A short horror story written for the cover and title.
The truck stood idle in the yard, cab door hanging open but no one in the driving seat. The live cargo was getting restless, the chickens pecking at each other as they were packed too tightly to allow for much pacing or flapping of wings.
Steve looked at it, wondered what was going on. It should have pulled away from the yard more than an hour ago. The blackening sky promised further delays for none of the drivers would risk hitting too hard on the gas in a storm.
Raised voices drew his attention. Bob, the manager sounded both angry and exasperated. "Look, just get yerself inta the cab and get it done, okay. I've heard enough of yer stupid excuses."
"Nope, there's no way in Hell I'm gonna head over Hen Peak." Drew, one of the senior drivers was digging his heels in. It was pretty clear that neither man was about to give in.
"Fine. Clear on out. Start lookin' fer another job, but don't you come lookin' fer references from me."
Steve was the new guy, the outsider. He'd only got short runs in the smaller trucks. This could just be the chance he was looking for. He stepped forward, said, "It's no problem. I'll do it."
Bob and Drew looked round, both appearing almost incredulous.
"I'll do it. Just give me the go-ahead and I'll be on my way."
Bob nodded. "Okay, but you be real careful. There's a lot of money in the truck, not ta mention the cargo."
Drew walked part of the way across the yard. "You don't know wha' you're doin'. No one goes up Hen Peak an' comes back."
Steve hauled himself up in the cab. He'd been dying to get behind the wheel of one of these monsters and there was no way he'd allow himself to be spooked by any local stories. "I guess you're gonna say there's some kind of giant hen up there, huh! Well, I ain't about to buy that, ya hear."
Bringing the engine to life, Steve took on final glance at Drew's drawn expression then eased the truck out of the yard. He'd take the highway for ten miles or so and then it would be off there on to the more rural routes. If the rain held off for a while he might be able to regain some of the lost time, he thought; traffic was light, flowing fast.
When the truck turned off the highway, it seemed to Steve that the storm was hanging there right in front of him. For now the rain was nothing more than a steady drizzle, the cloud low over the mountain he was about to climb. The wipers could easily keep the screen clear, and he kept the truck moving fast.
The nearer he got the more ominous those storm-clouds looked. The thunder, for the most part, was covered by the sound of the engine but Steve could not ignore the lightning as it slashed across the sky. He'd be safe enough inside the cab, but what about the cargo? For a moment he pictured hens, baked alive, left as nothing more than singed feathers and bone.
"Nah," he said to himself, "That ain't about ta happen." He chuckled, imagining the look on Bob's face, before dismissing the idea completely.
Within seconds he had no time for random thoughts. The rain was falling in sheets. It was, Steve thought, a bit like trying to drive through the blast of a massive hosepipe. He dropped the gear and reduced speed to not much more than a crawl. The wipers, on full speed, had no chance of keeping up with the water and the road was curving, climbing. He was finally at the bottom of Hen Peak and was beginning the journey up and over the other side.
A strange name for the mountain, he thought. There was little chance of seeing much but he got the impression that it was mostly rock, with just the odd patch of scrubby grass here and there. He doubted even a hen would find much to eat, and the higher he went, the bleaker it got.
Dropping the gear once more he continued to urge the truck on up the mountain. When the lightning split the sky directly in front of him, he was travelling at not much more than a crawl. Even so, he didn't have a chance to miss it. The electric illumination had revealed a bird of some sort, right in the middle of the road. Steve leaned hard on the horn, but the dumb thing didn't even try to move itself out of the way. The road too narrow to steer around it, the truck hurtled forward.
Looking in the mirrors Steve tried to see if it was laying there on the road. Daft really, for where else could it be? And yet he couldn't make out anything at all other than the fact that the rain had stopped as suddenly as that bird had appeared.
Good, Steve thought. He'd be able to pick up speed, make up a bit of lost time again. Pushing his foot down on the gas once more the truck began to go faster. Although the storm had quietened, the cloud was still there and he had no choice but to drive in to it. Through a kind of mist he saw something else. Something much bigger... in the road... a girl...
Desperately Steve slammed his foot on the brake, tried to steer, to retain some control. The cab was tipping as if in slow motion, pulled over by the trailer-loads of hens. His belt sprang free from the lock and he found himself being tossed with the momentum; thrust forward then back before his head collided with the side window. Stunned and helpless, he closed his eyes. At least he did not think that he had hit her.
"Have you seen her?"
The voice broke through his stupor and Steve opened his eyes. He could barely focus through the pain. How had he got out on to the road? Had she pulled him free?
"My hen! Have you seen her?" The girl repeated her question.
Steve thought back to the bird he had hit back along the road. Had it been a hen? It could have been, but then it could have been any other kind of big bird too. Something told him it was best to say no so he tried to shake his head. It would not move. His arms would not move either, or his legs.
As Steve lay there he became aware of the fluttering of feathers, the clucking of hens. Could he talk? "Ta... take... one," he stuttered out.
"You killed it, didn't you." The girl's voice was icily calm at first, as she walked forward to stand over him. "You ran it over in that big damn truck of yours and you killed it!" Her voice had risen so by the time she had finished talking she was almost screaming.
"I... I... " Steve began, not knowing whether to confess or deny it, but the sight of the girl silenced all thoughts, let alone his still forming words.
She was going through some kind of physical change, her face distorting, her flesh looking like it was melting. It couldn't be happening. Steve strained his eyes towards the trailers, tipped over on to their sides, the crates that had carried the birds now smashed, broken open. He could see birds that were dead, injured, trapped where they lay. He closed his eyes, felt a sharp beak peck at his cheek. His head would not turn; his arm would not raise itself to shoo it away.
The girl was contorting, writhing before him, her mouth collapsing as she shrieked out, "Murderer!" before seeming to explode. Steve expected to be spattered by blood, by bone fragments, but there was nothing more than a rush of air.
He'd imagined her, Steve told himself. That was the only explanation. She'd not been real, just some sort of concussed delusion. But the birds were real. Hundreds of chickens, rooting around with their beaks, looking for something to eat and finding nothing but rock.
Another peck on the cheek brought him back to the horrific reality. A bird fluttered down to roost on his chest, another pecked its way up from his ankle to knee. Steve tried to kick, tried to lash out, to thrash or to roll but he could not move at all.
His screams echoed around the mountain for a long time before they were silenced.
Book cover by: Ammad Malik