By Chef Pippinacious
After the first couple of days, keeping track of time became hard. We were left cuffed to our beds, sprayed down once a day, and offered the increasingly revolting garbage as our only food along with a ladle full of water. I managed to hold out for a little while, but I was weak and I was hungry and, finally, I took a bit of what only barely still passed as a turkey burger.
The smell of rotting meat made my already light head spin and the taste made me gag, lingering on the back of my tongue as further punishment. I choked it down with tears in my eyes and drank the water that followed desperately, like it might help wash the flavor and memory away.
“Aw, so good, hon!” Ashley said, “Isn’t it such a great feeling, eating only when you have to? Having that kind of self control is so important! Proud of you, Miss. Natalie!”
Gloria hadn’t fared so well. When she tried to swallow the fish, which smelled like a hot dumpster, she retched and then vomited frothy bile over the side of her bed onto the floor between us.
“Oh my goodness, look at what a messy little piggie you are, Miss. Gloria! Well, I guess you aren’t very hungry after all!”
Gloria groaned and turned her face away from Ashley. She had been so full of fight in the beginning, but the longer we were held there, the more it fizzled out. We no longer discussed escape plans or what we wanted to do to the camp staff once we were free. Talking required energy and we were sorely lacking. Just trying to keep my thoughts coherent was becoming harder.
My arms always ached, alternating between a cold numbness and a burning that made me wince whenever I shifted. I was sticky with old sweat and bodily waste and the damp mattress beneath me stank of both. Insects, attracted by the stench, buzzed all around and every part of me itched beneath the layer of filth. I wanted to shed my skin, crawl out of it and burn it, certain it would never be truly clean again.
We must have passed the first week or so like this; immobile and miserable. I began to think that maybe this would be the entirety of camp and almost resigned myself to a full month and a half of doing nothing but wasting away in my own excrement. You would be so proud, Mom, I thought during the night when I couldn’t sleep, I haven’t eaten in a while. I wanted to be angry, but feeling anything beyond the constant, gnawing hunger and hopelessness required too much effort.
“Rise and shine, my little piggies!” Ashley came sweeping into the cabin one morning, clapping her hands and shouting in a sing-song voice, “Who wants to go for a swim?”
When Ashley unlocked the cuffs and they fell away from my wrists, I thought I might have been dreaming. The blood rushing painfully back into my pale hands quickly dispelled that notion. I pushed myself to sit up, stiff and sore, and looked around at the other girls as they also rose. There was an air of hesitancy hanging over the room, as if we were waiting for the punchline to some joke only Ashley would think was funny.
But she just stood in the doorway in her favorite pose with her hands on her hips, smiling. Always smiling.
“You guys sure have a funny way of showing your excitement! Come on, my little piggies, let’s go!” When no one moved from their bunks, she sighed and rolled her eyes theatrically, “You guys don’t wanna go? I know having to get off your huge asses is a scary thing! I know exerting yourself more than unwrapping a candy bar is hard! But that’s why you’re here; to learn that being so lazy is unacceptable! Last chance, piggies, let’s go!”
Underwhelmed by our continued reluctance, she reached down outside the door and picked something up; a long steel rod with a rubber grip handle. On the opposite end, which she displayed clearly for us to see, were two protruding metal pins.
“Know what this is, girls?” She meandered between the beds, swinging the rod around casually, “No? None of you? Silly piggies, I guess it’s better to show than tell!”
She stopped at the foot of Inez’s bed and the girl cowered against her headboard. Inez was the largest of us, soft spoken and gentle. I hadn’t heard her speak much since the first day we’d arrived, only cry, but now she was babbling about how she’d go, she’d love to swim, she was sorry.
Ashley relaxed, nodded with a soothing smile, and then pressed the rod against the center of Inez’s chest. There was a sharp snap of electricity and Inez yelped and fell back, her hands clutching at her chest.
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Miss. Inez! It’s just a low amp, low voltage cattle, well, piggie, prod! Don’t you feel more motivated?”
Inez sniffled and nodded once.
“Good! Then let’s get that huge tub of lard body of yours out the door and down to the lake! Come on, girls!”
Inez was the first to get unsteadily to her feet and then the rest of us followed suit. I gripped my headboard and pulled myself up, but found my legs shaky, bordering on unreliable. Dizziness threatened to knock me back down, but I was too afraid of Ashley and her “piggie” prod to let that happen. With a great deal of concentration, I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other and fell in line with the others.
We were ushered, stumbling and blinking against the harsh sunlight, down towards the lake. Could I run for it? I wondered, looking over to the trees. They seemed so impossibly far and I felt so lethargic. Just walking was proving somewhat of a challenge; I couldn’t even imagine how I’d manage to do anything more. Ashley practically skipped along beside us, singing some camp song about having fun and making friends.
At the lake’s edge, we were met by two other counselors, Shauna and Megan, who waved enthusiastically and motioned for us to follow them down a long dock and line up in front of them. Ashley poked us along threateningly with her prod if she thought we were going too slow, but mercilessly left it off.
“Hi, ladies!” Shauna beamed at us, “I am just so excited for you guys to be here! Oh my God, we’ve got such a fun activity planned for you!”
“Yes we do!” Megan jumped in, “It’s called Whale Watching! You wanna hear how to play?”
When we didn’t answer, Ashley shoved the prod under Morgan’s arm and pressed the trigger.
Morgan collapsed against me with a cry and we both almost fell backwards into the water. Shauna waited until we had regained our balance before continuing.
“Ok, so here’s how it works! You guys, the whales, are going to get in the water and tread, tread, tread! We’re the watchers! We’re going to sit up here on the dock and, you guessed it, watch!”
“But here’s the fun part!” Megan said, “The first person that gets tired and needs to be pulled out gets five pokes from Ashley’s piggie prod! Every person after will get one less until there’s only one of you left in the water! That person won’t get the prod; they’ll get a nice bowl of fresh salad instead! Doesn’t that sound fun?”
The three counselors cheered enthusiastically and directed us to turn and face the water. I remembered thinking how pretty it had been when we first pulled up and how I had been looking forward to going swimming. Now, I was half convinced I was going to drown in it. We were shoved in with shouts of encouragement trailing behind us.
The water was cold and deep and sent a shock through my system. Ashley and the others sat on the edge of the dock, their legs dangling over the side. Occasionally they’d kick up water at us, laughing all the while.
“Don’t slow down, Diana! You won’t get rid of your blubber by just floating there!”
“You’re a whale, not a log, keep kicking!”
“Aw, look at my little piggies! Paddle, paddle, paddle! I’m so proud of you!”
It didn’t take long for my lungs to start burning from exertion. My arms and legs felt heavy even submerged and it took every ounce of strength to keep them moving. The fatigue I’d felt before was becoming thicker, a blanket of weariness that threatened to drag me under. Beside me, Gloria’s treading started to turn more into flailing and I saw her head bob dangerously low. She went under once, pulled herself back up, but then was down again.
She was gasping for breath, coughing, and her splashing was becoming panicked. I heard her shout for help before going under again. I wanted to go to her, but the warning that a drowning person will pull you under with them echoed loudly in my ears.
“Help her!” Diana shrieked, which had a ripple effect and we all started screaming for them to do something.
After a minute of listening to us call for help, Shauna stood up and lazily sauntered to the pole where the rescue ring was hanging and unhooked it.
“You sure you want this, Gloria? If you give up now, that’s five pokes!”
“Someone’s gotta be first!” Ashley said, pointing the prod down at Gloria, “Throw her the ring!”
The ring landed with a flat splash beside Gloria. She grabbed at it and pulled it close, clinging to it with desperate fear. The whole time the counselors hauled her in by the ring’s rope, she stared back at us, pale and shivering.
After she’d been pulled to shore, Ashley toweled her off and led her down the dock again so that she was standing in front of us.
“Wasn’t that pathetic, piggies? Barely thirty minutes and already Gloria’s let herself give up! I bet if the prize had been a double cheeseburger she would have lasted longer!”
While the counselors laughed, Gloria’s lip trembled. I recognized the shame, born so nakedly on her face, and I could feel her hurt. While we continued to tread water before them, they berated her and called her names, each one punctuated by the prod. When they were finished, Gloria sank to her knees and buried her face in her hands.
“We aren’t doing this because we want to hurt you!” Ashley said, patting Gloria on the back, “We’re giving you tough love so that you can be your happiest, healthiest self! Underneath all the rolls and stretch marks, there are beautiful girls just waiting to be set free!”
“We were all like you once!” Megan added sympathetically, “We understand that changing isn’t easy! Especially when you’ve allowed yourself to become such an ugly, unhealthy cow! But we’re going to help you, just like we were helped!”
They let Gloria move to the end of the dock, where she could sit alone and cry, while they resumed “whale watching”.
Inez was pulled out next, and then Diana, and Morgan. Each time, they were giving the same treatment as Gloria and each time, the counselors seemed to delight in it more. The prods were less in number, but longer in duration, and when Morgan’s punishment was complete, I was sure I could smell singed flesh.
With only two of us left, Ashley crouched and clapped, “I’m so proud of you, Miss. Natalie! You too, Miss. Gracie! You sure are showing these other ham beasts how it’s done!”
Grace and I exchanged worried glances. The only thing that had kept me going was the threat of that prod, but even that was starting to not be enough. The water felt thick, harder to push through, and my arms especially screamed at me to stop. I could feel the lake trying to suck me down and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I couldn’t stop it.
The first time my head went under, I managed to resurface quickly, but when I went down again, it was more difficult to find my way back up. I clawed at the water, grabbing at it like I would find something to take hold of. Grace had put some distance between us when she noticed I was starting to struggle, but I could hear her calling to me, telling me to keep going. But I couldn’t.
Just as I felt the very last ounce of strength slipping away, the ring landed in front of me. I didn’t want to grab it, I didn’t want to go back to shore, to Ashley and her piggie prod, but what choice did I have? I slung an exhausted arm around the ring and let them drag me in.
They were chatty while they dried me off, telling me they were amazed that someone so fat could last so long out on the water.
“Must be hippo instead of pig!” Shauna said and they all laughed.
Just as the others had been, I was brought down the dock and made to stand in front of Grace, who was still managing to stay afloat although I could tell it was almost killing her to do so.
“Miss. Natalie, you did so good! One hour and twenty four minutes, I can’t believe it! Of course, to a normal person, that’s not so long, but for someone like you, wow!” Ashley gushed from over my shoulder, “But, unfortunately, you were only in second place! You know what that means!”
I didn’t even have time to shudder. She just stuck the prod against my back and pressed down on the trigger. Every muscle in my body tightened at once and I couldn’t move. I was trapped in my own body, locked into place by Ashley and her prod, unable to speak or even really think. She held me there until it started to burn, when she yanked it away and let me sag to the dock.
Grace was helped ashore and dried off and they made a big show of presenting her with a bowl of fresh salad, which had been brought down by Tara. The sight of the round, red cherry tomatoes and crisp lettuce was enough to have my mouth watering. I had never wanted anything so much as I wanted that salad. The others crowded closer, our eyes transfixed and longing. Grace hugged the bowl against her stomach and raised the fork to her mouth.
She got one bite before Ashley knocked it from her hands and kicked it into the lake.
“I want you to savor that bite, Grace! Remember how nice and cool it was! Vegetables should be your favorite food! When you’re hungry tonight, think about that salad, how good it was, how much you wanted to finish it! Let yourself crave it! Soon, you won’t ever find yourself wanting greasy chips or fatty sweets anymore; you’ll want that salad! Great job, ladies, now let’s get you back to your bunks for some rest!”
Ashley, Shauna, and Megan herded us back to the cabin, pushing us to go quickly despite how tired we were. If I had thought it hard to run away earlier, it had now become impossible. Every nerve still tingled uncomfortably from the prod, my arms drooped uselessly, my legs barely wanted to carry me. My head buzzed with hunger and thirst and the need for good, solid sleep. None of us argued as we were returned to our beds, the mattresses of which had been flipped over, and handcuffed back into place. We were too exhausted.
Ashley smiled from the door, her hand on the light switch.
“Get your rest, my little piggies! Tomorrow, we learn to let go of dead weight!”