As Hilda sped toward New York City, an ominous pall began to encompass her like a silk pillowslip caressing a goosedown pillow. And, just like silk, it was a cold, soothing feeling; it was as though tiny tentacles were tickling her entire body, bringing both numbness and a patient desire for more. It brought a smile to Hilda's lips. It was more than a smile really, it resembled a diabolic snarl. At the same moment she inwardly shivered, her skin transformed into multitudes of goosebumps.
These goosebumps, in turn, led to Hilda's stomach churning-it was not akin to a fluttering of delicate butterfly wings. It raged into a feeling of madly vibrating vulture wings. The thought rushed through Hilda's mind that she was speeding to her doom. Visions of frightful and horrible pictures flew through her head. Vague and unfinished forms, akin to pixels bringing together a picture on the Internet, reeled through her cluttered mind. Long white sharp teeth, flowing blood, piercing eyes, claws attacking...Hilda felt in the midst of a horrible nightmare.
Suddenly, the blackness and gore were shut off. Her eyes darted out the car windows from side to side. She was close to the restaurant where her friends awaited her arrival. "No, no," she said out loud, "how can I be in New York City so soon? I was just in Greenwich on the Merritt a few seconds ago!" More than forty minutes had disappeared, evaporated into nothing more than a feeling. Again, that feeling of doom galloped through Hilda's head. Did I have a nightmare while awake? Was I hallucinating? As she got out of her Mustang in the restaurant's parking lot, Hilda was literally blasted by a cold wind-so cold that Hilda thought she actually felt icicles forming down her spine. But this did not seem to bother her.
A cold glint appeared at the end of the parking lot. A weird, moaning sound projected from that same spot. Two specks of laser-like blue penetrated the heavy muggy air. These cold, blue specks zeroed in on Hilda.
Thin shoulders hunched, Hilda Brooks sat with two friends at a small table at Bruno's Cafe. It was a swank, upscale, trendy little eating-place. The cafe boasted burgundy leather seats, bordered by chrome, reminiscent of the Art Deco era-a time during which the Chrysler Building had been constructed. Miniature oil lamps stood precisely in the middle of each table. They cast a warm, yellowish glow across the faces of the hungry patrons. Hilda stared out the window onto West Fourth Street. It was well after 11 PM. By now traffic had thinned except for the occasional grimy clump of yellow taxis searching for late night fares.
Hilda's thoughts were far away from traffic on West Fourth Street-she couldn't shake off that eerie feeling of evil crawling up her body and hugging onto the convolutions of her brain.
"How about a piece of that Black Forest cake?," asked her friend Lindsay, licking frosting off her dessert fork. Quickly coming back to reality, Hilda shook her head, "No," and slowly finished the final drops of her coffee-black, not a speck of sugar or cream, just calorie-less, lukewarm black fluid. Hilda thought to herself, I seem to be surrounded by black-the Black Forest cake, the black coffee, the black void my life has become.
Her mind strayed back over the years to her earliest memory of food interfering with her life. Hilda reflected back on the first seed sown connecting childhood to this black void of adulthood. She was a happy five-year old, her hair still naturally platinum in color, her eyes a deep Prussian blue, her body neither fat nor thin-perhaps the puff sleeves of her dress were a tad tight.
Hilda clearly pictured herself standing on the first landing of the stairs of her family's house in Woods Cliff, New York: Her mother interrupts her on her way upstairs to change her Kindergarten clothes for playclothes. She is wearing one of her favorite outfits-a white sailor dress trimmed in blue with brass buttons. As she turns and faces her mother, she could actually see her mother's eyes grow in size. And they glowed in loathing. As the finger pointed, the mouth spoke: "Look at this stain on your lovely white dress-it's CHOCOLATE MILK! I told you only to drink white milk for your snack. Do you want to get fatter than you already are?" Over twenty years later, Hilda could still feel the lash of her mother's tongue. At five years old, Hilda already knew that she was FAT.
Beverly, Hilda's other friend, jolted her out of her reverie by chiming in with, "You never eat a thing!" She was blond, slightly plump and jovial, but now a dark chord of concern ran through her voice.
Hilda defended herself, "Well, I'm just not a very big eater, never was. I'm not hungry." She tried to keep her voice from growing defensive, keep it even, not letting the other women know that the emotional floodgates were about to open-to spill into a raging river.
Lindsay said, "Well I certainly don't suffer from a lack of appetite," as she spooned extra sugar into her cappuccino. "I'm always hungry." She smiled as remnants of the thick cake were caught between her teeth. For a brief moment Lindsay looked as if all her teeth were full of decay, and Hilda was reminded of an old film she had recently seen; Lindsay's teeth resembled Lon Chaney's in The Phantom of the Opera.
"You are awfully thin, Hilda. Bev and I are just worried, that's all." Both Lindsay and Bev had been quite taken aback when Hilda seemed to drift into Bruno's. The friends hadn't met in a few months and were surprised to see that Hilda had, again, lost more weight. Hilda was wearing a Liz Claiborne knit. The sleeves were long, it was done in a sort-of-silky rich beige. It clasped her body as though it was an extension of her own skin. Neither Bev or Lindsay could wear this dress without exposing lumps and bumps from neckline to hem.
"Yeah", chimed in Beverly. "We ought to get together more often." It was as if her two friends intended to act as baby-sitters-clucking over her like two mother hens. This thought catapulted Hilda into the midst of a dark scene: Hilda was chasing after Bev and Lindsay in a blood-strewn barnyard. The object Hilda was waving in her hand was a hatchet-the type that farmer's used to use to slaughter the chickens. Bev and Lindsay were the chickens. Hilda was the farmer. The gravity of this scene brought Hilda back to reality.
"But, I can't come into the city more than every few months-you know that I can't get away." Hilda's voice drifted off, her mind straining weakly to intercept her friends' suspicions. I'm not thin-I wish they'd keep out of my life, thought Hilda. Lindsay and Beverly would be surprised had they known Hilda perceived her body as anything but thin. They would not have recognized Hilda during most of her high school years. She was the one who never got invited to the proms-except by her male counterpart, fat, and, therefore, unwanted. The one who died every time she had to put on that ugly blue, bloomer-style gym suit.
Hilda discovered the world of serious dieting at the start of her sophomore year at high school. But, prior to that, for as many years as she could remember after the "CHOCOLATE milk incident," Hilda's mother (and father, since he had to drive them) carted Hilda, as well as her also-fat brother Ralph, throughout Queens, with an occasional excursion into Brooklyn, in search of the perfect pill-pusher to cure their "fat" problem. But these time-and-money-consuming endeavors made no impression in Hilda's mind. It was too much fun raiding the refrigerator. Hilda could still remember those fat-laden bologna and liverwurst sandwiches. So good! She also had fond memories of ice cream every Friday night on the way home from the movies. Hilda often pondered why her mother fed her so much of those fat-filled foods and then spent time and money to have her lose those burgeoning pounds. This still remained a total enigma.
But when Hilda made up her mind to want to rid herself of those ugly pounds and look like her peers in high school, she tried the realm of bizarre dieting: grapefruit juice and hard-boiled eggs, eat a different color food each day, fast every other day. She then became clear-headed and committed herself to Weight Watchers. By the time she left for college, she had rid her body of 57 pounds of ugly fat. When she befriended Bev and Lindsay at the University of Vermont, she looked like a "normal person."
Beverly and Lindsay were staring at Hilda as if she was some kind of a new specimen just discovered writhing through the lens of a microscope. Hilda came out of her reverie with a start and suddenly and anxiously looked at her watch.
"Oh, my God, it's so late and I've got the drive back." Hilda fumbled inside her handbag and quickly pulled out a $20 bill and laid it on the table.
"Don't be silly dear, you don't owe anywhere near that much..."
Hilda cut Beverly off in mid-sentence.
"Forget about it Bev."
"But all you really had was coffee." Hilda waved her off and brushed each woman's cheek with a whisper of a kiss. When she was safely outside, she tapped on the glass and waved one last time. Inside the women shook their heads in unison at their slip of a friend. Each time they saw her, Hilda looked more drawn as if she was literally wasting away. Her friends wondered how Hilda herself could be so blind to the way she really looked. They prayed the defensive young schoolteacher would seek the help she so clearly needed.
As Hilda quickly walked to her Mustang (5.0 Liter) parked in the small lot at the back of Bruno's Cafe, she rubbed her arms. Although still August, the night had a bitter chill to it, as if someone had left a huge freezer door open and she was getting a peculiar draft. Hilda was so thin that the slightest cold seemed to seek her out. And, once again as when she arrived at the parking lot, Hilda was blasted by a cold wind-so cold that Hilda thought she actually felt icicles forming down her spine.
Something watched the waif-like woman approaching her car. It stalked Hilda first with its eyes, its vision cutting through the dark alley like an intent, committed swimmer slices through lake water. The thing was hunkered down against one greasy, graffiti-infested wall in the alley whose mouth gaped out into the cafe's lot. Its sinewy, fur-covered body shook with the weakness of hunger and the excitement of the impending kill. Saliva cascaded down its jaws like a stream of rhinestones. Its fur appeared silvery and glistening in the nocturnal hue thrown off from the full moon and the garish city night lights. The thing stifled a howl at impending ecstasy, the fill of its greatest need was soon to be met.
Suddenly Hilda's head spun with the rush of too much coffee and not enough food, and a strange cold feeling seemed to have invaded her insides as well. She sighed and just for a moment rested against the door of the Mustang trying to stabilize herself for the drive back to Connecticut. She rested just a few seconds too long. The thing in the alley had waited for this opportune moment for most of the evening. Now it had its chance.
As it leapt at her, Hilda glimpsed in the driver's side window the shape of an animal, perhaps a stray dog of some kind. But she did not have time for contemplation. The beast lunged at the back of her neck wearing a slavering, wanton expression. The gleaming canine teeth barely punctured the skin of Hilda's neck. Blood rippled from the double holes down the already clammy dress covering Hilda's back. The creature seemed more intent on laying her eyes on Hilda's face. With great strength she rolled the fallen woman over like a hot dog. And Hilda could barely see through the strands of her chaotically arrayed blonde hair as it fell in and out of her eyes. She saw that the thing's eyes glittered with an inhuman appetite. Slaver had gathered around its jaws dampening its shiny silver gray fur and dangling like disjointed spiders' webs down its neck. It growled deeply, the preternatural sound coming from someplace deep and unknown. Its claws tore into Hilda Brooks's face, leaving deep furrow-like crimson crop rows that might never heal. And that's the last thought Hilda had before she blacked out with the Mustang's keys still tightly clutched in her palm. The thought that she was going to need plastic surgery.
As Hilda's head made contact with the pavement, Lindsay and Bev were leaving Bruno's. They stood frozen with horror as the strange animal hovered hear Hilda. Although it seemed like eons to Beverly, only seconds went by when she shrieked, "Oh, my God!" and ran as fast as she could in her high heels. Lindsay had already outdistanced her chunky friend and was in the lead. The sound of the two women running echoed in the almost empty parking lot. "Lindsay...oh no Lindsay...there's a strange animal or something and its got Hilda!" Beverly stopped and started to cry out of fear. She was animal-phobic and needed Lindsay to act first. But the scene was hard for Lindsay to bear; the familiar Mustang parked in the grungy lot, their dear emaciated friend lying unconscious-her head in a pool of blood. And the wild looking thing licking at her and growling low against the muffled sounds of faraway beeping and the buzz of close-by neon lights.
The creature stopped immediately when it saw Lindsay approaching. Although it had not begun to feed-with the surprise of discovery-Beverly's shrieking overwhelmed the animal. It stopped growling and licking and instead of beginning to gnaw, it began retreating back towards the alley. Its eyes seemed to glow a liquid blue from the surrounding lights until all Lindsay and Beverly could see were two fiery pinholes emanating from its skull. It loped back into the mouth of the alley, its evil eyes looking back over its evil shoulder.
"What if that thing was rabid" whined Beverly, shaking and clutching at a handkerchief to keep from retching. "Who...where did it come from? What was it?" Lindsay surveyed the parking lot which seemed to hold only a few cars, but no attendant. She instructed Beverly to go back into Bruno's Cafe and call 911, telling them of the emergency that existed with Hilda. Beverly nodded, relieved that it was she who could retreat back into the vestiges of civilization, selfishly leaving Lindsay to contend with the creature if it dared to return. She scurried back toward the cafe leaving Lindsay kneeling down and crying, "Oh poor Hilda. Poor, poor Hilda."
Beverly pulled herself together enough to drive Hilda's Mustang to the nearest hospital, following close behind the speeding ambulance. She parked it in one of the visitor's parking lots, quickly realizing that Hilda was now a patient and not a visitor. At this point no one knew if Hilda was ever going to be discharged. Beverly and Lindsay were just hoping that she would live. By the look of the puddle of blood, she had lost a tremendous amount of
this precious fluid.
The Emergency Room at St. Vincent's Hospital was typical of any such facility in as large a city as New York. With its normal overload of patients, the staff worked through one wave of trauma after another. The MD in charge that night was Darren Starkton, a young (for such a position), handsome doctor who immediately set patients at ease with his spontaneity and good looks. Unfortunately, Hilda was unable to appreciate either his good looks or his charm.
After the ER team had stitched Hilda's wounds and stabilized her vital signs, Starkton took time to talk to Hilda's two friends. Hilda was being monitored by a myriad of tubes which slithered over both Hilda and the gurney until they reached homebase-some machine or another. Ah, progress and HMO's-this freed-up a human for other chores. Dr. Starkton invited the two women into a waiting room and gave them each a cup of coffee, which Lindsay drank eagerly and Beverly drank with a Valium.
The doctor took off his glasses and rubbed his big brown eyes, sweeping back a thick shock of black hair. In reality, it was an agreeable change for the young doctor to be sitting down anywhere in the hospital. A waiting room with coffee and two pleasing young women was even more agreeable. It had not escaped his eyes that one of the two women had gulped, not at all surreptitiously, a 5 mg tablet of Valium along with her coffee. The round yellow shape with the heart cutout of the pill Bev had taken had not escaped Starkton's practiced eye. But the doctor had questions for his anxious audience of two.
He addressed his questions to both of the women: "Did either of you see what happened to your friend? I mean did a Pit Bull do this or something?" Just a week or so ago a young woman in California had been attacked and slaughtered by a Canary Island dog.
"We're not sure...it was some kind of dog I think...maybe a German Shepherd, right Beverly?," Lindsay spoke up first.
"Could have been...yeah, maybe it was a Shepherd," said Beverly still shaking, even hating the sound of a dog breed vocalized as it rolled off her own tongue. But down deep, as dog-phobic as she was, Beverly knew no German Shepherd Dog could be that macabre-no dog could ever freeze even her blood as luridly as Hilda's attacker had done. The grotesque shape, size and fiendishness of the creature would be tattooed on Beverly's mind forever.
"We are treating your friend for rabies," said Dr. Starkton. "There are two puncture wounds on the back of her neck, as though from an animal's canine teeth, and profuse scratches on her face, as though from some animal's long nails. Really, nails reminiscent of a bear in their length. She is terribly weak and has lost quite a bit of blood. She'll be needing a transfusion-I've already ordered the blood from our Blood Bank. I'll see you later, if you're planning on hanging in for a while." Dr. Starkton started walking back to the ER. He had a thought and turned around to address Hilda's friends: "Do either of you happen to know if Hilda Brooks is suffering from an eating disorder?"
"Oh my God...it's Hilda!?," gasped Ben Rowland. The handsome 28-year old reporter was leaning over a section of the paste-up for the following day's edition of The New York Times. He was six feet tall with compelling hazel eyes and a thick head of dirty blonde hair. Although some people might consider Ben a tad arrogant, he was quite popular with his fellow workers at the newspaper.
"Hey Jack...Jack. I know this woman, we were at Columbia together."
"What woman?," asked Ben's friend Jack, who was partly responsible for the composition of the articles and columns for the newspaper.
"This clip about a woman attacked by a coyote. Don't you read this stuff?" shot back Ben, his voice rising with the high tide of anxiety.
"No time, pal, I just put it together," said Jack flippantly.
"Well, can I get a copy?," asked Ben.
"You know it. Anything you want right now." Jack always came through with Ben's rushed requests.
"Thanks," sighed Ben, relieved although his jaw was still tensed. Hilda Brooks was, after all, Ben's former lover. The two had met while studying at Columbia Graduate Schools, and once had been very close, actually engaged. Ben had studied Journalism and Hilda had gone to the Teacher's College. The couple had broken up right after Hilda graduated; their careers taking them in different directions. And after the breakup, each busied themselves with their own lives: Ben getting a good job at The New York Times and Hilda? Hilda had definitely moved to Connecticut-now he knew!
Ben had lost track of her when she'd moved out of New York City for a teaching job. Now he stared at the newspaper clipping about the attack on Hilda as if concentrating off in a distant world. Although years had passed since the breakup, Ben hated to admit that, due to his male pride, he had allowed Hilda to slip through his fingers. He remembered how annoyed he was when Hilda was pursuing an out-of-state teaching position after graduation: "But Ben, the job at New Hamden High School is exactly what I hoped for. It's full-time, the salary is good for a starting teacher, Connecticut is really lovely - and it just feels right!" Ben reacted without thinking about Hilda's needs: "Hell, Hil, you can get plenty of good jobs here in Manhattan, or even Queens for that matter. How are we going to see each other if you're in Connecticut and I'm in New York City? It just won't work. You'll just have to say 'no' to them and look some more here."
Hilda stared at Ben-her brain shocked at what her ears had relayed. How could he be so selfish and uncaring? Hilda's thoughts swirled into a mélange of hurt and disbelief. Almost without thinking any further, she said, in a muted tone, "Good-bye, Ben," and left his apartment.
He mumbled to himself, "I'm going to call her right away!" Ben walked out of the Composition Room and into his cubicle, put on his blue blazer and killed the lights. When he got home to his apartment on 46th Street off Park Avenue, he went right to the telephone. Although it was 11 PM, he called information for New Hamden, Connecticut. With little trouble he got Hilda's number. Thankfully, it was a published number. He dialed her number but no one picked up except the stoic, cheerful spiel she'd made on her answering machine tape. Ben went ahead with his message.
"Hilda, it's Ben, Ben Rowland. Are you all right? I read about your accident in the paper. I still work for the good old Times. I'd like to see you, maybe we can have dinner when you're better? I hope you don't mind...please call me as soon as you can." His voice quavered a little as he left his phone number on Hilda's machine.
Darren Starkton stood near Hilda's gurney in the ER. Her eyelids fluttered, a soft moan emanated from her swollen lips.
"Hilda, Hilda, can you hear me? I'm Dr. Starkton. You're in the Emergency Room of St. Vincent's Hospital. You were attacked by some kind of an animal. But you are going to be just fine in time."
"I don't remember wha...Oh, Yes! Those horrid glittering eyes! My face, my face!"
Dr. Starkton quickly jumped into the conversation-"Yes, your face has been scratched by extremely sharp, talon-like nails, or claws, perhaps would be more accurate. But the plastic surgeon who looked at you after you got here, said there should be no scarring-the wounds will fade away in the due course of time. The puncture wound on the back of your neck required a few stitches, but your hair should easily cover that mark. Can you tell me anything about the animal that attacked you?"
Hilda closed her eyes and forced her mind to think back to the devastating attack. "The only other thing I can remember, beyond those dreadful eyes, is the very deep growling sound. I have not ever heard a dog growl like that-it was almost supernatural."
"Perhaps after you get some rest you'll come up with some other details. I'm going to put Valium into your IV so you can get that rest. We'll talk more tomorrow."
Hilda had not lost her sense of humor-she knew Beverly had a penchant toward Valium. As she drifted off, she wondered how Beverly would enjoy Valium via an IV.
The few days in the hospital passed quite rapidly. Hilda had indeed been fortunate-the coyote-dog-whatever-it-was had inflicted no damage other than those scratches down the front of her face, and the wound on the nape of her neck. Dr. Starkton had explained the necessity of rabies shots. Hilda was in luck. A new vaccine had recently come on the market. It was prepared from human cells grown in duck eggs. And it only required three shots, as opposed to up to 30 injections for the old vaccine.
The day before Hilda's release from St. Vincent's, Darren Starkton stopped by her room with a pleasant surprise. "Hilda, this is for you." He handed Hilda a smallish white tube with hand printing on its label. Hilda read the words and looked up, with a smile, at Darren's smiling face, and said, "Thank you ever so much. I never would have dreamed there would be a special make-up to cover up ugly-animal-inflicted scratches."
Although still scabbed over, her wounds would remain purplish, good-sized welts running from her hairline down to her jawline. "Now, you shouldn't use this make-up, or cover-up, every day. You can't use it at all until the scabs are completely gone from your face."
Hilda waited nervously at the Captain's Chair in Bridgehaven, for Ben to show up. She had not seen him for what was it? Four and a half years. She pulled a compact out of her purse and checked her fading scars, refreshed her lipstick and smoothed her blonde hair, tucking a few stray locks behind one ear.
I hope he doesn't think I've gained a lot of weight since grad school. Her mind raced. I knew I shouldn't have eaten that goddamn ice cream last night. Now I'm all bloated and huge, Hilda silently berated herself. She was still somewhat in shock that Ben had called her. Hilda remembered well the night she walked away from Ben-it had been very final. She had indeed never expected to see Ben again.
It's funny how we stayed apart. Hilda was now deep in thought. I guess I didn't have the energy to ….
"Hilda? I hope you haven't been waiting long?" Hilda looked up startled to see Ben standing beside her. She jumped to her feet but quickly regained her composure.
"Ben, it's great to see you. You look wonderful!" Ben pulled Hilda towards him in a gentle hug thinking to himself that she looked thinner than he had ever seen her. Deep down he knew that her fixation on food had kept her from ever really getting close to him. Painful memories came flooding back to him as he pasted a bright smile on his face. Thoughts swiftly ran through his head of the too frequent dinners and parties Hilda would not go to with Ben. At first he was taken aback by her refusals. Then he realized it was not his company, or that of others, she was repulsed by-it was food, everyday food. It was Hilda's Waterloo.
"You look great too Hilda. I'm really glad you're okay. I was so worried when I read what happened to you." Ben sat down as their waiter approached the table with a basket full of warm, soft bread and two menus. Hilda had been wrapped up in the aura of Ben, but was quickly snapped back into reality the second the prospect of ordering presented itself. Panic washed over her as Hilda opened the menu. Her mind was racing as she rapidly scanned the words.
"Are you hungry? I'm famished," Ben said as he lightly buttered his second piece of bread. "I've heard the food here is just delicious." Hilda smiled somewhat grimly and said, "I had a late lunch." She was caught in an internal debate between the grilled vegetables, which could be marinated in oil-lots of fat, or the Caesar salad, which she was sure would be drowning in dressing and greasy croutons.
I can get the dressing on the side, she thought. And have them hold the croutons and the parmesan cheese.
"Hilda, are you all right? You seem really distracted." Ah, how well Ben remembered that fixated not-quite-there stare.
The waiter reappeared to take their order and Ben chose a bottle of wine for them. He remembered Hilda's preference for Riesling, and ordered a bottle of Zeller Schwarze Katz. Hilda rarely imbibed anything alcoholic since she believed it slowed down her metabolism, storing her fat at an even faster rate. She decided now that one glass of wine would calm her down, and silently she resolved to go jogging when she got home. She crossed her arms in front of her and felt her stomach under the table.
I'd better do a hundred sit-ups too, she thought as she pinched her imaginary roll of flab.
Ben and Hilda were halfway through the second bottle of the Zeller Schwarze Katz when the food finally arrived. As the plates were set in front of them, Hilda had suddenly turned voraciously hungry. She dug into her salad immediately, but felt rather strange, like it wasn't what she really wanted. She eyed Ben's rare steak and inhaled deeply to fill her lungs with the scent of it. Hilda had not touched meat of any kind since she first started dieting in high school; and she usually told herself that the sight and smell of it made her sick.
Ben watched her amusedly and said, "I'd offer you a bite Hilda, but aren't you still a vegetarian?" He too was fairly health-conscious, watching what he ate and exercising regularly, but he rarely missed the opportunity to order a nice, thick steak.
"Actually, I'd like to try a bite," Hilda said, surprising them both. She felt as though she had no control over what she was thinking or saying. It was as if someone or something was pulling invisible strings making her devour the piece of meat Ben placed on her plate. Ben was both shocked and relieved at the sight of Hilda eating-much less eating red meat, that he said gently, "It's good, isn't it Hil? How about if we switch plates for awhile. I mean if you don't mind if I have some salad-I could ask the waiter for some mustard for you." He remembered her proclivity for this almost calorie-free condiment and how many things she used it on-especially baked potatoes. She readily agreed and Ben stared in disbelief as Hilda carved up the rest of his steak and ate it all, stopping only to slather more of the tangy mustard onto each piece. When she was finished, she picked up the bone with her fingers and began to gnaw on it.
Hilda could feel herself getting full, her skirt tightening around her waist, but it was strangely empowering. Her mind concentrated only on her voracious appetite and how to satiate it. She had already forgotten about going jogging later and lost track of how many calories she had consumed. She put down the now clean bone, mustard and meat juice smeared upon her parted lips, and smiled, white teeth flashing. She felt both energized and exhausted at the same time.
After finishing dinner, Ben followed Hilda's Mustang back to her condominium on Wildknee Avenue. It was a fairly new, well manicured complex called Fir Lane; the condos were painted a dark gray with white doors and white trim on all the window frames.
In the blue wash cast from the near-full moon, standing on Hilda's front steps, Ben Rowland saw his ex-girlfriend clearly. He knew that he still had feelings for her-a strange mixture of desire and anguish he could not quite put his finger on. Ben still wanted Hilda sexually in spite of her extreme thinness, yet tonight she was somehow different, less needy. Was it that he hadn't seen her in years? Had the passing time made him view her differently? At the same time, Ben felt drawn to and repelled by Hilda.
And she still had those strange scars over her cheekbones, scars that the doctor had said did not come specifically from a coyote-but from something bigger and stronger. Dr. Starkton had treated very few animal attacks in the city in his short career and was ill-equipped to assess exactly what kind of an animal had made them. Hilda tried to cover the scars with the special make-up the doctor had prescribed, and in subtle light she looked beautiful, almost perfect again and glowing. But the deep marks were a constant reminder of Hilda's awful meeting with that animal outside Bruno's Cafe just a few short weeks ago.
As Ben walked Hilda to her door, she felt a sudden urge to have him leave. True, he had treated her to what was a lovely dinner and she had enjoyed his company, including a few laughs and their reminiscences of fun-times. But suddenly that familiar urge to get rid of the food in her swollen stomach made it imperative that he leave. She was subjugated to the world of the bulimic-she had to vomit. Then she could feel "normal" and in control.
Without realizing what was happening to her body, through her mind's desire for control, Hilda was inching over the thin line separating anorexia from bulimia. A combination of the two could prove to be just as life-threatening as her battle with anorexia.
"Ben-it's been great seeing you. Thanks so much for dinner. I'm so stuffed," said Hilda hurriedly. Ben had paused at her virgin white front door. He was baffled by this woman he hadn't seen in years. He wanted to kiss her, perhaps to rekindle what was already lost. He also wanted to laugh at her due to the light traces of mustard and dried meat blood still surrounding her mouth. She looked like a little girl whose mother had forgotten to wipe her mouth after a meal.
Slightly drunk, Hilda fumbled for her keys in her handbag while Ben pushed in closely behind her-for a moment touching his body to hers. Just like old times, he thought, but now with even less flesh. Hilda found her condominium key, jammed it into the front lock and turned it. She started to go inside, then turned and shut the door, leaving it open only a crack to peer through.
A sudden wind came up and some twigs snapped off to the right where the woods met the lawn. The liquidy orbs of a creature were caught in the cast from the moon. Sensing something, Hilda gazed past Ben across her lawn. Suddenly an animal barreled, galloped towards her door. Hilda was terrified at first, frozen with an eerie deja vu from her recent trauma in New York City; but it was only the exuberant Blondie, a neighbor's friendly Golden Retriever out for a midnight stroll and stopping by to slobber and paw a hello! Ben's knees buckled slightly beneath him as Blondie bumped him in her eagerness to be petted. Hilda extended her hand through the door and ruffled Blondie's long, golden hair.
"Hilda, can't I come in?" asked Ben, befuddled.
"I'd rather you not...not tonight, maybe next time," answered Hilda. Why can't he understand that I must do what I have to do? I must get rid of that wine and that steak-NOW!
"Well, okay, I just thought..." Ben's voice trailed off.
"It's been a while Ben...and after all I've just been through..."
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to push. I guess I still have feelings for you," Ben said quietly.
"Um, me too," responded Hilda not totally insensitive.
"When you feel up to it, why don't we go rollerblading? I'll drive up to Connecticut and I can teach you!" Ben said to overcome the awkward moment. Ben kept in shape by rollerblading frequently in Central Park. He was good at it and felt sure that Hilda would also enjoy the exhilaration of slicing through the air on thin, inline wheels.
"I'll call you," he said. Then he turned and walked to his car. Hilda shut the door on her pleasing ex-boyfriend, unsure of her face, her looks in general and the possibility of rekindling old intimacies so suddenly. She needed to be alone just now. Needed to do the thing which was slowly killing her. Hilda dashed to the bathroom.
Hilda knew it was indeed time to gather up the shards of her life and return to a pattern of a "normal" life once again. That word "normal" was so damned elusive. Hilda had been chasing a "normal" size body for most of her lifetime and it always eluded her. And here she was in search of a "normal" life. At least she could seek it out in her role as a teacher. Luckily, New Hamden High School had given Hilda a leave of absence until January, to recuperate in spite of school just opening after the long summer break. She did not want to lose touch with the curriculum and so it was on a cool and sunny Saturday morning Hilda ran up to the front doors of New Hamden High. She pulled on the door and found it locked.
"Damn it," Hilda said glancing at her watch. She was supposed to meet Harold, the Janitor, at 9 AM for him to let her into the building. She had come to pick up some books and her planner in order to start preparing for her math classes. Feeling unusually tense this morning, Hilda had decided to jog the 3.5 miles to school in spite of her overall weakened condition.
She had been feeling very trapped lately. Since her release from the hospital she had been surrounded by well-meaning friends and, yes, even students coming to visit her. It seemed these friends were constantly seeking to control her recovery. "Eat this, eat that. You need your strength." Hilda was beginning to feel more like the student rather than the teacher. This time alone was a welcome release, as well as a way to ensure that she burned off more of the calories she had eaten the night before - those that might still be there after she'd vomited as soon as Ben had left her alone.
Now she paced around nervously for a few minutes, catching her breath. She looked at her watch again. One of the annoying side effects of too much dieting was the frequent lightheadedness she experienced. The early jog had made her a little dizzy and Hilda decided to do a few stretches until the dizziness subsided. Also, no one seemed to be around to scrutinize her! But just as she closed her eyes to begin her stretching, she heard heavy footsteps behind her. She quickly turned around, expecting to see the janitor.
"Hey, I was enjoying the view!" said Chad Hornsby. He was the school football coach, and one of the most pathetic excuses for a man that Hilda had ever met. "Are those your legs - or are you riding a chicken," he smirked loudly, joking of her thinness, his gaze traveling slowly from her feet to her face. Hilda stared back at him in disbelief.
This guy is such a disgusting pig!, she thought. Chad was often attempting to come on to her with crude and suggestive comments about her body. He was the adult epitome of all the "fraternity-type" guys she had known in college. The ones that had made her feel so helpless and uncomfortable; like a piece of meat they fought to devour. She remembered dates and parties where she and her friends had been plied with alcohol so these guys could make their move. God, how she hated them. And right now she expressly hated Chad.
"Earth to Hilda," Chad was saying. "You look great all hot and sweaty like that. You must have known I'd be here."
"Gee, Chad-you really know how to flatter a girl," Hilda quipped sarcastically as finally Harold the Janitor rounded the corner of the building. His large ring of keys jangled loudly from his belt loop. The Janitor grinned widely at the two colleagues and unlocked the large chains from the door.
"If you'll excuse me Chad, I need to grab some things from my classroom. Nice to see you again," she said abruptly, more for the benefit of Harold than for Chad. She escaped quickly into the building.
After she finished gathering her things and putting them into her backpack, Hilda immediately jogged home. She felt tainted from her interlude with Chad. She had to calm herself. Her mind quickly took stock of what was in her kitchen. She dashed to the freezer-her eyes ran to the shelves on the door. There it was-a full half-gallon of Ben and Jerry's Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream. Hilda literally threw it into the microwave. She set the timer for 56 seconds, set the power on 80 and hit the Start button. While the ice cream was softening, Hilda yanked two paper towels from the rack and folded them in half. She then pulled a spoon from the drawer. She spoke to the microwave: "Hurry, hurry, I need that ice cream now!" Within a few seconds, the oven beeped. Before the second beep sounded, Hilda's hands were on the carton. She sank to the floor. She wrapped the paper towels around the container and thrust the spoon into the softening sea of doom.
After this binge, Hilda felt stranger than usual staring into the small, still pool of water at the bottom of the toilet. Normally, she'd just quickly vomit-maybe three or four times in a row. Whatever it took to empty out the contents of her stomach like an old, unwanted suitcase. "Purging" was the clinical name for what she was doing. A bulimic puking up food after a binge. This was normal procedure for Hilda, but tonight she felt strange, not weak, just different, like she wasn't herself somehow.
She was down on her knees, her arms literally embracing the toilet preparing to vomit. Somehow she caught sight of the vague reflection of her head, its outline. But it didn't look like her. As ridiculous as it seemed, she swore it looked like the silhouette of a German Shepherd's head staring back at her with large pointy ears. Hilda felt an odd sensation running through her body: a commingling of agony and ecstasy flooding through her. Her clothes began to rip like the sound of a sheet being torn in a hurry to use as a tourniquet. Hilda's bones seemed to twist and she sprouted muscle where none had been before. Thick, coarse furry flesh rode over her bristling bones while she grew large and powerful.
But through the intense pain she felt a new hunger and strength. A morbid craving seemed to come from somewhere alien to her. Acutely she heard the pop of all her shirt buttons hitting the tiled bathroom floor. Her hearing was devastatingly acute. In fact, her ears hummed with a new cacophony: one of insects, nighthawks, scampering mice. It was suddenly so sharp she might have sensed the footfalls of ants. Of even greater magnitude, was Hilda's, or the being's, sense of smell. It was almost painfully keen: the scented bathroom soap, the Boucheron parfum, dregs of veggies left in the Disposal, even the print from that morning's newspaper. But none of these aromas were what Hilda wanted, craved, needed.
For the first time in as many years as Hilda could remember, she did not purge. Instead she hunkered down on all fours and burst through each room on the first floor of the condominium. She spun in circles as though chasing her tail, growling and coughing in a new and terrifying frenzy.
On one of Hilda's forays through the expansive rooms of this floor, she caught a vision of herself in the full-length mirror in the hallway (a mirror she sometimes kept covered, according to how she was feeling about herself on any given day). And what she saw was not herself, but a horrendous creature staring back at her-a wolf and yet not a wolf-but something bigger, more humanoid. In the still human vestiges of her transformed brain Hilda felt panicked. Could what was happening be for the better? Could it be a good thing? Hilda thought. She felt stronger than she could ever remember feeling. The word "good" lingered in her half-human mind. She spun in circles of new pain and boldness, new strength and agony until she maneuvered the doorknob to get it open to suck in the night air under the rapidly clouding over night sky.
The silver sheen of her fur glistened in the puny light cast by the streetlamps. Her creature head moved from side to side as she broke into a slow lope. Her stomach now felt full of rats gnawing to get out. Her long lupine tongue rolled out of her mouth, and saliva dripped in long luminescent threads onto her muscular chest.
The thing Hilda had become paused for a moment in front of one of the adjacent condominiums. The creature smelled the odor of fresh meat awaiting her on the porch. She moved toward the tantalizing smell, a deep growl starting to emanate from her throat. New enhanced vision cut through the already bright night like a mindless chainsaw handled by no one.
A couple of lovers clung to each other on this early September night. Two teenagers groped at each other behind a screened-in porch. The young man fumbled with a busty girl's bra trying to unhook it discreetly. When he did, his head came down between her breasts vampire-like, and he licked her cleavage like an animal. His slobber left a thin, moist trail as the girl moved like a subtly rocking ship under his arousing caresses. Softly they moaned.
Hilda gazed at them for a moment caught up in a different kind of longing. She moved in closer, watching carefully with her strange blue eyes. She tried to decide to make a move or not, to fulfill her insane new hunger. But she didn't yet completely trust her new found strength-it was untested. It had suddenly come upon her in the form of a savage beast and now hunger drove her mercilessly from a newly-found part of her brain. She was fixated by the couple only fleetingly. They were spared on this night of the full moon as Hilda turned with the wind and the smells of other fresh meat pulling her toward the center of New Hamden. Besides, some faint impetus nudged at Hilda telling her "wait, wait, someone tastier waits for you."
Hilda loped stealthily through the dark downtown streets toward the Green and the gazebo. She approached a large, lone figure and silently stopped. Padding a few steps closer she could just barely make out the chiseled, even features of someone vaguely familiar. She examined the man closely and he smelled slightly arousing-musky and sweaty and...she sized him up the way an animal does its prey. He was tall and broad, still muscular from all his past years of playing football. The clean, yet pungent smell of the man overpowered Hilda, making her want to consume and devour him.
Chad Hornsby was dressed to fit his pretty-boy image: khaki pants, a plaid button-down shirt and brown leather tassel loafers. He looked very wholesome. As she watched him standing in the downtown gazebo, the moonlight bounced off his well-defined body. She was well aware of the shape inside the clothes. Her vision was so keen as was her new sensation of smell. She deeply inhaled his fresh and masculine scent again, her muscles tightening and her breathing quickening.
Chad kept glancing around nervously and checking his watch. He ran his left hand through his tousled hair. His gold Sigma Omega Chi fraternity ring from long-ago college football days flashed in the light. Hilda ducked behind a parked car and gazed fixedly at him in fascination. A car drove slowly up to Chad and the headlights were turned off. Hilda became instantly curious, all senses heightened.
A small, stocky man stepped out of the new-looking automobile. Gold glittered around his neck and she could see a long scar running from under his right eye down across his cheek. It was deep and wide. The odor of too much cologne instantly filled her lungs and an instinctive flash of dislike came over her. She growled softly and bared her teeth. The man seemed slightly agitated and paranoid. He walked over to where Chad was standing and nonchalantly sat down on the steps of the gazebo. They always met there to be as obvious as possible, to arouse no one's suspicions. Chad spoke quietly out of the side of his mouth.
"Have you got it?" he asked the stranger.
"Yeah," the seedy man replied. "Its good stuff too."
Chad breathed heavily either from relief or excitement.
"Man am I going to have fun tonight." Hilda could see Chad's teeth glaring in the light.
"This shit drives my girlfriend crazy!" Chad's words were slightly slurred as though he had already been drinking.
"Does she have a sister? We could make it a party," the little scarface said, laughing. Chad laughed too and pulled a smallish tightly rolled wad of money from his front pocket.
"Same as last week?," Chad asked the man.
"Only for you baby," said the man. They proceeded to make this casual yet cautious exchange. Chad quickly pocketed the little plastic bag, but not before Hilda caught a distinct whiff of the white, acrid powder it contained.
"What about next week?," he asked Chad.
"I'll be in touch," Chad replied.
"I have a bunch of college buddies coming to town and I may need some more. You know how much the women love it."
"Hey, I thought you said you had a girlfriend," leered the man.
"She's just tonight's entertainment," Chad said, "I have a short attention span." Both men laughed raucously as the man got back into his car.
"Later man," Chad called as the lights flicked on and the car raced away. Hilda watched the car become smaller, staring with menacing eyes. Then she stepped out from her hiding place and slowly stalked her way towards Chad.
Hilda could smell the stench of alcohol and nervous, masculine sweat thicken around her as she jumped for the back of Chad's neck. He was still standing in the gazebo, his back turned to the parking lot, away from any potential onlookers. Hilda could hear Chad snorting a little of the newly acquired cocaine and chuckling to himself about what a "hot night" he had ahead of him with his girlfriend du jour. He already felt the stuff was making him sense things that weren't there-like a strange presence at his back.
Chad turned slowly, halfway around to make sure nobody was watching him. Hilda caught him on the side of the neck; jaws stretching wide, latching onto his jugular vein. She had superb springing power and launched herself off the burned Connecticut grass, crispy from a summer of no rain. She came at him like a steeplechase racer at the last jump of the Grand National, bursting over the white railing of the New Hamden gazebo.
In his final glory, all the macho copious bragging that had spilled out of Chad's mouth over the years, now appeared to be so much bravado. In fact, Chad Hornsby proved to be a coward in spite of being buffered by alcohol and cocaine. He screamed like a terrified cheerleader from a B horror movie, shrilly and girlishly.
While Hilda bit deeply into Chad, Officers McClellan and Chaplan of the New Hamden Police Force, each bit into their favorite jelly donuts and slurped coffee at the Arcadian Diner just two streets away. Nothing bad ever seemed to happen in the town of New Hamden. In fact, in spite of the high property taxes, people moved to New Hamden for its safe, New England feel; its white picket-fenced myopia blind to the ills of a city like the Big Apple.
While the red jelly from Officer McClellan's cherry-filled donut spurt out and attacked the collar of his uniform, Hilda bit down again into Chad's already gurgling neck and shook not once but twice, with a ferocious vigor only an animal could possess. Chad had fallen sideways and his head had smacked down hard onto the plank floor of the gazebo-his once attractive profile shattered, his broken nose giving his normally handsome face a garish rag-doll appearance. Blood poured out of his throat and nose. Chad's last breaths rasped out in ruddy streams and before he was dead, Hilda easily rolled him over with one strong paw onto his back. Surprisingly, his tormented eyes were wide open and stared up at her. His eyes seemed to catch her for just a moment and they ever-widened. It was as if he recognized their gorgeous Prussian blueness-it was Hilda behind that wolfish horrible face. Her eyes had been a blue sea of sensuality that he had longed to conquer since meeting her. But she had always kept him at arm's length.
Now in his final agony and dementia Chad gurgled wetly, whispered HHIIILLLAAA? And with a final suspiration he was gone. No more touchdowns for Chad Hornsby. Hilda wanted to howl in her new feeling of conquest and strength-a new and terrible power. But hunger overtook her and she quickly buried her already bloodied jaws into Chad's streaming throat. Hilda lay back on her haunches and ripped. Chad's normally taut flesh came away in easy, moist chunks. At first his throat meat tasted bitter-maybe from the cocaine traces resting at the back of it. Hilda retched momentarily but then enjoyed the sweet warm feel of fresh blood, her new gravy.
Chad Hornsby proved to be one of the best meals Hilda had ever tasted. She devoured most of his flesh quickly-a considerable amount of meat to consume for a being who had starved herself for the past many years. Then she felt glutted and sluggish-but also revived and puppy-like. She growled playfully and rolled Chad's severed, bleeding head around the platform of the gazebo like a soccer ball. Hilda had lapped up a lot of Chad's blood and it now covered much of her muzzle and paws. She splashed in a small puddle of blood. It spattered her and she looked like a silver Dalmatian with red spots. She yipped and whined in fulfilled ecstasy until she was finished playing. Hilda sat back on her haunches savoring the moment and surveying the wreckage of her first kill. Then something on Chad's bloody hand glinted, winked in the half moonlight-something shiny and metallic. It was a once much coveted fraternity (Sigma Omega Chi) ring from Chad's years spent at the State University of Florida at Tallahassee. It harkened back to when he'd played quarterback on their football team. A memento from his bygone glory days.
A dry wind suddenly rustled through the trees surrounding the gazebo. Hilda's muscles tensed and she sat up tall and sniffed the air. She mustn't wait on the gazebo much longer. There could be enemies lurking. It was time to move on, but something nagged at the wolf-bitch. In a moment of almost human indecision, Hilda was caught between carrying away the head of Chad Hornsby or something else. Something to bury and to save for later. His head must have weighed about thirteen pounds-not much trouble for a beast of Hilda's strength and size to carry away. But she might get home faster if she opted for some other body part, some trophy. And then she remembered the shiny, metallic ring on Chad's finger.
Unceremoniously, Hilda bit Chad's right hand off at the wrist - bore down hard on it with her fangs. She heard a gristly sound like a breaking tree branch snapping faraway through the now pulpy flesh. She separated his hand from his arm and carried it between her jaws. The blood was drying dark and coagulating as she leapt down the small flight of the gazebo stairs. Sated, but carrying her prize, Hilda headed into the shadows leaving the mangled, twisted body of Chad Hornsby behind for some unfortunate discoverer.
At the Arcadian Diner just two streets away, Officers Chaplan and McClellan of the New Hamden Police Force ordered a dozen jelly donuts to go.
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