The worst part is memory. It hits her at the strangest times. She’ll be walking downtown, following the crowd, when she’ll catch a glimpse of a bit of garbage on the sidewalk. A candy wrapper. Memory. She knows she used to eat things like that, but she can’t remember what it tastes like. She doesn’t want it anymore, even though she’s hungry all the time.
She thinks about food constantly. With every step there’s an echo: food. She can smell food hours before she reaches it, though by then it’s usually too late.
As she stands on the sidewalk, deep inside the pack, she smells it, not far, but too far to get there in time. She smells the whole of it, dirty and moist, then moments later, pieces are already missing. She barely has time to mourn before the smell wafts over her again, and it’s so much less than it was a moment ago. She needs it so badly, but it’s gone so fast. She would cry, but her eyes have been desert dry for two days. She blinks and her eyelids stick closed. When she manages to get them open again, her vision is clouded with dark red flakes, and the pack is moving on. She bites off the tip of her index finger and chews it as she walks.
She tries to move quickly, but her limbs don’t cooperate. And if she pushes too hard, the bottoms of her feet come apart. She had shoes yesterday, but she lost them, and then she lost the soles of her feet. She’d stopped to look at them, sticky, matted with blood, like raw roast beef. She’d touched one of the dangling veins, squeezed it, and a dark, sticky red came out the consistency of peanut butter. She put her foot down and kept walking.
A groan passes through the pack of them, and she can smell the food long before she sees it. It’s a feast, food on top of even more food. The scent changes, sharper, juicier. They turn a corner and a building comes into sight. The food trembles. It’s scared.
A loud noise rings out, a deafening boom, but none in the pack even pause. She sees one of her people fall, but the others walk right over him. She won’t stop either. Nothing matters but the food. She looks up. On the third floor of the building a man levels a gun at the pack. Another bang, another one down, but she’s in the center of the crowd, and besides, they number hundreds, thousands.
She is afraid that by the time she makes it into the building the food will be gone, but the gunshots thin the front of the crowd, so she’s the first in a small group that manages to bring down the reinforced door. The gunshots increase in frequency, and a scream comes from inside: “They got in!”
She follows the others up the narrow stairway and into a large, open room with metal tables and chairs. A man with a handgun takes down three people in front of her, then dashes into the next room. She follows him, slowly. He’s looking through the drawers of the industrial kitchen, but they’ve clearly already been ransacked. He turns to her and points the gun, but she doesn’t stop moving. The hammer comes down with a click. No more bullets.
He rushes her, raises the butt of the gun, and brings it down hard on the top of her head. She feels her skull crack and the bone dent in. She feels bone against brain matter, but it doesn’t hurt. Nothing hurts.
The first bite is always desperate. She goes for the face, because it’s closest, and he screams, so next is the neck. Her teeth dig into either side of his throat, and finally he’s quiet.
She pins his body to the floor and straddles him. She puts her face against his neck wound and kisses it while she drinks. She’s been so hungry, she’s been wandering the city starving, and now finally she can eat, she can gorge, she can take this fit young man into her mouth and drink her fill. It was heaven. She’d cry if she still could.
As she pulls the man’s lungs out and chews them, she runs her hand down his soft arm. Something familiar. She pinches the pink flesh. The skin wrinkles. The worst part is memory. She remembers touch. She knows skin.
“I used to be like this,” she says. But all she hears is a long, liquid moan.
The memories keep coming. Walking up the highway, weaving between abandoned cars, she remembers marigolds. Dig the holes deep enough, then push the dirt back, they smell so sharp, they keep the deer away. She follows others onto a bus, follows the scent of rotting food, pulls a hand off the corpse, and chews it as she continues along the road. She walks slowly, thinking only of food, but these flashes of color invade her mind. They are tiny yellow orange things, and they keep themselves safe.
It’s two days of walking before she can feed again. This time she leaves the pack to follow the faint scent of food, and she finds it in the kitchen of a penthouse apartment. The stairs take hours, but she isn’t tired, only hungry.
The mother is in the bedroom, covered by a blanket stained red and black. Rock hard. Spoiled. The child, no older than five, hides in one of the kitchen cupboards, barely breathing, but she finds him. She could smell him blocks away.
She lifts him onto the center island and pins him with her forearms. He’s crying. There are still dirty dishes in the sink. She leans down to eat, but when she raises her head to pull the spaghetti-entrails free, she catches her reflection in the window.
She’s filthy, but she knows her own eyes, the shape of her jaw. She remembers who she was, not long ago. Could it have been only days ago? Memory. She is more than hunger.
“I had a little girl,” she says. But all she hears is a gravely groan.
By the time she finds the pack again, the bottoms of her feet are bone scraping against the sidewalk. It doesn’t hurt at all. All she wants is to walk and to eat. During the night it rains, but the water doesn’t bother her. She follows the pack. She spots a cluster of stars on the horizon. A man. A hunter. The celestial equator. It must be winter. She isn’t cold. The only thing that hurts is memory. She would cry but one of her eyes fell out that morning.
A march begins, and she’s well outside of the city before she realizes what’s happening. Her people have overrun the city. There’s no food left. The pack must be seeking out more fertile ground. But as she follows the herd she passes a familiar street sign. Memory. This road leads to sparsely-populated suburbs, then farmland. There might be enough food for twenty of them to survive, but they still number in the thousands. She looks over her shoulder. She can see the bridge in the distance. She can’t see the end of the pack. They cover the bridge like rats.
From behind her, she hears a loud crack, a long moan. She turns. At first all she sees is a group of them, ten then twenty, bent at the waist, then falling over, too hungry to care if they get trampled. The body they brought down isn’t visible, just its insides, as the twenty tear their prey into wet pieces. But this wasn’t food; it was one of them.
A man near the center of the mass, on his knees feeding, he’s pushed down next. He opens his mouth and shrieks, but his throat is too dry. Tiny broken bursts of noise and a rush of desperate air. Then his mouth is gone, then his throat.
She takes a step backward and runs into one of her people. She turns her head to either side and sees nothing but them, bodies, hunched over, the slosh of limbs coming apart, the silent screaming.
And she remembers. It wasn’t long ago, just a few days. The flowers orange and yellow, the little girl on the kitchen counter, skin pink, eyes wet. But then a hand on one shoulder, then the other, and then she forgets again.
“I forgot,” she says. But all she hears is screaming.
Bio: Valerie Z Lewis is a college writing instructor in New York. valerielewis.net