(Please read Prize before reading this story.)
“I saw you come in. You’re new.” She was an older woman with tattoos, maybe forty, tall, broad, and strong, chopping up some sort of animal. I assumed it was a man once. The parking lot was littered with dead people, buzzing with flies. The sun shone brightly in the clear afternoon air.
“They caught me this afternoon. Killed my boyfriend. It was horrible.” Tommy had saved me, and now he was dead.
“You’re alive, and that’s the important thing. They don’t kill women, at least, not usually.” Her shirt was bloody, but otherwise, she was clean and well groomed.
“I’m Lydia, I’m sort of the mom for all you girls.” Lydia was in good shape and attractive in a rough sort of way.
“Natalia. What other girls?” I didn’t see anyone but her.
“They’re in the bar. We just finished a feeding and they’re resting.” I just noticed the bar behind her. A crappy dump of a place, with a gravel parking lot and signs with silhouettes of large busted women, Barbie’s with double D’s. I guess the stacks of dead people had distracted me.
“Ok, Natalia, I’m going to give you the quick rundown before you do something stupid. Listen carefully.” It was tricky to understand her with that cigarette in her mouth. Filthy habit.
“First rule: DO NOT leave here unless you’re with your master. You’ll die in the worst possible way if you do.”
“What do you mean, master?”
“Don’t be stupid, girl.” She took the butt out of her mouth and threw it to the ground. I broke down and started crying incessantly. Lydia put her arms around me and patted me like a mom would do her sobbing child.
“Now girl, if you’re going to be crying your eyes out, you’re going to die.” She sounded serious.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help it.” I couldn’t stop.
“Just take a few deep breaths. Did he hurt you?” She held my chin up and looked me in the eyes.
“No.” I had that pouty look.
“Did he force himself on you?”
“No, not really.” I stopped crying.
“Did you hate it?”
“Well, I don’t even know his name.” I sort of whimpered that one out.
“Why, that’s silly. He doesn’t even know his name.” She laughed, let go of me and went back to her work.
“I’ve only been with Tommy before.” Tommy was my first and only lover.
“Well, now you have your master.”
“You mean the monster who won the fight?” I’d just been with him for the last hour or two.
Lydia slapped me across the face and yelled “Monster? You’ve got to lose that stupid attitude right now. You belong to him, and he’s your master. He’s a leader in this army.”
“Army? Leader? What are you talking about?” She surprised me with her sudden anger. I was really confused now.
“This is an army. An army of freaks sure, but an army nonetheless. If you open your eyes, you’ll see it. The leaders are the biggest ones. They can sort of think. They make strategy, organize the hunts, and keep the lower ranks, the Grunts, from killing each other. They also take mates.”
“Leader?” I started to see what she meant.
“He’ll treat you well, and you won’t be seeing anyone else but him, well, until another bigger guy wants you, and then they’ll fight it out.”
“How do you know who’s a Leader?” They didn’t wear any clothes. None of them did.
“You can tell by their size. The biggest one, the one who brought you in, we call him the General. There’s just one General. The ones who can control themselves are Leaders. They are much bigger than the Grunts.”
“I don’t see a difference between any of them.” They all looked alike to me.
“You’ll figure it out quickly. It’s not rocket science.” She was being sarcastic with me now.
“Here’s the second rule: DO NOT cry or show fear. Strength is what they respect. I saw you in the ring. You were strong. You did the right thing. I wish they would bring the new ones here first so I can tell them how to act. A lot more would live.”
“What kind of hell is this?” I felt panic and bile crawling up my throat.
“It’s the new world, child. Get used to it. You’re strong. You’re going to be fine.”
“I thought they would kill me, and I didn’t want to die afraid.”
“You showed some character there.” She picked up a knife and started to carve a chunk of meat. It could have been Tommy.
“So how was he?” She stopped chopping, looked me in the eye, and wanted the sordid details.
“I was scared, but gave him what he wanted.” That’s all I was going to say. It wasn’t that different than being with Tommy, only quicker. Tommy always took his time. “When will he come back? Where is he now?”
“He’s probably sleeping. They’re like cats. They sleep most of the time as long as they eat regularly. Heck, if they’re awake two hours a day I’d be surprised. You won’t see him until it gets dark. He’ll come for you then.”
“How many of them are there? It looked like more than a hundred.” A lot more maybe.
“It depends. They gather here when they can’t find any food themselves. This army is about hunger. When they are hungry, they are here. When they can find food on their own, they are away. The leaders take out hunting parties that bring back food for the troops. They’re much better at catching things than the lone Grunts.”
“You mean trapping people. They set a trap for us and killed Tommy.”
“That’s the way it is, honey. Your man is now part of the food supply. It’s a harsh reality, but there it is. Be happy they saved you.” She was very matter of fact about it.
“I think I’m in shock. I feel cold.” I was shivering in the hot sun.
“You’ll get over it. Hungry? We’ve got some leftovers.” She pointed at a tray of cooked meat.
“I’m good for now.” I felt like puking.
“Suit yourself. Third rule: Work hard and behave. If you try and escape, you’ll die.”
“What do we do? What work?” I really didn’t need to ask that.
“Are you stupid? What do you see here? We’re not serving drinks anymore, honey.”
“Butchering people? Is that what you do?”
“It’s whatever they bring in. People are food. If that bothers you too much, you’re just not going to last. You have to decide. Do you want to live or not?” She stabbed the knife into the meat.
“I’ve already decided to do whatever it takes to stay alive. I want to live.”
“Then you’re going to butcher and cook people. You’re going to eat people. You’re going to enjoy it too. Human meat isn’t that different than anything else after it’s been grilled. Once in a while, we get a deer or even a cow. It’s not always people.”
What a sickening picture.
“I’ve never done anything like this.” I choked back my feelings.
“Of course you haven’t. I’ll show you everything you need to know.”
“Is there anything else to eat other than this stuff?” I pointed at the disgusting mess around her.
“That’s it for now. We’re going to have to do something about it soon, though. They’re coming in with less meat every day. I guess they’ve nearly caught all the people out there.”
“We didn’t see anyone since the world went to crap. Not one person.”
“They’re out there.” She finished with this chunk. “Or were. We need to take that one down off the rack and hang another. Give me a hand.”
She was pointing to a headless body hanging on a rope that went through a pulley mounted on a tripod made from long aluminum poles. Lidia released the rope, and the body hit the ground with a thud.
“You grab the feet, I’ll get the arms.” We heaved the thing onto the table. It was a man at one time.
“Now we have to hang another one. Pick one out from the pile.” I felt faint and looked at her like she was crazy.
“Which one?” I asked.
“Don’t be squeamish girl, just pick one off the top. It doesn’t matter. We got to get to them all today or they’ll start to get gamey.” She was very nonchalant about such disgusting things. She must have already gone crazy.
I dragged the one on top over to the tripod.
“Now tie the feet together so we can haul it up for gutting and blooding.” Ugh. This was totally sick. We used that phrase in the past to describe something cool but now, totally sick was, well, totally sickening. I tied the feet together as instructed, and we hauled it into the air. His arms flopped down to the ground.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you. You’ve got to nail the arms up or the blood won’t drain right. I’ll do it this time. Just watch carefully.” She removed two large nails, securing the arms to the body on the table, and with a mallet, nailed the guy’s palms to his pelvis. I could hear the nails go through his bones.
“Now we chop off the head. The only good part of the head is the tongue and cheeks. Too bad we don’t eat brains here. Just a sad waste.” She hacked off the head in two quick slices with the knife, and blood gushed out, flooding a ditch that must have been dug for that purpose. After cutting out the tongue and removing the cheek meat, she tossed the head into a bin with lots of other heads. Some were men, some women, some children. This had to be a nightmare.
“I’m gonna puke.” It was too much.
“No you won’t. Stop with the drama.” She slit open his belly and expertly removed the guts, carefully avoiding spilling any of the nasty stuff from his intestines. They fell into the ditch too. A sea of blood and guts.
“This is important. Don’t get any crap on the meat. It will ruin it.” She moved back to the gutted corpse on the table and started to deftly cut it up while prattling on about which cuts were good for what, like a butcher with years of experience. I watched in horror. It was like a scene from one of those cheap Saturday night drive-in movies. Only it was really happening.
“I think I’ve seen enough. Can we stop now?” It surprised me that I hadn’t fainted.
“You’re doing fine. You’ll be a great help around here.” She organized the different cuts into bins, cleaned her hands and knife with a cloth, and lit another cigarette.
“Oh, and the fourth rule is the most important. If you feel you’re losing it, get a hold of yourself. Find some way to keep it together. It will be your end if you lose it.”
“Lose it? Like go nuts? This place is already nuts.” I was in an insane world.
“I like your sense of humor. Keep that up, and you’ll do fine. How about a tour? You look like you could use a break.” She was right. I’d had enough. She took me by the arm and started leading me toward the bar. The front doors were propped open with leg bones.
“This was my place before the world went to crap. We had bikers hanging around here acting tough all the time. They were pussies compared to the soldiers.” A couple of bikes were parked out front, abandoned.
“We live inside. Only Leaders come here. The Grunts aren’t allowed.” We stepped into a dank and dark room that smelled of piss and rotting meat. A number of women were there, some with their masters, others sleeping. A few Leaders were sleeping too. We stepped around them carefully.
“The place is a bit of a mess. We should clean it up one day. It’s not that different than before. It always smelled bad in here. You’ll get used to it.”
“I’m thirsty. Can I have some water?” I hadn’t had a thing to drink since Tommy died.
“We have all the water you could want. We have electricity and a well. The bathrooms are fully functional. We’re the only ones who use them. The soldiers go outside. We have showers, but no hot water. You’ll have to suffer with cold showers.”
“I haven’t had a shower since the world fell apart.”
“See? Your life is already better.” We approached another woman working on some sort of gadget.
“This is Marta, the smart one around here. She keeps things going. Marta, meet Natalia.”
“Hey, you’re the new girl I’ve heard about. Glad you didn’t get thrown to the Grunts.” She talked through a cigarette, too. The smoke smelled better than the piss and death in this place. She was younger, maybe thirty, topless, no tattoos, and in good shape. She had long, straight hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was pretty.
“Thrown to the Grunts?” I was starting to catch on, but wanted to hear it.
“Didn’t you tell her?” Marta questioned Lydia.
“Not all of it. Tell her.” Lydia lit another cigarette. I could see why they smoked now.
“The ones who show fear or turn into a pile of worthless cringing meat are rejected by the Leaders. They literally throw them to the Grunts. They abuse them until they die. Then they’re eaten.” Marta said it deadpan serious.
“When you say abuse, you mean…” I knew what she meant.
“Do I have to draw you a picture?” Marta looked at me like I was stupid.
“No, I get the picture.”
“It’s really no different than a rough Saturday night before.” Lydia had a sense of humor. I liked her already.
“Sure, Lydia, your legendary bar. I’m sure it was that rough.” Marta was being sarcastic.
“Well, maybe not like this, but it was a hell of a lot of fun.” She sucked down half a butt in one drag, then coughed and laughed at the same time. I expected her to hock up a lung.
“Can you show me the showers? I’d love to clean up. I stink worse than this place.”
“Sure, follow me.” We twisted through the entwined couples and sleeping giants.
We walked past another girl. She couldn’t have been much older than me. “See her?” She was just sitting on the floor, naked, bruised, thin, gaunt, and with haggard hair. Her gaze was fixed and she was unmoving.
“She’s going to die tonight.” Lydia pointed at her with her thumb.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked.
“She lost it. Violated the fourth rule.” Lydia was unhappy about it.
“She was caught last night and made it through the ring ok. She was in a panic when her master took her away. I didn’t think she would last. She’s weak.”
“You didn’t say what happened.”
“I don’t think she’d ever had much experience with men. She couldn’t take it. She’s lost, and tonight her master will probably toss her out. That will be it. She’ll be killed horribly, and then ripped apart for food.” Lydia was being serious.
“Have you tried talking to her?”
“Like I said, she’s lost. There’s nothing left. I tried, Marta tried, you can try if you want. There’s just nobody home.”
“Is there a chance her master will keep her?”
“There’s always a chance. I guess it depends on what she does tonight. He may like her like that, but usually, when they look like her, well, that’s it.” Lydia adjusted her bra. Like anyone would notice.
“I guess you’ve seen this before.”
“It happens.” Lydia stopped, grabbed my arm and asked “Are you going to hold up?”
“I’ve been with men before. I can take it. I can get into whatever he wants. I want to live. I want to stay alive. I will do anything.”
“I knew you were strong. You proved it in the ring. Standing tall at that moment took guts. You’ll do fine. These guys aren’t that bad. They can be gentle. They can actually show something like love. The closer to him you get, the better he’ll treat you. Really, not that different than any man except they’re never cruel or mean.” Her advice was hitting home. “Marta calls them neolithic. Stone age men.”
“What’s the story with Marta? She seems educated.” I wanted to change the subject.
“Marta’s an engineer. She knows all about science and stuff. If it breaks, she can fix it. Got a problem, she can solve it as long as it’s not a personal one. Come to me for those things. Go to Marta if you have any other issues.”
“So if the toilet gets clogged, call Marta?”
“You call her for that and you’re likely to get slapped. Fix the toilet yourself. If the water stops running, or you need a knife sharpened, that’s when you call her.”
“How long has she been here?”
“Almost as long as me. Without her, things would be awful.” Lydia sounded proud of her. The definition of awful sure had taken a plunge downward.
We moved to the back, through a door, and into the locker rooms.
“Why do you have a locker room?” I had never been in a biker bar before. I’d never been in a bar before. I wasn’t old enough.
“It’s a strip club, kiddo. This is where the ladies get ready.” I felt a bit naive.
“Did you strip for men?” Another silly question.
“Hell no, it’s my joint. How old are you child?”
“I just graduated high school. I’m eighteen.” The world fell apart weeks later.
“Okay, sorry about giving you a hard time. You’re just a baby.”
“I’ve never been in a bar before.”
“Of course not. Take a shower. Take as long as you want.”
“Do you have shampoo?” The thought of washing my hair overwhelmed me.
“Showers have everything, including soap. Find a locker that’s not being used. Don’t touch anything inside the ones that are. We respect each other’s belongings. There’s fresh clothing in the big white hamper over there. Take what you need.” She motioned to a bin filled with folded clothing. “Come find me when you’re done.” She left me alone. It didn’t smell as bad in here.
I stripped off my soiled, tattered rags and threw them in another hamper for dirty clothes. I just noticed my knees were bloody from being tackled during my capture. Not too bad. They’d heal. The shower was strong, cold, and felt amazing. My skinned knees stung like mad at first, then the feeling went away quickly. I had a chance to think about the last couple of hours. Tommy, my boyfriend, had been murdered in front of my eyes. He’d defended me to the end and would be cut up to feed the soldiers.
A Leader had fought others to win me as his prize. That meant something here. I wouldn’t have to please anyone but him. I was going to do my best at that. I knew a thing or two about pleasing men. It wasn’t too difficult. I hadn’t told Lydia I might be pregnant. Who knew what that would mean here?
Tommy and I had feared the army and considered the soldiers mindless killers and cannibals. They weren’t. They were just people, mutated, with burned out brains, purple skin, black hair everywhere, red eyes, and long, deadly claws. Still people. I was part of their army now and would have to fit in or be thrown to the Grunts where I would die a horrible death. I heard a sound in the locker room and turned to see him. It was my master, and he wanted me. At that moment, he appeared hideous and disgusted me, but what choice did I have? I could do it. I was strong. I would adapt and overcome.