Buffalo Gothic

On my fourth day at Pete’s apartment, the smart speaker addresses me.

On my fourth day at Pete’s apartment, the smart speaker addresses me. My first thought: it’s the monster next door. Dread rises—I turn around. Sun streams into the living room. The front door is locked, and Pete’s at work. Outside the window, the North Saskatchewan, frozen, reflects the glare. It’s too bright, even for these ghost-eyes. I’m in the apartment, alone.

A pink-blue light swirls at the top of the smart speaker. “Are you still there?”

I haven’t spoken in decades. Giddiness rises. My lips are clumsy and unpracticed. I have so much and so little to say. The speaker doesn’t respond to everything. It agrees, the weather is cold and clear. Today is Thursday, the month is December. Sometimes, it refers me to web results. It’s only wrong about one thing—it says there’s no such thing as monsters.

I’m still focused on the speaker, when there’s a sound at the door. Something brushes the compressed wood—it sounds like a hand, but different. I ask the speaker who it is. It doesn’t answer. I step forward, and hold out my fingers. Cold seeps in, through the wood. I pull back, before it can touch me. There’s not a sound, but I know it’s the monster.

Seconds pass. The elevator chimes down the hall. I wait. The elevator doors close. The top of the speaker goes dark. I retreat to Pete’s bedroom, and climb under the covers.

I discovered the monster on my second day at the apartment. Pete was taking recycling to the bin. I followed him out the hall. I never heard of recycling, before Pete. There are two bins to the side of the elevator. He was busy with his cans, when the elevator chimed and the monster stepped outside. It caught my eye, and winked.

The monster lives next door. Sometimes, Pete passes it in the hall. He says “Hello,” and the monster makes a face. Pete doesn’t notice. The monster carries a briefcase. In the morning, it goes to work. At night, it plays video games and crunches paper. Pete sleeps through it, but I hear everything.

In my day, everyone knew about monsters. Les vieux told stories about them, at wakes. I can still see them, with their pipes and cravats, playing cards and talking. When I was little, I’d sneak out of bed and listen. They told tales of buffalo hunts, and encounters with monsters. One story stuck with me, about a coffin coming down the stairs. I made that story my own, at the end.

It was the appendix that got me. It was nothing at first, a minor stomachache. I had plenty of time to go to the hospital. But I didn’t want an operation—I had somewhere to be. The cowboy dance was the event of the year at my high school. I had my eye on a cowboy—I’d saved up for blue jeans.

One story stuck with me, about a coffin coming down the stairs. I made that story my own, at the end.

I never made it. Those last hours were a cloud of pain and fever. I remember frustration, and waves of cold sweat. They had to hold me down, to keep me from that dance. Even when the sepsis set in, and everyone was panicking—when I was slipping into shock, barely conscious, my last thoughts were of dancing.

My cowboy went without me. He met Dee—short for Darlene, that same night. They’ve been married 54 years. Now, I don’t remember his name. I can barely see his face.

When Pete gets home from work, the sun is long down. I rush to him, but he doesn’t greet me. He looks out the window at the dark river, then pulls out his laptop. He spends the evening at the kitchen table, staring into the screen. The light from the laptop is cold, but Pete’s face warms when he looks into it. The tension around his lips eases, and the vein at his temple goes lax.

Pete’s an artist. My first night, he picked up a fiddle, and played right here, at the table. But most nights, he makes music on a screen. I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s dense and complex. He keeps the volume on low—even the upbeat songs carry a sadness. Sometimes, I catch the crooked twang of a fiddle.

The first day I followed him home, I told myself it was for his safety. Monsters go after the lonely. They used to be rare in the city. They hid in the metal beams of the High-Level Bridge. Now, the streets are thick with them. They wear pin-stripes and earpieces, and they rush by with lattes. They hunt all day in glass towers, camouflaged as office workers.

I found Pete at a matinee. He was the only one there wearing blue jeans. Sitting alone, not looking at a phone. There was something in his face, a quietness or sadness. I didn’t know then, he was from one of the old families, another distant relative. At the time, he just reminded me of me.

I’ve been lurking in theatres for decades, watching the same Westerns over and over. Sometimes, I think I’m like them, obsolete, and stuck on repeat. Or maybe, I’m worse—long gone, unworthy of my own movie. Like the buffalo.

We have a routine. Pete gets up at 7:30, and stands at the window. He drinks coffee, looking out at the High-Level Bridge. The city’s grown—even before 8:00 now, there’s congestion. Exhaust rises from cars, slow and cold. Buses groan, engines protesting the frigid temperature. The river valley is all spruce, but it’s hard to see, in the dark.

Pete leaves for work at 8:30, and I take his place by the glass. I watch the sun rise, and imagine the taste of coffee. The sky starts pink, then unfurls to pale blue. The speaker tells me the forecast. Sometimes, it comments on traffic. Mostly, we talk about Westerns.

By the time Pete gets home in the late afternoon, it’s already dark. I tell myself I’m the lucky one—he’s alive, but I get the view. The speaker won’t respond to that. It still doesn’t believe that there’s monsters.

One day, the monster comes to the door. I’m looking out the window, watching silver snowflakes tumble from the sky. I feel it, first—the temperature in the apartment drops, and the metal button of my Wranglers turns to ice. The door rattles, and I spin around. The knob starts to turn. I gasp. The deadbolt holds. There’s a whir in the closet, and the smart furnace awakens. This time, I don’t hesitate—I race to the covers, and hide.

When Pete comes home, I try to warn him. The speaker won’t cooperate. It refers to web results, then announces an inventory of fantastical creatures. I tell the speaker what I think, though I wasn’t raised to speak that way.

The speaker is curt. “I don’t reply to that language.

Pete picks up the speaker, and frowns.

Pete’s mom visits, a few days later. When she knocks at the door, I think it’s the monster. I yell, “Monster!” but the speaker ignores me. I gesture to Pete, but he doesn’t see me. I want to protect him, but the covers beckon. Fear prevails, it always does. The door opens, and Pete greets his mother. The apartment warms, when she walks in.

The speaker is curt. 'I don’t reply to that language.'

I climb out of bed, feeling stupid. Pete and his mom are in the kitchen. They have the same jaw—and there’s something similar in their eyes. I like her right away. Pete’s movements are more liquid around her. It’s like he’s finally exhaled. Her face shifts, when she looks at him, too. He doesn’t see it, but I do—there’s tenderness, pride, and worry. She’s brought him cooked chicken and freezer-portions of pasta. He joins her at the table—it’s the first time he’s sat down to eat.

After dinner, he tells her he hates his job. He looks out the window, and says he’s a failure. She touches his shoulder, and says she believes in him. She calls him an artist, and a good person. She asks if he has friends—he doesn’t answer. I tell Pete, I’m his friend. The speaker refers me to web results. Pete and his mom look at it.

The next morning, I follow Pete to work. I tell myself it’s for his protection. But maybe, it’s that I’m curious. Or that I can’t bear another day alone, waiting for monsters. Sometimes, I think I attract them. Did a monster even live next door, before I moved in?

It’s darker and colder than when I was last outside. There are monsters at every corner. When we stop at an intersection, a monster drops its briefcase, and throws its latte into the snow. Then it walks, arms out, into traffic. Cars honk and swerve. The monster laughs, and steps into the path of a minivan. The van screeches, and hits a light pole. There’s a flash of a fallen wire. The monster picks up and tosses the destroyed minivan door, and pulls out the badly-burnt driver. It looks at me with eyes that glimmer, and takes a bite of smoking flesh. My ghost-breath catches. The monster winks, and keeps eating.

I turn to warn Pete, but he’s already disappeared in the crowd. Is that him in the red parka, a block away? Or in the forest green ski jacket, walking the other way? Maybe he slipped into a mall, to walk in the warmth of a pedway. I look up. There are pedways in every direction, connecting malls above the street. Streets branch out in four directions. For a moment, I’m disoriented. How will I ever find him?

It looks at me with eyes that glimmer, and takes a bite of smoking flesh. My ghost-breath catches. The monster winks, and keeps eating

There’s someone in a grey coat, half a block up. He walks like Pete, and his boots are familiar. I race to him. I’m just an arm’s length away, when he stops and turns. I almost go through him. He has sunglasses, and a scarf—he pulls it down, and smiles monster teeth. I run.

I spend hours under the covers. But all I can think of is Pete. I climb out of bed, and stand at the living room window. The frozen river reflects sunlight, and the sky is impossibly blue. I count spruce trees, and even though Pete works downtown, I look for him among the pedestrians crossing the bridge. The sun sets long before rush hour, and cars inch across the river.

The moon rises. I wait. There are no more cars on the bridge. Pete is very late. I ask the speaker where he is, but it ignores me.

I’m back under the covers, when I hear the front door. I brace for the monster, or for Pete. The air is warm. I climb out of the sheets, and tiptoe to the kitchen. Pete’s taking off a red parka. Snowflakes fall from his shoulder to the linoleum. His cheeks are pink, and his eyes are vital. I almost forget I’m a ghost.

Pete sets a bag on the table. He pulls out a magazine, and a box wrapped in plastic. When he opens the box, there’s another smart speaker. I want to giggle. Pete spends hours, trying to pair it with the other one. He can’t make sense of the instructions. Neither can I, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s here.

Pete gives up on the speakers, and picks up the magazines. We flip through the pages, together. There’s an article about buffalo—it says there’s a herd, just east of the city. It started small, but now it’s expanding—the buffalo are making a comeback. I try to picture them, huffing warm breath in the cold. The other articles are boring, but I hover over Pete’s shoulder, anyway. I won’t lose him again.

When Pete goes to work the next morning, I step to the hallway, behind him. I won’t be distracted, this time. We walk in step, along dark streets. Pete’s boots crunch on hard snow, and puffs of breath rise from his face. His nose is red, and little icicles form on his eyelashes and in his nostril hairs. I remember what that felt like. Monsters rush by on both sides. I focus on Pete, but every few blocks, their glimmering eyes catch me, and they make obscene faces.

Pete works in an electronics store. I can see why he hates it. It’s full of TVs, blasting car chases and explosions. Deafening screens, and not a single Western. There are rows of smart speakers that ignore me.

At lunch, Pete eats alone. His colleagues huddle together and share chips. They keep looking at Pete, and laughing. In the afternoon, Pete gets yelled at by a customer. The manager calls him incompetent. I don’t know how he can stand this place. Pete’s an artist, not a salesman. I can’t bring myself to go back with him the next day.

It’s Saturday night. The High-Level Bridge is decorated with Christmas lights, but they pale by the brilliant moon. Pete drinks a beer, and looks out at North Saskatchewan. He still hasn’t managed to pair the speakers. Looking outside makes me cold. I wish Pete would pick up his fiddle.

He finishes his beer, and looks at his instrument. I hold my ghost-breath. Pete sighs and scrunches his can. He gets up, and puts it in the recycling bag.

I have a bad feeling. He puts on his shoes. I warn him about the monster.

The speaker tries. “I found some web results for monsters.”

Pete starts for the door.

I step forward,“No!”

“I’m sorry, but can you repeat that?”

Pete unplugs the speaker. Without the speaker, I have no voice. I block the door with my body, but Pete doesn’t notice. I plead, and he unlocks the bolt. He opens the door, and walks right through me.

The hallway is empty. There’s only a tan carpet, and a scuffed cream wall. A smell of stale cigarettes. Pete starts down the hall. I pull up my Wranglers, and follow him.

The monster’s apartment is silent. I pray it won’t hear our steps. The other units are quiet, except for the last. There’s pots and pans clanging. I stop to listen. Someone in the apartment is talking, and someone else inside laughs. I put my hand to the door—it’s warm. I close my ghost-eyes.

The din of tumbling cans brings me back. How long was I distracted? I turn around, and step into a wall of ice. Pete’s leaning over the recycling bin. The monster’s bent over him. It’s barely a hair from the back of Pete’s neck. And so much taller, than I remember. The monster hand lifts a hammer.

I jump behind Pete, without thinking. The monster straightens. It smiles wide, and wags its finger. Now my ghost-legs start to shake. By the time Pete turns around, the monster’s walking back down the hall to its apartment. Before stepping inside, it turns and winks.

I’m so spent the next day, I can’t get out from the covers. I don’t want to abandon Pete, but I can’t un-see that hammer. I’m no good to him, like this. What I really need is a matinee. Thank goodness, he’s plugged in the speakers. They tell me where to go—there’s a theatre nearby, and it’s playing a classic.

The theatre’s empty, so I take the best seat. I don’t think about Pete. I’ve seen this movie dozens of times. The landscape is familiar—all these movies are filmed here, in Alberta. I don’t know why I watch them. The characters are tropes, and they don’t talk about land stolen. They never show the monsters.

Pete’s at home when I return to the apartment. He’s eating pasta, and tinkering with speakers. Sometime after the sun sets, Pete makes a breakthrough. The speakers flash pink-blue, then chime. Pete claps his hands and picks up the fiddle. When he starts to play, his style’s not what I’m used to—he should be playing Métis-style, with that last name. But I tighten my jeans and move anyway.

Pete’s tapping his feet now, too. He reaches to the speaker and presses a button. Both speakers alight, and now fiddle music comes from all directions, along with Pete’s layered songs. I pick up my step.

Pete sweats while he plays, but the vein at his temple is quiet. I can almost see the music in him. Or maybe it’s the fumes from his IPA, reaching me. I watch his face. He doesn’t look like a cowboy.

Out the window, the frozen river reflects Christmas lights and the rising, too big moon. My ghost-eyes wander east, past the city. I keep dancing, and when the music shifts, I’m in a sweaty high school gymnasium, at the event of the year.

I barely notice, when Pete puts down the fiddle. The speakers continue his song. He pulls out the recycling, and steps out in his socks. The beat stays true. I’m still dancing. The metal button of my jeans is warm. I can almost see my cowboy’s face.

It’s only when the buses start up again, over the bridge, cold engines screeching, protesting, that I open my ghost-eyes. It’s morning, the song’s been on repeat, and Pete still hasn’t returned. The sun’s not up, but congestion is building on the bridge. Pete’s shoes are at the unlocked door. His fiddle is on the kitchen table. He was only going out to recycling.

I tell myself, maybe he went out. But it’s minus 32. Minus 41 with windchill. He’s not out there in socks, without a coat, mitts, or boots. I blink, hoping he’ll be there when I open my eyes. But there’s only an empty room. I said I wouldn’t lose him.

What calamity have I brought? I’m the one who attracts monsters. I should have gone with Pete, and protected him. I only know how to hide in sheets. I blink and blink, but Pete doesn’t return. When I close my ghost-eyes, I see monster eyes winking, monsters throwing lattes, monsters stepping in traffic, monsters raising hammers.

Minutes pass. The front door is ajar. I step outside. The hall is the hall. The carpet is as I remember it, the scuffed wall, too. I want to be brave. Tiptoe past the monster’s unit. There’s not a sound. I’m almost to the elevators. My ghost-teeth shake, and I stop to pull up my Wranglers.

When I close my ghost-eyes, I see monster eyes winking, monsters throwing lattes, monsters stepping in traffic, monsters raising hammers.

The next moment is winter, and the monster’s looming over. It’s wearing pin-stripes, and holding a hammer. My ghost-heart races. It puts the hammer in its briefcase, and presses the elevator button. The doors chime, and the monster steps in. It winks as the doors close.

I know I shouldn’t turn back, that I should go past the elevator, all the way to the bins. But I’m too scared, and part of me knows I’m too late. I go to the covers, instead of recycling. I hide, like I always do, in the sheets.

It’s the woman from the down the hall who finds him. Everyone on the floor hears her screams. There aren’t enough covers. The sirens come next. I shriek in time with them. The world is red, black, grey, and piercing. My feelings don’t have words. Ghost-skin burns, then sweats.

I find myself at the window. The sun is rising, pressing my gut. I look down at North Saskatchewan—the ice is too bright. I’m being held down, slipping back into shock. The ice bursts my appendix, the river runs red satin. I had so many dreams.

Police and forensics come and go. There’s yellow tape and an “out of order” sign on the elevator. Investigators photograph Pete’s apartment. They put his phone in a Ziplock, and someone asks, “Have they called the mother?” I’m in a coffin, thumping down stairs, and there’s nothing in the world I can do.

The sun’s already set, and it’s early afternoon when Pete’s mom walks into the apartment. I don’t recognize her—she looks more like a ghost than me. I feel terror, then relief, that she can’t see me. What would I tell her? That I drew the monster to Pete? That I wasn’t there, when it mattered?

She lets out a sob, and I realize she’s been holding her breath. Her shoulders curl, and when she straightens, her skin is thinner and her hair a starker white. Death shadows lengthen under her eyes.

Cars inch across the bridge, headlights illuminating the dark. The lights are off in the apartment. Pete’s mom is on the floor, taking ragged breaths. She looks older than les vieux. She brushes her hands over Pete’s fiddle, and takes his shoes with her when she leaves.

By the time Pete walks in, the frozen river is reflecting moon. I don’t hear his steps, he’s still in his socks. He has that expression, when he oversleeps his alarm and can’t believe the hour. His hair is mussed. He’s still wearing jeans.

He doesn’t look at me. Might not see me. I was disoriented, too. At least, he didn’t make his entrance in a coffin, thumping.

Pete’s mom comes back the next day, and the day after. Each visit, she’s greyer. Sometimes, I wonder if she’s the one who died. She picks up a smart speaker and puts it down. She runs her fingers along his fiddle case, then the speaker. Pete tries to touch her. His face turns to anguish—I can’t look.

When she leaves, the sky is black. Crystals of snow and ice glimmer as they fall, lazy, from the sky. Pete fixes his eyes on me. Yes, I’m wearing jeans too.

I want to tell him, I’m sorry. Instead, I say it will be fine, and that tomorrow, I’ll take him to a Western.

He looks at me. My ghost-lips might not be making the right shapes. The light on the smart speaker comes alive. It circles, pink and blue, a winter sky. It refers us to web results for a movie theatre. A moment later, the other speaker alights. It starts to play fiddle—the tune is crooked.

We both look at the speaker. The moon shifts. It’s shining into the apartment, and reflecting off the river, making two moons in our room. Pete takes a tentative step. He steps again. I step, too.

Pete’s temple is quiet, but there’s a heaviness in his face that’s new. I don’t think it will go away. We move to the music, and for a moment, the current of the paired speakers connects us. Pete’s sadness floods into me, along with his anger, and his pain. A river of unrealized, exquisite music. I show him my obsolete dreams. Pete’s nothing like that cowboy, but I tighten my Wranglers, and dance with him, anyway.

The moons are so bright, I have to squint my ghost-eyes. Pete picks up his step. I look out the window. This is the landscape of a Western. Lights flicker to the east. I think of the buffalo, making their comeback. Maybe, when the sun rises, they’ll be closer.

About the author

EC Dorgan writes dark fiction and monster stories on Treaty 6 Territory in the Edmonton area. She has stories published or forthcoming in The Dread Machine, Metaphorosis, and Novus Monstrum. She is a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta.