She clung to a support beam on the front porch while the rushing waters surrounded the building that The Man, whose name was Peter, had entered. He had not noticed her there, which was good. But she was not invisible. She wondered if their encounter in his car had damaged his mind. That would be bad. He was a fundamentally broken soul, ripe for feeding. She’d sensed that immediately. What she hadn’t counted on was using him up so quickly.
She had inhaled his steam for a long time, longer than she’d ever fed on the sins of the souls in her former world. She’d never had much time to hit bottom in that place. She was too busy trying to stay clear of the mountain. The end of Peter Mayberry’s steam had hit the back of her throat like the sharp edge of a knife. She’d nearly choked on it.
There had been a moment just after that choking feeling, though, when she thought she could go on. Peter’s body had ceased emissions, yet as she continued to drink from him, she thought she could see his skin shimmering. His outer shell had begun to break down. If she’d kept up her feeding, she would have consumed the entire man, body and soul.
The temptation was strong, but she had kept herself in check. She had learned much about this world in her short time here, but she didn’t know everything. A native she could no longer feed on would be more valuable alive, especially if he were devoted to her. If she couldn’t feed off him, perhaps he could help her find others to satiate the hunger. He thought she was God, something she read in his mind as The Second Coming. He thought she was here to save him, to save all of them. She could think of no reason to correct him.
In her old world, guilty souls were provided to feast on. In this world, she had to hunt. That needn’t be so much of a chore with a staunch defender like Peter promising salvation as bait.
Marilyn (as she had come to think of herself) first had to survive this storm and figure out a way to follow Peter inside to set her plan in motion. Faces wandered up to the glass in front of the store sometimes. None of their eyes landed on her. They all pointed skyward, the way hers did whenever the eruptions of birthing slime happened in her previous world. Then they shifted toward the rapids overcoming the lot on which they’d parked their dinosaur-fueled carriages. Some of them got angry about that. They pounded their fists against the glass as if venting their frustrations might cause the water to reconsider its course. Others sighed dejectedly and walked away only to return a minute later, unable to tear themselves from the doomsday scene.
A groaning sound followed by a thunderous crash heralded the havoc of the floodwaters that tore up the world below her. It completely obscured the land below. Panic gripped her heart. Raindrops and spray stung her. Beneath the thinning layer of fur on her body, her skin bubbled and boiled as if a million insects were crawling beneath it and desperately seeking a way out. She struggled to hold this bipedal naked ape form. Hair sprouted from follicles in irregular patches all over her body. The humans, as they called themselves, did not look so corporeal when they were only guilty souls. They were more superficial structures of mostly different energy vibrations in her old world. Then again, she was also very different on this side of the tree, seemingly capable of so much more than she had been over there.
The wooden decking beneath her creaked and groaned with the unrelenting force of the water. Here and there, a wave of the stuff lapped onto the porch and bit her. It stung worse than the raindrops. The pain from the biting wounds was deep and throbbing, like a spike driven through her fur, flesh, and muscle and, ultimately, into the bone.
The hunger she had satisfied by feasting on the one called Peter returned. Her body began reverting to its natural state, rebelling against starvation. It was a terrible cycle, she thought. The more she fought against the regression, the more her body waged war against her, and the hungrier she became.
Yellow, thick, pointed claws replaced the delicate, glossy fingernails she had cultivated while feeding on Peter. Her legs drew up beneath her. She could feel her knees slipping out of joint, the tendons cracking apart and reforming, the bones inverting. Her shoulders widened and dove into her biceps. Her laterals broadened and spread down her torso. She opened her lengthening jaws to scream just as the bridge that connected the store’s parking lot to the road broke apart and drowned in the overspill.
A succession of thumps followed as the people inside the store slammed themselves against the window to watch the disaster. One of them, a man in a porkpie hat, had a distinctive red haze hovering all around him at that exact moment. His eyes were not as fixed as the others, either. They wandered around their sockets, looking here and there but not at anything in particular, as if he had something much more on his mind than a flood and a washed-out bridge.
Marilyn closed her eyes and inhaled. Yes, she could smell the nutriment even through the wood and glass. It was a minor sin, this one. Half as likely to condemn the fool as most. What he’d done was wrong, but if you were seasoning your immortal soul for the fire, it was no more than a single dash of paprika. He would not make the most filling of meals, but he would do. All she needed was to establish the connection, get him to think about what he’d done, ruminate on it, worry about what might happen if those he knew and loved found out. If she could nurse that smolder of guilt into a flame, she could feed enough to hold onto her human guise for a more extended period. Possibly even long enough to reconnect with the one named Peter.
Thief. It came to her then. The man surrounded by red haze in the window was a thief, but a very recent one. That explained the penetrating guilt. He wasn’t comfortable with the crime yet. If he had stolen more than once, it had not yet been enough to embolden him. Marilyn sensed his fears about what others would think of him or say about him if they discovered who he was underneath those—Bible lessons?
She grinned, the corners of her canine mouth spreading wide. The red haze man was named Mark MacDonald, and he was a representative of God, what he and those around him called a pastor. He might not make such a bad meal after all. Back home, the ones who had in life presented themselves as the most pious were often the most succulent. Well, save for the murderers.
She let go of her hold on her human shape and allowed her reversion to a more primitive form to complete. Sharp, burning pains radiated throughout her body for a time afterward, but they subsided quickly. She felt weak, unsteady on her pins, but otherwise as normal as she’d felt since she’d leaped into this world. Typical for her in the other place was a constant loop of sucking on the souls of the departed and running for her life. Existing here could become a loop of survival as well, but at least it would be a loop of her choosing, not one an eruption of demonic ejaculate forced upon her.
Mark MacDonald, her mind reached out to him. In the window, his eyes drifted her way even though his nose remained pointed toward the spot where the bridge used to be. You are a thief, Mark MacDonald. You stole from your congregation. Now you want to steal from the person who provides your community with food and clothes. You are an evil man, Mark MacDonald. You don’t serve the Lord. You serve only yourself.
That was all it took. He broke. The preacher’s eyes drooped at the outer corners. His eyebrows knitted at a peak above the bridge of his nose. His lower lip trembled pathetically. Beads of sweat began to roll down his face. He removed his porkpie and fanned himself with its brim. The breeze it created wafted the red haze away from his skin. She caught the aroma and began to draw on it. Just an inch closer and she could latch onto its nearest tethers, direct it outside and to her mouth the way a snake charmer hypnotizes a serpent into rising from a basket. But the pathetic preacher stopped fanning himself too soon. He stepped from the window, and the others followed as if understanding without saying that the show outside was at an intermission.
Snarling, Marilyn crept on her belly over the length of the porch from the support beam to the front door. She dared not enter, not yet. If she confronted them in this form, they were more likely to fear her than feed her. Their fear was of no use to her. Pain? Absolutely. Some people use those sensations to relieve themselves of guilt. That was a lesson she had learned only tonight from Peter Mayberry. Alas, if you healed their pain, they mistook the sensation as having washed away their sin.
Fear, on the other hand, was far too primal. It overpowered guilt and tainted the flavor. That was the lesson from the one called Eli Wynn, the younger man on whom she’d first tried to feed in this world. If she hadn’t shown him her proper form, he wouldn’t have feared her. But she had shown him, and his steam had tasted horrible. It had given her a glimpse into his mind, however. There she discovered the human forms he found appealing as well as the ones that could provoke his sense of shame. They were the same.
Near the door, the scent of Mark MacDonald’s steam was much more potent. She pressed the wedge of her nose to the space between the facing and the door and inhaled deeply. Her eyes rolled back in her head. A surge of strength spasmed through her body. The wounds caused by the stinging rain and the splashes of creek water healed themselves instantly. They dried up, scabbed over, and finally crumbled away from the new flesh underneath. The pink of the healed wounds sprouted new fur that filled in almost immediately.
Marilyn lay there for half an hour or more, feeding on the waves of the preacher’s steam as they puffed from his pores. When her needs were mainly satisfied, she became vaguely aware of muted shouts coming from behind the door. A loud female voice brimming with a distinctly parental authority was berating someone, shaming someone for something they had done.
A new aroma arrived through the door crack. She recognized it immediately as the sweat-tinged scent of deviance. What in her world was mostly the salty steam of fornicators and adulterers and occasionally perverts was a mixture of salty and sweet in this one, at least as far as the one she sensed was concerned. His name was Jerry Beard, and it was indeed his mother who was giving him the what-for.
The sad preacher’s steam had healed her and revived her, but this younger man’s was more potent. It was steam that could only be generated in the loving child of a disappointed parent. Forget your gods. Forget your masters. Those were passing things. If your mother was disappointed in you, well, that was the loneliest feeling in the universe.
Marilyn explored his mind and found the source of the strife between them. The boy had hidden a photograph from her that he used to activate his prick, the one like the demon’s that towered over the landscape of her original home. Only, this man’s was smaller and more desperate for attention. And it was not injured as Peter Mayberry’s had been.
She also recognized the image he had been hiding. It was a photograph of the same woman Eli Wynn had been thinking about when she’d encountered him in the woods. She had chosen that form to use on Peter Mayberry because it had, up to this point been, her only reference for what humans found appealing and therefore nonthreatening. This new evidence settled it. She would become the Marilyn figure. When the humans inside the store saw her, they would love her and open their hearts and souls to her.
Then they would feed her.
Because they had no choice.
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