“You think you know about pain? I know about pain.”
He held up his palms. They were lined with dirt and chapped. His nails were framed in flakes of dead skin, ending in black crescents.
“You have dirty hands, but that isn’t the same thing as pain. Just take a bath. You don’t need my help for that.” I took my time unscrewing the cap off the bottle and let it drop to the ground. His mouth twisted as he sucked his bottom lip, thinking.
“It’s because of it. People who don’t know pain don’t be dirty like this.”
I didn’t respond and took a drink from the bottle. His hands dropped back to his lap.
“Why do you want to know about my pain anyways? You ain’t gonna do anything about it.” His eyes fixated on the Jack and I let the light catch it so it shone amber.
“I can’t help you if I don’t believe you.” I tipped the bottle again, letting a trickle run down my chin. I liked the desperate look in his eyes as his world narrowed and licked my lips before wiping the drops away with the back of my hand. “Good stuff.”
He licked his own lips in subconscious pantomime and pushed layers of a tattered sleeve up, exposing a forearm latticed in scars. The skin was less grimy there.
“Here’s some pain for you. Everytime I lose something, I keep the memory in my flesh. I cut myself,” he said. “That’s a lot of memories.” He ran his fingers across one of the bigger lines.
“Lots of people cut themselves. It doesn’t mean your pain is worse.” I pulled my phone out and checked the time. “What do you cut yourself with?”
“I got a knife. You gotta have a knife ‘round here. I’ll show you.” He pawed at his neck with stiff fingers and pulled at a string tied at his neck. A decent sized hunting knife in a worn black sheath was dangling at the end of it. I held my hand out, letting the liquid slosh against the glass as I did.
“Can I see it?”
He sucked his lip in again, thinking, before he pulled the string over his head and placed it in my hand.
“Now you give me the bottle like you said.”
“I didn’t say I was giving you anything. I said I would help you with your pain.”
“A drink sure goes a long way to help. I got arthritis from the cold nights and a good drink is all that makes it go.”
I cradled the Jack in the crook of my arm and slid the knife free. The blade was hash marked with scratches. The tip was snapped off.
“So what did you lose to make so many scars?”
“Everything! I lost everything I ever had. Shitty parents, shitty wife took the kids, shitty friends… I tried to make something with my life but I got backstabbed every time. Nothing left to do but cut reminders and try to get on.”
Sitting on the greasy back step of a restaurant and smelling like piss, he didn’t look like he was getting on.
“And cutting yourself helps?”
He looked at the blade in my hand.
“Not like the booze does.”
I held the bottle out and swished the contents before I handed it over to him.
“I knew you weren’t gonna just tease me. I knew you were gonna help.” He took a deep swig, sloshing it around in his mouth before swallowing it.
I dropped the sheath and it landed at his feet, the string spreading serpentine on the stained pavement. He took another swig and bent over to pick it up. I bent over too, above him, close enough for his body stink to invade my nose.
The knife pushed in to the small hollow that hid where his shoulder and neck connected. It slid in, already familiar with this flesh–a final memory that would never scar. He fell forward on one knee, propped up by the bottle, before he collapsed. Blood and booze mingled into the cracks beneath him.
She gently traced the lines on his hand with her thumb. “I see deceit and malice,” she said accusingly, looking into his eyes with her unseeing, milky white ones. She then added, “And a disregard for others.”
The palm reader, Alice May, then rose and gingerly made her way to the cupboard on the far side of the room. She gently cast her hands over the trinkets that adorned the old, oak surface. Some were merely ornamental, decorative pieces that she had acquired over many years of her life. Some were more precious to her, and much more valuable. She sighed, put her hand to her heart and then returned to the reading.
“When you first came to me, I felt something in your lines that confused me. Each time you returned, everything became clearer,” she continued as a tear ran down her cheek. All Peter could do was look wide eyed with a muffled scream back at the old lady.
He’d been coming for readings for weeks. Each time he’d helped himself to a bit of jewellery. This time he’d sat in the chair in her dusty old den, drank the usual cup of tea that she always offered, but this time had fallen into a deep sleep.
“I don’t think you have a good bone in your body,” she continued, as she felt each line, each intersection on his palm. “I fear you may be a lost cause.”
She stood again and threw the severed appendage into the open fire. Peter tried to scream. His mouth was sealed tight with crude stitching, his legs tied tightly to those of the chair. His wrists were nailed to thick wooden tabletop that he had sat at for the last few weeks of his visits to this mystic witch.
“On the other hand, maybe you’re not all that bad. Maybe you deserve another chance,” she said.
She fumbled for the hacksaw beside the chair, felt her way up to his other arm and started to grind through skin, flesh, muscle and finally bone.
His eyes rolled in his head, his pupils widened in pure, electrifying agony as she began to remove the other hand. After some effort it detached from his wrist. She then sat down, turned it over, and began to give him a second reading for free. Deep within her, she hoped to find a line that would give her reason to spare him. But, even as she began reading it, she shook her head, solemnly. All Peter could do was shake his head violently from one side to the other. His muffled pleas for forgiveness went unheard by Alice.
We saw it drifting… just a dust cloud at sunset and we looked away. We were busy playing games… dodgeball and tag, racing with nightfall and impending parental calls for dinner, baths and bedtime. We had no time for dust clouds. But when night time fell and our parents never called we paid attention. The cloud was already on us—a twisting fog tainted green, illuminated and glowing from somewhere within. We stopped our games to listen and heard our parents screaming. A writhing tempest obscuring twilight breezes with hot, acrid stench filled our familiar suburban streets. There was no running. We were already home with nowhere to go on a school night. Helpless, stunned and overwhelmed, we joined our parents without protest.
Vile Nights Lee Andrew Forman
As the light of day begins to hide below the horizon, its final glow casts fleeting hope on those who dwell beneath its last rays. They know how short their joy is, so on long summer days they rejoice the seemingly languid time. Once darkness reaches over the clouds, and halogen bulbs flash to life over the not-so-sleepy town, prayers go unheard, muffled by thick atmosphere. The overbearing weight makes even a subtle breath too dense.
The flooding of artificial luminescence over every inch of land does little to slow the nightly feeding. One by one they crawl from the trees and search for sustenance. The food supply has dwindled over time, but they won’t be sated until not a morsel is left.
No one knows what afflicted the children, what made them change. Not a mother, father, or sibling understands why their own blood has turned vile and ravenous. They only wish it would end.
Tangerine Sky Nina D’Arcangela
They said the dome would cleanse the air; that if we waited, it would be safe again. And for a while, it was. Greens were more verdant than they’d ever been, almost surreal in their crisp contrast to other hues. The valley was a lush haven in a dying world. We were lucky, as lucky as anyone could hope given the cataclysmic shift the planet had undergone. The science worked, we were proof of it. Plans were put in place to build more domes; to terraform our own Earth, rebuild the civilization that once existed.
Then the air machines stopped one day. No rhyme, no reason, they just stopped mid-rotation. Scientists and engineers did their best to repair them, but nothing had failed; they’d simply gone dormant. We tried to ignore the latency, to carry on as if it would bear no consequence on our future. We breathed, we ate, we lived a simile of the life we once knew. Then someone noticed it, a wisp of fog to the west. It seemed harmless, just an inexplicable anomaly. But as time progressed, so did the wisp – it grew into a fog that hugged the ground like false snow. When it encircled the mills, it seemed to split into fingers as though a hand were reaching into our bubble from the corrupt exosphere. Another wisp formed where the first petered out.
Every day, as I walk the commune, I feel its, no, her gaze upon me. She whispers to me each night, and her lullabies hold no hope for a future. She is sentient, of that I’ve no doubt, I only ask that she take us before the new are born.
Before the Mist Miriam H. Harrison
Before the mist, there had been life. There had been birdsong and beauty. There had been the tender bloom of possibility, the lush green of promise. There had been laughter and languid days, moments that stretched long and sweet like taffy, without fear of what would come. We had no reason for fear, then. No reason to run, to flee, to scream—before the mist.
The Detour Marge Simon
There are streets in the little city that are always under construction. The disposal crews arrive to move the Detour signs. No one questions them, it’s approved as standard maintenance. None inquire after the families who once lived on those streets. A neat row of older homes lines the block where the old man lives. He saw them cordon off the street a week ago. The yellow tape is up, the flashing pyramids installed to warn away incoming traffic.
This day he joins the neighbor’s dog to nap on his front lawn. Dozing off, he finds the edge of the afternoon. He lets his mind explore until he discovers a crack. He curls his fingers into it and it feels delicious. For a moment, he stops to indulge the pleasant sensation. He’s had this feeling before. Like the time he reeled in that five-pound bass on Lake Richard, summer of ’53. Or maybe his first night with his beloved Mandy, that had to be around then, too. A year’s worth of pleasurable surprises. He wills his mind further into the opening. How strange, how wonderful to own a crack in the afternoon! He dreams deeper into the fissure. There is something unknown and twisted. It moves along the rim of a black void. All that was familiar fades as he is sucked inexorably toward the dark. He hears the clink of chains, the tread of many feet. An open mouth, a scream with no sound. Then the fear begins. It rises to a flood that leaves him moaning in his sleep.
“You can go now.” The voice is soft and very clear. He can see the silhouette of her head as she bends close, feel her breath stirring the hairs over his temple.
“Mandy, I –”, he starts to say, but she puts her cool fingers on his lips.
“It’s all right, William. We’ll be just fine.”
The dog beside him whimpers as it licks his face. He blinks back the dream, noticing the house up the street is gone. He puts his tongue into the crack of his hands, tastes the salt of his flesh. Then he lies back, closing his eyes. Very soon now, it will be time to take the Detour.
Fog of War Charles Gramlich
Stirred by dawn, a fog rises. It creeps the forest until a narrow defile between hills beckons it downward. It flows quicker now, like water, like a flood. And like a flood, it picks up debris.
But this debris is not leaves and twigs and fallen tree limbs. This debris is souls. A thousand dead souls. A hundred thousand. Animal. Insect. Spider. Leached from buried bones, or from the remnants of broken carapaces and exoskeletons.
And all these souls are screaming. As they screamed when they died. Out of pain. Out of a last desire to strike back at their killers.
At the foot of the hills lies a small rural community. Houses and streets still sleep soundly so early in the new day. The fog rolls over these houses, seeps within through cracks or open windows.
In the ears of the sleeping people, the screams of the myriad dead echo. Men and women and children stir as the agony and hate of numerous tiny souls seeks to burrow within. For a few…bad dreams. Most people never notice anything.
But the dogs notice. In their dank kennels. In yards and barns. Or sleeping at the feet of their masters.
The dogs notice. And they rise. Their eyes turn black with despair. Before their teeth turn red with slaughter.
Once in a Millenia A.F. Stewart
The land remembered, even if the town had forgotten. Distant ancestors raised monuments, told their stories, but over time people laughed at the continued warnings, dismissed it as superstitious folklore, letting the markers and wards fade into the foliage and earth. The land welcomed back the magic and reclaimed their rejected gifts, leaving the town unprotected and oblivious to their peril.
The birds gave the first sign, flying away in flocks. The animals followed, deserting homes, farms, and forests. Tension prickled and tempers flared, but still the people remained, never dreaming of the fate awaiting them.
Until the day the fog rolled in…
A bitter, frigid cold heralded its arrival, forcing the people inside behind closed doors. Then the mist flowed soft and silky, winding down from the hills to caress the land in an icy kiss. It slithered and stalked, creeping in through the cracks, surrounding and smothering. It chilled the skin and choked the breath as smokey tendrils forced their way down every throat.
As they died, coarse whispers pounded in everyone’s ears.
Come join us in Hell…
The Curtain Elaine Pascale
“Don’t drink the water…”
When we were children, and the curtain came down, we thought they tried to protect us. But the curtain made us ugly, freakish.
The pretty ones were pulled away prior to the curtain, even though the government swore there had been no advance warning.
“Don’t eat local produce…”
There is not much for us in terms of opportunities or industry. Those of us that remain are simply not allowed to leave.
“You are not to reproduce. That has been taken care of.”
The curtain was a wave of toxins. It ate away at many of our organs, leaving us feeble. Our bodies rotted. Not one of us has symmetry in our features or our appendages.
“You will wait until we find a cure.”
Our faces and bodies were corroded, but our brains remained intact. Some would say heightened as we had no other motivation but to study the curtain.
And to wait.
It wasn’t long until we realized that there was no cure. We understood that those who had been deemed special had been saved. We knew that they were not coming back for us.
We used our isolation to our advantage.
“The animals must be slaughtered. It is the humane thing to do.”
‘Humane’ is defined by who says it. We did not want to go the way of the animals. We studied the curtain; we explored its substance. We investigated and found that the toxin lived within us.
But it could be extracted.
And it could be weaponized.
And it could make the pretty ones not so pretty anymore.
We no longer wait. Waiting means a ‘humane’ termination. We have other plans, and we will be the ones to define what is ‘humane.’
Incel Dreams Harrison Kim
I let a woman into my world. She had wiles, and wild looks, her smile took me for a ride. I opened my mind, and she permeated my whole existence with her smile, then sank into it, and stayed grinning within. Now I fly above my dream world, my night mind, also called my ego, in the shape of an eagle, searching for the whiteness of her teeth, a glint shining behind the canopy of trees, or the cream stripe where her hair separates in the middle of her head, as she runs among the moonflowers. If I see that white stripe moving, I will drop fast as a stone, grasp her scalp with my predator claws and pull her out.
She will return everything she took, my dignity, my pride and identity, my sense of reality and self. She’s a parasite within my head, taking all my energy, laughing at how easily she took over.
I cannot find her. I only hear that laughter.
When I rise from this dream, into the shared world outside, I shall buy a gun. I can’t be an eagle in the shared world, but I can still be a human hunter. I may not possess her body in my mind, but I will find it living on the waking city streets. Tomorrow, I will make sure she will only exist within me, and not for anyone else, ever again.
I whirl above the canopy that covers the surface. “Why did you make me love you?” I call again and again. I fly in faster circles. Her voice responds from my ego below, louder and louder, and I hear it clearly now. “Because I could.”
Little does this taunting invader know the way I will clear her from my mind.
Passing through the woods one dark and dreary day, an old wizard found a shivering waif sitting dejectedly beneath a tree alongside the road.
“Child,” the old man said. “Where are your parents?”
“Gone, Sir,” replied the waif, who appeared to be no more than ten or eleven.
The youth shrugged. “They sent me to gather wood for our campfire, but when I came back they were gone. I don’t know where.”
“Well, perhaps we can find them,” the wizard said, though he did not really believe it likely. This forest was infamous as a place where unwanted children were abandoned.
The wizard held out his hand. “Come with me, Lad. I’ll help you.”
Without hesitation, the waif rose and took the man’s hand. His grip was strong, and he was smiling. The wizard smiled back.
Knowing it would be dark soon, the wizard did not lead the waif far before stopping to camp.
“Do you want me to get wood?” the boy asked in a frightened voice.
The wizard smiled again. “Not at all, lad. You merely need to sit and watch.”
And as the boy watched, the wizard conjured up a swirling emerald campfire out of nothing but some glittering dust scattered on the ground. The fake fire crackled and spat like true flame. It gave off needed heat. The boy scooted close and held his hands out gratefully.
“It’s wonderful,” he told the wizard.
“Yes,” the wizard replied as he took a bundle off his back and drew out a packet of dried meat. He offered some to the boy and ate a few bites himself. He’d elected to start his fire near where a large, square stone rose from the soil. With a few groans and the crick/crack of old bones, he seated himself with his back to this stone. When he was comfortable, he found the waif looking at him.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I…I was…wondering. I’ve heard…stories about this wood. People say bad things live here.”
The wizard chuckled. “No need to worry.” He lifted his hands and waved them about while murmuring strange words. The air around the little campsite began to glow a faint green. The color deepened until the two sat within a sphere of glittering light.
“There. Evil cannot cross that barrier. We’re perfectly safe in here.”
“No monsters?” the waif asked.
“Not even werewolves and vampires?”
“Not even them.”
The youth sighed and relaxed. He finished his dried meat, then shivered and scooted even closer to the fire.
“Cold, small one?” the Wizard asked.
The wizard smiled and patted the earth beside him. “Come sit close to me and we can share our warmth.”
The boy hesitated a long moment, but then rose and moved to sit next to the wizard. The old man put an arm around the boy’s shoulders and drew him close. The lad rested his head on the wizard’s chest.
As the old man idly rubbed the youth’s back, the lad looked up at him. “I just have one more question,” he said.
The waif smiled: “What if the evil is already inside the sphere?”
The eunuchs parade for rights, today. Legions of dour men marching in clipped unison on a cold November afternoon with neither bands nor majorettes, nor clowns in little wagons. Their leader is out in front astride a white ox.
You turn to me, a question in your eyes, but I put a finger on your lips. Silently, we watch them proceed down Broadway until they diminish from view. Onlookers unify in a mighty sigh and return to go about their business.
Later we discuss this in bed, my arms embracing your shoulders, your legs twined in mine.
“Was it to make a statement, to gain recognition, acceptance?”
“I suppose it was,” I reply. “We started all this, didn’t we, Flora, decades ago? Why do you frown?”
“I guess they expect equal rights, too. It won’t happen in our lifetime, love!” I say, pulling your hands to encircle my breasts. We kiss with tenderness as only women do.
I lie awake, afraid to fall asleep. When we ascended to world leadership, we agreed males must be irrevocably controlled. But even so, those austere faces continue to invade my dreams with the force of their neutered dissent.
One arm lay in a pool of blood. My blood. The other grasps for it, reaches with needing fingers. They want to keep what is part of them. Part of me.
I know I’m in shock. The ping in my ears and lack of pain brings a strange clarity. Time slows. I see the carnage around me and watch, not in awe or disgust, but indifference. With calm I walk to the first person I see and beat him to death with my own severed arm. I whip his bruising face with the bloodied stump. I shove my radial bone down his throat and break his ribs with my boots.
I know I’ll bleed out if I don’t do something. That knowledge sits at the forefront of my mind, but emotion refuses to connect, urgency has been halted by whatever has changed inside. I know things weren’t always this way. But I don’t remember what they were before. And it doesn’t matter.
I walk past the crunched metal and burning rubber. Screams surround me but I pay no mind. My eyes are fixed ahead. I drop my severed arm. Blood no longer flows. Consciousness has not faded. I am alive.
Veins extend from my stump. They grow and lengthen, intertwine and stretch. They are as alive as I. A wide-eyed man in the street attracts my attention. I reach for him, take hold. His struggle is futile. I taste his insides as he’s torn apart and consumed. I hunger for more.
The world moves around me in grey slivers and murmurs, afraid to shout or shatter in colour. Tonight, I watch it slide in monotone under the moon and study the sparkles of white light that cascade from the sky. I giggle softly, only a whisper of mirth; it wouldn’t do to bring attention to myself. The monsters might find me. So I stay still and dream. Of blue skies and red balloons, and scarlet autumn leaves. Of smiles and loud squeals. Of happier times, and things lost. I dream so much that I almost miss it. The voices.
Someone was coming.
I see them.
Two people hand in hand. Not what I want, and they don’t spot me. I stare as they walk on. Maybe I should? I’m so hungry, but it would be dangerous to try. Better to wait. With a sigh, I close my eyes and picture the crowded seashore, all blue and green and brown. So tempting that day was with all the children playing. What would have happened, I wonder?
A sniff of the air, and I can smell him. I peer into the darkness.
Oh. A boy. Not more than twelve. Perfect.
I scuttle forward, near the wall, my drooling tongue licking my lips. I wait. He’s swaggering, but I breathe in the fear underneath the bravado. Did someone dare him to come? The boys do sometimes. Spend the night in the old graveyard. Survive the night.
This one won’t.
I reach out and grab him, slicing open his throat and abdomen with my talons, letting all the joyous colour spill out. The glorious red is everywhere and I eat my fill, drinking his blood and devouring his guts.
For one moment in time, my drab world explodes in colour and sound, in blood and screams.
Then I fade away, back to the shadowed monotone, and let the monsters come.
I know it sounds corny, but I believe life has a purpose. Really, I do. I believe that I—all of us—have a reason for being here, a reason for living. I don’t need to know what mine is. All I know is that one day it will come and it will go, and with it will go my need to live.
I test this every now and then, to see if I’ve outlived my use. The first time was with a pill bottle, but I’ve gotten more creative since. Five times I’ve tested this and five times I’ve survived.
Guess that means I’m still useful.
Hard to believe it as I make my way through the busy streets, just one of many ants in this hill. It’s times like this my philosophy carries me through. Every moment could be my moment—the one that completes me, opens the door, sets me free. All around me is potential. It gives life dimension for as long as it lasts.
As I ride the bus back from yet another eight hours spent by the burger fryer, I can’t help but wonder if today was my day. Maybe I did my part by holding the door for that girl, or by smiling at the gentleman on the corner, or by offering my seat to the grandmotherly woman on my morning bus. Every part counts, and maybe I’ve paid my dues.
I hear the moan of braking bus tires and get up at the all-too-familiar sight of my stop. I wave to the driver, but my mind is elsewhere, thinking of what the test should be. I try to change it up each time. After a while, it becomes an art of sorts, but that’s the kind of detail I pride myself on.
Lost in these thoughts, I barely even notice her until I’m almost past the alley. It’s the click that gets me. I stop in my tracks, expecting someone to come out asking for my wallet or my watch or something, but nothing happens. I glance down the alleyway and see her. It quickly becomes clear that it’s not my money she’s after.
I relax a bit, and see her look at me for the first time. She’s young enough—early twenties, no doubt—and not bad-looking. Mind you, she would probably look even better if she wasn’t holding a gun to her head.
“Guess you’re gonna tell me to back off,” she says after a long moment. I can see her grip tighten, and I almost laugh at the idea.
“Nah, go ahead.” I step back, cross my arms. “I’m kind of curious, actually.”
She snorts. “Morbid son of a bitch, aren’t ya?”
“Guess you could say that. Not every day you get a street-side show. Seems like a strange place for it.”
“Not for me. Thought I’d leave him with something to remember.” She gestures up to a window in the decrepit apartment building beside us. “Maybe I can get his attention while he’s still inside that bitch of his. Give her something to really scream about.”
I wait. I watch her. She watches me.
“You’re really not going to stop me?” she asks at last.
“No point,” I say with a shrug. “I’ve got a theory, of sorts. Call it fate if you like, but it all comes down to a fifty-fifty chance. Either it’ll work or it won’t. Either you’ve got a reason to live or you don’t. Not my call.”
“You really are sick, aren’t you?”
“Maybe, but it keeps me going. Here, how many bullets do you have in there?”
She pauses. “One.”
I stretch out a hand, slowly. “May I?”
I can see she wants to say no, but her curiosity is stronger. She gives me the gun. I unset it and spin the cylinder. Before she can say anything I cock it again, raise it to my head and pull the trigger.
I shrug. “See? Guess that means I keep going.”
The girl is visibly shaken as I hand the gun back to her. She’s lost some of her initial verve, but still cocks the gun and lifts it to her head. She bites her lip as she pulls the trigger.
I give a small smile. “Guess you keep going, too.”
The effort seems to have drained the last of her resolve. She almost drops the gun as she pushes it into my hands. “Thank you,” she says. She’s crying now.
I’m about to reply, but she’s already gone. Running from the alley, the building, the gun. Running to something more. As I watch her go, I wonder what her purpose is. Why she keeps on living. Why any of us keep on living.
The weight of the gun returns me to the present. I look down at it with some surprise. I think of the girl, of all that was and wasn’t.
“You should have your nametag in clear view where we can see it. “
Captain Rick untucked his nametag knowingly. He understood that this type of passenger liked to collect names for complaints. The fan on the airboat was not quite loud enough to cover the women’s conversation, which was an obnoxious combination of denigration of the local culture and denigration of him.
To drown them out—and the idea of drowning them was appealing—Captain Rick began his speech. As he discussed his native Florida, the women continued to speak to each other, acting as if his words did not matter. As if he did not matter.
These two were absolutely perfect.
As he knew his speech by rote, he was able to observe the invasive species in front of him. Both women were wearing dresses and shoes that were impractical and incompatible with an airboat ride. Their arms were laden with bracelets, their hands heavy with rings. But he was not interested in robbing them; he was interested in them for another purpose.
Captain Rick knew how to get their attention. He was confident he would be able to get them to say the things that would confirm his choice with the warden. The women did not know about the cameras that recorded each trip. They did not know that certain passengers were selected for a higher purpose.
They would never know.
Captain Rick began to cover the topic of the negative impact that humans have on the Everglades, especially relating to the introduction of invasive species.
Some invasive species are better than others, he thought. He knew that the foreign reptiles still had something to offer in the way of tourism and trading. Soon, these women would also have something to offer.
He continued, “Some of the alien species include Burmese pythons, several types of boas, and Nile crocodiles.”
“Aliens?” The woman on the left, who he heard the other call “Brenda,” asked.
“No, ma’am, alien species.”
Brenda’s friend leaned toward her but spoke loudly enough that the leaning was unnecessary. “Like that man we saw fishing at the marina. You know right away if someone is alien.”
“He definitely did not belong,” Brenda agreed.
“And boat slips are for boats, not fishing.” The friend turned to Captain Rick, suddenly wanting to include him. “How do we report that? Can you reach the sheriff or constable or whatever you call them down here? You have one of those.” She pointed to his belt. “Walkies.”
“These are for official communication and emergencies only, ma’am.” And for other types of communication that these women did not need to be privy to.
“You don’t think this should be escalated up the ranks to ‘official’?” She turned to Brenda. “He is disregarding my right as a concerned citizen.”
Brenda pulled herself up, looking like a hen stretching. “Citizenship confers power, sir.” The word “sir” was venom-soaked. “We are citizens.” She wiggled her hand back and forth between her friend and herself. “Those…men…the ones we saw fishing on the boat slip, obviously are not. If they were to ask for the walkies, then it would only make sense that those types are denied.”
He nodded. Not because he agreed with the sentiment, but because these two were so perfect. The last few tourist groups had not taken the bait. Thus, they had not been treated as bait. He peered over his shoulder to make sure that the camouflaged camera was capturing this exchange.
“You know, my husband—” the friend began, but Captain Rick cut her off by pointing toward the water.
“If we are quiet, we might be able to get up close to those crocs,” he instructed.
“Why would we want to do that?” Brenda asked, wrinkling her nose as if confronting a bad scent.
“So, you can tell your friends back home,” Captain Rick suggested.
The ladies laughed. “This was more of a…lark,” the friend explained, “we would never tell anyone that we climbed onto this…old boat to skim along some smelly water. We didn’t even tell our husbands.”
Brenda laughed louder. “Our friends think we are in Turks and Caicos. I mean, Florida? Who vacations here?”
“Rednecks.” her friend told her. “It’s the redneck Riviera or something.” She turned her attention back to Captain Rick. “We only came because our husbands had business.”
“I understand. But since you are on the boat anyway, you might want to see some of these species up close.”
“Not really.” Brenda sniffed. “We can go back. We had our fun…I guess.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. Captain Rick was thrilled; she was looking directly toward the camera. The warden would love this.
“I shouldn’t mention this…” If only the women had known that Captain Rick had been trained in the theater long before he retired and dedicated his time and energy to protecting wildlife and helping the state of Florida. “I guess…no…it wouldn’t be right…”
The women were only half-interested. He continued regardless.
“I had a group of ladies on this same boat earlier this morning. When we got to this same spot, this very spot…”
Brenda scratched her shoulder where a mosquito had been snacking earlier. The thought of her being snacked on made Captain Rick smile. He lowered his smile when she asked, “What is it?”
“The one lady leaned right there.” He pointed to a sand bank a few feet to the left of where they were currently idling. “She wanted to see the wildlife.” Brenda rolled her eyes again. “So?”
“Well, she…it really is the funniest thing, but she didn’t find it funny, of course…”
“Listen, either you tell us what happened, or you turn this boat around right now—” He was no longer sure which one was speaking as they both whined at the same frequency and his mind was already a few steps ahead.
“She had been wearing a bracelet. A real pretty one, and fancy too…it had all these diamonds on it. Her friend said it was a…Carter?”
The women gasped in unison. “Cartier?”
“That’s it. That’s the one. By gum if it didn’t come loose right when she was leaning and plop into the water below us. We tried to find it with no luck.” He winked at the ladies. “I was hoping to come back and find it without her. You know, a secret.” He winked again.
“That’s disgusting,” the friend chastised him. “You are basically robbing the woman.” She looked around the boat while Brenda’s eyes tried to bore beneath the surface of the murky water. “I will be using that net.” She pointed to the implements behind him. He had nets and hooks and many other useful items.
He feigned surprise. He was delighted that all was going according to plan. “You want to find it?”
“Of course. You wouldn’t even know what to do with something like that. But I—” She glanced at Brenda. “I mean, we…we know what to do with that sort of thing.”
Brenda nodded. “Of course, we will look at your passenger log and see if we can track her down.”
“Of course,” the friend agreed, and Captain Rick did not have to know them well to know they were both lying. But their lies only solidified how the rest of this cruise would go.
He handed the friend the net and watched as they both leaned over the side, scooping the water uselessly. As the women teetered precariously, Captain Rick could see the water parting on both sides of the boat. The crocs were used to this by now. They knew what to do, which absolved Captain Rick of having to lift a finger.
He remembered the camera and raised his hands behind the ladies’ backs, gesturing wordlessly, as if he were warning them away from the end of the boat. The women did not notice the snouts breaking the surface, but he did.
The first few times, he had needed to chum the water to get the crocs in a frenzy. They were now conditioned, and they knew exactly how to grab the women and pull them into the water. As if they had been trained.
The women screamed for help but there was nothing Captain Rick could do, not once they were being subjected to the death rolls. And the camera captured it all in case anyone came with questions.
But no one would.
Captain Rick had been right, the warden happily watched the film and agreed with the decision that had been made on the water. The warden slapped Captain Rick on the back and said, “That’s what tourists are good for, making our reptilian visitors feel at home.”