The Amateur Cryptozoologist, by William Akin

The Amateur Cryptozoologist, by William Akin

The creature is fleeing towards the river, a panicked animal seeking a place to hide. It can’t be more than five hundred yards away Anders estimates. He can take a shot from this distance and drop the monster, end it all right now. Truth is he’s enjoying the hunt, lingering in the sound of water like percussion to the songs of the cicadas and the rich perfume of the summer soil. Beck Anders wants to remember this night for a long time. He is about to become a legend.

The Shambler is beating all hell to put distance between them, moving much faster than the lumbering pace it had kept in the Gunderson footage. By the moonlight Anders can make out thick hair beneath the slime and mud that cakes the beast, hair which he hopes will prove his theory that the thing is a primate. If it isn’t and if it turns out that the Shambler is any of the other things people have speculated other than hoax or hominid his rifle will be of little use.

Of course most people don’t waste much time at all speculating about it and those that do assume the Shambler to be nothing more than a folk tale, Acme County’s own bogey-man used to scare children and the more gullible adults. Anders would often argue that the legend extended well beyond the white man’s time in the valley. The natives never set foot here though the fertile floodplain and forest would have been an ideal spot for at least a seasonal encampment. It is said that their elders told the first settlers that the valley was the domain of a demon king, that the night here was filled with spirit lights floating through the trees and across the ridges, that the morning sun rose with echoes of howls and screams.

The creature running from Beck is certainly no fairy tale. It is real, tangible, leaving foot prints with five toes and running very much like a man. He is certain that it is an unidentified species of hominid and based upon its pattern of flight that it is possessed of a fair intelligence. The Shambler crests a small hill and cuts a hard left into the cover of the tall corn. Anders feels assured of his victory with the monster heading directly toward the river. He slows his pace and eases in behind his dead-ended prey.

For just a moment he hesitates, something about the smell of the corn and honeysuckle tossing him back about thirty years. He must have been twelve maybe thirteen years old. Anders and his two friends were summer sleepless and small town bored, sneaking out at midnight with a stuffed carnival prize borrowed from someone’s sister. They smoked and cursed as they walked to the edge of town, past the tavern and traffic light. In the bend of the road the placed the toy dog and waited snickering and joking in the cool dirt of the cornfield’s edge.

The first passing car struck the dog and sent it arcing upwards then into the ditch. Anders ran out to the road and replaced it, falling into the soil just as headlights lit up the bait. The car skidded to a stop about an inch from the toy, the driver leaping from his car in horror. He laughed upon discovering the ruse then looked up and down the road before returning to his car and driving off, his guffaws still audible from within.

The three pranksters were still giggling and back patting when the third car screeched and fishtailed into the dog before sliding into the ditch. Anders was struck with a sickening feeling as the steady yellow flash of the car’s turn signal seemed to meter the world out into slow photographs. The driver swung open the door and struggled out. He seemed a giant, much too big to have fit inside. He staggered drunken and angry to the toy then back to the car and emerged with a hand gun and flashlight.

The boys played dead as the man worked his way along the roadside, pistol drawn and halogen beam piercing the corn. There was no chance the giant would overlook them, they were too close to the edge of the field so Anders motioned for the boys to split up and run. They got the jump on him and as he struggled to follow, he slipped and fell face forward into the mud. The beam flashed over his head like lightning accompanied by the thunder of the barrel and he pissed his pants. The lightening flashed again in another direction and Beck bolted. He zigzagged across the rows, the fronds slicing at his face and blearing his eyes. The gun sounded a third time and something whizzed past his cheek, ripping through the leaves ahead. Anders ran, ran farther and faster than he had ever run in his life.

He holds the rifle out in front of his face to push the leaves aside as he runs, once the prey now the hunter. The Shambler is growing tired from the labor of carrying its own mass, its pace slackening. Beck is certain that he is bearing down on fate itself now, about to prove the truths of both the legend and himself, set to put Acme County on the map. The behemoth is a silhouette trailing a rustling green wake through the corn. The gap shrinks minute by minute. He will shoot the beast in the head then bring his truck back for the carcass, will drive it into town and awaken them all to what he has done. Then he will call Brigid and tell her that the monster is dead.

Brigid Gunderson was six years old when her father shot his footage of the Shambler. It was one minute and elevens seconds of grainy and scratched 8mm home reel, shot in the fading light of an autumn day, tinted in sepia and sienna. The lens tracks the movement of a large figure ambling along the edge of the forest and the Gunderson property. At first the viewer sees just the beast’s outline until the camera zooms in and focuses on the monster covered in thick layers of mud and dead grass. At the 53 second mark the Shambler looks toward the camera and seems to notice it is being observed, turns toward the woods and runs.

Over the years there has been as much speculation upon the Gunderson footage as there has been regarding the Shambler itself. For his part, the old man never spoke of it other than to say he had seen the thing several times before and “decided to try and film it.” Most modern experts agree that the film was not physically altered in anyway. If the Gunderson reel was a hoax it involved another conspirator and a very elaborate costume, neither of which ever turned up. There is conjecture that Gunderson himself had been the rube, the hapless victim of someone else’s joke. It should also be of note that neither the old man nor Brigid ever profited from the film. Most people believe it to be the work of a bored and talented man, a masterful prank and perhaps even a private ploy to keep trespassers from his land, to keep away meddlers and kids or boys who might think to court his daughter.

Those days were different and the news didn’t spread nearly as quick or far as is does now. The Gunderson footage became just another part of a long story told in an unmapped town in a tucked away valley in the middle of what was a bigger America back then. If Beck Anders ever heard the name Gunderson before high school he couldn’t remember. It was not until he was a freshman in study hall and sat next to Brigid that he had ever taken notice of it.

The world had ignored her and she had learned to ignore it back even better. Anders saw a certain beauty in her sandy plainness that was all the more wonderful because it went unnoticed by everyone else. He passed that entire semester day dreaming of how to tell her what he could see, what no one else could see, but youth passes unnoticed like spring then summer arrived. She graduated and was gone from town for good, a single and fleeting glimpse of something amazing. Alas even the best dreams slip from us in short time, as she did from his memory.

Three years passed before she made her homecoming, even if only in his thoughts. Beck had dropped out of school and started working second down at the ironing board factory, hastening his looming fate by a year or two. One night after a twelve hour shift he drank a few beers and watched television, the same as every other night. His eyes were heavy, more than half closed and Mr. Spock was speaking from some late night network rerun. When Spock said “Gunderson” he thought perhaps he had drifted off and was dreaming but then he heard the words “Acme County” and sat upright in rapt attention. The television program was an exploration of mysterious creatures and places with the Shambler showcased in a brief segment through use of the Gunderson footage accompanied by moody electronic music. All the while Spock spoke, with a strong and urging voice that made it all seem like something of vast importance in the cosmos, something bigger then Beck and Acme County. Most of all it reminded him of Brigid and the freckled curve of her neck from an angle he was certain no one else had ever imagined kissing.

The creature that Anders is tracking seems to be a bit larger than the one he first witnessed that night on television though he was certain that size hardly mattered at this point. He is herding it right down to the ridge just as he would any gobbler or wild goose the outcome certiain unless he is somehow wrong and the beast isn’t a hominid. If it were a spirit, or a demon, or a damned plant elemental then Beck was in way over his head. He was certain though that its nature was much more mundane, that the Shambler was a primate that lived in the limestone caves deep in the old growth forests.

He closes the gap to about two hundred yards by the time they break free from the cornfield into the open moonlight. The Shambler is no longer running, so exhausted it can but limp across the flood plain. The river is loud, rushing like adrenaline and pounding along with Anders’s heart in his ears. Here he will force the beast down to edge of the ridgeline and split its skull with a single shot.

It was no coincidence that the same year he started at the factory and first saw the Gunderson footage was also the first season he went hunting. His father took him out on a dark November morning to sit in silence and boredom, hidden in the dead landscape until a buck passed by. His father followed behind him, advising him in his pursuit of the deer. They crossed a frozen field, through a copse of trees, and then rounded an ice covered pond. Anders sighted the stag through his scope but languished in hesitation. The animal’s eyes were large and brown, possessed of a soft intelligence that moved Beck near to putting down the rifle and walking away.

-Hold your breath, count to five, and take a single shot his father told him.

After that Beck Anders’s life was set into a comfortable if unsatisfying rut. When he wasn’t working he spent his time in the county library studying the subject of the Shambler in detail, as well as any and all local folklore and ghost tales. A personal computer increased the depth of his knowledge and solidified his bachelorhood. Antlers and empty beer cans became trophies while long hours of solitude and dreaming became the norm.

He imagines himself a folk historian and storyteller. Each summer for the past twenty years Beck has been invited to tell a campfire story to the boys at the county-wide scout jubilee and each summer he has told the same tale. Sometimes he claims to have made it up himself while at others he insists it is a native folk tale.

It all begins with a Cherokee warrior much beloved by his people returning home after a long hunt. He knew well the tales of the things that happened in the valley but he was growing impatient for home and cutting across the ridgeline was the most direct route. Just as the dusk had started to stain the sky he came across a young woman sitting on a stone. She was possessed of skin like sun bleached bone, hair the color of autumn grass, and indigo eyes which seemed to be cut from the night gathering above. The warrior knew enough to suspect her a ghost or worse but she ran sobbing into his arms and felt like flesh and blood.

She may have been mute or perhaps she didn’t speak because it wouldn’t have mattered for they knew not the language of one another. Rather she led him by the hand to a small cabin and for some reason he followed. The bone-girl pointed towards the half open door. In that moment he wasn’t sure if the tears in her eyes were reflecting the rising moon or if the moon was but a reflection of her eyes. The warrior flirted with suspicion but something about her allayed it, perhaps something as simple as the warmth of her standing close to him; or perhaps he was bewitched by her kiss so warm and coppered. Either way he walked toward the house while she followed at a distance.

That moon was half full but low and bright enough for him to discern the corpses of cows and sheep strewn about the field, severed necks still shining glossy. He knew he should not be in the valley and he could hear her footsteps just behind him and he didn’t care so much for the sound but such paths once chosen must be walked. The light of the hearth flickered through the half open door, the amber glow of some hell. She stopped a few feet from the entrance, shuddering and sucking air through her teeth. The warrior stepped inside and nothing seemed out of place until he saw the old man’s body on the floor, face down and floating on a pond of his own blood. He leaned down to the corpse, read the tale of a blade through the back of  its neck just as with the livestock. From the side the man looked so much like the bone-girl. That was his final thought; she brought the axe down upon his neck, severing his head as cleanly as one would a hen or turkey for a feast.

She did feast too, upon the meat of the ewes and her father and the warrior. That’s what they say and it would explain the parts they couldn’t find later when they came for them. The bone-girl disappeared after that but plenty of folks have seen her again from time to time, which is a different story altogether though and her part in this has come to an end.

The warrior was not only a favorite among his own people but of the land and the spirits as well. Thus it happened that Coyote and Raven went to the cabin and gathered his bones but having never gathered the bones of a human before gathered not just those of the warrior but some of the father’s as well. Still not having found enough of either to make a man, they compensated by adding some hair they found in Bear’s cave along with some mud, dirt, and moss. Though the end product was much larger and looked nothing like a man they were quite proud of their work.

Their trick went a little astray though and the creature turned out to be more like child dressed as monster than the man they had imagined. It was dull and brutish, easily given to rage. Raven argued that they should destroy it and be done with the matter but Coyote insisted it was no worse than any other man in the long run. They both laughed over the joke and left the beast to shamble off into the woods where it lives still, driven by its pain and betrayal to lash out at anyone that might happen across it hiding there among the trees.

Which is a good enough story all on its own but Beck couldn’t resist taking it one step beyond even that. Once the kids were settled into their tents, the bonfire dying low and the last whispers had fallen silent, Anders and the older scouts would roll around in the dirt and leaves, stuff twigs in their shirts and pants then howl and scratch at the tents until the boys were screaming like little girls. The shamblers would collapse into their chairs in drunken and breathless laughter.

Up until tonight that was about the only wave Beck Anders created in Acme County. He took significant pride in it though, spending a month before hand preparing his performance. He swore that the kids never forgot about his story or the Shambler. He went as far to claim that more than a few had tried to get even with him over the years, though most folks said it was just his own paranoia or need to be more important than he was. Either way, he hadn’t had pizza delivered to his house for years always figuring some delivery boy might take if for a chance to square up.

After tonight though Anders will get pizza anytime he wants, free of cost and spit not to mention the hateful glances of untipped drivers. After tonight people will buy and toast his every round and then bring out the encyclopedia and point to his name and picture, asking him to sign it and perhaps their breasts. After tonight he will be the Beck Anders, world famous monster hunter. He will be the man who killed the Shambler, the hero of Acme County. After tonight he will call Brigid again and tell her she could come home

He called her once maybe three years ago. It was the first and only time they ever spoke. She was easy enough to find having moved only three towns over, but around here that can be at least a world apart. Her name was listed in the county white pages as “Brigid V Gunderson.” It was late and Anders was very drunk, the only way he could gather the nerve to call her. He told her his name, told her about study hall but she didn’t remember him having never taken notice to begin with. That mattered little to Beck, the booze and his years of imagined acquaintanceship allowed him to skip directly to the point.

-Did you ever see it?

-How do know it wasn’t something my father just made up?

-Did he tell you that?

-He never told me anything about anything.

-So…did you? See it?

-No. Maybe, I don’t know. I must have imagined I did at least a thousand times.

-Do you think it’s real? The line was quiet for so long he thought perhaps the connection had been lost.

-It might as well be.

She exhaled deeply as if she were smoking then said goodnight and hung up. Anders understood then why she had left, knew when she would come back. In the glow of his monitor, below the branching tendrils of ten point trophies he envisioned himself a knight in burnished armor riding out to slay the dragon, bringing its head back to the king and winning the hand of the princess.

Now here he is standing on the ridge just above the river, gun leveled upon the Shambler. The creature shrieks again in its odd muffled manner, its mouth hidden or unmoving. The shadows cast by the trees below cling to them and Anders wishes that a fog would roll in, making these last moments picture perfect, but the night is humid and the wind has grown still. The beast is exhausted and confused, no longer a threat, just pacing the length of the ridge searching for an escape.  Anders encroaches foot by foot. The Shambler tries to run back towards the cornfield but trips and falls to the ground, shaking with animal fear.

Just forty-five minutes ago, Beck Anders’s life was as mundane and hayseed as it had always been, rolling down a country road and sipping a warm beer while looking for something better. The radio was on the tri-county AM station, the syndicated over night paranormal show. A retired astronaut was detailing the locations of crystal castles on the dark side of the moon. He described dozens of transparent spires and quartz ramparts, baroque structures like folded glassine hidden by a sequestered locus and active government secrecy but forever just above our heads. A regular caller, Alice from Phoenix, phoned in and accused the speaker of spreading disinformation. She then launched a tirade aimed towards the moon missions in general, laughing at the gullibility and hubris of both the host and listeners in believing that any man had ever stepped foot upon anyplace more distant than a Hollywood soundstage.

It was all just like any other night, the beer, radio, and kooks keeping him company as he made his rounds. That was what Anders’s liked to call these late night jaunts: his rounds, as if he were a beat cop or perhaps even a super-hero keeping Acme County free from alien abductions, hell bent ghosts, or heretofore unknown hominids. He made his rounds night after night, to each graveyard and crossroad, to each abandoned house and covered bridge, to every place he knew of where something odd had happened at one time or another.

Anders wanted to find just one thing like that, something magical or transcendent like lights in the sky or shadows in the trees. He wanted to find something bigger than rivets for ironing boards or deer tracks, something as grand and as unexplainable as Brigid Gunderson. Forty-five minutes ago he rounded a bend and at the edge of a cornfield there it was plodding alongside the road in plain view.

The Shambler rolls over onto its back and looks up at Anders and his rifle. Its eyes are human like, surely a hominid. They widen as if in understanding as he cocks the rifle and lowers the barrel to its head. Beck takes a deep breath and begins to count.

William Akin writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry over at http://supercommon.wordpress.com/

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