Rule 99

If the directions the boss gave me were correct, I was getting close to Los Suelos. The road before me devolved from a state highway to a county road of rutted macadam and faded thermoplastic road paint. Even with the A/C, I tasted a stagnation in the air that triggered childhood memories of holding my mother’s hand while she perused bolts of rayon and corduroy at the fabric store. I loosened my tie and rolled down the window, hoping for fresher breaths. The rank thickness of the air remained. 

I noticed a lack of the Command during my drive, which, according to Rule 25 of Managing the Command, typically meant that I was headed in the right direction towards a source of new names. An ever-present combination of statics and demands, the Command insisted I search for a specific, unknown name that was written somewhere. The Command ranged from annoying to maddening, forcing me to develop a list of rules that help me handle it. When I had time, I would make note of the staleness of the air and cross-reference that with other information I had recorded on the Command. I may need to amend existing rules, or perhaps add new ones. 

The ride wasn’t uneventful. At various moments, driving through the arid chaparral of the Central Valley, I’d see a figure on the edge of the horizon. It didn’t matter which direction the road curved, I always remained too far away to make out any specific detail or feature. I felt that it was there for me for some unknown reason. And while my first instinct was to connect this figure with the Command, I had nothing linking the two.  

I felt watched, and I didn’t like it, and I became nervous. At one point I pulled over onto the soft shoulder and took my pulse, which measured into the 80s of beats per minute. I had a rule for this. I had to be careful to keep my faculties; too much panic or anxiety and I would black out and disassociate. I wouldn’t allow this over some obscure blip in my periphery.  

Rule 38 stated that In the event of a visual encounter, monitor heart rate for signs of elevation. If above the established resting heart rate of 68bpm, Open the Calm app on your phone. Listen to no fewer than 17 minutes of the “Breathing Into It” meditation narrated by Camila Cabello. Repeat as needed until resting heart rate is achieved. 

Nothing happened as I hit play on my phone, and that was when I remembered the boss had told me that Los Suelos was miles away from the nearest cell tower. It had something to do with a U.S. Geological Survey lab whose research required the area to be free of radio signals. Even though the USGS left years ago, the town ordinance barring radio signals remained. 

Without a functioning Calm app, I resorted to Rule 93. In the case of losing internet access  in a moment of crisis, I was to cycle through my box breathing, find four green things in my immediate environment, and then play an LCD Blackjack game that I kept for such occasions in my glove compartment. An hour passed before my pulse returned to 68 beats per minute.

There was no sign welcoming me to Los Suelos, no green road placard denoting the population or elevation. 2010 Census records indicated the town had “approximately 2,000 unconfirmed residents,” but I found myself driving past a large government facility, a subdivision in the middle of construction, and a baseball park that could seat the town twice over. It was a ghost of unrealized potential. I rolled up my window when a fine brown dust irritated my sinuses.  

I arrived at the only hotel in town, the Tomatotel. I didn’t understand the name until I arrived: in front of the entrance stood a giant metal tomato that had seen better days. Rust speckled the surface and piles of trash littered the base. I made a note to look up the date of my last tetanus booster. 

The motel clerk told me that all phone calls had to be made during regular business hours, nine to five, every day except Sunday. When I asked why, she told me Los Suelos had only one switchboard operator to connect the entire town’s calls, and she refused to work overtime.  

After a quick inspection for bed bugs, I sat on the edge of my bed on the ground floor. The exhaustion that only days of travel can produce weighed itself into my body. Outside the window sat the tomato, and behind it a range of hills. It was late. I would have to wait until tomorrow to check in with my client. I habitually looked at my cell phone, still no service. The sound of static filled my room. 

Find me the name, the Command said. 

I can’t, I told the voice, it’s already dark out. I’ve been driving all day. 

You will sleep when you find me the name.

I really can’t.

I want the name.

The static intensified, and I felt my focus hone in on the hills on the horizon. I was drawn to them, their fingers digging into my brain. I needed them. They needed me. I would carve out my heart to make room for whatever was in those hills. 

Find me the name, the Command repeated. 

The static lessened, and I regained focus for a moment. This back-and-forth would continue until the voice either punished me or I silenced it. I quickly recalled Rule 53, entitled In Regards to Defiance: If the occasion arises that you cannot comply with the desires of the Command, consume 50ml of Reyka vodka every 22 minutes until the static volume lessens and the Command ceases. Side effects may include eventual unconsciousness. Do not invoke Rule 53 if you are, or are planning on, operating heavy machinery or driving an automobile. 

I designed Rule 53 as an emergency provision for the most intense episodes. I’d packed three 750ml bottles, not knowing how long this job would be. It took 200ml before the static subsided. During my first night in Los Suelos, I dreamt that I dug a tunnel into the side of the hills near the town. I didn’t know what I was digging for, but the further I went along, the sound of a heartbeat grew ever louder. I needed that sound. I wanted that heart to pump ash through my veins as my mouth bellowed smoke and rage. I wanted it to say my name. 

“I’m here to see somebody in charge. I wasn’t given many details.”

“What is this regarding?” the receptionist asked. 

“My name is Edward Abernathy, I’m with Three Rivers Marketing.”

“Sign this, please.” She handed me a clipboard without looking up from her computer screen. Attached was a liability waiver stating the company wasn’t responsible for any harm I experienced, as well as a nondisclosure agreement. I was not to speak of anything I saw, except as permitted by management for promotional and marketing purposes. I signed both and handed the clipboard back. After a moment, a man in his early 40s appeared. He wore wranglers and a plaid button-up shirt. He extended his hand as he approached. 

“Jerry Schaefer, how you doin’?” he asked, smiling. 

“Edward Abernathy, I’m doing great,” I said, meeting his handshake. 

“Let’s head up to my office and we’ll have a chat.”

He led me up a staircase that opened up to an office. “Schaefer, huh? That last name a coincidence?” I asked. 

“No, sir,” Jerry replied, “My Uncle Quentin is the owner. I’m just the Plant Manager. But hey, let’s get down to business, shall we?” He took a seat behind his desk. 

“We’ve got a potentially damaging situation on our hands, and no idea how to handle it.” Jerry’s voice deepened slightly. “If this gets out, it could ruin us.” 

I was curious what “this” was, but I had my guesses. My bet was either Schaefer had been dumping animal waste products into the river, or pictures of the owner wearing a culturally inappropriate Halloween costume were about to come out. Either were manageable. This was the kind of cleanup I specialized in. 

“Whatever speed bump your business has rolled over, I’m sure we can help control the messaging while projecting an image of ethical business sense,” I assured him. “So what can I help you with?”

Jerry leaned back in his chair and gave me a long look. “I think it’s best I show you. Just remember that NDA you signed.”

I could sympathize with his initial mistrust, but it only amped up my curiosity. We both donned butcher coats and hair nets, and Jerry led me onto the killing floor of the meat plant. 

“Where is everyone?” I asked. 

“Lunch,” Jerry said. “There’s a cafeteria building ‘round back. We provide meals for all employees on the clock. That’s one of the little perks we’re fortunate enough to offer.”

“You ever serve your own meat?” I asked, half-joking.

“Not lately. You’ll see.”

Jerry explained the steps of killing a cow for slaughter. It was first shot between the eyes with a captive bolt gun, a pneumatic device that drove a steel piston through the cow’s brain. This stunned the cow immediately and supposedly painlessly, but left the brain stem intact to allow the heart to pump during exsanguination. If I’d had reception, I would have googled how many pints of blood a cow has.

Jerry had a crew member, Nate, bring a cow into the stunning area. Its head was placed into a harness to keep it from moving around. 

“Now pay attention, this is what we’re dealing with here,” Jerry said to me. Nate looked back at Jerry, who gave a nod. As soon as the muzzle of the bolt pistol pressed against the cow’s skin, it breathed deep and said “Thank You” with nonchalance. 

“Did that cow just speak?” I gasped. 

“Sure did,” said Jerry.

The animal’s voice was a bundled multitude: haunting and meek, demanding and pressured. Foreign yet familiar. The more I tried to pinpoint in my memory how I might have recognized it, the blurrier the cow’s gratitude became. My breathing quickened and I spotted silver streaks swimming in my periphery. I dug my fingernails into the palm of my hand, the pain bringing me back into the present. 

“You okay, there? You’re starting to look a little green under the collar,” Jerry said. He was right, I wasn’t feeling well. My head emptied itself of blood and my feet buckled into jelly. The last thing I remembered before collapsing was telling Jerry I had to leave because “I had to call a guy about the target demographic for talking bovines.”

I woke up some time later in a chair in Jerry’s office. Sweat had soaked through my dress shirt. 

“There he is!” Jerry exclaimed with a smile. 

“What in the hell was that back there?” I asked. 

“That is the reason you’re here. At first we thought this was a bit of gossip among the crew, but ever since we verified that the cows talk, it’s been happening more frequently. Half the kill team quit because they don’t want to put down an animal that can talk.”

“This sounds like a vet’s job,” I said. I was dehydrated, and I didn’t feel well. 

“Our vets can’t find anything wrong with them. It’s the only thing they say, and they only say it when we press the gun against their head. Look, we’re pretty sure this is gonna get out, and talking cows probably don’t sound appetizing to most folks. The last thing we want are those animal rights nutjobs protesting outside.” 

“Of course,” I said, nodding. I sat up straighter, getting my head into the job. “Okay, let’s look at the scope of where we’re at. Who all knows about this?”

“There’s rumors floating around,” Nate said, “but only the kill team has witnessed it first-hand. The ones that quit were given a nice severance to keep their mouths shut, and those that stuck around were given a raise.”

“That’s good. That probably bought us some time,” I said as I stood up. It took me a moment to fully regain my balance.  We agreed to meet tomorrow after I got some rest and had a chance to brainstorm. 

When I arrived back at my room in the Tomatotel, I opened Managing the Command to add notes and observations. I quickly noticed something was amiss. There were 98 rules in the volume, and between Rules 12 and 14, where Rule 13 should have been, was instead a blank page. Had I written a Rule 13? I was sure I had. I couldn’t remember it, which made me think I skipped it for superstitious reasons. Yes, that had to be it. 

A static noise built.

No more cows. Find me the name, the Command said. My head began to hurt. 

I can’t right now, I told it. I need more time.

Find the name. NOW.

I poured exactly 50ml of vodka.

“I’ve got an idea,” I said to Jerry, “but you’re going to have to trust me.” I had been in Los Suelos for five days, and Jerry was getting impatient at my lack of a game plan.

“Oh yeah?” he asked, arching an eyebrow, “Let’s hear it.”

“We’re not going to hide this thing forever, right? Eventually some worker is going to take this to the press, or the USDA, whoever, and when that happens we’ve lost control of the story. You follow?”

“Yeah. So?” Jerry was still suspicious.

“So, we turn our liability into an asset,” I said. I turned up the salesman charm. It was the only solid idea I had, and it needed to land.

“Huh?” His wariness bordered on confusion. 

“When you think of anything around cows, what’s the advertisement that pops into your head?”

“That happy cows come from California?”

“Yes!” I exclaimed, “and grateful cows come from Los Suelos. That’s our new slogan.”

Jerry took a long pause. He stood up from his desk and extended his hand. 

“That’s the craziest fucking idea I’ve ever heard, but goddammit, it might work.” I gave him a firm handshake as endorphins flooded my mind.

After our meeting, I went back to my room and got to work, making rough sketches and first drafts of ad copy. I preemptively drank 100ml of vodka to keep the Command from interrupting my work. I also reviewed all 72 rules of Managing the Command, which took far less time than usual. There were blank pages between some of the rules, which felt unfamiliar, but there was a kind of comfort in the feeling that my life had become slightly simpler and easier to follow.

My days in Los Suelos crept into weeks. I settled into a steady and productive routine. I started every morning with a sunrise walk to the outskirts of town. I discovered several paths leading up into what the locals call the Bolt Gun Hills, as well as a few caves I wasn’t brave enough to enter. I then checked in at Schaefer Meats, where I would spend an hour on the killing floor, watching the endless stream of cattle line up and express their final thanks to whoever was about to terminate their existence. I felt intoxicated by their voices, soaking up their multitudes. The Command didn’t bother me while I was with the cows. They were like a  sacrifice that quelled the storm in my head. I bathed in their dual nature: familiar and warm, yet detached and free from obligation. These cows in their final moments were now my family. 

The rest of my day was spent on my own or with Jerry, formulating marketing and sales strategy, and just before five in the afternoon I would call the boss on Jerry’s landline to report on the number of billable hours I racked up. I ate a chicken sandwich at Rosa’s Diner, then retired to my room at the Tomatotel. Before falling asleep I reviewed all 23 rules in Managing the Command, and invoked  Rule 53 with 150ml of vodka, now amended to preempt the usual back-and-forth with the Command. I’m sure there’s a reason I have a rule numbered “53” in a list of 23 rules, but it wasn’t important. The Command hasn’t complained in days.

 I exhausted my Reyka vodka supply while invoking Rule 53. The local market didn’t carry anything so top shelf, and I was forced to switch to Smirnoff. The cheap booze burned my throat, and at night I had terrible dreams where I was a sous chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant, tasked with blanching a giant tomato. One morning, as I watched the usual procession on the kill floor, Jerry approached me.

“It’s almost hypnotizing to watch, ain’t it?”

“It is meditative, in its own way,” I responded. Neither of us broke our gaze from the cows, and we paused our conversation to listen to them give thanks.

“You want to take a turn?”

“What do you mean?”

“With the bolt gun. Would you like to shoot the cow yourself?”

“Yes. Yes I would love to.” My response shot out like a reflex.

Jerry and Nate rigged a cow to the harness on the killing floor and set me up with the bolt gun. Nate drew an “X” between its eyes. 

“Just hold the pistol up to the X and pull the trigger.” 

The moment the muzzle of the bolt gun touched the bovine’s head, I felt it exhale as it spoke a heartfelt “Thank you.” I pulled the trigger and a pulse of energy shot up my arm, the kick of the gun giving my whole body a shudder. The cow relaxed for the last time, and Nate quickly went to work emptying all 82 pints of its blood. I had never felt so in control.

In my room, I had ceased measuring my vodka. I paced in a horseshoe path around the bed, still buzzing from using the bolt gun. On the bed was a notebook, titled Managing the Command. I thumbed through the pages. All were blank but the first, which read: DON’T.

The next morning was a day off, the first since I’d started. A worker in the offal room died in some sort of caving accident, and the plant shut down for the day to attend services. I woke up with a pounding, static-filled headache. There was a pile of brown sick on the pillow next to mine. 

You have ignored me. The Command was back. Find me the name. I forgot how imposing it sounded. I wished I could have watched the cows this morning. 

I had no choice but to obey. I looked out the window towards the Bolt Gun Hills. They called to me.


I could only comply. 

I tried to follow trails I’d taken before, but I was instead compelled through the hangover and static to cut into the wilderness. The rocks and brambles tore at my bare feet, leaving a wake of dusty, bloody footprints that no one would follow.

Eventually, my trek led me to the mouth of a cave that I had never seen in any of my previous hikes. 

There, there is the name. Find me the name.

“Yes,” I said. I had never responded to the Command aloud before. I turned on my phone’s flashlight and walked inside.

Eventually, I found it. I could see the distortion thumping from a pile of rocks. I moved them aside. Beneath the pile sat an antique cigar box containing a small spiral notebook. 

I opened to the first page. It had one name written inside. Edward Abernathy. 

You found the name, the Command said. My body flushed with goosebumps and my scalp went blazing hot. I turned around to make a fast exit, but was blocked by a figure that must have followed me inside. I shined my light on the person blocking my path. 

It was me, or someone that looked just like me. We had the same outfit, the same bloody feet. My doppelganger stood before me, silent, with a dead look in his eyes. The only difference between us was a hole in his head that resembled the wound from a captive bolt gun. 

You found the name,” the other me said, his voice that of the Command. The static grew louder. 

“I did, didn’t I?”

I gazed into the hole in his head. It was beautiful, in a way. I could see the simplicity of oblivion within its depths, a love with straightforward promises. The more I gazed, the more it grew in magnificence. It felt cold yet welcoming. When it grew large enough, I stepped through and knew peace. 

It struck Amy that she could make tacos for dinner tonight. It was Tuesday, after all. She went to the meat area of the Ray’s Food Place in Cloverdale, where she found a new addition: Schaefer brand ground beef. Underneath a QR code on the label, a slogan read: Grateful cows come from Los Suelos. Scan the code to hear your cow thank you for your purchase!

Amy shrugged, pulled out her phone, and scanned the QR code. She smiled at the cow’s gratitude, even muttered a quiet “You’re welcome” to the ground chuck. Yes, she thought, taco night sounded nice. 

Featured image by Maria Pogosyan.

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Joshua Duke

Joshua Duke is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Originally hailing from behind the Redwood Curtain of Humboldt County, he is one of the cofounders of Savage Henry Independent Times, a monthly humor magazine. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from CalArts in 2020.