6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Friday, May 20, 2011

Falling on Swords

          Peering over a three foot fence and holding back a lilac branch with the remains of his right hand, Spencer Rayne hears a burst of laughter slice through the still afternoon air. Sounding like the cackles of young boys, it appears to emanate from the abandoned house next door, and he can’t help wondering if his mind is up to its usual tricks. The laughs sound again, louder this time, and Spencer is about to change his view to a hole in the side fence when the mailwoman rounds the corner. Spencer glances at his watch. 13:35. Right on time. The woman is older than Spencer, blond hair showing the first streaks of white, but defined calves and shapely lower thighs climbing into the hems of her blue shorts reveal a woman still very much in shape. As she approaches his neighbor’s mailbox, Spencer hears the voices again except, instead of laughing, they are now chanting, “Kitty, kitty, kitty.”

          He glances around for his own Maine Coon. Mrs. Piggy, named for her unusual size and temperament, had been weaving through his legs in dizzying figure eights just minutes ago. A familiar hiss knifes through the air and Spencer doesn’t bother confirming his suspicions before he is on the move. With that excited energy he grew addicted to while conducting house sweeps in Baghdad, the young man darts along his fence line until he has a visual on the neighboring backyard. In the far corner of the lot, four teenagers are gathered around an old tin shed with the doors rusted wide open. The largest of the kids is using a long willow branch to poke at something inside the storage unit. Between their legs, he catches a glimpse of Mrs. Piggy pinned against the wall. She is puffed out to twice her normal size and baring her fangs as if daring any of the boys to make a move.

          Spencer’s mind is instantly filled with the sound of small-arms fire and concussive explosions. Ash and smoke obscure his vision a split second before everything turns red. The next thing he sees are two children, pale faces filled unholy terror, running past him as they might flee a descending Tomahawk helicopter. Another boy tries to back away, hands shielding his face, but instead, stumbles over his heels and winds up on his ass inside the shed.

          The largest boy, frozen in terror, has the willow ripped from his grasp so violently it leaves a burn across his palm. In the next instant, the chubby teenager is on his backside next to his friend. Stooping over the cowering youth is a camouflaged, black-bearded demon clutching the kid’s shirt in one fist while the only remaining finger on Spencer’s mutilated hand begins poking the boy’s forehead with every syllable he speaks. His voice, a barely audible hiss.

          “If I ever so much as see you walking down my street again, I will cut you in half. Do you understand?”

          There’s no way they could understand. There’s no way they could know. In the recesses of his nightmares, Spencer is picturing what is left of a young Iraqi boy holding a plastic machinegun while his commanding officer barks in his ear. The older man is trying to convince the young soldier he had made the correct choice. The only choice, given the circumstances.

          “You will have no one to blame but yourselves, if you ever get within a mile of my cat again.”

          The color continues to drain from the teenagers’ faces as if they are bleeding out, becoming ghosts, like the walking dead survivors of an I.E.D. slowly seeping from a hundred tiny holes. A dark spots appears and begins to spread in a circular manner across the crotch of the larger kid’s jeans. Something about the smell reminds Spencer of the post battle adrenaline rush, a moment when the thunder and adrenaline subsides and the shit, piss, and blood of war sets in.

          With the battle subsiding in his mind, Spencer is able to see himself through the boys’ naïve, petrified eyes. Suddenly aware of his grotesque finger, the young soldier slides his pink claw into a deep cargo pocket. Fighting off a flood of foolishness, Spencer steps back and straightens himself with a long, deep breath. Even Mrs. Piggy had shrunk against the wall in the wake of his radiating malevolence. The fat cat, recognizing her owner once again, takes the opportunity to leap across the two boys and then, defying her rotund appearance, bounds up over the fence separating the properties.

          Spencer drags both boys to their feet, and with a final, “Get the hell out of here,” shoves them towards the street. As the two boys trip over each other getting to full-speed, the older man realizes the mail carrier is standing in the road staring at him. The woman holds his gaze with a slightly cocked head before realizing they are making eye contact and quickly looks away. She misses Spencer’s awkward shrug, and hustles towards the next house on her route.

          “Real smooth,” he mutters, “the cops should be here any second. Screw it. Let ‘em come. I didn’t do anything. I could have… I should have, but didn’t. They can all go to hell.”

          Still grumbling under his breath, Spencer marches off to his backyard to check on Mrs. Piggy. Because of her tough nature, he half-expects to find her already taking a nap in a warm spring sunbeam. Instead, he rounds the back corner of his house to see his giant cat still fluffed to maximum size, turned sideways, and slowly advancing on his woodpile. Her hiss turning into a deep throated growl the likes of which Spencer had never heard.

          The young man’s first instinct is to make a joke about also hating the stack of cedar rounds because his intended firewood had been buried beneath a freakishly early snowstorm relegating them to expensive gas heat all winter. He decides the feline won’t appreciate his humor.

          “What’s with you? Still pissed about those punks? You could have taken at least two of them without my help.”

          The noises permeating from his twenty pound cat turn absolutely demonic as she approaches the base of the woodpile. Spencer begins considering the possibility of Mrs. Piggy having suffered some head trauma when he notices movement near the top of the mound. A grinning set of razor-sharp teeth emerges from the shadows of a hole tucked between the top logs and Spencer realizes his cat is only responsible for half the wretched, violent racket. The intruding beast, now extracting itself from the burrow with a set of three inch claws, is making sounds that would give Satan nightmares.

          Mrs. Piggy freezes in her tracks as the creature pulls itself into the light. Spencer recognizes the animal from a recent television documentary. As far as he knows, it is the first ever sighting in the small mountain town of Timberline and it is happening in his own backyard. The masked wolverine creeps towards the man and cat, spitting and gnashing its teeth in a manner every bit as intimidating as any legend of the predator would have people believe. Afraid to bend over and attempt to manage a squirming cat in one hand, Spencer backs away from the woodpile’s new king. Sensing her backup’s withdrawal, and for once displaying common sense, Mrs. Piggy retreats alongside her owner.

          The soldier almost bursts into maniacal laughter upon realizing his first instinct is to lob a grenade into the animal’s hole. In the next instant, he is locking eyes with the shaggy brown creature, its dark pupils shooting sparks from some inner fire. Spencer recognizes something coldly familiar in the creature’s unflinching gaze. As the animal reaches the base of the woodpile, the young man realizes the wolverine is dragging its hindquarters. Although there is no visible blood or bone, one of its legs is badly broken, the appendage hanging limp and useless from the wolverine’s hip socket.

          With a distant voice screaming, “Medic!” the young man notices the creature’s gaunt ribcage threatening to push through its tightly stretched hide. The predator’s fur is matted down in greasy patches, looking as though it has given up on grooming itself. Knowing the wolverine’s fierce reputation, Spencer is at a loss for what could have brought a warrior to such a sorry state.

          “Jesus buddy, did you take on an entire wolf pack, or we’re you hit by a car?”

          The wolverine continues its vicious display for a wary Mrs. Piggy while Spencer heads inside to rummage through his refrigerator. Upon returning, he tosses half a pound of expired bologna towards the base of the woodpile. The animal drags itself toward the pungent meat and begins to feed. Spencer almost laughs at the site of the terrifying animal as it is forced to swallow while maintaining its perpetual snarling. With the meal devoured in scant seconds, the wolverine inches backwards up the sloping woodpile into the darkness of its den, never taking its eyes from the man before it.

          “You’re welcome,” says the young soldier genuinely impressed by the animal’s ravenous nature. The wolverine reminds him of several young men at boot camp, bean poles defying physics with how much grub they could pack away.

          “Been a while since you ate, eh, or did your mom just never teach you any manners?”

          For the next week, Spencer is at the woodpile with the breaking dawn and again in the evening delivering meals to his visiting carnivore. Without fail, the scenario plays out exactly like the first time with the broken creature dragging itself from the cedar pile and churning out a barrage of stomach twisting growls as it wolfs through ample portions of chicken and pork chops. Skewering the young soldier and his cat with its black, dead-eyed glare, the animal eats every scrap, waits a second to see if more food will magically appear, and then slowly retreats to its home.

          The young soldier names the wolverine, Hank, after his deceased grandfather. Hank Rayne was the most disagreeable man Spencer had ever known. A World War II vet, the man returned from the front lines an equally hateful and self-loathing individual whose wife ultimately left him for less damaged goods. Even with nothing apparent to live for, the man held on for 100 years of chain-smoking drunkenness. Spencer’s father once said Hank would never die because Ol’ Beelzebub was afraid the bastard would single-handedly storm Hell’s gates and take over.

          Even though he was afraid of the man growing up, Spencer later began to admire his grandfather for having walked a road through life that few could stomach. He lived his daily existence his way and never compromised for anyone. He never felt that societal obligation to put a happy face on his bad feelings, but instead, chose to embrace the world in the manner it had presented itself. He knew of nature’s inherent ugliness and cruelty. He had seen it firsthand on the blood-stained fields of war. In that sense, Hank the wolverine is a lot like his grandfather. Almost nobody would look beyond those bitter outer shells, and Spencer was still too young at the time of Hank’s death to have done so, but through a wounded predator, feels a renewed connection with his equally damaged relative.

          On the seventh day of his woodpile’s occupation, Spencer and Mrs. Piggy approach Hank’s lair with a package of uncooked sausage. For the first time, they are greeted with silence instead of the wolverine’s guttural growls. His fat cat, stops just short of the cedar chunks and lifts her nose to test the air. The young man, standing on his tip-toes, tries to peer into Hank’s den, but can barely see inside the entrance.

          “Hank, you there buddy,” he asks while tossing a single link to the top of the woodpile. “I brought you some breakfast. Hope you like artificial maple flavoring.”

          There is no response, not a sound or hint of movement from within. Somehow, the eerie silence is more unnerving than the wolverine’s horrendous snarling. Ready to spring back if necessary, the young soldier stands on a section of stump, trying to get a better vantage point. At first, all he can see is impenetrable shadows, but the longer he stares, the more his eyes adjust to the darkness. At last he can make out the faint outline of a single paw nearly the size of his own hand down inside the hole. The unmoving appendage is all he can see. Spencer tosses another sausage link, this one landing inside Hank’s den almost touching one of the animal’s visible claws. Still, no movement. No sound. Nothing.

          “Hank, you ok?”

          An unsettling sensation creeps down Spencer’s spine. The soldier realizes he is consumed with concern. Not in a long time has he felt a genuine connection with a living thing other than his cat, but for some reason, the grumpy predator had wormed his way inside the young man’s consciousness. Mrs. Piggy punctuates the silence with a shrill cry as if also feeling the uneasiness in the air. Balancing on another cedar wedge lodged in the snow, Spencer steps half-way up the woodpile, but his view inside the wolverine’s den doesn’t improve. With a gruff, smoke ravaged voice barking in his ear, he knows what he needs to do. Nobody gets left behind.

          “I need you to trust me now, ok?”

          Moving purposefully now, the soldier climbs up the woodpile until he is at the mouth of the den, and then, with his good arm, Spencer reaches inside the hole. With alarms sounding in the back of his mind, he touches the cold ground inside and lets his fingers walk ever deeper into Hank’s lair. At the very edge of his reach, Spencer touches the paw. With a sudden intake of breath, he realizes the Hank’s calloused pads are faintly warm.

          “Jesus,” he shouts while with extracting his arm so quickly Spencer hits himself on the bridge of the nose. Fully expecting a crazed terror to follow his hand out the hole, the young soldier nearly leaps from the top of the pile to the ground below. When nothing happens, he is able to catch himself just before jumping. After collecting his nerves, Spencer reaches inside Hank’s den once more. Again, he feels the animal’s foot. In a less excitable frame of mind, the soldier realizes the flesh isn’t warm enough. Grabbing the animal’s paw tightly this time, Spencer pulls the heavy, lifeless wolverine from its home. Hank must have died within the last hour, his life force slowly fading into cold memory.

          The young soldier isn’t sure how much time has passed, but when he becomes aware of his surrounding once again, he is sitting on top of the woodpile cradling the wolverine in his lap, cheekbones damp and sticky. The creature’s bristly fur is clumped together and smells faintly of urine. Bothering Spencer the most are the wide-open eyes and frozen snarl on Hank’s face, lips pulled back in the menacing manner he’d grown used to. The wounded animal went to his death still fighting. There was no last second of peace, no pain-free drifting off into a dreamless sleep, the shaggy combatant new nothing but war in his final moments. What had always seemed an appropriate way for a warrior to die now tears through his heart like a sniper’s bullet. No soldier should have to die alone in his foxhole. With Mrs. Piggy curled up at his feet, he begins to plan a couple funeral celebrations. Another brother’s life played out like a cruel tragedy. But not without reason. He would see to that.

          The next day finds Spencer sitting at the edge of his street, pulling stubborn dandelions from around his mailbox. Pretending he can’t see her approaching feet from under the brim of his floppy ranger hat, the young man looks up in feigned surprise as the mailwoman reaches his house. Instead of the guarded expression he is expecting, the pretty blond woman is smiling down at him. Swallowing hard, Spencer climbs to his feet, wiping the dirt from his one good hand on his pants.

          “Look, I wanted to apologize for the other day. I might have gotten a little carried aw…” Spencer doesn’t finish his sentence before noticing the thick purple scar tissue starting at the woman’s throat and running down past the unbuttoned collar of her uniform. The sight reminds him of his own injury and he quickly slips the mangled hand into a pocket.

          “No big deal,” the woman stammers while awkwardly reaching up to pinch together the fabric exposing her neckline. “I saw what they were doing to your cat.”

          Spencer shifts his weight from one leg to the other, forcing his gaze away from whatever trauma she had clearly suffered. “Guess if they were your kids it might be a different story,” he says attempting a slight grin.

          Still fidgeting with her collar, the woman returns his smile. “Actually, one of the first kids you sent running is my boy. I laid into him when I got off work, but didn’t even need to. I think you taught them all a lesson they won’t soon forget. Sometimes, he reminds me of my ex, but he’s a good boy. And I’m glad you scared the piss out of that one chubby monster. I don’t like my son hanging out with him anyway.”

          Spencer laughs openly. It is a sound he barely recognizes from his youth. “I’m just glad I didn’t kill anyone. Some days…” he says trailing off.

          “I hear that,” she says. The woman then glances down to where his hand is hiding out of sight. “What happened? If you don’t mind me asking.”

          The soldier’s reaction is a surprise even to himself. On any other day, talking to any other person, the question would have bothered him. The blond woman’s presence is somehow making Spencer feel hypnotically at ease. As if injected with truth serum, the young man suddenly wants to share his story with the beautiful woman standing before him.

          “Iraqi Freedom,” he says.

          “Figured as much.” The woman quits toying with her neckline, again revealing the dense scar tissue. “Desert Storm,” she says. “The ex never did get used to it, but you know what? Now that he’s gone, I don’t feel quite as self-conscious. It’s important my son sees me as a whole woman, a strong mother. Sometimes, when I wake up from another goddamn nightmare, and it feels as if those memories could swallow me whole, all I have to do is take a look at his sleeping face and I know what it is I am living for. Know what I mean?”

          Spencer looks past the woman, at the distant canopy of evergreens climbing the surrounding mountains, the blue sky and marshmallow clouds. He hears the distant chirping of starlings and notices Mrs. Piggy sauntering towards them across his lush, overgrown lawn. The warm breeze caressing his cheeks shoots electricity all across his body, a phantom sensation even tingling fingers that no longer exist.

          “I do know what you mean.” The young soldier removes his hat revealing a mop of curly black hair. “Listen, I don’t suppose you would like to get some dinner sometime?”

          The mail carrier blushes slightly, the color causing her to look like a shy, young girl. Finally looking back at Spencer, she says, “Leave an invitation for me in the box tomorrow and I’ll see about arranging a babysitter.”

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