“Wow, you look like shit!”
Denis balks at the sight of his malnourished friend when the door pulls all the way open.
Edan gives a short laugh and steps to one side to let the tall, gangly man in. Despite their long history, he’d admittedly not met with Denis in some months, his macabre need for the man’s unique connections diminishing with his restricted dietary consumption.
“When was the last time you ate?” Denis looks him up and down, then nods to Anson, who waves briefly from the living room. He leans forward a little, then sniffs. “Or showered?”
“I, uh…what can I do for you, man?” Edan calls out, voice still hoarse from sleep, as Denis pokes his head into the fridge, helping himself to a can of something fizzy, as well as picking out an onion from the back of the crisper and tossing it in his hand several times.
“Just wanted to check in on you,” he emerges from behind the fridge door, pushing it shut with his foot. “But you weren’t answering the door or your phone, so I figured your boyfriend had keys on him. Y’all good now?”
He slurps loudly from his can as he glances back and forth between Anson, whose nose is still pink from crying, and Edan, who tucks his hands under an old sweatshirt he’d thrown on top of his T-shirt, though he’s still in his grey sleep shorts, his thin legs forming goosebumps with the gust of cold that had washed in the front door. When neither of them responds, Denis sucks at his teeth and nods.
“How about you kids go talk it out, and I’ll make us lunch?” he vaguely nods towards the living room, then raises an eyebrow at Edan. “The usual?”
He doesn’t respond right away, instead glancing over to Anson as if to seek consent to the tune of Please, sir, may I have some more? only to be met with a questioning expression.
“Well…you should eat, right?” Anson says after a moment, smiling weakly. “You need to.”
Edan had long surpassed the point of being just hungry, his insides queasy and weak enough that he mostly feels both delirious and on the verge of unconsciousness in equal parts. He’d been rationing his consumption into smaller and smaller portions, eating only just enough to sustain his life by a thread and with little regard for his vitality. It had drawn in a number of curious stares from his co-workers, asking if he would consider undergoing a series of tests, if only to rule out any major, possibly terminal illnesses. One would think that as a doctor, his dietary health would be high among his priorities, even if a regular sleep cycle were beyond his control. Still, Edan had long known that his affliction was not a physical one, but rather one in which his mind and heart were at war.
Not waiting for further affirmation, Denis makes his familiar way around the kitchen, pulling out various pots and pans off their hooks and a number of aromatic vegetables from the fridge. Then, twirling a key ring with a single key around his finger, he whistles his way to the garage, returning with a freezer bag of—
Anson looks away sharply, suddenly making the palpable connection with the eerie set of garage freezers by which he’d been intrigued enough in the early days to ask about.
They’re picky eaters and would stock up on the stuff they actually ate because it wasn’t really easy to find.
Indeed, he supposes, it would not be terribly easy to find this particular ingredient in most supermarkets.
“Aren’t you going to sit?”
Edan’s voice trails closer now, and it takes Anson a moment to snap out of his daze, nodding quickly as he perches himself carefully on the sofa, as though it were the first time in a stranger’s home. In an attempt to ease his restless state, he busies his mind with scanning his eyes over the coffee table…then squints.
13 Beloved, his personal Blu-Ray copy that he’d brought over some weeks ago in an attempt to get his squeamish boyfriend to watch one of his favourite horror films with him. Naturally, the fretful mess of a man had outright refused, claiming that Thai horror films were infamously among the most terrifying of the entire genre. It would seem darkly comical now, that Anson, who loves watching some bloody gore, would have any repulsion towards an actual man-eating…man…in the flesh. Then again, he’d always revelled in the fact that such occurrences were purely fictional, and he would never have to encounter those gruesome and terrifying events outside of a screen.
Until he had, of course.
“You watched this?”
He picks up the plastic DVD case, flipping it over to read the description and credits as though he’d not seen the film at least once every year since he’d first stumbled upon it; as though he might discover something new about what he thought he’d known like the back of his hand.
“I did…kind of.” Edan scratches his ear, leaning over the gap between the sofa and the coffee table to grab the remote controller, putting an end to the colourful, never-ending screensaver. “I got about half an hour in, and then got too scared…so I just read the entire synopsis online. I even found a research paper on it by some film student in Australia.”
This gets him a short chuckle from Anson, who finally seems to relax into the sofa just a little, pulling his socked feet up onto the seat.
“What…did you think of it?”
Edan hums in contemplation, then pulls the fleece blanket tighter around his freezing legs.
“I think…it really highlighted the fact that…people do stupid, crazy, shit not because they’re bad or greedy. But sometimes, when life deals you a set of cards that you can’t do anything to change, taking shortcuts or cheating your way out of that state seems like your only hope. That’s not true, of course, because all it ends up in is hurting others…like I’ve hurt you.”
Perhaps Anson had mostly been anticipating some variation of I’m never watching another horror film ever again that he’d heard dozens of times before. Then again, the last week and a half had shown him that expectations are, by nature, designed to be missed. He returns Edan’s sincere gaze with a watery stare, unsure of how to respond.
“My offer still stands,” Edan continues, wringing the soft material of the blanket in his bony hands in anticipation. Several moments pass before Anson sighs noisily and places the DVD case back on the coffee table.
“Okay,” he says, nodding mostly to himself. “I’m ready.”
I was eleven years old when I first found out what my parents had been feeding me. They were young and career-driven and hadn’t the foggiest clue about childcare beyond the medical stuff. I was kind of an accident that they’d decided to run with. Growing up, they never let me share my lunch with anyone, claiming that it was extremely unhygienic and that I should be grateful for the food that I was given.
They never let me into the kitchen unless they were there with me, and they bred it into me that I was a very smart boy, and so I would one day become a doctor, just like them. I was put into all sorts of after-school academic classes and was so busy learning things beyond my age group that I knew more numbers of pi than the names of people at school. They would warn me to be cautious of making friends with anyone, because you never know who might try to harm you. I kept my head down and maintained the shallowest of acquaintances with my peers, always nodding politely and engaging in conversation without ever sharing anything about myself. I never questioned any of my parents’ quips because the way they explained everything to me made complete sense to me as a child.
It didn’t occur to me just how lonely I was until in Primary 5. This girl in my class expressed an unusual interest in me, mostly because she’d somehow caught wind of how my parents were somewhat well-off and wanted to know if I would bring an extravagant gift to her birthday party. I knew of this because she wasn’t particularly quiet about her gossiping habits, and so I could hear her high-pitched cackle in the corridor outside the boys’ bathroom, where she eventually cornered me with her equally obnoxious friends. She offered me a piece of her snack, which I politely refused, and in turn, she asked to have some of mine. Again, I declined, citing that it wouldn’t be hygienic because…well, that’s what my parents had taught me.
“Why, did you not wash your hands just now?”
I don’t think she really intended to ridicule me, but that was what came out of her mouth, and that’s what her friends latched onto as part of some sick joke about me being a dirty kid that they would then continue all throughout the rest of our primary school days. Nobody wanted to sit with or talk to me after that. Except for Denis.
Everyone knew him as the weird tall kid, and I was his dirty puppy that trailed in his path for protection. He has the most absurd ways of going about things, and I sometimes wonder how he didn’t get into trouble more with our teachers back then. Anyway, we were in Form 1 and I was enrolled in just as many after-school activities as I had been before. Denis and I were on the way to the bus stop after basketball when I got a call from the tutorial centre I was headed to, saying that the teacher had taken sick leave and that class would be rescheduled for another day.
To me, it sounded like Christmas. It was rare for me to have any time to do anything fun, so even a few hours of nothing felt like it held endless possibilities. I immediately asked Denis if he wanted to come over and hang out, something that we’d never really done before. Any time he’d come over before was to study for tests and to do homework together.
It was weird, arriving home before the sun had gone down. I had assumed that my parents were working that afternoon, and that my sister was at my grandmother’s. But when I came home, I saw the garage door open, and our car parked inside it. The door of the trunk was lifted, and so were the freezer doors. Curiosity got the best of me, I guess.
When Denis and I looked into the open freezer, we saw…a hand. Like, just an entire human hand that had been cut off from the wrist down and stuffed into a freezer bag and the blood frozen into grains. Sorry, I don’t mean to gross you out—
It’s…we’re A&E doctors. I’ve heard and seen worse.
But I mean, as a kid, it wasn’t something I’d anticipated for. Just…a bunch of body parts lying jumbled together in a box, like in a mannequin warehouse or the remains of an angry child’s Barbie dolls. I didn’t know how to react. We kind of just stood there staring into the freezer until Mum came back through the garage door, saying, “Maybe we should make filet mignon? I feel like the lower back portions never freeze as well as the—”
She panicked. They must have thought that I wouldn’t be home for another few hours. I may have been just a kid, but I did manage to make the connection between everything, and when I did, I ran. I didn’t scream or say anything. I simply ran and ran and ran all the way down multiple streets with no real destination, until I was so tired that my legs just gave out beneath me. I’d ended up outside the mall near my grandmother’s place, where I just sat on the pavement and cried.
And then someone sat next to me, and I realised that Denis had run after me. He didn’t say anything or try much to comfort me. He just sat there with me until I was done crying and patted me on the back when I eventually threw up into a trash can. For me, it was enough. We sat there until it began to grow dark, and I went to go and pick up my sister. She slept in my arms the entire way, and I said nothing to my parents when I got home. I just carried her up to our room and hoped that she never had to find out what I had.
From that day on, I became hyper-aware of everything that I was given to eat. I would eat only the rice and vegetables in my lunchbox, and threw whatever meat there was away. I couldn’t bear the thought that I was eating another human being, nor the possibility that my parents might be murderers. For once, I was glad to be so busy that I was rarely home, because a part of me didn’t want to know. And Denis never said anything to anyone, either.
I wasn’t a chubby kid by any means, but after about a month or two, my parents had begun to notice that I had lost an extortionate amount of weight, and not simply because of puberty stretching me out with height. My class teacher called them because he was concerned about my depleting energy levels and mentioned that my basketball coach could see that I was getting worryingly thin. They realised then that I hadn’t been eating what I needed.
I locked my bedroom door that night, listening to my mother weeping and begging for me to eat before I withered away into nothing. It was past three in the morning when I finally opened the door to find her collapsed against the wall in the corridor outside my room. She just looked so…tired. For so long, she’d dreaded the day that I would inevitably find out this horrible secret, and I don’t think she was prepared for it to be an accident. When I shook her awake, she cried and held me until she’d run out of tears.
That night, my parents sat me down in the living room, right where you are now. They told me everything, or as much as an eleven-year-old could grasp anyhow. The long and short of it is that I come from a long line of people who have a genetic condition whereby they are unable to produce a certain protein, and so we need it from external sources through dietary consumption. In other words, drinking other people’s blood or eating their flesh. I have to eat at least one small portion every day, otherwise, my body can’t absorb calories from anything else.
As for where they were getting the bodies…from my grandparents’ generation onwards, they’d begun to reject the notion of digging up graves, like our ancestors had done for hundreds of years. Necro-cannibals, they’re called. They only eat those who are already dead. It’s why my parents became doctors, so they could…claim the unclaimed.
It took me some time, but I came to realise that none of us ever asked to be afflicted with this condition. All they wanted was to survive.
There were times when I wondered if I should’ve just let myself die off so as to cease the genetic chain of guilt that would inevitably plague any future generations. Not that anyone was begging to date, let alone make babies with, the kid who supposedly doesn’t wash his hands after using the bathroom.
No, it’s fine. Really. And I guess, fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it—I discovered that I’m not particularly interested in the baby-bearing sex. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t still have this whole other problem to worry about…the reason my parents were so against me dating or socialising too closely in general.
That wasn’t something I particularly worried about until I entered university. It was a fresh start, in some ways. Denis and I both miraculously made it into medical school. I don’t think he actually wanted a career in medicine, but he once told me that he doesn’t care what he does so long as he’s needed. And with his family already working as undertakers, he has connections with one of the local crematoriums. That’s usually what happens with the unclaimed after they’ve undergone all the inspection and paperwork.
So…someone else knows, too?
Just one, kind of. I don’t know his real name. Denis just calls him Fatboy. Whenever an unclaimed gets sent to him, he handles the, uh…disassembly of the various parts. Like a butcher, if you will. And then he sends them to me in air-tight freezer bags with labels disguised as cuts of beef on their way to a delicatessen.
Wait, I thought that they usually cremate the body as a whole rather than chop them into parts? Or at least that’s what I see in films—correct me if I’m wrong—when they push the entire body into the cremator? Or is it more space-efficient to cut the body up? Like, you can watch the the flesh burn first and then the bone kind of becomes ashy and—sorry…go on.
You seem…weirdly excited.
No, I’m just curious. What they show in films isn’t always accurate, I guess. Anyhow…continue.
Um…yeah. So that’s how I’ve been acquiring my…supply. It’s not easy, and sometimes it doesn’t work because ultimately, it’s…well, illegal. It means that I have to ration out what I have very slowly. I only eat one small portion a day unless I’m particularly tired.
Anyway…where was I going with this?
Denis and I got a fresh start in university. I even had a boyfriend for a month or so, but it was difficult trying to hide it from my parents, and he eventually got fed up with me, saying he didn’t want to date someone who wasn’t ready to come out to their family. That’s what I’d told him was the issue anyway.
It scared me for a long time, and I would become apprehensive of approaching anyone romantically, because I knew it would only end up in heartbreak or chaos, not just for me, but for my family as well. Then, after I graduated, my parents retired, and it was just my sister and me. They moved to Stockholm after reading several studies on how it would soon grow to be a city with one of the highest percentages of childless adults. Several years later, my sister got an offer at a university in London, where my aunt and her family live.
And then it was just me. I felt like I was in primary school again, left to my own devices and feeling out of place…but for the first time, I realised that without my parents around, I had the opportunity to reinvent myself in the ways I could control. I watched movies and listened to music, and on my days off, I would lay around at home doing absolutely nothing. It was great, but a part of me still hoped for something more.
Then I met you.
I’ve had many crushes in the past that I let slip by, but you…I was willing to risk everything just for a chance. And I’m sorry that I’ve dragged you into this mess, and you have every right to find me disgusting or barbarian, but I promise you that I tried to keep you out of it. I hate so much that I’m like this, you know? I thought I could try giving it all up once again, and try and find other ways to work around the problem, if it meant that I could keep you around.
“Well, you’re an idiot!” Denis emerges from the kitchen with a steaming bowl of what appears to be congee. “Food’s ready,” he says, placing the bowl carefully on the dining table then taking a seat at one of the chairs. “Extra ginger, as always.”
“Thanks, man,” Edan turns one corner of his mouth up slightly. “Really appreciate you doing this.”
“Fuck, don’t get all sappy on me now,” Denis mutters, pulling out his phone and scrolling mindlessly.
His throat parched now from talking, Edan coughs dryly into his sleeve, hanging on his arm like laundry on a wire. At some point, Anson had shifted closer to him, their knees and legs pressed up against each other so that Edan can feel the warmth against his skin through the blanket.
“So…yeah,” he finally manages, cold sweat forming on his palms both from relief and with hesitancy over what he knew would inevitably come next. “If you want to report me now, I understand. I’m fully prepared to face that, and I won’t judge you for it.”
Anson sighs deeply, sitting up straight as he wipes away any remaining wetness in his eyes. In his mind’s eye, he had made his decision long ago, even before entering the house, even if he hadn’t been aware of it. I must be insane, he thinks. But at least I have you to go round the bend with.
“I’m not going to report you, and I’m not going to tell anyone, either.”
There’s a flicker in Edan’s gaze as his mouth falls open slightly, processing his words for a few moments before he finds a moment of supposed clarity and nods.
“Thank you,” he whispers, a sincere smile reaching his tired eyes. “That’s really all I can ask from you.”
“Don’t you want to know why?”
He merely blinks in response, his smile fading into a faltering grimace. Pity? Self-protection? Several potential justifications spring to mind, none of them particularly comforting. Then, before he’s realised, there are warm, soft hands on his face, Anson’s thumb rubbing gently at his cheek.
“I love you,” he says, just loud enough so that the two of them can hear. “That’s what I meant to tell you before…well, you know. I once thought you were too good to be true, you know? I began to doubt because I figured there had to be something wrong that would send me packing, and yet… I’m here. It feels like everything I know about the world has changed because of you, and I’m sure there’s plenty that I’ve still yet to learn, but one thing I know for certain is that you would never willingly hurt anyone. Especially not me.”
For what feels like the thousandth time that week, Edan cries. This time, though, his tears spill hot and easy onto the blanket, blurring his vision and leaving droplets where his lashes brush against his glasses. He cries for a young Edan, a lost child who had lived in fear under the unremarkable care of equally lost parents, running from his own happiness and stumbling along an increasingly narrow path he’d paved for himself…to finally arrive home. Home, where Anson is, not the skeleton of a mansion that he’d penned as his address for almost thirty years.
Their noses bump together clumsily, reaching for…
The two startle from their mutual enchantment, ears reddening and clearing their throats from the interruption. Denis scowls as he looks up from his phone, then, realising what he’d done, bows slightly in apology.
“Sorry,” he says sheepishly. “Just lost a round.”