The Silence & The Howl (§.26)

§.26


The four conversants sat in the far right corner of the cafe, the mechanical whirring of the fan and the clinking of cups, paper and plastic, and the skidding of heeled-polymer upon the linoleum floor, the only sounds, save the occassional puff of a cigarette or cigar.

With a broad smile, La’Far broke the silence, gesturing towards Andy.

“Harmon tells me you’re a roofer.”

Andy’s face fell.

“Used to be. Just got fired this mornin. Along with Harmon.”

“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”

Andy wearily waved the man’s apology away.

“Ain’t your fault. Just… one thing after another. Ya know?”

“I know what you mean. Some times it seems as if the universe is arrayed against you.”

Harmon nodded, taking a sip of his coffee before speaking, “Often seems that way to many people. But that’s just narcissism. At this moment there are countless insects tearing each other to pieces. There are spider-wasp larvae gorging themselves on the innards of paralyzed tarantulas. There are chimpanzees cracking open the skulls of monkeys and sucking out their brains. Our own problems rather pale in comparison.

Marla looked on, fascinated, disgusted and horrified, Andy just raised a brow in perplexity, whilst La’Far gave a laugh and knocked the ash from his cigar in the large glass tray that lay in the middle of the circular and well-polished wooden table.

*

When Blood Wants Blood

     There is nothing like the smell of Santeria. It is a distinct smell that jolts me into my body the second I find myself enveloped in it: one that suggests cleanliness—in every respect—but with a little magic mixed in. Not easily reproduced, you won’t find it anywhere but homes or other places, such as my botanica—a Santeria supply store—where regular orisha worship happens. It is the intoxicating blend of lavender-scented Fabuloso All-Purpose Cleaner, stale cigar smoke (used for various offerings to our dead and these African gods), burning candle wax, and subtle, earthy hints of animal sacrifice from the past, offered for the sake of continued prosperity, spiritual protection, and other vital blessings from the divine. You won’t find it anywhere else. No, it is not common fare, much like the smell of ozone immediately after a lightning strike: it is a right time, right place kind of thing. But why wax nostalgic (besides the fact that my own home hasn’t smelled like that for a long time)? It will be Dia de Los Muertos tomorrow and there is much work to do. 

     My boveda or spiritual ancestor shrine has gone neglected for months now, squatting in my cramped dining room, cold and lifeless like the spirits it was erected to appease. A thick layer of dust has powdered the picture frames of my dearly departed, making their rectangular glasses dulled and cloudy. I look at the faces of my maternal and paternal grandparents and find that details that were once fine have phased into each other, as if viewed through a thin curtain of gauze: I can’t clearly see them and they—likely—can hardly see me. That is how it feels, anyway. The white tablecloth on top of the table is dingy, looking yellowed and stained from months of occasional sprinklings of agua de florida cologne and errant flakes of cigar ash. The water glasses (nine of them to be exact—one large brandy snifter and four pairs of others in decreasing sizes) seem almost opaque, now, with their contents having long evaporated, leaving behind striated bands of hard mineral and chlorine, plus the occasional dead fly, who’s selfless sacrifice was likely not met with much appreciation by my dead Aunt Minne or PopoEstringel, my mother’s father. Various religious statues call for immediate attention with frozen countenances that glare, annoyed that my Swiffer hasn’t seen the light of day for some weeks, now. Then there is the funky, asymmetrical glass jar on the back right-corner that I use to collect their change. The dead love money (especially mine). This fact has always suggested to me that hunger—in all shapes and forms—lingers, even after the final curtain closes. Makes sense, if you think about it. We gorge ourselves on life, cleave to it when we feel it slip away, and then after we die we

     The statues—mostly Catholic saints—each have their own specific meaning and purpose on my boveda. St. Lazarus provides protection from illness. St. Teresa keeps death at bay. St. Michael and The Sacred Heart of Jesus, which are significantly larger than the other figures, are prominent, flanking either side of the spiritual table, drawing in—and out—energies of protection and—at the same time—mercy; the two things I find myself increasingly in need of these days. At the back of the table, there is a repurposed hutch from an old secretary desk with eight cubbies of varying sizes, where nine silver, metallic ceramic skulls reside that represent my dead, who have passed on (the number nine is the number of the dead in Santeria). They usually shine, quite brightly, in the warm, yellow glow of the dining room’s hanging light fixture, but they look tarnished, as of late, save the eye sockets, which seem to plead for attention, glistening, as if wet with tears. A large resin crucifix rests in the half-full, murky water-glass (the largest one) that rests in the center of the altar. It sounds sacrilegious, but it isn’t, as placing it so calls upon heavenly power to help control the spirits that are attracted (or attached) to the shrine, allowing positive ones to do what they need to do for my well-being, while keeping the negative ones tightly on a leash. Some smaller, but equally as important, fetishes also haunt the altar space, representing spirit guides of mine: African warriors and wise women, a golden bust of an Egyptian sarcophagus, a Native American boy playing a drum, and four steel Hands of Fatima that recently made their way into the mix after a rather nasty spirit settled into my house last year—for a month or so—and created all kinds of chaos and havoc, tormenting me with nightmares—not to mention a ton of bad luck—and my dogs with physical attacks, ultimately resulting in one of them, Argyle, being inexplicably and permanently crippled (but that is another story). Various accents, which I have collected over the years, also add to the ache (power) of the boveda; a multi-colored beaded offering bowl, strands of similarly patterned Czech glass beads, a brass censer atop a wooden base for incenses, a pentacle and athame (from my Wicca days), a deck of Rider-Waite tarot cards in a green velvet pouch with a silver dollar kept inside, and a giant rosary—more appropriate to hang on a wall, actually—made of large wooden beads, dyed red and rose-scented. Looking at all of it in its diminished grandeur, I am reminded of how much I have asked my egun (ancestors) for over the years and can’t help but feel a little ashamed of my non-committal, reactive (not proactive) attitude in terms of their veneration, as well as their regular care and feeding.   

     This year’s Dia will be different. It has to be. It’s going to take more than a refreshed boveda and fresh flowers to fix what is going wrong in my life right now; a bowl of fruit and some seven-day candles just won’t cut it. Business at the botanica is slow, money is tight—beyond tight—and all my plans seem to fall apart before they can even get started. The nightmares have come back—a couple of times, anyway—and the dogs grow more and more anxious every day, ready to jump out of their skins at the slightest startle, such as the scratching and scuffling from the large cardboard box that’s tucked away in the garage. My madrina, an old Cuban woman well into her 70s that brought me into the religion and orisha priesthood, told me last night that we all have a spiritual army at our disposal that desperately wants to help us in times of need; meaning our ancestors. She said, with enough faith, one could command legions of them to do one’s bidding, using as little as a few puffs of cigar smoke and a glass of water. While a powerful statement, that isn’t how things roll for me. Her prescription for what ails me was far from that simple. “This year, your muertos need to eat and eat well! They need strength to help you and you need a lot of it. When they are happy, you will be happy. When they are not, you won’t,” she advised, searching my eyes for an anticipated twinge of panic, and they didn’t fail her. I knew—right then and there—what she meant, making my stomach feel as if it had dropped straight down into my Jockey underwear. That feeling may have very well dissuaded me from going through with tonight’s festivities if things were so dire at present. Eyebale is a messy business, regardless of how smooth one is with their knife (blood sacrifice always is, which is why I have always had such a distaste for it. Thank God I only do birds). Regardless of that fact, my egun eat tonight at midnight. I give thanks to my egun tonight at midnight. I—hopefully—change things around tonight at midnight. What else can you do when blood wants blood?                     


Originally published at Digging in the Dirt.

Windows

     About two and a half months ago, I was abruptly told via voicemail that my mother was going to have emergency brain surgery. Wednesday night’s social work class—the first one of the semester—had just wrapped-up and after the last of my students exited the building, I headed to my office to grab my satchel, lock-up, and head home.  Per usual, I checked my phone and saw my favorite niece Lauren had called.  “Tio,” she said, “I don’t know if you know this but grandma is having brain surgery in the morning.  Has a couple of blood clots.  Call mom. OK?  I miss you.  Bye, tio.”  

     I chuckled—a bit—at the irony of the situation, as I had ended the class with an exercise that a colleague suggested I try that involved exploring personally held attitudes about specific stages of human development, ranging from birth to old age.  I had students stand against the whiteboard in front of the classroom and share their thoughts, thinking this would be a nice way bond as a cohort.  Things went along smoothly for about five minutes, until all the crying started.  They cried about their childhoodsfathers that left thembullyings in high schooldivorces, and empty nests.  I wanted to strangle Cynthia, my colleague.  One of my older students (probably in her 50s) got up next.  She started to share but then completely broke down.  We were all stunned into death-like silence.  Apart from her crying, it was so quiet in there that you could have heard a blotter of acid being dropped back in the 1960s.  Eventually, she composed herselfapologized, and informed the class that she had just lost her mother a few days prior; her announcement did little to shatter the awkwardness in the room. She talked about how difficult it was to have the tables turned on her and have to watch the people that took care of her all her life deteriorate, requiring her to take care of them, now.  Embarrassed, she wiped her eyes and promptly sat down, surrounded by her very empathetic peers.  As I watched, I remembered the picture of my mother and that I have on my refrigerator door that I see every morning when I grab some rice milk for my cereal: she is on a hideous 1970s couch with perfect hair and makeup with me—shirtless in pajama bottoms, holding a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  We both looked happy.  Overcome with guilt, I threw myself upon the pyre and decided to suffer along with everyone else.  Plus, I knew they would remember this night, during instructor evaluation time.  I took a deep breath, dove right in, and did well until I got to old age, but got through it, somehow.  

     “Class dismissed.” 

     The hospital my mother was in was about an hour away from campus.  It was already after 9:30 PM and I was tired from a long, monotonous day of grading papers and advising students for the upcoming Spring semester; moreover, the evening’s hysterics didn’t help. It’s hard enough holding a space for three hours, lecturing non-stop and engaging students, but when you have twelve grown people crumbling apart before your very eyes it becomes damn near impossible.  I was exhausted. Reinforcements were necessary: I needed caffeine and many, many cigarettes. 

     I stopped by a convenience store on my way to Edinburg to get supplies.  I parked the car and turned off the ignition, preparing to get out when the reality of the situation hit me like a flu: my 85-year-old mother was having brain surgery and there was a very real chance she may not make it.  This wasn’t like one of her falls, which I had already gotten accustomed to by that point, or one of her patented melt-downs that left her husband and anyone within calling distance flustered and unsure of what to do to calm her.  She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for two or three years, already, and it seemed to be advancing at an exponential rate, especially this past year. She lost her words more than not.  Her short-term memory was unpredictable at best. There were even times when she would attempt to speak but couldn’t; she would just sit there with a look of frustration on her face—still, as a statue—then let out a, “Damn!” and then focus on whatever happened to be on TV at the time, as if nothing had happened.  Things hadn’t been easy and didn’t seem to be letting up any. No, this was very different. 

     I made it to the hospital in record time, hauling-ass at around 85 miles per hour after procuring my fixes.  After driving around parking lots for about fifteen minutes, I finally was able to find a spot and made my way to the Neuro ICU. When I got to her room, I saw frail frame curled up in her hospital-bed, disheveled and confused, surrounded by a concerto of blinking lights and rhythmic beeps that came from the various monitors she was connected to by tubes and multi-colored wires.  Her gown—a yellow so ugly she would have left against medical advice if she were more lucid—was off one shoulder, exposing more skin than I was comfortable with (though her sitter, a squat, older lady of about 60, didn’t seem to be phased in the slightest).  I looked over at the woman—I believe her name was Thelma–who had been there ten hours, already, due to my mother having tried to get out of bed multiple times that day.  “Son,” I quickly blurted in her general direction, attempting to get formalities out of the wayMy mother kept trying to pull her gown from her legs, unaware of how scantily clad she already was.  I pulled it back over her knees and grabbed her hands to try and calm her along with a serenade of rhythmic shooshing. 

     “I thought you said you didn’t have a son, Alda,” the sitter said. 

     Foggy, my mother answered, annoyed, “I don’t.”  She looked at me blankly.  “I have Lisa, my daughter.  I have Katie, her daughter”  She started at her gown, again.  “NoI don’t have a son.” 

     had prepared myself for pretty much anything on the drive up to the hospital, but it still stung. “Wishful thinking, old woman,” I said, looking into her eyes, smiling and rubbing the top  

top of her crepe-papery hand.  

     She laughed, apparently remembering some things about us.  After scanning my face more, a light turned on. My baby! Anthony!  Where were you? I’ve been waiting! 

     “Teaching, mom. It’s Wednesday.  I just found out about this an hour ago.”  I squeezed her hands, noticing how pale she was.  I didn’t remember her skin being so white.  “You OK?”  My eyes began to sting and water. 

     Seeing the tears start to well up in my eyes, she said, “You love me” with a pitying look upon her face.  “No…you don’t love me.  You like me, but you don’t love me.” She turned her head away, perhaps distracted by a fly or a moving figure on the TV screen—maybe one of those crazy hallucinations she has from time to time. 

     “Well, not right now I don’t.”  Again, she laughed. “I love you, mom…I do,” I assured, using the tank-top under my maroon dress shirt, as a tissue, to mop up a burgeoning flood of tears and snot.  In an attempt to cut through the pall in the room, tried to lighten things up by telling her about the picture on my refrigerator that I had looked at that morning—not really knowing what else to say—but it didn’t seem to register. 

     The next hour or so was spent keeping her calmkeeping her covered, dodging heart-breaking pleas to take her home.  To make things worse, she would, intermittently, talk in word salad: random words strung together in nonsensical sentences.  For a stretch that seemed to go on forever, she talked nonstop and said absolutely nothing. Other times she would snap out it and speak only Spanish, talking to her father, who had died thirty-five years prior, repeating over and over, again, “Ayudamepapi! Ayudame!  (Help me, Daddy! Help me!).” I just stood there, crying, wishing he would and feeling bad that I didn’t feel bad about thinking it. 

     At some point, her lucidity seemed to return some, so I took advantage of the moment and asked if she was scared about going into surgery in the morning, but she was oblivious to all that business.  “They’re doing a procedure, mom.  In and out.  Easy.”  I smiled, hopinwhat might be the last conversation I had with her wouldn’t be a lie.   

     “Not with my hair looking like this, I’m not!”  (If you knew my mother, you would know this was a really good sign).  

     “It looks fine, I laughed, but as soon as things started to look more optimistic, the pleading and agitation returnedAll I could do was stand there with tears, staining my cheeks, and think about everything that could possibly go wrong in the next few hours. When she finally calmed down, she turned to me and looked at me with a suspicious look I hadn’t seen since my early 20s. 

     “What do you want?” she demanded. 

     “Cocaine,” I said.  She didn’t laugh, but—honestly—it didn’t necessarily sound like a bad idea at the time. 

     “No, you want something.  What is it?” She turned away from me with a stare that peeled off my skin like duct-tape, leaving me feel—for a moment—utterly raw. I thought about my phone and how much I hated it. 

     Midnight had come and gone, and she showed no signs of tiring.  I was physically and mentally spent.  I thought about her. The surgery.  The “what ifs.”  I fought back tears—when I could–holding her hands the whole time, never letting go.  Then, suddenly, her restlessness subsided, as quickly as it came. She turned to me, again, and just looked at me.  That frustrated look I knew so well had resurfaced. She wanted to talk but couldn’t.  Our eyes locked and in that moment, I saw her, the mother on the couch with perfect hair and make-up, and—through all my artifice and bullshit—she saw me, shirtless little boy in pajama bottoms, holding a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and for a few seconds we were both happy, again.

# # #


From Indelible Fingerprints [Alien Buddha Press]; originally published by Down in the Dirt.


 

Fiction Recap 2019 [#2]

Selection of fiction works we’ve published this year.


July


June


May


March


February


July


§

We extend our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to all of our gracious patreon supporters and avid readers.


 

The Silence & The Howl | Part 19

§.19


Harmon rang up sprawls at the break of dawn, knowing his former roommate would be up for work. In under four seconds, a croaky voice tersely answered.

“Yeah?”

“I’m stopping by to pick up my things.”

“What things?”

“Things I’d left there.”

“Oh. Those things.”

“Yeah. Just wanted to give you a heads up.”

“Ain’t here.”

“What ain’t where?”

“Your things. They ain’t here.”

“They grow legs?”

“I sold that shit, man.”

“You… sold my stuff?”

“Yeah.”

“All of it?”

“Most of it. Rest we threw ou-”

Harmon snapped the flip-phone shut. The undulations of his breath rising in rapidity. Rage subsumed the edges of the world as his fists tightened like fleshy stones, incisors grinding, eyes widening, muscles straining.

“Something up?”

Marla inquired from the corner, where she lounged upon the coach, slurping bottom shelf cereal, bed-headed and pajama’d, TV blaring rapid-fire political commentary: A fire. Elections. Immigrant rapist. Human trafficking. Racial radicals. Should racial slurs be criminalized? Father fined for misgendering son. Military tribunals. Sex scandal. Pedo priest. Revolution in the tropics. Killer droids close to home? Sometimes, the world can be a scary place, that’s why you need Lurch Gold. Mysterious man with white jacket linked to multiple slayings of local drug dealers…

“No.”

“Problem?”

“Richard.”

“Andy told me bout him. Sounds like an asshole.”

Harmon didn’t respond.

She was silent a moment and then cast her eyes to the milky bowl between her nicotine stained fingertips, as if expectant of a reply from its viscous, albescent depths.

“I had wanted Andy to take me out tonight, but he said he’d already made plans with one of his friends. Would you want to see a movie?”

Harmon starred out the window as he mulled over the question. A noisy crow flapped down from a telephone pole to the left of the tumbledown and began pecking at some roadkill. The creature’s beak scraped entrails across asphalt in a whirl of feathers the color of pitch.

“Harmon?”

“Sounds like fun.”

“If you don’t want to… its fine.”

“I said it sounds fun. What movie had you wanted to see?”

“I can’t remember the name. Its this political thriller dystopian type thing. You mighta seen it. Commercials for it, I mean. Bout this young group of survivors in a post apocalyptic wasteland…”

Her words faded into indeterminate babble. When she’d finished Harmon turned from the window.

“We can see that if you want.”

“You sure you’ll like it?”

“Don’t know. Haven’t seen it yet. Can tell you when I do. I’ve gotta go.”

“Where?”

“Out.”

As she opened her mouth and removed her eyes from the cereal bowl, Harmon left out of the house before a utterance could escape her lips and trekked across the yard, paused to watch the crow peel out the dead and bloated racoon’s heart and then seated himself within his car and drove off down the sunbaked band of black that cracked like the scales of an ancient snake.

*

The Silence & The Howl | Part 17

§.17


They descended the stairs as thunder ranged beyond the ambit of the creaking tumbledown. Lyla wanted to watch a movie. Inquiries concerning the cinematic acumen of all present were made, with Andy judged most-knowledgeable, they settled into the massive, tattered and musty couch as their host plopped in a old VHS titled ‘Fractured Mirror.’ The story revolved around a down-on-his luck writer, well past his prime, whose wife had cheated on him with his publicist. The film charted his slow and painful mental deterioration and eventual self-reformation through murderer. Purity through violence.

As the writer bludgeoned his former lover to death with a shovel, Bluebird recoil and buried her head in Harmon’s chest.

“Too much for you?”

“Its my head. You know how sensitive I am with this kind of stuff.”

Lyla was prone to headaches and enjoyed playing up the fact. Harmon had long-induced she thought it cute and quirky. It proved, more often than not, merely affected and annoying.

He said nothing.

“Damn.” Muttered Marla, here eyes wide, fixed to the screen.

Andy chortled and downed some of his beer. After the murder scene the protagonist looked directly into the camera as an eerie cue played. Cut to black. Credits.

“Whadidya think?” Andy inquired, lighting up a cigarette.

“I thought it was really good.” Marla affirmed with a smile, stroking Andy’s arm and squeaking a, “You’ve such good taste in movies, babe.”

Andy smiled and turned to his others guests expectantly.

“Well whats the verdict?”

“I didn’t really care for it. I didn’t think it was going to be so violent.”

Andy rolled his eyes then looked to Harmon whose faraway eyes were fixed upon a small insect on the ceiling.

“She got what she deserved.”

“But they were in love!” Lyla protested.

“‘Were’ is the operative word.”

She looked up into his face and was greeted only with impassivity and resolve. She slowly shifted off of him and asked Andy if he would mind sparing one of his tall boys. He happily obliged and shortly the two trekked off to acquired some beers from the old, magenta fridge, leaving Marla and Harmon to their own devices.

Marla played with her softly jangling bracelets a moment an then leaned towards Harmon inquisitively.

“How long you two been together?”

“Since high school.”

“Oh! That’s wonderful. I didn’t take relationships seriously then.”

“Few do.”

“Yeah. Hey, I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier. Was having a bad day.”

“Its no trouble at all.”

She smiled, “Were you serious?”

“About?”

“About the movie. I mean, you think she deserved what she got?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah. I don’t disagree. I used to date this guy named Tanner. Hot, wealthy – comparatively speaking – nice car. Seemed perfect.”

“But there was a snag.”

“Yeah.”

“He cheated on you.”

“Yup. He said he was sorry. That he was drunk, that he didn’t know what he was doing. He was a terrible liar. But even still I forgave him. Not two months later he’d left his phone lying on the counter of my kitchen – it rings and I check the messages. Some bitch asking what she should wear for him tonight.”

She shook her head and took a swig of beer and tapped out her half smoked menthol in the peach can Andy used as a makeshift ashtray.

“That’s unfortunate. What’d you do?”

“I told him to explain. I was ready to forgive him again. If he was honest.”

“Given you’re here, with Andy, I’m assuming he wasn’t.”

“Nope. Told me – get this – she was a ‘business associate’ and that’s why she was asking him what to wear. I told him business associates don’t tend to refer to each other as ‘babe’ and ‘darling’ – he didn’t have anything to say to that so I told him to leave. And that was that.”

“But now you’ve met Andy.”

“But now I’ve met Andy.”

She smiled widely and leaned back in her chair and took a puff of her cigarette. Shortly thereafter, Andy and Lyla returned from the kitchen bearing a six pack and a bag of off-brand nachos. They watched another film about a evil AI in a far-flung future where everyone used floppy disks and then decided to hit the sack. Andy implored Lyla to stay the night and then headed upstairs with Marla. When they were completely out of earshot, Lyla turned to Harmon dourly.

“Did you mean what you said?”

“Bout?”

“Bout her ‘getting what she deserves.’

“Yeah.”

“How can you say that?”

“Can say it because I believe it.”

*

The Silence & The Howl | Part 16

§.16


The moon ghosted above the ancient coal breaker. Odd figures walked the streets, surreptitiously passing small plastic bags to each other just beyond the illumination of the streetlamps and the lights of Andy’s house.

Bluebird did not call before she arrived. She parked her car in the front of the drive and clattered down the way to the door in dark purple yoga pants, faux-designer boots and a short-sleeved T and a windbreaker. She knocked on the door and waited trepidatiously as a mexican eyed her up from the leftern lot. Momentarily, Andy opened the door.

“Hi there. You’re Lyla, right?”

“That’s me. And you’re Andy, we’ve met once before.”

“Yeah, you stopped by work to give Harmon a sandwich or something.”

“Speaking of – is he here?”

“Yeah. Come in. Let me take your coat.”

“Thanks.”

She slipped out of her puffy, oversized windbreaker and held it under her right arm as she stepped inside to behold a small little living room covered over with stained leaf colored shag and unadorned walls of pale beige. To the immediate left of the door, a old television sat pressed against the wall, blaring a sitcom, before it a ratty couch upon which lounged a middle aged woman who was dressed as someone fifteen years her junior.

“This is Marla. Marla, this is Lyla.”

“Hi.” Marla intoned without much interest as she fished out a gummie bear from a crinkling plastic bag upon her lap, eyes fixed on the flashing box before her. The box squawked, ”

Andy turned away from the couch-bound woman and pointed to the stairs which let up to the right.

“He’s upstairs. Door to the right.”

“Thanks.”

When she reached the upper floor landing she paused and listened for him. She knew his footfalls well. He was pacing restlessly. She entered and found him languidly smoking by the window, gazing out towards the coal breaker.

He turned slowly. The light of welcome absent from his keen green eyes.

“Hello, Bluebird.”

“Hey.”

She moved forth and slowly draped her arms against his immobile form. He reciprocated the gesture and then offered her a cigarette which she swiftly accepted. They stood smoking menthols, looking out the window at the gang members hocking opioids on the corner.

“So whats new?”

“Oh, not much. You know how it is.”

“I do indeed.”

“So what happened? With Richard?”

“He called me a liar and I told him I wasn’t and he threw me out.”

“What? Really? That’s what you two are fighting about?”

“No. I’m not fighting anything. Ain’t worth fighting with people that don’t care about you.”

“That wasn’t directed at me was it?”

“Why would you assume it was?”

“I know I haven’t been around much,” she took a long drag and shook her head as she exhaled into the pane, “But I’ve been busy.”

“What with?”

“Prepping for the gala – the next one, that is.”

“Next one?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, sorry. Yeah, I um, I – the last one was really successful.”

“I know. I was there.”

“Are you mad?”

“Yeah. But not with you.”

“Richard?”

“I kept thinking. Bout hurting him. Over and over again. Stomping down on his shiny little head until it popped like an overfilled water balloon.”

“I don’t think that would be the best way to handle it.”

“No. But it’d be a way.”

 

*

The Silence & The Howl | Part 2

CHAPTER TWO


Harmon awoke with the rising of the light. He ran his hands through his hair, wild and dark as raven-down. He stretched and cracked his neck and leaned out on the tips of his toes til he fell to the floor, catching himself before his face collided with the spotless concrete of his tea and smoke-scented basement. He did a push-up and then one hundred and then twenty more. At one hundred and twenty he started to waver and dropped to his shoulder and rolled over on his back, breathing heavy as a cat howled from somewhere outside. Shortly thereafter, something else howled. Coon from the sound of it. He checked the time. 7:00 AM sharp. He’d an hour to make it to work. He rose and looked to his mobile phone, outdated by the standards of the day. Tense. Anxious. Expectant. It’d been two weeks since Harmon had dropped Lyla off with Serena. Only phone calls he’d gotten were from his boss and his bank to let him know that his account had gone inactive and would be closed if it continued to remain so.

He fancied he were being impatient, she’d call, he told himself, she always did. They used to speak for hours every other day. Hang out on the regular. Increasingly, that was becoming a rarity. Now they’d speak but once every other week, if that. They’d meet up once a month or every other. Harmon shook himself from reverie, stretched and leapt up to the exposed crossbeam of the basement ceiling and started doing pull ups. A sudden implacable fury permeating his soma. He hit fifty and dropped, muscles afire. A pleasurable pain. He looked in the old mirror that had been left in the basement by the previous owner; his pale-yet-tanning form, all sharp, angular lines and surging veins, was alien to him. It occurred to him he’d not looked at his own reflection for over a month. There were no other mirrors in the house. He tensed his half-naked body before the mirror with his arms at his sides; his opaque green eyes vacuous. Glassy. Like liquid emerald’s encased in amber.

He showered, dressed and walked up the stairs to the living room where Sprawls was sitting, drinking his bottom-shelf beer and smoking a joint that smelled of mildew. The odious scent of the rough rolled sheet permeated the room and Harmon braced himself against any outward show of displeasure as Sprawls took a sip before speaking.

“Morning. You been up all night?”

“Stayed up writing.”

“Come up with anything good?”

Sprawls nodded and offered his roommate the joint. Harmon waved the offer and poured himself a cup of coffee, waiting for the reedy black man to continue. After a shrug and a lengthy toke he did so.

“Got this nice blues line, man. Need you to cook up some lyrics for it.”

“We’ve been writing songs for a year now. When we gonna start playing places?”

“What kinda places?”

“Dunno. Bars. Somewhere with an audience.”

“I been busy, man.”

“You work at a failing print shop with one reliable client.”

“Yeah, well, its a very demanding client. Why you always so impatient?”

“Not impatient. Just think we’ve come up with some good work. Must be that stuff you’re smoking.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning it makes you lazy as shit.”

“What’s your fucking problem, man?”

“Didn’t have one til you started snappin.”

Sprawls shook his shiny, bald head, rolled his bloodshot eyes and took another drag, knocking back his beer. He flipped on the television.

As Harmon went to take a sip of his coffee Sprawl spoke up suddenly, “Rent is due soon.”

“Yup.”

“You have it?”

“I will.”

“So you don’t have it?”

“No. Not now, I don’t. Will once Swain pays me.”

“You want to stay in my house you’d better fucking have it on time.”

“What do you mean ‘your’ house?”

“My name on the deed.”

Harmon didn’t respond and took another sip of the coffee, inhaling the soothing Colombian scent. Then he spoke up with a ill-concealed vexation.

“I thought we were friends, Richard.”

Sprawls perked up, no one except Harmon ever called him ‘Richard.’ He’d taken on the moniker ‘Sprawls’ after getting released from prison.

“We are. Weird thing to say.”

“You just threatened to throw me out of our house.”

Sprawls took a toke. Body limp. Eyes shifting from the TV screen to the man behind the kitchen counter.

“Because its MY name on the deed.”

“I’ll have the money.”

“Five days.”

“Five days.”

“I’m serious.”

Harmon furrowed his brows. Sprawls was barely there.

“So am I. I’ll have it.”

“Cool. See ya.”

He may as well have said, “Whatever.”

Harmon finished his coffee and let out the house, got in his beaten and sun-scrubbed car, lit up a cigarette, cracked the window and hit the gas and drove down the cratered roads of the suburban neighborhood to the end of the northern-most street whereupon he spied a gang of toughs hanging about between two peeling and dilapidated houses that looked like over-sized shoe-boxes. The toughs were black and mostly middle-aged with cheap shirts and expensive sneakers. Harmon had seen them hanging around before and knew that they weren’t locals. They looked expectant and worried. Moving back and forth in wordless perambulations, tight little circles of uncertainty. Some smoked and others listened to their MP3 players on their phones. Harmon figured they were on business. Waiting for a drop-off. The area had changed after The Cartel moved across the border, peddling flesh and pills. He looked out the window again as he pulled to a stop at the red light; could have ran it but he liked the ritual of the thing, the stop and smoke and stare, at the gray, seething clouds, like great ethereal snakes, at the birds whirling swarm-tactically against the thermals, at the black outsiders with their baggy pants and bad tattoos and vacant expressions, at the drop off from the rise and the vast mechanical expanse of the abandoned plant below; coal breakers, they used to call them, sorting and processing sites for anthracite, bitumen and lignite. A place where children once labored under the auspices of strong-willed industrialists. From his metallic perch he could see strange forms moving where none should be, glassy-eyed and furtive amongst the shattered and rain-worn rocks of the coal breaker’s ruin.

Junkies.

The zombie apocalypse had already happened and it hadn’t even made the front page. Pharmacology, the vector for a self-inflicted scourge. The pharmacist-as-pusher. The citizen as outcast.

Harmon took a long, soothing drag and watched the addict-vagabonds moving in strange undulations against the dessicated corpse of the iron giant. He wondered if the once-mighty site of unparalleled industry could be rehabilitated, reanimated, summoned forth from its fetid slumber by some creative recourse to technological necromancy. The thought filled his bosom as his whirring clockwork mind with a sense of unrealized majesty.

The landscape before him transformed into a field of great ranging towers, like the fangs of some titanic canine, arcing towards the sky as if in hunger of the moon. The junkies and lean-tos vanished beneath the furious blaring of steam-engines charting the fruits of the coal breaker by rail-lines to every corner of the world and all those beyond it. Their rumbling stacks searing the acrid wind with staccato puffs of smoke, pitch and gray and fading out into particulates imperceptible to the eyes of Man. He saw high-rises crop up around the coal breaker and many more behind it. A metropolis. A megalopolis. A ecumenopolis. A city so great it were as a geological force unto itself, that shook the very foundations of the earth, reverberating the magmous core with the song of its creators; echoing out unto the very stars which were the builders’ own to claim.

Harmon’s reverie was broken when the light turned green. He paused a moment and looked out the driver-side window, away from the coal break, to the right, to the shoe-box houses and the would-be gangbangers stoop-shouldered and sag-pants’d as a troop of hispanics walked up to them, plain-clothed and colorful.

“The fuck you lookin’ at, white boy?”

Harmon said nothing and methodically flicked his half-smoked cigarette out the window, where it landed with a hissing sputter at the caitiff’s feet. He refocused his attention to the road as a muted “motherfucker” echoed briefly behind the rambling, metal wagon.

*

Harmon arrived at work five minutes late. His daydream’s heady alcahest the generative nexus of his tardiness. Eric Swain folded his thick and hairy arms before his chest and shook his head, short-cropped hair copper with the rising sun.

“You’re late.”

“I know it. Got distracted.”

“Hows that?”

“Got to daydreaming.”

Swain smiled slightly, wryly and shook his head fractionally and spoke slowly.

“Coulda lied. Traffic jam, or something.”

“I suppose. Ain’t many cars on the road though.”

“How would I have known?”

“You wouldn’t, but I would.”

Swain shook his head again, like a horse chasing off flies and then looked skyward, squinting his sunglassed eyes gainst the relentless rays of the effulgent sphere and then turned.

“Well. Come on.”

“I’ll ensure it doesn’t happen again. Much as I’m able.”

“What? Being late? Hell… you’re the only reliable hand I’ve got other than Daryl.”

“I don’t think Daryl likes me.”

“Daryl doesn’t like anybody. You said ensure.”

“Yeah.”

“My wife bought me some Ensure,” the duo moved over the front lawn to the unfinished house’s driveway where stood a stack of roofing tiles, Swain reached up and removed a bottle,” Its like a protein-shake type of thing,” he shook the bottle,” Said it’ll help me keep it off the middle,” he patted his rounded gut and smiled again, “Guess’n I could do with that.”

“Guess’n so.” Harmon scanned the neat and brightly colored packaging of the protein shake. It was delightfully designed. Beautiful in its simplicity. Bright blue swooshing up in a thick line at the top and bottom bracketed in the middle by off-white with the brand name strikingly colored in stylized typeface just below the thick, upper blue swoosh. He thought of all the work that had gone into the bottle’s design; he thought of the graphic design team that had spent weeks or months choosing an appropriate typeface, modifying it, colorizing it, sketching out drafts in some aromatic coffee house, of the plastic manufacturers which had crafted the bottle to be as ergonomic as possible and of the alchemists, shuttered away in their corporate laboratories judiciously mixing and remixing various tinctures so as to strike the right balance in taste and texture. Harmon fancied it likely that more cognitive energy had been distilled in the creation of that single drink than would be expended by most of those that drank it in a month. The apprehension of such industrious creativity flooded his mind with mirth. He looked up to the roof he would shortly help to build and for the first time in a very long time, he felt pure and unmitigated joy.

*

Harmon was fifteen minutes on the bare roof of the house before, Andy Flint, the last of the crew arrived. He conversed with Swain briskly. Agitation the whole of their forms. Then Flint scaled the ladder to the roof and grabbed a sponge-pad to walk on to ensure he had some tractable footing such that he did not, in venturing out upon that perilous peak, slid off upon the slick, shiny wood or newly nail tiles and tumble out unto the void and there slam his skull upon the concrete drive below. Harmon recalled last winter when they had been working a roof in the middle of winter in the downtown area. The ice made the sponges near-useless and Swain, running a small operation and lacking the funds for harnesses, bid his crew work across the frozen tile. Harmon had overexerted himself and fallen flat upon his back some near twenty feet off the roof. He’d landed in some shrubs and lay their for a long while, stunned and unable to breathe. When Swain asked him if he was alright he had grunted and raised his left arm skyward, thumb extended upwards.

“Mornin’ Andy.”

“Harmon.” Andy replied, nodding dully as he scuttled up to the middle of the roof on his sponge-pad, wrinkled jeans scrapping against the sun-faded plywood like sandpaper on snakeskin. He was jittery and tense. His eyes bloodshot and ringed with owlish circles.

“Can you hand me that bag of tiles?”

“That asshole.”

“Who?”

“Fuckin’ all of them, man. All of them. Sonsofbitches, every one.”

Harmon paused a moment and watched the man curse under his breath and then returned to his work. He didn’t like to chat when he was focused on a task. Andy’s dour mood was ruining the atmosphere of creation. He wanted to dash lizard like across the roof as he built it up under the hot and ceaseless sun with nothing but the creaking of the renovated house and the sonorous opera of the wind. The chatter was breaking his concentration.

“Told me I’d be fired if I was late again. Just like that. Hell, I been working here just as long as you and they still treat me like I’m some… I don’t know… like I’m wet-behind the ears. Like I’m some kinda fuckup.”

“You shouldn’t pay so much heed to what people say when they’re angry.”

“A-fucking-men, man, a-fucking-men.”

Andy smiled awkwardly. He was twitchy and kept scratching himself, flexing his fingers and rubbing his arms in between nailing down the tiles, as if they were assailed by an army of invisible ants. Drugs. Uppers. Harmon wasn’t sure what particular kind, but he could tell the man was on something. He’d had a history of substance abuse, didn’t like to talk about it. Harmon didn’t want to ask. He was focused on the roof. Shortly, Daryl’s crass voice boomed out from the far-side of the rooftop.

“What are you two faggots talking about?”

“Just shooting the shit,” Andy responded irritably.

Daryl stood up high, as if to show his dominance over the peaked surface, “Well, you sure are filled with shit, Andy, so I’m sure you got a whole lot of it to shot.”

Andy leapt up, furious.

“You’re always talking down to me.”

Daryl loosed a cackle and shook his head.

“Why you gotta be such a drama queen.”

“You keep talking.”

“I will.”

“Piss off.”

“Rather not.”

“Keep on it.”

“Hows that girl friend a yours? The flat-chested one.”

“Shut it, Daryl.”

“Might have mosquitoes bites but she sure is pretty. Almost as pretty as that sweet thing our man Harmon’s saddled with. Nice curves on that one. Hows is she doing, Harmon?”

“Fine.”

“Oh look at ole Andy. He’s hopping mad. Look, what I said about your girl – its not an insult. If my mug was as ugly as yours I’d take whatever lay I could get.”

“Shut your fucking mouth.”

“Or what? You’ll shut it for me?”

Tremors of rage shook the hammer in Andy’s hand. His knuckles going white about the red-taped handle. Daryl pointed to the hammer, his tone sobering.

“You so much as swing that in my direction you will regret it.”

Harmon turned around his visage impassive and rose to his knees and slowly placed his hand upon Andy’s arm which clutched the hammer.

“Enough. We got work to do. Client is expecting us to finish this roof today.”

After a moment of tense silence Andy and Daryl moved off to opposite ends of the roof as the neophytes clamber up the ladder, bags of tile upon their straining backs.

*

After work Andy sided up to Harmon where he lay upon his back counting his pay on a patch of cool-shaded grass neath a willow in the backyard of the client’s house. To either side of the tree rose up thick hedges, ill-kept and somewhere a cat meow’d. Andy explained his cousin was unable to pick him up and asked if Harmon could give him a ride. Harmon looked around. Only Swain and Daryl remained, the neophytes all having departed the moment the boss had allowed it. Swain was talking to his wife, planning a dinner-outing for the night. There was no point in Andy asking Daryl. Harmon nodded, saying nothing and asked for but a moments patience. He liked the feel of the grass upon his skin. The moss of the willow upon his neck. He closed his eyes and inhaled and opened them and watched a dragonfly land upon one of the upper branches of the willow and he thought of the construction of the creature and then a facsimile all of copper and brass and steam and coal and fire. A great clockwork dragonfly and he upon it, skipping over the clouds with reckless enthusiasm and a conqueror’s cry. Then he shook himself from reverie, removed his keys and rose.

*

Cherry of Harmon’s cigarette flickered like furnace coal upon the windshield. Andy sat in the passenger’s seat. Sullen. Ashamed.

“Hey Harmon.”

“Yeah?”

“Just wanted to thank you.”

“Its no trouble at all.”

Andy nodded appreciatively and then looked out the red-tinged passenger’s window; some youths were ambling about a basketball court; to the left, a old woman sat upon her porch drinking from a mason jar as a cat the size of a small dog twined about her blue-veined legs. Harmon’s eyes were fixed to the road. He did not need to look out the window. He had memorized every house. Every sign. Every road-turning. Only the inhabitants thereof remained a mystery to him. There was no map, mental or otherwise could encapsulate them. A thin black man passed a young white woman upon the sidewalk before the house of the woman with the mason jar. Neither looked into the eyes of the other and they passed beside each other with wordlessly apathy as if the other were nothing more than a clump of grass. Harmon found it strange and unsettling how so many people could live in such close proximity for so long and yet almost never look or speak to one another. They came and went like ghosts under the setting sun.

“If you died in a crash, but some of your organs could be saved and transplanted, would you want them to be?”

Andy, arched a brow, confused and startled by the sudden query.

“Uh. Dunno. Why?”

“Just something I get to thinking about whenever I drive.”

“I don’t think I’d want my insides inside someone else.”

Harmon tilted his head up and took a drag of his cigarette and mulled his own question around in his mind and answered with measured tones.

“I used to think that way. Used to think it was weird.”

“And now?”

“Now I don’t. If I were to get pancaked – say, right up the road, before I pull in to your drive – bam, flattened; but one of my organs, say, a lung, remained intact and could be transplanted to some patient that needed it, I think whoever can should scoop it out, put it on ice. I wouldn’t need it, being a pancake and all. I’m not a pharaoh.”

Andy considered the driver’s words and then puckered up his mouth and nodded as if sense had been made of the thing.

“Makes sense I suppose. Less’n you’re religious in some kinda way.”

“Everyone is religious in some kinda way.”

“Thought you were an atheist?”

“So are the Taoists, but no one calls them that.”

“Caint say as I know much bout no Tao.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

They rode in silence back to Andy’s house where it stood like a fat skeleton against the pale, bony light of the slowly ascendant moon. Andy thanked the driver again and got out and strode up past the confederate flag which hung over the low-hanging porch, covered over in blankets and beer cans and rickety rocking chairs and flower pots and then vanished there within.

*

The Chittering

Night fell like a blanket of smoke over the hunters, the clicking of crickets in the forest beyond the old bunker, the only sound save for the rustling of the lonesome wind. The men were two in number, one middle aged and the other graying about the temples, languidly smoking a cigarette and listening to the portable radio he’d set up inside the bunker. Phil sat fiddling with the radio, it hissing white-noise in bitter hums between channel emissions. The Sandhill Crane is exceptionally large, reaching heights of 7 feet and possessed of red coloring about its eyes-; hiss; the Brown Bear can often be found-; hiss; President Istvan and Vice President McAfee sat down with Praetor Hui of New China today to discuss what should be done concerning the recent flurry of homemade drone strikes upon the settlements in the Eurasian De-Militarized Zone, suspicion falls on Zoroastrian Neo-Persian radical Reza Jor-; hiss; “I wish a buck was still silver. It was back when the country was strong. Back before Elvis. Before the Vietnam war came along. Before The Beatles and ‘Yesterday.’ When a man could still work, still would. The best of the free life behind us now. And are the good times really over for good?”

“Phil,” the younger man intoned with vexation, “Would you mind changing the channel?”

“What’s the matter, Tom, don’t like country?”

“Nobody likes country music.”

“Heresy!”

Tom shook his head and rose from the elegant scribbling of his notebook to give his compatriot a unamused raise-of-brows.

“Fine, fine. Changing it. Can’t believe you don’t like Merle Haggard… what kind of American are you?” He switched the dial. Silence, then a voice, sonorous and official of tone.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Breaking news: mysterious sights seen over the town of Holdover, Nebraska. These reports come to us straight from our reporter on the ground, Emily Curtis who we have here on livefeed. Ah, hello, Emily, what is all this ‘mysterious sights’ business really all about?”

“Good evening, Chris. To answer your question it’s hard to say… we recently interviewed several people who have reported instances of a strange… creature, moving about the trees. Some say it had wings, though most say it was too dark to see but-“

A old voice, croaky and filled with agitation suddenly cut in.

“They’ll shake their heads and laugh, but goddammit I know what I saw! Its there! ITS THERE!”

When the newswoman had recovered her composure she interjected in befuddlement.

“Who are you, sir?”

“Cooper Greene.”

“And… what is it that you saw in the woods, Mr. Greene?”

“Well,” he seemed to have calmed some and the sound of a beard being stroked could be heard over the airwaves, “I caint rightly say as I know what it were. Weren’t human, I kin tell ya that. No, ma’am…”

“Well, uh… alright, there you have it, Chris. We may never exactly know what it was that was being seen but, according to Mr. Greene… it… wasn’t human. Emily Cochran reporting for National Vita, back to you Chris.”

“Thanks Emily. What a curious story,” the news anchor could barely contain his amusement, “Moving on, noted motivational instructor, Christopher Wisdom challenges noted ophthalmologist to a fencing match – the twist… the fencing match will take place on a hockey rink-“

“Well, hell, what do you make of that,  Tom?

“Strange spot for a fencing match.”

“No, meant the business in the forest. You know they were talking ’bout Offstead Park, right? That means they were talking about this forest, our forest. According to old man-whats-his-name there’s some kinda… thing hereabouts.”

Tom gave his companion a looked of utter indifference.

“Yeah, and I’m Salvador Allende.”

“Come on, you have to admit, it is weird.”

“What? The fact that a bunch of drunk-off-their-gourd hilljacks leap at shadows? Hardly out of the ordinary.”

“No, come on, you know what I’m talking about. This is the eighteenth sighting in the past month. Shit ain’t normal. Something is going on.”

“What do you fancy that something is?”

“Hell if I know,” Phil took a puff of his cigarette and a sip of his beer as he leaned back in the ancient wicker chair, the upholstery covering creaking neath his burly frame, “Could be anything, but it sure as shit ain’t nothing.”

“Ain’t nothing ain’t much of something.”

“Sometimes I think you just like being contrarian. Like when Frank was telling us about that haunted house.”

“You know I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“Sometimes I wonder what you do believe in.”

“Pretty rich coming from a Lapsed Catholic.”

Phil threw up his hands in entreaty, set his beer down with a decisive clink and turned to eye his compatriot over his shoulder with supreme exasperation.

“Listen, I’m not saying its spooks and goblins, I’m just saying I’ve heard about this kinda stuff, read about it too and there are just too many things that we can’t explain and dismiss out of hand. Back in 2021 there was a unidentified object over the pacific, US battle cruisers couldn’t get a bead on it, one of them said it looked like a giant bat with glowing eyes, had no idea what it was but it jammed their signal; 2023, four children said they saw a winged creature over their farmstead in Appalachia; 2029, 15 different people in Iowa claim they received strange phone calls where this here fella up and tells them that there’s to be a death in the town in seven days, seven days come and pass and some young beauty is murdered by her boyfriend, crime of passion, or so they said. You just telling me all those people who corroborated each other’s stories were making it all up?”

“Not necessarily, though that would be more believable to me than a giant, glowing bat that can signal-jam a battle cruiser. Could be mass delusions, could be their eyes deceived um and they made up a story after the fact to explain it. In India, there was a holy man who millions believed could heal the lame and wake the dead.”

“Well… maybe he could.”

“Yeah, and maybe the moon is made of cheese.”

“Now see, why ya gotta be that way?”

“Ain’t being no way.”

“Hell if ya ain’t. I could walk up and offer you two strippers, a pole and a case of black label, and you’d assume it was some kind a prank.”

“Knowing you, I just might. You’d never shill out that much money for a couple of broads. Now the black label, that I’d believe.”

They exchanged smiles but Phil’s vanished quicker than his friends; he shook his head.

“Well, I ain’t one ta argue,” the older man noticed Tom was massaging his templed, blinking rapidly, “You alright?”

“Fine. Just a migraine. Head’s starting to pound all of a sudden. Must be the pressure from the elevation. Probably just not used to the altitude.”

Phil took a long drag on his cigarette and then bent to change the dial yet again, before his hand could reach it, the hissing of radio-static overtook the channel.

“Aw, dammit – lost the signal.”

“Would you mind turning that thing off? My head is gonna explode. Where’s that Motrin?”

“I’m trying, the dial is stuck,” Phil huffed under his breath, furrowing his brows with consternation as he tussled with the whirring machine, “Come on, you sonofabitch…”

Tom slammed his notebook shut and rose, passing the hunting rifles and coolers of beer and bottled water, and moved towards the door. Massaging his temples still, more forcefully now, face flush and a slight sweat beginning to break upon his brow, despite the frigidity of the old bunker.

“I’m going out. Taking a walk. Let me know when you’ve got that thing under control.”

“K. Just don’t go too far, wouldn’t want you falling down a mineshaft or stepping in a bear trap.”

Tom nodded and snatched a flashlight off his desk, threw on his Carhartt jacket, strapped his homemade knife-sheath to his belt and, massaging his temples, left out of the bunker. Outside the rusted construct a chill wind blew under-girded by the swelling cacophony of the forest’s multitudinous host.

The bunker was situated in a small clearing, the ground, damp and mossy, here and there a stone, smooth and the height of a man’s shin, laying like the eggs of some gargantuan beast, calcified in some cataclysm beyond all reckoning. Oak and willows surrounding, heavy with slithering vine, scratching the sky as if in vengeful protestation of it’s withdrawal of the sun. Moonlight shown through the boughs, illuminating efts and mew alike and them skittering off into the darkness with the faintest of fey rustlings, the scent of mud and bark and wet stone heavy in the air.

Tom Callahan stretched and breathed deep the sweet scents and gazed up unto the night sky, his cold blue eyes shimmering with the reflections of the lunar disk, white as bone. His head was feeling better already. Lungs swelling with sweet mountain air. Skin caressed by the soothing filaments of the northern wind. He decided at length to look around. The bunker was a recent discovery and he and Phil had only recently set up there, as such it occurred to the man quite suddenly that the duo had never scoped out the old quarry which they had seen from a distance when they were tracking a deer the following morning. Curiosity swelled in his breast and without wasting any further time he spun on his heel and left off towards the north. Making way over the tumultuous hillocks, then descending down a steep bank, once a mighty river that twined like a sorrowful and desiccated serpent down unto a flat and trammeled plain of grey stone that crunched with every measured footfall, like a bevvy of pulpy chitin.

Callahan gazed about in wonderment at the quarry. It was more a place out of some fantastical workshop of eldritch dream than a thing of materiality, so queer-lit and ambiguously skeletal in it’s stony lay-lines of dry-rent earth. Everywhere were large boulders, some standing thrice the height of any mortal man, they rooted to their moon-slit and respective shades as if in stoic obeisance to some rule outside the realm of knowing. As he approached the wayfarer discerned yet another peculiarity about the wide, square boulder, strewn and stony expanse; small piles of bones. Animals of all habitats and morphologies, toads, newts, boar, deers, birds of many variations and, here and there, the great horned totem of a elk.

“What on earth,” he mouthed to himself as the wind swept up.

He drew closer to the nearest skulls-pile which had been carefully situated beneath a high rock outcropping which let down into a echoing cavern. Atop the bird, deer and elk skulls sat a horrid effigy.

A human skull.

Instinctively, unthinkingly, Callahan flinched and drew back, muttering a cure underneath his breath, quivering much from fear as from the wind’s savage increase. A cold, liquid dread slithered up his spine and coiled about his reptilian ganglia. Then, as if from a dream, eyes like flashing embers shone through the inky voided architecture of the cave. A great and terrible entity sprang forth, wings liken to the wings of a mighty sphinx, its body towering about the man, eclipsing him in its shade, as if the light were there leeched from his very essence.

The man screamed, turned heel and ran into the failing light as twisting tendrils of cloud slowly covered the moon.

*

Phil watched the television’s techno-colored dance and fondled his everpresent cigarette and discount beer as Tom flipped furiously through the hefty stack of tomes he’d checked out from the local Offstead Library. There were only four other people in the bar and all of them eyed Tom nervously, as if he were cursed.

“Why does everyone here keep looking at me like that?”

“Cuz they think you’re crazy.”

“I know what I saw.”

“That’s just what Greene said. Just like him you called up the news.”

“It’s not like they gave me the time of day, they’d moved on from the story.”

“Yeah, but you know how word travels. Look you know I trust you, but I think you’re getting a little too worked up about this. Haven’t even been to work since… you saw… well, whatever it was you saw.”

“I’ve got new work to do now,” he muttered under his breath with vexation, peering at series of black and white photograph on the page of one of his library books. The pictures were of a strange humanoid looking creature, some eight feet tall, with round, glowing eyes, it appeared to be cognizant of the camera and, in the very last photograph, it vanished. The book noted that it was suspected a hoax.

Gasping, Tom slide the book across the table to Phil.

“Look… this thing looks like what I saw.”

“Hell, Tom, you can barely see anything, could just be a man on stilts with a reflective mask. Says right here it was suspected to be a hoax.”

Tom flipped to the previous page, “What about the fact that these sightings have a history dating back to the 1700s?”

“Tom, people see all kinds a thing in the woods out there. One time when I was out deer hunting I swore I saw a dinosaur, turned out to be a log sitting at a weird angle. Tricks of light and shadows,” He gestured sadly at the pile of books, “I just don’t see the use in all of this.”

Tom grimaced and slammed the book shut, “Fine… fine. You know what… you’re right, I don’t see the use in talking to you either. I thought you of all people would believe me…”

Phil held out his hand in entreaty, “Now, come on, don’t be that way. Tom!”

Tom ignored him and packed his book into the backpack sitting on the floor beside the bar. He ignored everyone as he left. He ignored the cold of the moon as he made his way back to the library which had become something like a second home to him since his sighting at the cave. The street was quite and the ghastly shell of the lunar disk peeked around high billowing nimbus, it reminded him of when he had seen it. He moved on with a wary eye and quickening feet. Suddenly a black shape drifted out from the shadows and screeched horridly. The world seemed to stop in its turning and Tom gave a shuddering gasp and fell straight back off his feet to the flat of his back, quickly peering up only to discover a large, unruly black tom-cat starring back at him. He cursed at the beast until it ran off and then rolled his eyes and made his way across the deserted street to the local library.

It was a old building, all of colonial brick, some of it crumbling and all in desperate need for repair. He passed beyond the high oaken double doors and passed the librarian who gave him a hesitant wave and then returned to watching the small portable television screen which had been set up at the front desk. Beyond the foyer, with its reception desk and low, flickering lights, and low, moldered ceiling and alabaster colored crenelations, lay the library proper, with fifty five rows of bookshelves standing about the room like dutiful sentries and the walls all likewise covered in the same. Tom adjusted his pack about his shoulder and scanned the books until he found the ‘Unexplained’ then he picked out a few more books and took them to his usual sitting place upon the upper landing nearest the southern-most corner.

Some twenty minutes into his venture the sound of footsteps intruded upon him. He looked up to behold a old man dressed in mangy flannel and tattered jeans. He was bearded and graying, gaunt, wild-eyed and possessed the look of one who had lived too long in a world beyond his conception. The man pocketed his hands and stood a moment in silence before addressing the bookworm.

“You Tom Callahan?”

“Yeah. Wait… I know you, I recognize your voice, you’re Greene right, Cooper Greene?”

“That’d be me. Word sure does travel fast in this town, don’t it. Pleased to meet ya. I saw you walking up the stairs and thought I’d say hello. You mind if I sit?”

“No, go right ahead. Chairs here are public property, I don’t own um.”

The man gave a tired little laugh and set himself down opposite Callahan. After another few moments of uneasy silence the old man affixed Callahan with a curious gaze.

“They all laughed at ya, didn’t they?”

“What?”

“Because a what ya said. Cuz of what ya saw.”

“…Yeah. No one believes me. My best friend said the shadows were playing tricks on me, wife told me that I’m just stressed out from working too hard, the reports I tried to talk to just waved me off as a crazy, said the story wasn’t a story, said it wasn’t worth covering, my kid said I was being silly. Even my fucking kid, doesn’t believe me, man. But you saw it, didn’t you… that… thing.”

The old man nodded solemnly and looked out the window into the resting darkness beyond the pane. Out off into the blackening woodlands where an eerie mist was rising like the tendrils of some great, beached kraken.

“Yeah. I saw it. Went through the same. Boss told me to take sometime off, said I was bringing too many reporters to the office, said I was too distracted, that I just wasn’t thinking clearly. Hell do they know? They weren’t there. They don’t know nothing. I just wanted to tell ya that, no matter what you do, no matter what you say and no matter how smart the people ya know are, they will never – and I mean NEVER – believe you… unless you walk into the sheriff’s office with that monster’s body slung about ya shoulder, ain’t no one ever gonna believe your story… or mine.”

“You suggesting we go hunting?”

“Maybe I am maybe I ain’t. Wouldn’t matter none until I hear your opinion.”

They held each others eyes for some time; the old man was intensive, determined whilst Callahan faltered under the weight of his uncertainty. He remembered the jeering voices of his wife then, of Phil, of his son, of his coworkers, his boss, his neighbors and the reporter’s he’d contacted. They’d all scoffed. Mocked him for weeks and weeks after that fateful encounter; everyone had turned on him. Isolated him. Everyone but Greene.

At last Callahan fully met the old man’s eyes.

“I think a hunting trip sounds like a lovely idea.”

*

Phil leaned back in his seat examining the woman with a cautious eye. He didn’t quite know what to say, words escaped him. Had she have been any person other he wouldn’t have believed her but Tom’s wife wouldn’t lie. Not about him. Not about this.

“He what now?”

“He left. Didn’t even phone me or David. How could he… I just… I just don’t understand any of this.”

“Well, hell, Cathy, I wish I did so I could explain it to ya. I knew he was worked up about… whatever it was he thinks he saw out their but I had no idea it was eating him up this much. When did he leave?”

“Late last night. He said he was going out to the bar, with you. I called him and he said he had left the bar, that he’d went to the library to study about whatever it was he saw.”

“What he thought he saw.”

Cathy sighed and closed her eyes, rubbing her weathered and sun-kissed face with her palms and falling into stony silence for a beat. Then she raised her head and looked out the window of the tiny little burger joint at the dewy drops of rain, pecking away at the arboreal tarp of the earth.

“I just can’t bear the thought of anything happening to him, he means the world to me…”

Phil nodded gravely, “I know, Cat… I know. We grew up together, that little bookworm and I, he saved my ass from so many fights when we were going through our punk days I lost count…,” he paused a moment, took a bite of his burger, found it tasteless and greasy, set it down, swallowed and looked again to the woman. She was crying now, shaking her head.

“You like Merle Haggard, Cat?”

“What?”

“The singer. Ya like him?”

“Yeah. I guess so. Oh, gosh I haven’t listened to him in years… Do I like his music? Hm… not, really.”

“Oh, not you too.”

“Too campy. Ya know, a little kitsch.”

Phil shook his head in defeat, “Well, then what all do ya like? Hell… caint believe we never talked music before…”

“Townes Van Zandt.”

“Yeah, he’s good, lonesome sonofabitch, but he’s pretty good.”

She at last broke out into a tired smile, chuckling faintly under her breath and then falling still. Her mind turning back to her husband and the dark woods into which he had fled. Abruptly, Phil placed his hand atop her own and leaned slightly forwards, the better to meet her gaze.

“You gotta calm down, I know he’s been agitated but he can take care a hisself. Now listen… I’m going to head up there, to our bunker, see if he’s staked out there, if not I’ll look around the woods a bit. He can’t stay out there in those forsaken woods forever, he’s far too fond a that famous… hell’s bells, whatcha-ma-call-it?”

She smiled the slightest ghost of smile and spoke in a thankful whisper.

“Foie gras.”

“Yeah. That’s the one. Ole Tom always did love that Frog food.”

“Thank you, Phil. Just… be careful.”

He nodded, rose from the booth, threw on his jacket and headed for the door.

*

The old man’s cabin was littered with crushed empty cans which rattled like wind-rapt bones, the walls covered corner to corner with red-lined newspaper clippings. In the center of the tiny little hovel stood but a single wooden table, two rickety folding chairs and a single lantern that looked as if it was dredged up from some ancient silver mine. In the left-most corner lay a foam mat, a pillow, a backpack and a hunting rifle poorly concealed beneath the bedding. Nothing else in that creaking den but the two men who stood a moment, engulfed in fear and uncertainty. At length the old man moved to the southern wall and drew a grease stained finger across one of the newspaper clippings, “1978, strange creature spotted in woods beyond Offstead,” he drew his finger further across the wall, closer to Tom where he stood beside the doorway, “1998, another siting, this time someone got a good look at it, massive black wings he said,” again the old man drew his finger further across the wall with more verve and nervous energy this time, “2010, two kinds say they seen a monster in the woods, but… they’re kids, so who would believe um. And now… its back… or maybe… maybe it never left.”

Tom nodded indecisively. He wasn’t certain that the old man’s tales were all true but he knew what he had seen in that cave and that was enough. One’s own eyes do not lie.

“If that’s the case,” Tom stated grimly, as he unslung his rifle from his shoulder, “Then we had best get a move on.”

*

The moonlit duo moved across the uneven ground like brigands skirting the law after some devious heist; hardly making a sound as they traipsed beneath the wind-twisted boughs of the forest groaning. The shrubbery seemed to obscure all manner of life which skittered and chittered here and thereabouts, yet never revealing itself unto them. Always in shadows. After some twenty minutes of trekking they made their way to the old quarry and passed beyond the piles of bones, illuminated in ghastly effulgence by the radiance of the celestial spheres. Standing before the cave the two men raised their rifles and exchanged anxious looks and nodded one to the other and passed into that infernal portal. There was nothing. The whole of the cave was as devoid of all sentience save their own as were the skulls surrounding void of life. They left out of the chasm shortly and there heard a rustling, unlike those which had previously sounded, some ways off in the distance, cutting through the silence of the starry night like with all the force of some executioner’s blade.

“You hear that?” Greene whispered to his compatriot. Tom nodded without speaking for turning; he realized suddenly his hands were shaking. It was close. He could feel it. Out there. In the blackness. In the shadow. In the null space which beckoned to him like some self-planned tomb. Watching him with those blazing eyes of fathomless fire.

Tom gestured for the old man to be silent and pressed his rifle-butt to his shoulder, dropping to a knee and scanning the treeline. The boughs rustled with the breeze and the shrubbery shook with the faintest breath of the wind. Tom’s heart leapt in it’s bony cage as he realized with terror that there was something moving through the bushes, moving out between the trees. A huge, looming shadowy thing, walking forth with the crunching of stick and stone with all the stolid confidence of a alpha predator.

“It’s… here,” Greene mouthed breathlessly, crouching down behind a grassy hummock upon which Tom had laid himself out on his stomach. Tom’s hands shook upon the trigger and stock of the rifle as he steadied his mind and calmed his nerves. There would only be one chance to get it. This was the moment to prove what he’d saw, this was the moment where he would show them. He’d show them all how foolish they were for refusing to believe him. For telling him he was losing it. For saying he was mad!

“It’s coming out of the trees!” Greene hissed.

“Keep your goddamned voice down.”

The thing picked up speed as it descended a bushy incline and broke through the most dense portion of the treeline. Tom took a deep breath, aimed and pulled the trigger. The shadow-beast flinched and fell back into the shrubbery and then scrambled across the ground. Greene took aim now and fire a volley into the darkness until the skittering had subsided.

Then all was silent save for the whistling of the wind. Tom and Greene exchanged dire looks and then nodded and rose from their hilly perch and trudged across the mossy ground and peered behind the bushes. They froze in abject horror at the sight which then greeted their eyes.

A human body lay in a twisted heap upon the ground, a large red hole showing grisly and raw upon the abdomen. What little was left of the man’s head leaked out bits of brain and silver-black rheum upon the cool, lichen-wrought ground and somewhere a crow cawed in the darkness as if in acknowledgement of some soul’s passage into the underworld. Tom tore at his hair as he starred down at the body; it was familiar to him, dreadfully familiar.

It was Phil.