The Chickens, fiction by Jim Nichols

Arnold walked up the new­ly-plowed dirt road, feel­ing the brit­tle cold on his face, look­ing ahead at the cross­ing framed by high, clean snow banks. He knew that a week was prob­a­bly not long enough to stay away, but he was tired of wait­ing for the bus by him­self. His aunt would just have to live with it. He clumped in his rub­ber boots up to the tar road and crossed to the oth­er side. His cousins – snow­suits, red cheeks, plum­ing breath – watched him drop his paper bag beside their array of lunch box­es in the packed snow.

Julie, the nicest cousin, said, "Hi, Arnold."

Arnold said, "Hi."

Lin­da, the old­est cousin, stood atop the snow­bank with her hands on her hips. "I thought you weren't allowed up here any more," she said.

"It's a free coun­try."

"It's pri­vate prop­er­ty."

"Not the road."

Arnold's cousin Mark climbed the snow­bank from the oth­er side and looked down at him with­out speak­ing. Arnold won­dered if he was still mad about their fight. He knew his aunt was: he could see her star­ing at him out the kitchen win­dow. As he watched she turned and spoke to some­one he couldn't see. Then Uncle Mike came out­side, dressed for work. He backed his car out of the dri­ve­way, drove for­ward and rolled down the pas­sen­ger win­dow. He had jet-black hair and a sharp nose, like Arnold's moth­er. Like Arnold, too. All the cousins looked more like their moth­er, with light brown hair.

"Arnold," Uncle Mike said, "I'm sur­prised to see you here."

Arnold shrugged his shoul­ders.

"It's only been a week," Uncle Mike said.

Arnold looked down at his boots, looked back up when his uncle said, "Well, what do you think, Mark? You being the injured par­ty and all."

"I don't care," Mark said. He raised a mit­ten, touched under his right eye.

Arnold wished now he hadn't socked him. But Mark shouldn't have said he was stu­pid, either.

"All right," Uncle Mike said. "But Arnold, you need to keep your hands to your­self. "

"Okay," Arnold said.

His uncle stared, like he was still think­ing it over. Final­ly he straight­ened behind the wheel and let the car idle toward the road. When it was even with the big snow bank he stuck his hand out the win­dow and waved over the roof of the car.

"Bye Dad­dy!" the cousins all cried.

The Ply­mouth turned onto the tar road, and the cousins walked out to watch, the legs of their snow­suits whis­per­ing togeth­er. Then Julie point­ed in the oppo­site direc­tion and yelled, "Bus com­ing!" and they hus­tled back, grab­bing their lunch­box­es and lin­ing up accord­ing to age. The bus came hiss­ing to a stop and Mrs. Har­ri­son lev­ered open the door. Arnold fol­lowed Mark up the steps and along the aisle toward the Hurd broth­ers, who lived down the tar road toward Route 1 and always got on first. Mark said, "Hey," to them and slid into the seat oppo­site. He didn't move over, so Arnold kept going and took the next seat.

The door fold­ed shut; the bus low-geared into a turn onto the dirt road. Arnold sat back, watch­ing Mark smile at the Hurds. Arnold called them the Turds, but Mark didn't think that was fun­ny any more. Mark liked them now. He'd even been invit­ed over to their house. Arnold still thought they were sissies, though. They had blond hair and long eye­lash­es. They wore gloves instead of mit­tens and were always read­ing books. Tim Hurd had his eyes glued to a book now, hold­ing it close to his face. His head nod­ded as the bus bumped down the dirt road, but he kept right on read­ing, snap­ping a page over.

Arnold leaned for­ward and said, "Whatcha read­ing?"

Tim Hurd briefly turned the cov­er toward him: Herb Kent, West Point Full­back.

"So you think you're gonna be a foot­ball play­er?" Arnold said.

"Not par­tic­u­lar­ly," Tim Hurd said.

"Not par­tic­u­lar­ly!" Arnold mim­ic­ked, with a look at Mark. But Mark just moved impa­tient­ly on the seat. Arnold reached out and poked Tim Hurd in the arm. "Tim­my Turd, West Point Full­back!" he said.

The bus rat­tled along.

Tim Hurd's broth­er turned and said, "Why don't you lay off him, Arnold?"

"Why don't you make me?" Arnold said.

Tom Hurd bounced around for­ward. He looked out the win­dow at the low lit­tle house set back from the road, where Arnold lived with his moth­er. As they drew clos­er he whis­pered some­thing to his broth­er, who took one hand off his book long enough to smoth­er a laugh.

"What's so fun­ny, Tom­my Turd?" Arnold said.

"Oh, noth­ing," Tom Hurd said, and at that both he and his broth­er laughed. Even worse, Mark was grin­ning, as if he knew what they were talk­ing about. It was prob­a­bly some­thing he'd told them, Arnold thought dark­ly. Mark knew every­thing about him.

"Spit it out," he told Tom Hurd.

"Watch out or I will," Tom Hurd said back.

"I dou­ble-dare you," Arnold said.

Tom Hurd turned and sat still, like he was hold­ing his breath. "Maybe we're chick­ens…"

"Shut up, Tom­my!" Mark said from across the aisle.

"…but at least we don't live in a chick­en coop!" Tom Hurd fin­ished, his eyes wide.

For a moment nobody moved. Then Arnold stood up and swung one fist after the oth­er, punch­ing down at the cow­er­ing boy, not stop­ping until Mrs. Har­ri­son jammed on the brakes, throw­ing him for­ward, then back­wards into the seat. He was all through any­way, and he just sat lis­ten­ing to Tom Hurd bawl until Mrs. Har­ri­son had him by the col­lar, drag­ging him up the aisle toward the front of the bus.

Mrs. Har­ri­son was strong for a lady.

"Sit!" she said when they got to the stair­well.

Arnold sat on the top step, in the slushy dirt from the kids' boots.

"Who start­ed this?" Mrs. Har­ri­son said, look­ing down the aisle.

"He punched Tom­my!" Tim Hurd said.

"Is that true?" Mrs. Har­ri­son demand­ed.

Arnold was afraid he'd start cry­ing if he answered.

"Tom­my Hurd said Arnold lived in a chick­en coop!" Julie said then.

"Is that true?" Mrs. Har­ri­son said.

"Yes, Mrs. Har­ri­son!" Tom Hurd said. "But he still start­ed it!"

Mrs. Har­ri­son put her hands on her hips while a few more kids gave their two cents' worth. Then she said, "All right, I'll take it from here. First, Arnold, we do not hit on Mabel Harrison's bus. Ever. Is that clear?"

"Yes," Arnold whis­pered, his throat tight.

"Sec­ond," Mrs. Har­ri­son said, "we do not mock someone's sta­tion in life, ever. Is that clear?"

The words sta­tion in life hit Arnold like a big, icy snow­ball in the gut.

"Yes, Mrs. Har­ri­son," the kids all said.

"Tom­my?"

"I'm sor­ry," Tom Hurd sobbed.

"I'll need a note from your moth­er," Mrs. Har­ri­son said. "Yours too, Arnold. And you can stay right where you are until we get to school." She looked at all the kids, then stepped past Arnold and took the driver's seat. Soon they were ram­bling down the dirt road again, stop­ping to pick up Daryl Hop­kins, Emi­ly Pru­den and the Phillips kids. They squeezed past Arnold and moved to their seats. When they sat down the whis­per­ing began as the oth­er kids filled them in.

Out­side, fat snowflakes began to fall.

The bus reached the turn­around at the end of Lam­bert Road and head­ed back. When they reached Arnold's house all the kids looked out the win­dow. Arnold looked too, through the long, smudged win­dows in the door. You couldn't real­ly tell that it had been a chick­en coop, he thought. Arnold's grand­fa­ther and uncle had ren­o­vat­ed it after Arnold's dad had left, adding win­dows and shin­gles and a door. It had been a brood­er coop any­way, not a real coop like the emp­ty two-sto­ry build­ing behind it.

Arnold could remem­ber when the big coop had still been full of chick­ens. He could remem­ber the nois­es the chick­ens made. He could even remem­ber his grand­fa­ther chop­ping their heads off on a stump, and how they ran around head­less, and how every­body jumped out of their way so as not to get splashed.

The bus moved on, and some of the kids turned their heads, kept look­ing.

Then they were back to the tar road and every­one faced for­ward.

Dur­ing recess Arnold thought he heard a kid say, “Chick­en coop,” and he clamped a head­lock on the kid and rubbed his face in the snow until Mrs. Elliot ran up and stopped it. For pun­ish­ment Arnold had to spend the after­noon in the Principal's office, sit­ting at a table in the cor­ner. He didn't mind that so much. It was bet­ter than being in class, with every­body whis­per­ing. But when Mrs. Kim­ball shut the door and sat down with him and start­ed going on about his fam­i­ly, he wished he was back in the class­room. Mrs. Kim­ball was too nice. She had a long, gray pony­tail that sat on her shoul­der like a lit­tle pet.

"It's not easy grow­ing up with­out a dad," she told Arnold.

"Uh-huh," Arnold said.

"But you still have to behave your­self," Mrs. Kim­ball said. "Oth­er­wise you're going to spend your whole life in and out of trou­ble, Arnold. That's not what you want, is it?"

"Nuh-uh," Arnold said.

She let the pony­tail slip through her fin­gers back onto her shoul­der. She kept talk­ing, and Arnold pre­tend­ed to lis­ten. But he couldn't real­ly lis­ten or it would make him cry because her voice was so kind and she kept try­ing to look into his eyes. He nod­ded and said, "Uh-huh," and thought about oth­er stuff. He thought some more about the big coop. It was qui­et and dusty, and you made echoes when you walked around. There were these round met­al bins where the chick­ens used to eat, and all these weird lit­tle met­al spec­ta­cles lying around that the chick­ens had worn. It was fun­ny about the spec­ta­cles. His grand­fa­ther had told him that if the chick­ens didn't wear them, they would start act­ing creepy. He'd been fol­low­ing his grand­fa­ther around while he worked on the brood­er coop, ask­ing him ques­tions. With­out the spec­ta­cles, his grand­fa­ther had said, the chick­ens would turn into killers. You wouldn't think chick­ens could be so mean. They'd pick one poor chick­en out and gang up on it. They'd chase it into a cor­ner and peck at it until it died.

Arnold shiv­ered and stopped think­ing about the chick­ens.

The Hurds weren't on the bus going home – their moth­er had picked them up – and Arnold felt like things were almost back to nor­mal. He even sat with Mark and invit­ed him to come over after they got off the bus. Mark didn't know about com­ing over, though.

"Mum prob­a­bly won't go for it," he said.

"We've got cof­fee cake," Arnold said. His moth­er had brought it home from the shoeshop. Cof­fee cake was some­thing Mark's fam­i­ly nev­er had, because Mark's moth­er didn't think it was good for you.

Mark thought it over. "I'll try and sneak out."

The bus pulled up at the cross­ing and Arnold got off at the cousins' house. He crossed the tar road and walked back and forth out of sight behind the snow bank. He knew Mark had to make it look good. His moth­er thought Arnold was a bad influ­ence. Once Arnold had let Mark shoot the .22 that his dad had left behind and she'd found out about it. They'd tak­en it out into the woods behind the big coop and had shot it at a pine tree for a half hour. It had a scope that made the trees look close. But Mr. Hamil­ton from down the road had come down into the woods and had tak­en the rifle away. He'd told Arnold's moth­er and Mark's moth­er and they'd had to sit through a lec­ture from Mark's father. After­ward Arnold's moth­er had hid­den the rifle, although it didn't take long for Arnold to find it in a dark cor­ner of her clos­et behind the dress­es and coats.

Mark final­ly came out­side. He pre­tend­ed to go down to the field behind their house, then cut through the bush­es and ran around the cor­ner of the cross­ing onto Lam­bert Road. Arnold fell into step with him and they scuffed down the road. It was get­ting dark already, but Arnold could see a car parked in the space next to the path to his house. It wasn't Mrs. Soule's Belair, though: his moth­er must have got­ten a ride with some­body else. This was a white Fal­con. Arnold knew his cars pret­ty well. He and Mark walked up and looked in the Falcon's win­dows. There were clothes fold­ed and stacked on the back seat and hang­ing from hang­ers in the back win­dows. An army duf­fle bag sat on the floor. Arnold tried not to believe that his father had come home.

They walked toward Arnold's house and the big two-sto­ry coop behind it.

"Whose car?" Mark said.

"Some­body that gave her a ride home."

Arnold opened the screen door. They went inside just as the cur­tain part­ed in the door­way across the room and a tall guy with a mus­tache ducked out. The man blushed and grinned. "Well, hel­lo there!" he said. "School's out, I take it?" He was shov­ing his shirt­tail into his pants.

Arnold's moth­er came out. "You had to lal­ly-gag, didn't you?"

"Whose fault was that?" the man said.

Arnold's moth­er gig­gled and raked a hand through her hair. "I guess you caught me, Arnold!" she said. "But you didn't have to bring com­pa­ny! How are you, Mar­cus?"

"Ok, Aunt Car­olyn."

"How's things up at the plan­ta­tion?"

"Okay." Mark looked at Arnold. "Maybe I'd bet­ter go."

Arnold shrugged as if he didn't care.

Mark turned his eyes toward the kitchen table and the cof­fee cake cov­ered by waxed paper.

"Can Mark take a piece of that?" Arnold asked.

"Why not?" Arnold's moth­er said.

Arnold took the waxed paper off, cut a piece of the cof­fee cake and hand­ed it to Mark. Mark said, "Thanks! See you lat­er, Arnold. See you, Aunt Car­olyn," and took off out the door. The door slammed and Arnold saw him run past the win­dow, stuff­ing the cof­fee cake into his mouth.

"I guess it's time for me to go, too," the man with the mus­tache said.

"Call me?" Arnold's moth­er said.

Arnold left them hug­ging in the kitchen cor­ner. He walked through the liv­ing room and part­ed the cur­tain to his bed­room. They didn't have doors to their rooms here in the good old Brood­er Coop. "Doors are expen­sive," he snarled out loud. He flopped on his bed with his hands behind his head. After a minute or two he heard his moth­er walk up and say from out­side the cur­tain: "Arnold, I'm going for a ride, hon­ey. You be good, have some cof­fee-cake your­self. I'll be back in a lit­tle while."

"Where are you going?” Arnold said.

"Just for a ride. Be good, now!"

Arnold heard the front door shut. He went to the win­dow and watched his moth­er run up the path and get into the Fal­con. The Fal­con backed onto Lam­bert Road and rolled up the road toward the cross­ing. When it was gone Arnold went through the cur­tain into the liv­ing room and down to his mother's room. He ducked under the cur­tain and took the .22 out of the lit­tle clos­et where she hung her dress­es and sweaters. Remem­ber­ing about it had made him want to shoot it again. He took it out­side and around the house to the big coop. He'd hide it out there. She'd nev­er even notice it was miss­ing. The big coop's door hung on one hinge and there was snow on the floor­boards. There was no glass in any of the win­dows. It was cold. He ran up the stairs, hid the .22 behind a feed­er near a cor­ner. Then he went back to the house. He took the rest of the cof­fee-cake over to the couch, turned on the TV.

Arnold was lying down in the dark when his moth­er came home. He said, "Hi!", but she didn't answer. She went heav­i­ly into her room and banged around. Then it was qui­et. Arnold thought he'd bet­ter leave her alone, but after an hour he got too hun­gry. It was way past sup­per time and his stom­ach was growl­ing. He tip­toed up to her cur­tain and lis­tened to her breath­ing.

"Mum?"

She went on snor­ing.

"Mum?" Arnold said again, and she smacked her lips stick­i­ly.

"Mum!" Arnold said. "Can we have sup­per?"

"Can't a per­son take a nap around here?" his moth­er slurred.

Arnold part­ed the cur­tain and looked in. "I'm hun­gry!"

She threw the cov­ers back, stum­bled out of bed and came after him, but she got tan­gled up in the cur­tain and fell. Arnold grabbed his jack­et off a kitchen chair and ran out­side. He wait­ed, but she didn't fol­low. He zipped his jack­et, stuffed his hands into the pock­ets and walked up toward the road, scuff­ing through an inch of new snow. When he got to the street­light he could see his breath in the air. It had stopped snow­ing and the stars were out: bright pin­pricks clus­tered above. A cold breeze blew past, peck­ing his cheeks and the tips of his ears. He wished he'd had a chance to grab his cap with the ear­muffs. Down the road to his left he could see the Phillips' house – that used to be his grandfather's before he died – all lit up. He looked the oth­er way, toward the cross­ing. The big house was all lit up, too. He could walk up there; he'd done it before when his moth­er was on the warpath. He even took a cou­ple of steps that way, pic­tur­ing the big, warm rooms, kids sprawled on the floors. But then he remem­bered his aunt was mad at him. She'd prob­a­bly slam the door in his face. He stopped and looked back at his lit­tle house – dark except for the light over the door – and, loom­ing behind it, the two-sto­ry coop. At least he could get out of the wind. He trot­ted back down the hill and ducked past the cock­eyed door into the big coop. It was still and cold and dark. He climbed the stairs, feel­ing his way, and walked out into the open room. He remem­bered the .22 and retrieved it from behind the tin feed­er and walked around the coop hold­ing it like a sol­dier. But then he scuffed some of the spec­ta­cles with his heel and that was creepy, it made him think about the chick­ens gang­ing up.

Arnold stood still in the dark, hold­ing the rifle. He backed into a cor­ner by a win­dow and knelt, turn­ing to look through the scope at the cross­ing. The street­light on the cor­ner jumped into view. Then a car cleared the woods on the right and he fol­lowed it across the field and past the cousins' house until it dis­ap­peared behind the bush­es on the left. You could only see the top of its roof behind the snow­banks. He swung the bar­rel back and saw his aunt move past the kitchen win­dow. She was out of sight, though, when the .22 went off. It didn't make very much noise. It almost seemed like noth­ing had hap­pened until the door opened and Arnold's uncle came out and looked around. When Arnold pulled the trig­ger again his uncle ran back inside.

Arnold turned and slid down to the floor. He lay the .22 down, hop­ing he hadn't hit any­one. He blew warm air on his hands. After a few min­utes he could hear a siren in the dis­tance. He was inter­est­ed to see what would hap­pen next. He didn't care what it was, just so some­body came and got him. It was freez­ing in the coop, and it was get­ting creepy again, too. He couldn't stop think­ing about the chick­ens. It was hard not to when you were sit­ting there alone. In the cold and dark, with the siren get­ting loud­er, he imag­ined a big gang of them, mov­ing around with­out their spec­ta­cles. He could pic­ture them scratch­ing from room to room, get­ting clos­er all the time.

(orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Zoetrope All-Sto­ry Extra)

jim nicholsJim Nichols lives on a lit­tle riv­er in War­ren, Maine with his wife Anne. He has pub­lished fic­tion in numer­ous mag­a­zines, includ­ing Esquire, Night Train, paris transcon­ti­nen­tal, Zoetrope All-Sto­ry Extra, Amer­i­can Fic­tion, The Clacka­mas Review, Riv­er City and Port­land Month­ly. He's a past win­ner of the Willamette Fic­tion Prize, and was award­ed an Inde­pen­dent Artist's Fel­low­ship by the Maine Arts Com­mis­sion. His col­lec­tion Slow Mon­keys and Oth­er Sto­ries was pub­lished by Carnegie Mel­lon Press.

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One Response to The Chickens, fiction by Jim Nichols

  1. sue miller says:

    yep. that's a good one.

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