Read Along: Paradise Palms: Chapter 1
Casper Jasper stiff-armed the screen door of the Sandy Bar and stomped out onto the gravel driveway. Again he’d helped Julie Branford clean after closing. Again he’d offered to give her a ride home or for her to stay over at his place. Again he left the place rejected and pissed off. He let the door slam close, and heard Julie yelp in pain.
He spun around and wanted to ask if she was alright, but he was mad and anything he said would come out like he was mad at her. Julie rubbed her fingers as she pushed the door open with her shoulder and stepped outside. Casper frowned at himself for allowing the spring-loaded screen door slam close on her hand. He always offered to help her. Perhaps it was chivalry, because he knew she didn’t need the help; Julie wasn’t exactly a delicate flower. In fact, she’d thrown out men even larger than himself. It was more because he wanted to spend time with her.
“Aw, come on, Julie. Let me take you home.”
“Dick! You let that door slam close on me on purpose.” Julie shoved the key in and locked the door. “You’re an asshole. That’s the last time I let you help me clean up. What do you think? I’m going to let you help me clean and then I’ll sleep with you?” She started toward her car.
That was exactly what he thought, but the way she said it made him sound like quite a prick. “Well, no. Not exactly.”
“Then why don’t you tell me exactly what you expect for helping me clean up? I see a lot of guys come in this place, Casper. You’re a nice guy and you don’t get too drunk. At least all you have to do is walk home from here.” Julie motioned with her head to the Paradise Palms trailer park.
The park, with just thirty-one units, sat just off Highway 65. At the front of the park were a laundromat, Charlie’s Café, a Shell gas station/convenience store/bait and tackle shop/lumber yard/everything-you-could-want-in-one-place mart, and the Sandy Bar. Julie was one of the few people to work in any of the places that didn’t live in Paradise Palms. At 3 a.m. Casper worried about her when she left alone. Not that there was anything around, but that was the point. Traffic on Highway 65 died out at roughly 10 p.m., unless it was a drunk going home or a trucker with a heavy load heading north. What if she got a flat tire or something? Who’d be there to help her?
“It’s not safe. You need someone to take you home.”
“Casper, I’ve been going home on these roads for ten years now. What makes you think I need your help?”
“Cuz I’m offering it.”
She looked down and rubbed her fingers. When she spoke, he could hear the pout in her voice. The husky voice really turned him on. “Look, I like you, okay, but that doesn’t mean I’m just going to jump into bed with you. You know. I want romance. I want you to bring me flowers. Take me out to dinner. To the movies. Something. I mean, cleaning up after a bunch of rowdy drunks isn’t my idea of romance. Do you understand?”
“Why you always going on and on about that romance business? I’m a working man, Julie. You know I’m busy.”
Her face soured. “You’ve got time to help me clean and time to sit here and drink and time to hang out with the boys and time to try to get me in the sack, but you don’t have time to take me across the street to get something to eat? You don’t have time to take me fifteen minutes into town to see a movie? If you don’t have time to take care of me, I guess I don’t have time to take care of you!”
Julie turned, slipping in the gravel, righted herself, and got into her yellow, ’76 Dodge Charger. Casper wanted to drive that car, it was so cherry. He wanted to drive the girl. Why couldn’t she understand him and not be all uppity about all that sissy romance business? Why did he have to jump through all the hoops to make her happy? When was she going to do something for him for a change?
The tires spit gravel as she backed up and sped away, leaving Casper standing alone in front of the Sandy Bar. He felt stupid. He felt rejected. He felt like having another beer. He wasn’t going to get that until he got home, though. He should have just gotten drunk and gone home alone like he did when she wasn’t working.
Pulling his jacket on tighter to ward off the cold of the August night, he made his way behind the bar. He needed to take care of a little business before he walked back to his trailer. Even though he lived in the middle row, he still preferred to walk through the woods to clear his head.
The light at the front of the bar clicked off. If he could see his watch, he knew it would be exactly 3:30 now. The light was on a timer. Only the light from the few street lights gave him any light to pee by. The stars were covered over with clouds and the full moon would be hidden from view. He unzipped his fly and let go.
Something tingled on the back of Casper’s neck. A prickly feeling like he should feel scared, but in a different sort of way. He didn’t like it. Not one bit. A hum filled the air and then everything was different. At first, as he zipped himself up, he wasn’t quite sure what it was, but it became apparent quickly.
First off, someone “turned nature up to eleven.” He snickered, as he always loved that joke, but it didn’t last. The air felt strange as he breathed, like it had gotten heavier somehow. Casper shook his head, but that didn’t do any good. He listened to the sounds from the woods, but couldn’t recognize any of them. The crickets and flies and mosquitoes were all gone, replaced by a drone louder than a Mack truck barreling down Highway 65.
He walked slowly back around the Sandy Bar to look up to the highway. Perhaps a convoy was coming or something. A breath caught in his throat and came in as a squeak. The highway was gone. Not just a little gone like he couldn’t see it in the dark or anything like that. It was gone, and filled in with trees. Again he shook his head, as if it would do any good. He hadn’t had that much to drink. He wiped his face and slapped himself. None of it did any good. The highway didn’t come back into view. It had been swallowed up by trees and forest and . . .
Trees? Casper looked closer at the forest. He could easily make out the branches and leaves. The sky had cleared. Not just cleared, but he could see everything. Stars like he’d never seen stars before in his life. Sure, living in the north away from all the light pollution of the city he could make out a massive number of stars, but this was something he’d never seen. He cast around to spot Orion. It had to be there. Didn’t it? It was the one constant in the sky. Even the Egyptians had seen it. It had always been there. Why wasn’t it in the sky? Why were there so many stars?
A baleful howl pierced the night air. If he hadn’t just emptied his bladder, Casper would have just then. He’d hunted; what good old boy from Minnesota hadn’t? He’d heard deer snort that scared the best. A charging deer was nothing to mess with. He’d even been charged by an angry moose. Those animals made noise to announce to you they were coming. This didn’t sound like any hunted, plant-eating animal. This sounded like something starting a hunt.
Casper planted his back up against the wall of the Sandy Bar and tried to hide himself in the shadows. He felt stupid and silly. He’d panicked. Anything that might be after him wouldn’t announce itself. It also wouldn’t care if he hid in the dark. It’d sniff him out. He wouldn’t stand a chance in the open.
Casper, you’re just creeping yourself out. There’s nothing that’s going to come into this trailer park. You’ve walked home from this bar a thousand times. Time to make it a thousand and one.
He tried to sound reassuring, but something about the trees didn’t make him feel at all comfortable. The way they shifted in the breeze. The way he had to struggle for breath like he was under water. The way the stench of a thousand swamps rose up to assail him and make him want to retch.
The smell hadn’t been there before. It burned his nose and made his eyes water, almost as if he’d been near a peat bog and caught a pocket of gas. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
A rustle came from a nearby bush. Casper’s head snapped up.
“Who’s there? I’ve got a gun.”
He had to assume whoever it was had to be intelligent. Didn’t he? Animals rarely came into the park. Paradise Palms was too well-lit.
Casper, you’ve got too much of your old man in you. You’re letting your imagination get away with you. You’re just sore ‘cuz Julie got mad at you. That’s it. There’s nothing there. Nothing at all.
The howl came again, louder this time, followed by several small creatures racing out of the bushes. The animals looked like little mice or moles, all brown and furry. Casper shrieked and tried to press himself into the wall again. The animals didn’t run at him, though. They ran past him. They ran around the bar and continued on. He heaved a sigh of relief.
Something rattled in front of him. A throaty rattle. A rattle and a clicking noise. It didn’t sound good. Not one little bit.
Casper squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t want to look up. He couldn’t look up. Was it a bear? A cougar? A wolf? What? Where had those mice come from? He’d never seen those running in a pack during the fall. He’d never seen anything like them before, ever. He’d spent a great deal of time in the woods. He’d have seen something like that. He’d also have heard something like the rattle in front of him. He dared not move. It would go away. It would. It would.
Something touched his face making him wince and shake. Reactively, he opened his eyes and looked up. He found himself face to face with an alligator standing on its hind legs, coming up about four feet off the ground. No, it wasn’t an alligator. It was some strange lizard thing. On two legs. With a head as big as his torso. It cocked its head sideways and looked at him curiously. What was it doing? Casper wanted to scream, but couldn’t find his voice.
It flicked its tongue out and hit his chest this time. Casper flinched back.
“What the hell are you?”
The thing snarled and snipped at Casper like a little puppy sizing up a playmate. It even wagged its tail slowly from side to side; a long, skinny tail that jutted out of a small, slender frame. The thing didn’t look so tough.
“You ain’t so bad. I could take you.”
Casper jumped forward and lashed his hands out at the thing. It made a surprised squawk and scurried several steps backwards. That made Casper laugh a little. What was there to be scared of? Some jumpy lizard.
Wait a minute. Suddenly Casper’s brain cleared enough for him to think coherent thoughts. There’re no big lizards in Minnesota.
Three more of the lizards jumped out from the bushes and approached the first. One was fine, but with buddies, this could get ugly. He turned to run away, but the wall got in the way. The next moment happened too fast for him to recollect. All he could tell was he was being dragged backward at a dizzying pace through the woods. He hadn’t even had time to scream when his legs got pulled out from under him by two of the little bastards.
Shrubs and saplings cut into him as he was dragged deeper into the woods. He clawed and reached for anything he could to slow the progress. He cut his hands on small rocks and tore up tiny trees. It seemed nothing would deter the things.
They stopped. Casper took a second to catch his breath. He could still feel the needle-sharp teeth in his legs, but could do nothing about that. He looked back and could see a small drop; likely the reason they’d stopped, but that gave him a small bit of hope. Then he realized, they’re going to eat me! It hit him like a sledgehammer. He kicked and shook one of the things free and started kicking the other. The bites had hurt, but hadn’t been deep at all. If he could get his other leg free, he was sure he could get away. He could run back to his trailer.
His trailer! That was it. He fought his pocket to get his keys out while he continued to kick at the second lizard thing. Two caught his kicking leg and pulled him across the ground on his back. It hurt as they dropped down off the edge, but still he fought them. He grabbed the trunk of a nearby tree and thrashed as best he could. He closed his eyes. If the damn things were going to kill him, he was going to take at least one with him. He wouldn’t go down without a fight.
The beasts stopped fighting him. They actually let go and looked around, as if trying to assess some greater threat. Oh God! Is something bigger coming? Casper Jasper felt the hair on his neck stand up once again. He didn’t like the feeling. Not one little bit. The world had changed the first time, and not for the better.
At first he thought a car had dropped on him. He couldn’t breathe. The wind had been totally knocked out of him. He wanted to cry out in pain, but no air came into his lungs. He felt instantly cold. A cold that hurt his soul. He pushed his body as upright as he could. The drop had disappeared. The lizards were gone. The woods were back. But something else was missing. His legs! His legs and his lower body, gone! He reached down and touched where his crotch should have been. He could only feel wetness. He looked at the blood on his hands. Blood? He’d gotten away? He fought and won. The lizards didn’t eat him. He should be able to get up and go home. Just walk away. Where were his legs? Where had they gotten off to? Why were they missing? It didn’t make any sense. He just needed his keys. Yes, his keys. But his pants were gone too.
The stars looked so pretty peeking through a break in the clouds. He could make out Orion’s belt. Just a little.
Just a little.