by Ashley A. Rich
I never wanted to eat people; I just wanted to know what they tasted like. Working in a cadaver lab for nearly ten years, I’d wondered. There was no harm in that, but wonder turned to an obsession, an itch I could never scratch. I’d lie awake for hours, tossing and turning after another long shift. Instead of counting sheep, I counted dismembered limbs. Some of them jumped the sheep’s fence on silver platters, garnished with kale and shiny red peppers. I tried to think of normal things: What color is a Smurf’s urine? How do dragons blow out birthday candles? Then, it would hit me again. What does human meat taste like? It was a vicious cycle and instead of sleeping, I would find myself on Pinterest looking up leg of lamb recipes, but in my head, it was leg of Sam.
I’d hoped the thoughts would fade, I mean, people think about crazier things all the time. Right? And, there was no way out of billions of people, I was the only one thinking this. Then again, Dahmer and Hannibal had to be considered. But I was different. I wasn’t a psycho. I was a scientist. I would never actually kill and eat a human. I’m a good person. An exemplary, patriotic American. There are laws in place against that sort of thing anyway and I was nothing if not a law-abiding citizen. Besides, I couldn’t picture myself surviving prison. I had no street smarts. I lived alone with my cat. If I wasn’t someone’s bitch by noon after my arrest, I’d be dead by the end of the week, shanked with a toothbrush.
Conducting a nerve study on a John Doe’s severed foot, I had a thought, and lopped off a toe. I could pop it in my mouth like a fat, juicy grape, sate my fascination and be done with it. But my joy fizzled when the science part of my brain grabbed me by the shoulders and gave me a firm shake. Get ahold of yourself Rebecca. You can’t eat the toe of a cadaver at the lab. The stupid pale gray digit would probably kill me.
I turned it over in my hand, inspecting the purple tint and the chipped, gnarled toenail. It wasn’t the nail that would kill me as it sliced its way down my gullet. I’d have removed it first. I would not die of internal bleeding; I was smarter than that. No, it was the fact that the odds and ends kept at the lab were pumped so full of formaldehyde the meat would be toxic. Certainly not FDA approved. With a heavy sigh, I dropped the toe into the metal emesis basin on the counter.
Crew spun around on his stool to face me. He’d worked at the lab all of three months. How he got the job I had no idea. He wasn’t a prestigious biologist. He was a sun-bleached, salt-crusted hair, tank top wearing beach bum with a fresh PhD. I’d worked hard for my position at the university, long hours and heavy books. He surfed his way up onto the fifth floor and into my lab. I hated him. “Everything alright over there?” he asked, his voice lacking all trace of genuine concern.
“Yup,” I said peeling the blue latex gloves from my hands and tossing them in the tub with the toe, the nail fungus highlighted by the florescent overhead.
“Come look at this. I need your opinion.”
I sighed again and stood. Leaning against the counter beside him, I wiped my hands on his discarded lab-coat. Despite the teeth chattering temperatures, he never wore the thing. Tanks for Crew, all day every day. Perfect tan skin on display, highlighting his man-muscles. Kill me.
“What does this look like to you?” He held up a severed head.
I glared at him. “How did you get this job again?”
He pried open the mouth and brought the gaping hole up to my face. A few years ago the stench would have had me gagging in the corner, but time and repetition numbs you to things. I leaned closer to the head, peering inside.
“His tongue is missing,” I said. It wasn’t weird in itself. The university studies everything. It wasn’t unlikely that the missing organ was in another lab, or even another university, but it didn’t look like a clean cut. It wasn’t removed by any scalpel. It looked gnawed. “Can I see that?” I put on a fresh pair of gloves and took the head from him.
The nub was ragged and torn. “He chew it off?” That wasn’t so weird either, but interesting to look at. Maybe he had a seizure and, as awful as it is, chomped through it as he was dying?
“It gets weirder.” Crew reached forward and came back with an arm. “Here.”
I set down the head, laying it on its right ear, letting it glare at Crew and his stupid blue tank top, and took the arm.
“Hairy,” I said and started taking mental notes. Male. Navy vet if the USN insignia on his forearm was any indication.
“Turn it over.”
On the man’s wrists was a series of puncture marks forming a lopsided circle. Some of the holes were more ragged than others. The blood had long since drained, but still stained the flesh around the wounds. “Bite mark?”
Crew nodded. “Now watch this.” His eyes lit up like a twelve-year-old boy about to see his first set of ta-tas. He picked up the head, opened the mouth again and, holding back the lips, wedged the cadaver’s teeth into the punctures. “Fits.” He smiled to himself, then glanced up at me. “What do you think?”
“I think you must have slept with a lot of professors to get this job.”
He glared, his dorky smile falling. “Damnit, Becca—”
“Whatever. Don’t you find it strange that the bite matches this mouth?” He removed the jaw from around the limb. “It’s his own arm.”
“This arm,” he said waiving it around like a Fourth of July sparkler, “goes with that head.” He used the arm to point to the cranium. “All these pieces are from the same body. A dinghy from the Stennis was found floating in the middle of the ocean. A manicured female hand, the haunch from some chubby dude, and this guy were in it. He was the only whole human. Military lab did their thing, dismembered him, then shipped him to me to investigate. There is so much wrong with this whole thing.” He waved a hand over his workspace. “I have no idea what I’m investigating. Or why they took him apart or bothered sending him to me. But whatever, if I can be their hero, yay me. So far, the only thing I can figure is maybe he bit himself, but why? Who cares?”
I cared a little bit. It gave me an idea. Maybe I could satisfy my growing fascination by biting off a piece of myself. How big of a chunk could I gnaw off before I bled to death? Maybe I could just take a little nibble, small enough to taste, cover the wound with a Hello Kitty band-aid. Would I even be able to break the skin? I have a really low pain tolerance. I cry over paper-cuts. Biting myself wouldn’t work. I dismissed the idea and stared at Navy Man’s severed pieces spread around Crew’s work surface.
“Where’s the Stennis now?” If a major military ship’s escape boat was found with one salty-dog, and a few bits of some others, my first question would be to ask the rest of the sailors on the ship. Wasn’t it in port in San Diego? That was months ago. Maybe it had set out again. “And,” I continued, “Why didn’t I hear about this on the news?”
“Don’t know where it is. And it wasn’t on the news,” Crew said. “USS Stennis went out to sea a few weeks ago, heading toward Naples. Lost contact I guess.” He shrugged and put the arm back on the table. “The whole thing is pretty hush hush and I could get into a lot of trouble even talking about it. But, you’re like, a pro in here and I thought you could help me out. Professor Zakus wants my hypothesis by,” he checked his watch, “like yesterday. And all I got is that he bit himself and maybe ate his dinghy friends, but that just sounds like bull no matter how sciency I try to force it. I’ve typed and retyped the report maybe a dozen times and it just makes me feel like … like I don’t know. Like some idiot.”
You are an idiot, was what I wanted to say, but instead I pursed my lips and shrugged. “You’ll figure it out,” I said and gave him my best smile. It felt phony on my face, but he nodded his thanks.
The air kicked on and as I took my first step back to my work-station, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. My sun smothered friend was peeling. A bit of skin danced, caught in the AC’s current, like one of those inflatable flailing arm men in front of mattress stores. Before I could over-think it, I tore the skin from the base of his neck.
“What the hell are you doing?” he said, spinning around on his stool to face me, his eyebrow bunched tight enough to hold a quarter between them.
What was I doing? Maybe I was the idiot. I waived the whiteish strip in the air like a surrender flag. “You were peeling, yuck.” Feigning disgust, I scrunched my face and watched the skin float to the floor.
“Oh,” he said, rubbing at the raw pink spot on his neck. “Thanks.”
When he turned back to his hungry sailor, I quickly scooped up my prize and tucked it into my lab coat pocket. “I uh. I’ll be right back. Little girl’s room.”
I scurried out of the lab. My orthopedic shoes squeaked all the way down the hall. They’d never been louder. I quickened my pace, hoping to look like I was about to have a bathroom emergency instead of racing to chew some Crew. To my relief, no one came down the hall, and I ducked inside the restroom.
My heart raced as I locked myself into the first stall. As a rule, it’s the cleanest. No one ever uses the stall closest to the entrance. They feel exposed or something peeing so close to the entrance. It’s the only public stall I’ll use in any bathroom. Leaning against the cool metal wall, I fished the loose flap of skin from my pocket. I held it up to the light, marveling at the tiny pore holes. Deep lines ran across it, like cracks in dried out riverbeds in the desert. I wondered if Crew ever moisturized, then remembered who I was talking about and laughed to myself. Crew had dried his skin to death. It wouldn’t be long before he’d be asking me to look at a basil cell cluster. Sun cancer would serve the sand flea right.
Licking my lips, I peered between the small crack in the stall, trying to glimpse anyone else who might be in the restroom. I sat on the toilet and hung my head, checking for shoes. Certain I was alone, I brought the skin to my lips, opened wide and—
Crew rushed into the bathroom, frantic, screaming my name. “You in here?”
He pulled the door shut behind him and twisted the lock into place.I tucked the skin back into my pocket and opened my stall. Crew barreled into me, forcing my lungs empty as he wrapped his arms tight around my torso and buried his face in my neck, muttering something about me being okay. I shoved him away and backed a few steps into the stall, stopping when my bare calves touched cold porcelain.
Out in the hall I heard the familiar squeak of shoes on tile, moving fast, like the Boston marathon, and all the runners were wearing my orthotics. Screams chased after them and Crew pushed the waste bin in front of the door and took a few steps away. His face had faded from glowing sun bum, to night stalker white.
He licked his lips and ran a trembling hand through his hair. “He bit her.”
“No,” he swallowed, catching his breath. “Professor Zakus. He chased Sally into our lab and dived on her. Ripped into her like, I don’t know, man.” He melted into a puddle of sobs.
“Like what? I don’t understand.” I knelt next to him, resting one hand on his shoulder to keep from tumbling over.
He looked up at me. “There was blood everywhere. I didn’t even try to help her. I just ran like a coward. He’s still out there.” Another scream echoed down the hall, as if to prove his point. “Zombies, man. Zakus is a freaking zombie.”
He sounded as crazy as he looked, eyes wide, darting periodically to the door, finger combing his hair, but between the runners outside and the screams, and now his tears, I was inclined to believe him. I noticed a dark crimson splatter painted across his shirt and my heart froze. I pointed it out to him, and he peeled the blue tank off with a girlish yelp, tossing it into the trash can in front of the door. I glanced around for something else to use as a barricade, then remembered the door swung out, not in. We were screwed if the lock gave out.
Someone yanked on the door, then began pounding. “Help me. Crew, I saw you go in there.” It was Stacey. Young, fresh thing straight out of grad school from the physics department. Her perfect boobs would get her a lot of things, but not through that door.
Crew rushed toward the one thing keeping us separated from them. I grabbed onto the hem of his shorts and pulled him back. “What are you doing?” I wailed. “Don’t open that door.” I clenched my teeth together and narrowed my eyes, willing him to obey.
His attention diverted between me and the girl crying outside in the hall.
“I swear if you open that door, I’m pushing you out into the hall.”
Stacey pounded again and tugged on the handle, rattling the metal frame. “Please,” she begged and kicked at the base of the door. “Let me in.”
Crew shot forward, throwing the trash can out of the way, and unlocked the door. “No,” I yelled, but my effort was useless. The door flung out and just as Crew was pulling her inside, Stacey was tackled.
The weight of the attacking custodian pressed her deeper into the door, but the hinges held. Gore splashed hot on my face and I heard myself scream. The custodian dropped the mangled mess that, moments before, was Stacey and turned his attention to me.
I had nowhere to go. His hulking size blocked my only exit. I glanced to the toilet and for half a second wished I could use it Harry Potter style, but the thought rushed out of my head as quickly as it had entered. Gray, blood-soaked overalls lunged at me in a blur of chomping teeth and flailing arms. My feet tangled beneath me and I fell hard onto the floor. He was on me, a mass of fat and teeth and facial hair. I fought him, kicking and screaming. I sunk my nails into his cheeks, desperate to keep his face far from mine.
“Get off her,” Crew screamed, and I heard something like wrenched metal and shattered porcelain, then cold water sprayed all around me, washing the blood from my forehead into my eyes.
There was a thud and the man I knew as Mr. Corbett, the friendly custodian, fell heavy and lifeless on top of me. I squirmed and wiggled out of his blubbery mass. Crew held a sink high over his head, his eyes glued to the body on the floor between us. He panted as red water dripped down onto his head. Water gushed from the spot on the wall where the sink used to be. I kept my distance as I made my way around to the door. I tried to pull it closed, but pieces of Stacey were keeping me from getting it closed. With one foot, I toed what little was left of her out of the way, pulled the door shut and threw the lock into place.
Resting my back against the door, I slid down to the bottom and brought my knees to my chest. My breaths came in rushed and sporadic waves. I forced myself to concentrate on even inhales and exhales before I hyperventilated.
“Crew,” I had regained myself as much as I could, given my present situation. “You can put the sink down.”
“Huh? Oh. Right.” He dropped it, and it shattered in half onto the floor. He turned to me. “I told you,” he said before trudging over.
He sat next to me, pressing his back against the wall where the trash bin should have been. I let him take my hand in his as we sat pretending not to hear the chaos in the corridor. The screaming quieted, and the only sounds were the rush of water from the broken pipes and an occasional soft-shoe shuffle in the hallway.
After what felt like a lifetime, Crew spoke. “You’re bleeding.” He poked at a flower of crimson blooming around my armpit. I winced.
Unlacing my fingers from his, I shrugged out of my lab coat and pulled my collar aside. Crew jumped back, his mouth flapping open and closed. He pointed one accusatory finger. I stared in horror at the bite just above my left breast and into my underarm. Blood poured out of me faster than booze flowed at a frat house party, not that I’d been to a frat party, I was never invited, but I’d seen movies.
“We need to stop the bleeding.” I balled up my coat and pressed it into the wound, certain my axillary artery was severed.
The stiff white cotton filled, saturated in seconds and warmth oozed down my torso. I stifled a cry as I tightened my fist and pressed the soggy wad harder into the bite. Crew stood over me, staring down, his face pale. Eyes big.
“It’s fine,” I said to him between gulping air and fighting for consciousness.
It was getting harder to breathe through the pain, and this was a heck of a lot more devastating than a paper-cut. No band-aid could fix this. The door bucked against my back as someone made a half attempt to get in before racing away. I sucked a breath through tight lips.
“Crew, I need you to help me stop the bleeding.”
He snapped out of his trance and pumped the handle on the paper towel dispenser like he was playing with a jack in the box and couldn’t wait for the clown to pop out. “Not okay,” he muttered, his voice high-pitched. “This is not okay.”
“It’s fine. I’m fine.”
I wasn’t fine. My hairline tingled like ants were making nests of my follicles and a sharp chill was already sawing its way through my veins. A wave of sweat washed over me but was swallowed by the swell of gooseflesh prickling over my skin. I lost all my strength and my hand dropped from my shoulder. The soggy, now crimson lab coat landed on the tile with a sickening splat at Crew’s feet.
“Pressure, Becca.” He dropped to a knee, hesitated, then pressed the towels over my wound. It was useless. He gagged as another gush of blood forced its way out around his hand.
I leaned to one side and slipped down to lay my head on the cool tile. Everything moved as if I was in a stop-motion picture. Frame after frame, I watched as Crew danced around like Charlie Chaplin, all the sound lost to me. Darkness massaged the edges of my vision.
This is it. This is how I die. Lying on the disgusting bathroom floor covered in gelling hemoglobin while Crew vomits in the corner. Excellent. I would have rolled my eyes hard enough to hear the vitreous jelly wiggle, but they stayed fixed, staring at the far back wall of my germ-crusted tomb.
The frame-by-frame images slowed to one painful ViewMaster click at a time and I wondered about the small flap of skin I’d tucked back into my pocket when Crew rushed into the bathroom. I was going to die not knowing. I had my chance, the chance to taste a morsel of the forbidden flesh and I was going to die instead.
I counted my heartbeats, noting the space between each one as if counting contractions like a nervous mom-to-be. Then, after a while, those stopped too. The time between beats was eternity.
“No. No no nononnono,” Crew wailed from his corner, never taking his eyes from me as I lay on the floor.
I wanted to tell him it was fine. That I was still here, still with him, but it tickled me to watch him squirm around like a worm on the sidewalk after a storm. Then he stopped squirming, started pacing. His face changed from panic to what I can only assume was his version of determination, but he looked more constipated than driven.
He hovered over the body of Mr. Corbett, covering his mouth with one hand like he might throw up again. I wondered if he would, then wondered how long it had been since my last breath. Crew bent to pick up the biggest piece of the broken sink still lying on the floor.
I never realized, until that moment, how delicious he looked. All that lean meat, already half-baked, skin crisped and golden, seasoned with sea salt and aged a quarter century. Something in my stomach squirmed, followed by a biting pain as if my stomach might be trying to eat itself.
That’s right, come this way my tasty little morsel, I thought as he carried the sink piece over to my prone body.
Seriously, could he move any slower? I’d seen documentaries on sloths with more hustle. Is he crying?
Oh sweet spitting alpacas, the pretty boy was crying. Again. Maybe he didn’t sleep with anyone after all, he just cried like a little girl until someone felt bad, handed him his PhD and the secret military case work. Jerk.
Blood and water dripped from his matted hair and mixed with the tears running down his cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Becca.” He raised the broken chunk of porcelain over his head, sucked in his pouty lip and let out a wail worthy of an Oscar. “Becc-a-aaa-aaa.”
Re. I thought. It’s Rebecca.
I lunged, sinking my teeth into his leg, knocking him off balance. He fell, landing with a splash in the bloodied water drenching the bathroom floor. The sink crashed into my leg, slicing into it with its sharp edge, but all I felt was the rush of heat as I tore into his belly.
Forbidden flavors tickled my tongue and exploded into my soul. I grinned around a mouthful and dove in, face-first, for another sinfully delicious bite.
About the Author
Ashley Rich is an editor for Goldman Review, a west coast literary journal. She loves anything horror or fantasy, even better when it’s combined. When she isn’t reading or writing, she is usually in the middle of an epic D&D campaign, baking in the kitchen or crocheting the always needed dice pouch for her growing horde. Words and dice are her obsession.