Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
Cooper’s eyes slowly opened, but his surroundings remained blurred as his vision began to focus. The afternoon sunlight was partially blocked by thick canvas curtains, causing a sickly yellow light to fill the room. Almost immediately, a jolt of pain throbbed on the back of his head. After a few moments of agony, it dulled to a pulsing discomfort. While the shape of a couch and end table began to come into clearer view, he attempted to lift his hands from the armrests of the rocking chair. His movement was restrained as he was met with the jagged edges of old cable ties cinched tightly around his wrists. Feeling confusion at first, this soon gave way to an overwhelming sense of panic as he fought against the bindings.
“I would advise against struggling.”
Cooper lifted his head as a voice from another room echoed towards him. To his left, he could see the shadow of a man standing over a table. The black shape lifted a knife and brought it down with one fell swoop. The metal blade made a mighty chop has it contacted the butcher’s block.
“Just give me a few moments to finish up my work. I typically find it rude to keep my quests waiting, but this is a matter that simply cannot wait.”
Without waiting for Cooper to give any sort of rebuttal, the man’s shadow went back to chopping meat. Cooper’s vision had now returned to its full clarity as he blinked away any remaining fuzziness. A vintage television set sat on a shelf on the opposite wall. To his left, the couch came into full view. While one cushion looked untouched, the other had clearly been slightly worn by years of use. To his right, he could see a hallway leading to a flight of a stairs and the front door.
“All done,” the voice said with calm delight as the door to a refrigerator snapped shut.
Cooper sat petrified while the stranger’s heavy boots thudded on the hardwood floor. Soon enough, he turned the corner and stood in the doorway. The man stood, to Cooper’s best guess, a hair over six foot. A shirt stained with blood at the rolled-up cuffs hung loosely over his gaunt frame. The skin of his face was pulled tight over his jaw and cheek bones. Patchy stubble dappled parts of his face.
“I apologize for making you wait. That took much longer than expected,” he said while motioning towards the kitchen. Although Cooper was unable to see what he was referencing, he had no interest in finding out what it was.
“Dinner is on the stove and should be ready in a few minutes. I take it you’ll be joining me?”
Cooper looked down at his wrists and then back up at the man.
“I guess I don’t really have a choice, now do I?”
This caused the man to let out a bellowing laugh and slap his knee. While he made a spectacle of himself, Cooper sat in silent observance.
“Let me tell you something, Cooper, you certainly aren’t like any of the others that have been here. You have a sense of humor! You may look boring in your driver’s license photo, but you seem to be anything but.”
Still chuckling, the man walked out the room and returned to the kitchen. Cooper heard him open a cabinet and pull out plates and silverware with a rattle. While he set the table for dinner, Cooper looked around the room and studied his surroundings more. The sun was sinking lower, causing the light being filtered by the curtains to now be slightly tinted orange. Although the house was likely decades old, the stranger obviously took good care of it. Every surface was free of dust, and the floor lacked any imperfections, save for a few stains here and there.
“All right; everything’s set!”
The man returned from the kitchen with a small paring knife clenched in his slender fingers. A wave of fear swept through Cooper as his imagine raced at the possibilities that lay ahead. His eyes went wide as they locked on the knife. In turn, the stranger lifted his empty hand in a sign of calming.
“Oh, don’t worry. I’m not going to use this to hurt you, unless you don’t follow my instructions.”
He knelt in front of Cooper and slipped the blade between the cable tie and the leg of the chair.
“Now I’m going to cut you free so you can come sit at the table for dinner. You are only to walk from this chair to the place I set for you. I don’t want to have any trouble, but trust me when I say that things will get real ugly, real quick if you cross me. Got it?”
Cooper simply nodded and continued to remain motionless. The man slid the blade and cut the tie. He continued to cut the others until Cooper was no longer restrained. Standing up, the stranger motioned for Cooper to join him in the kitchen.
“Please walk slowly, and remember, no funny business.”
Cooper listened and walked to the kitchen and sat down in his new seat without any problems. As he tucked the chair under the lip of the table, his captor approached the seat on the opposite end. Before sitting down, he withdrew a large pistol from his waistband and placed it next to his silverware.
“This is the first time I didn’t have to use this on one of my guests. They typically make a run for either the front or back door. If you happened to look at the floor in the living room, you should have been able to tell that they never made it far. The more I get to know you, the more I like you, Coop.”
Cooper gave a forced grin while his mind raced with images of numerous other victims being gunned down no less than ten feet away from where he sat. At least that explained the stains on the floor. The visions unsettled him, but he made sure to keep his composure. Whatever situation he was in, he needed to remain calm if he had the slightest hope of getting out of this mess intact.
“Is it alright if I call you Coop? I don’t want to seem informal,” the man said while scooping mashed potatoes onto both plates.
“That’s fine. What do you want me to call you,” Cooper asked while attempting to keep his composure. The task was growing more and more difficult as time went on.
“Oh, how rude of me. I forgot to introduce myself. You can call me Gunnar.”
Cooper gave him a confused look as Gunnar slid a plate loaded with food in front of him.
“It was my father’s idea to name me that, and I never questioned my old man.”
Gunnar slapped a cut of meat on his plate and placed the lid back over the pan. Taking his seat once more, he neatly folded a crease in his napkin before placing it in his lap. Cooper glanced around the kitchen and observed the small room. The dishes Gunnar had used to cook dinner were already washed and drying in a rack next to the sink. All dishes and food items were hidden away in cabinets, leaving the kitchen spotless. He had yet to see anything out of place in the house, leaving him to ponder on the obsessive nature of this man.
“Coop, I’m going to make you a deal. I didn’t shackle you to that chair because you didn’t attempt to run from the living room. If you continue to behave yourself, I’ll consider letting you off easier than I intended.”
Cooper stopped cutting his food and looked up from his plate. Gunnar continued to scoop some mashed potatoes onto his fork and into his mouth, acting as if what he had said should not warrant any questions.
“May I ask what you mean by ‘letting me off easier’?”
“That’ll come in time. Now, let’s get to know each other. So tell me, Coop, what’s your story?”
Before Cooper spoke, his mind raced with the possibilities of Gunnar’s statement. Deciding it was best to play along with this twisted game, he knew acting casually was his best defense.
“Well, I actually live one state over in Louisiana. I was in Houston for a business meeting and driving home when…”
Cooper trailed off as his mind drew a blank. He attempted to remember how he got in this man’s house, but every image that came into his mind’s eye was fuzzy at best.
“When I found you…” Gunnar let out.
Cooper’s head shot up and his gaze locked with Gunnar’s. In the orange glow of the Texas sunset, Gunnar sat still in his chair. The room was now washed in the light, causing Gunnar’s shadow to loom over them on the wall behind him. He rested his elbows on the table and drummed his fingers on the edge of his glass.
“Is it starting to come back to you, Coop,” he asked as a small grin pulled at the corners of his mouth.
At that moment, everything came back to Cooper in a sudden burst. He remembered standing on the side of the interstate. His car had a flat tire and he flagged down the first car coming in his direction. It had pulled onto the shoulder, and Gunnar stepped out with a tire iron. Although he had thought not much of it at the time, Cooper released he should have been more cautious. He remembered showing Gunnar the gash in the wall of his tire when the blow hit the back of his head. From there, his vision began to blur before he succumbed to darkness.
“I guess you remember now. Sorry about hitting you a little too hard. You just seemed so big that I didn’t want to take any chances of not taking you out on the first try.”
Cooper continued to stare down at his plate. The bump on the back of his head throbbed once again and his hands began to tremble. Outside, birds chirped in a tree and a slight breeze made the wind chime on the porch let out a few solemn notes.
Gunnar swallowed the bite he had taken and gently rested his fork down on the table.
“I’ll need you to speak up, Coop. Working with power tools all these years has left my hearing a fraction of what it used to be.”
“Why… why did you do this to me?”
Gunnar took a sip from his glass, making sure to not break eye contact with his guest.
“And there it is. Every time I’ve had a guest over, the conversation always reaches a point where they question my reasoning. I must say though, Coop, you’re the calmest one I’ve ever had. May I ask why that is? Certainly, this must frighten you to some extent.”
Cooper decided at this moment to lay out all his cards on the table. This was make or break.
“It does, but I feel that remaining cool and collected is my best chance of leaving.”
For the first time that night, Gunnar frowned. Without saying a word, he gathered his plate and glass and carried them over to the sink. The garbage disposal whirred to life as leftover food scraps where jettisoned into its metallic jaws.
“I thought that by now you would have understood that I can’t let you leave. I’ll admit that you were the first person to be calm and respectful about it, but I still can’t let you leave.”
He flipped a switch and the hum of the disposal slowly died. Gunnar began washing his plate with his eyes staring out at the setting sun. The lower it sank towards the horizon, the more orange the room became.
“I’m going to give you fair warning that what I say next is typically what drives my guests over the edge if that hadn’t been already. You’re different from the others, so I’m expecting that you’ll take this with a slight bit of discomfort, but no extreme over exaggeration.”
Gunnar slid the plate in a slot on the drying rack and dried off his hands with a crisp, white towel.
“I kidnap people with the intent to eat them.”
Cooper felt his body tense in fear. As his mind attempted to firmly grasp this new information, he felt a tear escape the corner of his eye and roll down his cheek.
“Now I know that sounds bad, and I must sound borderline psychotic for trying to downplay it, but I have my reasoning. It’s kind of a long story, so please bear with me.”
Gunnar sat back down in his seat and made himself comfortable.
“You see, I dropped out of high school without getting my diploma. This left my career choices to be less than desirable. The only option
I was left with was working in my father’s repair shop. We would take in vehicles with large engines like tractors or oversized trucks used for hauling. He forced me to do the menial tasks like scraping rust and cleaning off oil and grease. It was far from being the ideal life, but it put food on the table, be it barely.”
Cooper continued to stare at the table, but managed to take in every word that left Gunnar’s mouth. A few more tears escaped from his eyes, leaving lines through the dirt on his face.
“You see, Coop, this town suffered a major crisis some fifteen years ago. We had a major drought, causing most of the crops to wither away and perish. The little water we had was spent keeping livestock barely clinging to life. The ones that lived long enough to be taken to slaughter were too malnourished to yield any meat worth eating. After all the meat was deemed uneatable, the town met in the city hall to discuss how to move forward. We argued for hours, but every solution was shot down almost immediately. Just when we thought there was no middle ground in sight, my father came up with an idea. We should eat a few residents.”
Cooper slowly looked up from the table and locked eyes with his captor.
“He explained that we should only eat what was necessary for the town’s survival. The weakest would sacrifice themselves for the betterment of the townspeople. At first, no one said a word. As I looked around the room, a few people stared at my father with blank expressions. Some glared at him with bewilderment and disgust, while others didn’t really know how to react to such a horrid recommendation. Eventually a few people spoke up in agreement of the idea, causing those opposed to start a shouting match. My father slammed his fist on the table and received everyone’s full, undivided attention. He suggested putting it up to a vote. When he asked for those in support to raise their hands, roughly a quarter of the town did so. When asked for those opposed to vote, another quarter of the town raised their hands, leaving almost half the town undecided.
Suddenly, gunshots rang out through the room. Everyone who had voted in opposition slumped forward in their seats. Some people screamed, some people cried, some sat in complete calm. My father had arranged the whole ordeal before the meeting. His closest friends had all agreed that cannibalism was the only option they had left, and felt it necessary to take out anyone who would try and block their path. As the bodies were pulled from the room, my father informed everyone who had not voted that he was going to be in control of handing out everyone’s rations. You would either take meat for your family, or be gunned down on the spot. Anyone caught trying to contact state authorities or leave would also be met with a grim demise.”
Cooper sat in silence as he absorbed the information. Wherever this place was, he was now caught up in a mess of a situation.
“The bodies of those at the meeting were dried and preserved for future consumption. When that supply finally ran out, my father and a few of his buddies resorted to abducting stranded motorists. He knew better than to pick them all up near the town, so he would drive out in his work truck and pick up fresh meat all over the eastern part of the state. This new practice of picking up innocent victims went on for a couple of months, but eventually, the drought ended, and the town slowly began to mend its wounds. However, some of the residents still had a craving for human flesh. My father didn’t see the need in continuing this operation if it was no longer necessary for their survival. He made a deal with those who still wanted the meat that he would supply them with it on special occasions, like Christmas, the Fourth of July, or someone’s birthday.”
Lifting the pistol from the table and pointing it square in the center of Cooper’s chest, Gunnar chuckled to himself.
“If it’s of any consolation to you, you’re a gift for a girl whose celebrating her sixteenth birthday tomorrow. She’s been looking forward to it for months now, and I’m sure you won’t disappoint her.”
Gunnar laid down the pistol and walked over to the refrigerator. Opening the door, he withdrew two beers. He popped the caps off into the trash can and set one down in front of Cooper.
“I really do like you, Coop. You’ve been so respectful to me, so I’ll treat you to one last beer before I take you outside. I know it’s not the ideal circumstances to have a final drink in, but I feel obliged to offer.”
Cooper sat motionless and stared at the beer. Condensation rolled down the hazy brown bottle before settling on the table in a small pool.
“Now, I know you probably want to say good bye to your friends and family, but we both know why I can’t let you do that. So go ahead and enjoy your drink before we get started.”
“I hate my father…” Cooper muttered under his breath.
Gunnar lowered the neck of the bottle from his lips and gently rested it down on the table with a soft clink.
“What was that?”
“I said I hate my father,” Cooper let out through gritted teeth.
Gunnar’s eyes opened just a hair wider as he was taken slightly aback by the admission. Never before had one of his victims stated resentment for a parent.
“Oh? And why’s that?”
Cooper lifted his head up and glared with intense detestation burning in his eyes.
“He’s a bitter and abusive old man who took every chance he got to demean me, whether I actually deserved it or not.”
Gunnar rested his elbows on the table, a look of interest crossing his face. He motioned with his hand for Cooper to continue.
“Every time something would go wrong at work, he would come home and take it out on me. Because my mother had died giving birth to me, my father and I started out from the very beginning on the wrong foot. If I got below a B on my report card, he would yell at me and make sure I felt guilty for my mom dying. Every little slipup I made was met with a punishment exponentially worse than the action that brought it. His favorite thing to do was tell me how if she had lived through it all, she would be disappointed in what a disgusting disgrace of a son I had become. This continued all the way through high school.
When it was time for me to choose the career path I wanted to take, he forced me to study engineering, just like him. I wanted to go into something like medicine, or physical therapy. I wanted to feel that I was directly bettering someone’s life, but he wanted to hear nothing of it. He was paying for my tuition, and held that over my head and used it as leverage. As miserable as it was, I got my degree and found a job. We both work at the same firm, but I feel to this day that he wanted me to be an engineer so he could continue to abuse me at work. I make good pay, but I’m not exactly happy.”
Gunnar remained silent and attentive.
“So to answer your question in a lengthy way; no. I don’t want to say goodbye to my father. He’s a monster, and I wish him the cruelest fate imaginable. I’m no saint, but compared to him, I’m close enough. I just… I just wish that horrible man gets what he deserves in the end.”
Gunnar sat in silence for a few moments. After letting his mind process its thoughts, he finished off the last of his beer. He walked over to the trashcan and discarded it. Staring out the window, he watched as the last orange slivers of the sun vanished over the horizon.
“What if we make sure he does?”
Cooper turned around and gave Gunnar a puzzled look.
“What are you suggesting?”
“I’m going to make a deal with you, Coop. I like you; I really do. If you can get your dad to come here, I’ll let him take your place. Of course you still can’t go home, but you can live here with me. I know it may not be the most ideal situation for you, but hopefully you’ll find it better than being served at the party tomorrow. I’ll give you a few minutes to think it over, so go ahe-”
“I’ll do it.”
Gunnar turned around with a slight look of bewilderment at how quickly Cooper had made up his mind.
“Are you sure?”
Cooper gripped the edge of the table tightly at the thought of his father finally getting the treatment he deserved. After all these years, vengeance was within his grasp. Without saying another word, he nodded.
“Well then, I’ll give you the phone. Go ahead and give him a call and ask him to come pick you up.”
Gunnar turned and pulled the phone from the receiver mounted on the wall. Handing it to Cooper, he gave him a final look asking that he was fully confident in what he was about to initiate. Without hesitation, Cooper took the phone and dialed his father’s number into the keypad.
“I hope you’re happy with yourself. I had to reschedule my whole day, as well as tomorrow, to come out and get your ass back home!”
Cooper’s father slammed the door to his car shut and marched towards the front porch. Cooper stood on the steps with his hands in his pockets and his head hanging low. Gunnar stood in the doorway, watching in quiet observance.
“You’ll be reimbursing me for the gas I wasted hauling that trailer out here to take your car home.”
Cooper nodded his head and didn’t say a word.
“And I expect you to pay this man for towing your car here, feeding you, and letting you spend the night. I apologize for all this, mister…?”
“Hansen,” Gunnar said while extending his hand out.
Cooper’s father shook it.
“Pleasure to meet you. My name’s Keith. I apologize it wasn’t under better circumstances.”
“It was really no trouble. Your son really is a fine man.”
Keith rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath.
“Believe me that if you lived with him, you’d think a lot differently.”
Keith turned and walked down the steps. The humid summer was starting to take its toll, causing him to loosen his tie.
“Alright, Cooper, let’s get your car loaded up and get the hell out of here. I’m already starting to break a sweat, so you’ll have to buy me a new shirt after all this.”
Keith stepped onto the grass and started in the direction of Cooper’s car behind the house. He stopped after a few paces to find Cooper still standing on the steps of the house. His gaze was directed out at the setting sun.
“What, are you deaf, too? I said let’s go!”
Cooper remained motionless and bathed in the orange glow of the Texas sunset. The wind blew, causing small pieces of dead grass to swirl around his feet.
“I don’t have time for this shit,” Keith muttered as he trudged back in his son’s direction.
Grabbing his son’s arm, he attempted to pull him off the steps. When Cooper refused to budge, his father grabbed his arm with both hands and pulled harder. Suddenly, Cooper took his free arm and wrapped it around his father’s neck. Pulling him close, he removed his other arm from Keith’s grasp and retrieved the knife from his pocket. Withdrawing the rusted and stained blade, Cooper gave his father one last look before bringing it against his neck. With one quick motion, he slit his father’s throat.
The knife made a sickening tearing sound as it tore the flesh of Keith’s neck open. Cooper dropped the blade and placed his hand over the wound. As the blood seeped between his fingers, he closed his eyes and let out a heavy breath. The warm, crimson fluid flowed down the back of his hand and soon meandered around his arm before seeping into his shirt sleeves. Opening his eyes once more, Cooper watched as the life slowly fled his father’s eyes. Keith slowly lifted an arm and brought his hand up to his son’s face. His fingers lightly caressed his cheek, before his body began going limp. Cooper removed his hand from over his father’s throat as his body collapsed and he plummeted to the ground.
“Nice job, son. Quick, but painful,” Gunnar let out from behind him.
Cooper turned, keeping his face expressionless.
“Let’s go ahead and bring him to the barn so he can drain before we serve him tomorrow. You need any help?”
Cooper stood over his father’s body as blood continued to gush from the jagged slit in his neck. It pooled under his head, turning the dirt and grass underneath a dark brown.
“I’ll handle it myself.”
Without saying another word, Gunnar walked ahead to open the barn doors. Cooper grabbed his father’s ankles and pulled the body through the grass, leaving a trail of blood in his wake. With each step, the sun sank lower in the sky. The wind blew and the crops swayed in the heat. Nearing the barn, Cooper dropped Keith’s ankles, causing he legs to slam onto the ground and kick up a small cloud of dust. He retrieved the length of chain lying next to the door and brought it over to his father. Wrapping the chain around his ankles, he fastened the loop over the hook at the end and pulled the bundle taught.
Behind him, Gunnar pulled the doors open as they groaned on their hinges. The smell of oil and old wood flooded out, filling Cooper’s nose with something else besides the smell of blood and grass. The light hanging over the entrance to the massive barn flickered to life with a loud crackle. It hummed and began to draw in bugs. Gunnar propped the doors open with two chunks of concrete and leaned against the frame. Motioning for Cooper to follow him inside, he vanished into the darkness.
Cooper looked out at the horizon as the sun finally vanished, leaving him surrounded by darkness, save for the light on the barn. Cicadas buzzed around him as they welcomed the slightly cooler weather of the night. Lifting his blood-stained hand up to his nose and inhaling deeply, Cooper smiled and pulled his father into the barn.
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