Some say, it couldn’t have happened to a better guy. I guess I’d have to agree since I’ve worked for Floyd Barney for going on five years. Oh, Floyd could be a regular guy when he wanted to. Most times he was so busy trying to impress everyone with his greatness that the regular Floyd Barney got lost in the shuffle. I’ve seen the real Floyd from time to time, most of the guys that work with us don’t know he’s in there. Old Floyd kept him well buried, as if having real emotions or caring about others was somehow a threat to his great masculinity.
Floyd likened himself to a real man because real men always caught the biggest fish and shot the biggest buck. According to Floyd, real men had wives who did what they were told, stayed home with the kids and had supper ready for when the real man came home after a long hard day. Real men were smarter than regular men. Real men told others what to do. Floyd Barney considered himself a real man, and he never hesitated to tell us his opinions about real men. Since most of us (except Floyd) had moved on ahead into the millennium, Floyd Barney’s idea of a real man was pretty funny for the most part. Not that we laughed about it in front of him. No sir, jobs in Maine were too scarce for that. But when we all got together in the cafeteria for two o’clock break and Floyd was somewhere else being a real man, we got quite a kick out of it.
You see, as far as Floyd was concerned, not one of us could hold a candle to him. If Charlie caught a twelve-inch trout, Floyd told everyone that he had caught a bigger one. If Steve shot himself an eight-point buck, Floyd woulda shot a twelve-pointer and on and on until it became almost comical to see how far Floyd would go with his stories. Plenty ‘o times we made stuff up just to watch Floyd come up one better.
Real men were above the law too, so Floyd thought until last hunting season, when the state police bagged him for poaching. Had to pay a three thousand dollar fine to get his ass out of that one. Could have gone to jail for it except for the sheriff being his brother-in-law and all. Caught him red-handed with two deer “both does” in the back of his pickup. Guess the state police didn’t fall for his story about his mother-in-law shooting one of them. Floyd’s mother-in-law’s been dead and buried for going on two years.
Floyd had this thing for hunting. It wasn’t natural: he was addicted to it. He just couldn’t seem to stop. Most hunters hunt to put a little meat on the table for the winter. Floyd hunted because he was a real man and real men hunt to kill!
This year hunting season—for Mainers only—began the Saturday before Halloween. The air was heavy with snow yet to fall and it was my privilege to go hunting with the great Floyd Barney. When Floyd picks you to go with him to his special hunting place, you’d better just say, “yes, sir. Thank you sir. I’ll be ready and waiting at dawn.”
When I tucked my orange clad skinny butt into Floyd’s truck that morning, the air felt wrong—like just before Hurricane Bob a few years back. My lanky legs snug to the dashboard sent engine vibrations rocketing up my six-foot frame as we roared off in Floyd’s pickup to his “special” hunting place. I thought we headed out toward Bingham way, but I must have got turned around somewhere because by the time Floyd was setting the parking break, I was as lost as a fly in the soup kettle.
An old rusty Ford grill torn from an ancient vehicle smiled up at me from the edge of an overgrown path of drifted leaves and pine needles snaking downward into the dense woods. Strange, the things that show up in places where you think nobody’s ever been before. In the distance I could see a gnarled and stunted black cherry tree crisscrossed with caterpillar webs and an old deer stand that looked to be growing from the side of a fungi covered dead pine—its needles rusty red against a cracked gray trunk. With all these things to look at, my eyes kept trailing back to that old Ford grill with its broken teeth bleeding rust into the thicket at my feet. The jagged smile on that old grill set off a mood that I didn’t much like.
“Will, I won’t worry about you ever finding these woods again,” Floyd’s voice held a hollow, tinny echo like he was talking to me through the center of a roll of paper towels. “I don’t know how I find them, myself. I just sort of head out toward Bingham way and end up here every time.”
Floyd paused and turned his head from side to side as if listening. It was at this time that I noticed there where no forest sounds: no birds twittering, no squirrels squawking. Nothing, just eerie silence.
“Old Ray Cone was the first to come here with me. Remember Ray? Old Indian guy worked for me back in eighty-seven? Thought he’d be man enough to hunt these here woods with me. Let me tell you: he was out here ten minutes and started crying about the wind.”
“The wind?” I asked, puzzled. “There’s no wind Floyd.”
It just so happened that a poplar tree full of old yellow leaves took this particular moment to rattle them leaves with a dry crackling sound. I never felt any wind but that sound sure jumped me.
“Shit, Will, don’t you go panicin’ on me now,” Floyd spat crouching low and turning in a circle. “You’re apt to see things in these woods you’ve never seen before.”
I took a deep breath and crouched low like Floyd. What the hell was the old man rambling about now? Was this a test of some sort? Hell, I needed this job.
“Well I guess I can shoot anything I can see, Floyd.” I said carefully.
Floyd grinned: “That’s the ticket. Just don’t be afraid. I swear these deer can smell fear.”
I hoped Floyd was making up that last statement.
Floyd hunkered down on a flat rock and I followed suit.
“The deer in these woods are mighty peculiar,” he said. “Remember that poaching charge last year?”
“I only shot one doe.” Floyd looked squarely at my face as if he expected me to argue.
“It was right here in these woods I shot her. Wasn’t till I got closer that I noticed the other un. Another identical doe attached to the one I shot. Attached! Connected at the neck with a strange looking umbilical cord. Shoulda left that freak for the wolves, but the wolves of these woods . . . Well, that's another story.
“You just be careful, Will. These deer are something different. Don’t quite know the gist of it all but you’re apt to see anything here.”
As we moved further into the dense silent forest, Floyd’s rambling became more bizarre. He spoke of seeing does with racks of horns. White, albino deer with red eyes. Even a completely hairless buck.
As far as I was concerned, Floyd was telling more of his famous yarns. Until I saw Siamese deer for myself, I’d just nod and go along with Floyd’s foolishness like we do back at the shop. Wait till the guys heard these tales!
The buck emerged from the thicket with the speed and suddenness of a lightning storm. It was as ugly as a bull moose and almost as big. Fear gripped me and I froze. Ten feet away stood the most hideous critter this real man had ever seen.
It was black, like soot, with eyes the color of mud. An oversized head sported a rack of antlers so twisted and out of whack, I couldn’t believe that the poor thing could be standing upright.
I saw Floyd raise his weapon to get a bead on it. The idea of putting something this grotesque on the dinner table was not for me.
As Floyd prepared to take a shot, the buck bellowed the most inhuman sounding wail these Maine ears had ever heard. A series of sharp cracks followed the cry and Floyd fell over beside me.
If I hadn’t seen this sight with my own two eyes, I’d have thought the world was caving in. Bits of hard black bone fragments were pelting Floyd’s face. The Goddamn buck was shooting him. It appeared that these fragments propelled with fierce accuracy through the tips of those twisted antlers. One whizzed by my cheek as I bent to help Floyd.
“Kill it, Will.” Floyd mumbled spitting out blood and broken teeth. “Kill that Goddamn twisted freak.”
Blood gouted freely from holes in Floyd’s neck and face. I think he had a chest wound; I could hear his breath wheezing in and out.
“Kill it!” he screeched at me
I hadn’t noticed the absence of sound until just at that moment when I turned to face the beast. It had vanished, disappeared as suddenly as it had emerged. The clearing was empty and silent.
I turned back to Floyd. “What the hell was that thing?”
Floyd’s eyes were rolling in their sockets, his labored breathing loud in the surrounding silence.
“Listen, Old Man. What is this place?” I shook him till his broken teeth rattled.
Floyd’s eyes cleared a bit and he chuckled.
“I was afraid. I was afraid and it got me. Dern thing knew.”
“What is this place, Floyd? What did Ray say about the wind?”
Floyd coughed out a bubbling froth of red. Wheezed in another breath and gripped my arm like a vise.
“Ray said . . . Ray said . . .” His eyes started rolling back again.
I shook him again. “What did Ray say, Floyd?”
“Said the spirit . . . of the dead . . . float in the wind here. Said these woods is possessed.” Floyd grinned; his lips pulled far back from his bloody jagged teeth. He took another hitched breath and it was his last.
~~~The creatures of the forest were unlike any I’d ever seen before. From hairless, scabby rodents to albino, stunted animals, they scampered soundlessly on the edges of my vision. Their mournful cries haunted my escape. Pitiful glowing red eyes burned through the gloom watching as I stumbled through the briars and vines back to the path that led to Floyd’s truck.
I just had to make it back to the truck.