Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams

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Fiction

His Guns Could Not Protect Him

I punched my brother because he was an idiot, because he couldn’t see what I saw, how hard mom held onto the dish rag when she came out onto the deck to tell us dad had been in an accident, which is why the first thing out of his idiot mouth was “So can we go to Pizza Hut for dinner instead?” And her face had already been enough to tell me dad was in real danger, but the fact that she didn’t scold me for punching Rem made my skin prickle up like when a snowball hits the back of your head and sends a shower of cold wetness past your collar and down your spine.

“Was it his motorcycle?” I asked mom, in the kitchen. Outside I could hear Rem still slamming plastic monsters together.

She shook her head. She was crying. Something on the stove was burning.

“Was it . . .”

She stopped to stare at me. So I knew I was right. So I knew what my mission was, even if mom wouldn’t say it, maybe didn’t even know it herself: I had to keep my brother from finding out the truth.

“What happened to dad?” Rem asked, as I dragged him to the car.

“Motorcycle,” I said. It felt good to tell a lie for a good reason.

The whole car ride, Rem did not stop talking. About monsters, about Pizza Hut, about dad’s motorcycle, whether it was okay, how much dad loved it. I hated how cheerful he sounded.

“This isn’t the hospital,” I said, when mom put the car in park.

“No,” she said. “This is Pat and Tim’s house.”

Pat and Tim were friends of mom and dad. Tim had been dad’s boss, once upon a time. They were the richest people we knew. They had the biggest house I’d ever seen.

“Why are we here?” Rem asked, and I could see it happening, the first clue clicking into place, how he saw how serious this was.

“You two are going to stay here tonight,” she said.

“I want to see dad,” Rem said, lower lip trembling at the way the world was so unfair.

“You can’t,” I said.

“Why not?”

Mom didn’t answer. I couldn’t say it either. I was ten years old and the thing I hated most in the world was having to protect my seven-year-old brother.

Because it’ll fuck you up, I thought. To see him like that. To see what it did to him.

Because he might die, and Mom doesn’t want this to be how we remember him. Broken and full of holes from the claws or the teeth or the spines of the thing that got him.

“Get out of the car,” she said, standing outside. I obeyed. Rem didn’t. I wanted to punch every single freckle off his face.

“Remington,” she hissed. “We don’t have time for this.” She opened the door and put her hands on his arm and pulled. Hard. Hard enough to yank him out of the seat and onto the ground. This, of course, started the tears for real. Mom never did stuff like that. Dad, sometimes, but never Mom.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, to Pat but not to us, as she thrust us both toward her. Pat gave mom the kind of hug you only ever give someone you feel super super sorry for. I wondered how much Pat knew. How much I could find out from her.

“Come on,” I said, and dragged Rem through the door. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t sure why. “Stop crying and I’ll give you one of my Got Cards.”

This was a lie. I would never give him one of my Gots. While Pat and Mom were outside talking, I plopped Rem down on the living room rug and then sat down beside him. It was a crazy rug. Thick and ancient and full of complex color squiggles and symbols that probably told stories Pat and Tim were wise enough to read.

I loved the smell of other people’s houses. I loved how ours had no smell, because we were so used to it. One time a friend came over and wrinkled his nose, said it smelled like beer and burning, but I punched him and he never came over again. Pat and Tim’s place was like lemons and cinnamon and wood and books. Which made sense, because they seemed to have as many books as the Hudson Public Library. I ached to grab them off the shelves and consume them, but I knew I needed to keep Rem under control.

He pulled a Got card out of his pocket: a land octopus, filthy and furry. This one was a photograph. Some cards just had illustrations, artist’s renderings of the monsters that were unphotographable or visible only to their target or that no one who ever saw one had lived long enough to take a picture of.

“What do you think yours looks like?” he asked. He asks me this all the time.

“I have no idea,” I said. I didn’t want to talk about this with him, but if I refused he might start to suspect.

“Mine lives in the sky,” he said. “It’s like a killer whale. It can change color to camouflage itself.”

Last week he said his monster was a shifter, a wolf or a bear, one of the ones that looks just like a person until it gets close enough to you to strike, and then transforms to rip you to shreds. A couple days before, he thought it was made of electricity, could come through an outlet or down from a power line to zap you to death.

“You wanna battle?” I said, pulling out my card coffin.

“No,” he said.

“That’s smart,” I said. I was, in all modesty, the best Got player in town. I’d trumped dozens of kids, and collected nearly two hundred cards. It had been months since I bought one, plopped a quarter down at the penny-candy store and used a match or lighter to melt away the thin layer of grey wax and reveal the monster underneath. The edges of the land-octopus card were singed, because I got it off of Jared Shumsky and he’s not very good at things.

“Teach me, Win,” Rem said.

“It’s not something you can teach,” I said. This was not true, but I didn’t feel like trying. “You just gotta practice a lot.”

“So let’s practice.”

“No.”

But I handed him five cards, just to look at.

“I could run faster than this thing,” he said, holding up one with stumpy crocodile legs but a much shorter mouth, and a line of high purple hair along its back.

“Unless it comes in your window while you’re sleeping. Or corners you in an elevator.”

“It says you can kill this one,” he said, holding up another. “Some, you can’t.”

As much as I needed to keep him from crying again, I was in no mood to coddle him. “Even if you kill it, you only buy yourself some time. It’ll be reborn, somewhere, maybe really close and maybe really far, and start coming for you all over again. Your monster is yours forever.”

Rem nodded. Monsters didn’t scare us, mostly. Not by day. In the sunlight we saw them like baseball, like astronomy. Another entire world full of facts and figures for us to learn. How only thirty-three percent of people would actually be attacked by their monster; only four percent of monster attacks were against children; how the average duration of non-aggression was forty-two years, at which point it would inexplicably begin to make its way toward its target. Statistics were weapons that kept us safe.

Our car made a lot of noise pulling out of the driveway. Rem heard it and his lip started shaking again.

“Who’s hungry?” Pat said.

We followed her into the kitchen. She was a sweet woman. She wore nice clothes and her face always looked like she was going somewhere. We made her nervous. Her husband Tim could handle us, he had been a wild kid once, poor as dirt, as us, whereas Pat looked like she never knew what sweat was. I liked Pat. I felt sorry for her, stuck with a scared little boy and an angry one.

“I’m afraid I don’t have much food you would like,” she said. “Are you fond of cereal?”

“Yeah!” Rem said, all smiles, until she opened the cabinet and he saw the long line of Very Boring Cereals. Most had Bran in the name. He chose Cheerios, because it was the only one he’d heard of. He didn’t complain about it, either, although I could see in his face how badly he wanted to. I was proud of him for it. It made me almost breathe a little easier.

Me, I chose Grape Nuts. I’d never had it before, but I liked grapes, and I liked nuts. So this was probably going to be great.

It was super not great. It was gravel in a bowl. My teeth hurt. Bits got jammed up in my gums. And Pat only had skim milk, whereas mom buys whole milk, so it was like eating gravel in white water. And after Rem had done such a good job of dutifully silently eating his nasty cereal, I couldn’t very well complain about mine. I resented him for it.

“Don’t say anything about goddamn Pizza Hut,” I said, and his face fell.

Full dark, by then. The windows and doors were all open. Wind wagged the curtains. Something creaked outside. Rem kept staring at the back door while we ate. Wondering what might come through it. I got up and shut the door. He looked at me funny, like I was the one that was weak, the one that was scared, so I got up and opened it again. A cold breeze clawed at my bare feet.

“Television?” Pat said, and led us into a huge room I hadn’t even noticed before. It had a wood stove and walls of books. Bare beams held up the ceiling. Like we’d entered an entirely different house. Huge photos on the walls: Black boys playing with marbles. Artsy, my father would have said with a sneer, and moved on, but something about them would not let go of me. The darkness of the dirt, the way the marbles were lit up like little galaxies. The way there were no faces. How it made me want to see what they looked like. Where did you even go, for photographs like that? Wal-Mart had nothing like it. I’d never seen them in the Salvation Army.

The TV was huge, and Rem seized the remote out of her hand so greedily that she laughed. He held it up to taunt me.

“Enjoy,” I said, so he’d know I was being generous, that I could have taken the remote away from him if I’d wanted to.

For the moment, though, I was more interested in Pat. How she stood, how she walked. When she left the room I followed her, fascinated.

But I stopped at the bottom of the stairs. What if Rem watched the news? Monster attacks sometimes made the local news. Especially if they were gory, or someone got good footage of it, or the monster was particularly photogenic. I stayed there, stuck, between fear of Rem finding out the truth and fascination with Pat, until frustration with Rem’s wide dumb eyes got the better of me.

“Hey!” he exclaimed, when I snatched the remote out of his hand, and said it again even louder when I punched him in the arm for saying it the first time. “No fair!” he wailed, reddening, as I flipped through every channel to assess the situation.

Okay. Pat and Tim did not have cable. So there was no channel with nonstop news. And it was after seven. So there’d be no more news until eleven. Which meant he was probably fine.

“Here,” I said, throwing the remote past him onto the long couch. He scrambled for it, eyes already wet with hating me.

Him hating me was fine. Hating me kept his mind focused on something harmless.

I went back to tailing Pat. She’d just gotten to the top of the stairs.

She was a college professor, I knew that much. Dad said her family had money, which is how Tim was able to afford to set up his own business. He’d said it with a mouth full of angry, even though he was smiling. “But I’d rather be poor with your mother than rich with any other woman,” he’d said, and his smile had softened, because he loved our mother more than anything else in the world, more than us, even, which was fine, because he’d known her first, and because I knew other boys whose fathers didn’t like their mothers nearly so well.

Pat went into one room, switched the light on, then came out. Went into another.

I went up the stairs as quietly as I could. Ninja-style, soft sliding steps. But the stairs were old wood, creaky in weird places, not like the ones at home where I knew exactly where to step on each one—center, left, right—to be as quiet as possible. And there were a lot of them.

I had questions for her. One for every step.

Did it tear dad’s arm off? What about his leg?

Was it a wolf? A skin-sucker, a sight-stealer, a shadow-spider, a velociraptor, a sentient hive-mind swarm of gristle slugs? A sabre-tooth jackal? A human shape in a trench coat, with mouths that open up all over it and spray gallons of caustic digestive juices at you?

Did it drink his blood, sap his spirit, take something essential away?

Did they catch it?

I ran out of stairs before I ran out of questions. I stopped, and listened. I didn’t know why I was being so quiet. She wouldn’t have cared that I was walking around. I could just tell. She wasn’t like dad, who had something to say about everything we did, and most of it wasn’t something good. Pat wouldn’t have had a problem with us being weird, being dumb, acting out all the different people we might want to become.

The room where she’d turned on the light and then left was full of fabric. Quilts and carpets were draped over every piece of furniture. Wild weird stuff, probably from all over the world. They hung on the walls, overlapping ovals and rectangles. The windows were open, but the curtains were odd fabric also, and too heavy to flap in the wind. Thick dark velvet, scribbled with intricate hieroglyphics of paint. I held them in my fingers, wondered what they meant. Pulled them open. Looked outside.

Their backyard was up against the woods, the long dense wild roll of it that covered most of our county. I hadn’t realized where we were. I felt naked, now, like when I woke up in the night and my back was to the closet and anything could come out of it.

I wanted to turn and leave. So, instead, I stepped to the window and closed the curtain behind me. Walled myself in with the dark. Made myself look out, until I could hear my heartbeat slow back down.

Barely any moon that night, but enough to light up the scene just a little bit. A road cut through the woods, off to the right, and that helped, somehow, like a boundary had been set on the wildness, like humans had been able to divide the darkness up into smaller pieces.

Dad said he saw his, once. Told me the story last summer, while Rem was still at soccer camp. He was drinking gin, which meant it had been a hard day at work. He sat me on his lap. He stunk. I loved it. Mom hissed at him to not tell me, but he kept going.

“A wolf,” he said. “As big as a horse. Mouth wider and more full of teeth than anything you ever saw.”

“Were you scared?” I’d asked.

“Shit yes I was scared!” and he laughed, like the dumb question was a welcome relief.

“Where were you? How old were you? Did anyone else—”

“Shut up,” he said, not entirely unpleasantly. “I was fifteen. All by myself. Had a job that summer working on a corn farm. Less than minimum wage, and the work was hard as hell, but I loved it. Made me feel like I was all grown up. One day it’s getting on towards twilight, sky getting dark, shadows getting thick between the rows of corn, and I step out of the end of a row and there it is in the wide road between one plot and the next. Dark blue fur streaked with black, eyes full of red fire. Just standing there. Looking at me.”

“How did you know it was yours?”

“I knew,” he said. “When we made eye contact, I felt seen. Like it knew me inside and out, top to bottom.”

“Did it chase you?”

“Wasn’t my time,” he’d said. “That wasn’t what it had come for.”

“Then what did it come for?”

Dad shrugged. The motion jolted me.

“The next day, I went out and bought my first gun.”

I touched the guns on his forearm. Two tattoos, put on three years apart. A Winchester and a Remington.

His guns hadn’t helped him. I wondered if someone else’s had. I imagined that massive wolf, knocking him off his motorcycle. Picking him up in its teeth. I wanted to think there had been some bystander with a shotgun who saved my father’s life, but interventions like that were rare. Monsters were focused on one person in particular, but they’d kill a hundred thousand people if they stood between them and their target. So in an attack, people mostly pretended like it wasn’t happening.

I stepped out from behind the curtain and returned to the warm bright room. Full of inexplicable pieces of pretty patterned cloth. It felt like the road had. Like a victory over the dark.

I found Pat in another room. This one had no walls, just bookshelves. A huge old desk that looked like the raw roof beams in the TV room. A chair covered in sheepskins. She sat in it, with a book, with other books stacked on a table beside her.

“Winchester, hello,” she said, when she noticed me standing in the doorway. It took her fifty-seven seconds. “You’re not watching television? I suppose we don’t have as many channels as you’re probably used to. Wouldn’t have the TV at all if it was up to me.”

“I like books better,” I said.

She laughed, and I could hear her relax. “Well. Then. You’ve come to the right place.”

I took one off the shelf because it had the word BEHEMOTH in it, but there were no pictures, not even on the cover, and I couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to be about. India, maybe. But I couldn’t very well put it back, or she’d know I didn’t understand it, so I flipped through the pages for a few minutes.

“Do you have any about monsters?” I asked.

She didn’t flinch. I was watching for it. She did laugh, though. “Of course.”

She got up, ran her fingers along the book spines. A totally unnecessary gesture, but it was nice to watch.

Seeing Pat was like watching a whole new way of being a grown-up. Something different from either mom or dad. When I watched them I felt weird, sort of sick, if I stopped to think about it, because I didn’t want to be either one of them and I’d imagined they were my only two options. I didn’t feel like that when I watched Pat.

“Here’s one,” she said, taking down a book and handing it to me.

Our Monstrous World, the cover said. Below the words, a gold dragon coiled against a deep blue backdrop.

“It’s an old one,” she said. “Full of things people used to believe, but don’t any more. That your monster is a manifestation of your sins, your wicked thoughts. That it’s a reflection of your essence, your personality. That prayer and good works can keep it away. That there are taxonomies of monsters, family trees; that they reproduce like regular animals. What each of the monsters in the Bible mean.”

“What is it, then? If it’s not your bad thoughts. Or your, I don’t know. Personality.”

Part of me knew no one knew the answer. Like with most questions about monsters. All the books and TV shows said so. But Pat’s smile contained so much sad modest confidence, like the world made sense to her, utterly and completely.

“It just is,” she said. “Some things don’t have explanations.”

I nodded. I hoped she was wrong.

She handed me another book. I did not ask, do you have any with pictures inside, because that’s the difference between kids and grown-ups. I didn’t need pictures in my books.

“What happened to my dad?” I said, finally.

“They didn’t tell you?”

“We told my brother it was a motorcycle accident,” I said. “But I know that’s not true. It was his monster, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know a lot of details,” she said.

“Do you know that?”

She nodded.

“What . . . what was it like?”

Of course my first question should have been, what happened to him, how bad is it, is he going to die, but I didn’t want to know that, not just yet.

“I don’t know, honey. Your mom didn’t say.”

“How were they able to save him?”

She took a long deep breath. Looked me up and down, wondering how much I could handle. I straightened my spine as much as I could. “He got lucky,” she said. “As lucky as you can be, when the worst thing imaginable happens to you. He was coming back from the construction site, him and a couple of his friends in the back of somebody’s pick-up truck. They were stopped at a light.”

Again the long deep breath, the assessment of whether too much knowing would snap me in two.

“I want to know,” I said.

“I know,” she said, but that was not enough.

“I won’t tell my brother.”

Pat made a little noise, and I didn’t know what it was or what it meant. Then she nodded.

“All of a sudden, it was on him. Shrieking. Like—a loon. A laughing screaming.” She blinked, and I knew that there was one thing, one detail, one piece of the puzzle she would not share with me, that I wasn’t ready for. And I was grateful. “His friends reacted fast. They banged on the truck cab window, told the guy driving to gun it, go as fast as he could. The thing wasn’t all the way in the truck, yet, and it held on to your dad but they hit it with tools from the work site and eventually it let go.”

My first thought was: so his motorcycle would be fine. Idiotic of me; as idiotic as Rem asking about Pizza Hut. I hated myself for thinking it. My second thought was, that, at least, will make Rem happy. My mind raced with the mathematics of it, how long it would be before either of us could ride the motorcycle. Whether mom would keep it at all, if dad died. We’d need money.

“Is he going to die?”

“I’m sorry I don’t know more, Winchester,” she said. “But your dad’s a fighter.”

I handed her back her book. No one ever called me by my whole name. Winchester was someone different from Win.

Rem was crying, when I got back to the living room. Trying hard not to be heard. My father would have yelled at him to stop. My mother would have gotten as far away as she possibly could. I stood there, stuck again, grappling with two possibilities, and then I rejected them both. Sat down on the couch beside him. Didn’t say a damn thing about it. Didn’t take the remote either, even though it was some dumb car show I hated. After a little while he leaned over and put his head on my shoulder and I did not punch him or push him away.

Tim came home. Made us hot chocolate. Stayed up late talking to us, laughing and yelling and then laughing again, so much like my father it made Rem finally stop crying, and made me almost start.

At one point he raised his arm to take a long pull of beer, and I noticed a patch of weird skin above the inside of his elbow. I was ready for it, the next time he took a sip. I stared and saw that the skin was ragged, like scarring from an old wound. And at the center of the patch there were rows of tiny pale yellow feathers.

People were changed, when they survived monster attacks. Sometimes just a little. Sometimes not.

I almost asked Tim about it. But what if the answer put ideas into Rem’s head? So I stayed silent. Wondering: how will dad be different? If he doesn’t die?

And much later, after everyone was asleep, and Rem and I each had our own rooms for the first time ever, I snuck out and down the long hallway to the room full of books. There was one of cartoons, but they were all in black-and-white and weird and not funny, from some grown-up magazine. I spent a long time reading them anyway, trying to figure it out, trying to find the jokes. A couple times I came close, like it was making fun of something that I knew was a thing, but didn’t actually know anything about.

That room had thick weird curtains too. And an open window, with summer wind slithering around my ankles. I ignored it for a while, and then I couldn’t. I went behind the curtain, pulled it tight behind me, so no light escaped.

I saw it right away, as soon as my eyes adjusted to the moonlight. Already moving through the back yard. An eight-foot-tall gorilla covered in thick white fur, with a single curved horn coming out of its forehead. Its fingers weren’t monkey fingers, and they ended in claws like long black commas. Pee dribbled out of me, but hardly any. The night was so huge on all sides. The woods were so dark.

By sight, or by smell, or by some other monster sense, it knew I was watching it. And it turned to look right in my direction. I flinched, my arms drawing in, hunching down. Its mouth opened, a smile so wide my whole head could have fit inside. Triangular shark teeth.

It saw inside me, all the way, everything I ever thought, everything I’d ever do. All my crimes, past and future.

It didn’t stop. It hadn’t come for me, for anyone in that house. But it kept its eyes locked on mine as it walked, until the woods hid it away from me.

The shivering took a long time to stop. I’d never felt anything like that fear. Part of me felt like it would never go away. Not all of it. Something had lodged in me.

The monster my father saw in the cornfield, he’d been convinced it was his. But that didn’t mean it was. Dad wasn’t right about everything. I could understand why someone might misinterpret what he felt then. What I’d just felt. The sudden knowing, skeleton-deep, that one day you will cease to be. That you will die. That there’s nothing else.

Maybe I’d just seen my monster. Maybe I hadn’t. I felt special, in an awful sort of way, that I’d figured something out at ten that my father had been fooled by at fifteen.

Looking down, I saw that I had peed some more, but my pajamas had soaked it all up. I was proud of this, of not letting a single drop soil Pat and Tim’s fancy life. I wasn’t embarrassed or angry like the other times I’d peed myself. Sometimes your body did weird things. Pajama pants could be washed. It didn’t matter.

I went to the room where Rem slept. I wondered if Pat and Tim had a kid, or kids, and where they were. College maybe, or prison or India or god knows where. Or dead. No photos were on the walls or fridge. No one mentioned them. But our rooms had belonged to someone. Mine was full of baseball stuff. And Tim didn’t play with us the way someone who never had kids plays with kids.

I stood there, unsure why I’d come in. When Rem has nightmares it’s usually me who comes to comfort him. Maybe I was the one who needed comfort now. But that was dumb. He was little, and he was asleep. Clutching his Got coffin to his chest, like it could keep him safe from the monsters inside it. And from the monsters outside.

I went back to the room where I would sleep, if I ever slept. Where my stuff was. I found my stack of monster cards, hundreds of them, hard-won, my all-consuming obsession for well over a year.

I went back to where Rem slept, and fed every single one of my Gots into his coffin. And then I pulled the sheet up over where his bare arm was goose-bumped. And then I kissed him on the forehead. Mostly to make myself feel better. I don’t know why I thought it would, but it did. I kissed my brother because he was an idiot, because he didn’t know what I knew, and because one day he would.

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Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller’s books have been called “must reads” and “bests of the year” by USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, and O: The Oprah Magazine, among others. He is the Nebula-Award-winning author of Blackfish City, which has been translated into six languages and won the hopefully-soon-to-be-renamed John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Sam’s short stories have been nominated for the World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus Awards, and reprinted in dozens of anthologies. He’s also the last in a long line of butchers. He lives in New York City, and at samjmiller.com.