The hours of the night were approaching as the waters of the Mississippi crawled past the grassy river-edges west of town. All 70 lbs and 10 years of Chet Zalinsky sat barefoot on the bank, absentmindedly chucking rocks into the rolling and fluid maw.
His town was not rich enough in immediate land for regularly-hiring farms, nowhere near big enough for thriving business. Many men & women drove truck to get by, and they said Oqwuaka’s population had dwindled close to 700 this year. He had a rough idea this was a bad thing from the way the adults talked of it, but hadn’t the context to figure out exactly why – and didn’t want it. He’d just heard that his oldest sister had gone off to one of the Havens in Colorado with her boyfriend, and right now he had bigger fish to fry. Bigger rocks to throw.
“Y’know,” he sighed, flicking a pebble into the water, “I’ll probably never get a girlfriend with a name like Chet.”
Amberiah Martin squinted, shaking her head and looking up from the novel she’d been reading, partially assisted by flashlight. “What?”
“Like, it just stands to reason. ‘Specially if I stay here and take over the mechanic shop like Dad wants.”
“Stands to reason?”
“What he says when something’s dumb… but it kinda makes sense. So ya just gotta swallow it. Anyway, like. Think about it. I gotta go to college, or Chicago or Des Moines or whatever. If you stay in a small town, ya gotta have a cool name. Like… Brock. Or… Magnus. Small town, dumb name, no girlfriend.”
Amberiah’s tone was scolding. “You were named after your grandpa!”
Chet scoffed. “Yeah, so? Probably a cool name back then. Grandma must’ve thought so.” He raised his voice to a feminine falsetto. “Oh, Chet! You’re so handsome, Chet! Let’s go for a drive in your pick-em-up truck… Chet.” He shuddered.
Amberiah rolled her eyes. Generally speaking, men were way harder on themselves than women were- a mystery she figured to spend the rest of her life puzzling over. If she decided to care that long.
She looked at his eyes, clear and bright in the twilight as he stared across the banks of the Mississippi towards Iowa. “Well I don’t think it’s a dumb name.” She stood up, tossing her book into her backpack. “I think your worrying is what’s dumb.”
Chet looked up, scowling a bit. “It’s not dumb if it’s true.”
“What’s in here,” she said, point the flashlight’s beam at his head, “isn’t true half the time.”
“Hey!” he protested, throwing a hand up to block the light.
“Well it’s not! That’s what my dad says. And I think your worries are just a bunch of bulls**t.”
Chet stood up quickly. “Jesus! Don’t swear!”
“Well don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!” she countered in a mocking tone.
They stared at each other for a moment as the river swept by, a force unimpeded.
She pointed the beam at his chest. “You should listen to what’s in there. Instead.”
Chet groaned, shutting his eyes and bouncing his arms against his sides. “Yeah. Ok. Sure.”
Amberiah clicked off her light and went for her bike. “Trust me,” she said, turning her head to glance at him before mounting, “I think the only people who ever left… that’s what they did. Not what you’re doing. Like a dummy.”
He flung a pebble at her backpack as she started to ride away. “See you tomorrow!” she called. “You can show me that dead deer!”
“OK!” he shouted after her. “IT’S PRETTY COOL!”
“DOUBT IT! SOUNDS GROSS!” she called back before disappearing down the dirt road into the approaching night.
Chet sighed again, glaring up at the early stars, daring fate for a sign.
His holowatch beeped at him. 8:00 PM. “Ah s**t.”
Throwing down his handful of rocks, he ran over to his own bike and mounted up, taking one last glance at the river.
He pedaled about a mile in the opposite direction his friend had taken, thinking to check on the deer carcass. If it was already gone, he’d have to think of something else cool to show her.
Maybe we could go look for arrowheads or something.
His thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a long-unused mailbox, signaling his memory’s milestone for the unfortunate deer- a young buck, a four-pointer.
He’d already been toying with the notion of sneaking some of dad’s tools out here to remove the horns- of course, for what purpose, he wasn’t quite sure. Pretending to be a war chief with a hunting trophy was pretty much the beginning and end of Chet’s line of reasoning. He smiled at the thought of lashing them to his bike handles- a smile that was quickly erased at the thought of his mother’s potential reaction. Oh well. Worry about it later.
Night was upon the town now, having swallowed most of the daylight save for a thin, hazy line on the Iowan horizon. Cicadas sang incessantly alongside crickets and peepers, a bright but waning moon just starting to show as little breezes rustled the thickets and taller grasses.
Noticing the smeared trail leaving the main road from the deer’s impact site, its blood-remnants already disappearing to the dust and gravel, he dismounted.
The doomed buck had, somehow, staggered across the road to a smaller, overgrown path leading to a long-abandoned farmhouse. Treelines flanking the path- planted generations ago -now rose above the boy, their leaves and branches whispering in the dark.
Chet shuddered again, but for more immediate reasons.
He steeled himself, pressing on. Just a quick look. Make sure. He hummed to himself as he crossed the road, pausing briefly next to the rusted and bent mailbox, its names long faded out. “Quick look. Then home.”
He was only about 100 feet in when he recognized the spot. Moonlight filtered down on the bloody patch of earth, giving it the appearance of a druidic altar. He’d read about druids in school. He let out the breath he’d been holding in, realizing the deer had fallen closer to the main road than he remembered.
His breath caught again as he approached.
There were no antlers.
Chet frowned, curious. Had it been a doe? This whole time? No. Come on. I know better than that.
He moved quietly, angling himself around so he could see the front of the carcass.
Suddenly, the summer night seemed noticeably colder.
You needed to have a head to have antlers.
He quieted his breathing, feeling his pulse quicken against his will. The treelines seemed oppressive as he crouched, gazing down the path to the old farmhouse.
“Stop it,” he whispered to himself. “Animal got to it. Or older kids.”
Looking back down at the body, he squinted in the moonglow, leaning towards the neck. A thin trail of viscera ran out of it, fresher than the dried blood on the dirt.
The head had been cut clean. Chet was no expert, but he’d read enough books to know something didn’t add up. The line was too neat. A single, clean cut, with the hair all around the outer edge singed darkly. “Lightsaber,” he mused out loud.
Chet suddenly wished he’d followed Amberiah home.
Trying his best to remain cognizant of all his angles of visibility, he stepped as quickly as he could across the gravel while remaining as quiet as possible back down to the main road.
A staccato clicking and alternate deep thrumming emanated from the darkened grove of trees to his left. Chet stopped in mid-stride even as instinct pushed him to run.
His pulse quickened further, and a slight ringing tinged the edge of his hearing as his senses sharpened. He found himself involuntarily breathing through his mouth, not daring to make a single unnecessary noise.
It’s a bird. It’s an insect. It’s night. It’s normal.
One of the thrums changed to a reverse-sucking noise that ended in three drawn-out organic clicks.
Click-Click. Something thumped in the dark. Click.
Click. Behind him.
In the center of the sputtering, pounding, ungodly terror building inside him, Chet sensed a tiny point of calm. Well, he thought, forget college. No girls when you’re dead.
He forced his eyes open and spun around. Gravel crunched under his sneakers.
Nothing was there.
He could see his bike across the main road, past the mailbox. He swore through clenched teeth.
Three quick, queitish steps were all Chet made before the loud thumps behind him, towards the house, made him stop again. He felt a residual anger building as the adrenaline coursed through him.
He spun around in a fighting stance, ready to speak or scream.
His mouth dropped open.
The creature was unnatural.
A looming, darkened bulk of organic mass balanced between two thick appendages that seemed to serve as both arms and legs. It had no other limbs, standing on knuckles as big as Chet’s head underneath its backwards-jointed trunks. Rivulets of bone-shaded exoskeleton ran up and down the limbs and across its body, to a smaller mass- where a head, by all rights, should have been. Three bulbous growths joined together there, angling towards Chet. Three large slits reminiscent of gills ran down either side of the creature’s body on its lower sides, expanding and contracting slowly and rhythmically.
It was twice as tall as Chet’s oldest brother.
Chet said the only thing that came to mind after years of American television.
“Come. In peace. I-c-come-in-p-peace,” he said, managing to squeeze the words out of his panic. He turned his hands over and opened his palms.
The creature’s bulbs followed the movement.
Chet held his ground. Maybe this was his Iron Giant moment.
A vertical line suddenly appeared at the top of the creature’s chest, running down slowly to the bottom of its front mass. It took a couple lumbering steps forward, body swaying in balance, a massive and logic-defying aberration. Gills hissed as its chest split open.
Chet’s mouth dropped open again as lines of pulsing purple bioluminescence ran along the ridges of its exoskeleton.
Numerous, smaller snakelike appendages shot out of its chest, making more organic sucking sounds as they wrapped around the sides of the chest cavity, forcing it to open wider.
Two larger tentacles terminating in hard, edged structures as large as his dad’s arms emerged, slowly.
One was wrapped around the antlers of a deer’s head.
Presenting the head to Chet’s trembling form, the creature waved the other tentacle close to it. The blade-edge of the free appendage glowed a fierce orange, and it swiped it back and forth underneath the deer’s head.
Holding the head steady and pulling it back a bit, the creature opened a small hole underneath its head-bulbs. A thin, singular, darker tentacle snaked out, heading for the bottom of the deer’s neck. The creature paused for a moment, trying to find purchase on the spinal chord.
It jacked in and the deer’s head came to life, eyes rolling and tongue flashing out of its mouth.
The creature’s microphone was working.
“HNURRRGGGGHHHHHH! HNNNNNNNGUH! NNNGUH! NNNGUH! MMMMRRAAAAAG!”
To Chet’s credit, he didn’t go from insanely terrified to scared f**kall s**tless until that moment. His mind blank, he ran for his bike, not looking back; just hoping to make it home.
No one would believe him.
Well. Maybe Amberiah.
Chet wondered if there were monsters in Seattle. Or Canada. Or Antarctica.
Or the Haven his sister had gone to.
The creature waited until the sounds of Chet’s bike stopped making patterns in the atmosphere before lumbering back to the deer’s carcass. Leaning forward, it analyzed the body again, then leaned back and held the severed head up to its bulbs. It shifted, turning in the direction of the road again. Its bioluminescence faded in the dark.
Sucking its tentacles- and microphone -back into its body, it sealed up its chest before thundering off through the thickets into the grove.
There was a deep hum, a sound somewhere between a whoosh and a large tearing, followed a second later by an immense, localized gravitational pull. Thickets cracked and trees bent, only to reassert themselves an instant later as spacefabric normalized.
And then there was nothing but crickets and owls and a late summer breeze drifting over the Mississippi river.
There was nothing but the night.