By D.C. Mason
Kenneth Wolfman was surprised by how much the sight bothered him. The red glow of the heat lamp and the static clicking of its electric hum filled the coop with a strange vermillion that was without origin or bound and which did not provide lighting so much as dim fear. And sweat. Like the stagelights at some perverted show. The destroyed bodies of the three hens were pressed into the shavings on the floor of the coop. Scooter entered behind him swinging his legs one after the other and clomping his boots through the shavings.
“Ooh-ee,” he hooted. He nudged what might have been a wing with his toe. The remaining hens perched on the roost bars above mindlessly. Their eyes wide with trauma.
Kenneth gazed over the bodies. It helped to think of them as broken windup toys with their parts strewn all about the place. The pieces were recognizable even if their function was unknown to him. A gear here, a spring somewhere else, the oil and grease that had kept their mechanical pieces moving dried up all around. There was no smell to it that he noticed. He wondered, had there been a smell, if he would have thrown up.
Scooter hacked in his throat and spat. Sometimes he would nearly squash a piece of chicken and redirect his foot at the last instant. “Don’t look to be no way in.” Kenneth focused on his breathing and opened the seams of the contractor bag he had brought with him and flicked it open. “Let’s just pick these guys up for now. We can figure out how it got in after we pick up.”
When they were finished the coop looked as if nothing had happened. Scooter took the bag from Kenneth and brought it across the street to the dumpster. Kenneth emerged from the incubated heat of the coop and steeped carefully towards the Garden Center. Ms. Helen was waiting for him behind the checkout counter.
“How many were there?” she asked.
“Three.” Ms. Helen closed her eyes tight and shook her head.
“It never gets any easier. Mr. Green always tells me not to name them.” She seemed to shake in place as if about to burst.
“You think it was a fox?”
“It would have to be somethin small. You didn’t see any place it could have gotten in did you?”
“I checked it good.” Scooter came in through the front entrance. A display of garden gnomes eyed him suspiciously. Ms. Helen considered him, nodding her head and crossing her arms beneath the immense lobe of her chest.
“You thinkin what I am, Scoot?”
“I sure hope so.” The older yard boy looked at Kenneth and smiled. “We had the same damn thing happen a few weeks before you started working here and Mr. Green said if it happened again and we still couldn’t figure out where the critters were gettin in he’d think about buyin us a game cam.” Scooter looked at Ms. Helen. “Definitely can’t get in touch with him on a Saturday though.” Kenneth had only worked in the Garden Center a few days and even he knew there were few ideas worse than calling Mr. Green while he was away at his camp.
Ms. Helen reached beneath the counter and came up with her purse and rummaged around in it until she found her wallet. “How much you think a game cam is?” she asked, her fingers pinching the pale green ranks of bills in her wallet.
“Might be best to wait for Mr. Green, get him to pay for it.” Kenneth did not know the price but he knew a good cam, one with a Bluetooth connection and something resembling a live feed, would be worth quite a bit. It would be the kind of thing he would ask for on a birthday, maybe, but not on a whim at Wal-Mart on the weekend.
“I’ll be damned if I have any more of my babies dyin in that death trap.” She looked at Scooter, whose eyes were fixed on her hands in the wallet. “How much, Scoot?”
“Two hundred.” Ms. Helen eyed him. They stood looking at one another for what Kenneth thought to be a long time. Skeptical, but satisfied, Ms. Helen produced a hundred-dollar bill from her wallet along with two twenties.
“Take this,” she gave the money to Kenneth, “and drive on down to the Lonnie’s Archery, he’s just across from the movies on Route-9. I’ll take back whatever change there is.” Kenneth folded the bills neatly and moved them around in his hands as if testing them for authenticity like an old-time pawnman.
“I can’t do it Ms. Helen.”
“It’s fine, Kenny, we’ll make the drawer even when you come back,” Ms. Helen gestured at the money in his hands, “all that’s just in case.” Scooter chuckled, rubbing his fingers over the scruff under his chin. He wrapped his arm around Kenneth’s shoulder.
“Actually Helen,” he hissed “I think Wolf Man’s referrin to the fact that he’s only fourteen.” Scooter smiled wide with nicotine stained teeth. “He don’t got his license yet.” Ms. Helen bit her lip.
“Fine then,” she looked at Kenneth, “Scoot’ll drive. Now I’m gonna have myself a look at that coop.” She waddled out from behind the counter and strolled off in the direction Kenneth had come from.
“Sure thing, ma’am,” Scooter drawled in a needless and fake accent. “We’ll be back soon.” He clapped Kenneth on the shoulder. “No time like the present, hoss. Let’s go.” He spoke loudly so that Ms. Helen would hear but made no movement to leave. When she was out of view Scooter hopped over the counter and turned the key to the cash drawer and took out another hundred dollars in assorted bills.
“Scooter!” Kenneth’s shout was an awkward whisper and his voice cracked slightly. Scooter pocketed the money and hopped over the counter again.
“We might not need it, but I can tell you one thing,” he reached down and patted Kenneth’s pocket, “that ain’t gonna be enough for the heat we need to be packin.” The older boy was almost skipping out the door. Kenneth stood still for a moment, not quite believing what had just happened. He looked down the corridor where Ms. Helen had gone and considered telling her. Frozen and shaken from the sight of the chickens, he found himself following Scooter and closing the shop door behind him. On his way out he caught a glimpse of the gnomes looking at him.
Scooter opened the door for Kenneth when they arrived at Lonnie’s Archery and when the two of them had entered a girl who Kenneth recognized as Desiree Brooks lethargically greeted them from behind the counter without raising an eye. Desiree was a senior at Kenneth’s high school and he was infatuated with her in the way only a freshman boy could be. She was mean and popular and though those parts of her repulsed him other parts of her messed with his wiring on a level he was still learning to navigate. Scooter went to look around the store and told Kenneth to go ahead and find a decent camera.
Kenneth found an end cap display devoted to the newest game cams and he studied it. The fluorescent lights above him buzzed like a bug in his ear and he realized that his stomach hurt. From the rafters above him and from pegs on the walls and among the shelves on either side of him hung a vast and deviant arsenal of weapons. Bows compound and composite. Bowie knives and machetes. An array of firearms that might have leapt from their pegs like lithe tigers.
Kenneth had never been allowed to own so much as a pocketknife and he envied his friends in Boy Scouts who had their Totin’ Chips. He would watch from a safe distance and watch those boys whittle with their Swiss Army Knives. It seemed to him that they would always choose a spot to whittle that was just barely within the view of others. To show off. He sometimes fell asleep at night imagining owning a knife of his own. He longed to be seen whittling. Though the act seemed strange and unpleasurable, perhaps owning a blade of his own would reveal its hidden joys.
He felt something touch him on the back of the neck and he turned around and found himself looking down the barrel of a massive rifle. From the look of the thing, all covered in dust bunnies and splotches, Kenneth thought it must have been sitting in some corner of the store for decades. “Hands up.” Scooter spat, before lowering the gun and cackling like a lanky dog from some untamed wild.
“Don’t do that,” Kenneth shot back quietly. “There could be cameras watching, you’ll get in trouble.” Scooter rolled his eyes.
“A man holds a gun to your head and your biggest concern is that he might get in trouble? Jesus Wolf Man.” He held the gun at his side along with a moldy cardboard box of ammunition. “Speaking of cameras, find one you like?” Kenneth turned back to the shelf and found a camera for $49.99 and gave it to Scooter, who took the camera and weighed it in his hands as if it were a fruit at a farmer’s stand. “You got the money?” Kenneth hesitated, then remembered who was behind the counter, and timidly passed Scooter the bills.
When they came up to the counter Scooter knocked twice on the glass to get her attention. The checkout doubled as a glass display case within which Kenneth saw a fleet of finely crafted pocketknives. Each of them identical but each of them more compelling in design than any he had seen in the hands of a Boy Scout. He could not meet Desiree’s eyes and so he studied the knives as Scooter bought the camera.
“That’s forty-nine ninety—wait. Scoot McGraw is that you?” Desiree’s eyes lit up and her mouth opened into a smile.
“Last I checked I was still me.” He pushed his fingers through his brown semi-mullet. “How’re things Des, been a hot sec since I seen you.”
“You know, school and work.” She cocked her head to one side and then the other letting her braids swing.
“So you work here? Not a bad gig.”
“My daddy owns the place, has me watch the front on the weekends.” The two spoke for a while and it became clear to Kenneth that they possessed a knowledge of one another that he could not begin to grasp. Something about the way their heads leaned off to the side as they spoke. The in-the-pocket rhythm with which Scooter employed and withdrew eye-contact and the way Desiree touched her hair whenever he did.
After a while they came to a pause and the room was quiet. “So the camera’s fifty bucks,” Desiree offered, leaning on the counter. Scooter made a big deal of counting out the money.
“Well lookee that, plenty left to buy this number.” He placed the old rifle gently on the glass and pushed the box of ammo next to it. Kenneth looked up at him. His heart was beating fast and a red alarm was blaring within him. Desiree made a face.
“You oughta know I ain’t supposed to sell stuff like that without my daddy here, Scoot McGraw,” she teased, making quick strokes on the register computer as she spoke, “Comes to $191.89.” Desiree winked at Scooter, “I gave ya a little discount.”
“Come on Scooter,” Kenneth whined, hating the way his voice sounded, “we were gonna…you said…”
“Excuse me, Wolf Man,” Scooter pushed slightly on Kenneth’s forehead with two fingers and tilted his head toward the gun. “We don’t know what kinda animal we’re up against here. I ain’t about to go out into that coop tonight with my bare hands.” Kenneth stood still and did not question it. “Actually,” Scooter smiled warmly, “I ain’t lettin you go in there unarmed either. Des, how about one-a ’em knives.” Desiree reached below into the display and took up one of the knives and rang it up. Kenneth’s heart sank.
She gave Scooter his change—four dollars and some coins—and Scooter thanked her and told her he would call sometime. With that Scooter took the gun in one hand and the box of ammunition under his arm and then gave the camera to Kenneth to carry and finally, the knife. “Our little secret, ha Wolf Man?”
The rest of the day at the Garden Center was long and painful. Not just because of Ms. Helen’s face when they had come back with so little change, and not just because of the weight of the lie or of the knife in his pocket. It was because on the way back, Scooter had explained to him what the plan was for the evening, and the knowledge of that future made Kenneth’s head spin. After the two had installed the camera into the coop it was about quitting time and Scooter dropped Kenneth off at home and told him he would be back for him after dark.
It did not take long for his father to notice how little Kenneth was eating at dinner. Kenneth fingered the knife in his pocked like a talisman warding off the shame that hung over him just for having it with him. He explained to his father what he and Scooter had planned for that night.
“So you both are staying there overnight and you’re gonna find out how the critters are getting in?”
“Well ain’t that somethin. An outin with the guys. With your pal Scooter. A night out with your work bud.” He tested similar phrases as if trying find one he liked best. “So Scooter will drive you home tomorrow?”
“Yeah.” Kenneth touched the knife in his pocket. He felt pressure behind his eyes. “But I don’t want to do it, Dad.”
“What if I’m not home in time for church?” Kenneth saw doubt grow on his father’s face and added, “What would mom say?” which made the doubt turn into hilarity.
“Don’t worry about church Kenny, Jesus’ll understand. And mom’s gone this weekend anyway, she don’t ever have to find out. Just relax and have fun tonight. It’ll be like a stakeout, like in the old cop shows we used to watch.”
“I just don’t feel good.”
“Did something else happen?” Kenneth paused. In his mind he imagined Scooter with the gun firing with demented glee into the woods at nothing at all. His face lit by a dim red glow. “Kenny?” He felt the weight of the knife in his pocket and he felt its polished ivory handle through the denim of his jeans.
“No. Sorry. I’ll do it Dad. I’ll be home sometime tomorrow.”
“Attaboy. It’ll be like a stakeout, you’ll see.”
When Scooter came back it was pitch black outside. He introduced himself to Kenneth’s father who realized that Edgar McGraw, Scooter’s father, had been a friend of his in high school. The two went back and forth telling stories as if Scooter were somehow privy to memories created by his father. As if he had inherited Edgar McGraw’s spirit like the son of a folk hero.
They said goodbye to Kenneth’s father and got in the truck. The night was black and there were no stars and no moon and the only light there was was the fusion of the beams cast by the headlights of the truck which fell upon the gray asphalt of the road stretching out before them like the back of some enormous sea-creature.
When they arrived at the Garden Center Scooter backed the truck into a spot opposite the chicken coop and the two climbed into the truck bed where they set up two lawn chairs that Scooter had brought along. Scooter had the ancient looking gun he had bought at Lonnie’s and he rested it across his lap. Kenneth took out his phone and found the Bluetooth connection to the game camera and connected to it. If the camera caught motion it would record for ten seconds and send him a notification.
“I brought some beers if you want any.” Kenneth shook his head. “Suit yourself.” Scooter revealed a cooler at his side that had been hidden under a blanket. It was the first time Kenneth had seen anyone under the age of thirty drink outside of a church.
His phone buzzed. He exchanged a look with Scooter who leveled the rifle and he quickly opened the app and the two of them watched a short ghastly green clip of the inside of the coop. Pale and white, the hens sat roosting up above on the bar or in their nest boxes. There was no sound. At one point one of the hens flew up onto the roost.
“That must be all it was,” Kenneth said.
“That’ll probably happen a few more times before we’re done here,” Scooter rested the gun once again and sipped his beer. Kenneth still had the knife in his pocket. He wanted to go home. He wanted to run back to his father and tell him about everything that had happened. Then he remembered how well his father had talked to Scooter. All smiles and remberings and guffaws. He wondered if his father would even care. If he would have assumed they’d be out drinking and shooting.
They sat in the dark and the quiet. The only sounds the chatterings of the woodthings and the periodic bubbling of the beer at Scooter’s lips. The idle noises of the two boys cloistered within the vast echoes of the wood and of the world which had droned on long before man and would continue long after.
It was Scooter who ended up speaking up first. “You know, Wolf Man, it’s a good thing we’re doing here,” Kenneth was quiet but he nodded his head. “I went out into the woods once with my dad. Just for a walk when I was a kid. We were out pretty late, unarmed completely, and you wouldn’t believe it, a bear showed up. A friggin bear. I ain’t ever been as scared as I was then.” He paused and sipped the beer. Kenneth wondered what it tasted like and thinking of it made him feel like he had to pee. “But my dad, he spread his arms out and made himself big and shouted the damn thing down til it went away. Everyone has a moment like this sometime in their life when they’ve got to be a man, you know, protect something.” he pushed on Kenneth’s forehead with two fingers, “This is your moment, Wolf Man. Mine too. We may not be strong like our dads, but hell if we ain’t better equipped.” He pat the gun and Kenneth wondered if the dusty old tube of the firearm had any fight in it at all. “We done good, Wolf Man, we really done a good thing.”
Kenneth thought for a long time. Time to time his phone would go off and he would check the recording only to see a white ghostly chicken float from one roost to another.
“What kinda beer you got?” Scooter smiled at him and leaned over and twisted off the cap of an IPA and handed it to him. It was disgusting and he coughed on it.
As he set down the empty bottle of his second beer his phone went off again and this time they heard frantic clucking coming from the coop. Scooter was on his feet in an instant and he leapt from the truck bed and hopped over the fence into the Garden Center. Kenneth opened the app and watched the clip. It was no kind of animal he had seen before. It crouched long and placid on the screen and in its eyes were devilish beads white as bone. He climbed out of the truck carefully but he flinched when he heard the gunshot ring out across the sky and he fell on his back. A second shot echoed all around him as if he himself had been shot and he struggled to his feet. He heard Scooter shouting and squealing from inside the coop. He tried to climb the fence but found that his body was sluggish and his vision lopsided. “Am I drunk?” he asked himself aloud. He breathed in a deep breath and ran in a serpentine job around the fence to the gate.
As he crawled through the gravel beneath the gate he heard a violent burst that could not have been a gunshot explode from out the coop followed by an equally heretical curse in Scooter’s deranged voice. Kenneth came to his feet just in time to hear sirens revolving in the distance. Having found his sea-legs he strode to the coop and found the door hanging on a hinge. All around the coop, there really were smoking bits of metal. Pieces of the ancient gun. Scooter lay curled in the corner half-hidden by gunsmoke and clutching at some unseen wound. “He bit me, Ken, he bit me. But I got him.” Kenneth looked around the coop and saw a slump of black fur moving only slightly in the corner. The wail of the sirens came closer and Kenneth saw blue and red lights enter the parking lot. He looked down at Scooter and the busted and smoking pieces of the gun again and even in his inebriated state determined that this picture was bad enough without him in it. He stumbled out of the coop and ran around to the back and crawled beneath it.
Beneath the coop he listened to the footsteps and voices above him but could not make out a word of it. He assumed it was the police or the ambulance from the lightshow flashing from the crevices in the coop but he could not be sure. He heard Scooter’s voice and a few others and fast footsteps out of the coop. After a short time, much shorter than he had expected, the world was quiet again.
He crawled out and stood under the full dark of the sky. Completely alone and covered in dirt and filth. The world silent but for the clucking of a few hens. He walked around the side of the coop back to the entrance. Inside he was greeted by the tense and aberrant red light of the heat lamp and the quiet chattering of the birds. The thing in the corner had moved a few feet to the center of the room, and it was still moving. A slow glacial mass of fur and claws and fangs. Kenneth knelt and saw that Scooter had been mistaken. There were no bullet wounds in the beast, but the creature’s entire left foreleg was a smoldering and stumpish mess which he thought must have been amputated forcefully by the gun’s explosive misfire.
The creature was dying and murmuring in a bestial language. Its eyes were hellish and in them he saw both resentment and resignation. Kenneth remembered what Scooter had said to him sitting in the truck bed. Around them had swelled the outer darkness of the world and in it brewed creatures capable of such mayhem and such destruction as he had seen that morning. He looked at the dangerous animal, burgeoning in wrath. Crawling closer to him. An inch at a time.
Kenneth unfolded his knife.