BY J.B. POLK
Copyright is held by the author.
SHE WAS starving. Hunger, overwhelming and urgent, overpowered her in a matter of seconds. She could feel it writhing in her empty gut like a famished viper. She listened to the intense grumbling in her intestines, in her stomach, her liver. Her salivary glands, stimulated by the mere thought of food, squirted gallons of a thick yellowish liquid, not unlike burnt petrol, straight into her gullet. It burnt.
She had not felt like this for ages. Not since before the last time she had eaten. How long ago was that? A year? Two years now? She could not remember. The pangs in her belly clouded her thoughts, draped them like wads of cotton wool not letting her focus on anything else apart from hunger.
For her, eating had never been an emotional pick-me-up, a reward, or a celebration. It was a necessity — pure and simple. Without it, as much as she tried, she could not function. She never ate mindlessly, on autopilot. She ate only when she was completely empty and she ate slowly, savoring different tastes and textures. There were things that she liked more than others but, in general, she was not a fussy eater. She ate because the void in her gut told her to fill it. Quiescent and benign at first, the void always gathered up power, grew like a puff fungus only to explode in a silent roar.
But all she could do was to try to ignore the command. She was powerless to obey. She could not move. She could not hunt. She was stuck down there listening to the pitiful laments of the void, waiting for food to be brought to her. In the meantime, she could only hope that the man who had promised to take care of her, would do the hunting. Soon, or she’d die.
Halfmoon Valley, population 434, is just a tiny dot on the edge of Kootenai National Forest, Montana. Summers in Halfmoon Valley are warm and balmy, but winter chill hardly ever pushes the mercury in the thermometer beyond 15 F. Local folks say they remember months when spit would freeze before hitting the ground and if a man were urged to piss in the open air, his pecker would turn to ice and fall off. In an instant.
Martin Jarvis was not a native Montanan. No one knew his exact age nor where he originally came from – he seemed timeless, placeless, and limitless, kind of like the lichen that had taken over Halfmoon Valley rooftops. He had arrived in Montana some 30 years before lured by the offer of a “job and a cabin”. The job was lumber-jacking and the cabin was Deer Lodge, a 200-square foot ramshackle log structure with high ceilings. In winter, moisture stamped mildew patterns on the lime-painted walls and steamy summers battered the timber into networks of cracks. It looked like it could barely stand upright, and a small gust of wind would topple it without mercy.
After he had worked in the sawmill lugging logs and wielding an ax for nearly 20 years, the place went bust so the job part of the offer was gone leaving the “and a cabin” part only. By then, Jarvis had no longer been in touch with whoever remained of his family, wherever it was. He thought he still had a distant cousin around Eureka and an aunt in Tallahassee, but he barely remembered their names and, for sure, did not know their exact addresses. And he was so used to being on his own that he simply chose to stay. Right in the middle of the forest, in Deer Lodge.
He was generally left to his own devices, and, in the best tradition of loners, he enjoyed his solitude subsisting on nuts, berries, and herbs he picked in the woods and potatoes and corn he planted around the cabin. From time to time, he even managed to trap a rabbit or find roadkill that had not gone off too much to put in his stews.
To earn some cash, he’d walk down to the Meat Hook and offer Mike Lambert, the owner, to help him butcher one of the hogs or bone and fillet the ones that had been done earlier. Using his lumberjack skills, he’d chop-chop through breastbones, sprinkle salt on hocks and knuckles, patiently gather spilled guts into a bucket, and wash the liver and heart to be sold by the pound over the counter. There would be blood and bits of skin on his hands which he’d wash with soap and warm water before going to spend his hard-earnt dollars and dimes on an ounce of Cavendish tobacco in the smoke shop on the corner.
If Lambert had no hogs to slaughter, he’d trim wisteria bushes in Mrs. Taylor’s garden, rake up leaves in the kindergarten yard or hose down the pavement on front of the barbershop. Apart from that, workwise, there wasn’t an awful lot to do but he didn’t complain — he got by.
Most days, he had a well-established routine which he enjoyed. He’d get up late and boil water for tea and fry the cornbread he had made the night before. In summer, after he’d eaten, he’d sit in front of the cabin listening to the forest hum and haw around him. Then he’d light a pipe and take long, leisurely puffs making the tobacco last for as long as possible — he’d rather run out of tea and sugar than of his Cavendish fix. After lunch, he worked in the garden, carried wood or water, or went hunting. If he was lucky, he caught a rabbit or two which would last him for a week. And in the evenings, winter, or summer, accompanied by a kerosene lamp, he’d go to the clearing at the side of the cabin, fill the second pipe of the day and watch the town below speak to him. Even on the haziest nights, he could see the lights convey messages in the distance and feel that he was not alone after all.
He knew Halfmoon Valley by heart and could name each and every building: right there, at the end of Main Street, was the Buckhorn, a bar where he’d gone for a single malt when he still worked in the sawmill. Two doors down was the fishing supply shop for all those khaki-clad townies who came to Halfmoon Valley to catch trout, equipped with their expensive but useless tackle. The Montana trout was the best in the world and required some special strength nylon — legend had it specimens as heavy as seven pounds had been caught in the Wopanga Brook. Old man Pendergast sold them things they hardly needed, from reels and floats to baits and lures, and they always fell for it — hook, line, and sinker — as Pendergast laughingly bragged to everyone.
Opposite, one would find the Tough Nickel — open seven days a week from six am til midnight, serving soggy hash browns and mud-black coffee to truckers who circulated along the Interstate 15. John Spruce, the owner, cook, and general drudge presided over the counter in a green grease-stained cassock and a chef’s pointed cap.
After an hour or so watching the distant lights twinkle and talk to him, he’d go back to the cabin, turn on the radio and listen to his favorite program — the Montana Outdoor Show. But for the last week or so Jarvis had noticed that the light would flicker and the radio crackle for a few seconds, kind of cough and sneeze, then go off right in the middle of the show. It annoyed him. So, the next time he went to Halfmoon Valley, he left a word with Lambert that he needed a technician to check up on the old generator. But three days had passed, and no one came.
That morning he took his tobacco pouch and pipe and went out to smoke in the crisp morning air. There was a light breeze coming down from the hills behind, but it was perfectly clear — with blue skies speckled with only a few fluffy clouds. The spot where he was standing was mostly clear of snow but full of cornstalk and briar stubble. He was about to light the pipe when he heard a vehicle drive up the slope leading to the cabin.
When the monstrous F-150 Ford van came into view between the pine trunks, Jarvis put the pipe back into the pouch, and step after faltering step, walked slowly to greet the visitor. The door opened letting out a short man of around forty. He was sandy-haired, clean-shaven, dressed in waterproof rubber boots and a thick fleece jacket with the North Face logo.
“Mr. Jarvis?” the man said and slipped a leather glove off his right hand stretching it towards the old man.
“My name is Tom Huskin. I’ve been told you need some help.”
Jarvis shook the proffered hand and nodded.
“Yes, can’t get the old juice machine to start. It kinda comes alive, then dies. On and off, on and off which is annoying. More off than on, nowadays. So most of the time I’m without any light in the cabin. I ain’t getting any younger and my eyes . . .” his voice trailed off.
“Just let me get my tools and I’ll take a look. And if nothing works, we can always try to jump-start it from the power board on this baby,” he lovingly patted the body of the F-150.
“Full hybrid V6 engine, a massive 7.2kV output. That’s a lot of juice in one machine.”
Jarvis was silent, hardly caring about or understanding the technical talk.
“So what does it feel like, living this hermit life, so far from anyone else?” Huskin asked to break the silence.
Jarvis looked at him without enthusiasm. He had heard the question innumerable times and, in the past, when he was in the right mood, he’d try to reply politely. But today, somber thoughts crowded his mind like deer rallying around a winter corn feeder and he just grunted in rejoinder, then led the way to the cabin.
Huskin followed. People in town had told him that the old man was a very private person who hated wasting his breath on idle chatter. It seemed they were right.
Jarvis entered first and held the door for Huskin who noticed some cobwebs with dead flies hanging from one corner of the door frame. The sitting room-kitchen-bedroom space was large and held scarce furniture: a small rectangular table with three chairs around it, a bed neatly made up with a knitted coverlet in red and black wool with some boxed possessions stowed under. A wardrobe with a door on the right and four drawers on the left. A stove where a blackened kettle puffed out clouds of steam.
“Let’s sit down right here, at the table, and have some tea and biscuits,” Jarvis said as if trying to make up for his previous gruffness.
“My mum used to say: you kids must eat only at the table, I want no crumbs or spills all over my nice clean floor,” accepting the apologetic gesture, Huskin smiled at the memory. It was his mother who’d always laid down the rules in his house without the right to appeal. Just like his wife did in his own house nowadays.
Jarvis poured water into two chipped mugs, heaped sugar in and poured a drop of milk, and carried them to the table. They sat in companionable silence drinking the hot sweet tea.
The light above the table blinked suddenly then went off. The place went nearly completely dark, with only a tenuous beam coming in from a small window with grimy panes. There too Huskin noticed cobwebs with some dry insects.
Jarvis got up and went to get the kerosene lamp.
“Looks like the juice’s completely gone,” he said as he put a match to the wick then went to the stove to rekindle the dying fire feeding it a few logs.
“At least we won’t die of cold here,” Huskin said.
Jarvis turned and looked at him long and hard as if trying to evaluate what Huskin meant.
“No, that’s for sure. We won’t die of cold here,” he confirmed.
The lights flickered again but failed to come alive.
“Well, ain’t no use wasting your time. You’d better start on the thing you’ve come to fix,” Jarvis said almost with a note of regret.
“Rightee oh, I’d better get going now or I’ll be late. I promised the old lady to pick up some groceries for her on the way back. Down in Jennings, in that big Safeway that they’ve just opened. Baked beans, bananas, and stuff she said. Make sure they have no black spots, she said. The bananas, I mean.”
He picked up his toolbox and looked at Jarvis.
“So where do you keep the old monster?”
Jarvis’s eyes seemed to cloud with surprise then cleared as he pointed in the direction of the cellar.
“Down there. Just give me a moment to take a piss and I’ll join you,” he said and watched Huskin’s jacket-clad shoulders disappear in the cellar. He stood still for a moment, scratched the stubble on his chin then looked at the cellar door again as if expecting someone to emerge. No one did.
And then came the sound of something falling, something chewing and something screaming. It made Jarvis shudder as he felt cold fingers reach deep inside him, twist his bowels, touch his bones. When the shrieks died down, all the lights blinked, went off then came on again with renewed power.
That’s when the weight of guilt crashed down on him. As it always did when the thing happened. But it never lasted long. At least, not long enough for him to forget he had to get rid of all the evidence. And this time, it was going to be hard work. The F-150 was huge and would need a lot of digging. But maybe he could simply take it to the Wopanga Brook and drive it straight in. It would sink like a stone through the ice and would not be found till all snow was gone in late spring. In May even. After all, it was Halfmoon Valley, Montana where in winter spit froze before hitting the ground.
Something was purring inside her. The viper in her stomach was gone, apparently replaced by a gentle, furry kitten.
“Purrrr . . . Purrrrrr . . . Feels good!”
She could hear its soft breath. It kind of wiggled around inside her, shifted as if looking for a comfortable spot then settled down to sleep. It took up the space where the void had been, and the sensation was wonderful. She was full to bursting. Full to burping. So she did. She burped. Twice.
To be honest, she did not care for the fleece texture of the jacket or the waterproof rubber boots but that couldn’t be helped. She’d spit them out later, together with the nasty tasting wallet and car keys. They came together with the rest. And the rest was delicious. The yellow liquid from an hour before was gone, replaced by the sweet taste of human plasma – protein-rich and transparent. Just as she liked it. Just as she remembered from the first time. And the second. And all the others. She was nearly delirious with joy. Millions of calories filled the void and would last for a long time. Until her juices waned again, and she needed another regenerator.
Upstairs, she could hear the man who’d promised to take care of her walk around and mutter to himself. She knew she could trust him. He’d make sure they were safe. Both of them. He’d do all the necessary stuff up there. He’d clean up, get rid of the evidence. Like he always did. And she could simply go back to just being herself — a reloaded generator.