Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Illustration by Lynn Shipp

by James R. Stratton

 

Phil slouched up 12th Street, buffeted by commuters scurrying home. He sighted the neon sign for Smokey Joe’s Tobacco Bar ahead and grinned. He’d had a bear of a day with the boss on his ass all afternoon. He envisioned himself sliding onto the bar stool at Joe’s and quickened his pace.

At the corner, he strode into the crosswalk, then skipped back when a cab skidded to a halt short of the crosswalk. Phil glared up and growled. Damn it, I got the light! Phil smacked the hood as he walked around, drawing an angry honk from the cab. A bus pulled away before he could cross, belching blue smoke. Phil could feel his pulse pumping up as he swam through acrid exhaust to reach the curb.

Hacking up hydrocarbons, Phil pushed into the tavern’s cool, dark interior. He strolled in as his knotted muscles loosened.

From behind the bar, Joe whispered breathlessly, “Hey, Phil! What’ll it be?”

Joe had lost a lung to cancer in his thirties, but still smoked. And even after the plants were engineered to eliminate carcinogens, do-gooders held firm to banning tobacco except at establishments like Joe’s.

Phil drummed on the bar, smiling. “A beer and a Lucky Strike, my man!”

Joe grunted. “Bad day, huh?” Phil nodded as Joe brought him a beer and an unfiltered cigarette. Phil took that first puff and then a long pull on the beer, and sighed.

Overhead, the TV flashed to a head shot of that pretty blonde newscaster. In the background were clawed and fanged flamingoes with “Special Report” scrolling below. Phil settled in with his beer and butt, content.

“Good evening. I’m Pamela Finnegan, your southern Florida Action Eyewitness News correspondent with a special report on the flamingo crisis; the cause of the disaster, where we are today. We start with their appearance last May.” The camera pulled back to a bald, heavy-set man.

“This is Otis Hatfield, real estate magnate. And tonight you’ll be the first to hear his story.” Otis smiled so his whole face folded into creases, conveying aw-shucks simplicity and home town geniality.

Phil shook his head and blew a smoke ring at the screen. He must’ve practiced that smile in front of a mirror. Anyone with his bucks can’t be that dense. The papers devoted pages to Otis when it all broke, a billionaire who made his fortune in off-shore underwater condos. And afterwards the investigations slid right by him.

Otis clasped his hands across his big gut and nodded. “Thanks, Pam. Hi folks, it’s Otis of Hatfield’s Homes, the best vacation homes in America. Look for my ads in your local news server.” Pamela coughed and Otis flashed her a frown.

“Anyhow, this mess started while I was eatin’ breakfast with my darling wife Peggy Ann. Our home on Chokoloskee Island backs up to the Everglades National Park. We eat on the deck most mornings. Well that day I was watching the flamingoes as they walked along with their heads in the water feedin’. And I realized their knees bent the wrong way! Put me right off my grits! Made me feel all oogie.” Otis shook himself.

“Well, I talked to some friends who asked ’round, and I got a call from a guy at a genetics lab in Kazakhstan. Used to be a weapons plant for the old Soviet Union. We talked about making a bird with proper knees, and at first they acted funny. But when we talked money they got fired up on the idea!”

Pamela leaned forward frowning. “Now you were questioned by the FBI about that purchase. It’s illegal to import genetically modified animals. But you haven’t been charged, right?”

Otis sat back and looked into the camera. “I don’t know much ’bout legal stuff. I ordered flamingo birds for my estate, that’s all. I believed the people I paid would take care of any permits. That’s what my contract said. And I proved all that to the FBI!” He glared his indignation at the camera.

He turned back to Pamela. “Anyways, they showed up with fifty eggs and an incubator. Showed us how to work it, and left us a book on takin’ care of the little fellers. And by god they was cute! Looked like little chicks with long legs, peepin’ and floppin’ round, but with proper knees! Once they was big enough, I turned ’em loose in the swamp.”

“And when did you realize these weren’t ordinary birds?”

“Oh, a couple of months passed with everything fine, but then we noticed them birds was way bigger than wild flamingoes. Didn’t think much of it, they was a special breed after all. But one Sunday my wife was playing with Bitsie, our miniature Shih Tzu dog.”

Otis paused as his eyes teared. “Now ’lil Bitsie was ’bout this big,” and he held up his palm. “She was our little darlin’. Went everywhere in my wife’s purse. Well, Peggy Ann was throwing the ball for Bitsie out back while I read the paper, and the ball rolled into the water. Next thing I know, them birds was all around Bitsie. And then Bitsie started howlin’. I fetched my gun and chased ’em off with a few shots, but there weren’t more’n scraps left of poor Bitsie.” His voice shook and he dabbed his eyes with a hankie. “And that was the last I saw of ’em.”

Pamela patted Otis’ hand. “You have our deepest sympathy on your loss, sir.” Otis smiled and nodded as the camera zoomed in on Pamela.

“In the following months, disturbing reports surfaced across southern Florida of giant birds stalking the swamps in the moonlight. Soon the reality of the nightmare emerged. At our Tampa studio is Dr. August Forward, professor of genetics at Florida Polytechnic Institute.” Pam turned to the bearded man with half-moon glasses smiling from the monitor behind her.

“Dr. August, you’ve conducted a study of the flamingo phenomena. What can you tell our viewers?”

The doctor frowned over his glasses. “Well Pam, paleontologists know that modern birds are the decedents of dinosaurs. Also, we geneticists have known for decades that the genome for modern animals have segments that don’t have a function. For years we considered this junk coding, genes that separated the active segments. More recently, we’ve come to understand these inert segments are valid coding. They are genes from remote ancestors that have been superceded by evolution. They’re still present but aren’t expressed.”

Dr. August sat back. “I believe these mutated birds were a manifestation of that ancestral coding. The changes made by Soviet geneticists did alter the bird’s joint structure, but also activated ancient coding in the genome.”

He held up a drawing of a flamingo. “This was the result. These creatures resemble modern flamingoes with pink feathers and long legs, but with drastic differences.” He used his pen as a pointer. “The beaks are lined with razor-sharp serrations. Their wings end in three clawed fingers, and their feet are armed with long hooked claws. And they stand fifteen feet tall. We’re speculating, but these features resemble theropod dinosaurs of the Ornithomimosaur family that existed during the Cretaceous Period.”

Pam nodded solemnly. “Ornithomimosaurs were meat eaters?”

Dr. August nodded once. “Oh yes. They were aggressive carnivores. Ornithomimosaurs were related to Tyrannosaurus Rex if a bit smaller, hunted in packs, had feathers and saw-toothed beaks.”

Frowning, Pam nodded at the screen. “So these were genetically recreated dinosaurs?”

Dr. August shook his head. “Absolutely not! They were a new species, created accidentally by whomever altered the flamingo genes. A hybrid, with characteristics of both. Long legged and feathered like the flamingo, but carnivorous, pack hunting and aggressive like raptors.”

Pam nodded. “So we are faced with monster carnivores, fast and dangerous?”

“Exactly, Pam.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” The screen behind her faded to black as she faced the camera.

“Through the summer, the crisis continued. And then authorities began receiving missing persons reports. Sightseeing groups would enter the Everglades and not return. Cars were found wrecked and abandoned near the park. In the fall, Governor Johnson declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. And then on October 18, we had that horrible disaster. With us is Major General Winfred McGowen, Commander of the Florida National Guard.” She turned to a military man seated next to her. “Welcome, sir. Tell us about your encounter with the flamingoes.”

He nodded and turned to the camera. “My Guardsmen were deployed by the Governor on October 2, and we established bivouacs around the Everglades. Scout teams went in, but the Everglades covers hundreds of square miles without roads or navigable channels. And these beasts proved elusive. Several times we received good intelligence on sightings, but only found footprints and feathers when my men arrived.”

He paused and solemnly stared into the camera. “And then on October 18, I got a frantic call from Sheriff Culpepper at Marco Island P.D., ten miles north of the Everglades Park. I scrambled a squad of Guardsmen in Armored Personnel Carriers immediately.”

“The sheriff reported a flock of twenty of these beasts had flown in from the south and landed at Collier Beach. This is a popular vacation spot on the island and was crowded. When we arrived, we found the birds in water, heads down. This is the video my second-in-command took.”

The screen flashed to a grainy video of pink flamingoes striding through the water, heads down as screams resounded. The camera zoomed in revealing people thrashing in the water at the birds feet. The birds churned the water with their beaks, and red foam splashed up as they slashed people. One bird lifted its head with a leg in its beak. The limb disappeared and a bulge coursed down its neck.

“We were stymied at first as these beasts were among the civilians,” General McGowen continued. “But when it was clear the people in the water were in jeopardy, we opened fire with M16s.”

Gunfire boomed and dust puffed from the birds. They squawked and turned, stalking across the beach.

“The gunfire wasn’t effective, but it distracted them from the civilians. Once we had them clear of the water, I ordered up our big weapon. I’d received approval from National Command to deploy our Stinger shoulder-launched missiles.”

A flaring arrow whooshed overhead and struck the lead bird in the breast. A fiery explosion obscured the screen, then pink feathers and red chunks rained down. Several birds thrashed in the sand when the smoke cleared, knocked down by the concussion. Then the birds were running down the beach with wings spread, and soared away.

“We’d put out a call for air support, but these critters were gone by the time the ’copter gun ships reached our location. After that it became a game of hide and seek. They laid low in the swamps, and raided the surrounding communities after dark, like that nighttime little league massacre three weeks later. And we weren’t making progress locating them.”

“Thank you, General,” Pam said as the camera zoomed in. “And so the crisis deepened, with civilian deaths rising. Discussions started on how to evacuate the affected communities. And then Governor Johnson received an offer for help from a most unlikely source. Joining us in the studio of our sister station WBOC in Salisbury, Maryland is Frank Perdue IV, President of Perdue Farms, Incorporated.” She turned to the screen behind her.

“Welcome, Mr. Perdue. Tell our viewers why you came forward.”

The thin, balding man nodded. “Well Pamela, Perdue Farms is the largest poultry producer in the world. We understand birds! Even if these critters were fifteen feet tall, they were still big chickens as far as we was concerned.”

Grim-faced he looked into the camera. “Now at Perdue we’ve used biochemical technology for years to control our flocks on the producer farms. Mama chickens produce a pheromone, a chemical attractant, that draws the chicks to them. We use it to keep flocks together, and lead them when needed. Once we obtained a samples of the flamingo birds, our lab boys identified a similar pheromone. We produced it in quantity and were able to put it to use as a lure.”

The screen flashed to a video taken aloft of a biplane crop duster cruising over endless swampland. White mist trailed from the wings. “The poor critters didn’t stand a chance. We made four runs over the Everglades spraying the flamingo pheromone, and they chased after the planes like mad things.” The camera panned back to a dozen giant flamingoes flapping furiously in pursuit.

“We led ’em north to where the 14th Artillery Battalion from Patrick Air Force Base was waiting.”

The picture switched to a view from the ground as the biplane swept overhead. Behind, squawking and honking, came the flamingoes. The camera panned down to an array of ground-to-air missile platforms. An officer in camo raised his arm as the pink flight of birds approached and shouted, “Fire at will!”

Rockets streaked aloft and flames exploded among the flamingoes. One by one they honked and dropped, raked by the deadly barrage. But still the survivors flapped on, beaks agape, eyes fixed on the retreating crop duster. One by one they flared and fell from the sky, until the last jerked from a rocket blast to the wing. It shrieked and barrel-rolled over, spiraling down trailing flames.

Mr. Perdue reappeared on the screen. “And that was all she wrote. We had all the birds in two weeks, and there’ve been no sightings since.”

Pamela smiled. “And so ended the flamingo crisis. America is grateful, Mr. Perdue. Good night from Eyewitness Action News.”

She paused, then swivelled around. “So Frank, I was wondering what Perdue Farms got out of this. We’ve heard rumors you demanded the two clutches of eggs the Guardsmen found in the Everglades. Was that why they were turned over to your research department?”

Frank smirked. “Come on, girl! My people know poultry! Who else would they want in charge of ’em? No need to be making up stuff about demands.”

“But what does Perdue Farms want with those eggs? They should’ve been destroyed, not hatched!”

“Are you foolin’, girl? Did you see the size of the drumsticks on those critters? You could feed a small town with one!”

Frank stopped talking, staring into the camera. “Hey, that thing’s still on! Turn it off! This is all off the record, hear?”

Phil jumped when the front door banged open as a customer walked in, the roar of traffic rumbling by drowned out the TV. Joe walked over with the remote.

“Hey, sorry but I gotta switch over to the Knicks game. A bunch of people are asking.”

Phil sipped his beer and nodded. “That’s okay, the thing about the big flamingoes is over. But did you hear the bit at the end? Mr. Perdue wanting to raise those things? Weird, huh?”

“Yeah?” Joe jutted his chin at the chalkboard by the register. “Check out the specials,” and picked up Phil’s ashtray.

“Happy Hour Special!” it proclaimed in pink chalk. “Flamingo tenders! With hot sauce or ranch dressing!”

“Is that for real? Monster flamingo meat?”

Joe shrugged. “It’s just in from my supplier. And they’re really good! Taste just like chicken, but sweeter!”

“Really? Well, give me an order. And hit me again.” Joe slid a beer and a butt to him smiling.

And they did taste just like chicken.

 

In the Dark Woods

In The Dark Woods

Illustration by Taylor N. Bielecki

by Laura Davy

 

The girl vomited on the bloodstained floor as she idly wondered how hard it would be to clean up the mess. Maybe after they got the wolf’s corpse out of the house they’d be able to start tidying up. But despite how clean the house got she knew she wouldn’t be able to look at her grandmother’s floor without seeing blood. She felt like giggling and then she felt sick, but this time she didn’t vomit. She silently savored her victory and went back to trying not to think about anything.

The girl wiped her mouth clean with the corner of her soft red cape and her grandmother came over and rubbed her back. It was a comforting and familiar gesture, but the girl tried not to flinch at her grandmother’s touch. The girl reminded herself to forget that Grandmother had been swallowed whole by the wolf.

The hunter shifted his grip on his axe as he walked over to a window and looked out into the dark woods.

The girl wanted to ask what he saw, but now knew that when she asked a question she might not like the answer.

The girl’s grandmother spoke softly to the girl, “It’s alright.”

But it wasn’t alright. She was the one who talked to the wolf and told it where she was going. Because of her the wolf came to the house and swallowed her grandmother and attacked her. If it wasn’t for the hunter they would both be dead. She wasn’t sure if she was going to be sick or cry. Instead she did nothing.

Her grandmother stood up and said (more to herself than to her two guests), “How about a cup of tea? Would anyone like tea? I think we need some nice hot tea.”

The girl wanted to say that her grandmother should wash herself of the wolf’s saliva before she started worrying about tea. But she didn’t say anything.

The hunter walked across the room and looked out a different window. He frowned.

The girl had always been talkative and curious, and despite what had happened today she couldn’t change who she was in just an afternoon. The girl gave in to her curiosity and asked the hunter, “What is it?”

He didn’t answer for a moment and continued to look out the window. At first the girl wasn’t sure if he heard her, but before she asked again he spoke.

“Wolves travel in packs.”

Her grandmother dropped an empty tea cup and clutched her chest. She started mumbling a prayer under her breath, forgetting lines but continuing on despite the gaps. The girl didn’t react. She didn’t feel anything. In a clinical way she knew she should be afraid, but that didn’t matter to her. What mattered is that she should stay quiet. That she shouldn’t ask any more questions or say anything else. No more comments. No more questions. No more answers. She gripped the hem of her red cape tightly. No more.

The hunter spoke despite the silence.

“The better to hunt you with.”

 

Dolly’s Coffin

Dolly's Coffin

Illustration by Taylor N. Bielecki

by Wade Newhouse

 

When my daughter Julia was born, she immediately stuck her thumb into her mouth, began to suck on it, and refused to be placated with anything else. We have a few photographs of her as a baby, thumb in mouth, looking new and innocent.

Julia got Dolly for her first birthday. Dolly is a soft pink doll, basically just a puffy stuffed shapeless torso with nubs for arms and legs and an oversized head with a smile painted on. Somewhere inside her squishy middle there was a tiny rattle of some kind, and we knew that Julia had picked Dolly to be her special toy when we could hear the muffled rattle in the middle of the night.

For the first few years after that, Julia carried Dolly everywhere with her, and invariably when Dolly was in one hand the other hand was shoving its thumb into Julia’s mouth. Whatever comfort doll and thumb provided seemed to be magnified by the other; just for fun we would sometimes pull Dolly away from Julia’s arms, and as if they were connected by a magic thread the thumb would pull out also. As soon as we released her, Dolly would snap back into Julia’s embrace and her thumb would pop back into her mouth.

By the time Julia started talking, Dolly was still cute but the thumb was not. We started to ask her when she might be a big enough girl to get through the day without sucking the thumb, but that line of questioning led to silence and a tighter embrace of both doll and thumb.

Are you going to suck your thumb in first grade?

Do you ever see any of your friends sucking their thumbs?

The more you suck that thumb, the longer you’re going to have to wear braces when you’re older.

Of course our talking did nothing. Whatever compels a child to suck their thumb is beyond the reach of language. It was not something she would talk about or try to negotiate; it simply Was, before and beyond all consciousness like St. John’s Word in the Beginning. But we began to decide that the thumb-sucking was becoming psychologically inseparable from Dolly, who by now had lost her ability to rattle and was limply, flatly, threatening to come apart.

When Julia was in third grade, Dolly and the thumb-sucking were becoming rarer parts of Julia’s routine, but in those most shadowy moments between stages of consciousness—falling asleep, waking up, hiding after a particularly traumatic confrontation with authority—she would clutch Dolly and suck her thumb as heartily as when she had been an infant. We decided at the end of that summer that it was time to give Dolly up, and we decided to give Julia as much ownership of the process as possible.

“It’s time for Dolly to go away,” we said one Saturday morning.

“You’re going to throw her away!” Near-hysteria, with some hammy overacting.

“We’re not going to throw her away. We’re going to put her away, someplace safe where she can stay forever. And then when you get older and don’t need her anymore we can take her out and you can see her again.”

The hysteria became a blank stare.

“Now,” we continued. “You should make a box and decorate it however you want, and that’s where we’ll put Dolly.”

Julia considered this idea. Decorating boxes was a favorite activity, one that we had found useful to attach to all manner of otherwise unpleasant tasks. So she looked down at Dolly for a few moments, then went into her room and reappeared with her box of markers. I showed her the empty shoebox that we had already scrounged from a closet, and with a quick glance to indicate resignation, determination, and a fair amount of loathing aimed in our direction, Julia took the box and began to sort through her markers on the kitchen table.

Falling back into the routine we had established for artwork at the table, Julia reached for the day’s newspaper that she could spread out underneath her work. I got to it first and handed her the unread sports section, taking care to keep her away from the large headline on the front page. The oversized typeface announced starkly that the police were searching for the body of a third girl missing and presumed drowned in the lake behind our neighborhood.

* * * * *

Hillman Lake looks, in the early morning and at dusk, as if it might date back to prehistoric times. It is not roundly pond-shaped like those deep swimming holes carved out by glaciers in New England. Instead, it has that skeletal, graspy shape that is so typical of muddy waterways here in the south: long and narrow and winding, with fingers of water that curl in and out between jutting teeth red clay banks studded with pines and live oaks. To look across it at any point is easy, but to turn toward either side and imagine what torturous route it follows from here to somewhere further makes your head spin. Its tendrils snake off from the main body in almost untraceable tentacles of brown water that eventually appear under every secondary and state road north of Raleigh; you mount a strong bridge, believe that you have “crossed the lake” and then three hundred yards later cross another bridge. And then a mile further the trees thin out to your right and you see it over there as well. Occasionally narrow tracks of gravel lead off from the roads to those areas of the banks that have been cleared for fishing, but if you follow one and enjoy that location you might never find the same one again. Weather-blasted gray trees emerge from the shallows, showing their tangled roots above the water and then ending, broken off as if by some silent catastrophe. Up from the red earthen banks the land rises quickly into ridges and swales covered over with forests of white pine. When the water is low you can see the strata of the earth revealed in bronze and coral layers.

But Hillman Lake is not prehistoric. In truth, it is barely historic. It was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s to control the course and flooding of the Neuse River and to provide drinking water for the city of Raleigh, which canny planners were beginning to predict would soon burst out of its sustainable postwar growth and into something potentially unmanageable. We have arrived there now. Great care has been taken to ensure that the entire endless perimeter of the lake is well screened from the development that creeps, amoeba-like, endlessly outward from the city. The closest neighborhoods, like ours, are a half-mile away from the water and built to seem organic, entirely and naturally part of the tall leafy forest that, on good days, disguises the very fact of so many people living in such proximity to one another. Numerous paths tumble their way down from our back yards, into the screen of trees and ridges and eventually down to the shoreline.

When I was fourteen my family lived in a small house on a gravel road on a different part of the lake. There were no subdivisions then; houses and streets simply sprang up in one place or another, and ours was one of several two-bedroom red brick ranch homes that had somehow been built in a sort of row not far from SR 98. Back then that was how you got from Wake Forest to Durham, and in the course of five miles you crossed the lake four times. Our road was just out of sight of two of those crossings. Without a neighborhood we had no real neighbors, but in the summers the kids from dozens of houses like mine would drift down to the water’s edge and we would get to know one another. We pursued adventures in the trees and in the water, but none of us ever grew particularly close.

That summer Emily appeared. I don’t know where she lived; I had the impression that she came quite a distance along dusty roads and through thickets to get to the part of the lake where I spent my time. Parents are always exasperated when kids can’t answer simple questions like where someone is from, but it really just never came up. Kids become just summer friends, together as time and opportunity allow. Emily came out of the brush one day and offered to help me build some floating contraption I had pieced together out of logs. Sometimes she joined the other kids in the water; other times she was fishing with one or another. Many times there was just the two of us, playing and growing through the summer the way everyone does.

She had strawberry blonde hair and dark eyes, and at fifteen she was shedding her tomboy angles and starting to soften around the edges. As the summer wore on her legs seemed to grow longer and smoother; the white strap that fell down from her shoulder seemed to grow tighter as her breasts began to be noticeable under her shirt; when she stood in the shallow water with her hands on her hips I began to see curves there. She tossed her hair back from her forehead and laughed at me, and I had to turn away or be caught staring. The other boys I played with noticed it too, and one by one they seemed to drift away in little groups of two or three, not sure what exactly she was good for or how they ought to treat her.

Eventually she realized this, and finally (more brave than I) began to talk about it.

“You ever been skinny-dipping?” she asked me one afternoon.

“No way. You?”

“No. You afraid of some girl seeing you?”

“More afraid of what might be in the water.”

She threw a stick at me. “You think some fish might mistake your thing for a worm and take his chances? You got a hook hidden in there somewhere?”

I jumped up from the water’s edge to the line where the erosion ended and the bank rose up in a sudden jutting line of red clay layers and exposed roots. “You don’t know anything about it. There’s a lot of stress involved in packing all this equipment in the water. What if—” I struggled to find a ribald joke that might sound appropriately grown-up. “What if I got it all tangled up in some roots underwater and got pulled under?”

Now we were both laughing. “I’d come down there and pull you out.”

“Maybe I’d rather stay stuck than have you pulling on me.”

She came up out of the water too and started pulling off her t-shirt and shorts.

“Good lord! Are you really going to try it?”

“No, stupid. I’ve got my suit on.”

She wore a white and yellow one-piece swimsuit. I usually just swam in whatever shorts I was wearing that day, and I always found it fascinating that girls had to change from one look to another in order to be right for swimming. I was sitting on a dead log that had fallen from the eroded ledge down to the water, and Emily sat beside me. It was brutally hot, and the far side of the lake shivered in a filmy haze. I often looked across from here and wondered how long it would take to swim across. At that time it never occurred to me to fear what might hide beneath the surface, or to wonder how deep the water ran.

“We should go skinny-dipping some time,” she said. “Just the two of us. Then we’d know what it was like, but no one else would have to know. That wouldn’t be embarrassing, would it?” She looked at me, not quite. “I mean, you wouldn’t be shy around me, would you? You know I wouldn’t look at anything.”

I shrugged. “Whatever. It’s just looking.”

I was looking somewhere down—not straight down at our feet but kind of halfway down, toward where the waterline began, and I turned toward Emily just as she hooked a thumb into the elastic legband of her suit and snapped it free from wherever it had stuck. In that brief moment the material pulled away from her torso and I saw, unbidden, a glimpse of porcelain untanned skin and a dark tuft of hair. I turned away, pressure rising up into my chest, and then I stood up and took a step closer to the water.

“Are you going in now?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just standing here.”

She hopped down from the log and joined me, then went the few extra steps and into the water up to her thighs.

“You’re not afraid to go out there?” I said.

“I got nothing for the fish to try to grab onto.” She held out her long arms and turned her hip sideways to show me.

“My dad said two girls have been found drowned. Both in like the last two weeks.”

“Boys can drown too, you know.”

“I’m not in the water.”

“Come on in, then. Keep me safe.” She smiled at me, and the complexity of her face then has returned to me endlessly over the years since. I have seen many smiles from many girls, and then women, and each new time I try to figure out how they work, what muscles they use, what emotions they connect between eye and lip and heart. I suspect Emily’s was simply honest, but I had never seen anything like it before.

A breeze came up, and I saw the point of Emily’s nipple stiffen beneath the fabric of her suit. “I think I’m going to go home,” I said.

“Don’t you want to come in with me?”

“Not today.” Then, stupidly: “Maybe tomorrow.”

She laughed, and I think there was some sadness there. “I might not be here tomorrow.”

“Eventually?” It was the most complicated time scheme I could imagine back then. “Eventually.”

I pushed my way back through the brush and up the hill away from the water, and I thought that she might be close behind me. At some point I turned back, and I could just make out the gray glint of the surface through the trees, but she wasn’t there. When I was back on my street, with the chunks of gravel uncomfortably real beneath my feet, I felt the full weight of my foolishness. With the straight line of the road and the sight of those tiny houses tucked under their green and yellow canopies, the realization that a pretty girl had asked me to come into a lake with her pushed down on me so crushingly that I felt dizzy and out of all time and space. I turned back, but the trees had pulled over the path I had taken, and it suddenly seemed that I had been here between the mailboxes and driveways forever.

When I heard the next day that Emily’s swimsuit had been found at the edge of the lake, my first hurt, ignorant thought had been a lashing indignation that she had actually dared to go skinny-dipping without me. Even moments later, when I realized the true import of this discovery, I could not escape the mental picture of my own water-pruned fingertips touching some part of her just under the glassy green surface and how she might have smiled at me there, in secret, just the two of us.

After a day with no sign of her, the police and groups of volunteers began to descend on our corner of lake to search, dredge, and speculate. I lurked at the edge of the treeline, not far from where I had surrendered to my particular stupid fear, but after a time the police said they had enough men for the search and any more would be in the way. A Baptist preacher, his hair platinum-blonde above dark-rimmed eyeglasses, prayed with members of his congregation and explained the duality of grace and free will while middle-aged women sat in the shallowest water and clenched their hands and eyes tightly shut.

Closer to me was a plump woman of uncertain age, wrapped in thick brown and gray cloaks and blankets. She looked as if she herself might have been pulled from the water recently, with greasy brown hair half-plastered and half-frizzing around her round white face. Her skin was leathery, and a smell like old smoke lingered near her. By the time I realized how close together we were standing, she had noticed me.

“They won’t find her,” she said, as if we had been having a long conversation.

“Why not?” I had not then developed my habitual reluctance to talk to people I had not been introduced to and had no reason to trust.

“Some things just happen. Two other girls drowned, two other girls found. Third one won’t be. That’s a whole different kind of gone for a girl to be.”

“Maybe she’s not gone,” I said. “Maybe she’s just lost.”

Now the woman turned to look at me, and I wondered if I had said something insightful or irredeemably foolish. “And now you tell me,” she said, “just what would be the difference between being lost and being gone.”

“She wanted me to swim with her,” I said, and in the strange comfort provided by anonymity I felt the enormity of the horror and my own place in it sweeping around me. The sky seemed invisible beyond the huge blackness created by my smallness being driven away on inconsequential winds. “But I didn’t go.”

“Of course you didn’t go.” If the woman knew about the choking guilt that I was only beginning to realize, she did not betray her knowledge. Instead, she smiled thinly at me—my second memory-corrupting female smile in as many days.

“Some things,” she said, “happen because they do. Some things you accept, or you don’t. That’s your choice to make. You can only react. But you can react well.”

Over my shoulder someone made some kind of strangled cry, and their foot splashed in the shallows, and the Baptist preacher was going on. “We can take comfort even in grief, because the scriptures show us that we can.”

That night I dreamed that Emily came to me in the dark. I could not see her in the dream, but her voice was talking to me in my head, telling me things. She sounded very far away, but moving closer, and her voice was sad while she talked about being lonely and about how her skin felt when it was touched. When I opened my eyes she was asking me to please swim with her. I lay there breathing for a moment, staring up at the dark ceiling of my bedroom. Then I turned my body to the right and she was lying there beside me.

I closed my eyes to make her go away, and in the darkness of my head I smelled lakewater and sunscreen and wet swimsuit, and I wished that autumn would come.

* * * * *

Her brow creased in concentration, Julia was painting the inside of the shoebox pink. She had dug our miniature hot glue gun out of the drawer where we kept small tools and had plugged it in to warm up. On the table she had gathered a pile of small pebbles. She mumbled something to herself, fragments of a song, while she set the pink box down to dry and inserted a glue stick into the gun. Then she spread the pebbles out and searched for some that might match in size and general shape.

“Can we go swimming later, Dad?”

“I thought you were making a box for Dolly.”

“It will take time to dry. That leaves, like, hours.”

I could imagine the scene at the lake: police, concerned neighbors, television news teams.

“I don’t think today’s a good day to go to the lake, honey.”

Julia stopped her painting in mid-stroke and looked up at me. “What lake? I’m talking about going to the pool. Like yesterday? And the day before that?”

“We’ll have to see.”

Already she had forgotten me. “I’m going to put these little rocks all around the edge of the box. And then I’m going to put some words on the sides, so Dolly will have something to read while she’s in here. Then when I get her back she can tell me what she thinks about all of it.”

An eight year-old’s concept of time is much less absolute than ours. In our minds, we saw Dolly going into the box, then the box going onto a top shelf in a closet somewhere, hopefully to be forgotten until some distant moving day when we might, as a family, open the lid and remember how cute it was all those years ago when Julia needed Dolly by her side. But Julia was thinking not in months and years but in moments: there would be some bedtimes and some morning cranky times without Dolly, and then sometime Dolly would come back from her long sleep and they would start over again as if no time had ever passed. In short, I viewed the pink box studded with pebbles as a coffin, while Julia saw it as an elaborate drawer that could be reopened at our whim, provided that she could pressure us into having such a whim.

“You work on finishing up Dolly’s box. I’m going to take a walk for a few minutes. When I get back we’ll see about the pool.”

Of course she never swam in the lake. Our backyard was a thick forest; we had chosen the house for this very feature, and Julia complained constantly that she was the only one among her circle of friends without a real backyard. A few yards past our property line the rules of the development ended, and as the boulder-studded ground began to slope downward toward the lake you could see where primitive paths had been cut into the woods before the development had been placed here.

I walked through our leafy wooded yard and, as if crossing a magic barrier at our property line, found the end of one of the paths. From here the walk was all downhill, and I remembered a thought I had had when we first bought the house, that autumn would be a fine time to take this walk, free from buzzing insects and with a smoky gray bite in the air. Now it was hazy and steaming; the ground was dusty beneath me.

The path ended on a rise of ground, one of those thrusts of land that stretched out into the lake and made boating a matter of some skill here. As I made my way down from the high ground to the beach, I felt for a moment as if I had discovered something secret, for in the thirty years since I had last played here the summers had grown hotter and the rains less common; the lake was slowly drying up, and the waterline had pulled itself down and back from where my memory told me it should have been. The beach was now some ten to fifteen feet wide from eroded cliffside to gray lapping foam. Bony stumps and branches poked up from the earth that had once been the shallow bottom, now streaked with deep gore-like fissures as the sun had baked the clay and it had shrunk in upon itself, cracked, and split open. Each year, as the parching summers and the growing thirst of the city pulled more water from the lake, more of the bottom was being revealed. Old losses were coming to light, old discarded remnants waking up from watery graves. The lake no longer seemed prehistoric, for no Jurassic waterhole would be found with a plastic doll’s head jammed into its hot dry earth, or broken bottles and rusted cans wedged together beside the shattered remnants of a Styrofoam cooler. These things had been safely invisible, but the water was retreating and taking secrets with it.

As I had expected, I was not the only local with a mind to visit this increasingly archeological site. There was a public beach not far from here, just around two more of these narrow escarpments, but the media had chosen this stretch for their background because it looked more bucolic, more like the kind of mysterious No Man’s Land where a teenaged girl might disappear. A pretty blonde reporter stood with her back to the water (though where she was standing would have been four feet deep when I was a child) while her cameraman adjusted his position relative to hers to get the best framing of water, sky, and treeline on the far bank. Several families’ worth of fat children gaped on the sidelines.

The whole scene was strangely noisy, and people kept coming and going through the trees in groups of two or three. Curious college kids holding beer cans, mothers in large sunglasses trying to keep their toddlers from the water’s edge, an oblivious old man with a fishing pole and tackle box who appeared to be irritated that his chosen spot had been set upon like this. A man with bright blonde hair was holding a Bible and leading a small group of older women in prayer.

“Like Your son, we ask that this cup of sadness be taken from us. But also like Him, we bow to Your awesome will and ask for the strength to endure whatever You ask of us.”

Sitting on a sun-bleached log, a very old woman in a shapeless and colorless dress watched the movement of society around the waterline. Her greasy gray hair lifted itself in the humidity, half-plastered and half-frizzing around her wrinkled white face, but her leathery skin was dry, as if she had been sitting here in the sun for eons and had given up all the moisture of her body to the air. She held a stick, broken from a dead branch. I could smell faint smoke dissipating with the briny odor of the evening water.

“What do you think happened?” I asked her.

“Two other girls drowned, two other girls found. Third one won’t be.”

“Some things just happen.”

She started to turn toward me, but stopped herself, tired from the effort. “That’s right. Some things just happen.”

I heard someone mutter an Amen, and then someone said, “We can take comfort even in grief, because the scriptures show us that we can.”

I looked back up the path that snaked through the trees and back to my neighborhood. “And in thirty more years? Will we be here again?”

The old woman poked at the ground with her stick and drew something there. “Some things you accept, or you don’t.”

I remembered that it would not take Julia long to finish Dolly’s coffin. I started to scramble back up the embankment with the exaggerated quickness of someone who pretends to believe that a few extra quick steps will change the amount of time needed to get from one place to another. I did not look back to the people by the lake, but as I went into the trees the smell of old smoke thinned out and I smelled instead something like youth: suntanned skin and wet swimsuits. I picked up my pace and it stayed with me. By the time I came out from the path into the sculptured landscaping of my backyard I found myself squinting into the sun, almost dizzy with the certainty that someone was just behind me, reaching out to upbraid me for my inability to be where I was needed.

The pink shoebox, decorated with pebbles and lined with scraps of paper bearing quotations from some page-a-day calendar of aphorisms by great thinkers, was waiting for me on the kitchen table. Glued in the very center was a square of paper that read, “Put Dolly Here.”

* * * * *

That night I had to tuck Julia in without Dolly. Julia put on a brave face and pulled her covers up tightly around her. She gathered up a menagerie of other stuffed animals and placed them ceremoniously around her.

“Dolly will come back, right, Dad?”

“Dolly will come back. We won’t let anything happen to her.”

“But you can’t be sure. Sometimes things just happen.”

“That’s right. Sometimes. But we’ll take care of her.”

She considered. “Maybe I’ll write her a letter. Just to let her know that I still love her.”

“I think that would be very nice.” I kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll see you in the morning, Sweetpea.”

“Night.”

I do not know exactly where Dolly was put; by the time I had left Julia’s bedside my wife had placed Dolly in the box and hidden her somewhere. We agreed that, since I was weaker at resisting Julia’s entreaties, I should not know where the box had been placed.
Sometime after midnight, when everyone else was asleep and the house was dark, I opened Julia’s door to check on her one last time. She was sleeping peacefully, but the gaze of the damp and gently curving body of the teenaged girl in the bed beside her met my eye passively. I smelled distant sunscreen and wished for winter.

 

Dear Cthulhu: Issue #24

DearCthulhuLogo

 

Dear Cthulhu,

I’m a newly single mother and I’m slowly going insane. I feel as if any moment I might crack and go postal.

My son is five months old and hasn’t slept for more than three hours since he was born. I’m exhausted. I can barely keep my eyes open at work, which is bad because I drive a school bus.

To compound everything, I am convinced I’ve got postpartum depression. I talked to my doctor about it. She gave me some medicine, but it hasn’t helped. I’m barely able to function. I’m afraid to even take a sleeping pill to get one good night’s sleep because I’m worried my son could die before I wake up. Of course, when he wakes me up after the only twenty minutes of sleep I’ve gotten in days, I worry that I might kill him myself.

I’m at the end of my rope. Please tell me what I should do.

—Haggard Mom From Hayward

 

Dear Haggard,

Get a babysitter long enough for you to sleep. If you cannot afford one, seek other solutions. You never mentioned anything about the sperm donor for your offspring—did he run off? Do you know who he is? If so, a simple paternity test can assure you of child support payments, which could be used to hire a sitter.

Do you have family or friends? Perhaps you could convince one of them to take your child for a night to give you a break, and then take a sleep aid. A good night’s rest will make things look much better. In fact, if you have many close friends, ask each of them to do this on a rotating basis. It should help you cope immensely.

If you are unlikeable and without any people who care about you, then perhaps consider giving the baby something to help him sleep. There are many children’s medicines which would not harm the child, but have sleepiness as a side effect. Many of these are available over-the-counter.

Cthulhu may be stating the obvious here, but are you taking your infant to a pediatrician? There are various conditions and problems an infant may have that will cause them to have difficulty sleeping. Some of them are treatable. If you are lucky, your doctor might find a solution that would save your sanity as well as your family bond.

Of course, there is another option if you are simply looking for a way out of the mess your loins have gotten you into. Most states have a law that allows a mother who is in over her head to drop off a baby at a hospital or a fire or police station without fear of repercussions or being arrested for abandonment.

There is also the possibility of giving the child up for adoption. There are many parents who are unable to conceive offspring of their own and are desperate for a chance to raise the unwanted offspring of another. In fact, Cthulhu himself would be more than happy to take this morsel… rather darling child off your hands. Cthulhu can personally guarantee that the child will never want for anything again. And then the two of you will be able to rest in peace, although perhaps in different ways.

 

 

Dear Cthulhu,

My wife and I have been married for six years and we’ve been trying for five of those to have a child. The love of my life has something called endometriosis, which makes it very hard, if not impossible, for her to conceive. We depleted our meager savings to try fertility treatments, all to no avail. A while back we came to the realization that we just weren’t going to be able to have children of our own, so we started to look into adoption.

We’d like to adopt from this country, but our state has some stupid law that the mother of the child has a year to change her mind. I can’t imagine the heartbreak if after 364 days the birth mother decided she’d changed her mind and wanted our baby back. It’d crush me and probably kill my poor wife. We considered adopting from overseas, but I couldn’t believe how expensive it is. We were looking at up to fifty grand, sometimes more. We simply don’t have that kind of money. We barely managed to scrape together five grand after six months of eating peanut butter sandwiches and Ramen noodles.

One way around needing most of the money was to find someone who wanted to give away their baby. Sadly, we’re not the only ones trying this route. The pregnant young girls treat the situation like a reality show and pick the couples with the flashiest cars. We’re not allowed to give them money, but I know for a fact that some of the couples who were chosen gave the girls expensive gifts.

I needed to get around the rich people who were blocking our plays, so I started trolling the seedier parts of town and talking to hookers. I told them if they ever got pregnant, not to have an abortion because my wife and I would be happy to adopt the child.

Next thing you know, I got arrested for prostitution in a sting operation. The girls told me they were working and had to be paid for their time. I wanted to get in their good graces, so I paid in case they got pregnant in the future.

The cops say the charges will stick because I gave the girls money, but all the girls insisted that I paid them just to talk to them. The cops don’t believe them either because that story gets them off the hook too. I told anyone who would listen that I wasn’t trying to have sex with anyone, I was just giving them an option of what to do should they ever get pregnant. Now the District Attorney’s Office is talking about adding baby trafficking to my indictment.

My bail is ten grand, so I can’t even get out. We don’t have that much. I’m sitting in the slammer in a city two hours from home and running through all my vacation days. I’ve only told my wife that I’m trying to figure out a way to get us a child.

I am emailing this to you from jail. We get twenty minutes of computer time every day. I have a public defender that I’m not sure graduated from law school in this country. He certainly doesn’t act like he knows what he’s doing. He told me he was going to try and see if he could plea bargain it down to endangerment of a minor, even though I explained to him there were no actual children involved.

At this point, I’m tempted to defend myself. What should I do?

—Paternally Perturbed Man in Manchester

 

Dear Perturbed,

Truthfully, Cthulhu has never understood the innate need of humans to produce offspring. The instinctual imperative does help to keep the species propagated, but let us continue to be truthful. Humans are so obsessed with procreation that even with birth control, there will be mistakes that happen and more children will be born.

Why just last month, Cthulhu got a letter from a woman with postpartum depression similar to the one above, whose screaming and crying infant was keeping her up at all hours of the night. It was driving her insane. Cthulhu offered her a win-win situation and Cthulhu adopted the child. She now has her life back and I had a wonderful child. You would not believe how plump and sweet the child was, but enough about my dinner and back to your issue.

There is a simple way to get yourself out of jail—simply plead guilty. Unless there is some sort of unusual bid for election to a higher office happening, prostitution stings usually involve a fine and a public shaming in the papers. Offer to plead guilty to the prostitution if they dropped the other charges, pay the few hundred dollar fine and go back home to your wife.

Then before continuing on this mad quest, Cthulhu suggests you take a closer look at the people around you who have small children and see how tired and unhappy they really are. Then look at those with teenagers, especially rebellious ones and see the heartache these offspring are causing their parents. If you look at this logically, you shall realize how much better off you are without children.

If this does not change your mind, simply inform your wife that you are going to try to have an affair with another woman. I know at first this will seem like something she would not want, but then explain to her that you’re only doing it to get the woman pregnant. Then after the child is born, you can sue for shared custody and your wife can help you raise your illegitimate offspring. Admittedly, the best you could hope for to have the child half the time, but is not half a child better than none? Especially if served with a good hollandaise sauce.

Have A Dark Day

 

 

Dear Cthulhu welcomes letters and questions at DearCthulhu@dearcthulhu.com. All letters become the property of Dear Cthulhu and may be used in future columns. Dear Cthulhu is a work of fiction and satire and is © and ™ Patrick Thomas. All rights reserved. Anyone foolish enough to follow the advice does so at their own peril. For more Dear Cthulhu get the collections Cthulhu Knows Best; Dear Cthulhu: Have A Dark Day; and Dear Cthulhu: Good Advice For Bad People from Dark Quest Books.