Re-Read: Swamp Monster Bonanza

Lourdes’s pick:  Michele Tallarita’s short story.
Originally published on March 7, 2011 “Swamp Monster Bonanza” is, as in the words of character Attison, weird in its beauty. I cannot explain in words my fascination with this story. Maybe I am in awe of how people who once ridicule Robin and Attison can suddenly be paying to see them do tricks. Or it could be the complicated relationship between mother and daughter. Or possibly it is simply the witty, attention-consuming writing of Michele Tallarita. Whatever it is, it is not slimy or smelly, or swampy. It is a bonanza.

 

By Michele Tallarita

These are the rules.photo © 2008 Ollie Crafoord | more info (via: Wylio)
“I want to be abducted by aliens,” Attison said as he shoveled a spoonful of tuna into his mouth.  He liked to eat it right from the can, and then slurp down the saltwater afterward.  He leaned over the wooden picnic table so that his face was inches from mine.  “Green-skinned, saucer-flying aliens.”

“Why, Attison?”  I put a chip in my mouth and kept talking as I crunched it.  “My question is why.”

“An excellent question.”  He smiled, showing off the scrap of tuna wedged between his two front teeth.  “And I’ll answer it.”

“That’d be great.”

“The possibility!” he shouted.  “I want to be dissected!  Probed!”

“Probed.  Hmm.”

“I want the syringe in the neck!  The tubes in the arm!”  He thrust his spoon into the air.  “I want to be taken apart!”

I kept eating my chips, saying nothing.  Seeing that I had nothing to say, Attison dropped the hyperactivity and went back to spooning himself tuna, looking dejected.  He thought we were dating; anytime I didn’t respond to his insanity he thought we were having a fight.

Attison and I were lifeguards at the local pool, which got a lot of traffic but also had a high poop-evacuation rate, courtesy of the local toddlers.  That was why on a hot and sunny day like today two lifeguards could be found sitting at a picnic table instead of at their chairs by the water.

I was not a good lifeguard.  To tell you the truth, I was barely a proficient doggie paddler, but Mr. Hacker needed one more lifeguard and I needed a summer job and resumes are really just works of fiction.  No one had drowned yet.

Speak of the devil.

“Yo!”  Mr. Hacker waddled out of the pool house, his face clenched in an expression of constipated fury.  “Rob!  Get your rear end over here!”

I’m Rob, by the way.  I’m also a girl.  Rob is short for Robin, the ridiculous name my mother chose to bestow upon me the day I was born—or hatched as my name would seem to suggest.  I just couldn’t understand how a mother could peer down at her rosy-faced newborn and name it after the thing that crapped on your windshield.  So I went by Rob, to spite her and to spite myself, because I was already a tomboy and with a name like Rob people start thinking you’re the type that wears a tux to prom.  I wasn’t that type, by the way.

I hauled my rear end off the bench and walked up to Mr. Hacker, who was standing with his hands on his hips.  His stomach looked particularly bountiful today.

“What’s up, Hacker?” I said.

“Green slime.  Locker room.  Get to it.”  He was a man of few words.

I shrugged and entered the pool house, a place where all of the world’s nastiness got together and partied.  My bare feet sloshed on the wet concrete floor, picking up pieces of toilet paper as I went.  Attison trailed behind me.  Some people would wonder about green slime in a locker room, but I once saw a cockroach die and rise again in there—and since then I’d thought of it as a place of netherworld miracles.

Photo courtesy of Shaun Dunmall.

My stomach did a flip as I entered the locker room.  There was green slime everywhere, steamy and smelly and draped over everything like a blanket from hell.  I stared, open-mouthed, brokenhearted at the buckets of elbow grease it would take to scrub this place clean.

“You clean it up, Attison.”

He pulled up beside me, his mouth dropping open.  Green slime on the wooden benches, leaking out of the slits in the locker doors, oozing from the cracks in the tile floor.  It reeked of sewage juice.

“I’m not touching that puke fest.”

“I don’t think it’s puke.”

He shook his head.  “It’s puke alright.  Possibly alien puke.”

“Alien puke.  Great.”

I went to the towel closet, and shoved a fresh one into Attison’s hands, and grabbed one for myself.  Without stopping to dwell on the slime’s many potential identities, I walked to a bench and started scrubbing.  I’d learned from past slime explosions that the stuff gets smellier the longer you let it sit, sort of like milk.  Clean it up quick or submit yourself to exponential smelliness.

Attison and I spent the next three hours becoming well-acquainted with the slime—its tangy sewer scent, its mucusy texture, its love of sticking to your fingers.  I scoured it, I splashed it with water, I touched it, I smelled it—heck, I even tasted it.  Cleaning up a slimed locker room is not for the faint of heart.

It was five by the time everything was totally de-slimed.  In the corner sat a pile of green-tinged towels, all of which seemed perfectly capable of lurching to life at any moment.  Best not to hang around.

“Later,” I said to Attison.

He grabbed my shoulder.  His messy brown hair was sprinkled with tiny slime orbs, his pale face splotched with slime patches.  “Swamp monsters.”

“Huh?”

“You and me.  Loch Ness.  Just wait, Rob.”  He nodded his head wildly and sprinted out of the locker room.  “Just wait and see!”

The whole drive home the smell of green slime wafted out of my bathing suit and filled up the car.  I rolled my eyes.  It figured that green slime had exploded in the locker room.  It figured that the smell of it had stuck to me like zombie perfume.  It figured, it figured, it figured.  That was just my life.

The house was quiet when I came in.  I went to my room, shed the slime-doused bathing suit on my way to the shower, and afterwards pulled on something that didn’t smell like toxic waste.  It wasn’t until I went back downstairs that I noticed my mom sitting in the living room—the TV off, the lights off, her eyes open.

I flicked on the lights.  “Hey,” I said.

Mom kept staring for a few seconds before she noticed me.  She looked like me if I was forty-six years old and frequently depressed.  More wrinkled.  Sort of yellow.  Skinny.

“Robin,” she said, using the name I hated.  “They’re coming for me.”

I cocked my head and thought of Attison.  “Who?”

“Shadows.”

That was her way of saying her recent happy period—and by happy I mean she frowned only about half the time and ate Lucky Charms—was over.

“Shadows,”  I sighed.  “Great.”

As I lay in my bed that night, I thought about the slime dripping from the lockers and squiggling through cracks in the floor.  I could still smell it, somehow, as if it had seeped into my hair follicles.  Lovely.  That was sure to attract the male species.

Not that I was looking for a boyfriend.  It wouldn’t seem right to drag someone else into a life that involved things like green slime, Attison, and a mother whose sleeping habits mirrored a vampire’s.

Mom hadn’t always been like this.  I could remember a time when she really was happy, when she would teach a yoga class and then take me to the park.  Being the highly intellectual four year old that I was, I would make her pies out of sticks and mud.  “Ooh, yum,” she would say, and a smile would spread across her whole face.

I couldn’t say exactly when Mom’s smile disappeared, but it seemed like the more shelves I could reach, the further she sank into darkness.  That was what scared me the most about her depression—its mystery.  It seemed to have come out of nowhere, like a fairy curse.  Like a random explosion of slime, except in her heart.  I often wondered if it was my fault, since it was no secret that my arrival into this world hadn’t been on the agenda.  Mom never even talked about the guy who was my dad.

The next day was largely normal, except for the fact that I sprouted fins.

Attison and I were back on duty, perched on our lifeguard chairs and watching the local kids splash around in the pool.  Don’t worry—I may have been leaden in the water, but Attison was a regular dolphin.  He’d save any potential drowners.

The kids burst into a splashing contest, and I growled inwardly as a wall of water crashed over my head.

“Hey!” I yelled.  “Nix on the splashing!”

Since I’m a highly intimidating girl who can’t swim, the kids settled down instantly while I shook water off myself in dog-like fashion.  It was a cloudy day, cool and sort of breezy.  I rubbed my arms to warm them up, my palms grating against my…scabs?

371 - Dragon Scales Texturephoto © 2009 Patrick Hoesly | more info (via: Wylio)
I glanced down in alarm.  Green, fish-like scales coated the outer edges of my forearms.  Panic rushed through me; my heart kicked into high gear.  I touched the scales with a shaking hand—they were hard, like plastic, except attached to my flesh.  In the crevices between each scale oozed droplets of slime.

“Attison!”

I swung down from my chair and galumphed to where he sat.  Raising my arms like a boxer ready to fight, I showed him the scales.  “Something’s happening to me!”

Attison examined my scales in a curious way and then lifted his own arms—he had scales, too.

“It’s just like I thought,” he said, sounding very fascinated and distant, as if he personally wasn’t growing fish parts.  “We’re going to become swamp monsters.”

“What?”

“I saw it on the SciFi Channel once.  This happens.”

I started crying, but just then Mr. Hacker came out of the pool house and yelled at me to quit making conversation and sit my rear end down.  Not wanting to be fired, I whimpered my way back to position and spent the next hour wetting my fins with my tears.  How could this happen?  Why me?

Attison approached me at the end of our shift, as I packed up my stuff in the locker room.  There was a ball of crying mucus in my throat that I was barely keeping down, and my eyes were swollen and drippy.

“Why are you so upset?” Attison said, leaning against the locker next to mine.

“Gee, let me think.  I’m turning into a swamp monster!”

“What’s so bad about that?”

I slammed my locker shut.  “I don’t know, fins?  Scales?”

“And probably flippers.”

I coughed.  “I can’t handle this, Attison.  I don’t want to be weird.”

He laid his hand on my cheek.  I noticed that he was standing freakishly close to me, his tuna-scented breath punching me in the nose.  “Weird,” he said, “is beautiful.”

I smacked him in the head and stormed out of the locker room, my tears falling freely as I climbed into my car.  Weird is beautiful?  I jammed the keys into the ignition and jerked the engine to life.  Clearly Attison was demented.  Clearly he had never lived in a house where the only thing that weirdness brought was sadness.  I didn’t want to be weird; I wanted to be normal.

When I got home, I sat in my car for several minutes, gripping the steering wheel and taking deep breaths.  I had to pull myself together.  I had to tell Mom about the scales, and to act like I was okay with it—maybe then she wouldn’t freak out.  I wiped my face with the back of my hand and smoothed my hair.  Be cool.

I approached her as she sat the dinner table, slumped over microwaveable lasagna.

“Mom,” I said, gulping down tears.  “I thought you should know I’m growing scales.”

She looked up at me, dark circles under her eyes.  “Since when?”

“I don’t know.  It happened today.  Attison says I’ll likely turn into a full-blown swamp monster.”

Her forehead crinkled as she digested this.  I rocked back and forth on my heels, watching her thoughts brood behind her dark eyes.  “I don’t approve of this at all.  I forbid you to grow scales.”

I shook my head.  “It’s not exactly something I can control.”

“I am way too depressed for you start growing scales!”

I turned and ran up to my room, slamming the door behind me and panting wildly.  This was typical Mom.  So wrapped up in herself that God forbid someone else had a problem.  God forbid I turn into a swamp monster and steal her thunder.

I walked to the window and pressed my forehead against the glass, my breath fogging the window.  I knew she wouldn’t be able to handle it; she’d never been able to deal with anything but her own depression, which by itself sucked up every ounce of her attention.  That was why I couldn’t talk to her, why our relationship was a failure.  How do you talk to someone who’s too delicate to handle anything?  Not boys, not classes, not swamp monsterdom, not anything.

And now she forbade me to grow scales?  I knew that she was just looking out for me, that she didn’t want me to make what she perceived to be a stupid life decision—but how hypocritical was that?  Being grumpy and sad all the time didn’t seem like a very good life decision.  I fell into my bed, my head swimming with frustration.

The next day was Saturday, which meant I was off from lifeguarding.  I went about my usual Saturday activities—laundry, dusting, and downloading music—while my mom went about her usual Saturday activity—lying on the couch.  We had exactly one conversation, which went something like this:

“I forbid you to grow scales!”

“It’s going to happen no matter what you say!”

“You can’t actually want to grow scales!”

“Maybe I do!”

When I returned to the pool a few days later, I found Attison catching some swim-time before the crowds rolled in.  I stopped at the edge of the water and watched him.

My mouth fell open.  He was shooting underwater like a bullet, moving so fast he was practically a blur.  He went back and forth ten times before he popped up for air, a grin on his face.

I struggled for words.  “How—

He turned his head from side to side—he had gills, great slits running down his neck and pulsing rapidly.

My head spun as Attison hopped out of the pool and dripped toward me.  To my horror, I saw that the green scales now covered all of his arms, and his feet were more like flippers.  His face was noticeably greenish, as if he’d overdosed on broccoli.

“Let me tell you,” he said, still grinning.  “Being a swamp monster is such a rush.”

I shook my head.  “Holy crap, Attison.  What am I going to do if that happens to me?”

“Swim.”

“I can’t swim.”

He motioned toward the water.  “Bet you can now.”

My eyes went wide.  “No way.”

“Try it.”

“Attison, back off.”

“It’s really fun!”

“Attison.  No!”

He wrapped his wet, scaly arms around me and flung me into the pool.  First I dropped like cement, as I generally do in water, and flailed around until my butt tapped the floor.  Then, something cold flowed into my lungs.  I breathed.  Well, I gilled.

Sitting at the bottom of the pool, I opened my eyes.  My arms were entirely green and scaly, my feet flippers.  I inhaled again.  Breathing with gills felt just like regular breathing, just colder and a lot thicker.

I flapped my arms and rose, then kicked forward with ridiculous force.  Though I’m sure I didn’t look nearly as graceful as Attison, I soared through the chemically treated water like a high-speed jet across a clear, blue sky.

I whizzed from wall to wall at least fifteen times, bursting with exhilaration, before my scaly arms and flippered legs grew tired.  I rose out of the water with a grin on my face, my gills beating up and down on my neck.

Only to discover that I had an audience.  A crowd of people wearing bathing suits and carrying towels were either gaping at me or gaping at Attison, who stood outside the pool in all his swamp monster glory.

“They’re freaks!” somebody yelled.

“Monsters!”

“Disgusting!”

“Swim some more!  We want to watch you!”

Attison took three running bounds and jumped into the pool, landing in a dive that shot him all the way to the other side.  He leaped ten feet in the air like Shamu and landed back in the water.  Everyone cheered, clapped, and shouted derogatory names.

dolphinsphoto © 2004 Jason | more info (via: Wylio)
This went on for some time—Attison doing tricks and the crowd cheering—before Mr. Hacker stormed out of the pool house with a look on his face that could petrify wood.

“What in Pete’s name is going on out here?”

“We love your freaks!”

“We want to watch your freaks!”

Mr. Hacker spun to where they pointed, at Attison and me with our gills flapping in the wind.

“What the—”  He took a step forward, his stomach jiggling.

“How much does the swamp monster show cost?”

Mr. Hacker scrunched his forehead, then smiled.  “Ten dollars per adult, seven per child.”

And the green came out.

That turned out to be the first day of Swamp Monster Bonanza, which consisted of Attison and me swimming around and doing tricks while Mr. Hacker charged people money.  Somebody must have been spreading the word about us, because on that first day we had an endless stream of clappers and hecklers—Mr. Hacker kept having to throw people out to make room for more.

By that afternoon, Attison’s green skin was glowing as he flipped, twirled, and splashed for the crowd.  He shrieked with delight as they roared their applause.  I, on the other hand, found myself clinging to the edge of the pool and turning red as all of the people gawked at my gills and fins.  Attison took a break from doing tricks and waded up to me.

“You can swim now, remember?  You’ve got gills.  That makes it pretty much foolproof,” he said.  Mr. Hacker was holding back the crowds.

“I don’t want to.”

“Don’t you think it’s fun?”

“I guess.”  I sighed.  “But now all of these people think I’m a freak.  It’s going to be all over town.  Rob the freak.”

Attison grinned.  “Rob the freak!  Rob the freak!”

I lurched forward and flippered him in the gill.  “What are you doing?”

“The sooner everyone knows you’re a freak,” he said, rubbing his gill, “the sooner you’ll let go.”

He squatted in the water and then shot up, spinning so fast he didn’t even look like my friend, just a whirlwind of green.  The crowds jumped up and down, screaming his name.

As Swamp Monster Bonanza continued each day, it attracted more and more people.  A neon sign showing Attison in a muscle-man pose was placed on the front of the poolhouse, and there were even ads in the local paper:  “Come see Swamp Monster Bonanza:  A real live freak show!”  It ran for eight hours a day, five days a week, and at the end of each day Mr. Hacker took home sixty percent of the profits while Attison and I split the rest.  Getting paid for being a freak didn’t exactly thrill me, but my reservations oddly evaporated the first time Mr. Hacker thrust a fistful of money in my face.  After only a few weeks, I was swimming in cash.

“Careful driving,” Mr. Hacker said one day as he handed me my cut of the money.  “Wouldn’t want to damage those freaky fins.”

“They go away when I get out of the pool.”  I held up my arms to display their clear, pasty normality.  I may or may not have just spent the last twenty minutes blasting my scales away beneath the bathroom hand dryers.

He counted his money.  “Great.  Just great.”

Outside in the parking lot Attison was signing autographs.  He’d taken to spiking his hair straight up in a shark-like way and occasionally making “the swamp monster call”—a high-pitched, bubbly sound, somewhere between Chewbacca and a turkey.

“There’s going to be a movie about me,” he was saying as I walked past.  “It’s going to be bigger than Flipper.”

I waved at him sheepishly and hurried to my car.  Even as Swamp Monster Bonanza oozed with popularity, my discomfort with being a swamp monster remained.  Sometimes I did a few tricks for the crowd, but mostly I just stood off to the side and watched Attison dazzle everyone with his aquatic genius.  All of the pointing and shouting made my stomach turn.

When I got home I hopped into the shower, working a bar of soap over my slimy scales and being careful to keep shampoo out of my gills.  Yuck.  Afterwards I went downstairs, still a swamp monster because of the shower water, and saw my face peeking out of a newspaper Bonanza ad that sat on the table.  I walked over and started ripping it up with my fins.

“You’re not my daughter,” Mom said as she emerged from the living room, “when you look like that.”  She pointed to the scales and gills that remained from my shower.  At that moment, they receded into my skin.  I was normal again.

“I don’t know what you want me to do,” I said, collecting the newspaper scraps and crumbling them in my fist.  “It’s kind of who I am now.”

“Stop doing the show.”

“Why?”

She pushed her hair out of her sunken face.  Since she’d said that the shadows were coming to get her, it had proven true—she’d been increasingly distant and tired lately, hanging around like a phantom when she wasn’t at work.  “I don’t think you need to flaunt the fact that you’re a swamp monster.”

“Why does it bother you so much?”

“Because it’s weird, Robin.  Do you want to be known as weird?”  She reached out and grabbed one of the newspaper scraps from my hand.  It was a picture of Attison clenching his scaly biceps, smiling from gill to gill.  I imagined him laughing as he twirled across the water, happier to be a swamp monster than he was to be a human.  Mom glared at his picture with disgust.

“Maybe I do.”

I grabbed the picture and rode a surge of frustration out the front door, stopping on the porch to huff, puff, and kick things.  My blood sizzled as I thought of Mom frowning at my fins, glowering at my gills.  Who was she to judge me?  Who was she to say that I couldn’t be a swamp monster?

I grumbled my way to my car and sped off toward the pool, not really sure why I was going—Swamp Monster Bonanza was done for the day.  When I arrived, the lights were off and the water was still.  I dropped my shorts, pulled off my T-shirt, and leaped into the pool in my bra and panties.

My body crashed into the water with a thunderous splash.  I felt my scales pop to the surface of my skin and my gills flutter to life on my neck.  I kicked with fury, pumping across the water at lightning speed.  When I reached the far end of the pool, I sprung into the air and flipped in the other direction, taking off toward the opposite wall.

I swam until my limbs burned, until my gills were sore with effort.  Then I rolled onto my back and drifted in the darkness.

“That was amazing.”

“Attison!” I croaked, flipping and crouching so that the water came to my neck.

He stood up from our picnic table and walked to the edge of the pool, fully human but still wearing his swim trunks.

Under the water, I crossed my arms over my chest.  “Get out of here!  I’m–” I struggled to describe what I’d been doing.  “I’m swimming!”

“You’re doing it.  You’re embracing the swamp monster.”

“I am not!”

“Didn’t it feel good?”

I blew air out my gills.  “No!”  I shrank deeper into the water, burying my chin.  “Yes.”

“I love you, Rob.”  He gazed at me from where he stood, his shark hair glowing in the moonlight, his pale face goofed into a smile.

“I love you too, Attison.  Now get the heck out of here.”

After that night, being a swamp monster proved less of a problem for me.  Attison and I began collaborating to come up with new, two-person tricks for the Bonanza—my favorite being a sort of swamp monster rumba.  Together, we made the crowds explode with adoration and disgust.  But even as they screamed, “Rob the freak!” or, “Take me to your leader!”—I found that I didn’t really care.  I was having too much fun.

One day during Bonanza, I was flying through the air after being catapulted by Attison, my arms spread wide and the wind in my hair, when I spotted a familiar face in the crowd—my mom’s.  When I fell back into the water, I strongly considered not coming back up.  Thankfully that was the end of our routine.  The thought of going on was mortifying.

Slowly, I bobbed to the surface and dared to peek at Mom.  She stood amidst the screamers and clappers with her hands on her hips, her eyes narrowed.  I bowed my head.

“What’s the matter?” Attison said, splashing up to me.

I nodded toward Mom.

Attison glanced at her and then looked back at me.  “I’m sure she’ll be impressed.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Hey.”  He put his fin on my shoulder.  “Want to do the rumba?”

I shook my head.  My green skin blushed as Mom continued to frown at me, a stern sentinel in the midst of the merriment.

“Let’s really impress her,” Attison said.  “Let’s do something amazing!”

He grabbed my hands and began to spin us round and round.  The water churned like a whirlpool.  Attison yanked harder on my arms, his cheeks flapping in the wind, and we spun even faster.  A funnel of blue water rose all around us, the sun glowing through the eye of the vortex.  Inside it, my arms felt like they’d snap as the centrifugal force wrenched me away from Attison.  I could no longer make out his face in the darkness of the vortex, though his laughter echoed in my ears.  The joints in my fingers screamed as our hands clamped us together.

Pop!  We flew apart.

I crashed into the wall of the vortex and got sucked under as it spun to a standstill.  When I paddled to the surface, I wiped my eyes to find the entire audience dripping wet and squawking indignantly.  Mom was nowhere in sight.

Attison popped up from the water, laughing maniacally and making the swamp monster call.

“Shut up!” somebody yelled.

“Go home, freak!”

“Actually, we’ll go home!”

Wet and angry, the crowd filtered into the pool house, no longer entertained by our freakiness now that they were drenched in it.  I hoped they hadn’t consumed any slime.  Sending an army of new swamp monsters into the world didn’t seem like the best idea.

“Robin!”

I whirled to see Mom walking toward me, her hair dripping and her eyes burning into me.  I exhaled.

“Robin!  Get out of that pool!”

I threw my leg over the side of the pool and heaved myself onto land.  Water ran off my scales onto the concrete.

“Robin–

“Rob.”

“Rob is a boy’s name.”

“Robin is a bird’s name.”

She threw her hands onto her hips.  “Well maybe you would have preferred Swordfish.  Would that have been better?”

The circus comes to townphoto © 2008 The National Archives UK | more info (via: Wylio)
“You know, Mom,” I said, shaking my head, “at least I’m making the best of what I’ve got.”

“By selling yourself to whomever comes along?”  Her voice rose.  “It’s a circus, Robin!”

“It’s fun, Mom!  You know, fun?  That thing you never have?”

“What I won’t have is a swamp monster for a daughter!”

“Maybe you never wanted a daughter period!  Maybe that’s why you’re so depressed!”  I panted angrily.  “Did you wake up one morning and realize you screwed up your life?  That you never wanted me?  Well, guess what?  Sometimes the slime hits the fan and you’ve got to learn to deal with it—

My stomach lurched.  I clenched my fists as something hot came rushing up my throat.  A humongous belch roared from my lips, and green slime sprayed out in front of me and splattered all over Mom.

We stood there, silent, dripping, shocked.

I sighed.  “I’ll get you a towel.  You’ll probably end up a swamp monster now, too.”

“Robin—

I walked off toward the pool house, my limbs burning with frustration.  What had I done?  Mom would never be able to handle being depressed and being a swamp monster.  And why had I said all those things?  If Mom had never wanted me, well, wasn’t that the kind of thing that was better left unsaid?

When I came out of the pool house with a fresh towel, Attison was talking to her.  He was fully human again, stroking his chin in an intellectual way.  I walked toward them.

“What does it feel like to be depressed?  Rob told me about it, but I don’t really understand,” Attison was saying.  I felt my eyes go wide.

Mom shifted uneasily in her sliminess.  “I don’t think I feel comfortable answering that, Attison.”

I shoved the towel into Mom’s hands and grabbed Attison’s shoulder.

“What are you doing?”

He shrugged.  “I want to know more about depression.”

“Attison,” I groaned.

“What?  I think it’s interesting.  I want to soak it up!”

“You’re so weird!”

“So are you!”

Mom laid her hand on my shoulder.  “Get in the car.  We need to talk.”

“We did talk.  I’m done talking to you,” I said.  Her face sunk deeper into sadness.  “Plus, I drove my own car, Mom.”

We all walked out into the parking lot.  Mom got into her car and drove away.  Attison walked me to my car, always the gentleman.

“I think I’m going to jump in the pool again before I go home,” he said.  “I’ve kind of been wanting to try driving while being a swamp monster.  I think it’d be cool.”

“You really wanted to know more about her depression?”

“Is that hard to believe?”

Sunlight bounced off his shark hair.  “I guess not.  But depression is such a dark thing.  You don’t know her like I do, Attison.”

“I shouldn’t want to look closer because it’s a dark thing?”

“In the darkness, what’s there to see?”

He leaned against the trunk of my car.  “I don’t know.  But I think it’s worth finding out.”

As I drove home, I wondered why I hadn’t ever asked Mom about her depression.  I guess it seemed like the kind of thing you didn’t talk about, that you dealt with alone.  In a way, I think I’d been trying to do her a favor—if we didn’t talk about her depression, it existed a little less.

I went straight up to my room when I got home; I wanted to be alone.  My bed called my name and I fell into it, stretching out my limbs.  I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew Mom was screaming my name from downstairs.  I stumbled out of bed and walked down.

“What’s up?” I said as I entered the kitchen.

She held the phone in her hand.  “Attison’s been in an accident.  Get in the car.”


My hands shook as I sat in the van’s passenger seat.  Mom was whizzing us down the highway, flying into the left lane to avoid slow cars and blinking the four-ways.

 

She glanced at me nervously.  “He’ll be fine.”

“You don’t know that.”

It was dark outside.  The lights from some distant buildings reminded me of alien spacecrafts, which reminded me of Attison.  I clasped my hands together and actually prayed that he would be alright.  Apparently the accident had been serious.  I couldn’t handle this.  He was my closest friend.

When we arrived at the hospital, Attison lay unconscious in a room stuffed with beeping machines.  There were cuts and bruises on his face, and his arm was in a sling.  I noticed, with an inappropriate chuckle, that his shark hair had survived the accident.  The doctors said they wouldn’t know the scope of the damage until he woke up.

I knelt down by Attison’s side and touched his hand.  A hurricane stormed in my stomach; my heart tossed and swirled.

“Does anyone have any tuna fish?” I said as tears gutted my throat.  “The smell might wake up him up.”

Mom walked over and touched my shoulder.  I shrugged her off.  I couldn’t think about anyone but Attison right now.  My hand wobbled as I stroked his.  The tears poured over and didn’t stop until Mom finally pulled me away and took me home.

The next few days were horrible.  I was so worried about Attison that I couldn’t bring myself to go to work.  Swamp Monster Bonanza, without its two stars, was forced to take a hiatus.  I huddled around the house and distracted myself with music and television.

Why had this happened?  Attison was probably the best person I knew; he didn’t deserve to get into a car accident.  It didn’t seem right that things like this could happen to people without any kind of warning, just popping up one day and changing everything.

Yet I knew that if Attison were awake right now, he’d be bragging about the accident, hamming it up as he told everyone about his near-death experience.  And people might love him for it, or hate him for it, but either way he was who he was.  He was proud of who he was, gills, flippers, scars, scales, and all.  Light and dark, without hiding.

One morning, Mom bumped into me as I came down the steps.  She grabbed my arm.  “We need to talk.”

“I don’t want to talk.”

“You didn’t screw up my life,” she said.  “I needed to tell you that.”

The shadows under her eyes sunk into her face, and there were deep lines in her forehead.  We stood in silence for a long moment.

“Then why are you so sad?” I said.

She held onto the banister and shifted her feet.  “I don’t know, Robin.  It’s something inside me that I can’t control.  Can you understand that?”

I crossed my arms, remembering that I sometimes had scales.  “I think I can.”  I hesitated, still thinking of Attison.  “What does it feel like, Mom?  To be depressed.”

She laughed.  “It’s hard to describe.  I probably don’t feel that much different from you, most of the time.  Just darker.  Sadder.”

“You can talk to me about it, you know.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

We went our separate ways up and down the steps, but I sensed that we’d been tied together.  In a way we’d never been before.

I continued to worry about Attison, who’d been in the hospital for several days now and still had not woken up.  I rode my bike through town and passed the pool, where I saw that the kids of the neighborhood had returned—they were splashing around and jumping off the diving board.  Aside from the Attison’s muscle-man sign on the front of the pool house, Swamp Monster Bonanza might never have existed.  Yet I knew that the swamp monster inside me was real.

That night, I was sitting on the stoop when Mom popped out of the front door and sat beside me.  I hugged my knees and watched the sunset, which looked like a giant had puked red, orange, and yellow all over the horizon.  It was pretty.

“I just got a phone call,” Mom said.  My heart stopped.  “Attison woke up.  He’s going to be fine.”

I exhaled and was flooded with relief.

“But,” she said, and I held my breath again, “some people are interested in his swamp monster problem.  It looks like he’s being flown somewhere for testing.”

“Like they’re going to probe him?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, God.  He’ll love that.”

We both laughed.  The sun dropped closer to the edge of the sky, but even in the dark the air stayed warm and sticky.  August was always like that, but soon there would be fall and things would get colder.

Mom slung her arm over my shoulder.  “I’m glad your friend will be okay.”

I turned to her and nodded, and a big smile spread across her entire face.  I inhaled sharply, more shocked than if she’d suddenly sprouted wings.  Then, for no reason I can fathom, I started crying.

“What’s wrong, Robbie?”

I shook my head.  If I only knew myself.  Mom tightened her hug around my shoulder, and before I knew it she was crying, too.  Typical Mom.  No one was allowed to cry without inviting her.  I pressed my face into her shoulder.

Our tears mingled together, my arms wet with them.  Scales popped from my skin, and gills rose out of my neck.  I looked at Mom.  She was a green, scaly swamp monster, too.  We looked so similar this way—we were equally capable of freaking the heck out of the neighbors—but inside us were differences that I’d never understand.  We must have both realized that at once, because we hugged each other harder.

Michele Tallarita is a student of English at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Her work has been featured in “Go!” magazine and will appear in an upcoming anthology of science fiction.She is the 2011 winner of the Jean Corrie Poetry Prize, an award for Lafayette undergraduates sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. Her favorite flavor of tea is honey vanilla chamomile. She also loves Star Wars, dogs, and Billy Joel. Though she has written heaps of short stories, most of them do not involve swamp monsters.

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5 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Andrew says:

    I like this story, its funny and taps at the door of my heart.

  2. Stephen Schmutzer says:

    This story was really good. It had humor and some drama. It was really bizzarre because it was like cirque du freak where they were preforming as a show. Overall it is good and i enjoyed reading it.

  3. Chris Azarian says:

    I really like this story. It has all the aspects of a great sci-fi-ish theme such as aliens, morphing into swamp monsters. The thing I don’t like is, are the characters humans or another creature. It is kind of confusing. One part they are dolphins, and another swamp monsters. I don’t get it.

  4. Austin Brines says:

    I really like this story. The descriptive language was really good throughout, ecspecially at the beginning. I really liked how the author wrote it and how they kept us interested to see what was coming next the whole time.

  5. Zack sawaged says:

    I really like this story. When I was reading it I just kept wanting to know more and focused on the story completely. It has great imagery that really helps you be put in the place of the characters and there sourrondings. One thing was it was a bit of a cliche because it’s your average alien story. It was great anyway.

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