Today we are excited to welcome Keith Rosson to Ink Heist with his story, “Their Souls Climb the Room”. It’s a gripping story about a man attempting to put his life back together and as the weight of his past begins bearing down on him. While the story deals with familiar themes in crime fiction, Rosson puts his own unique spin on it to create a haunting tale that is sure to linger with you. This is one of the first crime stories we’ve published on Ink Heist and we’re excited to share it with you!
“Their Souls Climb the Room”
By: Keith Rosson
©2020 Keith Rosson
Another hog came down the line, hung up and bucking against the chain wound around its rear leg. Nolan Tice let it go right past him, didn’t try to stick it – the guy running the scald tank could deal with it. This was the fifth still-conscious hog to come down the line in as many minutes. Blaswell was operating the stunner; he was supposed to be subduing them before they got to Nolan, and he was doing a shit job of it. The next hog came at him, forelegs twitching all dreamy amid the cataclysmic roar of the place, the reek of offal, the animal’s dark and bottomless eye, and Nolan stuck it quick in the throat, loosing a fire-engine-red torrent of blood that jetted against his apron and splashed against his boots and then pulsed into the trough set into the floor as it moved on down the line. He stuck the next one and the next one and the next. Hogs came down the line every five seconds, twenty-four hours a day, stunned or not. Shackled by that rear leg, screaming and thrashing if Blaswell had skipped stunning them with the paddle, or if the foreman turned the juice down too low to do any good.
He was a felon, Nolan, and had gotten the job at Good Acres Foods the year before because the previous sticker had lost a thumb from a hog kicking the blade back against his hand. Good Acres was about the only place in the county that’d hire anyone with a record, and Nolan made twelve dollars an hour killing roughly five thousand animals a shift, five shifts a week. At night he could feel the souls of all the dead hogs pressing on his chest, pressing down on his ribcage like something real. A near-tangible weight that he swore he could almost touch. All those souls pinning him to the mattress, pressing down on the animal meat of his heart. There were times where he’d be drinking at Fischer’s and he could convince himself they were ghosts that haunted him, that he could practically feel the smoke-like and vaporous souls that climbed the ceiling and hung there above him, eyeing him, ready to drop.
The line kept going. He seethed, stuck, kept track. He counted forty-six still-kicking hogs on the chain by lunchtime.
Even in the lunchroom the sound of the saws and the hogs screaming over them never entirely went away. The pneumatics of the guns, the power-washers that pushed the blood into the drains. The cavernous quality of the place. Nolan found Blaswell eating lunch at a table with a couple other guys. He was a sad-looking, heavyset man with an overbite and a propensity for nervously hoisting his pants over his gut every minute or so. Nolan went up to his table and leaned on it with his knuckles.
“Forty-six,” Nolan said.
Blaswell stopped chewing, looked up at him with those wet eyes. “Forty-six what?”
“Forty-six pigs kicking at me, goddammit. Half a shift, I got forty-six pigs still jumping at me? The hell are you doing out there, man?”
The other men traded glances. Blaswell licked his lips. “Reynolds lowered the voltage on the stunner. Said we were getting too much bloodsplash.”
Reynolds was the foreman, and Nolan realized right away that Blaswell was probably right. He was just doing the best he could. If the foreman turned the stunner down so low, there wasn’t much Blaswell could do about it. Still, Nolan was in a feeling, and the man’s admission did absolutely zero to belay his anger. “I don’t give a shit about bloodsplash,” he spat. “I don’t want my own fucking knife kicked into my face.”
“I’m just saying. Take it up with Reynolds.”
Nine months clean and the fury just unspooled within him sometimes, just came unzippered, like a cartoon of a guy stepping out of his skin-suit and there was just a whirling red cloud inside. “Fuck you,” Nolan said.
Blaswell shrugged, looked down at the table as he scooped some crumbs into his palm. Quietly, he said, “Fuck you too, Nolan, jeez.”
Nolan started around the table and Blaswell pushed his chair back with a screech. Nolan had a weight bench in his trailer, went running when he wasn’t too hungover, and the flesh around Blaswell’s neck quailed like putty, but he had to hand it to the guy – Blaswell didn’t back down. All the souls whirled inside Nolan like some sad and lonely cyclone. He imagined the soft give of Blaswell’s stomach beneath the sticking knife, imagined the man hung up in the stick pit by a chain. This was what the place did to you. He was about to feint towards Blaswell’s gut and get down to it – job be damned, who was right be damned, that rage just begging him to take over the show – when he felt a hand grip his bicep and squeeze.
Behind him, Manny said, “Not worth it, man. Keep your paycheck.”
Everyone spent a minute huffing around the table, standing there. Nolan finally exhaled hard and offering a hand to Blaswell, saying something about how he’d take it up with Reynolds. Saying he was sorry that things got heated.
All bullshit, but Manny was right. He needed the paycheck.
After lunch, he stuck and stuck and stuck. The math said that he had killed nearly a million animals in ten months at Good Acres, and the weight of that number bound him to the kill floor as if he were rooted there with wire. He imagined the souls of the hogs migrating from their bodies and writhing against the ceiling, wending fog-things that followed him home like a red cloud, that fell like leaves in his hair. Souls that clung to his shirt like cigarette smoke, that writhed there like butterflies.
He and Manny were drinking at Fischer’s after their shift. Nolan felt bleary and tired, and even after showering in the changing room he could smell nothing but blood and hogshit, the greasy, brutal press of animal flesh. The whole bar stank of it. Every one of them did. It suffused the whole town.
“One of these days some pig is gonna kick that knife right into my throat,” he said. He picked at his eyebrow with a nail. “It’s gonna happen.”
“You gotta stick and move, man.” Manny grinned, ducked his shoulders like a boxer, his fists to his chin.
Manny had been at Good Acres for twelve years, which made him an ancient, doddering old man by slaughterhouse standards, though he was hardly over thirty. He’d started working the chutes, corralling the hogs, but he was a utility man now. Utility men could do any of the jobs in the plant: Driver, stunner, shackler, sticker, gutter. He’d worked the scald tank, had scooped entrails and congealed blood from the pit troughs. Twelve years at a slaughterhouse had turned him into a stooped-over little man with an endless thirst and a pair of eyes that didn’t quite work in tandem anymore, the result of countless drunken fistfights. Sober he was fine, but drinking always brought him to some turning point where he became something else. He ordered the two of them another round and told Nolan he was stupid for getting into shit with Blaswell.
“I mean, he’s got a point,” Manny said.
“I know he does.”
If the current was set too high on the stunner, it could burst capillaries in the hog’s body, leave dark spots on the flesh that had to be cut away. Bloodsplash. It hardly ever happened, but less meat meant less money, and policy was policy. So the foreman would set the paddles low enough that you’d sometimes have to stun a hog seven, eight, twelve times before they buckled. And with the chain running a new animal every five seconds, nobody had time for that. You slowed the line, you got written up. You stopped the line, you got canned. So there wasn’t much choice but to let the hog through, stunned or not.
“It’s Reynolds you should mad at, you know?”
“Yeah,” Nolan said. “I hear you.”
Manny was getting that far away, glassy-eyed look that always sparked a bad feeling in Nolan; he’d seen a drunken Manny pull a switchblade on a guy in the parking lot a few months back, and he’d had that same sleepy, bemused look on his face that he had now.
“I gotta get out of here,” Nolan said, scrubbing his face.
“You can always quit,” Manny said, gazing up at the television hung above the bar. “What’d you do before this again?”
“Sawmill,” Nolan said. “Worked a planer.”
“That’s right. They shitcan you?”
Nolan shrugged. “Mill went under. It’s the same thing everywhere.”
This, of course, was a severely edited version of the story. It was true the mill had begun piecemealing shifts out, a lot of guys getting laid off, so that Nolan and everyone else he knew was left fighting for scraps, hardly anyone full time, but what was more true was that the same time he’d gotten his hours cut was when he’d met Deb and started falling down the rabbit hole of meth – first snorting it, then smoking it, then eventually shooting it. He’d never shied away from narcotics before, but meth had opened up new avenues of need inside him. Quickly enough it had dissected any love between them into distinct categories of obligation: There was dope and there was everything else. After his inevitable firing from the mill, desperate and hungry, with the two of them always on that trembling line between kicking and not, he’d done some strongarm work for the local chapter of the Crooked Wheel club. He’d twice been the lookout when they’d broken into pharmacies, and they’d paid him in dope. Then he and Deb had lost their place, and he’d been busted with twenty grams in his truck, landing him an Intent to Sell conviction that got him four years in Snake River. He served two, his PO landing him the job at Good Acres. Deb was long gone by then, locked in the arms of her own trip. It’s not like she’d waited for him or he’d expected her to; she was already enmeshed in the thing before he’d met her. He’d gone willingly along. It had been a white-knuckle ride since getting out of prison, and he still ached for dope sometimes with an almost electric bitterness in the back of his mouth. He still didn’t know if he was lucky or not.
He’d seen Deb six months ago, and she’d looked like something exhumed from a grave and propped up against a wall. It was hard to believe she was the same person – crazy that a couple years could carve that much from a body and still let them stay upright.
“The work’s not for everyone,” Manny said, bringing him back. “It’s tough work. It wears on you.”
He opened his mouth to tell Manny about the souls of the hogs, how he thought of them all the time, how real they seemed. But then he imagined how he’d feel in the morning, knowing that he’d told Manny about it, and changed his mind.
“You ever think about quitting?” he asked.
Manny laughed. He wore a gaudy silver watch that he took off during his shifts but now he shook it on his wrist. “Man, I got cousins in the cartels back home, you know? The things they have to do make this look nice.”
Nolan lifted his glass. “Shit, you imagine that? If this is as good as it gets?”
It was a measured, crafty gaze, the one that Manny gave him. Sleepiness and cunning in equal bounty. That same laconic air that he’d had in the parking lot when he’d slipped his switchblade out, almost like he was sleepwalking. Nolan saw that look now and thought, Ah, here we go.
“If you need money,” Manny said, “I can get you money.”
“I don’t need money. I need to stop killing pigs every day.”
“It’s easy work, the thing I got.”
“Easy and legal?”
Manny laughed and shook his wrist.
“Yeah,” Nolan said. “That’s what I thought.”
He dropped Manny off at his apartment and had just settled onto the couch with a beer when there was a knock at the door. His trailer was small and the sound reverberated through the place.
Barefoot, in his shorts and a t-shirt, the narrow living room was awash in the dim light of the table lamp and the TV when he opened the door. Deb was standing at the foot of the steps next to Bo, a big Viking-looking motherfucker who Nolan had sometimes worked with during his meth days. The porch light was unforgiving, carving Deb up into harsh planes, darkening the hollows of her eyes, lighting the constellations of scabs cratering her cheeks. Seeing both of them was like falling into quicksand. Deb had withered even further. Bo was in his club leathers, his graying hair tied back in a ponytail. They clomped up the porch steps and Nolan could feel the give in the floor.
“What’s up, my man?” Bo rumbled, his eyes glittering. Without looking at her, he told Deb to sit down.
Nolan said, “What is this?” and shut the door behind them. Deb was wearing jeans dirty at the knees and a sleeveless green blouse that showed the scattershot range of bruises on her arms. Skeletal, her neck thin as a branch.
Bo hooked a thumb at her. “This slag’s into us for four grand.”
“Fuck off,” Deb rasped.
“Shut the fuck up,” Bo said. He turned his gaze back to Nolan. “If we hook her out, it’s gonna take forever for her to pay it off. I mean, look at her.”
“Fuck you, asshole,” Deb said. She lit a cigarette with shaking hands and worried a sore on the back of her hand. Nolan felt the souls of the hogs fill the room.
“Say it again,” Bo said, smiling down at her. His teeth were big and tilting and yellow, and it gave him an almost childlike eagerness. “Say one more word and see what happens.”
Nolan walked to the fridge and took out beers. His heart hammered in his chest. “What do you want me to do about it? Me and her aren’t together anymore.”
Bo cracked his beer and drank, wiped foam from his beard. “She said you could swing a down payment for her.”
Nolan looked at Deb. “She said that huh?”
“We split before I went to Snake River. You know that.”
“Listen,” Bo said. “It’s cool that you didn’t fold on anyone, that’s good. The pharmacy jobs, all that. You could have flipped and you didn’t. That’s respected. But if we don’t get something from her, you know what’s gonna happen. The guys’ll just take it out on her for a while and then sink one in the back of her head and throw her in a trunk somewhere.”
Deb had turned her face away, was looking at the wall. Somewhere inside was a buried ghost of this person he’d known. A ghost snared there in the yawing bones of the skull, the blue eyes. They’d fallen down that hole together, hadn’t they? They had slept together likes sacks of flung bones, exhausted, entrenched in a shared war. It hadn’t been love for long, but it had been something. She put a ragged thumbnail to her teeth, the quick rimed in dried blood.
Nolan looked at Bo. “How much time can you give me?”
Bo shrugged. “Not much, honestly.”
The next day during break, he and Manny went out back and smoked on the dock. The cries and bellows of the hogs drifted out even there, but Nolan had long since grown inured to it. He looked at the long low-slung buildings that housed the pens beyond and thought of when Deb had first moved into his trailer. She’d hung up a crocheted little thing in the kitchen that said Bless This Mess, and had thought it was the funniest thing, saying it made her feel cozy. He would look at it as he did dishes, and sometimes she would come up behind him, wrap her arms around his chest. Envelop him like that.
Everything just gets winnowed out of a person, he thought. Just carved right out. The way the world takes hold and shakes you in its jaws.
“Tell me about it,” Nolan said, and Manny smiled like he’d been waiting.
“You know about what.”
They smoked a while longer and then Manny looked around the dock and said, “Reynolds has a car.”
“He’s got a race car.”
“Shit,” Nolan said. “You want to thieve from the foreman. Jesus Christ.”
“No, man, it’s easy. He’s got it under a tarp in his fucking carport. He drives the thing around on the weekends. Him and his wife take trips and he goes to racetracks with it. We don’t even have to drive it, man. We hook it up to my buddy’s truck and pull it out. The engine alone, man. It’s big money.”
“Never mind. Forget I asked.”
“No, come on—”
“Reynolds isn’t someone to play with, Manny.”
“We take it to my buddy’s place and he does whatever he’s gonna do. Gets rid of the VIN, sells it somewhere. In California or somewhere.”
Nolan looked at his face, tried to gauge him. “It sounds pretty thin.”
“It’s four thousand dollars, man,” Manny said, laughing. He slapped Nolan on the shoulder with the back of his hand. “Two grand apiece. Just like that. Just hook it up and go.”
Back in the stick pit, Nolan wondered if he had it in him. He’d been rabbit-scared the whole time parked outside the pharmacies, Bo and another Crooked Wheel member rifling through the place, throwing everything into black garbage bags. Nolan sick and sore in his bones, his heart clanging every time a car passed by. Prison had turned something in him. He didn’t want to go back, but he knew that Bo was telling the truth about what would happen to Deb.
A hog came down the line then, whiskered and bellowing, and just as he went to stick it in the throat it kicked out at him, its flank smashing against him in a collision of heat and muscle, a riotous stench of shit and fear, and Nolan’s blade kicked up, zippering across his forehead. It didn’t even hurt, just felt like someone had poured warm water on him, but he knew it was bad. He dropped the blade and slapped the red button at his station that brought the line to a halt. The trouble light in its cage above his station began to pulse, everything buried in a warble of sirens.
Reynolds came barreling up. He was a big man with a shorn scalp and razor burn on his throat. “Ah, damn,” he said. “Nurse’s station.”
He used his key to turn off the siren and then went to the rotary phone mounted next on the alarm. Nolan heard him order a utility man to come and work the stick pit. When Reynolds looked back over his shoulder, he saw Nolan looking at him.
“Nurse’s station,” he said. “Get moving.”
“Well, you need stitches, is what,” the nurse said.
Nolan had a towel pressed to his skull. “Okay.”
“I can’t give you stitches. You gotta go to the ER.”
Reynolds thundered into the room, frowned at Nolan with his arms crossed. “How we doing?” he boomed.
The nurse said, “He needs stitches.” She was an older bottle-blonde woman in rayon pants and a floral print blouse. Talc from her rubber gloves dusted her wrists white. Nolan had seen her working the video poker machine at Fischer’s, but they’d never exchanged more than a nod before today.
Reynolds stood there with his hands on his hips, his tongue probing his cheek. “Can’t we just bandage him up, send him back out there?”
“This ain’t a boxing match,” she said.
“I got a skeleton crew out there as it is, Vicki. Give me a break.”
“He’s bleeding like a stuck pig,” Vicki said, and Nolan laughed. They both looked at him. “He needs to get to the hospital,” she said.
Reynolds tried to fix Nolan with a smile. “How ‘bout it, bud? Slap some gauze on there, send you back out? Take one for the team? I got a crew that’s as thin as a bride’s nightie out there. You’d really be helping me out, Nick.”
Reynolds didn’t even flinch. “Nolan, right.” His eyes cut to Vicki and back, and he sucked at his teeth and seemed to make some decision. “Nolan, you’ve got a record, is that right? Your PO set this up?”
Nolan’s face grew hot. “Yeah.”
“Vicki,” Reynolds said, “can you give us a sec?”
Vicki vanished like smoke, and Reynolds leaned against the counter and frowned down at his tie. “I’m not gonna lie to you, Nolan. District manager is hounding me. We’re way short on our quota this quarter.”
Nolan could tell that Reynolds pictured himself as a man doing what needed to be done, a man with his back against the wall. A man with a family and a mortgage and all the rest. A man in a bind, doing the best he could.
“You know what I’m saying, right, Nolan?”
“I think I do, yeah.”
“Finish your shift or empty out your locker.”
“What if I call my PO? Tell him you’re leaning on me like this?”
Reynolds shrugged. “You can do that, sure. But why would he believe you? And even if he did, why would he care?”
He came home to Deb sitting on his porch smoking a cigarette. She was wearing a puffy orange coat that she got lost in. It was filthy, the hood fringed in matted fur. There’d been hardly anything in his locker to take home, and what was there was suffused with the stink of the slaughterhouse, so he’d simply shut it and left. Driven home one-handed, the bloody towel pressed against his head.
He stepped out of the truck and Deb’s eyes grew big. She stood up and flicked her cigarette into the yard.
“What happened?” She pushed her hood down.
“Knife kicked back up on me.”
She came down the steps and reached for his face. It was mid-day and the bones of her wrists were like stones wrapped in skin.
“Jesus. Come on,” she said, and took him by the sleeve, walking him up the steps.
“What’re you doing here, Deborah?”
“I come to see how you are.”
She led him to the bathroom and turned on the faucet. Took the bloodied towel away and found a clean washcloth in the closet, ran it under the water.
“If they’re letting you run around, Deb, why don’t you just take off?”
“Take off where?”
“I can’t believe you stuck me with this. I really can’t.”
She cleaned the wound gently. Her hair had grown thin; he could see her pale scalp beneath. The souls of hogs hung thick in the room, writhed against the walls. “You want me to stitch this up?”
“Depends. Are you spun right now?”
Her laugh was brittle, exhausted. “That cross you’re on is mighty high, Nolan.” She found a sewing needle and a little cardboard wrapper of thread in a drawer and held them in her palm like an offering. When he looked in the mirror, the wound was like an open mouth.
“What do I owe you, Deborah? Between us. What’s owed?”
She set the needle and thread down on the counter and pressed herself to the wall. She hugged her elbows, tiny hands poking from the sleeves.
“I just don’t know what else to do,” she said. They looked at each other in the mirror. It was easier to do it that way. “Bo wasn’t making none of that up. You know they’ll do it.”
“I know it.”
“I got nothing else.”
“Just run, Deb.”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s no answer,” she said.
He knew she was right. Crooked Wheel knew people who knew people, and the kind of people that Deborah would walk among just to stay alive were of a type that would make finding her easy. The world was small, and the need she was saddled with would just make her world smaller and smaller. She was trapped, and so was he.
Two nights later, he and Manny sat in the truck across the street from Reynolds’ house, drinking gas station coffee and making sure the lights stayed off for a long while before they did anything. It was a neat split-level house, set far back on a county road. They could see the carport set a good distance from the house; the gray shape of the car under the tarp was barely visible in the gloom. Manny wanted to give Reynolds and his wife time to go to sleep. He’d taught Nolan how to use the winch that was fastened into the bed of the truck, and Nolan was worried it would be too loud.
“Do they have a dog?” Nolan had asked earlier that night. They’d been sitting at Manny’s kitchen table; Manny’s wife was making hamburgers, and the three of them were drinking beers. Nolan had been over there before and had heard Manny’s wife speak maybe twenty words the entire time he’d known her.
“I don’t know,” Manny admitted.
“It’s gonna suck if they have a dog.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“A dog that hears that winch is going to bark its head off.”
Manny stood up and went over to the sink and grinned. “You know what we do if that happens,” he said, picking up a kitchen knife and jabbing it in the air.
“Stop,” his wife said, and touched his arm. She was smiling. Manny put the knife back in the sink.
Now they were waiting in the truck. Nolan’s head hurt. He had a big bandage on his head, something from a movie. Rent was due in a week and a half, and that wasn’t counting what he’d need to give to Bo. Maybe, he thought, I’m the one that should run.
“You really think we can do this?” he asked. The window was cool against his cheek.
“I think we are doing it,” said Manny. “I think we need to.”
The souls of the hogs pressed against Nolan’s heart. “He’s going to hear us,” he said. “It’s a fucking winch, man.”
“He’s not going to hear us.”
“But what if he does?”
“You can spend your whole life thinking about what might happen,” Manny said, “and never move a foot.”
A half an hour later Manny drove the truck in reverse up the carport, the headlights dark, Nolan creeping on the grass alongside, ready to hook up the winch.
Later, he would scramble into his trailer and slam the door shut, crumple against it. Somewhere distant a dog would bark, and in the darkness the souls of dead hogs would hang on the ceiling like Christmas lights. His breath would come in hitches that were fast and small, like a rabbit breathing. His side would be hot but the rest of his body would feel numbed and cold, like God had reached down and punched him right there. He would reach up and slap at the light switch and look down and see that blood already slicked the floor, that his hands were shiny with it, and he would let out a keening animal noise and slap the light off. The souls of the hogs would be quiet and watchful on the ceiling, hung there like bats.
Like someone opening a door, or coughing: that was how quickly it had gone wrong.
He would crawl over to the chair and pull himself into it and sit there with his knees pressed tightly together, his cold hands clasped between them. He would weep for a little bit and feel small, like a speck of dust in a storm.
Headlights would wash across the wall and then stop.
He would cry out and stand up, staggering from object to object like a man at sea. The headlights would stay there, illuminating the room. He would make it to the back door of his trailer and open it and lurch out onto the beaten swath of ground that was his backyard. The moon would hang overhead, the night salted with stars.
He would walk away. Barbed wire would snag at his shirt and he would gingerly peel the fabric away and then fall over as he tried to step beneath a strand of it. He would cry out again and spend a minute on his hands and knees, gasping. He would rise and stagger on until he came to a small brackish pond, ringed in blackberry bushes and chokeweed. The water would be cold; mud would grasp at his shoes. The pong of the greenery around him would be heavy with rot. Water would rise to his thighs, the topography beneath his feet uneven and strange.
All the souls. All the souls of all the dead hogs would gather inside him, their executioner, the one who remembered them, the one who sanctified them. A million souls! And the way the water touched his wound, enveloped it. He kept walking into the water.
Perhaps he could hear the voices of men behind him. Perhaps it was a singular voice.
Perhaps, really, it was something else, and not a voice at all.
Keith Rosson is the author of the novels The Mercy of the Tide and Smoke City. His newest novel, Road Seven, will be published in the summer of 2020 by Meerkat Press. Rosson’s short fiction has appeared in PANK, Cream City Review, Outlook Springs, December, Phantom Drift, Redivider, Black Static, and more. His work has been on the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Award and been short- or longlisted for the Birdwhistle Prize for Short Fiction and the New American Fiction Prize. He lives in Portland, Oregon. More information is available at keithrosson.com.