She was comfortable, curled up on the sofa in the front room at home. It was raining outside, that’s why she wasn’t playing in the garden. Even though it was warm she could feel the change in the weather. Autumn was coming. The leaves on the trees looked tired, ready for the new season. She would be going back to school soon. Preparing for secondary school; new subjects, which she was looking forward to, and new classmates, which left her less enthusiastic.
She looked away from the window and down at the book open in her lap. It was about animals. Talking animals that lived in a castle and wore armour when fighting battles. She was enjoying it. She loved anything to do with animals. On the back of the sofa rested a plate with a slice of cake. She nibbled at it as she read, brushing stray crumbs off the pages onto the floor.
‘Hello Pet.’ Her father entered the room, slicking back his rain wet hair. He patted her on the shoulder. ‘You should go easy on the food, you’re getting fat.’
Ashamed, she buried her face between the covers and finished her cake out of sight of her father. He sat down and turned on the television, flicking through the different channels of Saturday sport. She felt even hungrier after eating the cake than before she started it. She licked her fingers and gathered up the crumbs, then licked the plate to make sure she had got everything. Her stomach felt empty. Mum hadn’t got back yet from the shop with the weeks groceries. There was nothing left in the house.
‘I’m hungry, Daddy,’ she said.
His eyes were glued to the television screen. ‘Have a glass of water, that’ll fill you up until dinner.’
She tried to read her book again. The words swam on the page. They seemed to spell out appetizing words like pizza and chocolate. She lifted the book to her face and licked the page. It didn’t taste as bad as she thought it would so she tore off a page and stuffed it into her mouth. She ripped out another page, and then another, eating them faster and faster. Soon she held the cover in her hands and was weak with hunger pangs.
She looked towards her father. He hadn’t noticed her eating the book. Part of her knew what she was doing was irrational, but the majority was concerned with filling her stomach and stopping the pain of emptiness that consumed her. She wondered what her father tasted like. Concerns at this thought held her back for no more than a second. She crept towards his chair. He looked up when she grabbed his arm and bit into it. She wanted to stop. A voice in the back of her head screamed at her, but she didn’t listen. Eating was all that mattered and her father tasted so good.
Pahana woke shaking. She retched, gagging and spitting, trying to rid her mouth of the taste of human flesh. It took her several moments to realise that she had none in her stomach She rubbed her eyes, wanting to banish the nightmare from her mind. It had seemed so real. She was not at home eating her father, but the hunger pains were still with her. How long had it been since she had last eaten?
As the horror of her dream left her, Pahana looked around. She was in a large room suffused with a buttery yellow glow. There was no obvious origin of the light. Was she still in the night train? She couldn’t tell, but she was alone. The ceiling was far above her head. It was covered in murals, like the walls. At first glance the pictures seemed harmless – even pleasant. They depicted parties of people frolicking in the countryside eating a picnic. However, when Pahana looked closer at the pictures she saw that the food they were eating was rotten and that the happy faces of the picnickers were actually insane grimaces.
The floor of the room was made up of a bright mosaic of tiles, which was cheerful, but Pahana could not discern any pattern. She had been placed on a beige divan, over flowing with cushions – some smooth silk and others feathery soft. Most of the room was filled with a long table, its surface over flowing with food of all descriptions displayed in gold dishes.
Hunger gnawed at Pahana. It rumbled in the pit of her stomach, an empty hole that demanded to be filled.
She sat up, then levered herself to her feet. There was no sign of Ansus in the room, no visible doorways that she could exit to look for the tiger. The room seemed to be a sealed chamber, without exit or entrance. She knew this could not be true, because she had been brought into it somehow. She hoped Ansus had been carried onto the night train too, and was housed in a similar room nearby, but even if she wasn’t Pahana was determined to find the tiger.
She walked across the room. Perhaps there was a door hidden in the walls, masked by the murals. If she felt along the plaster she might be able to find the join. Her stomach rumbled as she passed the table. The food looked fresh and tempting. Apples, rosy red and unblemished. Green and black grapes ripe and full. Plates of char grilled meat. Creamed potatoes covered in cheese. Pasta smothered in rich tomato sauce. She drifted towards the food, but stopped before she reached the table. She didn’t have time to eat, and besides, could she trust the food?
The walls felt greasy. Pahana’s fingers slipped across them, searching for any indication of an opening. She skirted the room, but could not detect any hidden entrances. As she passed the table again, savoury smells made her mouth water. Steam still rose from some of the dishes, their pleasing aromas wafting towards her where she leaned against the wall. Buttered vegetables rubbed shoulders with roast chicken and lamb, bowls of stewed beef and various deep fried meats. Every variety of potato – chipped, fried, mashed, boiled and baked – glistened in the golden glow of the room. Further down the table an assortment of nuts and dried fruit filled filigreed bowls to over flowing. At the far end of the table chocolate cakes, lemon cheesecakes, tiramisu, ice cream of many colours and flavours vied for room with bonbons, chocolate bars and every kind of sweet stuff you could imagine.
Pahana licked her lips. Her journey around the room had left her light headed. Hunger made her hands shake and her knees knock together. It had gone from an insistent urge in the pit of her being to a trembling pain that made her feel faint and nauseated.
Perhaps a little bite wouldn’t hurt.
She moved towards the table. She didn’t want to delay in making her escape, but what good would she be at getting away when she felt so badly and might fall down at any time? Even if she were to find Ansus easily she would be of no use to the tiger if she were so weakened by hunger as to be unable to move. She raised her hand, her fingers hovering over first the fruit and then the meat. She would take something small, an apple or some grapes perhaps. She could take some with her, to sustain her on the journey ahead.
Her hand shot towards the char grilled beef, grabbing a slice and raising it to her mouth before she realised what she was doing. She tore a chunk of the meat, chewing it carefully before swallowing. It was succulent, basted with a sweet chilli sauce. The meat melted in her mouth, dissolving in a delicate way. It was delicious. She took another bite, chewing it less carefully. The third she bit into savagely, finishing the cutlet. Before she had swallowed her mouthful she picked up another piece of meat and tore into it too. By the time she was licking the juices from her fingers, the plate of meat was empty. She was surprised she had eaten so much so quickly. Rather than stem her appetite, it made her even hungrier. She moved down the table, sampling handfuls of food. There was no cutlery so she had to scoop handfuls of pasta and mashed potato into her mouth. She started with the foods that were easier to eat – the meat, chips and nuts – then progressed to the slippery foods. At times she lifted the dishes to pour the food directly into her. It felt so good inside her mouth. The taste was so intense; it filled her body with pleasure. The moment she swallowed, the sensation was gone, forcing her to eat faster and faster in the effort to reach that moment of happiness and contentment once again. A sense of euphoria enveloped her. She loved each new dish with increasing passion, wondering why she had never tasted it before. Her mouth and hands were filthy, food dribbled down her chin and chest. She didn’t notice, didn’t care. Ansus was forgotten. Her surroundings were zoned out. The food consumed her, and consuming it was all that was important.
Halfway through the table pains spiked her lower back and stomach, but she ignored it. She still felt empty. There remained a need to fill the black hole that seethed within her. Now it was no longer the urge to eat to seek pleasure but the belief that she must finish everything on the table. The pain grew worse and the discomfort of eating caused her to slow down, but she chewed through the fried meat and buttered vegetables with dogged persistence. Her one mission was to clear the table and she was not going to stop until she had done that, even if it killed her.
She slowed in her attack as the number of empty plates grew, often taking breaks between each mouthful to allow her stomach time to settle and to emit foul smelling gases from her struggling digestive system. The pain in her abdomen was quite intense now. It made her eyes water, but she could not stop eating even if she wanted to.
She didn’t hear the voice the first time. With repetition her name filtered through to her, but it was meaningless. Only the food mattered.
‘Pahana, look at me.’
With difficulty she looked up, although her hands continued to shovel grapes and marshmallows into her mouth. A woman stood on the opposite side of the table; a woman wearing a blue dress with beating butterfly wings sprouting out of her back that sent clear bright light cutting through the heavy gold aura that filled the room. She had seen the woman before. Where was it?
‘Angel,’ she said, pleased with herself for remembering the name. She frowned. What if Angel wanted to eat some of her food?
‘Pahana, listen to me. This isn’t you. You don’t want to do this.’ Angel held her hands out, coaxing her around the table. ‘Come here to me, honey.’
Pahana snarled. Part of her wanted to go to Angel, but the base element within her that was causing her to eat saw the woman as a threat. She knew she was being irrational, that Angel didn’t want the food and, if she was honest, she didn’t want it either. However, she couldn’t help from baring her teeth and clutching at the bonbons, grabbing handfuls of cheesecake and licking the lemon mouse that oozed through her fingers.
‘Pahana, look at yourself. Where is Ansus? What are you doing in this room?’ Angel moved closer.
Pahana looked down at her body. She was fat. She could no longer see her feet. Folds of flab undulated out and down from her body, wobbling with every breath. Her thighs had ballooned, pressing against one another and folding back over themselves. Her arms fought for space against the buttresses of her torso. When she looked down a cushion of fat supported her chin against her chest.
‘How did this happen?’ she said.
‘Come here, Pahana, it’s not too late to stop. Look at the food you’re eating. Do you really want to put that into you?’ Angel moved nearer.
Pahana looked at the food. She blinked, seeing it in a new light. Mould grew over the bonbons. Blue and white growths speckled the cheesecake. What she had thought were grapes now looked more like the gel covered eyes of some amphibious creature. She flung the food away from her, stepping back from the table. Her limbs, unaccustomed to the extra weight, cracked and she fell. Strong arms caught her. Angel stood behind her, holding her up.
‘Angel, where am I? What is this? What have I done?’ Pahana swallowed bile; afraid she was going to vomit. Her wiped her hands on her stomach.
Angel wiped the hair from Pahana’s forehead. ‘It’s ok,’ she crooned. ‘You have just wandered from the path. There are many creatures lurking here to ensnare you, but you can overcome them. You are destined for greatness, Pahana. That is why I was sent to find you. That is why Ansus came to help you get free.’
‘Is that why I’m here in the first place?’
‘Perhaps. When you arrived here we were alerted because of the tremendous energy that was required to perform such a feat. It is rarely seen and only in the most extraordinary of circumstances. When we saw that this was because of you, we realised you were very special. I’m not going to let these creatures keep you here, Pahana, slowly turning you into one of their own. Now, where is Ansus?’
Pahana wanted to cry. She felt so guilty. She had meant to find Ansus, but she had got so caught up with eating that she had forgotten about the tiger. ‘We got separated. There was this huge centipede and these things pushed me inside it and then I woke up here.’
‘They’re called butterballs.’ Angel looked around the room. ‘They work for Lipedo; he is the ruler of this section. It is very bad news. We have to get you out of here now, before he arrives.’ She guided Pahana away from the table.
‘It’s no use; I’ve already looked for a door. There’s no way out of this room.’
Angel squeezed her shoulder. ‘You looked around but you did not look down. See, there, that is how you will get out.’
Pahana followed Angel’s pointing finger. In the centre of the room, near the divan, there was a dark outline of a trapdoor cut in the colourful tiles. She didn’t know how she had missed it. ‘Can you come with me Angel?’ she asked. ‘Will you stay with me until I find Ansus?’
‘I can only stay a few more seconds,’ Angel said, leaving Pahana to open the trapdoor. ‘I will help you get out of this room, but then I must leave before I am discovered and Lipedo comes for me.’
Pahana doubled over in agony. Her stomach groaned. She clutched it, rocking with the pain.
‘What is it?’ Angel rushed to her side, rubbing her back.
‘I think I had too much to eat,’ Pahana said. As another wave stabbed her gut she moaned. She was sure her stomach was going to explode. Her belly fat stretched, pulling away from her and forming odd bumps and nodules. She tried to hold onto it, but it squeezed through her fingers, growing out of her midriff in an extension of her already gross figure. The outgrowth resolved into the rough shape of a head and features appeared on its surface. A steaming yellow eye, a melting nose, and a wide mouth filled with row upon row of sharp discoloured teeth. The mouth opened in a wide grin. Pahana screamed.
‘Lipedo,’ Angel said.
‘Get out of here, Angel. Leave me, save yourself,’ Pahana said.
The fat on Pahana’s back ripped free of her spine and formed into an arm. It wrapped around Angel’s waist, then slid back into the saddlebags on Pahana’s hips, trapping Angel.
‘Too late,’ Lipedo said.