Cured Meats

This piece is a few years old, but it’s special because it’s the first piece I ever published online. I put it on reddit on another account – I’m not going to link it, but I’ve put a link to this site in the post itself as proof I’m not plagiarising anything. It’s a bit strange, but it was received well there so I’m just popping it up here!

I began working at “Newman & Co. Butchers” when I was 18 years old. They were a relatively new business; they’d only been around for a few years. They sold meat cuts, as butchers do, but also had a counter where customers could buy small pre-prepared meals.
The owner, Mack, contrasted to the small shop in that he dwarfed everyone around him. He had striking facial hair, and a constant beaming smile. He was a caring guy – my co-workers would tell me about how he’d be ushering some homeless person in off the street often, and preparing a meal for them on the house. He’d keep morale up too, in his own way – he’d always slap me on the back and say “I hate to see people not looking happy. Keep a smile on your face, kid!”
I was made to felt welcome, and I did – most of the time.

Upon arrival on my first day, I was told that I’d be given shifts on the meal counter and in the back room. On the counter I’d be responsible for selling meals, and arranging displays. In the back room I’d be responsible for bringing large cuts to the chopping block in the front for Mack to carve up, and keeping inventory.

Working on the counter was fine, and the various folks who came in kept me entertained, but I found working in the back pretty boring. I’d only have to bring something out about once in an hour, and keeping inventory was simple. Besides, it was quite cold and dimly lit in there. I’d do things like read, but the lack of stimulation still got to me.
There was also the door marked ‘Cured Meats’ coming off the back room. I asked about it when I arrived – Mack, wearing his usual smile, informed me that the room was only used once a month, when he sold the meats he’d been curing to traders. He also asked me not to open the door, as the room was kept to specific humidity levels and opening the door would disturb that. Fair enough.

I often heard grinding noises coming from that room – like machinery was operating. I figured it was the humidifiers or something similar. From what I understand, there are a bunch of things you need to cure meat properly, so machinery must be necessary… it was so loud sometimes, though. Even after only a couple of weeks working there, I’d been spooked numerous times by sudden grating noises. When there’s nothing to do, the mind makes things up to occupy itself.

I got a call about three weeks into the job from Mack, telling me in his usual jovial tone that I had the day off, as it was the day when the cured meat would be shipped out. The store was to be closed all day. I was excited – a new game had finally been released in the game shop nearby, so I’d be able to pick it up and play it that morning instead of working.

The game shop happened to be just down the road from Newman & Co. As I passed by, I saw Mack wearing a bigger grin than usual, watching as large crates on wheels were pushed into the store some on their way back out, and being loaded into a lorry. I carried on down the road, contemplating how much of that cured meat he had in there.

I dropped a couple of coins into Bruce’s hat as I entered the shop. He was sat out there most days, and I occasionally chatted with him when I had nothing to do. Today was one of those days. I bought my game, then sat myself down beside him.
“What are they doing down there then?” asked Bruce, gesturing towards the truck parked outside Newman & Co.
“They’re loading up some cured meats that the owner keeps in the back for selling,” I replied. “Have you never been there?”
“Why would I bother going in there? Not like I can afford any of that.” Bruce halfheartedly chuckled.
“Oh, they give out free meals to homeless people at the end of the day sometimes. If you just hang around, I’m sure he’ll invite you in.”
“Really? That’s nice of ‘em. I’ll be sure to get right on that.” I made sure to remind they were closed for today, and after a little more mindless conversation, I headed home to start on the game.

Work went on as usual after that – for a short while anyway. After around a week, I heard the loud grating sounds coming from the cured meats room again. It’d been mercifully quiet since the meat had been shipped out, but apparently the sounds were back, and louder than ever. I decided to ask Mack about it – it was giving me headaches.
I caught his attention as I was leaving at the end of my shift, and asked him about the noises. He smiled and told me it was just the machines. He said he absolutely had to have them on in order to keep the temperature correct. He stumbled over his words and his brow furrowed a little. I hurried out. I was certain he’d told me it was the humidity that had to be kept consistent, not the temperature. Oh well.

I definitely heard screams the next day. That was not the wail of machinery. It was the wail of a pained animal. The meat we had wasn’t slaughtered on site, so it couldn’t have been. At the sound, Mack came storming into the back room. He ushered me out, informing me that I had the rest of my shift off. He disappeared into the Cured Meats room, not seeming to care about the fragile humidity.
I did as he asked. While a happy man, there was no denying that he could snap me in half if he wanted to.

I had recently taken up a shifts at opening time. I would open the shop, clean up for the work day, and serve any customers who came in that early in the morning. The shop opened at 7, so I was able to do this before school.
On these shifts, I would be alone in the shop. I’d have about 15 minutes before Mack turned up. I figured that I’d do no harm by checking the Cured Meats room for anything weird. Approaching the door, I realized I could hear the grating sounds from inside. Mack hadn’t been in, so he could not have activated whatever machines were in there today. I could feel the vibrations through the metal door handle as I turned it.

It was locked. Of course. Mack wouldn’t want anybody to break in and take his carefully cultivated stuff from in there. He most likely would bring the key in with him.
I wanted to know what it was like in there, so I hatched my plan. I decided to nab Mack’s key when he went on one of his various smoke breaks, which wasn’t as hard or riddled with unexpected issues as I would have thought. The key had a label on it, which made it easy to tell what it was for.
I had another attempt at the door the next morning before opening time again. The shift gave me 15 minutes before Mack arrived at the shop.

The lock clicked open upon turning the key. I opened the door, and was immediately struck by the smell.

Now, I’m not sure what curing meats is supposed to smell like, but I doubt it smells like sweat. The dark room stank of overwhelming BO. There was an undertone of… faeces there too. I gagged and pulled my apron up to cover my nose.
I also realized how it warm it was in there. I was sure that it was far too hot for curing meat. But hey, what did I know?
I was also dismayed to find no light switch on the walls. I dragged my hand along the wall to see if I could find it – covering them with water; Mack wasn’t wrong about the humidity – but to no avail.

Using the light from my phone, I ventured further into the room. There weren’t any of those machinery sounds. I assumed Mack turned them on in the morning when he came in.
The room was big, and misty to the point where I couldn’t see the walls with my phone. However, I also could see no meat hanging from the ceiling. I found that strange – with the amount that’s shipped out, surely it must have filled the room.
All of a sudden, the grating noises that had been causing my headaches for weeks started up again. Despite the fact that nobody had turned them on. They were particularly loud from my left, so I slowly moved along the wall to check.

My foot hit something heavy on the floor. Shining the light down, I saw it was a large chain tethered to the wall, and to my horror, it shifted on its own. Something in here was alive, and on the other end.

At first all I saw was a pale human foot, emerging from the shadows into the stark light I was holding. It had long toenails, and was pale and pasty. As the equally naked leg appeared, I noticed the wet sheen it had on it. That explains the sweat smell. The creature slowly revealed more of its body – stooped and hung low, completely naked, and a pale, damp white. It began to make those wailing noises I heard. Like an animal in pain. As horrified as I was, I kept my composure as it didn’t seem to be aggressive towards me. Until I saw its face.

It was definitely human, no doubt about that. But its mouth was anything but.
It was forced wide in a tight, sickening grin, its teeth in plain view and its lips cracking. The corners of its mouth were held up and out by two large, silver hooks strapped to its head. The thing had dried blood drawing lines down its chin where it had been pierced. The ‘smile’ was made more unnatural by the pain in its eyes, and the cheeks stained with countless tears. Its tongue was limp and dry, and what little saliva it had left dripped uselessly out of its gaping maw.

It lunged at me. Pushed forwards and reached its arms out. Screaming, I stumbled backwards, lost my footing and fell. I knew this was how it would end.
But the creature stopped right above me. I was waiting for the final blow, when I recognized it- him.
“Bruce?” I whimpered, my voice cracking. He nodded, and got off me. I looked at him again. It all just looked so unnatural. His eyes showed pain, but his mouth was a different story. He motioned his arm behind him, and to my horror, more of the creatures – no, people – emerged from the darkness. They were all in the same condition, and their eyes held the same pain.
I realized I recognized one of them – I saw him being ushered in as I left work by Mack, smiling as he was offered a meal.

I needed to get away. I had to help these people. I told Bruce I’d come back with help, and ran to the door, which knocked me flat on my back.
Mack stood in the doorway, arms crossed as he scowled down at me.

“Well, hi, son. What are you doing back here so early?” he chuckled, his eyes full of menace.
“Oh, well, uh… I saw this rat, and it ran in here… I didn’t want it to eat any of your stuff so I followed it…”
“You’re damn right a rat got in here,” he growled, walking towards me. “I’d better deal with it before it does any damage.” I saw the glint of the cleaver as he advanced towards me. I backed off into the dark room.
“Why did you do this to these people? What the fuck are you?!” I cried, walking backwards.

“Those poor people… they were so sad. I had to help them.” Mack’s voice sounded truly pitiful, which confused me. “I saw them, all the time. Those people with no homes and no smiles…” He lashed out at me with the cleaver. “My father always told me to smile. Be happy. I should never be sad.” he continued his advance. I turned off my phone light and sprinted into a corner where he couldn’t see me. I could still hear him lamenting. “If I was sad, he used to beat me. Beat the sadness, the sickness, out of me. I learned not to be sad. Even when my father passed away, I beamed at his funeral.” I heard his voice getting closer, so I ran in another direction. The trapped people hid me between them. “I saw all of those people, and I realized they should be happy too.” Mack knew where I was, and got closer. “But when I gave to them, even without any reason, they still did not wear smiles. They were still sad. They were so sick.” He appeared as a silhouette in the fog. “But look at them now. Look at all those lovely smiles. I knew they could be happy. They are not sick anymore. They are cured.”

On that word, he lunged once more towards us. However, he’d gotten too close. My eyes were closed, so I missed it when Bruce leapt towards the huge man. I did however, see the others join him.
He fell and was yelling and screaming, but it was mixed with wails from those trapped too; he was armed, and they were not. I took my chance, and sped from the room as quickly as possible. Those shouts never left my mind.

Of course, I called the police. They quickly subdued Mack, and the ambulance service got those people to safety.
A few weeks later, I checked in with the investigation. I was wondering what was happening when those ‘cured meats’ left the shop.
“Oh yeah, that,” the gruff officer replied. “Those vans were from some foreign place. We’re in the middle of trying to catch them right now.”
“For what?” I asked.
“They were part of a large human trafficking ring. Newman and Co. were just another ‘supplier’.” He shuddered. I went silent at the thought of the countless people that were ‘exported’.

It’s safe to say I became vegetarian.

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