It slips out of its skin. Hints of glistening scales, lapped and overlapped like leaves on the mulching floor. A multitude flapping with lives of their own. Noise scatters from those wings as noise emits from the throat of the thing they feed on. The noise rises in pitch until it shrieks then it cuts off and listens as the noise whispers back.
What you were before me. You spot me there in the gloom, what looks to be a child. You stop the car. You look back only to see the child running away. Doesn’t seem to be wearing much, it’s cold out right now. Dangerous. Can’t get a signal on the phone. Maybe you could keep driving a little more and come back with some help. But it really is cold outside. You reach back and dig out a thin white hoodie from your backpack. You’ll cover the kid up and then go find help with the brat in tow. More efficient this way. A pause before you exit the car; you get the flashlight out of the centre console, and the revolver too. Feels better with both.
Out of the car, only echoes answer you. You yell again as you try to find where the child had run to and you glimpse that form disappearing into the brush following a makeshift trail. The trail leads into a patch of seeped-through sun before the sunlight fades and in the shadows as you walk you feel the loam and the humps of old roots under your boots.
A bit of walking is all it takes. There it is, the child, and it’s hard to make out the details yet the child before you is uncommonly filthy. No clothes. You put the gun down on the ground. You take off your jacket and as you approach the child with the jacket in your hands, there it is, the scent is of rust, and your mind turns to the crippled Ford your uncle kept in the backyard. How the leather on those seats had cracked and peeled, and how the child’s skin here, on its arms, is peeling as well, peeling as you watch. Peeling, and fluttering. Peeling bit by bit and each one flutters and flies away in patterns that trace circles in the air. That is when I lunge.
As I eat my thoughts clarify. It’s easier to think as my teeth gnash through the bone. I suck the marrow. I weep as I remember you. Your memories, all of them. You had a child of your own. This child is grown now and your last memory of him is him driving back home and I wonder, here in this clarified air of my own thoughts, in this instance where I can think and plan, I wonder if I too could eat him as I ate you. It would be simple. I would find him and in your voice and your flesh I would knock on the door, and he would open the door, and he will say, “Dad?”
There was the phone-call before you began driving up the mountain. I feel the words you spoke itch away in my throat and they rattle out to people I don’t know: Yep, I’m heading home now. Been driving for what feels like days. I mean, I guess it’s totally days, but not quite a week so maybe I can’t complain, hah. It was a hell of a game, yeah. Lots of people there. To tell you the truth I’m tired, really, just wanna get back home. Soon. Yep. I should be home soon. Yep. Yep. Maybe another day or so, depends on how I feel driving through the night. If I feel like shit I’ll just stop at a truck stop or something, catch a few hours of shut-eye there. See you soon, alright? Take care.
I put the phone down, feeling like shit. Very tired. Honestly I’d not enjoyed the trip at all, but the thought of telling Annie makes me feel like a goddamn loser. I hate driving. I won’t lie, I really do. Ever had an accident before? An accident that wasn’t your fault? Just a simple rear-ending is what did it for me. I saw that sucker come in on the mirror, just approaching and approaching and bam, there it was, my head whipping back and forward, feeling oozy and shell-shocked as that other car came to a halt with all the force behind its movement transferred and absorbed by the shell of my own. How it gnawed at me. How it gnawed and gnawed in the months to come, all those aches that came and never left. And there was Annie telling me to suck it up, because there’s work to be done—Annie right there, as rain patters against the windshield, got to get the wipers going—there we go— drumming on the roof, against the metal, dot by dot, a little cacophony, the raindrops fluttering, each with a pair of wings like that of moths and there’s Annie lifting my arm, far away from my body—gnawing, gnawing—I feel you and me fading as I gnaw away on what remains of you as the leaves fall around me and you becomes me and there I go too.
It rubs against the wall. The hunger sickens it. The hunger a thing noted in the same way that an ache would be, of pained joints and sore backs. It emits a searching pitch; the noise cascades, but nothing returns. Eventually the hunger becomes so great it plucks at one of the multitudes that festoons its hide and eats. The low drone of their movement is disturbed not a bit by this consumption, thrums still as they bustle and rustle and the little noises they make gather in volume as the thing hunkers down and listens for more, sated for a moment by the motion of its jaw and teeth. The brain of this thing is often akin to what it eats and here the simple processes of an insect takes over. Help, it calls. Sounds babble out. Help Robin, help your father, I don’t like the Ducks, fuck the Ducks, hi Tucker, hi Tucker, hi Tucker, number three please, hold the ice, diet, no hot sauce, fill her up, seventy-three, April sixteenth, yes that’s my home address—
It feels the rumble of their tread, how they pass over the mulching carpet of the forest. More noise, emitted and received, and there it catches the scent of these intruders and the body moves, scrapes against some rock and comes away leaving a bug-red trail.
The scent is all it knows. And there, in the dark, this close to meat, a mind begins to stir within its skull. The legion flutters, clings on as it gathers speed. And this mind, it remembers. It remembers the heat of that voice. It remembers you.
You’re out there to look for your father, there with the search party. Last heard from at the foot of the mountain road. Camera at the gas station had caught him filling up his truck, and he’d bought a pack of Pall Malls for the road, that and a bottle of Pepsi. You’d seen him in that footage, all colourless, this diminutive figure whose presence didn’t match at all what you remembered of the man—jovial, perhaps not entirely honest, but still, he was your father. How do you turn away from him? You cannot. You know others can. Circumstances differ and if they differed here perhaps you could, but you remember how he looked as you graduated from high school. The somber joy of it. The suit, poorly fitted on both your frames. Hands that had a hard time holding a pen, the stub that was his left thumb.
And so you had searched with the others. There were dogs brought out and you’d posted everywhere, talked to everyone in the region it felt like, searching for echoes of where he’d been, where he could be now. You lie awake at night wondering where he must have ended up and almost all these scenarios end in silence in some ditch, or river, or a hole in the mountain. It’s hard not to dwell on the abandoned truck, the gun they found a few minutes off the road. It hadn’t been fired. Best to dwell on that instead. Perhaps he’d just fled his debtors. You entertain yourself with that thought. He could be on some sunny island, with hammocks, coconuts, implements shaped out of coconuts. If only. We all hope for better things. Everyone does—the noise in the distance that you hear, only to dismiss as something of the forest—the hunger that comes for you, as you wonder.
And now here you are in the dark. Had stumbled a few times, made a wrong turn maybe, you’ve lost sight of the others. Still, you can hear the distant barking of dogs, and you have supplies, even a flare gun somewhere in the depths of your backpack. One of those little gifts that your father had given you over the years, knick-knacks that presumably could be used for survival, bear sprays, mosquito sprays, some knives of varying sizes, the flare gun, life vest, so on. You’d packed it remembering this and there you’d choked up a little despite the little prickle of a feeling that you were acting it out, a little, performing it almost for an audience of none but yourself. But it’s real, real enough for you to have come out here. And so you keep moving.
You picture it in your mind, how it would go: the weight of it in your hands as you aim it high through some opening in the canopy where no branches can impede its rise. There it’ll soar deep into the night as flares tend to do, at least in all the movies you’d seen, and the searchers hunting for your father’s corpse—for all hope of him being rescued has receded, and only the hope of giving him a proper burial remains—will home in on your location. And there you’d be standing alone illuminated by its colour, probably red and flickering and how it’ll stain the forest around you too. And a part of you thinks, despite a kind of disgust that edges in, that it’s all pointless anyway.
A little bump against your head. You slap it away; it squelches against the blow and you use the flashlight to illuminate a nasty splotch of bug-legs and wings right there in the palm of your right hand. You hear more—a whisper of passing wings. Something nearly slashes against your face and you flinch back and there as the light of your flashlight casts ahead you catch a glimpse of the thing in the bush. That snapshot of when the light slashes across its form; your eyes widen, taking in that bulk, how its skin rustles and roils with movement, how those little lives buzz underneath the voice of the thing and your own heartbeat. This thing, with a face akin to that of your father.
You run. Deeper and deeper the light from your flashlight strobes across the trunks of old trees and your boots kick up clods of rotting leaves and your lips form the words and the words tumble out half-spilled before they are completed, minutes later, by my own feasting mouth, in the pauses between the chewing and the swallowing. The words come out and dot away and are gone with my memories of you as the thing in the forest gnaws on bone.
Story copyright © 2017 by JB Park
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Pear Nuallak
JB Park’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and more. He lives in New Mexico, where he is busy at work on a weird YA fantasy novel.
Pear Nuallak looks to their Thai heritage and the many faces of women to create words and images. They’ve contributed illustrations to The SEA Is Ours and The Future Fire.