“Rack and Ruin” by Eric Williams
The gods come down off the mountains only on fog-choked nights under a new moon, so Weather Watch and the Lunar Phase Tracker were the first apps on my phone. How’d they do it, in the old days? Almanacs and shit, I guess. Must’ve been hard, a lot harder than rolling off the futon in Mark’s living room, tapping a screen, and having the next twenty-four hours all planned out.
“Looks like tonight’s a go,” I said, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
Mark gave me a thumbs-up and made breakfast.
We spent the morning in, pulling our gear together, and our afternoon down at Cowboy Coffee, going over the old USGS topo map we’d annotated over the past six months.
“I don’t like that access road,” he said, sipping his coffee. “With the trees bare, the truck’ll be visible from the ridge.”
“How about this timber track?” I traced along the green edge between naked rock and forest cover. “Leave the truck and head up this wash,” my finger followed erosion upslope on the map while I talked, “and down into the Basin.”
Mark considered it, nodded.
We fiddled around in town, bought some propane, and waited for dusk.
“I think this bend is it,” I said, squinting between the map and the hazy landscape.
We were glad to be out of the truck and walking. Wrapped in fog, the thin trace of the lumber road had made for a white-knuckle track drive.
The wash was full of tumbled boulders and busted tree trunks, everything damp and muffled. Our headlamps gave a fuzzy glow that got lost in the fog, and our hike was mostly a slow series of slips and falls and stumbles until we reached the rim and saw, below us, the bowl of the valley hidden under mist. The damp felt electric against my skin, and the silence crept into our skulls. Far off, in the mist, I felt something move, something huge and old.
“They’re close,” whispered Mark. “I’ll make some coffee.”
The fog thickened, and we sat wrapped in blankets, drinking coffee and listening to nothing. Even the coyotes knew better than to be out on a night like this. I was getting antsy, so Mark rolled a couple of joints. As our smoke mingled with the fog, we heard the first sound: a seismic thrumming rattling up through the earth and into our bones.
“Here we go,” said Mark, rustling in his pack in the mist.
I saw the spark of his lighter flare once and vanish.
A tittering laugh stood my hair on end. Something passed between us and the stars. A smell, spicy and sweet, rose up from the incense burner.
The sounds were like chimes and gongs and aching dreams that vanished with waking. Trees bent and groaned as they moved among them, bark scraping and roots wrenching themselves free of soil. Finally, one stumbled near us, eight legs flashing as it went, its rack tangling in the incense. It snorted, tugged, tried to pull free, muscles straining under its starry hide. It went to its knees and then Mark and I were on it, silver flashing on the edge of our knives. Its blood was heavy as mercury.
The smell of death kept the others off, and no more gods came by our camp that night. Dawn came, and between us we were able to manhandle the huge, branching antlers through the woods, back down the wash, and under a tarp in the back of Mark’s truck. We drove carefully down to the track, off the mountain, and onto the highway.
We stopped at the state line to take a piss at a visitor center. Next to us was a church van, “United Universalist Children of The Dagda (Reformed)” in big, bright letters on its side. A gaggle of church teens stared. The bone-white antlers had caught their eyes.
“Where’d you find that?” one of them asked, fingers interlacing prayer beads.
“Uncle’s ranch,” I lied. “Still some wild gods up in the mountains near where he lives.”
“Awesome,” whispered another, stroking the antlers.
“Hey, take my picture with it?” one of them asked, holding out their phone.
I looked them over, unsure.
“C’mon, I’ll pay?”
“Five bucks,” I said.
They lined up, each holding the span of the dead god’s antlers high over the heads, smiling.
Eric Williams is a writer living in Austin, TX, on the lithified remains of a Cretaceous seaway. His fiction can be found at The Squawk Back, Oblong, Wyvern Lit, and Mash Stories. All complaints should be directed to @geoliminal on Twitter.