Papa made casting look easy. With a flick of the wrist, his lure flew through the air, trailing the bobber. The line unspooled with a whir that sent pleasant shivers along Steven’s spine.
“See how I did that?”
Steven shook his head. He did see, but he wanted to see it again. He offered his rod to Papa, who smiled and took it without hesitation. He fixed his own rod in the holder at the front of the inflatable dinghy.
Bow, Steven thought. The front was the bow. The back was the stern. He tried to absorb everything Papa said. It was all important, even the stuff that didn’t seem important. Papa was old—in his fifties—so he practically knew everything.
“Watch my fingers,” Papa said, “not the lure. You don’t want to send it too far. The name of the game is control.” Papa wiggled his fingers. “Put the reel between your ring finger and your eff-you finger.”
Steven laughed. He knew what the eff-word was and how you could say it to someone by lifting your middle finger. Mom and Dad didn’t know he knew, but kids at school talked. Third grade was when you stopped being a kid, Steven had decided.
“Put your finger on the line and add some tension. Don’t hug it tight to the rod, just about halfway.” He flicked the metal part of the reel, so the loop stuck up. “This is the bail. Engage it like this. It’s what makes the line go out.”
Steven nodded. He sat close to Papa, enjoying the smell of his cologne. It was better than the smell that used to hang around him—a thick, heavy stench like sour bread. This was pleasant, like wood but spicy.
Steven peered at his Papa’s round face, which looked different than it used to. Some things were the same—his stubbly beard and the wavy hair that was thinning but not balding. His legs and arms were short, but his chest was a barrel. He had steely blue eyes and thin lips like a cowboy. Before, though, those eyes were always red and glassy, and Papa’s thin lips were wet, twisty things, like worms. But not anymore.
“Draw the rod to your side, then forward, releasing it from your finger when your rod is pointing in the direction of your target.” Papa looked at Steven. “Got it?”
Steven’s Papa was cool. Not super old like his friends’ grandparents.
“Got it, Papa.” He took his rod back and looked into the lake.
“Don’t draw back too far, or you’ll hit the ground here.”
Steven looked over his shoulder. The boat had drifted close to a small cliff. There were bushes on the ground and trees that stretched high and made the sunlight all spotty.
Steven brought the rod to his side slowly, then swung forward.
“Ow, shit!” Papa cried out.
Steven felt his face go warm. He looked at Papa and saw his hook sticking out of a fuzzy forearm. The worm on it kissed Papa’s skin.
“I’m sorry,” Steven blurted out, horrified. “Sorry, sorry sorry!”
Papa chuckled. “It’s no problem. Just make sure to engage the bail next time. That way, your hook will catch something tastier than your old man’s old man.” He pulled the hook out and let it hang from the tip of Steven’s rod. “Give it another shot.”
“But you’re bleeding.”
Papa looked at his forearm. “So I am. That’s what camping is all about, Stevie. Fuckin’ around. Every wound’s a story.” He chuckled again. “Don’t tell your Mom I’ve been cussing.”
Steven wouldn’t dream of it.
He drew back his rod and almost cast it again without engaging the bail, but Papa did a fake cough that reminded him to flick the metal piece up. With one smooth motion, Steven flicked the rod forward, releasing the line.
The lead weight carried the worm on his hook through the air. The lure went further left than Steven intended, but it was a fine cast.
“Way to go, buddy!” Papa gave Steven a pat on the back, smiling so all his small, straight teeth showed. “I’m proud of you.”
Steven smiled too. His dimples matched those in Papa’s cheeks. Mom and Dad didn’t have dimples. Nanny didn’t either. None of his cousins, aunts, or uncles had dimples. It was something only he and Papa shared. A connection upon which nobody else could encroach. Dad looked a little like Papa, but Steven matched Papa exactly.
Above their heads, branches cracked. Leaves rustled. Something big was in the trees, moving fast.
“What’s that?” Steven asked. He drew closer to Papa. The small cliff suddenly felt huge, like adults who got too close and leaned over you, blocking out the sun—adults who smelled, who pinched, who had dirty hands and bad breath.
Papa looked up. He reached into the backpack he brought on the boat and pulled out a knife with a long blade. “Wolves in these parts,” he explained, removing the plastic sheath. “Row us away from the edge, Stevie. Center of the lake.”
Steven couldn’t tell from Papa’s face whether he was serious or joking like he always did, but he stretched his arms wide and grabbed the oars anyway.
Before he could begin rowing, something broke from the tree line—a flash of dark flesh sprinting towards them. Wild hair, like the mane of a horse, flowed back from a grinning face.
The woman leaped and flew, crumpling into a ball the way Steven’s worm did when Papa stuck the hook through its wriggling body.
Her arc took her above their heads, the flowers on her bikini becoming pink stars in a blue sky. She came down with a tremendous splash, soaking Steven and his Papa.
“Fuck,” said Papa.
“Fuck,” whispered Steven.
The four of them sat around a campfire. The setting sun bathed the forest in orange light that made Papa look even more tan than he was. Steven looked at his own arms. They shone red.
“Fishing’s not hard at all,” said Papa.
“There are so many parts,” said Valerie. She had short hair, dark skin, and might have been the strongest woman Steven ever saw. A black tank top revealed arms bigger than those of his action figures. Everything about her was tough, except her fat dog, Max. “I don’t want to deal with tangles.”
“Line’s not expensive.” Papa smiled. He patted the knife on his hip. “What’s stopping you from slicing the knot away?”
The women nodded along, smiling. Steven could tell they liked Papa. Of course, they liked Steven too, calling him cute about a million times, but they listened to everything Papa said. They even set up camp in the same lonely clearing as Steven and his Papa.
“That’s a good point,” said Lucy. She was Valerie’s cousin. She didn’t look as strong, but she was very nice. Softer, kinder, with a gentle voice, a bubbling laugh, and an easy smile. After she had splashed Steven and Papa with her cannonball, she offered her towel without hesitation.
“Are you sure you don’t want a beer?” Valerie asked. “This girl only drinks White Claws now. Thinks she’s too good for suds.”
“Drink your bread,” said Lucy. “I prefer my refreshments to refresh me, not make me bloat.”
Steven didn’t exactly know what bloat was, but he guessed it had something to do with a beer belly. Papa used to have one of those, but now his stomach was firm.
Valerie pulled a beer out of the cooler. Cold water beaded on the surface like sweat. She held it out to Papa.
“It’s tempting, but I don’t drink anymore. Not even Wine Claws, whatever those are. It’s one thing to get a DUI but getting nabbed while driving your grandson home from a late-night play rehearsal is especially embarrassing.”
Steven didn’t like thinking about that drive. How Papa drove a little too fast, turned a little too quickly. How he swore when those blue and red lights lit up the road behind them.
“Thank God Mom and Dad forgave me, right kiddo?” He flashed dimples at Steven. “This trip was long overdue.”
“On the wagon?” Valerie asked.
Papa nodded. “Two and a half years now.”
“Good for you,” said Lucy. “Sell Val on your lifestyle. She brought enough beer to satisfy Ireland for a weekend.”
“I’m not here to preach,” said Papa. “I’m just a humble correctional officer. I won’t stop you from doing the crime, just babysit after you’re caught.”
Valerie nodded. “Border patrol, myself,” she said. “Sumas area.”
“I’ll keep an eye out next time I cross for gas.”
She toasted Steven’s Papa, clinking her beer against his Diet Coke. Steven drank his can of apple juice. He had never had apple juice from a can, but he kind of liked it. Juice boxes were for kids.
“How many people fit on the boat?” Lucy asked.
“Technically three,” said Papa. “Which means two comfortably.”
“I need to get me one of those. They’re not expensive, are they?”
Papa shrugged. “Three, four-hundred.”
Lucy cringed. “A little rich for a teacher’s salary.”
“Where do you teach?”
“Maclure Elementary,” said Lucy.
“I have a granddaughter who goes there. Patty Hale.”
Lucy’s jaw dropped. “I know Patty! She’s in my class!”
Lucy and Papa started talking about Patty, about how good she was at math and how helpful she was at clean-up time. Steven felt a flash of heat run through his body. He didn’t want his Papa talking about his cousins. This was supposed to be their trip. Patty and her sisters were so spoiled. They got everything.
Steven turned away from the conversation and went to pet Valerie’s chubby Jack Russell Terrier. “Hey buddy,” he said.
The dog stopped chewing his bone long enough to growl low and deep at Steven.
“Might want to leave Max alone,” Valerie told him. “He gets possessive over his meat.”
Great, said Steven. Can’t do anything. He turned to Papa. “I’m going to read in the tent.”
Papa frowned. “You don’t want any s’mores?”
Steven entered the tent alone. Behind him, Papa made plans to take the ladies out on the boat the next day.
Papa entered the tent an hour and a half later.
“Hey buddy,” he said, hooking a finger over Steven’s book and lowering it. “Whatcha reading?”
“Harry Potter,” replied his grandson. “The third one. I’ve read them all before, but I wanted to do it again.”
“Doesn’t knowing what’s going to happen ruin the story?”
“No,” Steven said, turning the page.
“Isn’t that like knowing what Santa’s going to bring you?”
“Santa isn’t real, Papa.”
Papa smiled. “When did you figure that out?”
“Before school finished.” Steven put his bookmark in the book and put it aside. “None of the kids in my class believe in that stuff anymore. Besides, last December, I saw wrapped gifts in Mom and Dad’s closet, then on Christmas, the same gifts said they were from Santa.”
“Maybe Santa let Mom and Dad hold onto them for safekeeping.”
The look Steven gave him said, who are you trying to fool? Raised eyebrow. Crooked smile. One dimple digging into Steven’s cheek, just like Papa’s.
He smiled and put Steven into a headlock. “Too smart for your own good, huh?”
Steven laughed. He didn’t yell for Papa to stop, didn’t scream out. It was nice to be close.
They both fell back onto their sleeping bags. Outside the tent, crickets chirped. The women spoke low, out of respect for the men. Steven thought he could still hear that dog chewing his bone, a faint scraaaw, scraaaw, scraaaw.
“Play along for Mom and Dad, okay?” Papa said. “Christmas loses its magic when you’re an adult. It becomes a source of stress. The only thing that saves it is when you have kids. Then you live to see the magic in them.” He smiled at Steven. “Keep the magic alive for them.”
Papa pointed a warning finger at his grandson.
“And don’t go telling your cousins either. I know they still believe.”
Steven frowned. He picked up his book again.
“Come out and see the stars,” he said. “They look different out here.”
“I’m kind of tired.”
Papa sighed. “All right, kiddo. Sleep tight.” He mussed Steven’s hair before leaving the tent.
Steven listened to the footsteps walking away. He didn’t want to be alone, but he didn’t want to hear any more about his cousins. About the women. Why couldn’t he have Papa to himself?
Even now, they were back talking. They would just talk into the night, like adults always did. Steven couldn’t even read. He couldn’t help but listen to their conversation.
“After the DUI, she made up excuse after excuse to keep me away. Nothing bad had happened.”
“Bummer,” said Valerie.
“At least you’re on the right path now,” said Lucy. “We all make mistakes. That’s what AA is there for.”
“Oh, I didn’t go through AA,” said Papa. “Just stopped. I don’t think I have a problem, to be honest.”
There was a silence filled only by crickets, the crackle of the fire, and Max’s constant gnawing.
“You know what?” asked Papa. “Let me grab one of those.”
“You sure?” asked Valerie.
“One beer won’t hurt, right?” Papa said. “It’s not like I’m going to get a DUI out here.”
Valerie let out a nervous chuckle.
“Besides,” said Papa, “nothing happened. We didn’t crash or anything. I was just unlucky enough to coast into a checkpoint.”
“I’m going to bed.” Lucy’s camping chair crunched gravel beneath it as she rose.
Steven didn’t know what, but it sounded like something changed outside. He kept waiting for someone to talk, but the only sound the adults made was the cracking open of a can.
Steven wasn’t tired when Papa left the tent, but the quiet was lulling him to sleep. The air mattress cradled him, his body sinking into the softness. It squeaked with every movement.
In his sleep, he heard the Jack Russell Terrier chewing his bone: the repeated gnawing, the scratching of teeth on a hard surface.
Scraaaw, scraaaw, scraaaw.
“Max,” called a voice, startling Steven awake. There was a whistle. “Bedtime!”
The chewing stopped, and Steven heard the dog scramble around their small tent to get to the women’s’ big one. They were nice, but their questions made Papa ramble a lot. Steven wanted Papa to talk to him, not other people.
Tomorrow, he would have to share his Papa with them again. He’d probably teach them how to fish the same way he showed Steven. It wasn’t fair. This was his trip!
Something stumbled into the side of the tent. It crumpled, the fabric rubbing.
“Fuck,” said a gruff voice. Steven hadn’t heard that voice in years. Papa was different from how he used to be, but something must have changed him back. Did talking to the women do it?
Papa fiddled with the zipper. It wasn’t like him to struggle with things. He made everything look easy.
Finally, he got it. Nylon folded into the tent, and the outdoors were once again visible. Papa fell in, bouncing Steven along the mattress. “Goddamn,” he grumbled.
The old smell had returned. Bread gone sour. It wafted off Papa. Sweat coated his skin as he lay in the spot where he landed, breathing heavily.
He didn’t respond, only lay there staring at the wall of the small tent. Steven reached towards him to get his attention.
As soon as Steven touched his arm, Papa recoiled, raising his clenched fist. His knife launched into the air like a rocket. Steven’s Papa snarled, ready to attack.
Steven pushed himself back, scurrying into the corner of the tent. He screamed—no words, just unbelieving terror. Papa wouldn’t hurt him. He would never hurt him.
Papa realized where he was. Who he was threatening. His eyes cleared, focused.
Papa looked at the knife in his hands. It wasn’t clean. Black blood dripped from the blade onto Papa’s pillow.
“Jesus.” He wiped the knife on his shirt, then slid the sheath back on. “Fucking wolf attacked me.”
“Are we safe?” Tall, full trees pushed their clearing against the lake. An entire pack of wolves could surround them before they even realized. They had no chance against a pack, not even with Valerie’s strong arms. Their guard dog looked like he couldn’t take on a beaver, let alone a wolf.
“We’re all right,” said Papa. “It was a loner. I think I killed it. Stuck it pretty deep. Must have been separated. Injured, so they left it behind.”
Steven didn’t like the idea of Papa killing a wolf. It felt different from the fish. Different from the worm. A wolf was like a dog. Smart. Complicated. Not as simple as a fish. Killing it felt like some sort of sin.
“It was self-defense, Stevie.” Papa saw the horror in his grandson’s face. “If it hadn’t attacked, I would have let it go. Do you believe me?”
Steven did. His Papa wasn’t a bad guy. He made mistakes, but he wasn’t a bad guy.
“Yeah,” said Steven. “I believe you.”
Papa smiled, the dimples appearing. “Good. Let’s go to sleep. I’m bushed.”
Steven lay next to his Papa. Soon he heard old-man snores. His dad was starting to get them, too. Would he ever get them?
Without sleep, he had a lot of time to wonder.
Steven wondered about Papa and how he smelled like sour bread. A couple times, despite Papa’s assurances, he wondered about wolves.
At sunrise, Steven left the tent, flap open behind him. Papa would follow soon.
Like Steven, the women rose with the sun. They had the fire going, a frying pan on the grill above it.
“Hey bud,” said Valerie. “Your grandpa usually sleep in like that?”
Steven looked back at the tent. It shook with the force of Papa’s snoring.
“Not really,” he said. “He wakes up before five, every day.”
“Want some eggs?” asked Valerie. “We brought plenty.”
“I think my Papa is going to make bacon,” Steven said. “I don’t like eggs.”
Lucy looked from the pan, a fried egg on the end of a steel spatula. “Don’t like eggs?” she said. “They’re brain food!”
“They’re calories,” Valerie said. “Protein. There’s no such thing as brain food. You’ve been manipulated by marketing.”
“They are chock full of B vitamins and folate.” Lucy put another egg on her plastic plate. “Exactly what a growing boy needs.” She winked at him. “How about a few bites? I make my eggs special. You might like them.”
“Okay,” Steven said, taking the plate. He had to admit, they smelled really good. He sat in a chair, his back to the tent, and ate while Lucy made more eggs and Valerie tossed a ball for Max to fetch.
“These are really good,” he said, mouth full.
“It’s because she uses half a pound of butter,” said Valerie.
“Hey, you hear that?” Lucy asked, grinning. Steven listened, then shook his head. He only heard the birds and the wind through the trees.
“No more snoring! Want to ask your Papa if he wants a couple eggs?” Lucy asked.
“Sure.” Steven went to the tent.
Papa was inside, hunched over, his back to Steven. He looked like he was eating something.
“Lucy wants to know if you want a couple eggs,” Steven said.
Papa stopped what he was doing. “Yes,” he said. His voice sounded husky, like how Mom’s got when she smoked. “I’m starving.” He wiped his face with the back of his hand, smearing shiny grease on the light hairs there. He put aside something plastic.
The package of bacon, now empty.
When had he grabbed that? He would have had to sneak out in the brief moment when Steven was speaking with the women. Their cooler—airtight and sealed against the wildlife—was close enough to the tent for Papa to grab a snack then return, but he would have said hello to them.
He also would have cooked the bacon before eating it.
Papa turned around. His face looked longer. Thinner. Just a little, but enough to give Steven the creeps. He was used to Papa having big, full cheeks and a round head. Now he looked sick.
Papa left the tent without giving Steven even the most cursory hair tussle.
“You’re bleeding, Papa,” Steven said.
The cut on Papa’s arm from Steven’s hook had opened. It looked different. Instead of a small scrape, now it was a long tear.
“Hm,” grunted Papa. He lifted the forearm to his mouth and licked the blood before it could drip from his elbow.
Papa’s short legs and arms also seemed to have stretched in the night. He didn’t look much taller to Steven, but his pants rode a little higher on his leg, displaying the bony protrusion of his ankle.
Valerie held out the pan of eggs. “You can have these ones, Paul. There are plates over on the cooler—”
Papa scooped all four fried eggs from the pan with his bare hands. One by one, he tossed them in his mouth, chewing them openly. The steaming eggs turned the skin of his fingers and palms red. Papa didn’t seem to feel it.
He belched, everything chewed and swallowed.
“Nothing sexier than a man with an appetite,” said Valerie, smiling.
Papa walked to the boat and began dragging it to the water. Rubber squeaked against the rocks.
“Hey,” said Valerie. “Think you can take us out a little later? Show us a thing or two?”
Papa stopped. He looked over his shoulder at her. “What?”
“You said yesterday you would teach us how to be master fisherwomen.”
He turned fully. Steven fell back a step. Something was different about Papa. Something in his eyes. The cowboy steel looked dull now, the silver more grey than blue. His frown pulled his face down. It looked like he was wearing a Halloween mask. Steven wanted to pull it off. He wanted his Papa back.
“I think you better hang out with us today, Stevie,” said Lucy. She appeared beside him quietly, standing almost half-crouched, as if preparing to scoop him up and run to safety.
Steven realized what changed, and why Lucy’s face looked the way it did. She was scared of Papa. So was he.
Clarity came to Papa’s eyes. Just for a moment. He seemed confused. He took a long look at Steven, eyebrows furrowing as if he couldn’t quite recall who Steven was. Then, he turned back to the water and set off from the shore without looking back.
Sleep came hard that night. Steven finished his book without feeling the drowsiness reading late usually brought. He waited for Papa to appear. After setting off into the lake, Papa hadn’t shown all day. Steven passed the time swimming with the women. Eating their food. Playing their board games.
They tried their best to take his mind off his absent grandfather, but it stayed at the forefront of Steven’s mind. Had he done something to make Papa mad? He knew he shouldn’t have gotten so jealous of his cousins. He wasn’t Papa’s only grandchild. It was stupid to expect special treatment just because they looked the same. That didn’t make any difference.
Stupid, Steven thought, tears staining his pillow. He was so dumb. Now his Papa hated him.
Steven buried his head in his pillow.
“This is messed up, Val.” Lucy pitched her voice low. Probably didn’t want the dumb kid overhearing. “We have to call someone. He’s fallen off, probably high-tailed it to the nearest bar.”
“Shh! Keep it down.”
“I’m serious. We need to head out first thing in the morning and contact Stevie’s parents. We can’t leave him with Paul—not when he’s relapsing.”
Valerie let out a heavy exhale. “Okay, look, obviously I agree, but we need to be careful. If Paul comes back and finds his grandson gone, he could report it as a kidnapping. So, let’s wait until after breakfast, at least. Twenty-four full hours.”
“And what if he comes back drunk?” Lucy snapped. “What then?”
“We’ll figure it out. His granddaughter’s in your class. You can contact her parents first thing on Monday.”
“I’m not letting him take that kid if he comes back here hammered, Val. It isn’t safe.
“Don’t think I know that? I’m a fucking law enforcement officer.”
“Val,” Lucy hissed. “Language!”
Steven squeezed the pillow against his ears so he wouldn’t hear them talking about his Papa anymore.
Stevie woke. The pillow was practically suffocating him. Steven released his hold on the edges. Outside noises flew to his ears in a rush. The movement of branches in the wind. The campfire, crackling away.
Footsteps came toward Steven’s tent.
Finally! Papa was back! Steven could show him he wasn’t some dumb kid. He could be cool. He could be like a man, like Papa. It was time for Steven to grow up.
The zipper slowly moved around the edge of the flap. Someone entered the dark tent and gently lowered themselves onto the mattress with Steven. They pressed their body against his and flinched before pulling him in close, breathing heavily. In and out. They smelled like dirt and sweat.
Outside, heavy footsteps slammed into the ground. Branches snapped and fell. The whole forest seemed to move.
There was a wet, sticky sound.
It wasn’t Papa holding him. He would have realized it sooner if he wasn’t so eager to apologize for being such a downer. It was one of the women. Her breasts pushed into his back. Long hair tickled the back of his neck. Lucy.
“We’re going to make for the boat,” she whispered. Her words sounded shaky. “Okay Stevie?”
He wanted his Papa. The women had been nice and took care of him while Papa was off doing whatever, but he still wanted him. Papa was family. He was the protector.
“He’s out there,” she replied, her voice pitched almost too low to hear. “There’s something dangerous…”
The wolves. Papa would keep them back long enough for Steven to escape.
“Slowly,” she said. She slid away from him and crawled from the tent. At the door, she looked back. “Keep your eyes on the water. Only the water.”
Speechless, he crawled after her. Even though she told him not to, he looked around as soon as he left the tent.
The campfire raged. It looked like someone had knocked a whole stack of logs onto it. The flames shot high into the air, basking everything in an angry glow. The women’s tent had been knocked over; the poles broken. The air smelled of smoke with a sickly-sweet undercurrent.
Valerie lay half in, half out of their collapsed tent. Steven couldn’t see her face. Her back had been torn open. On each side of her spine, muscle lay outstretched like a book left face up. Put aside as if its reader had been interrupted by a nosy bear.
“Steven,” hissed Lucy. She had made it to the boat. She held it in the water, waving at him to get in.
He heard growling. Again, Steven couldn’t help himself. He looked towards the trees.
Max bounded out of the brush, whipped around, and snarled at something large in the forest. He panted as if he had been running for miles.
Steven couldn’t see into the darkness; the giant fire ruined his night vision.
Max snapped and barked.
The trees moved.
Lucy whistled the same rising and falling melody Valerie had used to call Max, but hers was thin and wavering.
Max turned and sprinted past Steven. That got him going, too. The big thing in the forest was bad news. He only hoped it hadn’t hurt Papa.
Steven climbed into the boat, and Lucy pushed off the beach, jumping in herself. She rowed and rowed until they reached the middle of the lake.
The large thing stepped out of the trees. It walked on long legs that were thin at the bottom, but towards its hips became thick as some of the tree trunks. It stepped over the fire, not feeling the burn as it approached the shore. Its hands reached almost to its hoofs, something like a club clenched in its long fingers.
Steven couldn’t make out the details of the monster; the bonfire turned it into a shadow. The thing must have been tall as a house. Horns poked from its head.
The Devil, thought Steven. Only the Devil had horns like that.
He could barely breathe. Something corrupted the fresh, country air. Something cloying, but spicy. Like an unplugged freezer left for days, everything inside warm and growing fuzzy things.
The dog beside him shivered and whined.
The monster walked behind Steven’s tent. When it returned, it held a fishing rod in one of its hands. It lifted the club to its mouth and bit, pulling a stretchy part from it, then threw it. The thing plopped into the water, landing mere feet from them.
It wasn’t a club but a muscular arm, the flesh peeled from it. Pale bone bobbed on the water briefly, then sank.
“Valerie,” sobbed Lucy. “Fucker.”
Max lunged at the water, shrieking. Steven had never heard a dog scream before. Lucy yelled, wrapping her arms around the dog, keeping him in the boat.
The thing onshore cocked its head, chewing on Valerie’s meat. It walked to the women’s tent, reached inside, and removed something shaped like a bowling ball. It attached the round object to a hook, then cast it effortlessly into the lake.
The head landed a foot from the boat. Valerie’s eyes were half-open, dull and empty. A hook stuck out of her cheek; the hole bloodless. A few inches of her ragged neck meat fluttered in the water, veins and arteries stretching out like the arms of jellyfish.
Lucy began to shriek. She fell back into the boat, releasing Max, who saw the bait and dove after it.
The thing on the shore began to reel the head in. Valerie’s lip stretched out like an Elvis sneer, the tension of the line yanking her closer to land. Max paddled after it, whining, choking on the lake water.
A whistle came from the shore, a haunting parody of Valerie’s. It sounded like a screech, like it wasn’t made by pursed lips but from a throat stretched so narrow that the only sound that could come out was a whistle.
Max paddled faster.
Lucy cried in the boat.
Steven wondered when his Papa would come to their rescue.
Max reached the shore a few moments after the head of his owner. He chased after it as it bounced across the sand, paying no attention to the monster.
The thing reached out and wrapped the fingers of one large hand around the dog’s midsection. Max yelped, but the monster bent forward, sinking its teeth into the dog’s neck.
With a jerk of the monster’s head, blood spurted through the air. The monster chewed, then dropped the dog’s ruined carcass.
Lucy was hysterical.
The monster removed the head from the hook, swung the rod to the side, and cast.
The hook, sinker, and bobber landed inside the boat. With an artful flick of the wrist, the monster snagged the line that circled the wall of the inflatable boat.
Gunwale, Steven thought. That’s the proper name. Papa taught him that.
The monster began reeling the boat in with terrifying speed. Lucy lunged forward and unhooked them.
The monster cocked its head like Papa did when he was thinking.
“I’m going to row us to the other side of the lake,” Lucy said. “We can run for help.”
“My Papa,” Steven said. Papa would help them. They didn’t have to row anywhere. Papa would come out of the forest, with his knife. He would kill the monster just like he killed the wolf.
The monster cast again. Something shiny arced through the air, reflecting moonlight in a gleam of white before falling right into the gunwale.
Papa’s knife sank in to the hilt. Steven knew what to do; he wrapped a hand around the knife and pulled it out.
“No!” Lucy jumped forward to stop him but only succeeded in knocking the knife from his hand. It sank in the murky lake. The monster began to reel it back, retrieving the only weapon they could have hoped to use.
Steven heard a whooshing sound. He looked to where the knife had landed and saw a gaping hole.
Lucy darted forward, covering it with her hand.
The knife fell again, sinking into the inflatable gunwale on the other side.
Steven didn’t get the chance to remove it. The monster jerked it out with another flick of the rod.
Steven rushed over and pushed both hands over the hole. Air whistled from between his small fingers.
The knife came down again. This time it landed in Lucy’s back. She cried out but kept holding the hole as she groped for the knife with her other hand. Before she could grab it, the monster pulled it back again.
The knife tugged her sideways, then flew from her body.
Lucy wobbled, then fell onto her side. She grasped for the hole but was too weak to reach it. Steven couldn’t hold both holes. It wouldn’t matter. He had small hands. He was a small boy. He was weak. That’s why he needed Papa.
The boat sank, the gunwale now squishy. The cold lake poured in, soaking Steven’s pants and making every part of his body contract against its frigidity. They both tried to swim, but the wound in Lucy’s back restricted movement in her left arm. She tried to stay afloat with only her right. Her face poked into the air. Her mouth opened and closed, greedily sucking at the sky.
“You have to swim, Stevie,” Lucy gasped. “Go.” She coughed, spitting out water. “Go to the other shore and run.” She said something else, but Stevie couldn’t make it out, because the water was up to her nose. She hiccupped, then sank, her eyes wide. Her right arm reached, but only her fingers stuck out of the water. Her mouth still sucked, but there was no air in the lake. Then she disappeared in the murk.
Steven stared after her. He couldn’t swim to the other side of the lake. He could barely tread water. The coldness of the lake seeped into his body. His limbs grew stiff.
The monster dropped the rod. It sat and waited at the water’s edge, knees reaching high in the air. Steven could see it breathe, its expansive rib cage growing and shrinking.
They weren’t horns growing from the monster’s forehead; they were antlers. Long, branching bones, slick with blood. Steven could finally see its features.
Papa had been stocky, but something stretched him out. His arms, his legs, his torso, even his face. His cheeks, previously round and full, were now hollow. Sunken. His hair had fallen out, the wavy locks no longer something connecting Steven with his grandfather. Blood coated his mouth, the face paint of a demonic clown.
But his lips were still thin. He still had a chest like a barrel. He was still Steven’s Papa.
The smell of rotting meat reached Steven. It invaded his nose, crawling into his lungs where it set up camp. The smell weighed him down, making it harder to stay afloat. His stomach lurched.
He caught something in the smell though, something familiar.
His Papa would protect him. That’s what he’d been doing all along.
The women must have attacked him. Like the wolf. Papa did what he had to do. It was self-defense.
They must have deserved it. Papa was a just man. Even in his new form. His smile told Steven everything was okay now. Everything was safe. He could teach Steven everything a man should know, now that the women were gone.
He wouldn’t hurt his Stevie. Even now, they shared the same dimples.