My name is Dana and my mother became a Dendra shortly after my third birthday. I have the faint but haunting memory of watching her hold my father in her arms, gnawing almost affectionately on his ear. My brother Thomas was nine at the time. He packed his backpack with a couple juice boxes, my security blanket, his PS3 Vita, and a letter from our father explaining that the experimental treatment failed my mother in the end. Thomas grabbed my hand and snuck us out the sliding glass door. I took one last look at my parents before we ran around the side of the house and to the Kaufman’s down the street.
Thomas told me later that Rabbi Kaufman unfolded the letter with great care, as if unveiling an ancient secret. His eyes inched from left to right, filling with tears before halting at our father’s signature at the bottom. His trembling hand placed the letter on the table before drawing Thomas to him in an embrace. Thomas said Mrs. Kaufman held me against her chest and swayed from side to side, humming a lullaby in my ear to muffle the sobs that shook her inside. Childless, they took us in as my father wished.
Over the years, experts tried to come up with explanations for how the Dendra came to be. Some believed it was hereditary, possibly skipping generations. Others were convinced it was a sexually transmitted disease. A scant few decided it was an evolutionary development, but no one could discern why the affected majority were women or how they could bear children on their own. Even more troubling was how the condition failed to change the host’s personality. The Dendra are coherent and are exactly as they were before contracting the disease. The only difference is that they need human flesh to live.
When I was sixteen years old, my best friend Jessica stopped coming to school and didn’t respond to my text messages. When I snuck into her bedroom through the window one night, she looked up at me from a fetal position in the corner, fear pouring from her eyes. Without a word between us, I knew she was a Dendra. I sat down on the floor a few feet from her, pulling my knees into my chest with my arms.
“I bit Sam,” she said, talking about her boyfriend. “He said he wouldn’t tell anybody, but I could see how scared he was. He kept his eyes open when we kissed. Dana, I’m so scared. My parents don’t know yet, but my eyes. It’s in my eyes. And my stomach hurts so much.”
Jessica started to weep and I went to her, holding her head in my lap and stroking her hair until she cried herself to sleep. I covered her with a blanket before stepping back through the window, knowing I wouldn’t see or talk to her again. Two weeks later, she was taken into custody after Sam was found dead in his Jeep Wrangler in the parking lot at school. Rumor has it, you could see his trachea and that she'd eaten his heart.
The government and law enforcement had a hard time deciding what to do with them. Should they be tried like normal people? Should they be shot on sight? There were some Dendra who denied their need for human flesh and agreed to waste away under the scrutiny of medical researchers and scientists. There were others who fully embraced their cannibalism, going out only at night to hide their eyes and skin as they preyed upon the unsuspecting in nightclubs and bars.
Eventually, the Dendra outnumbered everyone else. They could bear daughters without a mate, and their gestation period had shortened to a mere five months. Some formed tribes that raised normal people like cattle, breeding them to feed their hunger, but also to hunt them for sport. Others formed factions that sought peace and a cure, but there’s been little progress and many moral Dendra die waiting.
I ran out of food three days ago and haven't found anything along the desolate road to Terra. For a week I’ve dreamt of a full belly and a warm place to sleep while trying not to dwell on the anniversary of my brother’s death. Three years ago, he was abducted by a tribe of Dendra who wanted to breed him, but when he refused, he was eaten without a second thought. They never suspected that his little sister would follow close behind with kerosene and a matchbook in tow. Their screams are my delight and my disturbance.
One hundred and forty miles on foot with only seventeen more to go until I reach the concrete barricade. They will screen me and interrogate me to ensure the safety of everyone inside. When I am cleared, I will be ushered into the compound built from the ruins of Waco, Texas. I will be assigned to a bunk, issued an ID number, and given a livelihood. They will give me a tour and show me the evacuation routes. I will have dinner in a military fashion mess hall before retreating to bed at curfew and waiting for my bunk mates to fall asleep. Then, I will eat. They will find their bodies, failing to understand that we are evolving, camouflaging, more quickly than they can hide.
Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe