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The Dead Corner

cow

Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

Dear Brother, 

Please find enclosed a check for three hundred and fifty dollars. I cannot properly return the gift you have forced upon me so I have estimated its cost and paid it back to you.  

I cannot accept it.  

And I know, little brother, that you will find some way to “be hurt” or “wronged” by my kind action but it is in no spite to your attempts at well wishes. I do not need your help, for you do not know how to help. Lest you forget I am your older brother?

You have never seen the Boogeyman under your bed, have you? Because I was always the one you cried for at night. I was the one who would search underneath your bed and in your closet. So do not pretend to know. You may be all grown up now, and head of your own family,  but you are still my younger brother. 

But you say you’re a man now. A father will have to look under his own boy’s bed. So fine. I will tell you, so that you do not keep on asking. I will tell you why I do not come to see your family and why I left ours so long ago.  

Maybe you remember, all those years before, when Ma and Pop still owned the gas store behind Hawkin’s Hill? Well you might also remember those later years and how we struggled.  We barely had enough to serve a half plate of canned beans every night. Folks didn’t come around that bend much, now that the train was in town, and so Pop started cutting corners.  Things weren’t getting any better and I was hardly any help shuffling stock around, pretending it might one day leave those shelves. So, that summer, I got a job… 

I got a job at the Winston Plant

Now the Winston Plant was a cattle farm but the folks who worked there were keen to avoid that term. Calling that place anything but a factory made you look ignorant or worse.  Because the Winston Plant didn’t get its profit raising cattle. No, it was the killing that paid. And that place was finely tuned to the one song it knew best. 

You see, the plant operated to both grow and harvest their meat. I wasn’t under any delusion. I knew the Winston Plant was a slaughter house. But I still had some naive expectations. My private hope was that I would be tending to the care of the animals; shoveling their pens, filling their trough. Maybe, I thought, I would help deliver the calves, as I had done on our Uncle Troy’s ranch two years before. Well my fanciful thoughts would soon disappoint me.

As soon as my first day, they had me on the floor. 

Most would say the conditions of the factory were anything but tolerable. But tolerable is a fickle word. Our manager didn’t always agree with how we defined it. Fact is, back then our town was too small and too afraid to unionize. And inspection committees had a habit of forgetting certain details. But we weren’t paid to think about such things. 

They put me on as one of the skinners. The job was as glorious as the name suggests. It was an unwelcoming sight; to see a creature’s flesh pulled off as effortlessly as a fellow removing his coat. However, I found that I lacked such talents and often struggled at the torn strips of hide. After finding my work too slow, my manager moved me to the saws.  

My new job required me to guide a track of hanging carcasses through a set of buzzing blades. Though I didn’t have to endure the horrible skinning scene, the nauseating stink of blood still stuck to the inside of my nose. But like the skinning, I wouldn’t be on the saws for long.  

Mitchell O’Brown was a quiet and awkward fellow. His face hung lower than his head and he always walked crooked on his left foot. He worked at the factory, the same job as I did.  One day, as he was pulling meat down the track, he slipped on the damp floor. In a second too fast to catch but too long to forget, I saw the meat fly through the saws… along with a third of his hand.  

It’s funny I’d endure hours cutting meat from dead things but the instant I’d seen three of his fingers fly off, my stomach blew like a volcano…  

They said it was unsanitary. Not the bit’s of O’Brown’s hand they found on the floor a  week later. No, the vomit. So they moved me. Though I’m convinced they weren’t really concerned about my sensitive stomach. 

I’m rather sure they got their kicks, assigning the green kid to be a euthanizer… 

I was nearly on my knees begging to go back. I’d work as a skinner, on the saw, anything but that. But it was too late; my previous position had been filled, they said. It was a euthanizer or it was nothing. And I guess I would have considered nothing. But then I always had to think of  Ma and Pop and you. I had no choice. 

The next day I met with a man named Lester Cavone. Lester was a foul man. Everything from his yellow teeth to greasy hair told me that as soon as I laid eyes on him. It just so happened Lester would be my partner. 

You see, being a euthanizer was a two man job. Unless you wanted to carry the corpse of the animal all the way to the factory floor, you had to guide them there while they were still alive. Now the plant processed all sorts of animals. There were chickens and pigs but we worked with the cows. Lester was what we called a “back-man”. He made sure the cows kept moving forward. I was a “front-man” and made sure they moved in the right direction. Cows are naturally curious so you need someone in front directing them where to go. Otherwise, they’d follow every other noise they heard. 

I suppose that made me a shepherd of sorts. A shepherd of death. 

Guiding them across the lot was the easy part. They’re so desperate to leave their cramped cages, they’d follow you like Moses out of Egypt. Then we’d bring them inside… 

We’d lock the iron doors behind us. Though, I never trusted it would prevent a nearly one  ton creature from breaking free. We’d march them down the hallway before turning into the kill room. That last corner was always the hardest. For the cows and me. 

The hallway was made to be as simple as it could be. That way there weren’t any distractions. The walls were a dull white and the windows were just high enough so the cows couldn’t see out of them. Just high enough so we couldn’t see out of them either. 

But despite all the effort to delude them, that last corner was too sharp. The cows would always buck and pull. They feared it. Something in their instincts was screaming at them. I  would do my best to coax them, one at a time. I’d calm them, lie to them, luring them around that dreadful turn. 

Now if my peaceful attempts failed, Lester went to work with his dogs.  

Being back-man, Lester relied on a pack of vicious muts to caress the cows forward.  Like the cattle, those dogs were born and raised on the Winston Plant for a single purpose; to make you run. Those dogs were mean. Nothing ‘bout the way they sneered and chewed in your direction said “man’s best friend”. I was thankful to god those beasts were on chains.  

Those poor cows in the back were at the mercy of Lester’s patience, which was always shorter than the leash he held. I had to be careful too. If the cows got too startled, they were likely to trample me in that narrow passage. Lester claimed that was how my predecessor went.  I’m not sure if he was telling the truth or just having fun with a frightened kid but the way he described that fellows chest crushed to jelly under the weight of a stampede made me feel like I  was watching O’Brown’s accident on replay. 

Either way, we’d get the cows around that corner and into the killing room. Lester and I…  took turns on the bolt gun. 

I was pretty lucky Lester had a sadistic appetite. He did most of it. But as he began thinking I was trying to slack off, he became more appealed to watching me do it… 

Most of them don’t really understand what’s happening when you… 

I started having some bad dreams. The kind of dreams that follow you into your day.  There was one morning, I came down to the dinner table and Ma and you were there. I hadn’t slept much that night. Partly due to the dreams and partly due to your crying. I was hungry but we had no more than enough to feed one mouth in the morning. And you were always the first to eat. But that is neither here nor there.  

Ma, Pop, and I, we survived with only coffee for breakfast. Well as I sipped my luke-warm brew, I’d tasted iron. I look down to see blood decorated on top of the sickly black water. It was my blood, dripping down and off my chin, goin’ drip, drip, drip. I got up to look in the mirror and there I saw my head spilled open, at the center of my forehead was a gash, a quarter wide. It was the same mark I’d implanted on each one of them cows. 

But in a second it was gone. And then I was gone, off to work, where I’d pass on my nightmare to more unsuspecting victims. 

My life continued as I continued to take life from those animals. At some point I made it my daily habit to sit with the cows. Most days I didn’t have a lunch but I’d take my break out in the pens. In a way it felt like going to confession. Like the animal across from me would absolve me of my sins, make the guilt easier to carry. But it only added more weight. Because then I’d recognize them. Whenever it was their turn I’d remember a time I sat next to them, a time I’d touch their skin before it was ruthlessly torn from their dead bodies, a time when they could be alive. 

You’d think it would have made my job harder. The worst part was, it made it easier.  Because then, when we went down that long hallway and reached that sharp corner… they followed me… because they trusted me… 

Lester applauded me for how I had “improved”. At least he wasn’t using the dogs as much… 

I was constantly looking for a new job. I guess the whole town was because they were always filled before I could even apply. 

About this time, Pop sold the car and we downgraded to the rusty piece you begrudgingly inherited on your sixteenth birthday. I was stuck in my purgatory for a while longer.

I worked at the plant for another month with the only change in the world seeming to be the animal’s feed. Now I don’t know Mr. Winston, in fact I rather don’t believe the factory belongs to anyone with such a name but there’s one thing I’ve gathered about the owners of that plant. I suspect they were going through some money troubles. And I think, just like Pop and the gas store, they were looking to cut a few corners.  

The animals were given a new type of feed. They said it had some chemicals in it, that it would make the cattle grow up faster and stronger. Well I don’t know anything about that. All I  know is the animals started acting odd. They were walking around their pens more and making less noise while we were around. Sometimes, when I would take my breaks with them they would all sort of gather near the gate, just to watch me. 

Weirder things started happening. One time I came into the stable for my break and there, free and loose, was one of the cows. It looked startled, like it was confused about how it got out. And that, there, was the tricky part. I couldn’t figure it either. Because taking it back I  found its pen was locked. No way they climbed it. They weren’t smart enough to try. I guessed it had to have been another factory worker. But not wanting to cause any trouble I kept my mouth shut. 

Even Lester was going strange. He claimed the dogs had been making funny noises. I  thought he was crazy like the cows. Maybe, I thought, he’d been eating out of their trough.  

Work got difficult with the cattle again. We’d bring them down the hallway to the kill room but they’d stop still before that last corner. I’d tried comforting them but whatever cursed charm I had was gone. So Lester tried the dogs. Yet no matter how much they nipped at their heels, those cows still wouldn’t move. The dogs might have eaten them alive if we let them play chicken any longer.  

Lester got fed up and said if they weren’t going into the kill room then we would kill them right here. We enlisted help from another factory worker. Chuck helped me hold a tarp between the cows. Meanwhile, Lester would get to work with whichever cow was hidden in front.  

None of them went easy. Even doing our best to hide what was going on, those cows weren’t fooled. It was a wonder they didn’t try running. They all could have trampled us, if they weren’t so afraid. 

When it was done, we had a line of corpses in the hallway. Most of the factory workers weren’t too happy to drag all that dead weight. It became so tedious, in fact, that they found it easier to do their work right there instead, chopping the animals up into manageable bits.  Whatever was left, Lester fed to the dogs. The only food they ever ate were the scraps off the meat floor. He claims it made them tougher; better at their job. I’d say it put the devil in them.

The cows only became more stubborn. In response, I suppose, the dogs became more vicious. They were turning downright feral. Lester had to put one down because it refused to let go of a cow’s leg. Sometime after he told me he’d grown suspicious of them. He claimed that the dogs have been giving him “strange looks”. And he swore up and down that he even caught a few of them… whistling.  

I was glad I wasn’t the only one who felt like they were losing their mind. But like him, I  feared something wasn’t right. 

Do you remember when I busted my knee that summer? It put me out of work for a few months. I had always said it was an accident at the plant. I wasn’t lying, exactly… but it wasn’t the truth. 

That day was quiet. And I don’t mean there wasn’t any sound. The factory was churning its song but hardly to the same gusto I was familiar with. I couldn’t quite place it at first but then  I realized that all the animals had gone silent. It was unnerving. 

Lester seemed just as put off. That day, he chose to leave the dogs in their cage. He wouldn’t tell me why. But I didn’t ask.  

We got to work moving the cows. They seemed oddly patient to leave their pens. They followed out evenly and orderly, with Lester and I separated by the herd. I felt I was drowning in my nerves as we entered the hallway. I wasn’t sure why but I was dreading that sharp corner.  Dreading it more than I ever had before. The floor, stained a faint pink, reminded me of the previous herd and I wondered if these cows would put up the same fight. 

I touched the end of that damned hallway and stopped. I looked back to meet the gaze of the steer behind me. We shared a long look before I was compelled forward. I kept my eyes to the steer, slowly walking backwards, around the corner. The animal copied my path, never once turning its head from me. When we finally made it into the killing room I breathed a sigh of relief. I turned away to reach for the bolt gun when it happened. 

BOOM! I was flung forward, hard on a bent knee. I shouted in pain just as I heard Lester yell. I couldn’t even raise my head before a hoof came crashing onto the bolt gun. Then, I felt something press onto my back. Oh I was terrified. Thoughts of my insides mashed to jelly made me shake. My face was forced into the wet floor so I could only look sideways up at the steer on top of me. I was a step away from death as it held its foot. 

There was a loud and echoing BANG that came from the hallway. I squeezed my eyes closed, waiting for what came next. Then the weight lifted and for a moment I thought I had gone. But I opened my eyes again to see the steer leaving into the hallway.

I propped myself up onto my one good leg and started hobbling back. As I turned into the hallway I saw what had happened. The metal doors were swung open and the herd was retreating outside. I found Lester by the door, crumpled over his chest. He was having trouble breathing and I was fairly certain he broke a few ribs. 

I helped him up and we leaned on each other for support. I wanted to look for help but he demanded we go for the cages. Lester was cursing through his bloody teeth as we headed for the dogs. I’m not sure what he was thinking but he was pissed as hell. 

When we reached the cages I stopped. The dogs never greeted anyone with nothing less than teeth. The fact they all just stood content sent ice cubes up my spine. Lester was halfway through unlocking the cage when I noticed it. There were a total of ten dogs at the factory… but I  only counted seven… 

I saw it too late, the hole in the fence. The gate was open before I could argue and as I  yelled for Lester, those monsters charged the door. They sent him stumbling. He aimed the cattle prod ordering them, “Back! Back!”. I watched as they gleefully prowled towards their former master and then… I heard one of the dogs’ reply. 

BAck. BAck.” 

I couldn’t trust my ears. I promise you it was something between a bark and human words! I thought maybe I’d hit my head too hard but then it croaked its taunt again. 

BAck. BAck.” 

Lester couldn’t see the dog that snuck beside him but he screamed as its maw snapped shut on his heel. He lifted the prod to strike, giving the dogs their opening. I was in a tilted chase as Lester fell to the ground. Behind me I heard the tearing of skin over devilish laughter. 

I ran, ran anywhere I thought I could find help. In the fields, the number of escapees had multiplied. Nearly every animal was out of its cage now. I found some of the cows pacing the front gates and another group patrolling around the pens. I kept my distance as I weaved towards the factory floor. From some distance behind, there came a menacing howl. 

I was met with confused looks as I ran into the factory. The saws were shouting so loud you couldn’t hear my frenzied voice. But my face and odd limp was enough to brew concern. A  few of the men came over to me, most couldn’t be pulled from the pace of their work. The manager stepped out of his office that overlooked the floor. He descended the stairs with the most bitter anger on his face. I’m sure he was hardly happy for the stall in his orders.

But before he could even reach the bottom, a blur caught my eye. Much like O’Brown there wasn’t much warning for the fellow working the saws as a dog jumped on his back. Before  I knew it, he fell before the saw. 

There was too much blood to even think about what had happened. Too much for us to see the other hound sink his teeth into my manager’s face. The third of the pack followed through the door hissing a cruel laugh. The dogs that snuck away had found their game. 

I climbed to the manager’s office. It was the only room close enough where I could place a door between me and those devils. I winced with every step of my knee but forced myself higher, faster. At the top of the stairs, I lunged into the office, barricading the door with my shoulder. Not a second more, a pair of claws crashed against the metal with a roar. The few survivors that remained below yelled and fought until there was no more sound. Even the assault at my door retreated, leaving only the abandoned hum of machines. 

I collapsed, gasping at the stench of old blood mixed with new. I waited endlessly for my wits to come about. But I was too terrified to move, too terrified to think. As I hid from the world,  there came a chorus of screams. But they weren’t human screams. It was coming from outside… The cows. Mingled in that horrible slaughter was the familiar cackle that sang around  Lester’s death. 

I knew I had to go. The trouble was convincing my legs of that fact. I managed to pull myself up, placing a careful ear to the door. Besides the blades, the distant chaos was the only noise around me so I dared to step outside. Looking down, the shredded forms of my coworkers swept the factory floor. The pool of intestines and blood suddenly made Mitchelle O’Brown’s accident look like a papercut. I was so encaptured by the massacre I nearly ignored the beast behind me. 

Patiently waiting there was my pursuer. Damned dog was lying low, waiting for the hare to come out of its hole. There I stood, a few meters from it. The beast was bowed up, waitin’ to see where I’d place my first step. My next move would be a gamble for my life.  

I led with my good leg and as the dog jumped to catch me, I sprung the opposite direction. Despite my start, he was on my heel down and out the factory. I would have been dead if not for some divine intervention. 

The jaws of death reached for my flesh but was thrown aside by a hulking figure. From out of nowhere, the same steer that had trampled me, now stood at my guard. It was mangled and hurt, with a leg no better than my own. The dog rose up to meet its challenger just as another of its pack crawled forth.

The steer cast a side glance at me. I’d be damned if I didn’t say it understood. The front gate was within a sprint from here. But those dogs were faster than both of us combined… 

The steer charged into the fire of teeth and I ran for the hills… 

The Winston Plant shut down after that. Though, most didn’t quite know why. I knew of course. But like the others who knew, we were made to change our story. Lawyers for the  Winston Plant purchased certain deniability with money and threats. Officially the Plant was closed because of “unsanitary conditions”. 

All those who died at the factory were left forgotten by our town. Their bodies were taken by the same folks who paid us to forget them. I had heard rumors that they’d swept that factory clean of any death. All those bodies and animals, they said it took nearly two whole days to clear it all.  

Some years later, when I had the courage to go back to that decrepit place, I could barely find a single bone. But their memory lingered. Because even though I didn’t stay long, I swear I  heard ghosts howling in pain… under a devilish laughter. 

I wish I could have confessed the truth long ago. But I had to protect the family. I had to protect you. They called it severance for my “work injuries”. It was enough for Ma and Pop to start fresh. It was enough for you to go to school. 

So, little brother, I hope you understand why. Why I have been so “cagey,” as you call it.  Why, when I see your family smiling and happy, I think about all those ruined by the Winston  Plant. Why I left town so young, so I could be far away from that place. 

I hope you understand why I cannot accept your gift. Why when you left me that 2 month old husky mutt for “companionship”, all I could see were those damned beasts tearing at human flesh. Why every time it yaps I hear the mocking call of those devils. I could not stand it for a  minute more. And no, I did not harm that pup. My neighbor, Madeline, has taken it. She’s quite fond of her pets and will take care of it now. 

But most of all, I hope you know now that the Boogeyman doesn’t hide under anyone’s  bed. No, the real Boogeyman stands right where we can see him. Sometimes he might look like the Winston Plant. Other times he might look like you and me… 

Or he might look like a devil with a muzzle full of teeth… Because, while not a single animal made it out of that factory alive… they never found any dogs… 

– Sincerely Max