Halloween Haunts: Stoker Spotlight Interview with Joe McKinney
Joe McKinney is the recipient of the 2011 Bram Stoker Award® for Superior Achievement in a Novel for Flesh Eaters.
Flesh Eaters is sort of difficult to characterize. It’s a zombie novel, for example, but it’s also a classic disaster tale and a crime story. I didn’t intend for it to merge so many different genres, but that’s how it came out. On another level, Flesh Eaters is part of my Dead World series, which so far includes Dead City, Apocalypse of the Dead, Mutated, and a handful of short stories and novellas. Within the series’ chronology Flesh Eaters comes first, even though it was the third book written. So that’s clear as mud, right?
2. Tell us about what inspired you to write Flesh Eaters?
I grew up in Clear Lake, a little suburb south of Houston. As a kid, I lived through Hurricane Alicia, which flooded my entire neighborhood. I remember huddling with my family in the hall closet as the storm rolled overhead, with my mom holding me so tightly that she left bruises on my skin. The next morning I went out my front door to find nearly everything underwater. It was literally lapping at our door. And then my best friend came over with his canoe and we spent the day paddling around the neighborhood, the bottom of our boat scratching the roofs of the cars as we floated over them. So that experience was a big part of the disaster element in Flesh Eaters. The other part, the zombie part, was born that same summer, for it was shortly before Hurricane Alicia that I watched George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead for the first time. I think they came together nicely in Flesh Eaters.
3. What most attracts you to writing horror?
I’ve wondered how to answer that question for a long time now. I’ve read and watched horror since I was a kid, and it’s always just sort of clicked with me. But that’s not really a satisfying answer, is it? And it’s not entirely accurate either. For example, I grew disillusioned with horror movies pretty early on. There have been, and continue to be, great movies made in the horror genre, but most are absolutely abysmal. Nothing is as frustrating as sitting down with a movie with a premise that seems totally cool, only to walk away in disgust after getting only twenty minutes into it. I’ve had a similar experience with written horror. There is a line in Joe Hill’s wonderful short story, “Best New Horror,” where the main character says that he feels something inside him go numb every time he reads another reference to “the elder gods.” I know exactly where that comes from. So much of the horror genre is gore and dark fantasies that lack any real substance. There is no life to them, and so there is no real fear. But every once in a while, somebody gets it right. Somebody writes something, or acts something, and behind it is a need to exist, a purpose, a desperate longing to explore what makes us human. Confronting that moment, that need, is the essence of horror. I live for that moment of frisson, that discovery, that glorious connection with the real dark side of our natures. And when I find it, it makes the oceans of trash through which I’ve swum worth it.
4. What are you writing now?
I’m in the middle of several long projects right now. I’ve just finished a haunted house novel for Dark Regions Press called Crooked House and I expect to be working on the edits to that soon. I’m currently finishing off three short stories I’ve promised to various anthologies, and after those are finished I’ll return to a zombie novel for Pinnacle, a novella for Nightscape Press, another novella for the Sam Truman series put out by Redrum Horror, a novella for Journalstone, and then a werewolf novel I’ve promised to Pinnacle for late in 2013.
5. What advice would you share with new horror writers?
Writing is a job. Treat it like one. What that means is that you put in your hours every day. Not when you feel like it, but every day. And like any job, when you turn something in, it needs to be a professional work product. It needs to be your best effort. Just because you can slap it up on Amazon doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished something great. It has to feel great. It has to have a reason for being there. The book has to want to be written. Think of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull crying, “I coulda been a contender!” There’s real emotion there. And, in the larger sense, there’s a movie that is screaming at you with its reason for being. Your book needs to do that. It needs to scream at us that it has a reason for being here. Far too many authors out there seem to have forgotten that. I think, if you keep that in mind, you’ll be pointed in the right direction, and that’s what really counts. Oh, and when good things start to happen for you, make sure you never forget the value of a handwritten thank you note. In our era of email and Twitter and Facebook posts, a simple card with a few lines of handwritten thanks will speak volumes about you as an individual.
Wow, there are so many. I think I’d probably answer this question differently every time I’m asked, but for today, right now, I’d say: “The Great Lover” by Dan Simmons, because I’ve always been moved by the writings of the World War I English poets; “Black Man With a Horn,” by T.E.D. Klein, because it is perhaps the finest story in the Lovecraftian tradition I have ever read, as well as being a first rate commentary on Lovecraft himself; and “The Yellow Sign,” by Robert Chambers, because it contains one of the most subtle, yet effective examples of character building I’ve seen in the horror genre.
7. What’s your favorite Halloween memory or tradition?
My favorite Halloween came four years ago, when I took my daughters out trick or treating for their first Halloween together. My oldest was dressed as a Mermaid Princess Vampire Rock Star and my youngest as a Hershey’s Kiss. I remember the look of wonder on their faces as they watched the older kids running and laughing in the streets. It was one of those perfect nights, combining the all the chill and beauty that only comes in October with the proud dad feeling that his children are good and okay and having fun and all is right in the world.
8. Given a choice, trick? Or treat?
Oh definitely trick! Nothing beats a good scare, after all!
JOE MCKINNEY has been a patrol officer for the San Antonio Police Department, a disaster mitigation specialist, homicide detective, administrator, patrol commander, and successful novelist. Winner of the Bram Stoker Award, he is the author of the four part Dead World series, Quarantined, Inheritance, Lost Girl of the Lake and Dodging Bullets. His short fiction has been collected in The Red Empire and Other Stories and Dating in Dead World: The Complete Zombie Short Fiction. For more information visit his website at http://joemckinney.wordpress.com.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Joe McKinney is offering one paperback set of his books, Dead City, Apocalypse of the Dead, Flesh Eaters, and Mutated. To enter post a comment in the section below or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and put HH CONTEST ENTRY in the header. Winners will be chosen at random and notified by e-mail.
Paul Henninger was eighteen, a senior in high school, when he saw his mother’s ghost for the first time.
It was early October, late in the afternoon, and he was sitting in the passenger seat of Steve Sullivan’s pickup truck, a bucket of KFC chicken in his lap, watching his house. All the big, commercial ranches around these parts had names—Double Js; Spriggs; Casa Navarro—but Paul’s house wasn’t one of those. Though it had been in his family for four generations, and was ostensibly a working commercial farm and ranch, he had never thought of it as anything more than a tired old farm, his father’s house, the place where he and his father lived and worked.
The house stood knee deep in cheatgrass, nestled far back from the road in the shade of enormous, two hundred year old Spanish oaks that hung thick with ball moss, and, sometimes, in the summer, with gauzelike colonies of web worms the size of lamp shades. The front porch was obscured behind a tangled screen of guajillo and chinaberry, so that from the driveway the place looked tumbledown, a derelict rotting in the weeds. But neither Paul nor his father worried much about appearances. They didn’t use the front porch, and because it served no purpose in their daily lives, it got no attention. As long as Paul could remember it had been a graveyard of rusted machine parts and tools. Things went to the front of the house and were forgotten, like his mother. It was the back of the house, where the long, sloping metal roof was streaked with rust and the wood paneling had turned gray from decades of exposure to the harsh extremes of South Texas weather, where he and his father lived their lives. Everything of significance happened back there, away from the road.
Steve Sullivan was saying something, but Paul’s mind was elsewhere. He was looking beyond the house to the ruined shell of the barn where his mother had hanged herself six years before. The day he came home and found her there had been on his mind a lot lately, even though his memories of that time were cloudy.
“You okay?” Steve asked.
“I said I’m fine.”
“No you didn’t. You haven’t said a word.”
Paul grunted. He looked back toward the house, lost in a dusty golden haze settling down through the trees.
Steve drummed his fingers on top of the steering wheel. “Hey Paul, if you don’t want to go home, we could go driving around the lake. It might be fun, you know? Cut loose a little. It’s been a hell of a week.”
Again, Steve waited.
Finally, he said, “But you’re still sitting here. What’s wrong with you? Your dad’s pissed about you signing with UTSA, isn’t he? Christ, I told you he would be.”
Paul sighed. He didn’t want to explain this. He didn’t even think he could. The University of Texas at San Antonio had offered him a full ride to play football, and he’d accepted the offer, but what was going on here had nothing to do with that. Steve’s life revolved around football. And, for the most part, Paul’s did, too. Except lately. Lately, ever since he started having flashbacks to his mother’s death, football had faded into the background. But he couldn’t make Steve understand that. His decision to stay close to Smithson Valley, and his father’s farm, was tied to his mother’s death with a knot he didn’t feel smart enough to untangle. The problem was just too big. He couldn’t see it all. But he sensed a connection there. What had happened six years ago with his mother was affecting the decisions he was making now. He just didn’t see how. And that left him frustrated and bored with all the things that used to bring him such joy.
“Paul?” Steve said. “Dude, you okay?”
“I haven’t told him,” Paul admitted.
“You haven’t…?” Steve suddenly smiled. “Bullshit. You’re kidding, right?”
The smile slid off Steve’s face.
“Dude, you’re serious?”
Paul nodded, then opened the door and got out.
Inside the truck, Steve looked stunned. “You passed up a chance to play for the Cornhuskers and you didn’t even talk to him about it?” Steve looked completely baffled. “We kind of all just assumed you’d…that’d he was making you…”
“No. He’s been pushing Nebraska for two years now.”
“Well, yeah. Christ, Paul, what are you gonna do?”
“It’s my problem,” Paul said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Paul walked away.
“Hey,” Steve called after him. “What about this weekend? You wanna get some beers and head up to the lake with the girls? I don’t know if you’ve noticed it or not, but all you’d have to do is look cross eyed at Jolene Arnold and she’d spread faster than—”
“Yeah, sure,” Paul said. He waved over his shoulder as he walked away. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Steve.”
Steve’s pickup pulled away from the driveway. Limestone pebbles popped beneath the truck’s oversized tires as he accelerated up to speed, leaving Paul in a cloud of settling white dust. Late season crickets jumped in the grass all around him. The metal roof of the house was a checkerboard of dappled light and shadows, and from somewhere behind the house, he could hear the goats bleating.
Paul headed around to the back, where a screen door opened into the kitchen. Through the door he could see his father sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, all the lights off and the shades drawn. Martin Henninger was rocking back and forth and murmuring to himself while he constructed another of his lattice-like stick structures. Clearly his dad had been at it for some time, for this particular stick structure was already huge, a good three feet tall.
Paul went into the kitchen and put the bucket of chicken on the table. He didn’t bother to announce himself. There wouldn’t be any point to it anyway. When his father got into one of his spells—that was what his mother had called his father’s meditative blackouts, during which he could sit for hours on the living room floor building his sculptures of sticks and baling wire—he was lost to the world. A train could crash through the house and he wouldn’t notice. Paul slipped out again and went to feed the goats.
A dirt road led down past the barn and out to the fallow land that they called the horse pasture, even though there hadn’t been horses to put there since before Paul was born. A haze of white dust hung over the road, depthless and still. The goats, big, dusky white Angoras, were not hungry, he could see that now. They were huddled together in a corner of the yard nearest the house, buzzing with a sort of mute agitation.
Rattlesnake, he thought tiredly. They were common enough here in the scrub brush of the Texas Hill Country.
“I’m coming,” he muttered to the goats, and took the lock blade knife from his back pocket. If the snake was a little one he’d carry it off to the horse pasture and dump it in the brush. They were good and aggressive, got rid of the rats. But if it was a big one, one of the six footers that sometimes made their way up this far, he’d cut off its head and hang its hide on the barn door, for luck. There were already five others there.
He hadn’t gone but a few steps towards the goats before movement out of the corner of his eye made him stop. His mother was standing by the corner of the barn in a yellow cotton sun dress that fit her rail-thin body like a potato sack on a pole. Strands of her long gray hair moved in the breeze across a face that was drawn and gray with sadness. Her eyes were sunken into her face, giving her a hollow, empty look that sent chills through him.
He had very few memories of her smiling when she was alive, and she wasn’t smiling now. From what his father told him, she’d battled with a double-barreled curse of depression and anorexia for most of her life, and most of Paul’s memories were of her sitting on the edge of the bed in the front room, huddled under a blanket, her eyes unfocused and vague. She looked like that now, fogged over, sad.
Paul stared back at her from across the yard, and though his heart was beating against his ribs like a wild bird in a cage, he couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He tried to lift a hand to do…he didn’t know what…maybe wave, maybe try to touch her. But he couldn’t even do that. His fingers seemed to weigh a ton.
He knew she wanted him to speak to her. On some level, he sensed that she needed him to speak, that she couldn’t do whatever it was she wanted on her own. But he was too stricken to open his mouth. He couldn’t get the words out.
She lowered her eyes and turned away. Sparks of sunlight scattered off the side of the barn and seemed to shoot right through her. She took a few steps toward the corner that led to the front of the barn and he lost her there in the shadows.
Then his voice came to him all at once, and he blurted out: “Momma? Momma, wait.”
But she was gone.
Numb, Paul stumbled after her.
He rounded the corner of the barn and saw the front doors were open. The front doors of the barn were never open. His father was very particular about that, and a younger version of Paul had taken plenty of whippings to make sure the lesson took. But they were open now. Blades of grass came loose from the few bales of hay he and his father had stored up in the loft and fluttered down on the warm breeze that blew through the barn’s shadowy gloom. A large sheet of mud-stained plastic moved listlessly, like a drape in an open kitchen window, from a nail on the wall to his left. Watching it, he remembered the day he found her, his mother. He and Steve, two twelve year old boys walking up the driveway through a maze of Comal County Sheriff’s cars, wondering what in the hell was going on. There had been deputies everywhere. And here, in the barn, they’d seen his mother hanging by her neck from the rafters, the corpse stripped of the flesh from the waist down by wild hogs. A group of startled deputies who had been telling grim jokes near the body had come rushing forward to shoo them back outside, away from his mother and the flies that filled the barn’s darkened stillness with their murmuring, and as they pulled him from the barn he’d taken one last look over his shoulder at the horror his mother had become.
But the barn was empty now.
She was gone.
“What are you doing out here, boy?”
Paul turned and faced his father. Martin Henninger was in his mid-fifties, a lean and weathered man. His face was clean-shaven and severe, deeply lined around the mouth. His arms were knotted with muscle, toughened by a lifetime of farm labor. He dressed in black pants, a heavily starched white shirt that was always buttoned at the neck and at the cuffs, even in the hottest part of the summer, and an old black Stetson hat. His dark eyes glinted like motor oil in the sun. They were the black eyes of a man who looked on everything, whether it was another human being, or a cut on his finger, or a dead deer on the side of the road, or even a twenty dollar bill he’d found on the sidewalk, with equal indifference.
“Who were you talking to?” his father asked.
“I was thinking about Momma,” Paul said. He wanted to be defiant, like saying her name, her name to him anyway, somehow went out as a challenge, but he knew it was a fantasy and nothing more. His father was too strong, too…too much more than he could ever be. Though Paul was bigger than his father, faster, maybe even stronger, his father was infinitely more than he knew himself to be. The man was a force, a source of power, and Paul was only himself, a boy, a child, a thing that needed tending by this man, who knew better.
But if his father recognized the challenge, he showed no reaction, except to drive his hands down into his pockets and stare off at the deepening shadows spreading over the horse pasture. Paul felt suddenly dizzy and nauseous as his father probed his mind, trying to get into his head. Out of instinct, Paul cleared his thoughts and focused instead on nothingness. But his father’s mind was strong, disciplined, insistent.
“You miss her?” Martin Henninger said suddenly.
Reluctantly, Paul nodded again.
“Yeah, well, I’ll tell you what. How about the next time you find yourself out here talking to her, you tell her I miss her, too, okay? And maybe, if we both miss her hard enough, she’ll climb up out of the ground and make us a fucking pot roast. I’d like that. Maybe she could clean the house while she’s at it.”
“Don’t say anything, Paul. If you do, you’ll just piss me off.”
His father looked away from him then, his eyes sweeping the yard, taking in the goats, the tidal motion of the yellow cheatgrass blowing in the breeze, the whole sweep of a land that was as lonely as it was vast. Paul could feel his father’s hold on his mind slackening, and he sagged inward, as though he were a marionette whose strings had just been cut.
“Go feed the goats,” he said.
Paul did as he was told. He went back into the barn and filled two large plastic buckets with feed, and when he came back out, his father was gone.
Paul went to work, pouring out little piles of green feed pellets along the road, the herd following along a few feet behind him. Between the full grown goats and the new crop of kids born earlier that summer, they had ninety-six animals. But the king of the herd was a huge two hundred and fifty pound billy that Paul called Oscar. Oscar always had to have the first pile of food. None of the others were dumb enough to challenge him for it. If they tried, he’d piss on their heads, the typical way one goat asserts dominance over another. He’d probably piss on the food they were trying to eat, too. Then, likely as not, he’d ram them into the ground. He’d killed a young billy that way last February.
After that, Paul had developed a system for feeding time. The first pile was Oscar’s. He’d drop a mound of the green feed pellets up near the barn, then he’d head down the road a ways and drop most of the rest of the feed farther off. By the time he made it back to Oscar’s pile, the big billy was usually about done. He’d drop the last handful or so on Oscar’s pile and that was usually enough to keep him away while the others finished eating.
He went through his chores in a drowsy haze, still thinking of his mother. When he was done he walked back to the barn and hung the feed buckets up on the wall. He looked around. A part of him was hoping his mother would be there, waiting for him. But when he peered into the darkness of the barn’s hold, it was empty.
Confused, and still a little light-headed from his encounter with his father, Paul walked back to the house. His father was standing in the doorway, holding the screen door open, watching him, waiting for him.
They ate at a small wooden table in the kitchen, heavy cloth drapes over the windows. The living room beyond the kitchen was dark, the floor strewn with machine parts and tools and spools of baling wire. The latest stick sculpture his father had made was smashed to bits in the corner. Sometimes he did that, smashed them right after he made them.
Martin Henninger ate methodically, turning each piece of chicken over and over in his hands, working every last strip of meat off the bone before discarding it and going on to the next. It was the same way he did everything, one thing at a time, painstakingly deliberate in every detail, however long it took.
Paul fished through the box, looking for a thigh. His father only ate the breasts and the drumsticks and Paul knew to avoid those.
“How’re those new kids doing?” his father asked.
Paul looked up. They hardly ever spoke at the dinner table.
“They’re fine, sir. They’re getting plenty to eat from what I can tell.”
His father grunted.
“That big son of a bitch isn’t muscling them out, is he?”
“No sir,” Paul said. That big son of a bitch was Oscar, but “that big son of a bitch” was as close as he’d ever get to a name from Paul’s father, who thought that people who gave names to animals were idiots.
Martin Henninger grunted again and chased a spoonful of mashed potatoes around his Dixie plate with a plastic Spork. Paul watched him furtively, trying to decide if this was the right time to bring up his decision about UTSA.
“You’re thinking about college,” his father said, and Paul felt like he shouldn’t have been surprised, even though he was, to find his thoughts so neatly laid out on the table, waiting to be stripped clean, like the chicken. “You made a decision, haven’t you?”
“That’s right,” Paul said. He was alarmed. He hadn’t even been aware of his father reaching into his head. Ordinarily, he knew it was happening, and sometimes he could withhold at least some of his thoughts. But this time his father had reached into his head without Paul even knowing.
“You have bad news. You’re afraid I’m going to be angry.”
“It’s not bad news,” Paul said, a little too hurriedly. “It’s good news. I got an offer to play for UTSA.”
Martin Henninger grunted, then took another bite of mashed potatoes. “You got a lot of offers, from what I hear.”
“Yes sir. That’s true.”
“UTSA is a brand new program. It’d be a waste of your time. You want to go to Nebraska. The Big Ten can get you the kind of exposure you need.”
“Well, yeah, Nebraska’s a great program, but…”
“But what? What are you trying to say?”
“I decided to take the offer. I’m going to UTSA.”
Martin Henninger dabbed at the corner of his mouth with a paper napkin, pushed his chair back, and stared at him. “Come again?”
“Yes, sir. I’m gonna stay here. It’s a full ride. Everything’s paid for, same as Nebraska.”
“It’s not the same as Nebraska, Paul.”
“Yeah, I know, but Daddy, I want to stay here. In San Antonio. I want to stay with you.”
“Why in the hell would you want to do that?”
“The farm, Daddy. Our farm. I want to work this land. I feel connected to it. I’ve been feeling like that’s what I’m supposed to do, you know? Have you ever had that feeling? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. You know, really trying to get at what it is I’m supposed to be doing, and I think this is it. I want to be here with you. I want to be on this land.”
Paul stopped there and waited for his father to say something, anything. But it didn’t happen. Martin Henninger simply leaned over his plate again and started eating.
But between bites Paul heard him mutter, “Idiot.”
That night, up in his room, Paul’s eyes fluttered open in the dark, and the next moment he was wide awake. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, rising so suddenly from a deep, dreamless sleep. But still, something felt wrong.
He lay on his side in his metal-framed twin bed, his back against the wall, watching his desk and chair and a few posters on the wall slowly take shape as his eyes adjusted to the dark. The moon was a faint sliver just behind the roof of the barn, and its light gave the window glass a bluish glow. He took a slow breath and stared at the window—not through it, but at it, listening.
The house creaked in the wind like an old boat. It made noise all the time, but he usually only noticed it at times like this, when everything was quiet and he was deep in thought.
Paul got out of bed and walked to the window. The yard below was lost in shadows, the grass moving with the wind, the goats sleeping in clusters around the yard.
He watched the corner of the barn where he had seen his mother standing. She wasn’t there now, but of course he hadn’t expected her to be. Seeing her there, standing there, hugging herself like she was miserably cold, he’d felt like he had electricity moving through his skin. He wasn’t feeling that now. Now, all he felt was a deep, abiding emptiness.
He heard footsteps on the stairs, the old wood there creaking. Turning his head sharply towards his closed bedroom door, he listened to the steps coming closer to his door.
He moved quickly. Paul slipped on a pair of jeans and his tennis shoes, and when his father opened the bedroom door, Paul was standing there in the middle of the room, in the dark, fully dressed and waiting for him.
Martin Henninger’s eyes were overbright, lit with an almost fevered intensity. And there were three strange-looking markings on his forehead. They looked like they’d been written with a fingertip dipped in wet ash.
Paul pointed at the markings. “Daddy, what’s—”
“Come down to the barn with me,” he said. He seemed short of breath, excited. “You wanted to stay. It’s time you learned what there is to learn.”
He turned and walked down the stairs.
Paul followed him out the back door and across the lawn. Wind moved through the Spanish oaks above them and moonlight colored the dirt road leading down to the horse pasture a bluish-silver. Paul was trembling, but not from the cool night air. He wanted to ask what was happening, but knew it wouldn’t do any good. His father wouldn’t answer.
But the next instant, they rounded the corner of the barn and Paul found himself looking in on the cavernous space inside, and he couldn’t help himself.
“Daddy, what is…?”
“This is what it means to stay with me.”
They were standing side by side now, looking into the barn.
Paul glanced at his father, and then at the barn. A faint tinge of wood smoke filled the air. Oscar was tied to one of the barn’s support beams. One of the smaller males was standing beside him. The goats looked at Paul with black, glassy eyes. They made no noise, but Paul could see they were scared.
Arranged around the goats, in a half circle, were five of the strange, lattice-like stick sculptures his father had made. Each was different, each of them complex in their own strange architecture. Paul’s gaze moved from one to the next, too confused to ask questions.
It took him a moment longer to realize the walls were covered with writing. With his mouth agape he scanned the words, if that was even what they were. They weren’t in any language he could understand.
“Daddy, what is all this?”
“You wanted to stay, Paul. I tried to keep you away. I tried to get you to go as far away from here as possible. But you wouldn’t go. So this is what there is. This is the world I have to give you.”
Paul looked at his father. If what the man had said was meant as an apology, there was no trace of it in his expression. The same fevered intensity lit his eyes, and his skin was glistening with sweat. He looked crazed, and without thinking, Paul took a step back.
“I never got to prepare you, Paul. I’m sorry. When I went through this, I was more prepared than you are now. But the time is now. This won’t wait.”
“This is gonna terrify you. I know that. But you don’t need to be afraid. It won’t hurt. I promise. It’ll make you stronger.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Paul, I’m about to show you how to do things you’ve never imagined before. I can teach you how to control your world. I mean really control it, bend it to your will.”
Paul took another step back. The alarms in his head were screaming.
“Stop!” his father commanded.
And suddenly, he couldn’t move. His body felt numb, his legs weak. Something was in the barn with them. Something dark, focused, getting stronger. Paul felt it swirling all around him, moving up his spine like a cold shiver. He wasn’t sure how he knew it, but Paul was certain the presence was feeding off the lattice-like stick sculptures his father had arranged around the barn. Somehow, they were focusing whatever this was, helping it to take shape.
The presence wrapped itself around Paul’s chest. It was hard to breathe. The air smelled rich, intensely fragrant, like cedar. Paul felt nauseous, light-headed, and only at that moment did he realize the presence was trying to enter his head, trying to find a way inside his mind, though its grip was delicate, subtle, not at all like his father’s brutal assaults.
Paul gasped in fear, his eyes wide open and staring all about the barn for some way to escape.
“Don’t be frightened,” his father said. “You can feel it, can’t you? That’s power, Paul. Raw, primal power. I’m going to show you how to use it, how to channel it to do whatever you want.”
Martin Henninger closed his eyes, his lips parting.
“Daddy, let me go. Please.”
His father snapped his eyes open again.
“I tried this once before, Paul, but that was a mistake. You were only twelve. I made you forget because it was too much for you. You were too young to have so much power.” He pointed toward the stick lattices. “I was supposed to. The lenses told me to. But I couldn’t. I resisted. I told myself right then I’d drive you away before I gave you so much power, but now I see I was a fool. You’re meant for great things, Paul.” He spread his arms wide to include the stick lattices and the smoking bowl and the goats and the writing on the walls. “You were meant for this.”
He grabbed Paul by the shirt and pulled him deeper into the barn.
“Stand there. Don’t move.”
He let go of Paul’s shirt, but Paul was too stunned to notice. His father put a hand on each of the goats’ head.
The animals flinched, at first, and then calmed as though they’d been drugged. The smaller of the two sank to its knees and turned its head to expose its neck, its mouth open in a silent bleat.
The presence was stronger than ever now. The air had filled with an almost audible vibration. Paul could feel it sliding over his skin, and wanted to scream, to cry out, but couldn’t. He could barely breathe.
Martin Henninger reached behind his back and brought out a large hunting knife.
Paul’s eyes went wide, and still he couldn’t move.
His father grabbed the smaller billy by the throat and lifted him into the air one-handed. Then, without hesitation, he gutted the animal, creating a long, jagged gash from the top of the ribcage down to the rectum.
The goat’s guts spilled out on the floor, and Paul felt vomit rise in his throat.
He forced it back down.
After making the cut, Martin Henninger put the carcass on the ground at Paul’s feet. Then he reached inside and removed the heart. He carried it, blood dripping between his fingers, to a wide, shallow brass bowl in the middle of the barn. Wood shavings were still smoking inside it. He put the bleeding heart into the bowl, and Paul heard the hiss of liquid meeting heat.
He turned to Paul and pointed at the post where Oscar still stood.
“Stand there, next to that big son of a bitch.”
Whatever it was that held him loosened its grip. Paul could feel the blood running through his legs and arms again. He sensed his father’s mind pushing him toward the barn’s center support column.
“No,” Paul said.
His father squinted at him. “Stand there.”
“No way,” Paul said, shaking his head. He tried to run for the door, but his father was faster. He grabbed Paul by the back of his neck and spun him around.
“Get the hell off!” Paul said, and threw a punch at the same time. It landed solidly at the corner of his father’s jaw. But his father didn’t go down. Martin Henninger turned his head to one side and spit blood onto the floor, then squared his shoulders at Paul. Paul barely had time to think before his father balled his left hand into a fist and shot a jab into his face.
He felt like he’d been hit in the mouth with a cinder block. He staggered backwards, arms pin-wheeling for balance. His front tooth was loose. Martin Henninger grabbed him by the front of his shirt and threw him against the support post.
The whole barn shook with the impact, and Paul, unable to keep his feet, slid down onto his butt, eyes blinking stupidly up at his father.
Martin Henninger took off his belt.
Paul, his vision swimming, felt the belt tightening around his neck, and his head snapped back against the post. He groped at the leather, but couldn’t get his fingers under it.
His father twined the belt around his fist like a rodeo cowboy getting ready his ride, then reached into the shadows and came back with the wide, brass bowl. He dipped his thumb into the bowl of blood and ashes, tossed the bowl aside, and ran his thumb across Paul’s forehead, leaving three shapes there.
“This is the name of truth,” he said. “emet, emet, emet. It is my gift to you, Paul, and it marks you.” Martin Henninger touched the marks on his own forehead with his fingertips, then touched the marks on Paul’s forehead. “Wherever you go, this mark will be with you. As will I.”
“No,” Paul said, trying to shake his head. The word came out as a strangled pant. His vision was fuzzy at the edges, his fight to breathe a losing battle. He began to kick, trying to get a foot or a knee or anything between himself and his father.
“Be still, boy.”
Paul tightened the muscles in his neck and strained against the leather with every bit of strength he had. He arched his whole body up, looking like an epileptic in the midst of a seizure. His father moved to one side to better keep his hold on the belt, and suddenly Paul had enough room to kick. He brought his knee up sharply and caught Martin Henninger in the ribcage hard enough to knock the wind out of him.
His father’s grip on the belt loosened for just a moment, and Paul kicked him square in the chest, sending him tumbling backwards. Martin Henninger landed on his ass in front of their tractor’s aerating attachment, his eyes suddenly going wide with pain. A strangled sound escaped him as he looked down and saw the aerator’s tines poking through his chest.
The two of them sat there, looking at each other, the one dying, the other numbed by what he had just done.
“You aren’t gonna stop this from happening,” Martin Henninger said, wheezing, blood-veined bubbles forming on his lips. “I’ve marked you.”
Martin Henninger coughed. Blood was filling his lungs. “You don’t choose this, Paul,” he said. “It chooses you.”
“I don’t want it,” Paul said.
“It’s already done. You’ve got a charge to keep.”
“Take it back. Daddy, please. I don’t want this.”
“This thing picks its own time and place. It’s my job to give this to you, to channel it into you. Death can’t stop me from doing that. You have a charge to keep, Paul, and so do I. Make sure you’re ready.”
And then he was dead, his chest sagging like a tire going flat, his sightless eyes still staring into Paul’s.