Row upon row of crops sped by in Sara’s window. She had been driving for nearly two hours now, and she’d seen more farmland in that time than she had in her entire life. Sara had barely spent any time outside of San Francisco. She didn’t see herself as the best candidate to write an article on sustainable farming, but she’d only been at the Chronicle for a few months, and she had to take what was given to her.
Sara pulled over when she got to the address she’d been given. The sign for Radiant Ranch was partially hidden behind a tree, so it took her a second to find it. It was sort of quaint, with painted cows and chickens dotting the hand-carved wood. The black metal of the fence just beyond the sign was a stark contrast. Did all farms have keypadded gates like that? Not that Sara had ever actually been to a farm. She hadn’t been provided a passcode, so she took out her phone to call. Of course, she had no service. Could you knock on a gate?
“Hey there,” a voice startled Sara back into reality. A man was standing outside her car. Sara got out of the car, slinging her camera around her neck and grabbing her bag.
“Hi, I’m Sara. Are you Roy?” Sara asked, sticking out her hand for him to shake. He did, for just a beat too long.
“In the flesh. I hope your drive down wasn’t too difficult,” Roy said. He spoke in a slow drawl, as if he had all the time in the world.
“No, it was fine. I saw tons of farms, but I’m sure none of them will compare to yours.”
Roy grinned, showing off a mouth glinting with silver fillings.
“I’m sure not. You eaten lunch yet?” he asked. He turned and entered the passcode into the keypad on the gate. There was a mechanical sound, and then the gate slid open.
“No,” Sara said. “I ate a granola bar on the way over,” she added, not wanting her host to feel pressured into feeding her.
“That’s no meal. But you’re in luck; I just ground up some fresh beef. How ‘bout I grill us up some burgers? Then, I can give you a tour of the ranch.” Roy led Sara down a dirt road towards a house.
“Yeah, that sounds great. I can find out firsthand if sustainable meat really tastes any different,” Sara said. Roy looked back at her.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ve never had meat like this before.”
Sara had to admit, the burgers were pretty damn good. Roy even topped them with tomatoes and lettuce that he grew in his garden. When they had finished eating, they went back outside to look at the animals.
“We’ll start with the cows. It’s such a shame the way those factory farms keep their cows all cramped up. They need room to roam and graze, you know?” Roy said as he led Sara deeper into the farm. She nodded. When she ate meat, it always did make her a bit guilty to think about the awful conditions most animals were kept in. Sara could see the edge of the cows’ enclosure now. Even from a considerable distance, she thought the cows looked a little small. No, it was more than that. Roy was saying something else, but Sara was too focused on trying to figure out what was wrong with his cows to pay attention. They were so tiny. What color were they? Cows came in different colors, she knew, but not like this. Maybe they were calves? No, the proportions were off.
Those weren’t cows.
The realization stopped Sara in her tracks. Waves of panic washed over her. She was suddenly acutely aware of Roy’s presence by her side. He was staring at her, perhaps trying to gauge her reaction. Sara tried to force air into her lungs, but they seemed to reject the air shared by a man who had done… that.
“You alright? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Roy said. Was he mocking her? No, he seemed sincere. She needed to say something.
“They look like they have a lot of grazing space.” Sara was surprised by how calm her voice sounded. There was a slight tremor, but she was keeping it together. Roy visibly relaxed next to her.
“They sure do. Five whole acres,” he said proudly. Sara remembered from her preliminary research that cows actually needed more like two acres a head, but she supposed that that didn’t apply in these circumstances. They had started walking again. Sara had no control over her legs as they propelled her through this nightmare.
“Wow. How many… cows do you have?” God, she hated calling them that, but at this point, it was probably better to keep up the illusion.
“Ten, for now, but I’m looking to expand my herd,” Roy said, and wasn’t that a horrifying statement? They were in front of the pasture now, and Sara could see everything in perfect detail.
The one closest to her was a woman, probably in her early twenties. She was naked and on all fours. Her head was shaved. All of her fingers had been cut off at the knuckle, presumably to make her hands look more like hooves. Something had been done to her ears to make them stick out to the side. She had a fleshy tail which Sara suspected was constructed from an ugly skin graft spanning most of her side. But the worst thing was the horrible, dead look in her eyes.
“Can I, uh, take a picture? For the article?” Sara asked. Roy motioned for her to go ahead. She snapped a few photos of the woman. Looking through the viewfinder, she could more clearly see skin abrasions and rashes. What was she even doing? Maybe she should just run for it. But Roy could be armed, and it wasn’t like Sara was athletic. They were a long way from the road now.
Plus, a small part of Sara thought, this was one hell of a story.
“You ready to go see the pigs?” Roy asked. Sara tried to smile at him, but it probably came out more like a grimace. She didn’t look back at the people in the field as they headed into a different part of the farm. Sara tried to steel herself for whatever awful thing Roy had done to his “pigs.”
“Just between you and me, pigs are my favorite animal. Don’t tell the others,” Roy said.
Two people were close to the fence this time, a man and a woman. Many of the same things had been done to them as had been done to the “cows.” They were naked, had shaved heads, and their fingers were cut off. However, these people were morbidly obese. They had obviously been overfed in an attempt to give them the bulbous body of a pig. The woman shifted, and Sara felt her stomach drop.
The woman had a baby. The child hadn’t yet undergone any of the procedures, but it certainly didn’t look healthy. For some reason, it hadn’t occurred to Sara that Roy would breed his “stock.” The sight of that tiny child, covered in mud and grime, finally brought the full weight of the situation crashing down on her. There was no way she was getting out of here. She would be turned into one of these things, she would never leave this fucking farm, God, she would never see her mom again–
Sara shrieked when she felt Roy’s meaty hand on her shoulder. He immediately took a few steps backward and held up his hands placatingly.
“Woah there, I didn’t mean to startle you. You just haven’t been asking too many questions. Don’t you need to know things for your article?” Roy asked. Okay, so they were still keeping up the pretense of the interview. That was a good sign, right? Or maybe Roy just liked to play with his food.
“Sorry about that.” There was no keeping the fear out of her voice now. “Uh, how-how long have you been running this farm?”
“Just about six years now. I built it all myself.” So no accomplices, then. Just one psychopath with an affinity for DIY surgery.
“Wow. That… must’ve been difficult,” Sara said. Roy beamed at the acknowledgment of his hard work.
“It wasn’t easy, but look how much I have to show for it,” Roy said. “I know it might not seem like much to a city girl like you, but it means a whole lot to me.”
“No, I think it’s awesome.”
“Oh, stop, you’re gonna make an old man blush. It’s just about time to feed the chickens,” Roy said. This friendly rapport that was developing between them made Sara’s blood boil. They passed a shed and Roy retrieved two large metal pails from it.
“What are you feeding them?” Sara asked.
“A whole mix of good stuff. Fruits, vegetables, mealworms.” Sara tried not to gag. Then the chickens were in front of her. Their enclosure was smaller than the cows’ or pigs’, so Sara could see all six of them. They hobbled around on the ends of their knees where the joint used to connect to their shins. Their wrists were sewn to their sides to give the appearance of wings. These modifications left them unstable, and they were constantly falling to the ground and into each other.
Roy dumped the buckets of food into the enclosure and the “chickens” stumbled over. They had to lie down on their stomachs in the dirt to eat, since leaning over would just make them fall. A woman looked up at Sara as she slurped up mealworms from the earth. It was the first time that Sara had made eye contact with one of Roy’s prisoners. She was far more alert than the cow-woman from earlier. She looked so desperate. Sara looked away.
“Are these chickens for eggs or meat?” Sara asked. God, why would she even say that? She couldn’t think of any more questions that wouldn’t have awful answers.
“My girls are egg-laying hens, but I haven’t been having much luck with them. Still love them all the same, though.”
“I’m sure,” Sara said. She was desperately trying not to look at the people squirming on the ground. Roy smiled and clapped his hands together.
“Well, I guess that concludes the tour,” he said. Was this it? Was this nightmare finally over? “Thank you for doing this, Sara. It can get awfully lonely by myself at the ranch.”
“Of course. Thank you for having me,” she said.
“I’m glad someone finally got to appreciate all of my hard work.”
“It’s really all very impressive.”
“Thank you, sweetheart. It’s certainly a shame that your article will never be published.”