University High School
Instructor: Lee Fallon
What struck people most about Ned wasn't the half of his right ear that was missing, or the clearly foggy cataracts in his eyes, or even his hair, which was the color of cold butter, but his nose. It jutted out from his face like the beak of a parrot, although the end was scarred and missing. The injury had left him unable to control the flow of mucus that slowly but constantly dripped out of the openings on the front of his face. However, there was one major plus side to his injury; Ned was the only person who could stand the intolerable stench of death and decay that surrounded the slaughterhouses, so the company had offered him an impressive salary to work as a manager there. Of course, it helped that he couldn't hear or see the killing of innocent, unquestioning animals, but his lack of smell was what really set him apart.
Every morning, Ned drove his children, Fid and Leia, to school. They climbed into the car and pulled out of their cement driveway. The car was a light gray Toyota Camry made within the last decade. Despite its relative youth, the headlights were dimming, and the tire-pressure gauge never seemed to be working, but they didn't care as long as it got them where they needed to go. They all took a last look at their picturesque house before their days. The shingles on the roof were in straight, even rows, and the boards that made up the walls were perfectly parallel to each other. The white paint of the wood was barely chipped anywhere, and the windows were as clear as the glasses Fid wore. On one side of the front porch flew an American flag, though if any of them had bothered to count they would have realized that it had the wrong number of stars. On the other side stood a wooden cross. As Ned put the car in drive and began to race down the street, the house faded behind them.
As the car rambled along the road, the kids looked out the window. They watched all the people going by but saw none of them. When they got to the school, the kids put on their backpacks, bending under the weight like a flagpole in a hurricane, and scampered towards the entrance. For a second, Ned was concerned for the children, but then they disappeared inside the doors, and they became the school's problem. He knew they would be fine there because educational institutions had gotten him to where he was today. Without another thought, he began to drive to the factory of death where he spent his days.
From the outside, the slaughterhouse looked like any other building. It was a flat-roofed rectangle made from bricks and cement. It was like a giant, mechanical coffin for the lives of millions of animals and the souls of thousands of humans. Ned parked and started for his office. Most people couldn't stand to be within 100 yards of the building without a mask, but Ned could walk right by the pens and the killing line. He went through his normal checks. All of the machines and conveyor belts were still functioning, the workers were all conscious, carrying out their brutal work without questioning, and the sanitary protocols, which had been put in place by the company but never checked against any actual science, were being followed. The animals were all just moving along the lines, being killed, gutted, and processed. The bodies continued and left a river of blood behind. The whole scene blurred together into a mirage of pink, red, and black. He almost couldn't tell the difference between the different animals: sheep, pig, and man. Ned left the line and went up to his office to begin his paperwork for the day.
As Fid sat in class, scratching away at a worksheet, he let his teacher's words pour over him like a river. She was babbling on about the history of propaganda, "although widely used in European dictatorships in the early 20th century, modern America has free expression and thought. Hey, Jimmy, why are you packing up your notebook? The bell doesn't ring for another 3 minutes"
He didn't really care what he was learning about, or what it meant, he just knew that he had to learn it, had to get through this lesson; he had to keep going forward without knowing where he was going. On cue, the bell rang. Fid left the class. He wasn't sure what subject he had next, but he knew he had somewhere to go. He checked the schedule taped to the inside of his locker door and saw he had English. As is protocol in a school hallway, he kept his head down and started walking, as if some machine were drawing him ever closer to an unavoidable destination.
While Ned worked, he reminisced about that fateful day 15 years ago. It was his first day working at the slaughterhouse, and back then he worked much shorter shifts. It looked to him like one of the carcasses had a green spot. He wanted to get a closer look but the lethal blades were still moving. He shouted to the operator to stop the machine and heard an indiscernible grunt in response. It looked like the blades were slowing down so he walked up close to take a look at the spot. he couldn't tell what was going on by looking, so he tried to smell it. The stench from all of the other carcasses overpowered his senses so he tried to get his face closer. He squatted down and leaned in to get a good whiff. Suddenly, his nose started burning, and his vision got blurry. The world began to spin around him and then everything went black.
When he woke up in a hospital bed, the doctor told him he had suffered severe chemical burns, and his nose had melted off. He also mentioned that after Ned had passed out, the conveyor belt and the blades had turned back on and taken a chunk of his ear off. He wondered to himself where the chemicals could have come from. The company official who he talked to later said they were in the cows' gut. It must have eaten something it shouldn't have. He joked, "That's the problem with animals that don't pay attention to what they're doing; they can eat something that's going to poison them without ever questioning it. Just weird how a chemical used to clean the carcasses could have gotten into the cow's food supply."
With his nose gone, Ned could excel as a slaughterhouse manager; nobody else could stand the stench for nearly as long as he could. As he got through his stack of papers, he realized that he had no idea what he was working on. Then his alarm went off, signaling he had to go do his checks of the facility. As he looked, everything seemed fine. The workers were working diligently and following all of their rules. The machines were still running; the carcasses were still moving forward towards a destination that Ned couldn't see but didn't care about.
As Fid walked down the hallway towards his English classroom, he was surrounding by a loud but indistinct buzz from all sides. He thought he heard someone shout his name. Like a robot who had been called upon, he looked up to see where the shout was from. He saw a mysterious shape twirling as it got bigger and bigger. He realized it was a package of frozen meat. Then it hit him, and everything went black.
When he came to, the school nurse told him his nose was broken and she had put some ice on it. He looked around, wondering if he was dreaming, but then he noticed the throbbing pain in his nose. The clock in the corner showed him that three hours had passed. "Keep the ice on it as much as you can; if you want, you can go back to class this afternoon," the nurse said.
Fid knew he had to keep up. School was like a massive race to a destination that Fid knew nothing about except that he had to get there first. He got through his last two classes of the day, and then met up with his sister to catch the bus home. They walked out of the flat-roofed brick school building and onto the yellow bus. They got off at their stop and walked back into their house.
When Ned got home, Leia stayed away, because he exuded the stench of death from his day at work. Most days, Fid would have hidden with her, but on this particular day, he didn't notice any smell. Ned came right up to him. Fid had always had a rather protrusive nose like his father, but Ned was struck by how crooked it looked today. "Fid, what happened to your nose?" Ned asked.
"It got broken." For the first time, father and son were united in ignorance. Neither of them could smell the traces of offal on Ned's jacket. As Fid looked into his father's eyes, his gaze drifted downward towards his dripping, black, exposed nostrils, and Fid realized where he was rushing to.