Heads raise, chewing stops, forks and knives are left hovering. The attention of the room centers on him.
“My God, man, what’s gotten into you?” asks the plucky woman’s husband beside him.
“It’s her!” he screams. “Don’t you see? It’s her! He killed her!”
“Her, who?” someone asks.
“The girl!” he shouts. “Her body, he must have chopped it up, cooked it!”
“For heaven’s sake, man, you’re not making any sense,” the man beside him disparages.
“That’s just it,” Michael asserts. “It all makes perfect sense. That’s why there was no body. Katrina was right, she was in the freezer this whole time. He knew he couldn’t throw her away and risk someone finding her. That’s the reason for this… this whole dinner party. Don’t you see? It’s just a pretense. He’s trying to dispose of the evidence.”
Michael catches sight of the butcher shifting his gaze from one guest to the other, gauging their reaction to his accusation.
“What are you talking about, who killed who?” the mousey woman asks, laying a small hand on his forearm.
“Him,” Michael says, pointing at their host. “I saw him kill his girlfriend. She was here the other night trying to leave, but he wouldn’t let her go. He was blocking her way. They were arguing about something and she slapped him. He slapped her back and they began to fight. They were in the kitchen. To defend herself she grabbed a knife, but he wrestled it away from her and that’s when he killed her.”
“You say you saw this?” the plucky woman challenges.
“From the window, I saw their shadows projected onto the building across the way.”
“And you’re sure it was this apartment?” her husband challenges.
“Yes,” Michael says, defiantly. “And now he’s trying to dispense with the body by feeding her remains to us.”
“Dear lord,” the elderly woman gasps as she backs away from her plate.
“Is this a joke?” the drunkard asks, tottering lightheadedly in his chair.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” the plucky woman announces.
“Is it true?” asks the young man, directing the question at their host.
Attention shifts from Michael to Wayne whose face has grown hard in its lines.
A spasm of rage flits like a shadow across his visage. Eyes darken. Gripping the chair, the muscles in his arms cord. Then, as if remembering his guests, his face relaxes.
Eyes lowered, he nods his head resignedly.
“You’re right,” he murmurs. “And the worst part is, it’s not the first time I’ve eaten someone’s body in order to cover up a crime.”
A collective gasp seems to take the air right out of the room.
“In fact, it’s not even the second or the third,” he continues. “I guess you could say that’s why I live alone… because at this point, I’m completely fed up with people.”
Silence echoes off of the walls.
There are moments in life so foreign, so unpredictable, anomalous moments so unique in their strangeness, that no amount of previous experience lends itself to the benefit of knowing how to react properly. In these moments, we often rely on others having dealt with such situations and trusting in their knowledge to show us how to respond. As nine pairs of eyes trade expectant glances it becomes evident that no one knows what to say, or do.
In such instances, awkwardness, as an intangible feeling, takes on a physical quality, an agonizing weightiness that changes the pull of gravity so that it bears more heavily upon you. It does funny things with time as well, stretching it so that each excruciating second becomes its own unbearable eternity. The discomfort wrought by these two characteristics of awkwardness has been honed throughout millions of years of biological evolution to impel a person toward action.
The only movement in the room is that of rapidly shifting eyes as furtive glances are exchanged across the table.
Beneath the butcher’s bowed head, comes a soft sputtering. The noise brings all eyes back to the far end of the table. The butcher’s face burns red. With one hand he covers his mouth, but the sputtering grows louder and louder. Suppressed between a pair of pursed lips, the pressure builds until he is unable to contain it any longer. In a burst of lung-clearing amusement, he doubles over with laughter, joined immediately by the drinker and the brooding husband.
“You don’t get it,” he says, encouraging all those who aren’t laughing, “’…Fed up with people.’”
And again, he’s bowled over with laughter.
“Ugh,” the plucky woman disgusts. “Some jokes are so tasteless.”
“Apparently, some people are too,” the drinker chimes in. “Salt, please.”
This time the men are joined in their chorus of laughter by a couple of the women who, having a hard time suppressing the bubbling fit, permit themselves a few giggles.
“You don’t believe me?” Michael charges, directing their attention to the pantry closet just beyond the kitchen. “She’s in there, in the freezer.”
“The freezer?” the elderly woman says. “But that’s hardly big enough to fit an entire body.”
“He could have hacked her body into smaller pieces,” the young man surmises.
“A frozen corpse?” one of them says.
“It would certainly explain why I got the cold shoulder coming in,” the drinker says, and again, the room is in an uproar.
“Show us what’s in the freezer!” Michael demands.
The butcher laughs, “Maybe it’s true, maybe you should write crime fiction, you’ve certainly got the imagination for it.”
“Suppose we have a look in that freezer chest anyway?” the young man insists.
“Ethan!” his girlfriend scolds.
“Be sensible,” he says, talking to her but addressing the whole table. “If Michael truly believes what he saw, surely he’ll go to the police. Better to resolve the matter here and now than to deal with all of that procedural nonsense.”
Then, directing his eyes to Michael, he asks, “Would that satisfy your curiosity?”
Michael nods his head.
To all outward appearances the butcher appears calm and collected, but Michael sees his face getting nasty edges on it.
“This is utter bull,” he scoffs.
“Oh, how I hope you’re right,” the drinker whines, but this time the laughter doesn’t come as easily. Amusement has been replaced by curiosity and that natural human inclination to entertain even the most outrageous of conspiracies, if for nothing more than the thrill of a good mystery.
“Listen,” the young man offers diplomatically. “There’s a perfectly natural way of absolving yourself of these accusations.”
The butcher begins to make another joke, but pulls back, aware that everyone in the room is watching him eagerly.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“If you’ve nothing to hide,” Ethan says, “what harm would it do? Open it. That way we can put this whole murder business to rest.”
With seemingly little choice but to acquiesce to the will of his guests, the butcher rises from his chair, lifting as he does his eyes to shoot Michael a swift, stabbing glance. His anger toward him has crystallized.
Oblivious to the animosity between them, one by one the members of the dinner party crowd into the tiny kitchen. Overcome as much by intrigue as by uneasiness, the guests look on in terrified anticipation as the butcher steps into the pantry, key in hand. As the key is inserted, the heavy padlock resonates with the sound of serrated copper scraping against the etched grooves of the keyhole like a jagged knife through aluminum.
No one dares breathe.
In the ensuing silence, when a pin drop would have reverberated like a thunder clap, the faint sound of tumblers catching in the lock echoes like the ascending scale of a piano. There’s a pop as the locking mechanism disengages from the shackle and is forced up by a spring. Corroded metal along the hinge screeches as the hasp on the freezer is swiveled back. The magnetic strip around the base of the lid makes a slurping sound as the suction seal is broken.
Nine eager bodies press forward.
There’s a collective gasp as eighteen eyes peer into the confines of an empty tub.
“It’s not even plugged in,” the butcher says, reaching down to expose a loose electrical cord detached from the wall outlet.
“I had it down at the shop until about a week ago when the damned thing sprung a leak. I only brought it up here to see if I could fix it. I would have taken it in, but that would have cost me an arm and a leg, which means we wouldn’t have had anything left for dessert!”