By David M. Buhajla
Rodney Bevel stood in the cereal aisle at the grocery store trying to figure out what he wanted for breakfast when the world took a turn for the worse. He had been standing for at least ten minutes, trying to decide what kind of bran flakes he wanted. There were too many types for his pot-addled mind to choose from. He cursed himself for smoking two joints before this excursion to the grocery store instead of just one joint.
Rodney shook his head to get rid of the cobwebs, or pot-webs, as he liked to think of them. Then, he heard a soft pattering to his left that reminded him of the leaky faucet at his shabby rental house. The sound was accompanied by the creak of a shopping cart and the somewhat muffled clop of women’s shoes.
Rodney turned his head to catch a glimpse of who approached him. He didn’t want to look at the person too hard. They might see that he was stoned and call the cops. He didn’t need that kind of shit when there was cereal to eat and another joint waiting for him in the ashtray next to his gaming computer at home.
“Uh. What the fuck,” he breathed.
He saw one of his little cousin’s school teachers, Mrs. Sanders, hustling her shopping cart along the cereal aisle. She was either in her late forties or early fifties. Her hair was pulled back in a severe bun and she seemed to Rodney to be in a hurry, lost in thought, chewing her lower lip. Then Rodney took a closer look at the lower half of her face.
She had chewed half of her lower lip off.
He froze and stepped back into the cereal display behind him without realizing that he did so. Cardboard boxes hit the floor and Rodney’s gorge rose in his throat.
“Oh, my God. Are you okay?” he stammered.
“Huh? What are you talking about?” She slurred her words as a blood bubble rose at the corner of her mouth like an infected boil. It popped and turned into a small crimson splatter that hit the floor. Mrs. Sanders looked at Rodney as if he were crazy.
“Your mouth. Your lip. You’re eating it.”
“Just stay away from me. Otherwise, I’ll call the cops,” she slobbered.
Mrs. Sanders turned her cart around and walked away from Rodney at a brisk pace, as if she thought that Rodney would try to assault her right in the middle of the grocery store. She left a trail of bloody drops behind her like breadcrumbs.
Rodney stood there stunned for a moment, his brain locked from both shock and THC. All he could do in that instant was wonder what would happen to the woman. She was an elementary school teacher. Her life would be ruined. Also, if she didn’t end up in the crazy house after today, then he would file a complaint himself. He didn’t know to whom, but he would call somebody.
Rodney abandoned the thought of food. His appetite had just gone south and the bile in his throat threatened to make an appearance to tango on the floor with the blood from Mrs. Sanders’ maimed lip.
Rodney’s brain fired up out of lock-down mode and he ran down the aisle in the opposite direction of Mrs. Sanders, toward the front of the store. He didn’t slow down. He left a trail of startled glances and muttered curses behind him as he sprinted toward the front doors and into the welcome sunshine of a bright, cheery, sunny morning. He got home without incident, popped in a computer game, lit his third, fourth, and fifth joint of the day, one after the other, and tried to forget the whole thing.
Someone else had to have handled it.
Rodney woke up six hours later to the normal sounds of his neighborhood. A car went by and he heard children playing in the distance. A dog barked.
“Jesus. I just got to sleep, you fuckers.”
He threw his covers onto the floor and got up to use the bathroom. After he finished, he left his room, strode down the hallway to the front door, and opened it. He squinted into the glare, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the light.
Old lady Withers, who lived alone across the street from Rodney, looked at some daffodils that lined the sidewalk in front of her house. The sun shone down and the day smelled fresh in the spring warmth.
The day seemed fine to Rodney. He thought that he would get out of the house for awhile and take a walk at the park across town. Maybe go down to Parson Pond and do a little fishing. He had no job, no responsibilities, and all of the time in the world. He also had a fat, fresh sack of weed that he hadn’t made much of a dent in. Yes, the day seemed fine, indeed.
Until he took a harder look at his elderly neighbor across the street and he remembered what had happened during the previous day at the grocery store.
“Oh, no. Not again. Not today,” he breathed.
Old Lady Withers still stood there, looking at her flowers with her eyes narrowed in concentration. She looked as if she were deciding whether she would dig up the scrawny daffodil that rested between her worn orthopedic shoes. She also nibbled and crunched on the pinky of her left hand as if it were nothing more than a fried candy bar at the county fair. Blood ringed her mouth, ran down her chin, and dribbled onto the sidewalk.
She had made it down to the second knuckle. She continued eating as she looked up at Rodney and waved a merry wave to him with her intact hand. She smiled at him from behind a long ribbon of flesh that hung from her bottom lip.
“Good afternoon, Rodney. Up late, I see,” she called. “Could you come and help me decide something for a minute? I’m not quite sure about this pesky daffodil.” She took another dainty bite from the stump of her pinky and chewed some more.
Rodney stood in a brain-lock for the second time in nine hours. His mouth hung open in disbelief. An array of images formed in his head. He thought of all of the horror movies that he had seen in his life. He thought of zombies shuffling down city streets, backwoods cannibals, superviruses, and vampires. Nothing fit into the mold of the madness that he had witnessed both now and the day before.
Rodney also thought, during the few seconds of this brain-lock, of the times that he had gone across the street to chat with Mrs. Withers. He had helped her with her yard a couple of times on warm and favorable days. Days like this. Except she hadn’t been engaged in an act of self-mutilation during those times. Rodney couldn’t believe it. She was retired from one of the local doctor’s offices. She had been a nurse for over forty years.
“Rodney! Are you okay? You look a little dazed. Maybe you need a nice fresh cup of coffee. Come on over and I’ll fix you some.”
He turned around, ran back into his house, slammed the door, and bolted it.
Rodney leaned back against his front door, panting. He looked down at his hands. They shook. His hands hadn’t shaken like that since he was a kid. Since his mother had forced him to look into his dead grandfather’s casket to say goodbye.
His hands shook as the doorbell rang.
“Gaaah! Stay away from me!”
“Rodney? You’re acting like you’ve seen a ghost. Do you need a doctor? Are you okay? Rodney?” It was Old Lady Withers. Her speech was muffled from behind the front door. She had a note of concern in her voice.
The doorbell rang again as Rodney heard faint tearing and smacking sounds on the other side of the door. Mrs. Withers sounded as if she were still hungry. She didn’t say anything further. She sounded to Rodney as if she were absorbed with her meal.
“With her meal of herself,” he whispered. He still stood there, frozen, waiting for her to go away. She didn’t, though. Rodney didn’t know if he could stand it anymore. He thought about calling the cops for an instant before realizing how much pot he had stashed away in his bedroom. There was at least three ounces. Enough to keep him locked in jail for a good long time. He thought about opening the door to confront Mrs. Withers. But what would he say to convince her to stop harming herself? To stop eating herself? Was he supposed to use force to keep her hand away from her mouth? Was she even eating her hand anymore, or had she moved on to bigger and better things, such as a forearm, or her lips like the lady at the grocery store?
“Mrs. Sanders. Her name was Mrs. Sanders,” he whispered.
There was nothing that he could do.
Rodney flipped the lights off and hurried toward his room. He turned off all of his household lights as he made his way. He wanted nothing but darkness between him and the old woman on his front step. He didn’t know if she would somehow knock the door off of its hinges and come charging at him, waving and swinging a mutilated hand so she could cram it down his throat.
Rodney had made it to his bedroom when he got this mental image and shuddered. He stepped across the threshold of his sanctuary, shut the door, and locked it. He knew that the back door of his little house was locked, as well. It was always locked. Rodney never went into the back yard if he could help it.
“I’ll never go outside again,” he said.
He kept the lights on and picked his way over the dirty laundry, old porno magazines, and fast food wrappers that festooned the dingy carpeting. He sat down at his computer and grabbed a warm, unopened beer that rested next to his monitor. He had never gotten around to drinking it the night before. He cracked it open and drained it as fast as he could.
Rodney dropped the can on the floor and booted up his computer. His hands still shook as he waited for the desktop to appear on his monitor. Questions bumped around in his mind. He had seen two people in the span of hours who had been eating themselves, one who was still most likely on his front step. They had eaten their own flesh with what seemed to be no pain or concern for what they had been doing. They acted like it was the most normal thing in the world.
Rodney lit a cigarette and listened to the whirr of his CD drive. He wondered if there was some kind of disease going around that made people crazy. If so, wouldn’t the town have been notified by now? Was it terrorists?
The computer finished booting up. Rodney’s hand floated over the mouse. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know what was going on in the world. He looked over at the bag of weed that rested at the foot of his bed. It would be easy to light another joint and try to forget everything again. If he did, would he be in the right mind to defend himself if his neighbor somehow found her way into his house? What if the entire town went mad and decided to get together to drag him kicking and screaming into the street so they could tear him apart?
Rodney made up his mind. He didn’t have any immediate family left to worry about. His dad had left when he was two and his mom had died in a car wreck when he was fourteen. His aunt had cared for him after the funeral, but only until his eighteenth birthday, and she had kicked him out that day as his cousins laughed. But, they were still his family, and he needed to get to them if something fucked up was happening. They were all he had, as much as he didn’t want to admit it.
“Shit. I gotta know,” he said.
He got on the internet and went to the website of one of the news channels.
The website showed images from around the planet: Chicago, New York, St. Paul, Little Rock, Bucharest, London, Riyadh, Islamabad, Detroit, Sydney, Tokyo. Rodney’s eyes widened more and more as each picture flittered across the computer screen. His face went pale and an overwhelming sense of dread came over him as he stared at the gruesome images that were laid out before him.
“Jesus,” he said. “What are we going to do?”
He saw pictures of children chewing on their hands like Mrs. Withers. Their parents walked with them and tore strips of flesh from their own arms and swallowed them. They laughed and played a game of tag as they did so. He saw at least a dozen video clips of people across the world eating themselves. All the while going about their days as if they weren’t engaging in acts of self-cannibalism. Bodies littered the cities, towns, and rural areas of the world as people bled to death from their wounds. Riots erupted in the streets of dozens of large cities as police tried to keep people from consuming themselves, only to succumb to the grisly behavior themselves in a matter of minutes. The wire services called it the Great Feasting. All this had happened in the past two days as he had kept himself locked away smoking pot and playing role-playing games on his computer.
Rodney didn’t realize that tears rolled down his face as he switched off his monitor. He couldn’t watch anymore.
“Gotta call Aunt Penny.”
He reached into his pocket and tried to call his aunt. He couldn’t even get a dial tone. He set the phone aside and grabbed his bag of weed. He knew that he was in no state of mind to attempt to roll a joint. There was one in the ashtray on his desk, but he wanted to save it. He opened a drawer in his desk, pulled out a pipe, filled it, and lit it.
Rodney was halfway finished smoking his pipe when the electricity flickered and dimmed in a brownout. His stomach rumbled.
He kept smoking his pipe and raised his fingers to his mouth and began to chew his fingernails. He heard a soft pattering sound that reminded him of the leaky faucet in the kitchen.
He took another bite.