death and body horror
‘You can’t come in,’ Hutch yells.
The voice from the other side of the door is muffled, indistinct like the teacher in the Peanuts cartoons, but the tone is clear. Anxious and demanding.
‘You can’t come in,’ he repeats. ‘Not now. Not yet.’ He sniffs, a long inhalation. ‘Definitely not yet.’
The voice softens, wheedles. Hutch cracks the letterbox open and confirms the speaker’s identity, catches the name they keep repeating.
‘No, no. Tom’s fine,’ he shouts back, his mouth filling with sugarsweet saliva. ‘We’re both…’ He licks his lips. ‘Everyone’s fine.’ Then he adds, ‘I’ll get him to call you soon. We just need a bit of time alone right now.’
Shoe scuffs descend the stairs, and he sags against the door.
The family have been trying to prise Hutch and Tom apart from the beginning. Since their quiet, sweet, golden boy started dressing better, going to clubs, having more fun, voicing his own opinions. Hutch clocked it right away. The concern, the suspicion. And he gets it: they didn’t want their little Tom to change. But people do change when they become a couple. Sweet, quiet boys find their voice, discover new interests. Yes, and sometimes make mistakes too. But that’s the point. They’ve been Tom’s mistakes to make. You can’t live another person’s life for them.
This is what he wanted.
Hutch heads back down the hall. It’s slow going because he has to pick his way around the detritus: the pile of coats that have slumped off their hooks, the tumbled hall table, the fan of mirror glass glittering in the gloom. Because his eyes don’t work so well these days. Because his balance isn’t great either. It takes a while.
Hutch got the low-key hostile vibes from the family right from the start, but it only really manifested as a thing the day they all got together to go through Rafe’s stuff. The aneurysm had hit without any sort of warning, so it had been a surprise to discover that – in lieu of any flesh and blood family that he cared a damn about (or that cared a damn about him) – Rafe had provisioned for the family in his will. They were all mentioned by name, even Hutch, which had raised his eyebrows, never mind everyone else’s. Everyone got a tidy bump of cash; a couple of them, specific possessions – Mavis, was always going to become the custodian of the great Monopoly collection – but beyond that it was a free for all.
Pick my bones clean, my pretties, Rafe had written in his customary theatrical style, even if the lawyer had fluffed the lines.
That Saturday morning Hutch and Tom had been late. There’d been a discussion about what to wear, and then a fight over the clean pair of jeans. And inevitably the fight had turned into a kiss, into more than a kiss. So, by the time they pitched up at Rafe’s small but swanky Shawlands flat, the hard work was all but done. There was a parade of cardboard boxes lined up in the hall, little coloured stickers indicating who had dibs on what. Hutch’s mood had wilted on spying that the exquisite snowdrop table lamps he’d made it quite plain to everyone that he coveted had already been claimed.
They’d followed the sounds of activity into the narrow galley kitchen where Morna, the group’s mama bear, was directing operations.
‘Hey, you two,’ she said, the sleeves of her lumberjack shirt rolled up to make room for pink Marigolds. She was wiping down the cupboards that the others had emptied, intent on leaving everything clean and tidy. That was the family to a tee. Looking after one of their own even after they were beyond the capability to appreciate it. ‘Better late than never, I suppose.’
Morna not-quite-smiled and nodded towards a half-filled Ikea crate.
‘We’ve been putting aside some stuff for you. Kitchen things mainly. We remember how much you raved about Rafe’s cooking before you took it up yourself, Tommy.’
‘Oh, that crème anglaise!’ chorused two voices. Tinsel, on his knees, cleaning the oven, and Tiny Tina up on the counter, excavating forgotten jars of jam from the high shelves.
Tom laughed, but Hutch didn’t. It had been a spectacular crème anglaise. The whole meal had been amazing. The conversation lifted for once above the usual cud of fantasy TV shows and web comix, the adults getting to talk like adults for once. Even Tom’s contributions were insightful and witty. But the food… the food had been outstanding. Restaurant quality. Better. Each course – the asparagus soup with the freshly baked bread, the veggie lasagne, the apple crumble with custard, though it had been far more than mere custard, and even crème anglaise was hardly doing it justice – had been a wonder. Nothing special to the eye perhaps, but every mouthful had been a joy. Hutch had always thought himself adept in the kitchen, but Rafe had to be some kind of magician. He’d pestered all night for the recipes, but the older man, dapper in waistcoat and wicked, curling moustache, would only say, ‘oh, I just add a sprinkle of something special now and then.’
And bloody winked.
Tom, who’d more or less been dossing around at that point on the lookout for an interesting direction for his life to take, had come home fired up to learn the culinary arts. Turned out to have skills too, more than good enough to get into catering college. After only a few months, during which he’d explored his new world, honed his talents and revealed a zest for experimentation only matched by Hutch’s for consumption, Hutch had been happy to permanently surrender the utensils.
It was no exaggeration to say that night had changed their lives.
Understatement of the century, Hutch thinks as he pauses outside the kitchen. Even with the door firmly shut, the smell of what’s happening inside is almost overwhelming. The aroma powerful, complex, meaty. He wants so badly to go in, but he knows that if he does he won’t be able to restrain himself. And that will ruin everything.
‘Ooh, let me see!’ In Tom’s puppyish excitement to get to the box, he pushed past Hutch, but the kitchen was too narrow and there were too many people.
‘Watch out,’ snapped Morna.
‘Woah,’ said Tiny Tina, knocked off balance, flailing.
‘Shit, sorry,’ said Tom. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry!’
Something heavy rolled, fell. Hit the counter with a thud, scattering and shattering jars. Glass and jam everywhere.
Everyone stared at the spillage. It was sticky and arterial red, though one of the jars must have been imperfectly sealed because there was a fuzz of green there too. Ignoring the mould and Morna’s imprecations to be careful of the glass, Tom dipped a finger into the mess and licked it.
There was a chorus of ews, but Tom closed his eyes. ‘Oh, man.’ He grinned rapturously. ‘That’s amazing. He was a genius to the last, our Rafe.’
Scowling, Morna picked up the offending object. ‘You guys want this too?’ It was a chunky looking pepper mill. Solid, made of something dark like granite or anthracite.
‘Sure, why not,’ Hutch said breezily, and watched as Morna, with visibly bad grace, spritzed and wiped and then put the thing in the box with the half-full spice tubs and other kitchen tat.
Hutch feels his way into the living room. Slowly, doubled over. His stomach tight and craving flavour so damn badly, even though he’s not hungry. He’s never hungry these days.
The mouth-watering smell has followed him from the kitchen. There’s no escaping it, it’s everywhere. He can feel his self-control loosening and crumbling like rotten teeth, but he steels himself. Tom would be so crushed if he were to lose it now. Like the time he’d been unable to resist opening the oven and ruined the souffles, except obviously this is on a stratospherically different scale to mere souffles.
This is Tom’s pièce de résistance. His life’s work.
Perhaps, Hutch thinks, if he allows himself to taste something super bland, that might dull the craving.
Slowly, he bends his bone-thin limbs to the carpet. Searches for a patch clear of food debris. There, a fur of dust.
He lowers his face. And licks.
They couldn’t work out how to open the grinder. It wouldn’t be twisted. It wouldn’t be prised. It wouldn’t be forced. When they shook it, it felt full. But of what?
Experimentally, they ground a little of the contents onto a saucer. It wasn’t dark like pepper, nor exactly white like salt. The fine grains looked greyish, though when tilted under the light they were actually kind of rainbowy.
They tasted it together, on the count of three.
‘Sharp,’ Hutch said. ‘But not salty.’
Tom nodded pensive agreement. ‘Tingly. Definitely…moreish though.’
‘You don’t suppose this is…’
‘…Rafe’s magic ingredient?’
Hutch grinned. ‘His little something special! But why would he hide it away at the back of a cupboard?’
‘Don’t you remember what he said?’ Tom said, though he was grinning too.
Hutch remembered. For weeks after the magical dinner at Rafe’s, they had continued to pester him, plying him with drinks and promises.
‘Now lads,’ Rafe had said one night, drunk enough to slosh his Hennessy all over his tweed sleeve and vintage nineties TAG Heuer. ‘What use is a secret if everyone knows about it?’
‘We won’t tell a soul!’
‘Aye, right!’ Rafe had laughed, spilling booze again. ‘See, this ingredient is so special that you can only use the smallest amount of it, and only on special occasions. Otherwise…well, a man can have too much of a good thing, you understand me?’ He snorted. ‘Jesus, but you pair would be having it on your cornflakes every morning!’
Give the man his due, he wasn’t wrong.
By the evening of the day of the house clearing, Hutch and Tom were indeed sprinkling the stuff on their cornflakes. Why not? They’d had it on everything else. On its own, the salt didn’t taste of much but added to literally anything made it unbelievably appetising. They had it on dry crackers first, and found them so delicious that they were soon cramming the things into their mouths faster than they could swallow. Their choking, coughing moans of pleasure came in puffs of crumbs. After that they worked their way systematically through the least appetising items – much of them Hutch’s stash of guilty pleasures – to be found in the fridge and store cupboards. Cheese slices and bruised grapes, reformed supermarket ham, Peperamis, raw onions and uncooked potatoes. All of it incredible, irresistible, though it was impossible to describe exactly how. The special salt didn’t make anything sweeter or sharper. More intense, sure, but, even amped up, an out-of-date can of pilchards shouldn’t be the near-ecstasy that it proved to be.
‘Maybe,’ Tom said. They were stretched out on the sofa, cradling their bloated stomachs. ‘There’s taste buds on the tongue we don’t know about yet.’
MasterChef was on. Everything the contestants served up looked unappetising.
‘Or a yet-to-be-discovered direct line to the dopamine centres in the brain.’ Tom waved his arm listlessly. ‘I dunno.’
‘Maybe,’ Hutch said. Then he belched and clutched his middle. Even in pain he craved more. ‘Gonna make me some special toast, Chef Tom?’
Hutch aimed a kick at Tom’s thigh. ‘Do it. What’s the use of having a personal chef if he won’t make you toast on demand?’
Tom didn’t usually fight back when Hutch got rough, but he slapped the offending foot away and drew his skinny legs out of reach.
‘No,’ he repeated. ‘We’ve had our fun with it, but we can’t go on like this. It’s not normal.’
‘Who cares about normal? It’s fecking delicious.’ Hutch regretted snapping right away. It had been a magical day. An adventure just for Hutch and Tom to share. Their thing. None of the family would even have got close to appreciating it. He hated that it had to end.
‘If we carry on at this rate,’ Tom’s big, brown eyes were serious now, ‘how long is it going to last?’
And Hutch had no smart comeback for that. Tom was right. The salt had to run out sometime, and there would be no more when it was gone.
‘Okay.’ Though his tone remained sullen, in that moment he felt his heart swell. It was such a surprising feeling that his breath caught. But do you love him? the family always asked whenever they got him alone. Do you really love him? Of course, he always said that he did, but…truthfully, for a man for whommonogamy had always been an incomprehensible notion? This was the first moment that he’d genuinely understood what the word meant. He felt liberated, enlightened, jubilant all at once.
‘Special salt for special occasions,’ he said with a smile now. ‘Got it.’
‘He’s impressionable, our Tom, and he worships you.’
Morna hadn’t touched her lager. She didn’t want to be there, and neither did Hutch. This quiet drink was such an obvious ruse, another opportunity for her to lay down the law. Hutch knew that, and Morna knew that he knew, but Tom thought the world of her. How could he have refused?
Looking back, Hutch thinks that he was already falling in love back then even if he’d believed he was just stringing Tom along until the fun ran out. Everything’s so jumbled up in his brain now, it’s hard to say.
‘He knows his own mind,’ Hutch had said, taking a gulp of his porter before meeting her gaze. He did pretty well to hold it, he thought. Morna always looked at him like she had X-Ray vision. He knew she’d been asking around, doing due diligence on him, and the reports weren’t to her liking. A few weeks earlier she’d told him: you don’t need a life partner, Hutch, you just need an excuse to behave like an arsehole. There’d been no point in arguing the toss. It was true. His relationships up to that point had been exercises in dependency and enablement. Short lived, and then on to the next Flavour of the Month.
‘He’s easily led,’ she tried again.
‘So don’t lead him anywhere…bad.’
Feigned shock. ‘I won’t! Of course, I won’t.’
Feigned smile. ‘You’d better not.’
I’ll make you one last meal, and that’s it. Just…be patient. Promise you won’t taste it until it’s ready.
Curled up in the living room armchair, Hutch remembers Tom’s last words. The skeletal smile. The thin arm shutting the kitchen door.
And he had promised. He had. He had bloody promised.
He gnaws at the corner of a stained velour cushion. It tastes so good that his mouth floods, and he gets an erection too.
There’s that noise again. Banging at the front door. Morna and co., back for another round. Well, screw them. He knows they love Tom, but so does he. He loves him so much. It’s such a weird sort of agony, a whole in his core that cannot, will never be satiated.
And anyway, it’s a bit late for interventions now.
Hutch reaches into his boxers. There’s no pleasure in the touch and it only takes a couple of strokes before he grunts and spills a sour dribble onto the cushion. He can’t help but lap it up ravenously. It tastes so good he almost comes a second time.
They really tried. At first.
Tom refused to use the stuff when he was preparing their day-to-day meals. He was practising his profession. It was cheating. And Tom’s food was so damn good, it hardly mattered. Or at least that was the case. He’d impressed all his tutors during his first year at college, but after they came into possession of the mill he started to doubt his abilities. Nothing tasted right. Nothing was good enough. He started flunking classes he’d previously excelled in and was in danger of being kicked off the course entirely.
Then one night he came home with the news he’d wowed his tutor with a bouillabaisse, but only because – out of desperation – he’d used the salt. Just the tiniest sprinkle, but still… What even was the point in learning to cook, Tom sobbed, when such stuff existed?
Tom’s willpower had been their finger in the dyke. They’d always known what would happen when it was removed. In a way it was a relief.
That night they went on a supermarket spree and when they got home they sprinkled the salt on everything from rib-eye steaks to ice cream to cat food. They didn’t bother cooking because everything tasted as wonderful raw as it did after hours of preparation. They didn’t even consume much of the food. All they craved was the taste. They licked artichokes. They sucked cornichons like candy. Cold chicken feet straight from the butcher counter were to die for. Lard was sublime.
They lost the ability to tell the pleasure they got from tasting from any other sort, and one thing led to another. They rubbed the salt on each other’s skin and lost days to sex, seeking out the sweatier, funkier parts of their bodies to keep the thrill going. Even when the skin was raw, bleeding, seeping. Especially then.
They stopped going out, answering the phone, checking messages. The money dried up. They didn’t care. They just wanted flavour. They salivated constantly, even as the pounds dropped off their bodies. They lost track of time. Spent their days snuffling around the flat like a pair of starved and stinking dogs, seeking out something, anything new to taste. Mouldy food that tasted far better than when it was fresh. Piss, shit, semen, blood. Sofa lint. Bin juice. They fought, snarling, over the bathroom linoleum.
At some point, they passed some physiological threshold and stopped using the mill because everything tasted transcendent to them all the time.
They were evolving into something… Hutch’s addled brain couldn’t assemble a more coherent thought than: pure gastronomes. Ultimate explorers. No one had done what they were doing. No one in the world.
And Morna was wrong. It wasn’t Hutch leading her sweet boy. It was the other way around, Tom taking pride in arranging the things they consumed like courses of a fine dining tasting menu.
Hutch couldn’t imagine a purer act of love.
The toilet bleach though. That was a mistake. A tasty, but nevertheless fatal, one. Tom had gone first, then immediately thrown the stuff down the sink before Hutch could follow suit. It was the one thing they hadn’t shared.
I’ll make you one last meal, Tom whisper-croaked, his throat all but burned away. To make up for it.
The banging’s still going on. There’s men shouting too now.
This is the police. A hefty thud against the door conjures in Hutch’s mind those battering rams they use to force entry into drug dens.
No. Not yet. It’s too soon.
Another thud, a splintering sound.
Hutch uncurls himself. ‘No!’ he shouts. ‘Go away!’ But it’s too late for that. They’re going to rob him of this final, exquisite gift.
He stumbles out into the hall, throws himself against the kitchen door. Inside, Tom is slumped, head resting on his arms like when he used to fall asleep studying. So adorable. Except for the crust of bloody vomit on the table and the corrosion burns around his mouth. Except for the deep reddening of his skin, that is only partly down to the marinade. Except for the bloating, that ironically makes him look like a glutton. He was never that. He was always the one who gave more than he took. Hutch has never appreciated that more than at this moment.
Tom had combed his hair and found a white shirt in the laundry. Paper manchettes adorn the ends of each of his fingers. He looks delicious. He smells divine, but according to his instructions he’s not ready. Not yet. At this time of year, three weeks would have been better that two for the decomposition to really set in. But the crash in the hall as their stout old door frame finally gives way tells Hutch it’s now or never.
He reaches for the mill, almost too weak now to lift the thing. It’s unnecessary, but there’s a sense of ceremony that must be observed.
He grinds the stuff into the palm of his hand, then takes a generous pinch, sprinkles it into the jelly of Tom’s eye and takes one last, loving lick. The eye rends under the pressure of his tongue like a perfectly poached egg. Another pinch to dust Tom’s roseate cheek. Hutch kisses it, bites, rips and pulls at the skin, the softening flesh beneath falling off the bone. It melts in his mouth. The flavour, indescribable. The taste of love.
‘Thank you,’ he whispers. ‘Oh, Tommy, my sweet, sweet boy. Thank you for giving your heart to me.’
But, before Hutch can sample that most precious of offerings, they are dragging him away. ∎
Neil Williamson is a writer and musician, from Glasgow, Scotland. His stories have appeared in Interzone numerous times, and also in The Third Alternative, Black Static, Weird Horror, Shadows and Tall Trees, and other magazines and anthologies. His 2016 collection Secret Language and his 2022 novel Queen of Clouds are available from NewCon Press. ‘A Little Seasoning’ is his first story for IZ Digital.
Dante Luiz is an illustrator, art director for Strange Horizons, and occasional writer from southern Brazil. He is the interior artist for Crema (comiXology/Dark Horse), and his work with comics has also appeared in anthologies, like Wayward Kindred, Mañana, and Shout Out, among others. Find him on Twitter or his website.
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