Archive by Author | Brian Moreland

Abby’s Best Role

When the front window shattered, Abby backed to the center of the den. Terror rattled her nerves. What creature was going to attack this time? A stale breath of January howled into the cabin. Her skin prickled from the frosty chill. Abby picked up the bloody axe and hugged it to her chest.

The broken window stared back at her, a black hole with jagged teeth.

“I’m not going out there!” she yelled. “You’ll have to come in and get me.”

Something ran past the window. A hairy, skeletal blur. She followed its silhouette in the windows as it rounded the cabin then disappeared behind the wall with the fireplace. Above the mantle a mounted buck head stared down at her with glassy eyes. She hated this dusty cabin. She cursed herself for coming out here. No, it’s not your fault, Abby. How could you have known what was waiting for you?

From a side window came hissing laughter. Her spine stiffened at the chinking of more glass. The beast was toying with her. It wanted her to come outside. Well, Abby wasn’t stupid like those bimbos in the movies. She knew not to reach for that rattling door, knew not to explore the woods at night to find what was howling. No. Better to stay put and wait for the monster to come to her.

From outside sounded a thunder of metal being ripped from its hinges. The cellar door. Now the thing was trying to get in through the basement. It made a racket below the floor.

Abby gripped her axe and held steady. She didn’t back down from a fight. Mother had raised her to take on every challenge life threw at her. When Abby was a child, Mother had played horror movie after horror movie, teaching her the difference between strong movie heroines who survived and stupid girls who got slaughtered. Mother’s favorite movie, I Spit on Your Grave, played every Friday night in her old VHS player.

“You want make it in Hollywood, Abby? You’ve got to think like Jennifer Hills, who made those bastards pay. You’ve got to be tough like Ellen Ripley, and channel your inner Sarah Connor. No one messes with my little star.” Mother had taught her how to defend herself in the cruel, cruel world.

Scraping echoed below Abby’s feet. Then electrical crackles like a pissed-off bug zapper. The lights flickered. Faded to black. Moonlight lanced gray beams through the windows.

Abby backed away from the basement door that concealed a crooked stairway. Her bare feet stepped through lukewarm puddles. Her back ankle brushed against a stiff, clawed hand. She kicked it away. Four mangled bodies lay in bloody heaps across the den floor. There was only one creature left alive. The stairs beyond the door creaked against heavy footfalls charging up the steps.

Abby tightened her grip on the axe.

A body plowed through the bolted door. Wood shards flung across the room in a splintered storm.

The thing, a black lumbering shadow in the moon’s glow, stood at the doorway, heaving. It hobbled towards her, arched like a hunchback. Its dark flesh bristled with spiky fur. Blood oozed from a gash in its thigh. Its head, with curved horns, entered a crossbeam of light, revealing a muzzle with sharp teeth. The beast stopped midway, scanning the lifeless hulks scattered about the room. “You killed my crew, you fucking bitch!”

“They got what was coming to them,” Abby said.

“Christ, we were just making a movie . . .” The creature crept closer, its brow bleeding neon-green blood. “You played along, bitch. You played along!”

“No. I wasn’t acting then. I told you all NO over and over, but you wouldn’t listen.” Her breasts still hurt from all the hands that had groped her. Her lower body ached from all the nasty, nasty things they did to her. She felt dirty inside, violated. Wielding the axe, Abby stood her ground. “Now back off, Beast! Or I’ll chop you up like the rest of ’em.”

Its face sprouted red flaming eyes. “We were only having fun with you. Then you went psycho on us. You got no clue how the movie business works.”

She spoke in her Academy Award winning voice, “I’m not like other actresses. I’ve got a brain. I’ve got talent. I told you I won’t do nasty scenes.”

The creature growled, “I’m going to kill you for this!” It shape-shifted into a six-foot-tall alien. Its skin bruised to a metallic black, sleek and silver-shiny in the nightglow. Drool dripped from four rows of teeth. It raised a long-fingered hand toward her. “I’m going to break your fucking ne―”

She swung the axe, lopped off its hand. Acid shot from its knobby wrist and melted a hole in the floor that opened into the basement. The alien hobbled back, screeching. A long spiny tail ripped out of its back, swooshed, whipping the air, knocking the mounted deer head off the wall.

Anger burning like Sigourney Weaver’s in Aliens, Abby charged her assailant, axe held at twelve o’clock. The xenomorph swatted at her with its one remaining hand. Its spear-tipped tail swooped over its head, lashing at her. Air hissed past Abby’s ears as her head dodged the attacking tail. Its elongated head shook wildly, denying her the chance to strike it.

“Not me!” it shrieked. “You won’t get me.” The second set of teeth snapped outward.

Side-stepping its bite, Abby angled around its left, forcing the alien to back into the hall, where its tail had no room to whip at her. It stumbled back over a corpse that had a pumpkin-shaped head, and fell to the floor.

With a maniacal scream, Abby pounced. The axe blade bit into the alien’s chest, severing the breastbone. The creature screamed in agony as it shape-shifted into a man with bulging eyes. The movie director, Jimmy Glick.

In a flash, Abby remembered him taking her to the cabin in the woods where a film crew of four other men had been waiting. They were supposed to be filming a horror movie with her as the lead heroine among a cast of supporting actors. She had been shocked to discover that she was the only actress in the movie. They had given her a drink that made her head feel strange. Then the five men taunted her. They each put on monster masks and did horrible things to her as one man circled with a video camera. While the men tortured her for hours, Abby had closed her eyes and escaped into the movie world inside her mind, drawing strength from Jennifer Hills, Ms. 45, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sharni Vinson, and all the heroines who had battled killers and monsters on the silver screen.

Jimmy Glick looked up at her helplessly. Red drool spouted from his lips.

Abby pulled the axe blade out of the bloody furrow. “Never underestimate a woman with talent.”

The director screamed as she brought down the blade again and again and again . . .

When Jimmy was nothing but severed parts, she dropped the axe, her arms shaking with adrenaline. She walked over to a mirror on the wall. Resembling Sissy Spacik in Carrie, Abby’s blood-soaked reflection smiled back at her and said, You’re going to be a famous movie star, Abby Albright. No matter how much people try to take advantage of you, no matter how much they put you down, YOU are a star. She began clapping and tearing up. “If only the cameras had been rolling on my best performance.”

She hummed as she lined the mantle above the fireplace with severed hands, feet, and various limbs that stood propped up like anatomical sculptures.

Abby stepped back and admired her trophies. “They aren’t Oscars yet, but they’re a start.”

∼ Brian Moreland

© Copyright 2017 Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved.
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Fireworks

It was a beautiful night for July Fourth fireworks. Frank Manetti drank an ice-cold Bud as he sat with his wife, Kim, on a picnic blanket in the park. All around, over a hundred people had gathered on blanket islands, waiting for the big show in the sky. Giggling kids ran with sparklers. On a stage, the high school band performed ‘Stars and Stripes’.

Frank and Kim’s three-year-old daughter, Emmy, talked to a jar of lightning bugs that Daddy had caught with her earlier. His baby girl looked adorable with face-painted flowers blooming on her cheeks. Frank wished he could bottle up Emmy’s preciousness and keep it forever. His teenage kids had grown out of that stage.

Collin, his fourteen-year-old, sat off by himself under a tree, playing a damned video game on his tablet, oblivious to the festivities. Agitation gnawing his gut, Frank searched the crowd for his sixteen-year-old. Cassandra stood near the softball field bleachers, talking with her girlfriends and some older boys.

“Cass should be with us,” Frank muttered. “I’m going over there.”

“Leave her be,” Kim said. “You’ll just embarrass her and then she’ll hate us for a month.”

It pained Frank’s heart that his kids had grown distant. Whenever his family was all together, Cass was always texting and Collin rarely looked up from a digital screen. At least I have sweet Emmy a few more years. His youngest looked up, smiled at Daddy, then went back to talking to the jar of glowing bugs.

Frank fished out two more beers from the cooler and nuzzled next to his wife, handing her a cold one. He kept one eye on Cass and the boys. He wanted very much to enjoy the school’s orchestra, but a group of sketchy teens nearby were blaring god-damn rap music. Their cigarettes lit up the gloom like fireflies.

“Hey,” Frank shouted. “You wanna turn that down? We’re trying to hear the band.”

A punk in a sleeveless T-shirt and black bandana turned his head and blew out smoke. “Got a problem, dude?”

“Yeah, I got a problem. You’re upsetting the people who came for the show.”

“Here’s your show.” Bandana gave him the finger and turned the music up louder. His friends snickered and raised their beers.

A rash of heat spread across Frank’s face. Squeezing his fist, he started to get up, but Kim grabbed his arm. “Don’t.”

Back in his marine days, Frank would have pounded the shit out of these assholes. With his wife and daughter nearby, he refrained.

The band stopped and Mayor McKee stepped onto the stage. “Is everyone ready for our big fireworks extravaganza?”

Families cheered. The softball team raised their bats and gloves.

The mayor gave the signal and the band started playing ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. The first bottle rocket launched a flare into the air with a whistle. White dots sparkled the night sky, followed by crackles. Emmy clapped and giggled. Next came starbursts of red, white, and blue. The audience gave an applause.

As bright lights lit up everyone’s faces, Frank watched Cass standing too close to some jock. The pungent smell of weed wafted across the Manetti family’s blanket. Frank’s glare shifted to Bandana and his gang of lowlifes. A big guy with a shaved head inhaled smoke from a joint.

Frank was about to confiscate the damned thing, when the gang members pointed toward the sky. Kaleidoscopes of colors flashed over the park. Then a shrieking flare shot down and exploded on the band. The music stopped as shattered instruments cut through the crowd like shrapnel. A piece of trombone speared into the mayor’s chest.

“Jesus!” Frank straightened.

“My God! What’s happening?” Kim asked.

He shook his head, stunned by the carnage of dead and wounded people. The blast had been too big for a poorly-aimed firework. More like a mortar. He’d suffered plenty of them in Iraq. His first thought was terrorist attack.

Two more flares shot from the sky and struck the blankets of the softball team. Kim threw her arms over Emmy as fiery body parts and sports gear flew through the air. A spinning aluminum bat shattered Emmy’s firefly jar.

Frank shielded Kim and Emmy with his body as more explosions erupted across the park. Screams and crying sounded all around. People trampled over one another to find cover.

A dozen flying objects emerged from the smoke. Long, sweeping red lasers burned holes through people all across the field. A man’s head glowed orange before it vaporized.

A running kid in a band uniform burst into red mist.

Kim cried, “Our kids!”

“I’ll find them,” Frank handed his toddler off to Kim and pointed to the woods that bordered the park. “You and Emmy get to safety.”

She hesitated, her eyes pleading.

He pushed Kim. “Go!”

Three small UFOs flew over and barraged the scrambling crowd. A blast hit Bandana’s gang, splattering the shaved-head kid all over the others. A singed arm with tattoos landed on Frank’s blanket.

Covered in blood, Bandana and his friends joined a panicked mob that knocked Frank to the ground. Shoes stepped on his hand and back. Emmy cried. Kim screamed.

He watched helplessly as wife and daughter were caught up in a stampede that carried them away into a cloud of smoke. Two small UFOs zipped after them.

Frank scooped up an aluminum bat and ran into the haze searching for Cass and Collin. Scorched bodies lay scattered across the grass. Dodging blasts and debris, he scoured the ground, terrified of finding his kids among the dead. Bandana reached up, begging for help. Then a laser sliced the prone punk’s skull in half.

Six more UFOs whooshed overhead, shooting at anyone who moved. Frank ducked beneath a tree as lasers torched the branches. The treetop caught fire.

He ran toward the woods, screaming his older children’s names, “Cass! Collin!”

“Dad!”

He spotted Cassandra running with a crowd through the forest. “Cass!”

“Daddy!” She made her way back and hugged her father.

“Where’s Collin?”

Cass shook her head. “Mom and Emmy?”

“In the woods. Safe, I hope.”

Still gripping the metal bat, Frank led Cass along a creek. Their feet splashed through shallow water. Dazed survivors hid behind tree trunks. Others ran and took cover under a bridge. Frank and Cass joined them in the shadows. By the grace of God, he found Kim and Emmy among the crowd. They were badly cut and bruised, but okay. The four hugged, thankful to be alive.

“Collin?” Kim asked.

Frank’s heart sank, learning that his son was still out there. “Take care of the girls. I’ll try to find him.” He stepped out from beneath the bridge.

A metallic whoosh reverberated through the air. Red lights glowed. A small object flew low along the creek. Two robotic arms stretched out of its sides and turned into spinning blades. The UFO charged straight for the survivors under the bridge. Frank stood in front, wielding his bat. Just as the craft reached him, he swung, smacked the thing, and sent it rolling through the creek. Sparks skipped across the water. The spinning blades stopped and the red lights winked out.

Frank picked up the dead machine with both hands. Weighing less than fifty pounds, it looked like some kind of alien spacecraft with multiple weapons. He turned it over. “What the fuck?” Etched into its belly were the words, ‘Made in China’.

Frank returned to the crowd beneath the bridge, more confused than ever, and determined to protect his girls. As he watched several more machines fly off over the treetops, he feared for his son.

*   *   *

A few blocks away, Collin Manetti jogged down a sidewalk through the neighborhood. He could still hear distant laser blasts and screams as people sought shelter. Several houses had caught fire. A few smoking bodies lay on the road and front lawns.

One of the flying machines careened up the street and hovered straight above Collin. He admired the technology of blinking lights and arsenal of weapons that jutted from its sides like tentacles. The ASSASSYN-X9000 was the coolest drone he’d ever seen. He gave it a salute and typed a few commands on his tablet. The drone zipped away to create havoc somewhere else.

Whistling, Collin entered his best friend’s house. Matt and Toby sat in the living room with VR goggles on their heads. Both teens cheered as they rapidly thumbed their joystick buttons.

“Dude, this new video game is kick ass,” Matt said. “I feel like I’m flying a spacecraft.”

“The screams sound so real,” Toby said.

“That’s because they are, dipshit.” Collin dropped into a beanbag chair and put on a third set of goggles. He switched the controls from his tablet to the joystick console and resumed control of a handful of machines, sending them on a search and destroy mission through the neighborhood and into the woods.

“I gotta get me one of these,” Matt said. “Where’d you get it?”

“Bought it off a gaming website from China.” Collin felt the sensation of sitting in a moving cockpit, as he dive-bombed people running along the ground.

Toby yelled “Score!” when he obliterated another target. “How many drones did you say the game comes with?”

Collin grinned. “A dozen. And the box comes with plenty of fireworks.”

∼ Brian Moreland

© Copyright Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved.

Holomorphs

Eager with excitement, I downloaded the new app. It asked to connect with my friends and followers on social media, and I accepted. I filled out the detailed profile, answered a questionnaire that recorded my voice, and linked my Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Within minutes of completing my profile, my first holomorph friend appeared! I stood speechless in my living room as light beamed from the ceiling. Swirling particles formed into my best friend, Dane, from Seattle. Not the real him, but a vivid, life-sized hologram. He was partially transparent, like a Technicolor ghost, but somehow the illusion felt real.

“Oh, my God, this is incredible!” I said.

“I know, right? Like the Starship Enterprise beamed me here.”

We half-embraced, bro-style. There was actually a supple texture to his three-dimensional form, like hugging someone made of thin rubber. Dane was shorter than expected. I’d never actually seen him in person. We’d met on Facebook and became instant friends in a group that discussed sci-fi horror movies. For years, I’d only known Dane through typed-word conversations on a screen, along with his stagnant profile photo—a plump face with a beard.

“The hologram you looks different from your photo,” I said.

“I kinda lied about my weight on my profile,” he chuckled. “I like the holo-me better.”

I didn’t care. I had a 3D friend to cure my loneliness. Dane hung out with me all weekend. We watched a marathon of Netflix horror movies, played video games, and had the best time getting to know each other. Sometimes Dane’s responses were off. It didn’t take long to realize I wasn’t talking to a live version of him, but a software recreation based on his profile. Eventually, we ran out of things to talk about. So I downloaded three more holomorph friends—Raquel from Chicago, Jon from Tallahassee, and Niles, transported all the way from London.

Our eclectic group played poker at the dinner table and chatted about our favorite books, music, and politics. Raquel and Jon debated over whether Democrats or Republicans should be running the country. They were such extreme opposites that trying to convince one another to switch viewpoints was futile. Pretty soon the poker chips started flying. Niles ducked to stay out of the line of fire. “This is better than watching Hulu!” he said and we all busted up laughing.

We played cards for hours. I was the only one eating and drinking, since my holomorph friends didn’t require food or drinks. Cheap entertainment.

My first week using the new social media was a whirlwind of crazy fun. I downloaded friends from all over the world. I threw holomorph parties. Holograms of people filled my den, kitchen, and backyard.

I’ll never be lonely again, I’d thought.

Some of the parties got rowdy. A few friends started fights and trashed the place, so I unfriended them. The friends I wanted to keep, like Dane, Raquel, Jon, and Niles, I couldn’t figure out how to get them to leave without unfriending them. The app’s settings seemed to be missing a ‘go home’ button, so I let my favorite friends stay and hang out. I couldn’t bear the alternative of living in an empty house again.

One evening my friends became glitchy—their bodies flickered and their voices cut in and out.

I contacted the app’s tech support and a holographic man in a blue repairman’s jumpsuit and ball cap appeared in my living room. “Hi, I’m Felix the Fixer. What seems to be the problem, Mr. Bradley?”

“My holomorph friends aren’t projecting fully.”

“That’s due to a technical issue with our satellite. We’re fixing the problem.” Felix winked. “Until then, enjoy some of our premium packages for free.” He gave me the codes and disappeared.

On my iPad, I scanned through all the app’s newest features. Hundreds of choices boggled my mind. I could hang out with holomorphs of famous celebrities, dead historical figures, or adopt a holodog or holocat. I could project scenes from my favorite movies right into my home. There seemed no end to the pleasurable escapes I could experience.

Curious, I ordered from the app’s most popular feature—holoporn! My bedroom filled with a harem of horny holowomen. It took a while, but eventually I grew tired of shallow sex. I felt ready to settle down with a holomorph girlfriend.

I swiped through countless screens of profiles until I found my ideal match. When I downloaded Simone, it was love at first sight. Long auburn hair, cute face, a girl-next-door personality, she matched every trait that turned me on. We had loads in common too. The only downside was she looked like she’d been molded into glowing Jell-O, but the sex was good.

The first three weeks with Simone were heavenly. She made me feel whole again. After a month, I reached the limit of her varied responses and she began to sound repetitive. I longed to touch and hold and have meaningful conversations with the real Simone. Her profile said she lived in Boston. I messaged her on Facebook and asked if she’d like to visit me in Dallas. A strange thing, though. The real Simone had no idea who I was. I told her we met on HoloMatch and I was her holomorph boyfriend. She wrote back that she already had a boyfriend. A real one. She threatened to call the police if I ever bothered her again.

I continued to date the holoSimone until I came home from work one day and found her in bed with Dane. Furious, I ran to my iPad and unfriended them both. Their holograms vaporized.

Raquel and Jon yelled at me for sending their friends away, so I obliterated them too. Niles and my other holofriends kept their distance from me. I began to resent them all. None of them had anything new to say. They talked about the weather, TV shows, current events, but it was all surface stuff. When I probed deeper, I kept hitting the limits of their programming. I longed to connect on a soul-to-soul level. I felt alone in a house full of ghosts.

When each holomorph became boring or got on my nerves, I ended the friendship with a push of a button. I had millions more friends I could download. I went through dozens of them. I learned that not all friends match their profiles. Their photos looked friendly, but their holograms projected their true natures. At my birthday party, one weirdo said he saw everything as a video game. Then he went bat-shit and started stabbing my other friends with a kitchen knife. I grabbed my tablet and vaporized him just before he stabbed me.

While my friends moved through the house around me, their names and faces blurring together, I sat on the couch and sifted through the app’s unlimited features on my TV. In bed, I swiped through profile after profile, seeking a woman to be my soul mate. At work, I mostly stared at my computer screen. Around me, in a maze of lonely cubicles, a mix of real people and holoworkers interfaced with their computers and tablets. Wherever I went out in public, I kept my eyes glued to my cell phone. I kept delving deeper and deeper into the app, searching for happiness.

Today I noticed my body turning transparent. My bathroom mirror reflected a ghostly version of myself that flickered.

I summoned Felix again. “What’s happening to me?”

“You’re very popular, Mr. Bradley,” Felix said with a grin. “You’ve had multiple friends download your holomorph into their homes. On HoloMatch, you are currently boyfriend to over twelve hundred women. That’s a lot of downloads, my friend. The drawback is you’re beginning to atomize.”

My body flickered faster. “What do you mean . . . atomize?”

“After awhile the holomorph versions of you begin to disintegrate your body into thousands, and eventually millions, of atoms that live in co-existing realities. It’s a limitation when combining our software with human biology.”

“Why didn’t you warn me before I downloaded the app?” I yelled.

“It’s all there in the fine print of our contract. Once you agreed to Holomorph Corp’s terms, you gave them the right to download your atoms to their millions of subscribers.”

My skin began to pixilate and lose cohesion. Tiny holes speckled my arms. I grabbed his shoulders. “You have to fix me.”

“I’m afraid atomization is a permanent glitch for lower grade subscribers.”

My hands disintegrated. My pixilated flesh and bones flew up toward the ceiling like a swarm of insects. Holding up the stumps of my eroding arms, I howled and began to cry.

Felix tapped his iPad. “Not to worry, Mr. Bradley. We still have time to save you. Now that you’ve surpassed five thousand friends, you’re eligible to upgrade to our Holosphere.”

“Wha-what’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s our most exciting new feature. As the Holomorphs founder predicted, people no longer need the physical world. So our engineers developed the next evolution in reality.” He pushed a button on his tablet and a neon red door opened in the center of my living room.

“Follow me. I’ll take you to a place where you’ll always be happy and have plenty of friends.”

Desperate to feel whole again, I followed Felix through the holodoor.

~ Brian Moreland

© Copyright 2017 Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved

Beast of Winter

Manitou Forest, Manitoba, Canada

A damn good day of hunting, Angus Kujak mused as his bloodied hands steered the truck between snow-covered pines. The antlers of his most recent kill rattled against the hood. Kujak rubbed his mutton-chop sideburns, feeling proud. Through the rearview mirror he glimpsed the pile of carcasses strapped to the flatbed. Atop two elk bulls lay his prize trophy—a grizzly bear. Took five bullets, but he’d finally brought her down with a dead zinger through the eye. Definitely a story for the boys at the chophouse.

“Hunting’s been better than usual, eh Jeb?” Snoring came from the passenger seat. Kujak reached over and knocked his cousin’s forehead. “I’m not paying you to sleep.”

Jeb, dressed in blood-stained camouflage and a winter hat with earflaps, sat up rubbing his forehead. “Sorry. Shelby kept me up half the night.”

“What’s she moaning about?”

“Usual. I spend too much time at the pub, not enough with her and the kids.” Jeb unscrewed his thermos cap. The smell of coffee and whiskey filled the truck.

“Man’s gotta have time with his friends. Pass that over.” Kujak took a swig from the thermos. The coffee was cold, but the whiskey went down with a fiery burn.

Up ahead, a white squall was devouring the pines. Snow pelted the windshield, threatening to bury the truck with the rest of the forest. He turned the wipers on full speed.

Jeb said, “Angus, I need to tell you something…you aren’t gonna like it.”

“What is it?”

“Shelby wants me to quit working for you and take a job building that pipeline.”

Kujak got a vile taste in his mouth. Jeb’s wife was always henpecking him. Soon after they’d gotten married, she’d cut off Jeb’s balls and stuck them in a drawer. She didn’t care for hunting—Killing animals is barbaric!—or her husband working for Kujak. They’d been hunting together since they were kids, long before Shelby entered the picture, and no woman should come between them. “You wouldn’t abandon your cousin, would ya?”

Jeb looked out his window. “I dunno. Thornhill Petroleum promises good pay plus benefits.”

“I pay you damned good, plus bonuses when you actually kill something.”

“Yeah, but pipeline work’s legal. Mr. Thornhill paid a visit to the pub last night. Said he had plenty of work for anyone interested.”

Kujak slammed his fist down on the steering wheel. “That blasted son’bitch! I’ve lost most of my hunters since that weasel rolled into town. I’d like to string him up by his ankles.”

“You gotta admit, his pipeline has helped business. Ever since they started blasting through Manitou Forest, he’s been driving game right toward our hunting ground.”

“That’s why I need you more than ever.” The road straightened. Kujak shifted into a higher gear. The truck’s engine howled in protest as it drove at forty miles an hour. “Jeb, I been thinking about making you a partner. You’d be surprised how much you can make. I’m selling more than just the meat and hides. The antlers, bones, hooves, and innards, I got buyers for all of it. We can earn…”

Something rammed the side of the truck. The steering wheel spun loose from Kujak’s grip. The truck careened 180 degrees, slammed sideways into a wall of snow. Elk antlers scraped across the hood and punctured the windshield. Kujak’s face hit the steering wheel. Dazed, he stared down at his blurry boots. Blood dribbled from his nose over his lips. “Jesus!” Kujak gripped the wheel until the forest stopped spinning. “You okay, Jeb?”

His cousin rubbed his forehead. “Hit my damn head, but I’m okay. What happened?”

“Felt like a moose broadsided us. See a dead one near the road?”

“Nothing. Not even blood.”

An animal howled from the snowy mist.

“Fuckin’ hell was that?” Jeb crouched in his seat.

Kujak rubbed his eyes. “I’m still seeing double. Can you spot it?”

“Something’s moving fast between the trees. Shit, it’s coming at us from behind!” Jeb yelped.

The flatbed rocked, shaking the cab. Kujak’s neck hairs rose to hackles as something snorted inches from the back window. Claws scraped metal. A blurry shape leapt off the truck.

Kujak’s vision cleared just as the beast disappeared into the falling snow.

Jeb trembled. “W-What the hell was that?”

“Grizzly.” The hunter’s pulse in Kujak quickened. “Let’s bag ‘em!” He threw open the door, grabbed his rifle, and hurried around the back of the truck. “Shit!”

The entire load of carcasses—the two elks and bear—were missing. “How the hell?”

Kujak followed a trail of blood and fur into a thicket of pines. Monstrous footprints made deep impressions in the snow. “Must be the granddaddy of grizzlies. Jeb, get out here.”

His cousin remained inside the cab, his back to the door that was pinned against the snow bank. “I don’t wanna chase a bear that size.”

“It’s running off with our game. Get your ass out here!” Kujak loaded a fresh cartridge in the rifle’s chamber.

Jeb climbed out with his gun. “Oh lordy, your face.”

Kujak wiped a sleeve across his bloody nose, then marched into the woods. He whispered, “I’ll follow the blood trail. Keep to my left.”

“What if he circles us?”

“Shoot the bastard. Now shush.” Kujak crept through the red snow. The drift beyond the road had piled two-feet deep. Sweet Jesus, he’d never seen paw prints that size. His boots stepped from one giant impression to the next. In some places he had to leap, due to the long stride. The claw marks looked abnormally long. The more Kujak studied the pattern, the odder he felt. What kind of bear runs on two legs?

Ahead, the evergreens huddled close together. Snow dropped like a million down feathers. As he weaved between clumps of spruce, Kujak tried to imagine how a bear could run off with the carcasses of three large animals. Scattered across the bloody trail lay broken antlers, a severed elk leg. Tufts of fur clung to branches high above Kujak’s head. His adrenaline pumped with the thrill of the hunt. He had to bag this granddaddy.

Wind howled, long and hollow, like a baying wolf.

Kujak glanced at Jeb, who moved parallel between the trees. Every few feet his cousin disappeared behind pines, then reappeared in a new place.

Jeb froze and pointed frantically.

The brown flanks of a bear moved between the trees twenty yards away. There you are. Kujak locked his scope on the beast’s back and fired. A hole opened in the dark brown fur. The beast roared.

Kujak squeezed off another shot. “Take that you bastard!”

Instead of dropping, the bear in his scope shot toward him, snapping branches. Kujak got off two more shots before a jarring impact knocked him to the ground. His vision went blurry again. More shots fired. To his left. Or was it his right?

His cousin screamed and fired wildly, bullets whizzing through the forest.

“Jeb!” Kujak sat up. The forest spun. He tried to stand, but something heavy and furry pinned his leg. “Shit!” Blind, he stabbed the animal with his knife, but it lay there without a struggle, already dead. Kujak felt along the hairy behemoth that lay on his foot. His hand found a bear’s head; his fingers plunged into a bloody eye socket. It was the bear he’d shot earlier. The granddaddy beast had hurled her twenty yards through the air.

What kind of animal can throw a grizzly?

The gunshots stopped. So did Jeb’s screams.

Kujak scanned the forest, stopping on what looked like a bloody human thigh.

Jeb’s body lay on the ground, an elk carcass covering his head and upper torso. His legs were hidden behind a copse of blue spruce.

Kujak’s scrotum tightened when he heard crunching.

The beast snorted, then yanked Jeb’s body into the thicket. As if taunting him, a severed arm in a camouflage sleeve smacked the tree next to Kujak.

He felt in the snow for his rifle. Found a shattered scope and broken nape. Tossing the useless weapon, Kujak tried to lift the bear’s carcass. He screamed in frustration and immediately regretted it.

The bone crunching stopped. Heavy footfalls stomped through the woods.

An idea came. He soaked his hands in bear’s blood and rubbed his ankle inside his boot. He crawled backward, pulling his pinned foot. After a few yanks, the greased ankle slipped free. He bolted for the truck, half running, half stumbling, his bare foot sinking in the snow.

Tree limbs snapped behind him.

Kujak didn’t look back. Kept his eyes on the truck. Thirty more feet.

A roar like nothing he’d ever heard echoed across the valley. A whirlwind of snow blasted around him.

Twenty more feet to the truck. Kujak charged up the hill.

An elk antler whirled past his shoulder, skidded across the road.

Kujak jerked open the driver’s door and jumped behind the wheel. He fumbled for the keys, his fingers greasy with bear’s blood. “Come on, come on,” he pleaded.

Another antler struck his door.

He turned the key, ignited the engine, and jammed the accelerator. The truck slid sideways as the passenger side wheels spun. He shifted into reverse.

Beyond the frosty windshield a giant shape loomed in front of the truck.

The wipers pushed away the snow, revealing a skeletal creature with pale skin. It had long white hair and a horrid face with black holes for eyes. Its lips had been chewed to shreds. A serrated mouth grinned as it pointed at Kujak and shrieked. The sound pierced his eardrums with ice-pick stabbings of pain. His skin crystallized with frost as a chill coursed through him. Kujak felt his belly caving inward. The muscles tightened around his bones.

The beast picked up what was left of Jeb and ran off into the woods.

Kujak sat behind the wheel, shaking. His Cree friends had warned him not to hunt in Manitou Forest. That’s the Wendigo’s hunting ground. He’d always laughed off talk of Indian superstitions.

His heart turned to ice in his chest as he shifted into drive and pushed the pedal to the floor. The old Chevy flatbed fishtailed then finally straightened. It took a mile before he found the nerve to look at his reflection in the rearview mirror. His face was gaunt, his plump cheeks sunk inward. The irises of his eyes had turned pure white. His teeth grew sharp as icicles. He thought of Shelby, the boys at the chophouse, and that bastard Thornhill. Kujak’s bloody hands gripped the wheel. With a voracious hunger for meat gnawing at his belly, he drove back toward town.

~ Brian Moreland

© Copyright 2017 Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved

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