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Okay, so in honor of passing a thousand bucks on the kickstarter for All Waters Are Graves, I'm posting this, a whole-ass short horror story that I wrote a while back and shopped around and got precisely zero interest in. It's over 5k words, so that means 99% of outlets aren't interested in it since I'm not a big draw. I doubt it's graphic enough for most any horror outlet. It's not SF. It's probably not even fantasy. But it is a crime story. Hope you enjoy it.

All rights reserved, yadda yadda.


The flashlight beam crawled only a few paces ahead of Lyn before it was consumed by the forest. Either the bright white circle danced and melted across a tree with scarred bark and shaggy dripping needles or it pushed out into a darkness deep as a child’s eyes widened by panic. He flicked the light off, deciding that he didn’t want to see whatever had made that sound a moment ago. The shotgun was cradled in his right but it didn’t offer much in terms of comfort against the cold damp. Or the fear. And it sure as hell didn’t make him feel better about taking this job that his cousin Gilly had tricked him into.

No, that wasn’t right, he thought. I tricked myself. ‘Cause I was afraid I was gonna end up like Angelo with his big wet face and fear so taut it made his skin hard as bone. Play or pay.

He could only sling pizzas or try to pay attention through a whole shift bagging groceries for so long before the boredom and drudgery and people getting in his face about how his mask was off his nose or he wasn’t putting the bread on top got to him. I didn’t want mushrooms on that, they sneered, when all he wanted to do was to get home to his converted shed out on his father’s land and get high as fuck because that was the only way to sleep at night. But get high as fuck enough and that costs money. Money that he didn’t always have because he flushed every job he could down the shitter without a second thought. Not that there were many to start with up this far up in NorCal where Oregon is just a baseball throw away, so long as you clear the tall trees and avoid the growers you don’t know.

And then he owed money to the dudes who let him get high. Gilly being one of them. He always had that easy yellow smile and bright eyes under that mop of red hair. Even after everything they’d seen together growing up, even after the stuff that had happened when they were just dumbass kids. Even after Angelo never coming home. Kids don’t think about consequence. Nothing sticks because they’re immortal or just too stupid to think the rules apply to them, whether they’re laws that people come up with or laws that run deeper than that, deep like rivers carving out canyons over millions of years.

But Lyn was learning consequence, soaking it up now.

Three nights ago, back in the liquor store parking lot, it was all “Don’t worry, fam. I got you. You work guard a season or two and you make all that money back, plus some more. And hey, you show you dependable,” Gilly leaned back against the side of his green and brown cammo Toyota Tundra and took a suck off his vape, a real lung-buster. Then he smiled and breathed out white clouds that turned to veils in the cold light. “If you dependable, the world can be you oyster.” His finger pressed hard on Lyn like a drunk bullet.

Lyn didn’t think about what would’ve happened if he’d said no. He didn’t have to. Dudes either worked for the grow and kept their mouths shut or they got to return to nature. Usually in hamburger-sized pieces.

He made the deal a week ago.

Tonight was his third night running perimeter watch.

Two nights ago, Gilly had shoved the shotgun into Lyn’s hands and told him never to come to work baked, stoned, or fucked-up in any way. There was no smile or wink or nod, game seven and you got cancer serious. Then the two of them walked the perimeter of the grow where the haphazardly-cleared land and discarded jugs of fertilizer and piles of PVC pipe to run half-assed irrigation ended. To where the forest began and went without limit.

“We haven’t had trouble in a long time,” Gilly said. “So you got it easy. Yeah, had to run those Mex out of here, dipshits. And the Altarboys after that. Double dipshits.”

“I heard the Altarboys got killed by a bear,” Lyn said without thinking about it.

Gilly’s backhand hit him on the chest hard enough that he fumbled the shotgun, safety off, safety always off because you didn’t know when you’d have to go. His heart gripped like crystal chased with Monsters.

“Who told you that shit?”

“Jesus, Gilly. That was just talk from the deputies over beer and wings and slices. That’s all. No disrespect.”

His green eyes burned under the copper fringes. “No, no. It’s cool. We, me and Poly and Gameboy and Cheeto. We took those fuckers out, took ‘em old school.” Gilly mimed Poly pushing his thick glasses up his nose, just so I’d know who he was talking about. Then he whisked out his Desert Eagle and held it sideways guaranteeing he couldn’t make the shot. But he always did that. “Took them dancing and left ‘em in the woods. That was a message.”

The words ‘left in the woods’ snagged Lyn hard as a nail sticking out of a fence post. There was only one kid that phrase meant for Lyn. And it was that thing with Angelo. It was just a prank. But Gilly had never looked back at those eyes, moonlight-bright as they outran the forest to the clearing north of town. Back then the trees came a lot closer. Now they were clear up until the slope of the mountainside kept even the most determined rogue cutters at bay. Even if the odd one still went out and didn’t come home and maybe the body was found later, like the Altarboys had been, beaten and chewed.

“So why the bear talk, G?”

He holstered the gun and grinned. “You think Deputy Dawg and his partners want it known that they can’t keep a lid on things? They gotta look like they’re in charge and I’m fine letting them look like that. Earn they pay.” He took a vape hit, exhaling fingers of vapor sweet as a spilled orange soda. “Why do you think the bear talk, fam?”

Because bear talk made more sense than talk about skunk apes and men that were eight feet tall and made of muscle stronger than cordwood. Lyn bit his tongue.

“They said the bodies were all ripped-up. But you didn’t do…”

Gilly had been into shit and other trouble for as long as Lyn had known him. Get into a gunfight and you’re not going to feel bad about sending the competition home a little heavier from lead. But to mangle bodies?

“Oh, that shit was bears. For real. What else would it be?”

Lyn ate his tongue behind his teeth before talking. Gilly was gonna make him say it.

“We aren’t all that far from Willow Creek, so I thought, y’know.”

“I don’t ‘y’know.’” His grin pulled tight with strained mischief and scorned consequence. “What?”

“You’re gonna make me say it?”

“Guess so.”

“Fine. Bigfoot. Sasquatch. All that shit.”

Gilly stared at him for a long time, dopey and angry in equal weight.

It was stupid to ask if anyone believed in that stuff. Believing didn’t make no nevermind when it came down to broken branches with maybe hair on them or ululating shrieking howls that could’ve been the wind but made your heart clutch and skip as bad as dad’s truck on a cold morning, or any morning. You didn’t have to believe in gravity, just understand that stepping off the mountain would kill you dead. Belief didn’t enter into it. That was for Sundays if you bothered, maybe Christmas and Easter.

Lyn wondered if Angelo believed or what gripped him that night had just been fear. Didn’t enter into it.

“Nah, man. All that stuff is to get tourists out here, and it’s a pain in my ass. Gotta plan for hikers stumbling across the grow or worse, those stupid drones taking video.

“That’s what you gotta really watch out for here,” he said, sticking a knife into things. “But the bears do sometimes keep the question-asking to a minimum.”

But this didn’t answer Lyn’s own question as to why he was walking what amounted to perimeter patrol all night long.

The second night had started the same with Gilly shoving the gun into his hand hard and awkward. His eyes were bloody and whatever he’d been smoking hadn’t been strong enough. So much for not coming to the job wrecked.

“What gives?”

Gilly looked Lyn up and down in a frenzy. He righted the weapon and checked the safety. The sharp smell of powder hit him harder than any vape scent that might’ve clung to Gilly.

“Weird shit just a little while ago. And I think Poly might be selling us out. But that’s at an end.” Gilly raised the vape box and took a hit that did nothing to calm him, shuddering the entire time.

“Chill, man. It can’t be that bad. So he bailed.”

“Poly wouldn’t bail. Not unless he got a better offer.”

“Who’s been firing the gun, Gilly?” Lyn thought about holding a weapon that for all he knew had been fired at someone ten minutes ago and he was just taking the fall for it.

“Oh, me,” he said as if that could have been the only possible answer. “Saw a bear wandering around, near the treeline. Big fucker.”

“And that drives them off?”

“They sure don’t like it any, no.”

The sun was setting swollen and red as a knife wound, sky above it a clotting mess of color and clouds all fingernail-scratched behind the trees.

“But they’re not coming back.”

“I dunno, man. They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.” He sucked and held it a moment then exhaled. The mist pulled away from him and revealed only more agitation.

“Who they?”

“Bears, man.” He shook his head to mock the openness of Lyn’s question. There was only one possible answer. “Just bears, like a little family of them.”

Gilly wasn’t saying half of what had happened. Lyn’s stomach tied itself in knots as he checked the gun. It had been fired to the last.

“Hey, G. We need more shells in this thing.”

“We’re gonna need more than that,” he said, without presence or thought.


“Bullets. We’re gonna need more bullets. Right. Let’s get loaded up and then get you walking. Gotta walk that line.”

His hands shook as he pulled out the box of Federals and passed them to Lyn.

“Damn. This is heavy as hell. What’s in here?”

“Slugs. Slugs are the only thing that’ll stop a bear. And you gotta hit it right.”

“You said this was a scattergun, just drive looky-loos away.”

“Slug’ll do the same thing,” he said with a hollow gravity. “Now get walking. I gotta go burn some trash. Don’t come poking around it, neither.”

Lyn slid out, watching Gilly standing by the kitchenette table of the dingy trailer and just vibrating in place, so wound up that he was fit to explode. Last thing he saw was Gilly pulling a can of gas out from under the sink and just staring out the dirty window.

Resting on the steps Lyn stopped and put all eight shots in, then pocketed the rest of the shells because he didn’t want to feel like an asshole just leaving them there for kids to find. Kids could get hurt just fucking around. They wouldn’t even consider the possibility of something permanent or real happening.

Then he began to think that making pizzas might not be so bad.

But being undependable would be worse, so he went and walked the dead space between the field and the trees. They loomed there shouldered together in places so tight that not even a raccoon could get through. But other spots were wide and open, grown at a diagonal to one another, almost pushed aside by hands too powerful to contemplate. The spaces there were scooped out dark, like teeth pulled out.

The night was quiet, critters chittering low with even the frogs peeping softly as if in deference to something much bigger than themselves. Somewhere near the scratched-out garbage pit on the other side of the grow, an orange light danced weakly as a snake that had been stepped on. Gilly was burning his trash and Lyn didn’t want to know the first god damned thing about what was in there.

Wind breathed through the forest, warped by running through branches and needles and over wrangles of tree bark. Sadness was wrung out of it, sadness without words or language, a soft wailing expressed through sound drawn out of a soul somewhere out there. The chill it brought made its way down Lyn’s neck and back, through his guts and both ass and bladder clutching closed. He stood there stuck. The only thing he’d ever heard in his life like that was the sound that Angelo’s mother made when she was told that her boy was never coming home, some two weeks after fucking around in the woods with his friends. They came out but he never had or would. He heard that crying a lot after that. It took him a long time to find a way to dull it.

Enough weed, enough whiskey and everything got obliterated, sure as stepping off a cliff. It wasn’t so bad now. Just once or twice a week that Lyn needed fat hits and burning slugs to put consequence aside, make it small enough to forget in those quiet moments.

The forest sound had been gone for who knew how long. Lyn found it within himself to take another step and instead of the soft crunch of needles or litter there was a click and snap as something held then gave under his weight. He crouched down and reached where his step had fallen, finding something cold and unyielding, with a sharp edge.

Poly’s glasses. But no Poly attached to them. A sticky dark smudge clung to one of the lenses and the frame. And the arm. He didn’t need to look hard to know what it was. He’d smelled blood before.

The light was for shit. So Lyn swallowed hard and pushed the bile back as he reached for his flashlight then cast it around. It played over the ground, lingering at a spot nearby where the needles had been disrupted and scattered, unlike the rest of the clearing at the forest’s edge. Dark liquid spilled then smeared against a jutting of rock just tall enough to trip someone. It might’ve been Poly’s. But the scene didn’t make sense. Lyn caught a vibe of a struggle and a fight, but not much of one, more dragging and tossing, pretty one-sided. And Poly was a big enough guy that was easier said than done.

The smell of blood grew stronger now, like he was swimming in it. Lyn dragged his boot through a bunch of pine needles clumped up by the knucklebone rocks that were dark with the stuff. The mat stuck as a whole, moving slowly. When it finally gave, the dirt there was black and sticky in a meaty spatter. Uncovering the whole of it, he found the mark more than a couple feet across, made bigger by dragging. Whoever it had been, they hadn’t gotten far. Lyn followed the marks to a place near the treeline where they smeared and scratched out flat and then all but disappeared.

A cold thought crawled down him, twitching through muscle and bone until it rested at the base of his spine. This wasn’t one awful thing, but two. Somebody got hurt bad, probably shot a few steps behind him, dragged himself this far and then was lifted and taken away. And there was something telling Lyn that it was dragged into the forest, not away. Didn’t explain the glasses though. Or did it?

Wind seethed through the grass of the forest floor and it made a sound like breath through teeth closed tight. Lyn was making the same sound without even knowing it, echoing that primal inhalation. The cold thing at the base of his spine told him he was right. Poly wasn’t coming back. But then what was Gilly all wound up about? Unless it was just him covering tracks.

Lyn peered at the marks by his feet, now-dried blood in the brown dirt, tough as concrete. They were hieroglyphic to him, obviuos but without meaning. He looked again at the train of tracks that circled around the splatter behind and the place of departure before. There were half-erased boot-tracks, that much was clear, little bits of tread marks that didn’t match his own.

But maybe they matched Poly’s. And probably for sure matched Gilly’s. Just pieces of them, though. No complete prints; like someone else had walked all around them after. Maybe whoever had scattered the pine needles and brush in a half-assed cover up had done it. Maybe it was that.

Whatever had happened, Lyn decided that he didn’t know shit about it. And he wasn’t in any hurry to bring it up with Gilly. He tapped his fingers on the broken glasses frame in his hand, cursing himself. His prints had to come off it, which would make it tough to pull anyone else’s as well. But he wasn’t in any mood to burn for whatever Gilly had done. Lyn rolled the frame around in the fabric of his long flannel shirt then tossed them back into the trees, nowhere near where he’d stepped on them. Just dumb luck that he even found them to even start thinking about questions. Just like it was dumb luck that got him this job. Dumb luck that he hadn’t ended up like Angelo had.

He tried to figure out something smarter than just doing tonight’s shift and playing stupid. For the life of him, he couldn’t. Gilly figures out that he knows and he’s dogmeat, too. Poly was in the operation. Lyn was just hired help.

A gap in the tree trunks ahead called out to him, feeling like he could slip right through it pretty easily and just disappear. Just not come back. Maybe he could wander far enough back to find Angelo’s bones and bring them back to his mother, tell him that he was sorry, but at least you don’t have to bury an empty coffin and pretend now.

He wanted a drink and a couple hits. He wanted that more than disappearing into the woods. At least the drunk you can come back from.

Lyn continued his patrol, keeping an eye on the steady burning bonfire on the far side of the trailer. Whatever it was burning took a lot of effort or there was just a lot of it. He walked and hoped to hell that Gilly could keep it under control, knowing full well that he couldn’t.

At daylight, Gilly met him, hollow-eyed and sooty, doused in the smell of soot and gasoline beneath that.

“Any trouble out there?” Whatever had bothered him before was gone now, more likely doped-out.

“Nothing at all,” Lyn said. “Didn’t see a god damned thing.” He shoved the shotgun into Gilly’s arms, then followed with the box of shells.

“See you tonight, then.”

“Yeah, like I got a choice.”

Lyn didn’t wait for the wiseacre reply.

Lyn diddled around thinking about calling the cops. Maybe the local deputies were goofballs or maybe they were even in on it. That’s the problem with money. It gets everywhere. And while Gilly wasn’t living like a king, the guys he paid up to did. He thought about how little it would take to pay off a deputy in an ex-logging town with no prospects anyways. Probably a lot less than he thought.

So he gave in and went back to take another bite of the shit sandwich. Sometimes all you can do is take that next bite. He stopped off for a bacon cheeseburger with everything that Rosie would put on it and a plate of fries so big that he ended up only eating half and wrapping the rest up for later. If he was going to go out, at least it would be with a clear head and a full stomach. He’d skipped the bowl and just had a single shot of Jack to brace himself before he left the house. As clean as he got.

Lyn parked and walked over to the trailer then stopped. In the falling light of the sundown, he saw what looked to be a pretty clear track that had been walked around the trailer, just a couple yards away from the building itself. Without thinking, he followed it, seeing where the dried grass had been tramped down in an oblong trail almost a couple feet across in places. Like something big had just… paced around the trailer for a good long time. He tried to imagine that he’d seen it before, that it hadn’t just come up, but he couldn’t convince himself of that.

He flashed onto the time he’d seen a wolf at the zoo once, how it just paced the length of its enclosure, whether people were there watching it or not. It trotted as if compelled, ribs all but brushing the walls that closed it in. This felt like that. Like a compulsion enacted.

Lyn paced it out once and stopped himself from falling into it a second time. He looked real hard and couldn’t make out any individual prints, even though the light was clear enough. Just the grass laying down under the weight of something. Big.

He sighed and went up the steps of the trailer and through the door to start his shift. As he opened the door inwards, there was a scraping of something metal and plastic all scattered in the linoleum of the front room. Looking around the door, it was spent shotgun shells, five of them bloomed out like plastic flowers. He bent down and picked one up, twirling it in his fingertips. Still a little sharp, maybe fired a couple hours ago?

“Gilly? Where are you man?”

He let the shell clatter to the floor. There was no sound aside from that.

Gilly was nowhere to be seen, just a scrawled note in thick pen strokes telling him to “watch for some shit tonight” and that he’d would be back later. The shotgun lay crosswise on the little scarred kitchenette table. Lyn checked the chamber and found only three shells in the clip and no box anywhere around. It took him only a couple seconds to find where they’d gone. The front window was slid open, but the screen there punched and torn like someone had pushed out through it from this side.

That explained the shells, but not whoever Gilly had been shooting at. Maybe Gameboy and Cheeto heard what happened with Poly and decided to take a shot at Gilly. Maybe the Altarboys weren’t all dead. And maybe Gilly just felt like it for the sheer hell of it. Impulse control wasn’t his strong suit, particularly given whatever had been eating him. And he wasn’t here now. Just the cryptic message.

Lyn crumpled that into a ball and dropped it to the floor while he cursed his own cowardice at not having up and run tonight or having punched Gilly’s teeth in years ago for what happened to Angelo. He could believe what they said, that the forest did Angelo in, but Lyn knew that it was just kids fucking around with consequence. Seeing how far Angelo would go to be cool enough to go with him and Gilly. Halfway through crossing that finger of woods that ran almost to the edge of town like the ghost of the forest all but forgotten. Then the sound echoed through the trees and the blue moonlight didn’t show them anything more than shadows. Angelo was only supposed to be there for an hour and he wasn’t even scared not until they heard the cry, all of them.

Then there was the wide-eyed fear that made his blue eyes black and empty. And instead of all three of them running, Gilly socked Angelo hard and laughed at him.

“You always were a little chickenshit, Angelo. Now you can find your own way back.” His laughter was a sound worse than whatever filtered through the woods. Until that sound was just steps away. Impossible, nothing that big could have come that close without giving itself away. Not a bear and not a man.

Angelo gasped in a ragged breath, cheeks slicked in the moonlight and he pointed into the woods. Lyn turned and saw something big and thick around as a tree trunk move from shadow to shadow, silent and deliberate, hunting. Too big to be anything but a monster, muscled and heavy as a storybook giant.

“Run!” Gilly screamed. “Run!”

He took off, frantic pattering like he had four feet now, running at a gallop. Lyn didn’t even look back at Angelo. He’d seen enough with the shape melting out of the woods behind them, arms too long and thick, legs too short and the suggestion of the whole being covered in shaggy and matted hair, strands the color of quicksilver in the scatters of moonlight.

Lyn ran. He ran and left Angelo behind. Though he never heard Angelo scream or cry or anything after that. Just running and running until the furnace of exertion had burned everything out of him. Both he and Gilly stumbled past of the treeline, scratched and brambled, wrung of everything and short one little friend. Nobody was supposed to be there or even out that time of night. There wasn’t supposed to be consequence. It was just fucking around. Kids did it all the time.

Lyn stomped out of the trailer to take his bite of the shit sandwich. No less than what he had coming to him. He crossed over the stomped-out circuit of grasses and headed down to the perimeter, half hoping to find that the Altarboys were back or hell, even Gilly’s mysterious bosses were here to shut down the operation and put a bullet in the head of everyone who could point a finger at them. At least then it would be over.

The sun was down now, leaving just the salmon colored boil of clouds. Ahead of him, the treeline waited, that old growth that couldn’t be logged wholesale, a remnant of what used to be, what could’ve been if humans hadn’t turned it all into two by fours and yard furniture. How it could still all be like this with darkness and quiet and no other humans trying to fuck each other over.

Lyn stared into the gap in the treeline, the missing tooth big enough for a big man to pass through easily. He wasn’t even that big. He looked back over his shoulder like maybe he was being watched, like Gilly would see him ghosting, then took a step closer. The beam of the light wouldn’t penetrate far enough for him to see anything back there, just dark. Dark enough to disappear into. He pointed the beam down towards his feet so that the light spill could illuminate his next steps but no further.

As he passed into the darkness, he heard that wind-sorrow sound that had stirred and deadened him the night before. It was closer than it should’ve been. Or maybe he’d been hearing it all the time but somehow pushing it aside. Only inside here he could no longer do that, such was its proximity. It was a child’s sound, but too big. An adult crying in a child’s voice.

Lyn passed the beam over to where he thought he’d heard it. There was a large trunk interposed between himself and the source of the sound.

Then a snap behind him, nearly at the treeline. He spun in place and looked back, seeing only a pale pink channel of watery light back behind. It was further away than he’d thought, but nothing was there, nothing watching him.

The sniffling cry set out again and Lyn circled the tree trunk, unthinkingly large to him, impossible in girth. His feet crunched on litter as he finally got clear of the trunk, clear to see what or who was making the sound.

He saw the first glimpse of large and sturdy bare feet, soles toughened and almost scaly from a shoeless lifetime, before dropping the flashlight to the forest floor. There was a scuffle of feet and limbs in the dark.

Lyn cursed and reached for the flashlight, heart screaming at him to run, but unable to find the strength to, or finding curiosity powerful enough to overturn that. The sound of rapid breathing through an open mouth hit him, something else behind that, tightened by pain.

“Hey, you hurt?” Lyn asked as his fingers closed around the barrel of the flashlight. He turned in place and brought the beam back over.

The tilted oval of light shook as his hands did. He swept back to where he thought he’d seen the feet, seeing now only a disturbance in the needles, a suggestion of where something had been a moment ago. But its pained breath gave it away.

“Look, I don’t want to hurt you.” Lyn probed with the beam. He tucked the gun in the crook of his arm and pulled out the cold bundle of French fries from his inside hoodie pocket. “Maybe you’re hungry?”

Lyn didn’t know who he was talking to. Maybe it was just himself. Maybe it was the memory of Angelo still stuck there at ten years old after all this time. Maybe it was something else.

The pained snuffling gave way to a whimper and that pulled at Lyn, like tearing off a decades-old scab that had never scarred over. He only moved the light enough to see a hint of hair, long and dirty and tangled. He didn’t want to break the spell, to see it and have it see him and maybe make them both disappear.

“Here. You can have these.” He fumbled with the now-greasy wrapper and fingered it barely-open before gently tossing it to not what but whoever it was. He knew animals and this was more human, maybe more human than Gilly. It was just a hungry kid lost out in the forest.

Tears were streaming down his face as he mouthed the name he couldn’t make himself speak. The kid was okay. He’d be okay now. There’d be an end.

Lyn saw that there was something dark and shining matted into the litter that the kid lay in. Unable to help himself, he swept the beam a little further, closer to the sound of chewing and gulping, strained breaths between.

The kid was bloody along one of his naked legs, all the way down thighs wider than Lyn’s own, over coarse skin and hair down to those feet he’d seen before. The kid was hurt, badly, probably bad enough that he couldn’t walk any further. Which explained him being here and not deeper in the forest, far away from humans, closer to his own kind.

“What the hell am I gonna do with you?” Lyn asked.

The kid continued to gulp down the cold fries, stopping only to belch with surprising gentleness. No longer distracted by the food, the kid’s pain took over and he whimpered from it.

Lyn thought about what he could possibly do, from driving the truck down here and getting the kid in it to dragging him out bodily to just walking away from the sheer crazy of it all. The kid quieted for a moment and Lyn heard something behind the both of them, gentle pressure on needles and leaves almost like a resigned sigh, not a crunch.

Lyn swung the light around and caught a shine of something metallic before he heard the shot.

BOUM BOUM and then another after a ghastly pause BOUM.

“Got you, you little fucker,” Gilly snarled, barely audible over the ringing in Lyn’s ears.

Lyn couldn’t move, bound up in rage and revulsion. He wanted to puke. He wanted to snap Gilly’s neck. He couldn’t do anything but shake in place like a rattlesnake’s tail, just uselessly buzz and vibrate.

“Didn’t mean to scare you, fam,” Gilly said. “Saw you going into the forest and thought maybe you’d run out on me.” He knelt down by Lyn and took the light from his stiff fingers.

“Oh shit, you’re all freaked out. It’s okay though. We got that little fucker.”

Lyn begged for Gilly to stop talking but all he could do was grit his teeth together so he wouldn’t scream.

“Dude. It’s okay. It’s okay.” Gilly’s hand on him felt welcome as a bloody stump. “I’d have told you but I didn’t want you to freak out. I winged this guy yesterday. I was out… well, it’s not important what I was out doing. But let’s just say Poly won’t be able to rat on anyone.”

What was left of the kid gurgled and sighed and Lyn’s blood set to slow boil, guts being churned by unseen but somehow hairy hands, fingers running through his insides trying to make them outside. He was aware of his now-freed fingers moving down the length of the shotgun, still haphazardly leaning in his arm.

“Yeah, didn’t believe these fuckers were real. I mean there was that night with Angelo, right? But we was all twelve and scared little shits. Probably made it up. And these fuckers,” he jabbed with the barrel of his gun “all up in my fields and breaking plants, getting at my supplies? Naw, fuck that.

“And I thought it was bears for the longest time. Only found out a little while ago it wasn’t Gentle Ben, you get me?”


“Yeah, man. Bears.” He clapped Lyn on the shoulder and squeezed down to the bone, like ownership. “Hell, you can’t shoot bears out here. That’s worse than doing an unlicensed grow.” His grip tightened. “But these? There isn’t a law for that. They’re not even real. ‘Cept when they’re eating your profits.”

The kid snuffled and whined, a pitying cry that dug at Lyn even harder than Gilly was in the moment.

“Fucker’s not dead yet,” Gilly said with a gloating sizzle. “You gotta finish the job, man.”

Lyn’s stomach boiled, nearly spilling up its contents. Instead there was only a crawling burn of acid at the back of his throat. He spat empty. “The fuck you talking about, Gilly?”

“The job. Now that Poly’s out the way, and Cheeto and Gameboy, they’re not gonna believe that he had an accident out in the woods.”

“Is that what happened?”

The Kid’s whine turned to a low and drawn out screech of wounding. It went through the trees and underbrush like the wind had, carrying further than anyone would ever think. Lyn knew that he was calling for mom, he knew the timbre and the upset and fear that drove it.

“Poly disagreed how things were gonna be.” His eyes gleamed distant, drawing all the warmth out of him. “But that ain’t your problem. Taken care of. This thing, though. Can’t have it around. You know that a kid will tell its mother what happened.

“Can’t have that,” he said.

Lyn swung the light back, just enough to see Gilly clearly. Not for the first time. He’d always known what Gilly was. That he’d have done anything to keep winning, to keep in business, to draw another breath even if that meant sucking it from someone else’s mouth. Angelo couldn’t go home and neither could this kid.

“What you say, Lyn? You ready to step up? Get promoted.”

Lyn’s blood went cool and slow like brooks getting that first rime of frost, spreading out through him. Everything turned to crystal with a clarity that was not horrifying or hollow, but simply necessary. Everything became easy.

He stood up slowly.

“Yeah. I got this, fam.”

“Good man, Lyn.”

Lyn drew to his full height and passed the light over to Gilly. “Keep it on Angelo, man.”

“Angelo? You trippin’?”

“Yeah, I’m trippin’. Keep that light steady.”

“Okay, yeah. You got it,” Gilly’s voice caught on something, like a swallowed fishbone.

Lyn lifted the shotgun up slowly and watched the giant hairy child there, eyes big and wide and watery and brimming over with unexplained hurt. Their lips twitched as the whimpering fell to silence. It was almost as if they knew what was coming next.

“Sorry,” Lyn said.

“Do it already.” Gilly’s voice was rancid.

Lyn whipped back in a sharp arc, pointing the shotgun towards the bright blue-white dazzle of light, firing when it passed over the burr of the front sight, barely visible in the gleam. Then he racked a second shot and fired as quickly as he could. The sound of one report melted into the second and echoed through the now-darkness of the forest.

Gilly fired a spastic single shot into the tangle of boughs above them both only spatters of stars visible above.

Lyn cycled another shot and pointed it down at the ground, trying to hear if Gilly was still alive over the ringing in his own ears. The only ragged breathing he heard was from the kid behind him, the stupid and luckless kid who’d been fucking around and caught hell for it.

“It’s okay, Angelo,” Lyn said, knowing that Angelo really wasn’t here. “Your mom’s gonna hear and she’s gonna come help.”

The Kid whimpered in the darkness, more from pain than fear now. In the distance, there was a sound of branches being pushed aside at a height no human could hope to reach. There was a sound of massive weight moving almost in silence, betrayed only by the soft crunch of litter on feet made bigger than God ever made. There was a sound of soft but rapid breathing, like Angelo’s mom had made when she first heard the news.

The sound grew no louder, only closer.


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