Two men, pick-up trucks, work-overalls. New hires, they said, but they were professionals who knew their way around a slaughterhouse as well as anyone. They were always comfortable with the hogs I dropped off and never had to ask twice about how I wanted the meat prepared. Of course, both of them deserve the same done to them as they were doing to those poor animals, but there’s no way I could have known that when we first met.
Fact is, there aren’t enough government-regulated slaughterhouses to accommodate the demand. It’s a long, expensive process to get a USDA certified house, and I’m not going to drive 80 miles and pay their exorbitant processing costs just so I can sell my meat across state lines.
That’s where “custom houses” come in. These are inspected by the USDA, but they don’t require the same standards or constant oversight. I’d been taking my animals to one for about four months when a “John Smith” (not his real name) – the pot-bellied son-of-a-bitch running the land next to me – caught wind of my switch. The bastard started raising hell, telling everybody that my meat wasn’t safe – that I tortured my animals – poisoned them – anything to get the local markets to buy his stuff instead.
Now I already had a contract with the fellas down at the custom house, but I called up a friend of mine at the FDA and got him to send over the tapes from their safety cameras. That would give me some proof that everything was up to code, and then I figured all this nasty business would just blow over.
The thing is though, those men at the custom house? I guess they didn’t know about the cameras. Otherwise there’s no way they would have let that abomination pass in the open like that.
Everything started out normal enough. The hogs were restrained and stunned with an electrical current so they don’t feel any pain. The slaughtering was quick and efficient, and then they suspended the animals by their hind legs like ought to be done. After that they were supposed to bleed the carcass dry, but instead they just left them there. Job wasn’t even half-done, and there they were: packing up their coats and keys and slapping each other on the back like the day was over.
I scrubbed through the video to watch the rest of the process when they got back. They didn’t come back that night, but something else did. Pale blur dashed across the camera. By the time I stopped it, the creature was in full view: taller than a man, and thinner too. Skin like rice-paper, and bulging with so many veins that it might as well have been made of string. Teeth like a hundred needles, and shining black eyes like a midnight prayer.
One by one, the beasty was draining the hogs dry. There wasn’t any sound, but I could almost hear the puncture as all those little teeth dug into the carcass, submerging its head so deep that I could only see the neck. Then all those veins began to swell, twice – three times their old size, trembling and straining so hard under its thin skin that I thought it had to pop.
But no, it just ripped free and went to the next animal. There wasn’t much light, but where the moon snuck through the window its head glowed with blood, almost like there were red lights stuffed underneath the pale skin. I couldn’t watch long, and I sure as hell couldn’t go showing this to people. Get my name associated with something like that and I wouldn’t just be out of business: I’d have torches outside my door and rocks flying through the windows.
First thing the next morning I went down to the custom house. My animals were all sliced and prepared, perfect as ever, but I told the men I was done. I didn’t give a reason, just that I wasn’t coming back. They got angry about me breaking contract, and we got to yelling at each other. Tensions were getting high, and one of them was so red I thought he was going to take a swing at me. I suppose that’s why he said what he did. He was angry, and he wasn’t thinking straight. He regretted it the moment it came out of its mouth, but there it was:
“We promised it the animals. It’s not going to let you leave.”
They didn’t want to say more, and I didn’t want to hear it. I just drove off without looking back. I locked my doors and windows real tight. I got my shot-gun out from the cabinet and cleaned it until I could see my face in the barrel. And then I prayed, to anyone or anything that would listen: I prayed that I was going to live through the night. It wasn’t right for something like that to exist in this world, but if it did, then maybe that meant there was something watching over us too. Or maybe I’m alone right now, and then I wouldn’t mind never seeing the dawn again. After-all, why would I want to live in a world where Devils were real but Angels weren’t?
It was about 2 in the morning when I heard it. I hadn’t gone to sleep, just sitting up with the TV on low. I’d spent a long time just listening to my own thoughts, but the wind had started picking up and I couldn’t stand how it played around the plank house like fingers running along the wood. I started to nod off once or twice, but the hard handle of my gun was a constant reminder to stay alert. I don’t quite know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the knock on my front door.
Slow, regular, rhythmic – casual as a mailman dropping off a package. My grip tightened and I held my breath. There was a long pause, and then it came again. One, two, three, four. I couldn’t take it, but I couldn’t force enough air out of my lungs to warn it off. Five, six, seven – my body shaking so bad I could barely hold the gun up. The knocking stopped. Before I could even take a proper breath, I saw the face up against the window.
A hundred needle teeth smiling at me from the darkness. I took my shot. The glass exploded and the face was gone. I fired again, just to be sure. No sound but the tinkling of broken glass and the ringing echo in my ears. Then the screaming started up. If you’ve ever heard a pig scream in the middle of the night, then you know its like a banshee being dragged down to hell. And knowing what was out there – what it was doing to them – what it could have done to me – that made it all a thousand times worse.
I couldn’t force myself to leave the house. I just sat there and listened to the chaos of the night. The dissonance of those suffering animals struck something so deep in me that made me hate being human. I hated caring, feeling – hated my capacity to imagine what was going on out there. I wish I could have just turned it all off and become a mindless animal, or even further into oblivion past the point of this waking nightmare into a sleep so deep that I didn’t care if I ever woke up. I hated myself for being too afraid to open the door, and kept on hating myself as the screams cut short one by one until there was nothing left but the wind like fingers probing their way in. I hated myself straight into the first tint of dreary daylight splashing through my broken window.
9 full grown hogs and 5 little ones, all gone. And me, the one who should have been the first to go – I’m still here. The custom house has closed down and I haven’t a clue what happened to the two who worked there. I’m not getting any more animals though, because I know I can’t live through hearing those screams again. I don’t know what the creature is eating, but I figure the carnage from that night is going to last him awhile.
Maybe he’s moved on and that will be the last I see of him, but I hope not. If there isn’t anyone protecting us from on high, then it’s just us down here who’ve got to protect each other. John Smith and I never got along, but next to that thing, I’m ready to call him my brother. And I may not be an Angel, but as long as I’ve got my gun, I can still kill that Devil next time I see him.
So now I’m just waiting until the night I look out the window and see all those needle teeth smiling down at me. Won’t it be surprised to see me smiling right back.