Halloween 2012

I'm posting this year's story a little early because I hope it will encourage anyone who likes weird stuff to read this time of the year to go to Amazon and buy my short story collection. Titled SCARY STORIES FOR HALLOWEEN, it should go live by Tuesday, the 2nd of October.  Through the years, I've always written a Halloween short story for my children and their friends, and I've collected enough of them to form a book (175 pages).  Some stories didn't get included, because they were for a young crowd, but the majority have been written in recent years. Hope you enjoy this one! It was inspired by a true event, believe it or not.


The Beginning of the End

© Tracy Dunham 2012



     “What the hell was that?” The fisherman, Harry, cut the line, throwing the ugly fish back into the river.  “I’ve never seen the like.”  He wiped the knife he’d used to cut the line and stuck it back into his pocket.

            The day had begun at 5 a.m. as a perfect one for fishing, a bit cool and misty, with warm water, lots of shade, and plenty of quiet. But he and his fishing buddy hadn’t caught so much as algae all morning.

     “Looked to me like a cross between a snake and a crocodile.”  His friend, Matt, frowned, leaning over the railings on the bridge to stare into the water.

     “You’ve never seen a croc, so don’t go talkin’ like an idiot.”  Reeling in the rest of the line, the fisherman stuffed his bait jar in the basket at his feet.  “I’m done. Ain’t nothin’ gonna bite now, not with that sucker down there.”

     The late morning sun had shifted and now beat down on the river, where salt water meshed with the downflowing fresh.  Both men leaned over farther and glared at the water.
     “It’s still there, swimming in circles. Maybe we should catch it again, show it to somebody.”

     “Nasty thing, I don’t think so.”  The first fisherman, Harry, pulled out his phone. “I’ll call that fish man. The one who’s down here all the time looking for whatever he’s looking for.  Fancy professor, isn’t he? Had me put his phone number in my contacts list.  That’s the guy, Winters.”  He pushed “send.”

     Josh Winters checked his cell phone.  The number wasn’t familiar, but he’d given his card to just about every fisherman from the mouth of the James River, along the Appomattox and the Mattaponi and as far north as he could get and stay within his purview. He answered, not expecting anything earthshattering.

    “Hello, Doc?  You said to call if we saw something weird in the water, and we did.”

    The fisherman laid out the macabre fish story, describing the sharp, long teeth, the scales that looked like stones, and a body at least three feet long.  “And it’s just swimming around in big circles, like it’s stuck here. Usually when I set a fish free, it skedaddles.  Something you want to see, Doc?”

    “You bet I do. Where are you?”  Winters waited while Harry gave him directions.
“I can be there in thirty minutes. Keep an eye on it, and take a picture with your cell phone, if you can.”  If the scales weren’t really scales, but scutes, or bony plates, it could be a sub-species of sturgeon. But the teeth didn’t fit. Not a bit. He got more excited.

    Josh left a note for his wife on the kitchen counter and jumped in the car. It probably wasn’t anything, but he couldn’t afford to ignore any tips.  He’d been yelling loud and clear for a year that the massive climate changes worldwide were capable of creating new species but so far, he hadn’t been able to prove it. All the signs pointed to big, big changes in evolution, but the first steps hadn’t been found, not yet. He was determined to be the scientist who discovered them, and he knew, just knew, they’d come from the water.

     Driving to the old bridge across the river, he thought about what he’d see, hoping it was a different species, something not yet discovered.  Sturgeon, it was believed, had cross-bred with other species, producing hybrids.  If this was a hybrid sturgeon and it had come from a different genera, he might have something to show for all his research. Trying to tamp down his excitement, he recited every reason why an ordinary fisherman wouldn’t have discovered proof of evolution.  No primordial soup. No special spot with the exactly correct breeding ground. No extraordinary weather over the past month or so, nothing but the suffocating heat that had become a summer constant. Finally, it seemed as if the heat had broken.

     When he got to the bridge, he found the gray-haired, grizzled men sitting on overturned buckets on the edge of the crumbling concrete span, smoking. Josh recognized them from prior conversations, and threw them a wave before he leaned in to the glove box to pull out his camera. These guys had been fishing this spot for years, he remembered.

     The men stood as he approached.  Their frowns didn’t worry him.

     “Doc, it’s still down there.  Me and Harry, we ain’t seen nothin’ like it, not in all our years fishing this bridge.  You said to call.” 

    “Matt, right? Thanks for the call, Harry.  So let’s take a look.”  He shook hands before leaning over the edge of the bridge and pulling out his binoculars.  The scientist aimed them where Harry and Matt were pointing.

     At first, all he saw were rocks and algae.  Then there was a gray flash and something moving so quickly, he almost missed it. Checking it out more closely, Josh finally got an eyeful. Letting out a long whistle, he pounded the concrete balustrade.

     “Thank you, boys. This is really cool.  Keep watching it, will you, while I get my wet gear from the car.”

     Josh could barely contain his excitement. The fish resembled a sturgeon in size, although a bit small but then again, it could be young and not reached its full growth yet, and it had teeth, which was definitely outside the box.  Besides which, sturgeon were unknown in this river.  If he could get closer, he’d collect more pictures, and then if he was really lucky, he could net it, tag it, attach a transponder, and release it, so he could follow its progress.  Throwing on his wet suit, flippers, and snorkeling gear, he waded into the river. The two old men leaned over the railing, watching him.

    The shallow water gave way quickly to pretty deep, then deeper. Swimming slowly, he aimed his waterproof camera forward, trying to keep his movements to a minimum.  The fish didn’t seem too impressed with him, much to his surprise. Its circles stayed constant, and the fish’s mouth opened as if getting ready to scoop up some krill, just like a whale or a bottom-feeding sturgeon. Only sturgeon possessed no teeth, and this one had a mouth full. Filming constantly, Josh willed another one of the unusual species to show up.  The behavior fit perfectly into a mating pattern, and this part of the river was warm enough to lay eggs. If he could collect a male and female after observing their mating, he’d do a jig on a tightrope.

     Suddenly, the fish swiveled and stared at Josh for half a second before charging at him.

            “Whoa!”  Letting the camera swing from the lanyard around his neck, Josh backpedalled as fast as he could.  He didn’t want to interfere with the fish, but those were a nasty set of teeth on that sucker.

            He splashed like crazy, expecting the fish to back off and run.

            It didn’t. Something bumped his thigh, and he felt a pinch.  Thank God for the wet suit, because he really didn’t relish getting chomped by this whatever-it-was.

            “Hey guys!”  Josh yelled up to the fisherman, leaning over and staring with the mouths wide open. “Throw some rocks, or something, from up there.  Gotta get him off me without killing him.”

            Hitting the shallows faster than he expected, Josh stumbled backwards and fell flat on his back. At that instant, the fish grabbed onto his flipper and tugged. What the hell? He thought this couldn’t be happening. This wasn’t some crazy old catfish with a death wish. This son of a bitch was one mean mother, and it clearly didn’t matter that Josh was five times his size.   Scrambling backwards, he dragged the fish, still chewing on his flipper, out of the water as the fishermen showered gravel and small stones on him and the fish.

            Undeterred, the fish clung to his flipper with his jaw locked like a vise. For the first time, Josh was less worried about hurting the creature than he was with getting away from it altogether.  He’d never seen such an ugly mother.  The scales definitely looked like concrete, and the eyes, boy howdy, those eyes were downright malevolent. And talk about being a fighter – if anyone was going to back down, it was Josh.

            Dragging his ass up the embankment, Josh expected the fish to release his death grip on the flipper, but no such luck.  It not only held on until it was no longer breathing water, but it squiggled and bucked to make sure it kept its grip on Josh. 

            “What you want us to do, Doc?”  Harry called down from the bridge as Josh cursed and tried to get the flipper off his foot, so he could throw the fish, still locked onto it, back into the water.

            “Nothing, thanks,” Josh shouted, trying to shove the loose flipper backwards, thus moving the fish into the water before it croaked.  If he killed it, he’d never forgive himself.  This new species, and he was almost sure it was one, was acting like no other fresh water fish he’d ever studied, except the snakehead.

            The snakeheads, an import from China that had destroyed eco systems before it was controlled, and not well at that, was well known by now. This sturgeon on steroids was nothing like the snakehead, of that much he was sure, except for the teeth and the aggressiveness.  There was no long dorsal fin, for one thing, and this fish had a narrow mouth, not the wide mouth of the snakehead.

            It struck him like a boulder – could a sturgeon have mated with a snakehead? Was this a new predator with the teeth of the snakehead and possibly the size and longevity of a sturgeon? This was all they needed, a stur-snake fish who lived a hundred years or more like the sturgeon with the colossal breeding capacity of a snakehead.

            He needed help, and he needed it fast.  If he could only get the damned fish back in the water, he’d call for backup. Grad students with nets, other colleagues who’d want to get a look at the monster before anyone else. He was making a list in his head of who to call when he realized that the fish hadn’t released the flipper and was on the bank of the river, in the dirt, and still moving. In fact, it was shaking the flipper like a rat terrier would a prey, even though he’d slipped his foot out of the fake fin.  Backing up, he watched with awe as the fish, a cold gray color with black eyes, wiggled its way towards him, flipper still in its mouth.

            Pausing for a second, the fish seemed to be weighing its options. Josh would swear he could see the shift in thought in its eyes as it realized the flipper wasn’t still attached to Josh, and he was getting away.  With an audible click, the stur-snake opened its jaws, shook the flipper free, and twisting like a snake, slid faster than any reptile Josh had ever seen.

            “Sheesh!” Turning, Josh ran for his car, the fish close behind. If he hadn’t known it wasn’t possible, he’d have sworn the fish was snapping at his heels. “Guys, anyone have a net?” he yelled to the fishermen still on the bridge.

            “Not big enough for that mother!” Harry shouted back. “Got me a filet knife, want me to throw it down?”

            Josh noticed the fishermen weren’t eager to join him on the riverbank.  “Sure, toss it.”  Josh turned and ran for his car, parked beside the riverside drive. 

            The thin, sharp bladed knife landed at his side, and as he paused to pick it up, he almost fell over.  The damned creature was gaining on him.  He didn’t want to kill the fish, but it was obvious he’d never get close enough, not without heavy-duty gloves, to grab it and throw it back into the water.  Surely it couldn’t breathe air, or had it inherited the snakehead’s capacity to breathe in oxygen, as well?  He didn’t want to think about the possibility.

            Surely when the fish realized it was on a suicide mission, it would retreat.  Jumping onto the hood of his Jeep, Josh jerked off his snorkeling equipment and waited for the fish to turn back.  It didn’t.

            Nothing was safe from this enraged predator, not even the Jeep’s tires.  The fish lunged, snapping at the front right tire, just under where Josh sat.

            Josh had had enough. He needed to study this specimen in detail. To hell with studying it in its new habitat. Either it was on crystal meth or something was seriously wrong in its brain, something that evolution wasn’t handling in survival mode.  Grasping the filet knife, Josh leaned over and stabbed at the back of the creature’s head, just exactly where he should have been able to kill it instantly.

            Evidently the stur-snake had an anatomy that wasn’t aware it was supposed to be vulnerable. Glancing off the shutes, the knife blade got caught in something else. Jerking back his hand, Josh watched in amazement as the fish turned its head and without another glance at Josh, tugged at the blade with its teeth, dislodging it.  That was it. Josh had had it with the sucker.

            Clambering from the hood, he edged into the jeep via the passenger side window.  Once inside, he considered what to do next.  He couldn’t leave this air-breathing monster free to attack innocent people and animals.  If there were any fish left in the old fishing hole, it would be a miracle.  The thing was a killing machine, he was sure of it.

            His only option wasn’t his first choice, but it was the only one that made sense. Starting the engine, he backed up until he could see the fish, staring at the vehicle as if he would jump on it and shake it between those killer jaws. He increased pressure on the accelerator, trying to fake out the fish.  When he thought he was close enough, he floored it.

            He never felt a tell-tale bump. How could he have missed it? Braking, he peered out the window, expecting to see squashed fish.

            Instead, the creature had turned in the road to face him and was rising up on its back fin, much like a cobra preparing to strike.  Josh couldn’t believe it.

            Grabbing his cell, he dialed 911. This called for the cavalry, and grad students with nets weren’t going to cut it.  Instead of worrying that he’d sound like a nut job, he laid out the problem to the 911 dispatcher, assuring her of his credentials and that animal control and several armed officers were the only solution to the attack fish even then wiggling towards his Jeep.

            To her credit, the dispatcher didn’t laugh or talk to him as if she were calling the men with the white jackets to pick him up.  While he waited for reinforcements, Josh picked up his underwater camera and started it up again. No one would believe him, and even if they saw the video they’d probably think he’s manufactured it, but he would know the video didn’t lie.  Filming every move the fish made as it stalked his car, he didn’t hear the fishermen from the bridge yelling and screaming.

            By the time he noticed, the two men were dangling in the air in the claws of a huge bird with a long, pointed beak and feathers a color he’d never seen before. With one man in each claw, the bird swooped low over the Jeep and released them.  Cringing, Josh began to shake as the fabric top to the Jeep ripped and both men, bloody and screaming, plunged inside.

            “What the f . . . ?”  Josh shouted as the two men howled and threw blood all over him as they thrashed about. “What was that?  Are you guys okay?”

            Josh estimated the men, together, weighed close to four hundred pounds. What kind of bird picked up two men and threw them where it wanted them to go?

            They never stopped screaming long enough to answer him.  Forcing Harry’s hands from his face, Josh saw that his eyes had been pecked out. Bloody holes wept blood and Josh almost retched right there.

            But he had to think. Had to figure out what was going on. It wasn’t possible, his over-educated brain was telling him. No way in the world.

            Fighting the men aside, Josh poked his head out of the rent canvas top and watched the bird circling like a buzzard overhead.  He wasn’t an ornithologist by a long shot, but he’d seen enough pictures of pterodactyls to know those babies were kin, if they weren’t the real thing themselves.  How could that be? He wondered. Pterodactyls were as ancient as the origins of the sturgeon and snakehead. Everything pointed to the bird being a pterodactyl, and he was just crazy enough to believe it was a close relative if it wasn’t the real thing.

            While Josh was busy recording the encircling bird, he didn’t notice the fish crawling inside his engine compartment. From there, it wound its way through a hole in the firewall, which it conveniently enlarged with its huge front teeth. While it rested in the insulation barrier, it laid about 15,000 eggs. That done, it gnawed its way inside the passenger compartment and found its prey.  The one who had annoyed it the most stood on a seat, his head and arms raised skyward, with an object held aloft.  Two other annoying objects lay on a seat, moaning and emitting the most delicious scent.


            Mouth open, the fish, which thought of itself as the master of its universe, chose the juiciest target and attacked.

            By the time the fish was satiated, there was plenty left for the bird, which perched on the Jeep’s roll bar and had a filling meal.

            Not far from the spot beside the fishing hole on the river, a lizard awoke from a nap and knew it was time.  The ground shook as it took its first steps, leafs shook free from trees, and small animals ran to ground. Even they knew they’d never be fast enough.

            The time had come to return the earth to the way it had once been.  The good old days were here again.

            This time, man wasn’t in ascendency.  Josh and the fishermen were just the first two sources of real food that would help the young ones survive.