Johnny shivers, bone cold, his hands shoved in his pockets. The chemical handwarmers he has in there diffuse heat into his fingers, but the chill air nips at his face and seeps through the thickness of his coat. He desperately wants to stand up and move his arms, stamp his feet, get the blood flowing back into his toes. But he can’t. For all he knows the beast is out there now, listening for him to make the slightest sound.
It’s not fully sunrise, but the dawn is seeping into the sky so he can see well enough into the woods.
He’d walked out here while the snow was still falling, the heavy, metal climbing stand strapped to his back, the snow filling in his steps behind him. The thing he is hunting is cunning and vicious. If it catches his track it will kill him before he hears it. And then there will be no one left to stop it.
“You’re our last hope,” Dad had told him that summer. “Your brother couldn’t do it. There’s no one else. It has to be killed. It has to be you. Do you understand?”
Johnny had seen what the beast had done to his brother. Johnny understood.
The frozen forest is deathly silent. Not a snapping twig or crunch of snow, no sound but the wind and his own breathing, warm breath making clouds of purpose in front of him. He breaths out through his nose, imagining that he is a dragon breathing fire down on an unsuspecting village. Then his father’s endless reminders to stay watchful and vigilant break into his daydream and he snaps back to cold reality.
He checks the gun again, lifting it to his shoulder and sighting down the barrel through the iron sights, marveling at the deadly heft of the thing in his hands. He had wanted to use a scope, but Dad had vetoed that. “You need a scope like you need a third arm. Scopes are for lazy bastards who can’t hit the broad side of a dead buffalo. You use the eyes that god gave you, and thank him you don’t have to use the bow like my grandfather did.”
They had spent most of autumn down at the summer cabin, shooting at cans, shooting at squirrels. Johnny knows how to breathe out before gently squeezing the trigger. He knows how to adjust for the wind, how to lead his prey with the bullet. The only thing he doesn’t know is if he’ll be strong enough to pull the trigger.
“Its strongest at the winter solstice,” his father had explained. “That’s the only day it can’t be denied. But it’s vulnerable that day too. That’s the only day it can walk in the sunlight. That’s the only day that it crosses into this world completely.”
The wind picks up again, biting through his layers of clothing. Here in the narrow pass between two mountains it occasionally howls like the beast itself. Something to do with the two rock faces echoing the sound back upon themselves over and over again gives that howl a rare unearthly quality that makes him shudder more deeply than even the cold gusts that tear at his clothes.
One such gust hits so hard that it rattles the tree stand, and he makes the mistake of looking straight down. He’s only twenty feet in the air, but it feels like two hundred.
He’s never told Dad he was afraid of heights. The last time he’d said he was afraid of anything was when he was five. He’d woken Dad up and said he was afraid of the monster in the dark, and Dad gave him a terrible thrashing and said that no son of his was going to be a sissyfied scaredy cat.
He wishes he could be brave. He wishes he was a man. He wishes Dad would be proud of him.
Just then a rabbit explodes out of the snow, not twenty feet from the foot of his tree and goes tearing off through the woods. He’s so startled and simultaneously so relieved he almost laughs out loud. He unscrews the cap of his Thermos, and takes a sip of the steaming hot chocolate Dad had sent with him the night before. He remembers the tears in the old man’s eyes as he handed him the green bottle. “Take care of it,” he had said. “It belonged to my father.”
The liquid burns down his throat and rests in his stomach, warm and comforting in the face of the cold outside. He has the bottle raised to his mouth to take another sip when he catches a hint of movement out of the corner of his eye. He’s startled, so much so that he loses his grip on the Thermos. He tries to catch it, but his gloved fingers are thick and clumsy and the heavy metal bottle slips out of his grip and clangs off the metal frame of the tree stand before falling into the snow below.
He freezes in the stand, focusing in on the place where the movement had come from. Was it his imagination? No. With every moment that passes he’s more certain of that. He can already hear the words Dad would be shouting at him if he were here; he curses himself for being so stupid, as he fumbles with the safety.
He brings the gun up to his shoulder and sights down the barrel, but he can’t see whatever had made the movement. Still, he’s not foolish enough to write it off to imagination. He knows what he saw, that hulking grey form so much more terrifying in life than the sketches Dad had shown him.
“It’s not dumb. It looks like an animal, but it isn’t,” Dad had said. “It’ll hunt you down, wily and cunning. It’ll kill you if you don’t kill it.”
And now he’s announced his presence to the beast. He feels his heart start to hammer harder in his chest, but he doesn’t let the fear overwhelm him. This is his life. If he panics it will not last much longer.
All the way up here he had doubted whether he could do what needed to be done. Every bend in the road through the winding mountains had brought new uncertainty. But in this moment all of that melts away. There is only the present. There is only the thing that must be done.
Still no movement.
Is the beast waiting for him to make the first move? Or has it flanked him somehow, moved under the cover of underbrush to sneak up behind him unawares?
Suddenly the tree stand seems more like a prison than a perch. He’s exposed up here, unprotected.
The moment stretches into what seems an eternity.
And then, from somewhere to his left there is a cracking sound as snow slips off a tree branch and cascades down to the ground. He turns to track the sound, his mind conjuring images of the grey thing slinking through the tree branches like some enormous cat. But the tree is empty. There’s nothing there, just the wind, or the warming of the sun loosening the snow’s icy hold on the branch.
And then there is once again movement in the corner of his eye, and he turns and see the beast tearing through the underbrush toward him, exploding through snow covered bushes, its great padded feet throwing up geysers of snow behind it.
Johnny takes aim. He has no time, but he takes it anyway, centering the sights on the center mass of the charging thing, the rest of the world dropping away to nothing, just hunter and prey and a gun with one silver bullet loaded in the chamber.
It isn’t a wolf, though the body is vaguely canine, fur matted together in the mucus left behind by the transformation. And the face…a grotesque parody of humanity with teeth spilling out of the mouth and eyes as black as coal, but still a face he knows.
He squeezes the trigger.
The gun roars.
A ballistic poem of love and mercy,
Sings through the cold.
The beast screams,
With a voice he knows,
Somehow Johnny is already on the ground, running across the snow toward the bloody form, eyes streaming with tears.
“They’re wrong about so many things,” Dad had told him. “They say it’s a wolf. They say it changes with the moon. But one thing they get right. It has to be killed by someone who loves you. That is our curse. We kill the beast. We become the beast.”
Death and love echoing through eternity.
The beast with his father’s face lies there, chest torn open, blood spilling red on the snow. His eyes are open for just a moment, his last breath bubbling out of his perforated lungs.
He looks up at Johnny and smiles a terrible smile.
Johnny wants to smile back. But his heart is breaking. And as his father breathes his last, something dark takes root there, and begins to grow.
Albert lives in Florida where the humidity has driven him halfway to madness, and his children have finished the job. He is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.