An Act of the Tyrone Power Pound Cake Society in the Sky

Loath as she was to admit it—and, indeed, wouldn’t admit it until some seven weeks and only then to an interrogator named Milo who’d been kind enough to bring coffee to her dark site cell rather than bashing her in the face with his flat knuckles as his colleagues had done—she hadn’t actually anticipated on levitating the White House. However, on that fair April morning, her seven hundred followers leaning their backs against the black metal fence, feet resting on folded knees in the lotus position, channeling chants of peace from zenned out minds through open mouths, she hadn’t the same perspective. Indeed, what sane woman wouldn’t take credit for organizing a cosmic vibration of universal proportions that lifted 55,000 square feet of painted Aquia Creek sandstone thirty-five feet into the air?

Her seven hundred supporters hadn’t seemed like much of a threat given the recent protests. The 82nd Airborne took the day off and the U.S. Marshals were out to lunch. A screaming Marine, hat askew, clung to one of the columns floating high in the air, chunks of dirt and stone raining down into the basement below. A half dozen stunned secret service agents paused in the yard, heads swiveling between the levitated White House and Skye (not Susan—her domesticated title). Guns drawn, they rushed across the lush turf in their shiny black Rockports.

“I am here on the authority of the Universe, explosion of gasses that birthed us all. On the authority of the Collective Consciousness that binds mind to mind, makes peace from war, love from hate, legislative debate from fascist executive orders. On the authority of the sun, which will burn this world one day, consuming us and the atoms of our decayed corpses. On the authority of human rights, John Locke giving a hummer to James Madison, on freedom, on equality, on freedom again, because that’s really important,” is what she intended to say.

What she actually said was, “I have a permit,” shoving the document between the fence for inspection. The paper trembled with her hand.

The Marine kicked at the air, shouting for salvation. A flag pole, Old Glory still attached, appeared from one of the open glass doors, aimed for the Marine’s location.

A Secret Service agent with a jaw molded out of splotchy granite sporting a five-o’clock shadow leaned forward. “The Tyrone Power Pound Cake Society in the Sky,” he read aloud. “Says you’re going to levitate the White House 3.5 feet in the air, ma’am.”

“It’s a decimal point error,” she said, refraining from admitting which side was responsible for said error.

A second Secret Service agent in a smart black skirt jogged up behind her colleague, gun pointed at the ground. “You’re going to have to put it down, ma’am. The president and his first ladies are hosting the Faberge Egg Roll in an hour.”

Skye shook the paper, wooden bangles knocking. “The permit says we’re allowed access to the free speech zone until 2pm.”

Other members of The Tyrone Powers Pound Cake Society in the Sky heard their brave guru speaking. Maizy Alcatraz and The Beard, Skye’s closest advisers and apprentices, slowed their chanting. Maizy-A cracked one eye open, turning her head slightly to the left and peered through the fence.

“Holy fossilized feces.” She jumped up, gauzy mini dress jumping, too, and grabbed Skye’s arm with her long, turquoise-tipped fingers. “We really did it.”
The beard unfolded himself and took his place on Skye’s other side. He pulled aside the curtain of red fur that covered his left eye and stared, grunting through his thick beard.

The flagpole, too short to reach the Marine, was pulled back inside the White House. A longer pole sporting the Red Banner emerged next. He strained to reach it, flat hat falling off his head as he did. They watched it puff up in the breeze, slowly floating down into the basement.

“Fine,” the female secret service agent said. “Good for you. You’ve levitated the presidential residence, whatever good that will do you.”

“An empty act of rebellion,” another agent said. “The new media won’t carry the story. The Senior Spinner will discredit any who speak of it. It means nothing.”

Skye’s initial shock was wearing off, her rage rising. “Of course it means something,” she shouted. “It means seven hundred people acting in union can rebel against one fascist fuck.”

“Fascist fuck,” Maizy-A repeated.

“Please don’t use the f-word,” one of the agents said.

“He’s still a fuck, regardless of what adjective you put before his name.” Skye gripped her skirt with sweaty palms.

Maizy-A, undeterred by their admonishment, screamed. “FASCIST fuck. FASCIST FUCK.”

Her screams were enough to rouse the chanters on her side of the fence from their blissed-out state. Gasps of surprise, squeals of excitement, echoed down the line as they stopped chanting and turned around.

The Marine was scrambling through the open door, into the relative safety of the levitated White House, when it tipped sideways, sagging towards the people who’d stopped chanting. Furniture could be seen sliding past the large windows on the first floor. The muffled screams of those within became more shrill.

The Secret Service Agents turned to face the building. “Lift it back up! Lift it back up!”

“I thought I was supposed to put it back down,” Skye said.

“FASCIST FUCK,” Maisy-A shouted again.

“We did it! We did it!” Her followers began to dance, shaking hips, jingling bells on their ankles and wrists.

A portrait of Andrew Jackson crashed out of a window on the sagging side.

The female agent’s voice was cold and smooth like a dry martini lacking an olive. “Fix it.” Skye stared down the gun’s barrel, aimed at her face.

“I have until–”

“FIX IT.”

She backed up hands held in the air. “Everyone. Everyone.”

Faces turned towards her, away from the White House. Eyes from ice blue to night black. Skin from pasty pale to richly dark.

“Everyone. You need to listen to me.” She cleared her throat, calming her shaking voice, bringing the low tones she used when talking to her mother’s horses back when people called Skye Susan. “The White House is aloft! You may feel as though we’ve won. We’ve accomplished what we came here to do. But, I need you to know that one action is not a victory, one day is not an eternity. We are but a single flower in need of a garden. Rejoice at what you’ve done, but do not stop.”

A gangling teenager wearing a kilt and little else raised his hand. “What does that mean?”

“Don’t stop!” Skye shouted. “Butts back on the concrete. Backs against the fence. Our work isn’t done yet.”

They exchanged looks, sat back down, closed their eyes, and began chanting once more. The White House continued to sag. “You two, too,” Skye said to Maizy-A and The Beard.

The White House quivered, but didn’t move.

Skye shook her head at agent holding the gun. “I need to join them.”

“Like hell you do. Andersen, get out there and start chanting with them. This woman needs to be taken in.”

One of the male agents unlocked the gate and squeezed out. “How do I do this, ma’am?”

“Just close your eyes and be one with the movement. Be one with the universe. Know that your soul united with 700 other souls has the power to change the world. An individual’s desire. A collective’s will.”

His eyebrow rose skeptically above the frames of his sunglasses. Still, he sat down, in a modified lotus position, and began to chant.

The sagging side of the White House began to rise.

“Now,” the female agent said. “You’re going to tell us how to put it down.”

 

 

Skye finished her coffee. It was the best worst coffee she’d ever had, one-note, black, bitter, and wonderful. Acidity stung her cracked lips as she shook the last drops into her mouth. She handed the Styrofoam cup to Milo. “How long did it take them to figure out how to get it down?”

He rubbed at the black scruff on his chin. “Well, the first problem was that the scientists wouldn’t help them.” He formed the words slowly so she could understand his thick eastern European accent.

“The first problem?”

He nodded. “The second? Other people started to notice. Started to join your Sweet Bread Society.”

“Pound Cake,” she said, though it didn’t really matter. “How long did it take to get it down?”

He chuckled, clearly amused. “Oh, sweetie. Last report, it was somewhere in the mesosphere.”

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Hate & Hope

This week’s flash fiction challenge was to tell a story about hope. Hope isn’t really where my creative mind flourishes, though. So, I decided to tell a real story about change, transformation, and hope for a better future. Enjoy.

 

It was Lord of the Flies for high school conservationists. Our agricultural studies wing was tucked at the back of the school, manicured student garden occupying space between our classrooms and the school’s administration. Shop classrooms lined the hall leading to our department, depositories in which the ne’er-do-well students of our school were held between core curriculum classes. They emptied out with the last bell, leaving our little haven isolated from the rest of the school.

Five students composed the Envirothon team: a soil specialist, a forestry specialist, a wildlife specialist, an aquatics specialist, and one student committed to the rotating subject each year. Each of the core team members had one understudy, meaning that there were ten of us altogether. We had run of the wet lab, dry lab, animal lab, classroom, library, greenhouse, and offices. If you thought a teacher supervised our evening activities, you’d be mistaken.

I was co-chair during my junior and senior years of high school, sharing the title with a freckled red headed boy who I’d met at a county fair the summer before 6th grade. I was showing my Ayrshire cow, Fourleaf. He was showing Holsteins. As is natural for preteens, a late night of playing PG strip poker with some Mennonite kids left us bashful in the morning. He remedied those emotions by trying to throw me in a water trough while I was filling a bucket. I twisted out of his grip, ripped off his ball cap, and trashed him with it, leaving an angry red welt across his pale face. What followed was an acquaintanceship of mutual respect and, I suspect, the suspicion that now matter how tall he grew, I’d still be able to kick his ass.

Not enough lip service is given to rural conservationists, people dedicated to the protection of air, water, soil, and green spaces. Partisan narrative would have you believe that the environment is a liberal cause. While I will concede this in the realm of climate change, conservation activists span the political spectrum. I’ve been in a rod and gun club filled to the rafters with plaid-wearing, big buckle-sporting old white men, clapping and applauding decreased runoff into the Chesapeake Bay watershed, funding biodiversity initiatives, giving out scholarships to students of color who want to study environmental science. There are many who know conservation of and advocating for our natural world must transcend party lines in order to flourish.

As such, the first year I was co-chair, a pair of freshman friends joined our team, bosom buddies from either end of the political spectrum. They maintained a healthy respect for their ideological differences, focusing instead on hunting, fishing, and poultry enthusiasm, avoiding political conversations at all costs.

At the tender age of seventeen, I was a ball-busting, tie-dye and knock-off Birkenstock wearing motherfucker with a pair of John Lennon wire frame glasses and hair past my hips. I read Abbie Hoffman books, scrawled, “Freedom is the right to yell fire in a crowded theater,” on my hand in Sharpie, handed out Richard Brautigan novels to anyone I thought interesting, memorized Phil Ochs lyrics, which still sing in my heart today. I was an out bi-chick in my high school, wrote treatises on premarital sex to share with curious students, and lacked the grace to back down from a verbal altercation. No one believed I didn’t smoke pot.

I didn’t. Still don’t.

I was also den-mother-in-chief, managing a gaggle of teenagers, bringing hot suppers to every meeting, arranging rides, and doling out stern lectures for office chair rides down the ramp leading to the ag wing. I also had an innocent edge to me, raised by college educated parents on an isolated farm, socializing with other moderate liberals on the weekends. Case in point, I thought ‘spic was another term for ‘sped until I was seventeen. It was in that very classroom, listening to two of my team members complain about kids on their bus, that spark finally met bulb. It took me a few years after that to realize wetback and wet-behind-the-ears didn’t mean the same thing. As I said, innocent.

One one end of the political spectrum you had me, a near-anarchist peacenick convinced she was born in the wrong century. The conservative freshman was on the other end of the spectrum, had about 100 lbs on my not-thin frame, and stood a good foot and a half over my head. He wore cammo everything, sported a sunburned neck like it was a political statement, and was violently, unabashedly homophobic.

We’d get into it over everything. Often, his liberal friend would lay the groundwork, then slip out of the room, leaving me to the battles he wanted to fight. Like two goddamn cats ready to rip each others throats out, we’d pose and posture, hiss and spit, ripping into each other over everything from the death penalty to racial equality to abortion. I’m pretty sure the only thing that stopped me from getting a back eye on more than one occasion was my gender.

The homophobia was the worst, though. I remember late one evening, we were pouring over animal track identification. No fighting. No yelling. Just studying. Out of nowhere, he said, “My pastor thinks I need to learn to love a little more. Need to be more forgiving.” He looked down, flipping a page. “But, you can’t tell me, if Jesus was around today, he wouldn’t be out there, beating some fags.”

I dissented with this assertion in no uncertain terms, though I’m pretty sure every third word was FUCK and every second word was just exasperated sputtering. I was told that, as someone who didn’t attend church, my opinion didn’t matter. “So, you’d just fucking go out fucking there and fucking beat the fuck out of every fucking gay guy and girl–”

He held up his hands. “Now, I didn’t say girls. That’s something else.” His rosy face was bright red. All jolliness gone.

“Oh, so fucking porn is fucking fine if it’s two fucking girls.”

“Cause that’s for me. It doesn’t count.”

If memes or table flipping would have been a thing fifteen years ago, I’d probably have done it.

Now, here’s the worst part. Despite his racism, despite his violent homophobia, despite his assertion that Andrea Yates “should fry,” I liked the kid. Not in a crushing sort of way, but I had a soft spot in my heart for him. An enduring fondness. Take off his cammo, throw on a DBZ shirt, and he’d be like the kids I played D&D with on the weekends. He shared our affects, that geeky uncertainty, air of social awkwardness proving he’d never be accepted anywhere fully. He’d wander around the margins of teenage society, as I did. As my friends did.

My senior year, we were at the Envirothon state competition. As the only girl, I had my own room with an adjoining door between my room and those two friends. On the second night, while the racist guy was sleeping, his friend invited me in to make fun of him. He was sleeping on his stomach in a pair of black briefs, black shirt, curled up with his thumb near his mouth. He looked like 300 lbs of sleeping innocence. I felt maternal, attached, affectionate.

I go to college the next year. Operation Iraqi Freedom began during my second semester. I went to marches. I participated in protests. I had my life threatened on numerous occasions, saw my comrades punched, a future roommate almost lit on fire. I had shit thrown at me. Got spit on. I saw a deeper, more violent racism at the beginning of the war. Drunk kids out in a college down, shouting, “I CAN’T WAIT TO GO KILL SOME BROWN FUCKERS,” as they ran past.

I got involved with women’s rights. Equal rights. The LGBTQ community. Beneath my ribs grew a hot bubble of guilt for tolerating hate in my high school. I fought, but I didn’t fight hard enough. I argued, but I allowed it to be a conversation rather than ultimatum. I really hated myself for it. Wondered what sort of monster I had been. Swore I wouldn’t do it again.

I kept my prickly liberal back up when I returned to farming at the age of 25. I got into a screaming match with a bearded white dude in a Sonoco station who was calling President Obama a Muslim and a radical. In doing so, I lost my favorite place to grab a breakfast sandwich made with a fresh egg, fried in front of me, made to my vegetarian preferences by an old guy working the morning counter.

I’ve gotten into it with the racist teenage subordinates at work, down right-red faced, fist shaking, telling them their language and views are abhorrent. Telling them they’re ignorant little slugs who will never survive in the real world if they insist on hate. I’ve felt righteous. I’ve also felt like an asshole.

A few years ago, I’m slinging cheese sales at the convention center in Philly, hand over fist pulling in bills and doling out dairy products, wearing a low cut maroon shirt and proper long denium skirt, hair tied back with a handkerchief. Someone shouts my last name and I look up to see those two fucking friends from envirothon waving at me from one table down. I bolt out from behind the table, and hug the shit out of them, give them some free chocolate milk, meet the big one’s wife. They went to college together, same college I went to, though I never saw them. They roomed together, moved back to our little rural county, and hangout on the weekends.

Backslapping ensues, reminiscing, and an invitation to catch up with them on social media. I’m glowing by the time I get back to the table, heart light, head happy.

A few days later, my fingers are hovering my laptop as I try to decide if I really, really, want to look up the homophobic racist on Facebook. Distance from our meeting has me reconsidering if I want to invite that kind of hate back into my life.

I do it anyway.

Next morning, my request is accepted. I’m scanning down his wall and I see it. Post after post after post in support of gay rights, spaced between pictures of bass fishing and guns. Support for gay rights. Support for equal rights. Support for free speech. I’m blown the fuck away, wheel of my mouse turning and turning as I read his political life.

He’s a separation of church and state, Bill of Rights touting, libertarian. The election rolls around and he’s a Never Trump supporter, telling his family they’re free to cease associating if they continue harassing him. We don’t agree on governmental theory, that’s for sure, but to see the transition from a violent homophobic teenager to an adult in support of gay marriage is my bubble of hope in this world. I don’t know how much influence I had during those seminal teenage years. I have no idea if the arguments we had planted a seed in his mind. But, I’d like to think that fondness, that respect, that communication we shared at least tilled the land in which a seed of tolerance could grow.

Since then, I’ve stopped trying to shout as much. I’ve started talking more (though, I’m still saying fuck every third word). When a fifteen-year-old coworker asks me why black people are more violent in protests than white people, when a high school junior tells me she thinks gay people shouldn’t adopt because their children will be teased, when a boy tells me transgender people are just confused because a dick is what makes a man… I tell them to clock out and we start to talk about it. It’s my hope, my belief, that opening up channels of dialogue will lay the foundation for future change.

Half

She buttons her shirt neck to navel, tugging on the hem to straighten faint wrinkles. Beneath the plaid covering bra and breasts, no stranger would suspect she is one body containing half a person.

With strangers she finds her solace. Teens bagging wine bottles at the grocery store and dour civil servants at the post office do not see the empty space inside her. They stare past her, giving her pain anonymity. It is their lack of knowledge that sustains her when she drives far out of her way to strange supermarkets and bank branches never visited before. The familiar aches, memory’s light reminding her she has no shadow.

She folds the comforter, spreading it across the back of the couch. Fluffs the throw pillows and places them in the corners, arranging them as though she were a real person who sleeps in a bed and not in front of a muted television, covered in a quartet of cats she can’t believe are hers alone. They mewl, purr, knead, and hiss, vying for the little spaces beside and atop her. She can’t decide if their behavior has changed or if they always acted this way. The past is an uncertain blur of things forgotten, uncertainties, unknowns. The angles of the bygone slump sideways and she is unable to right them, to remember how life had been, how life should be. Each memory raises a question, not of what she remembers, but what she didn’t see.

She scoops litter, feeds the cats, washes her hands, and grinds coffee. Aside from the patter of padded feet, the sound of kibble clinking in metal bowls, the quiet whirl of her refrigerator, the house is silent. Every sound she makes, socks slipping across linoleum, coffee mug meeting counter, spoon measuring grounds, seems a blasphemous cacophony. Filling up so much space with herself.

Milk for her coffee. An orange for breakfast. She hates all the foods she once cherished. Pleasing to her palate, the presence of them alone in her fridge reminds her there is no more negotiating over grocery lists, no more conversations over her preference in apple varieties or colors of corn. She makes these choices independent of outside influence, buying tofu to scramble instead of eggs, blue cheese instead of chevre, oatmeal instead of boxed cereals. A lone box of Honey O’s gathers dust in the pantry, waiting for someone who wants to eat it.

She’s making adjustments slowly. Her clothes in the top drawers. His in the bottom. She puts their books back on the shelves in any order she pleases. She tells herself this is progress, one moved item, one pair of torn boxers thrown away. She swept his beard trimmings off of the sink and into a Dungeon Master’s Guide that rests atop a pile of his unfinished reading material next to the couch. She runs her fingers over its smooth cover at night, feeling the dips and dents from years of use. Wondering if his deep laugh echoed in his heart, wondering if the joy she felt with him belonged to her alone, hoping he found spaces within his darkness to experience joy.

She leaves the bedroom to him. His phone still plugged in. His computer closed. His tablet’s black screen gathering dust. She doesn’t respond to rings or dings. Intruders from outside get the same silence she receives. Glowing cords and charging lights form a shrine to technology, to connectivity, to lifelessness. A tumbler is ringed with lime scale from slow evaporation. His thick glasses are still folded by the bed. She doesn’t like how the sunlight filters through the curtains, casting the room in a reddish glow.

The loneliness is hard. Grief is harder. But, guilt is what lies between her past and her future. Her perception of what was is saturated with smiles, happiness, laughter. Hard times only heralded good times that were to come. Their life together was a structure built by two pairs of hands, each laying bricks from blueprints upon which they both agreed. It rose through their years together, foundation to floors, walls to roof. She never stopped to check if his foundation was solid, if his mortar was strong, if his walls had wide windows to allow in enough light.

She tries to see their life through his eyes. She tries to see the hopelessness. And can’t. The house always seemed strong to her, an edifice of which they both could be proud. She saw sagging lintels and thought they secured them. She smoothed plaster over the cracks. She painted over leaks in the ceiling. Difficulties arise, she told herself. Breaks can be fixed, holes plugged, floors sanded. What she saw as process, he saw as decay. What she saw as fixed always remained broken.

There comes a point at which something is broken beyond repair. Ruined beyond resurrection. She couldn’t understand how he saw himself as one of those things. She didn’t understand until she was a broken thing herself, dragging her feet through a home that belonged to them.

Them.

She spins her empty coffee mug on the kitchen table, hearing it scrape against the finished wood.

He took himself and half of her. He died. They died. And she alone is left to ache over cracks she tried to fix, signs she might have missed. Memories agonize over what could have been done differently, but she has only half the brain with which to wonder. Half a heart, which beats without reason.

Kentucky Freed Chicken

You always wanted to be skinny, right? Thought you could starve your way to beauty, snorting cocoa dust to sate your sweet tooth while living on lean proteins. All you wanted was to be pretty like those girls in the airbrushed photos, missing lumps of cellulite that kept our ancestors alive.

Maybe you wanted to be a tough guy, wolfing down raw eggs while pumping iron. Four chickens’ breasts a day! Each rep growing your biceps, defining your delts, turning you into a hard, mean muscle machine. You wanted to be a fighter, didn’t you?

Well, we’re all fighters now. We’re all starving, too. All the time you spent working for a better body should have been spent working for a better future.

Let’s be honest, though. You’re probably dead. The people who cause the problem rarely survive to see consequences.

 

I used to share a house with a couple of guys on Massachusetts Ave. Old place, painted a creamy yellow like pissed on snow. It was all sharp angles and tall disapproving windows, watching the beer pong parties we threw in the backyard. Had a room to myself back in those days. A refrigerator constantly empty on account of living with two men in their early twenties. Annoying, yes, but the grocery store was just a few blocks away.

When I dream, I dream about grocery stores. Aisles of freezers, filled with frozen vegetables. Peas. Corn. Mysterious Asian Medley. California Blend. Neat packages, full of food. My cart’s always empty as I stroll through the store, a turquoise purse lost long ago hanging over my shoulder. I browse smoothie blend fruits, condensed juices, blasphemous frozen bagels. I know that I came to the store for one thing. One thing. One thing.

I can never remember.

Somewhere in the condiments aisle, I’ll glance into a fellow shopper’s basket, hoping it will give me hints to my forgotten grocery list.

The dream is always the same. Doesn’t matter if I’m sleeping in a shipping container or cuddled under the musty blankets in Survivors’ Cellar.

The basket is full of heads. My roommate’s heads. Faces pocked and pecked to pieces. Just like I found them that day when I got home laden with shopping bags, bitching about our empty fridge.

Their heads are strapped to pink Styrofoam with cellophane squishing their noses flat. Printed bar coded labels state their names and weights.

Sometimes, there’s a bottle of wing sauce nestled next to their heads. Sometimes, barbecue sauce. Sometimes a bottle filled with Caesar salad dressing, croutons, and a package of romaine heads.

I always wake up screaming.

 

I’m sleeping in Survivors’ Cellar. I only realize this as Gus shoves his wrist sideways into my mouth as I scream. I choke, tasting must and smokey flesh. My eyes come into focus to see him looking down at me, a frown tugging at the corners of his fat lips. He shakes his head. I can’t stay here if I’m a liability to the others. The survival of the many is more important than a single life.

He waits a moment, staring into my eyes until he’s sure we understand one another, then pulls his arm away.

I wipe saliva from the corners of my mouth with the sleeve of my red hoodie. “Sorry.”

Sorry doesn’t cut it. We both know that. He picks his way through the stirring bodies on the floor, some waking, some burrowing deeper into their blankets to fall back asleep. I fold the dirty throw I had wrapped around my body into a neat square, place it on the shelf lining the back wall, and follow him.

Survivor’s Cellar isn’t really a cellar. We’re not survivors, either. We’re just the ones who are left, waiting until the cock crows on the dawn of our death. Gus walks down the narrow tunnel leading to his office. The rubber soles of my sneakers flap flatly against the concrete, deferring to Gus’s work boots.

He heaves himself into the wooden office chair, rubbing the hair on his chin, which hasn’t decided if it’s the start of a beard or just serious scruff. “Third time this week, Gracie.”

A little vent the the ceiling allows cool air to flow into headquarters, bringing with it the smell of fried flesh. Outside, the smell is part of the scenery, common enough to avoid notice. Like a cat’s litter box in his owner’s house. Familiar. After a few hours underground, you forget about the stench. Each time you go outside, you encounter the fowl’s odor anew.

I scuff the concrete floor with my toe. “Said I was sorry.”

He shakes his head. The apology is an affront. “I don’t need more liabilities. Food’s low. Fuel’s low. We got shit in the way of firearms after Connor ran off with half the armory and knocked Pearl up on his way out. Gonna have ourselves a screaming infant around here soon. Don’t need a screaming adult.”

I can’t look at him. “It won’t happen again.”

The drawer squeals as he pulls it open, tossing a can of Vienna Sausages into my line of sight, a way of softening the blow. I stare at the side of the can, ingredients facing me.

May Contain: Beef, Pork, Turkey, Chicken…

My stomach twists while my mouth waters, sickness and hunger fighting each other. Farmers died first, so fast the rest of us didn’t even know. There were more of them than people out in the country. Death came quickly to rural America.

I grab the can, hooking my finger around the pull-tab. Ripping the can open and stuffing little cold meat rolls into my face. I want something else, anything else. But, when the farmers died, food died. For a while, urban greenhouses kept producing. We had lettuces and zucchini, pumpkins and strawberries for the first few years until it became to dangerous to be outside. Many tried to remain in the sun. Many died.

Gus watches me. “I need assets.”

“Found that pallet of canned corn–”

“Three months ago. You found that pallet of canned corn three months ago.” He sucks at his teeth, thinking. “I only have time for useful trouble. You know that. There’s going to be a whole lot of people pissed about your screaming this week. Got them scared. All that fear they have towards the outside is gonna be directed at you. At me, if I don’t do something about it. ”

I’m sipping the salty residue from the bottom of the can.

“It’s time for you to go hunting, Gracie.”

The can slips from my hands, hitting his desk, falling to the floor. “Come on. Not that, Gus. I got a squirrel’s chance on a highway up there.”

“You got the same chances down here if you don’t increase your value. Get outside. Exorcise some of those demons and bring home a whole chicken dinner for the rest of us. It might be good for you.”

“If it doesn’t kill me, you mean.”

 

Gus gave me a pair of red sweats to go over my black leggings. I’m crimson, head to toe, except for the white soles of my sneakers and my fingers, wrapped tight around the grip of a baseball bat. The smells is worse out here. Feces, feathers, and burnt flesh hang heavily in the air, a fetid musk like the worst cologne ever made.

The streets are empty. Buildings are smeared with white and black, a Rorschach of shit. Evidence of winter’s molting blows past, catching feathers in a twisting breeze.

Five years ago, it would have been a beautiful spring day.

I stick to the macadam and cement, places where there’s nothing to scratch. I feel as safe as I can until I round a corner, seeing a half-dozen forgotten garden pots sitting at the bottom of someone’s porch. A single white layer roosts on the pot’s lip, little orange claws gripping the rim.

She’s looking right at me, piece of radish green pinched in her beak. She blinks, head tilted as she stares. Little fucker must have heard me.

The red throws them off, just for a little bit. Calms their thirst for blood until their bird minds catch up with what they’re seeing. It gives me the second I need to wind up the bat and run towards her. Radish green falls from her beak. She spreads her wings wide and screams as my bat catches her in the center of the chest, sending her flying into the stairs. I’m lucky she’s a layer. I hear bones snapping as she connects, feathered body flopping down the stairs as she flaps helplessly.

In one quick motion, I have her up and ring her neck. If our only problem were these girls, the military could have solved it before things got so bad. I stuff the chicken’s corpse into my red backpack and continue on.

Just two blocks over is a park. It used to be green, but now most of the grass is scratched to dirt. Still, there’s five waiting for me. All roosters. Five of them and they’re meat chickens. They’re not quite two feet tall, but built like tanks. Bulging breasts are supported by solid skeletons, not hollow boned like the layer. This is what came of you lean meat greed. We bred a super chicken to feed ourselves. Now, they feed on us.

Their red combs glow in the noon light, beady black eyes blinking as their heads survey the area. Five of them. I’ve taken two before. Three. Four, with Connor before he took off.

If I’m lucky, I fill the backpack to take back to Gus before dark.

If I’m unlucky, I’m chicken feed.

It’s not worth it. I’ll pick off a few skinny layers around the perimeter. Get the ones who get picked on by the others. Make it easy for myself.

I turn around as a single crow rings out, sending icy metal down my spine. I hear the flap of wings, beating against the ground, the clawing of their sharp toes.

I choke up on the bat and face them.