They called it The Endless Need, but the baristas cut you off at some point like selfish parents who wanted more for themselves. Regal had learned this when he'd requested a fourth refill and been rebuffed. Still, he kept coming there—because it was the only coffee place on his burned-out block? Hard to say.
Today he saw again the woman who was also a regular, who wore a cap inside no matter what the weather. It shaped her face like the close-up of a silent film star (he'd subscribed to a channel that showed that stuff when he had the money, which he did no longer). Had he kept coming to see her?
Regal felt thick liquid start to drip from his hair again, like what silent film stars called pomade. He pressed a tiny napkin square to absorb it, of course to no avail. It was resistant to any cleansing agent. Then he stuck out his tongue to get the last drop in his finite cup.
Had Regal come straining for sustenance, because his mother had just died and food and feeding reminded him of her?
Food had always been an issue with his mother, who'd been called Brenda, a name he'd never used. An "issue"—right, Regal thought: her hunger was non-existent. She seemed never to place a piece of food in her mouth yet survived, looked svelte, even stylish—healthy, if nothing else. His father had spent his life saving her, serving her...something. In secret? What? Regal had never known until recently, when his father died and left him alone at thirty-five and living with her.
Once his father (Bernard, FYI) was gone, his mother's appearance and condition had changed. Quickly, she'd gone from hearty to halting, from a brisk step and booming voice to a weak gait and rasping whisper. She became in fact like someone starving to death.
With the same useless and now disintegrating square, Regal dabbed at what he'd imagined was sweat on his upper lip. It was really more of the viscous discharge which defied being dried.
"Don't you want to eat something?" he'd asked his mother one day, trying to speak above the sound of her wheezes.
"No," she could barely reply.
"How about a glass of juice?"
Brenda had shaken her head, which seemed to take forever and further exhaust her. Then she fell deeper into the bed on which they were sitting and lay flat, one foot waving shakily above the floor like a clapper in a broken bell, while she stared at the ceiling.
"If only..." she started to say.
"What?" He could hardly hear her.
"If only your father was alive."
"Well, he's not."
Regal wasn't emotionally intuitive yet sensed this answer was unsatisfactory. It made him as enervated as Brenda. He did not know how to help her and assumed it hopeless to even try.
Then his mother's bathrobe (which she'd been wearing nonstop since Bernard's death) shifted and opened. Had she undone the loosely secured sash so it would? Regal thought she might have, which was weird. His mother wore nothing underneath.
Apparently, she wanted him to see her, for she jerked one leg to further separate the sides of the robe.
"Mom," Regal said, discreetly, hoping she knew it meant: cover up.
Yet Brenda didn't stir. If it was possible, she lay even flatter, as if to invite inspection. Soon Regal was too curious and confused not to glance over and check her out. Then he could not stop from staring.
A vacuum, a pit, a chasm was visible in his mother, from her sternum to her gut. It was as dark as something too dark to be described. As dark as death? That was always said to be dark, wasn't it? Darker than that, Regal thought. There was no end to it, as there was no surcease to outer space, scientists suggested. Neither of these comparisons cut it, Regal thought: it was unique, sui generis, itself alone. Regal looked up, slowly, trepidatiously, at his mother's face.
"If only your father was alive," she repeated.
This time, she eyeballed him, as if to say, Got it? Then she darted a look at the vast, unquantifiable canyon that was in herself.
As if someone had whispered the answer in his ear, Regal understood. Whomever had whispered seemed to push him once, twice, three times until he did what his mother wanted, which was to fall, dip, do whatever it was called when a scuba diver tipped from a small boat and sank into an ocean.
Unlike an ocean, though—the interior and inhabitants of which were wet, visible at least with goggles and gently rocking or wildly whooshing, depending on the waves—the atmosphere inside was at most moist, utterly black and totally silent. Soon something was conspicuously, consistently, and painlessly sucking at him as, yes, as a school of fish—one concession to the other comparison—nibbled for nutrition.
His mother was feeding on him as she had fed upon his father all those years.
Regal woke up alone in the bed. For a second, he believed he had imagined the whole thing, had a dream that while not nasty was not so nice. When he became completely conscious, he heard the shower running behind the bathroom's closed door before, with a squeak of rusty knobs, it was switched off. Then his mother emerged, hair wet, robe closed, with a pep in her step.
"Everything okay?" she asked.
Without waiting for an answer, she strode out. Regal had responded with just a wan thumbs up before his hand fell to his side.
This was when he first felt thick liquid slide from his brow down the ramp of his nose and into his mouth. It had the texture and (he imagined) taste of hand sanitizer. He realized that, in small deposits, the stuff was all over him, the residue of the place inside his parent where he had served as supper.
This was what Regal tried to wipe away at The Endless Need. He looked at the woman in the cap and—shocking him, for the first time, for an instant—she looked back.
Several times a day, Regal had continued to serve as sustenance for his mother. For awhile, it made a difference: his elder was invigorated, returned to a semblance of the shape she'd been in before her spouse's death.
It didn't last. Soon it became clear to Regal that the daily sessions (which left him weak but otherwise unharmed), his being Brenda's three squares, was not succeeding, not in a sense sticking to her ribs. She began to slip back into the skeletal form she had assumed weeks earlier, no matter how often Regal allowed himself to be absorbed by her.
"If only your father was alive," she said once more, the second before she died.
After he buried her, Regal assumed that the substance that stained him would disappear. Yet it did not: it still stuck to and seeped out of him, no matter what he did.
Now he crumpled up what was left of the damp and useless napkin. Before leaving the coffee shop, he gave a final glance across its shabby interior at the woman upon whom he'd been spying. Then he knew why she always wore the cap.
Her own goo was oozing from beneath it.
She was better prepared, Regal thought, dabbing upon it a dainty handkerchief retained for this purpose. She had no more success than he, yet the expensive cloth didn't collapse.
Regal couldn't stop himself. He rose from his stool and moved across the discolored tiles to her side. The woman looked up, startled, at what she feared was an attacker. Instead she saw a presentable if pale, pudgy and balding man her own age stop and point imperatively at his dripping face. Then she smiled.
Her name was Maribeth, and her father had just died.
"And..." Regal was excited and so interrupted her, "you always wondered how he stayed alive, because..."
"He never ate."
The two were in the street. They'd had been asked to leave by the barista, for Regal had been too loud, even though the place was otherwise empty.
"And in your father, you found..." This was Regal again.
"A giant hole."
"And you fed it, until you discovered..."
"That I wasn't enough."
"Only the other parent..."
"Could satisfy the hunger."
"I can't get it off me."
Maribeth indulged Regal's overwrought approach, being less high-strung than he and equally glad to have met. After both stopped nodding, they simply stood on the strip, amid hordes of homeless people and the mentally ill. When the number grew too great, Maribeth suggested they head for her apartment, which was nearby.
There one thing led to another.
"I assume," Maribeth said, starting a third glass of wine, "people like us have always been around..."
"We just..." Regal's interruptions had become less frequent and ferocious, slowed by the alcohol.
With Regal not used to drinking and nearly sedated, Maribeth had to make the first move. She came close, and her shift caused a splash of parental insides to jump from her hair to his (she had nearly shaved her head to free her scalp and fit better beneath a cap).
Then they stopped, nose to nose.
"Why..." Maribeth began, as Regal nodded at her to continue, "didn't our parents look like this?"
She meant sticky, for they hadn't. Regal shrugged: it was exactly what he was wondering.
When they started kissing—Maribeth did and Regal followed— they had their answer. The stuff came off the other into their mouths, and it tasted good, or they had grown too excited to care how it tasted. Just as their parents had apparently done for decades, they licked and sucked and loved each other clean.
A month later, they were married. In the small, civil ceremony, they promised love until death, which was as close to endless as there was on Earth. Afterwards, they realized their lives together would be better than their parents'.
"I'm hungry," they said, and for actual food. They had spoken at the exact same time and blurted out...
"Bread," Regal said.
"And butter," Maribeth said.
has had short work published in The Alaska Quarterly, Conjunctions, The Literary Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Pank, Failbetter, Stickman Review
, among many others, and a collection, "'The Family Unit' and Other Fantasies," was published by Chizine. His novels, "The Cutting Room" and "The Shooting Script," were published by Ballantine Books. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels, "City of Spies" and "Brain Camp," co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan and their Young Adult fiction series, "Wasteland," was published by Harper Collins. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of "Bed and Sofa," the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theater in London. His one-act, "The Summer Sublet," is included Best American Short Plays 2000-2001, and his one-act, "The Show Must Go On," was the most produced short play in American high schools in 2015-2016.