been a small one in this desolate Wyoming countryside, serving the few folks who still believed in the power of the sacraments. Even before that, he had been the son of accountants from Boise, and he chose the seminary not because he’d hoped to become part of the luster of Rome or because he was even more devout than most. He just wanted a simple and quiet life in service of others.
And he supposed, in what was looking to be the most horrifying moment of that simple and quiet life, even the smallest lives came with a price tag.
Marah looked hurt and confused. “But, it’s cold outside. There’s a blizzard. I have nowhere else to go. Please, I need your help. Everyone has tried pushing me away, but I can’t do this anymore.” Her lower lip trembled, and for the briefest moment, he regretted how abruptly he’d treated her, but then the tip of that tongue flicked out again, and his resolve returned.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. You seem a resourceful enough woman. I’m sure if you went to the hospital, you would find the care you need. It’s only a few miles from here. I could even take you if you wish.” He thought that was a fair enough compromise, though the idea of sharing a car with this woman filled him with a trickling dread, especially in light of what allegedly happened to the trucker and countless other men she associated herself with.
“Hospital? You think this is something a doctor can fix? Look at me!” Her voice took on a rough new timbre it hadn’t had before, the red spots in her eyes flaring as that hideous white tongue unfurled itself completely from her mouth. Its tip dangled far below her chin, halfway to her chest, and he could now see that the surface was covered in little red suckers, like the underside of an octopus tentacle. They even flexed open and shut, as if looking for something to latch onto.
Shaw stumbled backward the door, but she advanced on him with an almost supernatural quickness. Her tongue lashed out, and though he managed to avoid direct contact with his flesh, the tip caught hold of his white collar, pulling it out. She covered both sides of the curved plastic with indulgent licks before dropping it to the carpet, and Shaw finally began to understand that Marah had been right. There was something “other” here, far beyond even his priestly understanding.
“Art thou forsaking me now, Father?”
The priest ran from the office, his heart jackhammering so hard it threatened to break through his ribs. When he burst into the empty sanctuary, he stopped cold. A scent, like the sweetest patch of strawberries on a summer day, wafted up from behind him, filling him with a dizzy, exotic pleasure he never would have allowed himself, not with his vow of celibacy, which he had always kept despite fleeting moments of temptation throughout his life.
He shook his head to try and clear it, but the scent only grew stronger. He leaned against the font of holy water and dipped his hand into the cool well, hoping it actually held the power he always wished it had to vanquish evil. But the sweet scent only intensified, and his desires with it. An erection was forming in his pants.
“What are you doing to me?” he cried.
“I’m showing you what it’s like to truly hunger,” she said in a voice that no longer belonged to the young woman he’d met earlier. Father Shaw heard a ripping sound, and he turned around to see her shrugging her clothes to the floor, the fabric torn straight down the middle. He looked upon her naked form, alabaster white but mottled with pinkish scales along her hips, belly, and breasts. She leaned back against the pew and spread open her legs, revealing the true horror of her womanhood. It resembled a fleshy Venus fly trap, its edges lined with thin little teeth that would undoubtedly consume him raw. It was also from here that the scent issued forth the strongest, awakening the dark and alien part of his mind that had an insatiable craving for equal parts lust and pain. The priest had resisted evil acts for all sixty-two years of his life, but there wasn’t enough piety in the world to fight something like this.
He went to the demon and took her in his arms, feeling the hard, frigid mass of her, the holy water on his hand showing no discernible effect on her skin, and why would it? In the end, it was just water with salt and a prayer thrown at it. He directed his hardened flesh where his body demanded it go, despite never having performed such an act before in his life. He thrust deep and the Venus fly trap closed around him, sending waves of searing and delicious pain through his body. She hissed and dug deep furrows into his back, releasing warm freshets of blood, wrapping her legs around him so tightly he could only take in tiny sips of the strawberry-laden air. He cried out for more, even as tears of agony coursed down his cheeks, and she gripped him so tightly he came to an immediate and horrible climax that felt as if it had ripped him in half. It wasn’t until he heard a wet splat on the floor below that he realized this was exactly what had happened.
Father Shaw looked down and saw a bluish and bloody tangle of his guts hanging from the open hole in his belly, and Marah’s clawed hand coated in his blood. Her eyes gleamed with an unnatural hunger as she licked it clean, and this only increased his desire. He felt no pain from his disembowelment, though a very distant part of himself, the only shred of his decency left, begged for death.
It would soon come, but he wouldn’t go alone. As Marah reached down and pulled up the lengths of Shaw’s intestines, licking her lips as if on the verge of consuming a most succulent delicacy, he eyeballed the pulse of the woman’s throat. “Oh God forgive me,” he cried, plunging forward, his teeth bared like a storybook vampire ready to rend the thin flesh. He bit down hard enough to crack his jaw, and the metallic warmth of her blood filled his mouth, soaking his front.
Marah uttered an unholy scream, though it was difficult to distinguish pleasure from pain, for the two sensations had blended into a single throbbing entity, pushing and pulling, killing them both. He drank of her until all he could sense was the fruity musk of the demon that had plagued this woman and killed far too many. The damage to both of their bodies was grave, and this force of malevolence would die with them both. On the calm island in the sea of Shaw’s madness, he realized he had done well, though no one who came upon this grisly scene would ever understand it.
As the world began to fade around him, he felt the cool touch of Marah’s hand on his cheek, and he forced himself to look at her again. “Thank you,” she whispered, and Shaw could now see the intelligent and kind woman she might once have been, a face swimming with enormous pain and relief. She released him and collapsed to the floor. Shaw fell to his knees and performed the sign of the cross one final time before the world went black.
Father Daniels gazed down at the grisly discovery he’d made only a few moments ago. The police were on their way, but it would take them a while to get here through the storm. Daniels had barely made it himself, spinning out no fewer than three times on the snowy roads before he finally made it back to the church.
He could barely make any sense of the carnage, or why anybody would want to hurt Donald Shaw, who was one of the kindest and wisest men Daniels had ever met. The pious life hadn’t come as easily to the younger priest, and several times he’d considered leaving the life, but Shaw counseled and ushered him back into the light, and he did so with limitless patience and understanding. Daniels had hoped at some point he would be able to return the favor, but now it looked like any such deed would have to be posthumous. Perhaps that was good, because the nature of this crime scene was nothing short of scandalous.
Word would soon get out in a town this small, and the scandal would plague the parish and possibly drive many away. The Archbishop in Cheyenne would almost certainly get involved. Daniels refused to believe Father Shaw had been involved in some kind of sexual fetish cult, but appearances were ever difficult to escape. He just hoped the other parishioners would continue to think and speak well of the man and remember the charity he’d shown them all these years. Priests were likely never to shed their horrible public image caused by the perverts within their ranks, but Shaw was one of the good ones, and Daniels would believe that despite what his eyes were currently telling him.
Daniels wanted to perform last rites on both of them. Judging by the wetness of the blood, they couldn’t have been dead long. He leaned over the font of holy water, and the strangest sensation washed over him, making his skin ripple with goosebumps. He had the briefest flash of Marcy Brower, a woman in Jackson Hole he used to call on during his more doubtful days, when celibacy seemed more a form of unnecessary torture. He wondered what she might be doing right now and if she still wore the same perfume. It was both musky and sweet, like the faintest whiff he’d picked up when he dipped his hand in the well.
He gave his head a quick shake, hoping to clear the images from his mind, but as he hunkered down over his dead friend to pray, the feelings that scent had conjured up lingered.

Author Remarks

The conclusion of this little trilogy has been a long time coming. I penned “Taste” in December of 2011 and released it on the first day of 2012. At the time, I hadn’t really thought of writing a sequel until someone suggested they would love to see Bruce’s side of the whole saga. Being ever open to fan-suggested ideas, I let it simmer in my brain bucket for roughly eighteen months, and released “Sweetness” in July of 2013. It was longer than “Taste” by about half, as I realized when I got into Bruce’s head, he had a lot more to say about the whole matter of his possession than I thought he would. I had intended to release “Love Feast” not long after, but a lot happened between mid-2013 and now. I released my novel Strings, as well as the first book in the Colt Coltrane series, and I completed work on a dark suspense novel called Kudzu, which I hope will see the light of day thanks to my new agent, Stephanie Rostan, at Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency.
I have always felt a strong connection to the lives of these characters, particularly because the themes of “Taste” are near and dear to me. Pleasure and pain are inextricably linked, and love can be a very dangerous and painful thing, especially when coupled with unfulfilled longing. The latter can sometimes feel like a monster inside you, and you have to be strong, lest it overtake you. I wouldn’t recommend letting a possessed priest eat it out of you, though. As in nearly all matters hurty, time is the best healer. Marah and Bruce never got that chance, but hopefully you lonely hearts out there reading this will.
If you liked these stories, feel free to drop a review on Amazon, or swing by Twitter or Facebook to drop me a line personally. Better yet, tell a friend about this or any of my books. Especially if that friend is a little bit of a weirdo. Those are my people.

Allison M. Dickson
July 5, 2014