The Milk

“There’s gotta be a way to live that doesn’t involve hating yourself.” A work of fiction where a healing elixir drives a journey towards an otherworldly truth…
by: Pat Cavanaugh

Carl Landen first tasted the Milk at a bar in northern Minnesota. It was a dim, damp place called “Nick’s” or “The Tree Shack” or whatever — he wasn’t paying attention to the name, just the vibe. He loved to sit and hate himself at bars nestled in the northern woods. They were the perfect place to imbibe Miller High Life’s and watch cigarette smoke — indoor smoking bans be damned — drift past neon PBR signs. No matter how many times he made the trip to and from Canada, Carl always found a new place, each establishment as unique as the trees surrounding it, like the bar itself had sprouted from the soil, as if it too held hidden knowledge in its roots.

“It started as survival,” Carl would argue to whatever Nord-descendent bartender he held captive with his woes. “I’m a diabetic and have no insurance. Insulin’s cheaper in Canada.” He’d catch himself mid-burp, then continue. “Then I realized, others need to live too, you know? I could be a supplier. Mark the prices above Canadian rates. Keep them below standard for the States.” He’d down his drink. “But you do that for a few years, and you start to worry you’re as bad as those big pharma fuckers.” He’d stare off for a moment, then slump down in his chair, eyes fluttering. “But I’m not. Right?” And then he’d snore, at which point the bartender would either ask him to leave or escort him out — never very nicely. It went like this every time. Except for at the bar where he found the Milk. 

Carl had ordered his usual: a shot of whiskey with a High Life chaser. The bartender grunted. Or maybe he said, “of course.” Regardless, the bartender poured a shot of Jim Beam, cracked open a bottle of High Life, and placed each in front of Carl. He threw the shot back, then closed his eyes and sat for a moment. When he finally opened his eyes, he realized a barfly was staring at him.

“Funny order you got there,” the barfly said.

“Could say the same for you.” Carl gestured toward the stranger’s glass. “What is that, milk?”

The stranger laughed. “It’s not milk. It’s Milk.”

Carl turned away and shook his head. But as he returned to his High Life, the bartender emerged from the back of the bar carrying four glasses of the Milk. Carl turned and watched as the bartender delivered the Milk to a table of four flannel and grime covered woodsmen. It was at this point that Carl noticed everyone in the bar was drinking the Milk.

“Hey, bartender.”

A grunt. A nod.

“What’s that milky drink everyone’s got?”

Another grunt, and the bartender disappeared into the back, returning a moment later with a glass of the Milk and placing it in front of Carl. Subtle vapors drifted from the chilled glass, carrying an oddly alluring, but mostly confusing, scent like lavender and eggs.

“How much sugar is in this?”

“You’ll be fine,” the barfly said.

Carl took the frosty glass, raised it to his lips, and tilted it back. Instantly, he noted that though the glass was cold, the liquid felt warm on his tongue. Though it was definitely liquid, it was thick and smooth, like fondue. Yet it wasn’t savory, or sweet, or earthy or fruity or spicy. And it certainly wasn’t like milk. By the time he swallowed his first sip, Carl realized that none of the traditional descriptors for taste applied to this drink, that this drink activated senses he didn’t realise he had. It quenched something beyond thirst. It gave rise to a milliseconds-long fullness that he only appreciated in its absence. An absence he had to correct with a second gulp, which flowed into his third and fourth and eighth gulps until the drink had disappeared, and he only saw his longing eyes reflected in the misty bottom of the empty glass.

Enjoy your Milk, did ya?” the barfly quipped.

Carl stared at the backwash rolling down the glass. “What is It?”

“A new north woods specialty.”

“Is there even any alcohol in it?”

“Pal, you just tasted Heaven, and you’re wondering about its alcohol content?”

“Fair enough,” Carl looked at the bartender. “Where do you get this stuff?”

The bartender grunted and shrugged.

“Speak up, man! Your goddamn supplier. Who is it?”

The bartender frowned, leaned over the bar, and spoke up. “You better go.”

So Carl left, driving for a while before finding a place to crash. Not a minute went by in his hard-as-hell motel bed without his thoughts returning to that Milk, its indescribable taste, the way it felt like a sunbeam cast directly on him while he drank it. The way it felt as if dark clouds had gathered since he finished it. 

Weeks passed, the Milk spilling into Carl’s random, unrelated thoughts during day and invading his dreams by night. On the road, when he felt especially lonely and self loathing, he’d imagine opening a cooler and cracking open a bottle of the Milk. Eggy lavender aroma overwhelming the stale smoke and mildew of the motel room. The Milk opened great mysteries inside him.

His yearning intensified when he made a realization — his blood sugar levels had stabilized. Even on days when he’d been less-than-careful with his diet. He couldn’t prove it, but he knew it had to be the Milk that caused the stabilization. Nothing else had changed. No other miracles had occurred. The creator of the Milk was the accidental inventor of a cure for diabetes. And if Carl played his cards right, he could help this inventor sell the elixir countrywide. Maybe even worldwide. He’d never have to peddle insulin across the border again.

The next month Carl cancelled all his pickups in Canada and resolved to find the Milk-maker. But as he drove into the area where he first had encountered the Milk, his rundown Toyota Camry started smoking. Carl punched the steering wheel, the dash and the radio and screamed as he pulled to the side of the road.

“How many miles on this thing?” The tow truck driver asked when she finally arrived, unscrewing a green coffee thermos. A nametag reading “Eileen” was sewn into her greasy uniform.

“Enough.”

“Probably should get it maintenanced a little more regularly.”

Carl said nothing.

“Or at least trade it in.”

Eileen turned the winch on.

“Hell, I’d buy it from ya for the scrap.”

Carl remained silent. They waited in silence as the Camry ascended slowly onto the truck bed. As it neared completion, Eileen took a swig from her Thermos. He noticed a cream colored liquid, caught the scent of lavender and eggs. Carl snapped to attention.

“Where’d you get that?”

“The Thermos?”

“The drink inside it.”

Eileen scratched her chin.

“My kitchen.”

“So you made it.”

“Hah, no.”

“Who’d you buy it from?”

Eileen’s shoulders tensed.

“The guy I got this from, he’s trying to draw as little attention to himself as possible.”

“I can be discreet.”

Eileen sighed.

“I’ll give you the Camry for free if you tell me.”

Eileen raised an eyebrow.

“Free Camry and $1,000. You give me a ride into town and a swig from the Thermos.”

Carl’s offer hung in the air.

“All right then,” Eileen finally said.

They were silent on the road into town, aside from Eileen noshing on some dip between pulls from the Thermos. Carl tried not to think about her backwash contaminating his contractually agreed upon swig. Instead, he thought about ways to bring the Milk to market. He had no formal training, but a life of off-market entrepreneurship, from flipping Pokemon cards on the playground to his present hustle, surely prepared him for business life. Even if it hadn’t, he was owed something for his years of grinding. It was time for a real payoff.

“Here,” Eileen said, pointing to the side of the road. Another bar, this one sprouted from the concrete of the northwoods town. Run down, potentially abandoned buildings flanked it. Tough and tired townies smoked outside.

“They make it here?”

“Bartender’s named Ralph. Gonna sound weird, but if you want the Milk, ya gotta say, ‘Moo moo. You got milk, cowboy?'”

“Really?”

“Yup.”

“All right,” Carl said, opening the passenger door.

“The money?”

“Of course.” Carl opened his backpack, pulling out a roll of bills. Eileen eyed it and the other rolls in Carl’s bag, and also noticed his gun. He counted out a grand and handed it to her. She, in turn, gave him the Thermos. 

Carl lifted the Thermos and drank, light flooding his mouth, throat and stomach with temporary reprieve from struggle. He closed his eyes, trying to prolong the moment, even as Eileen rolled hers. He handed the Thermos back. “Thanks.”

“‘Moo moo. You got milk, cowboy?’ Remember.”

Carl nodded and stepped out of the truck. Eileen pulled off with Carl’s dead Camry, his money, and a subtle grin.

He walked through the townies’ smoke haze and into the dim dive, where more locals gathered at the bar and grit their teeth at the Viking’s game playing on the TV.

The bartender, Ralph, leant with his back on the bar to watch the game too. A large man in height and bulk, he wore suspenders and no shirt, enviously confident in the way his torso, nipples and hair exhibited themselves. Carl sat at a stool, and Ralph stood in front of him, big and happy and welcoming.

“Hey there, stranger. Name’s Ralph. Welcome to my little shithole.”

Carl laughed, Ralph’s spirit immediately infecting him. “Thanks. I’m Carl.”

“What can I getcha? First one’s on the house.”

“Miller’s great.”

“Coming right up,” Ralph said as he started to pour Carl’s drink.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you, actually,” Carl said.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I heard, well…”

“What?” Ralph laughed, delivering Carl’s Miller.

“It feels weird saying it.”

“Saying what?”

“You know.”

Ralph shook his head, legitimately confused.

“Oh. Okay. Uh.” Carl shifted in his seat, realizing Ralph was going to make him say it. “You know. Moo moo. You got milk, cowboy?”

The sun set on Ralph’s disposition.

“Say again?”

Carl frowned and cleared his throat. “Uh. Moo moo. You got milk, cow–”

Carl hit the floor before he registered Ralph’s fist had flattened his nose. The stool fell on top of him, followed by the full Miller glass. As Carl slowly realized what was happening, sputtering beer and groaning, Ralph climbed over the bar, spouting tears and profanity.

“Fucking little shit bitch fucker!”

Ralph hooked his fingers into Carl’s shirt and back flab and dragged him across the divebar’s damp floor.

“Fuck fuck fucker asshole shit stain prick!”

Ralph threw him face first into the cracked concrete sidewalk.

“I’m not a fucking cow!” Ralph screamed, face red and tear-stained.

“Backpack…my backpack.” Carl whimpered.

One of the barflies behind Ralph handed him the backpack as everyone gathered to watch. Ralph opened it. “Holy shit.”

“Please…”

“All mine now.” Ralph pulled out Carl’s pistol. “If you come inside, I’ll blow your brains out with your own gun, pig fucker.” Ralph spat at Carl and slammed the door.

Gasping, Carl pushed himself up to his knees and wiped mucus and blood from his face, only for more to pour forth from his crushed nose.

“You don’t call Ralph a cow,” said one of the smoking townies, offering Carl a hand. “Rude thing to say to anyone, but especially him. He got enough of that in grade school.”

“Didn’t call him a cow,” Carl croaked as he took the stranger’s hand. “Called him a cowboy.”

“You may have said cowboy. But what he heard was cow-boy.”

Carl moaned, both from the pain of standing and at the realization that Eileen had set him up. The stranger handed him a tissue.

“Name’s Fran.”

Carl took the tissue and glanced through dazed eyes and cigarette smoke at the red-headed, rough-handed woman before him. He tapped his chest. “Carl.”

Fran threw down her cigarette and stamped it out. “Come on, Carl. Let’s take care of that nose.”

As they drove away from the scene and the shock faded, Carl realized he was fucked, and that he was crying. He sniffled and rubbed his nose and eyes as discreetly as possible, then checked if Fran had seen.

She had, but now perceiving her more clearly, Carl realized she had exceedingly kind eyes set into a handsome, ageless face. She gave Carl a reassuring smile.

“Almost there.”

Fran turned onto a bumpy road, then pulled up to a classic, if run-down, farmhouse. A faded red barn stood nearby, radiating comfort from its chipped paint. Beyond, cows grazed and lazed in the grass. It was then that Carl heard the clinking sounds, and turned to see crates of empty glasses in the trunk bed. Thick milky residue stained their sides.

“Don’t be shy.”

Fran held Carl’s passenger door open. She smiled as Carl hobbled out, staring at the empty glasses.

“Like to collect the containers and reuse them. Sustainability and all that.”

Carl nodded, and Fran gestured for him to follow her. She brought Carl into her cluttered kitchen, motioned for Carl to take a seat at the table. She handed him a box of tissues.

“Be right back.”

Upon hearing the front door close, Carl ran to the kitchen window. He saw as Fran walked to the barn and slipped inside. A faint glow pulsed from within.

Carl stuck two tissues in his nostril and ran out the door and down the porch. Somewhere between the porch and the barn he dropped his rag, but he didn’t care. This was it. It had to be. He opened the barn door, ignoring Fran’s cries for him to “wait!” And then he froze. He beheld It, with trembling lips and wide eyes.

It was seven feet tall, at least, yet seated and hunched over. It must have been eighteen feet tall when standing. It sat on a bed of hay and heaved, two of its four arms held to its chest. Its pale teal skin shifted tones over Its massive frame, like a calm lake. Membranous and semi-transparent dragonfly wings furled against the barn ceiling, and a mess of black eyes near the top of Its head seemed to glance at Carl, then look away with an indifferent weariness. A metal beam impaled through Its torso held it up. A creamy liquid leaked from the wound and into a bucket between Its legs.

“I tried to help them. I really did.

“Wha…I-it,” Carl stammered.

“Crashed onto my property some time ago, piece of space junk pierced through ’em. Couldn’t get it out. I tried, but They didn’t want me to. All They said was ‘share.'”

“Share?”

Fran pointed to the bucket. The Milk.

“It runs through Them. Blood-like. Maybe more pus-like. I’m no scientist. All I know is it’s supposed to heal them, but something about being on Earth keeps it from working. Maybe the air. I dunno. Works for people, though.”

“H-how do you know all this?”

“They told me.”

“It…They speak?”

“Sorta. Not out loud. More like impressions in your mind, if you touch them.”

Carl stepped forward, neck craned toward the wheezing being. His own breaths stilted. 

“They gave their own blood for the people here, you know,” Fran said. “First glass I had fixed up my knees. I couldn’t believe it. So I shared with my brother, Jared — he’d been hard of hearing since a rifle went off by his ear when he was twelve. But one glass, and he turned to me and said, ‘I hear it. The rain, on the roof.'” Fran sniffled, tearing up. “And you know the horrible thing? I took their charity, and I profited from it. Sold it all over town. Made enough that I paid off the home mortgage. Drained this beautiful creature for hundreds of thousands. It felt wrong, but I kept doing it. But now that it’s gone, the shame I feel…” Fran wiped her eyes. “I oughta sell everything. Donate it to the poor. Then walk off a fucking bridge.” Fran buried her head in her hands and sobbed.

“They asked you to.”

“They asked me to share. Share, dammit!”

“You had bills to pay like everyone. Anyone else would’ve done the same.”

Fran shook her head. “Maybe. But there’s gotta be a way to live that doesn’t involve hating yourself.”

Carl reached out his right hand. He touched his palm to the being’s taut, yet soft, skin, and heard a thought that was not his own.

Kill.

Carl jumped back, looked at Fran, then back to the being. He touched it once more while thinking, Kill Fran?

Kill the Watcher.

“The Watcher?” Carl said out loud.

“Yes, the Watcher. Beautiful giant,” Fran gazed up at the Watcher. “Do you forgive me?”

“I think…think they want to die.”

“I know,” Fran said with a defeated sigh.

After a moment’s thought, Carl said, “I can do it.”

“What?”

“They’re empty, right? There’s no more of the, uh, blood?”

“What’s in the bucket is the last of It.”

“If you have a gun, I’ll honor their request,” Carl said.

Fran took a moment, then left the barn, muttering to herself. When she returned, she held an already cocked rifle and pointed it at the Watcher with shaky hands, whispering, “I should do it, I should do it,” in a failed attempt to goad herself into action. Eventually, with a mournful exhale, she passed the rifle to Carl, who, without much fanfare, aimed his shot at the Watcher’s head.

When the bullet passed through the creature, there was no blood, no Milk. Just the bang and the crack and the thud of the round penatrating the roof’s wooden beams. The Watcher’s wheezing stopped. Their effervescent skin went dark, and they went peacefully limp. Fran ran forward and hugged the Watcher’s torso, head buried into its now obsidian skin, alternating cries of “thank you” and “sorry” and “thank you so much.”

Carl dropped the gun and approached the bucket. Maybe a pint of the Milk was gathered at the bottom. Maybe the last there would ever be.

“Maybe a scientist could replicate it,” Carl said aloud.

“It’s gone. All gone.”

“We don’t know that. We take it to one of the big companies, we could still —”

“It’s gone…” Fran rubbed her cheek against the Watcher’s corpse. “Silent, so silent. I don’t hear Them. Nothing left.”

Carl cupped some of the Milk from the bucket, as light as air yet unimaginably vast. He brought his hands to his lips, and drank, luminescence filling him once more. The contradictions of taste and texture opening truths inside him that he’d never be able to articulate. When he put his hands back down, the cartilage in his nose had already repaired itself, without so much as a creak or crack. He swabbed the Milk dribbling down his chin with his index finger, then sucked his finger dry. 

All while Fran remained attached to the Watcher’s body, that emissary from beyond never meant to feel Earth’s pull on its massive frame. A celestial miracle that few could conceive and fewer still would ever see.

Carl rubbed his chin, pondering, “Have you considered cooking…”

But trailed off as Fran ignored him. 

“Nevermind,” Carl said. 

He tried a comforting hand on Fran’s shoulder. If it worked, she didn’t show it. Fran held the Watcher like if she were to let go, she’d fall from an immeasurable height into a bottomless pit. Muttered into its black-sky body, “So silent. So silent.”

 

Pat Cavanaugh is a writer based in Chicago, IL whose (current) literary obsessions include Franz Kafka, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Jeff VanderMeer. Pat holds an MFA in Writing for the Screen + Stage from Northwestern University, but fiction still owns his heart. All of Pat’s writing is dedicated to his family, Becca, Hazel (dog), and Baby Do Good (cat). www.pscavanaugh.com.

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