The February Selected Writer is Matt Hayward
Please feel free to email Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org
IN THE PINES
Peter gripped the porch railing and squinted at the robin flopping in the snow-covered meadow. The tiny bird kicked up flecks, squeaking and leaving miniature trenches in the white. “Poor bastard…”
From within the cabin, eight-year-old Jamie called out, “What was it, Dad? Someone throw a rock?”
A series of bleeps from kid’s gameboy followed, and Peter decided not to ruin his son’s fun. Rarely did they get time together, let alone a trip away for Christmas, and Peter would rather tell a lie than have Kelly know their son saw his first dead animal on his watch. That sight would lead to a “conversation.”
Peter muttered a swear, a pillar of air puffing from his lips. He cleared his throat. “Just the porch settling. Nothing to worry about.”
“Is it Grandad? Playing a joke?”
The question sent a wave of worry through him and he sighed. Truth be told, he had no idea where his father was. “Not Grandad. Not yet. He should be home soon, though.”
Peter descended the porch and slogged to the now-still bird. He scooped the animal in his palm and studied it. Its beak was slightly parted, and twig-like legs were frozen straight out like a dead thing in a cartoon. He imagined a boing! sound effect accompanying the sudden rigor mortis. A rust colored, oil-like substance stained the bird’s underbelly.
Peter jumped at the voice. In the cabin doorway, Jamie adjusted his mitts and hat. With a smile, he jumped the porch steps and bounced to his father. “What is it? That a rock?”
Peter palmed the bird and put his hands behind his back like a magician doing a trick. “Yeah. Just found it out here. Why don’t you head back inside and wait for Grandad? You know, I’d say he’s getting you a present from town.” Sure, he thought, and he’s buying me a car to make up for the lost time, too.
Peter didn’t hate his father— hate was too strong a word—but the old man’s alcoholism and lack of enthusiasm meant that Peter didn’t expect much anymore. Add the birthday card for Jamie that needed forging each year, and well…
But then again, when they came to the cabin, Peter found the home cleaned and warmed. Two fresh beds were made upstairs and not a bottle was in sight. Still, none of that answered the question: Where was his father?
Something caught Jamie’s eye and the boy turned. With the distraction, Peter tossed the dead bird and braced himself, expecting the kid to hear the thump. Instead, the boy pointed to the woods bordering the field where they had just hiked to reach the house only that morning. “What’s that over there, Dad?”
Hands on his knees, Peter’s brow furrowed as he scanned the tree line, noting movement between snow-heavy branches. “A deer?” he said aloud, though he couldn’t quite tell. “Grandad gets them all the time out here.”
The young boy gasped in amazement. “Can we get up close so I can get a photo for Mom?”
The deer shimmied through the trees and into the meadow, sending a wave of snow hissing to the ground. It shook its head from side to side as if agitated by horseflies. The animal snorted and its fur-covered muscles seemed to twitch at the shoulders. Peter reached for his son’s hand instinctively, gripping the boy’s cold mitts.
“Is it sick?” Jamie asked. “Looks like it’s acting kinda funny.” The boy’s voice fluttered as if he’d made a joke, but Peter knew the quaver came from fright. Hell, he felt it, too. A slow lick of alarm slipped across his belly. What if it was rabies or something?
“He is acting funny.” Peter strained to sound assertive, but the tightness in his throat protested. “Cold weather, Jay. They’ll act funny if they’re cold, hungry and cranky. Same as us.”
A lame explanation, but it seemed to do the trick as Jamie chuckled. “It’s Rudolph, isn’t it, Daddy? You can’t fool me. I’m smart.”
The boys head fell to the side as if his father was the stupidest man to ever live. “The red nose, Dad. See, he has a red nose.”
Peter’s stomach somersaulted as the deer’s head quivered again, its snout catching the light and reflecting a wet, crimson stain on its face.
Jamie’s voice swam into focus, as if coming from very far away. “…spruce branches so I can finish my decoration?”
“Dad! I asked if we can collect. Spruce. Branches. So. I. Can. Finish. My. Decoration. You know, for Grandad.”
Peter gave his son’s hand a quick double-squeeze. “Sure, sure. Look, we’ll go this way, though, okay? We don’t want to bother old Rudolph there.”
As they set off, Peter just about managed to tear his gaze from the animal. A carousel of possibilities played around his mind on the condition of both the robin and the deer: An oil leak. Both creatures drank, desperately craving water. No, no, that didn't make sense. Woodland critters were smarter than that, and besides, oil was not crimson…Some berries in the forest had spoiled. Possible, but would a deer scoff down enough to stain its entire snout? Just some berries? Unlikely.
The snow crunched beneath their heels as Jamie pulled Peter along, the boy giggling and trying to race ahead like an over-excited dog on a leash. As they reached the tree line, Jamie’s laughter tapered out.
“It’s dark in there,” he said, his voice sobered. “Kinda scary.”
Peter nodded, shaking away the puzzle in his brain. “It’s safe. Just a forest, Jay. Your Dad’s here, remember?"
The boy smiled with such sincerity that Peter’s chest hurt in the best possible way. He squeezed his son’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s get some tree boughs for Grandad.”
Crunching through the small piles of snow, they overstepped a fallen log and into the thicket, the ashen sky blotted out by a canopy overhead. Shots of light peppered through, twinkling in the shadowed snow like untouched sugar. Nearby, a squirrel shot up a thick oak, chittering as it scurried out of sight.
Jamie chortled, seemingly relaxed. “The best stuff’s gotta be here. We’re in the trees’ home.”
As they trekked the foliage, two things occurred to Peter. First, besides the sound of that single squirrel, silence pressurized the woods. Second, markings lead to and from an open clearing ahead. Jamie seemed to notice the disturbed snow, too. “What’s that, Dad?”
“Animal tracks,” he said, noting the hoof prints and other, smaller markings. “Could be from our friend, the deer.”
“Rudolph’s not my friend,” Jamie said. “I think he’s sick… I wouldn’t wanna hang out with him.”
“Yeah, we don’t want to hang out with him…” A sight in the middle of the clearing sent a sudden shock through him. Peter wanted to faint. “Hold on…”
Peter got to one knee for a better angle, tilting his head to the side. Something lay ahead in the disturbed snow, something which all the animal trails led to and from.
“Jamie, stay by this tree. Don’t move.”
“No! Dad! Don’t leave me!”
“I’m not leaving you. Hang on here for just a second.” He leaped to his feet and slogged into the clearing like a man in a dream, visions of his father snoring and still stinking of booze as snow eased over him like a nighttime blanket for the big sleep.
His heart drummed in his ears and a single wish blared in his mind: Don’t be my dad, please, don’t be my dad. Don’t be my dad…
The snow covered most the mess, but some flesh still remained visible. Black flesh. Spotting the teeth, a dizzy spell washed over Peter and he brought a hand to his forehead. Those teeth did not belong to anything human…long, yellowed appendages jutting from exposed gums over nonexistent lips, reaching to the chin and two slit-like nostrils. This was not a man, but a monster. The sight made Peter want to scream but he stifled the urge in order not to scare his son.
“Dad,” he heard his son call. “Can we go back to the cabin now?”
Peter nodded, his eyes drifting further down the dead creature’s emaciated body. Spotting shredded wings (how had he missed the wings?), the creature reminded him of a humanoid bat—like something from one of his childhood comics that his father would’ve shredded if he’d found. Then an odor ghosted on the wind, sickly sweet and not at all unlike strawberries. Peter wrinkled his nose.
The source of the smell was clear. A jagged hole as big as a fist gaped open in the monster’s abdomen, leaking a sap-like substance which pooled and turned the nearby snow to crimson slush.
He experienced a mixture of feelings…shock, dread, and relief. This thing couldn’t be his father.
“Crimson,” he muttered, getting to his feet. He didn’t want to be near the lifeblood of that beast, not after seeing evidence of what it had done to the animals. “Let’s get back to the house before we lose light.”
Suddenly something rustled overhead, shaking loose a snowfall from the trees. Peter squinted and blocked his eyes from the glare of the sun.
A black dot sped towards his face and he gasped and moved aside just as it thumped to the snow. A jay. The tiny bird spasmed about, flipping itself from side to side with feeble chirps.
Walking backwards, Peter almost tripped over a hunched log. He reached his son and grabbed hold of the boy’s hand. Then he decided better and lifted the kid into his arms.
“Going to get us back to Grandad’s quicker, okay?”
The boy’s voice bounced with each step. “Y-yeah. Ho-oh-kay.”
Peter maneuvered the trees with ease, overstepping hidden rocks and reaching branches. Ahead, the clearing came into view, a flat bed of pristine snow with only two tracks from the cabin. But something else still lurked in the field, and closer now, too.
Jamie pulled his face away from his father’s coat. “What?”
“Just…Rudolph. Try to be quiet, okay?”
Peter eased into the field, a thirty-foot gap between him and the deer. The creature’s head jerked frantically about, as if beetles and maggots crawled about its neck as it fought to remove them, but he knew the crimson goop on that shiny nose was the real root of the problem. In an instant that sent an ice chill through Peter’s core, the deer locked eyes and lowered its head, giving a clear view of two very solid antlers.
“Dad!” Jamie screamed. “Look out!”
The deer charged. Peter shot off, the snow pulling at his feet and bogging down his progress. He lugged his son, gripping him tightly in his arms. The cabin bobbed about ahead, seeming to get no closer but he knew that was only his fevered brain in a panic. Behind, the heavy clomps of the deer’s hoofs grew closer.
He lurched to the left, narrowly avoiding an antler in the spine. He gasped as the beast skidded to a halt and turned, regaining its bearings. It once again lowered its head and kicked snow with its front hoof, angling itself just right. Peter charged for the house. Behind, the deer took off.
Jaime was screaming in terror. Peter’s breath came in quick stabs as he pumped his legs harder, still gripping his son. The snow felt like custard, each step an absolute mockery in torture. But then the porch steps were beneath his feet and Peter leaped them in one, catching his first break of the day: Jamie had left the front door open before they left.
Peter raced inside and lurched backwards, slamming the door shut with his shoulders. He landed on his ass and let go of Jamie, half throwing the boy off him to free up his hands. He slammed the deadbolt home and fell back onto his rump, pressing his back into the door for extra security. His breath came in wheezes as he tried to calm his racing heart.
Across the room, Jamie cupped his mouth and stared wide eyed. Peter braced.
The hit came like a battalion. The door shook on its hinges, and Peter’s skull bucked back and cracked off the wood. He shook his head to clear his vision and readjusted himself for another hit. But another didn’t come. Instead, after a handful of tense seconds, a dull thump rang out.
“I think it left,” Peter said through gasping breaths, knowing Jamie didn’t have an answer but still feeling the need to speak. “I think that’s it, Jamie. I think it’s done.”
“You promise?” the boy asked, skipping about from foot to foot. Peter noticed the boy had wet himself.
“I promise, Jay. I promise. Look, go upstairs and clean…and clean up, okay? Everything’s all right now. Get into some fresh jeans and come back down. We’ll go back to my house as soon as you’re ready. We’ll be safe. I promise.”
The boy gave a curt nod, his face drained of color, and rushed up the staircase. In the silence, Peter took a moment to catch his breath, worried about how fast his heart rammed his ribcage.
Rammed, he thought. Fitting.
Then something caught his eye beneath the kitchen table. A square of paper. Peter grunted as he pushed himself forward and scooped the note, a memory of Jamie rushing inside and slamming his suitcase onto the table. The kid must’ve knocked the paper to the floor and not noticed. Peter recognized his old man’s handwriting.
Buying Santa Claus suit. Back evening. Love you.
A tight ball caught in Peter’s throat and he struggled to loosen it. In all thirty-nine years, his father had never said the words ‘love you.’ He’d also never cleaned since losing his wife, or spent a day without the bottle. Yet here it was, as good as a perfectly wrapped gift beneath the tree.
“Jesus Christ,” Peter whispered, turning his head to the ceiling to stifle some of the hot tears. “You actually made a damn effort. I can’t believe it.”
Memories of the sweet-scented goop oozing from the creature zapped back to mind and Peter scowled. The creatures had clearly been attracted to the smell, touched it, perhaps. Tried to taste it. He imagined a parasite living in the liquid, disguising its scent to appeal to other hosts in order to spread and reach further. He imagined the humanoid nightmare fell from the sky because it got infected, too, not because it was necessarily a threat itself.
His musings were interrupted. “Dad!” Jamie yelped from upstairs. Peter jumped to his feet. “Dad, everything’s going to be fine! Yeaaaay!”
“Jamie? Jamie, what are you talking about?”
Peter’s head shot from left to right, left to right, scanning the room. Suddenly he saw his father’s Winchester. He spotted the rifle by the fireside armchair and pulled it into his arms, checking the barrel. Loaded. Jesus, the old man might be able to clean a house, but he left a loaded rifle in reach of an eight-year-old.
“What’s going on, Jay? Talk to me.”
“Santa Claus is coming to get us! He’s running across the field!”
Peter’s stomach somersaulted for the second time that day. "Running? Jay, you’re sure he’s running?"
“He’s rushing to our rescue, Dad! Don’t worry!”
“Jay, you’re to stay upstairs, you hear? Stay. Up. Stairs!”
With a silent prayer, Peter unbolted the front door and stepped onto the porch, booting aside the spent carcass of the deer. Ahead, Santa Claus barged through the snow, the faint sound of crazed yelps carrying on the wind. Peter made out the white trimmings of the suit, the red fabric, and most importantly the crimson smears, splotched all over the old man’s face as if he’d gone insane and smashed it into his features.
“Dad!” Peter called, but his father only answered with another lunatic cry. “Dad, I want you to stop. Stop right now.”
His father kept coming, eyes wild and face strained with tension. Peter raised the rifle.
The shot cracked out across the field, sending a murder of crows flapping to more quiet locations. A splatter of gore exploded from the back of the madman's head, spraying the snow behind him. He swayed a moment, the trademark holiday hat knocked crooked on the now ruined face, then toppled.
Peter lowered the gun and panted, hearing Jamie clamor down the stairs with his suitcase in hand. “Daddy! Daddy, what are you doing? What happened to Santa?”
“Santa had to go with Rudolph,” Peter replied. He clutched his son when Jamie slammed into his leg and embraced him in a tight squeeze. “We need to go now. Stay close to me, okay? We’ve got the woods to tackle before we get to the car parked on the other side.”
“What’s that sound, Dad?”
Peter heard it, too, a garble of white noise from the direction his father had come. His brow furrowed as he scooped Jamie in one arm and started out across the field, back towards the woods where they’d make a break down the hillside to the car. Then his stomach lurched.
“It’s the town…” Peter said, his legs moving faster now. “The entire town is coming! They followed your Grandad. Keep a hold of me, Jay.”
As Peter fought through the snow, the woodland offering both a place of hiding and a place of lurking animals, Jamie asked, “What do they want, Daddy?”
Peter left the question unanswered and just kept moving, the snow gripping at his boot heals.
Behind, the call for blood from the townsfolk grew louder and louder.
Matt Hayward is an Irish author and musician. His debut collection Brain Dead Blues will release 2017 on Sinister Grin Press, and he can be reached via Twitter at @MattHaywardIRE.