The Hand That Feeds You
by Kyle White
Rain struck Kendal’s head as the storm peeled away the warehouse roof. A flash of lightning seared his retinas, temporarily blinding him, but he would have sworn something big fell through the hole.
Hiking the pants of his security guard’s uniform, he gathered the courage to walk into the darkness. His flashlight did little to push aside the gloom, or to settle his unease.
Outside, another sonic blast exploded with a shock wave that vibrated the concrete beneath his size-16 shoes. Checking his watch — 3:23 a.m. — he considered turning back. He could sit in the front office until his shift ended, but then he thought of Mr. Hogan arriving in a few hours.
“You did what, Ken Doll? You didn’t replace a blown fuse. What’s the matter, you overgrown Sasquatch? Too chicken of the dark?” As thunder roared, Kendal reminded himself that he loved all creatures, even angry Munchkins from the Land of Bad Management. Every animal had a right to live.
When Grait’s Rubber Company had filed for bankruptcy, they had liquidated everything, except for one warehouse in Denison, Texas. The other workers had been fired, leaving only Kendal to watch the place at night, Mr. Hogan to manage it, and Diane to finalize the paperwork.
Just decaying tires, fan belts, and radiator hoses, he told himself as he walked deeper into the building. And a few rats.
Mr. Hogan had ordered him to poison the rats. Unable to let any creature die such a horrible death, Kendal had purchased humane traps. Every morning he released the vermin far out in the countryside.
Where was the fuse box? Aiming the flashlight toward the back wall, he took a step. Something that felt like a water balloon popped beneath one of his massive boxcar shoes.
He panned the light down. Blood seeped from beneath the toe of his shoe. Kendal winced. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
A river of brown bodies streamed past. He’d never seen so many rats before.
He was wondering if the storm had disturbed them when a scream rent the air. The sound echoed through the warehouse setting Kendal’s nerves even more on edge.
Had Mr. Hogan — or worse, Diane — come in early? Were they hurt? Kendal’s hands began to shake.
A deep, guttural moan rose from among the maze of tires, followed by a raw sound that reminded him of kittens on acid.
He turned and ran, pretending he didn’t hear the crunching bodies beneath his feet. He’d call the police. If someone had broken into the warehouse and had gotten hurt, the cops could deal with them.
He jogged, his lungs burning and his heart pounding. He turned a corner, the front office only a few steps away.
That’s when he heard a baby’s cry.
The sound froze him in mid-stride. He turned, unsure what to do next.
The cries grew more insistent, raising every hair on the back of his neck. How had an infant gotten into the warehouse?
“It’s just a poor, helpless baby,” he sighed and moved toward the sound. It reverberated off the walls, sending him down false trails. He retraced his steps, listening hard to determine the direction of the sound. He became frustrated and the flashlight’s beam grew fainter.
Almost ready to give up, he looked down a valley of tires. The dark at the farthest point deepened. Probably just the faulty light, he thought. Turning to leave, he heard a soft whimper.
It waddled out on stubby legs, supporting itself with broad front claws. Its head was big, its skin dark and covered with horny bumps. Small wings fluttered on its back.
“Aw, you’re so ugly you’re cute.”
The creature sat flat on its bottom and stared at Kendal with huge eyes mostly white with twin dots of black pupil. It appeared to smile.
Cooing, Kendal walked closer. “Where did you come from? Were you making all that noise? I bet it was you, you adorable little critter.”
Mewl, it screamed and scampered back into the makeshift cave of tires and boxes. It huddled there, watching him.
“It’s okay. I won’t hurtcha.”
He tried snapping his fingers to call it forward. The thing clung to the darkness, eyeing him warily. “I bet you just need someone to love you.” Kendal knelt, determined to crawl nearer.
With a loud click, row after row of the overhead fluorescents came on, casting brilliant light down upon the warehouse. The creature’s cat-like pupils narrowed as it scurried back into the protective embrace of the darkness.
“Wait! Don’t go. I want to help—”
“Ken Doll,” an obnoxious voice screeched over the P.A. system. “Where are you? Get your no-good, lazy butt up to the front office now.”
He looked at his watch: 6:03 a.m. Mr. Hogan had arrived.
Kendal rushed to collect the rattraps, each full of the quarrelsome creatures. He placed the wire cages near the side door. Mr. Hogan seldom came into the warehouse. Still, Kendal didn’t want Hogan to discover his secret.
Dripping with sweat, Kendal reached the front office twenty minutes later. Mr. Hogan eyed him, a sneer on his lips. “All hot and bothered. What deviant things ya been doing out there? Screwing a giant blow-up Barbie doll?”
Kendal wanted to scream, “My name is KENDAL not Ken Doll!” Instead, he smiled. “Good morning, sir. You’re early.”
“And a good thing I was. Catch you sleeping on the job.”
“No, sir. The storm last night. It blew out the power.”
“You think I don’t know that? I’ve been on the horn to the electric company since two this morning trying to get the juice back on at my place. Them bastards don’t know who they were dealing with.”
Kendal suppressed a smile. “Yes, sir.”
Mr. Hogan was opening his mouth to say something else when Diane walked in. The sight of her dark spiky hair, lean body, and generous curves seemed to dry the words in the little man’s mouth.
“Morning, boys. Y’all get any rain at your place last night?” she asked.
They roared with laughter as Diane smiled at her own wit. She bent over a stack of boxes and riffled through paperwork.
“Hell of a night, but we got work to do,” Mr. Hogan said, eyeing her hips lasciviously. Not even looking at Kendal he said: “You go finish whatever you were doing in the warehouse, but get out of here before seven-thirty. No overtime.”
Kendal rushed back, his mind focused on removing the rattraps and hiding the creature before Mr. Hogan discovered either of them. Deep in thought, he rounded the corner, but stopped short. The tops of the wire cages had been ripped open. Each one stood empty.
He returned to where he had last seen the creature. The bright light revealed the makeshift cave at the far end of the alley. Soft snoring issued from the dark.
Had it eaten the rats? A loud belch answered his question, and Kendal grew uneasy. What was the tiny winged thing? Where had it come from?
“I said no overtime. Clock out and leave,” shouted Mr. Hogan over the P.A. system. Thrusting his huge hands into his pants pockets, Kendal walked toward the exit, his mind troubled.
* * *
He slept little that day, dreaming of the creature’s big eyes and thorny skin. After tossing fitfully, he rose and went to the supermarket. As a vegetarian, he was sickened by the sight of meat and could hardly buy any. However, he reasoned the lives of these animals had already been taken. At least he could save more of the rats from becoming that night’s dinner.
It sat waiting for him when he walked into the warehouse. He could have sworn it had grown.
“Look what I got for you. Some juicy — gag — meat. Full of vitamins and nutrients to make a... a... whatever you are grow big and strong.”
He unwrapped a steak, and almost vomited at the smell. He held it out. “C’mon, little fella. I’m your friend. You can trust...”
It raced across the floor and snapped at the dangling meat. Kendal dropped the bloody steak just seconds before the thing would have bitten off several of his fingers. He stepped back, uneasy.
The steak gone, the creature edged toward him. Its teeth glistened with blood. Mewl, it purred, but to Kendal’s ears, it sounded like “more.”
Kendal’s skin crawled and his stomach churned as he tossed the plastic bags full of meat into the cavern behind the creature. It scurried back, and he could hear it shredding the Styrofoam packages. After a moment, it waddled out, but looked different. Smaller and somehow feminine.
“That’s it, little buddy. You should be full.” It looked at him, inching closer. Kendal saw the hunger in its eyes and backed up. “Uh, okay. I’ll see if...” He rushed away.
Cute? What had he been thinking? It was a monster.
Mewl! the creature yelled, summoning him.
* * *
The next night, as he lugged in six bags filled with more meat, he though he should tell someone about the creature. But if he did, what if whomever he told — the police, a dogcatcher — tried to hurt it?
As he hefted the bulging bags toward the cave, he noticed two things: a horrible stench and the lack of rats. The new traps he had bought were empty, and he didn’t hear the familiar sound of the vermin scurrying in the walls.
If he hadn’t been so deep in thought, he might have seen the creature before he stumbled upon it. It hissed, baring teeth that were larger and sharper. To his amazement, it no longer resembled a cute baby, but more a gangly teenager.
“Take it easy. I brought you dinner.” It ripped a bag from Kendal’s grasp and wolfed down the contents.
Kendal swallowed. As he dropped the bags, a lone rat darted across the floor. The creature pounced. Using the long nail of its index finger, it speared the fleeing rat and lifted the shish kebabed rodent.
“No!” Kendal said, feeling the rat’s pain. The creature grinned as it popped the squirming rat into its maw of razor-sharp teeth. Smacking, it swallowed, and returned its attention to the bags of meat.
Yes, Kendal should tell someone, but who would believe him? He was no longer sure he believed it himself.
* * *
The next day, his cell phone rang as he walked into the grocery store. He looked at the caller ID and groaned.
“Kendal,” Diane said, her voice laced with fear. “You’ve gotta come. Something’s in the warehouse.”
His body went numb. He had intended to call the police. Really, he had.
“Mr. Hogan heard a noise and went to investigate,” she continued. “He thought a wild animal might have gotten in through the hole in the roof.”
A wild animal, Kendal thought. Yeah.
“He’s been gone for almost an hour. I’ve paged him but he doesn’t respond. I started to go out there, but I heard growling. Maybe it’s a dog, or something.”
He listened in silence. It must have made her nervous, because her voice softened.
“Please, Kendal. You’re the only one who is strong enough to do this. If I call the police they’ll think I’m crazy.”
Arriving at the warehouse, he used the side entrance. If he moved fast enough, maybe he could hide the creature before Mr. Hogan found it.
He sprinted to the alley, but found it empty. Figuring the thing might be cowering in the cave he walked toward the makeshift hideout. As he got closer, the awful smell assaulted him.
“Hey, little fella,” he called, and almost giggled. ‘Little’? Hell, the last time he had seen the thing it stood as tall as Kendal’s waist.
No familiar mewl met his ears. Crouching, he looked inside, something he hadn’t done before. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw a fully-grown version of the creature lying on the floor. From the raw split between its legs and extending up its belly, Kendal could tell it had been a female. He recalled the night of the storm and the horrible screams of pain. The thing had been giving birth.
Gagging, he noticed that both of the creature’s breasts had been gnawed away. His heart ached. If only if had fed the baby more, it might not have cannibalized its own mother.
“Ken Doll!” The voice boomed across the warehouse. “What are you doing here during the day? If you think I’m paying you overtime, you’re wrong.”
He rose and turned, expecting Mr. Hogan to be there, but Kendal was alone.
“Why are you just standing there? What have you got to say for yourself?”
He looked around. He could hear Mr. Hogan but not see him. Kendal walked up the aisle and turned a corner. He saw a little man standing beside some boxes. He was about to speak when he realized Mr. Hogan was facing the other direction.
“Answer me, you simpering fool.”
Confused, Kendal walked closer. Nearing a corner, he saw the spitting image of himself standing before the little man.
“I want an answer and I want it right now.”
Ducking behind a stack of tires, Kendal stared at his doppelganger. It mimicked him in every detail: same gray hair, same big clumsy hands and feet, same guard’s uniform. Kendal felt as if he were staring into a mirror.
Mr. Hogan shoved a finger into the twin’s ample stomach. “I’m done fooling with you, Ken Doll. You’re fired.”
Like rippling water, his double’s features wavered. One moment Kendal stood before Mr. Hogan, the next the creature appeared. Now seven feet tall, it leaned forward, and with a mouth full of gleaming teeth, bit off the little man’s head. Turning to run, Kendal heard a sickening crunch as the thing’s mighty jaws smashed Mr. Hogan’s skull.
A shape-shifter, he realized as he ran. He saw Diane standing near the front office.
“Get out of the building,” he screamed.
Her lips parted as if to speak. He grabbed her by an arm and tried to drag her away.
“Must call the police. Get help,” he rambled.
She stopped him. Stretching on the tips of her toes, she reached to kiss him.
He jerked away. “What are you doing?” Like snow on a faulty television, Diane’s visage faded. The creature stood before him.
“But—” he glanced over his shoulder as his own image rounded the corner, blood staining its shirt.
Twins, his hysterical mind understood.
The one standing before Kendal reached for him again. It wobbled on thin legs, its distended belly the largest thing on its wasted form. Its stronger, well-fed sibling stalked toward them.
Mewl, cooed the smaller creature as it cradled one of Kendal’s big hands into its smaller claws. It lowered its mouth to his fingers.
Copyright © 2009 by Kyle White