It’s that time of year again! Behold, my entries to the creepypasta cookoff:
While you’re at it, take a gander at the entire friggin’ archive
The tadpole was the size of a man’s thumbnail and colored a blue so dark it was almost black. The other tadpoles were all yellow-green and many times its size, American Bullfrog larvae. Ethan had paged through his junior nature guide three times and still hadn’t found anything remotely resembling the newcomer.
He dipped a sycamore twig into the water, disturbing the surface. The bullfrogs fled, but the blue tadpole curled curiously up to it. Ethan lifted the stick from the water. The tadpole came with it, flattening to the rough surface. Out of the water its blue shone iridescent. Tilting the stick this way and that, Ethan studied the little passenger. The tadpole had no visible eyes and its fins were transparent, bordering on invisible. He had never seen anything like it, and it woke some protective instinct in him. What if one of the bigger tadpoles ate it?
Ethan decided to run home and fetch a jelly jar. The tadpole would live on his windowsill, fed with lunch meat until it had grown. This plan lasted to the point when Ethan opened his front door. Bombarded with homework, chores, do this, do that, Ethan’s world ceased to include the pond. He remembered only a little bit, just before drifting off that night.
It may have been the next day, it may have been three days later when he got back out to the pond. Too little time, surely, for all the bullfrog tadpoles to mature and hop away. Yet the little pond was empty.
No, not empty.
As Ethan dipped a stick into the water, the strange tadpole swam up via a series of curlicues. Ethan smiled. The tadpole seemed to be thriving with the lack of competition. Now it was the span of Ethan’s hand and a brighter blue. Ethan squatted. The extra sandwich he made was shredded into the water, where the bread soaked and sank. The tadpole touched nothing. What did it want? Ethan regretted not hedging his bets with PB&J.
A lone bullfrog tadpole ascended to mouth the surface of the pond, dimpling it. Like a shot, the blue tadpole was upon it, circling it. The bullfrog tadpole seemed to disintegrate. Ethan’s eyes popped wide. That was the best thing he’d seen in his entire life. He watched the strange tadpole swim somewhat forlornly around the now-empty pond. What would it eat now?
Ethan had an idea. Uncle Henry had a feeder pond in his cattle field. In an afternoon’s work of splashing and coaxing, he got the tadpole into one of his larger sand buckets. With many careful steps Ethan brought the tadpole to its new home, upending the bucket and disturbing the minnows.
Ethan was not able to visit every single day, but was pleased with the progress nonetheless. The tadpole grew larger, features became more distinct. Unlike the poor bullfrog larvae, the strange tadpole had visible gills. Not behind its head, like a fish, but all along its body. Ethan decided to dub it “Gilly.” Gilly still did not have even vestigial eyespots but bore a mouthful of sharp needle teeth.
A week after introducing Gilly to the pond, Ethan ran into his uncle on the worn cattle trail. Uncle Henry had on his fishing waders and elbow-length rubber gloves.
“Whatcha doing uncle Henry?”
Henry grunted. “Some kinda Snakehead got in the feeder pond.”
“Uh-oh. Is it dangerous?”
“Well, I wouldn’t go sticking fingers in there any time soon.”
“I won’t, sir,” Ethan said. He turned right back around and went home. He grabbed a 3-gallon bucket and the aquarium net. Gilly took much less coaxing this time, perhaps he had learned that buckets meant good things in his future.
Ethan’s mother never allowed him to swim in Redtail pond on account of all the scrap metal lying on the bottom, but she let him fish up the shiny silver sticklebacks (provided he let them go afterwards.) Plenty of room, plenty of food, and water so clear you could see all the way to the bottom. For a moment after being dumped out, Gilly hung on the surface of the cold water before wriggling away as if burrowing through the liquid.
It was not even a week later when Ethan, bearing his lunch bag to another session by the water, stumbled upon a teen girl kneeling beside the pond and sobbing. A woman had a hand on her shoulder, other hand pressed to her mouth as if to hold in an ugly sob. At their feet was a bloody and torn dog’s leash.
“…I don’t understand,” the girl was saying, “he just went under.”
Ethan crossed to the far end of the pond to eat his sandwich.
The pond was no longer a haven. Ethan saw a man sitting by the dock with his jeans rolled up to the knee, everything below his right ankle bloody and raw. Missing pet signs bloomed from every telephone pole.
Ethan found his father in the workshop.
“Pop,” he said,” could you fix my wagon so the sides come up?”
His father tapped his knee. “How far?”
“Half again.” Ethan held his hands out to indicate height.
“Sure. Hey, what for? You havin’ a teddy bear parade?” his father needled. Ethan said nothing.
They were able to build a sort of crude extension from boards fitted and nailed to one another. Ethan waterproofed it with a block of his mother’s canning paraffin. Crude, but it held.
Redtail pond had sprouted a shiny new “no swimming” sign on its shore. Ethan rolled his wagon to the water’s edge. He found a good-sized stick and slapped the pond surface.
A bit of moving debris caught his eye. Gilly surfaced, shedding the colors that had led Ethan to mistake it for a clump of weeds and a rock. Gilly was now the size of a duck. Black cilia frothed from his gills. His mouth opened up half the length of his body, disclosing myriad white fences of teeth.
Ethan knelt. “Hey Gilly.” Did the tadpole understand speech? He seemed to grin knowingly as he tread water. “This little pond is getting too dangerous for you. But don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.”
He rolled the wagon down into the water. Gilly cooperatively swam over the lip of the wagon, which by some miracle held on its rough passage back to shore. Water sloshed over the edge, so Ethan covered it with his rain slicker.
On the road from the pond, he ran into two Fish and Game wardens bearing dip nets.
“Go home, son,” one of them admonished. Ethan nodded.
Rolling the wagon over grass and gravel, it took what seemed like forever to arrive at his destination.
“Here we are,” he said, pulling off the slicker, “the lake might have bad fish in it, but there’s plenty more places to hide.”
Gilly eagerly butted the walls of the wagon. Ethan knelt, feeling silly about how wet his eyes were.
“Sorry I can’t see what kind of frog you turn into, buddy. Make lots of little tadpoles, okay?”
He rolled the wagon into the lake.
Gilly swam out fluidly, working his entire body like a paddle. He hung blue against the sandy bottom of the lake before shifting color and vanishing. Ethan remained kneeling, cuffs sodden and cold. He was sad, but it was a satisfying sad. It felt like the end of some kid’s book: A Boy and His Tadpole.
In Lingit it is called the T’oohchx’é. Pacific northwestern fisherman call it “the devil whale.” It may just be a melanistic Orca lacking the white markings of its brethren, if it exists at all. And it has terrorized a patch of the arctic sea all through recorded history.
The village of [Seal-upon-the-rock] gathered on the ice. When we rose with the sun, we found them at the edge of the floe. A song came that was too terrible to hear. Our men fell to the ground and plugged their ears, for the song compelled their feet to the water. One by one the others flung themselves forward into a hole that formed in the water. When the last child was gone, the hole closed and we saw that it was a mouth. The song fell silent and the beast at the edge sank into the water once more. We did not take our boats that way anymore.
—unnamed elder, Oral History of the Arctic
The first possible sighting of such a beast was well before 500 BCE, if the oral history of the Tlingit people is to be believed. According to the Xunaa Ḵáawu people, the devil whale was part of the world before raven stole daylight. In those days a great fish swam in the sky and ate whatever fit into its mouth, which included unfortunate villages. When daylight was brought to the people, the fish fell to the water with a great tail of fire and could never rise to the sky again. The beast was far more fearsome than the polar bear or even other whales, so unpredictable was its behavior. Several Tlingit settlements have been discovered over the centuries since European contact, preserved nearly intact by permafrost, abandoned as if the villagers had stood up in the middle of their day and walked off. Corresponding oral history points the finger at the devil whale luring said villages to their doom. As of yet, no scientific explanation for the disappearances has been found.
…soon we were yawing against the wind, the great beastie caught hold of our chain and pulld us in[…] she looked as another wale til she opened her mouth which split most the length of the bodie. Half our ship was down the gullet before we could scream.
—Eustace Gabb, surviving crewmember of the Meritus
With the explorer’s age in full swing and whale oil in high demand, it seems only natural that the next accounts come from the survivors of shipwrecks. While stories of krakens and monster fish were the common feed of broadsheets, tales of “the devil whale” gained a distinction among the collectors of seafaring legends. The SS Jeanne-Marie was chasing a pod of Right whales off the coast of modern-day Yakutat when they noted a heretofore-unseen behavior in the pod. The whales began a frenzied circulation around the ship, churning the water into a torrent which spun the ship clockwise. The calves, once confined to the protected center of their family’s formation, began colliding in panic. A noise the sailors initially attributed to the crack of a glacier calving rose in height and pitch until “…[the whales] floated as lifeless on the surface.” An adult female and three calves were sucked beneath the surface by a whirlpool. The whales remained insensate for a period of half an hour after the incident, at which point the crew reinstated efforts to harvest the remaining pod. As they cut into the skin of an adult female, the rest of the pod woke from their stunned state and began attacking the ship, leading to a 2-meter hole in the starboard hull. The crew ceased their harvesting efforts and attempted emergency repairs, eventually abandoning the ship for the longboats.
I watched it chase a calf it had separated from the pod for the better part of an hour. At one point the calf beached itself in an attempt to reach a barachois, but it wound up being pulled back by this dark mass. I never got a good look at it, but it was faster than any whale of that size should be. Finally, the calf got too tired to run anymore and it got sucked beneath the surface.
The marine biology skiff Uriah Heep was trawling the greater Juneau bay when the underwater microphone picked up the song of a pod of Pilot whales. At approximately 35:00 hours, the recording equipment registered an anomaly: a frequency of 45.6 hertz, well below that of the blue whale. Over the course of ten minutes, the frequency rose until it equaled that of the Pilot whales, overlaying and mimicking the pod’s song. The boat’s radar at this point picked up a solid object traveling directly towards the pod, rivaling in size a humpback or right whale. The whale songs mingled and reached a fever pitch at the same moment the object overtook one of the lead whales. At some point the mass disappeared from the radar and the whale song continued, minus two voices.
…[the boat] circled the bay for two days. Two! At one point I sent up a flare but no one saw it. My provisions ran low, but I kept trying. That thing was far too large, it could swamp either of my lifeboats easily. Finally I got ahold of someone within radio distance and that was the aerial rescue. I think it knew I was leaving, it tried to tip the boat before the pilot reached me. If it was a whale I never saw it breach.
—James la Pierre, yachtsman.
The deep-sea exploration vessel Newton was observing polyp formation on the bed of the Arctic sea when it found a heretofore unmapped crevice in the sea bed. Sensors registered a temperature hike of 30-40 degrees at the mouth of the crevice. The explorer circumscribed the opening, trying to parse whether the temperature indicated a volcanic vent. At a certain point in the journey, the Newton’s light hit an illuminated sphere roughly the size of a soccer ball. The Newton sat attempting to discern whether it was simply a bioluminescent patch of bacteria or something else when a black material slid over the sphere from either direction, met in the middle, and then retracted. Before the crew could truly parse the nature of this movement, the vessel was upset by a sudden current and just barely managed to avoid crashing upon the nearby sea floor. After the sediment settled, the Newton was unable to find the crevice again.
My cousin lived out by himself in a shack. That day I wanted to visit with him for a few hours. I found him out standing on the shoal. There was this whine like I had tinnitus. George didn’t look back at me, just put his arms out and dropped. I ran to where I’d seen him, but there was no body on the waves. The sound stopped.
The fishing village of Temper’s Point in the upper part of the Alexander archipelago was celebrating their Sesquicentennial in December of 2013 when half the village populace(roughly 47 people) went missing around the waterfront. A background noise akin to the more famous Taos hum has been detected periodically since the event.
This town is a tourist town. Yes, it’s one of those signs you see from the highway when you speed by as fast as humanly possible: “see the great whatsit!” Most towns have something you can find in any state, like bigfoot. Not us, though. We’ve got the Oolio.
Ask any old timer on the high street and he’ll tell you the Oolio is old Choctaw for “man-swallower.” Bunkum, of course. If the name Oolio showed up before 1964, I’ve yet to see it. Still, the town treats it like it’s a real old legend. The tourist center’s full of pioneer gear and daguerreotypes. A sharp eye might gather that the colloidal snaps only record day-to-day business of a mining town, nothing supernatural, but I guess half the fun is fooling yourself by telling yourself you’re not fooled.
There’s a tour, of course. Man they call Skinny runs it, he’s the best. Folks might not be so charmed by his old cowboy act if they knew his nickname came from the surname Skinner and that he really hails from upstate New York. But Skinny’s such a good act it doesn’t matter that he ages his levi’s with a belt sander.
Skinny’s a volunteer, of course. Everyone who works in the tourist center is. Town’s kept afloat on volunteer work, that’s just how it is. Skinny’s not paid in anything but the adoration of his public. The way he sweeps and bows off that stoop from the tourist center, you’d think he was Hamlet. He’s earned it, though. As one performer to another, I have nothing but respect for the man.
Skinny takes them through the logging tracks, where firs barely taller than your kneecaps are trying to replace the great flaming birch that was all cut away. He talks about the town history first, just a little nugget of something dull to whet their appetite. He knows why they’re there. Skinny takes them up to the old logging camp, where the mess hall is the only building left standing. He gets to the pump in the middle of an anecdote about the time McKinley thought about riding through on the railway when suddenly he’ll break off in mid-sentence. I’ve timed him before, he reaches the pump after five minutes on the dot. The man is a consummate professional.
“Say, any of you folks hear about the Gaffey party?” He’ll ask like it’s a complete mystery as to why they’ve come. The name Gaffey is plastered all over the visitor’s center, which squats on Gaffey road. But the folks will go wide-eyed, shake their heads. They’re so hungry for the story they’d drink their own sunblock.
Skinny puts his arm up and lean on the pump. “‘Bout fivescore year ago—that’s a hundred for you city folks—there was a flock of hunters up this way. Fella by the name o’ Gaffey was in it, ‘long with his brother and his cousin, fella name o’ Croot. They were chasin’ a mean elk up to these parts, a big beast who could feed their families for a week. They decided to water in this camp because it was the only game around for miles. They had full run o’ the place so they decided to bunk in separate lodges. After all, they were alone…” he’ll leans forward and drops his voice. “Or were they?”
Skinny keeps a tin can full of gravel on his person, always takes it out right here. He circles the group, rolling it in his leathery hands as he watches them with a sadistic gleam in his eye.
“They put up for the day in the mess lodge. Nathaniel Croot, he started the fire. Only it was smoky, on account of some kind of blockage in the chimney. They put it out and ate by lantern light.”
Abruptly, he shakes the can. Ka-shk. Ka-shk. The hairs on people’s necks rise.
“They hear summat.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Outside.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Sounds a lot like this here rattler.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Only there’s no gravel out here, unnerstan’. Nothing around that would make this sound.”
Once Skinny circles back around to his starting point he palms the can, playing idly with it like it’s a pen he’s just picked up by chance.
“The brothers, they’re too tough to be put off by noises. Caleb Gaffey gets his shooter and creeps up to the winder. There’s a face at the glass.”
Skinny throws the can with a horrible crash. There are always, always gasps.
“The thing he spies is dead white, hairless, pink eyes that glow in the lantern light. It don’t look right. Takes Caleb a while to figger out it’s because the whole damn thing’s upside-down. It’s hanging from the roof to scream through the winder at them. Caleb gets off two shots. Pow! Pow! Nothing.”
Now Skinny puts on a conspiratorial grin. He beckons the group with him, like the Pied Piper calling to a bunch of naughty children. They hesitate, they always do, but they follow him.
Skinny talks as he walks: “There’s no sleep that night. The brothers agree to bunk up in the mess hall. Abraham Gaffey, that’s the older, he takes first watch. But Croot, he thinks it’s all hooey. He calls a lodge all to himself that night, laughing all the way to bed.”
By this time they’re in the camp proper. They can see the old buildings, slate roof caved in by the years but log walls standing firm and strong even now. They can feel a tickle of fear as they put themselves in that dark night so long ago, so far away from any kind of safety.
Skinny turns to rest his back deliberately on a door that has been artfully crafted to look like the one it replaced.
“The brothers pin up an old gunny-sack on the hole. No one sleeps, despite the watches they set up. Abe knows the thing will be back, he’s got the hunter’s instinct. To keep himself awake, he grips a handful of nails.”
Skinny leans forward and drops his voice, so the tourists have to get closer to hear him. “But they watch the wrong place.”
He turns about-face and slaps the door open, so it hits the side of the building and shimmies a little. The large chunk of missing wood that looks like a bite mark winds up pointed right at them. They draw back. Oh, he’s good. He’s very good.
“Whatever-it-is takes a flying bite out of that door. Whatever-it-is screams like a steam engine as it shakes the hall. Whatever-it-is took Abe’s whole pan of powder and every bullet without stopping. Quick as a flash, Caleb upends the old potbellied stove.” Skinny acts it out through mime. His folksy accent gets thicker with every word. “They roll it over, jest the two of them, to the door. Abe sticks his packing rod in the latch, so the door can’t swing free. Cold and hungry and scairt, they wait up against that potbellied stove and that old door til dawn. The thing screamed right up until sunrise.”
Skinny pauses to take a breath, which lets the group take a breath. They have all been through an ordeal.
“The two brothers roll out that stove and come out. Of the trees surrounding the clearing, not a single branch had a leaf left on it. They go to the lodge to find cousin Croot stone dead, throat torn away but not a mark on him otherwise. Not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, they lit a shuck out of there.”
Skinny clasps his hands. “That was the first sighting of the thing they call the Oolio in these parts. Abe Gaffey lived to be ninety-one years old, and I tell this the exact way he told me.”
Everyone’s shaken and laughing, everyone’s got the afterglow of a good performance. Most will wander back to the gift shop or accompany Skinny down to the saloon that serves sarsaparilla and horehound tea. But sometimes, every great once in awhile, there will be a straggler or two. They’re out-of-towners who feel the signs don’t apply to them. Or they’re wannabe explorers ready to cut through the brush. Or they’re looking for the bathroom.
That’s where I come in.
I like to situate myself on a particular path leading away from the camp. There’s a couple of these, actually, but I get people to take this one more often than not. How? I’ve cultivated every intrusive plant in the area at the entrances of the other paths.
They amble along until they’re out of earshot of the logging camp, when suddenly they clear a bend in the path and find me. I’ve got a bike with a bent front wheel and an overstuffed bag. Too many things to carry.
“Hey there, folks,” I say, “could you—whoops!” and an expensive-looking camera falls out of my hands and cracks open. I even put film in it to make it more authentic.
They’ll help of course, they’ll rush over and scramble, all while I apologize and beg them not to fret over little old me. I’m just out here being an idiot, I guess, my wife told me to stay with the group and whoops there went my GPS unit.
After they try long and fruitlessly to assuage my clumsiness, they’ll ask to escort me back to the visitor’s center. Oh gee, would they? It’s not far, it’s just this way.
I point them down another path. Sometimes it throws them off. Surely they should go back the way they came?
It’s got to be this way, I assure them, it’s got the green bands.
Every path in this area is marked “safe” by wooden stakes linked together by green bands. Easily purchasable at any hardware store, nice and mobile so I can uproot them at a moment’s notice.
They look down the path, doubting. Am I sure?
Of course this is the way back, I just came this way.
I talk up a storm as they lug my gear down the path, spinning personal anecdotes that carpet their ears and keep them from worrying. As the branches close in and make the path claustrophobic, I keep pressing them on. Just a little further. Just a leeeeetle further. Did they see it opening up yet?
I’ve got a crank flashlight that I click on as we go further into the brush. As they get uneasy, they ask questions. How long had I walked? What happened to my bike? Was I a townie or a tourist? They don’t want to ask the question that’s simmering in their mind, because that would make it real.
The trail dead ends. They’ve started walking ahead of me in anticipation of fleeing at the first sign of an opening. Now they blink at the remnants of a camp. My camp.
“Where’s the visitor’s center?” they ask.
“It’s back the way you came,” I say, clicking off the flashlight.
Then there will be a news story, some speculating about suspicious wounds, and a fruitless manhunt. The last guy they pulled in was so schizophrenic he couldn’t even work his zipper, much less scoop a throat out. They’ll urge people not to come here, which will make them swarm thicker than flies. And for a while, this little town will be bustling again. After all, the town’s kept afloat in volunteer work. My only pay is the satisfaction of a job well done.
Dave’s Blue Hole is an unusually deep freshwater spring located outside of Gunsmith, Colorado. The actual measure of the hole is unknown; the last attempt bottomed out at 115 meters before the surveyor ran out of line. The water becomes anoxic at about 43 meters. After the incident of 1988, the spring has been capped indefinitely by a metal gate. Dave’s Bait & Wait remains standing beside the entrance to the pool, abandoned after tourism dropped off completely.
The first recorded description of the spring comes from a Spanish traveler’s diary dated 1796. The writer, a Franciscan friar on his way to San Carlos, detailed a stop at a place sheltered by high bluffs. Within the cliffs, they found an unusually round spring that produced clear, crisp water. Another member of the traveler’s group fell into the spring and sank out of sight almost immediately. The group cast lines into the hole to no avail. What’s more, they found through experimentation that the water had almost no buoyancy. Light things like sticks and even folded paper would not stay on the surface for more than a moment.
The traveler also noted the existence of a petroglyph on the bluff immediately above the spring, depicting a whale-like creature. The petroglyph has been all but worn away in the intervening centuries. The rock where it sat now contains only a few faint lines.
The parcel of land where the hole lies was purchased by one David Killigan in 1860 for the princely sum of $.35 per acre. He initially intended to mine for silver but found the novelty of the hole too striking to pass up. He built a store in hopes of attracting travelers en route to the rockies, touting the supposed restorative powers of the spring. The place became a local fixture, Killigan a tolerated eccentric that added color to the countryside. When he disappeared in 1876, it raised a mild furor. Killigan’s lantern was found placed beside his shoes at the rim of the spring. A line was secured to the nearby horse-hitching post and led down into the water, upon retrieving the line they found it had been tied into a series of knots to serve as a ladder. Neighbors in town had heard him complaining of mild temblors coming from inside the spring just a few days prior. He had possibly entered the waters in hopes of discovering the source of the noise and fallen prey to a thermocline.
The shop passed from hand to hand over the years. It was a solid tourist draw, so the operation was run by an official town trust. The spring drew no more unusual interest until the onset of recreational diving as a pastime.
The spring had long been a draw for thrill-seeking divers when Mark Boyle attempted his descent on June 5th, 1988. The anoxic nature of the spring meant that many animal skeletons littered the walls of the hole. Divers who ventured past the indicated safety zone spoke of human skeletons glimpsed at greater depths, in numbers that might suggest human sacrifice. The spring had been equipped with a submerged gate that warned divers that venturing past that point was unadvisable. Mark’s plan that day was to do exactly that.
Mark had brought along two friends and a safety line as guards against a possible accident. Neither friend was diving-certified, nor did they have diving equipment.
At 3:07pm, Mark went over the side of the spring.
At 3:46 the safety line began trembling. Mark’s friends became alarmed.
At approximately 4pm, the safety line went taut. Mark attempted a rapid ascent, too rapid. He showed signs of decompression sickness when he surfaced, slurring his words and lacking coordination. As one friend raced to call an ambulance, the other attempted to administer first aid. Mark rambled about something that lived in the waters of the spring, that the spring was really just a small outlet of a much-larger subterranean body of water. He was incoherent when the ambulance arrived. He fell unconscious on the way to Gunsmith’s only hospital and died a few hours later.
After an inquiry, a second gate was set on the mouth of the spring and welded in place. Through possible corruption due to metals fallen into the spring, the water has taken on a corrosive effect. Seismic activity in the region has increased steadily since 1988.
Naomi’s client tonight was a businessman. Naomi dressed for work in a button-up white blouse and black linen slacks. She might have been an office girl in his building and he wouldn’t shoot her a second glance.
Naomi turned down the bed: its thick, white coverlet, the sheets that were washed in-between every client, the plump down pillows. Her client removed his jacket and tie, unbuttoning his sleeves at the wrist. Some clients brought their own sleepwear. Some stripped to their undergarments, though no farther than that.
Naomi drew back the covers and the man settled into bed. He was quite stout and his gestures in undressing were almost forceful, but he still drifted into the white of the bedding like a child.
Naomi quickly slipped into the other side of the bed and lay face-to-face with the client, matching breaths until he fell asleep.
“It’s not as if you’re a call girl, now is it?” her boss, Takahata grunted. “It’s not as if you have to dirty your hands to make money.”
He forked over that night’s stack of cash.
No. There was no physical touching, nothing sexual of any kind. But the intimacy of the job felt…obscene somehow.
“I fell asleep again,” she said, looking down at her shoes. She brought it up with increasing frequency, hoping Takahata would get sick of her lack of discipline.
But instead he just scratched his chin. “As long as you’re there with them, it doesn’t really matter. You sure complain a lot about a job that requires nothing of you.”
Naomi took her pay and left without comment.
The job required nothing. Was that true?
More and more, Naomi considered quitting the job. To hell with her apartment, to hell with the steep rental prices in the city. She could live in all-night internet cafes like her friend Chiwako, showering at the gym and subsisting on instant noodles.
….but no. That would leave Kurotsugumi out in the cold, wouldn’t it? No matter how resolved, she could not abandon her cat, who came winding in-between her legs as soon as she stepped in the door. Kurotsugumi was her only family in the city.
Naomi began brewing the first of what would be many cups of coffee throughout the day. The job had done something insidious to her sleep cycle. Now, even on days when she didn’t work, she was constantly tired. The strain of attempting to stay awake all night crept into her body. Even the brightest of days had soft, blurred edges as if she was only partly present in the waking world.
“Of course you’re tired,” her friend Fumi said, “you’re not just prostituting your body. You’re prostituting your mind as well.”
Fumi worked at a bar. Naomi loved her for her bluntness. Thus, she was the only friend who knew anything about Naomi’s real profession.
“I know,” Naomi confessed, “it doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re lying across from a person all night, mixing your breath with theirs, it’s a terrible weight to take on.”
Naomi poured her a shot of apricot liqueur. “Most people don’t even realize what an effort it is, do they? To go with someone all the way to the edge of sleep.”
Naomi disliked that phrase. It sounded terrible and final as “edge of the world.” The edge of anything was not a suitable place to live. And yet here she was.
Fumi tossed her close-cropped hair behind an ear. “Of course,” she said mischievously, “if you quit, I won’t get to tell all my friends that I know a baku.”
Naomi swallowed. There was a vague, frightening familiarity to that phrase. “Baku?”
“You know? The dream-eating tapir.”
Naomi repressed a shudder. “That’s not me. I don’t eat people’s dreams.”
“But you absorb something negative from them, don’t you?” Fumi’s gaze pierced right through her. “If you sleep next to someone you know, it gets normalized. You get used to one another’s energy. But a different person every night? Must be like a fish collecting small amounts of mercury with every mouthful.”
Naomi felt sick. But also, that it must be true. Even at the bar, with its neon lighting and sharp, angular furniture she felt insubstantial.
Going out with friends later that same evening, Naomi pondered what it would truly cost to quit. The cost of living in the city was certainly high, but could she work around it?
Naomi chewed over that phrase. Cost of living. Like people were composed of bits and pieces that cost X amount. To maintain a healthy leg, you must make so-and-so money. And what if you default on your payments? Did they repossess your body and sell it for parts?
Naomi laughed a little at the image. Then she looked over to the bridge, where the tent city was.
…no. That was what happened when the cost of living exceeded your means. You became invisible.
So what would need to happen for Naomi to become invisible? First she’d have to lose her job, then her flat, then she’d probably have to start prostitution…Naomi imagined the path of her life then, like a pachinko ball bouncing on a series of lower and lower pegs until settling into a slot at the bottom. And what would that slot be for her?
Her friend Nobu grabbed her scarf and jerked her to the left. “Naomi-chan? You were about to walk into that telephone pole.”
Naomi started. She had been drifting again. She yawned.
“Your job working you too hard?”
“Yeah. I’m thinking about quitting,” Naomi said.
“What, is the art gallery keeping you up late?” Chise joked.
Naomi blinked and went silent. All she wanted was to confess, for someone to give her that shot of courage that would let her quit. Instead she walked on as if she were a normal young career woman, each step sinking deeper and deeper in the snow.
“This next guy is another businessman,” Takahata said, “he came recommended.”
“I’ll try to stay awake this time.”
Naomi was beginning to suspect that staying awake, though part of the job description, was not actually what was required. That Takahata’s casual nature was just a smokescreen for his real motivation.
The businessman had an angry, pockmarked face. He was probably a patron of regular prostitutes as well, taking out his frustration on their bodies. A man like that had an aura like a bad odor.
Naomi tried to keep her manner crisp and professional, stressing that there would be no sexual contact. She wanted to trust Takahata’s vetting process, but could not rely on anything the man said.
Once in bed, she concentrated anywhere but her client’s ugly face. She focused on his breathing, trying to sync them up. It was a meditative exercise. She imagined she could see his breath, his sleep-energy flowing out from his nose, a violet against the snow white of the covers.
Naomi did not fall asleep. She wandered through the man’s slumber, imagining his journey. Perhaps he took a walk he took in everyday waking life. Across a bridge, through a business park. Naomi ambled through that thought, imagining his path. Here was a little landscaped area, with hexagonal sculptures and creeping moss trained to grow like a forest. Here was a bike path that ambled along the seaside.
It was almost an accident that Naomi looked up and saw it.
The black shape in front of her was only vaguely shaped like a tapir. It had no features, no, it was more like a living shadow, a hole in the world that looked onto somewhere much worse. Its color was the color of nightmares, a black that showed violet on your eyelids. Its movements were epileptic.
Naomi froze. She was suddenly aware of herself, of how she stood vulnerable on this plane and yet sprawled out on the bed. Was there a path quickly back to her body?
The thing vibrated like tv static. And then, even without a face, she wasn’t at all sure how, but somehow the thing looked right at her!
Naomi gasped as if surfacing from a cold lake. She pushed out of the covers and scooted until her back was against the wall, wrapping her arms around her knees.
Her client lay asleep, no visible change on his face. Would he notice if she never went back to bed?
Naomi spent the night sitting on the floor. When the alarm went off, she was already waiting with his suit jacket. The man did not seem very rested and grumbled through his morning preparations. Naomi did not care. She was filled with sudden revulsion for people who went for work like hers. People who walked around with dirt clinging to their souls, people who sought to wipe it off on someone else.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
Takahata barely nodded, marking off a receipt. He probably went through girls like most people go through socks.
“I can’t force you to stay, but there is one qualification.”
Takahata looked at her, setting a fat stack of cash on his desk. It was a generous amount.
“This is your severance. If you want it, you have to spend a night with me.”
“With you? How? You mean…in that bed?”
Takahata nodded, gaze suddenly sharp. She was right, his casual demeanor was a put-on. He knew exactly what he was asking.
Naomi looked at her last payment blearily. The client had complained and gotten a bit knocked off his price. It was only enough to last a week at most. How quickly could she find a job?
Takahata’s eyes were dark. They held a tinge of violet, only there when she squeezed her eyelids closed.
Naomi stared back, not blinking “…okay.”
Takahata did not undress. He did not even kick off his shoes before getting into bed. She found that, of all things, very obscene. Takahata was very obscene, the more she thought about it. What dirt did his soul have clinging to it?
Naomi got into bed ramrod-straight, holding her body carefully away from Takahata’s. The man’s gaze was like a deep ravine, something that threatened to suck her in.
Naomi matched their breaths. Takahata had an odd breathing pattern: two rapid inhales, then a long exhale. Naomi adjusted her own breathing, trying to influence his. Gradually, Takahata’s eyes drooped.
Naomi imagined she could see his sleep-breath, a deep, hateful black-violet pluming from his nostrils. She imagined its smell, something chemical and citrus-y, sharp and oddly sweet.
She plugged his nose.
Takahata’s mouth immediately began blowing out air, but it was colorless. Naomi waited.
Takahata’s face flushed violet. His eyes danced behind closed lids. Naomi kept the seal on his nose airtight.
Now his face began to swell. Takahata’s cheeks blew up, his eyes bulged,his nose expanded under her hand.
But he didn’t wake.
Soon Takahata’s breaths began to taper off. His face darkened until it was almost black.
He exhaled and never took another breath.
Naomi removed herself from the bed. She slipped on her coat and shoes. The money she tucked into her clutch purse.
Now wide awake and on the edge of nothing, Naomi left.
“You know what they call this stretch of the interstate? Alligator alley. Doesn’t that just bounce? Alligator alley. That’s like the name of a weather girl. ‘Alligator Allie and News Copter 5!’” he joked.
She shook her head and tucked her shoulder into the gap between the passenger seat and the door.
“Me and my friends used to drive this way in high school,” he said, “it’s fucking scary, right? We loved scaring each other. Here—”
He flicked the headlights off.
She let out a noise and hit his arm.
“That’s not funny,” she said, laughing.
He grinned and turned the lights back on. “You see what I mean?”
She rolled her eyes. He hit the window switch and rolled the rear passenger window down, letting a warm, humid breeze roll into the car. She pressed her forehead to the cool glass of the window.
“So what’s out there?”
“Right now? Nothing.” He rolled the window up again because the windshield was getting cloudy with moisture. “Just everglades. Swamps.”
They drove on in silence for a few miles. No cars passed them, coming or going.
He chuckled a little. “Hey, when I was in high school, there was—”
The headlights illuminated a heap next to the highway. As the car drew closer, they were able to pick details out in the headlights. A tan Datsun, stopped without emergency lights.
“What the…” he muttered under his breath. He put on the signal.
“What are you doing?”
“Just seeing. Don’t worry.” He put the car in park, unbuckled himself, and got out. He left the door open behind him.
Her eyes followed him to the car, saw him peer into the driver’s window with his hands cupped around his face.
There was the sound of a branch breaking.
She turned and looked out the open driver’s side door. It seemed like she should have been able to see a few details of the opposite side of the road, of the trees and the swamp beyond, but all that was there to see was a wall of black. By the time she looked back at the Datsun, he had gone around the far side. The car rocked as he hunched by the passenger door. Once, twice.
She almost called for him, but the sound backed up in her throat like phlegm.
He walked back to their car. Only, instead of going around the front, cutting through the headlights, he went around the back of the car. She tracked him through the mirrors.
“What was it?” she asked as he got back in.
He kept his face turned away from her as he buckled, waiting until the car was rolling to pull his leg in and finally close the door.
“Oh,” he said, “nothing.”
The silence was thick in the car. There was something she felt she needed to ask, but couldn’t put it into words. He was humming aimlessly, something that rumbled low in his throat.
“Anyway—what was I saying?”
She grabbed at this invitation to return to normality. “When you were growing up?”
“Oh yeah.” He kept his face at a three-quarter turn away from her, but even so she could see his cheek stretch as he smiled wide.
“When I was growing up, there was something they called the Alligator Man. He used to hunt people along this here highway. Stalk people nice and slow. Nobody’s really sure he was a man anyway. Nobody saw him and lived.” He cackled a little.
She folded her arms. “Nevermind. I don’t care anymore.”
He went on regardless. His voice had become creaky and pitched low in his throat, like he was putting on a voice to scare her.
“They called him the Alligator Man ‘cause of what he’d do. He’d take you, and he’d stash you somewhere underwater. To soften you up. Just like a ‘gator. They would find people with chunks missing, all swollen with swampwater.”
She sank down further in her seat. “Stop it. You’re not funny.”
He went on, cadence of his voice smooth and even. “He was never caught, like I say. Just trawled up and down this stretch of highway, up and down. But do you know why they really called him the Alligator Man?”
She didn’t answer.
He drove on, rolling down all the windows so the wet, warm air invaded every corner of the car.
“Why?” she whispered.
“Because,” he said, teasing the word out nice and long, “because he acted like an alligator. You ever seen an alligator hunt?”
His voice had dropped lower with each passing phrase. She tried leaning forward to see his face, but he shut off the dashboard lights.
“No,” she admitted.
“An alligator likes to lie nice and still on the water. That way it looks like a log or something harmless. Right up until it’s ready, it’s still as a stick. Alligator Man’s like that. Only, he don’t look like a log or a stick.”
His accent, which had been nearly extinct when they met, was oozing full and thick from his throat.
“He look like somethin’ harmless. Somethin’ folk reco’nize. So they let him get nice and close.”
He put on the signal. The car slowed as it bumped onto the red dirt of the shoulder. She looked around.
“Why are you stopping?”
“This is where we stop.”
He shut off the car, the headlights, everything, and turned around in the seat to face her. She couldn’t make out his face or any features, the night was so dark.
She held her phone up, finger hovering over the flashlight app.
“Are you sure you wanna do that?” he asked. His voice was a low rumble in his chest now, like scales dragging across something as they slipped into the water.
She turned on the light.
It was the last thing she ever did.
It was in the stairwell coming back from lunch that Bethany found the spider. Well, her head found an outlier strand of the web. The spider, incensed at the slight, vibrated like a plucked guitar string.
“Oh!” Bethany said from shock. Then, “sorry!” because she was startled again.
The spider gleamed in the middle of the web. As Bethany craned her head to look closer, she realized the spider’s abdomen was covered in mirror-bright patches. She’d never seen a spider like that, not ever.
She brushed against the web again. The spider scuttled into a corner.
Bethany walked in the office door. “There’s—”
“Thank God. Here.” Bob shoved a stack of proofs in her hand. Bethany instantly forgot the spider.
She remembered when she heard Aja shriek and topple over a stack of bygone magazines.
Devon beat her to the scene of the crime. Aja had her back pressed to the wall of the copy room, one hand extended in bony accusation. The subject of her ire reclined at a slight angle on the wall.
Bethany and Devon bent close.
The small fence lizard gave them an apathetic glare before closing its eyes and settling itself.
“This what you’re afraid of?” Devon asked. “This li’l guy?”
“It’s a freaking lizard!” Aja’s polychrome leggings flexed like the warning display of a cuttlefish as she scooted away. “It’s not supposed to be inside. Doesn’t it belong in a zoo?”
Devon and Bethany exchanged a look.
“I’ll get it,” he volunteered, trying to cup his hands around the little reptile. The lizard sensed his hands and scooted down the wall so rapidly it appeared not to move at all.
Bethany dumped her Starbucks cup out and handed it to Devon. Through some careful coordination, they got the lizard under the cup and a sheet of bristol board under the lizard.
Aja’s nose wrinkled. “Kill it.”
Devon rolled his eyes and left for the stairwell. Bethany followed, dragging her feet.
Devon did not kill the lizard. Rather, he shook the cup over the ornamental hedges at their building’s entrance. The lizard held on for one moment to its invisible prison and then disappeared into the bark covering the ground.
Devon straightened, shaking his head. “Belongs in a zoo.”
Bethany smiled faintly. She felt unmoored this afternoon, like something had been confided in her and she hadn’t fully understood at the time. She stood, just absorbing the minutiae of their surroundings. The ticking of the crosswalk indicator. The multilayered sound of people walking past. The bright glare of their building.
“I don’t like what living in the city does to people,” Devon said. He wasn’t looking up at the building. He was looking down where he had last seen the lizard.
Bethany felt she had to respond. “I don’t like what it does to animals.”
As if awaiting some comical cue, a bird thumped into the glass facade of their building. Both of them started, Devon shouting a hearty “fuck” and laughing. Bethany did not laugh.
“See? That bird probably never would have flown into anything. Then we stuck glass windows right in its way—”
Devon was shaking his head again. “No, see, I believe in survival of the fittest. Adapt or die. The bird that flew into it might not ever live to reproduce. But the bird smart enough to detect glass will live to mate another day.”
This seemed to her a gross oversimplification. But the nagging feeling came back and she looked up at the building again.
“I found a spider in the stairwell,” she said, grasping for what exactly she was trying to say, “it was shiny. Like a mirror.”
Devon looked at her oddly.
“You think I’m mistaken.”
Devon shook his head again. “No, I’ve seen spiders like that. They exist. But I thought they were only in the Amazon.” He absently flicked the rim of the empty cup. “They use it as some kind of invisibility cloak. Makes hunting easier.”
When Bethany went to show him the corner of the stairwell, some enterprising hand had swept the web away. The spider was nowhere to be found.
Devon gave her shoulder a squeeze and went back to proofing.
Bethany hovered on the edge of activity. The entire office was working on the next issue, pawing over glossy mock-ups, sorting through photographs. She couldn’t bring herself to join.
It was like a sound that hovered at a frequency no one else could hear. Like a faint smell. Like a touch that brushed almost-but-not-quite against her skin.
Bob sat at his desk. Mesoamerican art references littered the space as he drew chunky geometric swirls on the paper.
“I saw a spider today,” she said softly, not expecting him to respond.
To her shock, Bob looked up. His pen ceased. “In the stairs? Yeah, I got it. No need for another Aja alarm.”
Bethany felt a little excitement. “You saw it too?”
“Hmm?” Bob’s attention was buried again. He was looking at a smeared photocopy of a picture of a stirrup vessel. “No. I got the web.”
Bethany felt oddly disappointed. Why was it so important that someone else saw the spider? It had something to do with the feeling she couldn’t quite place.
Aja shrieked again when she found a dead bird. This was not the bird that had hit the building earlier. This one was a sparrow. However it had gotten into the building, the body was now swaddled with cobwebs.
Bob frowned down at it. He stooped and grabbed it barehanded, over Aja’s protesting squeak, and lobbed it out the window.
“Back to work, all of you,” he said, shaking his hand as if to dislodge bacteria that way.
Bethany disobeyed. She stayed behind as Bob washed his hands at the breakroom sink.
“Think I’ll get some exterminators in here,” Bob said offhandedly, “sorry if it seems cruel.”
The phrase that leapt to Bethany’s mind was not cruel. It was too little, too late.
“Sir,” she said, “the spiders—”
Bob was shaking his hand again, aiming it at her like a fleshy tamborine. “I’ll take care of it, Bethy. Can you get me Todd’s snaps from the fountain square shoot?”
Defeated, Bethany nodded.
She saw the spider again, this time in the hallway just before the stairs. It gleamed in its new web like a fallen star.
Bethany looked up at it, an odd sort of reverence filling her.
Aja clattered up, her wedge heels slapping the linoleum as if it had offended her. “Not again!”
In the space of a blink, Aja swept her designer bag up and obliterated the spider. Bethany felt a sense of steep loss coupled with annoyance.
“Thanks,” she said flatly.
Aja did not appear to detect the sarcasm.
The office diverged at the sidewalk. The photographers were going straight home after a long day of travel. The purely office drones were going to drink. Bethany, neither one nor the other, remained indecisive on the sidewalk.
Bob saw her waiting and brushed her shoulder with his hand. “It’s okay.”
She wasn’t sure if he was referring to the spider, or the deep feeling of unease that had permeated the air. She could see the restlessness spread to her fellow workers, saw them check watches, fuss with their hair, look around frequently. However unnerved they were, though, it did not stop them from congregating on the sidewalk while she lagged behind in the safety of the building’s entrance.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t know.”
Bob nodded as if he understood it. “You’ll survive.”
Bob left her standing in the entrance and joined the others on the sidewalk. Bethany stood with her wordless questions, her unease and her loss, apart from all the others.
So she was the only one who noticed when a massive section of the building broke away and crept with a silent eight-legged gait down to her coworkers.
I know Antony Vargas is innocent, and I know this because I was pulled in on the same charges.
47 murders. 49 by the time they snagged him for riding without a helmet. They’re good at that: pull you in for a little thing, tack on the big thing later.
I won’t pretend I’m 100% innocent. I was driving back from a wedding when I saw a derelict building too good to miss, and I just so happened to have my cans in the back. I was spraying the last layer on my tag when the gun cocked behind me. A friend of mine got capped by an overenthusiastic rent-a-cop back in ‘95, and as I have no desire to end up dead or wheelchair-bound, I put my hands up.
At no point in time did the officer arresting me mention murder. I was twenty minutes in that interrogation room, sweating and looking at my dumb face in the mirror. When the officer came in with a book and started talking casually about where I’d been that night, I instantly dropped the magic word: lawyer. He just went on about how I was a stranger around these parts, probably not a tourist seeing as it was past 10 at night and gee, I sure had a lot of equipment in the back of my jeep.
While he’s talking, he opens the book and shows me…Jesus, how to describe it? I’ve seen wartime photos, buddy of mine was in Afghanistan a few years back. These matched his snaps for the senseless level of violence. Think I threw up in my mouth a little. All the time this cop is talking, watching my reaction. Guess I blinked wrong because he slammed the book shut and left the room. The guy playing bad cop came in and that’s when I shot myself in the foot. In my sputtering about tagging, somehow they found enough to book me on suspicion of murder. A case made out of paper bricks, it wouldn’t hold up in any sane court. But this was Hogg county, and the judge they got looked a little too much like the sheriff for comfort. I’m only free to tell you this today because my lawyer, a beautiful, beautiful man, descended like an angry Santa Claus and delivered a legal smackdown that left their ears ringing. I didn’t understand most of the legalese, but he threatened to have the judge disbarred if this farce of a trial went forward.
Antony Vargas didn’t have all that. He had a mealy-mouthed public defender who told him to take a plea deal or they’d cut his mother’s benefits.
After I was acquitted, or exonerated or whatever the proper term is, the cops acted all self-righteous, told me to never come back. I said I had no problem missing a shit-splat town like theirs in the future. The sheriff actually leapt across the table after me, can you believe it? I guess even Splatsville, U.S.A. has some measure of civic pride.
Anyway, I disobeyed almost immediately. Came back disguised as a photographer enamored by their collection of dilapidated barns. It worked because I’m a 43-year-old white guy with the ability to get a haircut. The camera was originally just cover, but it wound up being handy when I saw what was on the barns.
Above the first barn’s door was what looked like an eye in what was probably blood. Flies didn’t swarm over paint like that. All the barns had ‘em. Old, new, abandoned, inhabited, it was just out in the open for anyone to see.
Now, in a situation like this you’d expect the townsfolk to be a little on the taciturn side. And they were—right up until I told them I worked for Fortean Times. It’s amazing the things people will tell you if they think they’ll be bigfoot-famous. Like how they all knew that everyone the sheriff nabbed was innocent, they just couldn’t speak up. Or the fact that there were probably more than just the 49 murders, but those were the only bodies found. Or the fact that all the plants died at the crime scenes and never grew back.
It goes on.
The blood on the barns came from the biggest animal, be it bull or dog or horse, that they had. They’d bleed it every few weeks, never more than it could stand to lose, mix the blood with a little vinegar to keep it from coagulating and slop it on the barn. Presto. I couldn’t gather how they came up with these particular rules, just that it was how their grandaddy’s daddy did things.
Another thing I couldn’t get was a physical description. Normally, there’ll be at least an outline: ‘it looked like a shadow twice the height of a man,’ etc. Nothing. What I did get was that this sort of thing had happened before, when the town had been nothing but a collection of tarpaper shacks.
This latest rash of murders happened because a place they called the Water Shack burned down. I never got more detail than that. What kind of building, who owned it, why it would have an effect on the murders? Zilch.
I noticed a squad car circling like a shark on the horizon, so I beat feet at that point. Went to the next town over to use their library. Apparently what the townspeople had been unwittingly painting was the evil eye.
The next two murders were in bigger papers, so the cops were aching to have a suspect. Antony Vargas was tailor-made for the verdict: out-of-towner, young, ethnic, and defiant. It didn’t matter that he would’ve been thirteen when the murders started, or that he had clear alibis for nine of them. Once he confessed, no one was interested in looking closer.
I saw the photos of the murder scene in the Tribune, taken by a much better photographer. It was fucking grizzly. What was left of the poor bastard was threaded through a treetop. Which, to me, should’ve been an instant exoneration. How can I say this without getting hyperbolic? No human did that. They’d have to have a catapult to launch it that far.
The newspeople had better luck tracking details down. Of the 49 murders, all had been conducted in the dead of night. The victim had been snatched from somewhere else and brought to the murder scene, sometimes over ten miles. The murders were unusually savage, and the papers used those words they love to use in a time like this: “barbaric” “senseless,” “inhuman.”
I especially love that last one. It comes so close to the truth but shies away at the last moment. Because I don’t believe a human did that. I don’t believe Antony Vargas did it and I don’t believe any of the other poor schmoes they dragged in before him did it. But they need an answer, just like the town needs a scapegoat. I learned the town wasn’t just desperate, they were scared. They all dealt with it differently. The cops dealt by dragging in anyone who so much as dropped a gum wrapper within town limits. The townsfolk painted their buildings in blood. They both came to the same end, and they were both equally ineffective.
I visit Tony in jail. Nice guy, all things considered. His mom has been lobbying for his release since he got thrown in there, but I don’t like her chances. The only thing the justice system hates more than a wrongful conviction is overturning it.
There have been more murders. It’s not in the paper, but I visit town a lot. They like me, I’m the Fort guy. They’ve found maybe two more sites, two more murders that could set Antony Vargas free. So I stuck around to take pictures. They can’t keep it under wraps forever. They can’t continue with this false peace indefinitely.
I know this because when they pointed me to the site of the last murder, I watched the trees beyond it part. I saw them rock back and forth in the wake of something massive. And I realized that we all have much bigger things to worry about.