Sympathetic Ears (A Short Story)

“There ya go. First one’s on the house … you look like you could use it”.

The haggard man blinked and shook his head, as if coming up for air from somewhere deep within himself. After looking at the beer for a long time as if it was the most welcome thing he’d ever seen, he looked up at Earl.

Earl was an innocuous sight at a little under five feet, though weighing in at nearly three hundred pounds. Santa Clause hair spilled out of his face and ran up to hide under a worn, woolen beanie. Like jolly old Saint Nick, Earl also had a kind twinkle in his eye.

“What’s the problem, stranger?”

The haggard man leaned back on his stool as if to get his brain around just why this man was being so kind to him. After all that had happened to him lately, he wondered what possible interest the bartender could have in …

… but then he managed a half-hearted smile and realized he was in the place to talk about his problems. Hell, the man behind the bar probably did nothing but listen to people’s problems, day in, day out; strangers pouring out their sorry tales to him.

It maybe even helped a little.

So the haggard man began, thankful the bar was empty, with the exception of himself and Earl; thankful it was so far off the main road that nobody was likely to come in while he let it all out, for that matter.

During it all, Earl merely listened, nodding occasionally as if he had, indeed, heard it all before. The haggard man took solace in this: If his problems weren’t as unique as he thought, he didn’t feel quite so alone with ‘em.

The beer flowed for a good hour or so, and the haggard man – though still haggard – felt at least a little less burdened, having unloaded his woes; no closer to a solution, but a little better.

The beer was obviously going some way towards that. And it awoke a hunger in the haggard man.

“Say, Earl”, for they were now on a first-name basis, “you got anything stronger than beer?”

The corner of Earl’s mouth moved towards the twinkle in his eye, and he began nodding again.

“Yep … I reckon there’s something stronger out the back …

… you wanna come out and help me look for it?”

As if it were the best offer he’d had in a long while, the haggard man climbed down none-too-steadily from his stool and headed for the doorway Earl was gesturing towards.

“Through here?”

Earl just nodded, moving towards the door himself, though pausing until the haggard man had gone through.

The room was dark – a pokey little storeroom – and Earl made no effort to find a light switch. What little light fell through from the bar illuminated only kegs of beer, shelves of something in glass bottles and wooden boxes …

… wooden boxes of something possibly better than beer … ?

“Look over the back there”.

Earl’s voice seemed close.

“What am I looking for?”

In a movie, the haggard man would have heard Earl say something like, “You’ll know it when you see it”, before he saw what he saw. Truth be told, even if Earl had shouted something like that at him, the haggard man wouldn’t have heard it: Blood was pounding in his ears in time to his heartbeat like some sort of wet bass drum.

A sudden inhalation stopped the tattoo as something stabbed into the space between the haggard man’s third and fourth vertebrae. An instant later, he was on the floor.

Knowing nobody would be by, Earl set to work. As he began cutting away, he looked up at the bottles, to the last thing the haggard man had seen …

… and spoke.

“Yep … another Sad Sack tonight. Whining to me like he’s the only one in the world with problems. As if I’m supposed to listen to everyone else’s problems when there’s nobody to listen to mine … ”

As he settled in for a long night of talking about his problems to the only ones who would listen, Earl finished his grisly job and rinsed his trophies under the sink, before adding the haggard man’s ears to his collection.

Copyright © 2008 by David Scott Aubrey
All Rights Reserved
723 Words

This short story is a work of fiction. Any and all names, characters and/or incidents are either products of my imagination or are used fictitiously. Where any such resemblance may exist to actual persons (living or dead), actual events or locales, it is purely coincidental.

Please don’t assume that my characters speak for me or carry my own opinions on various matters in any way, shape or form (though some might – you never can tell).

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It Shouldn’t Have Happened to a Vet (A Short Story)

With Apologies to James Herriot.

“Ahh … the new bloke. Murphy, wasn’t it? Come on in”.

“Tea … ?”

“Yeah, I don’t take sugar, either. The milk hereabouts makes it sweet enough”.

“Through here … take a seat … ”

“You’ll have to excuse the mess. I know the place looks like a tornado’s hit it, but I haven’t felt much like cleaning up since … ”

“Ahh … it’s all right … no need to walk on eggshells about it. This is just an informal chat, I know; the new bloke seeing if the previous guy has anything to tell him about the job, the region … the people. But I figured we’d get around to that subject, sooner or later. Might as well be sooner … ”

“I figure you’ve probably read all in the papers about it. ‘Journalists’. Huh … ! Couldn’t spell the word ‘truth’, let alone write about it. All sorts of rumours flying around at the college, too, I’ll bet, hmm … ?”

“Ah, well … bear with me …

… and I’ll tell you what really happened”.

“She’s strugglin’”.

“Yeah, mate … I knew you wouldn’t have called me if it was just a normal birth”.

And I did know. For Jim McGrove – and every other farmer in the area – a cow giving birth was nothing to ring the vet about. Even if the cow was having trouble – the unborn calf not having turned properly, for instance – most farmers (and I’m talking third- and fourth-generation folks, out here) think nothing of getting in there and turning it themselves.
I was only called out when there was something they couldn’t handle … and that was rare enough that I hadn’t done an outcall since I first moved here and started my practice, going around to introduce myself to everyone; a fair while previous …

Anyway … as I knelt down beside the cow, for some strange reason my mind flashed back to when I was first learning my skills. Our job for an entire semester was to dissect a horse.

(You’d remember that … wasn’t that long ago for you, was it?)

Funny thing … in the cold of the dissection room, the horse’s coat always looked wet, somehow. And McGrove’s cow had that same sheen to her.

I put my bag down with my 100 watt lamp so I could glove up. It was late enough (or early enough depending on how you looked at it) that the field we were in had already started to dew up, and stray blades of grass used that moisture to stick to the sides of my bag.

I don’t know why I notice little things like that. The way my mind works, I suppose. Still, times like this – even when I’m about to stuff my arm up a cow – I’m glad I do. It was about ten past two in the morning, the sky was so black the stars almost seemed to provide more than enough light on their own. The Milky Way was more than a dusting of stars above us – it was a storm of them. The air was crisp and hard in my lungs, but I like it brisk.

We were so far out from McGrove’s farmhouse I couldn’t even see the light he still had on back in the kitchen, where he’d sat waiting for me after he’d called. When I arrived, he’d been standing outside the door, though, so – even if he hadn’t told me anything about how hard a time his cow was having trying to give birth – I could’ve guessed, because he didn’t even offer me a cuppa.

(You’re from the city, originally, right? Anyone living in the country would know that – unless something is really wrong – you offer a guest a cuppa before anything else).

Anyway, all this went through my mind as I gloved up and got into it.

My hand was about halfway up when I felt the calf …

… or so I thought.

Normally, you find the head, check the umbilical hasn’t wrapped around its neck, then work your way back from there and find the back legs. You know the rest: You grab ‘em and muscle the calf around so it’s turned properly. Watch the hooves don’t tear the placenta … all that. And then you let nature take care of the rest.

But when I tried to identify the head – feeling for the umbilical – I couldn’t feel what I was expecting …

Even through the gloves, you get a sense of the animal waiting to be born. You can feel the shape through the placenta of the ears, the nose …

I felt …

… I felt this …

… dome …

If McGrove’s cow hadn’t been on her side, nearly exhausted, with low vitals, she might’ve bolted – calving or not – when I jumped back.

At first I thought, “This must be something artificial … !” Thoughts bounced around making me wonder if some other vet had been doing some sort of experiment – implanting some sort of sensor, or something. But three things chased those thoughts away:

One, I knew that McGrove wouldn’t have allowed any such thing.

Two, I knew I was the only vet in the area.

And, Three, I’d never heard of any such thing! Implants in cows … ?

But … that’s what it felt like to me … something …

… artificial … !

I should mention that – yes – there’s often times when unborn calves are deformed – you’ll feel odd bumps and lumps. But … you can identify them …

… I had no idea what this was.

McGrove couldn’t see my face from his angle – he was just behind and to my left, holding the lantern. And he must have figured that my ‘jump’ when I touched the thing was probably just me trying to turn the calf.

Still … his presence served to remind me … in front of these lifelong farmers, you don’t show any sense that you don’t know what’s going on. Even if you’re the only vet around, if you make a mistake, or seem as though you don’t know what’s going on … word gets around. Some farmers in the area would rather lose stock than subject their animals to a vet they didn’t think was what they deserved.

So …

… I didn’t withdraw my hand.

By this time, the cow was moaning. Yes, it’s normal …

… but not like this.

In the couple of seconds that I was there trying to figure out what to do next, the cow’s moans grew louder and louder …

… and turned into screams.

I don’t know if anyone else had heard a cow scream, but I’ve … I mean … I was a vet for over a decade, and I’ve never heard anything like it. Couple that with the fact that it was just me and McGrove out there – seemingly in the middle of nowhere – and you can understand why the hairs on the back of my neck stood up straight enough to push against my collar.

“Jesus Christ!”

“Just hold the lamp still … there’s … ”

I was about to say, “Something … ”, but I didn’t have to.

McGrove got to see it all for himself …

That poor cow …

Sorry …

It’s just …

… nothing should have to suffer like that …

Anyway …

… I fell back. All in one go, my arm was out and I was suddenly on my arse. And just as well, too, because that’s what saved my life.

That poor cow kicked like she was having a seizure. I’d never seen anything as violent, though. I remember seeing McGrove out of the corner of my eye jumping as I scrambled back, too, fast as I could.

Didn’t save him, though. But it did save me.

The … legs, I guess you’d call ‘em … the legs tore out through that poor cow’s side, instead of coming out through the birth canal. McGrove was nearest that side, and I was where I was expecting a calf to be delivered, so that’s why he got …

… sorry …

… all right … I’m all right …

… it’s just … I’ve never seen anything like …

… sip o’ me tea, here …

… anyway …

… those … legs … they tore her open like … like meat going through a grinder … ! You know those hand-winding meat grinders … ? Just like that. Only this was bone, tendons … flesh! And it all happened instantly. It was like whatever was inside her just … flexed.

Chunks of that poor cow hit me and I ended up flat on my back. I was trying to wipe the blood and meat out of my eyes when I saw this shadow … six or eight legs … some sort of dome shape for a head … rise up out of what was left of that poor cow …

… next thing I know, McGrove was screaming.

I thought the cow’s screams were bad …

It didn’t last long, and when I finally wiped enough bits of the Bessie out of my face to see properly, that … thing … had disappeared. And all that was left of McGrove was … ribbons, I guess. Ribbons of meat. Ribbons of bone.

The blood … the bits … the cow’s and McGrove’s … on me, it felt like they were as warm as if I’d poured kerosine on myself.

I don’t know what it was. I can’t even remember what happened in the next couple of hours, actually. Doctors said shock. Police said a neighbour had heard the screams even from a couple of hundred acres away! Thought them chilling enough to ring the coppers. Coppers found me and what was left of McGrove … and that poor cow … up on that hill. I was in shock, or something, like I said …

Took a couple of days before the coroner determined that I couldn’t have done what had been done to McGrove. No … human could have …

During that time, I was in custody in the hospital … doped up on something for the shock.

But … like I said … I don’t know what it was. I do know it was enough to make me retire. Even though I’ve got a good couple of decades ahead of me in this job, I don’t want it anymore … not if there’s ever the chance I’ll see anything like what I saw that night …

Of course, I’ve done some research since then. Trying to figure out what was going on. What the hell was in that poor cow. How it got there. I’ve got some loose theories. You know those stories about cattle mutilations? What if they really were caused by aliens? But what if the aliens weren’t trying to kill the cows, but study them … work out how to breed with ‘em, or something … ?

Anyway …

“Huh … ! Lookin’ a bit pale, there, Murphy. Drink yer tea … “

… plenty of good cow’s milk in it … !”

Copyright © 2007 by David Scott Aubrey
All Rights Reserved
1,872 Words

This short story is a work of fiction. Any and all names, characters and/or incidents are either products of my imagination or are used fictitiously. Where any such resemblance may exist to actual persons (living or dead), actual events or locales, it is purely coincidental.

Please don’t assume that my characters speak for me or carry my own opinions on various matters in any way, shape or form (though some might – you never can tell).

Bear With Me (A Short Story)

THIS STORY IS being written on a dark and stormy night. You know … the kind of atmosphere that begins hundreds of different stories the world over:

“It was a dark and stormy night … ”

However, the actual weather isn’t the main focus of this particular tale.

Rather, it is the time …

… night.

Night.

Dark.

The unknown.

That’s all anyone ever fears, really.

The unknown.

Since time immemorial, what lurks ‘out there’ – during the hours when the sun sleeps – has been the stuff of horror. Terrifying tales of obscene creatures, events too powerful and too evil to contemplate with the rational mind claw at the subconscious.

Those selfsame forces – said to be responsible for all that is wrong with the world – lurk on the edge of your dreams, in the time before the dawn, in the dead of night.

In the unknown.

This story (if you choose to accept it, to believe it) could be about a facet of those unknown forces, those unspeakable demons that drive weaker beings in the daylight world to commit atrocious acts of depravity and sadism.

It could be a story about devils.

It could be a story about blood sacrifices.

It could be a story about murder.

It could be a story about an old stuffed toy.

To whom it once belonged is … unknown.

The old toy bear, once some happy child’s plaything, now cast out under the elements in the old, deserted woodlands near the outskirts of the small country town. Its once orange-coloured fur long ago transformed to a sickly yellow ochre under the wind and rain, its once cute button eyes now staring lifelessly, unwillingly … out into the world beyond this one.

During those lonely hours between the dusk and the dawn, when most people have barricaded themselves (subconsciously, for the most part) into the relative safety of the home, away from the horrors alive in the night …

… what do you suppose this old toy bear (assuming it possessed some small sliver of sentience) …

… could have seen?

Of course, such a thought is purely and plainly irrational. Stuffed toys aren’t sentient, and only contain as much life as the child to whom it once belonged imparted to it.

But suppose …

… just suppose that it was sentient … that it was alive … the energies of its previous owner building and building until the old stuffed bear possessed – however rudimentary – the first stirrings of a life of its own …

… of consciousness.

Not in the same manner as people, of course.

No.

But … in some special – unknown – ‘stuffed toy way’ …

… suppose it was alive.

After all, toy bears are crafted with anthropomorphism in mind, aren’t they?

Assuming that could possibly be the case …

… assuming it was alive …

… just what do you suppose that old toy bear might have seen in those dark hours, where the unknown reigns, cast – as it was – out into the night?

If one could witness such events in the middle of the deserted bushland, with eldritch forces swirling ’round and ’round the poor stuffed bear, do you suppose that one would see the once-cute button eyes suddenly appear to widen … as if terror gripped its plush little heart?

Do you suppose that one might see the old toy attempt to move its shabby paws up to its mouth …

… as if to stifle a scream?

A reaction to terrors only it could witness?

Of course, nothing like that could ever happen, you say.

It’s just an old stuffed toy.

But suppose …

… just suppose …

… that the unknown was enough to terrify even an old stuffed bear …

If it was so, then just what manner of inconceivable horrors would be out there? And what effect could those nameless terrors have on the toy besides its fitful, fearsome shuddering?

Would it surrender to the maddening forces assaulting it during those dark hours?

Would it turn from a simple child’s plaything …

… into something that would do almost anything to keep those arcane powers at bay?

Would it turn, and – fearing for its nascent soul, its elementary sanity – desperately bargain, turning to some unknown horror to do so?

No.

Of course not.

Who’d even think such a thing, you’d say.

That’s why, when the child saw the bear, he instantly picked it up … overjoyed at his newfound prize.

Little Adrian was only five years old, after all, and something like the old stuffed toy bear – found, abandoned in the bushland as he explored it while his parents held their picnic nearby – represented (to him) a most valuable treasure indeed.

Of course, he would have to keep his newfound treasure hidden from Mum and Dad. Grown-ups didn’t understand such things, and would only make him throw it back where he found it, saying that he had ‘no idea where it had been’.

But little Adrian knew better … and – according to him – there was nothing wrong at all with the old toy bear.

That’s why he didn’t give a second thought to picking it up and hiding it in his jacket to take home. And – of course – he didn’t even consider for a moment what the old toy bear might have ‘seen’ during the dark hours.

Perhaps, sometimes, children don’t know more than their parents, after all.

Upon arriving home, little Adrian raced upstairs to his room and closed the door behind him. He wanted to find a safe hiding place for his newfound toy. Somewhere his parents would never find it.

Ah! The cupboard where he stored his clothes!

He put the toy bear under a pile of size three t-shirts, closed the door, then went downstairs to watch TV.

The afternoon passed, the dark coming early due to the heavy clouds in the sky that were pregnant with imminent deluge. The night – when it came – was dark and stormy …

Stormy enough to awaken little Adrian from his slumber.

Ordinarily, he would have asked if he could stay with his parents until the storm had passed …

… but not on that night.

That night, little Adrian knew that he had something that could protect him against the storm.

Or so he thought.

Lightning spat with thunderous tongues as little Adrian headed from his bed and over to the cupboard to fetch his newfound toy.

He reached under the t-shirts and grabbed the bear by the paw.

Quickly running back over to his bed with his toy bear protecting him, little Adrian thought that he wouldn’t have to worry about anything ever again.

And with that, he fell asleep.

An explosion of thunder reawakened him barely ten minutes later.

He wasn’t half as startled by that, though, as he was by the fact that his toy bear was … gone.

He didn’t even notice the tiny roar – a roar a bear might make if it were the size of a small, stuffed toy – as the lightning flashed through the window and the thunder bellowed overhead.

His only focus was looking around his room frantically for his new toy.

And suddenly …

… he saw it.

His little stuffed bear was leaning up against the door of his clothes cupboard where he had put it earlier that day … to keep it … safe.

It seemed to be … pawing … little arms held in the air, mimicking the actions of someone pounding upon the door … as though …

… trying to get back in?

Little Adrian didn’t think of any of that, however.

He only wanted his toy back, and rushed quickly over to retrieve it.

As he reached out to grab it …

… he yelped.

A tiny roar had protested his lifting the toy from the floor …

Turning the bear over, little Adrian saw the cute button eyes … eyes that were now wider than he remembered them.

Eyes that were laced with a horrible fear.

And the tiny protest roar sounded again.

Unknowingly, little Adrian padded back over near his bed, closer and closer to the window … to the storm outside … to the night … holding the toy at arm’s length as he did so. At this, the bear’s tiny roars grew more and more frequent as the distance between it and the cupboard grew.

Little Adrian didn’t know what to make of this at all.

But he did know one thing:

The expression on the toy bear’s face was unnatural, and nothing like it had been when he had found it that afternoon.

In a burst of panic, little Adrian surged forward, tore open the doors of the cupboard and threw the toy bear back in before slamming the door.

He spent the rest of the night awake – the covers pulled as high as he could – with his eyes glued to the door of the cupboard, his young mind desperately trying to fathom what had gone wrong with his newfound toy.

Eventually, however, fear gave way to exhaustion (or, indeed, exacerbated it), and – as dawn pushed through the clouds and into his room – little Adrian gave way to sleep.

That day, little Adrian was troubled.

His problem, of course, was the bear.

It had changed.

He didn’t quite know how – or why – but he accepted it without the scepticism of an adult.

And he feared it.

Bustling to and from his room during the day, little Adrian gave a wide berth to the side of the doorway closest to his cupboard. When in his room, little Adrian was afraid that the toy bear – now no longer a toy but something horrifyingly different – would somehow close the door to his room behind him, cutting off the protection offered by the mere presence of his parents downstairs.

Nonetheless, he entered the room when he had to, but always hurried out again.

He was careful not to let his parents see him doing this, of course. He didn’t want them to know about the toy bear. It was his way of protecting them from its evil.

However, such a thought – that he might somehow protect his parents as they were (even unknowingly) protecting him – barely kept the fear at bay.

And that night, little Adrian didn’t sleep.

Instead … he thought.

His mind’s eye spun over the details of what he should do to alleviate the problems posed by the toy bear.

He knew that it wasn’t the same plaything he’d thought it was when he’d found it on the picnic.

And he knew that he had to get rid of it.

Somehow.

Especially without his parents knowing.

And there, staring at the cupboard doors in the dark, long into the night, he finally came up with an answer.

And a plan.

Little Adrian waited a few interminably long hours until after his parents had gone to sleep. He peeked out through the door of his room to check that all the lights were off and stood for several minutes listening to the regular sounds of his father snoring. He then dressed in some warm clothes as quietly as he could.

And picked up a towel.

With trepidation, little Adrian snuck over to the cupboard where the toy bear hid.

Mustering up all the courage his heart could find, little Adrian quickly (but quietly) opened the doors of the cupboard and threw the towel over the bear, trying to hide its evil from him, trying – somehow – to shield himself from its snarling face and terribly, horrifyingly wide button eyes.

The towel was thin, but – perhaps because little Adrian believed it would – it protected him, at least long enough for him to wrap the bear up further and stuff the horrible toy into his knapsack.

Then, with all the quietness and skill he could manage, little Adrian scampered out the window, down the drainpipe and out into the yard, before heading off in the direction of the picnic grounds …

… and into the night.

The picnic area was only a few kilometres away, but by the time little Adrian had reached it, he had been away from home for nearly three hours. He was cold, and knew that it was because he was scared.

Nearing the edge of the picnic area, little Adrian decided that all that would be needed to rid himself of the cursed toy would be for him to merely throw it back where he found it.

Gingerly, he took it out of his knapsack, nearly dropping it in fright as it squirmed in his hands.

And then, with all of his might …

… he hurled the towel-wrapped toy bear into the bushland that ran alongside the picnic area, before turning and running away as fast as he could.

But … within a few metres …

… he stopped.

And turned back.

The little toy bear had landed just outside the bushland.

And – with a desperate sinking feeling – he knew what needed to be done.

His mind told him that he’d actually have to take the toy back to exactly the spot where he’d found it – back to the very middle of the bush where it first caught his eye – or else it was sure to follow him home.

Timidly, he stepped back over to where it rested on the dew-soaked grass. The towel had come adrift somewhat, so that the bear’s horrible, terrified eyes fixed upon him.

Fighting against the instincts that screamed at him to run, little Adrian carefully picked it up (only touching the parts of it still covered by the towel).

Breath coming in gasps, he started off at a run, wishing only to get his dreadful task over and done with so that he could go home.

He ran faster than he ever thought he had run before, despite the pain lancing up his shins.

He ran and disappeared amongst the trees …

… into the night.

What was it in that old bushland that little Adrian ran into?

What happened to him in those cold hours before the morning?

What caused his parents to simultaneously wake up at that exact instant, sweat cold on their brows and fear pounding in their hearts?

Could they have heard little Adrian’s screams?

That is … unknown.

Well.

Not a happy ending, was it?

Of course, happy endings are for fairy tales … and stories of the unknown are never that.

However …

… to possibly bring some sanity to an otherwise insane tale …

Several townsfolk reported to the police the sighting of a homeless man, lurking around the area of the picnic grounds once word of little Adrian’s disappearance had spread. Barely the day before, they had said. However, the day after, he was nowhere to be found.

Of course, the police and SES searched the area, but the only trace of the transient’s passage through the bushland was an empty bottle …

… and an old, tattered trinket.

The trinket was something the police couldn’t fathom. Nevertheless, they suspected that it could have meant a great deal to the apparent homeless man.

It was a toy.

More specifically, it was a small stuffed toy bear.

Something the homeless man had found somewhere, no doubt. In a Lifeline bin, perhaps, back in the days when the doors on such things weren’t configured to keep people from climbing in and sleeping in them.

Certainly, little Adrian’s parents didn’t recognize the thing.

Left in the bushland, one night had passed before the police found the toy.

During those hours, between the darkness and the dawn …

… what do you suppose this old toy …

… assuming it was sentient …

… could have seen that night?

That, of course …

… is unknown.

Copyright © 2007 by David Scott Aubrey
All Rights Reserved
2,632 Words

This short story is a work of fiction. Any and all names, characters and/or incidents are either products of my imagination or are used fictitiously. Where any such resemblance may exist to actual persons (living or dead), actual events or locales, it is purely coincidental.

Please don’t assume that my characters speak for me or carry my own opinions on various matters in any way, shape or form (though some might … you never can tell).