“Hi. My name’s Marvin.”
“I’m a cannibal.” Marvin tried to calm down. His heart was beating so fast and his voice wavered with that last confession. They were hard words to say. Marvin only talked about this with Leila, his close friend. He wished she was there. He could’ve used the support. Instead, nine faces stared at him, some with acne, some with make-up, one girl was anemic, and some moisturized better than others. It was Marvin’s first self-help meeting for cannibals and he still wasn’t sure if he liked it. He tried to smile at the group.
“Welcome, Marvin,” said Janice, the group leader. She sat upright in her chair across from him with her ankles crossed, and a clipboard in her lap. She was very proper and Marvin had been very nervous meeting her before the session began. “It’s good to have you. You’ve heard a bit how the group works. We’re supportive of cannibalistic tendencies and we always listen before judging. Right group?” Heads nodded around the circle.
“Can you tell the group a little bit more about yourself?”
Goosebumps broke out on Marvin’s forearms. The cold room was bare. Besides the people and folding chairs, there was a table set up with a reddish drink and disposable cups by the door that led to the hall. He swore there was mold in one of the corners, which would explain the smell. It was the first time we had been to the basement of the Linden Hotel. He didn’t even know there was a basement until tonight, and it creeped him out. The poor lighting made it feel like a dungeon, like Marvin was trapped.
Marvin squirmed in the hard, metal folding chair. “Well, it started about two months ago-“
“A first gen-can, huh?” a man from across the circle said. He looked at Marvin like he was inspecting him, eyes narrowed and arms crossed. Would they judge him for not having cannibal blood? He was the first in his family to eat human that he knew of. Maybe his aunt Hellen, twice removed, was a cannibal. She made that joke once about tasting human flesh.
“Thank you, Nick, but let’s let Marvin speak. Remember, listen before judging,” Janice said. When Nick didn’t say anything, Janice continued. “Marvin, go ahead.”
“I’m a first generation cannibal, from what I know. I mean, it might run in the family but- anyway, like I said it started about two months ago. I work at Ace Hardware and there was a costumer, she was looking for nails, poked one, and it cut her. The blood was so red and I just…” Marvin remembered the tiny drop of red he saw on her finger she put the digit in her mouth. He didn’t look away. Her eyebrows had furrowed and he had stared at the indents in her cheeks from the pressure of sucking her finger.
“Yes? You what, Marvin?” Janice said.
Marvin jumped and blinked. “Oh, sorry. I wondered how it tasted,” he said softly. He could feel the sweat forming on his forehead. The knots were coming back in his stomach. He really hoped he didn’t puke. His eyes jumped from person to person, gauging their reactions. The group could be a complete farce. He could actually be on a game show where they find freaks like him to embarrass and then arrest, and then-
“Like vinegar and meat yogurt, if you ask me,” said a woman three seats down from Marvin. “But of course, everyone has their own opinion.” She didn’t look freaked out at Marvin’s confession. She sat upright in her chair, with her legs crossed, and wore one of those frilly shirts with a high collar. She looked like she belonged. Before the meeting began Marvin had overheard her talking to one of the guys about recipes for muscle soup because finding a good broth was challenging. She was clearly a regular. Marvin thought he remembered Leila talking about someone who knew a lot of recipes, someone whose son was a city councilman.
“Thank you, Patty, but Marvin-“ Janice was interrupted.
“I always thought it was like a salty broth,” said a man across from Patty. Everyone turned to look. He wore jeans two sizes too big and pit stains visible on his beat-up t-shirt under his armpits. Marvin smiled and breathed a little easier. They were taking him seriously. They weren’t calling him a freak or looking at him like he was a monster.
“Zach, Patty, please. We have two new members and it can be a bit intimidating to share for the first time,” Janice said. “We need to show support and let them talk.”
“So sorry, excuse me,” Patty said, putting a hand to her heart like she was very apologetic. The smile she gave Janice was too big. Marvin could see lipstick on her teeth.
“Sorry,” Zach said and crossed his arms.
“Now, Marvin. You were saying about the blood.”
Alex tried not to puke. She successfully sat through the curly-headed freak, Marvin, talking about wanting to drink someone’s blood without vomiting on the floor, but she didn’t know how much longer she could last. Maybe she should have let Hughes take the case. Three stolen corpses from the local morgue in the past three weeks was weird, but this meeting convoluted her definition of weird. The first time the corpse was stolen, there were scratches on the locks where they had been picked. Alex hated the old Linden’s lack of technology. The old town was beautiful, but security systems were outdated. The second time a body went missing, the chief urged the city treasurer to find the money to buy better locks. The corpses are now protected by metal slots that opened for key cards with swipe access. Only top police and the medical officer and assistants could open the door to the cooler. They all joked about checking the bodies into “the hotel.”
The new, “advanced” locks didn’t keep the perp from stealing a third body, though. No DNA was left at the scene, so the person wore gloves. The security tapes didn’t show anything. Everyone in the office had different theories. Alex thought the perp cut out the footage with illegal activities and replaced it with a recording of nothing happening. Everyone agreed the person was good with technology.
She had just moved from Detroit to join the Linden Police Department, so she was new and doing a lot of administrative work. The office was boring and her day consisted of dealing with people complaining about potholes. A tip about a group of cannibals led Alex to the meeting. The guy who gave them the tip- brought in on drug possession charges, facing three charges of aggravated assault and two other possible drug possession charges- tried to blame the drugs on a group of cannibals. These kinds of records were rare in a town like Linden. It was an exciting day in the office. Even though his excuse didn’t make any sense, the tip was helpful. She wanted in on the case and begged the police chief to let her go undercover. The chances of someone from Linden recognizing her as an officer were slim, and the chief agreed. She was starting to miss pothole complaints, though.
“I tried my own blood. I actually, uh, got a knife and cut myself,” Marvin said. Alex took a big breath in her nose, trying to calm down. She would never tell her coworkers if she puked. She had to prove herself. All she had to do was listen, find out who’d been stealing corpses, identify who the major threats are, get names, and report back to the chief. She could do that. She just had to stay calm. Blending in was important to keep her cover if she needed to go to more meetings.
“I always wanted to compare it to wine, but that’s just not realistic,” Marvin said. He gave a little nervous laugh. Alex ruled Marvin out. He was too nervous and obviously new to cannibalism. He wasn’t the type to steal corpses, but he might know the perp.
Patty snorted. “That’s Hollywood speaking, sweetheart. Besides, if you want something tasty, try eyes. They are just divine with lime and parsley,” she said. Patty could be the perp, Alex thought. She had plenty of ideas of what to do with the bodies, and she seemed smart enough.
“I like ‘em with hot sauce,” Zach said. “Gives ‘em an extra zing.” Patty and Zach started their own conversation from across the circle. Alex blinked, imagined her eyes in hot sauce, and slowly put a hand to her mouth, fighting the nausea. She looked at Zach as they argued. He had a strong build with plenty of muscles. Maybe Zach carried the bodies while Patty disabled the cameras.
“I want to talk about media representations,” said a thin, young looking girl with glasses.
“Of course you do, Lindsey,” Janice. “What movie is it now?”
Lindsey cleared her throat pushed her glasses up before speaking. “Is anyone else bothered by the phallocentric themes in Silence of the Lambs?” Lindsey said. She talked with her hands, waving them about as she spoke. “I just can’t stand that the most popular representation of cannibals is a man.” Lindsey was scrawny and didn’t look like she ate enough. There was no way she could lift a fully grown man. Alex ruled her out.
“Oh, honey, I know. Men don’t even know how to cook,” Patty said. “Have I given you my recipe for baked brain?” Alex closed her eyes and pursed her lips, ignoring the pressure in her stomach.
“I mean, all I’m saying is that there are women cannibals too, and Hollywood is only trying to tell people that women can’t handle eating human meat and flesh or drinking blood,” Lindsey said, hands flying everywhere. “It’s just so sexist.” Janice sighed and Alex got the idea Lindsey ranted at most meetings. Alex didn’t know how she was going to survive this meeting.
Marvin hadn’t actually prepared any human dishes himself. It was Leila who made all dishes since he confessed the urges. He knew he liked certain types of muscles, prepared certain ways. He didn’t like all muscles. Tongue was gross. Leila made grilled tongue once and it made his stomach hurt. Maybe Patty had a recipe for that.
“It just sucks when I tell my girlfriend I want to eat her and she thinks it’s sexual,” said Tim, an attractive man who sat next to Zach.
“That’s what happens when society refuses to expect new ideologies,” Lindsey said. “The world is changing and people need to adapt instead of keeping their heads stuck in the past. I swear, if one more person makes a joke about cannibals putting peoples in holes and telling them to put lotion on their skin, I’m going to freak.”
As the meeting went on, Marvin felt more comfortable. Even though he probably seemed like an unwanted blood vessel that got stuck in your teeth because everyone else was so much more experienced, no one was judging him or giving him funny looks. He definitely wanted to come back and he wanted to try those liver burgers Patty mentioned.
“If you want something to freak about, just think about how NASA knows everything we’re doing,” Nick said, uncrossing his arms.
“You mean the NSA?” Lindsey asked.
Nick leaned forward, placed his hands on his knees, and scanned the room. “They watch everyone. They can probably see us right now, spying on us with our phones and watches.”
“Nick-“ Janice said.
“Satellites can read your credit cards, you know. They can track your location.” Nick started pointing at random people. “It’s a wonder they haven’t took us yet. But I’m not afraid.”
“Nick-“ Janice tried again.
“Ya’ hear that, NASA?” He looked up and pointed to the corner over Marvin’s head. Marvin whipped his head around to look, but there was nothing there. “Isn’t that where the hidden camera is? I ain’t afraid,” Nick screamed.
“Nick, we’ve talked about this,” Janice said. “There are no hidden cameras and the NSA isn’t listening to you through your phone.”
“They listen through hearing aids too, ya’ know,” Nick said, pointing at Janice and then at Marvin, eyes wide. “Do you wear hearing aids, new guy?”
“Good. I’d avoid fit-bits, too, if I were you.”
“A what?” Marvin said.
“All righty then, Nick,” Janice said. “Who’s next?”
“Erin, right?” Alex whipped her head to look at Janice, remembering her pseudonym.
“Yes. That’s me,” Alex said. Everyone stared at her. She stared back at the people she was scrutinizing for the past twenty minutes. Alex straightened her spine, wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans, and tried a smile.
“So,” Janice said. “Tell us about yourself.”
“Right. My name’s Erin,” Alex said. The room felt tense.
“Hi, Erin,” everyone echoed.
Alex looked at Janice. “Could I actually just listen this meeting? Nerves and all.”
“Oh, of course,” Janice wrote something on her clipboard. “We don’t pressure anyone to talk. We just offer support and open ears.”
“As an appetizer,” Zach said with a grin. A few people laughed.
“With lemon and ginger,” Patty said. Zach grinned harder at her.
“Thank you for that, Zach and Patty,” Janice said. “Okay everyone, let’s take a quick five minute break to use the restroom and refill our beverages.” Everyone moved. A few people stretched, a few walked to the front hallway where the bathrooms were, and a few went to the small table of beverages. Alex stood and walked to the beverage table, following Janice. Her muscles were tighter than she realized but she made herself relax when she stood next to the group leader. Janice filled a cup with the reddish liquid, took a sip, and noticed Alex standing by her. Alex smiled.
“Oh, hi,” Janice said. “Would you like some?” Janice set her cup down and grabbed an empty one, going to fill it.
“No, thank you,” Alex blurted. “I’m not thirsty.”
“Don’t worry, I understand anxiety,” Janice said. “My stomach was in knots my first few meetings, I was so nervous.”
“When was your first meeting?” Alex said.
“I started leading about three months ago. I was a regular for two months before. The group’s grown so much since then,” Janice said. She looked at the chairs and smiled. “It’s so rewarding to see people grow.”
“I bet,” Alex said. She rested a hip against the table, trying to look casual. “So, where do they come from?”
“Oh, from all over. Some are local, some live in Hartland, some Flint,” Janice said. “We can’t exactly hand out fliers. It’s an underground network. You have to be referred, like you and Marvin were.”
“Right,” Alex said, thankful for her shady contacts. “Sorry, I guess I was too vague. I mean, the, the bodies.”
“Oh,” Janice’s eyes went wide. “You mean ingredients. Well, some people get them from online. Some have special friends. But that’s not something we talk about. We only give each other support.”
“Right,” Alex went to fiddle with her jacket but stopped. She couldn’t seem too nervous. “But you don’t ever wonder?”
“I wonder. I don’t ask,” Janice tilted her drink to Alex before taking a large gulp.
A few minutes later in the circle, Janice cleared her throat and the meeting resumed. Another half hour went by and Alex listened to Lindsey talk about trying off-brand drugs to make her hair grow over her bald spots. Nick talked about how lonely was because he was afraid to truly open up to people for fear of rejection, and fear of them actually being government officials sent to spy on him. Zach complained about how hard it was trying to figure out the best boiling temperature for ribs and other body parts.
“That depends on the state of the body before you prepare it,” Patty interjected. “Freezer burn can sometimes add a salty flavor, but only slightly. Fresh meat is best, of course. We all know that. Don’t underestimate garlic powder.” Alex perked up, hoping she’d talk more about the bodies and where to find them, but Patty didn’t. She did mention her new book, Having Friends for Dinner, and asked the group if they knew of any publishers with exotic tastes. No one did, but Lindsey said she would be glad to edit the first draft.
“So, everyone,” Janice said. “How are we all managing symptoms this week? Patty, has the doctor said anything more about the prions?”
“Nothing unmanageable, dear Janice,” Patty said. “It won’t keep me down.”
“Good, but you might want to think about eating less baked brain for a while, just until Kuru is less of a threat,” Janice said.
“Oh, pish posh, that won’t happen to me,” Patty said.
“Isn’t that the prion disease that makes your brain deteriorate?” Marvin said. He put a hand to his mouth and his eyes went wide. “So sorry to interrupt.” Alex kept her eyes on Marvin. She wanted to talk to him too.
“Dear, there are ways to avoid those silly diseases,” Patty said. “Preparing the brain a certain way before you eat it kills the bad stuff. That’s common knowledge.”
“It’s never been proven with human brain,” Lindsey said.
“I’m living proof,” Patty nodded her head toward Lindsey, as if looking down on her. Alex would definitely talk to Patty after the meeting. Maybe she could get her to talk more about finding bodies.
“But-“ Lindsey was interrupted by Janice, who was looking at the watch on her wrist.
“Sorry, everyone, that’s our hour,” Janice stood up, not looking at all sorry. “Great meeting, everyone. Great meeting.” She started a clap and soon everyone joined in the measly applause. Alex stood and watched Patty grab her purse and walk toward the bathrooms. Everyone started pushing back chairs and the room turned into a myriad of squeaks before the circle was no more. Alex followed Patty to the hall.
The bathroom was as poorly lit as the main room. It had four stalls, two sinks, two mirrors, no escape window, and a moldy smell. Alex let the door close behind her. Two feet in high-heels rested on floor in the middle stall. The tile floor looked rusty. Alex took the stall one away from Patty. After locking the door, Alex stood in the stall for a moment before pulling her pants down and sitting on the seat. The toilet seat was cold and Alex cringed, thinking of her hygiene. She had to try to pee to keep her cover. The stall was a sad, brown color with the paint chipping off on the handle and lock. Alex waited then finally peed a little. The trickle echoed in the silent bathroom. A whimper sounded from the next stall. Alex thought about asking Patty if she was all right. A few seconds passed and Alex heard another whimper and trickle.
Alex cleared her throat. “Um. Are you all right, Patty?”
“Just fine, dear.” Patty’s voice was raspy. She sounded old and tired. “Just wait until you’re peeing blood.” Alex wiped, pulled her pants back up, and flushed the toilet. She washed her hands with her head tilted towards Patty’s stall, straining to hear anything. Finally she heard a flush. Patty came out a moment later. She looked older than she had during the meeting.
“You’re peeing blood?” Alex said.
“It happens to the best of us,” Patty washed her hands. They were shaking almost violently. Alex wondered how she didn’t notice during the meeting. “You just take some nice pills and it doesn’t hurt that much.”
“How long have you been…”
“Eating human meat? You can say it, dear. It’s not taboo here,” Patty pulled lipstick out of her purse and leaned towards the mirror. “I started when I was about your age. The damn shakes are the hardest part.” Her hand was practically vibrating as she put the red lipstick to her mouth. A little smeared and stained her pale, white skin. “But that’s what paper towel is for. No one will notice.” The older woman sighed as she cleaned up the makeup. Patty’s hairline was receding, Alex noticed. It was thin, too, and her eyes looked sunken in. Alex looked at herself in the mirror, noticing her appearance for the first time that night. Her skin was as white as Patty’s and she looked sweaty. She felt sweaty.
“So, where do you get yours from?” Alex said.
“Maybelline, mainly. I do like Revlon but it doesn’t last as long,” Patty said.
“No, not makeup. I mean…”
“What? Dear, I know you’re new, but I don’t know you.” Patty gave Alex a pointed look. “Cannibal or not, a girl’s got her secrets. You understand.” Patty smirked and winked a tacky blue-shadowed eye. She turned to leave. Alex wanted to say something else, but stopped. She couldn’t come to the next meeting if they thought something was off about her. She was already asking questions no one else asked. One more look in the mirror had Alex thinking maybe her eyes were sinking in too.
The fresh air smelled wonderful, as Marvin walked down Silver Lake Road, even if it was dark and getting late. Marvin smiled. He’d done it: attended his first support group, shared his story, and made a few friends. Maybe even some dinner buddies. He padded his pocket and felt the wad of recipes Patty gave him. He couldn’t wait to try baked brain.
“Excuse me, Marvin?” Marvin turned around. The quiet, small girl with dark hair fast-walked to catch up. Her pale skin looked damp with sweat and she looked flustered. Marvin saw walking across the street to his car, but other than him, no one else was around.
“Hi,” Marvin looked around. “You were at the meeting. Erin?”
“Yeah, um,” Alex cleared her throat. “Look, do you have a minute to talk? I get really shy in groups.”
“Sure,” Marvin said.
“So with this whole eating…people thing,” Alex looked around. “How do you find the bodies? And how do you pick?”
“Oh, that,” Marvin said. “That’s not really something-“
“I’m just curious, really, being new and all,” Alex said. “I mean, I have my ways and I’m just wondering how other people do it.”
“Look, please don’t tell anyone this,” Marvin slumped and he started fiddling with the end of his coat.
“Of course not,” Alex said.
“I haven’t actually…” His stomach was in knots again and he was sure he was shaking.
“Haven’t actually what?” Alex said. She only looked interested, though. She didn’t look like she’d make fun of him.
“I haven’t actually made, you know, the dishes,” he ducked his head and wiped his hands on his jeans. It was so embarrassing, Marvin thought. He was so inexperienced at cooking.
“Human dishes,” Marvin practically mumbled.
“Oh right, right,” Alex said. “So you haven’t ever stolen a corpse?”
“Goodness, no,” Marvin said, horrified. “I wouldn’t steal. Leila makes everything for me.”
“Leila? Where does she get the bodies from?
“I think a friend gives it to her or she gets stuff online. You know. The usual ways.” Marvin shrugged. “This seems…invasive. Are we supposed to ask about this?”
“Did you hear about the corpses stolen from the morgue?” Alex blurted out.
“Stolen corpses?” Marvin’s eyes widened. “No, I hadn’t heard, but that’s awful.” Alex stared at him a bit longer than he expected. He felt like he was being interrogated. He started to sweat again.
“Yeah, it’s weird,” Alex said. “See you next meeting?” She turned and walked the other way without waiting for his response.
Alex walked without really looking in front of her. The streetlights lit her way. It was late when the meeting let out, but now the sky was completely dark. The next meeting was next Wednesday. She’d talk to Zach then, and maybe try Patty again. If she sat next to Patty and asked about recipes-
Alex fell to her knees from the blow to back to her head. The next hit sent her body to the damp ground, and she saw lights before the black.