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Fiction

In a Cavern, in a Canyon

Husband number one fondly referred to me as the Good Samaritan. Anything from a kid lost in the neighborhood to a countywide search-and-rescue effort, I got involved. If we drove past a fender-bender, I had to stop and lend a hand or snap a few pictures, maybe do a walk-around of the scene. A major crash? Forget about it—I’d haunt the site until the cows came home or the cops shooed me away. Took the better part of a decade for the light bulb to flash over my hubby’s bald head. He realized I wasn’t a Samaritan so much as a fetishist. Wore him down in the end and he bailed. I’m still melancholy over that one.

Lucky for him he didn’t suffer through my stint with the Park Service in Alaska. After college and the first kid, I finagled my way onto the government payroll and volunteered for every missing person, lost climber, downed plane, or wrecked boat scenario. I hiked and camped on the side. Left my compass and maps at home. I wanted to disappear. Longest I managed was four days. The feds were suspicious enough to send me to a shrink who knew his business. The boys upstairs gave me a generous severance check and said to not let the door hit me in the ass on the way out. Basically the beginning of a long downward slide in my life.

Husband number three divorced me for my fifty-fourth birthday. I pawned everything that wouldn’t fit into a van and drove from Ohio back home to Alaska. I rented a doublewide at the Cottonwood Point Trailer Park near Moose Pass, two miles along the bucolic and winding Seward Highway from Cassie, my youngest daughter.

A spruce forest crowds the back door. Moose nibble the rhododendron hedging the yard. Most folks tuck in for the night by the time Colbert is delivering his monologue.

Cassie drops off my infant granddaughter, Vera, two or three times a week or whenever she can’t find a sitter. Single and working two jobs (hardware cashier by day, graveyard security at the Port of Seward Wednesday and Friday), Cassie avoided the inevitability of divorce by not getting married in the first place. She kept the dumb, virile fisherman who knocked her up as baby-daddy and strictly part time squeeze. Wish I’d thought of that. Once I realized that my nanny gig was a regular thing, I ordered a crib and inveigled the handsome (and generally drunken, alas) fellow at 213 to set it up in my bedroom.

On the nanny evenings, I feed Vera her bottle and watch westerns on cable. “Get you started right,” I say to her as Bronson ventilates Fonda beneath a glaring sun, or when a cowboy rides into the red-and-gold distance as the credits roll. She’ll be a tomboy like her gram if I have any influence. The classic stars were my heroes once upon a time—Stewart, Van Cleef, Wayne, and Marvin. During my youth, I utterly revered Eastwood. I crushed big time on The Man with No Name and Dirty Harry. Kept a poster from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on my bedroom wall. So young, both of us. So innocent. Except for the shooting and murdering, and my lustful thoughts, but you know.

Around midnight, I wake from a nap on the couch to Vera’s plaintive cry. She’s in the bedroom crib, awake and pissed for her bottle. The last act of High Plains Drifter plays in scratchy 1970s Technicolor. It’s the part where the Stranger finally gets around to exacting righteous vengeance. Doesn’t matter that I’ve missed two rapes, a horsewhipping, Lago painted red and renamed HELL . . . all those images are imprinted upon my hindbrain. I get the impression the scenes are always rolling down there against the screen of my subconscious.

I am depressed to recognize a cold fact in this instant. The love affair with bad boy Clint ended years and years ago, even if I haven’t fully accepted the reality. Eyes gummed with sleep, I sit for a few seconds, mesmerized by the stricken faces of the townspeople who are caught between a vicious outlaw gang and a stranger hell-bent on retribution. The Stranger’s whip slithers through the saloon window and garrotes an outlaw. I’ve watched that scene on a dozen occasions. My hands shake and I can’t zap it with the remote fast enough.

That solves one problem. I take the formula from the fridge and pop it into the fancy warmer Cassie obtained during a clearance sale. The LED numerals are counting down to nothing when it occurs to me that I don’t watch the baby on Sundays.

• • • •

The night in 1977 that my father disappeared, he, Uncle Ned, and I drove north along Midnight Road, searching for Tony Orlando. Dad crept the Fleetwood at a walking pace. My younger siblings, Doug, Shauna, and Artemis, remained at home. Doug was ostensibly keeping an eye on our invalid grandmother, but I figured he was probably glued to the television with the others. That autumn sticks in my memory like mud to a Wellington. We were sixteen, fourteen, eleven, and ten. Babes in the wilderness.

Uncle Ned and I took turns yelling out the window. Whenever Orlando pulled this stunt, Dad swore it would be the last expedition he mounted to retrieve the “damned mutt.” I guess he really meant it.

Middle-school classmate Nancy Albrecht once asked me what the hell kind of name was that for a dog, and I said Mom and Dad screwed on the second date to “Halfway to Paradise,” and if you laugh I’ll smack your teeth down your throat. I have a few scars on my knuckles, for damn sure.

Way back then, we lived in Eagle Talon, Alaska, an isolated port about seventy miles southwest of Anchorage. Cruise ships bloated the town with tourists during spring, and it dried up to around three hundred resident souls come autumn.

Eastern settlers had carved a hamlet from wilderness during the 1920s; plunked it down in a forgotten vale populated by eagles, bears, drunk Teamsters and drunker fishermen. Mountains and dense forest on three sides formed a deep-water harbor. The channel curved around the flank of Eagle Mountain and eventually let into Prince William Sound. Roads were gravel or dirt. We had the cruise ships and barges. We also had the railroad. You couldn’t make a move without stepping in seagull shit. Most of us townies lived in a fourteen-story apartment complex called the Frazier Estate. We kids shortened it to Fate. Terra incognita began where the sodium lamplight grew fuzzy. At night, wolves howled in the nearby hills. Definitely not the dream hometown of a sixteen-year-old girl. As a grown woman, I recall it with a bittersweet fondness.

Upon commencing the hunt for Orlando, whom my little brother Doug had stupidly set free from the leash only to watch in mortification as the dog trotted into the sunset, tail furled with rebellious intent, Dad faced a choice—head west along the road, or troll the beach where the family pet sometimes mined for rotten salmon carcasses. We picked the road because it wound into the woods and our shepherd-husky mix hankered after the red squirrels that swarmed during the fall. Dad didn’t want to walk if he could avoid it. “Marched goddamned plenty in the Crotch,” he said. It had required a major effort for him to descend to the parking garage and get the wagon started and pointed in the general direction of our search route. Two bad knees, pain pills for said knees, and a half-pack-a-day habit had all but done him in.

Too bad for Uncle Ned and me, Midnight Road petered out in the foothills. Moose trails went every which way from the little clearing where we’d parked next to an abandoned Winnebago with a raggedy tarp covering the front end and black garbage bags over the windows. Hobos and druggies occasionally used the Winnebago as a fort until Sheriff Lockhart came along to roust them. “Goddamned railroad,” Dad would say, despite the fact that if not for the railroad (for which he performed part-time labor to supplement his military checks) and the cruise ships and barges, there wouldn’t be any call for Eagle Talon whatsoever.

Uncle Ned lifted himself from the back seat and accompanied me as I shined the flashlight and hollered for Orlando. Dad remained in the station wagon with the engine running and the lights on. He honked the horn every couple of minutes.

“He’s gonna keep doing that, huh?” Uncle Ned wasn’t exactly addressing me, more like an actor musing to himself on the stage. “Just gonna keep leanin’ on that horn every ten seconds—”

The horn blared again. Farther off and dim—we’d come a ways already. Birch and alder were broken by stands of furry black spruce that muffled sounds from the outside world. The black, green, and gray webbing is basically the Spanish moss of the Arctic. Uncle Ned chuckled and shook his head. Two years Dad’s junior and a major league stoner, he’d managed to keep it together when it counted. He taught me how to tie a knot, paddle a canoe, and gave me a lifetime supply of dirty jokes. He’d also explained that contrary to Dad’s Cro-Magnon take on teenage dating, boys were okay to fool around with so long as I ducked the bad ones and avoided getting knocked up. Which ones were bad? I wondered. Most of them, according to the Book of Ned, but keep it to fooling around and all would be well. He also clued me in to the fact that Dad’s vow to blast any would-be suitor’s pecker off with his twelve-gauge was an idle threat. My old man couldn’t shoot worth spit even when sober.

The trail forked. One path climbed into the hills where the undergrowth thinned. The other path curved deeper into the creepy spruce where somebody had strung blue reflective tape among the branches—a haphazard mess like the time Dad got lit up and tried to decorate the Christmas tree.

“Let’s not go in there,” Uncle Ned said. Ominous, although not entirely unusual as he often said that kind of thing with a similar, laconic dryness. That bar looks rough, let’s try the next one over. That woman looks like my ex-wife, I’m not gonna dance with her, uh-uh. That box has got to be heavy. Let’s get a beer and think on it.

“Maybe he’s at the beach rolling in crap,” I said. Orlando loved bear turds and rotten salmon guts with a true passion. There’d be plenty of both near the big water, and as I squinted into the forbidding shadows, I increasingly wished we’d driven there instead.

Uncle Ned pulled his coat tighter and lit a cigarette. The air had dampened. I yelled “Orlando!” a few more times. Then we stood there for a while in the silence. It was like listening through the lid of a coffin. Dad had stopped leaning on the horn. The woodland critters weren’t making their usual fuss. Clouds drifted in and the darkness was so complete it wrapped us in a cocoon. “Think Orlando’s at the beach?” I said.

“Well, I dunno. He ain’t here.”

“Orlando, you stupid jerk!” I shouted to the night in general.

“Let’s boogie,” Uncle Ned said. The cherry of his cigarette floated in mid-air and gave his narrowed eyes a feral glint. Like Dad, he was middling tall and rangy. Sharp-featured and often wry. He turned and moved the way we’d come, head lowered, trailing a streamer of Pall Mall smoke. Typical of my uncle. Once he made a decision, he acted.

“Damn it, Orlando.” I gave up and followed, sick to my gut with worry. Fool dog would be the death of me, or so I suspected. He’d tangled with a porcupine the summer before and I’d spent hours picking quills from his swollen snout because Dad refused to take him in to see Doc Green. There were worse things than porcupines in these woods—black bears, angry moose, wolves—and I feared my precious idiot would run into one of them.

Halfway back to the car, I glimpsed a patch of white to my left amidst the heavy brush. I took it for a birch stump with holes rotted into the heartwood. No, it was a man lying on his side, matted black hair framing his pale face. By pale, I mean bone-white and bloodless. The face you see on the corpse of an outlaw in those old-timey Wild West photographs.

“Help me,” he whispered.

I trained my light on the injured man; he had to be hurt because of the limp, contorted angle of his body, his shocking paleness. He seemed familiar. The lamp beam broke around his body like a stream splits around a large stone. The shadows turned slowly, fracturing and changing him. He might’ve been weirdo Floyd who swept the Caribou after last call, or that degenerate trapper, Bob-something, who lived in a shack in the hills with a bunch of stuffed moose heads and mangy beaver hides. Or it might’ve been as I first thought—a tree stump lent a man’s shape by my lying eyes. The more I stared, the less certain I became that it was a person at all.

Except I’d heard him speak, raspy and high-pitched from pain; almost a falsetto.

Twenty-five feet, give or take, between me and the stranger. I didn’t see his arm move. Move it did, however. The shadows shifted again and his hand grasped futilely, thin and gnarled as a tree branch. His misery radiated into me, caused my eyes to well with tears of empathy. I felt terrible, just terrible, I wanted to mother him, and took a step toward him.

“Hortense. Come here.” Uncle Ned said my name the way Dad described talking to his wounded buddies in ’Nam. The ones who’d gotten hit by a grenade or a stray bullet. Quiet, calm, and reassuring was the ticket—and I bet his tone would’ve worked its magic if my insides had happened to be splashed on the ground and the angels were singing me home. In this case, Uncle Ned’s unnatural calmness scared me, woke me from a dream where I heroically tended a hapless stranger, got a parade and a key to the village, my father’s grudging approval.

“Hortense, please.”

“There’s a guy in the bushes,” I said. “I think he’s hurt.”

Uncle Ned grabbed my hand like he used to when I was a little girl, and towed me along at a brisk pace. “Naw, kid. That’s a tree stump. I saw it when we went past earlier. Keep movin’.”

I didn’t ask why we were in such a hurry. It worried me how easy it seemed for him and Dad to slip into warrior mode at the drop of a hat. He muttered something about branches snapping and that black bears roamed the area as they fattened up for winter and he regretted leaving his guns at his house. House is sort of a grand term; Uncle Ned lived in a mobile home on the edge of the village. The Estate didn’t appeal to his loner sensibilities.

We got to walking so fast along that narrow trail that I twisted my ankle on a root and nearly went for a header. Uncle Ned didn’t miss a beat. He took most of my weight upon his shoulder. Pretty much dragged me back to the Fleetwood. The engine ran and the driver side door was ajar. I assumed Dad had gone behind a tree to take a leak. As the minutes passed and we called for him, I began to understand that he’d left. Those were the days when men abandoned their families by saying they needed to grab a pack of cigarettes and beating it for the high timber. He’d threatened to do it during his frequent arguments with Mom. She’d beaten him to the punch and jumped ship with a traveling salesman, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Maybe, just maybe, it was Dad’s turn to bail on us kids.

Meanwhile, Orlando had jumped in through the open door and curled into a ball in the passenger seat. Leaves, twigs, and dirt plastered him. A pig digging for China wouldn’t have been any filthier. Damned old dog pretended to sleep. His thumping tail gave away the show, though.

Uncle Ned rousted him and tried to put him on Dad’s trail. Nothing doing. Orlando whined and hung his head. He refused to budge despite Uncle Ned’s exhortations. Finally, the dog yelped and scrambled back into the car, trailing a stream of piss. That was our cue to depart.

• • • •

Uncle Ned drove back to the Frazier Estate. He called Deputy Clausen (everybody called him Claws) and explained the situation. Claws agreed to gather a few men and do a walkthrough of the area. He theorized that Dad had gotten drunk and wandered into the hills and collapsed somewhere. Such events weren’t rare.

Meanwhile, I checked in on Grandma, who’d occupied the master bedroom since she’d suffered the aneurysm. Next, I herded Orlando into the bathroom and soaked him in the tub. I was really hurting by then.

When I thanked Uncle Ned, he nodded curtly and avoided meeting my eye. “Lock the door,” he said.

“Why? The JWs aren’t allowed out of the compound after dark.” Whenever I got scared, I cracked wise.

“Don’t be a smartass. Lock the fuckin’ door.”

“Something fishy in Denmark,” I said to Orlando, who leaned against my leg as I threw the deadbolt. Mrs. Wells had assigned Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Titus Andronicus for summer reading. “And it’s the Ides of August, too.”

My brother and sisters sprawled in the living room front of the TV, watching a vampire flick. Christopher Lee wordlessly seduced a buxom chick who was practically falling out of her peasant blouse. Lee angled for a bite. Then he saw, nestled in the woman’s cleavage, the teeny elegant crucifix her archaeologist boyfriend had given her for luck. Lee’s eyes went buggy with rage and fear. The vampire equivalent to blue balls, I guess. I took over Dad’s La-Z-Boy and kicked back with a bottle of Coke (the last one, as noted by the venomous glares of my siblings) and a bag of ice on my puffy ankle.

The movie ended and I clapped my hands and sent the kids packing. At three bedrooms, our apartment qualified as an imperial suite. Poor Dad sacked out on the couch. Doug and Artemis shared the smallest, crappiest room. I bunked with Shauna, the princess of jibber-jabber. She loved and feared me and that made tight quarters a bit easier because she knew I’d sock her in the arm if she sassed me too much or pestered me with one too many goober questions. Often, she’d natter on while I piped Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin through a set of gigantic yellow earphones. That self-isolation spared us a few violent and teary scenes, I’m sure.

Amid the grumbles and the rush for the toilet, I almost confessed the weird events of the evening to Doug. My kid brother had an open mind when it came to the unknown. He wouldn’t necessarily laugh me out of the room without giving the matter some real thought. Instead, I smacked the back of his head and told him not to be such a dumbass with Orlando. Nobody remarked on Dad’s absence. I’m sure they figured he’d pitched camp at the Caribou like he did so many nights. Later, I lay awake and listened to my siblings snore. Orlando whined as he dreamed of the chase, or of being chased.

From the bedroom, Gram said in a fragile, sing-song tone, “In a cavern, in a canyon, excavatin’ for a mine, dwelt a miner forty-niner and his daughter Clementine. In a cavern, in a canyon. In a cavern, in a canyon. In a cavern, in a canyon. Clementine, Clementine. Clementine? Clementine?”

• • • •

Of the four Shaw siblings, I’m the eldest, tallest, and surliest.

According to Mom, Dad had desperately wanted a boy for his firstborn. He descended from a lineage that adhered to a pseudo-medieval mindset. The noble chauvinist, the virtuous warrior, the honorable fighter of rearguard actions. Quaint when viewed through a historical lens; a real pain in the ass in the modern world.

I was a disappointment. As a daughter, what else could I be? He got used to it. The Shaws have a long, long history of losing. We own that shit. Go down fighting would’ve been our family motto, with a snake biting the heel that crushed its skull as our crest. As some consolation, I was always a tomboy and tougher than either of my brothers—a heap tougher than most of the boys in our hick town, and tougher than at least a few of the grown men. Toughness isn’t always measured by how hard you punch. Sometimes, most of the time, it’s simply the set of a girl’s jaw. I shot my mouth off with the best of them. If nothing else, I dutifully struck at the heels of my oppressors. Know where I got this grit? Sure as hell not from Dad. Oh, yeah, he threw a nasty left hook, and he’d scragged a few guys in the wars. But until Mom had flown the coop she ruled our roost with an iron fist that would’ve made Khrushchev think twice before crossing her. Yep, the meanness in my soul is pure-D Mom.

Dad had all the homespun apothegms.

He often said, Never try to beat a man at what he does. What Dad did best was drink. He treated it as a competitive event. In addition to chugging Molson Export, Wild Turkey, and Absolut, Dad also smoked the hell out of cannabis whenever he could get his hands on some. He preferred the heavy-hitting bud from Mexico courtesy of Uncle Ned. I got my hands on a bag those old boys stashed in a rolled-up sock in a number-ten coffee can. That stuff sent you, all right. Although, judging by the wildness of Dad’s eyes, the way they started and stared at the corners of the room after he’d had a few hits, his destination was way different than mine.

Even so, the Acapulco Gold gave me a peek through the keyhole into Dad’s soul in a way booze couldn’t. Some blood memory got activated. It might’ve been our sole point of commonality. He would’ve beaten me to a pulp if he’d known. For my own good, natch.

Main thing I took from growing up the daughter of an alcoholic? Lots of notions compete for the top spot—the easiest way to get vomit and blood out of fabric, the best apologies, the precise amount of heed to pay a drunken diatribe, when to duck flung bottles, how to balance a checkbook and cook a family meal between homework, dog-walking, and giving sponge baths to Gram. But above all, my essential takeaway was that I’d never go down the rabbit hole to an eternal happy hour. I indulged in a beer here and there, toked some Mary Jane to reward myself for serving as Mom, Dad, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer pro-tem. Nothing heavy, though. I resolved to leave the heavy lifting to Dad, Uncle Ned, and their buddies at the Caribou Tavern.

Randal Shaw retired from the USMC in 1974 after twenty years of active service. Retirement didn’t agree with him. To wit: the beer, bourbon, and weed, and the sullen hurling of empties. It didn’t agree with Mom either, obviously. My grandmother, Harriet Shaw, suffered a brain aneurysm that very autumn. Granddad passed away the previous winter and Gram moved into our apartment. By day, she slumped in a special medical recliner we bought from the Eagle Talon Emergency Trauma Center. Vivian from upstairs sat with her while I was at school. Gram’s awareness came and went like a bad radio signal. Sometimes she’d make a feeble attempt to play cards with Vivian. Occasionally, she asked about my grades and what cute boys I’d met, or she’d watch TV and chuckle at the soaps in that rueful way she laughed at so many ridiculous things. The clarity became rare. Usually she stared out the window at the harbor or at the framed Georgia O’Keeffe knockoff print of a sunflower above the dresser. Hours passed and we’d shoo away the mosquitos while she tunelessly hummed “In a cavern, in a canyon, excavatin’ for a mine” on a loop. There may as well have been a VACANCY sign blinking above her head.

After school, and twice daily on weekends, Doug helped bundle Gram into the crappy fold-up chair and I pushed her around the village; took her down to the wharf to watch the seagulls, or parked her in front of the general store while I bought Dad a pack of smokes (and another for myself). By night, Dad or I pushed the button and let the air out and she lay with her eyes fixed on the dented ceiling of the bedroom. She’d sigh heavily and say, “Nighty-night, nighty-night,” like a parrot. It shames me to remember her that way. But then, most of my childhood is a black hole.

• • • •

The search party found neither hide nor hair of Dad. Deputy Clausen liked Uncle Ned well enough and agreed to do a bigger sweep in the afternoon. The deputy wasn’t enthused. Old Harmon Snodgrass, a trapper from Kobuk, isolated footprints in the soft dirt along the edge of the road. The tracks matched Dad’s boots and were headed toward town. Snodgrass lost them after a couple hundred yards.

In Deputy Clausen’s professional opinion, Randal Shaw had doubled back and flown the coop to parts unknown, as a certain kind of man is wont to do when the going gets tough. Uncle Ned socked him (the Shaw answer to critics) and Claws would’ve had his ass in a cell for a good long time, except Stu Herring, the mayor of our tiny burg, and Kyle Lomax were on hand to break up the festivities and soothe bruised egos. Herring sent Uncle Ned home with a go and sin no more scowl.

“How’s Mom?” Uncle Ned stared at Gram staring at a spot on the wall. He sipped the vilest black coffee on the face of the earth. My specialty. I’d almost tripped over him in the hallway on my way to take Orlando for his morning stroll. He’d spent the latter portion of the night curled near our door, a combat knife in his fist. Normally, one might consider that loony behavior. You had to know Uncle Ned.

“She’s groovy, as ever. Why are you lurking?” The others were still zonked, thank God. I hadn’t an inkling of how to break the news of Dad’s defection to them. I packed more ice onto my ankle. My foot had swollen to the point where it wouldn’t fit into my sneaker. It really and truly hurt. “Ow.”

“Let’s go. Hospital time.” He stood abruptly and went in and woke Doug, told him, “Drop your cock and grab your socks. You’re man of the house for an hour. Orlando needs a walk—for the love of God, keep him on a leash, will ya?” Then he nabbed Dad’s keys and took me straightaway to the Eagle Clinic. Mrs. Cooper, a geriatric hypochondriac, saw the RN, Sally Mackey, ahead of us and we knew from experience that it would be a hell of a wait. So Uncle Ned and I settled into hard plastic waiting room chairs. He lit a cigarette, and another for me, and said, “Okay, I got a story. Don’t tell your old man I told you, or he’ll kick my ass and then I’ll kick yours. Yeah?”

I figured it would be a story of his hippie escapades or some raunchy bullshit Dad got up to in Vietnam. A tale to cheer me up and take my mind off my troubles. Uh-uh. He surprised me by talking about the Good Friday Earthquake of ’64. “You were, what? Two, three? You guys lived in that trailer park in Anchorage. The quake hits and your Dad’s been shipped to ’Nam. My job was to look over you and your mom. Meanwhile, I’m visiting a little honey out in the Valley. Girl had a cabin on a lake. We just came in off the ice for a mug of hot cocoa and BOOM! Looked like dynamite churned up the bottom muck. Shit flew off the shelves, the earth moved in waves like the sea. Spruce trees bent all the way over and slapped their tops on the ground. Sounded like a train runnin’ through the living room. Tried callin’ your mom, but the phone lines were down.

“I jumped in my truck and headed for Anchorage. Got part way there and had to stop. Highway was too fucked up to drive on. Pavement cracked open, bridges collapsed. I got stuck in a traffic jam on the Flats. Some cars were squashed under a collapsed overpass and a half-dozen more kinda piled on. It was nine or ten at night and pitch black. Accidents everywhere. The temperature dropped into the twenties and mist rolled in from the water. Road flares and headlights and flashing hazards made the scene extra spooky. I could taste hysteria in the air. Me and a couple of Hells Angels from Wasilla got together and made sure people weren’t trapped or hurt too bad. Then we started pushing cars off the road to get ready for the emergency crews.

“We were taking a smoke break when one of the bikers said to shut up a minute. A big, pot-bellied Viking, at least twice the size of me and his younger pal. Fuckin’ enormous. He cocked his head and asked us if we’d heard it too—somebody moaning for help down on the flats. He didn’t hang around for an answer. Hopped over the guardrail and was gone. Man on a mission. Guy didn’t come back after a few minutes. Me and the younger biker climbed down the embankment and went into the pucker-brush. Shouted ourselves hoarse and not a damned reply. Mist was oozin’ off the water and this weird, low tide reek hit me. A cross between green gas from inside a blown moose carcass and somethin’ sweet, like fireweed. I heard a noise, reminded me of water and air bubbles gurglin’ through a hose. Grace a God I happened to shine my light on a boot stickin’ out a the scrub. The skinny biker yelled his buddy’s name and ran over there.”

Uncle Ned had gotten worked up during the narration of his story. He lit another cigarette and paced to the coffee machine and back. Bernice Monson, the receptionist, glared over her glasses. She didn’t say anything. In ’77 most folks kept their mouths shut when confronted by foamy Vietnam vets. Bernice, like everybody else, assumed Uncle Ned did a jungle tour as a government employee. He certainly resembled the part with his haggard expression, brooding demeanor, and a partialness for camouflage pants. Truth was, while many young men were blasting away at each other in Southeast Asia, he’d backpacked across Canada, Europe, and Mexico. Or, went humping foreign broads and scrawling doggerel, as my dad put it.

Uncle Ned’s eyes were red as a cockscomb. He slapped the coffee machine. “I didn’t have a perfect position and my light was weak, but I saw plenty. The Viking laid on top of somebody. This somebody was super skinny and super pale. Lots of wild hair. Their arms and legs were tangled so’s you couldn’t make sense of what was goin’ on. I thought he had him a woman there in the weeds and they was fuckin’. Their faces were stuck together. The young biker leaned over his buddy and then yelped and stumbled backward. The skinny, pale one shot out from under the Viking and into the darkness. Didn’t stand, didn’t crouch, didn’t even flip over—know how a mechanic rolls from under a car on his board? Kinda that way, except jittery. Moved like an insect scuttling for cover, best I can describe it. A couple seconds later, the huge biker shuddered and went belly-crawling after the skinny fellow. What I thought I was seeing him do, anyhow. His arms and legs flopped, although his head never lifted, not completely. He just skidded away, Superman style, his face planted in the dirt.

“Meanwhile, the young biker hauled ass toward the road, shriekin’ the whole way. My flashlight died. I stood there, in the dark, heart poundin’, scared shitless, tryin’ to get my brain outta neutral. I wanted to split, hell yeah. No fuckin’ way I was gonna tramp around on those flats by myself. I’m a hunter, though. Those instincts kicked in and I decided to play it cool. Your dad always pegged me for a peacenik hippie because I didn’t do ’Nam. I’m smarter, is the thing. Got a knife in my pocket and half the time I’m packin’ heat too. Had me skinning knife, and lemme say, I kept it handy as I felt my way through the bushes and the brambles. Got most of the way to where I could see the lights of the cars on the road. Somebody whispered, “Help me.” Real close and on my flank. Scared me, sure. I probably jumped three feet straight up. And yet, it was the saddest voice I can remember. Woeful, like a lost child, or a wounded woman, or a fawn, or some combination of those cries.

“I might a turned around and walked into the night, except a state trooper hit me with a light. He’d come over the hill lookin’ after the biker went bugshit. I think the cop thought the three of us were involved in a drug deal. He sure as hell didn’t give a lick about a missing Hells Angel. He led me back to the clusterfuck on the highway and I spent the rest of the night shivering in my car while the bulldozers and dump trucks did their work.” He punched the coffee machine.

“Easy, killer!” I said and gave an apologetic smile to the increasingly agitated Bernice. I patted the seat next to me until he came over and sat. “What happened to the biker? The big guy.”

Uncle Ned had sliced his knuckles. He clenched his fist and watched the blood drip onto the tiles. “Cops found him that summer in the water. Not enough left for an autopsy. The current and the fish had taken him apart. Accidental death, they decided. I saw the younger biker at the Gold Digger. Must a been five or six years after the Good Friday Quake. He acted like he’d forgotten what happened to his partner until I bought him the fifth or sixth tequila. He got a real close look at what happened. Said that to him, the gurglin’ was more of a slurpin’. An animal lappin’ up a gory supper. Then he looked me in the eye and said his buddy got snatched into the darkness by his own guts. They were comin’ out a his mouth and whatever it was out there gathered’ em up and reeled him in.”

“Holy shit, Uncle Ned.” Goose pimples covered my arms. “That’s nuts. Who do you think was out there?”

“The boogeyman. Whatever it is that kids think is hidin’ under their bed.”

“You tell Dad? Probably not, huh? He’s a stick in the mud. He’d never buy it.”

“Well, you don’t either. Guess that makes you a stick in the mud too.”

“The apple, the tree, gravity . . .”

“Maybe you’d be surprised what your old man knows.” Uncle Ned’s expression was shrewd. “I been all over this planet. Between ’66 and ’74, I roamed. Passed the peace pipe with the Lakota; ate peyote with the Mexicans; drank wine with the Italians; and smoked excellent bud with a whole lot of other folks. I get bombed enough, or stoned enough, I ask if anybody else has heard of the Help Me Monster. What I call it. The Help Me Monster.”

The description evoked images of Sesame Street and plush toys dancing on wires. “Grover the Psycho Killer!” I said, hoping he’d at least crack a smile. I also hoped my uncle hadn’t gone around the bend.

He didn’t smile. We sat there in one of those long, awkward silences while Bernice coughed her annoyance and shuffled papers. I was relieved when Sally Mackey finally stuck her head into the room and called my name.

The nurse wanted to send me to Anchorage for X-rays. No way would Dad authorize that expense. No veterinarians and no doctors; those were ironclad rules. When he discovered Uncle Ned took me to the clinic, he’d surely blow his top. I wheedled a bottle of prescription-strength aspirin, and a set of cheapo crutches on the house, and called it square. A mild ankle sprain meant I’d be on the crutches for days. I added it to the tab of Shaw family dues.

Dad never came home. I cried, the kids cried. Bit by bit, we moved on. Some of us more than others.

• • • •

I won’t bore you with the nightmares that got worse and worse with time. You can draw your own conclusions. That strange figure in the woods, Dad’s vanishing act, and Uncle Ned’s horrifying tale coalesced into a witch’s brew that beguiled me and became a serious obsession.

Life is messy and it’s mysterious. Had my father walked away from his family or had he been taken? If the latter, then why Dad and not me or Uncle Ned? I didn’t crack the case, didn’t get any sense of closure. No medicine man or antiquarian popped up to give me the scoop on some ancient enemy that dwells in the shadows and dines upon the blood and innards of good Samaritans and hapless passersby.

Closest I came to solving the enigma was during my courtship with husband number two. He said a friend of a friend was a student biologist on a research expedition in Canada. His team and local authorities responded to a massive train derailment near a small town. Rescuers spent three days clearing out the survivors. On day four, they swept the scattered wreckage for bodies.

This student, who happened to be Spanish, and three fellow countrymen were way out in a field after dark, poking around with sticks. One of them heard a voice moaning for help. Of course, they scrambled to find this wretched soul. Late to the scene, a military search-and-rescue helicopter flew overhead, very low, its searchlight blazing. When the chopper had gone, all fell silent. The cries didn’t repeat. Weird part, according to the Spaniard, was that in the few minutes they’d frantically tried to locate the injured person, his voice kept moving around in some bizarre acoustical illusion. The survivor switched from French, to English, and finally to Spanish. The biologist claimed he had nightmares of the incident for years afterward. He dreamed of his buddies separated in a dark field, each crying for help, and he’d stumble across their desiccated corpses, one by one. He attributed it to the guilt of leaving someone to die on the tundra.

My husband-to-be told me that story while high on coke and didn’t mention it again. I wonder if that’s why I married the sorry sonofabitch. Just for that single moment of connectedness, a tiny and inconstant flicker of light in the wilderness.

• • • •

High noon on a Sunday night.

Going on thirty-eight haunted years, I’ve expected this, or something like this, even though the entity represents, with its very jack-in-the-box manifestation, a deep, dark mystery of the universe. What has drawn it to me is equally inexplicable. I’ve considered the fanciful notion that the Shaws are cursed and Mr. Help Me is the instrument of vengeance. Doesn’t feel right. I’ve also prayed to Mr. Help Me as if he, or it, is a death god watching over us cattle. Perhaps it is. The old gods wanted blood, didn’t they? Blood and offerings of flesh. That feels more on the mark. Or, it could be the simplest answer of them all—Mr. Help Me is an exotic animal whose biology and behavior defy scientific classification. The need for sustenance is the least of all possible mysteries. I can fathom that need, at least.

A window must be open in my bedroom. Cool night air dries the sweat on my cheeks as I stand in the darkened hall. The air smells vaguely of spoiled meat and perfume. A black, emaciated shape lies prone on the floor, halfway across the bedroom threshold. Long, skinny arms are extended in a swimmer’s pose. Its face is a smudge of white and tilted slightly upward to regard me. It is possible that these impressions aren’t accurate, that my eyes are interpreting as best they can.

I slap a switch. The light flickers on, but doesn’t illuminate the hall or the figure sprawled almost directly beneath the fixture. Instead, the glow bends at a right angle and gathers on the paneled wall in a diffuse cone.

“Help me,” the figure says. The murmur is so soft it might’ve originated in my own head.

I’m made of sterner stuff than my sixteen-year-old self. I resist the powerful compulsion to approach, to lend maternal comfort. My legs go numb. I stagger and slide down the wall into a seated position. Everybody has had the nightmare. The one where you are perfectly aware and paralyzed and an unseen enemy looms over your shoulder. Difference is, I can see my nemesis, or at least its outline, at the opposite end of the hall. I can see it coming for me. It doesn’t visibly move except when I blink, and then it’s magically two or three feet closer. My mind is in overdrive. What keeps going through my mind is that predator insects seldom stir until the killing strike.

“Oh my darlin’, oh my darling, oh my darlin’ Clementine. You are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry Clementine.” I hum tunelessly, like Gram used to after her brain softened into mush. I’m reverting to childhood, to a time when Dad or Uncle Ned might burst through the door and save the day with a blast of double-aught buckshot.

It finally dawns upon me that I’m bleeding, am sitting in a puddle of blood. Where the blood is leaking from, I’ve not the foggiest notion. Silly me, that’s why I’m dead from the waist down. My immobility isn’t a function of terror, pheromones, or the occult powers of an evil spirit. I’ve been pricked and envenomed. Nature’s predators carry barbs and stings. Those stings deliver anesthetics and anticoagulants. Have venom, will travel. I chuckle. My lips are cold.

“Help me,” it whispers as it plucks my toes, testing my resistance. Even this close, it’s an indistinct blob of shadowy appendages.

“I have one question.” I enunciate carefully, the way I do after one too many shots of Jager. “Did you take my dad on August 15th, 1977? Or did that bastard skip out? Me and my brother got a steak dinner riding on this.”

“Help me.” The pleading tone descends into a lower timbre. A satisfied purr.

One final trick up my sleeve, or in my pocket. Recently, while browsing a hardware store for a few odds and ends, I’d come across a relic of my youth—a black light. Cost a ten spot, on special in a clearance bin. First it made me smile as I recalled how all my childhood friends illuminated their funkadelic posters, kids as gleeful as if we’d rediscovered alchemy. Later, in college, black light made a comeback on campus and at the parties we attended. It struck a chord, got me thinking, wondering . . .

Any creature adapted to distort common light sources might be susceptible to uncommon sources. Say infrared or black light. I hazard a guess that my untutored intuition is on the money and that thousands of years of evolution hasn’t accounted for a twenty-dollar device used to find cat piss stains in the carpet.

I raise the box with the black light filter in my left hand and thumb the toggle. For an instant, I behold the intruder in all its malevolent glory. It recoils from my flashlight, a segmented hunter of soft prey retreating into its burrow. A dresser crashes in the bedroom, glass shatters, and the trailer rocks slightly, and then it’s quiet again. The moment has passed, except for the fresh hell slowly blooming in my head.

The black light surprised it and nothing more. Surprised and amused it. The creature’s impossibly broad grin imparted a universe of corrupt wisdom that will scar my mind for whatever time I have left. Mr. Help Me’s susurrating chuckle lingers like a psychic stain. Sometimes the spider cuts the fly from its web. Sometimes nature doesn’t sink in those red fangs; sometimes it chooses not to rend with its red claws. A reprieve isn’t necessarily the same weight as a pardon. Inscrutability isn’t mercy.

We Shaws are tough as shoe leather. Doubtless, I’ve enough juice left in me to crawl for the phone and signal the cavalry. A quart or two of type-O and I’ll be fighting fit with a story to curl your toes. The conundrum is whether I really want to make that crawl, or whether I should close my eyes and fall asleep. Did you take my father? I’ve spent most of my life waiting to ask that question. Is Dad out there in the dark? What about those hunters and hikers and kids who walk through the door and onto the crime pages every year?

I don’t want to die, truly I don’t. I’m also afraid to go on living. I’ve seen the true, unspeakable face of the universe; a face that reflects my lowly place in its scheme. And the answer is yes. Yes, there are hells, and in some you are burned or boiled or digested in the belly of a monster for eternity. Yes, what’s left of Dad abides with a hideous mystery. He’s far from alone.

What would Clint Eastwood do? Well, he would’ve plugged the fucker with a .44 Magnum, for starters. I shake myself. Mid-fifties is too late to turn into a mope. I roll onto my belly, suck in a breath, and begin the agonizing journey toward the coffee table where I left my purse and salvation. Hand over hand, I drag my scrawny self. It isn’t lost on me what I resemble as I slather a red trail across the floor.

Laughing hurts. Hard not to, though. I begin to sing the refrain from “Help.” Over and over and over.

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Laird Barron

Laird Barron (photo by Ellen Datlow)

Laird Barron spent his early years in Alaska. He is the author of several books, including The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, and Swift to Chase, and Blood Standard. His work has also appeared in many magazines and anthologies. Barron currently resides in the Rondout Valley writing stories about the evil that men do.