Deadly Weight Loss by Angelica Raea is out now! And, if you haven't had a chance yet, you won't regret taking a minute to check out the opening scene.
Deadly Weight Loss
Tropical sunlight slanted down through the skylights as Samantha Collins pounded through her twentieth exhausting lap on the resort's indoor track. She noted with satisfaction that she had lapped the tall Norwegian who usually gave her a good run for her money.
Erik had little reason to hurry, however. He had already achieved his contractual weight loss goal and would be aboard the mainland ferry that afternoon.
Samantha kept her jealousy in check. In seven more pounds, she too would be signing out of Caribbean Weight Control’s torture camp forever.
As far as she was concerned, CWeCo and its brutal staff could all go straight to hell. And she would happily have sent the head researcher, Doctor Scott Hanson, down the fiery chute first.
A brief vision of his fat body being stuffed into a tiny metal shaft made her smile.
Screw you, Dr. Hands!
Dr. Hanson was known throughout the facility as a middle-aged letch, and the thinner his female patients became, the more interest he took in their bodies. As women neared the ends of their contracts, they avoided the infirmary altogether, anything to escape his smug smile and wandering fingers.
Samantha had already endured two of his examinations and, regardless of whether he had a nurse there or not, the next time his hands went anywhere near her breasts…it would take more than a leering, female assistant to save him. She only wished she had done something the last time—
CWeCo’s thrice-daily cocktail of pills and thick shakes were as toxic as they were nauseous, and Samantha was convinced they were playing a big role in screwing up her thoughts and reflexes. And it was all in the name of developing new weight loss therapies!
How could Samantha have imagined ten, five, even two years ago that she would have become a guinea pig for the likes of Doctor Hanson? And, bizarrely, she still couldn’t piece together exactly how it had happened.
With high school and college sports it had always been easy to keep the pounds from collecting. Then as a member of adult field hockey and basketball leagues as well as a daily swimmer, she never needed to count a single calorie.
Not even those hard partying years when she and Jack had first met had taken much of a toll. Sure a pound or two, but nothing that would have warranted being stuck in a place like this.
It used to be so easy: just toss on a pair of running shoes and hit the streets two or three times a week; no fat, no problem.
It must have been right after Jack got arrested!
“You really are looking great, Sam,” came Erik’s thick Norwegian accent as he jogged off toward the men’s locker room. Tall and wide at the shoulders, but with skinny arms and legs, he was definitely not her type; however, he had proven himself to be a good friend over the last few months.
As an employee of the UN in the Orient, he also had a unique perception about where the metal pods had come from and why. According to a council of Tibetan monks, they had seen the pods in their dreams a full three days before they appeared, and the scary part: they believed that millions of the “soulless creatures” that built them were now on their way to Earth.
The Chinese government put enough stock in the monks’ warning that they had added five million additional soldiers to their active army since the pods had arrived. Jack would have said, “Five thousand or five million, the number makes no difference until someone figures out the technology behind the damn things.”
Instead of allowing Jack to continue his work on the problem, the U.S. government—our government—dragged him away like a common criminal!
She waved at Erik. “Send a search party if you don’t get my email by the end of the month.”
Sadly, she meant it. She had never wanted anything so much as to get away from the weight loss research center and its brutal staff. Even her short stint working as a counselor for troubled teens at the Saco River Youth Detention Center in Maine had been pleasant compared to the last three and a half months in Central America.
She slowed to massage a stitch in her side.
“Collins, why are you stopping?” the morning trainer boomed through his bullhorn. A short, fit man with blunt features and a fierce Spanish accent, he was probably Honduran and possibly ex-military. “You have four more laps. Pick up the pace!”
“Give me a Taser and a billy club,” she muttered, “and we’ll see how you like running ‘til you drop.”
“Good one,” a chunky man beside her wheezed as she jogged by.
“Are you sassing me, Collins?” the trainer barked.
“God forbid,” she breathed and lengthened her strides.
After two more laps, her mind settled into the familiar Mobius strip of questions about how she had wound up here. No matter how many times she examined her past, the pieces wouldn’t fit.
Disjointed scenes from her life flitted through her mind, but none came with a recollection of eating habits cascading out of control or of getting fat. She brushed sweat from the bridge of her nose.
A mild headache had started. Why couldn't she remember?
I remember everything clearly, up until Jack became obsessed with that pod.
“Collins, I’m not going to warn you again. Either speed it up or you’re getting five more laps.”
“I love you, too!” She increased her tempo.
Samantha continued to ponder, but her memories jumbled together like a grade school collage. She remembered being thin at college graduation, thin when defending her job as a guidance counselor at the Biddeford Middle School, and still thin when being called before the board of overseers at the youth detention center.
She even remembered having a slender figure when climbing atop one of the tables at her sister Becky’s wedding a month after getting fired for breaking a teenage boy’s nose at the youth center. So what did that leave?
Could too many martinis have made her fat?
As expected, her headache had become a fiery-edged, pounding migraine, but she forced her thoughts to continue churning through the past. Somehow, inexplicably, she had packed on one hundred and twenty pounds the few months from the time Jack got arrested to when she had signed the Caribbean Weight Control contract.
But that would have meant she gained thirteen pounds each week!
One donut for every dollar I spent trying to fight the government.
No, she had to be missing something.
Maybe the gains had been more gradual and she just hadn’t noticed. But she clearly remembered fitting into her college blue jeans at Becky’s reception, right after she had fallen onto the cake.
It made no sense! She slammed her eyes shut and fought the urge to stop jogging and clamp her hands around her throbbing head.
A wrecking ball was slamming side-to-side in her skull. Who ever heard of getting headaches from thinking?
Every patient at CWeCo, that’s who.
Stubborn, she continued examining her memories. This was important!
Regardless of the when, she thought she understood the why. She remembered the incredible financial stress the attorney fees had put her under—first draining their savings then forcing her to take out two equity loans.
She hadn’t fully understood just how deep the hole had become until she had to pull cash advances on all three credit cards in order to hire the third attorney firm in as many months. All told, it had only taken four months to burn through nearly ninety-eight thousand dollars.
By then, the U.S. government had moved Jack to a secret facility and refused to reveal anything about its location or how long he would be there. As her last attorney—a NBA-tall woman with graying hair like wire fibers—had explained, Homeland Security was a term the government used when it wanted to break its own laws.
Though the woman filed a dozen different appeals and complaints, Samantha and Jack may as well have been living in a despotic, third world country. The courts rejected every effort.
The judges universally accepted the FBI’s position: Jack may not have been a terrorist, but by making multiple attempts to open the alien pod that hung two feet outside of their bedroom window, Jack had “placed the entire U.S. population at risk.”
Those accusations would not have hurt so much if the exact opposite had not been true. It was Jack’s concern for the entire population’s safety that drove him to ignore the certified notices delivered to every U.S. citizen:
“Upon penalty of law and for the safety of communities, the pods are not to be disturbed in any way.”
Never mind that every government scientist and engineer in the country was actively trying to access the body-sized cylinders that hung motionless as if mounted on invisible metal shafts. According to news broadcasts, the U.S. had even tried ramming two nuclear warheads into one pod hanging above the Pacific Ocean, and the missiles had not so much as scratched the shiny surface.
As far as Jack was concerned, every human mind and hand should have been turned toward unlocking the alien canisters that hovered fifteen feet above every landscape on Earth. Unfortunately, the lawmakers disagreed.
Fear of the alien technology drove most people to give the pods a wide berth. Not only had Jack and Samantha’s neighbors stayed clear, they had phoned in multiple government complaints.
“They’re here to take us over!” Jack had warned anyone who would listen. But everyone assumed the government would take care of it.
A fat, nice job they did of that!
Lungs moving in ragged rhythm, Samantha finished up her twenty-fourth lap. That made four miles for the day. She seized a towel from the leering trainer’s hand and wiped the sweat from her dripping forehead as she headed for the showers. Along the way, an obese woman with dark-rimmed glasses and flaming red hair was just emerging from the sauna.
"Hi, Samantha," she said.
Samantha knew she should have known this woman but, as happened a lot at CWeCo, she couldn't put a name to the face.
"Samantha, don't you remember me? It’s Carol. Carol Blackner."
Recognition crept into Samantha’s mind. Carol had left the Caribbean Weight Control clinic almost three months earlier. The last time Samantha had seen her, she had been at least a hundred pounds slimmer and ready to leave the island.
What insanity had prompted her to return? Samantha remembered Carol’s last day clearly now.
It always happened like that when people returned: the final day shined brightly in her mind while older memories faded away like mist in the night. Her drug-addled mind like a veritable sieve, Samantha couldn’t recall a single other time that she and Carol had been together.
Surreptitiously, Samantha inspected the woman’s corpulent body. Her stomach hung several inches over her yellow shorts; her thighs were so thick she had to stand with her legs splayed at an angle, and her pale calves were thicker than Samantha’s thighs.
CWeCo fails again.
It didn’t seem possible that Carol could have gained so much weight in just three months. The weight loss facility might have been successful in helping people in the short run, but the system obviously fell apart when they returned to their normal lives.
“How was your trip home?"
"Nice." Carol patted her wide hips. “But I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t get hitched or anything, because I somehow let myself go again.” Her eyes dropped in shame.
Samantha stared at her friend’s chubby face; something wasn’t right. Carol wasn’t just fatter, she was different somehow.
Hair? Glasses maybe?
No, but something.
Carol’s eyebrows rose.
Samantha smiled and looked away.
“I see things haven’t changed much around here,” Carol said. “Lots of workouts and the staff are as mean as ever.”
Reprobates and sadists would have best described CWeCo’s doctors, trainers and security guards, which made Carol’s decision to return all the more baffling. Samantha kept the thoughts to herself.
“So when did you get back?"
“Yesterday." Carol started to move away. "Sorry to run off on you, but I'm scheduled for a new, super calorie-burning swim program. Guess I’m one of the first guinea pigs.”
“We’re all guinea pigs,” Samantha reminded her.
“Well, it was great seeing you again,” the big redhead said. “You look fantastic, by the way."
You mean the same way you looked a few months ago?
As Samantha absently patted her flat stomach, she watched her re-inflated friend waddle off toward the pools. She still couldn’t place what had changed—but definitely something.
Shaking away the indecipherable thoughts, she went into the showers. Her mind had been hazy since the day she had arrived at CWeCo’s tropical research facility, but lately it seemed to be worse.
She felt like a character in a novel that skipped every other page. Unfortunately, she had not figured out what she could do about it.
She had made the mistake of mentioning her jumbled thoughts to a nurse two days earlier, but the burly man had simply said, “Maybe we need to keep you here for an extra month or two, until your thoughts clear up.”
Samantha got the message. She clammed up.
No way would she spend even one extra day in this god-awful place. Once she met her contracted weight loss goal, she intended to get as far and fast away from Doctor Scott Hanson and his peons as was humanly possible.
Many CWeCo patients came to suspect there was something wrong with the island facility, but Samantha knew that the things that went on here far surpassed wrong and maybe even bordered on sinister. Sure, like everyone else, she had signed up for the program of her own free will; after all, how could she have turned down four months’ free room and board and an opportunity to pay off nearly fifty-six thousand dollars of her and Jack’s legal debts?
The promised return of her sleek figure was just an added bonus. Of course, the man at Caribbean Weight Control’s Portland, Maine office had never mentioned that their experimental fat camp was not only outside the U.S. but all the way down in Central America, off the coast of Honduras.
Nor had he revealed that the place was run like a boot camp, complete with nightsticks and Tasers for added incentive. Worst of all, the little weasel had failed to reveal anything about the facility being totally cut off from the world: no communications, zip.
No, he had instead made the program sound like a few nights stay in a luxurious spa. But now, after having spent the last four months of her life here, Samantha did not understand why CWeCo had not already been bankrupted by an avalanche of lawsuits.
Every weight loss volunteer she had ever met claimed to be regularly mistreated and many agreed that abuse bordered on torture.
So why do so many of us come back?
That was the part that really baffled her. Since she had arrived, she had known at least two dozen people who had slimmed down, left, and then returned to the Caribbean Weight Control facility. And those returning patients represented only one of the many CWeCo mysteries that ate at her.
During her four months at the facility, she had seen dozens of patients abused, beaten, restrained, and occasionally dragged away, not to be heard from again; but who were they going to tell? Given that the Honduran government barely survived the pod riots that had swept the world a year ago, it seemed unlikely it would give a second thought to complaints from a few unhappy, fat westerners on some island off its coast.
But to have Carol march right back in, ready for more CWeCo abuse—it did not make sense, not after she had experienced what this place was like.
Samantha now understood that she should never have volunteered for the weight loss trials, but she had been in a fragile place back then—depressed over Jack’s imprisonment, disgusted with her weight gains, and to top it all off she had been facing a growing mountain of debt and an impending foreclosure on the home that she and Jack had purchased together as newlyweds. Thinking back on it, it was amazing that she had not done something even more stupid.
What…like volunteering to test granite parachutes?
She forced herself to relax as the warm shower water washed the sweat away. Normally, another spinning or aerobics class before dinner would have been required, having reached ninety percent of her weight loss goal, the last few hours of the day were hers to do with as she chose.
She rubbed her still-throbbing temples. An early dinner and some extra sleep sounded good.
By the time she finished toweling off and brushing her hair, several newcomers had congregated at one end of the locker room. “D’you see what happened at lunch?” a deep-voiced blond asked the others.
Weighing well over three hundred pounds, she wore a tiny pink bikini that should have been a crime even in a place like CWeCo. Folds of her corpulent skin hung over the narrow strips of floral material, both top and bottom, making it look almost as if she wore nothing at all.
A few months earlier, Samantha had looked nearly as bad—minus the ridiculous bikini. One thing was for absolute certain, when she left this place she would never again pack on the weight; good food and lots of exercise to the day she died; that was the way it would be.
“I don’t know what he did,” the obese woman continued, “but four guards dragged him away. That poor man kept screaming, ‘I’m not fat! I’ve never been fat!’”
“Was he fat?” a bloated brunette asked.
“Not from where I was sitting,” the blond said, pulling a bikini string from beneath a fold of skin under her arm. “The fella looked pretty slim, so I’m thinking maybe they starved him crazy.”
“I swear all the skinny patients around here are crazy,” the brunette said. Her CWeCo sweat suit was stretched tight and soaked with perspiration. “Yesterday, I saw a twig of a woman take a thirty-foot dive straight onto the patio. The trainer claimed she got dizzy and fell, but I saw it. That petite, little thing looked straight down at the concrete and swan dived, face first.”
Samantha retreated out the back locker room door. She had no desire to get dragged into newbie questions that she could not answer.
The truth was thinner people—coincidentally those who had spent more time at CWeCo —did seem less stable than the newcomers. Maybe it was because they had observed the same CWeCo inconsistencies that nagged at Samantha.
For one thing, where were the miracle drugs? For all the pills and goop that they were forced to ingest, weight loss at the clinic still came down to the age-old, simple formula: restrict calories and increase exercise, neither of which required drugs or weight loss trials.
Rubbing the Taser burn on her elbow, Samantha knew she should have kept her eyes down when she passed a tall, dark-skinned nurse. But she was sick of being treated like a criminal.
She glared at the fit woman who then began to follow her. In no mood for another lecture, Samantha hurried toward the dining room, but as the corridor curved to the right she darted into a smaller hallway to the left, which led toward the esplanade and ultimately to Dr. Hands’ office.
Only twenty feet down that corridor, she ducked out a service exit onto the beautifully landscaped courtyard between the exercise arena, the esplanade and C-wing. She dropped behind a cluster of ferns and waited.
Five minutes later, she strolled casually out onto the walkway that skirted the patients’ side of the island. A slight ocean breeze carried the scent of salt in the air.
The path led past the two-story exercise arena and circled around the back toward the dining hall’s rear entrance. She stopped and leaned into the tall cyclone fence that faced a brilliant expanse of blue.
Evening sunlight sparkled across the Caribbean, giving the momentary impression of a huge crystal ball. “Where is my Jack?” she asked softly.
Rage erupted like a geyser. She and Jack had lived good, responsible lives, both pursuing educations—hers in counseling, his in aeronautics engineering—and then taking up stable career paths. They had been perfect citizens, so why had this happened?!
She gripped the wire fence and glared at the distant alien cylinder standing sentinel a few hundred feet out over the water. Everything had changed the day those confounded pods had appeared.
Without them, the worldwide panic would never have happened, and Jack would not have felt an obligation to uncover the technology behind the eerie, coffin-like machines. At the same time, all the world governments had moved to calm their citizenry, and the United States had gone so far as to say that it had thoroughly investigated the cylinders and found them to be completely inert—safe.
Jack’s contacts at the Department of Defense disagreed. No one had been able to pull one of the damn things apart to see what was actually be inside—weapons or otherwise—and it seemed almost certain that they were not manmade.
So Jack committed himself to doing what the government could not. He built staging up to the alien pod and began investigating it with all manner of testing sensors from his lab at Northeast Aeronautics.
He had already found three seams in the pod casing when the first FBI notice to “immediately cease and desist all interactions with the alien artifact” arrived. Jack ignored the warning.
“It’s on my property,” he had told Samantha, which technically was not true given that the pods—refuting every known law of physics—sat in midair exactly fifteen feet, three inches above any ground-level surface. “Besides, I think one of our diamond cutters from work might actually open it.”
Samantha gasped. The pressure in her head had grown unbearable.
She fell to the ground and struggled to hold onto the memories that seemed to roll away like spilled marbles. The image of Jack ripping up his third FBI notice slipped away until all she could see was the stern set of his unshaven jaw.
Soon that image, too, was gone. But how had she remembered so much?
Anger, came the instant answer. If I get angry enough, I can move past whatever the hell barriers CWeCo has put into my head!
Though she hated returning to the hazy state of mind this place caused, she took solace that she now knew how to recreate that moment of clarity. If anger was the key, Lord knew she had more than enough of that.
Getting to her feet, she took one last glance at the pod. Maybe a quarter mile offshore, it hovered above the ocean like an upright bullet—
A bullet that may one day puncture the heart of the entire human race!
Late-day sunlight glinted off its shiny finish. It had been months since Samantha had given the otherworld harbingers any serious thought, but staring at the eerie coffin shape made her wish Jack had been allowed to finish what he started.
She returned to the paved walkway and gazed at the deadly coil of razor wire that topped the security fence. If CWeCo was nothing more than a weight loss company, why did it feel the need to keep them locked in like hardened criminals?
The sound of multiple footfalls came from behind her.
Spinning, fists up and knees bent in what she hoped would be a convincing fighting crouch, she was embarrassed to see two large men in CWeCo sweat pants and T-shirts wheezing as they jogged to the dining room. The shorter of the two smiled and nodded on his way past.
Without the second chin, he might have been cute. Samantha dropped her fists and looked up to see the nurse from earlier staring down from the windows of the “staff only” second floor of the exercise arena.
Patients weren’t allowed anywhere near windows.
Lord forbid we actually see how fat we are.
She gave the woman the finger and followed the two men through the double entry doors into the cafeteria. Bright and clean, the large room consisted of eight rows of painted gray steel stables and matching benches that stretched several hundred feet to the right.
Though the hall was mostly full, its patrons were even more subdued and library-quiet than usual. At first, Samantha thought it might have been a difficult workout day or smaller-than-usual dinner portions that caused the hush, but one glance toward the walls explained everything.
Black-garbed security guards stood every few feet around the dining hall. Samantha was sick of them.
She moved toward the food line, each station staffed by a stern kitchen worker dressed in light blue. She grabbed a plate and smiled at a tall, dark man known for being especially somber.
“I’ll have the apple pie and ice cream,” she told him.
He responded with a small scoop of smashed orange that might have been squash or sweet potato.
“I was hoping for vanilla,” she said.
The man, who had not once in three months uttered a single word to her, leaned over the glass food protector and said, “Ya want ta be watching yaself, lass. People gots a way ta be runnin’ inta trouble ‘round he’ya.”
“You think I’m a target?”
She had pissed off that nurse, but…
The nearest female guards stood like the Queen’s Guards at Buckingham Palace, pretending to stare into space but really watching her in their peripheral vision.
“I suppose that’s what I get for being a loud mouth.” Then turning back to the food server, she smiled and added, “They should see me when I’m drunk.”
The tall man moved away. Either she had been dismissed or he didn’t want anyone to notice they had spoken.
“I guess chocolate ice cream will be fine,” she said to his retreating back.
Peas, spinach, and a small cube of what might have been chicken loaf (one of the many mysterious foodstuffs in the place) joined her clump of orange paste. Oddly, no one ever complained about the mostly vegetable choices on the menu.
Equally strange was that nearly every CWeCo patient claimed to prefer healthy food. She had never met anyone who admitted to having been a junk food junkie or a binge eater.
But that obviously couldn’t be true or there would not have been so many obese bodies crowding the dining room seats. Samantha, a vegetarian since high school, had weighed nearly two hundred and thirty pounds when she first stepped onto a CWeCo scale.
The maddening part was that she still couldn’t recall a single fat event in her life. Obviously she had put on the pounds, but when?
By the end of the serving line, her plate was still only half full. Patients were expected to cut their food intake as the pounds melted away, so her grumbling stomach would have to settle for a child’s portion.
She spun and scanned the tables until she saw an empty seat near several teammates from her morning basketball game. As she drew near, one of the new players, a man who everyone called Snake, waved her over.
Though he was still thirty or so pounds overweight, he had a solid jawline and a full head of dark hair. She guessed him to be in his mid-forties but it was hard to be sure.
Handsome, he had a broad smile that reminded her of Jack. Her husband’s blond, blue-eyed perfection flashed across her mind.
Jack, please be okay!
She struggled to keep his image in her thoughts, but it melted away as quickly as it had come. She fought the haze and focused on holding his memory.
His face reappeared through TV-like static. Her head instantly began to throb.
Her knees trembled from the effort.
“You okay?” a balding man with drooping cheeks asked from the seat to her left.
Samantha nodded and let Jack’s image fade. She took a deep breath and settled onto the stool across from Snake, giving him a weak smile.
“You were looking great at the game this morning,” he said in the customary hushed dining hall voice. “And that jump shot was really something.”
“Thanks,” Samantha said. Though she was not yet ready to give up on Jack, it felt good to be noticed for her returning fitness.
Snake had been around for at least two and a half months, but she hadn’t really noticed him until they were assigned to the same game times on the basketball court. He had a great jump shot, but what had made her notice him was how he always offered her the water bottle first.
His eyes also had a way of following her, much the way her dad had always watched her mom. It was a look that portrayed both approval and pleasure, all mixed into one, and it made her feel good about her appearance.
If only her mind felt as healthy as her body. For the dozenth time, she wondered if the various nightstick and Taser incidents of the past few weeks might have had something to do with her increasing incidents of confusion.
So far, the nurses had not broken any of her bones, but their cruel reprimands for being late or not exercising hard enough would haunt her dreams for many years to come. Someday, they would all, especially Doctor Hanson, pay for what they had done to her.
Though her attorneys had been unable to retrieve Jack from whichever deep, dark hole the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had shoved him in, Samantha suspected they would have more success with a straightforward corporate lawsuit. Who knew, she might actually get enough CWeCo money to get Jack out the next time.
Assuming he’s not already out.
She knew that was wishful thinking, but it gave her strength to keep moving forward each day.
Samantha turned to see the sleek form of Kerra approaching. They had traveled to CWeCo on the same Boston to Honduras flight and had sat together on the ferry to the facility’s private island.
As Kerra placed her orange plastic tray on the table and settled down beside her, Samantha smiled. Her eyes traveled up and down the dark woman’s petite frame; between them, they had lost the weight of almost two other people.
"I need to talk to you," Kerra whispered. Her lower lip trembled as she settled stiffly into the open seat.
"What is it?"
"It’s this place,” Kerra said. “Nothing is what it seems to be."
Samantha felt a pang of empathy for her olive-complected friend. Suddenly she remembered the locker room conversation about the woman who had dived to her death.
Knowing how depressed and confused she herself had been feeling lately, Samantha was suddenly worried for Kerra. “Did something happen?” she whispered.
"It's just—” The dark haired woman glanced up to see if anyone else might be paying attention, but the nearby diners were all engaged in their own quiet conversations. “It’s just that people keep coming back to this hell hole. It makes no sense."
Samantha nodded. "I’ve noticed. Maybe they do it because they need more money.”
Kerra turned to face her. Her black hair was parted slightly off center and shined with good health.
The dark rings beneath her eyes, however, clearly illustrated that not everything was well. Her voice trembled with her next words.
"What about the mirrors, Sam?” she whispered. “Why haven’t we been allowed simple mirrors in our room or even one large mirror in the bathrooms or locker rooms?"
The answer came to Samantha's mind immediately because it was the same answer they had been given when they first arrived: mirrors were bad for their self-image; it was better for them to sense their weight than to see it.
"Something is not right, Sam. My memories and this place—nothing is adding up. Even my recollection of meeting you on the plane on our way out of the States doesn’t seem quite right."
“What do you mean?”
“Can you remember a single other passenger on that flight?”
Samantha thought for a moment but could think of no one other than Kerra. For the briefest of seconds, she wondered if Kerra had been sent by the staff to investigate what she knew or suspected, but she immediately discounted the idea.
Obviously, they had begun to sense the same problems with CWeCo. The only good thing about this place was that soon they would have met their contractual weight loss goals and would finally be free of this godforsaken place forever.
"Memories are overrated anyway,” Samantha said with a forced smile.
Kerra’s eyes bored into her. “You don’t believe that,” she whispered.
“I was joking,” Samantha said softly. “Seriously, I know exactly what you mean. But trust me when I say you should not discuss any of this with the nurses. I mentioned something a couple of days ago and they’ve been watching me like a convict ever since.”
Kerra motioned furtively with one finger for her friend to lean closer. Then she cupped her hands over her mouth so only Samantha could hear.
“I snuck some salad dressing back to my room and used it to polish one of the floor tiles last night. I thought if I could just catch a small reflection—”
“Did it work?” Samantha asked, fascinated that she hadn’t thought of something similar.
“I think so,” Kerra said, “but it was after lights out, and I figured I’d get a good look at myself this morning. But a worker woke me out of a sound sleep when he wacked me with a crowbar twice before he used it to rip up the tile.”
She pulled up her sleeve to show Samantha two huge black and blue splotches on her forearm.
“Were any of the nurses there?” Samantha whispered.
“I know her,” Samantha whispered. “She usually does the morning roll call in my wing. She always seemed meaner than the others.”
“They’re all cruel,” Kerra said.
“That’s true,” Samantha agreed, remembering her multiple Taser run-ins over the last few days. Suddenly, eating didn’t have any appeal.
She pushed her untouched tray away and glanced up. Snake and her other basketball teammates were already gone—
Almost as if something frightened them away.
Her eyes wandered the dining hall and found that most of the security guards were openly staring at her and Kerra. Why in God’s name did a weight loss clinic need security people, anyway?
Nothing about CWeCo made sense, and she got the distinct impression the powers-that-be didn’t like it when their guinea pigs figured that out. She tapped her friend surreptitiously on the thigh.
“Don’t look now,” she whispered, “but they’re watching us.”
“Nothing new. They’ve been watching me for weeks. I’ll just be glad when we’re out of this place.”
The two friends fell silent and Kerra picked at her meal. Samantha kept glancing around the room.
More guards had arrived and all were unmistakably focused on them. When Kerra glimpsed the increasing number of staff, her hands shook so badly that she had to drop the fork to her plate.
“This isn’t good.” Kerra’s voice quavered. “What do we do?”
“What’s next on your schedule?” Samantha asked.
“I-I’m not sure. I was thinking of reading.”
“Why don’t I walk you to your room?” Samantha offered.
Samantha offered to take care of the trays, but Kerra grabbed her own and followed her to the end of the serving station where excess food—which almost never existed—was dumped into a large plastic bucket. They left their plates and trays on the stacks beside it.
“I’m sorry I didn’t have vanilla ice cream for ya,” the tall server from earlier said to Samantha. His eyes flicked toward the surrounding guards.
“No problem,” Samantha told him. “I’ll expect strawberry shortcake next time.”
The tall man nodded. “I’ll see ya next time.”
As they ducked out the same back door that Samantha had used on the way in, Kerra said, “What was that all about?”
“A warning, I think,” Samantha said. “Maybe you and I should stick together until we get out of here.”
“You don’t have to ask me twice,” Kerra said.
“How close are you on your contract?”
“Eight pounds,” Kerra said.
“Seven for me, but I’ll wait an extra day or two for you if I need to.” Even as the words left her mouth, Samantha feared she might regret them; a lot could happen in a few days at CWeCo.
Though there were several security guards on the outside path, no one bothered them as they made their way to C-wing. Similarly, they were not given undue attention on their way up to Kerra’s room on the second floor.
Samantha had not been there before, but all CWeCo patient rooms were exactly alike: four walls, twin bed, small table where the staff left pajamas out each night and a workout uniform each day. Other than the one door leading into the hallway, that was it.
Because they were allowed no personal possessions and because changes of clothes were provided twice daily, there was no need for a closet or bureau. They also did not have private bathrooms and, instead, shared a common lavatory for each wing.
“You’ve done amazing things with the place,” Samantha said glancing around the bare white walls.
“Interior design is my passion.” Kerra broke into her first genuine smile of the afternoon. She lifted the paperback novel from her pillow and read the cover, “Eloise Finds Fitness and Love.”
“They don’t leave much to chance around here, do they?” Samantha said.
“Definitely not,” Kerra agreed, tossing the weight loss fiction back on the bed. “I feel kind of silly making you come all the way over here.”
“It’s no problem,” Samantha said. “I’m next door in D-wing anyway. Why don’t I stop and pick you up first thing in the morning? We’ll figure out which workouts we’ll do when I get here.”
Kerra smiled. “Maybe we could swap schedules: mine one day, yours the next.”
“Sounds good,” Samantha agreed. “And how about you forget polishing anymore tiles? I’ll buy you a huge mirror before we get on the plane home.”
Kerra gave a weak smile, but the fear in her eyes was unmistakable.
After leaving her friend and passing a surly female doctor, pushing a serving cart filled with medications and nutrient drinks down the hall, Samantha couldn’t shake the feeling that she should not have left Kerra alone. Upon reaching her room, she found the same Eloise Finds Fitness and Love novel on her pillow.
The staff discouraged most inactivity, including reading, so books were replaced with a new title each day. They also circulated the same exact title to every patient each night, no doubt to ensure that there were no secretive novel swaps.
What a crime that would be!
Samantha tossed the novel to the floor and flopped onto her bed. She tried to reconcile the similarities between Kerra and her feelings about not just CWeCo but also about memories not adding up.
Her friend had also been experiencing the same headaches whenever she tried to piece together the details of her past. But maybe the craziest thing of all was that Kerra also could not remember ever being fat.
That can’t be a coincidence!
But what did it all mean? It was like a trying to complete a puzzle with half the pieces missing.
Already feeling a new headache coming on, but unwilling to give up, she focused on the brief reunion with Carol Blackner. Something about the plump redhead’s appearance had not been right, but what?
She clamped her eyes shut and attempted to ferret out a comparison memory from Carol’s previous stay at CWeCo, but she may as well have been trying to dredge up someone else’s memory. No image came.
The really frustrating part was that Carol was only one of many returning weight loss patients who seemed similarly wrong in Samantha’s mind. Beyond a sense that their appearances were not quite right, the most baffling thing of all was trying to understand why in hell any of them came back.
No one in their right mind would have returned to the tropical camp’s prison conditions, certainly not after having been slapped, kicked, or Tasered, as happened to virtually everyone unfortunate enough to have signed a CWeCo contract.
Over an hour passed and her head felt like a battered ping pong ball by the time Doctor Shue pushed a stainless steel cart into her room. Short, thin and bald, he was the least imposing member of CWeCo’s staff.
"Ready for another tasty nightcap?" he asked, his deep voice reverberating off the walls of her tiny room.
Samantha sat up and examined the tall glasses of blue liquid that lined the top of the cart. "I'd prefer a glass of engine oil," she answered.
"Come on, Samantha. I think we're getting closer. Though we haven’t quite licked the headaches, you haven’t passed out in the last two weeks.” The doctor paused. “You haven’t, have you?”
Samantha shook her head but remained silent. As far as she was concerned, Carribean Weight Control had learned as much about her as it was going to, at least until a court subpoena arrived on their desk at headquarters.
“A little more time and we'll also beat your headaches.” Dr. Shue smiled encouragingly. “Just bear with me. Soon, we’ll have you feeling wonderful."
He was likeable.
"Okay, let’s try your latest magic potion." Samantha accepted a small paper cup with four various-sized pills inside and grabbed one of the tall glasses of blue paste. She tossed the pills into her mouth and chased them down with the blue slime that tasted more like bathroom cleaner than medication.
“See that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“Easy for you to say.” Samantha’s stomach threatened to revolt.
Doctor Shue accepted the empties, placed the glass container in the original rack and dropped the small paper cup down into a chute in the center of his cart. Samantha was still fighting her gag reflex as he rolled away whistling Bobby McFerrin’s “Don't Worry, Be Happy.”
Surprised that she remembered not only the name of the song but also the original artist who sang it, Samantha wiped blue foam from her lips, closed the door, and collapsed onto the bed. Why wouldn’t her personal memories come that easily?
She was still puzzling over that question when, after only a few minutes, she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The next morning, a powerful sense of foreboding accompanied her to the second floor of C-wing. Kerra was not in her room.
Panicked, Samantha rushed to the nearest nurse. Young and attractive, until his smile displayed rotten teeth, the nurse explained that Kerra had tried to commit suicide the night before.
“That’s not possible. She was fine last night.”
“I not like telling you this sad news,” he said in halting English, “but poor lady was very upset when they remove her away.”
“So she’s alive!”
“Si, she was conscious.”
“Where is she now? I want to see her.”
“She go to…clinic. I sorry, but patients are not okay to leave this skinny place.”
He was right. Clients were not allowed on the eastern, hospital side of the island.
There has to be a way!
Sure, Kerra had been unhappy and even frightened the night before, but she had not been suicidal. Samantha thought about the patient who apparently had dived face-first into a patio.
Obviously, some people were driven to do such things, but it did not seem possible that Kerra could have undergone such a drastic emotional change in just a few hours. No, it was more likely that the staff had done something.
But what? Though it earned her half a dozen cross looks, Samantha skipped her ten o’clock basketball game and instead returned to her room.
She needed time to think and wished, not for the first time, that she had access to a cell phone. She desperately wanted to get a hold of some outside authority that could check on Kerra, but even if she had a phone, who would she call?
Though their flight had landed in Honduras, Samantha had no way to know if CWeCo’s island even fell under Honduras authority. She also couldn’t imagine that the already overwhelmed military regime would have any interest in helping anyone at, as they would see it, a wealthy foreigners’ fat camp.
Samantha knew what she had to do. Though patients weren’t allowed to leave the fenced-in western side of the island unless it was for medical treatment or to return home after completing their contracts, she intended to ignore that rule.
The only way to make sure Kerra was all right was to visit the hospital. Still, Samantha wished she had a phone or some other way to communicate with the outside world.
CWeCo’s first-day indoctrination videos claimed, “Communication with anyone outside the resort is prohibited, because exposure to your past environment could make lasting weight loss problematic.”
Her personal weight loss therapist, a tall, lanky woman with a German accent, had added, “I fear outside contact would bring back memories of Jack, which would cause you unnecessary stress. For now it’s best to concentrate on getting you back in tiptop health."
Had everything else about CWeCo been on the up-and-up, Samantha might have accepted that answer; however, given the island camp’s widespread cruelty, she had to believe the communications ban more likely served Dr. Hands and the corporate suits to whom he answered.
Samantha knew only one patient who had actually visited the hospital. That older man, who had been hospitalized for a broken hip several weeks earlier, had come back claiming the island was not about weight loss at all.
Instead, he believed they were all guinea pigs in an elaborate psychological test for the U.S. Military. After only a few hours of spreading his far-flung suspicions, the nursing staff had wheeled him back to the eastern side of the island and later claimed he had returned to the United States “to recover from his hip injury.”
Two more CWeCo patients broke limbs the following day, and whether or not the injuries had been intentional, both “patients” were now wandering the facility, one with a cast on her arm and the other with a plastic brace on his ankle. Sadly, they would be forced to stay longer in the CWeCo facility because the injuries would make it harder for them to lose their contracted amount of weight.
Samantha could not shake the feeling that the original man with the broken hip must have witnessed something he should not have. Though she found it hard to believe the United States military would have used a Honduran island as a base of operations, her experience fighting Homeland Security in the courts had taught her that the U.S. government was not as pure as it may have once been.
Regardless, whether or not CWeCo was a government front, something was not right. Thoughts of Jack returned.
Where was he? She pulled her legs up onto the bed, leaned against the wall, and pressed her hands tightly against her temples.
Try as she might, that moment of crystal clarity by the hurricane fence outside would not return. Blurry visions of Jack ricocheted inside her head.
If only she had a phone, she could find out if her attorney had news. Maybe Jack was free and searching for her right now.
If they had had a normal relationship, her sister would already have come looking for her, but the last time they spoke, Samantha had dumped an entire cup of beer on her wedding singer’s amplifier. Ruining his shitty rendition of “Love Hurts” by Nazareth seemed the least she could do to the jerk who had grabbed her ass twice during the reception.
Needless to say, her sister Becky had refused to even look at her for the rest of the reception filled with more growling 1970s rock lyrics, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar.
Like a cockroach caught in the light, the memories skittered away. Her mind drifted to recollections of television newscasts of the riots that had spread like a cancer across the world in the days and weeks following the bizarre appearance of the alien cylinders.
She also had disjointed memories of arguing with various neighbors as Jack pounded, pried and even tried to burn his way into the silver pod that hung like a giant science puzzle outside their bedroom window. She remembered how full-time troops had taken control of the big U.S. cities—L.A., Chicago and New York—while the National Guard spread throughout the rural towns in an attempt to calm the fears that were the inevitable result of humans suddenly realizing that they were neither alone in the universe nor the most technologically advanced race.
Suddenly, humans had gone from being King of the Jungle to potential prey for an unknown but powerful predator.
Just as some of the backstory was starting to make sense, Samantha’s thoughts jumbled together like the alphabet bits in a cereal box. Her headache was back at full throttle.
She rapped the back of her head against the wall, but rather than deflect the pain behind her eyes it just created another separate headache and twice as much pain. Worse, her memories had scattered.
Something about television?
“Just work right!” she muttered, slapping her forehead several times.
The moment, whatever it might have revealed, had passed. Once again, she was left with vague sensations of having a past but with no clear images or timelines. She felt like a child playing with toy blocks, and each time she built something, it would fall apart and tumble to the playroom floor, leaving her with pains shooting like steel arrows into her cranium.
Gripping her throbbing temples, she tried to focus on what had happened to her friend. Though the CWeCo staff seldom released any information, rumor had it that the on-duty nurse saw a knotted sheet dangling from the top of Kerra’s closed door, then when she opened it Kerra fell unconscious to the floor with the other end of the sheet tied around her neck.
Another few seconds and she may have died. Was it possible she had had a psychotic reaction to her evening cocktail of medication?
As understandably paranoid as Kerra was, could another direct threat from one of the nurses have sent her over the edge?
It didn’t seem logical. Like every other patient at CWeCo, Kerra was used to being shouted at and Tased on occasion.
Bruised from being struck with a crowbar had been something else. Maybe that same worker had returned to her room to finish what he had started.
Samantha tried to envision how that scene might have played out: the worker would have come barging in with a cart loaded down with a variety of tools and materials, possibly expecting to find another polished tile. Kerra might have said something sarcastic and then—what, the worker would have lunged at her, half-strangled her to death then tied a sheet around her neck to make it look like a suicide?
No, it did not make sense. It was true that the staff—from the janitors all the way up to Dr. Hands—were largely cruel and despicable in how they treated the patients, but Samantha could not see a construction worker taking it upon himself to severely hurt Kerra a second time.
She had never been the type to make smart remarks or to take an intentional stand against the staff—not like me—so why would anyone have attacked her? And if not that, what would have prompted Kerra to hurt herself?
A nurse could have said something threatening; that was common enough.
But how would that have driven Kerra to attempt suicide? Then again, why did people do any of the things they did; like, who would have thought that so many men and women would have volunteered for this insane weight loss study?
Who would have thought I would?
She had done it because those goddamned alien pods had driven her life into a corner! If Jack had not gone crazy trying to open one, she would not have raced to the brink of financial ruin trying to save him from the goons at Homeland Security.
Maybe that’s when I started eating.
She tried to envision herself sprawled out on the couch, gorging on junk food and soap operas, but the vision wouldn’t stick. Even without clear memories, she knew it could never have been like that!
“Oh, no,” she said aloud, “your fondness for cottage cheese and alfalfa sprouts must have done it.” The sad thing was, she did like cottage cheese and alfalfa sprouts.
What did it matter? Obviously, she had ballooned out and that’s why Dr. Hands and his CWeCo minions from hell wanted her.
Why did that feel so right to her, as though the company had come looking for her? She searched her memory and felt the throbbing behind her eyes grow until it was like a booming gong.
Then, in direct opposition to her efforts, all her memories of signing with CWeCo—everything—dissipated like mist. Her past was suddenly as impenetrable as a concrete barrier.
She exhaled and allowed the pain in her frontal lobe to ebb. She didn’t need memories to tell her what had brought her here.
Obviously, she had somehow found out about CWeCo and its volunteers-for-money program; then, in the name of paying off debts, she had signed the contract. That was it—nothing worth blowing her skull apart for.
As for how she had gained the weight; obviously, that had also happened. She clearly remembered all two hundred and twenty-seven pounds of her standing on Dr. Hands’ scale the day she arrived.
Thankfully, over a hundred pounds of that weight had already been burned away, and before long she would be able to say goodbye to this horrific place forever. Then she would find Jack!
Suddenly, as if an invisible hand had thrust a memory straight into her head, she saw Jack dressed in dark blue coveralls and sitting behind a glass window at the Clark County Detention Center in Las Vegas. The emotional pain of seeing him there was nearly overwhelming.
And the feeling of betrayal and being used by her government was exacerbated by the sinister grin on the face of the FBI agent who stood behind him.
“Hey, babe,” Jack said.
“Why?” was the only word Samantha managed to utter.
Jack wiped away a tear and shook his head. “I couldn’t leave it alone, Sam. For all we know, an alien species is taking over our planet. I needed to try. We all needed me to try.”
In that moment, Samantha would have done anything, spent any amount of money to help her husband get free of the government’s clutches. He was a goddamned hero, not some criminal to be thrown into prison.
Unfortunately, the system never saw it that way. Not one of the three attorney firms she hired had been able to offer even a glimmer of hope.
Instead, that had been the last time she had seen her husband, and that may well have been the last time he had breathed North American air. It was not long after that when her first attorney, an older man with a hunched back and a kindly smile, had informed her that the government was refusing to release any information about Jack’s whereabouts or the charges against him.
Three attorney firms, more than ninety thousand dollars, and a contract with CWeCo later, and she still had no idea where Jack had been taken. Nor did she know if he had or would ever be released.
Was it any wonder that when the weight loss company offered not just to clear up her debts but to also give her a place to get away from all things Jack, she had leapt at the chance? It had been her chance to regroup and come up with a fresh plan of attack.
Some plan, she thought, rubbing her temples.
After the second male nurse showed up at her door with his Taser ready, Samantha grudgingly returned to her daily workout schedule, which included spinning, swimming, basketball and running. To her surprise, the exercise distraction was welcome—anything to keep her mind off from constant worry for Kerra.
Unfortunately, her fear for her friend intensified when she arrived at the cafeteria that evening and discovered the tall cook was gone. Of course, there were a hundred good reasons why he might not have been there—day off, family emergency, working a different shift—but she had a nasty suspicion that someone had seen him talking with her and that had led to the loss of his job.
She spotted Snake sitting with a small group of friends at one table, but something about the way he had disappeared so quickly the day before made her distrust him. It had never occurred to her before that some of the patients might actually be CWeCo employees spying on the patients from inside. If so, maybe Snake had overheard the dinner conversation with her friend the day before.
Maybe that, not a suicide attempt, was the reason the CWeCo staff had taken Kerra away.
Regardless, Samantha found an empty seat at one of the farthest tables. Judging from the size of the bodies around her, these were new arrivals, which meant it was unlikely she knew any of them, and that suited her fine.
Silently, she ate half her meal before calling it an early night. Just like the day before, there were an overwhelming number of black-clad guards, and most seemed to take an inordinate amount of interest in her.
Veiled glances and footfalls followed her all the way back to her room. Was this her night to disappear? She envisioned two nurses holding her arms and legs while a third wrapped a sheet around her neck and tugged it tight.
Not if I can help it!
“How are you?" Doctor Shue asked two hours later when he wheeled his cart into Samantha's room. As always, the painted metal surface was covered with several rows of tall glasses, this time filled with a sickly green liquid. "Next best thing to Southern whiskey," the doctor joked.
"Decided to change colors again, huh?" Samantha said.
"Got to keep you folks hopping," he replied with a smile. "I’d hate to have you get too bored with us. Tonight we have a special snack: a bit like eggnog without the egg or the nog.” He handed her the paper cup with half a dozen capsules and tablets, as well as one of the green drinks.
Samantha dumped the pills into her mouth then brought the glass awkwardly to her lips. She coughed and purposefully spilled the drink on the breast of her white night dress. After jumping back and spilling another good amount, she caught Doctor Shue staring at the mess on the floor and used that moment to spit the tablets into her free hand before surreptitiously dropping them on the bed behind her.
“Damn it!” she exclaimed, holding her half-glass of green slime up. "My whole day has been like this. Should I take another one?”
Doctor Shue adjusted his glasses and assessed the remaining green fluid. “No, you should be fine. Go ahead and finish that, and I’ll have someone come in and clean up the mess.”
Samantha gulped down the remaining thick fluid and handed him the empty glass. As he rolled the medicine cart away, she wiped the green foam from her mouth and tried to imagine how she would avoid taking her pills and the colored goop the following night. Maybe she could secrete a plastic bag into her room and force-heave the entire mess back up.
She retrieved the pills from her bed and waited for the cleaning staff. It wasn’t long before a young nurse with a crew cut knocked and came in with a bucket and cloth to clean up her spill. Probably under twenty, he had a severe case of acne and moved in a gangly, teenage manner.
After he finished wiping up the thick, green puddle, he stared at her well-endowed chest with wide eyes.
“It’s not a wet T-shirt contest,” she said testily. “Get your eyes off my stain.”
Not fast enough, his eyes climbed past her collar and finally to her eyes.
“I could get you a new night gown?” he offered, a faint grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. She had a momentary vision of him sniffing and rubbing against her used clothing.
“No thanks. I’ll be fine.”
His eyes fell back to her green-stained assets.
Having had more than enough of CWeCo for one day, she spun him by the shoulder and thrust him out the door. “I’ll call the on-duty nurse if I need anything else,” she said before slamming the door closed.
Immediately forgetting the hormone-filled adolescent, she knelt beside the bed and pulled back the tightly tucked covers and sheets. It only took a few minutes and one broken nail to rip a one-inch slot in the mattress seam, where she then inserted the unswallowed pills.
After tucking the bedding back in, she stretched out to wait for 9:00 pm and mandatory lights out. Normally, she would have slipped easily into sleep, but a sense of foreboding kept her awake long after the single overhead bulb flickered off.
Samantha startled awake to see a bluish fog filling her room. It smelled of lilacs and lemon disinfectant. She struggled to keep her eyes open, to stay aware.
Moments later, she lost the fight and fell back into a deep sleep, a sleep accompanied by a high-pitched squeal and a sing-song chant: “Your friend Jason Hurlburt is the same as he's always been. Your friend Jason Hurlburt is the same as he's always been.”
When Samantha woke the following morning, memory of the fog nipped at the edges of her consciousness, and she got the distinct feeling that several people had surrounded her bed during the previous night. She probed the dreamlike recollection but could not drag it into the full light of consciousness.
She grabbed her pillow and took a deep whiff.
Flowers and disinfectant!
So it had happened....
The rest of Deadly Weight Loss can be found right here!
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