This story is by Joslyn Chase and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It happened so fast.
Murray’s arm nearly tore from its socket as Boomer sprang off into the night, pulling Murray behind at the end of the leash. A flurry of frenzied barking floated back on the frosty air, echoing among the trees until it sounded like a pack of dogs instead of just one. Roots and pine cones caught at his fumbling feet as Murray struggled to bring the dog under control.
“Whoa, boy—what’s got you so wound up?”
And then he heard it. A sound that brought a quiver to the hairs on the back of his neck. A sound that surely hadn’t rustled the needles on these primeval Northwest pines since the day of the dinosaur. It rose—an eerie, distorted roar—and Murray felt the ground beneath him shake.
Boomer yelped and turned tail. Murray held to the leash and stumbled along behind as fast as his fumbling feet would allow.
~ ~ ~
Murray’s stomach growled as the shipyard whistle blew for lunch. He waited, knowing Donny would find him during the break and within four minutes, he arrived, breathless and eager.
“I know you don’t believe me—“
“Now I do,” Murray said. “I heard it, too. Last night.”
Donny’s excited eyes bulged. “Heard it?” He moved closer and lowered his voice. “Murray, I saw it!”
Too stupefied to speak, Murray listened to his friend describe the monster’s enormous size and plate-like protrusions, the way it stripped bark from tree after tree, munching away like a machine.
“My theory,” Donny said, “is that Rainier’s eruption last year brought something up from the earth’s crust, some kind of dinosaur eggs lying dormant for centuries. Maybe it’s a stegosaurus.”
Murray shook himself from his trance-like state. He’d definitely heard something frightening and bizarre in the woods last night, but this was nuts.
“Come on, Donny. A dinosaur? Sure you weren’t drunk?”
“What?” Murray persisted. “You’re of a drinking breed, Donegal, my boy.”
“Aye. The only ones could drink us under the table was the Scots.” Donny gave a tug on the clan tartan Murray wore around his neck. “I swear, friend, I was dry as a bone.”
“Yeah?” More protests rose to Murray’s lips, but he swallowed them down. “Let’s get some lunch.”
~ ~ ~
A week passed, during which Murray watched his friend with worry. Donny’s eyes, always a shiny green, seemed to take on an extra glow, and several times Murray watched a secretive smile flicker at the corners of his mouth.
They sat outside with their sandwiches. A brisk wind whipped the flag overhead, snapping out an uneven rhythm, and sunlight fell weak across the table. At least it wasn’t raining. Murray struggled under a mix of curiosity and reticence, but after so many days wondering, the curiosity came out on top.
“Have you seen it again?” he asked.
Donny chewed and swallowed. “Seen what?”
“Come on, Donny—I’m sorry. Can we get past it?”
Murray watched Donny try to hold back, playing it cool, but it was a lost cause. A huge grin spread across his face.
“Not only have I seen it—I’ve found a way to get close to it.” He paused. “Last night I touched it.”
A sizzle of astonishment shot down Murray’s spine. “What do you mean you found a way to get close? Fancy yourself a monster whisperer?”
“It’s not a monster. I told you—it’s some kind of primeval creature.”
“And you just walked right up to it.”
“Of course not.” He winked. “My granny passed me some of the old Irish magic. I have powers a skeptic like you could never dream of.”
“You’ve been snorting pixie dust, my friend,” Murray said.
But his scalp crawled with anxiety. Donny was losing it.
~ ~ ~
The next time they met for lunch, Donny was eating—
“Worms! What the hell, Donny?” Murray felt an alarm bell go off in his head as he watched his buddy spoon into the wriggling vermin.
“Relax, Murray. They’re not worms. These are the larvae of wood-boring beetles, and they’re a remarkably fine source of protein. Beauties like these are a staple in many African and Asian communities though woefully overlooked in the American diet.”
Murray felt his stomach churn. He pushed away the container of leftover pasta his wife had packed for him. Donny continued to tuck into the bowl of beetle babies and Murray looked on with horror while certain details of his friend’s appearance came into sharp focus.
Donny’s skin looked thickened and leathery, yet covered with a lawn of fine, almost invisible peach fuzz. His eyes were greener, and more luminous than ever, and his hair tufted up in two spots either side of his part where it was forced up by cowlicks.
Or something else.
A twinge of fear shot through Murray and settled in his chest where it throbbed with a burning dread.
“Donny, we’ve got to get you to a hospital.”
Donny looked up and spoke with his mouth full. “I assure you, the larvae are perfectly harmless.”
Murray backhanded Donny’s bowl, sending the squirming mass skyward.
“Now, Donny! There is something seriously wrong with you.”
Donny stood up. “Man, what is your problem?” He gave Murray a two-second scowl and turned his back, stalking away. Murray noticed how pronounced were the shoulder blades under Donny’s work shirt, sticking out almost like…
~ ~ ~
Darkness fell early in October.
Murray was still adjusting after the long days of summer. The night air, streaked through with moonlight, was autumn-crisp and smelled of wood smoke and spice. Donny was out here somewhere, digging himself deeper into this mess, and Murray figured to stop it. Tonight.
He carried a Remington 870 over his shoulder, and a flashlight, pointed forward. Boomer was home, locked in his kennel, Murray unwilling to let the dog’s bark announce his approach. He found the spot where he’d heard the monster before and stopped to listen.
Little sounds. The rustle of dried leaves stirred by the breeze. The chitter of some night animal. A stealthy breathing he recognized as his own. And up through those little noises rose the unnerving, alien roar. Murray’s heart beat like a jungle drum. He crept forward, and before he was really ready, it was there.
In the clearing, dappled by moonbeams, the monster rubbed itself against the stumps of trees. Scratching an itch? Or dislodging beetle larvae for a midnight snack? A large moth fluttered around the flashlight and Murray switched it off. The moonlight was enough.
He leveled the shotgun, but his hands were shaking too violently to get a decent bead on the creature. He took a deep breath and raised the gun again, steadying his aim, inching toward the trigger. The moth fluttered past his face. He felt the brush of its wing on his cheek. He swatted it away, annoyed, and lifted the gun a third time, focusing in.
The monster wagged its tail. Not like a dog, but slow and cumbersome, as if engaged in some stately dance. The plates on its back wobbled along, keeping time, and the two ears atop its head perked forward, as if enjoying the strains of an ancient melody.
A stab of intense irritation skewered into Murray’s chest. He lowered the gun. He couldn’t do this. If that dancing creature was—by some profane magic—his friend, Murray was not the one to put him out of his misery. The primeval power of the forest had sheltered and preserved the creature thus far and presumably would continue. Stegosaur and Sasquatch, living side by side.
It rankled, though. Could he bear to stand by while Donny ate bugs and grew bony plates from his back? Impossible!
The moth flapped at his ear like a mad thing. With an oath, he batted it away, his hand connecting solidly with a body more substantial than any moth might possess. The hard-flung creature hit a tree trunk with an audible thud and a cry that sounded almost human. Almost…
Oh no. Oh no, no, no! Murray groped on the ground, searching for the flashlight. He remembered the stories Donny used to tell about the ancient Irish magic. Tales of leprechauns and banshees, boggarts and selkies.
Tiny fairies with fine hair covering their bodies and ear-like antennae. With wings sprouting from their shoulder blades. He found the flashlight, but by now his hands were shaking so badly he could scarcely switch it on. He directed the wildly careening beam at the tree.
A dark smear traced down the trunk to its base. Murray swallowed and looked away. He didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to know. But he couldn’t walk away without knowing.
In the circle of light, he saw the jellied mass, caught in the moment of transformation. A shred of gossamer wing. A splinter of bone. And one green eye, staring into the flashlight’s beam.