By Chef Pippinacious
After such ominous parting words, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Let go of dead weight? I pictured dull, rusty knives and Ashley’s sugary sweet voice telling us we only had minutes to cut off as much fat as we could before she sicced a pack of hungry dogs on us to get the rest. Even with images of blood and screaming filling my head, however, the threat of whatever tomorrow might bring wasn’t enough to overcome the sheer exhaustion that enveloped me.
I drifted in and out for hours, sometimes waking from the pitiful whine of my stomach, sometimes from the depths of a watery nightmare, sometimes from the pain. Everything hurt; I felt strained, stretched thin, sore. My head throbbed, leaving me clouded and dizzy, and I wondered over and over again how much more I could take.
In a half-dream state, my thoughts wandered to my mother. Had she really known what they were going to do to us? Had she willingly signed away my safety and well being in the hopes I’d lose weight? Surely no mother would prefer her daughter starving, possibly dying, instead of being fat. Then again, this was the same woman who would only admit I was her child if asked directly; otherwise I was just Natalie the afterthought, only introduced out of necessity. I almost wanted to laugh, or maybe I wanted to cry, I wasn’t sure.
Were the other girls from similar homes? We hadn’t really had a chance to talk much about our lives outside of camp, much less our relationships with our families, but no sane parent would have sent their daughter here. While I had known there had to be other mothers like mine out there, I’d thought they were few and far between. The number of girls I’d seen at camp that first night, it must have been 50 or 60, made me rethink that.
I watched the room go from black to gray and then light up with cracks of sunlight that snuck around the drawn curtains and under the door. Grace started to cry when she woke to and saw morning had come already. We knew what it meant and it terrified us.
As if drawn by the tears, the cabin door was flung open and Ashley strode in, all pep and good cheer.
“Goooood morning, little piggies!” She sang, stretching her arms over her head and inhaling deeply, “You gals sure know how to stink up a place, don’t you? But that’s ok! That is okay! We will deal with that later! For now, though, we have other things planned!”
She rubbed her hands together and looked around, excitement shining in her eyes. There was a collective nervous shifting of bed springs and cuffs as she walked down the row of beds, inspecting us, visually dissecting us.
“You little piggies hungry?” She asked once she’d looked each of us over.
We lay in tense silence, unwilling to answer. After the garbage and the trick with the salad, we didn’t expect anything from her. At least, not anything good.
“I asked you a question, ladies!” She chirped, her hands on her hips, “I expect an answer! One more time, who’s hungry?”
The noncommittal groaning and mumbling she received seemed to have been good enough, because she waved out the cabin door and Tara came in carrying a covered tray.
“Miss Tara whipped up something extra special this morning to help get you prepped and ready for your activity today! Who wants first dibs?” When no one answered, she turned to Inez, “You’re the fattest little piggie in here, I bet you’re just dying to dive in, huh? Ok, ok, come on, Tara, let’s get her some breakfast! But be careful, don’t want her gnawing off your hand!”
They tittered together and set the tray on the bed beside Inez. I don’t think any of us breathed while we waited to see what fresh torture they’d concocted for us. The lid was removed and Inez’s eyes went wide.
Sitting in the very center of the tray, still steaming, was a half full bowl of plain oatmeal.
Ashley plucked up the spoon that Tara had brought and filled it full of the oatmeal.
“What do you think, Miss Inez, want some yummy food?” Ashley asked, the spoon held tantalizingly close to Inez’s lips.
Inez nodded once, her chin quivering. Ravenous hunger burned feverishly bright in her eyes, which never left the spoon. Ashley laughed, delighted, and fed Inez the bite of oatmeal. Tears streamed openly down Inez’s round cheeks and she held it in her mouth, savoring the first real food she’d had in over a week. The rest of us had all unconsciously leaned forward, licking and chewing our lips, trying to at least get a whiff of the oatmeal over the rank cabin air.
“Ok, little piggie, before you get too carried away, you need to make a choice!”
There it was. The catch. I had known it was too good to be true, but it still raked like ice down my spine. We all tensed, waiting for Ashley’s terms.
“Now, you can have this whole bowl all to yourself! Every. Last. Bite. Or! You can take one more spoonful and pass it down to the next girl!”
The room went silent. Inez’s mouth had fallen open and she looked to us. There was a war going on inside of her and we all silently begged that she let the right side win and pass the bowl along. Our empty stomachs rumbled, voicing our hunger for us when we dared not.
“Pass.” She said quietly and hung her head.
“Oh my goodness, how generous is she, girls? I mean, wow! That is some impressive self control there! I am just, wow, so proud!” Ashley said and Tara nodded enthusiastically along in agreement.
They fed Inez one more bite and moved to Diana, who had thin lines of drool dribbling down her chin at the sight of the oatmeal. She opened wide and was given her first bite and then the same choice: keep it all or pass.
Diana didn’t hesitate.
“More!” She pleaded, “Give me more!”
“Are you sure?” Ashley asked, “You don’t want to share with the other little piggies?”
I wasn’t certain Diana had even heard her. She struggled against her restraints, trying to get her hands on that spoon. We shouted at her, no words, just unintelligible, starved anger. She shook her head like it would help block us out and kept shouting, louder and louder, for more.
With every spoonful she got, my resentment deepened. It was only plain oatmeal, something I’d never even liked, but watching that bowl become emptier and emptier was like watching a lifeline fade away. I hated Diana in that moment, but there was also some small part of me, a tiny whisper I barely acknowledged, that was grateful. Because of her, I’d never have to find out if I would have been strong enough to share.
“Well, Miss Diana,” Ashley said after the oatmeal was finished, “I can’t say that I’m not disappointed. Inez, so fat she’s barely human shaped anymore, was able to share, but you were a greedy little piggie, weren’t you?”
Diana turned away, her eyes downcast.
“It’s ok, though, this was very helpful! Now that all the other little piggies have seen how selfish and disgusting you are, they know what they also look like every time they gorge themselves! It’s gross, huh, girls?”
Ashley motioned for Tara to clear away the tray and, once it was gone, she stood in the center of the room.
“Well, now that that’s done, on to today’s activity!”
As she’d done the day before, she retrieved her piggie prod and uncuffed us so that we could line up and leave the cabin. Diana made sure to stay at the back of the line by Ashley to avoid our reproachful glares, but more than once I looked over my shoulder so that she was forced to see my anger. Ashley told me that no one liked a stink face.
Again, I considered running, but even if I tried, how far would I get? Hungry, tired, in pain from over-exertion, unable to think straight for more than short bursts, and, as Ashley kept pointing out, extremely out of shape. There was no escape. The others must have realized the same thing because we trudged, silent and single file, towards the treeline, where I could see Shauna and another counselor waiting.
“Ladies,” Ashley said after we’d stopped in front of them, “I’d like you to meet one of our activity coordinators, Carolyn! She helps think up a lot of the fun things we get to do! Say hi!”
There was a soft murmur of grudging hellos and Carolyn waved with both hands, grinning.
“So, Caro, you want to tell my little piggies what we’ll be doing today?”
“I would love to! But first, how’d breakfast go?”
“Well, not so great, actually. Miss Inez, bless her heart, was so quick to share! But theeeen, Miss Diana gobbled all the rest up and left nothing for anyone else!”
“That’s not so great at all!” Carolyn agreed, “But that’s ok! Mistakes are made and that’s how we learn! But, only if there are consequences.”
We all looked over at Diana.
“I-I didn’t do anything wrong!” She said desperately, “You’re starving us! I couldn’t help myself, I was so hungry!”
She broke down into heaving sobs that shook her whole body.
“Aw, hon, shh, shh!” Ashley put an arm around Diana’s shoulders and gave a squeeze, “It’s ok, you’re weak, we know! We’re working on fixing that!”
“We certainly are!” Carolyn said, “And today’s activity was planned with that very goal in mind! Today, our focus is going to be on learning to let go of dead weight! Doesn’t that sound fun? Diana, why don’t you come here and we will get you kitted out so the others can see what we’re going to be doing!”
Diana shook her head and tried to back up, but a poke from the piggie prod had her jumping forward. Carolyn and Shauna grabbed her arms and hauled her front and center.
“Now, girls, today we are going to take a rope,” Carolyn held up a length of course rope and tied it around Diana’s waist, “and tie it around each of you, like so! We are then going to knot the free end to the next girl in line! So, um, you, what’s your name?”
“This is Natalie!” Ashley answered for me.
“Ok, Natalie, come here, that’s it!”
She wrapped the rope around me like a belt and tightened it uncomfortably before tying me to Diana. Down the line she went, until we were all strung together.
“Ok, now that we’re in our little ‘chain gang’, we’re going to accessorize! Shauna?”
Shauna knelt and picked up a box that I hadn’t noticed sitting behind her. She opened the top and held it out so we could see its contents; little black boxes with straps.
“Ankle bracelets!” She said, giving the box a little shake.
“Tracking ankle bracelets!” Carolyn corrected her, grabbing one to affix it to Diana’s ankle, “You’re each going to wear one so we can keep an eye on you! They’re waterproof and if you try and remove them, they’ll tattle on you and we’ll know!”
“Don’t need any sneaky piggies in my flock!” Ashley said as Carolyn strapped a bracelet to each of us.
“And now, one more thing just for Diana!” Carolyn rooted around in the box and came up with a pair of wrist weights, “These are each ten pounds; they represent the weight you’re no doubt going to gain if you keep eating like the little pig you are! Aren’t those heavy? Ugh, fat is such a drag, huh?”
Diana let her weighted arms fall to her sides with a whimper.
“So, who wants to find out what all of this is for?”
“I do, I do!” Ashley cheered.
“Great! It’s very simple! All you guys have to do…” She paused for dramatic effect, “is run! Not so easy when you’re all tied together, huh? Someone’s bound to get tired, slow everyone else down, right? Not to worry, just let that dead weight go! You can untie the knot and you’ll be free to keep moving! If you don’t want to leave the dead weight, we’re more than happy to give you a little encouragement!”
“And the girl who’s left behind will be picked up by a counselor! There’s a few spread out in the woods, so don’t worry! She won’t be alone for long.” Shauna said.
“The last one still running will get a nice bath after and another bowl of oatmeal! Doesn’t that sound great?” Carolyn folded her arms over her chest, clearly pleased, “Just make sure you stick to the trails; piggies who wander will be punished! Ok, girls, ready? Set? Run!”
None of us could run. Even if we had the energy, being tied together made it awkward and uncomfortable, so we were forced to shuffle off in a waddling power walk into the woods.
It wasn’t long before the huffing and puffing started. Even if we’d wanted to try and plan an escape, we wouldn’t have been able to speak through our wheezing. The muscles in my legs cramped and seized, forcing me to slow, but I couldn’t stop. I had to ignore the sound of blood rushing in my ears, ignore the weight of fatigue that plagued my every step, ignore the pounding of my head. I could feel the sluggishness of the girls around me pulling at my rope, but I had to keep moving.
When Diana started to lag, I knew it was the beginning of the end.
“Don’t leave me.” She kept whispering breathlessly, but the rope was taut and she could barely lift her feet anymore. The additional weight had taken its toll.
Morgan made the final decision to untie her, but none of us tried to stop her. I thought I’d feel some kind of vengeful glee at leaving Diana behind, but seeing her crumpled in the middle of the path, calling weakly after us, I only felt pity. We kept marching forward, even after her shrieks started and we were sure the counselors had found her.
Grace fell next, facedown and sobbing, and when we tried to get her back on her feet, a counselor appeared on the edge of the path, a familiar rod in hand. She waved it warningly at us and we were forced to leave Grace behind.
I wanted to be strong. I wanted to prove Ashley wrong, I wanted to walk until my feet fell off just to show her that I could withstand whatever she threw at me. But what I wanted and what I was actually capable of were two very different things. I stumbled and grabbed at Inez, trying to keep myself upright, but she shook me off, unable to bear my weight along with her own.
“Please, help.” I begged pathetically.
Instead, Inez undid my knot, freeing the remaining three from me. She looked at me, her expression haunted, and said, “I’m sorry.”
I watched their backs as they continued on without me.
“I’m not stopping,” I wheezed, “I’m not stopping.”
I made it a few, small steps before I was prodded in the back and sent staggering to the ground.
“No, no, little piggy!” It was Carolyn, “You were deemed dead weight and dead weight doesn’t get to keep going! Ashley, Shauna, we got another one down!”
Together, they stripped me down to my underwear, leaving the ankle bracelet attached, and dragged me to a thick tree. I was tied tightly to the trunk so that its bark bit painfully into my bare flesh every time I tried to move. Once I was secure, they each took a turn using the piggie prod on me.
“Since dead weight gets left behind, you get to sleep in the woods tonight!” Ashley crouched in front of me, “I want you to really think about that lazy life of luxury you’ve been living while you’re out here! All that comfort, how easy you’ve had it, it’s made you into the little piggie you are today! You need to learn to toughen up and this exercise will help you do just that!”
She gave me what I might have thought of as an affectionate tweak under my chin if it had come from someone else and stood up.
“Ok, ladies, let’s go see if we’ve got any more dead weight to deal with!”
They linked arms and walked away, leaving me alone, mostly nude and tied to a tree in the middle of the woods.