Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category
By: Rachel Burger
Gravel crunched like peanut shells under my manure-covered leather boots as I chewed on raw rhubarb, scattering the picton stones like billiard balls. The walk wasn’t too long—ten minutes maybe—but I intentionally doubled the stroll. Tramping up to the rusted Long Gate and dragging it open, I diverted my eyes from the man sitting with an upturned hoe in front of the chicken coop.
I shoved my dirty nail-bitten hands into my jean pockets and approached my disciplinarian. His name was Nick. Though he was only six years older than me—17—he seemed like an adult. I was shy in approaching him. He stood up, turned the hoe face-down, and leaned, grinning.
“You must be Rachel. You’re late.”
I smeared my boot against the rocks. Shy to respond to his friendly stare, I sized up the chicken coop. Standing at no more than seven feet, the enclosure was made entirely of unevenly spaced termite-bitten grey wood. The building emitted no light. All I could hear were quiet coos and fluttering feathers.
Nick ensured that I had taken my allergy medicine and remembered to bring my inhaler—I had—and then handed me the hoe. He kept smiling to build my comfort level, his brown hair swooped to the side to accent his wolfish grin, but I ignored him. I was there to serve time, not make friends with my punisher.
It had started with another camper, Drew. Drew was several inches taller than me and had a thick, muscular build. He was intelligent, he was funny, and he had emerald green eyes––he was probably my first crush before I knew what a crush was. Drew and I shared a vision: to rule the world. In our wild vision of the coming hegemon, neither of us was willing to serve in each other’s legions. The only way to solve this matter humanely was an all-out undercover brawl.
It was a lot of fun, at first. I shortsheeted his cot. He stole my t-shirts after curfew. I commandeered his towel during his once-a-week shower. And then he hid poison oak in my bed. The oozing rash crawled into my eczema. I spent a full week recovering.
Instead of ratting Drew out for his prank, I congratulated him. Quickly, I constructed my revenge. As Drew left for an overnight hike, I began gathering materials. I collected perfumes to scent his cabin. The intention was to make it so feminine that other campers would tease him. I entered his cabin, I sprayed, I left. I wasn’t caught.
Nick opened the wooden door to the coop and took a startled step backwards. Looking over at me, he laughed, “I dunno what you did, but I wouldn’t want this job.” Dragging the hoe, I looked into the coop. The chickens had splattered the nests, the ground, and the lower walls with their own shit. Flecks of hay lined the floor and floated amongst uncirculated dust. Nick informed me that he would wait outside the coop. “Clean it” he said apologetically.
I took a step inside and then realized why this punishment was saved for the worst of delinquents. At first I coughed and sputtered, asphyxiated with the trapped heat and floating mess. The dust and shredded hay that suspended itself in the air was also covered with flecks of chicken shit. There was no circulation in the building. It stunk like sweetened vomit. I quickly exited and heaved on the gravel, the coop door slapping behind me.
Outside, a senior counselor handed Nick a hoe separate from mine and continued walking along her way; he was supposed to be helping me. Nick sighed and offered to get facemasks.
Drew angrily informed me of his return to an infested cabin and spider-plagued bed. The sweet perfume had attracted the bugs to nest in Drew’s bunk. When he complained to the counselors, they assumed he had brought candy, a contraband that would have also drawn the bugs. He had been relocated and punished on the other side of the camp. I felt his disappointment in me seep into my bones.
I turned myself in to save Drew from misguided discipline. Within 24-hours, I had a meeting with the director of the camp, and we agreed that cleaning the coop would be the best-suited penalty for my actions. Not knowing what this entailed, I agreed. I asked the director if Drew’s name would be cleared. He responded, “everything will be taken care of.”
Cleaning the chicken coop took at least four hours, or what felt like four hours to an eleven year old. The chickens were seated on shelves above Nick and my head, so we had to shrink ourselves to fit. My shoulders ached as I crouched and hoed, thighs trembled from exhaustion as I incorrectly held myself up. The mask helped—my lungs weren’t completely covered with shit and dirt—but did nothing for the putrid smell. As I breathed in and out, the vapor began to sink through the mask; feathers and anything else that floated stuck to the barrier between my mouth and the dirty world surrounding it.
Chickens fluttered and stretched, casting new feathers and dried feces into their tiny rancid coop. They scuttled and crawled along the floor like desperate spiders, shuffling over our boots and constantly getting in the way. Nick kicked one hard enough that it shrieked and limped to the corner. The aggressor wiped his boot off in the hay and started talking about himself.
While I separated out the hay, I uncovered, in its many layers, a dead chicken. I asked Nick what to do with it. He grabbed the dead bird by its legs and swung it outside. Its feathers ruffled in the fresh air before it collided with the uneven ground.
“We’ll take care of it later,” Nick said, his voice muffled by his mask.
I missed dinner that night because I had to finish the job. Nick left quickly. I walked the long gravel road back to my cot alone, stopping by the rhubarb patch to scrounge together a dinner.
I entered my cabin with a loud sigh. My roommate was lying in bed. “Drew was looking for you,” she said. I nodded and threw myself onto the cot. Underneath me, something crunched. I peeled the covers back, prepared.
Instead of another prank, there were Twix, Nerds, Twizzlers, and M&Ms with a note.
“A good leader sticks up for his men. Good work today.
Have the last of the candy they didn’t find. -Drew”
Famished, I began to stuff myself as I thought of only one thing: how I would strike next.