Free-Range

by Emma Erickson
Tom decided the chickens should be free-range at least two weeks ago, but my breath still catches every time I walk down the creaking wooden steps of the porch to see their white and brown speckled bodies roaming the yellowing grass. I pause to watch them, and my feet slowly sink in the earth while the wind tugs at my oversized work shirt. I have gotten over the smell of farm life, and now gratefully inhale the humid Tennessee air. But a cluck breaks the spell, and the chickens come running.

They swarm my feet in the coop; feathers and rubber legs topple over my muddy boots as I carry a generous scoop of feed to the metal pail outside the barn door. Their necks crane angrily in and out of the lip of the pail, and the sound of their beaks tapping against the tin slows as the feed spreads thinner.

I wander the yard then to collect the eggs. That’s been the hardest part: not all the eggs are in the coop. But I spot them quicker now out of habit, and admire the roundness as the wicker basket fills. The last few seem uneasy on the edge, so I place them in my shirt pockets instead, smiling childishly at the irregular bulges that form at my chest.

Back in the kitchen I’m met immediately with a gust of savory, greasy bacon, and I’m reminded, as always, that microwave meat will never cut it for me again.

Beth navigates the kitchen like a Pac-Man. Her feet sweep across faded tile flooring, hands grabbing at various spices from the open cabinets while her eyes stay on the three occupied burners. I balance six eggs on the counter by the stove, and she thanks me with a stressed smile around the wooden spoon in between her teeth. There is a faint line of flour, grease, and whatever else across her apron, and I lean on the kitchen table and watch as her fat hips play bumper cars with the linoleum countertops.

“Tom!” she calls through her teeth, but what she really means is for me to fetch him. I grab a handful of blueberries and kick my shoes off before wandering down the sunlit hallway. I back track to the antique mirror and pull a few loose hairs from my thickening braid to frame my face, and head toward the back door of the house.

With screen door propped open, I wait a minute for the breakfast aroma to make its way outside. Right before I decide to head to the tool shed myself, his head peaks out from around the doorframe. The sweat on his forehead glimmers in the light, but nothing beats the shine of his teeth, and his eager footsteps turn into a jog as he approaches me.

“’Morning,” he says, his smile stretching the happy leather of his skin.

“’Morning,” I echo, and follow him back into the kitchen.

I fiddle with the placemats as he greets his wife. The bounce in Tom’s step doesn’t depend on the day, and he gaily wraps his arms around Beth’s waist and kisses her doughy neck. I look away but still hear the smack. She doesn’t glance up from the stove and shoos him from the counter with a flick of a busied hand. When I see them together, I notice more grey in his beard, less youth in his laugh.

Beth serves me first, and she chuckles at my wide eyes as I stare at the plate. The fluffiest eggs I’ve ever seen sit in front of me, complete with hearty chunks of onions and green peppers, and I notice four pieces of bacon versus the usual two.

“For the Birthday Girl,” she says, and kisses me on the forehead through my bangs.

I thank her by digging in, because that’s what I know she wants. Meals on a farm are quiet, we treat food as fuel above anything else. I listen to the clang of eager forks against the hot plates, and each bite only makes me hungry for more.

“I told her that today might be a good time to give her family a ring,” Beth says to Tom, even though she’s only reminding me again.

He nods reassuringly, and after a look from his wife: “’Course. Always.”

I clear the toast from my front teeth. “Yeah, thanks. I think my family is at the summer home in Kitty Hawk by now though.”

“I thought—”

“Beaufort! Beaufort, yeah.” I feel heat on my cheeks. “I get my grandma’s place confused,” I say and take a big gulp of cold milk.

She waits a moment too long. “Well, the offer’s always there darlin’.” Beth takes a blueberry off of Tom’s plate, and then starts to clear the table.

--

The pigs are even more excited than the chickens to see me. They sound like they’re choking on each inhale as they snort and squeal, and I walk tilted left with the bucket of feed in my right hand, my knuckles turning white. After I turn off the electric fence, I swing the bucket and myself into the pigpen, and begin emptying equal portions into each individual feed pan. I scratch around their ears and bellies while they chow down, admiring the coarse, brown hair. Tom always makes sure to touch each pig when he feeds them because them being use to you makes measuring them on weigh days easier.

I’m switching the fence back on when I feel his hand on my back.

“Sorry,” Tom says, “didn’t mean to startle ya.” I shake my head and laugh. “Hey, this is tedious, but do you mind sorting these for me?” He trades me the feed bucket for a pail of various nuts and screws.

I nod.

“Thanks hun.” He turns to leave, but hesitates. “You sure you don’t wanna make a call today?”

“I don’t know the number.”

He’s quiet for a minute. “Right.” He looks toward the sun, then the pigs, and then to me, smiling. “There’s something in there for later too.” He nods at the pail and winks.

I’m suddenly more aware of the summer heat and the dampness under my arms as he strides toward the house. My steps gradually quicken toward the tool shed, my heart throbbing so much that I feel it in my ears, until I finally shuffle the screws around in order to find my treasure. When it starts to surface, I can’t help but bite my lip and smile.

My hand gently circles the red lace thong, and I stuff it in the back pocket of my dirty denim jeans.

--

“Falling in love with a lamb is easy,” he had told me, as I sat huddled over a newborn. My back rose beneath his hand as I inhaled, only for the air to sputter out the choking of my tears. He explained that it was bloat that killed the lamb; they overeat the wet grass when it rains. But it was only my second week on the farm, and I couldn’t help but feel like the lifeless matted blanket in front of me was something I could have prevented.

I knew Beth was always curious about a 20-something wanting a live-in job on a farm, but Tom understood. He knew that people needed an escape sometimes. When I showed up on his porch one day, the flier in my hand and a men’s flannel hanging off my shoulders, I expected him to turn me away. But our conversation was brief: I told him I could do the work and he believed me. His grey eyes darted from mine to the yellowing bruise on my cheek, but he never did ask about it.

We sat under the cover of the barn that night, watching the rain tumble from the roof’s edges, and mourning my first farm death.

“God, I really loved that lamb,” I said, laughing at myself despite the salt that was building up in my eyes once again. “Have you ever been in love?”

It was a weird thing to ask a married man. But I wasn’t accusing him of anything, just making conversation.

“I think so,” he finally said, turning toward me. I nodded, and inhaled the silence and the smell of fresh mud.

Tom tastes like honey and spring rain. He’s a puddle I couldn’t help but jump into. People need an escape sometimes.

--

I take a cold shower around noon in the master bathroom, since the one in my room only has a tub. Once I’m dry, I turn around in the mirror, looking at the new underwear over my hips. I do double takes at all angles, smiling, and then wrap myself in a robe with a towel over my head.

Beth and Tom are laughing at the desk in their bedroom when I come out. He’s leaning over her head and rubbing her shoulders, and they flip to the next page of some photo album and break out again. I’m about to go see what they’re laughing at, but I stop when Beth’s head turns toward his. Tom caresses each side of her face, shakes his head painted with that goofy smile, and gently touches his lips to his wife’s forehead.

I hold my breath and tiptoe out the door before they see me.

--

The afternoon holds a pink veil over the horizon, and I plan to wait until the sun is just a runny yolk before I bring the sheep in from their graze. I get nervous if I see one of them eating a lot of grass, but it’s been dry this week. As I sit, my palms hover at just the tips of the blades and make aimless shapes.

I hear him approach, so it doesn’t scare me when Tom takes a seat next to me. When I don’t say anything, he leans back on the heels of his hands and stretches his neck, staring at the dimming sky.

“What do you call a sheep with no legs?” he asks, even though he’s told this joke to me before. “A cloud,” he answers himself, and slaps his knee theatrically. When I still don’t say anything, he sits up and angles himself toward me, waiting for my eyes to meet his.

“I’m pregnant.” I bite skin off my bottom lip and he returns the silence I just gave him. “I’m…sorry,” I say as filler.

“No,” he clears his throat. “No. We’ll figure something out.”

I raise my eyebrows. “We?” I look at the house with a single window lit, and then back at him. “We will?”

“What d’you want me to say, hun?”

I hesitate. “I need money,” I say. “I’ll go to a clinic in town tomorrow.” I struggle to push myself up from the grass, exhausted by the adrenaline slithering through me. I flick his hand when it reaches for my arm. “And please don’t call me hun.”

--

The next day, Beth is convinced I’m going birthday shopping in town, and she even packs me a lunch in a brown paper sack. Her upper arm wiggles and brown curls bounce as she waves goodbye from the porch. I thank her again, and put my lunch on the seat next to me while I climb in the beat up Pontiac that I haven’t driven in months.  The sun reflects off the metal pieces of the dashboard, and I nervously fan myself from the warmth.

Tom leans against the open window of the car, and hands me a wad of money. I hold it low in my lap, and realize it’s way more than I need.

He sees me start to protest and quickly stops me. “If you run out of gas or, want ice cream or something,” he trails off and looks down at his feet.

He knows I’m lying. I tuck my hair behind my ear and debate explaining. I try to hand him back the money, but he shakes his head, his mouth in a foreign, tight smile.

“Find something nice out there, huh?” Tom is still playing his part, and as he lifts himself from the window, I see the spots on his neck where the sun kissed him for too long.

“Thanks.” It’s a weak last line. Our eyes collide and then tear from each other. I start the car, and an overwhelming sense of control urges me forward as the engine rattles. The car teeters with every dip in the man-made driveway, and I wobble with it until I reach the dirt road. I have miles of plains until the interstate, but I drive slow, peaking in the rearview mirror every so often. Tom is with his wife, and I turn left when I should turn right.
Emma Erickson is currently a student at the University of Colorado Boulder.  She likes being outside, baking, and greeting dogs in high-pitched tones.

© 2015, Emma Erickson