This one’s another horror story. It wanted to become a novel so badly I had a difficult time restraining myself. It still does. Maybe some day.
Nobody called them cannibals though that’s exactly what they were. Only, you see, they didn’t see themselves as cannibals because they didn’t see us as humans like them. We were sub-humans, less evolved versions of them. Less evolved but delicious, or so they said.
I used to call them zombies when I was little, when we lived with all those other people in the mall. My dad laughed at that and my mom corrected me, telling me stories about zombies she’d read and seen in movies in the past.
Here’s the thing – I only talked about zombies when she was around to get her to tell me these stories. Clever me, right? There were no books in the mall. There were no books at all in our part of the city and I seriously doubt the eaters had libraries or bookshops, either. After all, reading was not their principal interest and they didn’t encourage it in us.
Life in the mall wasn’t so bad but then nothing was as bad as being held prisoner by the eaters. Prisoners on a very short death row. That’s what happened when we decided to leave the mall and look for another place to live, along with one other family. Okay, it was a bit crowded in the mall, a bit smelly and noisy but the important thing was the mall was about ten miles from downtown, where the eaters lived.
The closer you were to the center of the city, the nicer the houses were and a lot of people fell for it. The eaters took care to attract their prey with nice houses and infrastructure that we, on the outskirts, lacked. All there was around the mall were old, dilapidated apartment blocks where only rats lived. No one wanted to move there, so we stayed in the mall, surviving on daily deliveries, courtesy of the new city rulers, that gradually became weekly and then bi-weekly. The food got worse. The eaters weren’t interested in prey that stubbornly stayed out of its reach for two years, contract or no contract. So my parents decided to leave. And we got caught by the eaters.
My name is Melinda. It’s a stupid name, I know but I wasn’t there when they chose it. My mother is dead and my father doesn’t have much longer to live, either. Still, he outlived her by 15 years, which I think is not too bad in the circumstances. He’s 45. She died when they were both in their thirties and I was eight. These days nobody talks about the eaters. Nobody wants to remember them, which is why I’m writing this. I want you to remember.
We left the mall because my mother couldn’t stand the smell and the noise and the crowd any more. Me and my sister, Julianna (she had more luck with the name) didn’t mind the noise and the smell a bit. There were kids to play with and we weren’t starving. Also it was safe, because of the contract that the eaters had offered after they took over the city. They weren’t stupid these sick bastards. They knew if they ate all of us too fast—which they were capable of doing—they would then starve. No other city would bring in supplies for them. That’s not how this new world worked. Every city for itself was the eaters’ rule.
So, they designated an area beyond which we would be, theoretically, off limits. The area was a circle with a radius of two miles from the city center. To those who decided to stay within the two-mile area, they offered a life of luxury, as long as you never went outside for more than a few minutes because of the hunting parties.
Once a week, they also organized hunting parties beyond the central circle. We heard their cars and their shouts a few times. It was a big city, most of it outside the two-mile circle and the eaters were about a quarter of the population, I learned later when that period was researched, documented, and everyone was trying hard to pretend it never happened.
Contract or no contract, my sister and I never ever went out alone. We were too scared. No one believed the eaters we were safe because we lived beyond the circle. Not that we could go out even if we wanted because all the doors stayed locked most of the time. They, the adults, only unlocked one of these when a delivery came. A couple of months after we moved there, when kids began to get sick, they started to open them for a couple of hours every other day, so we could soak in some sun.
I used to think that the food deliveries came from a supermarket. Supermarkets were the places where the food came from, after all. There was one in the mall but it was empty now, of course. It was the first thing that got cleaned out when we first came to live in the mall, after the eaters issued their first statement that said, and I quote from memory, people living in suburban dwellings will be considered fair game starting from August 19 that year.
They released the statement a week before that date and we packed up and went to the mall the next day. They had said dwellings, you see, not malls and they never tried to force us out of there. Why bother when people were coming into their hands willingly?
Nobody was sure how the eaters became eaters. Some said a virus. There’s always a virus in these stories. Others said bacteria. Sure, if it’s not a virus, it must be bacteria. Conspiracy theorists said the hunger for human flesh was a result of a botched experiment for mind control. Personally, I never cared how the eaters had become eaters. What was the point? They were in control of the city. They’d made it their hunting grounds. Me, my sister, my parents and our friends were the game. That was enough for me.
So, we spent about a year in the mall, with another 500 people and food that was getting scarcer and worse, and then we—our parents—decided to leave. My dad wasn’t totally sure it was a good idea but my mom insisted.
“They don’t hunt everyone,” I remember her saying one afternoon when dad was almost convinced but still had misgivings and mom was addressing them.
“But can you be sure who they will hunt and who they’ll leave alone?” he said.
“If we stay low, don’t go out much and keep to ourselves, they’ll leave us alone,” mom said.
“Do you mean not go out much or not go out at all? You know the streets are hunting grounds,” dad said. I thought he sounded a little exasperated.
I could see he missed our old life. We all did, though Juli and I were already used to the new one – we were kids and kids get used to new things so much more easily than adults. The eaters promised us this old life if we moved closer downtown. Supermarkets, electricity, running water, everything, even jobs, on a work-from-home basis, of course. The eaters didn’t trust themselves in the presence of prey for anything other than eating that prey.
The price for all this was the constant risk of being picked off the street and taken in to be eaten. You wouldn’t believe how many people agreed to that deal. Or maybe you would if you’re among those who remember the time of the eaters. Life wasn’t easy outside the new city limits.
That’s exactly what happened to us despite my mother’s firm belief we would be left alone if we stayed low. We did stay low but there was no way we could live within the confines of the house without ever going out. You see, that was the catch. Stay in your house and you’re safe. They didn’t come into the houses. Go outside and you’re fair game.
Now tell me, who, except someone really sick and unable to move, can spend their whole time in a house? Sure, the eaters brought us food. Every Tuesday was delivery day. They left the bags on the porch and rang the bell but never stuck around to see us take the food in. It was too risky, apparently. The utilities were free. The eaters took care of their herds, I won’t deny that, but it was common sense, really.
Of course you’d take care of a herd to make sure it’s in good health, nice and juicy come slaughter time. Sure, we could make shopping lists for the eaters that brought the food. But we couldn’t spend all our time in the house.
One day, about a month after we moved into that nice four-bedroom house we saw on the notice board that the eaters had hung at the entrance of the mall, we ventured outside for a walk. It was supposed to be a short walk, up the quiet street and down back to the house. We just had to stretch our legs a bit.
Ten minutes later Julianna and I were lying face down on the back seat of a silver SUV that was speeding away from our street. The two men that had snatched us were laughing and congratulating themselves on the good catch. Our parents were in the other car. Of course the cars were waiting for someone, anyone to go out for a walk. Of course they didn’t snatch everyone. They picked their prey randomly. I used to think it’s a bit offensive to be picked at random to become a meal but I’m over it now. I mean, I survived without a scratch.
I don’t really want to talk about the snatching itself. You can imagine, I suppose. The two cars swooped in on us, men poured out, two snatched me and Juli, another two bore on our parents and all I could see before they shoved us in the back of the first car was one of the men grabbing my mother’s arm and pulling.
She was screaming to high heaven, my mother, who was so sure we’d be better off closer to the center of the city, closer to the eaters. She was right to scream – once the eaters got you, you didn’t come back. None of us had any illusions about that. But I did come back, you say. Yep, I did and so did my dad. We escaped.
That day, the cars took us to what used to be the mayor’s mansion. Now it was a distribution center, and the mayor and his family were eaten long ago. Eaters came to pick up the meat they liked and one of several big men with baseball bats made sure the meat was, well, nothing more than meat before the clients took it home. How do I know? We were herded in the living room on the first floor and the slaughtering took place in the kitchen. I heard a few killings, including my mother’s.
There were about twenty people there when we were brought in. People with wild eyes, huddled against the bare walls of the bare room, who flinched at every sound. Nobody, once caught, survived more than a week. The stress from the capture and the impending death eventually ruined the meat. I learned all this later, when I had the chance to interrogate a few eaters.
That day, the eaters who caught us took us to the front door of the mansion and passed us to a man and a woman with tasers on their belts and bats in their left hands. All I saw were a couple dozen people who tried to dig into the walls with their shoulder blades when they saw us. But that only lasted a second and they all relaxed when they saw we were new catch, not buyers.
We must have looked confused and betrayed. The newer arrivals always looked confused, I noticed later. It took me quite a while to understand why they were confused. After we escaped, I sometimes dreamed about them, these blank, cattle-like faces full of horror and totally lacking any sign of comprehension about what was happening to them.
They felt cheated, I’m sure. They thought that if they were careful they could keep on living like they used to in the old days, before the eaters. They thought the eaters wouldn’t get them. Well, they did.
The first client came a couple of hours after we arrived. Like most of the others, we’d huddled against a wall, in the middle of it because all corners were taken. The eaters who ran the place had cleared all the furniture in the spacious room, whose walls now looked overgrown with desperate people. Juli and I had hid our faces into our mother’s lap but I couldn’t help stealing a glance now and then. Our mom was pressing us tightly to her as if that would help. Dad was sitting with his back straight against the wall, looking around cautiously.
When a client came, the men with the bats showed them in and let them take their pick. I used to think that money must have changed hands but the eaters I spoke with much later, in much different circumstances, swore they never paid for their food. They were all buddies, taking care of each other. That was the message. The money they made from trade with other cities went into feeding the herd, making it comfortable and complacent.
That first client I saw was a middle-aged man, kind of slick, like a politician or a TV presenter. I remember him because that was the first time I saw a human look at other humans like they were cattle. I felt weird. For a second I did feel like cattle, dumb, stupid, and worthless but for its meat. I still shudder at the thought that some people felt like that for more than a second.
Some just succumbed to the new normal, accepted it, and I imagine they died with a sigh of relief. But not all of them. That slick man picked a woman, a young woman, who was sitting against the same wall as us, tightly holding a man her age. She screamed when the man pointed at her and her husband or boyfriend started pleading with them not to take her. She was pregnant, he said. The woman was crying, clutching him tightly.
I remember my mother pressing me even closer to her, trying to cover my ears and Juli’s, but we’d heard everything. My brain froze. My scalp went numb. I could still hear the pleading of the man and the sobs of the woman, from afar, and I could hear how they dragged her up and away. I heard a struggle and then a thump. A door slammed and the sobs almost died away. They stopped abruptly after another five seconds and a louder thump. The man screamed.
I wanted to bury myself into my mother. I wanted to go back into her belly, that’s what I remember from that first day. I could hear her crying, feel her chest heave, and feel my father’s arms around us. Juli was trembling and I took her hand. We could hardly breathe, pressed against our mother’s body but we didn’t want to look around.
Humans can adjust to anything. That’s something I’ve heard a lot, before and after the eaters’ time and I know it is a fact. When you first hear it, you think it sounds reasonable. Yes, we can adjust to pretty much anything. That’s how we survive. But it’s not pretty much anything. It is anything at all. Oh, sure, there are those who kill themselves or die because they can’t adjust but I didn’t’ say the rule is universal. I’m sure there are cockroaches that die young, too.
I spent four days at the distribution center and during that time I heard ten people die, including my mother. My sister they didn’t kill there. They took her somewhere else and I found out she was killed—and eaten, of course—a few years later. She was plump, you see, and she was six. The eaters picked the small, plump ones and took them to nurseries—yes, they really called these places nurseries—to turn them into prime cuts a year later. I was scrawny and, I guess, too old at eight.
They took Juli and another kid, a boy that looked about five, a day after we arrived at the mansion. My parents pleaded with them. So did the boy’s parents. I could only cry. I cried so hard my nose and throat hurt for hours after they took Juli. I clung to my mother and sobbed, while she tried to grab Juli’s feet, dangling in the air as one of the men with the bats picked her up in his arms. Juli was shrieking. My father tried to pull her away from the man but his partner was quick with the bat and knocked Dad out with a single blow. Then Juli was gone.
You’re probably wondering why we didn’t try to fight the guards. Baseball bats are not guns, right? The eaters didn’t like guns. But they had tasers and they used them on one guy who tried to fight them when they took his wife to the kitchen. Well, he got to join her. The rest of us weren’t so eager to become meals, so we stayed put.
The next day after they took Juli, a client came and pointed at my mother. A man again, though we’d seen some women over the last two days, too, all with that hungry gleam in their eyes I’d seen in the first client.
We were all still stunned from what had happened to Juli. I remember how numb my brain felt and how I welcomed this numbness. We were now huddled near the corner of the wall opposite the front door. The corner’s previous occupants were killed and there were five new arrivals, a couple, and a family of three with a teenage son.
I sat and stared at that door, imagining how I would run out and away, so fast that nobody would be able to catch me. But I knew better. I knew there were guards on the other side of the door. There were guards in the living room. There was a couple more in the kitchen, too, the butchers. The kitchen had swinging doors, so we caught a glimpse of what went in there from time to time. We also caught whiffs of a heavy smell, of raw meat and bones. I wished I could shut my nose off and never smell anything again but of course I couldn’t. So I got used to the smell. There was no escape from it.
In the afternoon of that day, which my mother had spent crying and me and my dad numb with the shock, a man came to select a meal. Yes, they did call us meals among themselves. We didn’t call ourselves anything. We almost didn’t talk. When this man came and we all shrank back to the walls. It must have been pretty impressive to see.
The man, white-haired but with a smooth face, didn’t even look at the rest of the people in the room. He stopped in front of us and his hungry eyes scanned my mother. She wasn’t in the best of shapes, sure, but the guards made us have showers every morning and provided clean clothes, so we were relatively presentable. They also served food, good food but did not force us to eat. Meat distress and all that. They were very careful with the meat.
“That one,” the man said and pointed to my mother. At first she didn’t react. None of us did. I saw the man speak, I heard his words, and I saw the guard next to him nod and make a gesture to my mom to get up. She clutched me to her so hard it hurt, sobbing, begging for her life, telling the client and the guard, a female one, that she had a child to take care of, so please, let her live.
Of course, they’d heard all this before and they didn’t bother hearing all of it. The client stepped back and the guard hit Mom on the head with her bat. My head was in her lap, so I heard the dull, wet thump too well. Her hands dropped from my body and her head fell forward, her chin almost hitting me on the head. The guard picked Mom up by an arm and dragged her into the kitchen. They were much stronger than us, after all. I guess it was the diet. The eating disorder as they’d called it at the beginning.
I remember kneeling on the floor, staring at the carpet and trying to make sense of the patterns. I heard some distant sobbing, dry sobbing, and it took me a few moments to realize it was coming from me. I stared at the carpet, my fingers buried in the thick fibers. And then my father hit me on the shoulder, hard.
“It’s all your fault! If you weren’t sick—” he yelled, bearing down on me. He hit me in the stomach before one of the guards stunned him with his taser. I threw up. We’d had porridge with apples and cinnamon for breakfast and I threw it all up.
“Are you sick?” the guard asked me. He wasn’t a very big man or a very frightening man in any other way but his eyes were dead, save for the hungry gleam. There was no emotion in these eyes, only that need to eat, and that was scary as hell. I shook my head, sobbing, but my stomach heaved again from the blow and I threw up again. Why had Dad hit me? Had he gone mad? I tried to think, to figure out what had happened but thinking was too hard.
“Come,” the guard said and motioned to me to get up. I did. Pain was tearing my belly apart but I did. “Upstairs,” the guard said. “Bathroom.” He nodded to the stairs. I stumbled that way, with him a step behind me. They were careful not to touch us until the time came for the kitchen.
We’d seen the guards suspect someone of being sick, the first day. It was a woman, a middle-aged woman who had a bad cough. They took her upstairs, too. When they came down, the two guards were arguing whose fault it was to grab a sick meal. The woman never came back downstairs.
Now I climbed up the same stairs with my mind swimming in a fog. I just wanted to curl up somewhere and die or at least fall asleep. Everything disappeared in sleep.
“Here,” said the guard when we reached the second-story corridor. I knew where the bathroom was. In fact there were two, one small, one big, with a bathtub. They were at the two ends of the corridor and the one with the tub was at the farther end. We kept walking, passing the small bathroom. I thought he’d slaughter me in the tub but I was too numb to try fighting or begging for my life. Also I didn’t think it’d work. It hadn’t so far.
The guard opened the bathroom door and motioned to me to go in. He locked the door after me. The sobs, those dry sobs that were tearing my throat apart came back with a vengeance and I fell to the floor. Nothing made sense. My mother was dead, killed, and my father had hit me, accusing me of being responsible for what had happened to us. Tears never came. I haven’t cried since my sister was taken away.
Not long after I went into the bathroom, I heard a key in the lock and the door opened. I had curled up in the space between the tub and the sink. Someone I couldn’t see because the corridor wasn’t very well lit shoved my father in and locked the door behind him.
“Mel!” my father said and rushed to me, arms outstretched. I shrank back and my legs hit the edge of the tub. “No, Mel, it’s okay.” He looked around. That was funny – of course we were alone. Later he told me what he had looked for: cameras.
“It’s okay, Mel,” he said again and took a slow step towards me. My dad was a big man, big and soft, that’s what we all thought. But he wasn’t soft now. His face was set, there were two deep lines on both sides of his mouth, and a light in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. A scary, feverish light.
I shrank back against the wall. My father’s hands dropped and he sighed.
“I’m sorry I hit you. That was the only way, Mel. I talked to a guy last night, while you and your… your Mom were sleeping. He said sick people had a chance. The eaters move them to another place, to make—” he swallowed hard and looked away for a second. “They make sausages and things like that from the sick people.”
I felt my stomach heave again. The bathroom was a good place to be sick in – you could wash everything away easily, I thought. I tried to understand what my father was saying. Did he mean it was better to have sausages made out of us than a fresh family meal?
“So you want us to be turned into sausages?” I said.
“No, Mel, no!” He shook his head, his eyes shining brighter. “We can escape on the way to that other place.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s what the guy told me. He listens to the guards when they talk to each other during the night. He can’t sleep, he told me. Not that any of us can. So one night he heard them talk about how the sick wagon—that’s how they call it, he said—broke down and how if the sick people weren’t sick they could have run away. Do you see?”
“But…” I strained myself to think. There was something about what he was saying that wasn’t right but I didn’t know what it was. I was eight and I was suffering a classic case of posttraumatic shock, that’s what my therapist told me years later.
“I think it’s worth a try, Mel. It’s better than sitting here, waiting for them to come for us. I don’t want to wait,” he said.
I found myself nodding, again and again.
“My brave girl,” he said and stretched his arms out. This time I went to him and let him hug me. I hugged him back, my head still in that fog. It’s strange how I remember his words but I also remember how completely incapable of thinking I was.
“And what happens if we can’t escape?” I asked after a while. My nose was squashed against his belly. He smelled like ironed clothes. That’s how my father always smelled. It always calmed mi down, this smell.
“We will,” he said. I didn’t push. And I didn’t care what plans he had. All I wanted was to sleep. Which I did, after a while, in my father’s arms on the bathroom floor.
“Is that guy coming?” I asked.
My Dad chuckled without any humor.
“He said he’s too scared. He’d rather take the bat, that’s what he said. But you and I, Mel, we’re not taking the bat.”
The next morning the key turning in the lock woke me up at dawn.
“Let’s go,” the guard said. He stood by the door, never venturing into the bathroom. He was careful about keeping his distance. My father had apparently convinced them we were sick. Or they were just generally careful since there were no doctors around. Doctors were the first to go when they were caught. They had a special flavor, a few of the eaters I interrogated later told me on his death bed.
The guard motioned for us to walk out of the bathroom, go down the back stairs—I didn’t know there were back stairs—and into a double garage. It was empty except for last night’s guard, who stood waiting with a hand on the handle of his bat, and a rainbow-colored rubber ball. A kid’s toy. It was sitting in the far corner by the door. I thought about the family that lived here before the place was turned into a distribution center. The mayor’s family. They had three kids. Had had three kids.
“Here, tie her hands,” the guard from last night said, throwing my father a roll of duct tape. “Then she’ll tie yours. Come on.”
They really didn’t want to touch us and that was good, I thought. I didn’t want them to touch me. My Dad took the tape and looked at me. I stretched my hands out.
“Put them closer to each other,” the guard said and took a step toward my dad. The other guard went around us and stood to our right. I put my hands together, wrists touching. My father wound the tape around them three times, looking up for approval at the first guard after each round. After the third one, the man nodded.
“Now you,” he told me.
My father gave me the tape and I pulled out a piece and started wrapping it around his wrists. It was hard with my hands tied but the guard didn’t say anything. He waited until I’d wrapped four rounds of tape around my father’s wrists and said “Enough.”
The other guard took a remote from one of the empty shelves and pressed a button. The right door began to rise, revealing an empty street beyond. The trees were shedding their leaves and the air was cold enough to make me shiver for a second in my hoodie. We stood in the garage, the guards flanking us, and looked at the world outside. After a few minutes I heard an engine and a vehicle pulled up. A pickup truck with a cattle trailer.
I looked up at my father in horror. He smiled and nodded once. I didn’t know what that meant. One of the guards walked to the trailer and rapped on it with his bat before he pulled the door open. The other prodded me with his bat in the back. I stumbled forward. My father grabbed me by the arm and turned to glare at the guard.
“Move,” the man said, his face completely devoid of expression. None of them showed any emotion, I remember. Their faces were blanks, empty canvases. My father said they were probably military or had been in their old life. I later figured out the thought of anyone becoming so emotionless without special training must have been too scary to contemplate. But it was the truth. All eaters lacked normal human emotion. The eaters I talked to years later came from all walks of life but not one of them was a soldier.
Another prod in the back made me lurch forward and I finally started walking. The first guard was standing by the open door of the trailer, waiting. I approached the trailer and the smell reached me. A kind of sterile, too-clean smell. The trailer was full of people. Wet people, sitting or lying on the floor. Some of them looked dead. The inside reeked of the sterile thing but it couldn’t disguise the smell of sickness and death.
The guard by the door motioned me to get in. It was too high for me to just step in and he didn’t dare touch me, so I had to sit on the edge and then swing my legs inside and get up, first on my knees, then on my feet. The guard was so worried about catching something off me that he took two steps back when I started getting in.
My father had no problem stepping inside, he was a tall man. The second guard appeared with a portable sprayer in his hands. He pointed the nozzle at us and pressed the handle a couple of times. Perhaps they thought there was no point in spraying us properly now that we were among so many other sick people. Perhaps they were negligent. I was grateful I stayed mostly dry. The sterile smell burned my nose.
The guards pulled the door down and the truck started moving. I looked around to find a spot to sit down. I was still feeling weak and just wanted to curl up somewhere and forget about everything for a while, especially the fact that we were being transported in a cattle trailer. I glanced at my father who was also looking around but purposefully. He looked like he was counting the people in the trailer, like he had some plan.
“Dad?” I whispered.
“It’s all going to be fine, Mel,” he said and smiled again. This smile was genuine. He did have something on his mind. “Come here, sit down.” He nodded to the right-hand corner behind the door. There was indeed a tine space left empty. The rest was occupied.
People were looking at us, some with interest, others with eyes that had already seen too much and nothing could interest them any more. There were a few people lying face down on the floor nearer the other end of the trailer. I realized where that heavy rotting smell was coming from. It wasn’t too bad, not after that stench from the mansion’s kitchen, but it wasn’t pleasant, either.
I sat in the corner, next to a teenage boy with his head hanging down. He lifted it up for a second to glance and me and then dropped it again. Across the trailer, opposite me, there was a woman, a very sick woman, her face gray, purple circles under her eyes. I wasn’t even sure she was alive because her eyes were closed and her head was lolling on the shoulder of the man next to her.
That one looked better. He was a bulky, strong-looking man with an impassive face, looking straight ahead. His eyes were unusually alert, I thought. The eaters had probably thrown him out because of the woman. I proceeded to study the next person sitting on the other side of the man. This one looked nervous and scared. He was a scrawny man – I couldn’t see why the eaters had picked him up at all. His eyes darted here and there, his head moving like it was mounted on a ball bearing. I was so deep into my observations that when my father spoke I almost jumped.
“Everyone listen to me. I don’t know how much time we have but some of us have a chance to get out of here alive.”
Nobody paid him any attention except the man who held the sick woman. He gave my father a long look and said “How?” I liked his voice. It was deep and warm, and sounded like the voice of a wise man. It still sounds like that, though Maurice is now in his seventies.
My father turned to him.
“Thank you for asking. I think we can overwhelm them if we all stand against the door when they open it. Surprise them. We can then wrestle their weapons out and use them on their owners.”
The man, whose eyes were pitch-black and whose features looked like they were carved out of granite, offered my father a hand. An unbound hand. My father kneeled and shook it, a bit awkwardly because of the tape.
“Maurice,” the man said.
“Jim,” my father said. “This is my daughter Mel.” He nodded to me.
“That’s my wife, Sonia. I don’t think she’ll make it,” Maurice said, glancing at the woman’s face. He gently took her by the shoulders and placed her head in his lap. She never moved. Then he took my father’s wrists, found the end of the tape that bound his hands and started unfolding it.
“Are you sure it will work?” Maurice asked.
“I don’t see any other way,” my father said, looking around. “There must be about, what, fifty of us? If we all pile up at the door, we’ll drop on them when they open it. We’ll surprise them.”
Maurice nodded. My father’s hands were free and he came to untie me.
“So, what do you think?” he said, speaking as much to Maurice as to anyone else who might be listening.
The boy sitting next to me raised his head and looked at my father. He’d propped his elbows on his knees, his hands hanging down lifelessly. His eyes were red and puffy like he’d cried for hours.
“I like it,” he said. There were no tears in his voice. Perhaps he was sick, that’s why his eyes were red. “I’m in. Better than waiting for those freaks to process me like a cow. What do you want me to do?”
“Great,” my father said, grabbed the boy’s right hand and shook it energetically. The boy winced and pulled his hand back but my dad paid no attention. “I’m Jim, and that’s Mel. I don’t want to wait to be processed like a cow, either.”
“Matt,” the boy said. He gave me a nod and I returned it. “We might want to use the dead ones, too.”
“What?” my father said.
“There are at least a dozen dead bodies here,” Matt said, pointing to a pile at the other end of the trailer. I’d thought it was a group of people huddled together but now I saw it was a pile of bodies. There were four more corpses lying on the floor, the ones I’d first noticed when we got in. There was not a lot of space, so those still alive had to sit next to the dead ones. I saw a few faces had now turned to us and people were listening.
“What do you want to do with them?” my father asked. He glanced at Maurice and the man nodded again – he was listening. His right hand stroked the hair of the woman. I thought she looked dead. She hadn’t moved at all since he’d laid her down in his lap.
“We can line them against the door, so they fall on the guards first. In case those are ready with their stun guns or bats, or whatever,” Matt explained.
“They may have actual guns,” Maurice said. “They are taking us to the slaughterhouse, I’d bet my life on it.” He chuckled darkly. “So they’d be prepared to deal with people who don’t want to become salami just yet.”
“How much time do you think we have?” Matt asked. “They picked me up about two hours ago and the trailer was half full already. I’d say we’re close to our destination.”
“What are we waiting for? Anyone else in?” My father looked around the trailer. A middle-age, wiry woman stood up, glancing at the pile of bodies. She kicked the woman sitting next to her in the hip.
“We’re all in,” she said. The other woman looked up muzzily. “I don’t even care if I make it. Come on, Sarah, wake up.”
The wiry one extended a hand to the one she called Sarah and she stood up slowly. People started murmuring and one by one, they began getting up. The wiry woman made a beeline for the pile of bodies.
“Come on, someone give me a hand,” she called. My father and Matt went to help her and so did a few others. They started dragging the bodies to the door. It took a while. Most of the people in the trailer were genuinely sick. I could see it now that they were moving. Some staggered, others walked extremely slowly, and one fell back on the floor the moment she stood up. My father stopped her from trying to get up again.
“She’s gone,” I heard Maurice say. I looked at the shape in his arms. His wife looked like a wax figure. Maurice stroked her hair, leaned in and kissed her forehead. He then gently lifted her head and shifted his body, so the head now lay on the floor. He got up, took the woman’s body under the arms, lifted it and propped it against the door, face first, on her knees, so she wouldn’t fall back. He murmured something in her ear. I always thought it was an apology. It made the most sense.
The others were dragging bodies and doing with them what Maurice just did with the remains of his wife. Though everything looked like it took a long time to do, there was soon a line of bodies against the door. And then another one.
I tried to help but my father told me to stay where I was. I couldn’t drag a body, so I’d only be in their way. I stayed down and watched as the wall of bodies thickened. A lot of people had died in this trailer over just a few hours. There could be an epidemic and we were right in the middle of it. The thought made me giggle but I stopped when I felt the pickup slow down.
“Come on,” my father said and motioned for those in the front of the trailer to come to the door. People piled up behind the body wall. My father pulled me up to my feet.
“You stand behind me, Mel, do you hear? Don’t try to go anywhere else.”
I nodded and hid behind his back. I felt it tense. The truck drew to a stop and the cabin doors opened and slammed shut two seconds later. Steps came to the door of the trailer. I heard two sets of step echo on something hard, like cement, and then more steps joined the duo.
I lost count of how many people there were outside. I closed my eyes and prayed we could escape or at least die quickly in the attempt. I didn’t want to go into the slaughterhouse. My father hugged me awkwardly with one arm for a second. Then he let go of me and faced the wall of bodies. I felt the tension radiate from his body. My legs were trembling and I tried to will them into submission. Someone pulled the door of the trailer up and a surprised “Hey!” followed. The wall of bodies fell forward. I heard shots and heavy thumps. I closed my eyes.
“Go!” my father shouted and I felt his shape disappear. My eyes flew open as I tried to grab the air where he had just stood.
There were four eaters outside, three men and a woman. One of the men was struggling to get up from under three or four corpses but he never made it because Maurice shot him in the face with his own gun. It was a big gun and it obliterated his face. My father and the wiry woman were wrestling with another eater. The woman had grabbed his right hand, which held a taser, and my dad had grabbed the other and was hitting him in the face. A young woman joined them with a yell and kicked the eater in the crotch. He doubled over with a whimper. My father took the taser from his hand and gave him a shot in the neck. The man fell to the ground and stayed there.
Everyone in the trailer was sick and weak but some were not weak enough. I saw five people who all looked on the verge of death take the female down and trample her. Maurice shot the guard that my dad and the young woman had tackled to the ground. The third man had run inside the building in front of which we were parked. I realized I was the last one left in the trailer. I jumped out.
It was cement that I’d heard echoing the steps of the now dead guards. A ten-feet wide cement strip in front—or maybe in the back—of a grey, cubic building about two stories high, with one single row of high, narrow windows. There was a mass of dead and dying bodies on the strip behind the cattle trailer now. I saw some bodies twitch and then go still, and others try to get up and fail.
The wiry woman tried to help her friend, Sarah, but she cried in pain and told her to leave her and just go. The wiry woman let go of her hand with a sob. Few of those who could still walk, about a dozen, wide-eyed, whimpering and sobbing, tried to look for their friends or family members in the pile. Most stumbled through the mess of bodies in the direction of the road, as fast as they could move. They helped each other walk, I remember this.
“Mel! Come on, let’s go!” my father called and I snapped out of my trance. He was walking through the bodies to me. I glanced in the direction where the last guard had disappeared. I saw faces peeking from the inside. Worried faces, not the faces of eater guards. I waved. I still don’t know why I did that but I remember it clearly. I waved to them. My father reached me, grabbed my hand and I started running. We went around the mess and soon reached the black road that had brought us here.
There were five of us running down the road, to the fringe of trees separating it from unkempt fields on the other side. Maurice and the wiry woman were running in the front, and my father, I, and Matt were behind them. We passed a few people lying on the ground on the way to the trees. They had been too sick to run.
We weren’t very fast, either. I didn’t know if I was sick or just hungry and tired but I was more hopping like a lame animal than running. But we made it. We made it to the trees, then through the field to the forest. It wasn’t much of a forest but it was good enough to hide us for a while in case someone came after us. That’s what Maurice said when we reached the trees and we all agreed. Nobody came after us. That’s because the personnel of the slaughterhouse was made up of humans, humans with severe enough chronic condition to make them unfit for either fresh or processed consumption. That, of course, I found out later.
“We can’t stay here very long,” the wiry woman, Martha, said after we settled on the ground a few minutes into the forest. Her eyes were darting every which way, her face looked strained. “They’ll come after us.”
“I don’t think so,” Maurice said. “They would have already if they planned to.”
“This makes sense,” my father said. He was also looking around – looking for food. I was sitting with my legs crossed and my back against the trunk of a tree and I was breathing the fresh forest air. I remember how amazing it felt and how I was wondering when the last time was when I’d breathed such good air. Why had it been so long? I didn’t know. I didn’t know what we were doing in the forest and how we’d gotten here, either. I didn’t really care. I was fine just breathing the air.
I opened my eyes and looked at my father.
“Are you okay, honey?” he asked. He looked strangely worried.
“Sure,” I said and closed my eyes again. At some point I fell asleep. I woke up a week later in a hospital. At least it looked like a hospital and it was meant to be a hospital but it was really a barn in a farm. I had an IV in my arm and I couldn’t get up because I felt too weak.
Posttraumatic stress and exhaustion, the doctor had told me. She was young and plump, and had the prettiest green eyes I’d ever seen. I couldn’t help wondering how the eaters had missed her. I also couldn’t help asking. Doctor Mason laughed and said friends her kept her safe.
Martha had brought us here, the woman from the trailer. She had also pretended to be sick to get a shot a escaping from another distribution center downtown. Her plan had been riskier, though – attack one of the guards and use his gun on the rest. She’d never have survived that, my father told me with a smile when he came to see me. But she found the farm while she’d been looking for food.
The barn was a secret. The farm had belonged to a couple of eaters who’d died from an illness a year earlier, Dad told me, and a group of refugees from the city had moved in with the hope that nobody will get them there. The property was quarantined indefinitely. The eaters were really scared of diseases. And they were right to be scared. They all died from the flu. A new strain of human flu that wiped them all out – a strain I’m almost certain made its first appearance the day my father and I escaped.
They should have cooked their food, my father said years later, when they were dying in droves all over the country and the human survivors reclaimed the land.