Tom did notice one thing as the men were filling the truck one last time. The birds. They were - aggressive. Over the years Tom had watched, oversaw, and helped load the trucks countless times. Usually the too fat to walk poultry would only exhibit enough energy to take a few steps away from a collector. Today - the birds were in rare form.
Tom went into the kitchen. It seems this day was over sooner than he first imagined. The arrival of the final plant truck signaled not only an end to his work day, but the work of the farm. For good. His mother and father sat around the table amid folders of papers, a calculator, several pencils, and some notepads. They had been talking for nearly an hour when the full truck drove off. And another hour and a half as Tom picked through the houses to scavenge the remaining scrappy birds.
"Turn right back around and grab two of those birds for dinner, Tommy," his mother said in a slow tired voice. "Your sisters will be home shortly and we've still got to eat tonight. I'll look for a job tomorrow Jim. There ain't much else we can do besides that."
His father slammed a flat heavy angry hand down on the table. He pushed his chair back and stood up to walk away. Taking his first step the man wavered a bit, hesitated, and regained his balance. Hobbling off into the living room Tom's father dropped heavily into the large easy chair they had given him ten Christmases ago and flipped on the evening news. Tom was certain the old man was neither watching nor listening to a word of it.
Tom cleaned the chickens and tossed the refuse in the corpse bin. Well one good thing came of all this he supposed. Tom would never pick up another dead chicken for the rest of his days. And that meant never coming back to this corpse bin and building a layer cake of death. He took the naked roasters into the kitchen and laid them in the sink to be washed. One of his sisters stepped up and scrubbed the remaining tiny feathers and blood from the bird. She cleaned it up a bit and placed their raw dinner into a pan with some vegetables and broth. A short time from now the family would gather around the dinner table and review the day. But not before Tom made his escape plans for tonight.
Dashing out of the kitchen and up to the bathroom, Tom disrobed and took a short hot shower. The only thought racing through his mind was that long legged angel that fell to Earth last night by the River. How would Jett convince the girls to go camping with them for the week? Tom worried over the situation, and considered several solutions while he bathed the stench of dead fowl from his body. Toweling dry, Tom went across the hall to his room and dressed. Fresh jeans and a fresh shirt. For Donna. Hopefully.
Tom opened his closet door, and pulled the Kelty backpack from the hook on the wall. This had been the same backpack he'd used on countless trips with the guys over the years. The first few trips their parents chaperoned the boys, but as they got older, they were trusted to hike to the camp ground alone. Tom could hardly remember a Summer without a camping trip by the River. And this week would top them all. Hopefully.
Flipping open his cell phone Tom dialed Jett by memory. There was no answer. Maybe Mark. He clasped the phone closed, reset the device, and dialed again. No answer. If those two idiots ditched him tonight and went out without Tom, he'd give them a piece of his mind when he saw them next. Tom hung up the phone as his Dad passed the room. "Get down stairs now, your mother has supper ready."
Tom grabbed his backpack, slung it over one shoulder, and followed the weary chicken farmer down the upstairs hall and over the edge of the landing. Slowly they made their way to the bottom of the stairs and into the kitchen. Tom glanced out the stained glass window again as he dropped his feet to the bottom step. The light of the security lamp hanging high on the pole at the end of their drive was a small star in the corner of the colored glass. The beams of light danced in Tom's eye. And a thought crossed his mind - perhaps this was his chance to leave home for good. With the chickens not being there and needing tending to, Tom could simply leave, and find a new life. It lingered momentarily - "Tom, I won't tell you again, git to the table!" his father shouted. The vision melted away, and was quickly replaced by the snapshot of Tom as Employee of The Month at the grocery store in town, the dream of escape faded - and was crushed.
"You know I'm headed out to Cedar Creek this week. We've planned to go camping and fishing and..."
Tom was abruptly cut off by his father. "You'll sit your ass down and eat is what you'll do. There's more chores to finish after supper. Tomorrow you will come into town with me and look for work." His mother backed up her husband with a deafening silence that was accentuated by the expression on her tilted head. Tom suddenly felt as if he hadn't showered nearly enough. Her staring eyes were a reflective mirror which revealed her vision of his lost future. And that familiar vision silenced her with apathy and hopelessness.
Tom looked at his mother with a fleeting plea. Then his glance quickly shifted between his two sisters. Then his eyes finally landed on his father, and Tom knew he had enough. Enough of the farm. Enough of the endless chores. Enough of his father's thankless demands. Enough of this hopeless lifestyle. Without a single word he pulled the second strap over his shoulder and turned toward the door. He exploded out the opening, stepped off the porch in two giant strides, and let the screen door slam behind him loudly.
Tom's dog lazily entered the room and took his place with the small family around the table. The same place he held since he was a puppy. It was like each child arrived, and was placed in a position next to his mother or father, taught to feed, and left in that spot for life. Or until they were able to escape. No one ever moved. It was, after all, your place. Jim dropped a cloth napkin into his lap. The others folded their hands and bowed in prayer. Offering up some thanks for the meal before them was only right. The dog lying on the floor nearby briefly looked up and thought to itself, 'thanking God for this particular dish was laughable.'
Barely a word was spoken around the table that night. Tom's father was still visibly angered. His Mom was deep in thought - likely about how to continue providing for the family, where to look for work, and how to evade the wrath of Jim the rest of the night. The girls were prim and proper as usual - at least as well as was to be expected in Tom's family. They belched, ate with their mouth's open, and chortled when someone audibly flatulated. It was a down home family night on the farm. Nothing had changed really - except - it was no longer a farm. Not a working one any way. The farm was dying. And quickly.
"Oh!" his mother shouted as if touching a hot stove burner. A piece of chicken fell out of her mouth and into the pouch her dress formed on her lap. "Tom said there is a herd of dead deer at the back of four! It totally slipped my mind after the truck..." She cut herself off. Her husband was seething again. Had he ever stopped?
"We'll get it in the morning," he grumbled between bites of processed canned corn and rehydrated potatoes. Jim hated when his girls prepared this crappy food. They had enough stored downstairs to feed the National Guard troop up the road, why couldn't they just traipse downstairs and get a jar or two of last summer's vegetables? 'Lazy' he suspected, 'just plain lazy.' He took a bite of the watered down potato mush too, and cut his eyes at one of his daughters.
Upon seeing her father's distaste of the meal she prepared, his daughter pushed her plate away. It was the perfect excuse she needed to stick to her "I will be Homecoming Queen this year, so I plan to starve myself into looking better than Christy Rench diet". Her Mom and Dad would have none of it - so they let her eat snacks between meals and before bed regardless of her sweet selection. What resulted was a lot less skinny than Christy Rench, and a lot more closely related to Stay Pufft Marshmallow. "If it's so disgusting Daddy, then just don't eat it! See if I care. You won't bother me any."
"Yeah, I'm not feeling so good either actually." His youngest girl who was basically the poster child of good behavior, manners, and discipline in this household pushed her plate away as well. "Something about it's just off... I dunno. I'm not too hungry I guess." Jim waved all this off and continued brooding over losing the farm. Forking another mouthful in and felt a wave of nausea wash over him as well. Across the table he could hear the youngest's stomach roll, growl, and lurch.
She pushed her chair back, and stood up quickly. He heard it alright - and it wouldn't be long before the main event. Bolting for the stairs she barely made it before the sound of gas releasing from a highly pressurized container filled the room with laughter. The little girl was embarrassed, cut her eyes at all of them as a group, and quickly bolted upstairs with much more important things on her mind. The door of the bathroom could be heard slamming, and the toilet seat ricocheting off the bowl as it fell into the resting position.
Tom's mother never took her time eating. It was like somewhere in her life she was a refugee, or a kidnap victim who was denied basic sustenance. The woman inhaled food. More than likely it was force of habit learned by raising several children, and scarfing down her meal while shoving spoonfuls into their mouths. Before they lost interest and tried to run off, she would have to completely get her fill or do without.
Tonight she shoveled in forkful after forkful - and focused mainly on the blend of torn white and dark meat chicken on the plate. The light brown gravy drowning the overcooked meat did little to add flavor or moisten the tough shredded chicken. But she still slopped it up - cutting off a small piece of gravy soaked toast along with the meat - and jamming it into her mouth. It was during one of these forklift fulls of food passing over her lips that she made a crucial mistake. The fork carrying her meal went just a bit too far back and tickled her throat. The tip pricked the skin and ripped a tear in the tender flesh of her mouth. Hot gravy attempted to fill the gap and caulderize the wound but before it could gain purchase and perform it's task properly - the wad of meat and bread slipped to the back of her throat. She began to choke violently.
Her large body prevented her from standing and getting into a position that was more ideal to assistance. Instead she tottered back and forth in her chair like a Russian doll, holding her throat and straining her eyes. The tears began to fill and overflow from her overly exposed eyeballs. They'd soon dry out if she didn't blink! There wasn't a sound of air or gasping or grunts for help - she was simply silent following the first choking sound. Jim sprang from his chair and rushed behind her - his arms far too short to reach entirely around her hefty girth and administer the Heimlich maneuver. The brown gravy slicked wad of dried meat slipped further down the shaft of her throat lodging itself in place more firmly.
The only remaining daughter - who sat around the table corner from her mother in stunned disbelief - began to scream! Her terror only elevated by the fact that she could now see rivulets of blood pooling and pouring out of her mother's eyes. The sign of the blood caused her to convulse and shake. It had always been the best way Tom knew to gross out his sister and send her shrieking away from his friends. Spill a little blood. The girl simply freaked at the sight of blood. Now their mother was straining so hard she had squeezed all the tears from her eyes and only blood was oozing out.
The teenage girl threw her hands flat on the table to steady herself and looked away from her choking mother. But it was too late; the image was burned in her mind and replaying over and over again. Not only replaying but being digitally enhanced and over exaggerated only the way Hollywood knew how to do. She should know. She not only wanted to be Homecoming Queen, but Hollywood starlet as well.
Years of returning every dish every server ever brought her - after it had already been consumed - was one way Tom's sister maintained her girlish figure. Another was uppers, and cigarettes, although Tom's parents were either so frustrated they ignored the behavior or completely oblivious. Tom's sister was the pure image of skin and bones. Her frail body was matched only by her weak demeanor. One could hardly raise a smile, a laugh, or an excited glimmer in her eye. Everything she took in became somehow consumed and refused immediately.
Everything except the sight of blood which somehow wormed it's way deep into her core. Once there the shimmering wetness would solidify in sheer terror and begin to rip and tear it's way through her fragile mind. The girl was beside herself and had forgotten everyone else at the table in her pursuit of escape. That pursuit was short lived. Jumping up the blood congealed in her skull shook loose and slid down her spinal column and into the base of her heels. The sudden lightness caused her to swoon momentarily. Her stomach was soon to follow. Not only the sight of her mother's eyes spilling over in bloody trails running down her powdered cheeks - but years of forced habit signaled her stomach with a familiar cue. Standing from the table was the Pavlovian trigger it needed to reverse gears full throttle and hurl her most recent meal across the room.
Tilting forward - hands on the dining room table - she convulsed once between screams and exploded in a fountain of brown gravy and masticated white meat. Tiny flecks of bright orange fresh frozen carrots sprinkled the viscous mat that covered the old wooden table. The light in the room from the overhead lamp cast an eerie tint to the bile infused flood. Instead of the normal milky white phlegm filled sludge she normally expelled, Tom's sister was surprised to see a bright green film networked and snaked throughout the entire mass. In fact, she thought as weakness overcame her and she began to drift up and out of her own body, the tendrils looked like a series of tiny roots on a potted plant.
As this final thought clicked in place she lit a tiny smile on one tightly drawn corner of her overly skinny lips. It was the first time she did what anyone would consider a smile since the day she entered sixth grade. That was the last morning that she and her grandfather spent planting in the greenhouse before she ran for the bus and another day at school. She could clearly recall the small and fragile rootlets sticking from the dark black loam. Her grandfather carefully - ever so carefully - placed the small ball of soil and baby roots into a larger pot which she filled with still more moist, rich, nutritious dirt. Not two weeks later they would place his frail and grey toned body into the dark earth too.
Sinking to the floor quickly, her head took a wide arc as her body lost complete control of balance. Tilting to one side, limps arms dangling like a rag doll falling from a tiny toy stroller to the soiled ground of the playground with an unceremonious crash. Her eyes wanted to close, but instead rolled. Rolled back and up and over until her pupils were hiding themselves from the sight of what was to come next. They knew that somehow a lot more blood was on it's way - and they couldn't bear to look. Her slack jawed mouth gaped as her ears registered the faintest whisper of air skimming past on her final descent.
The tender spot just beside her ear - the spot she often centered on when one of her many migraines set in - was aligned perfectly for the impact to come. And the old table didn't disappoint. The hard corner was known as a sharp hazard to all the children since they were just toddlers. Tom's sister must have stopped caring. Because with one glancing blow the corner of the table pressed deeply into her temple and ripped a gash of flesh from the side of her face clear to the center of her left eye. Left dangling on the edge of the table, the pale skin looked a bit like the skin she usually tore from a succulent chicken breast and tossed aside like garbage.
Simultaneously, her father was aiding his dying wife as she choked silently on the meal her daughters just prepared so lovingly for their precious family. Knowing little more to do than hope and pray she would somehow spit up the lump of offending meat, Tom's dad simply leaned his head into her chest to listen for the sound of air passing into and out of her lungs. Finding none he became distraught and frustrated. He started banging on her chest with his fist, and yelling at the top of his lungs to hold on. Tears were forming on his face and pooling in his eyes.
He turned to Tom's empty seat to bark a command about calling for help - nine one one perhaps - or some other dispatched rescue service. But then he realized Tom had abandoned the family moments ago - at any rate it was too late and she was already gone. Jim could tell by the blue on her lips and the pale color entering every cell of her skin as it chased the color of life away. He turned to look at the mess beside him on the table. Shaking his head in disbelief and horror his eyes caught a glimpse of the torn flesh dangling from the table. On the floor he saw the body of his oldest daughter convulsing and shaking and finally ceasing all movement forevermore.
The dog stood to it's feet - unsure of how to react to all the commotion. Just before deciding to retreat to the living room, the dog noticed the master's wife had regained her mobility. Although, that wasn't quite right, because her pale skin was a gray as before if not more so. The blue in her lips had not receded, and the stiffness of her movement indicated something was still wrong. Perhaps it was one last convulsion her body would use to force the wad of meat from her throat. Instead, a garbled guttural growling emanated from deep within her chest. She tilted her head forward and stared directly at Jim's neck. With a singular lurch forward she pressed her wide mouth and portly lips around the entire Adam’s apple and left jugular of her beloved husband's neck. With another jerking motion from side to side and finally tearing with ferocity backward his wife of twenty six years ripped a gaping hole in the side of his next. Tom's father quickly landed a hand on his wound and looked in shocked horror at his wife's blood soaked face.
Then he promptly fell backward, convulsed - chocking on his own blood as it spilled down his airway and filling his lungs - and died. She pounced like a farm cat onto a mouse marinated in kitchen drippings onto her husband. And she proceeded to tear into his exposed flesh and rip open his shirt to gain access to more. The dog was shocked and appalled, but confused and scared at the same time. Before having a moment's hesitation to comprehend all that had just happened, the oldest daughter interrupted his retreat to the living room with a sudden and jarring movement. Her hand shot up and over the edge of the table and slammed down in a death grip unlike any energy or strength she'd exhibited in life. The sudden startle caused the dog to freeze and catch it's breath momentarily. The wheels started turning again. If the woman had died, and bit the master - would the girl with the ripped off face come after the dog next? Or after the youngest sibling.
Not wanting to wait around and find out the dog spun on his hind legs and tore off toward the stairway. At the top landing the little sister was unaware of the gruesome circumstances which had befallen her family. The dog placed a single paw on the bottom step. Looking back toward the dining room he could see the reanimated sister gaining her footing. As her feet came into place underneath her, she rotated her head to the right.
The dog remembered Tom always gave her a hard time for worrying so much about cleaning her face, primping with makeup, and wasting time doing her hair. But in this moment - at the position of her profile in the light cast by the dining room chandelier - even the dog could appreciate her beauty. Perhaps the boy was too hard on his sister - but what else were older brothers supposed to do? She completed the rotation of her skull as it rested on the top of her spinal column. The raw gash from the recent run in with the hard table left half her face missing. The sinew, muscle, and bone gave her a gnarly and hate filled visage which reminded the dog more of the girl it knew than the porcelain china doll face ever would.
This was the moment to make his getaway if it were ever to happen. But the dog was intent on retreating to the upper floor. Turning to bolt up the stairs it was stopped suddenly by a dense mass that refused to budge in the wake of it's advance. The dog lost it's balance and stumbled backward. Loosing footing, the dog fell down a couple of stairs and backward onto it's side. The concussion felt like an explosion of fire and electricity all at once in it's backbone. The dog's back was completely cracked and useless to anyone now. Especially to the dog.
Standing above the dog on the stairs was his master's tiny daughter. From the light cast down the stairs by the cold fluorescent bathroom fixture the dog could make out two things. One was readily apparent - the girl was wearing no pants or undergarments. For some odd reason she'd vacated the bathroom without any clothing that would preserve her decency. The second was not so apparent - but made itself known when the child took another step forward. The light of the dining room now combined with the back light pouring down the stairway. Coating both sides of her legs and cascading up onto her shirt and arms was a paint can explosion of blood and stool. The girl's head was tilted off to one side and her eyes caught a glint of light they refused to return.
The hollowness of her small eyes conveyed a vacant absence beyond anything the dog had ever experienced. And yet, there was a very palpable essence of rage and insatiable hunger emanating from the extremely dilated pupils. The dog wasn't absolutely certain what happened when she ran from the table a moment ago to relieve herself upstairs - but it was certain that was the final time anyone would attempt to laugh at her. Somehow she still seemed to be carrying the pain of that small family joke deep down inside her being. And she was now equipped and prepared to make retribution.
From three stairs up the tiny creature sprang like a rabid squirrel and landed on the dog's side. Her tiny right hand first pinning down it's head and holding it in place on the floor. Her seeking left hand trying to find a purchase or a grip to secure herself into a fixed position. Finding the edge of the dog's lower jaw the little digits wrapped themselves behind it's bottom teeth and squeezed with immense pressure. The paper thin finger nails tore into the dog's gums and locked into place as if it's jaw bone were merely another swinging ring on the jungle gym. Her head lifted backward and screeched before darting forward with precision and force. The teeth in her small mouth seemed razor sharp as they tore into the dog's right cheek and hooked the side of it's nose. Jerking left and right - up and down - the filaments of muscle finally came loose and the dog's face tore loose from the bone.
Blood exploded from it's face in as many directions as it could discover in an effort to escape the violent little monster perched on it's face. But the blood that escaped her ravenous hunger got little further than the entryway floor. A few splatters of blood managed to spray high into the air and land on the crystalline light-sapphire blue of the stained glass window her grandfather took such care protecting. Between it's howls and protests, the dog thrashed and swatted at the little girl in an attempt to free itself and flee the entire scene. Before long it's energy began to give out as the life force within the dog spilled onto the dusty wood floor. In it's fleeting thoughts, the dog now understood why it felt thanking God for this particular meal felt so laughable.