Discover more from The Sprawl: Speculative Fiction
What Was Needed
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What Was Needed
Jim posted for the first time two weeks after the funeral.
— I swear this isn’t a troll and I know you guys aren’t gonna believe me, I’m just saying I saw it last night, I was cleaning my truck and it had these glowing red eyes and big fangy talon things and it looked like a fucked-up dog with lizard scales and wings and I think it was the Jersey Devil.
He lay on a twin bed with his tablet inches from his face. He smelled old socks and deodorant, and stared past the screen toward the ceiling where star decals glowed green.
The replies started right away. — Looks like we got a case of mental illness boys.
— Let’s see the proof if you’re so sure.
— I bet this guy doesn’t have any outdoor cams. Can’t prove shit.
— I believe you brother for wat it’s worth.
— The Jersery Devil is bullshit and u all know it. The CHUPACABRA is real u fukin moron.
He felt something unfurl inside of him, wretched and ugly, and he knew that he couldn’t turn back from the certainty of what he’d have to do. He read each comment, sometimes twice, before typing his only response.
— I saw it and I’ll get proof.
He hit send, turned the screen black, and stared up at the glowing stars.
The bed of his truck felt freezing under his thin jeans and sweatshirt and the darkness pressed in like water. He watched the tops of scrubby, twisted pine trees flash past on his tablet screen. The pines were so dense that he couldn’t see the sandy ground below, and the trees themselves looked like ancient mushrooms forming dense vistas in the night-vision. He wanted to weave his way between them, but the drone would never fit inside.
The smell of sap and dirt blew in from the west. The Devil was out there, he knew—and sooner or later, he’d find it, hidden in the deepest sections of the barrens. His back was sore from lying on the hard-plastic lining, and his arms hurt from holding the tablet up for so long. The drone didn’t have much battery left, but he’d driven two hours to this spot and he wouldn’t give up until he had something.
Headlights cut across the side of his truck then illuminated the dense forest beyond. A white SUV with the words Park Ranger painted on the side stopped a few feet away. He turned his head and sat up as a door slammed and an older man in a black jacket walked toward him.
“Hey, you,” the ranger said, holding up a hand in greeting. “Everything okay?”
Jim let the drone hover. “Everything’s fine.”
“That your drone flying out there?”
“Don’t know what you mean.”
“Got a call about a drone buzzing the pines.” The ranger looked at him strange. “Can’t have drones flying around like that.”
“What do you mean? It’s a national park.”
“Designated no surveillance zone. Bring the drone back in, please, sir.”
He thought about resisting—thought about telling the ranger about the Devil, how he’d seen the eyes, the wings, the scales, considered pleading with the man, but instead he looked down at his tablet, sucked in a breath, and hit the recall button. The ranger stayed until the drone landed on the grass nearby.
Jim drove home on the Parkway. He passed cameras, so many cameras, dangling from branches, perched on light poles, hundreds of cameras watching every inch of the road, each with its own memory, each filled with image after image after image, so many of them stretching back for years. Jim knew he’d be in there, somewhere, lost in the surveillance, locked away on inaccessible hard drives, and he wasn’t sure what that meant—if he would last forever in some database, remembered but anonymous, or if it was a second way of being forgotten.
News scrolled past on the TV. He sat at the far end of the couch, feet up on the coffee table. Katie sat at the other end, hair piled in a messy bun, pods in her ears, face buried in her phone. She took a long drink from her third glass of wine.
“I went searching for it last night,” he said.
She looked up, seemed to realize he said something, and took her pods out. “What?”
“Last night. I tried to find it.”
She tilted her head. “What were you looking for?”
He leaned toward her and realized this was the most they’d spoken in two weeks. The house was dead quiet and so still it felt like the center of an impossible labyrinth. Sometimes he thought if he could only break out—but there was no beyond for them anymore. Outside, his motion-activated spotlight burst on. He suppressed the urge to get up and walk to the window.
“The Jersey Devil,” he said. “I drove out to the pine barrens and—”
“You went looking for the Jersey Devil?” She seemed to pull back. “You’re joking, right?”
He shook his head. “Took that drone out. The one we got him for Christmas last year. Flew it out over the pines.”
She opened her mouth and looked like she wanted to say something, and for a moment he saw her again—the Katie from before, that one that used to laugh and dance with her elbows, but he knew that Katie was gone, just like he was gone. She closed her mouth and put her pods back in.
“Good luck with that,” she said and hunched over her screen.
He stood up and walked to the back door. The yard looked flooded with too-white light. The grass lay still and he wondered if he saw red eyes peering back from the bushes.
The green-glowing stars shone down as he typed on his tablet.
— Went searching for the fucker again, wanted to get you boys proof, but the park ranger told me I can’t fly my drone over the barrens, anyone else think that’s really sus or what?? Guy straight up told me it was illegal, all those cameras posted all over and there’s not a single shot of anything, seems really fishy to me. I swear I saw it and I’ll get proof.
Replies ticked past, one after the other. — Real sus, but what can u do. Gotta follow laws.
— Fuck laws. And fuck the cams. You have to go out on your own two feet and be part of nature. That’s the only way you’ll find the monster.
— He’s right, you gotta get out there. Forget the ranger, man, he’s probably part of the cover up. How’d he even know you had a drone out there? Sounds fishy as hell.
Jim closed his eyes and could taste the rotten pine scent again. He imagined rough wood under his fingers and thought he heard laughter, high pitched and on the verge of breakdown, until he opened his eyes and saw the empty room. He shifted positions, rolled onto his side, and went fetal around the tablet. More responses came in, one after the other, and he knew what he had to do.
He typed, — You’re all right I gotta get out there and make something happen since nobody else will.
The headlights showed trees, so many trees, and he sat in his truck with the radio on mute, thinking about the hunt. The Devil was out there, somewhere in the damp darkness, and he’d find it.
He got out and grabbed his bag. It was packed with granola bars, a pair of plastic children’s binoculars, an LED flashlight, the drone, and his tablet. He pulled the shotgun from the passenger’s side floor and made sure it was loaded. It felt solid in his hands, heavy and dependable. He had to do what was needed.
Needles crunched under foot as he walked to the edge of the barrens.
He thought of the way Katie always kept her pods in now, and the house, too small to fit them both along with their grief, and he wondered how he’d never noticed how many stars there were.
He walked forward, switching off his flashlight, into the shadows cast by the thousands of scrub pines, pushed his way through the needles with his shotgun on his shoulder, and he felt more lost than he ever had before—but around him, in the black, he thought he saw thousands of little red eyes, shinning out from every corner, peering around every twisted trunk, and he wanted to get closer to them, as close as he could, right up to that edge, and maybe past it.