Rich Sansbar was proud of himself. He had managed to overcome an addiction, one that was steering him down a dangerous path that most certainly would have led to some serious health issues.
Sugar. He had stopped eating sugar. He had completely cut out those miniscule granules of sweetness that added flavor to anything they were put into. Cookies, cakes, pastries, soda pop, anything that had sugar in it definitely tasted better, but was also bad for your health, particularly your teeth. And after two root canals, two crowns, a deep cleaning, and a host of fillings, Rick was tired of putting his dentist's kids through college.
Pulling a handful of broccoli out of the fridge drawer Rick settled down in his favorite chair and let his mind drift. He imagined himself as a knight in shining armor fighting a giant sugar-laced dragon. The beast kept pulling off chunks of itself and trying to force them on him, but he valiantly resisted, slicing away with his mighty sword, keeping the evil sugar monster at bay.
Rick munched on his broccoli, feeling the little pods and stems pulverize in his mouth. Even though he felt relaxed, the temptation to rush into the kitchen and gorge himself on the cupcakes he kept in the pantry or the vanilla cream cookies in the cookie jar was still on his mind. It tapped on his psyche like a lost man trying to find shelter.
He sometimes questioned his decision to keep sweets in the house when he didn't eat the stuff anymore. He supposed it was a way of patting himself on the back. Having temptation within such easy reach and not giving in gave him much satisfaction. He had beaten the sugar monster and was proud of it.
A noise from the kitchen startled Rick from his thoughts. He stopped chewing and listened for the sound again, but after a minute passed in silence he brushed it off as his imagination and leaned back in his chair, happily munching away on his broccoli again.
A minute later the same noise rang throughout the house. It sounded like someone chewing, but ferociously, as if a wild animal was tearing into freshly killed prey.
And this time Rick knew he wasn't imagining it.
He swallowed the last of the broccoli and slowly eased himself out of his chair, all the while listening for the sound. He wasn't sure what he would do but he did know that if in fact someone, or something, was in his home he wasn't going to stand for it.
The house was quiet, so much so that Rick could hear his heart in his chest. Every beat seemed magnified, every breath he took sounded like thunder. He approached the kitchen on wobbly legs.
Then he smelled it, a familiar aroma that, despite his uneasiness of the situation, was still pleasant.
Chocolate. He smelled chocolate.
Rick tried to wrap his head around the odor but couldn't. How could he smell chocolate?
He looked over at the oven and noticed that it was on, the heat-resistant glass window cold and dark. Relieved, he swung his attention around the room as he tried to affix a rational explanation to an irrational situation. He struggled with the uncomfortable notion that perhaps he was losing his mind, but shrugged it off when he remembered how good he felt after giving up sugar.
The room was quiet and empty. The only movement was dust particles floating through the air. Even the clock on the wall, an old thing he had for years, did not seem to be ticking away the seconds.
Movement caught his eye then, causing him to turn his head toward the closed door of the pantry.
With tentative steps Rick walked over to the door.
"Get a hold of yourself, Rick," he mumbled, hoping that the sound of his own voice would ease his anxiety. "There's nothing in here but bread and canned soup."
Then he remembered that the pantry was also where he kept the sweets.
Rick shook it off, and with a burst of determination, pulled open the pantry door.
Everything looked normal. Boxes and cans of food lined the shelves, all arranged in neat rows. Everything was just where he'd left it, including a box of cupcakes and a package of vanilla cookies.
Wait a minute, there were two boxes of cupcakes. I'm sure of it.
This alarming realization swirled around Rick's head, prompting him to act. He stepped into the pantry and began going through the shelves.
Then something moved behind a box of cereal, nudging it forward until it teetered on the edge of the shelf. Rick immediately reached up, expecting to find a mouse, and pushed the box to the side. A dark shape, slim and wavering, slithered back, quickly vanishing behind a neighboring box. He stretched his neck to see what was on the top shelf but all he could make out were shadows.
The light, you idiot! Turn on the light!
He reached over and flipped the switch on and saw a flash of darkness, a blot of sinewy blackness, and in the split second before it lashed out at him from its hiding place, noticed that it wasn't black at all.
It was brown.
Both policemen rested a hand on their sidearm. The house appeared empty but they were still cautious.
Officer Terry Weiss, a young man who'd been on the force for the better part of a year, led the way. His partner, Vincent Reuther, a middle-aged veteran of the department with nine years under his belt, and who was trying to kick his smoking habit, was behind the younger policeman. He craved a cigarette badly, absentmindedly feeling the unopened pack in his pocket. He kept it to remind him that he was bigger than his addiction.
"Is anyone here?" Weiss called out. "This is the police. Is anyone home?"
Neither officer expected an answer. The call the department received from a neighbor said that they hadn't seen the homeowner, a Mr. Rick Sansbar, for weeks and they smelled something coming from the house.
"Weiss, check out the living room. I'll go to the kitchen."
Weiss nodded and disappeared down the hallway.
Reuther made his way into the kitchen. Right away he could smell something, an aroma of something dead and, as best he could tell: chocolate. Instinctively, he slipped his firearm from its holster.
The pantry door was ajar, revealing only a strip of darkness between the edge of the door and the frame. Reuther stepped up to it, the barrel of his gun leading the way. The smell was stronger than ever now, so potent that the craving he'd been having for a cigarette dissipated into insignificance. Addiction was a powerful adversary, one he battled every day, but now it was nothing. Survival was more important. Death was more intimidating.
Reuther reached forward with his free hand and pulled the pantry door open.
The body was sprawled out amid boxes and cans of food. Its head was pulled back, revealing a swollen throat that was split down the middle. Hunks of chocolate cupcakes had burst from the jagged fissure, mixing with the bloody gore.
Reuther fought the urge to vomit. He knew it was Rick Sansbar, he felt it in his bones.
"Weiss! I got a body in here!"
Weiss came running into the kitchen. His gun was drawn due to the possibility that a perpetrator could still be in the house.
Reuther backed away from the mess. His entire world had been spun over onto its head. The impossible had become possible. Reality had slipped into madness. He suspected what had killed the man. It wasn't a burglar or some psycho with nothing better to do than commit a senseless murder. No, this was far worse.
He steadied his nerves.
The corpse's mouth was wide open, so much so that the jaw had been broken. Remains of chocolate cupcakes and vanilla cookies were jammed into the crevice, spilling out over the face and making the victim look like someone in the process of throwing up.
"Oh…my…God," Weiss mumbled when he looked in the pantry. "The poor guy must have choked on all that stuff." He reached for his shoulder radio to call it in, but hesitated, his finger resting on the button. "He looked at his partner."What should I say?"
Reuther looked at his young partner. Weiss didn't understand. He wasn't addicted to anything as far as he knew. He didn't know what it was like to feel the resistible urge to indulge in something, even when you knew it was bad for you.
Reuther understood though. He'd seen the mass of chocolate slither away from the body like some venomous snake waiting for its prey. He he'd seen it with his own eyes and knew that Mr. Rick Sansbar must have had a problem with sweets, and that, and the thought made him shudder, the sweets apparently didn't like to be ignored.
He nudged the pantry door closed with his foot. "Just tell them that the body is in bad shape. Let the forensics boys figure it out."
Reuther turned and walked out of the room. He'd heard of people dying from their addictions, but never so literally. He'd never heard of someone paying with their life because their vice somehow came alive and took them out.
He walked to the living room, his mind beset by both disgust and fear, and reached into his pocket for the pack cigarettes he kept there. His fingers brushed against the cellophane wrapping, ready to pull the box out and rip it open, but he didn't, instead leaving it where was. He wanted a smoke but knew how bad they were for him, so he resisted the urge.
He pulled his hand out of his pocket and looked out a nearby window, lamenting another life lost, although to a police officer it seemed like just another day on the job.
And then he felt something in his pocket move.