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).

Give the Man a Hand (A Short Story)

Hob couldn’t believe his luck when he saw the Old Bastard come shuffling down the riverbank.

The Old Bastard had a funny little stumble, caused by his obvious age and his (unsuccessful) attempt to hurry down the steep, muddy slope. Every few seconds, his walk would turn into a tottering little dance-step, which looked for all the world as though he’d just shit himself and was trying to shake the turds out of his trousers. Obviously, the mud was sticking to his shoes and slowing him down some, despite his visible desire to hurry to wherever he was going.

Hob didn’t bother wondering just why the Old Bastard was trying to rush. Around Hob’s Bank everyone moved as though they had somewhere else they’d rather be, although they tried to look as if they weren’t. Nobody wanted to attract the wrong kind of attention, after all, and moving too quickly or hanging around too long would do exactly that. Fear caused people to strike a sort of balance in the way they moved, Hob knew, but he could always tell the difference between who was shitting themselves and just wanting to get someplace else, and who wasn’t to be fucked with – because Hob was one of the ones not to be fucked with and recognized his own kind on the rare occasions that he saw them.

Not that Hob got much company in this part of town. Which was why the Old Bastard’s sudden appearance at the crest of the riverbank had so piqued his interest.

Hob studied the Old Bastard (who’d been christened such when Hob first saw him and thought, “Who’s this Old Bastard, then?”); he was dressed in cheap trousers, but had on dressy shoes (from what Hob could see in the moonlight) – the worst kind to wear in this part of town. Enough for a bottle, easy! He also wore a long-sleeved shirt … and a tie, no less!

“Oh, Jesus”, Hob thought. “How this Old Bastard had managed to get this far from wherever he’d come from without getting’ fuckin’ done … it was a fucking miracle!”

Curiously though, the Old Bastard had no coat – despite the fact that tonight it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Had to be near to fucking zero if the clouds of smoke pouring from the Old Bastard as he exhaled were any indication. That, and the way Hob’s bones ached like a … bastard.

Hob’s Bank wasn’t really part of the town proper. Nor was that its official name. It was nothing more, in fact, than a section of the riverbank about five kilometres away from the arseholes that cruised the main streets. No houses stood nearby, and none could even be seen across the river, and Hob always found it funny when he thought that his ‘home’ might just have something to do with that.

Sewer pipes don’t exactly make an enticing view for prospective land buyers.

Still, to Hob it was home. It stunk like he was living on top of all the piles of shit in the world. And it was always dank and dark. But a fierce pride stirred within Hob whenever he thought of himself as the ‘owner’. After all, it was important for a man to have his own space.

Hob had learned that particular lesson on his very first night inside, when he’d had to crack his cellmate’s head on the side of the top bunk about fifteen or twenty times for trying to stand over him. That was over twenty years ago, and Hob was willing to bet that the fucker still wasn’t able to chew solid food.

Hard to eat when you didn’t have a jaw.

Hob had staggered down to this part of town a few months ago – exactly when, he wasn’t sure – but the nights weren’t as fucking cold then as they were now. Wandering (stumbling even worse than the Old Bastard was, actually) along paths that took his feet further and further from inhabited areas, Hob found himself down near the river. He didn’t know which river, nor did he care. He didn’t even know which fucking town he was in. But that didn’t matter, either.

What he did know was that he’d woken up the next afternoon in what had turned out to be one sweet place to crash.

Eyelids straining against the sunlight, Hob had struggled from where he’d slept to have a look around.

He couldn’t believe his luck! It was damn near perfect!

Well, not as perfect as a bed … but it’d do.

It was an inactive sewer pipe, nearly big enough for a person to stand up in, jutting out from the steep side of the riverbank like some decaying, half-pulled tooth. It must have been inactive, Hob figured, because – in all the months he’d been living in it – nothing had come from it except the occasional smell of sewerage on a wave of warm air, and – if you could put up with the smell – the occasional blast of heat almost made it worth it.

Sometimes, though, a small animal (most likely a rat) got stuck in the grille that sat a little over one-and-a-half metres up the pipe – chasing after a toad or a cockroach, or something – and died there. It’d end up rotting away nicely, making the place stink worse than usual.

But Hob could handle that.

The pipe was made of corrugated iron, and – since there didn’t seem to be any chance of anyone minding (not that he gave a fuck if they did) – Hob settled down there.

The only problem he had with it was that his feet just stuck out the end of the pipe, dangling over the muddy ground as it led down to the river, and always caught the cold coming up off the water (and always cramped if he curled them up to get away from the chill during the night). If the grille had been just a bit further back, it would have been better – but Hob had been unable to break it.

Still, it was a better place to crash than he’d found in a long while.

Over time, Hob had ‘furnished’ his new ‘home’; a few newspapers found here and there and some large sheets of cardboard torn from discarded boxes chanced upon around the place took the edge off the corrugations in the pipe, providing a mattress of sorts. As for blankets, it hadn’t taken him too long to find a couple of decent ones. All he had to do was go into the main part of the town and roll a dero or two in there, who got ‘em off the charities. Piece of piss.

Hard to defend yourself when you’re passed out.

And so – with the exception of one other item – his ‘renovations’ had been completed.

Hob found his ‘other item’ one day when he’d managed to snatch some bitch’s handbag, which had nothing in it worth a shit, but was made of leather, so Johnson down the hock shop gave him enough for a bottle and a bit of weed … which was enough.

Near dusk, Hob had made his way back to the riverbank, and – walking through the long grass in the rapidly-fading light – tripped over something.

Whatever the fuck it was nearly caused him to break the bottle as he fell down the riverbank, and this pissed him off so much that he’d spent the next half an hour looking for whatever it was that had tripped him.

And just as the light had nearly gone …

… he’d found it.

Sticking out of the mud like a bone from a compound fracture was … an old pickaxe handle. No axe-head, just the handle. But wasn’t it a beauty! Hardwood! The handle had been worn smooth over time … and was perfect for gripping.

Perfect for other things, too.

Instantly perceiving its usefulness, Hob secreted it away under the piles of newspapers and cardboard in his home.

This ‘stick’ of his could come in very handy!

Hob had no idea of the fates of the people he’d attacked over the course of his life, and he cared even less. The way he saw it, if they were stupid enough to be got, then that was their problem. He’d learned something about ‘survival of the fittest’ in Darwin … or something like that … when he was younger. But he’d long since forgotten it.

What he did know was that his stick made him that much more effective at what he needed to do to get his shit.

Despite his newfound weapon, Hob faced the problem that winter always brought with it – once it got so cold, less and less people came out at night. Sure, there were other street people here and there, but they didn’t have anything on them worth a shit anyway, so that was worse than useless …

Hob had finished his last bottle the day before and was getting the headache again. He’d spent a while coughing up a lot of the brown, stringy shit, too, and this had made his headache worse. The thing to do, he knew, was to get another fucking bottle.

But – to do that – he needed to find someone to roll.

Which is why he couldn’t believe his luck when he saw the Old Bastard come stumbling along almost right into his lap … !

The Old Bastard hadn’t seen Hob, hadn’t even so much as looked in the direction of the pipe Hob was watching him from. Which was strange, Hob thought, because of the way his eyes were darting all around the place between occasional looks at his feet through the long grass to check his balance.

And Hob knew the Old Bastard was scared.

“And he’s right to be scared”, Hob thought, silently lifting the newspapers where he kept his stick and gripping it tight.

As he silently climbed out of his pipe – still unnoticed by the Old Bastard who, by now, was only metres away – Hob saw that the Old Bastard was carrying something – a package of some sort, wrapped in brown paper and tied in a hurry with string.

Hoping that something good he could hock was inside, Hob moved closer to the Old Bastard, whose attention became more fixed on the package the closer he got to the water, as if he was scared of losing it. He held it close, even though it was clear, now, that he meant to toss it in the water.

“Can’t have that”, Hob thought.

With that, there was a heavy – yet hollow – ‘clack’, as though someone had hit a watermelon with a baseball bat. It gave the impression of there being something softer inside the harder, outer-covering of what had been hit. The sound echoed off the other side of the riverbank and back again.

Blood jetted from the Old Bastard’s nostrils as his head pitched forward with the clear sound of his neck breaking before he fell to the ground.

Hob had lost his grip on his stick on impact, and bent down to retrieve it from the Old Bastard’s corpse, tugging hard because it had embedded pretty deep in his head. It came free suddenly, with a wet noise and a waft of something sour-smelling.

Hob chuckled and began to go through the Old Bastard’s pockets, but grew more frantic as he realized that the Old Bastard had nothing on him – no money, no smokes, no watch, no mobile phone – fucking nothing!

Disgusted at this, Hob grabbed the body by the back of the shirt and hauled it to the river’s edge, where his anger gave him the strength to lift it and hurl it in.

The Old Bastard’s body was quickly washed away by the current, and – even in the moonlight – Hob could see the water filling the gap in his head before it was taken around a corner, disappearing from both Hob’s view and his mind.

Except …

“Fuck”, Hob spat, remembering the shoes he’d neglected to lift from the Old Bastard.

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

Self-loathing filled him (not due to his gruesome deed, but because of his spectacular lack of ‘nous’), and Hob trudged back toward his pipe, swinging his stick dejectedly at the twigs and bushes.

“Would’ve remembered his shoes if it wasn’t for this fuckin’ headache”, he thought … then abruptly stopped, a step or two from the entrance to his pipe.

He looked back.

There – almost obscured by the grass – was the Old Bastard’s package.

Excitement grew in Hob’s chest as he stumbled back to where he had committed the murder. Drops of blood or brain were on the paper, but Hob didn’t give two shits, picking it up and tearing at the paper and string at the same time.

Something soft was bundled up inside.

A jacket!

Not quite what Hob wanted, and – for a few minutes – he just stood there, not knowing what to think, before deciding that it might, at least, keep some of the cold away that the booze wasn’t there to.

He tried it on, and – although it was a size or two too large (the Old Bastard must have been bigger than Hob had realized) – Hob figured that he could live with it.

He muttered to himself about how he had at least gotten something out of his encounter with the Old Bastard as he trudged back to his pipe and climbed in.

Hiding his stick in its usual place, Hob settled down for the night. He put the mottled blankets over his legs, happy enough that he could manage to cover his feet some tonight.

He fumbled a few times trying to put the jacket’s zip together, but managed it in the end.

Zipping it up, he settled back for a warm night … and put his hands in the pockets.

A sudden stereo crunch echoed off the inside of the pipe with a horrible volume. Hob felt a sickening wrenching as pain shot its way up his arms like fire … pain which didn’t stop … pain which ran like a juggernaut down to his feet and back again.

Something hot burst against his wrists, and Hob recognized the coppery smell as it filled the pockets of his new jacket.

He pulled his hands out of his pockets and held them up to his face …

… but they didn’t seem to be there.

Instead, he was blasted with twin jets of blood from the stumps where his hands had been.

He tried to scream.

Hard to scream when your mouth is full of blood.

Copyright © 2007 by David Scott Aubrey
All Rights Reserved
2,445 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).