Albert Cunningham was a normal Canadian boy living a normal Canadian life until one horrible day a year and a half ago. He had been having strange dreams about running on all fours through the frozen northern forests, hunting down wild animals, and eating them raw. This recurring dream was interesting at first, even invigorating. It felt good to be wild, out of his cramped high school existence and free of his parents’ rule, even if the idea of eating raw rabbits and beavers was a bit discomforting. He had always had vivid dreams, but these were so realistic that even months after having one, he could remember every detail; the flavor of the blood, the sounds of paws crunching through snow, and the smells. Oh, the smells. Everything, even pure water, had a smell. Sweet smells, putrid smells, comforting smells of the forest. All of them bolder than he’d ever experienced, and all of them just as wonderful and enticing as the others. Even the smell of his kills’ offal.
But then the horrible day came. The dreams had transmogrified into a nightmare. Unfortunately, this nightmare was real and there was nothing Albert could do to stop it. He changed. His muscles ripped, his bones cracked and elongated, and his terrified screams turned into a blood chilling lupine howl of pain and fury. And there was blood. So much blood. The taste of it was like iron and smog and processed artificial culinary detritus, and the smell of it made him want to vomit, but his traitorous hands, claws, kept pushing the vile meat into his gagging maw.
And he kept eating and eating and eating…
It was nothing like the dreams.
Then he ran. He ran away from his mother and father. He ran away from his ranch house and his television and his central heating. He didn’t deserve these things because he was a monster. He was a walking nightmare, and he could not be a part of the world anymore. So he walked, then hitchhiked, then when the roads failed, he rode the big iron. And he was away. There were people —few, and not friends, but they understood. They knew what it was like to need to be away, be free. Some chose the life. Some had no choice. Those were like him. Monsters. Only not in the same way. They were the types of monsters that women in parking garages feared. They were the monsters that lived in alleys and stole their dinners from the pockets of tourists. They were explainable monsters, products and banes of their society. Albert was a different kind of monster. An Unexplainable. A terror. A phantom from the blackest dreams of man that keeps children terrified of their closet and makes grown men irrationally fear strange sounds in the night. A part of them knows hell is real and comes shaped like a high school boy whose shadow bears uncontrollable flesh rending jaws and a taste for blood.
Albert hid with men in the backs of trains. He huddled with them around oil drums full of fire that warmed his hands in the harsh winters of the Canadian Northwest. He took their jibes and answered their questions dishonestly. He learned what a load of squiggly lines on the side of a brick building meant. He was always hungry, and his appetites had changed. He wasn’t eating rabbits skewered with a stick, no matter how good they smelled. He ate out of cans. Stolen cans. Cans of beans. Cans of corn. Cans of rot pulled out of truck stop dumpsters. He hated it, but he ate it.
One night, after an unsuccessful trip to a grocery store that ended with him sleeping hungry for the third night in a row, he had another peculiar dream. A spirit — not that he believed in such things, but what else could he call it, really — came to him. It taught him a clever trick. It gathered sticks and grass. It gathered plastic six-pack rings, potato chip bags, and an old cigarette butt. It gathered all these things, then placed them in a bent, rusty coffee can, then placed all of this over the fire. It bid him stir the garbage stew with a broken fork. After a few minutes, it told him to eat the bizarre concoction. He did, and it tasted exactly like its components. He gagged the refuse pudding down. When he woke, he felt surprisingly full.
He was always careful not to let the others see his trick. They would Know. It would be an unquestionable fact that he was a magic wielding monster. Even the untouchable hobos could shun him, or worse, attack him and force him to show what kind of monster he really was. So he pulled away from his people slightly, and dined from his little tin can of gray mush in the corner while they ate their delicious smelling rabbits. They took to calling him Tin Can Kid, or Tinny. They let him eat in the corners. They liked him; he was a good kid, after all, but there was something off about him. Better to let him do his weird eating ritual, and come around in time. Besides, that meant more meat for them when it could be had.
His most recent forays into the great wide countryside of North America took him below the 49th parallel and into the American West. He traveled through the homey climes of Washington and Oregon, and eventually the iron road took him to Northern California, a place where he would discover a road of a different type. There were some kooks there, some free thinkers, and quite a few people who spent the better part of the mid-late 20th century stung out on any number of hallucinogens, but they all had some fundamental commonality with Tinny; they thought, thought differently, and though the realities that they all conjured within the gray folds and firing synapses of their minds were often far removed from each other in form and function, they were all of them valid. Tinny picked up as much education as he could here, some from drunken hobo philosophers, some from men with sandwich boards and tattered bibles, and some from bookstores and public libraries. From these last, he never stole. He would panhandle or clean windshields for change. Food or clothing he may have taken with deft fingers, but he refused to steal books. One cannot pilfer knowledge! It must be earned the hard way. He eventually traveled on, curious to see the rest of the Greatest Country in the World, and judge for himself the truth of that great American assertion.
East he moved, to the heart, the great plains.
He soaked up as much information on this journey as he could, and by any means. He was finding himself, finding his place in the world, and he’d had a good ten year head start on all his peers. They would be children until they were halfway through their twenties. It hadn’t escaped his attention that his premature maturation was on account of his untimely and uncontrollable transformation into a mindless, bloodthirsty beast. His new personal philosophy had opened to his mind to an acceptance of fate, fate made all the more potent and beautiful by poetic irony. What had escaped his attention, however, was that for all the new complex thoughts, epiphanies, and hard fought battles with himself and his reality, he was still a child. His separation from everything he ever knew and loved during the most inopportune moment (at the tail end of puberty, where a man first begins shedding his childish coil, and yet remains a half-boy) had created a deep but inconspicuous cleft in his psyche.
Into that rift falls the fruit of his every effort, his ignorance of his shortcoming ultimately rendering him impotent.
But there will soon come a reckoning, a sacrifice, a coming of age, and the boy will lie shattered, dead —an innocuous phantasm not to be feared, but to be reminisced upon with a half-embarrassed smile. From the shards of the boy sacrifice will be forged a man.