Our teacher Mrs. Strunt said the allosaurus coming to Hudson Falls was the best thing that ever happened to Hudson Falls, but the worst thing that ever happened to the allosaurus. She herded us onto the bus looking mad about it, trying to keep us from seeing she was just as excited as we were. The bus was freezing and we had all the windows fogged up in five minutes. Other boys drew curse words. I wrote F-U-C and then flinched, imagining my mother finding out, so I wiped it away and drew an allosaurus.
“The poor thing,” Mrs. Strunt said. “Wherever it came from, it’s got to feel terribly lonely and lost and scared.”
The roads were all madness on the way to the farm. Barely a day since Mr. Blecher made his big announcement, and everyone in the world was coming to Hudson Falls. Scientists and men with giant cameras, and lots of soldiers with lots of guns, but not the mean soldiers and scientists from movies. Everyone I saw had a smile so big it could have been their birthday. Everyone is coming to Hudson Falls, I thought.
And then: a treacherous, wicked, horrible thought.
Maybe my dad will come.
Where had it come from—dad—that foul forbidden word? I sucked in my cheeks like making a fish face and closed my teeth on as much flesh as I could, and bit down hard. And then harder. Punishing myself. Until I felt the same hot smothering rage that rises up in my mother every time I say that word.
I thought my mother was God, then. Six-foot-something, all flesh and freckles, she towered over our neighbors in church and at the supermarket. She came home from the slaughterhouse smelling like blood. I was nine then, and she could still pick me up, hoist me into the air. Not even the fathers of the other boys my age could do that. She wasn’t afraid of anything.
At breakfast that morning my mother had said “Day after tomorrow, the army’s going to take it away, and I personally think it can’t happen soon enough.”
I finished my milk and Mom poured me more, which I did not want, which I drank. Mom is certain that the government wants to take our stuff. Mostly our guns. She has a lot of guns and a lot of stickers on her car about them and her cold dead hands. So now I wondered why she wanted them to take the allosaurus.
“Woulda taken it right away, only it’ll take ’em 48 hours to scrounge up the right equipment.”
I nodded. Mom drank from the jug and put it back in the fridge.
“Blecher’s going to make out okay, though. Heard he’s got a million in TV deals lined up.” She likes Mr. Blecher because he’s an old old man, but he can still get over on her once in a while in arm wrestling. “And he’s hidden away some of its droppings to sell to the companies.”
“What kind of companies?”
Mom frowned. “How the hell would I know something like that?”
I wondered what they would do with dinosaur poop. Could you clone something from its poop? Could something so gone forever come back so easily? And if poop worked, what else would? I thought of my father’s baseball cap, the one Mom didn’t know I had, the one that still smelled of his sweat when I crawled to the back of my closet late at night and in total darkness buried my nose in it.
Mom never sits at meal times. She made anxious circles through the tiny kitchen, moving refrigerator magnets and removing expired coupons and straightening the cat and dog figurines I could never stop forcing to fight each other. It was a Tuesday morning, which is when my sister Sue calls from college. Waiting for the call always made Mom a little tense.
“What?” she said, kicking me lightly. “Why the face, like I just killed a puppy?”
“You want me to be excited about it. But that thing ain’t right. They got scientists out combing that corner of Blecher’s farm, but mark my words they won’t find nothing. This is something bigger than science.”
“At church yesterday, Pastor said it’s a creature of God,” I spoke carefully, not contradicting, just seeking clarity. I could no longer swing my legs when I sat at the kitchen table. This was a recent development, one I’d been looking forward to that had turned out to be pretty crummy. My feet rested resentfully on the cold tiles. A draft came from under the door.
“Pastor’ll say what needs to be said to help Mr. Blecher out and to get people to come and spend their money in town. Creature of God, my foot.”
Church was the most important thing in my mother’s life, but I don’t think she believed in God. The Hudson Falls Evangelical Lutheran Church gave her lots of things, like friends and a full social calendar and a reason not to go to the liquor store. God didn’t offer her anything extra. Mostly she just liked what Pastor said: the sermons full of blood, fire and the devil and impending doom, about a world gone haywire and full of sinners and about to be punished.
She heaped bacon on my plate, five then six then seven slices. “‘Fore you know it, there’ll be bunches of them things, running riot over all the world. Eating us all up.”
“It’s locked up, Mom.”
“I know you saw King Kong, because I saw you crying at the end of it—” and she thumped me on the arm, not hard, because I saw her cry too when the big ape fell—”so I know you know they had Kong tied up good and proper, and he still got loose.”
My sister Sue called then. Mom talked to her for a little while, not sounding super-excited. Mom handed me the phone while Sue was in a sentence.
“Hi,” I said, interrupting her.
“Matt? Hi! Exciting stuff, right? A dinosaur in stupid little Hudson Falls! It’s on all the news channels.”
“Have you seen it?”
“No,” I said. “We go today.”
“I wish I could come see it, but it’ll be gone soon, right? Did you read the dinosaur books I sent you?”
“Did you just shrug? You can’t shrug over the phone.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Do you not like dinosaurs anymore?”
I shrugged again. Then I remembered about shrugging. “I don’t know.”
But I did know. Starting around the time I turned seven, Mom frowned when I talked about dinosaurs. “You get too excited about those things,” she’d say. “Loving something too much is dangerous.” So whenever I got the urge to pick up a dinosaur book or toy, I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek.
The allosaurus was different, of course. It was something you couldn’t ignore or pray away.
“I talked to Dad,” Sue said. Mom was making a lot of noise putting the dishes in the sink. “He’s coming to town to see the allosaurus. He begged his editor to give him the assignment.”
“Do you remember your dad?”
“No,” There was nothing to remember. Some phone calls, sometimes, some letters, and once a box with a birthday present. Mom set it on fire without opening it. Sadness-anger tightened my stomach. I bit my lip to banish it.
“Mom’s…” Sue spent a while figuring out where to go with that one. “Mom’s not always thinking straight, when it comes to him.” She knew she had to be careful. After she screamed bad things at Mom, I refused to speak to her for the whole week before she went to college. “I know it seems like Mom’s the toughest chick on two legs, but she’s afraid of lots of things.”
The being-mad-at-Sue didn’t really go away until we clambered down from the bus at Blecher’s Farm. I had been a million times, for church picnics and farm field trips, but had never seen it so full of strangers, people on cell phones, slinging weird devices. The inside of the barn was full of new gates and doors and walls, built quick by the army while they waited for the elephant cage to come from San Diego.
The allosaurus was as tall as two of my mother when it reared up to its full height, but it rarely did. Its usual leaning-forward walk placed it at just the right level to look Mom in the eye. It looked the way it did in books and movies, a tyrannosaurus but smaller, only it had something the movies don’t: a personality. Curious and mistrustful, not particularly smart, a little like a seagull that wants to steal your food.
“The poor thing,” Mrs. Strunt said, looking up at it. It bobbed its head as it walked.
I was glad Mom wasn’t there. I could stand there staring at the thing with what Mom calls my “gape-mouthed imbecile look.”
The allosaurus was anti-camouflaged, wine-colored with long wide yellow streaks down the flank. It didn’t need to hide from anyone. The claws were a weird marbled grey I hadn’t imagined. Blood and hay covered the floor. It had been eating; its arms and face were messy from it. It didn’t look lonely or lost or scared. It looked proud of itself, like it had lucked into a lot of food and was waiting to see how things played out.
Mr. Blecher took us on a personal tour, his hands heavy on the heads of the kids he knew from church.
We stood at the edge of the barn, beside the steep railing that penned it in. The allosaurus came closer and someone screamed. Its nostrils snorted smoke into the chilly air. The barn had been there since forever, but the sawdust-and-cement smell of the air gave the place a freshly-built feel that was not reassuring. Only raw wood and new nails kept it away from us. It nudged a bar with its head, its claws a yard from my face, and a whole bunch of someones screamed. Maybe including me. The arms are what make an allosaurus so much better than a tyrannosaurus. Tyrannosaurus is way bigger, but they have stupid stumpy little arms with two claws. Allosauruses have long, muscular, useful arms with three scary claws.
Mrs. Strunt asked “What are they going to do with it?”
“Rent it out to movie studios,” Blecher said. “Take its DNA and make little ones. Bottle its spit and sell it for engine grease. Honestly ma’am, I have no idea.”
He took us around to the adjoining cages, where the goats had been crammed. He gripped the lever that would release a goat into the allosaurus pen, and grinned and said “You kids want to see what happens when I pull this?”
We all screamed yes, but Mrs. Strunt said no. She said it loud and weird so Mr. Blecher didn’t.
“Sure wish I could keep it, but they won’t let me. It was all I could do to get them to camp down the hill with their whole security rigmarole, not keep me up all night with their noise.”
I watched the allosaurus. Mr. Blecher was telling the story about how he found it on bear patrol in his John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle, and how everyone always told him he was crazy to bring the harness and the tranquilizer cannon like he could shoot down a grizzly and bring it home. Didn’t he do them one better? … except that he had to call up five of his friends to bring their Gators to help drag it back.
In my head I broke the allosaurus down into the cuts Mom taught me, from the picture of the cow. Thick rib, thin rib. Silverside. Brisket. Chuck. Blade. Drumstick? Cows don’t have drumsticks. Probably the allosaurus was closer to a chicken, but Mom doesn’t work with chickens. That’s a separate slaughterhouse. That’s a whole set of words she doesn’t know.
“So?” Mom said. “How was it?”
“Neat,” I said, sitting down at the kitchen table. She blinked and smiled like she’d been praying, or napping. Her hands were raw, bright pink. Winter’s tough at the slaughterhouse. The meat gets cold fast. Mom doesn’t do the killing. The room where they hang the cows to empty out, after they’ve been killed but before Mom comes through to turn them into smaller pieces, isn’t heated. By the time she gets there they’re barely above freezing.
“Is it true they don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl?”
“Well shoot, you’d think that’d be easy to figure out.”
“You should come,” I said.
“What’d Rebecca have to say about the thing?”
I shrugged. Mom hates Mrs. Strunt. They went to school together, but Mrs. Strunt went to college after and Mom went to the slaughterhouse, and now Mrs. Strunt makes more money than Mom does. Not much more, Mom says, but the fact that Mrs. Strunt doesn’t have to spend the whole day standing up and lifting heavy things really rankles.
“Why don’t you want to come see it?”
“Lord, Matt, I don’t know.”
“Stanley’s parents let him stay home from school today. They said it was because they’re Catholics and the Pope hasn’t spoken on the allosaurus yet, so they don’t know whether it’s demonic or not. But really it was because Stanley was scared.”
I held my fists to my chest right after I said it, steeling myself for what might come, but Mom just smiled. “You think maybe I’m scared of that big brute? He don’t scare me. All it is is meat.”
She stood up and I heard something pop. Mom said one bad word, then, and spent a long time saying it. She put both her hands on her back.
I stood up, but didn’t go closer. Lately I’d been hearing that popping more and more. Once the pain passes she usually moves on to being mad. But this time she shut her eyes and her lips moved, and when she opened them the fierceness had gone out of her face.
“Is she a good teacher? Rebecca?”
“I guess,” I said.
“Do you like her?”
“Good. You need to do well in school.” She looked at me, smiled at whatever she saw. “Somebody ought to make that dinosaur into steaks, is all I’m saying. Or burgers. Eat it before it eats us.” Then she elbowed me. “Would you eat allosaurus burgers, kid?”
I said I would. She said she would too. We laughed about it more than maybe we meant to, but laughing felt good.
Much later that night the phone woke me up. I sat at the top of the stairs so I could hear Mom’s side of the conversation.
“No. Uh uh.”
So it was Dad.
“Really, Max? That’s all it is? And if they shipped the dinosaur out to Texas or it died tomorrow, you wouldn’t come?”
“You’re a damn liar.”
“No. Why would you ask me that?”
“Why all of a sudden do you care about him now?
“You’re the one who chose to live way the hell down there. And we’re doing fine, him and me.”
“Please, Max. Please don’t.”
I cried a lot when Mom got drunk and burned the box with my birthday present from Dad, but only because I was five. I wouldn’t cry now.
Things started to get bad between Mom and Sue around the same time Sue called Dad.
“She’s taken him back once before,” she had told me, not long after she snuck out of the house and took a train to see him without telling Mom, and not long before she decided to go to college in Plattsburgh because that would put her just a six-hour bus ride from where Dad was. “I was nine when he came back. He stuck around for a month or two.”
Sue is nine years older than me.
“You should see him. He’s a big strong tough guy. Like you’ll probably be.”
I wouldn’t rise to the bait.
“He’s smart too. Also like you’ll probably be.”
I thought about him a lot. But I’d learned not to ask about him ever. Mom had lots to say.
“Why…” I said, back then, to Sue—but I needed to be careful if I was going to say out loud the things I barely dared think. The things that would break my mother’s heart to hear. “Why does she hate him so much?”
“She can’t say to no to him,” Sue said. “That’s why Mom goes to church so much. Because she’s not nearly as strong as she wants people to think.”
I said something, probably not nice.
“The only reason they’re not together is that he hated Hudson Falls. Said he could never live there. And you know what? She was going to leave everything, to move to the city with him. Quit her job, sell the house, leave her friends and church and family. And then at the last minute—like, the night before—she got blind drunk, stole his car, drove it one block and then deliberately crashed it into a pole, walked home, told him she hated his guts and to get the hell out of her town and her life.”
“You’re lying,” I said. “That’s stupid. Mom’s not stupid.”
“I’m not lying. She can either have him or be in control of her life, and she chose to be in control. And she doesn’t care who gets hurt because of it.”
I didn’t understand Sue then, didn’t know what she was saying, but when Mom hung up on Dad, I heard the cabinet above the refrigerator open and the bottle and glass clink against the counter.
Mom left her bedroom and then made a lot of noise in the garage and I knew right away what she was up to, where she was going. I dressed fast in the dark and was outside by the time she was halfway down the block. She wouldn’t risk taking the car. People would see it and know she had been there. I followed her from a distance. She was dressed in black for stealth and carried a bulging backpack—mine.
The walk to Mr. Blecher’s farm was way too long. She walked like people walk on TV when they drink too many drinks. She paused a quarter of the way there, and it was like I could hear every thought as it went through her head. This is stupid. I should turn back. I can’t do this. I can do this. I have to do this. Finally she took the bottle out and took a long time drinking from it before she started up walking again.
The quiet out at the farm was weird, after how noisy it had been in the daytime. The Army had put up cameras and Mom put her hood up when she got close. There was a new metal door to the barn, with a complicated lock. Mom spent a while looking at the keypad. I was amazed when she guessed at the passcode and got it right the first time.
Here I thought my luck might not hold, but I would not be turned back. Church was the most important thing in both Mom and Mr. Blecher’s lives, so I figured that was where the password came from. I tried the zip code of the church, but that didn’t work. My second guess was the last four digits of the church phone number, which Mom made me memorize because it’s where I could always find her if she wasn’t home or at work. That’s what it was.
I crept in quiet as a cartoon ninja. Mom stood in the middle of the barn, looking in to where the allosaurus was. She fumbled for a light and found one, but it was at the far end of the barn and barely lit one corner. We watched the darkness together, apart. We couldn’t see the allosaurus; it was asleep or maybe watching from a corner. Mom hollered, but the allosaurus didn’t holler back. She set the backpack down and opened it up and took out two of her biggest guns and put them together and put the backpack back on. Then she climbed up onto the high new door of the pen, and said “Hey!”
The allosaurus rose out of nothingness and took one-two-three tiny steps forward.
I walked around to the adjoining cages. I didn’t hurry. My mouth was full of blood from biting my cheeks. I never prayed in church, but I was praying then. She still had time to decide not to do it. From that far away I could watch her and pretend what I was watching wasn’t happening. I put both hands on the lever that would open the goat pen gate, ready to save the allosaurus from my mother. Goats grumbled in the dark beside me.
Sue is wrong, I thought. Mom is not afraid of the allosaurus. She doesn’t do dumb things out of fear. She does them out of fearlessness.
She raised the gun, and wobbled. The allosaurus tilted its head to see her better. They were ten feet apart. It stood up straight, so it was looking down on her, which Mom clearly did not like. She pulled herself up higher, to stand on the top tier of wood. She held her hands out to steady herself, but did not do a good job of it. The edges of the bars were dented and splintered where it connected to the frame. I imagined the allosaurus whacking its tail or head against them all night long, trying to get out, or trying to get the goats it smelled just out of sight.
The wood cracked. Mom fell. In.
It looked down at my mother. Its claws flexed. It lowered its head, and took a step toward her. Mom didn’t move. Her back was to me and I was glad I could not see her face. The thing took another tentative step, then walked purposefully towards her. Only when I saw it stand over her, mouth open and eyes wide, did I realize just how big and beautiful and scary it was.
I pulled the lever as hard as I could. The cage gate swung open and a goat darted into the pen, bleating its excitement, conditioned to believe there would be food when it got there. And there would be, except it would be the food.
At the goat’s bleat, the allosaurus turned its head. The goat was a little further from it than my mother, and a little smaller, so the allosaurus took another step toward Mom. I jumped down into the goat cage and shoved a second goat into the pen. It balked, either out of contrariness or fear. The goat was warm, smelly, and I could feel its muscles unclench as it gave in and trotted forward. I felt bad for it. And then I hunched and prayed in the dark where my mother could not see me.
The goats stood still, looking stupid until they caught the smell of the allosaurus. They scattered. This swiftly-moving meat made the allosaurus let loose a machine screech and stomp after them.
Mom climbed up and out, slowly. Safe on the other side, she sank to the ground. She held her back with both hands. The goats were making an ungodly noise, but I owed it to them to watch, to see what I had done. Blood went absolutely everywhere.
Mom had her head between her knees and her arms around her head. I watched her for a minute and that hurt worse than watching the goats.
I didn’t leave the dark stinking cage till Mom staggered out into the night. I wanted to help her up off the floor, but I knew not to. I listened to the allosaurus eat. It saw me when I stood up. It lowered its head to get a better look. And then it turned and stalked back to the barn-corner shadows. The allosaurus wasn’t a demon or a bad-ass movie monster. It was only an animal. It obeyed laws it did not understand and had no hand in making, just like me.
I followed Mom home much later and snuck into my bed. In the morning I came down to bacon for breakfast. She poured orange juice and I asked for coffee, like I always did, and she smiled when she said I was too young for it. I was glad to see her smile. She didn’t need to know she would never be the same size again.
Shirley Jackson Award winner SAM J. MILLER is a writer and a community organizer. His fiction and essays have appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Icarus, The Minnesota Review, Fiction International, Washington Square, and The Rumpus, among others. He is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion Writer’s Workshop, a member of the Altered Fluid writers group, and the co-editor of Horror After 9/11, an anthology published by the University of Texas Press. Visit him at www.samjmiller.com