Hi, I’m Tonia Thompson, horror writer and creator of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales from Black writers all over the world. Goth Christmas, aka Halloween, draws near and with it, the end of our first season. Today marks our final regular episode of the season, but you’re going to want to make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss tomorrow’s episode—a spec script I wrote for The Twilight Zone reboot that’s been adapted to audio.
Our story today, from author A.Z. Louise, warns us of what can happen when we writers take our job too seriously. Research is an important part of any good story, but where should we draw the line in our quest for an authentic tale?
Now, for our penultimate story for Season 1: At Night We’ll Feast Together by A.Z. Louise.
At Night We’ll Feast Together
By A.Z. Louise
I had nowhere to look. Sun bounced off of the fish tanks scattered around the living room, each pane of glass a canvas for warped, slightly differing images of my face. Dad hadn’t hung curtains yet, because acclimating the fish was more important than opening boxes. The movers had broken the big tank where they usually lived, so it was a good thing dad hadn’t trusted them with his antique books.
I couldn’t tell whether Dad was in his element or out of it. He’d gone from a minimalist Manhattan apartment to an Upstate cottage that he’d filled with furniture of tufted leather and dark walnut. I’d always associated him with reflective steel and glass, but he seemed more comfortable here than he’d ever been in Manhattan. He wanted to take up fishing.
Maybe he was just sick of being busy. Dad had always been busy, traveling everywhere for only a day or two at a time. It took its toll. Every time I’d seen him since college, his eyes looked older. The rest of him looked younger than his age — black don’t crack — but his eyes were careworn. Two smoky quartz chips that the harsh track lights of his unused kitchen never touched as he sipped scotch and told me that he’d cook again if I moved in with him. I never knew why he’d stopped in the first place. Now he was in the kitchen, fixing up omelets for lunch while I took care of the fish. Dad was settling in, but I was getting restless, seeing my reflection everywhere.
I hadn’t always been so edgy trapped inside of house. I grew up an indoor kid more interested in creature comfort than adventures. Being a supportive parent, Dad had bought me as many books as I could read, then a computer to write on. I stayed in and drank hot cocoa and ate the chocolates he bought for women before they ever made it to the intended recipient. Though I enjoyed those times, I knew even then that it wasn’t enough.
It started in college, the way things do for a lot of people. I had never written a sex scene because I’d never had sex; I never fit in at my extremely white school, and the creeps who did want to fuck me said things like “I’ve never been with a black girl before.” So, even though it probably wasn’t necessary, I found myself a boy. That was so hellishly boring that it made me realize how many more things there were to try. And with the allowance Dad sent me every month, I could pretty much try anything I wanted.
My writing went from boys and girls to girls and girls, and I found that I liked girls a lot better. I also tried quite a few drugs, which was pretty standard for a college kid. The girls were wonderful (though I didn’t mean to keep falling in love), but the drugs didn’t do much for me. The problem was, in fact, the falling in love part, as my girlfriend didn’t like the things I wanted to try. I had too much other stuff to do that I didn’t have the energy to argue with her. It didn’t matter anyway; we broke up junior year. Being free to do whatever I wanted didn’t appeal to me any more as far as its level of fun, but I still saw the usefulness.
The year after college was spent frittering away all the money I had on experiences. Dad had moved into his apartment by then, and I took over his office, stacking the room with hard copies of pictures of my adventures. The most terrifying one was when I tried to learn stunt driving for a heist story. Dad made me promise I wouldn’t try to rob a bank when he caught on to what I was doing.
My experiments gradually turned to the esoteric, and Dad was sure I was settling down. I’d sold some short stories and a book by then, and moved out to find a place to write where I didn’t have a reputation for being completely wild. It was hard to do anything in secret when everybody knew your business, and even harder when you lived with your dad. Which was precisely what I’d be doing for the next week or two.
“How are my little buddies?” Dad asked, coming into the room with a plate in each hand.
“They seem to be okay,” I said.
“Come and have lunch.”
We sat on the couch to eat, surrounded by empty coolers and boxes of books. The rest of the house was pretty well put together by the movers, but the living room and office were both wrecks.
The pet shop hadn’t had enough of the expensive silent filters to accommodate all of Dad’s temporary tanks, so the room was filled with a trickling sound that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
“Are you all right, kiddo?” Dad asked.
“You’re not eating,” he said.
“Oh. I’m tired,” I said, not looking up.
“Maybe you should have a nap this afternoon. I was thinking about taking one myself.”
“Are you going to write while you’re here?” Dad asked.
“Maybe. I’m still outlining right now. This one’s giving me trouble. I just can’t seem to get started,” I said.
“Still writing creepy stories?”
“It’s the wrong time of year for creepy stories. You should try writing at night instead of during the day. It gets really quiet out here except for the frogs and the bugs. That’ll give you some atmosphere,” Dad said.
“I wonder if there are bats,” Dad mused. “You know all kinds of weird shit, how do you attract bats?”
When I looked up at him, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in his glasses. I had avoided mirrors since the hurricane, but now I had to face myself in the little square lenses. I knew intellectually that what I saw wasn’t real, but I still flinched. Dad noticed, but he didn’t say anything more. He’d always been good at knowing when I didn’t want to talk.
I shoveled in the rest of my omelet and excused myself, telling Dad that I didn’t feel well.
“I’ll be shelving if you need me,” he said placidly, taking the plates back into the kitchen.
My stomach felt tight and queasy as I fled to the guest room. I got into the bed and pulled the blanket over my head. It’s only the guilt, I told myself. It isn’t real. But the heat under the blanket was unbearable, so I had to throw the covers off. Without anything covering my ears, I could hear a steady trickle. It stopped, then started up again a short time later. It made me feel so on edge that for a few cycles, I didn’t realize that it was just the toilet running in the attached bathroom. Its chain must have been too long.
I got up to turn off the water. It was too much like the sound of rain. I’d already covered the mirror with a towel, but I hesitated in the doorway, eyeing the shiny fixtures. If I could see it in Dad’s glasses, I could probably see it in the faucet. It was getting worse.
It wasn’t until my skin touched the side of the toilet that I noticed how hot I was. The porcelain felt mercifully cool, and after I closed the valve, I stayed there. It entered my mind how ridiculous I looked, kneeling on the tile and hugging the toilet, but I was so feverish that I didn’t care.
That small comfort couldn’t last long, not even as long as it took for the porcelain to warm. Memory came flooding back, a memory of clutching a toilet bowl in much the same way down in Florida. That was before my reflection had changed. When I had straightened up afterward and splashed some cold water on my face, all I saw looking back at me was my own frightened expression. My bloody hands had left a wash of pink on my face, and my neck and naked breasts were almost black with gore. My stomach turned over again, but I gritted my teeth. There was work to be done.
Nobody would ever sleep on the mattress again, that was for sure. The smell of blood was so thick in the room that I could barely breathe. The sensation only lasted a few moments until my brain chose to ignore the scent. I’d told him to leave the lights on. I’d wanted to see.
It wasn’t the blood that bothered me, really. I’d tried blood play before and I hadn’t really taken to it, but the warm thickness of it touching my skin had felt good. It was the aftermath that I didn’t like. It was that I had to dispose of the body. It was that I hadn’t planned well.
There was a hurricane on the way, which was common for Florida in the late summer, as far as I knew. It was a perk, as I saw it; it would be easier to get rid of a body when the cops were busy with other things. But what I hadn’t planned on was how hard it would be to find a tarp or two. Somehow I’d thought that Floridians weren’t bothered by hurricanes.
It wasn’t until I’d started dumping the pieces that the reflections went wrong. The first time it happened, I thought I was just tired, but there was no time to rest. No telling where the gators would go after a hurricane. There might even be enough animal carcasses that they wouldn’t be hungry. By the time I made it back to my Marco Island hotel, the gator signs were burned into my brain: DANGER: DO NOT FEED OR MOLEST. GATORS CANNOT BE TAMED AND FEEDING THEM CAN RESULT IN THEIR MISTAKING A HAND FOR A HANDOUT! FLORIDA LAW PROHIBITS THE FEEDING OR MOLESTING OF ALLIGATORS.
While I was stuck in my hotel room, listening to the rain flail against the windows, I often pondered whether the five hundred dollar fine was for every morsel parceled out, or just the whole human. Of course, if anybody had caught me, the trouble would be worse than a fine. A fine was basically nothing to me, anyway. Hell, bail probably wouldn’t be so bad, if I was afforded it.
It was in the hotel bathroom mirror that I noticed the change. The vanity lights were searing and the mirror too big to cover. I could see the full horror of my face, and I tore my eyes away. I held in my pee so I wouldn’t have to look. On the way home, I screamed in the plane bathroom when I glanced in the mirror, and the flight attendants asked questions, cutting their eyes at me whenever they passed in the aisle. I was beginning to think that I had to look, had to face it, or I’d have a breakdown.
I straightened from the bathroom floor and pulled the thick towel down from the mirrored medicine cabinet. I stared at my reflection, running my fingers over my face. It was like I was seeing something beyond myself. Seeing into my own soul, maybe.
No, that wasn’t it. I’d chosen him for a reason; because he was a trash heap of a human who didn’t deserve to keep walking this earth with decent people. Nobody would care. Some people would be glad. I was glad.
Maybe it was that I was no longer human. With each experiment I’d stepped further and further back, until people were like ants. Maybe I had become more than human, looking down on them like animals, one of whom was hoarding all the resources and abusing the rest. An animal to be culled.
My head hurt, so I tore my eyes from the mirror and crawled back into bed. At one point, Dad knocked to see if I was okay, and then I went back to sleep, even though I knew it would ruin the night’s rest.
When I woke, the night was alive with crickets and a weird, high piping sound. Groggy, I was confused for a second until I remembered what Dad had said about frogs. My clothes were twisted up and crumpled from my uneasy sleep, and my mouth was dry. I crept downstairs, trying to step lightly on the creaky old stairs. Dad must have been asleep.
The clock on the oven read 2:39. Everything went white when I turned on the light, except for the black rectangle of the window above the sink. My distorted reflection was perfectly square within one pane. I turned the light off, then reconsidered and turned it back on again, knowing that I had to face what I saw. I took a long, deep breath, and opened the fridge to pour myself some juice, but something drew my attention back to the window. A flash of light.
Eyes. Red eye shine in the gloom. I leaned over the sink, cupping my hands against the glass to block out the lights. The bright ruby points were gone. What kind of night-predators lived in this area? Maybe bears. The curiosity was too great to bother with those kinds of fears. I went out onto the back porch, peering into the darkness.
I couldn’t see anything, so I reached inside and flicked on the light. The glowing pool that fell across the lawn showed nothing except insects coming to converge on the fixture. I stood watching, listening to the heavy body of a large moth knocking into glass. Plink, plink, plink. All the frogs and crickets had gone silent, and with only that soft sound to occupy my senses, it felt like the only real thing in the world. Like I was standing at the edge of the universe, listening to an unsteady drip of water the size of a planet.
I was about as awake as a person could be, so I sat down in the Adirondack chair by the door. I considered getting my computer or my journal to get a little work done, but something made me keep my seat. There was something out there in the night, something I was meant to see. I heard one last little tap and saw a white flutter out of the corner of my eye. The moth lay legs up on the porch boards. Total silence followed.
Shadows shifted just beyond the area illuminated by the porch light. Coming toward me, I thought. I leaned forward, watching for eye shine. Something blinked.
“What are you?” I asked, as if an animal would be able to answer.
“I am what you summoned,” a soft voice said.
Pure terror shot through me, and I tried to stand. Something held me pinned to the chair. The light flickered and went out. I clutched the arms of the chair, feeling my nails sink into the wood. The shadow moved again, definitely coming toward me now. A human shape with two garnet points where the eyes should have been. There was no light for them to reflect.
The porch light popped back to life, this time casting an eerie green glow that gave the woman before me a sickly cast. She was a light-skinned black woman with a short fade, dressed in a matte black suit with no tie, the shirt hanging open at the throat. She was tall and slim, and under other circumstances, I probably would have been deeply in love already. She smiled, baring pointed teeth.
“You’ve made it hard for me to watch you,” she said. “Most people can’t see me when I see them. But it’s been a very long time since I’ve been called, and things have gotten much more of a glimmer since then. So many ways to look in on you.”
Fear held my tongue.
“Don’t you want to know why I’ve been watching you?” She asked. She laughed softly when I didn’t respond. “I wanted to see whether you were worth taking.”
She bent, leaning one hand against my arm so hard it hurt. Her other hand touched my chin, her fingers rough and calloused. She smelled like cardamom pods seared just to burning, mingled with some marine, stagnant note. It made my head swim.
“Let’s get this over with,” she said.
The light faded and came back up, and her touch was gone. The acid green glow was coming from table lamps now, one on each of two bedside tables bracketing a king-size bed. I knew this big, ugly room in a big, ugly McMansion I had memorized in the space of a few hours. The air was cold and dry, air conditioning holding muggy Florida heat at bay. An empty bottle of champagne had tipped and rolled off of one nightstand, and two flutes stood half-empty, one with a perfect imprint of bright tangerine lipstick, stained brown by the green glare.
It had gotten all over Kyle’s face, too, a work zone warning smear on his lips and chin. I felt a guilty twinge of desire as I looked at him, frozen in time, captured in a moment of pleasure fading into terror. The plume of hot red was a spurt of water spit from the mouth of a fountain cherub.
It was surreal to look at myself held in that instant, head thrown back and teeth clenched. One hand clutched Kyle’s arm while the other’s knuckles were white where it held the box cutter. The feeling of desire grew stronger as I remembered the orgasm that had shuddered through me as he died.
“How’s the guilt?” The woman asked casually.
“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. My voice shook. “It comes and goes.”
The woman touched my face again, and her fingers sent goosebumps skittering across my skin. She walked to the bedside and picked up my champagne flute, carefully turning it so as not to smear the lipstick. She tossed it back and carelessly dropped the glass, which shattered against the bottle. Then everything started to go in reverse, and I tried to look away from the bed. The strange woman came toward me again and grabbed my hair, forcing me to look. The whole incident replayed until the place that it had been frozen before.
“I could taste you on him,” the stranger said. My heart sped, and I didn’t know whether I was feeling revulsion or lust. Her breath was hot on the side of my neck.
“I don’t understand what you want from me,” I said.
“I told you, I’ve come to see if you are worth taking.”
“Taking where?” I was scared again.
She didn’t reply. Instead she let go of my hair, then gently attempted to put it back into place; there was nothing for it, since I’d gone to bed without a bonnet. The green lights flickered, and we were standing outside again, this time on the golf course where I had disposed of the dismembered body. The water hazard was still, the night was still, the stranger was still.
She was no longer looking at me, staring into the water with her hands on her hips. I had thoughts of escape, but I wasn’t quite sure whether this place was real. I held a vain hope that this was all a weird dream.
“I’ve come to see if you belong with others like you, people who have unwittingly summoned me by their actions. In some ways your life would be the same. Money has no meaning to me, so I am not bothered by giving it away. But you might well find that it loses its meaning to you, too. There are other advantages, though, if you are willing to make the right sacrifices. Living as long as you like, for example. Living without fear.”
“What sacrifices?” I asked. She turned, giving me her unnerving, sharp-toothed smile.
“You become mine, body and soul. You feed me your flesh, and are born again to do as you did to that white boy, this time at my bidding.”
“I don’t want to do that again. I’ve done my research and I’m going to write my book, and that’s it.”
“And what happens after that?” She asked. “What experience haven’t you had, if you’ve gone as far as murder? What comes after that? What do you write next?”
Perhaps it is evidence that I was always meant to be a killer, that this was the first time that true existential horror came over me. Even in the Florida heat, cold shivers ran up and down my spine. I had never wanted anything quite like I wanted to write, and the thought of running out of things to write about had been too terrible to consider for more than a minute.
“I suppose –” her voice took on a cold and calculating slyness “– that the natural next step in the process is to die. You could just kill yourself, but that wouldn’t carry the excitement of putting the feeling to paper, now would it?”
“How long have you been watching me?” I asked. It seemed like she could see directly into my heart, and the deed had been done only a few weeks before. I hadn’t even been writing that much since then, especially since I could sometimes see my reflection in my computer screen. It was much more comfortable to outline with pencil and paper.
She only smiled. Her teeth were a nightmare, a portent of death. I wondered if my own victim had felt the same in the moment it took me to bury a blade in his carotid artery.
“At this point you don’t really have a choice,” the stranger said. “I want you, and it will take quite a lot for me to let you go.” Her tone said that to refuse would be death, no matter how nicely she put it. Death with no promise of rebirth.
“I don’t want to kill anybody else,” I said, trying to be more firm. I don’t know why I thought firmness would help.
“All you have to do is step into the water. A baptism, let’s call it. Water has always been sacred, even in my time. Maybe it can cleanse you of your foolish morals.”
“What’s foolish about it? I did what I had to do and I don’t want to do it again,” I said.
“You don’t want to do it again because you’re still clinging to human ideals. Earthly things that you don’t need anymore. Your universe has gotten bigger, and you haven’t noticed yet. He knows. You showed him.”
The stranger turned back to the pond, where the water was rippling, then bubbling, then roiling. I didn’t just turn away, I covered my face with my hands. I knew what would come out of the water, and I did not want to see it.
“You’ll look,” the woman said. “They always look. Either curiosity or guilt always drives them. The desire to see what they’ve done, either to make peace with it or to carry it around forever, nursing it like a wound.”
Her droning voice was like needles, a hot brand driving me to turn and look. Maybe she thought that if she said enough, I would grow tired of her prodding. It was unnecessary: I wanted to look. The curiosity was so strong that I bit my lip until it bled.
Her hand touched my shoulder. It was the first time that her fingers did not fill me with fear or pain. Strangely, the urge to turn faded just a little bit.
“You shouldn’t do that,” she whispered. “Your blood tempts me.”
Her hand reached around my cheek to wipe the blood from my chin with her thumb. I was acutely aware of the wet sound of her sucking her thumb clean. I turned, pulling out of her grasp, and took a few splashy steps before I could draw myself up short.
It was all in pieces, headless, slippery with pond scum or some secretion from the stomachs of the gators. Nothing was put together right, and it was rearranging itself every second, distorted by silver moonlight. It shambled toward us, and I hid my face in the hollow of the stranger’s neck. Though her arms afforded an unexpected comfort, enough that I began to breathe again, I could still hear it splashing toward us.
“Out of curiosity, what did you do with the head?” The stranger asked. I couldn’t answer, for something wet and slimy touched me, and loathing washed over me. I feared I would vomit.
“Unmake it,” the stranger said.
I understood. I had taken a person apart, and its soul had pulled it back together into something else, something new and unwholesome. I didn’t know whether it really existed, and looking at it again made me even less sure. It felt real as the stranger guided my hands, yet somehow less real than the hands on mine. As if an unpracticed touch would pass right through it.
What fell through my fingers was not merely bloodless flesh. It was sustenance for something beyond flesh, and I feasted without fear or shame. The stranger’s hands were busy on my skin as I fed her morsels, her mouth hot and dripping, and I let myself be devoured. Everything had fallen into place; the endless hours of trying to find anything to hold me longer than a moment, the desire to pour my soul onto the page. To be consumed was all I had ever wanted.
Thanks to A.Z. for submitting this story. If you enjoyed it, you can find A.Z.’s work in Equal Opportunity Madness, A Mythos Anthology, and Strange Horizons. You can visit their website at azlouise.com, or follow them on Twitter at az_louise.
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That’s our show for today. We’ll be back tomorrow with our season finale—an audio adaptation of my own take of a story from the Twilight Zone. You don’t want to miss it!