The first time my wife took a bite of me was when she got promoted from a regular critical care nurse to the head of the ICU.
“I’m the head nurse, Brennan!” Jessica shrieked as she opened the door, almost breaking the bottle she carried as she plunked it down on our rickety side table. She threw her arms around me, so strong that I had to stagger back. She pulled me to the side and we danced a few steps.
“I knew you’d get it!” I cried, kissing her on both cheeks. “All those good performance and satisfaction ratings were going somewhere, just like I told you.”
“Remind me never to doubt you again!” she pulled away and handed the bottle to me. “I don’t think this will go well with our leftovers, but we’ll give it a shot.”
I unwrapped the bottle and popped the cork while she got out our ancient, chipped champagne flutes. It was only when I was pouring it that I realized that it was a three hundred dollar bottle of Dom Perignon champagne.
“There’s no way we can afford this,” I said as I handed her a glass.
“Well, it’s a good thing we both have been paid, then,” she replied with a giggle. She nearly broke her glass against mine as we toasted her success. We talked about her triumph as we microwaved and ate our greasy leftover chow mein and shrimp. She told me all about how her meeting with Dr. Scholer, her boss, was interrupted by a patient having a sudden seizure, and how thanks to her that patient didn’t choke on their own saliva. Dr. Scholer had been impressed that she was willing to abandon a meeting with him and risk those consequences for the sake of her patients that he promoted her on the spot.
“Apparently he was just going to tell me that he was considering me for the position when he called me in,” she said, taking another sip of champagne. “Thank God he’s a quick-thinking man.” She finished her champagne and reached for the bottle. I picked it up and held it out of her reach. She pouted.
“Someone has an early shift tomorrow, and you can’t be the head nurse when you’re hung over.” She leaned over the table and gave me a kiss.
“I’m so lucky to have someone as lovely as you.”
It was almost nine and the late-summer sunset was still aglow over the forested hills of Pennsylvania as I cleaned up and did the dishes while she took a shower. I got ready for bed as well, though I wasn’t really tired, since she was afraid of sleeping alone. We ordinarily watched TV before we went to sleep and that night I let her have her own way and let her watch one of the cooking shows she enjoyed. She furiously scribbled down the recipes, even though she rarely had time to cook anything. As we watched, exhaustion settled in. I welcomed it, glad to be done with the editing project I had been doing for a troubled relationships website that I had been working on for a month.
After the show’s credits rolled, we turned out the lights. I snuggled into the sheets. I thought she’d go right to sleep, but she twisted one way, then another. She pulled the sheet over her head, threw it off a few minutes later. I bit my tongue, hoping she’d settle down soon. Our bed creaked under her weight as she got up. I tried to muffle the light from the kitchen and sounds of her rummaging through cupboards by putting a pillow over my head. It didn’t work.
“Baby, why don’t we have any food in the house?” she asked. I flinched as I heard her frantically open and close the cupboard doors, checking the back corners and old bowls she liked to stash her junk food in. Extra boxes of sandwich bags we’d somehow stockpiled fell from the top cupboard to the countertop in a progressively louder series of thumps. I hope she knows that she’s picking those up, I thought. I groaned and reluctantly pulled my pillow away from my face.
“That Chinese was all we had left. You know it was between paychecks, Jessica. We also had to pay Earl and your credit card bill. I’m going to the store tomorrow.”
“But I need something now,” she whined, entering the room, perching on the edge of the bed.
“Earl said he’d have the car fixed by tomorrow. I’ll walk over there in the morning, get it, and I’ll buy whatever kind of food you want.”
“But I need something now!” She doubled over, clutching her stomach as though she was sick. “I could really go for some cheese balls right now. Or popcorn. Or caramel Kisses.” She moaned and flopped back, causing the bed to shake. Reveling in the moment’s silence, I stroked her shoulder with my foot. She got a hold of my foot and began massaging it. She did that sometimes, when she was bored or when she was feeling guilty about something. That simple action made me sleepier than I already was. My eyes closed. And were wide open again when I felt her teeth sink into my flesh.
I bolted upright, crying out as I did so. I pulled away from her and yanked my injured foot close to see what she’d done. My three smallest toes on my right foot were completely gone, nothing but bleeding stubs to remember them by. I ground my teeth together, concentrating on the throbbing pain that burned my foot to keep from throwing up. I looked toward the end of my bed in horror. Jessica was munching frantically.
“What the hell?” I screamed shrilly. Jess swallowed, ran to the bathroom, and returned with a couple of towels, some gauze, and a roll of medical tape.
“I’m so sorry, Brennan,” she whimpered, tears falling from her face onto my feet. I wanted to flinch away from her touch, but she was skilled at dealing with unruly patients and held me still. She staunched the bleeding in a matter of minutes and started bandaging my foot. I stared at her in disgust while she worked, ignoring her blubbered apologies. What the hell just happened?
As soon as she finished, I stood, grabbed my pillow, and limped to our living room couch. Jessica pleaded for me to come back to bed, to forget what had happened, and apologized over and over again until she was hoarse. But I lay there on the couch, feigning slumber until she finally gave up. When I woke up, she lay sprawled on the floor next to the couch, one arm flung forward as though she pleaded with me even in sleep. I watched her for a little while. Sleep was the one time Jessica, so energetic and lively, slowed down. I loved to watch her sleep, to be reminded what her lips looked like when they weren’t talking and how deep the laugh lines around her mouth went. But I didn’t love watching her today. I sat up, groaning as pain sliced through my foot. She started awake.
“Brennan, I am so sorry for last night,” she cried. “I was just so hungry and I’ll never ever do that again, I promise.” She hung her head, her messy blond hair flopping forward. “I understand if you want to get a divorce.”
So much was buzzing around in my mind and heart that I barely knew what to think or say. Yet there was one thing I was sure of. I made myself reach over and take her hands. “I won’t be calling a lawyer any time soon. When we got married, I told you that you’re all I have, and that’s still true. However, we’re not going to be sleeping in the same room until you get used to this new job and you get some help, okay?”
Jessica bit her lip but nodded eagerly.
“I better go and get the truck from Earl.”
She nodded again, kissed my hands, then left to shower and get ready for her nursing shift. Biting my tongue so I wouldn’t make a noise that would make her come back, I peeled away my bandages. I inspected my foot. It was gruesome, red, and scabby. At least she bit cleanly, I thought. Doubt nagged at me. Maybe I should call a lawyer…I shook my head. This was just a onetime fluke. She said she will never do it again. I better make sure there’s food all the time from now on. I stood and it wasn’t as difficult to walk as I thought it would be, though it was tough I thanked my lucky stars that as an online editor, I did most of my work from home. I got dressed, carefully put on my shoes, and staggered out of the house without saying goodbye to Jessica. Every step I took, my whole foot ached even more from both my missing toes and from having to walk on my heel. I was about a mile down the road when Jessica’s carpool drove by and honked at me. I swallowed my pain, waved, and tried not to grimace as Lacey pulled over and rolled down her window.
“Are you alright, Brennan? Why are you limping?”
“I dropped a knife on my foot last night,” I lied. I smiled at my supposed clumsiness. “I cut my toes up pretty bad. Serves me right for cooking with bare feet.”
Lacey got out of her car, the gravel road crunching under her sneakers. “Do you want me to take a look at it?”
I pulled my foot away from her. “No, it’s okay. Jessica examined it and I’ll be fine.”
Lacey shoved her hands into the pockets of her pink, cupcake-decorated scrubs. “I’m so excited that she’s head nurse now! No one else could deserve it more!”
I tried to say something in return but couldn’t make myself speak.
“How’s your boyfriend?” I eventually blurted out.
“He’s great, thanks. We’re doing really well. He’s so nutritious for me,” she said, grinning down at her feet. The wind gusted, rustling the leaves. My cheeks ached from maintaining my forced smile. Lacey looked back up at me.
“If you want to wait here, Jess and I can take you where you need to go. We’ll be a late for work, but you shouldn’t be walking on an injured foot.”
“No,” I replied quickly. “I wouldn’t dream of making you late. I’m getting my car from my neighbor. It’s not that much farther.”
Lacey nodded slowly, her double chin wobbling as she did so, obviously suspicious. “I don’t know why you two live in such a godforsaken spot. It’s pretty out here, but it’s gotta get awful lonely.”
I glanced around at the trees that dominated the landscape. My grandfather had lived in the city all his life and as soon as he was back from fighting in World War II, he built his own ranch house as far away from the city as my grandmother would allow. He had willed it to me instead of to my parents, providing yet another reason to the list of why we didn’t talk any more. Jessica often bemoaned its distance from the hospital, but generally I liked its isolation.
“It is kinda gloomy in the winter time, but you’re never lonely when you’re with people you love.”
Lacey laughed and glanced at her watch. She climbed back into her car. “Are you sure you’ll make it?”
“Definitely. Have a great day, Lacey!” I stretched my lips to their limit and waved as she drove away. I have never endured a trial by fire, but limping those next two miles must have been what it feels like. By the time I rounded the bend onto Earl’s driveway, my shoe was squelching with every hobbled step I took. Thankfully he had a bench in his garage, so I limped the last few steps and sat down. Earl, who was on his back under my truck, slid out from under it, and nodded at me.
“You’re here early,” he said, wagging the cigarette between his lips at me. “I thought you wouldn’t be here until this afternoon.”
“It’s kinda hard to walk on an empty stomach. We have no food in the house,” I replied, trying not to grimace from the pain shooting through my foot. “Is it ready?”
“Yep. The engine should run smoothly now.” Earl hefted himself up, wiped his oily hands on a rag, and left the garage. I heard the screen door of his trailer slap shut and open again. I glanced around at his grubby garage. Nothing was out of the ordinary except a calendar of still lifes. This month’s was Still Life with Fruit and Ham by van Deem. The multiple red hues of the painting blurred together. I fought the urge to vomit. He reappeared with a bagel smothered in cream cheese and a cup of burnt-smelling coffee, both of which disappeared within two minutes of him handing them over. It was a feast. He tossed my keys into my empty coffee cup.
“Thanks a bunch, Earl,” I said, fishing my keys out. “I’ll have the rest of the payment for you by the end of the week.”
“No worries, Brennan.” He turned his back on me and started to organize his tools, his silence telling me to get lost more than any words could. I opened the driver’s door, heaved myself into the seat, and turned the key in the ignition. It started flawlessly.
The half-hour stretch of highway between my house and the city was deserted. I went to the nearest grocery store and filled the cart with cheese balls, caramel kisses, popcorn, plus some instant mashed potato mixes I knew Jessica loved. I bought everything that was on our extensive list, plus several things that weren’t, just in case. I went home, dying to get my shoes off. It took a while, but I managed to put everything away. I sat at my computer to work. I glanced at our bookshelves while my laptop booted up. Jessica’s romance novels stood out from the rest of the books as if they were slabs of light in a dark room. I thought about how she loved reading how incredibly muscled men nibbled and nipped at their lovers while in the throes of passion. I didn’t realize just how much she liked those scenes.
As the weeks went by and the pain subsided, it was almost too easy to believe my own lie about my injury. Jessica, though she was even more exhausted by her work than she had been, loved her new position and told me stories about her irascible yet amazing patients almost every day. She took up knitting as a stress reliever and before long, a green and blue blanket, to match our green and blue wallpaper, graced our bed. She made me a black scarf for the cooling weather. I moved back into our room. She also tried dieting yet she was off that bandwagon more than she was ever on it. Regardless, I encouraged her. It seemed like the incident was just that—a onetime fluke that would never happen again. Things were going well.
One morning, three months later, I woke up and saw something attached to both my right foot and my forearm, something that shouldn’t be there. The grey light the late autumn morning wasn’t enough to see by, so I got out of bed and stumbled to our bathroom, closing the door behind me. I turned on the light and saw that it was medical gauze I felt on my foot and forearm. I stared at the bandages for a moment, unable to figure out why they were there. I tugged them off, groaning as the tape separated from my skin with a slicing sound. There was a tiny pinprick in my left forearm and my other two toes on my right foot were missing. I shuddered and I felt more medical tape pull at my shoulder. I took it off. Blood gushed down my arm from a shallow wound about the size of an apple. I grabbed a towel and pressed it to my shoulder, its white softness quickly turning red. I opened the doorway and stood on the threshold of the bedroom, my eyes filling with tears. I watched her sleep for a long time, trying my hardest to take deep, even breaths. The buzzing of our alarm clock woke us both up.
“Good morning, darling,” she mumbled sleepily. She smiled up at me. “How are you?”
“You’d better start packing your things,” I said drowsily. “I’m calling a lawyer today.”
Her smile died. She started sobbing, blubbering apologies like she did when this happened the first time. I limped into the kitchen and called one of the lawyers in the city. When the lawyer wanted to know the reason for our divorce, I told her plainly that it was a case of domestic abuse. Jessica, who was listening in the doorway, yelped at those words as though I had dealt her a mortal blow. The lawyer said she’d need me to come in to fill out some forms, so I hung up and went to get dressed. Jessica stood there, her hair sticking up at odd angles, watching me. My shoulder started bleeding again as I struggled to pull on my shirt. I heard a snap of our dresser drawer being shut and there she was, bandaging my shoulder and helping me to get ready, as if I were any other patient. I stepped away from her, a jolt of pain shooting through my foot.
“Dammit!” I yelled through gritted teeth. I kicked at a nearby McDonalds wrapper that lay on our floor and fell back on the bed, wondering if I would ever walk normally again.
“It’s okay,” Jessica whispered, gently removing the bandages around my foot. It was bleeding. This was too much. I put my face in my hands, desperate to forget she was there.
“Why, Jessica?” It was a plea, not a question. “Why have you done this?”
“I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t mean to. I love you. I didn’t mean to. I love you,” she murmured over and over again. It was as if that’s all she knew how to say. She rewrapped the bandages on my foot tighter, massaging my calf to relieve her guilt. She stood to check my shoulder. She went back to the top drawer of our dresser, which functioned as our medicine cabinet, and pulled out a plastic- wrapped syringe. I dove for my phone on the bedside table to dial 911.
“It’s just a mild pain killer. I used it on you last night. You’ll just be a little sleepy later,” she said in a pacifying voice. I let my phone drop to the bed, staring at our beige carpet as she prepped the syringe. I felt a tiny pinch on the back of my arm.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry for everything.”
“Why have you done this, Jessica? There’s plenty of food in the house.” The bed sank beneath her weight as she sat down next to me.
“I’m not sure. You satisfy me better than anything, I guess,” she said. “You make me feel really great. Everything else helps, but I want to have that feeling all the time˗”
Her phone started ringing. It rang three times before she got up to answer it. I lowered myself into the pillows, the pain medicine already easing the pain in my foot and shoulder.
“I’ve been called in, Brennan,” Jessica said. Her misery made her voice deeper than it usually was. “I told them you’re sick, but I have to go.”
“You go,” I replied slowly. I heard her tell me to sleep and to get something to eat when I woke up. I nodded and surrendered to the sleep that was dragging my eyelids down. The clock read three-thirty when I woke up. The wind sounded like the sea as it blew through the mostly leafless trees. One of the branches of the oak tree just outside our bedroom was tapping against the window screen. My stomach seemed to growl in tandem with it, but I couldn’t rouse myself. I didn’t want to eat anything ever again. I dozed on and off, interrupted by dreams of nurses breaking their patients instead of fixing them and husbands and wives who killed each other instead of growing old together.
It was dark when Jessica got home. The lights hurt my eyes when she flipped the switch. I sat up and she was smiling at me.
“I have a surprise for you.”
I reached for my phone again, just in case. “What kind of surprise?”
“You’ll find out. You better put your scarf on. It’s cold outside and we’ve got a bit of a drive ahead of us.”
She helped me put my shoes and coat on. She was humming happily like she hadn’t stooped to cannibalism and that we were just a normal couple going on a date. The bizarreness of this situation, combined with my low blood sugar, and my aching limbs, made me much more submissive than I would have been. Before I knew it, she had me packed into our truck and we were speeding toward town. When we came to our first stoplight, she clapped a hand over my eyes.
“Close your eyes and keep’em closed!”
“No buts!” she cried, giggling. She moved her hand to see whether I had closed my eyes, and when she saw that I had, she kept her hand away from my face. We drove a few more blocks, turned left, and came to a stop. “You just hang out here, I’ll be right back. Keep your eyes closed!”
“I wouldn’t dare open them,” I teased half-heartedly. She shut the truck door behind her. I began counting the beats of my heart, wondering what it was Jessica had in store for me. The longer she was gone, the faster my heartbeat became. Finally she came back. She took my hand and helped me out of the truck. It was like walking into a wall of scents. Pungent garbage, spicy cigar smoke, and baking bread assaulted my nose at once. She led me through a doorway and let me lean on her as we hobbled up a flight of stairs. I heard a door open and entered a warm, delicious-smelling room.
“Okay, Brennan, open your eyes!”
I opened my eyes to find Jessica and I in a fully-furnished apartment. The honey-colored dinner table was set for two. A fire flickered in a brick hearth beneath a mounted flat screen TV in the corner. A hallway to my right showed that the apartment had three more rooms than just this combined kitchen and living room. My face must have shown how confused I felt because Jessica started explaining.
“Dr. Scholer gave me my advance for being promoted. This apartment is ours for the next year. And look,” she gestured to one of the windows behind her. I walked on my heels, biting back the pain, and peered out. There was Darling’s, the grocery store we usually went to.
I turned and headed over to the table, unable to stand any longer. I stumbled halfway there and she caught me. She helped me to a chair and began heaping a plate with roast beef, au gratin potatoes, and green bean casserole. She set the plate in front of me and hunger took over. She poured me some wine before serving herself. We stuffed our faces and it was only after I was done that I spoke.
“How are we going to make this work? Are we going to be living separately?”
“I was thinking we could divide our time between our house and here. I’ve also asked Lacey to look in every morning to make sure we’re alright. I told her we’ve been having some issues and need a friend to look after us. You have her to thank for this lovely dinner. She made it while I was dealing with the landlord.” She paused to take a swallow of wine. “I know this won’t solve the problem, but at least it’s the beginning of a solution. I’m determined not to be consumed by this.”
She raised her wine glass to me, a tired smile making her face glow. I raised my glass as well, took a swallow, and I found myself wondering, quite unexpectedly, what she had planned for dessert.
Elizabeth Hoyle was born and raised in Beckley, West Virginia. She is a recent graduate from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Her fiction has been featured in DoveTales: An International Journal of the Arts, Origami Journal, and The Wayfarer. She isn’t sure what else to say.
Bill Wolak is a poet, photographer, and collage artist. He has just published his twelfth book of poetry entitled Love Opens the Hands with Nirala Press. His collages have been published in over a hundred magazines including: The Annual, Peculiar Mormyrid, Danse Macabre, Dirty Chai, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Lost Coast Review, Mad Swirl, Otis Nebula, and Horror Sleaze Trash. Recently, he was a featured poet at The Mihai Eminescu International Poetry Festival in Craiova, Romania. Mr. Wolak teaches Creative Writing at William Paterson University in New Jersey.