By David O’Boyle (Fall 2021)
“Weather’s shitty,” Dunbar said to his son Harwood.
“Just some fog,” Harwood said, bending over to lace up his running shoes.
“Lotta fog. Cold too,” Dunbar sniffled. A slimy mug emerged from the kitchen sink and slid into his swollen, arthritic hands. Around here, coffee didn’t wait for clean cups.
“I’m good once I start to sweat,” Harwood said, sliding on a brown hat and gloves. The room was dark, still waiting for morning. Dunbar only knew the color of his son’s clothing because the slice of light that crept under the windowsill allowed him to compare it to the mahogany door he leaned on to get them situated.
“Wanna hunt this weekend, after Friday’s meet?” Dunbar asked. “I just read on my phone that the rain’ll be gone early Saturday morning.”
“I’m in,” Harwood said, happy with the suggestion, but frustrated by its delivery. Dunbar and that damn iPhone. For a boy indoctrinated with speeches condemning video games and praising the virtue of a well-balanced routine, watching his father fawn over the latest piece of technology was a hard pill to swallow.
A much better thing to swallow, at least in Dunbar’s case, was morning coffee. Made like mud, Dunbar normally sipped it slow, careful not to rush through his favorite part of the day. Today, though, he sipped it even slower, intent on taking in the end of an era. He looked at the time on his phone. Then he looked outside. Right on schedule, as he had been every day since the first day of middle-school track practice, ran Harwood, past the kitchen window and on down the road. The morning midst was more visible now, and made it look like the strides his son made produced a trail of exhaust that didn’t dissipate until it floated into the leaves beginning to turn. Those leaves, it turns out, weren’t the only things changing. In a few weeks Harwood would be at Princeton on a cross-country scholarship. Dunbar would probably be back in bed.
His phone vibrated between his legs and the Windsor chair. Dunbar did his best to resist reading the pop-up notification. His best, however, lasted only sixty seconds. By then his digital god was all-powerful again. Thinking the forest would force him to unplug, Dunbar organized this father/son ‘weekend in the woods. That being said, until Saturday came, he’d chase the fix.
Candidates spar over role of sanctuary cities in immigration reform. The second Dunbar skimmed the headline he shook his head. After he finished the actual article, he scowled at the contents on the dining room credenza. Mortgage delinquency notices covered the cabinet-style furniture piece like a quilt.
What about folks like me? Where’s my handout? Moochers,Dunbar drafted his post for the comments section of the article. By the time he finished writing his comment, Harwood had disappeared past the cornfields, past the neighbors and their cattle, and into the pine forest beyond, where human country met real wild. Dunbar scanned the scenery and then returned to his phone to click “SUBMIT.” Satisfied with his editorial contribution to The Times, he rose from the table, went into the garage, and hopped into his old pickup, ready for another workday.
The wheels grinded and growled when he rolled in reverse down the driveway. Recently added gravel, a product of weekend warrior work throughout the summer, made for a crunchy track. The quiet turn onto the smooth pavement of the road that much more noticeable. perpendicular to the driveway made the noise disappear. The same could not be said for the fog. The fog was worse than before.
At the edge of the pine forest, Dunbar’s phone vibrated again. Another notification! Maybe someone “liked” my comment! Better than that, maybe someone took the troll bait, prompting a morning wrapped-up in word wars.
Hoping that ignoring the issue would make it go away, Dunbar refused to look up. Slowly though, a combination of logic, curiosity and lack of control won out. His eyes crept up from the floor, over the dash and through the windshield. Outside the silhouette of a limp figure was laying in the road. Thinking the worst, Dunbar could no longer justify inaction. He opened the passenger side door, slid off the seat and stepped onto the street.
So began the longest walk of his life.
Midway between the limp figure and the truck, his iPhone buzzed. This time it was a text message, not an article notification.
“Back home. Clean that coffee cup! See you tonight!” Harwood wrote.
But only momentarily. Like an outgoing tide, it gathered strength from his sea of worry and flushed ashore again. Hitting Harwood would have drowned him. Hitting someone else would do damage, but he’d stay afloat.
The same couldn’t be said for who he hit. Even from the inside of his truck Dunbar had felt a heavy impact. Bodies don’t sustain that type of blow and keep breathing.
A gust of wind blew away some of the thicker fog in front of him, bringing the body into full view. One leg. Two…three…four, five?
It looked human from afar.
It was not human up close. Along with two legs positioned where a human’s would be, it also had four insect-like legs protruding from its stomach.
Dunbar snapped a phone pic. The flash made something rustle the bushes beyond the road, just above the embankment. Two large sad eyes emerged. Without question, they belonged to the terror-stricken baby of whatever was dead in the road. It crawled closer, on four stomach legs, while the larger humanoid legs dragged behind it like pincers on an earwig. While its face resembled that of a human, it itself was no human.
Trembling to the point of imbalance, the baby raised its two left belly feet and stomped on the ground. The attempted threat didn’t disturb Dunbar, but it did disturb the loose soil it stood upon. Rocks and dirt rolled down the embankment, blanketing its mother. Spooked by the near-fall, it fled into the pines where the fog made it look like a ghost. That young, and all alone in this wilderness, it might as well be a ghost, Dunbar thought. And if not a ghost yet, it will be by Saturday night, he smiled.
Dunbar texted Harwood the picture of the dead mother. “Let’s hunt a little closer to home this weekend. Sefko herd already on outskirts of town,” he captioned the message.
Right after Dunbar hit “send”, his truck lights flickered on, off, and on again. Blinded by the light, he turned his head in the direction of the dead Sefko laying in the road. Except now the dead Sefko wasn’t laying on the road dead. It was sitting in the driver’s seat of the pickup truck making the engine growl.