Authors: Robert Jackson Bennett
Tags: #Horror, #Thriller
And the man steps forward and stops as though struck by a sudden thought, and he turns and looks at the boy. His cheeks twitch
strangely, pinching around the eyes, and the boy realizes he is trying to smile.
“My friends,” says the man to the boy. He walks to the dead beast without another word, flipping the hatchet in his hand as
though it were no more than a toy.
The stranger takes the hatchet and prunes the legs off of the animal, cracking and tearing, and sets them aside like kindling.
Then he splits the head of the animal with terrible ease and he wriggles the blade of the hatchet in the gash and then pulls
it apart, one half in each hand, and the men say they have never seen someone do that so effortlessly. The stranger chokes
his grip up on the hatchet and then removes the jaw until the animal is headless and legless. He swaps the hatchet for a knife
and makes a cut in the animal from its groin to its neck and his eyes narrow in concentration as he makes sure not to puncture
the intestines. The men all nod, seeing how familiar he is with this task. Then he takes a metal pail and removes the intestines,
the stomach, the heart and the bladder, making sure not to rupture any and release their foulness.
It is practically done. Almost ready to roast or salt. The man steps back and nods at his work. He is not even sweating.
“That was the quickest I ever seen a man do that, mister,” says the boy’s father. “What’s your name?”
His mouth twitches again as though to smile, but he cannot. “I have been in a slaughterhouse. It is an easy thing.”
“We don’t have much to pay you with.”
“I wouldn’t ask it of you. A bit of food would do me well, though.”
The boy’s father tells him to go into the house and fill a sack with rolls and jerky. The boy does so, and as he stands in
the kitchen he watches the men working through the window. One man takes the pail with the animal’s organs and sets it down
by the back door. The boy continues his work, but then he hears something. It is the wind, or so he thinks, yet he hears it
again. He goes back to the window. There is nothing there except the pail and the late setting sun, stretching out the shadows.
But then the boy sees him. It is the stranger, casually walking to the pail, yet he turns to see if he is being watched. Satisfied
that he is not, he takes a small handkerchief from his pocket and walks to the pail, looking in. The boy withdraws, stooping
to watch and not be seen. The man’s eyes dart through the bucket, and the boy sees they are alight with wild delight, even
hunger. The man looks about once more. His chest is heaving and he is sweating slightly and as he reaches down into the bucket
his hand shivers. He picks something up, something hard and gray and red, and the boy sees it is the pig’s heart. The stranger
gazes at it, treasuring it, and swallows nervously. His head darts around, checking behind him, and then his mouth opens,
opens more than any mouth should, revealing newspaper-gray teeth and a dull, sandy tongue, and he bites into the heart, ripping
and tearing with his neck, and his head snaps back with his mouth full and his lips watery-red.
The boy ducks down, panting. He calms himself and listens. The man is still outside. The boy hears rustling, then footsteps
trailing away, but the boy is unable to move from fear. He wants to run to his father but he does not. He does not want that
man nearby any longer than he needs to be. And he does not want his father to know what he has seen. The image of the man’s
face still lingers in his mind, the way his face became distended and unearthly in his ecstasy.
The boy steels himself. He walks out front. The stranger is there, speaking amiably with the men. His hands are not red, nor
is his mouth, and he is not quivering anymore. He looks nothing like the man in the window. Instead he looks stronger, more
alive and alert, like he has been rejuvenated by what he has done here. He glances at the boy approaching, his eyes still
dead and distant, and reaches out to take the sack from him.
“I thank you kindly,” he says. “It is good to work with one’s hands. Sometimes you forget what you excel at, or what you are
“That may be so,” says the boy’s father. He does not notice the way the boy pales when he draws close to the stranger.
The stranger waves to them, tosses the sack over his shoulder, and walks back toward the road, heading southwest. He kicks
up a trail of dust as he walks, red clouds going waist high and swallowing him. The trail hangs in the air as he walks away
and the boy watches it disappear.
Connelly and the others listened as he finished his story.
“He ate the heart?” asked Pike.
“Yes sir,” said the boy softly. “Just as sure as I’m alive and breathing, he took that heart and bit out of it like it was
a great big apple. And he stowed it away in his kerchief and took it with him. I checked. It wasn’t in the bucket.”
They were silent as they thought about this.
“Any of you ever hear of him doing that?” said Connelly.
They shook their heads.
“I heard of injuns doing that,” said Roosevelt. “With buffalo. They eat them ’cause they think it’s holy. They think they’re
eating its spirit.”
“Maybe the man is deluded,” said Pike. “Maybe he believes that stuff.”
“If he’s a cannibal I never heard of it,” Hammond said.
“No,” said Pike. “No, I expect we wouldn’t.”
The boy looked at him. “He didn’t steal nothing from you all, did he?” he said quietly.
“He did, in a way,” said Hammond.
“You did right,” said Roosevelt to the boy. “You did exactly what I would have done. You had to get him out of there so he
wouldn’t harm any of yours.”
The boy whispered, “Will he… Will he come back?”
“No,” said Roosevelt gently. “No. Once he’s gone, he’s gone. He doesn’t come back. He never has.”
“I just never seen a man’s face look like that. He was so happy and so crazy. All over a heart.”
“You say he went to the southwest from your farm?” said Connelly.
“Where’s that at?”
The boy told them.
“And he’s going by foot?”
“Yes. He may hitch a ride, I don’t know. Ain’t a real popular road, but you never know.”
“What’s southwest of your farm?” said Pike.
“Farmland, mostly. Odd town or two. Cutston is down that way, I think. Drought’s hit them pretty bad, though. Just like the
rest of this place.”
“Can I get my nickel now, mister?”
“Sure, sure,” said Roosevelt, and he flipped him the coin.
“Thanks much,” the boy said.
“Take care, now.”
He stood and walked away across the fields and into the night.
“He ate a heart,” said Hammond quietly.
“I think he would have eaten the damn thing alive if he could’ve,” said Roosevelt. “Jesus. This guy’s crazier than a rat in
a tin shithouse.”
“Watch the language,” said Pike absently.
“So he’s mad?” said Connelly.
“It would seem so,” Pike said. “You heard the boy. He was overcome. He had to take a bite, like a naughty boy stealing goodies.
He has no control over himself. Whatever drives him does so whether he wants it to or not.”
“And he’s worked in a slaughterhouse before,” said Roosevelt.
“The world is his fucking slaughterhouse,” snarled Connelly.
The men stopped, unsettled by his fury. They watched his rage mount and then dissipate.
Hammond said, “Why did he come to the slaughter in the first place?”
“He’s attracted by things like that, I’d guess,” said Pike. “I expect he enjoys the experience. After all, they say porkflesh
is the closest to a human being’s.”
Hammond shivered. “Jesus.”
They didn’t speak for a while, thinking to themselves.
“Let’s make camp while we can and get some sleep,” said Pike. “We’ve got a long walk in the morning.”
They withdrew into the fields, away from what was left of the carnival, and began to bed down without a fire. Roosevelt walked
off into the brush and came back with a handful of sticks and reeds. Connelly watched as he sat down and began to weave something,
setting the twigs together and then wrapping the reeds around the joints. He worked quickly, and soon Connelly saw that he
was constructing a little man-shape, a small idol with spindly legs and a fat grass body and a small, blank thumb of wood
for its head. He took a handful of earth in his palm and spat in it and smeared it about until it was a black paste. He rubbed
some of the paste into the little idol’s head and then blew on it until it was firm and then he scraped out two eyes. He nodded
and pressed the little figure into the earth next to where he lay so it stood upright.
“What is that?” asked Connelly.
“It’s my watcher,” said Rosie.
“My watcher. It watches over me in the night. Then if anything bad’s going to happen it’ll happen to him instead of me.”
“It’ll take my suffering for me. In my place.”
Rosie rolled over and soon was asleep. Connelly stayed up, looking at the little idol. It seemed strange, but the idol appeared
different now that the mud had dried. Its face had more detail and its limbs were not as spindly. It looked more solid. More
Connelly lay back and slept. In the morning when they awoke the idol was in ruins, limbs broken and its body frayed and the
mud that made its face scratched and patched. Connelly thought about asking Roosevelt about it but did not.
They made their way southwest along the road. Trucks and jalopies drove by but none offered rides and soon they stopped hailing
them. Each time they passed Connelly saw the dirty faces of young children staring out at them before they disappeared in
a cloud of dust and exhaust.
The dust was getting worse, as was the drought. It was like they had landed on the moon. Everything was red and brown and
the dust got finer. Simply walking kicked up dust that went up to their shoulders, and it stained everything the color of
One night they walked off the road and camped in a field next to an old tank. They ate chicken and beans they had traded for
along the road and Roosevelt produced a harmonica and proved himself to be an enthralling player. They listened as they warmed
themselves by the fire.
“How’d you learn to do that?” said Connelly.
“In the stir,” said Roosevelt. “They tossed me in for a nickel spot back in Chicago for assault. Just a barfight, some guy’s
leg got broke. Got out in a year, things were too crowded and I was on good behavior. But then, everyone’s spent at least
a little time in the clink.”
“No,” said Connelly.
“I haven’t,” Hammond said.
“Or I,” said Pike.
“Oh,” Roosevelt said, frowning. “Well, I guess, um, in certain circles in certain cities it’s just common.” And he went back
to playing softly.
“I had a neighbor who could play like that,” said Connelly. “Maybe he learnt it in jail. We’d hear him playing at night through
an open window, and we’d sit and just listen. I like to think he knew we were there. Like he waited for us to get ready for
dinner and chose that time to play.”
“Do you miss it?” asked Pike.
“Miss it?” said Connelly.
“The stationary life. Home. Do you miss it?”
“Yes. Yes. Of course I do, yes.”
“I can’t remember mine, sometimes. It was so long ago. I was just a boy, fresh out of the army and hopping around to revivals.
I remember girls with pigtails and eyes like honey. I remember the smell of bread baking. But everything else is lost to me.
What else do you remember, Connelly?”
He thought. “Laughter.”
“Just laughter. And my daughter’s eyes. They were green.”
“What happened to your wife?”
“Nothing. I still have her. She’s waiting on me. I’m going to go back to her, if she’ll take me back. Once this is done I’ll
go back. And everything’ll be all right. Just like it was before.”
Pike and Roosevelt glanced at each other. Then Hammond got up and strode away from the campfire. Connelly watched him go and
looked at the others, surprised.
“He gets that way,” explained Roosevelt. “He’s younger than he looks. I don’t think he’s yet twenty-five.”
“He’ll come back,” said Pike. “He’ll be here in the morning. It must be a strange thing to be so young and know that you cannot
have much of a normal life. In ways he has maybe lost more than the rest of us.”
“No,” said Connelly. “He hasn’t.”
Pike nodded. “I suppose not.”
Eventually they lay down to sleep once more. And as Connelly’s eyes shut he saw the desert.
White sands stretched to piercing blue horizons. Overhead the sun beat down, white-hot and unyielding, and as its rays fell
upon the sand flats it made them glitter like snow. Harsh mountains lined the distance, muddy-brown and mutinous, and the
wind barreled across the desert strong enough to knock a man over.
Connelly blinked, astounded at where he was. Yet somehow he knew he was waiting for something. Something was coming.
He saw it far away. Movement. Something small. He squinted at it but could not see it for the sun. It came closer, and soon
he realized it was a man. A young man coming his way, directly toward him, and as he neared Connelly saw he was tall and pale
and naked, and streaked with blood. He half strode, half staggered across the sands to Connelly, his arms dangling by his
side, his crop of blond hair shining in the sunlight, his blue eyes agonizingly sad. The trail of his footprints wound away
through the desert. They were red.
He walked up to Connelly and looked into his face.
“The world is changing,” he whispered.
Then there was a clap of thunder like the sky was breaking. Connelly awoke and nearly screamed. He looked about. The fire
had died down. Roosevelt and Pike were asleep, but Hammond was sitting cross-legged across from him, watching.
“Bad dream?” he asked.
He did not answer, just shook his head.
“What happened?” asked Hammond again.
“There was a desert. A young man, covered in blood. And he… he told me the world was changing, and I woke up.”
“Well, it sure is, isn’t it.”
Connelly looked down at Hammond’s hands. Roosevelt’s gun was in his lap.
“What you doing with that?” he asked.
“Holding it. Getting the feel of it.”
“We didn’t come all the way out here to yell at him, did we?”
“I guess not.”
“You ever kill a man before?”
“Me neither. I wish I had, though. Just so I could know. But I guess he’ll be a good start.”
“You going to practice on us?”
“No. I just like holding it. Just to know that I can. I can’t say why, but it makes a man feel good to know that he can kill
another. Not that he will. But that he has the capacity. You know?”
“You know, the hobos said you can get safe passage from Mr. Shivers, but you got to be careful.”
“Yeah. You got to walk out to the crossroads on a moon-filled night with no clouds in the sky, and you go out and find a stone
and write your name on the bottom of it and bury it in the road. He comes in the morning, leading his line of men he’s taking
off to hell, and he’ll read your name and then you can pass through that town easy and you won’t get harried by him or whoever
“Go to sleep, Hammond.”
He turned the gun over in his hands. “I can’t.”
“All right. I’ll try.”
“Well. Good night, then.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Good night.”