The monster hunter has lived too long.
Karyn sits silently in the passenger seat of his old GMC truck while he pops two Vicodin and downs them with a swig of PBR. He grunts in frustration when the lever on the side of his seat refuses to give, and the busted-up mechanism grinds out a reply in kind before shifting to recline. Karyn wonders sometimes which will give out first: the man, or his truck? She hopes it’s the man, but if the truck goes that shock might be enough to do him in. And then she can go, too.
Karyn has been dead for too long.
The hunter pulls his cap down over his eyes and coughs, settling into what he seems to think is a restful position. The second his breathing slows, Tish mists head-and-shoulders up out of the dashboard. She squints at Karyn, who shrugs. It’s Tish’s turn tonight; she’s not going to butt in line.
Satisfied, Tish sinks into the hunter’s chest. He winces but doesn’t stir. In dreams, he can almost hear them. In dreams, they’re almost real. The reverberations of Tish’s rage roll off the hunter’s shoulders, rocking Karyn all the way over on the passenger side. He took Tish away from her home–took Tish and won’t let her go. Won’t let any of them go. They remind him, night by night, what he’s done, what he’s stolen. Karyn’s not sure if he hears, but hammering at the inside of his skull is better than giving up and letting him tow her around like a kite.
Sometimes Karyn likes to linger and absorb the others’ rage–that can be enough to rekindle her own when it gutters. But tonight she slides away, putting space between herself and the blunted knife of someone else’s pain.
There’s a fist-sized rock on the ground beside the front tire. It would fit perfectly into the GMC’s tailpipe. Karyn and her sister Rena once crammed a potato into the muffler of Rena’s douchebag ex’s Grand Am with satisfying results; a rock won’t fit quite as snugly but it would at least fit. Would. Karyn stoops, swipes at it a few times. The rock doesn’t budge; her fingers pass clean through. A few wisps of silvery mist swirl off and unravel into nothingness.
There are two kinds of ghosts: their own, and someone else’s. The ghosts who choose to stay behind, those are the ones who get to break the windows and slam the doors and push the unsuspecting hunters down flights of stairs.
And then there are the ones who get towed helplessly in the wake of someone else who won’t let them go. The ones who don’t get to do, who only get to be carried around. The ones used to abrade the old scars of someone else’s guilt and shame.
Karyn is the wrong kind of ghost.
The others are close by. Tish still stalks the hallways of sleep in the hunter’s head, looking for his face in the mirrors, trying to make him see hers.
María-Belén sits on top of the truck, picking at non-existent cuticles. “Nice night,” she says and Karyn scoffs.
Meanwhile, Easterday is a pale white smear against the darkness, tugging at the short tether of her afterlife. Easterday is new, scarcely more than a kid. It’s not fair, and Easterday knows it. She still strains at the boundaries death has imposed on her. Karyn doesn’t try to leave the hunter anymore; she’s his now, for whatever time they have left together.
She grabs once more for the rock. It stays where it is, and so does she.
They’ve been on the road for two days straight, making aimless circles across the American Midwest. Aimless squares, really, interlocking and of all different sizes, around tall waving cornfields and short squatty grids of soybeans. In the mornings, the hunter sits in one of a thousand identical diners and peruses the newspapers. Karyn strokes the toothed edge of an ancient butter-knife while he nurses a cup of gritty coffee. The butter cools into hard clots on his toast.
Over by the windows, Dawb perches on a high stool with her knees drawn up. Mrs. Thelma Owens drifts back and forth behind the grill, occasionally criticizing the line cook’s technique with the eggs. “Sloppy,” she mutters, as he breaks another yolk, and her deep-south accent wrings several extra syllables out of the word.
Jaspreet reads over the hunter’s shoulder and groans each time he turns the page too soon. She slides into him, tries to force her hand into his and hold the newsprint flat. No luck. He shakes his hand out, once, but keeps browsing without lingering.
Out in the parking lot, by daylight, Easterday is a mere trick of the eyes, an illusion. Blink, and she’s gone.
There’s a lead in Kansas: could be werewolves; the hunter circles one tidbit in the paper’s police blotter. The ghosts sigh. None of them died anywhere near there; little hope of a chance encounter with a lost teacher, classmate, loved one, friend.
They drive hard all day. Karyn and María-Belén swap barbs on whether this is the time the hunter bites it. “Werewolf” is Karyn’s pick for the dead pool. Not that anyone will be around to collect if one of them has called it right; hopefully, they’ll be swept along into the trash bin of memory once the hunter breathes his last. But there’s a certain sick satisfaction in the betting.
María-Belén has put her stock in a heart attack. When the purported werewolf turns out to be nothing more than a feral half-coyote, it looks for a minute as if she and the hunter are both about to cash in. But he leans on the GMC until the scarlet drains from his face and his angry ragged breathing has faded to his usual soft ragged breathing. He slams the car door shut behind him and peels out. The women follow along, unasked and unwilling.
The coyote carcass stays behind to feed the hungry night. The blackflies are already drawing in when Karyn takes a last look back.
The hunter drives south the next day, toward a little town some hundred miles south of Wichita; an off-the-beaten-path destination, but a frequent one for him. When he makes his way up the long winding driveway past acres of wheat, his friend is sitting on his ramshackle porch, cleaning the rifle laid out across his lap. He looks up at the GMC’s rattling roar and lifts a hand in greeting. He doesn’t get up. He lost his left leg below the knee to the same poltergeist-addled house that took Easterday.
The hunter joins him on the porch, sitting on a crate of bottled water, resting his feet on an ancient sun-bleached cooler. Both nurse tin cups of coffee and swap the same catalogue of stories: favorite victories, favorite scars. A favorite waitress in a little taqueria off Route 66. The barbacoa tacos in the same joint. Talk winds down around the well-worn spool of the ones we lost. Easterday has the honor of being referred to by name, though the hunter’s friend calls her Angie, like her mother did. Mrs. Thelma Owens is that old black lady, the one we found out behind the church. Dawb gets called out by name too, though the hunter mispronounces it as Dob because he’s only seen it printed in the obituary, never pronounced out loud.
He carries obituaries around the same way he does the women. They’re stashed in the dashbox, newsprint smeared and bleeding where wet splatters of beer or booze have dried.
Beans and toast for a late breakfast and the hunters are still savoring every scrap of guilt they can wring out of themselves. Karyn wants to slap the tin cup into the window hard enough to break it. She wants to upend the cooler of fish guts over his head.
She stares off into wheat rows so straight they might have been combed out by the hand of God. When the hunter gets to her death, he calls her that cute redhead. He and his friend roll descriptions of her dogman-gnawed corpse alongside mouthfuls of masticated bread. The splintered bones. The sewer smell of her ruined guts.
Easterday is out there in the wheat, trying to lose herself in the vast terrible sameness. It won’t work. It never has.
The hunter’s friend has a tip, a phone call he got yesterday morning but isn’t up for handling himself. West side of Michigan, he says, and electric potential runs up and down the place where Karyn’s spine used to be.
The hunter leaves the dishes next to a pile of others on the counter. There are ants. He leans over the cooler to shake his friend’s hand before he goes, like he needs distance from something as truly deadly as giving the old man a hug. Karyn is waiting at the truck by the time he swings into the driver’s seat, keys jangling.
There aren’t any men in the stories the hunters tell. It’s not that they don’t die just as much as anyone else. Karyn’s seen plenty of men die in the hunter’s orbit. Max and José and Kev, other hunters who went down in the line of duty; Clayton and Tim, the two well-meaning young idiots who thought they could learn how to smoke out a demon possession after reading a few articles online; Ángel and Aarón, who died protecting their farm. The hunter doesn’t keep them, doesn’t treasure them to hone the sharp edges of his regrets. He brings them up now and again. But he doesn’t need them.
Karyn doesn’t want to be the unanswerable void to someone else’s cry of but what else could I have done? She has her own questions she wants answered.
The hunter yanks the atlas from the floor in the back and tosses it open on the passenger’s seat. He thumbs through to Michigan, gives it a quick once-over. The car turns over on the second try and he cranes his head to back up all the way down the long drive. Karyn perches on the center console and runs her finger over the blue-veined map until she imagines she can feel the familiar names of tiny towns where they’re inked onto the paper.
They spend the rest of the day on the unlovable stretches of country highways that network Kansas and Missouri and Illinois. The GMC sets to knocking if the hunter spends too long on the freeway. Somewhere past Peoria, he pulls into a rest stop and sets up for the night.
His dinner comes from the vending machine: two bags of Fritos, a soda, and an Almond Joy for dessert. He adds a little Jack to dilute the last few drops of Coca-Cola, when that’s gone he adds a little more. On unsteady feet, he lurches out of the truck to throw away the empty wrappers and relieve himself one last time. When he comes back, he takes a big canister of Morton’s Iodized Salt from the back seat and pours it in a lopsided circle. He steps over it, climbs back in, and retrieves a sprig of sage from the back seat. This he sets aflame with a lighter from his pocket and tosses it on top of the dashboard to spark and smolder. The car fills with smoke fast and finally he cracks the windows open to cough foul air into fresh. Only when it’s aired out a bit does he crank the chair back into its reclined position and close his eyes.
Salt and sage won’t keep the dead women out. Neither have antihistamines, sleep aids, or a host of hard liquor. The circle he’s drawn is in the wrong place. His heart is the haunted house, and the ghosts won’t go until it quits beating.
It isn’t Karyn’s turn tonight but she rises into his head like swamp gas anyway. The other ghosts fall away in the face of her hungry need. They know their destination too. They know how close she is to coming home.
He knows something is wrong. He must expect it by now, that dark ripple on the surface of his dreams that soon gives way to wounded, weeping women. In here, she’s more real than he is, and she slices through him like an axe through spiderwebs.
“Listen to me,” she demands, chasing the unraveling thread of his subconscious as it careens between memories of family reunions and football games, cowers behind an old aftershave jingle. “Listen to me!”
His body rolls up onto one shoulder and the shape of the dream shifts with him. “Why didn’t you save me?” Karyn’s voice echoes from somewhere outside herself. No. That’s not her. The word you is the farthest thing from her mind. She wants her scholarship back, a chance to finish school and come back home and grow the best grapes Greenhill has ever seen and put the town on the tourist map for real and bring the tourist money along with it. She wants to know if her sister ever settled down with either of those two shitheads who’d been stringing her along, if she has kids or a dog or a cute little house north of town that she can walk to the beach from.
“You could have done more,” Karyn’s voice says, without her mind behind the words, “you could have–“
No. Karyn wrests control, crumbling the false words into ash. “Listen!” she screams, spreading out into him, forcing herself into every corner.
For a moment, his fists clench. He lurches, as if to sit up. Karyn startles, and his waking mind crushes her into a corner of itself. She ebbs free as he gags, curses, presses his sleeve to his face. His nose is bleeding. There’s no more sleep for the hunter after that. Karyn sits on the passenger seat the whole night, watching him blink dryly at the scratched ceiling.
He gets a late start the next day, long after dawn rakes its coals across the sky. But he doesn’t hit the road north. Instead he pulls over at an urgent care clinic. At the reception desk, he reluctantly peels a few bills out of his wallet and goes to sit beside an aquarium with nothing but a ragged-looking pleco to occupy it. It’s an hour of waiting alongside sniffly kids and a teenager with his arm wrapped in a bloody towel. Karyn reads the headlines of every year-old magazine in the racks before a nurse calls for the hunter. After a brusque exchange of health history and a blood pressure reading, the nurse disappears.
While he waits, the hunter doesn’t leaf through National Geographic or read flu shot factoids from the wall poster. He stares into space, eyes glazed. Karyn counts the wrinkles on his forehead until, for a moment, she thinks his half-lidded gaze has sharpened on her. Then the door opens and a doctor with the faint divots of acne scars on his forehead pops inside.
He checks the hunter over, then hovers on the border between kindness and condescension as he reassures the hunter that the occasional nosebleed is nothing to worry about, and has he ever considered modifying his diet or implementing an exercise routine? The hunter takes the pamphlets the kid hands him without a word, and shreds them in the parking lot. The confetti swirls in the stiff midday breeze; some of it flies up past Easterday, who is perched atop the two-story clinic as if she’s thinking of jumping. As if she’s thinking that jumping would do anything, change anything, mean anything.
He gases up at a Kwik Trip and buys a plastic mug of plastic-flavored coffee. Karyn follows him inside and runs her fingers over–through–rows of orange Reese’s cups and golden Twix. They didn’t have peanut butter M&Ms when she was alive. She wonders how they taste, if the candy-peanut butter ratio is more generous than Reese’s Pieces in their stingy little shells. For a moment, as he peruses snacks, she slips back inside the hunter and tries to convince him to buy a pack. She imagines the sugar shell cracking between his teeth, the smooth change of texture inside. He grabs a packet of Twinkies. Disappointed, she cuts free of him and drifts outside.
María-Belén is watching a wasp crawl in and out of the inch gap of the open window. “Maybe it will sting him while he drives,” she says lovingly.
“You bet on a heart attack, not a car crash.” Mrs. Thelma Owens is the one with the line on vehicle-related mortality.
María-Belén shrugs. “A falta de pan, buenas son tortas.”
The door jingles, and the hunter emerges. He doesn’t head for the GMC but skulks around the side of the building. Karyn follows him to what must be the last payphone in the state. He punches a familiar string of digits: his friend’s phone number. His finger hangs over the 7, the last digit, for the space of a long ragged breath, a cough, and a curse. Then he jerks his hand up and drops the phone into its cradle. Quarters clatter in the coin return and he turns his back on them.
Karyn can smell the cold damp of Lake Michigan drawing close, like its own kind of ghost. She recognizes the bump-bump-bump of I-94. The exits before Greenhill fall away one after another.
“Please,” Karyn whispers, with the rhythm of the road. In the passenger seat, she clenches her fists on her lap and releases them again. “Come on. You remember the place. Pull over.”
María-Belén leans on–through–the seatback. “It’s too far off the highway, Karyn. He’ll never stop over there. I’m sorry.”
When she sees the overpass that will carry them past Greenhill, Karyn winces. “Pull over,” she chants. “Pull over. Pull over.”
The exit lane opens up to the GMC’s right but the tires stay pointed straight ahead. If Karyn’s post-corporeal body could weep, it would. But it does still know how to scream.
“Pull over!” she cries, and shoves herself sideways into the hunter to yank the steering wheel.
The truck wobbles. The hunter swears and puts one hand to his chest even as he adjusts course with the other. The hollow hole of Karyn’s chest thunders with his heartbeat. She tries again to jerk the wheel, to force his foot toward the brake pedal. Nothing gives. Maybe it was just a heart palpitation in the first place.
She drifts to the back of the truck, past Tish and Dawb and Mrs. Thelma Owens and Anamaria and Lucy and Jaspreet and Janine who ride silently in the flatbed. Easterday hangs behind and overhead, refusing the proximity of the truck but unable to stop herself from being towed along in its wake. Tish says something that’s lost to the roar of the road. Karyn shakes her head and looks backward. Greenhill’s too deep into rolling land to see from here but she watches the county road shrink into a dull point and then silent nothingness.
The moon is full, not that it matters this deep into the woods. The GMC’s high beams blast out from its parking place, and the bright light casts long shadows. The hunter kills the ignition and the meager light dies with it.
When he leaves the car, he makes his way through the forest by feel. Vines of Asiatic bittersweet snag at his ankles, though hardly a stick cracks beneath his feet. Where sight is gone, sound and feel remain. As a ghost Karyn might have hoped to be blessed with some kind of night vision, but she moves through the forest as sightlessly as the hunter.
The other women are brief faded spots on the retina, soon eclipsed by other trees. They wait. They listen. Somewhere far away, Easterday is crying, or laughing hysterically, the sound muffled by greenery and ghostly hands.
Karyn hears the beast before the hunter does. She can’t help the cry of warning that rips out of her, but it rolls past him unheard. He spins, perhaps too late, at the wet protest of claw-torn vines. By the creature’s slavering snarl, by its sheer size, Karyn recognizes it for a werewolf, and now she doesn’t know whether she’s crying or laughing either. Of course it would be a werewolf.
The hunter’s favorite knife, his well-honed Woodsman’s Pal, is already in his hand. He brings it to bear but the creature has the advantage of him and blood splashes through where Karyn stands. The hunter cries out but it’s not his knife arm that’s taken the wound, and he stabs out in kind. Hot breath, gnashing teeth. Karyn can barely tell where man ends and wolf begins as they grapple and slash and bleed.
A misstep, then, or the gravity of exhaustion. The hunter tumbles backward and the wolf is on top of him. A glint of ghost-light glitters on the knife blade, between them now. The hunter’s hand is still on the hilt but the werewolf’s wiry arms have turned the blade inward. The hunter strains, fighting it back, losing ground. The wolf snaps at his face–inches away, but its saliva flecks his bloodied face.
Karyn holds as still as death and watches the hunter’s arms start to give way. He chokes out a curse as the knife’s point taps a button on his shirt. He’s going to die now, and then Karyn will be dead too. In death, no one can lay a claim on her. She will be her own.
In death, true death, she’ll never go home again. The monster hunter has lived too long, and now he’s going to go before he’s had a chance to make amends.
She’s already moving before she realizes she’s made the decision. She drops through the werewolf and into the hunter. She lends what strength she has to him.
It’s not very much. His arm trembles, and the knife stays on the button. It starts to press inward. A garbled prayer leaves the hunter’s lips and Karyn wonders if she’ll feel what he feels, if she stays in here, if she’ll know a death by blood and torn bone one more time.
The hunter’s frame shudders again and Mrs. Thelma Owens is in here too. “Well, don’t just gawk,” she says, schoolteacher-stern. “Push, honey.”
María-Belén squeezes in, Janine too. The knife’s momentum slows, then stills. Dawb and Anamaria. Lucy and Jaspreet. Others, shoving in, one by one. Making room where there is none. The hunter stops shivering with each new addition and the knife turns upward.
Before the knife can pierce its hide, the werewolf bellows its confusion and leaps back. It huffs and circles cautiously. The hunter doesn’t rise in answer, he stays on his back, knife hand up and the other to brace it.
Karyn understands. “Up,” she begs, and together the women bend joints, contract muscles. He moves like an ill-used marionette. But he moves. The knife hand comes up again and he lumbers toward the werewolf.
The beast retreats a few paces to snort and study the hunter again at a distance. It takes in the uneven gait, the jerky twitches of the arms. It’s calculating its odds, and it seems to like what it sees. It lunges.
Easterday slams into the hunter with a scream, and the hunter screams too. He launches himself at the werewolf faster than he’s moved in years and he opens its belly from intestines to sternum. The women jerk his arm to pull the knife free and they stoop down to take the head–the head, you have to get the head. They’ve all seen this show before, though not from a front seat vantage. In his hand, their hands, the knife grates across the beast’s throat and gristle and sinew tear and blood soaks into the ground beneath the hunter’s boots.
After, they clean the knife as best they can and walk on unsteady legs back to the car. He falls, twice, along the way; they pick him up and keep him moving. Through unspoken agreement they wash his face and hands and chest with water from a canteen and change him into a more presentable shirt. When they turn the rearview mirror toward his face, Karyn can almost see herself peering out from his eyes. His shoulders rise as she pulls with need and purpose and the others echo the same back to her.
Their turns are coming, too.
Driving is an exercise in teamwork. The GMC takes a ding from a highway railing, but the trip is otherwise uneventful.
The Greenhill Family Diner still stands, with the same yellow-lit sign flickering over the front entrance. It’s had a fresh coat of paint in the past twenty years, though. Maybe more than one. The bell on the door is new, too, higher-pitched than Karyn remembers. The hunter slides into a seat at the counter and she moves his head to look around at patrons and waitstaff, scrying for familiarity. The other ghosts move the hunter’s hands, playing with the salt and pepper shakers. Fiddling. Fine-tuning.
It turns out that there are three kinds of ghosts, and the kind that’s still alive comes out from behind the grill and heads straight toward the hunter.
“What can I get you?” says Rena, taking a pencil stub out of her steel-gray bun and a pad of paper from a stained apron pocket. At the sound of Karyn’s sister’s voice, the hunter’s hand jerks and crystal grains of salt bounce across the formica counter. Rena doesn’t notice, scribbling out some prior entry on her order tablet. “The biscuits are good today. The biscuits are always good.”
“Your dad used to run this place.” The hunter’s voice comes out scratchy; anyone listening closely might hear the echoes underneath the words. A creak of tone at the end almost, but not quite, turns the statement into a question.
Rena looks up from her pad, nods slowly. “You knew him?”
Knew. Karyn throbs with sorrow. She keeps grinding words out of the hunter’s mouth. “I was–a friend of your sister’s. At school. Ag department.” A believable lie. The hunter’s tongue sticks to his teeth. Karyn wants to reach across the counter and pull Rena into an embrace, but she can’t. Not while she wears the hunter’s face in place of her own. There are a thousand things she wants to ask, to say; she ekes out one. “She talked about the diner a lot. She’d be proud of how it looks. Proud of you.”
Rena rocks back on her heels. “Thanks,” she says, and her voice is husky. Karyn’s sister has never been a crier, except the year she didn’t make the varsity swim team. “I still think about her every day, you know?”
“Yeah.” The hunter’s head turns toward the menu board. His throat jerks in rhythm with Karyn’s. “The biscuits sound good. With honey? And a coffee too, please.”
“You bet.” Rena smiles and slides off. As she goes, she dabs the corner of her eye with her apron. The hunter’s neck cranes, trying to peep at the pictures jammed on the inside of the counter. Karyn spies one with Rena and another woman, two skinny kids squeezed between them.
Later, on a cigarette-scented hotel bed, they page through the atlas, planning routes. Easterday seizes the hunter’s hand and heavily taps an intersection just south of Dayton, Ohio. Karyn remembers it well, the copper sting of blood in the air, the electric hum of a new ghost screaming through the darkness toward her captor. The ghosts agree on their next destination, and set the atlas aside.
The room phone is an old beige plastic model. The ghosts lift the receiver and key in the old ten-digit string, stabbing the 7 last of all. When it starts to ring they all flicker out of the hunter at once, leaving him to panic and gasp until his friend picks up on the other end.
“It’s me,” he gasps, “it’s me.” The fingers of his free hand dig deep into his shirt, five sharp disruptions in the plaid flannel pattern. “I–Jesus.”
Karyn, perched on the windowsill, half-stands now. Maybe he’s forgotten how to breathe, how to keep his heart beating, with all that time out of the driver’s seat.
But then a great sob rattles the cage of his chest, and she freezes where she is. The only thing he’s forgotten is how to express a genuine emotion. How to feel one at all.
“Something weird’s happening to me, man. Things I say without knowing why–stuff I do without meaning to do it. It’s like I’m losing control and–and somehow it feels like the right thing to do. Am I going nuts?”
From the sill, Karyn can’t hear the voice on the other end of the phone. That’s all right. The phone call is for him and him alone. The hunter will give up enough of his privacy in the coming weeks; has given up quite a lot already. When he hangs up, he weeps again, small shuddering sobs that wear him down into a deep dreamless sleep.
No one slides into his head tonight. He’ll need his rest. Karyn runs her fingers over and through the tattered edges of the atlas. She closes her eyes and remembers the feel of the paper, the way the pages riffle at the touch.
Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester; now she writes about sad astronauts, angry princesses, and dead gods. Her work appears in Analog, Shimmer, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and more. She also co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge, a new zine for fun and optimistic speculative fiction.