He barely notices Beth in the bar, thin as a stick, clothes—oh, Jesus, her clothes—too-small cotton blouse with faded calico flowers, brown knit pants that slop over thick-soled black shoes. She has straw-colored hair pulled back flat with metal barrettes, a faded plain face that doesn’t show well alongside the other girls she’s with.
Amy, who he met an hour ago, clings to his arm, one leg half wrapped around his, as she introduces them.
He’s picked up Amy, or she’s picked up him, because he needs a place for the night and she is young and eager enough and unlikely to be clingy in the morning. He attracts girls; even after all this time he’s not sure why, but he always has his pick, and he tries to pick girls whose hearts won’t break. So, tonight he’s with Amy and her friend Chick who’s picked up some crew-cut Army boy on a weekend pass and— “Oh yeah,” Amy says, “this is Beth,” pointing to the girl he hasn’t really noticed, that no one in the entire place has probably noticed the entire evening.
We brought her so we can drink and she can drive is what Amy means.
Beth tilts her head a bit to the left as Amy introduces them. Her lips thin and he wonders if she thinks that’s what a smile is, lips stretched halfway between a grimace and a grin.
They tumble into the car, Amy in his lap in the front seat, Chick and Army boy necking in the back and Beth driving, her face a mask as if she doesn’t care that Chick has her shirt and most of her bra off already, as if she can’t see Amy’s hand snaking up between his legs. She glides them onto the interstate. The noises from the back get muffled and excited, with occasional squeals of—well, he doesn’t look. Amy has started doing something interesting to his ear and the curve along his neck, and no one is paying any attention to Beth or her driving. Except him. He notices because it’s worth his life to notice things.
She drives like a dream, like she is dreaming the road into existence as she drives.
She accelerates gradually until she must be doing a hundred miles an hour, weaving in and out of the late night traffic, but so smooth that no one else in the car has any idea. He looks at her through a screen of Amy’s wildly curled hair and it’s like she and the car are one machine, like she can see everything before it happens. She looks . . . alive, or at least noticeable. He reaches out and touches her hand on the shifter and it startles her so that the car jigs to the left and almost collides with another car in the next lane, a screech and blast of horn Dopplering away from them as Beth accelerates back into her lane.
“Jesus, Beth,” Amy exclaims. “Watch where you’re going.”
He turns his attention back to Amy, but he files the information away.
Because he never knows when he might need someone fast. He’s a hunter. And the things he hunts live in the shadows in every town he comes to. So he watches people and files them away and he’s become an expert in who will help because he asks, who he can con or threaten into helping, who will help and never know they did it. And he never finds, in all those little bits of help that come his way, what he’s forgotten he ever wanted, someone who knows the score and stands up with him anyway.
It’s a late night because Amy turns out to be not just enthusiastic, but pretty damn good in the sack. Despite that, he’s up just after dawn and comes softly down the bare wood stairs of the old house Amy shares with four other girls.
Figuring he’ll be alone, he pops into the kitchen and is almost startled to see Beth sitting at the battered kitchen table.
“Good morning,” he says.
She sits back, one hand holding open the book she’s been reading, and looks at him square on. “What’s your name this morning?” she asks.
It stops him dead.
Last night, he told Amy and the others that his name was Max. He hasn’t used his real name in so long, sometimes he thinks he’s forgotten what it is. No one ever questions, though. No one ever says, “Really? Your name is Phil (or Lou) (or Charlie)? That doesn’t sound right.” He has a sincere face. No one thinks twice. Until today.
“My name is Max,” he says with the smallest of frowns, a suggestion that she might not have listened last night or might not have remembered.
She nods, a near-invisible eyebrow raised, a half-scared look in her eye as if she hadn’t meant to ask the question and is sorry that she did. She looks back down at the book in front of her, but he can feel her watching surreptitiously as he scans the cupboards for coffee and filters and a mug to drink from.
“You saw me drive,” she says quietly when he finally takes a seat at the opposite end of the table.
He frowns. What does she want? Not him, he thinks. She’s not a girl who gets crushes—who allows herself to get crushes, he corrects himself—because she’s totally that kind of girl, one who lives so deep inside herself no one sees her, lives a whole life in there, fantasy boys and fantasy lives. But there’s something else about her, something that holds all that back—like she can’t let go for anything.
“What did you think?” she asks. It’s a shy question, as if she hates herself for asking, as if she wants to take it back immediately, as if no one has ever noticed this thing she is so brilliant at and she wants, like bright sparks against a midnight sky, to, just this once, be seen.
“I thought you were brilliant.”
He doesn’t know why he says it. It’s too sharp and pointed and it will mean too much to her. He should have said It was all right. Or Not bad, kid. Or I didn’t really notice. But he didn’t. He said You were brilliant.
Her eyes blink rapid-fire as if she’s holding back an entire wall of feeling and he realizes that he’s got to get out now, should have gotten out before the coffee. He’s told Amy that he’ll be at the bar tonight, late, if she wants to, you know, drop by. But that means nothing. He can sleep on the ground or in the bus station or anywhere. Get out now. That’s what he needs to do.
He sticks the coffee mug in the sink, shrugs into his jacket, grabs his duffle and heads for the door.
“Do you need a ride?” Beth asks just before the back door swings shut. And despite himself, despite knowing that he might be getting into something deeper than he wants or she can handle, he says yes.
People call him. People he doesn’t know. People who don’t know him, don’t want to know him, don’t want anything to do with him or the things he hunts. They find his number on cluttered bulletin boards or crumpled scraps of napkins or scrawled on walls in bus terminals. They leave him messages—skeptical, frightened, defiant, crazy. They don’t believe in what they’ve seen, can’t imagine that it exists. They call anyway because in a weak moment in the middle of the night they think they might not actually be crazy.
This time, in this city, it’s a wendigo. Or, what would be a wendigo if it were in the woods in Minnesota, if there were such a thing as wendigos, which there isn’t. He knows—he’s been doing this awhile—that the legends are just legends, the shapes the Things take represent nothing but convenience or perversity. People believe there are differences, rules, boundaries. There aren’t.
Beth drives him down to the docks. For the last three weeks, people have gone missing—security guards, at least one prostitute, and probably a couple of junkies. In the sunlight, he can get a sense of the territory, pick his spots, learn the entrances and exits.
There are no rules, though certain things nearly always work—silver buckshot, iron knives, poison made from the Things’ own blood.
He has Beth leave him in front of a string of rundown bars with the windows mostly boarded up or paneled over. He doesn’t say Good driving or Thanks, kid or even Goodbye. He slings his duffle and drops back between an abandoned storefront and an empty lot until he’s close down by the water. The not-wendigo has already left the woods and the original legend it adopted, but it will still be silver and iron and blood in the end—those are the only things he is sure of.
The wind picks up as he approaches the lake. He can hear the distant sound of shouting from the docks, the low rumble of mighty engines. He believes that he will find the Thing he hunts in the warehouse clusters nearby, maybe in the alleys behind the bars. People are ultimately what it needs.
He exits the alleys onto a dead-end street of crumbling asphalt. At one end there’s a cluster of abandoned warehouses. Opposite them are three beat-to-hell houses. Two of the houses have sagging front porches and multiple mailboxes with rusting hinges nailed haphazardly to the siding. The third has a four-foot chain fence around the whole yard, scraggly grass, and two of the biggest pit bulls he’s ever seen.
“You won’t see them coming.”
Jesus. There’s an old woman ten feet behind him, came out of the alley between the two houses and he didn’t even hear her. “What?” he asks, though he knows what she’s saying even if she probably doesn’t entirely know herself.
“The beasts,” she says. She’s wearing a shabby coat and a pair of jeans splattered with paint, and her hair looks like it has been cut with dull scissors by a blindfolded circus clown, but her faded blue eyes are sharp. He steps closer. “They’re fast and they’re deadly,” she says, looking at him steadily. “And they won’t hold still for you.”
“There’s more than one?”
“And—” She stops talking and fades right back into the shadows between the houses. Not like a magical disappearing act—he sees her go—more like something spooked her right out here in the open.
There is one sort of Thing that comes out in the daytime. He unzips his duffle one-handed and shakes loose a shotgun. Ordinary people would call them zombies.
They are strong and fast and single-mindedly devoted to protecting the Things that feed them blood in exchange for loyalty. They think they’ll live forever.
He pumps the action on his shotgun, shifts his duffle to his left side and waits. Three men and a woman are standing in the street halfway down the block. Just standing there looking at him.
He doesn’t want to fight them now, can’t imagine why they would want to fight him, to draw that kind of attention. He takes a step back. They take a step forward.
For a fraction of a second, the world balances on an edge as thin and worn as an old copper penny. Then, with a negligent flick of the wrist, like shooing a pesky fly, one of the not-zombies throws a grenade at him. He leaps to his left, rolling desperately between the two houses and thinking that this is the most fucked up shit ever, because if they’re willing to blow him up in the middle of the street in the middle of the day then they must figure that they have this place completely and utterly wired.
He scrambles to his feet, dirt raining down on him from the explosion, runs between the houses, across a trash-strewn backyard, and jumps the chain link fence, dodging the two pit bulls which now seem barely dangerous at all.
A second grenade clinks against the chain link fence. He’s already twenty yards away, but the concussion from the explosion still spins him halfway around. He stumbles and catches himself and fires off two quick rounds. Buckshot shatters the woman’s arm and she screams but doesn’t fall.
Suddenly there’s a car right next to him, the passenger door swinging open, and he’s diving for the front seat, twisting and firing off one more round. Tires squeal, smoke from burning rubber, and they’re out of there, shimmying onto the highway as the car shudders and straightens and piles on speed like a son of a bitch.
Beth doesn’t say What was that? or Holy crap or even My god. She just drives.
Her hand grips the steering wheel tight enough to turn her knuckles white. Another mile and she swings off the road into a strip mall parking lot packed with cars.
“Get out, okay,” she says, like it’s an order and a question and a plea all wrapped in one. There is nothing he can say to make this believable or better. He could, because he’s done it a lot and is good at it, convince her to be his driver tonight when he goes back. He could make her feel special just long enough to be useful. Instead, he slips the shotgun back into his duffle, zips it closed and gets out of the car. He doesn’t watch her drive away.
Several hours later he’s roped together a group that’s half vigilante off-duty cops, half suicidal priests, two-thirds drunk and all desperate to do something that means something or at least looks as if it does. He doesn’t—never does—talk to them about Things, about shadows and darkness. He talks instead about things they already know—poverty, drugs, weapons, and pain. He talks about evil, which overshadows everything. It’s easy to persuade them; he’s good at it and it’s what they want, evil they can fight out in the open instead of the way most evil comes—in the daylight, in suburban subdivisions, in executive office buildings, in their hearts.
He doesn’t think—or so he tells himself—about Beth or not-zombies or whether she is okay. She will get over it or forget it or convince herself it never happened.
He buys a day pass at a downtown gym and showers and changes, then drops down to the train station to get some things from a locker there—cartridges with dirty silver shot, a couple of extra knives, a slender leatherbound book that he occasionally thinks will be helpful. While he’s at it, he checks his messages, two new voice mails—a not-vampire problem in Atlanta and a not-incubus in southern Indiana. No rest for the wicked or the weary or, hell, something—what his mother used to say, before she died in a pool of her own blood on a gravel road outside Fargo, North Dakota and the cops just said she was drunk.
He’s got a car on loan from one of the men he’s lined up to help him tonight, and he sets out to cruise a wide strip around the street where the Things live, gauging one more time the ways in and out. He glides from there onto the interstate—an hour and a half to kill before midnight and before he knows it he’s back at last night’s bar. He’s hungry and he could use a beer and without thinking too much about it, he parks in the nearly full lot and slides into the bar just behind a group of six or eight young women all dressed in black with neon highlights in their hair.
“Max!” Amy spots him right off, waving him over to where she and Chick and someone he doesn’t know are sitting on stools at a small round table just off the dance floor. Shit.
He’s only just reached them when the someone he doesn’t know stands and comes right for him and he realizes that it’s Beth, but dressed different enough that he didn’t recognize her. She’s got her hair pulled back and tucked into a worn baseball cap. She’s dressed in loose faded jeans, a hard-worn denim jacket, checkered shirt, and heavy boots that look like she’s already climbed a mountain or two in them. She’s still plain as hell, no makeup, and her whole face faded out like wheat chaff, but she looks more—and he thinks this is crazy because he doesn’t know her at all—she looks more like herself.
Amy jumps up to greet him but Beth grabs him first and hauls him sideways. “I need to talk to you,” she says, and she shoves him toward the door.
“Hey!” Amy cries.
“She’s totally stealing your boyfriend!” Chick laughs like it’s the funniest thing she’s seen all night.
Beth stumbles out the door. He reaches out to steady her, but she slips away from him, walking across the crowded parking lot like she’s just been gut-punched, arms wrapped around her middle, hunched at the shoulders. He wonders if he can lie to her, tell her she didn’t see what she saw, doesn’t know what she knows; and he wonders why he would—it’s a good thing, right? People ought to know.
She finds her car and leans against it as if it will ground her. “I thought . . .” She clears her throat, looking at a spot on the ground between his boots. “I thought they weren’t in cities.”
“What?” It’s not what he expected her to say.
“I thought they just lived in the country. I mean, how stupid was that?”
“You’ve seen—” He doesn’t even know what to call them because she probably doesn’t call them Things.
“I grew up, you know, on a ranch in northwest Nebraska. And it’s open, so open. You’d think it would be the safest place in the world. That’s what people here say—it must be so safe out there, not like in the city.” She looks at him and even though it’s dark he can see her face, unshadowed, in the bright parking lot lighting. “I think they actually mean lonely. But it’s—” She stops, not entirely sure how to go on—there are no words for what she’s telling him. “Things happen and you pretend it was just bad luck or an accident or anything, anything but— Shit,” she says. And, “Shit.”
He doesn’t know what to say, so doesn’t say anything. After a minute, she unwinds a bit, kicking the toe of her boot into the ground.
She scrubs a hand along her cheek and crosses her arms again, though this time it makes her look more determined than afraid. “You’re going to kill them, right?” she asks, doesn’t wait for his answer before adding, “I want to come.”
“I—” He stops short because last night that’s what he wanted. She’s a driver and she’s good. And if it’s any different now, it should only be better, right? She knows what she’s getting into. He leans close to her, puts a hand on the hood on either side of her. “You think what you saw today was dangerous?” he says. “What I’m really going after—they’re worse.”
She lifts her head and the play of light and shadows makes her face look more angular than it is. “I can do more than drive,” she says.
It’s pragmatic. That’s what he tells himself. Why shouldn’t he use her?
“What can you do besides drive?” he asks her once they’re in the car and on the highway.
“I can use that shotgun,” she says, never taking her eyes off the road. There’s a lot more traffic than there was last night after midnight, but she still drives like she’s the only one, like she sees it all ahead of time. “I’m not great with a rifle and I usually manage to cut myself with a knife, but I don’t fold.” She says the last fiercely as if it’s something she’s forgotten and is angry for. “No matter what, I’ll stand and fight. I mean”—a muscle twitches underneath her cheekbone—”while there’s actual fighting going on. Obviously, I cut and ran here.”
“Everyone’s entitled to a life,” he says, which in his own case is so patently untrue that he wonders that the words actually come out his month.
She makes a noise that sounds suspiciously like a snort. “Do you think that’s actually true?” she asks. “I mean, not that I abandoned anyone to their fate or anything, which would be, you know . . . bad. But if you can—if you know things no one else knows, if you can save the world . . . shouldn’t you, you know, save it?”
He can’t answer her because that, right there, is the question he never asks himself. “Turn here,” he says instead.
The shotgun looks too big for her, but she holds it with competence, not quite like she drives, but good enough. Certainly better than some of the men he’s recruited, who stand bleary-eyed under flickering streetlights not altogether sure they remember why they’re here.
He sends Beth with two of the steadiest off-duty cops down to the waterfront to cut off one of the escape routes. He gives half the remaining men warm beer to steady their nerves and sends them in along the street he was on this afternoon. One of them walks straight into a trash can, scatters garbage into the street and laughs, making loud shushing sounds at the men he’s with. At least they’ll be a distraction.
He and a priest in his forties who carries anger like a weapon slide between the old warehouses, through a patchwork of blue-black shadow and gray-blue light from the security lights on the corners of the buildings. It’s quiet and it shouldn’t be, like there’s something damping out the waves on the lake a block away, damping out the wind and the traffic from the highway two blocks the other direction and above them.
They know he’s coming.
Which makes him happy. Or as close to happy as he gets.
Between one heartbeat and the next, it begins. He pushes the angry priest out of the way and fires at a not-zombie sneaking up from behind. A half dozen more skulk in the shadows behind them and he lets the priest take the rest, while he scans the area for what he’s really after. In the distance he can hear the sharp sound of other guns.
The not-wendigo comes fast, straight out of the darkness. He throws himself sideways and can feel the wind from its claws. He turns and fires, hits it in the left shoulder, not enough to stop it, but enough to knock it sideways, back into the darkness. The priest has left him, so delighted with this opportunity to battle evil firsthand that he forgets his responsibilities and just fires, fires, fires his gun and chases fleeing not-zombies into the deepest shadows along the lake.
He backs up against a metal wall, scanning the intertwining light and shadows. Two of them—there are at least two—as if he needs reminding. He shifts his weight. Something slams into him and knocks him to the ground. The not-wendigo sinks its claws into his leg and starts to drag him out into the open. Light and dark spots dance in front of his eyes as he fires one, two, three times . . . empties his damn shotgun as the Thing screams like the end of the world and finally—oh god finally—dies.
He scrambles to his feet, panting, wiping sweat out of his eyes and ignoring the white-hot sharpness of the claw wounds in his leg.
He’s in the middle of reloading when he sees the second one. It makes no attempt at stealth, comes straight at him, fast like the other one. He raises the shotgun—two shots won’t be enough but it’s what he’s got and he manages to fire both of them before it slams into him and he flies straight out of the murky half-light from the flickering security lights into darkness. Then it doesn’t have to come fast because he can’t reload in time or run fast enough and it will be knife work and claws and someone else is firing—booming shotgun blasts—boom, boom, boom and then this one is screaming and taking one last swipe that catches him a glancing blow to the temple before it topples in the mud.
He blinks blood out of his eye and looks over to see Beth with her shotgun still raised though it’s empty—he’s pretty sure she emptied it. “They’re dead,” he says.
“You look like shit,” she says, which he suspects is supposed to sound tough except her voice cracks on shit and it comes out sounding like she’s going to cry.
He calls the men back, collects the weapons he’s loaned them, gives the drunk ones enough money to get drunker and the angry ones something new to be angry at. They drift off, unsure, even though they were right in the middle of it, exactly what happened or what they all did. Blood keeps dripping into his left eye and his leg feels like it’s being held together with hot metal and wire.
And Beth is still there.
With the rest of them gone, he stands for a long minute looking at her. Usually, there’s no one at this point. Usually, he just moves on. She has a streak of dirt along her right cheekbone and it makes her look intense or intent or present, or something.
She doesn’t say anything, for which he is grateful, and he gets in the car with her, thinking she’s taking him back to get the borrowed car he left an eon ago back at the bar, but she drives him to the emergency room instead and just looks at him when he tells her he doesn’t need it. It’s not a look he can argue with, not pleading or demanding or imposing. She just looks at him. And it turns out to be something for which he has no defense.
Later, when they’ve cleaned everything and stitched him up and let him go, she takes him to an all-night diner and buys him coffee and soggy fries. He realizes that it’s not so much that she wants to be with him as that she doesn’t want to be alone.
“You saved me,” he says. “Twice.” He still feels like his leg is all hot metal and wires, but it’s a distant sort of pain, beaten back by prescription painkillers that make the whole world seem as if it’s edged in padded satin.
She looks at him earnestly as she idly stirs her coffee with a bent metal spoon. “I used to know this guy,” she says, “who kept score. Every time you’d see him, he’d come up to you and say 3 to 4 or 8 to 7 or 21 to 13. The number of times he’d saved someone else compared to how many times other people had saved him. He thought it would matter somehow, like it would save his life in a pinch.
“But”—she looks at him intently as if she’s saying something whose importance she can’t quite gauge—”it doesn’t matter—it doesn’t matter—except in the doing of it. The counter goes back to zero every time. You don’t owe me anything. I don’t owe you.”
He has spent a lifetime not owing anything but he doesn’t think she’s right about this. He can’t believe it doesn’t matter. But he doesn’t have to say anything, that’s what he realizes with a hollow jolt of surprise. In this diner, at this moment, he doesn’t actually have to say anything at all.
He lets himself drift on a haze of humid diner air and clattering plates in the kitchen and hospital painkillers. Eventually they leave the diner and wind up back in the parking lot which, since it’s now gone four in the morning, is empty except for the car he’s left there.
Their breath fogs in the early morning air as they stand in front of her car and he fumbles for his keys. She’s talking now, as if something’s come unstuck inside her, as if she’s finally found all these things she’s been dying to say for years. And he wants her to shut up, to stop being human. Shut up shut up shut up shut up, it sings inside his head like an old metal song, pounding against the stitches in his temple.
“My Daddy used to call them rats, you know. These big, dark, scary things and he just called them rats. ‘I’m going rat hunting,’ he’d say. Like we wouldn’t notice? Like we’d really think they were rats? Or, maybe he wanted them to be rats. Rats are just pests, you know, they don’t kill your mother or make your father—” She stops, finally, and he thinks he should be happier about the silence than he is.
He has the car keys in his hand. He can leave now. But he doesn’t.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I just—” She kicks a rock and it ricochets off a nearby light pole with a dull thunk.
He thinks about kissing her because if he kisses her this will turn into just another moment, just another girl he can fuck or leave or forget or remember. Just another stopper against the vast sucking hole of time.
“It doesn’t help,” she says. For a moment, he thinks she has read his mind. Then she continues, “Talking, not talking, moving to the city. They never go away.
“You—” she says and stops with her hands shoved into her pockets and looks at him hard. “I—”
He decides right then and there that he will hire men he doesn’t know with money he doesn’t have to stand outside her window and protect her from shadows and the night because he cares about her—how fucked up is that?—cares far beyond the sex they never had, far beyond anything he’s willing to or can admit to.
It scares him, scares him so big he says the first mean thing he can think of. “You get that nothing changes, right? I’m leaving and you’re still what you always were—a scared little girl hiding from the world.”
And it was for nothing because she says what she was going to say anyway, as if she hasn’t even heard him.
“When you’re growing up and you’re out there on the plains, you think that’s how everyone sees the world—wide open. Because nothing hides out there. Unless you figure out how to hide it in plain sight. Which you do. You put the most valuable thing you have in the most visible place you know and then you pretend it doesn’t matter. That’s how you hide in the open.”
Or maybe she heard exactly what he said.
“You have to have a place, is what I’m saying,” she says.
He doesn’t. He knows he doesn’t. He hasn’t had a place since . . . ever, since Fargo fucking North Dakota. Shit.
He walks away from her and then walks back.
“My name is Paul,” he says to her, as if it’s a gift.
And it is.
But it’s not a gift for her.