Of the five stories in Boys & Their Monsters, this is my favorite.
Alien beasts populate the post-apocalyptic plains of a dustbowl Earth.
One in particular is harassing a community of survivors.
A boy, coming into his own as a scavenger in the new normal, sets out to deal with the problem.
His community rallies around him—but will it be enough to face the beast down? Or will the boy go too far and find out just how unforgiving an apocalypse can be?
I hope you enjoy the read. It’s the longest story in the collection, in what fancy editors call novelette length at ~10,000 words.
In my next post, I’ll share the intro I wrote for the book where this story is collected, as well as discuss my thoughts on these stories 5 years later.
Boys & Their Monsters
Read 5 original post-apocalyptic science fiction stories for free right here.
Low Desert, High Mountain, Big Lizard
by M.G. Herron
A couple days after the cool autumn sank its toes into the sand, I packed a lunch and rode the bike that Leyla fixed for me west into the desert. I would have preferred to walk, but where I wanted to go couldn’t be reached on foot in a day.
The full water skin slung over my shoulder slapped against my leg as I pedaled across the cracked pavement of the aging highway that cut through the sand. It wasn’t until the sun was straight overhead, beaming down on the old white t-shirt I’d draped along my neck and shoulders—a makeshift keffiyeh to protect my fair, freckled skin—that the dilapidated auto repair shop came into sight.
The standalone building was half-buried in a sand dune. When I’d first found it, it was fully buried, and only the odd square shape of the awning extending out from the roof indicated that there was anything other than more sand underneath. I had marked the place on my mental map, and waited until the winds shifted with the seasons to unearth it again before returning.
I set the bike aside and inched down the hill of sand, carefully prodding with my foot for soft spots indicating there was a treacherous pocket of air waiting for the slightest motion to be filled by the sand above. More than one of our scavengers had been buried alive that way. Not wishing to add to those statistics, I moved slowly, carefully, forward.
But I found no soft spots, and my boots came down on solid ground. I seemed to be standing on the building’s cement foundation, which extended to what must have been a parking lot. Next to me, the dusty glass windows in the garage doors were still intact—a minor miracle in itself. I used my sleeve to wipe away some of the grime then peered through the glass.
I expected the inside to be a mess, and inhaled sharply when the reality proved different. Almost every old building I’d found had been left a mess—no surprise, if you believed the stories that the aliens had colonized Earth in a day. No time to prepare or set your house to rights. Just grab what you can and run run run.
But this place was as orderly as you please. A pile of sand had spilled in through a single broken window, but otherwise the floors were bare. Tool chests were lined up neatly against the wall, and a gas motor Chevrolet was raised a few feet off the floor in one of the bays, where it had surely been waiting years for a service that never came.
Maybe the invaders came on a holiday, when the mechanics were at home with their families. That would explain a lot.
In any case, I pulled my head back and looked around for a way in. I could break this window, but that felt wrong. I wanted to avoid doing damage if possible.
I was pushing sand aside in search of a front door when a deep lowing, barking sound—three sharp gruffs followed by a long guttural moan—drifted into my hearing.
I froze. My blood went as cold as the desert at night. No Earth creatures big enough to make that sound lived in this desert any more. The noise could only belong to one beast.
My scattershot plan of breaking into the garage and raiding it for spare parts scampered back into the recesses of my mind. I would probably be safe inside, but if I made any noise breaking a window or jimmying a door, there was too great a risk that it would bring the creature to investigate.
“Just my luck,” I whispered under my breath. That long trip for nothing!
My bike lay in the sand above me. I would have to scramble quickly up the hill to get to it, running the risk of caving in a soft spot. Or I could stay here and wait it out.
Better to be mobile than trapped in a half-buried auto repair shop. I opted for the bike, scrambling with hands and feet up the steep dune. Halfway up, my foot slipped and my leg plunged in up to my thigh. I flattened my body against the sand, spreading my weight so that I didn’t deepen the hole. Sand filtered into my half-open mouth, but I managed to maintain my presence of mind, carefully extracting my leg from the soft spot. I scrabbled forward until, finally, I heaved my body up on the top next to my bike.
I spat sand as I lifted the bike onto its two chunky wheels, and turned it back east, toward town, the way I had come. I was just throwing my leg over the saddle when the lowing moan came again.
I don’t know what madness came over me in that moment. Somehow, the sound the beast made seemed to be filled with the deepest kind of existential despair.
Judging that the sound still came from a great distance, several hundred yards off at least, I gingerly set the bike back down and crept to the dune’s edge.
It just so happened that beyond this bank of dunes, the desert swept down into a low, flat, cracked-earth plain roughly five miles across. It was littered with boulders and sparse grass, and the occasional low shrub or prickly cactus. On the far end, the land rose sharply into a mountain range.
And there, about half a mile from where I crouched, the creature stood, alone.
At least, that’s what I had been told to call the massive, lizard-cows the aliens had left behind. They had been described to me, but I had never seen one with my own eyes before.
The creature was massive. It must have weighed two or three tons. Its rotund, scaly body tapered down to a long, whip-like tail. Its massive head hung low, and a hood like you’d see on a cobra pressed down against its neck. According to local legend, when they were angered their hoods flared up.
That’s how you knew you were a goner.
The basilisk pawed at a small boulder with its two front claws, and again made that horribly sad lowing sound that ended on a cracked, plaintive note as it dropped its head.
When its head raised up once more, the small boulder went flying through air. The rock bounced off the ground once, and then the creature charged, its huge mass barreling across the desert at a speed that should have been impossible for its bulk, making the gruff barks I’d heard before in excitement as it chased the boulder like a toy ball.
I shook my head. The thing’s lost its blinking mind!
It was a shame that I hadn’t been able to scavenge any useful parts on this journey, but I wasn’t about to go back for a second try with a loopy basilisk within sniffing distance of me.
I crept away from the edge of the dune, righted my bicycle once more, and pedaled madly home to warn the others.
After I put some distance between myself and the basilisk, I ate the green apple, brown bread, and goat cheese I had packed, steering the bike with no hands like my father had taught me.
The sun cast my shadow long ahead of me by the time I reached town. I always knew I was close to home by the sharp diamond glint of the sun reflecting off the vast circular array of metallic reflectors. In the Beforetimes, so the stories went, the out-of-order solar thermal power plant provided electricity to the coastal cities. Now, it was no good, since it was hard-wired to a dead grid.
Getting the plant working again had been Leyla’s pet project ever since we managed to match enough power tools to the proper battery packs to make it feasible. But it was no small job, and some in the village said it would never work.
My people didn’t choose to settle here for the solar power plant, but rather for the functioning wells that allowed us to pull clean water from an aquifer deep underground. Whoever built this plant also had to survive out here, and apparently intended for it to be a long-term situation. That didn’t work out for them, but it had been a boon for us.
I still wondered why the invaders left this place more or less untouched. Some said the aliens had their own power sources and therefore no interest in a remote solar thermal plant on the edge of the desert. It’s likely I’ll never know a great many things about the invaders. Most people are just happy they’re gone.
During a winter solstice festival, when the adults were deep in their cups of mulled wine, Kamar, the elder, once told me that the invaders killed with weapons of light, and that was why the basilisk and other creatures steered clear of our town. Needless to say, seeing that diamond glint in the distance was like reaching safe harbor in a stormy sea for me. It was home, my desert oasis. My shoulders fell away from my ears and I pedaled a little faster.
The town itself consisted of about two hundred and fifty small houses packed close together. A massive A-shaped building towered over the other buildings at the center. We called it the town hall, but really it was just a cement foundation covered by a slanting roof that extended down so it nearly touched the ground on both sides. It kept you out of the sun, but allowed the air to move through and keep the place cool.
I guided the bike through the dusty streets toward the town hall, taking the most direct path between the small buildings. It was as I suspected—several hundred people were crowded in under the roof.
During the day, the town hall doubled as a school for the children. But now it was night time and the first Friday besides, which meant the weekly town hall meeting was taking place.
Nearly the whole population was gathered around with their children—every man, woman, and child I had ever known under one roof.
A tall, middle-aged woman stood on a slightly raised platform. She had brunette hair, greying ever so slightly at the temples. She wore practical pants and a coarse homespun shirt, and spoke to the assembled crowd with a voice that carried. I set my bike against one of the tall beams and waded into the crowd until I was near enough to catch her eye.
“—baseball game tomorrow, but tonight we’ll be celebrating George Carson’s 50th birthday,” the tall woman said. “I also want to share that Marlene has been promoted to head shepherd, so that Elisa can spend more time developing her goat cheese business.”
Everyone clapped politely. One person hooted, which drew scattered laughter from the crowd.
“If you or your kids would like to learn a new trade, Elisa is looking for young apprentices. Just go to talk her or—”
The woman glanced at me and frowned. I pursed my lips and waited patiently, careful to keep my expression neutral.
“Talk to Elisa, or come see me,” she finished. “As usual I’ll handle all reassignments personally. Does anyone have any questions? Okay then. I know you’re all eager to let loose tonight. It’s been quite a while since we’ve had a party. Let’s get the fires going. Have fun!”
The murmur of conversations spread through the crowd until they were all talking amongst themselves. But some of the adults near me must have seen something they didn’t like in my face, for a few men put their arms around their spouses’ and children’s shoulders and led them away. The tall brunette woman weaved through the crowd and came to a stop in front of me. She had the same fair freckled skin as I did.
“What is it, Das? What happened?”
“I saw a basilisk in the lowlands,” I said.
She drew a soft, sharp breath in through her mouth then let it out slowly. Her arm went around my shoulder, and she squeezed me to her body. It had been many years since I’d thought of myself as a kid, a development of necessity rather than maturity. The desert is unforgiving, and after it took my father, I swore it would never take me. But it was still nice to know my mom cared.
“I’m glad you’re okay, kiddo,” she said. “Now, tell me what you saw.”
Half an hour later, the Council of Elders had gathered in the kitchen of the bungalow I shared with my mother. Meanwhile, the rest of the town ate potluck around two blazing bonfires at the edge of town. The distant flames flickered through the window.
“Meredith,” Tommy Martin said, scowling at my mom, “this is really gonna put a damper on the festivities.”
Tommy was older than me, but still young—closer to my age than my mother’s. Everybody liked him, and he was a good hunter, but he’d only been elected to the council recently and was by far its youngest member.
“Security is our paramount concern,” Meredith said. “Not whether or not we’re going to ruin the party.”
The older members of the council nodded.
“And they have a right to know,” said Tabitha, a white-haired old woman with deeply tanned wrinkles in her forehead. She wrapped her fingers over the top of her gnarled wooden cane.
“Basilisk steer clear of town,” Tommy insisted. “Everyone knows that. They don’t like the solar plant, or the noise, or the fires. They keep their distance.”
“Why don’t we ask Das?” Tabitha suggested.
All heads swiveled to look at me. “Ask me what?” I said stupidly then clamped my mouth shut.
“What was your impression of this basilisk?” Tabitha asked.
“Yeah,” Tommy said. “Was it acting aggressively?”
“I don’t know what’s normal,” I admitted. “This is the first time I ever saw one myself.”
“It is unusual,” muttered Councilman Benji, a doctor who was old enough to be my grandfather.
“It’s okay,” my mother said. “Just give us your best first impression.”
I thought back to that morning. I had been so startled by its presence that the only thought in my mind had been to get home, and fast. But there had been something else there, too, and it came back to me now.
“Well, it was alone,” I said. “I guess it came down because it got too cold in the mountains. It also seemed…well, this sounds silly, but it seemed really bored.”
“It was throwing and chasing rocks in the desert all by itself. Like it just wanted to be entertained.”
“Like a pup with a ball,” Tommy said, glancing around at the others and spreading his arms in a wide shrug. “See? Harmless.”
“Wait,” I said, bringing their attention back to me. “There was something else. It was barking at the stones as it chased them, but then it would stop and make this deep, lowing sound, like a lost goat. Only…deeper, and more painful. If it were a person I would have said it was heartbroken. I guess the thing was just really sad. I don’t know why though.”
Tommy snorted. “Sad?”
It didn’t make much sense to me, but old Tabitha and Benji had been nodding along as I spoke.
Benji licked his lips. “Does anyone else remember what the inaders used the basilisk for?”
My mother nodded. A few others looked at their feet. Tommy and I both shook our heads. I was young when the invaders came, and once they left no one liked to talk about them if they could avoid it.
“The invaders brought entire herds of the creatures to Earth with them,” Benji said. “Thousands used to roam the plains like bison.” His eyes darkened. “But they’re carnivores.”
“And?” Tommy said, clearly impatient. He kept glancing out the small window at the bonfires.
“And, boy,” Benji said, looking down his nose at Tommy, “that means that the basilisk, for all his lizard appearance, is actually a herd animal. Is it really any wonder that the creature sounded sad? The invaders took the rest of the herd with them when they left, but a few got left behind. I thought they would all be dead by now. This one survived on its own for years. It’s probably lonely.”
Tommy sighed. “Now I’ve heard it all.”
“Regardless,” Meredith said. “I can’t in good conscience keep people in the dark. We don’t need to make a big fuss about it, but we have to tell them. Tommy, you inform the watchmen. Tabitha, can you talk to the shepherds? I’ll go to the parent-teacher association and make sure they’re following proper safety procedures tomorrow for classes, and then set watches for tonight. That should cover our bases.”
The meeting ended, and we filed out the front door. I walked toward the bonfire, searching the crowds for Leyla. I was within fifty yards of the closest bonfire when a sad moan cut through the noise of the festivities.
A shiver crawled up my spine. I glanced around in the darkness, but couldn’t see it. I didn’t need to see it to know what it was.
I began to run toward the fire. “Get back!” I shouted ahead of me, waving my arms at the people in small groups near the flames. “Basilisk! It’s a basilisk!”
They glanced at me, eyes wide—that startled deer look. A few of them stepped slowly back, but none fast enough for my liking.
I felt a vibration in the ground through the soles of my boots, and then the basilisk burst into the circle of light cast by the fire. He lowered his giant lizard head and bowled into the flames. His head snapped up, snuffing the light while simultaneously tossing red coals and blazing logs high into the air.
People screamed and scattered, shielding their heads with their arms and frantically brushing at their clothing as the coals came down.
The basilisk swung its massive body around. I dug my heels in and came skidding to a stop. Coals and logs sparked as they rebounded off the ground between us. The creature opened its mouth and let out a deep growl of warning. Saliva dripped from a triple row of sharp teeth. Its eyes, like deep black marbles with no pupil at their center, fixated on me. I scrabbled backward, but found myself unable to look away. And then the hood around its neck flared up into the most beautiful pattern—a set of concentric rings of bright orange and indigo.
My heart dropped into my stomach—I was a goner, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
The marble-black eyes blinked open from the center, revealing indigo pupils, from which an orange stamen extended like the vulnerable bud of a flower.
Something hard knocked into me from my side. I hit the ground and the breath was expelled forcefully from my lungs. Someone was on top of me, but it was dark so I couldn’t see who it was. A clear liquid hissed against the sand just slightly in front of where I lay.
At the same time, several booming explosions rang out—gunshots, I realized. Another moan came from the basilisk, but this time the sadness had been replaced with fear and anger.
The basilisk turned, his clawed feet scraping across the sand as he scrabbled to gain speed. Like a dark cloud, the beast thundered off into the desert night.
“Das!” someone yelled.
“Das, are you okay?” asked another voice I couldn’t place.
My breath finally came back in a gasping rush. I pulled in a great lungful of dry desert air, and not a little bit of sand. I worked the sand out of my gums with my tongue, and spit on the ground. Then I pushed myself back to my knees.
I looked up into Leyla’s face—her strawberry blonde bangs hung in her eyes like they always did, and her forehead was slightly dimpled above her fine, dark brows.
“You saved me,” I said.
She jerked her head toward the commotion behind the scattered fire logs. “No, it was Tommy.”
I looked in the direction she indicated. Tommy was already organizing the shocked bystanders into a hunting party to trail the basilisk, his large black Colt .45 pistol in one hand. I wanted to go with them, but then my mom fell to her knees next to me, carrying the Browning BAR .30-06 rifle that belonged to my father in her arms.
“Mom, I’m fine.”
Ignoring me, she began to examine my face with her hands.
“Mom, stop. Stop! I’m okay.” I pushed her gently away.
After a cursory examination of the rest of my clothes, she said, “Oh, thank God,” pulling me hard against her chest at the same time. “Thank God. I thought it got you with the venom.”
“Is that what that was?” I pointed to the wet spot in the sand a few feet away, where the clear liquid had fallen. It had been fused into a splotch of blackened tar. “What would have happened if it hit me?”
She licked her lips.
“Burn your eyes out. Paralyze you. Make your tongue swell. Slow your heartbeat in your chest until it stopped altogether.”
“I see.” A slow tremor started in my hand and spread through my whole body. I shook uncontrollably, and it wasn’t from the cold. I swallowed against the sudden dryness in my throat.
“Why do you think your father started calling those things basilisks?” Leyla said.
“My father?” I asked.
“Hey, you’re shivering,” my mom said. “You’re cold? Come on, let’s get you inside.”
A soft rapping sounded on the thin glass of the window, but it didn’t startle me. My eyes had been wide open most of the night, and I had seen Leyla’s blonde hair swaying through the window before she knocked, her figure backlit by the wan light of dawn.
I sat up and held out one solitary pointer finger toward the window, then yanked pants on as I stood in the dark. I pulled on my boots and laced them up tight, slid a t-shirt over my head followed by a thick, long-sleeved hunting shirt I had sewn myself. Lastly, I stuffed my keffiyeh into a pocket as I tiptoed out of the house.
As I walked past my mother’s bedroom, I stopped—her door was wide open, her bed rumpled but empty. I hadn’t heard her leave, so I guessed she must have snuck out during one of my infrequent fits of sleep.
“Finally!” Leyla said as I closed the door. “Come on.” She grabbed my wrist and pulled me into a jog.
“Wait a second,” I said. “Where are we—”
My question was cut short as the town hall came into sight. At the far end, Tommy paced. Before him was a small gathering of about a dozen people—men and women I had known my whole life and recognized as hunters or friends of Tommy’s. They cradled rifles in their arms, and were dressed as I was, practically covered from head to toe, layered against the morning frost.
I would have assumed it was a hunting party if it weren’t for the events of the previous night—and the tone of Tommy’s voice.
“That beast is out of control!” Tommy bellowed. “Mad. The fact that he would attack in the middle of the night, unprovoked, proves it. It’s our duty as protectors of this town to track it down, and eliminate the threat.”
My mother was standing there with them, but slightly apart from the others.
“It’s too dangerous,” she said. “And it goes against the security procedures we all established and agreed upon. The smarter thing to do is to set watches, as we have done. And if it comes back, we deal with it on our own terms at that point.”
“Set watches? Wait until it decides to attack again?” Tommy turned to his rapt audience. “Do you want to live in fear until a mad basilisk comes back?”
A resounding, “No!” echoed up into the vaulted ceiling. Leyla and I had crept in from the side, walking casually so that we didn’t draw undue attention.
But my mother noticed us immediately. When she saw us, her frown deepened, and she looked old all of a sudden.
That shook me. You have to understand, in my eyes my mother was always the brave, young, and beautiful woman who raised me in secret while the alien invaders ravaged our planet.
But looking now, in the thin light, I saw bags under her eyes. The grey hair at her temples stretched its silver fingers up into a thinning mane of hair. I’d never thought of her as old before that moment.
But she was still strong. Meredith crossed her arms, and gave Tommy a look that would have cut most men down. I actually felt sorry for Tommy. That smoldering look had withered better men than him. Memories of my father danced in my eyes—my father, whose devious intelligence had been a perfect compliment to my mother’s stubborn strength.
But my father wasn’t here to back her up, and Tommy held his ground. He jutted his chin out and turned back to the crowd. “We tracked it last night after the attack—the basilisk headed west, out toward the lowlands. The plan is to catch it in the open, and gun it down from a distance.”
Shouts of “Kill the beast!” and “Let’s go!” and even one “Giddyup!” rose from the party of angry hunters as they moved away. I moved to follow.
“Das, wait,” my mother said.
I ignored her.
“Where do you think you’re going, young man?” she demanded. I looked back. She directed her famous piercing gaze on me.
It still made me shrink up inside. How could it not? But I shoved that feeling away. Taking a deep breath, I went to her.
“I have to go,” I said. “The basilisk followed me back to town. It’s my fault people got hurt.”
“You couldn’t have known. It’s—”
“Mom,” I said. The hunting party was already twenty yards away now, heading toward the garage where we kept the old jeeps that ran on actual gas. The vehicles were only used for emergencies—but as a member of the council, Tommy had access to them. It showed how deadly serious he was about this.
“Mom, I’m not a child anymore,” I said. “I haven’t been since dad died. I’m going.”
Tears sprang into her eyes. She blinked them back. “Be careful,” she said.
“I will. I promise.”
“You sound just like your father.”
I stood up a little straighter. “Did Dad really name the basilisk?”
She nodded. “He did. He thought they were just misunderstood.” A long moment passed where neither of us spoke. “I miss him,” she said at last.
“Me, too,” I said, even as I felt my resolve harden.
She sighed. “Take the Browning with you. You know where I keep the extra bullets?”
“Remember what your father taught you. Shoot from cover. Don’t forget to breathe. And Das. Be careful.”
“I know, Mom.” I glanced at the hunting party. They had nearly disappeared around the side of the garage. The doors were on the other side.
“I’m going with you,” Leyla said. She had been standing off to one side during the conversation with my mom, fidgeting.
“What?” I asked, surprised. “Do you even know how to shoot?”
She glared at me. “As one of only three capable mechanics in this town, those jeeps are my responsibility. Besides, what if one breaks down? Would you know how to fix it?”
I clamped my mouth shut. It seemed at times that my whole life had been oriented around learning how to take care of myself in the desert—my instincts had been right about the basilisk, had kept me alive, even if the creature had surprised us all by attacking the town. I trusted Leyla. So, I realized, I should trust her instincts too.
I nodded. “Good point.”
“Get your gun,” she said. “I’ll make sure they wait until you’re ready.”
After one last glance at my mother’s worry-lined face, I turned and ran back to the house to get the rifle and the other supplies I needed.
By the time I got to the garage, the three Jeep Wranglers were nothing but a dust cloud in the distance.
“That son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath.
But one of the garage doors was still open, and the growling of an engine sounded from the dark inside. A second later, Leyla rolled out, seated at the wheel of a low-riding silver two-seater truck we used to shuttle supplies back and forth to the solar thermal plant. The flat bed in back was covered by a bulging tarp crisscrossed by bungee cords.
“Get in!” she said.
Before I even had the door closed, Leyla floored the pedal. The wheels spun, my door snapped shut, and the truck lurched into motion. She directed us away from the city, and we soon rolled across the desert after the dust cloud.
“Tommy is such a prick sometimes,” I muttered as I wedged my feet down between a kerosene lamp and a large canister of spare fuel. “Last night he didn’t want to tell anyone about the basilisk because he thought it would ruin the party. And now look at him!”
“He can be a jerk, but he wants to do the right thing,” Leyla said.
“I know,” I said. I spoke louder now. As we picked up speed, the wind whipped through the rectangular cab of the truck. The windows had been taken out years ago. “That’s the problem. I happen to agree with him in this case, but I wish he wouldn’t act so goddamn smug. No one knew the basilisk would attack.”
“It’s not your fault,” Leyla said. “Basilisk never come near town. We all thought that until last night.”
“I could have been more careful,” I said bitterly. “I should have known better.”
“Oh yeah? ‘Cause you’re an alien behavioral psychologist now?”
I scowled at her. “You know what I mean.”
She gave me a sidelong look, then returned her gaze to the open desert which began to lower from the rocky plateau on which our town was situated.
I turned my attention to the desert floor. I had keen eyes from my time as a scavenger, plus my father taught me to catch desert rabbits at a young age. It wasn’t hard to follow the basilisk’s tracks, even though the wind or the passing of the jeeps ahead of us had covered them partially with sand. The basilisk was a heavy creature, and it left shallow depressions and distinctive three-toed claw marks where its back feet dug into the desert floor. A distinctive swirling pattern marked the trail every twenty yards or so, probably from where its long tail brushed against the sand in a sine pattern as it ran.
After nearly an hour, we caught up with the others near the auto repair shop. The tracks led back into the low plains on which I’d first spotted the basilisk, not a hundred yards from the dune where the auto repair shop was located.
No surprise, I thought grimly. But at least I already had the lay of the land.
Tommy came to a stop, then motioned with his hand out the window. The jeep in front of us pulled up on Tommy’s left, and Leyla guided the silver truck up on the right so we all looked out over the lowlands in a row. I counted five people in each of the two jeeps, with two rifles for each of them. Counting Leyla and me, that made twelve hunters and twice as many guns for one basilisk.
I hoped it was enough.
Tommy pointed. “Look.”
I followed his gaze down the slope of the ground. The basilisk’s trail led in a meandering curve across the cracked floodplain, toward the foothills where the mountains stabbed up into the sky. Winter had just begun, so only the tallest mountain had patches of snow leftover from the year before.
“It’s probably too close to winter for it to head for high ground,” I said.
“It’s too cold up there now for that cold-blooded lizard,” Tommy said without a glance in my direction.
I rolled my eyes with a sideways look at Leyla. She made a placating gesture near the gear shift.
“There!” Tommy said. “You see it? Time to move!”
Well I’ll be damned. I leaned forward. Tommy had spotted the basilisk—a tiny dark speck wiggling against the horizon—before I did.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” Tommy cried, spinning one finger in the air.
Our truck went last, barreling down the slope and rocketing onto the dry floodplain with a bumpy jolt. Leyla opened the throttle in the direction we had seen the basilisk, and shifted into fourth, then fifth gear, drawing abreast of Tommy’s jeep after a minute. I lifted the ‘aught six so the long barrel pointed out the open window. The hinged floor plate clicked open smoothly, and I checked the magazine of the autoloader one final time. Then I rested my forearm on the window to steady my aim, slid back the bolt with a satisfying click, and lay my trigger finger along the barrel, waiting.
We covered ground at seventy miles an hour. A mantle of dust rose into the air behind us. If the basilisk hadn’t noticed us before, he certainly would now. I kept my eyes open, but at such a low angle I still couldn’t spot the creature. I began to worry that he’d disappeared, or that he could run faster than we imagined he could. What if he got to the foothills before we could catch him?
But after we covered about three miles, I spotted a wriggling speck moving toward the mountains.
The creature was remarkable. Its whole body undulated as it galloped in a great leaping gait. The orange and indigo hood was partially extended, and its colors shone richly in the sunlight when it twisted his head back to mark us.
Leyla pulled out wider and floored the pedal. I gestured out with my left hand, signaling for her to get wider still. The sun was at our backs now, so my sight was clear. We drew abreast of him.
The basilisk made a sharp right turn and redirected with an agility that seemed to defy the physics of his large mass. Tommy slammed on the brakes. His jeep skidded thirty yards in the wrong direction, fishtailing as he arced out.
Leyla, however, had faster reflexes, and the truck had a lower center of gravity. She braked into a smoother curve that still lost us fifty yards on the beast. The third jeep followed Leyla’s lead, but slammed on its brakes and also fell behind.
The basilisk bounded ahead, running with a renewed urgency toward the hills—sparsely wooded, but with ample cover and rocky ground we wouldn’t be able to pursue it through.
“It was holding back until we caught up!” I shouted. A chuckle escaped me despite the obvious dangers. “That clever bastard!”
As Leyla accelerated out of the turn, I took careful aim. We gained some of the lost ground in another long minute. I’d never taken a shot from a moving vehicle before, and the barrel of the heavy rifle wandered like a drunk townie.
“It’s too bumpy!” I shouted.
“Not much I can do about that,” Leyla yelled back. “That thing moves wicked fast!”
“Try to get closer!”
She gave me a hesitant glance, but kept the truck on course. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Tommy, grim-faced and determined, through the dust-coated windshield, catching up to us. He swung out to the right, on the opposite side, and two of the hunters in the back stood bracing their weapons against the roll bars that framed the vehicle.
A dozen shots rattled off in quick succession—tuktuktuktuktuktuk.
Unlike the autoloading rifle I held, Tommy’s guys had apparently brought the full automatics they raided from a long-range scavenger trip to the coast last year.
A row of dust motes splashed up, one where each bullet ricocheted off the sand. The line of fire drew near the basilisk as the shooter adjusted his wild aim. Finally, a few rounds hit their mark.
At least one bullet glanced right off the basilisk’s thick hide. It was the damnedest thing—I couldn’t help but gape and let my finger slide off the trigger of my own rifle. The creature didn’t even slow down. It leaped onto a weed-grown upward slope, and scrabbled rapidly up, climbing toward a copse of trees.
Leyla slowed the vehicle. Determined to get a shot in, I did my best to steady the rifle so I could get a bead on the basilisk. When I remembered to breath, my wavering sight steadied and the lizard came into focus—a big, scaly dark torso. I tracked up, slightly ahead of his snout, and squeezed off a shot. The butt of the rifle kicked back into my shoulder, but my aim was true. The bullet struck home in the basilisk’s bulging back leg muscle.
The creature seemed to hesitate, but that could have been a slip of its claw on the next boulder. It still managed to scamper easily up and over a scree-covered slope, and slither out of sight.
Without a word, Tommy gunned the jeep up the rocky hill in low gear. Leyla followed him, more cautiously, watching the clearance under the truck. After a hundred yards we were all forced to a halt because of the uneven rocky ground.
“It’s wounded,” Tommy announced, jumping over the door of the jeep without bothering to open it, and then reaching back in for a sawed off shotgun I didn’t notice until now. “Let’s finish the job.”
“Did you see what just happened?” I said. “Those bullets bounced right off him!”
“Yours hit the mark.”
“And then he ran off like it didn’t even hurt.”
“Trust me. It can be killed. Just ‘cause we haven’t seen one in a few years doesn’t mean we should just let this one get away—for all I know, it’ll come right back tomorrow, angrier than ever.”
“So what’s the plan? We didn’t catch it in the open. How are you going to take care of it now?”
Tommy sniffed. “Why don’t you stay in the car and let the real men handle it.”
He set off up the slope without a backward look. Most of the others—all older, all more experienced hunters than I was—didn’t even look at me. The ones that did gave me expressions filled with such scorn that I felt the guilt wash over my body like a cold bath.
I turned back toward Leyla, who stood by the open door of the jeep. “You don’t—” she began.
I held up my hand, silencing her. After a deep breath, I turned, and trudged after Tommy.
I tiptoed up the scree slope as the sun glared high overhead. My arms ached carrying the rifle. Setting traps for rabbits is a lot different than carrying a Browning rifle up a mountain.
Not to mention I twitched at each snapping twig, and my heart stopped when it heard an unseen rumble of rock.
Tommy walked at the head of the party. I took up the rear, with the others strung out between us in single file. I worked my dry mouth, and silently berated myself for forgetting my water in the truck.
We moved up the switchbacking trail at a steady pace. I glanced back every few steps, searching the trail behind me for the basilisk, remembering how fast it had scurried up the mountain after I shot it, and thinking that it could have circled back by now.
We passed through a wooded area and then out along a thin game trail bordered by a sheer rock wall on one side and a falling slope on the other.
I looked down, and immediately regretted it.
“Eyes ahead, Das,” the man ahead of me whispered back. His name was Charlie Timberant. He was a grizzled hunter in his late thirties. Right about now I envied how he had no trouble keeping his breathing steady and slow despite the exertion. He held the AK-47 in his big, scarred hands like it was a toy.
We were looking at each other when a pebble bounced down the cliff face. It rebounded off the dirt trail between us and we both glanced up.
The veteran hunter had the presence of mind to raise his rifle as he turned. I fumbled with mine, and squinted as I looked straight up into the sun itself, and then inhaled sharply as a horrible scream cut through the air.
It came from Charlie—he bent over, clawing at his eyes with his fingers and leaving bloody scratch marks on his cheeks. Then, with a swiftness I will never forget, his movements slowed and stopped completely, fingers still clutching at his eyeballs.
I was already taking rapid steps backward, but I froze as a dark shadow crossed in front of the sun and then plummeted down out the sky. The basilisk’s massive body crashed into the trail, breaking it asunder and sending massive chunks of dirt and stone down the steep slope as it snapped Charlie up in its jaws.
All rational thought fled my mind as I turned and bounded down the mountain, stumbling as I struggled to keep my feet under my body on the switchbacking trail.
Back at the trucks, I explained to Leyla what had transpired between labored breaths.
“Jesus,” Leyla said, her hand going to her mouth. “Charlie’s dead?”
I nodded and sucked in yet another painful lungful of air.
The other hunters trickled back to our location—first one, then a pair, and finally the rest of the group led by Tommy.
Tommy said nothing. He braced his arms on the hood of the nearest jeep. His face was pale, and after a few seconds leaning against the hood of the jeep, he made a horrible gagging sound and vomit splashed onto the rocks near his dusty boots.
Then he slapped the hood of his car with an open hand. “Shit!” he yelled at no one in particular.
The echo rang up into the mountains. I looked up at the clumps of trees, at the boulder-strewn ravine from which we’d just retreated, scanning for the basilisk. But I didn’t see the beast.
No one else said much. I turned back to the truck Leyla and I had driven. Expecting that we’d be going back now, and simply wanting something to do with my dumb shaking hands, I yanked at one of the bungee cords holding the tarp down. I figured I could stash the rifle in there for the ride back.
As I peeled back the tarp, the sun glinted off a smooth, concave mirrored surface.
“Leyla,” I said without looking up.
“What?” she asked. “What’s the matter?”
“How many of these mirrors are in here?”
“I told you before, they’re called reflectors. And I don’t know, I just put as many as I can fit in the bed, take them to town to clean, and then cart them back out to the solar array and put them back.”
“What are you thinking, Das?” Tommy said. “The thing will see its own ugly face and just keel over?”
“I’m thinking that your plan got Charlie killed,” I snapped with more heat than I’d intended. “It’s high time someone else did the thinking.”
I looked around, meeting the gaze of each man and woman in turn. None objected. How could they? I had been right there when the venom landed in Charlie’s eyes. It could just as easily have been me—or one of them.
“We know basilisks don’t like fire or bright lights,” I said.
“But this one is crazy!” Tommy protested. “It attacked last night when we had fires going. That’s never happened before.”
“Exactly,” I said. I yanked the tarp open farther, and pulled out one of the thin metal reflectors—a concave rectangle about the size of my torso. I wiggled it back and forth, directing a sunspot at Tommy’s face. He blinked and averted his eyes. “It attacked the brightest light in the whole town last night—a blazing bonfire. I saw it run right into the flames, like it wanted nothing more than to extinguish the light, and maybe itself in the process. Don’t you think it would react the same to this?”
“I don’t know how it will react,” Tommy said as he blinked his eyes. “It’s not in its right mind, clearly.”
“It’s not crazy,” I said. “It’s sad, and it’s desperate. For all we know, this is the last basilisk left on Earth. We haven’t seen one in years. It got left behind, and it’s all alone now. If I were the basilisk, I’d be sad and desperate, too.” I took another step closer to Tommy. “Look, if this doesn’t work, we’ll go home and set extra watches and wait for it to come back, just like my mother wanted.”
Tommy glared at me. He opened his mouth, and then closed it again. A muscle popped in his jaw and some of the color returned to his cheeks.
“We’re here now, and we’ve already lost one man,” I said. “So what do you say we finish the job?”
Leyla and I went out to the auto repair shop straight away. She jimmied the door open like a pro, making almost no noise in the darkness. Once inside, I found an actual, honest to God, functional propane lighter. Leyla searched some low shelves and came up with a long spool of paracord. I tucked both into my pockets.
Leyla also discovered a dozen rolls of duct tape at the bottom of a toolbox. She hugged them to her chest like a baby, grinning from ear to ear as she swayed.
“This is a treasure trove, Das! Look at that Chevy!” She jerked her chin up toward the car. It was dusty, but the frame hadn’t rusted since it had been kept inside for all these years.
“It’s like stepping out of a time machine,” I said. We both stared at the raised car for a long time. I peered up, wondering what it was called. On my tiptoes, I saw the raised letters that spelled out the model name. “Chevy Impala.”
Leyla let out a deep sigh filled with longing.
“We still need to get some shut eye,” I said.
I followed Leyla out, and shut the door behind us. We got back in the truck and drove across the floodplain for the third time, going slow and only using the dim lights to navigate among the rocks and cacti.
The smooth execution of my plan required precise timing. We needed the darkness of night followed swiftly by the bright light of the sun at dawn. But we also needed to be fresh, as none of us had slept much the night before.
Back at the camp, I spoke briefly to Tommy, expressing my admiration for the huge pile of logs he and the other hunters had built in the center of the box canyon, adjacent and in clear view of the rocky foothills where we suspected the basilisk now hid. Then I took a short nap on the hard, dusty ground.
Tommy shook me awake again an hour later. I bolted upright and rubbed my eyes.
“Is it time?” I asked.
“Yes.” Tommy remained crouched at my side, his lips a thin line. “Here,” he said at last, reaching down to unbuckle the leather strap that held the Colt .45 on his waist. “That rifle won’t do you a damn bit of good at close range.”
I regarded the Browning, which lay at my side on the ground. “You’re right,” I said. I had been wondering how I was going to manage the reflector and the rifle at the same time. The smaller weapon solved that problem. “Thanks, Tommy.” I stood and belted the pistol around my waist, and handed him the rifle.
He nodded sharply as he took it. “Are you sure you don’t want someone down there with you?”
“No. We need all the guns we can get. I can handle myself, and you won’t be far away.”
Leyla joined us. “All set,” she said. “Uh, do you two need a minute alone?” She cocked an eyebrow. To my surprise, Tommy laughed good naturedly, and walked away shaking his head.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Leyla said when he was out of earshot.
“It’s a good plan,” I insisted, as much to reassure myself as to assuage her fears. “We went over it a dozen times. Everyone has their piece. It will work.”
It will work, I thought. It has to. But there’s always that measure of uncertainty, even in the best laid plans.
The desert killed my father. In his case, it was a deadly sand worm that wriggled through his ear and made a cocoon of his brain. The risk I faced now was an angry carnivorous lizard-cow. But is there any real difference, once it’s over?
Dead is dead.
It never gets easier. You just learned how to handle the fear better.
The world is different now, my father used to tell me. But you can adapt.
He faced danger every day to keep my mother and me safe. I do, too. For myself, and my mother, and Leyla, and even Tommy. They were the only people I had ever known.
They were my family.
Unfortunately, Tommy was a better shot than I was, and everyone knew it. So there was perhaps more validity to Leyla’s concerns than I wanted to admit. Mine was the most unpleasant job. The one that required, as I have said, precise timing.
“It’s time,” I said to Leyla. She left me alone in the center of the canyon, and took her place out of sight behind the shrubs at the opening close to the wall.
I looked east. The sky was just beginning to glow orange with the promise of an imminent sunrise.
I pulled the lighter I had found in the auto repair shop from my pocket, walked over to the mountain of timber Tommy’s hunters had piled up, and lit the dry grass stuffed underneath the heavy logs.
It was a good fire, with a solid foundation that allowed the air to flow through. It flared up rapidly and crackled as it burned. A thick plume of smoke rose into the air within a few minutes.
But precise timing was my goal. So I picked up the can of kerosene that sat nearby, and twirled the cap off. Turning my face away, I poured the clear, pungent liquid onto the flames.
The fire blazed to life in a rush. I poured the entire canister on the pile of dry wood. The flames roared so high they seemed to tickle the stars.
A good thing that I didn’t have to lug that Browning rifle around right now. I sprinted toward the sheer rock wall of the dead-end canyon, incredibly aware of the unfamiliar weight of the pistol on my hip, until I reached the reflector shield leaning against the wall. I picked it up by a sturdy handle made of cord and duct tape that Leyla had fashioned on short notice.
Armed and ready, I nestled close to the wall to wait, the reflector shielding my body without blocking my line of sight.
The horizon glowed brighter. I began to worry as the minutes rolled by. What if I lit the fire too late? What if the basilisk had crossed the mountain range in the night? What if it just didn’t care, and I had been wrong all along?
I shifted from foot to foot, trying to keep my sore muscles from stiffening. Too late to change course now. I sensed the others out there in the dark, fidgeting uneasily as well.
A sliver of the sun peeked over the canyon wall and poured the light in. I watched as the line of shadow crept toward the fire at the middle.
I froze as a massive shape lumbered through the opening of the canyon. The basilisk raised its head, licked the air, and glanced around warily.
Then it crouched low, and scraped its paws against the dusty ground.
Wait for it, I thought.
The basilisk lumbered into a loping canter, and then a run. The ground trembled each time its front claws tore into the Earth.
Wait for it…
It plowed into the huge fire, scattering heavy logs like so many twigs. Except the twigs were as thick as my whole arm, and on fire. The massive beast scattered the burning logs and quenched the flames with its body.
I remained crouched in place as I tried to smother the sound of my own breath.
Wait for it…
The line of the sun crawled across the canyon, now agonizingly slowly as the basilisk raged against the fire. It shattered hot logs under its massive claws, rolled on red hot coals. Its thick skin smoldered and smoked from the heat, but it remaining untarnished, unhurt due to its thick hide.
The barrel of a rifle on the sunny side of the canyon peeked over the wall. I held a hand up, and the gun seemed to hesitate, then withdrew.
Wait for it…
In another five minutes, the basilisk had managed to put out the whole fire. The line of the rising sun had crept further into the canyon. There was still a small sliver of shadow on the east side, but most of the canyon now was filled with sunlight.
It would have to do.
“Now!” I shouted, as I stood from my hiding place and began to run toward the center of the canyon.
Toward the basilisk.
The beast saw me, and turned away at the same time as Leyla and the hunter at the other end pulled the line of paracord taut across the mouth of the canyon.
An interconnected wall of reflectors snapped up to a standing position, catching the sun and throwing it at the basilisk in a blinding flash.
I averted my eyes, but didn’t dare slow down.
The lizard snapped its jaws twice and roared. It scraped the ground again and took two steps toward the reflectors.
Half a dozen gunshots exploded from the top of the canyon walls simultaneously.
Three dozen rounds slammed into the basilisk from all directions. It tripped. It stumbled. Bright red blood poured from its sides as a few bullets finally broke through the thick hide.
It turned away from the wall of reflectors, away from the bullets. Now I was only twenty yards off, close enough to be hurt. I held my own reflector shield up, caught the light and aimed the glare at the brute’s eyes.
It roared again, spinning to escape the glare, which came from all directions now. Two other men aimed handheld reflectors down into the canyon from the walls behind me.
The basilisk lunged at the glare I controlled. I jumped, rolled away, came up to my feet in a smooth motion, and danced back out of its reach.
The volleys from the guns ceased as Tommy and his men hurried to reload. In the reprieve, the basilisk got a dark log wrapped in its tail and flung it in my direction.
The projectile of wood struck my reflector shield with such force that it tore the shield from my grasp and pitched me to the ground.
I managed to hold onto the pistol somehow.
I rolled onto my back and sat up, groaning as I forced the throbbing hand that had held the shield a moment ago to support the weight of my body. A sharp pain shot up my arm.
When I finally stood, I looked up and gazed straight into the midnight black eyes of the basilisk.
And for the second time in as many days, the marble-black eyes blinked open from the center. An orange stamen extended from the indigo pupils.
This time I was prepared. I didn’t let fear freeze me. I raised Tommy’s Colt .45 and pulled the trigger.
The vulnerable flower-bud tore away from the stamen in its eye. And as the beast roared, the next round of rifle fire from Tommy and his men blasted the beast off its feet. I dove in the other direction.
A lucky bullet tore through the thick hide in the beast’s neck. A stream of blood squirted out the wound.
The basilisk thrashed, its tail whipping through the air.
Finally, the legs of the massive lizard-cow buckled and it collapsed. Tommy’s men continued to fire, relentless, unceasing.
As the bullets sank into the enormous creature, a horrible keening sound emanated from the beast’s throat and filled the box canyon with its swan song.
The rifle fire ceased.
I shook out my still-throbbing hand and walked cautiously toward the basilisk where it lay among the scattered, smoking logs.
Its good eye rolled toward me while its bullet-riddled body heaved with labored breaths.
It saw me. It wheezed and coughed up blood. I watched, holding my gun out before me with both hands—as steady as I could manage, but not as steady as I would have liked.
I took another step, then another until I was close enough to put my hand on the creature.
The basilisk didn’t turn away. It watched me with the good eye.
I leveled the pistol at its head. I pulled the trigger, loosing one last round into its brain at close range.
I’ll never forget the look of immense relief that seemed to fill the creature’s face.
Its jaw went slack. Its tongue lolled out. It took one last shuddering breath, and then the basilisk’s body deflated.
Old doc Benji took one look at my wrist, turning it over in his sandpaper hands. “Oh, it’s broken all right.”
“I told you,” Leyla said. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and leaned blithely against the wall.
“How long?” I asked.
“Until it heals,” my mother said from the kitchen. Three more casseroles had arrived this morning, the townspeople’s de facto way of expressing gratitude for just about anything. She shifted pans and containers in the icebox. “And don’t get any more clever ideas. I’ve had enough excitement for one week.”
I clamped my mouth shut, knowing it was useless to argue with her, and being thoroughly exhausted from the encounter myself.
It turns out I needed the rest. I slept for fourteen hours the first night, and twelve the second.
On the third day, I began to get restless. Going scavenging with my broken hand was sure to net me a scolding, but that didn’t mean I needed to stay put.
I pulled out my bike and decided to ride out to the solar thermal plant. We had detoured to retrieve some large batteries from the auto repair shop on our way back from the ordeal with the basilisk, and Leyla had been out at the plant ever since, trying to rig the reflectors up to some kind of battery network of her own devising.
I didn’t think I would be much help there, but I could at least keep her company. I climbed onto the saddle and pointed the handlebars toward the shining circle of silver in the distance.
It was a short ride. The sun heated my cotton-covered head and neck, warming me through the thin fabric. A cool autumn breeze whisked over my face as I picked up speed. I let my hands fall to my side—one good and strong, the other stabilized with a splint—and steered the bike with no hands like my father taught me.
Read more by M.G. Herron
This story is reprinted from the collection Boys & Their Monsters. Support M.G. Herron by buying and reading it or other tales of science fiction/fantasy adventure. Available for purchase directly in my bookshop, or shop online at your favorite retailer!