The best and worst thing that ever happened to Cal began on June 15th, 1999––the second week after school had let out for the summer. That date would forever be etched on his mind as the day his world began to expand.
Of course, it started out just like any other day.
It was summer and shockingly hot outside. Cal woke up with sweat on his upper lip and behind his ears, his t-shirt sticking to his ribs like a second skin. He coughed, hacking up something from deep in his chest and then he sat up, pushing the twisted sheet off his legs. The sun streamed in through the slatted front window casting halos of hazy light around everything it touched. One long, unbroken finger of sunlight had snuck in from beneath the bottom of the plastic blinds and had found its way to Cal’s head, bisecting his face right down the middle.
This was probably what had woken him up, he decided.
He stood up, his bare feet sticking to the warm wooden floorboards, and crossed over to the small bathroom that sat at the side of his room just to the right of his tiny closet. He didn’t know how he’d gotten so lucky, how God had seen fit to give him a bathroom in his room so he (almost) never had to leave his safe space. Occasionally he'd come home from school and sneak out to the long, galley kitchen for food, but usually he filled up as best he could at lunch, or at his best friend Marlo’s house––where the pantry was always brimming with Capri Sun and Sunny Delight and potato chips and cookies for Marlo and his brothers and their friends.
This way he interacted with Daryl and Eugenia (his stepfather and mother) as little as possible.
As the years went by, he got used to his stomach growling. Hunger became his ally––and he knew that if he was hungry then he was being smart and staying out of Daryl’s way.
After Cal had used the bathroom and brushed his teeth, he found the jeans he’d been wearing the day before––crumpled into a ball underneath his bed––and put them on. He took a white T-shirt from a small stack of clean clothes he’d washed at the local coin-op the day before and slid it over his bony chest.
The apartment didn’t have its own washing machine and dryer, so every Tuesday afternoon Eugenia had a standing appointment with the Laundromat down the street––but Cal had learned early on that flying under the radar was the best way to operate, so he’d long ago stopped asking his mom to wash his clothes for him. The less he was seen or heard at home, the better. Once you’d had someone yank your wrist so hard it broke in two places (all because you’d spilled your milk across the kitchen table), you realized fast staying out of the way was the least confrontational course of action.
Since it was summer and there was no school, Cal had to find unique and interesting ways to occupy himself (and keep out of the apartment) during the day. He loved the summer, how the days seemed to stretch out for an eternity, the sun shining over your head until the last drop of light was squeezed out and the fireflies started blinking in the twilight. He had planned to spend his morning at the park reading the book he’d gotten at the library, and then, when it got to be around noon, he would walk over to Marlo’s house and wake him up.
Then things would really get interesting.
Marlo would sleep all day if his parents let him. He spent his nights watching monster movies and usually wasn’t in bed until close to dawn. When Cal spent the night there, he’d conk out around one, only to be rudely awakened by the sound of a woman’s scream coming from the TV at four or five. The screams and howls and chainsaw sounds that came out of Marlo’s small TV/VCR combo never seemed to bother anyone else in the household, but for some reason, Cal couldn’t say why, those movies haunted his dreams when he was there. He never thought about them when he was home alone, snuggled under his own comforter, but at Marlo’s house, he couldn’t shake them. They gave him strange dreams and he always left his friend’s house with dark, bruise-like circles under his eyes.
Cal had never been a fan of horror movies until he’d met Marlo. He’d had enough horror in his own life, so it wasn’t something he sought out in movies. Mostly, he read biographies of famous people, or Historical stuff, especially anything about World War Two. Books about vampires and werewolves seemed silly to him––especially when he had a real life monster already sleeping in the same bed as his mom.
Still, after he’d begun to spend time with Marlo, he’d started to understand the attraction horror films held. They were a way of escaping into another reality, one that was more exciting, more thrilling than your real life. Except, to Cal, those monster-strewn alternate realities weren't more exciting––they were just different than his normal life, safer perhaps, because he knew the monsters weren't real and could never hurt him. With that secret knowledge to protect him, he could enjoy the scary things the monsters did on screen, never letting fear enter the equation.
Without even realizing it, he'd quickly learned the mythology of each monster, their weaknesses and the way to kill them. He knew that Vampires hated garlic and holy water, that Werewolves had a thing against silver bullets, that Frankenstein’s Monster just wanted to be a real man again––instead of a bunch of dead guy parts. He understood the rules of the Slasher film. Was familiar with how to escape a homicidal maniac or serial killer or zombie horde. He took all of it in through osmosis, so that he'd soon become as well versed in horror mythology as his best friend was.
He didn’t know if he’d ever use this vast array of monster lore for anything other than debating with Marlo, but he didn’t care. He just liked having his brain filled with all of it. In fact, tonight, they were going to watch “Night of The Comet” and he was gonna cram his brain with even more useless information.
He was very much looking forward to it.
Cal spent the morning doing exactly what he'd intended to do: reading about Napoleon under the cooling shade of the town park’s one and only weeping willow tree, totally losing himself on the island of Elba with the exiled French Emperor.
He'd set up shop at his favorite spot, a bench bearing a small plaque on its spine that read, "Dedicated To The Memory Of Stan Stanhope". There was no ‘in loving’ part to Stan Stanhope's dedication––which made it singular among all the other memorial plaques that resided in the park. That’s why Cal liked it so much; why he made it his special place: It wasn’t overly sentimental.
The park wasn’t very crowded for such a sunny Thursday morning. Usually there was a horde of mommies and tots overrunning the playground, the moms trying to tire out the tots so they'd nap when they got home, but for some reason they were missing in action that day. His only company seemed to be Lionel, the homeless man––who Cal had decided must live in the park because he was always there. Cal watched as Lionel stood beside the small man made lake, dragging a stick through the muck at the water’s edge. Even though it was sweltering outside, Lionel was wearing his usual attire: Three winter coats over a t-shirt emblazoned with a bright, yellow smiley face.
As Lionel fished around in the muddy water, Cal stared at his round, sunburned face. In the bright summer light, it looked as if Lionel had sewn strips of faded leather onto his real skin then capped his creation off with a white, Mad Scientist wig. For some reason, Cal thought he remembered Lionel's hair being dark with streaks of grey running through it like the marbled veins of fat in a hefty cut of meat––but maybe he'd been mistaken.
The homeless man ignored Cal’s gaze, fixated on whatever he was trying to dredge up out of the water, so Cal ignored him in return. Sometimes Lionel got chatty and would come over and sit on the bench beside Cal and mumble at him, but that obviously wasn’t on the agenda for today. Instead, the two of them seemed to exist within the same space, but remained utterly separate as they focused their attentions on their individual activities.
Which meant that Cal stuck his nose back in his library book, and within a few minutes was totally engrossed in what he was reading.
When Lionel screamed, it took a moment for Cal to leave his imagination and return to reality. Instinctively, he dropped his book and stood up, his eyes seeking out the spot where he'd last seen the homeless man…but Lionel was gone. The stick he'd been using to stir the lake water was lying on the grass, pointing toward the water, where a few dissipating ripples gave Cal the only clue as to where Lionel must have gone.
Cal jogged over to the edge of the lake and peered down into the murky depths of the water. The lake water was so opaque that he could see nothing but his own reflection mirrored back at him. He squatted down and grabbed the stick, thrusting it into the water. Upon contact, the water around the stick began to seethe with an avalanche of flailing fish, their enormous silvery bodies glistening in the sunlight. Cal took an unconscious step backward, his gaze riveted to the ballet of fish as they danced in front of him, their gaping maws opening and closing in time to some inaudible score.
He felt something grasp the other end of the stick and yank him forward, dragging him closer and closer to the swarm of ecstatic fish as they pirouetted in the water. Cal dug in his heels, pulling back on his end as he refused to let go. Whatever had a grip on on the other end of the stick was inhumanly strong––and it took everything Cal had to keep himself from plunging headfirst into the lake.
Without any warning, the fish suddenly stopped their frantic thrashing, sinking back into the watery depths as abruptly as they had first appeared. The pull on the other end of the stick lessened and Cal fell backwards, landing hard on his left hip, the stick sliding out of the water after him. He lay there in the grass, panting from the unexpected exertion––and it wasn’t until he’d caught his breath and his heart had stopped racing in his chest that he noticed the something protruding from the end of the stick.
Cal squinted hard, but the bright morning light made it impossible for him to deny what his eyes were telegraphing to his brain. There, embedded in the pale wood, was the sharpest looking incisor that Cal had ever seen. Unconsciously, he scooted even further away from the water’s edge, pulling his feet in toward his torso.
With a trembling hand, he reached out and touched the tooth. It was three inches long and impossibly smooth, the edge tapering down to a lethal point.
He had seen a tooth like this one once before, at the Natural History Museum. His grandfather, Bill #1, (both of his grandfather's were coincidentally named Bill) had taken him there for his birthday when he was nine and it'd been heaven. They'd roamed the hallways for hours, disappearing inside every hidden nook and cranny they came to, their minds dazzled by the bizarre dioramas and odd exhibits full of strange and long dead creatures that they discovered.
The other tooth––it could've been this one's twin––was in a square glass case tucked away in a small, forgotten exhibit near the second floor Women's Restroom. There were other teeth in the case with it, but it was by far the largest and most evil looking. Cal had been fascinated by it; so much so that he'd even committed the name of the creature it came from to his young and eager memory.
The little placard beside the tooth bore a two line paragraph explaining what exactly an Acanthostega was: an extinct Tetrapod Genus from the late Devonian Period (365 Million Years Ago). Possessing both gills and lungs, it is considered to be one of the first ‘fish with legs’.
Standing in the air-conditioned darkness of the Natural History Museum with Bill #1, Cal had felt a strange, eerie sensation crawl up the back of his spine and wrap itself around his brain.
And now he felt that exact same sensation steal over him again as he sat, staring into the murky waters of the silent lake, the elongated tooth a pale reminder that something was terribly wrong.