My dad never talked to me, not really. Even when he wanted me to do something he found a way to say it through someone else. “Tell him to go split some wood. Make himself useful,” he’d say to Mom when he saw me watching TV. It was really hot where we lived, especially in the summertime, so we didn’t need firewood. I’d try to tell him this but he always got so angry. I ended up outside a lot. I liked outside better anyway. That’s where my animals were.

Mom said they were “my” animals, but she just said that so I’d be the one who had to feed them every day. I didn’t mind though. Twice a day I’d walk down the dirt path from our double-wide to the barn. First I’d let the goats out of their pen to graze. There wasn’t much grass anymore, but they’d still find roots. After the goats, I’d let out the chickens. We had six chickens, but we’d started with more. One evening coyotes had gotten into the pen, even though the chicken wire was buried really deep. The chickens didn’t seem to mind their sisters dying. I always thought that was strange, but chickens were different than people in that way. Well, except for Clover.

Clover wasn’t like the other chickens, she was my favorite. She wasn’t afraid of people like the others. She always came running right up to me when I opened the coop. She was reddish brown, and even though Mom and Dad couldn’t tell her apart from the others, I always recognized Clover. We spent hours together digging for worms in Mom’s old vegetable garden. Most of the plants were dead, but the soil was deeper than other places in the yard.

I talked to Clover a lot when we spent time together. I’d ask her if chickens dreamt like people did and if she got scared in the coop at night. I wished she would answer, but she just scratched the dirt and pecked at her shadow. It was okay because she was a really good listener. Much better than Mom or Dad.

Dad watched us sometimes from the kitchen window over the sink. I’d notice him but I pretend not to. He always looked so angry and I never knew why. Then one day, he told me.

It was late in the summer and the sun was casting long shadows across the desert. When we sat down for dinner that evening the orange light made dad look dark against the window.

“It’s pathetic,” Dad mumbled through his mustache. Mom had just finished microwaving his hungry-man. He peeled the wet plastic film off the top of his Salisbury steak.

“You want me to make something else? We’ve got pork rib,” Mom said to him, doing her best to avoid another fight.

“Not this. Him.” He glared at me across the plastic floral tablecloth.

Mom glanced at me, growing irritable. She always sided with Dad, even before she knew why she should. “What did he do now?”

Dad sat up abruptly, rattling the flimsy folding table. “Every day I see him out there playing in the dirt with those god damned chickens. He’s ten years old, he’s not a fucking infant.” I hated it when he cursed. “He’s got no appreciation for how hard I work to put food on his plate.”

“It’s a tray… not a plate,” I said, tilting up the microwaveable meal.

That was the wrong thing to say. His hand lashed out, catching the back of my head hard. Hot pain sparked behind my ears. The impact jerked my head forward, so I kept it there, avoiding his eyes as tears began to drip into my corn.

“The chickens aren’t pets,” he snapped at my mother.

“I know that.” She scowled.

He glanced out the window, then back at me. “Well it’s about time he knew that also.”

His fist clasped over the back of my shirt and dragged me to my feet. I tripped over myself following him outside.

It was still light enough to see the dirt path that cut down the hill to the barn and the chicken coop beside it. The chickens had been put away for the night and were huddled together in the boxes where they laid their eggs. Their heads popped up and their feathers ruffled as we drew near. Even from a distance my dad’s anger seemed to make them nervous. Everyone always said chickens were stupid. They didn’t seem stupid right now.

Dad flung open the wire door to the chicken coop. The chickens startled, clucking like mad, their flapping kicking up feathers and dust. Somewhere in the back of my mind I understood what was happening and yet I hadn’t made a noise since we’d left the kitchen, that was, until Dad grabbed Clover.

She watched him curiously as Dad lifted her from her roost and drew her against his chest. Clover wasn’t afraid of people like the other chickens were.

“No—Dad, that’s Clover,” I said with a laugh. I knew for sure he’d made a mistake, and he just needed to be reminded of it. But he left the roost without a word, letting the wood and wire door clack behind him. I followed close on his heels.

“Dad, Dad?”

He turned sharply around the back of the barn to a stack of wood covered with a blue wrinkled tarp. He threw off the tarp, revealing a rusty axe laying on top of the pile.

“Dad, stop!”

He didn’t react. I always felt invisible, but something new had overcome my body. It was a tingling that slipped from my fingertips up the back of my neck, raising my hair and making me feel light. I felt outside myself, watching the moment like a ghost might, unable to be heard, unable to reach out. Why couldn’t I reach out? I looked down at my arms and found them pinned to my sides. Someone was holding me, it was mom. When had she gotten here? Had she been here the whole time?

Dad laid Clover on the stump he used for splitting wood, pressing her small body down against the log. She glanced about, not looking scared, just curious. She was always very curious, just like me. Dad raised the axe, gripping it in the middle with one hand. He glanced at my mother. “Shut him up!”

My mother’s hand clasped over my mouth and the world got quieter. I hadn’t realized I’d been screaming.

“You don’t want to chop wood? You don’t want to do your chores? Fine. But food isn’t free.” The axe came down and Clover shuddered, her wings jutting out like she’d just taken flight. Her head swung from her neck, not quite detached. The axe was old, after all, and very dull.

My mom laughed. “Nice one, Dan.”

How could she think this was funny?

Clover was still flapping her wings, kicking up dust in the deep orange light. The sun was gone now. But I could still see her. She was looking at me.

Dad brought down the axe again and this time it cut straight through, embedding itself in the wood stump. Clover’s head dropped to the ground, but her body jerked out from his grasp. She twisted in the dirt, flapping wildly. How was she still alive? I wondered, still feeling far away. The chicken spun and rolled until finally her body disappeared under the backside of the barn.

The soil beneath the barn had been dug out years ago by our dog Penny. Penny had been gone for a long time, but no one had ever filled in the dirt.

“Shit!” Dad shouted as Clover disappeared from view. “God damn it.”

Mom let me go and I fell to my knees. Dad kicked Clover’s head and it disappeared in a cloud of dust and dead grass. “He doesn’t come inside until he finds that chicken,” he said to Mom. “Or until he chops some god damned wood.” He yanked the axe from the log and dropped it before me. With that my parents made their way back up the hill towards our home.

Alone I started to cry. It felt like I cried for a long time.

It was dark when I ran out of tears and caught my breath. The lights from our trailer spilled out over the dirt yard and I could hear the distant sound of the M.A.S.H. theme song. I hated that song. That song meant it was my bedtime. But tonight I wasn’t in bed, I was sitting by the stump covered in feathers, staring at the dark space beneath the barn. Everything was dark, but somehow that space was even darker.

I knew Dad wanted me to get Clover’s body, but the thought was too terrible to entertain. I looked back towards the warm glow of home. If I didn’t do it Dad would be angry in the morning, but what more could he do? He’d taken everything I had.

Not everything.

I whipped around in the dark, the hairs on my arms raising. Someone had spoken from the blackness. What was more, they’d responded to something I hadn’t even said out loud.

“Hello?” I said, glancing uneasily towards the far side of the barn.

Despite being clear it had sounded like a whisper, but a wet whisper, sticky.

“Who’s there?” I asked the dark.

Who has always been there?

The voice wasn’t coming from behind the barn, it was coming from beneath it. I leaned down, trying to see into the inky black between the exposed wood beams of the foundation. There was something moving.

“I don’t know,” I said, acting braver than I felt. “Who?”

Who chases shadows by your side?

I frowned. “C—Clover?”

The small brown shape of Clover came into view under the barn, her silhouette only just lit by the dim light of the house far behind me. Her head was missing, but she was alive… she was talking.

“H-How?” I stammered.

I have always been able to speak. Now you can hear me.

My fear slipped away, replaced instead with a wave of unabashed awe. It was impossible, incredible.

“Am I dreaming?” I asked.

Do I ever speak in your dreams?

I thought about it. “No.”

Why would now be any different?

I laughed in disbelief. “This is amazing! I have to tell someone!” I got to my feet, but Clover stopped me with her wet whisper.

Do your parents ever listen to your stories?

I paused. “No,” I admitted.

Then why would now be any different?

She was right. I didn’t have anyone to tell. After a brief hesitation I sat back down.

We talked for a long time, there in the dirt by the barn. I asked Clover all the things I’d ever wanted. I asked her about her dreams and about her oldest memories.

“How did you learn to talk?” I asked as the lights from the house went dark and the television grew quiet.

She was barely visible now in the glow of a cloud-covered moon, but she still responded in the same slow whisper she’d had the whole night.

By listening.

“To me?”

To everything.

The word everything hung in my thoughts. “Before… you said Dad hadn’t taken everything from me.”

He has not.

“But what do I have left?”

Is it not obvious? Clover said. You have your curiosity. That is something we have always had in common.

I shrugged. “I guess so.”

What else are you curious about?

I thought about it for a moment, finally asking the question I’d been hesitant to ask before. “Why doesn’t Dad like me?”

Too often you ask why he does nothing for you, instead of thinking about what you can do for him.

I glanced at the wood pile, a lightness growing in my chest. “You’re right.”

Make yourself useful, Clover whispered.

Mom and Dad’s room was dark, but the yellow light from their brown plastic alarm clock was more than enough to see them lying in bed. Dad was sleeping on his back, closest to the door. That made it easier. I raised the axe high overhead and brought it down hard on the front of his neck. The axe didn’t go all the way through on the first swing. It was old, after all, and very dull. Mom woke up just before the second swing. She screamed in the same way I did when dad had cut Clover’s head off.

“It’s okay,” I said to her, smiling. I understood now why she’d laughed before. “Now Dad will finally talk to me.” I raised the axe again. “You both will.”

Featured image by Maria Pogosyan.

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Jay Holmes

Jay Holmes is an award-winning screenwriter and novelist who’s been recognized by the Nicholl fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, and the Blue Cat writing awards. He lives in Portland, Oregon and spends his free time photoshopping his friends into fantasy novel covers.