It’s Different Now

by C. Billingsley Adams

Artwork, “Void Dreams” by Penney Vasquez

Like acorns falling from a gifting oak upon the roof of a rusted tin hovel, the tap, tap, tapping of anxious fear was growing. An atmosphere of nervousness was building in all of us but we didn’t know why. We didn’t know why as we all sat around the makeshift fire pit at Paul’s house in the back yard that we had all visited many times. We had roasted many shish kebabs and marshmallows over this pit. We had grilled various cuts of fresh meat on the recycled grid from a used up grill, served with unshucked cobs of garden corn which had roasted to tenderness below in the embers of coal. Right here. Even had a sunrise breakfast once, with sausage and eggs frying in an over-sized cast iron skillet, foiled wrapped tomatoes on the side, served with bread of random sliced deli loaves of wheat and rye.

Those were great times of friendships shared, relationships flourishing. But it’s different now and no one really seems to know why.

“It’s time to end all this,” Paul finally spoke again “It doesn’t feel right anymore. It’s not working anymore.”

His marriage to Lisa had recently broken up and the rest of us assumed that he was just overly distraught about this recent demise of their relationship and it was affecting his bond with our group. He seemed to want to distant himself from all of us. He seemed afraid. But, there was more to it than that. We all were feeling it. Besides, Lisa didn’t desert us. Not any of us. Though she had left Paul, as his wife, citing his bouts of moodiness and anger as the reason, she was forever connected to us all and was always here, helping to prepare the meals that we were to share.

We had all come together in college. The nine of us. Paul and Winston were both anthropology majors, Lisa, Sasha, and I were studying for psychology degrees, and the rest of us, Zoe, Dave, Sean, and Mark, were all somehow involved in the social sciences in their class schedules, creating the opportunities for us to come together in a small clique, as students are inclined to do. We would often gather at one of the off-campus coffee hang-outs discussing the deep, and sometimes dark, meaning of life, attend the occasional weekend concert festivities featuring local screamer and death metal bands, but mostly we would gather at the visually reclusive rental house that Paul and Winston shared at the time. A two bedroom cottage that sat behind a row of high hedges and was hidden from the view of casual passers-by.

I had taken up the name of Micki in those days, short for Michelle which I had come to feel was a little too soft, a little too ‘girly’ for me, at the time. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed being a girl. Just didn’t like being addressed that way because I came to believe that my male professors and counterparts were not taking me as seriously as they should. And I was serious. I wanted to learn all I could about the human psyche, and build a future career on treating the people who did not conform to society’s perceptions of normalcy. I wanted not to change people but to help them to learn to ‘get along’ and live fruitful and prosperous lives.

Lisa was my roommate at our dormitory. A beautiful girl, she didn’t seem to be overly attracted to Paul at first. But I guess he grew on her and the two were married right after graduation and she moved into the hedge-hidden cottage with him, both taking jobs as teaching assistants while going on with their education studies to receive master degrees.

Though there was a very strong draw between the rest of us, we all went our separate ways, moving on to forge our paths in the businesses of studying and treating all aspects of the human mind. I became a working psychologist, joining an established practice near my hometown. Winston and Sasha both went on to medical school with the goal of becoming psychiatrists. Dave became a social studies teacher at a public high school which he found to be very intellectually confining, having to conform to a set curriculum which was very restrictive for his free-thinking mind. Zoe became a human resources manager for a large corporation. Mark joined his family’s retail business using his skills to become a top-notch salesman, and Sean became a worker in an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant, which he claimed was the greatest way to study human behavior. What and how humans choose to eat has long been the epicenter of our group’s most challenging discussions and the root of the adhesiveness that held our clique together, forever.

And this is how it all started, really. Our in-depth discussion of the feeding habits of people, from the earliest days that scientific studies have uncovered to the modern day feasting on popular international fare to the American hamburger. Paul had been the original instigator of such discussions as he was writing a paper on the cuisine of early cannibal cultures, attempting to analyze the curious question of whether they were actually forced to dine on their fellow beings by necessity or was it purely to satisfy some spiritual reasoning, as most of the world’s anthropologists seemed to think. And it was only through pure coincidence that one idea that we had discussed came to fruition in the beginning of our senior year.

As we were all sitting around the fire pit at the cottage one Saturday evening, drinking shots of tequila chased by long-necked bottles of beer from a local brewery, a very drunk and very lost freshman came stumbling into our turf. His stumbling about and slurred attempts at speech were hilarious to us, at first, until we realized that he was seriously alcohol overdosed, a rather common condition for newly matriculated students who are not yet accustomed to the freedom of being away from parental oversight and the easy availability of intoxicating products.

Should we call an ambulance for him? we wondered. Or just let him lie down and sleep it off? The answer seemed clear when he did lie down, on a grassy patch of the unkempt yard, and passed out. Then passed away.

It all happened so quickly. We were stunned and no one even spoke for awhile. We just sat and looked at the lifeless body of the young man.

Then Paul suddenly jumped into action, dragged the corpse inside, and began to dismember it in the old-fashioned claw-footed tub in the cottage’s bathroom. Having grown up in a hunting family, he was pretty adept at dressing large, dead animals such as deer, so it just all seemed to come easily and naturally to him. He made numerous trips out to a small freezer that ran, tirelessly, in its place on the enclosed back porch. A freezer that had belonged to his parents but was sent to its new home at Paul’s house when his mother bought a new one. Each time that she and Paul’s father would come to visit, she would insist that they shopped at a local food market and bought enough food to fill it so that her son would not ever be without proper nourishment. Now it was being filled with small packages, wrapped in the remains of a roll of craft paper previously used for another school project.

Winston had wandered inside to watch but the rest of us remained in our seats around the fire. Unable to move. Afraid to speak, to object to this monstrous deed that we were witnessing. And it wasn’t until Paul brought out a menagerie of body parts, including the head, and threw them into the fire, that the rest of us began to cry, to yell, to scream in terror.

“Don’t you all see?” Paul said. “This is fate. This is knowledge, an opportunity, a chance to devour the flesh of a human being.”

“But, its not right, Paul,” we all cried. “It’s inhumane! It’s, it’s barbaric!”

“Why?” he replied. “How do any of you know that! How do any of us know anything unless we experience it?”

“We didn’t kill him! He killed himself!” Paul continued. “He brought himself right into this yard, delivered himself up for the feast. Donated his body to science!”

Slowly, we all came to see Paul’s take on the matter and to understand his point of view. And, we knew that when he brought out that last package, the one that he did not place in the cold confines of the freezer, that we would all partake of this impromptu meal. We would all become enlightened, as our distant ancestors did, about the spiritual essence of eating the flesh of another.

The first services, as we called our repasts, were awkward. There were no documented correct manners of cooking such a delicatessen and we often relied on over-abundant applications of tenderizer and seasonings. But we were soon all becoming gourmet enthusiasts of the meat and began to develop our unique recipes to be served with creative sides.

Bodies were fairly easy to come about, we found, if you were really vigilant and quick to harvest them before decomposition set in. There was the middle-aged lady jogger who was a victim of a hit and run driver and left for dead on the side of the road. Dave and Mark happened along right after, on this quiet rural passageway, and sat with her until she had taken her final breathe, then quickly removed her to the cottage where she could be dissected by Paul.

And another college student who had been overheard in one of the campus cafeterias by Lisa and myself, talking to a companion of his desire to end it all. The pressure of maintaining a scholarship grade point average and the disappointment that his parents were showing in his educational performance was just too much, he was saying. We sent alerts to the others and soon, all nine of us were on a twenty-four hour watch, which paid off in a short time.

There were others available. The homeless, the drug addicts. But we did have our standards and harvested only the best. We did not want diseased or otherwise poisoned meats.

In later years, we came to rely mainly on the internet as there are chat rooms where people, who are interested in eating or being eaten, go to hook up. We would, as individual chatters, check out the offerings until we could all agree upon the acceptance of one person who wished to leave this world in this manner. Arrangements would be made for the person to be brought to the cottage and allowed to open his or her veins in the tub, surrounded by candlelit ambiance, with soothing music, wine, and emotional support. And this is what sustained us in our after college years, for our bi-monthly get-togethers.

“Sasha should be next,” Paul said to Lisa and myself one Saturday evening when he came into the kitchen as we were making a greens salad tossed with apple and onion slices to be served with our own version of a ranch dressing enhanced with finely diced pieces of walnuts.

“What?” we both replied in unison.

“Yes,” he answered. “She is getting too intimate with her new boyfriend and is even talking about getting married. And we all know about intimacy, don’t we Lisa? How easy it is to come to confide in someone about your most private thoughts and beliefs.”

“I’ve told you Paul that the affair meant nothing. There was no intimacy there. Just sex!” Lisa stated. “A little variety!”

“Maybe, he’ll join us. Sasha’s husband. After they get married,” I said in an attempt to get the conversation back on track.

“No, I’ve already asked her about that,” Paul replied, “and she said that he would never understand this. So, she never plans to tell him, but she will. Or, she’ll just start pulling away from us.”

“We all made a pact, remember, when we started the services,” he continued. “There’s only one way to leave this group. And that’s to offer yourself up to be sacrificed.”

“But, what if she doesn’t?” I asked.

“Then, we just take her.”

“We don’t kill, Paul,” I said. “We’ve never killed!”

“Oh, don’t act so naive, Micki,” he replied. “Maybe we haven’t killed directly, but we have certainly killed. Don’t tell me that you don’t remember that young couple that we found on the hiking trail up in the mountains. Didn’t we tell that dude to push his girlfriend over that cliff if he wanted to live? And, after he did, didn’t we tell him that his only chance of living was to jump over after her and maybe get lucky and survive his injuries. And, he might have made it if we had taken him for medical treatment after we found him down in the valley, still breathing. But we didn’t. We brought him, and his dead girlfriend right back here and let him watch us dissect her. Let realism of what he had done set in until his heart just finally stopped from the fear and the trauma.”

“But, it’s still not the same,” I said. “We didn’t kill directly.”

“We’ve killed!” he forcefully replied. “And we will again!”

“You’ve got to talk to him, Lisa,” I pleaded after he had returned to the company of the others in the backyard. “Make him see that we can’t just kill each other off.”

“I can’t.” she replied. “I’ve already tried.”

As we all gathered around the fire, inhaling the aroma of the roasting meat, the unaccustomed uneasiness in the air began to drift away with the consumption of delightful rum-spiked fall ciders concocted by Zoe, our usual drink-meister.

Paul soon announced that the meal was ready to be served and he and Winston went off to the kitchen to gather up the other dishes and bring them to the table.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Mark and Sean?” Dave asked.

“They’re here,” Lisa said. “I was here earlier when they arrived.”

“Mark and Sean are here?” I questioned. “I thought they were just running late.”

“No, they’re here. Mark’s on the grill. And he gave himself up for it because he didn’t think he could keep doing this. Flew all the way to Mexico, then returned under a fake passport and name. Wanted his family to think that he had just run away from everything. From his job, which he really did hate. From all the relationships that he’s been in that never worked out for very long. They’ll spend years searching for him down there, but he thought that would be better than them knowing the truth.”

“And Sean?”

“They cut themselves, and went together. They were on-and-off lovers you know.”

“I had suspected such,” I confessed.

“Things are different now,” she added. “We’re all changing. Growing apart.”

No one seemed particularly surprised when Sasha arose from the table during dinner, clutching her throat and gasping for air. No one except for Sasha and myself. Zoe even laughed at the comical spectacle made as Sasha first looked at us all with a panicked plea in her eyes, than fell writhing on the ground below. Unable to breathe. Dying.

“What killed her?” I asked when it was over. “Who killed her?”

“You did,” Paul replied. “You and Lisa. She was highly allergic to walnuts.”

“But I didn’t know that! Did you, Lisa? Did you know that?”

“Yeah. I did,” Lisa replied. “All of us did except you. We thought you might be a little hesitate to do it, if you knew.”

“And you might have been right!” I exclaimed. “Have you guys thought this out thoroughly? Have you? Like what’s gonna happen when there’s only one of us left? Who’s going to kill that last person? And who is that last person going to be?”

“It has to be Paul.” the others all agreed. “He’s our meat cutter and dresser. No one else can do what he does.”

“Then what? Who’s gonna kill him?”

“I’m going to kill myself. I am going to burn myself alive. Right there in the pit. I’m going to build a very large fire, with hickory and oak. Very hot! Then I’m gonna step right in and let it take me. A sacrificial burning. Burnt alive!” An excitement filled his eyes. A look of anticipation. Hurried anticipation.

It was then that I knew that before this weekend was over, we would all, except Paul, be dead if things went as he wanted. We would all be paper wrapped bundles in the back porch freezer. Except, perhaps, for Lisa who may stay to help eat our bodies before giving of herself for Paul’s last meals.

And I knew that I was to be next as I was the only one to question the madness of it all. The only one to express a desire for us all to live, to continue on as we had been doing.

“I don’t want to die,” I said as I discretely reached inside the purse by my side for my instrument of survival, “but if you all are going to kill me, then so be it. Come and do it now. Get it over with.”

And they did. Hesitantly and nervously at first, they all stood and came for me. With the building excitement of performing this act together, they came to strangle me. They came to cut my air supply and have me gasping in their hands as Sasha did on the ground. There would be a crazy eeriness in their eyes, like a zombie blindness, as they watched me. Zoe would probably laugh. Winston and Dave would touch my breasts for the sexual arousals that were stirring within them as my chest expanded with the effort to inhale, then collapsed with the fail. Paul and Lisa would be licking their lips over their long curiosity of wondering how I was going to taste, a discussion which the two of them had most likely often had about all of us as they lay in their marriage bed.

Like the sounds of acorns from that gifting oak tap, tap, tapping on a rusted tin roof. Six bullets. Six shots. All dead. The clique was no more. The ritualistic repasts were over. Services completed.

I stayed around all weekend to burn the bodies, except those of Lisa and Paul, and all the packages remaining of Mark and Sean in the freezer. The flesh. The organs. The packages wrapped in craft paper and hidden beneath the frozen pizzas and waffles that Paul’s mother still purchased and placed there whenever she visited as she had no faith that Lisa would be taking care of her son’s culinary needs. Then I removed all ashes, all fragments of skeletal remains from the pit, burying them beneath the weed restraining mulch of the garden beyond.

The marriage difficulties of the resident couple were well known about the campus, where they both still worked, and the murder-suicide staging that I created should be convincing. All their co-workers, their students, had been privy to the fast traveling gossip of Lisa’s short-lived affair with Professor Martin, Department of Social Sciences. And of Paul’s initial violent reaction to learning of it, slapping Lisa good and hard right there in the student center where they often met to share a lunch together at one of the many fast food outlets there.

And, I, after all, was never at the cottage, this weekend. I was ill and never left my apartment, which was two hundred miles away, as I had ridden a bus to the university, leaving my car parked in my very visible parking space at my condo complex. And the un-registered handgun had traveled with me, easy access to it provided as my intuitive nature, considering the growing anxiety within the group that was demonstrated at recent get-togethers, had told me that I may have need for it. And I did.

As it was all different now.

I had been informed by other mutual acquaintances about the deaths of my dear friends, Paul and Lisa. I attended the memorial service, held jointly for them both within the campus chapel, and made a demure showing of expressing all the appropriate remarks and emotions. The sorrow. The disbelief. The shock that such a horrific act could be committed.

Afterwards, I went to the office of a local real estate agent and expressed my desire to purchase the cottage property so recently vacated by my dearly departed friends. After placing my generous bid, an offer that really could not be refused as it was nearly double what the appraisal of value would show the property to be worth, I returned to my home and job and spent the next few days making arrangements for my relocation.

I then poured myself a great cup of coffee one evening, feeling relaxed and free, and settled in for a chat with newly found friends in my favorite internet chat room, a discussion forum for persons with cannibalism interests. Persons with interests of eating and of being eaten. For some there, their interest is ritualistic. But, for me, my interest lies simply in the restocking of the back porch freezer.

It is different now. Yet, it is the same.

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