Til by Owen Egerton (July 2020)
I hate my singing voice. It’s squeaky and perpetually off-key, like a squirrel choking on a frog. In school choir, I mouth the words. At birthday parties, it is my secret gift to not sing “Happy Birthday to You.” Seriously, my singing will put you off your cake. But when I’m deep, deep in the woods and I know I’m completely alone, I sing.
Sometimes, I put in earbuds and sing along to K-Pop. I know all the lyrics to every Blackpink song, but I have no idea what they mean. Other times, I just sing on my own. If the trees mind, they’ve never mentioned it. Or if they have, I’m singing too loud to hear.
The world smells damp this evening. The air tastes the good taste of dirt and wet trees. I love the Oregon trees stretching up as if there were nothing to do over the centuries but grow. How they sway almost imperceptibly. They really do seem to be saying something, whispering something. When I’m alone and not singing, I listen and see if I can make out the words in the whispering. I think I’m too noisy on the inside to hear. Maybe if I could find that kind of inside quiet, quiet enough to match the trees, I’d understand. Like a hummingbird’s song slowed down until it matches the songs of the humpback whale. But inside me is not a quiet place.
The sun dips below the treetops, coming in as shafts. The day’s heat is nearly gone. I’m deep into the woods, over a mile from any house. Deep enough to sing. But today, I’m not alone.
I see him before he sees me. He’s standing in the trees forty feet ahead. He’s naked. His body flabby, grey skin the color of wet ash. He stands motionless, facing the remaining light of the setting sun, and I hold my breath. But he turns his head and looks at me. No surprise on his stubbled face, as if he were waiting for me. For a long moment, neither of us moves. Then he takes a single step toward me, and I run.
I hear him coming behind me, crashing through branches. I cut left and into the thicker brush, ducking under low branches and dodging smaller trees. He follows, not slowing. I glance back and see him barreling through, letting the branches slap his face, palming trunks and pulling himself past.
A broken branch rips my sleeve, slicing my arm, but I can’t stop now. Then I’m falling forward, hitting the ground with a thud. I turn over quickly. I’m in the clearing – the one with the old oak in its center. I look back to see where he is, expecting him to come crashing after me, but there’s nothing, and for the briefest moment, everything is still again.
Then he steps out of the brush, unhurried and staring.
I move to stand, but seize my ankle with a wince. He smiles – red, toothless gums. I push back, toward the oak. He steps closer – he’s sweating, his whole body damp, scratched and smeared with the dirt.
My back hits the base of the tree. He opens his mouth and I dread even the thought of what he might say. But I won’t have to hear it. His next step hits the trap.
Snap. The bear trap closes on his ankle and he lets out a scream. I jump to my feet and reach behind the tree, triggering the weight and watching the hidden chain tighten and spring up through the wet leaves. He watches too as the chain reels. He has only a moment of realization before the chain yanks him up by his leg and has him hanging four feet above the forest floor.
I stand and brush the dead leaves from my jeans. My ankle is fine. My plan was perfect. His mouth gapes red in pain and surprise.
“Please,” he says, in a frightened, pitiful voice. “Please. Please.”
Blood the color of coal runs from his ankles along his body, dripping down and forming a black puddle below his head.
I step toward him.
“Let me go. Let me go now. Please.”
Here’s something I know that the world doesn’t. Monsters exist. Not in nightmares or fairytales. Not as metaphors. Real monsters in the real world.
“I’ll go away. I’ll go away.”
He twists on the chain. At the base of his back, just above the crack of his ass, protrudes a bony, nearly transparent six-inch tail. He twirls back to me, his face weeping, his hands stretched out and snatching at me.
I roll a rotting log to its side and retrieve the machete I’ve stashed there.
His face changes when he sees the machete – the snarl of a desperate animal. “I will rip out your throat. I will peel your flesh. I will–”
His rant is replaced with Blackpink’s “Kill This Love” from my earbuds. His twisting face seems to be lip-synching along. I’d laugh, but that would be inappropriate.
He reaches for me, grasping at me, twisting on the chain in a panic.
Here’s something else I know. If you can see monsters, if you can find them where they hide, you have a responsibility to take them out.
I swing the machete and split him down the middle.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Award winning filmmaker and novelist Owen Egerton is the writer/director of three feature films, most recently Mercy Black with Blumhouse and Netflix. He’s the author of five books of fiction, including the short story collection How Best to Avoid Dying and the novel Hollow, which was named one of the Best Books of 2017 by NPR. Egerton is also one of the comics behind the Alamo Drafthouse’s Master Pancake Theater in Austin, Texas and has been voted Austin’s Best Author by the readers of the Austin Chronicle six times.