The Troop by Nick Cutter

1

EAT EAT EAT EAT

The boat skipped over the waves, the drone of its motor trailing across the Gulf of Saint lawrence. The moon was a bone fishhook in the clear october sky.

The man was wet from the spray that kicked over the gunwale. The outline of his body was visible under his drenched clothes. He easily could have been mistaken for a scarecrow left carelessly unattended in a farmer’s field, stuffing torn out by scavenging animals.

He’d stolen the boat from a dock at north Point, at the farthest tip of Prince edward Island, reaching the dock in a truck he’d hotwired in a diner parking lot.

Christ, he was hungry. He’d eaten so much at that roadside diner that he’d ruptured his stomach lining—the contents of his guts were right now leaking through the split tissue, into the crevices between his organs. He wasn’t aware of that fact, though, and wouldn’t care much anyway in his current state. It’d felt so good to fill the empty space inside of him . . .

6 Nick cuTTER

but it was like dumping dirt down a bottomless hole: you could throw shovelful after shovelful, but it made not the slightest difference.

Fifty miles back, he’d stopped at the side of the road, having spotted a raccoon carcass in the ditch. Torn open, spine winking through its fur. It had taken great effort to not jam the transmission collar into park, go crawling into the ditch, and . . .

He hadn’t done that. He was still human, after all.

The hunger pangs would stop, he assured himself. His stomach could only hold so much—wasn’t that, like, a scientific fact? But this was unlike anything he’d ever known.

Images zipped through his head, slideshow style: his favorite foods lovingly presented, glistening and overplumped and too perfect, ripped from the glossy pages of Bon Appétit—a leering parody of food, freakishly sexual, hyperstylized, and lewd.

He saw cherries spilling from a wedge of flaky pie, each one nursed to a giddy plumpness, looking like a mess of avulsed bloodshot eyeballs dolloped with a towering cone of whipped cream . . .

Flash.

A porterhouse thick as a dictionary, shank bone winking from fatmarbled meat charred to crackly doneness, a pat of herbed butter melting overtop; the meat almost sighs as the knife hacks through it, cooked flesh parting with the deference of smoothly oiled doors . . .

Flash.

Flash.

Flash.

What wouldn’t he eat now? He yearned for that raccoon. If it were here now, he’d rip the hardened rags of sinew off its tattered fur; he’d crush its skull and sift through the splinters for its brain, which would be as delicious as the nut-meat of a walnut.

Why hadn’t he just eaten the f**king thing?

Would they come for him? He figured so. He was their failure—a human blooper reel—but also the keeper of their secret. And he was so, so toxic. At least, that’s what he overheard them say.

He didn’t wish to hurt anyone. The possibility that he may already have done so left him heartsick. What was it that edgerton had said?

THE TROOP 7

If this gets out, it’ll make Typhoid Mary look like Mary Poppins. He was not an evil man. He’d simply been trapped and had done what any man in his position might do: he’d run. And they were coming for him. Would they try to capture him, return him to edgerton? He wondered if they’d dare do that now.

He wasn’t going back. He’d hide and stay hidden.

He doubled over, nearly spilling over the side, hunger pangs gnawing into his gut. He blinked stinging tears out of his eyes and saw a dot of light dancing on the horizon.

An island? A fire?

NATURAl REsOURCEs CANAdA GEOGRAPHICAl sURvEY REPORT

Falstaff Island, Prince Edward Island

Situated fifteen kilometers off the northern point of the main landmass. Highest point: 452 meters above sea level. 10.4 kilometers in circumference.

Two beachheads: one on the west-facing headland, one on the northeastern outcrop. A granite cliff dominates the northern shore, dropping some 200 meters into a rocky basin.

Terrain consists of hardy brush-grasses, shrubs, jimsonweed, staghorn sumac, and lowland blueberry. Vegetation growth stunted by high saline content in the island’s water table. Topsoil eroded by high winds and precipitation.

Home to thriving avian, marine, mammal, reptile, and insect life. Pelicans, gulls, and other seafowl congregate on the northern cliffs. Chief stocks: salmon, cod, bream, sea bass. Sea lions bask off the island in the summer, drawing pods of orcas. Small but hardy indigenous populations of raccoon, skunk, porcupine, and coyote. These specimens are likewise smaller and leaner than their mainland counterparts.

A single winterized dwelling, government-owned and -maintained, acts as an emergency shelter or host to the occasional educational junket.

Absent of full-time human occupation.

2

Tim Riggs— Scoutmaster Tim, as his charges called him—crossed the cabin’s main room to the kitchen, fetching a mug from the cupboard. unzipping his backpack, he found the bottle of Glenlivet.

The boys were in bed—not asleep, mind you; they’d stay up telling ghost stories half the night if he allowed it. And often, he did allow it. nobody would ever label him a killjoy and besides, this was the closest thing to a yearly vacation a few of these boys ever got. It was a vacation for Tim, too.

He poured himself a spine-stiffening belt of scotch and stepped onto the porch. Falstaff Island lay still and tranquil under the blanket of night. Surf boomed against the beachhead two hundred yards down the gentle grade, a sound like earthbound thunder.

Mosquitoes hummed against the porch screen. moths battered their powdery bodies against the solitary lightbulb. The night cool, the light of the moon falling through a lacework of bare branches. none of the trees were too large—the island’s base was bare rock pushed up from the ocean, a sparse scrim of soil on its surface. The trees had a uniformly deformed look, like children nourished on tainted milk.

Tim rolled the scotch around in his mouth. As he was the sole doctor on Prince edward Island’s north shore, it wasn’t proper that he be caught imbibing publicly. But here, miles from his job and the duty it demanded, a drink seemed natural. essential, even.

He relished this yearly trip. Some might find his reasoning strange—wasn’t he isolated enough, living alone in his drafty house on the Cape? But this was a different kind of isolation. For three days, he and the boys would be alone. one cabin, a few trails. A boat dropped them off with their supplies earlier this evening; it would return on Sunday night.

It almost hadn’t happened. The weekend forecast was calling for a storm; weather reports had it rolling in off the northern sea, one of those thunderhead-studded monsters that infrequently swept across the island province—half storm, half tornado, they’d tear shingles off houses and snap saplings at the dirt line. But the latest Doppler maps had it veering east into the Atlantic, where it would expend its fury upon the vast empty water.

As a precaution, Tim had ensured that the marine radio was fully charged; if the skies began to threaten, he’d radio the mainland for an early pickup. In truth, he disliked the necessity of the shortwave radio. Tim had strict rules for this outing. no phones. no portable games. He’d made the boys turn out their pockets on the dock at north Point to ensure they weren’t smuggling any item that’d link them to the mainland.

But considering the weather, the shortwave radio was a necessary evil. As the Scout handbook said: Always be prepared.

A bark of laughter from the bunkroom. Kent? ephraim? Tim let it go. At their age, boys were creatures of enormous energy: machines that ran on testosterone and raw adrenaline. He could barge in there, shushing and tut-tutting, reminding them of the long day ahead of them tomorrow—but why? They were having fun, and energy was never in short supply among that group.

Fact was, this trip was as necessary for Tim as it was for his charges. He was unmarried and childless—a situation that, at forty-two, in a small town harboring precious few dating prospects, he didn’t expect to change. He’d grown up in ontario and moved to PeI a few years after his residency, buying a house on the Cape, learning how to string a lobster trap—See? I’m making a genuine effort!— and settling into the island rhythms. Hell, his voice had even picked up a hint of the native twang. Yet he’d forever be viewed as a “come-from-away.” People were unfailingly friendly and respectful of his skills, but his veins swam with mainlander blood: he bore the taint of Toronto, the Big Smoke, the snobby haves to PeI’s hardscrabble have-nots. Around here, it’s as much a case of who you’re from as where you’re from: bloodlines ran thick and the island held close its own.

Mercifully, his Scouts didn’t care that Tim was a “come-from-away.” He was everything they could possibly want in a leader: knowledgeable and serene, exuding confidence while bolstering their own; he’d learned the native flora and fauna, knew how to string a leg snare and light a one-match fire, but most crucially, he treated them with respect—if the boys were not quite yet his equals, Tim gave every impression that he’d welcome them as such once they’d passed the requisite boyhood rituals. Their parents trusted Tim; their families were all patients at his practice in north Point.

The boys were tight-knit. The five of them had come up together through Beavers, Cubs, Scouts, and now Venturers. Tim had known them since their first lodge meeting: a quintet of five-year-olds hesitantly reciting the Beaver pledge—I promise to love God and take care of the world.

But this would be their last hurrah. Tim understood why. Scouts was . . . well, dorky. Kids of this generation didn’t want to dress in beige uniforms, knot their kerchiefs, and earn Pioneering badges. The current movement was overpopulated with socially maladjusted little turds or grating keeners whose sashes were festooned with merits.

But these five boys under Tim had remained engaged in Scouting simply because they wanted to be. Kent was one of the most popular boys in school. ephraim and max were well liked, too. Shelley was an odd duck, sure, but nobody gave him grief.

And newton . . . well, newt was a nerd. A good kid, an incredibly smart kid, but let’s face it, a full-blown nerd.

It wasn’t simply that the boy was overweight; that was a conquerable social obstacle, no worse than a harelip or pimples or shabby clothes. no, poor newt was simply born a nerd, as certain unfortunates are. Had Tim been in the delivery room, he’d’ve sensed it: an ungrippable essence, unseen but deeply felt, dumping out of the babe’s body like a pheromone. Tim pictured the obstetrician handing newton to his exhausted mother with a doleful shake of his head.

Congratulations, Ms. Thornton, he’s a healthy baby nerd. He’s bound to be a wonderful man, but for the conceivable future he’ll be a first-rank dweeb—a dyed-in-the-wool Poindexter.

All boys gave off a scent, Tim found—although it wasn’t solely an olfactory signature; in Tim’s mind it was a powerful emanation that enveloped his every sense. For instance, Bully-scent: acidic and adrenal, the sharp whiff you’d get off a pile of old green-fuzzed batteries. or Jock-scent: groomed grass, crushed chalk, and the locker room funk wafting off a stack of exercise mats. Kent Jenks pumped out Jock-scent in waves. other boys, like max and ephraim, were harder to define— ephraim often gave off a live-wire smell, a power transformer exploding in a rainstorm.

Shelley . . . Tim considered between sips of scotch and realized the boy gave off no smell at all—if anything the vaporous, untraceable scent of a sterilized room in a house long vacant of human life.

Newton, though, stunk to high heaven of nerd: an astringent and unmistakable aroma, a mingling of airless basements and dank library corners and tree forts built for solitary habitation, of dust smoldering inside personal computers, the licorice tang of asthma puffer mist and the vaguely narcotic smell of model glue—the ineffable scent of isolation and lonely forbearance. over time a boy’s body changed, too: his shoulders stooped to make their owner less visible, the way defenseless animals alter their appearance to avoid predators, while their eyes took on a flinching, hunted cast.

Newton couldn’t help it. A trait burdened to his DnA helix, inexcisable from his other attributes—which, Tim gloomily noted, were numerous but not valuable at his age: newton was unfailingly kind and polite, read books, and made obvious attempts at self-betterment— the equivalent of an air-raid siren blaring in a tranquil neighborhood: NEeeeerd-AleeeRT! NEeeeerd-AleeeRT! Tim felt incredibly protective of newton and was saddened by his inability to help . . . but an adult protecting a boy only opened that boy up to further torments.

Tim stepped off the porch to turn off the generator. mosquitoes zeroed in; he felt them at the back of his neck like drunks at the bar set to guzzle their fill. He slapped them as he walked around the back of the cabin, his fingers brushing the log wall for balance—he’d drank that scotch too fast . . .

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