Copyright © 2022 Lily Luchesi
There was no need for him to ring the doorbell that awful night. We’d all seen the news reports of nuclear bombs and God knew what else unleashed upon us, and a few other countries, too. As soon as I saw the report, I knew he’d be coming by, so I waited by the front door, listening to the TV as I watched the panic unfold before me.
He parked his truck and raced from the curb to my front door. We were old-fashioned; despite being engaged, he didn’t have a key to my place, nor did I have one to his. I had to let him in.
He burst through the small gap I left in the door and slammed it behind him. In one hand was a piece of paper. Clutched so tightly in his fist, I wondered if it was even legible. Dark eyes, wide and unblinking, took me in.
As if the sight of me was enough to rouse him from his panicked state, those eyes began to well with tears. We fell into each other’s arms without a word. His shoulders trembled as he both cried and tried to stop the flow of tears.
My eyes were strangely dry. As if my heart registered this disaster long ago and already mourned for its loss.
“Is that…” I didn't finish my sentence.
He pulled back, looking at me with red-rimmed eyes. Nodding, he said, “I leave tomorrow.”
I pressed my forehead to his; emptiness building inside me already. A gaping maw that I knew would feed on anything good and light left inside me until nothing remained but it.
“Is there any way you can be exempt?”
“Darling, no one is exempt. If this lasts more than a year, women will be drafted, too,” he reminded me.
“Is it bad I’d want that, on the off-chance we’ll see each other again?”
He kissed my forehead, then my nose, finally my lips, a sad little smile playing at his when he pulled away. “Then where will the excitement of my coming home be?”
It was a foolish thing to ask. We both knew the likeliness of him returning home alive was slim to none.
A loud crash outside shook the building, and we grabbed each other harder to remain upright.
“It’s going to be madness out there,” he commented, glancing out the window. Sirens wailed in the distance, and I could smell smoke and gasoline in the air. Not a good combination.
“Listen to me, love, please. Do not go out. Get your groceries delivered, make sure the bomb shelter is stocked. Don’t answer the door for anyone.” He was a quiet, passive man. The last time I can recall him ever commanding me to do anything was to move out of the way as a guy on a bicycle almost ran me down on the bridge.
He was deathly serious, and I hated seeing the worry in those pretty eyes of his. Brushing a lock of dyed blond hair from his forehead, I teased, “What about when you come home? How will I know it’s you and to open the door?”
He chuckled weakly, wrapping one arm around my waist, leaving the other on the side of my face. Playfully, he tapped my nose three times.
“When I return, I’ll ring the doorbell three times, just like that. So you’ll always know it’s me and to let me in.” He paused, a grin splitting his face. “You will let me in, right?”
I giggle, glad his playful side hasn’t left him yet. “No matter what, my prince. You know that. Just … be careful and come home.”
That was nearly two years ago. Women were never called to the draft after all, but the war didn’t end. Instead, it became something bigger and darker than anyone expected.
It started when the rabbits began biting the deer in the forest, eating them. Then it happened to a few humans. Not many. Mostly in places where the nuclear bombs were created.
We brushed it off, saying the neighbors to the north were getting the brunt of their actions. That they deserved it. Let them eat each other until there was no one left.
Then my neighbor’s husband came home, one of the first from the front lines. He had nerve damage from a contaminated cut in his arm, so he was honorably discharged.
At first I was jealous. Why did he get to come home, but my love was still out there?
And then I heard her scream late that night. I peeked clandestinely from my window only to see her running down the street, her arm garishly red in the orange street lamps.
Except … her arm looked awfully short.
Only when her husband came out of their house, chasing her, did I realize her arm was red and short because half of it was gone. Her husband was gnawing on it like it was a giant turkey leg at Disneyland.
I never looked out the window since that night, but I heard more women scream, and in the weeks that followed, men fighting with no sound save for unintelligible grunts and screams.
That was almost all I heard all night, every night, until tonight.
The doorbell rings three times, the sound loud and shrill and unnatural.
Until a couple of weeks ago, that sound was all I dreamed of. Until I saw what became of the men who came back from war.
“Darling, it’s me!” my fiance called. “I’m home!”
I cower behind the couch as the doorbell keeps ringing three times, over and over again. Praying he goes away.
Because whatever that is outside the door is no longer the man I loved.
Evil has come home.
Chicken Noodle Soup
This story contains material that may be disturbing for some readers.
I winced the first time I watched Cook kill a chicken. To be fair, I winced if I saw someone kill a spider, so there’s some perspective for you. But the sight of the eyes going still and the neck twisted around … ugh. Shudder inducing.
The other kids who worked around the neighborhood found my aversion to anything violent or gross amusing. My roommate especially. She was a wicked little thing. I often went to bed to find rat carcasses under my mattress, or snails in my shirts as I put them on.
To name but a few of the things she did, all in the name of “fun.”
I was mimicked, of course. She had to show them just how I acted when the still flopping fish she nicked from the kitchens slipped down the back of my trousers. How could anyone survive without her pantomime?
The longer it went on, the more time I spent in the kitchens. Cook said I was a natural, and that I could take over his job when he retired, as long as I stayed on as his assistant.
It wasn’t glamorous work. Have you ever cleaned a tuna the size of your forearm? Or mutilated the legs of a rabbit to make stew? The bigger the creature got that Cook wanted me to slice and dice, the worse I felt.
I mean, yeah, I eat animals. Of course. But that doesn’t mean I’m okay with destroying their corpses for my culinary pleasure. A steak on a plate is not the same as pulling a cow’s livers out to make liver and onions.
It’s a lot bloodier, for one thing.
But I got used to it. I had to, not only to secure a future, but I also loved cooking. I felt calm when I chopped veggies and measured spices and stirred sauces. It was a form of creativity. Therapy.
Ironically, one of the things I made best was chicken noodle soup. I made the noodles from scratch, and now I even butchered the chicken myself, picking the best parts, using marrow in the broth.
Cook was impressed, and he bragged about my skills in the kitchen to anyone who would listen. Apparently, before I showed up, my roommate was his apprentice. And it evidently didn’t go well.
I’ve never seen her do anything near the kitchen except wash dishes. And honestly? Sometimes she screwed that up, too.
So imagine my surprise, dismay, and despair when I got called into Cook’s private office a day after serving my soup.
A small group of people reported food poisoning symptoms last night. One of them was my roommate. She hadn’t been in the room pretty much all night until it was light’s out. And then she slipped silently into bed. No pranks, no jokes, not even a snarky comment.
Had she been sick? Did I poison people by mistake?
My stomach sank to the floor, and I was about to beg for my job, pretty much for my whole life. I trained to be a cook. I had nothing else except for this.
“I will give you a chance to redeem yourself,” Cook said. “Tomorrow night, the Mayor is coming to dine with everyone in the community. I will be unavailable, and I’d like you to make your chicken noodle soup along with a salad and bread. As long as no one gets sick, I’ll chalk it up to a bad experience and we will never speak of it again.”
Pressing my hands together, it took all my decorum not to hug the grizzly old man. “Thank you, Cook! I promise, you won’t regret giving me another chance!”
“I better not. One more slip-up, you’re done, you hear me?”
I heard. Loud and clear.
The next day dawned and I was up earlier than usual. My roommate groaned and put her blanket over her head as I began singing as I got dressed.
“What’s got up your bum today?” she whined.
“I’m happy. Can’t a girl be happy?” I asked.
“Yeah, sure. But when you’re happy it makes me sick,” she said, and that was all I heard from her the rest of the morning.
Why was my happiness so sickening to her? What had I ever done besides exist that she tried her best to ruin my day every day?
Slowly, I began to hope I had made her sick with the soup. It was the least of what she deserved for being so cruel.
I spent the morning prepping the soup. If I got it cooking by 10am, it would be ready by 5pm, when the younger kids came to eat before us older teens and the adults came for their dinner at 7pm.
I had to make a lot of soup because the crowd now included the Mayor, his family, and staff. A whole pot just for them.
Cooking this was pretty much automatic for me now. Muscle memory. Kill the chicken by breaking its neck, clean the feathers, cut off the head, remove the entrails, saving some for other dishes, then separate the parts, leaving the bones in for the best flavor. Then, when it was close to serving time, I’d take the chicken pieces out, debone them, and put the flesh back in the pot.
I sang and sometimes whistled as I did the first four chickens, and as I was about to reach for the fifth and final chicken — the one for the Mayor — there were no more. The small coop was empty. I’d have to go to the farm to get another. It wasn’t a super long walk, but I had no one to make sure the soups that were on didn’t burn, boil over, or get somehow tampered with.
I put the hand holding the meat cleaver on one hip, tapping my upper lip with my free hand as I thought about the best thing to do.
I could take some chicken from each pot and put it in the last one…
With a shout, I jumped and twirled around at the sudden voice. My roommate. Oh joy.
“You’re not supposed to be back here,” I told her gently. “Cook said…”
“Oh, please, all I did was set some hotcakes on fire. And he fired me in a snap.” She snapped her fingers, showing off her sparkly manicure. She stepped forward and almost tripped on the plastic tarp I laid on the floor, just in case I spilled any chicken blood or guts. Easy cleanup. “You, on the other hand, we tell Cook and the Headmistress your food poisoned us, and nothing! You get to cook for the Mayor!”
Something about what she said struck a nerve. I was afraid to ask, but I had to.
“Did my soup make you sick?”
She giggled. “What do you think? Little Miss Perfect over here can’t do anything wrong, can she? Not even faking sick because of you worked!”
My stomach roiled, and I wondered if I was going to be sick.
“How could you? If I don’t get this job when I turn eighteen, I have nothing!” I cry, hot tears burning my eyes.
“Boo-fucking-hoo,” she snapped, going to turn around, when she saw the neat containers of four chicken innards. Her eyes danced as she took in the four innards but only five pots. There came that giggle again. “Oh dear, you’re in a pickle, aren’t you? What will the Mayor do when your famous chicken noodle soup doesn’t have any chicken?”
I swear I see red. But unlike the stories, I don’t black out from the rage. I’m well aware of every single move I make. I step forward, she’s still laughing at me. Laughing and laughing, looking forward to my demise.
Like I’m in a movie, I raise my right arm and swing. I know the meat cleaver is sharp: it’s my job to ensure every cooking utensil is at its best. What I didn’t know was how strong rage can make a person.
Surprise doesn’t even get a chance to show on her face as the cleaver slices through her neck, leaving her head hanging like a grotesque, oversized charm on a handbag. She was still laughing, her face frozen in mirth forever.
The body spasms, spilling blood on the plastic tarp as it falls with a thump.
What on Earth am I supposed to do with this now?
I glance at the bloody cleaver in my hand, to the body, and then to the stove. My eyes drift back to the body and I shrug. I need meat for the soup, and I need to get rid of the body.
I’m trained with what to do. Muscle memory. Clean the skin, cut off the head, remove the entrails, saving some for other dishes, then separate the parts, leaving the bones in for the best flavor. Of course, I can’t leave many bones except finger bones, but still…
I don’t save these entrails. Rather, I put them with the biohazard animal parts to be burned later.
Hours later, it’s past dinner time and the Mayor and his entourage have arrived. I happily ladle heaping spoonfuls of soup into the bowls, and the smell isn’t much different from the other four pots. The meat resembles pork a little more than chicken, but I still don’t worry. Most people hear “chicken,” and they think “chicken”. Head empty, no thoughts. Just what we put there.
I smiled at the Mayor as I helped the servers bring the bowls and plates of fresh bread to the large table.
As I cooled down from a long day of cooking, a server told me the Mayor wanted to see the cook of the day.
“Hi!” I said brightly. “How can I help you, Mr. Mayor?”
“Young lady, this soup is delicious,” he told me with a smile. “My compliments. It will be a wonderful day when you take over cooking for the town.”
“Why, thank you,” I replied.
“The meat is so tender!” his wife added.
“Freshly killed this morning,” I explained, and then excused myself. In the kitchen, one of my roommate’s cronies is there, eating some of the soup that remained from the Mayor’s pot.
“Sorry,” she muttered, mouth full as she licked a piece of meat from her lower lip. “Practice ran long. I haven’t eaten.”
“Go ahead,” I replied, my smile widening.
“This is awesome. Different meat, right? Kinda?” she asked, seeming sincere.
“Yeah, but it still tastes like chicken.”
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About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”