“Keep Your Head Down” Horror by Paul O’Neill

Butcher-"Keep Your Head Down" by Paul O'Neill

They sent me to the shop to buy the jackets for the jacket potatoes. That’s when I knew it was going to be a rough first day. In the shop, the look the lassie behind the till gave me could’ve melted enamel off a bathtub. Stood there in my butcher’s overalls like a proper bell-end with a queue tailing behind me, all guffawing and pointing knobby fingers at me as realisation of the prank dawned.

The door chirped its robotic beep, beep as I stormed out of there. The sun beamed down on Balekerin high street, almost shimmering off the grey stone. The pressure in my gums promised blood as I grit my teeth, keeping my head down on my way back to Denny’s butchery.

A hazing – that’s what they call it. Only to be expected, really. Reserved for anyone starting a new job. They’ll all be eating out my hand soon. Work hard. Make yourself known. Not gonna be the whipping boy for any length of time. Gotta get on in life. Make your mark.

I squeezed myself back into the shop, getting elbows and rough comments about skipping the queue before they noticed the blue apron. They parted like the red sea to let me through like I was Mr. Denny himself.

With the blood eventually cooling down my face, draining down my neck, I made my way behind the counter. The sweet, watery smell of fresh meat collided with the sprinkling of bleach and lemony cleaning products. Glass counters reflected the sun and the large fluorescent lights above, aching a space behind my eyes I didn’t even know existed until today.

The team of butchers and servers crawled over each other like a mob of ants, barging, giving each other the odd punch in the side. If it weren’t for the customers there would’ve been a brawl.

I looked at the clock on the wall above my station. It wasn’t even ten o’clock yet.

The crowd were so desperate to get in and get served, shouting their orders over the counter. They were like a horde of ravenous zombies. Their eyes… Dunno if it was a trick of the light, but they all seemed to shine silver, reeking of desperation. I stood there, fidgeting with the knot on my apron behind my back, trying to fight away the image of falling into that crowd and being torn limb from limb.

Beep, beep, the door dinged as it opened. Its constant noise as the customers piled in tweezed at something in the centre of my brain.

“There he is though,” said George, my manager, standing next to me. “Where’s the jackets, Aiden? Poor potatoes will have to go in the bin now.”

“Ha, bloody ha,” I said. “Got me good. Won’t get me again, though.”

“Wanna fucking bet? Jackets, that’s what I’ll call you from now on. Hey, Jackets, look over there.”

He pointed to something on the pock-marked ceiling. As I stared, he drilled me with a kidney punch. I folded over, wheezing out pain. The guy was at least twice my seventeen years, and about twice as big, too.

“Listen,” he whispered as he leaned in, “you sound like a nice enough lad. Just you keep your head down. Smart arses don’t survive long.”

I tried to spit anger, but it came out in a constipated wheeze. “Prick.”

He turned, rage slipping off his face. “Mrs. Robinson. Nice to see you, my love. Interest you in the best sausages Scotland has to offer?”

Beep, beep. Beep, beep. Beep, beep. The door went non-stop. It made me want to take the thing off the top of the door and stick it through the mincer.

Keep your head down. Aye, right. That’s what my old man said before I left the house this morning, too. Bless the old guy and his proud brown eyes. Don’t care what they all say. I’m not one to wait around. Not gonna die with nothing to show for my hard work. Won’t be laying on my death bed, plugged into a machine, beep, beep, beeping endlessly, waiting for—

“Oi, Jackets,” said George, snapping me out of it. “Slice this fucker up for me. Thin as your hopes and dreams.”

My job was to slice ham all day. George flung a thick, slippy piece of pork at me. The meat slicer looked like a jigsaw a carpenter would use to saw through large pieces of wood. Despite its gnarly teeth looking like they’d split through my finger bones, I was only given a two second showing of how the thing worked before they opened the doors and pandemonium started.

By the time the hour crawled to noon, my forearms ached. My temples dripped with sweat. Sweat that landed on the ham more often than not. When I asked George for a lunch break, he almost dropped a handful of orange sausages.

Those were the award-winning ones. Stretched translucent skin showed the almost pumpkin coloured meat within. Only the senior butchers like George were allowed to run down to the cellar where they prepped the meat. A coded door made sure I couldn’t peek at the secret ingredients that had the customers practically frothing at the ears, dancing on the spot while they waited to be served like junkies outside the pharmacy on a Tuesday morning.

George had told me all about the last boy that dropped a packet of those sausages. Fired on the spot, but not before they took him downstairs to the fridges and beat him senseless until he could barely walk. Hadn’t showed his face around here since. There were a lot of stories like that.

My side groaned in pain. I could feel the bruises already forming. I swear, if someone chopped me in the ribs again when I wasn’t expecting it, I’d be spitting blood by the end of the day. Gotta go along to get along, as they say. At least to start. Until I could show them what I’m made of.

In they came. Beep, beep. Beep, beep. On and on like the whole of Balekerin stumbled through those doors.

I got myself into a rhythm, ignoring the hunger pangs that pulled my mood down to the sticky floor. The vibrations of the meat slicer rumbled through my palms as I pushed pork through it, turning it into floppy slices.

The air in the shop changed.

The butchers and red-faced servers all went quiet. Chins drooped to chests as if someone had placed a heavy weight on their heads.

The reason for the sudden hush sauntered out from the back. Mr. Denny himself. His apron was as crisp as mine’s had looked that morning. Not a red spot on it, while the almondy stench of caked blood wafted up to me every time I moved.

Sun-tanned like he lived in Greece, waving like a politician, he walked forward. Something about his movements seemed awfully practised. Robotic, even.

He was allowed to swim in the adulation that came his way. The creator of the sausages that had everyone in Scotland crawling in like maggots to get a taste.

I set the pork on the tray. My gloves slapped against my wrists as I took them off.

“Don’t do it, Jackets,” said George, the piss-taking note gone from his voice. “Honestly. Don’t even.”

Bertie, an old, crumpled butcher stared down at a chop of beef on the counter, barely blinking as he sliced at it with precise movements of a small knife. His voice was a smoker’s whisper. “Keep your head down. Always and always. The blood is real. Beep, beep, beep. Don’t you lose your head like those other boys. Couldn’t listen. They never listen. Will you listen?”

Mr. Denny waltzed from behind the counter and into the waiting crowd, shaking hands. If there was a fresh baby in the shop, he’d probably have kissed the thing. 

“Warning you,” said George, following my gaze. “Put yourself in front of the big man there, and your career will be cut short.”

“You happy enough doing what you’re doing there, aye? No big plans for the future.”

“Calm yourself, Jackets. I’ve had dumps longer than you’ve worked here.”

An image of my dad came to my mind. How burst he looked after each day at work in the factory. How he sat on his big seat in our sparse living room with barely anything to show for the elbow grease.

“Need to make your mark to get ahead,” I said. “Need to—”

George burst forward and smacked me so hard in the belly I folded over, knees crumpling. My face hit the bleach-laden floor, leaving me with a taste in my mouth like swimming pool.

When I bounced back to my feet, ready to throw a punch of my own, the look in George’s eyes stopped me. I’d expected them to shine with malice like they’d done all day, but there was a note of sadness in them that made my fist fall against my leg.

He only nodded at the slicer and I took my designated spot. Mr. Denny swanned through the crowd and out the door, taking my opportunity with him.

“You the new fellow, young lad?” said a reedy voice.

A cave-creature like man with glasses so thick I couldn’t see his eyeballs leaned over the glass counter. He was all arm and bowed back, his spine bumping over the contours of his jacket. A green line of mucus snailed down his nose, almost touching his upper lip.

“Got a tongue in that shiny gob?” he said.

“A-Aye.” Couldn’t take my eyes from the globulous trail being made. “New, aye. Started this morning. Aye.”

“They giving you a hard time?”

“Let’s just say I’ve earned my nickname already.”

The man slapped his thigh like it was the funniest joke ever told. “He he, doesn’t take them long, eh? You got a nice set of stones on you laddie?”

“Excuse me?”

“Most young chaps burst out of here crying and bawling like they miss their mumsies. Can’t take the heat.”

Beep, beep. Beep, beep. More crowd flooded in.

“Can you take the heat, hmm?” the creep continued. “Most of the young team that worked here before you haven’t been seen since.”

George coughed into a balled fist, shooting me a look that said why you talking to the customers, Jackets?

“Better get to my station,” I said, backing away. “You need anything? I can ask one of the—”

“No, no. Just checking out the new meat.” He licked his lips with a wet, lizard sound. His tongue attached itself to the pale snotters like a spiderweb. Soon, there was a line of gloop from nostril to lower lip, vibrating like a guitar string. He just let it hang there, not touching it.

That line of bogies haunted my mind when I got home that night. Went straight to the fridge, opened a can of Fosters and shoved half the can of lager into my face. The harshness of it scratched the back of my throat as I gulped and gulped. Jesus. What a day.

Ribs ached like fuck. Eyes throbbed like I’d been at a Daft Punk concert for twelve hours straight. Seen more punishment and abuse in that shift than I’d seen at school an entire year.

“Ah, you survived,” said Dad, lounging on his big seat in the living room, eyes almost drooping shut. He stared at the blank TV like it was too much of an effort to find the remote. “Good shift?”

I rested the back of my head against the wall. “Was alright, I suppose. Not top of the food chain. Yet.”

“Och, enough of that pish. Always gotta be skipping ahead of yourself. Need to learn the value of an honest buck. It’s all your salmon t-shirt wearing, eyebrow weirdo generation. Don’t know that it’s all about the graft.”

“Out grafted most of the old bags in there today. Burst couches, all of them.”

“They’ll burst your coupon for you if you’re not careful. Bunch of hard nuts in there, so I heard.”

I almost told him that it felt like they’d bruised my organs. Instead, I gulped the rest of the can of lager. When I crumpled it up in my hand, the tinny noise was loud in our small, two bedroom council flat.

“That your advice?” I said. “Work myself to the knuckles and hope I get seen one day? Nah, fuck that shit in the tailpipe. Gonna walk right up to the big dog tomorrow and make myself seen. Put myself on his scoresheet.”

“Your mum, she’d—”

“Don’t you bring her into this.” My voice cracked off the low ceiling. “Don’t.”

The next breath I took in had a wavery quality to it. I held it in, not trusting myself to speak straight.

He looked so old. So shrunken. He was a giant in my thoughts and memories. I’d done zero good by him these last few years. Not chipping in. Blaming him for not being man enough, not working hard enough when I could see plain how he gnawed himself to the bone with his double, triple shifts. He looked like a man who’s heart was about to pack in and that he’d welcome it. Looked that way ever since my Mum beeped her life away. All those machines, doing sweet fuck all to help. Beep, beep, beeeee

“Make my mark,” I barked out. “Have to. Don’t you see? I can’t be like her. Can’t whittle myself away for a company that doesn’t give a flying fuck, only to get to the age where you might wanna start enjoying life, and for life to pull the rug. I can’t… All that hard work for nothing.”

“Quite sure she wouldn’t put it like that. Quite sure she’d say she would rather be here. Money or no money.”

The queue the next day was unbelievable. Saturday and it looked like we had Oasis or Stereophonics headlining at lunchtime. Queue snaked around the two other butcher’s shops who were empty and desperate.

A butcher I hadn’t seen before unlocked the door and let me in. As I snuck past him, a couple of tidy lassies from the queue looked me over like I was a boss. That’s right, babes. I’ll be leading this thing in no time. Make my mark. Just you wait and see. Taste all my treats and creations by the time I’m boss man. Piece of me in every one of you, my—

“Jackets,” roared George, popping up from behind the counter. “Nice of you to show up. Shift started at seven.”

I covered my semi with my pathetic lunchbox, pushing the thoughts of summer lassies and their sly smiles out my mind.

“Seven? Eh?” I said, sounding every bit the squeaky douchebag.

“Oh, that’s right,” he said, menace in his eyes, “didn’t tell you, did I? Like I did it on purpose or something. Oh, well. Late again, Jackets and I’ll report you to the big guy.”

“Woah, hey, no, no. Don’t. Was hoping to have a word with him today. Can’t have him knowing I was late.”

“What did I tell you about keeping that thick head of yours down? Drop it and do your work and maybe I won’t slap you about. As much. And they say I’m not a good manager. Ha.”

Shoppers swarmed the shop like a Black Friday sale, leaning against the glass counter so much I thought it would crash in on itself.

Slice, slice, slice went the machine as I fed it pig guts all morning long. Sweat stuck my t-shirt to my back. The customers waved their shaky hands over the counters, trying to claw at the servers for their fix.

If yesterday was manic, today was mania. Lost count of the serving lassies who whizzed past me in tears. The butchers wiping their injuries on their aprons, too busy to stop the bleeding. We all tripped over each other like soldiers in a trench.

“The blood is real,” said Bertie, staring at his thin hands like they were someone else’s.

I walked over and put a hand on his shoulder. “You alright there big guy?” I had to talk loud to be heard over the tumult. “If it was me running this place, I’d look after you, bud. Make sure everyone was kept alright.”

He turned his milky eyes on me. “W-Who are you?”

“I… I’m Aiden. You know? Jackets.”

“When do we shut?”

“Got, like, seven hours left.”

“Is that all? Aw, man. I tells my Katie I need to be here so much to bring in the pennies, you know? Hates me, so she does. She hates me. Hates my blood. I hate me, too. Kept my head down, though. Always kept my head down.”

I pressed his shoulder and tried to guide him round the back to have a seat, get a drink of water, but he shrugged me off. He went back to his place at the side of the counter, kneading mince with his skeletal fingers. The sloshing, purple worm sound of it made a shudder ripple up my spine.

Back at the slicer, spots started pricking at the sides of my vision. Breaths came up short like I’d just run a marathon. Uniform was suddenly tight about the neck. Blood gathered about my cheeks. Strange sensation ran up and down my arms.

I stumbled towards the double doors that led to the back area, side-stepping a donkey kick from George. Back here was even worse. It was like a boat-load of Vikings had landed at a village and chased the locals about with cleavers and meat hooks. The crazed look in every workers’ eyes made me slink away to a corner.

As I turned my back on them, I collided into someone’s aftershave-laden chest.

“Watch it, you ar—” I gulped, looking up at the figure. “Mr. Denny. I-I’m so sorry. Didn’t see you there.”

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fucked it now. Slam into my boss on day two. Idiot boy. Should’ve just kept your head down and—

“It’s Aiden, right?” he said, his white, white smile breaking like dawn over a field. “Or do you prefer Jackets?” He leaned in closer. “Only the very best ones get a name in the first couple of days. The worst go straight in the bin. And we see a lot of those. Takes a certain kind of man to work in here. Think you got what it takes?”

I stood as straight as I could, doing my best not to puff my chest out. “Aye. I mean, yes sir. Ready to take on any challenge. Ready to make my mark.”

White and blue blurs zipped around us as if we stood in our own time zone. I felt the air of my co-workers as they whizzed by, but it was only Mr. Denny and I that mattered.

“I like my boys to have a certain set of guts to them,” he said. “We’re a close-knit family here. Every one as important as the last. Well, except the ones who barely last a day. Their contribution won’t be forgotten, no matter how short lived it was.”

He leaned over and patted me on the back with a hand as big as a paddle. Nearly burst the air from my lungs.

“Best keep your head down. Get on with it. Leave the running of the place to us.”

There it was again. Keep your head down. I felt a vein throb in my temple when he uttered it. He pivoted on the heel of his shiny shoes and started walking away, the workers zipping past automatically giving him space.

I stared down at the floor. The smell of the place filled my lungs as I tried to steady my breaths. That smell. It was more brown than red. It caked everything. The lining in your nostrils, the roof of your mouth until everything tasted black pudding, fried scab metallic.

“Mr. Denny?” I called after him. He paused and looked over his shoulder at me. “I get what you’re saying about getting on with it. But sir, I can take on more. I promise. I’m not like those other boys that vanished off the face of the Earth.”

His back still turned to me, I caught the rise of a smile in his eye. “Oh, really? And what makes you any different?”

“I know what it’s like to go hungry.”

He chuckled a stately chuckle. “About here, we all know what it’s like to go… hungry. Maybe in five years you can take Bertie’s station when he pops his clogs.”

“Five years?” Almost choked on the words. Five years of constant abuse and silver eyed customers for maybe an extra quid an hour?

Mr. Denny’s shoes clopped on the shiny, yellow-tooth coloured floor that had once been white.

“I can do it,” I shouted after him. “Whatever to help this company succeed. You tell me, and it’s done. Anything.”

A moonlight gleam was in his eyes like a hawk staring down its prey. “Shop’s shut tomorrow, but you come on down. Let you directly see the contribution you can make. How about that?”

Despite feeling like my soul and my body had been hit by a train, I was buzzing by the time I got home that night. A special meeting with the big boss himself. I was well and truly on my way. Those bastards that gave me sly digs will be sucking my managerial dick in no time.

“Dad, you alright there?” I said as I took a seat on his armrest.

Snores clicked out his open mouth. This close, I could see from the lines in his face just how worn he was. Hadn’t seen him smile since Mum went. In the hospital, waiting, waiting, waiting. Mum with her tubes, wires and heavy smile saying not to make a fuss. Beep, beep. Beep, beep.

“I’ll make you proud, Mum,” I said. “Do my bit for the family.”

The world felt like it had hit the pause button as I sauntered down to the shop early the next morning. Sunday. No junkies in the alcoves of shops. No customers queuing anywhere. Even the wind was hardly there. Mozzies buzzed around my head in lazy squares like I was a piece of spoiled meat.

Mr. Denny waited in the shadowed doorway for me, looking every bit like he should be smoking a cigar, his hair greasy as a gangster’s.

“Good morning, Mr. Denny,” I said. “What special stuff you got to show me, then?”

“You really don’t stop, do you?”

“Not until we’re relaxing, me and my dad with pints in our hands, watching as Mu…”

“Yes?” he said leaning closer.

The image of Mum with her toes in the sand, face up to the sun, cut a dagger through me as I waited on him unlocking the doors. It was almost a physical pain, harder than any blow George and the other crazy arseholes who worked here had landed in the last two days.

“Doesn’t matter.” I ducked under his arm and into the empty shop.

It smelled as if the place had been lathered with every cleaning product known to the human race, yet the coppery, almondy taste of meat was an undertone that would never leave.

“Weird without all the pressing bodies, eh?” said Mr. Denny, shooting past me and behind the counter.

“Aye,” I said, a lump gathering inside my throat. “Like a sweaty church in here.”

He turned, an amused smile across his sun-wrinkled face. “A church, you say? No one called it that before. But I suppose we do provide a service for the good of the community.”

“How so?”

He cleared his throat and examined the ceiling. “We produce what the people want. What the people need.”

“The stuff that keeps the other butcher shops empty as a finished crisp packet.”

“Indeed. They are jealous of our traditions. The secret ingredients of our produce has been passed down through my family for generations. Centuries. All through Europe they brought it.”

He turned his attention on me. My back straightened. My insides wobbled like they were about to fall out my arse. Keep it together, man. Don’t do anything weird. You’re here to make your mark.

“Want to see how it’s done?” he asked.

“You mean…”

“I can see you’ll do whatever it takes to help us succeed. Your team mates, they’re set in their ways. They don’t care about you. I’ll take you down into the workings and share what only a few trusted people have ever seen. Unless, that is, you just wanna keep your head down and get on with the job?”

Big gulp. It felt as if ice was packed tight in my veins. The shiny points of his teeth when he smiled were more silver than white.

“No, sir,” I said, standing outside the locked door with its green-lit keypad. “Let’s do this thing. I won’t tell anyone what I see. Promise.”

For a flash, the corners of his eyes crunched up like he’d just been told his puppy had been run over. It melted away, then he tipped me a wink. He pushed the buttons without making any effort to conceal the code. Beep, beep, beep, beep. 1-5-6-7.

A rush of cold air covered me like a mist, hitting me with the crisp taste of ice and things frozen. There was an undernote of sweetness to the air as we stepped into the cave-like dark, being enveloped into a large space. As my eyes adjusted, I saw the two doors to the freezers on the far wall.

“Here’s where all the meat is prepped.” He pointed to the rows and rows of silver tabletops with racks of knifes at each one. Mr. Denny flicked a switch and my eyes screamed at me when the lights came on.

I stood there, blinking like an absolute fud for what felt like a whole minute.

“A good man is hard to find. Someone who is true to the cause, knows how to keep secrets. You’ve got something like that in you. Worth your weight, you are.”

Something about the way his eyes crawled up my legs made me want to shit and run. I didn’t know what to expect. Was he going to come closer and try to punch me, or try to stick his tongue down my throat.

“In there is where the most important insertion happens,” he said.

“E-Excuse me?”

“Freezers. Where we keep the goods. Let me show you.”

He made his way over to another heavy door. As I got closer, I could feel the cold radiating off it. The sensation made me go green all over. Must’ve been the nerves. This was really it. I was on my way. Being trusted with all the secrets.

Mr. Denny punched in another code, then set his forehead against the silver freezer door as if breathing it in. “Once I open this door, ain’t no turning back. You’re mine for the rest of your days, got that? And you’ll make the most important contribution to our success here. That will not be forgotten. You’ll be part of the family. Part of the success that keeps the punters coming back and back for more. Always back for more.”

“Oh, hell yeah. Let’s do it.”

“Yes, indeed.”

The heavy door scraped along the metal floor. The noise made something squirm about between my ears.

I walked past him, into the curling mist of the freezer.

As my eyes adjusted, something heavy knocked into me, sending me onto my knees. It was a slab of meat, hung from a hook.

The laugh that escaped me sounded like a giggling school girl. The noise bounced around the space, doubling, tripling in volume.

The meat swayed. The metal of the hook creaked like an old swing at a play park.

“Keep it together, man,” I told myself.

I pictured my mum in her death bed. Her skin had turned porcelain white at the end. Her eyes focused on nothing, gone inside. I wondered what she’d say to me, seeing me in the bowels of the operation, making a mark in such a short time. Stuck it out longer than most of the young guns that came through the doors of Denny’s only to disappear.

I looked up. The meat rotated slowly in front of me, pale and waxy looking. When I sniffed in, the sweetness of it was dulled, numbed by the misty cold in my nostrils. That cold tried to nip at my bones.

My eyes felt as if they’d creak out my eye sockets.

A gasped exhalation died white around my face.

What had bumped into me was not dead cow.

It was human.

My eyes grew wide, stinging in the icy cold.

Rows and rows of human bodies extended to the end of the freezer. They all didn’t have heads or feet or hands. All primed, hung, ready for the butcher block.

“Now you understand,” said Mr. Denny behind me. He was outlined by the bright light from the room outside.

“T-The boys before me… The ones who worked here who everyone said just disappeared.”

“Some poked their noses in where it shouldn’t be poked. You young ones don’t know how to work hard and show up day after day. Expect everyone to throw you a bone just because you want something bad enough.”

“The customers. They go crazy for it. They’re… They’re eating human meat. You sick bastard. Let me out. I-”

I went to lunge forward, but my boot scraped to a stop on the icy floor. Mr. Denny looked like a glowing shadow. Something evil with only a void for insides. One hand slowly rose up from his side. It was the outline of a gnarly meat hook. I could just make out the silver-toothed smile that rose up his face.

“You’re crazy. Let me out,” I said. “W-Wait. This is another joke, eh? Like the jackets for the potatoes. Ha, ha. Got me good again. Mr. Denny? Y-You can let me out now. Mr. Denny?”

Before my brain could tell my numbing limbs to dart forward, to fight, he slammed the door closed. Darkness crawled all over me as I slapped uselessly at the door.

Mr. Denny’s voice was muffled through the thick steel. “Should’ve kept your head down.”

Paul O’Neill is an award-winning horror writer from Fife, Scotland. He’s an Internal Communications professional who fights the demon of corporate-speak on a daily basis. His works have appeared in Eerie River Publishing’s It Calls From The Doors anthology, the NoSleep podcast, Scare Street’s Night Terrors series, the Horror Tree, and many other publications. His debut collection, The Nightmare Tree, is available now. You can find him sharing his love of short stories on twitter @PaulOn1984.

If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Taxidermy Beach” by Douglas Ford.

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