She was starving. At least, that’s what the human who fed her called this gnawing feeling in her gut. She could hear the intense grumbling in her stomach as hunger writhed inside her like a viper. Her salivary glands, triggered by the thought of food, squirted gallons of a viscous liquid, not unlike burnt gasoline, straight into her gullet. It was pure fire.
She couldn't remember the last time she had eaten anything. When was that exactly? A year ago? Two? The yearning for food was so intense that it almost tore a hole in her belly and muddled her brain to the point she couldn't think straight.
For some, food was an emotional pick-me-up, a reward. But for her, it was a necessity, pure and simple. She never ate mindlessly or on autopilot. She ate only when completely empty - one bite after another, slowly savoring assorted flavors and textures. There were things that she liked better than others, but, in general, she was not fussy. She ate because the empty space in her gut screamed at her to fill it. Benign at first, the void grew stronger, blowing up like a puff fungus, only to explode in a shrill roar.
All she could do was ignore the command. She could not move. She was stuck in the cellar, listening to the void’s laments, waiting for food to be delivered. She could only hope the human who had promised to look after her would do the stalking. And the hunting. Soon, or she’d die.
Halfmoon Valley, population 434, is just a tiny dot on the edge of Kootenai National Forest, Montana. Summers in Halfmoon Valley are warm, but come December, thermometers rarely rise above 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Local folks say they remember winters when spit would freeze in midair before hitting the ground, and if a man had to piss out in the open, his pecker would turn into an icicle and fall off.
Martin Jarvis was not a native Montanan. No one knew his exact age or where he’d come from. He seemed timeless, placeless, and limitless, like the lichen that had taken over Halfmoon Valley's rooftops. Lured by the offer of a "job and a cabin", he’d arrived in the town more than thirty years before. The job was lumberjacking, and the cabin was Deer Lodge, a 200-square-foot ramshackle log structure with high ceilings and a brick chimney. Even back then, the place looked like it could barely stand upright, and even the mildest gale might topple it down, leaving nothing but a pile of rubble.
After he had worked in the sawmill lugging logs and wielding an axe for nearly three decades, the place went bust. So, with the job part of the initial offer gone, only the "and a cabin" feature remained. By then, Jarvis had long lost touch with his family, wherever they might be. He thought he might still have a distant cousin around Eureka and a niece in Tallahassee, but he barely remembered their names, and, for sure, he didn't know their exact addresses. At seventy-five, he was so used to being on his own that he chose to stay in Halfmoon Valley. Right in the middle of the forest, in Deer Lodge.
He was generally left to his own devices, and, in the best tradition of loners, he subsisted on what he could pick up in the woods. When autumn came, he also harvested the potatoes and corn he planted on one of the sunny slopes behind the lodge. Occasionally, he managed to trap a rabbit or find roadkill that had not yet gone off completely to put in his stews. He was not particularly picky about what he ate and needed just enough to keep his body from shutting down.
To earn some cash, he’d walk down to the Meat Hook and offer Mike Lambert, the owner, to butcher one of the hogs or bone and fillet the ones he'd killed earlier. For a few bucks, he chop-chopped through breastbones and hips, sprinkled salt on hocks and knuckles, gathered spilled guts into a bucket, and washed the liver and heart Lambert sold by the pound over the counter. After he was done, he cleaned the blood and skin from his hands with lime soap and warm water, then headed to the smoke shop to spend his hard-earned money on an ounce of Cavendish tobacco.
If Lambert had no hogs to slaughter, Jarvis would trim Mrs. Taylor’s wisteria bushes, rake up leaves in the kindergarten yard, or hose down the pavement in front of the barbershop. It all added up to a few dollars, which was more than enough. Apart from that, workwise, there wasn’t an awful lot to do, but he didn’t complain. He got by.
He had a well-established routine that he enjoyed. He got up late, boiled water for tea, and fried the cornbread he'd made the night before. In the summer, he sat in front of the cabin, listening to the forest hum and haw around him. Then he lit a pipe and took long, leisurely puffs, making the tobacco last as long as possible. He'd rather run out of tea and sugar than do without his Cavendish fix. After lunch, he worked in the garden, carried wood or water, or went hunting. If he were lucky, he caught a squirrel or two, which would last him a week. In the evenings, accompanied by a kerosene lamp, he went to the clearing at the side of the house, filled the second pipe of the day, and listened to the town below speak to him.
He knew Halfmoon Valley by heart and could name every building there. At the end of Main Street was the Buckhorn, a bar where he’d gone for a single malt every Friday when he still worked in the sawmill. Prendergast’s fishing supply shop for all those khaki-clad townies who came to Halfmoon Valley to catch trout was two doors down. Everyone knew the Montana trout were the best in the world and required extra-strong nylon. Legend had it that specimens as heavy as seven pounds had been caught in the Wopanga Brook. Old Pendergast, a nasty piece of work, sold the anglers things they didn’t need, from reels and floats to baits and lures.
“And they always fall for it—hook, line, and sinker. No pun intended!” he bragged.
Opposite the tackle shop was the Tough Nickel, open seven days a week from 6 a.m. until midnight. John Spruce, owner, cook, and general drudge, presided over the counter in a white grease-stained cassock and a chef’s pointed cap, serving soggy hash browns and mud-black coffee to truckers who circulated along Interstate 15.
After an hour or so of watching the distant lights twinkle and talk to him, Jarivs would return to the cabin, turn on the radio, and listen to the Montana Outdoor Show, his favorite program.
But, as of late, he noticed that the lights in the cabin flickered and the radio crackled like an asthmatic with one lung, then went off in the middle of the show. It made his blood boil. So, the next time he went down to Halfmoon Valley, he told Lambert he needed a guy to check the old generator. However, three days passed, and no one came.
On Thursday morning, Jarivs took his tobacco pouch and pipe, sat in front of the lodge to smoke in the crisp morning air, and let the sun massage his leathery face with warm fingers. He was about to light up when a monstrous F-150 Ford van appeared between the pine trunks, so he put the pipe back into the pouch and, step after faltering step, walked to greet the visitor.
A short, sandy-haired man of around forty jumped out. He wore waterproof rubber boots and a thick fleece jacket with the North Face logo. His blue eyes were warm and friendly.
"Mr. Jarvis?" he said, slipping a leather glove off his right hand and stretching it towards the old man.
"The name’s Tom Huskin. I’ve been told you need help."
Jarvis shook the proffered hand and nodded.
"Yes, can’t get the old juice machine to start. It kinda comes alive, then dies. On and off, on and off, which is annoying. More off than on nowadays. Most of the time, there’s no light in the cabin. I ain’t getting any younger, and my eyes...”
His voice trailed off.
"They used to be as sharp as a hawk's, but now I struggle to do the simplest tasks."
"Just let me grab my tool kit, and I’ll have a look-see. And if it doesn’t work, I can always try to jump-start it from the power board on this baby," he said, lovingly patting the F-150’s bonnet.
"Full hybrid V6 engine, massive 7.2 kV output. That’s a lotta juice in one machine."
Jarvis shrugged, not caring for the technical details.
"So, what is it like to live this hermit life so far from civilization?" Huskin inquired to break the silence.
Jarvis shot him a disinterested glance. He'd heard the question a million times before, and when the mood struck him, he'd respond respectfully. But today, somber thoughts crowded his mind like deer rallying around a winter feeder, so he mumbled something in response and led the way to the lodge.
Huskin followed. People in town had told him that the old man was a recluse who hated wasting his breath on idle chatter. It seemed they were right.
Jarvis stepped inside, holding the door open for Huskin, who noticed a thick web with dead flies hanging from the door frame. The sitting room-kitchen-bedroom space was ample and carried scarce furniture: a small rectangular table with three chairs, a bed neatly made up with a knitted coverlet in red and black wool, and some boxed possessions stowed under. A wardrobe with a door on the right and four drawers on the left. A stove where a blackened kettle puffed out clouds of steam and whistled gently.
"Let’s sit down at the table and have some tea. There might still be some snickerdoodles in the tin," Jarvis suggested politely as if trying to make up for his previous gruffness.
"My Mama used to say, You kids gotta eat only at the table. I don’t want no crumbs or spills on my clean floor! And if we didn’t listen, she’d have a hissy fit with a tail on it!"
Accepting Jarvis's apologetic gesture, Huskin sat at the table and smiled at the memory. His mother had always laid down the ground rules in his house without the right to appeal. Just like his wife did in his home nowadays.
Jarvis poured water into two chipped mugs, heaped sugar into them, poured a drop of milk, and carried them to the table. They sat in companionable silence, drinking the hot, sweet tea, when the lights blinked and then went off. The place went completely dark, with only a tenuous beam poking in from a small window with grimy panes. There, too, Huskin noticed cobwebs with trapped insects.
Jarvis got up and went to fetch a kerosene lamp.
"Looks like the juice’s completely gone," he said as he put a match to the wick, then went to the stove to rekindle the dying fire, feeding it a few logs.
"At least we won’t freeze to death here," Huskin chuckled.
Jarvis turned and looked at him long and hard as if trying to evaluate what Huskin meant.
"That’s for sure. We won’t die of cold here," he confirmed after a moment of hesitation.
The lights flickered again but failed to come alive.
"Well, ain’t no use wasting your time. You’d better start on the thing you’ve come to fix," Jarvis said almost regretfully.
"Rightee oh. I’d better get going now, or I’ll be late. I promised the old lady I’d pick up some groceries on the way back. Down in Jennings, in that big Safeway, they’ve just opened. Baked beans, bananas, and stuff, she said. As if a man should know what stuff is! And make sure there ain’t any black spots on them, she said! On the bananas, I mean."
He picked up his toolbox and looked at Jarvis.
"So, where do you keep the old monster?"
Jarvis’s eyes seemed to cloud with surprise, then cleared as he pointed toward the cellar.
"Down there. Just give me a moment. I’m busting for a wee, and then I’ll join you," he said.
“Well, don’t rush on my account!” Huskin replied and walked towards the cellar.
Jarvis watched the technician’s jacket-clad shoulders disappear in the trap door. He stood still for a moment, scratched the stubble on his chin, then looked again as if expecting someone to emerge. No one did.
A moment later came the sound of something falling, something screaming, and something chewing. Jarvis shuddered as cold fingers reached deep inside him, twisted his bowels, and tapped his bones. When the shrieks died, the lights blinked, went off, and came on again. The cabin was brightly lit, and even the radio was on.
The weight of guilt crashed down on the old man, as it always did when the thing happened. But it never lasted long. At least not long enough for him to forget he had to get rid of the evidence. And this time, it was going to be hard work. The F-150 was massive and would require an awful lot of digging. Maybe he could take it to the Wopanga Brook and drive it straight in. It would sink like a stone through the ice and stay hidden until the snow was gone in late spring. After all, it was Halfmoon Valley, Montana, where spit froze before hitting the ground in winter, and a man's pecker could freeze into an icicle.
Something was purring inside her. The viper in her stomach was gone, apparently replaced by a furry kitten.
Purrrr... Purrrrrr... Feeeeels gooooood!
The old man had told her this feeling was called “pleasure.”
She could hear the kitten’s soft breath as it wiggled inside her and shifted, looking for a comfortable place to curl up, then settled to sleep. It replaced the space where the void had been and felt terrific! She was full to bursting. Full to burping. So she did. She burped. Twice.
She did not care for the fleece jacket or the waterproof rubber boots, but that couldn’t be helped. She’d spit them out later, together with the nasty-tasting wallet and the car keys. They came with the rest. And the rest was delicious. The yellow liquid from an hour before was gone, replaced by the sweet-tasting human plasma, protein-rich and transparent. Just as she liked it. Just as she remembered from the first time. And the second. And all the others. She was dizzy with joy. Millions of calories filled the void and would last for a long time. Until her juices dwindled again, and she needed another fix. Another regenerator.
Upstairs, she could hear the human who’d promised to take care of her walk around in circles and mutter to himself. She knew she could trust him because they had a deal. She provided him with energy. He provided her with food. He’d do all the necessary stuff up there to keep them safe –clean up and get rid of the evidence. Like he always did. And she could go back to being herself—a reloaded generator.
- THE END -
Author Notes: You will be surprised. Not all is what it seems to be.