French-kissing ice cream cones by the tracks downtown, I told Brady I’d find him buried treasure on a foreign beach, rocket him to Neptune, prove that Elvis never died, build a flux capacitor so he could go back in time and punch his dad before the bastard ever had a chance to earn it. Anything for Brady’s twentieth birthday. He’s my best friend.
Brady pondered the offer, then chucked his melting Moose Tracks over the chain-link fence, shouting, “Screw it! Let’s high-five Mothman.”
I thought he was kidding.
But here we are: Point Pleasant, West Virginia, zombified from ten hours of driving, toeing fast food wrappers in the footwells. Sun’s already set. We stare down the long, bland backroad in the woods where Mothman’s first official sighting took place in oh-so-clear-headed 1966. War in Vietnam, Walt Disney dead, Star Trek, civil rights, LSD, and two married couples terrorized by a red-eyed, squeaking sky-beast. We’ve had crazier years.
“Scared?” Brady asks.
I turn away from the ghostly parade of trees. “Scared of Mothman? No. Name’s too dumb.”
“I know his pain.” I’m five-eight, with a shoe size that held out optimistically for six-foot. Brady’s license has him at five-seven, but you’d never know he was shorter than me. His kaiju personality towers ten stories tall. Tattoos with wild backstories, a bird-shot blast of piercings, badly home-bleached hair. Brady doesn’t live by halves. Me? I’m a gallery of absences. I’d tell you how—who I am, all I don’t want—but you wouldn’t listen to me. No one does, except Brady. So I define myself by our indecipherable inside jokes and the misadventures I co-pilot. On my own, I don’t leave an outline.
Before sundown, we’d stopped to look at the Mothman statue in town. Wanted to see what we’re up against. Brady’s hot take: “God, that was one horny artist.”
To be fair, the statue probably didn’t need a six-pack, chest hair, and deeply-defined ass cheeks. Brady gave it a slap “for good luck” before buying us matching Mothman sweatshirts. Wish he wouldn’t spend money on me. He needs it too bad.
“Ever notice how America’s stuck with all the campy cryptids?” I ask. “Other countries get thousand-year-old folklore-monsters that eat people. We get crackhead Floridians hee-yukkin’ about skunk apes and frogmen their cousins saw in the seventies.”
“An unfair generalization of cryptids both domestic and abroad,” Brady replies.
“Brady, Mothman is the Mormon of mythical creatures.”
“Tourist-trap of the Latter-day Cryptids?”
But if anyone’s going to high-five Mothman, it’ll be Brady, and the world’s disbelief will mean nothing as long as I believe him, and I will, because he’s my best friend.
Brady pulls off-road. Car buckles over grass-clumps and groundhog holes. I don’t ask if we’re allowed to park here, because the answer’s probably no, and Brady’s already cutting the engine. Woods-at-night-in-a-car silence must rank high on the soundboard of horror movie editors.
Brady’s got that mad quirk at the corner of his mouth. He says, “Let’s set up a perimeter.”
“Set up a perimeter” means dropping our backpacks against a walnut tree and making sure we have enough reception to Tweet #foundhim after Brady snaps a selfie with Mothman. We’ve made a bet about whether Mothman’s a bunny-ears guy. I stand to lose ten bucks tonight.
“Wanna see what you got me for my birthday?” Brady asks.
“Boy howdy,” I say bitterly.
I always nail Brady’s gifts. Last year, I found a badly taxidermied piglet painted up like David Bowie’s alien alter-ego. My search for its successor was cut short by Brady bumming twenty dollars, telling me he’d buy the present himself this time.
Brady pulls a wrapped-and-ribboned box from his backpack. At least he put some effort into it. He frenzies the paper away with a convincing gasp of surprise, and I flash my phone over the words rechargeable outdoor floodlight.
“Are you for real right now?” This is not as cool as Piggy Stardust.
“Moths are attracted to light,” Brady says, with a smug smirk. “Gonna catch me a big, fat cryptid with this baby.”
He sets up his new toy. Flips the switch.
“Jesus!” I spin, rubbing retina-rainbows from my vision. “Really? Right in my face?”
Brady stands, grinning into the scrappy, half-lit woods. He needs crazy stuff to be true. Otherwise, life’s a bleak, one-track decay. No point in ice cream afternoons, wearing eyeliner on only the left side, living in his car because his parents kicked him out for loving wrong. It’s like that glass-half-full thing: I can buoy myself on unanswered maybes, but Brady gets caught in the undertow of maybe-nots. Comes from getting hurt too many times.
I hope he sees Mothman.
I hope that, somehow, it makes up for the scars on his heart.
Our floodlight shines a trap of empty space.
Brady prowls impatiently, eyeing the branches, the bushes, the brightness, the darkness. I check my phone every now and then. Midnight rolls into one, rots on toward two. I figure we’re not quitting till sunrise.
“Do you think Mothman would start a band with us?” Brady asks.
“I don’t play any instruments,” I say, “and I can’t sing.”
“Non-issue. We’ll put you on cowbell. He’ll be the frontman, obviously. I’ll go rapid with drums, you’ll go Saturday Night Live with cowbell, and Mothman can do whatever the hell he wants, because he’s Mothman. ‘Mothman and Two Other Weirdos’, that’s what we’ll call ourselves. We know who the star of this freakshow is.”
Brady crosses his arms. Sways from one foot to the other. He’s rambling, but he’s not smiling.
“We should walk around,” I say. “Cover more area.”
He fixes me a look. “What’re you, Fred from Scooby-Doo? If we split up, one of us might miss out on Mothman.”
“I never said split up. We’re seeing Mothman together or not at all.”
Maybe-nots writhe in Brady like a basket of snakes. He tells me he doesn’t want to leave the floodlight, so I tell him to carry the dumb thing along, but he tells me Mothman might wise-up if the trap goes mobile, so I tell him my legs are falling asleep and I can feel an insect cityscape itching creepy rush-hour in the grass under me, so he tells me to just go, then. Whatever. He’ll wait here.
“You want me to get lost in monster woods by myself?”
“Google Maps,” Brady mutters.
“What am I supposed to set it on? ‘My friend, Brady, at 156 This Exact Tree Right Here’?”
“Follow the Moth-Signal,” Brady says, pointing at the floodlight.
I sigh. True, I’d have to cross the Ohio state line to lose sight of Brady’s birthday gift—but I don’t like leaving him. He’s getting anxious, antsy. He’s only been twenty for two hours.
“Go,” Brady says. “But don’t find Mothman without me.”
I salute him reluctantly, promising to herd our cryptid toward the trap, and then walk off with doubt in my steps.
I sweep my phone light, watching for rocks or rusted oil drums. These woods were known as the TNT Area, which sounds like something from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, but it’s true; I read about it on the drive. I pass a concrete bunker: grown-over, graffitied, potential sitting-area for Mothman or for the Virginian druggies relying on him not to snitch. Way back in the trees, there’s a rundown facility that pumped out crazy amounts of munitions during WWII.
It’s all abandoned, now. Polluted, contaminated, and rebranded as a scraggly wildlife preserve. That’s what happens. They mess up a place beyond repair, and then they ghost it. The government’s like a bad ex. Or Brady’s parents.
I freeze up. Not sure what would be worse: getting carried off by a demonic moth, or having to tell Brady that he missed his chance. I’d rather die than break my best friend’s heart.
Can’t swallow. Gagged like I’ve got a sock down my throat.
I lift my phone just in time to illuminate the pale wraith swooping straight for me.
Fumble—the phone falls from my hand. I try to scream, but only manage a kicked-puppy whimper. I duck, mostly because my knees are weak, and the creature startles in return. It curves high. Hoots. Disappears.
An owl. Never been so relieved.
I run full-speed back to Brady and the Moth-Signal.
Sandy-legged from the adrenaline drop, I trip over a tree root, scaring Brady into a fight-stance. I jab my thumb over my shoulder, panting, “Saw something out there—”
Brady lowers his fists. “Mothman?”
“Yeah, Brady. Mothman. But I decided not to lead with that, for suspense.”
Brady doesn’t laugh. Doesn’t return-fire any quips.
“It was an owl,” I explain. “Huge owl. Thought I was a mouse.”
Still silent, Brady watches a moth rave dance before the floodlight. One of them inevitably Icaruses itself, sizzling against the stand-in sun, falling dead to the grass. Brady shakes his head.
“Great,” he mutters. “Now I’m a murderer.”
“Well,” I say, “maybe Mothman will come to avenge his fallen children.”
Brady punches his hands into his pockets. He stands at barely five-seven, Godzilla-airs gone, and the space between us humidifies with heavy-chested letdowns. We can bear a million and one disappointments. It’s the million-and-second that brings down an avalanche.
“Sorry I dragged you out here for nothing,” Brady murmurs.
“You’re not nothing,” I say. Then I cup my hands on either side of my mouth and scream, “Hey, Mothman! Get your dusty, lamp-lovin’ ass over here and high-five Brady!”
Small snort. Almost enough.
I suck in another breath. “Bigfoot’s cooler than you!”
Brady laughs to skyscraper height again. Yeah, so what if we’re freaks, disowned or overlooked, out of work, skimming contested existences in a weird world that hates weird people? We have matching embarrassing sweatshirts. That’s plenty, for people like us.
“Careful picking fights with Mothman,” Brady says. “He’s buff.”
“He was,” I say, “in 1966.”
“You think he’s a grumpy old geezer, now?”
“Nessie’s dead, Mothman eats tapioca, and the Jersey Devil’s in jail for tax evasion.” I give our floodlight a kick, earthquaking the shadows. Figure I can take certain liberties, since I paid for the stupid thing. Brady throws a kick of his own.
“If we stick around till dawn,” I say, “we can catch Mothman on his way to the early-bird special. Sorry, early-moth special. And then I’ll beat him up for you. For your birthday. Me kicking the crap out of an elderly cryptid is a much cooler present than some glorified lightbulb, right?”
Brady puts his hood up, pulls the collar over his face. He twitches the drawstrings like antennae, funny-voicing, “Look here, you punk-ass whippersnapper—”
Something squeaks. Like a massive bat, a stepped-on mouse, an eyewitness description from fifty-six years ago.
I raise my head—
—and lock eyes with huge red orbs glowing in the blackness above.
A car, I tell myself. Brake lights. But they’re too high. Too round. They blink at me. And the sound isn’t a low-rumbling engine or tires crinkling rocks and twigs. It’s an ear-ticklingly high, weird, wrong, scritchy sound—followed by the heavy-big whumping of wings, and—
It turns, creaking the tree. Flap. Gone. All in two seconds.
Brady pops his head free from the hoodie.
“Oh, shit,” he cries. “What was that?”