They Have To Eat - by Ray O'Bannon

When Milton died, I nearly sold this whole place for a pittance. After all, what would an old lady like myself need with all this room? But there's always been something about this place that…oh, I don't know. It just didn't feel right leaving. Of course, things have gotten run down a little. The handyman fell from the third story while fixing some loose tiles, and I haven't found anyone to replace the poor man yet. Goodness knows the exterior needs fresh paint. If a large Victorian home goes unpainted for too long it starts looking like those haunted houses you always see in Halloween decorations. And Heaven knows the neighborhood kids must think I'm some sort of witch, considering how seldom I go outside. And, of course, considering the house's reputation.

But I've always been happy here. This house has always had a calming sort of atmosphere to it, and I've always felt I belonged here. Ever since Milton and I first arrived, the place has seemed like an old friend, and I really can't imagine ever abandoning it. Not even with the neighborhood having gotten as bad as it has.

I've grown accustomed to looking outside and seeing those kids down the street selling drugs almost every day. And those poor young girls, we won't discuss what they're out there selling. The most upsetting thing, of course, is hearing the occasional gunshot, because after all they're really only children. But I've always been safe here. This house protects me.

And I've had plenty of company over the past several years, what with all the students coming and going. You see, once Milton was gone I began letting students from the local College rent the second floor. I'd chat with the ones looking for lodging, and if they seemed agreeable enough, and quiet enough, I'd let them stay. I even had one student who wanted desperately to rent the basement for use as some sort of recording studio, but I certainly couldn't let anyone use the basement. Not after what happened to Milton down there. But I generally had one or two young renters at a time upstairs, and although they usually drifted onwards after a semester or two, they seemed to enjoy their time here. They never even complained about the peculiarities.

Milton and I used to laugh about the 'peculiarities', as he liked to call them. Things on the second floor would frequently just vanish into thin air. Always personal items such as hairbrushes or shoes. Sometimes a pillow one had gone to sleep on would, upon awakening, be completely absent from the room. Newer items were never bothered, but old things one had possessed for a long time would eventually vanish if left upstairs for any length of time. What was most unsettling about this whole thing was the fact that the missing item would invariably be found several days later sitting on the floor directly under a particular bedroom window. It took me several years to realize what was going on up there.

Milton used to chuckle at me for reading ghost stories, but my fascination with the subject was part of what attracted me to this house in the first place. It just always felt like others were here. Not anyone bad, just nice folks who always seemed to have left the room a split second before you walked in. Once Milton was gone, I spent a great deal of time reading some of the more serious literature regarding the paranormal, and I began to form a theory. Nothing had ever vanished without eventually being found, almost as if it had been borrowed and returned. Sometimes the item held fragments of the owners body, such as the hair caught in an old hairbrush or under the blade of a dull used razor. Other times the item might simply have been warm from having been in contact with the owner, as in the case of the pillows and slippers. But there always seemed to be something essentially human about what went missing. And then one day I realized…that's how they feed.

I tried to explain all this to the first few students who stayed here, but the way they looked at me made it tremendously clear I wasn't being taken very seriously. Eventually, I quit saying anything about it at all unless they asked. And even then they never really believed my explanation when they couldn't find their headphones or socks. Ultimately, I decided the missing items were never very important ones, and since everything eventually showed back up I just didn't see any particular harm in any of it. The 'peculiarities' became something the students and I would chuckle about over tea, when I could get them to sit still long enough to drink any. Most of them took time once in a while to humor me and spend an hour chatting over tea. They all seemed to genuinely like me, and I liked them. Well, all of them except Toby.

I'd never have rented those rooms to Toby Wendrow for anything in the world, but his sister Sylvia had been my previous renter and had explained how desperately he needed somewhere to stay. She explained how it wasn't really his fault he was living in his car, and since she was moving home to take care of their sick mother I just didn't have the heart to tell her 'no'. So Toby became my problem instead of hers.

He seldom spoke if he could avoid it, and never made eye contact. His shabby stained t-shirts always smelled of something like gasoline, and his smile, on the rare occasions when he displayed it, always reminded me of a reptile. I was relieved that there was a side entrance to the upstairs rooms so I wouldn't have to encounter him any more frequently than absolutely necessary. Looking back, I suppose the only reason I allowed him to ever stay at all was that he was an artist.

You see, Milton had been something of an artist before he began his career as an attorney. Little by little the burden and pressure of his job crushed the artist within him. And although he was successful in life, his last few years seemed subdued somehow, as though he felt the loss of something basic and essential. The evening Toby Wendrow first showed up, he stood gazing uncomfortably at the floor until I asked him about his art. He then spoke briefly about his studies, mumbling about minimalism and existentialism and a few other things of which I've no understanding whatsoever. But for just a moment I saw something in his eyes, something that reminded me of Milton. It lasted only a fraction of a second before that snake-like grin consumed it, but it was like noticing a sparkle that might be a diamond glittering under an otherwise thoroughly repulsive rock. So in spite of him being such a complete and obvious loser, I allowed him to rent the second floor and braced myself for the inevitable excuses I knew I'd be hearing when the rent was due. But please don't misunderstand me. I considered him tremendously foul and nasty. There was something basically ruthless about him that made him terribly unpleasant to be around, and I made it a point to avoid him as much as possible.

Of course, the 'peculiarities' continued, and to tell you the truth I began to find them rather amusing. I know that sounds a bit cruel, but Toby didn't like me any more than I liked him. So I just couldn't help smiling at the way he'd scream and yell for hours over the disappearance of even the smallest thing. He'd bellow until he was blue in the face over a missing pocket comb or cigarette lighter, but the idea of discussing the supernatural with him was simply too absurd to even consider. And it was nice knowing the ghosts were being well fed by his silly little trinkets.

I should have paid more attention when his friends came to help move things that last weekend. But I was distracted by the quilt I was knitting for a relative, and was only vaguely aware of furniture being carried down the side stairs. A few days earlier Toby had asked about using the tool shed to store some things, and I had agreed without really listening. But now as I looked out I could see his pals helping him move his small refrigerator into the shed, where his sofa and much of his other furniture had already been piled. When I met him at the foot of the stairs he seemed to be stoned on something fairly strong, and was stammering semi-coherently about his latest minimalist artistic endeavor and how it would inspire some sort of expanded consciousness or some such thing. I thought it would be nice to have the fool upstairs meditating for a change instead or playing his loud obnoxious music, so I just nodded and went back to what I was doing. Toby's friends eventually drifted off and he crept quietly back upstairs to begin whatever silly new-age nonsense he was calling 'art' this week. A golden sunset poured brilliant orange light throughout the house, and evening gently engulfed the neighborhood. All was quiet and peaceful. And then the screaming started.

It was exactly midnight when the first terrible scream split the air and sent me flying up out of my dreamless slumber. I sat upright, gazing about the darkened bedroom. The air seemed to vibrate with the last trembling echoes of that horrible sound, but all was quiet, as only deepest night can be, and I instantly began to wonder if it had merely been my imagination. The second scream, as it shattered itself against the stillness like broken glass, left me doubting only whether the source could be remotely human. It was the sort of hopeless bellow one might expect from a large animal if it were being torn slowly but inexorably into several smaller pieces.

I fumbled up the stairs as quickly as my aged legs would allow, but had to pause for breath several times. I held before me the small dagger I keep tucked away in my nightstand, but it offered me little comfort. As I reached the upstairs hallway, the jagged screaming was silenced as suddenly as if a switch had been thrown. The icy chill of it still shimmied down by spine as I stood looking down that moonlit hall. All of the doors had been thrown open, and the rooms seemed empty as I moved cautiously forward.

Toby's mumbled explanations echoed across the back of my memory as I beheld the empty spaces. Something about not wanting any food or electricity, not having physical things to clutter his perceptions, not having anything but emptiness in which to try to perceive some alternate type of existence. He and his friends had removed everything they could from the entire floor. Windows with no curtains shed cold moonlight down onto bare floorboards. There was no furniture of any kind, and nothing remained to show that any human had ever inhabited any of the rooms. The coming night had found the upper floor completely devoid of anything or anyone except Toby himself, and now he was gone as well.

I didn't want to admit to myself what I knew deep down to be true. They hadn't been able to find anything to borrow. But still they needed to feed.

What showed up a few days later under the upstairs bedroom window...well, I'd much rather not try to describe that. It certainly wasn't really Toby anymore. I promptly summoned the police and had it removed from the house. The reporters were a nightmare but they finally moved on to other events once everyone had heard all there was to hear regarding the 'Toby Wendrow Mystery'. I was never considered a suspect or anything, since it was obvious that someone as old and frail as myself could never have caused such unspeakable…alterations.

My greatest concern lately is that I have no renters. What with the house having gotten such spectacular attention, it's become something of a local legend and none of the college kids will come anywhere near. Even the hoodlums down the street seem to have drifted away. I try to go upstairs as often as my legs will allow, and I leave things. Sometimes a garment, other times a favorite piece of jewelry or a small knick-knack of some sort. Then I gather up whatever items have been returned from my last visit and slowly make my way back downstairs. It's getting harder lately to climb those stairs, and I wonder how many more seasons I have left to me.

What bothers me the most is wondering what will happen once my last breath is drawn in this lonely empty house. What will they eat then? What will I eat?