((If you’re coming here looking for a hugbox or neutral story from me this won’t be it. Please note the tags! Consider yourselves warned. This is just the beginning, but it’ll be a while before the end, know what I mean? There’s not a single happy fluffy in this part)
“Who has the keys for the door?”
“I do boss. Let me get that.”
Lyle rubbed his head impatiently. About a year’s worth of work lead up to this moment, he thought. Preparing, planning, looking, talking, and more. But now? Now it was time to really get to work. The building was three stories of red brick, busted windows, and promise.
The bald man looked about the former “Alexander’s Friendly Fluffs” property. Weeds were tall but thin, trying valiantly to grow in the cold of autumn. Georgia might have mild falls and winters, but it still wasn’t what the plants wanted. The parking lot was asphalt for the owner and management stalls, leaving the workers to settle with dirt and gravel for theirs.
The partners were already discussing whether fully pave the lot with asphalt or to tear it up and go with concrete. One discussion of many.
The inspector beside him coughed, huddling a bit tighter in his jacket. Lyle looked at the bookish man, the dread of his face being an easy read.
“Are you going to be okay, Mark?”
“Well, Mr. Anderson, given the circumstances of the mill’s closure,” the short Italian started. “Let’s just say I hope you brought that respirator mask like I recommended.”
“And eye protection. Your email was quite helpful.”
One of the contractors tapped the taller man on the shoulder, already wearing his mask and goggles. “The building is open. The electric company turned the power on, but nothing is coming on.”
Lyle nodded, cursing a little. More money that would need to be prioritized. The mill was bought for a song on foreclosure and they expected it would be a money hole for a while. Regardless, seeing the list of things that needed to be done growing longer wasn’t something he enjoyed. Like fixing the chainlink fences, he thought, looking past the contractor.
After a quick trip to his truck looking for a flashlight, he entered the building with Mark. Light danced along the floor, the walls, to and fro the loading dock. A schedule-filled chalkboard was hung on the wall with “fuck you Alexander” scrawled across it. Arrows and circles emphasized “payday” on Friday, with “NSF AGAIN!” noted below. “THIRD time Alexander!” was written alongside, albeit in different handwriting.
“Three times? I’m surprised they stuck around that long.”
“The economy here has been really bad for years. Decades even,” Mark explained, hand waving around. “Even the minimal insurance Alexander offered made sticking around worthwhile.”
“The copays were horrific, no dental, no vision. Only a little better than nothing to be honest, and even then only if you were full time.”
Lyle nodded, huffing a bit in disgust. The bankruptcy proceedings went poorly for the mill’s owner but he had protected enough of his own personal assets that he was somewhere warmer and sitting pretty now. His company? Dead as a doorknob.
The pair walked out of the loading area into one of the stocking bays. The smell of decay and rot lingered, fighting its way through the respirators. Large wooden palettes converted to transport pens were stacked one atop another by a forklift. The light went from spot to spot, noting a pool of oil under the machine. Drawing closer it seemed the body was okay, maybe it was salvagable.
The transport pens, on the other hand, were not. Cat-sized skeletons were crammed inside, dried hide and remains clinging to them. Some where up against the walls of the pen, others in the center with the front legs crossed where the fluffy’s snout would be. A few just lay on their sides, hopeless and despondent even in death.
The lights flickered on as Lyle shuddered. The inspector jumped at the sudden change.
“Sorry boss,” crackled from a walkie talkie. “They had some weird setup on the electrical. This shit ain’t up to code. Probably grandfathered in or something.”
Lyle groaned. All he could see was more money sprouting wings. Around the stocking bays were more loading pens, each having a rendition of the same desperate scene. While they read the employees left the mill one day and ceased operations, it was never made clear how abruptly they did so. A smartphone was pulled out, photos taken, notes made.
Mark’s eyes danced about. The top pen had maybe thirty fluffies crammed into it. If each transport pen had thirty fluffies, and there were ten pens in this bay alone…
“Hey, don’t get sick on me yet,” Lyle said as he slapped the faltering man’s back. “We haven’t even gotten to the racks yet.”
Stiff, clear plastic straps hung down from the ceiling dividing the stocking bay and the nursery. Rats scurried about the corners of the cages, taking notice of the two men but little more. A pair skittered over coils of water hoses before disappearing.
Each wooden cage was a two foot cube with a chicken-wire floor and plastic rack underneath for feces and urine to maybe run out from. Two small containers were mounted to the front of the cage for food and water. Not that the occupants of the cages wanted food or drink anymore. Two per cage.
Each cage was part of a larger, wheeled rack stacking ten cages wide and ten rows tall. Pushing the one of the racks, Lyle noted it was clearly modeled after some of the outlet stores back rooms he worked in as a teenager to maximize inventory space. Only this time the room had 15 racks worth of fluffies crammed into it rather than clothing. The racks were surprisingly well built considering Alexander’s reputation. They could be kept. Re-purposed but kept.
“Where did all the… you know… go?” Mike asked as the businessman cataloged more photos.
The bald man looked about, rubbing his head. “There,” he said, pointing to a large drainage grate in the middle of the floor. “And I’ll bet they just sprayed everything down with those hoses by the wall.”
The inspector scowled. “That should be illegal. All of this.”
“I agree. And it would be,” he sighed. “If they were raising dogs instead of fluffies.”
Lyle made his way past the racks to a metal door. Solid, heavy, and likewise out of place. Across the front was an “authorized personal only” sign. A deep sigh echoed through the room.
“Mark,” he said, cleaning the handle. “You’re really not going to want to come in this one.”
“I’ve got to,” was replied nervously. “You’ve got your people to report to, I’ve got mine.”
The two paused, staring at the door. Yellow and black paint burned into their eyes until Lyle worked up enough nerve to turn the handle and push it open.
Dessicated heads stared at them, each with a scream silenced by a hose shoved deep down their throat and a zip tie around the muzzle. The limbless mares were strapped down onto metal racks more hoses shoved up their rears. Beneath them were spaces for their teats to hang down to a shallow box littered with tiny dried bodies inside. Roaches swarmed about, having grown their broods on the available food.
Beside the racks was a shredder-grinder and a bucket. Its proximity to the food pump and the alternate intake unsettled Lyle as he took more photos. Not necessarily uncommon for a high density breeding operation, but the lack of a way to dispose of heads was the smoking gun for negligence when Alexander’s Friendly Fluffies was taken to court for prion contaminated stock.
The sound of plastic clattering upon the cement made Lyle turn around in time to see Mike on his knees, vomiting. His own stomach was in knots, but having been to several other similar sites had at least prepared him for what he saw.
More photos. More notes. Slipping his phone into a pocket, Lyle helped Mike back to his feet and out the door. The rest of the building could wait. The second story wasn’t any different. Top floor was offices. The inspector needed some time to recover, and Lyle need to get reception to share his thoughts with the others.
This old mill was going to be a lot of work.
((This is something a little different, feedback appreciated))