by C. M. Barnes
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
The door to the Tillman home was graced with either a cross or a sword. Alec could not tell which in the darkness, and neither would have been that surprising. He knocked under it, conscious of never, in all his time on the mountain, having knocked on it before.
The ragged eye of a dismembered doorbell hung out of the surrounding frame on an exposed nerve of wire. It looked like a booby trap and, when he closed his hand around the button, he expected his whole body to vibrate with shock, but nothing happened. No shock, also no sound.
He remembered the lack of power and hammered on the door again. While hammering, he noticed a crumpled silvery thing hanging loose in the branches of a shrub drooping over the Tillman stoop. It looked pearly in the moonlight — the sky really was beginning to clear — and at first he thought it was the skin of some kind of big nocturnal worm. He slid his fingers against its pale and greasy skin. It was a condom. Shocked, he accidentally flipped it against the door where it stuck under the cross or sword.
Drake opened the door. “What?” He was not wearing a shirt.
“Hey, it’s me, Alec, your neighbor.”
Drake shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his shorts. “I know who you are.”
“Great. Listen, I talked to your dad a little while ago, and I haven’t seen him since. Is he here?”
The condom was peeling its luminescent way off the door and into the black interior of the Tillman home. Could Drake see it too? Impossible to say.
“Why do you want to talk to Dad?” Drake said.
“I don’t. I mean, I would, but—”
“He’s not here.”
Alec scanned for signs of his father’s old rifle within the doorframe but saw nothing. At least the kid hadn’t shot him on the step. “You see, we lost our power,” he said. “And your dad and I, we were going to get that generator up and running. You know, the one that lives in our shed?”
Drake scratched between his nipples. They looked huge and shadowy in the moonlight spreading out across the pale valley of his broad chest — two raccoon eyes blinking at each other across a wide crevasse of snow. “We lost our power too,” he said. “Me and Dad were watching the game.”
“So I heard.”
“Game seven. Chance to clinch.”
“Indeed. So when was the last time you saw him? Your dad, I mean? Because the last time I saw him, he was standing in my backyard with a gun, and now all I have is the gun.”
“You got Dad’s gun?”
“In a matter of speaking.”
“Dad would never drop his gun.”
“I suspected as much.”
Drake craned his anvil-like head out the door and stared at Alec intently. “If you got Dad’s gun,” he said slowly, “then where is it?”
What did the kid think? That Alec had vanquished his father in a duel and should now be carrying around his weapon? “It’s back at my place,” Alec said as neutrally as he could. “Don’t worry. It’s in good hands.”
Drake scratched again. “Wait here. I’ll go get the Mag, and we can go find him.”
“Oh, no,” Alec said, “hold up there.” He laughed in a screechy way he didn’t recognize. Then he surprised himself by reaching across the Tillman threshold to put a hand against Drake’s wrist. It was a very large wrist for an eighth-grader, a very meaty wrist.
Whenever Alec got a new gold watch — a purchase he made every three years minimum — he always had to endure the jeweler’s condescending shock at having to take out so many links in the band during the fitting. “Somebody needs to be here when he gets back,” Alec said. “He might be lost or even hurt. I’m sure he’s not. I’m sure he’s just fine. But all the same.”
Drake looked down at Alec’s hand against his wrist. When he looked up again, his outthrust jaw caught the moonlight in a way that reminded Alec of a carnivorous fish. “Why would Dad be hurt?”
Alec drew his hand back and threw both of his own skinny, hairless arms up in the air. “I haven’t the faintest idea, bud. He might have slipped somewhere. He might have bonked his noggin. Maybe he ran into Sasquatch. The possibilities are really endless. The point is that you should stay here and be ready for any given scenario. I hear you have a gun of your own.”
“I just said I got the Mag.”
“Right! The Mag. Fantastic. So you’re fully briefed on the lioness threat then?”
Drake raised his bare foot and scraped a toenail down the inside of the door in the direction of the condom. It peeled off the wood under the weight of his foot and flopped down onto a scraggly welcome mat. “Got myself a clean shot on that carcass,” Drake said. “Got that Mag leveled right out the kitchen window. Holy shit! You think that mountain lion got Dad? We gotta go—”
“No, no!” Alec almost shouted. How could the kid just be thinking of that now? “No chance of that. Those big cats don’t like people. No one ever even sees them.” He felt himself warming to this subject. “Seriously, if that bitch was around, she smelled your dad a year ago and cleared out like a thief in the night.”
“The thief in the night is coming,” Drake said.
“He is coming like a thief in the night,” Drake said. “Know your Bible.”
“Okay. Well, in any case, that mountain lion probably doesn’t have anything to do with anything. In fact, I think it’s very possible there is no mountain lion. That deer probably just killed itself to ruin my vacation. Now stay here. I’ll be back to tell you what’s what in a second.”
Something yowled off in the darkness. The sound was like a bedsheet being violently torn, a sheet with all the unwillingness to part as some thick neck flesh separating down a raw seam of a bone.
“You’re plumb crazy!” Drake said.
“Stay here. I still don’t think anything happened to your dad, but you’ve got to give me a chance to investigate. Otherwise, you and me are going to be stumbling around in the dark all night just trying to find each other. I don’t want to get shot just because I happen to look like a big pussy.”
Drake crooked his thick head at this and stared at him.
Alec stumbled back from the door. This morning, the idea that a creature might lunge out of the forest to claw him into pieces had seemed absurd. Now, it felt almost natural to resign himself to this chance. It would either happen or it wouldn’t. The binary was that simple and also that terrible. He laughed in a way he meant to sound reassuring. It did not. “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, bud. You just sit tight and man the battlements. I’ll be right back.”
Drake loomed forward in the doorway. His big fists were clenched against the sharp ridges of his jutting hips. “I ain’t your bud, dude.”
“No, you are not, but do me this one favor anyway.”
As he hobbled back from the door, the boy’s body faded into a pale statue carved against a square of purest black. Another yowl cut the night from the direction of the trees. This one sounded closer. The sword or cross door swung shut.
* * *
The sky was fully clear now, and the Tillman yard was lit by a big mountain moon. Under this new light, the bushes and trash along the property line cast clingy shadows in the direction of Alec’s approach. He paused a few feet out from them and squinted into the alcove that housed the carcass.
He could see where the bushes had first been disturbed by the cat. Their limbs were still brutally bent and doubled back over each other. Some were twined deep into the cyclone wire or twisted into torturous formations that reminded him of gargoyles.
Below them, the darkness thickened to a point that hid the carcass itself, but it was easy enough to visualize from memory. The deer’s head was thrust back over its spine. Its antler buds now made contact with its lacerated rump. One of its hind shanks had been raggedly torn off and drug away. “Likely as not,” the sheriff had said, “you’ll find that leg hung up a tree somewhere nearby. They prefer to do that — string up their kills so they can more easily strip the flesh.”
The only thing different was the smell. It had always been invisible, but now it was also fainter, more the ghost of a scent than a scent itself. It was still present, still clinging, corrupted and toxic, to everything around him, but it was no longer so palpable that he could not draw a breath.
After three nights of tying bandanas over his nose just to move east of the garage, he was now having no trouble standing here, mere feet away from the source, drawing fast, panicked draughts of air. There was no way the rain could have washed away so much stink, and this also left few other possibilities.
The yowling cut through the night again, or maybe this time only through his mind. He looked down at his feet, and, yes, there did appear to be depressions in the lawn — large depressions that glistened around him in the dewy light. They sank down into the mud under the yard and dwarfed his sandal tracks to the point he could have easily stepped into one of them.
He also saw what appeared to be the wake of something heavy recently drug over the grass, something heavy and also juicy if the sticky sensation he was now picking up with his palm could be trusted.
He straightened up, stepped away from the fence, and looked back over his shoulder toward the Tillman home. Nothing. No light. No sign of Drake drawing a bead on him through a blackened window frame.
He looked forward over the fence into his own yard. The outline of the porch was clearly visible against the big valley view window. Dad had installed that window to, in his words, capture the visual majesty of the mountain, a nice poetic turn of his own. Now, Claire was likely as not in a sniper crouch under that frame, prepared to hollow out anything foolish enough to rear its head. Or maybe it was Jennifer down in the crouch. This was harder to picture, but he tried to visualize her one soulful, Alec — blackened eye squinting over a rifle barrel. KNOW YOUR ABUSER.
He couldn’t do it. All he could see was the rifle barrel glinting in the moonlight as it aimed itself. Still, she or Claire must have heard the yowls, or Mira would have clued them in. Everyone was fully prepared and in their places, everyone but him. He was out here in no-man’s-land and in danger of getting mauled by a predator.
He sidestepped as quickly as he could along the fence line. There was an opening at the far end where it ran up against the trees, a little step-around just large enough to admit a person. Dad had probably designed it that way. Every man should have such an outlet.
On that first drive back from the cabin, Dad had made a passionate argument about the need for such things. It wasn’t a valid argument, Alec had known that even at the time, but he had listened attentively and nodded in the right places.
The argument had to do with why his father’s hands had recently contacted his mother’s face. More specifically, why Alec had had to witness his own mother raising her pale palms to protect herself from the blows of the man now sitting next to him. Apparently, there had been some misunderstanding, some confusion about reasonable expectations, one that he would understand when he was older, but that he probably couldn’t understand right now.
Really, the point of the argument was not the blows, Dad had explained. The point was the expectations, and how, really, they were a perfect trap. You were always doomed to fail and, once you failed, all you could do was try to pick up the pieces as gracefully as possible. This wasn’t easy. No one could do it perfectly, but the trying was the important part. The trying was what made you a man, and he was trying mightily, but he was also no skulk of a coward willing to cringe his life away in a prison of someone else’s making. “You have to try like no one has ever tried before, bud. But you also can’t let someone put you into a prison or else you die inside. Whenever someone tries, you’ll need an escape, even if it’s ugly to the bone.”
A skulk, fourteen-year old Alec had pointed out, was the word for a group of foxes, an interesting bit of information he had recently picked up from science class. A much older Alec took a second step toward the dubious safety of the trees. As if to mock this move, another yowl sliced through the dark. He froze mid-step over his lame foot. That call couldn’t have been further off than the road, not if its blood-freezing quality was any indicator.
He turned and scanned that sluice of moonlit gravel for signs of life. Nothing, not that he would have been able to see anything anyway. Not that anyone ever saw anything, not until it was too late. He took another step toward the woods but kept his eyes on the road. Dave had joined the ranks of these silent witnesses — that much was obvious now — which made for quite a haul: the deer, Dave, and now, quite possibly, Alec.
Like it or not, he might also end this night strung up a tree somewhere, his bones forever condemned to hang in neighborly proximity to Tillman bones. He took another step, then another, and was almost to the tree line when he saw a wraith-like shadow cross over the road. Except it would have to be the mother of all wraiths to be visible from this distance. It was moving low to the ground.
“Mira?” he called out softly. “Claire?” He didn’t hear anything, but his pulse was slamming around too hard in his head to be sure. “Drake?” he called louder now, still backing toward the woods. “Dave?”
Branches stabbed into his back. He groped out to his side for the edge of the fence and caught the end pole in a flailing grip. “Claire!” Now he was shouting. “Jennifer!” He ducked under the branches behind the fence and crouched under the trees.
The big wraith wasn’t visible, but it had looked to be heading in his direction. He was squatting directly in its path. Being anywhere would be better than here. He took a big breath and plunged out on the other side of the fence into the cabin yard. “Claire!” he screamed. “Jennifer! She’s coming! She’s coming for me right now! Mira—”
He did not hear the sound. He only felt the bite of something massive burrowing a single fang into his throat. It knocked him back into the trees, and he bounced off a trunk before falling forward at the edge of the yard. As he went down, he saw something huge and dark streak by him into the forest. It was big enough to cast a shadow over the whole lawn, big enough to block out the stars, but it was also silent.
Before he could see where it went, his head fell away in the opposite direction of the cabin. Now he saw legs approaching, could hear some people talking, a few melodious female voices singing back and forth through the dark. Pale feet were skipping towards him over the grass, and, above them, floated the rifle. It was hovering over him now, its glimmering barrel channeling the moon, its trigger surrounded by a dainty white fist.
Copyright © 2021 by C. M. Barnes