An excerpt from the Kindle Vella short fiction series
Diana drove her Subaru up the small, unpaved driveway towards a country store a few hundred feet away. She was deep in the Angeles National Forest, enmeshed among 700,000 square acres of loosely-patrolled isolation. She couldn’t see the shop through the dense tree growth, but her navigation app promised it was there. She checked the clock – sunset wasn’t for another forty-five minutes. She had made good time.
The store emerged from the trees and she pulled her car into one of the nebulous spots out front. Businesses this isolated rarely had more than one visitor at a time, so there was no need for demarcated parking spots. But still, Diana measured out in her head where other vehicles would park (usually lifted trucks and off-road vehicles that successfully compensated for their owners’ prepubescence) and stopped at a perfect ninety-degree angle to the line of grass.
Diana exited her car, adjusting her sunglasses and checking the bandana she had wrapped around her hair. She opened the trunk and removed two wire-meshed chicken cages. They had been ripped apart, then repaired and patched with scrap wire, then rent open and patched again. Small barbs spiked out at the sides.
Inside, the store clerk watched her enter. He was in his sixties, paunchy, his reddish-gray beard dangling past the top of his overalls. “Miss?” he asked, eyes trailing her through wire-rimmed glasses.
“I need two chickens, full-grown,” she explained.
“Cocks or hens?”
“That’ll be the boys,” he said, clearing his throat. He started towards a door behind the register. “’Course, if they’re for eating, you’re gonna want broiler hens.”
“No, roosters are fine,” she replied. She placed the wire cages on the countertop, and he looked them over with a curious eye.
“You want new cages? We got ‘em in the back, or you can put down a deposit…”
“I’m okay,” and then a moment later, “thanks,” she added, hoping it would end the conversation. He left out the back door, leaving Diana alone in the shop. She took in the place – part convenience store, part farm supply. Rolls of cattle wire lined the walls, while candy and jerky sat in loose bins on the counter. There was something identical and timeless about these country stores. She’d must have been to two dozen by now, but she wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Except this one. A mustard-yellow sign warned, “SMILE, YOU’RE BEING RECORDED” behind the counter.
Diana covertly looked around for the camera, seeing one pointing directly in front of the register. Sure, she was in disguise, her frame hidden by the baggy, thrift-store UCLA sweatshirt she had changed into after leaving the office. But she had seen enough security camera footage that she knew where to stand to avoid being recorded, and she couldn’t be too careful, so she side-stepped away from the camera’s field of vision.
She could hear the sound of chickens clucking in the back. The occasional goat bleating somewhere in the hills nearby. The smell of manure seemed to seep from every pore in the wall. She checked her watch again – how long was this going to take? It had only been two minutes, but she could feel the shadows outside growing longer with every passing second. She knew the delay wasn’t his fault, but her anxiety started overwhelming the buffer she thought she’d bought herself. What the hell was taking him so long?
The clerk finally returned and placed the roosters’ cages on the counter with two dull, metallic twangs. “That’ll be $26.37.”
Diana dug into her pocket, pulled out a loose stack of twenties, and unfurled the cash. She looked up, finally taking in the birds as she began handing over the money: one, handsome, but whose feathers were turning gray with age. The other, younger, scrawnier, bald patches pecked out from its ribs. Diana was suddenly struck by the personality of these two birds, their storied histories so vividly unique. She was hit with a wave of nausea and guilt. “They don’t have names…do they?” she asked.
“You can call ‘em Lenny and Shithead for all I care,” the clerk responded. No humor in his voice, no hostility. Just an agrarian involved in another life-and-death transaction.
Still trying to avoid the camera, Diana had to stretch over the counter to pay him, handing him a pair of twenties. “I don’t need the change.”
“Oh…” it took the man by surprise. “You sure you don’t want some feed or…” Diana reached into the impulse buy bin and grabbed a handful of bite-sized, preserved meat sticks. She raised her eyebrows in permission.
“All yours, ma’am.” Ma’am. She bristled. She was barely 32. She took a deep breath. It’s just country hospitality, she tried to remind herself. But there should be some standards.
Diana left the store, a rooster in each hand. They clucked softly to themselves as she placed them in the back seat. As she left the parking lot, she could hear the sound of gravel crunching under her tires like dozens of fragile, tiny necks. She hated the raw, savage imagery that was creeping in with every passing minute.
She was on a path she hadn’t taken before –every full moon, she went someplace new. If there was one thing she knew from her job, it’s that patterns were a perfectly awful way to keep something a secret.
There was a campground coming up to her right. She turned into the small off-shoot from the fire road, keeping a wary eye out for any other campers, but it was otherwise unattended. She pulled up to the farthest spot she could find and hung an Adventure Pass from her windshield.
Outside, she pulled the two roosters from the back seat, then went into her trunk. She removed a small, dense backpack that dug into her shoulders. Diana then grabbed each of the birds again and walked past the campsite and deep into the woods.
The sun was setting behind the horizon. The darkness in the heavy growth ahead invited her deeper. She looked down at the roosters, addressing the Romanesque, gray bird in her right hand. “Lenny, be brave. I promise this will all be over quick,” she offered. She turned to the henpecked rooster in her left. “And you’re a brave boy…” as she fumbled for a name, the rooster crowed loudly. The last thing she needed was to draw attention her way, and she shook the cage in panic. “Hey, Shithead, shut up!” One hard jerk silenced the sacrificial bird, but only after it nipped at her finger in feeble retaliation. She sighed, feeling miserable for them. “Either way, I’m sorry, Lenny. Shithead.” She trod forward until she came upon a thicket of trees and brush. It was the good dark now, and she had minutes left. She put the roosters down in their final resting place and walked toward an ancient, monumental tree. The backpack fell from her shoulders with a metallic thud. She removed a thick chain from the bag and wrapped it around the tree’s massive trunk, and then pulled out two pairs of county-issued police handcuffs. She attached each to one of the chain’s links on each side of the tree. Right cuff. Left cuff. Secured and ready.
The moon crested the horizon.