Winston Dodge spends his winters days up to Millinocket because Millinocket needs him. He paces Congress Street at noon, proud of the sound his boots make on the wet snow. He turns his head from side, looking at things. Looking into shadows. Winston Dodge likes looking into shadows. When the shadows look back, he knows he’s found something worth finding.
Winston Dodge is a finder and a fighter. Winston Dodge hunts monsters and he doesn’t like losing.
So he makes it a point to win. It doesn’t come naturally.
If you follow the Interstate up past Bangor, you’ll come to a low place where the trees are all dead, standing apart as though they want nothing to do with each other even now that they’ve been reduced to elemental relics of their former selves. Maybe they’re larches or whichever kind of needly spruce makes a point of staying green only sometimes, or maybe they really are just desiccated corpses. Winston can’t tell. Winston is only interested in what lurks between trees. He pictures something more shadow than substance, lank, pressing its naked gaseous curves against the black spines and needles of the larches, trying to hide from itself.
He knows a lot about hiding from oneself. More than he knows about monsters.
The place is called Alton Bog, which makes it sound like the right sort of ancient, the exact sort of haunt that might attract the prey that Winston craves.
He doesn’t stop the car. He tells himself he’ll be back again this way when it’s warmer. Back again with the right boots, with a better coat, with a decent camera. He lives his life in small promises that he never quite intends to make.
Thin shapes watch him from behind the ghost of each tree. He isn’t Winston Dodge yet. That comes later. He isn’t anyone.
The no one he is has never been up to Millinocket before. It’s a word on a map, the setup for an old joke, a legendary odor. He’s come into town with fantasies of pie in old inns, a century’s squalor, greasy forks and ruin. He’s found neither. Congress Street has a few rough edges, sure, but squalor is a special sort of magic and he sees none. The roof of the bowling alley has caved in, but that looks recent and dramatic. A few sad arcade games still sticking out into the snow. It looks like a bomb went off, or like some small-town Samson singled this out as the closest thing to a temple. Neither possibility screams squalor. Neither screams at all. There’s too much life among the devastation, the sudden lurch from there to not-there, from object to thing. He wonders which he is. He passes the post office and forgets he wondered.
Why is he here? It was a long drive. He’s probably running from something. He usually is. But not Winston Dodge, Monster Hunter. Winston Dodge doesn’t run. Things run from Winston Dodge. Things run but he catches them. Winston Dodge knows all about things. He used to be one.
But there is no Winston Dodge yet. There is only a one-way street with a bowling alley that looks like a busted piñata, and a post office with no lights on inside, and a shuttered coffee shop with wraiths peering out from cracks in the windows, wriggling their cold fingers toward the sidewalk, gibbering, gibbering. There isn’t even a legendary odor; the paper mill has shut. There are no millers any more.
He considers gibbering back, but he can’t think of anything to say.
There’s a thrift shop in the middle of town. He goes inside, telling himself it’s just to get out of the cold. It isn’t very cold out, but it seems like the right thing to say to himself. He’s given up on squalor by now. He’s looking for something else, something harder to name. That’s a damn shame, really, because whatever it is, he might have found it here among the porcelain rejects and abridged self-help books scattered like fallen leaves on the thrift shop shelves. Actually they’re nothing like fallen leaves, which promise decay, stench, rebirth: it’s a tidy shop, well managed, loved. It even smells all right. It’s none of the things he came here to find. It’s none of the things he’s running from, either. It’s a perfect world that has nothing to do with him.
He passes over the silver sateen three-piece suit. Even the deep blue seersucker is too wide in the shoulders for his impossibly ordinary frame. There’s nothing for him but an old beige coat, the kind that no one could want or need. The kind he could feel at home in.
He picks it up. He has to. Polyester, unsavory, natty and assiduously frumpish, smelling gently of the things people put in basements to ward away death. An offense to the senses and to fashion. Little buckles to cinch the cuffs, somehow still functional. A collar high enough to drown a child. A lining that some wicked tailor patched together from stolen carpet samples.
It isn’t his coat. He has trouble imagining it could be anyone’s coat until he puts it on and looks at himself in the greasy mirror. Now, suddenly, he sees. Now he knows it for exactly what it is.
It’s Winston Dodge’s coat. Winston Dodge, Monster Hunter.
Six dollars, but the man behind the counter charges him five. Damn shame, he thinks. He’s going to miss himself.
He could use a cup of coffee but of course all he finds are the gibbering wraiths. It’s different, now. He knows them like he didn’t know them before. He knows how to gibber.
Come in, they say. Join us. Be us.
Be you? he asks. Sweetheart, I can barely be myself.
We’re fell, they say. We’re fiends. You’re fickle. You’re fey.
He eyes himself in a scrap of glass. Winston Dodge looks back. Get them, the Monster Hunter says.
Winston Dodge never needs a weapon. He’s never met a ghoul he couldn’t simply rassle. He rassles with his wits, his will, his words. He turns the night clean and makes dank alleys dark again.
The wraiths scatter as soon as they realize he knows who they’re dealing with. It’s too quick and frankly unfulfilling. He gazes into the shattered window where they were a moment ago. He misses them.
Warmish coffee from the Circle K is good enough for Winston Dodge. He likes the feel of the styrofoam cup. He doesn’t think of it as wasteful. Winston Dodge knows what real waste looks like. He’s seen a dragon swallow a mill town whole. He’s watched what one werewolf can do to a maternity ward. Winston Dodge knows what souls turn into when they stop trying. All the foam cups in the world piled in a tower by the sea wouldn’t make Winston Dodge blink an eye.
He buys some cheese, too. He tells himself it’s for later. He doesn’t know himself the way Winston Dodge knows him.
A few miles up the road he catches his first glimpse of the mountain. He tries to remember whether it’s why he’s come here. He tries to remember whether he ever quite knew why he came, because he likes to think that he’s always running toward something and never away from anything.
Winston Dodge, Monster Hunter, has never run away from a thing in his life. It isn’t because he’s so brave beneath his carpeted coat and his watch cap, although of course he is. It’s because Winston Dodge is always chasing something down. Always hunting. Even now he eyes the mountain in the distance, rising like a wall of white clouds between the trees, rearing now and again, stretching toward the sky as though to slice it. Winston Dodge knows better than anyone else what lurks on those slopes. He met a vampire there once, sucking on the tube end of a hydration pack and moving its skinny knees like pistons. He met a banshee that howled as it drifted along the trail and needed to be talked down with promises that it could haunt the living down below better than the dead stones above the tree line. More than once he met a hiker who treated him like company until Winston Dodge peeled away its stolen face and watched as the shapeshifter beneath vanished like river fog in sunshine.
Winston Dodge knows the mountain like he knows his own mind. He knows that on the highest peak sits a god whose name few remember, a god of storms with a watchful eye and a vengeful temperament, waiting with his great wings folded for the day when someone will call him down from the mountain with burnt offerings or frigid doubt. Winston Dodge waits for the day when the god will call him up, knowing the day will never come. It isn’t his story to live in. It’s someone else’s, and he knows he’ll be lucky if he ever chances to hear it.
He’s never told it either, although he knows it would give him a little thrill to do so, to be the one in the room who knows the thing. He doesn’t know it well, and he knows it isn’t his to tell even if he remembered it correctly. There was a wedding, he thinks, or a promise not to have a wedding, and a moose or maybe an eagle, and he thinks someone broke a promise and got herself or himself whisked away to a place they didn’t want to be whisked, but he doesn’t remember where he read it or even quite what it said.
He wonders what it must feel like to get whisked to anywhere, his shoulders still sore from the drive. He checks his phone and thanks Christ there’s no signal.
He eats the cheese.
The car plods along until the road turns to snow. He parks alongside a few snowmobile trailers and decides he can walk the rest of the way, whatever that means.
It must be a real road in summer because there are signs along the side advertising everything he’d be a fool to try to find, this inn eight miles distant, that campground twenty miles from here. He wonders what he’s doing. It isn’t hiking exactly, not along this straight sad road with a layer of fine smooth asphalt hiding no deeper than a foot or two beneath the snow, and it isn’t travel, not when he doesn’t expect to get much of anywhere before he has to turn around again with the sun going down and the wind growing stronger. It isn’t even sightseeing; the trees are too thick and the mountain has hidden itself behind them. He thinks of climbing a spruce to see a little farther. He doesn’t.
Out of the woods walks a pale ghost that Winston Dodge recognizes from a frigid island in the North Sea where he was once shipwrecked for a month with nothing but his own grit and a magic cloak for protection against its spectral inhabitants. Winston Dodge has never shied from a monster in his life but ghosts still startle him when they creep over moors at the wrong moment or out between the edges of spruce trees.
And worse still, he knows this ghost. He thought he’d bottled it in a Viking chalice and left it to sink at the bottom of a fjord, but Winston Dodge doesn’t know ghosts like he knows monsters and now he wonders whether he didn’t seal it in tightly enough, or didn’t say the right incantation, or whether some ocean current might have carried it over to Maine and dashed it against the rocks. Winston Dodge has never really understood incantations, ocean currents, or anything else he can’t touch or taste or bottle. Or rassle.
I know you, says the ghost, a lousy introduction if he’s ever heard one. Of course it knows him; it’s his own mind it broken loose from. He wonders what to say or even whether it’ll hear him if he says anything other than exactly what he’s already thinking.
“You don’t know half as much as you think you know,” snarls the Monster Hunter in the beige coat, turning its carpeted collar up against the breeze and enjoying the feeling of aloof protection that it gives him. That all armor should be so comfortable. That all ghosts should shake when they see him.
Winston Dodge, Monster Hunter, it says, and reaches a white arm toward him as though it’s an underpaid extra in a movie about the end of the world. His stomach sinks, but at least it’s gotten his name right, job description and everything, and you can do a lot worse in this life or any than know a ghost who knows your name. He thinks about smiling, but Winston Dodge doesn’t smile. Winston Dodge smolders and sweats into the carpeted lining of his beige coat. Winston Dodge—it even says his name correctly, the round, low vowels of the north cutting softly through the February air—why have you come?
You know damn well why he’s come, says Winston Dodge.
Does he know? The ghost leans in, puts its face close to Winston Dodge’s face as though to sniff out a lie. Or, says the ghost, so close to his skin now that he can feel the chill that isn’t quite like the cold pouring off of the places where its skin used to be, pouring into his as though intent on filling him with the absence of everything, do you?
I know, says Winston Dodge. He doesn’t need to tell me. He doesn’t need to tell me. He wants squalor. He wants pie. He wants me to do my job where they need me to do it.
And do they need you, Winston Dodge? Do they care who hunts their monsters? The ghost has wrapped itself around him now, trying to get inside, trying to become him. Only the smell of the coat keeps it from getting inside his skin. He tries to shake it off, tries to rassle himself free. He can’t. He looks for help, looks for a they, looks for the crumbling town that he left ten miles behind him, looks for the place the coffee shop used to be, the shattered glass, the potholes and the pendulous telephone wires. The snow crowds in around him. The ghost snickers. He doesn’t know ghosts the way he knows monsters. He doesn’t know ghosts at all.
With a puff of wind it’s gone. He’s alone here. The mountain winks from between the trees. The sun is almost warm. He turns back; it’s a long walk to the car.
There’s a little place to eat down Fire Road 20. He doesn’t know how he missed it before. It’s on a good, clear road, wrapping around the south side of the lake past empty cottages and private turnoffs. He pulls into the parking lot, which is nearly as crowded as a highway rest stop. He parks in shallow mud, locks the car, ambles toward the tall A-frame lodge, past crowds of strangers in black snow pants and bright jackets. Winston Dodge scans the crowd. He sees nothing.
Inside it’s warm. Three broad, clean windows look out on a perfect world of lake ice and the knife’s edge of the mountain above it all. There’s a comfortable smell of grease that isn’t quite rancid. A waitress comes toward him before he can even finish casting his wishes. “Looking for fuel?” she asks.
He stares. He doesn’t understand. Oilcans and thick gloves line a shelf to his right. This isn’t his world. He carries no map, knows no way over the snow but slowly.
“Do you have any pie?” he asks, and doesn’t regret it.
“Pie,” she says with a smile. “Pie! Well let me see. We always have pie.”
She’s gone. He looks around. Winston Dodge, Monster Hunter casts his cold eyes from table to table, looking for the fiends among the flock, looking for the dark hearts that prey on the innocent, the foolish, the helpless. He scans the room and scans the room again, wondering, wishing for anything now, even a ghost, to slip out of the shadows and give him a reason to fight, a reason to strike, a reason to gibber. He wants something to rassle but it’s all so damn simple, and right, and almost good. He looks for a mirror, looks for a cauldron, looks for the darkness behind the blue of the sky itself.
There’s nothing here.
The waitress comes back again, smiling a different smile now. “You know, we always have two. We make them right here. Today we had a raspberry pie and an apple pie. But, you know,” and she looks at him as though the world is a changed place today, as though the sun rose the wrong way, as though the mountain bowed its head and drank the lake dry, and the old god of the storm came down to choose a new companion for the next few silent centuries, “someone just came in a little while ago and bought them all right up. Just a while little while ago.”
He thanks her and leaves. Winston Dodge, Monster Hunter, drags his boots through the forgiving mud.
If you follow the Interstate down toward Bangor, you’ll come to a low place where the trees are all dead, standing apart as though they want nothing to do with anyone.
He pulls the car over to the side of the road, draws the brakes cautiously. Winston Dodge watches him from the passenger’s seat, amber lenses shielding his eyes from the afternoon glare of the sun on the snow that lies heavy and wide over Alton Bog and the world beyond it. Together they gaze out through the larches’ black skeletons. They share what’s left of the cheese. He cracks a window to let out a little of the coat’s stale reek as Winston Dodge looks for the tracks of grim lopers or grisly trolls but sees nothing more sinister than the two strange beasts in the front seat of the idling hatchback.
He thinks about turning the key, leaving the car behind him, ambling out along the endless reaches of flat earth to see what impossible lands lie on the other side of the bog, beyond even the ghosts of trees, out where the afternoon light gathers once it has nowhere else to go and pools in golden eddies on the white snow, beautiful beyond all description and utterly unhaunted.
He looks, but not for long. The engine shivers, purrs like something friendly, asks him quiet questions he can’t quite hear. He takes his phone from his pocket, pushes the button on the side, marvels that even among all this perfect waste, wasted echoes of human voices ricochet at radio frequencies through the cooling air and the breath of bog trees playing dead. Winston Dodge squints until he can almost see the signals, and wishes he were small enough and swift enough and strong enough to rassel them out of the air, to quiet the world.
He smiles for the first time since Bangor. There’s a call he should make, but it can wait.