Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Ashton, VA, January 2008

Reyes wishes they wouldn't call her Mrs. Chow.

It's disrespectful, for one thing, and surely the woman has little enough dignity left already. Not to mention that there is something faintly ludicrous about her manifestation. In a period of between eighteen and twenty-six hours, she ate her husband, her three children, her elderly parents, her children's gerbils (number unknown), and part of her mother's cocker spaniel. There's no need to compound the injury with the insult of a demeaning nickname.

Mrs. Chow sounds like something out of a comic book, and if there's anything Eileen Cho isn't, it's a comic book villain.

They did interviews, he and Todd, with neighbors, with friends, with the staff of the local organic co-op where Mrs. Cho had volunteered, with priest and congregation of the Episcopalian church where the Chos had worshipped, and the picture was close to unanimous: a perfectly pleasant, perfectly ordinary woman. She'd worked to put her husband through law school and then had stayed home with the children (and eventually her parents), although her friends said she'd been talking about going back to school.

"In what?" Reyes said.

"Oh, I don't think she knew," said one friend.

Another, leaning closer, said in hushed tones, "She said once she wanted to be a nutritionist." Under the circumstances, Reyes couldn't even blame her for saying it as if Mrs. Cho had announced she wanted to be a Satanist.

The priest, a soft-handed, soft-eyed man in his early forties, had been almost incoherent with distress. "She was a regular communicant," he blurted finally.

Take, eat; this is my body.

Todd blinked. (Reyes remembers it distinctly because he so rarely sees Solomon Todd taken aback.) Then Todd said gently, "We don't believe there was any, ah, religious dimension to Mrs. Cho's aberration."

But how would they have known?

There had been no chance to interview Eileen Cho, no chance to ask about the importance of food in her life. No chance to ask about traumas in childhood, periods of privation. An eating disorder? He wonders about bulimia and binge eating, but he doesn't even have enough evidence for a responsible speculation. All he and Todd could resurrect was the image she had shown to people outside her family. Everyone who could have told them more was dead. Most of them, Mrs. Cho had eaten.

She was interrupted in her consumption of the cocker spaniel by a very very nervous rookie cop, and his testimony was clear:

She looked up, and I saw there was blood all down her front and all around her mouth. It was thick as spaghetti sauce. And then she fell over like I'd shot her. But I never fired my weapon. Not even a warning shot.

By the time Reyes made the scene--and if God exists, he's got a mean sense of humor, because, really, did the day Eileen Cho went over the top have to be the only day that year that Stephen Reyes was even in Pasadena?--Mrs. Cho had already had a string of grand mal seizures and been taken to the hospital. A stroke, but whether it was a result of her conversion, or whether perhaps a microstroke the day before had been the cause, there was no way now to tell. The rookie cop and his backup were all standing in the street, showing the whites of their eyes like spooked horses. And the dog was crying in the backyard.

Poor stupid cocker spaniel. It tried to wag its tail when Reyes approached. And he stroked its head, tugged gently on one floppy ear, said "Good dog, good dog," while he drew his gun.

How the dog had lived that long, he didn't even know. She'd started eating in the middle.

Take, eat; this is my body.

And now Eileen Cho's body is in Idlewood. Aside from the aftereffects of her massive stroke, it is perfectly healthy, the body of a woman in her active middle-age. Her metabolism runs hot, as the metabolisms of betas and gammas do, but not abnormally so (Can you have a norm of the abnormal? Todd wrote in the margin of Reyes' report: Also, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck?). Her "aberration" has not repeated itself.

Most of the time, her body seems empty to Reyes, even though it moves and reacts. Sometimes it answers questions. Sometimes the answers even make sense. But they tell him nothing about who Eileen Cho was before the anomaly got its claws into her. This body contains nothing, or almost nothing, of the person Eileen Cho was, the person who went to church every Sunday, volunteered twenty hours a week at her co-op, wanted to be a nutritionist. He's not even sure, really, who he's talking to. Is it some echo of Eileen Cho, as the moon echoes the sun's old light? Is it a person, no matter how damaged, no matter that it does not remember who it is? Is it the thing that ate its young, the thing that did not kill the dog before beginning to devour it? He wonders--and he knows Todd wonders, although they try hard not to talk about this particular unanswered question--if the dog was typical of her M.O.

Did she eat them all that way, still alive and starting from the middle?

It's not a question he can ask Mrs. Cho, either. He can't ask her about anything that isn't there in the room with them; she has no ability to distinguish between "past" and "present," no ability for abstract thought of any kind. Even at her most coherent, on the days when there's almost a human being behind her eyes, she never knows his name. She never knows her own name. He asks her, "Who are you?" Sometimes she doesn't answer. Sometimes she gives a random noun: "soap" or "table." Most often, echolalic, she says, "Who who who."

She may not remember her aberration at all, and that is, in fact, the most likely hypothesis. But sometimes he thinks she does remember. Sometimes he thinks something in her is laughing at him.

Which is nonsense, and he knows it. Subterfuge is as far beyond her reach as the moon.

And those are her "good" days, when she can feed herself and seems to recognize her nurses. On bad days, she reminds Reyes of the old joke about how turtles divide the world into two categories: Food and Not-Food. Except for Mrs. Cho, there's no division. She eats facial tissues, her own hair, dirt from the potted plants. She has been interrupted trying to eat plastic cups, pillowcases; once a nurse came in and found her gnawing on the upholstery of her room's only chair. On other days, she seems not to know how to eat at all. Even if they put the food in her mouth, it just falls out again.

Is she refusing food when she does that?

Reyes doesn't know; the Idlewood doctors don't know. If she is refusing food, should they let her die? It wouldn't take long. And, crucially, she has the right. Reyes itches to say yes, to let her go in the only way he can, but two things hold him back:

1. The possibility that they can learn something from a living gamma--even one as tenuously alive as Eileen Cho--that they will never learn from the dead ones. He has a crushing weight of dead gammas, both suspected and confirmed, a filing cabinet full of autopsy reports. Living gammas are a rare commodity, and he can't bring himself to waste one, even while he despises himself for thinking of a human being as a research tool.

2. The possibility that leaving her to starve will trigger another aberration. How much of Idlewood's staff could she eat before she was stopped? How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?

And then there's the superstitious reason, the one he won't admit even to Todd: his feeling, when he looks at Eileen Cho's husk of a body, that the anomaly wants him to kill her. That it has offered her up as a sacrifice expressly in order to force him to take it. That having consumed her, and consumed through her, it now wants her to be consumed--metaphorically, if it can't manage better.

Projecting, Stephen, he scolds himself. There's no evidence that the anomaly is AWARE. There's certainly no evidence that it's aware of YOU.

But still, no matter how hard he fights the stupid, tired impulse to anthropomorphize, Eileen Cho's all-but-empty body looks like a taunt.

Take, eat; this is my body.

Reyes really wishes they wouldn't call her Mrs. Chow.