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The Soul-Drinker

by

Robert A. Sloan

Nancy was beautiful, in a slick glossy imitation-magazine way. She was a little too thin. That happens even if the magazines never say it, maybe she would've looked better on television. They say the camera puts ten pounds on a woman. Nancy looked as if she needed it. She was very tan and very blonde, as if she bleached her short hair weekly and took care of the roots when she sunbathed, probably naked in a tanning parlor. Her complexion was a little too even to be real. She had great legs and small hard breasts with prominent nipples. She probably teased them up before she went out the door, but she wouldn't do that without her makeup.

Nancy was interesting. She was presenting a facade and she had all the right parts in all the right places. Expensive teeth, the great haircut to go with it and eyes too blue to be anything but contacts. What she saw in Jeremy no one could tell.

Jeremy was big, tall, hairy and bearded. If he didn't work in a supermarket as the liquor department manager with shirtsleeves and a tie, he wouldn't look out of place as a lumberjack. He had a suntan that was real and usually had a bit of burned red to it after weekends. When he wore short sleeves in the summer his arms wound up striped lighter from different sleeve lengths all the way up past his elbows. Jeremy laughed a lot. He had crooked teeth and a great smile. He was everyone's best friend and he never had a girlfriend, let alone a girlfriend as pretty as Nancy.

Cheryl, James, Mike, Tim and Michelle were all happy for them at first. They were neighbors and friends. They'd stuck together in high school, some of them since grade school and shared a lot of common interests. Parties rotated between four apartments. All the girls had pretty much dated around the circle but poor old Jeremy wound up most of the time just the guy Cheryl or Michelle wound up crying her heart out to before she moved on and went back to James, who wasn't too bad, or Tim who wasn't too bad. Jeremy usually admitted to the guys a week or two later that he'd wanted to ask her out and didn't have the nerve. So it was a big surprise one Saturday morning when they all showed up for the silly Cartoon Club they'd kept up since school when Nancy opened the door wearing one of Big Jeremy's shirts over a cute little blue bikini.

"Oh, hello," Tim managed to be the first to say something. "Nice to meet you. Is Jeremy home?"

"Oh he is. He told me all about you, you must be Tim." Nancy threw the door wide and called out. "Jeremy! Your friends are here, it's the Cartoon Club!"

"Whuaazzhhup?" The big fellow came stumbling out of his bedroom and groaned. His slight bearish belly wobbled over baggy shorts and his hair was tousled, his eyes knuckled red.

"Bearface, you look like death warmed over!" Mike laughed. The ice started to break. Cheryl slapped his arm.

"Be nice. Jeremy has a friend over. Hi. My name's Cheryl, nice to meet you." She almost reached out to hug the smaller woman. She really did care and she always felt so bad about it every time she found out, too late, that big old fuzzy Bearface liked her. Even if she had forgotten about that every time she was actually available.

Something about Nancy made her turn that into a handshake. Maybe it was the movie-star smile and the too-bright blue eyes, the way Nancy looked like she just slid out of the teaser for Baywatch. Cheryl felt self-conscious about her own bulges and sucked in her tummy. Mike liked her and still thought she looked good, even if she didn't look as good as she did as a teenager. They were all pushing their middle twenties and she really did care that Jeremy never had a date. But something about Nancy rubbed her very wrong, a lot like a couple of popular girls she knew in school that drove her nuts. She blew it off. She had to. Nancy hadn't actually *done* anything but jump into Jeremy's life and fill a gap she'd wanted to find someone to fill for years.

Michelle was a bit colder about the whole thing. The stout brown-haired nurse just watched, putting a cool professional mask on it and then made her decision. She ignored Nancy. She sensibly marched over and turned on the TV set. Her oversized Garfield tee shirt flapped and her pentacle glittered over Garfield's ear.

"If this doesn't wake up Groggybear nothing will!" she joked. The sound went up high, the way they usually liked it on Saturday mornings. She plopped in *her* favorite chair and dropped her grocery bags. "Triple Chocolate Sugar Bombs in chocolate milk with extra sugar!" She pulled out a box of Count Chocula cereal and rattled it wildly. "Sugar rush! Junkies unite!"

"Oh, I can't eat that," Nancy said. "I'm on a diet."

"Bleahaaahhhh, Count Chocula veel come to you een your sleep, injecting hees cholesterol eento your perfect veins!" She laughed melodramatically and shook the box again. "Fooooood... how about some Pringles..."

"Gimme that!" James dived for the can. Michelle popped it and shook them at him. They were cutting up again. They were their usual Saturday morning selves and Jeremy fixed cocoa with marshmallows in the kitchen, lightening up and fooling around.

"I warned you, Nancy, we never grew up." He brought Nancy a cool fruity something he made in the blender. He kissed her. "Come on. It'll be fun." He put his arm around her with wild pride glistening in his brown eyes and brought her over to the couch. They had the Snuggle Spot. Whoever fell in love most recently got the Snuggle Spot up at the far end of the couch with the best view of the screen and it had something to do with how the Cartoon Club rated potential outside girlfriends or boyfriends. If they didn't actually notice the cartoons they were in for some ribbing.

Nancy noticed the cartoons.

She was laughing with the rest at Pinky and the Brain, Tiny Toons, the old Warner Brothers classics and she even did a decent Bugs Bunny impression. Slowly she charmed the group. She didn't eat anything but her smoothie and a couple of celery sticks and a carrot, but the carrot shtick smoothed over all the 'Grownup Worry World' stuff that the Cartoon Club made fun of in their own improvised comedy right around the cartoon gap where all five available cartoon stations were showing a half hour of something treacly bad and the sound got turned off. That lightened it to the usual congratulations of first-grade chanting "Jeremy's got a Girlfriend!!!" and she played up to that like Bugs, squirming and clowning and smooching him hard on the cheek.

She was almost forgettable, she fit in so well.

They started showing up late the week after that. Jeremy was showing up late at work as well, late or already exhausted. He confided, more than boasted, to his friends that Nancy was a sex addict. He talked about Nancy incessantly but they expected that. He worried about her a lot. She didn't eat enough, he thought she was anorexic. Michelle was an LPN and she agreed with him on that diagnosis, she also asked Jeremy if the girl drank a lot. She didn't. She rarely put anything into her mouth and she didn't sleep much either. She was constantly flying on nervous energy.

He started having a little financial trouble a month or so later, it turned out that Nancy had moved in and somehow Jeremy's wardrobe upgraded. They went out a lot, almost every night. They ate at fairly expensive restaurants, some of that was Jeremy trying to romance her into eating because she was still losing weight and he thought fancy restaurants with live flowers in cut-glass vases and trendy names might tempt her more than home cooking. He went from talking about Nancy's problems constantly to not talking about them at all, just getting a tight look on his face when they asked about her.

He was losing weight. He admitted to Tim that he was working out and he took a little pride in that, he always had muscle under a bear's usual padding but his belly was honestly starting to recede and his biceps filling out. He looked tired and he looked driven. But he had a lot of strength, physical and emotional. He confided in Cheryl that he missed the Thursday night card games but they had to go to Nancy's dance class on Thursday nights and it was only fair, she stuck around for Cartoon Club and now that he had a girlfriend he wasn't going to be the kind of guy that never took his girlfriend out any more.

"Jeremy, I don't know if you're overdoing it." Cheryl looked at him concerned. "I mean, I was happy for you and all but I sometimes think you've got a case of Cherylitis in reverse. I'm always falling for the wrong guy. Or at least sort of the wrong guy. It's always one of you guys and it works out, it's not as bad this time with Mike, we worked out some of those things. But she's a very screwed up lady. You do know that, don't you?"

"She has problems. I think everyone does." Jeremy looked down at his big hands. His tan was fading. "I... had some practice, Cher. I think I can sort of handle it. I had a *lot* of practice. Now's my chance to prove it. Now's my chance to do it right, for once it's me and I'm not going to mess this one up."

"Jeremy, it's not you I'm worried about messing up. You won't. You can't. You're a nice guy. I was too much of a nice girl when I first went out with Mike and I learned better and this time it's your first and she's a stranger. We didn't know her all these years."

"I know her better than anyone has in her life."

"You might believe that. But you look drained. What's really going on there?"

Jeremy shrugged. "I don't know. She's had - a really rough life and I can't talk about it at all. Okay? This is one thing I really can't just talk about it because it's not me, it's her and it's her past and she had a hard time of it. I do things right. I am the one guy in the world she trusts right now and she'll be all right. She just needs me, Cheryl. She really needs me and I love her and I know she loves me. It's working out. It's *going* to work out." He slammed his hands down hard on Cheryl's breakfast table, hard enough to shake it and knock over the vase she had a couple of mums in. Water spilled over everything. "I'm sorry!"

He said that as if he'd said it too many times. He didn't laugh when he did. Cheryl sucked in her breath.

"Jeremy, that isn't like you."

"I changed. People do. I grew up."

"Grownups Worry World," she chanted, singsong, a parody of Wayne's World.

"She didn't..." He caught himself. "She - Cartoon Club is the best thing in the world for her and I know it. Okay? I can't tell you anything but I wish you'd make friends with her. I wish you'd all make friends of her. I wish you'd see her the way I do. She's very fragile. She's very deep and she's hurting and I can take care of her. Nobody else ever did." His huge hands curled into fists, hard. He looked different, paler, almost sickly as something horrified him so much that he couldn't bring himself to say it and was glad, very glad he'd promised not to say it.

"Jeremy, you can't be her parents."

"She calls me Big Daddy. I know, sounds like something stupid out of the Playboy Channel, but she means it. She's *sweet* and she's nice and she doesn't deserve anything that ever happened to her."

"I won't pry. Just - take care of yourself, okay? And you could show up some other night of the week. Maybe you can break a round of wining and dining and bring her over to our place on a Tuesday? I'll fix something light, light but tempting. Something fancy like a ratatouille that she has to try."

"That would be nice." He looked back at her, big eyes round with hope. "I'd really appreciate it."

"Tuesday night." She scruffled his hair. "Now you eat. Diet or not you're starting to look like a ghost."

They didn't make it on Tuesday night. Jeremy didn't make it to work on Tuesday morning either. He was sick. Wednesday morning Michelle came over and she brought her portable pharmacopoeia. She was a New Age nurse who studied homeopathy and herbalism, feminist Goddess worship and midwifing. She wore her pentacle too because she seriously wondered if the trouble was all as psychological as it seemed or if there was a supernatural element. None of the rest of them were pagan but that didn't really matter, all that got her was the nickname Glinda for a while since she was definitely a Good Witch. Her usual answer to the joke was 'Good at it!'

Jeremy was bedridden and feverish. Michelle was shocked at the way her old friend looked. He was gaunt. Most of his new muscle melted off as fast as he'd gained it. She had an immediate sense of premonition and the skeptical, practical side of her mind cut in. That little blonde tramp probably slept around in the worst way and men didn't lose that much weight that fast without the non-supernatural aid of an ugly virus she'd seen way too many times.

Jeremy denied it when she questioned him about HIV. Michelle countered that even if he'd been tested it was too soon to tell, it took six weeks for the antibodies to show up. Jeremy still denied it. He knew Nancy hadn't been with anyone else and he *had* been tested, he wasn't stupid. Sick as he was, he roared at her and dragged out of bed and showed her the results of the tests, his and Michelle's. She was clean the night they moved in together. And she hadn't been with anyone since because he knew where she'd been. With him, almost every minute of every day.

He broke down crying.

"I know what's wrong and it's not AIDS and I can't tell you. You wouldn't believe me if I did. You might, though, you might out of all of them." He was shaking. "It's not a disease."

"So what is it? Is she a vampire?" Michelle's voice was sharp. She almost believed that as she said it. That was just a sarcastic quip but something about the room deeply disturbed her. It was his smell, not quite sickroom but overlaid by sick sweat and neglect. It was his lack of energy and simply his lack of bulk. It was a thousand little things adding up and she did not like it that she felt the way her cats did if there was a storm coming. Her scalp prickled.

"Worse. I can't - I can't. Don't hurt her. Don't do anything to her, she's been through enough. Don't do it. Don't do anything to her." The color came up in his cheeks. "She doesn't deserve it."

"I'm not -" She stopped cold. She was about to say reassuringly, 'I'm not going to hurt her, I don't hurt anybody. You know what I do and I believe in it, if you don't hurt anyone you can do what you like.' She couldn't bring herself to say it because she heard the door open and shut. She felt Nancy come breezing into the apartment as if it was hers.

Michelle was always a practical witch.

She bent down and kissed Jeremy hard on the lips. She believed the papers. He didn't have HIV and he was a nice guy and for all she knew, she was pretty sure the poor hairy bear was a virgin till Nancy crawled into his life. She flung her fat unshaved leg over his and squashed him. She was a big woman. Not tall but broad, and she had the arm strength to move patients bigger than he was when she had to. It was the dumbest, wildest, craziest thing she could think of to do but she was also always the tomboy of the group. 'If that skinny bimbo can't take a joke,' was the excuse that immediately came to mind.

Jeremy's arms flailed around and then he was trying to push her away, mumbling and mrmphing. Michelle twisted and caught one of his hands on her large squashy breast and when he pushed he groaned. She almost laughed. Nancy came in the bedroom door and shrieked.

Her voice rose and rose, high and weird.

She turned and started to bolt, but there was something wrong with her. She'd lost still more weight. She was bony, her perfect tan was a little more orange and more obviously painted on. She stumbled crashed into the wall mirror. It broke. Then something happened to Nancy.

Mirrors weren't supposed to crack leaving black spaces between the broken pieces of glass as if they were the thin covering of an airlock into vacuum, vacuum that tugged at Nancy and sucked her through the cutting glass edges that poked outward through her painted skin as if her bones weren't quite real, as if she wasn't quite real. As if somehow dimensionally she was falling back to somewhere she didn't want to go. Clinically, Michelle noticed as she let go and looked up, planting her weight hard on Jeremy because he was sliding toward that direction. Nancy's blood didn't even look right. It was the wrong color. A little too orangey-red, a little too oxygenated if that was possible.

The creature screamed, wordlessly, and nothing else fell toward that mirror. She wasn't human. She wasn't anything like human when it was done. Humans did not have vascular tubes for bones that bled out clear almost lymphatic liquid when they were torn by pieces of broken mirror. Even her body fluids vanished into it, pouring back rather than down, flowing through the cracks into whatever Hell that thing had come from.

The pieces of the mirror flew back into place at the end. Nothing was there but the crazed surface of a broken mirror that looked as if it might've been made of safety glass. Michelle just stared at it for a long time.

"You need to get rid of that," she finally said. She breathed hard. She'd always dedicated herself to the forces of light and it was the first time she'd seen the equal and opposite force tangible in the world. She just stared at it. She'd fought and won.

"I need to get rid of that." She felt empowered. She turned and looked down.

"I'm sorry, Jeremy. I am so sorry that had to happen. I wish I'd known. I wish I'd seen it sooner. I should've warded, I should've said something sooner... it'll be all right now. And I kind of meant that kiss. I mean, it's about time one of us grabbed the biggest hunk in the Cartoon Club, huh?" She laughed and tugged his beard.

And then she screamed.

Jeremy's lifeless eyes rolled back, only his body was there. Michelle was a little too late.