Every year, I write a short story for Halloween and send it to my family and friends. Since I now have this blog, I figure it’s only right to share this year’s story with you. So turn out the lights, get under the covers, and enjoy this year’s tale of terror, titled “All Creatures Great and Small.”
Ronnie Childers shoved the bound and sack-hooded figure onto the dock. The captive tried to twist away, but it was no use. Like everything that grew out in the swamp, Childers was big and mean—thick gorilla arms, tree trunk legs, a neck like a fridge and a gut like an atom bomb—and anyway, he’d tied those ropes nice and tight. A little pressure on those wrists tied behind his back, and the bound man would cry out and do anything to get away from Ronnie.
At the end of the dock, Childers jammed the butt of his shotgun in the backs of his quarry’s kegs. The figure grunted in pain and dropped to his knees, his head falling forward.
Childers stopped to pack some chaw into his lip and take in the lawless smear of green and brown around him. Overgrown grass and hairy moss dripped from every branch and vine. The air swarmed with gnats and dragonflies, buzzing aimlessly through the tepid stink of the place. At the center of it all crept the river, a snake of bubbling life the color of a sick man’s phlegm. He’d built the dock a little longer than most so that he could feel like he was standing out in the middle of the water, part of the crawling, croaking wilderness around him.
The man at his feet moaned.
Oh right, that, thought Childers, irritated at being yanked from his backwoods reverie. He knelt down and pulled the sack off of the man’s head.
Richard Dajuste glared up at Childers with the eye that wasn’t swollen shut. His strong, handsome face was splotched with shiny bruises, and a gash in his lower lip oozed blood. His body rose and fell with heavy breath as he took in his captor with hatred and contempt.
“Glad we could meet like this,” said Childers, smiling.
“Fucking pig,” spat Dajuste through bloody lips.
“Because, honestly, Richie,” said Childers, slapping Dajuste on the back, knowing it made the ropes ache like Hell, “I knew I was going to get the call telling me to go deal with you. So for you to come here, save me the trip, that warms me. I owe you one.”
“Where are my aunt and uncle?” said Dajuste.
“Right to the point, I like that.” Childers squirted an arc of chaw juice into the river and watched it swirl on top of the scummy waters. “Well, Richie, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Auntie Dajuste had to go. And your uncle didn’t seem to like that much, so he had to go too.”
“You redneck piece of shit,” said Dajuste. He tried to lunge at Childers, but Childers calmly put the butt of his gun to the man’s chest and held him back. “Where, Childers? Where the Hell are you keeping them?”
Childers laughed over his wad. “Keeping them? Son, I ain’t keeping them nowhere! They went down there, right under you.
Dajuste’s skin turned a shade paler as he looked at the surface of the water with stunned, glazed eyes.
“Oh, Aunt Helen,” he mumbled. “Uncle Josef, I am sorry. I am so sorry—”
Dajuste’s voice started to crack. Childers couldn’t stand that shit, so he decided to get things moving and hammered a fist into Dajuste’s mouth, cutting him off with a high-pitched sputter. Then he grabbed him by the back of the head and shoved him forward, so that his face hung over the water. The sound of pattering drops joined the buzzing of flies as Dajuste’s blood dribbled into the river, clouding darkly at the base of the dock.
“See, Richie, Mr. Dubowski doesn’t like people who mess with business,” said Childers, watching the blood plop into the water. “He especially doesn’t like people rallying a bunch of loud-ass Haitians against him cause he wants to turn their toilet of a neighborhood into some nice new apartments. And your aunty, well, she refused to take the money he so kindly offered her, so I guess he saw her as a continuing problem. But hey, making problems go away is what Big Pearl is for.”
As if on cue, Childers heard the slosh of water around the river bend. He couldn’t stop himself from grinning.
“Look at that,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder if she recognizes her name. But I figure it’s just the smell of dinner that’s got her interested.”
From around a bank of shaggy grass drifted nine and a half feet of armored scales glistening green-black above the surface. Perched atop the combat boot head were two radioactive eyes with black daggers for pupils. The creature moved deliberately, as though being pulled towards the dock by an invisible rope, though Childers and Dajuste both knew that powerful legs beneath the surface propelled the beast along.
“Richie, meet Big Pearl,” said Childers.
“Uhhhh,” moaned Dajuste, his body trembling as the massive alligator swam up alongside the dock. Around them, the bushes shook and the water splashed as more gators came drifting towards them, drawn by the smell of blood and the sound of Pearl’s approach. Sweat beaded up on Dajuste’s brow, and he tried to pull away from the edge of the dock, but Childers’ big hand held him fast.
“Pearl and her family met your aunty and uncle about a week ago,” said Childers. “Maybe people thought your Aunty Helen was a real big deal, but I gotta tell you, Richie, none of your voodoo gods came to help her when she hit that water.”
As if in response, Big Pearl circled through the cloud of Dajuste’s blood and let out a horrible sound, a deep rattle mixed with a wet hiss.
Dajuste shook with fear, sweat pouring down his face and mixing with his blood. Then all at once, his quivering ceased as though with the flip of switch. He closed his eyes, exhaled sharply, and licked his bloody lips.
“One last chance, Childers,” Dajuste said. “Let me go. Turn yourself in. Or you’ll see us again real soon.”
Now what was it about those words that rubbed Childers so wrong? It was almost like Dajuste’s voice had gotten louder when he’d spoken…or had everything else gotten quieter? That was it—the buzz of insects, the slosh of the river, the hiss of the gators, it all died down at once, like it was making room for Dajuste’s voice.
Just like that, Childers hated the swamp. He felt betrayed, like it had turned on him. Big Pearl’s eyes no longer focused on Dajuste’s blood, but seemed to stare right up at Childers.
“We’ll see about that,” mumbled Childers. He squirted a stream of chaw juice at Dajuste, hitting him in the ear. “Good luck down there, boy.”
He let go of the man’s head, but before Dajuste could squirm away Childers stood and gave him a sharp kick between the shoulder blades. The young man fell forward with a splash, and instantly Big Pearl was on him. Childers walked back to his moldering house, telling himself that it was the screams filling the air, and the grisly sounds of the gators feeding, that made him so relieved to have the river at his back.
After a couple of whiskeys, Childers calmed down a little and called Dubowski. After working his way through two administrative assistants and being transferred to a secure line, he got the man himself, and explained what had happened.
“Jesus Christ, Ronnie, you already took care of it?” whined Dubowski in a nasal tone. Childers knew that the old Pollack had seasonal allergies, and imagined him elbow-deep in tissues. “Why didn’t you call me?”
“Boy broke into my house,” said Childers. “Didn’t think I had to ask your permission. Figured I was doing you a favor.”
Dubowski sighed. “I guess. It’s just that everyone loved Richie. If it gets out that he disappeared, questions get asked and you screw my chances at getting a go-ahead on the new development.”
“He messed with the wrong people,” said Childers, a little pissed that Dubowski was riding him for this. “Maybe he should’ve thought twice before coming round to my house.”
“Did he say anything strange?”
Childers’ glass stopped halfway to his mouth, the ice in it tinkling forward. He smacked his lips, trying to chase away the sudden dryness he felt. “The usual stuff. Voodoo curse bullshit. Why, are the Haitians giving you more grief?”
“No, actually. That’s why I asked. All the protests outside my building disappeared this afternoon. My boys on the street tell me they’ve gone quiet as a church. Any idea what that’s about?”
“No clue,” said Childers. He took a swallow and crunched a piece of ice between his molars, trying to distract himself. “Sounds like you got what you wanted, though. No more bad publicity.”
“We’ll see,” said Dubowksi, followed by the honk of him blowing his nose. “But do me a favor, Ronnie, lay low. And if you see anything suspicious, you let me know.”
The old man hung up. Childers flopped into his recliner and stared at his sweating glass, feeling uneasy. He got up and topped off his drink.
A wet slapping sound filled the room.
Childers jerked awake in his chair, his whiskey glass falling from his lap and shattering across the floor. The shards glittered like stars in the light of the TV’s static.
He swore and rubbed at his eyes, trying to get his head straight. Had he fallen asleep? He’d done his damnedest not to—he’d eaten light, put on Escape from Alcatraz, even blew a couple lines of crank to keep him up. Somehow, he’d still managed to nod off.
As he shifted, he heard the hollow plop of liquid on glass, and found the whiskey bottle next to him in the chair with less than an inch of liquor swirling around at the bottom. That was the culprit right there—too much booze. He stood up carefully—he always took off his muddy boots before heading to the den, so his feet were bare—and went to get some shoes and a broom.
Childers froze, suddenly very awake.
In the center of the den stood three gators, water dribbling from their scaly backs.
His eyes bulged as he took in the massive reptiles, their stumpy legs and tooth-lined mouths. What were they doing here? He’d heard about gators showing up in people’s backyards or swimming pools, but he’d never seen one near his place, much less inside of it. And he’d never seen any gators anywhere stand in a perfect line like that.
“Get out of here!” shouted Childers. “Shoo! Get!” He grabbed the remote control from his chair cushions and tossed it at the animals. It clattered harmless next to the middle one, spitting its batteries across the floor.
The gators began to shake. Slowly at first, then harder and harder, water flicking off of their bodies.
Childers felt queasy as he watched them shake. They must be sick, he thought through the haze in his head and the knot in his guts. That’s why they came inside. They got sick and confused. If I can get to my gun, I can put them out of their misery—
The gators opened their mouths, revealing yellow teeth and flat pink tongues that descending into the darkness of their cold guts.
Out of that darkness came hands.
They were pale and pockmarked, riddled with rot and webbed with black veins. They slapped wetly on the floor, and then dug their nails into the boards and dragged bodies out of the alligators’ maws—arms, shoulders, heads, all cocooned in spit and bile. Their flesh was torn and eaten away, revealing meaty swaths of slimy musculature and yellowing tendon; in fact, they were so mutilated that they shouldn’t have able to function, and yet they moved with a deliberate grace. As the pale forms slithered from their mouths, the gators seemed to deflate, flattening out like skins on a hunter’s wall.
Childers gaped, repulsed but unable to look away. Warmth bloomed across his lap as he lost control of his bladder.
The pale naked forms didn’t stand so much as they rose, pulled upright by unseen hands. Their heads rose last, and Childers finally saw their faces.
“No!” he shrieked, his voice cracking and girlish. “No, it can’t be!”
“Ronnie,” gurgled Helen Dajuste, gator spit bubbling around her mouth like blown-in milk. The old woman’s proud and stoic face was now a bloated death mask, one eye replaced with a ragged hole and the other glittering in the light from the TV. A wide crescent of teeth marks arced across her swinging breasts. Her wounds oozed thick black blood and were pecked at by tiny crayfish.
“I killed you!” yelped Childers, shaking with terror and confusion. “You’re at the bottom of the swamp! You’re gator food!”
“Told you you’d pay, Ronnie,” said Richie Dajuste in a phlegmy rasp. His busted nose had grown pruney, and his arms hung twisted and broken at his sides, the flesh on them marked with purple rope burn. “Gave you a chance. You almost got out.”
“Shouldn’t have killed Richie,” groaned Josef Dajuste. His lips and nose had been mostly eaten, revealing the festering skull beneath his face. His legs were missing, his ribcage dragging discolored organs like the tentacles of a foul jellyfish.
“That’s right,” hacked Helen, her lips pulling back into a oozing grin. “If you’d only killed us, we would’ve left you alone. But I felt my nephew in that water. I felt his heart beat slow and stop. Now you have to pay.”
“Gotta have you, Ronnie,” groaned Josef, and then they all echoed him, “Gotta have you, gotta have you…”
As they began closing in on him, Childers stepped back, trying to put distance between himself and the putrid shapes. The ball of his foot landed on a shard of glass, slicing it deeply. He yelped and twisted, tumbling to the floor. His head bounced off the ground, and he felt hot blood spill down his scalp.
Childers didn’t think, he just fled. He crawled as fast as he could across the den floor, ignoring the sting of broken glass as it gashed his arms. Finally regaining his footing, he got up and sprinted through the kitchen and out the back door, feeling more than hearing the rotten things that used to be the Dajuste family clamoring behind him.
Childers ran blindly across the damp grass, desperately trying to wipe the blood out of his face. He was so horrified and distracted that he didn’t feel grass give way to wood underfoot. Only when he slipped and fell backawards, and his fingers splashed into water at his side, did Childers spin and take in his surroundings.
He was at the edge of the dock. Around him, the night heaved with insect clicks and frog calls. The swamp bore down on him like the green teeth of a rotten giant.
Cold hands seized him by the shoulders and yanked him hard down against the dock. On either side of him floated Richie and Josef Dajuste, half-submerged in the water, holding him. Childers thrashed and screamed, but their slimy hands were unmovable.
Childers looked up. There was Helen Dajuste, dead and floating at his feet. The air seemed to ripple around her as she moved towards him, her one eye glowing madly in the shadowy night. All around her swarmed gators, big and small, green and brown, hissing and croaking as they slapped their webbed feet in the mud and came towards Ronnie.
“Do you think she’ll hear us if we call her by name?” rumbled the woman’s corpse in a grave-deep voice not her own. “Do you think she recognizes it? Or is it just the smell of dinner that’s got her interested?”
Oh no, thought Ronnie. Anything but that. Anything but her.
As if on cue, there was a slosh around the riverbend.
Slowly, nine and a half feet of scales and teeth and muscle cut across the oily river water, motoring towards the dock.
Around him, the fetid corpses of the Dajustes began laughing, moaning with pleasure, chanting her name, “Big Pearl, Big Pearl” over and over, their mouths twisted into unholy smiles of horrible joy. And as Pearl drifted towards him, Childers could swear she was smiling too.