Only the Hungry by Sharon Cullars

The knock on the door disturbs the silence. It is half past eight and I am not expecting any visitors this evening. Given that the roads are wet from a sudden Autumn rain, there should be few travelers on the thoroughfare half a mile from the manor. The earlier downpour has dwindled to a light shower, and the pattering on the windows is not as violent as before. Still, only the foolhardy or desperate would be out on such a night. I am hesitant to answer the knock as I am alone.

Christian charity is not my strong suit as it has been more than a while since I stepped inside the imposing walls of a church to hear a Sunday homily. Yet the story of the Good Samaritan was diligently drilled into me from the time I was a small child in London. I do not believe in God. We are mere humans whose paths are undetermined, our judgments neither the sweet, halcyon voices of angels greeting us at St. Peter’s gates nor the sulfurous torment of a burning hell.

It is decorum then, and not Godly fear, that moves me to answer the insistent knocks. As a woman alone I keep a deterrent in the upper drawer of the bureau sitting in the foyer. I withdraw it now. If anyone overestimates my vulnerability, they will immediately find themselves reassessing that miscalculation at the point of my revolver. The cool steel soothes my pique as I open the heavy front door.

An older man, his coat and hat dripping water, stands half in shadow, his face unfamiliar to me. It is not an altogether unpleasant face, quite genial given the circumstances. His eyes are immediately drawn to the revolver hanging in my right hand.

“I assure you, Miss, there is no need for that,” he says, a lilt in his voice.

“It is presumptuous to assume that I am a Miss,” I reply, not disguising my impatience. “How may I help you?”

“My hansom has lost a wheel and I am miles away from home. I saw the road leading to your house and have trekked quite a ways looking for shelter from this horrid weather. I know it is forward to ask whether I could possibly pass the hour until the rain lets up, but I would be ever in your debt if you would be so gracious.”

The plea is expressed with sincerity, but again, I am a woman alone. I have given the servants the day off to enjoy their holiday, some Assumption day or other. I am about to deny his request when he interjects, “By the by, I knew your father, Anna.”

My immediate reaction is to grip my revolver tighter. How does this complete stranger know my name…or my father who has been gone these many years? I ask him the same and am answered with a disarming smile.

“I should like to come inside to introduce myself,” he says with that smile, leaving me to believe he is making sport of me.

“You can tell me your name just as easily from your present position.”

“Yes, but it is quite uncomfortable out here. There is a strong wind whipping up. And there is so much I have to relay that you will catch a deathly chill with the door open. So I insist, please let me inside and I will answer your questions.”

I say nothing and take silent pleasure in watching his smile diminish and his discomfort increase as my silence stretches into infinity. I am not one to enjoy levity at my expense, nor am I to be toyed with like an unfortunate mouse trapped by a carnivorous cat.

He tries one last ploy. “You have the gun. If I do anything untoward, feel free to send a bullet through my heart.”

“And have the constable come and take me away to the gallows, I think not.”

“Self-defense has always been a buffer against the rope’s choking cinch. In any case, rest assured you will not need to use that bullet. I am here as a benefactor and friend, I assure you.”

“Then why the subterfuge about a disabled hansom?”

For a second, he appears uncertain. “I was not confident that I could appeal to you without that leverage. I do apologize. In truth, my hansom is quite fine. It’s stopped at the road turning up to the estate. I walked the rest of the way, hoping that you would take pity on a destitute wanderer out in this horrendous weather.”

The smile is back. I am a discerning judge of character and given my few minutes with this stranger I would deem that he could easily sell a crippled horse to a farrier and fetch an exorbitant price for his efforts.

“By the by, my name is Jonathan Forrester and it is a pleasure to finally meet you face to face,” he says then slightly bows. “You are as comely as I had always imagined.”

In the end, it is not his glib tongue that wins him entry. Curiosity is a bane, a bane that I am susceptible to. He knows my father. I do not. Of course, I knew of his existence, but not the man himself as he had seen fit to part ways with me and my mother when I was of a tender age, before a time when my memories of him would have solidified.

I step aside and Mr. Forrester glides in as easily as though he were the lord of the manor. I take his dripping hat and coat to hang on the coat rack. Convention would hold that I offer him a cup of hot tea, but I’m not in a conventional mood. The quicker he relays his message, the sooner he can leave my home.

I show him to the drawing room and we sit in the French chairs adjacent to the fireplace that is ablaze. At the least, he will get dry from his drenching. He sits there, again, as easily as if he were lord of this manor.

“So what is it you wish to tell me?” I ask. I still hold the revolver in my hand, though not as tightly. “Hopefully, it can be related as succinctly as possible. I wouldn’t want to keep you from your travels.” I fold my hands, my focus intent on what he has to say.

In the full light of the room, I see that he is not as old as I first surmised. At least not the age my father would be today. And that feeds my curiosity even more.

The patter of the rain outside the windows grows stronger.

“I met your father some years ago,” he starts. “We had occasion to dine together in London when I was visiting on business. He got into his cups pretty early, and as you probably know, or maybe you don’t being a refined young woman, wine can relax even the most stringent of tongues. He told me of his wife and young daughter Anna whom he abandoned and how he missed them terribly.”

He pauses, seemingly waiting for me to respond. Did he expect me to become overwhelmed with emotion and interject how I also missed my father? If so, he is duly mistaken. After a few seconds of my silence, he continues.

“He also said there was a family secret that forced him to leave. He also said something else, that when his daughter came of age, she would come to know why he had to flee. I thought the conversation strange, to be honest. But the one thing he extracted from me that night that if ever I had the chance, I would venture a visit to his daughter, to relay this message. It has taken me some time to find you.”

“And that message would be?” I ask. For a reason unknown to me, my heart is palpitating and my mouth has suddenly become dry. These anomalies cannot be in anticipation of words from a man with whom I’ve had no dealing for decades.

“Here is the message he entrusted to me to give to you: “My darling Anna, you are a young woman by now and probably have questions regarding why I left. But you see, my darling, to have stayed would have been my death.”

“His death? Whatever could he have meant?”

I feel unusually parched and wish now that I had made that tea.

“I posed this same question after which he became quite reticent. I have to confess that it sparked within me a desire to solve this puzzling enigma. He tried to brush away my intrigue with reminisces of when you were a toddler, how he adored your mother whom he described as quite beautiful, and how he wooed her away from her family. He related that before he left, he made sure that you and your mother would be well appointed with funds after he was gone.”

He looks around now, taking in the Tiffany lamps, the Degas over the mantle, the overstuffed furnishings encased in velvet. Then he turns his dark eyes on me. They are like onyx. I can feel his taking stock. My mind whirls. He cannot possibly think…

He continues, the timbre of his voice changed, almost intimate.

“In this message, he stressed that he wanted to see to your every need. To make up for the years you felt abandoned. He said that your mother’s line was very special and that you would one day understand this. And that you must continue this line.”

His stare is rife with assumptions that I do not want to parse. To this stranger, my father’s message must have seemed a clarion call to which he is eager to answer. I am eager to have him gone.

I rise from my seat, thinking to bring this worthless conversation to an end. I have discovered nothing more about my father than that he has some residual affection for me. This “revelation” does not appease the pain of growing up fatherless and eventually watching my mother die without him.

He does not take the hint and remains seated. He then reaches into his pocket and pulls out something. He stretches out his palm to show me.

It is a gold pendant, in the curious shape of an arachnid.

“He wanted me to give you this. He thought that maybe your mother might not have told you all that you needed to know. Here, take it. It once belonged to your mother. It was the only thing he had left of her.”

I hesitate in taking the bauble. I only have his word that it was my mother’s, but as I stare something seems quite familiar.

Something stirs within me. My parched mouth begs to be satisfied. And a memory pushes through.

My mother becoming something monstrous. I remember closing my eyes just as my father runs for the door. After a time, when I finally opened them, she was simply my mother again. And my father was gone.

I do not feel the transition when it comes upon me for the first time. The gun drops as Mr. Forrester grows smaller and I grow into something…not quite human. His horrified visage is doubled, tripled. In the end, there are eight of him.

His scream is cut quiet as I slake my thirst.

And I silently thank my father for his gift.

Sharon Cullars lives in Evanston where she works as a writer. In her spare time, she reads whatever she can lay her hands on, but particularly loves works that allow her to make an emotional connection to the characters. She does not limit herself to any one genre and is a lover of mystery, romance, horror and sci-fi. She has served as editor for an ezine for African-American women focused on culture, finance and health. She has also written several short stories for online and hardcopy publications, one of which was published in Masques V, an anthology of horror literature that includes contributions by Ray Bradbury, Gary Braunbeck, Poppy Z. Brite and Richard Christian Matheson.

Her longer fiction works include Again (Kensington/Brava, May 2006) and The Object of Love both paranormal romances.