Originally published in Double Feature Magazine #3, 2016.
“Not right for a boy of fourteen to get sent off with strangers,” the caseworker said after Cooper’s mother had nearly OD’d for good. “He’s got family west of Little Rock, though.”
Cooper tried to explain that his relatives were strangers, but the state didn’t seem to care.
“Better off with blood,” they assured him. “Family is family.”
Cooper hoped they would be right. That even if the stories about Aunt Hester turned out true, his older cousin Jonah might be a kind surrogate older brother.
When Cooper arrived at the bus stop, his cousin sized him up. Jonah’s lower-lip squirmed, and he spat a brown wad on the sidewalk between Cooper’s tattered gym shoes.
“I don’t like you.” Jonah’s stocky torso towered over Cooper’s lanky teen build. “I don’t know you.” A scowl twisted on his square jaw. “The only reason you’re here is because the state’s giving a stipend. If you prove a bigger expense than that stipend, I want you gone. If you don’t pull your weight on the farm, I want you gone. We clear?”
Cooper nodded. Better off with blood.
Jonah’s pickup idled up the dirt road to the family farm. The farmhouse stood ghostly white against the darkening horizon. Flowery patterns stenciled onto the green shutters were fading. Wood beams were missing from the wraparound porch. A swing bench sat grounded on scuffed wood, and the rusty chains that had once been fixed to the porch ceiling coiled around it.
All Cooper’s life, he had only heard tidbits about his aunt’s family. Hester used to lock his mother in the closet when she’d misbehaved. She snitched and had Cooper’s mom kicked out of the house when she was sixteen. Eventually, Aunt Hester married crazy Reverend Randall, who dragged her town-to-town.
Reverend Randall and Aunt Hester moved back to the family farm to help Cooper’s grandparents. Randall used the money he had made preaching to bail the farm out of debt. Cooper’s grandparents died soon after.
And Randall soon after that.
Jonah directed Cooper inside and headed toward the cowshed. Cooper’s aunt waited in the living room. She was a hefty woman of fifty with muscled limbs and rough hands. Worry lines creased her face. Brown streaks cut through her coarse gray hair into a tensely woven bun. She had set up a flowery tea set—with patterns like the faded stencils on the outside shutters. She explained how his grandparents had bought the set before Cooper’s mother was born.
Cooper tried to be polite, to show an interest in cups and plates, but he was exhausted. He sat on the couch and struggled to keep his eyelids up. Aunt Hester’s hands rested on the arms of her brown chair. She looked like a giant queen on a normal-sized throne.
And despite being older and larger, she looked so much like Cooper’s mother that it frightened him. The same metallic gray eyes. The same intense stare.
Locking eyes with Aunt Hester, he instantly realized, It’s Mom, without the distractions. Without the boyfriends, the booze, or the drugs.
“God brought you here, Cooper. You know that, right?” Aunt Hester said.
Cooper nodded politely, even though his instinct was to say that the state had sent him via the Greyhound.
“And God has a plan for you as He has for us all. Did you know that?”
Aunt Hester glowered. “Your mother never saw fit to teach that, I suppose.” She took a long sip of tea. “But His plan is clear. He brought you to me. And I’ll make good on that.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Cooper murmured.
“We’re blood, Cooper.” Her eyes widened. “You call me Aunt Hester.”
“Thank you, Aunt Hester.”
“Some people might have told you that your mom can turn herself around—that you might go back to her. I’m going to be honest. My sister is set on a degenerative path. Nothing will change that.”
Cooper swallowed hard.
“You’re young yet, Cooper,” she continued. “You’ve spent time under her influence. But I believe your salvation is not yet set. Do you understand?”
Cooper tasted his tea. It was bitter, lukewarm. “Yes, Aunt Hester. I understand.”
“Full days of hard work lie ahead, but if you stay on top of your responsibilities, we’ll get along just fine, Cooper. When school starts, Jonah will take over the bulk of the chores so you can focus on your studies. At that point, you’ll have just one job: every day, before school, you feed the chickens. Sound fair?”
Cooper nodded. After a few more pleasantries, Aunt Hester excused him to unpack upstairs. A musty smell permeated the maroon linens of his bedroom. The dry husks of dead ladybugs filled the windowsill. Yellowing books, a jewelry box, and a ceramic cross with his mother’s initials were all locked in eerie stillness, worn between layers of dust on the antique dresser.
Cooper wondered if his mom had been the last person to sleep in that room.
Cooper’s muscles strained as he lugged bale after bale of hay from the old barn. Sweat carved paths down his dust-crusted face. His hands were blistered, his arms scorched by the sun. The chickens clucked and scratched dirt inside the rickety coop.
Before he died, Reverend Randall had built and attached the chicken coop to the barn. Randall’s chicken coop was a far cry from a masterpiece. The frame was constructed from mismatched wood. Honeycomb wire had been stapled up and down the beams.
Time had left much of the farm in disrepair, but Cooper could appreciate his grandfather’s craftsmanship on the original structures. The chicken coop was a shoddy addition, like a parasite feeding on his grandfather’s handiwork.
Music caught Cooper’s ears, and he glanced up. A tall man strode up the dirt path and whistled a Sunday hymnal that Cooper couldn’t place. Not a bead of sweat formed on the man’s hard jaw and sallow cheeks despite the scorching sun. He dressed in a wide black hat, gray slacks, and a moon-yellow shirt with a steer skull bolo tie. In his right hand, he carried a salesman’s case, made of olive-brown snakeskin.
The salesman’s opal eyes set upon the farmhouse. He stooped down and scooped soil from the ground. Then he held the dirt under his nose, sifted the grains, dabbed dirt on his tongue, and spat in revulsion.
He shook his head, tipped his hat, dusted the soil off his hands, and marched toward the barn. “Hello there!” The man’s dark, shiny eyes bore right into Cooper, down to his core.
“Afternoon,” Cooper said.
“You can’t be Hester’s son. Jonah would be what now? Twenty?”
“Twenty-one. Jonah’s my cousin. I’m Hester’s nephew, Cooper. They’re in town.”
“Well, isn’t that something?” He extended his hand.
When Cooper shook it, static crackled between their fingers. When the salesman squeezed his scraped, calloused palm, electricity pulsed through Cooper’s wrist and jangled his nerves. The man released Cooper’s hand with another series of electric crackles. A burning scent lingered in the air.
Cooper searched for words. “What did you just do there?”
“Shook your hand,” the salesman said. “I can tell a lot about a person, or a place, just by seeing, touching, sometimes even by a taste or a smell. I think you’re somewhat the same.”
“Something I can help you with?” Cooper rubbed his tingling palm.
“Cooper, I know your grandfather. We’re good friends.”
“I’m sorry to say, sir, my grandfather passed away.”
The salesmen nodded, and a smile crept across his face. “Yes, he did.”
“Then, pardon me, but shouldn’t you say ‘I knew your grandfather?’”
“You never stop knowing someone, Cooper.” The man opened his snakeskin case. “I have something for the family.” He fished through clothing, translucent glassware, and small burlap sacks, and then plucked out a wallet-sized pouch. “I am a purveyor of clever solutions to life’s problems. Been circling this area for decades, in fact. I sold to your to grandfather—even to your uncle, before he passed.”
Cooper took the pouch apprehensively. “So what are you selling now?”
“I’m not.” The salesman closed his case. “This is a gift. Add one pinch to the chicken feed, daily, until gone.”
Cooper peeked inside the pouch. “What does it do?”
“Cleanses impurities. At worst, it will have no measurable impact. But when everything’s going right, nobody notices the hard work put in.”
Cooper narrowed his eyes with suspicion. “Why is it free, though?”
“Because your grandfather was a loyal customer. Speaking of which, I have other appointments.” The salesman tipped his hat. “Oh, and Cooper, no need to tell your cousin or your aunt about this. In fact, I’d prefer that you didn’t. I certainly don’t need credit, nor do my products.”
“Because a job well done is a job well done. Come September, when your relatives look in that pen: I want them to see your handiwork.”
Exhausted from freshman swim club, Cooper returned up the dirt road to the farm under a sky ashen with storm clouds. He couldn’t seem to find his place at home or at school, so he kept quiet and did his best to go unnoticed—to be invisible. Most days it worked. But as he approached, he saw Jonah waiting by the mailbox with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, and he knew today wasn’t going to be one of those days.
“You screwed up, Cooper,” Jonah said through the tobacco packed under his lower lip. “Just like I knew you would.”
Cooper swallowed hard. “What did I do?”
Jonah spat a brown wad between Cooper’s feet. Drizzle spotted the dirt around the wet tobacco. “I’ll show you.”
Cooper followed Jonah up the driveway, knowing with certainty that the chickens were the only thing he could have screwed up. A pit of nerves sucked on his stomach. It couldn’t have been that salesman’s powder, he assured himself. He had run out weeks ago, and it hadn’t made the chickens healthier or sicker.
Thunder rumbled. Clouds strobed with electricity and rolled over the cornfield. Pine trees shook in the distance, and nervous moos carried from the shed.
They approached Reverend Randall’s chicken coop. Behind the wire mesh, chickens staggered in the hay—slow, listless motions. Cooper’s heart sank. “They’re sick.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” Jonah snapped. “Count ‘em.”
Cooper hooked his fingers through the wires. Their feathers were ragged, their eyes glassy. “Twelve.” He counted again to make sure. “One’s missing.” A chill breeze rattled the pen, but the chickens didn’t seem alarmed like they normally would before a storm.
“I’m sorry, Jonah,” Cooper mumbled. “Maybe it’ll pass?”
Jonah hoisted his shotgun over his shoulder. He punched the wire mesh, leaving a warped dent. The chickens didn’t even flinch. “Does this look like the kinda thing that passes, idiot?” he shouted. “They’re all gonna die!”
Cooper recalled the salesman’s weathered smile. His final words before he disappeared down the dusty road: Come September, when your relatives look in that pen: I want them to see your handiwork.
The chickens scratched dirt with pallid legs. Their lethargic clucks rattled.
Jonah clutched Cooper by the collar. “You had one job!”Jonah pushed Cooper aside and examined the lower back corner of the coop. The wire had been pushed forward, torn along the edge. “That’s how number thirteen got out,” he said. “Get me something to block this.”
Cooper hurried into the dark barn and found a stack of steel cages. He brushed a few cobwebs away and brought one to Jonah. “Put this flush against it,” Cooper suggested. “I’ll grab something to weigh it down.”
Jonah snatched the cage.
Thunder growled as Cooper returned to the barn. He found a stack of mud-caked cinderblocks by the tools and hoisted one two-handed. Something shuffled in the rafters. Cooper glanced up, and a dry gurgle grated in the shadows.
“Get out here, Cooper!” Jonah shouted.
Cooper lugged the cinderblock outside and dropped it atop the cage with a clang. Jonah tested to make sure it was secure.
“They were good this morning, you know,” Cooper said. “They were all fine when I fed them, and the cage wasn’t ripped, either.”
“What have you been givin’ these birds anyway?”
Cooper hesitated. “Regular feed.” It was true. The powder had run out weeks ago.
Jonah aimed his shotgun at one of the sick chickens. “These were good egg-layin’ hens, Coop. It’s gonna cost us.” He lowered his gun and shook his head. “If it spreads to the cows, I swear to God . . .” Jonah jabbed Cooper’s chest with the butt of his shotgun.
One of the birds examined him with glassy eyes. Frothy bubbles formed on its brown beak. Rain dotted Cooper’s skin and tip-tapped the metal roof of the chicken pen.
“See what my mom found out,” Jonah said, pointing to the farmhouse. “I’ll find the one that escaped.” He aimed his shotgun between the barn and shed and disappeared into the shadows.
Cows moaned as Cooper raced uphill to the farmhouse. The sky rumbled, and the rain fell harder. He let the porch door bang behind him and wiped his shoes on the front mat.
“I know that,” came Aunt Hester’s voice, cold and hard like a hammer. “But what are the chances this will spread?” Her steely gray eyes met Cooper’s, and though she was listening closely to the phone, she seemed to be thinking right at him.
How did you screw up, she had to be wondering. How did my no-good sister’s kid finally screw up?
Lightning silhouetted Aunt Hester’s bulky frame. She shook her head as she clutched the phone. “They ain’t dead yet,” she said. “But I don’t plan to take chances.”
Another white pulse lit the windows. The walls shuddered with an explosion of thunder. “Hello?” Aunt Hester said. “Hello?” She huffed. “Phone’s dead!” She slammed the massive tome of yellow pages shut on the kitchen counter. “Not that it matters. Animal control is useless.”
Rain drummed the windows and screen door.
“Shut that door, Cooper!” Aunt Hester snapped. “Honestly!”
Cooper shut the front door. Outside, rain began spraying in thick gray sheets. Lightning illuminated the warped siding of the barn and shed. For a split second, Cooper made out the squat shadows of the chickens ambling in Randall’s pen.
“One got out,” Cooper said. “Jonah’s gonna find it.”
“Jonah’s going to what?” Aunt Hester barged out of the kitchen. She shoved past Cooper and pulled back the living room curtains. Her steel eyes narrowed. “He’ll be soaked!”
Aunt Hester squeezed the blue and white checkered fabric. “Those chickens were your responsibility, Cooper.”
“I know,” Cooper said softly.
“Your cousin will catch pneumonia! Sweet Jesus, I’ll be all alone.”
“It’s not as bad as all that, Aunt Hester,” Cooper offered. “We’ll take care of it.”
His aunt sized him up. “I don’t see you out there.”
Cooper stared at his mud-crusted shoes.
“Don’t be ashamed, Coop. I don’t want either of you out there. It’s just that if someone were to put his health at risk, seems it should be the one responsible. Count your blessings Jonah’s older, I suppose.”
“Yes, Aunt Hester.”
Aunt Hester dropped the curtains. Lightning flickered again as she crossed the living room. “The Lord’s up to something,” she said. “I can feel it in the air.”
Aunt Hester settled her ample frame into her brown recliner. Thunder cracked. “I swear, if He takes this farm, the Almighty and me, we’ll have words.”
“Would you like some tea, Aunt Hester?” Cooper asked.
“Well, that’s something you can do, now isn’t it?”
Cooper boiled water in the stainless steel kettle and poured it into one of his grandmother’s old china teacups. As he steeped a teabag, thunder rattled walls. The kitchen lights faded.
“Sweet Jesus! The power now!” came Aunt Hester.
Cooper found a lighter and candles in a kitchen drawer. He carried a lit candle in one hand and Aunt Hester’s tea in the other. They sat in the dark living room while the storm howled and raged. Aunt Hester’s eyes remained half-closed, trance-like in the flickering candlelight. She whispered the Lord’s Prayer under her breath.
Cooper’s insides twisted. If he spoke up about the salesman, would it even matter? Was that really what infected the chickens? Maybe Aunt Hester knew the man. Maybe if Cooper confessed, he’d find out the man really was a family friend.
His Aunt’s voice grew softer. Her whispers quieted.
“Aunt Hester?” Cooper spoke.
Her gray eyes popped open. She glanced in his direction.
“Did you know a salesman? Came through here a while back looking for Grandpa while you and Jonah were in town.”
Aunt Hester raised a silvery eyebrow. “Salesman?”
Cooper took a long, shaky breath. “He had a black hat. Dark gray hair. Wore a yellow shirt and a cattle skull bolo.”
“Salesmen used to pass through here pretty regularly, back when that was a thing. It ain’t anymore.”
“He said he sold to Uncle Randall too,” Cooper said.
“Hm.” Aunt Hester straightened her back. “Randall dealt with a few snake oil pushers in his final days. Can’t say I blame a sick man desperate to stay with his wife and child. Would you, Cooper?”
Cooper shook his head.
“No, I can’t recall any of those people. Why do you ask?”
Cooper’s tongue felt like a thousand-pound slug. Keep it to yourself, his mind shouted. Nothing good will come from it now. “No reason,” Cooper muttered. “Just wondered if he really knew Grandpa and Uncle Randall.”
“I see.” Aunt Hester reached for her teacup. “What do you know about your Uncle Randall?”
“Not much, I’m afraid.”
“What do you know?” She asked.
“He was a preacher. He died.”
“Mmm hmm.” Aunt Hester cradled her teacup in her large hands. “Uncle Randall . . . Reverend Randall saved me when I was still a teenager—younger than Jonah, older than you. I was among his most devout followers. The Reverend taught me more than I ever learned from school or my parents or church.” She frowned and shook her head. “How your mother had hated it.”
“Mom hated church?”
Aunt Hester nodded. “You see, Cooper, the truth is . . .” She sighed. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. Your mother was a disappointment. She didn’t love God enough. But maybe I loved him a little too much. Too eagerly.”
“What do you mean?” The windowpanes trembled with another crack of thunder.
“Your grandfather—my father—despised Randall. He never gave us his blessing. Not even after we bought this farm and bailed them out of foreclosure. I thought . . .”
“It doesn’t matter.” She took a sip of tea. “After I married Randall, I started to understand why my father loathed him so much. I learned all his tricks—flourishes, Randall had called them. Things he did to get people’s attention. I do believe he was a good man, really he meant to be, but sometimes . . .”
Lightning flashed. The rain slowed. Raindrops and distant thunder filled a long silence. Finally, Cooper asked, “Sometimes what?”
A sad smile spread across his aunt’s face in the dancing candlelight. “He used to do something that long ago astounded me. As he belted out the word of God to his congregation, the red wounds of Christ appeared, right smack in the middle of his palms. Like magic.”
Cooper’s eyes widened.
“It wasn’t magic, of course,” Aunt Hester said. “He had an eye-dropper with watered down acid tucked away behind the pulpit. He made the wounds himself. When I found out about that, I told myself the ends justified the means. He helped so many people see the light.”
Cooper’s heart thudded. “I’m . . . sure he was a good man.”
Aunt Hester gave a weak laugh. “I ran to him like your mother ran to drugs. And slowly, surely, we all decayed. Just differently.” She whispered, “I see that now.” Outside, the cows mooed louder.
“God works awful slow sometimes, Cooper. But He catches up to you. You never know how or when or where, but he sends His angels into the world to find and punish sinners.”
“Angels are good, though,” Cooper said.
“Angels are cruel and subtle. Don’t look for white robes, halos, and wings. God’s soldiers wear many forms. A howling wind. A bolt of lightning. A terrible cancer. A stranger you would never suspect. Perhaps a loved one.” She stared into her empty teacup. “Perhaps a loved one who is a stranger,” she whispered.
A shotgun blast split the night. Aunt Hester jerked alert.
They waited. The shotgun fired again.
“Jonah must have got it.” Cooper raced to the window and pulled back the curtains. The rain had all but stopped. He scanned the grounds but couldn’t see his cousin.
Aunt Hester loomed behind Cooper. “Where is he?” She pressed a large, shaky palm against the water-speckled glass.
“I’ll check.” Cooper grabbed a yellow poncho and flashlight from the front closet.
Aunt Hester made her way back to the side table and slowly settled back into her brown throne.
Cooper pulled the poncho over his head and walked outside. He aimed his flashlight across the corn, past the cowshed, the barn, and the maintenance shed, but he couldn’t find a soul.
“Jonah!” he called.
Cooper descended the slick grass of the hill and approached the barn. A dry gurgling sound stopped him. Steady drip drops trickled from the gutter. He turned his light toward the chicken coop.
Scores of green eyes reflected back at him. The birds had lost more feathers. Boils and black marks spotted their exposed flesh. Their beaks hung slack, and foamy spittle dribbled down their necks like dish soap.
Some were further gone than others, but they all moved. Only one chicken lay on its back; its neck wriggled as two other birds picked at its exposed entrails.
Cooper turned away and took a deep breath, but the scent of decay caught in his throat. He dropped to his knees and puked. The grating, gurgling noises continued.
Cooper wiped his mouth on his slicker, composed himself, and shined his light back on the grotesque scene behind the honeycomb wires. He still counted twelve birds, including the one being eaten.
“Jonah!” Cooper shouted. “Jonah, where are you?”
Cooper remembered the weird grating sound he had heard in the barn rafters. The thirteenth bird was in there, he realized. That’s where Jonah found it.
Cooper aimed his flashlight into the dark barn and approached the open doors. “Jonah! You okay?”
The scent of gunpowder lingered.
“We heard shots. Did you get it?”
Cooper shined his light past empty cages, stacks of hay, tools, and supplies, up and down the loft ladder. A whisper groaned from the shadows. Jonah’s shotgun lay abandoned in the dirt near two spent shells.
“Jonah!” He rushed forward and found his cousin slumped behind a workbench under the loft. Deep gashes ran down Jonah’s arms, and scratch marks covered his face. One of his eyes had been gouged badly. Blood pooled in the socket. He attempted to sit and failed. His torso slammed against the ground.
“Lay still.” Cooper crouched and examined his cousin’s wounds.
“Cooo-per . . .” Jonah rasped.
“Yeah, it’s me. We’re gonna get help, but the phones are down.”
Jonah groaned. “You . . .”
It could be a day before power was restored. They would have to drive Jonah into town. Wounds gushed under Jonah’s blood-soaked flannel. Moving him would be risky.
“Sit tight. I’ll get Aunt Hester.”
“You. . . did . . . this.” Jonah snatched Cooper’s collar with bloody fingers. “You . . . killed . . . this farm!”
Cooper wrestled free and stumbled back. His flashlight rolled across the dirt. “I didn’t—” he cried. “I didn’t mean to!”
Jonah wheezed and collapsed. Overhead, something fluttered.
Cooper’s heart thumped so hard, his sternum felt like it was vibrating. He reached toward his flashlight just as a feathery shape plummeted from the rafters. It clucked, hissed, and dove at his head. He shouted and blocked his face with one arm while shuffling backward in the dirt. Ragged wings beat the air in front of him. He reached back, gripped the butt of Jonah’s shotgun, and swung. The bird gave an abrupt cluck as Cooper whacked it across the barn.
The feathered monstrosity hit the wall and righted itself, but one of its wings went crooked. It gave a dry groan and skittered in a one-winged circle, its green eyes glinting in the beam of the flashlight. This creature was even more decayed than the chickens in the pen. Only its primary feathers remained. The rest of its flesh was pocked and blistered as if something had boiled the feathers off from underneath.
Cooper righted the shotgun in his arms, aimed, and pulled the trigger. But of course, it was no longer loaded.
The decayed chicken fluttered after him. Cooper whacked it again with the butt of the gun. The impact broke the bird’s neck, crooking its head to one side. It hissed, scraping the dirt with its claws, its wild wing flapping.
Cooper dove for his flashlight and shined it along the tools leaning against the far wall. He raced and grabbed a pitchfork. Then, he inched toward the spinning, clucking little monster, balancing his flashlight and aiming the pitchfork like a spear.
The bird’s green eyes glowed. Froth spilled down its crooked neck. Cooper skewered the chicken on long metal prongs. It continued to garble. The chicken’s claws twitched as black blood pooled beneath it. Cooper lowered the pitchfork to the ground and took a deep breath. He aligned his shoe with the chicken’s twisted neck, stomped, and crushed its head.
Finally, the bird fell silent, and its movements ceased.
“You did it, Coop,” came Jonah’s hoarse whisper. “You killed it.”
Cooper aimed his flashlight at Jonah just in time to see him rise to his feet. Bubbles foamed down his chin. The wounds on his arms had stopped bleeding and started turning black. “You finally killed this whole family.”
Cooper pinned the dead chicken with his foot and yanked his pitchfork free. He aimed the bloody prongs at Jonah. “Lay down, Jonah,” his voice shook. “Lay still, and we’ll get help.”
“Feel . . . fine . . .” Jonah lurched forward unevenly. His mouth opened wide, and frothy spittle dripped onto his blood-soaked shirt. His good eye reflected green.
“Help!” Cooper screamed, backing away.
Jonah reached forward. The scabs on his face broke as he flexed his jaws. Cooper lunged with his pitchfork, but Jonah caught it between the prongs. He snarled, wrenched the pitchfork from Cooper’s hands, and tossed it aside with a clatter.
Cooper dropped his flashlight and ran for the door. Jonah limped after him, but he wasn’t fast enough. Cooper slammed the doors shut and used his body as a brace while Jonah banged against the other side.
Aunt Hester’s shrill cries echoed from the front porch. Nearby, the remaining chickens snarled and pressed against the honeycomb wire.
“Jonah!” Aunt Hester shouted as she hurried down the hill.
Cooper struggled against the barn door. Jonah’s decayed fingers curled around the edge. “Something’s wrong with him,” he shouted back. “Help me keep this shut!”
Aunt Hester clenched Cooper’s shoulders. He planted his feet and struggled against his aunt’s grip. Even in the dark, her steel eyes were just as wild and senseless as his mother’s. “Listen to me, please!” he begged.
Aunt Hester pushed Cooper to the ground. His ankle twisted as his torso spun. His shoulder collided with soft mud.
Aunt Hester swung the door open wide. “Jonah! Sweet Jesus, Jonah!”
The barn door blocked Cooper’s view. He only spotted Jonah’s bloody fingers reaching over his aunt’s shoulders as she embraced him.
Aunt Hester started to scream her son’s name, but she couldn’t get past the “O.” Hideous growls swallowed her cries. Cooper turned away and crawled through the wet grass, desperately trying to block out the guttural chorus of diseased chickens and the gurgling, crunching sounds beyond the barn door.
Cooper crawled to his knees; he attempted to stand, but his right ankle flared with pain. He struggled up the incline of the hill, inch-by-inch with the pale farmhouse looming over him.
A loud groan sounded from behind, followed by a metal rattle. Cooper flipped over and saw Jonah hunched near the chicken coop. His red-soaked hands grasped the cinderblock they had secured above the cage.
Jonah’s face was covered in blood, save the one eye glinting in the moonlight. He hoisted the cinderblock and lumbered forward. Clumps of hair dropped from his boiled scalp. Long yellow teeth snarled inside white gums. Cooper attempted again to get to his feet, but he couldn’t apply an ounce of pressure on the injured ankle.
Jonah drew closer. He lifted the cement block over his head.
Cooper rolled away just in time. He swung his arms around and grabbed his cousin’s ankle, yanking Jonah off-balance. Jonah snarled and plummeted forward, and his skull hit the cinderblock with a sickening crunch, cracking like a rotten egg. Black liquid oozed from his crushed skull.
Cooper waited breathlessly for any sign of movement, any twitch of the green eye, but his cousin remained motionless.
Cooper rolled onto his forearms. A metal bang sounded, and he glanced behind him. The cage was now skewed at an angle, no longer flush against the torn wire of the coop. The chickens clustered in the back corner of their pen. One of them was wedged between the torn wire and the barn wall.
“No, no, no,” Cooper muttered. He grunted and changed directions, struggling toward the pen. The chickens banged against the unstable corner. Wires twanged and snapped. The pack of creatures scrambled around the obstacle and knocked the cage onto its side. Green eyes darted in every direction. One by one, they escaped, hissing and clucking. The flock fluttered ragged wings and took off over Cooper’s head.
The sounds of the chickens died out far away. A large shape lay in a pool of darkness at the entrance to the barn. Aunt Hester groaned, but she couldn’t seem to move.
Strangely, the authorities cleared Cooper of any wrongdoing almost immediately, as if someone or something had instructed them to accept the bizarre and grisly incident. They gave Cooper a ticket to Atlanta to spend a few days with his mom before a foster family could be found.
While waiting to board his bus at the transit station, Cooper felt static prickle the hairs on his neck. “Don’t be afraid,” a familiar voice said.
Cooper twisted around to find the salesman beaming down at him. His ivory teeth shined. His eyes gleamed like polished obsidian. Cooper choked on his words, and his muscles tensed. The man’s stare hardened him like a statue.
“And don’t be angry either.” The salesman tipped his hat. “I did it for the land. Your grandparents’ land. God’s Earth bought with charlatan gold. We’re revitalizing it all, one acre at a time.”
Cooper fought to speak. The words came, blocky and stiff. “Randall was already dead.”
Outside, the sky rumbled. “Dead but not gone,” the salesman said. “The reverend’s family was on a set path. So many are. Not you, though Cooper. Not yet.”
“What about the ones that are?” Tears welled under Cooper’s eyes. “It’s not fair.”
Lightning pulsed in the stranger’s eyes. And he smiled.