This is the third flock-only installment of the new novel, The Chain, by Robin Lamont. We will continue to share a few more chapters each month up to the end of the book. This month, enjoy chapters 7, 8, and 9.
The Chain (cont.)
Chapter 7 #PRIVATE#
Jude watched as Finn galloped unevenly along the path, his right hind paw barely grazing the ground. His limp was a lifelong condition, but it had not touched his spirit. She had rescued him as a puppy when he couldn’t have been more than four or five weeks old. That winter in Vermont was cold and the puppy mill owner, a French Canadian, had been keeping at least two dozen females in wire cages outside in unheated sheds. Many were sick and malnourished, the worst of them the mixed breeds whose pups wouldn’t be worth much. Boiling with fury, Jude roared down the country roads to track down the local sheriff and drag him back out to arrest the owner while she made arrangements with a local shelter to take the dogs. During the heated argument between the owner and the sheriff, Jude found the pup behind the sheds in a rusty, metal cage with a broken sign on it that read “Fin” – the French word for finished. Ended. Indeed, from the feed scale next to the crate, she suspected the owner was selling dead dogs by the pound, probably to a rendering plant nearby. Her dog wasn’t finished, however. His hind leg was mangled, but he was still struggling to escape the cage from under the weight of a pile of dead puppies. She picked him up, warmed him underneath her coat, and called him Finn. He would do anything for her.
The early afternoon light filtered through the honey-colored and russet leaves above their heads. They both needed some exercise and there were no signs at the state park telling her that dogs had to be leashed. So Jude unclipped his leash at the head of a trail marked by splotches of yellow paint on the trees. Finn bounded in and out of the woods, staying well ahead of her, and she followed as the trail began to climb. The higher they went, the rockier and more uneven the path became, but it was well-marked and Jude was not worried about getting back.
She breathed in the autumn air, feeling the muscles in her legs work and thinking about Frank Marino. Why was he despondent? It was disturbing to imagine that it had something to do with contacting The Kinship. But how could she have known that he was suicidal? The man worked at a slaughterhouse for God’s sake, she thought, it wouldn’t be the first time the job drove someone out of his mind.
At one point, Jude found herself trudging along the side of a ridge that sloped steeply off to her right until finally the ground flattened and opened up to a scenic overlook. The view was breathtaking – rolling hills covered with deciduous trees displaying their fall colors that became muted in a haze of distant blue. Jude bent over and put her hands on her knees to catch her breath, staring with wonder at the vista. She almost didn’t notice the girl sitting with her back against a tree and reaching out her hand to scratch Finn under the chin.
The girl jumped up. “Oh, sorry,” she said, as if she’d been caught doing something wrong. “Is it okay to pet your dog?” She looked to be in her mid-teens and an unlikely combination of punk rocker and athlete. Her nose was pierced with a silver stud, her right ear adorned with a row of hooped earrings, and her hair cropped in an I-don’t-care-what-I-look-like mane with ragged bangs that now lay plastered in wet strips against her brow. Noting her worn Nikes and an empty water bottle, Jude guessed she’d been doing some serious running.
“It looks like you two have already gotten to know each other,” said Jude.
The girl knelt down and stroked the fur along Finn’s back. “He’s got beautiful eyes,” she said.
“What’s his name?”
“Finn,” she repeated reverently. “What kind of dog is he?”
“I don’t really know, he’s a mix. I’m guessing he was supposed to be a Rottweiler, but his mom had other plans or maybe the breeder didn’t know a Rottie from a Sheepdog, which is why he didn’t end up in a pet store.”
“I wanted to have a dog, but my folks wouldn’t let me. Both my parents work and they said no one would be home to take care of it.”
“What’s your name?”
“Hi, I’m Jude.” She recognized Caroline as one of the two girls that caught her attention at the gravesite. “You must be Sophie’s friend. I’m sorry about her father.”
“How do you know that?”
“I was at the cemetery.”
“I didn’t see you there.”
“I kept my distance. Frank and I were just acquaintances. You knew him pretty well?”
“Yeah, I mean Sophie and I have been best friends since … I don’t know … second grade? He was a really good dad.”
“Tough thing to lose your father at such a young age.”
“She was at my house when she found out. Her mom came and got her. It was pretty bad.”
Jude let the girl sift through the memory of that moment before asking gently, “Where is Sophie now?”
“Oh, she’s at school.”
“And you’re not?” A questioning smile played on Jude’s lips.
Caroline responded with a disinterested shrug, although she couldn’t entirely hide the color that came into her cheeks. “School is a waste of time,” she complained, waving in the general direction behind her.
“I used to feel like that,” said Jude, who wisely held back a lecture about how wrong she was. “Are you a runner?”
Walking over to the protective wooden railing at the cliff’s edge, Caroline threw over her shoulder, “Why all the questions?”
“You don’t have to answer, but I just figured any friend of Finn is a friend of mine,” said Jude, coming up to join her.
“I used to be on the track team,” Caroline offered, “but it was so pointless I quit. I like to run, though.”
“Don’t tell me you ran all the way up here.”
“Most of the way. Some of it I have to walk.”
“You must be in great shape. How come you quit the team?”
“You have to follow their incredibly stupid training methods or they go ballistic,” Caroline bemoaned. “Story of my life. School, home, every time I turn around, I’m breaking some rule or other.”
“I know a little about that,” confessed Jude.
“My dad is a jerk and he’s getting worse all the time. Just about everything I do sets him off. He hates the way I look, he hates my boyfriend. He just wants me to be this happy, dimwitted cheerleader – his little cookie-cutter girl. He was best friends with Frank, did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t.” Jude pictured the lone man standing by Frank’s gravesite. “Does your father work at D&M as well?” When Caroline nodded, she added, “Hard way to make a living.”
“Nobody asked him to. I sure didn’t. He could have been a carpenter or plumber or something, but we had to stay in this pathetic town so he could work at a slaughterhouse.”
“You don’t approve?”
Caroline shook her head impatiently at the question and said, “When he comes home he stinks to high heaven. Just like this whole town. I hate it. Everyone here is like incredibly dumb and the place smells like manure year round.”
Gazing out at the majestic view, Jude took a deep breath. “Not up here,” she said.
“That’s why this is my favorite place. It’s clean and pure, you know? I feel … safe up here. Doesn’t smell like pig shit.”
Jude laughed, “Yeah, you gotta give yourself a break every once in a while.” She looked over hoping to catch a smile from the girl and was surprised to see her so morose. It didn’t seem natural for a teenager.
Caroline reached into the pocket of her hoodie for her cell phone. “I have to go,” she said when she saw the time on the screen. “I have a shrink appointment. Because I’m such a troublemaker and so crazy!” Finn had come up between them and put his head into Caroline’s outstretched hand. “He really likes you,” said Jude, genuinely impressed.
“So long, Finn. I hope to see you again.” Caroline bent down to nuzzle the top of his head. Then without another word she began her long-legged jog back down the trail.
Underneath Caroline’s defiance was a heartache that reminded Jude of herself at that age. She’d been angry too, but learned quickly that her protests were no match for the crusted remains the state handed out to kids like her. Fairness was just a concept, like algebra. It had nothing to do with the living, breathing, hungering realities of every day life. Jude stared after Caroline until she disappeared in the trees and wondered what was troubling the girl so.
“This is great, just great,” said Emmet, his patience at an end. “We both leave work to get here and she can’t even show up on time.”
“Maybe one of her teachers kept her after class,” Alice suggested limply.
In lieu of offering an opinion, Dr. Ohler cleared his throat and said, “We could use this time to talk about any concerns that you have regarding Caroline.” Barry Ohler, a psychologist, was an unimaginative but kind man with a pinched face and wire-framed glasses. The Chapels had been steered to him by Caroline’s school counselor, and this was to have been their first meeting as a family.
“Well, my first concern is that she’s wasting our time and probably enjoying it,” said Emmet disgustedly.
“She certainly is making a statement,” Ohler remarked.
“Yeah, she makes a lot of those,” said Emmet.
“Emmet, please,” Alice interjected. “We’re here to help Caroline.” She turned her attention to Ohler. “You’ve met with her now a few times. And you talked to her regular doctor, right? There’s nothing physically wrong with her. So what do you think this whole end of the world thing is about? And her obsession with death?”
“I’m telling you, it’s for effect,” Emmet broke in irritably. “To get attention. I mean, look at us – we interrupt our day, risk our jobs to come here, and she’s got everyone talking about Caroline.”
“Why do you have to be so hard on her?” his wife challenged.
“I’m only as hard as she forces me to be,” he defended. “She’s always got some gripe to act out at home, and there’s absolutely no reason for it – she’s got everything a girl could want.”
“She’s hurting, Emmet. Can’t you see that?”
Her husband looked away and fixed his eyes on the doctor’s desk where he saw a framed photograph of two smiling teenagers. Their happy faces flooded him with renewed anger at his daughter for her crazy obsession, made more perverse by the real death of his friend.
The doctor cleared his throat again, this time to diffuse the tension between husband and wife. “In a way, you’re both right,” he said. “Her rebellion and shutting you out – some of that is normal adolescent behavior. But I think that her preoccupation with death is a sign that she’s depressed. It’s not uncommon. Often the only way teens can express their feelings is by saying that they hate themselves or they hate you. But in a way, she’s calling out to you, saying, ‘Hey, I’m so unhappy that I fear death.’”
Alice gripped the sides of her chair and said, “But I don’t think she fears it, Dr. Ohler. I think she almost … welcomes it.”
“According to her, it’s inevitable,” corrected Emmet harshly.
“Well, she wouldn’t be wrong there,” Ohler offered with a weak laugh.
Alice was not amused. “Not at age sixteen!”
“No, of course not.” The doctor righted himself, taking off his glasses and cleaning them. “Um … when did you notice the change in her behavior?”
“There seemed to be a big change about a month ago,” replied Alice.
“Did anything happen in school that you’re aware of?”
“No, in fact she was doing fairly well in her classes, she had friends, she was running track. And then out of the blue, she gets her nose pierced without our permission, she chops off her hair–”
Emmet interrupted, “Dresses like a hooker and starts up with that kid.” When Ohler raised his eyebrows, he explained, “The boyfriend. I think there’s something wrong with him. Wears only black and smokes dope.”
“She hardly says a word to us anymore,” continued Alice. “I thought maybe it was just adolescent behavior, but then I found the clippings in her room, and that’s when we called the school counselor.”
“The clippings … you mean obituaries?” confirmed Ohler.
Alice leaned forward and said, “Not only is she cutting out obituaries from the newspapers, but she writes her own – about herself.”
“And this apocalypse nonsense,” Emmet added.
“Has she ever said anything about how she thinks she’s going to die?” asked Ohler.
“I overheard her talking to her friend Sophie on the phone, telling her something ridiculous about her trip to Rome and that it might happen there.”
“Oh, is she going to Rome?” asked the doctor.
“Of course not,” said Emmet, finding the prospect absurd. “But she’s taking Italian at school, so she thinks it’s very romantic to talk about Italy.”
“What has she said to you?” Alice asked the doctor.
“I can’t tell you that, it would be a breach of confidentiality. I can tell you, however, that she hasn’t been very forthcoming. But that’s not unusual,” he added quickly, “and we’re working on building trust.”
“How long is that going to take?” asked Emmet.
“Hard to say.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” Emmet threw himself back in his chair in frustration.
“What can we do?” pleaded Alice.
“Listen to her when she’s willing to talk to you. Try not to denigrate her feelings, just listen. I know her doctor prescribed medication, so make sure she’s taking that.”
With anxiety tightening her voice to the cracking point, Alice asked, “Dr. Ohler, is … is Caroline at risk for suicide? I mean, just to prove to us she’s right?”
“Don’t be so dramatic, mother,” said Caroline from the door. She had changed back into her school clothes, such as they were, not wanting to give away to her parents that she was running. She strode in and flounced onto a chair next to her mom.
“You’re late,” announced Emmet.
No one backed him up; instead Ohler gave her a warm smile. “Hi, Caroline. Your folks and I were just talking. They’re very concerned that you might be depressed. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?”
“Yeah, the meds are giving me diarrhea. And considering I may not have long to live, I don’t think that’s fair.”
“Give it a little time, Caroline,” advised Ohler. “It takes a while for the medication to work and your body to get acclimated.”
“I looked it up on line, and I guess I should tell you if I get pregnant, right? Because of the harm to the fetus.”
“Oh Caroline, just cut it out,” snapped her father.
“Well, it’s true. And I also think we have to acknowledge that antidepressants in teens can actually lead to suicide,” she lectured. “So I guess we’d better keep a closer eye on me … if that’s even possible.”
“Are you upset about being grounded?” asked Dr. Ohler sympathetically.
“Are you kidding? It’s my heart’s desire to be sixteen and imprisoned in a tiny house with my parents and my little brother. I can’t drive, I can’t do anything.”
“We’re supposed to let you behind the wheel while you’re fixated on death? I don’t think so,” rebuked Emmet.
“Well, trapping me in this fucking nowhere town is not going to make it go away!”
“Watch yourself,” growled her father.
Caroline shot Dr. Ohler a look that begged for agreement on how difficult her father was. But the doctor was already forming his next line of inquiry. “We’re trying to understand what makes you feel like death is around the corner for you.”
Her father had one leg crossed over the other showing the bottom of his work boot stained with dried manure and pigs’ blood. It made her want to throw up. She hated him. She hated her mother’s ill-fitting Walmart uniform, the dry skin stretched over her cheekbones and the smell of the cheap strawberry-scented shampoo they both had to share. A part of her wanted to scream as loud as she could and run out the door, but every once in a while her own thoughts scared her, coming out of nowhere and sending her into a panic. So she tried to explain. “It’s like … something inside me just knows. Maybe it’s my soul. Because when I think about it, my mind says I have no reason to believe I’ll die. I’m not sick, I don’t particularly want to die, and my mind is giving me all these other options. But I know that my mind is not always right.” She struggled to find the words. “My mind makes mistakes a lot. It makes me do kind of destructive things and say dumb stuff. But the soul doesn’t. It’s like the soul is pure – it’s the real you. I mean, after you’re dead, that’s what will exist … it’s all you really have, which is why I think my soul is telling me something I need to know.”
“And your soul is telling you that you’re going to die?” asked the doctor gently.
She nodded and then looked down at her hands, if only to avoid seeing her father’s reproach. In fact, it wouldn’t have been censure she would have seen, but sorrow, deeper and more helpless than her own.
Early the next morning, Jude picked up a local newspaper and brought it to the diner where she hoped to find some people from the plant willing to talk. Like everything else in town, the eatery had the feel of resignation. Despite the sign out front that promised “REAL FOOD,” from the pungent aroma of grease and tobacco that met her when she pushed through the door, Jude had misgivings. Several heads turned her way to check out the stranger. The table area was barely half full, but she chose a seat at the counter next to two guys discussing a carburetor problem with a man Jude figured to be the owner. His large frame was planted behind the counter. Encircled by a stained apron, he wore lightly tinted glasses that precluded a good look at his eyes. But he was the same man pictured in the photographs thumbtacked to the back wall showing him, shotgun slung over his shoulder, proudly holding the heads of various deer, coyotes, and bobcats he had killed.
A waitress appeared and slid a worn plastic menu in front of Jude. “Coffee?” she asked.
Jude nodded. “Black, please.” She didn’t think there would be anything on the menu she could eat so she pushed it aside and opened the paper. Most of the news centered around the nearby city of Abbeville: early retirement for a county commissioner, a piece on rising gas prices, and weather analysis for the farmers. At the end of the crime blog there was a paragraph about Frank Marino. The Medical Examiner cited the cause of death as a toxic mix of painkillers and alcohol, concluding that the BraggFalls man thought to have accidentally overdosed had, in fact, committed suicide. He worked at D&M Processing and was survived by his wife and daughter.
The waitress returned with a mug of weak, black coffee and asked Jude if she was ready to order.
“Just a toasted English muffin, no butter, and a glass of orange juice, thanks.”
The waitress eyed her suspiciously; this was a place to eat “real food” and lots of it. And the owner, a few feet away, chimed in, “You gonna waste away, s’all you eat.”
“I’m not that hungry,” replied Jude.
“Well, when you git hungry, I’d all recommend the biscuits ’n gravy.” He pointed to the mound of thick, beige slop on a plate belonging to the man next to Jude.
“Maybe next time,” smiled Jude.
“Name’s Roy Mears. You from ’round heah?” he asked.
“No, I’m from Virginia. Just visiting a friend.”
“That so? Just about everyone in BraggFalls comes through here, maybe I know her.”
“Actually, it’s a him.” Jude pointed to the paragraph about Frank. “And unfortunately, he just died.”
Mears squinted at the paper, then drew back. “Frank Marino? Oh yeah, I heard about that. Damn shame,” he said, shaking his head. “What’s the paper say?”
“Apparently his death has been ruled a suicide.”
“Goddamn. Hey, Lenny,” he tapped his spatula on the counter to get the attention of one of the men next to Jude. “You used to work over to D&M. You know a guy named Frank Marino? Guy who killed hisself.”
“I thought he overdosed,” said Lenny.
“Yeah, dimwit, that’s how he killed hisself,” guffawed Mears.
“No shit.” Lenny elbowed his partner. “Jesse, you know Frank Marino?”
He thought for a moment. “Name sounds familiar. He was at D&M.”
Now Jude had three of them talking. “Hard to understand, isn’t it?” she prompted.
“Not that hard,” scoffed Lenny. “Not if you’ve put in time over there.”
“I guess a lot of folks around here work at the plant,” said Jude.
“Sure do,” Jesse said, looking around him. “But not all the right kind of folks, if you ask me.”
Roy Mears leaned over the counter and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial mumble. “Too many Mexicans,” he said from the side of his mouth, “Comin’ up, takin’ our jobs.”
“Who else you gonna get to butcher hogs?” asked Lenny. “I worked there for six months outta high school. It’s a shit awful job.”
“Yeah, but the Mexicans come up here illegal, then we gotta educate their kids and pay their hospital bills.”
“They spend money same’s us,” Lenny pointed out.
Mears threw up his hands. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m willing to serve them. But I just think they should learn to talk English.”
Jude tried to steer the conversation back to D&M. “I heard some of the conditions are pretty bad at the plant. For the workers,” she said.
“Lady, you have no idea,” said Lenny.
“And for the animals.”
“For fuck’s sake, they’re pigs,” said Mears irritably. “They jis’ bacon.”
“Mebbe, but they don’t wanna die,” Lenny protested.
“And the animals are often mishandled?” pressed Jude.
Apparently that was one question too many because the three men abruptly stopped talking. The clatter of dishes sounded in the background. Mears lowered his glasses to peer at Jude more carefully and said, “Whoa, hold a minute. What’re you, some kind of animal rights person?”
She looked him square in the eye and nodded. If she’d been working undercover, she’d have made an attempt to deflect the question, but then again, if she’d been undercover she wouldn’t be in here poking around.
“I’ve heard about you people,” accused Mears, turning away to flip a couple of fried eggs on the griddle. “You’re like some kind of eco-terrorist. Save th’animals and all that other crap.” He pointed the spatula at her for emphasis. “We had someone like you come around a couple of years ago and try to shut D&M down.”
“If they’re violating the law, shouldn’t they be held accountable?” Jude wasn’t to be cowed.
Mears countered, “You’re a good one to talk about the law. You’d blow up a building to save a goddamn rat. That’s just plain terrorism and they oughta put your type in jail.”
The waitress swept by, plates in hand. “Roy, how’re those burgers coming?” she asked irritably. “Table two is waiting.”
Mears abruptly turned his back and peeled off two frozen beef patties to throw on the grill. They hissed, sending a cloud of grease-filled steam into the air.
“Don’t mind him,” Lenny said to Jude. “He gets prickly when things are slow. You gotta understand, D&M employs more’n half this town. If it goes under, this place goes under, too. Everyone is struggling to stay afloat.”
His friend Jesse chimed in, “I got a cousin in Texas who runs an auto body shop. When they closed one of the local meat packing plants on account of the drought, he says business dropped off ’bout a third. People are moving out.”
Jude sighed, “I understand.”
She heard Roy Mears mutter bullshit under his breath and thought it was probably time to move on. She left her half-eaten English muffin and a tip on the counter. While she was paying her check at the cash register, a man wearing a pair of coveralls and a camouflage cap got up from one of the tables and walked out, brushing rudely, deliberately against her as he passed.
Jude had been branded. An animal activist was in town.
* * *
She was unlocking her car when she heard someone calling, “Miss!” Jude turned to see a young man trotting across the parking lot to catch up with her. Light brown complexioned, in his late twenties, he had a feathery goatee on his chin and shoulder-length black hair tied back in a pony tail.
“Miss,” he said. “I heard you talking about Mr. Marino inside.” He had a slight Latino accent, but his English carried the fluency of someone who had spent a few years in the states. “Frank was a friend.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jude. “You were close?”
“Not like family, but he was my boss. I wanted to come to his funeral, but I couldn’t get off.”
Jude introduced herself and in turn, he offered his name as Juan. She didn’t think that was his real name, but didn’t press it. He probably had reasons to protect himself.
“We heard about his suicide,” he said.
“Yes, very sad,” said Jude, and after being so soundly rebuffed in the diner, grasped at any information. “I guess he was unhappy at D&M.”
“Ain’t no one happy there.”
“I heard he was particularly upset about how the plant is run.”
“Well, he was always trying to take care of us, you know?”
“How did he do that?”
“Stood up to management.”
“About what?” Jude wanted to know.
The young man looked around uneasily, wondering if anyone could see them together. “A lot of stuff,” he said hurriedly. “Bad conditions for the workers and … the animals.”
Jude leaned in. “What about the animals?”
He glanced over his shoulder again. The man in the camouflage cap was loitering by the diner’s entrance, watching them. “Listen, I can’t talk anymore.” He began to walk around the corner to the back of the diner.
Pocketing her car keys, Jude kept step beside him. “Juan, I want to learn about what’s happening at D&M. It’s not good for the workers there or the pigs. Could I just ask you a couple of questions?”
“No, no.” He kept going.
“Please. All confidential, I’ll keep your name out of it, I promise.”
Leery about what it was, Juan picked up his pace to shake her off. But Jude sensed a possible ally.
“People are getting hurt at the plant,” she pursued. “And the animals are suffering needlessly, aren’t they? How can anything change if it’s all brushed under the rug? Frank contacted me because he wanted to do something about it.” This stopped his retreat. “That’s why I came to BraggFalls … to find out what he knew. Listen, we don’t have to meet in public and I won’t mention your name. Please.”
He scratched nervously at his goatee and Jude held her breath; when it came to animal abuse, many people wanted to talk. Whether they had witnessed mistreatment or been complicit, deep down they felt bad and needed to unload their burden. But just then, there was the sound of boots crunching on gravel. The man in cap and coveralls rounded the corner. He made his fingers into a gun, pointed at them and mimed pulling the trigger. Juan bolted, running past an old flatbed truck on cinderblocks, then disappearing into the tall weeds.