‘Family Dinner’ was written in a panic the night before the competition I wanted to enter it in was due to close.
I like to think that some of that frantic energy added a little something to the story, but that’s probably just me trying to justify my own laziness.
Dagny’s story was one of the first times I actively tried to play around with the standard first-person perspective that I’d grown used to, and I’m pleased with the results. A big thank you to the judges of the competition (it won, somehow), and to all the people who gave excellent criticism/feedback (much of which has since been incorporated).
The rains came in the night, shaking the earth above us and rattling the ceiling lights.
At dinner Pa says it’s the wrath of God, thundering His displeasure down upon the heathens and unbelievers who have shirked the True Path for too long. Mama says Pa’s too busy waxing poetic to think about what the flooding and devastation above means for us. Quarry’s going to be plentiful and unaccounted for, at least for a time, but that could all easily change soon. The Feast draws nearer every day, and Mama says she’s the only one who seems to be truly worried about it.
That’s not true, I want to tell her: I worry plenty. I know how important it is that we are ready for the Feast before it’s time comes due. What’s more, I know how hard it is for Mama and Pa to get things organised since we lost Albert on the last Collection. Susanne might be the eldest of us remaining children, but her eyes make it hard for her to function up top: she’s much better suited for life down here below. Jasper should be the one helping Pa now that he’s the oldest male son, but even Mama doesn’t love him enough to let him loose and unsupervised on the surface. “Too impulsive, that boy,” she often says. She always did have a talent for understatements.
I might be the youngest, I gotta grant them that. But that doesn’t mean I can’t pull my weight, that I’m just the bookish one who likes to read and won’t help when it’s needed. I’ve been on this Earth fourteen winters now, and I’ve learned enough to know I’m ready to assist Pa in the COllection. Every year before now it’s been “oh Dagny, you too little”, “oh Dagny, you just ain’t ready yet” (or Jasper cornering me and hissing “ain’t no way Pa’s taking you out for something like this, bitch” before giggling).
But maybe this time. Our family’s getting smaller every year, as Pa often grumbles. All the families that keep to the True Path are. It’s why the Feast is so important. Surely they’ll recognise that? Now isn’t the time to be prudish: the rain, the winds, they’ve created a perfect opportunity in the city above that we cannot afford to pass up on. Not if we’re to be prepared in time.
I’ll make my case to Mama and Pa after dinner tonight.
This could finally be my chance.
Can barely stop to write this. Too busy dancing about my room.
Pa said yes.
I can’t believe it. He said yes! I’m to be the one who accompanies him on the Collection!
Spent the night barely able to sleep so far, my head’s been buzzing so much. I know Mama has her fears about me going up (“not any place for a woman of this family”, she kept saying) but at least I convinced Pa with my argument. He was impressed: called me forthright. Pa doesn’t do compliments too often, so it means all the more that he said it.
My stomach is still fluttering. Can’t tell if it’s pride or nerves.
It’s not all smiles and praises, of course. Jasper is furious, like an angry dog that’s been kicked one too many times. Even after the mess he made last Collection, I think he had it in his head he was the one going up this time. Tried to corner me in the storage room, pin me up against the wall and choke me like he used to when I was just little.
That’s Jasper’s trouble: he still thinks of me as that small waifish girl he could push around.
I removed two of his fingers to remind him that isn’t the case any longer. He screamed like a little crybaby, but they’ll grow back within a couple hours. Just a warning shot, really.
Susanne was all smiles and praises, but neither of them ever reached those wide, black eyes of hers. We’ve never been that close (Albert was always my confidante) but all the same we’ve always understood one another. I could hear the jealousy in ever compliment she gave: all I can hope that it doesn’t fester over into resentment. Already got one sibling out to get me, so I sure as Hell don’t need another.
My gear’s all ready to go (I’ve checked it three times now). Mama’s laid me out new clothes, rugged and practical, for the Collection tomorrow. I still don’t know what to expect, truth be told. We spend so much of our lives down here, I can barely even remember the last time I was up on the surface. Nevermind the city. We keep to ourselves, after all, as do all families who hold to the True Path. For all I know I should sleep, my mind won’t stop racing with possibilities.
Tomorrow, I finally get to show my worth.
“You sure you ready for this?” was the first thing Pa asked me in the morning, right outside the old mine shaft that connects our home to the surface. I nodded, probably a little too enthusiastically, and he was grinning.
That’s how my first Collection began.
Even with the sunglasses Mama had tucked into my new shirt, the light is still overwhelming. Dizzying, at points. The sky stretches above us endlessly, so vast and open I feel like I might be about to fall into it if I stare too long. The smells, the sights, even the noises all feel larger and more potent up here, from the greenery around us to the rattling grumble of the engine inside Pa’s truck. I can see the damage and devastation that the hurricane and water have caused from the passenger seat where I write, even though the city is many miles off yet. Trees uprooted and flung about, reminding me of the way Jasper used to break my toys and then throw them aside like old garbage. Water-choked roads that force us to veer around or else abandon them entirely in favour of the sodden earth that lies to their sides. The few buildings we’ve passed look like they’ve had chunks torn from them by a raging animal.
I’m starting to think Pa’s talk of God’s wrath wasn’t all that exaggerated.
It’s hard to imagine who else could unleash this.
Within a few hours, we’ve started coming across the first sight of our Quarry: the city may be far off but they’ve spread far and wide. Huddled, damp shapes clinging together as they trudge down along the sides of the roads of else travelling along in their own vehicles. So many of them, enough that I rapidly lose count. More than I could ever have imagined witnessing, and we’re not even at the outskirts yet. Just a few moments ago I was turning to Pa, observing that at this rate we don’t even need to go into the city to finish the Collection.
He looked and me and grinned, said I catch on quick.
I get the impression it’s gonna be a busy day.
Whole lot of Quarry to gather up, after all.
Perhaps committing this to paper will help me set my mind at rest. It may even lead me to the answers I seek.
Because right now? I’m at a loss.
The first Collection of the season has been completed. Five of our Quarry in total, stuffed into the back of the truck, bound with ropes and transported down into the holding cells we keep to the rear of our underground home. Pa is thrilled, spent the whole of dinner singing my praises (I could feel Jasper staring daggers into me the whole time). He says I’m a natural at this, that Albert must have taught me well. That at last he has a replacement for the assistant he lost.
I should be thrilled, I know. My chest should be swelling with pride.
Instead, it’s tying itself in knots.
Sure, I’ve seen our Quarry before. Helped Mama prepare them and cook them in time for Feasts in the past, after Albert brought them back and Jasper harvested them. I always loved the feeling of involvement in those moments, the sense of being part of something greater than yourself: part of a long and powerful family tradition, stretching back generations for those who held to the True Path.
But it’s different, seeing them up close.
They don’t look like food.
They look like Mama. Like Susanne. Like my own reflection. For all I try to repress it, I cannot help but recognise the emotions playing out across their faces as we herded them into their cells. The confusion. The panic.
Fear of us. Fear of me. The two I captured myself? They don’t look much younger than me. Sure, their skin is darker. True, their nails aren’t long or sharp enough and their eyes don’t stretch as wide. The wound the eldest girl has on her shoulder (that I gave her) hasn’t healed yet, and it’s been hours already. But these are superficial differences, I can’t help but think. When I look at them, I don’t see food anymore: I see two kids not unlike myself.
But they won’t look like that for long.
Pa always lets Jasper harvest the meat. Mama says it’s what my brother excels at. Acidity released into the flesh during harvesting is what gives it the flavour our Feast demands, and nothing released those acids like fear. Like pain. The longer Jasper can make the harvesting last, the better.
And Mama isn’t lying when she says he’s good at what he does.
Used to be, this was the time I looked forward to most.
But now? I’m dreading every minute.
I shouldn’t have done it. I knew nothing good would come of it, that it would only make the decision harder.
But in the end curiosity got the better of me, and I spoke to the two girls I caught.
The older one is called Kimberly. She was defensive at first: who can blame her? But eventually curiosity took hold of her too. The younger one is Lucette. She doesn’t speak to me at all, just lurks in the back of her cell whilst clinging to Kimberly. They’re sisters, apparently. Separated from their family when the hurricane struck. Travelling towards relatives when I cornered them in a collapsed shed. Kimberly has questions for me as well, naturally. Who we are, what we want.
When she asks what’s going to happen to them, I do my best to dodge the question.
She seems tough, Kimberly. Resilient. Looking me in the eye the entire time I’m there, jaw squared. I can tell she’s on guard around me, that she might even be scared, but as long as I’m the only source of answers she has she’ll face me head on. Lucette remains silent the entire encounter, but the way she looks at me all throughout says enough.
I have never felt like a monster before now.
It’s not a feeling I enjoy.
We couldn’t talk for too long, not without being discovered by Pa (or worse, Jasper), but I promised I’d be back later with some water for them. Jasper always brags about he likes to dehydrate the meat before harvest, says it makes the skin pliable and easy to part. I can’t think about such things now without picturing my brother looming over those two girls, that leering smile on his face as he sets to work on them with his knives.
Those girls that I dragged here.
So no, talking to them did little to alleviate the guilt boiling away in my gut. But it did put something else in there, too.
The beginnings of a plan.
What I’m considering right now? Part of me wonders if I should even be writing it down. It means going against everything I have known, against the very way in which I have known the world to work. I means betrayal. Of Jasper, sure, and I’ll lose no sleep over that. But also of Susanne. Of Mama and Pa.
Of Albert, God rest his soul.
All in the name of our Quarry.
That’s how I’d have seen such thoughts even just two days ago: losing sleep over something lesser than me and mine. Something barely worth considering, let alone fretting over the feelings of. I have to acknowledge that there are differences between my two captives and I. But when I think about it even further, it seems clearer still than these differences aren’t enough to truly distinguish us.
They aren’t just food.
My family can’t see that. Won’t see that. We are the Hosts, come the time of the Feast. Every family that keeps to the True Path will be coming to this underground sanctuary to celebrate their adherence to our ways, and we will be leading it all. Nothing I can say or do is going to change them wishing to follow through on all this.
But that doesn’t mean I’m going to just sit idly by. Not when two people I’m responsible for thrusting into this situation have their lives on the line.
“Your mistakes are your own”, Pa always used to say, back when times were happier and we were all still together, “so own them, or they’ll do as much to you.”
And though you may not have meant for it to apply in this situation, Pa?
I’m sorry, but I think it does.
The plan could work, because no-one (not even Jasper) is going to see it coming.
No, that’s negative thinking Dagny.
The plan will work, because no-one (not even Jasper) is going to see it coming.
As Pa’s newest hunting partner, I have access to the pens in the back of our home. The only other who has the keys is Pa, and when I put this scheme into practice I intend for him to be sleeping. With no-one else to interfere, I’ll have free reign of our prison. The issue is getting Kimberly and Lucette to the mine shaft and our escape without being seen or heard.
Yet Jasper’s nature may have ended up indirectly working in my favour. Used to be I needed plenty of spots to hide out in during those times when my brother was bored and in search of entertainment. The end result is that I know the side tunnels and crumbling passages that network our home like old friends. There are plenty of opportunities for me to get my prisoners to safety without being seen. From there, it’s a simple case of getting Pa’s car keys from the lockbox that I can still access. Then we’re free and clear.
Part of me wants to stay behind, once it’s done. Once I’ve fixed the mistake I’ve made. Atoned (at least in part) for what I did. Try to get through to them all, convince them of what I have come to realise. Part of me wants to go back for the other three that Pa captured as well, locked away in the deeper cells.
But the sane, logical part of me knows that I can’t. The risk of being found out even when it’s just Kimberly and Lucette are high enough: three more people would doom us all. And however much I try to tell myself otherwise, I know my family will not be willing to see my way of thinking. Not before it’s too late. Not before we’ve further condemned ourselves.
If there is a God, and He is just, He has to understand what I’m trying to do here. That this isn’t just a battle for my conscience, but a war for my soul. Ignorance may have protected me from the crimes my family has wrought before now, but as soon as I saw our “quarry” for what they truly were? I had a choice. I could bury my head in the sand and carry on as usual, or I could do something about it. My family are going to butcher those two girls that I brought to them. Skin them slowly. Consume their flesh. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just the natural order of things. As normal as the blood that runs through our lineage.
I will not sit idly and let this happen.
Kimberly looked completely thrown by what I was telling her when I brought her and Lucette water earlier. Like she’d been expecting anything else from me but that. All the same, she came round to the plan fast. Made improvements to it, even. We’re only bringing supplies and weapons because she pointed it out: I was so caught up on escaping that I hadn’t even considered what would happen if we succeeded.
Lucette just looked at me through the rusty metal bars as I was whispering, as her sister and I refined our scheme. It wasn’t until I was about to leave that her small hand reached through to grip mine. Her wide eyes gazed up at mine, the fear from earlier gone. Replaced by a faint, desperate hope.
“Please hurry”, was all she said.
It was enough.
This might be my last entry. Should this be the case please know (whoever you might be) that I tried.
That if nothing else, I tried to fix my mistake.
Jasper might be dead.
I don’t know.
I’ll start from the beginning.
It was all going brilliantly. Pa had taken himself off to bed for the night, everyone else was busy keeping to their evening routines. My bag was stuffed with requisitioned food and water from our supply room, as well as Pa’s old revolver. Soon enough, Kimberly and Lucette were clear of the cells, following on behind me as we stole through the caves.
I thought we were going to get away without a hitch.
Stupid stupid stupid.
He was waiting for us right outside the mine shaft. I’d forgotten how fast he could move: a blur plunging towards me out of the dark, only his leering grin distinct in all the motion. Before I could react, before I could so much as breathe, he was on me. Momentum and weight blasting against me, sending us both struggling and writhing against the rocky walls. The surprise had given him the upper hand: within seconds he had me pinned. I can still feel the jagged, raw marks from his knife pressing against my throat.
“Heard you whispering, bitch,” he was hissing at me, digging the blade into my flesh hard enough to draw blood, “you wanna play with our food? You can die like it, too.”
I’m alive to write these words only because Kimberly reacted faster than either Jasper and I could have anticipated. Most quarry we encounter are docile, cowed. She was anything but. Just as the blade was starting to dig, as my own brother was tensing his arm to carve open my neck, she was on him. He body slamming into his, knocking him staggering.
It was all the opportunity I needed.
As Jasper staggered about and swung his blade wildly I threw myself to the side and snapped my arms out, gripping him by the neck and hauling with all my might. He was off his feet and in the air, his own weight coupled with my force to power his arc as I body slammed him down into the stones and earth. Part of me thought that blow alone was enough.
The other part of me wasn’t willing to take that chance.
I had his head gripped, hauling him up to send him plunging back down into the stone. Then again. And again. It wasn’t until I felt something wet and sticky running through my fingers, felt something breaking apart in my hand, that I finally stopped. There was a small hand clutching at me, dark skin twisting to grip my own pale flesh, pulling me towards the mine shaft. To our escape.
I can still feel that sensation, even now as I write this. Of something once solid and familiar being reduced to mush.
I’m gonna throw up.
You’re maybe reading this. I hope to God you are: I left it where you would find it.
I don’t expect you to understand my actions. Not just yet. Maybe not ever, after Jasper. I know you’ve only ever done what you thought was right by us. That you raised us according to family tradition, following the True Path.
But please listen.
That path is wrong.
Not just wrong. Evil, in the most Biblical sense of the word. The things you made me complicit in? They cannot be justified. They never could. What we have done, we have done to people like us. Whatever differences you see, they are not enough to justify such cruelty. Such savagery. I can’t be part of it. Not anymore.
Kimberly and Lucette have invited me to come with them, to head back into the city. New Orleans, they tell me it’s called. You never told me that. A city filled with people like you and I, and all you ever saw it as was a larder. There will be relief efforts, people helping those affected by the hurricane. Perhaps I can contribute. Perhaps this is another chance to make up for what I have been a part of. Perhaps not. All I know is that I can’t go back to the way things were before.
It could be that you’re planning to bring me back. Family is family, I know. But so long as you continue to cling to your “true path”, I cannot be a part of that family.
I love you. I think I even forgive you.
But I can’t forget what you’ve done.
Don’t follow me.
© 2019 David Ardent, All Rights Reserved.