When I was fourteen years old, I was forced to make my first kill. Now I’m fifteen and I bagged two more just last week.
My name is Matt Archer. And I hunt monsters.
* * *
Four Months Ago
“Matt! Uncle Mike’s here. Get a move on!”
Mom was always in a hurry. Her job as a lawyer kept food on the table, as she liked to remind us. But it also kept her in motion, saying stuff like “time is money.” My question was, if time was money, then why weren’t we all rich? Smartass comments like that got me grounded though, so I kept my mouth shut and ran down the stairs.
After dumping my backpack and sleeping bag by the front door, I rounded the corner to the living room to greet Uncle Mike.
He rose from the sofa, towering over me, and stretched. The muscles on his arms, neck and shoulders flexed like a pro-wrestler’s. Uncle Mike was a Green Beret, and it showed. “Hey, soldier, what’s up?”
“Like I’ve never heard that one before,” Mike said when I laughed at my own joke. “Ready to deploy?”
“Yeah. I decided to wear my camo this time, go in stealth mode.”
Uncle Mike looked down at his own clothes. He was wearing old jeans, a bright red flannel shirt, and a Colorado Rockies cap crammed down over his light-brown hair. “Nice idea,” he said, “but I’m not sure the bears and deer will care much about your camo. Let’s move out.”
The evening sky was streaked with gold and pink, but still light enough for us to make it to the campgrounds before nightfall. One of the advantages of living in Montana—good camping was only thirty minutes from anywhere. I piled my gear into the back of Mike’s Jeep. The car smelled awesome: cigars and gasoline. Mom nagged him to quit with the cigars, but I thought it was cool. Just like Wolverine.
“Hey, can we have the top down?” I asked.
Mike shrugged. “If you don’t mind that the wind chill will be forty degrees, doesn’t bother me.”
We pulled the soft cover off the Jeep and packed it over the camping equipment in the back. The air was scented with pine; our trees were getting their “fall coats,” as Mom put it, and the needles smelled like Christmas. This was my favorite time of year, before winter set in like an unwanted houseguest.
“Hard to believe it’s October. We’ll have to brace for a big snow soon.” Mike put the Jeep in gear and backed out. “Means this is the last jaunt of the year, Chief.”
I nodded, hoping the ache I felt in my chest didn’t show on my face. Camping with Mike was the only special thing I had that my older sibs didn’t. My sister, Mamie-the-brain, was too much of a bookworm to go with us and my brother, Brent-the-football-hero, had his “social engagements.” What it really meant was that I was neither a brainiac, nor popular enough to have other plans on the weekends, so Mike took me camping. Honestly, I loved it, even if it branded me a dweeb with no social life.
Mike glanced at me, a sad smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. “Heard from your Dad?”
He tried to keep the anger out of his voice, but I still heard it, like sandpaper rubbing an old scab. “Brent got a birthday card when he turned seventeen.”
“That was April, man.”
“Yeah, well, that was our summer greeting, I guess,” I said. “You know what he sent Brent for his birthday? A Hooters calendar. Mom had a total fit.”
Maybe he’d send me one, too. Not likely I’d get anything though. Since Dad ditched us while Mom was pregnant with me, I was an afterthought. It seemed like Dad would rather spend what little time he had to give on my popular-athletic-jerk of a brother. Not that I was bitter or anything. Well, not entirely bitter.
“At least he knows what Brent likes,” Mike said, a soft thread of laughter floating through his voice. “Although, I can see how Dan-Dan would be pissed about it.”
“Don’t let Mom hear you calling her ‘Dan-Dan,’” I said, grinning.
“Not my fault I couldn’t say Danielle when I was two.”
Mike was the only person who could get away with calling my mom anything other than Danielle or Counselor Archer. Mom had a real weak spot for her baby brother—and she still called him that, even though he was thirty-eight. He’d stepped in for Dad after he switched from active duty to the reserves. Mike made sure I did Boy Scouts and taught Brent how to throw and catch a perfect spiral. He had even helped Mamie practice dancing with a partner for the sophomore homecoming dance, even though she nearly broke his toes.
He was more family to us than Dad would ever be.
Not that I was bitter or anything.
“So, Uncle Mike, any girlfriends we need to know about?” I asked. “That last one was, um, interesting.”
“Candy was a trip, wasn’t she? Looked great in a bikini, but she was so boring. I should’ve known not to hook up with a woman whose idea of fun is museum hopping,” he said. “Nope, I’m single again, Chief. Good thing.”
Mike paused and shifted in his seat. He had some bad news—I could tell. A hard rock of fear lodged itself in my stomach. I tried to swallow, but the rock in my gut kept the spit in my mouth. Because I knew what was coming. This wouldn’t be the first time we’d had this sucky conversation, and I was really tired of it.
“I’ve been called up.”
I hated it when I was right. “Where? When?”
“Going to Afghanistan for a year. I leave for training in six weeks and deploy in January.” Mike managed another small smile. “So much for ‘reservist’ status, huh?”
I took a shaky breath. No Uncle Mike for a year? “You’ve been on three assignments in the last three years. You should be done by now. Can’t you tell them no or something?”
Mike glanced at me, looking serious. “The military isn’t a ‘pick and choose’ kind of operation. Orders are, well, orders. I have to go, Matt. I’m sorry.”
I stared out my window, trying not to cry like a little kid, but my chin was already shaking. That pissed me off; I was too old to have a little-girl-hissy-fit. “What’ll we do without you here?” I turned back to glare at him, wondering why I was angry with Mike rather than the Army. “We need you more than they do.”
Mike sighed. “We’ll be fine, okay? I’ll be able to email you and call sometimes, and we can even do video conferences. It’s not like we’ll be out of touch for a whole year.” He squeezed my shoulder. “You’ll see. It’ll be fine.”
His voice trailed off at the end. Neither of us said what we were thinking—that maybe it wouldn’t.
We got to the campgrounds at six and Mike put me to work unloading the Jeep before my feet hit the dirt. We only had thirty minutes to set up the tent and start a fire before the sun set, so he was in a rush, ordering me around like we were deploying a military installation. I worked fast, but Mike’s news pressed down on my chest worse than when Brent sat on me.
The wind whispered through the pines and aspen trees lining the back of our campsite. The leaves kept saying, “shush, shush, shush,” like they knew how messed up I felt. It didn’t make me hurt any less, but I did feel calmer about things. Maybe I could get through the weekend without a meltdown.
After the fire was blazing, Uncle Mike tried to pretend nothing had changed in the last hour. “All right! Hot dogs…whoever can catch his on fire first wins!”
I played along and got flameage faster than he did; I was good at burning hot dogs. It tasted like crap that way, though. When I chucked the half-eaten frank into the bushes, Mike’s sly smile told me I’d been punked. Yet again. “You just like to see me try to eat ashes, is that it?”
He raised his eyebrows before going back to his perfectly roasted dinner. Just to spite him, I made two more hotdogs and scarfed down all the chips, too.
Before I had a chance to dig out some marshmallows for s’mores, the air turned sharp and the wind gusted cold into the campfire, sending up sparks. Uncle Mike rose to his feet, with an intense, alert expression I’d never seen before—like he could eat a brick and enjoy the crunch.
Without looking at me, he said, “Weather’s changing; best to get inside the tent, where it’s warmer.”
With nothing else to do, we packed it in for the night. Mike didn’t allow me to bring a cell phone or anything else electronic on our trips. I could’ve played cards or something, but being outside always made me tired and I went to sleep early because, yes, I’m just that exciting. On the plus side, I had the craziest dream: Ella Mitchell ditched her boyfriend for me. That’s not weird—that’s plain, old wishful thinking. The weird part was that she hopped up on stage during assembly and stole the microphone from Principal Stevens to do it. Then I ran down the aisle to thunderous applause, swept her in my arms and….
“Get back!” Mike yelled.
I sat up in surprise to see shadows moving across the tent’s walls. One shadow was Mike’s, distorted in the bright moonlight. The other…heck if I knew what it was. Bulky, taller than Mike by a long shot, it grunted and snorted like an angry pig. Was it a bear? I rubbed my eyes and squinted. No, definitely not a bear. The thing was much too big and shuffled along on two legs.
When it roared, it didn’t sound like any animal I’d ever heard, but more like a bulldozer’s engine. Every hair on my scalp stood up. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t natural.
The two shadows circled one another, then the beast swiped at Mike’s head and he went down hard. The creature dropped on all fours, snuffling at my uncle. Even in shadowed outline, I could see claws to rival a velociraptor’s as it raised a paw over Mike’s chest.
I clambered to my knees, yanking open the zipper to my sleeping bag. “No!”
It paused and lowered its paw, turning its body toward the tent. Oh crap—now it knew I was here.
I watched the creature’s shadow get bigger and bigger as it headed my way. It didn’t creep. It didn’t barrel toward me. It strolled, like it wasn’t the least bit worried about what it would find inside the tent. Terrified or not, something about its arrogance filled me with cold fury. My muscles burned and my heart beat double-time; I probably didn’t have a prayer, but I wasn’t going down without a fight. I sure as hell wasn’t going to sit by and let this thing kill my uncle.
Uncle Mike usually brought a rifle with him, just in case we met a bear, and he’d made sure I could use it. I dug around in our bags, throwing clothes everywhere, but the rifle wasn’t in the tent. The only thing I came up with was a wicked-looking knife with a smooth bone handle. I pulled it out of the leather sheath, shocked by its weight. It was much heavier than it looked and my fingers buzzed, like the knife was vibrating in my hand. I must’ve been shaking really hard.
I gripped the handle of the knife, hoping I didn’t end up stabbing myself by accident. The blade was longer than most hunting-knives I’d ever used—maybe eight or nine inches—and honed to a sharp edge. I had no idea where Mike would buy something like this, but one thing was for sure: no one would want to be on the receiving end of this weapon. It looked like it could gut a buffalo.
The creature walked the perimeter of the tent, brushing up against the nylon, and a rancid scent wafted through the walls. I gagged and threw up a little in my mouth. The stench reminded me of how the vent in my room smelled after my guinea pig got loose and bought the farm in the air duct. Seriously freaked out, I held still, clutching the knife so hard my knuckles ached. I was planning to let the beast stalk around outside as long as it wanted. One thing Mike taught me during paintball was to make your target do the work. If you could be patient, you’d get the better strike, and I’d only have one shot.
The beast paused and I took a gulp of cold air, knowing I wouldn’t have to wait much longer. With a blur of claws, dark fur and sharp teeth, the thing crashed into the tent, ripping the nylon with one slash. I didn’t have time to think or even get a good look at it. When it pounced on top of me, I thrust the blade into its stomach and twisted. The handle burned in my hand, glowing a faint green.
The beast howled and struggled against me, until I thought I’d drown in the reek of its fur. Somehow, I squirmed out from underneath it just before it collapsed on the floor of the tent. Once it was down, I stabbed it in the back, over and over, swearing at the top of my lungs. Some kind of red-rage took control, and I didn’t stop until the thing shuddered and was still.
In the quiet, I fell to my knees, shaking all over.
When I could finally breathe without wheezing, I gathered up the last shreds of my courage and found our lantern in the wreckage. Scared pissless or not, I wanted to see what attacked me. Squaring my shoulders, I turned on the light.
Then bit my own tongue trying to hold back a scream.
The creature was misshapen, with a huge head, pointy ears and narrow snout, and it had to be at least eight feet tall. Teeth like tusks protruded from its lower jaw. It had brown fur like a grizzly’s and its paws looked like a bear’s too, except bigger, with those brutal, velociraptor claws. If that wasn’t weird enough, the thing’s arms and legs were long, like a man’s. It was like some mad scientist threw a bunch of DNA into a blender and this is what came out.
What the heck could it be? Was it some kind of alien? A scientific experiment gone horribly wrong? Did we have a Dr. Frankenstein living in Billings? Seriously, the creature looked like a resurrected Wookiee made from spare parts.
Utterly creeped out, I pulled the knife out of the beast’s back and dropped it on the ground. My hands had blood on them, dark stains glistening in the moonlight, and now that I wasn’t fighting for my life, I shivered, half-freezing and clueless about what to do next.
Someone groaned outside.
I scrambled out of the tent, fighting my way free of the shredded nylon to find Mike. He lay crumpled in a heap just past the fire ring. Shallow claw marks had ripped through his flannel shirt, but not his undershirt or skin, and his forehead had only a small gash at the hairline. We’d been lucky.
“Uncle Mike, wake up!” I shook him. Fear thudded in my chest at a random thought. What if there were more creatures out here? “Come on, wake up!”
Mike groaned again and rolled onto his side. “I’ll take a quad Venti Latte.”
I shook him again, hoping his brains hadn’t been scrambled by that punch to the head. He blinked, looked around, then sat up and grabbed my arm in a vice grip. “Where is it, Matt? Did it hurt you? How’d you get away?”
“It’s dead, in what’s left of the tent.” I swallowed hard, realizing what I’d just said. “I killed it.”
Mike didn’t freak out; he didn’t even act surprised. “How?”
“I found a knife in your bag,” I said. “I-I stabbed it.”
And with that, I jumped up and ran to the bushes to throw up. Oh, my God…I killed something. I’d never killed anything, except flies, and those don’t count. Holy crap, what was happening out here? What were those things? I heaved again, unable to stop my mind from replaying the scene over and over and over.
When I was done puking, Mike put his hands on my shoulders and steered me toward the Jeep. “Get in; we’re leaving. Be right back.”
I climbed into my seat, staring straight ahead, seeing nothing but the underside of the beast and my hand thrusting the knife into its gut. Flashes of light danced in front of my eyes and I broke out in a cold sweat. Having never fainted, I wasn’t sure if I was about to or not. Either way, better safe than sorry, so I put my head between my knees. I caught a whiff of the creature—its smell was all over my clothes—and I had to pop the door and barf again.
Mike ran to the Jeep and got in. All he had was our backpacks, his GPS and the white-handled knife.
“What about the tent and our gear?” I croaked while wiping puke off my chin with a trembling hand.
“We don’t need anything else, and we’ve got to get out of here. I rolled the carcass down a ravine and threw some dead brush on top of it.” He slammed the Jeep in reverse and laid tread, peeling out from the parking slot. “Hopefully no one will find it before…”
“Before what?” I asked.
Mike shook his head. He drove a few miles, not saying anything, then pulled over at a rest stop. By then, black spots were dancing in front of my eyes again and my skull felt too heavy for my neck. When he parked, Mike reached over and slapped me pretty hard. My head hit the headrest and I brought my hand up to my cheek in a daze.
“Matt! Stay with me. We’ve got a lot to cover and I need you to focus,” he said. He blew out a harsh breath. “I can’t believe the knife let you wield it.”
I blinked fast to clear my vision, not understanding a word he said. “What?”
“You remember when I went on that short mission last year?”
Mike’s voice had a steeliness to it. Freaked out or not, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like where this was headed. I gulped and cleared my throat; my mouth tasted all skanky. It was all I could do to keep from throwing up again, so I just nodded in answer.
“I got sent to South America—to Peru—on a highly classified mission,” he said. “People started disappearing and the local government asked the U.S. to send some specialists down there to check it out. What we found was pretty surprising.”
How this had anything to do with giant beasts in the woods of Montana was beyond me. “What did you find?”
Uncle Mike clamped his hands to the steering wheel. “Turns out monsters are real.”