It’s hard to find good help these days. Before lunch, I knew the new guy they brought in wouldn’t cut it. His hands shook when I handed him the bolt gun. He tried to keep steady, but I felt the tremor. When he pulled the trigger he looked away from the cow and didn’t see the new hole he’d made in the center of its forehead. Can’t do anything with a man like that, not on the kill floor. 

Hands need to be steady. Need to be able to meet each cow head on, stare right back at them. Otherwise the work will get to you. Chew you into nothing, slowly, like a piece of cud. 

When I took the bolt gun back, he said something in Spanish, thinking I could understand because of my skin tone, but I made myself forget a long time ago. Easier to get along with the bosses that way. If the new guy is smart, he’ll force himself to change soon too. 

I got him reassigned to cleanup duty. If he doesn’t quit after a week of washing blood and intestines off the walls, maybe he’ll grow into the type of man we need around here. Maybe then I can show him the finer details of slaughtering, but I doubt it. He looks soft. Raising Junior taught me how to spot that. 

Wonder how he’s doing, my son. When was the last time we spoke? He’s probably getting by. I managed to teach him how to do that much, at least. 

After lunch I get to work without anyone hovering over me. It’s just me and the cows, thank god, and my hands don’t shake. Not once. 

Kind of funny, even when I get close to the cows, I can’t smell them. All my nose picks up is cement, metal, sometimes running water from a hose nearby. When did my brain start to block out the animal smells? Is that something I should get checked out? Getting time off would be a bitch, though, and I’d probably get referred to another doctor. Fuck using time off for that.

I bring down another cow. I don’t keep count because there’s no point. No matter what, they’ll bring more in.

There will always be more.

It’s strange, the way some cows don’t get scared. Some panic, and you need to get rough. But others, they just go along with it, like you’re taking them for a walk, or tucking them into bed. They stare at you like you’re the least interesting thing they’ve ever seen. Almost got to me early on. 

I approach another one, playing with the trigger of the bolt gun, making it click click click before I inevitably press it all the way. She’s beautiful. A streak of white runs up the bridge of her nose, like a racing stripe. Her eyes are brown stars in black lakes of fur. I scratch her chin, run a hand up and down her jawline. They have such strong faces. With my other hand, I place the bolt gun at the center of her forehead. 

 The cow speaks while I’m still scratching her, words pouring hot onto my palm. 

“Thank you,” she says, the two words guttural and wet, a strange regurgitation escaping all those stomachs. Then I pull the trigger and the bolt hits her brain and the stars in her skull die out. She’s motionless on the floor but I dwell on her words. Thank you. 

She wanted to die.

They want to die. 

And there will always be more. 

Then she moves again.

She writhes, a twisting of black and white against the gray concrete floor. With each movement, she forces more blood out of the hole in her forehead. Soon she’s swimming in it. There shouldn’t be this much blood, but it keeps coming out of that hole I made, and she won’t stop moving. The metal taste in the air thickens. I step closer to examine her. 

Too close. 

Her hind legs connect with my boots, and I slip on her blood and join her on the floor. She continues bucking around and starts to wriggle herself on top of me. She’ll crush me soon. I press the bolt gun against the first part of her I can connect with and pull the trigger. I pull it again, and again, anywhere on her body—which should already be a carcass—that I can hit. Soon she’s full of holes and blood gushes out of all of them. She’s got my legs pinned so I keep firing until the new guy comes running up and takes the bolt gun away from me. He starts to pull me out from under her.

“Jesús, amigo, tu piel está en llamas,” he says, and I don’t catch most of that, but I can tell he thinks something is wrong with me. I don’t want to be another worker sent home sick.

 And the cow still isn’t dead, so I snatch back the bolt gun from the new guy and fire it off a few more times against her back. And maybe it’s the heat from the struggle or the warmth from her massive pool of blood, but I feel hot. Real hot. Then I close my eyes. 

Junior is home now, back from the coast. He got a job somewhere in town and they give him weird hours. Sometimes he leaves first thing in the morning. Other times he checks on me before I go to sleep, then heads out the door. Every few days he comes home with a fish in a plastic bag and acclimates it to his new aquarium, leaves it floating in the bag before he releases it into the actual tank. He’s precise about it. 

“I’m working with animals, Dad,” he says. “Kind of like you.” 

I tell myself I should be interested, but he hid my work uniforms and he won’t tell me where they are. 

“They don’t want you coming back to work yet. Not until you’re better.”

“It’s just a little cough now,” I tell him. “My temp is fine.”  

“Do you remember what happened?”

“A cow almost crushed me.”

“. . . you wouldn’t stop putting holes in that dead cow. You just kept shooting it. Over and over until they pulled you away,” he says. 

“The cow wasn’t dead.” 

“Get some rest. I’ll be back later. There’s soup in the fridge.” Then Junior leaves.

I shuffle to the kitchen. The house feels warm. It’s weird being warm during the day, not being bundled up at Schaefer’s. My shirt even sticks to my goddamn stomach. I turn on the A/C as I go down the hall. Check the fridge. No soup, only beer. I crack one open. Maybe Junior meant canned soup. 

I check the cupboards. No soup. Just beans. 

Beer and beans it is. I’ll knock out at least one can right now. I can feel my appetite coming back. The lid of the can has a tab, so I rip it open, ready to eat the stuff cold. I take a gulp, just like the beer, and let the beans fill my mouth before I start to chew. There’s something not right about the texture. It’s all mush. I don’t feel any actual beans. I spit it out into the sink and check the date on the can. Doesn’t expire until next year. 

I look in the sink and see a clump of raw meat. 

That was in my mouth. 

A little red stream of blood leaks out of the clump and makes its way down the drain. 

I yack a bit and try to spit out the chunks still stuck in my teeth. I swirl some beer in my mouth and spit again, aiming for the meat mound in the sink. I hit part of it, which breaks off and goes down the drain. I drink the rest of the beer. The cold sits in my stomach and the bite of the hops stays on my tongue. I grab another can and leave the kitchen. 

I guess it’s just beer for now. 

I take my time with the second can as the house starts to cool. I hate being home during the day. I’ve watched all our DVDs. The light coming through the windows is harsh. I miss the fluorescents at work. They’re cleaner. Even. Flat. 

 I stop in the hallway and stare into the living room. Just a couch and a TV, but Junior used to play in there by himself all the time. He drew a lot of whales and sharks on the backs of my old pay stubs. I never took that kid to the beach, not once, but somehow the sea got him. Now he’s back, but I don’t think he’ll stay long, especially after I finish getting better. 

Couch looks comfortable, even with the hard sun coming in, making the carpet so bright I can’t look at it. I sit on the middle cushion and drink the second beer. I feel different, better. I close my eyes, my body cold but my face warm. I remember trying to get Junior to play baseball when he was younger, but he was too scared of getting hit. I tried to teach him to pitch instead, but he was still too afraid of getting bruised by a comebacker. He couldn’t tough it out. I don’t know why I thought he’d take to the work at Schaefer’s. He couldn’t even kill one cow. Shit, I made it so easy for him. I even held the bolt gun in place, but he couldn’t pull the trigger, even after I told him the cow wanted to die. So, I made him wash blood and intestines off the walls and then he headed for the coast. But now he’s working with animals, he says. Kind of funny. 

I nod off with the beer can in my hand, unfinished. Wake up later with a wet crotch. Spilled the damn thing, but it didn’t get on the couch much. 

I’ll clean it up later. 

I grab another beer and sit in my bed. That raw meat must still be in the sink. I take a sip from the new can. I should clean up the meat then clean up the couch. Did I ever learn that new guy’s name? I miss the cows. I miss them talking to me. They always sound honest. More honest than people.  

“Dad, what the hell?”

I open my eyes, which were closed. When did I close them?

“You’re covered in piss,” he says.

“I spilled some beer.”

“There’s vomit in the kitchen sink. It has blood in it.”

“The beans were bad.”

“We don’t have any beans,” he says. 

“I know. They went bad,” I say. 

“Goddammit, Dad.”

I see Junior’s body more and more, but not his face. He won’t look at me. He brings food into my room, asks if I need anything, but he never looks. I daydream about firing a bolt gun into my eye socket while he’s at work. That sure would fuck with him when he got home, make him look at his old man again. I like thinking about it. Having a hole in one eye. Seeing less. Laughing as Junior walks in and sees what I’ve done. Kid needs to lighten up. He’s always taken things so seriously. Stopped laughing at a young age. Sometimes you really gotta shock somebody like that. Scare them out of themselves. 

His aquarium looks beautiful, I’ll give him that. Lots of fish. Lots of colors. Orange and yellow and red, some purple. Submerged in water. Swimming back and forth, back, and forth. Like parts of a sunset trapped in glass. 

Or animals in a cage. Waiting for release. 

I put my hands on the glass. Put some weight against it. The fish won’t look at me either. Would some of them speak if I broke the glass and killed them? Would their words come out in tiny putters while they gasped and suffocated? Would they thank me?

I think I understand why Junior likes having fish. Looking at them makes you feel like you’re outside. Makes you want to stretch your legs. Get some air. 

The weather’s never great here, but right now it’s fine enough. I’ve never minded the heat, or the town. It’s dry and there aren’t a lot of people. You can go about your life without bothering anyone and without anyone bothering you. 

I can’t remember the last time I walked. Just, walked. I let my legs move without thinking, without guiding them. I assume they’ll take me to Schaefer’s, but they don’t. They take me to the other edge of town, to Paloma’s house. Her black hair reminds me of Mom’s hair, when she had hair, before she died. I’d tell Paloma, but I don’t see her anywhere. Damn, she has a beautiful garden. I can see it before I’m even in the yard. So many colors, free.  

I can hear the garden too. The moans of cows and the creaking of greenery. 

The fence is in disrepair and I walk right in. 

The garden is full of flowers and cows. Hard-lined faces float in a sea of blooming foliage. Some of the cows make soft little grunts, as if they’re humming while they walk through the flowers. Other cows chew on plant stems. And the rest, the rest stare at me. 

I walk deeper into the garden. It’s endless. There are so many flowers and cows, and I can smell them. Rich and earthy and dense. 

God, I’ve killed so many. 

In the center I find a well. It’s deep and dark and I can’t see the bottom. It makes a sound like someone’s last breath, which I heard one other time when I held Mom’s hand and let her go. It’s not frightening. It sounds peaceful. It sounds like escaping. 

The cows have gathered around me. All of them stare. Waiting for me to join the garden I’ve sent so many of them to. 

But first, I must go through a hole. Just like they did. 

I aim my body into the well. I become a bolt that will connect with something hard and solid at the other end of the barrel. The rush is incredible and I’m leaving Junior behind but I’m entering a place I’ve sent so many others, and I feel nothing but joy as I say, “Thank you.”

Featured image by Maria Pogosyan.

Photo of author

Barton Aikman

Barton Aikman is a graduate of the 2019 Clarion Writers’ Workshop and a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. His work has appeared in numerous venues including Apex Magazine, Augur, and Southwest Review. He earned his MFA at California Institute of the Arts and continues to live and write in Los Angeles.