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You Are What You Eat


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YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

Hank’s gnarled fingers quickly gave away food and took the payment for it. Grease seemed spattered everywhere in his little booth; on his hands, the counter, the cash register… but people liked greasy food, he thought to himself as an equally greasy grin slid across his weathered face.

“If only they knew what they were really eating,” he thought as he chuckled.

“It’s nice to see someone so happy,” said one of the customers. Hank looked up in surprise; he had been so intent upon commerce and his own thoughts that the customers had become requests and money instead of individuals.

“It’s nice to see someone so happy,” the old lady chirped again as she grasped her bag of popcorn and handed him a few dollar bills.

“Uh, thanks,” he mumbled as he gave back her change. While she made way for the next in line and disappeared from sight, his train of thought jumped onto a different track. He hadn’t ever thought much before about whether he was happy or not. His life had always seemed like one miserable event after another to him. The one time he thought he had found happiness, it had turned dreadfully sour. His mouth puckered at the very memory.

Poppy was a lovelier, sweeter woman than a curmudgeon like himself had ever expected to catch. But there was a catch to his catch; she wanted children. He didn’t have an opinion at all until children arrived and made up his mind. He didn’t want them. Their faces resembled squashed tomatoes when they cried, and it seemed like all the twins did was cry. When the crying ceased momentarily, it was only because they were spitting up or making more dirty diapers for him to change. And most of all, he resented that his lovely dancing partner would no longer dance with him.

“Dance with you? Are you crazy? Can’t you see I’m too busy to act foolish with you?” she snapped as she changed another dirty diaper.

Deciding Poppy had her hands full with two children, and that he didn’t need any more babies keeping him awake with their howling after those were grown, he visited the doctor to discuss getting a vasectomy. While they were deep in discussion of the various pros and cons, a wrathful Poppy burst in, a baby in each arm. “Look!” She demanded. “Just look at these precious angels. How can you say you don’t want any more?”

His eyes narrowed. “Precious angels,” he spat. “More like the spawn of the devil.” As Poppy’s face grew red with rage, he continued, “How could you say that you want more? All they do is suck the life right out of you, with their constant demands.” Poppy recovered just enough composure to not attack him in front of the doctor, turned on her heel, and stormed out of the office. Hank decided to have the procedure done. Poppy obviously was so baby-mad she couldn’t be trusted to use birth control, and he would be damned if he was going to father any more brats.

From that day on, he couldn’t have fathered any more brats even if he hadn’t gotten a vasectomy- Poppy would have none of it. She rebuffed his every attempt at romantic gestures. Roses, candy, lingerie- any presents he brought home she promptly threw in the trash. Kisses were returned with slaps. After trying to be especially persistent one night, with no results at all, he finally gave up.

“If you don’t want me, why should I want you?” he growled.

“If you don’t want the kids, you don’t want me, either,” she sputtered into her pillow.

To escape from the rejection at home, he spent as many hours at work as he could. When a job with this traveling circus came up, he eagerly accepted. He tried to remember how long it had been since he had seen his Poppy- years, but he didn’t know how many. The concept of time blurred so quickly, working at this circus. He kept a picture of their wedding day in his trailer, so her face could be the first thing he saw in the morning and the last thing at night. The loneliness of not being with her gnawed at his insides so constantly that he had almost forgotten what it felt like to not be miserable.

His eyes narrowed into a squinty glare as a woman ran by in pursuit of an energetic toddler. “What do the dang fool women see in the brats, anyway?” He still resented that Poppy loved the children more than she had ever loved him. He repeated again his mantra: “I was a good husband. We were happy until those brats ruined it all.”

His glare faded and settled back into a grin as he plotted his revenge. He had to choose carefully. He scanned the crowd settling into their seats. His choice didn’t wait for him in the stands, though; it stood right in front of him.

“Daddy!” The wail caught Hank’s ears and drew his attention to the only customers in front of his concession stand at present. A weary, ill-dressed man clutched the hand of a rather obese ten-year-old. All three of the boy’s chins wobbled as he cried, “Daddy! I want cotton candy! Get me cotton candy! NOW!”

The father’s hands trembled slightly as he opened up his wallet and looked inside. He shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry, Tyler. I just don’t have the money.” He eyed the price list carefully. “Would you like some soda pop?”

“Cotton candy! NOW!!!” Tyler roared.

The father looked hopelessly into the wallet, like he was hoping more money would magically appear. Hank decided to step in.

“A little short on change, sir? Maybe I can help you out a bit.” He thrust a particularly prime cone of cotton candy at the boy, who eagerly accepted. He also handed a hot dog to the man, who looked up in surprise.

“This is very generous of you, sir, but we really can’t afford it.” He started to hand it back when Hank waved it away.

“I’ve had excellent business tonight; I might as well spread a little bit of it back around. Go ahead, it’s on me,” he said jovially. He realized the man’s clothes didn’t fit very well because he had lost weight. He had probably been feeding his son his own food as well.

“Well, if you’re sure,” the man said hesitantly as he stared hungrily at the hot dog in his hands. “Thank you again. Say thank you and come along, Tyler.” He turned to leave. All that remained of Tyler’s cotton candy was a certain stickiness around his mouth. Tyler’s eyes started to narrow as his tongue darted out to lick up the sticky sweetness.

“Tell your dad you have to go to the bathroom during the sixth act, and come see me. There’s more cotton candy where that came from,” Hank whispered. Tyler nodded, and headed after his father.

The noise of people chattering, eating, and settling into their seats hushed as a spotlight came up on the Ringmaster. As he launched into his usual spiel, Hank turned a deaf ear and set to work straightening up his booth. The circus itself didn’t hold him enthralled anymore. It was always the same; some poor idiot got picked from the crowd to perform along with the usual bunch. At the end, the least popular performer died.

“Really, what I do isn’t all that different,” he thought. “Of course, they don’t agree,” he thought bitterly about the performers. They kept as great a distance from him as possible. The Ringmaster and that mysterious figure they called Janus tolerated him, however. They didn’t approve, but their own actions didn’t leave them much room to speak ill of others.

Without even quite realizing he had been doing it, Hank had been counting the acts. As the fifth performer strode into the ring to bedazzle the crowd, Hank stopped cleaning and prepared himself for what was to come. As the sixth act began, Hank started to get antsy. Where was the boy? What if he didn’t come?

A relieved sigh escaped as he saw the roly-poly figure start in his direction. It took him a while, with all his bulk, to make his way to the booth where Hank waited impatiently.

When he arrived, he wheezed, “You- promised- cotton – candy-“

“Indeed I did,” Hank said cheerfully as he gave him some. While the boy was busy devouring his treat, Hank said, “Would you like to see how I make it?”

Tyler’s piggy little eyes widened. Through a sticky mouthful he asked, “Could I?”

“Certainly. I’ll even let you make some and see how well it turns out.”

Tyler’s rolls of flab wiggled in excitement. “How do I get back there?”

Hank walked over to a place on the side of the booth where the counter was hinged so it could be lifted up. He lifted it up and motioned for the boy to come closer. Tyler barely squeezed in through the opening. Hank had constructed the booth and its side entrance with his own lanky build in mind. As Tyler tried to edge in closer, he asked, “So where do you make the cotton candy?”

“Over there,” Hank pointed to the gleaming cotton candy machine he had been cleaning. While Tyler was busy admiring the machine, Hank slid the barbed wire around Tyler’s throat and pulled.

Tyler tried to scream, but found he couldn’t. His arms flailed, but didn’t find anything to grab. As his face turned blue and the dark blood poured over the rolls of fat like waves, Hank eased him to the ground. He stood there, admiring his accomplishment, thinking, “I do believe that’s the easiest time I’ve had yet. Maybe I need to pick the porkers more often.” Looking around quickly to make sure no one had noticed, Hank drew the shade down on the front of the stand that had “Back Soon” painted on it. After his first kill, when he had almost been caught red-handed (literally), he had installed the shade. Hank pulled his favorite carving knife out of a butcher’s block of knives, and started carving the meat. He set the particularly fatty portions off to the side to use as cooking grease. “Everyone needs a little fat in their diet,” Hank grinned as he looked at the large pile of fatty tissue. “I knew picking such a porker would come in handy.”

He finished carving and separated Tyler into different piles according to the cut and quality of the meat. Most of the meat and all of the organs would go through his sausage-maker to become hot dogs. “You know, maybe I should try expanding into Polish sausages or Bratwurst- Brats!” He chortled to himself. “Brats made out of brats. That really is too funny.” He wrapped the packages in aluminum foil and placed them in his freezer. He had already drained all the blood he could from the body and put it in the refrigerator to use as the food coloring for cherry Sno-cones. The clothing he deposited in the trash. Now, the skeleton was a more difficult matter. Sometimes he had tried throwing the bones in the trash along with the clothes; other times he had tried burying them. In either case, he didn't figure it mattered very much, since the circus was for one night only, and quickly moved on. But he thought that was rather wasteful, since he managed to use every other part of the body. So tonight he wanted to try out a new idea.

In the very back of his booth, hidden in the shadows, sat Hank’s newest, most prized machine- an electric axe grinder. In addition to keeping all his knives in top condition, he hoped it would be capable of one little extra task. He slid goggles over his eyes, turned the machine on, and watched in glee as he held a femur up to the blade and watched it disintegrate. He reached for the other femur, then another bone, and another. When he reached for the skull- he was particularly curious as to how well it would grind up a skull- it wasn’t there.

“It isn’t there? What the heck?” Hank turned off the machine and started to remove his goggles when he saw the skull. It sat in the trembling hands of one of the most recent additions to the circus, a woman who could step out of her skin and dance with it. He hadn’t actually seen the performance that had spared her; he had been busy with one of his Kid Meals, as he liked to call them. But he imagined it must have been pretty terrific. And here she stood before him, curly blonde hair, cute button nose- quivering with rage. Through the noise of the electric axe grinder and the general circus noise, he hadn’t heard anyone approach. He had been too absorbed in playing with his new toy to look around and make sure that the coast was clear. Unsure what to do, Hank stood up and finished removing his goggles. He cleared his throat.

“Um, Miss Melanie. You surprised me. It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Hank.” He thrust his hand forward to shake, realized rather belatedly that it was spattered with blood, and looked down to wipe it off on his red Western shirt. The skull hit his head with a crack, and he staggered sideways.

Leaning against the counter, his fingers tenderly felt for the goose egg on his scalp. “What did you do that for?” He growled, “I was just trying to be polite.”

“Polite!” She exclaimed. “Do polite people usually… what exactly are you doing with these bones anyway?”

“Grinding bones to make my bread. Fe fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Aren’t you familiar with Jack and the Beanstalk at all?”

She looked blankly at him. “Jack and the Beanstalk? What the heck has that got to do with this?”

“I’m fulfilling children’s fairy tales for them. Except, I suppose, they don’t quite turn out like the children would have them.” He picked up the skull and snickered, “Now, look at Tyler here. He was so chubby and obsessed with eating that he wouldn’t have climbed the beanstalk in the first place. And what kind of a story would that have been? Boring.” He rolled the skull back onto the floor. “I just livened up the story by making the giant come to him.”

Melanie’s jaw fell open. “Y-you mean… you killed him?”

Hank chuckled, “Well, of course. What did you think happened? The brat died of natural causes? Come on.”

Melanie shuddered and looked around. “I’ll tell the Ringmaster what you’re doing.”

Hank guffawed, “That sap? He already knows.”

“He knows? You mean he knows you murder children and grind up their bones-“

“Oh, he doesn’t know that part yet; the electric axe grinder is a new addition to my tool collection. But he knows I kill brats and then feed them to the customers.”

“You- you feed them to the customers?” Melanie asked, looking like she was going to be sick. Hank thought she didn’t look nearly as pretty with her face all scrunched up in revulsion like that.

“Well, of course I feed them to the customers. It would be wasteful if I didn’t.”

Melanie seemed torn between an urge to flee and an unhealthy desire to know more. “But why kill children at all?”

“Why kill children?” He looked at her suspiciously. “Tell me, miss, do you have any kids?”

She shook her head quickly, “No, sir. I’m only eighteen, and I want to find Mr. Right first.”

“Mr. Right,” Hank gave a hollow laugh. “My wife Poppy used to call me Mr. Right until those dang kids ruined it all!” His fist crashed down on the counter, and Melanie stepped back. He got a hold of himself and apologized, “I’m sorry, miss. You have to understand that our kids ruined our marriage. We were happy until they came along… they ruined everything.” His rugged chin wobbled a little.

“You had kids?” Melanie asked hesitantly. “Are they- are they still alive?”

“Oh, yes, very much so,” he snapped. “She loved them more than me, drove me off. That’s why I try to do other men the favor of getting rid of their brats for them.”

Melanie got up the courage to ask, “But what if other men want their children?”

Hank shook his head, “Why in the world would they want the screaming, filthy things? Mark my words, missy, if any man tells you he wants children, turn tail and run ‘cause he’s a liar if there ever was one. I never met a man yet who did more than pretend he liked kids for the sake of keeping the peace with his wife. And I was too honest a man to play that game.”

She looked at him with pure disbelief. “So you kill children to help out guys that wish they didn’t have kids.”

“Yup,” he nodded happily. “It took a while, but you’re catching on. I’m saving marriages, too- keeping men from having their marriages broke up or left in shambles like mine was.”

She started to back away towards the hinged counter. “You’re sick. If the Ringmaster won’t do anything about it, then I’ll tell Janus, or the police, or-“

He grabbed her in a bear hug to prevent her from leaving, and was surprised when her skin peeled off into his arms and the rest of her got on the other side of the counter and slammed it down between them.

“Would you like your skin back? I figure it would be awfully difficult to dance with your own skin if you don’t have any,” he leered at her.

Her bumpy spine straightened, and the muscles and sinews tightened. It creeped him out a little to see the muscles supporting her jaw relax and contract to allow her to say, “I guess I could always dance with your skin.”

“My skin?” He tried to act nonchalant, like he saw women without their skin on every day. “Honey, my skin doesn’t just peel off like yours does.”

“How do you know? Have you ever tried?” She grinned maliciously as she reached across the counter for him. He jumped back.

“How did she get the upper hand here?” He thought nervously as he clung closer to the skin and looked around for a weapon. She lifted up the counter and started to follow him further into the booth.

“She’s trying to corner me,” he thought desperately, still looking for a weapon. Suddenly he spied the skull, still lying on the ground. In a flash, he threw the skin over her head to temporarily blind her, grabbed up Tyler’s skull, and tried to bash her brains out with it. She fell to the ground flailing. On her way down she grabbed his legs to bring him down with her. He crashed against the counter. He groaned as he tried to pull himself into a sitting position; his back would be aching worse than usual when he got up in the morning. His attempt at beating Melanie unconscious had failed; she lay next to him, struggling to rise. He looked up at the cash register on the counter, got to his knees, and brought the cash register down on her head. She convulsed for a few minutes, and then lay still.

“dang,” he gasped as he sat back down on the floor and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his face with. “I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.” He looked at the body lying lifeless on the floor, and rebuked it. “Now why’d you have to go and make me do that? I had no intention of hurting a lady; it isn’t honorable.” He muttered as he stood up and went to get his tools, “Now I have twice the amount of work to do- really, this is too much- how’s one man supposed to do all this work…” He kept grumbling as he disposed of Melanie’s body the same way he had Tyler’s. He proceeded more cautiously this time, though- goodness knows, he wouldn’t have time to deal with another hysterical female. As he turned off the axe grinder and started to collect the bone powder (“I think it might even be fine enough to add to the sugar,” he thought proudly), he heard a ruckus outside his booth. Hastily sweeping the rest of the bone powder into a plastic container, he stuck it on a shelf and pulled open his shade. The Ringmaster stood in the ring, the spotlight reflecting a sharp glare off his shiny buttons and knee-high boots. His voice wavered a little as announced, “Our twelfth act… our twelfth act appears to be indisposed and will not be performing tonight. So we will now be proceeding on to our last act of the evening, for your personal enjoyment…”

“Oh, crap, “ thought Hank. “I suppose Melanie was the twelfth act. Well, that will mess up their pretty little show, won’t it?” He scrubbed every trace of blood and hair off the cash register and put it back in its proper place on the counter. He made certain anything that would betray the fact that Melanie had been to see him was hidden. He commended himself for his wisdom when the Ringmaster found his way to Hank’s booth. As the newest performer started a very shaky performance, the Ringmaster drew himself up to the counter, and asked, in a slightly accusing tone of voice, “So, Hank, you haven’t seen Melanie around anywhere, have you? She missed her performance tonight.”

Hank squinted like he was trying to think. “Melanie? I don’t think I’ve met a Melanie. The performers kind of keep their distance, you know.”

The Ringmaster gave him a sardonic look that seemed to say, “Can you blame them?” But he gave a description of Melanie instead. “She’s quite pretty. Blonde, about five feet six, green eyes, and a dress the same color. She dances with her own skin, you know.”

“Really,” Hank feigned surprise. “I’m usually too busy with my Kid Meals to watch the show; you’ll have to alert me some time so I can stop long enough to watch it. That would be quite a sight for sore eyes.”

“Indeed it is. I would be glad to alert you sometime- if I can find her, that is. She isn’t in the waiting area, and none of the other players claim to have seen her for a while. Did she happen to wander over here? Did she come over to get a bite to eat, perhaps?”

Hank shrugged, “I think I would remember a girl like that. Is it possible she went outside to get a breath of fresh air or something? You know how jittery these high-strung performers are sometimes.”

The Ringmaster shrugged, “Well, it’s worth looking. I’ve looked about everywhere else. But if you do see her, let me know.”

“Sure thing,” Hank called after the Ringmaster’s retreating figure. He started to pack up his less necessary items. The Ringmaster returned just as Hank loaded his electric axe grinder onto a dolly.

“What is that?” He asked a little testily.

“What’s it look like? It’s an electric axe grinder.”

“You know, the roustabouts complain enough already about how much equipment you insist on taking. Do you really need any more toys?”

“I think this is the last toy I’ll ever need, so they can quit complaining. I load up most of it myself, anyway.”

The Ringmaster harrumphed, “Well, you managed to steer me outside and off the topic, but the question still remains: Where is Melanie?”

“How should I know?” Hank growled, “It isn’t my job to play baby-sitter.”

“Are you sure you didn’t turn her into one of your meals?”

Hank looked insulted. “You know I only use children. I do have some morals, thank you very much.”

“All right,” the Ringmaster shook his finger at him, “But I’ll be watching you. If you start using the performers for your food source, I’ll turn you into dinner and find a new concession stand operator.” He stalked away angrily.

There was a momentary lull between the last performance and the announcement. The Ringmaster looked nervous, continually casting his eyes toward the seat where Janus usually sat, as he announced that all of the performers tonight had done a marvelous job, and he simply couldn’t do without any of them.

This caused a stir among the performers- they lived their whole lives in fear of the day the Ringmaster would call their name and they would be no more. Since they had joined- years ago, some of them- never had an evening passed where someone had not been singled out and disposed of, for poor performance or simply the audience getting bored with the act. The buzz of confusion from the players and the audience hushed as Janus, with her double mask, swept into the ring and pulled the Ringmaster aside.

Hank watched as the two carried on what appeared to be a rather heated conversation, and tried to imagine what they were saying to each other. Janus probably boiled with fury at this bizarre turn of events- “Never, in all the years, has such a thing happened,” he imagined her saying. The Ringmaster gestured emphatically with his hands, trying to explain the peculiar situation. Melanie could not be found; to get rid of another performer would upset the usual status quo of twelve moving on and one staying behind. This rationale halted her fury, and she appeared to be considering it. She told him what to do, and swept away.

The Ringmaster stepped back into the spotlight, fidgeting with his shiny brass buttons. He cleared his throat, and announced in booming tones that he had been mistaken; all of the performances had been highly satisfactory, of course, except for the one who had failed to perform. Melanie of the Mysterious Waltz had failed to waltz as promised; therefore, she would travel no longer with them.

“Duh, I could’ve told you that,” Hank snickered to himself. He snickered a little harder as he could almost hear the buzzing gossip among the players. “What happened to Melanie?” soon changed to suspicious looks at each other and evil glimmers of ideas. “If that’s all it takes to be spared, maybe next time… Do you think So- and- so would be gullible enough to follow me into a dark corner?”

“If I ever do have to kill another nosy performer again, they’ll be so busy pointing fingers at each other that they’ll never think of me,” he thought. “Except for the Ringmaster, of course. But if enough chaos was stirred up, maybe…” He whistled a little as he continued to pack up the contents of his booth.

As the crowd started to disband, still not sure what they had seen, an anxious father went to check the restroom. No sign of Tyler. “Where could the boy be?” He thought. He had been too caught up in the show to think of looking for him until now. Tyler had whispered to him that he had to go to the bathroom during… what act was that? The fifth or sixth, maybe? As he craned his neck to see out over the crush of people, he thought, “Oh, dear God, if I don’t find him, Suzanne’s going to kill me. She just barely let me have weekend custody. If she hears about this, I’ll never get to take him again. This was my chance to prove myself a fit father, and here I’ve lost him. Starting to panic, he grabbed the arm of a man passing by, and asked if he had seen a very chubby boy about ten years old.

“In this crowd? Which kid?” The man laughed hopelessly as he gestured around them. Kids were everywhere; on fathers’ shoulders, being hoisted along by mothers, with teenagers who were probably older siblings or baby-sitters. Maybe half the kids could have met a rough description of Tyler, yet none of them were Tyler. He let go of the stranger’s arm and spun around wildly. Most of the crowd had pressed through the flaps of the tent; workers were busy tearing down the stands. Even the concession stand owner was loading up his equipment. He had been generous; perhaps he would remember what Tyler looked like and had seen him wandering around somewhere since. Maybe Tyler had even come poking around looking for more free food. It wasn’t a thought he liked- he hoped his son had better manners than that, but he secretly doubted it.

“Sir,” he rushed up to Hank, breathless. “I don’t know if you remember me. My son and I were here earlier and you gave us some free food-“

“Cotton candy and a hot dog,” Hank interrupted. “Yes, sir, I remember you. The boy sure liked his cotton candy.” Hank got a peculiar gleam in his eye, but the harried father didn’t even notice.

“Oh, good, I’m so glad you remember,” he sighed in relief. “See, my boy’s gotten away from me- don’t know where the rascal is- and his mother will kill me if she finds out that I’ve lost him. Have you seen him anywhere?”

Hank frowned and pretended to look like he was trying to think. He put down the cotton candy machine he was carrying, and rubbed his chin. “You say he got away from you? My goodness, it didn’t look like the boy would be a fast runner.”

The father blushed a little in embarrassment and said, “He wasn’t actually running- or at least I doubt it. He told me he had to go use the restroom, and I was so wrapped up in the show that I didn’t start looking until it was over.”

“Ah,” Hank nodded knowingly. “I know what you mean. I was so engrossed in the show myself that I hardly blinked. Is it possible he got bored and wandered outside? I hear kids these days have awfully short attention spans.”

He looked like that could be the answer. “Well, Tyler does get bored easily, and he had one of those Nintendo Gameboys in the car. Maybe he’s out there waiting for me.”

“That’s probably it,” Hank agreed. The father was the last customer to leave the tent. Hank sighed with relief as he packed up the last of his equipment.

As the father strode briskly to his car, the roustabouts started pulling down the tent. He opened the car door, but Tyler wasn’t there. The Gameboy was still lying on the seat where he had left it. “Tyler!” He cried, but the echo only reverberated as he stood alone in the fog where the circus had been.

 

Writers:

Froy The Orc

PinkButterfly, my wife

We wrote this story for a contest. The requirements were that we had to mix in a story line they had already established. A circus of lost souls, so to speak. At every stop a new soul was chosen to perform, and the worst act of all was removed by the death of that actor.

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