January was a shit month. It never snowed. Sun barely came out of hiding. Instead, a death-cold rain dripped endlessly. Mist curled inwards from the fringes of the woods. It covered the town for weeks, as Christmas decorations slowly drifted back into garages and basements. Everything here, just off-road of the Connecticut wine trail, lived for the fall. Once autumn was over, people indulged complacently in the holidays. But then they sank, miserably, into the post-apocalyptic beginning of a new year. Into the rain. This was when the winter wonderland died, dumpsters filled with sodden wrapping paper, and the world turned brown and gray for what felt like an eternity. Theoretically, there was Valentine’s Day to look forward to, but come on.
This was the bleak world in which Jude Ostermann was living when he did it. When he read the slip of paper and gave himself nightmares for weeks. Which makes sense, honestly. Bleakness breeds bleakness.
Jude Ostermann, thirty-eight, had himself a large white house on a quaint New England suburban lane. He had two children and a wife. He sold insurance every day at his father’s firm—started by his grandfather—or was it his father’s grandfather?—either way, some day it would be his. And he walked his dog every day in the empty hours before work. The dog, a young German shepherd, actually enjoyed the January barrenness. The damp made each individual smell stand up straighter, reach out farther. His steps bounced in January. Jude’s dragged.
Every morning, Jude passed by the same field. It was down a path behind his nice, pleasant house, through the woods and next to a golf course. The field had maybe been something once. It wasn’t now. Just dead grass and a half-broken, knee-high wall of slate chunks. A time-eaten wooden fence wound its shambling way around the field and back, vanishing amongst rain-stained trees.
He always took a few moments to look at it every time he passed, but Jude never thought anything of this field. What was there to think. Whatever the thing might have been, it was now just a goddamn field. Wasn’t it?
The dog, of course, thought it smelled great.
See, in Jude’s painfully ordinary, painfully drizzly town, there was one odd thing. Every evening at sundown, it passed. You could stand on your front porch and observe as it went by, and most people did. There were some who stood outside every evening to watch it pass. But you were by no means obligated to. Many people, in fact, did not. Some eyed it through their windows. Some made a game of it, trying to predict the exact moment it would approach. The time differed slightly day by day, but not by much. You could gamble in mere seconds, it was so precise.
Some never watched it. They stayed inside, staring at the floor with the TV turned way up. Played the radio loud, expecting it, dreading it. Jude’s wife, Heather, for instance, made a point of washing vegetables at the old kitchen sink, every day at the same time. The sink whined deafeningly. She did this to avoid seeing or hearing the odd thing. To escape the usual cacophony of hundreds upon hundreds of glass bottles rattling against the asphalt…
No matter what, though, you felt it. When it passed your house, that small round scar on your left temple would always itch. Ever so slightly. A tingle. It could catch you off guard if you weren’t ready for it. Make you gasp. Which is why most people were ready for it. Why most people stood on the porch, beer in hand, and waited patiently for the thing to pass. Eyes as glassy as the rattling bottles. They scratched the dull throb in their temple and afterwards, went back into their homes, back inside to the lives they chose. Or ended up with. Or whatever. And the cacophony of glass passed down the street, into the night.
Nobody thought about this odd thing. What was there to even think. Whatever yours had been, it was now just a goddamn scar. Wasn’t it?
And a minute a day wasn’t such a bad trade.
Tristan Ostermann was eleven and Delilah Ostermann was eight. Delilah didn’t have her scar yet. So in the year since Tristan had gotten his, she had been poking and prodding at it persistently. Probing him with questions.
“Does it hurt?” she’d ask.
“No,” he’d say.
“Do you remember what it was like when it happened?”
“Nobody does, stupid.”
Jude, in his armchair by the fire, would peer at his children over the local paper. “Don’t call your sister stupid.”
Delilah would flick at Tristan’s head. He’d pounce on her. They’d wrestle until Heather came in from the kitchen, pie-stench wafting behind her, and pull them apart.
Looking at Jude: “You shouldn’t let them fight like that.”
He wouldn’t even look up from the paper. “They’re not gonna hurt each other.”
“Delilah could slam her head into the table and pop an eye out.”
Jude would shake his head. “You shouldn’t have bought a table that’s all corners.” He’d snap the paper taut, pointedly, at the table. “The damn thing is a giant marble knife, for Christ’s sake.”
“Dollar,” the kids would say together. They’d point at the jar on the shelf.
None of it meant anything. It was all in fun, more or less. Happened every night. A complacent routine. And the whole thing was very pretty.
But sometimes, very rarely, Jude would find himself wondering, Is this nice? And…what was that thing? He’d scratch idly at his temple, hardly even noticing he was doing it. Thinking. What was that thing?
At night sometimes, Jude remembered the girl he dated in college. Not her face or her name. Simply that she was. That she left for…something. Somewhere. They fought a week before graduation. Or she fought him. Asked him to come with her. Asked him why he needed to follow his father into The Firm (which was always said reverently, with capital letters). Couldn’t he just give that up? Couldn’t he leave that town and…whatever she had suggested. Something vague about writing novels pressed itself against the memory, but failed to attach anywhere specific.
He remembered they were naked. Had just had sex, made love. Fucked. The distinction of what that had been wasn’t clear to him now. But the tiny room in his college-life apartment stank of it. Made the argument feel visceral and desperate, which it was. But, honestly, it was too late. He already had the scar. In fact, Jude remembered his temple throbbing horribly as she fought with him. Drowning out her words. Even in that moment, she was mist. Like he had no idea who or what she was. Whether he loved her eyes or wanted her body or needed all of it or what. It was too late.
“Leave?” he repeated, numb. “Why…why would I do that?”
She was from another town. She didn’t understand.
On a shitty evening in January, Jude stood on his porch. He still had his work suit on, but the paisley tie was loosened. He stared out into the street. The lane was silent. Inside, Tristan sat complacently at his desk, doing his math homework. Delilah, eight and unscarred, colored.
The sun was just about to set.
A screen door clapped somewhere off to his left. Jude listened to the familiar sounds of Phil coming outside. Phil, fifty-nine and fat, stood outside every evening with Jude as they observed the setting sun. The man held a beer in one hand, waved with the other. Jude waved limply back. They always did this.
Phil sipped from his bottle. Licked foam off his mustache. They stared silently at the hills in the horizon. Waiting.
“Weather,” Phil said.
The man had this odd quirk where he spoke almost exclusively about the weather, but never made any comment about it. Jude always kind of appreciated this. That you didn’t need to feel like you had to say anything about the weather. Just accept that you were going to be someone who was now discussing something trivial and small. In other words, it wouldn’t mean anything anyway. So why bother.
“Sure is,” Jude agreed. The two men smiled.
The lane was silent.
“Firm,” Phil said, as a kind of question.
“Doing well. Tristan’s thinking about being a mechanic.”
Phil grunted. “Figures. Roger is about to retire. Auto shop’ll need somebody by the time he graduates.”
“He’s got seven more years yet,” Jude pointed out.
Phil grunted again, and said nothing.
Another, longer silence floated over them.
The odd thing that happened in this town every night at sunset happened then, and happened somewhat suddenly, as it always did. Somewhere far down the lane, out of sight, came the sound of glass sliding along the pavement. The jagged, staccato clack-a-clack of empty bottles bouncing against asphalt. The two men looked towards it. The noise grew. Became deafening. A wild roar. Finally, around the curve in the road, came the usual shadow. A small, slumped figure with short legs and long sloth arms heaved itself up the street. In the fingers coming down off its arms, it held countless lengths of twine. As it rounded the bend, the twine stretched out behind it and trailed, at a distance, hundreds of small glass bottles. The pathetic, hunched little figure shuffled laboriously past Jude’s home, tugging those bottles on twine behind itself. Sisyphus against thousands of boulders.
The thing passed, and vanished around the bend at the other end of the lane. The neighborhood became silent. And the sun sank.
Phil sniffed. “Tomorrow, then,” he said.
“Tomorrow,” said Jude.
They went back inside to their families.
When Jude re-entered the house, Delilah came running up to him with a picture she had drawn.
“I want to be a painter one day,” she told him, beaming.
“That’s great,” he told her, lying.
It was three days later when Jude did it. Approached the shadow and asked for his bottle. You could do that. Everybody knew you could. Everyone in the town had their own, and you could ask for it any night when the thing passed your house. You just walked up to it and held out a hand. You didn’t need to say anything. It knew you. It knew everybody. And everyone knew that. Didn’t know how, but they didn’t feel the need to ask either. Nobody actually approached the shadow, though. They all figured, “Why the hell would you want to?”
Jude, for one, had two or three reasons. But he only thought of them much later, months after the fact. Which was, obviously, too late.
Jude’s first reason came a week or two before he did it, just as the calendar flipped bleakly into the new year. It had been a typical night. The shadow had just disappeared up the road. The silence and the dark were deepening. Jude and Phil were lingering outside for a minute or so when, abruptly, Phil turned.
“Heard in town,” he said. “You know John.”
“Heard he never had his removed.”
Jude blinked. “How?”
Phil shrugged. “Don’t know. Guess he was out of school that day.”
“And they let it slide?” Jude couldn’t believe it.
“And he just lives like that?”
Phil laughed. “I know. Bizarre, man. I’m thinking, ‘No way, man.’ I would never do that. Don’t want to see mine ever again. Can’t even imagine having it in me. Not curious. Not at all. No way.” His voice cracked at the end of his speech. He swilled beer to steady it. He finished off the bottle and gazed into its bottom. He sniffed. They sank into a deep silence, thinking. Gazed out at the growing darkness and the rain.
“Weather,” Phil said, after a long time.
The second thing that probably did Jude in came the night after Delilah showed him her drawing. Ed, who lived alone across the street, was the one who did it. The smarmy bastard. Ed said things like, “What do you think about this cold front?” and “Think the Giants will make it this year?” God, Jude hated him. Unlike beautiful, simple Phil and his “Weather” and “Giants.”
This night, the rain came down in a fine mist, moistening everything before you even really noticed. Phil and Jude were the only two on their block who stood and observed the passing of the shadow. But on this particular evening, Ed marched out of his house the second the thing came before his lawn. He bounded down his front steps and approached it. Jude and Phil held their breath.
The figure stopped. The silence of the glass then was even more deafening than the sound itself. Ed held out a hand. The thing gingerly laid its bundles of twine on the ground. With slow and delicate movements, it picked one in particular. It reeled in the bottle. Handed it to Ed. Without flinching, Ed pulled the rubber stopper off the bottle. He grinned. The bastard. The thing watched him. He flicked the cork onto the grass of his front yard, tapped the bottle mouth onto his palm. A strip of paper slid out. He handed the bottle back to the figure. Unfolded the paper, and Jude could hear it crackling from across the street. The paper was yellow and old, had been folded up for a long time. Ed took some time reading whatever it said.
Then he laughed.
He waved the paper in the air at them. He called, “Hey! It’s…” He almost told them what it said. The men twitched, expecting the worst. But Ed stopped himself. He looked at the paper again. Smiled. He waved his hand like he was swatting a fly.
“Ah, shit,” he said. He tapped the paper against his palm. And went back inside.
The thing watched his house for a moment. No lights went on. Nothing. It picked up the pieces of twine, and went on its way.
Ed’s house remained dark after that.
What probably did Jude in the most happened five days later. He was walking the German shepherd past the same old field behind his house on that exceptionally bright, but still shitty morning, when he stopped dead in his tracks. Something new had appeared in the field. A prominent, shining black stone stood in the middle of the grass. The shepherd wagged its tail. Barked. Jude peered at the stone and realized, suddenly feeling very cold, that it wasn’t a stone at all.
He had never seen the shadow during the day before. No one had. The contrast between its usual half-unseen appearance and this full-on glimpse, in the clear morning light, was startling. Jude could pick out all its features. Could tell that it wasn’t a small man, or child, or whatever he had assumed it was. Nothing of the kind. It was a small, black-furred humanoid…thing. Its coat was matted and tangled. It crouched low amongst the dead grass, watching him. The black skin of its hairless face was stretched tight over the bones, giving the mouth and eyes an eerie, wide look. The eyes were lidless, flashing globes of yellowish-green. There was a stub of a snout filled with sharp teeth like rail spikes. It looked like a cross between a rat and a monkey and some homeless, demonic child, just sitting there. Gaping at him from the grass. Ugly and horrible.
What the fuck, Jude thought. Over and over. His heart hammered against his ribs. He was sweating, even in the dreary January cold. His mind screamed, How did I never see… Has anyone ever seen… What the fuck, what the fuck…
The dog barked harder. Struggled forward. Jude glanced down, tugged at the leash. When he looked back up, the thing was gone.
He tried to grapple himself back down to Earth, but the woods swam around him. It was a child in a mask. Had to be. A large raccoon. A fox covered in dirt. Scarecrow. Leftover Halloween decoration. Art installation? Surely, though, surely it was not the same thing that stalked through the town every night. Did it crawl out of the earth? Fall from the sky? Dig its way out of a dead pile of leaves? Did it live in this field? Were there others? Why had no one thought about this?
What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck…
For the first time, Jude wondered: What was that thing?
He thought about it all the way home. It made his temple ache, made the scar there sing with pain. And that’s what really did it. Him thinking. Seriously thinking, for the first time. Seriously wondering: What had that thing been?
Over dinner that night, Tristan spoke about school. His teachers, an upcoming field trip. He talked about his woodworking class and how he wanted to take shop class when he got to high school.
Delilah talked about her art.
Jude sat there, still thinking. Was this nice? Sitting at a candlelit table in a big warm room with the German shepherd curled up in the corner? Was this good, being able to be home with his wife and kids, eating a hearty dinner with red wine and laughter and being able to ask Tristan how he did on his math test, finding out he got an A-, looking over at Heather and loving her and loving Tristan, and Delilah with her adorable little paintings that he knew, secretly, would not last, blood pumping pumping pumping through his temple, the dog hoof-huffing as he dreamed, the clock in the kitchen ticking, pipes tinging as they heated up, and the whole thing nice and simple and perfect and his wife was saying something.
“What?” he blinked. The room seemed suddenly bright and crowded.
Heather blinked back. “Sorry?”
“Sorry, what were you saying?”
“I…” She frowned at him. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Just tired lately, I guess.”
She nodded sagely. “Must be the weather. Everyone feels gross.”
“Of course,” he said, unsure. He rubbed his temple. From somewhere across the table, at the corner of his eye, the furry, black fanged thing leered at him.
That night, when Jude crawled into bed, Heather was already there. She folded into him as he laid down. Fit herself to him like a puzzle piece. She called to him from somewhere far away. He tried looking at her face, but saw instead the black fanged thing shrouded in a fine mist. In an instant, his blood was cold, his forehead damp. He found himself drowning in the same thought: It might have been something small, it might have been something important, it might have been grand or fun or…something. What the fuck was it? What the fuck was that thing?
She cleared. The mist vanished for a moment, and he saw her.
“Hm,” he said.
“Fine. Long day.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
She looped her arm over his chest. Moved it around, twisting her fingers in the curly black hair there. She kissed his stubble. Said his name. He turned to her. They dug into each other’s clothes.
What it ended up being was something vague, lost between making love and fucking.
Afterwards, they lay tangled together. All limbs. He closed his eyes almost peacefully, almost asleep, feeling almost good, and she shot out of bed. She padded across the carpet to the bathroom. Brushed her teeth, took a shower, cleaned herself. Came back into bed fresh and new and unmarred. She purred.
“That was nice,” she said.
The fuck-stink of his college apartment wafted into his memory. The black fanged thing leered at him from the window.
He had nightmares about it. Felt it eating him. He awoke still feeling the teeth. He stayed in bed, sweating against the flannel sheets, and listened to the sounds of his family. Tristan eating cereal downstairs. The wooden fracas of Delilah’s colored pencils. Theoretically, these were comforting sounds. Instead, they made him feel worse. Made the imaginary toothmarks down his limbs and across his belly burn.
Why did he keep thinking about it?
It was just a goddamn monkey.
See, they did it when you were ten. They had a big day in April where everyone wrote essays on what they wanted to be when they grew up. What you truly wanted to be. You wrote it in history class, which was somewhat ironic, honestly. The history teachers, smiling, encouraged their students to be as ridiculous and as horribly truthful as they could. So the essays were all about astronauts and paleontologists, movie stars and world travelers. Every ten year-old in the entire town did this. Explained what their beautiful, ridiculous lives were going to be. Their craziest, truest, out-of-this-worldest dreams. Then they were filed into the gym, where they spent the rest of the day waiting their turn. They sat in the bleachers, clutching their essays, murmuring. They glanced anxiously towards the small white tent in the corner of the gym. They were called, one by one. And one by one, they went into the tent.
The tent itself is a mystery. Nobody knows who organizes it or what’s inside. It just shows up. And you have to go. All that is known is that you leave with a bandage on your temple. Your essay—the astronaut, movie star, pop singer dream—has vanished. And you are unable to remember what it was.
After it’s over, you go home and have a nice meal prepared by your mother, paid for by your father, and you really appreciate it, for the first time.
Delilah, of course, was eight. Her dream would not be taken for two more years. But when it did happen, inevitably, her mother would ask her, “Why don’t you color anymore?” Already knowing the answer.
Delilah would shrug. “Just don’t want to.”
And she would lead a simple, perfect small-town life.
So it happened that Jude got it all stuck in his head. Couldn’t stop thinking about it. About the college apartment and the girl and something about novels and not selling insurance. The black fanged thing. And the next evening, at sundown, Jude turned to Phil and said, “I’m gonna do it.”
Phil blinked at him across their yards. “Do what?”
“Look at mine.”
It was like he had stabbed Phil in the gut. The man made a large O with his lips. Shook his head. “Why?”
Jude shrugged. “I’d like to know.”
“Ed’s an outlier.” Phil pointed with his beer to the darkened house. “That’s not the usual. You shouldn’t… I mean, most people see theirs and…”
“I know,” said Jude.
“That’s why nobody does it.”
“I know. But I could take it. Ed seemed to. I wanna know.”
Phil was quiet for a moment. He sipped his beer. Finally, without looking at Jude, like Jude was already dead, he said, “All right, man. Whatever.”
They were quiet. Waiting.
As if knowing it might be for the last time, Phil said, “Weather.”
Before Jude could respond, the end of the lane clattered. The thing came around the bend. Jude could now picture its eyes, fur and fangs clearly. And it made it worse knowing that Phil, who had never thought or wondered about it in the light of day, could not. Could not bring himself to ask the questions now eating at Jude from the inside out.
The black fanged thing approached. Trembling, Jude stepped off his porch. The thing turned to face him, still coming. Still rattling. Jude moved down the walk in front of his house in a trance. Shaking. Legs hardly obeying. When he got to the sidewalk, the thing stopped. Silence boomed down the block. Night deepened. From behind him, Jude could hear Phil muttering, “Jesus, man. Jesus.”
Jude held out his hand. From this close, he could smell it—the phosphorous reek rising off the creature’s hide. Could hear its rasping, hollow breath. Feel the sickly lemon-colored eyes. Gently, the thing placed its ends of twine on the ground. It took some time selecting the one that belonged to Jude. Finally, it picked one out of a large cluster. Jude’s bottle was stuck to three others, in a big clump. So, like it was moving through mud, the creature reached out a long, loping sloth-arm paw and peeled the twine free. It seemed to take years to reel in Jude’s bottle. When it finally rolled up the street and into the creature’s hand, Jude felt like he might fall over.
It might have been small. It might have been nothing at all. Or everything. Or… An even more horrible thought dawned on him. What if he read the paper, and it was exactly what he had now. Maybe that was what had happened to Ed. Or maybe the paper was blank. Maybe the dreams were all gone.
Jude took the bottle. The creature let its hand drop to the ground and it watched him. The bottle was small and round, sort of like a cannonball. Or an inkwell. A square rubber stopper was jammed into the mouth. Jude removed it in one smooth pull. Dumped it on the lawn. He shook the bottle by his ear. Paper tink-ed inside. He upended the bottle into his palm, and the paper dropped silently out. As Jude unfolded it, the creature gathered up its lengths of twine and moved on. Phil had already gone back inside, not wanting to see.
The paper shook between his fingers. It took him several tries to hold it open enough so that he could read it. When he did, he almost laughed, as Ed had. It was his essay. His goddamn essay. From when he was ten. He read it. Blinked. Read it again. And almost threw up. He couldn’t remember writing it at all. Couldn’t remember wanting…that.
He stood there for several minutes, alone, as darkness bunched up around him. Finally, he let the paper curl back up in his fingers. When he was ready, he brought it and the bottle to the garbage can next to the garage, and threw them in.
He wondered what Ed had seen. Wondered what Phil had written. Tristan. Heather. He knew what Delilah would write when her time came. He saw, now, the black fanged thing way too clearly in his mind. Saw it panting that phosphorous, horrible breath on him.
An alien. He tried to decide that that was what it was. An alien thing, penned by a ten year-old stranger.
Shaking, Jude went back inside. In the well-kept living room, his family was sitting around the television. Heather made room for him on the couch. He wrapped an arm around her, the other around Tristan. He tried to slow his heart. Clenched his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. Heather didn’t notice.
Delilah was on the floor, coloring. Jude forced himself not to look at her.
A small voice at his side whispered, “What did you see?”
Jude turned. Tristan gazed up at him with deep, wondering eyes. Jude put a hand on his head. The boy’s hair was soft and young. Jude pulled him a little closer.
“Nothing important,” he said, almost believing it.
Tristan looked back at the screen. He chewed his lip. Several minutes went by.
“I kinda want to see mine,” Tristan said.
Jude looked back at those eyes. So blue and unmarred.
“Nah,” he said. He offered a reassuring shake of his head. “You’re better off. Trust me.”
Tristan said nothing else. Jude tried to convince himself he hadn’t just lied. He was still trying when he went to sleep that night.
In identical houses throughout town, identical televisions buzzed and hummed. The town was content, now that the one minute was over. At least for the day.
In the morning, Jude would go to The Firm. He would sell insurance, as his father had. He would come home and be with his wife, and his dog, and his kids, whom he loved. He stopped walking by the field every day, and stopped standing out on the porch at sundown, because it made his scar hurt. Because he could no longer do so without seeing those shining, tennis-ball eyes. Without remembering what young, glorious things they held behind glass.
As January dragged itself along, Jude managed to put it all out of his head. Managed to stop wondering, again, what the thing had been. He managed to enjoy the complacency of his simple, small-town life, even with its one unbearable minute each day. He managed to enjoy the shitty and unending January rain.
He loved this life. He chose this life. He felt good about it. And it was nice. Really, really nice…
Sam Rebelein lives in Poughkeepsie, NY. His work has been published in Dark Moon Digest Magazine and in the May and June calendars of Every Day Fiction, 2017. It has also been performed onstage in collaboration with the play development lab A Howl of Playwrights in Rhinebeck, NY, of which he is an active member. He is a co-founder of the sketch comedy group Crebuland, which you can Like on Facebook. For whatever it’s worth.
Black Fanged Thing, 4800 words, published January 2018