When I was young my grandfather took me and my cousin on a trip. My father called it a vacation even though we were going to a ranch in North Carolina. He said wasn’t I lucky. He said my grandpa wanted to take the two oldest grandchildren somewhere special. I was young, but left to infer that a small cabin on a ranch in the mountains of North Carolina was special.
When we arrived I noticed that our cabin was sparse. There was only one bed and my grandfather insisted that he would sleep on the couch. This seemed just fine to my younger cousin who sipped a diet and caffeine-free cola and hummed Oops…I Did it Again but it made me uncomfortable. I knew he was old and had a fake hip or two and that he deserved a bed and insisted this much. Soon, to the annoyance of both my cousin and my grandfather, we got a new sparse cabin with two beds and no couch.
I sat on our new porch and drank water from the sink because the only other drinks my grandfather brought were beer and diet and caffeine free store-brand cola that tasted how I imagined rust must taste like. I sat on the porch and missed my friends. I sat on the porch and missed my room. I sat on the porch and thought about the distance between my cousin and my grandfather and myself.
Inside, I heard my cousin singing and grandfather laughing and then I heard my grandfather call my name and ask if I wanted to play ping pong. I was young but old enough to know I shouldn’t run my grandfather from end to end of the ping pong table, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to do it.
After hours-long drives that twisted up and down contemptible mountains to underwhelming rock formations and brown paper bag lunches of cold fried chicken and potato salad and horseback rides that left me unsteady, I began feeling uncomfortable almost regularly.
But that was all before the night my grandfather put Dateline on the television. My younger cousin had just finished walking on his back as a form of massage when he grabbed another beer and turned up the volume. I had never seen anything like it before in my life. I kept asking my grandfather if it was a movie and he eventually said sort of just one that’s real. During commercial breaks he would turn the channel to Wheel of Fortune reruns we had already seen but somehow always make it back in time to see what happened next. And what happened next was always terrifying.
A cannibal killer roamed Appalachia. After settling into some small town that looked an awful lot like mine, he would find a wife. Soon he would grow bored and chop her up, eat her, and burn what remained in his back yard or the woods nearby before going to a new town to do it all over again.
Somehow we always tuned back in to hear the next 911 call. Somehow we always tuned back in to see the remains.
But we also tuned back in to find out how he got caught; at a ranch, hiding out in a sparse cabin in the mountains of North Carolina. I remember seeing the pieces of his wife’s body found in the freezer labeled “deer meat”.
My grandfather said goodnight to us both and my cousin said goodnight back and listened to Britney Spears on her walkmen so loudly I could hear it through her headphones as I sat on the other side of the bed and stared at the paint on the wall and the bugs on the floor and the flies on the window and never went to sleep.
And I’ve never slept again. In fact, my eyes are still glued to the off-white wall paper peeling at the seams from the heat and to the bugs crawling out from the cracks of the hardwood floorboards and to the flies buzzing around the window and slamming their tiny bodies against the screen making the most horrible slapping sound while my cousin endlessly hums Britney Spears and my grandfather forever snores with that smirk on his face and I think about the package in the freezer labeled “deer meat”.