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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-one ANIMALS



've been seeing the dogs every week now."

"The dogs?"

"Yes, Bernard. You remember. At the shelter? You know. Sally really likes me. She is starting to remember me, I think. Sally, the Kelpie."

Bernard didn't say anything in response, only stared back with gray, cataractous eyes. Not a very full stare--nearly empty. Like her words had gone in but were still processing, the gears still turning, worn now, but turning slowly. For how many days would they continue? Not for long. Some days, Bernard wouldn't even speak at all.

"Do you remember that one time we sat in the park and watched the dogs? Do you remember the bench and that shade tree? Oh, Bernard, hold on, you've..." Ethel drew a Kleenex from her purse and wiped a line of drool from the corner of Bernard's mouth. "There we go."

"Molly..." Bernard said.

"No...no, Molly's been...you know.."


Molly had been Bernard's beagle, when he was a boy. She'd been dead since his high school days.

"Molly's doing fine. Just fine," Ethel said.


Ethel sighed and looked at her watch. "I'm going to go see Molly now. I'll tell her hello for you."

Bernard stared back at her, a little more saliva collecting in the corner of his mouth again. Ethel averted her eyes. It was too pathetic; almost disgusting.

A nurse came over to wheel him to lunch. Ethel gathered her things, and one of the nurses unlocked the doors to the Alzheimer's wing. The nurse was young and pretty (Ethel had been young and pretty, once). She smiled to Ethel. Ethel tried to smile back, but it was hard. She was tired of this place. Yet the nurses, all still young and pretty, always smiled--like they didn't even know! Like they would never become bent and white-haired and wrinkled like Ethel, like they would never see their husbands here, dementia eating away at the mind and the bank account (oh yes, that bank account!).

Still, Ethel tried.

Another nurse--this one a boy, but still young and handsome (Bernard had been young and handsome, once)--held the glass door for Ethel as she left the nursing home and was greeted by the fresh, late September air. It was beginning to get chilly despite the noon sun. She pulled her sweater tighter against her shoulders.

She shuffled to her car. She probably shouldn't be driving at her age, but Bernard had never been able to have kids, and so there was no one to tell her not to, which was fine with her. On the other hand, there was no one to drive her around (not for free, anyway, gotta remember that old bank account).

She started her car and pulled out onto the road. Not in the direction of the animal shelter, not yet. Lately, Ethel had been in the habit of picking up some steaks for the dogs when she visited, and the butcher's was the other direction.

She pulled into the parking lot. George's Quality Meats was painted in red on the sign against a cream-colored background. The paint was chipped and blistered from many hot summers. The word Meats had been repainted recently; the red was a little darker than the other sun-faded words, and the bottoms of the letters ran in long thin drips where it must have rained before the paint dried.

A bell rang as she stepped into the shop. A bald man with a long, salt-and-pepper beard came through the clear PVC strip door in the back and stood behind the counter. He wiped his hands on his apron which was stained with varying shades of red and brown.

"Hello, George," Ethel said. She smiled at him, finding it much easier now than before. "You're looking quite good today."

She said this every day. When Ethel had first met him, she'd thought he was much younger than he actually was. And he always looked quite good.

George didn't smile back, though. He didn't say anything, actually, just crossed his arms and waited there.

Ethel pretended to study the different cuts of meat. Really, she was thinking about how George's sleeves were rolled tightly against his thick forearms. She was thinking about the gold earring George always wore, how she thought it added to his quiet, bad-boy mystique. Like an old pirate or biker or something. And oh, those forearms.

"These look good," she said. "I'll take some of these. And a couple pounds of the ground chuck."

Ethel stole a peek at George's legs as he turned to weigh out the hamburger. He was wearing jeans, and his legs were still muscular enough that the denim stretched tight against his thighs.

Ethel thought about her car again and that she wouldn't mind George driving her around places. Bernard wouldn't mind anymore. Couldn't mind, probably. Sometimes she wished he would.

"I know, it looks like a lot of meat for just one person, a little old lady like me," Ethel said with a small laugh.

George kept his attention on the hamburger.

"Because it is just me. At home, I mean. My husband's been in the nursing home for...well, for a long time now. Alzheimer's, you know. I don't think he even knows who I am most days. Not sure if he knows himself, either. It's pretty hard for me. Gets lonely, sometimes."

"That'll be thirty-two-oh-eight," he said, wrapping the meat.

Ethel fished through her large purse for a pen and her checkbook.

"It's for the dogs. The meat. I visit the shelter, and I bring them the meat and pet them. Sally--she's a Kelpie, that's an Australian dog, you know--we're starting to get to know each other, I think. How much did you say, again?"

"Thirty two dollars and eight cents."

"Oh, that's right. Silly me."

Ethel scrawled out the amount and signed the check. George handed her a large brown paper bag containing her purchase. She slid him the check across the counter and gave him another smile. One last try. He took the check with hardly a glance at her and punched buttons on the register while she pouted to herself.

George, George, George. She let it repeat in her mind like a wave on the shore, washing and receding over her ankles gently with a powerful sound. What a masculine name. What a strong name. She imagined George was a terrific driver, too. Probably could even drive a stick shift. Certainly, could parallel park. (Bernard had always been bad at parallel parking.) She imagined herself in the passenger seat of her car and George at the wheel: he grasps the steering wheel with one hand and with the other pulls it into drive, turns and looks at her with those brown eyes, robust and dark as the rocks she used to skip across the river as a girl, and says in his rough baritone, Where to, Ethel?

She took the receipt and turned to leave.

"You said you live alone?" he said just before she got to the door.

She stopped and turned back to him. "Yessiree. All by my lonesome."

"No kids?"

"No. Doctors ran tests, turned out Bernard didn't have what it took."

"Bernard. Your late husband?"

She almost corrected him, then considered. "Yes, that's right."

George took the obligatory awkward silence. Then, "Would you like to get dinner tonight?"

Ethel's heart skipped a beat. "That would be nice. Yes, I think I would like that."

"I'm closing early today, so I can pick you up around four."

"You know where I live?"

George reached into the register and waved the check. "Got your address right here."

"Oh, of course. See you at four."

Ethel didn't spend very much time with Sally; she wanted to get home early to find just the right clothes. And there was her hair, and maybe even some makeup--oh, she was too old for makeup. She didn't even have any, now that she thought of it. She remembered the last time she'd used makeup; it had been her birthday, and Bernard had taken her to a nice restaurant. He was already an old man then--it was only a month before she would start finding his car keys in the coffee maker and the bread box--but it hadn't kept him from looking a little too long at the twenty-something blonde waitress that served them. Ethel had tried to keep a grudge about it, but then Bernard went and got sick, and so she wasn't allowed to anymore, and that made her all the more angry with him.

No, Bernard wouldn't mind at all. She sure wished he would.

George drove a rusty red pickup truck. There was a cap on the truck bed with tinted windows; Ethel had never seen a truck cap with its windows tinted that dark. When she got closer, she noticed that the windows had been spray painted black from the inside. George walked around to open the passenger door and gave her a hand up into the cab, and she said, "Those are pretty dark windows back there. Anything going to happen back there you don't want people seeing?" She winked when she said this, but George looked mostly surprised and bothered at first. Then he smiled, too, but he didn't say anything. Ethel felt embarrassed. Maybe George was a little more old-fashioned than she'd thought. She was a little older than him, of course, but by now she'd been old-fashioned long enough that she'd grown tired of it and had given it up.

George lived further out of town than Ethel had expected. They followed winding backroads she'd never known about, climbing and descending dark hills like rolling ocean swells, then zigzagging along hairpin switchbacks.

If only Bernard could see her--could see them!--could see and could care. Could he, would he, after all?

She'd get a picture tonight. Yes, that's it, a photograph of the two of them: she and George. That would show Bernard. She'd take it to him tomorrow--or maybe Wednesday, she'd think it over--take it to him and show him, tell him... well, tell him something--

take that you sorry...for all these years...for that pretty girl in the restaurant...for getting old so fast...for the bank account, yes, that bank account! George has a good job, by the way...for all these years...for your secretary

--yes, she'd think it over, what she would say--

I was with another man, mister, now what do you think about that?

And what would [could?] he think about that, mister? Would he just give her that milky cataract-clouded stare, gears turning slowly, maybe processing, if anything at all? (Did he even know her anymore? Did he know himself?)

Those empty eyes threatened to swallow her mind from the inside, and she pushed them out. She suddenly became aware that she and George had not spoken to each other since her house.

"So, you really live out here, don't you?" she said. "I had an uncle who lived out in the hollers. He had a lot of dogs. And goats. Said they were his family. Never had a wife or kids, I mean. We wouldn't hear from him for months on end. He died out there with his animals, and we didn't even know it for five months..."

George only looked at her.

"Oh, I'm sorry; I didn't mean to be morbid. I get uncomfortable with silence. I mean, I'm used to silence, living alone, it's just, when I'm actually with someone, well...you know? Or maybe you don't. I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry," he said. "I don't get much company. Not sure how to keep it. Here we are."

George turned onto a long gravel driveway that led to the top of a hill, fading away into an uncut lawn. A ragged mobile home was perched in the middle. A trail worn down to bare earth ran from the mobile home to a dilapidated wooden shed. A privy stood aside the shed, in an even greater state of disrepair than its neighbor.

"Don't worry," George said. "I have a toilet inside if you need it. That's from a long time ago."

He must have seen Ethel staring and assumed she'd been focused on the outhouse. It wasn't the outhouse, though. It was the shed.

Before she'd been married, she'd gone to visit a cousin in Oklahoma. Tornadoes had touched down right next to the house. The screaming funnels had transfixed her, and her cousin had to yell at her and jerk her arm before she finally snapped out of the hypnosis and ran to the shelter.

Something about this sagging pile of boards caught her now and howled to her like those siren beasts of the plains.

"What is that building next to the privy?" she said.

"Nothing. That's just my workshop. I, uh...you know. Fiddle with things." He chuckled.

He helped her out of the truck and walked her to the front door. It was windy, and she grasped his thick arm for balance. A foul stench came with the wind--probably a dead animal in the woods nearby. George didn't seem to notice, and she thought it would be rude to mention it. Something gave Ethel goose flesh and made the hair on the back of her neck stand up on end. She told herself it was just the wind.

The inside of George's home was, surprisingly, impeccably tidy. The aroma of wood smoke permeated everything. George motioned to the couch. "Make yourself at home. I'll start dinner."

George disappeared into the kitchen. Ethel sat on the old but clean sofa while dishes clanged away in the next room. Directly across the room from the sofa was a window that looked out at the shed. Ethel sat there on the couch for some time, the shed looking back at her through the window, grinning, hypnotic, dreadful.

She looked down; there were little white pieces of paper all over her lap and the sofa. In her trance-like state, she had taken tissues out of her purse and torn them into bits like dandruff all over. Her ears burned while she hastened to remove all evidence of her mess before George came back. She finally put all the tissue pieces in her purse and sighed.

"This is silly," she said aloud to herself. "It's just an old shed."

"What was that?"

Ethel jumped in her seat. She turned to see George standing in the doorway. She laughed and put her hand to her chest.

"Oh, George, don't sneak up on me like that!" she said. "Nothing, it was nothing. Just an old lady muttering to herself. What is it you said you did as a hobby?"

"Not much of anything, really. I guess I'm just a boring old man."

"The shed though. What is it you do in there?"

"Oh. Um, woodworking, mostly. Some other stuff. Just tinkering. Dinner's ready. Shall we eat?"

He seated her at a small oak table just barely large enough for both of their place settings and the food, which was lasagna. They began to eat.

Ethel was surprised at how good the lasagna was. Bernard had never made her dinner, not in fifty-two years of marriage. Over time, she had come to think that men couldn't cook.

George, however, could cook. Sure, it was only lasagna, but...

"George, this is excellent."


"What is in this? You must give me the recipe. Or just come over and cook for me every night."

"Just some things. Spinach, feta. Artichokes."

"Is it..." She lifted through the layers of her half-eaten food. "I assumed you'd have put some of your famous quality meat into here."

George dropped his fork and stared at his plate.

"Oh, no, I mean...Not that it isn't good. It really is amazing, I mean, really...I meant, just that, I thought meat was kind of...your thing, you know? No, it's great."

"I'm actually a vegetarian," he said, looking up. His lips were tight and his brow furrowed.

"Oh?" Ethel said.

George moved as if to speak, then his eyes returned to his plate. Ethel was too stunned and confused to say anything, either. George grabbed his fork and continued eating, broody, an aggressive clank coming from his fork hitting his plate when he chopped and stabbed each bite.

Ethel became uncomfortable and couldn't continue her meal. George kept chopping and stabbing and clanking for about a minute before he started to cool off. He put his fork down, gently now.

"Ethel, I'm sorry. I uh, I don't know what got into me. Like I said, I'm not used to company."

"Oh," she said, shifting in her seat. "Oh, that's okay. I'm sorry to have offended you. I just thought that..."

He smiled. "Let's not speak of it. So, you said you live alone?"

"Yes," she said, glad that he'd changed the subject. "My husband...well, he's dead, of course--he was thirteen years older than me--and no kids, like I said."

"Do you have any cleaning people? Or anybody to come check on you?"

"No, I typically take to myself. Bernard was... well, he was there, until he wasn't... and when he died, well, I guess that was it. Oh, well there are the dogs. I told you about them, right? Sally?"

"But what if something happens? At our age...and you, fragile, but beautiful, like porcelain..."

She blushed and looked down at her unfinished food. She felt like a young girl again.

"Well, I guess maybe I should have someone come by once in awhile to check on me. Now that you mention it, there's this vegetarian butcher I know..." She looked up and he was smiling.

"Let me show you something." He wiped his mouth with his napkin and stood up.

He took her by the hand and led her to his front door, then outside.

"Are we going to see what's in the truck now?" she said.

He didn't answer her. She followed his focused gaze and got a shock of cold.

The shed.

"What...what are you doing? What's in there?"

"My hobby," George said. His face was like stone.

Ethel got that goose flesh feeling again, and she knew it wasn't just the wind. Something was wrong here. Her stomach began to turn.

"I don't...George, I'm not feeling well. Take me home. You're scaring me. Take me home."

She tried to jerk her hand away, but those beefy arms she'd been admiring this afternoon held her tightly. The rotting odor she'd noticed earlier was still in the wind. It grew stronger, and she realized it must be coming from the shed itself.

For some reason she'd expected the door to creak as it opened, like the rusty hinges of haunted mansion doors she'd seen in movies, but it swung open fluidly as George pushed her inside. She tripped and felt a pain in her hip as she fell to a sprawl on the dusty wooden floor. She felt hot despite the evening's coolness, and the smell was so strong now that she threw up. As she stared down at her lasagna for the second time tonight, she noticed dark stains on the floor, getting darker and larger toward the center of the room.

"You wanted to see it," George said. "Here it is."

George shut the door behind him. He took a coil of rope and a chair from the corner of the room and placed the chair in the center where the stains on the floor were darkest.

"Take a seat," he said.

Ethel looked up at him. Her eyes were wide and pleading. "Please. George. What are you doing? You hurt me. Take me home."

George walked over to her. "Let me help you." He held her under the shoulders and lifted her to her feet. Then he guided her over to the chair in the middle of the room and eased her into it. He was oddly gentle about it all.


Ethel let out a small sob.

George took the rope and began to tie her to the chair. It was scratchy and cut into her skin. She could smell his cologne and the lasagna on his breath as he hunched over her.

"I'm sorry I have to do it this way," he said. "Don't want you to bruise. But can't have you getting up and walking off now, either."

Ethel looked back and forth around the room while George was tying her up. Items you'd usually expect to find in a man's shed were littered sparsely around the corners of the room: a shovel and a rusty post hole digger here, a garden hose and more ropes over there, a few buckets and unidentifiable odds and ends next to the door. To her left, a radio sat on the sill of a tiny window that let in yellow shafts of the fading evening light. Above her was a single light bulb hanging from a power cord.

Also above her, metal hooks hung from chains affixed to the rafters all over the room. Against the wall to her right, almost behind her, was a table on which knives of various sizes and shapes were arranged. Under the window on her left, aprons hung from wooden pegs in the wall. White aprons, with stains on them, like the ones George would wear at his shop, stains that matched the spot on the floor beneath her chair right now.

"George? Oh George. Please."

"Alright, that's probably good." He gave a little tug to test the knots. "How do you feel?"

Ethel blinked tears from her eyes. "You're scaring me. I don't understand."

"I know." he said. Then he stepped back from the chair and looked her over. "You know why you don't understand? Look at you, crying in that chair. From here, now, it's easy to see. You're the same as everyone else." He took one of the aprons and put it on.

"The same as who? George, I don't know what you think I did. I'm sorry."

Long spiderweb lines folded out from the corners of George's dark eyes as his face twisted into a scowl. "Sorry? Every day, Ethel. Every day, pounds and pounds! Where does all that meat go, Ethel? Every day, pounds and pounds! Like it grows on trees! Does their money grow on trees? How do they pay for all that meat? Do they think the meat comes from nowhere?"

"I don't..."

"The meat, Ethel! It has to come from somewhere! Do you know where the meat comes from, Ethel?"

"I...from the animals."

"The animals!" he shouted and swung his face down and forward, stopping inches from hers. Her heart was beating fast, too fast for her age. She sobbed again.

"Animals," he whispered. His eye twitched.

Ethel closed her eyes. This is a dream, she thought. This is a dream, this is a dream, this is a dream...

"I'm sorry, Ethel." George stood and took a deep breath. "It seems I lost my temper."

He walked over to the table with the knives and picked one up, inspected it, looked at his reflection on the wide blade, set it down again. He went through his knives one at a time like this as he talked.

"Father used to lose his temper. It scared us so badly. So I promised I would never speak to people in anger. It's a good rule, right? But it's hard, sometimes. Sometimes, people don't understand. And they need to understand. But sometimes they don't want to. And that makes me furious." He looked at her. "Father was a butcher too, you know. I know about animals." He looked back at his knives and began to sharpen them.

Ethel struggled to get a grip on herself. Breathe slowly, Ethel. In, out. In, out. She felt her heart rate return to a more manageable pace. A draft blew through cracks in the walls and felt cold against the sweat on the back of her neck.

George stood in front of her again, a knife in one hand and a honing rod in the other. He gestured with them as he spoke. "I think you will understand, though. It's important to me that you do, Ethel. It really is."

"Okay George. I'm listening."

"But do you know, really? Animals! I know about them. Father was a butcher. Like Father, like son, I guess. Except it wasn't. Not after I took one of those cows to him for him to cut up. Before he'd killed it. Have you ever looked a cow in the eye, Ethel?"

It took a moment before she realized his question wasn't rhetorical. "No, I haven't."

"That's what I thought. You know, usually, most of the people, they haven't either. But think of--what was it? Sally?--think of the first time you looked into your doggy friend's eyes. Once you did that, you'd never be able to kill her, could you?"


"That's how it was for me, too. But I was a boy, and Father was in charge, and I still led it to Father to be slaughtered. I had nightmares that night. Those big, brown eyes--that cow trusted me, you know? And in my dreams... those eyes... I still dream about those eyes."

Another pair of eyes flashed in Ethel's memory.

"Next evening, of course we had steak for dinner. Except I wouldn't. And... well, I told you Father had a temper."

He stood there now looking over Ethel's head somewhere, his arms hanging at his sides, the knife and rod pointing toward the ground.

"George, I'm sorry."

George snapped out of his daze. "Sorry, sorry, sorry. Well, you are. Fine. But you need to understand, now. You see, something you should know about the butchering process. The animal's got to be calm, see? Or the meat's ruined. So I need you to understand, and then I need you to be calm before I do it."

"Do what, George?" But she knew what, didn't she? She looked over at the old pile of vomit and thought she might add to it soon.

"Ethel, the meat--it has to come from somewhere."

Ethel swallowed. She had to keep a lid on her panic. If there was any slim hope at all for an old woman like her to get out of this mess, she had to keep her head clear.

It had become dark, and George reached up and pulled the chain switch hanging from the bulb above them. A bead of sweat trickled down his bare scalp, leaving a glistening line down his face like a line of drool she'd wiped off Bernard's face this morning, that pathetic drool and those cloudy empty eyes--

Those eyes...

She had to keep her mind clear, now, and clear of those eyes.

"George, listen, please. I won't tell a soul. I'll do anything. Just let me go."

"You're not calm, Ethel. You still don't understand. This is not personal, see. It's business. Once you accept that--"

"My husband's not dead."

George cocked his head. "You're bluffing."

"You know about eyes? Look into mine. You'll see."

Ethel held her breath as George's gaze dug into hers, and for a few eternal seconds she felt her soul penetrated by his hostile, manic aura.

"You're lying," he said at last. "You almost had me there, but it's clear as day when I look at you. Ain't nobody you love but maybe Sally the Kelpie and yourself."

And she didn't argue, because it was true.

"So you see? You're just another animal. And I know animals."

He walked to the door and paused to say, "I'll be back in an hour to see if you're ready." Then he walked out.

Another breeze leaked through the boards like a kid whistling through his missing front teeth. The hooks swung and knocked together like wind chimes. Ethel's hearing wasn't what it was twenty (even ten) years ago, but tonight she felt like she could hear a beetle's footsteps as it scampered past her foot over the death-darkened wooden floor.

Rain began to peck at the shed's metal roof.

I'm going to die here.

The meat hooks swung.

Nobody knows I'm here.

Who would there be to know, after all? She had no friends except Sally. Maybe the people at the shelter, but they didn't know she was here. Maybe the folks at the nursing home would wonder why she'd stopped coming to see Bernard, but by then it would be much too late.


His eyes appeared again in her mind. Staring at her, through her, within her. She tried to push the image out, but what else did she have to replace it? George, who was about to package her up and sell her for three dollars a pound? Though even now there was something about him that attracted her--something primal, something devout. It disturbed her to realize this and made her wonder if maybe she was missing a few marbles herself.

Through the window, Ethel saw the sky flash. A few seconds later, thunder rumbled.

She had to get out of here. The door wasn't locked--at least, she hoped it wasn't. She tried to slip out of the ropes, but George had tied them well.

The knives.

If she could just scoot the chair over to the table, maybe she could cut herself free.

But what would she do then? Where would she go? The rain had already become a downpour; she would get soaked. And the wind was chilling enough as it snuck through the gaps in these walls. At her age, wet and cold... and she was in the middle of nowhere. She could probably go all night without seeing a car on these mountain roads.

She sat there in her chair, thinking it over. Maybe it would be worth the risk. Perhaps she could hide behind the door with one of the knives--but George was strong, and even with a knife, her frailty was probably no match for him.

Another bright flash outside followed by thunder, much sharper and violent this time. The single swinging incandescent bulb flickered and went out. Blackness enveloped Ethel.

She squinted her eyes as if she could will her aging vision to adjust to the dark. She wished that she'd lost her sense of smell along with her sight. She thought she almost had gotten used to the reek, but somehow there it was again, stronger.

Slowly, hazy silhouettes formed: the tools in the corner, the table, the aprons flapping, the meat hooks dangling and jangling--an apron hanging from a meat hook in front of her? How did that--

Again, white light filled the room from that tiny window like from a flashbulb. Her night vision was ruined again, but the snapshot that had been burned into her mind stopped her breath cold. The apron hanging from the meat hook wasn't an apron at all.

No. It can't be.

Another flash confirmed the image--a man hanging by his heels from the hook--, and she could hear the rafters creak as he swung slowly from side to side...

Get control of yourself, Ethel. You're being silly again. Your old scared mind's playing tricks on you.

With an eerie abruptness, the storm ceased. A break in the clouds allowed the full moon to shoot a beam through the small window, and now she could see shapes again in the quicksilver dimness, could see the tools and the aprons and the hooks and the man hanging from the hooks. Just barely, she could even see where the hooks pierced his bloody ankles. Thin black rivulets ran down his legs to his torso and into his armpits and down his limply hanging arms and then drip, drip, dripped off his fingertips, making new little black puddles on the floor.

The wind had stopped, but the man was still swinging slowly back and forth, the old rafters still protesting his weight. The shaft of moonlight coming through the window highlighted a spot in the air where his face would pass as it swung, and Ethel let out a small scream when she saw it. Not because the man was alive; not even because the man was looking at her, smiling at her, even--but because she knew that face, even in this half-darkness. She knew that cloudy stare.


Bernard did not answer, only stared back, grinning wildly. But, though his eyes were still milky with cataracts, it was not the half-conscious, empty look from him she'd grown accustomed to on her nursing home visits.

Ethel's heart was like a steam engine now, only it started skipping, threatening to derail. She closed her eyes and again tried to slow it and steady her breathing, halfway hoping that when she opened her eyes, Swinging Bernard would be gone.

He wasn't.

"Bernard. Stop looking at me like that. Stop...stop it."

He only smiled. And swung. And dripped.

"Bernard, I can explain this."

Smile. Swing. Drip.

"Well, I wouldn't be here if it weren't for you, you know. George, he--well, I thought, anyways--well, I wasn't getting much attention from you. Or, I hadn't--and even before you went all...you know...and..."

Up on the rafter she saw an oblong shadow moving toward Bernard and then resting above the hook he dangled from.

"And so what if I did go on a date? And... well, you know? I'm with another man, mister, and what do you think about that?" But her voice faltered and cracked a little on the last word.

The oblong shadow--it had a long, wormy tail, too--moved down the meat hook and rested on Bernard's toes. It lifted up its head--yes, it had a head, and ears, and whiskers, too--and began to squeak.

"And if you think I deserve this...like you even paid me attention before you left me with your nursing home bills and cleaning up your pathetic drool--" Ethel felt her fear turning to anger. "I had to practically wipe the drool off your face even before--yes, Bernard, I still remember that waitress! And your secretary, don't think I didn't know what was going on then!"

Bernard kept grinning, kept swinging, kept dripping. More oblong shapes came out of the blackness above and converged upon Bernard's bloody stinking ankles.

"I deserved more than what you gave me!" she yelled at Smiling Swinging Dripping Bernard. "I deserved more than your unfaithfulness! I deserved more than your infertility! I deserved more than your sickness! I deserved more!"

She stopped to catch her breath. Her hands, still tied to the back of the chair behind her, were trembling. The rats--so many, where did they all come from?--were moving down Bernard's legs, squeaking gluttonously. Bernard did not try to brush them off, didn't even flinch as they gorged on his legs. He only grinned, arms limp.

"So you can wipe that smug look off your face. And I'm going to get out of this, you'll see. And you wait and see if I ever come visit you again."

The rats moved down Bernard's body until only his face was showing. They were squeaking louder and louder, and then they began to squeak in unison, like shrill crickets.

"I told George you were dead! We're going to get married, and he'll never know about you! You'll rot alone in the nursing home, and see if I ever care!"

The rats now covered Bernard's face, so that all that Ethel could see was a mass of squirming rats swinging from the meat hook, their wormy tails whipping about. They were still squeaking in deafening time to each swing of the giant rat-pendulum, but now it began to sound like words:



"No. No." Ethel shook her head. "No!"



"No!" She wanted to cover her ears, but, of course, her hands were still tied. Instead, she tried to scream above the rat's high chant.


The swinging and the chanting got faster and faster, like someone was steadily increasing the speed of a metronome--

...you're next, you're next, you're next...

"No! No! Stop it! Stop it!" She screamed louder, but still the rats' voices rose above her own:

you're next you're next you're next you're next

"Stop it! Stop it I hate you!"

The pendulum stilled. The rats cleared away from Bernard's face--or what was left of it: they'd eaten the skull clean of all flesh save those cloudy eyes, which still stared at her, and the skull still grinned as the rats clambered back up Bernard's skeleton and returned to the black void.

She heard the door of the shed open. Ethel opened her eyes with a start. Bernard was gone. George came in and pointed a flashlight at her face, blinding her.

"Do you understand now? Are you ready?" George said.

It had been a dream. Of course it had. A dream...and yet...

"Let's talk this over, George--"

"I was afraid of this. You still aren't ready. Well, I've got a trick for when a body doesn't come around. It's not preferred, but it can at least calm a person down right quick." As he was saying this, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a cloth. She could smell the chemically sweet scent of the chloroform coming from it despite the pervasive decay.

"No, George--I do understand, see? And it's business, of course. But listen: I have a business offer for you."

"I doubt it," he said, but stopped and waited, curious.

"I know where you can get some good meat, George. Much better than mine. I can bring him to you, George. And he won't struggle, either. He may not even say a word."




Timothy G. Huguenin writes novels and short stories from his home in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. His second novel, Little One, will be released in July. You can find out more about him and his writing by visiting tghuguenin.com.

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