The cool blue 225’s V8rumbled comfortably down the highway, rocking gently over every dip like old bedsprings on wheels. Reverend What’s feet dangled above the rear floorboard, the toes of his Italian wing-tips brushing against the vinyl cover of the front bench seat. He wore a bone-colored linen suit and held the hat in his lap.
Kumiko exhaled and stretched periodically, her head brushing against the ceiling as she did so. She wore white running shorts and a black tank top. “Okay, this is nice. I don’t think I’ve ever had this much room in a car before.”
“Nor have I, my dear. Nor have I.”
She looked in the mirror and smiled. “I can barely see you back there.”
The sun climbed through the cloudless sky as they approached Knoxville. They had hardly spoken, barring that innocuous banter that sometimes fills the expanse of sluggishly flowing time between dwarves and assassins.
In Knoxville, they merged onto I-40E and turned toward the Appalachians.
Kumiko: “So what’s waiting for us in North Carolina?”
What: “Suicidal starlings, beached porpoises, corrupted ley lines, or mysterious trumpet blasts emanating from the depths of the earth. The usual.”
Kumiko: “We’re just debunking another hoax, then?”
What: “I would rather that were not the case. After all, you and I have spent the last few years looking for a reliable sign that portends the fate we seek to prevent, though every thread thus far has unraveled as a mistaken interpretation of naturally occurring events. A common habit among even the most rationally minded individuals, to be sure. After all, narrative shapes everything and provides false context to interpret experiences, even to the point of repressing contradictory evidence.”
Kumiko: “So we’re driving six hours on a hot summer day just to tell some small town folk they’re characters in the wrong story?”
What: “Or merely human, as it were. However, this particular mystery may have some merit: a few days ago, a Hmong youth was admitted into a hospital with superficial injuries from a motorcycle accident, yet soon fell into a coma. The hospital seemed unable to explain or aid his condition, so his family enlisted the help of their community shaman. The ritual apparently did not go as planned, for the patient is currently crawling about the ceiling of his hospital room and speaking in an unknown tongue. I’m quite curious as to why, and how it might benefit our investigation.”
Kumiko: “Are we stopping for breakfast? I’m starving.”
What: “I do hope your time in America has not caused you to forget your training, my dear. I happen to know you may abandon food for weeks at a time, if necessary.”
Kumiko: “As you say, but an empty stomach makes me particularly violent.”
What: “A powerful sense of self-preservation prevents me from testing your limits, I assure you. Once we reach our destination, I will see to it you have either breakfast or murder.”
Kumiko pointed to a billboard along the highway. “Biscuits, ham, eggs, bacon. I see a few of these every mile. Each one wears at my patience. Just so you know.”
What: “Advertisement is the primary form of indoctrination in this culture, my pet. Remember your training and focus on our shared goal. I would see this young man before the inept authorities take control and close the door on whatever opportunities we might find.”
Kumiko gripped the steering wheel. “I am nobody’s pet.”
Reverend What sighed and rubbed the rough edges of his jawline. Prior to Arkansas, he had long maintained a waxed walrus mustache and manicured goatee, which now spilled haphazardly about his lips.
What: “I am antagonizing you. Perhaps it’s time I told you my story, then, per our agreement.”
Kumiko glanced at him again and her anger subsided. The little man looked tired and sad, far older than she had ever observed. She smiled. “Nothing you do would antagonize me more than forcing me to suffer through one of your stories. Please do so.”
“I took nothing with me. I left in the night while you were sleeping, and bought a train ticket to Little Rock, Arkansas.”
Kumiko: “Yes, I know. I heard you leave. And I know you have no friends and you cannot drive. I figured those details out for myself.”
What: “I took a train on my way to Nazareth, Arkansas, to investigate a haunting, the ghost of a little girl who died late last year. It’s a tale of murder and infidelity, fear and mass lunacy. It’s a tale that seems to portend the effects of evil, yet is simply human. Are you sure you would like to hear the story?”
Kumiko: “I will hear the story whether I like it or not.”
“As you say.” Reverend What crossed his arms and sighed. “Well. Northwest Arkansas is home to a number of so-called ‘factory’ chicken farms, much like the farming community we are visiting today. Long cinderblock buildings with automated feeding systems and rusting metal sheets for roofs, each housing hundreds or thousands of birds. Increased automation allows that any individual with land might, with a modest loan, beholden himself to a poultry distributor as an independent contractor. Of course, that relationship entails all the typical challenges of modern self-employment: no assistance for health insurance or a retirement plan, no time for family except to work together, no financial safety net when things go awry. The company retains all the benefits without providing any security or a share of the risk. Yet, the company provides the opportunity, and so has the luxury of deciding the rules of the game.”
Kumiko: “What, please stop editorializing and tell your damned story.”
What waved his hand. “I assure you I do have a point. Economic instability and exorcism are easily correlated, after all.