Linda hissed at him, pulling the collar of her purple bathrobe over her mouth, chewing it with filed teeth. She shook, her halo of kinky white-blond hair quaking around her head like a living cloud.
“Alex,” Paige murmured. “Please shut up.” She slipped her thumbs under her steel collar, trying to give herself relief from the chafing. Maybe if she made Linda happy, Paige might ask for something more comfortable, maybe a cable lead instead of the heavy chain fastened to the eye-bolt in the floor. Maybe, she might ask for something to wear, now that it was fall and the room remained always cold. She had to be careful, she thought. The carpet showed heavy wear marks from the chain, and it looked like that before Linda ever locked the collar on Paige.
“No! No, I won’t shut up!” Alex yelled. Paige wished he would stop. Like her, he was naked. He looked ridiculous, screaming inside his cage like that, rolls of fat gathered about his waist, his body covered with scabs and cuts. He knelt because there wasn’t enough room to stand in the cage, which was about a yard high. “What the fuck? Hansel and Gretel? You are crazy, Linda! You’ve lost your fucking mind! It’s a fairy tale and you think it’s real. What, you’re really planning on eating me? They will execute your crazy ass, you psychotic bitch! And I have HIV! You’ll be infected!”
“Not big enough, yet,” Linda said, growling. “Not grown enough. You need to eat. Less crying. More eating.” She nudged the tray closer to his cage so Alex could reach. A row of jumbo pretzel dogs, interspersed with sausage links, sat next to layers of smoked bacon, next to a giant pecan cinnamon bun, next to a extra large peanut butter and chocolate shake from the nearest ice cream chain store. Paige knew it was peanut butter and chocolate because she could smell it, even across the room. She could smell everything. She could have identified each item blindfolded. She knew when Linda cooked a different brand of bacon. When Linda brought home fast-food burgers and fries, Paige could identify the store by scent even before the woman opened the door. Paige’s stomach growled, rumbling, whining.
“Ten steps away. You know the rules,” Linda said to her.
Paige took a step backwards. She knew exactly how far ten paces was from the food. She reached back and ran her fingers along the scabbed welts on her buttocks and back. She knew the rules. She saw a mist before her eyes. The bacon glistened, the smell pouring into her nose. She could imagined droplets of moisture wafting through the air from the meat, and tried to suck them into her mouth.
Alex reached out through the bars, gripped the tray and flipped it, scattering pretzel dogs, bacon, and sausages into a pool of spilled shake. The pecan cinnamon roll rolled once and fell face-down on the dirty carpet.
“Corner!” Linda shrieked at Paige. And Paige backed off, slowly, until she felt the walls behind herself. Her mouth filled with saliva. Linda screeched and grabbed a cut-off broomstick covered with little nails driven into it except for a portion that served as a handle. The heads of the nails were cut off, the shafts sharpened to needle points. A knitting needle stuck out straight from the tip.
“Now you get the pokey stick!” Linda shrieked. Alex squealed as Linda thrust her pokey stick between the bars. He looked like a pig, Paige thought, watching Alex scurry back and forth as Linda jammed the stick into him. If he tried to grab it, he would only tear up his hands. Paige remembered the day he tried that. The fatter Alex got, the more violent became the pokey stick sessions. On this day, Linda jabbed hard and fast. Alex used his forearms and shins to take the brunt of the attack as Linda jabbed towards his face sometimes, or at his exposed genitals. Alex narrowly avoided getting the knitting-needle tip in his groin, but only because the nails buried into his arm, and the tip sunk itself in his inner thigh. Alex shrieked and banged his head against the cage, making the heavy iron rattle as Linda gouged back and forth, tearing into his thigh. Blood ran down to the carpet, and would have reddened it, had the carpet been clean. Instead, the blood only served to fill in the gaps between the brown bloodstains long dried and caked into the weave.
Alex continued to shriek even after Linda pulled the stick out.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Paige shouted at him. Anger filled her chest, anger at Alex’s screams and thrashings. He had brought this on himself, she thought, but now she had to watch it, had to listen to it.
Linda looked away, seemingly disinterested. She crouched down and began scooping the food back onto the tray, muttering to herself.
“He must eat. Tonight he’ll eat. Build something for his neck. Feeding tube. Buy a feeding tube,” she mumbled, barely audible between Alex’s weeping. “Force-feed. He must eat. Not grown enough.” When she had set every scrap of food on the tray, she glared at Paige before carrying the tray to the padlocked refrigerator. She took a key from the keyring hanging on a thin chain around her neck and unlocked the padlock, quickly shoving the tray into the refrigerator as she watched Paige suspiciously. Linda leered at Paige as she clipped the padlock shut again, laughing with a scraping sound in her throat. She dragged a wooden chair across the carpet and set it in front of Paige, who still stood in the corner. Paige felt her mind go blank as Linda untied the belt of her robe and sat on the edge of the chair.
Minutes later, Linda stood and tied her robe.
“My chair. Don’t you dare sit in it,” Linda growled. She walked out and down the hall.
Paige darted across the room as soon as she heard a door shut, staggering with dizziness before she threw herself down before the spilled peanut butter and chocolate shake. It was still wet and she pressed her tongue against the soiled carpet, sucking the flavor of the shake into her mouth. She pinched the carpet so it folded a little, taking it into her mouth and sucking at the shake-soaked material. Here and there, she tasted traces of bacon and sausage and cinnamon roll. The taste intoxicated her as she lapped and scoured the weave with her tongue, until no trace remained.
“Fucking disgusting,” Alex said.
“What?” Paige asked, the few calories she consumed making her head buzz pleasantly, though the growling of her stomach perhaps increased.
“That’s disgusting. The carpet’s filthy,” he said.
“What? You wouldn’t do that?” Paige asked.
“You get to choose,” Paige said, putting her face closer to the cage. “You get to choose, don’t you? You get to choose what you eat and what you don’t eat. I ate paint chips this morning, because I couldn’t help it. I’m eating shit that isn’t food, Alex, because I can’t help it. I ate paint chips while you ate waffles and butter and syrup and scrapple and orange juice this morning. Alex. Don’t you dare tell me what’s disgusting, while you sit there and stuff your face, you motherfucker.”
“Fuck you!” Alex whined. “I get to choose? This is choosing?” he asked, pointing to the wound in his leg. “I don’t eat, that crazy fucking bitch does this to me. That’s my choice? Fuck you, Paige. Why don’t you help us? You’re not in a cage. You could help get us out of here.”
“How?” Paige asked.
“I don’t know. Yeah, I do know,” Alex said, pushing his face up to the bars. “That chain hooked to your neck?” he whispered. “Choke her. Wrap it around her thick neck and choke the shit out of that monster. Choke her until she turns blue.”
It sounded impossible, what Alex was saying. Overpowering Linda seemed as unlikely as defying gravity. If she tried and failed, there was the pokey stick, or worse, to think about.
“She’s a witch,” Paige whispered. “She can do things to us.”
“Do things to us?” Alex asked, his eyes bulging. “Like worse than now? Like planning to eat us? Like starving you? Like making you do what you just did? Paige, she’s not a real witch. There’s no such shit. She didn’t capture us with magic spells. She drugged us. She’s just a psychotic fucking insane person who probably already ate other people. We’re dying here, Paige. Fucking done for if we stay. If we don’t get out, we’re dead. Look at you. You’re skin and bones. Don’t you want to eat again? No one’s coming to rescue us. Ever. No one knows we’re here. Or will ever know when we’re dead. We get out, and the first thing the police will do is get you something to eat.”
Paige’s stomach wailed in response. She didn’t understand how they could escape or how she could resist Linda. Paige tried to imagine doing anything besides eating food and failed.
“Choke her, Paige. Or, make me a weapon. Make me a knife from floorboards, from under the edge of the carpet, from a piece of wood. Or a piece of the chair. We have to try, Paige.”
Paige backed away and Alex crushed a squeal of anguish inside his throat. She went back to her corner, curled into a fetal position, and closed her eyes, thinking about the peanut butter and chocolate shake, thinking how she would have gladly drank that shake even if meant someone would kill and eat her that night.
Paige woke to the smell of a cheesesteak with onions. The smell in her brain almost overpowered the incoherent screaming match between Linda and Alex. She opened her eyes, trying to focus on the scene in the misty room. She saw Linda and her frizzy hair and purple bathrobe, hopping around next to the cage. In one hand, she held the pokey stick, jabbing at Alex. In the other, she clenched the cheesesteak, still in its white paper wrapper.
“Eat! Eat! Eat! Take it!” Linda yelled at him. She seemed to be holding the sandwich up to the cage for him to take it, while at the same time jabbing him with the pokey stick. Inside the cage, Alex screamed at an almost mechanical pace. Maybe Linda wouldn’t notice if she took the cheesesteak, Paige thought. Paige felt her own body rise up, as though out of her control. But Linda will notice, a voice said, inside Paige’s head. Use the chair to pin her in place, then eat the sandwich. Paige picked up the chair. Linda looked lost in her torment of Alex, spit flying from the woman’s lips. It all seemed nonsensical. How could anyone care about anything but eating that cheesesteak right then, she wondered? She felt herself moving forward and heard Alex laughing and yelping now. Paige crept within five steps, four steps, three steps, before Linda turned to see what Alex was staring at. She faced Paige, Linda’s face twisting into an unrecognizable shape, all teeth and eyes. Paige feared what Linda would do to her less than she feared not getting the cheesesteak. Launching herself forward, Paige pointed the legs of the chair towards Linda. As Paige flew forward, the legs of the chair straddled Linda’s flanks, and the bottom of the chair seat hit the woman with whatever strength Paige still owned. Linda fell to a sitting position, her back slamming into the cage
Paige saw Alex’s hands shoot out between the bars, grabbing the chair legs and pulling them through the bars, trapping Linda in place. She felt drool running down her chin as she smelled the sandwich, clutching at it as she felt the raking sting of the pokey stick’s nails slashing her thigh. Linda’s hand moved faster than Paige’s, and the woman shoved the sandwich in between the bars, dropping it out of Paige’s reach.
Paige screeched with rage, her clouded vision stained red. Linda’s teeth snapped at her neck but Paige saw the woman’s key-chain tighten around her neck, Alex guffawing as he yanked the chain through the bars. Linda’s face convulsed and her clawed fingers went to her throat, dropping the pokey stick as she struggled to loosen the strangulating necklace. Paige shook as she picked up the pokey stick, whipping it across Linda’s face, dense rows of thin red lines soon running crimson. Paige crouched on the chair-back, which now lay on top of Linda’s legs. Paige grabbed a fistful of the kinky blond hair and bent the woman’s head back. Linda’s face turned purple, and Paige jabbed at Alex’s hands. She didn’t want him to kill her. It was her time, her revenge. Linda had stolen Paige’s food, not Alex’s. Alex was fat and full. He didn’t need it. That was her fucking sandwich, her food, her survival, and Linda was going to pay for it.
Linda gasped for air as Alex released the chain, the man scampering backwards. Paige had the woman’s head bent back now, jabbing the needle point into Linda’s clenched teeth. Paige hooked her toes into the bars of the cage and, placing the butt of the stick against her hip, rammed the point through Linda’s bloody cheek. She pushed, frenzied now, knowing that if she failed, Linda would not be punished, Linda would win. The nails caught on teeth with clicking and clattering noises, but Paige worked the stick in all directions, snapping off teeth and hearing the jaw dislocate with a pop. She let go of the hair and grasped the stick handle with both hands, pushing with all her might until she held the stick vertically. Linda’s face now turned up to the ceiling, her body convulsing and almost throwing Paige off. The skin between Linda’s cheek and the corner of her mouth tore, giving the illusion of a great and bloody leer stretching up to the cheekbone.
Down, down Paige jammed the stick, feeling the resistance change as it entered Linda’s throat. The woman’s yellow eyes swiveled and glared up at her, turning bloodshot. Paige made a barking noise as she shoved the pokey stick down the woman’s gullet. She pulled up again like she was plunging a toilet, Linda’s pale neck spouting leaks of blood as the thin nails ripped open her throat from within. Paige felt the warm blood on her thighs as she rammed the stick up and down, grunting as Linda made strange gurgling noises and vomited blood out her neck-holes. The nails of the stick caught the links of Linda’s key-chain necklace, making the key-ring jingle and bounce up and down. Paige dimly registered the deep scratches tingling on her own thighs, realizing that Linda had been clawing her, though now the woman’s hands fluttered like meaty, broken butterflies in the air. Linda’s unblinking eyes never left Paige’s face. Paige watched as the blood welled up inside Linda’s shredded mouth and spilled over the torn Halloween mask of a face, then drained out through her neck and onto Paige’s thighs. The longer she worked, the easier the stick became to pump up and down, and so she went deeper with each thrust. Linda’s acidic gaze faded to a watery unfocused stare. Paige moved mechanically now, her rage spent, working the stick up and down through the ruined mash of Linda’s upper gastrointestinal tract, long after any movement remained.
She paused, catching her breath, until the key-chain necklace moved and she realized that Alex was trying to remove it. Paige grabbed the handle of the pokey stick and pulled Linda’s body away from the cage, kicking aside the chair and letting the body flop onto the floor. She sat on the floor and put her feet on Linda’s shoulders, tugging the pokey stick free with a sloshing noise.
“Hurry! The key! Unlock the cage! Quick! Let me out!” Alex said.
Paige tugged the bloody necklace from Linda’s neck.
“Give me the cheesesteak,” Paige said.
“What?” Alex asked. “C’mon, unlock this! Let me out!” he shook the cage door.
“Give it to me,” Paige said, picking up the pokey stick.
“Paige. Open the cage,” Alex whispered.
Paige crawled towards the cage, holding the stick. Putting the stick between the bars, she used the point to stab the sandwich and drag it closer to the side. She reached for it, grabbing the sandwich. She stabbed towards a blur of movement and Alex screeched, jumping backwards and holding his forearm. With the wrapped cheesesteak in one hand and the stick in the other, Paige walked on her knees over to Linda’s body, kneeling on the bloody carpet as she dropped the pokey stick and set the sandwich on Linda, using her back like it was a table. Paige barely removed paper and foil before cramming the sandwich into her mouth. It must have been a very special cheesesteak, she thought, because never had she tasted one like this. The roll crumpled softly in her mouth as she bit through thick mounds of perfectly cooked meat marbled with provolone melting onto her tongue, onions neither burnt nor undercooked, but sautéed to a caramelized softness. She regretted wasting the juice that ran down her chin, but she couldn’t slow down, couldn’t stop chewing and devouring the sandwich. She wanted it to last forever, but soon the last of the foot-long cheesesteak dropped into her belly. Her shrunken stomach now stretched out into a hard little potbelly, hurting a bit, but she still felt hungry.
She realized that Alex was making whining noises that may have been words, but she ignored them as she found the key that fit her collar-lock. When the collar opened and fell to the floor, along with her restraint chain, she felt light enough to float away. She rubbed her chafed neck, feeling drunk with the first full meal in months. The mist no longer clouded her vision. She laughed at how good she felt, though the cold air in the house still chilled her. But she could wear clothing now, she thought, looking down at Linda’s body. She flipped the corpse over enough to untie the belt of the bathrobe, let the body flop down again onto the saturated floor, and tugged the purple garment free. It felt warm and wet as she pulled it on. It was a little big, but warm and cozy all the same. Alex’s whining noises grew louder now, very loud. Paige raised the pokey stick and Alex scurried away to the corner of his cage, banging his head and yelping. He needed to eat, she thought.
Paige walked over to the kitchen and unlocked the padlock on the refrigerator. She took the padlock and aimed for the trashcan.
“Won’t need this anymore,” she said, but she stopped herself. “Well, never know. Maybe.” She set it on the counter. Looking in the fridge, she couldn’t stop herself from popping open a jar of pickled eggs, chewing and gulping three before she could stop herself. She looked at all of the prepackaged foods inside the fridge. It didn’t seem right. Unlocking the cabinets, she found more and more food, but almost all of it junk food. Donuts, corn chips, potato chips, cupcakes, and canned raviolis filled the shelves. “Junk. All junk,” she thought. She looked at Alex as he pressed his face against the bars, chewing the metal. “He needs fresh food, healthy food.”
Paige walked towards the hall, avoiding Alex’s hands as he reached out through the bars. In the bathroom, she unlocked the large industrial gray steel cabinet, finding it fully stocked with sharp, clean butchering tools, the only things that looked cared for in the house. She saw various chains, hardware, and pulleys, and assumed they were for the hooks and brackets mounted above the stained bathtub. She walked back out to the living room and grabbed Linda’s heels. Glancing at Alex, she saw that his thighs were almost as fleshy as Linda’s. Almost, she thought as she dragged Linda towards the hall.
“Almost, but not quite grown enough,” she said.
By Konrad Hartmann