Roadkill Ethics

Herbert Ewing was gleefully observing the various drones flying about working his farmland — planting, seeding, applying agricultural sprays, irrigating, monitoring field conditions and plant health — when his “man,” android butler Max Cadaver, stepped onto the patio carrying a cold drink on a tray.            “Dermie has arrived with some fresh roadkill,” drawled the gloomy-looking manservant, who was dressed in an impeccable white tuxedo.

“Very good, Max. Please have Dermie take it to the barn,” instructed Herbert, waving away the drink. Wincing in pain, he lifted his immense overalls-clad body out of the sagging patio chair and tucked down his wide-brimmed hat. “The old legs aren’t what they used to be,” he grumbled under his breath, as he waddled painfully toward the large red shed. 

Ahead of him, Dermie’s long four-wheel sledge was pulling into the farm building. The powerful, squat robot stepped out of the low, sleek machine and gently deposited a dead raccoon on the taxidermist’s table with its long, sensitive fingers.

“Poor, poor thing,” cried Herbert, sighting the dead raccoon lying on the work table next to the dwarfish robot. “We must do something to cheer it up for the children. What will it be this time, Dermie?” he asked, looking up at the numerous stuffed animals mounted on stands  dressed as harlequins, clowns, policemen, convicts, ballet dancers, air stewardesses, and generals. “Something different perhaps…”

Dermie’s saucer-like eyes rolled about in his head as he listened quietly and examined the taxidermist’s work.

“We’ve given the children in District School Alpha Zed many of these charming creatures over the years,” continued Herbert wistfully. “They love them. But sometimes I wonder if they’re getting a little bit tired of them.”

“May I suggest something, sir?” muttered Max, stepping out from behind the powerful robot, carrying a bowl of snacks on his tray. Pointing a gloved finger at a small tablet floating in the air before his chest, glowing with the image of an old brochure, he said, “Please observe, sir.”   “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not,” mumbled Herbert, scanning the ancient article about a Chinese artist called Yang Maoyuan who inflated animal skins, blowing them up into bizarre larger-than-life balloon-shaped creatures with protruding legs and heads. “I think you’ve found something, Max!” he exclaimed. “A forgotten facet of taxidermy. The children will really love these!”

The android’s somber face lit up with a subtle smile.

Herbert’s autonomous electric tractor, tethered with bright, bulging balloon-like inflated animals, was mobbed by a pack of excited school children the moment it drove off the farm field into the yard of District School Alpha Zed.

“Look at the fat man!” cried a little boy.

Herbert, seated on the tractor, grimaced. He remembered how slim he once was, like a scarecrow. Those were happy days. Then his wife left him one night and never came back. It shook his world so much he had a nervous breakdown. When the doctors let him out of the hospital several months later, he didn’t know what to do with himself. Picking up a piece of food, he began to eat. He ate and ate until he swelled up like a balloon.

“That’s no fat man, silly,” squealed a girl with a long ponytail, jumping up and down with excitement. “It’s just a coyote dressed like a man. I want the fat fox dressed like a woman!”

“They were talking about the balloons, not me,” sighed Herbert, with relief. The gentle farmer with a flair for taxidermy grinned and stopped the tractor. His legs were too swollen and painful to stand, so he used the hydraulic seat to lift his massive bulk up so all the children could see him.

“Come and get it, kids!” he yelled cheerfully. “One balloon each. No more!”

Herbert leaned his head back in the chair and struggled to take a deep breath. Ever since autumn had come, he’d been too exhausted and weak to stand on his swollen legs. So he had Dermie carry him from the house to the barn, where he could be surrounded by his lovable balloon-shaped animals. As usual, faithful Max stood next to him, discreetly monitoring his heart condition.

“It’s been so long since anyone has visited us, Max,” he complained. “Too long. You’re programmed to be self-sufficient. But we humans need the companionship of one another, human companionship. It’s built into us. Please don’t take this wrong, Max. You’ve always been a faithful butler, a friend that I could depend on. But the truth is, I don’t want be alone without a human being to keep me company. I’m going to die soon.”

Max gently touched Herbert’s shoulder to let him know that he understood. The android thought hard of what he could do to help. Herbert had no friends except the school children, and he couldn’t burden them in this moment of crisis. There was no one he could call. Suddenly, Max’s silvery eyes opened wide. He had received an unusual signal from one of the drones that had left the property to search for roadkill far out along the county highways. Max ordered Dermie to retrieve the roadkill with the sledge.

Herbert couldn’t believe his eyes. Three human bodies dressed in bright orange jumpsuits lay on the sledge before him. He stared at the unusual roadkill and tried to unravel the mystery behind it. The prison vehicle transporting them must have been in a sudden and fatal highway accident. The dead men were still cuffed and chained together. Dermie moved the sledge closer so Herbert could study their faces.

“Oh yes. I know these men,” he muttered. “I saw them on the news. That tall man is the serial killer, John Mills. The shorter fellow next to him is Peter Rice, a rapist. And the handsome gentleman is Olly Franks, the infamous kidnapper. They were all on the way to the death house to meet their maker. Evidently, death met them halfway.”  

Herbert looked into the android’s sullen face and laughed. “How kind of you to bring me some ‘human’ company, Max!”

Herbert closed his eyes and rested his chin on his fists, concentrating hard.

“All three men were loners with no family ties outside the prison,” he whispered. “No one will come to pick up their remains. I, of all people, can do something useful with their bodies. Something that may help a little to redeem the terrible lives they lived. It’s simply a question of roadkill ethics. Should I or shouldn’t I?”

Herbert opened his eyes and looked at Max, whose  ghoulish face was grinning from ear to ear, and Dermie, his taxidermist partner, impatiently rubbing his long, sensitive fingers together. “You’re both perfectly right,” he said. “Go ahead and prepare them. You know what to do.”  

The snow was falling lightly when the patrol car pulled up in front of the big red barn. Sergeant Steven Wilkes had received a call from a concerned neighbor who hadn’t seen Herbert Ewing in weeks. 

The policeman stepped out of the cruiser and pulled open the barn door. For a moment he froze in his tracks, staring at the power roof sliding open, flooding the building’s cavernous interior with light. Looking down toward the floor, he saw an android in a white tuxedo press a master switch, releasing an armada of balloon figures crowding the interior of the barn, waving a fond farewell to the last one floating away into the sky.     

Running outside, Sergeant Wilkes watched as the spheres with limbs protruding every which way drifted across the field toward the bustling schoolyard of District School Alpha Zed. Various animals led the charge: cats, dogs, skunks, groundhogs, raccoons, and opossums, pursued by three impossible men in bright orange prison jumpsuits, handcuffs dangling from their skinny arms. Behind them bobbed an enormous man in farmer’s overalls, his face beaming with joy.

Sergeant Steven Wilkes hopped in the patrol car and drove toward the school. He had a suspicion he knew who the three men in prison jumpsuits were. Driving past the schoolyard, he saw the children laughing and pointing at the amazing sight of Herbert and the convicts fleeing before him, as if he were a Keystone Cop. 

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