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Preview from Bloodalcohol: Ten Tales (out by Halloween 2023)
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by Michael Botur
Lonely computer technician Christopher takes the feral 11-year-old son of a woman he’s trying to impress on a hiking expedition through Northland forest to visit an old plane crash site and bond with the boy. However, Christopher finds that deep in the forest, one of them has a dark side eager to emerge, and the other is trapped.
The child guffaws like a donkey and wet Dorito crumbs spackle Christopher’s glasses and he wonders why bother trying to be a stepfather to this eleven-year-old at all. Christopher Tan is trying to be tolerant, trying not to label the kid a shithead, but it’s hard with ADHD children. He is gifting precious minutes here at the cramped kitchen table, staggering through multiplication homework exercises as a favour to Josh’s mother Ruthie. He’s breathing patiently, unruffled on the surface, though he’s shaking inside. In his life he’s nurtured PERN stack applications into existence, resuscitated dying computers, fixed dilapidated motherboards which appreciate his dedication. He’s got better things to do than give up his afternoon hoping to score points with Ruthie by dealing with her green-haired demon. Still, have patience, he reminds himself. Just three breaths is all it takes to regain composure, his counsellor taught him. Breathing right keeps you off your medication. You’re refreshed, you have a new life, you have hope, you have a chance with a white woman. And you don’t want to go back on that numbing, sensory-flattening shit.
Christopher polishes his glasses with the tail of his shirt, checks the time on his wristwatch, wondering how many more minutes he’ll have to swallow his frustration for. This uncomfortable, spine-hurting Salvation Army table is the same table he first fixed the bony chainsmoking woman’s computer on, when she was a customer, actually, when he wore his Dial-a-Nerd golf shirt and fell in love with the tall single mother-of-one with the ironing board body as she stood in a cloud of smoke in her SaveMart dress, enduring his clumsy banter. Only damn thing that kept him from surrendering to suicidal depression in his sad flat.
Anyway, back to business. Try get some homework down the kid. ‘Number eight, son, can’t tick that off,’ he tells the twitching boy in the camouflage bush shirt, who has a rather blunt Swiss Army pocket knife in his left hand and a pile of wooden shavings which used to be a pencil. ‘You’ve multiplied the hundreds and tens buuut not the ones, so your answer’s not strictly… you know.’
‘Pweddy cwose though? It was wight.’
‘Right, Josh. R-r-r. Could you roll your tongue for me? Got some sort of a deformity, don’t you, tongue’s a little split, we should get that looked at.’ Christopher twists around to discuss the tongue surgery with Ruthie, who’s leaning back against the sink, swirling her Smirnoff can. Ruthie’s expression says Yeah, right. Can’t afford a tongue specialist.
Josh opens his pocket knife and grabs an apple and begins stabbing holes in the fruit. Christopher has been told he’s not allowed to take the knife off the child. Josh’s father gave it to him. It’s special.
‘That’s not the way you use, er, bush tools.’
‘I was borned in the bush, my daddy said.’
‘Your dad’s, uh… .’ Christopher’s eyes stray to the boy’s mother, humming as she moves back and forth through a blue cloud of smoke, putting dishes away, cracking open a fresh drink. Ruthie, swimming through the kitchen, drunk and dulled by downers, won’t correct the boy. To win the right to lay with her, one must appease her son, the beastly boy who appears to have dyed his hair from blonde to Joker-green to impress his mates.
Every visit, he wants to react more firmly when the child is violent and insulting and oblivious and disrespectful. He wants to shout or snap or storm out in frustration like all the previous males who tried to occupy the stepfather-seat. Last week, though, Christopher promised his therapist he’d never succumb to the caveman call. They agreed Christopher has never lashed out at anything and he needs to continue to stifle the impulses. Christopher Tan was put on this earth for making, not breaking. From a good, white-wearing Davao family who never stop smiling. Shove any violent urges deep down, like packing springy snakes into a can of novelty peanuts. He has delicate fingers for renovating computer hard drives, soldering wires, working Saturday nights in a black garage while the neighbours party and leave him lonely. His slender arms are precise tools built for orienteering equipment, stroking maps, charting the angle of the sun through the canopy, skills instilled in Christopher when he was an eleven-year-old boy scout. Same age as Josh, come to think of it. Perhaps time he took the child into the woods. Build a bivouac.
After homework, of course.
Josh is having trouble with a question involving the weight of an overloaded passenger plane – 20kg of luggage per person, in a 230-capacity plane in which three people failed to take their seat. Josh is evidently unaware of concepts such as ‘capacity’ and ‘kilogram,’ and the child is giggling idiotically now Christopher has mentioned “boning up” on units of measurement.
‘BONING, boner, stiffy!’ Josh brays as Christopher tries to explain how lack of thrust can cause an arc to descend and a plane to plummet into the forest, or to use a more local example, how the lawnmower rolled into traffic on Saturday when Josh was distracted playing Crash Simulator on his godforsaken mobile phone.
‘Let’s try something else. Babe, you don’t mind if he wraps up his homework a little early and we enjoy something special?’
‘Babe,’ Ruthie snorts, scrolling through Instagram with one hand, setting down a plate of fish fingers for Joshie with her other hand. ‘Fill your boots. I don’t give a shit.’
Christopher reaches into his bag, pulls the latest edition of Wing Nuts onto the table. He attempts to show the fish-chewing child the impressive experimental 1937 Luftwaffe planes on page 12, but after the boy points to a corner of the page, bends it, doubles the bend then tears the page out, leaving fish-finger crumbs in the magazine, it’s evident Joshie wants some kinaesthetic learning. That, or he just loves ripping and destroying and eating fingers.
He folds a rough paper aeroplane.
‘Plane wecks are coooool! MyeeeeewwwwwmmmmKBOOOSH.’
The ripping-the-magazine thing is reprehensible – but the child’s opinion on plane wrecks is the first agreeable thing the kid’s said in ages.
‘Here. Lemme help you make it aerodynamic.’
Christopher reaches around Josh’s shoulders, guides the boy’s dirt-stained claw-nails to crease the magazine page in eight places. He considers explaining symmetry to the boy then shuts himself up. Three controlled breaths, Christopher. Leash the beast. You’re lucky you’re dating a puti chick in the first place. 22 years of Pinoy tech education and a Masters of Information Technology doesn’t matter compared to a big Kano dick. Americano, black, Islander, that’s all women want. Filipino’s lowest in the pecking order. Try hold onto whatever you got, Chrissy.
Josh hurls his folded-up-torn-magazine-plane at the wall. Its nose crumples and it drops.
‘It hitted!’ Joshie squeals, ‘It hitted a tree and exploded!
Christopher is one percent less anxious, now that it doesn’t seem the kid’s going to bite or stab him. He smiles. Teamwork feels good. ‘Theeeeere was actually a plane crash not far from here. In the forest.’
‘Did a fousand people die?’
‘Er, no. Just two.’
‘Two fousand?’ The kid’s eyes turn hungry.
‘Two people. Dos. Duo. Rua, if you’re, er, te reo… .’ Christopher turns to Ruthie. ‘I’m not sure what culture your son’s from, sorry, uh, Māori?’
From her unimpressed perch, Ruthie snorts. ‘Joshie’s ancestors always lived in the bush, his whole line-edge. Not Māori, though.’
‘It’s pronounced linny-edge. Not line-edge.’
Ruthie whistles insincerely, takes a blister pack of chlorpromazine off the benchtop and throws the meds at Christopher’s head. ‘Take your chill pills, Professor. Josh belongs in the bush. Not so sure about you.’
‘Muuuum, can I go bowhunting with Dad tomorrow? He said when he gets back from fishing.’
Your father’s in prison, something to do with savagely attacking somebody, according to my research, Christopher wants to scream. Hate to break it to you. Just thought you might be wondering why you turned out s… unrefined.
‘Listen, plane crashes: Weee can go out to the airport and watch the planes taking off and we can chart some arcs of descent? I can get us some graph paper?’
Josh and Ruthie are almost lost.
‘Forget that. Fletcher turboprop model FU24-950. Went down over the Pukenui Forest in 1995. It’s in a gully, a gulch. It’s got a lot of decaying leaf matter on it, y’know, humus, which gives us an unrivalled opportunity to see soil formation first-hand.’
Josh is dumbfounded. He takes a fish finger and chews it slow.
‘What I’m saying is I can show you a genuine plane wreck.’
Now the boy is grinning for the first time Christopher can remember, as is the boy’s gorgeously-hipped, ginger-freckled mother, who tonight, he may possibly be allowed to share a bed with. And hopefully make love to. Protect and correct her. Possibly marry Ruthie years from now.
So long as he undergoes Stepdad stuff.
Brown and bronze leaves part with an explosion of droplets as Josh bursts through the forest, snapping sticks, leaving footprints in pavements of moss. The boy’s speed somewhat makes up for the time lost this morning as Christopher urged Josh to put his shoes on before battling over what to pack. The pair left late, after midday, putting them at risk of returning in darkness. Oh well. Quality time. An investment for Ruthie.
Rotten logs crunch as Josh stomps through the trees. Josh is sprinting because Christopher exaggerated the goriness of the crash. The site, according to what he remembers from his expedition with the Scouts half a lifetime ago, really just looks like broken whiteware dumped in a remote gully, mossed-over and rain-softened. The boy needed a motivational focus, though.
It’s 2.30 now and this wet jaunt could potentially be 80 minutes in, 80 out. That’s the way the numbers look on the topographical map on Christopher’s Garmin inReach satellite phone, anyway. He bought the damn $699 thing so he could be as confident as the inner child who years ago trudged this same trail.
‘You alright up there?’ Christopher calls towards the branches ahead. Bird-flutters and wet snapping somewhere, but no response from the battered bush.
Lost in fantasies of fatherhood, he realises he hasn’t seen the boy in the ten minutes since he explained the old mythology about the Patupaiarehe and Turehu devious fairies which ancient peoples believed to dwell out here. Got the kid too excited, evidently.
The earth rises and splats Christopher’s cheeks. He’s tripped and fallen.
‘Mum said you getted halluciations.’
‘JESUS, YOU SCARED ME.’
Josh is perched on a bough like a damn owl, two hands gripping the branch above him, as if preparing to swing.
The boy’s face is innocent but predatory at the same time, like he’s watching a mouse sniff a mousetrap.
‘Hallusetination. Fwom your medication. Mum said you see fings.’
Christopher gets up, wipes both shoulders on both cheeks.
‘I’d rather Ruth hadn’t mentioned that. My, er, Hamilton Scale Mental Distress score, as it were, is not too concerning, these days.’
‘But Mum says you get jumpy like a fwog and you see fings and you need chill pills to calm down.’
Calm down after dealing with you, Christopher’s brain says to the backs of his eyeballs. ‘Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitorsare known causative agents of visual and auditory hallucinations, if dosage is inappropriate and, frankly, I’ve been taking my medication long enough that the chances the antidepressants OR antipsychotics will cause hallucinations, is the correct word, are limited, soooo… Can we just keep going, please?’
‘Mum says you changeded pills,’ says the boy in the tree. ‘So maybe you see fings is how come you tripped.’
I trip because I’m clumsy. Because I’m not descended from a line of inbred pighunters like you. ‘Just run on ahead to the crash place, bout another eight hundred paces, there’s a memorial, you can’t miss it. Attaboy.’
While the boy darts off, Christopher sucks water from his canteen and chews a palmful of scroggin. Same proportions of raisins, nuts and chocolate he was taught when he was a boy. After, he pops a Kendi into his mouth, and one of those sampalok salted tamarind candies Josh wouldn’t touch.
There is fluff on the toe of his boot. A beak, too. A bird has been shredded and devoured by some recent predator. Judging by the blackish blood on the fluff, the bird was munched recently by something fanged.
As the sun begins cooling and the time hits 3.40pm, thick kauri trees bunch up on one side of the path, crowding out the sun. It’s the edge of the ancient crater, just as he remembers from his childhood scout expedition. Down in this very gully, Christopher believes they’ll find the crash site.
‘God, finally,’ Christopher tells the kid, pushing one last clump of ferns aside, checking his Garmin inReach. Latitude 35.716126°, Longitude: E 174.263659. ‘Sat phone says it’s down this slope a little bit, son, I’m fairly certain,’ Christopher begins, ‘I mean, sorry for calling you “son,” if it’s, er, too presumptuous.’
Josh just grins. ‘Can’t wait, Daddy!’
Daddy. Saints be praised. A breakthrough.
There are feathers with dabs of blood on their tips sticking to Joshie’s chin, emerald and white, and he wants to lecture the kid about keeping bacteria out of his mouth, but still. Daddy. He won’t burst the mood by correcting the kid.
They leave the track, Christopher noting the coordinates as they move into wildnerness. Ahead, between three strong trunks, a banner heralds a parade. No, not a banner – a rectangle of white-painted metal draped in the boughs of two taraire trees. Four metres long, two feet tall. Beneath it, little pieces of geometry. One rust-coloured square, three white triangles. Ovals of safety glass with ferns growing through the cracks. All of it, blackened with moss and mold and lichen yet still, unmistakably, they are fragments of a fallen plane.
‘Holy shit, Dad!’
‘Lang– ’ is all Christopher can get out before he goes speechless. He wants to correct the boy’s language, but Dad is, again, heavenly to hear. Forget the insults for a bit, forget the dead bird-eating and the bad behaviour, he tells himself. Be this kid’s stepfather. Be a partner to his mum. Show the world how stable you are. How little you need medication to stand up straight and walk proud. Consider it an honour.
The forest smells good. He’s not worried about work tickets or invoicing. Standing in muddy boots, muddy socks pulled up his hard calves, Pride pumps through his arteries. Christopher decides he is the manliest, staunchest Pinoy he can think of. A long way from shouting at the pharmacist then crying in a curtained-off side-room. Life is good. Do these trips each weekend, he’ll suggest when he gets home, throwing Ruthie’s legs around his heaps and muscling her to the bedroom.
Descending into a leafy trough, Joshie pulls up treasures as he stumbles across them – red and green-insulated wires, fluffy fibreglass, a wheel.
Dim canopy. Lukewarm light. Far from the open. A long walk from any road.
‘Watch out, kiddo. There are holes down here. Don’t want to fall through the fuselage. Cockpit might swallow us.’
If there’s a plane-body beneath them, Christopher can’t see it. Instead he discovers a shiny oblong of orange metal with a sad message, screwed into a tree trunk.
Placed in memory of Paul Cullinane & Gary Naish. Loved & missed by all. 22 November 2005.
From underneath ten inches of wormy rotting black leaves, Josh is pulling some sort of rubber-edged transparent doormat. It’s windshield glass, spiderwebbed with a thousand cracks. Josh kicks it till it shatters into sugar cubes. Christopher wants to caution the boy about disrespecting the dead. But today is supposed to be a day without tellings-off. Just bonding.
The boy scampers to him like a labrador.
Christopher is hypnotised by a strange, hard corner pointing out from between tree roots.
‘No wayyyy.’ Joshie is on all fours, blackening his knees. ‘Daddy! We founded the black box.’
Lo and behold: an orange cuboid with green wires sticking out of it, plus a single worm wriggling between a tangle of roots. The flight data recorder. The heart of the wreckage.
Joshie scrapes ancient dirt and moss off with the back of his sacred pocket knife.
‘Can I keep it?’
‘There’s probably a law against taking material from a crash site considering it’s still the property of – oh, of course you can keep it. Put it in your backpack. Listen, son, I’ve got to go and, how shall I say… nature calls. You safe here by yourself for a minute?’
The boy is too entranced to respond.
Christopher takes ten steps over ten thick roots, veers towards what he believes is south.
Christopher lets out a held-in-for-90-minutes piss. Then Joshie squawks, and the bliss is over.
The green-haired boy has spotted… a bleached rockmelon? Stuck in a tree-hollow is a white bowling ball with three black finger-holes and an old mummified lizard.
‘Is that what I fink…. Wowwwww. Oh boy, oh man. It’s his head. Eh Kwistofer.’
No denying it. They’ve found a skull, the head having long-ago landed inside the rotten tree.
In the bottom of the crater-pit, Christopher squats on some hard surface. Beneath the leaf litter, the ground groans, though it feels like it will hold. He unlocks his cellphone. Prepares to snap a picture of Joshie rimmed with a halo of orange sunset, holding a skull with teeth broken, a pink centipede twisting in the eye socket and wriggling into Joshie’s open jaws and–
The boy is licking bugs out of the skull, oh God that’s sick, no no no, this is way beyond, not out here, this behaviour, it’s repulsive, the boy’s eyes turning, his fingers extruding into yellow French fries as he puts his mouth to the old rotting crumbling –
The earth drops out. Christopher plummets down through some kind of cheese grater, something metal with glass teeth which clunks as his body collapses through a hole. Legs wet, electric shock radiating up his veins. He’s pissed himself. Or cut an artery open. Impossible to tell.
Christopher has fallen through the jagged mouth of the cockpit where there used to be a windshield, his bottom half-dangling as if he’s ice fishing using his legs as bait. Pants snagged on jagged metal. Bootlaces caught on some small hard switch. One ankle sideways on something he believes is a control panel, one foot on a leather seat. A CB radio bumping his knee.
The back of his knee, rather.
Christopher’s leg is twisted. Broken? Possibly.
Soils and leaves and humus fall into the hole. Any more movement, Christopher could be buried alive.
‘J-J-Josh,’ he says, and gulps. ‘Could you, could you come here m-momentarily?’
Higher up the crater, the boy stands obediently, chewing some kind of toffee-stick with his sharp teeth. The toffee is olive and accented with yellow, in the shape of a dead flat lizard.
‘My femur. It’s – it’s hurt. Take my phone. F-follow the bl-bl– ’
Christopher swallows a throatful of cold vomit and nods.
Dangling through a windshield, half-standing on a ruined leg, Christopher feels the plane-roof sucking him down onto a cold metal pillow.
Don’t sleep, bro. Be a man. Tough it out for Ruthie.
He finds a scrap of reserve energy, walks his fingers like spider-legs across the plane-top, clawing for something to grab onto to pull himself out and then – oh thank you, the universe is fair, all the depressed, unstable shit in the past was just the gods getting the bad parts of his life out of the way, Josh is here to help, they’ll be home soon, Josh is extending a hand and there’s something like a mossy egg in his fist, and Josh is grinning, juiced lizard dribbling from his teeth, except Josh is – holding a rock? Josh, that’s not what we – and aiming a single blow that flattens Christopher’s fingers against the metal.
Christopher sucks in sharp chunks of sleep, swirling down a drain. His crushed biscuit-fingers are grey-purple against the white paint of the fuselage.
The pain arrives. He feels himself die.
‘You thtay dare,’ a voice says, struggling to get the words out, its forked tongue sticky with lizard guts.
Stuck in the cockpit window, surrounded by shifting soil, legs scrabbling for purchase, Christopher stays put. He hears his gasping lungs search for breath.
The canopy turns purple. Black pours over.
Blowflies buzzing. The snap of twigs. The car alarm calls of birds.
The needling, penis-pinching, diarrhoea-inducing jag of glassy spikes and some kind of sunburn on his face and the unforgiving metal punishing his dangling leg, now covered in the dirt and rotten branches which have poured into the plane overnight, 50 fresh kilos crushing his lower half.
Christopher licks flaking lips, tries to swallow the brick in his throat.
It’s there, perched like a wallaby on its haunches, wrists on its knees, claws dangling, jaw hanging slack while the wet tongue sags and drips like a used condom. Naked now, skin dark with slime and moss and the filthy naked boy-beast with the nub-penis is coming in for a hug, affectionate, loving, licking, hot and wet, and kissing acid onto his face and-
‘THE FUCK YOU DOING, GETOFFGETOFF.’
Christopher tries to defend himself with his shattered left hand, thrashes his shoulder, fighting from a space as tight as a toilet bowl, his limbs pinned and painful.
Josh The Boy-Beast has been licking strips of face-bacon with a tiger-tongue. Christopher can feel a rectangle of throbbing muscle where the skin has been licked down to the bone while he dozed through an overnight coma.
The green demon bends its head, surprised, green hair flopping. It hops a couple of feet away, pondering.
‘But I’m hungwy?’
‘CALL THE FUGGIN COPS NOW, JOSHIE, NOW. GET MY SAT PHONE. IT’S IN MY BAG UP THERE. GO.’
Beast-Josh giggles and licks its lips. It can’t help itself. It slinks forward and in one big scoop, licks the crusty black blood off Christopher’s mashed knuckles.
Christopher cries. The boy-beast doesn’t wait for a no or a yes. It slurps then bites off a strip of scabby skin the size of a coaster, chewing and looking happy.
Christopher’s arm spasms as he tries to tuck it safely by his side. He slips an inch down into the cockpit, pinning his shoulders. Cries again.
‘I can take care of dem for you, sir. If you’re not using ‘em.’
‘The fugg you talkin bout,’ Christopher sobs, the melted world swirling. ‘Using what?’
‘Your fishy fingies.’ The boy’s smile spreads so wide, his ears disappear. He darts forward. Sinks his teeth into Christopher’s left forearm. Tears off a tablespoon of flesh. The bite-crater is white fat, then it blushes red, then Christopher falls into the cockpit, half a metre deeper, landing on his knees, granules of glass settling in his hair. He’s fully inside the plane now. It’s cramped and there’s a hard joystick jagging into his back and his hands and legs scream, but the relief is blissful opium.
Above, where the sky should be, appears the face of the bush-beast. A switch flips. Flash flood of hatred.
‘WHEN I GET OUT OF HERE I’M GONNA FUCKIN SMACK YOU SO HARD, KID.’
Joshie looks disappointed.
‘WAITWAIT, come back I I I, just, listen,’ Christopher gulps, ‘Comebackcomeback.’
The creature has half-hopped away to rummage in the bushes. Now it hops back to the plane-pit, spilling soil and twigs, sniffs, revolves its neck most of the way round, watching a fantail.
Licks its lips. Blinks yellow cat-eyes.
‘You want me to stay?’
The green freak-child stays – not that it’s always close. And not that it’s a child. Flies hum and robins pull worms from the earth and trees creak and ferns nod and sunlight needles through the canopy from the east, for the first few hours, then directly above. Christopher wonders how soon the rain will come and whether he’ll drown.
The sky blackens, briefly. Thunder in the east. He won’t last the week.
The boy-beast fills the day hopping around branches, disappearing up trees, climbing vines, falling and dangling, dropping three, four metres at a time, bouncing on springy bones.
Except, not always.
Twice, between naps, between hunting expeditions, the creature sneaks up, dips its grinning face inside the cockpit and takes an agonising lick, peeling back Christopher’s North Face jacket and ripping skin like wallpaper from Christopher’s sweaty black shoulders, his neck, his cheek and chin while Christopher’s head thrashes and he weeps then collapses back into sleep, listening to the boy chew and swallow and scuttle off.
It won’t be licking, soon. Christopher is going to be skinned and nibbled to death, then swallowed. He is being eaten alive, hour by hour. He will never see his models again, his gaming laptop, his Warhammer figurines. And he will never see Ruthie.
Ruthie who should’ve told him what was gonna happen once he took the beast to the bush.
Ruthie who’s got a biiiiig surprise coming to her.
After lunch, brown hunks of dirty fluff flow out of the black interior of a gutted puriri tree. Christopher, waking from his third delirious doze of the day, watches the spinach-green Josh-thing, perched on a distant log, turn its head, like a chameleon. Its black eyes roll backward, the bottom eyelids rising. The jaw drops open. A pink javelin snatches a bat from the flock. The green demon pulls the forked pink tongue and furry feast back into its mouth, chews twice, as if breaking a breath mint between its teeth, and swallows, licking fur from its lips.
The light fades to west. Blackening sky. A thunderclap. Sunset soon, and icy rain. He’s still in shock but not numb enough to sleep through the coming night. Hypothermia will set in after dark. He’ll be too weak to fight while the creature licks his head away like a popsicle.
As indigo flows into the forest, Christopher sucks the stickiness out of his throat. Calls the boy-beast over.
‘Hey. HEYYYYYY, sorry about before, kiddo, listen – bring me some of whatever you’re eating, how bout it?’
The creature bounds across the forest floor, circling the crater, treating the roof of the fuselage then arriving, frustratingly, behind him where Christopher can’t quite turn and look.
‘Weally?’ says the excitable thing. ‘You want some? It’s good.’
Christopher nods. The boy bounds away, peers inside the tree-hollow, spits his pink tongue, brings some morsels of bat meat to share.
‘Closer, Josh. Bring it right in, I can’t reach.’
Spilling dirt, the Josh-thing hops around the fuselage, circling to find a place to lay the food in front of Christopher.
‘Closer, Josh. Get in here.’
The fuselage complains. Crumples and moans. The slimy dirty boy-beast looks down anxiously. Relinquishes the bat-meat.
Christopher attacks. Concentrating his fury in his good right arm, Christopher seizes the kid’s hair. Tugs the scalp till he rips the roots.
The pain screaming in his cheeks and back and legs and hands is like a whip made of steep wire but Christopher has the little shit trapped and he grabs Josh’s balls and pulls the cunt half-down into the cockpit. They scratch and claw, Christopher treading water with weights around his ankles, pants down and drowning, they scratch and scramble and bite but Christopher’s bigger and he’s bending the boy-beast against the dashboard, mashing a fistful of leaf-humus-dirt in the beast’s lips then Christopher manages to push a thumb up under the jawbone of the kid and squeeze like he’s trying to pop bubble wrap while, strangely, watching from another planet, he sees Josh’s small hand clutching his father’s pocket knife nipping and scraping at Christopher’s right biceps, cutting a little, but weakening. Dying.
The kid’s head turns purple as a blueberry. Christopher’s tense fingers break through wet gristle and cartilage till they touch in a vice pinch, neck crushed.
The kid’s splayed across the console. Throat exposed.
The first stab bounces off hard, rubbery skin. Bad angle. Working in his tiny wrecked cockpit-space without room to stand, Christopher – using the last starved strength his twisted legs will give – holds the butterknife-blunt blade firm and steady with his pinky finger, chooses a better angle, aims for the ear, and sinks the blade into the soft space between the sternocleidomastoid and jaw.
The kids wakes, for a moment – blond again, dirt-free, innocent, shapeshifting into something sympathetic – then spasms, arms flailing, and Christopher uses everything in him to kneel on the kid’s flailing arms as he hacks.
The blade can’t saw much, though it stabs well. Christopher hacks and rips and wriggles metal inside muscle, the blade catching on bone and tendon and teeth, and succeeds in severing six inches of neck after ten minutes, another eight inches with another quarter hour then – after gauging whether he’s likely to be attacked by the suddenly-waking-up-boy, Christopher tosses the knife down into the rubbish pit that’s become the cockpit, positions a foot up on the boy-beast’s weeping neck, and wrestles the head till the last violin strings of tendon and the final chunks of cervical vertebra are holding on.
The spine is a ruptured hose, coughing juices, but the head detaches with a sucking spurt, surprisingly heavy, heavier than any bowling ball, and Christopher is cackling with relief as he bashes a hole in the cockpit’s former windscreen, shoots a perfect three-pointer through the cavity and listens to the thud of ten kilograms of skull and meat DOOFing on the forest floor.
Christopher pulls himself out into – into a dawn, and birdsong, cicadas waking up. He can’t believe it’s taken all night. Eyes must’ve adjusted. Time behaving funny. Everything unreal without his meds.
God, what is it – Monday?
Fuck he’s hungry. Christopher grabs a hunk of kid-hair then begins prowling on all fours to find his backpack.
Yellow Kathmandu Outdoorsman 360, halfway up the crater.
With a boot on it. A boot with a hi vis orange leg-protector. Above, waiting: four rescue-men in four positions round the rim of the wreckage.
The fifth isn’t a man.
It’s Ruthie, thank Christ, wearing an oversized t-shirt and little on her legs, as if she’s been hauled out of bed without notice, tobogganing on her knees as she slides towards Christopher and the headless creature at the bottom of the pit.
Search and Rescue shine torches down. Four beams.
‘Is that a,’ one of them mutters to his team, stepping forwards, slipping in leaf-muck, landing on his arse, ‘Is that a resus dummy?’
Ruth is moaning and pawing and tearing up handfuls of leaves, ‘MY BOY, MY BABY, MY BOY, MY – ‘
‘I stopped it, I got it, I fixed, I, I – help me out, you guys, you gotta– ‘
The rescue-men reach for their resuscitation dummy, upend their bags for adrenaline needles and bandages and sat phones and tuck the corpse’s hands and arms delicately by its sides and unfold a cloth stretcher to nurse the body onto.
Not that it needs nursing, Christopher wants to tell them. The beast is dead. Mission successful. We can relax, now. Just need a hot meal and a bath, and of course my pills cause my brain’s not… Brain just feels a little dry, is all. A little tired.
Tree tops shaking, now, shivering leaves that rain on Christopher’s skin. He’s hypothermic, he realises with a laugh. Boiling on the outside.
He pulls his shirt off.
‘See? Bloody brat bit me.’
‘MY BABY BOY. MY FUCKIN BABY.’
Ruthie takes a direct look into Christopher’s eyes, understands what’s happened, and punches.
Christopher’s nose explodes.
She pummels and claws and scratches for ten quick seconds before pouncing on the stretcher while the stretcher-bearers squawk Don’t-don’t-don’t as she pulls the body down, collapsing the stretcher into the leaf-soil, and the head rolls down the rim of the crater and settles in front of Christopher, wobbling to a standstill, tongue out accusingly.
Normal tongue. Tiny, actually. The tongue of a kid, not a beast. Tight skin, dimples, and eyes wide open, stiff resin. Hundreds of bluebottles drinking juices, and when the crawl away, brown irises lie there on hard white cueballs. Nothing like cat-eyes.
Ordinary fingers. Harmless cream fingernails.
Yellow hair, daubs of dark gold.
‘Iwuz, iwuz, it was biting me, eating, it wuz– ’
Ruthie, on her knees in the mush, is screaming that Christopher is off his fucking medication, MURDERING PIECE OF SHIT MOTHERFUCKING MENTAL INSANE NERD and Christopher, looking around the rescuers for a soulmate with a brain, wants to protest, wants to debate this thing with someone intelligent, wants to walk it back, wants a sympathetic ear to whom he can explain that he’s clearly not the real monster, no, he was assaulted, he was bitten, but Ruthie is cradling the head of her child and rolling in the dirt and a rescuer is fingering his earpiece and saying ‘squad’ and ‘apprehended’ and ‘Yup, we got restraints’ and the cops are coming.