Professor Williamson had the soft body of a man that spent most of his time behind a desk, nose buried in a book or fingers tapping away at a paper. He was starting to go gray at the temples, but he had not yet lost his ability to move or any of his cognitive abilities.
He sat at the wheel of a jeep, telling me about himself as we drove into the abandoned areas of Detroit.
“I’m a crypto-urban anthropologist,” he was saying. “I study the hidden enclaves of humanity that get left behind when the economy collapses and everybody moves away.”
I absentmindedly ran my fingers over the can of pepper spray hanging from my vest. It drew his attention to the spot, and he said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, would you mind putting that away?”
I asked if we would be in any danger, and he insisted that we would be fine, so I reluctantly slipped it into the fanny pack that I wore out into the field.
“There’s something you need to know about what’s about to happen,” Williamson said. “These people aren’t quite like your normal people.”
“They’re scavengers. They don’t farm or trade all that much. Mostly eat small animals, feral dogs and cats and the like, as well as gather various weeds and insects. They’re also easily startled, so we have to be careful not to offend them.”
I took him at his word, but I didn’t understand quite how I could avoid offending them, so I asked for clarification.
“They’re just as good as we are, despite their different ways,” Williamson said. “So, don’t say or do anything that might make them feel like they’re lesser. I know you wouldn’t do that, anyways, but just make sure you’re treating them as equals. Try not to make any faces at anything they do. They have some weird mating rituals, and, well, they sometimes eat human flesh.”
I couldn’t help but ask if he was serious. This was Detroit, after all, albeit a run-down, largely abandoned part of the town. Could he really be taking me to see cannibals?
“They’re not cannibals,” he said. “That phrase is so derogatory. It has the weight of centuries of diet-shaming behind it.”
I apologized, then pondered what exactly ‘diet-shaming’ was.
It was as though I could see the gears turning in his head.
“I call them Alivores. Carnivore, omnivore, herbivore, none of these terms really seemed to encapsulate what they eat. So, I created the term ‘Alivore,’ from the Latin ‘ali-,’ meaning ‘other.’ They’re the other-eaters.”
He chuckled, proud of himself.
A few minutes later he pulled to a stop outside a partially-collapsed residential tower.
We got out and walked through the weedy property towards a place where the outer wall had fallen into the building.
Williamson pointed down at the rubble, which descended at least a floor, down into the subbasement.
“One of the ingenious things about the Alivores is their talent for urban camouflage. If you or I look at the rubble, we see something that looks so dangerous that we wouldn’t try to walk on it. But, it’s carefully constructed. There’s a path down that’s as level as any Roman road, and every piece of detritus is placed just right so that none of them will shift at all.”
I wasn’t sure about what he was saying, but as soon as he was done he clambered down onto the rubble and seemed to have an easy time of it.
I followed him and found it to be as he had said.
When we reached the bottom, a pair of men stepped out of the shadows.
Both wore dirty white tank tops and wielded spears.
One of the spears appeared to have been carved out of a stop sign, as bits of a white letter “o” were visible on a red background. The sign had been shaved down to a point, while the pole that it would have stood on had been turned into the shaft of the spear.
The other appeared to wield a yield sign.
Williamson slipped a pair of Gameboys out of his jacket and handed one to each of the guards.
“Peace offerings,” he said to me.
“Why do they want them?” I asked.
“No idea,” he said.
The guards took the offerings, then turned and gestured for us to follow them.
We wandered through narrow hallways lit with dirty orange fluorescent lights. Some appeared to be hallways like those you would find in an office building, while others appeared to have been hewn out of rock with simple tools.
I had completely lost my sense of direction by the time we arrived in the great hall.
It was about the same area as a football field was but shaped like a circle.
Clear blue light streamed in from above. There was a patchy roof, but most of it appeared to have rotted away long ago.
The sole feature of the room was a large stone table.
A group of fifteen or twenty people stood around it, chanting something I didn’t recognize.
“Oh, wow, we’re here on a good day. Some sort of ritual is about to take place,” Professor Williamson said.
There was something terribly off about the scene. I didn’t want to go forward, but Williamson seemed to sense my hesitance and goaded me on.
The chanting grew in intensity and the members of the circle swayed back and forth in rhythm with the sound.
A woman separated herself from the group and approached us.
She was tall and strong, her massive shoulders and arms seemingly mounted onto the body of a leaner woman.
She took Williamson by the hand and began to lead him towards the center of the circle.
I found myself grabbing at his hand in an attempt to keep him from going, but he swatted my hands away and said something about being careful to not offend our hosts.
Williamson allowed the woman to bring him to the giant stone table, and when she moved to lift him onto it, he gently pushed her back and hopped up onto the table.
She gestured for him to lay down, and he did so, turning his head to smile back at me.
“Look at this,” he said. “I’m getting to participate today. I’ve never been allowed to do that before.”
“They’re not going to eat you, are they?” I called out.
“Don’t be a dietist,” he replied. “And if they do, I fully expect you to participate.”
“There’s no way I’m going to do that,” I muttered.
A pair of men with long knives approached the table, took Williamson by the wrists and made deep incisions in his arms.
“Oh, ow, this is so exciting,” he said.
“Look, I really think that we might want to talk about this a little before you commit any further.”
“Shut up!” he yelled. “This is the culmination of my studies. I’m finally getting to see the process firsthand. Why would I go back, now that I’m getting everything I want?”
There wasn’t much I could say to that, so I took a few steps back, torn between trying to leave and a sort of morbid curiosity. There was no way this was going to go through all the way to the natural end, was there?
As bands of red ran down the stone right in the center of the room, Williamson visibly shrank.
“So much fun,” he said.
I noticed a child slide out of the group and approach the platform.
He lifted one of Williamson’s hands to his mouth, and then bit down with a frightening crunch.
“Oh gosh, that really hurts—” Williamson trailed off, a look of terror in his eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “That was terribly rude of me. Please forgive me. In fact, take another bite. Please. Let me show . . . how bad I feel . . . about the situation.”
The child took another bite.
At almost the same moment, Williamson’s head lolled to the side. The life had gone out of his eyes.
I turned to leave and saw that one of the locals had his eyes on me, and a hungry look about him.
He took a step towards me and licked his lips.
That was enough.
I pulled the pepper spray out of my pouch, sprayed him in the eyes, and ran.