By the third day of rain, Ilsa’s antlers have started to poke through the scalp, pushing aside her dark hair in two small points like mountains. She has been rubbing these spots on her head for days, complaining to the dog and the crows on her porch. From the cabin, through the rain, she can see only half a field all around. The birds perch on the wood, under the porch roof, and shake their feathers. Ilsa sighs and leaves a bowl of beans on the table for them. She has been here, alone, since it started raining.
When Andy left, before the rain, he left with the rest of the roast beef in his sandwich and all of the sweet tea. Sometimes she thinks that the worst part about him being gone is not that the bed is cold but that there is no more sweet tea.
“I’ll drive down to the next town, spend the night, and come back in the morning with food. You won’t even miss me,” he whispered into her hair on the porch, in the mountain sun.
“I could go with, you know, unless you hate my company so much.”
Andy sighed. “I would love to travel into hick-town with you, but we can’t leave Egg alone, and you know how he is around people.”
“Yeah, yeah, the poor, socially awkward pup,” Ilsa said and traced a design in the dirt with her foot.
“You’ll be fine,” Andy said.
And then he picked his bottle of tea off the floor and climbed in his Chevy and was gone down the mountain road before Ilsa could even start to feel sad. Egg, the dog, stood and barked for almost an hour before accepting that he was gone and eventually turned to the long grass and started hunting crickets.
But that was before the rain started. The rain was like no other rain Ilsa had ever seen. It seemed to move like one huge solid drop, like all of the droplets had bonded together and created a mothership of rain. It sounded like a large bucket being poured on the roof, continuously, for days. And the thunder shook the place all the way to the foundations. Eventually Andy called but with all of the thunder and static all she got was “gotta stay” and “damn bumpkins” and “love.”
And now, on the third day, Ilsa wakes up at six in the morning because her new head accessories have snagged on the blanket and she can’t roll to her left side. She stays still for a minute, half-asleep and confused, and reaches up to her head, placing her fingers on the small points. She frowns.
In the mirror, she can hardly see them in her hair. Two little brown horns, coming up through her curls.
“Jesus Christ.” She turns her back to the mirror and takes a step towards Egg, who is watching her, his ears perked up. And then she turns back to the mirror, leans in, pulling back her hair to inspect the foreign things.
Ilsa and Andy met on the fourth of July five years ago, at a mutual friend’s party in D.C., when Ilsa tripped into Andy and the lit sparkler she was holding went right onto his left bicep. She drove him to the emergency room, and when he was all bandaged up, he asked her on a date. She said, “there’s a diner down the street. Fried eggs on me,” and that was it, that was the end. They went big for the fourth of July every year after that, and this year took them to the Georgia mountains, accompanied by their new adopted dog, with his scruffy white fur—appropriately named after that first night.
On the fourth day, Ilsa sits by the phone and waits. The rain is pounding outside, and she sits on a stool in the kitchen, pulling her t-shirt over her bare legs. Her stomach rumbles. She gets up and opens the fridge, stares into the fluorescent light, which flickers as if mocking her. A tub of butter, a bag of carrots, jars of tomato sauce, and one half-eaten yogurt. There are a few strips of bacon, but she has reserved them for Egg. In the pantry, there are three bags of chips and a quarter of a loaf of bread. She imagines Andy down the mountain, feasting. Her stomach rumbles more, and she returns to the phone and waits for his call.
After a while, she sits so still she forgets what she’s waiting for. The rain becomes a rush in her ears, like she’s swimming, and she holds one knee tight to her chest and leans her cheek on it. The rushing eventually feels like silence, and she can hear only the sound of her breathing against her skin. She thinks she feels the antlers growing, and she closes her eyes and imagines them as trees.
Her silence is broken by a bark from outside, and she jumps, startled. She opens the front door and there is Egg, bouncing around a crow, which sits quietly, patiently, on the railing.
The dog stops barking and whips around to stare at her. His ears perk up, and he begins to bark again. As the sound starts to form in his throat the crow caws, loud and long, stares at Ilsa, and then raises its wings and flies into the rain. Egg watches it go and then flops down on the porch, and Ilsa goes back inside. All the hair on her arms is standing up.
She comes to terms with the new growths by the sixth day, when the rain finally slows to a drizzle. The antlers are about two hand lengths now, and they are starting to branch off. She has grown to like them, and the weight on her head is surprisingly easy to balance. She even finds different things around the cabin to drape over the antlers—necklaces, yarn, napkins, pillowcases.
She is rationing the bread and trying to distract herself from the hunger. Andy still has not called and Ilsa finds herself pacing around the small cabin and out onto the porch, waiting, breathing, walking, waiting. Her heart seems to beat faster than normal. She falls asleep to have something to do and wakes up from half-formed nightmares to hear Egg barking outside. He spends the day running around the muddied field in the light rain, turning his white coat a dirty red-brown. At night, when Ilsa goes onto to the porch to call him inside, he doesn’t come. She can see his outline, faint and white, illuminated by the yellow porch light.
“Come on, Egg. Don’t make me sleep alone.”
But he doesn’t move, and she slips inside and into the bed reluctantly. The stillness of the cabin is a shroud, and she is the only person in the whole world. She sleeps restlessly, and in the morning, finds Egg on the porch, staring at her.
Three months ago, they adopted Egg from the local shelter. He was the first one Ilsa saw—a wide-eyed, white mutt with a thin stomach and ratty tail. She would not have left without him. Andy was unsure—the shelter workers said he was weird around other animals and had a little bit of a temper, if provoked.
“He was left on the side of the road, Ilsa,” Andy said to her. “He had to fight for all his food. I don’t think he’s the kind of dog you keep in your house.”
“He’ll sleep with me.” Ilsa was kneeling by the cage, and Egg was staring at her, occasionally sniffing her fingers. “Where else is he gonna go?”
Andy sighed, and eventually finished the paperwork. In the car, Ilsa sat in the back with the dog, who lay his head on her thigh and licked her hand the whole way home. “See?” she said to Andy. “He likes the way I taste. We’re perfect together.”
It is not until the seventh day that the rain stops. When Ilsa walks outside that morning, the air is thick and hot and quiet. A mist hangs over the trees, and the crows have left the porch and are circling into the sky, disappearing into the air. She tries to breathe deeply, but her stomach hurts, and the air seems too warm and incompatible with her lungs.
She follows Egg into the long grass and walks up behind him as he is starting to dig at something.
“Whatcha got, bud?”
He turns his head to her and freezes. A hot, wet breeze is blowing her hair all around the antlers, and she reaches up to untangle it. The corner of Egg’s lip curls, showing a sharp canine and black gum. Ilsa puts her hands down.
“What did I do?” she jokes, but when Egg growls, low and deep, she stops laughing. “Seriously. Stop it.” She turns and wades back through the grass to the porch, and doesn’t look back at him until she is inside, and the door is closed. Her heart is beating fast again, and she can only see the yellow of his teeth and the muscles bunching in his hind legs and the hardness to his dark eyes, over and over, each image making her chest tighten. He doesn’t come to the door, and she doesn’t look for him.
Andy finally calls, starting the conversation with static apologies. He tells her the floods are too bad to get up the mountain, and she almost screams. With the phone at her ear, she inspects the last rations—the end of a bag of chips, a few carrots. The bacon is long gone.
“I’m trying my best,” he says, but his voice sounds like it’s coming from a planet away, and his reassurances don’t make it to her head.
“You’ll be okay, I’m sure I can get up there by this afternoon, just hang tight.”
“I’m really trying my best, okay? Just hang out with Egg and—”
The line goes dead. “Andy? Oh God, the service did not just quit did it—”
The phone beeps and the sound goes around her head like an insect. She puts the phone on the counter and steps back. The chip bag is like a black hole, staring at her, and the pressure of the empty cabin is heavy against her chest, and when the phone stops beeping, she is left in complete silence.
“No,” she says, but her voice is not loud enough. “No, no, no, I can’t, I can’t—”
Without thinking, she turns and walks out the front door onto the porch. Egg stares at her, unblinking, as she walks down the steps, into the tall grass, onto the mud road. She has forgotten her shoes, and the red mud slips between her toes, around her feet. She stops and looks back at the dog, who stares at her for a minute longer, and then stands up. She stays still, breathing heavily, watching him. She reaches her hands to her head and runs her fingers over the antlers’ smooth base. She almost calls his name, but then she drops her hands, turns, and walks towards the trees.
She does not realize that Egg is hunting her until she reaches the trees and stops, hearing a growl from behind her. And there is Egg, the perfect white coat, mud-stained feet, a snarl she has never seen before twisting his sweet face. She takes a step back, and the antlers brush a branch above her.
“Egg?” she calls out, as he takes a step towards her. There is something in eyes that is unfamiliar and savage. She realizes that something has changed—he is no longer hers, no longer a warm, happy animal. A black hole opens in her chest. Her voice comes out a scratching whisper. “Egg, baby-dog. Egg—”
But he is already moving, and she turns and without thinking sprints blindly into the trees. The rocks and twigs sting her feet and she leaps over roots, stones covered in moss, fox-holes, and her antlers catch branches and leaves as she flies by, spraying water onto her eyes and face, and as her chest heaves and Egg pounds through the woods behind her the only thing she thinks about is getting away, getting away, getting away. The only thing she feels is her antlers brushing the foliage. The only thing she sees is the forest flying past. The only thing she hears is her dog’s breath, heavy like a killer, heavy like hunger, right on her heels.
LUCY JONES is a senior creative writing major at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, AL, and a rising freshmen at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia. She has been published in Hollins' College literary journal, Cargoes, and in the Birmingham Arts Journal. She was a finalist for the Norman Mailer High School Creative Nonfiction Awards, and a semi-finalist for UNC Chapel Hill's Thomas Wolfe literary scholarship. She enjoys writing free verse and ekphrastic poetry, and short fiction.
Discussion of Process
"'Hunger' started out as a story about a couple stranded in a secluded mountain cabin in the state of Georgia, in the middle of a seemingly un-ending downpour. Ilsa was a girl who grew antlers—maybe the result of her anxiety from being stuck on the mountain, or her anxiety over the crumbling of her relationship. After two rounds of critique and hours of thinking and re-thinking, this story became much more. I was urged to leave the boyfriend out of it almost entirely, so I reduced him to a few lines and removed him from the cabin for the entirety of the story. That’s where the dog came in. Egg and his increasing aggressiveness and animalistic behavior became the spark of Ilsa’s restlessness, anxiety, and fear. The story switched from an observation of a crumbling relationship between humans to a crumbling relationship between human and dog—one that became very primal and instinctive in the end. The one question people always ask after reading the story is “did he actually eat her?” to which I just shrug. My goal was to create a weird observation on anxiety—whether it’s brought on by hunger, loneliness, or the fear that your four-legged friend might eat you, it’s very real, and could even take a physical form."