Title: A Dish Best Served Cold

Author: Dark Phoenix

Summary: Sniffles has suffered for years at the hands of the ant family, but now the tables have turned. He's devised his most fiendishly brilliant plan ever, and now he's about to find out just how sweet revenge can be.

Pairing: Mother Ant/Father Ant

Warning: Scenes of physical and psychological torture. If you're particularly fond of the ant family, you many want to skip this one.

Disclaimer: I do not own Happy Tree Friends and am making no money from this.

Notes: This came about mainly because nothing bad ever happens to the ant family and I felt that something needed to be done about that. The characters are mostly canon, except for Father Ant, who doesn't appear in the show but was necessary to include. I wrote the majority of this about six or seven years ago and have finally managed to get off my ass and finish it, so please enjoy!

~ A Dish Best Served Cold ~

Sniffles was hard at work. He had the most brilliant idea of his life. If he could just build a replica of the ants' home and move them into it without their knowledge, he could torture them endlessly and, for once, they would be helpless to stop him. He was almost done; now all he needed was a way to get them into their new home. He went out to spy on them, hoping an idea would come to him.

They weren't at home. That was all right. It would give him the chance to reexamine their real home and make sure his replica was perfect.

"Maybe if I use their actual belongings, it'll feel more real to them," he said to himself, running back inside to get the model.

He had just finished and gone back out, hoping to catch them before they came home when Lumpy strolled by with an assortment of dangerous chemicals for some reason. Sniffles watched him for a moment, then shrugged. It wouldn't end well, of course, but whatever happened, he would just wake up in his bed the next morning, alive and unharmed. Just to be safe, though, he moved the replica down to his laboratory where it was least likely to be damaged in the blast.

He was just coming back upstairs when it hit. Fortunately, it hadn't touched his house. After the fire department left, he went back out to wait for the ants. They still hadn't returned, and he eventually decided they weren't coming back that night and went home. The next day, he would set some kind of trap for them.

The next morning he ran outside eagerly, plans for a brilliant trap forming in his mind. Still the anthill was empty. It didn't look like they'd come home at all. Disappointed, he went back down to his laboratory.

The model was still sitting on a table where he'd left it. And inside — he could hardly believe it — was the entire ant family.

"Heh heh heh heh heh," he laughed fiendishly, rubbing his hands together. "It's payback time."

It made sense, he thought. Every time someone died around here, they woke up in their own bed the next morning like nothing had happened. Of course it must be that way for the ants, too. They must have been killed in the explosion yesterday and woken up in Sniffles's laboratory. Sniffles congratulated himself for deciding to use their actual beds, otherwise, it might not have worked. And now he had them in the palm of his hand. But where to begin? There were so many horrible things he wanted to do . . .

Mother Ant didn't know what had happened. How had it all come to this? It looked like that damned anteater was finally going to win one. For the life of her, she couldn't think of a way out of it.

They were in a large, poorly lit room, empty except for the chairs they were bound to. The room was cold and dank, its walls and floor made of rough, gray cement, like an unfinished basement, and there were no windows. From time to time, a fiendish laugh could be heard from somewhere above. Mother Ant wasn't sure how much time had passed, but she knew they'd been trapped there for quite awhile. Screaming hadn't helped. Try as they might, there was no getting out of the chairs. All Mother Ant could do was hope the anteater would come back and make some mistake they could take advantage of.

Just then, more lights came on, harshly illuminating the room, and a horrible laugh echoed off the bare walls. She smiled. This would probably end soon, she thought.

"I've finally got you," said an evil and familiar voice. "Now I'm going to kill you, one by one. So tell me, who should I kill first?"

"Don't say anything," Mother Ant said to the others. "We'll get through this."

More laughter. "How foolish you are," said the voice. "Tell me who I should kill!"

"Kill me!" cried Father Ant. "Just let the others go."

"How noble of you," said the voice evilly. "I think I'll kill you last. Wouldn't want you to miss anything. So who should it be? The mother?"

"Yes, kill me!" she said, "But don't harm anyone else."

"No, don't kill our mom!" cried the girl, Susan, while her brother Jimmy bravely struggled to keep quiet.

"Or maybe one of the children? How about the boy? . . . Hmmm? . . . Or what about the girl?"

Susan shrieked with terror.

"Leave the children alone! Take me instead!"

There was a sigh. "No, no, no, I already told you. I'm going to kill you last. You or the mother. Since you're both so brave and self-sacrificing. Maybe I'll just kill the baby first. Would you like that?"

There was a great chorus of screams and "No, don't hurt the baby!"s. Even Jimmy, who had so far been quiet, began to cry out for mercy.

The voice laughed with delight. "You have chosen wisely."

The lights dimmed once again around the edges, leaving a single one focused on the baby, who was crying with discomfort and didn't know what was going on. A panel opened up in the ceiling and a long, mechanical arm with a sharp knife on the end descended upon the crying infant.

"Please don't do this!" begged Mother Ant desperately.

The mechanical arm didn't stop. It continued to lower itself down until it reached the baby. Amidst screams of horror, it closed in and cut of one of the baby's legs. Another mechanical arm with a clamp on the end came down, picked up the baby's leg, and brought it back up through the ceiling. From above came the sound of crunching and lips smacking and that horrible voice saying, "Mmm-mmm-mmmm."

It was hard to hear over the baby's howls of pain, but they could make out the voice saying, "Mmmmmm, that was really delicious."

"Let us go!" Father Ant cried. "Let us go!"

"Hmmmm," said the voice. "You know, I really have been selfish. You're down in that cold, damp room with nothing to eat and I'm enjoying this gourmet meal. It's just not right."

Mother Ant let out a sigh of relief. Finally—

"You should try some of this. It's really good. I think I'll share it with you."

The relieved sigh turned into a gasp of disgust. He couldn't mean—

The knife cut off another leg.

"That poor baby must be so hungry. I'll bet he hasn't eaten for hours."

The clamp picked up the leg and shoved it into the baby's face.

"Go on, you know you want it. It's sooo yummy."

The baby thrashed around, trying to move his face away, but the clamp forced as much of the leg as it could fit into his mouth.

"See, he likes it! Who else wants some?"

"What kind of monster are you?" Mother Ant shrieked hysterically.

There was a laugh. "All right, you can have some, too." Another leg was cut off and brought to her. She struggled to avoid it, to keep her mouth closed, but the clamp shoved it rudely inside. She gagged, only succeeding in letting the clamp shove more of the leg down her throat.

Choking and gagging, she could only sit helplessly by as the others were forced to eat the baby as well. The cries had stopped; whether the baby had died or merely fainted from pain was unclear. She supposed it didn't matter much. The baby couldn't possibly survive much longer anyway. All its legs had been cut off and fed to them.

And there are still four of us left, she thought in despair. How much more of this could any of them take before they went insane? Through a film of tears, she saw her husband beside her, gagging and spitting out pieces of the leg he had just been force-fed. Above, the evil laughter continued.

"Ahhh, wasn't that an excellent meal?" the voice said. "I couldn't eat another bite . . . well, maybe just one."

The clamp came down once more for the remains of the baby's body. Mother Ant shuddered as loud crunching sounded above.

"Mmmmmm," the voice continued. "Well, I'm stuffed. Good night, everyone. I'll see you tomorrow." And one last evil laugh echoed into the distance.

Sniffles sat down on the couch, deep in thought. He had originally intended to kill all the ants at once, after a little torture, but he'd come up with a better idea. If he killed them, they would just wake up tomorrow no worse for the wear, but if he could keep them alive, he could continue mentally torturing them long after their ordeal, forcing them to relive their suffering again and again until he grew tired of it. He hadn't even really injured any of them, but how they had screamed and cried! No, better to leave them alone with their thoughts for awhile and let them torture themselves as they waited to find out what he would do next. Then tomorrow he would decide how to proceed from there. The baby would probably wake up in its crib tomorrow, he thought. Good. He had ideas for it as well.

Sniffles hummed to himself as he moved around the kitchen the next day, busy preparing a tiny casserole. The ants must be getting pretty hungry, he thought with glee. He wondered if they would be hungry enough to eat the casserole. Of course he didn't expect them to trust it, with good reason. But would they get so hungry they couldn't help themselves, he thought excitedly, or let themselves starve to death? He cackled and rubbed his hands together. What an exciting experiment this was shaping up to be. He couldn't wait to see how it would all turn out.

Mother Ant didn't know how she had ever managed to fall asleep or how long it had been. It must have been a day at least. She was starving and knew the others must be as well. But all of them starving to death seemed better than the alternative . . . She shuddered at the thought, then realized that she was no longer bound to the chair. The others were still asleep. What's going on now? she wondered. Maybe there would be no torture today. It would be harder to mutilate them when they weren't tied down.

She heard a soft whimpering sound and looked over to see Susan crying in her sleep. Helpless fury flooded through her at the sight. It wasn't supposed to be like this. The monster wasn't supposed to win. She started to get up and shout — she didn't know what. Cry out to God, perhaps, demanding to know how he could let something like this happen. But she realized the others were about as peaceful as they were going to get and didn't want to ruin it for them. So instead, she sat back down next to her husband, put her arm around him, and somehow managed to fall back to sleep.

She was hungry. If they didn't get something to eat soon, the children would probably starve to death. She didn't know if that would be better than eating whatever the anteater brought them, if he brought anything. It was getting hard to think clearly. There was nothing to do but sit and be miserable. Nobody seemed to have much to say to each other. What was there to say after everything that had happened?

A sound from above interrupted her thoughts. The panel in the ceiling was opening up, and something was being lowered to them. She heard nothing else. No evil laughter, no smug comments, nothing to indicate any sort of presence. But he must be there, watching them. Mother Ant watched as the object settled on the floor in a far corner.

It was a casserole dish. And there was a pleasant aroma wafting towards them. What was this? The ants moved slowly towards it, cautious. Was it some kind of trick, or were they still dreaming? Mother Ant reached out towards it and touched it gingerly, as if expecting it to blow up in her face. It seemed real enough. She grasped the lid and lifted it off. A rush of steam escaped and she inhaled deeply. This had to be too good to be true, some reasonable part of her knew, but . . . it smelled so good. And she was so hungry. Jimmy stuck a finger in the casserole and tasted it. "Mmmmm."

"This can't be real," Mother Ant whispered. Father Ant came up behind her and put his arm around her.

"Maybe this just means the anteater has some compassion somewhere inside," he said hopefully. Mother Ant looked at him and smiled weakly, wondering if she had that same hollow look in her eyes. She hugged him. "It's going to be okay," she said.

Beside them, the children had already dug into the casserole ravenously. "Now let's get some of that before the kids eat it all," she said with forced cheer.

For the next few minutes the room was silent except for the sound of them eating.

"Ew, what's this?" Susan grumbled absently as she picked something out of her mouth. She stared at it for a second, then her eyes bulged. She dropped whatever it was with a horrified shriek.

"What's wrong, honey?" Mother Ant said as she reached into the casserole dish. But her daughter didn't answer. She turned her face to the corner and retched violently, making wild, hysterical sounds of revulsion. Mother Ant frowned and looked down at the casserole dish. She stirred the contents around curiously and her frown deepened. What was that round, white thing? She picked it up and turned it around, an unsettling feeling rising inside her stomach. Then she dropped the round object as if it was on fire and put her hands over her mouth. She could feel the contents of her stomach trying to come back up and turned away quickly. The other two moved toward the dish in alarm. Father Ant picked up the round object as Jimmy peered into the dish.

"Oh, my God," Father Ant moaned in horror. "It can't be." The object fell from his hand as well and rolled over to his son, who watched it suspiciously, wondering what could possibly be causing such a strong reaction. He watched as it rolled over and came to a stop so that he could finally see that it was one of the baby's eyes.

Sniffles was about to bust a gut. It had been so hard to keep from laughing at their faces when they finally realized what they'd been eating. He was delighted at how eagerly they'd dug into his casserole. They must've been really hungry.

"I should move them back tonight, then," he said to himself. "Wouldn't want them all to starve to death and ruin it." He laughed giddily and hurried over to get the replica of their home.

Mother Ant opened her eyes. For a moment she didn't know where she was. Then she realized she was back in her own bed. She looked over and saw Father Ant beside her, asleep. It was the middle of the night. Had it all been a dream? If she went into the nursery, would the baby still be there, alive and whole? Something deep inside her told her it hadn't been a dream. She was hungry — too hungry. Like she hadn't eaten in days. She wanted to get up and run to the nursery and convince herself that everything was fine, it really was just a dream, but she was terrified of what she might find. She didn't know how long she lay there, trying to convince herself to get up, willing the baby to cry and prove that she had just imagined the whole thing, wondering when she had become such a coward that she was afraid to even get out of bed. Then there came a scream from Susan's room.

"No, no, don't hurt him! Mom, Dad, watch out! The monster's coming!"

Mother Ant jumped out of bed and hurried to Susan's room. It was a perfect distraction.

"It's okay, sweetie," she said, sitting down beside the bed. "It's just a dream. There's no monster."

"But there is! He put us in that room and killed the baby and made us eat him! He's out there! Don't let him get me!"

Mother Ant froze. They couldn't have had the same dream, could they? It had to be a dream. It was too horrible to be real. She hugged her daughter. "It's okay," she said. "I'm here. I won't let any monster get you." But she didn't believe it. He had gotten the baby, hadn't he? She shook her head, trying to shove the thoughts away. "There, there."

"I'm so hungry, Mom," said Susan. "Can I have a snack?"

"Oh, but it's so late and we just had dinner not too long ago," Mother Ant argued weakly. Had they? What had they eaten? The baby, said a voice inside her head and she shuddered. "Well, okay," she said. "Just a little snack."

They went down to the kitchen, and as they passed the baby's room, Mother Ant had a terrible urge to run. Part of her wanted to just look inside and convince herself that the baby was fine, but she really didn't believe that anymore, did she? She turned her head sharply in the other direction and continued downstairs.

It was morning. Mother Ant hadn't been able to sleep very well after the late-night snack. On the way back upstairs she'd tried to make herself go into the nursery so she would know once and for all what had happened, but she hadn't been able to do it. She'd stood just outside the door, she didn't know how long, before finally covering her face with her hands and running back to her own room. Now she was awake and she heard nothing from the nursery, even though the baby ought to be up by now, crying for a new diaper. He's not there and you know it, said a heartless voice in the back of her mind. She turned over, trying to get away from it, even though it was coming from inside her.

"Are you okay?"

She looked up to see her husband standing at the bathroom door, watching her with concern.

"It's late. You never sleep in so long," he said.

For a moment, she only stared at him silently. She just couldn't put into words the horrible thoughts going through her mind.

"What happened?" she said finally.

He stared back, not quite understanding.

"Was it a dream? Tell me it was all a dream." She was nearly hysterical.

"It wasn't a dream," he said quietly.

She didn't hear him — or didn't want to. "Why isn't the baby crying? He should be awake by now. What happened to him? What did we do to him? I need to check on him." She stood up suddenly. "Did you take care of him?" she cried wildly. "Is that why I don't hear him crying? He's okay. It was a dream. You changed his diaper. It's all okay."

"I didn't do anything," he said. "He's not there. It wasn't a dream."

"Stop saying that!" she shrieked. "He is okay! He is! Something so horrible couldn't have happened to us! You'll see." She ran to the nursery.

The baby wasn't there. She turned to Father Ant, who had followed her. "Where is he? Is he downstairs? Did you feed him? That must be it. That must be why he's not here."

Father Ant grabbed her by the shoulders. "Stop it! You know what happened. It wasn't a dream. He was — he was—"

Mother Ant sank to the ground. Her eyes were beginning to water. "How could this happen?" she sobbed. It just didn't make any sense. She stayed like that for awhile, unable to move. Father Ant sat down next to her and put his arm around her.

"I know it's a horrible thing that happened," he said. "It's horrible and it's senseless. But we have to stick together. We'll get through this somehow."

Sniffles was practically hysterical. His whole body hurt from laughing as he watched the scene unfold on his TV, courtesy of one of the many cameras he'd installed in the replica of their house. He buried his face in his arms, pounding his fist on the table as he laughed. This was like a bad soap opera. He'd never expected the mother to carry on in such a melodramatic fashion. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he thought that this was quite possibly the best idea he'd ever had.

Somehow, Mother Ant managed to get through the rest of the day. After leaving the baby's room, she couldn't bring herself to go back in again. But there was no reason to go in there now, anyway. She went up to bed that night feeling numb. Would tomorrow be the same? she wondered. Would she ever get used to this? How could anyone ever get used to something like this? she argued with herself. The next morning she lay in bed and stared at the ceiling, wishing she could fall back to sleep and not have to face this new reality. When she could no longer avoid it, she got up and went downstairs.

And saw something that made her stop cold and cover her mouth with her hands to keep from screaming.

"What's wrong, Mom?" she heard Susan say from the kitchen, where she sat eating breakfast and watching her mother curiously.

Mother Ant exhaled raggedly and tried to compose herself. She even managed to smile at her daughter. "It's nothing, dear," she said. But she was shaking as she turned from the living room and went into the kitchen, trying not to think about the fact that the baby's rattle hadn't been in the living room yesterday.

Several days had passed and life was returning to some semblance of normal. They had fallen into their old routines, each one trying to ignore the fact that the baby was no longer there. They were sitting around the TV, trying to lose themselves in an old favorite sitcom when the phone started to ring.

Mother Ant went to go pick it up.

"Hello, Mrs. Ant," said the voice on the other end. "This is Mr. . . Johnson. I'm calling from your doctor's office. It seems your baby is due for his booster shots this month. Would you like to make an appointment?"

She dropped the phone and collapsed against the wall, clutching her chest. Would this cruelty never end?

Sniffles put the phone down, howling with laughter. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

Sniffles sat in his laboratory with his feet up on the desk, watching the ants on his TV. He hadn't tortured them for awhile. On the table next to him was another model of the nursery containing the baby. It was awake and crying for attention. The rest of the ants were spending an uneventful day around the house. Let's just do something simple today, Sniffles said to himself. It amused him how easy it was to freak the ants out these days. Just the slightest reminder could send them all over the edge.

He turned on the intercom in the ants' house so they could hear the baby, snickering at the way they all jumped and stared at each other when they heard its cries. Then he reached inside the crib, took out the baby, and ate him, chewing as loudly and obnoxiously as possible for their benefit. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. Sniffles cackled in delight at the way they all cringed at each sound. He saw the mother in the kitchen, stirring something in a bowl. She stirred harder when the sounds began. Tears were running down her face, but she just kept stirring harder and harder until she lost her grip on the bowl and it went flying across the room. As Sniffles watched in fascination, she covered her face with her hands and sank to the floor, sobbing. He licked his lips noisily. "Mmm-mmm-mmmmm," he said with satisfaction.

She found another of the baby's toys lying on the couch a week later. For a moment she could only gape in shock. In a rare moment of decisiveness, she had packed up all the baby's belongings out of sight so she wouldn't have the constant reminder of what had happened. So what was the baby's teddy bear doing in here? She doubted her remaining children had brought it down here. They had all been avoiding the nursery ever since . . . that day. She stared, transfixed, then suddenly snatched up the teddy bear and ran up to the nursery. Frantically, powered by desperation and a bit of hysteria, she gathered up the baby's things and stuffed them into garbage bags. Putting everything out of sight obviously hadn't been good enough. Now she took everything out to the curb next to the garbage cans. It would be gone by morning.

Déjà vu.

It was the next day and she had come downstairs to find the baby's teddy bear on the couch exactly as it had been yesterday. Mother Ant wondered if she was losing her mind. She looked outside to see the garbage can empty and all the bags of the baby's stuff gone.

I just forgot it, that's all, she said to herself. Of course, that had to be it. In her rush to rid the house of the baby's possessions, she had forgotten to grab the teddy bear off the couch. Well, no matter. She picked up the bear and went up to the baby's room to see if she'd forgotten anything else, freezing in shock the moment she opened the door.

All the baby's things were right back where they'd been before, as if she'd never moved them.

The ants were moping again. Sniffles watched them with interest as he plucked the eyes out of the baby and set them aside. He was waiting for them to leave the room. He had something for them. The baby's cries weren't loud enough for him to hear as he dismembered it. In the ants' house, the mother was taking their dinner out of the oven. Perfect. Just then there was a knock on the door, and the mother went to answer it. As she stood at the door, Sniffles opened up one of the secret doors he'd installed in their home and set up the surprise. Then he sat back and watched it unfold, rubbing his palms together with glee.

"Who was it, Mom?"

"Oh, nobody, just some salesman," Mother Ant replied. "Well, we really should go eat dinner before it gets cold."

"Oh, good, dinner's done," said Jimmy. "I'm starving."

"It smells yummy, too," said Susan as the ants made their way to the dining room. It had been such a nice, peaceful day, thought Mother Ant as she opened the door. She'd almost forgotten all about—

Screams erupted as the ants entered the dining room. The table had been elaborately set up with a covered dish in the middle, and on each of their plates was one of the baby's legs.

It had been about a month. Not much had happened since that unpleasant dinner. They were growing edgy, each moment expecting something to happen. Every so often they would find one of the baby's things lying around, but otherwise, life had been uneventful as they grew paranoid waiting for the next attack. Nobody had gone back in the nursery after it had been restored. So they almost felt a sense of relief when they woke up one morning to find Susan missing. Almost.

"I'm sure she's fine," Mother Ant said unconvincingly. "I'm sure—" The anteater has got her, she almost said.

"I'm sure she'll turn up soon," she finished instead.

She didn't believe her own words. Looking around, she doubted the others did, either. A surge of anger rose inside her. Why wouldn't this monster stop torturing them? Wasn't it enough what he had done to the baby without the constant reminders? She wondered if he just sat in some room somewhere all day and watched them suffer, laughing. How much more of this could they take before they all went insane, she wondered, or would the anteater mercifully kill them before then?

"Of course," she heard Father Ant agreeing, equally unconvincing. "She couldn't have gone far."

Mother Ant smiled at him, but for some reason felt irritated. How long would they have to stand here, brazenly lying to each other, and neither of them even believing the other to make it worthwhile? She wished someone would just say what they were all thinking and felt a crazy urge to scream it herself instead of smiling and lying that everything would be all right.

"Well, no use worrying about her now," she said instead, and hated herself for it. "Why don't we go eat?"

She felt a chill at the words, remembering the baby's fate. What would they eat? She had a terrible premonition that they would go into the kitchen to find Susan chopped up in a stew or roasted whole on a platter, just waiting for them. Her eyeballs would be floating in their glasses like ice cubes, or maybe wedges of them would adorn the rims. Mother Ant shuddered at the thought, wondering when she had become so morbid. She hesitated at the door for a second, afraid of what might be waiting for them, then bravely entered the kitchen.

Nothing was amiss. There was no sign Susan had been here at all, willingly or not. Still, she didn't feel very relieved. If Susan wasn't here, then where was she? Was she somewhere by herself this very moment, being tortured by the anteater? Mother Ant had a sinking feeling that this was the case, and that very soon they would all be watching her suffer, unable to do anything. And then what? she wondered. Would the anteater spend the next few weeks or months bombarding them with reminders of their daughter's suffering like he had done with the baby? Would he move on to one of the others then and keep this sick game going until they were all dead? She felt a terrible certainty that this was exactly what was going to happen, and that there was nothing any of them could do about it. Why couldn't he have just killed us and been done with it? she wondered. Why couldn't he just let it end?

They didn't have to wait very long.

The next morning at breakfast, long enough for them to work themselves into a state of pure panic, the TV in the kitchen came on without warning. The image was poor quality, but it was unmistakably Susan. She was bound to a cold, metal table, crying.

"No," Mother Ant moaned, jumping up from the kitchen table. She stared helplessly at the screen. "Why do you keep doing this to us?"

The only answer was an evil laugh from the TV. Meanwhile, a number of vicious-looking knives and tools had descended upon Susan. Nobody could stand to watch what the anteater was doing to her, but they couldn't block out the sound of her screams. . . or the evil laughter. . . or the sound of machinery cutting into her. Finally, Mother Ant couldn't take it anymore and turned off the TV. A second later, it came back on again.

"Aww, what's wrong?" came the gleeful voice. "Don't you like my video? I made it just for you."

"You sick bastard!" she cried. "Why won't you stop torturing us?"

The anteater just laughed again and turned up the volume on the TV.

"Watch closely, now," he said a minute later. "This is the best part."

Almost against their will, the ants' eyes returned to the TV, where the ceiling had opened up and the anteater could be seen standing over the room with a magnifying glass. Susan lay helplessly on the table, mutilated but still alive, her eyes bulging with terror as light began to fill the room. When it was finally over, the anteater let out a sigh.

"It always ends too soon," he said. "I wish there was a way I could drag it out."

Nobody said a word. Tears dripped silently from Mother Ant's eyes. They just stood there, utterly defeated, and nobody even noticed when the TV turned off again.

They were moping a lot more lately, Sniffles thought. All they seemed to do anymore was sit around and cry. It was getting a little boring. He tried to provoke them by leaving magnifying glasses lying around their house, but couldn't seem to get the reaction he'd hoped for. So it was with more than a little disappointment that he brought them back to the original torture room. The room wasn't quite so bare now. He hoped the ants would appreciate the décor — various body parts and pictures of the highlights of their last visit now adorned the walls. And for the finishing touch, he had a large magnifying glass hovering above each of their heads. Soon they would wake up, he thought with delight, and then the fun would begin again.

They were back in the torture room. Mother Ant supposed she should be terrified, but lately she didn't have the energy for anything anymore, especially not an emotion as strong as terror. She just felt drained. She knew that nothing would ever get better, that the anteater would just kill and torture all of them until there were none left. All she felt was resignation. In fact, she wished he would just do it and get it over with. No use beating a dead horse. There really didn't seem to be much point in living anymore.

Finally, the ceiling opened up and bright sunlight streamed in. The magnifying glasses overhead were adjusted until the light was pinpointed on each of them. Mother Ant wanted to roll her eyes at the lame cliché of the magnifying glasses, but all ants lived in mortal fear of magnifying glasses, and with that bright beam of light now burning into her, there was no room in her mind for anything other than panic. After everything they had been through, Mother Ant found she still had the capacity to feel terror after all, sheer, mind-numbing terror that made coherent thought impossible. All those weeks — or was it months? — of numbness had left her ill-prepared for the blistering heat and excruciating pain. Sweat rolled down her face as her body temperature grew and grew until at any moment she knew she would burst into flames—

Sniffles closed the ceiling back up in a hurry, hoping he'd timed it right. He had no intention of killing the remaining ants just yet. Of course, the baby and the girl were just then alive and well in their own separate living units, but the others didn't need to know that. He would kill the rest of them when he was good and ready. Chuckling to himself, he went up to the kitchen.

Mother Ant wasn't sure what was going on. Why were they still alive? If she wasn't in so much pain, she would've happily thought the anteater had made some mistake. But it was hard to think through her dim haze of agony. She looked across the room at her son and husband, sweat blurring her vision, trying to get a handle on her thoughts until it became too much and she finally passed out from the pain.

She awoke later to find nothing had changed. Some time passed, and as before, she and Father Ant sat helplessly by as the anteater came for Jimmy. This time, the ceiling opened up and the anteater's tongue slowly lowered down and sucked him up rather undramatically.

"Mmmmmm," came that horrible voice from above. "Extra rare. Just how I like it."

They were there longer than before. This time, neither of them touched the big pot of stew that was lowered to them, even though they were both ravenous by that point. For her part, Mother Ant didn't care much whether she lived or died, and she had a feeling Father Ant felt the same. They just sat and stared at the walls, not even speaking to each other.

"You're beginning to bore me," complained the voice over the intercom. Neither of them reacted to it.

"Do something already," the voice continued. "Come on. You're no fun at all."

Still no response. What was there to do anyway? Mother Ant was tired of performing for this sadistic monster. Finally the anteater let out a disgruntled sigh and loudly turned off the intercom.

When they awoke the next morning, they were back in their bed at home. Mother Ant stared at the ceiling. Her family was gone. There was nothing left except her and Father Ant. Eventually, she made herself get out of bed and get through the day on autopilot. She was hardly aware of anything.

Sniffles watched the ants on the TV screen without interest. They had gotten so boring lately, he thought. He couldn't get a reaction for the life of him. The children in their separate cells spent a lot of time crying and looking terrified, but even that was beginning to wear thin. There must be something he could do, he thought. Something big. Something that would build up to some grand finale. He wanted them to go out with a bang, not this pathetic whimper. But he wasn't even sure what he could do now that they seemed to have given up.

Life had become meaningless. Everything was a blur these days. Mother Ant was hardly even aware when Father Ant disappeared one day; she barely heard his anguished cries over the intercom as she sat numbly in front of the TV, seeing and hearing little, feeling less. What did it matter, anyway? They'd hardly spoken anymore, and then only to argue or share bitter, accusatory words. Somehow, it was his fault their family had been destroyed. He'd been unable to prevent it from happening. He couldn't even save himself in the end, she thought with a derisive snort. She envied him for having been freed from the hell their lives had become.

In a daze, she went to the kitchen to make breakfast one morning, hardly aware of her surroundings. For some reason she was having trouble cracking the eggs. She frowned at them. Why were they so soft and rubbery? And . . . what was . . . that . . . ?

She dropped the carton in horror. The egg carton was full of eyeballs.

Yawn. He'd been briefly amused by the mother's reaction to the "eggs," but after dropping the carton, she hadn't done much more than stare blankly into the refrigerator, which he'd cleverly stocked with chopped-up bits of the rest of the family. Neatly wrapped arms and legs here and there, containers of various body parts ground into a paste. It had taken quite a bit of work getting it just right, and he was disappointed by the lackluster reaction he'd gotten. At some point, she'd sunk to the ground and just sat staring into space.

"Do something already," he grumbled to himself. This had been much more fun in the beginning. All the ants together, watching the baby suffer . . .

A grin slowly spread across Sniffles's face as he sat down in front of the ants' home, rubbing his palms together giddily. He had a new plan.

Morning again. Mother Ant lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. She'd slept much too late again, but what difference did it make? Life had no meaning for her anymore. There was nothing left to do but wait for the anteater to come and end her suffering. She wanted to go back to sleep but couldn't. After awhile, she became aware of an odd smell. It couldn't be possible, but it almost smelled like . . . bacon. Bacon and coffee.

"Maybe I'm still asleep," she muttered to herself. "Damn it. Can't even dream myself out of here."

But the smell had captured her interest. She couldn't stay in bed now. Maybe she would dream none of this had ever happened—

"Don't," she told herself sternly. "Just don't."

Slowly, she made her way downstairs. In addition to the smells, she could swear she could hear voices, ants moving around, the kind of basic, everyday sounds she would've heard any morning before all this had happened.

"Why not?" she said to herself. "It is a dream, after all." She opened the door to the kitchen slowly, afraid of what she might find.

"Mom! You're awake!" Susan raced across the room and flung herself into her mother's arms.

For a moment, Mother Ant could only stand there in silence, unable to believe what she was seeing. They were back, all of them, even the baby. Tears began to fill her eyes as she stood there, staring at them as they came forward and embraced her.

What was going on? Was she dead? Had the anteater killed her in her sleep without her knowing it? Was this heaven?

"Oh, my god," she breathed, not wanting to spoil the perfect moment, "I hope this dream never ends."

"Maybe it's finally over," she heard Father Ant say. She met his eyes and smiled. Right at that moment, she decided, it didn't matter what had happened.

The rest of the day continued with that same euphoric, almost unreal feel to it, and they all went to bed much too late, not wanting the perfect day to end. When the kids were finally falling asleep on the couch, Mother and Father Ant helped them upstairs to bed, then climbed into their own bed and fell asleep in each other's arms, smiles of pure bliss on both of their faces. Mother Ant thought she'd never been so happy in her entire life.

Sniffles watched, captivated, as the ants finally went to bed, smiles on each of their faces. He felt almost giddy with delight at how perfectly they'd walked into his latest trap. After everything he'd done to them, he was pleasantly surprised by how trusting they could still be.

All the better, he thought gleefully as he headed upstairs to his own bedroom. Sometimes, I'm so brilliant I even amaze myself. And as he fell asleep that night, he too wore an expression of blissful contentment.

Mother Ant sighed and stretched lazily, her eyes still closed. She'd slept better that night than she had in a long time, and the happy, contented mood still lingered upon waking. Once again, she could smell the distinct aroma of coffee and bacon, and she breathed deeply, feeling a sense of peace now that this whole nightmare was finally over. She eventually opened her eyes and rolled over to find herself alone in the bed, but she wasn't bothered by it. Obviously, Father Ant had woken up before her and gone downstairs to cook the breakfast she was smelling. She could even hear the sounds of her family moving about the house, their voices and running footsteps disrupting the stillness of the morning in the best way possible. Still smiling, she rose from the bed, stretching once again as she stood.

For a moment, she simply stood there next to the bed, basking in the warm sunlight and the contentment she'd felt since falling asleep the night before. Everything would be all right now, she was sure.

She made her way down to the kitchen, already planning various ways they could all enjoy the day ahead of them. Maybe they could have a barbecue in the backyard, or go out for a nice walk around the block.

She inhaled deeply before pushing the kitchen door open, the heavenly aroma of cooking breakfast almost symbolic of her renewed happiness. Life was good again, and all was as it should be.

The kitchen was empty. She frowned slightly, wondering why nobody was eating while the food was just sitting there, untouched and getting cold.

"What's the matter, kids? Is your father's cooking not up to your usual standards?" she called lightly, ignoring the slight chill that was beginning to creep through her body. No reason to panic, she thought. They were probably all just watching TV and waiting for her to come down to breakfast. She crossed the kitchen and entered the living room, where she could hear some cartoon show playing loudly on the TV.

Nobody was there.

Her frown deepened. "This food sure looks good," she tried again, still keeping her tone light. "I just might have to eat it all myself."

No response. But she could still hear sounds throughout the house, the children running around, their laughing voices. So they were still there somewhere, she reasoned.

Maybe they were just playing hide-and-seek? she thought, a bit desperately. After all, she could still hear them. And, surely, they weren't too old for it, were they? She turned and went back upstairs, half-running, trying her best to remain calm.

"Mom!" It was Susan's voice. Eagerly, Mother Ant turned in the direction it had come from. But there was nobody upstairs. She looked around in confusion.

"Mom! Over here!" Again, she followed the cheerful voices calling to her, but the rooms were all empty. Her heart pounding, Mother Ant hurried back downstairs.

"Mom! Mom!" Now it seemed to be coming from outside. Frantic now, she followed the voices, the playful tone now mocking her in her panic. Nobody was in the house, and nobody was outside, playing in the yard. And yet the voices continued calling to her so close by. She didn't know how long she spent searching for someone — anyone — to reassure her that everything really was back to normal.

Finally, she collapsed in an exhausted heap in the front yard, covering her ears with her hands to block out the taunting shouts of family members who weren't there. Was she going crazy? She was starting to think maybe she was. Maybe yesterday had been a dream, she thought.

She stood and went back into the house, overcome with weariness. The smell of breakfast hit her almost like a physical force, taunting her every bit as much as the sounds of her family had moments ago. Who had made breakfast? She knew she hadn't. She was sure she hadn't. But there was no one else around. She shook her head. It was getting hard to think clearly. Maybe she had made breakfast and forgotten about it? She pushed open the kitchen door and stepped inside.

The smell of coffee and bacon was gone now, replaced by the smell of something different. It was quite good, but she couldn't put her finger on what it was she was smelling, although it seemed strangely familiar. There was a covered dish in the center of the table. She frowned. If she had cooked something, why didn't she know what was under that shiny lid? At the same time, she thought she did know what was under there. She felt a cold sense of premonition, certain that she knew exactly what was about to happen, almost as if she had lived it before. Unable to stop herself, she reached for the lid and uncovered the dish, releasing a cloud of steam in the process.

Once the steam had cleared, she dropped the lid numbly to the floor, staring blankly at the contents of the dish. Inside was a casserole, exactly like the one that had been lowered to them in the torture room, except this one had a very distinct circle of eyes decorating the top. The eyes of each of her family members. She looked around the room wildly and realized that at each place setting, instead of silverware, there was a long, sharp knife. As she stared, she became aware of sounds all around her once again, the playful cries of her husband and children, calling to her, their voices strange and distorted in her ears as she sank unfeelingly into a chair. And through it all, she thought she could just hear the evil, triumphant laughter of the anteater, mocking her in his victory. She could bear it no longer. Seizing the nearest knife, she plunged it deep in her chest, feeling an immeasurable sense of relief as her life slipped away.

It was morning again. Mother Ant blinked slowly as she became aware of her surroundings. She was in her own bed, which only added to her confusion. Why wasn't she dead? Surely the afterlife couldn't be as mundane as this.

"Mom! Mom!"

The voice was calling to her from downstairs. In a daze, she rose and followed it, feeling as though in a dream. Would this be a repeat of the previous day, she wondered, with her endlessly chasing phantom voices around her home until she collapsed? She felt almost too weary to even consider it.

Instead of heading directly for the kitchen, she passed through the living room, which was empty. She could hear sounds from the kitchen, but didn't entirely trust them. Crossing the room, she hesitated for a moment before opening the kitchen door.

The noise level increased as she gaped at the scene before her. As though taunting her, the voices of her family echoed throughout the room, but it was clear they weren't coming from actual, living ants. She stared, unable to comprehend what was happening.

Her entire family was seated around the breakfast table, food piled high on each of their plates just like any other morning, but with one difference. They were all dead, their motionless, decaying bodies posed stiffly in their seats like grotesque mannequins.

"Would you pass the syrup?" she heard Susan's voice ask.

"Good morning, dear. Come and eat before it gets cold," Father Ant's voice said to her.

Mother Ant stood in the doorway as if frozen, her eyes fixed on her dead family. At some point, her legs gave way beneath her and she collapsed to the floor, but her gaping eyes didn't leave her family for a second. The voices whirled around her, becoming incoherent, and as she sat there in her stupor, she felt the last remaining shreds of her sanity finally leave her.

~ fin ~

I actually feel a little sorry for the ant family now after everything I've put them through. Anyway, thanks for reading and/or reviewing!