Fiction by Libby Cudmore
Bad news comes with a human messenger. Your Aunt Mo calls between spreadsheets and Zoom to tell you that your Uncle Pete was found dead in his apartment. No cause yet; could be a heart attack, could be pain pills, could be the guns he started stockpiling in these last few years. The last time you spoke to Uncle Pete, he was quizzing you on Merle Haggard over text messages. He was proud that you got the answers right, like a kid in the regional spelling bee. You didn’t have the heart to tell him you looked up the answers between messages. Some things you need to take to your grave.
Every summer your Uncle would pick you up in his camper to go Bigfoot hunting with your cousin Daniel. You’d climb over rock outcroppings and shine flashlights in caves, convinced this was the year you found him. At night in your tent you’d try to solve the puzzles on the Ballentine Beer caps he handed you by the campfire. You came home with a lot of Ballentine Beer caps.
“The real vampire is my ex-wife!” he’d say as he cracked open another beer. There are cousins you’ve never met, a woman who’s name you’ve only heard in whispers. You wondered if he still makes that joke, now that he and Aunt Mo are divorced.
The jackalope is his favorite. A trickster. A troublemaker. He had a jackalope tattoo he called Earl and he used to make it hop for you by flexing his bicep. You used to get up at dawn and hope you might catch a glimpse of one. But like Bigfoot, you never managed to catch him at the right time.
Your Aunt asks you to go with her to Oklahoma. She’s got to pick up his ashes and sell the camper. Didn’t seem right to ask her new husband. You haven’t seen Aunt Mo in years. It’ll be good to catch up. She hasn’t changed, still has that video vixen hair you envied. You wanted to grow up to be Aunt Mo when you were little. She remarks that you look just like your mom. Your cousin Daniel works in IT in Austin, if you ever wanted to go out and see him, he could show you around. You haven’t seen Daniel since he was in sixth grade. You tell her maybe and leave it at that.
Uncle Pete spent his winters in New Mexico. He used to get you on the phone to ask if a Yeti had come around asking about him. Told you he owed the Yeti money, that he was sending you $20 in a card. If he didn’t show up by spring to collect, you could keep it. Sometimes the card showed up. The Yeti never did.
Do not fuck with the Wendigo, he warns you. He did not elaborate.
Uncle Pete saw him standing on the side of the road once, like a billboard, when he was driving home from the bar. The Mothman comes with a warning. A week later a family was killed at that intersection in a hit and run. Uncle Pete didn’t talk about the Mothman much after that.
The autopsy results come back somewhere around the dick end of Tennessee. A heart attack. You feel relieved, somehow, but the M.E. reports early cirrhosis, and the pills didn’t help. There are different types of Wendigos, you realize, but all become insatiable in the end.
Uncle Pete saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand. Later, you realize that was actually Warren Zevon.
You spent a summer at a Girl Scout camp on Lake Champlain. Your friend Natalie saw Champ one night when she got up to use the latrine, got a blurry photo on a disposable camera that she copied and passed around camp like contraband. You sent it to Uncle Pete when you got home. It came back marked No longer at this address.
Uncle Pete said if you ever came down to New Mexico, he would take you to Roswell. You were all set to go one February, but your dad changed his mind at the last minute, and you spent mid-winter break sulking in your bedroom and watching taped episodes of The X-Files. Sometimes the phone rang late at night and you heard your dad yelling. Only Aunt Mo and Cousin Daniel sent the Christmas presents that year. You learned not to mention Uncle Pete after that.
Aunt Mo asks you to drive for awhile. It’s dark and you’re so close to Oklahoma that it’s not really worth it to stop for the night. She sleeps in the passenger seat while you plot patterns of the billboard you pass. Adult Outlet, church, Romantic Depot, gun store, private booths and hot showers. Truckers welcome. Jesus Forgives.
You see glowing eyes on the side of the road. For the next five miles you wait for the inevitable end. You wonder if Uncle Pete saw the Mothman before he died. Would it be better or worse to know the fate that awaits you?
You pull into a Waffle House for coffee even though your heart is pounding so hard you can hear it. You just need a moment to catch your breath. Aunt Mo wakes up and you tell her what you saw.
There’s no Mothman, Aunt Mo snaps. Pete killed that family. Ran a red light, clipped ‘em, threw their sedan into the intersection. The cops just never caught up to him. Why the fuck else would he go to Oklahoma except to escape?
Of all the stories Uncle Pete told you, he never told you this one.
You sell the camper to his buddy Ren and spend two days cleaning Uncle Pete’s apartment. Daniel meets you there with a rental truck to cart off loads to the dump and the bottle depot and the Salvation Army. You take an unopened box of PopTarts for the road. Unfrosted strawberry. Your favorite. In a box under the bed, you find the stash of letters and cards and drawings from you and from Daniel. Aunt Mo gets choked up when she sees these and goes outside to smoke a cigarette. You could use a break too.
He was a shit dad, Daniel says on the way home from 7-Eleven. But he didn’t deserve this. Dying alone, you know? Rough way to go.
You slurp your Dr. Pepper Icy and nod. You ever see a Jackalope? you ask, just to change the subject.
He grins. Couple times, he says. But he always moved too quick for me to get a picture.
Aunt Mo says she’s going to drive back to down to Austin with Daniel. She buys your plane ticket, as promised, and drops you off at a hotel by the airport. You promise to keep in touch. You mean it this time.
In the morning, you see a jackalope on the green between the Holiday Inn and the highway. He’s waiting for you, a harbinger, a messenger from beyond. You reach for your phone, quietly. This is the moment you and Daniel and Uncle Pete have waited for.
A rustle in the bush and he scatters across the parking lot, leaving nothing but the twigs where you saw horns. Sometimes a jackalope is just a rabbit. Sometimes a legend is just a man.
Libby’s debut novel, THE BIG REWIND, was published by William Morrow in February 2016. She is a frequent contributor to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and her stories and essays have appeared in HAD, Bleed Error, The Coachella Review, The Normal School, Tough, The RS-500, Memoir Mixtape, The Big Click, The Stoneslide Corrective, PANK, Vinyl Me Please, The Writer Magazine and the anthologies HANZAI JAPAN, WELCOME HOME, MIXED UP and A BEAST WITHOUT A NAME. She is the 2018 winner of the Oregon Writers Colony prize for fiction, and a three-year alumnae of the Barrelhouse Writer Camp.