Christina didn’t notice anything odd until after she’d been vegetarian for over a month.
She walked past the cows on her way home from school. Her backpack dragged on one shoulder. She tipped her head in greeting. She hoped the cows knew she’d stopped eating them. Perhaps they’d appreciate the gesture and consider her a friend. Not that she thought cows had friends, but maybe they did have cow friends, and she could be like a Care Bear Cousin to the cows.
Anything could happen.
Then it did.
The cows looked at her.
It wasn’t a normal look. It wasn’t like one cow looked, then the others looked because they all wanted to see what the first cow saw. It wasn’t like a couple of cows were eating hay and turned to see her walk past and stared at her, eyes and mouths open, flicking their tails at flies.
It wasn’t like that at all.
It was a concerted cow staring. Each stopped chewing, stopped mooing, and even stopped shooing away the flies that were landing on their backs.
They stared at her. Open-mouthed.
And it felt…wrong. Evil.
She knew that cows weren’t evil. They were cows, for Chrissake! The most sinister thing about them was their poop, and she could smell that. It wasn’t too bad, she thought. A bit cloying.
Forcing her eyes to the pavement beneath her sneakers, she broke their stare and kept walking.
Behind her, she heard the moos start up again. Like they were communicating a message to each other. Or talking about her.
When she got home, she slipped her shoes off by the front door and dropped her backpack to the floor with a thud.
“Mama! I’m home!”
No complaint about the noise she made walking in the door, no shout for her to avoid the newly washed floor.
Her mother’s calendar had been empty when Christina had left for school that morning.
“It’s your only and favorite child, Mama! Where are my cookies and milk?”
Okay, so she hadn’t had cookies and milk since she’d been seven, and it was 10 years later now, but she still liked to tease. It normally provoked some kind of response.
But the house was still.
Christina wandered into the kitchen, checked the refrigerator for notes, and went into her parents’ room. The silence chilled her. Not finding anything chilled her even more.
She would have to call someone. Police. Army. National Guard. Grandma.
She pulled her phone out of her pocket and saw that there were three missed calls and two messages.
Damn the school for forcing her to shut it off!
Christina tapped in her code and checked the voice mail.
Both from her mother.
Both telling her to go to the hospital – the hospital! Something horrible had happened to the neighbor.
The neighbor who kept the cows.
Her breath caught in her throat, but she managed to find the emergency credit card hidden in the kitchen and used the app on her phone to summon a cab. The little pop-up message told her that it would be at least 10 minutes. She went out onto the porch to wait.
From there she couldn’t see the cows, but she knew they were there, a few blocks away. Were they watching her house? Could they see her even though she couldn’t see them?
Goosebumps rose on her arms, on the back of her neck. Cow-bumps, she promptly renamed them. Only cows could make her skin stand at attention like that.
The cab pulled up a second before her phone dinged to let her know that a cab had arrived.
The woman at the information desk told her to go to room D-362: up the elevator there, down the hall, turn right, hang a left at the nurses’ station.
Her mother wasn’t there, but the neighbor was.
He was bandaged from head to toe, both legs in casts, one raised on a pulley, some sort of plastic mold around his chest, both arms trapped immobile in casts and contraptions she didn’t even know the name of, one eye covered with bandages.
“You!” He tried to point at her with his right arm, but it only twisted and made him grimace. “This is your fault!”
“What?” She backed up, bumped her heel into the door frame.
“You went vegetarian, didn’t you? You’re listening to them!”
The warning bell in her head was clanging, drowning out her thoughts.
“Yes, the cows! Who the hell do you think attacked me?”
“Umm, language, mister.”
“Don’t worry about my goddamn language! They got you! They think they’re so smart, all modified genetically. They keep making people into vegetarians through mind powers. I can see through them. I know what they’re doing. When I tried to load them up today to take them off to the slaughterhouse, they knew. They did this to me.” He tried to gesture again. He failed again.
Christina was right.
Cows were evil.
“Is it…is it all cows?” she whispered.
The eye she could see calmed; the wild look left it.
“You believe me?” he said.
“Well, yeah. The cows. I think they stared at me.”
“They’re going after you, too. They’re going after everyone. They told me. No one believes me. They think it’s the head injury. The cows are smarter than anyone knows. They have psychic powers. All that engineering. It took them too far.” His voice dropped. “Stop them, Christina. Stop them before they kill.”
“How?” She whispered back.
“Eat them,” he said. “Eat them all.”
She turned and fled, past the waiting room, past the nurses’ station, down the hall, into the cafeteria. She found the line for hot food.
“Give me a double cheeseburger. With bacon.” If the cows had already started shit, how did she know if the pigs were involved? Better safe than sorry.
BIO: Katherine Sanger (she/her) lives in Texas and writes speculative fiction and poetry. She enjoys getting tattoos and piercing, reading on all topics, writing on all topics, and watching many many horror movies.
Her previous publications include pieces in Baen’s Universe, Spacesports & Spidersilk, Black Petals, Star*Line, and Anotherealm, as well as several anthologies. She edited From the Asylum, an e-zine of fiction and poetry. She’s a proud member of Broad Universe, Science Fiction Poetry Association, SFWA, Bay Area Writers League, and Gulf Coast Poets. She’s earned a Master of Liberal Arts, a Master of Arts in English Literature, and an MFA in Creative Writing, and taught English and creative writing for over 15 years at various online and local community and technical colleges.