The Chicken Line

Written by Jendayi Brooks-Flemister

Illustration by Gutti Barrios

Length 3740 Words


Highlight to read content warnings:

Threats of violence.

 
A haunting bird-like face with large yellow eyes.

As Mrs. Wilson jumped out of her husband’s Dodge, edge of her lavender mop dress in hand, and planted herself firmly at the end of the line, her heart sank. There were at least a dozen others ahead of her, and there were never guarantees that everyone in line would walk out with what they’d come for. She huffed, trying to catch her breath and formulate just how much the people in front of her would buy before she could get up front. She leaned to the left to see who was at the front, but caught the eye of Maribel, an acquaintance from working at the clothing factory together. Maribel waved eagerly and gestured to the spot in front of her, to which Mrs. Wilson smiled curtly and shook her head no. She could feel people in line looking back at her, causing her already sweat-covered plump cheeks to grow even warmer in embarrassment. There was no way she’d skip in the chicken line, no matter how ready Maribel was to break the rules. She’d rather risk getting stuck with necks and feet and wingtips than get caught by the Farmer skipping and be forced to leave with nothing.

While Maribel waved at whoever was in the back to come forward, Joseph Lewis, seventh in line, felt his anger rise. It was bad enough they were out here boiling in the heat on a Thursday —his day off!— waiting for the Farmer to parse out rations for those who’d placed orders in advance and those who had poor planning. He didn’t understand why people couldn’t just send their orders in early, why people couldn’t just predict how much meat they’d need. It was bad a month ago, real bad, when Roger yelled at the Farmer for not having enough whole chickens to go around. The Farmer sent Roger home quickly that day, and Roger, in his anger, had thrown a punch at the Farmer. Joseph Lewis didn’t understand what that would solve, but he, like others in line, pulled Roger away and told him they didn’t want to get the Sheriff involved. And now people wanted to skip in line! There was just no order anymore.

Julio Martinez, third in line, shoved his hands into his faded blue jean pockets. He flexed his toes in his boots to make the pebbles beneath him crunch. Something wasn’t sitting right. He turned his head to look behind him again, not at Maribel trying to break the rules, but at the person right behind her. He was old, and going blind for sure, but not too old or blind to not know who came to the chicken line regularly. He’d never seen them before, at least not in the last couple years. And with how far out the nearest city was, he didn’t think this person was just a passerby. Whoever he was, Julio needed to watch him carefully.

Shawnee tensely pulled her daughter, Rosalita, closer to her side to maintain their sixth place in line. Since her husband, Luis, had picked up shifts at the factory, he’d been feeling sicker than before. Normally, Luis would bring Rosalita to the chicken line to help show her what to do, which Shawnee never quite agreed with —children were supposed to be safe indoors, after all! But it distracted their Rosa and gave them the quality time that he couldn’t afford with his factory job. It wasn’t often that Shawnee left home. The idea of being out here, in this terribly unkind world, made her teeth grate together and her tongue go dry. How much longer would things be like this? She certainly couldn’t stand worrying about her daughter’s future much longer. With Rosa ready to start school this fall, it would mean even more risks. Shawnee squeezed her left hand reflexively, causing her curly-headed daughter to whimper in protest. Too much danger out here. Maybe Rosa could wait another year or two.

The Stranger, fifth in line, pulled his jacket closed despite the slow burn of the Texan heat on his face. There were at least a dozen people in this line, and he could feel judgment crawling up his front and down his back as heads rotated to catch a glimpse of him. He reached instinctively for his machete, which he’d bought just a couple weeks ago from a dying man outside of Tucson. As the woman ahead of him turned around and the old man in front of her sucked his teeth in the Stranger’s direction, he decided that spending longer than a night in the area might just be a death sentence.

Though she never understood Mrs. Wilson’s coldness, Maribel at least knew that offering her friendship was better than pretending Mrs. Wilson didn’t exist. She turned to face the front of the line from her view in fourth, which, finally, had begun to stir as the Farmer began dishing out the first order of chicken parts. She reached into her black handbag she kept firmly clutched to her waist and, with the grace of a model she saw on television once as a little girl, rubbed a crimson gloss against her chapped lips. She smacked her lips together and apart, then whipped out a cracked hand mirror to give herself a look over. It popped about as well as any traded lipstick could against her pecan-brown skin. She wiped the bargained lipstick from her right front tooth and blew herself a kiss, then tilted the hand mirror ever so slightly to view the Stranger behind her. She wondered why he was avoiding eye contact, especially with looks like his. Everyone in town knew she was looking for a burly young man to take home and protect her while people were running around turning into monsters and beasts and whatnot. She didn’t understand it well, but she knew she wanted no part of it and would need a husband soon. What kind of lady would stand in the chicken line otherwise?

The line advanced.

Mrs. Wilson took a grateful step forward, though she was still embarrassed at having caused such a scene because of Maribel. She tried not to bring much attention to herself, as most others did nowadays. Not to say that she didn’t trust the people of the town or the people in the chicken line or the Farmer. But trust lately was hard to come by —with such sudden transformations, it was hard to rely on anyone. She leaned forward to see how long the Farmer would take with the current customer, then sighed and wiped her forehead with her elbow. If only she’d remembered to fill her canteen at the sanitation station before work. Her heels protested hard in her flats. She made an exhausted mental note to ask her husband for a foot massage when she got home.

Joseph Lewis, now sixth, waited until Maribel was done looking in her hand mirror before he turned around to look at Mrs. Wilson. He asked her if she was going to jump the line, to which she promised she’d never think about it. He took her for her word, then crossed his arms over his chest and stared ahead. Sweat dribbled down his neck and latched onto the fibers of his blue plaid t-shirt before they could get lost in his sea of back hair. Though the latest horrible news was never close to their community, he still felt painfully tense. From this angle, he could just make out the machete attached to the Stranger. His eyes flicked between the machete and Maribel, unaware and right in front of it, then back to the machete and up to the sweat-drenched back of the Stranger.

Julio Martinez, thankfully second now, watched the woman ahead of him calculating her total with the Farmer. She tried striking a deal, first forty for the pack of meat, then fifty at her highest, before they both settled on fifty-two. He shook his head in disappointment as the woman, flustered, counted her bills one by one and realized she didn’t have enough. Just set up a tab and pay next time or get out, what didn’t people understand about how the chicken line worked? If he were younger, he’d teach them all how to behave. It didn’t matter how much things had changed —respect was earned, and in the twenty-two years he’d been ordering chicken from this man, the Farmer had more than earned Julio’s respect.

As Rosalita reached for the Stranger’s machete, Shawnee, now fifth, drew back a scream and yanked her child, and herself, backward. The Stranger turned to look at them both with eyes that signaled a warning. In nearly being thrown to the ground for her curiosity, Rosa screeched in protest. Shawnee hefted her daughter into her arms to shush her and petted her thick black curls atop her head to soothe her. The whole time, she didn’t look away from the Stranger, who met her attention with equally bewildered caution.

Why didn’t he cover up the machete? The Stranger, now fourth, couldn’t have known there would be a five-year-old child in line eagerly drawn to shiny things. Even if he had, he couldn’t have come to the chicken line without wielding some kind of protection. While the child’s screams echoed into the empty barren landscape around them, his cheeks flushed in response to the line’s attention going directly to his unlucky encounter with this child and her mother. He looked at the mother in an attempt to calm her, but no amount of talking could’ve eased the deathly fear he saw in her eyes. The Stranger placed a hand over his machete, to try to cover it, which made the child’s mother flinch, and that made the child cry louder. He crossed his hands in front of him and desperately stared forward, past the others in line, at the Farmer, who had finally finished another transaction and needed to move this along a little faster.

Maribel hated kids, and she hated kids more when they cried and screamed and dribbled snot all over the place for no reason. She didn’t see what happened from third in line, and thus, she didn’t know anything about why the child was crying. But when she looked past the Stranger and saw Mrs. Shawnee Nuñez cradling the crying little Rosalita Nuñez, she felt herself getting angered. How dare this man upset that sweet girl? Whatever he’d done, she was sure she couldn’t forgive him. However, Maribel also knew that making a greater scene out of this would only make her look less desirable to any single men —Joseph Lewis— who might be eyeing her as a potential wife. Maribel whipped her head around to look ahead as the Farmer stepped away to prepare her pre-ordered package of ten thighs, seven necks, and four whole hens. While she reached into her black handbag to grab her cash, she couldn’t help but listen intently to whatever was happening behind her.

The line advanced.

Mrs. Wilson wished instantly that she’d brought her husband’s revolver to the line. She couldn’t see anything from the end of the line, but baby Rosalita’s scream stirred instinctive fear in her. Cold sweat forced itself through her pores. She wanted to see what was happening ahead, but she wouldn’t dare risk her safety. But it wouldn’t hurt to just take one peek, would it? Perhaps she could tell her husband about this —just the excuse she needed to get him to reduce his hours so she didn’t have to sit in the chicken line anymore. She scooted just a little to the left, just in time to see that Joseph Lewis had put himself between the Stranger and Shawnee and Baby Rosalita. Mrs. Wilson’s throat went dry, and she gripped the Dodge keys in her pocket, wishing desperately that they were something sharper.

Joseph Lewis, fifth and right behind the ruckus, was used to breaking up fights. The Stranger, in fear or defiance, gripped the machete and glared at Joseph Lewis. Joseph Lewis wasn’t a tall man by any means, but the way he commanded attention made him feel two feet taller than everyone around him. He felt like a battle-scarred grizzly bear that only ever came out of its den to protect its family or its territory. The chicken line, in that way, was his territory. And Maribel, supple and delicate, and Shawnee and her baby, terrified and tired, were his family. He didn’t have a weapon to go against a machete, but he didn’t need one. He liked to break up fights, not cause them. “Why don’t you get out of here, Stranger.” His voice didn’t ask, but commanded, demanded.

At the front of the line, Julio Martinez had just bagged up his order from the Farmer when the ruckus began behind him. In his age, he’d rather let the younger folks handle such nonsense. Still, though, the way Joseph Lewis tried to protect the women in line gave him a sense of pride he’d never felt before. He wasn’t close with anyone in line. The only folks he saw regularly were Mr. Wilson and the Farmer, so he didn’t have the same sense of community. But he knew Joseph Lewis. His late wife had taught Lewis and his sisters how to play piano. He’d always stayed out of the way of anything involving others, especially since his wife passed. But this was different. He turned to face the ruckus head on, and felt a pit drop into his stomach as Shawnee started hyperventilating on the ground. He stepped forward to help her, but terror kept him still.

This was exactly the kind of scene Shawnee was trying to avoid. She couldn’t breathe. She just wanted to get Rosa somewhere safe, away from this Stranger and his massive knife. When Joseph Lewis came from his spot in line and created a barrier between them, she wished so desperately to disappear. It was too dangerous out here. Rosa wasn’t safe. She wasn’t safe. Her breathing quickened, getting shallow and hollow with each heave of her lungs. She was on the ground, faster and faster. If only she hadn’t come out today. If only she’d left Rosa with someone to be less conspicuous, to get through this without drawing so much attention to herself. On the ground, Shawnee released an icy screech as her body, tensed in anxiety, sprouted layers upon layers of silvery-white feathers.

The Stranger backed up slowly from his spot in third. He swore he didn’t do anything to the woman or to the child. His eyes were locked on the woman on the ground as her arms nearly doubled in length, first gangly and horrific as unnatural bones appeared and extended from her elbows through her forearms. Within seconds, the light gray feathers that had appeared on her back were completely cloaking her body. They developed her gangly arms into patchy, massive wings. Her legs were long, feathered, and ended in four giant talons that gripped the clay beneath them. The woman —if the Stranger could still call her that— threw her head back as her nose elongated, hardened, and curved into a short black beak. Her face flattened and widened to resemble a barn owl’s, with bluish-white beady eyes. The little girl next to the woman’s side had stopped crying as the woman had transformed. She, like everyone else in line, could only watch.

Maribel had heard of the transformations happening around the country, but she’d never thought one could happen here, in their little chicken line. Not like this. She knew the people here, none of them were monsters. They weren’t supposed to be monsters. She could feel her chest constricting, her body paralyzed. She used Joseph Lewis like a shield, barely peeking over his shoulder to see what Shawnee Nuñez had become. A beast. A horrific monster, she needed to be locked up! Where was the Sheriff? Why wasn’t there more security at the chicken line if these things were such a threat? She looked at Rosalita, stunned on the ground next to what used to be her mother. With a burst of courage, Maribel ran over, scooped the child into her arms, and hid behind Joseph Lewis. Whatever happened to that beast next, she wouldn’t let this poor child see.

The line didn’t advance.

At the end of the line, Mrs. Wilson debated leaving the chicken line for fear that shots would go off. She stared ahead, then looked back at her husband’s Dodge, then back at the creature and the line before her. In her head, it was just strangers on the news before. This wasn’t supposed to happen here. Not to people she knew.

Joseph Lewis shifted his target from the Stranger to the bird-thing in front of him in the seconds after it transformed. The meek, small woman he knew before was suddenly twice his height and had a wingspan of at least twenty feet. He knew too little of these monstrosities, only that somehow, for some reason, random people would transform into different types of folkloric beasts. It had the whole community on edge, all of them keeping tabs on each other and taking care to only spend time with those they knew. That’s why the chicken line was safe —they all knew each other one way or another. At least, before the Stranger arrived, they did. Not that it even mattered, apparently. He wished desperately that he’d brought his shotgun. The last thing he would do was endanger Maribel, or the Farmer, or anyone here, but this was different.

Julio Martinez dropped everything and whipped out his pistol. He never used it —it was for scaring folks away from his property, usually. It was only ever loaded with one bullet. Because more would be dangerous and none would be foolish. As his gun appeared, the monster stared with icy white eyes that felt like a ghost had passed through him. “Stay down, beast.” It was all he could manage, but he knew it was enough to sound threatening. He’d heard of this new, strange phenomenon happening everywhere. He didn’t know what it meant, he didn’t know what any of it really meant. But he knew that this beast before him resembled the stories his grandmother told him as a boy, La Lechuza. A folktale everyone knew but no one remembered until their memory would be snapped to attention by this horror. He could’ve bet his life that the beast was fiction. And now his life was on the line. He cocked the gun, holding it steady at the beast’s owl face. “Please don’t,” it said. Its voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere —hollow, yet full-bodied. He hated it. “I’m sorry. Please,” it said again. He stepped forward, prepared to shoot this creature down the second it moved.

The Stranger wielded his machete like a knife. It was heavy, but he was well versed in the many ways to split a beast in half with it, if needed. Seeing this monster in front of him instantly drew him to remember the dying man in Tucson, another horrific creature he’d slit the throat of. This time would be no different. The old man at the front of the line with the gun seemed to understand just how much danger they were in, thankfully. The beast looked up at him with its awful, pupil-less eyes that sent ice through him. His grip on the machete tightened —no amount of pity would stop him from killing this thing in an instant. “Please,” it said to him and around him. He didn’t understand how its voice could be so awful, so loud and quiet. He shook his head. “Not today, beast.”

Maribel watched as the machete-bearing Stranger and old Julio Martinez enclosed the beast once known as Shawnee. She covered Rosalita’s eyes with her fingers. They could at least take care of this thing somewhere else so the child didn’t get traumatized even further. “Shh, that’s not your mommy, okay?” she cooed to the child, who had buried herself into Maribel’s thick black curls.

The Farmer sighed from the center of his being, low and deep. He’d been eyeing the situation carefully all day. He could tell that the Stranger looked like the type of guy who would put himself and his safety above anyone else’s, even at the risk of others. He was definitely risking a lot of lives, which disgruntled the Farmer. He heard and saw everything in line, from the time it formed early before he arrived until the last person in line walked away with their meats. He heard the threats and the fear his patrons had for La Lechuza beast before him. It saddened him to see how quickly they turned on that poor woman. They knew the news, they knew people couldn’t help what they became, and still they let fear take hold. What had these poor half-beasts done, besides exist in an ever-changing world that didn’t want to understand them? “Calm down,” his voice boomed out. Everyone turned to look at him. “Put the gun down, Martinez. She won’t hurt us.” Once the pistol lowered, the Farmer gestured for Shawnee to approach him. The ten-foot-tall beast approached cautiously and awkwardly, as if she weren’t sure how to walk on her talons or where she should put her draping wings. The Farmer pulled out a large cardboard box full of wrapped chicken legs and thighs and gizzards and whole hens. He placed it in front of the beast. “Take what you ordered, get your child, and go. No one’s going to hurt you while I’m here.” The owl beast nodded and grabbed the box clumsily with one of its clawed legs. It then hobbled over to Maribel and delicately reached a wing out to the child. The way Little Rosalita grabbed her mother’s wing told the Farmer instantly that she’d seen her mother’s form before. That she was comfortable with her mother like this. How different from the way her townspeople addressed her in the line at the same time. La Lechuza Shawnee, still panicked and frantically eying the people around her, accepted the Farmer’s nod of approval. As the owl-beast took flight, the Farmer turned back to the people in line and waved them forward as though nothing had happened.

The line advanced.

© Jendayi Brooks-Flemister

 
Rachael K. Jones

Born and raised in Georgia, North and South Carolina, Jendayi Brooks-Flemister (she/they) holds a BA in English from Cornell University and has recently completed her MFA in Fiction from North Carolina State University. Her experiences as a Black queer womxn have become the lens through which she filters the people, cultures, mental health issues, and experiences she writes about. Her fiction has appeared in Anathema Magazine and Santa Fe Writers Project, and is forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction. Jendayi is also currently working on her debut novel. She currently lives in Durham, North Carolina.