I had a gun in my hand. I held it close to my chest, marvelling at how heavy it was. How did the heroes in movies kill dozens of bad guys with these things?
My grandfather had showed me how to hold the shotgun upside down and jam the shells in, listening for the click as they locked in place. He took the weapon out of my hands and cocked it, making that sound that I’d been waiting for. That sound like ripping velcro and crinkling paper, a shotgun being pumped, loaded with lead death.
He handed it back, his yellow-stained fingers pointing at the safety switch. I held the gun, in awe of both its power and my grandfather. He was old, ancient, and before this, I had considered him silly. A silly old guy with a leathery, worn face, who wore camo hats and cowboy boots and spent long hours on the back porch smoking foul cigarettes and staring at the yard.
Now, though, he was a hunter.
We were hunters.
Grandpa closed the truck and locked it. Then he pointed across the field, to a lurking row of trees. “Your aunt said she seen some turkeys up in there. You got that turkey caller?”
I plunged my hands into my vest, shifting aside extra shotgun shells and pulling out a little wooden box. It had a lever that would make a warbling, choking sound. It didn’t sound much like gobble-gobble to me, but my grandpa swore by it, and he’d killed a lot more turkeys than I had.
We crossed the field, our boots squelching against the mud. “What grows here?”
“Punkins,” he said. “Your aunt grow punkins, soybeans, she tried to grow tomatoes but-,” he let out a raspy laugh, “she ain’t too good at growin’ stuff. Used to be Uncle John did all that. But he passed so…” His voice trailed off and his shoulders drooped. I wondered what it was like to be old. It seemed sad; every time I went to my grandparent’s house, they were talking about someone who had just died. Aunts I’d never meet, uncles I’d only talked to on the phone, people I’d seen at barbeques… all of them fading out like wisps of Grandpa’s cigarette smoke.
The trees were tall and gnarled, like white bones sticking out of the ground. April was still cold, and the leaves hadn’t been given a chance to come back. The only color came from the dark green pine trees that rustled gently in the wind, dropping their pine needles to the ground. I could smell them, and it was sharper, stronger than the stupid little air freshener in grandpa’s truck.
Then I realized I could smell us. Grandpa smelled like his truck; smoky cigarette ash, a faded yellow smell that I kind of liked, but here it was out of place and obnoxious. Obnoxious was a word my grandma used when I was too hyper, and that’s how the smell was acting.
I could smell me, too. I could smell the soap in my hair, and the Juicy Fruit bubblegum I’d spit out earlier. I smelled syrup too, and then remembered the French toast we had for breakfast.
“Grandpa, won’t the turkeys smell us?”
“Turkey’s don’t smell too good. Deer do, though. You gotta spray yourself down before you hunt deer. Turkey’s are stupid birds.”
We continued through the woods, picking our steps, creeping along. My excitement started to grow; this was it. Hunting! We were sneaking through the enemy forest, our guns in hand, ducking under branches and tiptoeing over fallen branches. I thought of a war movie I’d seen, where the soldiers got ambushed by people in the trees. I glanced up, but I only saw a squirrel sitting on a branch, watching me.
I pretended that I was a space explorer on an uncharted planet. My breath rose in front of me in a mist, the ground cracked and splintered beneath me and the sky was grey… I was on an ashy planet, one full of dead trees and barren fields. Volcanoes had erupted here for thousands of years, only to have mysteriously gone silent. I hoisted my trusty blaster up a little higher (remembering to point the barrel away from Grandpa) and began swiveling my head side to side, eyes peeled for a glimpse of the dangerous turkey-aliens.
My grandpa suddenly stopped moving and I bumped into him. He hissed at me to be quiet and kneeled next to me, the joints in his knees popping. “There, through the trees, by that stump, you see?”
I followed where his finger was pointing. It took me a moment for my eyes to divide the brown-greys of the forest from the brown-reds of turkey feathers, but I spotted them. Three of them. Their pale heads gave them away; they looked like white mushrooms that had never seen the sun.
I raised the shotgun to fire, but my grandpa pushed it down. “Too far,” he said. “The spread won’t do a damn thing. Get out the caller, let’s get them closer.”
I pulled out the little box and started turning it, scraping the wood against the box, creating the weird warbling sound. I didn’t think it would work. I felt stupid, crouched here messing with this little toy. I was supposed to be hunting!
“Here they come. You go ahead and take the shot, okay? You’re gonna get your first turkey, right here. Where ya gonna shoot him?”
“The head, right? Because it’ll ruin the meat if we shoot him in the body.”
“That’s right. Now put your bead on him, and wait for him to stretch out his neck.”
I aimed with my gun, my arms quivering as I tried to hold it steady. I put the white bead on the end of the barrel on the closest turkey’s red-white head. He was picking at the ground, jerking his neck around to look at the other birds.
My grandpa reached out and took the caller. He let out a loud call, and my turkey’s neck shot up, his head rising like a red balloon to be shot at the carnival. I swiveled the bead and fired, the noise making me jump, the recoil slamming into my shoulder and nearly knocking me over.
The turkeys flapped away, crashing through the underbrush, gobbling and crying to one another.
Grandpa laughed. “Got excited, huh? That’s alright. I miss all the damn time nowadays. Cataracts, you know. Well-,” he hoisted himself to his feet, uttering a series of groans and sighs. “They’re heading towards the little creek, probably stop there. I’ll go straight-,” he pointed to where the turkey’s had been, “and you sweep along the right, that way if they get spooked and try to go deeper, they’ll be flushed over to you.”
“What if they go right?”
“Ha! Guess we don’t eat, then.”
“Grandma said she’d order pizza either way.”
He shook a cigarette out the pack and stuck in his mouth, “That woman, I swear. Go on, get after them. Make sure you check where you’re firing, too. Don’t need you to send me to the grave any faster than I’m already going.” He stood, groaning and sighing. I noticed his hands were shaking a tiny bit. “Don’t go too far,” he said. “You hit the creek, you turn back and come out to the field. Got it?”
We started walking in opposite directions. I glanced behind me and watched my grandpa limp away. He walked like a mechanical man with oil seized up in his joints.
We got farther apart and the trees hid us from each other. I could hear his boots crunching leaves and twigs, along with his rasping coughs.
Now that I was alone, the hunt could really begin. I’d learned long ago that adults, even ones I loved as much as I loved my grandpa, could not be trusted to let me do things my way. The world of adults was full of phrases like “sit up straight” and “chew with your mouth closed”. Timeouts, cold suppers and the occasional “whoopin’ ” just to shake things up.
With my grandpa out of sight, I could let my imagination stretch its legs like a big dog that has been cooped in the house too long. The gun was real, so that meant whatever the brave soldier fighting had to be real.
The brave soldier stepped quietly, walking like he did when stepdad was asleep and the house was silent and peaceful. Stepping like landmines were on the ground, all tiptoes and tongue-between teeth. I pretended that snapping a twig was a mine activating, and that moment between click and KABOOM was when I had to dive low and cover my head, like the time I heard Uncle Roy telling grandpa about a grenade that was thrown at him.
The trees grew thicker as I walked, my head swivelling back and forth, searching for potential ambushes (turkeys). Trees reached for the sky, so tall that when I looked up I grew dizzy. They were thick and the branches seemed to block out the sun; I could see little streams of light where it managed to get through the leaves. These were laser traps. I had to weave my way around them.
I entered into a small clearing and found a little wooden shack that was built against a log. Camouflage netting was draped over it, making it look like food that had been left in the fridge too long: moldy and green.There were a few grimy milk crates stacked up and I saw blue beer cans on the ground. It was a hunting stand.
To my left, I saw a flicker of movement. There was a flutter of brown-grey feathers and a choked, warbling sound. A turkey.
I slowed my feet and crouched, moving closer until the turkey came into view. It was pecking at the base of a huge, gnarled tree. The bark was so brown it was almost black, and there were no leaves on the branches. It looked like it had been burned over and over again. There was a gaping hole in the center of the trunk, about the size of a basketball. It reminded me of cartoon trees, where Woody the Woodpecker would pop out, laughing his machine-gun laugh.
I aimed my shotgun at the turkey, aiming a little lower this time. My finger was on the trigger and I was starting to squeeze (not pull!) when out of the corner of my eye, I saw something moving in the tree.
I meant to glance quickly, just a split-second peek and then back to shooting the turkey. But that didn’t happen.
A flowing white liquid was spilling out of the hole, like milk being poured from the gallon. It dribbled down the trunk and pooled on the ground, a growing puddle of thick, dripping cream. I could smell it; it smelled sweet and tangy, like some fruity-flavored taffy.
The turkey smelled it too. It poked its beak into the air and then turned around. It stepped over to the liquid, and, after pausing for a second and cocking its head, it leaned down and scooped up a beakful.
The liquid flinched, curling in on itself, rearing back like a snake, and then it struck like a snake, a tendril flinging out and snaring the turkey around the neck. The bird gave out a cry, its feet kicking dirt into the air as it tried to escape.
The liquid reeled the turkey in, and more tendrils wrapped themselves around it. There was a sharp crack and the bird stopped making noise. It was swallowed by the liquid. After a few seconds, all I could was a few feathers on the ground.
The pool of white stuff was bigger. I started backing away, my shotgun held across my chest like it was a seat belt strap. I heard a noise that was halfway between a gulp and a burp: blurk! The liquid was digesting the turkey and making noises like my belly did after dinner.
I took another step backward and heard a twig snap. “Landmine!” I thought. The liquid stopped quivering, freezing in place. Then it started shaking, growing, the tendrils pulling in and piling on so that the liquid rose from the ground, getting taller so that it was waist high, then chest high, until finally it was taller than me, dripping like a snow mound. A tendril burst out of it, shaping itself into a hand, then an arm, coated in white. It reached for me and that was when I fired.
The shotgun blast rang out, making my eardrums rattle and sending a cracking BOOM that seemed to bounce off the trees. The shot clipped the hand, taking off a finger and putting a hole in the white body. The thing wobbled and I turned and started to run.
Running away from something in the woods was too much like the movies. Every branch and stick and leaf and bramble seemed to reach and grab onto me as I ran, panting, clutching the shotgun with one hand and waving my other in front of my face, slapping away the forest like a movie star slaps away a crowd of screaming fans.
“Don’t trip,” I said to myself. “Don’t trip don’t fall don’t look don’t hit a tree, you’ve seen those movies you weren’t supposed to watch ‘cause they’re rated R, R for RUN because if you don’t run that white thing will swallow you or make you swallow it and maybe it looks like marshmallows but it is not!”
I glanced behind me anyway. It was like when I was in my bed at night and my closet door was open and I knew if I just stayed under the covers, nothing would happen, it was just a closet but I had to see whatever growling beast lurked inside my head.
There was nothing behind me but trees and leaves. I turned my head back around just in time to smash into a tree. A tree that grunted and smelled like cigarettes.
“What the hell are you doin’ boy?” my grandpa cried. He reached down and hauled me up by my elbow, like I was a toddler again. “Whaddya shoot at? See a turkey?” He squinted past me. “Why you runnin’?”
I never knew why adults kept asking questions when the first question didn’t get answered. I leaned over, gasped in some air, and said: “Something… back there. Chased me.”
“What, like a bear?”
I nodded. My heart was vibrating in my chest, my heartbeats blending into a hum. I didn’t have it in me to try and make grandpa believe what I saw. If he thought it was a bear and we left, so what?
Instead, he laughed. “C’mon. Let’s go find this bear. It’ll look good on my wall, eh?”
I trailed behind him, staring at the ground. Each step felt like I was marching toward my doom, like I was walking home with a demerit from school in my hand. I thought about faking sick, saying that my stomach hurt and we needed to go. I thought about throwing myself on the ground and moaning, but there was something else.
I kinda-sorta wanted to see the creature again. To make sure it was real, to make sure that it wasn’t real. I was in bed staring at my closet again, except my bedroom was now the woods and my blanket was a shotgun.
I heard footsteps in front of us. My grandfather froze and hefted his gun. “Who’s that?” he said loudly.
I peeked around him and saw a flash of orange; bright orange like my vest. A tall, heavy hunter stepped out so we could see him. He was wearing a thick brown-green camo jacket and an orange snow hat.
My grandpa laughed. “Christ, man, I nearly shot you!” He jerked his thumb back at me. “This one here comes running to me, says he seen a bear. Didn’t think there were any around here, but you never know.”
The hunter stood still, his grey eyes flickering back and forth between. He didn’t say anything.
My grandpa kept talking, talking about rain, about baseball, about bears. He babbled on like he did when his neighbor came over for a beer on the porch.
I stared at the hunter, and slowly looked down, my eyes traveling past his knees and down to his black boots. My breath caught in my throat at what I saw:
The white stuff. It was on the toe of his right boot, smeared like dogshit, but as I watched, it started moving, gathering into a tiny tentacle and wiggling, like it was tasting the air. It grew longer, and that’s when I realized it was coming out of the hunter’s foot. It slithered forward, over sticks and pine needles and dry grass, moving slowly but steadily.
“Grandpa!” I whispered.
He ignored me. “Yeah, I’m takin’ this one out huntin’ as much as possible, got to before my bones seize up and my eyes stop workin’.”
I pointed as the tendril sprang out and wrapped itself around my grandfather’s leg, pulling him off balance and making him fall on his back. His gun slipped out of his hand as he let out a startled yelp, like a dog that had been kicked, and the tentacle dragged him across the ground. Grandpa twisted over, his hands ripping up leaves and dirt. The hunter lurched forward, arms outstretched like Frankenstein.
Grandpa’s foot came out of his boot, the boot the tentacle had ahold of. His dirty grey sock kicked in the air for a moment, and then he scrambled to his feet.
“Shoot it!” he screamed.
“Shuttit!” the hunter hissed. The noise didn’t come from his mouth; it came from deep in his throat.
I raised my gun and aimed at the man. I heard my grandfather cry out: “What are you doing?!”
“He thinks the hunter is a real person,” I thought.
I fired and saw the hunter’s outstretched fingers disappear, like a chunk of a cookie bitten off.
I got hit by something, hard, knocking me to the ground before I could pump the shotgun again. I bit the inside of my cheek, drawing blood. Dazed, I looked up at my grandpa, who was glaring down at me, his forehead lined with wrinkles like a crumpled piece of paper. He turned away from me, to the hunter.
“My god mister,” I heard him say. “Are you alright? Need me to call someone? I meant for the boy to shoot that damn snake-thing I don’t know-, hey!”
I sat up in time to see my grandpa fall on his back, tussling with the hunter. Except grandpa’s hands were sinking into the hunter’s jacket, his fingers disappearing as his face went white and his mouth made words but no sound came out.
I scooped up the shotgun again, racked it, and fired, racked it and fired again. Both shots hit the creature, and gobs of white-grey gunk splattered the ground and the trees like birdshit. Its head caved in and drooped to the side like melted plastic.
My grandpa groaned and pushed the headless thing off, then dragged himself over to me. His bottom lip was shaking when he spoke. “That wasn’t no man. I don’t know what that was but that wasn’t no man.” He shook his head and started to stand up, using my shoulder as a balance. He gestured at the motionless puddle on the ground; the hunter had evaporated. “This what was chasin’ you?”
“Jesus,” he said, and raked a shaky hand through his hair. He brought his hand down and held it in front of his face; it was covered in the white goo. He pulled himself to his feet. “We better get going,” he said.
I nodded and together we started a shambling walk out of the woods. I felt dazed; like I’d just left a movie theater after hours in another world.
We got to the edge of the woods and through the trees, I could see the field we had crossed, and beyond that, just out of sight, was the warm pick up truck that we would get in and drive far, far away and grandma would have cookies and slime creatures from Planet X would no longer be real.
Except for the bits on Grandpa’s shoulder. My eyes kept flicking up to them as he lumbered along, breathing through his nose with each step. As I watched, the white goo pooled together, moving with each bounce of his shoulders. They collided and morphed into a small worm about the size of a drinking straw.
Before I could open my mouth to yell, the worm-thing slid up my grandfather’s neck and dove into his ear.
He roared, his mouth stretched open wide and the greyish hairs on his chin standing out like exclamation marks. He began slapping himself in the side of the head, leaning over so his head was aimed at the ground, the same thing I did when there was water in my ear after a bath. “I can feeeeeel it…” he moaned.
He gave me a wild look, and then turned around and ran back the way we came, dropping his gun and sprinting faster than I’d ever seen him move, his hands waving above his head.
I tore after him, leaping over branches and brush, weaving my way around trees, my eyes fixed on Grandpa’s back. But he was faster than I was. His long legs carried him out of my sight. A sharp pain stabbed into my side and I had to stop, holding on to a tree to keep from collapsing.
A scream rose from deep in the forest. A group of birds screamed back and fluttered out of the trees. It was a shocked scream, a pained scream, a scream that echoed and rang and I was sure that it was my grandfather.
Still gasping, I started running toward it, sprinting in short bursts, slowing to let the stitch in my side wear off, and then racing forward again. The shotgun in my hands had gotten so much heavier; I let the barrel fall into the dirt and I dragged it behind me, hands around the trigger guard. This was something the bearded instructor at hunter’s safety had said to NEVER do, but he wasn’t here and his grandpa wasn’t being killed.
You don’t know that.
I did, though. There were different screams in the world: happy screams that come from playgrounds, surprised shouts at a birthday, and death screams from deep in the woods, where things slither in the dead leaves.
I heard it before I saw it. Moaning and rustling, and then short, terse growls. Leaves crackling and the snap-crack!– of twigs breaking. I inched closer to the sound, not wanting to look because this sound was like that other sound that made me confused and sad and a little sick. The sounds that came from my parent’s bedroom, when I couldn’t be sure if my mom was being hurt or not. The rustling, the moans, the same feeling of seeing something I was not supposed to see.
I came around a thick cluster of trees and saw it. My grandfather was on his back, rolling and struggling with the white slime. It was draped over him like a blanket. He kicked his feet at it but the liquid snared him, wrapping around both of his legs like a sleeping bag. Droplets were coating his arms, drawing together and bind him. Soon, only one arm was free, and he was punching at the creature, but the creature either didn’t notice or didn’t care. The white tendrils slithered around his neck. A particularly fat tentacle split in two, then dug their ends into the sides of his mouth, pulling his lips open into a crazy smile.
His face was still uncovered. He kept struggling, but only managed to roll over a little, the white stuff binding him like a spider wraps up a fly. His eye flicked up and spotted me. He made a choking sound, halfway between a gag and a cough. Growling, he bit down on the tendrils pulling at his mouth. The creature squealed and withdrew, long enough for Grandpa to gasp: “Kill me!”
Last year, I went hunting with Grandpa and he shot a deer, but he missed the heart and hit it somewhere in the stomach. We found it on the ground, mewling and kicking its legs, writhing in pain. We had to shoot it again. Because it was dying too slow.
I started to cry. I cried like a little baby, tears coming down my face, and the tears were hot and stupid because none of this was fair. We were hunting, we weren’t doing anything bad and this thing attacked us. It wasn’t fair.
I aimed my shotgun at my grandpa, and he closed his eyes and nodded his head slightly. He looked ancient. His face was pale, his skin old tree bark. The white stuff had almost covered him completely.
I pretended he was a dear.
Dying too slow.
A hole punched into my grandfather’s face, just like when the teacher got ready to put papers in a 3-ring binder. Blood and bits flung out like feathery bits of paper.
The white thing squealed again, then began to draw tighter around him. The white goop hardened and swirled, looking more and more like a snake, a gigantic pale python. There was a dry, creaking crunch! That made me flinch.
“That was his spine,” I thought wildly.
It was time to run. It was actually way past time to run, but my brain and my feet weren’t connected right, and it took forever to get my legs to move. By then, my grandfather had disappeared and the white goo was a shifting mass as it lurched toward me.
I ran for what felt like the millionth time. It felt like I was dodging the same trees, stepping over the same fallen branches, crunching the same leaves under my boots.
I ran until I heard a voice call:
I knew that voice.
I slowed down to a light jog, head cocked, listening for the voice. My grandfather’s voice. But he was dead. It hadn’t hit me fully, but right then it did. Dead is dead. He was gone. His face… was gone. I’d done that.
I leaned against a thin little tree that bent slightly under my weight. I threw up all over my boots. I stood there, gagging and spitting, for a long while. I realized that I was by the hunting blind, the one that I had seen earlier. I stared at the beer cans on the ground for a long moment. They were relaxing, somehow. Seeing such a normal, boring thing like trash on the ground was calming.
I stood straight up. My dead grandpa’s voice was behind me, back in the direction of the creature.
“I’m in a fairytale,” I thought. “I’m lost in the woods and the bad creature is after me. My, what big eyes you have!”
A noise. Tiredly, I stepped backward and hoisted the shotgun and aimed it in the direction of the sound.
“Wait,” said the voice.
I closed my eyes for a moment, willing it away. It wasn’t real, it couldn’t be real. The image of my grandpa’s head after I shot it, the gaping, reddish hole, there was no way, there was no way, there was no–,
My grandpa shambled into view. His face was whole. He was whole. He looked dazed, like he’d been hit over the head by a frying pan. He spotted me, and stretched out his arms.
“Help,” he mumbled.
I lowered the gun and started toward him. It looked like he could barely stand, and I was trying to figure it out in my head how far exactly it was to the truck, when I noticed his left eye.
The pupil was the usual dark brown, (“Because he’s full of bullshit!” my uncle Ray always said) but the white part was liquid. It dribbled out of the corner of his eye socket; I could see a drop of it streaming down his cheek.
A low moan escaped my throat. My hands moved by themselves, and for the second time that day, I raised the shotgun and fired it at my grandfather. The round caught him in the chest, but it just made a clean sort of hole; I could see the forest through it.
“Unh,” he said. The skin around the wounds stretched, white tendrils reaching out to one another, grasping each other like a million tiny handshakes, pulling the skin together.
I fired again. And again, pumping the shotgun and feeling it kick back at me, vibrating in my arms, the gun so heavy but I didn’t dare to drop it. Pump and fire, pump and fire, as chunks of the creature burst apart and spilled off, splattering the ground, driving the creature to its knees.
I pumped another shell into the chamber and squeezed the trigger again, but instead of rollicking thunder, a dry click was all I got.
The thing lunged at me, my grandfather’s shape splitting as a long white arm rotated in the air, stretching into a spider shape, with dozens of legs at the end of it, all eagerly writhing to grab on to me,
I ducked, and with both feet coiled beneath me, I leapt backwards. I landed on my back, rolled, scrambled to my feet, tripped again, crashing into the flimsy hunting blind. The wood frame broke under my weight and I found myself on the ground, looking at a grimy blue milk crate and smelling beer and old tobacco. There were even more beer cans here than outside.
The blind rattled, like there was a violent storm outside ripping the panels off. I glanced out the little window and saw the creature engulfing the shack. The entire outside seemed to be pulsating and shifting, like I was on the inside of a fleshy tornado. A board behind popped off and was devoured by the white.
I shoved my hand in the pocket of my vest and fumbled out some shotgun shells. Trembling, I shoved them, one by one, taking big, heaving gasps of air, into the gun and racked it back. I pointed the barrel at the empty gap the creature had just created and fired once, twice, splitting open the liquid, causing a basketball sized hole.
I dove through it, my body straight as an arrow, the gun clasped against me. I landed outside of the revolving white mass. Bleeding, sore and gasping, I forced my feet to carry me away.
I looked back when it screamed. It was quivering with rage as it gurgled and churned. I noticed the camo netting, tangled and snarled in its flesh. It was confused by the net. Confused, or choking.
I hoped it was choking.
I got out of the woods and to the road. I stood on the shoulder and leaned heavily on the gun, like it was a fencepost, with the barrel jammed in the dirt. This was against all of the rules of hunter’s safety, but I didn’t care.
A little red car came around, driven by a tall, skinny guy wearing plaid. He pulled up to me and got out. He kneeled by me and said something, but I was too tired to understand. Gently, he took the gun and caught me when I collapsed into him. He smelled like mouthwash.
The man carried me to his car and laid me in the backseat. Then he got in the driver’s seat and we drove off.
“Sheriff’s office,” I heard him say. I was falling asleep, but managed to look up at him. He was looking at the road, talking without looking at me.
There was something white on his shoulder. Like a little piece of lint.
I couldn’t tell if it was wriggling or not.