Entry for the Phoenix Point on-line writing contest
|They thought the world had gone mad, back then. Dad would complain of it bitterly: unemployment, oppression, war abroad, and the sheer hubris of humanity’s abuse of the ecology it depended on. But on weekends, even he would leave it behind. We would drive for hours, just he and I, and escape. Mom might worry, but the river had been my playground since I was just a little girl, and back then I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
That was why, that last fall before I went to college, Dad and I were on the long road to what used to be Grandpa’s old cabin. The car was whisper-quiet, and even the scent of the leather seats was luxurious, though we hoped to fix that, with dirt, sweat, and the aroma of fresh beer-battered trout. Once we got to the river, the wider world wasn’t allowed in, but on the road, it could still sneak into the conversation.
“Have you settled on a major yet, Sam?” he asked.
With the autopilot on, Dad could turn his blue-gray eyes fully on me, his gentle curiosity familiar, the gray streaks that had crept into his chestnut hair new.
I shrugged and rescued my eyes from a wisp of dark hair. “Biology maybe, or chemistry. I know I said I wanted to write, but someone has to figure out the hard problems. Everybody wants to tell the story these days.”
Dad nodded. “Good choice. Did you hear there was another mist incident, this time in Indonesia? The world has enough bloggers as it is. We need a real biologist to tackle that.”
I shook my head in protest. “Dad.”
“Fine,” he said, raising his hands, and the conversation turned to all the fish we would catch.
It was mid-morning when we pulled up the gravel driveway and hauled the equipment into the cabin. The back-porch view was uniquely refreshing, like a draught for the soul. Skies aren’t that blue anymore, water that pure, or leaves that brilliant: old videos don’t do them justice.
The river was too swift and rocky behind the cabin, though, and our fishing spot was over a mile downstream. So Dad hefted his backpack, and I followed behind with the poles and tackle. He made short work of the brush and weeds that overgrew the path, and we set about enjoying the hike.
“Do you think we’ll see Brownie today?” I asked.
Dad chuckled. “Probably not, but we can hope.”
We saw a lot of creatures by the river by our spot. It was like a crossroad, where there would often be fish heading upstream to spawn, and the local animals seemed to know it, especially a particularly laid-back bear. We didn’t see him often, but on the last trip, he’d played in the water like a cub, then swaggered right by on the way into the woods. Of course, we knew better than to bother him, but he was a beautiful creature, and he’d be filling up before hibernation.
The fishing spot, when we reached it, was unusually quiet and cool, though the red and golden leaves were breathtaking. We set up folding chairs from the backpack and leaned back in them, poles lazily extended. Dad popped open a beer and I contented myself with soda, soaking in the silence. The fish weren’t biting, but for one last moment in time, all was well in the world.
It could have been minutes later or an hour, but out of the corner of my eye, I caught a large shape in the distance, coming around the bend of the trees. I was thrilled. “Brownie!” I gasped, and Dad turned lazily to see.
But I was wrong. The ten-foot monstrosity, with foot-long razor crab claws and blood-red scales peeking between the ragged tufts that were all that remained of its fur, was not Brownie. Its over-sized jaws splintered a too-large fish that was not a fish, and fierce eyes seemed to glow with a bloodlust I had never in my nightmares imagined.
“Stay very still,” Dad urged, making a hushing motion with his hand. It was the worst mistake he had ever made.
We watched in horror as the thing that used to be Brownie approached, step by step until it was barely twenty yards away. Then it charged.
I screamed as I have never screamed, before or since, and I was in motion without thought. Somehow, the monster’s lunge missed. Somehow it hit a twenty-foot pine, and bowled it over, tripping it up. Dad was with me, and reeds and leaves whipped our faces as we ran. He started to pull ahead, and there was a mile left to the car.
The path was narrow, winding around trees, or we would have been dead in seconds. The unearthly clacking roar of the beast followed us, and crashing branches, and flying stones. For a while, it fell behind, and as my chest began to burn and my throat to catch, I could hope it wasn’t going to follow. But kindness had already left the world.
We burst out of the woods, and the car was in sight. The howl that followed was demonic and nearly shook me from my feet. I didn’t look back, but Dad did and blanched.
“You don’t have to outrun the bear,” he muttered, and he slowed, removing a bowie knife from his leg holster.
“No!” I screamed.
“I love you,” he said softly and fiddled with something in his pocket. The car lights went on, and the door lifted open.
With tears beginning to stream down, I ran. There was a cry of pain and a horrible crunch, and I was in. The door closed and the autopilot took over as I watched my father die. That was when my war began. My battlefield is the laboratory, and I’ll never stop fighting.