Meat

Ghost Rock, Utah isn’t much more than a rock.  When my wife and I stopped there for a rest, the sun was beginning to set.  Sarah used the restroom, while I stretched my legs outside the car.  We were traveling to the national park to camp for a couple of days, before visiting family.

Ghost Rock, what a strange name.  I pondered this, while climbing my way up to the lower levels.  All I could think was that it was in the middle of nowhere, fifty miles in each direction with very little civilisation.  The isolation was palpable.  In the ten minutes I had been there, I’d not seen a single vehicle pass.  Thinking about it, I’d not seen anyone for the last fifteen miles.

*What if we broke down?  What if we had a flat tyre?  What if one of us got sick?*  I pulled out my cellphone and checked the signal; one bar.  That didn’t satisfy me as much as I’d hoped.  But one bar is better than no bars.  The view was beautiful though, especially with the sunset.

I waved to my wife as she made her way back to the car.

“Nice up there?” she asked.

“Incredible.  I have to say if I take anything away from this road trip, it’ll be the scenery.”

Sarah got into the back of the car to sleep, while I took control and drove on.  We’d decided to take turns driving and resting.  While on paper this seemed a great idea, in practise it meant broken sleep and two very tired drivers.

A few miles later, as the sunlight faded into darkness a small gas station came into view.  I checked the sat-nav, and didn’t see it listed.  I guessed somewhere out here would not be a priority for the software company.

I slowed, the place looked more *rural* than the ones I had passed miles ago.  A wooden sign, lit by a single floodlight announced we were approaching *Hilltop Gas*.  Below the company name, it read *Tobacco – groceries – meat*.  I checked the fuel gauge – it hovered just barely over the quarter tank mark.

I stopped the car a bit confused to see the lack of gas pumps.  Just a Ford pickup truck sat outside the building – *Ed Lewis & Sons – Meat Distribution and Luxury Leather Goods* emblazoned on the side.  Large, unlit neon signs pressed up against the dark and dusty windows.  I cupped my hands over glass to get a look inside.  I could see the shelves, stacked with cans and provisions.  A cash register, behind that a wall of cigarettes.  But no sign of life.

I turned to see my wife had awoken and was looking at me.

“I don’t see anyone,” I said to her returning to the car.

She pointed at me.  I shrugged.  She pointed again.

“What?”

The window opened.

“Behind you,” she said.

I looked over my shoulder, and jumped as the once empty window now contained two skinny people wearing only shorts.

“Fuck, you scared me,” I said as one of them opened up the front door.

“Can we help ya’ll?” he said in a very southern drawl.

“Uh, yeah, I’m looking for some gas, but there’s no pumps.  You are a gas station, right?”

“Sure am.  Well this here building is,” he said, gesturing with his hand.

The wooden structure appeared like it had seen better days.  The paint was peeling, and parts of the glazing had been replaced with boards.

“I’m almost out,” I said, “need a full tank.”

“We can help.  Youse don’t have one of those diesel machines?” he asked, frowning his weather aged face.

“No, just regular.”

“Good,” he said, mustering a smile that revealed little teeth.

He sniggered before falling into a coughing fit.

“I’ll go fill up the can,” he finished before disappearing inside.

The second man was now outside and working his way towards my car.

“That your wife?” He said, his accent making wife sound like *waff*.

“Yes, *she* is.”

He placed his hand on the roof of the car.

“She surely is a *purdy* little thing,” he said.

My wife recoiled, moving away from the window.

“Pa won’t be long.”

The older man went back in the store, the door clattering shut behind him.

“Eeew!” my wife shouted, “Get the fuck away from me!”

I looked at my wife.

The younger man in front of the car had his hand buried into his shorts, moving it back and forth vigorously.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I demanded, pushing him away.

His sweaty fist fell out of his underwear and he stumbled to the floor laughing.

“We have to leave!” my wife pleaded.

I didn’t say a thing as I got back into the car.

I glanced back to the building.  The older man was nowhere to be seen.  I’d almost looked away, but something grabbed my attention.  A small light was now visible shining dimly from an upstairs room.  I don’t know why, but I stared.  And with that, it flickered as someone or something walked in front.

“Go!” Sarah shouted.

I didn’t need another prod.

“I can’t believe that, can you?” She said, flicking her clothes as if to clean them.

“I’m so sorry.  I’m sure there’ll be another gas station,” I said, peering down at the fuel gauge.  I didn’t let Sarah know how close we were.

As I pulled away, I glanced in the rear-view mirror.  Three men stood outside the gas station.  One of them waved, almost knowingly.

*You’ll be back.*

The older man whacked him around the head.

I didn’t see any of them holding a gas can.

***

Tiredness had taken hold and I pondered if I had made the right choice.  When one mile turned into ten, I began to regret my decision.  My attention was split between the road and the fuel gauge that had ventured into the red.  I began to panic, checking my phone to see the signal icon squeeze out one bar before disappearing back to no signal.

I felt drunk, I was so sleep deprived.  Now the night had well and truly taken hold, and the sporadic street lighting had long since gone, I jabbed at the Sat-Nav to check for gas stations.  The nearest was forty miles away in a small town in completely the wrong direction to where we were headed.

I watched as ever so slightly the needle progressed further into the red; my heart rate increased.  I wondered what would happen if I ran out of gas.  My mind conjured up images of us trying to flag down vehicles in the cold night, not seeing anybody pass for hours, as the temperature dropped.  I thought about strange people pulling over, offering to help in exchange for *”favours”*.

And with that, there was a bang.

The car swerved from side to side as I tried my best to keep control.

“What?” my wife said, sitting up, dazed from sleep.

“I don’t know,” I said anxiously.

Every time the car lurched to the left I’d turn to the right and vice versa.  I did my best to keep the car on the road, but God had other plans.  The traction gave way completely, the car spun to the right and we veered off the road, heading straight for a ditch.

I don’t remember the moment of impact.  I don’t remember when I awoke.  But I remember my wife’s face covered in blood, lying on the console between us.

“Oh *shit*,” I exclaimed, as my senses returned to me and my vision stabilised.

“Are you okay?” I asked, not wanted to touch her for fear of disturbing her.

She groaned.

“Oh, thank God.”

“What happened?” she slurred.

“Are you hurt?”

“I don’t know,” she said with genuine fear.

“Stay where you are, I’m going to get help.”

“Don’t leave,” she wailed, trying to lift her head.

“You may be hurt,” I said, hoping she didn’t notice the blood that matted her face and hair.

I left the vehicle and took out my phone.

“Fuck it!” I exclaimed, seeing the lack of signal.

I dialed 911 and waited.

Nothing.

“Babe, stay here, don’t try to move, I’m going to see if I can get a signal.”

“Jeff, please don’t leave.”

“You’ve been in a car crash, don’t try to move.  I’m calling the emergency services.”

“A crash?” she asked, a combination of sleep and a possible concussion came through in her voice.

“Everything will be fine, just stay there.”

I walked away from the vehicle and looked for higher ground.  It was dark and in every direction there would be canyons and crannies just waiting for me to step in the wrong direction, just like a venus flytrap.  Something to gobble me up and send me tumbling down rocky outcrops to an almost certain death.

I treaded carefully, making my way up a small rock face.  The early moon did its best to illuminate the place.  My vision slowly adjusted to the low light.  A chilly wind whipped up, sending small amounts of dust into the air.  The environment now felt like an enemy, trying to stop me forging ahead.

I held the phone above me in an impotent gesture to force the gods of cellphone towers to send me extra signal.   But it was to no avail.  A panic set in that I’d felt the inkling of an hour ago when I stood on Ghost Rock.  This time, however, it was fully realised, almost as if what happened before was a portent I should have listened to and not dismissed out of hand.

I fell to the floor, like the strings holding me up had been cut.  I felt helpless and scared.  I sat on the ground and put my arms around my knees.  I held back the tears that charged forward, worrying that if they breached I wouldn’t cope.

I was cold.  From where I was, I could just see the interior light shine.  I wanted to go back to my wife, but what could I say?   *No help is on the way, sorry.  No signal out here.*

The road stretched out in both directions into complete darkness.  The stars in the sky did nothing to brighten the terrain.  The quarter moon was all we had, it illuminated my path back to the car.  I pushed myself up and began to jog.

A light rose in the distance; I thought it was a plane at first, its flicker reminiscent of a strobe.  I slowed my pace and tried to focus on it.  One became two, and my heart skipped a beat; it was another vehicle.  I raced back to the car, hoping I wasn’t going to be too late.

I stumbled and tripped on the rocky ground, waving my arms above my head like a lunatic.

“Hey, over here!”  I shouted across the road.

As it neared, its immense size came into view; it was a semi-truck.  I’m not sure the driver saw me, but he signalled and turned off the main road, approaching the opposite side to where the car had crashed.  It’s hydraulic brakes hissed when it came to a stop.

Peering in the car, I saw Sarah had propped herself upright.

“Jesus, are you okay?”  I asked.

“Yes,” she said wincing, “I don’t think anything is broken.”

“We’ll let a doctor tell you that.”

I turned my head to the sound of the cab door slamming.  The mountain of a man crossed the central reservation, his frame silhouetted against the headlights.  He swaggered over with a confidence in his step.

“Looks like you got yourself a little car trouble,” the man said.

His beard protected his mouth like a bouncer at a nightclub.

“Thank God you came along.  I don’t know what happened.  My wife, she’s bleeding.”

“Yup,” he said, studying the back of the car.

“Almost certainly spike strips,” he continued, “you see how the tyres are ripped off, exposing your rims.  That’ll be spike strips.”

“Why would the police leave them out like that?”

“Not police, locals,” he said, walking to the other side of the car; he looked through the window at my wife, “you’re lucky I found you first.  This your wife?”

“Yeah, that’s Sarah.  She says she’s not badly hurt, but look at her head.”

“Looks nothing serious, if it was, she’d ‘ave bled out by now.

“Get your stuff, you can travel with me.  I’ll see your wife to a doctor.”

“Thank you so much.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said, calmly walking away in the direction we came.

“Where are you going?” I asked, he ignored me.

“Honey, do you think you can walk?”

“I think so.”

“I’m just going to get your coat and purse out of the trunk.”

I slammed the door to see Sarah already in the road.

“You should have waited for me.”

“I’ll be alright,” she said, just as her foot gave way.

She caught her balance and put out her hand, “Stop worrying, I’ll be fine.”

“I’m not taking any chances,” I said, putting my arm in hers.

The man approached, in his hand was a large string of metal.

“See,” the man said, “spike strips.”

The sounds of scraping metal rang out in the wilderness as he dragged the metal device.  He crossed the road and threw it in the back of his cab.

“This way,” he beckoned us over.

Gingerly I led Sarah over the road.  She stumbled on the uneven ground of the central reservation.

“Let me help you Miss,” he said to my wife, holding open the door, then lifting her up with his big hefty hands.

I was not afforded the same treatment.

He got in the driver’s seat, started the engine, and we were back on the road.

“You guys hungry?” the man asked.

Initially, I was going to say no, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised I was starving, and thirsty.

“Got some jerky here,” he said, reaching for a box on the dashboard.

I joked, “I’m not sure I should accept meat from someone whose name I don’t know.”

“The name’s Lonnie, now take one for you and one for your sweet wife over there.”

Hesitantly, I reached in and picked out paper wrapped pieces of jerky.  I read the label as I ripped it open – *Ed Lewis Jerky – Utah’s finest – Limited Edition*; the ink unevenly applied, as if it were done by some sort of stamp as opposed to a printer.  I thought twice before I bit down.

“Wow, this is good,”  I said surprised.

“Best in all of Utah,” Lonnie said, continuing to watch the road ahead.

Sarah nibbled on hers, not a fan of dried meat.

“What is it?  Doesn’t taste like beef.”

Lonnie scoffed, “No, that’s pork.  Good ole hog meat.  Mostly locally reared, but some is sourced from out of town, you know,” he said, turning his head to look at me, “to spice things up.”

He laughed hard, and a puzzled look drew on my face.  *This man sure loves his jerky*.

“Do you mind me asking where the nearest hospital is?”

“Hospital is forty miles that way,” he said, pointing out the driver’s side window.

“What?” I said, beginning to feel a little angry, “You said you were taking us to a doctor.”

“I am, calm down.  But I ain’t taking you to the hospital – that’s too far.  I know a local guy, he’ll be able to sort your wife out good,” his voice laboured on the *good*.

I felt relieved and I leaned back into the seat.  I was clearly still in shock, but Sarah was not in as bad a state as I thought she would’ve been.

“What do we do with the car?”

“Nearest garage is gonna be at least twenty miles away.  I’m sure my friend will be able to put you up for the night, he’s a nice guy.”

“The doctor?”

“Sorry?” Lonnie said confused.

“You’re taking us to a doctor, right?”

“Oh yeah, he’s an old buddy of mine, go way back.  I’m sure he’ll let you stay there.”

It wasn’t the first time I felt concerned since getting into the truck with this man, but now that concern had turned to anxiety.  Soon we were going to pass that gas station, and when we did, I feared they would be waiting for us. I contemplated what I could do.  I could lean over and open the door and try to push him out.  But he was twice the size of me, and those hands could crush bone.  I was being paranoid, that’s all it was.  This nice man stops in the middle of the night to pick up some random people who have crashed, and offers to take them to a doctor, for free.

For free.

Free.

That word stuck in my mind.  No one does anything for *free*, do they?

“How much longer,” I asked Lonnie impatiently.

“Five more miles maybe, maybe a little less.”

The street lighting had returned and I felt a little calmer.  Having the light brought things back into perspective.  This was a man who was doing us a favour, for *free*.  The word still bothered me, so I tried not to think about it.

I glanced at Sarah, she was asleep.  The almost fully intact jerky sat in her lap, her right hand still cradling it.  She snored gently.  The night had taken its toll and sleep soon found me as well.

***

I roused when I heard gravel crunch under the wheels and woke fully when the hydraulic brakes hissed again.

“We’re here,” Lonnie said, opening the door.

“Shit,” I said under my breath, my eyes as large as cue balls.

The headlights lit the faces of the men we had left only an hour before.  The front of the gas station was bright, it’s weathered wood appeared sinister now it was painted by the dark shadows of the people who smiled back at us.

“Sarah, wake up,” I said, pushing her shoulder.

“Huh,” she said squinting against the bright light.

She began to scream as she recognised the faces of the men.  Instinctively I slapped my hand over her mouth and shushed her.

“Calm down, honey, everything will be okay.”

She squirmed under my grip.

“What’s up?” Lonnie asked.

“We stopped here on the way, and this little freak started masturbating in front of my wife.”

“That’ll be Bobby.”

“You know him?” I said surprised.

“Yeah, I’m sorry you had to see that; he ain’t too clever in the head.”

“We can’t stop here,” I pleaded.

Lonnie waved at them.

“Everything will be fine, I promise.”

“I’m not getting out here,” Sarah said, her voice reverberating with fear.

“Miss, don’t worry.  I know these folks really well.”

The older man approached the cab.

“Hi Ed, got you a couple of refugees,” he said with a chuckle.

“No way!”  Sarah demanded, “Keep driving.”

“Hello there,” the older man said through the open window, “I saw what my son did.  Now that wasn’t polite.  I’ve seen to him, he won’t do that again.  What’s happened to your head?”

“They were in a car crash; spike strips,” Lonnie said, exiting the semi.

“Son of a gun,” the old man said, “those bastards and their little traps.  You were lucky you came across ol’ Lonnie here.”

“I think she needs some medical attention,” Lonnie replied.

“I think she does.  Let me help you out of there sweetheart.”

Sarah stared at me.  I nodded encouragingly.

“I don’t want to go,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Please,”  I whispered out of ideas.

Her face fell, knowing I was right.

She took the older man’s hand and anxiously stepped out of the cab.  I followed closely behind.

“Don’t be shy, follow me,” he said turning away.

“I know he don’t look too conventional, but I swear, he’s one of the best doctors in Utah,” Lonnie consoled.

*He’s the doctor?*  I thought to myself.

“Come inside, take a shower, make yerself at home.”

A younger man we’d not seen before stood by the door, he didn’t say a word.

“He don’t bite,” Lonnie said, leaving us where we were standing and entering the gas station with the other man.

“Drew, stop staring like you ain’t seen no woman before,” he shouted at the younger man, who was obviously named Drew, “I’m so sorry about him.  Never went to no school.  He ain’t like Bobby though.  Don’t hold his meagre mental acuities against him.”

“Drew, in!” he shouted at his son, like you’d shout at a misbehaving dog, he followed.

The three of them left, the door swinging shut behind them.

“I don’t like this,” Sarah said.

“Nor do I, but if he’s a doctor…”

She cut me off, “Does he look like a doctor to you?”

“No, but…”

“I’m not going in there.  That creep will still be there.”

I snapped, “What else are we going to do?”

I pulled out my phone, “Look, no signal.  There is no signal all around this fucking place.  Are you going to wait out here?  You think it’s cold now, imagine what it’s going to be like in a couple of hours.  We have no car.  We are fucked, do you understand me?  Fucked!”

Sarah began to cry.  A sharp pain of guilt stabbed me in the stomach.

“Oh honey, I’m sorry.”

I hugged her.

“We’ll just let the man examine you, then in the morning we’ll phone the garage, get the car picked up and go with them.  The car will be fixed and we can go home.”

“What about my parents?”

“Fuck your parents.  I didn’t mean it like that.  I mean, we don’t need to go there this time.  They’ll understand.  Right?”

“Yeah,” she said hugging me back.

“You coming inside?” Lonnie shouted from the door.

“Coming,” I responded, taking my wife’s hand and we followed him in.

***

We made our way through the front of the store, it now didn’t look so foreboding, bathed in the light of the single bulb that swung gently.  The provisions were dusty, like no-one had shopped here in years.  A large stand was positioned in the middle of the floor displaying pristine leather shoes and jackets.  It appeared out of place with the rest of the items on sale.

A door to a back room was open and the men sat around a round table.  It was surprisingly spacious.  The floor was decorated with a large square rug; deer heads hung from the walls.

“Nice trophies,” I said, trying to break the ice.

“Thanks,” the older man said, “been hunting all my life.  Tried to go with Drew over there, but bless him, he couldn’t hit a deer if it was held down in front of him.”

Drew stood with a gormless look on his face.

We hovered in the doorway, not wanting to enter.

“I know we don’t look like youse city-folk, but you can’t judge a book by its cover, now can yeh?” he said grinning,  “The name’s Ed, this is my son.”

He offered his hand.  I accepted.

“Pleased to meet y’all.”

“Are you a doctor?”

“No,” he said chuckling.

A shiver tingled down my spine.

“I used to be, out in Wellington.  But when the place started expanding, they didn’t want someone like me to be to be seeing their kids.  Fucking ignorant bastards,” he finished by feigning a spit.

“Now let me see to your wife there.  Why don’t you, Lonnie and Drew have some moonshine.  I brewed it myself.”

“I don’t really drink.”

“Oh come on, you’re in ma home.  It’s good, I promise.”

Sarah didn’t move an inch.

“You’ll be fine,” I said to her.

“Can you come with me?” she pleaded.

“I understand why you’re nervous, you hardly know me.  I promise I won’t let Bobby anywhere near you.  And you?” he said pointing to me.

“Jeff.”

“And Jeff can come and check on you at any point.”

Sarah shuffled forward.  He took her hand.

“There’s a bedroom just through here.  I’ll examine you there.”

Sarah turned and glanced at me.  I managed a smile.  She was worried.

“I’m just going to be out here, I’ll come and check on you, I promise.”

The door closed behind them and I realised I was in the middle of nowhere with a freakish hillbilly and a trucker I barely knew.  Lonnie sat at the round table and began pouring from a big glass bottle into shot glasses.   I joined them.

I took the shot glass in my hand and necked it.  I coughed as the alcohol burned my mouth and throat.

The other men laughed.

“Shit, that’s strong stuff.”

“It’s more of a sipping drink,” Lonnie said, “so, where were you headed?”

I coughed a few times more before responding.

“Out to the national park, camping for a few days before visiting my wife’s family.”

“How did you happen upon this place?”

“We were almost out of gas, so we stopped here.  Ed went to get some gas and then I guess it was Bobby?  I couldn’t believe it, he was standing in front of the car, hand down his pants, jerking it like he’d never seen a woman before.”

Drew stared at me.

“Again, on behalf of Ed and Drew here, I can only apologise for that.  We’re not all hillbilly fuck ups.”

“I’m sure you’re not.  You’ve been nothing but kind.  I still can’t believe our luck that we ran into you.  What are the chances?”

Lonnie forced a smile and sipped his drink, “You want another?”

“Sure,” I said, as a feeling of genuine relief started to take hold.  I pushed the glass across the table.

The bedroom door opened and Ed came sauntering out, wiping his hands with a cloth.  Small smears of red stretched across its fabric.

“She’s gonna be all right there,” he said, flinging the towel onto a desk, “just some superficial cuts on her head – I stitched them up good.”

“Can I see her?”  I asked, my face warming from the alcohol.

“She’s sleeping now, how about you check on her later.  I see you’ve tried my moon-shine?”

I held the glass up in front of me to study it, the viscous liquid inched down the side as the glass swayed.

“Yeah, it kind of blows your head off, doesn’t it.”

“Hunnerd twenty proof Tennessee moonshine, can’t buy that in a liquor store. It’s just like Pa used ta make.”

Ed sat next to Lonnie.

“You not from around here?”  I asked.

“What, with an accent like this?  You really aren’t local.”

“No, city boy through and through.  I’d be hard pressed to name all the States never mind pinpoint where the accents came from.  I appreciate you taking us in on no notice.”

“Ain’t no mess.  You never know who you’ll bump into when ya’ll out in the sticks.  We could have been some of those hillbilly crazies.”

The man cackled, picked up his drink, took it back and slammed the glass on the table.

“But lucky you,” he said, leaving to enter the store.

“Ed’s a little unpredictable,” Lonnie said, offering me another top up, “He’s a good guy, don’t worry about him.”

But that is exactly what I did.

***

I usually count my drinks.  But tonight with insanely strong moon-shine and a jug full of it in front of me, that was not something I was able to do.  I tried to count on my fingers, I checked them.  Yeah, it was a shitload.  My head swum from the alcohol and lack of food.  Ed had joined us again and asked to see Lonnie.  That left Drew and I sitting round the table.  Trying to strike up a conversation with him was like trying to extract information from a prisoner of war.  I had long since given up.

I leaned back, my arms dangled freely at my sides and hiccuped.  Drew laughed before stifling it, as if he was told to be seen but not heard.  I took in the bodiless animal corpses that decorated the room.  Through mildly blurred vision I tried to focus on the heads.  A stag, something that appeared to be an elk, was it?  A bear, a big black bear – such a shame for it to be here, unless the rest of it was on the other side of the wall, and it was just resting.  But no, it stared for eternity into this little back office room.  I thought about how lonely that would be and I thought of Sarah.

I got up from my seat and misjudged how drunk I was.  I stumbled over to the wall, coming face to face with one of those majestic animals.  Its jaws against my face.  I’d never been this close to a bear, albeit a dead one.  His fully open jaws could have wrapped around my head and crunched it like a nut.

More careful this time, I made my way to the door to the main store and opened it.  I was just about to shout to Ed, when I saw Lonnie passing something over to him.  I squinted to get focus; it was the spike strip.

“You done good, Lon, but this time, two out-of-towners, still breathing.   You must have the gift of the gab,” Ed said.

He peeled off a couple of bills from a roll of cash.

“Here you go, there’s a little bit extra for you.”

Lonnie tucked the money into his breast pocket and tapped it.

“Nice doing business with y’all, as always.  Same time next week?”

“Same time next week.”

They shook hands and Lonnie left.

In my drunken state, I didn’t leave, I just stood in shock, scared.  Ed was now looking at me, he didn’t seem to mind that I’d stumbled upon their conversation.  He smiled knowingly.  Knowing I knew what he knew and that I had no place to go.

My footing faltered as I turned.  Drew stayed in his seat, like a dog to heel.  I crawled my way along the walls and opened the door that led to the hallway.  The door at the end was ajar.  I moved as fast as I could, hearing a screaming from within.  I swayed from side to side, using the walls for ballast.  I checked behind me to see Ed calmly walking towards me, something long and metal glinted in his hand.

I fell into the door and crashed to the floor.  I saw the bed.

“Carry on struggling girly, it only makes this more fun.”

A naked Bobby held my wife down, her face buried into the bedsheets.  He dragged a knife along her naked back.

“What are you doing to my wife?”  I demanded, trying to stand up, but slipping on the bloody floor.

“Jesus, Bobby, you really fucked up this time!”  I heard Ed shout from behind me.

“But Pa, I’m almost finished,” he said, pleased with himself.

“Look what you’re making me do!”  Ed cried.

And with that, I felt a crack to the head and the world went dark.

***

My head thumped and I felt nauseated.  It took a few moments to get my bearings.  I was on the floor, the room was pitch black.  I heaved and stopped myself from being sick.  My heart thumped so hard I felt it in my ears.  I crawled, unable to get to my feet.  The rough wooden boards dug splinters into my knees; I cringed at the pain.  I found a wall and searched around.  I counted the surfaces, I was up to four, assuming I was going around in circles until I found a door.  My hand reached for the handle and pulled.  Through the grace of God, it opened.  Light poured in and I crunched my eyes shut.

Gradually I reopened them, then took in my new surroundings.  I was in some sort of barn.  The high corrugated metal ceiling stretched into the darkened distance.  Still on my hands and knees, I wriggled myself out of the room and into the barn proper.  The smell of rotting meat hit me like a hammer.  My stomach lurched again.  This time I couldn’t keep it down.  I vomited, covering my hands and the floor in front of me.  I rolled out of the way, trying not to fall in the feculence that I’d extruded from my mouth.

I became aware of a low rumble, my mind having trouble making out the sounds I could hear.  I continued crawling forward, making my way along the concrete covered in straw.  To my sides, I could make out empty animal enclosures.   As I progressed, the noises became more and more pronounced until I recognised them; pigs.  I froze as a loud panicked scream rang out and silenced the pigs before their cries of hunger returned in a crescendo of excited noise.

“Please!  Stop!”  I heard a man shout.

“You’re doing it all wrong,” came a voice I recognised, “What are you, fuckin’ stoopid?”

“Sorry, Pa,” another man responded.

I grabbed the metal bars of an empty pig sty and pulled myself up.  I saw a man lashed with chains that hung from the tall ceiling.  His arms lifted above his head.  A large flap of skin hung from the man’s back.  Blood streamed over it like a waterfall and dripped on the dirty floor below.

“You dumb piece of shit, how are we supposed to use that,” Ed said to his son, both of them standing behind the man, “I know he’s your brother, but that’s no excuse.  And this goes for you as well, if you treat women like that, I’ll string you up here too.  You can kill ’em, but you can’t fuck ’em like that.  You understand why that’s wrong, don’t you fuck-face?”

Drew nodded.

Ed snatched the knife from Drew and sliced off the dangling skin with an angry motion.

“Look, you’ve ruined it, we can barely make a glove out of that, never mind a jacket,” he said, flapping it in front of his son, speckles of blood landed on his face, before throwing it to the floor.

A german shepherd dog came into view, picked up the skin and trotted off to its bed, chomping down on the human leather.

Ed cracked his son over the head, “I’ll show you one more time.  If you don’t get it right, I’ll feed *you* to the pigs, you understand me?”

Drew nodded nervously.

“You have to use strong, confident movements,” he said, taking the knife and running it along the other shoulder blade of the man, who screamed again.

“Shut up,” Ed said, picking up a cattle prod and ramming it into the man’s ribs.

He juddered until the device was removed.

“Now you try.”

He handed over the knife.

Drew nervously took it and dragged it down the man’s spine.  The skin came away like a banana peel.

“Much better,” Ed praised his son.

The knife ran along the top of the man’s buttocks and then back to the shoulder.

“Be ready for when it falls off.”

Ed caught the large piece of back skin.

“Jesus, do I have to do fuckin’ everything.  Go get that woman ready, and we need this one processed before he dries out.  Make sure you wake him up, too.  That last batch was a little too tough.”

He whacked a button.  Loud beeping rang out as the man’s limp body slowly moved away and through plastic curtains.  Ed wiped his hands on his shirt and strode in my direction.  I ducked and panicked.

In a split second I used all my might to jump into the empty pig sty next to me and hide.  I made myself small against the back of the concrete wall and waited.  I heard thumps and the sound of newly excited pigs.

I huddled in the corner, and the pigs got louder.  With a large thunk something landed in front of me, in the middle of the sty.  It appeared to be offal, something like a heart and a set of lungs.  I went white when I saw what accompanied it; a skinless forearm and hand as well as a foot.

My stomach rose again. A steel shutter on the other side of the sty cranked open.  Eight fully grown pigs ran out and grabbed the bloody meat, fighting with each other for the best pieces.   Up close the snorting was terrifying and so loud.  They began to decimate what was there as if it were sirloin steaks.

My breathing increased, and my head thumped, my vision became hazy.  I knew I didn’t have much time until they saw me as their next meal – as a fresh dessert.  I got up and peered over the side to see Ed drag a large trolley with a blue plastic lining.  He continued to throw chunks of meat into the animal enclosures to the sides of him.

Just as I was ready to vault back over he stopped.  He saw the open door in front of him, where I was being kept.  He spun around to look behind him.  I ducked again.

“Drew!” he shouted, “Get your fuckin’ ass back down here, we have a live one!”

His voice was almost lost in the murmur of lunching pigs.  I made myself small and waited.  I heard the trolley wheels squeak past.  When I was happy he was out of sight I opened my eyes but I didn’t move.  Four of the pigs now stared at me, confused as to what this was in their home.  They approached.  Their noses tasted the air around me curiously.  I tried to still my breathing, but my fear took over and I let out short, snatched breaths.  Closer and closer they moved until they were just inches from me.  Their snouts pushed up against my clothes, sniffing this curiosity that didn’t react to them.  They made their way across my legs, up my t-shirt and into my face.  They smelled like compost, a combination of rotting fruit and grass.  Their interest didn’t relent.  Their mouths opened, revealing short stubby teeth and wrinkled tongues.  They began to bite, softly at first, as if they were testing the tenderness of my flesh before biting down for good.

“Please don’t,” I begged them impotently.

I kicked at them with my feet.  Initially they backed away before returning with restored vigour, like they were having fun with their *food*.  They pulled on my shoes, and I gripped the bars behind me.  The snorting increased in volume, as if these large animals were communicating with each other.  They tugged and tugged.  My feet strained to stay attached to my legs and I screamed.

It’s strange.  You never expect to be in a situation where your feet are being eaten.  You’d expect to feel panic, which I did.  But the thought that overwhelmed me was, *at least it wasn’t my face*.

The more and more they pulled the more I held on, not wanting to be dragged into the centre and be fair game for the others who waited just behind.  Like a fleshy tug of war, they pulled one way and I pulled the other.  Until something gave.

I crashed to the ground to see blood on my socks.  But my feet were still there.  All eight of the pigs started fighting over my shoes and I didn’t delay my escape any longer.  I vaulted over the gate and ran.  My wet socks slapped on the floor.  The pigs had finished their meals now and aggressively pounded on the gates to their pens, trying to get to me, smelling the blood that now oozed out of my feet.  I didn’t know what sort of damage had been done, they felt numb, as if I was running on stumps.

The door to the barn was open.  Staring through, I saw in the distance, the lights of the small gas station.  Someone stood in front, facing me.  He appeared to recognise me and started purposefully walking in my direction, then speeding up to a jog.

*Fuck.*

Turning around, I ran in the direction I saw the man had hung before.  In his absence, a large pool of blood had gathered and spread out into the gangway. The dog licking the sticky substance was not paying attention to me as I worked out my next move.

The concrete paths stretched out to the left and right; the right however occupied by a dog that clearly liked the taste of human flesh.  I opted on left and ran.  By this time, the feeling was coming back to my feet, and with every footstep the pain shot up my legs.  I winced, hoping I could make it out of here before I couldn’t walk any further.  Slowly, the door at the end of the path came into view through the dim light.   It was metal, not something someone in my state would be able to break through.  I pleaded with some higher force that it would be unlocked.

“*Stop*,” a voice boomed from somewhere out of sight.

The surprise sent me tumbling to the floor.

It was Drew.

“Youse got to get out of here, he’ll kill youse.”

Confused, I said, “I need to find my wife!”

“Youse gotta go now. I put her somewhere safe.”

Drew dragged me with super human strength.  I struggled against him, but his grip was tight.  He opened the door, cool night air rushed in.  He closed the door behind me and let go.

I sat on the floor catching my breath.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“He’ll kill me, just like he did mama. He made me skin my own brother.  Get help.”

“Where can I go, I have no car!  There’s nothing for miles.”

The door we had just left burst open, Ed stood in the threshold, seething.

“You little shit, I saw what you did,” he said to his son.

“Stop it, Pa, I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore.”

“Where did you put that woman?”

“I’m not telling youse.”

Ed let out an annoyed grunt before running at his son.  Drew stepped out of the way and tripped his father.

“The pickup; the keys are under the visor, go!”

I scrambled to my feet.  The rocks pierced through my socks and the pain doubled.  I hobbled as fast as I could, stealing glances behind as the two fought for supremacy over the other.

The pain became excruciating, and my gait slowed.  I didn’t look back.  I just focused on the gas station, its silhouette getting larger and larger the closer I got.  My left leg gave way, and I stumbled, trying my best to catch myself, before falling flat on my face.  The grit scratched my chin like claws as I bit my tongue and tasted copper as it bled.  There wasn’t much further to go.  I forced myself to my feet, my body now a temple of pain.

The back of the gas station sign was close.  I stopped and thought about going back into the building and searching for my wife.  The crunching sound of impatient footsteps could be heard behind me and I knew Ed was getting nearer.  I mentally promised her I’d be back and shuffled around the front of the gas station.   When I saw the pickup, I felt a huge sense of relief.

I got in the driver’s side and checked the visors for the keys Drew said were there.  But nothing slid out.  I slammed my fists on the steering wheel in frustration and resigned myself to not getting away.  The glovebox popped open, the interior light illuminating the set of keys that sat on top of some papers.

The car struggled as it tried its best to turn over.  Ed now came into view, dragging a limp foot; Drew had really done a number on him.  His face was streaked with blood.  But as he was still walking I feared for his son.

The pickup continued to splutter.

“Please, please, please,” I said as the battery started to strain.

Ed fell onto the bonnet, his bloody hands coming to rest on the window, trying his best to drag himself up.

“Don’t you want to see your wife again, she’s still alive,” he shouted, spittle landing on the windshield.

Like a lion the vehicle roared into life.  I jacked it into reverse and slammed on the gas.  Ed crumbled to the floor face first.  I didn’t wait for him to get up, before putting it in gear and racing off down the highway in the direction I had travelled hours earlier.

***

My heart thumped as the pickup raced along the deserted highway.  I watched the fuel gauge hover over the halfway point and wondered how far it would go before running out.  Gradually I brought the speed down until I was travelling 55 mph, hoping it would be the most efficient velocity.

I thought about my wife.  My heart pined turn back.  I wondered where Drew had put her.  I wondered if she was still alive.  All I knew was that the only way I was ever going to see her again, if ever, was if I got help.

The road stretched to eternity.  I passed Ghost Rock, and a single tear rolled down my cheek.  Knowing the longer I drove, and the further away I was from the gas station, the less likely it was I would see her again.

I drove into the night, passing through small towns.  I contemplated searching for a sheriff, but this time of night, all the buildings were dark.  I decided to drive until the vehicle ran out of gas.

***

I entered Grand Junction, Colorado.  A small police station came into view, and the vehicle spluttered to a halt.  I hobbled in, and told my story.  I was greeted with officers who rolled their eyes and clearly were too tired to deal with this at that time of night.  Frustrated, I shouted at them, telling them my wife may still be alive.  They said they’d need to contact Utah police, as it was out of state.  That I should get some rest and come back in the morning.

***

I’m back at home now.  I’ve collected the dog from the neighbours that looked after him.  He’s anxious, he doesn’t know where my wife, his mother, is.  I do.

I look at the package that arrived a couple of days ago.  I put it in the under-stairs closet.  When I open the door, the dog scratches at it.  I’m waiting for the police to pick it up.  Inside are two boxes, both emblazoned with the *Ed Lewis & Sons – Limited Edition* company name.  A note accompanies them.

*I’m sorry I could only send some locally reared jerky.  I would have preferred to send you some exotic out of town meat.  But you know what happened to that.  I do hope you like the leather shoes, they should fit snuggly.  Size nine?  I thought so.*

I shudder as I put the note away again.  I haven’t opened any of the boxes.  I’m leaving them for the police.

They found my car fifty miles away from Ghost Rock.  I told them that’s not where I left it.

The pickup; that’s where they found my wife, under a tarp on the flatbed.  They said there was no chance she would have survived, the amount of blood and skin she lost.   But I still wonder, if I just checked there before I left, Drew said he put her somewhere safe, I just didn’t know.

I asked if she was still alive when I arrived at Grand Station, they refuse to answer this.  I guess because if they do, they are admitting negligence.

The dog scratches at the boxes.  There’s something in there he really wants.  I’m not going to give him it though.  It may give him a taste of something I’m never going to be able to satiate.

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