Sonia Christensen lives Denver, Colorado. She has a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado and has been published in Corvus and First Stop Fiction, with another story coming out in September in Devilfish Review.
To the best of his knowledge, Michael Jones was the first to see the creature. And also the last. And also the only person in Dulaney who never wanted it dead.
The first time he saw it, Michael was down at the reservoir at night, just looking at all the boats. The way they bobbed always calmed him down and calming was exactly what he needed since he’d just gotten fired from the grocery store for being drunk and supposedly telling a customer that the way her facial features settled made her look like a murderer.
He was thinking about the stars hanging above the reservoir, how they were very near that night.
Michael had been drinking out of his silver metal flask and reflecting on if he wanted to liberate one of the boats and take it out for a spin, deciding which boat he would take if he did take one, which owners were the least likely to lose their minds if they happened to find out about Michael taking their boat for a spin. He never did finish deciding. Because in the middle of his mental process, while Michael was still dangling his feet out over the water and going between taking sips out of his flask, noticing the nearness of the stars and eyeing the boats, the creature crept out from under the dock and walked the wooden length down to where Michael sat swinging his feet.
Michael heard the footsteps and turned to look, thinking it might be a friend—specifically Pierce Fisher—coming to peel him off the dock and drag him home and instead saw the creature coming toward him, walking upright and looking like it thought it belonged there as much as any human might. At first, it looked like a naked kid, since it was only three feet tall. And then it looked like a small, naked man, like a dwarf, and then up close, the creature looked like a creature.
It had thick, matted and dreadlocking in places, blond hair everywhere, except for on its extremely human-like face, which was unlined and innocent like a kid’s. It had a wet smell and was in fact dripping right there on the dock. Its limbs were short and powerful and its hands and feet were human-shaped, but the fingers seemed stuck in a c-shape, possibly even grown together. The nails were dirty and untrimmed, curling and sharp at the tips. The creature looked at Michael with an expression of total calm that made Michael feel uneasy because it gave the impression that the creature was in control of the situation and therefore Michael was probably not.
Michael assumed the creature wanted to attack him. But then it just stood there about five feet away and started with this whimpery noise like a kicked dog might make and Michael realized that it needed something. He wasn’t about to get closer to check and see if it was hurt so he took the squashed ham sandwich that he didn’t eat for lunch out of his back pocket and threw it on the dock. It was probably disgusting—hot from being in Michael’s pocket all day—but the creature fell on it like the sandwich might escape and ate it in about three bites, plastic baggy and all, revealing in the process some very serious teeth.
The creature followed Michael part of the way home that night like a street cat does if you pet it but stopped and turned back to the reservoir once Michael cleared the big hill. Michael bolted his front door (really his mom’s front door) extra deliberately that night.
He didn’t tell anyone about the incident and even mostly convinced himself that he’d imagined the whole thing or been confused and any time the memory flared up in his mind he squashed it down like a spider that just keeps reappearing somehow. By the time a week had passed, he could picture the scenario exactly as it had been but with a stray dog in place of the creature and that satisfied him for a while.
If anyone had asked, Michael would have denied that he went back down to the dock to see about the creature. He probably would have told anyone who asked that he just happened to end up down on the dock again, alone and at night, roughly at the same time a week later. Again with the silver flask and again with a snack in his pocket (chips), this time with heightened attention to the sounds of the boats creaking and the reservoir’s water lapping rhythmically. Listening intently for any irregular sound, although he thought that was just his usual cautious behavior ingrained from so many years of doing things he didn’t want to be caught doing.
But when he heard footsteps he felt a sinking feeling before he even turned around, knowing this time that it wasn’t just a friend coming to peel him off the dock. The creature approached more quickly this time, like it remembered him and expected friendliness. It even had an expression on its face that could be characterized as a shy smile if its face had been technically human. Michael kind of wanted to hit it. Just for existing, really. And for awakening a sense of obligation inside him, a feeling that he owed it something since it seemed to expect something of him. And for making him feel like he actually wanted to take care of it, too, the pathetic thing.
He opened the packet of chips, which took some doing since the bag was overfull of air and kind of slippery in drunk Michael’s fingers. He ended up tearing it with his teeth and making the chips pop out like so many jacks-in-the-box and land on the dock all spread out. The creature got on hands and knees and ate them all up, its tongue looking just exactly like a human tongue, although it didn’t seem to know what the deal with chips was and had trouble maneuvering them with its serious teeth and little chip pieces sprayed out of its mouth and back onto the wood of the dock or even out into the reservoir’s dark water.
Michael thought the whole scene was both pretty repulsive and weirdly endearing. Endearing because the creature looked up at Michael when all the chips were gone with a look of perfect love and devotion that Michael had never seen directed at him before from an even vaguely human face.
He patted the thing on its damp head, just two quick pats, before he zipped up his jacket and made sure there was still no one looking and hustled off, making shooing motions when the creature tried to follow, motions that were supposed to be stern but ended up being almost affectionate, it struck Michael later.
Michael had never been a person who keeps secrets well. He had always been a person who couldn’t keep the messiness of his life a secret, a person who everyone knew was chronically defeating himself in stupid and totally avoidable ways. Everyone in town knew this and had known it since his middle school years when he just couldn’t stop mouthing off, saying stuff that wasn’t even particularly funny or thought-provoking, just always the kid who says, well I don’t need to do anything, when the teachers tried to tell him he needed to do his homework. Never particularly good at sports or any other extracurriculars besides a kind of not very fun, jaded-at-sixteen substance abuse down at the reservoir starting in high school, he never had all that many friends and the ones he did have just seemed to throw up their hands about him eventually in a well-that’s-Michael-for-you-he-sucks kind of way.
Pierce Fisher looked out for him, peeled Michael off docks or wherever he ended up, but Michael always assumed Pierce probably wouldn’t have chosen Michael as his friend if it hadn’t just worked out that way after years of both of them never having much of anyone else, not even really family in Michael’s case.
And none of that, none of the embarrassing loneliness or difficulty at home or substance abuse had ever been a secret. But Michael found himself more than capable of keeping the creature a secret at first. Partially because he knew the whole thing would make him sound insane and also sound somehow lonelier than ever, especially if people assumed he was imagining it or making it up. Because what kind of person makes up an undiscovered species to hang out with. But also because he thought if someone believed him the creature might be placed in more capable hands and direct its looks of perfect love and devotion toward someone else. This fear, that he might lose the creature’s affection right when he was starting to feel for the first time like he could support affection without messing it up, was a feeling that Michael did not want to probe into too deeply.
It was probably two to two and a half weeks after Michael saw the creature the second time that he heard about the Comstock twins and their constant companion Jackson Fisher (Pierce’s much younger brother) encountering something that sounded like the creature.
The kids said they were out at the middle school playground “just playing” when they heard a kind of scraping noise behind the dumpster. But not like the kind of scraping noise that comes from a branch on a window or a bag being blown across asphalt. Like an irregular but deliberate scraping noise like someone trying to get at something with a big stick or something.
So they had to investigate, being already at thirteen the kind of kids who take pride in being tough and not afraid of scraping noises. Aaron Comstock took the lead, followed by Jackson and then Amy. Aaron carried a stick as a weapon, just in case whatever was behind the dumpster also had a stick or another weapon, but still, when he saw the hunched and supposedly teeth-bearing creature, Aaron jumped to the side, exposing his friend Jackson to the creature’s dirty claws, which tore three separate, ragged gashes in Jackson’s right forearm, the arm that he had raised just in time to protect his face.
And then the creature booked, leaving all three kids just staring at the blood beading on Jackson’s arm.
It took the story a couple days to get around because Jackson really was a stoic little kid and he covered the marks as soon as he got home with one of Pierce’s ace bandages and wore long sleeves to hide the bandage, not wanting to get in trouble for sneaking out. He also claimed to have felt no symptoms, no feverishness or lightheadedness or even excessive pain or itching in the area before he fainted in the grocery store right next to his mom while she was trying to decide which snacks to buy.
His mom screamed and caught his head so he wouldn’t smash it on the cold tile floor. And then she called 911 and later, after she got the whole story, everyone she could think of who might care because she was so upset about an unidentified Thing scratching children that she was willing to sound potentially alarmist and insane because people needed to know and something needed to be done.
So by the time Michael Jones heard the story, from Pierce at the Eagle Crest over a couple beers, already there was talk of action needing to be taken. Of hunting parties.
Michael, trying to ignore his thumping heart, thought about how he would react if he had no stake in the story aside from a loyalty to Pierce and his family because of Pierce being there for him throughout the years and all that.
But still, he found himself saying, “But they cornered it. You know?”
“What?” Pierce said.
“I mean, if it was behind the dumpster there was no place for it to go without fighting.”
“I’m just saying if it maybe didn’t even want to scratch anyone, it kind of had to since it was in a corner.”
“Dude,” Pierce’s eyes were red-rimmed and Michael tried not to look at them. “It’s like an unidentified monster. Like, not an animal anyone’s ever seen.”
“I mean, yeah, we should find it. I’m just saying, what if—”
“What if nothing, dude.” Pierce, usually so passive and timid it was annoying, clutched his drink so hard he was white-knuckled, which is how Michael knew without a doubt his creature was in definite trouble.
Michael knew there would be no mention of maybe moving the creature somewhere else or studying it or anything like that. Dulaney (pronounced with a short u sound in the first syllable) was not exactly a scientific community. More like a loosely religious one, like a do whatever on Saturday, come to church Sunday and you’ll be mostly alright kind of place. A town where people take care of their own and ask neighbors for help only if they have to, where gossip is rampant but the prying eyes of outsiders are never welcome, where no one likes to be told what to do by any kind of larger authority. The kind of place that doesn’t look like much but everyone who lives there was born there and wouldn’t live anywhere else for all the money in the world, even if jobs are scarce and the kids’ idea of fun is still throwing rocks into the reservoir and watching them sink. The kind of place that’s there because the people who live there work so hard to keep it there and keep it exactly the way it is, with no unnecessary frills, and are alive to and deal with any kind of threat that comes knocking, whether it be drought or storms or the gaping maw of urban expansion. Or Things scratching children.
So people finding out about the creature meant a death sentence, no two ways about it.
Michael snuck out to the docks that night, the night he heard about the scratch, checking over his shoulders so much more than he usually did that he started muttering angrily at himself about it because every time he checked over his shoulder he got more anxious but he just couldn’t stop. He gave the creature a little of his mom’s homemade tuna casserole that night, which he’d brought wrapped up in Saran in a paper bag and he found himself wanting to explain to the creature, which he let sit right up close to him, what was happening. Just like a person wants desperately to explain to a dog why it has to go to the vet or why it can’t have any more scraps from the table, if it’s already a really fat dog. Or explain to a little kid why playtime is over. Instead he just stroked its shoulders a little bit and snuck off like usual, not even having to shoo the creature because it knew the drill by then.
Colored pieces of paper started appearing on lampposts, colored pieces of paper describing the creature, descriptions that weren’t exactly right since the kids had exaggerated a little but close enough to agitate Michael’s already acting up heart. Sometimes there were drawings. Michael tore the pieces of paper down whenever he could, whenever no one was looking. Over the next week his rendezvous with the creature become more furtive and painful, Michael thinking he probably should just stop going because maybe then the creature would find some greener pastures and be safe but also feeling so unwilling to abandon it since it loved him so much and asked so little of him.
Michael was hoping the fuss would die down if nothing else happened. But instead people started patrolling the streets at night. And in spite of those patrols, the creature supposedly got spotted again by an unsuspecting and innocent person—the attention-hungry Widow Francis Harris. In Michael’s humble opinion her story was a complete lie but it was just what everyone else wanted to hear so they believed it. She said she heard a noise outside her bedroom window where the trashcans are. She said she assumed it was a squirrel or a raccoon but it was making so much noise and keeping her awake that she just had to scare it off so she could get some much needed shut-eye, since the back surgery that had been such a trial, as everyone knew. So she stepped onto his porch with the broom, expecting a rodent, obviously, to see a creature perched on top of his trashcans, hissing at her. She said she didn’t do a single thing to provoke it and the thing just leapt at her like it was rabid or something. She said she was fortunate to not have scratched-off face, fortunate that she had been able to fight it off with just a measly broom.
That did not sit well with anybody. Old women and kids, as far as everyone was concerned, were top priority as far as protecting went. It just wasn’t right.
Michael saw the creature that night, the night of the alleged episode with the Widow Francis Harris before he even knew the story and it was shaking uncontrollably, like it had been hurt. Michael checked its hands and feet, noticing the slight webbing between digits for the first time, just to make sure it didn’t have a thorn somewhere and he couldn’t find anything, and couldn’t stop it from shaking and felt so terrible and powerless that when the creature dove into the reservoir and disappeared bluely into the depths, Michael kicked and punched at nothing, having nothing available to kick or punch at.
And then with the rumors about how Jackson might lose the arm, which was starting to look actually gangrenous in places. And Pierce’s pressed-together-so-hard-they-were-bloodless lips every night at the Eagle Crest. And Michael knocking them back double time to cope with the stress and anxiety.
This is how Michael made a very bad mistake: up until he opened his mouth, everyone assumed the creature came from somewhere out in the fields. There was no reason to even consider the reservoir because as far as anyone knew, nothing lived in there but bacteria and the trout that had been stocked in there ages back for fishing. But then Michael got drunk and he must’ve said some stuff he would never be able to remember clearly to Pierce about something being down at the docks. Or at least he must’ve mentioned the docks enough times that Pierce just had a hunch. Who knew. Pierce never said but somehow he knew enough to go down there.
And somehow, Michael got drunk one night beyond his budget, as in someone was buying his drinks, and he blacked out and woke up in his bed not having made it to the docks and the next day Pierce showed up with angry-looking scratches on his face and a story about a knife altercation with a fucking monster. And details about it slithering out of the water onto the dock and literally charging him like some kind of bull. And enough passion to rouse anyone to get their gun and be at the docks as soon as it got dark.
Michael stared down at his beer with this buzzing feeling in his head and difficulty breathing, not having the gumption to get anywhere close to meeting Pierce’s eye.
After that there were men and some women with guns at the docks at all times and Pierce wasn’t talking to Michael, which did not bode well and let Michael know without a doubt that he had to find the creature before anyone else did.
It took Michael a lot of nights, maybe four or five of patrolling the barren reservoir beach way to the south, sweating and muttering to himself and getting close to actual tears more than once, before the creature emerged, like it had been looking for Michael the entire time. It had cuts all over its body, some of them looking swollen and like very bad news, blood crusted into its fur. It dragged itself out of the water and did not raise itself up on two feet and did not accept the two freshly made sandwiches Michael offered. It looked at Michael like it barely recognized him and did not love him at all and then it bared its teeth, which Michael could see had blood on them. And Michael noticed and wished he hadn’t that it had this torn pink fabric stuck to one claw, the kind of soft pink color that little girls’ clothes are made of, a piece of fabric that could have meant nothing but gave Michael a weird, guilty feeling.
All that, in a way, made it easier for Michael to take out his late father’s .38 when the creature got close and place it gently to the creature’s forehead and pull the trigger, rocking the creature’s head back and spilling its brain-blood all over Michael’s lap.
It was not easy to drag the creature’s body back into the water, not because it was heavy, because it wasn’t, but because Michael felt so empty that even moving felt like it wasn’t worth it.
He watched its body sink blurrily and he told himself that what did he think he was doing, trying to take care of something anyway, when he had never taken care of anything right in his whole entire life.
Michael had to do the long walk from the south end of the reservoir back to the north east end, all the time thinking about how he had never been able to be good to anyone or anything in his life, about how he was probably born that way, like how a leech is born to suck blood out of other things and just hang there fat and swollen until someone gets wise and peels it off. And when he got home he got blackout about it and didn’t wake up the next day until three p.m. and found blood still all over his clothes and didn’t stop throwing up until seven p.m., when he finally crawled out of his house and sunk his clothes in a pillowcase loaded with bricks and the gun into the reservoir.
And then he was drunker than ever for three months—three months in which Michael’s one distinct memory is of Pierce screaming in his face about Jackson losing the arm after all—and the next thing he knew he was waking up halfway down the dock with a view of the calm, still reservoir in the early, early morning, with a few pale stars receding in the daylight above him and hearing footsteps behind him, footsteps he thought for a second had to somehow be the creature but ended up being Pierce, unbelievably, coming to peel him off the dock one more time.