Read Lost Signals Online

Authors: Josh Malerman,Damien Angelica Walters,Matthew M. Bartlett,David James Keaton,Tony Burgess,T.E. Grau

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Lost Signals (4 page)

BOOK: Lost Signals
12.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Eric frowned, spoke up. “Have you ever seen the Real Leeds

? In dreams, or in your thoughts

? It’s a place between here and . . . it’s where they came in through. It’s like where we live, but better . . . there are skyscrapers, and these sort of . . . community centers, let’s call them . . . and a fair that runs year-round.

(Test your strength.)

“It’s always October, Finn, always. And what they can give you . . .”

He paused. The kids all looked at him. Their eyes blazed a warning. A beatific look passed over his face.

“Ecstasy. Exaltation.

“In exchange for what

?” Finn said.

Eric shrugged. “Nothing big, I don’t think. Nothing important. Nothing you’ll miss.”

Without further ceremony, Eric hauled up his pack, nodded to the group, and walked through the line of trees into the tangled wood. Everyone stood, watching him go, until they couldn’t see nor hear him. No one spoke.

Finn tended to blather when nervous, just to break the tension, to dispel silence. He said, a little too loudly, “Guys, can I, like . . . can I get some stuff and come back and stay with you

? In Eric’s tent, maybe, or, or I could bring my own


He’d tried to modulate his voice, to avoid using a pleading tone, but it crept in nonetheless. They stayed silent, still staring into the woods as though transfixed by the last glimpse they’d seen of Eric.

The purple-haired girl spoke up. “Yes, please. Please. Why don’t you stick around

? You don’t need to go back
, maybe not ever again. We have everything you need here. Everything.” She put her hand to her chest and smiled an enigmatic smile.

Finn’s heart sped up, but he held his resolve. “I’ll come back tonight. Promise.”

She put on an exaggerated pout. “You

“I will.”

He headed back down the path that led back to the school. He walked until he guessed he’d gotten far enough from the encampment, then circled back, jogging, giving the clearing a wide berth. After a time, he found the brook and followed it through the thickening trees.


He was nearing the hollow when he caught sight of Eric’s yellow pack. He hung back, treading carefully, avoiding twigs and pine cones as best he could so as not to be detected. Eric crested a small hillock and descended into the hollow. Finn followed, moving very slowly.

When he attained the hillock and looked over, he saw that Eric had put down his pack about a yard from the edge of the hollow, where trees tall and crowded guarded the way to the deeper, darker woods that comprised the state forest. Finn crouched down behind a deadfall that lay at the base of a tall, ungainly oak. Eric stood, stretched, and removed his jacket and shirt, folding them neatly and piling them to his left. He looked thin and vulnerable, his shoulder blades jutting like nascent wings, bracketing a serrated spine. He pulled the transistor from his pack—a different one, Finn noticed, with green plastic casing and slightly bigger than the one he’d had on the bus—and held it high above his head, aiming it into the woods. The leaves stopped rustling. The birds stopped twittering. Finn dared not breathe.

A hum, low and long, and the world shivered. The scene in front of Eric shimmied as though painted on a thin tapestry behind which unknown things slithered and twitched. Eric’s body again separated into horizontal lines. The lines moved back and forth, independent of one another, righted themselves, and it was just Eric again, thin and pale and alone, that one arm holding aloft the small transistor, red elbow jutting. And then the man stepped out from the dense wood.

He was tall, frighteningly so, at least a head taller than Eric. And broad of chest and hip. Finn thought of the time he saw a moose tromping along a quiet road in New Salem, slow, lumbering, but dangerous in its very bulk. The man was clad in cuffed and creased trousers, an immaculate white shirt held fast to his torso with suspenders the color of storm clouds. His hair gleamed black, oiled and slicked back. His eyes blazed from over an impudent nose. His thin lips, set under a neat mustache, were set in a frown, and he carried himself as though very bored, but menace lurked in the taut muscles of his neck, in the set of his jaw. He was thick-footed, claw-like nails long-neglected, clotted with mud or dried blood. He stopped just a few feet from Eric, appeared to size him up.

Eric stood very still. Finn could not see his features, but he appeared to be staring into the man’s eyes. Then the man spread out his arms and a fervent, hungry look spread across his face. A cracking sound, like a tree split by heavy wind, and the man’s skull broke vertically under his skin, widening and swelling until his face sloughed off his skull and fur sprouted from his cheeks and forehead. His eyes slid apart to the sides of his narrowing head as his nose elongated into a snout. His pupils flattened. The tip of his nose popped, cartilage flying like shrapnel, laying bare a flat, brown nose with slits for nostrils. His teeth grew like ancient gravestones rising from earth, gingiva crumpling, cheeks splitting open all the way to the ears. His clothes fell away, and the walls of his human form followed, great shards landing in piles, blood showering over them. He pulled a gnarled branch from a tree and rubbed his furred hands along its length until it smoothed out into an elegant black cane.

Eric thrust the transistor radio up toward the man. It began to sing a trilling tune in a high-pitched, child-like voice.

The man, now a hunched goat, bellowed a wordless reply, tongue wavering in the air.

The radio responded with tinny ragtime music, bouncing piano, whispering cymbals, a cavorting clarinet.

A sheet of skin separated from Eric’s back, fluttered into the air, nearly translucent. Then another, thicker, white. He screamed out as his body went pink, and then red, as sheets of skin hovered around him in the air. Masks of his face followed, rising into the sky like the gape-mouthed heads of ghosts. His hair stood on end and began to fall like rain from his head.

And then the goat lunged forward, jabbed his cane into the tender flesh under Eric’s chin, lifted him into the air and swung the cane in an outward arc so that Eric faced Finn. For a terrifying moment, Finn thought he might impale Eric, thrust him to the ground and devour him like a ravenous dog. But instead he held the boy aloft like a gator on a catch-pole. Eric’s arms and legs swam in the air. His eyes showed only whites. Drool swung in a bobbing pendulum from his lower lip.


? Dear, earnest Finn,” called the goat in an unblemished baritone that echoed through the trees. Finn crouched lower, his mouth hanging open, staring. “How you’ve grown. Your mother brought you to me, you know

? You were just a boy. A sapling, a whelp. I remember it well. Jessica carried you into the wood and stood right where Eric did. She flung you to the forest floor, offered you up like a prize. She begged, begged like a wretch, cried like a brat. She was
demanding.” He shook his head sadly, condescendingly. “And I tell you now even as I told her then, sorry, boy, but you are simply not

“She never hit the water, by the way. She landed on the rocky shore, broke into pieces on the sharp and mossy stones. They needed more than one tarp to hide her sad, broken body from all the rubberneckers. Not that they didn’t get an eyeful, though.”

Finn fell to the ground, grabbing handfuls of earth, crushing it in his fists, and sobbed. His mother had betrayed him. She didn’t love him. And then she had taken her life, left him alone with an obstinate liar of a father. Why did she do it

? Out of sorrow and remorse

? Or because her offering had been refused

? He sobbed himself hoarse, beating the muddy ground with his fists.

They had to take him. They
to. He stood. The goat and Eric were gone. The forest stood still and silent.

“If you won’t take me, kill me,” he shouted into the thick wood. “Kill me


The only response was his echoing voice.

Snuffling and panting, Finn searched out the piles of skin that had pulled away from Eric and fluttered to the forest floor. As he gathered them, he heard music from somewhere, he couldn’t tell where, the insistent beat of a thousand drums, overlapping, rising in volume and intensity. He piled the skin in his arms and headed back toward the clearing where the kids waited among their tents. He prayed that they would take him in for keeps. He prayed to see his mother again, that he might forgive her and once again fold himself into her betraying arms and offer her his forgiveness. And he prayed that one day he might find that signal hiding in the static at the low end of the dial, and it might tell him how to become worthy.

Even this far
out, away from the light and the bilge and the droning nouveau bullshit lounge music rasping from a purposely old LP, things were still sort of a blur.

The same blurry party with the same blurry people with annoying hipster headgear and piercings and tattoos and post-ironic t-shirts and uniformly blurry beards. The off-brand bottle of blurry liquor in his hand. The blurry, slurry skank that he had seen before but never recognized, pressing in too close, breathing all of his air.

The shouting. The broken furniture. The fight. The blood. The weaksauce ghetto insults hurled from a safe distance as he ran out of the blurry room in the blurry house on a blurry street in a forgotten Midwestern city that blurred brown and green but mostly brown under a thousand jumbo jets every single day.

A blur. All of it. And none of it worth a single fuck.

Max scratched at the crusted gash on the side of his face and concentrated on the tunnel of pavement opening foot by foot ahead of him, trying to clear the blur from his mind as he drove west, ever west, in a last ditch effort to outrace the smudge of his past. This was it, he felt. A wagon train of one, fueled by a last hope for blessed clarity waiting amongst the swaying palms of the Pacific coast. Failing that, he’d drive off the end of the goddamn continent and drown in the murk of the darkened deep.

Max blinked his eyes and lit up a cigarette, checking the cheap plastic compass he picked up at a truck stop in Grand Island, Nebraska, stuck lopsided to the dash of his shitty late model Dodge. West, the bobbing arrow assured him. West. He was still heading in the right direction. At last that much was certain.

Max knew he stayed too long at his last stop. He had gotten lazy, and worse than that he had gotten hopeful, figuring roots would sprout from the bottoms of his shoes if he just loitered in the same place long enough. Anchoring him to a piece of ground at last. But the roots never came. Only rot. And that’s when he knew he had to get out. That night. That second. By whatever means necessary no matter what collection of beards and bows were in his way.

And so he did.

It made no difference that he had a belly full of poison and eighty-seven dollars to his name. He just knew it was time. And so it was.

And so he went.

Max would keep moving this time, for as far as his shitty late model Dodge would take him. He was pretty sure he had hurt some people pretty badly, maybe even fatally, during his abrupt exit from the blur two nights ago, so going backwards wasn’t an option at this point. He just had to keep his head down and keep grinding that wheel, fueled by the last hope of finding his destiny out yonder under western skies, as so many eastern souls had done before him. Get his hands on a bit of true clarity in the fairytale hills. He’d change his name, maybe grow his hair into Viking braids and take up surfing. But most importantly, he lose himself in the crowded anonymity of the city of nearsighted angels, where everyone is too busy squinting into the mirror to spot the disheveled fugitive sitting across the bar.

It wasn’t his fault, this wanderlust. It was congenital, ancestral, born out of a thirsty Caucasian soul and dissatisfaction with nearly everything around him, combined with the certainty that new lands conquered would quell all inadequacies and establish contrived dominance in one fell swoop. So Max became a human tumbleweed from the first time he learned how to thumb a ride, spinning from city to hamlet to dusty campsite, in search of something bigger than himself to tie him down and make him
to stay, to become part of something outside of himself. Some people looked for God. Some quested for love. Max just searched for meaning, starting with the self and working outward from there if he had time. All of everything that was and would someday be. There had to be a point—a greater purpose—to the entirety of this terribly self-important but most likely utterly meaningless nonsense, and the answer had to be out there somewhere, around the next bend, over the next rise in the road.

But he never found it. Not yet. In all those miles and all those late hours, he’d just found more of the same. He just found more blur.

So here he was, knifing down Highway 50 west of McGill, Nevada, as the last two days and nights—hell, the last thirty-two years—melted into just another portion of an unbroken line of bleary days and blurry nights spent doing nothing with a thousand nameless nobodies, all bored to panicked tears hidden behind masks of sardonic bullshit. Somehow, without knowing exactly where or exactly why, Max had drifted off of I-80, that great tentacle of government-issue cement that stretched the length of this vast, savage land. But it didn’t matter. His cheap plastic compass assured him that he was heading west, and that was good enough for Max. That certainty was enough for now. Small victories in the war against the unknown.

BOOK: Lost Signals
12.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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