Wayward Gothic

I remember the night they decided to kill Gordon Reed.

We sat in the back of the Fireside DCC amid filing cabinets the color of fish meat, the dense Oregon forest outside arising to the stormy sky like a thousand capillaries, and over cigarettes and whisky they decided, casually, to kill him. I drank more whisky than they did. I drank enough to drown out the perception of their pity for me, and I drank for some time after.

Sometimes I wonder if they would have felt as strongly about killing Reed had Arthur’s son not died in the room next to where we sat. If we hadn’t seen it; if he had shown up like Warders sometimes do, as water-rotted John Does at the county morgue; if he had gone silently in the dark, where we could have assumed the horror of his death rather than experienced it firsthand. Sometimes I wonder if I would have acted how I did if I’d been home to see my parents die. If I had been been there, if I had been forced to choose…and if, five years before that, if Reed hadn’t appeared at the Fireside DCC the first night I was home for Christmas my freshman year of college, throwing pebbles up at my window like he had when we were children, his dark coat and duffel bag soaked with pouring rain of the oceanic winters of our youth.

But I’d let him in. It was 2AM. And naturally, in Warder tradition, I had made coffee, and it began like this, years before my parents died, years before I took over the DCC, years before the fateful night where Arnie bled out and Arthur and Saul had decided to kill him in the bleak white light of the back office and I drank until I went to rehab years later:

“You know Rob Goodman?” Gordon had asked.

His feet were up on the table, but my mother was asleep upstairs and he knew he could get away with it. He was wearing all black, and his left hand was bandaged up under one long sleeve, darkened with rain. I thought to ask and then didn’t. I’d seen him with worse.

“Who, Kitsune guy?” I asked. Thunder rattled the panes of the kitchen window.

“Exactly,” he said, “Now, listen to this…”

Rob Goodman was an aging solider belonging to a Northern California outfit. He had fought in Vietnam, and insisted that he had fucked a Kitsune there. None of us at the southwestern Portland outfit believed him. Of course, we’d never encountered a Kitsune ourselves, but the general consensus was that they killed you once you were done fucking; we assumed that he had fucked someone he thought was a Kitsune, because his Vietnamese really was abysmal. He’d mistranslated something a prostitute said, we thought, or he’d found a woman he thought was so beautiful that it could only have been a fox demon in disguise, whatever that meant.

But as Reed found shortly after I went off to college and he started bounty hunting for a living, he had been telling the truth; there was a woman, he said, who he’d met on a hunt in Washington two months before who’d told him that Rob was dead. The story was that he’d gone off the radar sometime in May, and in July they’d realized that he hadn’t gone on a hunt like they envisioned. They broke into his house. Rob started in the bedroom on the second floor and ended baking in the heat on the screened-in back porch.

“It started in the bedroom, though,” Reed said, picking at his nails, “Like, I’d be remiss not to give him props for that, you know?”

“You’re saying you would have fucked it?” I said.

He looked at me with his cool, dark eyes. “I’ve fucked worse things. You, for example.”

“Saying that I’m not as attractive as a Kitsune isn’t much of a jab, you know,” I slid his coffee to him over the scratched wood table, “it’s a Kistune. It’s an aberration. It’s anomalously beautiful, that’s the entire point. And then it eats you.”

His meticulous fingers wrapped around the mug. “Eats you and does some painting, apparently. But that aside.”

“But that aside,” I repeated, leaning against the counter with my own coffee.

“Seventy-five thousand dollars.”

“What?”

Reed nodded. His expression was passive, but it often was. “That’s the starting price.”

I stood there for a second. And I set the coffee pot down on the counter. “How the hell…why?”

“I told you. It didn’t just kill him, it tore him apart.”

“Still, that’s…”

“A lot for an initial bounty, I know. I was just surprised as you are,” he said. “I just came back from a hunt in Utah with three people from Sonoma. The boys down there are scared as hell, you know, they had five guys taken out by that Windigo when we were kids, if you remember that blood bath…”

“Sounds like the blood bath was a lot cleaner, though. Jesus.”

“Well, it was. It damn was,” he said. “Windigoes…variations on a theme, Windigoes and Kitsunes, but at least the Windigoes take you outside first.”

“Usually,” I repeated. One of the Windigo guys got killed after leaving his back door unlocked. I was ten when it happened, and I had sat in the dark with my back against the DCC office door, listening to my father on the phone with the clerk in Sonoma. They were trying to figure out options. While they were on the phone, it killed another Warder over the radio. They hadn’t known it was still in the house. It was one of the only times I ever heard my father truly scared. “You don’t think it’s gonna be that bad, do you?”

“What, the Kitsune?” Gordon said. “Well, no way to tell, I suppose. But

[END SCENE]

—————————

I had made a call to my advisor, then to friends of mine in the English department. I had been teaching some course on gothic literature. My thesis was on the symbolism of shapeshifters in mythology. Those in the business of discussing plot devices for a living, as I was at the time, would call this ‘Situational Irony’.

I drove for 14 hours. I felt incredibly numb. When I saw the first grove of redwoods, some 11 hours away from my apartment and my books and all of who I had been without Wayward, I found that I deeply, desperately, painfully wanted to cry. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw my father cry, on two hands how many warders I’d seen cry, and even alone, driving down the dark California interstate, passing signs to Sonoma and San Antonio and what must have been a dozen beaches, less than 48 hours since I learned that my parents died a horrible, painful death: I could not cry. It felt like I was burning.

I stopped at a gas station just north of the Oregon border, and called Aurthur from a payphone to tell him I drove through the night, and that I’d see him by 8am at the least. He told me not to go to the DCC. “They haven’t finished cleaning it out yet,” he said. “I’m so sorry, Peter, it’s just… the whole house, it’s bad, it’s…”

“Awful,” I whispered. Reed’s voice, his long pale fingers around a mug of coffee: Eats you and does some painting, apparently.

“That’s right,” he said. The phone made his voice sound tinny and far away. “Come stay with Arnie and I, why don’t you.”

I rubbed my eyes under my glasses. “Arthur, I really couldn’t—”

“No. You will,” he said. “It’s more than just finding a place to stay, kid. We need to…well, you and Saul and I need to talk about the DCC, figure out all the details on that for the time being. I mean, we called regional authority as soon as we saw the house, but they want to talk to you, not us.”

I leaned heavily against the brick wall where the phone was mounted. It was very cold, and the winter rain was coming down, pounding on the overhang sheltering the phone bank, falling off the gutters into the mud. Part of me, through all the incredible stress, the burning pain of grief, called back memories of my father putting a bucket under a leak in our kitchen. I felt a sudden and spontaneous pang of worry about the tile floor. About what my mother would say if she found it warped and we had to replace it again. Did he fix the shingling, I thought, standing there stupidly, running through my mind a set of underlying truths that no longer existed: that they were there, they were alive, and my mother would care if the leak in the kitchen came back.

“I know it’s a lot to take in, and I’m really sorry, kid, it’s just—”

“—It’s business. I know,” I said. Shutting down a DCC, even temporarily, was a bureaucratic hassle. It meant everyone in that part of the state would have to go to the next nearest center, which welcomed plenty of bickering from the crowd who had deals going, or had money in the vault. Issuing bounties was slower, everything was bogged down. I knew that the best case scenario would be getting it back up and running by the end of the month. I also knew that it would probably be me running it, and that’s what my father would have wanted, although neither of us expected him to pass so soon.

[END SCENE]

————————

The Wright’s kitchen was chicken-themed. They did not have chickens, live around chickens, or enjoy chickens. It was my understanding that this was Arthur’s ex-wife’s choice of decoration, because the rest of the house was decorated in eerily ubiquitous warder decor that I to this day can only describe as ‘Bass Pro Shops Chic’: realistic paintings of the outdoors, furnishings picked to hide the hair of the resident dog, various hunting-themed memorabilia (‘Women love me, deer fear me’), and the occasional religious memento. It was here that I met Reed, after I had parked along the street and trudged through the rain to the Wright’s ranch-style house in the pines.

The door was unlocked. I stumbled in and immediately regarded Gordon Reed’s dichotomy— he sat at the kitchen table dressed in some sort of dark hunting garb, a black duffel bag slumped next to him on the obnoxiously red and white checkered floor— and between the rain outside, Gordon’s raised eyebrows at the sight of me, and the abysmally cheerful theming of the room, I realized I had a migraine.

“You look terrible,” he said nonchalantly.

“Thanks,” I said. The smell of the coffee in front of him made me feel sick. I dropped myself onto the chair across from him, swung my soaked backpack onto the floor next to his black duffle, and took off my water-spotted glasses. I didn’t want to know what I looked like.

Reed studied me carefully; even with my face in my hands, trying to rub some sense of humanity into myself, I could feel his gaze. I got the sense that he was trying to think of something to say.

[SAUL ENTER]

In the winter of our senior year of high school, there was a Warder campout, as there often is on the weekends during any weather or season. Saul, the Ranger of our unit, supervised as he often did. One night, Gordon and I found ourselves in the forest alone, and took the opportunity to partake in some activities; Saul found us, yanked back the bushes, and pointedly informed us that we were ‘looking for cryptids in all the wrong places’. We dressed quickly and scrabbled out of the woods and back to camp. He told my father. It was several months before I could look either of them in the eye, and I’m relatively sure Saul never forgot it, the way he looks at me sometimes.

[WRIGHT ENTER]

Arthur Wright had been a forester and a wayward ranger before he shattered his pelvis and broke his leg in three places. The doctors didn’t know what to make of it at the time. I vaguely remember claiming in the emergency room of the university hospital several hours later, home on summer break from my junior year of college, that he’d been hit by a car on the highway, but I don’t think they believed me; he’d been screaming about thunderbirds half the way to Portland. Ironically, he never spoke of them again. I could never get out of him if he’d just forgotten, or repressed it all, or what had really happened when he’d gone walking in the forest that night, but a year after he died I found a feather in the woods: eight feet long and two feet wide, with a center vein like a goddamn car axel. I decided I wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it, either.

[END SCENE]


When I was nine, my father had replaced the light switch cover in the main DCC office with one that resembled a bigfoot silhouette. I was relatively neutral on this incredibly minute detail of my life until the weeks after he died, when I spent my nights stalking through the house like a caged animal, locked in a manic, insomniac grief. One night I had circled into the DCC office for what must have been the third time that evening, and was suddenly incredibly enraged by it. The gall of the man, the absolute audacity of him to cheat on my mother for years and install a novelty cryptid light switch cover in the secret society office in our house while he was at it. I unscrewed it and threw it out, more forcefully than necessary, then found that he’d thrown away the original. That particular light switch laid bare on the wall, the cords and fixtures showing, for the better part of a year before I remembered to replace it— this time with a normal light switch cover, much to Reed’s disappointment.

“He really did love you, you know,” Arthur told me over coffee the morning of the funeral, sitting in his chicken kitchen, the dark dawn waning. I had been up all night attempting to focus enough to read or write something, because it both actions usually do plenty in the way of soothing myself; I’m sure he could tell by my mood that I had been unsuccessful.

“If he loved me, he wouldn’t have cheated,” I said. I couldn’t help but think about all the years I’d spent listening to my parents argue behind closed doors. That had been the catalyst that drove me to books to begin with.

I planned the funeral to bury both my parents at the same time. Arthur helped me, and to this day I have no idea how I would have done it otherwise, because between dropping out of grad school and all the beurocratic red tape concerning the DCC, I was barely functioning. He remembered my mother’s favorite kind of flowers. I had completely forgotten her favorite until I saw them in a wreath around her urn, and through my constant numbness I knew she would have liked them. Somehow that alone served to pacify some unsettled part of me I could not name. I thanked him profusely before the service started, and in response he asked me, very sincerely, if I thought I could get through the next few hours okay, and if I wanted to sit with him and Arnie. I was too goddamn exhausted to cry. I stood there stupidly and nodded instead.

The funeral itself was a warder funeral, the distinction being that 1. it was on an outdoor pavilion, and 2. you cannot ever, for any occasion, convince a room of warders to dress nicely, and they didn’t. A product of the social conventions of normal people mixed with the social conventions of the local bigfoot enthusiast sect, I chose to land in the middle and just wear what I wore to teach, which I’m sure probably included a sweater vest. Saul wore something with camo, and I remember feeling particularly morose about it because had my father been still alive, he would have pretended Saul was invisible for the entire afternoon. The flowers around my father’s urn were white. He wouldn’t have liked them.

Gordon didn’t come to the funeral. I didn’t care. I spent the service slumped in a metal folding chair between Arthur and Arnie, feeling like I was watching my parents die in front of me and somehow being too numb to give a shit. Arthur patted my knee to let me know when the service was over, because although I had watched it end, and watched people around me crying, the surreal reality of it all simply did not register with me. We buried them in the family plot. I got a sunburn and wondered if it was still the right thing to do to bury them next to each other.

I fell asleep in the Wright’s guest bedroom afterwards, at Arthur’s rather forceful suggestion. I slept for hours, and woke up to Reed standing next to the bed, shaking me and whispering my name. He’d brought me my favorite Chinese food. At some point after I ate, while we sat in silence on the edge of the bed, he rubbed my shoulder and asked, rather awkwardly, how I was feeling. I broke down sobbing. Neither of us had any idea of what to say.


In the height of summer, when the sun is high above the spruce capillaries on the edge of this property, the light from the window at the end of the hall will hit the narrow wood stairs in such a way that I can see the Rorschach blotches of where it drug one of my parents down the staircase. On the first step, a fine waterline like a solar eclipse on the edge of a discolored pool; on the next step, a thin, sweeping line to the right, where it continues up the wall for half a foot; on the third step, the pair of thick toothed dents I was yelled at for leaving when I was eight, having dropped my mother’s gardening shears; on the fourth step, a thicker sweeping line, this time to the left, to the baseboard my father replaced when I was twelve; then up the wall, pencil-thin up to waist height, which tails off into shadow. In the July of 1992 I went to fix a leak and found three dime-sized spots in a row on the ceiling. In the July of 1994 I got drunk and knocked a hole in the wall an inch above the molding on the eighth stair; I took a flashlight to it and found half a hand print the size of my father’s darkened into the wood. I called someone else to fix the hole.

We tore up the carpeting after the funeral, Arnie and I. It was an instance of Arthur volunteering teenaged labor, and at first it was clear to me that Arnie did not want to help me tear up the rest of the bloody carpeting that Saul couldn’t get to (it was Saul who had scrubbed clean the stairwell as I was undertaking the fourteen hour drive home across California, and I’m forever grateful for him for doing that, even though he’s told me he regrets not being able to get the stains out of the wood), but as the week wore on we bonded over our mutual discomfort in the whole ordeal. It actually became apparent after a while that Arnie had taken a bit of a shine to me. To this day I’m confused as to how this happened, because that was the very week I started drinking, first to help myself sleep and then to help myself stay awake, and I can’t imagine I was good company. My mother would have been mortified.

Gordon came over frequently in this time period, occasionally to offer help, occasionally to stand in the midst of it all and stare, and occasionally to bring me takeout of one kind or another. I started taking to working in the DCC in short spurts, which was something that badly needed to be done, but something I loathed for how much it took out of me. Everything was signed in my father’s handwriting, all the reports typed on his word processor, paperwork and notes and correspondence sitting out like he was about to walk back through the door. I tried to detach myself from these mementos of him to make it easier for me to work, but the DCC was everything he was. Wayward was his entire being. Seeing my own presence encroaching on his felt sacrilegious.

One afternoon, I was taking inventory in the big steel walk-in vault where we stored the DCC bounty money and various anomalous valuables. I wasn’t drunk, but I had found my father’s careful labelling on the countless safeboxes neatly lining the shelves, and had drunk enough to not be sober. I heard the office door open, and stuck my head out to find Gordon there, hands in his pockets, looking deeply unsettled and out of place among all my father used to be.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” I sighed.

“Wanna have sex?” he asked, awkwardly.

I looked at him blankly. I was holding my father’s first kill in my hands: an aging lone sizzler carapace in a shoebox. He’d first shown it to me when I was six. It hadn’t been my first time seeing an aberrant, but it had been my first time getting to hold something from one. I had been standing there with it, approaching tears, trying to decide if it should mean anything to me at all.

“Gordon,” I said, very tired, because I was, “remember those Sherlock Holmes stories we used to read?”

Amazingly, he still looked a bit hopeful. He nodded.

“I want you to use your powers of deduction here, and see if it looks like I want to have sex.”

He blinked like he was processing what I’d said. And then, stumbling into a sort of weak offense, as if this was a surprise to him and he couldn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t want to, he scoffed. “Well, I just thought I’d offer.”

I slammed the vault door hard enough to shake the photos on the wall.


When I was growing up I always anticipated taking the master bedroom for myself, because my own bedroom down the hall— what used to be my father’s bedroom, when he was growing up— was easily half the size, and the master had a big window looking out to the sunrise. I can’t stomach the thought of that anymore. I cleaned it out some time afterwards and locked the door when I was done, although there’s barely anything in there now: a bare mattress on a wooden boxspring, an empty wardrobe, an empty closet, everything empty or stored or bloodied and burned, sickening darkness pooled across the floorboards like a grotesque carpet, stains visible in any light and visible in my dreams, and on top of the empty dresser my father’s wedding ring. My mother was buried with hers.

My father was worth $50,000 to regional authority. My mother was worth $25,000, both because she wasn’t the resident DCC clerk and also because she was a woman. There was a period of time between when my parents died in the mid 80s and when I took a sabbatical for rehab in the mid 90s that I often wondered what I would be worth to the society if I was killed. Between being a gay man living a state away from the heart of the AIDS crisis and my own flagrant, open, suicidal alcoholism, I still believe that if something would have killed me as I wandered alone, drunk and loathing in that big old house, they wouldn’t have changed the bounty by a dime. This did not help my budding drinking problem.

The week before Christmas, I had my first full on breakdown. Saul came over and found me at my father’s desk in the DCC office, so utterly and obviously incapacitated I clearly couldn’t decipher the paperwork he handed to me. That night I got sick and was sick for days. I couldn’t leave bed or eat. I drank and slept constantly.

Saul recruited Gordon and Arnie to help run the DCC for a few days, which although was for the best at the time— I was in no condition to do anything of any importance— was disastrous. The three of them had absolutely abysmal clerical skills. I always had suspected that most warders you encounter have no idea about the magnitude of work that goes into running a DCC, and this confirmed it for me. Saul, being the Fireside ranger, had the best grasp on the general tasks that needed to be done, but still apparently went upstairs to the apartment to ask me for clarification several times, which I have absolutely no memory of him doing. Evidently my responses to his questions all straddled between vague and cryptic, even when, on the second day, the three of them deliberately undertook measures to try and sober me up. I do not remember these measures, and somehow managed to completely blow off the entire interrogation until they let me go back to bed.

A few days later, I woke up abruptly at 7am feeling better and noticeably starving. I got food from the kitchen and wandered downstairs, completely unaware of how long I’d been blacked out in bed, and strolled into the DCC office to find them all standing around the coffee machine, looking at me, dumbfounded. I said hello and started opening mail. Saul had no idea what to say to me for a good ten minutes.

In the April of 1995, a decade after this, Saul returned from a Wayward regional meeting to find me collapsed on the floor of the DCC, unconscious, drenched in sweat, and struggling to breathe. I couldn’t tell you how much I’d drunk. He loaded me into his Jeep and drove me to the hospital. Laying half-dead in the emergency room, fresh out of getting my stomach pumped, an IV in each arm and speaking through an oxygen mask, I weakly insisted to him I didn’t have a problem. He gave me an intervention in the form of a black eye, then took my keys to the DCC and left without another word.

I checked into rehab as soon as they discharged me. He’d saved my life. Twice.


Arnie’s high school english class was reading Frankenstein. I cannot contain myself around Frankenstein. I had an entire chapter about it’s symbolism in my thesis before I had to drop out, and seeing Arnie reading it at my kitchen table sent me on a rather animated drunken rant of the variety his father apparently warned him about. It occurred to me years later that he brought it over on purpose so we didn’t have to finish laying down carpeting in the living room. Regardless, he seemed to be entertained, and I didn’t want to lay down the carpeting either.

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