Look for Their Eyes, Kit Riemer
Updated: Mar 28, 2022
CW: animal death, blood, physical harm & violence
That horrible keening grew louder as J trudged further into the overcast woods, reluctant but moving steadily forward to keep ahead of the lowering sun. He stopped only occasionally to listen, get his bearings, and to take off his mud-flecked green baseball cap and wipe the sweat from his forehead.
The humidity made everything worse. The repetitive and grating noise, the heat, the unevenness of the earth beneath J’s loosely tied boots.
He stumbled and cursed. He was already sticky and exhausted from a long day spent shingling houses, and now this. Thick growth oozed sap. Bushes grew prickly and verdant. This was where Galen’s kid had been playing when he’d vanished, J realized. What was his name? That was eight months or so ago. Everyone had gathered and combed the woods, finding nothing more than a few broken branches and the kid’s slingshot.
When J finally saw white fur through the itchy branches of the thin pine trees, the sound had stopped and the only noises were his footfalls breaking twigs and his labored breathing. There was the rabbit, pinned through with one of Sophie’s arrows to a rotting stump. Now it lay quietly, its side pumping with each painful breath against the black-painted wooden shaft.
J stood looking at it and then took off his hat, laying it on the ground, then pulled off his shirt, now stinking with sweat. He draped it over the rabbit’s head and stomped four times, hard, to make sure.
He left shirtless with the arrow and hat in his hands, and the rest of the day’s light fell away in a glimmering bronze flood.
There would be a controlled burn there behind the house later that week. Men in treated yellow canvas jumpsuits had begun to build the blackline already, lighting small fires to create a boundary so the burn wouldn’t jump to the rest of the forest. The dry brush and dead trees would go up, but the taller, more ancient ones would be left singed in soil filled with carbon and black nutrients.
Since long before the day J and Sophie were born, 25 or so years ago and within a half hour of one another, the land had been owned by a university famous for its artificial intelligence program. A curiously rural area, people wondered, but the university logged the woods for profit and kept the cleared spaces to test militarized autonomous vehicles. There were wooden warning signs up in the forest around the clearings to keep hunters and hikers out. Block letters in flaked yellow spray paint. When they were younger, the two kids used to hide in the undergrowth and survey these tests, watching the crawling, whirring machines as they stumbled through obstacle courses and around cones. Gunmetal arachnid legs and eyes orange like molten sugar.
In the morning J took the arrow into his sister’s room, but she’d gone out again. She practiced with the bow for hours each day. Part paranoia and part utility. Not content with hay or plastic targets, she’d begin hunting animals. Poaching, technically. When she killed a deer, her and J would take the tractor into the woods and drag the body back out to eat. But the smaller things, rodents and birds, she’d started leaving. Not worth the time to skin and pluck.
There was a small barn at the front of the property where they’d affixed a hook to a thick wood beam. Sophie used it to hang the deer up for dressing. J didn’t have the stomach for it. Last time when she’d opened one up there had been translucent pinkish worms digging dark holes in the musculature. Flexing and bulging in the rotting tubes. They had burned it all on a bonfire.
With Sophie gone and no meat left in the freezer, J took the keys from the hook by the door and drove their ratty green Mercury into town. Laminated weatherbeaten signs with photos of the missing boy still hung on electrical poles. Shaun was his name. There’d been signs for the missing hiker couple, too, and even longer ago Wendy, J and Sophie’s grandmother. But when Shaun failed to come home, the father, Galen, had printed thousands of the things and sealed them in plastic at the Kinko’s, papering nearby towns and stapling them to poles all along route 41, even into Marquette and Escanaba. Galen drove that route at night with his brights on, always with a pistol on his belt, J knew. Sometimes stopping and walking into the woods with a headlamp. Looking for signs, scraps of cloth. Reflections in the brush.
This was part of the town’s folklore. The eyes reflect light. Decades or perhaps centuries ago, it had begun as an essential part of a regional bedtime story. The monster was never described in detail, just darkness, many silent legs, and its eyes: glinting and reddish. That’s all you got a chance to see, it was said, before it got you. All that the fabled survivors could describe afterward. Every monster story needs a part like this. Something that makes your head swivel when the wind picks up and the elastic trees bend and swish at dusk.
There were a few disappearances back then, too. Probably not coyotes, probably wolves or mountain lions, or even less sensational, twisted and broken legs from falls. Slowly starving or succumbing to the elements. Perhaps it was in poor taste to ascribe these deaths to monsters and folklore, but it kept kids from venturing too far into the trees.
Then, when the university’s secretive autonomous machine testing program began, it became a piece of local wisdom among hunters, hikers, foragers. Look for glints and glimmers in the foliage. Look to see if you’re being watched. If you spot anything, run. We don’t know how fast they are. The old folktale slotted neatly into the new knowledge of something suspicious, corporate, and dangerous. Breathless men in full camo came shaking out of the woods to the bar in town, describing a many-eyed thing, barely visible, prowling. It was a source of amusement to the townsfolk, and then there were the disappearances.
The fluorescent light in the supermarket cast everything blue and dizzy. J grabbed mostly canned stuff, milk and bread, some granola for Sophie’s hunting trips. He had told her to stay off the university’s land, but the game was irresistible, and besides, she was fascinated by their machine tests. Even before their grandmother went missing she’d had trouble. Breakdowns, fits. She had spent six months in a facility. The time outside seemed to calm her.
At the back of the store, J saw Galen standing at the deli counter clutching a little yellow V-shaped ticket, waiting, looking at the little box television screen. The news was on. Grief is a strange and complex monster, J thought. When someone goes missing there’s guilt with no end. Nothing heals it, not even time. Every puzzle piece that’s found, each small shoe print in the mud and torn piece of plaid cloth, makes it more vivid and more terrible. The fogged window gets incrementally clearer but never really clears.
Before J could get behind an aisle, Galen waved and walked over. How’s things. How’s Sophie. Then straight to business: don’t you wonder about your grandmother? Don’t you think something funny’s going on? But I never see you looking. Don’t you know they’ve got government contracts? Haven’t you read any history? The CIA has always disappeared dissidents. A long and well documented meat grinder.
Your twelve-year-old was an insurgent, huh? J wonders. Wendy who stood with her hand on her heart when the anthem played before my little league games. Alright, Gavin. Wordlessly conveying exasperation. Locked in place. Made to nod and grunt and change his facial expression when necessary. People he knew passed by and glanced knowingly over. It was embarrassing, J thought. His skin crawled. But grief was a complex monster.
Sophie was still out when J got back to the house. He put everything away into dark wood cabinets and fridge drawers and turned on the TV. Reruns of a crime show from the early 2000s.
In the late afternoon he checked his phone, saw no calls or messages, and sighed. He turned the ringer on and watched another episode.
Then, when it had ended, with the sunlight outside dimming, he strapped a headlamp on over his green hat, clipped his pocket knife to his belt, and walked out of the house and into the woods.
The forest was rippling green and humid like it had been every day this summer. No swamp close by, so the bugs weren’t too bad. He trudged deeper, stopping once to tighten his boot laces.
He knew generally where Sophie hunted. Deep, central, away from the highway or the university testing grounds. He brushed past an evergreen, its needles dripping collected dew coolly onto the back of his hand.
J heard her, noisy stumbling and labored breathing, before he saw her. She came over a little hill, dropping to crawl on bloody palms underneath a low branch. She’d been injured but hadn’t called out. He wondered why, and then felt a strange tightening in his throat as if he were about to cry. A jamming signal.
Wordlessly, he ran to Sophie’s side and helped steady her. Then, down the ridge, soft footfalls and a whining electric motor.
He peered down at it, and the machine reared back to look at him. Hydro dipped waterproof camouflage paint. Silver veined carbon fiber limbs. Slickly silent joints and geared servos clicking like summer insects. Invisibly glowing infrared camera eyes.
It began to climb. J grasped Sophie’s arm and turned, sliding with her down the other side. They were a half hour from their house, and perhaps a mile from the nearest road. That’s the direction he chose.
They stumbled through the dry brush, and suddenly J’s foot fell into a groove in the dirt. The blackline. His ankle twisted and popped, and he hit the ground hard on the other side of the pit.
Sophie dug in on the other side and hauled him out, his boot now at a severe angle. He tried to stand and collapsed.
The machine approached, low to the ground, softly crinkling leaves beneath its rubber feet. Two black arrows protruded from its side. It was four or so feet tall. It crawled up and observed the two of them, and then a panel on its side retracted and something came out: a pneumatic bolt gun, a short, dull grey piston. J had seen something similar as a teenager working in a slaughterhouse. It hissed as compressed air filled its chamber.
J turned his head away, and Sophie pulled him back when the gun fired. The bolt went into his cheek, punching a clean hole and shattering the back molars. The siblings fell back hard, and J’s head hit a buried rock. He coughed a spray of blood and bone.
Servos whined as the machine steadied itself and loomed above. Sophie drew and nocked her last remaining arrow.
Then the machine looked up, past the two of them, and calibrated, clicking. Its eyes tried and failed to focus. Sophie glanced over her shoulder.
It was easy to discern size and shape, but little else. The thing was tall, taller than any human, and like the machine it had many legs. Beyond that, it was impossible to tell. Its texture shifted, hallucinogenically detailed, hard to look at without squinting. At the center of its body was a hole with teeth, and above that, hundreds of shimmering eyes.
Sophie threw her body on top of J’s and felt a rush of cold air as the creature flowed over them. A quiet whooshing that might have come from the trees. Then the crunching of metal and a spray of white sparks onto Sophie’s back.
She stayed like that for a minute or two, waiting to die, for a robot to punch a hole through her skull or an apparition to swallow her whole. When she finally lifted her head, the two of them were alone.
After the long stretch in the hospital, after the consult for a series of reconstructive surgeries neither of them could afford, when they’d finally settled back in and he’d gone back to work and she’d burnt her bow in the yard, the chemically treated wood smoking noxiously until the next morning, Sophie had tried to talk to him about it. Needing to be reassured that the official story, that she’d had another psychotic break and he’d fallen from a distance onto a thick, pointed branch, was bullshit. She knew he could kind of speak; she heard him sometimes, outside, doing chores or sitting on the porch with a 6 pack of lukewarm beer, muttering thickly and quietly to himself. But he wouldn’t even write to her. He would read her scrawled messages and nod, or shrug, or just look at her with round, dark eyes.
That fall, she made it her project to keep their large yard clear of the leaves shaking free when the cold weather hit and the branches that fell in torrential rainstorms that felt like they came far more often than in previous years. She gathered the branches and kept some for kindling, piling the rest in the tractor’s rotted oak trailer. Then, when it was full, she drove it to the edge of the forest and piled them at the border like a pathetic little barricade.
When she was finished for the day she would sit on the putting tractor with her hand on the shifter and peer between the trees. There would be thin pines swaying, and shadows shifting in the distance.
Darkness would fall, and she would throw the tractor into gear and return it to the barn, drink silently with J, eat dinner, and lie in bed with the window closed.
Kit Reimer is a nonbinary writer, photographer, and game-maker from New England.