The following is the title story from Nathan Ballingrud’s recently published short story collection, North American Lake Monsters (Small Beer Press), reprinted by permission of the author and publisher. Elsewhere on the site, we have an exclusive interview with Ballingrud, which we hope you all read in addition to this story. – The Editors
Grady and Sarah shuffled out of the cabin, bundled in heavy jackets and clutching mugs of coffee that threw heat like dark little suns. Across the wide expanse of Tipton’s Lake the Blue Ridge Mountains breached the morning fog banks, their tree-lined backs resembling the foresty spines of some great kraken trawling the seas. Together they descended the steps from the front porch onto the unkempt grass and made their way down to the lake’s edge, and onto the small path which would lead them a couple hundred feet along until they came to the body of the strange creature that had washed ashore and died there.
They did not speak much as they walked. Out of jail for only three days after six years inside, Grady was struggling to recognize his thirteen-year-old daughter in the sullen-eyed, cynical presence striding along beside him. She had undergone some bizarre transformation since he’d last seen her. She’d dyed her hair black; strange silver adornments pocked her face: she had a ring in her left eyebrow, and a series of rings along the curve of one bejeweled conch of an ear. Worst of all, she’d put a stud through her tongue.
“Man, I can really smell that thing,” he said. Sarah had discovered it last night, and was eager to show it off. The early cold snap had held off the smell to some degree, but it was beginning to creep toward the cabin.
“Wait till you see it, Dad, it’s amazing.”
Sarah had not come to see him during his last three years in prison. At first that had been at his own insistence, and she’d taken it badly: he told her of his decision while she and her mother were visiting, and she threw a tantrum of such violence that the guards were obliged to cut their session short. His reasons, he thought, were both predictable and justified: he didn’t want his little girl to see him in that environment, slowly eroding into a smaller, meaner, beaten man. But the truth was simply that he was ashamed, and by keeping his daughter away he spared himself the humiliation he felt in her company. After less than a year of that, though, his resolve failed, and he asked his wife to start bringing her again. But Sarah never came back.
They rounded a thick copse of pines, cutting off their view of the cabin. From this vantage point it was easy to imagine themselves far from civilization and all its attendant rules. Cold air blew in off the lake. Grady lowered his chin into his jacket and closed his eyes, smelling the pine, the soft wet stink of the mud, the aroma of real coffee. He’d smelled nothing but sweat, urine, and disinfectant for so long that it seemed to him now that he was walking through the foothills of Heaven.
“I don’t know what you think you’re gonna do with it,” Sarah said, ranging ahead. She cradled the mug of coffee he’d made for her like a kitten against her chest. “It’s way too big to move.”
“Won’t know till I see it,” he said.
“I was just telling you,” she said, sounding hurt.
Grady was immediately irritated. “I didn’t mean it like that.” Christ, managing her moods was like handling nitroglycerin. Wasn’t she supposed to be tough, with all that shit on her face? The old anger — irrational and narcotic in its sweetness — stirred in him. “So who’s this boy your mother told me about? What’s his name … Tracy?”
“Travis,” she said, her voice muted.
She said nothing, picking up her pace a little bit. She was on the defensive, which only provoked him. He wanted her to fight. “What grade is he in?”
“Does he even go to school?”
“Yes,” she said, but he could barely hear her.
“He better not be in fucking high school.”
She turned on him; he noticed, with some dismay, that she had tears in her eyes. “I know Mom already told you all about him! Why are you doing this?”
“Jesus, what are you crying about? Never mind what your mom told me, I want to hear this from you.”
“He’s in ninth grade, all right? You should be glad I’m dating an older boy, he’s not an immature shithead like the boys in my school!” Grady just stood there, trying to decide how to feel. He felt a calmness descend over him, in an inverse proportion to Sarah’s distress. He studied her. Did she really believe what she was saying? Had she grown so stupid in his absence?
“Well. I guess I ought to be grateful. Do I get to meet this Travis when we get back to Winston-Salem?”
She turned and continued down the path.
After a few more moments of trudging in strained silence, they rounded a small bend and came upon the monster. It was as big as a small van, still partly submerged in the lake, as though it had lunged onto the ground and expired from the effort. Grady drifted to a halt without realizing it, and Sarah went ahead without him, walking up to the huge carcass as casually as if she were approaching a boulder or a wrecked ship.
“Jesus, Sarah, don’t touch it.”
She ignored him and pressed her fingertips against its hide. “What are you afraid of? It’s dead.”
He was having trouble apprehending its shape. It looked like a huge, suppurated heart. It seemed a confusion of forms, as though the weight of the atmosphere crushed it out of true: he had the strong impression that underwater it would unfurl into something sensible, though perhaps no less strange. Its skin, glistening with dew and sickly excretions, was dark green, almost black. Enfolded in the flesh near the mud was an eye: saucer-sized, clouded, eclipsed by a nictitating membrane which covered it like a bone-white crescent moon. A two-foot-long gash was partially buried in the mud; it could have been a mouth, or the wound that killed it. An odor seeped from it like a gas, candy-sweet.
Grady felt his stomach buckle. “What … what is it?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah said. “It’s a dinosaur or something.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
She went silent, pacing calmly around it.
“We need to uh … we need to get rid of it. Push it in or something.” The thought of this smell rolling into the cabin windows at night fueled an irrational rage inside him. It wasn’t right that this atrocity should ruin his homecoming.
“You can’t. I already tried.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe I’ll try again.” He placed his hands on it with great reluctance and gave it a cursory push to get a sense of its weight. The flesh gave a bit, and he felt his hands sink. He wrenched them away, making a high-pitched sound he didn’t recognize as his own. His hands were covered in a sticky film, as though he’d gripped a sappy tree. Nausea swelled in his body; the ground swung up to meet him and he vomited into the mud.
“Oh my God. Dad?”
He continued to dry heave until it felt like his guts were crawling up his throat. He smelled coffee on the ground in front of him, and he crawled away from it. “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus.”
Sarah pulled at his shoulders. “Dad? Are you okay?”
He managed to lean back into a sitting position, rubbing his hands hard against his pants, trying to wipe off the sticky residue. He thought that if he moved it would trigger another spasm, so he sat still for a few moments and gathered himself. He could hear his daughter’s voice. It seemed to come from an immeasurable distance. He crawled over to the water and thrust his hands into it, trying to scrape the residue from his hands without success.
The thing would have to be destroyed. Maybe if he hacked it up he could push it back into the lake. They were staying at his father-in-law’s cabin; surely the man kept a chainsaw or an axe around for chopping wood.
Eventually, he grabbed her arm, hauling himself to his feet. His mug lay near the monster, splashed in mud. He decided to leave it there.
“Let’s go,” he said. He started back along the path without waiting to see if she’d follow. He continued to scrape his hands on his thighs, but he was beginning to doubt the stuff would come off.
Tina was awake by the time they returned. She was leaning against the porch railing, one hand clutching her robe closed at her neck and the other holding a cigarette. Her eyes were heavy-lidded, her hair sleep-crushed, her hangover as heavy as a mantle of chains. She stood up there like a promise of life, and something stirred in Grady at the sight of her, grateful and tender. He summoned a smile from some resolute part of himself and raised a hand in greeting.
“You look like shit,” she said amiably.
He looked down at himself. “I fell.”
“So did you see it?”
“Oh yeah, I saw it.”
“Mom, he got sick!”
He closed his eyes. “Sarah …”
“You got sick, baby?”
“Just, I — yeah, okay, I got sick. It’s fucking disgusting.”
They climbed the stairs and joined her on the porch. Tina brushed at his pants with one hand, her cigarette clenched in her teeth. “Sarah, go get a towel from the bathroom. You can’t walk into the cabin like this.”
“It’s all over my hands,” Grady said.
“I don’t know, some weird sticky shit on the, on the thing. I think it gave me a reaction or something.”
“We should get you to a doctor, Dad,” said Sarah.
“Don’t be stupid. I just got a little dizzy.”
“Dad, you — ”
She stepped back from him as though she’d been struck. Tina gestured at her without looking, still brushing her husband’s pants. “Sarah — honey — a towel. Please.”
Sarah’s mouth moved silently for a moment; then she said, “Fine,” and went inside. Grady watched her go, fighting down a spike of anger.
“What’s your problem?” said Tina, giving up on his pants.
“My problem? Is that a joke?”
“You been gone six years, Grady. Give her a chance.”
“Well, it was her choice not to see me for the last three of them. I didn’t ask her to stay away. Not at the end. And anyway, is that what you’re doing? Giving her a chance? Is that what the rings in her face and that shit in her tongue is all about?”
He watched a door close somewhere inside her. “Grady …”
“What. ‘Grady,’ what.”
“Just … don’t, okay?”
“No, I want to hear it. ‘Grady,’ what. ‘Grady, I fucked up’? ‘Grady, our daughter is a walking car wreck and it’s because I spent so much time drunk I didn’t even care’?”
She wouldn’t look at him. She smoked her cigarette and focused her gaze beyond him: on the lake, or on the mountains, or on some distant place he couldn’t see.
“How about, ‘Grady, I spent so much time banging Mitch while you were in jail that I forgot how to be a wife and a mother’?”
She shook her head; it was barely perceptible. “You’re so goddamned mean,” she said. “I was kinda hoping you’d of changed.”
He leaned in close and spoke right into her ear. “No, fuck that. I’m more me than ever.”
Grady showered — discovering that the substance on his hands was apparently impervious to soap — and the girls retreated to their rooms, nurturing their hurts, stranding him in the living room. He drank more coffee and flipped through the channels on TV. It was not unlike how he spent rec hour in jail, and he felt a profound self-pity at the realization. Goddamn evil bitches, he thought. I’m back a few days and they’re already giving me the cold shoulder. It’s disrespectful. He knew how to handle disrespect in prison; out here he felt emasculated by it.
He knew he should use this time to go out to the monster and start breaking it down. He’d only regret it if he allowed it to stay longer. But it would be gruesome, grueling work, and the very thought of it made his body sag into the couch. And anyway, it wasn’t fair. These two weeks at the cabin were supposed to be for him, a celebration. He shouldn’t have to climb up to his waist in fucking monster gore.
So instead he watched TV. He turned on VH1 and was pleased to see that the countdown of the 100 best Eighties songs he’d started watching in prison was still going on. It chewed through his day. From time to time Tina emerged from their bedroom and drifted silently past him into the kitchen, still wearing her robe; he heard the tinkle of ice in her glass and the hum of the freezer when she retrieved her vodka from it. Whenever she came back through he refused to look at her, and he supposed she returned the favor — certainly she said nothing to him. That was fine, though; he’d already proven he could live with hostile motherfuckers. She brought nothing new to the table.
Left to itself, though, his self-righteousness dissipated, and he fell into examining his own behavior. These women had been his beacons while he was in prison, and within days of his return he had driven them into hiding. He remembered it being like this sometimes, but it seemed worse now.
What’s the matter with me? he thought. Why do I always fuck it up?
Eventually Sarah came out of her room. She was dressed to go outside, and she held a large pad of paper under her arm. She strode through the living room with a purpose and without a word. Just like her mother, Grady thought.
“Where are you going?”
She stopped, almost at the door, her back to him. She raised her face to the ceiling, as though imploring God. “Outside,” she said.
“I can see that. Where to?”
She half turned, looking at him finally. “What does it matter?”
His teeth clenched. He stood up quickly, in a fluid motion: it was an abrupt and aggressive action, meant to convey threat, a holdover from the vocabulary of violence he’d spent years cultivating. “Because I’m your father,” he said. “Don’t you forget that.”
She took a startled step backward; Grady felt a flare of satisfaction, and was immediately appalled at himself. He sat back down, scowling.
“I want to draw the monster,” Sarah said, her voice markedly subdued.
“You — why would you want to do that?” All the anger had drained from him. He tried speaking to her now in a reasonable voice, the kind he thought a regular father might use.
She shrugged. She looked at the floor in front of her, looking for all the world like a punished child.
“Sarah, look at me.”
He put some steel into it, not wanting her to make him angry again. “I said look at me.”
She looked at him.
“You don’t need to be going out there,” he said.
She nodded. She tried to say something, failed, and tried again. “Okay.”
But as she turned and headed back to her room, her face a cramped scrawl of defeat, his resolve washed away completely. He hadn’t expected her to acquiesce so quickly, and he experienced a sudden need to show her that he could be giving, and kind. “You know what? Go ahead.”
Sarah stopped again. “What?”
“Just go on. Go ahead.”
She seemed to consider it for a moment, then said, “Okay,” and turned back to the door. She walked out, shutting it quietly behind her.
She’s so weak, he thought. How did this happen?
Despite the fact that she’d only been staying there three days, Sarah’s room was a wreck. Her suitcase was open and clothes were stacked precariously on the bed, the ones she’d already worn strewn across the floor. He went into the little bathroom and looked in the medicine cabinet, which was empty, and into the trash can, where he found spent cigarettes. They were only half-consumed, which he supposed was a small blessing. He figured she was training herself to like them. Maybe there was still time to put a stop to it. He spent a futile moment at the sink, trying once more to clean his hands.
Back in the bedroom he opened the bureau drawers, thinking that he might find her diary. He was encouraged when he saw a spiral-bound notebook in one of them, until he opened it to find lists of chores and a draft of a letter to someone named Tamara about an impending trip — his mother-in-law’s notebook, which made it eight years old at least. He looked under her mattress; he looked beneath her clothes in the suitcase. In a large zippered pouch on the lid of the suitcase he found large sheets of paper covered in pencil sketches.
They were drawings of a nude teenage boy. Her boyfriend, he guessed. The infamous Travis. He sat carefully on her bed and looked at them, breathing carefully, concentrating on holding his hands steady. He tried to reason with himself: the drawings were not lewd: he supposed they were classical poses. He even recognized, dimly, that the drawings were good. There was talent at work here. But mostly he felt a rising heat, a bloody flush of anger. A bead of sweat fell from his forehead and splashed onto the sketch, obliterating the boy’s shoulder like a gunshot.
Well. No hiding it now.
He tore the drawings down the middle, turned them sideways and tore them again. He returned the quartered papers to the pouch in the suitcase, and determined that she would never, ever see that predatory little fuck again. He would see to it.
He left her room and stationed himself in front of the TV again. He couldn’t decide what he should do. He would wait for her and reason with her. He would scream at her and put the fear of God into her. He would go into the other bedroom and beat Tina until she bled from her ears. He would let it all go, and not say a word. He would go outside and get the goddamned axe or chainsaw or whatever he could find and go down to the lake and lay into the moldering pile of garbage until his arms hurt too much to move, until he filled the air with blood, filled his lungs and his heart and his mouth with blood.
What he did was watch more TV. After a while he even began to pay attention to it. He forced himself to focus on whatever nonsense was on display, forced himself to listen to the commercials and consider the shiny plastic options they presented to him. It was a trick he’d cultivated in prison, a sort of meditation, to prevent himself from acting rashly, to keep himself out of trouble with the guards. Most of the time it worked.
He would not go down to the lake. He would not go into Tina’s room, where she was steering herself into oblivion. He would sit down and be calm. It was easy.
He went into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of vodka from the pantry. He left the one in the freezer for Tina; unlike her, he liked to feel the burn.
A couple of hours passed. Sarah stayed gone. He killed half the bottle. The TV show became something else, then something else again, and his thoughts blundered about until they found Mitch. Tina had told him about Mitch while he was in jail. She started seeing him after he’d been in about four years, well after Sarah stopped coming to see him. He’d received the news stoically — he was proud of himself for that, even to this day. He inflicted catastrophic violence on some guy later that day, sure, but no one who wasn’t going to get it anyway. On the whole he thought he handled it all exceptionally well. And good news: Mitch got dumped after about six months.
Grady told himself he could live with it, and he did.
But it ate at him. Just a little bit.
Now seemed as good a time as any to explore his feelings on this matter with his wife. To have an intimate discussion with her. It might serve to repair some of this breakage between them. Grady lifted himself off the couch and plotted a course to the bedroom. He placed his hand on the wall to steady himself; the floor was trying to buck him. He would show it. He took a few lurching steps and halted, one arm held aloft for balance. When it seemed that doom had been skirted, he took a few more steps and reached the far wall. There was a window there, and he cracked it for some fresh air. The sun was failing, little pools of nighttime gathering beneath the trees. He smelled something faintly sweet riding the air, and he breathed deeply and gratefully before he realized it must be the moldering corpse of the monster. Shaken, he pulled away from the window and went into the bedroom.
Tina was awake, lying flat on the bed and staring at the ceiling. A photo album was open at her feet; some of the pictures had been removed and spread atop the covers. When he came in she rolled her head to look at him, and flopped an arm in his direction. “Hey babe,” she said.
He sat heavily on the bed. The room was mostly dark, with only a faint yellow light leaking through the curtains. He picked up one of the loose photos: it was a picture of her father standing by the lake, holding up a big fish. “What the hell are you looking at?”
She plucked the picture from his hand and tossed it to the floor, laughing at him. “‘What the hell are you looking at?’” she said, rolling her body onto his legs.
“Don’t do that.”
“‘Don’t do that.’”
He laughed despite himself, grabbing a handful of her hair and giving it a gentle tug.
“Ain’t you mad no more?” she asked, her fingers working at the button of his pants.
“Shut up, bitch,” he said, but affectionately, and she responded as though he’d just recited a line of verse, shedding her robe and lifting herself over and onto him, so that he felt as though he were sliding into a warm sea. He closed his eyes and exhaled, feeling it down to his fingertips.
They moved roughly, urgently, breathing in the musk of each other, breathing in too the smell of the pines and the lake and the dead monster, this last growing in power until it occluded the others, until it filled his sinuses, his head, his body, until it seemed nothing existed except that smell and the awful thing that made it, until it seemed he was its source, the wellspring of all the foulness of the earth, and when he spent himself into her he thought for a wretched moment that he had somehow injected it with the possibility of new life.
She rolled off of him, saying something he couldn’t hear. Grady put his hand over his face, breathed through his nose. Tina rested her head on his chest, and he put his nose to her hair, filling it with something recognizable and good. They lay together for long moments, their limbs a motionless tangle, glowing like marble in the fading light.
“Why couldn’t you wait for me?” he said quietly.
She tensed. For a while he could hear nothing but her breath, and the creaking of the trees outside as the wind moved through them. She rubbed her fingers through the hair on his chest.
“Please don’t ask me that,” she said.
He was quiet, waiting for her.
“I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know a whole lot about that time. But I just don’t ever want to talk about it. I wish it never happened.”
“Okay,” he said. It wasn’t good enough. But he was just drunk enough to realize that nothing would be. He would have to figure out whether or not he could live with it. It was impossible to say, just now. So he lay there with her and felt the weight of her body against his. When he closed his eyes he imagined himself beneath deep water, part of some ruined structure of broken gray stone, like some devastated row of teeth.
“I should make dinner,” Tina said. “Sarah’s probably hungry.”
Her name went off inside him like a depth charge. He lurched upright, ignoring the swimming sensation in his brain. “Sarah,” he said. “She went out.”
“To that thing. She went out to that thing.”
Tina seemed confused. “When?”
“Hours ago.” He swung his legs out of bed. “God damn it. I’ve been drunk!”
“Grady, calm down. I’m sure she’s fine.”
He hurried through the living room, his heart crashing through his chest, a fear he had not believed possible crowing raucously in his head. He pushed her door open.
She was there, illuminated by a slice of light from the living room, lying on her belly, her feet by the headboard. Her arms were tucked under her body for warmth. Her suitcase was open, and the pictures he had destroyed were on the floor beside it.
“Sarah?” he whispered, and stepped inside. He placed his hand on her back, felt the heat unfurling from her body, felt the rise and fall of her breath. He crept around the bed and looked at her face. Her eyes were closed and gummed by tears; her mouth was slightly parted. A little damp pool of saliva darkened the blanket underneath. The rings in her ears caught the light from the living room.
He stroked her hair, moving it off of her forehead and hooking it behind her ear. Anything could have happened to her, he thought. While I was drinking myself stupid in the other room, anything could have happened to her.
Tina’s voice came in from the other room. “Grady? Is she all right?”
Christ. I’m just like her. I’m just as fucking bad. He went to the door and poked his head out. “Yeah. She’s sleeping.”
Tina smiled at him and shook her head. “I told you,” she said.
“Yeah.” He went back into the room. He pulled off Sarah’s shoes and socks, slid her jacket off her shoulders. After a lot of careful maneuvering he managed to get her turned around and underneath the covers without waking her. He leaned over to kiss her on the forehead, and smelled the vodka on his own breath. Self-loathing hit him like a wrecking ball. He scrambled into her bathroom and barely made it before puking into the toilet, clutching the bowl with both hands, one leg looking weakly for purchase behind him. He’d had nothing but vodka and coffee all day, so there wasn’t much to throw up.
When he felt able, he flushed the toilet and headed back to the bedroom. He leaned over and picked up the torn pictures, so he could throw them away. Beneath them he found the new ones, the ones she’d spent all day working on.
He didn’t recognize them at first. She’d used colored pencils, and he initially thought he was looking at a house made of rainbows. Upon closer inspection, though, he realized that she’d drawn the dead monster: as a kaleidoscope, as a grounded sun. His mind reeled. He dropped it to the ground and here was the monster again, rendered larger than it was in real life, its mouth the gaping Gothic arches of a cathedral, its eyes stained glass, ignited by sunlight. There was another, and another, each depicting it as something beautiful, warm, and bright.
Why couldn’t she get it? Why was she forever romanticizing vileness? His breath was getting short. He rubbed his temples, his body physically rocking as waves of anger rolled through him. She was just stupid, apparently. It was too late. Maybe he’d fucked her up, maybe Tina did, but the damage was done. She’d have to be protected her whole goddamned life.
Might as well start now, he thought. Tina was in the living room as he walked through it, shrugging into his jacket.
“Where are you going?”
“Is the shed locked?”
“Is the shed fucking locked? ”
“I, no, I — ”
“Good. Stay here.”
When he opened the front door the cold slammed into him like a truck. The temperature had dropped precipitously with the sun. He paused to catch his breath, then jumped down the stairs and headed around back to the shed. He slid the door open and flipped on the light. Inside was a dark, cobwebby tomb of stacked wood and garden appliances with the untroubled appearance of dead Egyptian kings. No chainsaw was evident, but he did find an axe leaning against the wall behind a rusting lawnmower. He reached gingerly through a shroud of webs, wary of spiders, and grasped the handle. He pulled it out, trailing dust and ghostly banners.
It had changed since this morning. It actually was shedding light, for one thing, though it was a dim phosphorescence, the result of some strange fungus or bacterium running amuck through its innards. The creature looked like some ghastly oversized nightlight. The gash that was either a mouth or a wound had borne fruit: a weird and vibrant flora spilled from it like fruit from a cornucopia, pale protuberances with growths like outstretched arms listing this way and that, a dozen vegetable christs. Life abounded here: small chitinous animals hurried busily to and fro, conducting their miserable business in tunnels and passageways in the body, provided for them by nature or their own savage industry; a cloud of insects, drunk on the very perfume which had driven him into fits, alternately settling on its carcass and lifting away again in graceful curtains, like wind blowing through a wheatfield.
Grady raised his axe and took a few tentative steps toward it.
Something moved near him: a raccoon startled from its feast and gone crashing into the underbrush. The flesh around where it had been eating sloughed away, and more light spilled into the forest: hundreds of small insects, their backs coated with the glowing fluids of this dead thing, moved about the wound like boiling suns.
The axe was heavy, so he let it drop. He couldn’t process what he was seeing. He had to figure it out. He sat down in the mud several feet away from all that incandescent motion and stared at it for a while.
He looked at the palms of his hands. They cast light.