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By Matt Query
By Harrison Query
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It’s the house of their dreams. Former marine Harry and his wife, Sasha, have packed up their life and their golden retriever, Dash, and fled the corporate rat race to live off the land in rural Idaho. Their breathtaking new home sits on more than forty acres of meadow, aspen trees, and pine forest in the Teton Valley. Even if their friends and family think it’s a strange choice for an up-and-coming pair of urban professionals, Harry and Sasha couldn’t be happier about the future they’re building, all by their lonesome.
That is, until their nearest neighbors, Dan and Lucy Steiner, come bearing more than housewarming gifts. Dan and Lucy warn Harry and Sasha of a malevolent spirit that lives in the valley, one that with every season will haunt them in fresh, ever-more-diabolical ways. At first, it seems like an old wives’ tale. But when spring arrives, so does the first evil manifestation, challenging everything Harry and Sasha thought they knew about the world.
As each season passes, the spirit grows stronger, the land more sinister, and each encounter more dangerous. Will Harry and Sasha learn the true meaning of a forever home before it’s too late? Haunting and bone-chilling, Old Country is a spellbinding debut in the horror genre.
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WELL, THE FIRST time I killed a person, I actually killed two people. Pretty much at the same time, or back-to-back, within a couple seconds of one another.”
In the spirit of radical honesty, my left leg was falling asleep as I spoke these words. I didn’t want to shift my weight or do anything to suggest discomfort or angst while talking about this. I figured that’s the kind of thing I was here to be scrutinized for. Getting squirmy in a moment of candor, some kind of physical betrayal of emotion.
“It was in Afghanistan, 2010, right at the beginning of Op Moshtarak, the battle for Marjah. My fire team was holding it down up on a berm that ran along a road. The berm was just a little rise, mostly covered in tires and trash and shit, set up six or seven feet higher than the road. We were just holding security waiting for orders. I was with my buddy Mike—we were set about twenty yards ahead of the rest of the guys in our fire team. The rest of our platoon was behind us too, other side of this trash berm, out of view. Most of the company was nearby, actually, but we were just staging, waiting to coordinate the next part of this push.”
Goddamn that city smelled like ass. Burning trash, goat shit, sweat, and ass.
“All of a sudden we see these two dudes to our left running down the road, heading toward this little intersection in front of us where another road headed directly away from us.” I used my hands to make the shape of this T-intersection.
“The dude in front had an AK and the other one was on a radio and had a big like…hockey bag, a rucksack over his shoulder, fulla spent RPG tubes. They both looked like they were in their late twenties, early thirties maybe—older than me.
“At first, I couldn’t believe it, seeing those dudes. There was a big firefight going on to our east, the direction they were running from, and I don’t know why, but I guess I figured any Taliban we’d bump into would be running toward the scrap. I actually nudged Mike and whispered somethin’ like ‘Are those fuckin’ Tali, bro?’ He was as surprised as I was. I mean, in our gut we knew they were bad guys as soon as we saw ’em, but just couldn’t believe it. We’d been in-country for the better part of a year before Marjah kicked off and hadn’t ever just watched armed militants slowly jogging along a road in the wide open less than two hundred yards away. That’s a rare thing to see over there. Up until that point, all our encounters with these fuckers were when they were a long-ass way off, taking potshots at our patrol or something. This was like…real clear fuckin’ contact, you know? It was just a total trip.”
I forced a surprised smile and nodded as I finished my sentence.
“When they got to the road in front of us—the road we were looking down from our spot on the little trash berm, the one that jutted off to their left, away from us—they ducked over and crouched behind this busted old sedan, probably about a hundred, maybe a hundred and ten yards away. They had cover from the direction they had been running from, blocking the view of themselves from our left, the direction of the big firefight I figured they were boogeying away from, but they were completely exposed to us. I mean, I just had a full view of both of ’em, barely had to move a muscle to keep ’em on scope. Mike and I, we were so shocked we just sat there like complete dipshits, just glassing them, speechless, for what must’ve been a solid three-Mississippi count. Then, I’m not really sure what it was that got me to act—I think it was the closest one looking up at me or in my direction—and so I just…shot ’em both. The one who was holding the rifle first, then the dude behind him with the radio and big bag of RPG tubes. Every shot I took was on target too; they were just…right fuckin’ there. A hundred yards is really not that far of a range. They were just filling my optic, so it was pretty damn easy.”
I left in an intentional pause and looked him in the eye. Remember to nod sincerely, I told myself. “They both died right then and there.”
I remembered how I’d shot the first guy right below the nape of his neck, and how he’d just dumped forward onto his face. Didn’t even move a muscle in an effort to stop himself or anything, didn’t let go of his rifle, he’d just straight-up face-planted into the street. Probably would’ve knocked himself out if he weren’t already dead. Figured I’d shot through his spine. The second guy looked down at his buddy after I’d shot him, all surprised like Tha hell you doin’, dude?, and that’s when I’d shot him in the chest. As soon as the bullet hit him, he’d dropped the radio he was holding and popped both hands out behind him, reflexively planting his palms onto the road to try to catch himself from falling backward. Looked like he was sitting on a beach towel. He’d looked so confused right before I shot him again. My mind went to another man I’d killed a couple weeks later, the older man, the grizzled warrior. I saw his face a lot in my mind, more than any of the others. It was a face that casually but solemnly assured violence.
I looked up at Dr. Peters, who was nodding almost imperceptibly, looking me in the eye. “Harry, what do you feel as you share that memory with me?”
“Well…” I looked down at the floor for a second, trying to put on my best sincere-consideration face, then looked back up at him. “I don’t really feel anything noteworthy just from telling that story to someone. I guess the first thing that comes to mind is my buddy Mike who was with me. I haven’t talked to him in a couple years…I hope he’s doing well.”
Peters nodded. “Have you ever noticed that memory, that experience, as one that’s intrusive into your thoughts or dreams? Does it ever come back to you in a way or at a time that’s surprising or bothersome?”
I made sure to give that one a couple seconds of forced consideration as well. “No, no, not really.”
Peters was nodding, waiting for me to say more. Lots of shrinks press with a Can you tell me more about that? but Peters just left it open, made me feel like my answer was unfinished. Guess it worked too, because I went on.
“I can’t think of that memory coming up in a way that’s like…surprising to me, or bothersome. It’s just like any other memory. I don’t feel guilt about it, if that’s what you’re asking. Those dudes would’ve shot me if the situation were reversed. I really don’t mind sharing that story or talking about the other people I’ve killed. If people ask me about experiences like that, I’m happy to share them. I just don’t, you know…bring that kinda shit up on my own without being asked about it.”
Peters nodded. His expression suggested I’d gotten the right answer. Or, at least, that he wasn’t going to lean into this.
“Well, Harry, we’re way past our time.”
Yeah, no shit, Doc. I’ve been well aware of us being past our time for all of the twenty-two and a half minutes since we went over. I still looked down at my watch anyway and feigned surprise. “Ah, shit, guess I should get goin’.”
Peters stood up and walked over to his desk. He grabbed a manila folder, then held it out to me.
“Harry, I’ve put together some information for you on the VA resources in Idaho. We’ve got clinics and hospitals in Pocatello, Twin Falls, and obviously Boise. I know this VA runaround can be frustrating, but I really hope you stay committed to this therapy process, and that you work to find someone out there with whom you can develop a healthy trust. It’s really important. Even though you and I just started meeting a month ago, I want to make sure you know that I’m always available to talk, whether it’s over the phone or video chat. I’ll always find a way to make time. Don’t ever hesitate to reach out.”
I stood up, took the folder from him, and nodded. “I will, Dr. Peters. I really do appreciate your time. You’re an easy guy to talk to.” He gave me a tight-lipped smile as we shook hands.
“I think it’s great what you and your wife are doing, Harry. I’m so happy you and Sasha found a way to go build yourselves the life you’ve dreamed about. I’m jealous, I really mean that. Not many people get the opportunity to pursue a passion like this. I know this is your and Sasha’s dream, and I wish you nothing but happiness and success in pursuing it. I have no doubt you two will thrive out there in that lifestyle.”
I gave him a smile. “Denver’s getting way too crowded anyway, and if the mountain life isn’t for us, well, we can always come back.”
“Take care of yourself, Harry.”
He held his smile in return as he opened the door for me, but there was certainly some concern in his face as well, some doubt maybe. I wondered if it was intentional.
NO MATTER HOW many times I drive the stretch of I-80 through southern Wyoming, I never get bored. Pronghorn, sagebrush, refinery in the distance, weather-beaten rock formation, billboard with a quote from Revelations, more sagebrush, more pronghorn…It’s monotonous but harsh and beautiful country. Harry and I’d done at least a dozen backpacking trips in Oregon, Idaho, and the Wind River Range over the previous decade, and had visited friends in Jackson during the last few ski seasons, so I’d made this drive what felt like a hundred times. Pretty sure I can even mentally distinguish the interiors of gas stations in Laramie, Sinclair, Rock Springs, and Evanston.
The voice of my audiobook’s narrator was interrupted by a ringtone and Harry’s face filling the screen of my phone.
“Hey, babe, you good if we fill up in Green River? It’ll be like another hour.”
“I’m good, love, keep driving safe!”
I was in our 4Runner, following behind Harry, who was driving the awkwardly large U-Haul we’d packed our entire life into over the last several days.
“How’s Dash doin’?”
I looked into the back seat, where our golden retriever, Dash, was curled up.
“He’s fine. Ready to stretch his legs, but we’re all good back here.”
“All right, love, keep driving safe.”
Ever since we’d crossed from Colorado into Wyoming on 287, it had started to really set in that—holy shit—we were actually, finally doing this. Harry and I had been talking about it since we met in college over a decade ago. On one of our first dates, I’d asked Harry some generic question about his “hopes and dreams” or maybe some even cheesier bullshit like “Where do you see yourself in twenty years?” I don’t remember precisely how he started his answer to my question, but I’ll always remember one part of it, because it enchanted me right away. Might even be the reason I fell in love with him.
He’d said: “I want to find some land in the mountains, somewhere where I can sit on my porch, look out, and the only man-made structures that I can see are my own home, barn, and workshop.”
He’d said it with such sincerity and this hopeful longing in his eyes. Although, at the time, I wasn’t sure if he was just another dude trying on different personalities and making whimsical bullshit proclamations in an effort to get me to fuck him. Maybe that was actually part of what he was doing, but either way, it worked. Also, he’s certainly maintained his passion for doing exactly that ever since that date, and he’s made me fall in love with the prospect as well.
I didn’t need too much prodding, though. In fact, I’m actually more familiar and experienced with the prospect of life in the rural Rocky Mountain West than Harry was. Growing up in a wood-burning-stove-heated home in a small mountain town in southwest Colorado with two lifelong ski bum parents certainly greased my axles for it. That’s also probably why I was immediately attracted to Harry’s “dream,” and why, ever since that first date, I have associated it with a deep, warm feeling of home.
I’d been bringing up that old quote of his to tease him since we began this process about a year ago—the process of seriously looking into buying land somewhere in the mountains. That process was initiated by reaching out to real estate agents in Bozeman, Missoula, Helena, Bend, and Coeur d’Alene, and even just that experience and having ongoing email correspondence with them, by itself, made it all start to feel real and exciting. Then, when I pitched the creation of a unique position that I could do remotely to my COO and CEO, and then actually started working with them to create the position, it got very real.
There have certainly been moments when I’ve felt apprehensive and anxious about doing this. I’m going to miss the hell out of my friends, random happy hours, live music, and being a day trip away from my parents and hometown. That being said, I’ve been paying attention to the ever-increasing anxiety and gut feeling that we needed to really give this lifestyle a try and commit to it now, or we just never would.
I’d also paid close attention to whether I was doing this just to make Harry happy, and was continuously surprised to find it really was something I wanted for myself as well.
Harry’s thirty-five, I’m thirty. Most of our college friends were having kids while getting even busier with work. As for ourselves, we’d begun to feel we were at a junction between either buying a hilariously overpriced little house in Boulder or Denver and working even harder, or giving this lifestyle a try. Arriving at that junction made me realize how badly I wanted to at least attempt the homesteader life, and how fond I’d grown of the idea of making a home with Harry somewhere quiet, beautiful, and wild.
There was a distinct moment when we began taking this dream seriously. We were on I-70 a little over a year ago, heading up to go skiing, and the traffic was so bad it took us six fucking hours to get over Vail Pass. Harry and I had been in bad traffic on I-70 countless times before, but I’ll never forget the look on his face about four hours into that particular drive. I remember so clearly watching him from where I was reclined in the passenger seat. Watching him stare around at the stop-and-go traffic with a look of resignation and anguish on his face. He finally looked over at me and said, “Babe, we need to get the fuck out of this state.”
We’d quickly realized that Bozeman and Bend were dead ends. Land around there was too expensive, and we wanted to find somewhere in the “real West,” and Harry—and I, to a certain extent—didn’t really feel as though Colorado qualified for categorization as the “real West” anymore. We’d been living in Denver for the last seven years, and it had started to feel like LA or Phoenix. Growing and sprawling, eating the plains more and more by the day.
Our Realtor in Coeur d’Alene introduced us to a colleague of hers who works out of Jackson but manages listings all around the Tetons. Jackson was laughably out of our price range, but this Realtor, Nataly, sent us some amazing listings on the Idaho side of the Tetons that—at least to me—appeared to be bigger, nicer, and a fraction of the price. Harry had taken our dog out to Driggs, Idaho, on a fishing and grouse-hunting trip with a college friend a few years earlier and was immediately, adorably enthusiastic about this part of the country.
I remember sitting on the couch as he showed me a satellite map of the area and pictures he’d taken while he was there. “It’s amazing country. I can’t believe I hadn’t considered this area right from the beginning. It’s just trout-filled rivers, aspen forests, public land everywhere. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Jackson, around four hours from Boise, and like three and a half from Salt Lake. Babe, trust me, it’s fucking awesome.”
That past September, we’d driven out to Jackson for a friend’s wedding and spent a few days afterward in Idaho meeting with Nataly, looking at places around Teton and Fremont Counties. Harry was right—it was amazing—and the trip certainly got me psyched about the Idaho side of the Tetons, as well. We didn’t see anything we loved in our price range, but I was absolutely floored by how beautiful the area was and knew right away that Harry was right. This was where we needed to move.
A few months later, our Realtor reached out about a little ranch in a quiet valley outside Ashton and Judkins. Nataly was all hot and bothered about this property too, said it was an amazing deal.
It was a little thousand-square-foot house on fifty-five cattle-fenced acres. New roof, new water heater, it had a separate garage/workshop, a couple little sheds, a porch that ran along the entire front of the house and wrapped around the side into a big patio off the kitchen, a chain-link-fenced acre around the house that looked nicely landscaped. On top of that, the neighbor to the north and east was a national forest several times the size of Rhode Island.
Nataly explained how the property had been purchased almost a decade earlier by some big ranch-land real estate investment firm for the purpose of being incorporated into some kind of land and easement exchange deal with the Forest Service. That deal with the federal agency had either fallen through or moved forward without the use of this property, so the real estate firm fixed up the little house and the land a bit so it could be approved for financing and was now just trying to get it off their books. She said it would “definitely sell” within a day.
Harry spent almost that entire night on GIS maps, tearing through the property documents he could find on the county’s website, reading about the hunting unit the land was in and the seasons, doing water rights searches; he pulled the damn soil classification maps—you name it, he read about it. That next morning, he gave me a full-on why we should make an offer right now pitch. I’ve got to hand it to him too; it was a good pitch.
With the VA mortgage plan Harry qualified for, and having already convinced ourselves both that we loved the area and that it was a sound investment, we were pretty much set, even though we’d never actually been on the property. Besides, it was still cheaper than what our friends were spending on houses in Boulder, Denver, Portland, and San Fran. So, we said fuck it, let’s just do this, and we called Nataly and told her to put in an offer. The next morning, we got an email from her saying they’d accepted our lowball offer without any counter. We were officially under contract. A few weeks later we got the inspection and title report, no red flags, so that next Friday we officially closed on our first home.
When it came to actually affording a house on fifty-five acres, well…you could say we looked good on paper, but we were mostly just piss and vinegar. That is to say, we both had good credit scores and Harry qualified for a kickass financing option through the VA, even though our savings account was quite modest.
On top of that, because Harry qualified for the “Combat-Related Special Compensation” program, he didn’t face many work restrictions and we got a nontaxable check every month from the government that could cover a significant portion of our mortgage. As Harry likes to say, way too often these days, “This mortgage and the GI Bill are the only pleasant pieces of baggage that come from six years in the infantry.” I know Harry doesn’t include the monthly check in that list because it makes him feel guilty. Makes him feel weak.
I’ve done what I can to convince him not to feel that way, because he fucking shouldn’t. The number of times we’ve argued about it and I’ve heard him use the same old line—“Sasha, the government paid for my degree, I’ve healed from my injuries, I can work full-time, we don’t need this fucking handout”—is equal to the number of times I’ve told him “The hell we don’t.”
I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t very nice getting a text every month notifying me that Uncle Sam had just made another deposit into our account, but why shouldn’t that be nice to see? Harry deserves every penny of that, and more.
I started dating Harry not that long after he’d learned to physically function again after getting literally blown up and torn apart. I fell in love with him as he learned how to function socially again. I watched his eyes as he’d struggle and fight to act calm and happy around me in a crowded bar or at a concert. I see his scars every night when we get in bed and watch him wince and limp every morning as he gets out of bed. I rub his back to wake him up from nightmares. I see the pain in his eyes late at night as he looks into a fire. I hear the distance and sorrow in his voice when he has a bad day.
There are still places Harry won’t go with me. Things that happened overseas. Things he did, things he saw. I think he believes he’s protecting me, but it’s so much harder having this silence between us. There’s this unspoken chapter of his life filled with seismic events he’s been a part of and that are a part of him. I could spend all day cataloguing the ways in which the VA is a hopelessly flawed institution, but I was always glad that at least they gave him someone to talk to. If not me, at least there was someone. I feel some anxiety knowing that he won’t have those regular therapy sessions going forward, at least for a while. He needs someone to talk to, and while I’ve never put the pressure on too hard about it, I just wish he would make that someone me. At the same time, I realize I’m probably not the best person for that kind of therapeutic back-and-forth. I don’t have the institutional knowledge, and I don’t really care to develop it.
I’m sorry, but fuck the United States Marine Corps conventional infantry. I might’ve walked down the aisle with a marine in dress blues, but I have absolutely no fondness for that destructive, maniacal, abusive institution. Thirty-two hundred dollars a month does not even fucking begin to adequately compensate my husband for the things they had him do and the sacrifices they demanded, and for what? Our freedom? I’ve yet to hear someone make a substantive, logical argument connecting my freedom to my husband getting blown up on the other side of the planet ten years into a losing war against a fucking idea. Having watched the Taliban take full control of Afghanistan within minutes of the United States’ withdrawal last summer, it seems no such argument could possibly hold water now, if it ever even could.
So, yeah, we’ll be taking that goddamn check.
I saw the U-Haul’s blinker flick on when we got to the second exit for Green River, Wyoming, and followed Harry into the gas station, pulling up to the pump behind him.
Dash woke up in the back seat and sat up, alert, leaning forward to look out the front window as Harry got out of the U-Haul and walked back toward me.
I got out of the car and stretched, immediately feeling the cold bite of the Wyoming prairie’s dry March air. Harry smiled at me as he walked up. “How you feeling, babe?”
“I’m good! What are we lookin’ at, about five more hours or so?”
Harry nodded as he plugged the pump into the 4Runner. “Yeah, seems about right. I’m gonna take Dash to do his business.” I watched Harry as he opened the back door of the 4Runner and clipped Dash’s leash. “Let’s go take a piss, buddy.”
“Watch for goatheads and glass, Har; I think rural Wyoming gas station parking lots are designed to fuck dogs’ feet up.”
He smiled back at me. Dash trotted along at his side, his dark red tail plume waving in the air, looking up at Harry as if he were a god.
BY THE TIME we’d passed through Ashton, Idaho, and were about five minutes out from our new place, I was feeling a giddiness I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. I was anxious as well. We’d bought a fucking ranch we’d never actually, physically been to, and while Sasha was committed and equally involved in the process of finding this place, I still felt like I was really the one who pushed it, so the pressure was on.
When we got to the turn onto the county road that leads to our place, I rolled down the window and leaned out to give Sasha a big, stupid smile. I could see her laugh and start slapping the steering wheel in excitement, Dash’s head out the window behind her.
- "Action-packed horror... Fans of Stephen King and Paul Tremblay will find this a satisfying escape into the woods."—Kirkus Reviews
- “An artful chiller. OLD COUNTRY stirs up our primal dread of a hostile wilderness, indifferent to man, that‘s reminiscent of such great works as Algernon Blackwood‘s THE WENDIGO."—Lincoln Child, #1 New York Times bestselling author
- "What started as the spookiest of tales on Reddit--I should know, as I love them--sparked a tour-de-force of a novel that perfectly renders the tensions of living in isolation and the unforgiving passage of the seasons of the natural world. On top of that, OLD COUNTRY delivers an unyielding sense of dread and suspense. I can’t wait for more from the Query brothers."—Thomas Olde Heuvelt, author of HEX and ECHO
- "Propulsive. The Querys nicely work the worldbuilding into the action [and] when the horror elements hit, they hit hard. Fans of Joe Hill and Paul Tremblay will want to check this out."—Publishers Weekly
- “An extraordinarily assured debut: uncanny yet real, both lyrical and brutal, rich with truth about life and death.”—Michael Rutger, author of THE ANOMALY
- On Sale
- Jul 26, 2022
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing