Her daughter kept pestering her to retire. Move down into the city, closer to her. Leave behind the rickety cabin and its cramped root cellar, get a Blu-ray player, pick up some creature comforts. The National park system wouldn’t fall apart if Beth Hanser retired.
Beth thought about unplugging the landline some days, and just ripping it out of the jack and flinging the gotdamn thing out the window on others. She kept her cell off most of the time, trying to avoid her daughter’s calls. She appreciated her girl’s concern, in the dark nights when her knees creaked and groaned almost as much as the rustling trees outside her window. But the door to the cellar had been nailed shut for a reason. She couldn’t retire, not now.
The park would absolutely fall apart without her. There were tourists to wrangle back on to designated paths. Lost children to round up and return to parents. The damage from the wildfire five months ago was extensive. The park still needed all hands to aid in its recovery. And there was that increase in poaching on protected lands, an abnormal thinning of elk and deer herds started shortly after the wildfire had subsided. Beth eyed her rifle case. Funny that, the way the two coincided.
In her own way, Beth already had her creature comforts, although her daughter would likely fight with her over the word order.
She poured herself a cup of coffee. More something to keep her hands occupied than anything else. Since the forest fire, her coffee had smelled acidic, burned her throat and tongue. Her mouth would be numb through the rest of the day’s meals. Normally, she drank it hot. No problem. But her body was rejecting one of the few creature comforts she still had. Guilt, she thought, before placing the cup down on the counter. Beth paused, and then poured the coffee down the sink. Steam rose up and cast a fog along the bottom of the kitchenette window.
Not that she’d been a good ranger when it came down to it. Leave No Trace. She should have left the blasted thing where she’d found it, groaning and guttering in a burned out mass of twisted metal. Left no trace that she saw it fall from the sky, the night the wildfire that raced across the park had started. Gotten someone else, people with guns, and spotlights, and armored cars. But she couldn’t leave it there. Really, she had been doing her job. Leaving no trace of the thing she had found. No way to know how the park would have been affected had it gotten out. Beth cleaned out the coffee cup, squelching soap bubbles between her fingers.
It would be hungry by now. The deep red groove in the earth outside the basement window had dried since the last feeding. She could hear the beast snuffling as she passed by to check her vehicle. She’d kicked in the panes a while back to facilitate easier feeding after she had nailed the door shut. The beast was too big to get out through the window, even though Beth supposed it worked a bit like an octopus, with all those undulating, gelatinous limbs. Beth did not look at the empty window frame as she loaded her rifle case into the truck.
Game had been scarce. With the fire and the beast’s rampant appetite, most herds had moved to the north end of the park. As far away from Beth and her gun as they could get. She couldn’t go driving hundreds of miles without raising some suspicion from the other rangers. What she could do, was drive into town every few weeks. “Just needed to pick up a few things,” she could always say. Everyone knew how much she liked her coffee. It wasn’t even a lie.
She drove into town. Followed a lone tourist, a man on a fancy expensive bike. Some of the bike trails were so secluded, even the ones outside the park. Few people gave pause as to why a park ranger’s truck was out on the trail. Upkeep was always necessary, to keep the wilderness at bay.
Beth lined up a shot.
She did wish her daughter would stop calling. She couldn’t go visit her anymore. Wouldn’t be able to look her in the eye. Hard enough to talk to her on the phone without her voice cracking. The shot knocked the man off his bike, killed.
Beth loaded the body into the back of her truck and covered it with a tarp. Her daughter didn’t need to worry about Beth’s age. She could lift 200 pounds of dead weight, after all. She kept the radio on, as she drove back to the park, hoping mindless noise would let her ignore the way the body shifted in the truck bed.
Her knees popped as she unloaded the body and dragged it to the rut outside the basement window. She laid him down, feet facing the cellar. As she bent to push him in, bile and the taste of coffee rose in her throat. Beth paused, sucking in a deep lungful of air.
The beast inside whined as Beth pulled the body away. It didn’t have long to wait — she was merely reorienting. Pushing the body in head first, feet towards her. She didn’t need to look at him when she kicked him into the cellar to the beast waiting there.
Inside her pants’ pocket, nestled against her hip, her phone vibrated. Beth didn’t answer. She crouched down, peering through the window.
The creature’s body looked like ink, translucent and insubstantial. Like Beth could climb through the window, push her hand through it, and grab whatever constituted its heart. End this. But the beast was solid, heavy, muscle disguised as something more ephemeral. Hungry. It grabbed the dead man and dragged the body underneath itself. The sucking sounds as it ate were so much like coffee percolating.
Gabrielle Bleu’s deepest fears are dogs and the ocean. She enjoys talking about bats, and old things buried in archives. While she has never worked as a Park Ranger, she did do a ton of National Park Junior Ranger programs as a child, which probably counts for something. Her work has been featured in the Story Seed Vault and in Drabbledark: An Anthology of Dark Drabbles. Follow her on twitter @BeteMonstrueuse for occasional thoughts about monsters, and check out her website for more of her work.