And We Do Not Hunt Because We Are Hungry

Phil knew he was dead when the deer started talking.

Of course it wasn't talking, exactly. The whitetail had been bounding just around Phil for the last fifteen minutes of the hike or so, staying just in sight of him without blatantly approaching. The deer was neither staying on nor avoiding the trail. The human path was irrelevant to it. It was just nearby, watching.

Phil was amused by its refusal to either approach or run away. "Oh, come on," he said, voice raised, knowing the nearest judgmental human ears were miles away. "I'm just one asshole camping in the woods. I'm sure you and your friends could take me!"

Focused on the deer, Phil stopped paying attention to the ground. His genetically weak ankles (or so his brother Thomas called them) found a single small tree stump to pivot on; his heel stepped onto the edge of the two-inch stump just as he was putting all his weight on that foot. He felt the frustrating horror of his body weight pushing his ankle past its natural limits as he went down, screaming.

The pain wasn't all that, of course. Not yet. Phil was screaming with annoyance at himself, at his own physical incompetence. Who the fuck can't walk right, he wondered, feeling old bubbles of self-hatred rising.

And just behind the thoughts came the feelings. The feeling of a razor blade and the way it focused the mind instinctively, made the thoughts of hatred reduce to red lines and pain and fear and how soothing those things can be when that's all that's in your mind. The grip of a hypodermic needle in one hand, balancing it deftly, measuring, flicking a lighter, pulling, pushing. Maybe better than the feeling of the smack was the feeling of competence every time he didn't die while doing it. The feeling like he could at least do something right.

All that in a fraction of a second; all that in his brain before his hands hit the ground to catch his fall. No matter how many breathing techniques Phil learned, no matter how many chapters of Patterson's audiobook he listened to at work washing cars, the badthoughts always came in harder, faster, stronger than the goodthoughts.

Forehead on the ground, eyes closed, arms and legs in something approximating a plank position, Phil focused solely on the air going into his body through his nose and out his body through his mouth. He imagined points stretching into lines unfolding into polygons inflating into circles (seven seconds breathing in!) and circles contorting down to polygons collapsing into lines reducing down to points again (five seconds breathing out!). And when that had calmed down the visions of blood, he started thinking of quotes from his favorite book, the one that saved his life, the one that brought him out here.

Strengthen yourself. You will die waiting for the world outside to make you stronger. All the earth can do is give you the ground with which to brace yourself. You are the one who must choose to stand upon it.

He began to rise, first to his knees. He kept his eyes closed and tried to bid the words to come to him.

Go into the world to fix yourself, and fix yourself before fixing the world.

He rose from his knees to his feet, gingerly testing his ankle. It was pretty bad, probably a seven out of ten. He took one final breath out, thinking that even if it was about to be miserable trying to get back to his car, surely there was something positive to be learned from it. Something to be —


He opened his eyes and the deer was right in front of him. Phil stumbled back, instinctively putting too much weight on the one ankle he wasn't supposed to put weight on, and fell back on his ass. The 7/10 sprain was now at least an 8.5, and the grey of pain in his vision was competing with the red of panic.

But through the rush of blood roaring past his ears, in his mind, he heard words. He heard words, and he knew the voice the words were spoken in, just as they came through the audiobook out of his phone and into his brain. But this time, without earbuds, he heard the same voice, speaking words he had never heard before.

"The earth provides," he heard, as the deer now looming over Phil's prone figure opened its mouth as though to speak.

"The earth provides," he heard again, the deer's eyes moving in some way he couldn't perceive at first, but also couldn't bear to turn away from.

"The earth provides," he heard a third time, finally figuring it out. The deer's eyes weren't blackened or whitened, as he'd first thought. The movement was random. Visual white noise. The eyes were scrambling like a television tuned to a dead channel. The voice may have been in his head, but the deer was the thing that was no longer real.

The deer was gone. Its body was present, but something else was speaking through it.

"And you are what it has provided me," he heard at last.

Phil screamed, rolled to his stomach, scrambled to his foot, and began to hobble as best he could through the woods.

The next time he fell, the wrist he caught himself with twisted and snapped as his weight clumsily came down on it. He hadn't seen the deer for six minutes, since he scrambled away from it. He just heard phrases in his head behind him (physically in the back of his head, behind his ears).

"Welcome back to the earth, prey animal. This is where you belong."

"Please, run as fast as satisfies you. Do not slow for my benefit."

"No matter what, do not allow yourself to become stringy or toughened. Please be considerate of those around you."

As his wrist snapped, he knew there was no chance of escape left.

Phil drug and drug his body as far as it would travel, the forest reduced to the sound of the wrong side of the hunt. The sound of leaves and the branches giving way in furtive, pulsing outbursts as his hands and elbows pulled him as far as they could before he had to rest. The sound of panting, then wheezing, then gasping for air, desperately recharging his muscles. The sound of a dull roar, his blood pumping whatever oxygen and energy it could scramble together to keep the retreat alive.

And when all those sounds would stop from time to time, his body, his breath, his blood all quiet at once by some miracle, that's when he heard the other sound. One twig snapping pointedly. The deer didn't have to step on it, Phil knew. But Patterson wanted him to know he was around.

At some point, after some amount of time, Phil's fingers found the edge of… something. He pulled his broken, bleeding body forward one last time until his head was over the edge, and he could see… water?

It was water. A face stared back at Phil, a face Phil gave up trying to recognize two relapses ago. But in that moment, knowing that face might be the last one he would ever see, he felt, for the first time, something akin to love.

He raised his head and looked out across a great metallic expanse of water, silver-blue ripples dotted with bugs and leaves and everything else imaginable. The only sound now was a series of sloshing waves against the earthen berm he was laying upon, along with the low hum of smaller waves hitting other sides of other, smaller berms along the shoreline.

He raised his head further. Across the water, he could see a long, arching bridge stretching to connect two roads he couldn't see the ends of. Past that, the other side of the water was another wooded hillside just like the one Phil was lying on, so far away that the trees were obscured by fog.

Phil had been so focused on escaping that he had forgotten where he was. Paris Landing. The landing was a port. Ports adjoin bodies of water. This was the shore of Kentucky Lake.

In the ground beneath his hands, a colony of ants were harvesting berries from the wild vines nearby and carrying it down along the cliffside to a mound near the water. Down in the water, the brim and bass were catching the ants that fell off the cliff. Across the water, a sole crane swooped down to snatch one of the bass out of the lake.

Phillip Carlisle was about to die, and he watched the world moving on as though he had never been there at all. And in some sick way, in that moment, he was comforted.

Another twig snapped in the woods behind him. Phil didn't bother trying to turn to see the obvious. He kept looking out across the gray expanse, trying to take in as much as he could, while he still had the chance. At this point, his leg didn't even hurt anymore.

"Good. I was afraid you were going to try to say something witty."

Phil felt surprise at hearing the voice out loud, rather than in his head, but not enough surprise to look away from the lake.

"This is a gift only fear can give you," the man known to millions as John Bennett Patterson said, looking out into the water, taking in Phil's last sights with him. "This is the moment of clarity the addiction doctors tell you about. Here, in this moment, you are perfect. There is no addiction or hunger or pain to you. Your soul is unblemished, as it was at the moment of your birth."

Phil didn't know if Patterson was using some kind of hypnosis, or if the vista in front of him was mesmerizing him, but everything Patterson said sounded correct. Phil felt years of anguish and loneliness and failure and disappointment and judgment leave his body as he gasped out a single sob. The tears ran silently down his face and off his cheeks, into the water. He watched the tide carry them away.

"And this moment of rest, of relief of burden," Patterson continued, awkwardly squatting and then sitting down on the berm beside Phil, "that is the victory of the prey." He reached down and untied one brown wing-tipped loafter and pulled it off, revealing a purple-and-black argyle sock beneath. He removed the sock, shoved it into the shoe, and placed it gently behind him, then rested his foot in the waters of the lake.

"But the predator, now," he continued, working on the other shoe as his left foot's toes wiggled in the water, "the predator's work is never done." He placed the other shoe-and-sock beside the first as he spoke.

Phil remained focused on the privet saplings swaying in the water near the shore. Tears in his eyes, he watched them blurrily bobbing as the tide moved around and through them. He carefully avoided looking at Patterson's feet, which were doing something inconceivable in the corner of his vision.

Patterson's hand reached for his necktie.

"I'm a hundred and forty-two years old," he said, pulling at the silk. "Barely middle-aged for my kind. When my father took me out to hunt for the first time, he was hunting serfs fleeing through the woods from the Czar's police. He reveled in their fear, their pain. I grew to hate him and his callousness." Patterson began to unbutton his shirt as new hair sprouted around his torso.

"I try to teach my children the practices I believe best for a moral life," Phil heard him continue, now again a voice in his head rather than his ears. Phil's sobs were coming to an end now, and he just looked out into the water and listened. "We have to understand why we do the things we do. We do not hate because we are hateful, but because we fear dying from what we do not understand. We do not make love because we are lovers, but because we fear dying alone. And we do not hunt because we are hungry, but because we fear dying of hunger."

Phil took a deep breath and was shocked to hear himself say, "I'm not afraid of anything right now." He said it in a quiet rasp, but aloud nevertheless. "I'm not afraid of anything."

"And that is my gift to you," Patterson's voice whispered in his head, before razor-sharp claws plunged beneath his skin, just below his skull, obliterating Phillip Carlisle's cerebellum.

J. Bennett Patterson paid special attention when scooping out Phil's kidneys. It was little Katya's favorite meal, and she liked them whole.


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