You always wanted to be skinny, right? Thought you could starve your way to beauty, snorting cocoa dust to sate your sweet tooth while living on lean proteins. All you wanted was to be pretty like those girls in the airbrushed photos, missing lumps of cellulite that kept our ancestors alive.
Maybe you wanted to be a tough guy, wolfing down raw eggs while pumping iron. Four chickens’ breasts a day! Each rep growing your biceps, defining your delts, turning you into a hard, mean muscle machine. You wanted to be a fighter, didn’t you?
Well, we’re all fighters now. We’re all starving, too. All the time you spent working for a better body should have been spent working for a better future.
Let’s be honest, though. You’re probably dead. The people who cause the problem rarely survive to see consequences.
I used to share a house with a couple of guys on Massachusetts Ave. Old place, painted a creamy yellow like pissed on snow. It was all sharp angles and tall disapproving windows, watching the beer pong parties we threw in the backyard. Had a room to myself back in those days. A refrigerator constantly empty on account of living with two men in their early twenties. Annoying, yes, but the grocery store was just a few blocks away.
When I dream, I dream about grocery stores. Aisles of freezers, filled with frozen vegetables. Peas. Corn. Mysterious Asian Medley. California Blend. Neat packages, full of food. My cart’s always empty as I stroll through the store, a turquoise purse lost long ago hanging over my shoulder. I browse smoothie blend fruits, condensed juices, blasphemous frozen bagels. I know that I came to the store for one thing. One thing. One thing.
I can never remember.
Somewhere in the condiments aisle, I’ll glance into a fellow shopper’s basket, hoping it will give me hints to my forgotten grocery list.
The dream is always the same. Doesn’t matter if I’m sleeping in a shipping container or cuddled under the musty blankets in Survivors’ Cellar.
The basket is full of heads. My roommate’s heads. Faces pocked and pecked to pieces. Just like I found them that day when I got home laden with shopping bags, bitching about our empty fridge.
Their heads are strapped to pink Styrofoam with cellophane squishing their noses flat. Printed bar coded labels state their names and weights.
Sometimes, there’s a bottle of wing sauce nestled next to their heads. Sometimes, barbecue sauce. Sometimes a bottle filled with Caesar salad dressing, croutons, and a package of romaine heads.
I always wake up screaming.
I’m sleeping in Survivors’ Cellar. I only realize this as Gus shoves his wrist sideways into my mouth as I scream. I choke, tasting must and smokey flesh. My eyes come into focus to see him looking down at me, a frown tugging at the corners of his fat lips. He shakes his head. I can’t stay here if I’m a liability to the others. The survival of the many is more important than a single life.
He waits a moment, staring into my eyes until he’s sure we understand one another, then pulls his arm away.
I wipe saliva from the corners of my mouth with the sleeve of my red hoodie. “Sorry.”
Sorry doesn’t cut it. We both know that. He picks his way through the stirring bodies on the floor, some waking, some burrowing deeper into their blankets to fall back asleep. I fold the dirty throw I had wrapped around my body into a neat square, place it on the shelf lining the back wall, and follow him.
Survivor’s Cellar isn’t really a cellar. We’re not survivors, either. We’re just the ones who are left, waiting until the cock crows on the dawn of our death. Gus walks down the narrow tunnel leading to his office. The rubber soles of my sneakers flap flatly against the concrete, deferring to Gus’s work boots.
He heaves himself into the wooden office chair, rubbing the hair on his chin, which hasn’t decided if it’s the start of a beard or just serious scruff. “Third time this week, Gracie.”
A little vent the the ceiling allows cool air to flow into headquarters, bringing with it the smell of fried flesh. Outside, the smell is part of the scenery, common enough to avoid notice. Like a cat’s litter box in his owner’s house. Familiar. After a few hours underground, you forget about the stench. Each time you go outside, you encounter the fowl’s odor anew.
I scuff the concrete floor with my toe. “Said I was sorry.”
He shakes his head. The apology is an affront. “I don’t need more liabilities. Food’s low. Fuel’s low. We got shit in the way of firearms after Connor ran off with half the armory and knocked Pearl up on his way out. Gonna have ourselves a screaming infant around here soon. Don’t need a screaming adult.”
I can’t look at him. “It won’t happen again.”
The drawer squeals as he pulls it open, tossing a can of Vienna Sausages into my line of sight, a way of softening the blow. I stare at the side of the can, ingredients facing me.
May Contain: Beef, Pork, Turkey, Chicken…
My stomach twists while my mouth waters, sickness and hunger fighting each other. Farmers died first, so fast the rest of us didn’t even know. There were more of them than people out in the country. Death came quickly to rural America.
I grab the can, hooking my finger around the pull-tab. Ripping the can open and stuffing little cold meat rolls into my face. I want something else, anything else. But, when the farmers died, food died. For a while, urban greenhouses kept producing. We had lettuces and zucchini, pumpkins and strawberries for the first few years until it became to dangerous to be outside. Many tried to remain in the sun. Many died.
Gus watches me. “I need assets.”
“Found that pallet of canned corn–”
“Three months ago. You found that pallet of canned corn three months ago.” He sucks at his teeth, thinking. “I only have time for useful trouble. You know that. There’s going to be a whole lot of people pissed about your screaming this week. Got them scared. All that fear they have towards the outside is gonna be directed at you. At me, if I don’t do something about it. ”
I’m sipping the salty residue from the bottom of the can.
“It’s time for you to go hunting, Gracie.”
The can slips from my hands, hitting his desk, falling to the floor. “Come on. Not that, Gus. I got a squirrel’s chance on a highway up there.”
“You got the same chances down here if you don’t increase your value. Get outside. Exorcise some of those demons and bring home a whole chicken dinner for the rest of us. It might be good for you.”
“If it doesn’t kill me, you mean.”
Gus gave me a pair of red sweats to go over my black leggings. I’m crimson, head to toe, except for the white soles of my sneakers and my fingers, wrapped tight around the grip of a baseball bat. The smells is worse out here. Feces, feathers, and burnt flesh hang heavily in the air, a fetid musk like the worst cologne ever made.
The streets are empty. Buildings are smeared with white and black, a Rorschach of shit. Evidence of winter’s molting blows past, catching feathers in a twisting breeze.
Five years ago, it would have been a beautiful spring day.
I stick to the macadam and cement, places where there’s nothing to scratch. I feel as safe as I can until I round a corner, seeing a half-dozen forgotten garden pots sitting at the bottom of someone’s porch. A single white layer roosts on the pot’s lip, little orange claws gripping the rim.
She’s looking right at me, piece of radish green pinched in her beak. She blinks, head tilted as she stares. Little fucker must have heard me.
The red throws them off, just for a little bit. Calms their thirst for blood until their bird minds catch up with what they’re seeing. It gives me the second I need to wind up the bat and run towards her. Radish green falls from her beak. She spreads her wings wide and screams as my bat catches her in the center of the chest, sending her flying into the stairs. I’m lucky she’s a layer. I hear bones snapping as she connects, feathered body flopping down the stairs as she flaps helplessly.
In one quick motion, I have her up and ring her neck. If our only problem were these girls, the military could have solved it before things got so bad. I stuff the chicken’s corpse into my red backpack and continue on.
Just two blocks over is a park. It used to be green, but now most of the grass is scratched to dirt. Still, there’s five waiting for me. All roosters. Five of them and they’re meat chickens. They’re not quite two feet tall, but built like tanks. Bulging breasts are supported by solid skeletons, not hollow boned like the layer. This is what came of you lean meat greed. We bred a super chicken to feed ourselves. Now, they feed on us.
Their red combs glow in the noon light, beady black eyes blinking as their heads survey the area. Five of them. I’ve taken two before. Three. Four, with Connor before he took off.
If I’m lucky, I fill the backpack to take back to Gus before dark.
If I’m unlucky, I’m chicken feed.
It’s not worth it. I’ll pick off a few skinny layers around the perimeter. Get the ones who get picked on by the others. Make it easy for myself.
I turn around as a single crow rings out, sending icy metal down my spine. I hear the flap of wings, beating against the ground, the clawing of their sharp toes.
I choke up on the bat and face them.