03 May The Dinner Party
“The Dinner Party”Written by Micah Edwards Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 13 minutes
It wasn’t like I was snooping. I was just out for an evening walk, and my neighbor Raul had his curtains wide open. There was light, there was movement, and I looked. Anyone would have. I wasn’t sticking my nose where it didn’t belong.
Raul was having a dinner party. There were three people I didn’t recognize seated around the table with him. Judging by the smiles and animated gestures, everyone was having a good time—except for Raul. He was gazing blankly ahead, totally disengaged from the party around him. I gave a little wave because I thought he’d seen me, but when he didn’t respond I realized that he was just staring at his own reflection in the window.
I’ll be honest, I kind of stared at him, too. He looked awful. He had bags under his eyes that I could see all the way from the street. His face was slack, like he was in a daze. And he’d lost a lot of weight since the last time I’d seen him. Not in the “hey, your diet’s working really well” kind of way. It was more of a “we’ve had to strictly ration our supplies to make it through this long winter” look.
I wondered if he was going through something that I’d missed hearing about. It had been a few months since we’d talked. Everything had been fine at that point; he and Diane had just gotten back from a big RV trip, and their daughter Maura was visiting from college on break. He’d seemed happy and healthy then. Something must have gone wrong.
Speaking of Diane and Maura, I noticed that neither one of them was at the table. I craned my neck around, trying to see if they were somewhere else in the room, but it was just Raul and his three guests. It struck me as odd until I noticed that although the table was set, there was no food on it. So obviously they were just in the kitchen, getting things ready.
Something still felt off, though. I found myself waiting, watching for Diane or her daughter to emerge, but neither one ever did. The guests didn’t seem to mind the delay. Their conversation was as spirited as ever despite Raul’s uninvolvement. The chatter passed back and forth over his head, but he just stared sightlessly outward, his gaze passing through me without him even knowing I was there.
I almost went to knock on the door. I knew things weren’t right there. But I convinced myself that I was wrong, that everything was fine, that it would be weird to interrupt the party for no reason. Raul and Diane had guests over. They didn’t need me barging in. And what would I say?
“Hey, I was staring in your window and I saw that dinner wasn’t ready. Are you okay?”
I didn’t want to sound like an idiot. I turned away from the window and headed back down the street to my house, where I made my own food and pretended I was going to stop thinking about Raul’s dinner party.
It kept bothering me, though. When I woke up the next morning, I was still thinking about his face. He’d looked absolutely wretched. And his wife hadn’t been there. Were those two points coincidental? Or connected?
All morning I kept constructing scenarios to explain it, like: he and Diane had both fallen ill, and he was freshly released from the hospital but she was still there. The people I’d seen were family members there to nurse him back to health.
Or maybe just Diane had gotten sick, and he was losing sleep worrying over her. The visitors could be her family who’d come to be close to her, which might explain why he’d looked like an outsider during their dinner camaraderie.
Then again, there might not be any illness at all. Maybe Diane had left him, and those guys were old college buddies in town to cheer him up, to help recover from the shambles of what had been his life. Didn’t seem to be working, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t trying.
I tossed around all of these ideas and more, hypothesizing situations from the mundane to the absurd. They were all possible. I just didn’t have enough information to say for sure.
One thing was certain, though: whatever was going on, Raul wasn’t well. So if I brought him food, I’d be doing a good thing, right? And if, while I was over there, I happened to ask what was going on, that was just basic neighborly conversation. I could say that I saw him when he was out the other day. I didn’t have to admit that I’d been looking in through his window at night. Not that there was anything wrong with what I’d done! It just sounded a little creepy without all of the context. Easier just to sidestep it with a white lie.
The early afternoon found me crossing the street with a bag of tortilla chips in one hand and a plastic container of my specialty homemade bean dip in the other. I didn’t make this for just anyone. This was guaranteed to smooth over any weirdness over how I’d known he was sick. No one was going to ask any questions if it meant I might not leave them the bean dip.
I knocked on the door and waited, mulling over what I should say to Raul. Saw you weren’t looking well, brought you some food? It had the advantage of simplicity. I heard something was up; can I help? Shifted the blame off of me for looking in his window, but it opened up the possibility of Raul asking who’d been talking about him, and I didn’t have a good scapegoat handy.
I was considering acting surprised: hey, I made too much bean dip, so I thought I’d see if you wanted—whoa, you don’t look so good, when the door opened. It wasn’t Raul standing there, though. It was his guests from last night, all three of them.
“Hello!” the one in front greeted me jovially. He had a broad grin and an air of haphazard dishevelment. He seemed mildly astonished to find himself answering the door, as if he had expected to be somewhere else. His thick black hair sat on top of his head in an untidy mess, looking as if it had been dropped there from a height. The other two hovered in the background, looking on with interest.
Up close, the idea that they were family seemed much more likely. They all shared the same hair, the same thin build, and the same slightly disconnected manic expression. They didn’t look much like either Raul or Diane, though, so I wasn’t sure whose family they might be.
I realized after a beat that I had been staring instead of answering. “Uh, hi!” I began. All of my carefully considered words had abandoned me. “Um, sorry. I was expecting Raul.”
“Ah! He cannot come to the door. Extremely sorry. He would be, too, no doubt. What do you have there?” He cocked his head to the side as he regarded the container of dip.
“Oh, well, I thought Raul might be—that is, I was making dip and I thought he…would want some. I made too much, anyway,” I managed, remembering my story. I held out the container. “Here! This is for him.”
“A food offering, is it?” The man at the door took the plastic dish from me. His fingers were thin and cold like the branches of a tree in winter. “For Raul?”
“Well, for all of you, really. I mean, it’s not like he’s just going to eat it in front of you.”
“No, to be sure. It is a rude host who does not offer food he has to his guests, indeed.” His brothers had drawn closer and were peering over his shoulders at the dip. “And so this is for us?”
“Yeah, for sure.” All three of them were looking at me. Their gazes were somehow expectant. The silence stretched out. I began to feel awkward, and spoke to fill the gap. “There’s not a lot, I guess, but if you like it I can always make more.”
“Mm, mhm. This is merely symbolic?” The one who had answered the door looked at me, seeking agreement.
“I mean, yeah, sure.” I fidgeted, uncomfortable in the face of their ongoing smiles. I was beginning to feel that there was a joke being told at my expense. I attempted to steer the conversation back to easier ground. “Hey, so, is Diane here? Or Maura?”
“No, they are out.” The grins continued.
“But they’re okay, though?”
“They had a bit of a downturn, but both have stabilized now. They will have no future issues.”
“Okay, good, that’s good. And Raul?”
“Has a bit farther to go, just a bit. But we expect him to stabilize tonight as well, or tomorrow morning at the latest.”
“Cool, great. Good to hear. So are you guys family here to take care of them, or what?”
He considered my words, then nodded enthusiastically. “We are a family, yes. And we are here to take care of them.”
“Okay. Awesome. Tell Raul I said hi, yeah? And I hope he feels better soon.”
“We will, yes. Thank you for your offering.”
“Yeah, absolutely. It was nothing.”
“It was so much more than that!” Still their grins persisted. If anything, they were wider than they had been at the start of the conversation. It was getting downright creepy. I decided to bail.
“Listen, I gotta run. Good to meet you, and tell Raul I hope he’s feeling better soon. Enjoy the bean dip.”
“Yes, this was a fortuitous meeting. We will enjoy the food you offer soon.”
“Okay, great. Well, bye.” I gave a gesture that was halfway between a wave and a salute, then turned away, feeling stupid without quite being sure why. Just as I heard the door close behind me, I realized that I still had the bag of chips in my hand.
I almost took it back home. Raul’s family was strange, and I didn’t really want to prolong my interaction with them. But what kind of maniac would bring someone bean dip and no chips to eat it with? Besides, they’d seen me with the chips. I didn’t want to give the weirdos any room to think that I was the weird one. It felt like losing a game I didn’t know I’d been playing.
I took a deep breath, walked back up the steps and knocked on the door. It was opened promptly this time. All three men were in positions so similar that I wasn’t sure that any of them had moved. The container of dip was gone, though, so they must have gone somewhere to put it down, at least.
“Hello!” said the lead one again, just as jolly as before. “You are back.”
“Yeah, sorry, I forgot to give you the chips to go with the dip.”
“Aha!” he said, taking the bag from me. He turned it over, examining the packaging. “A bounty.”
I couldn’t tell if his comment was sarcastic or not. His face was still all smiles, and his tone was totally unreadable. I felt a little defensive. “I just didn’t know if you had chips around or not.”
“No, none,” he assured me. “There is surprisingly little food in the house, I fear.”
“Well, hey, like I said, I’ve got plenty of bean dip if you don’t have time to get to the store.”
“Twice offered! Our thanks indeed. You are splendid.”
I was pretty sure no one had ever called me splendid before. “Uh, thanks. Well, like I said, I’ve gotta go. Thanks for taking care of Raul and his family.”
“It is our pleasure.”
This time, I successfully made my escape. I hurried back to my house, absurdly afraid that if I loitered outside for too long they would call me back. I wasn’t even really clear on what had been so uncomfortable about the conversation, except for everything. The one who’d talked had been perfectly nice. The two in the back hadn’t said or done anything wrong, other than smile too much. Yet my heart was racing like I’d just had a near-death experience, and my skin felt strangely numb.
Raul’s family was more than weird. Something about them was flat-out wrong.
I skipped my walk that night. I didn’t want to run into one of them outside, or accidentally catch their eye through the window somehow. I stayed inside, watched TV and ate bean dip until I was too stuffed to remember the creepy feel of his fingers on my hands. It took a lot to get there, but I was determined.
All was well until the evening of the next day. I was just starting to think about dinner when there was a knock at the door. I opened it without thinking, assuming it was a package or something, but then froze when I saw it was the three brothers. The same one, the spokesman, was in front again.
“Hello!” he began. I had the unsettling feeling that if I were to play this greeting back over the other times we had met, it would match up exactly. There was no variance in his timing, pitch or cadence whatsoever.
“Hey. Uh—how was the bean dip?”
“Regrettably, spoiled.” He held out the container.
“What?” I accepted the dip, legitimately taken aback. “I just made it fresh. It couldn’t possibly have—uch!” I made the mistake of opening the lid. A thick, rancid smell oozed over my hands. I nearly dropped the container in my haste to seal it again. The stench lingered, a physical presence strong enough to supersede my aversion to the visitors.
“Man! I don’t know what happened there. I’ve got plenty more, if you want.”
“All spoiled as well, likely.”
“Nah, I can see why you’d think that, but I just had some this morning. Hang on, I’ll grab you some.”
I stepped to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. A wave of foul odor rolled out, slapping me in the face. I staggered back a step. My eyes teared up as I dry-heaved. This was more than just the dip. The entire contents of the fridge had spoiled. More than that; I could see mold growing thickly over every food surface, filling containers and nudging its way out to spill onto the shelves.
“Unfortunate! It is as I have said.” The foremost of the brothers was behind me, looking over my shoulder into the refrigerator.
“How did this even happen? It was fine this morning! And the refrigerator is still cold.” I shut the door, gagging again as the movement forced a new wash of stench. I turned it into a cough, embarrassed to be showing such weakness in front of a stranger. Then it struck me. “Also, hey! What are you doing in my house?”
“We have come for dinner.” He smiled pleasantly, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Look, I know I said you could have more bean dip, but I think you can see that that’s not on offer right now. I don’t know what went wrong, but I definitely can’t make food out of anything in there.”
“Unimportant,” he said, waving a hand magnanimously. “You have other food.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, so?”
“You have offered.”
“Dude. I offered you bean dip.”
“It was symbolic, you said.”
“No, it was literal bean dip. It was in a plastic container. I’m sorry it went bad, but I don’t owe you anything.”
“You made a food offering. For all of us, you said.”
“Okay, look. You’re getting creepy. I want you out of my house.”
“We will leave when you have fed us.”
I took an involuntary step back as his two brothers stepped out from behind him. They were thinner and smaller than he was, but not by much. It seemed impossible that they had been hiding behind him. Yet there they were, all three of them staring me down in my kitchen. All three still bore those manic smiles, as if this were some sort of a game.
“Enough!” I let anger disguise my rising panic. None of the intruders made any attempt to stop me as I pushed past them and headed back to the front door. “You’re all getting out of my house right n—yahh!”
My declaration devolved into a startled cry as I yanked the front door open. There on the front step was the first of the brothers, standing as calmly as if he had just knocked on the door and been waiting for me to open it. I jerked my head to look behind me. Only his two brothers stood in the kitchen.
“We move where we will when we are disregarded,” he told me. He placed his unnaturally long fingers gently against my chest, pushing me backward as he re-entered my house. “You will not be quit of us until you have discharged your obligation.”
“Fine!” I snarled, attempting to regain my composure. “You want food? Here!”
I stormed back into the kitchen and tore open the pantry door. I could immediately tell something was wrong; it smelled earthy and rank like an uncovered grave. The light flickered on and confirmed what I already knew. Everything in the pantry had rotted away. The cereal boxes sagged, their cardboard soggy and warped. The cans bulged ominously. The potatoes were seething with grubs while the dried beans crawled with flies.
“Tsk,” said the visitor, directly behind me once more. “Your food.”
“Whatever you’re doing, stop it!” I kicked the door shut, but by now the whole kitchen stank. “Look, I’ll feed you. What do you want? I’ll go get it.”
He shook his head. “You will not leave.”
“Then what do you want me to do? I can’t feed you if you’ve ruined all of my food!”
“Not quite all.”
I stared at him, uncomprehending. “What, am I supposed to dig through that mess to find something that’s still edible?”
“None of that is edible, nor what was in the icebox. Yet there remains another food source in the house.”
“Ohh,” I said, feigning comprehension. “Yeah, okay. Let me go get it.”
All three of them watched me as I left the kitchen and headed down the hall, eyes wide and curious. My phone was charging in the bedroom. It would only take a moment to call the police. I just needed a second of freedom.
I did not bother closing the door. I thought it might arouse suspicion. I simply picked up the phone and, keeping my eyes on the door, began to dial.
I had gotten only as far as 9-1 when the phone was torn from my hand with superhuman strength and speed. The charging cable was dragged across my hand with enough force to rip the skin. I whipped around to find the brothers crowded behind me. My phone was crushed in the hand of the lead one, the jagged edges of the plastic and glass sticking into his palm, but he did not even seem to notice. His eyes, and the eyes of his brothers, were fixed firmly on my hand. His tongue peeked between his lips to lick the lines of his rigid smile.
I glanced down at my hand, confused, and saw that I was bleeding. I looked back to the brothers, to their fixated stares, and finally realized what sort of food it was they were looking to eat.
“No way,” I said, covering the cut with my other hand. The motion snapped them out of their trance, and their eyes drifted back to my face.
“You should not call—” the leader began, but I cut him off.
“You’re insane! I’m supposed to let you drink my blood?”
“And more. You offered us food.”
“I didn’t offer you my flesh!”
“You did, though you knew it not. Now confirm your offering. Invite us to feast, and we will leave.”
“And what happens to me?”
“You will not survive.”
“Wow, that’s a heck of an enticement. You really know how to make a sales pitch. No way. Come and kill me if you can. I’ll fight you.”
“We will not fight you.” Still he smiled, the expression tingeing all of his words with mockery. “It will be an offering, or we will have nothing.”
“Then why on earth would I give myself up to you?”
“If you do not, we will watch you starve even as you would starve us. And when you are dead, we will find another. And another, and another, until we have our offering.
“You could prevent the suffering of others. You could save yourself from a slow death. All you need to do is fulfill your promise. You have already offered. Simply provide.”
They stared at me for what felt like an eternity. I could feel their hunger radiating off of them. I shook my head. “Never.”
“Then we will wait together until you change your mind.”
That was nine days ago. I have had nothing but water since then. I tried to give even that up, to hasten the end, but it was too painful and I caved. I’ve regretted that each day since, as the hunger digs in deeper and tortures me in new and painful ways.
My body aches all of the time. My stomach is in a constant cramp. I feel weak, confused and feverish. My skin is starting to flake off, and my hair is falling out. All I want to do is sleep, but the brothers are constantly surrounding me, talking to me, smiling at me. Always smiling.
“Fulfill your offer,” they cajole me. “Release us and we will release you.”
They sit me at the empty table for meals, taking up seats around me as if we were all waiting to be served. They talk about what I would taste like, laughing about what parts they would eat first. They set out plates and remind me that I have but to say the word and they will fill those plates with meat.
“You can even have a bite, if you like,” one tells me. I think it is still the leader talking, but neither my eyesight nor my memory can be trusted anymore. “You don’t have to die hungry. We can give you the final taste of food.”
I consider it more and more each day. But somewhere deep inside, I still have hope. During our empty meals, while they banter and laugh, I stare out the window into the neighborhood, hoping to catch someone’s eye. I see people passing by regularly, but so far, no one has noticed me watching them.
There’s still a chance, though. There’s still time. I was too late for Raul, but someone may not be too late to save me.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableMicah Edwards Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A