Audiophiles, Listen Here:
“Gimme a large caramel iced mocha with seven pumps of syrup and extra whip.” The man was a few feet away at the counter, but his large body crowded the space. “Throw in two of those scones, too, the blueberry ones.” His face was puffy where it wasn’t covered in hair, everything rounded by a lifestyle where self-restraint was foreign. His sweatshirt and shorts hung loosely, enormous sizes meant to hide his obesity and merely announcing it. His flip-flops were probably a necessity, nothing to tie or reach for.
He gave the cashier a twenty and threw the coins from his change into the tip jar. Thirteen cents. The bills he put back in his wallet. His generosity extended only to himself. He shuffled to the end of the counter, 23 steps closer to diabetes.
Helga Hughes sat at the tiny table next to the counter so she could overhear the orders. Coffee orders revealed so much about people. This tugboat had ordered enough empty calories for two people. He hadn’t used his magic words, either. He stared at his phone now, chubby fingers scrolling while his face alternated between a sneer and a superior smile.
Helga lifted a white paper cup to her very pale lips and drank, grimacing at the bitterness of three shots of espresso cut with three ounces of brewed coffee. Everything about her was preternaturally pale except the dark circles under her eyes, as if Death were working an undercover assignment in Sweden and it wasn’t going well. Seattle wasn’t Sweden, nor was she technically Death, but she was working.
The man collected his order and walked slowly to the small counter beside the door. He threw his straw wrapper next to the trash can, ignoring it on the floor as a lost cause, and drank a long pull of the coffee. Something displeased him. He took off the lid and added three more packets of sugar. The empties joined the straw wrapper on the floor. Leaving, he opened the door violently outward with his hip, not looking, and rammed it into a stroller a woman was struggling to get inside. The toddler squalling in the stroller drowned out the exchange, but the man’s middle finger was eloquent even with the sound off.
Helga finished her bitter drink quickly and followed the man out the door to Western Avenue. Pike Place Market was on her right, and the combined smells of fish and urine permeated everything. Loud demolition work on the Viaduct gave the city the ambiance of a violent mugging. It was no trouble keeping up with the shuffling man, but she wondered where he was headed. Work? Home? This was an expensive part of town.
When he turned into the Market, she was further confused. Still, it was very early in the morning, and she had a reasonable chance of getting him alone in the alleys under the streets if he continued down. When he trudged down the stairs, she moved closer, anxious not to lose him. He stopped after a few hundred yards and set his coffee on a nearby ledge, fishing in his shorts pocket for what turned out to be a joint and a lighter. The skunky smell of marijuana explained why he was down here instead of on the surface streets. Helga stood in a doorway and pretended to look at her own phone, but he didn’t seem to notice her.
Helga let him get moving again, toward Market Theater. She decided to take him there, in the alley covered by wads of used chewing gum, because it seemed fitting. Excess to excess.
“Excuse me?” she said, affecting a foreign accent. “Excuse, please? I am lost?”
He turned, caught off guard but recovering when he saw the small, pale woman in the cream-colored pantsuit. Business travelers lost in the maze of the Market were familiar. He looked her up and down, waiting a moment too long to answer.
“Where you trying to go?” he asked.
“A place called ‘The Cavern,’ I think? I have a meeting and I am turned around.”
He laughed, not a nice laugh, at her and her ignorance. “I think you mean the Bravern, and it’s not even on this end of the city.”
Helga let her face fall, defeated by her mistake. She took her phone out of her jacket pocket and held it toward him. “Can you show, I am having so much trouble?” The man shuffled a couple of steps toward her, not moving to take the phone, still looking at her body more than her face.
“Well, I’m in kind of a hurry,” he said. “Maybe you can make it worth—” He didn’t get to finish his proposition.
Helga closed the remaining distance between them, shedding the guise of humanity as she moved. Light to dark, skin made of cinders extinguished for hundreds of years, dull black and cracked. Her long fingers, four on each hand, ended in dark obsidian, melted and sharpened in an inferno, tempered and annealed into deadly points. Her eyes flickered with internal fire, red and yellow. Her mouth opened, yellow fangs flickering with tiny flames that seemed to leap from tooth to tooth. She hissed softly, anticipating pleasure and pain, not her pain, but delicious pain.
The man dropped his coffee, splattering the sludgy liquid sugar and ice across the bricks. He wasn’t quick enough to scream. Helga put one hand behind his head and plunged the other into his stomach with a squelching thrust that drove his breath from him in a grunt. Blood cascaded down her arm and onto the pavement as the blow pushed his body backward into the wall of sticky discarded gum, tooth marks and saliva embedded in each misshapen blob of color. Blood mixed with the spilled coffee, red and pale brown against gray, as the sticky strands on the wall attached to his hair and clothes.
Helga looked directly into the scared, wild eyes of this man. His mouth moved, blood spilling from it, but what he was trying to say wasn’t important. Helga wanted to see the moment when death was inevitable, when she could take what she wanted.
It came quickly. As the light faded from his eyes, Helga put her mouth to his, tasting blood and coffee and sugar and the acrid, spoiled taste of his selfishness, his soul rising like bile to whatever should have been next. Helga inhaled, bringing the dirty thing into herself in one long breath. As she did, she saw the rest of it, the rest of the man, and knew she’d been right. His pornography collection had been staggering and vile, and it explained how he lived in this posh part of town.
As she brought the last of him into herself, she abruptly came back to the moment. Seeing the body pressed into the wall, the blood and her hand buried six inches into his flesh, she took a breath of cleaner air, though not fresh. Pulling her hand out of him brought a coil of intestine with it, a rope full of impacted shit from a constant diet of garbage. Now he was what he ate.
Helga took two steps back and resumed her human disguise, folding pale skin and clothes over her cinderskin, hiding blood and fire inside. The man’s body fell facedown on the ground, globs of gum pulling away from the wall like strands of taffy to stick in his hair. His name had been Greer. Only one letter off.
Harvesting a soul took moments. If one of the homeless people around the Market had seen her, they’d wisely fled. Helga left the mess to others and ascended to the surface streets. She walked quickly to her exclusive little restaurant, Pillows, named for the floor cushions you sat on and the filled pasta she served. Helga wasn’t a conduit to an afterlife, there would be no Heaven, Hell, Valhalla, or otherwise for this soul. It would be put in storage in her office at the restaurant until just the right patron came in. Then it would be shredded and added to the filling of a nice lemony ricotta ravioli. What happened after that was always entertaining, though not predictable.
The restaurant was cool and deserted, with the smell restaurants have after hours, old cooking smells and dishwashers, cleaners and spilled food that never got cleaned all the way. She unlocked the office, the one place she kept completely private, and looked at the rows of glass jars on the shelves. Each one held a swirling fog, a cyclone inside the distorting curves of the glass, in colors from murky yellow to nearly black. Greer was a muddy, milky brown, like packaged hot chocolate mixed with too much water. She set his now disgorged soul next to the others. The collection had taken her half a century to curate, every base impulse of humanity, every human frailty represented. Helga smiled as she relived the hunt, brushing a finger along the cool, glass jars lovingly. So many memories.
It was unusual to use a soul right away, but that same evening, sitting on one of the pillows in the middle of the room, was the perfect recipient for Greer’s immortal remains. The woman hadn’t made a reservation, spent her pre-dinner cocktail time on her phone checking the international markets, and ordered almost everything on the menu for her table of five. The other guests were buffeted by her changing interest in them—either she was completely disconnected or intensely connected. She would not be denied. Helga put a hand on her shoulder when leaning down to pour more wine, a familiarity the woman didn’t like but tolerated.
“Oh, excuse me,” Helga twittered, “I almost lost my balance.” The woman, Lydia, needed a small push. A little push further into her self-absorbed greed for more, more attention, more money, more power, and chaos would take over. Her expensively dyed red hair was in a tight twist at the base of her neck, her tailored gray suit collar pulling a few strands loose to cling to the wool. Helga imagined it undone, spilling out in a fiery cascade, then streaming behind as Lydia flew from the Columbia Tower to an abrupt stop on Fifth Avenue. Lydia needed to be educated about the hopelessness of her bottomless desires. Greer could do that.
Helga went to the kitchen and washed up, nudging the chef aside to make room to work. She mixed a small bowl of filling and tasted it. Beautiful, ricotta with lemon zest, black pepper, a little salt. She took the bowl into the walk-in refrigerator, letting the door swing shut behind her. No one would disturb her. They thought this was her secret family recipe, some blend of herbs and spices only she could know. It was, in a way. The glass jar came out of her apron and the murky contents filled the bowl. Quickly she stirred it in, careful not to let any escape into the room. Haunted restaurants had trouble keeping dishwashers.
She put the filling between two sheets of fresh pasta, made earlier by her sous-chef, crimped the edges, and gently boiled the little raviolis. Dressed with lemony browned butter, a little rosemary, they went out compliments of the chef. The staff was used to this, it happened about twice a week, but they’d never figured out how the tables were chosen.
Lydia wasn’t surprised to receive such special treatment. She ate the tiny, tender ravioli two or three at a time, unable to stop after the first bite. Her companions had different plates, little things actually made by the chef, and they tried to inhale them at the same speed, again taking cues from Lydia. Helga wondered who Lydia was to them, why they cared so profoundly. Employer? Most likely. Their cheap business clothes aped Lydia’s more expensive ones, as if they were bootleg versions of real businesspeople.
Helga watched. Greer’s soul might take a few hours to drag Lydia into a landscape of infinitely unfulfilled want, or it might take a few minutes. Souls were unpredictable. Lydia seemed to get through dinner without incident, though. She left, still trailing part of her entourage, and Helga resigned herself to reading about whatever happened online. Sometimes, she followed them, but her energy was low after the morning’s kill.
A few minutes after the last patron left, one of the servers ran from the women’s bathroom in tears. “Ms. Hughes, Ms. Hughes! The ladies’ room, it’s covered in blood!” she screeched before running into the kitchen, hands over her mouth. Helga strode to the bathroom and banged the door open, thinking she’d succeeded after all with the bottomless pit of Lydia. The door swung shut behind her. It wasn’t so. There was no blood. There was, however, a toilet clogged with the beautiful little ravioli Lydia had forced herself to expel, and the partial and untethered soul of a man killed in an alley covered in chewing gum.
Helga closed her eyes. This was very annoying. Not only had Lydia thwarted her just end with well-timed bulimia, but now the restaurant bathroom was haunted. “Greer?” she called. “You cannot stay here. Move on this instant.” Nothing. Sometimes the fragments were conscious, sometimes they weren’t. This didn’t feel promising.
Helga left the bathroom and sent the staff home. She unlocked her office, looking for the things she would need to collect up the remnants of Greer. As she turned, holding a glass jar and a Dust Buster, a figure came through the doorway and stood in front of her.
Lydia was back, and Lydia was hungry.
“What did you put in those ravioli?” she demanded, wild and breathing rapidly, color flush in her cheeks. “Did you poison me? Was it drugs?”
Drugs. What a pedestrian question. Helga shook her head. “There was nothing special in the ravioli. I do hope it wasn’t you who got sick in the ladies room? Are you feeling better?”
“Damn right that was me, and no, I am not feeling better. I feel like I need more of those ravioli or I’m going to die. Give me more of them.”
“The kitchen is closed, I’m afraid. If you’ll come back tomorrow—”
“I WILL NOT COME BACK TOMORROW!” Lydia screamed and charged at Helga, taking her by surprise. The force of her fury drove both women back and into one of the shelving units holding the glass jars. The impact knocked jars from the shelves onto the floor, smashing around the struggling figures with tremendous noise.
Helga tried to shift to her true form, become the monster this human would never be able to fight, but something prevented her. Lydia was thrashing at her, clawing and pulling at whatever she could get her hands on. Helga’s head impacted the shelf behind her again and her vision swam. She willed herself to pull her cinderskin back over the human guise, to unsheathe her claws. Still nothing.
Lydia was screaming, face as red as her hair, the beautiful hair now wildly free and framing her crazed eyes. No one had ever come back before. It must have been the remnants of soul left in the bathroom, pulling her back, giving her a feeling about where it had all started. Helga shuddered. The room was starting to get very cold up to about knee level. Whatever was preventing her change seemed to be attached to the cold.
“Get off me!” she yelled at Lydia. “I’ll tell you but you have to get the hell off me!” Lydia let go and stood, panting and sweating, her gray suit stretched and torn, shoes discarded somewhere else. Helga took the opportunity to look down and saw what was making the room cold and preventing her change.
From the broken jars, souls had spilled out into the room, roiling and mixing around the shards of broken glass. Light from the cheap overhead fixture shone through and was swallowed at intervals, making the floor look like it was boiling. Different shades mingled and stretched together, yellowish and dark brown, nearly black and gray like stormclouds. As she watched, the souls seemed to move together, gain some collective awareness.
Helga tried to transform again and failed. The cold moved up her legs, eating not just into her human form, but below the surface into her true self. She felt them, knew them again as they invaded her body. The 20-something girl who’d been spotted shopping the Bravern and declaring all the pricey luxury goods “garbage.” The married man who’d cornered Helga in an alley with his hand on her breast and found his insides decorating it seconds later. The old, old man with the secret cache of unthinkable human trophies from his time in the Luftwaffe. All of them had been chosen, all would have taught their own horrible lessons, but now they only had one student, and one lesson, and it was inescapable.
Helga screamed, an inharmonic sound forcing Lydia to put her hands over her ears. Helga could not control the change, her skin shifting from pale to dark, dark to pale, a bruised horror that made Lydia scream again in terror. The cold moved up Helga’s legs, to her waist, over her breasts, into her arms. The cold burned her, flayed her to her cinderskin. Her human guise flaked away, like quick burning ashes of tree bark.
Lydia had her eyes open. Lydia saw the claws now, and the cinderskin, and the monster under the tiny, pale woman. She grabbed the nearest jar from a shelf and threw it, hard, hitting Helga in the face. The black ooze that burst from the jar clung to Helga, invading her nostrils, covering her eyes, burrowing into her skin. This was the worst of them. He would have rotted in his jar for all eternity. His soul was burnt pitch, the dead remains of a poisoned sea creature, filth from the bottom of a barrel of rotting carcasses. Helga screamed again, as this monster took her and showed her what it was to kill for pleasure, not because you were made for it, but because it was your one true love.
The body of the creature who had worn Helga Hughes stiffened, cinders glowing for a moment with inner fire, heat radiating far enough for Lydia to feel it and shield her face. Then the body crumbled, chunks of burnt, black stone falling over each other from the head down in a cascading pile onto the smoking linoleum.
The stench of the burning flooring seemed to rouse Lydia. She took in a deep breath, no longer feeling the overwhelming hunger that drove her back to the restaurant, not choking on the smoke, not afraid. Looking around her, she took in the smoldering remains, the swirling clouds, and the rows and rows of still unbroken jars.
Careful not to step on a glowing ember, she walked to an undisturbed shelf and pulled down a jar filled with light yellow smoke. Opening the lid a crack, she inhaled slightly, not sure what it was, but drawn to it. A tendril of yellow smoke slipped through the crack and into her nostril. She closed her eyes and waited. After a moment, she smiled.
The woman with very pale skin and red hair sat close to the coffee shop’s counter, sipping a large brewed coffee, black with an extra shot. Lydia liked to sit where she could hear the orders. A person’s coffee order revealed so much about them.
The Story: This suggestion came from Marlo Frary, in the form of a picture of baby stingrays captioned “Baby stingrays look like raviolis stuffed with tiny damned souls.” I took it in a slightly different direction. I’m not sure what eating someone’s soul would do to you, but eating a plate of baby stingrays in browned butter seemed yucky.
Helga Hughes is modeled after a woman I saw at the mall. She was tall and very pale except for under her eyes. She walked away from Starbucks with a tiny paper cup, full of something that made her grimace but not slow her roll. I was completely taken with her. If you want to write fiction, go out in public with your phone in your pocket, and just look at people. They’re endlessly fascinating.
This is the first time I’ve set something in a real place in a short story, which was kind of fun. It’s also a real honest-to-goodness horror story with blood and everything. I haven’t shared many of those here, but I have a pile of them I’m working on putting in book form.
Why’d it take me so long this time? Well, I started this story four times, that’s why. I have a couple of shorter ideas ready to go for the next couple. I also need more ideas! Drop them in the comments. Send them to me. Carrier pigeon them to me. Thanks to all the folks who’ve shared suggestions so far!