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If you want to learn what a dog is really like, take off its leash. The only way to tell when something or someone actually wants to be with you is to tell them they don't have to be, then see if they stay the same.
This is why—in his deranged brand of wisdom-—Byron Walker had bound the Wedge-Tailed Eagle by its wings and feet with a thick twine, the kind that not even an eagle's claws can sever. Its normal attributes of grace and majesty were crushed out by the several leather restraints which confined the screeching animal to the back of Byron's filthy, roofless Honda Ridgeline.
"Shut your ass up!" Byron yelled back at the bird, which was in considerable stress by now. Its frantic squeals were preventing Byron from absorbing the full benefit of the feel good hour on music radio.
Byron felt as if he were on the brink of insanity whilst circumnavigating Ayers Rock. The one thing which maintained his mental stability in the sweltering Australian summer was his wide-brimmed sun hat. He silently thanked God he didn't believe in for the liberty of portable shade. His other attire consisted of a sleeveless tactical jacket, which was either sleeveless because of the heat or to show off the new Bowie Knife tattoo on his well-toned bicep. His trousers were thick and water-resistant in case he needed to do any bog-trudging, and his boots were steel-toed monstrosities that could probably kick a tree down if given enough time.
The bird continued to scream like a bastard in the back of Byron's car. He had to exercise a lot restraint not to kill the bird as his spare hand caressed the cold, wooden stock of the double barrel shotgun on the passenger seat. Nothing would satisfy him more than to send a pair of white-hot rounds through the bird's feathery hide and then throw it into the roadside to be carried away by a line of army ants.
"This is a dedication for Byron Walker," said the chipper radio host. "He's meeting a special lady near Ayers Rock. Good on you, mate! Give her one for me!" Aside from the somewhat inappropriate comment by the undeniably perverse radio host, Byron was utterly indifferent to the message. It was code anyway; that "special lady" was in fact a sixty-five-year-old American businessman interested in amassing a collection of birds of prey. Unfortunately for him, some of the birds he had taken a fancy to were on the protected species list. This is where Byron came in. Byron was a gentleman who knew a lot about wildlife. Maybe "gentleman" is the wrong word. Maybe "knew" is the wrong word too. Let's try that again. Byron was a bastard who abducted a lot of animals. That's a lot closer to the truth.
Byron took a swig from his lukewarm bottle of mineral water as he adjusted the sunglasses on his grubby face. The scorching wind occasionally swept up wisps of dust and threw them directly into his face. He sometimes wondered whether Mother Nature herself had taken a dislike to him.
The bird screeched again. This time it startled Byron and he nearly ran his truck off the road. Now he was angry.
"Goddammit, you feathery son of a bitch!" he said whilst slamming his boot down into the already cracked plastic brake pedal. He grabbed his shotgun and loaded a pair of slugs into the back, then clicked it into the loaded position. He probably didn't intend to shoot the eagle. Probably.
The bottom of Byron's boots were caked in dry mud and trace amounts of blood from a wallaby he kicked in the head earlier. He scraped his shotgun along the side of the car for effect. It didn't occur to him that the bird wouldn't register the bizarrely shaped coalition of wood and metal as something to be feared; the real threat was the burly, unkempt man holding it.
The eagle looked truly pitiful. Its chest that was once proud now moved slowly up and down in time with its labored breaths. Its beak was once sharper than the buck knife that sat in Byron's belt holster, but Byron took the liberty of filing its beak to a nub whilst its tender skull was trapped inside the steel vice at his workshop. He'd clipped the claws too; they looked more like stubby, black human fingernails rather than an eagle's talons.
"You're a sight for sore eyes, ain't ya?" he said with a throaty chuckle. "You're gonna be some rich fucker's bitch. I bet he'll treat you well, but if you ever get sick I guarantee he'll throw you to the hunting dogs." The eagle squawked again. Byron clanked the butt of his shotgun against the metal to scare it into silence. It worked and the eagle became docile and complacent, like a stuffed animal.
Byron laughed heartily at the bird's discomfort. He just loved to see animals suffer. It was like a bizarre strain of emotional porn for him. Byron's sadistic pleasure morphed into panic when he heard a cacophony of metal-on-metal scraping noises coming from the front of the Honda. He grasped his shotgun by its handle, his rough skin rubbed up against the four notches he scratched into the grip. Four notches, four men, four bullets. Nobody ever said animal trafficking was a safe business to be part of.
Byron's face contorted into a look of horror when he saw the front of the Honda--the Honda he spent $6,000 customizing--The hood was torn from its hinges and thrown to the ground nearby. It was covered in what looked like claw marks, giant slashes and tears in the metal that didn't look clean enough to be made by an angle grinder or chainsaw. It was made by claws, animal claws.
Byron hoped that the engine would be okay, but it was slaughtered like a pig in a butcher's shop. The engine was ripped to shreds and oil dribbled down from every impromptu orifice made in the engine by the claws of the unknown animal. The chances that the car would start were around zero percent, and after an unsuccessful attempt to turn on the ignition, the zero percent chance was cemented.
Two horrible realizations dawned on Byron at that moment. First was the fact that he'd blow whatever money he made off of the bird on the repairs for his car. The second realization was that to even get that money, him and the eagle needed to walk to the transaction point.
"Fucking bastard bird," Byron said aloud whilst loosening the belts that attached his winged ATM machine to the truck.
He got frustrated by the particularly tricky buckle on one of the belts. He took out his buck knife—a long, serrated blade with a leather handle and a buckler which was a slightly smaller blade in itself—and slashed the belt in two. He then had the dilemma of transporting the bird.
Byron had just the thing, a steel bucket he kept amongst the rope and shovels on the side of his Honda. The shining metal of the bucket still conducted a huge amount of heat, Byron thought that was even better. He picked up the eagle's drowsy, limp body and forced it head first into the bucket. It squealed like a piglet when its skin came into contact with the searing metal; feathers did nothing to protect it in the heat and its body thrashed and convulsed in its steel prison.
Byron was ready to set off. He had the shotgun held lazily in his left hand and the bucket with the burning eagle grasped tightly in his right. All that gave him solace on this unforgiving day was the hat on his head and the vest on his back. His loaded and cocked shotgun could account for anything else, or so he thought. At first Byron felt confident; he knew this area like the back of his hand and had an adept knowledge of every animal that resided there without exception. The bird began squawking incessantly. Every minute little caw reflected and resonated off of the metal and made it sound like a woman's scream. Byron kicked the bucket to silence it.
"This rich fuck better be fucking loaded. I'm not going through this shite for any less than 25 G's." Byron shut himself up when he realized he was talking to a tied up bird in a bucket. He was morally contemptible but by no means insane.
Byron was caught off guard when a gust of wind took a fancy to his hat, so it grasped the hat and carried it into a thick woods in the distance.
"Jesus Christ, my fucking hat!" he yelled whilst chasing it in leaps and bounds with the bird knocking around in its bucket painfully. He could already feel the sun scorch his receding hairline and making his tanned skin turn a dark shade of uncomfortable red. He wasn't paying attention to the world around him, he was just chasing his hat blindly through the thickening forest, he kept running and running and running but the wind stayed just a foot ahead, as if it was consciously mocking him.
As Byron began to tire out his sun hat sauntered off into the distance, it kept going until it wasn't there at all, all that was left was Byron and his bird, both panting in the painful heat. Byron sat down for a moment to reclaim his energy, the rage began to clear and the cold, unyielding logic came into play. Byron realized that he couldn't seem to recall this forestry even being here, it'd just came out of nowhere, and it certainly wasn't marked on his trusty pocket map. Unless an entire forest had grown next to Ayers Rock within the space of a week, something extraordinary was going on.
Byron heard a rustling amongst the trees, the kind only a large animal could make, and yet when Byron pointed his vigilant eyes in the direction of the rustling, there was nothing. There was not a single living thing in his field of view, or anywhere else for that matter. Byron and the eagle were alone. Byron swirled around in every direction to try and backtrack his way to freedom, but the forest lacked any discernible direction or path, this place didn't seem to have been touched by man, and yet, the usually frantic melody of nature was nowhere to be heard, there was no way to explain it all.
"Is anybody out there?" Byron yelled hesitantly whilst tensing his grip on the shotgun, the lack of noise was often worse than the noise itself. Byron was met with no reply other than what seemed like a gust of wind striking him maliciously. The eagle squawked maddeningly as it did so. This was stronger than any gust of wind Byron had ever felt. It had a certain degree of weight to it, the velocity only a solid object could conjure up. Much like a solid object, the gust hit him with such great ferocity it tore a gash across his exposed bicep. Blood trickled down his shorn skin. His Bowie knife tattoo was ripped in half and the splatters of blood disguised the remaining portion of ink-stained skin.
"What the fuck was that?" Byron screamed as he dropped to the floor in pain. He released his grip on the shotgun and let it drop with him. He grasped his bicep and felt the warm rush of claret ooze between his fingers and onto the ground, staining the otherwise green undergrowth below him. Byron quickly realized that whatever hit him wasn't a gust of wind. It was just something he couldn't see. His hand shot out and grasped the gun. He tracked the movements of his invisible assailant by the way it rustled the leaves around it. That was the only way he could perceive its presence.
Bang! One shot flew from Byron's barrel and scorched the leaves in front of it. He had no way of telling whether he hit the creature he couldn't see, but from the absence of rustling he felt as if he could assume he had scared the bastard off. Byron scrambled into some bushes, grabbing the bucket containing the eagle and dragging it along with him like it were an extension of his limb. The thorns of the bush tore his skin further. He could feel the wound on his shoulder beginning to fester thanks to the humidity. There were no insects in the bush, not a single one.
Byron reluctantly removed a spare piece of twine from the eagle's bindings, he then tore a particularly large thorn from its branch then tied the two together. He used the combination as a makeshift needle and thread to sew up the pieces of ripped skin on his arm.
He screamed obscenities at the sky. He didn't care if the thing heard him. Death would be a happy reprieve from the pain of forcing a thick needle attached to some twine through your skin. Once the deed was done, Byron didn't have the energy to do anything other than lie there. The silent bird in the sweltering bucket was laying to the left of him and he still kept the shotgun gripped tightly in his other hand in case it came back for another visit.
After a couple of hours it was nightfall. Byron felt confident enough to reassert himself in the forest. He got up with his gun and bird and took a look around. Not that it would do any good; he couldn't see whatever it was that attacked him. But in the darkness it wouldn't be able to see him either. He found himself wandering aimlessly through the forest for what seemed like hours. He couldn't tell exactly; his watch stopped working some time ago. He gradually felt weaker and weaker thanks to his deteriorating wound that blackened the skin on his biceps until it looked like something torn off a burnt chicken.
Suddenly, the eagle began to squawk again. This time was more mellow at first, then got louder and more frantic. As if on cue, the rustling started. The invisible creature was coming closer and closer. Byron pointed his shotgun skywards and fired a shot into the air. The rustling began to hasten in the direction away from him and the squawking stopped altogether. This creature was intent on getting him, and he only had two shotgun shells left.
"Fucking bird, you gave me away!" Byron whispered angrily at the bucket, his feelings of aggression towards the noisy animal began to subside when he came to another realization. The bird didn't attract the monster; the bird was warning him that it was there.
It all became clear in that one moment. The reason there were no animals in these woods was because they could see the creature. They could sense its presence where humans could not. The animals did the smart thing and fled this oasis of death, leaving the creature all alone. Until, of course, it could entice a human into its domain, a human just like Byron. From then on Byron realized that his survival depended on the survival of his bird; it was the only means to detect the monster. The patient monster, the waiting monster, the monster who schemes, the monster who watches.
Byron survived for days. He rationed the water in his cantina and ate from nature's bounty of vegetation. There were no animals here. Even insects had fled the land of the monster who watches. All he could feed the bird was a small chunk of flesh that he had to extract from his own leg with the buck knife. It hurt. It hurt beyond what most people could even imagine. But Byron had to do it. He had to know where the creature was.
"Is he near me?" Byron asked. He had gotten considerably thinner after what was must have been a week in the forest. The bird was silent as a response but Byron interpreted it as a no, and a cold and indifferent one at that.
"Where is he?" Byron asked, "Where is the one who watches?" he yelled into the bucket.
"I gave you my own flesh and blood, and this is how you repay me?" he said whilst striking the bucket hard with his foot. This was met with an angry squawk that sent Byron into a shifty-eyed panic. Was it here? Could it be here? Is it time?
This was the first of many weeks that Byron spent under the watchful gaze of the unseeable creature. He wondered to himself why animals could see it and yet humans couldn't. After pondering the subject for many hours whilst nuzzled into a tree, shotgun pointed outwards, he thought that maybe it was the basic minds of animals that allowed them to perceive such a being. Perhaps the creature was a shape so unfamiliar to human comprehension the mind chose to merely block it from human thought all together. The monster wasn't at all invisible; humans just couldn't process its true image.
After what could have been a month, Byron came to an ultimatum. He could sit here and wait to die of starvation, go insane or let the creature kill him, or risk it all in a slap-dash attempt to destroy his captor. Byron came to his decision. There was only one way to escape this hell. He loaded his two shotgun shells into the gun and sat down next to the bucket. He took the eagle out of it and put it on his lap. The creature was even more scraggy than when he put it in there. Its body had been wasting away thanks to lack of any kind of movement. Byron gradually removed the twine restraints, little by little, one by one.
Eventually he had the newly freed bird sitting on his lap. He held its leg tightly for safety.
"I need you to do something for me," he said to it, his voice quivering with fear. "I need you to fly towards the monster, so I know where it is, so I can shoot it." The bird remained silent and looked into Byron's eyes coldly.
"Can you do that for me?" he said to the bird. After a moment of deliberation, the bird cast its mind back to Byron's abuse, the way he was torn from his home and his family shot. He and Byron had nothing in common other than a mutual disdain for the monster, even though they would be too afraid to admit it. With one last look of cold hatred, the bird took flight.
"No!" Byron screamed hysterically. "You can't go, you can't leave me here with this thing!" The bird didn't listen and continued to fly up to the forest canopy. With rage in his eyes but remorse in his heart, Byron took aim. "You made me do this," he whispered whilst a tear traveled down his worn cheek. Bang! The bird's body fell somewhere in the distance. The slug tore through its majestic form and left it a bloody pulp fastened to a frigid skeleton.
It was then that Byron succumbed to madness. What was left of his wits broke as he watched his final symbol of hope plummet to the ground with a bullet in its back. Byron fell to his knees and began to sob. That's when he heard it. Not the rustling, but a low, guttural sound that could be similar to human laughter. Byron looked up and he saw it, not just knowing it was there, but being able to truly see it. He couldn't speak a word. Madness broke the last of the inhibitions in his mind and allowed this creature to reveal itself.
It was there, in Byron's sight: the monster, the one that schemes, that one that waits, the one that watches. He could see the monster. He had one bullet left. Byron had an opportunity to kill the beast, to live, but after seeing this creature and what it truly was, Byron didn't want to live. He turned the gun to his own face and forced the barrel into his mouth. It was his last act of defiance to deny the creature its kill. The last thing he ever saw was the creature smiling at him. And he smiled back.
One loud bang later, the forest was quiet again, and the creature laid Byron's hat down onto the ground next to his corpse. Peace at last.