There was no knowing the thing’s humanity. Now deep among the trees and gone from the moon’s eye, it moved like the monster. That was enough for Eriem. She snatched her jacket. She vaulted the porch rail. The dusting of snow dissipated into a breathable vapor. Fio saw her girl make the move from all the way inside the house; and little else. The woman made a guess. She shouted. Her adult daughter was already in full stride, nearly at the treeline.
Fio clunked aside the porch’s sliding glass door to call out, “Whatever it takes!” She couldn’t muster much else. Eriem was a quick shape for just a moment in the near-night, then gone. Into the forest’s stark quiet. Fio at last let out a short exhale, her breath cloudy in the cold, and she washed down the smallest smile with a drink mixed from red wine and Coke Zero.
Eriem moved as carefully as she could over uneven terrain. The snow smoothed the forest floor, filling in the gaps between roots, but it was barely December and little accumulation. The distance from the porch to the treeline was fifty feet. The thing couldn’t have much of a lead on her. Among the trees though, when the sun was long gone and the only light source was the snow underfoot, everything was a shadow puppet. She slid to a stop, boots angled sideways like hockey skates.
Straight ahead: nothing.
Right: no movement there. She tried to slow her breathing. She crouched to touch the ground and cease her jacket’s zippers and metal-clasped cuffs jingling.
Left? A shallow gulley, more trees, muddied spikes against the snow’s moon-gray in-between color. She strained to spot what could be the thing. The monster.
Those weren’t Fio’s words shouted down to Eriem. They were her own. Her mother had only borrowed them. Find the monster. Whatever it takes. Eriem would find the monster that had murdered her mother’s husband.
Four days ago now? In grief, time was spiraling black coffee blotted by heavy cream. Shifting. Chemical. Brain lag and thought loss. Evening and dawn inseparable. Most promises made during those days and nights browned out with the rest of it, but Eriem still said the words. Her mom’s face buried in Eriem’s lap, sobbing, confused with life’s purposelessness, and the young woman said it as simple as she could.
“I promise, mom,” she stated, voice straight and dry as an arrow shaft. “I’m going to find the monster that did this to him.”
Revenge in service of some other soul was such an easy flag to fly. Fio was all alone now, people would say. What a pitiful tragedy. But word got around that her daughter had come to town. Never met the kind young thing before. Chances were though, she’d be the wrath, while Fio wept.
This was what the town of Candlestick, Idaho expected. When one of theirs suffers, hands clasp hands, and those in the community who can’t weep, act. This Eriem Flint—she wasn’t a daughter of the town. Fio had raised her to adulthood over on the coast, Portland or Seattle, one of the bigger towns, when the first marriage remained intact. Wasn’t much else known about Eriem in Candlestick itself, for good or ill. Just that she was Fio’s daughter. She’d come to town looking for a monster.
“I don’t believe in monsters,” Eriem said to the forest. She carried on the friendly conversation as if the trees were now her captive audience. “That’s what people’ve said about you around here. Only a monster could do what you did. I get it. When you can’t keep your balance, you figure someone is shaking the world right under you, and nobody has ever tipped over so hard. And nobody’s ever been so inhumane and taken a swing at someone who doesn’t deserve a sucker punch like this.” She walked deeper. The trees accommodated, and with her eyes accustomed to the dark, the snow might as well have been a shining mirror. “But you and me are old friends. Death? Hmm? Death doesn’t run away into some dark forest. He doesn’t hide. Do you want to know? Where death lives?”
A tree in Eriem’s periphery sprouted new branches. It was fifteen feet from her. It’s fingers scraped against bark, toes against snow, setting its weight for traction. Breath formed around an unseen mouth.
“You caught me,” the woods said.
The two voices recognized each other. “I didn’t know you were in town,” the man said. “I didn’t know it was you. You were fast.”
“What’re you—what were you doing outside mom’s house?” Eriem demanded. The shape adopted a man’s movements. He bent to fiddle with his boots. He stepped forward. Their faces were still dark to one another. Voices and imagination filled in the rest. “Just knock on the door if you want to talk to her. Or call. Did you ski out here?”
Her father leaned skinny nordic skis against the low tree branch. “I meant well. I just wanted to see her. And—I gotta say I didn’t really want to talk to her. Just see her.”
“That’s selfish,” Eriem said. “Watching, but keeping everything at a distance. Her husband’s dead. Killed. An ex sneaking around a widow’s house at dinner time a few days later doesn’t script a great story. For you.”
“I was on the trails nearby,” her dad explained. “Skiing. And when I realized where I was, I decided to come by. To care a little. To show a little caring. Fio was—a big part of my life. You’re evidence of that. What’s wrong with any of that?”
“You don’t need to be defensive. You oughta be embarrassed. And I’m not evidence, dad.” He flicked on his headlamp. Eriem shielded her eyes. “Dude—”
“You look good,” he said, twisting down the light’s focus to cast a wider scope.
“Of course I do,” Eriem said. She smiled with honesty, warmed by a father’s comment. “I’m the daughter of Rain Flint. I’ve eaten five bites of red meat in my life and I keep hydrated. Everyone in LA thinks I’m a hippie.”
“I’m hippie spawn, Rain,” she stated, finding some petulant flavor for her dad at last. “Not everyone’s keen enough to recognize the difference.”
Rain glanced backward. The headlamp wasn’t much competition for the settled night. The ribbon of nordic ski trail did noticeably shine for a moment, spiraling among the forest’s gentle undulations.
“You know, there is a monster out here,” Rain said. “In these mountains. These woods. First spotted in the early twentieth century.”
“I’m 33, dad.”
“Don’tcha wanna hear the story, at least?”
“Not now,” Eriem said. “I’ve gotta get back to mom’s house.”
“Well, come by my place. Since you’re in town.”
“Only if you promise not to snoop around these woods.”
“Monster’s honor,” Rain said, making a gesture in the dark and cracking an unseeable smile. “Tell your mother—tell her you were chasing shadows. That you didn’t see anything.”
He flopped his skis to the snow and snapped the toe clips into the bindings.
“Did you do it?” Eriem asked. Rain stood and gathered his tall ski poles. “Did you kill Aleph?”
“I’m a pacifist,” Rain answered. “Like you.”
He swung his right leg around in a step-turn and slid off toward the nearby trail. Eriem stayed until she couldn’t track his shape in the dark. She began her climb back toward the lights flickering between the tree limbs.
This was her first visit to her mother’s house. Fio had always taken the opportunity to visit Eriem. Candlestick was not her childhood home, after all, and it held no sentimentality. Sometimes, Aleph, her step-father, would come along for those visits to California. The trips weren’t memorable. To Eriem, the man would very soon be a dead body more than he’d been a live step-dad. This was an idea that paused her at the edge of the woods, looking up at the house her mother now shared with a dead body. It was a big, empty place now, even with Fio turning on the little candle lights in each of its windows. The house appeared so modest from the front.
“Why’re the candles facing the woods?” Eriem asked when she was back inside.
Fio sighed, her whole body sore from crying. She dried her hands and elbowed the kitchen sink off. “So you can find your way home,” she said. “Did you catch the guy? Out there? Prowling around?”
“No,” Eriem said, leaning on the countertop. She picked at her nails, the black polish just starting to chip. “It was either a shadow, or a deer, or nothing. Gone now. Any guesses? Anyone in town that’d rather spy on you than knock on the door?”
“Plenty,” Fio said. “Too many. Aleph, well, his whole family rescued the town back in the 80s. Really tested the community’s capacity for t-t-tolerance—” She sniffed and then immediately straightened back up. “I can’t think about it right now.”
“Yeah. Of course not. Don’t. Here, just sit down. I can clean up.”
“I already did.”
“Go easy. Leave me something to do, mom.”
“You were doing so much already. You were ready to chase down a monster on foot to avenge me. Avenge my tragedy,” Fio grunted out as she hugged her girl and they gathered each other up on the couch. Every light in the house was on. The wood and exposed beams of the high ceiling, formerly a barn and now repurposed, all shone with a bright finish. “There is a monster out there, ya know?”
“Yeah?” Eriem asked, listening. “Some kind of mountain beast?”
“No. A chest, really. A box. Like a hope chest you’d put linens in. You had one in your room when you were little. At the foot of the bed. But this chest, the one I’m talking about, it was a monster. It smelled like tar resin. Dipped in the stuff, people say, to keep it together. And to keep it shut. In the 1930s, a Hollywood movie producer came here, to Candlestick, and he wanted to shoot some scenes in the gemstone quarry. They were making a movie about a journey to the new world to find the tree of life. The movie producer had seen an old picture of the quarry and imagined the tree of life at the center of the quarry, all blasted out and dead. But there’d be this beautiful living thing at the center. So when he came to town to see the location for himself, he went to meet the quarry’s owner. The quarry’s owner knew that pit was worthless. It’d been tapped out for ages. Used to be the center of town until then.
“Anyway, he lets the movie producer shoot in the quarry—”
“What about the monster box?”
“I’m gonna explain. They find the box in one of the bunkhouses in the quarry. Long abandoned. Sorta just open up the bunkhouse and it’s empty, except for that chest. Just sitting there in the center. No beds or other things that might’ve said people used to live there. Just the chest. The producer is intrigued. He asks the quarry owner what it’s doing there. The quarry owner says on the spot the box is haunted. That it’s a monster chest. And the producer, he might’ve believed him, or he might not, and he smells an opportunity for publicity, and says he wants to put it in the movie somewhere. The quarry owner says it’s going to cost extra. So the producer pays extra.
“And then something happens. Whatever it was about the chest that might’ve haunted it, whatever old world ghosts there might’ve been within, they’re amplified when it’s put on film. The twentieth century technology heightens the tragic curse it housed. After the film the scenes with it in the quarry, they’re reviewing the shots, and—”
A calm knock knuckled against the door. A face appeared in the window for just a moment long enough for Eriem to notice, then vanished, and the knocking resumed, a little louder.
-- Alex Crumb
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