Royal was counting the swings of the door to the diner. Everyone coming into the Countryside Grill were calm and composed. There was no sign of Ebner. It was 11 and it was almost time for Royal’s first route throughout Todd County. He liked the Countryside Grill because it served lunch at the same time as breakfast. It had a delicious Reuben Wrap with homemade Sauerkraut. Royal was a bit overweight for a sheriff’s deputy, so he wanted to watch his carbs.
Besides the Countryside Grill having good food, it was the cleanest eatery for miles. The booths were a plain red. The curtains a plain white. The tables a plain brown. It was the most mundane place around, which made it the best place to commune with the locals. Ebner had bothered him for three straight days about the old slaughterhouse just outside of Long Prairie. Ebner kept saying that place was working at night for a few hours. Some people were powering it up and turning on all the lights. Ebner lived outside the town on a high hill with a crooked river splitting his property like an unhealthy hair. He hated the slaughterhouse when it was running. It would run blood throughout his property. Everything smelled like salt.
Now the factory was silent, and Ebner still couldn’t be happy.
The door of the Countryside Grill opened again. It was January. Every footstep had a squish of slush and dirt beneath it. The restaurant smelled like grease. Royal was sipping his coffee when he heard the panicked thud of snow boots approaching the entrance. The door swung open and a wave of panting entered the Countryside.
“It was there. It was there again. I saw it all come to life,” Ebner said. He slammed his body onto the seat opposite of Royal. He knocked over the little plastic prison of sugar packets with his elbow. Royal just sighed. Ebner smelled like cigarettes and body odor, it made him wince behind his face.
“When’s the last time you took a shower, Ebner?” Royal said. He wasn’t going to be friendly this time.
Ebner was pushing 80, though he looked older. He’d lost all his teeth, hair, and sense of style. He was wearing a snowmobile jumpsuit, which was once purple, but now it was covered in a thin layer of dirt and oil. His skin had the same grime, which made it look like Ebner had been a mechanic for some giant robotic armor from an 80’s sci-fi show.
“What? Huh? Oh I don’t know. I don’t care either. You got to come up to the trailer at nightfall, Royal. Someone is in there doing stuff. They power the whole thing up. I’m shocked you can’t see it from the city,” Ebner said. His voice was husky like a dried up corncob.
“That plant has been closed for three years, Eb. Why would someone reopen it without us knowing about it, and to slaughter animals besides? That’s about as bizarre as it gets,” Royal said.
“I don’t know. Just come up to the trailer after dark and check it out for yourself. I mean seriously. Seriously. It’s your job. You’re a cop,” Ebner said.
“I’m a sheriff’s deputy. I don’t just investigate anything anymore,” Royal said.
“Oh. Oh. Then what is that you do? Aren’t you still an officer of the law,” Ebner said.
“I mostly serve warrants now, Eb. I can relay the issue to someone else, but I can’t just go up there and check it out,” Royal said.
Ebner put both his hands on the white table and rested his forehead on the edge of it. It was a bit a dramatic, even for country living, and Royal instantly started to suck air into his mouth. Saying no to a local made him uncomfortable, even if was someone as paranoid as Ebner.
“I’m sorry, Eb. I just don’t deal with that stuff anymore,” Royal said.
Ebner started to shake a little bit.
“I’ve, I’ve watched them, the ones turning on the plant. I went onto the property this last night and there was a one person inside in on the factory floor. I only saw them for a second. They scared me. I’ve never seen anything like them before, ever. It was a really tall person, with a massive hood on. I think he had to have been like eight feet tall. He was carrying giant axes or something. They were gold and hanging from his arms,” Ebner said.
“Jesus, Ebner. What kind of TV have you been watching lately?” Royal said. He sunk back into the booth. He was embarrassed for the old man.
“I, I thought it was some sort of satanic cult or something,” Ebner said.
“Cult? Satan? You need to stop watching those old Twilight Zone episodes. I mean. Seriously. Ebner, keep your voice down. Besides, what would a satanic cult want with an abandoned slaughterhouse,” Royal said.
Both men’s eyes darted back and forth as a few people walked by the booth. The door swung casually open like a half-healed scab.
“It, the person, it followed me back to the trailer. It came right up to the window behind my sink. It moved like it was not there. It moved like it wasn’t walking on the ground.”
“Jesus, Ebner. Again. Again. What the hell?” Royal said.
Ebner sunk a little bit more into the polyester.
“It, it wasn’t human,” Ebner said. He coughed a little bit as he said it.
Royal sighed, and threw a ten-dollar bill down at the edge of the table.
“Come, come up there with me tonight and see it for yourself, Royal. I know you won’t be disappointed,” Ebner said. He grabbed Royal’s hand. One of Ebner’s nails scratched him, and made the sheriff deputy jump a little.
“Ebner, you’re an old friend, so I’ve been humoring you. Keep your mind on reality. I know it gets lonely up there since Virginia left you. I’d be imagining things too. I just can’t do anything about this right now. I’ll, I’ll stop by in a few days,” Royal said, standing up. Ebner didn’t say anything. He just stared ahead at the diner’s counter, which was swimming with cigarette smoke and brewed coffee.
“Right,” Ebner said.
Three days passed and Royal didn’t get interrupted again at breakfast. The first day he was thankful. The second day he was comfortable but uncomfortable, like when you walk up the stairs winded but feel like you accomplished something. The third day he listened for Ebner’s boots on the soaked and gritty mat just inside the door. He watched for the old man’s shadow against the morning sunlight.
After his shift, which ended around 8 pm, Royal decided to take a little trip up to Ebner’s trailer. It was just outside of town where the land yawns open in jumps of prairie between each little household. There weren’t a lot of younger people left anymore in Long Prairie. They’d all moved to the city for better jobs. Now, when driving at night through the dipping roads and meandering twists, which gleamed like a concrete spine against the surrounding void, Royal felt isolated and alone. How did Ebner live out here?
Royal past the meat packing plant as he approached Ebner’s gravel driveway. It was dark, empty, and desolate against the gleam of winter starlight. There was a huge tall fence surrounding the factory, along with two ominous buildings. One was a shed, where the trucks were loaded with the kills. The other was a two-story square with shattered windows and a wide belly. This was the killing floor, where they’d haul the meat in and out.
“See? Nothing. Jesus, what’s going on,” Royal said, as he turned left onto Ebner’s property. The road snaked-up through an old forest that looked like a bunch of staggered skeletons. Ebner’s paranoia had made everything Royal notice a nightmare from an X-Files episode.
Royal pulled up into a clearing just outside Ebner’s trailer. The air was silent. A few trucks echoed by on the highway. The wind bubbled on the snow like little footsteps. The front door was swinging open on the brown side-by-side. Royal immediately panicked and pulled his gun. He was suddenly very self-conscious of his physical appearance. His shirt and vest started to strangle him. His overweight body felt like a piece of corn that was about to pop.
“Ebner! Ebner come out of there? Are you okay? What is going on?” Royal yelled. A shadow-heavy gust banged the door against the trailer like it wanted an answer.
“Ebner! Ebner! Ebner?” Royal yelled again. He slowly approached the trailer. His legs almost walked into themselves. He pulled out his flashlight and dangled it over his wrist with his gun. His training was kicking in. The door had icicles on the bottom of it, and the carpet was covered with frost. The heat had gone out on the trailer. Royal could feel a breeze coming from the midsection of the mobile home. He shined a halo of blue light over it.
Only blood and bile answered back.
The entire wall was ripped apart, only it was etched in lines of blood like the opening to some sort of wound. Whatever had attacked, and most certainly killed Ebner came through the wall at him like a primal force. It had ripped the sink out of the wall, and torn the trailer in half. The air smelled sour with entrails and half-frozen skin. A strip of clothing with some flesh still attached, dangled like a mobile for a crib just above where Ebner’s body had been shredded.
Royal panicked and jumped out of the trailer. He was holding some vomit in his left hand. He didn’t know how it got there. The world wouldn’t level out as he quickly radioed for backup. He watched his breath pool outwards like he was making clouds. After he got done talking, he slowly staggered over to his squad car. He leaned his chin on its roof. The cold stung, but it helped him. It made him equalize.
Then he saw it.
Across the little valley between Ebner’s trailer and the slaughterhouse, a single streetlight turned on just outside the gated factory. It beamed bright and alive, like it had been watching this entire time.
“Light, there’s a light?” Royal said.