Carne Dolce

Alex Ebenstein

Aunt Bea placed the six platters in a line across the kitchen table, fussing with each until she had the angle and presentation just right. For this game, a Murphy Clan favourite, appearance truly was everything. Once satisfied, Aunt Bea straightened, and wiped her hands down the front of her wrinkled and stained apron. She was particularly pleased with this batch.

The brothers stood waiting against the wall. From her left to right, oldest to youngest: George, James, and Edwin Murphy.

“My boys,” she said, looking to each with her customary gnarled grin, one that would be mistaken for a sign of hostility by anyone outside the family. Bea wasn’t their mother, but she sure as hell raised them like her own and would consider them her boys until the day she died. “Are you ready?”

Edwin hooted, James hollered, and George grunted—a ‘yes’ from all. Aunt Bea knew if they were already at the table, at least two of them would have pounded their fists into the solid oak in excitement. “George, start us off,” she said.

“He always gets to go first,” James whined.

“You know the rules, James. Oldest goes first. If you want to go first, you’ll have to kill your brother.”

James made a noise but was smirking. Bea had given him just the response he was looking for.

George punched his brother in the shoulder and said, “Touch me and die.”

Aunt Bea knew she had a half-second to insert her voice or a brawl would break out.

“BOYS.”

The brothers instantly settled, heeding the tone, respecting their Aunt Bea.

“George, please. Take a seat.”

He did, plopping his butt onto the wooden stool by the table. He licked his lips and sniffed like a dog. He raised his eyes to Bea. “No tricks?”

“No tricks. Three and three, like always. Point to your pick, I’ll get it, you eat it. Got it?”

George grunted again.

“Come on, Georgy, don’t screw it up!” Edwin jeered. George absently waved a hand behind him, his concentration already completely sunk into the six platters before him. He looked this way and that, scanning the six objects presented on Aunt Bea’s finest, albeit scuffed and worn, silver. In accordance with the rules, both of George’s hands gripped the seat of the stool under his bottom as he leaned forward as far as he could, nearly to the stool’s tipping point.

“George,” Aunt Bea said, warning him of his potential overreach.

George settled back minutely, a scowl flickering across his lips, but then he raised a pointing finger at the object on the second platter from his right.

“Very well,” Aunt Bea said. She grabbed the long-bladed, serrated knife from the counter behind her, then stepped to the platter George had chosen. “James, Edwin—thumbs up or down?”

The two brothers standing by the wall were whispering and snickering and overall jittery with anticipation. Being still and silent was not a forte of any of the Murphy boys, but they did what they were told when the direction came from Aunt Bea. Each showed a thumb: down for James and up for Edwin.

Aunt Bea nodded, then held the knife above the object, the freshly sharpened silver blade hovering a hair’s breadth away. She always paused for dramatic effect, and because she knew it drove the boys crazy. A moment before she sensed the boys would start chanting for her to slice it, Aunt Bea did just that.

She depressed the blade into the top of the severed hand lying palm down on the silver platter, slicing through the top layer of pale pink, flesh-coloured fondant—touched up with slight brushstrokes of dark, fake hair—and into the thin layers of white cake and lemon-yellow custard inside. Her knife was long enough to cut through the entirety of the hand cake, chopping it clean in two. She swung the knife to the side, revealing the cake’s innards to the three brothers.

George groaned and said, “Lemon? Gross.”

Edwin cursed, then snickered.

James cheered, pumping his fist, then immediately set to taunting his older brother.

Aunt Bea quickly chopped the digits from the hand, then pushed the platter forward toward George. “Three fingers. I don’t care which.”

“No…Three? That’s too much,” George complained.

Aunt Bea shrugged. “Choose better next time. I’m letting you off the hook, besides. I could make you eat the whole hand.”

George mumbled, “Why did it have to be lemon?” then scooped the three smallest cake fingers off the plate and shoved them into his mouth. He made dramatically disgusted contortions with his face, swallowed as if he’d eaten sand, then gagged for good measure.

“You’re a cruel B, Bea,” he said—not without respect—relinquishing his spot on the stool to return to the wall with his brothers.

Aunt Bea bowed, twirling the knife and flashing her full, tooth-sparse grin. In another life, she would have chased her dream of owning a bakery, making treats and sweets she didn’t even like for fancy folks because she was good at it. But in the life that mattered, she had a homestead and a farm to run. Playing games with her boys was the best she could do.

“No points for George or Edwin. One point for James, who is up next.”

She removed the platter containing the twice severed cake hand as James sat upon the stool. Bea didn’t have to give the middle boy any warning or prodding. He made quick decisions and stuck with them, so unless George had swiped his pick first, James would already have a platter chosen. And no more than a second after his butt touched the stool seat did James point to the platter just inside of where George’s platter had been.

Aunt Bea wiped the knife on her apron and stepped to James’s pick. “Thumbs,” she said.

George and Edwin hesitated, needing more time than James had provided. Eventually, Edwin gave another thumbs-up, while George went thumbs down.

Bea acknowledged the decisions and poised her blade against the body part on James’s platter. This one was a foot with a bloody stump just above the ankle, two nubs of sawed-off bones protruding above. The skin was a tanned, leathery brown. The toes, all crooked and gnarled, wore crowns of curled, yellow toenails. She debated where to make her cut for another moment, then opted to slice lengthwise, splitting the foot down the middle so that the two halves fell to either side of her knife.

At the sight of the moist, dark chocolate cake and glistening raspberry jam filling, James let his head drop, greasy locks of hair covering his face as he moaned his disapproval. In contrast, George whistled his delight. Edwin swore again.

Aunt Bea cut off the stump end with the molded fondant bone protrusion, as well as the big toe, and proffered them to James. “Your pieces,” she said.

James tossed back the two pieces in one bite, chewing a couple of times before swallowing. To his credit, he didn’t make a face like George. But he did say, “I can’t believe people actually like this crap,” before sliding off the stool to rejoin his brothers.

“One point for George, now tied with James. Edwin still at zero. And you’re up.”

Edwin, grinning and giddy, was not dismayed by the score, because he knew, with a touch of luck, that the game could still be his. He took a seat before the table and the remaining four platters. He scanned once, twice, squinting and sniffing, then made his pick: the second from his far left.

Aunt Bea looked to George and James, who both already had their thumbs down. She acknowledged them, cleaned her knife again, then approached the chosen platter. On it sat most of an arm, starting halfway up the forearm, going past the elbow, and ending in the middle of the bicep. Bones stuck out of both ends. When she made her incision in this one, she didn’t have to go far, and certainly not all the way through. As soon as she pulled the knife through, the remnants of blood in the veins poured forth from the wound, oozing onto the silver platter, forming a shallow pool under the arm.

“Correct!” Aunt Bea cheered, clapping her hands together. “Two points and the win for Eddy!”

Edwin leaped to his feet, howling and raising both arms in a V. The other boys voiced their displeasure but joined in the brief applause as the youngest Murphy snatched the arm from the platter and chomped into the flesh like it was a cupcake. His jagged and stained teeth worked at the gristle, tearing through skin and into the good meat below. He chewed noisily, swallowed, then treated the room to a loud, satisfying smack of his lips.

“That’s his third win in a row. You boys better step up your game,” Aunt Bea said, pointing at George and James. “Now back to work, you two. Split Edwin’s work any way you’d like. You know I don’t care how as long as it gets done.”

The older two Murphy boys grumbled and socked Edwin in the arm on their way out. Edwin couldn’t care less about the brotherly abuse. He’d won the game and earned his prize.

Aunt Bea removed the platter on her far right, the last remaining cake—this one mimicking a hunk of human shoulder. That left a section of leg, thigh to knee, and another pale foot chopped off at the ankle to go with the piece of arm Edwin correctly identified as a human body part.

She said, “Enjoy your spoils before they spoil, my boy.”

Alex Ebenstein is a maker of maps by day, writer of horror fiction by night. He lives with his family in Michigan. He has stories published in Novel Noctule, Tales to Terrify Podcast, The Other Stories Podcast, and Campfire Macabre from Cemetery Gates Media, among others. Find him on Twitter @AlexEbenstein.