By Gary Porter
As if in prayer, Theo Kahru knelt, sanding his handmade kayak in the light of a single bulb. Flakes of wood whirled like a snowstorm in his father’s woodshed and settled in the thicket of his blond hair. He felt the grit of the dirt floor through the hole in his jeans, and the wind cried against the tin roof as he caressed the gentle curves of cedar like a lover’s skin. Outside, his mother’s wind chimes screeched like the burning pain of a Viking raid on a quiet village.
He lost himself in drifting thoughts, like his toes in the river, feeling the sun and the breeze and letting it all soak through his skin down into his blood. He shivered and coughed. It had to be perfect. He kept sanding and sanding, gritting his teeth to the rhythm of it. A stray tear peeked through his lashes and skied over the ridge of his cheek before he even noticed. Then, he felt it, clinging by its claws to the ledge of his chin, and he slapped it away.
One year earlier, Theo had cleared all of his father’s old stuff out of the shed and lit a bonfire by the river in their backyard. Flames flicked like knives, flinging sparks across the sky, and his father never even noticed. He hadn’t left the basement in almost a decade—couldn’t even make it up the steps anymore he was so fat. Theo’s mother, Lydia, carried all his meals down to him in his dungeon. There he ate night and day with his feet up, watching television, using his own engorged stomach as a dinner table. Lydia actually came to the window that night to watch the fire but never left their little bungalow. Theo watched her sad, distant face glow in the firelight and the blue flicker of the TV.
He sat back in the dirt floor of the shed and let the sandpaper hang between his knees. He coughed. Somehow, he could still hear the sandpaper scratching, spinning like a ghost in the small, bare shed, with just a handful of tools and Theo’s sleek new boat stretched over the dirt like a beautiful woman held hostage.
The cold air bit his bare shoulders. He’d torn the sleeves from his Zao t-shirt to exhibit his ripped muscles. He stood a burly 6’4” and 218 pounds, but in his bones he was frail. He coughed again and opened his fist to expose the only tattoo on his body—a hazy eyeball on the palm of his left hand.
After purging the woodshed last year, Theo began chopping down trees from Sundrasik’s woods and building his new kayak from scratch. It was his very own Viking ship. He even named it “Valkyrie” and etched the word on the hull with his knife. When he finally finishes sanding it, he’ll launch the Viking raid he’d been planning for four years. His target for the raid, the Price Mansion, was a sprawling, ten-gabled, stone mansion carved high among the pines on Fireside Mountain, directly across Main Street from the Viking Prince—the tattoo shop he had owned and operated for the past year and a half. His newly built kayak will be his getaway vehicle. He’ll ransack the house when Price goes to Cabo in the spring, steal all the treasures his hiking pack can carry, and burn the house to the ground. Then, he’ll paddle halfway to Mississippi before anyone would even think to check the river. Nobody had used it in years; it was too shallow.
It took him most of the year to build the boat. He’d been sanding it for three months.
Nearly every day since he turned seventeen, Theo had been studying the Price estate and dreaming about his plan. He’d scale the fence in the woods behind the library, out of view of Price’s security cameras, and free-climb a rock face to perch on a cliff and scope down on the mansion with his binoculars. From this height, he could see the whole Shadow valley stretch into the sun and the Crooked Branch River carve its way between the mountains. When he looked straight down, he saw his feet dangling and pebbles dancing down the rockface, and he felt in those moments like a real Viking.
Through his binoculars, he would always scan the riverbank at Bethel Run to find his parents’ bungalow and the little jetty where he, his father, and his older brother, Joey, would sit every summer when he was a kid and catch fish for dinner. There was a spit in the backyard and a little grove where the brothers played catch.
Then, without fail, he would train the binoculars on Libby and Kasy’s house up in the Heights, hoping to catch a glimpse of them sunbathing on the roof. The drunken elders at the Monkey Pub on High Street said they were the two hottest pieces of ass in Bethel, PA—a backward farming and manufacturing community. They had recently graduated high school and now spend all their time sunbathing, smoking pot, and living off the state and Libby’s Daddy, who worked for the Oil and Gas crew in Ninevah. They weren’t sisters, but they lived together with Libby’s parents, adding fuel to all the prepubescent male fantasies in town.
Theo locked the shed door, stepped out into the swirling snow, and hefted his axe from the stump in the yard beside the woodpile. It was the axe with the three-foot handle. He liked using it for firewood, so he always left it here, but he kept his two-foot and foot-long axes behind the counter at the Viking Prince in case anybody ever tried to rob him.
The axe swung. He grunted and split a log in two. He replaced it with another.
My family would all be dead right now if it wasn’t for me, he thought.
He heaved the axe and wiped up the sweat with his shirt.
They do nothing. Joey is completely useless. Hasn’t worked a day in his life. Hurt his neck playing football.
The axe swung. The log shattered into shards.
Doesn’t even do his own laundry anymore. Rancid socks on the windowsill. Boxers on the ceiling fan. Chicken bones rattling in the radiator. He just spends hours a day with those stupid nunchucks.
“I hate it here!” He yelled.
And he did. He truly hated it. He hated this yard, this town, this Earth. It was all wrong. If he could just build a new planet in his own mind and go live there for a while, he might be happy.
Under the lean-to abutting the house, Theo threw the last log in the furnace and shut the door as sparks leapt out and faded. Gray smoke tumbled like a cloud, and he leaned for a moment on his axe handle. He crushed a leaf with his shoe. The river plinked out a tune like a toy piano. He sighed, lifted the axe, and cracked it blade-first into a tree near the top of a crude bullseye carved into the bark. He stepped back and tried again. Bark scattered.
You had to be silent and accurate, he thought. You had to learn not to grunt when you throw and to step lightly. The first sound you make should be the sound of the blade splitting your enemy’s skull.
Theo stuck the axe back in its notch in the stump and took off running through the snow toward the river. He leapt to catch a tree limb on the riverbank, and he watched his canvas shoes kick out over the river and the treetops and glance up into the white sky before swinging back down. He just hung there breathing for several minutes, watching the water tumble and shine like a sea of broken glass.
The old ash tree he was hanging from looked like it had the face of an old man with a bushy brow and a winking eye etched in its trunk. Branches glanced across the sky. Sunlight fluttered over the grass, and Theo dropped lightly to the ground. This old tree was the model for his sketches of The World Tree—by far his most popular tattoo. It was a central landmark of Viking mythology. It was the source of all life and held all nine worlds in its branches. Some days, Theo would look up into the scraping branches of his ash tree and see Odin, the king of the Viking gods, swaying there from a rope, where he hung for nine full days in the twilight of life and death just to gain the knowledge of the dead and unravel the mysteries of life. He marveled at Odin’s patience and commitment—two traits he honored and pursued, but models of which he failed to find in our contemporary American culture.
Theo wondered if Kasy would ever understand him. He frowned. Would she ever see the whole universe in the limbs of a tree? Would she ever hear tales of all the world’s thoughts and desires in the song of a raven? How could he ever know for sure that anybody could ever truly understand him?
He took off jogging back into town to open his tattoo shop for the afternoon. At the end of Bethel Run, he turned onto Scare Pond Lane and kicked up gravel and dust beneath a canopy of trees as he passed the eerie, empty hunting cabins. He turned down Blind Lane and followed the fence toward Sundrasik’s farmhouse before cutting off into the old man’s woods.
Theo navigated through the pines, stepping between roots and rocks without looking down. He emerged in the old Pentecostal churchyard and chased a lone deer among the tombstones before veering off toward town.
Just before the train tracks at the end of Main Street, there was a little grove with crabgrass crawling up to his knees. He glanced to his right and saw Libby and Kasy lounging under a hemlock tree where a red dirt bike was leaning. Theo knew that bike; it belonged to Cody, Libby’s older brother. Cody built it himself from spare parts and rust when he was fourteen and raced it every Thursday night at the dirt track behind the old Ripley house, which had been empty for as long as anyone could remember.
Libby and Kasy both turned their faces at him like twin gun turrets. He returned a half-assed wave at shoulder level with just two fingers. The girls had actually been in his tattoo shop just a few hours earlier. He would never forget it.
The bell attached to the front door jingled. Theo was in the back of the shop, where he’d built a little apartment for himself, finishing up his third set of bicep curls. He breathed out the last four reps and heaved the weights in the corner by his drum kit. He ducked his head into his armpit to make a quick check of customer-readiness. He was pretty ripe. He grabbed a hand towel off his bed and wiped himself down.
When he emerged through the curtain into the tattoo shop and saw the two most attractive girls in Bethel standing just inside the doorway, he nearly passed out. He felt a rush in his brain that froze his blood for a moment and left him burning. He gulped from his water bottle. The girls made eye contact but said nothing. They both wore breathtakingly short shorts that exposed their long, slender legs. Libby wore a tight, red hoodie that slid up over her belly button every time she raised her arms to tug at her wet, tangled blond hair. Her lips seemed always twisted in a half-smirk. But Theo’s eyes poured over Kasy who wore a white, cotton sweater that hung off one graceful shoulder to show a black bra strap. Her blue eyes glinted hard like diamonds against her cheekbones. When she turned her head, her neck elongated like a bird’s, and her loose, blond ponytail shook recklessly. He wanted to latch his fingers around that ponytail and kiss her long, beautiful neck.
Theo snatched his portfolio off the counter and handed it to them without saying a word, his face shrouded in hair. He leaned against the wall by the coatrack. He thought he looked cooler when he leaned and was probably right, but nobody was looking.
“These’re good,” Libby said, flipping through pages of Theo’s artwork. Her husky voice caressed the words. She gnawed her fingernails.
Kasy nodded in agreement.
“Way better than Squirrely’s.”
Kasy nodded again.
Squirrely’s was a dump, and was Theo’s only competition in town. His art was terrible, his customer service worse, and his store dirty.
“Ooh. I like this tree. Look at that. Isn’t that cool?” Libby asked, her lips slanting.
Theo slid closer to look over her shoulder.
“That’s Yggdrasil…the World Tree,” he said, his voice cracking. “The Vikings believed it held up the heavens in its branches and connected everything together—life and death, earth and sky, gods and men.”
“Yeah. I want that. Can I get it on my back? Right up here like behind the shoulder?”
Theo nodded. He turned to Kasy who was biting her lip and gently scanning her fingers over the pages. Her graceful eyelashes brushed the sharp curve of her cheek. Her head tilted slightly as she turned the page. Theo listened to the soft sound of the page and the thrashing of his own heart while he imagined her naked in his bed—a carnal knot of angles, curves, and soft quiet places. There was a sheen of sweat over her naked body. Her muscles rippled as he caressed each one. Her throat pumped when she swallowed, and a tendril of wet ponytail curled on her neck. He brushed her hair aside. She stared hard into him like an actress in a movie. Her lips slipped apart, and she whispered something he couldn’t make out. He felt her soft ponytail wrap once around his hand. He tugged her head back gently and she let him. Her neck stretched forever, and he felt powerful and reckless. He bent to kiss the tiny brown dot when he noticed her heart flutter fast behind the perfect round hill of her breast and her hard nipple the color of a cherry jolly rancher. Why was she wearing shoes? That wasn’t right. He had to take them off. He knelt to untie her shoe, and he smelled the river, and his heart stopped. He saw stars. His heart beat out the top of his head. The heat from between her legs cascaded over his face, and he felt her heartbeat somewhere just inside of her like little firecrackers getting faster and stronger. He slipped off her shoe and wrapped his fingers around her warm naked toes. He had no idea what to do next.
He blinked and caught himself in real life leaning toward her, nearly kissing the soft, naked space between her neck and shoulder. The air hung around him like a curtain. A stone in his throat.
“This wolf is pretty badass,” she said finally, her smile lighting up, her ponytail wagging, her eyes sparking like firecrackers.
“That’s Fenrir,” Theo said. “Even the gods fear him. They keep him chained to a rock. But on the day of Ragnarok…that’s like the Apocalypse, like the end of days…an earthquake will break him free, and he’ll destroy the whole universe. He’ll even, like, swallow the sun and the moon before killing Odin in battle.”
Theo wanted to stop there. He tried to stop there, but he couldn’t.
“Ragnarok is the destruction of all things. But it’s also like a re-creation of something new and better. So every time you close your eyes to sleep at night, you experience that destruction, and every time the sun rises the next morning, that re-creation of life is possible.”
Okay, now you can stop, he thought. Please stop.
His hands trembled. He fumbled them through his hair. He glanced out the window at Main Street and the abandoned, brick storefront across the road that used to be Moody’s Hardware. The sign was still up, but had bullet holes within each “o.”
“And that’s the lesson of Ragnarok,” he said, swallowing dryly. “That every day is holy and meaningful. A blessing.”
He tried to eat the words, but they kept falling out. He felt suddenly hot.
They don’t care about this stuff, he thought.
“It’s not all about doom and gloom and destruction but about the cycle of life and that each day is a chance to re-create something or build something new from the rubble.”
Oh my god, he thought. You’re embarrassing yourself.
He looked at his canvas shoes and tried to imagine that he was someone else—an actor or a football player or someone more confident. He floated up into the rafters like a balloon and became vaguely aware of his own voice. Tears began to pop behind his eyes like the first raindrops of a storm against a window.
“And Fenrir represents like the ferocious destructive power of life and how it can just be unleashed at any time and it can just destroy you and everything you stand for and nothing good will ever happen in this life unless you make it. This world is the destroyer, so we have to be the creators, you and me.”
He took a breath. His throat hummed as if winding down. His lips twitched. The floorboard creaked beneath his shifting feet. He glanced up at Kasy’s sculpted face and violent, blinking blue eyes and then aimed his gaze at the coatrack.
He cleared his throat. He had so many more things he wanted to tell her. He wanted to tell her that Fenrir isn’t just in the world: he’s in us too. He is fear and loneliness and sadness and anger. He wanted to tell her about the Viking raid he’d been planning. But he bottled it all up, and all the secrets twisted in his gut like a hot poker.
He cracked his knuckles and turned to retrieve his needle.
“Um,” he said, coughing. “Who’s first?”
Theo hunched, carving intricate lines into Kasy’s calf just above her ankle bone. He was mesmerized by the clutch of muscles in her leg. She had taken off her sneaker and left it by the counter, and he desperately wanted to kiss each of her long, lean toes, which smelled strongly of the river and reminded him of home. He dragged tendrils of hair out of his face. He blinked. He could feel her watching him. He cleared his throat. At least the wolf was taking shape beautifully. Theo could almost hear him howling.
He glanced up just in time to see Kasy tilt her nose against her bare shoulder. Her ponytail draped across her neck. His gaze melted on her blond ropes of hair. He would worship her ponytail and the way each strand roared along the slope of her neck and lit on her skin like a butterfly.
Her eyes beamed. Their gaze collided, and he dropped his needle.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he muttered. “Sorry.”
“How come you don’t have any tattoos?” She asked, smiling. “Squirrely, that douche, don’t even have to wear a shirt. I swear he don’t even have nipples, just ink.”
After bending to pick up the needle, Theo rose and lifted the latex glove of his left hand just enough to reveal the eye on his palm.
“That’s bomb,” Kasy said.
Her eyes widened, and for a moment, Theo saw himself in their reflection. She shifted her gaze, trying to find the eyes behind his vines of hair.
“Looks like it’s underwater,” she said. “What does it mean?”
The latex snapped. He adjusted himself and turned to grab a new needle from the cupboard by the window.
“It’s the eye of Odin,” he said. “He plucked it out and threw it in a well.”
“Oh my god. Like on purpose? What the hell? Why?”
He peeled the plastic away from his new needle. His heart throbbed.
I think she might really like me, he thought. She might really like me.
“So the water would speak to him,” he said. “He sacrificed his eye to gain wisdom.”
“That’s so badass,” she said, grinning..
When she smiled, he looked away and closed his lips.
“I bet you do pretty good business here,” she said. “Your artwork is great. You have no real competition for miles, and you’re so charming and attractive.”
His heart burst and spattered over the walls. His tongue swelled and stuck in his throat. He coughed and finished her tattoo.
Back in the present, Theo kept running past the girls, over the train tracks, and on into town. In his mind, he stopped to flirt with Kasy in the little grove, but there were no words, even in his fantasy, just lips moving. What could he say to make her smile? He shook his head. It was snowing. He shivered but refused to wear a coat. If his Viking ancestors could brave the ice and the wind, so could he.
He jogged down a snow-covered Main Street passed the WizBot Tech Shop and waved at Adam through the storefront window. Adam Reith owned the WizBot. Theo and Adam were sort of friends. They happened to be the youngest business owners in Bethel. They had hung out a few times after closing to record an epic prog-metal EP in Adam’s room in his parents’ attic but ended up just playing Skyrim on Adam’s gaming PC.
“Made this baby from scratch,” Adam told him the first time he came over, pointing at different parts of the machine with his middle finger and rattling off a streak of tech jargon that could have been Sanskrit. “Made it from spare parts at the store. It’s totally badass. Like Batman. Or maybe Thor’s Hammer for gaming.”
Theo had looked up at him from beneath a curtain of hair, peeling his eyes from the ragged pile of Playboys and comics at his feet. Most of the people in Bethel believed Adam was a wizard. He would disappear into his workshop at the back of his store with a drawer full of scrap and emerge two hours later with a fully functioning, Frankenstein laptop priced at half what you’d spend at Sam’s Club if you drove all the way into Ninevah Hills. He would come over to your broken-down house, run a cable through your walls, and set you up to Skype your grandkids in Wyoming or whatever, and he did it all while babbling indecipherable words that may very well have been ancient spells passed down from generations.
About two months ago, Theo and Adam stopped hanging out and have barely spoken since. Theo needed a friend, and he wanted to tell Adam all about his quest to live like a Viking. He just wasn’t sure Adam would understand. He was too geeky. After they hung out the first time, he started lurking outside Theo’s shop, taking photos of customers, and scrubbing them against mugshot databases. He tried to add Theo as a contact for the new 911 app he’d developed for his cell.
“I’m dabbling in personal security technology,” he had explained, shoving his phone in Theo’s face. “Gonna sell this baby to small businesses. Just three taps sends an alert with your GPS location to all your contacts, and it activates your video and audio to record potential evidence that can be used in trial. You can even sync it up with…”
“I don’t have a phone,” Theo had said.
He continued his jog down Main Street, which was still basically empty. A rusty pickup groaned by. Theo heard the crickets in the grass beside the sidewalk. Breathing heavily, he fumbled for the keys to his shop. The door lock snapped. The bell jingled as he pushed in through the door.
A sharp crack. A sudden, jagged spider web unspooled over his eyes and faded to a ghostly gray landscape. A crackling fissure of pain shattered him like glass. A flash of recognition. A blur. A tilt. A knot in a floorboard. A red flash.
In a sudden, mad darkness, sounds and voices wound up like a Victrola. Pain radiated. He shivered. He could smell the river. He blinked, and a pair of wet sneakers blurred into view. He saw a familiar ankle bone and a beautiful clutch of skin and muscle. A shiny black and white sketch of a wolf.
Theo licked his bloody lip and pressed his tongue in the gap where his front tooth used to be. He tried to press himself off the floor.
A wet sneaker, smelling like the river, crushed down on the back of his neck.
“You hit him too hard. We need him to open the register.”
“Shut up. He’s okay. He’ll be okay. You okay?”
Theo groaned. His gaze trained on his busted tooth on the floor with a spotted trail of blood. The girls hefted him off the floor and dragged him behind the counter.
“We need your cash, bitch! All of it!”
He heard the unmistakable click of a cocking gun. A silver revolver with a pearl handle was thrust in his face, and the rest of the world fogged.
“Asshole,” she said.
Theo felt his lips fumbling.
“Kasy,” he whispered.
“Shut up, asshole, and open the register.”
She hit him again with the gun, and this time it discharged beside his ear. He screamed but couldn’t hear it. Just a ringing sound. Kasy’s face lit up, her eyes wild. She tossed her arms and dropped the gun. Libby bent to pick it up.
Theo felt himself lean against the counter. He blinked down at his half-open palms, his fingers slender and delicate for a man his size. Odin’s blood streaked eye blinked up at him.
Libby and Kasy shoved handfuls of cash into a backpack and bolted for the door. Theo didn’t remember opening the register. The axe under the counter appeared suddenly in his grip, and he felt the weight of it. He screamed, and the weapon revolved in slow motion. A tear beaded on his cheek.
“Kasy!” Someone shrieked.
She turned. Libby raised the revolver and fired. The muzzle blast blinded him. He heard glass shattering. The bullet stung his hand. He heard a buzz. It cracked against bone and a thin line of blood spurted. Pain ripped down his arm. He lumbered forward and caught himself on the counter with his good hand. The girls darted. The bell jingled. Theo ran a few steps and fell to a knee. The dirt bike growled to life and screamed down Main Street. Blond hair flailed like knives being sharpened.
Theo groaned for breath. His head fell to his chest. Amid scattered bits of glass, a wisp of blond hair curled on the floor like dead worms. Kasy’s ponytail had been cleanly severed. He scooped it up and stained it red with his blood. There was a clean hole through Odin’s eye where he could see the floorboards. He gasped and rose to his feet, his arm bleeding. His shoes crunched in the broken glass. A sudden breeze carried Kasy’s ponytail away.
Adam Reith died on the sidewalk, his cell phone loose in his hand, an axe deep in his chest.
Theo fell to a knee. A teardrop slid down a vine of his hair. Dark clouds tore apart and tumbled together like kids before unraveling. The sky shifted through colors, and the sun crashed into the mountains, leaving the sky a ghostly white.
Gary Porter was an English teacher for three years, but that sucked. Now, he’s a trainer for a credit reporting agency, and that’s a little better. He loves playing guitar, hanging out with his beautiful wife, and writing stories that help him find his place in the world. His work has previously appeared in Sliver of Stone magazine.