Heat Resistant

This is the first part of a story I'm writing. (Updated Sun., Jan. 11, 2009)

We live in a world now on the brink of maturity. In past aeons, the Earth was just growing out of its infancy, producing a people capable of conquering the mysteries of this adolescent world. Now that we, as a race, have dominated the subtleties of biology, illuminated the hidden secrets of mathematics, and set the atom to work for us, we have become masters of the planet, supreme above the rats and the like vermin. But as we set our sights on that which has long remained beyond our reach, we must remember that there are things other than us, things that were old when the Earth was young, things that had solved the question of resisting the ether of space while we were struggling to rise up out of the sea, things that look upon our pitiful attempts at space flight with such mirth that their laughter would deafen us would they deign themselves to be heard. We may be the Kings of the Earth, but they are Emperors of the Universe, and we would do well to remember it.

You can't see the rocket launches from Miami's beach, but I am now sitting on the sandy dunes of that shore while far, far away, red fire glows and sends another man into the outside. Ignoring the orders of my editor will most certainly leave me finding other work, but I would rather face the gallows themselves than travel up US-1 to Cape Canaveral to watch a shuttle hurtle into that little-known terror we call space. They say that every possible precaution is taken to ensure the safety of those watching from the Cape, but now I much prefer the relative safety of the vast distance between myself and the rocket, though how safe I can be when I can still hear the lapping of the waves on the sand, I do not know. For I have found coconuts in my walks on the beach, and if they can float for miles and miles, who can say that something cannot find me here?

The launching of a space shuttle is always big news in Florida, but that day's launch brought the attention of the whole nation, it seemed, as this was to be the last journey for this type of rocket. After the Challenger disaster and other malfunctions, NASA was switching back to the older version that hadn't killed anyone yet. The Miami Herald sent me up to take some pictures of the flight, the wheels still spinning in my editor's head as he tried to come up with a fitting headline (The Final Frontier for This Old Bird was the last one he tried on me before I beat feet out of his office). The weather was fine, and I was looking forward to a short vacation in Daytona Beach before the launch when smoke started coming out from underneath the hood of my car.

I called triple A, and they sent a tow truck out, which took me and my car to the nearest mechanic, a man by the name of Charlie Box, who ran the Box Bros. Workshop at 823 Dixie Freeway in Tropic Park. After a quick examination of my car's engine, Box told me something I couldn't really understand about the radiator and charged me two hundred dollars, saying the work would be done by that night. He suggested that I visit the beach, which in his opinion was the finest beach in all of Florida. He began to tell me about all the places he had visited in Florida, and how inferior their beaches were in comparison to Tropic Park's, but I politely excused myself and headed for the shore.

Across the street, I found a small gas station and asked for a map of the city. As I was paying, I fell into a conversation about the best spots for a stroll on the beach and a bite to eat. The man at the counter told me about several restaurants in the area, as well as a few places for a leisurely walk, and circled them on my map. When he asked why I had stopped in at such an early hour, I mentioned the shuttle launch, but at the first words he stopped me, gave me my change, and then disappeared into the back of the shop. Nonplussed, I took the map and exited the store.

I walked across the Middle Causeway to the beachside part of Tropic Park, stopping at the apex of the bridge to admire the view. The waterway below me was wide, and I could see the fins of a pair of dolphins skimming for fish. There were several small islands, and far off were the North and South Causeways. Quite near was a small river, which lead off around the city and up into Lonesome Mountain.

As it was closing in on noon, I decided to take a short walk on the beach and then retire to one of the many waterfront restaurants for lunch. The beach was, as my informant had said, a marvellous sight, but I still prefer the warm water of Southern Florida, even if the bay area is heavily polluted now. The waters off Tropic Park were cold, very cold for that time of year, but as I walked through the surf with my pants legs rolled up, I gradually acclimated to the chill and actually enjoyed myself quite a bit. I don't think I will ever return to Tropic Park, and if I hold myself to that, it won't be because of the clime.

Twelve o'clock brough with it a strong wind, and I saw storm clouds closing in from the sea, so I walked back up to the street and, after washing my feet of sand in one of the public showers reserved for this purpose, enetered a large-size eatery named JP's Fish Camp.

The waitress was very hospitable, and found me a seat by the window overlooking the inland waterway, which was just as beautiful as the ocean, even if it was in shadow. There was only one other patron of the restaurant, sitting at the bar, and, after a moment's hesitation, I went over and sat next to him. "Say," I asked, "know if there's anything to do in this little town if you've already been to the beach?" He didn't look at me, but said, "Fucking tourists," and went back to his drink.

A little taken aback, I said, "I'm actually not a tourist."

He still didn't look at me, but took another pull from his glass and said, "Then what the fuck're you doing in a tourist town like Tropic Park?" His voice was low, and gutteral, and I could tell he didn't want to speak to me. But I felt a need to explain myself to him now. Being a Florida native, albiet originally from the Panhandle and transplanted to the South, I hated tourists just as much as he did.

"I just drove up from Miami. I'm a reporter down there, and I only stopped over here on my way up to Cape Canaveral to watch the rocket launch." At the mention of the shuttle, I saw the man shake visibly, and his face, which had been a bright red, lost much of its color. He hurriedly drained the bottle, more than half-full, in a matter of seconds. "What is it?" I asked.

"If you know what's good for you, you won't mention anything about those goddamn rockets to anyone here."

Now I was intrigued. "What are you talking about?"

"Don't ask me any question, because I ain't saying anything." He stood up, tipping his stool over, and threw some bills down on the bar. "Be seeing you, Mary," he said to the waitress, who had backed up against the wall, her face petrified with fear. I righted the stool and then paused a moment in my pursuit of the man to stare with confusion at her face. There was a slam of the door, and the man was gone.

I went outside as well and saw him standing across the street near the boardwalk down to the beach. When he saw I had followed him, he turned and disappeared down the boardwalk.

When I reached the shore, I found him waiting for me. He spoke first. "Walk with me." His demeanor was still defensive and tight, like a spring wound up too far in a clockwork toy, but it held none of the anger it had previously. That was gone, replaced by what seemed to me to be sadness, or resignation. We began to walk south, towards the inlet.

"What's going on?" I asked. "Why wouldn't you talk to me in there?"

"Look, I'm the editor of the local paper, and I know a man who won't quit when I see one. Hell, I used to be one myself, back when I was a reporter. But that was before I realized how much trouble that pitbull mentality can get you in. I'll tell you the story about what happened with the rockets, and why no one in this town will talk to you if you bring it up. But you have to promise me that you'll shut the fuck up about Cape Canaveral and astronauts and anything else related to space. Mary lost a child to that thing, and so did a lot of other people, and I can't let you go around upsetting them like you did back there."

"Okay, I promise."

And David Miller began to tell his story. He paused many times in the telling, and by the time he had finished, it was dark. I asked him then, "Why do you stay? Why do any of you stay?"

"There's something that holds us here. Anyone who moves away comes back, and anyone who moves here from away leaves soon enough. There's something about the water of the sea, the green of the river, the height of the Mountain, that holds us here and keeps others out."

I found my way back to the mechanic, overpaid him knowingly without complaint, and drove south to Miami. As I sit on the sand of Miami's beach, I check my watch and know that right now, the shuttle is bursting out into the great unknown. I tremble, almost as though I were in the rocket itself, feeling the vibrations travel up and down my spine, instead of the chills I have there now. Once I write David Miller's story, I will lock it away in a safe place. If I had the proof to back up the fantastic claims, or if I thought someone of importance would take heed of my warning, I would publish this message far and wide. But as it is, I will settle for not being thought mad. I write down now the words of David Miller, while I still have them fresh in my mind, so that, should things change suffieciently to make the world more open-minded, I will still have them.

Here is the story I heard as I walked along the cold abandoned beach while storm clouds gathered and the fish grunted in the distance:

Charles Greene, or Charlie for short, was born in Tropic Park in the seventies. Being just a child, he avoided the culture wars of the time and managed a fairly normal childhood. After graduating high school with a 3.1 GPA, he attended the local branch of the community college for business and opened a small store selling towels, goggles, and other beach items on the plot of beachside property his family had bought before real estate really took off in Florida.

As the shop was quite close to the beach, Charlie Greene liked to take, as did so many others, a nice long walk down the shore before he opened. If you go down to the beach at six in the morning, as Charlie used to, you'll find it vacant, and you can enjoy the solitary stroll as the sun comes up. One of the added benefits of this early rising is being able to comb the beach before anyone else. Usually, when you walk the beach in the afternoon, people have already picked up all of the interesting sea shells that washed up during high tide the night before. Not so, for Charlie Greene. Before long, he had a collection of strange shells and driftwood unrivaled in any of the neighboring cities.

But the crowning piece of Charlie's collection was a large white tile which he found floating in a tidepool one summer morning. He had no idea as to what it could be, but he brought it to me. Having reported on a bunch of spaceflights, I recognized it immediately as one of the heat-resistant tiles they affix to the shuttles to keep them from burning up on reëntry. A shuttle had recently landed after a visit to the International Space Station, and I told Charlie that the tile had probably come from there. Shuttle tiles are notoriously weak. They're made mostly of styrofoam and held down with Elmer's glue. It doesn't surprise me at all that those things fall off, but they've got so many that losing one doesn't really matter.

So, Charlie put the tile up in his shop, showing it off. It got so everyone in town knew about it and had stopped by once or twice to see the thing. But one morning, Charlie called me to come see something about the tile. He had been arranging the display when he dropped the tile. You'd think it would have bounced, but it broke in half cleanly down the middle, spilling out a strange, clear liquid, something like gelatin that hasn't been completely set yet. He had left it where it was, waiting for me to come over. I had no idea what the substance was, but I guess that sea water got into the glue and mixed to create it, whatever it was. I picked up a little bit and rubbed it between my fingers. It was light, almost weightless, and had a gritty quality, like it held undissolved salt granules.

At this point, Miller pulled back his sleeve and showed me his arm. Up to the wrist, his hand was scarred with long jagged veins of flesh and pitted and pockmarked besides. The ring finger was gone, and the remaining digits had curled into a permanent claw. All the fingernails were missing, and the space where they had been, once light brown, was black and fleshy, with bumps and contusions that were entirely unnatural. At first glance, I would have said it was the result of fire, but they were like no burn scars I had ever seen, and in my time with the Miami Herald, I've seen a few.

So you can see what this stuff did to me, but that wasn't until later. Just then, I only washed the stuff off in the bathroom. When I came back, Charlie was spitting and hissing like someone'd force-fed him dog shit or something. Charlie, damn fool that he was, had put some of that gooey stuff in his mouth. He was always dumb as hell about stuff like that. Burned off both his eyebrows in tenth grade with a sparkler because he wanted to see how many he could light up at the same time. So I get him a glass of water and Charlie spends the next ten minutes in the parking lot swishing and spitting, trying to get that taste out of his mouth. He said it was like eating meat that'd been heavily salted, but meat that smelled awful, like guinea pig or something. I made fun of him about that for a while, and then I took off for work. The Post-Times, where I worked then, is in Coral Beach. That's a good thirty minute drive up the coast, you'll probably go through it on your way up to Canaveral. But that was the last I thought about Charlie's tile for a while, until Natty Bishop's boy went missing.

Oh, that was a heartbreaker. Everyone loved that kid. Natty Bishop owns a couple of used car dealerships around here, and whenever the Missus wanted to go somewhere for the day, he'd take Jeremy, that was the kid's name, Jeremy, he'd take Jeremy into work with him. People'd come in to buy a car and spend half the time play peek-a-boo with that kid. Had the biggest smile I've ever seen on a person, and beautiful brown eyes. If I'd have had a kid, I'd have wanted him to be at least something like Jeremy Bishop. But then, one day, I think it was in November of that year, Jeremy up and disappeared.

His mother, Julia Bishop, told me about it. I was the reporter assigned to the story. Anyway, Julia had put him down on the porch while she was working in the garden. She heard something over by the water, they've got a house on the beachside next to the inland waterway, and she looked over there just in time to see Jeremy crawl over the embankment and down into the water. She lost her mind, of course, and ran over to the edge to find him, but he was gone. The water wasn't deep at all there, but the boy had just vanished. A couple of the neighbors heard her screaming and came over to see what was the matter, and when she finished gasping out what had happened, they called the police. Dragging is a difficult business in the inland waterway, since the bottom's all mud and the depth and width changes so much, but the police did what they could. They never did find that boy, so everyone just assumed he drowned. I did too, for a while. What I saw in Charlie's store got me thinking, but I didn't connect the two for a while.

Now, I don't normally go onto Beachside. Too ritzy and upper-class for me. But since I was there, I thought about Charlie for the first time in a long time. I hadn't seen him, in fact, since that time he'd called me over about the tile. His store wasn't too far from the Bishop house, both being off the main road that comes from the Northern Causeway, and I went over there. The place was dark. It was early afternoon, maybe two o'clock, and Charlie kept his store open from seven to seven every weekday during the summer, and ten to five all other times, so I couldn't tell why it'd be closed then. I knocked on the glass, but there was no movement from inside the shop. I pressed my hands up to the window and peered in. All the displays seemed to be in order, the shirts properly folded. Thinking that maybe he was taking a short break for lunch, I went around to the back and knocked on the rear entrance, but there was nothing there either. I was just about to leave when the door swung open a crack, and a large white eye peeked out at me.

"What is it, Dave?" Charlie said. At least, I thought it was Charlie. Who else could it have been? But his voice was strange, too high, and scratchy, and an awful smell oozed from him, like something between fermented grapes and bad eggs.

"You all right, Charlie? You sound kind of funny."

"I'm fine." Charlie coughed violently, putting his hand on the door frame to steady himself. There was something not right about that hand. Its color was not too pink and not too white, somewhere in the middle, which should have matched Charlie's skin fine, but it didn't. I can't put it into words, but there was something not at all right about that hand. The fingers didn't look the right length either, but that may just be me changing things now that I saw that thing on the beach. I know for sure that his hand made the skin crawl on my back, though. I couldn't fake that feeling if I tried. "I caught a cold somewheres. I was taking a nap in the back here, sorry I didn't hear you knocking."

"I was just talking to Julia Bishop about her son disappearing, but now I've got nothing to do until I drive back to Coral. If you want, I could run to the store and get you some medicine."

The eye widened momentarily. "Jeremy Bishop's disappeared? How terrible. But no, I already bought some cough drops. Thanks."

"You're sure there's nothing I can get for you?" I put my hand on the door. The eye squinted, and the hand tightened around the frame, the knuckles going unnaturally white as the blood was squeezed out of them. I withdrew my hand quickly. His fingers relaxed.

"No, thanks. I'm perfectly fine. Now, I'm sorry, but I'm very tired, and I'd like to get back to sleep." Charlie brought his arm back inside the darkened room, but another coughing fit struck him and he replaced it, leaning on it heavily.

"You're sure I can't get anything for you?" Charlie shook his head, or at least his eye moved back and forth, so I assumed he was shaking his head. "Well, take a cough drop, and get back to sleep." The door closed, and I heard faint movements and then a crunching sound. "Chewing them doesn't do anything, Charlie!" I called out.

The noise stopped, and then Charlie, even hoarser than before, said, "Oh, right. Thanks."

I walked back to my car, and, taking one last look at the darkened insides of the store, drove away. I was busy for a while on the Jeremy Bishop thing, but it didn't go anywhere and, after a couple of weeks, it stopped being even a paragraph on page three of the local news section. If he'd been kidnapped, that'd be different, but no one likes reading about a little drowned boy. After that died down, my editor sent me up to Cape Canaveral for another rocket launch, and I was up there for two days. Shuttles and astronauts weren't really my field, but the editor knew I like the beaches up there, so he gave me the assignment as a favor. It reminded me of the tile Charlie got, and when I got back, I went to his store again to see if he was better. I knocked on both the front and the back, and listened for snoring, but there was nothing, and I worried that Charlie had gotten so sick he couldn't even make it to the beach. He lived in Marc St. Waters, which is a little ways out from Tropic Park. I figured if it got too bad, he'd give me a call, so I wasn't too upset. A little nervous, but nothing serious.

That night, Alice German disappeared. She was a little older than Jeremy, six, I think, and she was taken right out of her room. Her parents put her to bed that night, and when they got up in the morning, her room was empty, and the window was open. Since I'd gotten the last missing child from my editor, I got assigned to this one too. The police came in and searched, fibers, DNA, fingerprints, everything. Then things got weird. The police pulled full fingerprints from at least thirty people that couldn't be identified, and partials from a dozen others. There were no other traces at all, no evidence that gave even the slightest hint as to the abductor. The police ran the prints they did have through the criminal database, and got hits on every one, people who were in jail, out of jail, living in other states, dead, even, and every one checked out. One of the cops said it felt like someone was jerking them around. The story got around, thanks to me, and it lasted for more than a month. But, when no suspects turned up, no further leads came in, and the girl wasn't found, people lost interest, and I went somewhere else. But then the third kid went missing, and things got real bad, real quick.

That was Amelia Dirgit, a black girl that lived across the tracks, next to the river. She was nine, I think. I don't remember things too well, now, especially from that time. Most of that stuff I'd like to forget. But this was monstrous even for Tropic Park. Amelia went to Tropic Park Elementary with her sister, whose name escapes me now, and they were on their way home late from school one day. Her mother told me later that she should have been watching them, but she had to work a double shift that day to cover for someone else. She was the worst of all the parents I saw. She wasn't crying, just sitting on her daughter's bed, holding a picture Amelia'd made, one of those "Mommy and Me" holding-hands marker drawings most kids make, rocking back and forth with such pain in her voice. It was like her throat had broken, and all that came out was shattered sounds that somehow worked themselves into English. Amelia's father was outside, walking aimlessly around the yard, picking up toys and putting them down again. The yard was strewn with tricycles, dolls, and other sorts of playthings. Someone had put a lot of money into making those two children happy, and now the one was gone. I talked with the sister for a little while, but she didn't say very much, just what she'd told the police. That was horrible enough.

The two girls were walking home from school, I told you that already. It was dark by then, but the girls had walked home from school many times and knew where to go. The sister, Emily, that was her name, Emily said that they were next to the river when they heard something splashing about in the water. They went to check it out, and saw an arm reaching up out of the water. It was dark, so she couldn't make out the color, but she said the moon shining on the water silhouetted the arm. I remember that very clearly, because I was surprised at the way such a young girl could use language so well. Emily talked in a calm, monotonous voice, never slowing or stopping, never varying at all. It was unreal, listening to her, but I suppose she had been through an ordeal. She talked very slowly about how the hand beckoned her towards the water, and they walked towards it. The hand began to wave back and forth, as though saying goodbye, and disappeared into the river. The girls, so Emily said, went right up to the edge of the water and looked in, trying to see where it had got to, and then Amelia fell or was pulled into the water. She went under for a moment, and then was back up, clutching at Emily and screaming. Emily, with a presence of mind and courage I would never have suspected from someone her age, tried to pull her sister back up out of the river, yelling for help. No one heard her, and no one came. But fear can give strength even to the smallest of children, and somehow, Emily began to win the war with that awful thing in the water, and succeeded in pulling her sister onto the bank, until she saw what she was fighting against. The hand, now clearly visible against the mud, was greenish-white, she told me, and the fingers were easily three times as long as her own, and they clutched with fiendish persistence at Amelia's leg. Emily didn't know what was happening, but she kept pulling, until the arm was fully out of the water, and then she let go, unable to continue in the face of the horror that came, dripping and cold, up with the girl.

There was no body with that arm. It ended about halfway up bicep, the skin and muscle ragged and shards of bone sticking out like the arm had been torn off. Emily's voice died at this point, and she continued moving her lips without making any sounds. I stopped our conversation and went to the kitchen. The father was sitting at the kitchen table, absently leafing through a copy of Hello Kitty, Hello World, and I asked him for a cup of water. He gestured vaguely towards the cabinet, and I found a glass and filled it from the tap. I brought it back into Emily's room, where she was still voicelessly describing what had happened. She took the cup and drank deeply, spilling water all down her front. After she had finished, she let her arms fall limp and the glass rolled off her bed and onto the carpet. She didn't move to pick it up, and neither did I.

I made leading questions to try to get her back onto talking about the arm, but she didn't say anything more about it. After she saw what was holding onto her sister, she let go and the thing pulled Amelia into the water and was gone. Emily didn't say anything after that, but one of the neighbors found her sitting on the edge of the water, whispering her sister's name over and over again, staring into the river or maybe beyond it. The neighbor took Emily home and her parents found out what happened. The police got involved, but they didn't put any credence in Emily's story beyond the superficial, that she had been abducted. At least, most didn't. There was one, George Fallon,who did. He's a good man, and a good cop, and he listened to me later, when it counted.

There was a news storm about that one, and we had reporters from all over the country down here, CNN, NBC, Fox, The New York Times, Washington Post, and a whole bunch of others besides. Being the first reporter on it, and the guy who communicated with all the other media outlets, I could have won a Pulitzer on that one, but they didn’t give it to me and I didn’t ask for it. It didn’t seem right to me to build success off the backs of dead children. It didn’t seem right at all.

To me and to most of the world, it seemed like we had a serial child snatcher in Tropic Park, and people were quick to make the connection to Jeremy Bishop the year before. I didn’t want to open that book again, since the parents were still grieving, but the other reporters were on Natty and Julia about it almost non-stop, and they moved away. Amelia German’s parents were already dead, and her grandparents, the ones who had been taking care of the girl, barricaded themselves in the house and didn’t leave at all until the whole thing was over. Their other children brought them food and things they needed. Amelia Dirgit’s mother and father made absolutely no effort to avoid the press, or even acknowledge them. They sent Emily to live with her uncle in Coral Beach, and went to work as normal, and the press crews followed them around wherever they went until the Emily’s uncle came and threatened to shoot anyone who bothered the family. After that, an realizing that they weren’t going to get anything more than they already knew out of them, the press corps took to hanging around the police station to see how the manhunt was going.

Tropic Park has a tiny building for the branch of the police, because it’s a small town and besides the occasional drug bust, nothing much illegal happens here. The search was being staged out of the central police headquarters for the county, which was larger, but they weren’t getting anywhere either. The search for the missing children had turned up nothing, and though the police continued searching Tropic Park and the surrounding area, some of my friends on the force told me in off-the-record statements that the only way to solve this case was a tip on the hotline.

Several other children went missing, and Tropic Park became a city under siege from unknown assailant or assailants. Schools went on an early spring break and remained closed for a long time after that. Many of the families left Tropic Park to stay with family in other parts of the country, and those that remained refused to let their children out of immediate supervision. Security firms in Coral Beach did a brisk business in selling alarms and, in some cases, iron bars for fitting on windows. Each of the disappearances was linked in some way to water, either of the ocean, or the inland waterway, or the river, and beachgoing dropped off to almost nothing. People, having heard on the news of the city's reputation, went to less dangerous climes, Tampa, Daytona, and all beach-related industry in Tropic Park nearly died. Restaurants, shops, fishing boat charters, anything that relied on tourists, went into a prolonged state of limbo, and no one knew whether they would recover. Those were scary times for the town, and that summer was one of the bleakest.

It was in reading the paper of the closing of JP's Fish Camp, that place we were in before, that reminded me of Charlie. In the state I was in, rushing about, trying to give statements from the police to different news agencies, I hadn't thought about him, but I decided to go to the beachside that weekend to see how he was holding up. I remembered how sick he had sounded the last time I went to visit him, and my resolve stiffened.

His shop was closed, and the windows were dark. I looked inside, and saw with a start of surprise that the displays were all from early spring, it then being late July. Charlie, as I told you, prided himself on those displays, loved arranging the shirts and the umbrellas in new and interesting ways. He hated even leaving them one week without moving something around or added a new item to the pile, so I was worried that something had happened to him. Looking closer, I saw that there was a layer of dust over everything, and that only concerned me even more. I went around to the back, remembering how I had found him there the last time, and knocked. The door swung inward, and foul air burst out of there like nothing I'd ever smelled before. It was worse, far worse than the eggs-and-wine stench. If you've ever been out on the shore when there's a Red Tide, and all the dead fish wash up, you might have some idea what I mean, but even that's a poor analogy. I was worried that Charlie'd died in there months before and his body was rotting away.

I remember everything that happened next very clearly, much as I'd like to forget it.

I went in and found the light switch, but flipping it on and off again didn't do anything. As my eyes adjusted, I could make out a small cot in the corner, and a low table with a single chair next to it. I walked over towards the table, and stopped when my feet crunched glass. I looked down and saw fragments of white glass, and above me the shattered remains of a lightbulb, as though someone had smashed it. On the table were some papers, covered in weird shapes and symbols I couldn't make heads or tails of. The blankets on the cot were rumpled and cold as ice. The whole room was cold, I realized as I looked under the sheets. But I still couldn't understand what was making the horrific smell. Then, under the bed, I saw a small object pushed almost up against the wall. Stretching my arm out as far as I could, I picked it up, shimmied backwards and then stood up, holding my prize. It was a shoe. Examining it more closely, I made out the figure of a stylized cat head, the Hello Kitty symbol. It was the shoe of a young girl. What would Charlie be doing with a girl's shoe? I wondered. He didn't have any young relatives, and he didn't sell shoes of any kind besides sandals and Crocks in the store. I looked on the tongue of the shoe, and in the dim light that came through the open door, I made out the name Amelia Dirgit stiched in yellow thread over the tag showing the size of the shoe.

"What are you doing in here?" I jumped and dropped the shoe, which hit my feet and rolled under the bed. I can think that that was my only saving grace, because I couldn't imagine what Charlie would have done had he found me with Amelia Dirgit's shoe in my hand. I wheeled round and saw Charlie Greene standing in the doorway, black against the afternoon sun. "What are you doing here, Dave?" His voice was gutteral, feral, even, and there was an unmistakable note of rage in it. He took a step towards me. I took a step back, and nearly fell over the cot.

"I haven't seen you in ages, Charlie. I knew you were sick, so I wanted to come and see how you were." For the life of me, I don't know how I managed to stand there in that room smelling like the deepest section of Hell, with the Devil standing not five feet away from me, and not let out even the smallest hint of the fear I felt.

"I'm doing better, doing better," he said. "I found a new medicine, works wonders." His face was in shadow, but I could swear he grinned at me.

"I just knocked, and the door swung open, so I came in to see if you were all right, but you weren't here. I only just got here myself."

"Don't worry about it," he said. "I'm glad I've got such good friends to worry about me like you do." I hadn't even realized he was so close, but then Charlie put his arm on my shoulder. His fingers were wet, and I shivered at the touch. "It's good to have friends, don't you know."

I noticed that he wore a bandage wrapped tightly around his right upper arm, and the sight only disturbed me further. I ducked under the arm and said, "Well, I've got to get going. I'm reporting on the children who've disappeared, and I've got to get back to it, or my editor'll have my head."

"Working on Sunday, are you, Dave?" Charlie had stepped out of the patch of light from the door, and was watching me intently. "That's mighty dedicated of you."

"Yes, I know, but with the kidnapper" my voice nearly broke on this word "working so quickly, I need to be on call twenty-four-seven."

"Oh yes," said Charlie. "I think there's been another disappearance too. I heard about it on the radio. I listen to the radio a lot, nowadays. Never know when someone's going to..." His grin widened. "Disappear. Might even be someone you know."

"Well, I better get back then." I turned and nearly fell out the door, which slammed shut behind me.

On news of what I'd found, the police broke into Charlie's shop and his home, with no success. The shoe was gone, and no other evidence remained to show that he had been there. No traces remained even of my visit earlier that day, as the dust in that room was uniform and a heavy, rusted lock had to be broken before the police could go into the back room. Charlie's house in Marc St. Waters was vacant, having been put on the market back in early spring. A phone call to Charlie's brother in Jacksonville revealed that Charlie had moved up North in the spring, hoping to find a less dangerous city in upstate New York. Without any evidence to support my claims, and mountains of proof to the contrary, the police assumed I'd made the story up in hopes of inciting further news reports, as progress had been non-existent on finding the kidnapper, even with the disappearance of another child just that day. I made the mistake of telling them what I thought about Charlie and the bandage on his arm, and they dismissed me out of hand. My editor removed me from reporting on the case, and assigned someone else, and I was relocated to The Palaçades to cover the creation of a new golf course there.

Damn fool that I am, I went back that night to the Beachside, determined to wait for another attack and find Charlie myself. I had nothing to go on, no idea where he would be now that his hideout was discovered, but I had to do something. If I hadn't gone there, if I'd stayed away and reported on the doings of the wealthy on the other side of the Mountain, I might not have this-

He held up his withered left hand, and I shivered.

-but who knows? Charlie had it out for me then, I knew that later, and he might have followed me up into the Mountain.

I waited down by Charlie's store that first night, but he never showed. I went back the second night, and when still no one came, I switched stakeouts. There were police all over the town, most along the shores, so I told Fallon what I was doing, so the police would know it wasn't me doing the kidnappings myself. That was another bit of luck, and sometimes I wonder if there isn't a guardian angel watching over me sometimes.

It was the third night that it happened.

I've got a police scanner in my car, a lot of reporters who follow the crime beat do, and at around nine o'clock, news came over the radio of an alarm being tripped in a house not too far from where I was. I drove my car towards the address mentioned, but found that the police had set up a road block, and wouldn't let me go any further. The houses on the northern side of the street butted up against the inlet, so I parked my car and proceeded on foot along the shore. There were a few policemen on the strip, but a commotion came up from the street and they ran up to see what was happening. I tried to follow, but I slipped on the wet sand and fell face-first onto the ground.

The fall knocked the wind out of me, and I lay there, trying to get my breath back. When I felt okay to move, I got to my hands and knees, and tried to stand, but something strong gripped my leg and pulled me down. My face hit the floor again, and I rolled over, spitting sand out of my mouth, to find that some one had grabbed me and was dragging me into the water. I jerked back in fright, and the arm came with me, and I saw that there was no body to go with it, nothing at all. It was just as Emily Dirgin had described it, down to the broken bones sticking out of the bloodless stump. I think I screamed then, but I'm not sure. If I had, more officers probably would have come to my aid, but then, perhaps they were all out of earshot, dealing with the arm on the other side of the street.

I reached down to pry the hand off my shin, but when I touched it, what felt like an electric shock traveled up my left arm and into my shoulder. I let go, clawing at the ground around me, and the hand resumed its grüesome work.

All of a sudden, there was the sound of a gunshot, and the hand released me. Standing ten yards away was George Fallon, holding his revolver like Clint Eastwood out of Fistful of Dollars. There was no time then for explanations, because the hand flipped up and began crawling towards Fallon at incredible speed. Fallon, a much calmer man than I, steadied himself and emptied the remaining five chambers into the hand. The fingers curled into a tight claw, the nails tearing strips of skin off the palm, and then lay flat.

From what seemed like everywhere burst a scream, high, piercing, and unending. I have no words to tell you what it sounded like. I have never heard anything like it in all my fifty-three years living on this Earth, and neither has Fallon. It was something that should not be, a crime against Nature that something could even exist that could give off that terrible scream. You can't understand. No one can, really, and it's probably for the best that only Fallon and I were there to see what happened next.

Charlie, his face transfixed in the most hideous vision of anger I had ever seen, came up out of the water. The lights from the house were shining fully on him, and I saw for the first time how my friend had changed. Both his arms were gone, the skin and muscles ragged as though they had been ripped off through brute force. No blood drained from them, though no effort had been made to bandage or restrict blood flow in any way. His skin moved and pulsed, as though ants were crawling through his veins, and his eyes bulged wildly. Through the holes torn in his shirt, which read "Tropic Park" in faded letters, the flesh bulged weirdly in ways unlike the rest of him.

"You!" he said, as though through a mouth of broken glass. His tongue lolled about weirdly and seemed unconnected to the rest of him. "You'll pay for that!"

All at once, there was a burning pain in my left hand, and I looked down at it to see the bones shifting and reforming, my fingers moving spasmatically, and growing, lengthening. The nails split and bulbous flesh dribbled out, solidifying into fingers far longer than they had any right to be. New nails grew, longer and sharper than before, and before I had any time to freak at what had happened to my hand, it was moving against my will, groping for my throat. I grappled with it, though as a leftie, my right hand was the weaker.

Charlie, having dealt with me, proceeded towards Fallon at a shambling run, the stumps where his arms had been flopping grotesquely. Fallon fumbled in his pocket for another clip, and was reloading his gun when Charlie let out another scream, this one of pure rage. Even as my eyesight began to go black as my demon hand began to win in the struggle against my right, I saw Charlie's chest explode outward, and an impossible third arm reach out, grasping for Fallon. My eyes failed entirely, and I heard several shots. Then I could breath again, and I lay on the beach gasping as the stars slowly winked back into existence. I stared at my left hand, my good hand, and saw the extra flesh dissolve into the same salted gel I had seen back in Charlie's shop the previous summer. That's why my hand's like this now, and I haven't been able to use it for anything more than to hold a cigarrette ever since.

Fallon was standing over Charlie's body, his gun hand shaking just barely, and I saw that whatever had got to Charlie was gone now. The third hand had disappeared, probably turned to the same gel as mine, and his skin was a hue that wasn't normal, but was at least human. The shirt was completely destroyed, and as Fallon and I stood over him, wondering exactly what to do, we knew there was no way to ever explain what had happened that year in Tropic Park. Something from the outside came down and got into Charlie, and changed him in ways that weren't any way natural. There's many things that I don't know, and Fallon doesn't know, and no one will ever know, about those kids who disappeared, about who was truly responsible for everything, but I can tell you this: it all came from those days when Charlie would go up and down the shore, looking for interesting bits to put in his shop window, because, as Fallon and I could see clearly now with the moon bright above us and the electric lights behind, grafted into Charlie Greene's skin was the heat resistant tile he'd found the year before.

It is now coming on twelve o'clock, and I am fairly sure the shuttle is orbiting around the Earth even as I write these words. It will soon discharge its cargo to the International Space Station, but whether it will reënter with an empty hold, I cannot say.

The End.

Thank you, Jon, for commenting. I've never had alpaca. Maybe someday. Thank you too to Vicky, for commenting. I'm glad my blog inspired you to write in your journal. I tried to when I first got here, but I just can't do it. I save the journals people give me to write stories in. Thank you to M, also. Yes, racists just make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. ;-) Thank you to my little cousin Ezra, who is a little tiny baby child, so young and small, trying to make his way in a world in which almost everyone is taller than he is... *sniff* It's a sad story, of pain and suffering. I'm just messing with ya, kid. And finally, thank you to Mom, who always comments because she knows I love it. That's all for now. Sorry it's a day late, for any of you who check my blog on the stated Monday, Wednesday, and/or Friday. Hey, five comments! That's a new high score!



Victoria said...

i like it so far :) it's practically professional, haha.

i'm waiting for the rest!

Pam N. said...

OH MAN that was so cool. I wish I could write like that XP

That's pretty awesome. Is there another part to it?

fernanBR said...

As pessoas projetam o que querem nas imagens, a maioria de nós não vê um Goku europeu, é um Goku supersayajin. A cor dourada é símbolo de pureza no Oriente. Você está projetando seu próprio conceito de racismo no que vê, cuidado, o "politicamente correto" é uma doença. Se não me entendeu, Google Translator.