Free Them All
“Another burger?” my best friend Martina said as I put one on my slightly chipped white plate. “You’ve already had two.”
I shrugged. “They’re good,” I said. “And it’s an all-you-can-eat café. I can eat as many as I want.”
Martina hesitated, then sighed as she served herself some rice. “Yes, but that much isn’t good for you. Ew, it’s dripping.” She cringed as grease dripped off the burger.
“An oily burger is a good burger. You sure you don’t want one?” I put my tray under her nose and she pushed it away.
“You know I don’t like it when you do that,” she mumbled.
“Sorry,” I said.
“It’s fine. Just don’t take any more,” she said and turned away. She walked through the brightly lit crowded restaurant back to our table, where my Dad was waiting. I made sure she wasn’t looking, then slipped another burger under my bread.
She might have been older, but she couldn’t tell me what to do.
“Eca, why aren’t you eating?” Mum asked. I pushed my fried chicken around my plate.
“Not hungry,” I muttered.
“But you’re always hungry. I made your favorite tonight, see?”
Dad paused, his fork inches from his mouth. He put it down. “She ate four burgers earlier, at the café,” he told her. “The big ones.”
Mum raised her eyebrows. “Four of them? Four?”
“Gave me a stomachache,” I said. My stomach clenched painfully; every time Martina told me not to eat something, I ate it anyway. And then this happened.
I really should’ve listened to her more often.
Mum sighed. “Next time, two at most. Go upstairs, I’ll make you some ginger tea.”
“Thanks,” I said, getting up. I winced as my stomach sloshed again.
I made a mental note not to tell Martina what happened. She loved to gloat.
“Which one should I turn on?” Dad asked me the next day. He was fingering the radio, and I groaned.
“No music,” I insisted. “Please.”
“Why not? You know, there’s this band leader that—”
“I have a headache,” I interrupted him. “Can’t listen.” I didn’t really have a headache, but if I stayed quiet Dad would just go on and on about his favorite bands, the best music of the 21st century… plus, he might’ve started lecturing me on how I shouldn’t hate music. I hated that more than I hated hard rock.
He leaned back into his seat. “A stomachache and a headache? Are you sure you’re not getting sick?”
“No, my stomach is better.” This, at least, was true. Last night was awful, but when I woke up I felt fine.
“Okay,” he said. He sounded uncertain, but let me be. The drive from my school to our house was nearly forty-five minutes, so I had plenty of time to read. I reached into my backpack and brought out the latest book I was reading, Searching for Stardust.
Hardly anything could disrupt me when I was deep inside a book.
Except for that.
I jumped in my seat as a truck went past the window. The back part of it was painted brown with a large picture of a smiling chicken in the middle. But the cartoon hen wasn’t what caught my attention—it’s what was inside the truck. Cages upon cages were stacked inside, made clumsily of wire. The bars were bent out of shape and the metal was rusty, but even worse were the creatures inside.
Chickens. So many chickens.
They were baby chicks, stuffed so hard into the cages that they were standing on top of one another. A few of them had their heads poked dangerously through the wires; some, squished between the other chicks, looked limp and unmoving.
My breath caught in my throat. I only saw the truck for a few seconds, but it felt like forever. It moved past us and I shakily returned to my book, but the words seemed to be floating off the pages and I couldn’t read them.
They… they… they looked so sad. So cramped. Nowhere to move…
Why were they in there?
What was going to happen to them?
I flipped the page. A tear dropped down my face but I wiped it away hurriedly. The truck was probably just bringing them to a petting zoo. Yes, that’s it. They had so many little chicks that they had to pack them all like that, to fit them in one truck. Pretty soon they would be inside a zoo enclosure, running around on grass and pecking at bugs.
That’s all it was. Nothing more.
I turned back to the page I was on, convinced that nobody meant those babies any harm. But there was an uneasy gnawing in my stomach, and I knew it had nothing to do with the burgers I ate the day before.
“How was your day?” Martina asked me. I held the phone to my ear with one hand and wiped the table with the other.
“Same as always,” I replied. I dropped the rag onto the counter and brought out the tablecloth.
“Oh. Really? Nothing new?” Martina always seemed to be interested in what I was doing. She was very hesitant to talk about her own life after her father passed away. That was why she became vegan in the first place—her dad died of coronary heart disease from eating too much meat.
Maybe that’s why she was so stuck on making me become vegan, too. Maybe she didn’t want to lose me.
I searched my brain for something new to tell her. Then I remembered the chickens. “I saw a really big truck,” I told her. “It was filled with baby chickens. Probably taking them to a petting zoo or something.” My heart began to beat louder, because I knew it wasn’t the truth.
No, it had to be. It had to be the truth.
I heard Martina hitch her breath. “Eca…” she said slowly, “they aren’t going to a petting zoo. They’re going to—”
“I have to go,” I said suddenly. “I have to do chores.”
“But you’re doing them right now,” she said.
“Doesn’t matter. Bye.” I hung up before she could say anything else.
Before she could tell me where those chickens were really going.
A few days passed, and I forgot all about the truck. I was nervous that Martina would bring it up at school, but she didn’t say anything. She seemed to know I didn’t want to talk about it.
When Saturday afternoon came, Dad went to the gas station shop to get a loaf of bread. Mum was home and I would have rather stayed with her than go on a five-minute errand (and in the midday heat, no less) with my father, but she made me go too. “Five minutes alone is better than nothing,” she said.
Right. But she could have spent them with me.
“I’ll stay in the car,” I said to Dad as he parked.
“Okay. I’ll be back in a couple minutes,” he said as he climbed out. I sighed and leaned my face against the window, smudging the glass. Martina and I were going to spend our Saturday watching a movie at the mall, but her mother wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t take us. Dad suggested driving us instead, but Martina wanted to stay home and take care of her. She was always scared that someone else she loved was going to die. Once, when her little brother had a cold, she stayed home from a party to nurse him back to health. With her father gone, she needed to hold on to the people she had left.
A loud sound interrupted my thoughts, and I saw a motorcycle go past our car and park close to us. Tied to the back of it was a large crate, and there was something inside.
Hens, by the looks of it. I couldn’t see them very well from here, but I could tell they were just as cramped together as those chicks in the truck. The driver got off and walked towards the store.
Without really thinking about what I was doing, I unlocked the door and stepped outside. The sun beat viciously down on my neck and quickly brought out sweat, but I didn’t care. I needed to see the chickens—properly.
I quickly stepped over to the motorcycle and peered inside. What I saw made my heart break.
The chickens looked like death itself. They were unnaturally fat, nearly crushing each other with their weight. Bald patches covered their skin, and the feathers that they did have were dirty and brown. The tips of their beaks had been cut off, and tears prickled my eyes. Who would be so unkind as to do this to such a harmless, defenseless creature?
They looked at me pitifully. I reached out a hand and lightly touched one of them on the head—but it shrunk away from the touch, as if it was scared of me. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
I looked over to the store and saw my dad come out. I took one last glance at the hens, then ran as fast as I could into the car.
“You look a little strange,” he remarked as he buckled himself in. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” I said quietly. I had this feeling that he wouldn’t understand if I told him.
The moment we got home, I ran upstairs to my room. Then I collapsed on the bed and started crying, burying my face into my pillow to hide the noise.
Nobody would understand. Nobody would understand how hurt I was when I saw those chickens.
I wiped my nose with my hand and reached into my pocket, bringing out my phone. I dialed Martina’s number and she picked up on the first ring.
“Eca? What’s the matter?” she asked. “Do I hear you crying?”
I sniffed. “Yes,” I said. “I need to tell you something.”
“Go ahead,” she said kindly.
And so I told her. I told her about the chickens, about how broken they looked and how they were squished together so tightly. “I don’t understand why anyone would do that,” I said to her.
“Eca, this is what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Martina said. “Those chickens come from factory farms.”
“What’s a factory farm?” I asked.
“It’s where most milk, eggs and meat come from. The people who run them want to produce food in the cheapest way possible. It’s usually a huge building, filled with small cages or stalls where the only concern is getting money from the animals.” She pauses, and I hear her turning on the stove.
I felt sick. I didn’t want her to continue, but I had to know. “Keep talking,” I said.
“Well, they’re terrible places. Chickens are either smashed together in cages, or piled in a huge room where there are so many of them that they trample each other to death. When they hatch eggs, they only want females. Any male chicks are killed in the most gruesome way; baby cows are separated from their mothers at birth so her milk can be saved for humans, pigs get their tails and teeth cut out when they’re babies, and so much more.” Martina sounded angry now. Not at me, but at those people who run the farms.
So was I.
“We need to stop it,” I told her. “We need to help them.”
“There’s too many,” Martina said gently.
“But I need to do something!” I cried.
“You can,” she replies. “You know you can.”
“Mum, Dad…” I stood in the sitting room, in front of my parents. They were sitting on the couch and looking at me with concerned expressions. My eyes were still red; they could probably tell I’ve been crying.
“I want to be vegan.”
The words hung in the air. Mum stared at me in shock, and Dad just looked unbelieving.
“But you love meat,” Mum said.
“I did,” I said. “But that was before I knew where it came from. I’ve changed, and you should too.”
“It’s probably just a phase,” Dad said to Mum as if I wasn’t in the room. “Some crazy phase.”
“It’s not a phase!” I said angrily. “Eating meat is murder. Animals get hurt every day, they experience more pain than we can ever imagine. Don’t you understand?”
Mum shook her head. “This is your choice,” she said. “But like Dad said, I’m sure you’re just going through a stage. You can eat vegetables all day if you want to, but we’re sticking to our usual diet.” She got up from the couch and walked into the kitchen, where I knew she was going to make fried chicken again for dinner.
When Monday came, I was about to collapse. All I was been able to eat for the past two days was bread, fruits and vegetables, and some jam. We didn’t really have anything else that’s vegan in the house; with my love of meat and Mum’s addiction to dairy, our pantry mostly consisted of chicken and cheese.
Martina sat next to me at lunch; there was nothing vegan in the cafeteria, and I didn’t bring anything since I assumed there’d be something for me to eat.
“Here. I thought you might like this,” she said. She handed me a slice of pizza.
“But this has cheese and pepperoni on it,” I pointed out. “I can’t eat it.”
“It’s not real, silly,” she said. “Try it.”
I took a bite and realized that I might not be missing out on anything after all.
Weeks passed. Martina gave me a steady supply of vegan food that tasted just like the real thing; perhaps I didn’t have to have a diet of lettuce and carrots after all.
But it still didn’t feel like enough. A few days later Martina and I made signs that said things like, GO CRUELTY FREE! Or FREE THEM ALL; STOP EATING OUR ANIMALS!
We held them up in school corridors between classes. A few people glanced at us and smiled, some laughed, and a few ignored us completely. But it still felt like I wasn’t truly doing anything good, like I wasn’t making a difference.
I rode my bike through the park, pondering this. I wished there was something more I could do, but I couldn’t think of anything.
“Mama, look at the chickens!” a little boy cried. I looked to where he was pointing and my heart skipped a beat.
There it was again. A motorcycle filled with chickens.
I couldn’t let them die. I couldn’t.
I cut through the path, riding as fast as my legs would go. My legs were burning and my eyes watered. I chased after the motorcycle, fear blooming in my chest. What if I hit a car? What if I crashed? What if I fell and lost sight of the chickens?
But I didn’t. I kept riding until the motorcycle stopped at the same gas station where I had seen the hens. The driver got off and began to fill the bike with gas. Breathing heavily and with sweat dripping down my forehead, I approached him.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Uncle?” I noticed that the chickens were babies, fluffy and yellow. I couldn’t help but imagine where they were going, and what would happen to them when they grew up.
He looked up. “What?” he said.
“I…” I tried to catch my breath. “I want those chickens.”
I couldn’t see his face through his helmet, but I could tell he was annoyed. “You want all, ah?”
I didn’t think Mum and Dad would like that.
But I couldn’t let them die.
I had to save at least one.
“How much for one of them?” I asked.
“40 RM,” he answered.
I knew he was cheating with the price, but I didn’t care. I had 100 RM, courtesy of my birthday money. “Good,” I said, reaching into my pocket. I counted out forty and gave it to him.
He reached over, picked up one of the chicks, and handed it to me. It nestled into my palm and I felt shaky, both from what I accomplished and the fact that I had a chicken in my hand.
I saved one.
I named her Zip, because she liked to run. Mum and Dad weren’t too happy that I brought a chick home, but after pleading nonstop for an hour straight and explaining what would have happened to her had I not bought her, they relented. Dad built a small coop for her in the backyard, and Martina often came over to play with her.
I was in heaven. I saved a life. I couldn’t save them all, but I saved her—and every life counts.
Four months later, Zip grew into a beautiful hen. She had feathers of brown, black, yellow and blue, and paraded around our yard like she owned the place.
But she was very loud.
She clucked every day, so loud that the neighbors started complaining. “She has to go, Eca,” Mum told me one fateful day.
I didn’t want to let her go. I loved her too much.
But I had to; they said that if I didn’t ship her away soon, the police would come and take her away to a place where she’d be turned into meat. And I couldn’t let that happen. Dad drove me to a farm sanctuary out in the country, where she could walk around with other chickens and cluck all she wanted. Martina came too, and as I watched her run around in the grass with her new friends, she said something I’ll never forget.
“You can’t free them all, Eca,” she told me. “But you saved one. And I’m proud of you.”