Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fossil Fuel by T.J. McIntyre

Jack casts the line out into the pond. The line arches across the sky. Reflected by the sun on the distorted surface of the rippling water, it lands with a splash. The purple plastic worm, decorated by speckles of silver, smelling of the infused essence of chicken livers, sinks beneath the surface into the hazy, greenish-brown water. Minnows scatter for fear of the alien landing in their world.

The boy watches the line break the surface tension millimeter-by-millimeter as the worm drops out of sight in a slow descent. He knows from watching and swimming in the pond that below in the depths is a small hole under a fallen, algae-encrusted tree. The hole leads to a small underground freshwater spring from which the pond was born.

He saw it last summer through his goggles -- no one had believed him.

Ever since -- through the dry heat of summer, an equally dry, but brisk autumn, and into the rainy, overcast chill of an Alabama winter -- he came and cast his line, not even knowing what kind of bait to use for such a beast. He had decided to try the full arsenal. This little piece of purple plastic was all that remained untried.

He reels in the slack of the line once he sees it is sitting still atop the surface. Knowing the worm has reached the bottom; he waits and watches for any sign of movement. His hand rests over the reel, ready to jerk up on the line at the slightest hint of motion, prepared to reel it in if nothing bites.

He watches white clouds march across the blue sky reflected on the glassy surface of the pond. He fantasizes about worlds within worlds, Alice through the Looking Glass, and wonders what life would be like if he slipped into that other world in the reflection.

Jack had already glimpsed into that other world that one time. But it wasn't sunny.

Through his goggle-lenses, clouded by condensation, through those murky depths he saw that movement. He had seen the creature. And he knew upon coming up for breath to face the ridicule from the world above by his buddies that he would not rest until he caught the beast.

"If it's big as you say, it'd starve in that pond," Cody said as they laughed at him.

"It was prob'ly just a catfish hidin' in the branches," David rationalized.

Ripples spread out from the line, glinting sunlight on the soft curves as the line slinks beneath the surface. The line flutters the slightest bit.

Jack pulls the line taught and jerks up the rod. The rod bends nearly in half and Jack lowers it a little, worried it might snap. The line begins retreating from his reel, and he fumbles with the release to let out slack to prevent the line from breaking.

He never thought he'd actually catch it. He wishes he had used something stronger than ten-pound test line.

The reel spins, releasing line with such velocity that Jack begins to worry about his diminishing spool, concerned he may run out of line. The line screeches as it escapes the confines of his closed reel.

At the moment Jack becomes convinced there could not possibly be any more line, it stops.

Jack stands motionless, line taught against the unknown. He attempts to reel and the gears click in protest. He rears his arm back and the rod bends. If not for the feeding of the line moments before, Jack would assume he had caught bottom.

Black clouds stream over the tops of the trees on the side of the pond opposite from Jack. A brisk wind bites through his clothes. The brightness of the sun succumbs to an overcast gloom within seconds.

Jack hears clicks and whistles in his head. A sound both organic and metallic resonates through his head. He drops the pole, holds his hands to his ears, and falls on his knees. Meanings filter through the chaos. Flashing images scroll through his head he is incapable of understanding. He lifts his head, opens his eyes, and the pond -- grey and black under darkening skies -- froths and bubbles.

In his head, Jack feels laughter. It is not a sound, but an impression. The impression humiliates him. Jack feels the other's amusement.

Caught more than you can handle?

Jack feels the thought. It sounds like the clicks he heard at the natural history museum in the entomology display explaining insect communication. Inside his head, he also feels the chill of the spring. He tastes the algae. Overpowering his other senses, he feels an empty vastness.

The immensity is reminiscent of his daydreams on sunnier, lazier days laying on his back staring up at the sky, watching the void of space move overhead above racing clouds. Lying on his back, looking up, he imagines gravity's tender grip might relax. He imagines himself tossed off the surface, untethered, to float away into the void of the sky.

But those were daydreams, this present feeling of emptiness in his head, however, is real. He looks in his mind and sees depth -- a cold, wet, pitch-black world without end. The feelings, imagery, and sounds sift through his mind. Jack knows they are another reality different from his own. But the feelings in his head disorient him with their tangibility.

Caught more than you can handle?

The impression of humiliating amusement resumes. The laughter clicks and scratches. Jack attempts to rise. Feeling weighted down, he strains against this sudden and overwhelming oppression.

Why do you seek me? You are a mere pup. Stay down! You are not worthy to face me.

Like a cane to his back, Jack feels a welt rise across his spine. Unable to resist the impact, his face gets pushed into the moist earth at the rim of the pond. Through his ears he senses movement, communication, and life. Worms writhe, crickets chirp, millipedes crawl. Jack senses all of them, feeling their purpose.

You are no different.

Jack tastes rotten vegetation, long dead flesh, feels ants marching and clicking in communication.

You live off our remains as these little ones survive off yours. Just like them, your kind only finds life in the refuse of others. You eat shit and you are what you eat.

Clicks and jerks in his head, tendons tense, and Jack's temples throb. The immensity overwhelms. The amusement resonates with a cacophony of sensed laughter. Humiliated and humbled, Jack rests into the earth, allowing the immensity to push him down.

He sinks a moment longer before finding the strength to struggle. He pushes his palms into the mud. They sink a little before he finds resistance: solid earth. His muscles tense and strain. He cries into the darkening skies. He manages to pull in his knees underneath his torso and the minor victory increases his resolve. He is determined to stand.

Get back down!

Nightmares fill his head. He sees his genealogy -- his family line -- born and dying, generation after generation. He feels his parents grow old and die. His own heart stops beating and the void rushes to embrace him. He senses the immensity of that vastness again. Powerless, weak, and impotent, he considers giving in. His own life seems meaningless, a stark contrast to the immensity of the gulf of time and space before him.

But his life is still his own.

He manages to bring himself to his feet. The images and feelings dissolve like vapors. Standing crouched, still feeling weighted down and beaten, he attempts to hold up his head, to face the darkness and immensity before him.

He feels an otherworldly roar of defeat rattle through his bones as he looks up only to see nothing before him.

Clouds float across the pond reflecting sunny skies above. The dinosaur is nowhere to be seen.

T.J. McIntyre is a sometimes published author and the editor of Southern Fried Weirdness Online. In addition to this project, he is currently accepting submissions for an upcoming print anthology, Southern Fried Weirdness 2007: An Annual Anthology of Southern Speculative Fiction.