The Dry Valley
ON TUESDAY, CALLIOPE RUBY BAKER saw the monster for the first time. It stood across the road looking at her. Shaking, she hid behind the curtain by the TV and watched it back. Finally, the monster sunk back into the weeds at the edge of the road, its patchy head vanishing among the chicory. Cali blinked and wondered whether she had seen it at all.
On Thursday, the wind blew harder than she had ever seen. It buffeted the house and whipped the oak in the front yard, breaking branches. It churned up thick dust and tore a shingle loose from the roof. In the early morning, the monster was back, standing on the very edge of the road, tilting in the wind. It had one good arm and one it held to its chest in a protective way. That one was wrapped in a loose white bandage. Its shoulders rose and fell. As if it were tired somehow. As if it had come a long way to stand there on the cracked asphalt and stare at the peeling yellow paint coming off the siding around the front door. The little patches of dark hair on its head wobbled like daisies. Its pale gray eyes stared. She stood in the shadow of the refrigerator and peered at it until it turned and walked away down the road, leaning against the wind. Perhaps it was a man escaped from the hospital in Fairmont.
Friday was the first day of school. The bus was early. Cali leapt up from the kitchen table, grabbed her backpack and burst through the front door. Mr. Breekleman, the driver, didn’t like to wait. When she got up the three stairs into the bus, Cali went cold. Through the bus’s window she saw the monster across the road.
“Cali! Your lunch!” Gramma called from the front door.
The monster’s skin was sallowy gray and its few scabby teeth gaped from its mouth. It brought its teeth together again and again, and Cali swore she could hear the clicking above the bus’s idling diesel motor. Behind her, the neighbor boy, Seth, tried to edge past.
“Sorry” she muttered. The younger, dark haired boy nodded in a friendly way and moved into the bus. He walked with the bouncing gate of boys his age. He didn’t see the monster.
“Cali!” Gramma called again. She was holding Cali’s bag lunch in her hand. Gramma couldn’t see the monster, hidden as it was behind the flashing yellow paint of the growling school bus.
“Just go.” Cali said without shifting her gaze from the monster. She pressed her shaking hands against the sides of her thighs.
“You sure?” Mr. Breekleman asked. He had a dark mustache and wore a hat with a plastic visor like the ones policemen wore.
“Yeah.” There was no way she was getting off the bus with that thing staring at her. Mr. Breekleman shrugged and pulled away, the engine grinding and the diesel coughing out the smokestack. Mr. Breekleman didn’t like to be late.
“Who was that guy?” he said over his shoulder as she went to take her seat.
“Looked like a weirdo to me. Don’t like weirdos.” He seemed to think that last part was particularly insightful and gave her a knowing smile through the oversized rearview mirror, the one he used to catch Seth firing spitballs at Missy Fulton.
That night, Cali told Gramma about it. How she had seen it many times. How it came most every day. How Mr. Beekerman called it a “weirdo”.
“There are monsters in the world, honey. But not like the ones in that active imagination of yours.”
“What kind then?” Adults always said there weren’t monsters. Now Gramma said there were. Gramma reached out and pushed a strand of Cali’s cedar-colored hair behind her ear.
“Cancer, for one.”
Cali’s brow crinkled like Grandpa’s did when he was thinking hard. “Like Uncle Chilson had?”
“Yes, and Alzheimers like your Grandpa. Things like that. Those are the real monsters, honey. But you don’t have to worry about them. Let Gramma worry. The other ones, the ones you’re talking about, well, you’re getting too big to be scared of those, aren’t you?”
“But the one across the road—“
“Yes, like that one.” Gramma put a hand on her head. “That’s just funny stuff little kids make up. I might have expected to hear this from little Seth next door now. You’re old enough now we don’t have to worry about monsters any more, do we?”
Cali twisted the bedsheets in her hands. “No, I guess not.”
Gramma nodded and rose to leave.
“Leave the light on?” Cali pleaded. “I’m going to read.”
AFTER DINNER ON SATURDAY, Cali went to look for the gun. Grandpa taught her how to shoot. Grandpa was a hunter, and if you didn’t believe him, the antlers all along the basement walls were proof enough. Antlers like the skeletons of long dead sea creatures. Cali sometimes tried to imagine the deer they came from. Whitetail, of course. She tried to imagine their eyes rolling in fear and the sound of the shot and the intersecting pain of the impact. The animal’s last breath.
Whenever Grandpa took her out to shoot, they went down the hill behind the house and through the small wood to what Grandpa called the dry valley. It was a creek bed littered with aluminum cans and coffee tins, targets of shooters past. There, Grandpa showed her how to load, cock, aim and shoot. The first time she shot, the rifle kicked so hard it threw her back, the butt of the weapon grinding into her shoulder. Grandpa caught her, held her up. She rubbed her shoulder, the first moistness of tears coming to her eyes. Grandpa shook his head and talked to her in a soft voice. She tried again. On the tenth or eleventh shot, she hit the can. It was a feeling of satisfaction so unexpected she nearly dropped the rifle. But Grandpa was there again, his hand under the gun, his other hand on her shoulder.
“In a few weeks, you’ll be an old hand at this,” he had said.
She found the old rifle, the one grandpa had used as a boy, in the shadows in the back of the shed. Grandpa built the shed when he and Gramma first moved here. Gramma said that was a long time ago. The rifle’s lonely dust-covered barrel stuck up behind a tin watering can in the dark dustiness among the broken shelves, the dull mower blades and the neglected lawn ornaments and bags of fertilizer. Cali wavered in the entrance, balanced on one foot, eyeing the rifle. There was the thick, airless smell of attics. A strange forbidding feeling rolled in her gut.
She rushed forward, snagged the rifle by its barrel and nicked back outside, coughing the shed’s dust out of her nose and mouth. The gun was filthy and rusted all over. The maple stock had lost its polish. She broke the barrel from the stock and put an eye to the breech. Darkness. Something was in there, blocking the barrel. She put her mouth to the breech and blew a hard, short note. Her cheeks expanded and she coughed again. Whatever was in the barrel was stuck there.
Maybe she could load it and blast out whatever was clogging the rifle. Holding her breath to keep the dust out, she searched the tiny shed with her eyes from the entrance. Bullets came in boxes, didn’t they? Whenever she shot with Grandpa, he just pulled them out of his pocket. He said she was a “crack shot”. Cali figured it meant her shots were crazy because once she exploded an old log that was like five feet from the tin can Grandpa had set up for her to shoot at. That was last year. That was with a different gun, grandpa’s rifle that gramma sold a few months back. This year, Grandpa didn’t like to shoot anymore.
“Cali?” Gramma’s voice split the air. She was calling from the kitchen window out of sight of the shed. “Come on in now and help me with the dishes.”
Cali startled. “Okay,” she called and set the rifle back inside the shed and closed the door.
ON SUNDAY MORNING, THE HOUSE shook with a racket of snores. Grandpa snored the loudest. Cali used to tease him about it, but he didn’t find it funny now. These days, he mostly liked to watch golf on TV. He would murmur things like “so green” whenever golf was on, so Gramma thought he liked it. Otherwise, Grandpa didn’t say too much.
Cali rose and dressed and went out into the backyard with a piece of rag and a bit of steel wood and a container of household oil from Grandpa’s workbench in the garage. The air in the backyard smelled damp, like pond water. It didn’t take long to wipe down the rifle and sand the surface rust from the barrel. The rag was good to work the oil in, too. She knew enough not to use the oil on the stock. Grandpa had tongue oil for that, but there was no time. The breech was still blocked. She eyed the obstruction. What was it? She was tempted to look down the other side of the barrel, but Grandpa had said that was the first rule of responsible gun use. Don’t look down the barrel. From the shed, she grabbed a piece of steel rebar grandpa used to stake out new garden beds and fed it into the breech. The metal clinked against something hard and firmly wedged against in the barrel. Maybe she could blast it out. She just needed bullets.
It was easy to guess where they were. The nightside stand. Grandpa kept a pistol under the bed and bullets in the nightstand. Cali should have thought of that in the first place. Maybe the rifle bullets were there, too. She would take the pistol, but Gramma would notice.
When Gramma and Grandpa were up and dressed and in the kitchen, she snuck upstairs. She changed outfits quickly then slipped down the hall, listening hard. Gramma was humming to herself. She smelled butter on the stove and heard eggs hitting the pan as she went upstairs. The wooden spatula tinked against the iron pan.
It always felt wrong to be in Gramma and Grandpa’s bedroom. It wasn’t off limits, but it was their place, so Cali felt out of place in it. With a held-breath she slid open the nightstand drawer. A few clean handkerchiefs, a dried up bottle of cologne, a comb. The drawer didn’t have pistol or rifle bullets. She crouched and looked under the bed. No pistol. She supposed Gramma had taken it away when Grandpa stopped making sense.
The floor creaked. Cali spun around. “Grandpa!”
Grandpa smiled flatly and walked by her to sit on the bed. He took a long slow breath and didn’t seem to notice Cali at all. Her heart was racing. Of course. She could ask Grandpa.
“Mmm?” It was an automatic response. He alway said that now if Gramma asked him a question.
“Where’s the pistol?”
Grandpa’s snowy hair stood out from one side of his head. His jowly cheeks bristled with white stubble. Gramma would shave him before church.
“Not anymore,” he said. The bed creaked under his weight. He was different now, so unlike the man he’d been before. For over fifty years, Grandpa was a farm manager at a two thousand-acre site owned by Corfern. It was the biggest farm in the state. His job was to run the whole place, scheduling plowing, planting, fertilizing, harvesting. Two decades ago, Gramma said Grandpa invented an irrigation method that made potatoes grow almost twice as fast as normal rate. He sold the technology to Corfern. Gramma said they weren’t rich, but college was paid for, Cali could be sure of that.
“You don’t have it any more?” Cali asked him. Some of what Grandpa said made sense. It was just hard to know which part. His large gray eyes swung toward her, slow as catfish moving upstream. His expression went from blank to recognition. “Cali.”
“Hey Grandpa,” she sighed. “I can’t find the rifle bullets.”
Grandpa rose. His gaze shifted to the empty wall. “Got to dig.”
But he was already walking out.
ON MONDAY after school, Gramma was away at a luncheon, raising money for the new church steeple. It was going to have slate shingles and a copper spire. Grandpa snored upstairs. At four o’clock, Cali looked out the window and screamed. The monster was on their lawn, its bare gray toes wriggling in the grass, its mouth hung open, its eyes searching. Then it began to move to the front door. Cali screamed again as Grandpa’s snores grew louder.
She bolted out the back door and straight for the shed. At the entrance, she turned to check the backyard for the monster. It hadn’t come around the house. She grabbed the cool, smooth metal of the rifle. The stock and grip settled easily into her hands. There were no bullets. Her eyes narrowed. The monster didn’t know that. She peered at it from the corner of the house. It was still there, blinking in the sun filtering through a break in the blue clouds overhead. She raised the rifle and looked down the sights.
“Get out of here,” she said, and the low, dangerous way she said it sent a cold thrill through her.
The monster blinked again. With aching slowness, it swiveled its head toward her, its teeth clacking. The surging energy that had lit through her body from the time she picked up the rifle ebbed away. The monster’s eyes opened wider then wider still. It looked between Cali and the gun twice. The rifle shook in Cali’s hands. The shadows suddenly deepened as the sun slipped behind a blue cloud.
The monster charged.
For a moment, Cali could only stand there watching the flapping mass of torn clothing and loose bandages surge at her like a crazed mummy. The monster wasn’t fast, but it wasn’t slow either. She fled.
The little wood behind the house was not far. Its ratty pines and broken birch were just down the hill. As she hit the base of the hill just in front of the trees, she heard the monster give a gurgling cry. Cali plunged into the woods, her gasping breaths and crashing footsteps drowning the birdsong and scattering the red squirrels and hare. She would run down into the dry valley and then back up the ravine. The monster would have a hard time following.
She burst out of the little wood and started down the sandy side of the creek bed. The winds on Thursday had left wreckage. Trees were down all over the dry valley, their shallow roots reaching skyward, sandy and exposed. The gunshot-ridden cans and tins had blown away, all except for a dirty plastic lid of a coffee can laying flat against the ground. The fine layer of silt from when the creek had run “fresh and true” had blown away too, exposing the hard and dry clay of the creek bed. Cali grasped a downed birch to begin to climb up the other side of the ravine.
Above, the monster crashed through the woods. Breathing in short panicky bursts, she held the gun pointed at the trees, the barrel wavering. The monster emerged out of the trees at the top of the ravine. The bandage had come off its arm and strung out behind it like a strange flag, snagging on the undergrowth. Then its gray face found hers. It started toward her.
You got to dig.
Maybe Grandpa had been telling her something. To dig deep inside herself. To be brave. There were no bullets. But still. She was holding a heavy piece of iron in her hands. Cali adjusted her grip, holding the gun like a baseball bat. The monster gabbled and snarled.
Cali could not move, would not move. “Leave me alone!” she screamed “Leave me alone or—or you’re gonna get it!” Even in her panic, she knew it sounded lame. The wind picked up, throwing what was left of the silt in the creek bed into the air. Cali turned her head out of the way. Even the monster slowed up, caught in the tiny dust storm.
You got to dig.
The wind dropped and Cali blinked away the grit in her eyes. The coffee lid she’d seen before lay right in front of her. But it wasn’t just a lid. Beneath it was the rusted lip of the can itself, flecked with bits of red paint. A red can, just like the kind of can from which Grandpa and Gramma scooped their coffee in the morning.
You got to— I got it, Grandpa.
The monster was only halfway down the hill, its skin was mottled in places with the crimson of old dried blood. She crouched and ripped open the coffee lid, tearing one of her well-bitten fingernails. She barely noticed. A grim smile played over her face. Bullets. Rifle bullets. Dozens of them.
Cali broke the weapon over her knee. The monster gave a choking howl. She grabbed a rough handful of bullets, jammed one into the breech and slammed the stock home, the others dropping from her hand like flies from bug zapper. She brought the gun around, her eye to the sights, as the monster scuttled backwards. The rifle sighted on the monster’s battered chest. Cali’s finger met the trigger and pulled. The next sound was louder than anything she’d ever heard.
The explosion telegraphed down the gun, tearing the barrel apart lengthwise. The stock smashed into Cali’s shoulder and vibrated into her hands and arms until she could feel her teeth rattle. Then she was in the air, the rifle spinning away, blue clouds everywhere above, the impact with the unyielding creek bed taking her breath away.
It was a long time before she got up. The barrel, she thought vaguely. She’d forgotten to clear it. Her shoulder beat with pain. The impact with the dry creek bed had taken her breath away, but she saw no blood. Her shoulder hurt but she could move it, so no broken bones. She took an experimental step. She’d twisted her ankle a bit, but she could put her weight on it pretty okay.
The monster lay still in the shade of a downed white pine. The ruined weapon lay behind her, the barrel turned nearly inside out. Prone, the monster breathed a long, ragged breath. It human-like, but not human. The limbs were different, thinner, longer. The fingers and toes bulged weirdly at the ends.
It shook itself and raised up on an elbow. Cali cried out. Its eyes had changed. They were no longer wide and sorrowful but narrow and angry. Behind her was a mess of fallen trees. Trapped. The monster’s chest bled thick, black blood. She could climb the ravine if her battered body would let her. The monster rose shakily and advanced, its arms quivering, its teeth gnashing.
Grandpa stood above them at the top of the ravine. The silver pistol in his hand flashed in the sunlight. The first bullet caught the monster in the shoulder, and it fell sideways. Grandpa fired again and the body jerked. He fired again and the creature’s leg came apart, the strange bare foot with its long toes flopping down behind a downed birch tree. Cali tried to keep from retching.
“Stop!” Cali cried, clapping her ears and squeezing her eyes shut. “Stop Grandpa!”
She squeezed her eyes shut as the sound of three more bullets rode through the dry valley. Then there was silence but for the ringing in her ears and the crunch of Grandpa’s steps and he came down to her. Cali screamed. She kept screaming as Grandpa put his arms around her until the screams became sobs and the sobs became breaths and the breaths slowed and she was herself again.
“What was that?” she asked, her voice shaking, her shoulder aching, her entire body vibrating with the pain and receding terror of the last moments.
“Mmm?” Grandpa said.
Cali unwound herself from his embrace. “You can’t tell me, can you? Or maybe you don’t know.”
“Always around.” Grandpa exhaled.
She looked over the monster’s stained bandages and tattered shirt. “It’s always around? I’ve never seen it before this week.”
“Always around. Can’t die.” Already the cloudiness in his eyes was coming back. He stood from the crouch and took three steps until the monster lay at his feet.
“C’mon then.” He murmured.
The monster shuddered then and rose, not with effort, not in the injured way Cali expected. All of a sudden. All at once. It was down then up, its missing leg suddenly restored.
It fell into Grandpa. Cali couldn’t understand what happened any other way. It had just fallen inside of Grandpa. One moment there was the monster and Grandpa. The next, there was just Grandpa, his back to her, his shoulders sagging, his body writing a book of fatigue. His back straightened and he squared his shoulders. He turned.
Calli took a deep fearful breath, but it was him. Her Grandpa. The clouds had gone altogether from his eyes, and he looked at her in the fond way she remembered from before. Before Alzheimer’s had made him not-her-Grandpa but just a quiet man who lived in the same house. The monster had gone in him, inside of him. The ground where the monster had lain was bare but for the scuff marks its body had left in the silt.
He seemed to read her hesitation and sat down facing her on the downed birch where the monster’s severed foot had landed. The foot was gone.
“It is all a mess, Cali,” he said in his old clear voice and his familiar sparkling gaze. “I thought I could get rid of it.”
“Get rid of it,” she repeated, a thousand questions flocking in her mind.
“I’ve never told anyone. The story, you know? Maybe because it is a story without an end.” He sagged sitting on the bare white trunk of the birch. He shook his head. As if he couldn’t begin to explain it.
Cali reached out, a strange calm coming over her. This was not the monster. It was just Grandpa. Or maybe Grandpa was—or had been—himself and the monster. She shook her head. It was too confusing. She wiped at fallen tear at her cheek. A long, shuddery breath went through Grandpa.
“I have to tell you something, Calli. I have to tell you why it is here. Why it’s after you, you in particular.”
She scrunched up her nose. “That’s what it’s called?”
“That’s what I call it. It isn’t a monster—or maybe it is. I don’t know.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry you have to hear this, to know this, Cali. I never wanted it to come for you.”
His eyes grew wet. Cali came to sit down next to him, eyeing the ground for any remnants of blood or bone. There were none. Just clear, soft soil scattered with pine needles.
He cleared his throat. “So you have to hear this, so that you know what to do. Next time.”
A chill drove into her body. “Next time?”
“Next time,” he said, putting a hand over hers. “Now listen.”
It had first come, he said, when he was a little boy. He hadn’t understood what it wanted, why it would follow him. In the end, there wasn’t a reason that it chose him specifically. It just wanted someone young. The monster couldn’t survive for long on its own.
There had been a change about him at twelve when the monster had first claimed him. He had grown wary and watchful, his eyes gone a bit hollow and his moods sour. His mother, Cali’s great-grandmother, explained it to herself as adolescence coming on. It wasn’t.
The seriousness, the tired circles about the eyes, the macabre sense of humor, the fascination with dreams. All of this was because of the monster, but not because the monster had taken something from him. It was just the fear, the horrible knowledge that he had something living inside of him. Otherwise, Grandpa lived his life more or less the way he would have otherwise, becoming a farmer and inventor, then a farm manager and finally a retiree.
He’d researched the monster, or tried to. There were so many monsters to contend with, so many tales, so many legends. Succubi, dopplegangers, demons, hodags, specters, selkies, vampires, wendigos. Every monster seemed to want to get inside you or get something off of you, possess you, take you over. When he was 17, he walked into the nearby Riverside University library with one aim: to find out what the hell had happened to him.
After three days of searching, he found what he was looking for. He had to wear white gloves in the library’s windowless basement, the narrowed gaze of the archive librarian on his back. There were hundreds of books and periodicals, unpublished literature, diaries and journals of citizen scientists, of artists and cottage philosophers, and the ravings of those whose thoughts were probably best left alone on the cold, blue metal shelving, under the lock and key of the long-nosed archivist whose thick woolen skirt and brown leather shoes might just have survived a munitions blast. On the third day, he found a worn leather-bound volume.
In it, in the journal of a grouse hunter from Carrollet up north and labeled simply “Journal”, there was the description of something, some thing, so familiar it brought water to Grandpa’s eyes. A plain, pure doom reached for him out of the jagged script and dour words of the hunter. A Kleck, the journal said. The monster was a Kleck. The hunter claimed he had himself been the victim of it after the monster had left the hunter’s father to inhabit him. “My father,” the journal said, “had always called it a Kleck. He said it was the sound the Kleck made whenever it was hungry, the tapping of its teeth together: kleck, kleck, kleck.”
Klecks lived not on blood or flesh but on memories. Whatever memories were made with a Kleck in your body, said the hunter, were gone or half-gone when it left. That’s what had happened to the hunter’s father. And how to get it to leave? Simply tell it to go. Grandpa knew this of course, for he had done so many times. It always came back. If not for him, then for someone younger, someone close to him. Maybe it sought familial attachment. Maybe it sought the shared memories of its original host. Maybe it was simple convenience, taking another host in close proximity to its first. Whatever it was, Grandpa felt responsible and never allowed it to take anyone else.
Inside the body in which the Kleck took up residence, there was little evidence of its presence. In fact, it had been easy for Grandpa to forget, sometimes for months at a time that the Kleck was there. He would forget until something would trigger the memory. It was as if the Kleck manipulated the memories to keep Grandpa from thinking of it.
It was only in the last few years that Grandpa felt the Kleck get restless. It would leave momentarily, pop out of his body, its alarming aspect suddenly filling the room. It looked around for a minute or two and then melded back inside him. When it was restless, the feeling was of a great parasite squirming inside his very skin. He always thought it would eventually leave for good. He wasn’t wrong.
In the past few years, whenever the Kleck left his body, he became fuzzy. It was be hard to remember Gramma’s name or Cali’s. He would forget where he was or what he was doing until the Kleck came back. The memories returned with it. As if the Kleck, not Grandpa, possessed the memories. He didn’t have Alzheimers or dementia or any other silly disease. He just had a Kleck.
“Why didn’t you just get rid of it right away when you first…melded with it?” Cali asked.
Grandpa shook his head. “I didn’t know what happened, really. Took awhile to figure it all out. Thing is, I don’t want it gone, not really. I just cast it out because I thought maybe this time would be different. Maybe this time it would go away for good. Figured I was old, so it would be old, too. Too old to do its usual magic, but no. It just wants a younger host, and I won’t let it do that to you, honey.”
Cali thought about it. “Then send it out and we’ll kill it. Destroy it. Burn up every part of its body.”
“Shh now, it can hear everything you say.”
Cali’s stomach dropped. Sweat prickled under her arms. Grandpa was right. All of what they’d said just now the Kleck had heard.
Grandpa cocked his head and stared off for a moment. “No. Now its just angry. It doesn’t want to be here with me.” He seemed to be in awe of this pronouncement. Then a cloud passed his features.
“The thing is it needs memories. It feeds on them or—“ he paused, his eyes on the sky as though looking for the words in the clouds. “Uses them somehow, is sustained by them. Anyway, that’s why it looks so rough. The bandages, the wounds on its body. It can’t survive without memories. Someone actively making memories for it. Without them, it starves and dies.”
Cali tried to understand. “Like good memories?”
“No.” He shook his head. “It could be anything. So long as you’re thinking and feeling, it’s happy. It’s fed. It can’t take the memories you have, but it consumes the ones you make while its riding you.”
“But then why does it want me? You’re still making memories.”
“You’re right. I’m as good as you are, but the thing could live another fifty or eighty years or more through you.”
“Can’t you just stop making memories?” she said, but knew it was wrong as soon as she’d said it.
Grandpa stopped then and looked at her. “No…” he said slowly. “I’ll bet the best Indian yogis up there on their mountain tops might be able to do it, but my head is so full of nonsense and stray thoughts I’d never be able to pull it off.” He laughed then but it was an eerie high pitched laugh. It scared her.
She thought Grandpa was back, but there was something different about him just then. All of a sudden.
“Cali, we can’t beat it today.” He said it with such finality that Cali looked up suddenly to meet his eyes. Grandpa’s own eyes shifted away. “You go on up to the house now. I’d better clear out this bucket here of bullets now that its been turned up by the wind. I’ll see if there’s anything to salvage of that old rifle too, though you really did a number on it. You sure you’re alright?”
“Okay then. You go on. I’ll meet you up there.”
The look on Grandpa’s face made her uneasy. What did he mean they couldn’t beat it today? They couldn’t beat it all as far as she could see.
“Go on now.”
She picked her way up the ravine, hopping the fallen trees and scrabbling through the loose earth at the top. The woods were lit by the afternoon sun and the birds welcomed her with song. Maybe Grandpa had an idea. A way to keep the monster inside. When she got to the shed, she closed the door and put the metal hook into the eye, latching it closed. She turned his words over and over again. Grandpa had lived with the creature his whole life so he couldn’t have beaten it, would never beat it, would have to live with it until. Until.
The shot rang out through the trees. A flock of blackbirds burst out of the woods and flew past Cali so close her hair played about her face.
“Grandpa!” She sprinted through the tiny woods again, water blurring her vision, the branches ruthless, slapping and cutting at her. He was dead. She was sure. She skidded to a stop above the dry valley, her shoes cutting into the soil. Grandpa’s body was sprawled at the bottom. The pistol lay next to him, it silver finish flashing evilly in the noon sun.
GRANDMA TOOK CARE OF EVERYTHING. The funeral, which was a blur of black suits and the smell of old women’s perfume and fresh flowers picked to die beside Grandpa’s polished birch casket. The shrinks. Two of them. One Cali scared off when she talked so convincingly about the Kleck that he refused see her anymore. The other, a young woman who smoked cigarettes and whose office smelled of butterscotch and tobacco didn’t believe Cali about the Kleck. She asked if Grandpa had been good to her and if Grandma was good to Grandpa, that sort of thing. If the therapy was anything, it was boring. Sometimes Grandma bought Cali ice cream afterwards, so that was something.
The house went quiet without Grandpa. It had been quiet before, after Grandpa stopped talking the year before, but now there was a further quiet, a dimensional quiet, a blank whiteness to the hallways and doorways. A bland nothing that seemed everywhere at once.
Grandma mourned in her own silent way, never mentioning whether she was sad or not and never crying in front of Cali except once at the funeral when the priest told a story about Grandpa roping steer at the Robb county fair sometime well before Cali was born. Maybe that was when they’d met. Cali was hesitant to ask. Grandma cooked and cleaned and cooked and cleaned. Cali went to school and home again and back for weeks, both of them kind of shelled out.
On the following Friday, she stepped off the bus, followed impatiently by the neighbor boy Seth. The bus grunted and roared and hacked and pulled away, Mr. Breekleman stared blandly at the road ahead, slumped back in his seat, his clear-visored hat cocked on his head, one hand on the wheel. Seth skipped off toward his house, a white-sided ranch behind a narrow stand of trees to the west.
“See you, Cali!” he called without looking back.
“See—“ the word caught behind her teeth.
On the road, in front of Seth, the monster swayed. It looked worse than ever. Its torn clothing was no more. In their place were filthy bandages stained with its black blood. Its face sagged, the skin hanging loosely off it like clothes on a line. It staggered toward Seth. The boy froze, his dark hair fluttering in the light wind, his small body shaking but unable to move.
“No.” She said it with certainty, with malice.
The monster’s eyes flickered toward her, away from the boy and back. Cali ran, her sneakers gaining purchase on the cracked asphalt. She burst forward. She flew. Flashing past Seth, she bore down on the monster. It gabbled, unsure. She swung at it with her right hand, swung at the floppy skin and tattered bandages with everything she hand. Her hand met air. The monster stepped into her.
It wasn’t a physical sensation, that part was as unremarkable as a brief, cool breeze. No, it was the life that became Cali own. Grandpa’s life. His boyhood after 12 years old, the Kleck, the library, meeting Grandma and yes, it was at the rodeo, their first farm, the sweat of daily toil, the thousands of bales of hay thrown, the endless rows of field plowed, the gallons of milk taken to market, the pigs slaughtered, the chickens tended, the meals eaten, coffee and beer and alcohol consumed, the horrible wracking pain of catching his hand in a baler at 27 years old and nearly losing his finger, sex—infrequent but exquisite and only with Grandma, the birth of Chilson, her father, his first and only child, the smell of alfalfa after a long day’s work, the sense of aging, of the seasons collapsing together: summerfallwinterspringsummerfallwinterspring, of time passing, of the world changing, all passed through Cali’s mind in a moment.
Seth looked at her with wide eyes, his backpack slung over a shoulder. “Whoa,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said, rocking a bit on her feet. “Yeah.”
“Where did it go?” he asked, his eyes darting, looking for the Kleck.
There was a sense of fullness in Calliope’s body, a feeling of being over blown, bloated Grandma might say. Full to the brim.
“It’s in me, I guess.”
Seth squinted, looking her up and down. “Really?”
She nodded. She wouldn’t let it take Seth, and Grandpa was dead, but there was no way in hell she’d let it ride her. The life that she’d just experienced was Grandpa’s life, with all of the pain and pleasure a human life contained, but then again, with more. His life hadn’t been his own. The sense of the creature always lurking, a monkey on his back. That would not be her.
Yet she had seen something when those memories burst past her like an explosion of grouse from long grass. Grandpa wasn’t the first person the Kleck had ridden. No, there had been another and another before that. Cali couldn’t say how she knew it, but the images of those lives had come with the memories of Grandpa’s, like shadows dancing behind a fire. In those shadows, there was one fainter than the others, a gray shadow faded almost to nothing. A thought came to her.
“Out,” she said. The monster flickered into existence before her. Seth squealed and jumped back but didn’t run. She realized she probably hadn’t needed to say anything, didn’t need to command it verbally. It looked as rough as ever. She supposed it hadn’t gotten much from her—no memories—in the last few moments. It could only consume the memories you made, not the ones you had already, isn’t that what Grandpa had said?
She held the monster’s gaze and nodded once. The monster fell back into her. With it, the memories flooded back just as she’d hoped. They were quicker this time, composited somehow. She ignored Grandpa’s memories, focusing through them, to the shadows behind, to the single gray shadow flitting in and out of her mind’s eye.
The shadow was a girl. She stood in front of a one-room house, a cabin really. A dry field, dry in every direction. Dust in the air. Dust in her food, in her mouth, in the cabin, in her clothes, everywhere. She waited for her parents who had gone over the horizon in search of water.
Then there was the monster, coming across the field, advancing bit by bit. First as a dot on the horizon then a shadow and finally in the shape of a man. It was coated in dry soil, as if it had come from underground. Calliope felt the disappointment spill in. She had thought she could go back all the way, to the Kleck’s birth. See how it was born, how it had come to be.
The girl squinted at the Kleck as the sun set behind it. Calliope could feel what she felt and there was no fear, only recognition. The Kleck was like this girl: hungry, thirsty and alone. Desperate. On the edge of dying. The girl did not know of Klecks. Perhaps Klecks, as a race, had always been, but the girl recognized its hunger, its unstoppable need for sustenance and in her weakened, desperate state, she let the Kleck in, giving it her ongoing memories, letting it feed. In return—Calliope’s breath caught—in return the Kleck gave—well, Calliope already knew, didn’t she? The Kleck gave memories, or, better put, the knowledge and experience of past generations, or, in short, wisdom. Wisdom.
Calliope breathed a long, shallow breath. It was a…symbiotic relationship. (She didn’t know that word, symbiotic. Where had it come from?) The girl’s memories flitted by.
If Calliope could only see memories after the Kleck inhabited the body, how could she see the Kleck as the girl had first seen it, coming across the dry field before it had even melded with the girl? In her mind, Calliope pressed down on the girl’s memories, holding them down, forcing them to be still. There. Shadows. Just like before. Behind the girl’s shadow, were other shadows, bare wisps, curls of smoke that dissipated and reformed, ever moving in dizzying patterns. She concentrated on the least of them, a tiny bobbing molecule banking in the air. Cali grabbed on.
Centuries fell away, ships went over horizons, a thousand great structures rose and fell, couples rolled together in their beds or on mats or in the grass, babies slipped red-faced into the world, the earth was rent by machines and plows and oxen and human hands, countless soldiers went to war and died by gun and sword and spear and stone and fist.
It stopped. On a hilltop at the edge of a fire, a group of people stood clad in red paint and simple skirts. They held staffs worked smooth with stone tools. In their dark hair were beads and bones. Down the hill stood…them. The Kleck.
There were many of them, perhaps all of them. It was not the beginning. If it had been, Calliope could not be seeing it. Yet it was near the beginning. The tools, the staffs, the beadwork. All of it, the knowledge of it, had come from the Kleck. The image shuddered.
The ground beneath the human and the Kleck quaked. It blurred and Cali had to pull back all at once. Wait. Her mind reeled as she was snapped through time and memory back into her own body and the present moment.
The monster—no, the Kleck—stood before her. Had she let it out? It was sick. The bullet wounds still bled in its chest. Grandpa’s death had hurt but not killed the Kleck. It needed to heal. Seth eyed it, wary. Still, he didn’t flee. For the first time, she looked past the hideousness, past the yellow teeth and gray skin and into its eyes. There was life there, intelligence. The Kleck smiled. Or tried to. Its teeth were narrow and yellow, like a stand of blighted corn.
Corn. The irrigation method. Grandpa’s invention. She looked up at the Kleck. It stared at her hungrily. Grandpa’s idea had come, in some way, from the Kleck. The Kleck gave human beings a gift. Ancestral knowledge. (Where had those words come from?) How did it come to be humans had rational thought, intelligence, technology, unlike any other creature on earth? The Kleck gave humans, some humans, access to knowledge, to the memories of all of the human beings that particular Kleck had inhabited. Inhabited, another word she didn’t—hadn’t known. Somehow, in melding with her, the Kleck had imparted some of its…knowledge. Not everything. She couldn’t access the memories that had flooded through her mind earlier. She had the memory of the melding and the fact that she’d seen Granpa’s entire life in an instant, just not any of the details. It was like Grandpa had said.
“Okay,” Calliope said. “Okay.”
The monster fell back into her. If it didn’t meld with her it would with another kid her age, a kid who wasn’t ready, like Seth, or another kid who would only be frightened. No. Calliope knew now all about the Kleck, or at least enough about them. The memories came again, and Calliope had to crouch to steady her self against their tumult. It only lasted a few moments.
She would have time to explore them, the memories. Time Grandpa never took out of fear and trepidation. Time he never gave himself. She looked out toward the dry valley. Now time had stopped for him.
Seth fixed her with a queer look. “You okay? You got a little…” He wobbled his head back and forth on his neck. “Woozy there.”
“Yeah. I’m okay.”
“Okay.” The boy nodded.
Seth shot her a skeptical look. “For what?”
“For just being here.”
“Sure. Uh, I’m going to go back home now.”
“Okay, listen.” She paused. “Don’t tell anyone, okay?”
Seth snorted. “My mom and dad? They wouldn’t believe me. They would say I was watching too much TV and take away the one in my room.”
Calliope laughed. As he walked away, she wondered how old he was. Nine?
“I wasn’t scared, you know.” He called over his shoulder.
“That thing wasn’t even scary. I’ve seen scary monsters in movies and that thing was like…scary to babies maybe but not to me.”
Somehow, she believed him. Sort of. Seth kept up his banter, but his voice faded away as he crossed through the thin grove of trees onto his own property. Calliope turned and looked back into her own wood.
Outside, the chicory stood knee-high, basking in the afternoon sun. There was no monster. She couldn’t even feel the Kleck. Only the memories. Grandma once said those we love may pass away but they live on in our memories. Calliope wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. That was undoubtedly true.