‘Come on you bastard.’ Frank thought, afraid to even whisper it aloud. ‘Come on.’
A figure moved through the gray-frost mist, drew closer. Tall and thin, it swayed as it stepped between the pine trees.
Below Frank’s hunter’s nest, Tommy slept in the tent.
Frank felt bad about using his nephew this way, but he was out of options and out of time. It’s not like he hadn’t tried every other way. What was done was done, he had his shot and there was no time for doubt.
Now, all he had to do was not miss.
He’d marked out the treeline, put the choke on the 12 gage; when it reached 50 yards he’d fire. With the 00 buck, he wouldn’t need a second shot.
‘Come on you bastard, come on.’
The thin not-man took another step forward.
Frank had gone out stalking again and again over the last two decades. He’d explored this side of the mountain more times than he could count: moving through the pines in the early light of predawn, under the full, mocking moon and every other time and season the forest had to offer. It’s why he never married, barely even dated: he’d never had the time.
Well, that and most people thought he was crazy; thought he’d had something to do with Daniel’s disappearance.
But even with all the sacrifice he’d never found anything. He’d been so close to giving up, hell, dozens of of times. Cause what did he have to show for it anyway? Frank barely held down the part-time sales job at the bait pro, coasting through the days with his mind always elsewhere. Then he went home to his shitty one bedroom… really a no bedroom since all the gear got kept pristine in the ‘bedroom’ and everything else -TV, bed, dishes- was in the front living area.
He lived a hollow half life in town, dreaming of the mountain; dreaming of vengeance.
Frank moved his lips to scoot more snow into his mouth. Couldn’t let the frosting of his breath give him away. As the figure moved closer, and all the hairs on Frank’s neck stood up. Somehow, the thing blurred around the edges.
But he could still see, he could still make the shot.
The itch of fear that began when he’d first seen the thing grew more insistent, pressing down his spine.
He concentrated on holding still, ’Nothing up here ‘cept a heap of snow in the tree boughs.’ Just like Dad had taught him.
The thing took a step, two; moving its face this way and that, searching; moving more like a hunter than a wild animal.
‘Yeah, you know something’s wrong dontcha?’ Frank thought, ‘But don’t worry, you’re just being skittish. Everything’s fine. And there’s what you want right here. So easy. So simple. That’s it, just a little further.’
The gray thing scurried behind a tree; sniffed the air.
Last week, in the middle of his hung-over morning shift, it had hit him like a Buick. Kid. He needed a kid. That’s why he’d never seen the thing, because he’d never been around something it wanted. He needed a salt lick.
And for the gray thing, the only salt lick he could think of was a kid.
But could he do that to a child? No, he’d have to give up and try to put together a life. Maybe put in more off the clock hours at the store and try and make manager next season.
Later, as he’d been shelving foil bags of stink bait, he remembered Daniel’s face as the thing slipped its fingers around his brother’s thin throat. He remembered the gesture it had made, one finger up to its thin, smiling mouth. He remembered the desperation of trying to get the adults to believe him. But mostly he remembered how his father had stood when he answered the call from the search crews, how his father had wept when they told him Danny was dead: exposure it had eventually been decided.
Things had never been right between him and his Dad after that, never been right between him and anyone.
Hand trembling, Frank put down the rest of the bait. He walked to the back of the store and downed one of the Miller tall boys he’d brought for lunch. He wouldn’t give up, not now; not that he finally knew what would get him his shot.
The only question was; how would he get the kid?
The thing crouched, it’s long limbs bending so it was nearly flush with the ground. It scuttled forward, swaying like a snake. The fuck was it? He’d had plenty of time to wonder over the years, maybe he’d actually get some answers when it was dead.
When it crossed past one of the trees he’d marked as fifty yards out, a shiver scratched it’s way down Frank’s back. Just like before. Gray blobs danced out in the corner of his eyes, but he refused to look, refused to turn. He felt presences all around, but he ignored the feeling. It was a trick, an aura, a sound; something that the creature put out. Whatever happened he couldn’t lose focus.
Whatever happened he couldn’t miss.
Frank closed one of his eyes, drew his bead.
The thing stopped, raised its head.
Sweat trickling around the interior lining of his parka, Frank decided that he’d wait until the thing got closer.
Just a little closer.
About a month ago, he’d broken down in front of Deb and Tommy.
Frank and his nephew played Spider-Man and Ben Ten on the floor of the living room. His sister was in the kitchen, cooking some dollar store pasta sauce. After the day he’d been having–and the shit he’d been eating–it smelled like heaven.
He felt so right to be there, spread out on the much abused carpet, being an uncle.
Tommy laughed. And between the family resemblance and the approximate age his nephew reminded him so much of Daniel that it broke his heart all over again. Frank dropped the action figure and covered his face with his hands to keep himself in, to keep his nephew from seeing.
“What’s wrong unca Frank, what’s wrong?” Tommy said, distressed. Which only made Frank cry harder. Tommy wrapped his arms around Frank’s neck. They stayed that way until Deb came in and picked Tommy up.
And in that moment, even as he recoiled and tried and tried and tried to think of another way; he knew what he had to do.
Frank forced himself not to shake as one of its feet brushed past the 50 yard mark. Sweat pooled around his ass through the frayed nylon of his second hand long johns.
It had to be more than the memories, had to be something the thing was kicking off.
The blobs in the corners of his eyes grew more solid, as did the conviction that there were watchers all around. This was a trap, he knew it. There were more of the things, he needed to runrunrun.
Tommy stirred. From inside his tent, a little voice said, “Uncle Frank?” The kid unzipped the flap and poked his head out. He screamed when he saw the gray thing. The figure surged forward, faster than Frank thought possible.
In the miser light of dawn, Frank took his shot.
When he’d been just a child, the thing had woken him much like it had Tommy.
But that time, there’d been no delay, no rushing up. He’d opened his eyes, and the monster had been right there, its body pushed through the unzipped entry flap of their orange pup tent. Daniel was sitting up next to him, the creature’s long thin fingers wrapped around his throat.
It didn’t have a face; no eyes, no nose, nothing but a mouth.
Frank couldn’t move.
The thin not-man had lifted one finger up to its smile.
And then it and Daniel were gone.
There was no scream, but he swore he heard the gurgle of his brother begging for help through the choking fingers of the monster.
Frank swung the shotgun around his back, scurried down from the blind. He jumped the last six feet, put the gun out in front.
It held Tommy in front; curled and folded in on itself to present the smallest profile possible. All Frank saw was half of its non-face peeking out from behind his nephew, its thin fingers wrapped around the child’s throat.
The not-man swayed, almost falling. Frank noted the open, seeping wound on its side. He’d clipped it good. But it wasn’t dead yet.
“Can you understand me? Well, can ya?” He said, shotgun still leveled.
The thing said nothing, Tommy made choking, sobbing noises.
“If you kill him, I kill you. It’s that simple. If you let him go, I’ll let you go. You can slink off into the woods, lick your wounds. I’ll hunt you some other day. But if you hurt him I’ll make it slow.”
It was hard to think, hard to talk with the sound that wasn’t quite a sound buzzing in the back of his skull.
Slowly, the creature released Tommy. Stooping low, it skittered into the forest, making sure to keep the child in between itself and Frank’s gun.
When the thin thing was out of sight, Frank rushed to his nephew; hugged him.
He turned the boy this way and that, inspecting his nephew for injury. The thing’s long fingers had left snaking purple bruises along the boy’s neck, but otherwise he appeared OK.
“Are you OK? Are you OK?”
Tommy bawled. Frank glanced towards the forest.
“Alright kiddo, let’s get you back to the truck. I’m taking you back to home.” Frank scooped up the child, started moving towards the truck.
In time, his nephew started talking. “But what, what’s happening?” Tommy said in a small, hoarse voice.
“That thing, I’ve been hunting it. It took your other uncle when he wasn’t much older than you. But it’s ok, now; we’re leaving.”
Frank glanced again towards the tree line.
“That’s a monster… Momma told me there aren’t any monsters.”
“Well there’s not supposed to be. It’s OK though, it’s only a monster on the mountain. It can’t get you in town. Which is why I’m gonna take you home.”
The moved forward in silence, till they reached the vehicle. He strapped Tommy in, turned the ignition to start the heater up.
Frank looked down to his nephew, then out towards the forest. He’d gotten it, not enough to kill it, not right away; but enough to track it. There’d be a trail, there’d be a chance. It was the only chance he’d ever gotten, the only chance he was gonna get.
Frank licked his lips, rocked back and forth. He looked towards the pines and back towards Tommy.
“Tommy, can you be brave for me?”
The boy said nothing, but inclined his head in a way that might have been a nod.
“Ok, wait here and I’ll be back.”
Frank pushed another shell into the shotgun.
“If I’m not back tonight I want you to stay warm, then walk towards the sun tomorrow morning. You keep walking till you hit the road ya hear?”
“Don’t… don’t go.” Tommy said.
Frank said, “It’ll be alright Tommy, you’ll see.” He stepped out of the cab, slung his shotgun; thought better of it and shifted it back to his hands to keep it ready. He took the keys from the ignition, the sun was coming up and Tommy would be warm enough until he got back. He took a step towards the trees.
“Wait!” Said Tommy. Frank turned back to the boy.
“It’ll be ok Tommy; I’ll be back.”
And with that, Unca Frank vanished between the trees. Tommy clutched himself close, shoving his mittened hands into his armpits.
He’d agonized over the decision back in town, but in the end there really hadn’t been much of a choice at all. He couldn’t just grab some random kid. It would have to be one he knew, one that would trust him. There was risk for sure, but he didn’t want to traumatize some child if he didn’t have to.
Which left Deb’s Tommy, his seven year old nephew.
And if it went right, Tommy would never even be missed; would never even know what was happening.
Frank tried not to let himself think about what would happen if it went wrong.
He’d gotten drunk that night, drunker than usual, and passed out early. He’d woken at three needing to piss. With the remnants of the whiskey courage in his blood he’d downed half a pot of stale coffee and driven to Deb’s. He knew about the key under the frog statue in the front, knew how to tread across the floor boards so they wouldn’t creek.
Frank opened the door to Tommy’s room, knelt by the bed. He looked at his nephew, took a deep breath as he considered one last time whether or whether not he really wanted to do this.
And then Tommy turned just so and he wasn’t seeing his nephew anymore; he saw Daniel. Daniel, scared. Daniel choking for breath.
He couldn’t give up, not now.
Frank put his hand on the child’s shoulder and shook him awake.
Tommy blinked, “Unca Frank? What’s happening? What’s going on?”
“We’re going to go on an adventure Tommy. Come on, let’s put on your shoes.”
“Can Spider-man come?” Tommy asked, holding the bedtime toy close.
“Sure, as long as you and Spider-Man can keep quiet.”
Tommy nodded, bouncing the doll up and down so it could imitate the same.
Frank packed as many of Tommy’s coats and sweaters as he could.
It was going to be a cold night.
His breath frosting, a subdued ache nestled in the bottom of his ribs, Frank jogged through the woods. He puffed, trying to force the cold air through uncooperative lungs.
In the pale light, there were virtually no tracks. If he really looked, he could just see a shallow, wide indentation where the thing touched the ground. The monster had a light step even if it was wounded; no wonder it had never been caught.
But Frank didn’t need to rely on the tracks: every five steps or so there was another drip of dark blood on white snow.
Now, it was an endurance hunt: whether he or the thing would give up first.
He didn’t know how much blood the creature had to lose, but that was OK. He just had to be patient, just keep a good pace and he’d get it.
Hell, he’d been waiting twenty some odd years. He could take the rest of the morning.
The crunch of his boots in the snow, the catch of his breath were the only sounds. He’d broken his word, but had he really? How could you make a promise to the thing? A monster; a murderer?
Frank trudged on.
The trees went sparse, and the view opened up to a clearing. Up ahead, the thing lay on the ground. He saw its chest moving slightly, still breathing. The monster pulled itself forward, away. It almost looked pitiful.
Frank stalked up, still cautious. Wounded animals were the most dangerous. But all the sensations from before, the sense that there were more of the things, the ‘from nowhere’ fear that had almost made him piss his pants were gone now. This thing was beyond wounded, he was watching it die.
‘Guess it hadn’t been that bad a shot after all.’
When he got close, Frank raised his voice, “So all it took was a salt lick huh? I can’t believe how stupid, how small you really are. All this time, all these years wasted. Because of what you did to my brother.” He spit, clearing his mouth. “I’ve got so many questions, but you can’t talk. Even if you could, I doubt you could tell me what I wanted.”
The thing tried to pull itself toward the tree line.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
He kicked the thing, flipped it over. After all this, its body was surprisingly light; almost as if it were hollow. Silence hung between them, the only movement was the slow rise and fall of its chest.
The thing’s nothing of a face said nothing, showed nothing.
Frank stood there, staring at it for long minutes.
It started crawling again. After a moment, it rolled it shoulders, coughed, shuddered; went finally still. Frank prodded it with his slush-crusted boot. Dead.
“So that’s it then.”
What had he been expecting? Answers? Daniel to miraculously appear, somehow still alive? Frank spit again, wiped away some tears.
On the back of his neck, a tingle trickled down below his hairline.
Around him, things peered without eyes from behind the pines. What little he could see of them was fuzzy, seeming without definite shape. The gray blotches returned in his vision. Everywhere he looked stood another one of the things.
He couldn’t tell which were real and which were just the blotches; he counted at least four definites, maybe six. He had six shells left in his shotgun, another dozen in his overlarge parka pockets.
They’d been waiting for him, waiting for him where they knew he’d come. Waiting at his salt lick. And he’d left Tommy, God, he’d left his own nephew.
“I honored my deal!” he screamed, in the fear and to cover the lie. “This is between me and you all, ya hear? You leave the boy out of this.”
He fired towards the nearest one, the shot splintering wood. Tears streamed down his face as he chambered a new round with a shick-shock.
“Leave the boy out of this! Goddamnit do what you want to me but you leave the boy out of this!” He yelled, punctuating it with another blast. As he fired his remaining shells, he knew that Tommy wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for him.
They rushed forward while Frank tried to shove another shell into the gun. When they were close enough that Frank could smell the old wood scent of them, when they wrapped their long, thin fingers around his throat; he truly saw their faces for the first time: faces as ancient and cold as the mountain.
Before Danny had… before it had all gone bad; Frank had one beautiful memory of his Father. When he’d been small, his father had brought him somewhere different in the woods. In the middle of a clearing stood a stick, jutting straight up with a flakey, crystalline ball clinging to the top. As he’d waited that one day, not talking, he’d seen more deer than if he’d gone stalking for a whole month. Bucks and does all walking up to the white thing on the pole and nibbling at it.
When the first six pointer had broken into the clearing, he’d drawn a bead. But his dad had put one of his big, hairy hands on the barrel, lowering it.
“No Frank, not here.” Dad said, shaking his head. The deer spooked, shot off into the woods.
“Why?” He’d asked, frustrated.
“Well, first off it’s illegal. And it’s wrong. The deer hafta come here or to someplace like it. You already got a gun and a brain; you don’t need bait too.”
Dad rubbed his hands together, his face serious. “But I want you to understand, if you ever NEED to get a deer–or anything, I don’t know what your life will be son–don’t bother with the stalking or setting up someplace random. You figure out what the Deer needs, the salt lick, then you set a trap and you wait. You wait as long as it takes. And when you take your shot, you don’t miss ya hear?”
Tommy played with stick, doodling in the muddy slush by one of the back tires. He’d had to pee, so he’d climbed out of the truck and turned a patch of snow yellow. Now, he hopped back and forth, moving to keep the chill out of his body.
A monster came out from behind a tree.
“Ahh,” he screamed, falling backward and onto his butt. He sprinted back to the cab, slammed the door shut and stretched up to smash the lock down. His breath sped up as they moved closer. Three of them, well four, one of them held a limp monster in its arms. They were so tall, taller even than Unca Frank. At least they weren’t making that weird noise like the one from before.
They were gonna kill him. He wished he had Spider-Man to come punch the bad guy or Unca Frank to come shoot them. But they weren’t coming, Tommy was alone now.
As if confirming his worst fears, the one closest had Unca Frank’s gun. It stepped onto the front of the truck, its long legs folding till its knees stood higher than its head.
Tommy knew it was going to smash through the glass and grab him, knew somehow it was strong enough.
Instead, the crouching not-man threw the shotgun into the windshield space between them, the weapon tumbling down to catch by the wiper blade. Then put one of its long, thin fingers to where its gash of a mouth split apart the blank whiteness of its face into a smile.
The monsters ran off into the thinning fog. Disappeared. Tommy stared at Frank’s gun as the day began in earnest.