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.

Advertisements

Collaborative Story Part III

This is part three of a flash fiction horror story exercise.

Part I was done by Sertysh and can be found here: https://hikelylads.wordpress.com/author/sertysh/

Part II was written by Rebekah Spark: http://www.cre8tivelife.net/flash-fiction/flash-fiction-scary-story-challengepart-two-of-sertyshs-story

The third, and final, part follows.

“Hello. This is Sergeant Lisa Wilson. To whom am I speaking?”

The phone felt like a cold, plastic promise against my ear. “Wha… Wha… What’s going on out there?” My voice whined like a tight screw in hard wood. I fumbled for the vase on Kennard’s desk, threw the bouquet to the ground, and took a sip of green water, blotting my mouth with my bile-stained tie. “It is everywhere? My wife–”

“I GOT SOMEONE,” she shouted on the other end of the line. Dozens of floors below, I saw people scramble towards a single point where a dark haired woman stood, a finger jammed in her ear as she tried to hear her cell over the the clamor. “What is your status?”

Pissed my pants like a little pussy. Puked at some point. Asshole feels like someone jammed a red-hot corkscrew in it an twisted. Just another scared old geezer being pursued by a monster beyond his comprehension. A usual Monday, really.

I pulled myself together, tugged at the hem of my ill-fitting shirt. “Um. I’ve barricaded myself in an office.”

“Are there any other survivors with you?” She was shouting over the din of chaos.

“No,” I said before I had a chance to figure out why I knew it. “I mean. I don’t think so. I haven’t seen any, ma’am. I’m alone.”

“We have teams sweeping the lower floors. They’ll get you out.” A loud siren wailed over her voice. “Sir. Sir? What’s your name?”

The fire eating Saint Anne’s was growing, flames rising up from the hospital’s tarred roof, black clouds billowing from broken windows.

Anne. Annie. My youngest daughter. My guts did a one-eighty thinking of my family.

“I need to know if my family’s safe. My wife–”

“It’s an isolated incident, sir. Just between the hospital and this office building. Hold on for a moment.” I heard her muffled voice issuing orders.

I expected to feel relief, but my stomach sank like I’d eaten a bag of rocks.

The sergeant bitch is wrong. They’re dead. Dead like everyone who worked in this office. Dead like I’m going to be. Gutted in the garage. I could hear Annie begging me to save her, pleading for me to stop the impossible. The inevitable. I was too far by then. Too far.

“Hasssssssssssss.” The long hiss came again, closer than before. I almost felt its warm breath on my neck. I spun around, wrapping myself in the phone cord.

I was alone in the room.

The door was still barricaded, potted plant perfectly in place.

“Hassssssssssss.”

My eyes drifted over to the other door in the room. A narrow door with slanted panels leading to a coat closet.

I stumbled over Kennard’s mahogony desk, knocking over the picture of his wife. Gemma. I was sure her name was Gemma. I ducked down, eyes at surface level with the desk so I could see the closet door.

“Are you still there, sir?”

“Oh, sweet Jesus. It’s in here with me.”

For a moment, all I could hear was muffled murmurs on the other end of the line. “Sir, you’re alone on that floor. Infrared scans of the building are coming in now.”

“Bullshit,” I spat, crawling under the desk like they’d taught us to do in elementary school. Duck and cover, childre. An A-Bomb could only improve this day.

“I really need your name, sir.” Her voice was cold as illegal steel shipped in from China.

“Hasssssssssss.” The hiss came again. Whining scratches like fingernails on the longest chalkboard filled my ears. Finger that belonged to no hand.

I clenched my asshole. Closed my eyes. “Tell my wife I loved her. Tell my children I’m sorry. I want to be with them. I should be with them.”

“I know. I know,” she said quietly, not meant for me. Then, “Sir, I can’t contact your family if I don’t have your name.”

“Ted. Ted Knickles. My wife is–”

“Myara Knickles. We know, sir.”

I thought I was going to shit myself in the silence that followed. I farted instead.

I’m hotboxing myself under this desk. Disgusting? Sure, but better than I deserve.

“Are you still there, Ted?”

“You’re going to tell me she’s dead, aren’t you?”

Her breath crackled in my ear. “Ted, why don’t you tell me the last thing you remember?”

I licked at my cracked lips. “I was hiding in the executive bathroom. The monster had–”

“What monster, Ted?” Using my name to gain my trust, eh? My shrink had tried that.

“The monster. The monster. The one you’re here to save me from.” I was shrieking like a six-year-old sissy. I didn’t care.

She was talking to someone else before returning. “What about before the bathroom? What did you do this morning, Ted?”

“Hassssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss.” Sharp like a dart in my eardrum.

“I don’t remember.” I drew up my knees, sobbing for my family. For myself. “It’s been the worst day. Go ahead. Tell me my wife is dead. Tell me the girls–”

“I don’t have to tell you, Ted. You know Myara and Annie are dead. You killed them ten years ago.”

I tried to jump up, slamming my head on the underside of Kennard’s fucking desk. “Lying bitch. You’re on the monster’s side, aren’t you? Telling me I killed Myara and the girls.”

“Girl.” Sergeant Wilson cleared her throat. Quieter, not to me, she said, “I know doc. Getting there. Ted, you still–?”

“I’m still here. What about my other daughter? Did the monster get…” I tried to remember her name, but it floated somewhere out in the ether. Remembering it was like trying to catch a handful of smoke.

“You almost killed Gemma, but her husband stopped you. They called the police. That’s how you ended up in the Grandview State Hospital, Ted.”

I peered above the desk again, not at the closet door, but at the photo. Gemma? My Gemma? The framed fake blonde stared back at me. It couldn’t be my little princess. “If I’m in Grandview State Hospital, why the hell am I at work? Maybe you’re the mental patient, thinking an escapee wants to come and push papers on a Monday morning.”

“Hasssssssssssssssssssssssss.” The closet door was rattling like chattering teeth. I set the receiver down on the desk top, pressed the speaker phone button. I fumbled around for my belt, wrapping it around my sweaty, swollen hands. No one was going to save me. Just Ted against the monster, the way it was meant to be.

“They had to take you in for a colonoscopy at Saint Anne’s. Thought you’d stay sedated the whole time. Didn’t think you’d even notice that your old office building was next door.”

Another voice, fainter in the background. “I told them it was a bad idea, but no one wanted to listen to his doctor!”

“Ted. Talk to me, Ted. Tell me what happened after the stock market crash,” Sergeant Wilson’s voice returned, trying to keep me on the line as long as possible. Long enough for her people to get to me. So, it was either going to be a SWAT team or the monster?

Nice to be a man with choices.

“What do you want me to say?” I shouted at the speaker phone as I approached the closet. It stopped shaking when it saw me coming. I flipped my tie over my shoulder so the monster couldn’t grab it, knuckles brushing against the Saint Anne’s Hospital ID badge still attached to the pocket.

“That Myara was going to leave me when I lost my job at the firm? That she said I’d spent our life together working away from her? That my only value to her was monetary? That she was going to take Annie back east?”

The closet was within reach. My fingers traced its cold knob. The monster whispered from the other side, slow and simple this time. “Has.”

Her voice cut sliced through. “What about Craig Kennard?”

“What about Craig?” I asked. “He wanted me to mentor him. Spent five years grooming that boy. Thought of him as a son.”

“So much that he married your daughter Gemma. Isn’t that right, Ted?”

I didn’t answer the sergeant. “But, when it came time to send out the pinks slips, he was more than eager to throw me to the wolves. What did he tell the boss I was?”

“Hasssssssssss…..” hissed from the closet.

“That’s right,” I said, speaking to the closet now, not to the telephone. I ripped open the door, staring down at the dismembered mess of Craig at the bottom of the closet. His head was placed atop the pile, eyes open. Dull, lifeless, but still mirroring that hate, that rage, that predatory cunning. The monster’s eyes. “You called me a has been, didn’t you Craig? You told everyone my best days were behind me. That I should be put out to pasture. Has been. Hasssssssssss been.”

I put my foot, which was wearing someone’s shoe, onto Craig’s head, making him nod at me.

“Ted. Ted.” Her voice was just a distraction now. “Ted. Wait.”

“Now, they’re all has beens. All of them. From the mailroom to the main office.”

“Ted, stay on the line.”

“I’m going to be with my family,” I shouted to Sergeant Wilson. “As soon as I finish this monster.”

I unwrapped the belt from around my hands, kicking parts of Craig out of the way as I looped one end around my neck, the other over the bar in the coat closet.

Collaborative Story Horror, Part II

This was written as part of a collaborative storytelling experience in the horror genre. Thanks to Shana Horn who wrote part one. It can be found here:

http://slwhshorts.blogspot.com/2016/10/part-1.html

A big toe, iridescent and slick as a silver koi, pressed against the window, visible below the stained glass stick-on. It traced a line against the pane, leaving a streak of sparkling slime in its wake. My eyes went from toe to the window ledge. In my frantic washing, I’d splashed some water onto the line of salt. A little gap formed as it dissolved, dripping down the wall.

My mother never told me what would happen once the outside got in. It was a little secret not spoken, the dangers lying in wake for a girl half-grown. I will tell you the one thing I learned that night: Silence never saved anyone.

My nakedness became my chief concern, silly though it was. One hand covered my budding breasts while I stumbled backwards, my mother’s too-large briefs sagging on my scant hips.

The hiss came again from the other side of the window. Crackling and low. A radio with a broken antenna. “Blood. My blood.”

My heel slid as it hit the line of salt outside the bathroom door, sending me crashing to my ass. My favorite pajama top, the purple one with the smiling rainbow pony, was balled up in the hall where I’d tossed it. I pulled it over my head and looked back at the bathroom window.

The toe was gone. The line of goo remained.

I pulled myself up, rubbing my sore tailbone through my mother’s briefs. The pad pressed against my skin beneath them, warm and wet beneath the porous plastic layer.

I wasn’t told there would be so much blood.

Then again, I wasn’t told a lot of things.

Eyes on the bathroom window, I padded backwards to the kitchen where the round florescent bulbs anchored to ceiling, glowing blue halos, would be my savior. I’d almost convinced myself the entire thing had been a nightmare, something I’d imagined while half-awake and frantic. I lowered myself onto the padded seat at the dining room table.

Scratching outside the sliding glass door leading onto our balcony. It’s voice—his voice, I realized—came from behind the drawn black curtains. “You are mine. Your parts are mine. Your blood is mine.”

My mother’s knife block rested on the kitchen counter. I staggered across the linoleum to it, pad already swelling with blood between my legs. I felt other things ooze from me as I moved. Hot flesh sliding from my flesh as I pulled the largest knife from the block and approached the door. My lower abdomen ached as though my uterus was an animal, twisting in circles, trying to get out.

“What are you?” I tried to sound bold, but my voice was built for selling sugary cereals between Saturday morning cartoons.

“Wrong question, woman.” The door shook as he tried to pull it open. “What are you?”

“I’m–”

You’re mine,” he hissed. The door jiggled. Louder this time. Curtains shaking. He howled. “Cursed bitch with the salt. The crosses. The locks. The lights. Cursed bitch who thinks fear makes her safe. Nothing makes you safe.”

The rattling stopped. Silence was louder than his howling. My ears ached. My gut twisted. Was he still there? Was it still there? Waiting for me on the other side of the door?

I swallowed, throat tight. I reached out with the knife’s tip, touched the curtains and gently pushed them to the side.

Dark night stared back at me. A half moon. A few stars too bright to be swallowed up by the light pollution of our town.

I let the curtains fall back into place, backing up. The wooden knife handle was warming in my hands.

My legs brushed together, chaffing from the stickiness that flowed over the pad, coating my thighs. I pressed a hand against my flesh just to make sure. It came back red, dotted with black clots.

Shattering glass broke the silence. A large hunk of something fell and crunched into metal three stories below. A car alarm screamed. I whipped around to see it emerging from the bathroom, brushing red brick dust off its shoulders.

It was a man, or male at the very least, advancing upon me. His skin was shimmering white, sparkling and translucent. Veins pulsed beneath his skin. Suggested muscles shifted. The only shred of cloth he had was a red silk tie worn nattily around his neck. Hair like cotton candy made of piss twisted around his head. His eyes were blue, only blue, like blinking marbles.

“Blood.” He held out his hand, curled it in my direction as though pulling me towards him. “My blood.”

“I’ll give you your blood,” I said, even as my fingers went limp, knife falling from my hand.

He chuckled, revealing a sharks mouth behind his lips. “The woman doesn’t know what it says. You are not yours. This body. This life. I created you. You are mine. Your parts are mine. Your blood is mine. I shall have my right.”

His head whipped forward before I heard the crack of a wooden bat against the back of his head, leaving an indent in the side of his skull. He slid to the ground.

My mother, my beautiful mother, stood behind him, worn fabric grip of the slugger clutched between both her hands. She wore a long shirt, purple like my own. Three fat white kittens chased a butterfly across her breasts.

Her eyes, brown eyes like mine, stared back at me in horror. “What did you do, baby?”

I held out my bloodied hand, gestured to my wet thighs, to her briefs.

”No. No. No.” The bat trembled in her hands.

The thing on the ground started to move. I watched the crater in his head slowly disappear. “Yes, sweet thing, yes. I will have my blood back from her. I will retake my power.” He lashed out with one long, pale arm and knocked my mother to the floor.

Stranger At The Table

Viola had shit to her name. She had two sons with her name, but the pair of them were worth less than shit. At least shit was consistent (in that it always stank). Viola’s sons said some mighty nice words at their father’s funeral, but when they found out he didn’t have life insurance and died a year too soon for their dear old mom to receive his Social Security, those nice words stopped short of action. All they had were suggestions: Don’t you have some cousins out in the country? Maybe you could move in with friends. Maybe the church would help you. Maybe you could apply for assistance.

The only assistance Viola needed was from her children, but it seemed as though they forgot everything she’d taught them about how to treat someone. Her Pappy said that was what happened when people moved to the city. Said people were better out where the corn grew tall and the hogs grew fat. Said folks were always willing to welcome a stranger to the table. Said he should have stayed out in the country and he would have, too, if Viola’s daddy hadn’t made him move to St. Louis after the boar nearly tore out his femoral artery after he slipped in the winter slop.

It was that line, about country folk always being willing to welcome a stranger to the table, Viola remembered when she was scraping the bottom of her savings account for one more month of rent. It was that line she thought of when packing her clothes into plastic bags and shoving them and her favorite dog-eared romance novels into the trunk of her Ford Taurus. It was that line she referenced in the note she left for her sons along with the gray flip phone they’d insisted she bought five years prior.

It’d seemed like such a good idea as she watched the city disappear in her rear-view, windows down to allow the cool autumn air to ruffle her hair. She had four hundred eighty-three dollars and seventy-eight cents in her glove box (the entire contents of her savings account) and the biggest adventure of her fifty-one years of life ahead of her as she drove west.

It seemed like such a good idea until she was bent over a map on her car’s hood at a gas pump, trying to figure out which wrong turn she made in the fading light. The speaker hissed and someone sounding authoritative told her to either fill her car or leave. She left.

She should have filled her car.

Another hour later, the sun was long gone and so was her gas. On either side of her car, fields of dried corn scraped in the breeze. She pulled out her map again, squinted at it. All she remembered was passing a sign saying six miles to Humansville a few minutes before her engine died.

Well, her pappy always said people were more friendly in the country. Viola wasn’t going to have a better chance to find out. She put on her tennis shoes, white ones that had never seen dirt, stuffed the cash from her glove box into her purse, and locked her doors. Thankfully, the batteries of her red mini maglite seemed strong. She started walking.

Viola started to regret a lot of things while hoofing it down that road, none of which were making the trip. She regretted marrying an older man rather than going to college or looking for work. She regretted staying home with her sons rather than getting a job and staying home once they left for school because she’d never done anything else. She’d relied on her husband to take care of them financially and assumed he would always be there to take care of them. Assumed the doctors were exaggerating when they told him to eat more broccoli and less bacon. He’d looked so healthy until the heart attack. Then, he looked dead.

She stumbled, scuffing the pristine white leather of her shoes. In truth, Viola felt duped by life. As though she’d given thirty-three years of her life to marriage and family and been suckled dry by both. She’d invested her life in others. It had yielded shit.

Her flashlight caught the edge of a driveway, macadam yielding to gravel. She turned, thinking of the breakfasts her Pappy recounted from his childhood. Biscuits slathered in lard and topped with eggs, crocks of cream and bacon to boot. She thought of a long table, filled with smiling faces, people wearing coveralls and plaid shirts, keeping one chair at their table empty so she could join them.

The walls of corn on either side of the gravel lane gave way to grass. There was one spot light attached to each of the three buildings. None of them were houses with window boxes or painted shutters, where people left a porch light on just in case a stranger’s car ran out of gas.

They were long rectangular buildings, a shade of mint green only seen in high school locker rooms in the 1970s. Giant exhaust fans drowned out any noise from within, but with the noise came the stench of shit and urea, thick enough that Viola thought she could see it.

This was no place for her white tennis shoes, even if she had scuffed them.

Turning to leave, she caught sight of a gold Ford F-150 parked in the shadow of one of the spotlights. She reasoned that the farmer had come by to check on his animals. Maybe he would be wearing a red plaid shirt, denim coveralls, and had a place for her to sleep that night.

She crept up to one of the sliding doors and pushed it open.

The Cistern

“Don’t go looking in there,” my father says.

Not to my seven-year-old self, worrying the ceiling panel in the milkhouse, wanting to see where the dubious wiring disappeared to and where the barn cats go to die.

Not to my seventeen-year-old self, poking around the metal chest hidden beneath a vinyl tablecloth in the basement where all the letters he wrote to women before my mother are stored, covered in mildew and cat piss.

He said it to my thirty-year-old self, balancing on the loose cement slab on my grandmother’s back porch, picking rust flakes off of the hand pump I played with as a child. It’s limp handle had no resistance. No draw.

“There’s a cistern down there,” he says. “They used to be lined and every so often, you’d pay someone to empty it out and scrub it. But, we moved here in 1963 and it’s never been opened since then. You don’t know what could be down there. You don’t want to know. Just leave it alone.”

Wisdom imparted, he reverses his riding lawn mower and buzzes away.

My grandmother’s backyard has always been a place of danger and mystery. From the large sandstone stoop someone robbed from the Union Canal lock across the creek, strange, red and out of place with the limestone topography, to the mossy brick under the wizened apple tree where my brother and I buried the pigeon we hatched. The little mewling squab, which died two days out of the shell.

He said it was because I spilled the white sloppy pigeon milk we’d made.

He said it was my fault.

I spent summers in that backyard, walking on curled toes to avoid the spiny shells dropped by the Japanese Chestnut. Brutal, sharp hidden hedgehogs obscured by lawn and shade. Between the chestnut tree and the pine tree, the grass never grew quite right on that side of the house. I’d sit on the back porch and watch my grandmother use an ax to decapitate my pet chickens. Their blinking heads rolled down the ha-ha, chased by her mongrel mutt while their wings flapped wildly. We’d sit on the stoop, plucking the carcass. The dog chomped away at the bones and brain while lying at our feet.

I actually hadn’t been thinking about looking in the cistern until my father told me not to do it. However, I’m the sort of person emboldened by a warning.

I shift on the cement slab again, hearing concrete knock and the hollowness beneath.

Had I been a child, I’d have spent the afternoon lying on the porch, daydreaming about the undiscovered glowing fishes swimming beneath. Water dragons. Or plasma eels. Or tiny mer-fairies, no bigger than my pinky. I’d have gathered up my friends some blissful Saturday and, armed with a weak flashlight and our tiny arms, worked at that slab until someone called us for supper.

Had I been a teenager, I’d have sneaked up the hill to my father’s shop, grabbed the railroad jack, and lifted the thing myself, bent on some ecological fantasy of green slime and festering water. New pharmaceutical ingredients like those found in the rain forest. Or, perhaps I’d contract scarlet fever and come to a beautiful death.

I’m thirty. The slab rocks beneath my feet.

Corpses, I think. It’s got to be corpses.

I don’t know why it’s got to be corpses, but the thought does its job. I abandon the backyard for the warm safety of the asbestos tiled kitchen and Formica counter-tops.

A few weeks later, I’m in the ground cellar with a flashlight clutched between my teeth. Perfect white and gray molds grow on my experiment cheeses. I flip one over to find an phosphorescent yellow creeping up the side. I try to wipe it away with a cotton rag, effectively spreading it all over the wheel. Jaw aching, I set the flashlight on the shelf and scrub harder. Still, a glowing smear remains.

Below my feet are bricks caked with years of potato dirt. Gnarled meat hooks hang from the white washed ceiling. The steps are slick with moisture and dust. There are no lights unless you bring your own.

I used to hate the ground cellar. Hated having to walk down the damp stairs to get ingredients for my grandmother’s Sunday dinners. Hated having to pass it to get outside, the stench of wet wood, garden tools, and earth. I still avoid visiting it at night.

Moisture beads on the southwest wall where the cellar is abutted by the cistern. It’s fifty-six degrees in the cellar. Eight-five percent moisture. Perfect for cheese, in part because of that cistern. Water no longer trickles off the roof to fill it. Whatever remains inside it is older than I am. It’s existence forces its way into my mind at the oddest moments. While kneading bread or shaking out fodder bedding.

During the daytime, it seems to me that everyone should have a working cistern, a means of collecting clean rain water. It’s a matter of conservation. And protection, because no one is going to want to hoof it down to the creek during the zombie apocalypse. I tell myself I’ll hire some Amishmen to open the cistern up and give it a good scrub. I’ll do it sometime when I am far away and don’t have to see what is within.

There used to be an open dry cistern by the barn, my father said. It was full of rats. He’d grab up one of the half-feral barn cats and toss them into it, watching them slaughter rats like some kind of bestial Thunderdome. In his defense, my father has a complicated relationship with rats. As a child, they’d chewed clear through every closed door in their former home. My grandpop would give my five-year-old father a baseball bat and chase them out from under the chicken coop with a laundry pole.

My father had to kill as many as possible.

Our wagon shed was built with a concrete base to deter rats from making nests. It was moved, piece by piece, across the county when my grandparents’ bought the farm in 1963. It had to be rebuilt, piece by piece, too. One of the workmen fell from the second floor and died during its reconstruction. We once picked currants at the foreman’s house after seeing an ad for free fruit in the newspaper. “Don’t mention the farm,” my mother said.

I tell myself there is nothing scary in the cistern. It’s just old water and dirt. I tell myself I have an anxiety disorder and need to stop avoiding the backyard. I remind myself that my father might have an anxiety disorder, too. Once, when cleaning up fishermen’s trash along the creek, my mother came across a lone black garbage bag hanging from a tree.

“Don’t open it,Janey,” he told her. “You don’t know what’s inside. Don’t know what someone would leave so far out here.”

It was beer cans.

I tell myself the only terrible things that happened around our farm occurred centuries ago. The neighboring farm where the owner pinched the fingers of six Lenni Lanape into a log by pulling out the wedges and shot them all, inciting years of raids and death. The mill down the road where the tribe exacted their revenge. One scalped thirteen-year-old girl and a baby survived. The twin farms over the hill that face each other, one lane split between them. Barn looks at barn. House looks at house. Two brothers built those farms. Two brothers worked side-by-side. Then, something happened and there was only one brother left. No one asked questions. No one asked why. They just accepted that one farmer suddenly had two farms facing each other.

But these are old stories.

Stories of things that happened decades ago.

Stories from long before my family bought the farm.

They shouldn’t concern us. Just like the contents of the cistern.

Snow coats the split wood stacked on the back porch. My friends and I are half-drunk, stumbling around for the beer we’ve stashed in the ground cellar, gathering logs to feed the woodstove to keep us warm.

A hollow thunk as one of them trips over the concrete slab.

“What’s that?” he asks, piling my arms high with wood.

“The old cistern. It borders the ground cellar. Helps it maintain its temperature in the summer and keeps the moisture steady.” I lift my chin higher so he can shove another log on the pile.

“Cistern? We’re going to need one of those for the zombie apocalypse.”

I stomp the snow off my boots before going inside, shake my head. “Don’t go looking in there,” I say. “You don’t want to know.”

The El Dorado of Pot

She’d asked the gum snapping hairdresser at the local KutHut to give her bangs like Bettie Page, but as she brushed the frizzy fringe from her eyes, she had to admit she looked more like a pink and blonde Popple than a pinup girl. All round cheeks and button blue eyes, a face better suited to selling diapers than seducing boys.

Still, he reclined on her dad’s Lay-Z-Boy, puffing at one of her mom’s Newports wearing nothing but Star Wars boxers damp around the crotch. He had more hair on his chin than his chest, though calling his few scraggly strands a beard was like calling their bumblefuck town a city or her parents’ doublewide anything other than a piece of shit.

They’d fucked on it. The recliner, that is. They’d also fucked on the pool table wedged into what used to be Wade’s room, tucked in there so tightly you hadn’t room to line up a shot with anything larger than a chopstick. The only thing that pool table was good for was fucking on, and it wasn’t too good for that if you had the mind to clean the felt once you were finished.

She’d done that, with a spray bottle of Formula 409 and her discarded boy shorts. She’d stripped her sheets, because that was where they started, and already had them in the dryer, hoping to get her bedroom back to rights before her mom got home from second shift.

He’d watched her, lazy eye half closed while high from the schwag that Wade had left him.

She was so in love.

He inhales audibly through his teeth, louder than it should be because his left incisor is missing a large chuck after an unfortunate meeting with a curb. “That’s some tough shit, baby. When’s he getting out?”

They’d been over this before, how many months Wade would be in county jail, but Cody had a way of forgetting things, aided by water bong made of Mt. Dew bottles. “November. Sometime around Thanksgiving.” She winces, hearing her baby pitched voice and aims for a lower register. “It’s so fucked up.” That’s right, she thought, use your grown up words. “There was so much he wanted to do this summer.”

“Stay away from po-po.” He says it in a singsong way, as if his experience with the police amounted to something greater than being driven home by the local cop with a pocketful of weeds after he was seen rooting around in the vacant lot behind the fire hall. He’d also had some pills. Aspirin with the pill identifiers scraped off was what the cop said, but she didn’t know whether it was true or he was just some lucky white kid baked off his ass in suburbia.

He’d said that it was E.

He turns on the television, flipping through all the channels his parents can’t afford.

She pours him a glass of lemonade, placing it on the end table beside the recliner. She doesn’t really want to tell him, but her desire to be desired, her need to be needed, is strong. Strong enough that the fact that he’s ignoring her after fucking her three times that afternoon actually makes her gut hurt.

“So, where are you going to get your shit while Wade’s away?” It’s so much easier to say, “Wade’s away,” than, “my brother’s in prison.” Only, it’s not a prison, it’s jail. It’s just county, he said. No big deal. Few months in then back out, but back out too late for his harvest, that much she knew.

“Maybe I’ll start dealing myself.” He flips back a few channels to see two monkeys fucking, then flips back to see Ed Norton’s hulk taking up a couple helicopters.

“And how are you going to do that?” She tucks her narrow arms behind her back, pushing out her C-cups like someone’s stabbing her in the back with a pointy stick. Working her way up to the point.

“Get someone to spot me the shit. Won’t make money, but I can smoke the profits. Nooch.” He starts surfing channels again, stopping on Emma Stone, who looks nothing like a Popple with her auburn bangs hanging in her eyes. That’s what finally decides her. It feels a lot like betraying Wade, but Wade isn’t here right now and he won’t be back until it’s after the first frost.

She wrings her hands behind her back, hoping to look coy. “What if you could smoke all you wanted and earn money while doing it?”

He tugs at his ballsack while staring at Emma Stone. “What you talking about, baby?”

“Wade said he was growing plants, a whole field of them.”

His eyes go wide as he tugs his ballsack a little too hard. “Plants? Where?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere near a bridge, he said.”

He’s looking at her now, his blue eyes so close to the same shade as hers that when she gets close enough, it’s like staring into a mirror. “Which bridge?”

“He didn’t say, but there are only so many bridges nearby.” It was true enough. There was a finite number of bridges in the adjoining townships. With all the little creeks snaking through cow pastures and culverts, maybe just over a hundred. “A whole field,” she repeats, reminding him of the main point.

“A whole field. No one else knows about it?”

She shakes her head, even though she doesn’t know if Wade told anyone else.

He smiles at her and moves a half inch over on the recliner, giving her the smallest sliver of space, and pats it. “Come here, baby.”

She jumps on him, nuzzling her face against his bare chest.

“We’re gonna find that field.” He wraps one arm around her, turning off the television. “If it takes the whole fucking summer. Just you and I, baby. You and I and my friend Ben to drive us around. Three of us, looking for the El Dorado of pot.”

The Slaughterhouse Door

“I will slice you into beef!”

A large belch of cud breath hit her face, fermented greenery bound with bile and saliva.

Eth gave her familiar a shove, trying to push Cow’s face off her shoulder. The bovine shifted her head to the other shoulder just by craning her long neck. “Humans don’t slice into beef,” Eth said.

“Then what do they slice into?” Cow stepped forward, knocking the witch into the door she was trying to open, knocking her goggles askew.

“I don’t know.” Eth readjusted her eye-wear and squatted down so she could examine the lock on eye level. “Flesh.”

Cow’s spittle dribbled down the back of Eth’s dress as she spoke. “Everything is flesh, servant. Your people turn pigs to pork, fowl to poultry, and my babies to veal–”

“You’ve never had a baby.” She’d found Cow just a wee calf in her papa’s pasture, red the color of congealed blood except for a white blaze beneath her pole. They’d been together every moment since then, even when their physical bodies were distant. In that time, Cow had never given birth, though she gave milk just fine.

Eth pulled out her jaw harp, sliding it between her teeth and clamping her lips around it. She plucked at it with her fingers, hoping not only to find the notes to charm the lock, but to end the conversation as well.

All cows are my calves, Cow said in Eth’s mind, not content to let the subject drop. Don’t feign ignorance on my account. You’re the stupid one without answers.

Eth wasn’t a good witch. The ability to both channel her own powers into opening the lock and mind-speaking with Cow was beyond her. They both knew it, too. Cow had ceased speaking, but she continued to bore her will into Eth’s mind, forcing her to abandon the lock for a moment. She pulled the harp from her mouth, not wanting to waste more power than was necessary.

“We don’t call our flesh anything special, Cow. We don’t eat each other.”

“Maybe you should try sometime,” Cow said, aloud this time. “You can eat less of us that way and there would be less of you.”

Eth rubbed some sweat off her brow. Summer in the city was so much worse than back home. On the farm, they had breeze. “Can I please just open this door.”

“If you do, I will slice you into beef.”

“I’d like to see you hold a knife.” Eth stuck the harp back in her mouth and returned to plucking it, trying to hear the sound of the lock in response to her call.

Don’t need a knife when you have hooves. Cow had taken a step forward, her shiny black cloven hoof a hair’s breadth away from Eth’s back, her brisket pressed against the witch’s back. Eth closed her eyes, trying not to think about the 900 pound familiar looming over her and listened.

Not for the first time, not for the first time that week, not for the first time that day, not for the first time that hour, Eth wished she’d have gotten a different familiar. A nice snake, perhaps. An owl. A weasel. A rat. A tick. A flea. A louse. Even a nice case of bush thrush would be better than this.

That’s the thing most people don’t understand.

She twanged at the harp, getting closer.

She didn’t choose Cow.

Twang.

Cow chose her.

Eth was just a farmer’s daughter, wandering through the wooded field, looking for Lizzie’s calf. The cow had wandered back to the barn that morning, placenta dangling proudly out, pleased with herself for hiding a calf so well. Eth was told to go find it and find it she did. Most of it, anyway. Bits were here and there, black and white patches of fur and flesh. An ear. A swish. Ribs with pale pink calf flesh hanging from them in ribbons.

Eth should have gone back to the barn, but there was a lot of things in Eth’s life she should have done differently.

She followed the trail of gore and guts down to the creek, where the grass gave way to sandy silt and shallow rooted trees. The old hickory had still been standing the last time Eth wandered this far away from the houses, but it was down now, its roots ripped out of the earth like an angry maw. So close to the creek, water had already pooled in the hollow left by the tree. And that’s where she found Cow, a tiny red calf with wide black eyes and a tuft of black and white fur in her mouth.

The lock responded to the harp, not so much unlocking as loosening, the real world melting slightly to accommodate the witch’s will. Eth felt it rather than heard it, but she stood all the same and jiggled the door. The latch gave way.

“I’m not going in there,” Cow said, her ears flicking back.

A hot blast of bloody air hit Eth’s face as the door swung open. She pulled her white scarf up above her nose and mouth and adjusted her goggles for a snugger fit. “You brought us this far. Then, you don’t want me to open the door. You don’t want to go inside. I never thought you’d abandon the herd.”

Cow’s one ear popped forward, as if she was hearing something from beyond the door while the other remained steadfastly back, showing her disapproval. “This is not about my herd.”

“If all cows are your calves, then all cows are your herd.”

“People know nothing about herds.” Cow took an uncertain step back, wide eyes going wider.

“Maybe, but I know a lot about cows.” Eth tucked her jaw harp back into her dress’s pocket and hitched up her skirt. “And the only thing scarier to a cow than this here slaughter house is being left alone outside.”

Eth stepped through the door, onto the metal grate beyond. The kill floor spread out far below them, but Eth could see the bronze gears churning, speckled red from their day’s work. High above, fan blades turned on a single shaft jutting out from the floor below, whining as they rotated, pulling up steam and heat.

The witch stepped farther in, gripping the railing to look down.

In her mind, she herd a single word.

Damfucker.

The familiar click of hooves followed behind her.