This text was further down in the official document, with an asterisk beside it. At the bottom of the second page, below the bulk of the text, an italicized footnote read: Minor variances in testing methodology and the DNA samples themselves sometimes result in findings that cannot be traced to a particular region and/or population group.
“Fucking bullshit!” I took hold of my sandwich, squeezed it into ooze between my fingers, and heaved it against the wall. The glob of meat and bread slid to the tiled floor, leaving a long streak of mayonnaise in its wake. At that perfect moment, Jessie came through the front door, his t-shirt soaked with sweat. I stuffed the letter under one of the wicker placemats.
“How was your study group?” he asked.
“Fine. The usual.”
His gaze went from the sandwich catastrophe, to the empty though trashed envelope I had forgotten to hide, to my strained posture. He pointed at the envelope. “What’s that?”
“I’m not ready to tell you yet.”
He shrugged. “Okay. Did you call the doctor about your joint pain? I texted you the number for that rheumatologist.”
“No. I swear I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Arthritis can hit at any age.”
“You’re not my mother.”
He shook his head. “I’m going to shower.”
He went into our bedroom, then strolled naked to the bathroom and closed the door. When I was sure he wouldn’t peek back out, some trick to catch me at my game, I slid out the YourAncestry letter again. But the smell of the roast beef was making me nauseous, so pungent as if it had already become rotted. I snatched the mess up and dumped it down the garbage disposal. The sound of the grinding metal claws was oddly calming.
“What are you thinking about?” Jessie snuck up on me wearing only a towel.
I pointed to the letter. “I got the results of that DNA test.”
He took it with his typical slow deliberation. He read it; he studied the front and back; he nodded. “You’re a mystery, it appears.”
I glared at him. “This isn’t funny.”
“You just wanted to post on Facebook gleefully telling everyone about your complicated genetic makeup.”
“Why? I’m already complicated enough.”
He laughed in his deep, slow way. “Don’t I know.”
We each pretended to prepare for a fight, our noses touching, our chests flared out, before he dropped his towel and kissed me and then pushed me down the hallway to our bedroom. We had sex, and then he massaged me, easing the tension that always seemed to be tightening my muscles, making my joints ache. Oil dripped into the small valley of my spine. The vape pen pressed against my lips, which he manipulated without my needing to move. I got so fucking high the mattress felt like a dandelion bonanza.
“You’re not going to get all hairy, are you?” Jessie pushed up on his elbows. The antique bed frame creaked as he moved. Above us, two rows of bookshelves delicately held almost a hundred books, half of them my boring (even to me) political tomes and the others his tidy classics, from O’Connor to Faulkner to Wright.
“You know,” I said, “I have been thinking about a beard.”
He put his hand on my cheek. “If you grow a beard, I’m going to ask for my money back.”
“You only get a partial refund,” I said and kissed him before giving my serious stare. “Look, this is really important to me.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “The beard?”
“Why don’t you just ask your parents? I’m sure they’d want to help.”
70’s jazz started playing through in-ceiling speakers, and the room lights switched to orange, an automated thing we did to announce bedtime. While this should have been soothing, instead I sparked with anger. “You know better.”
He squeezed my chin with oil-scented fingers. “I know you’re afraid of hurting them. But they love you. They’re not going to freak out.”
The room’s glow struck me as haunting, a kind of dream state, a pumpkin-colored gloom. Between songs it was so quiet I could hear his heartbeat, a disturbing thump that made me slightly nauseous.
“I don’t know. Maybe I need to sleep.”
He studied me as I flopped on my back, face straight up on the pillow. “Alexa,” he said, “play meditation music.”
Alexa’s voice was warm and feminine, not so much like a mother but an annoyingly rational big sister. The most calming sounds floated into the room, synthesizer and love flute entwined in a simple dance. It was the kind of music white people stole from the indigenous and called “world music.” That irritant alone kept me awake.
“What is it you like about me?” I asked as we glided onto the I-70 West ramp.
It took him a second to draw up from his daydream. “I like all the things about you, Marcus. Each thing. Stop being so hard on yourself.”
No apologies spoken. No grand makeup. We were going, he was right, and that was that.
I settled in for the drive, gazing lazily out the window. The trees, while past full autumn bloom, still held bunches of orange and red leaves. In some places, winds had stripped long sections clean. These were massed along the highway like clusters of discarded wire. It had the cumulative effect of being both joyous and depressing.
What I had never told anyone, not even Jessie, was that I had long harbored the idea that my parents had been lying about my adoption. Lately, with my anguish over first applying for the DNA test and then getting the results, I felt almost sure. Maybe I wanted to believe it, because then I would have a secret.
“I appreciate this,” I said. “Not that I’m excited for it, but you’re here with me. That means a lot.”
My parents greeted us already standing at the end of the front walk. Jessie came dressed as sharply as a mogul on holiday. Dad poured him a Scotch while they discussed the former Redskins, a conversation I was happy to miss. I helped Mom in the kitchen. She had made an assortment of hors d’oeuvres: biscuits and jams and cookies and puffed pastries which I helped set out on the table.
The upright piano in the family room had an ornate, plastic turkey on its top. Not typical fare for my mother, who must have gotten it at a yard sale. It made me oddly nervous, as if someone’s idea of a joke, as if it might burst into gobble-gobbles and start hopping around. Along with this bit of fantasia, a weird resentment bubbled up to see Jessie so relaxed. He and dad always hit it off, though (or maybe because) Jessie was closer to his age then mine. They even both snuck outside to smoke just before we ate, dad the old-fashioned way and Jessie on the vape.
Mom pulled an immaculate-looking turkey from the oven. “He is so handsome.”
She kept busy at the stove, using spatulas to get three different pots of various vegetables into serving bowls and then quickly washing the pans in the double sink. “Have you gotten taller? Maybe it’s a late growth spurt?”
“Growth spurt? I’m twenty-three! What the fuck?”
“Marcus!” She looked shocked, but something in my face changed it to concern, and she placed a hand on my cheek. “What’s wrong?”
This was a typical thing she would do to probe, kind of like how fortune tellers always home in on negative shit to seem attuned to your “essence” (I see a dark cloud over you. Has anything happened recently that might have caused this?). This time, however, she caught me in the middle of a panic attack.
I blurted it all out. “I need to know about my birth parents, Mom. I did one of those ancestry things, you know, like you see in the commercials all the time. Anyway, it showed that half of my DNA can’t be traced, and I’ve been starting to have these joint issues, it might be a genetic thing, I mean, it could be nothing, but there are just these changes, and I want to know, in fact, I need to know if you or Dad have any other information about when you adopted me, because I feel like I’m going to lose my mind if I don’t figure this shit out.”
I came to a halt, and after a moment sucked in a breath a little shakily.
Mom stopped prepping dinner, wiped her hands on the dish towel, and walked to the sliding door onto the deck. At first, I thought she was in a daze and might just keep going into the backyard and start screaming. Instead, she called out, “Dan, can you and Jessie come in? Marcus needs to talk about something.”
No shock, no questions, only the call to order of a family meeting. Mom could be like that, so it didn’t alarm me, though the Stepford quality of her demeanor put me off balance. Once everyone was in, she shuttled us into the family room. The fireplace was hot with the fan cranked up, its fiery blast hitting me most directly at the end of the couch. Mom and Dad sat opposite Jessie and me in their old armchairs, which were each covered in an ungodly flower fabric.
Mom cleared her throat, as if beginning a speech she had rehearsed to heart. “Marcus did one of those DNA tests,” she said, laying her hand on Dad’s. “He received some strange results, and he’s concerned he may have some genetic traits that are—well, that might need medical attention.”
She gave accent to this last bit, as if speaking in code to clue Dad in. He stared at the floor. It was as if he might find something tangible there at his feet, a little burning bush that magically appeared to dispense knowledge. I noticed how hard he gripped Mom’s hand. Jessie must have noticed too, because his own hand squeezed mine just the same.
“Son,” Dad started, in a somber, serious voice, “we always meant to tell you. It’s one of those things. The longer you wait, the more shameful you feel for not saying so sooner…”
His words trailed off. Mom had to nudge him. The clock chimed three slow bongs, and then the clicks of its internal mechanism counted off the passing time.
“Marcus, we haven’t told you the whole truth about your adoption.”
Surprisingly, I didn’t feel upset. I was more relieved. However, when I tried to speak there was no air in my lungs. His pause turned into awkward silence, until he seemed to realize I would say nothing.
“We love you. We wanted you desperately. I told your mom the best thing we could do was adopt a child so that we could make a real difference in their life. That proved more problematic than we thought. It took money we didn’t have. So, we turned to what some people might call a… a shady lawyer to help us.”
With each word, both my confidence and my anger grew. Relief gave way to hotheaded umbrage.
“The truth is the lawyer arranged for us to get you from a poor family directly. He specialized in these kinds of adoptions. We drove to a place in West Virginia. Poor, son, as poor as I’ve ever seen. Trash all around, dead animals all around. We found you bundled in an old bassinet. Such a precious child, we took you on the spot.”
Jessie spoke for me. “So, what you’re saying is that you bought him, right? You paid these people cash or something?”
Jessie took control in a moment that I had no control myself. Because of that small effort on his part, I did not go totally fucking ballistic.
“Not quite,” Mom said. “I mean, yes, we gave a little money, but not for you. The family had some expenses, they said, bills that needed paying. It amounted to less than five hundred dollars.”
At this, she suddenly began to sob. It was horrifying—Mom was the one who never lost control. She was like Jessie in that way.
Dad hugged her, though he wasn’t doing much better. “We didn’t think anything of it at the time,” he said, “because we were so happy. We planned to one day tell you. But when you were old enough, we were cowards on that part. I’m so sorry.”
It was as if I was watching them at my own funeral, my body having become incorporeal, as they bawled and wrung their hands.
Jessie grew impatient. “Well then, what is it?”
Mom looked at him confused. “I don’t understand.”
“You’re not telling us something. What is it?”
I couldn’t decide if his camaraderie with my dad earlier helped or hurt now. His sturdy posture and dapper clothes struck me as authoritative, with my parents acquiescing—withered even. It felt for all the world like he was my attorney, cross examining hostile witnesses.
Dad gathered himself enough to speak, his eyes still glued to the carpet. “The man who said he was your father… he… Jesus, this is impossible…”
The room spun. The words spewed from my mouth. “What the fuck is wrong with me? You two have been lying all this time, and now I’m dying!”
Jessie’s face contorted in a way that would have struck me as comical any other day of my life. “Marcus! What the hell?”
“What?” Mom screamed. “Are you joking? This is no time.”
I stood and looked down on them all recoiled against their couch and chair arms. “I just knew you’ve been hiding something. And I can feel it in my blood—there’s something very wrong with me!”
Dad wiped his lips with his forearm. “Marcus, please calm down. Look, I don’t even want to tell you this, but you’re obviously feeling, well, upset. And it’s time to stop hiding it. The thing is, we got the distinct impression that your father is also… your grandfather.”
I stared at them, sitting side by side, the way I remembered them all my life, except now the secret was finally out.
“Okay. So. I’m not a monster. Just monstrous.”
Mom became inconsolable, shivering until she collapsed into Dad’s embrace. I couldn’t even look at Jessie. I wandered around this Tennessee Williams disaster in a daze until I stopped at the piano and grabbed that fucking plastic turkey with every intent to smash it to pieces. But I fainted instead, cast into darkness on the wings of calamity.
At home, he jumped immediately in the shower. It was unlike him to abandon me, but his disgust at my outburst had been apparent. Later, he brooded in the living room.
I sat beside him on the couch so that our thighs touched. “Want to have sex?”
He moved his leg away from me. “You’re going to have to give this some time, okay?”
“I’m sorry. How long? I can’t wait around forever.” The joke fell flat.
“I can’t—you want to go find them, don’t you?”
He shuddered, whether because he was angry or despondent I wasn’t sure. But hearing him say it out loud brought shame to what I’d known since we left my parents: I did need to meet my birth family more than ever. It was a compulsion at this point, something I had to see to the end.
I got up to retrieve the birth certificate from the envelope I’d put on the table, set it in his hand, and intently watched as he read it. Not all that much to read, but he looked at it for a long time.
“You know this is crazy, right?” He spoke with punctuated venom. “That this shit is goddamn insane?”
“You’re right. But I’m scared about what’s going on with me, and I need answers.”
“What? That you might be a monster? A werewolf maybe?” He showed no signs of joking.
I took his hand. “I’m sorry I said what I said. But you know going to my parents was hard. And what they confessed was so fucking…and I have been having these joint issues. Maybe these Hendersons can help, or at least fill in the gaps.”
He yanked his hand away. “This is crazy, Marcus. You don’t know these people. From what your father said, they could be dangerous.”
“I’m the one who started in with the monsters, remember? From what my father said, they could just be poor. And I need to know why that ancestry test shows fifty percent unidentified; and I need medical answers. So I’m going to go soon, and I’m going by myself.”
Jessie’s angry veneer vanished in an instant, so that the scared, horrified lover beneath could emerge. “Alone?”
“On the off chance they are dangerous, I can’t put you in danger too. Listen, I will check in with you constantly, let you know what’s happening. It will be strange enough to have me show up—”
“And you don’t want your boyfriend showing up?”
“That’s not fair.”
But the juxtaposition had occurred to me: I’d be heading to the deep country for this reunion, and my real family might be a bunch of redneck assholes, or worse. It was a strange mix I felt, of curiosity that needed to be quelled, and horror at what I might have come from.
We did have sex that night, moving from couch to bed, his need for it as urgent as mine, but relief didn’t last for us both. After he fell asleep, I tensed up to the point my calf muscles cramped. All I could do was lay there hoping I wasn’t some genetic mess from a hillbilly nightmare.
Once through the worst of northern Virginia’s traffic, I hit the low hills of Front Royal. Trees and more trees, and later chunneled holes through mountains to allow the interstate to continue west. After lunch I passed a “Welcome to West Virginia” sign, which showed mountains and their tagline, “Wild and Wonderful.”
The birth certificate lay on the passenger seat, drawing my attention from the road with the lure of my birth mother’s name: Victoria Imogen Henderson. I wondered if she was pretty. Blonde hair, skin as white as lilies, eyes so blue they conjured the Aryan nation. Then I chastised myself for such thoughts. I had worried about being a werewolf, but now I was upgrading to Nazi spawn. Maybe I should try looking on the bright side for a change: I knew the truth and was about to learn more, for better or worse.
The signs for Haplinsburg started to show in the afternoon. The local roads wound through dizzying switchbacks as the town neared. Shacks sat up the steep hillsides. Some could only be reached by rickety looking wooden bridges, white foam rapids churning below. The town proper announced itself by way of a red sign with gold letters: Haplinsburg, West Virginia, Home of the Paul Bunyan Festival.
Though only early evening, the town looked shut down. Not a single person walked on the sidewalks, and all the shops were closed. Early to bed, early to rise, and all that. I’d booked a night at the Gauley Valley Motel Six, three miles outside the town. After another ten minutes of terrifying switchbacks and one lane bridges, I arrived at a lonely rambler style building and an empty parking lot.
A man the size of an erect bear greeted me inside, his beard as thick as briars. I thought he was mute, the way he grunted and nodded toward the things I needed to do, like sign in and pay. At room 14, I used an old-fashioned metal key, turned the knob, and was met by the foul smell of mold. As I stood in the doorway, I remembered my promise and sent a text to Jessie only to get a message that said, “Network not found. Please check with your provider.” Great.
I turned to take in the view. The sloping valleys might have been beautiful, but the darkening sky laid low, and the trees lacked any color and were instead desiccated tendrils, peppered with regurgitated mounds of silvery rock. No cell service, no parking lot lights, not a single other car. On top of all this, I hadn’t eaten since getting some junk food at a Sheetz at the West Virginia line.
The motel clerk puttered from his back room when I entered again.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said, “but is there any place I could get something to eat?”
His eyes had all the depth of a corpse, and I expected him to silently flap one paw towards some distant diner. Imagine my surprise when the briars parted. “Nothing open now. I’ve got a snack machine is all.”
My brain struggled to churn out any logical thoughts. So, being tired as well as hungry, I plowed forward without hesitation. “Hey, I was wondering if you could help me? I’m looking for Victoria Henderson. She’s family I haven’t seen in a long time.”
He looked befuddled. I wondered if he had been smoking crystal or sniffing glue in back. “I know the Hendersons. I went to school with Vick. But hey, your name’s—” he dipped his head to look at the guest book “—Frippington? What kind of name is Marcus Frippington?”
I shook my head. “British, I think? But, hey, thanks for the info.”
As I reached for the door, he spoke again. “My name is Arthur Townes,” he said, as if the sharing of names was a ritual. “Tell you what, I’ll let Vick know you’re looking for her.”
“Oh, no, no! You don’t have to do that. I have the address. I was planning on visiting tomorrow.”
“It’s fine,” he said, and for the first time grinned, a toothy thing smothered by that beard. “Always glad to help out family.”
I had to get out of my room. It had wood-panel walls and a messy shag carpet the color of vanilla pudding. The TV was one of the ancient CRT types, its picture growing to fill the screen when it turned on. Two stations that I could find. One played a black-and-white movie, but I kept the sound off. An owl hooted as I stood in a daze. Then a wolf howled. Something tippy-tapped on the roof behind me.
Then another hoot, another howl.
Freaked out, I shuffled inside, locked the door, and slid the chain latch in place. A scrape started along on the outside wall, made its way toward the door, and then stopped. There were three loud knocks. After a few seconds, three more came, more forceful with each knock, so that the last one rattled the door on its hinges.
I tiptoed up to it: no peephole to stare into. “Hello?”
“I’m looking for Marcus Frippington,” a man’s voice said.
A long pause as voices whispered; there was more than one person outside. “I hear you’re looking for us.”
I gripped the knob and pulled open the door a crack. A man stood in overalls and a greasy cap, easily in his seventies, over six-and-a-half feet tall and thin as a wafer. Beside him, a woman closer to mom’s age, maybe younger, had her arm in his. She also towered uncommonly. There was a hint of something on the formerly clean-smelling air, too… animal shit, maybe? Were they farmers?
“Is it him?” she said.
“Yep, you were right. It’s our boy.”
Our boy. I stared at my possible father/grandfather and mother/sister, both ghoulish in the moon’s light, faintly reeking of shit, or meth lab solvents, or whatever, smiling with gaps in their teeth…
…and yet as warm and inviting as Christmas gifts under the tree. They were quaint; they smiled and waited patiently for me. Dentistry aside, Vick was quite beautiful. She did have blonde hair and blue eyes, and all of her gleamed under the moon’s shine.
“You probably have a lot of questions,” she said, and broke down crying.
I was entirely too stoned to deal with this. Then she really surprised me by pushing open the door and clutching me to her tightly, her mouth against my neck, her tears spilling onto my skin. The man joined the hug, too, wrapping his long arms around the two of us completely, all huddled in the doorway of my little motel room.
“I’m John Henderson,” he said, “and you seem to already know about Vick. Come along, why don’t we take you to meet the rest of your family.”
He motioned toward a pickup truck parked in front of the now closed office. Arthur Townes must have called it a night—after he rang up my birth family. The truck, rusted so severely I could see the engine block through the front quarter panel, had a massive cab, two corroded exhaust pipes jutting vertically from either side of it, and a wood flatbed. The wheels looked as big as boulders.
“I was planning to come tomorrow,” I said, feeling the beginning of a half-tripping panic attack gathering strength. “I’m not prepared—”
Vick sucked in a breath. “Please, I know you must be so angry, coming here to meet the people who…” She faltered, then squeezed me so tightly her shirt pulled down to reveal the tops of her breasts. I jolted back instinctively and she began to cry harder.
John caressed her cheek. “None of that,” he said. “He won’t hold nothing against us. We did what we had to do.”
I looked back and forth between them. John kind of eyed me, as if to pass on a silent message, his head nodding toward her. And somehow, instead of fully freaking out, I found myself saying “Oh, right. Don’t blame yourself. I’m just happy to finally meet you.”
John gave me a big, gappy smile and a wink as Vick let me go, wiping her eyes (and nose) with her bare arm. Then he jerked his head towards the pickup, eyebrows raised, all friendly encouragement.
“Oh,” I said. “Sure. I guess it’s fine. Let me just get my phone.”
Once we squeezed in, Vick in the middle and taking my hand in hers, the truck pulled out slowly, heading in the opposite direction of Haplinsburg town proper. We three sat comfortably and silently in a line, shoulder to shoulder as we bounced along. Even though they seemed real enough, I was still very high and half wondered if I was having a psychotic break. But now that we were in close quarters, the smell coming off them was eye-watering, and I could feel the cold metal of the door on my arm.
So real, I guess.
Or hell, if it was a psychotic break, then it was a good one.
“A little steep through here,” John said.
The air chilled. The road evened. And we turned hard left, and I saw smoke rising another quarter mile back into the woods. The ground looked more stone than dirt. As we rounded a final curve, the homestead came into view: random debris and trash lined the perimeter; chickens darted jerkily around; there were so many dead animals—cats mostly, I think—flung into the embankment it seemed purposeful. Dad had actually been kind in his description of the place.
A small dwelling stood amidst the heaps of refuse. A light flickered through a front window, which was covered by iron bars. Boards ran over what looked to be a perpetually muddy area between the end of the track and the front door.
The truck lurched to a stop. John opened his door, while Vick nudged me out. “Go on, we’re here. Everyone will be so excited to meet you.”
I shuffled my feet as she pushed me forward, my legs like a marionette’s. A dog’s wail rose up, the kind of sound a bloodhound must make when it gets a whiff of its prey. Pots clanged inside, and there was loud talking. A small, white face peered from behind the curtains. As the three of us approached, the door was flung open. A decrepit man, so old his skin bunched in wrinkled folds, stood in the doorway and glared at me. An equally old woman appeared from behind him, holding an iron skillet as a weapon. The smell that wafted from inside was worse than a latrine.
The old woman stepped forward and put a grimy palm on my cheek. “I can’t tell.”
John stepped through. “It’s him.”
Every neuron in my nervous system fired, a response urging me to run the fuck out of there as fast as I could, or to blink my eyes until I snapped out of this nightmare. But I forced calm on myself. I told myself that my arrogance was speaking, to see these poor people and think myself better than them. They hadn’t harmed me, hadn’t threatened me. They were being nothing but kind and welcoming. My dad’s insinuation about incestuous parentage struck me as crazy now, as yet more superiority leveled at these people, who were, in fact, my family.
We poured inside to a cluster of accumulated furniture and odd paraphernalia: antlers mounted on the walls; ancient black-and-white pictures of dusty mountain folk; old-style Christmas lights decorating the windows. Vick took my hand and sat me on a plaid recliner. She, John, and the centenarian couple sat opposite on the couch. It was reminiscent of the family meeting only a few days before in my parents’ house.
“Don’t look like Father,” the old man said, which struck me as a strange way to say it.
“Look in his eyes,” John said. The other three leaned forward as if I were an object in a museum. The old man nodded, recognizing something at last.
“So, you probably have questions,” Vick said.
“Well, a lot actually. I’m not sure where to start.”
John began to answer, but before any words came out, the front door swung open. There stood Arthur Townes. His bulk seemed to have increased since I last saw him, as he barely fit through the doorway. His beard had grown to almost shroud his face completely; hair grew out of his plaid shirt, the kind of chest hair that could only be called hirsute. His arms were as thick as cut logs.
“Ah, good,” John said. “Everyone is here?”
“Most everyone came.” Arthur cowered as if terrified. His eyes glowed with yellowed jaundice; his nose was caked with gunk. His expression was kind and yet also full of confusion. He bent timidly and came forward. In horror, I watched as he continued to grow, the crown of his hairy head bumping against the ceiling. Then came the growls. The four on the couch lounged without a care.
“Oh, fuck,” I blurted. “I am a werewolf.”
The four sitting burst into laughter. Arthur stared at me as if trying to try to piece together what was going on as much as I was. “Oh, good Lord,” the old woman said. “Father ain’t a werewolf. You’ve got a lot to get straight.”
Arthur—looking less and less like Arthur with each passing second—opened his mouth to reveal rows of pointed teeth. His arms took on a slick sheen, a foul aroma exploding from his pores. Then the power flickered, sending the lamps and Christmas lights to half their original brightness.
“This was a mistake,” I managed to say. “Please, you can take me back?”
“Oh, don’t be alarmed, boy,” the old woman croaked. “Father just wants to meet you.”
When I tore my eyes away, it was to see all four of the others begin to grow too, their skin slick with ooze and hair. I ran for the front door, bounding past the large but lethargic Arthur, only to be met by a semi-circle of roughly three dozen people around the front of the house. For a split second I thought they might be townsfolk gathered with pitchforks and clubs, ready to fight these monsters. But they too looked to be stretching upwards, their silhouettes blending with the dark trees around us.
John slapped a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t be alarmed. We’re not going to hurt you. We’re just glad you’ve come home. Father wants to see you, get a good look, and finally make you part of the family.”
A figure lurched from the trees, standing over twelve feet high. Horns curled around the sides of its head like a ram, and a beard grew so massive it could hide a child within. It was naked, the bulk of its arms and legs impossible, almost as thick as the torso they grew from, and ridiculous quantities of more thick hair almost concealing the pendulous swing of what hung from its body. The beast screamed into the night, a coarse roar that echoed down the mountainside. A stench of sewage blew toward me, even though it stood twenty feet away.
I hyperventilated and was only kept from falling by John and Vick’s grips on my arms. Running for my life came to mind, except I knew my legs weren’t capable of any extended escape. As the beast stalked closer, my joints seized, making me straight as a board.
“I want to go home,” I said, though it came out as a squeak.
Vick whispered in my ear, “Oh, my sweet baby boy. That’s just Father. Grandfather, too, and great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather. But Father to us all. Father to you.”
I spent a split second imagining my conception—of any woman breeding with this thing. I wanted to vomit. Finally able to stand on my own, I shook their hands from my arms and stood to face it.
Father. Here, in the Home of the Paul Bunyan Festival.
A laugh escaped me, followed by riotous giggles. Then I ran, sprinted as fast as I could, toward the townsfolk gauntlet, but I was barely past a dour woman who held a broom—which struck me as the strangest thing of all—before I was snatched from behind and held several feet off the ground.
Meaty, wet, hairy hands gripped both sides of my waist. Father turned me so that we faced, and I peered into his eyes, where a fire seemed to glow. He hugged me into his long, thick beard, which carried a rancid stench so foul I choked.
“Home,” he spoke low. “Family now. One of us.”
Then he covered my face with his lips, the whole front of my head into his mouth, so I could see the blackish-pink flesh dangling at the back, the massive swell of tongue, teeth like a shark’s. He exhaled a massive breath, sending warm, acidic fumes down my stupidly open mouth.
My chest heaved to the point of bursting.
My mind raced with images of this thing through the years, bestial fornications, the long lineage from colonial times, its previous home in some godforsaken European forest, many meals of flesh and bone. Then here, with long decades of banjos, and moonshine, and… and happy folk, dancing into the night, days spent hunting and tending tough crops. Women who would willingly wander into the woods to seek out Father.
My story. My ancestry.
Before Father removed his mouth from my face, everything went blissfully black.
A smidgen of light peaked around the edges of the curtains. I threw open the front door. The same parking lot, my lonely car where I had left it, and an early mountain morning.
The stench of Father rose from every part of me.
In under a minute, the car spit rocks, and I was headed back through Haplinsburg. Only when I was far out of town did it occur to me to call Jessie. Though he screamed at me for not getting in touch sooner, his voice calmed me, and I let him rant just to hear his voice.
I said it was a dead end. The family moved away.
When I got to the city, I ran straight into his arms. He had a lot of questions, which I begged off answering for now. The air felt stifling; in the distance police sirens wailed. I got in the shower. My clothes must have masked the Fatherly smell, or maybe Jessie just assumed it was normal backwoods stench, as he never said a thing. But standing naked, even in the warm water the numerous odors of my Haplinsburg encounter were pungent. I scrubbed until my skin was raw, sure I saw new growths of hair, still slight, but more numerous.
Home. Family now. One of us.
My calves seized with cramps, the pain so stark it took my breath away. I doubled up, sucking humid air deep into my lungs, digging my thumbs into the throbbing muscles and shaking under the hot flow. I thought of hiding in the shower all day.
In bed that night, I lay far too long awake. Jessie slept peacefully, his light snores fitting oddly with the music from the smart speakers. His scent blossomed upward, and I drew it in, the smell of cologne and his wonderful pheromones. I loved him so much it made me tremble with fear.
I pressed my head to his chest, and his heartbeat sounded with a strong rhythm. I didn’t want him to wake—what if he saw my bones stretched, my tendons ached toward snapping? Ran his hands over my chest and felt oily sweat and tufts of newly coarse hair? Slipped a finger into my mouth, and pricked himself on now razor teeth? Kissed me, but tasted Father’s foetid breath?
I only wanted to make it through the night, and hoped the morning light would bring a release somehow. But I could smell him so strongly, could recall Father’s dreams spun into me. And in my chest, a steady pulse as my own heart thumped. As if, behind Jessie’s jazz coming through our speakers, I heard the lively thrum of an Appalachian jig.
Not for the first time, I felt the urge to devour him.
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