It was when Claire woke up on Christmas morning that she discovered her husband had grown a pair of antlers. It had started a few days earlier. Buck had been complaining of a headache, and within a few hours there were two sizeable bumps on his forehead, the bruised skin tight and shiny. Claire assumed he must have hit his head during one of his regular late-night drinking sessions, and thought no more of it. But now there were two small, but very definite velvety buds protruding from his hairline. She was almost certain that they weren't there the night before.
It had been Buck's idea to drive up to the cabin for Christmas. He had an almost obsessive preoccupation with hunting, and a day off from his job at the power plant meant that he could indulge in his passion. It was a long drive up to the forest. Buck switched the radio to a country station and hummed along tunelessly for a couple of hours, scratching at his forehead from time to time. Claire glanced across at him and was convinced that the bony bumps had grown another couple of inches during the course of the journey.
Finally they reached the cabin. Stretching her aching back, Claire gazed around at the beautiful wilderness. It was a cold morning, and a thick frost lay on the ground. Off to her left, Claire heard a coyote calling. “Goddamn coyotes better not be after my deer,” grumbled Buck, snatching his shotgun from the footwell of the truck. “Don't stand there doing nothin', get the bags inside.”
Claire made coffee and busied herself with the unpacking while Buck generously laced his mug with whiskey. Out of the corner of her eye Claire could see him absent-mindedly rubbing his head against the doorpost. He disappeared into the living area and when he returned a few minutes later, she was amused to see that he had cut a couple of holes in his baseball cap and fitted it over the antlers, which by now were considerably longer.
Buck was, by nature, a bully, and like all bullies he liked to have an audience to witness his natural cruelty. By late morning Buck had harvested his first deer, hauled it back to the clearing outside the cabin and propped it up on its back using two large stones to hold it in place while he dressed it.
Buck got his kicks from the kill; he didn't want the beasts for food or hide, he simply enjoyed destroying them. He couldn't even be bothered to clear up the chaos he left behind, he just hacked off their antlers, ripped out the guts with his skinning knife and left the corpses to rot where they lay.
It sickened Claire. This time, Buck made her stand and watch while he gutted the poor creature, forcing her to hold the bucket while he dropped in handfuls of steaming entrails, laughing at her obvious distress. He clasped her face with his bloodied hands, smearing her cheeks with the slick wetness, his meaty breath making her gag as he kissed her full on the mouth, “Merry Christmas darlin’,” he drawled, taking a long swig from the ever-present bottle of Jim Beam which he kept on the porch, “Rudolph ain’t lookin’ so smart now, is he?” Once the gutting was done, Buck took the bucket of offal and emptied the foul contents under the trees, leaving it for the coyotes. “Merry Christmas, you sons of bitches!” he sneered.
Back at the cabin, Buck paused from washing the blood off his forearms to look in the mirror. Something was different, but he couldn’t work out what it was. His head felt heavy, but he decided that was because he hadn’t had enough to drink. Grabbing a beer from the fridge, he pushed past Claire as she stood in the doorway and lurched back out onto the porch.
Claire stood alone in the darkening room and wondered how on earth she had ever gotten into this situation. Her husband was a pig. Over the years Buck had manipulated and denigrated her to the point where she had eventually lost any self-confidence she had, and she no longer had the energy to fight back. She looked out at Buck who had slumped into a battered chair, where he spent the afternoon taking pot-shots at anything that moved within a 200-yard radius. By the time it grew dark the trees were hung with jackrabbits, scrub jays, ravens; even the odd skunk had joined the deer carcass, which in a moment of uncharacteristic enthusiasm Buck had dragged back to the cabin and strung up from the branches of the nearest pine tree. Buck thought it was hilarious. He stumbled into the cabin, gripped Claire by the arm and forced her to look out of the window at his handiwork. “Christmas decorations” he grunted to Claire, as she gasped in horror at the gruesome display.
As the moon rose overhead, Claire heard the coyote again. After a few moments she heard another, barking in response to the high-pitched squeal of its young. “There must be a pack of them,” she thought to herself, as the howling grew and echoed across the forest.
Later that night, Claire lay awake listening to the sounds of the wilderness. She heard the coyotes snuffling and scratching at something beneath the window. Beside her, Buck was muttering in his sleep, tossing and turning, and restlessly rubbing his head on the pillow. Claire shifted quietly over to the far side of the bed; Buck’s antlers were quite large now, and were taking up rather a lot of room. He would be angry if she woke him, Claire thought, so she turned on her side and tried to go back to sleep. Moments later, she woke with a start. An intense howling filled the room and Buck leapt to his feet in confusion. “Damn coyotes,” he snarled, pulling on his jeans and grabbing the shotgun from where he had left it, loaded, next to the bed. He threw open the cabin door and peered out into the dark. With some difficulty he tilted his now magnificently-antlered head and edged sideways through the door, closing it quietly behind him. The howls grew louder, until Claire could feel the cabin walls shaking. Then without warning the howling stopped, to be replaced by low-throated growls growing even closer, until finally, silence.
From outside the cabin door came a strangled cry, suddenly cut off.
First thing the next morning, Claire loaded up the truck and headed back down the interstate, humming along to Christmas tunes on the radio. There had been no sign of Buck that morning, only an area of flattened grass under the pines where a deer had spent the night. Claire had spotted something shining in the dirt. Stooping, she picked it up. It was Buck's skinning knife, somehow it must have come loose from his belt. She turned it over in her hand to read the inscription engraved on its hilt. 'Happy hunting'. Yes, she thought, as she climbed into the truck, perhaps the hunt had been successful after all. “Merry Christmas, Buck” she murmured.