We All Gotta Eat

Jessica Nettles

Edie struggled to fit into her favorite sundress. It was harder now that she was five months along. She didn’t really feel like going to sit in the heat with church folk, but Ben had insisted, especially since they were expected to serve Liberty in every way possible.

She ran the brush through her tousled short hair, and grabbed her Keds as she moved toward the front of the house. Ben left an hour ago to go help the men get set up for the fish fry. It was part of the expectation of service.

Edie threw her Keds through the open window and got into the car. Dust rose on the edge of the peanut fields as she sped down Lakeside Road toward the church. The folks at Liberty expected their pastoral family at every event, but because Edie had been having a rough pregnancy this was the first social she’d been to since they got there.

She pulled up into the gravel parking lot in front of the tiny white church. The church property backed up to Lake Eulaila, and even had a dock where members could fish, and a covered area to have fish fries, which happened every third Saturday till it got cold. The covered patio was filled with ladies fidgeting over their food. The men were gathered around the giant fryers outside the patio. As Edie slid her shoes on in the car, she saw Mr. Chop paying a guy driving a white truck, which had a big blue C on the side panel. He looked very serious as he walked back toward the fryers, and the truck pulled off onto Highway 45. It was unusual to see Community trucks outside their walls. Then again, Mr. Chop was one of those folk who knew everyone.

Edie got out of the car and headed for the patio. She could hear splashing coming from around the deck.

Mrs. Screamer opened the patio’s screen door, glanced at her, and smiled broadly. Her teeth were almost too large for her face. “There you are! What did you bring?”

Edie looked down at her red Keds that were still not tied. Her voice came out as a whisper, “I didn’t have time to make---”

The older lady with the big teeth grabbed her by the arm and pulled her inside the screened patio, “Bless your heart. Why don’t you just come on in and sit down.”

Edie allowed herself to be pulled along like a child by Mrs. Screamer.

“Avalyn. Get the preacher’s wife some tea already.”

Avalyn poured Edie a red Solo cup of iced tea and brought it to her. She had the same toothy smile as her mama. Edie had never seen the girl in short sleeves, but today she was wearing a green Lake Eulaila t-shirt dress. Her left arm looked scaly and greyish. Edie didn’t ask. It didn’t seem polite.

“Mama, are we gonna eat soon? I been waiting all day for this!”

“Don’t worry, hon. It’ll be soon. We all gotta eat.”

Edie sat and sipped her teeth-crackingly sweet tea. It went down cool and held back the heat propelled headache she could feel coming on. She closed her eyes a moment, listening to the idle chatter of food and the rhythm of the knife coming down to slice the heads off the fresh fish the men were cleaning to fry.

She opened her eyes. Avalyn was cutting pies, only stopping long enough to take a bite from a small piece she’d cut for herself. Edie saw what looked like a drop of blood on the side of her mouth. Mrs. Screamer stopped behind Avalyn, and put her hand over the half-eaten piece.

“You need to wait!”

“But your steak pie is the best, Mama. I don’t wanna have to fight Mr. Nottley for the last piece like last time…”

“You do that, and there won’t be enough for everyone. Everyone has to eat.”

Avalyn hung her head, but smiled slyly as her mother moved on. She greedily devoured the rest of the slice.

The other women went about their business, giving Mrs. Screamer and Avalyn lots of space to organize the table of casseroles and pies. The only time they said anything much to the two women was when one of them wanted to put down a dish, and even then, the conversations were short. Several of them touched Edie’s shoulder or smiled at her as they walked by her and continued to work.

Edie walked to the back of the patio to look at the lake. The late afternoon sun made the lake sparkle like gold. A humid breeze that might have been cool instead of languid if it had been later in the evening wafted off the lake. She heard splashing and squeals coming from under the dock, and she put her hand on her belly. Summer was the time for children.

“Mrs. Screamer, who brought their grandchildren today?” asked Edie.

She saw the older woman stop mid-slice on Mrs. Westmire’s chocolate-chocolate cake.

“I’m sorry. What?”

Edie gestured toward the dock. “I heard splashing down there and was asking who brought their grandchildren.”

Mrs. Screamer looked out toward the dock herself and chuckled. “Oh that’s just our boys lurin’ the gators. Sounds real chillin’ don’t it?” She smiled and then turned toward the men at the fryers. “You boys better be watchin’ the dock. Sounds like things are gettin’ exciting down there.”

Mr. Chop waved and nodded toward her. He and several of the men, including Ben, walked down to the dock.

Edie heard more squealing and splashing. She also heard several distinct low-level growls coming from the same area. Avalyn brought her another cup full of tea, and gazed out at the dock. “The fish fries were so boring before the alligators started coming.”

“Wouldn’t be the same without them,” said Mrs. Screamer.

A few of the women stopped and joined them as they watched the dock. Edie saw that a few of them were pale and trembling. Avalyn, however, got more frenetic.

“Mama, can I take Miss Edie down to the dock?”

“Don’t let her take the preacher’s wife down there. It might provoke those---” said one of the ladies.

Mrs. Screamer looked at the woman, her toothy smile getting larger than what seemed possible, “Those what, Maddie?”

“The alligators.” Maddie stepped back.

“If you weren’t so old and tough…”

While the older ladies continued, Avalyn, her gold-brown eyes reflecting a mixture of hunger and excitement, grabbed Edie by the hand. “Come on. I wanna see.”

Edie tried to pull loose, but the girl’s grip was solid. They got past some of the men who’d walked down there already. Avalyn didn’t stop till they reached the edge of the dock. The squealing and thrashing sounds surrounded them. The water was red and writhing with grey-brown tails and square jaws filled with sharp teeth. Edie could hear the growling and grunting that mixed with the sound that had turned from squealing to squalling underneath her feet. There were scraps of what looked like bags floating on the surface, but one bag was still intact. It was marked with a blue C on the side and wiggled in the water as if something were trying to get out. As it moved, a hole was revealed and a small, fleshy leg pushed out of it. One of the creatures broke the water. It looked directly at Edie with cold gold-brown eyes as it stood up right. It grabbed the bag with a five-clawed hand, pulled out a leg, bit into its soft flesh, and tore into it ravenously. Edie heard a bone snap as it chomped down on its meal. Blood dripped from its mouth. Another came up from at the side of the standing creature, grabbing the rest of the bag with its mouth in an attempt to steal it. A tugging match ensued, with the second alligator-like creature pulling it in half. Both were covered in ichor as the second sunk back into the muddled lake water.

Avalyn looked over at Edie. “Ain’t he a beauty?”

Edie threw up.

Mr. Chop pulled her away from the edge of the dock after she got sick. He glared at Avalyn, “Go back up to your momma before I feed you to ‘em.”

Avalyn ran back to the patio, screaming.

Ben and Mr. Chop helped Edie back to the patio. She cried and coughed and wanted to puke some more.

“I saw a leg…in the water…”

“Just food for our friends,” said Mr. Chop.

“We all gotta eat,” said Mrs. Screamer, serving some fish. Edie was no longer hungry.

“It’s harder now that we have limited resources here at the church, but we have to keep trying for everyone’s sake. Some for us. Some for them,” said Mr. Chop.

None of the other women said a word. They went right on cutting pies and cakes, and pouring tea.

Jessica Nettles is a native Georgian, born and raised in Powder Springs. She currently lives in Kennesaw, Georgia with her two black cats, Ninja and Luna, who tolerate her writing, which they believe is a distraction from her life of eternal feline servitude. 

She has a deep love for all things Southern, gothic, and supernatural. When she's not writing, she is teaching English at a local technical college, playing all sorts of games, singing at karaoke, knitting and crocheting, and baking. Her two grown children, Gina and Stuart, are the loves of her life, and make her very proud. Unlike her cats, they understand her writing life and support it because it makes her happy.
Haralee - 10/24/2016 8:49 AM
Just about made me toss my cookies too! Great imagery and creepiness!
Diane - 10/24/2016 10:31 AM
Wow. Just that. Wow!!!
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