Brief intro: This story is loosely based on an actual occurrence at our family vacation this summer. I had intended to include this telling of it in a short story (“The Murder Tree”) that I’ve written for an anthology. But a couple of beta readers didn’t think it contributed to the overall story, so it got 86ed. Hope you enjoy.
A Shark Story
Deddy and Momma decided to take us to Gulf Shores for a vacation. We never went on vacations. Not because we didn’t have the money for it. It just wasn’t something they were raised up doing. Anyways, they took us to the beach, and everything was going fine. I mean, we didn’t have all the fancy toys or umbrellas or nothing like some folks did. But there was sand and ocean, and we were having a good time. Me and my brothers was playing on the sandbar out a ways. Further than we were supposed to be. Momma and Deddy had told us not to go too far. They didn’t say why, but we knew. Deddy couldn’t swim — he was scared of water — and Momma couldn’t show him up. So she had to stay there alongside him. The story of her life really. Standing at his side come hell or high water.
So we were out on the sandbar playing. The water was about chest deep for me. I was four or so. But the two boys were bigger. All of a sudden, there was a big gray fin bearing right down on me. I couldn’t do nothing but pee myself. But Jeb sees it, and he snatches me up out of the water and pushes Buddy out of the way. It makes enough of a commotion that the shark makes a hard turn. It didn’t have a bite-sized snack in front of it anymore. It was going to have to work for its meal. And it wasn’t interested in putting in that much effort. The shark was close enough when it turned that its tail smacked Jeb right in the belly.
Momma and Deddy saw the whole thing. We hightailed it back to the beach, and they snatched us up and put us in the car. We drove all the way home to Walker County still in our swimsuits, itching from sand and dried saltwater. Deddy and Momma didn’t say a word for about the first hundred miles. And Buddy couldn’t stop talking about it. He thought it was the coolest thing that ever happened in his life. Might still think that. We never took another vacation after that.
My lack of steady progress in my current writing project, Walls Ascending, has been a source of consternation of the last two months. But to be clear, it hasn’t been the book itself that has been frustrating. I’ve written the first twenty-five percent, and I think it’s a compelling story so far, and a good tie-in to its predecessor, Vulcan Rising (link). Something else has been at the root of inconsistency for me. It just took me a while to sort out what that was.
The rate of my progress has been quite stilted, which stands in stark contrast to how I wrote Vulcan Rising — almost daily writing for fourteen weeks from start to finish. But Walls Ascending has been an unexpectedly different experience.
January was a pretty good month, in which I wrote for sixteen days in Walls Ascending. There were other days I had to work on other projects or didn’t do any writing. Then came February, when I wrote eleven out of the first fourteen days. I was making steady progress. But then everything fell off a cliff. After Valentine’s day, I didn’t write again until March 23. While I had spent about a week of in March doing the final pass at Vulcan Rising, the great majority of the month saw no creative work being done.
So a few days ago, when I got frustrated about the resistance I was feeling in getting back into the story, I tried to figure out what was going on. What was at the root of my inconsistency?
Digging in to Find the Root of Inconsistency
When I dug in, I realized it wasn’t the story that was problematic. It wasn’t that I had some sort of writer’s block. What has been happening is that I have had an extraordinarily stressful last couple of months at work. I’ve had two jury trials to prepare for, neither of which ended up trying for various reasons. There have been countless other hearings I’ve had to argue and briefs I’ve written. And I’ve been working between 50-60 hours per week for the last six weeks or more.
So when it came time to sit down and write creatively, my brain gave be a “hard pass.” It was taxed. It had no extraneous decision making left to give me, because work has been requiring so much.
There are times when I can work more than hours per week consistently, and it’s not overly stressful. But that is entirely dependent on the nature of the work being done. It’s almost like a pitcher’s pitch count in baseball. Not all pitch counts are created equal.
A pitcher might be in the seventh inning, having thrown 105 pitches, but his team has been in the lead the whole game. He’s still feeling good with plenty of life left in his arm. But another night, he might have racked up 80 pitches by the fourth inning. He’s had runners on the bases all night. His team isn’t producing runs. It’s been one stressful situation after another, and he’s already gassed.
That second scenario has been the first three months of 2021 for me. Stressful days and weeks stacking onto of each other, compounding their effects. The result is that when it’s time for my brain to write witty banter between two characters, it tugs at its ball cap to tell the manager it needs a meeting on the mound.
Do Some Self-Assessment When You Hit an Inconsistent Patch
At some point, you’re going to find that a confluence of life events has conspired against you to prevent your creative work from being done. You may not at first recognize the source of the problem. I know I didn’t.
But once you realize there’s a problem, don’t freak out. The Muse hasn’t abandoned you forever. You haven’t lost your ability to do your creative work. You haven’t encountered an immovable writer’s block.
It may be that your brain is just saying, “I can’t do this right now. Could we instead have some rest? That would do me a lot of good.”
Of course, you may be like me and not be very good at resting. That can be its own source of stress. But dwelling too much on that may derail this particular train. Once you’ve searched out the root of inconsistency and discerned whether it’s something that is present for a reason or a season, allow yourself time to recover before digging back into your creative work.
For me, I took a couple of mornings to write this article, rather than attempting to force my way back into Chapter 10 of Walls Ascending. I was supposed to be in trial this week, but on Monday morning, we were informed that the trial won’t be going forward. But all that pent-up energy, anxiety, and stress doesn’t dissipate like air from a popped balloon. It’s bleeds off slowly like a tire with a small leak.
Now that I’ve become cognizant of the problem, I’m trying to give my mind ample opportunity to get itself right. I’ve got a few relatively non-stressful weeks ahead of me. So I want to be in a proper head space to take advantage of them by pounding out the next few chapters of Walls Ascending.
When people ask me how I came up with the idea for Vulcan Rising, I don’t mind telling them. But they almost universally seem disappointed. It wasn’t what they expected. They don’t know what they expected, but it wasn’t what they heard. Besides that, they find it unsettling that others are walking around with tales of dark and fantastical things rattling around in their heads.
I can almost see the regret formulate within them. They wish they’d never asked. Their perception of me has changed, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. But that’s okay. It’s not me that has changed, just their understanding of who I am. The shadow side was always part of me; they just hadn’t been acquainted with it before.
In the vein of transparency, I don’t mind telling you about the genesis of Vulcan Rising. Then you can cast or reserve your judgment as you see fit.
The Origin Story for Vulcan Rising
This isn’t the first novel I thought I would write. It’s not the first novel I’ve tried to write. Nor the second. But sometimes the muse is working behind the scenes, aligning things just right so that you’ll be ready when the time comes.
Three of the chapters in this book were inspired by real life situations. And while I wrote them down as they transpired, it didn’t occur to me until the third one that I could write a novel that featured these events. That was at the end of August 2020. By early December, I had finished my first draft of Vulcan Rising.
In early January 2020 (before the world went sideways here in the United States), my five year old, Jack, started calling for me in the middle of the night. I looked at the clock and saw that it was 3:40am. With only an hour and twenty minutes left until my alarm was set to go off, I knew that my good sleep was pretty much done for.
I went up to his room and tried to coax him back to sleep. But when he told me that he couldn’t sleep because he didn’t want to be alone anymore, I felt really bad for him and laid down beside him.
But in that little bed with only a minimum of covers made available to me, my mind started racing. And I came up with the scene where Thomas finds Ning in his bed and dismisses Joseph to return to his own.
A Return to Transcribing Dreams
A couple of weeks later, I had a really strange dream. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. For a time during my 20s, I wrote down my dreams. But that seemed to somehow magnify their intensity and creepiness, so I stopped. Then the dreams returned to their baseline weirdness levels.
In late January, I had a dream that was graphic and surreal. I remembered every detail — three men were kidnapping a pegasus colt, and I stopped them in my driveway and shot one of them; then I had to return the mythical creature to its mother.
I had an inkling the dream could be the inciting incident for a much bigger story. But what I had in mind then was a much different story than what Vulcan Rising became.
Fast forward seven months to August 2020. Sometimes you have weird interactions with your kids. It seems like their brains are working overtime all the time. Not infrequently, those conversations lead to story ideas. So when that happens, I try to run as far and fast as I can with it.
One morning, Jack came down from his room and snuggled up right beside me on the couch. He was unusually somber and his responses to my conversation prompts were monosyllabic and noncommittal. His demeanor caused my mind to wander, thinking about its potential causes. One of which was whether he thought he’d seen something in the stairwell. Perhaps, he had. Whatever it was, it probably wasn’t a chimera. But who’s to say for sure.
I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. As far back as I can remember, I have had dreams and nightmares that felt as real as anything I experienced in my waking hours. Lately, I have allowed some of those dreams to fuel my writing. Two dreams I had in 2020 served as the catalysts for me writing my first novel, Vulcan Rising. But what of the nightmares? Those are a little harder to embrace. What if you convert your nightmares into novels or short stories?
Turn Your Nightmares into Novels and Short Stories
Nearly twenty years ago I started writing my dreams down. I have folders and notebooks that are riddled with bizarre dreams. And sometimes it seemed that the more I wrote down, it had an amplification effect. The dreams I remembered got weirder and more frequent.
So I was always hesitant to write down my nightmares. What if I had the same experience and the nightmares too increased in frequency and intensity? I can tell you I’d rather not increase the number of time I wake up in the middle of the night unable to go back to sleep and afraid to do so if I could, for fear that I might fall back into the same dream sequence.
But then I started having nightmares that the more I reflected on them, the more they seemed like good premises to horror and fantasy stories. So I started writing them down as well. My sleep hasn’t been more interrupted, but I do have more story ideas that I’ve been accumulating.
So when you open a story from me sometime in the future to read about what happens in your first two weeks in purgatory or why a child who was kidnapped doesn’t have any memory of his life before he was returned to his family, just know that you have these stories because I converted my nightmares into novels.
What kind of worlds can you create and how can you dazzle your readers if you allow yourself to peer into the darkness and writing down the nightmares that keep you from sleeping?
In what may turn out to be a terrible idea, I’ve decided to set my second novel, Walls Ascending, in a place that I’ve never been. I have a good reason for doing so, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to pull it off.
Walls Ascending is the sequel to Vulcan Rising, a contemporary dark fantasy novel that verges on horror at times. This second book is looking like it’s going to follow suit.
What I looked for and (thought I) found was a sleepy, little town in the Black Forest of Germany. I did a little bit of searching and landed in Hornberg. Then I started writing.
The setting in Vulcan Rising is Birmingham, Alabama, and there are times that it becomes nearly a character of its own. I want Hornberg to be that for Walls Ascending despite my not having set foot there. This meant that I needed to do more research. Fortunately, my training as a historian and a lawyer has instilled in me a deep appreciation for the treasure that can be uncovered with diligent research.
As I dug into Hornberg’s past, it didn’t take me long to strike gold. I learned that in 1959 a serial killer named Heinrich Pommerenke went on a killing spree, and over the course of 3 1/2 months he committed the following atrocities before being captured: “65 crimes, including four murders, seven other attempted murders, two completed and 25 attempted rapes, six robberies, ten break-ins and six simple thefts” (Wikipedia).
As soon as I read it, I knew that was going to making it into the dark fantasy story I’m writing. How could it not? It seemed like immediate affirmation that the sleepy, little German town with an insidious past was the perfect setting for Walls Ascending.
But I wouldn’t have had that extra element of specificity and authenticity, if I hadn’t put in the time and effort to conduct extra research for my novel. It’s not the first time that researching for a novel has paid off. And I expect it won’t be the last.
I woke up with a weird thought for a story this morning. No real idea what it might be or where it might go. All I had was what if there was a blue glow emitting from under my pillow. This is how it evolved.
She woke to the glow of the alarm clock’s digits offending her eyes. But she realized fairly quickly that wasn’t the intruder. The light was the wrong color. The clock was still on, reading 3:27am. But that’s not what had caught her eye.
Her periphery signaled to her that the offender was in the bed. A blue luminescence emitted from under her pillow. Had she left her phone in the bed and shoved it under the pillow during the night?
She glanced to the nightstand. No, it still lay there, perched on the corner. Its screen darkened but waiting eagerly as a puppy for attention.
A river of blood coursed behind her ears. Her heart tried to push out from behind her ribs.
This was a ridiculous response. There was a perfectly valid explanation for the glow. She couldn’t now come up with one, but that’s because she’d allowed herself to panic.
She plucked up her courage and tugged at the corner of her pillow. It didn’t concede to the slight pull she applied. That was weird. It was a pillow. Any minimal amount of force should have dislodged it. What had been fear transitioned to frustration.
She ripped at the corners of the pillow and pried it away from the bed.
The blue luminescence revealed itself.
It comprised the circumference of a void that had opened within her mattress. But it wasn’t really within the mattress. Or touching the mattress. They were … she couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing … occupying the same space. But not.
The void was about the size of a volleyball. The glow around its edge pushed outward. But within was nothingness. It wasn’t even black. She could only perceive it as a total absence of anything. As if it devoured whatever it consumed.
She hovered her hand over the opening. It pulled at her. A gravity well with a strength many times greater than its size should permit.
Her phone screen lit up. A Twitter alert. The momentary distraction was enough. The void seized her hand. It pulled her in up to her wrist. And then to her forearm.
She strained against it. She pushed against the mattress with her left hand for leverage while the void consumed her right. She was elbow deep now. The luminescence brightened and thrummed, overjoyed at having captured its prey.
She couldn’t extract herself. She was freaking out. Shoulder deep. Her face pressed against the mattress. Still she pushed against the mattress to no avail.
She screamed for help. But she lived alone. Was alone.
The ambitious aperture further opened its jaws and drew in her wider parts. Her hips and midsection fell in. She tried to grab the sheets with her toes as she splayed across the chasm. But she couldn’t sustain her weight as the opening slid outward so her heels fell in.
She sobbed now. Her destruction an inevitability. Still she resisted. She was proud of her resolve, despite the certainty of the result. She took a deep breath as her head sunk into the void, facing upward. Her ceiling fan still spun counterclockwise, oblivious to what was occurring beneath its blades.
With her left hand, she clung to the illuminated edge of the void. Having eaten its fill, it closed around her fingers, a shrinking pupil. It closed with a silent clang, lopping off her fingers at the first joints. Leaving in its wake four fingertips on an untidy bed with disheveled sheets.
Sometimes you have weird interactions with your kids. Their brains are working overtime all the time, it seems like. Not infrequently, those conversations lead to story ideas. Sometimes they turn into something, like this one about a magical animal that appears on his bed. So when it happens, I just try to run with it. An exchange my son and I had a couple of days ago inspired this story, Something Black in the Stairwell.
[Note: I have adapted a version of this story to be incorporated into my debut novel, Vulcan Rising. Read more about the novel at jwjudge.com.]
Something Black in the Stairwell
The boy called through the monitor, “Can I get up?”
I looked at the clock. 5:57am. It was still a little earlier than he was supposed to get up, but I knew telling him to go back to sleep at this point would just create a fuss and yield the same end result. “Yeah, buddy, come one down.”
I returned my attention to my work and waited for the boy to join me on the couch in the living room. I heard the thud of feet above me as he slid off the bed to the floor. Then plodding to the stairs. At this point his foot sounds crescendoed. Every time. It was as if he were wearing too-big work boots while trying to navigate the stairs. It was incomprehensible to me how such a small person could make such racket.
There was a pause before his steps descent resumed at a more rapid pace.
I was entering data into my spreadsheet when he came into the room, not saying anything, and sat right up against me. The sectional can comfortably seat five. But he glued himself to my ribs and burrowed in, snuggling so that I had to put my arm around him. Unusual, but okay.
“Did you sleep okay?” I asked.
“Not me,” I told him. “I had a hard time getting to sleep. Was thinking about this presentation for work.”
“Did you stay awake all night long?” he asked.
“Nah. Just woke up off and on.”
Several minutes passed with the only sound being that of me depressing the keys on my laptop. The boy broke the rhythm without looking up at me.
“Something black tried to get me on the stairs.”
“What?” Not sure I’d heard correctly, or if I had, what it meant.
“When I was coming down the stairs, something black tried to reach out and get me,” he repeated.
“You mean you saw a shadow on the wall?” I prodded.
“Buddy, we’ve talked about this. The streetlamp shines through the trees and makes shadows.”
“No,” he said again.
“What do you mean no?”
He finally looked up at me. “That’s not what it was. It reached out to get me.”
“Why did you wait so long to tell me?”
“Alright, I’ll go check it out,” I told him.
He clung to my shirt as I shifted my weight to get up. “Please don’t leave me in here by myself.”
“Well, bud, I’ve got to go check it out. You can either stay in here or go with me.”
The decision weighed on him. Where did the greater fear lie? Then I watched him summon his courage and resolve to go with me. “Okay, let’s go,” he said. He was like his mother in that way. Once the decision was made, he was committed to it, come hell or high water. I admired it.
We walked from the living room through the kitchen and into the entryway. We turned to look up the stairwell. Best I could tell, everything was as it should have been. “Buddy, I don’t see anything here. You sure it wasn’t just the shadows of the trees moving?”
“Yes.” Just a stoic yes.
We stood there a minute longer, looking at nothing. “Well, I don’t know what to say. There’s nothing here. Let’s head back to the living room.”
I had started to take a step when he said, “It’s not here any more.”
“How do you know?” Doubting that it had ever been there to begin with.
He shrugged his little shoulders again. “I can feel it.” He was looking at the place in the wall where it must been as he’d come down the stairs. A cold shiver crawled up my spine. He turned his face to me. “But it’ll be back. I can feel that too.”
I’ve committed to finishing the manuscript of my first novel this year, which is far more challenging than expected. Having now written three non-fiction books, I had thought that written a novel would come easier. I was mistaken.
Nevertheless, I’m now 25,000 words in and in Story Grid terminology, I’ve finished the beginning hook. This feels like an accomplishment on its own … at least until I realize there’s another three-quarters or so of the novel to write.
Journey through the Beginning Hook
But what I’ve found is that not only is writing this novel difficult because it’s a difficult thing to do generally, but specifically, this novel is difficult for me to write. Here’s the premise that I wrote down in my moleskine notebook when I was first struck with the idea in August 2019:
Child sick with terminal illness. Dad is a lawyer who loses his job due to time missed from work. Loses health insurance. Can’t pay hospital bills. Desperate. Plans bank robbery. Sees former partner at a gas station. Shoots him and is killed.
Some of that has evolved since the initial idea was born. But what hasn’t changed is that it’s about a father whose child has a potentially terminal illness. Being the father of two small children, I have this (irrational) fear that I’m writing something into existence for my family.
I was originally working with the title, A Sick Kid, but I never loved it. I stopped working on it for a while, and the project began to languish. It nagged at me that I wasn’t working on it, but between work and my non-fiction projects, I wasn’t prioritizing it (which is a cycle that has continued).
By all means, Feel sorry for yourself. By all means make excuses. By all means feel discouraged. By all means don’t play like this game is the most important thing to you. By all means entertain yourself with other sh*t because the game of baseball will be here forever and you will have infinite opportunities to play this game. You will [have] infinite opportunities to put on your gear, feel the glove, the ball, etc. The game of baseball will wait for you. Life will wait for you.
It’s not as life can be taken away from you at any moment. Nooo that would be crazy, that would be cruel. Right? So, by all means, play the game as if [you] will have all the swings you can dream of and when the day comes when you realize baseball, that life doesn’t work that way, you will understand that the best [way] to play is by ANY MEANS necessary. By any means. No excuses. No waiting. F*ck patience. F*ck injuries and f*ck THEM. PLAY as if every at bat may be ur last because it very f*cking well could be. So let’s make every single f*cking one count. Lets go get these f*ckers!
The title became By All Means. A logline followed on its heels: “What wouldn’t a man do for his family?” And since then, I’ve had a much better vision for the book. I’ve rough plotted the rest of it. And now it’s just a matter of taking the time to write the thing … which, you know, isn’t a foregone conclusion.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. For a time during my 20s, I started writing down my dreams. But that seemed to somehow magnify their intensity and creepiness, so I stopped. Then the dreams returned to their baseline weirdness levels.
More recently, I’ve started writing down dreams that are particularly interesting and stick with me. I’ve started letting my dreams fuel my fiction writing, rather than let them dissipate into the ether.
A few weeks ago, I had a dream that was graphic and surreal. I remembered every detail. And I had an inkling it could be the inciting incident for a much bigger story. It remains to be seen whether that last bit becomes a reality. Regardless, here’s the dream that fueled this particular bit of fiction.
[Note: I have adapted a version of this story to be incorporated into my debut novel, Vulcan Rising. Read more about the novel at jwjudge.com.]
I’ve also found that my kids inspire my writing. An episode with my son was the catalyst for what became a follow-up scene in whatever this story will eventually become.
When Your Dreams Fuel Your Fiction Writing, Magic Can Happen
Josiah and his wife were awakened by a loud, strange noise. Josiah propped himself up with an elbow, straining to hear what was no longer there to be heard. He had thought it came from outside.
“What was that?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” came the croaky response.
“Did it sound like an animal?”
“Don’t know. I was too asleep,” she said.
Josiah swung his legs off the bed and padded over to the window, where he peered through the blinds. The ground and trees were bathed in moonlight. Josiah, having forgotten to look at the clock as he traipsed across the room, judged that it must be very early morning now by the way the moon hung above the western sky. At first, all was still and quiet. There were no indications that anything was amiss.
As Josiah was about to return to bed, he saw three figures in dark clothing stalk through the gap between his house and his neighbor’s and walk into the woods behind his house. Before he could comprehend what he was seeing, they disappeared into the shadows.
Moments later, Josiah heard an animal noise again. He was staring into the tree line but could see nothing. “Alright,” he whispered to himself, having made a decision about that to do next.
Josiah walked to his nightstand, pulled open the top drawer, and retrieved his Smith & Wesson .40. It had lain dormant in there a long time, in anticipation of a moment like this one. Josiah pulled on a sweatshirt, pants, and a pair of moccasins. With the handgun snugly in his left hand, he opened and closed the front door with his right.
Staying close against the house, he walked around the front and down the opposite side as the intruders’ route. He wished the siding were a darker color, to hide his movement, but there was nothing to be down about that now.
He reached the bottom of the driveway and stopped. Waiting. For what? He had no idea. He couldn’t very well go stalking into those woods with no light. Josiah realized that he should have grabbed a flashlight or headlamp. Anything that would provide illumination. He patted his pockets. He hadn’t even brought his phone.
So he waited. The only movement he saw was his breath emerging from his mouth and dissipating in the night air. Then a shrill animal scream ripped the silence apart. Josiah thought it sounded like a horse. Or maybe a donkey. Something in that family. Still, he could see nothing.
Movement. Emerging from the woods. Three figures. One was much bulkier than the other two. As they exited the shadows into the moonlight, Josiah could make out that the third man’s bulk was because he was carrying something. Something that was struggling against him.
The three men were moving quickly without running. And they weren’t moving in the direction they’d come from, they were coming toward his side of the house. Josiah had no idea what to do. Whether to do anything. They were closing ground, less then a dozen yards from the bottom of the driveway, where Josiah had all but made himself a part of the house.
As the dark-clad men came parallel with him, Josiah saw that the third man was carrying a horse. A foal. And a young one. Something was … wrong with it.
“Halt!” Josiah commanded, surprising himself and everyone else. All three men jerked to a stop, turning in the direction of the sound. The foal whinnied and bucked. It arched its head backward trying to headbutt its captor.
“Halt?” asked one of the men.
“Yeah. Stop.” Josiah found that his gun was raised in their direction. His hand was shaky, but he didn’t know whether it was visibly so.
The same voice said, “We’re stopped. Now what?”
Josiah didn’t know now what. He hadn’t had a plan to this point. “I’m gonna need you to leave.”
“What do you think we were doing?” asked a second voice.
The three men were standing in a clump. The man in the middle was speaking. All three were larger men than Josiah. Although it was difficult to gauge the size of the man carrying the foal.
The first voice suggested, “Why don’t you step out from the shadow and we can sort this out?”
Josiah realized his advantage, however slight. “I’m good. Put down the horse and be on your way.”
“Horse?” scoffed the second voice. “That’s not a—”
“Shut up,” the first voice instructed.
The third man started to lean forward as if to set the horse down. The first voice pointed at him, “Don’t.” And the third man stopped moving. “We can’t do that. We’re gonna take the … horse and be on our way.”
“No. You aren’t,” Josiah countered. He had no inkling why he cared what happened to this foal. But whatever was happening was inherently bad. Evil maybe.
“Enough of this,” said the first voice. He ordered, “Gary, handle him.”
The left-most figure began stalking toward Josiah, reaching into the front pocket of his hoodie.
A deafening bark. A flash of light. Gary fell into a sitting position, holding his belly. The sounds of the night had stopped. Or maybe it was just that Josiah could no longer hear them. His vision was interrupted. The imprint of a flame was placed over anything that he looked at directly. He could see in the periphery that none of the men were moving.
“Now, you’re gonna go. And you’ll leave the horse.” Gary had fallen onto his side and was moaning. “Set the horse down. Gently.”
The third man squatted down slowly, setting the animal on the concrete. Josiah could see it clearly for the first time now that two arms were no longer wrapped around it. It wasn’t a horse. It was … what was it?
“Y’all go on now. And take him with you.” No one objected. They got on either side of Gary and started trying to get him upright, to be his human crutches like a football player being helped off the field. But Gary’s clothes were glistening darkly in moonlight. He would have to be all but carried.
Josiah watched until they were beyond his eyesight. They walked into the shadows of the trees that canopied the street. A short time later, he saw taillights ignite. The reverse lights flickered as the vehicle was put into drive. Josiah heard the thrum of the V-8 engine as it accelerated and carried them into the night.
Josiah heard the front door of his house open and close. Agatha asked, “Honey, is everything okay?”
Josiah remembered the horse-ish thing lying in the driveway behind him. It wouldn’t do for her to see that. He shoved the gun into the waistband at the small of his back and thought about all the times he’d thought movies were ridiculous when they had somebody do that. But he’d never considered that there was nowhere else to put it when you didn’t have a holster. He was just glad the barrel wasn’t still hot. He jogged around toward the front of the house. His wife was walking his direction as Josiah rounded the corner.
“Yeah, baby. Just … um … a … uh … fox.”
“A fox? I was looking out the back window but never saw anything.”
Josiah was relieved. “Yeah. He had come around the side.”
“Did you get him?” she asked.
“Yeah. I need to take him back into the woods and get rid of him,” Josiah said.
“Now? Tonight?” she asked.
“Got to. He’ll attract coyotes and buzzards. You just go back inside and I’ll be back shortly.”
“Alright. Be careful.”
“Yep. Will do.” Josiah turned around to go the way he’d come.
When Josiah reached the side of the house again, he saw that the horse creature was standing, looking at him. It was young. Not more than a few weeks old. Maybe days. He just couldn’t believe that what he was seeing was correct. Wings. On a horse.
He walked toward the animal slowly. As he got about twenty feet away, the foal got nervous. It started looking around a little wildly and shuffling its hooves.
“Whoa, boy,” Josiah said, in not more than a whisper. He held out his hands in front of him in what he thought would be a non-threatening gesture. “I’m not going to hurt you. Just want to see if I can help.” He kept walking as he talked. The foal seemed to settle a bit.
Josiah approached to little more than arms length and stopped. They stood taking each other in. Maybe the wings were some sort of prank? Some attachment the guys had put on its back. None of this was making a good deal of sense. And why was there a horse in the woods?
Whatever the answer, this was a beautiful creature. All white with a pale mane. White wings that were folded onto its back. The moonlight gave it an ethereal quality.
Josiah started talking softly to the animal again. “Hey, boy? Where did you come from? Is your momma around?” As he spoke, he stepped forward and raised his left hand to rub its head between the eyes. The foal snorted and shook its head with the approach, but didn’t back away. Josiah kept talking and made contact. After a minute, the foal pushed back against his hand. With his right hand, Josiah began to rub its neck.
“That a boy. Nothing to be scared of. Now I’m just going to reach over here to your shoulder. Good boy.”
He didn’t know whether the talking was helping. It didn’t seem to be hurting though. He also didn’t know whether the foal was in fact a boy. But that also seemed inconsequential in the moment. Josiah continued to scratch and pet its head with his left hand, while migrating his right back to its wings.
“Holy cow,” he whispered. “Those are really yours, aren’t they? Yep. There. I can feel it coming right up through your hide.” A shiver crept up his spine.
When Josiah started handling its wing, the foal shrugged its shoulders and shuddered. Then it unfolded its wings. The transformation was majestic. Josiah took an involuntary step backwards. It was white as a ream of paper. He thought this was probably a dumb comparison, but it was the first thing he thought of. A wingspan greater than the length of its body from head to tail.
“Wow, buddy. That’s … I mean, that’s … wow.”
Josiah took to petting its head and neck again, and it tucked its wings away.
“What are you called? Not a unicorn. You don’t have a horn,” Josiah was thinking that paying closer attention during literature — or was it mythology? Whatever — it would have been helpful about now. “Icarus? No that’s a Greek guy. What did he do? Fly to close to the sun. Hang on. You’re a pegasus, aren’t you? That’s the one with wings, right? Except you’re not real. How can you be? I’m just losing my mind or something. Which is fine, I guess.”
The pegasus nuzzled him. “We’re going to need to get you back home. Is your momma in the woods? Let’s go for a walk and see what we find.”