The Lake Road Killers
Words By Melanie Finn, Art By Arthur Asa
The road slips through rough fields, then crouches down into the tall, tall trees, into their inky, obscuring darkness. They are driving, these two boys, Ben Rainey and Clyde Boudreau, and they come this way to drink and drive undisturbed. The road is busy in the summer, the late light of this northern place keeps campers and bikers out and about. But now, the tail end of mud season, past midnight, there’s just Ben and Clyde, and they come arrowing through the dark, up from West Burke, working on a buzz. They are talking, because the radio reception is so poor. All you get, when you can get, is squeaky French pop music from across the border in Quebec.
Clyde’s hands on the wheel smell permanently of iodine, and his boots smell of cow piss-shit, a very particular aroma that cannot easily be washed away. Despite aid from the state, Clyde’s family is in permanent danger of losing their dairy. His dad has been at the bank again.
“It’s because of the liberalists,” Clyde says his Dad claims. “The vegans.”
Ben disagrees. “There are, like, five vegans in the entire world.” He has heard of a cheese mountain, somewhere in the Midwest, where all the unused milk goes and gets turned into cheese because cheese lasts longer. “Imagine!” Ben urges, and they imagine this cheese mountain, gleaming yellow in the hot, flat Iowa sun.
“That’s so fucked,” Clyde says. “That is just so fucked.”
Ben cracks open another Bud Light. “The problem is sugar.”
Clyde makes a dismissive snort.
“It’s true,” Ben insists. “If you’re at Cumby Farms, you can see people come out with these kegs of pink shit or choco-shit. Kegs, man. Keg size. Not milk, not cheese. It’s not even technically food; it’s sugar and chemicals. And you know from the size of those people that they are not hungry. They are not even thirsty. They are fearful. They fear that stuff will be taken away from them, the Democrats will make them turn in their sugar, the Deep State in black helicopters will come to their trailers, their blowed-down shit-pile shacks, and take away their Arizona Tea and their iced hazelnut capuchins.”
Ben is smart; he does well in school, AP Literature and Calculus. But he is poor. Being smart and poor is a bad joke, something given and taken away at the same time.
“What does fear have to do with cheese?” Clyde asks. He sometimes has trouble following Ben.
“If people were not afraid, they would drink milk, they would eat cheese.”
This sounds remote and wise, for people do seem afraid of some unnamed thing, and Clyde looks through the windshield at the moon above the tall, inky trees. He and Ben have the windows rolled down; they want the air and the smell of yielding mud and long damp grass and water in the brooks. Clyde puts the heater on against the chill. There are frosts up here until mid-June.
At last, they come upon the bend by the White Caps Campground. White Caps is dark but for security lights, a month away from opening season. The lake appears before them, sudden and grand and right there, the curtain of trees whisked aside like a magic trick. The wide, open lake in the moonlight is strange, so deep and dark, these odd places where the earth can still stash its secrets, its mysteries. As they hem the eastern edge, Ben surveys the black, wrinkled surface. What might be down there, lurking, living.
Ben’s mother loved the lake. On a summer day, she’d bring her own kids and anyone else’s, pack them into the Dodge Caravan, and she’d wade out into the sparkling water, knee-deep, with a beer and a cigarette, and stand for hours, beer upon beer. She looked beautiful and young and tanned from behind, but her face was already a ruin, teeth half gone. Ben remembers being hungry, because she never packed any food. All day in the sun and nothing to eat. The lake, even now, reminds him of that hunger, the ache in his belly, feeling so dizzy he’d put his head under water to get it clear. He’d keep his eyes low and unseeable and stare at the cool boxes brought by other people: the cold cuts, the bags of chips, the ice-cold sodas.
A few years ago his mother showed up at the back door. “Hi, it’s me!” She fluttered a casual little wave, cigarette in hand. Ben’s brother, Ian, let her in and, at dinner that night, she told them how she was clean, how much they all meant to her, the thought of them—her family, her children—well, they had been her light in the dark. Ian said nothing. He took a tooth pick and started working at a piece of hamburg caught in his back teeth. He had been the one to throw her out when he found her stealing their Gran’s morphine patches. She’d been replacing them with nicotine patches, so Gran was smoking the equivalent of two packs a day for a month before anyone noticed.
Ben’s Gran’s bones are crumbling inside her skin now. If she so much as stubs her toe, the toe bones turn to powder. Gran is basically a sack of skin and she has started asking Ben to help her end it, her fingers catching at his shirt when he gets too near her. “Benny, I can’t take it no more.” He feels her staring at him from her chair with the same yearning he felt looking at other people’s cool boxes. She smells of piss and he’s sorry for her, but he also feels a horror of her, like what’s at the bottom of the lake. It might not be a monster with red eyes and a forked tail but this… this crumbling in a chair in a corner and the smell of what he fears is all the human grease and smear collecting in the many folds of her skin that no one dares wash away anymore.
Ben and Clyde come along the lake road, passing Devil’s Rock where, in summer, you can hurl yourself briefly into space, a moment’s liberty before the lake receives you, the sparkling water cold as claws. The great granite knob of Mt. Piscah is on Ben’s side, the lake on Clyde’s, and a little further on, by the first set of cabins, she appears. She must be coming from the cabins, though why? What is she looking for there? Not like a bear you’d expect hassling people’s bird feeders and garbage.
She stops, illuminated by the truck’s headlights. Jesus Christ, Ben thinks, a moose is a weird-looking animal. She just stares at the boys, and next thing Clyde is slowing down and braking, reaching for his gun, and the dumb animal isn’t running away, she’s just staring and staring.
“Dude, you don’t have a permit,” Ben says. No one is supposed to hunt cow moose anyway; their numbers are way down due to brainworm and ticks, and it is not even in season.
Clyde locks and loads. “She’s practically asking for it.”
And he shoots her, though he does not kill her. She falls down on her knees but struggles to get up. She does not look like an animal but a kind of mechanical beast that has broken some hinges and springs inside, so he shoots her again and she topples over. The boys run out to her. She is breathing, blood bubbling from her mouth and nose, and Clyde shoots her point blank, which is a mistake because her skull bursts up and open, and suddenly they’re covered in this hot, red brain soup of hers, their ears ringing from the shots.
When the ringing stops, Ben can hear the chugging sound of the truck and Clyde’s laughter. But it isn’t a funny ha-ha laugh; Ben recognizes the nervy giggle. Once, when Clyde’s old man was repairing the electric fencing, Ben and Clyde were in the barn, right by the invertor, and Clyde turned the current on, just for a second, then off again. They heard his Dad scream out. Clyde tittered, high like a girl, and flipped the invertor on, one last jolt, then off, then he and Ben ran and ran, clear across the fields and made sure they came ambling up the road, from the opposite direction, so they couldn’t possibly have been screwing around with the electricity in the barn.
“Nice piece of meat,” Clyde says, resting his cow-piss stinking boot on her shoulder, a gesture of conquest.
“We’ll go up to Wheeler Mountain. Chantel, Lily, maybe Bogsy and T.J. It’ll be great. Barbeque is barbeque, right. No one’ll know.” Ben works to sound convinced.
Clyde gives the dead moose a little kick. “Don’t tell Chantel, I gotta have your word, man, because she will tell the whole fuckin’ world.”
Chantel is a vegetarian and will probably vote for Bernie Sanders when she turns eighteen, and she cannot stand the thought of animals being slaughtered. Ben has tried to tell her, because he wants the intimacy of conversation, of ideas, and not just the slow unbuttoning of her white, lace shirt, that wild deaths are just as bad, if not worse. The moose is dead, that is a fact, and so many are dying in a worse way, the brainworm which makes them go crazy and must be like having a badly-tuned radio on in your head 24-7, or the ticks. While taking down firewood, Ian found a young bull moose dead from ticks and said it was like a coat, these fat grey ticks more than fur in some places, a pelt of ticks. Sucked the blood right out of the animal, that’s how it died, from blood loss. Animals do not die pretty deaths in the wild, they do not grow old and lie down and go to sleep in a field of flowers. Neither will Ben’s Gran.
Clyde has his chainsaw in the back of the truck and he heaves it out, but it will not start. Over and over he pulls the starter arm but the motor refuses to catch. He yells out and chucks it into the bushes.
“We’ll have to lift her in,” he says.
They try to haul the moose to the truck. But just moving her a couple of inches takes all their strength.
Clyde kicks her. “Bitch!”
Ben listens for cars. It’s nearly 2 a.m. Sooner or later someone else will come this way, and that person will see a couple of corn holes standing over a shot-dead moose. Her weight is that of a horse—say, 800 lbs. Ben feels his face burn, sweat pricks his armpits. The words, “You fucking asshole” form on his lips, but he knows there’s no point in uttering them. Clyde is just short-sighted, and he has no reason to be otherwise. His life is pretty much locked into the dairy, and when the dairy fails—which it will—he’ll be working as a logger, or a landscaper, or a roofer, for a dollar above minimum the rest of his life. Ben knows that Clyde’s dad regularly jacks deer, and if he gets a live coyote in one of his many traps, he sets the dogs on it first. Clyde does not want to be like his father, but perhaps there is no other way to be in this place, which visitors say is beautiful, but they’re not in the barn on mornings so cold the cow piss freezes in the trenches, they are not patching their roof with tarpaulins. Clyde may be short-sighted, but he can add, and he knows what his life adds up to.
Ben looks down at the body, the cloven hooves, the rough hair of her coat. She’s still warm. He exhales. “We can’t just leave her shot up like this. The cops, man. Fish and Game, man. We’ll have to smash her up. Make it look like she got hit by a car.”
Clyde grabs the crow bar and hits her. Just once. Then again and again, like a crazed wind-up toy, crow bar winding up and back and slamming down. The noise of the breaking bones, the sudden fragility of this enormous animal—how easily she splits open. Ben stands back, watching his friend’s fury, and he wonders at the intensity of that emotion, almost envies its purity and clarity. Clyde stops, panting. “What the fuck, you gonna help or what?”
There’re rocks on the roadside, debris from Piscah, and Ben finds a rock that fits his hand, in the ancient way, and he smashes the moose, mid-torso; he smashes again, but the rock is slippery with her blood and he hits her udders, which spurt out milk, and the milk turns the blood rose-pink. Clyde stands back now, and Ben feels a violent compression in his stomach; he manages to burp out a beer-scented heave. He thinks about the moose calf in the dark. It must be there among the dark, closed-up cabins, watching, the way children watch and do not understand when something is happening to their mother, what men in the dark are doing to her and she’s not moving but they just keep doing it. “Let’s go,” Ben murmurs. “Let’s just leave her.”
“We can’t.” Clyde turns now, re-coiling all his anger, winding it back inside, carefully, the way his dad puts his belt back through his belt loops when he’s done. “Obama made this database for every bullet, so they’ll trace the bullets.”
“I’m not sure he did.”
“Well I am, sure as fuck, and those are my bullets, my gun.” Clyde’s already rummaging around in the back of his truck, finding a chain. They truss this around the moose and hook her onto the hitch. As they drive off, they can feel her back there, thumping and jerking. At first Clyde drives slowly, and they drink the last of their beer casually, and Ben is thinking about her calf, how it will be taken by coyotes, not quickly, but one piece at a time, though he wonders if something happens to a dying animal, it stops feeling. The way the moose, even, had that faraway look. Her lashes had been so long. And her crazy rubbery nose, he’d noted her whiskers, much like his Gran’s.
After a mile, Clyde starts to speed up. Light is already washing up the eastern sky—it’s nearly 4 a.m. But it’s not the mid-May dawn causing Clyde to weight his foot upon the accelerator, nor the fear of discovery, but some great and childish anger at the moose for disappointing him, for making his life so unnecessarily difficult. The word “fuck” forms in him, gaseous and explosive, pressing outward. He will explode with it, and then the bits of him will rain back down and smother and suffocate the remainder of him. He floors it, the stupid dead moose yanking and bumping behind the truck. Ben says nothing.
They reach East Brownington, and a car comes around the bend, toward them, then past them. Clyde suddenly pulls on to the verge, gets out. Ben joins him and together they unhitch the moose. She’s a mess, though somehow the structure of her has held together. “Bitch,” Clyde says, but softer, in his mother’s voice, or perhaps his own. They drive away and Clyde chucks his beer can out the window, though he worries, later, that the cops will find his fingerprints, his DNA, and they will come for him.