The Good Shepherd

Michael Nye

Every eight weeks, a Fayetteville Farms truck delivered dogs to the Sullivan farm. A six-man crew unloaded crates of canines, each worker filing into the four industrial size barns and herding the dogs into neat rows and stacks of steel cages. Pruitt Sullivan’s job was to fatten the tens of thousands of dogs, keeping them warm and fed and hydrated, fattening them up until Fayetteville Farms returned to collect them for slaughter. It was a routine Pruitt knew well, one that defined the rhythm of his grandfather’s, and then his father’s, chicken farm here in rural Arkansas for as long as Pruitt could remember.

They came in a series of semitrucks with long trailers, and from his porch, Pruitt could hear the frenetic barking. He knew he was not to interfere while the Fayetteville Farms men unloaded the dogs, but it always struck him as something he should interfere with. The men got out and didn’t mill around; they went straight to the back of the trailer, entered an electronic keycode to unlock the doors, opened it up, and led dogs out, the large ones on leashes and the smaller ones in crates. The dogs trotted with merry curiosity as if they were stars of a small town parade. These were dogs of all sizes and breeds but the majority were mutts with obvious pit bull in them.

But what really unnerved Pruitt was that the Fayetteville Farms men wore baggy green suits with thick, rotund helmets, their skin protected from the air. Like they were delivering something toxic.

The dogs were led to what had been his grandfather’s chicken houses, now converted into appropriate storage for the dogs, a series of low buildings with studded round silver ventilation fans every fifty yards in order to properly ventilate the barn during the hot Arkansas summers. On both sides of each barn was a massive bay door that could slide open like a loading dock, and this was where the men entered with the dogs.

Today, the green men were followed by a Kia sedan and from this car stepped a man of medium height, medium build, and nondescript clothes. He stood erect, hands held directly to his side. He spun and scanned the entire farm before walking briskly toward Pruitt, taking the steps to the front porch two a time. He offered his hand to shake; he wore neither a watch nor a wedding ring.

Mr. Sullivan? I’m Dr. Thomas Cook with the Fayetteville Farms Company. I’m a vice president of research and development. I was wondering if you had a moment to talk.

Of course. They shook hands and moved down the porch away from the front door. What can I do for you, Mr. Cook?

Please. Call me Thomas. How’s your operation going?

Fine. Nothing to add. I send in my weekly reports via the server. Everything I observe and record is there.

I know. I’ve read your reports, Pruitt. Very detailed. Very thorough. Is there anything you want to add? Something that you felt uncomfortable about putting in a written report?

No. Why?

Cook shrugged. Sometimes with our farmers, I find it helpful to speak in person. More of a connection, an understanding.

Pruitt frowned. His reports, using a proprietary software provided by the company, detailed the weight, body fat percentage, and heart rate of each dog, along with twenty-six additional metrics of their health. His report also included information about the water filtration system, air temperature and quality, stool consistency, and other details that were measured daily and broken down in his weekly reports with an executive summary, spreadsheets, pie charts, and bar graphs. Pruitt didn’t miss a thing. Including the fact that since Cook had stepped on his porch, the dogs, who normally barked off and on all day long, had gone silent.

You should get more exercise, Cook said, studying Pruitt’s face. You should run. Every morning. It’s just like basic. Get up, head outside, and run.

Pruitt wondered how this man knew he had served. I don’t remember enjoying that.

Running is glorious. Cook turned. He smiled out at the yard like a preacher beaming at his congregation. With our work, it’s easy to forget the simple things that make our lives so beautiful. Like the dawn. Feeling our bodies warm as we move through the world. I love to run, Pruitt. I love it so much. The way your legs burn with the effort and the steady sound of your breathing in your throat and ears. You used to run, I can tell. You should get back to it.

I’ll think about it. Pruitt cleared his throat. He sensed that Cook knew something about him, something about who he had once been and who he was now, and that this pale man was peeling something back that Pruitt wanted to remain hidden and unearthed.

You do that, Pruitt. Cook reached into the left pocket of his pressed, clean chinos and withdrew a business card. If you have any problems or concerns, you give me a call. I’m happy to help. But the most important thing, Pruitt, is that you buy a pair of running shoes and get outside every morning. I promise this will be a big help.

Pruitt said sure, took the card, and looked over Cook’s shoulders. The Fayetteville Farms green men were coming back from the dog houses, free of leashes, carrying the empty cages, their delivery work finished. They climbed into their trucks and when they turned the ignition and shifted into gear, Thomas Cook said goodbye and walked toward his Kia. Pruitt watched them leave, then stood on the porch staring into the distant Ozark hills for several minutes. Then he went inside, opened a beer, drank it greedily, sat down at his computer, and spent fifteen minutes comparing running shoes before ordering a pair that would arrive on his doorstep in just two business days.

 

The morning after Cook’s visit, the dogs started to die.

Pruitt found one of the dogs nearest the door dead, keeled over on its right side, unmoving, the fact that he was no longer alive so obvious and factual that Pruitt wondered if it was real. He moved down the rows and found that eight other dogs were dead, collapsed on their sides, their mouths and eyes rigidly open. Pruitt pulled his shirt collar up above his mouth and nose and then beelined for his dilapidated garden shed.

He returned to the dog house wearing a white surgical mask and yellow latex gloves that stretched up his forearms. The dogs bayed and barked and howled as he searched for the dead bodies, detaching their catheters, dumping their shit and piss on the stainless steel pan into the mixture of blood and pus that had come from their mouths and paws, and sliding the body out from the cage, careful not to spill their waste on the dogs below. Their rotten bodies were like deflated balloons, their tails sloughing off the body when he tried to scoop them out of the cage.

The dogs were housed in cramped wired cages stacked six high in six rows running the entire length of the house. Vulcanized bags for urine and fecal matter, coated with a chemical designed to prevent sores, were attached to each dog, and directed into a trough behind each cage where the waste poured down to a massive treatment vat at the end of the building. The dogs barked wildly at the sight of Pruitt, not, he believed, with joy or fear but with the simple awareness that his presence meant food and they were always hungry.

The food that Fayetteville Farms provided Pruitt to feed to the dogs was a formula, created in research labs using the best of modern science to synthesize the appropriate combination of proteins, carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to maximize muscle growth and density in the dogs. It was also laced with a material that coated the dog’s stomachs to encourage them to eat more. All around him, stacked above his head, these dogs were overweight; if they weren’t in cages, organized by genetically tested breed and size, Pruitt doubted these dogs could run, or maybe even walk. Their bodies were both muscular and blob-like, whales with snouts and tales. Far worse than their barks was the rhythmic clatter of their stupid tails banging against the cages, a trilling drumbeat of bone on metal that amplified their state of confinement.

Pruitt dumped the bodies in a wheelbarrow. He looked up at the fans, pictured the pathway of the air pushed through the ventilation system, and wondered if the room was somehow too hot or cold. Per the company’s instructions, he kept the room at sixty- one degrees. He didn’t know how they reached this calculation. He didn’t know what was in their food, what clear chemical treatment he added to their water, why the regulations for the cages’ width, length, and height were so specific, why he wasn’t allowed to have five or seven stacks of cage. It had to be six. Which was roughly the same number of dogs he could drop in a wheelbarrow before it was full and he had to cart the dead out into the yard.

He picked a spot downwind from his house, dug a large and deep grave, spread a tarp along the bottom, and then dumped the bodies.

Despite his daily, insistent phone calls, Fayetteville Farms didn’t come any earlier. They continued to arrive every Tuesday morning. They continued to unload dogs and lead them into the cages.

Don’t y’all wanna take a look at this? Pruitt asked the man with the clipboard.

Pruitt led the foreman to the pit. Flies hovered above the rotting, chemical stench of the bodies. When he looked down, all Pruitt could make out were the teeth, twisted and grinning, like happy snarls.

Did you put this tarp down? the foreman asked.

Seemed like the smart thing to do.

Sure was. Okay. We’ll collect the bodies, and bring you a fresh tarp.

What’s the problem?

Don’t know until we get them to the lab.

Want me to change anything?

The foreman looked down at his clipboard, squinting at as if the words were written in a foreign language. He then spoke slowly, as if he was uncertain of the pronunciation of his words.

No, don’t make any changes. Average dog weight and mass are in-range. Chemical elements in the food and water are all clear. Could be the temperature, I suppose.

Pruitt pointed down into the grave. Temperature explains that? Them dogs are bloated and purple. Look like goddamn grape jelly.

The foreman looked directly at Pruitt. We don’t yet know what’s going on. I want you to keep everything the same. Same foods, same cleaning process, same temperatures.

So I get paid the same amount?

The foreman clucked his tongue. You’re paid based on the weight of the dogs we pick up for slaughter. Not for the dogs that are dead.

This ain’t my fault!

Frankly, Mr. Sullivan, we don’t know that yet, now do we?

Pruitt looked down at the grave, and made a quick calculation of how much money this was going to cost him.

My margins are already slim, he muttered.

The foreman laid a hand on Pruitt’s shoulder. It’s gonna be fine, Pruitt. You’ll see. Gonna be fine.

Not to Pruitt it wasn’t. He was up all night, sitting on his porch, the beers under his feet, shotgun leaning against the house, drinking and watching the dog houses. There was no howling, just the occasional scratch of claws against the cage, a dog shifting in place in their presumed sleep. He half expected those dogs to come barreling out of the house, a pack of Cujos, to tear his skin and muscle from his bones with their sharp, devilish teeth. Sometimes, he wished they would.

 

Three years ago a chicken flu swept across America, and even today no one could identify what caused this specific strain of H5N1, why it only attacked chickens rather than starlings or chickadees or cardinals, why it only attacked the birds that the average American ate 94 lbs. of every single year. What was clear was that chickens were unsafe and Congress was not about to export a product that could be unsafe, despite no one getting sick from American chickens in Europe or Asia.

Instead, the chicken companies just decided to change products. That three thousand dogs were executed daily struck someone as a market inefficiency that could be made profitable. The political machinations of this shift never much interested Pruitt. That’s not what he remembered about those turbulent six months when legislation was whipped and rammed through, when rebranding of food from the same people that rechristened chicken as poultry occurred, when Americans dissociated their beloved pets from the food on their plate.

What Pruitt remembered about this time was his father’s suicide. His father, the fourth generation of Sullivan men, a family that had moved from Providence to Arkansas for a large swath of land and the opportunity to live somewhere other than city slums, had at first treated the paperwork from Fayetteville Farms with earnest focus. After all, Sullivan men had a standing relationship with the company, going back decades, long before their financial contracts effectively made the Sullivan’s tenant farmers. The living room table was soon covered with paper, first slim white envelopes, then large manila envelopes, then stacks of paper filled with legal jargon and threatening letters from law firms. The pure amount of paper that corporations, banks, and law firms could generate to someone as insignificant as Pruitt’s father was spectacularly cruel.

It always struck him as peculiar that he could not remember the sound. What woke him was this sound he couldn’t recall, a single shot from his father’s .38, a shot fired by his father into his temple, standing out in the backyard in a spot that, to Pruitt’s knowledge, held no significance. It was a Saturday morning, the light creeping around the blinds of his window, and though he couldn’t locate the sound, he continued to look around his bedroom in search of a source, as if his body knew something his brain did not. It was as if his father walked outside that morning, started to walk toward the chicken coops, and then thought, why bother? His father did not leave a note. Pruitt figured that his father, who never liked to trouble anyone for the simplest of things, hadn’t wanted to burden him with one more piece of indecipherable paper.

 

Cook returned exactly one week after the first dogs died, right after Pruitt had finished a run. He had waited until the day’s heat was at its peak, the humidity pressing into his body like a hot iron, flattening him out. He found that he couldn’t run as far as he wished but that each day he ran a little bit farther, a little bit faster, and that skipping a
day of running made him feel squirrely and on edge.

You’ve been running, Cook said, staring at Pruitt’s shoes.

Every day.

It’s quite addicting, isn’t it? And invigorating. Nothing makes you feel more alive. Pruitt, I could talk about running all day long, but I received a message that you have some concerns about the dogs.

Pruitt scanned the yard, checking his 25, 50, and 100 yard markers as if he was still in Iraq. There was no one. There was a Kia sedan in the driveway and no other cars. The world was still and the dogs had ceased barking.

If I’ve interrupted your dinner, Thomas said, I can come back another time.

Pruitt thought about the pretzels he had been munching on last night while he drank beer and listened to the Cardinals game on the radio.

Now’s good. Would you like to come in?

It’s nice out. Let’s sit on the porch.

Beer?

Yes, thank you.

Pruitt pulled what remained of the case from his fridge and came out to the porch. He took a seat and handed Thomas a beer, which he opened but did not drink. Pruitt opened his beer and took a deep gulp.

So, Pruitt. What’s wrong with the dogs?

Isn’t that what your green men are for? I don’t know. I’m following protocol.

Temperature is set correctly, A/C is working. Their food is the formula y’all give me and they’re getting the right amounts. Water is filtered, unpolluted and clean, just like y’all demanded.

Cook turned and looked at the chicken houses. Pruitt still thought of them this way—chicken houses—though they hadn’t had chickens inside them in almost two years. The only noise was the steady hum of the fans that cooled the buildings.

That’s spooky, Pruitt said. Usually them dogs are barking and howling.

Dogs are different from us. They understand things instinctively that we do not.

Cook turned back to Pruitt and stared at him. Were you in the service?

Three tours.

And now you’re home.

I did my part. Now I got a chicken farm without chickens.

The food industry has changed.

My granddaddy started our family farm. Couple of chickens in a pen, and next thing you know, boom, he’s got this great big business. My daddy is who sold to y’all.

Do you ever talk about the war with anyone?

Not much to say. Thomas crushed his beer can and opened another. People always ask shit like, Did you kill anybody? Or really general stuff. What’s it like over there? They don’t really wanna know the answer. They just like being near soldiers, pretending they’re heroes, too.

Tell me.

Pruitt stilled. You know, there’s actually a lot of downtime when you’re just sitting there waiting for the next assignment, when nothing happens, and all you do is play Call of Duty and shit. And you’re not really thinking about going out there, but you’re also not not thinking about going out there. Just keep playing that game, moving your hands over them buttons, and if it goes bad, you just start a new mission. We played for hours.

Tell me more, Thomas whispered.

He could feel it, then, the way the world zeroed in on the monitor, the way he could ignore the heat and the tent flaps and sand that seemed to embed in his skin. Just keep playing those games until the sergeant said it was time to move out. Not peaceful, exactly, but cocooned off from a world that required his full attention.

Pruitt wasn’t sure how long he talked but when Thomas said, Well, Pruitt, thanks for talking to me, I’ll be seeing you, it was like a trance had been broken. On the floorboards were eight empty cans of beer; Thomas’s remained untouched on the railing. Pruitt staggered upright and watched the Kia pull out of the driveway, and once the car was around the bend, the dogs began to bark and howl.

 

Soon, Dr. Thomas Cook appeared on Pruitt’s porch every Wednesday night. He would knock on the door and politely decline to come in, preferring to remain outdoors. He asked Pruitt to turn on the Cardinals game, though he otherwise never showed any interest in baseball. Pruitt would open a beer and hand it to Cook, and he would always graciously say thank you, then never fail to not take a sip. He always stood, his ramrod posture like a sentry. And Pruitt would talk.

He talked about his deployment. He talked about the desert, the inexplicable heat, the weight of all that gear he had to carry on his back. He talked about the first time his squad was attacked, and how chaotic it was to have bullets zipping around his body, to not know who was firing at him, or from where, or when there was an explosion, there wasn’t fire and bright oranges and reds but just dust, so much dust, clouds of it rolling over him, coating the back of his throat. Pruitt had never been wounded in combat, a fact that always seemed to surprise people back in the States. His friends had died, some immediately from an explosion, one moment there and the next gone in that cloud of dust, others slowly in triage from shrapnel or bullets that couldn’t be dislodged from their pale, skinny bodies. I don’t feel lucky, he said to Dr. Cook, or blessed or anything. The whole thing made no sense.

Not that it made any sense when he received his honorable discharge and returned to Waldron, Arkansas, to discover that his family no longer owned a chicken farm, but a dog farm. His grandfather, oxygen tube in his nose, dying from the lung cancer brought upon him by a lifetime of Marlboro Reds, explained that Fayetteville Farms offered more money, a lot more, if they signed a contract to provide their chickens exclusively to the company.

So we’re tenant farmers? Pruitt asked, running his hand across his still military short hair.

We’re partners, his grandfather wheezed. Not the same thing.

Contract don’t read that way.

Your father and I agree. This is the best thing to do. We can’t afford the land we’re on and we can’t afford to compete in the market as individuals. This is a guaranteed income.

You sure?

Goddammit, you weren’t here, were you?

Pruitt shrugged and spit tobacco juice off the porch. His grandfather shook his head, the tubing around his nose remaining firmly in place. He had a blanket over his legs despite the fact that it was early summer.

We will be fine, his grandfather said. Your father knows what he’s doing.

Three months later, his grandfather was dead, and Pruitt and his father were the sole proprietors of a chicken farm, where every eight weeks, a Fayetteville Farms truck would come to pick up chickens for slaughter, the terms and conditions of the chicken houses built to their specifications based on the best science. Fayetteville Farms, of course, did not pay for the necessary upgrades: that was on Pruitt and his father. They took out bank loans and for a few years, the money was good, the work was straightforward. Everything about their financial arrangement was just fine. Until one day, like high winds and storms that suddenly form into a tornado, it wasn’t.

 

What happens to those dogs? Pruitt asked.

Thomas smiled thinly. They’re slaughtered.

I know that, I mean, you know, how.

I see, Thomas focused on a point over Pruitt’s shoulder. It’s quite elegant. We control all facets of meat production now. We collect dogs from shelters all throughout the region, check their health, then bring them to you. We genetically test their breed, or breeds, as it usually is with mutts, and scientifically determine the best food for their size in order to optimize growth. That’s why your houses are so different, why particular breeds are taken to particular houses. We want to make sure they are eating the proper mixture of carbohydrates, proteins, and amino acids. We transport these dogs to you, you feed and care for them for eight weeks, and then we bring them back to the plant, where they are funneled into chutes.

Chutes? Like a slide?

It’s beautiful to see, the efficiency. Thomas’s eyes were glassy. The dogs are hung upside down on hooks and decapitated, then skinned. They travel down a line for disassembly. People in hairnets and white aprons and white masks and white hats cuts them apart by hand. Then we take the meat and batter it, cook it, and freeze it, sealing the product in airtight bags. Then we ship them to the appropriate markets.

Don’t seem right. Thomas stood very close, towering over him, and a tremor of fear bubbled through his chest. I just want to live in peace.

And you will, Thomas said. You always will.

He was lightheaded, feeling weightless and unsteady. He set his beer can down on the arm of the chair.

Something ain’t right, Pruitt said.

That is so true, Pruitt. That is very, very true.

The dogs were quiet. No scratches, no sounds. Pruitt rolled his head back. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, it was dawn. Thomas’s car was gone. Around his feet was a larger collection of beer cans than Pruitt remembered drinking; there was even an empty bottle of Old Crow floating in the cooler water. Did they drink whiskey? Pruitt’s vision fogged, and he stumbled into the kitchen and made toast and drank orange juice and tried to shake the visions from his head, the visions of dogs attacking him, his legs churning, feeling teeth grip his flesh and pull the muscles from his bones.

On the morning of his father’s suicide, Pruitt had slid out of bed and tugged on the jeans and t-shirt he found on the floor directly next to his bed, the discarded pile of a drinker. He thumped barefoot into the hall and down the stairs, his mouth dry and cottony. He drank two glasses of water from the kitchen sink and then went to the coffee machine, freshly made but only half filled, and assumed his father had been up for a while. His father had always been an earlyriser. Pruitt poured himself a cup and set it down on the counter. He stared at it for a moment, chewing over the idea of pouring a splash of bourbon into it, aware that his was the behavior of a drunk, and yet the idea gripped him like a fist, and he didn’t quite know what to make of this desire, this need.

He picked up his coffee. No bourbon. He stepped out on the back porch and took a long gulp of the hot coffee, savoring the way it almost burned his throat. He held the chipped Razorbacks mug with two hands and leaned against the railing. It’s pretty here, he thought, a thought as clear and sonorous in his mind as the desire of bourbon had been just a moment ago. Funny how the brain works. He shook his head and lifted the mug to his lips. When his eyes were over the mug’s lip, he saw something in the yard that didn’t look right. His thoughts slowed. This was a shape. This was the shape of a man. This was the shape of a man that resembled my father. This is my father. What’s he doing in the grass? Why isn’t he moving?

Pruitt always came back to, this moment of indecision. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had known his father shot himself; the bullet that went into the right side of his father’s skull had killed him instantly. And the grief he felt, the type of terrifying bone wrenching he would feel for months, even now, sometimes, as he walked away from the dogs and back to his father’s home, would always remain, would always be unavoidable. There was nothing to do. Yet, Pruitt could not shake the belief that his hesitation, his inability to see his father in that moment, was a character flaw so deep and intractable into who he was that he could not help but puzzle over it, turn it in his hands, feel the hardness of this enigma, and study this flaw with inexhaustible patience.

 

As the summer dragged into autumn, Pruitt watched his bank account dwindle. Fayetteville Farms set the price for its dogs based on weight, and when there were fewer dogs, there was less money. The men in the green toxic waste suits continued to collect the dead dogs, continued to deliver new ones, continued to get their data reports from the computers that helped control the dog houses. All of it was programmed by Pruitt: the automated feeders, the ventilation systems, the water lines, the thermostats, and he had been following the guidelines with precision. And still dogs were dying.

Pruitt hadn’t been sleeping. He might as well be in the desert again. Now when he brought the dead dogs out, he knew the living are barking and growling not at the corpses, but at Pruitt. It was his fault. All of this was his fault.

It was late October and Pruitt sat at the dining room table, the entire surface covered in paper—bank statements, legal threats, credit card statements, torn envelopes, foreclosure warnings—and in front of him was a plate with a half-eaten Pop Tart. He didn’t know what to do: his mailbox was filled daily and his phone rang all day, always unanswered, from numbers he didn’t recognize. His voicemail was filled; he didn’t even bother with his email. All across the area, chicken farmers had gone bankrupt. His father had seen that coming for years. But the dog farm was supposed to be the way out of his problems. How did he not see this coming?

 

When the dogs stopped howling, Pruitt knew that Cook was here. He sat upright and listened carefully for the sounds of the Kia crackling along the gravel, of footsteps, of a doorbell. There was no noise. He had a sudden, powerful wish to have his gun. When Cook knocked, Pruitt took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and then said as loud and calm as he could, Come in.

Cook entered, the screen door batting once against the frame, and he looked down the hallway into the darkness before turning and facing Pruitt. He smiled at Pruitt, then smiled at the papers covering the table. He stepped closer and stood tall and true at the opposite end of the long table, and wrapped his fingers on the nearest chair. It’s not over yet, Pruitt.

I’m broke, Thomas. Can’t make the payments.

There is always a solution, Pruitt. Always. You just have to think through your problems, consider the possibilities. Look at Fayetteville Farms? Chicken, beef, pork. What to do, where to go. Why not dogs? Why not a different type of meat? Who would have thought of that? Only a company unwilling to break, unwilling to say ‘It’s over.’ Do
you see my point, Pruitt?

The dogs are dying, Thomas. It ain’t my fault.

Cook released the chair and walked along the side closed to the windows. He ran a finger along the table as if checking for dust and when he was close, he stopped and made a fist.

Did you really do everything you could, Pruitt?

Sweat ran down his face; he was hot and cold at once, his skin sticky. Yet, he could not move, as if his limbs were no longer a part of his own body. Fear gnawed at him. He thought about the papers he would have to sign to declare bankruptcy. All of it would be gone: his grandfather’s land, his father’s business, his entire life. It had been just six months, barely a half year, since the first group of sick dogs had arrived.

I’m lost, Pruitt said.

Thomas smiled cruelly at Pruitt. He raised his fist, uncurled his fingers, and placed his hand on Pruitt’s shoulder. His touch was shockingly cold and a tremor of shame ran through Pruitt’s chest. I’m sorry, Pruitt blubbered, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.

I know you are, Pruitt. But what I want to hear is what you’re going to do about it. Break down to build up. Do you see? Do you understand?

Pruitt raised his head and looked the length of the dining room table, across the hallway, beyond the dark family room, and out the window into the woods. With a calm whose source he could not find, he said, Yes, I understand.

Good. Pruitt released his shoulder and without another word turned away, crossed the room, walked out the front door, and drove away. Pruitt sat with his hands in his lap, listening for a long time to the silent night, before rising and walking through his house to turn off every light. He showered, shaved, and then slipped naked between his sheets and stared unmoving at the ceiling until he fell asleep.

In his nightmare, there were shadowy figures outside his blinds. The silhouettes moved toward his air conditioner, lifted and opened a sack, and tilted its mouth down into the vent. The air conditioner kicked on and the machine blew a thin white powder into the room. Poison. Pruitt knew it was poison. Yet his legs were paralyzed. He kicked and kicked and they refused to move. The cloud drifted toward him, swimming like it had arms, like it was gently paddling over to his face. When he opened his mouth to scream, no noise came out. He tried again. Nothing. He stretched his jaw as far as he could and screamed from the pit of his stomach, a burn rippling through his throat, and an ear-piercing silence filled his ears.

Pruitt sat up. He was awake. Sunlight laddered through the blinds. He was soaked in his own sweat. He bolted to the window, fingered open the blinds, and saw the driveway was empty. He pressed his forehead against the pane, the cool October air making the glass soothingly cold. Pruitt tapped his skull against the pane. Then he did it again, harder. He heard the glass crack.

Pruitt pulled on his jeans and work boots and went into the living room. He took his shotgun from the closet, loaded the weapon, and pocketed extra shells. He ripped open the front door and aimed the barrel out into the yard. He checked his 25, his 50, his 100, and the treeline. No one. The stench of his own sour breath filled his nostrils. He stepped outside, and when he was certain there was no one waiting for him, he raced to the nearest dog house.

He entered and immediately the barking began. He logged into the computer and tapped in his code. The lights turned on. Pruitt keyed in his command. The monitor stated, Are you sure? Pruitt confirmed it, and all the low level cages sprang open. Pruitt scrambled between the rows, and reaching behind each dog, unlatched the catheters from their hinds. The stench was horrible. The dogs staggered out of their cages and snarled. Pruitt went from cage to cage, unlatching each dog. He climbed up the ladder and detached each and every dog. His hands were covered in shit, piss, and blood, and he wiped it off on his jeans and jacket until it no longer did any good.

Still carrying the shotgun, he strode to the CAT and turned the key. He turned the forklift toward the cages and brought them down as many at a time as he could. The dogs stumbled out of the cages; some fell out, some limped, some collapsed on the concrete floor, their tongues panting out. Some of the dogs in the cages were already dead. A few dazed dogs stumbled out through the open barn door and stood sniffing the Arkansas air.

Run! Pruitt screamed. He fi red two shots into the ceiling. The dogs howled and scattered into a semicircle, staring at Pruitt. It didn’t matter. They would know. They had to know. Pruitt raced to the second house, looking back over his shoulder at the pack of dogs standing uncertain on the field.

He kept thinking he heard sirens—police cars, fire trucks, he didn’t know what— but no one came. Nothing stopped him from dislodging all the dogs, from emptying all the cages, and then there were thousands of dogs, thick and muscular like small bulls, not running for their freedom but standing in confused groups surrounding their cages. Pruitt, covered in the waste of dying and deceased dogs, stood and watched as their muzzles turned up toward the sunless sky, their nostrils tremoring with the distant smells of the Ozarks. Not a single one barked. The silence of the dogs was unnerving and Pruitt knew he stood with his mouth open, that he wore an incredulous expression of amazement and fury and horror. Why did they stand there? Why didn’t they run?

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.

Michael Nye is the author of two books, the story collection STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION and the novel ALL THE CASTLES BURNED. His writing has appeared in American Literary Review, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Epoch, Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among many others. He is the editor-in-chief of Story.