On the main street of the small town of Quarterhour, at the only butcher shop in town, a line of people extended from the glass case at the back of the store, across a stone-tiled floor to the heavy glass door at the front. The butcher, a wild-eyed man in a red-smeared apron, swung his bloody meat cleaver with a ferocity befitting an axe murderer, chopping joints in half with a single swing. When he finished with the joint, he attacked a rack of lamb, separating the bones with swift strokes. He tossed the meat into a boiling cauldron, along with a handful of indistinguishable black bits and cranked up the fire under the heavy cast-iron pot.
To Cassie, the bits looked like bugs and worms, and she buried her face into her mother’s soft belly and shook, too afraid to look back at the butcher. She and her brother, Seth, had been terrorized by the butcher for far too long, despite their mother’s attempts to protect them and quell their fears. But the butcher shop was warm and food was plentiful, and it had a secret hiding place behind the bricks, where her mother had made a cozy bed. Inside the wall, Cassie and her family could sleep and play and go unnoticed, except for that one awful night. Cassie’s mom dissolved into tears at the mere mention of her youngest baby, Angel, who had died a horrible death at the hands of the butcher when he caught her scurrying across the floor one night. He had stomped Angel’s long tail with his heavy work boot, entrapping her. Angel had squealed and cried until Cassie heard the thud of a heavy skillet that crushed her sister. After that, Cassie’s mom was extra careful to keep her family safely tucked away inside the wall, only to roam the shop when the butcher had retired for the night. Cassie and her brother worked hard not to bring up Angel anymore.
That night, unable to sleep, Cassie trembled as the angry butcher paced the shop, slamming the meat locker and cabinets. Through a crack in the bricks, in the muted blaze of the old stone fireplace, she watched him leave the shop, around midnight. He carried a shovel and bucket and strode toward the old graveyard up over the hill. Cassie dozed, but woke hours later when the butcher returned, covered in mud and blood.
Disturbed by bad dreams about cemeteries for the rest of the night, Cassie curled up on the softest side of the nest that morning while her mom and Seth munched on crusty sourdough bread they had collected from the floor during the night. A little before noon a gentle bell jingled above the door and woke Cassie. She raised her head and had a good view of the shop where a woman in her thirties entered, clutching a little girl’s hand. The child wore a cat costume.
The butcher dropped his cleaver and swiped his hands on the bloodied apron. In a heavy Eastern European accent, he asked, “What can I get you today, Mrs. Clark?”
“Five pounds of your finest lamb for a dinner party.”
The butcher reached into the chilled showcase and lifted a side of meat, which he flung onto the scale.
The woman smiled and said, “I hear you’ve entered the Halloween cook-off again. The competition’s fierce this year. O’Reilly’s Bakery just entered. They claim they’ve made the most scrumptious Halloween treat ever.”
The butcher shrugged and his moustache curled over his upper lip, smugly. “O’Reilly’s no match for me and my Halloween pie.”
The woman flashed a bemused smile. “A Halloween pie?”
“You’ll see,” the butcher boasted and then handed the woman a rack of lamb wrapped in brown paper.
Cassie watched the woman and child innocently disappear onto the street, unaware of the horrors that Cassie and her family had observed. In the past two weeks alone, the butcher had thrown out at least a dozen meat pies. Through the cracks in the brick, she watched him experiment with steak, lamb, chicken and various cuts of pork, not to mention odd bugs and concoctions, including an unfamiliar furry creature. Having never won the town’s oldest contest, the butcher told customers that his greatest wish was to win enough money that he could visit his family back in the old country. Prizes for winning ranged from large cash awards to dream vacations.
Before she went to bed that night, Cassie prayed that he’d win the contest and vacate the shop so that she could relax and finally get a good night’s rest. But now, with only three days to go, the butcher was no closer to a tantalizing Halloween treat then he’d been a month ago.
Shortly before ten pm, he flung his most recent Halloween pie across the counter, where it plopped onto the old stone floor, now a piping hot heap of mush. “Too bland, too ordinary, too doughy,” he’d shout out with each new taste test. He stepped over the mush and reached into a large glass jar he kept over the stove and pulled out a handful of eyeballs and tongues that soaked in a yellowish fluid. He tossed them into the boiling caldron. His lists of complaints mounted as his anger reached volcanic levels. Cassie quivered that night and had bad dreams of meat pies.
With only two days to go before the contest, Cassie perched in the corner of the bricked wall and watched the town’s people parade up and down Main Street, dressed in their finest Halloween costumes. Long a village custom, dating back to the 1700’s, residents wore costumes from October 1 straight through Halloween. Vampires, witches, and ghosts stopped and peered into the shop’s window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the crazed butcher at work, dicing and dissecting all manner of creatures.
That night, a little after midnight, a goat screamed in anguish from the back room. Cassie worried that it was Old Mrs. Haggard’s goat who lived next door. She hid behind her mom and moaned.
Her mother turned to her. “I forbid you to set foot in the back room. It’s not safe.”
Without her mom saying it, she knew that the butcher had killed Angel in the back room.
More horrific screams were followed by a clubbing sound. And then, silence. Cassie listened to frenzied chopping and dicing from the back room, and an hour later, the butcher slid another pie into the oven. He pressed his face into his soiled apron and soaked up the sweat from his forehead. His hands trembled as he lifted a shot glass to his mouth and took a swill of whiskey.
Cassie whimpered, and her mother gently nudged her under her belly. Seth cowered in the corner, neither speaking nor moving.
The butcher slumped into a nearby wooden chair and buried his face in his hands, and a pungent odor permeated the air. Inspired, he jumped up and yanked open the freezer and peered inside. He plopped down another side of beef, which he tossed into a boiling caldron along with various vegetables in yellow and green. Next, he opened a yellowed sack and pulled out a bat that barely clung to life. It flapped its wings, struggling to escape. But the weak bat was no match for the tough old butcher who chopped its head off with one fell swoop of the cleaver and tossed its body into the boiling stew. “There,” he said and smashed the lid onto the pot.
Cassie looked at her mother and then at Seth. No words would come.
An hour later, he jerked open the oven door and lifted up the goat pie.
Cassie held her breath and prayed for just the right recipe so the old man would win the big prize and leave town.
He scooped out a large forkful and sniffed. “Ahhh.” He smiled, a good sign. But when he tasted the first bite, he erupted in anger and flung the concoction across the room. “Rubbish,” he shouted. He paced and paced and rubbed his bloodshot eyes and ran his hands through his wild, tangled mane. Cassie flinched when he kicked a chair across the room. And then with no forewarning, he ripped a brick from the wall that had shielded Cassie and her family from view, their homey little nest now exposed to a madman.
Cassie’s mother stood on her hind legs and bared her teeth in a show of defiance. She shielded Cassie and her brother with her body and growled.
The old butcher burst into laughter, exposing his jagged, stained teeth. He snatched Cassie’s mom up by her tail as she squealed and waved her puny arms in a final act to protect her babies.
Cassie shivered and clung to her brother. She looked away when the butcher flung their mother into the boiling stew. Their mom’s desperate screech filled the air.
The butcher turned and took slow, purposeful steps toward their secret hiding place, hands outstretched.
Cassie clenched her eyes shut and silently prayed for a miracle.
“Why didn’t I think of it before?” he mused. “The missing ingredient for the perfect Halloween pie. Fresh mice!”