THE CHIPPER

St. Michael, Mississippi died a slow, unnoticed death. Its only remarkable aspect was that it was the only town named for saint in an overwhelmingly Baptist region. Nothing in its low, rectangular school, white clapboard church and Main Street with shops like St. Michael's Hardware, Tina's Beauty Salon and Corner Grocer, suggested anything more sinister than any other backwoods Mississippi town. So the police were surprised when they received a manic, fuzzy distress call from a woman named Norah in a place she called "Saint-something".

---

The sun had just slipped behind the endless Mississippi pine forest when deputies Carson and Greene passed the rusted sign that welcomed them to St. Michael (Population 253). A hundred yards later, the country road turned into Main Street. Rotting plywood covered in moss and vines, some bearing faded graffiti, covered the windows of the buildings. The sign in front of St. Michael's Catholic Church reminded them of a Saturday potluck years ago. A healthy tree grew from a split in the sidewalk in front of Lafollette's Bar and Grill. It wasn't until they reached the end of the two-block main street that they found the Country Stop, a building that looked only recently deceased. Only one of its greasy windows was covered in plywood. The other bore a glum "For Sale" sign.

Carson pulled the cruiser next to the derelict gas pump with a chuckle. A stench like road kill wafted through the air conditioning.

"Christ, what a dead little town."

Then something moved inside. As soon as it had appeared, it vanished into the growing shadows. Greene barely caught it.

"I think someone's in there."

Carson stayed with the cruiser while Greene approached the Country Stop. The door swung open with a heavy creak, and the smell that had invaded the cruiser hit Greene like a fist.

"Hello?" he called into the gray darkness. Fighting his instincts, he ventured inside. The smell was nauseating, but it didn't unnerve him. Being a rural southern cop, he'd seen more than a healthy share of possums, dogs, raccoons and armadillos that somehow crawled under houses and died.

"Hastings County Police, no need to worry about nothing. I just want to ask a few questions."

A few dusty cans and boxes lay on the shelves. He worked his way up the abandoned rows, shaking his head.

"Look now, I don't mean to bother you, it's just…"

A can of cream corn struck his shoulder. Greene drew his gun and spun around in time to see a shadow lurch out the back door.

He radioed Carson and chased his attacker. Greene wasn't the fastest cop in the county, but he could still outrun most vagrants. But when he reached the back door, his attacker had already vanished, probably into the encroaching forest. Carson caught up with him quickly, and they hustled into the trees.

"Bastard must be hopped up on meth to run that fast," Greene growled. No path existed, just thorns and underbrush. They stopped for a minute to listen for any signs of their quarry and heard a rustle somewhere to their left.

"Just come out nice and easy and we'll let you off!" Carson said.

The forest grew darker by the moment. Greene cussed and flicked on his flashlight as they made their way towards the sound as fast as possible. After about fifty rough yards, they stopped again. They both agreed that they would have to find the corn-thrower. Greene thought they should call backup and do a full-scale search. Carson thought it would take at least an hour for anyone to show up. And how far could the crazy have run? In the end, they decided to go back to the cruiser and call in backup. It probably wouldn't be a busy night anyway. Hopefully they could find the corn-thrower and get to the bottom of the weird call and make it home by morning. Darkness set in at last as they reached the front of the Country Stop.

"Son of a bitch!" Carson howled.

The door hung wide open and air still hissed from the hastily slashed tires. The radio had been ripped from the dashboard. Carson grunted and bashed the gas pump with his pistol. Greene tried to reach the station with his short-wave, but they were out of range. Determined reason settled over Carson, and he popped the trunk and grabbed the shotgun. The deputies scoured the parking lot. A pair of barefoot tracks on the edge of the lot led them into an overgrown backyard. In the center was a large, shallow fire pit that had seen recent use. An acrid burning smell still hung in the humid air. Greene edged around the pit and stopped with a gasp. He shone his flashlight into the pit. Among the charcoal were bits and pieces of things that weren't wood – a section of a ribcage, a splintered femur, a split jawbone…

"Oh my God…my God…"

There was no way of knowing how many bodies there had been. Many bones lay in charred fragments. As he looked closer, he saw incinerated clothing and shoes and the occasional glint of melted watches or jewelry. Greene frantically tried to reach station, but only got a hum of static. Carson tried to level his shotgun as he began shaking and muttering a prayer.

A metallic clang from the house next door made them jump. It rang again. They crept towards the decaying wooden fence, weapons ready. Carson hoisted himself on the fence, and something on the other side dragged him down. Greene bounded over the fence, flashlight in one hand and pistol in the other.

Two gaunt, gray things had Carson in the grass. One seized his legs while the other tried to wrestle his gun from him. Greene shot the one trying to disarm Carson in the head, and it doubled back with a long, gurgling moan, its claws still gripping Carson. Before Greene could aim for the other one, there was a rustle and a growl, and cold, strong claws sunk into his own legs. He swung his flashlight blindly, only helping the monster drag him down. Carson screamed, and a gunshot rang out behind Greene while another gray thing clawed into his arm. Then he felt a blow to the back of his head, then another, and then he felt nothing.

---

They awoke to a splash of cold water and the stench of a slaughterhouse. They were in a small barn. The early morning light leaking through a dirty window illuminated the circle of their captors in grotesque detail. They were not human, although even in their frightened stupor the deputies realized that they once had been. Pallid gray skin stretched tight over their emaciated bodies, and their clothes hung in rags. All of their eyes had turned a sickly yellow and burned with savage cunning.

"This'll be over soon," one of the things hissed, revealing a blackened smile.

The barn was empty, save for a bloodstained chipper-shredder in a corner. Flies hovered around the drying gore splattered on the walls and floor. Their hands and ankles were bound, and their equipment hung well out of their reach on faraway hooks. Greene moved his mouth, but said nothing. He almost slipped back into unconsciousness, but a cold slap jerked him awake.

"None of that," a thing scolded. "She likes her food awake and screamin'."

As if on cure, the chipper-shredder roared to life. Carson was conscious enough to notice that none of the things had touched it, nor was it even plugged it. It rocked violently, like a starving beast being teased with a steak.

"We found two fresh piggies for you!" a thing cackled. The things lunged towards them while the chipper-shredder screamed even louder. Carson managed to kick one in the knee, but they still easily seized him and Greene. The chipper-shredder rocked and bucked so fiercely that it now moved towards the things carrying them, as if to tear its meal from them. Greene was vaguely aware of the blades closing in on his face when a gunshot tore through the barn and he fell to the ground and back into oblivion.

Twilight spilled into the barn as five officers charged in, guns blazing. A few seconds passed, and the gray things were dying or in disarray. The chipper-shredder's howl reached a horrible crescendo. Carson rolled away as the machine rocked closer and closer.

"Shoot the goddamn thing! Shoot it!"

Bullets dented the machine, but it only hopped closer and closer to Carson's bound legs. He squirmed away into a corner and his arm brushed against a crowbar. Barely thinking, he grabbed it and thrust it into the monster's gaping mouth. With a shriek that made even the surviving gray men flinch, the chipper-shredder reared back and sputtered to a halt.

---

The officers at the scene didn't speak of the incident when they returned to the station later that morning. The police report claimed that deputies Carson and Greene were attacked by a crazed meth ring that was subsequently killed in a gun battle. Nobody had the will to further investigate the phone call that led police to St. Michael in the first place. But the gray, hollow faces of their captors and the bloodthirsty chipper-shredder that ran without electricity would haunt their dreams until they died.