Monthly Story: Survivor(s) by Michael Mulcahy
After the wagon broke down we were only able to afford a few miles of travel in the cold Colorado weather before rest and a fire were required. My daughters Willow and Janey, 11 and 7 years old respectively, grew quite weary as their small bodies did what they could to trudge through the endless snowfall. My husband Job was tasked with carrying our supplies; two large sacks of clothes, a day or so worth of food and various odds and ends. I carried Jamie, our newborn, who was swathed in heavy fabrics and held close to my chest.
We had somehow ended up in the mountains, a white blanket stretching for miles over various peaks and valleys. The sky was a chilly gray that offered no more than a smoggy vision of ten yards in front of us. Job was able to start a fire with a few twigs and branches we had collected on the way, and he cooked the last of our meat while whistling some merry tune I recognized from the bustling streets of Boston.
“We’re a day, maybe two days travel from the settlement in Grand Junction,” Job said, cheerful as a clam. “We still have some snacks for tomorrow, so at worst we fast for one whole day. Once we reach Grand Junction, we’ll eat like kings."
Eat like kings.
I held back a snort, for such an inflection would put me at risk of losing the mouthful of deer meat I needed to ingest. Job loved me, oh yes, and he loved our children, but our journey had convinced me he was a Goddamn fool. I grew more certain with each passing day that he had no idea where we were going. Once, while we were still in good spirits, I had tried to peek at the map, and he had whisked it away with a hearty laugh, saying women shouldn’t worry about such things; just like I wasn’t supposed to worry about going west in the winter, because my husband had collected considerable debts that put not only himself, but my children and I, in danger.
The wagon was masterfully handled by Job, losing two of the wheels across the rocky terrain and leaving his family to discover we had not a single replacement in supply. Our oxen dropped dead shortly after, perhaps a mixture of the harsh conditions and the lack of available food. Their meat would have been a bountiful supply for our own rations, but the wolves saw to that before we had our chance.
On our first night without the wagon to burrow ourselves into we experienced the true harshness of Mother Nature. The children slept in my bedroll; the four of us clumped together, the baby on my chest, all of us finding no way to keep warm. Job, well, I believe it was the bottle of whiskey he had in his coat pocket that kept him cozy. I endured vivid dreams throughout the night, changes to my world with no explanation. I remembered my skin stretching, covering its canvas like a tightly wound drum skin, my bones followed suit and peeking out from beneath their hiding places. When I awoke I was the same old me, bone structure and all, but whatever had been awakened tugged at me from the back of my mind.
The next few days did not bode well for my family. As our collective hunger deepened Willow and Janey became almost too frail to walk of their own accord, but Job continued to reassure us we weren’t far away from the settlement.
“I assure you,” Job said, taking a big sip from his metal flask before continuing, “we’ll reach Grand Junction before you can say ‘Happy days are here again!’”
I repeated those very words out loud what felt like a hundred times as I walked behind him, and would’ve persisted to prove my point had I not been forced to conserve my weakening strength.
Each fitful night, the children gripping me in their slumber, the dreams returned with added layers and depths of which I could not comprehend. My mouth was a gaping hole of pure darkness, and my lips were torn to shreds, blood still fresh on my tongue as if I’d chewed them off to satisfy my own famine. I could feel the changes to my skull, my jaw growing as my teeth spread out, grinding themselves to form jagged edges. My eyes bulged as the sockets pushed forward, forcing both eyes to rest further towards the back of my head. My skin grew calloused, various shades of gray cropping across my arms and legs. All along, each time I experienced this change, I felt desperation, the hunger that was an empty well that stretched for miles below my surface.
On our fourth day of travel by foot Janey passed away. She collapsed into the snow, failing to find another breath. Her emaciated body was a mere shell of the daughter I’d cared for. Willow was gaunt herself, white as the ground we walked upon, but she carried on, although it was clear her time was near if we could not secure a source of food soon. I proposed the idea of what to do with Janey, as grotesque as it might have been, for the purpose of preservation. I even offered to cook the meat myself, and leave Job’s hands clean, but through his tears he told me he couldn’t bear it.
The bullshit optimist we had begun our travels with was gone, ravaged by the death of our daughter, but his stupidity remained.
After much discussion he relented, allowing me to start a fire with the last of our kindling. The flesh was cooked a bit too long, some of the bits singed and far too crunchy, but it was good enough for a starving family. I ate ravenously. Job sat far from the fire, but I heard his sobs carried by the wind across the open space. Willow put up a fuss, refusing to even try the tiniest of bites. I tried to feed some to Jamie, just a bit of a finger I believe, but he spat it out as quickly as I had placed it in his mouth. I offered Jamie my breast instead, which he accepted, but in my heart I knew a baby could only last on breastmilk for so long. It was the first night I truly feared for the survival of my family, for they could not do what it takes.
Several hours later the moon took its place at the top of the world, stars dotting the black tapestry above, and the snow had finally relented. I tried to sleep, but my stomach wouldn’t allow it, growling and moaning in fits of famished despair. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before; to think I had eaten so recently, yet here I was, distressed and needing more. I felt Willow’s warmth radiating around me, sensing her touch on my arms, and there was a smell to her I hadn’t noticed before, something sweet that caused my mouth to water.
If anything it should be considered a mercy killing, I tell myself as I devoured her throat and began working down her chest, tearing through to the insides to gather her flesh and organs in my mouth. I needed sustenance, could sense in my very soul that I’d die without it, and if I died Willow was dead already. She refused to look into the ugly face of survival, and without me she’d have been left with Job walking and walking and walking along the trail of nowhere. She sacrificed her life for her mother to carry on, and for that I thanked her as I scooped out her heart and gulped it down in two mouthfuls. I made sure nothing of my daughter went to waste, licking the remains of entrails off my fingers before falling asleep.
I woke up to discover Jamie crying, his body rollicking under the blankets in the makeshift crib I had placed for him beside my bedroll. I turned over to tend to him; Job was standing over me, regarding both my bed and I that were covered in a considerable amount of bloodstains. His eyes were bulging, tears streaming down his cheeks, and his focus kept turning from me to our baby. He held his shotgun in his trembling hands, and he lifted the weapon up to face in my direction.
“How...how could you?” Job choked on the words, as if their impact was almost too great to bear.
“Someone had to,” I spat at him. “We were all going to die out here, thanks to you. I’m trying to make sure some of us make it through, you idiot.”
The barrel of the shotgun continued to move wildly, Job unable to steady himself. Even so we were only two feet apart, and you didn’t exactly need to be accurate with such a weapon to hit your target. I heard him mumble something under his breath, perhaps a prayer, or an apology, and I closed my eyes, bracing for impact.
Nothing came. Instead I heard Job wailing to high Heaven, and when I opened my eyes I recognized the creature that pinned him to the ground, eating its way through his stomach. The hallowed skin was stretched to its limit, columns of spine protruding grossly from its bindings. It was the shade of gray stone, its body caked in dirt, and when it turned to face me I saw the tattered ruins of its lips and the sunken yellow eyes that bore the desperate signs of the starvation that drove it. I approached it as it rose on all fours, leaving Job with what looked like an intestine dangling from his chest, like a ribbon on a gift waiting to be pulled. He was alive, blood escaping his mouth as he gurgled.
“I understand you’re hungry,” I said to the creature. “But I’m hungry too, and this one...it’s about more than food, more than I can put into words...please.”
It considered me for a moment, its eyes unblinking, and looked back at Job. I knew not what I was truly capable of, but in that moment I knew I would fight to the death to claim this act as my own. This entire begotten trip, from the deaths of my children to the events that forced me down this path, in the end they all drew a line back to my husband. Perhaps the creature and I spoke the same language in this new age, as it stepped aside, bowing its head slightly in recognition.
I crawled on top of my husband, heart pumping and senses heightened as I caught the scent of copper in the air. He tried to mumble something but I raked his face, discovering a newfound length in my fingers and the sharp claws that emanated from their tips. I felt his pain, and I made sure he felt mine as I engorged upon his very being. I realized he tasted the best of them all.
When I finished, a few bits of bone and gristle left below me, I turned to the creature. It had begun to watch Jamie in his crib, wailing and writhing beneath the blankets. I scooped up a small scrap left from Job’s flesh and walked over to the crib, motioning to Jamie’s onlooker to wait. I ushered the leftover piece of my husband into my son’s mouth. He choked for a moment, as if he would spit it right back up, and I feared the end of my last and only child.
Then I heard him swallow.
The bloodied mouth of my new acquaintance spread into a sickly smile, then it looked past me off in the distance. I could smell it as well. It was pungent, like a mixture of crude oils, and although it was my first time truly catching such a scent I knew it right away; it was hunger, and the source wasn’t too far away. It made my own stomach churn, begging for more. My new companion charged forward, his legs a clump of blurry motion kicking up piles of snow behind them.
Jamie would soon be able to crawl on his own, once he grew into a proper survivor, but for the time being my child needed assistance. I scooped him up, and told him how good of a boy he was that day. How he was stronger than his father, than both his sisters, and promised him we’d find some more food soon. I wrapped him in the small, burlap sack Job had used to carry his alcohol supply, slinging it around my shoulders so Jamie rested on my back.
We took off after our partner, and the search for our next meal began.
Michael is a thirty-something somebody living in the bowels of Pennsylvania. He lives with his small (but growing) army of chihuahuas who are trained in the arts of world domination, and he enjoys writing about bad things that happen to good people. You can follow his self-indulgent ramblings at https://twitter.com/entertainmulk