Danae insisted on driving as they crossed the desert near Joshua Tree. She’d insisted on a lot of things since becoming Assistant Principal and Meilani decided not to argue. She remembered the time Danae had berated her during a staff meeting.
They’d been close friends for years. Probably Danae’s military contractor boyfriend had been giving her misplaced ideas on how to lead a team. Being an administrator of a suburban high school is different to commanding a brigade of mercenaries in the Sahel.
Whatever; it was water under the bridge. That and other things. Now they were just two BFFs on a road trip together. It was technically work because they were going to an education conference at a desert retreat but on route they could gossip and chill.
Meilani told Danae the horror story of how her friend Mike, the Spanish teacher, had grabbed her floppy midriff in the hall and exclaimed, ‘Hey, what’s this?’
“No way!” exclaimed Danae. “He really said that to you?”
“He literally said it to my face.”
“Oh my God, that goes so totally out of the bounds of . . . anything. I mean aside from the fact you’re not fat at all, what gives him the right to come out and say something that fucking inappropriate, let alone touch you?”
“I know, right?”
“You want me to chew him out?”
“Nah, Calvin already did.” He was the Principal. “I guess ‘cos we’re friends, Mike thought he could just do anything. Like, we joke around and tease each other. I might have even flicked him in the belly at some point. But like, dude, what are you thinking?”
“Yeah, totally.” Danae sighed inwardly. While she would have gleefully given Mike a second chewing out, Meilani could be such a drama queen. It sounded more like a tiff with her gay friend than harassment. Meilani was oversensitive because she was a bit . . . well, not unattractive, but not attractive. Too Amazonian, plus she had that resting bitch face. Meilani scared a lot of men off, even the few taller and stronger than her. And she was a tad overweight.
“So, you are completely sure that this is the right road?” Danae asked. Meilani checked the saved map on her phone again.
“It’s either this one or we’re going parallel to it. Location’s not working. Either way, we’ll come to an intersection in about five miles then we’ll know where we are.” She was fairly certain they were heading in the right direction. She’d been in the Army and had some training in navigation. This road felt right.
“Yeah, I’m just wondering . . . okay, five miles.” Danae kept driving through the sandy scrub.
Meilani thought, what the hell did that mean? With a wince, she recalled the row they’d had after Meilani discovered they’d been sharing a lover for months. Dale, the burly PE teacher. Meilani had noticed back then that Danae was quite capable making subtle, passive-aggressive statements. She came from money, that was her problem. And she’d been born blonde and pretty. Literally used to be a cheerleader. Every road had been paved for her, every obstacle cleared from her path.
Meilani, on the other hand, had only managed to attend college via a sports scholarship plus loans that she’d served four years in the military to pay off. As part of an auxiliary role in Iraq, she’d measured the distance between suicide bombers’ body parts to determine the force of the explosives used. Fridays were the busiest because on that day martyrs were guaranteed a sweet spot in heaven. They’d be going off all over town like fucking fireworks. The term TGIF did not mean the same thing over there. She’d survived, become a high school teacher and bought her disabled mom a house.
Danae was okay, she reminded herself. They had a history like any old friends. Meilani knew she was no picnic herself; PTSD could make her contentious and she was working through that with her therapist. She knew herself well enough to know why Danae sometimes got to her: Meilani was like a big dog accustomed to being in charge that meets an even bigger dog and has to deal with it. Danae, though petite, was a woman not intimidated by her. That was probably why they were friends. Meilani stared out the window at the barren landscape and tried not to think of Iraq. I’m home now, she reassured herself. Safe. All that shit is on the other side of the world.
Danae felt her hands gripping the steering wheel too tightly. Alright for Mei-Mei, she thought. Tough army girl. It’s kinda terrifying out here in the middle of the desert, not even knowing if we’re going the right way. Dear God, please make us be going the right way. I do not want to be lost out here tonight.
Danae was glad to have Meilani out here with her. While they occasionally bickered, no one except her ex-Marine boyfriend made her feel safer. She was the girl to have with you in a tight spot.
“There’s, like, no traffic out here,” Danae said.
“We’re pretty far from anywhere. I guess it was the cheapest venue Calvin could find.”
“He wanted something remote so we could focus,” Danae said. She didn’t really believe his explanation but she was admin now so she had to back him up.
“I’m so glad you can drive,” Meilani said. “I’d be falling asleep by now. Everything’s the same; this straight road is hypnotizing. Tell me when you need a break, okay?”
Suddenly Danae lifted her foot from the accelerator and stared ahead. “Holy shit!”
Meilani looked up from her phone, alarmed. She saw a discoloration on the road ahead. A zebra crossing? No, of course not. There was something very strange about it.
“I am definitely going to approach this with caution,” Danae announced. “Probably nothing but we don’t want to run over broken glass or something. Not now. Not today.” A few yards from the markings on the road, she stopped completely and pulled over.
Meilani opened the door first, striding ahead. Danae switched the hazard lights on, got out and looked up and down the road from horizon to horizon. There was not another vehicle in sight. She chuckled at the flashing orange lights on her car. City girl, huh. She left them on and followed her friend.
A large, intricate design had been drawn across the road in fresh white chalk that gleamed weirdly in the intense sunlight. Neither could determine what the image meant. One part looked a little like a hieroglyph, but not quite. Another looked like a Chinese character, but not really.
They took out their phones to record a video, noticing there was no reception.
Along one side of the design was written, ‘WHO EATS WHO’. At the end of this sentence was an arrow. Their eyes followed the arrow and saw that it pointed to a narrow trail through the bushes that would have been invisible from the road had they driven by.
“I am not going down there,” said Meilani.
“Huh? Why not?” Danae suddenly felt the need to be the bold one.
“Are you fucking kidding me? A weird sign on the road, a trail going off into nowhere . . . Yay! Let’s go! Looks like the most efficient way of getting raped and murdered this afternoon.”
“Oh, come on. A maniac paints a sign on the road to lure his victims? That’s totally not going to get him caught. It’ll be a diner or something.”
“A diner, Dae-Dae? Here? Seriously?”
“Well, it’ll be, like, a retreat or something. Like the one we’re going to. There’ll be a vegetarian restaurant called ‘Who Eats Who,’ I’ll put money on it.”
“Maybe. Creepy marketing, though.” Meilani suddenly grinned gamely and said, “Want to have a look?”
Danae smiled back. “Well, look at you! Turned on a dime. Yeah, fuck it, let’s go. YOLO! We’ll just walk like fifteen minutes or so and if there’s nothing there we’ll go back. If a guy jumps out with a knife then you kill him, okay?”
“Done.” Meilani picked up a rock and they began walking down the trail.
They passed a small excavation near the road. Thereafter there was nothing but cactus, saltbush and rocky hills. After a few turns, the car was out of sight and it was Danae’s turn to feel anxious. What were the chances this could really be a maniac’s bait? But the car was right over there, the sign . . . it would be too obvious. The next person along would find them. Don’t be stupid, she told herself. It’s just a stupid ad. And don’t give Meilani the satisfaction of knowing I’m scared.
“You know, I’m actually a little bit scared,” said Danae.
“Yeah, me too.”
“Want to go back?”
“Okay,” agreed Meilani. “This sucks. Let’s just get to that next rise, see if there’s anything, then go back.”
“That sounds fine.”
A hundred yards later they crested the hill and found that the trail continued on to a clearing. In the middle stood a small building sporting the cheery sign, “WHO EATS WHO”. They laughed.
“You were totally right!” giggled Meilani. “A diner. Oh shit. Well, they reeled us in, might as well have a look.” They walked over to the concrete building, opened the heavy door and stepped inside. A light turned on automatically as they entered and the door swung shut behind them.
The interior was a single, cool room with a barbecue in the center, a bag of coal and some large containers of water. There were no tables, chairs or staff. Most oddly, there were no windows.
“Huh,” said Danae. “Looks like it was going to be a barbecue house and it never got finished. Maybe Korean or something.”
“Gotta work on their marketing,” said Meilani. “And maybe find a better location. There was hardly anyone on that road, how much passing traffic were they going to get? Unless it’s one of those trendy, exclusive restaurants where you have to be in the know to find out where it is.”
“Kinda creepy,” said Danae. “Okay, that’s enough, let’s get the fuck out of here.” They walked back to the entrance. Danae pulled the door.
It would not move.
She pushed. Still it would not move.
Meilani said, “Oh, you have got to be fucking kidding me.” She brushed Danae aside and used her greater strength against the door, jostling the handle in all directions. Feeling panic set in, she lifted the large rock still in her hands and smashed it against the lock, hard. After three attempts, the rock broke.
Meilani took a few steps back and launched herself against the door, putting her whole weight against her shoulder. Nothing.
“This. Is. Fucked. Up. Danae, come help. We’re going to bust the door together. Both our right shoulders, this spot. We have to hit at exactly at the same time on three, okay?”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to break someone’s door. Maybe there’s another way.”
“Look around, Danae. Do you see another way? It’s an abandoned building and we can smash it up all we want. If anyone complains, I’ll pay for the damage right after I sue their asses to Sunday for emotional pain and this bruise on my shoulder that’s about to get a whole lot worse. Let’s do this.” She used her military tone and Danae obeyed.
They charged at the door and smashed into it again and again but still it would not move. Exhausted and hurt, Meilani called a halt. She collapsed against a wall, nursing her arm.
Danae, panting, investigated the door more closely.
“I’ve already tried everything,” Meilani said. “It won’t open.” Danae ignored her and kept looking. She tapped it here and there. Then she moved to the wall and tapped that.
“Huh,” she said. She felt her authority returning, remembered that she had a Masters in Education. “That door is metal.”
“Like, totally, one hundred percent solid metal. That’s normal. And the walls are thick concrete.” She strode over to the barbecue on her short, slim legs, touched it lightly with the back of her hand to ensure it was cold, then climbed on top. It wobbled slightly until she found her balance. Strong legs, she thought. Yoga’s finally coming in handy. She stood straight and reached up to the ceiling, tapped it with her knuckles, then banged it with her palm. Then she leaped down, tripped and fell.
“Fuck,” she said. “Gotta work on my landings.”
“Yup. Ceiling’s concrete, too.” She sat beside Meilani against the wall and squeezed her friend’s knee. “Bad news, kiddo.” She scrunched her face, warning that the news was bad indeed.
“Let me guess. We can’t get out?”
“Worse than that, I’m afraid. You were right.”
“It was a trap. Solid metal door that automatically locks behind us, concrete walls and ceiling.” They meditated upon this grim realization for a moment. All natural light was shut out and no sounds entered, as though the desert and the rest of the world had ceased to exist. Their concrete cell might as well be floating in outer space.
“But someone will see the car and the weird sign,” said Meilani. “If we’re missing for long it won’t be too hard to find us. Bit of a harebrained scheme, isn’t it?”
“Yeah . . . about that. The sign’s chalk. Bet someone’s washing it off right about now.”
“What about the car?”
“I’m thinking our lunatic friend is going to dump it in the car-shaped hole we saw just off the road.”
“Fuck!” Meilani could feel her PTSD rising. She felt like she was back in the Green Zone, rockets landing around her as she tried to sleep. She remembered the one that took out the cafeteria she ate in every day. She’d acted brave so she wouldn’t look weak in front of the boys. But this was worse. She felt her brain start to fog and her breathing become shallow. If she weren’t already sitting, her legs would have given way.
“Hey,” said Danae. “Don’t you have that hiking thingy? The beacon?”
“Sure do. Got it safely stowed in my cupboard at home.” Meilani checked her phone again: zero reception, no WiFi. “So, he’s going to come here now, is he? And do what? Even if he’s got a gun, there are two of us. We’ll catch him by surprise.” She looked around, saw the remainder of the rock. That would do. “Better get ready.”
Danae frowned. “I don’t think anyone’s coming here any time soon. Let’s have a good look around, check absolutely everywhere and see what we’ve got here. Might find a weakness, something useful, whatever. And I’m worried that light might go out any minute.” Danae seemed pretty sure, as though she’d figured something out. Meilani agreed because she, too, had an inkling.
They split up. Meilani edged around the wall, searching for anomalies, anything. Suddenly she thought to check the pockets of her cargo pants and found a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar and three-quarters of a pack of Starbursts that she’d forgotten about. She felt her heart rate slow just a little. Candy could make a big difference. She decided to keep it to herself for the time being and resumed her investigation of the walls.
Danae went to the center of the room to carefully examine the barbecue. She found that the frame would be impossible to take apart and use as weapons. The whole thing might be lifted but it would take both of them. She looked inside the barbecue and found that it was burned black. It had been used at some point. On the bottom lay a single, metallic object. It was unburned, as though placed there afterwards – a double-bladed knife about five inches long.
Danae glanced at Meilani. She was turned the other way and absorbed in assessing the wall. Danae quickly placed the dagger in the belt of her jeans, untucking her blouse to cover it.
“Oh my God! This is not happening!” cried Meilani. Dana’s head jolted up again. Meilani was still faced away, staring at something in the corner of the ceiling.
“Gimme that rock.” Meilani ran to the door herself, picked up the two largest pieces of rock and returned to the corner. Danae saw what Meilani had seen: a small, egg-shaped camera mounted behind a sheet of Perspex.
Meilani hurled a piece of rock like a baseball picher. It shattered against the clear barrier. She threw the second and missed. She began screaming and cursing, then finally began to weep.
Danae hadn’t seen her cry since she’d found out about the PE teacher. She went to her, put her arms around her, rocked her gently.
“It’ll be okay,” she said. “We’ll figure something out. Just gotta hang in there, not lose our heads. Don’t panic. Come on, you’ve been through worse than this. You should be the one calming me down, right?”
Meilani sobbed. “Don’t you get it, Danae? Don’t you fucking get it?”
“What?” Danae’s question lacked intensity, as though maybe she already got it.
“Barbecue, water, camera. The sign. You know why they’re watching us?”
“Why?” Danae tried to sound curious.
“The sign. ‘Who eats who’.” She sobbed again for a long time, then gathered herself. She straightened, remembered how much taller she was than Danae. Since her friend had become Assistant Principal she’d stopped noticing it. She said, “We can survive here a long time because we have water and shelter. What we don’t have is food. These fucking freaks are going to watch, see which one of us dies first and then see if the other one eats them. That’s what’s getting them off. That’s the whole point. And they’re watching us right now, knowing we’ve just figured it out, and they love it.”
Meilani jabbed her finger toward the camera aggressively. “Can you hear me, fuckers? Can you read my lips? No one’s eating anybody so you can put your tiny dicks away. We’re going to get out of here, or if we don’t we’ll look after each other ‘til the end. You’ve fucked up. I’ve got friends in the Rangers. Her boyfriend is an ex-Marine who kills people for a living. Whatever happens to us, they’re coming for you. We’re already late for a meeting. They’re going to start looking, they’ve got connections; Feds are going to be involved. You do not know how very fucking seriously you have fucked up. If we run out of food, I’ll die here very happy knowing that each and every one of you is fucking doomed.”
For a time the pair sat, each thinking her own thoughts. Finally Danae said, “What about if we use the barbecue as a battering ram?”
It was extremely difficult to move but not impossible. Sliding each end two inches at a time, they dragged it to a wall. After some trial and error, they found they could rock in in such a way that the corner would bash into the concrete with considerable force.
Danae was disheartened to see that they barely left a dent but Meilani insisted they keep going. They repeatedly struck an area that might be just large enough to squeeze a person through. After a sweaty, tiring hour they stopped to examine the result.
A small section had slightly worn away. Meilani touched it – hot from the friction. She knelt down, ran her finger through the tiny amount of detritus on the floor.
“It’s working,” she announced. She began pacing the room, deep in thought as Danae collapsed then began a cross-legged meditation. Meilani pulled out her phone, leaned against the far wall and thumbed away on the calculator. She grimaced, but it was not a hopeless grimace.
“I’m making some assumptions here,” she said, “but looking at what we’ve done here, I think we could get through a quarter-inch per day. That is, if we can keep working like that when we’re hungry and lethargic. I think we can do that. We’ll feel terrible for a week or so then the feeling will go away as our bodies gets accustomed to breaking down our tissues for energy.”
“How long will it take?”
“I’m thinking the wall is about a foot thick, based on how it feels and from glancing at it on the way in. Could be wrong. Anyway, if it’s a foot, that means at a quarter-inch per day it will take forty-eight days to get through. It’s a guestimate, but it’s doable. We’ve got a chance here. Let’s chill for a bit then get back to it.” She squatted, her panic easing now that they had some sort of plan.
Danae glared at the camera. “Fuck ‘em. Even if they come here and get us before we can get out, stuffs up their creepy plan, right?”
“Totally. And then they’ll have to take us both on.” Meilani looked like she wouldn’t mind that.
They faced each other from opposite ends of the room, Danae in a yogic pose and Meilani poised like a wrestler.
“Meilani, I just want to say, I’m glad I’m here with you. Whatever happens. I mean, I know you’re the most practical girl around, but aside from that I’d be going to pieces if I didn’t have a friend here. Especially a tough one. I’m sorry we sometimes fought. It all seems like such bullshit now. Fuck the meeting thing. Fuck Dale. People always say, in a crisis you learn what’s really important. I mean, I wish you weren’t here and you were safe somewhere else, but I’m glad that if this is the end, at least we’ve got each other.” Her eyes reddened. “I’m sorry, Mei-Mei. I’m going to hold it together, I promise. But I just want you to know, I’ve always thought you were my best friend. Like, the one I’ll keep in touch with forever no matter where we end up.” She wiped her eyes, laughed mirthlessly. “Don’t tell Cassie I said that.”
Meilani smiled back warmly. “I’m glad you’re here, too. I mean the same way – wish you were safe but thank fuck I’m not alone. Yeah, we’ve had some water under the bridge but I’ve always thought the same thing: some friends come and go but we’re tight. I think we’ll always stay close because we understand each other. You’re one of those rare people who I know one hundred percent has always got my back. You, my mom, maybe a couple of my Ranger buddies, that’s about it.” She sighed and closed her eyes, trying to get as much rest in as possible before they got back to work.
Forty-eight days, thought Danae. About seven weeks. Might make it, might not. She changed her arm position, feeling the handle of the knife. Just in case, she thought. Only if absolutely necessary, when I think I’m about to die. It’s fair because I’m two years younger than her. Meilani’s big but with this I can take her out while she’s asleep, no worries. Danae swallowed. In fact, she thought, the bigger the better.
Leilani calculated, her eyes still closed: the average human can survive four to eight weeks without food. They would be exerting themselves during the day, which would use up their fat stores faster. Meilani knew she was carrying a bit of extra weight that would help her last longer than her friend, plus she had the candy.
Seven weeks to get through the wall. Maybe. But what if it takes longer? She’d seen the knife in Danae’s belt when her blouse lifted shifting the barbecue and quickly concluded it had been left in the room as part of the entertainment. No biggie. Meilani was a light sleeper. Timing was the issue – picking the right moment to get it off her. Not too soon or she’d be less cooperative in battering the wall. Not too late or it might end up between her own ribs. When Danae’s starting to get desperate, Meilani thought, that’s when she’ll try. Watch her mood and that will tell you when to strike. And anyway, Danae had been the one to conceal the knife. Using it on her would only be self-defense.
Meilani opened her eyes for a second, looked Danae’s body up and down, closed her eyes again. She was petite but not overly so. Five weeks with no food except the candy plus another five after Danae would get her up to about ten weeks. Ought to do it. But don’t do it too soon, she reminded herself, even if you get desperate. Best way to keep it from spoiling is to leave it on the hoof.
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