Saturday, October 1st
Sometimes I feel like I’m missing something. Like something’s not quite right, but I can’t exactly put my finger on what.
I stretch in my bed and roll out from under the covers. It’s a nice morning. If it even is still morning. It’s got to be close to noon. Sunny. Warmer than I expected. I should open some windows. It’s really a beautiful day. Perfect—or as close to perfect as it gets. I don’t know why I can’t shake the feeling that something is off.
I shuffle out of my room towards the kitchen, flicking the TV on as I pass by. I haven’t even bothered to put on my ratty old robe, it’s so warm. I get some coffee going, eyes still half shut, then I swing the glass doors wide open and stand on the sunlit deck. The leaves are gold and orange, blood red down the hill where the pond shines in the sparkling light. I know it’s not much of a pond—more like a marsh or swamp, but it’s pretty in its way and there are birds and sometimes a deer or moose comes to drink or wade, and I can call it a pond if I want. What are you gonna say about it? You hardly ever say anything, anyway.
The wind blows the leaves, scattering spots of flame-colors into the sky. On the roof, the weathervane creaks pleasantly. I smell dry leaves. Running water. The smells of the barn—musty wood, brewing coffee and the comforting aroma of motor oil from the shop downstairs. It almost feels like today could be a quiet, peaceful day.
Behind me, the TV cuts from one of those obnoxious Dexter’s Doughnuts commercials and a newsman starts talking about more power outages up in The County. I look at the trees and try not to pay too much attention as the TV drones on. Something about huge mysterious holes appearing in Boston, followed by a story about a man in Portland who claims that a geometric shape robbed his jewelry store—though he can’t say what shape exactly. Then it’s back to the big story of the season as Congress continues to deny that it has any knowledge of the President’s current whereabouts, nor that it had any involvement in his disappearance, abduction, consumption by unspecified animals, or whatever the theory is this week. In short, it’s a typical news day.
I head back inside and check on the coffee—not ready yet—then head into the bathroom and look in the mirror. My hair’s a mess. Not that I’m terribly concerned at the moment. It’s all mashed up on one side and tangled around one of my horns. I consider just letting it be and crashing on the couch for the rest of the day, but this weather is such a temptation.
I need to get out today. Enjoy the warmth before it’s gone again. Go do something stupid and fun. Maybe get something good to eat.
My ears prick up as the TV chatter continues. “…and there’s still three days left to enjoy the Bottle Country Fair. Be sure to stop by for rides, tractor pulls, craft and animal exhibitions and all kinds of delicious treats!”
Mmm. Corn dogs. Fried dough. Yeah. I think I’ll go to the fair.
I pick up my brush and look at the tangle stuck around my left horn, then decide to start with my tail. Gotta look at least half presentable, even if I am a fucking monster.
The chicken shed was quiet and dark. The birds clucked and muttered quietly amongst themselves, and the smell of sawdust, musty feathers and animal droppings filled the air. Distant cheerful shouts and the hum of engines, music and machinery echoed into the shadowy building from the far side of the fair. Irene leaned over the wire fence, pouring the last of a bucketful of water into the big rubber basin on the other side. The chickens gathered, hurrying to the basin to drink.
“Good girls,” Irene said. She smiled. The birds were dimwitted and often mean, but they were her responsibility to feed and water, and she took pleasure in the work.
Beyond the basin, further into the shadowy back end of the shed, a single chicken foraged and pecked. Irene was about to turn away when she noticed that most of the other hens seemed to be keeping their distance from the solitary bird. When it turned to inspect a new area of straw and sawdust, the other nearby chickens hurried out of its way—not terrified but obviously on edge.
She walked around the corner of the wire fencing and further into the shed to get a closer look. If the bird was sick or hurt, she worried that it might make a bad impression on any spectators or judges. She craned her neck to get a better look at it, but it had wandered back into the far corner.
Irene doubled back and shooed away several other hens as she unlocked the gate and slipped into the pen. Hungry birds tugged and poked at her jeans. A few of the nibbles hurt slightly, but she ignored it and waved them back with her toes. She walked slowly toward the solitary hen, not wanting to spook it. The chicken was rooting at something against the back wall. As she approached, all she could see were its feet and puffy tail feathers.
“Hey girl,” she whispered. “You okay? Anything wrong?”
The chicken made a soft sound. It didn’t sound like a normal, healthy hen.
Oh, God, she thought, it probably is sick.
“Hey girl,” she said again, slightly louder. “It’s okay. I just wanna take a look at….”
The chicken turned its head and stared up at Irene.
Irene stared back, gaping. Her mouth worked open and closed several times without a single sound.
The chicken blinked.
Irene started screaming and didn’t stop.
At the start of every October, large wooden signs were posted on the edge of the sprawling, slanted field next to the old Blanchard Farm. The signs boasted of free parking with eye-searing colors and lengths of bright orange ribbon stretched between, miraculously transforming the empty field into the Bottle Country Fair parking lot.
On this first day of the fair, an impressive collection of vehicles gleamed in the bright afternoon sun, revealing only long strips of gold-tinged grass between them.
A rumbling wreck of an antique truck trundled amongst the newer vehicles, their shiny paint reflecting the dull, rusted scars that marked every inch of the old stovebolt pickup. Dents and holes spoke of decades of hard use, while closer inspection revealed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of complex hexmarks etched into the truck’s crumbling surface, as if by a hopeless obsessive or a madman. The truck’s only concession to vanity was the pair of bent and dusty license plates which read “BETTY.”
Finding an unoccupied spot at the end of one of the long rows, the rusty relic slid in with surprising grace, then coughed and boomed, belching an oddly green-hued cloud of smoke and startling several nearby crows. Opening the door with a perilous creak, Jo hopped out and surveyed the parking lot and fair beyond.
She was young; not quite thirty, and moved with an easy spring in her step. Auburn hair fell long and windblown from under a rumpled cowboy hat, almost hiding the tufted points of her long ears. Her eyes glinted gold and wolflike in the afternoon sun. Dressed in flannel and scuffed jeans, she put function far ahead of fashion, though she did sport a pair of tall, loose-fitting boots, the leather elaborately tooled. As she slid away from the door, a very long, sinuous tail swept out behind her, ridged with the same tousled auburn hair as her head.
“Good girl,” Jo said as she patted the ancient truck’s battered hood. The cooling engine made a series of random pings and rattles. Jo turned away and walked toward the gates, her long tail swaying behind her as she went.
“It’s corndog time.”
There was a golden moment, maybe as long as five whole minutes, when Jo was able to savor her corndog and unwind, strolling through the fair and stopping to admire a gathering of beautiful classic cars. Sure, there were the odd stares as people gawked at her tail or looked away nervously when her eyes glinted in their direction or when they saw her sharp teeth biting into the corndog. But that was just a part of life when you were Weirded. The excitement of the fair provided a distraction at any rate, making it significantly less awkward than at other times. For the most part, she was able to tune it out and simply enjoy herself.
Then work reared its ugly head again.
“Excuse me—aren’t you Jolene Wilde?” a voice asked. “Of Jo’s Salvage?”
Jo sighed and turned around. “Hooff afkim?”
“P-pardon me?” the man stammered. He was middle aged, short and round, with a gentle face that reminded Jo of a fat baby. He had an inert natal hexmark on his left cheek. As with most folks, the mark only spelled out gibberish and did nothing. He wore a “Bottle Country Fair” t-shirt and matching hat, with a lanyard that said “Barry Tuttle.” At the moment, his baby face looked deeply troubled.
Jo finished chewing her bite of corndog, then repeated “Who’s asking?”
“Oh! Right. Sorry.” He stuck a hand out, then, not finding her ready to return the handshake, began fidgeting with his pockets. “My name is Barry Tuttle. I’m the Director of the Fair this year. I, ah,” he rummaged desperately in a back pocket, then drew out a slightly crumpled business card. “I’m a friend of Lawrence Doughty; I believe you helped him out with a pretty serious, um, critter problem? A few months ago? He gave me your card.”
He held the card up. Jo already knew what it said.
Jo’s Salvage. It included her number and full name: Jolene Wilde, plus a short bullet list of services: Auto & small engine repair. Monster removal. Hex breaking.
She hated those fucking cards.
She’d handed them out about a year ago when business was slowing down and she’d begun charging people for the kind of “unusual favors” she’d done for a couple of friends. She’d handed out well over a thousand of the things, and they’d gotten a lot of attention. A huge success. She’d regretted it ever since.
Jo sighed again, then nodded, eyeing the rest of her corndog, then deciding that cramming the entire remainder into her mouth might be a bad idea. “Yep. I’m Jo. Whatcha got?”
What Barry Tuttle had didn’t look good. Across the dirt racetrack, amidst the various sheds and barns displaying all manner of livestock, a group of nervous people clustered around a young woman of about fourteen or fifteen. She was crying hysterically, while several others stood nearby with ashen, shellshocked faces.
“What the hell?” Jo said, “Did somebody die?”
“Oh no, no. It’s just…well…I’ve just never seen anything like it. Don’t know what to make of it, to be honest. I’m worried about the other livestock, though. If it’s catchy, well—it could get real bad. It’s right in here, Ms. Wilde.” He gestured at a small toolshed next to the much larger poultry shed. The door of the small shack was being blocked by a tall, stern-faced teen. The boy wore the expression of a man guarding a prison gate. He stepped aside, pushing the door open as Tuttle approached.
Jo followed Tuttle into the shed. Her eyes shone in the dark as she looked around. The shed was mostly full of old dusty tools and a cluttered worktable. Upon the table, covered in a dirty cloth, was a large wire cage. Strange, warbling mutterings came from underneath. It sounded to Jo like an asthmatic child imitating chicken sounds.
“What the hell is this, now?” Jo asked, approaching the cage.
Tuttle put a hand on the cloth, then paused. “Poor young Irene found it this morning. I…I don’t know if it was a freak hex that hit one of the chickens randomly, or if maybe—”
Jo crossed her arms. “Just show me, Barry.”
Tuttle grimaced, then pulled the cloth away.
Inside the cage was a chicken. Or rather, it was mostly a chicken. Everything below the neck was completely normal. Gray-brown feathers, plump body, puffy tail feathers and bright yellow scaly feet. Above the neck, darting about with rapid, nervous movements, was a tiny, misshapen human head.
The thing’s face was mostly nose. Its sloped, microcephalic cranium was bald in front, dusted with tufts of uneven plumage toward the back. Its bulging, wall-eyed stare betrayed no more intellect than an ordinary barnyard hen, though its bloodshot eyes were undeniably human. Calming again after the removal of the cloth, it bent down and rooted in the straw and sawdust lining the bottom of the cage, gobbling up stray bits of feed with protruding, uneven teeth. Its face was filthy, with bits of straw, feed, dirt and worse caked onto its teeth and nose.
Jo actually jumped back a step. “Christ on a cracker! That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen!” She scowled, then leaned in for a closer look. “Well…it’s the worst thing I’ve seen all month. Worst thing this week? Whatever. It’s pretty freakin’ nasty.”
Tuttle nodded, staying a step behind Jo. “It certainly is. Scared the bejeezus out of Irene when she found it. And poor George Mills fainted when he saw it, after he heard Irene screaming and came to help.
“So, Ms. Wilde,” he continued.
“Jo. Just Jo is fine.”
“Jo. Yes. So what do you make of it? Is it contagious? Do you know who or what did this?”
Jo stood up from the cage and pulled off her hat, scratching between her horns. She tried to ignore it as Tuttle stared at them, then averted his gaze awkwardly.
“Welp. It’s definitely not a random hexing,” she said.
“No? Oh my. So you believe that someone…did this on purpose?”
“I know it. Look at the back of the thing’s neck. When it bends down to feed.” Jo pointed into the cage. “There—see it?”
“What is that?” Tuttle said, staring at a spot on the back of the chicken-thing’s neck. It was difficult to see—little clumps of dried blood caked the thing’s feathers together. But when it bent down, they could just see a series of uneven cuts in the skin of the neck.
“Hexmarks,” Jo said. “Carved in. Permanent. Latin inscription. Pretty standard. Looks like it says ‘hominum.’”
“Yeah. Means ‘man’ or ‘human,’” she said. “Which answers one of my concerns. At least we know whether or not this was a chicken given a human head or a human given a chicken body.”
“A human given a chicken body?” Tuttle looked like he might actually tip over. “Oh my God. I never even considered….”
“Don’t worry. This was a chicken. It is a chicken. Mostly. I mean, it’s technically part human now, so for God’s sake don’t eat it or anything. Shit, I wouldn’t even use the eggs, if I were you. But yeah, it’s a chicken. Originally.”
Tuttle wiped his brow and leaned against the wall. “So do you have any idea who did this? Or why they would do such a thing?”
“Beats the hell out of me,” Jo said. She saw Tuttle’s expression slip dangerously close to panic, then added “But there could be lots of reasons. Could be an experiment. Someone trying to learn hexworking sort of…practicing? Or maybe some creep’s idea of a sick joke. Could be someone with a grudge against the fair or Irene. Could be lots of reasons. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say which is right, if any.”
Tuttle nodded. “I understand. Can you at least undo it? Fix it, I mean?”
“You mean turn it back into a normal chicken-headed chicken? Mmm, I actually don’t think I can. I mean, I might be able to, eventually, but it would take a lot of work. I’d have to know what the hexmark was written with. Obviously there was chicken blood, but I would need to know what else, and what they used to cut the marks in the first place. It would take an awful lot of work, and I normally ask for at least five hundred bucks for time and materials. More, if it takes more than a day, which it probably would. Honestly, I don’t know that one hen is worth it to anyone.
Tuttle nodded, eyeing the chicken nervously.
“It seems comfortable enough. I mean, it’s uglier than a hippo’s butt, but it doesn’t seem to know or care. Put it in a tent, charge five bucks a head to ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ at it, and you’ve got yourself a net gain. Chicken won’t care—hell, it might like it if you let people feed it.”
Tuttle’s eyebrows raised at that. His mood suddenly seemed much brighter.
“Sorry I couldn’t give you more of a satisfying answer,” Jo said.
Tuttle shook his head dismissively and gestured back toward the door. “That’s alright Ms…. Jo.” The golden glow of profit was already brightening his features. “So you think it would be safe enough to let folks look at it? Feed it, even? No risk of anything catching?”
Jo shook her head as they exited the stuffy shed. “Nah. I mean, salmonella, maybe? But nothing hex-wise, if that’s what you mean.”
Tuttle nodded excitedly. “So, what do I owe you, Jo?”
She shook her head. “I always give free estimates. And I didn’t really do anything. Can’t charge for nothing.”
Tuttle smiled, but reached for his wallet. “Free estimates are a good policy. But free consulting? No, let me at least give you something for your expertise.”
“Fair enough.” Jo nodded at the bills in his hand. “How about you give me that twenty, and I’ll go spend a piece of it on some of that fried dough?”
The line at the fried dough stand was almost thirty strong when Jo joined it. Now, many long minutes later, she was next in line, and the smell was driving her taste buds crazy.
Just what I needed, she thought happily.
In the background, the sounds of music, whirling carnival rides, and gleefully shrieking children filled the afternoon air. Jo watched it all: colorful balloons, beautiful draft horses, kids’ painted faces, someone running across the racetrack with a stricken expression, dirt and blood spattered on his white t-shirt.
“Next,” the kid in the fried dough booth called out; an awkward looking, lanky teen with a massive natal hexmark on his forehead.
Jo stepped up. In the middle of the empty racetrack, she saw the man with the bloody shirt talking to Barry Tuttle. Waving his hands hysterically. Tuttle holding his temples like his head might fly off at whatever news he was hearing.
“Next?” the fried dough kid pressed. “Ma’am?”
Jo looked past him at the delicious, crispy dough. Back at the field. Tuttle scanning the crowd. His gaze fell on the fried dough stand, found Jo. A look of desperation.
“Maybe later,” she said to the kid, then started jogging across the track toward Tuttle and the distraught man.
The man with the bloody shirt led them back to the livestock barns, into the open-sided barn housing the pigs.
“Can somebody just tell me what the fuck happened?” Jo asked as they hurried inside.
“I was cleaning the pens when I found him,” the man began, before Tuttle cut him off.
“Let’s just see what we’ve got here before we jump to any conclusions, Stan.”
They followed Stan back to one of the last stalls, through earthy aromas of hay, mud and pig feed. The low wooden gate bore a carefully painted sign reading “Attila.” Beyond it, a mountain of pink flesh arced above the top of the gate.
“That is a big damn pig.” Jo said.
Stan slapped lightly at the huge pig’s rump, then pushed the gate open and slipped inside. “I tried to get him off, but he’s always so hungry.” He slapped at Attila’s flank, shooing the pig to one side and giving Jo and Tuttle a clear view.
“Jesus—that’s Steve Connors!” Tuttle promptly turned his back and vomited.
Slumped in one corner of the stall, spattered with mud and his own blood, was what remained of a man. His belly had been slashed or torn open, and his intestines were now spread across the straw and mud of Attila’s stall. The pig chewed eagerly on one end of the ragged viscera, still pushing against Stan, who appeared to be sliding back toward the body despite exerting himself to the maximum. On the dead man’s head, another hexmark was hastily scrawled in dried blood. Written in Latin like the mark on the chicken, it read “rigor.”
Jo swept her hat off and held her brow with her other hand.
Barry Tuttle, recovered from his shock, was now staring at the dead man’s forehead. “His head,” he began.
“Yup.” Jo said.
“It’s another hexmark. A casting. Not a birthmark.”
“Oh, Lord. More Latin?”
“Afraid so.” Jo said. “Rigor. It means stiffness, or catatonia. Paralysis. Like rigor mortis. Which, incidentally, he may also have now.”
“So,” Jo continued. “My best guess is whoever was fucking with the chicken used human blood as the primary ink. Blood from a living human would do best. Whoever it was probably got a hold of this poor bastard—“
“Steve,” Tuttle reminded her.
“Yeah. So they got a hold of poor Steve here and whapped him on the head with a paralysis hexmark so they could work on him in peace and quiet. Might have stabbed him first, maybe punched him to stun him and bloody his nose by the looks of it, then hexed him with his own blood to make it hold nice and strong. Then they could take their time working on that chicken. I just hope the poor sumbitch wasn’t conscious while they did it. Hard to say with that hexmark.”
“Oh, God,” Tuttle whispered.
“What I really want to know, is why in the fuck someone would murder a man just so they could try and turn some random chicken into a person?”
“I don’t know why any sane person would do any of this,” Tuttle whimpered.
“Uh, guys?” Stan said. He was now perilously close to falling over onto Steve’s corpse, and Attila had managed to reach Steve’s hand and was happily chewing off two of his fingers.
“Oh, God! Stan, just go get Mike and Judy and get that fucking pig out of there!” Tuttle said.
Stan slipped and stumbled his way out of the stall as Attila resumed excitedly munching Steve’s innards.
“And tell them not to say a word to anybody!” Tuttle added. “Got it?”
Stan shouted something that sounded like an affirmative as he went running off into the increasingly dimming afternoon light.
“You’re not going to call the cops?” Jo asked. She already knew the answer.
“No,” Tuttle sighed. “Things being the way they are, most federal and state services have been falling apart at best. The local cops probably couldn’t do much, even if we could get them out here. And I don’t want to involve the Marshals. Those guys are a bunch of mercenaries.”
“Technically I’m a mercenary, if you think about it,” Jo said.
“You’re a local girl. I can trust you. Will you help us solve this?”
Jo nodded. “Yup. You still gotta pay me, though. Starting fee for something like this is a thousand. If it gets real ugly, it could go up. A lot.”
Tuttle nodded. “I thought as much. You’ll get it.” In the distance, Stan was rushing back with three other people.
It took the three of them, and then Jo and Barry Tuttle as well, to haul Attila out of his pen and herd him into an empty one. The whole time, the monstrous animal dragged a severed length of intestine along with him, slowly reeling the raw meat into his mouth with a steady chewing motion. By the time they were finished—all five of them leaning exhaustedly against the outside of the pig barn—the sun had sunk down below the horizon.
The dimming evening light cast the rides, stalls and milling crowd into shadowy silhouettes. Lights glimmered here and there, illuminating carnival rides, food stands and a few of the barns and sheds. Atop one of the barns, in a large cupola with wide windows, a lantern switched on, shining out over the fairgrounds like a glowing eye.
“So. What’s next?” Tuttle asked.
“Next, I go home and get some damned sleep. Tomorrow I come back, get the lay of the whole fair, scope out possible hidey-holes, and so forth. Unless he was dumb enough to use his own blood, I don’t think I can use the hexmarks on Steve or the chicken to track them back to the caster. But I’ll come up with something.”
Tuttle nodded. “Tomorrow, then. Bright and early?”
“Bright. Maybe early. We’ll see. But right now? I’m gonna go get my damned fried dough. And I’m gonna eat the whole thing. Uninterrupted.”
Jo stepped away from the barn wall and looked longingly over at the Fried Dough stand, just in time to see the light turn off as they closed up for the evening.
To be continued in