Jack sat at the open window of his study, wondering if his family would be homeless next year. His study was lit by a single sodium-yellow bulb, so he had to strain his eyes to read the newspaper. The jobs section was about as helpful as anyone might expect. Plenty of cash opportunities for someone who still lives with their parents doesn’t mind serving ice cream to greasers in the summer. Nothing for a man who had spent four years in trade school and just as many in the military.
Bramble cracked outside. Jack fumbled around, nearly spilling a half-filled glass of bourbon across the newspaper. It was dark on the other side of the window, but the flash of motion that crossed Jack’s vision a second ago was unmistakably animal. His eyes flit back and forth through his yard, searching for another sign.
There it was. A pair of beady-black eyes peered out, nestled deep into the pines. A deer. Its eyes fixed on Jack, muzzle poking out through the brush. Thoughts of deer steak wafted through his mind. He decided that while nature is a beautiful, wonderful thing to be treasured, he would appreciate it more on his dinner plate.
He scurried deep into his study to find his rifle. But when he returned with his M1 in tow, the deer was gone. Vanished into the blackened spaces between the pines.
“What are you doing?” a small voice interrupted.
Jack pointed the barrel of his rifle down, and took his finger off the trigger. He imagined his drill sergeant nodding in approval.
“Just getting some extra work done…” He said.
Two weeks back home, and he was still getting used to his kid’s voice.
She stood in the doorway. Her hair was a deep auburn, like her mother’s, and her cheeks were blushed red.
“Where’s your mom?” Jack asked her. “You’re supposed to be cooking dinner with her.”
She shrugged. “Aren’t we both?”
Jack lifted the spectacles off his face. “Grace.” he said, “Are you saying that your dad doesn’t do chores?”
A trickle of a smile crossed Grace’s face. “Yeah. You don’t do chores much.”
“So you do remember me.” Jack said.
He propped his M1 against a table and opened his arms for Grace to embrace him. Grace’s smile twitched a bit. Her eyes flickered to the M1 propped next to his desk, likely wondering what he had brought it out for.
“I just wanted to look at some old things.” He assured her.
She remained standing in the doorway, as if there was an unspoken threshold to Jack’s study that she wasn’t yet allowed past. Jack’s gut churned ice. He’d been absent for almost half of her life, played soldier to provide for his family, and returned home a stranger.
Grace’s eyes stayed fixed on his rifle. “Are you hunting?” She asked, drawing up the sleeves of her shirt. Her patchwork clothes fit on her skinny frame easily, as if she were a hanger. That sight churned his gut, too. It was his job to make sure she never went hungry. And he had failed.
He gave her what he hoped was an assuring smile. “I’m not as good as I used to be. But by time you’re taller, we’ll have as much food as we can eat. Daddy will find a way.”
Upon the door frame that led into Jack’s study, someone had drawn several stripes on the wall with a marker. They were a series of dashes that climbed halfway to the ceiling like a ladder. Every dash was paired with a date and a message. The words written highest on the wall read: March 19th, 1945 Daddy came home. They lined up almost perfectly with the top of his daughter’s head.
She followed his line of sight, then went up on her tiptoes, so she crested the dash. “Mom says I’m growing like a weed.”
“Weeds only need water and light.” He said. “You, on the other hand, eat food like a garbage truck. We’re going to run out of bread if you get any bigger.”
Grace nodded, as if she hadn’t noticed her father’s wince. “Get some food super fast.” She said.
Grace’s mother cut their conversation off. From a nearby room, she called out for her daughter to return to the kitchen, immediately. Wafts trickled into the study, some kind of broth that might have had carrots in it. He had no idea – he’d never been much of a cook.
Grace let her head slump to one shoulder. She sighed.
“Wait a moment.” Said Jack.
She did. The two watched each other for a moment. They stayed still, frozen like a pair of deer in the road.
Jack did not dare look away from Grace. He feared that if he turned away, or so much as sneezed, it would be too late. He would turn around and find that she had grown into a woman.
“We’re having mashed potatoes tonight, aren’t we?” He asked.
His daughter nodded.
“I’ll cut the garlic, you mash the potatoes.” He said to Grace. “You love smashing those taters.”
Grace nodded. She lingered in the doorway for a moment, then skirted back towards the kitchen. Jack watched the loose threads of her shirt breeze behind her. His mind wandered to clothes stores and the money he didn’t have to spend. The store owners would probably laugh at him just for looking through the window – he was too poor even for that.
Something rattled the house. A crash echoed. Jack’s pulse shot up, worrying that his daughter had stumbled in the kitchen and hurt herself. But as he stood up from his desk, his eyes caught on the sight of a fallen tree splayed across the backyard, its roots naked and exposed to the evening air, and the insects that flit across what little light was left. Jack went to the other room to check if everything was right with his family. Grace’s hands were still shaking, but his wife just rolled her eyes at the mess the tree had made.
Jack thought back to the obsidian eyes that had peered into his study. Absurdly, he wondered for a moment if the deer had done it. Just chewed through the trunk of the tree and kicked it down with its back legs. He slung his rifle across his shoulder and stalked outside with a wick of a candle that dripped onto the wet blades of his lawn.
The tree had narrowly missed their roof. Jack inspected the tree’s base, expecting to see a series of ax marks in the wood. The neighborhood was full of crazy kids who sometimes took their pranks too far. Instead he found that the trunk had been infested with a gnarled mass of slate-gray. The rot, if it could be called that, was large as his fist. Globules writhed inside the trunk’s remains.
Jack nodded to himself. This was an unfamiliar sight to him, but he’d heard of foreign diseases. They spread like wildfire amongst good American trees. He jogged back inside. Several minutes later he returned with a small pail of lighter fluid and a fire extinguisher.
Jack sprayed lighter fluid inside the tree, just enough to soak the slate-grey rot, and little enough that he’d still be able to put it out with the extinguisher. He frowned at the rot, but the more he looked at it, his expression turned to a waxing crescent of a smile. A disease could wreak havoc on Sweet Home’s logging industry, he thought. He could share the news about this new disease spreading and convince his mill boss to let him work overtime. As the thought crossed his mind, the rot bubbled.
Jack pictured the lumber mill bustling with picket lines. There was a strike in full swing, so several shifts were vacant at the moment. His boss would be happy for the willing hands. The money would be more than good, it would be everything he needed. His family needed to eat, and Grace needed new clothes…
The slate-grey rot squirmed across the bark, growing a few more inches. He decided that he would not be burning the rot today. Better to keep it as evidence so his boss would believe him. But he’d be sure to tell his family to keep well away from the stuff.
“Dinner time!” his wife called out from the house.
The pungent smell of garlic billowed out from the cabin and clung to Jack’s clothes. He shook his head in disbelief. Had he been at the tree so long? He swore under his breath, then muttered an apology to God for swearing.
While worrying about work and the damned tree, he’d forgotten about dinner. And Grace had made the mashed potatoes by herself.
The meeting with Jack’s boss went well. If someone could call selling their soul to the devil a good day’s work, then Jack had earned himself a bonus. He would be receiving overtime work for bringing up news of the tree rot. A quick inspection from his boss’ associates found that the rot had infected dozens of other trees in Willamette Forest. Firemen razed the trees to the ground and left them as charred stumps. The disease could have ravaged the lumber industry, had Jack not spotted it.
In fact, his boss had said, here was an advance, and could he keep it hush-hush from the union men, pretty please?
The wad of cash gave Jack a bittersweet feeling, more bitter than sweet, like the dark chocolate he’d gotten years ago in his military rations. Jack was happy he had money to provide for his family. But he was earning money out of another laborer’s paycheck. Probably some poor sap on the picket line.
A scab worker was assigned to help Jack. Lumberyards needed two men to lug a chainsaw now, as the German Festo saw had long since been boycotted. The scab’s name was Kung. Kung waved down the offer to sit shotgun in Jack’s truck and instead climbed into the back seat.
As Jack drove towards Willamette Forest, he examined Kung from time to time through the rear view mirror, but only when he thought the other man wasn’t watching. He wondered if Kung’s bottom could feel the high-caliber rifle hiding underneath the truck’s backseat cushions.
Probably. Kung had albino-white skin that must have been paper-thin, for the way his veins stood out. He did not have the characteristic red eyes, though. His were a deep black, scanning back and forth across the trees and boulders jogging past their view. Left, right, left, right. Like he was reading a book.
“Last night a tree fell over in my yard.” Jack offered.
“Mmm.” Replied Kung. He did not take his eyes off the road trailing behind them.
“The whole log was filled with a rot,” Jack continued “Nothing like I’ve ever seen before. It was grey, and it moved.”
“Your people’s wealth brings out the worst in this place.” said Kung.
“Money? I haven’t got money.” Jack pointed out. “We’re living paycheck to paycheck.”
Kung removed a pipe from his overalls and stuck it between his lips. The pipe smelled of ash and elderberries. He rolled down the car window and blew a smoke ring, like he was spitting.
“Then why is she following us?” Said Kung.
Jack peered through the rear view mirror. Something rushed across the road behind them, large enough to fill his mirror. It vanished in a flurry of auburn.
Jack shook his head with disdain. It had to be a prank, a setup that the union men had organized to scare him off the job. Still, that couldn’t explain the strange things happening lately. Like the beady-black eyes that had stared at him last night. Or the wriggling tree rot.
As they drove over a bridge into the dark clearing of Willamette Forest, Kung started to pray. The language was sharp on consonants and unfamiliar to Jack’s ears, but the rhythm of Kung’s words flowed on a smooth cadence.
Kung’s face was rapt in lurid expression and his veiny fingers clutched at his pipe.
He’s high out of his gourd. Thought Jack. This was the guy they’d sent to help him with the most dangerous job on the Southern side of the Columbia River? Jack had no doubts now that the whole day was a prank, and that someone would jump out at him any minute.
He rolled them into a clearing in the forest. Rays of midmorning illuminated the grove’s rolling grasses. Jack cut his truck’s engine, and the forest fell silent, as if it was holding its breath.
Kung thumbed a rosary hung round his neck as they stepped out into the grove.
The surprise prankster never did appear. After six hours and thirty-five fallen trees, Jack slumped down onto a log. The veins in his wrists looked close to popping, as if they’d just hop out of his skin and go on vacation.
He rolled down his sleeve to reveal a tattoo on his forearm. He flexed, making the design’s eyes bulge. This, sadly, was the most entertaining thing he’d done the entire day.
The brisk smell of fresh sawdust hung heavy on the air. Fallen trees littered the forest floor like corpses on a battlefield. The wide-berthed trucks would come for them tomorrow.
Jack wiped a trail of sweat from his forehead. Kung was seated on a stump and hunched over his pipe to shelter its embers.
“You looking for answers in that thing?” Asked Jack. “Kids spend less time on the teat.”
Kung’s face remained implacable. “None of your business. If it were, you’d be smoking, too.”
Jack recognized the look on Kung’s face; the way the other man’s eyes went listless and fixed themselves on the horizon. The twitch of his fingers. As if the other man were pushing a trigger…
“I was also in the war.” Offered Jack “Pacific front.”
“No shit?” Said Kung.
Jack bore his forearm. On it was a tattoo of a sandy-yellow fox wearing a pirate hat, grinning with bloody teeth.
“Well, look at that.” Kung said.
“Desert pirates. 31st Test and Evaluation squadron.” Said Jack.
Kung’s weathered expression brightened. He drew back his own sleeve and aligned his arm next to Jack’s. His wrist boasted a diamond insignia. The design was complete with a blocky, golden bird resting its wings on a crimson field.
“I thought the Thunderbirds were all supposed to be sitting on golden pedestals.” Jack said, trying not to let his jaw fall low enough to rake the ground. “Where’s yours?”
Kung shook his head. “None of us wanted pedestals after Dachau. That part of the war’s going to stay with me longer than any prize.”
Jack thought of the rifle under his backseat. “Yeah. The war stuck with me, too. I wouldn’t have fought if I could have helped it.”
“Would any of us?” Asked Kung.
“Definitely. There’s some psychos out there. Guys who get off on the adrenaline high.”
“Are you one of them?”
“No. At least I don’t think I am.”
Fireflies flit in and out of sight around them, like stars rearranging themselves on a night sky. All was quiet and still.
There was a rustle to their left. A dry crash of twigs snapping. Kung grasped his shoulder. Kung pointed a cracked finger out at the tree line.
“Who – my wife?” Jack peered his eyes around the canopy, scanning to make sure she hadn’t been watching them the whole day. He remembered using the word ‘bitch’ once when he’d stubbed his big toe on a log.
Kung’s face broke into a rare grin. “No, it’s the wild.” He said.
“Then let’s get the hell out of here.” Said Jack. He sprinted towards his truck. There was no way he was going to let a minor inconvenience, such as getting eaten by a bear, stop him from getting home his family.
Jack had his keys in the ignition seat by the time Kung spoke out.
“No!” The man hissed loudly. “Stay put. She’ll get angry if her guest leaves. Then I’ll get an earful for the rest of the night.
Ignoring this, Jack turned the key, and his headlights flashed into life.
“What are you talking abou-” Jack’s jaw nearly hit his steering wheel when he saw what emerged from the tangle of undergrowth.
A deer strode into their grove of sawdust and fallen trees. It was a beast in its own right, easily the size of Jack’s pickup truck. Its flank was speckled with dots; white and inviting as a blank page. Its eyes gleamed darkly against Jack’s headlights. His breath caught. His legs would not move. He’d seen all sorts of crazy things in the Mediterranean front, but this took the cake. This was a deer with eyes the size of fists, with hooves that left prints he could have sat his tush inside and still had room to spare. All his military training was nothing in the face of this.
Kung laughed, a deep, full-bellied chuckle. “It’s good to see you, old friend.”
The man wandered to the creature’s side and wrapped his arms around its neck. Jack wondered how it could hide in Willamette forest without attracting every hunter in a hundred mile radius. Maybe it already had. His thoughts flashed to an image of his daughter, how frail and skinny she had looked standing there in his doorway. A year’s worth of deer steaks would do her something special. If he could get his bless-ed legs to just start moving, then maybe he could make that happen for.
The first few steps felt like dragging his feet out of tar, but one he’d started moving, his joints seemed to unfreeze. While Kung and the deer embraced, he crept to the backseat of his truck and began lifting its cushions furtively. He took great care not to make any sudden movements.
As he rummaged about his truck, a beer bottle tumbled out of the cabin. It crashed against the ground. Cursing to himself, Jack tugged the last seat cushion away to reveal a hidden compartment. There it was – his M1 Garand, its oaken stock gleaming with fresh polish.
He stole a glance back at the beast. It seemed neither it nor Kung had bothered to notice the crashing glass. Kung stroked the deer with one veiny hand outstretched. The man looked stooped and small, so close to a creature that could easily swallow him whole. It leaned down and nuzzled his greying hair. It closed its eye and hummed, as if whispering secrets into his ear.
Jack hoisted his M-1 Garand and peered through its iron sight at the deer’s heart, steering clear from any shot at Kung. He wanted to bring home steaks, not a dead coworker, even if the man was a scab. His finger lingered over the trigger. For the short time that he’d known Kung, he’d never seen the man in such good spirits as now. What right did he have to extinguish this man’s joy?
“Aw, hell.” Whispered Jack, lowering his rifle.
His voice was quiet as a feather falling on snow.
Kung turned. His eyes fixed on the sleek body of Jack’s rifle.
Kung held his arms in a gesture of peace. “Don’t, soldier!”
The deer stirred and stared into Jack’s headlights. It tensed up, like a coiled spring ready to explode. In one second, it would be gone forever.
Jack did not waste another second thinking. It was then and there, or let his family starve.
His finger squeezed the trigger. The rifle flashed lightning-bright, then bucked against his shoulder. The deer jolted and fell to its knees. A thud echoed through the forest, sending birds scattering up. Blood blossomed on the beast’s chest. What would have been a killing blow to another creature had only left this one wheezing and shaking. It tried to find its footing, only to collapse again. Burbles of spit and blood matted its mouth.
Jack lifted his gun and adjusted his sights to deliver another killing shot. Finishing the poor thing was a mercy.
Kung’s voice cut through the beast’s moaning. His hands were raised, but his face was boiling with rage. “You’re out of your element here, Jack.”
“Get out of the way.” Jack said, his voice wavering. “It’s just meat, now.”
The deer raised its head and bellowed. He took a few steps back, and as his foot nearly slipped on a rotting log, the creature met his eye. Its pupils were a dark grey.
A voice entered Jack’s mind, distinctly female. So, you chose this path. It said.
“What’s going on?” Jack said, “is that you in my head? Is it you, Kung?”
“No. It’s her.”
No matter where Jack pointed the barrel of his gun, Kung stepped in front of it. A shot of pain blossomed on his own shoulder. He shrugged and retrained his shot on the beast’s heart. Then the pain intensified.
I see everything that you are. The voice continued. Working yourself to the bone to feed your family? Maybe you call that love.
He reached back to touch his shoulder. His fingers pressed against something cool and hard. There was a small bump raised on his back, smooth as a river stone. What the hell did you do to me? He thought. How are you in my head?
The voice did not answer him.
Jack pulled the trigger, eager to take the second shot, to force some order onto his world. His hand left a streak of blood on the gun’s oaken stock. But the shot rang wide from all the shaking in his arm.
But we both know your pension is enough to put food on the table. So what are you running from, Jack? The voice became weaker, and began to trail off.
Jack went to shoot the deer again, or even just to yell at it, and found that it had vanished. The weight of his surroundings clamored atop him, as his tunnel vision cleared, and the adrenaline heartbeat-pumped its way out of his system. Cramped into his truck, he sat amongst the ruin of twenty trees, wreathed in darkness. When had he climbed into his truck? He could not say. But the deer could come back at any moment. He would not let his rifle go, would not let them take him unawares.
Leave the war behind. Finished the voice.
Jack started jostling the keys in the ignition. The engine rattled, drum-like, and punctuated Jack’s anxiety with its useless rhythms.
“Or what?” He demanded, out loud. To who, he could not say.
There was no answer.
A pain pricked on Jack’s palm. He stared at his hand, mouth agape. His skin had cracked and turned a hideous sleet-grey. It was the rot he’d found in his tree. Jack’s fingers trembled. Again, he thought, this could not possibly be real. Yet there was texture to this dream. A cracked, grey texture, which meant that it could be no dream at all. Tightness wound itself around his brain. If the disease could fell a pine tree, what could it do to a man less than a quarter its size?
A voice cut through the silence. “You did a bad thing, Jack.”
Kung stood in the center of the grove. He swayed, even though there was no breeze to push him.
Jack pressed his infected hand to the window. “The spirit. It gave me the rot. The one I told you about. You’ve got to help me.”
“Stay in the truck. I’m warning you.” For the first time that day, Jack heard a tremor in Kung’s tone.
“You knew about the spirit. What she could do. You might as well have killed me. And you’ve killed me now, too, bastard. You can bring her back here. Tell her to save me. Or my daughter’s blood is on your hands.”
“Stay away from me.” Kung’s feet splashed into a pool of blood on the canopy floor. “Shouldn’t have brought you here. I don’t want what you’ve got.” His eyes were fixed on Jack’s hand.
“Help me.” Jack pleaded.
“Not today, soldier.” Kung sprinted away, crashing through the emerald undergrowth.
Jack tried to follow, clamoring out of his truck. but his legs were shaking too hard to support him. Bushes rustled in the distance and spilled their leaves, then stilled themselves to silence.
Jack climbed back into his truck’s passenger seat and let his thoughts race unbound. The rot was on his palm, so he couldn’t cut it away without taking the entire hand and ruining his livelihood. His job…God, what would he tell his boss? There were still two trees to cut and Kung wasn’t there to help lug the saw. He’d be fired, and his daughter would starve. He couldn’t let that happen. He’d work himself to death before letting that happen.
Jack’s skin crawled, then burned. It seared him like a brand every time he so much as pictured a dollar bill in his hand. He grit his teeth. He would not have long before the rot took him.
He reached into his dash unit and withdrew the wad of cash that his boss had forked over to him. He’d spent four Christmases on some wasteland Pacific beach, instead of setting up trees in the living room with his wife and daughter.
Yes. He would provide, for all those years his G.I. payments hadn’t.
On Fridays the stores of Sweet Home, Oregon opened their doors at 10am sharp. Jack was first in line at the boutique.
The woman at the counter was less than happy to see that Jack’s wad of cash was flecked with dirt, but she took it all the same, and even gave him a few bags in return. All the while he kept his infected hand in his pocket, probably making him look even more suspicious.
Before Jack knew it, his advance had disappeared. All he had to prove that the money had ever existed were two explosively colorful bags, a few receipts, and a pair of gloves. He sat back in his truck. With one glove covering his infected hand, he cleaned the blood off his rifle, then stowed the colorful bags over his weapon.
The receipts lay atop the dashboard of his truck. Each time his vehicle came to a grinding halt, the receipt’s numbers watched him like many pairs of eyes.
He grimaced at that thought. He dug out the remaining glove, and slipped it over his right hand, hiding the rot.
On the highway, a current of air stole the receipts from his dashboard and flung them out the truck’s passenger window. Jack watched the receipts twirl and dance in the wind, then come down to rest on cool asphalt.
Jack reached over, plucked up a vividly-colored bag, and strode toward the front door of his home.
There was the sound of a chain being unlatched. The oaken door swung out to reveal his wife. Her brow was furrowed in confusion at the sight of her husband standing underneath the pale lamplight.
“Where were you?” She asked. Her hand clutched a wooden spatula. The instrument began to shake in her unsteady grip.
“Took some overtime work.” Jack started. “Slept in the truck. Didn’t want to wake you and the girls last night.” He held up his single bare hand. “I know, I meant to phone you.”
Cynthia’s pale green eyes regarded him coolly. “I should be mad at you for leaving me in the dark. For leaving us here.” She said, looking him up and down. “Damnit. I should be.” She whispered, thwapping the spatula lightly against her own leg.
Jack hefted a bag. Its shade looked like a fairy godmother had been sick upon it. “I brought you this.” He said.
He withdrew a long, sleek dress. Rhinestones set into the dress’ shoulders glimmered under the gaze of the midmorning sun.
“Wow, and I thought we didn’t have the money for nice things.” She said. “It’s very nice. What size is it?”
He had purchased the dress while thinking of his wife’s skinny, malnourished frame. The woman at the store counter had assured him that the dress would fit, and that his wife would love it.
Cynthia cocked an eyebrow. “Small isn’t the only dress size, honey bear. We women come in all shapes.” She took the dress from him and sized the fabric against her body. “It’s lovely. But it’s a bit tight for me. Did you keep the receipt?”
Jack paused, and wondered how best to phrase his next words. He had no doubts now that the store attendant had been getting paid on commission.
“No. I had no idea what to do in there.”
He slapped his forehead with his gloved hand. The sleeve of his shirt drew back. A fleck of grey fell from his wrist onto his face. There was a pinprick sting on his forehead. He gave a whisper of a gasp, realizing what he’d done. He yearned to scrape the infection off his head, but it was too late for that, as he dared not touch the rot.
Cynthia’s rosy complexion drained to a pale alabaster. She placed her hands on her hips. The dress dragged against the oaken panels of their deck.
“Where did you get the money for all this?” She asked him.
“My boss gave me an advance. The labor strikes have him clinging to what workers he’s got left.” Jack answered.
“And we’ll have enough money for food?”
Jack’s face flushed. “Yes. Of course I saved enough.”
She paused, and narrowed her eyes.
“What’s that on your face?” She asked.
“Nothin-” Jack started, too late.
With one finger, Cynthia wicked his forehead. “Don’t worry. I got the gunk off.”
When she brought her finger back, a dribble of grey had begun to spread across her fingertip. Jack stood still as deer in headlights, unsure what to do, or even say. He didn’t even know how to cure himself.
Cynthia straightened her back up ruler-straight. “Well, I’ll just have to pick up jobs. I remember hearing Ms. Perkinson needed someone to fix her roof.” Cynthia continued.
“Babe.” Jack said.
He found that he was no longer listening to his wife, as his attention was rapt upon the slate-grey on her finger. The spot wriggled and spread down to her wrist. Each word she spoke about work seemed to feed its hunger.
Cynthia gave him a quizzical look, then pulled at his bare hand. “Come on, then. If your breakfast gets any colder, the fridge will get jealous.”
The two of them strode inside the cabin. They walked past piles of wood shavings and plush toys strewn across the floor. Wafts of sauté elicited a bittersweet groan from Jack’s stomach.
Jack retreated to the depths of his study. Cynthia brought him a steaming plate of vegetables and set it down on his desk. He noticed the rot had crawled to her elbow, but when he pointed it out, she thought he was making it all up. She left him to eat his food while muttering to herself about job listings.
Jack took a few more bites of his vegetable sauté and felt well enough to muster up more than a grumble. Thoughts flooded back to him – of Kung, the giant deer, and the infection on his hand – as if all the nightmares had been welling up in his mind behind a dam of hunger.
Someone coughed. Grace stood at the threshold of his study.
“I saw the dress you got for mommy.” She said.
“There’s something for you, too.” He said.
He picked a series of tools out from another bag. He was careful to use his clean hand as he lay them across his desk. The instruments lay next to his fork and knife in sharp contrast, as a platoon of seasoned veterans might line up next to recruits.
“I brought you a full carving set.” He said.
Grace toed across the doorway, breaking the threshold. She inspected each hooked instrument with an intensity that would set a luthier’s heart to fluttering. To Jack, her bright eyes were bright beacon on a stormy day. To have her so close made his own mortality seem so distant and grey. He wanted to reach out and touch her, but he dared not, even with the gloved hand.
“Be careful not to cut yourself.” Jack warned her. “I know you think scars look cool, but you’ll regret them one day.”
Grace held out the frock of her skirt as an improvised sack, then dropped the instruments in, one by one. She looked at him, then the doorway. He told her it was fine if she wanted to start carving. She gave a happy little leap and skirted away.
Cynthia knocked on Jack’s door, even though it was open. She asked if she was interrupting anything. Grace was not looking where she was running, so she plodded right into her mother. The little girl fell into a heap on the ground.
Cynthia fixed her daughter with a look that demanded respect and reverence. “Not now, Grace. Mommy’s talking to daddy about work.” She said.
Cynthia reached out to touch Grace. The woman’s fingers were bent, claw-like. Each of her five-inch nails were covered in the slate rot.
Jack’s breath caught in his chest. No. He thought.
He could not say how or why he acted, just that his clean hand raced out and scooped up Grace before his wife could lay a hand on her. He shouldered his wife aside and sped towards the front door. He wouldn’t let Cynthia infect Grace with his rot, his obsession. Even if that meant leaving his wife forever.
Grace bobbed up and down in his arms. Her tools clattered in her skirt.
“Are you and mommy getting a divorce?” She asked.
“No, we’re -” Jack looked back down the empty hallway. “We’re going on a vacation. In the woods. There’ll be lots of wood for you to carve out there.” He added.
“I’m not outdoor dressed.” She pointed out.
“There’s a heater in the truck.” Jack said. The porch’s boards creaked under their combined weight.
He whirled around at the sound of his wife’s reedy voice.
She was standing with her hands propped on a rickety chair. She wore the sleek black dress he’d bought her. The rhinestones adorning her shoulder danced underneath the room’s milky yellow lamplight.
Cynthia’s eyes were listless. “It’s a very nice dress.” She said, awfully slow. “I’ll wear it to my interview.”
Jack slammed the front door. He sprinted towards his truck, forcing himself to look forward. He feared there would be hell to pay if he turned around. Tears stung his eyes. It was run away, or let his wife pass the disease to Grace.
His wife’s soft voice trailed after him. “See you after work…”
Jack closed his eyes as he pulled his trick out of the driveway, trusting himself to find the exit without looking. He couldn’t bear the chance of seeing his wife in the window. Grace stayed still in the backseat, silent as carvings. She’d never seen her father crying before.
Jack gunned towards the nearest highway towards Willamette Forest. He could not say why he drove in that direction, only that that he was drawn there. It was as if he were an effigy pulled on invisible strings.
Only when he was coasting seventy down Highway Twenty did he notice there were no other cars on the road to slow his pace.
A thought nagged at his mind like a worm in an apple. Was he a single parent, now? And god, he’d doomed his wife. With whatever that stuff was. He’d have to work overtime to afford a babysitter in the daytime, and then in the evenings…
Jack’s face and right hand began to crawl. The rear view mirror showed him a vicious sight; a face, twisted with sleet grey rot. Grace cried out in fear. She did not recognize her father’s face anymore.
His blood churned ice. I can’t keep her. Jack realized. Under his care, it would only be a matter of time before she turned out like her mother, or like him – infected. It was a disease eating them from the inside. In his care his daughter would pick it up, too.
Four eyes glittered at Jack from the forest. Tucked deep into its canopy were a pair of deer the size of his truck. One beast bore a deep crimson wound on its shoulder.
The other deer turned itself to reveal something. On its furry flank there was an imprint of a golden bird.
Jack pumped his brakes. He knew now with a vicious certainty what was expected of him. A cloud of dust caught up to him as he pulled over to the road’s shoulder.
He kept the car stalling. “Grace. Hop out of the car for daddy.” He said.
Grace stood trembling on the road’s shoulder with her carving set clutched close to their chests. Aren’t you coming out, too? She asked him, several times. Jack remained still and did not answer. His hands shook white-knuckled gripping the steering wheel.
One deer – the one with the emblem – sauntered out from the forest. It trod to Grace’s side and nuzzled her face. It fixed its eyes through the truck’s windshield at Jack.
Jack slammed his fist against the soft flesh of his steering wheel. “Cure me!” He yelled at the deer. “Can’t you do that, for my kid?”
The deer shook its head. There was a familiar gleam in the creature’s eye. Jack cut the engine and slumped into his seat. There was nothing left to do now but hope Grace still had a future left. One where she could live for something besides the next meal.
A waft of elderberries filled the air as the deer snatched up Grace by her shirt, using its teeth. The other deer joined its partner.
The two deer trotted down the highway. Jack moaned as Grace wriggled in the creature’s mouths. Creature and child disappeared the moment they reached the tree-line, as if molding to the shadows.
Afternoon gave way to evening.
Jack’s mind woke to the sound of heavy panting. A person reached through the truck window and gripped him by the throat. The arm’s flesh was mottled and grey.
“Where are the kids?” A voice demanded.
“Somewhere we can never find them.”
Photo Credit: Oliver Augustijn https://unsplash.com/@augustijnfotografie