Author Raquel Doucette’s “Almost Frozen” offers an intriguing glimpse into both the past and present life of an animal activist. Doucette’s strong imagery and careful development of the relationships within the piece allows for an honest look into the world of the main character, Xavier. The slow reveal of the progression of Xavier’s life prompts the reader to reflect on their own choices and their own morals, and the importance of holding on to what one believes in.
I couldn’t remember how long I had been slumped against the only bare wall of the freezer when the shivering turned into shaking. Finally. Because the cold was everywhere. On the icy snow-dusted floor on which I had nearly slipped and cracked my skull open, never mind further fucked up my already horrible back. It was in the icicles made of blood and guts that hung on the even colder steel walls like permanent snot. In the tyrannical height of the walls.
I would have looked up to see where they stopped if the numbness in my neck hadn’t been growing at almost the same rate that my heart was pounding. And in the way that the steel was such a dull gray, instead of the silver that it should have been, that it resembled an asphyxiated face. The steel itself could have been producing the cold, rather than the machinery it comprised. That would have made the plan a lot more complicated, though. It’s next to impossible to tear down steel without proper equipment. But it’s pretty easy to sabotage the compressor and fan and defrost heater with your bare hands if you know what you’re doing.
I was still gawking at the chickens. I knew it was rude, but I couldn’t help it. Surely they would have glared back at me if they had been alive. And not hanging from thick metal hooks. With their neck bones perfectly intact. It was the jugular veins that were never going to work again. They had been stunned with an electric shock. Because that is the humane way to murder a chicken. The chickens would have darted their beautiful black marble pupils, surrounded by a warm gold film, at me. Between the twitching of their eyes that would have been too quick to be blinking. They would have cocked their heads erratically yet subtly, so that you couldn’t have been sure if had actually moved. So the humane way to murder a human would be to electrocute them, rather than break their neck. Even though euthanasia is now the method used for the death penalty. The electric chair was considered less humane. Although more humane than feeling your neck break after being hanged.
Of course, being no stranger to this particular factory farm, I had come to know the relentless sound of the machine’s moaning better than I knew the pathetic squeak of my own voice. But only from the outside. Now that my middle aged back was plastered to the wall that concealed the freezer’s mechanics, I was enduring the sound of their groaning at a nearly deafening volume.
Chickens didn’t groan. They squawked and cock-a-doodle-dooed. Maybe they could scream, if they really wanted to. If they had reason to. If they wanted revenge. If they could get revenge right then and there, because the source of all their misery had finally arrived. Even though it was too late for them to get revenge. Although I had never seen something dead have that ferocious of an intention to glare. And not just one. Or two. Or ten. Or twenty. But at least fifty. Or seventy. All one-hundred and forty bulging eyeballs, wildly shocked at their sudden slaughter.
But the worst was the smell. Week old chicken carcasses hung almost on top of bodies that had been slaughtered shortly before I arrived. So the freezer reeked of both stale and rotting flesh. I could feel the odor had settling into my skin and nerves rapidly, freezing it more than the artic temperature ever could. I could not tell if the iron tinge infecting each of my taste buds was from the steel or the blood.
To be honest I had never spent more than a couple of seconds in a meat locker until that afternoon. Only that one time I had rushed in right as the freshly slaughtered chickens were being hung. I grabbed as many as I could fit in my arms and started to sprint out, their floppy necks dangling and gaining momentum.
“Goddamn activists,” that guard had all but hissed under her breath as she towed me out of the meat locker and then out of the factory farm. “Pulling weirder shit every time.”
Seems like an idiotic plan—of course I would get caught. But that was the plan. I was merely the distraction so that Mazy could sabotage the factory. That was her specialty. Everything I know about machinery and mechanics I learned from Mazy. And even when I had to start doing it on my own, I was never as good as she was. I never would be.
See, I know that she didn’t leave me. Mazy would never leave me. Friends don’t do that. More importantly, allies don’t do that. Mazy is my friend and my ally. She gets it. She gets me. She went away, but she did not leave me.
“Don’t do this now, Xavier,” Mazy had warned me the day she told me she was going away. “I already bought the plane tickets.” She definitely hadn’t. But Mazy also never lied. So in that moment, as she tried to convince me that we were going to Australia whether I wanted to or not, I couldn’t help feeling that I was wrong. That I was supposed to go.
“You’ve always wanted to live there,” Mazy tried. She was right, of course. Even though I couldn’t. And Mazy knew that. She knew that there was still so much work to be done here. Too much work to just leave and maybe never come back.
I must not have said anything for a while. I don’t remember what I said next.
“Look, we’re only going for a few months. This will all be here waiting for you to fix it when you get back.” Mazy had forced out a laugh. She never did that. I knew I was wrong. But I couldn’t be. I had to stay here.
“You’re going to work yourself to death, honestly.” She had hesitated. “You have to get away from things sometimes.”
And that is where I drew the line. I told her that. How could she not know? How could she expect us to achieve any of our goals that way? You cannot take breaks. It’s too risky. Too much can happen, even in a short period of time. You can lose motivation.
And then she said those ice cold words.
“How many times do I have to say it.”
The only things with the true capacity to freeze.
“You can’t save them all.”
Mazy would always say that. That was the only thing she was ever really wrong about. That was what I had been trying to teach her after everything she had taught me. Even though I knew she was wrong, the words still stung more than the frostbite that was beginning to accumulate on the tips of my fingers when I was sitting numbly in the freezer. I had worn fingerless gloves to the factory farm and kept them on in the freezer. They were made of thin yarn that was forest green. My favorite color.
The same color shirt I had worn the first day I met Mazy. Back in high school.
It had been one of those scorching late August mornings, the sun burning through the giant glass windows that encompassed the school, useless standing fans scattered around the building so that the school could avoid liability issues.
“What, you think the puny chicken freak is going to do anything about it?” It was as if Julian had spat the words out yesterday.
His friends had shrugged and snickered in agreement. Julian was, of course, extremely popular among the multitude of imbeciles that made up most of the student body. No social consciences whatsoever.
“Nah,” one of them had laughed.
Julian had grabbed the thin collar of my favorite forest green plaid shirt and held me there for what had seemed like at least fifteen minutes. It had to have been at least ten. No less than five. Mazy said it had only been about five seconds. I couldn’t have said anything. His fist imprisoned my entire body. I could feel my heart trying to burst out through my throat, and I could barely breathe. I must have sounded like I was choking. But I still had to say something. Anything. To tell him just exactly what he was. To his face. His goblin-like face. His harsh breath that reeked of pork rinds or beef jerky or chicken nuggets or whatever, what difference did it make. To inform him, because he clearly had no idea. You fucking piece of shit. I would have roared it if I had not been five fucking feet one fucking inch tall and the most petite person in the entire school. It’s because of pricks like you that chickens spend their entire lives in factory farms. I would have forced my quivering lips open and educated him. Because you try to shut me down instead of the farms. I don’t know why I didn’t use that line on the security guards. On the managers who had interrogated me after the guards had detained me. On the police. Maybe even on Mazy. Why was she putting more effort into trying to stop me than the farms? Into changing the way I worked instead of the way they worked? Friends don’t do that. Allies don’t either.
“That’s why you have this chicken fetish, huh? ‘Cause you’re one of them. You’re not a person.” Julian had said as he stifled a laugh, gripping my favorite shirt so tightly that I had thought it would rip for sure that time. “You look like a fucking chicken. Except even punier.” Julian and his cronies had burst into violent guffaws, shaking the small cafeteria.
Of course I had felt less than human in high school. Who didn’t. But it was moments like that when I would wonder if the thing that was actually holding me back was my size. To this day I have never known anyone more petite. I probably he could have escaped Julian’s grasp if I had had legitimate muscles, or even some fat. Mazy’s wouldn’t have had to intervene. I just thought I would have gained some as I aged. Because I am still not much more than skin and bones. That’s how I’ve always been.
“Fuck off, Julian.” Mazy had been in the same grade as Julian and had even had some kind of relationship with him. That is another story completely, of course. So she, unfortunately, knew him better than most people. She’s also Mazy, so she would just walk up to people and tell them to fuck off if she wanted to. She did that plenty of times at the factory farms and animal testing sectors of laboratories and even once at the FDA headquarters.
Julian had smirked, amused, and turned his attention to Mazy. “Hey. What’s up.”
“Put him down. He’s a freshman.” She stepped closer to him. The crowd had oo-ed and ah-ed.
He snickered. “Oh, so you like freshmen now? Couldn’t handle someone your own age?” Everyone bellowed.
Mazy then literally grabbed me out of Julian’s grasp. He didn’t care. He had successfully humiliated her. Mazy had all but dragged me away without a single word.
“Thanks,” I remember squeaking.
She had simply grunted in response.
Of course I soon found out that she was also an animal rights activist. And planning to go to college for mechanical engineering so that she could sabotage factories. So of course she was my friend. And my ally. She didn’t leave me. She just went away because she didn’t get it completely. She thought you could take a break from this stuff. Even after all the work we had done.
“You can’t save them all.” Mazy had said it as early as that first year that they had met. It had felt colder and colder as the years went by. It almost froze me the last time she said it, twenty-one years later.
“It’s not too late to buy a ticket,” she had said quietly. We both knew that my decision was already made.
I don’t remember what I said. Probably something like, “It’s not too late for you to sell yours,” or “You can still stay here,” maybe even, “You’re wrong, Mazy. We have to stay here until we’ve finished the work. Because we can save them all. We have to.”
But the at least one hundred and forty beady eyes that would certainly have glared at me and used what they saw to begin executing revenge didn’t actually glare and couldn’t actually get back at me for failing them. Because the chickens were dead.
All the chickens. Gone.
That was the twenty-fifth factory farm I had been to that year. It was December. I was almost frozen to the steel floor. I could feel the frostbite starting to consume my toes and ears. But just barely. Because everything was going numb. Finally.
I still wonder what would have happened if security had not found me shortly after. Maybe if I had just stayed in the freezer for a little longer the burns would disappear. Perhaps my skin would have healed itself. My back would not have caused me immobilizing pain. And then I could have penetrated the wall behind me. There I would find the machinery of the freezer. I knew exactly how it worked. Mazy had taught me. I would have dismembered it. I would have destroyed it. The blood icicles would have melted and shined the dull walls and floor. Then I would have left the freezer and moved on to find the battery cages. The live chickens.
But the numbness and the burning and the cold also felt good. I wasn’t very hungry. I had rarely felt hungry anymore, or thirsty, or anything. All I could feel was the steel wall against which I leaned and the steel floor on which I sat. I had tried to sit up slowly, but instead slipped on the ice and slammed my back against the wall. Did the reverberating pang came from the wall or my decrepit back muscles? Or maybe from the pulsing numbness of my arms and legs that was increasing as my heart began to beat more and more slowly? The frostbite didn’t even burn anymore.
The things was that everything had been lost at my discretion. All the chickens. Gone. Everything had been over for so long that the failure should have been a distant memory.
“You can’t save them all.”
I could not move anymore in the freezer. Even if I had wanted to get up and leave, I’m not sure if I physically could have.
The reason why none of these tactics ever really worked was that these companies had so much money that everything was replaceable. And therefore everything was disposable. Every last lab rat.
It is possible that the continuous failure was actually my fault when I first came to this particular factory farm. It was one of the largest and most highly funded in the country. The company had recently undergone several changes in management. One of which brought me back to those horrible high school days and forced me to consider whether I was really just less than human after all.
I had not expected Julian to have aged well. After all, he was the CEO of a disgustingly successful factory farm. So I was not surprised when I saw him again the first time that security captured me and, after speaking with several other managers and staff, brought me to his ironically red office. I was not at all shocked at how many wrinkles had spread across his forehead and how bruised-looking the circles under his eyes were. A saggy combination of skin and fat hung where his chin should have separated from his neck, giving him a chicken-like appearance.
Julian had not recognized me. I don’t know if he would even remember who I was.