He’s dead. We all know it before he even hits the ground. He falls hard and unnaturally, like a rag doll, and lies motionless.
Anna screams, lunging forward, but the thug holds her back. She keeps fighting, but she’s no match for him. One of the guys from her group, or our group now, is restraining Paul’s mother, who could meet the same fate as her son should she step too far out of line.
“Right, now – let me ask you again? Think you can spare us your supplies?” the ringleader asks, first with a smirk, and then with a glower.
The would-be silence left in the wake of his question is filled with Anna’s crying and shrieking as she tries to writhe out of her captor’s grip. The leader lifts his gun again and points it at her – she now has not one, but two guns aimed at her head – and Anna’s mother grips her husband’s arm and holds her breath.
I am afraid for her, and for all of us; they won’t take kindly to her misbehavior.
“I’m starting to think you might be too annoying to keep around after all. I’ll give you a chance – this one chance – to prove me wrong, can you do that sweetheart?” he pauses. “Can you shut up?”
“Fuck you,” she says between gritted teeth. Even from where I’m standing I can see that her face is patterned by the paths her tears have left through the layer of dust and grime that covers all of our faces; she looks wild.
The leader closes the small gap between him and Anna. “That’s the idea.”
She spits in his face, and without hesitation he flips the gun around in his hand and hits her over the head with it. She goes limp in the other man’s arms.
Allen’s fists are balled, his wife still clinging to him. Whatever window of opportunity we had is quickly closing, and I search his face for a sign that he’s still trying to figure out how to get us out of this, and that he hasn’t lost himself to his anger and fear.
He wipes the spit from his cheek and turns back to the rest of us. “Anyone else have something to say?”
We are quiet.
“Good,” he says, pleased. “Boys, tie ‘em up.”
The other men surrounding us begin to step forward, and we huddle a little closer. Mouths open and close as we each consider protesting, only to think better of it.
One by one we are roughly dragged to the tree line and bound, arms behind our backs and strapped to tree trunks, one person per tree. My all-too-visible knife sheath is immediately emptied, and with it my last idea of how we might get out of this.
The leader walks past Paul’s body and kicks it, rolling him over so we can see the blood-soaked front of his shirt. Paul’s eyes flick open, and he inhales sharply. He immediately sees Anna, crumbled on the ground where her captor dropped her so he could help tie the rest of us up.
“Anna!” he struggles to yelp, wincing in pain as he does so. “No!”
And for the second time, the gang leader pulls out his gun and shoots Paul. This time, he doesn’t take any chances, aiming straight for the head.
It is disturbing to watch. I immediately decide that Anna cannot know about this; she cannot know that he died thinking he had failed to save her, or that she missed his final moments. At least this way she only had to watch him die once, a privilege his mother and sister did not have.
One of the guys picks her up and carries her over to a tree fifteen feet from me, where he roughly ties her up. She’s still out, which I guess I’m thankful for.
This is all my fault. Watching these brutes overturn and settle into it our campsite as we sit bound, crying, and wrists bleeding, I am overwhelmed by the sinking feeling in my gut. Firing that gun was the worst mistake I’ve ever made, and it’s going to cost us our lives in the worst of ways.
I can’t give up trying to get us out of this. Looking around, I don’t see any reason to be hopeful. But I’ll just have to be smart: no hands, no knife, but I’m awake. Until they knock me out or kill me, I can watch them. I can’t give in. I’m the one that got us into this, I’m gonna be the one to get us out.
One obstacle will be our number; with almost two dozen people as spread apart as we are, there’ll be no way to indiscreetly get a message around. Even if I’m able to get out, how we all get away without being noticed?
Another thought distracts me: why are we tied up? Why not just kill us or send us on our way without our supplies – what purpose could they have for us alive? This looming question only makes the need to escape feel more urgent: I don’t want to wait around and find out.
But the afternoon passes slowly, with no sign of hope for escape. Once we’re dealt with, they all but ignore us. We are forced to watch on as they celebrate their luck. When the sky begins to darken one of them mentions dinner.
“Been ages since I had a full stomach,” one grumbles. “Tonight, we feast.”
He is met with cheers.
“Got quite the deluxe selection, don’t we boys?” another says. They look at us, smiling, mocking us and our helplessness.
The leader steps in. “Now, now, let’s not be so eager. We have some more…agreeable options, for once. Wouldn’t you rather we feast on chili?” He holds up a can. “Oatmeal?” Another can. “Real food? Friends, tonight we celebrate as men, not as beasts.”
Most of them cheer excitedly, and I have to admit I’m not following the conversation well.
“Don’t you think it’d be easier to go through them first, Marty?” one of them points to us.
“Holy fucking shit,” Laura whispers toward me from her tree a few feet away, “they’re going to eat us.”
“I mean, makes more sense to, don’t it?” the guy continues.
Looking around, I can actually see the expressions on the faces of our group change as they make the realization Laura and I just did. People start pressing their backs into trees, as if trying to shrink away. Eyes are wild and fresh tears spring forth from eyes that thought they had no more to shed. Panic takes over.
“Sh, Hank – look, you’re frightening our guests.” The leader, Marty, makes his way toward the treeline, toward us. “We don’t all have the luxury of being well-fattened pigs these days, you know,” he says, eyeing Aiden who is, undoubtedly, the only one of us I would venture to call overweight. “I know you judge people like us, people who’ve abandoned their humanity – blah, blah. Having trouble looking down on us now? Now that you’re at the mercy of our forks and knives?”
He’s making his way around, eyeing each one of us in turn. But then he turns back to his own group. “But tonight we have that luxury. Let them wait it out – I don’t know about you but I can’t remember the last time I had the kind of food we have right now.”
They murmur agreement, and I almost relax; we have until when, morning, now, before we start losing more people?
He turns back to us and must sense this slight ease we feel, that none of us will be on the chopping block tonight. “Don’t get too comfy cozy, though, eh? Do I need to make another show of power?”
Pausing, he looks around at us and smiles at the fear he sees. “Whose for breakfast?” he asks his horde.
No, no, no! I scream in my head as he walks toward Link. Catherine starts sobbing as she realizes his trajectory. Link doesn’t fight as Marty unties him and has him stand. He raises Link’s arm, like he’s just been announced the winner of something, and the thugs all cheer their approval.
I watch in paralyzed horror as, with his right hand, Marty raises a knife and brings it back down, slicing clean above Link’s wrist. He shouts, his wife screams, and Marty is left standing, bloody knife in one hand, severed hand in the other, as Link collapses in pain.
He tosses the hand to one of his men, saying, “If you’re really dying for a taste.”
He gestures toward Link, tightly gripping his bleeding arm, and one of the guys drags him back to the tree and ties him up again.
“Hope you don’t mind me saying, Marty, but, he won’t make it through the night like that. If we’re gonna keep him, might wanna tie that off or burn it.”
It takes all I have not to throw up; they’re trying to keep Link fresh.
“Go ‘head,” Marty nods. The guy tying Link up wraps the rope a few times around Link’s arm being circling it around his torso and the tree, the idea being to make a sort of tourniquet, I guess.
I have to look away, seeing him in that much pain is more than I can bear.
As they start preparing dinner they revert to ignoring us again. Soon the smell of baked beans fills the air, and my stomach knots as I am reminded this is the second meal I’m missing today.
They stay out a long time, well after dark, before ducking into the tents. We are alone outside, in the dark, for just a few minutes before Marty steps back out into the open. He doesn’t say anything, but he heads for the still unconscious Anna.
And I know what is happening, and I am helpless. I am completely helpless. I consider yelling at him, but it accomplished nothing when Paul tried. I turn to look the other way, squeezing my eyes shut and praying Anna doesn’t wake up.
But she does. She screams and then is quiet, and in my suspicion I glance in her direction: Marty is dead.