By Joe Bonadonna
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Joe Bonadonna, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by Joe Bonadonna.
Caution: Adult content.
But when the Night had thrown her pall
Upon that spot, as upon all,
And the mystic wind went by
Murmuring in melody–
Then–ah then I would awake
To the terror of the lone lake.
— Edgar Allen Poe, “The Lake”
The lake remained fairly calm, even though the ghost of a breeze haunted its surface with fleeting ripples. Through the screen door I could hear water lapping softly at the sea wall, a sound that brought to mind a dinosaur drinking from some primeval pool. Cricket chatter and the croaking of bullfrogs echoed in the darkness, coming from the mosquito-plagued swamp behind the house, across narrow and gravel-strewn Venn Road. Somewhere out on the lake a carp jumped with a splash that disturbed the murmur of the gentle purls. When a chill invaded the night and took possession of the wind, the treetops moved lazily back and forth like skeletons swaying to an unearthly lullaby. The night turned cool and unsettling, and a shiver crawled up my spine like some arctic centipede. My skin felt overly dry and scaly again.
Putting on my windbreaker, I flipped the switch to the outdoor floodlights. As if by magic the front yard and the lake in my immediate vicinity were lit by electric lunar glow. A row of waist-high bushes grew between the edge of the yard and the concrete landing that led to the seawall and pier. There was an opening in the center of the hedgerow with a cobbled pathway leading from the front porch to the seawall. My pontoon boat floated on the water, tied to the pier. I’d be storing it soon in the boathouse out back of the cottage.
A pair of weeping willows cast long black shadows across the light-washed lawn, their branches and leaves hanging over the seawall and skimming the surface of the lake like some eldritch arboreal fishermen. Lighting a cigarette, I went outside and walked barefoot out to the pier, where I stood and enjoyed the peacefulness of the night. I felt like the last man on earth.
I’d bought the lakefront cottage last April from a local realtor, and then spent the summer doing extensive renovations. The place had been unoccupied and boarded up since 1948 when the original owner, a widower, had blown his brains out after what the authorities at the time believed was related to the disappearance of his only daughter; she was never found, nor was her body ever discovered. In September I finally moved in, and my parents were staying with me until they left Illinois on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day.
Due to a certain malady that our family had inherited from their forebears, Mom and Dad could not tolerate temperatures below 50 degrees. They’d become sluggish, would not be able to hunt and eat, and often slept like hibernating bears. So they’d spend the fall and winter in Florida where they had a modest little house near the Everglades and the warmer climate was more suitable. Cold weather had yet to affect me in those days, as it did my parents. I had not yet gone through the Change, had not yet shown any signs of this malady, other than my scaly skin condition. The Change, I was assured, would happen when I turned 21 next year.
This year, however, Mom and Dad were spending the winter in western Africa, sailing the waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Guinea in their never-ending search for Atlantis, Thuria, the origins of the Great Old One Yig, the Stygian god Set, and the First Empire of Valusia. They were determined to find evidence and perhaps even remnants of a lost race they called Homo Ophidious that dated back to the Paleozoic Era.
The screen door creaked open and closed softly behind me. I turned as my parents approached. Both wore leather coats and matching gloves. Why they just didn’t pack up and leave Chicago altogether I never quite understood. Perhaps the Windy City, despite its harsh winters, held an attraction for them it never held for me.
“We’re heading back to Chicago now,” Dad informed me. “We want to make sure the snake and reptile houses are in good hands before we leave the country.”
Besides being fairly well-known archaeologists, my over-achieving parents were also herpetologists who worked at the Lincoln Park Zoo during spring and summer. Their special field of interest was in a branch of herpetology called ophiology — the study of serpents. They were somewhat wealthy, too, having inherited a healthy portfolio from my maternal grandfather. I, on the other hand, was somewhat of a slacker. Though my own interests were in the field of cryptozoology, I had not yet decided what I wanted to study in college, had no set plans for the future, and preferred to remain in my ivory tower hideout on Lake Lilith. But I did have a sweet little trust fund that kept me in CDs, books, DVDs, pizza and beer.
“Why don’t you drive in with us,” Mom suggested. “We’ll have dinner at Donat Pucheu’s and order your favorite — cuisses de grenouille.”
“Not tonight,” I said. “Just not feeling it, you know?”
“You sure you’re going to be all right here, Seth? All alone?” She sighed and shook her head. “Why don’t you stay at the condo on Michigan Avenue?”
“I’ll be fine, Mom,” I told her. “I’m looking forward to a little solitude.”
“Make sure you keep an eye on Sadie.”
“I will, Mom.” Sadie was the family pet — a little garter snake that lived in a burrow beneath the bushes fronting the seawall. I always took her inside the house and kept her in a nice tank during the cold weather.
Mom smiled and kissed my cheek. “We’ll be back in a day or two. We’ll have a nice Halloween celebration before we fly out.”
“Don’t forget to use the lotion twice a day,” Dad reminded me. “And please try to stay out of trouble, okay?”
“Now what kind of trouble can I get into all alone up here?”
Dad laughed. “Knowing you — anything’s possible.”
“You take care, dear.” Mom kissed me again. “Remember, you’re our little hatchling. If you need anything, just rattle your tail.” She patted my cheek and we laughed at our little private joke. “And I do wish you would stop smoking.”
I watched them head toward the back of the house, where their car was parked in the one-car garage. As their car engine roared like a hungry lion and the wheels kicked up dirt and gravel, I put out my cigarette butt on the railing of the pier, and then fired up another one.
Lake Lilith, a rather dark and unholy epithet for such an idyllic place, remained isolated from the outside world by forest, marshland, muddy creeks and low-rising hills. The lake sat alone, some five miles from the nearest access to any highway and nearly twice that from the small town of Atlantis County. There were very few homes here, and these were nothing more than cottages and cabins occupied only in spring and summer. October had been ushered in by a sudden cold spell, and I had the lake all to myself. Like Clark Kent, this two-story cottage would be my own Fortress of Solitude.
The honking of the bullfrogs persisted with a steady and almost machine-like rhythm. Their mrwoom-mrwoom croaking made me think of the old pioneer legend that the frogs, having tasted rum from a spilled barrel, were calling out for “more rum.” The males croak mainly during the summer mating season in June and July, but sometimes they like to belt out a few tunes—probably whenever they crack open another barrel of rum. I laughed to myself and shivered when the chill breeze caressed me. My feet were cold and I knew I should have worn shoes. But I hate wearing shoes, even in the fall and winter.
It was time for me to go back inside and light a fire in the hearth. My skin was dry and itching like crazy, and I would have to practically bath myself in the olive oil and hemp lotion my family had been using for generations.
Flicking the butt of my cigarette into the lake, I turned and walked in from the pier. As my bare feet touched wet grass, something cold brushed across one foot. I looked down and there, slowly hopping along, was a small toad perfectly lit by the floodlights. I expected it to start dancing and singing “Hello, ma baby, hello ma honey, hello, ma ragtime gal,” like that famous cartoon frog. It’s strange what images from childhood pop into one’s head at the oddest of times.
As a young boy I would hunt toads and thrown them in the lake. I would then practice my marksmanship with my Daisy BB rifle, filling each toad with tiny metal pellets until, dead and heavily weighted, they would sink like a rock. Typical childish sadism. I’ve often wondered what punishment would be meted out to me in the afterlife for such cruel behavior.
Kneeling as quickly and as quietly as I could, I snatched the toad with one hand and rose to my feet. I studied the toad closely. It was a common toad, about five inches in length, brownish in color, with numerous warts covering its scaly hide. From the prison bars of my fingers the little creature studied me, its jewel-like eyes bright with curiosity. I moved to stroke the thing’s head with my index finger — and the rotten bastard bit me!
“Fucking piece of shit asshole!”
I threw the nasty bugger as far out into the lake as I could. Perhaps something in the water would take a bite out of it, maybe eat it while it was still flopping around.
Sucking beads of blood from my finger, I realized something: the common toad has no teeth — and that warty little sucker certainly had a fine pair of choppers. This one was probably some species of bufonidae that I was unfamiliar with, not that I knew anything about toads. Or frogs, for that matter, other than the fact that their legs didn’t taste at all like chicken to me. But then my skin started to itch again and I gave the incident no further thought.
I went inside my lakeside retreat, washed the small wound with peroxide, smeared it with Neosporin, and slapped a Band-Aid over the wound. Damn thing burned and throbbed. I even felt a little nauseous. After lathering my dry skin with lotion, I retired to my bed and soon fell asleep reading stories from one of my old copies of Weird Tales magazine.
Though my finger had swollen a bit and still stung like the first rejection you got from a girl, I drove to Milwaukee the next day to hit a favorite used book store. Since Atlantis County is only about 5 miles from Route 50 and Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the way home I stopped off at the Brat Stop to have a bite to eat. A nasty headache had settled into my head with all the rudeness of obnoxious neighbors, but I managed to enjoy my brats and more than a few beers. By the time I returned home it was pushing 10 PM. Besides my headache and throbbing finger, my dry, scaly skin had started to itch again. So I took the turn onto Venn Road leading to the cottage like a NASCAR hero and raced toward my sanctum sanctorum.
Speeding down that gravel road, something big and white leapt out in front of my car. I jammed on the breaks and slid to a stop — but not before hitting whatever it was I had glimpsed. I got out of the car and ran around to the front of it. The road was very dimly lit by a few old street lamps but I could see well enough. Glancing down, I saw what I had run into. The sight of it made me gag and I almost swallowed my Juicy Fruit.
It was the largest toad I’d ever seen, easily over three feet long. But it wasn’t the size of the toad that gave me the creeps — it was the fact that it was an albino with short, gray-green feathers running from the top of its head and down its spine like some avian crest. What really made me nearly wet my pants, however, was the color of the toad’s eyes: like no other color I had ever seen before. No hue from the color spectrum of this world. And in those strangely-colored eyes burned the fire of intelligence, a sentience that did not belong to such creatures of our world. Something like the cold, slimy tongue of a serpent licked my spine from neck to tailbone, and my body seemed to petrify right there on the spot.
Apparently, this unearthly-seeming toad had only been stunned, for it suddenly blinked, hissed and then hopped away in a leap that would have put that celebrated frog of Mark Twain’s to shame! Into the dense foliage of the swamp behind the cottage it disappeared, lost among the dark and the shadows.
Frozen in the moon’s polar light, I almost forgot to breathe. My heart raced and pounded, and beads of cold sweat dripped from my brow. I didn’t doubt what I saw, even though I knew that no way could there be such a thing as an albino toad over three feet in length and covered with gray-green feathers — much less one with eyes born of some other-dimensional or extraterrestrial spectrum of color.
When I finally thawed out and gathered my wits, I parked my car on the narrow lane that passed for Venn Road, leaving the one-car garage behind the house for my parents, as I usually did. Since I always kept the back door facing Venn Road bolted on the inside, I had to go around to the front entrance, which faced the lake.
My legs were almost as limp as linguini as I headed up the cobbled walk that ran around the side of the cottage and led to the front porch and entrance. As I turned to start up the porch stairs I saw a knot of three of the small white toads furiously tearing chunks of earth and brush away from a tiny burrow concealed beneath the bushes, using teeth and even their webbed feet! I realized at once what they were after: Sadie, the small garter snake that made her hibernacula in that burrow. And I knew why they were digging: garter snakes prey on amphibians, and no doubt the prey had now become the hunters.
I was about to shoo them away when I felt something wrap itself around my ankle. Looking down, I saw it was Sadie. Not even two-feet in length, she had yellow stripes on a green background. She was coiled around my ankle with her head to the back of my leg, and I could sense her fear. Then I saw the little green frog lying dead in the grass a few feet away. I picked up a handful of white stones that had been spread across the front foundation of the cottage and threw them at the toads. The toads hopped away into the shadows.
I gently removed Sadie from my ankle and held her in my hand. She coiled herself around my hand and we looked at each other. Her tongue flickered in and out of her tiny mouth, and I stroked the top of her head the way she liked. I could smell the musky odor of the fluid she had secreted from her post anal glands. I took Sadie inside the cottage with me and set her inside the 35-gallon tank I always kept ready for her. Sadie’s Winter Palace, I called it.
I tried to sleep, but once again that unnerving choir of bullfrogs started up and kept me awake for hours, leaving me no choice but to pop two Ambien. As Morpheus finally cast his spell upon me, the last thought I had before drifting off was how those monstrous toads had frowned and glared at me with their unholy and unearthly eyes.
I didn’t wake up until late morning, and after I dressed and had a quick bite to eat I decided to do a little research on reptiles and amphibians. I didn’t own a laptop or a cell phone — I know, this is the 21st century and I should get with it the times — so going online was not an option. But the workmen renovating the cottage had found boxes of old books, including a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica dating back to the 1920s. Hoping these might be of some monetary value, I had stored them in the tiny attic, where I could go through them at a more appropriate time. Well, this certainly seemed like the perfect time to me.
While sorting through the volumes — they had not been packed in alphabetical order — I came upon an old ledger-style notebook. It was somewhat tattered and frayed, and the pages were brown and brittle with age or were torn or missing. This book appeared to be a diary of sorts, the handwriting neat and graceful; but in some places the ink was smeared, as if water or tears had been spilled. I checked the inside of the front cover and there was a name: Prater Beasley. Beasley was the name of the original owner of the cottage, who had killed himself after his daughter Minerva disappeared in 1948. That was the same summer when a meteor shower dazzled the whole county, sometime between late June and early July, from what I had been told. Not much had been made or reported of this cosmic lightshow, however.
According to what an old fisherman had told me, ever since then people around the Lake Lilith area would disappear without a trace about every ten or twelve years, usually a young man or woman. No bodies or clues, no forensic or DNA evidence had ever been found, and no one ever came forward to confess. No arrests were ever made, either. The last time someone disappeared was a few weeks ago, a small family from Kenosha who had come to camp, hike, and fish Lake Lilith; their camper had been found empty and deserted at their campsite. My parents and I were questioned by the sheriff, but we of course knew nothing, having been in Chicago at the time that family had been reported missing.
Older, local residents of Atlantis County believed the marsh behind my cottage to be haunted. But of course, such a thing was ridiculous. The missing had probably gone exploring in the marshland, gotten themselves lost and sucked into something like quicksand. Odd thing is — all the creeks and bogs had been dredged by the authorities. The results: zip. Maybe it was just some brilliant serial killer carrying on the family tradition—a local resident no one suspected someone like the mayor or chief of police.
In the box with the encyclopedias I also found a brown and brittle copy of the Roswell Daily Record, dated July 8, 1948. This was the newspaper that first reported the RAAF’s finding of the infamous UFO that supposedly crashed on some ranch in New Mexico. Having read everything I could find on UFO’s since I was in high school, Roswell and I were well acquainted. I set the newspaper aside and headed downstairs, taking the diary with me. I managed to get a nice little inferno going in the fireplace, poured myself four fingers of Jameson’s, and settled back in my leather recliner. Opening the book with all the delicacy of a vivisectionist practicing his trade, I began to read.
August 25, 1948: Found some strange rocks today in the marsh out back, while I was hunting for some frogs to cook up for supper. They look like ordinary rocks, about twice the size of a normal brick. They’re sort of greyish-green in colour — in the sunlight, that is. But by moonlight they have this weird glow, and their colour has changed. I don’t know this colour. Can’t name it. Can’t place it. It’s not any colour I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been a house painter for 20 years! Hurts the eyes if you stare at it long enough. Sort of hurts the mind, too. Twisted and squeezed my brain, almost as if it turned it around inside my skull. I left the rocks sitting there in the marsh. Didn’t even want to touch them. Makes me think about that article in the Roswell Daily Record my cousin Earl sent me last month. I remember seeing a comet or meteor shower pass overhead last month. Makes me wonder if the two things are somehow related.
I smiled to myself and sipped my Irish whiskey. Naturally, I’ve seen meteorites before, in museums and pictured in books, but none of them had this strange colour. I got a kick out of the way Prater used the old French spelling of the word. From the number of fiction and non-fiction books he had left behind, I knew he was pretty well read. Since I’m one of those who believe in UFOs and have always accepted as truth the Roswell Incident, I could understand why Prater linked the meteor shower with the crash of the flying saucer.
The next entry in the diary had no date. Part of that page had been torn out or had somehow crumbled away.
. . . .in the marsh out back, these strange creatures. I’ve seen them at night, hopping back and forth across Venn Road, coming from and heading to the marsh. They must be going out hunting, though what they might prey upon sure has me stumped. Maybe fish or small game. Hell, they’re as big as some breeds of dogs. And the way those strange feathers of theirs glow in the moonlight — the same colour as the rocks! — makes me wonder how they could possibly sneak up on anything! Makes me wonder if they came here with those rocks, came from inside them, maybe. They look like frogs and toads, but like none I’ve ever seen before. I surely won’t be frying up and eating their legs! I told my Minerva to steer clear of the things, too. Told her not to touch or try to catch them. You never know where they might have come from and what sickness they might carry. And where they might have come from is something that has been bothering me. I’ve been thinking I should maybe talk to some brainy folks at one of the zoos or colleges.
Toads and frogs! This was getting a little creepy to me, because what Prater Beasley had seen were toads like the one that had bit me and the one my car had banged in to. It caused me to wonder if there was much more to his tale than I realized. I stared at my bandaged finger; it throbbed like it had a tiny beating heart all its own.
I kept reading.
September 26, 1948: In spite of what I told her, my daughter has been going into the marsh out back. She says she likes the ugly creatures, likes to play with them. By God — she told me that they’re friendly, that she can talk to them! I know kids have big imaginations, but she’s 16 — I would think she’s a little too old for such things. I told her again, and in a much stricter tone, not to go back there and play with them things. But she didn’t listen to me. She brought one of those things home with her this afternoon. I gave her a good yelling at, and then took the creature from her — and the damned thing bit me! So I threw it outside, grabbed my shotgun and blew the devil to Kingdom Come. Minerva screamed at me and locked herself in her room.
From outside came the eerie choir of bullfrogs, the sound of their mrwoom-mrwoom chant echoing in the night. This was all starting to work on me. Giving me chills, the creeps, the heebie-jeebies — and sparking my curiosity. I turned to the next page.
September 28, 1948: For the past two days now Minerva has walked around the house as if she has been hypnotized or had some spell cast on her. At this point, I’m ready to believe in magic, elves, dragons, ghosts and what not. After seeing close to hand that thing she had brought home with her, that thing that bit me, I’m not sure what to believe, not sure what is real and what is not. And my finger is all sore and swollen and hurts like the dickens. And those damn bullfrogs are making more of a racket at night then they ever have. Usually I can fall asleep, but not anymore. I’ve had to keep Minerva locked in the house, for fear she might go out back again. But at night I can hear her singing to them things, croaking and honking like one of them. And there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do to stop her.
My hand shook as I reached for my drink and spilled a few drops down my chin. Once again I turned the page, and once again I was transported into Prater Beasley’s little nightmare. If I hadn’t seen that toad for myself, I would have thought this was some poor attempt to do a horror story for one of the old pulp magazines.
October 2, 1948: The worst thing that could have happened has happened: Minerva managed to break the lock I had put on her bedroom window and she hopped down from the second floor. She’s gone. We’ve been the only ones up here at the lake for weeks now, and I tried to call the local police, but the phone ain’t working. When I was outside later today I noticed that the telephone wires had been cut — or chewed through. So have the power lines. I am without electric lights. I’ve loaded my Colt revolver and the old Winchester that was my grandfather’s. I know where Minerva is. I have to go out back. I have to find her.
The croaking chorus of bullfrogs continued to serenade me with their bone-chilling lullaby. My hand shook again as I turned to the next page.
. . . .in there, I found Minerva. Sweet Jesus, what has happened to my daughter? What have they done to her? She didn’t even know me — when I made to grab her and drag her from that place of filth and horror, she hopped back away from me! She hissed at me! She is no longer my daughter! Then the unearthly creatures swarmed all around me, hopping toward me. I had to shoot a number of them in order to escape those unholy —
Something had been spilled on the rest of the page, and even the writing on the next few pages was smeared and illegible. But there was one last page that had pretty much remained unscathed and it gave me an ominous chill to think of what might be lurking out back.
If I had hair on my arms, I’m sure each strand would have stood on end as I continued reading. As it was, my skin itched and felt like it was squirming over my ulna and radius bones.
I tried to hop in my old truck and drive to town for help. But the creatures were swarming all over it and had the road blocked, too. I killed a few more of them and managed to get inside my cottage. A few had gotten in and were waiting for me, but I cut them down with honest lead from my weapons. I have locked all the doors and windows now, and have barricaded myself inside as best I can. They have my place surrounded now. I will finish writing this last entry and hide the ledger among my other books. I hope my daughter doesn’t find it because if she does, no one will ever know the truth of what has happened here. But Minerva will get in. No doubt of that. She has a key, and they are too many and too strong. She is no longer my daughter — she is one of them. They want me. She wants me, though for what I dare not even contemplate.
There is only one way out — may God forgive me — but they shall not have me.
I shivered as I read those last words. My heart raced like a Greyhound amped up on methamphetamine. Whatever became of Minerva Beasley no one had ever learned, except for old Prater himself. Probably no one had ever gone back there to investigate. Or maybe they had but didn’t find anything. Maybe they went missing, too. After my little showdown with that creepy fat toad I felt certain that there was something else lurking in the marsh behind the cottage, something hiding in the silent shadows out back. I was curious to find out what it was. Well, curious is too small a word, but I’ve got nothing else. I’d been a nosey and inquisitive little snot ever since I crawled out of the egg.
When I reached for my drink the diary slipped out of my hand and tumbled to the floor. As I bent to pick it up, I saw that an old, color photograph had fallen out of the book; it had been tucked away between the remaining blank pages. The picture was of a pretty, waif-like young girl with sad eyes and long, ash-blonde hair as delicate as a spider’s web. I turned the photo over and saw what had been written on the back:
Minerva Beasley, age 15. June 1, 1947.
She looked quite pale, like a spirit, a ghost in a pale-white dress, standing as still as the willow next to which she had posed. There was something frail and hollow and sad about her. Something in her big, dark eyes that gave her the look of a little girl lost, as if her Fate had already been sealed. I wondered if I’d find more than ghosts and freaky white toads out back.
I slept little that night and what sleep I did manage to steal was filled with the kind of dreams I used to have after watching old horror movies when I was a kid. They were the kind of dreams I imagine an opium eater might have — surreal and filled with all sorts of monsters and ghosts and other things that go romping around in the night.
At about 2 AM I was awakened by the howling of some animal. A dog or a coyote, I thought. I got out of bed and glanced out the front window facing the lake. The moon and stars were bright and what I saw filled me with a dread, a fear I had never known before.
On the front lawn two large albino toads were tearing apart a stray dog, a Chihuahua, holding it down with their webbed feet and ripping it apart with their sharp teeth. There were other toads there, as well. They were lined up near the edge of the concrete landing while at least a score of bullfrogs emerged from the lake and climbed over the seawall, holding all kinds of fish in their jaws: stripers, crappies, and even a catfish. And they were feeding the toads, passing the fish from their jaws to the jaws of the toads! When a bullfrog handed off the fish in its mouth, it would leap back into the water. When a toad was given a fish, it hopped back across the lawn and headed off behind the house. I flicked on the floodlights and the bright glare drove the creatures away — all except for the two feasting on the dog. I grabbed one of the umbrellas from the stand next to the front door and raced outside.
My sudden appearance startled the two toads and they began to hop away. But I was too fast for them. I kicked one in the head with my bare foot and sent it flying across the yard like a football aimed for the goal posts. I caught up with the second toad and buried the sharp metal tip of the umbrella in its back. The toad hissed and shrieked loudly in the night, squirming and trying to free itself. Then I yanked the umbrella from the toad’s body and plunged the stem into its skull. Walking up to the first toad, which lay stunned and injured on the grass, I smashed its head with my foot until there was nothing left but a bloody pulp. I tossed both of the nasty critters into the lake and threw the umbrella in after them. I removed my t-shirt, covered the remains of the dog with it and used some rocks to hold the shirt in place. Come morning, I would give the dog a proper burial.
Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep afterward.
I woke up late the next morning to a bout of nausea and some deranged drummer boy pounding away inside my head. My eyes had a hard time focusing and my tongue kept licking my lips involuntarily. My skin was now all mottled and discolored and covered in scaly patches. Oddly enough, the itching had stopped. As sick as I felt, after last night’s outing I was now more than determined to unravel the mystery of what had happened to Minerva Beasley, and there was only one place to look. I swallowed a handful of aspirin, gulped a cup of lukewarm instant coffee and went down into the basement. Having no idea what I might need to take with me, I slipped into my Dad’s hunting boots and jacket, grabbed a flashlight, an old machete and, in a last minute afterthought, his brand-new Nighthawk .45 ACP.
I buried the dog between the willows and set out on my quest.
It was almost noon when I entered the swamp out back.
Mosquitoes dived at me like miniature jet fighters. Thick grass that grew nearly as tall as I reached toward the sky like the slender fingers of some eldritch sylvan entities. Slimy pools of mud and scum-veiled pools of water sucked at my boots. A hot sun cast its blinding spotlight on me as I splashed about the muck and mire.
Deep into those dark and brooding fens I ventured, amazed that in this day and age such a place could still exist in the Lake County territory of northern Illinois. I felt like an interloper in some kind of alternate dimension, unwelcomed and watched by hidden eyes. There was a spooky, haunted atmosphere to that boggy stretch of land, as if unseen things fluttered about or were hiding in secret places and lurking in the shadows. It was fucking creepy, you know?
Time shifted. The sun altered its course. Winds whispered in strange languages and discordant music throbbed in my ears. Nausea held me in its grip, and though my eyes still refused to focus properly, I could see well enough to notice colors I had never seen before, colors that came from no artist’s palette in this world.
Eventually I emerged from the swamp and entered a lonely, quiet thicket with grass so high that I couldn’t see over the top. Using the machete, I cut my way through the dense copse and finally emerged into a clearing. At the far edge of the clearing rose a solitary hill, or to be more accurate, a small dome formed of earth and grass. I heard no birds singing, no crickets chirping, no insects buzzing and no fish splashing. The silence was so loud it made me think of what Death must be like. It all reminded of The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy’s line about not being in Kansas anymore.
Still determined to go forward with my little excursion into the unknown, I walked toward the hill.
The mouth of a cave rose from ground level in the face of the hill. Peering inside, I could see a faint, golden light emanating from within. The air coming from inside the cave was foul, reeking of mold, damp earth and dead, rotting fish. Nevertheless, my curiosity was aroused. I switched on the flashlight and ventured into the cave.
Within moments I saw that I had no real need of the flashlight, for the interior walls of the cave were coated with some phosphorescent element. I switched off the flashlight but kept it tightly clutched in my hand; it gave me a measure of comfort simply holding onto it. The machete in my other hand and the Nighthawk .45 tucked into the front of my pants gave me an even greater sense of security.
Step by careful step I could feel the slippery floor sloping downward, into the bowels of the earth. Stalactites hung like swords of Damocles over my head. Stalagmites and huge boulders jutted from the floor like dinosaur droppings. As I ventured deeper into that underground tunnel I heard the mrwoom-mrwoom chanting of a whole tabernacle choir of bullfrogs. Their voices grew louder as the tunnel turned to the left and opened onto a massive grotto, a subterranean chamber well-lit by that strange, phosphorescent radiance. The scene that brought my eyes into sharp and sudden focus reminded of something painted by a Bosch or Breughel.
An army of fat bullfrogs, hundreds of them, squatted on a stone ledge set high above the floor of the chamber, croaking their little amphibian hearts out. Below them, spread across the floor, were almost as many of the huge, unearthly toads like the one I had run over, the ones Prater Beasley had seen. They were feeding on fish, cats, birds, squirrels, rats, deer, and other mammals, their sharp teeth rending and tearing like werewolves that had not had anything to eat in a few full moons. Smaller toads like the one that had bit me hopped about, snatching with their long tongues what tidbits of flesh they could find. But an even worse sight was the bodies of a young boy and two girls — what was left of them, anyway — that the toads were munching on. It was a scene out of some bizarre horror film, like a banquet actually filmed in Hell.
What the fuck have I stumbled into?
Adding to my growing sense of fear and horror was something that had surely been spawned in the bowels of Satan’s realm.
There were a number of strange, dwarfish creatures squatting among that knot of toads, males and females no taller than chimpanzees. Twisted, malformed things they were, hybrids of Man and amphibian — hideous travesties, blasphemous mockeries of all that was human. Their flesh was fish-belly white with greenish mottling. They had bulbous fish eyes, inhuman webbed feet and long ash-blonde that grew down across their spines — hair like that of Minerva Beasley! They were dining on the remains of two adults, a man and woman. I could see this because their heads and faces were still intact and still attached to skeletons that were quickly being stripped of what little flesh remained on the bones.
I recalled the news about the family who had gone camping and went missing. I gagged and fought the urge to vomit as I watched humans being torn apart and eaten by creatures that were surely not of this earth, and I wondered how long and for what purpose those poor people had been kept alive. It was something I quickly dismissed from my mind. Horrifying images of unholy interspecies mating kept invading my brain.
Aghast and trembling with trepidation, I stood there gazing upon a scene of such abomination that my bowels went cold and threatened to let loose. I had to get out of there, had to report this to the authorities and hope they would believe me.
Backing away slowly and as quietly as I could, my hands still clutching the machete and the flashlight, I turned to run my ass off when a number of dwarfish figures appeared out of the shadows ahead of me. As they crept closer an icy chill crawled over my skin, though sweat began to drip from my brow and pour from my armpits. When the figures drew close enough to see clearly, my bladder swelled and felt ready to explode.
A number of the human-amphibian hybrids were all-too obviously females of various ages, and by the look in their fish eyes I could see that they hungered for more than the taste of my flesh and blood. The smell of them was fishy and foul and musky, and bore a trace of the smell of dead skunks. When they smiled at me, revealing their sharp and stained teeth, the urge to pee was almost too great to fight.
I backed up a few steps when another figure came toward me, stepping out from behind that knot of female toad-things.
She was old, decades and decades old, like a naked mummy from ancient Egypt recalled to life. Once upon an age ago she might have been pretty. But now . . . her ivory skin was wrinkled beyond anything I had ever seen, the nipples of her flat and saggy breasts reaching down almost to her navel. Her body was filthy with mud, stained with blood and smeared with feces. The stench of her made my head spin. But it was her hair that pierced my heart with a spear of pure terror—hair that was long and unkempt and past her waist. Ash-blonde was the color of that hair, and I recognized it from a photo I had recently looked at.
Minerva Beasley, alive after all these years! Still living, yes, but there was something about her, a look in her dark eyes that spoke of madness, of sights seen and things experienced that no human being had ever known — could ever know without going crazy. She walked toward me, slowly, smiling and hungry. A flood of warm urine soaked the front of my pants.
Minerva Beasley cackled like an insane chicken. She drooled like a mindless idiot and said, “Murderer!” in a croaking whisper of a voice. “Now you belong to us!”
She reached for me with scabrous, long-nailed fingers, and I took another step backward. Then I cried out when something bit my ankle, bit right through the hunting boot. I looked down and saw that it was one of those unearthly toads. The damned thing bit me a second time and I got pissed. I lashed out with the machete and split the son of a bitch in half. What a mess!
Minerva shrieked and came at me. I flicked on the flashlight and pointed it at her eyes. The bright, white light blinded her and the others for a moment, until another toad leapt at my arm and bit me. I yelled in pain and nearly dropped the flashlight, then flung the toad against the wall of the tunnel, smashing it to a bloody pulp.
Wailing like a wounded banshee, Minerva attacked me. Without thinking I buried the machete in her belly. She croaked loudly and stumbled backward, vomiting a foul and gruesome waste. When she collapsed on the floor her daughters and a number of males charged forward. I threw the flashlight at them and began hacking left and right with the machete. Then I pulled out my Dad’s Nighthawk .45 and started blasting my way out of there. Anything and everything that stood in my way I filled with bullets. I ran as fast as I could on an ankle that was sore and burning and beginning to swell. My index finger started throbbing again, and now my arm began to burn. I could feel something hot and virulent coursing through my veins. I realized then that those bites were poisonous. All too quickly I felt light-headed and sick to my stomach.
As I neared the mouth of the cave, a wave of dizziness washed over me. I stopped and this time it was my turn to vomit. A moment later I took off running through the swamp.
Time had shifted again. Moon and stars wheeled overhead like diamonds set against the black velvet backdrop. I was back in my own world, back in my own dimension again. Without the flashlight to guide my way and hoping no clouds would obscure the moon’s white light, I ran on pure instinct back the way I had come.
Behind me, a chorus of angry croaks echoed in the night.
When I finally reached Venn Road, the sight of my car sitting there like the last lifeboat aboard the Titanic made me forget about my nausea and poisoned wounds. Escape from that Batrachian nightmare was all I could think of. I limped as fast as I could toward the car, but as I grew closer to it my heart did a swan dive into the pit of my stomach.
The hood had been popped open and the car sat there like a mechanized alligator with its upper jaw rusted in place. Machete still in hand, I leaned over the side of the car to look at the engine, and then one of the smaller white toads leapt out at me. I yelled and dodged aside, swatting at the beasty as it flew past my shoulder. Other toads then scampered out from under the car and fled into the shadows of night.
A quick inspection showed me that belts, wires and hoses and battery cables had been cut—no, they had been gnawed through. A dead toad lay stretched out on the battery and another was still chewing its way through one of the belts. I speared the damned thing with the machete and flung both it and the dead toad as far away as I could. My heart began to pound like a jackhammer. My hands, slick with sweat, began to throb. My legs felt like two pieces of string cheese. What in hell is happening and why in hell is it happening to me? I wondered.
It was then that I noticed three things: The overhead door of the garage was standing open and my parents’ car was parked inside. The floodlights had been turned on, bathing everything in a cold, harsh white blaze. And the silence . . . a silence that was disturbing because it seemed that the whole world had gone mute, or that I had gone deaf.
I hurried around to the front of the cottage and then stopped cold in my tracks. Scattered across the lawn were discarded articles of clothing, all ripped and shredded. I recognized them: they were my parents’ clothes. I began to sweat even more, and my heart raced with fear and anxiety. Where had my parents gone? What happened to them? Bile rose in my throat, that bitter taste of fear. Waves of darkness and nausea threatened to sweep me away.
“Mom! Dad!” I shouted.
And then I heard it — that chorus of bullfrogs croaking their mrwoom-mrwoom chant. Scores of fat frogs climbed out of the lake and hopped across the concrete landing toward the house. They lined up like an invading army along the row of bushes, watching me with their glassy, bulbous eyes and waiting for the honking call to attack. A sound like that of wet feet slapping on a cement sidewalk caused me to turn around. Knots and knots of white toads of all sizes marched toward me from around both sides of the cottage, a saurian parade that blocked any escape. I was alone, without my parents, without any way out of there.
And then their queen, Minerva Beasley — a gaping, bleeding wound in her stomach — staggered toward me, croaking like one of the frogs.
I pissed my pants again and looked around. Since escape was impossible, the cottage was my castle, my only sanctuary—if the creatures hadn’t already breached that last redoubt.
Racing up the porch stairs, I found the door shut but unlocked, and I hurried inside, making sure to lock and bolt the door. Quick inspection showed me that the cottage was empty. There was no sign of my parents. I feared what might have happened to them and began to weep. I inspected the Nighthawk .45, but the clip was empty. I had squeezed off more shots than I realized; I hadn’t figured on needing to save one bullet for myself. Too sick to go look for a fresh ammo clip, I limped over to the couch and sat down. Cold chills swept over me and a fistful of nausea punched me in the gut. The gun fell from my hand. I vomited all over the floor.
Outside, the bullfrog chorus ended its performance on a ghastly note: a woman’s scream.
Horrible and deafening shrieks, savage wailings and ear-piercing, sibilant voices suddenly ripped the night apart. Sounds of pounding and rending, of things being torn and smashed, the scurry of webbed feet over concrete and grass, and the splashing of water echoed in my ears. Some kind of disturbance, something like a battle royale was taking place out there. I tried to stand and go look out a window, but fell back on the couch as one more assault of nausea and darkness won the final round.
While the insanity of what was taking place outside continued, I began to shake. I ripped off my jacket and shirt and looked at my arms and hands and chest. They were now all greenish-brown and mottled with yellow markings. My skin had turned cold and scaly like that of a reptile or some amphibian. I knew what had happened to me, then. In spite of my heritage, the toxic bites from those unearthly toads had infected me. Their alien venom was coursing through my veins and my nervous system. It was taking over my cells and rearranging my DNA. I could see it and feel it. My brain spun around like a carnival ride inside my skull. Strange, dark visions entered my mind, as did thoughts foreign and alien to me. I was changing, transforming — I was morphing into a hybrid — something akin to the children of Minerva Beasley!
At that moment something began pounding frantically on the door. I heard strange voices speaking words that, in my delirium, I could not understand. I turned my head toward the door, and at first my vision was fuzzy, and I could not see color. The pounding on the door grew louder and more frantic, and the sounds seemed to come through my scaly skin as well as to my ears. Then my vision suddenly became crystal clear and I gained a depth-perception I had never had before. The door crashed open then and two figures rushed into the house — two figures that were only partially humanoid. Their naked, scaly skin gleamed as they rushed toward me.
I screamed a sibilant scream — and the last thing I recall before I fell off the couch and into darkness was the long, forked tongue that slithered from my open mouth.
A short time later I awoke to find the serpent-man and -woman kneeling over me and to witness the shape-change that transformed them back to human form. The woman, I noticed, held an EpiPen in one hand. Both these people were as naked as the day they were hatched.
“Are you all right, Seth?” Mom asked me.
Dad helped me rise to a sitting position. He slapped me upside the back of the head. “I told you to stay out of trouble.” The scolding was tempered with a look of love and relief.
“I know and I’m sorry,” I told them. “I guess curiosity got the better of me.”
“Curiosity killed the cat,” said Dad.
“But satisfaction brought it back.” I grinned. “What the hell happened to me? I thought I wouldn’t undergo the metamorphosing until I was twenty-one?”
“Normally, you would not have, but I think you had an allergic reaction to the poisonous bites of those creatures, which triggered a premature transformation,” Mom explained.
“Luckily, the cavalry arrived in the nick of time,” Dad said. “If your Mom hadn’t been quick to grab the EpiPen, you might have changed completely, before you learned to control the shape-changing. Chances are you would have never been able to change back again.”
“You will need to learn how to control the shape-changing, Seth. Starting tomorrow, we’ll work with you and teach you what you need to know.” Mom kissed me on my forehead. “Looks like you won’t have to wait until your twenty-first birthday.”
“What about those reptoids or whatever you call them?” I asked.
“I’m calling some friends tonight,” Dad told me. “While your mother works with you tomorrow, they and I will go destroy every single one of those things. They are not of this earth.”
“Tell me about it! I found a diary written by the former owner of our cottage. I think those creatures are tied in with some meteor shower and maybe even the Roswell Incident.”
“I’ll have a look at it before bed. In the meantime, I’m going outside to clean up and get rid of what’s left of those creatures.” He smiled and pointed out the toad and frog blood that had splattered him and Mom. “Your mother and I made quite a bloody mess of them.”
I never loved them as much as I loved them at that moment.
“I think you should come with us this winter, son,” Mom suggested. “We heard of a village on the west coast of Africa, near the Gulf of Guinea. Supposedly there is a small enclave of Homo Ophidious living there.”
“Shape changers like us?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Dad. “Maybe even some distant relatives — all descended from the serpent folk who once ruled the First Empire of Valusia.” He rose to his feet. “I’m going to take care of business outside. You stay here with your mother and rest. Get some food into you.”
He left the room and Mom helped me stand and then sit on the couch.
There was a twinkle in her eyes when she asked, “What you would like to eat? I can make you a nice dish of cuisses de grenouille.”
“You know, I think I’d rather have escargot, if you don’t mind,” I told her. “I’ve suddenly lost my taste for frog legs.”
Joe started writing songs and stories in 1970, and sold a few short stories in the early 1980s. So far, he’s published three books: the sword and sorcery collection Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser, published by iUniverse; the space opera, Three Against The Stars, published by Airship27; and Waters of Darkness, a sword and sorcery pirate adventure, in collaboration with David C. Smith, and published by Damnation Books.
His first sword and soul story, “The Blood of the Lion,” appeared in GRIOTS 2: Sisters of the Spear, from by MVmedia.
Joe’s Dorgo the Dowser novelette “The Moonstones of Sor Lunarum” appeared in Black Gate in December 2011, and it has proven to be one of the most popular stories we’ve ever published. Another novellas featuring Dorgo, “The Book of Echoes,” appeared in the 2013 anthology Azieran: Artifacts and Relics from Heathen Oracle, and the novella “The Order of the Serpent” is scheduled to appear in a special sword and sorcery edition of Weird Tales online magazine.
Joe has also written a number of articles and book reviews for Black Gate online magazine.
Photo by Erin Lynn Ransford.
Click on the photo for a large version.