Jim Sterling was not having a good night. For reasons he couldn’t begin to grasp, his life had become a nexus of misery. First, the snack machine down the hall from his office had eaten his last dollar. After pressing F4, he watched with hungry anticipation as the automated coil spun, slowly pushing the shiny bag of Doritos toward the glass, only to have it stop a millimeter short of tumbling down into the dispensary. Sterling had shaken that cruel beast with ferocity, trying to get the bag free of its taunting grasp, but the snack machine had remained defiant.
And now here he was, trudging with increasing fatigue across a frozen lake in the middle of a winter storm sometime after midnight with a knife lodged between his shoulder and his spine.
Jim Sterling really wished he’d gotten those Doritos.
It was just after 10 pm when his cell phone had started playing the Imperial March. Sterling had set that to be the ringtone for his ex-wife Charlotte so that he’d always know when it was her calling. It filled him with dread to hear that song. Sterling let the phone play for a good while before answering.
“Jim, it’s Charlotte,” she said calmly. Charlotte was always calm. Why shouldn’t she be? Fifteen years ago she got the house and the dog. Sterling got to keep the car and the TV. It was a nice TV, but it had fit better in their living room than in his rinky-dink apartment.
“Listen, it’s about Thomas,” Charlotte informed him. “He’s in the drunk tank down in Lakota.”
Sterling sighed. This was not an uncommon occurrence. The divorce had been rough on Thomas, always little Tommy in his father’s eyes. He had grown up to become big Tommy – big, drunk Tommy. Big, drunk, loud, brash Tommy. It broke Jim’s heart when he thought about it.
“You need to go bail him out,” Charlotte told him. Her voice sounded slightly muffled, probably puffing on a cigarette while sitting there in the kitchen of their house – her house – in curlers and a bathrobe, watching a rerun of that reality show she always enjoyed, the one where everybody was always running around half-naked and getting into arguments.
“I’m at work,” Jim replied.
“And I got no car.”
And so, the second miserable moment of the night concluded. Sterling estimated at least five more were waiting for him down in the Lakota Police Station.
Jim Sterling drove to Lakota. Or rather, Jim Sterling started to drive to Lakota, but he never got there. Thinking back on it as he shambled across the ice with a quickly-fading stride against an angry wind that licked the dry and cracking skin on his face, he came to a bitter conclusion: Jim Sterling was too god-damned nice.
I’m going to die, he thought, here in the middle of this frozen fucking lake. I’m either going to collapse from exposure or bleed out thanks to this knife and get picked apart by coyotes. I should be in Lakota. Actually, I should be at the office, sipping a steaming cup of coffee and licking Dorito dust off my fingers. No… no, fuck that. I should be at home watching whatever the hell is on Cinemax right now on that glorious goddamned TV, kicked back in my recliner and draining the last fifth of that Vodka I have in the pantry.
But he wasn’t. Because he was too goddamned nice.
He had taken Norm Henderson’s late shift on the phones because Norm had begged him, offering up the excuse that he wanted to drive his girlfriend with the weird Swedish name down to Sioux Falls to see a Led Zeppelin tribute band. Of course, that wasn’t true… Norm was actually going with his other girlfriend with the weird Thai name, but he didn’t want people around the office to know he had a side piece.
Sterling knew Norm’s secret because he was observant. At least, he prided himself on being so, but it would seem from the knife and the lake and his imminent demise that maybe Sterling wasn’t quite as observant as he thought he was. Take, for example, his footsteps. Sterling could hear each heavy crunch as his boots packed down the snow covering the icy lake. But as he trudged with desperation toward nowhere in particular, he realized he could hear another set of heavy footfalls following close behind with a confident stride.
Jim Sterling was being hunted.
What had he done to deserve this? Stopped to help another human being in need? What possible sin had Sterling committed in the eyes of this pursuer? When you’re driving down an empty road in the middle of a cold, dark, winter night and you spot a vehicle pulled over with its hazard lights on and a person hunched over one of the tires, isn’t it good form to pull over and offer some assistance? Isn’t it the North Dakotan way? Even if the person working the lug nuts looks to be approximately three hundred pounds of hulking muscle, any Good Samaritan would at least see if they need roadside assistance.
That’s exactly what Sterling had done when he saw the rusty, old pickup truck pulled over by a snow embankment, hitched up on a jack with a giant of a man in a heavy, brown coat beside it. He pulled up behind the seemingly broken down vehicle, hesitating for only a brief moment to think about little Tommy down in the drunk tank and just how much of a delay it would put on him to help this individual. Sterling had felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle his collar when the man turned to look into his headlights. Something about the way he didn’t blink or shield his eyes from the fluorescent beams, just stared expressionless straight at him, as if measuring Sterling up.
He leaned out the window. “I have a phone if you want me to call Triple-A.”
Without a word, the man lumbered toward Sterling’s car, looking like a cross between a lumberjack and a grizzly bear. He seemed to almost be growing larger in stature with each step. Back in the deepest, darkest recesses of Sterling’s brain, in the center for fight-or-flight where his instinct for survival lived, a small voice cried out, get out of there! He hadn’t heard the voice since the day he made his vows to Charlotte at a little chapel in Las Vegas.
Before he had a chance to react to it, the giant was at his door. The man had to hunch down to look inside the car, and in so doing he filled the entire space of the window. His massive form seemed to be spilling into the car, great bushy beard first. Sterling slouched down into his seat, stuttering but unable to find the right words. His phone. His phone was in the cupholder. He just needed to hand it to the man. That’s all. The man was just there for the phone. After all, Sterling had offered it. Okay, so maybe the guy looked like that shaggy giant from Harry Potter.
Sterling turned away just long enough to find the phone, but within seconds of turning his back he felt the white-hot pain of something sharp sliding into the meat between his shoulder blades. It happened so suddenly that he could barely comprehend why he hurt at all. His first thought was not that he had just been stabbed, but that something in the way he shifted had thrown his back out.
“Ahh, fuck!” Sterling shouted, jerking away, fumbling further toward the passenger side of the car. Something sticking out of his back caught on the edge of the seat and sent more spasms of torture up his spine. He turned to look back at the man, and saw one beefy hand drawing back through the window. Jesus Christ, did he…? Holy shit, he did! He stabbed me! That fucking gorilla just came over here and stabbed me through my window!
Apparently the man with the dead, expressionless eyes and hands so large they looked like they could palm Sterling’s head and crush it like a cantaloupe wasn’t satisfied with just stabbing a stranger, he meant to go all the way. One hundred and fifty percent grade-A homicide was etched on his face. He’d either get his stabbing instrument back from Sterling and use it again, or maybe just squeeze his neck until all the veins in his head burst like fireworks.
So Sterling had run. It was not an elegant retreat, more like a trout trying to shimmy its way out of the cooler and back into the river. His right arm felt totally useless, and unfortunately, that was his favored one. He barely managed to unbuckle himself with the left and ended up flopping his way across to the passenger side door, got it open, and tumbled out like a marionette.
His assailant was not in a rush. If anything, he let Sterling go. Of course, he did, Sterling thought, where are you going to run to? There’s nothing around for miles.
But there was the lake. Devil’s Lake, it was called. An apt name for the moment, as Sterling began to question if maybe he’d just met the serpent himself. Across the lake, what looked like the lights of houses glowed in an almost welcoming fashion. If he could cross the ice, get to the homes, maybe someone could help. If only Sterling hadn’t left his cell phone behind in the cupholder.
That was ten minutes ago. Ten minutes of grueling agony burning in his back, his right arm hanging limply by his side, his legs feeling like jelly, and the vicious night wind ripping at his flesh. How far had he walked now? The lights of the houses seemed no closer than they had been when he started. Was he imagining them? Sterling took a breath and looked back over his shoulder, feeling his muscles scream against the pain.
The man was right there, just nine or ten strides away, a monstrous silhouette moving with unnatural swiftness against the brutal wind, straight at Sterling. He was going to overtake him in seconds. Jim Sterling was six-foot-one, and this brute must now be seven feet tall or more. He couldn’t make out the man’s face, just a wild frenzy of hair concealing his features. His limbs had grown thicker too, Sterling was sure of it. He now bore massive arms that strained against the brown coat. Even over the sound of the raging wind, Sterling could hear the seams of the man’s clothing ripping as his body underwent some terrible metamorphosis right before his eyes.
Jim Sterling was not above screaming. When he was little and his grandfather came to visit, the old man always tried to instill his antiquated values in little Jimmy. Every visit he educated him on how to act like a man, to never show fear or cry, to be brave against adversity. But when granddad was gone, Sterling’s mother and father raised him to be a human. He had wept at his father’s funeral and for little Tommy when he realized how the boy suffered through Jim and Charlotte’s messy divorce. And he screamed now for the thing in the brown coat that charged at him with murderous intent.
In the seconds before their bodies collided, the giant roared, not with the voice of a man but with the deep, snarling, hungry roar of a beast. And as the shadowy, muscular form plowed into Sterling’s soft, yielding one, he did not look into the face of an angry, bearded trucker with some unexplained grievance, but that of a bear mixed with a mountain lion, some unnatural thing that was neither one nor the other, and with a mouth wide and full of teeth. The eyes, only the cold, lifeless eyes, remained the same.
It was a testament to the bitter freeze of that evening that man and monster didn’t break through the ice of Devil’s Lake. Sterling felt the wind knocked out of his lungs as the once-man barreled into him with the momentum of a train engine, and then they both went down hard, Sterling only having just enough sense to roll to his left to keep from landing on his back and plunging the knife straight out the other side of him. He braced to be crushed by the weight of the thing that was a man as it came down on top of him, but it went right, rolling over beside him, thrashing menacingly in the snow.
Sterling didn’t have time to think. He barely had time to move. The thing in the snow beside him had claws and fangs and would be on its feet in seconds, ready to finish what it started when it thrust its knife into his back.
The knife. Sterling was a pushover but he wasn’t a fool. He knew well enough that at the moment the knife was the only thing keeping the blood inside his body, but he also knew it was his only weapon against this unearthly creature that had chosen to feast on him. He reached his good arm around behind his back, trying to find a grip on the handle. His fingers slipped against the wet wood, just barely touching it, but the flare-up of pain it shot through his other side almost made him want to curl up and surrender right there.
Beside him, the beast rolled halfway over, snorting out a faceful of powdery snow. It tensed up, further shredding the clothes it was wrapped in from its time as a man.
Sterling slung his arm back behind his head, feeling his shoulder pop out of its socket with another excruciating shot of pain that summoned a need to scream deep in his gut, but he bore down on it, holding it back for the moment lest he lose focus. The shoulder was an old injury from his days on the high school football team, but in that moment it was a blessing, for the added flexibility it provided gave him just enough reach to wrap his hand around the knife’s hilt and tear it free from his flesh.
Then and only then did he give himself permission to scream.
The man-beast was on its haunches facing away for a second as it reoriented itself. The ice was slippery, and it seemed to take a lot of effort for the creature to not fall. It must have known that he had the potential to escape it if he got far enough out on the ice, and put everything into catching him before that happened. Now it was at the mercy of its own footing. It swiveled around, baring a massive, fang-laden maw that seemed almost to sneer as it moved toward him.
“Come here, you bastard!” Sterling surprised himself with his sudden surge of confidence. The knife in his hand gave him a fighting chance, but the hot blood leaking down the back of his coat gave him a time limit. It was here and now or he knew it was over. “I’ll send you back to whatever Hell you crawled out of!”
The beast got a foothold behind it, solid enough to pounce from, and it took it, lunging at Sterling with tooth and claw. He could see the heat of its breath on the air. The lifelessness in its eyes had been replaced with a frenzied bloodlust. Time seemed almost to freeze, as if the entire Earth had stopped spinning in that instant. And then Sterling lurched toward the predator fist-first, and their bodies slammed together again with a cry.
After every shitty thing that had happened to him that night, Jim Sterling had a single stroke of luck. He lay in the snow covering the frozen Devil’s Lake, his arm halfway inside the mouth of a monster. The knife it had used on him in his car when it had the form of a man had driven up into the roof of its mouth and buried itself in the beast’s brain. He lay there with it twitching beside him, feeling the hot gush of blood running down his arm, not for a second considering that a single spasm, one spark of its synapses, and it could bite his arm off at the elbow. He lay there feeling drained, looking up at the partially cloudy night sky as more flakes of snow drifted down to cover him and his trophy.
But it wasn’t over yet. He may have slain the beast, whatever it was, but it may very well have taken him with it. Sterling was freezing to death, and he didn’t have the energy to get up and continue on. Some part of him, the part that was prone to giving up and giving in, told him to just roll over and die. He was the victor, now he could rest. But there was another part of him, one that had long been dormant, and now reawakened by his fight to the death. It screamed at him to fight.
Jim Sterling had an idea. He’d seen it in a movie once, but thought it could work. Hell, it beat lying out there waiting to die of frostbite. He tightened his grip on the knife’s handle and tugged, feeling the blade resist its new sheath in the monster’s skull. Another yank, and it slid free with a sigh. Holding his breath, Sterling hovered over the prone form of the monster, noting its exceptional size. It had definitely grown in stature as it transformed from man into beast.
Sterling buried the knife in the creature’s chest, then drew it out and stabbed it again. And again. He sawed at it, slicing and ripping at the flesh. It yielded to the blade as easily as any of the buck he had cleaned after hunting with his grandfather. It may have been monstrous in form, but it was still just another animal. At least Granddad taught me one thing useful, he thought as he slit the man-beast from neck to groin. The smell that wafted from its corpse almost made him gag, but he had to suffer through it if he wanted to survive the night.
Jim Sterling, father of little Tommy, a good Samaritan with a bad stroke of luck, crawled inside the beast, feeling the squish of its insides as they shifted to make room. The heat of it enveloped him like a blanket. He figured it might not stay warm throughout the entire night, but it could be just enough. Maybe someone would drive by and see the two cars, stop to take a look, and spot the massive form out on the lake. Maybe, just maybe, Jim Sterling would live to see tomorrow. He closed his eyes and sighed.
Back across the lake, a dozen headlights appeared, pulling up next to those of his car that he had left on. Unfortunately, Sterling was tucked in safe and warm and would never see them. Nor would he see the multitude of silhouettes passing in front of the headlights’ glare. Nor would he hear the angry howls as they set across the ice.
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