RIDERS IN THE STORM
by Justin Joschko
I was on Highway One, about six hours into a two-or-three day trip back to Toronto. I’d spent the last two weeks visiting my folks in Saskatoon and my stomach still had that buoyed feeling you get from eating three full, hearty meals a day. At my own place I tend to string myself along on a sprinkling of granola bars and Tim Horton’s coffee. It’s a good feeling, being full, but it left me a bit bloated and ready to throw the seat back and grab a few hours’ rest. All the weight I’d gained over the past dozen days seemed to have gone to my eyelids.
It was a tempting thought, just pulling over and grabbing a couple hours of shut-eye. But another two hours or so and I could reach Winnipeg, fold myself up neatly in a hotel bed and get a proper night’s sleep before taking on Northern Ontario in the morning. A nap would just push that moment back. Plus there was the weather to consider. Thunderclouds had overtaken the horizon about an hour ago and snuffed out the sunset. The whole sky was a bruised and ugly shade of purple-black. The rain would be coming any minute and I really didn’t relish the idea of being washed out on the side of an all-but-deserted highway by the time I woke up.
No, that last part’s not right. Not really. The truth is I’m scared of thunderstorms. I don’t like admitting it, being a grown man of 6 foot 4 who kick-boxed in college, but what can I say? Even at home, when I’ve got music cranked and a fire crackling and a book in my lap, my eyes always jerk up at every thunderclap— no matter how muted, how timid, how laughably distant— and pin themselves to the nearest window as if expecting some Lovecraftian horror dislodged from a swamp at the far end of the universe to sludge up my driveway and tap one huge taloned finger on my windowpane. Every time, without fail. I hate myself for it, but there I am. Just another one of Pavlov’s prisoners.
You can blame my brother for that. Four years my senior, he possessed the unfortunate combination of a mischievous, slightly sadistic sense of humour and an enormously powerful imagination. He’s a writer now (dedicating his life to emotionally scarring other people instead of just his little bro) and I can tell you that’s no big surprise. He used to tell me giants lived in the forest just outside our house, and when it rained hard enough to wash the moss out of their eyes they woke up and went in search of food. Their favourite dish: terrified, slightly chubby five-year-olds with wide-smiling, yarn-spinning older brothers. Thunder was their footsteps, lightning their flint stones scraping together, trying to light ancient lantern wicks too sodden through to ever catch (or so a frightened, chubby snack-in-waiting such as I hoped). It was hard for them to find food, because they could only see in those brief flashes of light, but something that big would only need to wander for so long before it happened across our unprotected little home. And when it did, when it smelled the tasty little morsels snug inside…
Imagine coping with that at five years old. I don’t think he ever meant to— ever realised that he could— freak me out as much as he did. But it was his gift.
I was thinking about giants and goblins and other beasts of their sinister ilk when I saw the boy standing at the shoulder, thumbing for a ride. It was the first turnpike I’d seen for over twenty minutes. A metal signpost jutted from the dirt, bent from the force of some long-ago collision. The boy leaned on the post, shoulders hunched, a formless grey trench coat covering his whole body save a pair of brown boots and a mad, sopping thicket of black hair.
Normally I don’t pick up hitchhikers. It’s kind of an antiquated practice these days, I think, like insulating with asbestos or letting your kids play with lawn darts. But it was a barren road in a barren slice of a largely barren country, and those ugly purple clouds had finally burst a few minutes earlier, spilling forth a deluge of fat angry raindrops that pinged like BBs off the roof of my car. Unsure of what to do, I slowed, and when I did the boy skittered to the car so quickly that before I was aware I had even made a decision I unlocked the door and the boy tossed himself inside.
He was soaked. Generations of dirt and grime loosened by the rain wafted from him in a humid stink of wet dog and pond scum and a sour-sweet smell not unlike, I remember thinking, apple juice cut with urine. His enormous coat made it hard to judge his size, but his hands, at least, were thin and delicate. He had a long face with sunken cheeks and a narrow, crooked nose. A valise dangled from his hands; he dropped it at his feet before looking over and flashing me a smile. His teeth were all straight but it was clear from his ragged gums that he hadn’t been to the dentist in some time. I was a bit taken aback by his eyes; they looked almost detached from his face, as if they’d been superimposed there.
“Thanks,” he said. His voice buzzed as if played through blown speakers.
“Don’t mention it. So, where’re you headed?”
“This way.” He laced his fingers together and clamped his hands between his knees.
“The way we’re going.” The boy sat with his back rigid and his knees jittering back and forth. He cast an occasional look my way but his eyes kept darting back to the passenger-side window. A few strands of hair clung to his face. On his pale skin they looked like cracks in an ancient porcelain mask.
“Okay, that’s good, but is there a specific city you’re going to?”
The boy licked his lips. His eyes fixed on a small stain on my dashboard. “Toronto.”
I was afraid of that. Toronto was a long way off, but I wouldn’t get there in a single drive, so I decided to hedge my bets a little. “Well, I can take you as far as Winnipeg,” I said. “I hope that’s okay.”
“Oh yeah, sure, sure, yeah, it’s okay.” His posture loosened slightly.
For a few moments there was silence. The boy’s face was pursed and a bit strained, as if there was some liquid in his mouth he was struggling to keep from spitting up. He hunched forward, his hands pinched between his knees.
“So, what’s in Toronto?” I asked.
“Hngh?” The boy’s face looked so spooked I wondered for a second if I’d accidentally shouted, though I doubt I did. If anything, I’d probably croaked my words in a hoarse stage whisper. The car’s atmosphere at that moment was not terribly conducive to shouting. I felt like my Honda had transformed into a Hearse.
“Um, I was just wondering why you’re heading to Toronto.”
The boy looked me over for a minute. His tongue made a slick, audible circle around his chapped lips. He chewed on a bit of the dead skin there before answering. “My brother lives there. I’m going to live with him.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s nice.”
Outside the rain hissed steadily down. A veil of water distorted my view of the road. Driving would have been perilous in such conditions, had there been anything within a hundred kilometres big enough and solid enough to hit. Lighting filled the sky with a brief, violent light that cut my passenger’s already haggard face into particularly stark relief. His pale skin glowed around the shadows nestled beneath his cheekbones. I pushed thoughts of hungry giants as far from my mind as I could.
It’s difficult to say how long we drove on that way. The unchanging road and the steady white noise of rain hitting the hood melded into a smooth grey tunnel where time could find no foothold. At some point I became aware of the boy’s breathing, which was an unpleasant, ragged sound, like air sucked through an old sewer pipe. As soon as I heard it I couldn’t tune it out.
“Mind if I put on the radio?” I asked. The boy sniffed once but didn’t respond, so I flicked on the power and began fiddling around for a station. After a few seconds I found one, tinny but audible. The warbling and slightly lunatic sound of a honky tonk piano trickled through the speakers. I couldn’t quite place it right away, but then I heard Jim Morrison’s familiar voice and it all came back to me.
“Are you a lucky little lady in the city of lights, or just another lost angel? City of night. City of Night!” Morrison cried. I could relate; it seemed like I was smack in the middle of the City of Night, where the lights are always off and the buildings just so much wheat rustling in the wind. Somewhere in the distance, a giant tried unsuccessfully to light his lantern.
LA Woman was one of my favourite albums as a teenager. It was good-old-fashioned hard-rockin’ bourbon-soaked blues— my initial attraction— but more than that, it possessed a maturity, a gruesomeness, a quiet desperation that the older Doors albums lacked. The fact that it was the last significant work Morrison recorded before he died only served to underscore that feeling. There are corners of that album you don’t want to turn down at night.
Take Riders on the Storm, for example. Have you ever noticed that the atmosphere seems to change when you listen to that song? It could be thirty-one degrees, dead-set in the middle of a cloudless July afternoon, but as soon as that song comes on the radio you can feel a chill pass over your skin like some Cosmic Thermostat just dropped a couple of degrees. Everything looks just a bit dimmer, too, and a bit more distant, as if the continent is drifting away in every direction and you’re stuck watching it roll out through the gathering fog. Or maybe I’m nuts and that’s just me, but that verse about the killer on the road used to have me looking over my shoulder at the best of times, holed up in my room with the door locked and the lights on. Right then, riding not so much on the storm as right under it, I couldn’t get those lines out of my head for the life of me. Because when I envisioned someone whose brain was squirming like a toad, the kid sitting not even five feet away from me with his hands pinned between his knees and his smell of sweat and sewage and his rattling breath pretty much nailed it. I thought about the Swiss Army knife I kept in the car, and remembered it was on his side, buried under some old road maps in the door pocket, and just what the hell good was a Swiss Army knife gonna do me if the kid pulled a Glock, and began working my hand nonchalantly to the door-handle when the kid coughed.
I must say, I did a pretty good job swallowing my scream. All that escaped my lips was a kind of fearful hiccup that I doubt the kid noticed, since he was pretty occupied with turning himself inside-out. He pitched forward, bright red patches blossoming on his cheeks and forehead. The hand he raised to his mouth looked completely fleshless, nothing but pale bone. He covered his mouth, though I could still feel the heat of each explosion on my face and smell the infection gathering in the air. I’m not good with germs, but I did my best to be sympathetic by rolling down the window an inch and making no comment until he was done.
The boy raised his head and took on a vacant, wandering gaze. His breath was steady but laboured. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand while taking a deep snort and seemed to return to his former composure. It was odd, as if his brain were a snow globe and he needed to wait for all the bits to settle.
“You okay?” I asked. The boy regarded me with furrowed eyebrows and nodded.
Another minute passed without either of us saying a word. The radio kept the silence at bay, but the signal was tinny and distant, a tiny buzzing fan totally unequipped to dispel the poison cloud of tension steadily gathering in the cab. I took another stab at conversation. Anything was better than the silence.
“So, is your family from Ontario?”
“Oh.” His tongue, bright pink, worked a moist loop around his lips. “No. Just my brother. He moved.”
“Ah, so where’re you guys from?”
“Washington.” he said.
“Ah, Washington. Whereabouts?”
“Seattle.” He pronounced these words with stiff consonants and hissing vowels, as if boring them into granite.
“I’ve been to Seattle before. It’s a nice city. My brother lives in Vancouver, I go out to see him sometimes. We usually try to make it down to the States. Does your family still live there?”
“No.” I could tell he wasn’t keen on this line of conversation, but he wasn’t giving me a whole lot to go on.
“Oh, did they move?”
He looked over at me then and his mouth— already a tiny, fleshless slit above his chin— seemed to disappear altogether. “Away.”
I adjusted my grip on the wheel. It seemed to be getting quite slippery. “Ah. Well that’s too bad. Like I said, it’s a nice city. You a big Nirvana fan?”
The boy said nothing. “I guess you’re a bit young for that. But they were a big deal way back when. The Seattle grunge scene, you know.”
The boy picked at the cuticle on his index finger.
“I saw them live once, Nirvana. Not in Seattle, though, it was in Toronto. They put on a hell of a show. I was a bit old for it, I think— teenagers never trust anyone over twenty-five— but it was a good show all the same.”
The boy coughed again. Not quite as intensely this time, but it was still deep and hacking and unpleasant. I was starting to notice just how pronounced his cheekbones were, and how a few wrinkles were already spreading like fault lines over his young skin.
“You look hungry, kid. Do you want something to eat? I think I still have a sandwich left over for the road.”
The boy looked over at me. He didn’t answer, but bore the timid, inquisitive look of a squirrel approaching an outstretched hand.
“It’s in the cooler, in the back seat. Grab it if you want.”
Another pause, his thin hands picking at the raw edge of his gums, then he turned around in his seat and grabbed the cooler. He fished out the sandwich, dropped the cooler at his feet and started unfolding the plastic wrap. A bit of mayonnaise squelched out the side as he took a bite. The thick, wet sound of his chewing filled the car. I turned up the radio and turned it back down when he was finished, which wasn’t long.
The boy burped. A blister of mayo hung from his lip. “Yeah.”
“I’ll send your compliments to my mother. To this day I can’t leave the house without her making me pack some of her sandwiches. She’s made ‘em the same way ever since I was a little kid. I remember hating mayo, but my brother and my dad both loved it, so whenever she was making lunch for all three of us I’d wind up with mayo on my sandwich. I used to get so mad about that. I’d ask why she couldn’t just make mine without mayonnaise and she’d say that she as far as she knew this wasn’t a deli and I was to eat what she saw fit to give me. Eventually I got used to it.”
The boy didn’t seem to be listening. His thin hand was pressed against the passenger window. A dim crescent of his reflection hovered in the glass. The windshield wipers squealed and I realised it hadn’t been raining for some time. I flicked them off and drummed my fingers on the steering wheel.
Kilometre after kilometre the road rolled out ahead of us, occasionally veering to the right or the left but never really changing. The rain came back, first a drizzle then a deluge, and the radio began to fade, stuttering and eventually flickering out completely. A bed of dim, polite static cushioned the air. I took a quick tour of the dial, found a jazz station and went with it.
At that point I started thinking there was something wrong with the car. A faint but insistent sound buzzed from somewhere nearby, presumably under the hood. My stomach clenched at the thought of spending a whole night stranded with the kid beside me, waiting for a passing car that may or may not stop when it saw us, if it even came at all. In this downpour it would be hard to blame them for driving on and assuming we had a handle on things. I strained my ears, hoping to spark some old memories of high school shop class when I noticed the sound wasn’t coming from the engine but from the kid. His body was stiff and upright, his jaw set and his fists clenched tight against his thighs, loose denim from his jeans clutched between his thin fingers.
He tilted his chin up high and I could see his Adam’s apple vibrating wildly. It was like he’d swallowed an enormous insect and it was hell-bent on burrowing its way through his neck to freedom.
My first instinct was to pull over and help him, but before I could his one hand shot out towards me. I let out a muffled squeak and jerked the car into the next lane over. His target wasn’t my throat, though, but the radio. He grabbed the volume knob and twisted it so hard I actually heard the tiny wheel clack against the ridge that kept it from going any lower. If the knob were big enough to allow for a decent grip I’m sure he would have broken the thing.
I could hear my heart pound thunder in my eardrums. My skin went clammy and flush with a surplus of unspent adrenaline. All I could do was peel myself off the driver’s side door, sit down firmly in my seat and keep one eye on the kid. Not that there was much need. He’d pretty much spent himself on that one frantic grab for the radio dial. The look on his face was one of utter exhaustion.
A highway sign noted an exit two kilometres off with gas, food and accommodations. The air in the car seemed to get a little lighter.
“Hey, kid, we’re both tired. Let’s grab a couple rooms at a motel and get a fresh start in the morning, okay? I’ll pay for ‘em both.”
The kid didn’t respond. I wasn’t too sure he’d even heard me. There was a mole on his right wrist and he was picking at it with his thumbnail. The scraping noise it made seemed incredibly loud against the rattle of rain on the car roof. But then, I might have been imagining it.
I took the exit a bit quicker than I should and the rain-slick asphalt lost some of its grip. We fishtailed a couple times before conforming to the smooth arc of the exit ramp and I let our speed drop down to the legal limit. A few minutes later we were one of about a dozen cars in the Super Eight parking lot, most of which were parked under curtains of porch-light, spaced more or less evenly between every second and third room. I suppose the management gets fewer noise complaints that way. The sign by the road said “V CAN Y” in chipped font. I wondered if they ever had to climb up and pin the “NO” in place, or if the two letters were sitting under the front desk, their black figures still pristine and pure and wholly ignorant of sunlight.
I took the keys out of the ignition and hopped out of the car. The kid gave half a glance in my direction but seemed content where he was, so I went in by myself. The fluorescent lights singed my eyes like chlorine. It’s crazy how quickly you acclimatize to the dark. Black flecks ran tight orbits around my field of vision.
The girl behind the counter seemed impossibly young. She was probably in her twenties. I didn’t want to offend her by asking, but to my eyes she was barely ten years old. I’d been hoping for some two-hundred-and-sixty pound jock with fists like dumbbells and a background in judo but I had to take what I could get. She gave me a curt look, her eyes red-rimmed and unwelcoming to pleasantries. I took my credit card out of my wallet and placed it on the counter.
“Hi there. Could I get two rooms for the night, please?”
“Do you want them connected?”
I didn’t but felt inexplicably uncomfortable about saying so. “It doesn’t matter.”
Her deft fingers clacked out a few keystrokes on the hotel computer. “I’ve still got a couple of connected rooms in stock. Thirteen and fourteen.”
“Great,” I said, and nudged the credit card in her direction.
I signed the slip and the girl gave me two keys.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Enjoy your stay,” she replied. I presumed to me, though her eyes were already back at the computer.
When I got back in the car the kid was asleep. His head craned back and his thin mouth hung open, as if trying to catch the rain still plinking— albeit it with diminished force— on the roof of my car. With his eyes closed and his hands calm in his lap, it seemed absurd that he had made me so nervous. He was as frail as a loose bundle of wet kindling, a doll of twigs and reeds enshrouded in a cloak of old newspaper, something lame and almost stillborn pulled from a grey, dying womb. I thought about carrying him to his room but I was afraid he would fall apart in my arms.
“Hey, kid,” I whispered. “Psst!”
A small sneer tugged at his upper lip.
“Kid.” I gave him a tap in the arm.
The boy started. He came to life with something between a snore and a yelp. His one hand curled tight around my forearm. I yanked it away but his grip held fast. It wasn’t until I started peeling his fingers off with my free hand that he let go, leaving a film on my skin like fried food set to cool on a napkin. He glanced at me innocently enough after that, but I made note. Within that tangle of twigs and reeds ran filaments of iron.
“I got us a couple rooms,” I said. The boy stared back at me. For one crazy moment I was sure he didn’t speak English. That everything up until now had been a few remedial phrases strung together and my own assumptions filling in the blanks. Ludicrous, I know, but I was more or less convinced until the boy blinked and said. “Which room?”
“We’re down near the end. I’m gonna drive us over.”
The drive was about a hundred and fifty feet. A waste of gas, really, but I know you’re supposed to park in front of your room and I didn’t want to get into a thing about it. Still, by the time I pulled in— all of fifteen seconds later— the kid was asleep again. I gave him another prod, moving as if I were feeding a lion through the bars at the zoo. He came to without much fanfare this time, his big eyes blinking against the needles of light streaming in from a patio lantern. I dropped one of the keys into his half-open hand, making sure my fingers didn’t accidentally graze his.
“Your room’s right here. I’m a couple rooms down. I’ll knock on your door at eight o’clock so we can get an early go at it. Make sure you’re up, okay?”
The boy turned the key over in his fingers. He ran his thumb over its teeth. Again, I got that curious feeling that he didn’t understand what I was saying, that he spoke some feral language native to nowhere but an empty, litter-strewn field.
He closed his hand around the key and looked up at me as if expecting some sort of repercussion for the act. I looked back at him encouragingly and after a moment he got out of the car and walked up to his room. He slid the key into the lock and turned it. The tumblers clacked and the door opened. He looked back at me again, his hand tight on the doorknob. A warm fabric of light draped over his left shoulder and bleached his pale face paler. I gave a little go-on flicking gesture with my hand and the boy withdrew into the room.
I waited until the door was shut and the curtain drawn before grabbing my overnight bag and going into my own room. It wasn’t much, grey walls and threadbare carpet frothing with dust bunnies and faded to an unfortunate shade of pea green. The bed was sturdy but nicked, the linen starched crisp, the mattress beaten to sagging by years of angry lovemaking and the heavy, woebegone asses of tired businessmen. I took a chair from the desk in the corner and— being as quiet as I could— propped it underneath the knob of the door connecting my room with the kid’s.
The bathroom was dingy but at least it had hot water. I showered and shaved, then set my watch alarm for seven-thirty and went to bed with the lights on. I told myself I’d get up and turn them off in a few minutes but fell asleep before I got the chance.
I woke up dazed and dislocated. Having the light on didn’t help. My first thought was that I’d wound up in the hospital somehow. It came back to me— the drive, the motel, the kid in the room next door— and I switched on the TV guide channel to check the time. It was seven-seventeen. I lay in bed for another minute before getting up and dressing quickly, then grabbed my stuff and went out to the car. Engines purred along the nearby highway. I threw my bag onto the back seat, locked the doors and returned my key. When that was done I walked back across the parking lot, kicking an empty Pepsi bottle out in front of me as I went until I landed an off-kilter hit and it skittered under someone’s Corolla. The sound it made bouncing against the tire was oddly resonant and hollow, a penny tossed down a deep well.
I stood in front of the boy’s room for what felt like a long time, though it was probably only a couple of seconds. The curtains were drawn tight. I took a breath and rapped my knuckles lightly on the door. It was nicked and old, the paint chipped in spots, but the wood was solid. I waited. Another rap of the knuckles, a bit harder this time. Still no answer.
Sometimes you can think more than one thing at once, like a river with contrasting currents at different depths. On the surface I assumed the kid bailed for whatever reason, or was ignoring me deliberately in the hopes of milking a few free days out of my offered motel room. Indignant, I left. It wasn’t until about two hours later that I realised I never said a word to the manager about checking with a spare key, or shouted, or honked the horn, or tried the door between our rooms. I knocked twice, shrugged, and drove away. The question I often ask myself is this: just how hard was I knocking?
The police came to my house two days later. They had a number of questions for me about a room I’d rented and its former occupant. They told me what had happened and I told them everything I knew, and when they left I made some phone calls and followed the story to its sad, murky conclusion.
The day after I left the motel, one of the maids on staff went into the boy’s room to give it a light turn. She was making the bed when he came at her. He’d gotten hold of a kitchen knife that belonged to the motel— lord knows how— and he was quick with it. The maid was quick too. She played volleyball in high school and jogged often. Her muscles were well-wound and the blade, which was aimed for her heart, instead glanced off her shoulder, making only a superficial incision. She screamed, but motel patrons tend to mind their own business and no one came to her aid. The boy lunged again, but this time his footing was bad and she pushed him down without much trouble. His skin was clammy and slick, as if covered in wet scales.
She needed a weapon, but the only thing within reach was the mop from her cleaning cart, so she grabbed that. Unfortunately, it was waterlogged and bottom-heavy and too cumbersome to wield. She managed only to tangle them both up and twist her ankle. The boy hit his head on the bedpost, leaving a small bloody pock on the wood. He took another swipe, tracing the blade across the maid’s right thigh. This cut would require six stitches. Half-choked with angry sobs, she shot out one fist and cracked the boy on the jaw, splitting her knuckle and loosening two of his teeth. This offered her a brief window of escape, but her ankle was bad and several bottles of cleaner had been knocked onto the carpet. She slipped on one these— she thinks it was Pledge— and smashed her head on the window frame.
Her vision clenched down to a tunnel of wind and shadow. Time fuzzed out— probably for only a few seconds— and she ran out of the room, her ankle crying out with every step, the flesh there darkening visibly. She was a hundred feet away and still running when she realised the boy was gone.
Her name was Constance. She was a kind woman with a voice like a sunny coastline. We spoke for a long time over the phone, and she told me her story in greater detail. I feel badly for making her rehash the whole scene for me in clumsy English when all she really wanted to do was forget it ever happened. But I needed to know.
Constance went to the manager, who wanted no part in the altercation and called the police immediately. They came to the scene, sirens blazing, but a thorough search of the motel— one which I imagine contained lots of kicked-down doors, backs pressed flat against brick walls, covert hand signals and a dozen other manners of police theatrics popular among bored cops in boring regions— turned up nothing.
Gossip about the incident seeped into the groundwater, contaminating a nearby town. Local authorities were notified, wanted posters hung, curfews drawn, posses formed (though as far as I can tell, more in word than deed). The RCMP summoned errant night detectives to hunt the kid down and forensics wizards to perform their usual arcane spells of DNA analysis. For three days the town simmered with interest.
The whole thing fizzled in anti-climax when a volunteer fireman named Ren Anderson went to his woodshed and found a pale, thin boy in an oversized trench coat hanging dead from a brace beam. The rope he’d used to do it Ren confirmed as his own. In a previous life in St. Catharines, Ontario, Ren worked as a rescue scuba diver along the Niagara River, and the rope with which the boy had ended his life had once been wrapped tight around a boat’s propeller, causing it to stall. Ren got the boat loose and kept the rope as a souvenir. After paramedics cut the boy down and carted him off, Ren took what was left of the rope and threw it in the garbage.
A few days later, I hopped in my car and noticed a funny smell. I searched the cab and found the boy’s valise tucked under the passenger seat. A cold air set about the garage, and the fluorescent lights seemed to lose some of their wattage. I found myself glancing continually over my shoulder as I set it on the garage floor and undid the clasp.
Inside were a few metal implements: a scalpel, a dental curette, and a large carving knife. Dried blood was caked to their edges. Beside the tools lay an eviscerated squirrel carcass in a large Ziploc bag. Most of the meat was peeled off its bones and discarded, leaving a wiry, pathetic skeleton frilled with the odd tuft of gristle and hair. The exception was the head, which seemed oddly well-preserved, its fur sleek and unmatted. Its tiny oil drop eyes stared at me through the clear plastic.
I considered turning the valise and its contents over to the police. After all, the blood on the tools could have conceivably been human, and who was I to judge what was important evidence and what wasn’t? But the boy was dead, so what difference could it make? I tossed the valise in an empty garbage bag, tied it tight and put it out with the trash the next morning.
And that, as far as I know, is where things ended. The cops didn’t find any ID on the kid, nor did I in his valise, and his picture didn’t match any missing persons’ reports filed in the last ten years. I told the cops the thing about Seattle but that was a dead-end, too. It might have been a lie, though I don’t think it was. His more or less confirmed lies— about the brother, about his destination— were tinged with anxiety, while his terse words about his home life were much bitterer and much more calmly spoken.
I keep a clipping of a newspaper article about the boy pinned to a corkboard above my desk. In it, a local constable is quoted as saying “That boy was a monster. He must’ve known it as well as we did, since he offed himself. Good riddance.” The boy’s attack on Constance was monstrous, no doubt about it. But if killing monsters is a heroic act, and if a monster kills itself, not out of stupidity or arrogance, but knowingly, deliberately, with disdain for the nature of its own existence, then what does that make the monster?
After my trip I took an extra week off work, ostensibly to do some research on the kid but really to sort my own head out and forget the whole incident as best I could. And the day before I went back to my job, when a thunderstorm rolled in from the southwest, I kept all the lights on, lit a fire in the fireplace, put on the stereo, wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and listened the giants stumble blindly through the darkness, praying with all my might that their lantern wicks would never catch.
Justin Joschko is a freelance writer currently residing in Ottawa. His work has appeared in Grain, Here Be Monsters, and echolocation, among other journals. His first book, co-written with a professor from the University of Calgary, is being published this year by Dundurn Press. In his spare time, he writes and draws the webcomic series Flannery Row. You can follow Justin on Twitter @justinjoschko. Justin’s story, Riders on the Storm, appears in the January 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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