Out in the corn Wednesday night. We all lived, but it was scary.
The four of us loaded into the truck a little after ten. Apparently Corn Wolves are nocturnal and also very sneaky, and therefore impossible to find during the day. Which is why those kids went missing at dusk — the only time to find a Corn Wolf is when they’re hunting.
The corn was a tall dark wall, whispering in the dark.
“Shiloh, I wish you’d stay here,” Neal said as we loaded up with weapons, all of us standing around the back of the car.
“How old are you?” Jasper asked.
“Eighteen,” I said, and then added, “nineteen in November.”
Jasper made a face. “Older than you were when you started, Neal,” he said. “By a few years if I remember right.”
I whirled to make a face at Neal and I saw his nostrils flare he was so mad hahaahaha. He said, “Fuck you Jasper,” and slung a bag over his shoulder.
I followed them out into the corn.
We walked a long time, doing our best not to fuck up the rows. Our flashlights glanced off the leaves, cast wrinkled shadows into the stalks. The corn hissed and tickled against my arms and neck. It was already tall enough to feel like a jungle even though there isn’t any corn yet, and won’t be for months.
Neal found the poops. I mean, he called it scat, but like okay mr hunter dude a poop’s a poop.
“It’s hot,” he said, squatting down to look closer.
“Definitely corn wolves?” Julian asked.
I hugged my knife closer and listen folks — I might have wished I was in the car. Everything is worse in the dark and in the quiet and we’re all just waiting to face off with these monsters and all we have is knives and rifles full of tranquilizer.
We’d been walking again maybe twenty minutes when Julian suddenly reached out to stop me from behind and I just about fucking pissed myself.
“I heard it too,” Neal whispered from ahead of us and then, literally two feet ahead of me a great dark blur bowled between us, sweeping Neal sideways into the corn. His flashlight spun out into the dark, flashing off the corn leaves.
“Neal!” Jasper shouted, and then Neal let out a strangled scream and I spun to find him. The corn was menacing, waving and bent, but through it, the wriggling form of an enormous furry creature in the dark. I shrieked and pointed and there was a series of sounds as Jasper and Julian each took aim and shot. My flashlight caught the dart’s red feathers and the creature stumbled sideways, its long body shuddering. As I watched it rolled sideways, tried to get back up, and finally collapsed completely.
We let out a collective sigh.
“Neal?” Julian called into the dark, flashlight searching for him.
“I’m okay,” he said, and I found him. He was sitting in the mud, pushing aside his collar to look at shoulder. His whole arm was dark with blood. “I’m alright. He got me, but it’s nothing some stitches won’t cure.” He looked up at me, squinting and I watched his expression change from a reassuring smile to panic. He lunged sideways for his gun. I whirled in time to see a Corn Wolf flying directly at me out of the dark.
I must have screamed. I dropped like a stone, rolled into stalks of corn. God knows what that thing would have done with me if Neal hadn’t shot it in the nose with tranqs. It let out a strange screeching yowl of fury when the first hit it, but was out pretty quick after Julian and Jasper unloaded into it as well.
Then it was quiet. I flopped back into the dirt and began to laugh.
“Jesus christ Shiloh,” Neal sighed. “Girl I thought you were —” but he didn’t say dead because I was laughing hysterically.
“You think this is all of them?” Julian asked, tactfully ignoring my mental breakdown.
“Could be,” Jasper said. “Though usually —” And then he was gone. There, and then, with a soft thump and a muffled yelp, he was gone into the dark and everyone was yelling.
We ran, scrambling, those fucking corn leaves whipping our faces. I heard the rifles go off again but they must have missed because the creature — not much more than loping darkness — didn’t so much as pause. I saw Jasper’s arms flailing though, scrabbling at the corn, trying to slow the creature’s progress — and he must have had some success because the Corn Wolf stumbled, and Neal launched himself onto it.
It was maybe the size of a lion, maybe slightly smaller, but long, like an otter or a weasel. There was something distinctly weaselly about its face too, as Neal wrestled it back, pried it’s jaws apart, dragged it back off Jasper.
“Gun’s jammed!” Julian shouted.
Jasper twisted, trying unsuccessfully to get out from under the tangle of Neal and Corn Wolf. I whirled, looking for Neal’s rifle. It was maybe fifteen yards behind us — he must have dropped it when he missed the shot, but the metal caught the light. I was scrambling to retrieve it when behind me Jasper shouted, “Neal don’t!” and then a gunshot went off. Then two more. And then, with a shout, five more after that, and when the gun shots stopped Neal didn’t stop yelling for several long moments. I heard the click of the trigger being pulled on an empty chamber.
When it was finally quiet it was so, so quiet.
“Neal?” Jasper said.
Neal shoved the limp Corn Wolf’s body away from him and stood up. He was absolutely soaked in blood, drenched in it. His face was smeared and spattered with it.
Jasper stared up at him. He was holding his side, but didn’t appear especially injured.
“You killed it,” Jasper finally said. He sounded shocked.
“Yeah,” Neal said.
None of us said anything. Julian was still holding his rifle like he might need to tranq something, the nose dipped down towards the dirt.
Look, I don’t know how to explain it really. Like it was honestly reasonable to kill that thing, everything was out of control and Jasper was in danger. But I’d just witnessed something Bad, I could see it in Julian and Jasper’s expressions.
“It’s okay,” Jasper finally said. “It’s okay, we’re all fine.”
Neal turned sharply towards him. “You’re lying?” he asked, and he was genuinely asking, as if he knew Jasper was lying for certain and was only asking why.
Jasper opened his mouth but no words came out.
“Neal,” Julian said, reaching to touch Neal’s shoulder and Neal winced away from him.
“We gotta get those things back to the truck,” Neal said. He began to trudge back towards the other two beasts, still unconscious in the dark behind us.
Carrying them back to the car took ages, but it wasn’t as far as I thought it would be taking the direct route back to the car. None of us said a single word the whole way back. Julian gave the Corn Wolves more sedative while Jasper and Neal adjusted their make-shift bandages, and we got in the car and drove home.
“Alright, lets unload,” Neal said when we got into the driveway. “I want a fuckin shower.”
There was a moment of hesitation. Jasper said, “Julian and Shiloh will handle unloading. We need to go get cleaned up.”
Neal began to protest, but Julian said, “it’s going to get infected, if it isn’t already. You should both go in now.”
Neal looked up at him, and Julian’s expression was totally serene. “Go on,” he said. “Shiloh and I got it.”
Jasper elbowed me.
“Yeah we got it,” I echoed obediently.
I watched Neal and Jasper go inside, slightly uneven on their feet. The moment the door closed Julian deflated.
I just stood there, awkward as fuck.
“…everything okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Julian sighed. “Come on, this isn’t gonna be easy.”
And it wasn’t! Those things were at LEAST 250 pounds of dead weight! Loading them into the cages was an exhausting nightmare! On the bright side, by the time we were done I was too tired to give a fuck about being polite anymore.
“Julian?” I said, breathless and sweaty. “Is Neal okay?”
Julian sat heavily on a low crate. When he looked up at me his expression was alarmingly bleak. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “He’s been a mess since Nolan died.”
I held my breath. They’d never talked to me about Nolan before! I was scared if I made any sudden movements he’d stop!
I went and sat on a crate across from him and waited.
“A year ago Neal would never have shot an animal he had hands on. I mean, he was infamous for it.” Julian smiled. “He was a nightmare to hunt with, he’d pull these stunts — Louie forbid him and Jasper hunting together because they’d egg each other on, get reckless. I mean Neal’s the best hunter in the world. Hands down, easy, best hunter in the world. Nolan used to say it’s because he’s half a wild animal himself. But the thing is, he used to take these insane risks. He’d be dead ten times over if Nolan hadn’t been right there, keeping an eye out.” He groaned and rubbed his eyes. “But then Nolan died. And I guess… I mean you know him. He’s sulky and secretive and angry… I don’t know. He was willing to kill a Hailu dog last winter for goodness sake. A Hailu dog!”
Lmao I remember that. Do you remember that? Do we all remember the time Neal wanted to murder Feather Dog?
I took a deep just asked: “How did Nolan die?”
Julian made a face.
“It was an accident,” he said. “Just the stupidest —” He broke off and my courage failed.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I said.
“No, it’s okay,” he said. “We were hunting a Rot Snake and we all underestimated how fast it would move. Nolan got bit. It was no one’s fault. But it’s a slow, ugly way to die, and there’s no antidote to the venom so…” He trailed off. The whole dreadful story was right there and didn’t need to be said aloud.
“Fuck,” I said.
Julian managed a sad smile. “Fuck,” he agreed. He pressed the wet out of his eyes with his fingers.
“So tonight,” I said. “When Jasper was under the big ass weasel —”
“Yeah,” Julian said. “My guess is Neal just saw red. It wasn’t the wrong call. Most hunters would’ve done the same damn thing and not thought twice about it. But we used to do things differently.”
I nodded towards the two Corn Wolves, breathing deeply in the crates. “We still do,” I said.
Julian smiled at me. “Yeah,” he said. “We try, anyways. Come on. I’ve gotta get some sleep.”
Inside the dark house, I could hear the shower running, could see the light under the bathroom door, and went to bed.
Breakfast was quiet in the morning. The kids were sleepy and oblivious, and Louie masked any anxiety he might have felt by cooking an enormous breakfast. Julian and I went to feed the Corn Wolves to skip the production, came quietly into the barn with buckets of raw meat.
The wolves growled and showed off their teeth as we approached. One dove the bars of the crate as if to strike us, but Julian didn’t so much as blink. He spoke quietly and gently, avoiding eye contact, and tipped a bucket into each trough in the greater enclosures. Then he opened the crate doors to release them into the greater enclosure where they could eat. I watched in wonder as they rose to their feet, stretched their long bodies, crept forward to sniff the meat.
And then, as if we’d just fed an ordinary pair of dogs, Julian said, “Alrighty, ready for breakfast?” and cheerfully marched back up towards the kitchen.
Neal and Jasper were the last to come down. They came down together, looking clean and rumpled. They sat side by side without looking at each other, leaving Julian and I to explain what happened in the corn the night before. The kids listened with rapt attention, oblivious to any tension. The moment breakfast was through they all ran outside to see the Corn Wolves, who were awake by then. We did dishes.
“So we’re gonna head out,” Neal told Louie, up to his elbows in soapy water.
“Will we see you at White Pyre next week?” Louie asked.
“Try,” Louie said gently. “But we’ll be there if you can’t be.”
I saw Neal’s face crumple, but only for a moment, but only for a moment before he took a deep breath. He didn’t look up from the dishes.
I of course have no idea what White Pyre is.
We drove just a few hours later. Goodbyes were maybe more difficult than any I’d witnessed thus far. The kids were all clearly miserable that we were leaving. Louie fussed over all of us, trying to fit more food into the car. When Neal hugged Jasper goodbye he hung on for a long time, and I wasn’t entirely surprised when they kissed briskly before Neal ducked into the driver’s seat and we were off again.
It was a relief. Louie’s was just like a lot more feelings than I’m accustomed to having. Neal put on music and rolled down the windows and I felt the tension run out of me.
“So,” I said, leaning up between the front seats. “Was anyone gonna tell me I’m not the only bi in the car?”
Julian choked and looked out the window to cover his laughter.
“What, you want a formal announcement?” Neal asked.
“Yeah,” I said because DUH OBVIOUSLY. Like excuse me for thinking it’s cool to know I’m not surrounded by The Straights (nothing against The Straights of course, some of my best friends are straight hahahahahahahahahaha got em)
“You never had to come out to me,” Neal pointed out, quirking an eyebrow.
I rolled my eyes. Like obviously I didn’t bother coming out to them because they literally met my girlfriend but whatever, I get it, you don’t know unless you know.
“Hey Neal,” I said. “I like girls. I want to bang them. I like their boobs, just like, so much.”
“Thank you Shiloh,” Neal said.
“So much,” I said.
“I got it.”
And then, when I flopped into the back seat and prepared to sulk, Neal caught my eye in the mirror.
“Hey Shiloh, you’re not the only bi in the car,” he said.
I smiled. “So you and Jasper are….?”
He shrugged. “Jasper and I were a nauseating teenage love situation.”
“I see,” I said, pretending that I couldn’t sense that ‘nauseating teenage love situation’ meant a deep, desperate, complicated, eternal affection that probably makes them both miserable. I mean I could be incorrectly inferring that intensity into their relationship but I saw them together for like a couple days and I just don’t think I am.
So, to cover that I’d obviously just uncovered a raw wound, I said, “…so who’s Timothee Chalamet and who’s Armie Hammer?”
Julian burst out laughing.
“Shiloh I swear to god,” Neal said.
“Did either of you ever at any point fuck a peach?”
“Don’t make me pull this car over,” he said.
“Doesn’t have to be a peach,” I said. “Any fruit will do. Or vegetable! We’ve already established that we go both ways!”
“I will leave you on the side of this road, I swear I will. I’ll leave you for the feds.”
We drove and drove.