Apr/May 2013  •   Fiction

Hide or Don't Exist

by Nico Vreeland

Artwork by Clinton McKay

Artwork by Clinton McKay

I'm standing behind Shrigley, in the tiny tent where we work and eat and sleep, so I'm only about four feet away from him. I'm lining up papers and moving shit a little and then moving it back, and all the other bullshit you do when there's no real work but your boss is right there.

It's more awkward, too, because there was an accident when we first got here, and everybody but me and Dr. Shrigley and Pirkle Jones is dead, but we haven't gone home yet.

I say, "So why'd you get a vasectomy, Dr. Shrigley?"

"What?" Shrigley says.

I didn't really want to say that, but I figured somebody should say something, and that was the only thing I could think of that wasn't like: So, about your dead friends...

"How does a vasectomy work?" I say, pretending I never asked why. This is not the kind of thing you talk about, at least not to Shrigley. Shrigley gets weird about shit like that, and it's already weird enough around here. "I'm thinking about it myself."

He's looking down at his desk. "They do it laproscopically," he says, after a minute. "Which means no scalpel. They snip your tubes with a little wire. So you keep your testicles, but they're not hooked up anymore."

"Yeah," I say. That wasn't what I meant. "How does it work that you still can, uh,"—what's the other word for come?—"can still, uh, relieve yourself without, you know..." I sit down on the cot, right next to him. Being around Shrigley makes me feel even dumber than I really am, like a little kid.

Shrigley's doing that thing he does, where he stares at something he thinks I don't get so he doesn't have to look at me. This time he's looking at the map with the footprints all over it, which isn't even that hard to get. Staring down at it, he says, "How can you have an orgasm without ejaculating?"

"Ejaculate," I say. That's the other word for it. "How can you?"

Shrigley stares really hard at the map. "I don't know." Shrigley's always saying he doesn't know shit. It means he doesn't want to explain it.

"Didn't you, uh, ask?"

Shrigley's face, I think, turns a little red. "Cy?"

I say, "Yeah?"

"Can you do a camp check for me?"

"Uh, sure, Dr. Shrigley." I get up and leave the tent. A camp check's when you walk around the camp and check on it. It's what Shrigley tells me to do when he gets sick of me talking.

I know he thinks I'm stupid, and I know he's smarter than me, but still I don't get why even somebody so smart would go and get a vasectomy when he doesn't even have a wife. Maybe he did it so he could write a paper or something. About not having kids or something. Smart guys like Shrigley, you want to believe they got good reasons for doing what they do.

The reason we're here on some goddamn island I don't even know the name of is that we're looking for, get this, these things called skunk apes, which don't exist. Only Shrigley gets mad if you say things don't exist, even crazy shit like giant alien cats. Shrigley's a cryptozoologist. He says that means he looks for things that haven't been discovered or are hiding, like Bigfoot's just a real good hider.

I've worked for Shrigley for almost five years now, and we've never found any skunk apes or bigfoot or yetis or anything. In fact, hardly anybody's ever found anything in the history of cryptozoology. The one thing somebody found was the bones of these dwarf people that some of Shrigley's friends found a few years ago. After that, they got in real magazines, not just the newsletters they print themselves. They got all kinds of money from people, and Shrigley went nuts 'cause he said no to the trip that found the dwarves. Then he said yes to this one, the skunk ape trip, which was going great for four hours until the Jeep with his friends in it went flipping off a cliff and Shrigley had to leave them down there, dead underwater in a wrecked Jeep, because with just us left, there's no famous guys, so there's no money and no more trip. As soon as he calls it in, we go home.

Now it's just me and Shrigley and this weird guy named Pirkle Jones who used to play football, but now he carries shit for people, like me. We've been here for a week already at this same stupid camp waiting for these skunk apes who don't exist or are just real good at hiding.

Pirkle's sitting in the turned-off Jeep, in the dark, smoking. His big bald head in the starlight looks like an egg. A big wrinkled egg. He doesn't go near Shrigley anymore 'cause he was driving our Jeep on the cliff when he stomped on the brake and the other Jeep tried to not hit us and fell over the cliff and Shrigley hates him now. Even though it wasn't completely Pirkle's fault 'cause there was a chunk out of the cliff and that's why he stomped on the brake and we would've just flipped off it anyway if he hadn't. But it kind of was his fault, 'cause he spaced out and maybe he could've seen the chunk missing and stopped slower. Or something. Shrigley sure blames him for it whatever the reason. I just want to shake them by the shoulders and yell, people fucking die! They fucking die, and they're dead, so get over it. But that's the kind of thing you can't tell people. That's the kind of thing people don't talk about.

Any case, we had to reverse all the way back to get off the cliff, and Shrigley doesn't say a fucking word for an hour. Who would go driving these Jeeps around cliffs where nobody's ever gone anyway? They're even these super-wide expedition Jeeps with all the gear and everything, like three times the size of a normal Jeep. And you take it on a cliff? Me and Pirkle, we just do what we're told. I don't think it's fair to blame us when all your famous friends die.

You want to ask me, it's this goddamn island. This place doesn't have any people on it for a good reason. All it does here is rain and then shine sun. It rained for like four days when we got here, and then the sun came out and baked all the mud into waves and spikes like a frozen ocean.

"How you doing, Pirkle?" I say, climbing into the passenger seat.

"How's the Doc?" he says. He's got a voice like an earthquake. He slides the cigarettes and the lighter across the dashboard, like six feet, all the way across.

"Kicked me out," I say.

"You should leave the Doc alone, Cy." Pirkle still feels bad, you can tell how he's looking out the window, into the dark, into the jungle. I don't know how long it takes to get over killing three guys. Even accidentally, I guess it takes more than a week, especially when you leave the bodies just out there without even a funeral or a service or anything. When they're just rotting there, and you know right where, too, and you don't do a damn thing about it, getting over it probably takes longer.

I never killed anybody, even though I was in the army. I was only in the army for four years, though. But guys can kill guys in four years. Guys can kill guys in a week, so guys can kill all kinds of guys in four years. But I didn't.

We're down at the end of the island, out of the jungle, 'cause the mud never dries in the jungle. It's supposed to not be the rainy season here, but there aren't any goddamn people living here to tell you, hey, rainy season actually lasts another month, or another six months, or forever, idiot, so don't even bother. So here we are.

"I was thinking," Pirkle says. He reaches over and gets a new cigarette and lights it. That's how you know he's going to get all philosophical, when he starts to talk and then lights a cigarette before he actually says anything. "What if..." he says, puffing, "what if we just got rid of all our papers and books and records and stuff?" Pirkle's a fucking idiot. He got something like 27 concussions from when he played football.

"Yeah?" I say.

"You think we could maybe forget how to make war and hurt people and stuff? You think it could all just go away?" He must've been thinking about this shit all night. Just sitting in the Jeep, smoking and thinking about burning books for peace.

"Yeah," I say. You can't say anything else, or he'll keep talking. You got to pretend there's nothing else to say. Like he solved it. "Yeah," I say again.

"Maybe we'd just forget how," he says, quietly, taking a suck on his cigarette.

This is Pirkle's first trip. Sometimes it gets to guys their first time, even the guys who don't accidentally kill all the boss's friends. Just the quiet and the dark and the jungles and the monsters we're looking for. We got a .30-06, but it's locked in a trunk, so what help do you think that's going to be, exactly, when giant alien fucking cats and packs of wild goddamn lizard men come shit-shredding through camp?

I mean, I know this is all bullshit, but still.

"Hey, Cy?" Pirkle says.

"Yeah?" I say.

"You been doing this how long?" He's looking out the window. Pirkle doesn't ever look at you when he talks to you anymore. I don't remember if he ever did. It's fucking weird.

"Five years," I say.

"You ever, uh..." He takes a long drag on his cigarette. "You ever seen something?"

Christ, Pirkle. "Nah, I never seen anything."

"How close you gotten?" Pirkle still won't look at me, but he turns a little, so he's looking out the windshield. Sometimes, with guys like Pirkle, they think it's all real for the first couple trips. All the folks with sense, they go off with proper archaeologists and stuff. Guys hunting skunk apes like Shrigley get stuck with dumbass ex-football guys like Pirkle and dumbass ex-army guys like me. There's a reason for that.

"I never been close at all," I say. That's as gentle as I can say it. I can't say, shut up, moron, you're 40 years old. After all, Shrigley's back there and he's got to be 60, and he's a lot smarter than Pirkle Jones.

"But the Doc, though," Pirkle says, and he glances over at me.

I turn my head to look at him, but he's already looking back out his window. "Shrigley says he's heard some shit," I say. The only honest-to-god shit somebody's found was those dwarf bones.

"He saw that Choppercabber, huh? The Doc?"

"It's Chupacabras," I say. "It's not 'cat,' but come on, Pirkle. Have a little pride in your work. And he didn't see it. It was night. Like now. He took a picture of a tree."

That shuts Pirkle up for a while. It gets fucking quiet out where nobody lives. I think Australia's like 500 miles south of here, but other than that, nothing. You stare down into the jungle too long, on a night like this, you start seeing things. You stare into jungle goddamn trees on abandoned islands by starlight for four or five years, you start seeing some shit, boy. Most of the time—sorry, all of the time—it's just regular animals, tigers or wolves or coyotes or bears. Sometimes, though, it's tough to know what the fuck you're looking at, and you start taking pictures of trees. If you're really freaked out, you start pointing guns at jungles.

Shrigley's never told me right out, but I'm here to shoot one of these motherfuckers. He's got footprints and blurry goddamn pictures and tapes of fucking noise, but none of it's worth a damn without a body. I'm not real concerned, 'cause shooting a skunk ape means there's got to be a skunk ape in the first place, which there's not. But still, that's why I'm here. It's a weird job.

This empty island's starting to get to me. Not so much the dark as the quiet. All you can hear is the wind in the trees, and the waves in the background, and a hum, like the whole island's on generators, and then, just there, this little burbling rip like a demon puking.

Wait, what?

"What the fuck was that?" Pirkle whispers.

What the fuck was that? "S'nothing," I say, with a little tsch, like half a spit.

"Did you hear it, though?" Pirkle throws his cigarette out the window and leans toward me. "Did you hear some kind of sound?"

I fucking heard it, all right, but if I tell Pirkle, he's going to shit his pants or something, and not realize it was just a regular wildcat or monkey or whatever they got here. I put my finger up to my mouth and then point to my ear to shut him up. We both listen real hard to the night. Turns out there's all kinds of sounds out there, creakings and hissings and crackles and hums. It's actually loud, after all, when you listen to it. I'm listening for something heavy, for clumsy footsteps and snapping twigs, something that sounds fucked up. I can just imagine the one time one of these fucking beasts turns out to be real, and it pops out of the woods and it kills us all, some kind of monster ape with a big long tail or maybe just a white stripe and long fur.

I'm staring so hard into the woods, it looks like the trees are moving, waving like flowers. Those trees are like ghosts in the starlight, like dead bodies underwater.

I get this shivery feeling, staring at the jungle. Nothing ever happens when you're staring right at it. Except this time.

Brbcklcblsck, goes the skunk ape about to kill us.

"Fuck," I say.

"Oh, Christ, Cy," Pirkle whispers. "Oh, Christ, Christ."

"Pirkle, keep your shit together," I say in a hiss. I reach back and switch the inside light of the Jeep from "door" to "off." "Take the key out," I say.

"It's out," he says, and finally looks at me. His eyes are wide because he's scared and he's dumb. "Are you going to get the gun?" he says.

"Just stay in the Jeep, okay, Pirkle?"

He stares at me, at my ear.

"Okay?" I say again.

"Okay, Cy," he finally says. "I'll stay here."

I get out and go around to the back of the Jeep, which is where the .30-06 is because there's no room in the tent and guns creep Shrigley out. I get it out of its box, and I have to put the scope on and put a clip in. I put another two clips in my pocket, in case there's a whole pack of skunk apes out there that go nuts when I kill one. The .30-06 is basically a sniper rifle, but for civilians they say it's a hunting rifle. Shrigley bought it online. It's got a little stand under the muzzle with two feet you pull out and rest on something. I pull the feet out and rest them on the hood of the Jeep, leaning across the hood with my stomach so it's comfortable and I can look through the scope without much trouble. I'm pointing it across the hood, toward Pirkle's side, toward the jungle.

I never did anything with sniper rifles in the army. I was a grunt. But guys like Shrigley think all army guys use sniper rifles and we're all assassins. I've pulled out this .30-06 a couple times, when Shrigley's thought he heard shit like the Chupacabras, but I've never fired it. I'm not about to fire it now, either. I hope.

I sit there and look through the scope into the muddy jungle. I look over at Pirkle, and he's sitting there turning his bald egg head back and forth, just about pissing.

I remember a time when I wasn't here. I can remember, I think, being happy, or thinking I might be someday. What the fuck happened to me? I used to hope for shit, and like shit, and enjoy some fucking shit. And now I'm in the middle of fucking nowhere, pointing a motherfucking sniper rifle at a mythological goddamn animal, with a guy who just killed three people a week ago and a guy who had his own balls cut off last month.

After hours, it feels like, sitting here and trying not to have to piss and staring. I start thinking about this girl I used to know named Camille or Camilla or fucking Pamela or something. She used to have a face all covered in freckles and these big front teeth pushing her lip out. She was the last time I had good sex. I think it was three or four years ago, which is sad. I've had sex since then, but not good sex. I wonder when was the last time Pirkle had good sex. Hopefully, it was more than three or four years ago. Hopefully, it was fucking never, that ugly asshole.

I wonder how long it would take Pirkle Jones to go killing-spree nuts from sex withdrawal. Hopefully, a while. I could go any minute now. I've already got the gun out.

Bsscrhltpltfsck, goes the skunk ape. I feel the piss come up my dick, but I will it back down. It's right in front of me, in the woods, the sound is. At least, one of them fucking is. I fit my right eye up to the scope and sweep the crosshairs over the jungle trees. It's darker through the scope and I can hardly see a thing. I feel the safety with my thumb and flick it off. I wonder how shitty this rifle is going to be if the skunk ape really charges. I've seen that video where the lion charges the guy and he almost shoots the other guy cause sniper rifles are fucked when shit charges you.

I go real slow, with the crosshairs, and I hear something else, a squish or something, like it's stepping on a guy's stomach and crushing him. At this one tree, I think I see a shadow. It's weird and hulking and fucking huge. I settle on it and watch it. I try to aim at something lethal. I don't want to hit this fucker in the hump or the horn or the fucking wings or something and just piss it off. It moves a little, like shifting its weight or something, and I shoot it.

I didn't even fucking know I was going to, until my finger twitched and the gun went off. The gun goes CRACK! so loud it's like the earth split in half. Maybe I did know. Sometimes it's easier if you don't think about it too hard, and you just fucking do whatever needs doing. I'm deafened, but I can hear the echoes off of everywhere, off of the jungle. They sound like waves. The shadow's gone, like it's dead or run off.

"Holy shit!" Pirkle yells. He's got both his hands on the door, on the open window part, like a dog. "Holy shit!" he yells again.

Shrigley comes sprinting out of the tent so fast he trips over himself and falls.

Pirkle jumps out of the Jeep and slaps his hand on his head.

Shrigley runs over to us. "Cy!" he says. "What happened? What was that noise?"

I point the gun at the sky and walk around the Jeep. "I don't know what it was."

"It was the freaking gun!" Pirkle yells. "Doc, Cy killed a freaking skunk ape!"

"I don't know what it was," I say again.

Shrigley's yelling now, too. "What?" he yells. "You shot something?"

"Calm down," I say. "Let's just go see what it was." I didn't mean to fucking shoot it. At least, I think I didn't. I think I wish I hadn't. But part of me, too, just says fuck it. It was a fucking skunk ape; this is my job. I don't know what I think. This is the kind of thing people don't talk about.

We start walking toward the trees, but Shrigley stops after a little while. "Shouldn't, uh..." Shrigley's whispering now. "Shouldn't you go first? With the gun?"

Christ. "Okay. Okay, you guys stay behind me."

This is fucking stupid. For one thing, it was nothing. It was a fucking shadow. It's this fucking island and the starlight and the quiet. But Shrigley and Pirkle Jones are behind me, shitting their pants 'cause they think it's a fictional fucking animal or the water zombies of Shrigley's fucking friends or some goddamn shit that's too stupid for words.

It's a long goddamn way to the jungle. After a while I can't even see shit anymore. I look up, and the stars are all gone again. Motherfucking three days dry, and it's going to rain again.

We get into the jungle, and the mud turns from dried up and cracked into thick, wet shit, like glue. I wade into it, feeling the suck at my boots, hearing it slurp, loud. That must have been what the squishing sound was. I'm trying to keep the rifle pointed forward and not get stuck and look for this fucking thing at the same time.

After a while, we kind of spread out and keep slurping in, and just when I'm about to give it up, I get past this tree, and there he is. A goddamn skunk ape. Well, a huge fucking corpse, at least.

"I got it," I shout, into the trees. "Come find me. It's dead."

"What does it look like?" Shrigley yells. I can hear him running, waddle-jogging.

"It's a big..." I look at this ugly fucker. "It's a monkey. It's a big, big-ass fucking monkey." It's a lump of fur and meat, and it's dark, and I'm not even sure it really is even a monkey, but whatever.

I point the rifle at the skunk ape, just in case it miraculously fucking comes back to life, and Pirkle and Shrigley slurp up in the mud beside me.

"Holy shit, you got it," Pirkle says. "You got a skunk ape."

Shrigley slurps over to it and starts poking around. I really hope it it's dead, and it doesn't fucking kill him. Shrigley says, "Can you see any footprints?"

"I didn't check for footprints," I say.

"Is it not a skunk ape?" Pirkle says.

I shrug.

"What does a skunk ape look like?" Pirkle says.

"I don't know," I say. "Nobody's ever seen one."

Shrigley's over on the other side of the ape corpse, looking at craters in the mud. "It's tough to tell with the mud," he says, "these footprints don't look much like the ones I've got."

"What else would it be?" Pirkle says, like Shrigley pissed in his coffee.

"A regular ape," I say. In which case, I killed it for nothing. In which case, this whole trip was for nothing. Shrigley's dead friends were for nothing. Shrigley's whole entire life was for nothing.

"It stinks, huh?" Pirkle says.

"Yeah, Pirkle," I say. "It fucking stinks."

"Get the Jeep," Shrigley says.

While me and Pirkle are going back to the Jeep, we hear the first thunder, and we both kind of slump. It doesn't rain light on this goddamn island. By the time we've got the Jeep back to the edge of the jungle, it's started. We put our ponchos on, which just makes everything harder to do, and we tie a rope around the skunk ape's feet and tie it to the Jeep. We start dragging the body out, and it just rains harder and fucking harder.

At first, the mud's just a surface layer, the wheels of the Jeep spin a little, but they can grab the dirt underneath. By the time that ape's out of the jungle, though, the ground just sinks under us into a big soup. With the Jeep alone, we might've been able to move, but it's shitty weather for dragging huge corpses around.

Finally, Shrigley calls off the drag. We back the Jeep up next to the skunk ape and put the rear door up and hang our ponchos over it like a tent. We're going to have to take turns watching over him all night so he doesn't get eaten. At least, we say we're going to take turns, but we all three of us stay up. Shrigley radios the chopper, but it can't come until the storm's over. Which might be the next morning or might be two weeks. That's what you get for hiring some cut-rate Indonesian goddamn chopper.

Shrigley starts taking all kinds of pictures of its face and its body and its fucking feet and shit. It's got a weird face, like a mask, rubbery. It's like apes in the movies, but dirtier, messier. His ankles already got the fur rubbed off them from the ropes. His skin's gray underneath.

Pirkle and me sit on the back of the Jeep, him smoking, me smoking with the .30-06 across my knees like I'm spanking it. Shrigley's camera's flashes like heat lightning, fucking up our night vision.

This corpse, if it is a skunk ape, could be the biggest thing any of us ever did. Bigger than quitting the army, bigger than cutting your balls off, bigger than not having good sex for four years, maybe bigger even than killing some guys. This corpse could be the biggest thing any of us ever does in our whole lives. What else am I going to do, for example, in the whole rest of my life? I shot a fake ape once, I'll say. But it turned out to be real.

We still don't know if it's a skunk ape. We don't even know how long it's going to be before we find out. Shrigley doesn't have a clue. He keeps looking at its feet and the pictures of footprints not even in focus. How do you fuck up a picture of a footprint?

Or, this thing could be fucking nothing. It could be just a hunk of wasted meat we're not even going to eat. It could just be a pile of bullshit some guys got paid to do and some guys died for, just like every fucking thing else.

Right now, it feels like it's both. Right now, we're heroes and we're failures at the same time, and it feels like it's too much to fucking hold in your head at once. I wonder if this is what Shrigley feels like all the time.

Maybe that's why he got the vasectomy. Maybe when all you do is hunt these fuckers you don't even know exist, when you spend your whole life waiting to be right or wrong and never finding out, maybe making sure something doesn't exist is just as good as finding out something else does.

Maybe you just want to feel what it's like to be sure about something for once in your goddamn miserable fucking life.