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JG Faherty

The August Special Guest Writer is JG Faherty

Please feel free to visit JG HERE

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HOME ON THE RANGE
by JG Faherty

“Safe to enter!” Bishop called out.

Dom opened the corral gate. Eighty or ninety head of livestock scrambled away, crying out in fear. With a few shouts and some judicious use of his cattle prod, Dom managed to separate twenty adults and guide them into one of the smaller pens. Grunting from the effort, he swung the heavy wooden door shut. He kept a wary eye on the remaining herd as he backed out of the corral and locked the gate.

“Hit the switch,” he shouted to his partner.

Twenty yards away, at the main gate, Bishop pulled the lever that restored power to the electrified fence. “Gate’s hot!”

Dom turned off his prod and slipped it through the loop in his belt. In his ten years as a livestock manager, there’d been no stampedes or injuries.

He planned on keeping it that way.

“C’mon, let’s get this done,” he said, as Bishop joined him. “It’s been a long day, and I feel the need for a beer or two.”

“I was planning on headin’ downtown tonight.” Bishop patted his hip pocket. “It’s payday, and I’m hornier than a drunken sailor.”

Dom stared at the tall, skinny farm hand. Only twenty-three, Bishop had no idea of the way things used to be, before the laws were passed. At fifty-two, Dom remembered the old days all too clearly. He’d lost a lot of friends back then.

“Bishop, you keep spendin’ your time in the meat packing district, one day you’re gonna get yourself in big trouble.” Dom shook his head at the folly of youth, spit bitter dust from his mouth, and led the way to the back of the building.

“Hell, man, it’s just sex. Ain’t hurting no one. What good’s having cash if you can’t use it to get laid once in a while?” Bishop grabbed the crotch of his faded jeans and smiled.

“Never mind. You’ll learn your own lessons, same as I done at your age.”

“Fine, I’ll go with you for a beer. But then I’m hittin’ the market.”

At the back of the barn, they entered through a small door next to the loading dock. The air inside the dim room reeked of offal and industrial detergents. To the right was a small office, which Dom unlocked.

Dom pointed to the control panel. “Hit the lift button, would you?”

“No problem, boss.” Bishop’s dark face glistened with sweat in the stifling heat of the room. He pressed the green button as Dom took a seat in front of the television screen.

The black and white picture showed the livestock gathered at one end of the pen. There was no sound, but Dom knew from past experience the rank air would be filled with frightened cries. He tapped a button on the console and the screen split, now showing the meat room as well. The steel door between the two concrete quarters began to rise up. On the fifteen-inch screen, the green, black, and purple-mottled skin of the meat showed in shades of gray.

As the door rose higher, the hungry moaning emanating from the meat locker actually became audible in the office, a distant rumbling more felt than heard. Open mouths drooled putrid, contaminated fluids as the meat stumbled forward toward their meal. The first ones crawled under the gap. In the split view of the security cameras, it was if they disappeared into nothingness and then re-appeared on the other side. Others followed as the opening grew wider.

The meat descended on the livestock in a frenzy of violence, tearing at flesh with fingers and teeth. Black sprays of blood splattered the walls and floor of the pen. In moments, each of the meat had one of the herd on the ground and had commenced eating.

Dom pulled out his handkerchief and wiped at his sweating face and neck. As always, his memory filled in the sounds of feeding. The cracking of bone. The wet tearing of flesh while the meat ripped and chewed their meals.

Back when the government established the first farms, ranch hands had been required to operate the doors manually, and stay just outside the pens to ensure there were no escapes. Another thing Bishop was too young to remember, but Dom still had nightmares about.

One by one, the meat finished their meals and stood up, wiping bloody hands on equally bloody bare chests. When the last one finished, an older male of about sixty walked over to the intercom and triggered it.

“Hello? We’re all good in here.” Its previously rotting skin was already healing, taking on a human-like appearance.

“Thank you,” Dom said into his microphone. “Please exit in the back to the showers. You’ll find clean clothes in there, too.”

The figure nodded and then turned away, signaling to the other meat to follow it.

Dom glanced at his watch. Fifteen minutes. Right on schedule. “Okay, Bishop. I’ll meet them in the dressing room with their assignments. You go start the bus.”

Bishop flipped a mock salute and left the office. Dom rose from the desk and headed for the door, then stopped. Turning back to the desk, he turned off the power to the security cam, cutting off the sight of arms, legs, and entrails scattered about the cement floor.

Like he did every feeding shift, Dom thanked God he no longer worked clean up.

*****

Dom tilted the bottle back and drained the last of the foamy backwash. He lifted it in the air and wagged it back and forth until Katie noticed.

“Two more, Kate.” Turning to Bishop, he said, “After this round, I’m outta here.”

“What? C’mon, it’s still early.”

Bishop finished his beer and set it down. Before Dom could respond, Katie picked up the empties and placed the next round on the bar. “This one’s on me, boys.” She gave the dark wood a perfunctory wipe with her rag.

“See?” Bishop slapped his hand on the bar. “You can’t leave now. We’re getting free beer.”

“I don’t need no more beer,” Dom told his assistant. “I got a pregnant wife waiting at home. Someday you’ll understand why I needed to come out, and why I can’t stay.”

“Wife? There’s some fine women here tonight. Sure you don’t wanna relive some of your youth?” Bishop laughed as he took another swallow of icy-cold lager.

Dom didn’t smile. “My youth is something I’d much rather forget than relive.”

Bishop put his bottle down. “What was it like?”

“What? My youth?” Dom turned on his bar stool, facing out towards the Friday night crowd.

“You know what I mean. I only been in the business a couple of years. Started as a meat truck driver in Texas, then got promoted here. You were in it from the beginning.”

Dom remained silent, watching happy hour unfold around them. Business professionals, shop owners, plumbers, housewives. Care-free. Able to forget their jobs and enjoy the evening.

Did he want to get into this conversation? On the other hand, didn’t the kid deserve to know?

Maybe it might be good to talk about some things, things he couldn’t discuss at home.

“I started back in eight-eight,” Dom began, his eyes still on the crowd. “The livestock farms had only been operating about six months at that point. It took the government a while to find out the meat needed a regular supply of human brains and organs to maintain their intelligence. Then they had to figure out a way to legally feed them.”

Dom tilted his beer bottle at Bishop. “You won’t hear this in any history books. The farms actually operated for several years before cloning got perfected.”

“Where’d they get the livestock before that?” Bishop asked.

“That was easy. Criminals, the homeless, political prisoners. No shortage of cattle back then who wouldn’t be missed if they disappeared.”

Bishop’s eyebrows went up. “They got away with that?”

Dom nodded, his weather-worn face expressionless. “Until the meat population got too large to feed. Packaging plants couldn’t harvest parts and ship them fast enough. There were some incidents where the meat went bad and human workers got attacked. That’s when the government stepped in and passed the law that only government-contracted companies could own and outsource meat for labor.”

“But people still find ways around the law,” Bishop said.

“Folks is always gonna do things that ain’t legal,” Dom agreed. “That’s why the meat district ain’t safe. You don’t know if you’re gettin’ government goods or somebody’s private stash that ain’t been fed lately.”

“You can tell by how they look.”

Dom shook his head at the over-confidence of youth. “Maybe you can. Maybe. Me, I don’t trust no meat, ‘specially street meat. I’ve seen what happens when it goes bad. When I first started, they didn’t have all the safety precautions we got today. I saw good men, better workers than you or me, torn to pieces ‘cause someone got careless, or didn’t notice the meat was spoiled.”

“How often did it happen?” Bishop’s voice was little more than a whisper.

“I’ve cleaned the blood and guts of my co-workers more times than I want to remember. You think I’m a hard ass, but you can’t be too careful in our business. If the meat’s not trying to eat your head, the livestock’s trying to bust out of the pens. They’re both dangerous.”

Dom looked at his watch. It was after eight; Cindy would be waiting. He didn’t normally bring unexpected dinner guests home, even though Cindy always said he could. But he found he was enjoying the male bonding with Bishop. He was three beers over his usual limit and actually having a good time.

Besides, he and Cindy had never been to Texas.

“Hey, kid. Feel like a home-cooked meal tonight? I gotta get going, what with Cindy bein’ pregnant and all, but she’ll have enough food for ten people. And I got beer in the ‘fridge.”

Bishop glanced around the bar, then nodded. “Sure, what the hell. Let’s go.”

*****

Dom pulled into the driveway. Thirty-three Wilcox Lane was an average looking, one story ranch with a fairly new coat of paint and a neatly trimmed lawn.

“Nice place,” Bishop said. He’d followed Dom’s Trailblazer in his own beat up Jeep Wrangler.

“Thanks. We’ve been here about six years.”

“Rent or own?” Bishop asked as they walked up the path to the front door. The warm, California air was full of cricket song, fresh-cut grass, and the mixed scents of Cindy’s flower boxes.

“Rent, with an option. You know how it is. Company could transfer us any time. I don’t wanna be bothered with buying and selling houses. Hell, I’ve lived in nineteen cities across eleven states the last thirty-odd years.”

Dom opened the front door. The warm, homey smells of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, mingled with hints of scented candles and fresh-vacuumed carpets, billowed out into the air around them.

“Honey, we’re here.” He’d called on the way home to let her know they’d be three for dinner. As he’d expected, she’d been fine with the last minute arrangements, overjoyed to entertain a guest at last.

“In the kitchen, sweetheart,” a voice replied.

“Wait ‘til you taste Cindy’s meatloaf. I swear, she could--” Dom’s words broke off as Cindy emerged from the kitchen, all blonde hair and happy smile. Under her blue apron, she wore tan slacks and a green shirt the same sea foam shade as her eyes. The bow-tied apron string accentuated a thin figure just starting to swell with pregnancy.

“Mmm, it’s good to have you home!” She threw her arms around him and gave him a firm kiss on the lips, which he happily returned.

“Ahem,” Bishop cleared his throat in an exaggerated manner.

“Honey, this is Bishop. He’s the new guy at work I was telling you about.”

Cindy stepped forward and gave him a quick hug. “Pleased to meet you, Bishop. You should feel honored. Dom’s never brought home anyone from work before.”

Bishop stared at Cindy for a moment, his eyes narrowed, before responding. “Well, if your cooking’s as good as it smells, I can see why. You’d have people bustin’ down the door every night lookin’ for a free meal.”

Cindy covered her mouth and giggled. “Why, thank you, Bishop. Why don’t you two have a seat in the kitchen. Food’s all ready, and I’ll grab you couple of beers.”

Dom looked carefully, but Bishop no longer wore the curious expression on his face.

Had it even been there?

Cindy led them through the spotless, furniture store-perfect living room and into a cozy kitchen decorated in yellows and greens. Dom took a seat at the round table, and motioned for Bishop to join him.

“Here you boys go.” Cindy placed heaping plates of meatloaf, potatoes, and string beans in front of them. Two ice-cold bottles of beer followed.

“Oh, man, this looks good. Aren’t you gonna join us?” Bishop asked, scooping up a forkful of meat.

“No, I ate earlier. That’s what happens when your husband works late and you’re eating for two.” Cindy patted her slight bulge, the corners of her wide grin nearly touching the rosy blush on each cheek.

The next few minutes were filled with the sounds of Dom and Bishop eating. Cindy puttered through the kitchen, wiping down the stove, adding notes to a shopping list, and getting second helpings of food and beer for the men.

Bishop wiped up the last specks of meatloaf from his plate with a slice of thick-cut French bread, then leaned back in his chair and held a hand to his stomach. “That was the best meal I’ve had since I moved out here.”

Dom covered a wet burp with the back of his hand and then said, “Honey, you outdid yourself this time. That was great. I hope there’s some leftover for lunch.”

He turned to Bishop. “There’s nothing better than a cold meatloaf sandwich and...” Dom paused when he noticed Bishop staring at Cindy again. “What’s the matter?”

“Now I remember,” Bishop said, but he was speaking to Cindy. “I knew you looked familiar. Cindy Bauer, right?”

Cindy cast a wide-eyed glance at Dom, then shook her head at Bishop before turning away and busying herself with the coffee pot.

“Who’s Cindy Bauer?” Dom asked. Cold fear began fighting for space with the meatloaf in his stomach.

“She is.” Bishop pointed at Cindy. “Cindy Bauer from Macon, Georgia. Class of ninety-two, right?”

Cindy kept her back turned to the table, head down.

“Couldn’t be.” Dom shook his head. “We’ve never even been to Georgia. Besides, I thought you said you was from Texas.”

Bishop looked over at Dom. “No, I moved here from Texas. I grew up in Georgia. We lived in Macon ‘til I was nineteen, then my momma moved us to Atlanta after my daddy died. Cindy, you was two years ahead of me in high school. You used to hang with Melanie Fitzpatrick and Dana Demuth. C’mon, it ain’t been that long. You must remember them.”

Bishop got up and stood next to her, staring at her profile.

He never saw Dom come at him from behind with the heavy frying pan.

*****

Bishop woke to pain. Waves of it pulsed through his skull and down his neck. Cramping bolts of agony racked his shoulders. The pins and needles feeling of cut-off circulation filled his hands and feet.

Opening his eyes ratcheted his suffering up another level and sent the world spinning around him. Gut-wrenching nausea followed, causing him to vomit a hot stream of meatloaf, bread, string beans, and beer into his lap and down onto the floor.

He tried to move away from the mess, but couldn’t.

Someone had tied him to the chair.

“Sorry about hitting you like that,” Dom’s voice came from behind him. “But I couldn’t take any chances.”

Amidst the forest of misery inside Bishop’s head, a memory brightened into existence. He spat out flecks of regurgitated food. A chill ran through his body that had nothing to do with the cool basement air. He tried to speak, coughed, and then got the words out.

“Cindy Bauer died the year after I moved to Atlanta. My cousin told me.”

“That’s right. If I’d known you were from Georgia I’d have never invited you over. All these years we’ve been so careful. Too careful, Cindy always said. Never staying in one place too long. That’s why we came here. What were the odds of someone from Macon showing up in California? But I can’t take any chances. Not with the woman I love.”

Dom’s blocky form stepped in front of Bishop, carefully avoiding the mess of half-digested food. He still wore his faded green Dickies pants and shirt from work. The dim glow of the basement bulbs bleached his tanned, leathery skin to a pale, sickly, yellow. His voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper.

“It’s my own fault, really. I should have known better. But I let the beer get to me. I was having a good time. You see, Cindy’s condition means I don’t get to socialize much. It’s the only problem in our relationship. Sometimes she gets upset, says I’m ashamed of her.”

Dom stood back up, his knee joints popping in the quiet of the musty room. “Like I could ever be ashamed of her. Shit, I been in love with her since the day she came through the pen. She’s the reason I brought you home, so she could have some company in the house, pretend we’re a regular family, even if only for a few hours.”

Bishop rubbed his tongue along the roof of his mouth, trying to work up enough saliva to talk. “You brought her home from the farm?” he managed, his voice a raspy croak.

“A different one. Back in Fayettville. I was working delivery and pick up. We loaded ‘em up after feeding, and there she was. She turned and smiled at me as she walked up the ramp, and I knew. Back then it was easier to help yourself to a little on the side, just like you do downtown.”

Bishop turned his head as his boss took a seat on a nearby workbench. “You took her home to be your sex slave.”

“Yeah, I guess I did. At first. But it only took a couple of nights for us to fall in love.”

“Meat ain’t got no feelings. That’s the point of using them.”

“Bullshit, sonny. The ones you and I see every day, that might be so. They’re like robots. But once in a while, you get one that’s something more. And I figured out why.”

Dom tapped his finger against his head. “It’s the brains, Bishop. We let ‘em eat brains and livers and kidneys and all the other parts. Brings ‘em back to life for a few days, with no real memories of anything. You train ‘em to do a job, then three or four days later you got to feed ‘em again and start all over. It’s like reprogramming a machine.”

Dom held up a finger like a teacher making a point. “But you’ve seen some of them. They hold on to a few memories. They usually end up as the pack leaders, like the one today who spoke to us in the feed pen.”

“Meat’s meat. Everyone knows that,” Bishop said.

“Don’t believe it. If you feed ‘em right, you get something different.”

Bishop started to shake his head, stopped when the dizziness and nausea threatened a comeback.

Dom smiled, a cold, hollow expression. “For twelve years now I been feedin’ Cindy nothin’ but brains, and she’s the closest thing to human you can get. She remembers our life together, she cries when she’s sad, and she laughs when she’s happy. She even feels pain if she hurts herself. But she don’t remember much of anything from before she and I met.”

“Dom, I hear you. Hell, I’d probably do the same thing if I had the chance. Ain’t much different from gettin’ some ass from meat. I know ain’t legal, right? I won’t tell if you don’t.”

The stocky foreman continued as if Bishop hadn’t spoken. “It hasn’t been easy, Bishop, I don’t mind tellin’ you that. I can’t take the chance of havin’ her start to turn rotten while she’s grocery shopping or something. That means feeding her every other day. It took a while, but I figured out a system. Couple times a week, I sneak back to the farm at night, or stay late after everyone else is gone. Then I turn off the security camera on the livestock pen, go in with the shock stick, and take one, usually a young one.”

Dom chuckled, a self-deprecating laugh. “Funny thing is, if things had stayed the same, there’d be no problem. No one notices if one or two cattle goes missing. If I need more, I get ‘em the old-fashioned way. Hookers and street people, the ones who’re never missed if they disappear. But lately I’ve had to do extra shopping, if you know what I mean.” He slid off the table and came back over to Bishop.

“See, two or three brains a week ain’t enough anymore. Not when Cindy’s eatin’ for two now.”

Bishop’s stomach churned. “You mean...?”

“Yeah, it’s mine. Don’t ask me how. It ain’t supposed to be possible between humans and meat. My theory is all those brains have done more than just keep her memories and emotions alive. They’ve brought her flesh back as well. That’s why I gotta make sure she don’t go even the littlest bit spoiled. It might kill Dom Junior.”

Dom opened a drawer in the workbench and pulled out a long, curved knife. “It’s a shame, really. I enjoyed working with you, Bishop. After you’re gone, I’ll have to put in for another transfer.”

Bishop’s heart started hammering in his chest. “No! I swear I’ll keep quiet! Please, Dom, don’t kill me.” His voice cracked with the force of his shout, and warm wetness filled the crotch of his pants. He struggled against his bonds, but they held fast.

“I’m surprised at you, Bishop. I ain’t gonna kill you.” Dom smiled. “You should know better than anyone. Livestock’s no good if it’s dead.”

A shadow grew from behind Bishop, and he craned his neck around so fast something cracked inside. Cindy stood there, her thin, life-like fingers and petite arms masking the undead strength contained in her muscles.

Dom’s voice whispered in his ear. “The knife is for after. Waste not, want not.”

His cheerful voice filled Bishop’s head.

“Good thing I like meatloaf.”

Previously published in Loving the Undead...An Anthology of Romance.

A life-long resident of New York's haunted Hudson Valley, is the author of 7 novels, 10 novellas, and more than 75 short stories. He’s been a finalist for both the Bram Stoker Award® (The Cure, Ghosts of Coronado Bay) and ITW Thriller Award (The Burning Time). His next novel, Sins of the Father, comes out in the summer of 2020.

He grew up enthralled with the horror movies and books of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Which explains a lot.

Follow him at www.twitter.com/jgfaherty www.facebook.com/jgfaherty, and www.jgfaherty.com

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