Stuck in Your Craw

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Today the ride to the factory feels way too short. I'd rather keep climbing hills with my thighs on fire than having to confront an apparently irrational community full of bad thoughts about me and my own. Why did I come here again?

To investigate. That was Domenica's idea, wasn't it. I'm no detective. The idea of snooping around at my workplace doesn't give me thrills, it gives me chills. What if I get caught? Will they hand me over to the cops? Or will I, as I suspect, end up disappearing mysteriously like Leon and Rodrigo did?

Thinking of them keeps me going. I can't think of them as seriously in danger, even less... gone. I've got to find them no matter what. How could I live with myself if I just turned my back on them? It's a good way to become brave, sometimes: you just find something that scares you more.

This time around, I leave my bike in the bushes near the entrance of the factory. Just in case. It all looks very quiet: there's not even the line of people applying yet. I enter the changing room like it's a coffin.

Strangely, being in the ugly overalls is reassuring: I feel like I'm blending in more naturally now. Add some poop to my boots and I'd probably be completely invisible. Maybe I can pull this off, as long as two-faced Dave isn't on my case. Just as I think of Dave, walking among the empty coops that we still have to clean, suddenly he's there.

"Hey stranger," he says, "ready for another beautiful day?"

Energetic and wild-looking with his deep creases and tangled shoulder-length gray hair, Dave is just like usual. Hard to believe he's the reason my lover almost got hurt yesterday. Thinking about it makes me rage inside, but I keep quiet. Now is not the time.

"Yeah," I say, "another poop-cleaning day, I guess." Matching his enthusiasm is beyond me, but I think I'm doing pretty well. Still, I gotta watch my back. Maybe this is all a calculation to make me drop my guard. I can't know for sure anymore.

He keeps making small talk today, as we go through the motions and scrape that new coop clean. Isn't he too happy today? Did he get rewarded when he snitched about Domenica or something? At some point, he just stops there and looks at the sky outside, through the green plastic fence of the windows. In case I still had any doubt: no, he hasn't been given a job here for his competence.

"You know," he suddenly says, "crappy as this job looks, I think I've had some fun times here. I enjoyed working with you."

It was fun? Let's not explode. He's my only lead on who attacked us and he sounds like he's weaseling out. "Are you going anywhere?" I say, trying to make myself sound open to the idea. I'm not sure my facial expressions follow that stretch.

He rolls a cigarette and lights it up. "Yeah," he says, then he stretches. "I've spent too long here and the atmosphere is going bad. I'd better move along. If I may suggest something, you should run too. Shit's about to hit the fan."

"Is that a threat?" I say, unable to contain myself. Oh well. I guess it's not me to be cautious and walk around stuff. If things go wrong, I'm not afraid to use my deadly concrete scraper. "Are you telling me to run before you set your friends off on me too?"

"What?" he says. "No! What are you talking about? Did someone attack you?"

Fine. He wants to pretend. Let's see how that goes. "Stop playing around," I say. "You're the only person that knows what Domenica is doing because I told you yesterday, and look at what happens hours later? She got people from the factory, visibly not in their right minds, attacking her at her front door, trying to give her a scare and chasing me through part of the town. Are you suggesting this is a coincidence? Because I'm not buying it."

"Is Domenica the girl you talked to me about?" he says. "Is she OK?"

This is not going the way I expected at all. Damn, he's good. I don't think I'm a very good spy. "She's fine," I say, "and I'm not telling you anything about her anymore."

He sighs. "OK, Deb, as much as I sympathize with you and your friend, and I can imagine that it was very upsetting, you're going to have to calm the fuck down because I'm not gonna stand there and take it." He looks at me in the eye. "I didn't sic anyone on your friend, I didn't even know she lived in town until you told me right now. My guess is, the thing that's pushing all that negative energy out around here got pissed that someone was trying to study it."

And how would they know how to find her? Paranormal address book? I guess that objection applies to him, too. Shit. Am I yet again charging him with bad intentions he doesn't have?

"How do I know I can trust you?" I say.

He shrugs and walks a little further towards the windows. "You don't. Listen, you've had issues with me from day one. You either like me or you don't. I'm not here to win a popularity contest and as I said, I won't be around this place for much longer anyway."

"Where are you going?"

"I don't know," he says. "I know you don't believe in that stuff but these events, these weird energies, I tend to be right in the middle of it every time. Usually, I bear with it as much as I can and if things get too weird I move on. Things are getting pretty weird right now, in case you haven't noticed the other workers."

"I know," I said, humbled. I'm pretty inclined to believe him now. "We think it's a cult operating, possibly one that would be strengthened by... rituals? It still feels weird to talk about that kind of thing seriously. I thought you were one of them, so..."

He shakes his head in negation. "This isn't an atmosphere brought about by prayers and shenanigans. Haven't you noticed the weather? If people could do that just by chanting, we would have no need for science."

I'm sort of offended. We put some real thought into that with Domenica. I don't like being scienced by an old guy who borrows half of his vocabulary from New Age therapists. "What's the other explanation?" I say, ticked off.

"Well, if you look at it for a while it doesn't make sense. First, way too little raw power to cause localized climate change, storms and the like. Plus if you look at them you can see how empty their eyes are, right?"

"I guess," I say reluctantly. What does that have to do with anything?

"That and other little clues shows they're probably not in full control of their actions. So, how could they be the puppets and the puppeteer at the same time? I stand by my previous theory which was that a very powerful entity is either pissed or trying to achieve some degree of control over this area. Either way, I'm not waiting for a literal hell to open up below my feet before I get the fuck away. I suggest you do the same." The still lit cigarette's butt joins the dung pile, making its smell a lot worse for a moment. It's peppery and acidic at the same time. I don't want to work here until I get used to it. But...

"I can't leave like this," I say. "I got family here, friends..." I think of Domenica. "What am I supposed to do if the situation is as bad as you say? Organize an exile? Leave everyone to fend off for themselves, no matter how dire the situation turns out?"

Dave has gone back to scraping perfunctorily. "That's a lot better than getting caught in it, as far as I know. You're allowed to do whatever you want, but maybe you should restrict your heroics to the problems you know how to solve. What's happening here is something neither you nor I have a good grip on. Who you gonna save?"

I don't have an answer ready for this, so I just keep quiet. There's a lot of cleaning to be done here anyway. We keep scraping the floor and shovel the contents into our wheelbarrow.

There's not a lot that could reassure me right now. I feel so unsure about what I should do. Is leaving really the only option? Will I even consider it, if Domenica, Tig or my parents are staying?

While I dispose of my piles of refuse, the ground keeps slightly shaking and the 'meat chute' beside me lets out a metallic groan, like it's hungry.

A disturbing sign of bad things to come.


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