Day 103:

      First snow of the year. Valli remembered how excited she used to get when the snow began to fall. It meant winter had come, and Christmas was right around the corner. Now it just meant she would probably freeze to death before she had a chance to starve. Lucky.

       Valli let the drapes draw closed around the boarded-up window. The tiny gap between the wooden planks afforded her little visibility of the outside world, but it was as much as she ever cared to see. After all, what was there left to look at?

       As she walked away from the window, Valli pulled her carefully braided hair over her shoulder and down in front of her. She absentmindedly stroked it with two fingers as she made her way to the kitchen. Her dark braids came almost all the way down her back now. She could get Lisa to cut it for her, but she was enjoying having it so long. She enjoyed taking the time to braid it every morning, even if they couldn’t spare the water for her to ever wash it.

       Frank was sitting silently by the fire as Valli passed by. She offered him a friendly smile, but he either didn’t notice, or didn’t deign to acknowledge her. Frank was as close to a leader as they had, but it was more because he was feared than he was respected. Valli didn’t mind him though. They needed a leader for the group to survive, and it only made sense that the strongest one should lead. There was a time when strength wasn’t the only thing that mattered, but those days were past; her expertise in classical literature didn’t provide much value to the group. The world had regressed back to an elementary schoolyard: her intelligence was no asset, and the biggest bully ruled the land.

       Valli walked out of the living room area and into the kitchen, where Joshua was sitting alone. He didn’t look well, and Valli was certain he hadn’t been sleeping. Joshua was in charge of caring for their wounded group member, Eli; Joshua hadn’t been a doctor, but he’d worked with animals, and some of the skills seemed transferable.

       “How’s your patient?” Valli asked him.

       “Same,” replied Joshua, which meant bad. “Lisa’s watching him for a bit. I just needed to get out of that room for a while.”

       Valli nodded. She felt bad for Joshua. Eli, the patient, was circling the drain, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Even if Joshua had been a real doctor, without supplies, there was no way to save Eli. Valli knew that in a matter of days, maybe a few weeks on the outside, they’d be pitching Eli’s body out the second story window, along with the rest of their waste.

       Joshua was playing solitaire on the kitchen table with an old beat-up deck of cards that had Harley Davidson motorcycles on the backs. Valli knew he couldn’t possibly win: the deck was missing the three of hearts and the nine of clubs. Joshua probably knew that too. It was just a way to pass the time. It wasn’t about winning; nobody won anymore. Not even at cards.

Day 104:

       A loud banging woke Valli from her uncomfortable slumber on the sofa. She always slept on a couch in the living room. There was a free bed in one of the upstairs bedrooms, but there had been bodies in it when they arrived at the house. Everyone said you couldn’t smell them anymore, but Valli was certain she could. And even if the smell was gone, she didn’t like the idea of sleeping in a bed where people had died.

       Valli blinked away the fog in her vision as the banging continued. The first light of day filtered through the cracks between the boards, sunny rays illuminating a starscape of fine dust particles drifting through the air. As Valli’s senses came to her, out of the haze of sleep, she began to realize exactly what was happening: someone was knocking at the door. That was impossible, but it was happening. And they were calling out, too.

       “Hello?” came a voice, panicked and definitely female. “Is anyone in there? Please! Help me!”

       Valli ran to the door, almost tripping over her own feet in her half-awake condition. They had never bothered to board up the front door. It had a sturdy metal deadbolt that they’d all agreed would be all the security they needed. Besides, in case of emergency they would need at least one functional point of egress for escape, so they figured it might as well be the front door.

       The frenzied pounding continued, the woman outside just repeating “Help me,” over and over. Valli got to the door and immediately flipped the thumbturn. She grabbed the knob and was about to pull the door open when Frank’s enormous hand appeared from out of nowhere and slammed against the door, holding it shut.

       “What are you doing?” cried Valli. “There’s someone out there!”

       “I know,” stated Frank. “Someone we don’t know anything about. You want to just let a complete stranger in?”

       “Oh come on, Frank,” Valli replied, trying to push Frank’s arm out of the way. “What are they going to do, steal all of our food?”

       Frank made an exaggerated sigh, but let his arm drop. Valli opened the door and a young woman, probably about twenty years old or so, burst into the house. She was wearing workout clothes and had a backpack slung over one shoulder. She collapsed to the floor just inside the entryway and Valli slammed the door shut behind her.

       “Thank you,” said the girl breathlessly as she picked herself up off the floor. “Thank you so much. I thought I was dead for sure.”

       “Where did you come from?” demanded Frank, not even giving her time to catch her breath.

       “I was in a group,” the woman replied as Valli directed her to a nearby easy chair. “We were holed up in a house about a mile down the road, but things went bad and I had to leave. I just ran. I had no idea where I was going. I couldn’t have run much further, but I saw the boarded up windows on the house and thought someone might be inside.”

       “Well,” said Frank, “if you’re planning on stealing from us, we don’t have anything left to steal. You didn’t really save yourself; you just bought yourself a little time.” Frank skulked off, leaving the new girl with Valli in the living room. Lisa and Joshua had heard the excitement and come down from upstairs.

       “What’s your name?” asked Valli.

       “I’m Bethany,” she replied. “Just Beth, really.”

       “Well don’t mind Frank, Beth” said Valli. “He’s kind of an asshole, but he’s good to have around when things get ugly. He wasn’t lying though, we’ve really got nothing left. We’ve been here three months or so, but we ran out of food three days ago. We’ve got water, but that’s about it.”

       “I have this,” Beth pulled the knapsack off her shoulder and emptied it out onto the floor. Two cans of preserved meat and a can of creamed vegetables rolled out onto the carpet. “I managed to grab the last of our food as I escaped. You all probably haven’t eaten for days, so you can have it.”

       “Welcome home,” said Valli, smiling widely.

Day 105:

       Valli gave their newest group member a day to herself, but curiosity demanded she get more information out of Beth as soon as she’d had a good night’s sleep.

       Sitting together on the couch in the living room, with no one else around, Valli and Beth talked as they shared a half-empty bottle of water, passing it back and forth between them, taking slow, modest sips, making it last.

       “So what happened at the house you were in?” Valli asked bluntly. “How did it go bad? Did anyone else get away?”

       “I don’t think so,” replied Beth. “I’m pretty sure I was the only one that escaped. There were seven of us in there. We had a lot of food, the people that lived there had a basement stocked with cans. We were in there almost six months.”

       “So what happened?” pressed Valli.

       “We had this kid. Well, not really a kid. More like a teenager. Him and his mom. Anyway this kid wasn’t all there. He was, you know, ‘on the spectrum’ or whatever they used to say. Mostly he just kept to himself, never talked to anyone but his mother. He never had any problems for pretty much the whole time we were there, but then, out of nowhere, a couple of days ago, he decides he needs to get outside. Don’t know what set him off, but suddenly it was the most important thing in the world for him to get out of the house.

       “Well, obviously, we can’t let him out, so he starts screaming. Just screaming, non-stop. Day and night for three days, nothing but screaming. The only time we got any peace is when he was asleep, which was hardly ever. We were all losing our minds, all cramped together in that house, with that kid screaming and screaming and screaming…

       “Anyway, we can’t watch him 24-7, so eventually he gets out. Slips out when no one is watching, even has the courtesy to shut the door behind him. That would have been the end of that, but his mother realises he’s gone, then sees him out the window. She runs out after him, but she’s in such a panic, she leaves the door wide open. Well, all it takes is a minute, and, well… you can imagine the rest.

       “A few people tried to make it out the door, but that didn’t work. I was in the kitchen, so I grabbed my bag and the last of the food and I ran upstairs. One guy, Brad, he was already up there. He and I were pretty good friends. He looked at me, just sort of shrugged, put a gun to his head and blew his brains out. I guess he was just tired of running.

       “I went out a second story window, dropped down to the ground and just ran. I grabbed this off of Brad before I did, though.”

 Beth reached behind her and pulled Brad’s revolver from the waistband of her jeans.

       “Put that away!” said Valli in her loudest whisper. “Frank will freak out if he sees you have a gun. And he’ll definitely take it from you, if he can. Unless you want to shoot him, don’t let him see that.”

       “I could give it to him,” suggested Beth. “I mean, he is your leader, right?”

 Valli shook her head. “Nah, I’d hold onto it if I were you. Frank has enough power already. A gun would make him God.”

       “Tell me about your people,” said Beth. “If I’m going to be staying with you I should know about everybody.”

       “OK,” started Valli. “Well I think you get the gist of what Frank is all about. He’s an asshole, but he keeps things… stable. Usually. Then there’s Lisa. She’s fucking Frank, so that kind of puts her in a de facto leadership position. There’s Joshua, he’s a nice guy, generally passive. He’s as close as we have to a doctor. And there’s Eli. You probably won’t get a chance to really meet Eli. He’s barely coherent anymore, and Joshua doesn’t think he’s got many days left.”

       “What happened to him?” asked Beth.

       “Frank happened to him,” replied Valli. “They got into a fight over how we were rationing the last of the food. Frank stabbed him with the poker from the fireplace.”


       “Frank says Eli attacked him first, Eli said he didn’t. No one can really stand up to Frank, so we kind of had to just… let it go. It wasn’t even that deep a wound, but once it got infected… We had some antibiotics left over from the place we were at before this. At first they seemed to be working and he actually seemed to be getting better. About a week ago, though, it started getting worse again. Joshua tried upping the dosage, but it just doesn’t seem to be helping anymore. Once we completely run out of drugs, which will be soon, Joshua thinks he won’t last more than a few days.

       Beth considered for a moment, then replied, “It sounds to me like you guys need to get rid of Frank.”

       Valli shrugged. “You’d think that, but we’re out of food. That means if we don’t want to starve, we’re going to have to go back out there. Which means we’re going to need Frank.”

       “But he killed one of your group,” said Beth. “How can you trust him?”

       Valli shrugged again. “We don’t really know what happened. Maybe Frank is telling the truth. Besides, sometimes it’s easier to just go along to get along, you know?”

       “One asshole can get your entire group killed,” said Beth. Her lower lip trembled for a moment before she burst into tears.

       “I’m sorry,” said Valli, putting her arm around Beth. “I shouldn’t have brought all this up. I know you just lost a lot of friends.”

 Beth nodded and sobbed quietly into Valli’s shoulder for a while longer.

Day 112:

       “Eli is dead.”

       Joshua announced it from the top of the stairs. Everyone else was in the living room, huddled around the fireplace. They’d run out of wooden furniture for the fire and were starting to burn clothes they’d found in boxes in the attic.

       “Then it’s time to leave,” said Valli. “We’ve put it off too long already. Eli was the last reason to stay. We’re out of food. Eventually we’ll be out of water too. Let’s not waste any more time.”

       “Hold on,” said Frank.

       “We haven’t eaten in days, Frank,” added Lisa. “She’s right, we’ve got to get going.”

       “Just hold on,” repeated Frank. “Are you all really in a hurry to get back out there? Do you not remember what it’s like?”

       “I remember,” said Joshua from the stairway.

       “We’ll probably all be dead in minutes,” continued Frank. “I think we need to seriously consider an alternative plan.”

       Lisa started to say something, but Frank shot a hard glare and she shut her mouth instantly.

       “Beth made it all the way here from a mile away,” Valli reminded them. “We’ve got a chance out there. It’s better than the alternative of definitely starving to death in here.”

       “But maybe there’s another option,” said Frank. “There could be another way to stay alive. A way that wouldn’t require leaving the house.”

       “How?” asked Valli.

       “No.” said Joshua. “You can’t.”

       “He’s dead,” replied Frank. “It’s not like he cares.”

       “Whoa,” said Valli, realizing what Frank was suggesting. “No way. No fucking way.”

       “You want to go back out there, Valli?” asked Frank, raising his voice. “As bad as it was before, I guarantee it’s even worse now. You want to try your luck, go ahead. I’m staying here. You go out there, you do it alone.”

       Tears welled in Valli’s eyes. She could go out there. She could. She could run again, she knew she could. But she couldn’t do it alone. She couldn’t stand the thought of being out there, by herself. Not again.

       “I know I’m new to this group,” said Beth, “but this is… insane. You can’t be seriously considering this!”

       “Thank you!” said Joshua, coming down the stairs into the living room with everyone else.

       Lisa got out of her chair and walked over to stand next to Frank in a gesture of support. Standing by Frank, both literally and figuratively, had been her survival mechanism for so long Valli wondered if she could even remember any other way to live.

       Beth looked to Valli for support, but Valli turned her eyes to the floor. “Right,” said Beth. “Go along to get along.”

       Valli said nothing.

       “You can’t do this,” insisted Joshua. “Even if you wanted to, Eli died from an infection. He’s poison. If you tried to eat him it would probably kill you.”

       “We won’t eat the infected part,” stated Frank.

       “The infection’s in his blood!” said Joshua. “It’s all infected!”

       “Look,” said Frank, rising up out of his chair. “Anyone that doesn’t want to eat it doesn’t have to. And anyone that no longer wants to stay here can leave. But we are starving. Eli wouldn’t want his death to be for nothing. He’d want to save us if he could.”

       “Save us, Frank?” Joshua stepped up to the much larger man. “How is this going to save us? Even if it doesn’t kill you, which it probably will, but even if it doesn’t, how does this save anyone? It buys us a few more days locked inside this house. It postpones the inevitable for a very short amount of time. We’ll still starve. We’ll still die. Is it worth sacrificing our humanity for a few more hours of life, if you can even call this life?”

       “We’re done talking about this,” said Frank, through clenched teeth. Valli put her hand on Joshua’s shoulder, silently reminding him how Eli had ended up with that infection in the first place.

       “How…” started Lisa, “How do we even… do it?”

       “I’ve got some idea how,” said Frank. “Since I assume Joshua isn’t going to help me, I need Lisa and Valli upstairs with me. Valli, grab the handsaw from downstairs and Lisa, get the big knife from the kitchen.”

       A few minutes later, they were collected at the foot of Eli’s bed.

       “What now?” asked Valli, dreading the answer. She had seen some terrible things in the last few years, things that had hardened her to the point that she wondered if her old self would even recognize her anymore. But this was something else entirely. This was going too far. But here she was doing it. Going along to get along.

       Valli had the saw and Lisa had the knife, which they respectively laid on the floor. Frank had grabbed some cable ties from the workshop in the basement and he added them to the pile.

       “Ok,” he said, “First help me get him into the bathroom.”

 Frank took hold of Eli’s top half, gripping him under his arms, while Lisa and Valli each took a leg. Valli was surprised by how emotional seeing Eli’s body made her. Not just because of what they were planning on doing to him, but because he was a friend and now he was gone. She had come to terms with the fact that Eli was going to die, his future had been clear for some time. But actually seeing him lying lifeless was different, even though he’d been mostly comatose those last few weeks. Valli felt tears on her face as she helped drag Eli off the bed and into the bathroom.

       Once in the bathroom, Frank hoisted the body up over his shoulder, upside down, with Eli’s head inside the bathtub

       “OK,” ordered Frank, “Now lift up his legs and tie them to the shower curtain rod.” Valli and Lisa did as they were told. The curtain rod groaned under the strain, but it held. They eventually managed to get Eli completely suspended above the floor of the bathtub, with his head resting against the side.

       Without a word of warning, Frank grabbed the large carving knife from the floor and slashed Eli’s throat from ear to ear. Valli screamed and Lisa turned away at the unexpected violence. Blood flowed from the cut, but it was more of a trickle than the gushing stream that Frank had been expecting.

       “Why’s it coming out so slow?” he asked.

       “He’s dead,” Valli reminded him. “His heart isn’t beating, so it can’t pump the blood out.”

       Frank sighed. “Fine. Well I guess we’ll have to leave him here like this overnight, let the blood drain. We can do the rest tomorrow.”

       “There’s more?” asked Lisa, still looking away.

       “Yeah,” said Frank, smiling ever-so-slightly at Lisa’s squeamishness. “Tomorrow we cut him up.”

Day 113

       Frank didn’t really know how to butcher anything, let alone a human being.

       “Look,” he said. “I don’t want to deal with his organs and shit, and that’s where the infection spread from anyway, so we’re just gonna cut off the arms and legs and use those.”

       Valli had her hand over her mouth. The smell in the bathroom was horrible. The worst of it seemed to be coming off the part of Eli’s stomach where he’d been stabbed by Frank. Hanging upside down, Eli’s shirt had fallen down around his shoulders. Valli could see the incision was small and healed over, but it the area around it was distended and full of pus. Black veins extended from the lesion like thick spider webs under his skin.

       Fortunately, Valli didn’t have to do anything with the body once they’d cut him down; the cutting was really a one-man job. Frank hunched over Eli’s corpse with the hand saw. He cut quickly through the flesh, but struggled when he came to bone, the metal teeth screeching like fingernails on a chalkboard as the saw tried to separate Eli’s appendages from his body.

       After only a few minutes, Valli couldn’t stand the noise, or the smell, any longer and found herself running from the room. Even downstairs, away from the grotesque scene, the gnawing, scraping sound of metal on bone echoed in her head, like a recording she couldn’t shut off.

       Valli sat down on the couch with her head in her hands. Beth came over and put her arm around Valli’s shoulders. They both said nothing.

       It seemed like hours later when Frank and Lisa came down the stairs. They each held a plastic laundry basket filled with pieces of Eli’s limbs.

       “I cut each arm into two pieces,” stated Frank. “And each leg into three. So they’d be more manageable. Find something long and skewer a piece, then hold it over the fire.”

       Lisa found some metal cooking skewers in the kitchen and handed one to Valli. Beth reluctantly accepted one as well, grimacing as she took it in hand.

       “Go along to get along,” said Beth, mostly to herself.

 Lisa offered Frank one of the slender metal skewers, but he shook his head, and instead picked up the fire stoker, rinsing it off with a bit of water before impaling a chunk of Eli’s right thigh and thrusting it into the fire.

       Valli wondered if perhaps the irony of using the stoker was completely lost on Frank, who could be quite thick at times. She thought it more likely though, that it was a thinly veiled attempt to remind the group that Frank ultimately got his way, and that it was an unhealthy endeavour to try and stand against him.

       The small fire leapt to life as the grease and fat rolled off the meat in droplets, filling the room with the smell of burnt cloth and charred meat. Valli would have loved to say the smell was unappealing, but after two weeks without food, it was all she could do to keep from sticking her head in the fireplace. She skewered her own piece of her former friend and held it over the fire. Lisa followed suit and, eventually, so did Beth.

       Joshua never left the kitchen as they went about their gruesome business. If he could smell the cooking meat, he didn’t say a word.

       Although it seemed to take forever for the meat to cook, Valli didn’t really mind. As much as she secretly enjoyed the aroma, she enjoyed the anticipation even more, imagining how the food would taste when she finally ate it, its juices evaporating on her tongue as she let them drip into her mouth. More and more she forgot the nature of what she would be eating, concentrating on the simple fact that she was finally going to get to eat.

       Eventually, when Frank decreed that the food was suitably cooked, the four of them removed their skewers from the fire. They all blew fiercely on the meat, trying to cool it down so that they could get it into their mouths sooner, except Beth, who held the meat several inches away from her face, repulsed by what she had done, and by what she was about to do.

       Valli could wait no longer and took a great bite out of her piece of arm, burning her tongue and the roof of her mouth in the process. The meat was tough and hard to chew, like a sinewy, overcooked steak. She could taste the mustiness of the old clothes that fed the fire, but otherwise, it tasted like meat. She gagged once as she tried to swallow, her mind momentarily picturing her friend, standing, talking, laughing. But she put that thought out of her mind as best she could, and on the second mouthful she didn’t gag at all.

       Frank and Lisa seemed to have no difficulty keeping their food down either. Beth eventually forced herself to eat as well. She took small bites and sobbed quietly to herself the entire time she ate. Sitting next to her on the couch, Valli pretended not to notice.

Day 114

       Lisa collapsed onto the floor of the bathroom as Valli emptied the blue plastic bucket out the window. Lisa had been violently ill since they ate Eli. Everyone had felt a little sick after what they had done, perhaps only partially due to the moral repercussions of their actions. But Lisa had gotten much sicker than the rest. She’d spent the night and most of the next day lying on the tiled floor of the bathroom while Valli looked after her. The stench of fetid blood was still thick in the air in that room, and Valli imagined it was not helping Lisa’s condition, but Frank had decreed if anyone was going to be sick, it was going to happen in that room and that room only.

       Valli kept trying to get Lisa to drink more water, it was all she could think to suggest. Joshua said there was nothing else they could do for Lisa, and Valli had to wonder if he wasn’t withholding some sort of remedy as punishment for what they had done. But Joshua wouldn’t do that, she realised the more she thought about it. Joshua wasn’t like Frank.

       Lisa sipped a little water then vomited it back up into the bucket. Valli wondered if Lisa was going to die, and if she did, Valli wondered if they would eat her too.

Day 115

       Lisa didn’t die. The tainted meat she had eaten seemed to have all made its way out of her body one way or another, though she was left in far worse condition than she’d been in before they ate Eli’s body.

       Despite Lisa’s illness, Frank was touting the entire affair as a success. He refused to acknowledge that Joshua had been right about the tainted meat, as only Lisa had gotten sick, and that, he insisted, could have been caused by anything. Maybe it had just been her time of the month, he’d even suggested, contrary to any sort of common sense.

       But success or not, there was no more Eli to eat, so they all settled back into the quiet despair of slowly starving to death. It made no sense to stay, but everyone besides Joshua seemed resigned to do so. Joshua wanted for them all to run… somewhere. Anywhere. Anywhere away from that house. But he was tired, weak and unwilling to go without the others. Valli wondered if perhaps Joshua felt like she did, that it would be better to starve to death in that big white house than have to be alone again. Alone and out there.  Valli didn’t think there could be anything worse than that.

Day 120

       Valli was awakened by the sound of Beth crying. Normally Beth stayed in her room; in fact, she’d hardly left it at all in the days since Eli’s death. But Valli was woken from a relatively sound sleep and found Beth sobbing, sitting next to the fireplace where they had cooked and eaten Eli six days earlier. The fire was low, barely illuminating Beth’s tear-streaked face.

       For Valli, her former friend Eli seemed like he only existed in distant memories, as though it had been years since she last saw him. It also seemed like years since she had partaken in his cannibalization. The memory of what they had done seemed fresher to Beth, who had wept bitterly every day since.

       “Beth,” said Valli, sleepily getting up from the couch and walking over to her. “What are you doing up?”

       “I can’t live with what we did,” said Beth. “I shouldn’t have done it, but I was too weak. I’m a weak person, Valli.”

       “We all did what we had to do,” said Valli, sitting down cross-legged on the floor next to Beth. “You have to try not to think about it. Just leave it in the past.”

       “No,” said Beth. “There’s more. You don’t know how weak I am.”

 Valli reached out her hand to Beth, but Beth kept her arms folded in front of her.       “You’ve survived this long,” suggested Valli. “That must count for something, right?”

       “I lived,” continued Beth, “but they died. They all died but me.”

       “That’s not your fault.” Valli put her hand on Beth’s knee and saw for the first time what Beth had clasped in her hands.

       “It is my fault,” said Beth. “It was me. I did it.”

       “You did what?” asked Valli, slowly withdrawing her hand from Beth’s leg, keeping her eyes locked on the gun Beth was very casually holding on her lap.

       “I let him out. The kid. The autistic kid. I let him out. I just wanted quiet. He’d been screaming for days, I just wanted a little bit of quiet. I couldn’t take it anymore. So I let him out. He wasn’t made for this world. He was better off. I was doing him a favour. But then his mother saw him out the window, and then…well…”

       “Beth,” said Valli, very quietly and calmly, “why don’t you give me that gun?”

       “And then we ate that man,” Beth continued, ignoring Valli’s request. “Your friend. We ate him, Valli. Who are we? Who have we become that we would do a thing like that?”

       “We do what we have to survive,” said Valli. “No more and no less.”

        “Go along to get along, right, Valli?”

       “Exactly,” replied Valli, tentatively reaching out towards the gun. “Go along to get along.”

       “But I don’t think I can go along anymore,” Beth said as she drew the revolver from where it was nestled in her lap. She put the gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger.

Day 121

       “Did you know she had a gun?”

       “No, Frank,” lied Valli. “She never told me.”

       “Because if we’d known about the gun, it might have changed things.” Frank was pacing the length of the living room as he spoke. Valli sat on the floor near Beth’s body, affectionately stroking what was left of her head. Valli hadn’t moved from her side in the several hours since Beth had killed herself.

       Frank had come down to investigate the noise, and after realizing what had happened, he took the gun and disappeared back into his bedroom. He and Lisa conferred at length in private and he had only just returned to the living room. Joshua hovered protectively over Valli. No one knew how the gun would shift the balance of power in the group, a balance that was already tilted in Frank’s favour.

       “If we’d known about the gun, maybe we would have opted to make a run for it instead of staying,” continued Frank.

       “What difference would the gun have made?” asked Valli, still stroking Beth’s mostly non-existent head. “What good is a gun out there?”

       Frank just shrugged his shoulders. “Well I guess it doesn’t matter now anyway,” he said. “Beth made her choice, we should respect that. Now help me get her upstairs.”

       “What are you going to do?” asked Joshua, the first words he had actually spoken since he’d been awakened by the gunshot that night. He was gaunt and withered; he moved slowly and hunched over when he walked. Valli knew if he didn’t get something to eat soon he would die.

       “You know what I’m going to do,” responded Frank. “If you were smart you’d be doing it too, but if you want to abstain again, I don’t really care. But we are not letting this body go to waste, not when we’re starving.”

       “We’re not starving!” cried Valli. “We’re not starving because we ate Eli! Remember?”

       “Yeah, we did that,” said Frank, flatly. “And we’re going to eat Beth. That’s going to happen with or without you. It’s time to pick a side, Valli, and I should warn you: I don’t think Joshua’s team has a lot of life left in it.”

       Valli leaned her head down close to Beth’s face. “I’m so sorry,” she told the corpse.

Day 123

       Joshua leaned over the couch and grabbed hold of Valli’s shoulder. He attempted to shake her awake, but she wasn’t actually asleep and jumped at his touch.

       “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

       “It’s fine, Joshua. What do you want?”

       Joshua was looking even more emaciated than usual. He had refused to partake in their most recent meal, of course, just as he had their first. Valli knew now that Joshua would die before he ate the meat of a human. She admired his strength of character, but it wasn’t going to keep him alive.

       “Frank is going to kill me,” whispered Joshua. “And then he’s going to kill you. And then he’s going to kill Lisa. In that order.”

       “That’s ridiculous,” replied Valli. “He’s not going to murder you. What would he gain from that?”

       “He’d gain one more meal. He’d gain more time to hide out in this god-forsaken house, waiting for a rescue that is never going to come. And once I’m dead and eaten, he’ll wait a while, but eventually he’ll need to eat again. And who do you think he’s going to kill then? Lisa? Not likely, as long she’s still providing a service he wants. You’ll be next, and then he’ll have to decide between food and sex, at which point he’ll choose food.”

       Valli shook her head in the dark. “You’re being paranoid; Frank isn’t going to kill you or me.”

       “Open your eyes, Valli. We need to do something or we’re both dead. I stayed because I wanted to protect you, but I can’t protect you anymore.”

       “Go to bed, Joshua,” replied Valli. “Save your strength. You don’t have much of it, and you’re going to need it when we all leave this place. Any day now Frank is going to give the word. We’ll all run together.”

       Joshua laughed darkly to himself. “Oh Valli. Eventually you’ll figure it out.”

       “Figure what out?” she asked.

       “That none of us are ever going to leave this house.”

Day 124

       Frank killed Joshua.

       It was quick, and Valli had to admit that Frank’s reasoning in doing it was sound. Joshua wanted to leave. He wanted to go outside, make a run for it on his own. But in his condition he wouldn’t have made it ten steps. He was essentially throwing his life away.

       Valli could see letting him try if there was even the slightest chance of success, but there wasn’t. Joshua was going to kill himself, and he was going to do it out there. Out there where he’d be of no use to anyone.

       Frank was doing him a favour. He’d given Joshua a quick, painless death. What Joshua would have found outside would have been much worse. And as a bonus, they now had a fresh body to eat.

       So it wasn’t really that Frank had killed Joshua so much as Joshua had killed himself. At least that’s what Valli tried to tell herself as she helped Frank and Lisa drag Joshua up the stairs to bleed out the body onto the cracked porcelain of the crimson-streaked bathtub.

       Later, they ate Joshua and they didn’t feel bad about it. Valli marvelled at how easy a thing it had become, to eat a human being. Beth had been much easier than Eli, and eating Joshua was far easier still.

       Valli ate, and she enjoyed her meal, but in the back of her mind, her brain was screaming to her that Joshua had been right: Frank was going to kill them all, one by one. Valli tried to ignore such thoughts, but she secretly wondered just how many bullets were left in that gun.

Day 133

       Valli crept silently into Frank’s bedroom. Fortunately, Frank always slept with the door open, so stealing into the carpeted room without waking him was relatively easy. She knew she might no longer be of entirely sound mind, but she was convinced she was doing the right thing.

       Valli had begun to wonder if Joshua’s paranoia wasn’t an infection, spread directly to her because she had eaten his diseased meat. For nine days Valli had agonized with greater and greater anxiety over when Frank was going to make his move. Her certainty that he was indeed going to kill her became more and more palpable as the days passed, until it was like a taste in her mouth: an acidic bile that drove her nearly mad with trepidation.

       She had considered all her options. She could try and supplant Lisa. Sure, Lisa had larger breasts and a prettier face, but maybe Frank was tired of her by now, and keen to try something new, something a little more…exotic. It was certainly a possibility, but the plan had two major problems. One: it was little more than a stalling tactic. Replacing Lisa in Frank’s bed might ensure that Frank killed Lisa next, but then what? Valli would still be the second one up on the chopping block. She wanted a solution that bought her more than a few days. Reason two: Valli knew she would never be able to bring herself to it. Even to save her life, she knew she couldn’t sleep with Frank. She might have eaten human flesh, but there were still some lines she would not cross.

       A second option was to leave, just as Joshua had tried to. She wouldn’t make the same mistake that he had, however, and announce his intentions beforehand. She could slip away in the dead of night and no one would be able to try and stop her. But it meant being out there, again. Alone.

       The third option was to kill Frank. If she could get the gun, and assuming it still had bullets, she could kill Frank, leaving just her and Lisa. They would eat Frank, probably. Then, while they were still fresh from the meal they would run. Together. This was the best possible plan. The only hitch was getting the gun from Frank. And the fact that Lisa might resent her for killing Frank, but Valli regarded that as highly unlikely. Frank was a monster, a killer. Lisa was just with him for the security.

       The two of them looked peaceful, sleeping side by side on their backs. Valli realized she was doing Frank a favour: he would die in his sleep, never knowing the end was coming. He would get a quick, painless death, a privilege that had become a rarity over the past years, a privilege Frank had been kind enough to offer Joshua.

       Valli had been worried that Frank would hide the gun, or keep it under his pillow, making it impossible to reach, but she was relieved to find it sitting on the bedside table.

       She picked up the silver revolver and held it up to the window. The moonlight coming in through the glass illuminated three bullets left in the chamber. That would be more than enough.

       Valli saw no point in standing on ceremony nor in second-guessing her decision. She held the gun in front of Frank’s sleeping face and pulled the trigger. The sound was deafening, much louder than it had seemed when Beth had killed herself or when Frank had shot Joshua. Valli felt warm blood splash over her checks as the center of Frank’s face crumpled and disintegrated, leaving a large bloody hole where his nose should have been.

       Lisa screamed. She screamed before she even realized what was happening. Once she understood, she screamed even louder.

       “Calm down, Lisa,” said Valli, soothingly. “We’re safe now. Frank can’t hurt us.”

       “Frank would never have hurt me, you cunt!” screamed Lisa lunging out from under the blood-splattered sheets. Valli reacted instinctively raising the weapon and firing. She hadn’t been certain if Lisa had posed a legitimate danger or not, but it was probably better safe than sorry, and the action had been mostly reflex anyway.

       Maybe Lisa had really cared about Frank after all, thought Valli as she sat down on the edge of the bed. At the very least, Lisa seemed to truly believe Frank would never hurt her. But Valli knew better. Valli knew Frank was going to kill and eat them all, just as Joshua had foretold.

       Valli’s plan had failed. She had wanted to find some way not to be alone again, but here she was, by herself in room of corpses. She could eat them, of course. She could eat them both. It would be a waste not to, really. But then what? Back outside? Or would she waste away to nothing, starving to death, locked safely inside the house. She’d come to think of the house as her true home over the past months, in a way she hadn’t thought of any place since before it all fell apart. She didn’t know if she could bring herself to leave it.

       Lisa gurgled something from the floor, her hand clutched to the geyser of blood gushing from the bullet wound in the side of her neck. Valli ignored her. Maybe she would take over this room, if she stayed. The thought of sleeping on a bed that someone had died on no longer made her squeamish. After all, this house was hers now. Her home. Her castle. She would die there, she realized, and that was all right. That was how it should be.

       Outside, snow was falling, piling up on the window sills, blocking out, bit by bit, the moonlight that was trickling into the room. Ice had begun to form on the glass and beautiful crystalized borders were materializing around the edges of the panes. Valli sat down on the edge of the bed, and she felt something she hadn’t felt in years. Valli felt contentment.

       And then, for a moment, the gun felt just a touch lighter in her hand.

Winter Palace