Written by Anthony Murphy
Another dull, grey Monday morning greeted me like it usually did. The standard wail of the alarm clock piercing the stale end of sleep. I pulled myself from the bed and forced myself through my Monday-to-Friday morning routine. Shower, dress, quick cup of coffee, and then a mad dash to catch the bus to work.
I barely caught the bus. Puffing and panting, I paid the driver and slumped into the nearest available seat. The bus jerked away from the curb and into traffic.
'Would you like some water?' came a voice from next to me. I turned to see a young woman, her pale face framed by curtains of orange hair, holding a bottle of water towards me.
'Thanks.' I said, waving away the offer. 'I’ll be alright. I should be used to all this running by now.'
She smiled at me. Her lips were thin and chapped, and I could see small drops of sweat caught in the fine hairs of her upper lip. In her lap she had a white box tied up with a blue ribbon.
'A present?' I asked, gesturing to the box.
'Oh, it’s just a box of cookies. They’re for work. You see today’s my birthday and on your birthday you have to bring everyone else a gift. So my gift to my colleagues are cookies for everyone.' The tips of her fingers were covered in plasters.
‘Well, happy birthday to you.' I said.
Trying to be witty I added, 'Fashion statement?' indicating the plasters on her fingers.
'Oh no.' she smiled, 'That’s just me being clumsy when making the cookies. My mother used to say that you should always put a bit of yourself into your baking otherwise it’s not really yours. I guess on this occasion I took it a little too far.'
'Mothers are always strange ones. They seem full of wisdom when you’re young but it turns out to be complete nonsense when you are older.'
She didn’t say anything. Her smile had faded from her lips, her eyes had darkened and she looked deep in thought. To try and change the subject, I said, ‘Don’t you find it strange that on your birthday you’re expected to bring in presents for your colleagues? Surely it should be the other way around.’
'I don’t mind.’ she said, not looking at me. 'I think it shows that you appreciate them.'
'Then you believe in people a lot more than I ever could.' I said.
'You shouldn’t be so cynical.’ She said flatly. 'Sorry.’ She said, hurriedly reaching across me to push the bell for the bus to stop. 'This is me.'
I moved out of her way as she exited the seat, teetering with the rhythmic sway of the bus, making her way to the front. The bus stopped and she got off and disappeared into the Monday morning gloom.
Thanks to a faulty set of lights, the traffic was held up for twenty minutes. I arrived at work half an hour later than I usually would. I snuck into the office, hoping that no one would see, and quickly made my way to my cubicle. I sat down and switched on my computer. That’s when I noticed the cookie. A white chocolate chip cookie. The chips were as big as a ten pence piece. They had thin red lines of raspberry crushed into them. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed.
'Hey Jer,‘ I whispered to my colleague in the next cubicle. 'Did you see who left this?' I raised the cookie.
'No mate, I didn’t. How come you got one and I didn’t?' he asked.
'I have no idea.' I broke off a chunk of the cookie and popped it into my mouth. The taste was exquisite. Like butter melting in my mouth. It crumbled so easily; the white chocolate tasted like small drops of heaven. Before I knew it I had devoured it all. I had nothing to eat for the rest of the day: the cookie had filled me completely.
The next day there was another one. Exactly the same. It was gone within seconds. Again, I had nothing else to eat.
The day after that, the same.
The following day.
The day after that.
Each day a fresh cookie just sat on my desk welcoming me to work. And every day it was gone within seconds. I began to look forward to getting to work just so I could taste these delightful cookies. They became like small gifts. A reward for making it into work. For six months, a cookie would welcome me into my working day and that’s all I would eat. Any time I tried to eat anything else, I’d gag. An apple would taste like the bottom of an ashtray. Its skin would leave my tongue feeling like it had a thick layer of smoky dust plastering it. Eating chips were as if I were eating cardboard. I came to rely on the cookies as a way of sustenance.
Until that one day when there wasn’t one. Instead, there was a note:
“Lookie, lookie, lookie
You’ve eaten my cookies.
You’ve been missing your dinner
And now you look thinner.
Come say hello to me aboard the number 23
And we’ll see if you are a saint or sinner”
‘Jer,' I said, passing him the note ‘Is this your idea of a joke?'
'No mate. Nothing to do with me. Though…' He looked me up and down 'You have been losing weight these last few months. Not that you can afford to lose it. Have you looked at yourself properly in the mirror?'
I hadn’t really. I never felt much need to look at myself. Never being the most blessed of people in the looks department I used to try and avoid mirrors if at all possible. My last girlfriend took to calling me a vampire because I used to avoid seeing myself in mirrors. If I had to look at myself, I’d quickly glance and then be gone. Like a fleeting shadow.
I left work that day hungry and dispirited. My stomach rumbled and whined all the way home. It was so loud; a combination of a wolf howling through a threshing machine. The other passengers on the bus looked around trying to figure out if there was something wrong with the bus. I expect they were relieved when I got off.
I entered my house and went straight to the bathroom. I took off all my clothes and stood there forcing myself to look at what stared back at me in the mirror. The sight frightened me. Skin sagged from my arms like bacon fat dripping from a grill tray, all off-colour white. My ribs stuck out like branches from a twisted tree, my stomach concave. My eyes were sunken into a hollow-cheeked face. I reached out to touch the mirror. My fingers, pink-coloured bone.
The next day I didn’t go to work. The note had mentioned being aboard the number 23. I got up early and went to the bus depot and boarded the number 23. I rode around on it for a good few hours seeing if anyone approached me or if I recognised anyone. On several occasions I drew strange looks from people. I guess my thin face gave off the air of someone coming down. The cookies were a beautiful kick-start to my day. After each one I’d experience a dizzying high. Not in a way that I couldn’t function but as if I were floating on a soft, cotton-based cloud. It offered me a blessed relief from the monotony and pain of the everyday. Little did I know what they were doing to me and how my body had started to deteriorate. But now they were gone and all I had was this silly note to go on.
The next day I did the same. I rode around all day, but again there was no one I recognized and again, no one approached me.
For the next few weeks I rode around on the number 23. First thing in the morning to last thing at night. I tried to keep my strength up by eating as little as possible but food still made me retch. I found that I could at least drink some water if I swilled it round my mouth several times before steeling myself to swallow. On occasion I found myself nodding off and waking suddenly, not knowing where I was.
Then one day when I did fall into a deep sleep, I woke up and the young woman was sat next to me. She was intently staring at me. Her face boxed in by her orange hair. Her left arm was in a sling. The tips of her fingers on her right hand were covered in bloody plasters.
'We meet again.' she said.
'I guess we do.' I replied.
'You’ve changed a lot since the last time I saw you, but I still recognised you.'
'Yeah well I haven’t been able to eat a lot. The only thing I’ve been able to eat were cookies someone left at my desk every single morning.'
'Come with me.’ she said, and pressed the bell for the bus to stop. She half pulled, half dragged me from my seat. We got off the bus and I slumped into her, my strength mostly gone now. We must have looked a right pair as she guided me down the street. She moved with quite a pace and I barely knew where we were going. Streets faded into streets, houses blurred as we moved past them, until we were stood outside a small house at the end of a row. The door was bright red. So bright that it hurt my eyes to look at.
'Here we are.' she said, opening the door and pulling me inside.
She guided me to the kitchen and sat me down in a chair. The kitchen was a mess. A big bowl of what looked like dough was sat on the counter. There was flour across the work surfaces. A large metal cookie cutter sat next to the bowl. She took off her sling. I saw that what I thought was her bandaged hand was not her hand at all, but a bloodied stump.
'What the…' I said.
'I told you when I first met you that I got carried away with putting myself into my baking. I didn’t know it was going to have this effect on you though.'
'You were the one who was leaving me cookies?' I asked.
'Yes, It was quite simple really. I work - well worked - in the office downstairs. And everyday I left a cookie on your desk. I just wanted to see what you’d do. And all you did was eat. You didn’t offer it to anyone. You scoffed it down without a second thought. And well, now look at you.'
'But they were divine.’ I said. 'The best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life. And all this time I was eating pieces of you?' I retched. Disgusted at the thought of eating human flesh. She looked at me like I was a little child.
'You never said thanks.’ she said.
'Thanks.' she said, 'It’s polite to say thanks, don’t you think?'
'Not when you find out you’ve been eating parts of people.' I said.
'You sound just like all the rest.’ she muttered. Her fingers following the shape of the sliver cookie cutter on the table.
'Yes, There were others. But they never lasted this long when I cut them off from their supply.'
She brought the cookie cutter right up to my face. I could feel its heavily serrated edge breaking my skin. She looked me straight in the eye and said, 'So are you a saint or are you a sinner?'
‘I’m a…’ but before I could reply she dragged the edge of the cutter down my cheek, slicing a sliver of skin. The skin hung from my face and I screamed in agony. She pushed me from the chair to the floor and knelt over me. Twisting the flap of skin off my face and stuffing it into my mouth.
‘Say thank you.’ she had a malevolent look in her eye.
I couldn’t speak. The skin in my mouth choked my words. It felt like hard rubber.
‘Say thank you.’ she repeated.
She dragged the cutter down my shirt tearing it open.
‘Say thank you.’ she hissed.
I coughed and gagged. Begging her with my eyes. She drove the cutter into my chest. Grinding it into my skin. Blood welled up, coating her fingers. I tried to scream. She kept her weight on the cutter, repeating ‘Say thank you.’ over and over again. The pain was intense. I tried to struggle, to shove her off me but I had no energy.
Her face was contorted in anger, thin lips pulled back showing her gleaming teeth. I tried to focus but I couldn’t. My eyes were drawn to the cutter, it was so bright, the light bouncing of it. It was almost blinding. Even though I could feel it in my chest. It seemed to be coming towards me, closer and closer filling up my vision, until all I saw was shining serrated steel.