From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

COSMIC POWERS

Fiction

Absolute Zero

“If it were only you naked on the grass, who would you be then?
And I said I wasn’t really sure, but I would probably be cold.”
—Phillip Glass, “Freezing”

When Max Beecham was eight years old, his mother Deena (delirious from antihypertensives) gave him a Polaroid and then lay down on the carpet behind him. Inside the white border of this photograph lurked a thing with the naked body of a gaunt man and the head of a dark, decayed stag. It sat on a tree stump the way neighborhood men sat on bar stools, surrounded by a cavalry of thin, burned trees. Max almost recognized this nightmare place as Digby Forest, a festering infection of wild land on the edge of Cripple Creek. In the dusk the image was shadowless and tense, as if that black-eyed Stag-Man meant to lunge out of its frame. As if it was only waiting for Max to look away.

“What is it?” Max asked.

“That’s your father,” said Deena. She had her back to him. Her thin cotton dress stretched to translucency across her long torso. He could see the shape of her vertebrae. “You’re always asking, so there he is.”

He thought she was joking and he turned to prod her, but she had fallen asleep. He put the Polaroid face down on the carpet and pressed his fingers against his eyeballs. It was the first thing in his life that he wished he could unsee. He would hear later that time heals all wounds, but the deep slice in his heart that this picture created never got any better. The next summer Max tried to walk Fallspur Bridge for the right to join the Petrinos on the other side, but halfway across and already wobbling, he looked up and saw the Stag-Man crouched in the trees behind the Petrinos. And the bastard never left him alone; the Stag-Man watched him try to impress the slouching upperclassmen, the tall blonde girls in athletic shorts and shirts that claimed them as the property of Jesus. He might win himself a little respite—when he was concentrating on a math exam, for example—but as soon as his mind unclenched, the Stag-Man would be there: looking in the window, waiting behind the fence.

During this time, his mother went on disability. She nearly drowned in the bathtub twice—when he pulled her out she said she was trying to “get back to herself.” This was a lie. He knew that she was trying to get back to that thing, that Stag-Man.

“Why did you tell me?” he’d shout at her when he got older. By that time she had confined herself to her rocking chair, with her gaze fixed on their lopsided black locust tree. No, it was not their tree—it was older than he was, and he knew she wouldn’t have planted it. It was no one’s tree, and maybe that was why it had grown up crooked. “Why didn’t you just keep this shit to yourself? You could have lied to me, you know. It’s not like I would’ve known.”

Max flapped the Polaroid in her face—his mother did not respond. He had tried to destroy the photo but every time he took it to the backyard with a lighter, some bony inner feeling stopped him. So it lived in his closet in a taped-up shoebox, supposedly contained.

“Why did you tell me!” he shouted. “Come on, mom!” The urge swelled to seize her and wrestle her to the floor—anything to break her out of the stasis that had closed in around her like a hard coat of amber. He grabbed the chair instead, swung it around so that she couldn’t look at the tree anymore. He immediately wished he hadn’t. Her miserable, time-eaten gaze felt like the swing of an iron bar.

“You didn’t like what you saw?” She was breathing shallowly. When she sighed it sounded like wind rushing through a pipe. “Bummer.”

She and the tree died that winter. The end was very hard. Deena fought the hospital staff with long-dormant claws whenever they rolled into her room with needles and droopy bags of liquid medicine. “Fuck your poison,” she would say. The hospital was two hours away from Cripple Creek, and the neighbor who drove Max in and out of the city always fishtailed on the icy roads. The flat white landscape would spin past with no beginning and no end; the neighbor would mumble obscenities, and Max would think ecstatically about dying. At first the tree went on without her, its branches twisting round its trunk, but Max burned it down.

Max’s grandmother, Rowena, came down from Vertigo to see him through high school. She shed no tears for the one she called her lost child. “She was gone by the time she walked out of those woods pregnant with you,” said Grandma Ro. “So I’ve been mourning your whole life.”

#

Years later, after Grandma Ro had passed on (she died in her daughter’s bedroom; Max taped the door shut afterwards, designating the room “condemned”), Tom Lowell caught something large and alarming on the edge of his property. By then Max was twenty-six and working at Ticonderoga Mills, buying wheat from the ragged, leftover farms of Cripple Creek. Whenever prices dropped, Max would see them leaning heavy against their trucks, eyes to the dirt. Sometimes they cussed him out. Max reasoned that they shouldn’t have been clinging to their backwards lifestyle anyway. He hated their excuses: Their fathers’ fathers had cultivated that land for generations, and now the grains were in their blood. “What if your fathers’ fathers have been killing for generations,” he would mutter to himself. “What then?”

Then you strip yourself down to the smallest, purest molecules and rebuild yourself up to something better, that’s what. Max thought that he had pretty well succeeded at this—at least he did not see those eyes in the mirror anymore, at least he had a job and a girl and a house (his mother’s house, but still)—but then Tom Lowell started running around town saying that he was charging twenty dollars to see the Meanest Looking Thing on Earth, this Devil’s Child. Max began to feel the Polaroid staring at him from inside the shoebox again.

Nothing very strange had happened in Cripple Creek in the years between Max’s birth and the capture of what Tom Lowell christened The Creeker—aside from the woman who ran the plant nursery, Chastity Dawes, getting pregnant out of nowhere and giving birth to a small fawn. The hospital had the creature euthanized, despite the mother’s objections. But other than that, life in Cripple Creek had been normal. Progress continued apace. The racetrack, the shopping mall, the microbrewery. They were on track to match Grand Island in annual revenue. God knew theirs was a community on the rise.

Kevin from work wanted to see The Creeker. He wanted to see it so he could laugh at it, and at Tom Lowell. “It’s probably just some two-headed cow,” Kevin said. “Lowell’s a nut, you know. I heard he went hunting for some Demon Razorback of Arkansas once.”

Of course Max knew what this Creeker was, in the bowels of his soul. It was the Stag-Man. It was his …

And then he would have to go to the restroom and cradle his head between his knees. Maybe he shouldn’t have gone. On the drive over, his stomach was flipping so badly that he couldn’t talk. But it would have looked strange if he’d bowed out—he’d gone to mock the “crop circles” out at Rookshire, after all—and besides, his depraved subconscious just couldn’t let go of the image of Tom Lowell’s farm and the captive creature behind its fence. In the days before they finally went to the farm his world had warped into a tunnel, a vortex like the one at Rapid City, with all furniture and foliage blurring together and everything hurtling toward a pair of eyes like lumps of coal.

Caridee Lowell, sixteen years old with eyes sunken from methamphetamine, sold red tickets out of a tin lunchbox. “To your left,” she hissed after taking their bills. There was no need for directions; the bright yellow fireworks tent was visible all the way down Cahokia Drive.

The tent was surprisingly quiet. The dozen people gathered inside would knock heads to whisper to each other, but all their eyes were fixed upon one location: a metal crate on the far side of the tent, large enough to shuttle a cow. “It’s one of Murray’s old transport cages,” Tom Lowell said. Several years ago there had been a short, ugly attempt at a town zoo—both the Ag Department and Fish and Wildlife had to get involved. The surviving animals had all been taken away, supposedly, but one reasonable theory argued that this Creeker was some mutated, mutilated escapee. Angry with man. Hungry for revenge. An old story. “It’s for handling wild animals, so don’t worry. He won’t getcha.”

And there, in the cage, was the Stag-Man. After years of staring at a three-inch image in a palm-sized Polaroid, its immense size overwhelmed Max. He would have needed to stoop to get inside that cage, but the Stag-Man had to sit, cramped, its knees to its chin. Its four-foot antlers flared out from its cervine head like skeleton-wings. Max could see immediately that it was too big for this cage, too big for this tent. Its skin was loose—it was not feeding enough. His slow-burning father, the monster. The captive. Why was it just sitting there? What was it thinking? Dread crawled up his throat. He felt fear, yes, but also the early twinges of sympathy.

Max and Kevin heard the nervous mumbling as they pushed to the front—“Where the hell did that thing come from?” “What’s it doing here?”—but no one wanted to answer, because no one really wanted to know. Sometimes after they asked these questions they would cough and pat their chests, as if they had accidentally invited themselves down some terrible internal rabbit hole. The ones that simply said, “I don’t know what to say” fared better. Kevin whispered “No fucking way” with his eyes glazed, and Max was thinking, “Father.”

Up close the scent of rank earth nearly knocked them down. Max could barely believe the Stag-Man was real and tangible and capable of bleeding—it had made so much more sense as a dream-spirit, his mother’s Boogeyman. He stared at the beast for fifteen minutes, helpless, trapped like a rabbit in a snare. He thought it was because the Stag-Man knew him as a son but post-tent conversation would reveal that everyone in the Creeker’s presence thought it was staring them in the eye, holding them rapt.

A little girl standing beside Max clutched the bars as if she was the one imprisoned. She was watching the Creeker breathe, so it seemed, and sobbing quietly the entire time.

#

There were casualties. Unlike the Big Eats Barbecue, Tom Lowell’s show did not spread joy. People left the tent either stone silent or pissing mad, bickering about “that one night in Reno” and “what you did with my father’s money.” The biggest casualty that night was Pastor Connor from the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. He had come to pressure Tom Lowell into closing down the show, but of course had to look at the exhibit first. It was a mistake. After staring at the Creeker for several minutes he ran out of the tent, shoving his own parishioners aside, and collapsed on the grass with his hands to his heart. Kevin called an ambulance and Elise Buckley fed him aspirin, but it was too late.

“Ah, geez,” said the kid in the paramedic uniform. “I told him not to go.”

“You’ve seen the Creeker?” asked Kevin.

“I went opening night,” said the paramedic-kid. “I was freaking out for a whole week. Kept thinking about all the squirrels I shot coming back rabid and biting me in my sleep.” He tried to laugh. “Fucking weird, right?”

After Pastor Connor was lifted into the back of the ambulance the rest of them stood in a circle with their hands in their pockets. They were more distressed by the Creeker than by Pastor Connor’s death, which seemed like a just response to that monstrous aberration. A small child screamed from some parked car—they glanced up, but dropped their chins when they heard the stern voice of a disciplinarian-father. Finally Elise Buckley lit a cigarette and started to talk.

“I guess it was a bad summer, if that thing’s wandering out of Digby this time of year. Isn’t that what happens with bears? If they’re scavenging in October, you gotta figure it’s because they didn’t get to feed enough in the summer. Feeding on what, I don’t know. People’s lost dogs, I guess.”

After this little burst they fell quiet again, thinking about dogs they had lost, and horses that had supposedly run away, and then the really unpleasant stuff: the missing people. There had been no more than a handful in the past ten years, but how the news stations had dwelled upon those unlucky few. Everyone around for the last census remembered at least one. Even the missing migrant workers were considered tragedies. They must be cold out there, people said.

“That thing’s not ours,” Kevin mumbled into his gloved hands. “It’s not our problem.”

Elise shook her head, took a big drag, and walked away. “I really hate all of you people.”

Then it was just Max and Kevin watching for shadows on the darkened grass. “I saw a chupacabra once,” whispered Kevin. “I was visiting my grandparents in Texas. It was the middle of the night when I heard it howling. It killed my favorite goat.”

The Stag-Man was some kind of witch, Max decided. In all the years that he had known these people, nothing else had warped them so. He knew what Kevin and Elise and everyone else was feeling—like they were wobbling on the lip of a great dark funnel—because he had suffered the power of the Stag-Man’s gaze every night since he was eight. Max wanted to tell them this, but like hell would he admit to his friends and neighbors that he shared any blood with that thing in Tom Lowell’s cage. He had a brief moment of panic: what if Kevin saw some familial resemblance between his long features and that of the Stag-Man? He frantically rubbed his face. He was feeling for rough fur and a soft wet snout, but all he got was dry human skin. When he was twelve he had asked his mother if he had anything in common with the Stag-Man, and now he heard her reply: “Believe me,” she’d said, with a snort, “You’re nothing alike.”

#

Mallory Jablonski taught fifth grade at Cripple Creek Elementary. It was the same school Max had attended, but they were not schoolyard sweethearts—she grew up in Lincoln, and she had the straight teeth and designer jeans to prove it. She’d been on a school dance squad, which Max understood to be a mythical troupe of hot girls in black leotards that would never be permitted at Cripple Creek High, where even the cheerleaders wore turtlenecks and chastity rings. Mallory had been on a class trip to New York. She liked sushi. All sorts of things, and still she radiated that earthy glow of harvest corn. Mallory was cultured; Mallory was genuine. He drove her around town slowly, with the windows down, because damn if his classmates wouldn’t be surprised that he managed to catch a girl like that. Mallory always laughed when they stopped at intersections. “Traffic’s real bad today,” she’d say. It was funny because there was no such thing as traffic in Cripple Creek.

When the Creeker became the talk of the town she asked him to take her to see it. “All my students are talking about it,” she said. “Have you seen it?”

He thought of the Polaroid. The slow-burning eyes. “Yeah.”

“And? Is it scary?” She bit her nails, grinning. She probably thought it was some pathetic artifact of rural Americana, a cousin of cow-tipping and haystack rides. “No, don’t tell me. I want to see it myself.”

Max took her to the Lowell farm that Friday. The carnival tent was fraying now that the first of the cold fronts were moving in. Mallory had been talkative as they crossed the pesticide-yellow grass, but in the presence of the Stag-Man, she approached the cage as if in a trance. She knelt down at the bars the way she did at Mass and looked soulfully, silently into the Stag-Man’s eyes. Max felt acid bubble into his throat. They were exchanging secrets and truths, he could just tell. She was in communion with the same incubus that had seduced his mother. He would have yanked her out of that deferential pose by her hair, but Mallory stood up just as he was reaching down. She stuffed her hands in her sweatshirt pockets.

“Let’s go, I want to go,” she mumbled. “I don’t feel well.”

A throng of preteens that had set up a devotional camp outside the Stag-Man’s cage leered up at them. They looked like jackals in black clothes. “Ooh, yeah,” said one of them. “Run along and hi-i-ide.” Max sharply told them to go home—trying to sound like a responsible man, even though his own father was a freak in a cage—but they sang back, “This is home.”

He and Mallory walked back to his truck with his arm around her shoulders. He could feel her trembling. It was a cold sort of relief to see that she was suffering instead of enraptured. She was nothing like his mother, he told himself. She was an innocent. Virtuous. Competent. “I shouldn’t have brought you here. This stuff’s no good.” He bit his lips, in guilt. Mallory shook her head absently but didn’t speak until they were in the muscular safety of the Chevrolet Colorado, barreling down Cahokia Drive, listening to Doctor Touchdown on KMKO Radio.

“I used to have an imaginary friend.”

He turned the volume down. “Huh?”

“But I don’t know if she was really imaginary. She came out at night, from the wetlands. She would tap on my window. Glowing like a gravestone. No one else saw her but I … saw her more and more after my sister died.” Max hadn’t known about this sister. “I think she wanted me to go away with her. She said there was a castle under the water at Napoleon Pond. Oh, God.” She slumped forward in the passenger seat as if something had punched her in the stomach. Max wondered if this was why she could not sleep facing any windows, why she slept in the pitch-black dark with the sheets over her head. “I never told anybody. But I guess seeing that thing on the farm … brought it all back.” She looked over at him plaintively. “You think I’m a freak, don’t you? Just say it. I know that’s what you’re thinking.”

It was a strange moment. He would dwell upon it later to try to determine what had possessed him to tell her the truth. Maybe he was shocked that a girl as presentable as Mallory could feel his bewildered shame. Maybe he thought shared alienation would deepen their bond. “I don’t think you’re a freak,” he said. “Something even stranger happened to me.”

She raised a pale brown eyebrow.

“You know that … thing on the farm?” She nodded. “Well, that’s my father.” He immediately exploded in terrified laughter. The sensible, screaming part of him wanted to backtrack before things got any worse—tack on a quick “Holy shit, just kidding!”—but when he opened his mouth only nonsense dribbled out. “My mother was a strange lady. She was the kind of person that chased tornadoes, you know? No jeep or cameras or nothing, she’d just head out the door and run after them. She’s dead now. Died a long time ago.”

Mallory was trying to smile. But she was waiting for that “just kidding!” and when it didn’t come—when every word that rolled down his chin was a confirmation of the wretched truth—Mallory gathered up the handles of her purse and said to take her home. She looked like she was about to jump out of the truck. “I have a lot of quizzes to grade,” she said.

He reached over, teeming with concern, but Mallory recoiled from his hand. It was as if she was saying, No—I never touched you. I disown you. I don’t know who you even are.

The road dwindled. Her driveway was covered in fallen leaves. “Mallory,” he said, hoping to remind her of what they had been sharing for the past six months. “It doesn’t change anything.”

Mallory’s eyes widened; she was probably remembering the same six months in retrospective horror. “I can’t do this, Max.” The passenger door swung open and the cold rushed in. “I can’t do this now.”

And then she was gone. He had wanted to marry her. He had visualized himself walking into her parents’ house in the old part of Lincoln, all brick walls and roundabouts and leafy trees, and introducing himself to her father the banker. “My name is Max,” he would have said, and there would have been no doubt.

#

He started dreaming about hurting Mallory. He didn’t enjoy these dreams, but they satisfied the same ache in his belly that years earlier made him want to shake his mother until her head popped off. The Stag-Man was there too, watching and waiting, and after the floor swallowed Mallory’s ruined body, the Stag-Man would remain: bright and powerful and merciless. A fire in the woods, an old whispered force. Sometimes the Stag-Man called him “son.” Sometimes Max would curl around the creature’s feet because in the dark the Stag-Man was all there was to the world. With its crown of antlers it looked like some wise and wizened tree. And sometimes when Max woke up he would go to the bathroom mirror and rub his forehead to see if his own velvet-covered antlers were growing in.

Tom Lowell had cut the entrance fee in half. Word had spread of the Creeker’s negative side effects—nausea, heartburn, indigestion—and now the farmer stood alone in the middle of his driveway, hands on his hips, watching for vehicles on Cahokia Drive. “You think it makes ‘em feel better to think this stuff doesn’t exist?” he asked Max, cocking his head, chicken-like. “Hey, isn’t this your third time?” Like the Stag-Man was some ride at Worlds of Fun.

Three drunks in Husker windbreakers were tossing peanut shells at the Stag-Man. They were giving themselves points for contact: five for the body, ten for the head. They did not deign to speak to it even in the way they spoke to their dogs, even though the body they shot at was just a taller, stronger version of their own. Max felt a pang of defensive anger and shame, but the Stag-Man seemed to be smiling back at them. Not that its deer mouth could grin, but its eyes were gleeful.

Max crept up to the cage. It was filthy, and swarming with bronze cockroaches. He sensed the Stag-Man watching him and his legs wobbled—the last two times he’d been in the tent he’d been able to hold steady, but not now. Moving his center of gravity closer to the earth quelled a little bit of nausea, but still he had to ask the question. “Do you know me?”

A peanut shell hit the back of his head. “That’s ten for me!” shouted one drunk. “Get out of the way!” said another. Max hissed at them and did not move. Instead he eased his hands between the bars, gingerly laying them on the floor of the cage. A cockroach ran over his empty ring finger and down his sleeve, but the Stag-Man was silent. Max swallowed. Of course it didn’t know him from Adam—God knew how many women from Cripple Creek had gone running into its forest on summer nights. He took out his wallet, and a small secret photo he kept behind his ID. A woman with coiffed black hair and a red Christmas sweater gazed up and out with gorgeous cat-eyes. She was a little drunk but still healthy then, surrounded by cheap tinsel. “This is my mother. Twenty-seven years ago, you …”

The Stag-Man looked at the photo and curled its lips back, showing its teeth. Those teeth were pointed. Max shuddered, and one of the drunks started to retch. At first the man spat bile and beer, but upon reaching into the back of his throat, began to pull out a long and thin industrial wire.

Max should have gotten fired that week—not that he would have cared—because he couldn’t focus on his paperwork. The window behind his desk let in too much light and too much landscape. Cripple Creek seemed filled with broken pre-war churches and painted-over signs: the skeletons of older towns. No matter where he went—the Kwik Shop, the liquor store—these battered, ghostly layers peeked through the concrete he walked upon. “You remember that lady Chastity Dawes?”

Kevin glanced at him over the crest of a golden taco. Max had tried to bring up the chupacabra, but Kevin would always pretend to be choking on something or getting a phone call. “The one that gave birth to a deer?”

“Yeah. Whatever happened to her? I know the Gordons own the nursery now.”

“She killed herself, man. Well, ‘died of exposure.’ But when you ditch your car off Highway 2 in the middle of a snow storm so you can go walking through a corn field, I don’t know how you call it anything else.” Kevin shrugged. “I guess once you’ve given birth to a monster, what the fuck else are you going to do?”

Max tried to picture those corn fields. They were a grim sight in winter—the stalks either pale and withered or draped with silent, crushing snow. “Isn’t that right by Digby Forest?”

“Hell if I know. I haven’t been there since elementary school.”

“Field trip,” said Max. He remembered his own school-sponsored foray into Digby Forest—or rather, he remembered being terrified that he would see the Stag-Man. He was so frightened, so attuned to any blur of movement and any sound of breaking twigs, that he learned nothing at all about Nebraska’s native forests. And here Chastity Dawes had gone running toward this doom, just like his mother sinking in the bathtub. At the time he had thought, Is this world so bad? but maybe they were onto something. “She was going on a field trip.”

“What?” The taco muffled Kevin’s words. “You know, Beecham, sometimes you freak me out.” He kept talking, but Max was looking out the window. Clouds had swooped in from the south in violent formation, armies of fists against armies of hammers. Something was on its way. Judging by the speed of his heartbeat, it was probably his fate.

#

Tom Lowell and his daughter Caridee were found murdered in their living room on Tuesday the 20th. Tom on the couch, Caridee on the floor, the television broadcasting an episode of the soap opera Coming Up Roses. To say murdered was to put it kindly: They had been disemboweled. The Creeker was gone, its cage bent open like a soup can. Relief washed over Cripple Creek, because people assumed that the malformed beast that shared their name had gone back to Digby Forest. They were duly sorry about Caridee, but at least nobody would have to see that damn thing again. Max alone knew that it was still in town, hiding in collapsed barns and hobbled school buses, and he lay awake at night waiting for it to come crawling through his window. The thought still made his skin crawl, but it was oddly reassuring to feel that he still belonged to someone, something. It was nice to know that he was still someone’s son.

At Cabela’s, he looked at the Deer Head Mounts. There was a whole wall of them, right beside the Buffalo Mounts and European Mounts. Some had shoulders, some only necks. The replicas were cheaper, but the originals looked at Max with soft and sad fraternal recognition. They were kin to the Stag-Man, his father—only smaller, with fair and innocent faces. They did not look like monsters spat out of hell. They looked like the deer that the Deer Crossing signs warned of, the deer that lived in the narrow strips of woodland between the farms and the roads. He briefly imagined the heads of all the world’s beasts mounted upon a giant fortress wall. His own head was among them, bolted to a wooden slab.

The sales clerk was rambling statistics. “That rack’s a 17-pointer, with a 30-inch spread. Came off an early season northern whitetail …”

“Can you take the skin off?” Max asked.

The sales clerk looked shocked. “No … but we’ve got deer skin rugs.”

They had grizzly skin rugs too, as well as wolf skin rugs and cougar skin rugs and muskox skin rugs and child-sized lynx and badger and beaver skin rugs. All had heads attached to their flat and floppy puppet bodies. Unlike the snarling predators—still fighting even in this state of preserved death—the buck’s mouth was stitched closed. “It’s got a canvas backing. Professionally taxidermied.”

“I’ll take it,” Max said.

That evening he sat on the couch and wrapped himself with the deer skin rug. The buck’s head sat upon his own—he had to slouch to keep it from falling down his back. His new skin was so suffocatingly warm that he turned off the heater. Then he exhaled, trying to feel comfortable. He dug his nails into the hide and imagined it to be his own. What were the odds, he wondered, of having been born into a human body? Maybe it was the wrong one. Maybe he should have been a ruminant all along, just like Chastity Dawes’ fawn.

A door opened—judging by the hard slap of metal on wood, it was the screen door in the kitchen. He looked up. The Stag-Man, bloody-mouthed, stood in the doorway. Its antlers were scraping the ceiling. At first it was just breathing, staring; then, it came gliding forward, never raising its hooves off the fake wood-paneled floor.

“Father,” mumbled Max, hoping that it would see him in his deer form. The Stag-Man did look into the false glass eyes of the dead buck, but quickly lowered its gaze to Max’s real eyes, all hazel and watery and bursting with nerves. That gaze reached right inside his head and rummaged around. Within this visual stranglehold the house changed and decomposed. Filth rose to the surface. He saw his mother creeping down the stairs out of the corner of his eye. Neither she nor his father saw each other. Her bloated lips called his name. After ten seconds, Max had to look away.

The Stag-Man hovered above him, sniffing deeply, then withdrew with a grunt. It paused at the doorway. It was waiting, Max realized. It grunted again and Max got to his feet. They were sharing a floor now, father and son. It was like sharing an earth.

How new this night-world was. A man with a flashlight could only point out the random human signposts that survived nightfall in the country—the gravel of a driveway, the lawn chairs on a porch. All else was lost in the dark and gnarly mass: the pulsing, growing stuff that flashlights could not bear to focus on. Max was in the thick of it now, this world without property fences (only land), without cars (only lights), without houses (only wood). He was not sure if he was running or drowning, and he had lost the deer skin somewhere back on Tenth Street. Sometimes he could throw himself fully into this night-run, lose himself in the muscle-searing pursuit of his Stag-Man father who did not run but madly leapt from things that used to be mailboxes to things that used to be trash cans.

And then he would look down at his hands and see his pale, chilled human skin. It made his stomach fold. He was pushing so fast that the ground seemed to roll beneath him, so fast his mind tumbled like a whirligig. And all the while, deep welts grew on his skin where trees had clawed him. With blood in the air, the Stag-Man let out a trembling, hungry, open-throated howl. Max felt it in his spine, as deep and familiar as a knife in a wound. He almost stopped. The boy inside him wanted to crawl home. This is home, he told himself. The others would have found you out eventually. You would have started to stink. So don’t mourn. Don’t mourn.

#

Bill MacAtee was dead, but he was not the one the Stag-Man wanted. The Stag-Man had killed him with a teacher’s patience, lingering over the precise angle and depth of the slice across Bill’s stomach, encouraging Max to scoop out the viscera. Bill was the kind of asshole that used to drive around town calling quiet men fags, and Max (having been Bill’s target once or twice) tried to be glad that Bill was dead. And maybe he was, but not like that, not with long swaths of Bill hanging out and inviting flies, not so Bill could stare up at the clouds like a middle-schooler rolling his eyes. The Stag-Man had already moved onto the true object of its desire: the MacAtees’ sheepdog, groomed and collared with hair the color of a Holstein cow. It had come running after Bill, barking indignantly, but when the Stag-Man turned toward the dog with its branch-like arms outstretched and its dirty claws dripping with the master’s blood, the domesticated little creature buckled down, whimpering.

At least the Stag-Man killed it quickly. Max wasn’t sure why—some hint of tenderness, or pity? The dog might have been wild, in another lifetime. After it collapsed, blood soaking its blue collar black, the Stag-Man squatted down and dug a hole beneath the dog’s ribs. Liquid gushed out along with a twitch and a squeak as if the little life was not quite gone. Max pressed his hands against his own belly. The Stag-Man pulled tendons and muscles and gelatinous organs out of this cavity like they were the treasures of the damn Sierra Madre, but all Max saw when the Stag-Man’s hands opened was inside-out-dog, all the wet under-the-skin shit that he didn’t want to see. And then the smell—putrid, sour, like drowned flowers—hit him.

Max retched. He slapped his hand over his mouth so that when the salt bubbled up his throat he could chase it back down. When he looked up the Stag-Man was standing at full height. The burnt black eyes drilled down into him as if from the pinnacle of a grotesque tower. The steaming, dripping hand was still available; God only knew he tried to take it. His father was grunting at him, thrusting the hand forward, snorting. He had flashbacks of walking across Fallspur Bridge, and the sunburned children on the other side who screamed at him to hurry and cross. The plank wobbled. The world beneath, the great bottomless funnel, rocked and churned. His body failed him now as it had failed him then. The Stag-Man threw the innards at his heart and Max compulsively shuddered, trying to shake the wetness off without getting it under his nails. Maybe it was this final twitch that ruined it, because the Stag-Man turned then, growling: away from Max, back toward the wild tree line. Max hurried after, mewling like a lost animal. He had not realized until then how warm he had felt in his father’s presence.

And then his father had him by the neck in a bristling, rough embrace. His ribs were groaning, but Max tried not to struggle. His mother had sometimes held him this way. “Come here. Oh God. Don’t cry.” A bark-skin hand clenched the roots of his hair—so tightly that he could feel his scalp peeling off his skull, tears shooting into his eyes, so tightly that he forgot all but this pain and an incomprehensible fear—and ripped Max away. Like a man pulling off a leech. A human would have been disemboweled and a fawn would have been taken along, but Max was just tossed into the winter grass, a formless mess not even a mother could love. It came down like an iron gate between them: You are nothing of mine.

Max flinched and curled his muscles, trying to turn his trembling body into a fist. The Stag-Man was gliding away toward the foggy pines. “Don’t you dare walk away!” Max shouted. “Hey, you look at me!”

There was no response. He remembered his mother sitting in her rocking chair, staring unshaken at the black locust tree. He could have set himself on fire and not drawn her eye—not until she coughed on his ashes would she realize that the skinny thing she sometimes called her child was gone. He grabbed Bill MacAtee’s shotgun, pulling back the cold, thick fingers one by one, and after another warning—another “Look at me!” —he fired it at his father. The cartridge opened a hole in the tawny hide of his father’s back. Blood-petals sprayed into the frosted dawn like a bridal bouquet, but for a full thirty seconds, the Stag-Man kept walking. What call could be higher than its own survival? Max’s eyes began to water and when he looked back after wiping his face, the Stag-Man was gone. A deflated lump so unlike the striking figure in his mother’s Polaroid lay in its place. The pines shook and Max hunched over, shivering.

“Bill?” Caroline MacAtee stood on the back porch. Her trembling fingers rose to touch her mouth. Max could not tell—simply could not determine—whether she was staring at him or at the dead things gathered at his feet.

“Everything’s okay!” Max shouted, raising the rifle. “It’s gone now, I took care of it!”

Caroline MacAtee didn’t thank him—she backed into her house and slammed the door. But maybe he couldn’t blame her, because here it was starting to snow.

#

The wild had been tamed, and now they were losing visibility. Max was too busy clenching his teeth and the steering wheel to manipulate the windshield wipers, and he drifted toward what looked like a glory-white horizon before recalling fear and slamming on the brakes. He slid to a stop half-on, half-off the shoulder. “A fire out in Digby Forest …” KMKO Radio was starting to cut out. “Not sure if they’re going to send the Fire Department on account of … hope it doesn’t come near us …” On the other side of the road, a pudgy man in a green Parks and Recreation jacket stood next to a blinking truck. He was trying to shovel the remains of a very large piece of roadkill into the truck’s open bed. Black tarp was whipping in the wind.

Max rolled down his window. “What is that?” he shouted.

“Hell if I know,” the Parks and Recreation man shouted back. “Guy said it just showed up in the middle of the road, didn’t even try to get out of the way.”

The corpse was the size of a small horse and covered with icy fur, but elephantine tusks protruded from the garbled carcass.

“Sixth call we’ve had this hour. I didn’t even know we had these many animals to run down.” The Parks and Recreation man started laughing, then coughing. “You know there’s birds falling out of the sky by the race-track? Something in the weather, I guess.”

Deena used to say that animals could tell when it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. “You’ll know when bad times are coming,” she whispered, “Because you’ll hear them howling.” Max closed his eyes. He never wanted to think of that name again. Never wanted to see that bewitched smile again. Stay dead, he thought. Stay dead.

“You hear that Digby’s burning down?”

Suddenly tired, Max rested his arms against the steering wheel. “Yeah, I heard.”

“I hope they let it burn. That no-good place.” The man’s lower lip was trembling. “It’s just a breeding ground for monsters.”

Burning the black locust tree had cauterized some of the wounds in his young heart. Maybe that was all Cripple Creek needed: a good cleansing burn, some scar tissue to seal away the unpleasantness. He nodded. “Get rid of it,” he said. “Nothing else you can do.” With growing anger, the Parks and Recreation man smashed his shovel against the unknown animal. The creature was fixed to the ice, more figurine than entity, too ugly and beaten to be mounted on somebody’s wall. Max looked away.

Both eastbound and westward, cars were diving off the edge of the road into the white expanse. Max counted eight in all. Their doors were open, their seats were empty. He didn’t know where those drivers thought they were going—did they really think there was anything left to run away to? The world was smothered with ash and snow.

Mallory’s fluorescent windows glared like the beacon of an arctic outpost, so harsh he had to squint. He rang the doorbell and listened to her slippered feet approach from the other side. Was she looking through the peephole? Did she see spatters of blood, any antler stubs? No—she was unlocking the dead bolt, unhooking the security chain. She opened the door, and he was surprised by how empty and sterile her home looked, like a hollow egg. Bare as the sky and the buried fields. No, not empty, he told himself. Safe from monsters. “Max?” She leaned her listless head against the door. “What are you doing here?”

“I cleaned myself up,” he said. “I bashed in those demons. I dropped that baggage … feel lighter already. I’m good as new.” He realized that he could not feel his lips. But after all these years of feeling, he could use a little numbness. It was a small price to pay for the capacity to forget. “I want to start over. Please, Mallory. We can be happy, I know it.”

Mallory’s sleepy blue eyes looked him up and down. She smiled faintly. As she parted her lips to speak the wind rose to an ear-splitting shriek, and all the sound in the world went out.

#

© 2011 Nadia Bulkin
Originally published in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters,
edited by John Langan & Paul Tremblay.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Nadia Bulkin

Nadia BulkinNadia Bulkin is a writer and International Politics M.A. student in Washington, D.C.  Her focus is post-colonialism and governance in Southeast Asia.  Her stories have also appeared in ChiZineStrange HorizonsIdeomancer, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  More info is available at nadiabulkin.wordpress.com.