Trapped inside a giant walk-in freezer.
Of course it had stopped freezing things a few years ago when the comet knocked out all electrical systems, but it still worked great as a temporary jail. “They are ingenious people, you have to give them that,” Nick said.
Margie stopped sucking face with her boyfriend, Len, long enough to say, “Do we really, Nick? I mean, from the looks of things those guys are filthy cannibals.”
Nick scratched his beard. “Cannibals, yes. But they are much cleaner than any of us.”
Everyone nodded. It was a good point. We’d been on the road for a long time and we were all covered in various kinds of unpleasant muck.
Nick’s kid, Carlos, said, “Dad, they won’t be so clean when we murder them with knives, will they? We’ll gouge their eyes out and it will get all over their shirts!”
Derrick said, “If only I had my javelins. I could get us out of here real quick.” Derrick had been an Olympic Track and Field guy back before all the zombies and aliens and cannibals and killer bees and before technology turned on us and the robots tried to kill us and also the inter-dimensional crocodiles. “I’d throw the javelin right through their man-eating guts.”
Nick’s eyes got real soft and unfocused listening to that. He didn’t like that sort of talk much. “Okay, everybody, circle.” He made round motions with his hands. “Come on, now.” We all got situated around him, and sat with our legs crossed. He turned to Derrick first. “I know you come from a rough and tumble sports background, and I respect that. I know before all this you probably took illicit drugs and lived a wild and crazy Olympic lifestyle.”
Derrick pursed his lips. “I got up every morning at 4 a.m. and worked out all day. And I never did drugs.”
“Be that as it may,” Nick said, “You can’t go around saying ‘man-eating’ about these cannibals. How do you think that will make Margie feel, should she have the misfortune of being eaten?”
Derrick looked through his greasy bangs at Margie. He blushed, and she looked away, blinking her eyes real fast. Len held her close. Derrick said, “Pretty bad, I guess.”
“Pretty bad,” Nick repeated. “Just ‘cause it’s the apocalypse doesn’t mean we can’t show proper respect and use inclusive language. Right?”
We all nodded. Nick had a way of reminding us about the important stuff… how to stay civilized without the civilization. Carlos had been getting these lectures his whole life, though, so it didn’t always work on him right away. He said, “Yeah, but these dumb cannibals, Dad. They’re going to boil us in a stew and you’re worried about talking respectfully?”
Nick looked at his son, and you could just see the love in his eyes. Carlos is a borderline psychotic, but Nick treats him like any one of us… like a human being. “Son,” he said. “Do you remember that time those bandits were about to shoot you in the face and one of them had me chained to his waist and there was nothing I could do to save you but bite that man’s fingers off real quick when he wasn’t expecting it?”
Carlos looked down at the floor of the freezer. “’Course I do, Dad.” It was the most shocking, impolite action we had ever seen Nick take.
“Well, son, I didn’t say anything at the time but did you know I accidentally swallowed that man’s pinky?”
We all groaned. We didn’t know. Len said, “Nick, that’s horrible.”
Nick held his hands up to silence us. “I didn’t say anything at the time, but you know what that means, son? It means your old man is a cannibal.” He let that sink in. None of us said anything. “You want to call me a ‘dumb cannibal’ now, son?” We all sat there, feeling pretty low.
Margie said, “Well, I don’t want to let them cannibals just eat us, Nick.”
Nick laughed. “Well, me, neither. But if there’s one thing I learned when I was a security guard at the Mall of America, it’s that there’s always another way out. You can take the exit over by Macy’s, or you can take the exit over by Nordstrom’s, or the one by Cinnabon. There’s always another way.”
Len said, “What are you suggesting? That we all cut off our fingers and hope they’ll let us go?”
“I don’t think that would work,” Nick said. “But you’re thinking the right direction. These folks are threatening to kill and eat us, but that doesn’t mean we have to be savages and kill them first. Let’s take a bit and think about their needs instead of our own.”
We all sat and thought. Finally, Derrick said, “Well, they didn’t look so healthy. Their skin was all mottled and pale and gross.”
“The cannibal lifestyle is hard on the health,” Nick said, nodding. “Why would people choose it, I wonder?”
“They must be hungry,” Carlos said, and Nick beamed at him.
“Hey!” Len said. “Remember that semi truck we found that was full of snack cakes and tortilla chips?”
“Oh yeah,” Margie said. “We left it because we didn’t want to pollute our bodies with chemicals.”
Derrick smiled. “What if we offered them that semi in exchange for our freedom?”
Nick stood up and clapped. “Well done, friends. That just might work.” I never felt so proud.
Carlos said, “No way, those guys are evil. I say we chop them up and feed them to the inter-dimensional crocodiles.”
Nick put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “They’re not evil, Carlos, just desperate. And they did try to warn us, putting up all those signs that called this place ‘Mors Mortis.’”
Derrick said, “Oh yeah, and that one sign said, ‘Me So Hungry.’”
“Right,” Nick said. “They’re conflicted about what they’re doing here, and that’s no way to live. A life of constant inner turmoil weighs on a person.”
Just then, the door opened. Standing outside was the leader of the cannibals, a machine gun slung across his chest. His followers stood around him, holding forks and knives. When Nick saw them, he smiled and held his arms wide. “My friends,” he said. “It looks you could each use a hug.”
The big man started crying when Nick said that, and it wasn’t much later we had given the cannibals a lifetime supply of chips and cake and we were on the road again, wandering like always, looking for a safe and polite place we could call our own.