Thursday, March 23, 2017

Here Be Monsters

Richard loved The Discovery Channel.  He knew most nature programming favoured sensationalism and rawness; feuding tigers or a lioness gruesomely tackling a gazelle proved more ratings-friendly than any real scientific insight.  Yet he still relished the primal, visceral thrill of such imagery.  In spite of this rare display of self-awareness, Richard fancied himself an amateur expert in ethology.  Like his favourite channel mistaking brutality for natural poetry, Richard quoted animal facts as though they were anything but anecdotal.  He was often found at parties interjecting nonsequitirs about insects or giraffes into conversations, armed only with a Coors Lite and countless hours of logged primetime television.  Without fail, this would result in hushed tones of friends uttering “blowhard” and “showoff.”  At no point would anyone refer to him as “interesting.”
                It was only on what would quite possibly be the final day of Doctor Richard Temple’s life that any of his trivial knowledge was put to practical use. 
                Two weeks prior, Dr. Temple was on call at Chicago Presbyterian past 1 a.m. when a nurse approached  him with an oversized manila folder.  The sticker on the tab read, “Foster, Thomas.”  He removed the X-Ray and placed it against a lightboard.  Instantly, he recognized the unmistakable dark mass in the pancreas.  Stage three.  Inoperable.  It was almost perfectly round, like a tennis ball, and large enough that even a layman would know it didn't belong.
                Richard cleared his throat, stifling a gulp. 
                He tracked down the nurse, shoving the X-Ray back in the envelope and then her hands.  He hurried through the radiology wing.  “Give this to Dr. Warner.  He’ll know what to do.”
                “Doctor, he’s your patient,” the nurse protested.
                Richard moved briskly.  “He was admitted under Dr. Warner.  It’s…it’s his responsibility.”  He ducked into a men’s room and clutched  the sink until his knuckles turned marble-white.  Exhaling heavily, as though he had come up from the deep-end, he turned the faucet.
                A thick, seemingly solid pole of icy coolness moved from spigot to drain.  He disrupted the flow with his right palm and slapped his face.
                With the exception of roleplaying in med school, his one year in residence had not yet demanded of Richard to relay a fatal diagnosis.  In his own mind, he had imagined various potential scenarios; the crying, the silent resolve or shock, the pleas of denial and bargaining, the panicky calls to loved ones.  Everytime he felt he could handing it when it arose.  Yet, in the few cases where such a scenario showed promise to become a reality, he found a way to avoid it. 
                Richard left the men’s room, nearly running headlong for the emergency room exit.
                Mr. Foster’s room was to his right.  Out of the corner of his line of sight, he glimpsed Dr. Warner standing by the foot of the bed.  His arms were neatly folded, moving occasionally for emphasis with the precision of a sage conductor.  The salient points of the diagnosis had already been delivered.  Foster was taking the path of grim acceptance, it seemed.  His mouth was firm.  Still.
                Richard went to the door and out.
                When he arrived in his bedroom, he quickly disrobed and wrapped his arms around his sleeping wife.  He then wrapped one leg around both of hers, as if letting go would send him into nothingness.  She nestled against his frame, letting out of a barely audible moan.
                “Molly?”  He whispered.
                “Mm?”
                “Let’s go on vacation.”
                They had started in Perth and traveled slowly toward Wyndham in Northeastern Australia.  They had traveled by caravan and it was well over 100 degrees.     
           Richard sat in the warm sand and pulled his first Foster’s of the day from a small, blue cooler next to him and sipped liberally as he watched the late-afternoon shift of surfers wade past the shoreline. 
                The coast had looked better in the pictures and blogs he and Molly had looked up two weeks earlier.  They would end their vacation here, they decided.  The sands were just as golden, but they neglected to show the hideous, lurching forest just beyond the beach.  The towering trees were flaked with brown and black mud.  Richard also didn’t expect the beaches to be as crowded as they were with bohemian surfers who intentionally left cheek stubble.  Their hair was only partially dreadlocked, as if they were too stoned to finish the job. 
                Nevertheless, the trip through the outback had been inspiring, Richard thought and tried to relax.
                He was soon distracted by Molly’s figure hovering over.  Her feet crunched the sand as she smiled brightly.
                “Mary just called.  She and Peter landed 20 minutes ago.  They want to meet for hardshells at the hotel bar in an hour.”
                Richard scoffed.  “Babe, I just settled down.”
                “We can come here after.”
                He swallowed the cool ale and shook his head.  “The beach closes at six.  Didn’t you see the signs?”
                Molly screwed up her face.   “Come tomorrow.  We have four days.  You didn’t fly halfway around the world to get drunk on a beach.”
                “That’s exactly why I flew halfway around the world.”
                She crossed her arms, half-pouting.  “I think you’re still avoiding Peter.”
                “For what?”
                “Usurping your office.”
                “’Usurping’?  He didn’t ‘usurp’ anything.  We’re not in a Shakespearean play.  I simply moved across the hall.”
                “To a room with no window.”
                “Yes, like a dungeon.  With the rats and the Cask of Amatillado.  I didn’t need a window.  I’m only in there two hours a week anyway.”
                The day after the Mr. Foster received his diagnosis, Richard casually mentioned to Dr. Peter Rosenswag that he and his wife were planning a vacation, perhaps Australia. Peter became unexpected enthusiastic, insisting the two meet somewhere during their sojourn.
                Molly had been right about the offices.  There was some residual bitterness between Richard and Peter – not because he particularly cared about the office, but Peter’s campaigning had been underhanded. 
                Molly sighed and sat next to her husband.  “You could talk to him, you know.”
                “Christ, Mol.  I’m not upset about it.  I just want to relax. We had a helluva drive.”
                In the past week, they had trekked through some rough Outback, with Richard reciting random,, supposedly little-known trivia about whatever wildlife crossed their path.
                “Kangaroos,” he’d say, “are actually quite dangerous.  It isn’t like Looney Tunes.  They have claws on the back of their feet that could disembowel you with one kick.  Most unnatural dog deaths here are caused like that.”
                It got irksome quickly, though not as much as the fact that, on the last stretch of their trip, Richard had become inert.
                A sly smile crept upon her face as she rose to her feet.  “Fine.  I’m going to relax, too.  Meet up with me later.”
                She walked to the sea in her small, red bikini that clinged to her slender build like cellophane.  Her goldenrod hair was in a bun and the freckles on her back and neck had grown and multiplied in the late day sun.  She was, in a word, stunning.  He watched as she untied her hair and lay in the shallow water.  As she swam out, surfers instantly surrounded her like panting animals waiting for dinner scraps.  One, a libido-driven land shark with a scruffy blonde beard and curly hair moved beside her.  He said something and she laughed.  Even a casual observer could recognize their body language grow progressively more flirtatious.
                Richard got to his feet, fuming.  He had been married long enough to see a passive-aggressive effort designed to piss him off for what it was.  Particularly annoying was that it was working anyway.
                He huffed like a petulant child  and stormed off, leaving his cell phone next to a half-empty Foster’s.
                Let her wonder where the fuck I am, he thought, satisfied with himself.
                He trudged through heavy sand bordering on the seemingly impenetrable greenery.  Had he been more calm,  in better possession of his faculties, he might have noticed the large, ominous wooden sign, or that no sunbathers took note of his sudden turn into the brush.
                Nevertheless, he pushed inward.  He was not fully conscious of his surroundings, nor of how far he’d actually strayed from the beach, until his bare right foot was immersed in mud-water up just past his ankle. 
                And it was then that he saw it.
                Floating stationary in a pond, lit gently by the sun through a clearing, was a perfectly round, marble eye.  It stared at Richard with indifference, surrounded by an outline hued only marginally more green than the water in which it lay.  He met its eye with his, following what he realized were the scales of a reptile along the body.  It’s rough hide glistened.  It drifted ever so slightly. 
                He pegged it, snout to tail, at twice the length of the three other crocodiles he’d seen on the tour.  Or perhaps it was just its proximity and his unbridled terror that made it seem between fifteen and eighteen feet long. 
                The awesome silence stretched for what seemed like hours, more intense than any verbal sparring in which he’d ever engaged. 
                The water around his ankle rippled.  He cemented his legs in place. 
                Though its stare was vacant, within the unblinking eye was an inherent air of malice.
                It was sizing him up.
                Richard’s mind tried to recall any travelogue that could provide insight on how to behave,  but nothing came; the screen in his head projected only a blank wall.  He was suddenly unable to remember if it was reptilian or mammalian.
                It is sizing me up.
                Ripples spread.  Richard ran.  The beast gave chase. 
                Its stubby legs sloshed in the mug.  He prayed he didn’t slip.
                Stubby feet.  Slosh.  The sound grew closer.  He imagined thick, malformed toes leaving imprints in the mud.  His breath grew shorter.
                He spotted the thick leg of a tree just feet away. Hail Mary leap.  His fingers dug in the crevasses between bark and scrambled upward.  Hot breath warmed his heels.  Every notch of bark – near-dead.  Just waiting for the bones of his fingers to tear it off and drop to the Below.  He reached higher, looked down.
                The animal had raised itself, first on its hind legs, then balancing on a thick, powerful tail.  Its jaws snapped shut with a thunderous clap.
                At first, he wasn’t certain all his limbs were intact.  He assumed a state of shock would mask any pain. 
                His head got lost in a layer of leaves.  Finally, he broke through.  A long thick branch was in reach.
                He grabbed another level of bark that peeled off the tree like masking tape. 
                Richard fell backward, his arms flailing helplessly. 
                A last-ditch effort.  His palm wrapped around the branch.  Dangling now, he swung his legs back and forth until they scissored the wood.  He forced himself upright.
                He bear-hugged the branch, looking to The Below and panting.  When ready, he leaned against the tree and exhaled.
                The sun had nestled under the greenery by the time Richard forced himself to look at the muddy Below once again. 
                It hadn’t moved since it settled by the base of the tree hours earlier. 
                Like most cell phone owners, he had abandoned the former necessity of a proper watch and his pager was on his nightstand in Chicago.  It must have been well past six by then, and even later than when Molly discovered he was missing.  Surely they were searching for him, and his cries for rescue wouldn’t be overridden by typical jungle sounds
                He cleared his throat, prepping it for a bellowing cry.  The sudden sprint through shrubs earlier had knocked the wind out of his body like a punch to the abdomen from a prize-fighter.  After a few minutes, he worked up enough air to shake the surrounding leaves with his yelps.
                Nothing.  Then another:
                “Help!”
                He shouted variations on the plea, as though different phrasing would resonate better in the ear of a lifeguard, a couple passing by, anyone.  He shouted and heard his echo reverberate into the nothingness.  He shouted until he was hoarse once again and his chest ached.
                The beast didn’t flinch.
                Richard rested his head against the uneven, crude texture of the bark.  He thought of Molly.  Perhaps she wasn’t searching for him at all.  Perhaps she was cracking open exoskeletons of crabs and lobsters with Peter and Mary.  By then, Peter was beyond tipsy.  Molly would nurse her margarita until dinner was over, assuming he’d stumbled back angrily to their room.  She’d find him awake, annoyed.  They’d quietly resolve a fight that never should have begun.  Sex would be withheld, at least until morning, after which they’d enjoy brunch with knowing smiles and the last leg of their vacation would resume.
                But The Discovery Channel would not allow this.
                The Discovery Channel, and by extension Richard, knew that the length of that green beast or its maw  had no intention of moving.
                Crocodiles possessed a unique metabolic ability.  Most predators had adapted in ways biologists were only beginning to comprehend in the last century.  Even learning to camp downwind safely must have taken decades.
                One of the earliest known crocodiles, the Sarosuchus imperator, despite being over forty feet in length, sustained itself on the smaller fish of the cretaceous period.  Land-dwelling dinosaurs had a preternatural instinct to avoid large bodies of water in which one might be half-submerged.  However, should a Spinosaurus  wander too close, the Sarosuchus would feast for weeks.
                Paleontologists believe such a scenario to be a rarity.  It must have been during the lulls in between a fulfilling meal that this monster developed the ability to slow down its metabolism for up to two weeks.  An ability that modern crocodiles still possess to this day.  It would wait in hibernation for prey.  
                Prey that, for instance, scurried up  a tree.  The crocodile knew instinctively he would have to come down eventually.  Unlike Richard, it had no appointments to keep, no family who would grow concerned of its whereabouts.  And unlike Richard, its stomach had yet to feel hunger pains, its body was not weary from exhaustion.
                It waited like it owed him some debt.
                And it could smell him.
                An hour later, the pitch black of the night forced Richard’s eyes closed.

                He was unsure what time it was when the sensation of falling awoke him.  Sure enough, his right leg slipped off the branch and his body was leaning toward to edge.  He shot his left hand out automatically to steady himself and, in time, his bearings returned. 
                It wasn’t quite dawn, but a light blue aura was glowing around the higher trees.  It was dizzying, looking down again at the Below.  It was, though a very focused blur.  A blur fixated on the sparkling gold and black waiting for him.  In another circumstance, he would have deemed it beautiful. 
                What a miracle of nature, he would have said at some dinner during which everyone would excuse themselves as soon as possible – the news at 11 was typically the best excuse.  They’re practically dinosaurs.  They’ve been around for so long and they’ve so brilliantly adapted to nature that, in a way, I think nature has some kind of plan..  It doesn’t get tired, it doesn’t get hungry-
                Hungry.  Richard had not had a full meal since the day before he left the beach.  He had a banana at breakfast, but was too hungover from the previous night to consume anything beyond alcohol the rest of the day.  But now, a new threat far above the monster below had taken prominence. 
                He started on leaves.  He chewed on leaves for hours.  He chewed on leaves until the sun started to set and his voice was still hoarse and he vomited all of them up in his attempts to scream. 
                Then bark.  He couldn’t get past one large, jagged piece he’d torn off the branch he was sitting on.  It tore his throat tissue worse than the lack of hydration. 
                He removed his shirt, squeezed whatever excreted liquid within the armpits into his mouth.  He swallowed, gulped, swallowed again.
                Less than an hour later, he felt it, and he was never more grateful than that moment when he had to urinate.
                What he didn’t swallow, he’d soaked into his shirt.
---
He'd always considered it a necessity.  A blemish on a record otherwise untarnished.  But without his shirt, it stared right back at him like the Below.  His inoculation scar.  In the past, he'd considered plastic surgery, but didn't appreciate the stigma around it, even though his wife would be his only confidante.  He wanted her to still think he was sexy, as his young years were running down some opposite corridor.  They were running the other direction.  The one in which he'd still have drinks with Peter and his wife and Molly and the crabs would be amazing.  
                All there was in this direction was hunger.  And no food source was in sight.
                Richard chewed at his inoculation scar until it bled.  It bled and bled until he didn't know where it was that he was chewing.  He bit harder until his own flesh swam down his throat.  He bled and ate and bled until he passed out.
...
                There’s somebody, now.  There has to be somebody.  I don’t know how many days it’s been but I’m not going to walk up to Mr. Foster and tell him he’s got and I’m not going to tell my wife she’s a tramp and I’m not going to-
                Then he saw the branch.  It looked within reach, at least the end of it.  The adjoining tree was only an arm’s length away.  He cursed himself for not noticing it the previous evening, when the light was brighter.  But his state was too panicked and escape was unthinkable.
                The other branch jutted from a tree leg the size of a Brontosaurus and formed an arm with several compound fractures before ending in a knobby wooden claw.  It looked angry but, more importantly, it looked stable.
                Richard scissored his branch and arched his back, pushing forward.  He humped with his waist, edging toward the end as the wood became more and more narrow.  Raising one leg at a time, he placed his knees side by side and crawled gingerly.  He forced himself not to look at The Below.
                The other tree may have not been far enough away from the creature, but at the very least the added distance would give him a fighting chance.    As he reached the end of his branch, he extended an arm, his fingers touching the longest finger of wood.  Edging a few more inches, he managed to wrap a hand around it and yanked.
                In his first year on duty in the emergency room, he once witnessed a car accident victim wheeled in.  His arm had been mashed at the elbow by the wheel of an oncoming pickup.  When nurses tried to transfer him to an OR bed, his arm separated further, attached to the rest of the body only by sinew and decimated muscle.
                Richard felt the same urge to vomit as his did in the ER when the branch’s finger snapped off and fell into a pool of water below.  He didn’t cry.  Some ER doctors ducked into storage rooms and quiet corners to shed tears.  He even managed to choke back the bile building in his throat and move onto the next patient – another outstretched finger of the tree.  He grabbed it tightly.  It too snapped. 
                The branch swayed back and forth, recovering from its amputation with swift nonchalance.  It seemed to mock him. 
                Richard lay on his belly, hugging the wood.  No tears would come, though he desperately wished they would flow.  There was nothing left in his system – no fluid – to choke back.
                He thought of Mr. Foster and his cancerous tumour.  Cancer was an aberration of good will, cells desperately trying to repair something in the body that wasn’t wrong to begin with.  It was overcompensation. 
                Then he thought of Molly, still sleeping soundly expecting to wake next to him and mend their unnecessary fracture. 
                And with that, Richard Temple let himself roll off the branch to which he’d once held to so desperately.  He slipped into the Below.
                Like falling off a log.  Like-

                -like potato chips they sound like potato chips



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