by Jaleta Clegg
To live, one must eat.
Carl acknowledged this simple fact with a heavy sigh. He dreaded the mere thought of eating. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, watching the store light flicker and buzz in the rainy night. Three days without food left him lightheaded. He couldn’t stall longer. He levered his gaunt frame from the car.
He paused at the doors. They slid open with an inviting whoosh. The odor of fresh baked bread teased him. His stomach growled impatiently. Maybe this time it wouldn’t be so bad. He stepped inside.
The cart handle slicked his palms with rainwater. He pulled the rattling contraption free of the pile. It squeaked, tilting to the side, as he shoved it down the first aisle.
Cleaners, makeup, shampoo, toilet paper, he used the aisle to steel himself for the coming ordeal.
The whispers started as he turned into the produce section.
“Eat us,” the potatoes whispered.
“You missed the crunch of us between your teeth,” the onions purred. “Admit it, Carl.”
The fluorescent lights reflected seductively off the smooth skin of apples. Oranges glowed like jewels. He licked his lips, remembering the tart juiciness they promised.
No. He shuddered, drawing back from the stacked produce. Oranges had been bad, very bad. All that description of acids spraying in his mouth with each bite, of pulp traveling through his digestive system, had left him queasy for days.
“Over here.” Crisp lettuce dripped water as the sprinklers misted the refrigerated case.
Broccoli, cucumbers, radishes, green onions, and bell peppers added to the whispering chorus in his head.
He turned, drawn irresistibly like a moth to a flame. Water droplets caught the light, like eyes. No, the refrigerator case was too fresh, the siren call too overwhelming. He shoved the squeaky cart to the edge of the produce section.
A last lingering whisper caught his attention, promising sweet succulence.
Carl reached one finger tentatively towards a bumpy avocado.
“Feel the smoothness of my flesh slide down your throat.”
He jerked his hand away. No, definitely not the fresh produce.
The whispering faded as he hurried into the snack aisle. He stopped halfway down, breathing heavily through his mouth.
He warily eyed the gleaming bags of chips. He heard nothing but the mindless droning of mood music. He reached for a bag, edging forward. He touched the crinkly plastic laminated foil. The voices in his head remained silent. He grasped the bag, lifting it delicately from the shelf. Nothing but blessed silence in his head.
He reverently placed the bag of corn chips into the cart. No whispering voices. Perhaps only the fresh, unprocessed food still had a voice.
Carl added a bag of pretzels. Silence. A box of cake snacks followed. Still nothing. He reached recklessly for salsa. No, too many vegetables. He passed the nuts and potato chips for the same reason.
The jerky display caught his eye. Protein would be nice, as long as it stayed silent. He fingered a bag, waiting for the voices. Faint and far away, they crawled into his head. He dropped the bag. Fresh, all natural, no wonder it spoke.
Still, he hadn’t eaten meat for three months, ever since his food began talking in his head. The description of butchering processes had been too much for him. He reluctantly passed the jerky display.
He hurried past the meat counter, ignoring the strident calls from the glistening packages, and into the dairy case.
Milk spoke self-importantly of the milking process, leaving no detail of cow udders unremarked. Yogurt whispered of curdling processes involving extracts of cow stomach and bacteria. Cheese added molds to the list, leaving nothing unexplained.
Carl shrieked. The cart squealed as he wheeled it hurriedly to the front of the store.
“Find everything?” the clerk asked in a bored monotone. “Paper or plastic?”
Carl made noncommittal noises. He could still hear the dairy products if he strained. He shuddered, trying to drown their voices with the beeping of the scanner.
“You okay, man?” the clerk asked.
“Fine.” Carl’s eyelid twitched in time to the beeping.
Carl counted change from his pocket. He approached the two bags of junk food like a hunter stalking dangerous prey.
His hands closed on the plastic. Still no word from the boxed cakes or corn chips. He allowed himself a slight smile as he locked them into the trunk of his car. Silence reigned as he drove the few short blocks to his home.
He toted the food to his apartment. Only the faint sounds of night traffic splashing through the damp night touched his ears. He unlocked his door and carried his prize inside.
He lined his meager selections across his rickety table. Corn chips, pretzels, boxed cakes. Not much nutrition, but the calories would sustain him for a few more days. He opened the corn chips.
He nibbled one chip, delicately snipping bits from the edge with his teeth. The chip remained silent. He licked salt from his fingers. Another chip. Still nothing. He recklessly shoved an entire fistful into his mouth, crunching eagerly.
The voices began only after he swallowed. Gleeful descriptions of growing in dirt, in a field, were followed by even more detailed descriptions of corn chip manufacture. The chips listed the entire ingredient content. Mice, grasshoppers, rocks, dust, even a house cat had gone into his particular bag of chips.
Carl gagged, shoving his finger down his throat.
The offending chips refused to be vomited. The voices spoke of digestive processes, explaining the action of enzymes, acids, and muscles as they converted food into energy and waste.
Carl tried harder. His stomach heaved. The chips churned in his stomach.
He clutched the counter, overcome by dizziness. He had to eat to live. Maybe the pretzels would be better. He crunched a handful, barely chewing before swallowing.
Comments about lack of flossing, buildup of plaque and bacteria eating through his enamel whispered through his mind. He threw himself over to the sink, spitting and gagging.
It was no use. Nothing would quiet the voices. Maybe someday someone would find his emaciated body and wonder.
“No!” He clutched the bag of pretzels, smashing it in his fists. “You are food! You will be eaten!”
He shoved pretzels into his mouth. Bits rained around him. He tore open the box of snack cakes, squeezing them from their wrappers. He chewed in a frenzy. Globs of masticated pretzels and cake dripped from his chin.
“You are food! I win! I will eat you!”
He dumped the bag of chips on the floor, stomping and swearing as he randomly shoved pieces into his mouth. He screamed and waved the bag in triumph.
Carl’s neighbor, concerned about the noise, called the police.
They arrived to find Carl smearing smashed cake across his naked chest.
“It won’t stop talking to me,” he explained. He licked cream filling from his hands, growling savagely.
The policemen exchanged a look.
“Third one this month.”
“Think there’s anything to it?”
The policeman shrugged.
They locked Carl in a quiet facility where all meals are boiled into complete submission.
Carl is doing well, except when they serve rice pudding.
Copyright © 2009 by Jaleta Clegg