Horror & Dark Fantasy



Quiet the Dead


This story takes place in the same world as BREAK THE BODIES, HAUNT THE BONES (John Joseph Adams Books). Available now wherever fine books are sold.

Stray spirits stirred in the dark. They lay like oil slicks across the asphalt, pulled their misty bodies in and out of the doors of Swine Hill’s pork processing plant, and drifted storm-like in Kay’s wake. Her every hot breath was full of the dead.

The man had crossed her. Had shouldered into her on the crowded butchery floor where she leaned over a workstation and hacked through bone and bleeding pig meat. Had stolen knives and gloves from the locker that everyone knew was hers. Had taken a box that she had packed and had weighed it on his scale. He was new and young and didn’t know any better.

But he had crossed her, and now Kay had to show him who she was.

The ghost that haunted Kay moved through her blood like gasoline. It craved to fight, its need to blacken the eye of the world the only thing that kept it from slipping into death. She had struggled to ignore the ghost for a week, how it rose in her and covered her eyes with its hot hands, coloring everything she saw. But there was a reason the ghost had chosen her.

Like always, Kay would let it have what they both wanted.

Kay followed the man back to his truck. While he fumbled for his keys in the blue-white murk of the parking lot, Kay sucker punched him in the back of the skull. By the time he understood the dull thunder drumming along his head, by the time he knew that he was in a fight and could think to raise his hands to cover his face, Kay was already on top of him, digging her knees in his guts, her fists hollowing him out.

The man shoved her off and found his feet, spitting blood and desperately crawling into his truck. Kay let him drive off, the whole violent pageant over in less than a minute. The ghost flared in her busted knuckles and aching shoulders, wordlessly sated. Around her, the wind picked up, heavy with the sob of the spirits circling the plant, lost ghosts who had only ever known pig work and wanted nothing else.

From across the dim lot, the night manager broke through the steaming spirits, shouting at her to go. Kay fumbled an explanation. There wouldn’t be any more trouble. The man had brought it on himself. She needed this job for her brother and sister.

“You’re gone,” the night manager said. “You’ve got no place here anymore.”

Hearing the words they feared most, the gathered spirits gasped away to the edges of the lot. The manager left with them, leaving Kay with what she had done. Staring at his broad back disappearing into the dark, the ghost inside of her said that no one should ever speak to her that way. It was hot in her chest, ready to chase him down too.

Kay sank to her knees and took deep breaths, holding in the vengeful spirit. Maybe she could talk to the foreman in the morning. Maybe she hadn’t let herself ruin everything again.

• • • •

Her car pushed through a foggy procession of ghosts on the cracked road. Most of them swept up to the pork processing plant, the only real employer left in town, desperate to throw themselves into its brutal mouth in death as they had in life.

Her ghost rode like a headache high on her skull, little fantasies of violence licking at her brain. She’d found the spirit months ago, right before she dropped out of school. Everyone knew to avoid the haunted dressing room. A brutal spirit had claimed it as its own, rehearsing some violence that had happened there years before. For decades, the school worked around it, making the middle school and high school girls’ teams share a changing room, letting the angry ghost have its kingdom.

For Kay, who had been squeezed and prodded her entire life, forced to share a room with a younger sister and to take care of her family after her father died, she loved that the spirit had made the world give it space. Whereas Kay had always been asked to give up what she had, to make herself small, and she’d always done it.

When her mother left, abandoning Kay to take care of her siblings alone, she went into the dark of the dressing room, not knowing if she would come out again. She found the ghost waiting for her, crackling white-hot and beautiful. Kay embraced the spirit, and it plunged into her heart, filling her like venom, in her blood and spit and tears.

When it rose within her, telling her that no one would ever hurt her again, Kay was already in love with it.

Turning on her street, she pulled up to a dim house, the homes around them lightless and long abandoned. Blue sparks of TV light rippled over their front window. Old furniture crowded the porch, mildew-damp and scraped, the fabric matted with fur from stray cats.

Her brother Oscar was asleep on the couch. He was white-haired, his face leathery and lined. He was the middle child at fifteen, but his strange ghost carried him through an entire lifetime in a day. He woke a piss-soaked infant in the morning, growing minute by minute until he could stumble into the kitchen, a gangly child in oversized clothes.

For one perfect hour at noon, Oscar was a young man, smoldering and mysterious and sad. He could glimpse, for a few minutes at least, some other path his life might take, wanting to hitchhike out of Swine Hill and never come back. But before he could go, he put on weight, his hair peeled away, and his teeth yellowed with cigarette stains. By evening, Oscar stooped and trembled, grew short-tempered with his sisters, his back aching from a lifetime of work he hadn’t yet done.

Finally he crawled into bed and waited for his thudding heart to kick and seize up, his whole body going rigid with pain. He cried out and passed away around four in the morning, only to return as a child again in a few hours. His life folded around him like a trap, the noon hour a keyhole that he could look through and see something better. His ghost chopped up and parceled out that feeling of freedom, giving him only the smallest taste of it each day.

In the kitchen, the radio blasted music that hadn’t been popular in thirty years. The ghost of their father haunted the device, dead since Kay was a girl and her youngest sister was only an infant. The possessed radio did its best to love them through sound. It was her youngest sibling Mira’s closest friend.

Mira loudly ate chips at the kitchen table, delighting in the explosions of sound coming from her mouth. She hadn’t spoken in two years. She’d come home one afternoon haunted by a ghost that wouldn’t let her speak, raising her finger and shushing anyone who asked her questions. She carried the weight of something in her, a secret that caught in her throat, desperately wanting to give it up but unable to.

Mira’s silence was what finally pushed their mother to leave them. Kay’s ghost made her ache when she looked at Mira’s pursed lips, and she thought she understood why their mother had abandoned them. How could you fight something—how could you put your hands on a problem and make it right—when you didn’t even know what was wrong?

Unable to tell her siblings how she was feeling, Mira made noise when she was upset. She coveted small ceramic bells, plastic whistles, and jars of pebbles she could roll between her hands.

It wasn’t strange to any of them that their whole family was haunted. In a town so swollen with spirits, people were used to sharing themselves with the dead.

Kay kicked the couch, and Oscar sat up, hacking into his fist. Mira came in, one hand rustling in the chip bag. From the kitchen, the haunted radio lowered to a static-laden mutter.

“I quit today,” Kay said.

Mira hugged her sister, breathing “Shhh” into her stiff shirt.

Oscar was red-eyed and trembling, his body wracked with pain. He pulled his hands into his chest like bruised wings.

“No one quits the plant.”

“It’s not like Pig City is the whole world,” Kay said.

Both of them only stared, their silence saying that it was the whole world. Here in this town that had been collapsing from the center out, where everything was falling apart, overdue, broken down. Where even what you had was a weight, their house and car worth less than what was owed.

“You better beg for that job back,” Oscar said, knowing that soon it would be his time to go work for the plant, to take on the destiny written in his muscles and bones.

Mira backed away and covered her mouth with a pillow, her eyes darting from Oscar to Kay and pleading for both of them to be silent, to know that talking only made things worse.

Kay could feel her ghost rise in her, ready to fight again. She wouldn’t take lip here, not in the house she paid for, not from the siblings she fed and clothed and carted to the doctor. She had stayed when everyone else had left, and she didn’t owe them any more than that.

“Go to your rooms.” There was heat in her voice, and her brother and sister shrank from her, afraid of what might be coming. “You have school in the morning.”

At the top of the stairs, Mira turned and looked down at Kay. There was a tremor to the girl’s lips, and for a moment Kay thought she would finally speak, that her silence might crack softly open.

While Kay waited, Mira covered her mouth with both hands, the ghost in her choking back whatever she needed to say.

• • • •

The spirit simmered inside Kay all night. It reminded her of everything in the house that she already couldn’t afford to fix, the broken hot water heater and leaking refrigerator and sighing toilet. This house full of inanimate things that had failed her personally and spitefully, most of them so full of the fragments of lost spirits that there was no repairing them.

She thought of the manager who had fired her without listening to her side of things, and then of the man she had thrown down on the asphalt, how he would probably clock in to work tomorrow and take her place on the butchery floor, grinning with busted lips.

And she thought of Mira holding in her secret, a splinter of glass buried deep in her skin, something that Kay couldn’t pull free no matter how much she promised, or begged, or threatened.

With no one else to fight, the ghost fought Kay. She rolled in her bed, punching into the mattress and tangling in the sheets. She banged her hands on the bedposts and knocked her shins against the wall. The next morning, an orchard of bruises bloomed over her chest, shoulders, and arms. Her eyebrow was gummy with blood, her eyeball swimming in a red haze. The ghost filled her pounding heart, swollen and heavy and full of salt.

Mira was up already, pouring cereal for the three of them. The radio cut back and forth between morning shows, big-hearted and boisterous and happy they were awake. Mira dropped the gallon of milk, its round mouth glugging out onto the floor. Kay felt the ghost rise into her throat, wanting her to shout at her sister.

Instead Kay went to find Oscar. He sat child-sized and blinking in bed. The room stank, his floor a sea of clothes in every size. He said he didn’t want to go to school, meaning that he didn’t want to get out of bed and live through his disappointing life again. Kay forced a baggy shirt over his head, his small hands pushing her away.

She sat him down for breakfast and pulled a dress shirt out of the dryer. Blue streaks broke across it like veins. Either Oscar or Mira had left pens in their pockets, staining everything in the load. Her ghost grabbed her insides and shook, rattling her, demanding that she scare them, hurt them, that she make this moment big enough in their minds that they would never forget again.

Kay bit down hard on the inside of her cheek and held the dryer until she felt calm, blood mixing with the sweet milk taste in her mouth. She put the ink-spotted shirt on anyway.

The bus honked, and Kay pulled her siblings outside. The yards around them were overgrown, the houses empty and faded of paint. There had been no neighbors in years. The bus idled on the street, its door hanging open like a mouth.

Oscar’s shoes were still untied. He tripped and fought with the snarl of his shoelaces, crying softly from the newness and discomfort and size of the world, knowing that nothing better was to come. Kay tried to help him, but Mira grabbed at her arm, urgent and full of need.

Kay took her sister’s round face in her hands, her knuckles swollen and raw from the night before. “Mira, love,” she said, looking into her sister’s pleading eyes. “I’m trying not to kill you.”

• • • •

From anywhere in town, you could hear the sounds of the pig plant. Stand in your yard on a still day, and under the calls of birds and rattle of old cars would come the distant, barely heard beep of forklifts, the shaggy moans of eighteen-wheelers climbing the ridge, the suck of air through narrow vents. And behind the machine sounds came the slam of knives on butcher blocks, the holler and wail of voices buried inside its concrete heart, the squeal and snarl of hundreds on hundreds of pigs catching the smell of blood in their snouts.

Kay called Pig City and asked for the manager. Maybe she could join a different crew working in another part of the factory. It was vast, big enough to swallow the whole town. Surely it still had room for her. Someone new answered the phone, his voice an echo in a well, distant and deep and strange. She asked him for her job back, but the man seemed confused, telling her that Pig City wasn’t hiring right now.

Kay wanted to drive to the plant and make them listen to her. She imagined sitting in a cold office, being read dry paragraphs of company policy and made to beg while a bored supervisor played solitaire on his computer. Her ghost tightened in her jaw at the thought. She couldn’t sit for that. She would explode, give her ghost the fight it craved, make everything worse than it already was.

Kay wore her stained shirt and drove around Swine Hill in her father’s old car, going from store to store to ask if they were hiring. She stopped at a hardware place selling rust-pocked and dirty tools bought secondhand from estate sales. She waited thirty minutes for someone to return to the desk at the riverfront hotel, the carpet sandy and smelling of mildew. She asked for the manager at the town’s one remaining grocery store, a man who slid paperwork to her from inside his glass booth, hands crossed over his chest like she had come to carve him out, to take everything he had. Every place she went said that they weren’t hiring, that they hadn’t hired anyone new in a long time. Kay asked for applications anyway. Over and over, she was told to try the pig plant.

“I can’t work there,” Kay finally said. She stood in a small bridal shop. The gowns were dusty, everything sun-bleached and out of style. In tall mirrors circling the shop, the ghost of a young girl moved through reflections of the space. When the ghost girl touched a dress in the mirror, it would tremble on its rack.

The owner—maybe the ghost’s mother or sister or daughter, the resemblance strong even though she was much older—pointed to the door. “I can’t hire you. This is a family business.”

Kay looked between the woman and the ghost in the mirrors. “You don’t have a family.”

“You’re haunted,” the woman said. “Don’t act like you don’t understand.”

“I know the difference between a ghost and a person.” Kay thought of her father’s spirit inside the radio, how its volume swelled to fill the kitchen when Mira walked in, her sister clapping and stomping her feet. “I know when I’ve lost something.”

“If you aren’t buying anything, you should go.”

The ghost pounded in her head, making Kay dizzy. It didn’t want to go. It wanted to stand in the middle of the store and take up space. It wanted to tip over the racks of clothes and snap the limbs from manikins. It wanted to put a foot through the mirrors and confront even the dead.

Kay took one of the woman’s yellowed business cards and wrote her own name and number across it. “Call me if anything changes,” she said.

Her angry spirit threw itself against her ribs and sternum, making Kay’s breath catch in pain.

• • • •

She didn’t want to see Mira and Oscar at the end of the day. Oscar would ask for things. New shoes, groceries, movie rentals to help him forget himself for a few hours. Mira would snap her fingers to get Kay’s attention and then stare at her, as if waiting for Kay to speak for the both of them.

Afraid of what she might do, Kay couldn’t face them until she calmed down. She left the car in the driveway and walked into the old downtown, the most haunted part of the city, hoping that at least here she wouldn’t see another living person.

All of downtown’s boutiques, banks, and bars had closed decades ago. Block after block of brick buildings had the windows broken and had rubble filling their dusty rooms. During the day, kids and wild animals roamed here, breaking bottles and fighting in the ruins.

At night, the ghosts reigned, full-bodied and physical, trying to recreate the world they had lost out of ash and gossamer and dust. Unlike the ghosts haunting the plant, the downtown spirits had lost everything they cared about. They were dangerous to approach, desperate for blood and skin and pain to wrap themselves in, for some reminder of their lost lives.

Kay hoped the ghost inside her was enough to chase away any curious spirits, that it wouldn’t stand to share her with another. It was easy to forget the danger, to assume the worst had already happened.

She found what had once been a bar, the stools split to kindling and the tilted counter stripped down to particleboard. Kay sat back against the wall as dark fell, wondering what she would do. The sun went down, and the past came back with all its heat and longing.

The bar transformed with the coming of the dead. Warm lights flared across the ceiling. The counter unfurled with sheets of flawless copper, still gleaming as if they hadn’t been pried free and sold for scrap twenty years ago. The walls bloomed black and glittering, like she was inside the sky. Doors popped open and the bar expanded into the condemned and dismantled spaces around her, taking on its old life. While spirits streamed through the doors, music washed through the bar, the songs old and horn-heavy and full of loss.

Kay hid in a back booth and stole drinks, sucking down whatever the burning liquor was and watching the phantoms laugh and flirt and dance. If she closed her eyes, Kay knew she would be able to smell the mildew and rot, to taste the dust coating the back of her throat, but for now she drank and pretended it was real.

After a few hours, her siblings found her. Mira went straight to the ghostly jukebox, putting both hands on the fabric of its speaker, feeling the music in her ears and skin. Oscar lowered himself stiffly into her booth, nervous of the crowd, these ghosts who might trick you into thinking they were people. He’d been tricked before by the promises of the dead, and if there was anything more they had to offer him, he didn’t want it.

The spirit of a waiter, his broad hands little more than cigarette smoke and insect husks, put drinks down on the table. Mira and Oscar downed glasses. Kay worried that neither of them should be drinking, but it seemed like only alcohol. Surely it was nothing, just rain, car exhaust, the scraps of memory.

Oscar grew paper-skinned and bony, the clock inside him winding down. He watched the specter of a woman dance alone by the bar. “Do you think we’ll haunt the town when we die too?” he asked. “Do you think we’ll always be here?”

Mira looked back and forth between her siblings, waiting for one of them to answer.

• • • •

It was almost noon when they awoke in the ruins, sunlight filtering through the broken ceiling and warming their faces. The floor was uneven dirt, the joists long since rotted away. Their clothes were wet from lying in the mud. Kay licked her lips, dry and tasting of iron, like rust rimmed her mouth.

Mira fell forward and vomited. She heaved silently, white foam pushing through her crossed fingers. Oscar, a long-legged teenager at the height of his powers, laid a hand across her back. But then he belched and fell to his knees, coughing up what might have been mop water, frothy and purple and smelling of mildew.

Kay felt something wrong in her stomach and throat. She hit the ground, holding her belly with both hands and blowing out muddy water. Gray, jelly-like orbs erupted from her throat and bounced over the ground. Dead tadpoles with black eyes. When she understood what they were, she threw up again, until her throat burned and her stomach had collapsed into a tight knot of muscle.

Mira swore each of the dead tadpoles to silence. Oscar pulled Kay to her feet, laughing at the sheer vileness of everything. “You’re a shitty mom,” he told her.

And Kay, even though her ghost sparked at the criticism, couldn’t help but laugh too. She wiped her mouth and walked out of the ruins with them, headed home to look for chalky antacids and leftover antibiotics from the free clinic.

Coming to the fork that would take them back toward their house or north out of the city, Oscar looked toward the horizon. He only had a few more moments before the weight of everything would come pressing down on him again. This might be his chance to escape into some other life.

But Mira fell and threw up again, lying miserably by the side of the road. Oscar scooped her into his arms and carried her home, feeling himself grow slower and more beaten by the minute.

Kay stood in the yard while Oscar carried their sister inside, listening to the factory sounds coming down from the ridge. Things would be fine, she told herself. Hadn’t she always found a way to take care of them?

• • • •

Kay slept through the afternoon, sick to her stomach and throat burning. The house was still but for the radio spitting static in the kitchen. Like her sister, Kay would never understand what it needed from her.

She thought about trying the plant again, knowing that she couldn’t go another week without working. She might look for work in the little towns dotting the highway to the east and west, but didn’t think she’d have much luck. They were as poor and rundown as Swine Hill.

Her ghost fed on the fear and heartbreak within her, wanting to throw itself at the problem, but the problem was airy and vast, like trying to fight the star-pierced sky.

She went downstairs and fell onto the couch beside Oscar. They watched TV for a few hours, the radio’s volume climbing to a shrill whistle from the kitchen. It was starting to give her a headache, her ghost moving heavy as lead inside her skull.

“Have you seen Mira?” Kay asked. It was almost dark.

Oscar balanced a glass of water on his chest, watching his stomach rise like bread, scratching through his thinning hair. “Would you hate me if I left too?” he asked. “Maybe things would be easier for you without me.”

Kay ignored him. She had seen the old men in town, how the chemicals from the plant ate into their skin. Every night, she could look at her brother’s face and know that he at least would never leave them.

“Did she go out with friends or something?”

“I wouldn’t call them friends,” her brother said. “She has a group she hangs around. But they mostly talk to each other while she listens and covers her mouth. One day, she’s going to split wide open.”

“Do you think it was something really bad?” Kay asked. Their mother had thought so, her guilt over not protecting Mira eventually driving her to leave.

Oscar sighed, his sagging shoulders saying, I hope not. “It might have been something small. Even little things can hurt if you hold them in forever.”

• • • •

Kay was rooting through the pantry for pasta to boil when the radio exploded into sound again, announcing that Mira had come home. The girl’s jeans were muddy and she was missing a shoe. She had a faint chemical smell, like she’d been swimming in Swine Hill’s polluted river with its shimmering, iridescent water. Her cheeks were flushed and hair messy from running wild through the neighborhood. She stared at Kay, full to breaking, one finger bobbing in front of her mouth.

Kay’s ghost felt hemmed in, crushed with other people’s needs, wanting to make the world stop. She closed her eyes and tightened her fists, nails cutting into her palms.

“Tomorrow, you’re going to find that missing sneaker. I can’t keep buying you new clothes.” Kay took a pad of paper and pen from the counter and pushed them into Mira’s hands. “I know we’ve tried this already. But I need to understand.”

Mira put the paper down, shaking her head viciously, but Kay forced her to take the pen. Mira made a shaky line, looking hopeful for a moment. But then her hand twitched. She started again but couldn’t make a letter, just long lines that fell off the page. Holding the pen in her fist, she went back and forth over it, crossing out what she had almost written. The effort had brought her to tears.

“I’m listening,” Kay said. “What else can I do?”

Mira ran up to her room and blew a whistle over and over, shrieking through the plastic until her wind gave out. When Kay finally came upstairs, shivering with hate, Mira stood at the bathroom sink. The girl reached into the back of her mouth with two fingers, like she was trying to grab the ghost that prevented her speech and pull it out.

Kay wondered if she should go to the school and ask the teachers if they knew what was going on with Mira. But they might not even talk to her. They hadn’t loved Kay before she’d become haunted, and, afterward, when she’d argued and walked out of class, fighting with other students and refusing to do her work, they told her that she was unteachable and asked her to leave. With all that history, Kay didn’t know if she could strap down her angry ghost and walk into the school for help. And what if they blamed her, said that whatever happened to Mira was her fault?

She’d tear the whole place apart.

She went to find Oscar, hoping he would talk to the principal for her. It would have to be at the right time, in the early afternoon when he looked mature but not yet defeated. From the kitchen, she heard the crystalline splash of a glass shattering.

The radio jumped up to max volume, something electronic and poppy and fast, like their father’s ghost was trying to hide what the girl was doing. Kay ran in to find Mira standing on the counter, shaking with silent sobs, dashing their mother’s wine glasses onto the floor. The tile glittered with shards.

Beneath Kay’s skin, the ghost swelled until it filled her lungs and blood, her cells effervescent with violence. She wanted to shake her sister, to make her cry, to pry her mouth open and grab her by the tongue, to force her to give up whatever it was that she was holding back.

Kay crunched across the broken glass in her old work boots and reached toward her. Mira, too sad to care that Kay might hurt her, leaned forward and said “Shhh” as loud as she could, a thread of saliva blowing past her finger.

For a moment, Kay could see herself grabbing Mira and throwing her down onto the broken glass and tile, hitting her across the back and screaming at her, beating her sister until the words finally flamed from her mouth.

Instead, Kay turned and ripped the radio from under the cabinets. She jerked it out of the wall, and before the light could fade, before the last notes of the song had settled from the air, Kay smashed it down on the floor with both hands.

The radio cracked in half, the old tile splitting beneath it. Kay hammered it down on the floor again and again, until it was a mess of broken plastic and dangling wires. When she was done, she held its guts in her hands, the lights on its face dead, the spirit of their father blown away into the dark.

Mira hopped down and ran. Kay snatched at her sleeve, but her sister tore her shirt and pulled free. She was out of the house before Oscar could stop her, leaving the door swinging open to the night. Outside, ghosts swept over the streets, their mouths stretched open in silent calls.

Oscar stood at the stairwell watching Kay. He wore one of their father’s old shirts, his hands balled in the fabric. His look said that she had done something much worse than breaking a glass or misplacing a shoe, something beyond losing her temper or even hitting them like she had done before when she’d given into her ghost’s rage. She had broken off another little corner of their family, the one thing that was unforgiveable.

They would always be smaller now.

He laid an old hand on the railing and pulled himself back up the stairs without speaking to her. The house would be quiet from now on, a different place. Maybe the silence would be what finally drove him out to face his future. He went up to his room and lay in bed, waiting in the dark for the circling knot of his ghost to tighten around him.

• • • •

Kay drove through the neighborhood for over an hour, braving the edges of downtown with its raucous ghosts, going to the school and the gas station and the old park with its rusting hulks of playground equipment swallowed by grass. The roads were misty with the spiral of tattered spirits blowing up toward the plant on the ridge.

With her windows down, Kay could hear the groan of hundreds of fans spinning in the concrete and steel arteries of the factory above. Of course, in this town where everyone living and dead eventually found their way up to the plant, where else could her sister have gone?

The guard—either not remembering that she had been fired, or not caring—glanced once at Kay and waved her through the gate. Her spirit smoldered deep in her bones. The size and solidity of the plant, the way it had anchored itself so deeply into the earth, was an insult to the ghost. For casting Kay out, the spirit wanted to pull the factory down brick by brick.

Pig City was a different place this late at night. Most of the living workers had gone home, only the cleaning crews remaining in their alien white hazmat suits, hosing the walls and floors with corrosive foam. Like a blizzard, little chips of flashing white and flurries of wind, ghosts uncountable streamed in and out of the plant.

Kay scrounged a dirty jumpsuit from a locker and pulled it on so that no one would notice her, then went down the tiled hallways, in and out of maintenance areas and the butchering floors, looking for her lost sister.

Ghosts hurried past, some of them solid enough to pick up files or spare parts or cleavers. They mixed up everything at night, rearranging the factory to look like it had when they were alive, but all of them from different decades and working against one other.

The pig houses were the loudest part of the plant, their iron corrals deafening with piercing cries, snotty grunts, and the windy breathing of hundreds upon hundreds of pigs. The narrow aisle was slick and stank of urine, drains gurgling at her feet in the dark. The heat of their breath was all around her.

Deep in the center of the pig house, under a swinging lamp with a naked bulb, Mira struggled to open one of the pens. The animals crowded around her with heavy, mute eyes. They smacked their mouths open and shut, as if they too were trying to speak.

When Mira noticed Kay watching her in the dim light, she pulled off her remaining shoe and threw it at her. It was a small and desperate gesture, a silent signal that Kay should not try to stop her, that she should go back home. She wrapped her thin arms around the bars of the gate and struggled to open it.

Kay knew she should grab Mira and carry her away before security found them. The plant was sacred. The police would put Mira in the haunted downtown jailhouse no matter how young she was, a place where anything might happen to her.

But if Kay did carry her sister home, things would only be like they had always been. Worse, now that Kay had broken the radio. She had brought silence to their house. What would it take to break loose the secret inside of Mira? What was it that had lodged in her throat, this spiny truth that couldn’t be swallowed or spat up? It would take a whirlwind or a flood to shake it free, the sky wrestling the earth until both collapsed in each other’s arms.

Mira retreated a few steps when she came close, but Kay went for the pigs instead. Her fingers found one of the locking pins in the dark and pulled it loose. She threw open a gate, stepping into the press of swine and shoving them out with the toe of her boot. Was she really helping her sister, or was she only giving into her ghost again, letting it wage another unwinnable war?

Mira, crying from the loss of the radio or from her unknowable secret, opened the double doors of the pig house. Kay unlatched gates and let the pigs pour out of their cages and swell to fill the dark. She worked quietly to give Mira what she wanted, not knowing any other way to help her.

They drove the herd of pigs into the parking lot. The smell of wet pine forest, rotten wood and earth, and the sticky fish scent of the river came to them in the wind. The pigs pushed toward the world of smells, stopped by the towering chain link fence that circled the plant. Knowing what was there just beyond the metal links only made it seem farther away.

This was too small for what Kay’s ghost wanted. A fuck you to the town, but a quiet one. Her ghost tore into her, worked up and needing a fight, letting out all its pain. Kay looked up at the cement walls rising into the sky, covering the moon and stars. She spat blood and held her side. The world was too sturdy to be pulled down by her two hands. Eventually, it would crush her flat.

But Mira ran amongst the pigs, their skins rippling with wind they’d never felt before. They raised a call over the plant, voices shrill and strange. Mira buried herself in the wet gasp and murmur of their inhuman voices.

In the pig song, punctuated by the shouts of workers and the lazy whine of coming sirens, Kay could almost hear something splitting apart. Spirits gathered overhead, flattening themselves out like shrouds billowing on the air. Under the sky-cracking noise, Mira opened her mouth and began to speak.

Her voice was low, only breath behind it, the whispered tail of words unraveling something within her. So quietly Mira spoke that even her ghost couldn’t hear her, couldn’t raise her hands to stop everything from slipping out.

With the lights of a police cruiser winding up the road and the cold glow of flashlights moving toward them from the plant, Kay shoved the pigs aside and fell to her knees beside her sister, pressing her ear to Mira’s mouth. The warm skin of the shrieking pigs folded around them.

“Tell me,” Kay said. Inside, her ghost stilled and listened too, its need to avenge breaking with love.


This story takes place in the same world as BREAK THE BODIES, HAUNT THE BONES (John Joseph Adams Books). Available now wherever fine books are sold.

Micah Dean Hicks

Micah Dean Hicks

Micah Dean Hicks is a Calvino Prize-winning author whose writing has appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, The New York Times, Lightspeed, and Kenyon Review, among others. His story collection Electricity and Other Dreams is available from New American Press. Hicks teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida. His new novel Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones is available from John Joseph Adams Books.