Flavor

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“You want to tell me what you saw?”

“…No.”

“You sure? I promise I’m not here to laugh at you; I’m here to help you.”

“…”

“Alright. Maybe I should come back tomorrow.” Movement. Furniture scraping. “Want me to get the lights on my way out?”

“Wait.”

“Yes?”

“Just…give me a sec…” Heavy breathing.

“Take your time. I’m in no rush. I’m here to help.”

Breathing slows. Sniffling. “It started…eleven years ago.”

“So you were…eight years old then? And that’s the first time you saw it?”

“No. That wasn’t until…at first it was just that book.”

“Book?”

“I don’t remember what it was called. I checked it out of the library. It might’ve been a Dr. Seuss. I really don’t remember. It was…old, second-hand, I guess. Pages were wrinkled, cover had some water stains or something.”

“What made you think this book had anything to do with…with what eventually happened?”

“I took it up to my room when I got home. Read the whole thing. It was normal until the very end…”

“…Go on.”

“Someone had…written something. Inside the back cover.”

“What did it say?”

Shifting.

“I can leave now, if you want. Give you some time to sort out your thoughts, come back in the morning—”

“No! I…sorry. This is just…hard for me.”

“I understand. Continue.”

Heavy sigh. “It likes it rotten before it feeds.”

“Pardon?”

“That’s what it said, inside the back cover. Someone had scribbled it there. Didn’t look like kid’s handwriting. It was messy, but in the grown-up way. Kind of like doctor’s writing.”

“You said you couldn’t even remember the title of the book. What made this detail stick out to you?”

“Nothing, at first. I just sort of shrugged it off. Forgot about it, until…”

“Until what?”

Shifting. Scraping furniture.

“I’m sorry, I’m being too pushy. I don’t want to upset you any further, so perhaps we should stop for tonight. I’ll be back in the morning.”

“No, please. I need to get this off my chest. I don’t…I don’t think I’ll be able to talk tomorrow.”

“Why’s that?”

“I just…” Sniffling.

“Alright, alright. I’ll stay. But let me know if I’m pressing too hard. Now, back to the book. What happened?”

“I read it a second time. It was a couple days later. I went to pull it out of my book bag, and…” Shifting. “You remember I said the cover had something like waterstains? Well, this time when I touched it, the stains were wet. Squishy. You ever poked a piece of cold meat? That’s what it made me think of. Anyway, I pulled the book out of the bag, but there wasn’t anything—I mean the cover was dry. How do you make sense of that?”

“Well, I suppose—”

“At first I thought there was something else in the bag, but I turned it inside-out. Just the other books from the library, all of them dry as a bone. I felt around inside. Nothing.”

“Did you read it after that?”

“Of course I did. Whole thing, cover to cover. At the end, there it was, that extra line scribbled in the back…to this day, I still remember how it felt reaching into the bag. Then getting to the end, seeing that sentence. That’s when I first started feeling…off.”

“How do you mean?”

“You can’t tell?”

“You were frightened, of course.”

“That’s about it, I guess. I was just a kid. It’s so easy to get started in a kid.” Mumbling. “Can’t get near kids these days, though.”

“Right. Let’s take a break for a moment and talk about something else. Tell me about yourself. What do you like to do?”

“Read.”

“What do you like to read?”

“…Humor. Light fantasy. Other things, occasionally. Nothing too dense. Anything to keep me from…

“You read for escapism.”

“Yeah…yeah I guess you’re right. Exactly right.”

“I’m sure there’s plenty in your past that you’d want to escape from, but in my experience it’s best to face those hardships and deal with them. Otherwise you’ll spend your whole life running and hiding.”

“Better than being dead.”

“…Alright then. Let’s get back on topic. This incident with the book. You were eight when it happened, and you were nine when you entered foster care. What happened during that year? And what did the book have to do with it?”

“I showed Mom the book. She thought I’d damaged it. Didn’t believe me when I said it’d come from the library that way. She wasn’t too mad, though. Just told the library we’d lost it, paid the fines, kept it. I didn’t want it, though—couldn’t get the memory of that cold-meat feeling out of my fingers. I threw it away.”

“Judging by your face, that wasn’t the last you saw of it, though?”

“I’ll get to that. First, school the next day. Teacher gave us an in-class writing assignment. We turned our papers in before lunch, and she had them graded by the time we got back. Mine had a section circled in red, with a note: “What’s this?” The bit that was circled, you know what it said?”

“I can guess.”

“I don’t remember writing it, but it was in my handwriting. Same pencil, too.” Sniffling.

“Need a break?”

“Just a sec…”

“Take your time.”

“…Sorry, it’s just…that’s when I first became aware of what was happening to me. Before it’d just been this…strange feeling in my stomach, but seeing those words on my paper, my handwriting; that scared me. Um…can I ask what time is it?”

Rustling. “Ten of six. Why?”

“Nothing. You, uh, wanted to know more about the book.”

“That’s right.”

“When I got home from school, it was sitting on my bed.”

“How’d it get there?”

“Mom found it in the trash. Since she’d just paid the library fines on it, she didn’t want me just getting rid of it like that.”

“So what did you do?”

“When Dad got home from work, after supper he lit a fire in the fireplace and sat down to watch the news. I snuck the book into the fire.”

“And no one saw you do that?”

“Of course they saw, but they couldn’t do anything about it. I kind of wish they had…”

“Why’s that?”

“They couldn’t hear it. Only me.”

“Hear what?”

“I still hear it. All the time.”

“I’ll give you a minute.”

Sniffling. Shifting.

“Better?”

“I watched the book burn. It went just like any bundle of paper, but…there was this sound. Thick, heavy, wet. Like…like taking a handful of mud and throwing it on the sidewalk, or…the first time I rode a roller coaster, I got sick right there on the pavement. The sound it made when it hit the ground. That’s what I heard. That’s what Mom and Dad didn’t hear.”

“Yes, I read in your file that you heard things. Sounds, but also—”

“That didn’t come ’till later.”

“Right. Sorry for interrupting. Go on.”

“That was the night things really…got going.” Rustling. “All night, outside my bedroom door.”

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

“Did you hear something?”

“No, I meant what was outside your bedroom?”

“I don’t know. It sounded like…breathing. Or shuffling. Are you sure you don’t hear anything?”

“…Nothing. Do you?”

“Why me, why me, why me…

“Look, I’m obviously upsetting you, so I really think I should go—”

“No you can’t!” Struggling.

“Okay, okay. Calm down.”

“You have to stay, you have to stay. Please. Let me finish my story.”

“If you insist. But take a moment…that’s it…deep breaths…there. Now, are you ready?”

“Did they tell you about the incident with the CD player?”

“No, I don’t believe they did.”

“It was a few weeks after I burned the book. Mom put on a CD to listen to while washing the dishes. I heard something underneath the music. A thick…shlopping sound.”

“Like at the fire?”

“There was something else, too. Something…talking behind the singer.”

“What was it saying?”

“I couldn’t tell. It was a deep voice. Had a funny rhythm to it. Distorted. A little bit…growly.”

“And your mother couldn’t hear it, I assume?”

“I turned the player off. She didn’t like that very much, but her hands were soapy so she couldn’t do anything about it.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about your parents for a moment. Did you tell them about these experiences?”

“Yes.”

“And naturally they didn’t believe you.”

“Naturally.”

“Did that make you angry?”

“Well yeah, but…wait a minute, you’re one of them, aren’t you?”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“Of course you don’t. Look, I’m not…I didn’t—” Sniffling.

“I know, I know. I’m not here to make accusations. I’m simply here to help.”

“Sure, sure. You’re here to help.”

“That’s the truth.”

“I know, I know.” Shifting.

“…I would like to know what happened to them, though.”

It did.”

“Pardon?”

“Hunger. It’s a base need, even after.”

“After what?”

“Oh no. I’m cleverer than that. You don’t live as long as I have without being at least a little bit clever.”

“I’m afraid you’re not making any sense.”

”You’re trying to get me to say it. You promised you wouldn’t laugh, but you’re trying to get my to say something laughable.”

“I don’t want to laugh at you. I want to know what you’re thinking.”

“You want to know what I think? I think everyone has their favorite flavor. Even the…others. I figured that out pretty quick. Had to. My survival depended on it.”

“Others? Who are they?”

Scraping furniture. “I’ll get to that if you’d stop interrupting!”

“I—I’m sorry. Please, sit down.”

Rustling. “Did I scare you?”

“A bit.”

“As for Mom and Dad, you’ve no doubt read the official report.”

“But that’s not what I’m interested in. I want to hear your words.”

“Alright.”

“You’re doing very well, by the way.”

“Thank you. Okay, after the CD, things…escalated. That voice kept coming back. Anytime the radio was on. In crowds. At night when the air vents came on. Eventually, I figured out what it was saying.”

“And what was that?”

“It likes it rotten before it feeds.”

Distant scratching.

“Just like the book.”

“I thought I’d ended it in the fire, but it kept coming back. There was something…” Sniffling. “Just thinking about it makes me sick. It smelled.”

“The voice?”

“Every time I heard it. Smelled like an outhouse.”

“Unpleasant.”

“I was trying to sleep one night. The heat kicked on, and it came in under the hiss of the air. Just repeating itself, over and over, but not the same each time, like it had trouble making words. And…after a while there was something else.”

Distant scratching.

“Hold on a moment, did you hear that?”

“You heard it this time?”

“Yes. Is there someone out there?” Furniture scraping. Footsteps. “I don’t see—”

“Can I keep going?”

“Uh, yes, sorry. Please continue.”

“This is the part…uh…what you really wanted. That was the first night I…I saw it.”

Rustling. “What did you see?”

“You’ve got to understand. It had broken me by then. I was just a kid. It’s so easy when it’s a kid.” Sniffling. “It was time. I was…done. Like Thanksgiving, the turkey’s done.” Rustling. Whimpering. “I should’ve died that night, but I was clever. Even as rotten as I was, I was too clever. I’d figured out what it wanted.”

Unintelligable noises.

“What was that?”

“When it came for me, I was ready. I…I’d been preparing them for…for…I mean, grown-ups are bigger than kids. It would be too full by the time it got to me.”

“Wait. What?”

Shifting. Scratching. Low muttering. “I cried so much, but I did what I had to…what I had to. Don’t you see? I would have died! But…” Sobbing. Banging. “That only helped it get to me more. When it was done with them, it…it looked at me. I swear, it had this look…it was savoring me like, like a fine wine. Do you understand?”

“H-hold on, I don’t want to interrupt you, but what is that noise?”

“It’s still after me. Once something rots, it can’t be whole again. It only gets more and more rotten. I should be dead already, but I’ve managed. It’s like…like a pet. Like a pet I can barely control. As long as I can keep it happy. As long as I can give it its favorite flavor.”

Door opening.

“Who’s there?”

“Can’t you see it?”

“No, I don’t see anyone—”

“But you can hear it. I can too.”

Unintelligable muttering. Dripping.

“You’re delusional!”

“I thought you said you were here to help. But now you’re just accusing me, just like everyone else.”

“Stop toying with me!”

“You’re crumbling. Rotting. Do you know how often I’ve wanted to kill myself? I could do it so painlessly. No one would miss me. It would hurt a lot less, I’m sure.”

“Stop it stop it stop it…”

Heavy breathing. Dripping. Growling.

“Why does it like it rotten? Why not just scared?”

Scuffling. Deep, unintelligable mumbling.

“It’s the type of fear, I think. Like your stomach’s just full of brown sludge. When you feel that kind of fear, you know that’s the only word to describe it: rotten. Is that how you feel now? That’s what it likes.”

Screaming. Growling. Struggling.

“Of course, it likes rot in the literal sense, too. It’ll probably keep you around for a few weeks, let the corruption take over, before…”

Moaning. Thrashing.

“I’m sorry I had to do this. It’s the only way I’ve managed to survive this long. I have to keep feeding it. Can’t let it get hungry, or…”

Crunching.

“Ah, you can’t hear me anymore can you?”

Dragging. Unintelligable muttering. Sobbing.

END RECORDING

James Colton

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