Faigel rarely laughed. She envied those who did. Why were large people like Santa and Winnie the Pooh always portrayed as being jolly? And her, skinny as a rail all her life was never jolly. She didn’t suspect, but at lunch today she would be jolly and she would laugh; but not at the assignment Carlos, the managing editor, just handed her. There was nothing funny about an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

# # #

As Faigel rode the bus to the appointment she mentally reviewed her meeting with Carlos.

“Well, Stick. Waddaya think?” Faigel cringed whenever she heard the name that had plagued her since high school.

“I think I’d like you to please lay off the ‘Stick’ biz, okay?”

“Ya sorry. I keep forgettin’. You should eat more.”

“I’m svelte. Besides, I can’t gain weight eating vegetables. I really miss meat. Everyone does. If I can even find it, it’s dog or rat meat and priced beyond my reach. Remember the African swine fever pandemic? The virus couldn’t be stopped. Every pig had to be destroyed, killing the pork industry world-wide.”

“Yeah,” Carlos said, “I remember how grim that was. Then the avian flu killed all chickens, turkeys and ducks and Boom! No more eggs or poultry. Goat and sheep influenza followed, and then bovine flu killed all the cows. The world’s intensive growing operations guaranteed they’d all be unstoppable viruses.”

Faigel clenched her fists and paced the office. “Abattoirs closed, hormone and antibiotic plants abandoned, animal feed factories shuttered. Complete industries obliterated. Then we fished out the oceans.”

When Faigel paused for a breath, Carlos glanced at his watch. “Okay, that’s enough. Now about your assignment–“

But she was on a roll. “The prediction of the extinction of pollinating insects and the vegetation apocalypse never happened. Instead, with no livestock worldwide we resorted to so-called bush meat which drove them to extinction too. All that’s left are small animals like rodents and pets.”

“Hey! Stick! I said. Enough! What’s done is done. Get a grip.” He relaxed. “Here. I’ve got just the assignment to cheer you up.”

She sat down and took a deep breath. She read the paper he handed her, and sprang to her feet. Harnessing her anger, she said, “a free, all-you-can-eat salad bar? Oh, gee, that sounds like a swell assignment. Thanks boss. I’ll get right on it.” She turned away so he couldn’t see her roll her eyes at the junk he gave her. Just the notion of all-you-can-stomach restaurants irked her. There were people starving right here in this city while others gorged themselves on third-rate food. To make it worse, it was free!

“I knew you were right for this one. The owner’s expecting you for lunch … today … on him.”

She forced a smile. “Darn, and I brought my lunch today.”

“Get going.” Carlos was already checking his email.

“Look boss, there’s a rash of obese people disappearing in the city, remember? I’m working on that story right now, remember? Besides, I don’t do restaurant reviews. Remember?”

“Yeah, yeah. I remember. This restaurant review might be just what you need. Now get going. And eat something.”

 Faigel made up her mind she wasn’t going to like the lunch, no matter what it was.

# # #

Faigel always ate sparingly. Some said she ate like a bird, which never made sense to her as birds seemed to be always eating. Even her name meant ‘bird,’ but she never offered that information to anyone. She had finally accepted her thinness. She loved that she could still fit into the prom dress she wore twenty-five years ago. At one time she was desperate to have a figure, any kind of figure. All the girls at school filled out and then got all the boys. She never filled out. Even her short-cropped hair was thin and she was often mistaken for a boy. Lately it irked her that so many people seemed to be overweight. Junk food, fast food, deep-fried greasy food. Vegetable burgers full of salt, sugar and fat. And yet, large people always seemed to be jolly, and she never knew why. She walked the last two blocks with her empty stomach grumbling.

All the blinds were drawn, blocking the view of the interior of the I Could Eat restaurant. The sign outside read: Free all you can eat salad bar. Those weighing less than 150 kg not admitted. What the hell could that mean? When she stepped on the welcome mat she saw the dial of a scale on the door swing around to her weight which was nowhere near 150 kg. Almost instantly a jolly voice said, “hello and welcome to I Could Eat. Can I help you?”

She spoke to the door. “I’m Faigel and I have an appointment to interview Keith. Is he here?”

“I’m Keith, come on in.” The welcome mat sank down several millimetres and the scale whirled around to exactly 151 kg. She almost leapt off the mat. Levers and counter-weights unlocked and opened the door. As it swung inward she stepped inside. Exterior doors always open out, she thought.

“Welcome, welcome,” beamed Keith. Faigel concluded he’d been eating well as she judged him to be only slightly overweight, but definitely jolly.

Keith led her in where she saw a dazzling array of salad bars and a more dazzling array of exceptionally overweight people eating. The delicious aroma of simmering vegetables and fresh-baked bread made her stomach growl even more.

Faigel looked him in the eye and said, “so what’s going on here? Free food? All you can eat? Stay the night so you can eat more tomorrow?”

Keith had heard this before and pointed behind her at the now-closed entrance door. In a teasing voice he asked the next question for her, “and why isn’t the entrance also an exit?”

She spun around to look and on cue she echoed Keith, “and why the hell isn’t the entrance also an exit? Am I trapped here?”

“Let’s discuss this over lunch. Here’s a nice table. I hope you’re hungry.” Keith sat down but Faigel remained standing until a waiter asked her to sit. Keith asked the waiter to bring two coffees and waters.

Faigel said to the waiter, “black, no sugar,” and she sat back and crossed her arms.

The waiter said, “Perfect!”

Faigel turned back to Keith. “Not a bite until you level with me.”

Keith jollied her. “You’re not going to like the answer.”

“Whadaya mean, I won’t like it?” She sat forward placing both her hands on the table.

“I mean, you will definitely not like this.”

“What are you up to here? Some kind of kidnapping scam? Slave trade? Am I your prisoner?”

“How about a bite?”

“Ransom. You’re holding these people for ransom.”

Keith passed a brochure to Faigel. As she read it she started to speak but choked. Keith pushed one of the glasses of water closer to her.

“You see. I told you you wouldn’t like it.”

“This … this is a contract for my life?”

“No, not your life. Sorry to be so personal, but there’s not enough meat on your bones.”

She read on. “You’re exchanging food for assisted suicide? Hey whadaya mean not enough meat?” She stopped reading as it began to sink in. “You’re fattening up obese people like animals for slaughter.”

Keith made an attempt at playfulness. “Good for you. You worked it out all by yourself.”

“Seriously?  I was just joking! But why would anyone agree to this?”

“Haven’t you heard about the disappearance of obese people lately?”

“What? You have them all here? Dammit! I should have guessed.”

Keith laughed his jolly laugh. “Hardly. Would I invite the press here to help drum up business if I did? Roving street gangs are hunting them for food.”

“I don’t see the connection between–“

“Will you allow me to explain?”

“Please do.” Faigel opened her iPad and began making notes.

“You’ve heard that many murders are committed by gangs who kill obese people for their meat.”

“What? I don’t believe it, that’s crazy. I knew they were disappearing but I didn’t know how or why.”

“Well, with the extinction of all large animals, there are many people who still crave animal protein, and rather than pay the exorbitant prices for questionable meats like rodents or dogs, these former drug gangs have branched out and now offer human flesh.”

“But that’s cannibalism! It’s … it’s … disgusting.” She crinkled her nose, then covered her nose and mouth with her hand.

“Call it what you like. Look at it this way, obese people are living in terror. They’re being hunted by gangs and harvested for their meat, so we offer them an alternative. We give them a safe, comfortable place to live for their last days and feed them well. We also offer them recreation and all the comforts of home. In return, they change their wills to leave their bodies to us to be used as Long Pork. The rest of their will stays as they wish. When the time comes, we assist their demise and they peacefully go to sleep. We have licensed personnel to assist, to pronounce death and sign the death certificate. Much better than a messy suicide at home. Don’t you think?”

“When the time comes?”

“Yes. Read the terms on the back of the brochure. Once you can’t eat any more, or if you lose more than five percent of your weight since you arrived. Well, either way, the maximum length of stay is three weeks.”

“That’s it? Just three weeks?”

“Three glorious weeks of non-stop eating, sleeping, whatever you like. Heaven before heaven. I think you’ll agree that it’s much nicer than being hunted by a gang of hoodlums. People who won’t even bother to see if you’re dead before they begin carving you up for the stew pot.”

Faigel’s stomach churned with a mixture of hunger and revulsion, but the journalist in her kept her focused. “How do they know to come here?” she asked, looking around at the diners. They seemed happy enough.

“We advertise in food delivery flyers and apps. Obese people risk their lives if they go outside, so they mostly order food on-line. And because it’s not safe for them to go outside, they can’t work, and many find themselves near the end of their resources. Their only choice is suicide or gangs. We offer safety and security as well as an armed escort to bring them here. However, we’re having trouble satisfying the demands of our meat shop, so I’m hoping an article in your magazine will help get us more business.”

Faigel was typing furiously on her iPad. She came to a sudden stop and looked around the restaurant, “Your meat shop? You mean you give away meat as well as your salad?”

“Oh no, people pay good money for our good meat, but please hold that thought a moment. As I was saying it’s a humane, quick, painless death. We take only overweight people so we just have to finish the fattening process.” Keith looked sideways at Faigel as if calculating how much it would cost to fatten her up for slaughter. She saw this and visibly blushed. “They’re safe and comfortable here.” He paused to allow Faigel to finish typing.

“So, can I get you something to eat?”

“I’ve eaten thank you.” She hoped he couldn’t hear her stomach roaring.

“What about dessert?”

“Tell me more first.”

“Once they die they’re prepared next door in our abattoir, then packaged and sold down the block in our meat shop. We planned to offer frozen cuts but so far the demand for fresh is so great we never have enough to freeze. We sell what we can and all unsaleable components are then disposed of according to the wishes of the client. You know, organ donation, burial, cremation, etc.”

“But still, to eat human flesh. It’s disgusting.”

“Humans have frequently turned to cannibalism in times of food shortages. And of course we don’t call it human flesh, we call it Long Pork. Some say it tastes like pork others say it tastes like veal.”

“But your customers must know they are buying human flesh?”

“Of course they know it. We just call it Long Pork for appearances.”

“Isn’t that false advertising?” She sat back and crossed her arms again.

“Not at all. Is calling dried plums, prunes, false advertising? Or calling rapeseed, canola. Would you rather eat slimehead or the same fish called orange roughy?”

“I take your point. I suppose it’s not at all kosher or halal.” Faigel forced a half-hearted laugh.

“Well, just to be clear, we did consider other names for our friends who don’t eat pork. Our test marketing showed there was just no way to convince them that human flesh was kosher or halal. You can’t please everyone. Remember when you used to buy chops, steaks, roasts. They certainly didn’t look like a pig or a cow. They were just hunks of meat. Remember when people started eating horse meat, before the equine flu killed all the horses? Just hunks of animal protein. Same thing with our products, just hunks of animal protein that people crave.”

Keith stood up. “Now,” he said, “if you’d like a tour of the abattoir you can see for yourself the cleanliness–“

“No thanks.” Faigel was quick to reply.

“No? Then let’s go directly to our meat shop.”

# # #

As soon as Faigel walked into the meat shop the heady aroma of cooking meat hit her. Dozens of memories flooded back: BBQs on the beach, Sunday roasts and Christmas turkeys. It was so intoxicating that she reeled and had to steady herself against the counter. She pretended to inspect the merchandise while she regained her composure. Keith was watching her and saw through her manoeuvre.

“Are you okay? Let’s sit down.” He took her hand and led her to a table at the back of the shop.

“It seems like years since I’ve smelled cooking meat. I just wasn’t prepared for all the memories that were triggered.” She grabbed a paper napkin to wipe the drool from her mouth.

“I should have warned you that we have a small meat restaurant here on purpose, just to entice our shoppers to buy more.”

“And you’re doing a brisk business I see,” Faigel said, as she looked around half-expecting to see someone she knew, but hoping she wouldn’t.

“Yes, we have a steady clientele. Look. You’ve been awfully nice, can I offer you a couple of steaks to take home? No charge.”

“I’m not sure I’m ready for this.”

“How about a meal here?”

“You’re very kind but I’m still not sure.” Her head was saying no, but her empty stomach was saying, just a taste for research.

“Look. I want you to try my food, and I’d definitely like to get to know you better. Have something to eat.”

By this time Faigel was starving. The smells wafting from the kitchen were delicious, and in the end, her stomach won. “I don’t eat much and already ate lunch. But I could eat.”

“Wonderful. What’s your favourite cut of pork?”

“Well I don’t know, it’s been so long. Ribs, pork chops.” Now that she really was going to try the meat, how would she decide what to try? Finally, she whispered, “do you have any bacon?”

“Are you kidding? Just like grandma made, maple cured and sliced thick. I’m only sorry we don’t have any eggs.”

# # #

Faigel ate as much as was placed before her. She was satiated and happy. Her eyes actually sparkled. A glorious smile settled on her lips. She pushed her chair back and sighed a deep, relaxing sigh. “That was wonderful. I can’t tell you the last time I ate bacon. It’s better than I remember.” Her eyes glazed over and she sighed again.

Keith smiled and watched her intently, happy to just let her be. A minute passed and Faigel shook off her stupor and remembered her assignment. She opened her iPad again.

“How about the prices? I looked in the first meat counter but honestly I was looking at the meat. You know, I don’t recall how much we used to pay for pork or beef.”

Keith was a little disappointed she was back to business so soon. “Well, we do have a little joke that we share in our price-setting meetings. An arm and a leg shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.”

Faigel laughed. She really laughed out loud, just like a jolly person would. She even felt jolly. She was amazed at herself for laughing so uncontrollably and that made her laugh even more. A few patrons turned to see what was so funny, but she just kept laughing. As her laughter finally subsided she saw the look on Keith’s face. She’d seen that look before on a man’s face, but only when he was looking at another woman, never at her.

She returned the look.

His smile broadened and he said, “oh yes, we’ll fatten you up in no time.”