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Shadow Hour

by C. M. Barnes

The Shadow Hour
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

part 2

The original plan had been to grill all week but, with the arrival of the carcass, Alec and Mira had opted to move the cooking inside. Thankfully, the cabin kitchen was thoroughly outfitted, a reflection of Dad’s final years during which he had spent more time up here than in the city.

Alec’s memory of these years was fuzzy — purposely so — and the only real definition centered on visits to Mom in the hospital. These scenes were fading now too, but they were still unpleasant enough in recollection for him to understand his father’s desire to put distance between himself and the world. His flight was also still memorialized in the cabin’s well-stocked liquor cabinet. Upon arrival this year, Mira had phone-searched the question of whether or not whiskey can go bad. The results had been encouraging.

As Claire and Jennifer were herbivores, Mira had planned out a beans and veggie-skewer dish that would not offend but still fit the outdoorsy spirit of the occasion. Ordinarily, Alec would have been leery of solely doing vegetables on the cabin grill. The grill was old, had but one very hot setting, and seemed liable to blast-off should it be forced to deal with anything but the raw flesh it was accustomed to.

Taking the carcass into consideration, beans indoors sounded like just the thing. Getting them had necessitated a trip down the mountain into town, which existed in the form of a crossroads store about two miles back down the slope. The proprietor, a bearded local in waders who seemed to have stepped bone-dry out of one of the fly-fishing postcards for sale by the register, had mentioned something about a storm. This was not unusual. To the extent that Alec conversed with any of the natives, the weather always factored into the conversation, one of those quaint but vaguely annoying rural culture mandates. Even Dave Tillman could be eloquent on the subject. “Could blow the cork out of a nun’s cunt tonight,” etc.

Alec had paid for the beans and some auxiliary beer and then driven straight back up the hill, but now some dark clouds did seem to be building in the west. They were just starting to tip over another, more distant mountain that scenically backdropped the kitchen window, and he was pretty sure he could smell incoming rain seeping through the duct tape covering the baseball hole. Oh well, no reason the elements shouldn’t provide a little mood lighting for this parlor drama. Dad had even squirreled away a backup generator out in the shed. They were apocalypse-ready up here. They could go full cult-compound at a moment’s notice.

The skewers came out fine in the oven, probably better than they would have over the grill, and Mira had everyone sitting down before Alec could even push drink refills. This was also fine. More whiskey was not going to improve the odds of a successful summit — at least not in the long run — and he was already ahead of the game with his pre-dinner cocktails. No need to pull another Bourbon Street.

Instead, he made a big show of pulling out Claire’s chair and seating her closest to the window. There, she would have no choice but to take in the full grandeur that was viewing dusk come over the valley. From here, the storm clouds only added impressionistic purplish dabs of color to what was already a masterpiece of blushing heaven.

Blushing heaven... not bad. Sometimes Alec surprised himself with his own flights of poetic fancy, especially when he was up here, savoring life at a higher elevation. He’d have to file that one away next to dainty white fist.

“Okay, so there’s a smell,” Claire was saying. “So what? This is the great outdoors. Mother Nature at her zestiest. It’s not like we came up here expecting to find elves baking cookies in the trees.”

Alec poured Jennifer some wine. “It’s not just the smell that concerns us,” he said. “It’s what made the smell.”

“You mean the deer?”

“No. I mean the cat that killed the deer.”

“Must have been some cat.”

Mira nodded at this banal comment in a warm and welcoming way. “You know, it really was,” she said. “I was reading about it, and it turns out that mountain lion sightings are very rare. In a way, we were fortunate to be so close to one. Even the people who live here year around probably go their whole lives without being as close as we were a few nights ago.”

“Or at least they think they do,” Alec added.

“Neat-o,” Claire said. “What a pussy, huh?”

“Indeed,” Alec said. Had Claire just used the word “pussy” at the dinner table? “Anyhow,” he continued, “the sheriff does suspect a female. Apparently, the ladies are more active this time of year. Something to do with mating cycles, with hormones. You know, that kind of thing.” He poured more wine into his own glass, the one set precariously close to his recently re-filled cocktail glass. Then he made a move on Claire’s glass, but she pulled it away and shook a finger at him.

Jennifer giggled. “I’d love to see it,” she said. “This lady mountain lion, I mean.”

I bet you would, Alec thought. “Careful,” he said. “Wishing and getting and all that.”

Jennifer stared into the bloody depths of her fresh wine. “But you didn’t actually see it, did you?” she said. “She was just sort of moving past your window.”

“Like a thief in the night,” Alec said. “Except this thief was dragging one hundred pounds of dead deer behind it, fifty of which is still rotting at the edge of our yard.”

“Yum, yum,” Claire said moronically.

Alec forked a nugget of tofu off his skewer. “How’d you put it? Mother Nature at her zestiest?” Mira tapped his knee under the table, and he twisted his face into what he hoped was a thoughtful expression. “Speaking of which, how are things down at the Women’s Legal Defense Clinic? Still working to rustle up funds?”

Claire bounced her shoulders and sighed. She had a hideous tattoo of either a flaming vagina or an exploding pumpkin on her freckled bicep. “You know how it is,” she said. “We can’t build enough ‘rehabilitation facilities’ for the bankers. Can’t hold enough ‘treatment retreats’ for the lawyers. But when it comes to battered wives, it’s straight to legal aid. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200 dollars.”

“What about the battered wives that are bankers?” Alec said. “What about all the black-eyed lady lawyers?”

Claire shook her finger at him again. “That’s not really the issue, now is it?”

“I’m just saying, having worked about fifty percent of the time on both sides of the divorce line, I know there’s always two sides to the story, especially when both sides are working each other for all their worth. It’s just the nature of the game.”

“And what game is that?”

“The human one, I suppose.”

“Cute,” Claire said. “You have that on a plaque in your office?”

“Guys,” Mira said.

Alec struggled to hold a smile in place. “Okay,” he said. “Sorry. Obviously, I’m not out to screw over battered women.” Mira batted him on the knee under the table. Clearly, she was already in full referee mode.

“And you’re absolutely right,” he added. “It’s a crime the way the man allocates funds. Take our next-door neighbor. I’m pretty sure that guy has not held a job at any point during my natural life, but he still gets support checks. I know because sometimes our mail gets crossed, and I know what those checks look like, because a lot of my clients end up getting them after alimony kicks in. But does that stop Uncle Sam from bankrolling his dirt farm with your tax dollars? Heck no. And it’s not like he’s disabled. You should see his fastball.”

Everyone chewed on this for a while. In the silence, Alec looked down at his plate and found no additional answers in the brown grease coagulating under the nude tongue of an empty skewer. Why did he have to do this? He was not like this with other people. He wasn’t a saint, but he was never the monster he felt settling in behind his eyes and lips whenever Claire and Jennifer were present before him. He also had no reason not to be over what had happened. Whatever grace period he might have enjoyed on that front had long since passed into the dismal, on-again, off-again hostility of the preceding decade.

Here he was, a full-grown — albeit childless — man majestically set up in the mountain retreat of his dead father, and he still couldn’t behave himself — not that childlessness had anything to do with it, at least he didn’t think it did.

Mira was opposed. Why introduce another gaping mouth into a starving world? And he had no interest beyond a dim sub-coital urge to preserve himself beyond the grave. Definitely not the kind of motivation necessary to successfully nurture another human life.

He and Jennifer had talked about it only once near the end of their snake-bit union. He had raised the question after an especially lackluster episode of lovemaking. “Do you want children someday?” he had said, and she had rolled away from him to face the wall. At first, he’d thought she was crying. Then he had realized she was actually nodding. “With me?” he’d added, and the nodding had stopped.

He was about to say something better, a peace offering in the form of a subject change, when the light over the table went out. Its absence was barely noticeable in the rosy light cascading through the window. He might not have noticed it at all if not for the faint hiss that accompanied the bulb’s extinguishment. He looked up into its light-gray eye. Mira and Jennifer were looking up too. Only Claire was still chewing.

‘Well, what the hell,” he said finally. “Believe it or not, that’s never happened to us up here before. Must be an old bulb.”

“It’s not,” Mira said. “I changed them all last summer.”

“You did?”

“Yes, I did.” She looked unhappy, an emotion she also displayed with unsettling grace.

Alec thought about the miraculously living plants on the porch and experienced something like a chill. Just what was he supposed to make of this portentous development? The case of the mysteriously dead bulb. “Then I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “Why don’t we just blame faulty manufacturing and press on with the evening?”

“It’s going to get dark soon, isn’t it?” Jennifer said. “Not a lot of street lights up here.”

“Nor elves in the trees,” Alec added, “as Claire helpfully pointed out.” He really couldn’t stop himself. He waited for another impact under the table, but none landed. This only meant he had strayed even further into dangerous territory. It now seemed at least slightly possible that he could end this night as sole occupant of the cabin. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Once, early in their relationship, he had been far too enthusiastic about trying a new sex thing with Mira. Thoroughly repulsed, she had left him with his pants down in the doorway and embarked on a long march down the mountain through a shadowy 4:00 a.m. Walpurgisnacht of grasping trees.

He’d been so surprised by this turn of events that he didn’t even think of heading her off in the car for an hour. By then, he’d already burned away the rest of the darkness ruminating and analyzing. When he finally overtook her in the dawn light, she’d stopped, banged once on hood of his Outlander, and then climbed in the passenger side. “If you ever — ” she had begun, but he was already pulling a gravel-spitting U-turn back towards the cabin.

“Why doesn’t someone try another light?” Claire said through a mouth brimming with red pepper skins. “Could just be the power.”

“Yes!” Alec said. “The power! Thank you, Claire. Behold, the wondrous clarity of the obvious.”

“God,” Mira said, “would you please knock it off?” She shoved back from the table, strode into the kitchen, and began to flick switches. “Nope,” she called. “Nothing doing. Not the stove light. Not the disposal. ”

“You have a disposal?” Claire said. “We don’t even have a disposal in our apartment.”

Alec leaned back in his chair and felt the floor sway briefly under him. “What can I say? It’s a nice place.”

“Alec?” Mira called from the kitchen. “Oh, Alec?”

Alec let his chair legs thump back to the floor. “Let’s just finish the beans, okay? It’s probably the storm coming in. Must have knocked out a line somewhere. I’ll get the generator fired up after dinner, and then we can all experience the magic of well-executed disaster planning.”

“You have a generator?” Claire said.

“I told you. This place is the tits.”

“Alec!” Mira called again. “It’s going to be dark soon.”

“No worries. We’re close to the moon.”

“As you may or may not recall, we’re not supposed to be wondering around outside after dark, remember?”

Alec picked up his skewer and waggled it in Mira’s direction. “Ah! Also correct! I completely forgot the terror that is our resident thief in the night. Well, you’ll have to forgive me if I’m not exactly quaking in my Chacos, seeing as we’ve got a bullet-proof smell repellant going out there. That is, unless you happen to be a vulture or a fly looking for something even tastier than a pile of shit.”

“Or a large predatory animal,” Claire offered.

“Or a large, predatory animal, a large, predatory pussy, to be specific. But whatever. Obviously, I won’t be winning the women’s vote tonight. Why don’t you all just let the lazy man stew in peace, and, in a few minutes, when I’m good and goddamn ready, I’ll head out to the shed and save us all. Should be plenty of light left.”

“Alec,” Jennifer said softly.

“No,” Mira said. “Let him do what he wants. Clearly, he thinks he knows best.”

“Clearly,” Claire said, still chewing.

Alec made a point of slowly refilling his wine glass.

* * *

To be continued...

Copyright © 2021 by C. M. Barnes

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