Uncle Eats You
By Bill Ferris
Walter heard the front door fly open and smack into the wall. Adrenaline seized his doomed heart, and Walter wondered if this would be the shock that finally overloaded his most vital organ. At 1:30 p.m., this commotion signified either his sister or his impending murder, and Walter didn’t like the idea of either at lunchtime.
“Who’s there?” Walter yelled, putting aside his platter of three fried-egg cheeseburgers and pawing for his cane.
“I hate you!” said Walter’s seven-year-old nephew, Billy. His tone suggested both family and murder.
“Whoa! What’s the matter with you, mister? Don’t talk to your uncle that way.”
Another door slammed, and Walter heard one of Billy’s plastic model cars smash against the ground--Walter guessed the Lamborghini Diablo by the number of pieces that skittered across the floor. Walter also had no trouble hearing Billy’s sobs, despite the boy’s attempts to muffle them with his pillow. Being confined to his bed had honed Walter’s senses to the point where he could smell bacon in the fridge and could hear a mouse fart on the other side of the house. And he could hear the message Billy sent by smashing the model car.
Walter rolled onto his side, careful not to let his momentum carry him over to his stomach, where his own weight might suffocate him. He grabbed the telephone with the hook of his cane and called his sister, Rosalyn.
“What do you need, Walter?” Rosalyn’s voice suggested that “Nothing” was the correct answer.
“What do you mean Billy’s home?”
“He stomped into the house, shouted, ‘I hate you!’ then slammed the door to his room. He smashed one of his cars. The Diablo, I think--”
“I knew this would happen. How’d he get home?”
“Well, I didn’t drive him.”
“Yeah, no kidding. God, that stupid project.”
Billy’s homework was a show-and-tell presentation about his best friend. Billy chose Uncle Walter. Since Walter couldn’t make it to the front door, much less to school, Billy snapped a picture, for which Walter had removed his oxygen hose and squeezed into his favorite Hawaiian shirt. Billy had rehearsed his spiel in front of Walter and Rosalyn the night before, eyes twinkling behind his glasses, eager to show off his uncle to his classmates. Why hadn’t anyone stopped him?
Rosalyn arrived twenty minutes later and walked straight to Billy’s room without a “hi” to Walter. Walter turned on some jazz to give mother and son some privacy. He also put on his hospital gown, which he’d draped over his legs as a tablecloth. Putting on the gown was like swimming uphill. Walter jerked himself forward so he could stuff the fabric between his back and the mattress. One mound of skin on his lower back refused to move. It bulged outward as if it was a pillow Walter sat on.
Rosalyn entered Walter’s room, face stiff like it had been sprayed with wax. She handed him a slip of paper. “Exhibit A.” Notebook paper, savagely cut to the approximate size of a printout from a Mortalitron device. A number 2 pencil had pressed the blocky, childlike capitals into three words: “UNCLE EATS YOU.”
Walter stared at the cruel prank. He wasn’t used to feeling like so small a thing as a punch line. Walter had always hated those stupid death machines. How was a vague prediction of your own demise supposed to be useful? Rosalyn had called a certified Mortalitron tech over last summer to get Walter’s prediction. Sure enough, two minutes after analyzing Walter’s blood sample, the portable device spit out the words, “HEART ATTACK” onto the slip of paper. “You see?” Rosalyn said, shoving Walter’s fate in his face. “You see?” As if it took a rocket scientist to figure out a 600-pound man would die of heart problems.
“Billy’s pretty worked up, but he’ll get over it,” Rosalyn said. Walter knew better. As he and Rosalyn had learned when their father walked out on them, when you’re a kid, there’s no getting over your hero letting you down. Not that it was easy for adults, no matter how many times a guy had defended his kid sister from bullies and teasing while growing up. As for Billy, ridicule was probably unavoidable for him, anyhow. Anyone naïve enough to list his behemoth uncle as his best friend would surely find some other way to look foolish in public.
Rosalyn had kept Billy away from any death prediction machines, and Walter was glad. No seven-year-old should have to think about death like that. Paranoia machines, more like it. The machines only predicted the outcome, free of date or context, like it sprouted from an evil fortune cookie. Joey, Walter’s old boss at the garage, slept in a tent for a month when his prediction read “HOUSE FIRE.” Joey couldn’t get homeowner’s insurance with that prediction, either. His house got burglarized--cash, laptop, stereo--and Joey couldn’t replace most of it. The machine had wrecked Joey’s life, and he still had a fiery death to look forward to. As for Walter, he’d sworn off horror and action movies for fear the stress would be too much for his heart. Movie night with Billy became sitting and reading Car & Driver together, and Walter switched his intake from popcorn to pizza.
Rosalyn walked to the kitchen to make Billy some cocoa. Walter swallowed a mouthful of saliva as the smell of chocolate reawakened his taste buds. He turned an accusing stare toward his remaining cheeseburgers, his bag of fries, and three cans of Coke, scapegoats for years of overeating. Back when he didn’t have to have the stuff delivered, he’d place huge orders at drive-through restaurants, ordering extra sodas so people wouldn’t think all the food was for him. Walter got used to having several beverages around, so it became part of his regular meal.
Rosalyn reentered Walter’s room. Walter said, “Hey sis, I bet it was that kid, Frank, that followed him home that time.”
“Billy never told me about that.”
“I yelled at him to get the hell out of here. He flipped me off and ran away. Pretty big for Billy’s class. I’m guessing he was held back or something. Probably one of those ‘Deadly Christmas’ savages.” On the news, Walter had heard about a new holiday tradition: kids too old to sit on Santa’s lap at the mall would dare each other to visit the mortality booth instead. A few parents took kids themselves--some nonsense about using up their flexible health care account by the end of the year. Those same disillusioned jerks who told classmates Santa didn’t exist probably loved bragging about knowing their doom.
Rosalyn pulled her brown hair into a ponytail, stretching her face into a Germanic scowl. “I don’t like you two keeping secrets from me.”
“What could he say? Some mean kid chased me home, and I ran inside crying?”
“You should’ve told me. You’re not his father. I could’ve called Frank’s parents.”
“Nothing’s more humiliating for a boy than Mommy coming to the rescue. He made me promise not to tell you.”
Walter reflected that Billy probably got his naiveté from his uncle. “Billy was embarrassed. He wanted to salvage a little dignity.”
“Dignity? Dignity?” Rosalyn said it several more times, each squeakier than the last. “How much dignity you think he salvaged today? I wanted to tell him to pick someone else. I didn’t because he should value his family. But his family’s focused on eating. Half my paycheck goes to Food Lion.”
“Not this again. Bring me the receipts.”
“Seven days a week I go to work, come home and cook, then go to bed. Just once, just once I’d like to do something with my son outside the kitchen. At night I’m so exhausted I can’t sleep, so I sit and count the fifteen thousand calories I shovel into you. Fifteen thousand! That’s like five people.”
“Once I get the gastric bypass--”
“Don’t tease me with the gastric bypass again. My heart breaks every day seeing you do this to yourself. And like an idiot, I keep cooking and changing your bedpans.” Rosalyn shuddered as she said this. “You are eating Billy, Walter. You’re eating all of us.”
Rosalyn stomped out of the room--everyone was stomping today. Walter heard Rosalyn go to the bathroom and blow her nose with toilet paper. She cursed, as she always did when fighting off tears.
Walter rolled onto his back and felt around for his food. He wasn’t hungry, but hunger was irrelevant. All that mattered was to get that taste in his mouth. Walter grabbed a cold fried-egg cheeseburger, stretched his mouth open, and stuffed the whole damn thing in his mouth. He couldn’t even chew it; he just let the force of his highly-developed swallowing reflex tear off chunks of the sandwich. The fried egg wriggled down his gullet like an earthworm, and Walter struggled to keep it down. Walter wanted the grease to fill his arteries and bring on the death he couldn’t escape and surely deserved. He stopped, however, knowing that, by some sick cosmic joke, Rosalyn’s foretold collision with a bus would probably happen tomorrow, while Walter remained a burden on society for another two decades.
Rosalyn grounded Billy for ditching school, plus no TV and no building model cars with Walter for a week. After Billy cried himself out, Rosalyn coaxed more details out of him--it was indeed that little bastard Frank who gave him the phony prediction. Rosalyn called Frank’s parents and explained the situation while she stared at Walter hard enough to give him a rash.
Frank’s folks weren’t the, “It couldn’t be my son!” enablers Walter predicted; Walter heard them scream at Frank over the phone. They apologized, promising to bring Frank to their house before school the next morning so he could apologize to Billy in person.
“Well done,” Walter told her.
“I’m a mom. It’s what I do. You should remember that.”
After dinner, Billy appeared at Walter’s door. “I’m sorry I said I hated you. I don’t, you know. It was Frank’s stupid thing.”
“Apology accepted.” Walter knew Billy was sincere--Rosalyn would never demand anybody say sorry to Walter.
Billy grinned, climbed over Walter’s oxygen hose, and gave his uncle a hug. Billy’s arms couldn’t even make it around Walter’s neck.
“I broke the Diablo,” Billy said.
“I heard. Don’t worry, we’ll put it back together next week.”
Billy nodded but didn’t smile. Walter wasn’t much help anymore. He couldn’t make it through a full building session without eating, and the layer of perma-grease on his hands interfered with the glue. Even if he scrubbed off the oil, Walter’s sausage fingers had a hard time with the delicate pieces.
The following morning, Walter pried his bedroom window open with his cane. He’d promised Rosalyn he wouldn’t get involved, but a little eavesdropping wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Frank’s mom parked in front of Rosalyn’s house in a minivan loaded with at least four other kids. Mom waddled up the driveway, yet another kid gestating in her belly. Red lines from yelling at her brood slashed their way across her face. Frank shuffled up the sidewalk, hands stuffed into the pockets of what Walter guessed were his church clothes--Frank’s siblings sported jeans and polo shirts, while Frank wore slacks, an Oxford shirt, and a tie. He didn’t look happy to be there, which made Walter smile.
The doorbell summoned Rosalyn and Billy to their places. Standing next to each other, Walter saw Frank had at least thirty pounds on Billy. Then again, Walter’s girth had skewed his sense of weight, except when it came to cups, ounces and other food measurements. Walter ventured no further guesses--measuring Billy in terms of food started this whole mess in the first place.
Frank’s mom said, “Billy, Frank has something he’d like to say to you.”
“I’m sorry I gave you that thing yesterday.”
“Like we practiced.”
Frank spoke like he was reading from an invisible cue card. “Billy, I’m sorry for saying your uncle would eat you, like it was your inevitable death foretold by the Mortalitron, which the devil has empowered with the knowledge of our fate. God makes lots of different kinds of people, and it’s wrong to make fun of his work.”
“Thank you,” said Mom.
“Thank you,” said Rosalyn. “Billy, what do you say to that?”
“Apology accepted.” Billy put out his hand, which Frank shook. Walter watched for the crusher grip, which never came.
“There.” Mom smiled. Rosalyn appeared satisfied. The visitors turned to leave, and Rosalyn went back inside.
That’s when Walter saw Frank look back at Billy. He mouthed two words: “You’re dead.”
That little punk! Now Billy would catch hell for being a squealing mama’s boy. Boys dealt with squealing harsher than the mafia.
This was Walter’s fault. He’d been flattered to have his nephew recount their Saturdays at the go-kart track, and their plans to build a soap box racer--all things they used to do, before Walter ate himself into permanent residency in his room. Now Billy was miserable because Walter had selfishly enjoyed being seen as something other than an emotional, financial, and culinary drain on his poor sister.
If Walter was truly a friend to his nephew, he had to act.
Walter heaved himself into a sitting position and shouted, “Excuse me!” Frank and his mother kept walking. “Excuse me! Mrs...Frank?”
She stopped and turned around. “Higgins. Who’s there?”
“Sorry, Mrs. Higgins. I didn’t...anyway, I wanted to point out I didn’t get an apology. I’m the...uncle.”
Mrs. Higgins squinted and shielded her eyes, trying to see Walter through the open window. “You’re absolutely right. Frank, you owe him a big apology.” Her face froze. “I-I didn’t mean ‘big’ as in--”
“It’s all right,” Rosalyn said, no doubt attempting damage control before her brother could embarrass her further. “Walter’s used to it.”
“Frank does owe him an apology, though. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Frank said. He and Mrs. Higgins approached the window.
“Would you mind if he said it in here, face to face?” Walter asked. “I don’t move around so good. Bad knees.”
Mrs. Higgins squinted at the window, and from the way her eyebrows jerked upward Walter could tell she’d finally gotten a look at him. “Of course,” she said.
“Alone, if you don’t mind.”
Mrs. Higgins’ face did a good job at recovering from the expression of horror at the thought of her son alone with the hideous blob. “Well, uh...”
“I’ll go in with him,” Rosalyn said, glaring at Walter through the window. “I need to get Walter his pain killers. For his bad knees, you know.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Higgins said. “I’ll wait in the van for you, young man.”
Walter swore under his breath once Mrs. Higgins walked away. Couldn’t Rosalyn trust him to fix things just once?
Using his cane like an oar, Walter wriggled and writhed until he sat on the edge of the bed. He stuck his cane out to make sure the crook of it could reach the door handle. Walter’s feet touched the floor for the first time in months. Was this new carpet?
Rosalyn escorted Frank and Billy into Walter’s room. Frank sniffed the air, looking down at the garbage can stuffed with McDonald’s bags. He must’ve mistaken Walter for a couch, because Frank didn’t look at him for several seconds. When Frank did notice Walter, his eyes bulged, and he looked at Billy, unable to keep from smirking. Billy’s face went bright red.
“Sis,” Walter said, “would you mind closing that window? It’s a little drafty in here.” Walter turned his attention to Frank. “Were you brought up in a barn? Close the door.” Each did as bade. Each rolled their eyes.
“Frank,” Rosalyn said, “this is Billy’s uncle, Walter. Walter, Frank. This won’t take long, will it?”
“Nope,” Walter said. “All right, Frank, let’s hear it.”
“I’m sorry I said you’d eat Billy.” Frank wasn’t much for eye contact. Or sincerity, in Walter’s opinion.
“There. Happy, Walter?” Rosalyn asked.
“Not quite. Frank, I want you to leave Billy alone.”
“You’re lying.” Walter hoped Frank would take the bait.
“Walter!” Rosalyn said.
“I’m not a liar!”
“You’re lying right now, aren’t you, you little bastard?”
“Well you’re a disgusting blob!”
Yahtzee, Walter thought.
“Shut up about my uncle!”
“Billy, keep your voice down. Young man,” Rosalyn said to Frank, “you do not talk to grown-ups like that. You don’t talk to anyone like that.”
“He started it!”
“No,” Walter said, “you started it when you gave my nephew the fake prediction. Now I’m going to finish it. If you don’t leave Billy alone, I’m going to eat you.”
“Walter, that’s enough!” Rosalyn said. “Frank, you’re leaving.”
Walter lashed out with his cane. Frank ducked, but Walter wasn’t aiming for him. The crook of the cane wrapped around the door handle. Walter leaned back, sealing the door closed. Frank tried to work the handle, putting all his weight against the door. It didn’t move an inch.
“I’m telling my mom,” Frank told Walter
“You’d better not.”
Rosalyn grunted as she tried to help Frank pry Walter’s cane loose without snapping the handle off. “Both of you, shut up.”
“I’m telling my mom you told me to shut up,” Frank told Rosalyn. “And I know you won’t eat me, fatso. I know how I die. Prostate cancer, whatever that is.”
Walter licked his lips. “My dear boy, I’m not going to kill you. I just want an arm or leg, roasted in garlic butter. You’ll be fine. They’ve made great advances with prosthetics these days. That means fake limbs. And your prostate is in your butt.”
“Damn it, Walter!” Rosalyn tried to rip the cane out of Walter’s hands. She glanced outside, probably to see if Mrs. Higgins was calling the cops.
Billy ran to Walter. “Please don’t do this, Uncle Walter.” Walter couldn’t tell if Billy believed he’d do it, but Billy’s voice indicated that, either way, this stunt would cost Walter his nephew’s admiration.
“Listen to me Frank,” Walter said, locking eyes with him. “Do you know what happened to Billy’s friends?”
“Billy doesn’t have friends.”
“Hey!” Billy said.
“Not anymore,” Walter said. “How do you think I got so big, Frank? You can’t get like this eating cheeseburgers.”
Frank had the look of someone who’d stepped off an elevator into nothing but blue sky. “I’m telling my parents.” Walter admired his consistency.
“Then I’ll have to eat them, too. And I won’t stop with their arms and legs.”
“That’s not how they die, either.”
“They probably told you they die peacefully in their sleep at the ripe old age of 100, right?” Frank’s terrified expression confirmed this for Walter.
“Walter! Enough!” Rosalyn let go of the cane and flopped onto the bed, panting, eyes wild.
Walter stared right back at her. He said, “Frank, just leave Billy alone and you’ll never see me again.” As he spoke he thought, Come on, sis, help me out. Billy needs this. I need this.
Rosalyn sat up, took a deep breath and said, “Walter, you said you were done eating kids.”
Billy stared at Rosalyn like she was on fire. Walter strained to keep from smiling, not wanting to break character. “We can make one tasty exception, can’t we?”
Rosalyn grabbed Frank by both shoulders. “Look, kid, I don’t want him to eat you either. But Walter and Billy are buddies, and if you’re mean to Billy, I can’t do much to stop Walter from...you know. Understand?”
Frank nodded, eyes big as Moon Pies.
“Good,” Rosalyn said. “You’d better run along. You’ll be late for school. And tell your mom you’re sorry about what you did, okay? Say it.”
“Good. Now scoot.” She nudged Frank toward the door. “Billy, grab your backpack and wait in the car.” Rosalyn escorted Frank outside. When she came back, she sighed at Walter.
“Nice to be on the same team again, huh?” Walter said.
“I only played along so you’d let go of the door.”
“Whatever,” Walter said, smiling.
“I think you scared Billy.”
Walter nodded and let out a sigh. “I’m his uncle. If I’m gonna look out for him, I can’t be his buddy all the time.”
Rosalyn allowed herself a wry smile that took Walter back to a long-ago playground. “Shall I steal a baby for dinner tonight?”
“C’mon, if you can’t laugh at yourself, life isn’t worth living.”
“And you think your life is worth living? Sitting in bed, eating all day?”
“It was today. I think I’ll take a short walk. See if I can fit through the doorway.” He could, just barely. But hey, it was a start.