About the Author

Craig Davidson

Books by this Author

Stars. Fractured star-sprays and burning constellations . . . galaxies radiating like spokes on a wheel, their epicentres—the suns—dancing pinpricks of kaleidoscopic brightness.

Then: Black.
The steady trickle of salt water dripping in a sea-cave. Lurking behind it: the hiss of a serpent sidewinding over wet rocks.
“Uh . . . hwwwuuugnnh . . .”
. . . you were born into dread, my son . . .
A fairytale giant has collected my blood in a glass globe he wears strung round his neck. The giant laughs, his paving-stone teeth flashing, as I beg for my blood back . . .
A sudden, buzzing pinworm of pain corkscrews through me. The wire cools. It is someone else’s pain now. I’m only holding onto it. Far off, the giant is still laughing.
Snap to with a snort.
I’m suspended upside down, belted into the passenger seat of our car. A Volvo: boxy, brooding, Swedish. Snow is piled against the windshield; cold granules of sunlight petal through the shattered glass. Gravity pulls my knee-caps down; my feet are wedged beneath the glovebox and my wrists bent back against the roof upholstery.
“Dan . . .”
The airframe sparkles with powder from the deployed airbags. The Volvo has an embarrassment of them—a  number that struck me as farcical in the austere showroom. Now the interior is draped with deflated alien spore-bags, satiny-white, and my lips are caked with xenomorph eggs. There’s an acid burn in my sinuses—did I throw up? No: that’s antifreeze. I’ve been at enough accident scenes to recognize the smell. It must be trickling through the vents with its greasy, burnt-animal stink.
I try turning my head—a wire buzzes with such intensity that it shocks a strangled scream out of me. In the rearview I catch sight of something inverted in the backseat like a little hangman. A pocket-sized executioner with a white hood over his face. A cold lunar silence weeps from the driver’s side. I can think of no good reason to look directly at that ghastly quiet next to me—Why, when it would be so easy? a sharp-toothed voice urges. Just turn your head a smidge and . . .
When I move my left arm, the pain is mammoth. I reach cross-body with my right hand to unlock the seatbelt. My fingers are senseless pegs riveted to my palm. I thumb the button but nothing happens. The lock’s jammed.
The hangman in the backseat emits a consumptive snuffling like a Pekinese with a sinus problem. He broods back there—in every un-noosed neck he sees an opportunity lost.
The belt is cinched tight across my shoulder. My entire body feels like it’s resting on one fragile joint. There’s a Leatherman in the glovebox. I try to heel off my boot before realizing it’s already gone: both boots must’ve been flung off in the . . . my knee brushes the stereo knob and the cab fills with the insane screech of the Doodlebops, their helium voices turning cat-yowly before cutting out.
With one big toe, I pop the latch. The glovebox jars open, spilling oil-change receipts and the Leatherman, which strikes my incisors and floods my mouth with the taste of rolled nickels. I retrieve it from the roof and fumble the blade open. Blood pools in my skull; the pressure must be turning my face as red as skinned meat.
It’s taxing work cutting through the belt. The wire buzzes hotly until the severed strap hisses through the belt’s eyelet. I complete a graceless backwards somersault and in that frictionless second, my head swivels to force a confrontation with the scene I’ve been avoiding.
Ahhhh, breathes the sharp-toothed one. Isn’t that a treat.
A tree limb is spiked through the Volvo’s windshield; the safety glass is crumbled around the hole it made entering our world. The branch pierced the driver’s-side airbag—shreds of white ballistic nylon still cling to its bark—before carrying on into Dan’s . . .
Oh, I remember this tree. I’d seen it lurking within a copse of its brethren just off the unplowed corduroy road. A tree waiting on this very chance with one of its branches projecting at a perfect ninety-degree angle: a straight jab of oak encased in transparent ice, its end whittled by sun and wind until only the hardest stuff remained. The heart-wood, it’s called.
That branch is now married to Dan’s face. His head is tilted back, his throat shorn by the wood running on its unbending plane: his neck and the branch form an inverted capital “T.”
Later, maybe I’ll have an opportunity to lie about how coldly I accept my husband’s death. At the funeral home with Dan’s pale-eyed father, both of us standing over his son’s coffin. I doubt I’ll ever come to grips with it, you know? But before the back of my skull even hits the dome-light I am reconciled to the fact, and moving past it.
I land on the stem of my neck, and my left side explodes in white-hot fireworks. I plant my feet on the windshield and push, snapping off the rearview mirror as I worm between the front seats to the little hangman suspended upside-down in his car seat.
“It’s okay, baby. Mommy’s here.”
Charlie is fastened by a meshwork of straps with his head socked between two fabric bananas. When we drove home from the hospital with him two months ago, Charlie’s head hung at a terrifying cockeyed angle on his neck. Yikes, that looks painful, Dan said. That afternoon he fixed the bananas in place.
My son’s bib has flipped down over his face but when I lift it, his face is unbloodied and his eyes bright. He sits jack-knifed at the hips—he has the shocking elasticity exclusive to babies and Balkan contortionists—his bootied feet folding down to touch his forehead. He’s so quiet it’s easy to believe he’s dead, but infants make you believe they’re either dead or just about to die several times a day. The moment I reach for him blood begins to foam out of his nose, as if my fingertips released it. It bubbles up from the cups of his nostrils and falls the wrong way down his face to collect in his eyes. But my son doesn’t make a sound.
Bracing one hand on his seat’s carry-bar, I stretch my foot up to pop the release catch. The seat falls painfully onto my chest. Wheezing, I thumb one of Charlie’s eyelids open: pupil dilated, the whites wormed with broken corpuscles. I probe his fingers through his tiny mittens, then move up each of his arms. Toes, feet, legs. Okay, okay, okay . . . I loosen the straps so he can breathe freely.
As a paramedic with the Niagara General Hospital, I’ve attended accidents like this. The first thing you learn is that you can’t save everyone. You must cradle a brutal stone of expediency in your heart.
I rest with Charlie on my chest. Now that his nose has stopped bleeding, he roots at my breast through my jacket. Snow is piled at the Volvo’s windows. Above the snow lies a slit of paling winter sky. The dashboard is lit, which means the battery’s not dead. Okay. I thumb the window button; the glass rises into its rubber flap with Swedish precision. I inhale pulverizing, cold air. It’s early December and the world is locked in an arctic freeze.
Digging with my elbows, I shove myself though the window. The snow is the dry powdery kind that falls during a cold snap. Unzipping my jacket, I slip a hand under my shirt. The wing-shaped bone running from my neck to outer shoulder is broken. The break-ends shift against one another to create a nausea-inducing buzz.

It’s bearable. Now get moving.
This voice belongs to an ancient village hag who sleeps on the bones of her enemies.
I can chart the Volvo’s path across the snow in the ashy late-afternoon sunlight: where we’d hit a patch of black ice and began to skip across the snow merrily as a stone over a frozen lake. Dan’s face comes back to me as it had been the instant before impact: mashing the brake pedal, darting a queasy glance at me as if to say, Sorry, babe, have this sorted in a flash. The Volvo must have flipped onto its roof before we slammed into the tree, its hood accordioning—  “Volvos are designed to crumple in zones of lesser consequence,” the dealer told us.
I stand in the two-hundred-foot wake of the crash. Tufts of brown grass poke through the snow crust. Around us, the landscape unfolds in shades of igneous metal: pewter sky, sun lowering behind banks of steel-edged clouds like a Mylar balloon losing air. We’re thirty miles outside Cataract City, my birthplace.

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Cataract City

Cataract City

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Precious Cargo

Precious Cargo

My Year of Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077
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Rust And Bone

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The Saturday Night Ghost Club

As a boy, I believed in monsters.

I was convinced that if I said “Bloody Mary” in front of a mirror, a hideous witch-woman would reach through the glass with nails sharp as splinters. I considered it a fact that the Devil lingered at shad­owy crossroads and went to dance halls in disguise, where he’d ask the prettiest girl to dance and reel her across the floor while spectators stood terror-stricken at the sight of the Devil’s goatish shanks, until the girl fainted dead away and the Unclean One vanished in a puff of brimstone.

There was no falsehood I wouldn’t swallow, no quilt of lies you couldn’t drape over my all-too-gullible shoulders. But for a boy like me—chubby, freckled, awkward; growing up in a city where the erection of a new Kmart occasioned our mayor to announce, “This marks a wondrous new chapter in our town’s history”—imagination was my greatest asset. Not to mention my defence against a foe worse than the most fearsome monster: loneliness.

My ally against that foe was my uncle Calvin. If I told him there was a bottomless pit in my basement, he’d say, “Tell me, Jake, is the air denser around the mouth of the pit than in other areas of the basement?” Cocking an eyebrow: “Do ominous growling sounds emanate from this pit of yours?”

Uncle C was the ideal nursemaid for my paranoid fantasies. His knowledge of urban legends and folk­lore was encyclopedic—with the added bonus that he seemed to consider most of it true.
“Hey,” he’d say, “did you know there are crocodiles living in the sewers of our fair city? The poor suckers get smuggled up from Florida by dumb tourists. Sure, they’re cute as a bug’s ear when they’re six inches long.

But when they grow up and get nippy? Ba-whooosh, down the porcelain mistake eraser. They get fat ’n’ sassy down there in the pipes, where there’s plenty to eat if you’re not choosy. Every year a couple of sanita­tion department workers get gobbled up by sewer crocs. The press bottles it up, unscrupulous snakes that they are, but it’s a fact you can set your watch to.”

Uncle C would fiddle with the beads of his brace­let—each an ornate pewter Cthulhu head, mouths and eye sockets sprouting tentacles—and offer a wistful sigh. “And that, Jake, is why owning a pet is a big responsibility.”

Once, when I was six or seven, I became convinced a monster lived in my closet. I told my dad, who did what 99 percent of adults do when their child makes this claim: he flung my closet door open, rattled coat hangers and shoved shoeboxes aside, making a Broadway production of it. “See? No monsters, Jake.”

But monsters make themselves scarce when adults are around, only to slither back after dark. Every kid knew this to be an unshakable fact.

Uncle C arrived for dinner that night, as usual— Mom invited him every Sunday. He got an inkling of my worry as I sat picking at my Salisbury steak.

“What’s the matter, hombre?”

“We have an unwanted visitor in a closet, appar­ently,” Mom informed him.

“But we’ve established that there’s no monster,” my father said. “Right, buddy?”

“Ah,” said Uncle C. “I have some expertise in this area. Sam, with your permission?”

Mom turned to my father and said, “Sam,” in the tone of voice you’d use to calm a jittery horse.

“Of course, Cal, as you like,” my father said.

My uncle pedalled home to his house, returning ten minutes later with a tool box. Once we were in my bed­room he motioned to the closet. “I take it this is its lair?”

I nodded.

“Closets are a favourite haunt of monsters,” my uncle explained. “Most are harmless, even good-tempered, if they have enough dust bunnies and cob­webs to eat. Do you clean your closet?”

I assured him that it was hardly ever tidied unless my mother forced the chore on me.

“Good, let them feast. If they get too hungry they’ll crawl over to your clothes hamper and eat holes in your underwear. No need to check the seat of your drawers for confirmation, as I can see by your expres­sion that yours have indeed met this cruel fate.”

Calvin cracked the tool box and pulled out an instru­ment—one that today I’d recognize as a stud finder.

“It’s a monster tracer,” he said, running it over the closet walls, making exploratory taps with his knuckles. “There are token traces of ectoplasm,” he said in the voice of a veteran contractor.

“Monster slime, in layman’s terms. What does this monster look like?”

“Hairy in some parts, slimy in others.”

“What’s its shape? Like a snake, or a blob?”

“A blob. But it can stretch, too, so it can look like a snake if it wants.”

“We’re dealing with a hairy, slimy blob with uncanny stretching capacities.” He gripped his chin.

“Sounds like a Slurper Slug. They’re common around these parts.”

“A slug?”

“Correct, but we’re not talking your garden-variety slug.” He laughed—actually, he exclaimed ha-ha.

“A little paranormal humour for you, Jake my boy. These peculiar and particularly gross slugs infest closets and crawl spaces. You haven’t been keeping anything tasty in your closet, have you?”

“That’s where I put my Halloween candy.”

“Slurper Slug, then, guaranteed. They’re not dan­gerous, just revolting. They could make a mortician barf his biscuits. If you let one hang around he’ll call his buddies and before long you’ve got an infestation on your hands.”

He rooted through his tool box for a pouch of fine red powder. “This is cochineal, made from the crushed shells of beetles. It’s used in containment spells.”

He laid down a line of powder in the shape of a keyhole 

“This,” he said, pointing to the circle, “is the trap. The Slurper Slug will traipse up this path, see, which gets narrower and narrower until the Slug gets stuck in the Circle of No Return. There it will turn black as night and hard as rock. Now, you’ll have to pull one hair out of your head to bait the slug trap.”

I plucked a single strand, which my uncle laid softly in the trap.

“Go ask your mom if she has any chocolate chips.”

I went down to the kitchen to find my folks engaged in a hushed conversation. My father’s shoulders were vibrating like twin tuning forks.

“Chocolate chips, huh?” Mom said in a Susie- Cheerleader voice. “I’ve only got butterscotch.”
By the time I got back, the closet was shut. My uncle instructed me to lay a trail of butterscotch chips along the door.

“The sweetness will draw that Slug out of hiding. Now listen, Jake, and listen carefully. If you peek inside the closet, the spell will be broken. Under no circumstances can it be opened until tomorrow morn­ing. No matter the sounds you may hear dribbling through this door, you must leave it closed. Do you swear this to me?”

“Yes, I promise.”

“By the Oath of the White Mage, do you swear it?”

When I admitted I didn’t know that oath, he stuck out his little finger. “The pinkie variety will suffice.”

I linked my finger with his and squeezed.

“Cross your heart and hope to die?”

“Stick a needle in my eye,” I said solemnly.

I awoke to sunlight streaming through the window. I crept to the closet and opened it. Just as Uncle C had said, the keyhole was now only a circle and in the middle sat an object that was dark as night and hard as rock.

My uncle was taking off his boots in the front hall when I stormed downstairs.

“The trap worked!” I told him, dragging him up the stairs to show him the blackened slug.

“Pick it up,” he said. “It may still be a little warm but it won’t burn you.”

Queasy warmth pulsed off the slug, or so it felt to me.

“It’s not every day that you can hold a monster in your palm, is it, Jake?”

That lump of obsidian would rest on my nightstand for years. Then one day I noticed it sitting between my Junior Sleuths magnifying glass and a dog-eared reissue of Stephen King’s Carrie, the one with the art deco cover. Opening the drawer, I swept the volcanic rock inside, embarrassed that I’d once been fear-struck by anything so infantile as a snot-ball slug in my closet. . . .

An hour later I took it out and put it back where it belonged.

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