Chapter no 2

North American Lake Monsters

Three men are lying in what will someday be a house. For now it’s just a skeleton of beams and supports standing amid the foundations and frames of other burgeoning houses in a large, bulldozed clearing. The earth around them is a churned, orange clay. Forest abuts the Wild Acre development site, crawling up the side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, hickory and maple hoarding darkness as the sky above them shades into deepening blue. The hope is that soon there will be finished buildings here, and then more skeletons and more houses, with roads to navigate them. But now there are only felled trees, and mud, and these naked frames. And three men, lying on a cold wooden floor, staring up through the roof beams as the sky organizes a nightfall. They have a cooler packed with beer and a baseball bat.

Several yards away, mounted in the back of Jeremy’s truck, is a hunting rifle.

Jeremy watches stars burn into life: first two, then a dozen. He came here hoping for violence, but the evening has softened him. Lying on his back, balancing a beer on the great swell of his belly, he hopes there will be no occasion for it. Wild Acre is abandoned for now, and might be for a long time to come, making it an easy target. Three nights over the past week, someone has come onto the work site and committed small but infuriating acts of vandalism: stealing and damaging tools and equipment, spraypainting vulgar images on the project manager’s trailer, even taking a dump on the floor of one of the unfinished houses. The project manager complained to the police, but with production stalled and bank accounts running dry, angry subcontractors and prospective homeowners consumed most of his attention. The way Jeremy saw it, it was up to the trade guys to protect the site. He figured the vandals for environmental activists, pissed that their mountain had been shaved for this project; he worried that they’d soon start burning down his frames. Insurance would cover the developer, but he and his company would go bankrupt. So he’s come here with Dennis and Renaldo-his best friend and his most able brawler, respectively- hoping to catch them in the act and beat them into the dirt.

“They’re not coming tonight,” says Renaldo.

“No shit,” says Dennis. “You think it’s ’cause you talk too loud?” Dennis has been with Jeremy ten years now. For a while, Jeremy thought about making him partner, but the man just couldn’t keep his shit together, and Jeremy privately nixed the idea. Dennis is forty-eight years old, ten years older than Jeremy. His whole life is invested in this work: he’s a carpenter and nothing else. He has three young children, and talks about having more. This work stoppage threatens to impoverish him. “Bunch of goddamn Green Party eco-fucking-terrorist motherfuckers,” Dennis says.

Jeremy watches him. Dennis is moving his jaw around, working himself into a rage. That would be useful if he thought anybody was going to show tonight; but he thinks they’ve screwed it all up. They got here too early, before the sun was down, and they made too much noise. No one will come now.

“Dude. Grab yourself a beer and mellow out.”

“These kids are fucking with my life, man! You tell me to mellow out?”

“Dennis, man, you’re not the only one.” A breeze comes down the mountain and washes over them. Jeremy feels it move through his hair, deepening his sense of easy contentment. He remembers feeling that rage just this afternoon, talking to that asshole from the bank, and he knows he’ll feel it again. He knows he’ll have to. But right now it’s as distant and alien as the full moon, catching fire unknown miles above them. “But they’re not here. ‘Naldo’s right, we blew it. We’ll come back tomorrow night.” He looks into the forest crowding against the development site and wonders why they didn’t think to hide themselves there. “And we’ll do it right. So for tonight? Just chill.”

Renaldo leans over and claps Dennis on the back. “Mañana, amigo. Mañana!”

Jeremy knows that Renaldo’s optimism is one of the reasons Dennis resents him, but the young Mexican wouldn’t be able to function in this allwhite crew without it. He gets a lot of crap from these guys and just takes it. When work is this hard to come by, pride is a luxury. Nevertheless Jeremy is dismayed at Renaldo’s easy manner in the face of it all. A man can’t endure that kind of diminishment, he thinks, and not release anger somewhere.

Dennis casts Jeremy a defeated look. The sky retains a faint glow from twilight, but darkness has settled over the ground. The men are black shapes. “It’s not the same for you, man. Your wife works, you know? You got another income. My wife don’t do shit.”

“That’s not just her fault, though, Dennis. What would you do if

Rebecca told you she was getting a job tomorrow?”

“I’d say it’s about goddamned time!”

Jeremy laughs. “Bullshit. You’d just knock her up again. If that woman went out into the world you’d lose your mind, and you know it.” Dennis shakes his head, but a sort of smile breaks through.

The conversation has undermined whatever small good the beer has done for him tonight: all the old fears are stirring. He hasn’t been able to pay these men for three weeks now, and even an old friend like Dennis will have to move on eventually. The business hasn’t paid a bill in months, and Tara’s teacher’s salary certainly isn’t enough to support them by itself. He realizes that their objective tonight is mostly just an excuse to vent some anger; cracking some misguided kids’ heads isn’t going to get the bank to stop calling him, and it isn’t going to get the bulldozers moving again. It isn’t going to let him call his crew and tell them they can come back to work, either.

But he won’t let it get to him tonight. Not this beautiful, moonlit night on the mountain, with bare wood lifting skyward all around them. “Fuck it,” he says, and claps his hands twice, a reclining sultan. “‘Naldo! Más cervezas!”

Renaldo, who has just settled onto his back, slowly folds himself into a sitting position. He climbs to his feet and heads to the cooler without complaint. He’s accustomed to being the gofer.

“Little Mexican bastard,” Dennis says. “I bet he’s got fifty cousins packed into a trailer he’s trying to support.”

“Hablo fucking inglés, motherfucker,” Renaldo says.

“What? Speak English! I can’t understand you.”

Jeremy laughs. They drink more beer, and the warmth of it washes through their bodies until they are illuminated, three little candles in a clearing, surrounded by the dark woods.

Jeremy says, “I gotta take a piss, dude.” The urge has been building in him for some time, but he’s been lying back on the floor, his body filled with a warm, beery lethargy, and he’s been reluctant to move. Now it manifests as a sudden, urgent pain, sufficient to propel him to his feet and across the red clay road. The wind has risen and the forest is a wall of dark sound, the trees no longer distinct from each other but instead a writhing movement, a grasping energy which prickles his skin and hurries his step. The moon, which only a short while ago seemed a kindly lantern in the dark, smolders in the sky. Behind him, Dennis and Renaldo continue some wandering conversation, and he holds on to the sound of their voices to ward off a sudden, inexplicable rising fear. He casts a glance back toward the house. The ground inclines toward it, and at this angle he can’t see either of them. Just the cross-gables shouldering into the sky.

He steps into the tree line, going back a few feet for modesty’s sake. Situating himself behind a tree, he opens his fly and lets loose. The knot of pain in his gut starts to unravel.

Walking around has lit up the alcohol in his blood, and he’s starting to feel angry again. If I don’t get to hit somebody soon, he thinks, I’m going to snap. I’m going to unload on somebody that doesn’t deserve it. If Dennis opens his whining mouth one more time it might be him.

Jeremy feels a twinge of remorse at the thought; Dennis is one of those guys who has to talk about his fears, or they’ll eat him alive. He has to give a running commentary on every grim possibility, as if by voicing a fear he’d chase it into hiding. Jeremy relates more to Renaldo, who has yet to utter one frustrated thought about how long it’s been since he’s been paid, or what their future prospects might be. He doesn’t really know Renaldo, knows his personal situation even less, and something about that strikes him as proper. The idea of a man keening in pain has always embarrassed him.

When Jeremy has weak moments, he saves them for private expression. Even Tara, who has been a rock of optimism throughout all of this, isn’t privy to them. She’s a smart, intuitive woman, though, and Jeremy recognizes his fortune in her. She assures him that he is both capable and industrious, and that he can find work other than hammering nails into wood, should it come down to it. She’s always held the long view. He feels a sudden swell of love for her, as he stands there pissing there in the woods: a desperate, childlike need. He blinks rapidly, clearing his eyes.

He’s staring absently into the forest as he thinks this all through, and so it takes him a few moments to focus his gaze and realize that someone is staring back at him.

It’s a young man-a kid, really-several feet deeper into the forest, obscured by low growth and hanging branches and darkness. He’s skinny and naked. Smiling at him. Just grinning like a jack-o’-lantern.

“Oh, shit!”

Jeremy lurches from the tree, yanking frantically at his zipper, which has caught on the denim of his pants. He staggers forward a step, his emotions a snarl of rage, excitement, and humiliation. “What the fuck!” he shouts. The kid bounds to his right and disappears, soundlessly.

“Dennis? Dennis! They’re here!”

He turns but he can’t see up the hill. The angle is bad. All he can see through the trees is the pale wooden frame standing out against the sky like bones, and he’s taking little hopping steps as he wrestles with his zipper. He trips over a root and crashes painfully to the ground.

He hears Dennis’s raised voice.

He climbs awkwardly to his feet. The zipper finally comes free and Jeremy yanks it up, running clumsily through the branches while fastening his fly. As he ascends the small incline and crosses the muddy road he can discern shapes wrestling between the wooden support struts; he hears them fighting, hears the brute explosions of breath and the heavy impact of colliding meat. It sounds like the kid is putting up a pretty good fight; Jeremy wants to get in on the action before it’s all over. He’s overcome by instinct and violent impulse.

He’s exalted by it.

A voice breaks out of the tumult and it’s so warped by anguish that it takes him a moment to recognize it as Dennis’s scream.

Jeremy jerks to a stop. He burns crucial seconds trying to understand what he’s heard.

And then he hears something else: a heavy tearing, like ripping canvas, followed by a liquid sound of dropped weight, of moist, heavy objects sliding to the ground. He catches a glimpse of motion, something huge and fast in the house, and then an inverted leg standing out suddenly like a dark rip in the bright flank of stars, and then nothing. A high, keening wail- ephemeral, barely audible-rises from the unfinished house like a wisp of smoke.

Finally he reaches the top of the hill and looks inside.

Dennis is on his back, his body frosted by moonlight. He’s lifting his head, staring down at himself. Organs are strewn to one side of his body like beached, black jellyfish, dark blood pumping slowly from the gape in his belly and spreading around him in a gory nimbus. His head drops back and he lifts it again. Renaldo is on his back too, arms flailing, trying to hold off the thing bestride him: huge, black-furred, dog-begotten, its man-like fingers wrapped around Renaldo’s face and pushing his head into the floor so hard that the wood cracks beneath it. It lifts its shaggy head, bloody ropes of drool swinging from its snout and arcing into the moonsilvered night. It peels its lips from its teeth. Renaldo’s screams are muffled beneath its hand.

“Shoot it,” Dennis says. His voice is calm, like he’s suggesting coffee. “Shoot it, Jeremy.”

The house swings out of sight and the road scrolls by, lurching and violently tilting, and Jeremy realizes with some dismay that he is running. His truck, a small white pick-up, is less than fifty feet away. Parked just beyond it is Renaldo’s little import, its windows rolled down, rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror.

Jeremy runs fill-tilt into the side of his truck, rebounding off it and almost falling to the ground. He opens the door and is inside with what feels like unnatural speed. He slides across to the driver’s side and digs into his pocket for the keys, fingers grappling furiously through change and crumpled receipts until he finds them.

He can feel the rifle mounted on the rack behind his head, radiating a monstrous energy. It’s loaded; it’s always loaded.

He looks through the passenger window and sees something stand upright inside the frames, looking back at him. He sees Renaldo spasming beneath it. He sees the dark forested mountains looming behind this stillborn community with a hostile intelligence. He guns the engine and slams down the accelerator, turning the wheel hard to the left. The tires spray mud in huge arcs until they find traction, and he speeds down the hill toward the highway. The truck bounces hard on the rough path and briefly goes airborne. The engine screams, the sound of it filling his head.

“What the hell are you looking at?”

“What?” Jeremy blinked, and looked at his wife.

Breakfast time at the Blue Plate was always busy, but today the noise and the crowd were unprecedented. People crowded on the bench by the door, waiting for a chance to sit down. Short-order cooks and servers hollered at each other over the din of loud customers, boiling fryers, and crackling griddles. He knew that Tara hated it here, but on bad days-and he’s had plenty of bad days in the six months since the attack-he needed to be in places like this. Even now, wedged into a booth too narrow for him, with the table’s edge pressing uncomfortably into his gut, he did not want to leave.

His attention was drawn by the new busboy. He was young and gangly, lanky hair swinging over his lowered face. He scurried from empty table to empty table, loading dirty plates and coffee mugs into his gray bus tub. He moved with a strange grace through the crowd, like someone well practiced at avoidance. Jeremy was bothered that he couldn’t get a clear view of his face.

“Why do you think he wears his hair like that?” he said. “He looks like a drug addict or something. I’m surprised they let him.”

Tara rolled her eyes, not even bothering to look. “The busboy? Are you serious?”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you even listening to me?”

“What? Of course. Come on.” He forced his attention back where it belonged. “You’re talking about that guy who teaches the smart kids. What’s his name. Tim.”

Tara let her stare linger a moment before pressing on. “Yeah, I mean, what an asshole, right? He knows I’m married!”

“Well, that’s the attraction.”

“The fact that I’m married to you is why he wants me? Oh my God, and I thought he had an ego!”

“No, I mean, you’re hot, he’d be into you anyway. But the fact that you belong to somebody just adds another incentive. It’s a challenge.”


“Some guys just like to take what isn’t theirs.”

“Wait. I belong to you now?”

He smiled. “Well . . . yeah, bitch.”

She laughed. “You are so lucky we’re in a public place right now.”

“You’re not scary.”

“Oh, I’m pretty scary.”

“Then how come you can’t scare off little Timmy?”

She gave him an exasperated look. “Do you think I’m not trying? He just doesn’t care. I think he thinks I’m flirting with him or something. I want him to see you at the Christmas party. Get all alpha male on him. Squeeze his hand really hard when you shake it or something.”

A waitress arrived at their table and unloaded their breakfast: fruit salad and a scrambled egg for Tara, a mound of buttery pancakes for Jeremy. Tara cast a critical eye over his plate and said, “We gotta work on that diet of yours, big man. There’s a new year coming up. Resolution time.”

“Like hell,” he said, tucking in. “This is my fuel. I need it if I’m going to defeat Tim in bloody combat.”

The sentence hung awkwardly between them. Jeremy found himself staring at her, the stupid smile on his face frozen into something miserable and strange. His scalp prickled, and he felt his face go red.

“Well, that was dumb,” he said.

She put her hand over his. “Honey.”

He pulled away. “Whatever.” He forked some of the pancakes into his mouth, staring down at his plate.

He breathed in deeply, taking in the close, burnt-oil odor of the place, trying to displace the smell of blood and fear which welled up inside him as though he was on the mountain again, half a year ago, watching his friends die in the rearview mirror. He looked around again to see if he could get a look at that creepy busboy’s face, but he couldn’t spot him in the crowd.

The coroner had decided that a wolf had killed Dennis and Renaldo. It was a big story in the local news for a week or so; there weren’t supposed to be any wolves in this part of North Carolina. Nevertheless, the bite marks and the tracks in the mud were clear. Hunting parties had ranged into the woods; they’d bagged a few coyotes, but no wolves. The developer of Wild Acre filed for bankruptcy: buyers who had signed conditional agreements refused to close on the houses, and the banks gave up on the project, locking their coffers for good. Wild Acre became a ghost town of empty house frames and mud. Jeremy’s outfit went under, too. He broke the news to his employees and began the dreary process of appeasing his creditors. Tara still pulled down her teacher’s salary, but it was barely enough to keep pace, let alone catch them up. They weren’t sure how much longer they could afford their own house.

Within a month of the attack, Jeremy discovered that he was unemployable. Demand for his services had dried up. The framing companies were streamlining their payrolls, and nobody wanted to add an expensive ex-owner to their rosters.

He never told his wife what really happened that night. Publicly, he corroborated the coroner’s theory, and he tried as best he could to convince himself of it, too. But the thing that had straddled his friend and then stared him down had not been a wolf.

He could not call it by its name.

In the middle of all that were the funerals.

Renaldo’s had been a small, cheap affair. He’d felt like an imposter there, too close to the tumultuous emotion on display. Renaldo’s mother filled the room with her cries. Jeremy felt alarmed and even a little appalled at her lack of self-consciousness, which was so at odds with her late son’s unflappable nature. Everyone spoke in Spanish, and he was sure they were all talking about him. On some level he knew this was ridiculous, but he couldn’t shake it.

A young man approached him, late teens or early twenties, dressed in an ill-fitting, rented suit, his hands hanging stiffly at his sides.

Jeremy nodded at him. “Hola,” he said. He felt awkward and stupid.

“Hello,” the man said. “You were his boss?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m, um . . . I’m sorry. He was a great worker. You know, one of my best. The guys really liked him. If you knew my guys, you’d know that meant something.” He realized he was beginning to ramble, and made himself stop talking.

“Thank you.”

“Were you brothers?”

“Brothers-in-law. Married to my sister?”

“Oh, of course.” Jeremy didn’t know Renaldo had been married. He looked across the gathered crowd, thinking for one absurd moment that he might know her by sight.

“Listen,” the man said, “I know you’re having some hard times. The business and everything.”

Well, here it comes, Jeremy thought. He tried to cut him off at the pass. “I still owed some money to Renaldo. I haven’t forgotten. I’ll get it to you as soon as I can. I promise.”

“To Carmen.”

“Of course. To Carmen.”

“That’s good.” He nodded, looking at the ground. Jeremy could sense there was more coming, and he wanted to get away before it arrived. He opened his mouth to express a final platitude before taking his leave, but the

young man spoke first. “Why didn’t you shoot it?”

He felt something grow cold inside him. “What?”

“I know why you were there. Renaldo told me what was happening. The vandals? He said you had a rifle.”

Jeremy bristled. “Listen, I don’t know what Renaldo thought, but we weren’t going up there to shoot anybody. We were going to scare them. That’s all. The gun’s in my truck because I’m a hunter. I don’t use it to threaten kids.”

“But it wasn’t kids on the mountain that night, was it?”

They stared at each other for a moment. Jeremy’s face was flushed, and he could hear the laboring of his own breath. By contrast the young man seemed entirely at ease; either he didn’t really care about why Jeremy didn’t shoot that night or he already knew that the answer wouldn’t satisfy him.

“No, I guess it wasn’t.” “It was a wolf, right?” Jeremy was silent.

“A wolf?”

He had to moisten his mouth. “Yeah.”

“So why didn’t you shoot it?”

“. . . It happened really fast,” he said. “I was out in the woods. I was too late.”

Renaldo’s brother-in-law gave no reaction, holding his gaze for a few more moments and then nodding slightly. He took a deep breath, turned to look behind him at the others gathered for the funeral, some of whom were staring in their direction. Then he turned back to Jeremy and said, “Thank you for coming. But maybe now, you know, you should go. It’s hard for some people to see you.”

“Yeah. Okay. Of course.” Jeremy backed up a step, and said, “I’m really sorry.”


And then he left, grateful to get away, but nearly overwhelmed by shame. He’d removed the rifle from his truck the day after the attack, stowing it in the attic. Its presence was an indictment. Despite what he’d told Renaldo’s brother-in-law, he didn’t know why he hadn’t taken the gun, climbed back out of the truck, and blown the wolf to hell. Because that’s all it had been. A wolf. A stupid animal. How many animals had he killed with that very rifle?

Dennis’s funeral had been different. There, he was treated like family, if a somewhat distant and misunderstood relation. Rebecca, obese and unemployed, looked doomed as she stood graveside with her three children, completely unanchored from the only person in the world who had cared about her fate, or the fates of those stunned boys at her side. He wanted to apologize to her but he didn’t know precisely how, so instead he hugged her after the services and shook the boys’ hands and said, “If there’s anything I can do.”

She wrapped him in a hug. “Oh, Jeremy,” she said.

The boy is skinny and naked. Smiling at him, his teeth shining like cut crystal. Jeremy’s pants are unfastened and loose around his hips. He’s afraid that if he runs they’ll fall and trip him up. The kid can’t even be out of high school yet: Jeremy knows he can break him in half if he can just get his hands on him in time. But it’s already too late; terror pins him there, and he can only watch. The kid’s body begins to shake, and what he thought was a smile is only a rictus of pain-his mouth splits along his cheeks and something loud breaks inside him, cracking like a tree branch. The boy’s bowels spray blood and his body convulses like he’s in the grip of a seizure.


He opened his eyes. He was in their bedroom, with Tara standing over him. The light was on. The bed felt warm and damp.

“Get out of bed. You had a nightmare.”

“Why is the bed all wet?”

She pulled him by his shoulder. She had a strange expression:

distracted, pinched. “Come on,” she said. “You had an accident.”

“What?” He sat up, smelling urine. “What?”

“Get out of bed, please. I have to change the sheets.”

He did as she asked. His legs were sticky, his boxers soaked.

Tara began yanking the sheets off the bed as quickly as she could. She tugged the mattress pad off too, and cursed quietly when she saw that the stain had already bled down to the mattress itself.

“Let me help,” he said.

“You should get in the shower. I’ll take care of this.”

“. . . I’m sorry.”

She turned on him. For a moment he saw the anger and the impatience there, and he was conscious of how long she had been putting up with his stoic routine, of the extent to which she had fastened down her own frustration for the sake of his wounded ego. It threatened to finally spill over, but she pulled it back, she sucked it in for him one more time. Her expression softened. She touched his cheek. “It’s okay, baby.” She pushed the hair from his forehead, turning the gesture into a caress. “Go ahead and get in the shower, okay?”

“Okay.” He headed for the bathroom.

He stripped and got under the hot water. Six months of being without work had caused him to get even heavier, a fact he was acutely conscious of as he lowered himself to the floor and wrapped his arms around his knees. He did not want Tara to see him. He wanted to barricade the door, to wrap barbed wire around the whole room. But fifteen minutes later she joined him there, putting her arms around him and pulling him close, resting her head against his.

Two months after the funeral, Dennis’s wife had called and asked him to come over. He arrived at her house-a single-story, three-bedroom bungalow-later that afternoon and was dismayed to see boxes in the living room and the kitchen. The kids, ranging in age from five to thirteen, moved ineffectively among them, piling things in with no regard to maximizing their space or gauging how heavy they might become. Rebecca was a dervish of industry, sliding through the mazes of boxes and furniture with a surprising grace, barking orders at her kids and even at her herself. When she saw him through the screen door, standing on her front porch, she stopped, and in doing so seemed to lose all of her will to move. The boys stopped too, and followed her gaze out to him.

“Becca, what’s going on?”

“What’s it look like? I’m packin boxes.” She turned her back to him and moved through an arch into the kitchen. “Come on in, then,” she called.

Sitting across from her at the table, glasses of orange soda between them, he was further struck by the disorganized quality of the move. The number of boxes seemed sadly inadequate to the task, and it seemed like things were being packed piecemeal: some dishes were wrapped in newspaper and stowed, while others were still stacked in cupboards or piled, dirty, in the sink; drawers hung open, partially disemboweled.

Before Jeremy could open his mouth, Rebecca said, “They’s foreclosing on us. We got to be out by the weekend.”

For a moment he was speechless. “. . . I . . . Jesus, Becca.”

She sat there and watched him. He could think of nothing to say, so he just said, “I had no idea.”

“Well, Dennis ain’t been paid for a long time before he was killed, and he sure as shit hadn’t been paid since then, so I guess anybody ought to of seen this comin.”

He felt like he’d been punched in the gut. He didn’t know if she’d meant it as an accusation, but it felt like one. It didn’t help that it was true. He looked at the orange soda in the glass, a weird dash of cheerful color in all this gloom. He couldn’t take his eyes off it. “What are you gonna do?”

“Well,” she said, staring at her fingers as they twined around each other, “I don’t really know, Jeremy. My mama lives out by Hickory, but that’s a ways away, and she don’t have enough room in her house for all of us. Dennis ain’t spoke with his family in years. These boys don’t even know their grandparents on his side.”

He nodded. In the other room, the boys were quiet, no doubt listening in.

“I need some money, Jeremy. I mean I need it real bad. We got to be out of here in four days and we don’t have no where to go.” She looked up at the clock on the wall, a big round one with Roman numerals, a bright basket of fruit painted in the center. “I’m gonna lose all my things,” she said. She wiped at the corner of an eye with the inside of her wrist.

Jeremy felt the twist in his gut, like his insides were being spooled on a wheel. He had to close his eyes and ride it out.

He’d sat at this table many times while Rebecca cooked for Dennis and for him; he’d been sitting here sharing a six-pack with Dennis when the call came from the hospital that their youngest had come early. “Oh, Becca,” he said.

“I just need a little so we can stay someplace for a few weeks. You know, just until we can figure something out.”

“Becca, I don’t have it. I just don’t have it. I’m so sorry.”

“Jeremy, we got no where to go!”

“I don’t have anything. I got collection agencies so far up my ass . . . Tara and I put the house up, Becca. The bank’s threatening us, too. We can’t stay where we are. We’re borrowing just to keep our heads above water.”

“I can fucking sue you!” she screamed, slapping her hand on the table so hard that the glasses toppled over and spilled orange soda all over the floor. “You owe us! You never paid Dennis, and you owe us! I called a lawyer and he said I can sue your ass for every fucking cent you got!”

The silence afterward was profound, broken only by the pattering of the soda trickling onto the linoleum floor.

The outburst broke a dam inside her; her face crumpled, and tears spilled over. She put a hand over her face and her body jerked silently. Jeremy looked toward the living room and saw one of the boys, his blonde hair buzzed down to his scalp, staring into the kitchen in shock.

“It’s okay, Tyler,” he said. “It’s okay, buddy.”

The boy appeared not to hear him. He watched his mother until she pulled her hand from her face and seemed to suck it all back into herself; without looking to the doorway, she fluttered a hand in the boy’s direction. “It’s fine, Tyler,” she said. “Go help your brothers.” The boy retreated.

Jeremy reached across the table and clasped her hands in his own. “Becca,” he said, “you and the boys are like family to me. If I could give you some money, I would. I swear to God I would. And you’re right, I do owe it to you. Dennis didn’t get paid towards the end. Nobody did. So if you feel like you gotta sue me, then do it. Do what you have to do. I don’t blame you. I really don’t.”

She looked at him, tears beading in her eyes, and said nothing.

“Shit, if suing me might keep you in your house a little while longer- if it’ll keep the bank away, or something-then you should do it. I want you to do it.”

Rebecca shook her head. “It won’t. It’s too late for that now.” She rested her head on her arm, her hands still clasped in Jeremy’s. “I ain’t gonna sue you, Jer. It ain’t your fault.”

She pulled her hands free and got up. She grabbed a roll of paper towels and tore off a great handful, setting to work on the spill. “Look at this damn mess,” she said.

He watched her for a moment. “I have liens on those houses we built,” he said. “They can’t sell them until they pay us first. The minute they do, you’ll get your money.”

“They won’t ever finish those houses, Jer. Ain’t nobody gonna want to buy them. Not after what happened.”

He stayed quiet, because he knew she was right. He had privately given up on seeing that money long ago.

“A man from the bank come by last week and put that notice on the door. He had a sheriff with him. Can you believe that? A sheriff come to my house. Parked right in my driveway, for everybody to see.” She paused in her work. “He was so rude,” she said, her voice quiet and dismayed. “The both of them were. He told me I had to get out of my own house. My boys were standing right by me, and they just bust out crying. He didn’t give a damn. Treated me like I was dirt. Might as well of called me white trash to my face.”

“I’m so sorry, Becca.”

“And he was such a little man,” she said, still astonished at the memory of it. “I kept thinking how if Dennis was here that man would of never talked to me like that. He wouldn’t of dared!”

Jeremy stared at his hands. Large hands, built for hard work. Useless now. Rebecca sat on the floor, fighting back tears. She gave up on the orange soda, seeming to sense the futility of it.

It was a week before Christmas, and Tara was talking to him from inside the shower. The door was open and he could see her pale shape behind the curtain, but he couldn’t make out what she was saying. He sat on the bed in his underwear, his clothes for the evening laid out beside him. It was the same suit he’d worn to the funerals, and he dreaded putting it on again.

Outside the short wintertime afternoon was giving way to evening. The Christmas lights strung along the eaves and wound into the bushes still had to be turned on. The neighbors across the street had already lit theirs; the colored lights looked like glowing candy, turning their home into a gingerbread house from a fairy tale. The full moon was resplendent

Jeremy supposed that a Christmas party full of elementary school professionals might be the worst place in the world. He would drift among them helplessly, like a grizzly bear in a roomful of children, expected not to eat anyone.

He heard the squeak of the shower faucet and suddenly his wife’s voice carried to him. “-time it takes to get there,” she said.


She slid the curtain open and pulled a towel from the shelf. “Have you been listening to me?”

“I couldn’t hear you over the water.”

She went to work on her hair. “I’ve just had a very lively conversation with myself, then.”


“Are you going to get dressed?” she said.

He loved to watch her like this, when she was naked but not trying to be sexy, when she was just going about the minor business of being a human being. Unself-conscious and miraculous.

“Are you?” he said.

“Very funny. You were in that same position when I started my shower.

What’s up?”

“I don’t want to go.”

She turned the towel into a blue turban and wrapped another around her body. She crossed the room and sat beside him, leaving wet footprints in the carpet, her shoulders and her face still glistening with beaded water.

“You’ll catch cold,” he said.

“What are you worried about?”

“I’m obese. I’m a fricking spectacle. I’m not fit to be seen in public.”

“You’re my handsome man.”

“Stop it.”

“Jeremy,” she said, “you can’t turn into a shut-in. You have to get out. It’s been six months, and you’ve totally disengaged from the world. These people are safe, okay? They’re not going to judge you. They’re my friends, and I want them to be your friends, too.”

“They’re going to look at me and think, that’s the guy that left his friends on a mountain to die.”

“You’re alive,” Tara said, sharply, and turned his head so he had to look at her. “You’re alive because you left. I still have a husband because you left. So in the end I don’t give a shit what people think.” She paused, took a steady breath, and let him go. “And not everyone’s thinking bad things about you. Sometimes you have to take people at face value, Jeremy.

Sometimes people really are what they say they are.”

He nodded, chastened. He knew she was right. He’d been hiding in this house for months. It had to stop.

She touched his cheek and smiled at him. “Okay?” “Yeah. Okay.”

She got up and headed back to the bathroom, and he fell back on the bed. “Okay,” he said.

“Besides,” she called back happily, “don’t forget about Tim! Someone has to keep the beast at bay!”

A sudden, coursing heat pulsed through him. He had forgotten Tim. “Oh yeah,” he said, sitting up. He watched her dress, her body incandescent with water and light, and felt something like hope move inside him.

The house was bigger than Jeremy had been expecting. It was in an upscale subdivision, where all the houses had at least two stories and a basement. The front porch shed light like a fallen star, and colored Christmas bulbs festooned the neighborhood. “Jesus,” he said, turning into the parking lot already full of cars. “Donny lives here?”

Donny Winn was the vice-principal of the school: a rotund, pink-faced man who sweated a lot and always seemed on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Jeremy had only met him once or twice, but the man made an impression like a damp cloth.

“His wife’s a physical therapist,” Tara said. “She works with the Carolina Panthers or something. Trust me, she’s the money.”

The house was packed. Jeremy didn’t recognize anybody. A table in the dining room had been pushed against a wall and its wings extended, turning it into a buffet table loaded with an assortment of holiday dishes and confections. Bowls of spiked eggnog anchored each end of the table. Donny leaned against a wall nearby, alone but smiling. His wife worked the crowd like a politician, steering newly-arrived guests toward the table and bludgeoning them with goodwill.

Christmas lights were strung throughout the house, and mistletoe hung in every doorway. Andy Williams crooned from speakers hidden by the throng.

Jeremy wended his way through the mill of people behind Tara, who guided him to the table. Within moments they were armed with booze and ready for action. Jeremy spoke into Tara’s ear. “Where’s Tim?”

She craned her neck and looked around, then shook her head. “I can’t see him. Don’t worry. He’ll find us!”

“You mean he’ll find you,” he said.

She smiled and squeezed his hand.

He measured time in drinks, and then he lost track of it. The lights and the sounds were beginning to blur into a candy-hued miasma that threatened to drown him. He’d become stationary in the middle of the living room, people and conversations revolving around him like the spokes of some demented Ferris wheel. Tara was beside him, nearly doubled over in laughter, one hand gripping his upper arm in a vise as she talked to a gaunt, heavily made-up woman whose eyes seemed to reflect light like sheets of ice.

“He’s evil!” The woman had to shout to be heard. “His parents should have strangled him at birth!”

“Jesus,” Jeremy said, trying to remember what they were talking about.

“Oh my God, Jeremy, you don’t know this kid,” Tara said. “He’s got like-this look. I’m serious! Totally dead.”

The woman nodded eagerly. “And the other day? I was looking through their daily journals? I found a picture of a severed head.”

“What? No way!”

“The neck was even drawn with jagged red lines, to show it was definitely cut off. To make sure I knew it!”

“Somebody should do something,” Jeremy said. “We’re gonna be reading about this little monster someday.”

Tara shook her head. “Nobody wants to know anymore. ‘Boys will be boys,’ right?”

The woman arched an eyebrow. “People are just fooled by the packaging,” she said. “Kids shouldn’t be drawing severed heads!” Tara laughed. “But it’s okay for grown-ups to?” “Nobody should draw them,” the woman said gravely.

“Excuse me,” Jeremy said, and moved away from them both. He felt Tara’s hand on his arm, but he kept going. The conversation had rattled him. Severed heads. What the fuck!

He slid clumsily through the crowd, using his weight to help along the people who were slow in getting out of his way. He found himself edging past the hostess, who smiled at him and said “Merry Christmas,” her eyes sliding away from him before the words were even out of her mouth. He was briefly overwhelmed by a spike of outrage at her blithe manner-at the whole apparatus of entitlement and assumption this party suddenly represented to him, with its abundance and its unapologetic stink of money. “I’m Jewish,” he said, and felt a happy thrill when she whipped her head around as he pressed further into the crowd.

He stationed himself by the fireplace, which was, at the moment, free of people. He set his drink on the mantel and turned his back to the crowd, looking instead at the carefully arranged manger scene on display there. The ceramic pieces were old and chipped; it had clearly been in the family for a long time. He looked past the wise men and the shepherds crouched in reverent awe, and saw the baby Jesus at the focal point, his little face rosy pink, his mouth a gaping oval, one eye chipped away. Jeremy’s flesh rippled and he turned away.

And then he saw Tim approaching through the crowd. Tim was a slight man, with thinning hair and a pair of silver-rimmed glasses. Jeremy decided he looked like a cartoonist’s impression of an intellectual. He stared at him as he approached.

This was what he had come for. He felt the blood start to move in his body, slowly, like a river breaking through ice floes. He felt some measure of himself again. It was just as intoxicating as the liquor.

Tim held out his hand, still closing the distance, and Jeremy took it.

“Hey. Jeremy, right? Tara’s husband?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry, you are?”

“Oh I’m Tim Duckett, we met last year, at that teachers’ union thing?”

“Oh yeah. Tim, hey.”

“I just saw you over here by yourself and I thought, that guy is frickin lost. You know? Totally out of his element.”

Jeremy bristled. “I think you made a mistake.”

“Really? I mean, look at these people.” He shifted to stand beside Jeremy so they could look out over the crowd together. “Come on.

Teachers? This is hell for me! I can only imagine how you must feel.”

“I feel just fine.”

Tim touched his glass to Jeremy’s. “Well here’s to you then. I feel like I’m about to fucking choke.” He took a deep drink. “I mean, look at that guy over there. The fat one?” Jeremy flushed but held his tongue. These people didn’t think. “That’s Shane Mueller,” Tim continued. “Laughing like he’s high or something. He can afford to laugh because he’s got the right friends, you know what I mean? Goddamn arrogant prick. Not like her.”

He gestured at the woman Jeremy had been talking to just a few moments ago. Where was Tara?

“Word is she’s not coming back next year. She won’t be the only one, either. Everybody here’s scared shitless. The fucking legislature’s throwing us to the wolves. Who cares about education, right? Not when there’s dollars at stake.” He took a drink. “English? Are you kidding me?”

Tim sidled up next to him, so that their arms brushed. Jeremy gave a small push with his elbow and Tim surrendered some ground, seeming not to notice.

“I always kind of envied you, you know?” he was saying.

“. . . what?”

“Oh yeah. Probably freaks you out, right? This guy you barely even know? But Tara talks about you in the lounge sometimes, and it got to

where I felt like I kind of knew you a little bit.”

“So you like to talk to Tara, huh?”

“Oh yeah man, she’s a great girl. Great girl. But what you do is real work. You hang out with grown men and build things. With your hands.” He held out his own hands, as though to illustrate the concept. “I hang out with kids, man.” He gestured at the crowd. “A bunch of goddamn kids.”

Jeremy took a drink. He peered into his glass. The ice had almost completely melted, leaving a murky, diluted puddle at the bottom. “Things change,” he said.

Tim gave him a fierce, sympathetic look. “Yeah, you’ve been through some shit, haven’t you?”

Jeremy looked at him, dimly amazed, feeling suddenly defensive. This guy had no boundaries. “What?”

“Come on, man, we all know. It’s not like it’s a secret, right? That fucking wolf?”

“You don’t know shit.”

“Now that’s not fair. If you don’t want to talk about it, okay, I get that. But we were all here for Tara when it happened. She’s got a lot of friends here. It’s not like we’re totally uninvested.”

Jeremy turned on him, a sudden wild heat burning his skin from the inside. He pressed his body against Tim’s and backed him against the fireplace. Tim nearly tripped on the hearth and grabbed the mantel to keep his balance. “I said you don’t know shit.”

Tim’s face was stretched in surprise. “Holy shit, Jeremy, are you gonna hit me?”

Jeremy felt a hand on his shoulder, and he heard his wife’s voice. “What’s going on here?”

He backed off, letting her pull him away, and allowing Tim to regain his balance. Tim stared at the two of them, looking more bemused now than worried or affronted.

Tara laced her hand into her husband’s. “Do you boys need a timeout?”

Tim made a placating gesture. “No, no, we’re just talking about-”

“Tim’s just running his mouth,” Jeremy said. “He needs to learn to shut


Tara squeezed his hand and leaned against him. He could feel the tension in her body. “Why don’t we get some fresh air?” she said.


“Come on. I want to see the lights outside.”

“Don’t you try to placate me. What’s the matter with you?”

Tim said, “Whoa, whoa, let’s all calm down a little bit.”

“Why don’t you shut the fuck up.”

The sound of the party continued unabated, but Jeremy could sense a shift in the atmosphere around him. He didn’t have to turn around to know that he was beginning to draw attention.

“Jeremy!” Tara’s voice was sharp. “What the hell has gotten into you?”

Tim touched her arm. “It’s my fault. I brought up the wolf thing.”

Jeremy grabbed his wrist. “If you touch my wife one more time I’ll break your goddamn arm.” His mind flooded with images of operatic violence, of Tim’s guts garlanding all the expensive furniture like Christmas bunting. He rode the crest of this wave with radiant joy.

Astonishingly, Tim grinned at him. “What the fuck, man?”

Jeremy watched Tim’s lips pull back, saw the display of teeth, and surrendered himself to instinct. It was like dropping a chain; the freedom and the relief that coursed through his body was almost religious in its impact. Jeremy hit him in the mouth as hard as he could. Something sharp and jagged tore his knuckles. Tim flailed backwards, tripping on the hearth again but this time falling hard. His head knocked the mantel on the way down, leaving a bloody postage stamp on the white paint. Manger pieces toppled over the side and bounced off him.

Someone behind him shrieked. Voices rose in a chorus, but it was all just background noise. Jeremy leaned over and hit him again and again, until several hands grabbed him from behind and heaved him backward, momentarily lifting him off his feet. He was grappled by a cluster of men, his arms twisted behind him and immobilized. The whole mass of them lurched about like some demented monster, as Jeremy tried to break free.

The room had gone quiet. “Silver Bells” went on for another few seconds until someone rushed to the stereo and switched it off. All he could hear was his own heavy breathing.

He resumed a measure of control over himself, though his blood still galloped through his head and his muscles still jerked with energy. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.”

He found himself at the center of the crowd, most of them standing well back and staring agape. Someone was crouched beside Tim, who was sitting on the hearth, his face pale; his hands cupped beneath his bloody mouth. One eye was already swelling shut.

Tara stood to one side, her face red with anger, or humiliation, or both. She marched forward and grabbed him forcibly by the bicep, and yanked him behind her. The men holding him let him go.

“Should we call the police?” someone said.

“Oh fuck you!” Tara shouted.

She propelled him through the front door and out into the cold air. She did not release him until they arrived at the truck. The night arced over them both, and the world was bespangled with Christmas-colored constellations. Tara sagged against the truck’s door, hiding her face against the window. He stood silently, trying to grasp for some feeling here, for some appropriate mode of behavior. Now that the adrenaline was fading, it was starting to dawn on him how bad this was.

Tara stood up straight and said, without looking at him, “I have to go back inside for a minute. Wait here.”

“Do you want me to go with you?”

“Just wait here.”

He did. She went up to the front door and rang the bell, and after a moment she was let inside. He stood there and let the cold work its way through his body, banking the last warm embers of the alcohol. After a while he got behind the wheel of the truck and waited. Soon, the front door opened again, and she came out. She walked briskly to the truck, her breath trailing behind her, and opened his door. “Move over,” she said. “I’m driving.”

He didn’t protest. Moments later she started the engine and pulled onto the road. She drive them slowly out of the neighborhood, until the last big house receded into the darkness behind them, like a glittering piece of jewelry dropped into the ocean. She steered them onto the highway, and they eased onto the long stretch home.

“He’s not going to call the police,” she said at last. “Small miracle.”

He nodded. “I thought you wanted me to confront him,” he said, and regretted it immediately.

She didn’t respond. He stole a glance at her: her face was unreadable.

She drew in a deep breath. “Did you tell Mrs. Winn that we’re Jewish?” “. . . yeah.”

“Why? Why would you do that?”

He just shook his head and stared out the window. Lights streaked by, far away.

Tara sobbed once, both hands still clutching the steering wheel. Her face was twisted in misery. “You have to get a hold of yourself,” she said. “I don’t know what’s happening to you. I don’t know what to do.”

He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He felt his guts turn to stone. He knew he had to say something, he had to try to explain himself here, or someday she would leave. Maybe someday soon. But the fear was too tight; it wouldn’t let him speak. It would barely let him breathe.

When they get home Jeremy cannot bear the strained silence. After an hour of it he escapes in the truck, making a trip to the attic before he leaves. Now he’s speeding down a winding two-lane blacktop, going so fast he can’t stay in his lane. If anyone else appears on this road, everybody’s fucked. He makes a fast right when he comes to the turn-in for Wild Acre, the truck hitting the bumps in the road too hard and smashing its undercarriage into the dirt. He pushes it up the hill, the untended dirt road overgrown with weeds. The truck judders around a bend, something groaning under the hood. The wheel slips out of his hands and the truck slides into a ditch, coming to a crunching halt and slamming Jeremy’s face into the steering wheel.

The headlights peer crookedly into the dust-choked air, illuminating the house frames, which look like huge, drifting ghosts behind curtains of raised dirt and clay. He leans back in his seat, gingerly touching his nose, and his vision goes watery. The full moon leaks silver blood into the sky. Something inside him buckles, and acid fills his mouth. He puts a hand over it, squeezes his eyes shut, and thinks, Don’t you do it, don’t you fucking do it.

He doesn’t do it. He swallows it back, burning his throat.

He slams his elbow into the door several times. Then he rests his head on the steering wheel and sobs. These are huge, body-breaking sobs, the kind that leave him gasping for breath, the kind he hasn’t suffered since he was a little kid. They frighten him a little. He is not meant to sound like this.

After a few moments he stops, lifts his head, and stares at the closest house frame, bone-colored in the moonlight. The floor is covered in dark stains. The forest is surging behind it. In a scramble of terror he wrenches the rifle from its rack, opens the door and jumps into the road.

The gun is slippery in his hands. He strides into the house frame and raises the gun to his chin, aiming it into the dark forest, staring down the sight. The world and its sounds retreat into a single point of stillness. He watches, and waits.

“Come on!” he screams. “Come on! Come on!” But nothing comes.

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