Distanced by an impenetrable wall of embarrassment, Michael watches the others enjoying their meal as he, having lost his appetite, makes a show of pushing the food around his plate.
“Are you all right?” the soft-voiced woman beside him asks.
“Huh?” he says, lifting his head. “Sure, yeah, I’m fine. I’m just taking my time. I don’t like to rush when I eat.”
“Be careful you don’t offend the host, Michael,” her husband says. “You know what happens when you upset a cannibal, right? You wind up in hot water.”
“Are you not eating?” the butcher calls out. “Don’t tell me you’ve suddenly become a vegetarian?”
“No, it’s not that, I just—”
“Say,” the drinker says, “did you hear the one about the cannibal who only ate vegetables?”
“No,” Michael sighs, shaking his head.
“He was particularly fond of the ones with downs syndrome.”
“Oh my,” the plucky woman chortles. “Now that’s just plain shameful.”
“You think that’s shameful?” the drinker says. “The other day my wife asked me if we should have another baby. I said, ‘Slow down there, love, how’s about we finish the one on our plates first?’”
It seems to Michael that the more the evening drags on, the coarser the jokes become.
“How does a cannibal have seconds?” It’s the drinker again.
“I don’t know,” the butcher says.
“He eats the stomach.”
A full complement of ‘Ughs,’ and ‘Oh’s’ circles the table.
“That’s not even funny, that’s just gross,” the plucky woman contends.
“It’s my fault,” the butcher cuts in. “I take full responsibility for that. If I had known you wanted funny, I would have saved you a piece of the clown we had last week.”
“Comedian, eh? Well, you are what you eat they say,” the drinker says, teetering in his chair.
“I guess that’s why I’m such a people person.”
The conversation continues like this until all the wine and humor have been exhausted, at which point, the guests begin excusing themselves.
“Well, Wayne, I suppose, perhaps, we should be running along now.”
“I’m afraid he’s right,” the elderly woman says. “We really should be going, too. We really had a great time and the food was… well,” she laughs. “Let’s just say we’ll have to do it again sometime.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay? I’ve prepared some delicious lady fingers for dessert.”
This draws amused smiles from the group as the crowd draws away from the table. In the living room, the women collect their purses and overcoats and the men their jackets.
The butcher stands holding the door open while thanking each of them for attending.
“You will come again, won’t you?” he insists.
In turn, each guarantees a prompt return before escaping into the hall.
Only Michael stays behind. Seated at the table with his head balanced on his hands, he stares at the floor as the butcher, having closed the door, glares down at him.
Michael lifts his head and, in a voice of genuine remorse, says, “I feel absolutely awful. I really don’t know how I could have been so mistaken.”
The butcher says nothing for several long seconds.
“You said you saw me?”
An anemic smile precedes his explanation. “The other night,” Michael shrugs. “I thought I saw two shadows on the wall opposite this building. Who knows, maybe I dreamed it. Maybe it was just my overactive imagination. I’m really sorry.”
The butcher thinks about it. “How did you know I had a freezer in the pantry?”
Michael shakes his head. “I suppose it was just a lucky guess… you being a butcher and all.”
“Here,” the butcher says, offering him a glass of water from the table. “You look like you’re about to pass out.” To Michael, the butcher’s face looks soft, but his voice maintains that hardened quality that comes from restricting the muscles in your neck as part of fighting back a fit of rage.
“Thank you,” he says. The water is warm but he finishes it anyway. As he places the glass on the table he hears the familiar sound of his phone’s ringtone. It’s coming from the front closet.
“That must be for you,” the butcher says. “Here, let me get that for you.”
From the closet, the butcher removes the jacket and hands it to Michael who searches the pockets for the phone, answering it on the fourth ring.
“Michael!” an urgent voice commands, “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” Michael says, lifting himself out of his chair. His knees are shaky. Walking to the front of the room, he reaches out with his free hand using the wall as a brace of support.
“Is that you in there alone with him?” she asks.
“It turns out it was all just a big mistake. Wait,” he says. “How did you know I was alone with him? Where are you calling me from?”
“I’m here at your apartment,” she says. “Watching your shadows. When I saw all but one person leave, I worried something was wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong. Well, we were wrong,” he admits, wrestling one arm into the coat and then another.
“So, she wasn’t there?” Katrina says. “Tell me what happened.”
“It’s like I said, we were wrong. Wrong about everything, the shadows, the knife, the girl—”
“And the freezer?”
“He opened the freezer,” Michael tells her. “No body, no blood. The thing wasn’t even plugged in.”
“But, Michael, you saw the shadows.”
“Maybe I did.”
“Hey, wait a minute, what is that?”
“I feel sick to my stom—.”
“Michael!” Katrina screams. “Watch out!”
A slow climbing shadow rises against the wall. It’s an arm, and at the end of it, a familiar deadly object.
The shadow flashes down as Michael spins around. A loud THWACK echoes through the room as his lifeless body collapses to the floor.
Thick, muscular hands grind his ankles together. A pool of warm blood gathers above his hairline. As his mind alters in and out of consciousness, he’s only vaguely aware of being dragged down a long, shadowy hallway. Arms stretched out above his head, he gropes at the walls. Halfway down the corridor he grasps the frame of a door. There’s a catch as he flexes his fingers around the thin panel of wood. The butcher barely notices the resistance as Michael’s grip, too weak to hold on, slips away.
Still a bit fuzzy, he tries to scream, but nothing comes out when he opens his mouth.
At the entrance of the bathroom, the butcher stops to free one hand so he can open the door. The sudden burst of light stings Michael’s eyes. Arms raised, he shields his face.
Jerked over the wooden threshold, a loose nail digs into his back. His shirt snags. The butcher gives his feet a violent yank causing Michael’s head to smack off the cold tile floor. He loses momentary consciousness. But the uneasy feeling of weightlessness brings his mind struggling back as he comes crashing down hard atop the bathtub’s cold surface.
Air is forced out of his lungs by the stabbing weight of a knee against his back. Pinned to the ground like a butterfly in a display case, his ribs ache as he struggles to breathe.
In the butcher’s crushing grip, Michael’s arms are wrenched behind his back. There’s a shriek of duct tape as his wrists are wrapped together. Hands fastened, the butcher lifts his oppressive weight, leaving Michael gasping for air. Next, his legs are bent backwards and tied at the ankles before all four appendages are fastened together as one.
Hog tied, a dirty wash rag is stuffed in his throat and a piece of tape stretched over it.
Immobilized, all he can do is listen as the butcher lumbers off down the hallway. As the sound of footsteps grows faint, Michael shifts and strains to pitch himself over onto one side where, with his neck craned, he lifts one dreary eye over the edge of the bathtub.
The door is closed and the sound of footsteps has died off.
In the stillness that follows, his mind races with panic. Scenes of dread and horror flood his imagination, scenes of torture, scenes of depravity.
Sweat beads dot his pores. His chest heaves. Acids lurch up from his stomach, burning the lining of his throat.
Closing his eyes, a voice at the back of his head sounds like hers. “Michael… Michael…,” her words echo sweetly.
She’s looking for him.
“Michael…,” she calls again.
“I’m in here,” he answers.
“Oh, there you are,” she says, peering warmly down at him.
Smoothed by her supple skin, the sleek edges of her jaw serve to frame her face as the curvature around her eyes slants downward toward an upturned nose just as all the other contours of her face seem to lead to the same place, guiding him toward those big, pouty lips. Staring at her mouth, the shape around them begins to muddle and change, morphing into something strange, something hideous. When he opens his eyes again, the butcher stands looming over him.
There are several heavy objects in his hands that he’s arranging on the counter.
From his angle, it’s difficult to know for sure, but he thinks he sees him lay down an amputation saw, a meat grinder with table clamp, and what appears to be a serrated fillet knife. Tools of the trade. And there’s no mistaking their purpose.