Warning: UV levels are too high for Skinn™ Protection! Please proceed to a shaded area!
The message came again. Red writing on a black background, imprinted on my eyelids so that I could see the words every time I closed my eyes. It was annoying as hell. It was also unnecessary. I could feel my flesh blistering in the sun.
As casually as possible, I propped myself against the Welcome Arch of Tik-Tik Dahlia’s mansion, the only wall to cast a shadow in the afternoon heat. The relief was almost immediate. A few seconds later the warning ceased flashing behind my eyes, though I still felt raw and sunburned.
Part of this was my own fault. It had only been three days since they’d applied the full body Skinn in a backyard parlour on Wessels. It was a second rate knock off that had cost a few months’ salary, but it looked like it was quality. Had the sensors and vitals monitor and everything. The beautician said to wait between seven to ten days before exposing it to direct sunlight. Screw that. I needed to be here. The Dinner Club could be my ticket to the front page.
And speaking of tickets…where the hell was Preacher?
The greasy bastard was late. I tried not to wince as I turned my head to the parking lot, noting the two bouncers standing at the entrance to the Welcome Arch, checking tickets. I wouldn’t get in without Preacher. A core of panic pulsed in my chest. I hadn’t seen a single Mutie, was I in the right place? Maybe I’d gotten the directions wrong. Maybe Preacher had cottoned that I was just using him. Maybe he wasn’t coming at all.
Guards were studded around the throng of guests, watching impassively, mumbling into their mouth pieces. One of them looked at me. I looked straight back at him and then turned, dismissively. It was a performance worthy of Tik-Tik Dahlia herself, and it was what every one of the rich snobs here would do. I watched them as they milled around the entrance, decked in their finest; Skinns so richly tailored that the sun would reflect harmlessly off them.
A woman in a dress made of spikes bumped into me and I let out a muted hiss. It felt as if she’d scratched her nails across second degree sunburn. I had no idea how people could apply Skinn regularly. Particularly the rich folk who updated their look every eight weeks or so to follow fashion trends. Natural skin colours had become passé— the magazines all lauded the reptile, amphibian and fish look now. At least that was what the beautician told me as she hot ironed the tissue fine faux frog Skinn onto every inch of my body, effectively melting away my dark skinned heritage like candle wax so that the glue could bond better. I could smell the burn of my body hair as she chatted mindlessly about celebrities, makeup, how my boxy, androgynous body shape was in vogue at the moment, girls were bandaging their boobs to get the look. Fashion forward, she called it.
I felt a hand squeeze my arse. Preacher. I managed a smile.
“Fido, baby, you’re mesmerizing.”
“Preacher, you look fantastic yourself.”
He bumped a greasy cheek into mine in greeting. Short and Napoleon-like, Preacher had a sweating disorder that left his grey, semi-permeable Skinn constantly clammy. Today he wore a yellow bolero in order to distract from the sweat patches. Black tights, blue lipstick and cakey eyeliner completed the look.
“You’ve got the tickets?” I asked.
With a flourish, he produced two red discs from his bolero pocket and rested them against his chin. He leered at me.
“Of course. Want to take a quick detour first?”
“Later, dear. I’d hate to ruin my makeup.”
He passed me a ticket and I let out a sigh I didn’t realize I was holding. I’d never need to screw him again. The plastic felt alive in my hand. I’d hunted these tickets for a year, ever since rumour had first reached me of the underground Mutie Festivals. It had taken weeks of research, months of planning. And now we stood outside the biggest event in the country. It was thrilling.
The queue had dwindled to stragglers and smokers. We moved forward until the shadow of the arch engulfed me like a balm. Preacher handed a security guard the tickets and our ID cards, which were scanned and added to the database. A futile procedure. Everyone would give out fake ID cards anyway. The Vegetarian Party had done a good job of stamping out Mutie festivals, but the Dinner Club remained, and attendance was growing. Its location changed monthly to avoid detection. Members were vetted by other members. Leaks were plugged— for good.
Preacher put his hand on the small of my back and led me through the arch, into a garden roughly the size of a park. A gravel pathway led to a pergola, which cut through the heart of the garden. The pathway was short; we wouldn’t linger in the sun too long. Preacher mistook my anxiety for awe.
“It’s huge, isn’t it? Used to belong to some Russian inventor before Tik-Tik got her claws into him. Obscenely rich. When they split- like six months later- she got the house. Moved her long-term boyfriend in. Santa, they call him.”
Tik-Tik Dahlia: President of the Dinner Club.
“I’m surprised she’s not out front welcoming guests.”
Preacher gave a hoot of laughter.
“Does the queen welcome guests at the palace gate? No, not our Tik-Tik. She’ll be schmoozing out back, by the pool.”
Within a minute, we found ourselves at the entrance to the pergola. Cobble floored and corridor wide, it took the shape of a giant question mark, sloping straight down the garden pathway before swooping gently outward to encircle the pool at its apex, parallel to the main house. We stood at its base. Behind us, the point at the very end served as the welcome arch. Above the pergola, resting on columns of carved jade, a domed green sun visor filtered light, rendering the walkway perfectly safe for humans to relax beneath. The garden’s visor had obviously been retracted for the day, considering how green the grass grew on either side of the walkway, even though it was in direct sunlight. I had a feeling that that same grass would be brown and curling by tonight. It would take weeks of recovery beneath the shade of the canopy to reach this state again. To become rich people’s grass.
Beneath the pergola, the party was in full swing.
Although it was called the Dinner Club, the layout reminded me of an old fashioned festival. Hundreds of buffet tables flanked the edges, white tablecloths dancing in the breeze. A vendor stood behind each one; ready to serve the dishes along with a business card, a pamphlet or a price list. What was on offer was free, but the resulting business kept the sellers in the green until the next party. The air was soaked with fragrances: roasting flesh and crackling fat, the tart sweetness of various marinades, the sulphur of coal and firelighters. The guests clustered around the tables— and the Muties clustered around the guests.
I blinked. There were so many Muties. Each one fatter than the next and completely naked. Each with that glazed expression, carrying silver platters laden with canapés and welcome drinks. A female Mutie approached us carrying a tray of champagne, and Preacher pressed a glass into my hand without a word. She shuffled past, wheezing slightly, 130kgs at least. A film of sweat coated her forehead and upper lip with the exertion of moving around.
Preacher ignored her, “I’m sure there were more stalls last time I was here.”
“Fewer sellers, better quality,” trilled a voice behind us.
Preacher turned, an apologetic smile on his face, quickly dissolving when he saw who’d spoken. An elderly vendor in an apron bleached pink was gesturing for us to come to his table. He’d already drawn a couple of guests. A male Mutie stood next to him, docile as a cow. The vendor jostled past him behind the table, heaping samples onto plates with a smile fit to split his face in two. There weren’t many teeth left in that smile, probably a souvenir from the old fighting pits. I’d seen men like him in the ghettoes where I grew up. Mostly in pubs or propped up outside them. This man was full of vigour. It seemed he’d found a new way to entertain the rich.
“At Van der Spuy’s we believe in only the best quality meat,” He said, “And this week, we’ve got some really great specials on offer. Now you’re prolly wondering what are the best cuts on a Mutie? What’s the tenderest part to feed to a guest? Well everyone’s got their own partic’lar favourites, but my favourite’s still right over here,” the vendor pointed to the Mutie’s impressive midsection, “It’s where the muscles don’t work as much, making for some of the best meat you’ve ever tasted. No veal was ever tenderer, no pork ever tastier. And just above is where you can find the guard of honour roast, in which we intersect the two racks of ribs, like this,” the vendor produced a pan which contained two roasted racks of ribs that had been interlocked, forming an ‘X’.
“See how it looks like the military crossing swords?” The vendor gave the Mutie a stack of pamphlets, which he started handing out slowly to the guests. The vendor held out the pan of ribs, “Please try a piece. It’s an extremely attractive roast and it’s on special this week at Van der Spuy’s butchery…”
One of the women was eyeing the naked Mutie next to the vendor. It was the lady in the spiked dress. “How do we know the radiation doesn’t get into them if they don’t wear Skinns?”
The vendor’s smile grew fixed, “I believe these Muties are stock of Tik-Tik Dahlia’s exclusively, ma’am. Pets, really. Not for eating. At Van der Spuy’s we get our stock directly from a very exclusive breeding farm.”
“Regrettably, with sanctions as they are, I’m afraid I can’t tell you that ma’am.”
“Of course you can.”
“Maybe you don’t know who I am…”
The lady’s voice carried. There was a brief silence. Preacher steered me away from the table just as three security guards surrounded it. It seemed such questions were unwelcome at the Dinner Club. I glanced down at my companion, a little surprised at his intuitiveness. He caught my eye and smiled.
“Call me Preacher,” He’d said when we met. Even after he trusted me he’d given no hint of his real name, and I’d never asked about the alias, though I knew they were common at the underground parties. It seemed appropriate now though, as he ushered me through the congregation. The corner of my mouth lifted. Preacher. Maybe he was leading me to God.
We continued down the pergola. My stomach was churning. I hadn’t eaten Mutie flesh since the Vegetarian Party had come into power ten years before. My family had always supported the VP, but then, my family had always been broke.
A closer inspection of the buffet tables showed that they held every kind of Mutie flesh, prepared in every way imaginable. Lean and fattier cuts were separated into deep Pyrex dishes. Espetada steaks soaked in marinade, wooden skewers red with blood and wine. We passed a table where a young girl in a paisley Skinn flipped a wok of fried vegetables and Mutie heart. Silver dishes of marrow bones, spiced tartare and Melba toast adorned the miniature tables that dotted the pergola, each complete with two tiny silver spoons to scoop out the offerings. People milled around, fats dribbling from their meaty fingers, oiling their champagne glasses, socialising, laughing. Guests with plates laden with meat and gravy dribbles made their way down towards the poolside table.
We moved along, past the stalls of sausages and stews and curries, and people baring their very sharp teeth as they ripped morsels of flesh from the bone. At some point Preacher went off to the bathroom and I continued my descent down the sloping pathway. Everything was becoming more ethereal. A man with dreadlocks was laughing at a banquet table. He had slung a length of scrubbed Mutie intestines around his neck like a scarf. The real world of my basement apartment and the values of the VP seemed no more substantial than a dream, whereas the lavishness of this place seemed terribly real.
For the first time, I took note of the friezes that were carved on the jade columns. They were images of birds in flight and animals mid-hunt. Each so realistic they seemed to glow with an inner light.
“How long has it been since anyone has even seen an animal?”
In a breath I was back in my shabby kitchen, ten years ago. I was pacing, Lee had the crossword open on his lap.
“Of course there are still animals,” he said, “What do you think I take to the markets? Soylent Green?”
“You’re a driver, baby. They hand you shrink wrapped meat outside the door. Have you ever actually been in the freezers?”
“I don’t need to be.”
“Right. Because they’ve got the place locked down like some maximum security prison.”
“Baby, go to the zoo if you want to see animals.”
“That’s what I’m saying- there aren’t any left.”
Lee sighed and picked up his crossword.
“I know you want a leading story but there’s no great conspiracy here. Meat is meat. Now please, for me, let it go.”
“I just think-“
“God!” he said, throwing down the crossword, “You’re like a dog with a bone. Should call you Fido.”
We argued for hours that day, lots of raised voices and slamming doors. Eventually I dropped the subject. A few days later I came home to find Lee in the garden. He’d shot himself. The truth came out in confusing headlines after that, screaming things like:
Animageddon: Extinction rate at 94% despite attempts to clone!
Are you a cannibal?! The disturbing truth behind government issued meat!
Your guide to Muties: cloned, lobotomised, mute and fattened- Still human?
Government denies subsidizing Mutie flesh as alternative to beef!
“Mutie flesh is healthy for you!”- Gov. Scientist says
Vegetarian Party set to outlaw cannibalism if elected!
“VP: A party of hippies and queers!” – Gov. Official says
Let there be lettuce! VP Wins majority vote!
For the next few weeks my life revolved around those headlines. I never wrote any of them though. I took a leave of absence from work and holed up in Lee’s hospital room, but he never recovered. I never got to ask him how long he’d known. The doctors told me he couldn’t breathe by himself. And when I couldn’t foot the bill any longer, they wasted no time in unplugging him so they could use the bed for someone else. Until then, I had never known how deep the blade of poverty cut.
The hype died down after a few years. Public opinion shifted, Muties became seen as animals. Genetically, too similar to eat. Fashionable for the rich to keep as pets. And if your pets died too often a representative of the VP stopped by to see how greasy your oven was getting.
I felt a little queasy and rested a hand on the cool jade of the column. A guard eyed me across the cobblestones, one of the three that had removed the lady from the buffet table. His hand was bandaged and I remembered how sharp the spikes had been. Would I ever see her again? I removed my hand and continued along the path.
Eventually the pergola curved to the right and I found myself staring across a circular pool, where a massively long, custom made marble table ran along its circumference. So that, then, was where people sat down to dinner.
Preacher had beaten me to the table; he beckoned from one of the emptier sides. I looked around for Tik-Tik. Seeing nobody I recognised, I joined Preacher.
“Two hundred and fifty Muties!” he said, his eyes shining, “That’s how many they slaughtered for today’s feast. Can you even believe it?”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Tik-Tik. She’s over at the bar. Said she’ll be back in a bit, she’s excited to meet you”
I looked over his shoulder. A Mutie female charged our glasses with champagne, the same one who’d served us earlier. As I watched she tucked a strand of greasy hair behind her ear. The gesture was disturbingly normal. Preacher made a face as she left.
“I don’t know why they don’t clothe these things,” he said, “They seem almost human when they’re so pathetically naked. It’s enough to make you lose your appetite.”
“Dressing it up won’t make it any less of a beast.” A voice intruded.
Preacher gave a start, “Santa! Oh hey, no offence man— I was just talking in general. How you doing?”
I turned as Preacher shook hands with the newcomer. It was the man with the ghoulish scarf. The intestines still hung from his neck, staining a Black Mamba Skinn I recognised from the catalogue as having a price tag of over 20k. Despite his obvious wealth he looked aimless. His eyes were bloodshot. He seemed to belong here less than I did.
“I’m good, man, I’m good. No offence taken.”
“Oh that’s good. Let me introduce—”
“But you know the Muties don’t care, right? About the cold or anything. We wouldn’t be deliberately inhumane.”
“No, of course not- I know you’d never be cruel.”
“Good. Those scientists, they know what they’re doing with the latest Muties, hey. I mean, take a look at Berta here.”
He gestured to the Mutie who’d served us. She came obediently, her eyes trusting. Santa turned her around so her back was to us and wobbled the flesh of her arms.
“See how this fat lies. Now not all that’s the feed we got them on. Lotsa them come this way straight from the breeding farms.” Santa lifted the Mutie’s arm parallel to the ground and pinched the abundant flesh of her shoulder blade. “When she’s slaughtered, you’ll see the beautiful marbling around this area, but until then- all this flesh keeps them nice and warm and happy.”
I studied my champagne glass, “How do you know they’re happy?”
Preacher sat back. Santa looked at me like he’d just noticed my presence. He was so high I was amazed he’d absorbed the question.
“They’re happy.” He repeated. “It’s not like they’re saying otherwise. Killed one myself once. Didn’t make a single noise at all- didn’t even cry out. Hey, that’s a funny story. You know the best way to kill a Mutie?”
Preacher rubbed his earlobe and shook his head, colouring slightly. He glanced at the Mutie, who remained rooted in the exact same position as Santa had placed her, “Hey man, you seen Tik-Tik anywhere?”
“Best way to kill a Mutie is during sex,” Santa giggled, “I mean- when they’re having sex. Not when you’re— you know,” a fresh fit of giggles came upon him.
I blinked. Santa put his face close to mine. The intestines smelled musty.
“You separate the males and females mostly. They’re stupid as fuck- but they still got the urge to breed. Then once in a while you put them in a pen lined with straw and all you gotta do is wait. And, of course, then you get in there while they’re doing it and…” Santa gripped my shoulder suddenly— I flinched— he mimed slitting my throat with an imaginary knife. My heart was pounding but I stayed where I was. No sudden movements…
“Hey come on, man…” Preacher whined.
Santa released my shoulder and stepped back.
“Body doesn’t go into shock so the meat stays tender as fuck. And they don’t make a sound, hey. You know, they used to say— about pigs, I mean, before they died out— they used to say, ‘You could eat everything but the oink’. With Muties you can eat everything. Period. Hey, girl?”
He fondled one of Berta’s heavy breasts. I couldn’t see her face.
“Having fun scaring the new girl, baby?”
A woman who could only be Tik-Tik Dahlia sidled around the table to stand beside Santa. Her short dark hair was pasted in curls to her forehead in the style of some forgotten film star, her Skinn a delicate shell pink, fish scales edged in silver. Over that she wore a swirling dress of red PVC plastic, with diamond chips studding the hollows of her collarbones and the arches of her eyebrows.
Santa was bemused. He muttered something about getting a drink at the bar and left, his scarf trailing behind him.
Preacher stood, pulling me towards him. I tried to recoil as little as possible as he stroked the burned flesh of my arm.
“Tik-Tik, this is my girlfriend, Fido,” Preacher said.
Tik-Tik proffered her hand, which I shook. Though there was little familial resemblance between Preacher and his sister, she seemed to have the same clammy skin as he did.
Tik-Tik threw me a smile with little warmth, her attention already sliding. Her eyes followed Santa on his walk to the bar.
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” I said, “Thank you for the invite.”
“Not at all,” Tik-Tik said, turning to leave, “Please do stay for dessert.”
“I will, thanks. You have a beautiful home.” I tried again.
“Thank you.” She was still leaving.
“I have never seen,” I started. I cleared my throat, “I have never seen grass as green as yours. What must it be like to walk on it every day, shaded by your sun visor.”
It wasn’t a question. Tik-Tik paused.
“Yes, it is quite nice. Thank you, again. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
“I wonder if you’d consider giving it to me.” I said, finally.
“Your house. You have several, I believe.”
“I’m sorry. My house isn’t for sale.”
“You misunderstand me. I’m not asking to buy your house.” I said. “I’m asking you to give me your house. And a monthly salary to keep quiet about all of this.” I swept my hand out in an all-encompassing gesture.
There was a pause. Preacher gaped at me in horror. Tik-Tik lowered her voice.
“Are you trying to blackmail me?”
“Yes. Do you think they have souls?”
“You’re speaking in riddles.”
“Do you think the Muties have souls?”
“Of course not. They don’t talk, do they? They’re too stupid to feel pain.”
“How do you know that though?”
“So this is some sad crusade for Mutie kind? Bring down the Mutie festivals and save the species?”
“No. You can do whatever you want with your freedom, wherever you want. Hold a festival once a week if you like. This is about getting rich.”
Tik-Tik’s eyes blazed, “I think it’s time you left.” She turned to Preacher, who reddened and tried to pull me away, “I think it’s time you both left.”
“I don’t think you understand what that would mean.” I said.
“Fido, baby, what are you talking about?” Preacher asked in a pleading voice. It was the first time he’d spoken.
I kept my eyes glued on Tik-Tik. “If I leave now, I go straight back to my editor and bash out an article. You’ll be in jail before you know it. No one will hire a cannibal as an actress.”
“That’s ridiculous. Muties aren’t human. They’re genetically eng—”
“Let’s not go there.” I said, “Honestly though, if it quacks like a duck…” I paused, having caught a glimpse of a security guard out the corner of my eye. “By the way, before you try to have me…escorted out, please note that the vitals monitor in my Skinn will send a pre-recorded message to my editor if I have even the slightest physical distress.” I said this last bit in a rush. I’d had a sudden, vivid memory of the lady in the spiked dress, and the guard nursing his bandaged hand.
Tik-Tik stared at me a long time. The diamonds in her eyebrows couldn’t have cut the intensity of her gaze. Eventually she raised her right hand and summoned one of the serving Muties to her. He was massively fat and out of breath, each inhale shook his jowls. She spoke to him softly and he hurried away to the main house. I couldn’t catch what she said. Tik-Tik turned back to me.
“You know, a long time ago, it was customary in the Middle East for the host of a party to slaughter a prize sheep. The throat of the animal would be cut, the flesh shared out amongst all the guests, and everyone would make merry.” The stones in her eye glinted in the light. The fat Mutie came back into view, carrying a serving platter, trundling quickly on his naked legs. He set the platter down on the counter between us.
“And at the end of the party, the guest of honour would be brought something special to eat…”
She lifted the lid with a flourish. A Mutie head stared up at me, horizontal on packed ice, its expression garish in death, irises brown and cloudy. Tik-Tik held the forehead steady with one hand, with the other she plunged her fingers deep into the open eye socket. With the motion of a plunger, she worked loose an eyeball, finally holding it up between jellied fingers like a prize.
“…the sheep’s eyeball.”
Tik-Tik’s voice seemed to be coming from very far away. She dropped the eye on the table in front of me. A silver fork lay on the crushed ice beside the head, its tines polished to a high sheen.
“So I guess, since you’re my brother’s new girlfriend, you’re the guest of honour today. Bon appetite.”
I looked from the eyeball to the eyes of Tik-Tik Dahlia. By taking this bite, I was being made complicit in this sordid affair. I would not be able to go back to the paper, but she would give me the house and a stipend for my silence. I was certain of it. I would be on the front page of my newspaper- the picture of high society, not the unknown writer behind it.
By refusing the eyeball, we would have no deal. I could still go back to my former life with morals intact, but I would live a cursed life, ever watchful of her cronies, and without the protection money afforded.
It felt as though this was the moment to which every event in my life had led me. My breath caught in my throat. Round the pool, every eye had turned towards me, the Muties watching, the rich judging. I felt sorry for the Muties, but I was only one person. How could I take on their horde of rich predators in their fashion forward Skinns and finery? Lee had shot himself rather than face the court of public opinion, he just didn’t know that in ten years the pendulum would swing. Meat would become fashionable again, and his sacrifice wouldn’t matter. Wouldn’t matter at all.
I looked out over the green grass and felt my mind clear.
Meat is meat.
I picked up my fork and ate.
Gina Kukard is a novelist, travel writer and editor. Her articles have been published in the Sunshine Escape, and her short story “Crutches” was published by Type/Cast in 2016. Her satire, “Death and Sandwiches” took second place at the South African Writer’s College in 2014. She is currently expanding it into a novel under the same name. You can like her page on Facebook, and find the above stories here: