I stopped eating on the first day of fourth grade. I opened my lunchbox and nearly puked at the sight of the food. My PB&J looked soggy and gelatinous, like the corpse of a beached whale about to explode. I imagined the interior of my apple crawling with fat worms. So, I ran to the nearest garbage can to dump it all out.
That night at the dinner table, I swore I caught a whiff of gasoline in my meatloaf; imagined there was glue mixed into the mashed potatoes and tar in the gravy. I pushed my plate away and went to my room. My parents were too deep in discussion about my father’s unemployment to notice.
“But I thought Dan said there were jobs at Microsoft,” my mother said, bewildered.
“Everyone remotely associated with our company is blacklisted,” my father sighed. “Microsoft won’t touch me with a ten-foot cattle prod.”
I climbed the creaky stairs to the bathroom and stood in front of the full-length bathroom mirror. It was clear. Over the course of the summer, while all the other boys in my grade were growing up, I was growing out. I had seemingly gone from lean to husky overnight. What if it never stopped? What if I kept growing sideways until gravity forced me into a sphere with small moons orbiting my planetoid stomach?
I threw up the remains of my frosted flakes that night. No one noticed. Over the next several days, I found that it was easy to nibble a little while someone was watching and simply regurgitate it later. It wasn’t pleasant, but all food was repugnant and it was better than letting it digest. I couldn’t stand the thought of bread and bits of carrots churning inside me like some kind of vile washing machine.
It was the end of two eras in our household. My father’s dot com bubble burst and my days of normal nutrient consumption came to a halt. My father and I began to exhibit the same symptoms of two vastly different afflictions. Day by day, my father withered away, growing gaunt with gray circles under his eyes. At the same time, my midsection lost some of its fluff, but not enough. We were both lethargic, preferring to watch TV than to perform any feat as strenuous as walking from the couch to the kitchen.
To ease my father’s depression, my mother started serving us where we lounged, unable to move. It was a simple task to slide my meals under the couch while my parents watched Star Trek: Voyager and my sister played in a mountain of Beanie Babies. Late at night, I would return under the cover of darkness to scoop up the food and move it to the garbage.
It was also around the start of fourth grade that my friend Jason became obsessed with cannibals. He claimed to have had a run-in during the summer with a tribe that lived across the Puget Sound in the wild, untamed woods of the Kitsap Peninsula. I was suspicious, but had to admit that I’d never been across the bridge. Who knew what horrors lurked on the western shore?
Jason spent the fall immersed in all things cannibal. He read every book he could find on the subject, from a history of the Donner Party to a fantastic novel about a pirate captured by a band of savages in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. It certainly didn’t help my growing uneasiness with food.
“Did you know,” he asked one afternoon. “That Aztec warriors used to eat the hearts of people they killed to get their strength?”
“Oh.” I said, waiting for an opportunity to ditch my string cheese under the lunch table. “Are those the people you saw this summer?”
“No, not Aztecs,” Jason said. “They were much, much worse.”
“Would you just tell me?” I said, rolling my eyes. “Just tell me what happened.”
“You couldn’t handle it, Matty,” he said, shaking his head. “Maybe someday you’ll be worthy.”
Jason dangled the story over me like bait and I was reliable prey. My hunger to know what had happened to my friend in the woods started to gnaw at me from the pit in my stomach.
“How many cannibals did you see?” I whispered during silent sustained reading one day. Jason was pouring over a book on the headhunters of the Amazon.
“I can’t remember,” he hissed back.
“You can have my Lunchables,” I replied. It wasn’t like I was going to eat it. He was quiet for a long time. His dark black eyebrows furrowed in concentration.
“About a hundred,” Jason said. “They surrounded my dad’s cabin one morning.”
“What did you do?”
“Voices off; brains on, ladies and gentlemen,” Mr. Chowdhry rumbled from across the room.
At school, I traded my lunch for pieces of Jason’s story while at home I weighed myself and watched my father descend deeper and deeper into the couch cushions until he became a part of the fabric.
It was around this time that I started seeing things. My body stubbornly refused to grow any taller or leaner, but my brain was starving. In its desperate battle for survival, it was grasping at any straw it could reach to get me to eat. Visions of corn on the cob sat next to me on the bus one morning. Later that day, Mr. Chowdhry’s dry erase marker was replaced by a handful of bacon. I watched, wide-eyed, as he wrote out long division problems in grease. Food haunted my days and my nights, but it only made me want to eat less. I often dreamed of a perfect future world where food was delivered in pill form or intravenously. Sometimes, inexplicably, I dreamt of cannibals.
“Come on, Jason,” I begged while we rode the bus through a neighborhood of gingerbread houses. Jason held up a finger to silence me. On his lap sat three fresh, homemade snickerdoodles in a Ziplock bag. They used to be my favorite, but now they crumbled like wet sawdust in my mouth. He ate slowly and meticulously, stopping to close his eyes and let the sugar cascade over his tongue. It took all my willpower not to puke.
“I deem your offering worthy,” he said with a great air of formality. He paused to lick his fingertips. Like a perfect showman, he let the suspense boil.
“Will you just hurry up?” I hissed.
“My dad and I go out to this cabin every summer,” Jason began. “It’s way out there, on the shore of this little lake so remote, it doesn’t have a name. That’s where they found us.”
“The cannibals?” I asked, my voice suddenly almost too dry to speak.
“A hundred cannibals, drawn there by the smell of steak cooking on our fire,” Jason said. He drew a column of smoke with a gesture of his hand. “They howled like wolves, with blood dripping from the corners of their mouths. They surrounded us. We managed to fend them off for a few days with whatever we could find around the cabin. We turned a fire poker into a harpoon; a propane lantern into a Malatov cocktail. On the third day, they got our dog, Nacho, and roasted her over a fire down by the water’s edge. By the evening of the fourth day, they’d pushed into the house and forced us up onto the roof with just the contents of our kitchen to fight with. It seemed hopeless. Until I remembered something from a library book about how castles used to defend themselves from attacking armies. I devised a plan to pour boiling oil on them through the skylight. But it was my dad who suggested adding the steak seasoning.”
“Did it work? Did it drive them off?”
Jason didn’t bother to answer. He was too deep into the story to stop now. He was kneeling on the seat, with his hands grasping the seatback in front of us for dramatic effect.
“We awoke to silence. When he climbed down into the cabin, all that was left of the cannibals was a pile of bones three feet deep. The meat was picked clean.”
I was stunned. He placed a hand on my shoulder solemnly.
“We didn’t get them all, of course. The smart ones knew it was a trap. They’re still out there, hiding in the trees, waiting for fresh meat. Especially fat meat!” He poked my midsection and laughed.
At home, the family’s Saturn station wagon was in the driveway with the tailgate open. My mom was stuffing the car full of dusty, never-before-used camping gear like an enormous Thanksgiving turkey.
“Hi honey!” she called as she tried to shove an armful of fishing poles inside
“What are you doing?” I asked, still a little shaken.
“We’re going on a little trip this weekend,” she said.
“Camping?” I asked. My stomach churned at the thought. Camping meant chewy hot dogs, thick oatmeal and sticky, gooey marshmallows. Worst of all, it meant eating in front of my parents — and probably throwing up in the woods late at night while a tribe of cannibals lurked in the shadows with spears held high. “We can’t go!” I blurted out.
“Why not?” my mom asked, poking her head out of her struggle with an oversized sleeping bag. “Are you sick? Do you have a fever?”
“Jason, um, said he and his dad saw bears out in the woods!” I said. I mentally kicked myself. A fever would’ve been better.
“There may be a few bears,” my mother said. “But I used to go camping out on the peninsula all the time when I was your age. They’re more scared of you than you are of them.”
“The peninsula? You mean—“
“The Kitsap Peninsula,” she said. “You’re gonna love it, Matty.”
My shoulders slumped. We were all going to die. I wandered into the house, where my father was laying on his back across the couch; his long legs dangling over the armrest.
“Is your mom out packing the car?” he asked as he stared at the ceiling.
“Yeah. She says we’re going camping.”
“Damn. I tried talking her out of it, but she says it’ll be good for us. You and me,” he said with a yawn. I let my backpack drop to the ground and dragged it down to my bedroom. It felt like a twenty-pound sack of potatoes.
An hour later, I was wedged between a camp stove and a cooler in the backseat of the station wagon. My feet were propped up on a sleeping bag and a solar shower was draped over the headrest behind me.
As we traveled further and further from the familiar Seattle skyline, I could feel my sense of dread multiplying. There was no way we were prepared for the dangers awaiting us. We crossed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and civilization itself dropped away in the rearview mirror. My father stared blankly out the passenger window while my mother whistled along to Ricky Martin on the radio.
Several times, I wanted to say something; to warn my parents about the murderous fate that was sure to befall us, but every time, I lost my nerve. Soon, we were driving down a twisting dirt road flanked by trees the size of skyscrapers.
We finally arrived at a secluded lake; the kind of lake that probably had no name. Thick evergreens surrounded us on all sides. My mother immediately started to set up the tent under a stand of red-skinned madronas that leaned out over the water. My father and I watched from the car while my sister snored in her booster seat.
That night, as my mother built the fire, I sat petrified on a fallen tree. Every cracking twig and every squeaking bat made my stomach tighten. I couldn’t tell if the growling was coming from inside my body or if it was drifting out from the licorice-black tree line. I swore I saw human eyes gleaming in the darkness. The danger closing in made me too distracted to notice the hot dog burning at the end of my stick until flames started to leap up from its blackened husk. I hastily shook it off into the coals. That’s when I saw my father watching me intently.
“Here, Matty, you can have mine,” he said. He walked around the crackling fire and handed me his fresh hotdog, smothered in ketchup and mustard that reeked of paint fumes. He sat down and watched me. I would have to eat it.
“You haven’t eaten all day,” he said, nudging my shoulder. “Dig in.” There was no escape. I opened my mouth and tried not to let it sit on my taste buds for too long.
Several hours later, I woke in a cold sweat and ran into the lake to throw up. The moon shone softly though a layer of clouds as I stood knee deep in the water, hacking and coughing. Then, I heard a small splash behind me. And another. And another. I straightened. Someone or something was in the water.
“Cannibals,” I whispered. It was perfect. We were too strong as a group. They were going to pick us off one by one. I wondered briefly if they would spear me like a fish or simply drown me. I whirled around — fists up — but instead of a bloodthirsty tribe of cannibals, I saw my father wading out to me.
“It’s just me, it’s just me,” he said, holding up his hands. “Hot dog not sitting well?”
I shook my head. He came up beside me and laid a hand on my shoulder. For a while, I just coughed while the cold water lapped around our legs.
“When was the last time you ate, Matt?” my father finally said. “Without throwing it back up?”
I didn’t answer him; instead I hung my head. I was found out. I could feel it.
“That’s what I thought,” he said.
“When was the last time you sent out a resume?” I replied, glancing up. His eyebrows shot up and he grinned.
“I guess neither one of us is as secretive as we thought,” he said after some time had passes. “And I think we’re both a little scared. I know what I’m frightened of, but what’s got you so riled up?”
“The cannibals,” I blurted out.
“I’m sorry — cannibals?” he echoed as if he had misheard.
“In the woods, dad! They’re everywhere! Jason said he saw—“
“Jason said, did he? Wasn’t it Jason who told you that scented markers smelled the way they taste?”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “But he saw them with his own eyes.”
“I’ll bet he did,” my father said. He started to lead me back to shore. “You know, when I was your age, every boy in my grade went through a growth spurt except for me. It wasn’t until high school that I caught up. What I’m saying is — I know this is a hard time for you.”
He bent down to catch my gaze. This was the most my father had said to anyone since getting laid off. It was like someone threw a switch inside him. The dark circles were still there, but his eyes were intense and alert for the first time in months.
“It’s going to be alright,” he said now that he had my attention. “For both us. When we get home, we’re going to get you back to real food and you’re going to help me send off some resumes. How does that sound?”
Before I could answer, a howl cracked the night. I jumped and looked around, waiting for the hungry cannibals to emerge from the trees. They didn’t come.
“Let’s make a deal,” my father said. “If you eat one saltine cracker, keep it down and go back to bed, I’ll stay up all night to guard us from the cannibals.”
“But there’s a hundred of them,” I murmured.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” he said with a smile. “Do we have a deal?”
Gingerly, I took his hand and shook it.
“Deal,” I replied. Back inside the tent, I nibbled slowly on the corner of the cracker. Nearly tasteless, it settled easily into the emptiness of my stomach. I tried not to think about the acids breaking it down. Instead, I focused on my father’s shadow — diligently walking around the perimeter of our campsite. Before I knew it, I had eaten the whole cracker and was drifting off to sleep. And somewhere inside my abdomen, the growling stopped.
*Jonny Eberle is a Southwest transplant living in Tacoma. His last short story, The Observable Universe, was published by Creative Colloquy in July. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Political Science from Northern Arizona University and was the opinion editor of his campus newspaper, where a disgruntled reader once threatened to throw him off a roof. He blogs at www.jweberle.com.