“Tell me what he said again? Just one more time.” He steered the truck around the splattered corpse of a former possum.
“He told those boys aren’t you supposed to be Christian? Jesus said not to judge people lest they themselves be judged.”
“And they were speechless.”
“Pretty much, yeah,” said his girlfriend, holding the phone away so she could tell the kids to get ready for dinner.
“He’s an awesome boy. You did good.”
“Nah,” she said, calling his oldest – the hero of the day – to come out of his room. “I just showed up in time to appreciate all your hard work.”
He laughed, slowing down to let the Subaru in front of him make a slow turn onto a dirt road. The snow was coming down softly, melting on the hood and on the road, but the lawns and the still-brown, not yet tilled fields were whitening up.
“So besides fixings for french toast,” he said, continuing on towards Main Street.
“Not much really,” she said. “I guess – you could rent a movie if you felt like it. I’m sure at the very least, we’ll have a two-hour delay, in the morning.”
“Please don’t let it be another snow day,” he laughed. “I was looking forward to some sleep.”
“Sleep?” she said. “Lazy.”
“You know I was kidding. When’s the last time we both had a day off, during the week?”
“Last year, maybe?”
The snow was coming down harder by the time he got to the store. The sounds of tires cruising on wet asphalt, and friendly voices echoing in the chilly night, made him think back on when he’d first moved to this town. How lonely he’d been. Not that he had a lot of friends now, but just enough. Just enough so that if something bad went down, he had some help at the ready. A single parent needed that. Kids got into all sorts of messes.
As he stood at the Red Box, he chided himself. Not a single parent anymore. Not with Leanne in his life, now. Brave girl, fielding endless questions about the kids. “Do they take after you, or their papa?”
At the checkout line with a gallon of milk, two loaves of bread, some peanut butter, two movies – one for him and Leanne and one for his daughter, who loved animals – and a case of crabmeat from the clearance aisle.
“What’re you gonna do with all that?” asked the cashier, smiling.
“No idea,” he said. “I don’t even like seafood.”
“You could make a salad,” she said. “Crab’s rich in arginine. Cats need it. In fact,” she paused before bagging the milk and he told her to go ahead, “if a cat doesn’t have arginine after 24 hours, it’ll die.”
“You don’t say,” he said, swiping his card. “Oh, right – it’s a chip.”
“Don’t you just hate that ol’ chip.”
Driving back, he took the shortcut road, a twisting, hilly mess that shaved off about five minutes from the trip, but the snow wasn’t sticking too bad yet and he didn’t spend the extra money on four wheel drive for nothing. His headlights beamed across a deer running away into the fields. He slowed down, not wanting to hit any more of the herd, should it venture across the road. Up ahead, more trucks were parked off the side; he pulled up and rolled down his window.
“Someone stuck?” he asked.
“Nah,” said a man walking over to his window. “Thinks he may have hit a panther or something.”
“A cougar? Ain’t seen nothing but possums and a bobcat since we moved here four years ago.”
“I know, but he swears it was a big ‘un. Chasing a deer across the road – a buck.”
He parked the truck on the grass and got out, curiosity getting the best of him. There were three other men gathered around the bed of a white truck.
“You saw it chasing a buck?” he asked. “Seriously?”
“I even took a picture of it with my phone,” said an older man. “Have a look.”
He squinted as the snow began to fall harder, and cupped his hand over the phone to shield its screen. “Holy shit.”
“Yeah!” laughed the older man. “I might ought to go home and get my rifle in case it comes back. Just live down the road.”
“So do I,” said another man.
“Tell you what – you feel like staying and watching our trucks while we ride back to my place in his? Let me give you my phone number in case it comes back.”
“Sure,” he said, wondering what he was getting into.
The three men left in the oldest’s truck, leaving their own vehicles parked in a line in front of his, and he stood there in the quiet night, listening to the sound of the snow gather on the cooling ground, melting on the still-warm hood of his Tacoma. He looked out into the valley that slowly climbed up to the dark mountain, and wondered if the cat was out there, still.
The trees behind him exploded in sound; another doe emerged, trotting across the road. He backed slowly up to the window of his truck to reach in and turn off the headlights. Suddenly there was movement from the field beyond, a few careful steps, then a burst of activity as the doe sprinted away, down and around the other trucks to circle back towards the darkening field, and a liquid shape, slung low but bipedal, slipping on the now-icy road, staggering, setting a huge front paw down for balance against the truck in front of his own.
He stared at it, his heart as frozen as the ground.
It had the head of a catamount of the Smokey Mountains, but it stood on two powerful legs, its thick tail resting upon the street as if for balance, and its snow-coated muscles shivering. Its breath came in steaming gusts, clouding the air, its huge chest expanding with great effort.
He wondered if it was injured.
He watched it turn back around and walk towards him; he’d turned off the headlights finally, and now the moon slipped out from behind a cloud in the ragged sky, the snow blowing away and then ceasing momentarily.
“What’s wrong with you?” he whispered, his throat dry as an old bone.
The creature fell upon all fours now, struggling, panting.
“Weren’t you scared, daddy?” his daughter’s voice played in his head, from the time when he’d told her about how he went down to the contractor’s office and filled out an application. “Scared those men would know?”
“No baby girl,” he said. “Well maybe just a little, but I needed the work. To take care of my family.”
“I want to show you something daddy,” she’d said. In her lap had been a book of ocean creatures. She’d opened to a page about seahorses.
“It says,” she’d read to him, “Seahorse daddies carry their babies in a pouch. Until the babies are ready to be born.”
“Well, that’s pretty cool.”
“That’s you, daddy,” she’d laughed.
The creature was trying to get back up on its feet; it stumbled.
He reached into the open window of his truck and grabbed at the plastic bag with the crabmeat. He brought the package to him, watching the beast come closer while he pried one of the cans from the plastic wrap.
“Hey buddy,” he whispered to the creature, popping open the can, then bending down, slowly, and sliding the can across the snow. “You hungry?”
The beast tensed immediately and stared at him; its eyes glowing like holographic gems in the near absence of light. It sniffed at the can, then reached out and picked it up.
“Holy shit,” he said for the second time that night.
The creature dipped a claw-tipped finger into the can, pulling out a wad of the meat, and ate it. It repeated this action ravenously, desperately, until the can was empty.
Six more opened cans slid the beast’s way.
He could hear a truck’s motor in the distance.
“Go on now,” he said, barely louder than a whisper. “Get.”
The creature stood there, eating from the cans, watching him.
“I’m serious – you’ve gotta get gone.”
It slowly ate from the last can, then licked its finger.
“I mean it now.” The truck’s lights could be seen, heading back up the hill.
He took a menacing step towards the creature. “Go on!” he yelled. It flinched, but stood its ground.
He got in his truck, flipped the lights on and hit the horn.
“I was worried,” Leanne said after he’d parked the truck at the mailboxes and walked up the steep road with the bags. She’d been standing on the porch. The snow was coming down again, harder now.
“Sorry, just helping a fella who got stuck,” he said, coming inside. “How are the kids? Did they give you any trouble?”
“Nope,” she said, putting the milk away and kissing his cheek. “All went to bed without a fuss. Like I said – you raised them right.”
He pressed his face to her neck, breathing the scent of her hair. “Sometimes,” he said. “I think they’re the ones who raised me.”