Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

The Thing in the Fridge

Posted: January 14, 2014 in Horror, Short Stories

Carra leaned up against the hood of a rusted out hulk that had once been a car. Were it not for her so desperately needing a rest she would not have even stopped. Even so, the young woman had thoroughly inspected the flaking piece of junk, an old Chevy Nova, before half supporting herself on it. The car was almost uncomfortably warm against her backside. It was the hottest part of the day and long hours of searching had literally wrung the perspiration from her body. Carra was a long boned college girl and in reasonably good shape, except for those last ten pounds that just refused to go, but this was the fourth day of the search, hopes were straining thinner by the hour, and her water bottle had two or three swallows left in it at the most.

God, she wanted a cigarette. In a gesture of defiance to anything that would hold her back, she had thrown out the last half of her last pack over a week ago. It was take a break or go crazy. Surely a little rest wouldn’t hurt anything? Maybe it would though, maybe it would mean the difference between life and death for a lonely, frightened little girl.

Tamla Francine Picker had been missing for five whole days. Northern Florida was in the middle of the worst drought to hit the area in twenty years. That was five days without water in blistering heat. Still volunteers from across the panhandle were desperately searching for her. Wildfires were creeping up from Ocala and the murder rate was higher than ever in an already violent state. Tensions wound to a fever pitch, people, Carra included, seemed to have made finding little Tamla Picker something of a personal crusade. People were looking for hope and at least one happy ending in this summer of sorrow.

And there still is hope, Carra had to remind herself. Yes, there were predators abroad, even in this backward corner of a state most people thought consisted entirely of sunny beaches surrounding Miami and the artificial wonderland that was Disney World. One in particular had caught the media’s eye, putting enough chum into the water to excite the interest of that particular school of sharks. The Frogman, Carra had first started seeing the name about a year ago. Mostly in the paper or on the local news during her increasingly infrequent visits back home.

Five children had been abducted within five months of each other, all along the panhandle, moving west to east, neat as you please from Lynn Haven to Wewahitchka to Port St. Joe to Apalachicola to Carrabelle. Carra sighed. She had hoped to never see this town again. For most people home was where the heart is or where your hung your hat. For Carra, home was where your found your name. Carrabelle Whitney first heard of the Frogman during summer break when fate and fortune, or rather the lack thereof, forced her to return from Tallahassee to the hot humid heart of her childhood prison. Papa was dead and the house only had Mama with her old fashioned ideas and her old fashioned manners to keep it company. Slowly at first, it fell into greater disrepair every month without its grizzled and often drunken caretaker. Even the cheapest of repairs and most infrequent of maintenance were better than nothing at all.

Papa was dead. Mama was getting senile and the entire panhandle was mad with “Frog Fever” as people started calling it. Everywhere he struck, everywhere a child was taken, the Frogman left behind a single mark, a single print, but not a fingerprint. He left behind one paw print, lovingly, painstakingly painted out in blood. Never the blood of the victim and never human. Always rat blood or snake blood, sometimes gator or like that first time, which really made the name stick, frog blood.

It was sensational enough, crazy enough, to get the big networks interested. Reporters and cameramen became a common sight. For a brief time, Carabelle, the town that was her namesake, experienced a influx of money into the region that it hadn’t seen since WWII when the Army was suddenly buying up land everywhere and building hundreds of airstrips. Cop cars and news vans and RVs and boat trailers and FBI mobile crime labs and tow trucks were everywhere, choking up the narrow streets, roaring up and down ragged country lanes, parked alongside long stretches of two lane hardtop that should have been repaved ten years ago.

Carra had not been surprised in the slightest. She was studying archaeology and anthropology up in Tallahassee, studies which often threw into sharp relief man’s morbid obsession with murder and scandal down through the centuries. Carrabelle the girl had quietly hated Carrabelle the town more than ever that summer. Obsessed with scraping together enough money, enough grants, enough government assistance, and enough loans for another year of school, she hadn’t the time or the inclination to indulge in the lurid gossip and self-indulgent all night prayer vigils of the other locals. She just wanted out, out from the family and the house and the town that had tried to hold her back her entire life. Her first two years at college had been too good, too sweet a taste of what life could be, to come back home and settle down to making babies like all her other highschool friends.

Eventually, she did just that. Carra didn’t get two of the grants she needed, which meant she had to get an extra job, but she did get away. She escaped back to Tallahassee for another year of college and while she was gone, over the winter, the Frogman slept. Some people said he was laid up, hibernating, grown slow and sluggish like some cold-blooded beast. Worse, some people were afraid enough to believe such nonsense – – that maybe he wasn’t human. For months and months nothing was heard from him at all. Then, like some vengeful spirit reawakening with the spring, the abductions started again, moving from east to west, coming up out of the drooping peninsula like a plague. All along the coast, through Cedar Key and Horseshoe Beach and Steinhatchee, the terror began to resurface. There was talk of monsters and mob justice, of lynchings and laws to control the movements of sex offenders.

So here it was, summertime once again, hotter than ever, hotter than the hell Mama always warned her about, and she was stuck in Carrabelle, both the town and her life. Tamla Picker had gone missing five days ago. Almost immediately, a call had gone out for volunteers to search for her. On the third day of Tamla’s disappearance, Carra had been among the many to show up at the county courthouse in answer to that call. Two days later and there was still no end in sight.

There is still hope, Carra reminded herself, there is still hope.

Because there was no sign of the Frogman’s bloodstained prints, no grisly calling card left behind by some occult visitor. In every other abduction, long before the bodies were ever found, sometimes even before the parents knew a child was missing, the sign of the Frogman would be found somewhere. On a doorstep, on a sidewalk, spattered on a windowpane or stained onto the bark of a tree, the Frogman always left a sign. There was no sign this time. Five days and still no sign no matter how hard or how far afield the forensic teams searched. People still hoped, still believed that Tamla was not the latest of the Frogman’s playthings.

That wasn’t the only reason to hope either. Some people bandied about the idea of a parental abduction. Police looked into the whereabouts of Tamla’s long gone father over the last week in spite of her mother’s protests. He had never wanted anything to do with his child then, so why would he want anything to do with her now? Nevertheless police had investigated the possibility. During the probable time of Tamla’s disappearance her father had been over three hundred miles away locked up in a Mobile, Alabama jail on his usual charge of drunk and disorderly with an extra assaulting a police officer thrown in for good measure. Mobile police were quite adamant about Mr. Picker’s location on the day and time in question. He was in their custody and there was no chance, not even the slightest possibility, of an escape, a madcap drive to Lanark Village just east of Carrabelle, and an abduction. The question then became, if Mr. Picker wasn’t responsible for his daughter’s disappearance, if the Frogman hadn’t taken her, then who did?

The obvious candidate was the child’s mother. This too was another dead end. Jaded minds speculated darker, more self-preserving motives behind Bessie Picker’s frequent and often very public emotional displays. Some people said she deserved an Oscar for the acting she did in front of cameras and reporters. The fact was anyone who had met Bessie Picker, and Carra was one of them, knew not only that she could never have harmed her daughter, they also knew her own whereabouts where well accounted for on the afternoon Tamla dropped off the face of the earth.

Bessie was a single mother of two children by two different fathers that worked two very demanding jobs to support her struggling family. Carra’s heart went out to the scrawny, prematurely gray woman. The afternoon Tamla disappeared Bessie was working a double shift at the Lanark Pride seafood processing plant, shelling crabs for the cannery. Unable to afford a babysitter, Bessie had allowed Tamla to roam the front offices and sidewalk of the plant, the secretaries keeping an indulgent, but watchful eye on her. Bessie had noticed her daughter was missing during the thirty minute break her employers graciously provided between shifts. After a frenzied search of the plant, surrounding area, then the village itself, during which a precious hour and a half was lost, the plant manager finally called the police. Bessie was too far gone by that point to make the call herself.

There were other possibilities to be sure; drowning, random abduction, the child becoming trapped inside some enclosed space and then expiring from heatstroke or asphyxiation, even the outside chance of something as strange as a gator or shark attack. Yet still people hoped. Carra hoped. She wanted this summer of hell to be over. To be back at college. To be back among her friends and her precious books. Most of all, though, she wanted to find little Tamla. Carra wanted her to be safe and reunited with her red-eyed, pinch-faced mother.

Because if that could happen, well, then anything was possible. It meant there was still hope for her and the town whose name she bore. It meant that miracles were possible, even in this windblown, tide washed, hopeless little place.

She had rested long enough. Carra roused herself though an act of will in the same way she roused herself to clean rooms at a motel, in the same way she roused herself to make morning classes after a night of drinking with her sorority sisters, in the way she roused herself to attend the spooky services held at her mother’s Primitive Baptist church on a Sunday morning when the air was already unbearably hot and salty. She was now part of the team, the mission, the quest, just like everyone else.

Carra did a quick visual survey as she peeled her backside away from the hot, sticky surface of the rusted car hood. She had gotten separated from the rest of the group, which was technically a no-no, but something had pulled her in this direction. Perhaps it had been the shimmering hulk of the old car, which she had searched and turned up empty. Maybe it was the disorderly scree of mechanical refuse that stretched for a mile or so off to the west. There were plenty of nooks and crannies here for a little girl to fall down and be hurt or knocked unconscious or become trapped. Carra resolved herself to exploring each and every one. She was west of Carrabelle’s tiny excuse for a beach, right where the shore petered out. Looking inland she could see the lighthouse a mile or so off. Looking out over the water she could see Dog Island and the Gulf of Mexico beyond it. Here, between the road and the open expanse of water, scrub grass and tiny wind-twisted trees took hold. What little beach there was left had become a dumping ground for old vehicles and air conditioners, broken bottles and household garbage, torn fishing nets, smashed up crates, old lobster traps, and crumpled up beer cans. It was a junkman’s delight and a searcher’s nightmare.

Carra sighed and set to work. She began carefully walking off a large grid just as the professional searchers had taught her and the other volunteers on Wednesday. She inspected each depression in the ground, each pile of refuse, and each clump of spiky palmettos individually and from several angles. Maybe she hadn’t gotten into this thing with the best of intentions – – search for a missing child or go to another Primitive Baptist service with Mama? The fact that she had missed out on one of two badly needed grants because she wasn’t active enough in volunteer services made the choice easy – – but she was determined to do it to the utmost best of her ability. The need, the vibe, of the search for hope and redemption embodied in a little girl had gotten into her blood.

She was going to do it and do it right.

The young woman froze when her eyes came to rest on the abandoned refrigerator. It was a big, heavy, black, rust-spotted thing laying on its back in a open patch of sand. The was something dreadful about it, something very omen-like about the way it sat there. Carra stifled the urge to scream. She hadn’t seen anything yet. She didn’t know anything yet. A scream would just bring in every other searcher within earshot at top speed and hell bent for leather. If this was Tamla’s final resting place, and Carra prayed to the fire and brimstone god of her mother that it wasn’t, the poor lost girl deserved a quieter, more dignified discovery than that.

Forgetting her well-drilled grid approach, Carra crossed the open patch of ground to the slab-like refrigerator. Sand, bottle caps, tiny bones and bits of shattered glass crunched underfoot. Everything seemed very quiet. There were no calls from the seagulls above. The shushing whisper of the waves on the beach faded away. A cloud drifted over the sun and the world fell into midday shadow.

Carra did not want to look into the fridge, but she had to. She would look into that fridge for Tamla and for herself and for the town whose name she shared. The worst possible outcome would be the unhappy end to an unhappy search, but somehow she didn’t believe that. She instinctively knew Tamla was not trapped inside that brown-spotted thing. There was no child inside the fridge. There was still hope.

In a rush of forced bravery Carra seized the handle that had not broken off from the heavy door and flung it wide open. A wave of unutterably nauseous air billowed up out of the fridge like the pollen of death. Choking back vomit, Carra took one backward step, eyes rooted in fascinated horror to the thing in the fridge. There was no child in the fridge. She had been both right and wrong.

No human child.

The desiccated, almost mummified form was curled in upon itself fetus-like. Carra could vividly picture its last violent death spasm. She had searched for a child and found one. Not Tamla though. This thing was some kind of abomination, some sort of genetic mistake warped by bad genes or bad water or bad nutrition. It had to be.

Any other explanation was
not possible. Things like this didn’t exist in reality. There were no such things as monsters or aliens or, or… frogmen. Carra shuddered. Nothing in her archaeology and anthropology courses had ever prepared her for anything remotely like this. There was a trace of human ancestry about the bone structure of the hips and shoulders, a certain recognizable symmetry to the shallow rib cage, but the similarities ended there. There was something of the rat about it too, something of the frog and the snake and the alligator and all the other kinds of blood by which the Frogman left his mark.

The world seemed suddenly filled with terrible, malevolent possibilities. The idea that primates were not the only order of life to walk upright upon the surface of the planet was no longer laughable. It was deadly serious. The thought that the Native American legends of skunk-apes and gator-men might be true would keep her awake on the lonely nights when her friends were out and about Tallahassee and she sat home by herself.

Nothing seemed real anymore.

Who would blame any mother for abandoning a child as warped and monstrous as this? There would be no reports of parental abduction for this thing. What parent would want it? What family would accept such a changeling into their nursery? Predators that hunted children were the great fear of our time, but this child obviously was a predator. The flat serpentine head and tentacular, brutally clawed arms and legs attested to that.

Carra had searched for hope and found horror. Was this the Frogman’s child? Was he even now seeking revenge? Slowly, deliberately, jaws clamped against the bile rising up from her stomach, Carra leaned over and closed the fridge. She turned her back upon the insane and the unnatural. There was a search to continue, a little girl to be found. Hope to be found.

With mechanical deliberateness Carra returned to walking her grid. Eventually she rendezvoused back with the others. Tamla was not found that day, but she was found, alive, though not by Carra. A shrimping boat discovered a tiny canoe with a tiny, frightened, sunburnt little girl inside it. Later Tamla would tell concerned parents and reporters and investigators she had wanted to go fishing. Taken away by the tide she had existed for days and nights alone on the waters. She ate the worms she had brought for bait and, once, a fish that had jumped into the boat. She had a sip of seawater and decided she didn’t like the taste before she became too weak to drink at all.

Tamla was found. Hope was found.

Not for Carra though. She left Carrabelle never to return. Nor did she ever to return to anthropology and archaeology, too afraid of what other hidden aberrations she might uncover as she searched out the secrets of the earth. She changed her major to Physics after that unforgettable, desperately needing to be forgot summer. Physics gave the chaos of the universe laws and boundaries. It helped to rein in the darkness.

Carra never did forget the twisted form of the thing in the fridge and she never told. When a junkman found the weird skeletal creature a month later, borne up out of its rusted metal womb, and the Frogman’s reign of terror ended, she offered a prayer of thanks up to the god that had made men and monsters alike.