Chicken & Egg
By Cindy Phan
i. Summer in the City
It was a disastrous time to be alive.
The city pulsed and swelled, reeked and buckled as people realized – slowly at first, but then with increasing desperation and that telltale resignation that festers during slow-burning disaster – that the summer, like the summer before and the one before that, had become something you had to get out from under, whatever the cost.
Some made it. Others did not.
Dogs roasted in cars. Old people capsized in the streets. Babies cooked.
Celia swore under her breath as she broke open the sleeve of quarters against the countertop and dumped the coins into the register, slamming it shut with a satisfying BANG! just as the electronic bell above her head serenaded her with its insipid, sing-song buzzing.
Bong-bong, bing-bong! Bong-bing-bong!
“Whoa. What’s the matter with you?” asked Võ as he strolled through the door, taking his sweet time, invoices tucked securely in the front pocket of his shirt. There were dark, wet stains under each of his armpits, and the collar of his shirt was soaked through, yet he remained as unbothered as ever.
Celia dropped the broken coin wrapper, aiming for the wastebasket by her feet; groaned when it missed and bounced pathetically off her shoe. “It’s hot.” She threw up her hands in disgust.
“It’s air-conditioned,” Võ replied, reaching into his pocket. He wiped the sweat off his brow with his wrist and fanned himself with the papers. “You’re fine.”
Celia snatched the invoices from Võ. The store was air-conditioned, yes. Blessedly yes. But upstairs, where they lived? Downstairs, where she did inventory? Decidedly not. She peered through the fly-speckled window that loomed behind her, heavy and mean, like some overbearing, unwashed henchman. Then, of course, there was the blistering landscape that had become the veritable whole of the outside world. As far as Celia was concerned, the store teetered hopelessly on the very brink of it.
They would not be spared.
Võ watched as she sorted the invoices, rapidly tapping his fingertips against the countertop. He kept his voice low, affecting a calm, cool casualness that instantly put Celia on edge.
“So, hey … balut was on special. I got us a bunch.”
Celia momentarily perked up at the news, then narrowed her eyes at its implication. “How much is ‘a bunch’?”
Võ held up his palms. “Just five extra cartons! I’ve already stored most of it in the basement. The rest can go up here.”
Five extra cartons, twenty-four eggs each. That meant … a lot of balut. “Why were they on special, do you think? Goddamn it, Võ. They’re probably just days away from going bad!” Quality being a rather malleable concept for the wholesalers Võ typically frequented, anything “on special” was immediately suspect. He should have known better.
But Võ merely shook his head, adamant. “Not if you can sell them in time.” He pushed his sunglasses from his face, perched them on his forehead and tried to win her over with a smile. “It’s such a good deal, Cece. They’ll sell fast. Trust me. We can’t lose!” He went on, cajoling (“C’mon, sis!”), imploring (“Please, Cece. Please, I’m begging you”), debating (“Well, actually”) as he often did with their parents, making such a spectacle of himself that, exasperated – and perhaps more than just a little dismayed at the antics of their fully grown, adult son – they let him off the hook.
Celia, however, clenched her jaw and stared at him until he dropped his eyes to the stained linoleum that lined the floor like broken, crooked teeth.
“It’s way too hot today,” Võ conceded.
The sun bore down mercilessly, immersing the city in an insidious heat that crept under the skin and boiled the blood, simmering what was left of people’s stilted minds into frothy concoctions of loose inclinations and half-formed intents.
Few people ventured outside. Fewer still came into the store. None were even remotely interested in the balut.
To apologise for his latest purchasing debacle (in recent weeks, these included a heap of flavourless dried squid, a pallet of discoloured chrysanthemum greens and a simply unconscionable amount of diuretic tea), Võ left some of the balut for Celia in the kitchen.
Balut had been a cherished dish for Celia and Võ since childhood. Celia remembered eating it at the kitchen table with a dash of salt and a pinch of pepper as a stub-faced and toothless Võ looked on longingly from his high chair – the only time in his life, she supposed, that he envied her. Her favorite part was cracking open the shell, striking it precisely with her spoon, peeling the broken bits away with her fingertips and carefully sipping at the hot broth inside before firmly digging into the balut.
There was nothing at all that even remotely compared to the taste and texture of balut – its silkiness, its bold, rich flavour with just a hint of sweetness. It was an acquired taste, to be sure, but what delicacy wasn’t? Was it any better or worse than caviar or foie gras? Lutefisk? Raisins in potato salad?
It often amused Celia to see balut featured on travel shows, cooking programs or reality competitions where some intrepid host or contestant, traipsing, say, through the great thoroughfares of the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam, partook of balut for the folks watching back home, with all the attendant fanfare (gagging, reeling, the steeling of nerves, more gagging, more reeling, some tears) that came with it.
The music swelled, the person on screen scooped out the soft, yielding meat from the shell (cue close-up), clamped down, chewed, chewed, chewed – then swallowed (cue extreme close-up) – and the audience, having indulged in the exotic, flirted with depravity and once again come out the other side of it unscathed, egos intact, was gratified (roll credits).
Celia scoffed quietly at these moments. “‘There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio.’”
Poor things, putting themselves through all that, and all for the sake of a cheap thrill. If only they knew, Celia thought: balut was no more or less a byproduct of the chicken than the egg; no more or less a chicken than the egg itself. Besides that, it was fucking delicious.
Still, she wasn’t kidding herself. Balut was never going to be the next phó, the next banh mì, the next goji berry or whatever the hell white people decided to “discover” at any given juncture in time – something, that is, as palatable to unseasoned tongues as it was marketable to what currently fronted as the mainstream. No. Balut was balut. There was no denying it or covering it up or “elevating” what it was.
The box fans their father had placed by the open windows did little to cool down the furnace that had become their apartment, but Celia refused to let that deter her. She put the balut into a large pot, filled it with water, placed it on the stove and flipped on the burner. She watched as tiny bubbles formed around the balut, then floated up and popped at the surface. A few of the balut eggs rocked on their bases, skipped and bounced as the temperature rose. Celia closed her eyes and listened to the soothing white noise of the fans. Her breathing steadied. She allowed her head to droop. It had been such a long, hot, blistering day …
She heard it then – a sound so small, yet so precise, that her eyes snapped open and she backed away from the pot.
Was that … peeping?
“What are you doing?” came a loud voice.
Celia whipped around. “I – nothing!”
Her mother approached the stove and made a face. “Eh? You’re making balut? You sure it’s okay?”
“These, uh, are the ones from the store,” answered Celia. At least, come to think of it, she was pretty sure they were. At least, they had to be; otherwise, what in god’s name was Võ thinking? When her mother continued looking at her with a puzzled expression, as if she’d lost the thread of the conversation, Celia raised her voice a few decibels. “Võ said he’d clean out the basement tomorrow.”
“Don’t yell!” replied her mother. “Next time don’t order so many.” But rather than leaving, as Celia expected, her mother stood over the stove, tilting her good ear towards the balut. She frowned. But then she shook her head and shuffled slowly back to her bedroom where the musical numbers of Paris By Night seeped out from under the doorframe.
“Did you – ?” Celia called after her, but stopped short, unsure of what to say.
Her mother turned back to face her. “Hmm?”
“Nothing,” replied Celia.
When the balut was ready she called her father and brother to come eat.
It was good as it had ever been.
iii. Ordinary Life
The walk from the front of the store to the back entrance that lead into the basement had only taken moments, but it was enough to cover Celia’s face in a thin sheen of sweat. Her pulse throbbed against her jawline. Beads of perspiration formed across her upper lip and trickled from her temples, catching in the wisps of her untamed sideburns. She found herself close to panting, but resisted.
Five extra cartons thought Celia bitterly. Despite her growing unease, it was imperative that she not be seen. Võ would never let her hear the end of it. She had to wait two agonizing days for him to go off again to the wholesalers, and even then she had to go through the trouble of getting her father to mind the store by lying to him about a doctor’s appointment.
There had been a moment that night, as she finished setting the table, that she impulsively seized one of the balut eggs and held it to her ear only to be met with a cold, resolute silence. And yet, rather than being relieved, she could not rid herself of the feeling of having narrowly escaped the inescapable – of tumbling headlong off a cliff only to be distracted, almost enamoured, by the fall. Which, of course, meant no escape at all but a temporary, rather cruel reprieve.
There had been peeping. Hadn’t there?
Perhaps she had imagined it, conflating chicken and egg. Seeing one for the other.
Either way, in any case, she had to know. She had to be sure.
The basement was cooler than the apartment, but not by much. An oven then, if not a furnace. It was stupid of Võ to have stored the unsold balut down there but, short of moving the cartons herself, there wasn’t much Celia could have done about it. However dubious his insistence of a fast and easy sell-off had been, her parents certainly didn’t see it necessary to argue the point. The balut was already there, wasn’t it?
Although the basement, with its thick, grime-covered walls, uneven ceiling and wicked blind corners creeped her out even during the daylight hours, Celia left the lights off to prevent the drone of the fluorescent bulbs above from disturbing her.
She waited. The only sound was the rush of blood in her ears. She held her breath, willing herself into total silence, and devoted herself entirely to detecting the slightest sound.
Nothing but the darkness stirred around her.
Satisfied, she turned to leave.
She heard it. The peeping, faint, so faint at first, little more than a whisper or a dream. She hesitated at the threshold between the hallway and the storage room, heart pounding, legs set to collapse at the knees. To her right was the stairway leading back to the brilliance of the afternoon; to her left, the muted darkness and the wretched peeping.
She followed the sound (peep, peep), weaving her way around precariously stacked boxes of dried goods (peep, peep), canned food (peep) and assorted dishware (peep, Peep, PEEP). She edged her way toward the peeping, bracing her hand against the rough concrete wall to guide her. There, tucked in the far corner, were the cartons of balut (PEEP, PEEP!). She let go of the wall and willed herself to take the last few steps toward the cartons. She peered down at them.
Shining eyes, searching mouths and wet, tremulous bodies greeted her, reached up to meet her.
PEEP! PEEP! PEEP! they said.
HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!
Bodies, bodies everywhere. Of yellow, brown and spotted black.
So many little bodies, though, mercifully, not as many as there could have been.
More than a few of the chicks died within moments of hatching; the fact that the cartons were stacked on top of each other meant that a good many were crushed or suffocated as they struggled to emerge from their shells.
Some came out deformed and lived only a little longer than that. Others made it out despite all odds only to die anyway.
A few never hatched at all.
The cartons, damp and swiftly deteriorating, swayed under the weight of the hatchings, absolutely writhed and pulsated with their living and dying. It was strangely hypnotic. Celia found it impossible to look away.
She kept the lights off.
One by one she gathered up the chicks from the nest of bodies and pulp.
v. Mother Hen
Bong-bong, bing-bong! ...
Võ rushed into the store, breathless. “Cece, get ready to thank me!”
Celia stood bleary-eyed behind the register. It had been a week since the chicks’ arrival. Their care put her on edge, their incessant demands for food and attention punctuated with PEEP! PEEP! PEEP! And the way they looked at her … she could not stand it, the way they looked at her.
The fact was, she dreaded them. Seven days and they’d already grown so fast, changed so much. Soon, they would have feathers, combs, wattles (whatever the fuck wattles were; Celia was familiar with the terms if not the anatomy). Before long, they would be chickens themselves. Individual, honest-to-goodness chickens. And then what?
Eggs, she imagined. Eggs, eggs, eggs.
It’s not what comes first, after all, but what remains. What remains and then what you do with it.
Her father brought a clutch of chicks “to a farm somewhere,” though he wouldn’t say which farm and he wouldn’t say where. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll come back to us someday,” he laughed.
Her mother gave some away to family members and sold a few to friends. Amusements for their children. “Don’t worry. No one will say anything,” she said when Celia balked at her brazenness. A visit from the health inspector was the last thing they needed.
The last few dozen chicks remained Celia’s responsibility, with Võ helping out as only Võ could – sporadically and with such unfettered confidence that she wished he’d stop so she could at least resent his absence.
“Võ,” she said, throat raw, head cradled in her heads. “Do me a favour, Võ. Rip that goddamn bell out of the wall before I fucking lose it.”
“Never mind that. I have a solution to our little problem!”
The city, he learned, had recently changed its bylaws in order to allow people to keep up to six chickens in their backyards, and demand for chicks was booming.
“Turns out more and more people are having doubts about getting chicks from hatcheries because those places also provide commercial farms with stock.”
Celia lifted her chin from her palms. “Are you serious? Why?” Honestly, where else did these people expect chicks to come from?
Võ’s eyes sparked. He licked his lips. “Because they pump the birds full of hormones, burn off their beaks to keep them from fighting, and throw the males into grinders. Seriously, look that shit up. The pictures alone …” he rolled his eyes and feigned an elaborate shudder. “Ughhh!”
“A horrible life. But brief,” retorted Celia. “That must count for something.”
“Yeah, well. Bad for them. Good for us.”
“How so?” Celia yawned.
“Because! Because these people, Celia, they want to buy local, be free. They want a clean break.”
“And they’re going to accomplish this by keeping chickens in their backyards?”
Võ raised an eyebrow. “That’s the dream. Ethically sourced and delivered right to your doorstep! All we have to do is show up. It’s beautiful!” He snapped his fingers. “Boo-ti-full!”
Celia shooed him away as a stout man with in a rumpled white shirt approached the counter carrying a basket of mustard greens, condensed milk and oyster sauce.
“Phew, phew, phhhhew! So hot today!” he said, addressing Võ. Võ actually saluted him. They both laughed. “Balut no longer on special, Celia?” said the man, roughly tossing the greens so that they landed with an audible thump at her elbow.
“No, Mr. Liu, sorry. Out of stock.” Celia said, ringing him up. She eyed Võ, who smirked, but wisely keep quiet.
“Oh, that’s too bad. Okay. Tell your mom I say hi,” said Mr. Liu as Celia gave him his change and passed him his bags.
“I will.” Celia watched him go.
Bong-bong, bing-bong! Bong-bing-bong!
Võ ambled over to the fridge and got two cans of Mr. Brown iced coffees. “Out of stock? Yeah, right. More like expired. More like transmogrified!” He passed one of the cans to Celia and began gulping his down before she even popped the tab on hers.
Celia picked up the Mr. Brown and brought it to her lips. It tasted vaguely of brunt peanuts but was cold, refreshing. It woke her up.
“I tried to help them,” she said at last.
Võ wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “What? Who?” He crushed the can and dropped it into the wastebasket.
“The chicks. When I found them. Some of them were still hatching. And it looked so hard. Like, they were really struggling to get out. So I broke away the shells for them. I didn’t even want to, it just happened, you know? And when they were out they just … kind of lay there, shaking. They never had a chance.” Celia shook her head. “What the hell was I trying to accomplish anyway?”
“Fuck if I know.” Võ shrugged. “So are we doing this or what?”
A basic internet search and quick math gave Celia the going rate for chicks in groups of two, four, six. It was then just a matter of going ten to fifteen percent below that number and placing a few ads online (BEAUTIFUL HAND-RAISED CHICKS). Craigslist. Kijiji.
All things considered, she and Võ would likely end up making a bigger profit selling the chicks than they would have made hawking the balut.
“Good thing you didn’t help out any more baby birds,” Võ joked after they tallied the numbers.
Celia’s hand shot out and smacked the back of his head so suddenly and so forcefully that he stumbled forward. Võ regained his balance and gawked at her, more surprised than hurt.
“Do not call them that, Võ!” she shouted, ignoring the throbbing in her fingers.
Võ leaned in close and jabbed his finger in her face. “Do that again and you’re on your own.”
Was that a threat? And from Võ of all people?
“The store or the basement?” Celia shot back.
Celia spoke carefully, ensuring that Võ heard her every word. “The balut that you left in the apartment. Did you get them from the store, or the basement?”
“What does that even matter now?” asked Võ, genuinely taken aback.
Celia clenched her fists. “Tell me. The store or the basement, Võ?”
Võ backed away from her, shaking his head. “Know what? I got them for you because I wanted to be nice! I wanted to do something nice for you, Cece. I swear!”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Vo. Do you really expect me to believe that?”
“You hit me, Celia. Is that where we’re going with all this? Is that where we’re headed?”
The anger roiling inside Celia was quickly replaced with a deep, familiar shame. This was exactly the reason she insisted on taking over the store from her parents all those years ago, to keep them away. And now here she was, no different from her father, her mother.
It wasn’t Võ’s fault.
“You know it’s not like that. Just … do me a favour and work with me, okay? Don’t make trouble.” Celia spoke softly. She took in a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”
Võ eyed her warily for a long moment and then managed a small smile. “Me? Trouble? I’m too big for that now, remember?”
The chicken coops their buyers set up varied greatly in quality. Some seemed a little small. Some a little large, imposing even, more like kennels for large dogs than coops for city hens. Others actually looked quite nice – or at least, expensive.
The buyers themselves were a motley assemblage of hobbyists of various backgrounds and professions: retirees, lawyers, therapists, teachers, pharmacists, stay-at-home parents looking to fill the little hours now that the kids were in school. They had so many questions, most of which Celia, after a mock Q&A session with Võ and some quick Googling, managed bluff her way through.
What breed of chicks were these? (Rhode Island Red, the most common and agreeable backyard chicken of all. Of course.)
These chicks are healthy? Hearty? (The healthiest. The heartiest.)
Will you take the roosters back, return my money, or give me a replacement chick if I’m not satisfied? (Regrettably, all sales final).
Will you accept eggs as a form of payment? At least in part? (No, and no.)
Where were these chicks hatched? Can you or your brother get more? (It’s a family-run business. These are limited stock.)
The buyers were very much satisfied with these answers, such as they were, so much so that Celia wondered if what they really sought was the kind of self-congratulatory validation that often came with blind ambition, or unchecked passion. Or both. They were committed, to say the least, to having and raising chickens, and they were ready and willing.
Yet, for all their enthusiasm, Celia could not convince herself that the chicks would live well, or long. With the cost of feed and care, Celia wondered just how self-sufficient these so-called flocks would be, how cost-effective in the end. How freeing. She could just imagine it: the smell of rot and feces under the searing August sun, the chicks rife with illness and disease or falling apart due to the inevitable neglect of the recently bored or easily overwhelmed. On that last bit she certainly empathized.
She became paranoid. Questions invariably led to more questions, particularly ones to which the answers were, in a sense, ritualized – a few slip-ups and everything would come crashing down upon them. She lay awake at night, worried that she and Võ would be discovered, their little scheme (however short-lived and ultimately well-intentioned) serving as further proof of shifty Vietnamese willing to do anything for a quick buck. Yes. They’d get tossed in with the worm-pickers and the turtle poachers – those fixtures and products of crude imaginations – and their store would be maligned as just another one of those dirty Asian marts.
They’d never live it down.
Even if things went ostensibly smoothly and the chicks were sold off, she fretted over the calls and emails she was sure she was going to get complaining about poor egg production, demanding refunds or insisting on exchanging roosters for hens (she and Võ made zero guarantees regarding the sex of the chicks, there being nothing at all to be done about useless males).
“Don’t blame me. Blame the heat,” said Võ after their latest delivery to the bramble-filled yard of a gym instructor named Ron, who bought six chicks from them with the promise of buying more once the rest of his coop (currently still in the woodshed waiting for assembly) was finished.
“If I hadn’t gone down to the basement when I did, I would blame you,” replied Celia. The heat was worse than ever. Its stranglehold on her senses made her muddle-headed and as tetchy as ever. “If I hadn’t been there, I would blame the heat.”
“They should have just stayed eggs,” Võ whined, picking absently at his pock-marked face as they made their way from the parked van back to the store.
“If they had stayed eggs, they wouldn’t have been balut.”
“You know what I mean,” Võ said irritably.
Celia sighed. “Maybe you can try talking to dad. He listens to you. Get him to take some more chicks to that farm.”
Võ snorted and, eyes wide, he quickly looked away from her.
“Nothing!” He tried to rush ahead of her.
“Võ, what? What?” Celia grabbed him by the arm and slapped his hand away from his cheek. “Stop picking your face!”
“You stop it!” Võ jerked out of her grasp.
“Then tell me Võ! You said no trouble, didn’t you?” cried Celia, throwing his promise back at him.
“C’mon, Cece! Isn’t it obvious? There is no farm. There’s never a farm!
“Look, he told me not to tell you, but dad took those chicks to the docks. The sports fishermen with the fancy shoes. Stacey Hartman’s dad and his friends.”
Celia gaped. Back in high school, she and Stacey had been assigned to work together for a class project. The Glass Menagerie, or was it Death of a Salesman? Didn’t matter. What was seared into her memory was what she saw as Stacey led them to the living room: disembodied animal heads mounted on practically every available space on the walls of the Hartmans’ gigantic house. Moose, lynx, foxes, deer, raccoons, otters, wolverines and badgers. A few bears. A pronghorn antelope. A water buffalo. An aardvark.
One giraffe, fully-necked, down to the last vertebra.
Scattered among these floating heads were the taxidermied remains of turkeys, pheasants and grouse, as well as several truly monstrous fish with mouths full of sharp, needle-like teeth – pike, muskie and a cluster of wide-eyed piranhas, to name a few (Celia looked them up, she had to, they seemed so outlandish and impossibly present and simply ravenous).
She stared at Võ. “Fuck me. Bait?”
“Bait,” said Võ. “Also chum.” He shoved his hands into his pockets clicked his tongue. “Those old white dudes sure do love their trophies. I mean, fuck. What’s the point of catching a fish if you’re not going to eat it?”
The email from Rexx17 was not what she had expected.
Rexx17 offered to buy all of the chicks at a price that would both cover the cost of the balut and turn in a tidy (if not handsome) profit.
Rexx17 did not care about roosters or hens, egg production or refunds. He just wanted chicks. All of them, and as soon as was humanly possible.
“They’re alive, right?” Rexx17 asked over the phone.
“Yes. Of course,” Celia responded.
“What I mean is, they’re lively, right? Running, chirping, hopping around?”
“Yes,” replied Celia, a little more harshly than she intended.
“And have they fledged?”
“Not yet, no.”
“Good. Yeah, good. That totally works for me.” He laughed. “Feathers, man. They just get in the way.”
Celia gripped her phone, pressing it close to her ear. “I’m sorry. What are you talking about? I thought – ”
“Know what? Bring a few! Come and see. Then if everything’s cool with you, we can make a deal.”
Celia demurred. “I don’t think so.”
“I’ll pay up front. Cash.”
“This weekend good for you?”
There was little difference between the humidity that pressed against the windows from the outside of Rexx17’s ancient bungalow and that which pressed against them from within. Rexx17 guided Celia past the screen door that opened, without preamble, into the living space beyond.
But instead of a proper living room, with a couch, some chairs and a moderately-sized coffee table, Celia was greeted with gleaming tanks of varying sizes and shapes, which glowed in the dim light emanating from their myriad heat lamps.
The tanks ran down the hallways, through what passed as a kitchen (sink, refrigerator, no table, no chairs) and into dimly glowing bedrooms beyond. They were immaculate, lavish, perfectly calibrated environments for just about every manner of reptile and amphibian imaginable. Celia spied pythons, boa constrictors, caimans, Gila monsters and one behemoth of a thing that was either a gigantic iguana or a undersized Komodo dragon, Rexx17 wouldn’t say.
“My babies,” beamed Rexx17. There were other tanks lined up against a wall, stacked neatly next to each other and reminding Celia of the drink fridge at the store, only smaller and housing trays filled to capacity with leathery, oblong eggs. Incubators.
“My babies’ babies,” chuckled Rexx17 when he saw her looking.
“So you’re, like, a breeder?” Celia asked.
“I’m one of the best. No better in the tri-city area! People call from all around looking to buy from me. But this bad boy,” said Rexx17, leading her to the half of the room that housed the Behemoth, “is my pride and joy.”
The Behemoth’s tank was a floor-to-ceiling wonder, a zoo-quality glass enclosure fused into the trunk of a fiberglass willow tree that, it was clear, had been sculpted in situ by skilled, artful hands. There were live plants growing from verdant soil laid carefully on the floor of the tank, hanging moss draped lovingly at the corners, and a water feature that bore an uncanny resemblance to the lapping waters of a lush lagoon.
“Paradise,” Celia murmured, despite herself.
“Pass me the chicks,” said Rexx17, his voice barely above a hush. He was a large man, with big, squared-off shoulders, a broad back and great, hulking arms. Yet he had a pair of the most delicate hands Celia had ever seen, like those of a concert pianist or neurosurgeon, fine-boned, with fingers that tapered into elegant points.
She handed over the shoebox containing four chicks: three yellow, one spotted with black.
Celia was not sure if Rexx17 was addressing her or the chicks.
With a flourish and a grin, Rexx17 deftly plucked one from the box (the spotted one, the marked one), climbed up the stepladder and dropped it into the Behemoth’s tank (PEEP! PEEP! PEEP!). The creature awoke from its meditative haze, nostrils flaring, tongue lashing. Celia watched as the pupils of its eyes narrowed to focused slits, as it lunged suddenly, powerfully forward and snapped its jaws around the warmth and taste of fresh meat. She heard the popping of joints, the crunch of bones and a few last, plaintive peeps. There was no blood.
Goodbye, thought Celia. Bye-bye.
“Awesome, eh?” asked Rexx17, joyous. “You usually have to pay to see that kind of thing.”
“I can see how feathers would get in the way,” was all Celia managed to say.
Rexx17 grinned. “So, what do you think? You good to go?”
In a way, Celia knew, it was a perfect solution. There was no uncertainty here, no awkwardness or doubt. No question of chicken or egg. A clean break. What more could she possibly ask for?
“I’m going to need a day or two to think things over.”
A shadow of annoyance crossed Rexx17’s face, but he nodded amiably. “Sure. Take your time. But the sooner the better. These chicks are just about prime right now.”
Celia told him to keep the three remaining chicks. Whatever happened, they were his. Her treat.
Before leaving to meet with Rexx17 across town at his bungalow, Celia had penned the chicks behind the store under plastic mesh containers that previously housed lychees and bok choy.
As it turned out, it would be a record-breaking day, with the kind of the heat and humidity not felt for at least half a century.
A real scorcher. Ungodly hot. Inhumanly oppressive.
It was bumper-to-bumper on the expressway. Celia’s silver Honda, naturally, was caught right in the middle of this vehicular quagmire.
Celia banged her hand on the dashboard. “Let’s go, already! Move, move!”
She had told Võ to watch the chicks for her while she was away.
She must have.
She texted him. No response. She tried calling her parents, but there was no answer at the store or at home. It was Sunday, their one day to run the store without Celia or Võ. They opened late and closed early on Sundays. They could be anywhere.
Celia propped her forehead against the steering wheel. She glanced out the windshield. Traffic going the other direction was smooth, almost clear. She was overcome with the need to pull over, switch lanes and drive on, drive on and on until she ran out of gas and had to abandon the car and walk, discarding her phone and her credit cards and ID along the way until all she had left was the twenty-dollar bill in her pocket. She’d walk on until her shoes wore thin and her hair grew out and the chicks were nothing more than a memory, and then she’d sit down. Sit down at last and enjoy the peace and the quiet while she waited for the endless summer to end, finally, once and for all.
She returned to the store later than she thought possible, double-parking the car out front. She rushed to the small patch of grass just outside the back exit, slamming open the door with her shoulder as her mother screamed at her from behind the register to slow down, don’t be crazy!
The sun had begun to set, but it was much too late. She looked down to find the chicks dead, eyes glazed, beaks open, no longer searching, demanding or needing.
Not a sound or a movement.
Not a peep.
The sun had shifted in her absence and had burned away the shadow that had shielded the chicks from the heat before retreating back to the horizon. Their water dish was bone dry. Their feed was scattered listlessly about on the ground.
“No, oh no,” pleaded Celia. “Hello? Hello..?"
She knelt on the desiccated grass next to the containers. She wrung her hands in her lap. Somewhere in the trees, a cicada rattled away.
Slowly, she lifted the containers.
She counted the bodies, marvelling at the loss.
Cindy Phan lives on the outskirts of Toronto with her partner and their tiny son. She writes about the everyday fantastic, in which the boundaries between the tragic and the absurd shift, merge, transform and misbehave. Her fiction has appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, The Astral Waters Review and Augur Magazine. You can read more of her work on her website, besidealife.com, or find her on Twitter: @besidealife.