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; “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.”
Tom raised his head from the elegant scribbling of the notebook, brows arching in reproachment.
“Fine, fine. Changing it. Can’t believe you don’t like Merle Haggard. Didn’t know better, I’d assume you weren’t American.” 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 are these ‘mysterious sightings’ really all about?”
“Good evening, Chris. To answer your question it’s hard to say. We recently interviewed several people who have reported glimpsing 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 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?”
“What’s there? What is it that you saw in the woods, Mr. Greene?”
“Well,” he 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, alright, there you have it, Chris. 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 that old timer, there’s some kinda… thing hereabouts.”
Tom gave his companion a looked of utter indifference.
“He sounds like the kind of fellow that’d think the earth was flat.”
“Come on, you have to admit, its weird.”
“What is? A soused hilljack leaping at shadows? Hardly out of the ordinary.”
“Come on, you know what I’m talking about. This is the eighteenth sighting in the past month. Ain’t normal. Something’s 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 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 exasperation, set his beer down with a decisive clink and turned to his compatriot.
“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 an 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 some 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 delusion, could be their eyes deceived them 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. If I offered you two strippers, a pole and a case of black label, you’d assume it was a prank.”
“Knowing you, I probably would. 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 temple, 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’s gonna explode. Where’s the 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.”
“Aight. 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 left the bunker. Outside the rusted construct a chill wind blew undergirded by the swelling cacophony of the forest’s multitudinous host. The building 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 its 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 swelled 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 the duo had never scoped out the old quarry which they had seen from a distance when they had tracked a deer the previous morning. Curiosity swelled in his breast and without wasting any time he spun on a heel and left off to the north. He strode over tumultuous hillocks, then descended down a steep bank, once a mighty river that twined like a sorrowful and desiccated serpent, down onto 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 eldritch workshop than a thing of known materiality, so queer-lit and ambiguously skeletal in its stony laylines of dryrent earth. Everywhere were large boulders, some standing thrice the height of any mortal man, they rooted to their respective moonshine and shade. 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 skull 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 curse 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 over 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 consumed 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.
“Cuz they think you’re crazy.”
“I know what I saw.”
“That’s just what Greene said.”
“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 you’re getting 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 a series of black and white photograph on the page of one of his library books. Depicted were 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 it was the product of 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 it was confirmed to be fake.”
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. “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 the 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 cat starring back at him. He hissed at the beast until it ran off, then rolled his eyes and made his way across the deserted street to the 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 crenellations, 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 one titled ‘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 without company. The man pocketed his hands and stood a moment in silence before addressing the bookworm.
“You Tom Callahan?”
“Yeah. I recognize your voice, you’re Greene right, Cooper Greene?”
“Word sure does travel fast in this town, don’t it. Pleased to meet ya. I saw you climbing 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?”
“Because a what ya said. Cuz of what ya saw.”
“Not much laughing, more like a whole lot of staring and whispering. 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 tentacles of a great, beached kraken.
“Yeah. I saw it. Went through the same. Boss told me to take time off, said I was bringing too many reporters to the office, said I was too distracted, that I 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, 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 ya 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 reporters he’d contacted. They’d all scoffed. Mocked him for weeks and weeks after that fateful encounter; everyone had turned on him. Eschewed him. Everyone but Greene.
At last Callahan fully met the old man’s eyes.
“I think a hunting trip sounds like a fine 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 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 don’t understand any of this.”
“Well, hell, Cathy, I wish I did. I knew he was worked up about… whatever it was he thinks he saw out there, but I had no idea it was eating him up this much. When did he leave?”
“Late last night. 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 surrounding arboreal tarp.
“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. Ya know he used to save me from fights. At school,” 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?”
“The singer. Ya like him?”
“Oh, gosh I haven’t listened to him in years. Not my cup of tea.”
“Not you too.”
“Too campy. Ya know, kitsch.”
Phil shook his head. “Well, then what all do ya like? Caint believe we never talked music before.”
“Townes Van Zandt.”
“He’s good, lonesome sonofabitch, but he’s pretty good.”
She at last broke out into a tired smile, chuckling faintly under her breath, 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 holed up, 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, what do you call it?”
She smiled the slightest ghost of smile and spoke in a thankful whisper.
“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 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 sighting, 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, “2010, two kids say they seen a monster in the woods, but they’re kids, so who would believe um. And now, its back. Or 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 skull littered cave was devoid of sentience save their own. 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 with all the force of some mad executioner’s blade.
“You hear that?” Greene whispered to his compatriot. Tom nodded without speaking or 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 an 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 scrambled across the ground. Greene took aim now and fired 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, nodded and rose from their hilly perch, 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.