All My Pretty Chickens
Harold wasn't one of those people who prayed to the chickens, but he would use them as sounding boards from time to time, and he did so on the morning his only granddaughter was scheduled to leave for Mars.
"Supposed to take six months to get there," Harold said.
They flocked around him, silent and flickering. Harold stood at the kitchen counter, waiting for his coffee to brew. He watched the chickens pass through his kitchen table legs, the corners of his cabinets, his ankles, oblivious to their surroundings. Even the hazelnut aroma of the coffee couldn't chase away the faint barnyard stench of straw and shit that always accompanied them.
"Give or take a week or two, so they say," said Harold. "Guess it depends on how many passengers and how much stuff they're carrying with them."
One of the birds, a fat red rooster with a spray of black feathers on one side, picked at non-existent bits of food and scratched one foot against the linoleum.
"What I'm thinking is, when Isabelle goes to Mars, she's not likely to come back, no matter what she says. Certainly not to live here again. Probably not even to visit."
Harold cut up some strawberries and a banana for his breakfast. When the coffee was finished, he poured a cup and took a seat at the table. The chickens paid him no mind.
"Truth be told I find the fact that you can just buy a one way ticket to Mars a little bit hard to fathom."
He hated the fact that he was talking to the chickens. Probably a sign of some sort of looming dementia. But there were few people on earth he cared to talk to anymore. And soon to be one fewer. After eating, he put his cup, plate, and knife in the dishwasher, and plucked his car keys from the hook by the front door. Isabelle had to arrive at the launch port by noon, and Harold was her ride.
"I really don't want her to go," he said.
The chickens didn't offer any opinions.
Where were you the day the chickens came back? It was an icebreaker question that almost everyone had an answer for. What were you doing on that morning years ago when all of our world's dead chickens began appearing, one by one, in spectral form?
Harold had an answer that always kicked anyone else's answer in the ass.
"I was in a hospital lobby, waiting for my daughter to die."
Isabelle's hand was cold in his. Sticky with blood that he should have helped her clean off but there was so much of it and the day had accelerated into a blur so quickly that Harold's mind hadn't entirely caught up with events.
He couldn't remember if it was the hospital or the police who called him, or even how he got there, but Isabelle had been waiting with a nurse, amazingly unharmed by the car accident that had killed her father instantly and put her mother in emergency surgery.
Together they sat, the pale, slack ten-year-old girl and her suddenly broken grandfather. His son-in-law, Derek, a young man Harold had always liked for the way he treated his daughter, was dead. Beyond saving. Harold's daughter, whom he and his deceased wife had named Angie after their favorite Rolling Stones song, was undergoing surgery to repair damage to her brain. Harold was no doctor, but the prognosis did not sound promising.
Isabelle had not yet spoken to Harold or anyone else. She pressed her head against his shoulder, taking slow, shallow breaths. She wore her soccer uniform, but one shoe had been lost somewhere along the way.
Hours passed. Then Isabelle's chin darted up and Harold followed her gaze. Someone had let a chicken loose in the hospital and it had sauntered around the corner into the waiting room.
A few more followed, and other families in the waiting room began to notice. To Harold the chickens looked…insubstantial? The day had levied too high a tax on his sanity and he could almost swear they were transparent.
It was then, when orderlies began gathering to shoo the chickens away, when the sitcom that had been seeping quietly from the ceiling-mounted television had been interrupted by a news bulletin describing the appearance of chickens all over the country, when Isabelle stood, lopsided in her one shoe to reach out and pet one of the chickens, that the surgeon materialized at Harold's side, took him a few steps away from the chaos and informed him that his thirty-six-year-old daughter was dead.
That night, Harold had tucked Isabelle into the lower bunk bed in his spare bedroom, the one she always used when she came over for her weekend visits. The one, he supposed, that would now be her permanent bed.
His heart had not stopped racing, even with the anxiety pills the doctor had given him. He'd imagined they might dull his grief but they had only muddied it. The grief was still there, looming and hostile, one hand gently around his throat so that he felt any second he might begin to suffocate. Certainly others had lived through this sort of emotional trauma, but Harold saw no way of getting to the other side of it. He did his best to suppress it around Isabelle, to pretend everything would be fine when she woke up. It was a terrible lie, but necessary.
Isabelle had eventually cried for a bit at the hospital, but had since settled back into the same state of serene shock that had greeted Harold earlier in the day. This terrified him more than if she'd been outright hysterical.
"Do you need anything?" he asked. "Some more water?"
She shook her head, covers up over her chin.
"Should I leave the nightlight on?"
He turned off the lamp, leaving only the warm glow of the Winnie the Pooh nightlight to spill across the bed. He looked back at her before leaving the room and she was smiling. The smile unsettled him, and he considered that it might be a hallucination, a product of his meds.
"Isabelle, are you okay?"
"Do you remember those chickens today?" she asked.
The chickens. One of the biggest events of their lifetime, one that conjured up hundreds of questions about life, death, religion, the universe, and yet it seemed so insignificant. Harold couldn't muster up the energy to care.
"Were they dead?" she asked.
"I don't know for sure," said Harold. "I don't think anybody knows for sure yet."
"But you could see through them," said Isabelle. "Like they were ghosts. I tried to touch one and my hand went through it."
"Did it tickle?" Harold was thankful that Isabelle had something other then her dead parents to occupy her thoughts. He would open up the front door and let a barnyard full of chickens stroll in to entertain her if it helped her through this situation.
"No, Grampy. It didn't tickle. It just felt like nothing. I think they're ghost chickens. I hope that's what they are."
Harold kind of hoped they were too, and he realized that he and his granddaughter had reached the same desperate conclusion. If God or whoever had sent back a bunch of dead chickens, then maybe the dead they were mourning might be next in line.
By the time Isabelle graduated from high school, she'd cut loose any notion of ever seeing her parents again.
The chickens were so numerous by then that many people simply chose to ignore them. They were part of the scenery, like other cars passing by on the highway or songs playing quietly in the background at a restaurant. Others formed religions, became militant vegetarians, spent every waking hour probing the mystery. None of them gained much from their efforts.
Isabelle, like many, had grown to resent the chickens and everything they represented.
Harold, though, remained fascinated.
As much as Harold wanted to be late, maybe to cause Isabelle to miss her launch, he was right on time. She stuffed two large duffels containing everything she was taking with her—everything worth keeping—told her roommate goodbye, and then she and Harold were edging into the forever traffic of Houston, working their way around the loop toward Intercontinental Airport and the launch site extension they'd built there a few years back.
Isabelle was in high spirits for someone who was leaving her entire life behind, and Harold did his best not to spoil her mood. She had the radio tuned to a station playing a bunch of okay sounding rock and roll that he didn't recognize. At least it had guitars.
"Glad you picked me up early," said Isabelle. "It's like everyone's headed to the airport at the same time."
"You're supposed to be there two hours ahead of time for a launch," said Harold. "That's what it says on the website. We'll get you there on time."
"I never doubted you." Isabelle grinned at him. Twenty-three, fresh out of college, with a job for a multinational (multi-planetary?) technology company that did things with computers that Harold hadn't bothered to understand. Isabelle had explained it to him once but the programming jargon had baffled him. The one thing he took away from the conversation was that she could have had a similar job in Houston but she was taking the job on Mars. She said it would be an adventure, a good opportunity. And maybe it was. But Harold believed he understood her motives for leaving better than Isabelle did herself.
"So I expect calls every day," he said. "Or at least once a week."
"Of course," she said. "But it's not technically a call. There's sort of a delay. Kind of like voice texting I guess."
"Whatever, don't forget to check in. A lot."
"It's not like I'm going forever."
But that was exactly what it was like. Harold knew it in his bones. Isabelle had been trying to pull away from her life for years, and once she got free she'd never come back.
Harold's expression soured and Isabelle sensed his mood change before he could catch himself.
"I know what you're thinking but please don't start."
"Don't start what?" he asked. "I'm just driving."
"I'm going, Grampy. You're not going to change my mind, okay?"
Blood rose into Harold's face. He was so weary of this argument. It was a lost cause and he hadn't wanted to resume it. This couldn't be the last memory of their life together. But Isabelle gave him the same headstrong look that had frustrated him when she was a child, and would forever frustrate him. The look of a kid who knows better than you do. And in the moment he just couldn't let it go without one more volley.
"I've told you I'm happy for you," he said. "I'm not trying to stop you anymore. I'm resigned to the fact you're moving to Mars, okay? I just don't think you're going for the right reasons."
"I'm going because I've been offered a job," she said. "A good job."
"You're running away," he said.
"So running away from problems isn't something you're supposed to do," said Harold. "It's not what you were raised to do."
"Yeah? Well all I know is there are no chickens on Mars. And that makes it a better place to be than here."
"Why does that matter?" asked Harold.
"God, you know why it matters."
And he did. Harold understood completely, whether he liked admitting it to himself or not.
"Nobody is ever coming back," said Isabelle. "And I'm fine with that."
"We don't really know," said Harold.
"Yes we do."
"We can't be certain," said Harold.
Isabelle leaned her head against his shoulder, like she always had as a child. She was kind enough to cut the argument short, to make something better of their last hour together on Earth. To leave Harold his rickety hopes.
And he loved her all the more for it.
At the launch port, Harold dropped Isabelle off near the curb. They exchanged a hurried hug and more promises to stay close, despite the distance. There wasn't time for a proper goodbye, not with the line of cars behind them and the stiff security that disallowed non-travelers into the building. One second she was Harold's granddaughter, his only family, close to him in the car. And then she was a grown up, off on an adventure, no longer in need of a chaperone. It was possible that's what pained Harold most about the whole situation. Isabelle did not act like a little girl running away from her past. She was an excited young woman with her sights set on her best possible future.
Harold watched her for a second in the rearview, clutching her bags amid a crowd of travelers, all studiously ignoring the chickens passing through them, no more substantial than sunlight. He would not stay to watch the launch from the viewing lot. Couldn't stand the thought of hearing the blast of rocket engines, or watching as the launch craft blazed toward space, disappeared beyond the atmosphere. He watched Isabelle scroll her phone screen for her ticket, turn toward the bag check, and then she was gone from view.
Back on the loop, headed home, Harold was not surprised to notice a chicken in the passenger seat beside him. It sat still, barely bobbing its head, as if seated on some invisible nest. The chicken turned its eyes to Harold and blinked.
He realized he was crying, wiped the tears away with his sleeve. It seemed impossible that Isabelle was gone forever.
The chicken rode with him, all the way home, never turning its gaze from Harold. When they arrived, the chicken followed him inside and joined all the others that had flocked to his kitchen. They were as oblivious to his presence as ever, but the chicken from the car seemed aware of Harold's pain. It watched as he readied himself for bed, and slept near his feet in silence as Harold endured his first night alone on earth.
His dreams were of Isabelle at the launch pad, coming home this time, Harold and Angie and Derek all there to greet her with tears and kisses.
And surrounding them, stretched out to the horizon in every direction, a white sea of silent chickens.
Josh Rountree's short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Electric Velocipede, and Rayguns Over Texas. His work has received honorable mention in both The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, and The Year's Best Science Fiction. A collection of his stories, Can't Buy Me Faded Love, is available from Wheatland Press. Josh lives in Georgetown, TX with his wife and sons.