Behind the cab of his tractor a long bed loaded with crates of chickens was keeping pace. Trailing behind the soon to be deceased was a cloud of feathers and dust a mile long. Like all the hauls he did away from local farms, they trailed quite a lot of chicken feathers around the county along their route. There wasn't much of a wind today which meant the cloud Denny stirred up drifted off the road under it's own momentum and came to rest in the fields and houses all along the country highway. Often drivers would try to cut their wind resistance down by trailing close to Denny's bed. He always got a laugh out of frightened drivers who's face lit up bright read with a sudden pump of his brake lights.
Pausing at the loading dock area gate Denny reached his right arm across his sizeable chest and stomach to itch at the small sore hidden beneath his shirt. The pattern of the worn old shirt was familiar to him. He'd started wearing the almost cowboy, certainly country cut long sleeve shirts some time ago. Having stayed overnight at a little truck stop in Abilene Texas, Denny found the red and white gingham and western cut suited him. He had dozens of the large shirts hanging up at home, and more resigned to life as oil rags in the garage when they'd finally worn out at the elbows or shoulders. His wife would pick up any color combinations she could find, but mostly Denny liked the earthy tones. He wasn't a loud or busy fella - he just liked to live simply.
A dark red line of gingham began to spread under Denny's fat finger, and it continued to grow until a small blot had formed. The little buggers itched for certain. And the scabs didn't stay put - no sooner had Denny torn through the skin, fix a band aid, and wait for the small scab to form than the tiny disc of crusty protection would fall off and begin oozing again. The oozing clear liquid pumped from the small but deep holes Denny was digging into himself faster than the blood came out. Denny thought from time to time he could make out a small green thread in the puss too. But he was fairly certain that was some left over material from the shirt factory, or a tiny leaf of grass or other common foreign material.
Denny's truck was backed up to the dock now and the birds were getting unloaded. The familiar bump and shake of the equipment jostling his load around didn't bother Denny any, and didn't tear his attention away from the pulsating warmth building just below his skin. As the birds disembarked they were carried off behind a door that only swung one way. Denny had never seen a bird get loose at this stage, and figured it would be quite pointless for the little guys to give up any kind of fight at this point anyway. Maybe they resigned themselves to this fact as well. But Denny knew what fate awaited them on the other side of the door. In moments they would either be electrocuted, gassed, or mechanically stunned. It often depended on which manager was on duty, and which measure was going to cost the company the least that month. The result was always the same. Birds pecked and curiously poked at their cages one moment, and stared off in stunned stupification the next.
Shortly after the birds were stunned, it was time to drain them of their life carrying blood. Humanely of course. Denny chuckled at that thought. The bird was treated no better than a dirty snitch at a mobster reunion. The sharp blades sliced the bird's jugular vein just below the jowls so that the windpipe and esophagus remained intact. This is important further down the line when the windpipe and esophagus are yanked out by other automated equipment. In a little under five minutes, for most of the chickens, they would be devoid of blood - and long devoid of life. The plant manager once explained to Denny that the whole process was manual. A man or woman stood on this very line and sliced at the bird's necks one by one by one. Each slice sending a small spray of blood into the air or across the chest of the cutter's white smock.
Thinking about the past usually brought Denny back to memories of being on the road as a long haul trucker. Even as the manager drifted in and out of his mind with stories from the line, and vivid images of fowl slaughter, Denny was elsewhere. He was comparing timelines in his mind and picturing the truck stop, weight station, or loading dock he was visiting at precisely the same moment in time. Denny had been a long haul driver for longer than he had done any other work. Like most of the boys around this area, he grew up helping on his family farm - or the farm of a local farmer. After high school prospects for him were sparse. He took an interest in engines at the local dirt track and from there found his way under the hood of a big rig one summer. In speaking with the driver Denny learned of the freedom and exploration that would open up to him out on the road. He was sold. Perhaps sold a slightly shortened bill of goods. But Denny took the good with the bad and somehow in all the years driving back and forth across the country, he never lost that dreamers view of life on the road.
That had been before Denny met his wife, and moved back to the same town his father's father's father had settled down with his family so long ago. She was a wonderful girl, and all that Denny could think of when he left to go back out on the road while they were dating. Over the years they only drew closer and more deeply in love. Eventually it was only right to marry her and stay, rather than continually visit for a week at a time and move on when work called. In fact, he knows he would have rather had it that way. Keep the dream alive, and still have the woman by his side. But it wasn't meant to be because in the end he had to lose one or the other. That's when Denny started looking further forward and less at the present. And in the future, he saw a tired, worn out, old trucker with no one but an old hound dog on a broken down back porch hung on his leaking mobile home. When the dream wore out, and he had to stop driving because of injury or age, he would be alone.
Bloodless and dripping fluids from their necks the lifeless corpses dangled from cold metal conveyors overhead. They moved from one room to another on their way to their ultimate fate. At this point along the journey their bodies form a drape of mottled white fringed along the top with the rubbery bright yellow of their taloned feet. Up ahead are scalding hot bathes of water that will serve to loosen the feathers of the chickens. The conveyor chain drops sharply toward the bathe like a rollercoaster plummeting down the first drop. There are no screams of gleeful terror however; the time for screaming is long over. Dipping into and out of the series of hot baths the birds leave a mixture of blood, bodily fluids, loose feathers, and anything that may have been frightened from their tiny bodies when the slicing blade of the bleeding machine passed their way. The deep vats of soiled water also contain another foreign substance. Following the pass of Tom's family birds at this plant - the line was introduced to a green tendril of slimy film. As yet the plant manager, shift supervisor, and linemen haven't taken notice.
Instead, the birds continue on down the line, rising up another roller coaster hill toward another exciting feature. Mechanical pickers covered in thick coarse rubber rub and tear at the bird's loose feathers. Yanking and grabbing at the birds as they move along the shackle line are the multiple length tendrils. Each one with a purpose and a goal in mind - to rip away large and small feathers from the dangling carcass of passing chickens. Over the last two weeks each rotating rubber digit also took on a second more sinister chore. They not only took feathers from the birds, but spread a thin film of disease onto the passing cadaver. Soaking up the living virus into it's pores like a sponge, the chickens continued down the processing plant line.
So Denny proposed, and they were married within a month. Everything he owned was already at her place anyway, so the entire process was really a matter of technicality. They visited the justice of the peace, signed the appropriate paperwork, and paid their state taxes. And that was it, they were married. He got a job driving truck locally. Small loads across the state, around the county, and eventually just carrying auto parts from the warehouse to the repairmen scattered across town. After a few years she got hurt at work, and he had to find something that paid more and would offer health insurance. That's when he landed the job driving trucks for The Boss.
This tractor trailer rig wasn't Denny's. He had owned rigs in the past, and had done quite a bit of cross country overland hauling when he was younger. But the time he spent with his wife - before and after she took ill - put financial matters into a different light. Instead of pouring most to all of his earnings back into his comfortable truck, Denny decided to sell the entire rig and drive. Just drive. The same roads, the same routes, the same schedules. There wasn't much freedom. There wasn't much exploration. For that matter, there wasn't even that much money if he did want to pour it back into a rig. But the pay was enough to live on and just enough to get his wife the medicine and treatment she needed. So Denny kept driving for The Boss, and continued to take The Boss's trucks out when The Boss called on him.
Over the past few years his life had become much more 'eighteen wheels and a dozen roses' and a whole lot less 'one more mile to go before I sleep.' Any romantic affection he had for driving had worn off about the time his wife's health had waned. The fact that the truck wasn't his was a small comfort. He could leave it at a loading dock and call in another driver to finish the route if he had to run to the hospital unexpectedly. Still on other occasions it was just easy to leave the worry and care of maintenance and upkeep to someone else too. If the truck so much as hiccupped, Denny knew he could drop it off at the Yard, grab another, and be on his way. That was nice. Especially when there were more Midnight Runs now than ever before. He supposed it was the sick economy that was taking down all these farms. Whatever the reason, they were dropping like flies, and closing right and left.
He started calling them Midnight Runs sometime back; maybe it was a carry over from being on the road long hours alone. Maybe it was thanks to that line from a familiar song that seemed to echo and haunt him. Either way, the name stuck between he and his wife when they spoke about his work at the end of a day. The good thing about these Midnight Runs, if there was anything good about them, was that they were always complete and saw Denny home by five thirty at the latest. The worse part was seeing the families shocked to have their last load of birds hauled away without any prior notice. Well - that wasn't exactly true - the plant always gave plenty of warning about bird size, flock size, house conditions, and any number of other factors that would result in an operation being shut down. But many of these families were in such a pinch they couldn't afford to address the issues the plant presented. So they patched up the operation, made due, and pressed on - hoping for one more load of chicks to be delivered. At least they knew they would have that flock to grow out - and that paycheck to rely on and see them through the next several months. Still - when Denny got the call, and was joined by the little man with the thin tie and small car, he knew time was up. It was Midnight at this farm. Even if the farmer's clock didn't say so.
Tail end up without a care in the world, the naked bird rides the roller coaster of death down the line. Meanwhile an uncaring man in a climate controlled, comfortable control booth watches as they pass but. Slice! He pushes a few buttons, the line slows, an adjustment is made and the steady coast toward evisceration continues. Slice! Dangling high above the soiled and pock marked concrete floor of the plant the birds take their longest flight ever. Their tail feathers are long gone but one offending feature remains and must be removed. Slice! The sharp cold steel blade whizzes past one bird, swings into position in time for the next dead body to place it's butt into position. No sooner does the bird's rear end present itself, than the blade cuts deep across it's skin and rips it's oil gland away from the rest of it's body. Along with the gland a spray of mellow green mucus is spilled out onto the blade and onto the concrete floor of the plant. The disease is spreading between the multiple delivers that arrive at the same time and get blended during the process. The disease goes unseen and unmonitored. The disease gets into the blood, pores, tendons, and tissue of the chicken's plump meat.
But the roller coaster courses on charging forward along a track of death that can't be stopped. Not when there are millions of hungry mouths to feed at grocery stores around the country. Not when there are billions of dollars of operations, labor, and marketing driving the roller coaster to it's inevitable end. So the birds are cleaned one part at a time in a methodical and mechanical assembly line. Next up - the feet. As it turns out, dainty housewives - and most tough as nails husbands - can't or won't be troubled with removing the feet from dinner. They would much rather the entire bird be presented as a five to seven pound ball of meat and bone gorgeously wrapped in plastic. The blades swing again and the bones are cracked, cut, and severed from the legs of the bird. Feet dangle along one conveyor headed off to a side room for separate handling, while the dead body droops sadly from the shackles and carries on it's merry way.
And because someone else can be called on to handle the truck - and because someone else is responsible for it's upkeep and maintenance - and because he hasn't has a break in over three hours - Denny walks away from the dock and the truck. This is normally the point when he leaves the delivery truck behind and heads across the docking area to a waiting empty rig. There are none on the manifest tonight, and because that line of trucks is empty, Denny's shift is just about over. Once the birds are completely unloaded, he can sign off on the load and go home. Well, he can head to the hospital again. That's where he has spent most of his nights the last three weeks anyhow. Her condition was deteriorating swiftly, and even with the medication his wife didn't have long. It looked to Denny like the vision of an old dog on an old porch of an old trailer was closer to reality than he cared to admit.
Denny walks past the loading dock and down the length of a metal siding covered wall. At the end of the well worn, but unmarked path, Denny sees the familiar signs posted for his personal safety and the safety of everyone at the plant. That - or the signs are there to satisfy some law writing twit sitting at the capital week in and week out. Denny's convinced they are just looking for another way to fine the populous to pay for their ever expanding welfare state. And is he wrong? No! And he should know because he and his wife are direct recipients of the free medical coverage their insurance rejected. Denny scoffs as he ducks below the low slung chain and around the corner past the bright yellow sign emblazoned with reflective red writing. DO NOT SMOKE NEAR THE TANKS. Clear enough - but what a joke. Denny leans back against the darkened wall out of the line of sight of departing trucks, and arriving shift workers. The bright glow of his lighter casts dancing shadows across his face and glistens off the mottled patch of blood staining through his gingham shirt sleeve.
As the disease soaked birds drop onto a sorting table in one room the shackle line passes through a small hallway and back to the beginning of the line for another pass. It grabs another bird, and starts Mr. Bird's Wide Ride all over again. The dead birds are handled by men and women who place them onto passing clips above their heads. The clips grasp the bird and yank them from the worker's hands. Small droplets of bodily fluid, diseased blood, and flaps of loose skin drop into the hair and uncovered skin of the Employee of the Month. For that matter, the green tendrils fly across the sorting room table and splatter onto the clothing and face masks of all the employees on this shift, and the many shifts to follow. Once Tom's flock passed through this plant - then entire process was unwittingly tainted and every delivery that blended with those sickened birds was infected as it sailed through the plant.
Finally, a glimmer of hope for the masses. The final washing vat lies ahead, and thanks to State Senator Twit the pool of water is flushed regularly, dumped into the waste water treatment system, and vented into the local river for environmentally safe reentry into the ecosystem. What State Senator Twit failed to take into account was an undying viral infection carried in the blood and bodily fluids of creatures with the slightest exposure. The tiny green tendrils that probe and infect every cell of the host and are impervious to heat, chemical, or exposure to air. Unlike many other common diseases or viruses, this one is bad. Really, really, really bad. But State Senator Twit is too busy boinking the intern to care at the moment - so many of his loyal constituents won't be available to support him in the upcoming election.
The washing vats were utterly useless and probably did more harm than good in the final analysis. The birds dropped and swirled into the pool but merely bathed and soaked in the infected fluids of others they mingled with. Even when the vat was flushed, and refilled with clear clean water periodically - the stainless steel tub itself was coated with a viscous film that wouldn't lose itself no matter how hard it was scrubbed. And let's be honest - how hard does the night shift scrub when they are paid minimum wage. The green tendrils clung onto the corners and the edges of the tub only to reenter the flood of water and multiply with the introduction of bodily fluids from the passing birds that arrived to be washed clean.
The bodies are carried off to the chiller, passing slowly along the conveyor belt like a train of roller coaster cars entering the terminal. Unlike happy children about to disembark from a thrill ride, many of whom would ride again given half the chance; these patrons are neither smiling nor giddy. Quite the opposite - they are drained of life, pale and pasty skinned, loose and flappy from over manipulation, and dripping with diseased fluids as they enter a room three times cooler than anything experienced in their short miserable lives. Once they've dropped to a sufficient temperature the birds are carted off to be weighed and graded.
Silence. Denny isn't sure if it's truly golden. The only thing golden he ever had his hands on was the set of fourteen karat solid gold wedding bands his wife forced them to buy for the wedding ceremony at the clerk’s office. And that gold wasn't this comfortable or painless or ultimately rewarding. No - that gold had cost him nearly three whole paychecks, and as he got older and fatter nearly squeezed the feeling from his finger. The silence enjoyed alone with this cigarette on the other hand was going to be an immediate benefit to his peace and serenity.
Between drags Denny looks down at the damp patch of blood soaking through his sleeve. It's not the only spot those little buggers got a hold of him at that farm a couple weeks back. In fact, he'd been itching at the chicken peck marks since the moment they drove away from that place. He was almost glad to see the Little Man hand over the paper work to that farmer. No, that wasn't true. No one deserved to be told off like that. Still - those birds had been vicious. He wasn't sure what caused these normally docile and sluggish birds to gain such vigor but they certainly put up one helluva fight. He wasn't the only one to withstand a few injuries that afternoon. The one small Mexican kid almost lost his left eye! Denny watched the whole thing go down and nearly came unglued at the sight of the whole incident.
The boy was new on the job and clearly new on the soil of Denny's natural birth. But he didn't hold that against someone with a strong work ethic. As the crew began rounding up birds, this kid was swooping low and grabbing chickens by the rubbery ankles. One crazed roaster wasn't having any of it - and she reared back with the ease and control of a viper ready to strike. Something odd caught Denny's eye that he hadn't thought of until just now - that bird's eyes. They were bloodshot and green all at the same time. Like she had some sickness and the phlegm was putting so much pressure on her tiny bird brain that her eyes were bleeding as the green goop squeezed out her tear ducts. When she finally saw her target the bird lunged forward and drove her beak into the side of the fella's head. In sudden shock he dropped all the birds to the ground. A wide cloud of dust exploded into the air, and the birds scurried away. They all moved faster than any chickens Denny every remembered seeing move. The angry bird made her way forward - she wasn't done with him yet! The kid took a few steps backward, and swung his right leg back with the skill and precision of a World Cup Soccer player aiming for a game winning corner kick.
But instead of connecting with the chicken and sending her sailing through the bird house on an arcing flight to her death - the boy's hands resting on the recent wound must have obscured his vision. His leg dropped into the swooping kick and breezed right past the darting farm fowl. His heavy steel toed boot carried the momentum forward even further and yanked the boy's leg higher into the air than he anticipated. Soon the immigrant was flat on his back and prime target for an assembling flock of feathered feasters. The birds charged from every side and squawked aloud as they ran toward him. Several of the other men ran to his aid and were able to get the boy to his feet, and out of the fray. They left the birds to squabble amongst themselves - and they were happy enough to do so. The birds began to rip one another apart and before long a small pile of dead and bloodied carcasses littered that side of the chicken house floor.
As Denny continued to pick as his tiny wounds through his shirt, the memory of that run in with the chickens sends chills down his spin. Not only chills but a searing heat along the length of his left arm. The sight of the boy's eye - first day on the job he was told later - dangling from it's socket, made Denny vomit on the chicken house floor. His shoulders tensed at the vivid memory and his stomach churned again. Then watching the crew foreman pop it back into place unceremoniously - holding the eyeball between his blood and bird dropping coated fingers - was enough for Denny. He left the chicken house and took a walk around the farm for a moment to collect himself. The searing heat in his arm continued to get worse as he raised his hand to his face for another drag.
Closing his eyes to enjoy the finest tobacco the corner gas station can deliver Denny is caught off guard when the vivid memory and images of the dead deer pop into his mind. It's as if he's back on the farm suddenly and surrounded by death again. Walking away from the site of the attack, Denny took a long course around the other chicken houses on the property. He walked along the back lane behind the houses and came to a herd of dead deer. It looked like a massive suicide run by the local deer population! And the bloated bloodied bodies were left here - rotting in the sun - stinking up the entire back forty of this farm - for how long? He wasn't sure but he was certain breakfast wouldn't be sticking around any longer. Tilting forward Denny threw his hands against the side of the metal chicken house and vomited one last time that day. His stomach almost felt like it had to purge itself again, now behind the processing plant. But before Denny would have a chance to answer that particular call of nature, another more urgent call went out.
His chest tightened, his lungs convulsed sucking in a sudden unexpected drag of burning smoke. Trying to cough was pointless because his whole body had suddenly seized up. His arm froze into position and refused to remove the offending cigarette from his mouth. Instead his lips went numb and his jaw dropped open with an odd tilt. The smoldering cigarette butt fell to the ground. It's ember searching for more destruction before it could burn to the end of it's life at the edge of the filter. Denny shouted for help but only a muted grunt emitted from his throat. His legs became weak and his bladder released. His left leg was soon covered in a warm flood of urine that soaked through his jeans and wetted his socks and work boots. Just before his knees collapsed underneath him a sharp pain exploded along his entire left side. From his hip to the top of his head a blast of electric pain and searing fire coursed through his veins. Then numbness. Denny tilted forward and fell face first into the drainage stones laid out below the tanks of liquid chemicals and pipes carrying them to unseen passages throughout the processing plant. Denny's life is snuffed out long before his cigarette burns down to the unforgiving filter.
Not before extinguishing itself of the flame of life the small but sent it's offending smoke adrift on the night's breeze. The small cloud carried from beside Denny's dead body up around the corner of the building and back to the vicinity of the loading docks. The security guard was making his normal rounds and passing by the guard shack one last time before taking his lunch break when the odor caught his attention. Having been summarily trained in the dangers and benefits of working for the processing plant, he recalled immediately the hazard of open flame near pressurized chemical tanks. The guard took off at a slow jog following his nose the entire way. As he neared the end of the long side of the plant's metal coated facade he saw what appeared to be work boots resting on their toes.
He put on some extra speed - and why not, he was going on lunch soon and hadn't done much today. Turning the corner the guard was shocked to find a complete body attached to the lifeless work boots. Reaching across his chest and squeezing the microphone's call button he is heard at guard shacks across the sprawling campus of the chicken manufacturer. From the front desk of the corporate office long since placed on Stand By and monitored by a nearly retired part-time security guard, to the far corner of the outer perimeter monitors roaming the fence in cramped pickup trucks two to a cab. "Body, I've got a body here. What the hell? A body!" Click! The receiver button broke off the transmission as one would expect, but in the end it was the worst decision he ever made.
Bending down to aid the fallen co-worker, the security guard found that the full heft of Denny's ample girth was almost more than he could manage. He grasped the man's left shoulder and heaved. Useless. He bent close and pressed his ear to the man's back to check for breathing. Nothing. He was only trained for minor first aid treatment. Everything else - anything major - you called in and someone at the central guard desk was supposed to call it into nine one one. Although it was completely disrespectful to the body, the guard could think of no other way to aid the victim, so he climbed over his lifeless body and positioned himself between the body and the wall. Squatting down and putting his feet on the man's hip and shoulder, the guard leveraged himself like a wedge between the wall and the body. Little by little he was able to press against the wall and roll the body away from himself out into the drainage stones.
Denny remained still and motionless. When the guard had completed his maneuver he dropped to his bottom and tried to catch his breath. Sitting with his knees near his chest, gasping for breath, his back felt the cold of the metal siding hanging on the building. It was funny at night how the light of his flashlight would dance across the curves, and recesses of this wall. The security guard tilted his head back and closed his eyes to calm his nerves and slow his heart rate. He missed the roll of Denny's head from it's position facing the tanks of chemicals to it's new resting place staring directly at the guard's exposed flesh. The eyes in Denny's head had turned a milky grey white with hints of dark blood shooting through the larger veins. Around the edges of his eyes the dark bags that often showed after too many days on duty in a row became deep pits of saggy dark skin. The tear ducts of his eyes squeezed to overflowing, like that of the rabid chicken on Tom's farm, with a filmy phlegmy green tendril filled fluid that seeped from his eyes and dripped on to the round stones below.
As he rolled his body onto it's side to follow his head, the crushing of stone below his shifting weight alerted the resting security guard. With a start the young guard jumped. Looking down toward the body, between the valley formed by his raised knees, he was shocked to see the dead body he just rolled over staring back at him. But not staring at him so much as through him and about him. The look in the dead man's eyes - Denny, his name was right there above his left breast pocket, along with the half filled pack of cigarettes he stuffed in that pocket - said that he was savoring the thought of the security guard. And as the realization hit both of them - the realization that the security guard was to become a meal - they both jumped. Denny had the upper hand thanks to his new found rage and his sizeable weight advantage over the modestly fit security guard. In the end, the only thing that remained intact on the guard was his finely groomed hair coated and sealed into position by several handfuls of gel early that morning.
Deep inside the plant the birds that had become infected with the virus on Tom's farm were securely stored away in the cold trailer of a tractor trailer loaded with legs, breasts, quarters, and roasters ready for market. Added to that truck and many others just like it on the outbound shipping dock were hundreds of loads of other chickens that arrived untainted, but left soaked in virus laden film. All those birds - and many more slated to pass through this plant in the coming hours and days - would make their way directly to the meat department in grocery stores across the country. Some of the meat and sections would be distributed to other plants for further processing into patties, tenders, soups, and broths. Before the end of the month, chickens from this facility would reach every state in the country. Before the end of the month, the infected birds would go unnoticed and the virus undeterred as it entered unwitting intestines. Before the end of the month, over two thirds of the population would be infected. Before the end of the month, those that died infected would stand up and walk again.