Lone Star Recycling Center, Austin, Texas

Mary Keen tucked her lunch into her over-sized purse and offered Mrs. Applewood a smile. With her due date less than three weeks away, the expectant teacher returned the grin as she placed her hands in the small of her back and stretched. The volunteer-run recycling center was the ideal place to go for a field trip for a fifth-grade class on Earth Day. Blue skies and a light breeze added up to a perfect April day.

Mrs. Applewood placed a whistle between her teeth and gave one short blast. When all the students turned toward her, she said, “If you’re finished with your lunch, please recycle anything you can. Harmony Farms mentioned that Miss Frizzle Hen would love your apple cores and banana peels.” She gestured toward the harness-wearing hen penned nearby.

“B’gawk,” the bird answered. She seemed to understand her name. Standing still, her feathers stuck out in all directions as if she’d pecked an electrical socket.

There was something almost … deranged about that bird.

Mary glanced around. Probably her overactive imagination.

“Miss Frizzle says thank you,” Mrs. Applewood said, and giggles rolled through the group. Mary dropped a piece of her banana into the pen, wondering if the head teach would need help getting the therapy chicken back into the carrier later.

That was going to be a nightmare.

A handful of students tossed apple cores and raisins into the octagon-shaped plastic fence that the urban farm had sent along for the presentation on how to transform food scraps into chicken eggs and compost for a backyard garden. To the children’s enjoyment, the hen scratched and pecked at the lunch leftovers. Lisa, the other teaching assistant, directed children to the correct bins for their non-food trash.

Mary had been conscripted into chaperoning the field trip. Being the principal’s girlfriend led to that sort of thing, but it was the first time she’d assisted Mrs. Applewood whose maternity leave began the following Monday. Principal John suggested the field trip was the perfect way to break the ice with her students since Mary would be substituting for the first week of maternity leave. Mary had taken to the idea right away. The students thought the world of their teacher, and the cheerful woman was already beginning to grow on Mary.

At the beginning of the day, when Mrs. Applewood arrived with Miss Frizzle, the chicken, in tow, Mary had thought it was a weird addition to the recycling center field trip.

The compost demonstration showed all the amazing ways that poultry could break down waste while building soil. She had no idea a flock of chickens could be so industrious. Mrs. Applewood was convinced that chickens had an important role to play in the efforts to recycle matter and change it from something wasteful to something useful. Regenerative farming practices had the potential to change the world.

But, still, there was something about that Miss Frizzle.

As she mulled on these things, Mary took her place at the large bin next to Mrs. Applewood as she directed the children to help reduce the large pile of recyclables in the center of the room.

Mary’s phone buzzed. When she checked the text message alert, she was surprised to see that thirty minutes had gone. It was almost time to leave. She scooped up an armful of smashed plastic bottles and dropped them in the bin.

A gasp caught her attention.

“Can you take the chicken back to Harmony Farms?” Mrs. Applewood asked, close to Mary’s ear.

“You know I’m terrible with directions.” Mary chuckled as she placed a clear glass bottle in one of the bright blue bins then placed a ball of aluminum foil in another. “Besides, I pretty much know nothing about chickens.”

“It’s only five miles, so I think I’m going to need you to take the chicken,” she repeated, her voice strained. She bit her bottom lip and then groaned.

Mary scowled and turned to face the other woman, prepared to disagree, but the pained expression on her face stilled her tongue. Mrs. Applewood held onto the bin in front of her, her knuckles white. Mary lowered her hand over the other woman’s.

“Are you okay?”

“No, I need a… a…” She puckered her lips. She clutched her middle, her stomach the shape of an over-inflated basketball.

Mary flinched when the head teacher bent forward. Her eyes widened as a gush of water spread down Mrs. Applewood’s legs. “Oh,” she said, pressing a hand over her mouth. “You need an ambulance,” she whispered.

She spun toward the other teacher’s assistant. “Lisa,” she said, waving her over. “We need an ambulance.”

“Which kid is hurt? I told them not to jump off the recycled trash art. Hans will not be happy if they’ve ruined the Squatting Zebra.” Lisa pushed up her sleeves.

Mary put her hands up. “No, not that,” she jerked her head toward Mrs. Applewood, “she’s in labor.”

Ten minutes later, a paramedic slammed the rear door of his ambulance and jogged around to the front seat, Mrs. Applewood tucked into the gurney inside. Once he climbed in, she was on her way to the hospital. Twenty worried kids watched from their seats on the idling school bus. An early end to the field trip wasn’t ideal, but the circumstance made it prudent. Lisa and the school bus driver would escort the kids back to their school.

Mary waved as the bus pulled out of the parking lot and drove out of sight.

She turned slowly, and three revelations descended upon her at once.

The crate was in Mrs. Applewood’s car.

The keys were in Mrs. Applewood’s purse.

And Mrs. Applewood’s purse was in the ambulance … already miles away.

That meant it was just her, the chicken, and the backseat of her cobalt Ford Fiesta.

Woman vs. Beast: the showdown in the parking lot of the Lone Star Recycling Center.

She laughed at her dramatics. How difficult could one chicken be?

Mary approached the poultry playpen. More interested in her movements than the bugs on the ground, the hen stood up tall, its posture highlighting the point of the orange beak.

Could chickens smell fear?

She eyeballed the walking feather duster. Mrs. Applewood said the owners took it to nursing homes to cheer up the residents. It was a therapy chicken.

How hard could it possibly be to shoo it into her backseat?

Mary tilted her head. She had one job standing between her and the end of the day, and she would get that thing in her over-sized purse if she had to.

 

###

 

 

“I just want you to stay safe.” Mary fumbled with the seatbelt buckle and yelped when Miss Frizzle’s beak speared her hand. For the eighth time. “It’s not like I have a chicken car seat.”

“B’gawk!” Miss Frizzle jumped out of the lap belt and away, screeching hen-obscenities at Mary from the floorboard. The hen pecked at a piece of lint on the upholstery. Then, with a wing flap, she jumped up onto the seat space, ducking forward to take a tenth run across the back seat. The jail bird was determined to break out.

“Fine.” Mary slammed the rear door of her Ford Fiat and leaned on it, panting. No matter what Mary did, the feathered menace would not stay in the seatbelt. In a rush of wings and feathers, Miss Frizzle threw herself at the window.

Over the backseat, Miss Frizzle flew, a malevolent dragon set on devouring Texas with fire and ruin. The bantam meant to take over the world.

Mary squealed and leapt backward.

But the beady yellow eye kept coming. It was the eye of Sauron come true, staring into the depths of Mary’s soul. Time stood still. She beheld the Apocalypse in the eye of a chicken.

In slow motion, Miss Frizzle fell away and then darted to the other end of the Fiesta seat, preparing for another go.

Mary backed away from the car. “How are you a therapy chicken?”

“B’gawk!”

Mary dug her phone from her pocket. “Siri, call John.”

“Calling … John.”

The line rang once. A deep baritone answered, “Hey, Mary, how’s the field trip?” He had her on speakerphone. She hoped nobody was in his office.

“Mrs. Applewood is pushing out a baby, and there’s a crazy chicken,” Mary huffed.

“Wait. Just a minute.” There was the sound of shuffling. “She had a chicken?”

No more speakerphone. It was definitely not a speakerphone kind of conversation.

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re the principal. You’re supposed to be smarter than that.”

“Why do you have a—”

She continued, “Do you know hens will not walk on leashes? I didn’t. Not that I even had a leash since that was in Mrs. Applewood’s car, but Miss Frizzle had a harness, and I used a piece of rope. Chickens hate leashes. Did you know that? I feel like everyone probably knows that but nobody bothered to tell me. There’s nothing about farm animals in my resume, you know that, right?”

Mrs. Frizzle watched from her perch on the armrest. It had probably been the hen’s plan all along. It was a verbal breakdown of pretty much everything that had been rattling around Mary’s brain for the last half-hour. John had no idea what a sick twisted chicken Miss Frizzle was.

Silence stretched. “Is this a joke?” He drew out the last word.

“John. Listen to me. If I said I am going to kill you for this, I wouldn’t be joking any less than I am right now.”

He stammered on the other end of the line. “There’s a ch-ch-chicken at the recycling center? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It’s called permaculture, John. Recycling energy. It’s a thing. Google it.”

“Okay. I’ll do that, but I still don’t understand—”

“I’m never volunteering for you again. Don’t even ask me.” Even as she said it, she knew she still had to substitute the following week. No field trips. That’s all.

“Now, Mary …”

“I have a chiiiiicken in my backseat.” She peered into the window. New problem. Her mouth twisted.

“What? Why do you have a chicken in your back seat?”

She whispered, “They poop.” All over her backseat. She probably had some sunflower seeds in her center console. Maybe she could throw them on the floor to keep the attention of the wandering fowl in the floorboard.

“I have heard that about them,” he said.

“Mrs. Applewood has gone into labor.”

“Did you call an ambulance?”

“Of course.” Miss Frizzle scratched at the carpet, pulling up threads as she did. Mary needed a new car anyway. It was time to trade-in.

“Sweetie, slow down, I don’t understand how—”

Mary sighed. She had to get the thing back to Harmony Farms. “John. When this is all over, know this: you’re paying to have my car detailed. End call, Siri.”

 

 

###

 

Chickens did NOT belong in cars, and that was a fact.

Mary resisted the urge to punch the horn. Instead, she pitched another handful of sunflower seeds over her shoulder, hoping the detail shop could work miracles. Her trade-in value was sinking like a rock. The vents were on full blast as she tried to leech some of the manure smell from the vehicle.

“B-gawk!” The creature screeched at her from the backseat.

With every wing flap, Mary flinched, and her car swerved a little in her lane. She wasn’t going more than forty miles per hour, but there was nothing keeping Miss Frizzle in the backseat, and she never had a chicken in her hair before.

The GPS announced two miles to the destination.

Thank god.

Red and blue lights flashed in the rearview mirror.

Perfect. Just perfect. So close. She was so close to being free of the pooping nuisance.

She eased onto the shoulder and flipped on her hazard lights. Cars sped by.

“B-gawk!”

Mary tossed another handful of sunflower seeds over her shoulder.

In the side mirror, the grim-faced officer climbed out of his car and approached. She had to share the chicken smell with an Austin Police Officer. Law enforcement saw a lot of things. She had to explain the whole story or none of it made sense. Maybe she wouldn’t be the weirdest anecdote of the trooper’s life.

Mary grimaced. That sealed it. She was going to wind up on Austin Nightly news.

“Wait until the pregnant woman goes into labor,” Mary muttered. “The fifth horseman of the apocalypse isn’t a horse at all. It’s a chicken.” She rolled the window down three inches.

The police officer scowled and leaned close. His name badge read Martin. “Ma’am, I’m going to need you to open your window all the way. License, registration, and proof of insurance, please.”

“If I roll it down any more, the the chicken will get out.” Mary’s chin quivered.

“Ma’am, could you repeat that?” He frowned. “I pulled you over for reckless driving.”

“If I roll the window down any more, the little red hen will fly out the window and get run over.” She sighed. “Look in the back seat.”

The officer tilted his head, appraising her for a long moment. Then he laid his hand over his holster and leaned close to the rear window.

“B-gawk!” In a flap of wings, Miss Frizzle rushed at the officer’s head. Mary flinched as the bird slammed the glass.

A string of curses leaked from the officer’s mouth as he stumbled backwards.

“I told you.” Mary stared straight ahead. “Chicken.” The fine was going to be astronomical. She was sure of it.

“Ma’am.” His head swiveled toward her. “There’s a chicken defecating on your backseat.”

“I’m a volunteer teacher’s assistant. I was at the Lone Star Recycling Center when our teacher went into labor. I got stuck with taking the therapy chicken back to its urban farm home.” The words came out in a rush.

To her surprise, Officer Martin nodded, staring at the bird. “Did you know chickens are good at recycling?” He glanced up.

“I’ve heard that,” Mary said.

“You taking the chicken back to Harmony Farms?”

Mary’s shoulders sagged. “That’s the one.”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “Would you like an escort?”

“B-gawk!”

“Miss Frizzle says thank you,” Mary said with a grin.

****

Photo by Bokerah Brumley, 2018.