Words by Patrick Pryor
Photos by Payal Parikh
Michael Tamlin skipped a rock across muddy water and thought, What a beautiful day to be me! A warm breeze ruffled his close cropped curls, streaked with gel and shimmering with the joy of lazy Saturday well spent. A grin stretched across his smooth expanse of a mug as he studied little Jayden and Brayden shrieking and splashing across the shallow end of the swimming hole.
“Daddy, come play with us!” little Brayden brayed.
He giggled-gasped at a crashing wave. Two pot bellied cherubs squeezed into board shorts churned and wrestled and cut and sloshed. Cyprus bent low. A fat grackle cawed and pecked at dirt.
Michael cracked open a domestic (affordable, but not too pricey) beer and slinked into the water. The fat grackle tumbled skyward; a rabbit leered through weeds; peeping turtles burbled and dipped behind rocks.
“Don’t start the party without me,” Michael said between swigs.
Brayden spread his arms wide, crashed across the swimming hole, and tackled Michael in a tight, tiny hug. His chipped piano grin stretched as they flopped into the water with a jubilant splash.
Jayden, the well-meaning but less active child, dog paddled and sputtered. He circled around Michael and Brayden and smized.
“I’m a dolphin!”
As Jayden herked and jerked into a flip, tittering like an aquarium superstar, a glass bottle bobbed past him. Michael scooped up the bottle. Bud Light®. Empty.
Litterbugs. Michael fumed. He was sick of taking his kids someplace nice only to find some joker bent on ruining the fun.What if Brayden had stepped on this? God knows I couldn’t afford a hospital visit.
“Wow! A message in a bottle!”
“Just like a pirate movie.”
Michael noticed a piece of paper crammed inside the brown glass. He sunk his fingers in the neck as his kids gathered close.
“Maybe it’s a treasure map!”
“That’s a nice thought!”
Michael uncrumpled the note and started at what he saw. In scrawled handwriting it read:
Little Jayden and Brayden jostled and shoved elbows.
“I wanna see!”
Brayden snatched up the note and frowned. Jayden peered over his dripping shoulder.
“Why would someone write that?
Jayden looked to Michael for an answer, but he swigged more beer and glanced across the swimming hole. There, shoulder deep amongst the reeds, stood a true degenerate of a human being. Overgrown eyebrows darkened his dome of a forehead, pulled taught and lined with hate. His thin lips curled into a sneer that said, “Stay the heck away.”
Michael stepped back and gathered his kids close.
“I think it’s time to go.”
“But Daddy, why?”
“You didn’t even see my orca call!”
The stranger leered at Michael – a pointed dagger of a stare that bore into his very being. His beady eyes glistened, Michael thought, with a tinge of bloodlust.
Did the stranger even blink?
As Michael stumbled out of the water, dragging his protesting children — his poor little angels — closer to the shore, he stared the stranger down. He maintained the same stubborn sneer, glared with wide, glassy eyes. His unfriendly face locked in a scowl that could fester road kill.
Was this stranger, this degenerate really out for blood? Why would he trouble such a well-liked, all around good guy like Michael Tamlin? I take care of my family, Michael thought. I surprise my wife with discount theater tickets. I let my kids play Nintendogs®. I remember birthdays!
Birthdays probably didn’t matter to the stranger. He probably called his mother from a payphone to ask for rent.
As Michael and his sullen kids toweled off on the bank, he glanced back at the stranger. He still stared. Never had Michael felt such hatred! Pressing him down like a stinking dog. Squeezing at his insides like an oozing ulcer.
What did I ever do to him? Michael thought. Why would anyone ever want to hurt some cute little kids?
A laughing couple splashed past the stranger. A tanned sunglasses-masked hunk pushed his squealing dear-heart in an inner tube that read, “Surf’s Up!” The breaking water glimmered in the thick summer musk. A bulldog in a life preserver panted and paddled. Didn’t the honeybears, or their struggling trusty pooch, notice the stranger beside them?
But the stranger kept staring, fixed on Michael.
“Daddy, why is that man staring at us?“ Jayden asked, wrapping his dinosaur towel tighter.
“I don’t know.” Michael said, backing down the trail. “Some people are just jealous.”
As Michael led his children down the nature path, strewn with bottle caps and tangled weeds, he turned and glimpsed the stranger one last time. He eyes bored and guilted and cut Michael down until the trembling forest swallowed them. ◥