What Eats You
Sara Kate Ellis
It was an ordinary Friday night when Mollie Barker exploded in the
snacks aisle of Pirate Pat's. Her head popped off with the quicksilver
efficiency of an action figure, trailing a graceful arc into a sampler
bowl of Waldorf salad. Her arms shot away from her body, left pinging
off a row of tomato cans, right karate-chopping a toddler who'd been
clambering atop a bin of grapefruit in search of Pedro, the store's
mascot parakeet. The child tumbled backward onto the floor, bawling as
the Texas pinks bounced off his head in quick, merciless succession.
"Blow up on aisle five!"
That and the cheerful honk of a foghorn were the last things Mollie
heard, as the rest of her, legs and torso, swayed a few drunken seconds
before toppling to the freshly mopped tile.
"You'll need one of these for grad school," Shannon said. "Social
suicide if you don't."
They'd been out shopping, a last hurrah before Mollie moved out of their
college apartment and onto her doctoral studies. She looked at the
display of colorful ear buds pressed into Velveteen trays like cheap
pawnshop jewelry. The price tags said otherwise.
Shannon ran a thumb over one of the tiny, chrome green surfaces. The
KITAI, which stood coyly for know-it-all interactive, whirred into life
at her touch.
"Greetings fellow cognoscenti! I'm KITAI, an AI consultant for people on
the go and in the know. Did you know you can improve your chances in
these parts by adopting a slothful and listless demeanor, and wearing a
baseball cap turned slightly askew?"
"No," Mollie said. "I did not." She tapped it once more to switch it off
and gave Shannon a look.
"Hello, we're in a mall right now," Shannon said. "If they're not
individually synced, they default to location and surrounding status
"Huh?" Mollie said.
Shannon gestured toward a teenaged couple now admiring themselves in the
shop's glass doors. The boy, cap pulled over one eye, was slouching
over a tray of sunglasses, while his girlfriend blankly worked her way
through what looked to be an entire pack of chewing gum.
"Seems like something frat boys use to cheat at pub quizzes," Mollie
"That's what you'd think," Shannon replied.
And Shannon, as always, was right.
For those first few weeks at the Claybourne Institute of Consumerist
Humanities, Mollie was giddy with possibility. The campus was beautiful,
the professors and readings fascinating, and she'd made a few casual,
albeit nice enough acquaintances. It wasn't until a department barbecue,
when a kinder colleague steered her away from a lonely spot at a
bee-swarmed buffet table into a far more precarious nest, that she
realized her mistake.
The gathering was small and unobtrusive, huddled quietly in the corner
of the yard around a gradually warming case of cheap beer, but Mollie
quickly recognized the star power within.
At the center of the group was Donald Ross, a celebrity faculty member
who had published books on "The Interstices of Animalology" and
"Transdiurnal Surveillance in Polar Media." The rest were mainly older
students, all with impressive Ivy League pedigrees, and one Helena
Grundy, her KITAI providing just the right hint of orange to highlight
her carefully mussed hair. In high school, Mollie mused, Helena would
have been an arch nemesis, but in grad school took on the absurdly
hopeful moniker of colleague.
"Some of the more mealy-mouthed leftists," Donald said, a weak belch
scooting from his lips, "particularly those among the middle-class, are
fond of the phrase 'What would Jesus buy?' As if they think it will spur
consumers to better choices."
"Social change with a Hallmark sentiment," said Helena, looking
reluctant, Mollie noticed, to let her into the circle.
"What I think we should be asking is," Donald continued, "what would
Deleuze buy? Start printing bumper stickers, T-shirts. Confuse people
and cause them to deconstruct the meanings behind all those unconsidered
slogans they're so fond of."
And that's when Mollie tragically opened her mouth.
"I'd like to see one saying, 'What would Walter Benjamin do?'" she said.
Mollie had often seen the expressions now meeting this remark. They
belonged to people who'd see her running toward the elevator, but
wouldn't hold the door. And it was then that Helena smiled and gave her
shoulder a light, but mildly painful squeeze.
"I think she's referring to 'Benyameen.' You are, aren't you, Maggie?"
Mollie bought the KITAI the next day, signing a payment plan that would
gut her meager salary as a teaching assistant, and forever banish any
hope of buying a car.
A Japanese company initially developed the device for smoother
interaction with overseas clients, and later, as the country's
population tanked into the negative numbers, the faster assimilation of
immigrants. They'd been marketing it as a style guide for a little over a
year, but the price was still prohibitively high.
"Bikes are healthier," she told herself, "and besides, the KITAI did
prove to be an immediate success.
When she arrived at seminar the next week, her hair properly mussed and
able to pronounce the name of Luce Irigaray and Louis Van Hocquenghout
with the ease of a French governess, she could already feel a warm
membrane of acceptance settling over her. Donald gave her the floor
twice, and she could barely suppress a smile when Roy Triewer, a
handsome and terminally hip latecomer from comp lit, bypassed Helena and
sat next to her, helping himself to her package of KITAI approved
They were about all she could afford.
As her prospects for social survival improved, real subsistence became a
challenge rivaling that of some prehistoric hunter-gatherer period. The
KITAI, which scanned the backgrounds, purchases, and status updates of
her surroundings for socially unacceptable cues, attuned itself so well
to the world of Claybourne, it became a hyper vigilant social
conscience, scolding Mollie at each fondle of a sweatshop T-shirt or
Mollie had complied, willingly at first, sacrificing the cheaper
processed and genetically modified foods for what she could get at a
farmer's market or campus co-op. And in those first few weeks, she was
even thrilled to be losing a little weight. But as the deadlines loomed
and the undergrad papers weighed down her backpack, the craving for her
old comfort foods struck hard; their jumbo-sized packaging and
two-for-one offers practically screamed at her from the shelves.
At Pirate Pat's, she squeezed her way past a housewife, noting with
slight disdain that the woman's basket was replete with red meat and
"Kestler Dairy Farms," her KITAI tutted, "Tainted baby formula in
developing countries, subsidiary of Welter Agricorp. Corn fed cows."
Mollie took a bag of chips wistfully from the shelf. They promised
saltiness and tangy bursts of lime and red pepper.
"Pat's Potato Skins is made by Twisk," said the soft, yet deliberate
voice. "A subsidiary of the Midler Corporation. Are you sure you want to
She placed the package back on the shelf. "Just reminiscing, okay?"
Her stomach rumbled as she ran her eyes along the rows of brightly
packaged, sweet-smelling contents until they landed on her Waterloo.
It was a box of Teaseberry Creme Wafers, their crusts baked in neatly
latticed patterns, their vanilla raspberry insides variegated like those
novelty candy canes from childhood. The smell wafting from the box was
pure fairground bliss. It was more than she could stand - and only a
Glancing quickly over her shoulder, Mollie snatched the box from the
shelf, steeling herself against the KITAI'S litany of offenses.
"All U.S. operations moved to China in 2010."
"Buttery," Mollie said.
"1,400 Illinois citizens out of work. Crime rate in Waitey, Illinois up
three percent since factory closure."
She let the box slide from her hand into her shopping basket with a
decisive 'plunk.' "Yeah, well they're also great with milk."
"Mandy?" said a mildly perplexed voice, "I thought it was you."
Mollie turned, reddening as she faced Helena, her crisp bangs and
waspishly thin body adorned in the appropriate uniform of all natural
fibers and thrift store chic.
"Helena," she said, clumsily trying to cover the box with a milk carton.
"Wow. This is a surprise."
It was. People like Helena Grundy didn't do supermarkets. Her only vice,
Mollie had heard, were the raw foods confections at the farmer's
market, and only then after she had vetted the chef, a Laotian patissier
and Buddhist monk.
"My homemade pesticide wasn't working and my basil went kaput. It's
quite an emergency."
"So," Mollie said, "you're making pasta?"
"Risotto. Dinner party."
"Sounds good," Mollie said.
"You look like you're busy." Helena said this quickly, as if worried
Mollie had misunderstood her last words as an invitation.
"Yeah," Mollie said, "Got a presentation next week."
Reflexively, she snatched up a box of grainy, unappetizing biscuits.
They were brown and dry, and contained chunks of something Mollie didn't
recognize, but her KITAI approved.
"Helger Farms. Tempe cookies. Content confirmed 90 percent organic. Part
of small, locally owned co-op since 1972. Recommend immediate
replacement of wafers."
Instead Mollie placed them quickly into her basket, covering up the rest
of the incriminating box. She took a step backward.
"Enjoy the pasta."
Mollie gave a little wave, and turned around, a little too quickly as
the basket weighed down on one side by the milk, tilted to dump its
meager contents onto the floor. She heard Helena's sharp intake of
"Mollie! You've dropped your, what are those, cookies?"
Mollie turned back to see Helena smugly regarding the gaudy package, now
sitting the middle of the aisle like some messy, neglected infant. It
was the last thing she saw before her limbs were blown to opposite sides
of the store.
It seemed to take forever to put Mollie back together, mainly because
some of her guts had to be suctioned from the coffee grinder, and when
she came to, she was standing in a bathroom stall, blinking sourly at
her reflection in the toilet bowl.
"It wasn't real," she gasped, shaking her arms to make sure they were
still attached. "I must be losing it. The stress."
"No," her KITAI said, "You've successfully reached the next level!"
Mollie's ears were still ringing from the blast. Trembling, she threw
open the stall door to see her emptied basket perched atop the sink.
"You've earned enough points to attain combat readiness."
"What does that mean? KITAI, they said you couldn't be hacked!"
"I'm not. This is an exclusive, invitation only game, and you, Mollie
Barker, have been invited to play."
Now Mollie knew the KITAI's programming was based in game theory,
programs that could easily calculate the minutiae of social faux pas,
the vicissitudes of status amid constantly shifting opinions and trends,
but she'd heard nothing like this.
"This is Claybourne's equivalent of an eating club. Congratulations,
"The not-eating club is more like it," Mollie said. "I don't want in.
Did Helena see that?"
"Oh yes. She received bonus points."
"Of course, she's uploading a playback for her friends right now."
"Oh god," Mollie said. She covered her face with her hands and pulled at
her hair. "Oh god, oh god, oh god. How do I get rid of it?"
"Well," the KITAI said, sounding almost offended. "You can switch to
real view at any time, but in that case you'd simply experience
excruciating embarrassment with no measurable gauge of either success or
failure. And it's certainly not as fun."
"Going 'nam in a Supermarket is not my idea of fun!"
A woman with a toddler in tow entered the bathroom at the tail end of
Mollie's outburst. She hurriedly pushed the child into the stall and
slammed the door.
Mollie snatched her shopping basket and once outside, marched straight
to the wine section, searching for the largest, least expensive jug she
"This is not what I got you for. Uninvite me, okay?"
"Steeplehead Chardonnay," her KITAI sniffed. "Artificial color and
"What? Someone going to shoot at me? I mean it, KITAI. Switch whatever
it is off, right now."
"I'm afraid I can't. That must be done by the invitation committee, but
as this game is played tacitly, speaking up is grounds for another
"Unbelievable," she said. She hoisted a jug of Carlo Rossi into her
basket and got into line. There'd be no more studying tonight. She'd
have to go home, go over the warranty and see if there was any chance of
taking the thing back or at least, getting a replacement.
She was nearly to the front when she heard Helena behind her. The store
by this time was full of faculty and undergrads, stocking up for the
weekend. Helena was at the far end of the line, the same stalk of basil
jutting from her bag as she chatted with Roy Triewer.
"Crap!" Mollie hunched into a half duck, feigning interest in a package
of Jelly Beans intended to lure children into last minute screaming
"High fructose," her KITAI said. "Made by a company tangentially
involved in whale hunting."
"Shhh!" she said.
"Miss? I can help you right here."
She lurched up, nearly hitting her head on the edge of the counter, as
the man at the register hoisted her basket from her hands. He whistled
appreciatively as he ran the scanner over the wine jug. "You're going
Mollie smiled and shook her head, distracted from Helena for the first
time in minutes. He was cute.
"Deadline," she said. "It's my nuclear option."
He laughed and began scanning the remainder of her items, eying the
biscuits with unease.
Mollie darted her eyes back at Helena. "No," she whispered. "Not
He cocked his head slightly, "They're for you?"
"Uh, yeah," she said, then "No."
He took in Mollie's panicked expression as she stole another paranoid
glance at the end of the line.
"You just get zapped?"
Mollie's mouth dropped. "How did you know?"
"You've either got delirium tremens or know-it-all Tourettes. Someone
got me a year ago for forgetting to bring my own chopsticks to a kaiten
sushi. I'd quit that business fast if I were you. Feels like crap."
"I wish I could," she said, "but I'm still paying for this thing."
"I resent that," the KITAI said.
The clerk nodded and reached under the counter, pulling out a box of
Teasberry Creme Wafers. The box.
"Here. You could use something unhealthy," he said. "Someone dropped
these in the aisle, got all banged up, but still good."
Mollie's mouth began watering at the sight of them. Other than a dent in
the front, they were untouched, fresh. Tempting. But she shook her
"That's alright. I mean, that company did put people out of work. I
"You sure?" he said. "It's not like you'd be paying."
"Yeah. I'm sure."
He winked and placed the box back under the counter. As Mollie took her
receipt, she could hear Helena and Roy laughing hysterically about
something. Her, most likely.
"Just remember," the clerk said. "You know what they say about a good
Blushing, she picked up her groceries and hurried outside, her KITAI
alerting her to the Girl Scouts encamped at the bottom of the wheelchair
ramp with 'preservative laden peanut brittle.'
"I just thought you'd want to know," it said.
Head still aching, she headed into the parking lot, hoping that after
the day's events, she could still remember the combination for her bike
lock. Her stomach lurched when she heard the hydraulic gasp of the
doors, and then, Helena's voice.
"All over the store!" she laughed. "It was a mess! I mean, if I were
going to get caught, I'd go all out, let myself be spotted in a Mickey
"Miss?" a man called. "Miss?"
Mollie turned her head slowly. It was the clerk again, coming toward her
as he waved a box of wafers in his hand. In front of him were Helena
and Roy. They hadn't spotted Mollie, but were making their leisurely way
down the ramp.
Mollie pulled her hood over her head and pretended not to see him. "This
is so not the time to get my phone number," she muttered.
But the clerk, she saw, was approaching Helena.
"Miss," he said, "I believe you've got a damaged purchase in your bag."
"Excuse me?" Helena said.
He held up the package of wafers. "These were the ones you bought, I'm
afraid I put the wrong box in your bag."
Helena shrugged at Roy and shook her head. "Teasberry sweatshop cookies?
I don't think so."
"Check your receipt," Roy said.
Helena pulled the sales slip from her wallet and peered at it in
disbelief. Roy gently wrested her bag from her.
"Go right ahead," she sighed.
He reached inside and began to rifle around. "Aha! Here we go."
The bright colors of the box complemented the flush that crisscrossed
Helena's cheeks. "I did not buy these. I wouldn't."
"Sorry," the clerk said, tucking the replacement box into her bag. "It's
my fault. We had a returned item and I got 'em mixed up."
Helena threw her hands up. "Look, I'd just like my money back. I did not
buy those. Good grief, I don't even shop in this place."
The clerk leaned in, and grinning conspiratorially at Roy, said, "I
understand, it's embarrassing. I mean who wants to buy Teasberry, right?
They're made with slave labor, but damn, they're good."
"I'm surprised you'd know about that," Helena said.
He folded his arms and regarded her. "Now what does that mean?"
Helena reddened even more, "Well I didn't mean. It's just you don't seem
"Why? Because I make ten dollars an hour?"
"No!" Helena said, "Of course not, I..."
She stood there, a brief sputter or two emerging before Mollie's KITAI
whispered, "Would you like to switch to game view?"
"Oh yes," Mollie said. "Very much."
The explosion was glorious. Helena's head snapped off, twirling slowly
through the hazy blue of the afternoon sky. Her cotton shawl fluttered
up behind them, descending to wrap itself across Pirate Pat's neon sign.
There were a few staccato splats as various innards and unidentifiable
blobs of bloody matter landed on Roy and another Claybourne grad who
happened to be passing by. Their avatars gagged, picking strips of
Helena's skin off their clothes in disgust.
Headache suddenly dissipated, Mollie caught the clerk's eye and smiled.
Helena came to and jammed the wafers back into his hands, as she rushed
into the coffee shop next-door. Roy followed behind her, now carrying
the wilted basil like the tail on some battle-worn animal.
"You've received 1,000 ammunition credits. Would you like to see a
playback?" the KITAI asked.
Mollie shook her head, her eyes lingering on the clerk as he went back
inside. "Maybe later," she said.
She strolled back up the ramp and into the store. The clerk was closing
up his station, adding a fresh roll of receipt paper to the register.
"Sure you don't want them?" he said, gesturing to the crumpled box.
"Yeah," she said. "But thanks."
"In any case, you've got to eat. You hungry?"
"Have been for weeks," Mollie said. "Tell you what. I owe you back
there, it'll be my treat."
He smiled, and took off his apron. "I'll be out of here in ten. Pick a
"How compromised would I be?" Mollie asked her KITAI, "If we went to El
Taco? On my budget it's all I can afford right now."
The KITAI whirred in reserved approval. "The ingredients are local, but
the staff receives only a little above minimum wage. Chances of being
spotted, however, are minimal."
"I'll leave a tip and write the company," she said.
Then she plucked the device from her ear and dropped it soundly into her
pocket. In a hostile world, it was good to hone her instincts once in