Me and Molly Bruin were lying on our stomachs atop a sea cliff overlooking Droughans Beach, fresh from a fuck and lolling there, our skins stuck with bits from the weeds and tall grasses that cloaked our sin, with the wind in our faces and our lives yet to be lived. For want of anything to say, I scooted forward and hung my head down so I could see beneath the overhang. Just below the lip, a chunk of earth had been ripped from the cliff face, laying bare a tangle of roots, some thick as a child’s arm, from which sprang the spindly shrub that poked up beside me, producing from its topmost twig a single pink bloom, the sum of all that tortuous subterranean effort. It annoyed me, that flower, the way it was dandled, bobbing in a stiff breeze like vegetable laughter, and I snapped it off, intending to crumple it in my fist.
“For me?” asked Molly with mock delight, knowing I hadn’t meant to give her the flower. She plucked it from my hand and sat up, fixing it in her black hair. Her torso was decorated with green and blue ink. Traceries of vines and leaves interwoven with the random grace of natural growth coiled about her breasts, trellised across her belly. With the flower capping her curly head, she might have been a nymph born of some mystic union, and not the daughter of a drunk and the bloated misery that was his wife. Even the scatter of acne across her cheek seemed put there by design.
“We should go down,” she said.
A hill sloped upward from the edge of the cliff and, just below its summit, gone to nature amid a wrangle of bushes and stunted trees, there stood a ruined cottage with a caved-in roof and a gaping doorway, home to mice and spiders, shadows and snakes. By unfocusing my eyes, I could make it into a soldier’s remains, a giant fallen during an assault, his body collapsed to rib bones, tenting up the brown-and-black camouflage of the boards. A cover of soft gray clouds was being drawn across the sky.
“We should see what the others are doing.” Molly said. “It’ll be dark soon.”
“In a minute.” I rolled back onto my stomach. “You took the sauce out of me with that one.”
Pleased, she lay down in the grass, nudging against my shoulder and hip, and went to braiding grass blades together. She stretched a hand out beside mine, as if comparing the two in size and pallor, then rested her head on her arm and said, “Let’s stay here tonight.”
“I saw a couple places back in town.”
“We don’t have to find a place, we can stay awake all night.” She rolled over and grabbed a baggie from a purse, showed it to me—it held a quantity of white powder and, in a little plastic bottle, a rainbow confection of pills. “We have this,” she said, and shook the baggie, making it rustle.
“Yeah, whatever,” I said. “I don’t care.”
She pitched her voice low in imitation of mine. “‘Whatever. I don’t care.’”
“It’s all so depressing.” She threw herself down in the grass and pressed her forearm to her brow, as if overborne by the world’s brutishness. “Whatever. I don’t care.”
There were five of us that day and, it seemed, all our days. Molly, me, TK, James, and Doria. We traveled in a small, disheveled pod, when we traveled at all, and we liked to ride the driverless white buses that trundled up and down the coast, controlled by electric cells along the road. Often we rode them to Droughans Beach. I had stolen a tool from a repairman’s kit that enabled me to open a panel on the floor and control the stops and starts. If there were other passengers on board, they would ask to be let off, and so we stretched out across the seats, scrawling our names (though not our true ones) and affections on the windows and walls, shouting, and pissing in the aisles, knowing that by the time anyone responded to the signal sent by the wounded bus, we would be off into the next chapter of our vandal’s tale. We were none of us eighteen (I had almost reached that defining age), living in a city squat with half-a-dozen of our peers, surviving by means of stealing, prostitution, and panhandling, and these little excursions were the height of our criminal joy. We could all tell each other the same true stories of abuse, deprivation, rape, but there was no point to it, so we told one another the same lies, an equally pointless and dissatisfying exercise, but more fun. We lived to lie, we were professional quality liars, and the finest lies we told were the ones we could not help believing ourselves.
Close to where Molly and me lay, a wooden stair led to the beach, descending in two tiers past boarded-up cottages, though not so ruinous as the one on the clifftop. Near dusk we climbed down the stair, a precarious route due to broken steps and a rickety railing, and out onto the sand. Droughans Beach was approximately a hundred fifty yards wide at low tide and stretched unbroken for nine miles. The sand was so fine that when Molly slid her bare feet along it, she produced a distinct, musical tone. Facing the stair, a fragment of a giant’s fossilized jaw thrust up some thirty feet from the shallows, gone a dull grayish green with age; two worn teeth of the same color, a molar and a canine, showed clear of a light surf—it had been lying there for so many centuries, it had blended with the landscape and might have been mistaken for a natural formation. To its right stood a massive rock over two hundred feet high, shaped like the giant’s ancient tool shed, its peaked roof topped by greenery that sprouted from a thick layer of birdlime left by the gulls and puffins that roosted there in the thousands. That evening, water foamed around its base and waves broke over its sides, sending sprays into the air; once the tide receded, however, you could stroll out almost to its seaward end and keep your shoes dry.
Molly ran off to find our friends among the thirty or forty people who were walking the beach, and I hunkered on the sand close to the tidal margin. There was scant wind where I sat, but it was blowing hard atop the rock—the gulls went off-balance as they landed, beating their wings to stay level, getting one foot down and tottering before they settled on their perch. Their distant cries sounded like a baying of tiny, trebly hounds. The landward face of the rock looked to have been sheared away down to a skirt of rough stone that spread out from the base; inscribed thereon, covering a quarter of its surface, was a great design of whitish lines that, although it, too, might have been a product of wind and weathers, revealed the aspect of the embryonic creature that had been sealed within the rock centuries before. I thought about that half-liquefied monstrosity, left to mature in the solitary dark, and wondered what shape it had taken, and whether it had grown to the limits of its prison or been stunted and deformed by the blackness.
I sat there for what seemed an hour, my thoughts plunging to places as black as that prison and soaring into bright fantasies wherein Molly and me, TK, James, and Doria, all our friends in the city, lived in a circumstance with good health and good food and drugs enough never to know a vengeful feeling or bloody desire; and then I lay down in the sand, not because I was sleepy, but because I was oppressed—it was as though a hand, irresistible in its power, were pushing me onto my back, I was so overcome with hopelessness, with the understanding that our fates already had been decided. As surely as I saw that design of white lines left by the ancients to warn against what was sealed within, I also saw lesser lines that described Molly beaten by a trick, TK overdosed, James done in by an untreated disease, Doria with her throat cut. All still young, still wanting life. The only death I could not see was my own, but I felt it closing around me.
Eventually I did sleep and when I woke it was dark. Most of the strollers and shell collectors had left the beach, and Molly and the rest, made visible by moonlight, were gathered around a boulder that the tide, receding now, had left bare. I was angry at them for letting me sleep and I walked toward them, brushing sand from my clothes, thinking how to express my displeasure. They were talking to an old man in a plaid cap and shabby clothing. He was holding a battery lamp that, now and then, he switched on, underlighting the others’ faces and his own as he shined it over the pool. I could tell they were screwing with him. TK, with his rabbity bones, a few hairs on his upper lip playing at being a mustache, still a boy; James, sullen and muscular, yet half-a-head shorter than I; and Doria, her hair part-blond, part-blue, with a bitter, sexy face: they, and Molly as well, each wore sober looks, as if intent on what he said, but I knew they were repressing their derision.
“When I was no older than you kids,” he was saying, “I was on patrol down here.”
“You were a cop, huh?” asked TK.
“Oh, no! I was part of an environmental patrol. The town hired seven of us kids to make sure no one disturbed the tide pools. We’d catch someone sitting on the rocks, like you were doing, and we’d tell them they were sitting on living creatures.” He played his light over the boulder. “See there? Acorn barnacles and tube barnacles. Anemones. Tiny ones. If you look close you can see ‘em poking out their tongues.”
“For real?” said Doria. “Sitting on them might get a girl off, huh?”
James said, “Why seven?”
The old man acted confused; he glanced at James anxiously.
“Why’d they hire seven?” asked James with studied thickness. “‘Cause it was like a magic number?”
“It was just for the summer,” said the old man weakly.
“Did you guys call yourself something?” asked TK. “Like did you have a name? The Seven . . . you know. Whatevers.”
“Beachmasters!” suggested Molly, provoking laughter from James.
“Assbags!” Doria looked to the group for approval, but no one found her remark funny.
“We weren’t . . .” The old man blinked, licked his lips. “We . . .”
“Suppose you saw someone doing this?” James went tromping, splashing through the tide pool. “What would you do? Blow your little whistle?”
“I’d probably fucking kill you,” I said.
The old man shined his lamp full on me.
I threw up an arm to shield my eyes and said, “Turn that damn thing off!”
For the reaction it brought, my voice might have been a roar. The old man dropped the lamp into the tide pool and stumbled back against TK. I shouldered past Doria and said to him, “You know this an evil place. Especially at night.”
He stared fearfully at me, one red-veined eye rolling like a horse’s, a horrible, unlucky thing, and I told him to look away from me. When he had done so, I put my mouth to his ear and said, “Suppose you’re here when the beast breaks loose? It would tear you apart.”
He started to turn his head and I said, “Don’t look at me!”
I laid a hand on his back—he was trembling—and told him to go. His trembling increased and I repeated my instruction. “Go now,” I said. “Or I won’t be responsible.”
He took an unsteady step. I spanked his bony rear, setting him into a hobbling run; the others hooted and laughed.
“Shut the hell up,” I said.
They fell silent, except for James, who said, “Fuck you! Who made you God!”
“I thought we cleared that up last month,” I said. “Those ribs heal all right? That tooth still giving you trouble?”
I won the staredown and, to cover his shame, he bent to pick up the old man’s lamp.
“Leave it,” I said. “It looks cool.”
And it did, it made the pool appear sacred, green watery radiance streaming up.
“Why were you bashing that old fart?” I asked.
“We weren’t going to hurt him,” TK said.
“You know how it goes. You start off fucking with somebody, just fooling around, and it gets out of control. Someone takes a bite and the feeding frenzy’s on.” I sat on the boulder, unmindful of dying anemones. “We’ve all got wicked tempers and it doesn’t take much to make us snap. That’s how we hurt ourselves. Right, James?”
“I guess,” he mumbled.
“Consider it a lesson,” I said. “Why waste your anger on someone whose pain can’t profit you? You have to conserve anger, nourish it. Like the beast. Imagine when it gets out, how strong it’ll be. All those years with no place to vent . . . except on itself. It’ll be strong enough to break the world. You need to be that strong.”
Doria laughed nervously.
“It’s not funny,” I said.
“Hey!” she said. “It’s just you talk so much shit, man, I can’t keep it straight.”
“You have to think,” I said. “You have to decide what you need to survive and use your anger to take it.”
They listened, but I detected boredom in their faces. They were too inured to my words to hear them. Of them all, only Molly displayed the wit to survive, and even she looked bored. I continued to lecture, hoping that sheer repetition would put the brake to their course of self-destruction. I told them to muzzle their whims, to devote themselves to strategies that would sustain them. And yet the more sense I made, the more certainly I lost them. They had begun to view me as they would another species. Soon I would be as irrelevant as the old man.
After I stopped talking, Molly distributed the pills. She offered me none, knowing that I would abstain. Drugs brought me perilously close to the source of my rage. The others wandered off along the beach, but I remained seated on the boulder. The light from the pool made me feel like a wizard who had, by means of some occult process, opened a portal beneath his feet into a bright submarine continuum, and, having used up the pleasures of this world, was contemplating a dive into those uncharted waters. I pictured myself as a shadow raised against a greenish glow, a demonic figure in a Buddha’s pose.
The battery lamp had fallen into a niche in the rocky bank and nearby rested an anemone that had the approximate size and oblong shape of a woman’s coin purse. It was a fancy thing, pale jade in color, beaded around its outline with what looked to be dark green florets. I was tempted to reach down and grab it, but feared it would be unpleasant to the touch or sting me with its acids. Best to imagine it in hand, I thought. Smooth and firm, a living stone. On the bottom, a crab no bigger than the joint of my thumb was negotiating a rise between two collapsed strands of kelp. I stared into that shallow depth with such intensity, it seemed I became a citizen of that savage, tranquil place.
When I was fourteen I struck my father in the face, putting an end to a decade of torture both mental and physical. The blow raised a lump the size of a hen’s egg above his right eye, swelling up instantly, but had a more lasting effect on me. Frightened by what I had done, certain that he would call the police, I ran to Spetlow Hill and climbed the church tower (it was then under construction), and there I spent the night huddled under a tarpaulin, gazing out through a skeleton of masonry and steel at the tumbled roofs of the town and the listless ocean beyond. God knew me now, I thought. I had violated one of His taboos, no matter it had been in self-defense. His fierce eye had marked me. Yet when I recalled my father on his knees, clutching his injury, I felt a vicious satisfaction and joy. It was the best feeling I’d ever had and I wanted it again. I wanted to piss God off, I wanted another bloody victory. If I returned to home, I believed he/He would kill me, and so, after stealing clothes and some money, I fled to the city in search of that feeling. I never found it, but I found lesser feelings that sufficed. Amazing, how impotence itself can be rendered impotent by the sound of someone groaning in an alley or the impact of a boot on bone.
For nearly four years, I brawled and bullied my way through life. Not that it was all a triumph. Many nights I made my bed in an abandoned factory or railroad yard, beaten and degraded, terrified by every indistinct sound, by the rats that nested there; but I became, at last, the king of my own rats’ nest. And now I felt the world pulling me away from childhood, from my hard-won sinecure. Even as I had lectured my brother and sister rats, recognizing they would suffer without my guidance, I was envious of their state. Seeing them at play on the beach, zooming about, falling to their knees, puking up the poisons they had swallowed, then vanishing into the dark, I felt love for them; but love was an emotion they did not respect and so, to honor their feelings, I dismissed them from my thoughts.
The tide had gone out. I walked toward the rock, scrambled up the skirt of rough stone, and found a spot where I could sit. It smelled of ruin, like a drowned cathedral in which the vestments and candles and incense had rotted away. The waves broke against it less vigorously than before, but cold sprays still spattered me with shrapnel bursts and my face grew numb from this constant booming assault. And yet I felt secure, sheltered by its darkness, as I had felt when, after a beating, my father would lock me in a closet and forget me for the night or longer—I thought that the beast, even in its desperation, must feel similarly secure. I tried to isolate its scent from the greater smell of the rock, the stink of the silent birds in their black nests.
Molly flitted past on the sand, pursued by another, less defined figure, both going out of view behind the rock. The sight gentled my thoughts, giving rise to a memory. I had stolen a car from the parking lot at the mall, punched through the glass and hot-wired it, and the five of us tore out onto the interstate. Molly had called shotgun and, as I drove, she leaned out the window, shrieking, her hair flying, flashing her tits at the people in slower cars. She must have resembled a ship’s figurehead stuck on sideways and come to life, yet they looked at her with dull, unsurprised faces, as if every day of their life they were blessed with such insane beauty, or else this was something their television sets had warned them against and thus they were prepared to put up a stolid front. I could have written songs about their stuporous response.
Darkness closed down, a light rain fell, and once we turned off the interstate onto Highway 26 things grew quiet inside the car. James, sounding paranoid, asked where we were going, and Doria fired up a pipe, and TK was getting all film-geeky about a movie we had seen, pointing out flaws in its logic, saying that the metal tripods had been buried in the rock for millennia, withstanding a million tons of pressure, okay? So how come Tom Cruise could blow one up with a grenade?
“Because he’s Tom Cruise, man,” said Doria, trying not to exhale. Talking caused her to hack up smoke. “Shit!” She handed the pipe up to me, nudging my shoulder, leaning so far forward that I could feel the bristle of her dreadlocks (she had since changed her hairstyle) on my neck.
Molly snatched the pipe from her and that was good with me. I was high on crime and violence. Whenever a car rushed toward us, its headlights dazzled the raindrops decorating the windshield and it would seem I was driving into rings of fairy light; then darkness would swallow the road, a curving two-lane slicing through a spruce forest, and I had to refocus in order to steer. I needed to come down a notch and I told Molly to look out for a place where I could buy beer, explaining that I was having some difficulty.
“You can’t see?” She laughed merrily, delighted by the prospect of my blindness.
“Want me to drive?” James asked. “I can drive.”
“Fuck no!” I punched the gas, accelerating to shut him up. James could be a real pisser. His parents were religious zealots and that was most of his problem.
Molly switched on the radio, found a station playing rock and turned it high, putting an end to conversation. She rolled down her window and played with her tongue stud, popping it in and out between her lips like a little gemmy bubble.
Twenty miles down the road we came to a convenience store with carvings for sale off to one side, gigantic things made out of stumps and fallen logs, animated by magic. It had stopped raining. Puddles like shiny black eyes dappled the gravel lot. I went inside, bought beer, stored it in the car, all except a forty, which I cracked, and went over to where my friends stood, checking out a huge fir stump that some redneck necromancer had carved into a troll that kept walking into its cave house, casting a sour look back over his shoulder before shutting the door, then backing out and repeating the process.
“Who do you think buys this crap?” I karate-kicked the troll in the side, not disrupting its course in the slightest, though its eyes flickered redly.
“Nobody,” TK said.
“I don’t know,” Molly said. “I think it’s cool.”
“Molly thinks it’s cool!” Doria minced about, affecting the guise of a connoisseur. “It’s so . . . so relevant, so . . .”
“It’s absolutely relevant,” I said. “The things going on today, the ancient magical shit that’s reappearing . . . like these sculptures, the beast. And the new stuff. The white buses, the people with machines inside them. The fucking mind control exerted by Chairman Channel Twenty-five. It’s all starting to come at once. Witches, mad science, stupid magic. All the things that were going to happen, that might have happened, are being crammed into our days. A sort of pre-apocalyptic meltdown. And it’s going to get weirder before it’s through.”
They gaped at me, waiting for a punch line.
“It’s still crap, though,” I said. “We don’t have to deal with it any different from anything else.”
I set down my forty, unsheathed the hunting knife I kept strapped to my calf and began hacking at the troll, slicing thick shavings from its bulging forehead, stabbing it until its eyes ceased to glow. The clerk yelled at us from the doorway. I started toward him, but James caught me from behind and wrestled me back.
“Jesus! You’re a fucking wildman!” TK said as we piled into the car.
“Did you see the guy’s face?” said Doria. “He was tripping!”
I was breathing fast, light-headed, but I got the engine going and jammed it; we sprayed gravel past the front of the store and fishtailed onto the highway.
“We should get off this road,” James said.
I slowed, braked, and made a U-turn.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he asked.
“I left my forty back there,” I told him.
Molly rested her head on my shoulder and sang a la-la-la song.
“Fucking wildman!” said TK happily.
“You can consider it a lesson,” I said to James.
“What’re you talking about?” he asked. “What kind of lesson?”
“A lesson in risk management,” I said. “And in beer conservation.”
A couple of hours after I had climbed onto the rock, I began to feel a vibration at my back—barely detectable, at first, and erratic, growing stronger and steadier. I thought it was the beating of my heart and ignored it; but then it stopped, starting up again a few minutes later, stronger this time, and occurring at such lengthy intervals I knew it could be no heart. I laid my head against the rock and listened. At length I managed to separate a faint thudding noise from the crunch of the waves.
The beast was trying to break free—that much was clear—and it was making headway, for I had never heard that noise before. I wanted to be far from Droughans Beach should it succeed. But as I thought how to organize our flight, how to weld my drugged friends into an efficient force, I began to feel a kinship with the thing, a shared sense of purpose. We both hated the world and its people. Each morning they choked down another dose of everything’s-fine or whatever bland preachment they had been induced to swallow, and went forth to mindfucking jobs where they would make a paper sandwich of some poor bastard’s blood and bones; to fitness clubs where they believed they could perfect the unperfectable; to movies that persuaded them this death-in-life was preferable to an existence in which they dared to confront the truth of the human condition; and all the while a horrid tide was rising higher and higher, until one day they would look out their windows to find streets choked with red water and corpses, and, mistaking the sight for normalcy, for another cold-meat Sunday with the living-room dead, they would open their doors and drown.
Here now was the antidote to all that.
I had an epiphany—I pictured the beast sated with killing, the whole world in its belly, falling asleep on the sand, going into labor and dying mid-birth, assaulted by giants come down from the hills where they had been hiding to rip the fetus out and lock it away in its prison rock, and I saw the process of civilization beginning again, the good and bad of it, leading ultimately to a moment such as this. I understood it was my duty to assist in the delivery of the new cycle on this primordial beach with magical light streaming up from the tide pool and no one to witness. I inched my way along the rock, stopping now and then to listen. The thudding grew louder and at last I found the crack the beast had made. It ran straight up the face—I could not see its end or judge how deep it went. I unsheathed my knife and reached with it into the crack, pried with the tip, with the edge, digging crumbles of stone from around a harder object. I was at it for the longest time. Someone called my name, but I continued to pry and dig.
“Hey! What you doing?” Molly flung her arms about my neck from behind; when I offered no response, she said, “TK wanted me to go down on him.”
I felt a flicker of annoyance. “Did you?”
“No! I’m being more . . . like what you said.”
“What did I say?”
I withdrew the knife, reached into the crack with my hand and touched something colder than the surrounding stone. A metal projection, I thought. Part of a bulky mechanism.
“To respect myself,” Molly said. “I was trying to be more self-respectful. TK really wanted it, so I came to find you. So he’d leave me alone.” She turned my face toward hers and kissed me. “Let’s go up on the cliff again.”
In the moonlight, her pupils were enormous and her expression flowed from seductive to deranged to stunned, reflecting the action of the drugs she had ingested.
“Later.” I reinserted the knife into the crack and pried at the metal, felt it shift the slightest bit.
“What are you doing?”
“Listen,” I told her.
She cocked an ear and said, “Listen to what?”
“Try to tune out the sound of the waves. You can hear it.”
She listened more attentively. “I think . . . maybe I hear something.”
I encouraged her to put hear ear to the crack.
Again she listened. “I think . . . Yeah. It’s kind of a . . . a . . .”
“Yeah! I hear it!” She looked at me in alarm. “What the fuck?”
“It’s trying to get out,” I said.
She was bewildered for a second or two, then her eyes widened. “The beast, you mean? That can’t be . . .”
A rending noise broke from the crack and I pulled her back, edged away along the face of the rock, for now that my part in things was done, I was afraid to see the issue of my labor. Despite all I felt about the world and its worth, I feared for my life and for Molly’s. And TK’s. He strolled into view, doubtless looking for Molly, and stood by the tide pool, staring down into the glowing water. He appeared to be picking his nose.
The thudding grew louder, more insistent, and, as if in sympathy with such relentlessness, a wave detonated against the seaward end of the rock, showering us with spray. Molly’s shriek must have outvoiced the rush of water, for TK glanced toward us, and it was at that moment the beast broke free. I had expected a gush of blackness, the wall to shatter, slabs of stone to rain down, but all I saw was a dark shape eeling from the crack. It seemed a pipe had broken within the rock and was leaking oil. Yet as it continued to pour out, the beast gathered its substance into a more fearsome formlessness. It was fluid, it was living smoke, it was power adapted to the black medium in which it had been steeped. It boiled up into a cloud three times our height, and then condensed into a shape no bigger than a man’s. It seemed to turn to Molly and me, though it did not truly turn—it rearranged its parts, moving its front to its back and hanging a face on its inky turbulence, a parody of rage with shadowy fangs and eyes emerging from a storm-cloud chaos . . . then it went flowing over the broken ground toward TK. I sprang after it, shouting a warning, but I was a foot short, a split-second late. By the time I dropped to my knees beside him, the beast had condensed a portion of its substance into an edge and sliced him across the throat. He lay with his head in the water, his blood roiling out in a cloud that crimsoned the light cast by the submerged lamp.
Grief, fear, and urgency were mixed in me. The beast had merged with the night. I could no longer see it, though I felt its presence along my spine. I shouted at Molly to stay where she was and jogged down the beach, peering left and right. The tide pool dwindled to an eerie chute of red light. The rock became a shadow and the giant’s jawbone was lost to sight. After I had gone, I’d estimate, a quarter-mile, I regretted having left Molly alone, but I decided to keep searching a while longer, and shortly afterward I spotted two figures lying together in the sand. Not sleeping, though. One waved an arm, as if describing the wide arc of his existence. It had to be James. Though restrained in my presence, whenever he thought himself unobserved he was given to dramatic gesture.
I broke into a run and James came to his knees, wearing a look of terror. He must have misapprehended my intentions—I cried out, seeking to reassure him. Doria, too, got to her knees and screamed as the beast, materializing from the dark, flowed over them, a furious smoke that hid them from view. I flung myself atop it, stabbing and slashing with the knife, but it was impervious to my attack, and, when it had done with them, it flung me aside as if I were nothing and dissipated on the night wind, leaving behind a bloody human wreckage. I did not linger over their bodies—they each bore a dozen wounds that might alone have been fatal, cruel gouges made by teeth hardened from the beast’s all but immaterial flesh, and I had no time to mourn. My mind was a flurry of red and black, a confusion of dim urges and fears, but I knew where the beast had gone. Molly. She would, I realized, have stayed by the rock for some minutes, but then, overcome by fright, she would have headed for the stairs leading up from the beach.
I ran, unmindful of my safety. She was all I had left, all that remained of my shabby kingdom, and I ran myself breathless in hopes of saving her. I felt the beast’s sides heave, panting in its self-made shadow, and knew it to be near. She had started to climb the second tier of steps when I caught up to her. Seeing me, she sagged against the railing and said in a helpless voice, “Oh, no.”
“It’ll be all right if you don’t run,” I told her.
She said something I didn’t catch and then, “God! This isn’t happening.”
I eased close, not wanting to alarm her with a sudden move, realizing I must be a sight, covered in blood, and that she, like James and Doria, may have misinterpreted my appearance.
“It’s not what you think,” I said.
“I saw you,” she said. “What you did to TK . . .”
“You can hardly see at all, you took so much acid and speed,” I said. “What you saw was me trying to protect TK. It was the beast killed him. But you’re going to be all right. It’s grateful to me for releasing it. At least it hasn’t tried to kill me yet. As long as it knows you’re with me, it won’t hurt you.”
A flicker of belief showed in her face, but only a flicker.
“Okay,” she said.
“Please don’t run! I understand you’re scared, but you don’t have to be scared of me.”
I noticed a tension in her body and said, “Don’t!”
She sprang up the steps.
This time I made no attempt to intervene.
I ran down the stair and out onto the beach, howling in grief and rage. I held my arms up to the jolly moon balanced on the peak of the prison rock, begging for blood to rain down and for everything to cease. I flung the knife into the ocean and fell on the sand and there I remained until the gulls made their first circling flights. When the sky had gone the deep holy blue of pre-dawn, I went to the edge of the water and washed myself clean. I was almost empty, without purpose or direction. And then, glancing inland, I saw the beast gather itself into the form of giant and go striding off over the hills, toward the mountains beyond. I was disappointed—I had hoped for the destruction of cities. The mountains were a place of rest, a country for old men. Yet I had no choice but to follow.
It’s hard to be hopeful these days. I cling to life like an ant to a leaf blown along a storm drain, watching the world rip itself apart. I am old now, not so old as the decrepit old man we met on the beach that night, but old enough to value certain things I once perceived as foolish and unworthy. I don’t go out much, don’t have many friends. I live in a small mountain town with my family. My wife, a magical creature, though she would strenuously deny it . . . Each morning she walks out the door and vanishes. What she does with her days, I have no idea, but when she returns home of an evening, she brings with her otherworldly scents and I will discover scraps of paper in her purse on which are written the fragments of wicked spells. She hisses when I make love to her, she grunts in a language unknown to me and sometimes locks her teeth in the meat of my shoulder.
I edit the town’s weekly paper, which I also founded. Each week I write a column citing some symptom of our cultural decay that is a predictor of doom and madness, columns that cause great amusement among my readership. They email excerpts to friends in other towns and label me an eccentric, though lately, since I have won several regional prizes for journalism, they have been more respectful. Despite this, I know the prizes are awarded for my idiosyncratic style, that hardly anyone listens to me, that few believe in beasts, in apocalypse—they believe, instead, that they will pass through the black wall toward which we are all speeding, that it is permeable and may even form the gateway to a better life. Thus the paper no longer interests me, and for some time now I have devoted the bulk of my energies to my son, a sturdy eleven-year-old.
I don’t entirely understand what the cycle of giants and children and beasts means in the scheme of things, but I suspect that my son will understand. Whereas my father’s training was haphazard, born of his intemperate nature, mine is carefully thought-out, scrupulously planned. I beat my son, I lock him away, I control his reading, I keep him friendless, but all apportioned so that these torments have formed a bond between us. I have told him that it is done to strengthen him, and he has accepted the pain as part of a crucial teaching. Day by day he grows more stoic, more malleable, and I expect soon there will be no need for discipline. I have promised to give him a woman when he is twelve and he exerts himself toward that goal. I have promised other enticements as well, criminal pleasures such as may be enjoyed in the adjoining towns. Perhaps when he is a man, he will strike me down, but he will have a sound reason for doing so and not strike prematurely, as did I. In all ways, he will act with a greater circumspection.
I tell him that the beast he frees will be more powerful than mine, that it will achieve terrible things, wonderful things. He is intrigued by the possibility, but not quite certain I have told him the truth. Last week, we were eating sundaes at the new Baskin-Robbins over in Ridgeview, a hangout for junior high kids similar to those whom I have prepared him to dominate, and he asked for the hundredth time, at least, if I thought the beast was real.
“Of course it was real,” I said.
“Do you think it was real like, you know, different from you? Separate? Or do you think it just worked your arms and legs and made you do things?”
“In here . . .” I tapped my chest. “I know it was separate. Not that it makes a difference.”
“Where is it, then?”
“Somewhere around. Taking a nap in the woods, maybe. Snoring and all covered with gray hair like your old man. It’s retired. Once a beast leaves you, it’s done its duty.”
We had placemats that depicted, against a blue background, cartoon butterflies hovering around a banana split, and my son began jabbing out the butterflies’ startled round eyes with a ball-point pen. “I don’t ever want my beast to leave,” he said moodily.
“It’s bound to leave eventually. But if you keep up the good work . . .”
“. . . It’ll be with you a long time.”
The waitress, a pretty brunette with tattooed bracelets on her wrists, refilled my coffee. He stared at her and once she was back behind the counter, I asked, “Do you like that one?”
He nodded, embarrassed. “Uh-huh!”
“Tattoos are a clear signal.” I ruffled his hair, sparking a grin. “You’ve got a good eye.”
We ate for a time, not saying much, and then he asked me to tell him about the man I’d met on the beach after my friends died.
“You don’t need to hear that again,” I said, but I was pleased, because that part of my story went to the core of my teaching.
“Come on, Dad!”
“Okay.” I slurped my coffee. “I was at the water’s edge, I’d just finished washing off the blood when this man, a big man, came along the beach. He had a fancy fishing pole and big tackle box. He was planning to do some surf casting, I guess. He stopped beside me and stared. And then he said, ‘That’s a lot of blood on you, son.’
“‘Where you see blood?’ I asked.
“‘All in your hair. On the side there.’
“I touched my hair and my fingers came away gooey with blood. I knew right away I had to kill him. If I didn’t, he’d call the cops. But the beast was gone, I’d thrown away my knife, and the man was immense. I was scared, I wasn’t sure I had the strength or the will to do it. And then he asked whose blood it was, and I replied, ‘It’s mine.’ I wasn’t trying to lie my way out of trouble. The blood belonged to people like me, people the man wouldn’t spit on if they were dying of thirst, and I was speaking for them. I wasn’t telling a lie. That made me strong. I took him down and kicked him in the head until his skull broke. I had his brains on my shoes. I puked all over myself after, but I did what I had to.”
He dribbled hot fudge onto his cream with the edge of his spoon. “I sorta don’t get it.”
“You get the important parts,” I said. “What’s that I say when you don’t get all of something and you need to think about it more?”
He sat up smartly, like a little soldier, and said, “Consider it a lesson!”
© 2007 by Lucius Shepard.
Originally published in Inferno,
edited by Ellen Datlow.
Reprinted by permission of the author.