Over at Chuck Wendig’s blog TERRIBLEMINDS he’s been doing this thing most Fridays where he challenges his fellow Pen Monkeys to do some flash fiction. He provides a prompt, a targeted word count, and people get a writin’. I haven’t done one of these in a long time because I was feverishly polishing WHEN A RAVEN PECKS OUT YOUR NORMAL, pitching agents, starting THE PERTHSHIRE GARGOYLES (BOOK ONE: THE STONE EYES CURSE), and generally trying to keep life away from my writing time.
This last week’s prompt was based on mashing up genres. I got Weird West Kaiju.
Please read. Please comment your thoughts. Thank you.
Without further ado, I give you: NIOBARA!
I grew up in the flatlands. A snow skiing hill could be made of a former landfill in the lower portion of Michigan’s Mitten. Once I crossed the Missouri River on my way from Detroit to Los Angeles, I had to slow my motorcycle down. The foothills of the Dakotas seemed gigantic to this Great Lakes-raised rider. Slumbering giants, but giants all the same.
In a small town called Reliance, South Dakota, I changed my route from the interstate to two lanes and started heading south for a bit. After a few days, I needed to get off “Mule,” that’s what I called my little Harley Sportster. I called it Mule because my best friend and fellow rider, Julian, had a big giant green soft tail and he said my bike was like riding a Mule. I shrugged him off and told him I was comfortable on my bike. Julian was going to meet me in Vegas, but I had a lot of time before our rendezvous. I stopped in Wyoming in a town called Lusk, at the cross roads of U.S. 18 and U.S. 20. There was a huge truck stop there and I could take some time and do an oil change on Mule and take in the scenery and the local culture. Given that there was a thoroughfare called “Beer Can Road,” I figured I was in for a cowboy-meets-hayseed treat. They would likely perceive me as the alien Motor City Mama I was, but that would be half the fun.
I was waylaid in my evening activities by the wondrous geography around me. I couldn’t stop looking at the rolling foothills, and just stood in front of the Best Western Pioneer, frozen to the landscape, unable to move inside to the reception desk and procure a room. The air was thinner, I could tell. Elevation was already at more than 5,000 feet, or so said a sign heading into town. The elevation was greater than its population. In essence I was standing on a mountain, starring out onto the first little baby Rockies. Standing there, I finally figured out what they meant by Purple Mountain Majesty, the hills gleamed of this light that tinted everything in shades of blue, purple, and even pink. Aubergine, I thought to myself. And the sky was even more colossal, and its expanse would make any creature feel small and unworthy. I finally broke its spell and went into the hotel.
“We thought maybe you were just going to stand out there all night,” the clerk said as I shifted my jacket and helmet in my hand. He was an older man, but not a senior. Deep-lined crow’s feet tattled that he spent his youth in the sun and maybe smoked for awhile. Salt and pepper highlights were in his hair and his closely cropped goatee.
“It’s very beautiful here,” I said. “I get the Purple Mountain Majesty now.”
“Purple, huh? Hmmmm,” he said, and raised an eyebrow. “You saw purple in the hills? Best stay in tonight, I think.” I looked confused and then he cleared his throat, “How may I help you?”
“I need a room for at least tonight, maybe two.”
“Just one guest?” he tapped keys on a computer terminal.
“Correct,” and I set my helmet down on the carpeted floor and pulled my wallet out of the inside pocket of my leather jacket.
“Room 51,” he slid a map towards me. “You can park your bike right in front of the door. If you hurry, you’ll catch the last of the sunset.” He winked.
I thanked him and gathered my gear and did exactly as he said. I pulled my bike around the side of the place and parked in front of room 51. I backed the bike in the spot so I could sit on Mule while watching the sun finally dip down between rolling vast hills, looking like a giant yolky softball stuck between the shadows of the buttes. As the sun slipped below the horizon and the stars twinkled into sight, the vastness of that Wyoming sky felt almost burdensome. I had to catch my breath before getting my saddle bags and myself into the room.
It wasn’t five-star accommodations, but it was clean and the door bolted in three ways. We were kind of out in the middle of nowhere, even though there was a healthy population here in Lusk, Wyoming. So maybe the three locks made travelers like me more comfortable. I thought about my sensei back in Detroit and his lessons of brute force. If someone wanted in, they could get in. The flowered and geometric patterned bedspread was confusion incarnate. I imagined my own parents staying in a place like this and laughed. It would offend their Midwestern protestant values.
I dropped my saddle bags on the floor of the half closet next to the bathroom, removed my road gear, and changed gravity by lying flat on the bed, arms spread out crucifix style. I closed my eyes, thinking about all that I had seen in my journey thus far, all the crap that had brought me to this point. It might have started out in a complete breakdown of my life – my marriage, my job, my entire belief system. I sat up and shook my head and decided to wash the road off and go find a good steak.
After the shower and perusing the “Around Here” pamphlet, I settled on the Triangle 4 Café and Steakhouse, which I could easily walk to, which was necessary after days on the Mule. Like the hotel, it wasn’t anything to write home about, a cinderblock building the shape of the state it resided in, painted in a pink-peach chipping paint. But, inside smelled of heaven. I ordered an ale draft and the dark-haired waitress carded me.
The beer came in a frosted glass and washed the last of the road from my throat. I ordered the “cowgirl” ribeye, because 10 ounces of steak after living off of jerky, power bars, and carrot sticks for the last few days, my system didn’t need a complete shock. I hated the binary language of the menu; but, the cowboy meant 21 ounces of steak, which was a gross amount of food for me.
I’d taken two bites of the perfectly medium-rare, char-grilled goodness, when a thunderous roar shook the restaurant. Wyoming was known for wicked storms that rose up and fell quickly, so my first thought was it was some wicked storm.
“Everybody into the walk-in,” a burly man with five o’clock shadow and a dirty prep apron on bellowed near the entrance to the kitchen. “Move it!”
“Niobara!” the dark-haired waitress shrieked, as she backed up away from the windows and towards the kitchen.
I looked out the long narrow window and saw a scaly, purple leg filling the window’s frame. I grabbed my plate and headed towards the burly man. Another deafening roar filled our ears, a little girl that had been sitting with her grandparents near the door cried, “I want my mommy!”
There were a total of seven of us in that walk-in, standing in the center surrounded by perishable meats, vegetables, and sauces. Burly man had thrown gray wool blankets at all of us as we filed into the cooler, while a shorter Latino man closed the giant steel door behind us.
“Sorry about this folks,” the burly man said. “Niobara attacks, although less these days, can be brutal.”
“I’ve never heard about this Niobara,” I said, taking a bite of my steak caveman style. The Latino man gave me a thumbs-up eyeing my steak-eating. The burly man cleared his throat and everyone looked back at him, although the little girl continued to whimper.
“The hills around here,” he took a deep breath in, “The locals know; but, for you,” he paused and pointed to me and the older couple and small child, “you’re going to think we’re all crazy.”
“Try me,” I say, trying to hide the food in my mouth.
“There’s always been a reason why the West was full of misfits and ghost towns. Niobara is the reason. Large, hungry, and vicious.”
“Its leg looked like a dinosaur,” I said, feeling the walls rumbling around us.
“Like Barney?” the little girl stopped her crying. “I want to see Barney.” Her grandmother told her to hush.
“More like a giant horned toad on two legs,” the Latino man said. “But yeah, lots of purple coloring.”
“It hides inside the mountain, literally merges with it, and sleeps for long periods of time, until its hunger awakens it. Then it ravishes the towns around this area.”
“Manville was attacked in June of 2012,” the burly man said. “It still hasn’t come back. We’re a bit smarter here in Lusk. We have panic rooms, and build our buildings out of cheap materials, or have electric fences.”
My steak was gone and I now picked up the baked potato and ate it like an apple. The building shook again. We could faintly here an air raid siren and rumbling in the background peppered by some squawking car alarms.
“It sounds like an earthquake out there,” I said.
Burly man just nodded. “That’s what most people think happens here is an earthquake.” He exhaled long and loudly.
“So, how long do we stay in here?” The little girl’s grandpa tried to stand tall, clearly in an effort to make himself seem to be someone for which an answer should be given.
We’ll listen for the—” the burly man put a finger to his lips.
“It’s quiet,” said the dark-haired waitress.
The burly man cocked his head as if having his left ear up might offer him better hearing. The rumbling had stopped. The siren had stopped. The three staff people all nodded at each other.
“Wow. Quick?” the Latino man said to the burly man. Then he cleared his throat, “Should be alright, now,”he said with the nice smile and looking at me.
“Think I could travel and be safe? Like is the Niobara back in its hibernation?” All I could think of was telling Julian about this craziness.
“Sure, but you have to see the sheriff, first,” the burly man said. “They have to keep track of every person that has ever experienced a Niobara attack.”
The three Triangle-4 steakhouse employees shrugged in unison.
“Sure thing,” I said, picking a piece of parsley up from my plate and nibbling it.
Burly man unbolted the door and warm air hit all of us. The restaurant had a huge gaping hole near where the door had been. Dust painted on the darkness was everywhere. I handed the waitress more than enough bills to cover my bill and said, “I’m headed to the sheriff,” and ran towards my hotel. The devastation looked earthquake enough, but also did present like a Tornado, but I was pretty sure Wyoming didn’t get tornados. If they did, this was a hop-scotching tornado.
The Best Western was missing its sign but otherwise remained unscathed, not so fortunate was The Covered Wagon Inn across the street. The Covered Wagon was upside down in the middle of the road. I raced to my room, grabbed my gear and saddle bags, and made it back onto the highway in record time. The oil change would have to wait.
Lusk was in my side view mirror and the moon was high. I headed straight south nonstop towards Cheyenne. Niobara was behind me, and hopefully there it would stay.