In the Baltimore hospital, confined in his cage, Will retreats into the landscape of his mind and returns to his wide, fast-moving mountain stream. He pauses on the gold-green bank, the smooth wood of his fly-fishing rod a comfortable texture and reassuring weight in one hand, and his eyes catch a snagged tree branch in the main current. This is new, he thinks, as the tree branch becomes, impossibly, antlers of the most velvet black breaking up through the surface of the water.
How could a stag be out there? It’s a five point, it must be an elk; he takes in and interprets the elegant rack by habit, even as his rational mind insists it can’t possibly be a buck – the animal is too far out in the deepest part of the river and it ascends perfectly upright, unaffected by the swift current.
He sees the melon of the very human skull a moment later and catches his breath, not from fear so much as shock, surprise, pure fascination – he forgets such a banal thing as inhaling and stands frozen, captivated by the creature, revealed as it ascends to be some sort of bizarre mummy, perhaps he has some latent latex fetish; as it emerges, he shivers as it notices him, turns its attention to him from the smooth sunken impressions where its eyes should be.
Will stands frozen in awe, mind and body utterly still and silent, as if in primal respect for something deep and dark and ancient, until his autonomic nervous system overrides the shock and he sucks in a ragged breath, heart hammering; his chest tightens, his throat catches, and he squeezes his eyes tightly shut.
The image of the beast, the oil-slick antlered demon, lingers in the gold-speckled dark behind his eyelids.
When he opens his eyes again, he’s alone, fly rod in hand, and the scenic wild river babbles past.