Consumption

This story is paired with Chapter 5 of Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 


I saw a rat in a spider web today. I used to think that sort of thing wasn’t possible, but now a days, you never know. Maybe the blood suckers got tired of flies and decided to work their way up.

I’d been in the trap, that’s the government’s dime, for three years and things were starting to get lean. But I wasn’t alone—it was epidemic.

My friend Juliet Pearson works as a scrub over at the local ER. She throws me a bone every once in a while, very under the hat. She told me about a clean-up of an old estate down the road. Some rich, old bag kicked it and they needed a couple of extra hands to finish the job.

They really didn’t ask much just label everything, put it in a box and drape a cover over it. Didn’t even ask us to move it.

At the end of the day, they asked if any of us could make it in tomorrow, then stuffed a wad of cash in our hands—way more than putting things in boxes was worth. I was elated; I’d get a drink out of this. You could bet that the whole gang would be there tomorrow.

The next day was more of the usual, but there was an arrival of a strange apparition. This thing, though it wore a dress, was undefinable. Its whole body was covered in a thick, shining, black lace spun from some ugly insect. This hung over its head like a shroud. The rest of it draped way down past its feet, so that it was standing in the center of a circle of netting. Its gloved hands held an unnecessary black, lace parasol. It floated unnoticed through the thicket of workers stopping every once in a while to check out a woman working.

It stopped near me as well. I squinted an eye at it and asked if it liked what it saw. It only stood there heaving thick tubercular sighs, hollow like the empty halls when the wind tunneled through the house, then the apparition floated away.

Later, it stood by one of the purveyors of the project—I knew him by his bowler hat and fat cheeks. It leaned sideways whispering into his ear while obsessing over our workmanship.

“Hey, psst!” somebody across the way called over. “Wanna see something cool?” The mousy-haired woman beckoned me toward a roped off hallway.

I was reminded of my promise not to steal anything, but decided it was still worth a peek.

We tiptoed down to the basement. It was all made of stone and cobwebs. It felt too dark, maybe it was the grime that painted the walls or the rust that covered the iron beams. It felt black and white like that laboratory you saw in the movie Frankenstein. In fact, it was that kind of clean and equipment filled too. I had no idea what any of the equipment was—nothing that Juliet ever worked with, but similar looking, so I had some ideas. There was only one thing covered with a sheet and it was in the center of this vast cavern.

She pulled it away like a magician revealing a trick and, voila, it was another device.

It appeared to be a ping pong table with a z shaped net made up of blocky circuitry. Two thick wires extended from the circuits one on each side of the net.

One was clearly the positive connection, the other the negative. One was red, the other white, but what they hooked up to I could not say; the adapters were too large for any hook up device I knew of. And it didn’t matter anyhow, they were both broken off at the ends, so whatever was used to plug them in was long gone. That was kind of funny because the thing looked brand new. It was the only thing not buried in dust.

I was about to ask my co-conspirator how much she thought the thing was worth when the door squeaked open.

She stood there like a poodle waiting for her master to return, while I instinctively backed into the shadows.

One of the faceless bowler hats asked her what she thought she was doing, but she only shrugged dumbly which is most people’s response to a bowler hat.

I was surprised to hear how hot he got when he told her that she wasn’t supposed to be down here, “Put that cloth back on!” He barked at her.

She did what he told her, then he marched her back up the stairs too angry to say anything more to her.

It was strange how bad I felt getting her into trouble; I suddenly wanted that to have been my burden to bear. Later, when were together packing china, I went against tradition and followed my urge to ask her name.

She told me it was Lola and I believed her; she seemed too starry eyed to lie. I told her that us gals have got to stick together and promised to buy her a beer later on as a pick me up, an apology. I liked the idea of hanging out with Lola, having a friend, being able to show her how to work the streets. Kind of fell in love with the idea.

Then the bowler hats came in pointing at her and guys in black leather outfits swooped in and dragged her off kicking and screaming.

She didn’t show up the next day. I asked around, but no one had seen her—not at the estate, not at the bars, the ER or any of the alleyways.

At that point, I realized that our work party had dwindled. Many people were new faces, guys I recognized from the streets, but never seen at the estate.

“What kind of crazy shit did you get me mixed up in!” I asked Juliet, when she was pulling a weekend graveyard.

“Look, this is all I know,” and it was that hoarse tone she took when she was privately consulting a doomed patient, “the estate it’s this European Dame, Madam de Bouvoir. The Lead Nurse kept calling her Madam Bovine if that tells you anything.

“Big fat woman, in all the papers. She comes in late at night, 3am, screaming of leg pain. We do a sonogram, but she throws a tantrum and starts demanding all sorts of tests. She’s got like twelve bowler hats waiting on her and the docs don’t give a shit. So, lucky me, I get to wheel her around the hospital and wrap her in wires in room after room.

“Here’s the weird part, she’s got to be in her 60s—at least! Has the blood, metabolism, the heartbeat of a 16 year old.

“The docs can’t figure out what’s wrong with her, but she’s a frequent flyer—always demands a heavy squadron of meds. Schooler’s on-call that night, he’s tired and wants to get back to the golf course. He tells me to give her some Warfarin for the clot in her leg and then pack as may pill bottles as you can with sugar pills. Make sure the Pharm Techs fill up the bowler hats with lots of instructions so they think they’re getting their money’s worth. Just under prescribe the Warfarin.

“I do what the doc says—six Warfarin pills. Tell her she can come back in a couple of days for more. Only she never leaves the hospital.

“She starts bleeding out before she hits the front door. Ends up back in the ER and dies the next day.

“We checked the bottles and, sure enough, most of them are half empty, but the Warfarin bottle— the only real medicine—has five pills.

“We were scratching our heads to figure it out. And then…”

Her hand shivered as she brings her cigarette to her lips, “This is like a State Secret, okay? Sealed lips.”

I agreed. Who was I going to tell?

“We looked up her records and someone named Madam de Bouvoir has been coming in here every five years for over a century. Same exact fat lady, same temperament and everything, and every single time she dies. Like I said, you didn’t hear it from me.”

She gets all quiet like when it’s raining and a patient dies and there’s no one else there to care.

“Someone,” she says it like she’s trapped in a dream, “must have been surveying our hospital network, which we all thought was completely internal—legally it’s all private, completely hush, hush—because somebody outside noticed. The fucking Secret Police or whatever, guys dressed all in black leather, came tumbling in. They dragged off the nurse whose station we looked up the info on.”

That sounded familiar, so I asked, “She ever come back?”

“Oh, yeah,” she shrugged like it was no big deal, but then took an extra long drag squeezing her eyes shut, “She was practically brain dead. We had to put her in ICU after she wandered in off the streets. She’s mostly recovered, but can’t remember most of last week and is having trouble swallowing.”

“Sounds bad.”

Juliet agreed.

“I don’t know what that estate is,” she told me, “but maybe you ought to take the money and run.”

I agree with her, but can’t sleep that night. I sit up in that motel room watching the world through the grit stained window while the neon sign winks at me. Maybe it knows some secret I don’t. I think about Lola and the apparition, the bowler hats watching me work. I think about the rat in the spiderweb and wonder what it took to get it there. I look at the floor littered with hamburger wrappers and plastic bags, not the good life, but I hate to starve.

I think about all that money. I think about that ping pong table in that Frankenstein basement and all I can see is skulls. But they’re skulls with dollar signs in their eyes, so I decide to go back.

Now, there’s no familiar faces at the estate. Just me and a bunch of nobodies packing and not moving anything. I wonder how I had managed to survive so far. Then the apparition arrives, leans in to one of the bowler hats and whispers. I can tell that it’s looking straight at me. It comes as no surprise when the bowler hat walks up to me and asks me to come with him.

I curse myself for not sneaking away earlier and stealing some of the jewelry on the way out.

He leads me where I expected into the basement, then locks the door on the way out.

I’m alone in the dark. I can hear spiders slithering about. My eyes start to adjust and there is the ping pong table. I check it out, wonder what it’ll bring me on the black market and how I’ll get it out of here unnoticed.

I hear the slither of black lace behind me.

“Madam de Bouvoir?” I ask.

“Sit down,” commands a dark voice. It’s low and I can’t tell if it belongs to a man or a woman.

There are two chairs on either side of the ping pong table. I assume that’s where she wants me to sit, because there isn’t anywhere else.

“No, I’ll stand, thanks.”

She shivers. “Sit,” she says again. There really isn’t anywhere else to go, I’m locked in and worse, I know that I won’t have a shot at stealing this machine if I leave. And it’s not like the apparition can’t just summon up the black leather guys.

I decide to keep it friendly. I sit.

“Tell me your name,” says de Bouvoir.

“Why do you care?”

“It’s polite, sign of breeding.”

“Jane. As in Doe.”

“I see,” she chuckles and it sounds like knuckles rattling together. She sits opposite me and primly untucks a box from the folds of lace, at least that’s what appears to be happening.

The gloved hands flick open the box like a compact. It’s a square hard case which squeaks on its hinges. It holds two sharp needle tips—the sharps as they’re called, in case you needed to know. She screws them into the ends of the cords extending out from the ping pong net.

“Pretty good gig you got here,” I tell her, “How long have you been faking your death?”

“Roll up your sleeves,” she says, then indicates a brace that appeared on the table the moment the tips got secured.

“I don’t want to,” I growl at her.

She sighs and presses a button. A sprinkler overhead sprays gas onto me. I hold my breath, but my head gets shaky.

Time slows down and comes at me in winks. Darkness. She pulls at my arm, I pull away. Darkness. Black leather clad man pulls me down into the chair, I rip away from him. Darkness. Three leather clad guys wrestle me into the chair, clamp my arm onto the table. Darkness.

I’m sitting there at the table. Across the way is the lace clad apparition, my opponent. She’s back lit by a bright lamp and looks withered in its beam even under all those layers.

“She’s awake,” someone whispers behind me.

“Good,” says the Madam, there is a hunger of excitement underneath that authoritative calm. “She’s strong,” continues the Madam. “I like that.” her teeth click as she says it. “Maybe this time it’ll take.”

“You think you can get away with this!” I know that it’s a hollow threat—she knows exactly what she can get away with—but I’m angry and words are all I have left.

There’s a gasp of breath, a laugh. “Leave us,” she says, “And lock up, don’t want the others to report what they hear, so let’s not tempt them. I’ll unlock when I’m finished.”

She flicks my wrist and hums happily to see my quick jerks in response. I’m awake enough she tells me.

She grabs the cord on my side with one hand and my wrist with the other, then jabs the needle in. There’s a sear of pain. It’s hit the dead center of the vein. She’s an old hand at this, can do this in her sleep, and it’s a good thing too; her grip is limp.

“We all eat each other up in the end,” she states. Not certain if that’s meant to make me feel better.

“This what you did to Lola?” I ask.

She doesn’t know who I’m talking about, I describe her, then say, “The last woman you took.”

“No,” and there’s no hesitation, “she wasn’t strong enough, we couldn’t use her, so we sold her out for parts.”

And this is simply matter of fact, the usual business of life. “Those that have get to decide—they don’t have to care. They get to sweep me off their sidewalk as if sweeping away hamburger wrappers and they get to call it solicitation or vagrancy.” I tell her this, but it’s really like I’m speaking to air.

She mumbles something about having fun on soapboxes as she goes about her business. “It’s the right of the dead,” she says.

She unwraps her hand from her gloves, or maybe they were bandages. The hands are white, wasp nest paper sloughing at the creases.

“I’m not dead,” I tell her.

She shrugs, rolls up a sleeve revealing just a bone covered with white skin.

“I’m not so sure about you though,” I chide.

This stops her. I can almost see an angry pucker of the lips through the lace.

“Are you finished?” she sounds bored, but I know that this is the most excited she’ll ever be.

“No,” I say. She jabs herself in the arm with her needle. It makes a dry crackle, then she fidgets with the circuits that are between us.

I continue, “You think you can just take us and suck us dry just because we’re sewer rats. You think that nobody will miss us, that we’re expendable because there’s lots of us and we don’t amount to anything; we don’t contribute in the way that you do. And somehow what you’re doing is contributing.

“You think that gives you the right to do whatever you want to us. You see Lola and you see a nothing, a sewer rat, a non-human being. Did you ever stop to ask her name? Did you ever stop to ask who we were before we got to this place? If we were something more than just sewer rats?”

And she’s madly flicking the switch, click, click, back and forth trying to get it to shut me up. The quickness of gestures, the frustrated sighs are all hints: something’s wrong.

“Of course you didn’t,” I say, “because that sort of thing doesn’t occur to you, you don’t even stop to wonder during my entire tenure here if I’ve ever been something else.”

Our eyes meet through the lace. Then I show her the little square component, the active part of the table, the spark plug of the piece if you will, that I removed while she was creeping up on me in the dark.

“I didn’t build this one. I worked with docs on similar machines through—easy enough to extrapolate.”

I lean over to her side and flick the clamp release button. I can see her eyes go wide; her mouth is a round hole. She takes a breath to call out, but I leap fast enough to push the component into her mouth. My other hand pushes her down onto the table. My leap arcs around and wraps my body around hers so that I’m pining her to the table, pressing her face against its surface and pressing the component further into her mouth. I press until she’s sucking wads of black lace slipping from her hairless head. She emits a muffled scream and knocks her head onto the table, her body kicking and wriggling, but it’s no use.

Eventually, she goes limp. I feel bad, though she wouldn’t have lived long anyways. A few more hours without the machine’s help was really all she had left.

I know, I’d seen it a million times with the cancer victims in our trials—before they shut the whole thing down due to lack of funding.

Now, it’s just me and the machine. My eyes greedily sparkle over it. This could be worth millions of meals—highest bidder—drinks on the house! Then I think about that beer I owe Lola, that beer I’ll never share.

I go to the corner, pick up a pipe and smash the table to bits. Let ‘em all starve. If this what they’re feeing off of, they don’t deserve to survive.

I find my way to the secret entrance, the one that takes me into the heart of the house. I stuff my pockets full of pearls, chains and silverware. I sneak out a back way, a way I’m certain the bowler hats aren’t watching. Why would they care about me anyhow?

I arrive at a bridge and crush the component under my foot, then toss it into the river. Whoever built it will have to find the rare elements elsewhere.

I’m just happy to have the pearls.

Frank over on 43rd finally fesses up and tells me where they sent Lola. And I’m just in time.

I use the pearls and the silver to buy her back whole. Some rich bastard is gonna have to find another heart to replace his fat clogged one. All those riches are gone like that, but I feel too sick to my stomach to eat anyways. And Lola’s glad. The chains get her some soup and us a beer. And for the first time, I feel free.

We all eat each other up in the end, maybe—but maybe it’s time to start a new trend.


Jennifer HopkinsJennifer Hopkins writes horror and dark fantasy. She has had one publication, “Grandfather’s Shadow,” in Spindrift. Has earned Honorary Mention in the Hugo House’s Quattro Spec Fiction contest for her short story “Earthbound” and in international Screenplay competition Scriptapalooza for her spec script “Supernatural: Green-eyed Monster.” She has also participated in the 2008 Potlatch Writer’s Workshop and is currently participating in the Digital Glamor anthologies.