By Jason Warden
We painted the trees around the pen orange. Them there oaks marked the perimeter of the enclosure. The whole lot of us worked quietly, calmly. We knew some of our own would end up in there soon enough.
We kept the bodies frozen while they waited for their harnesses and plows. Still, their stink seeped through the walls, and for weeks during the construction of the pen, we all slept outside under the stars.
We finished it early on a Tuesday. All of the women and children watched and cheered as Peterson drove that last nail and held his hand aloft in triumph.
Henry had told him to tie off while he was up on the ladder, but as any of the Peterson women will tell you, Ronny Peterson didn’t listen to sense.
It looked like a joke, a bad one. He overbalanced on the ladder and it just started falling back. Then, when he reached to grab the wall, he slipped. It happened so fast, but I felt like I was watching it in slo-mo. It was terrible, just terrible. He only fell about ten feet, but the sound his neck made when he hit, well, it sounded just like when Big Herb hit that ball in the district playoff game that year.
Peterson’s wife, a frail little woman I’d gone to school with back a coon’s age ago, came running. She’d always been long of patience, had to be to stay married to Peterson. She was a bit short on intelligence, but even she stopped short of him when he sat up with his head cocked sideways.
The dirt had already turned to mud on his sweaty face. He looked at all of us and a low moan sounded deep in his chest.
Marlon and Larry grabbed a rope, walked it up to him and just walked around him in opposite directions ’till he was tied up just as neat as you please. That’s how Peterson came to be the first one in the pen. We learned a lot from him, hell, we even named it Peterson’s Pen as a kinda tribute. It’s the least we could do.
Gotta say, we did a good job buildin’ it, as far as any of us could tell it was fool proof. It was twelve feet tall and the walls leaned in just a bit, so that even if one of the smart ones could climb, gravity would keep em from climbin’ out.
When we put Ronny in, we really didn’t know what to expect. Of course, you never know what you’re gonna get. Some of them just wander around until someone gets too close, some of them try to reason and some are just plain devious. Peterson, we judged to be one of the latter. It’s funny; in life, he was never smart enough for that, but dead, he tried every trick in the book. Called Larry an old, wore out fucknut, said “let me go you bastard,” and spit in his face. Larry took off running to wash his face and lucky for us John was there to grab his end of the rope. Then Peterson started in on Marlon.
“Hey man, let me go, c’mon, remember when I pulled Mike out of the river? You owe me one, man.”
Marlon only looked at the man, or, what used to be a man, and said, “Sorry, buddy.”
Once in the pen, Peterson just kinda flipped out. I think he probably beat on the walls of that thing for three, maybe four hours that day. Then he just screamed. I felt sorry for the guy, ‘course I did, but what were we supposed to do? I mean, he was one of them now. Talkin’ or not he was dead and dangerous. He knew the rules, hell he helped write ’em. Once we found out we’d been cut off, we had to find some way to get our crops planted, and later harvested. We just did what we had to do to survive. Our plan was to put the other dead-uns in that day, but after all that had happened, we decided to wait for mornin’. Might as well of kept workin’. If it hadn’t already happened, I’d say Peterson was tryin’ to raise the dead that night.
Needless to say, we got started early the next morning pulling ’em out. When they hit the morning air you could see the steam rising off them as they thawed. We weren’t sure how long it would take ’em to start moving around so we got ’em in the pen as quick as we could. As it turned out, we didn’t need to worry. Most of them were still stiff as a board when dusk arrived and Peterson was still pacing around the pen shoutin’ and carryin’ on, even occasionally pounding his bloodied, broken fists against the walls.
Tell ya, hearing his cries and thumps from behind the wall growing less and less intense, t’was a bit sad really, but about dark that night, it seemed he decided for one last hurrah. Woke up the whole town I guess, ‘cept maybe a few. When I ran out to see what had happened, I saw faces peeking out of almost every doorway and little-uns at every window.
John saw me and called me over. We met in the middle of the dirt road.
“I think we ought to go see.”
I wasn’t too crazy about it, but I figured, what’s the harm?
The lights we rigged up around the pen weren’t the best but it’s what we had. We turned ’em on, and climbed up the scaffolding to get a peek inside. A few of them were still lying on the ground, but the ones that had thawed were shambling after Peterson. John and I looked at each other, and I think we both knew what we’d done. John had taken one step down the ladder when Peterson fell. There was one long strangled scream as they got a hold of him and I said, “Don’t bother John.”
I guess I knew from the first bite, he weren’t dead. Dead just don’t bleed that much.
We never told anyone, but I reckon a few know. You can see it in their eyes, how they look at ya, layin’ blame as if their conscious is clean as a whistle. After all, a man can’t just disappear from a pen, especially a man they all knew. Still, we don’t talk about it. Even when we tried to get old doc to serve as our coroner so nothing like this would happen again, no one even mentions Peterson. Like I said, we learned a lot from him.