Will Short Gorham
We hadn’t noticed the wounds until Andre gnawed off a hunk of the kid’s calf as big as a golf ball. I mean, I don’t have hard proof it was Andre who started eating the kid but, c’mon, right? Just look at Andre’s pathetic limp and listen to that fake British accent. Sounds like he’s got a mouthful of banana slices and keeps saying, Roid? Even he admits he only lived in England for half a summer. When he was seven. Probably Spring Break, not even Summer. Wouldn’t put anything past that guy. Probably not even a guy. I haven’t checked, obviously.
Maybe we did notice a few minor wounds before that — scrapes, bruises and whatnot on the kid’s feet and legs but isn’t that normal for a newly crawling dumb thing? Especially in an environment that’s frequently dark, made from hard surfaces and sharp edges. But when the kid came out with a hunk of meat missing above the heel there was no pretending it was self-inflicted. The kid didn’t scream or anything, which is weird for a — what? — nine-month-old? Shit’d be weird for a nine-year-old. Nineteen, even. Me, for that matter. I’m so old I don’t even keep numbers and I’d go full hellmouth if that crippled prick Andre took a bite out of my leg while I was sleeping. Not that I can verify the kid was sleeping, but it definitely happened in the confines of sleeping quarters since all three kids are under strict supervisory routines with multiple adults all non-sleeping portions of the day.
Day. Funny how common words take on new meanings when…
Yeah, like that.
I can’t be the only one convinced that Andre started it all but everyone signed the “Leave It Behind for Survival Agreement” [LIBSA], Amendment 4 of which states, “The genesis and specific primogenitor of our current concurrent salvation/damnation predicament with regard to sustainable sustenance is irrelevant to survival and investigation of such shall, therefore, be prohibited.”
You’d think Survival Mode would make people spill a little less wordy bullshit but life, in its rich variety of bleakness, remains full of all brands of miracle.
Andre’s limp makes him look like he’s always about to swing back around having forgotten something crucial. Plus, his insufferable habit of snapping his fingers when he walks, which just amplifies the effect. So it makes sense that he’d bite a chunk of baby leg. That, or starvation just makes people crazy. That’s the official narrative. It applies to all of us. Even a gnarled, lying creep like Andre.
It’s all academic now, of course. But in the beginning, it’s not like everyone jumped right on board with feeding on live baby meat, even for survival, even though the baby showed literally zero signs of minding, and especially even despite the fact that every last divot of flesh bitten off the kid regenerated. That first bite (It must have been Andre, c’mon, stop pretending) took a few hours to grow back but the next bite (Andre, this one we all saw, which, c’mon, more evidence of the former) regenerated fast enough that you could watch it. By now, all indications of any given bite are gone before the next person in line stretches on the latex gloves and gets ready to eat.
It’s not natural, a lot of people complained, especially the ones, like Mala, who used to have some modicum of official authority before the stranding.
Nature changes, was the counter-argument, pushed most forcefully by Andre and others who’d seen small but significant parts of their lives improve under the forced communalism of the post-stranding.
As ever, it’s never quite reason or belief that wins out in the end. In our case, hunger won. Mostly. Some never could work their way to biting into another human being, especially a live, infant one. Go ahead and tell yourself you wouldn’t either. Or that you would. Truth is, you have no idea.
Problem was, the kid never minded having flesh chewed straight off, but try using a knife to fillet a sliver of calfmeat or some elbowskin and the kid … behaved the way you’d expect. Just another unexplainable thing. Teeth, no problem. A knife? Screams to shatter the void of space. So, for anyone too squeamish to bite a baby, it was back to the hopeless exercise of avoiding the burning of stored calories even by praying too hard for some outlandish rescue party.
We stopped paying attention to the passage of days with hashmarks on the walls when Mala, our self-declared historian, realized it took nearly half an entire waking-shift to count them all, scratched in single vertical dashes. You’d think she would have marked the days in fives or tens or something easy to count as the count grew higher but we all had our jobs and it wasn’t anyone’s job to question anyone else’s performance. Anyway, I know that I lost track of the difference between a full day and a waking shift long before that. Truth is, when you’re waiting for the impossible, counting days is worse than pointless. Now all Mala does is carve the names of books and movies and historical events that no one remembers into the walls which, forgive me, is as stupid as it is useless. Without any context or content, what’s the point of names of things you’ll never encounter again?
Before you ask, the answer is No. Different body parts don’t taste different and, as far as anyone can tell, the nutritional content doesn’t vary in any significant way. See? Now I’m talking like I’m writing a user’s manual too. Truth is, we’ve stuck to the legs, arms and back. Ilanio, who during the Reasoning Phase was alone in arguing that this was not only the new natural but was a positive advance in normal, suggested that belly meat might be a smart choice, both for nutritional content and ease of healing but, since these were solutions in search of problems and also, Ilanio being Ilanio, his suggestion was dismissed out of hand, which, let’s be honest, is more or less the last remaining normal.
The total number of holdouts I don’t remember exactly. And we’re not supposed to. It’s not strictly forbidden by LIBSA but it’s a subject most prefer to avoid. I guess I’m not most people, obviously, or I wouldn’t be putting all this down for future reference or whatever reason I haven’t come up with yet.
Maybe twelve holdouts? Possibly only ten. Way less than half, anyway, and five or six relented pretty quickly. Leslie and Gordo were the last to give in but once they swallowed that first bite, neither had any regrets. Leslie even said he felt a little foolish for resisting for so long.
Three died from starvation, including one of the other children. Just wouldn’t bite into another kid’s body, it’s that simple. You can lead a kid to another kid’s regenerating leg but … And we couldn’t force feed them since the kid wouldn’t tolerate a knife and we’re not monsters or at least not that type.
We tried eating the dead — the two adults, not the kid [See: Not That Type of Monster] — but the meat just had no energy left in it. Every bite just made you hungrier, like drinking salt water when you’re thirsty. But those were the last people to die and it’s been … how long has it been now? The only way to judge is by the kid who must be — what, now? Two years old? Maybe less, I can’t be sure. Mala with her damned dumb hashmarks is no help. Ask her how long it’s been and she counts the wall for an hour and comes back with Forever.
The kid started walking, running, but not really talking, so what age does that make? Is that even a real age? Maybe the kid’s development is all scrambled from…everything. Maybe it’s only been a week and the kid is actually hyper-developing. I mean, super-regeneration is already an established fact here, right? But no, it’s been longer. If anything, I’d err on the side of more than two years. Closer to a million. Somewhere between almost two years and infinity plus one.
In absolute fact, we’re all incredibly lucky. Maybe the luckiest people ever to have lived. Ever since the beginning, living organisms have been killing themselves and each other over sustenance and here we are with an unlimited supply. But within this floating cloud of luck, there are different levels. I’m among the luckiest, admittedly. I don’t need more than a mouthful of kidmeat in order to be satisfied for a three to five day stretch, depending on what I do with my time, which is mostly either nothing or scribbling notes that I mostly burn in the fire. Some people need less food for longer. Andre only eats about once a month, I’d estimate, but when he does, god, does he revel in it. It’s revolting to behold.
Others stay hungry pretty much constantly, get back in line for seconds, thirds, as much kid as they can stomach, both literally and within the still quivering bounds of shame. Not that we eat all the time. The kid’s gotta have a kidhood, after all, and gets allotted time for playing, napping, general aimless kidness and … What am I forgetting? Chowtime. Right. But that’s kind of a simultaneous deal now that we all produce milk, or whatever it is. Thick nipple ooze, like spicy jelly. Crystallized. Stings when it comes out. Women, men, it makes no difference. While we stay alive eating the baby, the baby sucks life right back from us. Perpetual survival machine. It is weird, no mistake about it. Personally, I can barely stand it. Makes me feel like a slushie machine rusting from the inside. That metallic taste in my mouth when my nipples are nearly drained makes my stomach turn over like I ate too much cotton candy at a horror movie carnival.
There is some weird correlation between the Whens, Hows, and Whys of feeding and the physiological effects thereof. That’s not really my way of putting it, fine, I stole it from Mala, who’s been scratching some sort of scientific study into the walls on the subject of why the babymeat seems to provide less nutrition and satisfaction depending on your mood and attitude when you’re eating it. I try not to have any mood other than hungry and I try to leave attitude out of it but it’s hard to do when the greedy beast is sucking protein shards out of your nipple glands. One time I pictured a fat, smiling MRI machine ripping steel wool out from under my skin in all directions. That was the only feeding I got full sick from, threw up until I thought I must have lost six inches in height just from the contractions.
Speaking of which, Ilanio’s been losing weight. Says the meat doesn’t taste good anymore. I never let myself dwell on the taste. Enjoying the flavor was a line I wasn’t willing to cross. Ilanio hopped over it on the first day. I usually keep my distance from Ilanio but we happened to share a feeding session recently which is when I noticed the weight loss. Also, I could swear the kid’s regeneration was slower than usual after Ilanio fed. Not by much, but enough to notice and the most dramatic shifts in life usually begin with the barely seen.
No matter how hard you focus on not noticing something, when someone says, the meat doesn’t taste good, it becomes impossible to ignore. I hate to say it but it tasted pretty damn good to me. In fact, I haven’t stopped thinking about it, find myself hungry whenever I wake up even if I fed right before sleep.
Mala noticed the slowed regeneration, too, and says it’s not just happening after Ilanio feeds. Says the occurrence is, in fact, selective. Those whose feedings take longer to regenerate do appear to be getting sick, or at least taxed out. About a third of us are refusing to feed and almost all of us are reluctant to do so. Mala barely feeds but that’s nothing new. She’s been growing incrementally slighter since the very beginning and seems to have begun relishing her diminishment. Andre and I continue to feed as normal. What if we’re the last ones left? He asks. I don’t like that thought, whatever it might mean.
I remember hearing once that the first word most kids say is something like mama or papa or dog or cat. Something they see and hear about every day. Moon, food, home. Anything familiar, comforting. A set of words are considered normative as first ones. Others aren’t quite normative, but aren’t considered problematic indicators. These tend to be situational words. Silo or donkey would be situational words for a child growing up on a farm. Ladder and socket for a child raised by electricians, perhaps. There’s nothing worrisome about a kid deploying axe or sword as a first word if the child is being raised by a blacksmith or by parents who travel the Renaissance Faire circuit. There isn’t even anything odd about uh oh or shoot or no as first words. One of the first things many parents learn from their children is how often they, the parents, say certain things. To that point, if a child’s first word is vodka or fucker or kill, most child psychologists would consider this a problematic indicator. But again, situation matters. Cage would be a perfectly acceptable situational word for a child who grew up in a house with a number of captive birds but what if there are no bird cages in the house? Can a child develop and harbor an abstract concept of captivity without access to a physical representation of it? What if a child’s first word is Stop? Maybe the child is raised by a single-mother who’s a crossing guard and has to take the infant with her to work. If not, maybe the child is being tortured. Maybe something else entirely. When does it become anyone else’s business?
This is the kind of shit Mala is scratching into the walls. She’s gone full bonk. She weighs about as much as the dust that falls from her hashmark scratchings. Everyone avoids her because no one wants to be the one standing next to her when she crumbles to the ground. It’s incredible that her body can still lift a piece of rock, that her brain can even synapse her body to produce any forward motion. But she’s onto something. What happens when the kid gets old enough to say Enough, already?
We’ve all been operating on the assumption that everything we’re doing is a temporary stopgap measure. But time keeps trudging forward. The kid doesn’t know about the past. Hasn’t yet begun to conceive of any future. We’ve already given up on that even though it hasn’t given up on us. What do we do once the kid says, This is no good, and demands, What next?
Will Short Gorham is a writer living in St. Petersburg, Florida. He loves living in paradise but hopes to write his way out of it before it’s underwater.