Ginger Brooks consulted the mirror. He had deep-set eyes, like they had been shot in by a catapult at close range. He studied his fingertips – another day of Chicken Sexing lay before him; his eyes and his fingertips were accompanied by Zen-like concentration coupled with a brain surgeon’s dexterity. This arcane skill set him apart from other men, other people. He could separate pullets from cockerels at the rate of 8,000 a day, three, four seconds in his hands and he just knew intuitively its sex with a 97% success rate. That was before the phobia took hold.
He couldn’t worry about that now. He had to get to the factory fast – before Braxton. He strode out onto the landing. The house was quiet, Vincent, his housemate was sleeping – he rarely set eyes on the guy these days. He kept strange hours, Ginger had no idea what he did, and he always looked pale and translucent, as if he’d been embalmed.
Disturbingly, Ginger could have sworn he’d smelt formaldehyde emanating from his room on more than one occasion. Tiptoeing down the stairs, not wanting to wake him, he opened the door carefully, and gasped.
‘What on earth...’
The front garden was full of chickens, hundreds of the damn things. Braxton. She was up to her tricks again but how could she know? He hadn’t told anyone about his latest terror, least of all Braxton but she had a way of picking up on your weaknesses – your deepest fears. One by one he’d seen the others crumble before her. The psychiatric wards were filling up fast.
The chickens paused their pecking. Hundreds of small beady eyes turned towards him. Ginger stood rooted to his doorstep, unable to move, his breathing rapid and shallow.
‘Vincent,’ he screamed, ‘help me, Vincent.’
"He isn't coming," the disembodied Voice of the Chickens seemed to come from the ramshackle flock. Ginger blinked. This could not be happening. "Step away from the door. Fetch food."
Ginger found himself responding. "Corn flakes?"
"It will do, but stop looking at us like that."
The chickens began to hop into the kitchen; slowly, menacingly. They were scrawny, discolored, featherless battery chickens, like tiny leprous demons.
"W-what do you want?" said Ginger in a thin papery voice.
"Let's start with the corn flakes." In a daze he opened the pantry door.
Oh, where the hell had Vincent got to?
He grabbed cornflakes, rice, lentils, anything to lay a trail back into the garden. The kitchen, covered in droppings and feathers, stifled what remained of his thought process.
“Idiot!” they squawked. “Think we’re falling for that one?”
Ignoring the food they strutted their way up the stairs in a storm of feathers and blood, plucking flesh from weaklings impeding progress.
The vanguard halted at Vincent’s door, heads cocked this way and that.
Then it began.
A hammering of beaks, scratching, ripping at splinters of wood until they heard the hiss of escaping formaldehyde.
Beyond the disintegrating door they saw him.
They surrounded the bed and began pecking the duvet, Vincent by now was wide awake and pulling the covers tighter, his eyes bulging with terror, he shouted ginger “help me.
“You won’t get any” they cackled in glee.
Ginger raced up stairs with the hosepipe, water trailing down the nice new carpet.
As he aimed it at the bed, Vincent let out a yell. The chickens squawked in alarm and flew to the open window losing a few feathers on the way and landed on the chicken shed,
Ginger paddled down the stairs nearly tripping on the hose and managed to bolt the door
With most of the chickens safely outside Ginger reappraised his situation. It wasn’t good. He was trapped. And what was it with Vincent and the formaldehyde?
He squelched his way upstairs and tentatively entered Vincent’s room. It was dark, the curtains firmly drawn. This was usual. Apart from forays to the bathroom or kitchen Vincent spent about eighteen hours a day at his computer. He said he ran an online business but as long as the rent was promptly paid Ginger didn’t ask questions.
Vincent’s array of computer monitors burst into life, a familiar face appearing on each.
Braxton’s lips bent into half a dozen identical sly smiles.
Ginger should have been at work. The conveyor belt stopped for no one and without his skilful intervention, hundreds of chickens tumbled off the production line; a cloud of fluff and chicken s...t.
As Braxton leaned towards the camera, hundreds of peeping, yellow balls of rather annoyed chicks burst through the door behind her. Her smile left her face as though wiped by a large yellow duster. Only her eyes, black pools of hate, were visible as she was covered in feathers from the giant, jaundiced puff-ball.
Vincent stood behind Ginger, who gagged at the pungent vapours from the other man's breath.
"Touché, Ms Braxton," Vincent sneered.
“That’s what you think Dog Breath. Your little plan did not entirely work. Be afraid, be very afraid. Even as we speak, I have my best people working on it. You will find in a very short while that your preventive measures will have been for nothing. I shall soon have the formulae with which you have coated yourself. One of the main ingredients is of course formaldehyde, the rest is easy. Yes, it is only a matter of time before you find your degenerate person coated in fluffy little yellow feathers. Au revoir.”
The screen went dead. Vincent shuddered.
"What did she mean?" asked Ginger.
"How should I now?" said Vincent, unconvincingly.
"She was talking to you, about some formula? And those chickens! She sent them for you, not me," Ginger realised.
"Ok, I admit, it does look a bit suspicious, but think back to when I moved in." Ginger remembered it well. He'd been desperate for cash.
He'd advertised for someone to rent-share. "I was a 'plant'. Working for Braxton, sent here to study you, to steal your secret, to come up with 'the formula', but I discovered much more. Something which could change the whole world!"
Before he could say ‘and what’s that, exactly?’ he was bound, gagged and thrown into the back of a pick-up. Ginger summoned Zen and his powers of concentration and, with his chicken-manipulating knowledge he monitored every bump and pothole of his journey. He had no choice: every knock was recorded on his bony frame.
“That was a deep depression,” he prided himself on accuracy – second nature given the nature of his employment.
“Aha! We’re off the main road – ouch!”
Rough hands dragged him onto soft ground.
“A forest?” he sniffed. “So why can I hear a turbine engine?”
The thrum and whine of the motor was familiar, Ginger had lived with it for years at the chicken factory, filling his head in the day, ringing in his ears at night. Strong hands grabbed his arms hauling him up off the ground. Two goons in boiler suits half dragged, half ran him through the trees. Carved out in the clearing ahead a long wooden building shimmered in the afternoon heat. The double doors opened and he was bundled inside, his feet hardly touching the ground down a long corridor. Zen couldn’t help him now.
The tangled party veered into a cell like room with only a wooden table and an office chair that faced the wall. Ginger struggled to break free. The chair swivelled around.
‘Braxton.’ He bit his lip, trying to stay calm.
Braxton stared through the hum of the turbine. ‘Ah…Brooks.’ She placed a brown folder on the table and nodded to the goons. ‘I thought it was about time we had a talk.’
Ginger felt the grip on his arms ease. ‘What the hell’s going on?’
Braxton opened the folder, methodically turning the pages. She didn’t look up. ‘I’m going to be as open as I can with you Mr Brooks.’
“Mr Brooks, or may I call you Peregrine?”
“Only if I may call you Evangelica.” Ginger wasn’t going to allow himself to be sweet-talked.
“Very well, Mr Brooks.” She tapped the papers. “Your file leads me to believe you are an honest man.”
She raised her eyes to his and in a low, conspiratorial voice said, “However, your tenant is not.”
Ginger was held by her gaze; a rabbit in headlights. About to drown in the strength of her charismatic soul-search, he shook his head and broke the spell. He remembered the rumour about the people she’d put into the psychiatric ward and realised it was not merely a rumour.
As he stared back at Braxton, for the first time he saw how similar she was to Vincent, that same mannerism of rubbing his temples, the dainty nose, the large mouth… that’s it thought Ginger, he’s her son, he has to be. The generator coughed and spluttered and entering the room came three identical Vincents. Braxton smirked and threw the straight-jacket to the floor in front of Ginger. “Vincent 27” she said, “do the honours for our guest. Then call Blacksharp Towers and tell them to expect a new patient.”
Ginger awoke from a dreamless sleep, minutes could have passed or hours or days, he had no sense of time having passed. He found himself in bed in what appeared to be a hospital ward. A long room with a dozen beds at regular intervals down each side. Daylight streamed in from high, barred windows; somewhere a strip light buzzed.
Gradually he began to recall the events that had brought him here. Nothing made sense anymore. He was just a chicken sexer going about his job. A chicken is just a chicken, why all the cloak and dagger stuff?
A man shuffled down the ward and sat on the bed next to him.
It took Ginger a moment to realise that he was looking into his own face. Stunned, he began to check the other patients. As far as he could make out they were all his doppelgangers.
“So you think chicken sexing has scrambled my brains?” he thought, not taking his eyes off his new bezzy-mate.
Doppelganger Ginger began to cluck, moving his head up and down in short jerks as though pecking at corn, aiming for Ginger’s eyes. On cue, the other clones left their beds, a disorderly row of shuffling and clucking moved towards them.
“Poetry in motion you ain’t” thought Ginger. “But you’d be contenders for Eurovision.”
An intercom crackled: ‘Exterminate! Exterminate!’
“As you wish.” Ginger shouted back. “But don’t blame me if it all goes wrong!”
Swinging his duvet like a caped crusader he trampolined across the beds, gaining height he swung onto the strip light and grabbed at the window bars. He should have known – cost saving measures had plastic painted to resemble steel. Wrapping himself in the duvet he put an elbow through a pane of sugar glass.
“Take that you scrawny excuses of manhood.”
The egg he threw exploded on impact reducing everything to ash within seconds. Eerie laughter filled the void.
Braxton escaped the blast as she steered her Time Warp Converter back to the time before this craziness started – she had to stop it from happening. Vincent was in his formaldehyde pod, Braxton’s tears fell to it’s glass lid as she stared down at her damaged son. And where was her secret love, Ginger. She tried to get him away from all this, but the clinic had failed her.
It all started with Ginger’s phobia, his irrational fear of Happy Endings, I must save him and indeed the world. This turbo – charged bird flu was her fault she thought she had found the cure, then the lab was raided; yes that’s when it all started…
… when she came up with the idea of building a secret plant in the forest, a duplicate of the chicken factory down to the last detail. Whatever happened in the main factory would be just a front, the real work programme could continue without raids or inspections.
Braxton struggled with the door to Vincent’s formaldehyde pod, she should have run the programme differently; ignored the turbo charged bird flu, fine tuned the doppelganger procedure. She shook her head, pulling frantically and listening for a rush of air from the pod. But to alter the process would have changed things. The reasoning behind the replication process had been economically sound, half the chickens on the conveyor belt were always male, so fifty per cent of them were always useless. And there was Ginger’s time to sex them too. If every bird was a female, there would be no wastage and no need for Ginger. Maximum output with minimum effort.
Braxton tapped on the glass ‘I’m going to get you out of there Vincent.’
The replication of female birds had been a solid success apart from their broiler like appearance, except a batch which had gone wrong when Vincent’s mistake had mixed some human DNA into the process. That had been the battalion of scrawny cluckers which turned up at Ginger’s house.
Three green lights started flashing on the pod, Braxton was half way there. There had been no holding Vincent once he had fine tuned the accidental DNA mix. Human doppelgangers were created to work the plant in the forest – total economic self sufficiency and potential wealth beyond her wildest dreams. But it had come at a price. The doppelgangers developed chicken phobias and needed corrective psychiatric treatment and Vincent…Vincent… how hard he had tried to correct the process, even using himself as a guinea pig.
A hiss of air blasted into Braxton’s face and then the stench of formaldehyde hit her.
‘Mother’ Vincent looked into Braxton’s eyes. She figured no son could have made a greater sacrifice, putting himself on the line and applying formaldehyde to his own body to see if it arrested the psychiatric degeneration. She could stop this all now before the future she had just lived started.
‘Mother’ said Vincent. ‘What are you doing, I’m just about to change the world.’
Braxton rested the palm of her hand on his cheek. ‘No son…you’re not changing the world, you’re coming home with me.’
Vincent looked stunned. ‘But I’m…’Braxton put her hand on his shoulder.
‘Home for a shower - wash that stuff off before you do yourself some damage. No buts.’
She thought about Ginger. His life would carry on and the phobia, it would never exist now. Braxton took hold of Vincent’s hands and pulled him out of the pod.
‘I’m shutting it all down tomorrow – every last bit of it.’ The stare never wavered, but her face suddenly cracked into a smile. ‘Come on, its salad for tea. Somehow I just don’t fancy boiled egg and bread soldiers.’