By Chef Pippinacious
I struggled feebly, uselessly, against the ropes, but all it did was make the tree’s bark dig deeper into my naked back. Every time I shifted, I was certain that I could feel my skin thinning, threatening to split. It didn’t take long for the insects to find me and feast on my exposed flesh, leaving a trail of angry red welts in their wake. Sometimes, it felt like they were burrowing into my skin, crawling beneath it, eating me from the inside out. Thirst burned in my throat, hunger echoed in my empty stomach, and I itched and I ached and I could find no relief.
Somewhere nearby, up the trail and out of sight, I could hear one of the girls, maybe Gloria, screaming. She was begging for help, for someone to find her, and I almost shouted for her to shut up. No one was coming, I’d already realized that, why hadn’t she? I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to block out the noise, and leaned my head back against the tree.
The hours passed slowly. The only way I could be sure time was even moving at all was by the lengthening of the shadows and the eventual darkness that crept into the woods. Usually, I would have been terrified at the idea of being alone outside after nightfall and my imagination would have run wild, turning every bush into some kind of monster just waiting to pounce. But now there was no room for any more fear, no energy to conjure up make-believe beasts. I couldn’t even bring myself to cry.
There was no sleep to be had, only a foggy daze, and after Gloria, or whoever it had been, went quiet and silence had blanketed the woods, voices started to ring in my ears; soft at first, but growing louder, angrier. My mother, Ashley, Tara, Carolyn.
“Fat, lazy, weak!”
The chorus went on and on, bouncing through my mind until it was all I heard. I couldn’t fight them off, couldn’t make them stop. ‘Round and ’round they went until I was sick and dizzy with grief, guilt, and self-loathing. I was all of those things; I was, I was, I was! If I had been stronger, better, this wouldn’t have happened!
I didn’t realize I’d started hitting the back of my head against the tree until the voices shattered, broken by the heavy crack of my skull against wood. I forced myself to stop, wrenching my head from side to side and breathing hard.
“I’m losing it.” I whispered, and I laughed softly, bitterly, through the few tears that still managed to slip out.
I had thought earlier that I could get through it, that I could prove them all wrong and overcome anything. I knew now how wrong I had been. How many days had it been since I’d eaten real food? How long since I’d really slept or showered or done anything even remotely human? It couldn’t have been much longer than a week, a week and a half, but it weighed on me like an eternity.
To keep the voices at bay, I tried to think of a song, any song, but I couldn’t make sense of any of the jumbled lyrics that tried to surface. I started to hum tunelessly instead, just a steady stream of noise to fill up the spaces in my head.
I looked around sharply, only half sure I’d actually heard my name.
There it was again, coming from somewhere just opposite me. I leaned as far forward as the rope allowed, which wasn’t much, and narrowed my eyes, trying to see through the darkness. A shadow separated from the tree, short and round, and skittered over to me.
“It’s me!” Morgan hissed as she dropped to her knees beside me, “I got away from Ashley on our way back to camp and came back for you. I’ll untie you and then we can get out of here!”
I stared at her dumbly.
“Just-just stay quiet. I know they’re looking for me.” She was working hard on the knot, I could feel her tugging it, and then the rope started to loosen.
She came back around, one loose end in her hands, “Come on,” she said anxiously, “we have to go!”
I started to push myself up on legs that had long since fallen asleep, but there was something in the way that she kept looking over her shoulder that made me pause. Somewhere in my prey brain, alarm bells were going off. I froze, a mouse who had caught wind of a cat.
“Come on!” Morgan urged again.
I wanted to believe her, but something in me, some primal, unthinking part that worked only off of instinct, kept me in place. My mind was a mudslide, a mess of half formed ideas and questions that I couldn’t begin to put into words. I wanted to believe her, but I didn’t.
“Natalie!” She was almost crying, desperate, and still looking over her shoulder.
“No.” Was all I managed to say.
She tried pulling on my arms, but I went limp and let myself sink back against the tree. She cursed at me and pulled again, but it was no use. I wasn’t going to budge.
“Why? Just come on!”
I shook my head.
When it became clear to her that I wasn’t moving, she screamed at me, telling me that this was my only chance and I was stupid to just sit there. Insults, cursing, and through it all, I remained motionless, my half lidded gaze on the tree line just behind her. The tirade was allowed to go on for another minute or so before I heard a telling zap and Morgan was forced to take a knee.
“What a good, obedient little piggie!” Ashley crooned, her piggie poker slung easily over one shoulder, “I thought for sure you’d be off running, or, you know, waddling, but here you are! I am just so gosh darn proud! You’ve learned some serious self-control!”
Morgan’s shoulders shook with sobs and Ashley pat her on the head, “Miss Morgan here was the winner of today’s activity! But the little piggie still hasn’t had her oatmeal! We had a surprise part two that she had to complete first and, well, surprise! Wasn’t she great?”
It took me a long minute to make sense of her words. A part two? Tricking us into trying to leave? I gaped blankly at them, still trying to fit all the pieces together.
Ashley noticed my struggle and said kindly, “Don’t you worry your fat little head about it, Miss Natalie! We’ll explain everything back at camp. Now come on, get up, we’ve got a bit of a walk back.”
I stumbled down the path alongside Morgan, the threat of Ashley’s prod looming constantly from behind. I didn’t feel any sense of betrayal, no anger, no upset with Morgan. I was too numb to anything other than exhaustion. We were guided back to the cabin, where all the other girls were already gathered, and re-cuffed to our beds. I had never thought I’d actually feel any measure of joy at being returned to that stinking, stained bunk, but after so many hours spent against that tree, I welcomed it.
Ashley brought me a ladle full of water, which I sucked down greedily, and gave my cheek a little pinch, “Most of you were just such well behaved little piggies!” She said, waving the now empty ladle across to room, “Only one of you,” Her eyes flicked to Grace, who shrank further against her pillow, “was very, very naughty.”
She tossed the ladle to the floor and crossed over to Grace.
“I’m sorry!” Grace kept repeating, but Ashley acted like she didn’t hear.
“Do you know what will hold you back? Make it impossible for you to be a healthier, happier you?” Ashley asked, “Running away from your problems! You will never learn how to cope without resorting to food if you just keep trying to run away! It’s the easy thing to do, and we all know that you fat asses are all about taking the easy way out! But not here, my little piggies, I won’t let you!”
“Today’s activity was about learning to let go of your dead weight and then taking responsibility for your weakness! Miss Morgan did so good, she ran and ran while the rest of you let your fat drag you down! After you had some time to think about aaaall the bad decisions you’ve made that brought you here, we asked Miss Morgan to go back out there and offer you an easy out, the kind that you’ve always taken!”
Morgan couldn’t meet any of the glances that were shot her way. Shame clouded her expression, made it almost impossible to face us.
“While most of you tried to keep the lessons you’ve learned close to your overworked little hearts, Miss Gracie here was naughty! Can you believe she tried to run away, after all the help we’ve given her? Given all of you? I must say, it really disappointed me. But I can forgive you, my little piggie! I can and I will, because we all make mistakes!”
Grace dared to look hopeful. She even tried to smile in return when Ashley gave her shoulder a squeeze.
“But remember,” Ashley said sweetly, “in order to earn that forgiveness, you must face the consequences.”
Grace’s smile faded into confusion and then into a terrified, pleading frown. She tugged at her restraints, begging Ashley to give her a second chance, to let her prove that she was good, just like the rest of us.
Ashley crouched beside her and smoothed Grace’s hair away from her face, shushing her gently, “Your whole life has been spent with people going easy on you; that’s why you look like you’re made of dough! It’s time for some tough love, sweetie! Tara! Come on in!”
The cabin door swung open and Tara sauntered in, one of the large metal serving trays in hand. It’s cover was in place, hiding its contents. She brought it over to Ashley and, with a dramatic flourish removed the lid.
“Great! Morgan’s bowl of oatmeal is here! Leave the tray with me and bring that on over to our little winner!”
Tara scooped the bowl of oatmeal up and left the tray in Ashley’s hands to go and spoon feed Morgan, who at least tried to act hesitant about accepting. She ate it while we all watched, envious with stomachs growling. With that taken care of, Ashley’s attention turned fully to Grace, and when Grace started to scream “No, no!”, we tore our eyes from Morgan and followed suit.
Ashley held the tray aloft, panning it slowly around the room so that we could all see the hammer lying upon it. My stomach turned sour and I felt the blood drain from my face.
“Do you know what happens to naughty piggies who try to escape?” Ashley asked conversationally, “They have to be hobbled.”
The hammer was in her hand. Grace was shrieking, begging her not to. The rest of us raised our voices as well, all of us screaming and shouting and crying. But it wasn’t enough to cover the meaty thwak of metal meeting flesh. Or the crunch of bone that followed. When Grace tried to kick Ashley with her free foot, Tara dropped the bowl of oatmeal, spilling it across Morgan, and rushed to hold her down.
Four times Ashley swung the hammer, and each time, Grace became more shrill. Pain contorted her features, bulged her eyes, twisted her hands in their cuffs. I wanted to vomit, but there was nothing in my stomach to purge.
“You see, my little piggies?” Ashley asked, her face flush, “This is what happens when you’re naughty! You must be punished! It is the only way you’ll learn! You’ve been coddled your whole lives, allowed to become huge and unhealthy and ugly! The first chance you get, you run right back to what’s easy, which just starts the cycle all over! You’re never going to improve if this is how you keep living your life!”
Grace was rolling her head back and forth in pain, moaning gutturally. Fat beads of sweat popped up on her forehead and dripped down her face, mingling with her tears. Ashley tweaked her cheek and stood up.
“Ok, girls, I feel like we’ve made some real progress, but now it’s time to rest! So lights out, eyes shut, and try to dream of something other than food!”
On their way to the door, I overheard Tara say, “That always reminds me of the Stephen King book, the one with the author and the crazy lady!”
Ashley giggled, “Where do you think Carolyn got the idea?”
There was no comforting Grace that night, although we tried what little we could. We talked to her in soothing tones, tried to distract her with stories, disjointed and poorly thought out as they were, told her what we’d like to do to Ashley on her behalf. But Grace just kept groaning through it all, absorbed so completely in her pain that I don’t think she knew we were even talking.
We gave up after awhile, one by one going quiet, until the cabin was filled only by the sound of Grace’s misery. Her low, animalistic wails lasted through the night and into morning, when Ashley returned to hose us down. She frowned down at Grace from the foot of her bed and gave her an extra spray in the face.
“No need to be such a drama queen, Miss Gracie!” She chastised her lightly, “You deserved this!”
After she’d finished dousing us with the icy water, she coiled up the hose and stood in the door with a sparkling smile, “You girls are going to be so thrilled for our next activity! We have to wait for it to rain, but that should happen any day now! As soon as it does, we are back outside and learning how to really appreciate the hard work that goes into putting food on the table! Until then, enjoy a few days with your feet up! I know that’s what my little piggies like best!”
She giggled, wiggled her fingers at us, and let the door slam shut behind her.