"On a double from Spud Town to Portland O-R and it looks like I'm only the lonely. Looking for some chatter en route but until then I'm a one man alligator station. All mouth and no ears."
Tish hid under the covers, the CB radio on two. She kept one eye on the door and the light creeping underneath it. Any flicker was a cause for concern. She could hear the TV playing downstairs. If they were laughing she could sometimes turn the volume up to three; if it was too quiet she'd have to drop down to one, just to be safe. Those nights it was harder to fall asleep. Tish didn't really know what she was listening for: her dad's old call sign, a mention of his name? All she knew was that those voices, those men's faraway voices chattering into space, made her feel like there was more to this world, more past this world. This was the one time in her everyday life that it felt okay to be so alone.
Tish's dad was gone. Long gone. He died three years ago, when she was five. Tish remembered neighbors and grandparents saying she'd be too young to remember this later, but she did. She remembered them and she remembered him, and she remembered everything she did to get back at them for saying that. The worst was the Deacon. He told her all about Heaven and about how her dad would end up there if he was a good man. She cracked eggs on his car on a hot summer's day. She cracked them and watched them cook.
Whenever Tish asked what happened, all anyone ever told her was that it was dark that night, and it was wet, and that an animal ran into the road. They told her that her dad was trying to save the animal's life when he skidded and lost control. They told her it was honorable. But Tish wanted the details. All of them. She could picture her dad listening to one of his old CDs in the cab. John Cougar or The Beatles. She'd gone through his old collection and tried to figure out which ones were missing, the ones he probably had with him. She had a playlist of all the holes, most of which she'd downloaded from RapidShare, which she didn't feel bad about. Prince was rich and they were poor and he didn't need their money, and if he did then he was a sucker.
She knew the fire department had come, so she assumed there was a fire. They told her the cab had fallen on its side and she could picture it skidding across the pavement, sparking against the asphalt. That's probably how the fire started. A spark and the gas tank. They'd never tell her that though. Even if she asked they'd never tell her, but she guessed it. She thought about this a lot. She could see it when she closed her eyes. Everything but the animal. Was it a deer, or a wolf, or a grizzly? There was no way to know, and it pissed her off. Mostly because none of them felt right. Every time she'd run through it in her brain it just didn't make sense. Why didn't the animal get out of the way, and why didn't her dad just hit it?
Tish wasn't allowed to go to the funeral. They told her it was closed casket, so there would be nothing for her to see. No one would give her an answer as to what that meant. Only later did she find out that's what you did when you didn't want to see what was inside. Tish remembered everyone leaving in a big black car sent from the home. She was left staring out the living room window with Claudette. Claudette was an older girl who used to babysit until the neighbors caught her smoking. That never made much sense to Tish, because most of the neighbors smoked and Claudette's cigarettes were all natural and smelled better than theirs. Claudette told Tish that we were all on a journey and that this was just a stopover. That we were all once grasshoppers or dogs or Roman soldiers. And that we would all be reborn over and over. She had been a revolutionary in her past life. A revolutionary and a cat. Tish could picture the cat part, because Claudette was really dumb. But listening to Claudette made Tish realize one thing, that listening to her was the same as listening to the Deacon, or to her teacher or even to her mom. They all said things, things about what happens after, but none of them were quite the same. Because none of them really knew. They just wanted her to feel better or probably just feel better themselves. Because the only real thing was the closed casket, and only Tish wanted to look inside.
Tish kept a picture of her dad on the bedside table. It blocked a faded glow-in-the-dark butterfly sticker. She'd taken all the other stickers down. The photo was taken a month after she'd turned five. Her mom and dad had taken her to the Tillamook Cheese Factory. Tish never thought cheese could be cool, but she was wrong. A tourist took the photo of them. The three of them with a big cheese wedge. Tish fell asleep looking at the photo every night. She stared into her father's eyes. They were piercing and blue, like icicles. People said Tish had her father's eyes, but she knew she didn't. They were blue, but they were missing the sharpness. No one had her dad's eyes. Not even her dad, anymore.
Sometimes it was hard to fall asleep.
"Pounding the double fives until I see some of them burning home fires. I could sure use some hundred mile coffee. A smarter man would pack it in at the first sign of a nap trap. Anyone got their ears on?"
Tish stared at the Cheerio floating in Joe's beard. Anything to focus on, so she wouldn't die of boredom as Joe lectured endlessly about the latest thing he read in the paper. It was something about a quantum compass for birds. As usual, Tish didn't care. But she kept staring at the Cheerio. She found that if she looked at Joe, but not into Joe's eyes, it would unnerve him. Today was easy.
Joe had moved in ten months ago. He'd been seeing Tish's mom for about two years now. That had been two years of trips to the museum and Cirque du Soleil. Anywhere that Joe could find something to blather on about. Joe was a teacher at the college. Her mom had never even gone, but Joe didn't like to talk about that. Tish didn't know how her mom had met him. She always supposed it had something to do with that psychiatrist her mom had taken her to once. His office was on the campus up there. He had wanted Tish to take pills, but her mother didn't believe in them. Tish never went back, but her mom did. Twice a week.
After the accident, Tish spent an hour every day after school digging around the house for any bit of information that would tell her more about what happened. She had a system, a checklist in her head for every room. She'd start in the kitchen and work her way up to her mom's bedroom. She'd memorize one object in every drawer and place it in a way that it would have to be moved if anyone wanted to get something in or out. The next day, if any of those objects were out of place, she'd know to search that drawer extensively. That's how she found it. The police report of the accident. Highway 97 near Milepost 169. Up until then, she'd never known where it happened. She hadn't even thought to ask. But those five numbers added a where to the scenario that ran through her head. There was a lot of other stuff in the police report, but none of it was new. Only one other thing stuck out to her. It was buried in a big paragraph, but it immediately grabbed Tish. Unidentified Animal Markings In the Road. If there were markings in the road, why couldn't they be identified? The Police Officer was just lazy and sloppy and probably fat. He could've figured it out, but he just didn't give a crap. Tish spent most of that night alone her room. Her mom was mad at her for snooping, and for asking stupid questions. She kept the CB on one. She could hear her mom crying, and didn't dare turn it up.
Tish didn't see much of her mom anymore. She'd had to take extra shifts at work. Lots of them. At first, Tish became very familiar with the neighbors, especially Mrs. Scaggs. Mrs. Scaggs smelled like hot dog water and liked to watch QVC and complain about the prices. Mrs. Scaggs liked to talk to Tish about how this too shall pass and also called her LeTicia even though Tish told her she hated it. Mrs. Scaggs also liked to leave her purse by the front door with the credit card poking out of her wallet. When the boxes started coming, Mrs. Scaggs stopped. Tish never found out if she liked the Precious Moments collectable figurines, and she knew better than to ask.
Slowly the babysitters dried up and Tish was home alone. Her mom had the handyman put a third lock on the house so she'd feel safer. She called it Tish's lock. He installed it at cost, because he felt bad for Tish or maybe her mom, but it was still at cost which made her mom feel good. Her mom thought Tish would be scared alone at night, but it turned out it wasn't really any different than being alone in the day. In a way it was better. And it's how she saw "300". Her mom had sat her down to tell her what to do if she heard a noise outside. When to call her at work and when to call the police. She told her that there was no such thing as monsters, especially in the basement. It was easy to confuse monsters and the furnace. This talk made Tish happy for her mom. It meant her mom couldn't see that Tish didn't have a reason to believe in monsters anymore.
Once Tish was on her own, she became very familiar with the library. She spent time memorizing all the tracks of animals West of her house. Whenever she spotted markings in the neighborhood, she'd identify them, which sounded cooler than it was, because it was almost always a squirrel. She also MapQuested Highway 97, Milepost 169. She figured out that it would take three busses and a forty-five minute walk to get there. She realized she'd never be able to make it there and back before someone came home to check on her. Not until she was older. For awhile she hoped that they'd accidentally drive by the spot where it happened, maybe on a roadtrip, but it became pretty clear that her mom would drive up to an hour out of the way to avoid that road. So instead Tish focused on the animal tracks. Counting toes, matching hooves, knowing front from hind, and spotting claws. When she got to Highway 97, she would know the animal that killed her dad.
About a year after meeting Joe, Tish's mother started going through her dad's stuff. She wanted to know what Tish wanted to keep. She was selling his clothes to Red Light, his CDs to Everyday Music. Tish was allowed to keep his comic books, even though her mom thought they should probably sell those too. When Tish asked what had happened to dad's belt buckle, the big silver one with the tree with a million branches going in all different directions, her mother told her she had it somewhere safe. When Tish asked to see it, her mom went into her bedroom, closed the door, and emerged carrying it protectively. She watched Tish very closely while she held it. Tish searched her mom's room up and down for the buckle but could never find it. Whenever she asked to see it, her mom would go into the bedroom and get it, but she would always close the door. Tish spent the next week stealing stuff from the bags and boxes her mother had collected. It didn't matter what she got, just that she rescued it. She found a loose board in the stairs and hid stuff there for safekeeping. When it was full she nailed it shut, so she wouldn't be discovered, and pried open the next step.
Once Joe moved in, the house started slowly changing. The recliner was replaced by Joe's reading chair. Extra photos were added around the house featuring Joe, Tish and her mom. Most just featured Joe and her mom. Photos of her dad were slowly pushed to the back, then one day, one disappeared. So far, Tish counted seven missing photos. They were smaller ones, but they were still gone. A big TV was put into the basement with a surround system and lots of DVDs - old, black and white DVDs. Every Saturday night was now movie night and Joe would tell them all about the movie they were about to see, often ruining the ending so that they could appreciate it.
Before Joe moved in, Tish's mother sat her down and asked her what she thought of Joe. Tish knew it was a trap. Her mom and Joe had taken to discussing things with her, asking her what she thought about stuff and trying to make her a part of things. But Tish knew she wasn't. It didn't matter what she thought or what she wanted, so she just kept quiet. That's when she heard her mom say that this way they'd get to keep the house. So, Joe moved in. And he never did the dishes.
Tish kept staring at the Cheerio, wondering when it would fall off.
"It's coming down and giving me quite the window wash. Doing my best to keep my eyes open and the black stack smoking, but I'm having trouble seeing markers. Anyone copy? Did my signal make the trip?"
Tish chucked her cell phone as far as she could into the darkness. She didn't want any way for them to find her, and she didn't want her mind changing about being found. She'd called her mother a hooker. Six times. She'd thrown everything off the table and called her mother a hooker. There was so much more she wanted to say, but that's all that came out. And then she ran. She ran because she didn't know what else to do. She couldn't go back. They wouldn't want her back. Even if she said she was sorry. And she wasn't sorry. Her mother was going to marry Joe.
Tish's fifth birthday was a butterfly party, so none of the boys wanted to come. It was Tish's party, so none of the girls wanted to come either. Her mom was on the phone all morning calling the other moms and telling them how much money it all cost. Meanwhile, Tish was on the front lawn flying. She had wings on her back and paint on her face and was holding her dad's hands as he spun her around and around. They ate cake. A big one. Just the three of them. Her mom said it was for twenty-five people. No plates, just forks. Then they opened presents. Her favorite was the glow-in-the-dark butterfly stickers. Tish was afraid of the dark and her dad told her that these butterflies would keep her safe. They spent the afternoon sticking them all over her room. There were at least a hundred, maybe more. Tish started sticking them in other rooms, outside, and even on her dad's license plate, but her mom noticed and got mad. That night Tish could hardly sleep, she just watched the butterflies, caught up in the swarm as they watched her right back. The next year there wouldn't be a party. The year after that Tish didn't want one. Her mom would still bring home cake, but small ones just didn't feel special. Besides, Joe didn't like chocolate.
Tish kept running through the trees, stumbling, not caring about the small cuts that were spreading up her arms and legs with every scrape of branch. She thought about Joe sleeping on the sofa in the middle of a Sunday, and how she wasn't allowed to watch TV because it might wake him. She thought about her mom and dad, and their wedding picture, and where that photo was now. And she thought about the cab, scraping against the pavement, sparks flying, hitting the gas can. And the animal that had run in the middle of the road. And then she stopped.
She stood on Highway 97 near Milepost 169.
She looked at the road and the tall pine trees. She looked at the point where the asphalt met the dirt. She followed the dirt as blades of grass poked out one by one, then with more frequency. She followed the grass as it met with a tree and traced it to a forest that littered the valley below. Highway 97 near Milepost 169. There were no broken trees, no signs of the fire, no marks in the road. There was nothing. But there was even no nothing. Cars whizzed by and birds chirped as if nothing was too much to ask for.
There was even no nothing, and Tish felt hollow, as the hill gave out beneath her.
"mayday… mayday… route 97… it was in the road… cab's flipped over… my legs are pinned… it was big… it's… it's still here… it's coming closer... can anyone hear me..?"
Tish didn't know how far she'd fallen. She didn't know what time it was. She didn't know if she could still walk. It was dark, darker than she remembered it ever being, even though the moon was out. She knew that no one was coming and that her leg was probably broken. If only she could get up now it would all be a dream. She took a deep breath and the cold air burned inside her lungs. Just quiet, trees and dark. The only sound came from the rustling of leaves underneath her as she rose and started to limp. She knew her best chance was to keep moving. This way she was getting more lost or more found, instead of staying the same. Besides, most animals wouldn't come near her until she stopped. She remembered Joe saying that.
Walking was becoming more difficult and Tish found herself setting short goals just to motivate herself to keep moving. She was lurching between trees, leaning against them for breaks. She even considered climbing one, it would probably be safer up there, but quickly came to the realization that it was no longer physically possible. Her leg was swollen and hot and she had to sit down. Maybe sleep a little. She knew this was a bad idea, but couldn't help it. Tish wearily looked at the ground and noticed that it was indented slightly. Brush had been trampled and pushed aside. Unidentified Animal Markings. Like none she'd seen in the books. And a trail leading towards the hillside. She followed the trail with her eyes. A cave. Tish had a new goal and pushed herself to reach it. She did so while trying her best to keep the thoughts of what made the trail out of her head. Because she didn't believe in that stuff anymore.
Tish peed in front of the entrance to the cave. She was surprised by how much came out and she wondered if that was a good thing. Last year a rat was living in her mother's car. It was eating the wires in the engine and it cost over a thousand dollars to fix. Probably more than the car was worth was what her mom kept saying. They ended up buying dried coyote urine from Amazon and sprinkling it in the driveway. That was supposed to keep the rats away. Tish hoped that her pee would keep stuff away too.
At first she thought she should stay by the opening, stay by the opening and sleep. It's where she'd be safer. But some prints in the moonlight changed her mind. She counted toes: four on the front paws, six on the hind. She matched hooves: or what she thought were hooves as its paws seemed to be made of bone over flesh. And she spotted claws: sharp, hooked, retractable claws. She couldn't identify the animal markings. She was pretty sure no one could. But for the first time the animal felt right.
The deeper Tish got inside the cave, the further she was compelled to go. She felt her way along the walls, using them to support her weight as well as her lack of vision. They were wet and sometimes slimy. She thought about licking them for a second just to feel the wetness on her tongue. Her mouth was very dry. And her leg was throbbing. She was pretty sure she had a fever because of how cold her skin felt. Then her eye caught a faint green phosphorous speck ahead of her.
Maybe her eyes were used to the darkness or the opening of cracked earth above cast a slice of night sky, or maybe her eyes were playing tricks on her, but somehow Tish could see clearly now and her eyes focused on the faint beacon ahead. She fought to get to it, climbing, pushing her body, pulling herself over obstacles when her legs lacked the strength, forcing herself closer and closer to the green light. She reached for it and found a piece of metal in her hands. MDT-885. A faded glow-in-the-dark butterfly in the corner of her dad's license plate where she'd stuck it to keep him safe on the road.
Then Tish realized where she was standing. What she had climbed into. The pile of garbage, the bed of refuse, of found items, of leaves and sticks and bone. Tish was standing in the middle of a nest. The nest of the animal in the road. Tish's instinct was to run. Instead, she yelled to draw it to her.
The deafening roar entered her ears and stuck to the marrow in her bones.
Tish looked up at the creature that stood before her. It wasn't a deer, or a wolf or grizzly. It was nothing she'd ever seen before. Unidentified Animal Markings. She was so terrified, she couldn't look away. And she understood why her dad couldn't either, and why, at the last second, he had turned the wheel.
It was the size of the garage, fur matted, covered in brambles, claws curved, razor sharp.
And its eyes piercing and blue, like icicles.
She gazed at him and held up the license plate with the butterfly to keep her safe.
"Daddy?" she croaked.
And that was the first time she saw the monster's teeth.
About the Author
Elias Madias is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. No, your other Los Angeles.