From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

“The Yeti Behind You” from Fantasy

Starting last week and running through most of the month we’ll be running a few stories from Fantasy, a companion anthology to our magazine. I hope you enjoy!

THE YETI BEHIND YOU
Jeremiah Tolbert

Michael’s yeti sits lightly on the foot of the bed, watching with soft brown eyes as Michael makes a third pass at tying his tie. He mumbles “Around the tree, under the log,” but he’s speaking only to himself, not to his silent observer. He is careful not to speak to it.

Michael first noticed the yeti when he awoke sometime during the night, his bladder full of passed beer. Blinking in the dim red light of alarm clock numerals, he’d stared at a hulking figure leaning against the closet doorframe. All he could make out was the humanoid shape. Confident that the beast was a delusion of sleep, he climbed from the bed quietly, shuffled past, careful not to acknowledge or come into contact with it, and went to the bathroom. When he returned, he was surprised—but somehow not disturbed—to see that the yeti remained. Despite its presence, he slept until the alarm screeched hours later.

Michael looks over the yeti before leaving the bedroom. He thinks of it as a yeti because its fur is white. If the fur was brown, he would think of it as a sasquatch or a bigfoot. Probably sasquatch, because it sounds less demeaning. He once half-watched a special on the Discovery Channel about people who hunted such things. Half-watched because he was also trying to read Pregnancy Today at Beth’s insistence; he would have rather watched the special, even though he thought the idea of such a large undiscovered animal ridiculous. The Himalayas, on the other hand . . . who knows? Asia is big.

Michael leaves the bedroom and the yeti stands and follows. It has to crouch and turn sideways to squeeze through the door. In the living room, with its high, vaulted ceiling, the yeti straightens up to its full and impressive height, and stretches its thick arms up above its head. Michael hopes that it won’t try to fit into his car.

#

As Michael climbs clumsily out of his Saturn, a red Ford pickup pulls into the space next to his. A shaggy, reddish mammoth trundles behind it. The mammoth comes to a halt inches from the Ford’s bumper and lifts its trunk high in the air, swaying it side to side. The yeti watches the mammoth closely for a moment, then returns its gaze to Michael, blinking.

The owner of the Ford pickup is a loan officer from the front office. “Morning,” she says, stepping out of her truck.

He hopes that the loan officer will see his yeti, but she does not, nor does she give any indication that she is aware of the mammoth following her. Hibbets holds the door open for her, and irritably motions for Michael to hurry. Hibbets is not a man to be kept waiting. Michael nearly steps on the small herd of trilobites clustered at Hibbets’ feet. They shuffle around the CEO on dainty, chitinous legs, their bodies the size of small dinner plates.

Michael’s yeti waits for him in the lobby.

#

Michael takes frequent coffee breaks, even though the caffeine makes him jittery and he finds the taste too bitter. He doesn’t recognize many of the animals, but Google knows all, and identifying the animals is time consuming but not terribly difficult. At lunch, the employee parking lot is full of sauropods and Pleistocene mammals that are too large to squeeze inside the building. A Triceratops, his favorite dinosaur when he was a boy, mingles with a giant sloth and something resembling a nine foot tall carnivorous duck with a bill shaped like an axe. Moas, looking like shaggy-dog ostriches, roam the halls of the office. Marsupial lions and miniature horses guard the entrances to cubicles.

The observers are all members of an extinct species. At first, Michael thought that his own yeti might be an exception—being that a yeti is a mythological creature, not an extinct one—but then he discovered Gigantopithecus blacki on a primatologist’s website. The males weighed twelve hundred pounds and stood ten feet tall, but the females were smaller. Michael believes that his silent observer is a female. He considers the name of Gigantopithecus, but ultimately discards it. Yeti is easier to remember.

He finds an interesting quote that he prints out, nervously pacing around the laser printer as it warms up and finally prints. Hibbets would pitch a fit if he found anyone using the printers for personal reasons.

Michael snatches up the printout and reads it once aloud. “An old Sherpa once observed: ‘There is a yeti in the back of everyone’s mind; only the blessed are not haunted by it.’” He stares at the paper for a few moments after speaking the words aloud, then crumples the sheet into a ball and stuffs it into his pocket before returning to his desk.

He calls home, but Beth doesn’t answer. She sleeps all day, now. He leaves work early. It’s hell getting out of the parking lot without running over anything.

#

He drives to the mountains. He turns off the radio and hums tunelessly as the terrain outside grows steeper.

Snow is thick on the ground, the pine trees frosted like conical birthday cakes. The road ends short of the peak, a wall seven feet high of impenetrable snow rising up from the blacktop just beyond the barrier. Along the pull-off, snowmobilers load their trailers, all red-faced and exhausted. A crocodile-thing on long, dog-like legs watches from a snow bank, oblivious to the cold. Overhead, a pterodactyl circles lazily on invisible and impossible thermal currents.

He steps outside the car into the biting air and the yeti appears from behind a tree. He walks onto the hard packed snow beneath the anorexic alpine forest. The yeti follows. She leaves no tracks.

He walks into an open space, stands in the middle, and turns to face the yeti. She stops and returns his stare. The wind dies. Snow settles against more snow, pressing against the cold, hard soil. The yeti parts her lips, as if about to speak. Michael inhales sharply. The yeti catches a snowflake on the pink-gray tip of her tongue. He exhales, and turns and heads back to the car. It would have been too easy.

#

The yeti crouches in the muddy strip of weed and grass between the sidewalk and the curb in front of Michael’s house. She picks at the dirt with a stick, looking up only when he closes the car door. Michael can see his wife inside through the screen door, reading on the couch, book perched gently atop the mound of her growing belly. The yeti turns to stare too.

He sits for a long time, until the sun sets. The yeti follows him in. Beth pays her no attention. She looks up and smiles. “How was work? I didn’t know you were going to be late.” For once, her tone isn’t accusatory.

“Same old thing, just more of it,” he mumbles, moving toward the bathroom. It is too small for the yeti to fit inside. He closes the door, puts the toilet seat down, and sits on top of it. Outside, Beth asks, “Where’s my kiss?” in a hurt tone.

“Just a minute,” he says. He flips through a magazine, but he thinks about the yeti out there, all alone with his wife and the baby. He flushes, and doesn’t bother pretending to wash his hands, opens the door, and forces a smile.

Beth eases off the couch and wraps her arms around his neck, pulling him into a kiss. He closes his eyes. He feels the yeti standing just over his shoulder, her arms hanging limp at her sides. He pulls away from Beth reluctantly. “I’m hungry,” he says, even though he isn’t. “What do you want tonight?”

Beth frowns. “I was craving walnuts earlier. Isn’t that weird? Now I’m just hungry. Whatever you want.” She pats her belly and grins.

Michael pretends to think. Given a choice, he’d eat the same thing every day. “Let’s order pizza. Watch a movie.” He pulls Beth onto the couch beside him, careful of her belly. He calls and orders a large pie with pepperoni on one half and artichoke hearts on the other. The yeti slips past them and sits in his La-Z-Boy.

Michael lets Beth pick the movie. They watch an old Jim Henson film called Labyrinth. It’s her favorite movie, but Michael finds it off; David Bowie’s look hasn’t aged well with time. The yeti leans forward in the chair whenever Ludo—a tall, red-furred ape-like monster—is on screen. Her fingers dance, and she hesitantly reaches for the screen, then jerks her hand back when the fingertips graze the glass. Michael is suddenly flooded with sorrow.
After Beth falls asleep—just before the final battle in the Goblin City—Michael steps onto the porch to watch the evening strollers and the animals that silently follow. The yeti joins him. It’s like history parading past. Michael thinks about asking her a question, but to address her would be to acknowledge the beast as reality. To acknowledge that would be to acknowledge something much worse about himself.

He stands there watching, and sometime later Beth wakes and stands beside him in the doorway.

“You’re thinking about the baby again,” she says.

He’s not, but he can’t say why. He nods instead.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers.

“It’s not your fault,” he says. “It’s a baby. It’s nobody’s fault. Or we’re both at fault.”

“Are you afraid?” she asks. The yeti turns her head toward Michael.

He doesn’t answer for a moment. “Yes. Of course,” he says. “Aren’t you?”

Her brow furrows. “I worry . . . ”

“I dreamed about this once,” he says. “It’s a little person. It’s not like a . . . a dog. If it doesn’t work out, you’re stuck with it. Responsible until it grows old enough to take care of itself.”

She smiles. “And sometimes, even longer.”

The panic grips him again; he sweats, his heart races, his hands go numb. “I feel trapped.” He looks away. The door slams shut.

The yeti watches without a sound.

“Why are you here?” he demands.

Almost imperceptibly, the yeti shrugs.

#

Saturday morning, and the yeti watches cartoons. Michael always turns on the TV in the morning while he does the little chores and tasks that have piled up through the week. Lately, the yeti has been paying less attention to him. She watches Beth whenever she is in the room, but this morning, she still sleeps. The baby’s kicks kept her awake the night before.

“I don’t suppose you could help me fold the laundry,” he asks the yeti. She doesn’t answer. “I didn’t think so.”

The bedroom door opens, and Beth’s sleepy head pokes out. “Who are you talking to?”

“Just the TV,” he says.

“Weirdo,” she says.

“That’s me.”

“Would you do me a favor, my love?”

“Can’t,” he says, giving her a theatrical helpless shrug. “Folding laundry.”

She mock scowls. “I need walnuts.”

He snatches up his keys from the corner table, grinning.

“I love you!” she calls out as he passes through the door.

“I love you, too,” he says back. “I don’t mean you,” he whispers to the yeti. She stands between them, looking back at Beth.

#

Michael steps around someone’s dodo and examines cans of nuts. The store has pecans, peanuts, and various mixed nuts, but no canned walnuts. He wanders the isles, avoiding the help and their observers. After a while, he notices the yeti is gone.

He finds her in the baking supplies, next to bags of chopped walnuts. She points to them, and then folds her arms across her chest. He wonders what her posture means in yeti. She looks almost self-satisfied. He sticks his tongue out at her. A woman, surrounded by hairless rats the size of poodles, scowls at him from behind the yeti. Michael pays in the express checkout lane. A Tasmanian tiger sits at the end of the counter, keeping one eye on the clerk. It looks vaguely bored.

#

“I’m sorry,” he says, placing the walnuts on the table. Beth doesn’t look up from her book.

“They didn’t have any?”

“No. For what I said.”

“Oh.” She turns the page.

“I can’t help how I feel,” he says.

“Is that so?”

“I’m still here,” he says.

“That you are,” she answers, looking up. “And that’s something.”

#

Later, he goes for a drive. He takes the Cherokee. The yeti rides in the passenger seat, slumped low with her knees tucked up below her breasts.

“How long you’ve been here?” he says. “I wonder if you met my father.”

As usual, she says nothing.

“If Beth had met him, she would understand.”

The yeti hoots softly. Michael is so startled, he nearly hits a tree. He pulls over and calms himself before driving home, pushing a little over the speed limit until reaching his street.

#

Michael pulls up next to the house. Beth is sitting on the steps of the porch, clutching her stomach. Her face is a mask of agony. Michael feels panic rising. He opens the door, freezes. Something shoves him hard, and he stumbles onto the street. It is just the momentum he needs. He kicks open the gate and rushes to Beth’s side.
“What happened?” he shouts.

“Hospital,” she says weakly.

He breaks the speed limit by twenty the whole way. The yeti rides in the back seat. She rocks from side to side, her arms around her bony knees.

#

“Just a bad case of indigestion, I’m sure,” the doctor says, and a strange blue crab scuttles behind him as he paces the ER room. Beth lays on the bed, and by the look on her face, she wants to grab him and shout at him to plant his feet. It took her two years to beat the habit out of Michael. It’s taken something like this to bring it back.

Michael sits in a chair next to her. The yeti squeezes into the corner behind him. Her head grazes the sound paneling above. For a crazy moment while the admitter checked them in, he wondered if he should ask if yetis were unsanitary. He wasn’t sure if the yeti would listen to him if he asked her to stay outside though.
Now, he thinks hard about his breathing. He is thinking, slow, slow, slow.

When the doctor leaves, Beth lets herself cry, a mixture of anger and relief. “How could I be so silly?” she asks.

Michael doesn’t answer. He repeats his mantra.

Beth waves her hand at him. “Hello, Michael?”

He blinks. “I couldn’t move,” he says. “When I saw you, I couldn’t move.”

“But you did,” she says. “You helped me into the car.”

“She shoved me,” he says.

Beth squints. “Who did?”

“My yeti.”

“Your what?”

“My imaginary extinct animal.” The yeti heads for the door.

“I see.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Just leave, Michael.”

For once, he follows the yeti, instead of the other way around.

#

His yeti stands in front of the car. He turns the key, and the engine starts up. The yeti doesn’t move.

“Get in,” he says.

The yeti slowly cups her arms, and rocks them back and forth. Her soft brown eyes bore into Michael. He turns off the ignition.

“What?” he asks. “Yeah, the baby. The baby’s fine. Beth’s fine. Everybody’s fine.”

She shakes her head.

Michael’s resolve cracks and before he knows it, he’s sobbing. He rushes back inside the hospital, past the admitter, past security, ignoring their protests. He finds the doctor two doors down. “Check again,” he shouts. “Check her again.”

Security guards have Michael by the arms. He sits in a seat in the lobby. One mutters something about the police being on their way. The emergency doors swing open wide and the doctor steps into the lobby. He motions to the guards, and they reluctantly release Michael.

“I don’t know how,” the doctor says, shaking his head. “She’s going to be fine. Now. I’m sorry we didn’t catch the problem earlier, it . . . ”

“What about my baby?”

No answer.

“What about my baby, you son of a bitch?”

Outside, something howls to the rising new moon, and Michael’s panic rises to meet it.

“It’s too soon to say,” says the doctor.

#

Michael wheels Beth out of the hospital and into the warm spring air. She gasps, and points to the car. “What is that?”

The yeti stands beside the passenger door, watching them. Michael’s not surprised that Beth can see her. He doesn’t have the energy for it.

Gigantapithecus blacki,” he says. “But yeti is easier to remember.”

“That’s your imaginary extinct animal?” she asks.

“I think she’s our imaginary extinct animal,” he says. “Are you scared?”

“Of her? No. I don’t know why. Or do you mean about us?”

He shrugs. He means both.

“You didn’t have to come back,” she says, as he helps her from the chair into the jeep. “But you did.”

“I wouldn’t have left,” he says. “I’m afraid, but I’m not a coward.” But he isn’t sure that is the truth; he thinks maybe that’s just what he wants to believe.

“We’re having a baby, Michael,” she says suddenly. “Oh my God, we’re having a baby.”

Michael turns the ignition, and backs out. “We sure are, my love.”

Behind them, the yeti chuckles so quietly the noise could be only tires on pavement. There is a hint of sadness of it. Michael remembers asking why she was here, and her shrug to deflect the question. Somehow, he thinks, she didn’t want to share the sadness with which she and the other lost ones are burdened. They’re all here for the same reason; all watching for the moments they will never have again.

He reaches across and squeezes Beth’s hand slowly, slowly, slowly.

* * *

Read more in Fantasy: Available now!

Trade paperback / $6.95 / 160 pp. / ISBN 978-0-8095-5699-1

Jeremiah Tolbert is a hairless bipedal ape spotted by unreliable witnesses in the foothills of Colorado, but experts claim that his species is native to Kansas. Rumor has it that he shadowed two sasquatch hunting expeditions hoping to get a story from the experience. When he sat down to write one, he wrote this instead.

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