“Expiration Dates” by Erik C. Martin
“Mmm. I think this is the best coffee I’ve ever drank,” Heck said.
His wife of a month, Cassidy, smiled. “You said the same thing last Saturday.”
“And I’ll probably say it again next Saturday.”
Heck took another sip and waited for his cinnamon raisin English muffin to toast. The house smelled like morning.
Cassidy opened the fridge. She pulled out the guacamole, checked the label, and chucked it into the trash. She did the same with a yogurt.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Cleaning out the refrigerator before I shop. They were expired.”
She took out his milk.
“It expires today.” She opened the jug and poured the milk into the sink. “Sorry. I don’t want you getting salmonella.”
His muffin popped up more burnt than he liked it. “I was going to have cereal.”
“Use my milk,” she said as she checked the Dijon mustard.
“Your milk is lactose free.”
“It’s good.” She tossed out half a bag of tortilla chips.
“The milk wasn’t even past the date. And you know those dates don’t mean anything. They’re just suggestions. Food is good long after it,” he made finger quotes, “expires.”.
She shook her head. “I’m not going to eat bad food. That’s how you get sick.”
A third of a bottle of ranch dressing went into the trash, now dangerously full.
Monday. Cassidy asked Heck to stop at the grocery on the way home from work and get a can of beets for a salad. He’d driven up to Alpine to see a new client and needed gas. The mountain roads were empty. He drove ten miles before he saw a gas station. He could tell the building was supposed to be white, but years had turned it mottled gray. The parking lot held not a single car. But a sign on the door proclaimed they were ‘OPEN’ in big red letters. Good enough! Heck pulled in, hopped out, and whipped out the plastic. Black electrical tape covered the credit card reader.
“Darn it. Making me go inside like a schmuck,” he said to himself.
A bell dinged above the door. A white-haired man wearing sunglasses sat behind the counter reading a newspaper, an actual newspaper! He never looked up when Heck entered. He was so still he might have been asleep. He might have been dead. The store smelled like week old hotdog water and burnt plastic. Heck spied an aisle with canned food and other gas station groceries. He shrugged. It couldn’t hurt to look.
Green beans, lima beans, mixed veggies, corn, aha…beets!
Heck grabbed the lone, dented can. Not the usual brand. No big deal. Canned beets were canned beets. Thinking of Cass, he glanced at the date.
Well, they weren’t that expired. Easily within the Heck margin of error. He had his markers in his work bag and a steady hand.
It would be simple to make that six look like an eight…
He took the can to the register. The old man looked up from his paper. Heck saw the headline–OBITUARIES. The man took the can in his bony fingers and glanced at the label. He looked at Heck over the top of his sunglasses and smiled, revealing teeth that looked like grains of brown rice.
“Twenty in gas.”
The man rang it up, smiling throughout like he had just remembered the most amusing joke.
Heck tried not to grin while Cassidy ate her salad. The doctored can had passed muster though she had remarked on the off-brand.
“These better not be from Wal-Mart.” She fingered the dent, frowning.
He assured her they weren’t. She thanked him for stopping at the store.
His own salad had no beets, no broccoli, no celery, or cucumbers. It was lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, and croutons, basically a cheeseburger minus the meat.
After dinner he helped Cassidy clear the table and clean the kitchen. He was drying when she caught him smirking at her.
“What is so funny?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“Come on, spill it!”
“Okay. I played a little joke. I’m not sure how funny you’ll think it is. Those beets you ate, they were totally past their expiration date.”
“What? No, I checked.”
“I changed the date with a marker. Pretty good job, huh? They were fine. You ate them and never noticed.”
She threw the sponge into the sink, splashing him with suds.
“You ass!” Cassidy stormed out of the kitchen.
Heck started to go after her, but stopped himself. He had learned that if he chased her now, they would end up in a fight. The trick was to wait fifteen minutes before starting the apology process.
He picked up a plate and started to scrub. After a few minutes, from the living room Cassidy yelled, “I feel dizzy! There was something wrong with those beets!”
“It’s in your head. You were fine until you knew they were old.”
She didn’t say anything. He ran hot water over the skillet and scraped off food with a plastic spatula. From the bathroom, the unmistakable sound of retching.
She’s making herself sick. The drama! This might take more than fifteen minutes.
What the hell?
Heck put down the sponge and went to the bathroom.
Cassidy was sprawled out on the floor: foamy crimson rivulets ran out of her mouth and formed a small puddle on the white tile. The toilet was filled with red liquid.
Is that from the beets?
“Cass! Are you okay?”
She was not okay. Cassidy wasn’t breathing.
“Oh my God. Cass, hold on!”
Phone, where was his phone? Living room.
“I’m going to get help!”
He ran to his phone. His hands shook but he managed to dial 911. He nearly forgot his address but stammered it out to the dispatcher.
“Hurry! She’s not breathing.”
The dispatcher said something, but Heck hung up, oblivious. He hurried back into the bathroom and rolled his wife onto her back.
What do I do? Rescue breathing…how does it go? Check her airway.
Cassidy’s eyes popped open. They were blood red.
“You’re alive! Thank God!” He leaned in to hug her. Her mouth opened and he caught a glimpse of jagged teeth.
She lunged for his throat. He jerked back and she missed the major artery. Sharp teeth sank into the meat above his clavicle.
“Ahh! Get off!” She clung to him like an animal, but he finally pushed her off and scrambled to his feet. She snarled at him from all fours. Hand pressed to his bleeding wound, he retreated into the living room.
Cassidy stood stiffly, like someone shaking off the rigor of sleep. Head down, she charged. Heck ran, right out the front door slamming it behind him. Cassidy screamed on the other side, a sustained, frustrated wail. She pounded against the door so hard it rattled in the frame. Doorknobs had become a challenge.
He was half a block away. The bite throbbed. Suddenly dizzy, Heck staggered and held a tree to steady himself. Sirens in the distance, getting closer.
A wave of nausea ripped his core. He vomited onto the sidewalk, dark red and foamy.
Erik C. Martin writes books for YA and middle-grade readers, but loves to write short stories of various genres for adult readers. Erik is a member of SCBWI and the San Diego Writers and Editors Guild. He lives and writes in San Diego, CA. Originally from Cleveland, OH, he still carries a snowbrush in his car.
Nightmarish Nature: Cannibalism
Let’s return to explore more Nightmarish Nature, shall we? This segment focuses on cannibalism, as we generally find it icky / taboo and because it’s more common than you might think. There are many different reasons that different creatures engage in cannibalistic practices. Energy waste doesn’t last long in nature; gaps are filled as things evolve to utilize whatever resources are available to meet their own needs. C’est la vie (light up another cigarette). In any case, the challenge to the cannibal lies in determining kinship and not accidentally erasing their own line or progeny, thus decreasing their likelihood for survival over generations. Oh, and in avoiding those pesky prion diseases…
Resource Driven Cannibalism
Resource driven cannibalism can occur when competition for resources is high. This may be due to scarcity, with individuals taking to eating each other to avoid themselves starving to death (with those consumed either still alive and killed to this end, or eaten after death of other causes). Or it may be outside of the cannibal’s control, considering the spread of Mad Cow Disease from feeding beef meal harboring the prion disease (and parts from other mammals like sheep) to growing cattle to save money, ’cause it’s not like the cows were allowed to order whatever they wanted. Or it may be due to direct conflicts with other groups of the same species, either due to competition for resources, mating rights and/or territory. These behaviors have been noted in mostly male chimpanzees raiding other groups, which have even been documented as all out wars against other males in neighboring bands, campaigning to eradicate all outside of their ranks.
Thinking about chimpanzees, males are also documented to gang up on alpha males seen as too controlling or sadistic, with groups of younger males attacking and rendering the alpha male to pieces, often consuming his flesh and blood in the process. This can upend established hierarchies to replace them with new structures, for example with a new male taking on the role of leader. But cannibalism can also be used to reinforce existing hierarchies, as seen in African Wild Dogs wherein the dominant pair will kill off any offspring that other dogs may have birthed so that the pack will focus on raising only the alpha pair’s pups, thusly reestablishing and enforcing social structure while ensuring the best survival chances for the pups raised by channeling all resources to the one brood.
Infanticide & Filial Cannibalism
Like African Wild Dogs, other parents may also eat their offspring, or better yet their rivals’ offspring. Stillborn or unhealthy offspring may be consumed, or just any that they can get their hands on at birth. (Again with the young male chimpanzees…) Some creatures enter into cycles wherein smaller individuals are more vulnerable to predation by larger ones both within and outside of ones own species, as is seen among many fishes with eggs and smaller fishes playing an important role as prey to larger ones. Other creatures may engage in these practices to reduce competition (for themselves and/or their offspring) and/or increase opportunities to mate. Male cats are notorious for killing kittens that are not their own in order to bring females into heat again sooner, potentially increasing the likelihood of mating with said females themselves while decreasing future competition. Win-win! Female cats must take great care to hide their kittens in order to protect them from males as much as other predators, and can have kittens by different fathers within the same litter in order to increase their kittens’ overall survival as a group with father cats more willing to accept kittens when their own kin are present.
Mantids and spiders are especially known for sexual cannibalism, with larger females consuming males during copulation, but this is not always linked to vast size differences and does not appear in every species. Females who engage in this practice may have healthier eggs in larger clutches, thus increasing the survival likelihood of more of their offspring. Sometimes the risk to the male suitor of being mistaken for another species by an aggressive would-be mate is high, and various rituals have developed within certain species to help avoid such mistakes and entice the female to mate. Male spiders are known engage in elaborate dances, movements, tapping and silk spinning rituals to avoid being eaten pre-copulation or at all. It’s a hell of a lot more involved than a good pick up line and a well-timed drink, as you can see here.
If the above video doesn’t load, you can find it on PBS YouTube here.
Thank you for joining us for another exciting episode of Nightmarish Nature. If you enjoyed this, please feel free to check out these previous segments:
Revisitations: The Devil Went Down to Georgia
So I’ve been working on more painting into found art (as seen here before) and I thought I’d share a newer one, based on the song The Devil Went Down to Georgia by Charlie Daniels. But first let’s make like my She Wolf post enjoy a couple variations of the song, shall we?
First we have Charlie Daniels, the writer of the song which was inspired by the beautiful poem by Stephen Vincent Benet titled The Mountain Whipporwill. You can read the poem on Your Daily Poem here.
Then we have to watch my favorite version, the animated music video by Primus. I know there are claymation-haters out there who find the effect bit too “uncanny valley” but how can you not just love those chickens?
Anyway, without further ado, here is my painting, incorporated into a found still life, original signed L. Harady.
Here The Devil is defeated, crushed along the lower edge of the artwork beneath the fiddle and lamenting his loss. The bow jabs into his sneering nose as if to add insult to injury, but his eyes still glow, alight with the prospect of coming back for another round. (They actually do glow, I have acquired some blacklight reactive nail polish to use in these pieces now.) I suppose I may go to Hell for this portrayal (or for defiling yet another painting) but alas, such is the price of art sometimes. I guess I’ll add it to the list…
Cravings Part 2, story by Jennifer Weigel
If you missed the beginning of this pregnancy horror story by Jennifer Weigel, you can catch Part 1 here.
Jayden’s stomach turned. Who or what was this creature standing before him, and what had it done with his wife? Claire proceeded to eat more than half of the jar of eggs in a fury of consumption; Jayden finally retreated to the office alone unable to watch any more. He heard a sloshing sound as she finished the jar and proceeded to drink the brine before retreating to the bedroom and crashing into their bed, presumably to pass out. Again. Later that night, he crept in to find her sleeping, clammy and sweaty, nervously twitching. Her body made the most abnormal guttural sounds as her internal systems groaned and sputtered. It was definitely getting worse. Jayden resolved to call Dr. Randolph the following morning; this had gone on for far too long already.
The next day, Claire awoke with a start from another bad dream that she couldn’t remember. Crying uncontrollably, she clutched her swollen belly, still ripe with child, and hurriedly exclaimed, “Blood sausage! I must have blood sausage!”
Jayden woke from his curled-up safe haven beside her and muttered, “Wha… What is that? I’ve never even heard of such a thing.”
“Go!” she snapped. “I’m starving. Go now! Return with blood sausage.”
Jayden staggered over to the dresser, threw on some clothes, shuffled into his waiting shoes, and gathered himself to duck out the door in the well-practiced gesture he’d become so accustomed to. “I’ll stop on my way home from work, I guess,” he mused, making his own plans. Claire seemed to settle down a little as she woke further, but it was little consolation.
“Thank you Sweetcheeks,” she said. “You’re the best.” She blew him a kiss.
While at work, Jayden managed to secure an appointment with Dr. Beth Randolph, Claire’s primary physician since before he had known her, for later that day. He took off early and rushed home to gather his unwilling wife. She was going in, whether she liked it or not.
He opened the front door and peered inside. The house was dark and quiet, as he’d come to expect. He crept in and stole upstairs to the bedroom to rouse Claire from sleep. He’d tell her where they were going once he got her in the car, no sense in making this even more difficult than it already was. Unsurprisingly, there she was, a shadowy form hunched over in the bed, her back to him with the covers pulled up over her eyes. He peeled away the comforter and blanket to reveal a tangled mess of white knitted yarn; Claire was nowhere to be found. He looked around, trying to focus on the darkness of the bedroom that enveloped him. That unsettling feeling had returned, like he’d had at Maresh’s shop, sinking into his gut. Claire was here idling, watching, waiting; he could sense her presence sizing him up as if she could read his mind and was on to his plan. But why was her company so disconcerting? This was still their house, their home, their lives intertwined… Jayden felt his trust ebb, spine tingling sensing danger.
“Hey there Sweetcheeks,” Claire’s voice echoed from the darkness of the closet. “Do you have something for me?” She emerged into the room, her eyes wide, frothing slightly at the edges of her mouth. Tiny bubbles of drool burst forth from her quivering lips and trickled down onto her chin.
“I couldn’t find any… blood sausage… whatever that is,” Jayden lied through his teeth. He hadn’t even gone to the store. Claire should never have expected him back at this hour; apparently she didn’t even know what time it was. But that seemingly wasn’t a concern. She wasn’t herself. Something about her fragile frame, the way she rocked from side to side, reminded him of that crazy old witch doctor Maresh. He finally managed to connect the two; it was as though she were possessed. It was imperative that she saw Dr. Beth Randolph as soon as possible, if for no other reason than to sever ties to that crazy old hag and hopefully start to snap out of it. He simply had to get her to that appointment.
“No blood sausage!” Claire shouted, becoming more and more agitated. “No… blood… sausage!” Her breathing became less regular and her body shivered all over as she hulked towards him. “I am sooo hungry!”
She lunged towards him, stumbling into his arms and collapsing towards his feet laughing maniacally. Jayden reached for her instinctively, to lower her to the ground gently, and felt something sticky and warm envelop his hand. Feeling lightheaded, he glanced down as he fell to the floor beside her. Protruding from his gut was a long silver thread, no something pointedly metal and hard, oozing thick oil sludge all around. Not oil, blood. His blood. Claire continued laughing, her lightning-fast fingers quickly and methodically ripping their way into his tattered shirt and worming around within his wounded frame to pull forth bits of viscera, which she wrung in her hands and smeared up and down her arms and torso. As Jayden passed out, she mouthed each of her fingers in turn, sucking the precious liquid off of them one at a time, before she began to feast on his entrails.
Claire’s belly was finally full. The baby developing within squirmed and settled, as if finally satiated. She swiped a stray bit of flesh from her bosom, licked it off of her fingertips, and heaved a sigh of relief. Miracle Madame Maresh Meliasma was right; she just needed to get to the root of her cravings.