The streets of Dallas always had a peculiar scent in the summertime. It became tantalizingly noticeable in the late days of April, weeks before any school children would be released for a three-month reprieve. By July, it was an overpowering bouquet of baking hot concrete, fresh grass clippings, and lingering hints of chlorine. But here, deep in the bowels of 2853 Exposition Way, the comforting summertime smell was only a distant memory that Ray W. Hattfield clung to as he brought up the rear of the pack. Directly in front of him was Eddie Carson, a lumbering beanpole of a kid who already topped six feet at fourteen years old. Next, huffing and puffing, was Barry Herman, a “husky” kid (if Barry weren’t ill-tempered and strong more kids might have described him as “fat”) who encouraged people to refer to him as “Bear” but instead got stuck with the moniker of “Babs” after his older brother revealed that Barry had slept with a stuffed Babs Bunny until he was twelve. Tyler had point. He always did.
“Won’t be much longer now!” the fearless runt declared, his still-high voice echoing through the innards of the ruined building. He had been the leader of their little group for as long as Ray could remember; the kid who had the ideas you knew would get you in trouble, who wanted to sneak out of the house during a sleepover, and the one who always, somehow, made everything sound like the greatest adventure that had ever crossed your path.
“You still haven’t told us where the heck we are,” Babs wheezed.
“Or where we’re going,” Ray piped up.
“Won’t be long now,” Tyler repeated. Ray began mentally kicking himself. A surprise from Tyler was never very pleasant. He flicked his flashlight beam up towards the ceiling and traced a zigzag pattern down the wall. He still had no idea where they were. It was dark, nearly windowless, and gigantic. They had been walking for ten whole minutes and Ray had been unable to form any opinion concerning their whereabouts. He was so lost in his own fact-finding that he failed to notice the expedition had come to a halt, and walked right into the small of Eddie’s back. The giant glanced back with good humor, and then lifted his chin towards the front of the line. Ray looked and saw light spilling in through large windows situated high up in the ceiling. They were open, the glass nearly opaque with dust.
“Here it is,” Tyler shouted, running into the cavernous room. His feet clanged on the floor and a flock of startled grackles scattered out the open windows as the boy hooped and hollered around the pools of light that spilled in from outside.
“What is it?” Babs asked, stepping gingerly out onto the floor, seeing if it would hold his weight. Ray squinted his eyes against the sunlight and saw that most of the ground was made up of steel grating, in a pattern that left enough space for his foot to slip through.
“They used to kill cows here,” Tyler said, crossing his arms with pride. He tapped the rusty grating with his shoe. “My dad told me about it. They had these big machines in here that cut ‘em up, and then the guts and stuff slid through and got sorted out down there.” All of them looked down through the grate, but only dull blackness stared back at them. “Let’s go find a way down!” Tyler nearly shouted, wasting no time in forming a new adventure.
“I’m tired,” Babs grumbled, collapsing to the floor with a grunt.
“Me too,” Ray chimed in. Following Tyler into the depths of a slaughterhouse looking for stale guts didn’t sound like his idea of a good time. Eddie only looked at Tyler with a shrug.
“Suit yourself, babies,” their fearless leader shrugged, taking the setback in stride. “I’m going to find a way down there.” He ran off through a rotting doorway.
Babs watched him round the corner, then grunted and sprawled across the grated floor once he had disappeared from view. Ray worked his way as close as he could to the absolute center of the room, feeling safer the further he got from the decaying walls. He flicked his flashlight over the dark corners, hoping to settle his mind, but the piles of broken down machinery did little to calm his nerves. Eddie shuffled around the perimeter of the grate, his ratty old Vans kicking up tiny mushroom clouds of dust and debris as he took everything in from his superior vantage point.
“How long do you think he’ll be gone?” Ray asked. Babs ignored him, his gently rising and falling belly the only sign of life. Eddie looked over with the goofy, bashful grin he wore whenever he was forced to speak.
“It’ll be a while,” he mumbled in his deep, cracking baritone. They had all gone through the changes, all except Tyler, but Eddie’s voice had never evened out. The pitch of his speech would jump wildly at random intervals, and anything he said sounded muffled, like he was talking underwater with his mouth full. Babs had made the mistake of teasing Eddie about it during a birthday party, and they had all learned that the beanpole could pack a punch, despite his spindly arms.
“Kid’s a spaz,” Babs muttered, struggling to a sitting position. He reached into his cargo shorts pocket and pulled out half a candy bar, carefully unwrapped it, and took a bite before offering it to Ray.
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“What’s the matter?” Babs mocked in a singsong voice. “Scared you’ll poop your pampers?”
“Not everybody needs a fucking chocolate bar every five minutes,” Ray shot back. Once he saw Babs huffing and puffing to his feet, he immediately regretted it, but then he heard the metallic clang of Eddie swiftly coming to his aid.
“Stop,” Eddie mumbled, looking Babs directly in the eye. Babs flushed scarlet, and pulled himself to a standing position, but remained where he was.
“You calling me fat?” he spat in Ray’s direction.
“I’m not sure he needs to,” Eddie mumbled, looking away, but keeping his body between the smaller boys. Babs glowered impotently at Eddie, thought better of it, and then turned back to Ray.
“Fuck you,” he said with finality.
Ray balled his fists, the knuckles turning white. He didn’t really want to fight, and knew he would almost certainly lose, but the rush of adrenaline that came with the escalating confrontation was preferable to the creeping dread that had blossomed in his belly like a flowering seed. He took several shaky steps towards Babs and Eddie, surprising them both.
“Fuck YOU,” he shouted, trying to will his body into believing. The tremulous bleat drowned in the wake of a larger sound that ripped through the building, boiling up from the bowels: a deep, rattling boom that silenced all three boys. They stared in the general direction the noise had come from, down the same open hallway Tyler had disappeared into minutes earlier. The echo lingered for a second or two, then vanished, leaving a silence that hung in the air, thick as a humid breeze. The three boys stood in the shadow of the great hallway for a moment, and then Eddie began to march towards the direction of the sound.
“What the hell are you doing?” Babs shrieked, his voice shrill and girlish.
“Tyler?” Eddie called, cupping his hands to his mouth. His voice bounced around the big empty room, and he paused, listening for a response and finding none.
“I’m not going down there,” Babs declared, plopping down in the center of the grate. He took a huge chunk from the candy bar.
“Suit yourself,” Eddie mumbled, barely giving him a second glance. “You coming?” he asked Ray. It wasn’t an easy choice, but Ray eventually decided to jump on the opportunity to prove he was tougher than Babs. He didn’t like his chances of escaping unscathed from alone time with the fatso anyway.
“Tyler, you there?” Ray shouted, imitating Eddie’s cupped-hand call. The two of them walked deeper into the catacombs of the slaughterhouse, flashlight beams cutting nervous swathes through the darkness.
Once Eddie and Ray had begun their descent deeper into the building, they found that the hallway narrowed almost immediately, shrinking down to a corridor so small they could barely walk abreast of one another. It was lightless and claustrophobic and smelt faintly of a rotting substance of indeterminate origin. Eddie walked a few paces ahead, in the center of the passage. He did this with charitable intentions, accurately assuming that Ray, being smaller and more easily frightened, would be more at ease with someone else taking point. However, the boy’s size blocked Ray’s view of what lay ahead, and left him exposed from behind, creating a sense of compounded vulnerability that he dared not attempt to correct, lest he be labeled a sissy. Every now and then Eddie would make matters worse by letting loose a warbling “Tyler?” call without warning, and Ray would nearly jump out of his skin.
The floor, had disintegrated in this part of the building, leaving nothing but loose, sand-like dirt. Ray flicked his beam up and down the walls: they were made of a smooth, pressed metal, shiny but not quite reflective. He had never been inside of a slaughterhouse before, but he was an intelligent young man, and he wondered what function such a long, winding, metal corridor could possibly serve. Soon he began to notice that there were random scratches and nicks on the walls, all of them at roughly the same height. He thought about the men who must have worked here, their daily routine, and what purpose this twisting corridor could have possibly served them, when all of the sudden, the realization struck with devastating force, knocking all of the doubt and fear out of him for a moment.
“I know what this was for,” he whispered, mostly to himself.
Eddie glanced back. “Yeah?”
“This was the chute. Where the cows came through, before they died.”
Eddie continued walking forward but looked from one side of the corridor to the other, measuring the width with his arms. “About right,” he muttered. “They had to keep ‘em all in a single file line, or else they’d freak out.”
At last they came to the end of the chute, where it opened up into another holding area, smaller than the killing room, with the same dirt floor as the corridor. It was tall and barn-like, and the metal walls curved in towards each other to form a dome high above, where their flashlights barely shone. “There,” Eddie said, pointing. Ray looked, and saw that one of the four walls was broken by yawning blackness that lay behind an open and massive sliding steel door. There were footprints in the sand that ran parallel to the threshold, and then disappeared down a narrow staircase on the West wall, near where they had come from. Across the fresh tracks lay a length of chain, fastened somewhere in the dark that lay beyond the door. The chain was enormous, as big as those used to secure ocean liners, and rusty with disuse. It snaked over towards the staircase on the West wall, and then disappeared from view down another corridor, far taller and wider than the metal chute they had emerged from.
“Tyler?” Eddie called as Ray wandered about the room, shining his light up the sides of the silo. He inadvertently kicked up sand as he walked, and the tiny particles tickled the inside of his nostrils. He tried to hold it in, but eventually let loose with a chest rattling sneeze that blew a fine mist into the cool, dry air.
“Jesus,” Eddie muttered, jumping slightly at the sudden burst of noise.
“Sorry,” Ray sniffed, wiping his nose with the back of his wrist.
“You hear that?” Eddie whispered sharply. The two of them tensed. Ray heard nothing. “Tyler?” Eddie called again.
Then Ray heard it: a soft, nearly inaudible hiss, like the sound of leather rubbing gently on leather. His eyes flicked through the room, looking for the source, and found none. He stared at the great rusty chain, peering through the dark, barely able to differentiate it from the dusty earth it lay in…and then it moved.
Ray blinked, unsure of himself. His heart began to thud against his breastplate, and he was sure that Eddie could hear it echoing through the silo, but he was still walking the perimeter, calling for Tyler, his voice submerged and far away. Ray stared at the chain, forcing himself not to move or cry out, his eyes burning into the great links of rusted brown steel, waiting for something, anything to happen. He heard Eddie’s ask him what he was doing, and then both boys gaped in horror as the chain shot through the dirt, screeching and rattling around the edge of the open steel door as something on the other side yanked it forward. The chain rushed past like a subway car, a terrifying blur of steel and noise, booming against the sides of the aluminum-walled corridor and sending deafening echoes careening through the empty dome. Ray stood on rubbery legs, his mouth open as hot tears of shame snaked down his cheeks, the warmth matched by the stain forming in the worn-out crotch of his jeans. Eddie grabbed him under the elbow, nearly pulling his arm out of the socket, and they lurched towards the staircase.
They ran down the narrow passageway, even tighter than the slaughter chute. This corridor was clearly designed for one person at a time, with barely enough room for a grown man to turn around in. It was pitch-black, but they tore through with blind panic, led only by the bouncing beams of their dying flashlights. Their feet clanged on the ground, and Ray dumbly noted that it was a grate, similar to the one out in the killing room. Eddie slowed in front of him, and gradually, the two boys ground to a halt, huffing and puffing as quietly as they could. Ray’s legs quivered as he rested his hands on his knees, grimy sweat running out from his temples and stinging his eyes. He wiped his face with the back of his hand, listening for any sound other than his own labored breathing. Eddie looked over his shoulder, his eyes wild. He glanced up pointedly several times, and Ray craned his own neck skyward, surprised to find that they were, in fact, directly under the large, grated killing floor where they had left Babs. Ray opened his mouth to call for him, but Eddie shook his head gravely, and mimed listening towards the wire ceiling in exaggerated fashion. They both stood there holding their breath for several minutes, ears primed for any sign of the dull, heavy dragging sound, but there was nothing, until they heard the sniveling.
“Babs?” Ray whispered sharply.
“Who’s there?” Babs wailed, in a voice so loud it made Ray cringe.
“Down here,” he hissed. “Quiet .”
There were erratic footsteps, and then Babs was directly above them, pressed himself as flat as he could against the grate. “How’d you guys get down there?” he asked in a blubbering whisper.
“Where’s Tyler?” Eddie asked, ignoring the question.
Babs began to shake with new sobs, his voice rising uncontrollably in both pitch and volume. “It got him. He came in here and it got him, and took him away. I heard it. I couldn’t see it but I heard it.”
Eddie was about to continue with his line of questioning when the entire party was silenced by an immense, crushing echo, the sound of something monstrous and heavy heaving itself into soft earth, and drawing near. Eddie and Ray quickly snapped off their flashlights, and even Babs’ crying disappeared as all remained frozen, listening as the noise came closer and closer. Each step rang through the building, the deep crumbling punch picking up hypnotic rhythm as it drew closer and amplified in volume.
Ray looked up at Babs’ fleshy cheek against the wire grate, his slightly open lips trembling and dripping with drool. His eyes were locked in the direction of the approaching steps, watering and unblinking.
“Babs,” Ray hissed. “Run!” Babs didn’t move, but the vibration of his lips increased in time with the pace of the approaching calamity; the space between steps had grown maddeningly short.
“Run!” Eddie and Ray both screamed, and this time the daze was broken as Babs twisted himself into a sitting position, and then began to haul himself upright faster than he had ever done anything in his life. Go! Ray urged in his head, pleading with every ounce of will in his body and mind that Babs would get away. This light, airy rush of hope fell suddenly and when Ray heard the unmistakable sound of bone twisting and splintering, followed by Babs’ inhuman shriek of pain. Ray looked up, and, just as he had suspected, Babs’ foot had slipped through the loose wire grate of the killing floor as he began to run. The force of all that weight propelling forward had snapped his ankle like a dry twig, bringing the boy down to the grate with a clang. Ray didn’t have a chance to process the grief and horror before the booming had entered the room, shaking the rafters of the dusty old building. It was too dark to see, but Ray watched, mouth agape, as Babs was ripped from the grate, his wails growing tinny and distant as he was lifted into the air by an unseen force. The metal above them squealed and bent angrily, and both boys scrambled away, eyes fixed to the dark, churning shadow that held Babs, somewhere up above.
Ray’s eyes tried to trace the outline of whatever he was looking at, but the only thing he could make out was a few feet form his face: a massive, roundish object that lay flat against the surface of the grate. It was worn, cracked and splintered in various spots, and a trickle of condensation ran off of it and dripped through both grates into the blackness below. It’s a hoof, Ray thought with absurd, clinical detachment. Moving a bit to the left, he clicked his flashlight back on, much to the horror of Eddie, and traced it up a tree-trunk of a glistening, sinewy leg, wrapped in fierce, pulsating muscle. He wondered if he dared to track the beam further upwards, but the colossal appendage lifted into the air and moved out of sight, the damaged grate underneath the hoof springing back into place with a metallic groan.
It was only then that he noticed the smell. It hung in the air, thick and palpable, producing a nausea that tickled the back of the throat and nose but stopped just short of producing a retch. It was a stench so foul he could taste it, salty and bold on his tongue, like rotting meat. It was too much for Eddie, who planted his elbows squarely on his knees and vomited through the grated floor beneath them as quietly as he could manage.
“Let’s go,” Ray whispered as softly as he could, one eye on the dented grate, searching in the darkness for any movement of the thing that roamed above. Eddie nodded weakly, wiping bile from his face with the back of his hand. He began to turn to lead the way out, but then stopped and stared, the color slowly draining away from his face. Ray opened his mouth to ask for an explanation, but then felt it on his forehead: a slightly warm, wet drop had formed just below the middle of his hairline. He gingerly put a finger to it, and the flesh came away stained a brilliant red. Ray frowned, wondering if he had sustained an injury, but then he felt another impact, and looked up into the darkness. The drip grew steady, and spattered his face lightly as he stood frozen in the corridor. A panting began, deep and rumbling, like some sort of wheezing, dying engine, and suddenly, Ray realized that Babs had stopped screaming.
An otherworldly bellow crashed through the building, and a torrent of blood cascaded through the grate like a burst dam, soaking the boys from head to toe. Ray tried to scream, but the sound was muffled as the flood of copper-taste invaded his mouth. Objects thudded dully against the grate, pieces of Babs, raining down from the jaws of the beast, guts and entrails oozing through the loose framework. Eddie shook ropes of blood away from his face, revealing brilliantly blue eyes wide with terror. “Fuck this,” he managed to squeak out, before turning bolting down the corridor Ray watched him go with numb fascination, and then turned zombie-like to peer out of the grate.
The thundering footsteps had returned, and now Ray saw that the thing was walking away from him, the giant chain dragging behind it like the leash of some monstrous, forgotten dog. He could begin to make out the form of the beast, for the first time, once it had dragged itself to stand directly in front of the large, open window that took up most of the far wall. Ray crept forward, daring to crane his torso up and out through the torn grate in order to get a better look.
The creature was bigger than anything Ray had ever seen, in person or in photographs. It reminded him of an elephant standing on its hind legs, but with a body that was eerily reminiscent of a man’s. The trembling flashlight beam danced over the creature’s back, an expanse of corded muscle pockmarked with scars and other wounds that nearly blocked the fading sunlight spilling from the dusty window. Each pulsated with twitching ligaments as the beast lumbered awkwardly towards the day. Ray could barely make out a fine layer of hair, glistening with sweat, that covered the monster’s backside and legs, not unlike the coat of a hog. It matched the cloven feet that dented the grated floor with each step. The head and face were turned away and obscured from view by the glare of the sun, but Ray could see the right hand, covered in a coarser black fur, with white knuckles clenched tightly around a terrible blade that gleamed in the sunshine, Babs’ blood drying on the ends of serrated teeth. The beast stood before the open window, stock-still, its heavy breathing producing a sound more akin to a great mechanical procedure than any sort of biological function. Ray watched, transfixed, as the beast took another step towards the window, and then pulled the great chain taut around its waist, letting loose another blood-curdling roar that stood every hair of Ray’s body on end. The giant thrashed at its bonds, lurching clumsily this way and that, dragging the chain across the metal grated floor with the sound of a thousand clanging pots and pans. Ray stood frozen, forgetting for a moment all of his fear, forgetting Babs, and Tyler, and Eddie, who had disappeared into the unknown depths of the corridor. For a moment, all Ray W. Hattfield could think about was this magnificent, grotesque creature that loomed before him, larger than anything he had ever seen in his life, more beautiful and terrifying than even his myriad books on dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts had ever prepared him for. Until that day, the most exotic animal he had ever laid eyes on was a longhorn steer at the Fort Worth stockyards, and it had been sleepy and half-doped for picture-snapping tourist families like his own. Now he stood mere feet from an abomination, the result of some unholy union between behemoth and man, and for a moment, there was not a trace of fear in his heart, but only a deep, paralyzing wonder.
The creature pawed at the lip of the window, grunting and snorting with building frustration, but its bindings would not yield. It gave one last lunge and then settled back, the slack in the chain clanking to the grated floor. The beast’s head turned slowly, only a shadow from where Ray stood. Sinking sunlight cast a halo around the edges of the shapeless bulge, and then it froze stock still, the bellowing breaths grinding to a halt. Ray’s blood turned to slush, and he could feel the monster’s eyes settle on him, somewhere beyond the impenetrable silhouette. The beast took a shuddering step forward, and the hand that held Ray’s flashlight trembled, dancing the beam over the creature’s head. There was no face to be seen, only a massive bulge covered by some sort of burlap material, worn and frayed at the edges, caked with dirt and mottled brown blood. The beast blew a snort of air out through its’ nostrils, sending a visible plume of dust up into the air. Ray willed himself to move first one leg, then the other, in the general direction of the front door. The beast followed, each step quaking the building’s foundations. When Ray finally broke into a run the monster let loose a roar that shook dust down from the rafters and gave chase.
Ray ran as fast as he could towards the hallway, knowing that if he was fast enough, he would be safe. Ray knew he was fast. It was a skill he had learned to rely on Ray reflected, moments before he slammed into something large and hard, that he could have sworn hadn’t been there before. A wail of defeat ripped through Ray’s head, and he looked up, certain he would see some other foul deformity looming over him.
It was a man. He was large, and dressed all in black. Ray studied the details of his human body with newfound wonder and appreciation, unable to croak out a word of explanation to the very confused gentleman. He was bald, and a thick mustache covered most of his mouth, which he scrunched up towards the side of his face as he squinted down at the boy.
“Who are you?” the man asked, in a voice that far less comforting than Ray would have preferred. Ray told the man his name, moments before a shuddering boom brought him back to the reality at hand. The bald man looked up and calmly raised his arms, aiming some sort of fat, stocky rifle into the dark. Ray winced as the man pulled the trigger, but no report followed, only a puff of gas and a quiet hiss. “Who are you?” the man repeated, more sharply this time. Ray struggled to find the words, amazed at the man’s cavalier nature. He fumbled for his voice, but only sputtered. A second beam of light shone into his eyes.
“What are you doing here?” a second voice demanded, invisible in the glare of the flashlight. Ray opened his mouth to speak, but the voice cut him off before he could make another pathetic attempt: “Is this your friends?”
The flashlight beam flicked away. Ray saw spots in front of his eyes, but they faded slowly. He could make out the bald man, standing right next to him, looking grave, and the second man, thin and tall, like Eddie, who was pointing with his flashlight to a section of the concrete floor a few feet away. There was a white shapes there. Ray took a step towards what he at first thought was a pile of clothes, but then it dawned on him that it was a body, the skin pale and clammy, blending in with a plain white t-shirts. Eddie. Ray knew it even before he saw the faces, mouth open in shock, eyes fixed to the ceiling.
Tears flowed from Ray’s eyes. He wept quietly.
“What’d you see in there?” the bald man asked, a hand perched on his belt, brow furrowed suspiciously. Ray was unable to respond. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, smearing his cheeks with dirt.
“Got to be sure,” the tall man said, and Ray didn’t have time to scream as the bald man’s gloved hands closed around his throat. The tall man turned away with distaste, welcoming the distraction of the arriving cleanup crew. The tall man jabbed his thumb in the direction of the killing floor, and an army of white coats trotted in, leaving the two men in black alone once again.
“Third time this year,” the bald man muttered, wiping his hands on his pant legs. The two of them walked out at a leisurely pace. They would be there for a while.
Once they were outside, the tall man fished a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket, and found two that were salvageable. He passed one to the bald man, lit it, and then did the same for himself. Together they leaned against the rusted aluminum walls of the slaughterhouse, watching the rest of the team roll in. Several unmarked police cruisers had blocked off the traffic on the nearest road down to one lane, and curious motorists peered from their cars as they drifted past. The tall man turned away and looked up at the faded sign, the early evening sun sinking just behind it. The text and image were indecipherable. He took a drag on his cigarette, and watched as another tech nailed a larger, more new looking yellow sign to the front of the building, It read: DANGER. KEEP OUT.