Fiction: Tenderfoot

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By Daniel José Older

I remember Delton Jennings. Bumped into him pretty regularly on my late-night sojourns and the guy was nice enough, if you could get past the rambling and hygiene issues. But this flattened mass of flesh, blood-crusted hair and organs? There’s a name tag where they guessed the foot would’ve been and without it, I wouldn’t know old Delton from a ham sandwich.

The one thing that is impossible not to notice is the smell. It’s not the pee-plus-beer-plus-a-quarter-century-of-body-odor combo that Delton usually rocked. It’s something more animal-like. As if he’d been wrestling in a zoo and lost.

I concentrate hard, watching the air around him for those little shining satellites that tell me what’s going on with folks, but nothing comes. He’s already been dead at least six hours and rotting in this morgue for three, so whatever memories his corpse carried could easily have fluttered away. But then, slowly, a few flashes return. It’s the sound of leaves rustling, something huge moving through the underbrush. A jolt of utter terror courses through me – I assume it was Delton’s, ’cause I don’t frighten easily. I hear a high-pitched shrieking – something not human. A few flashes of light burst out of the darkness and the inside of my head turns somersaults. Then everything goes black.

I’m dizzy when I open my eyes. It’s not that I’d been expecting Little Bo Peep, but dealing with this giant, screeching monstrosity seems a little out of my pay grade. My creepy, translucent bosses at The Council Of the Dead are gonna need to hear about all this, but there’s a few more leads to check up on first.

I like to get a strong Puerto Rican coffee after I visit the morgue. It’s the perfect palate-cleanser for all that creepy sterility. I sip the extra-strong, extra-sweet brew out of a little plastic cup as I walk up Nostrand Ave towards Eastern Parkway. The ghostly dickheads upstairs have selected my half-dead-half-alive ass to do this job, for some nefarious reason, I’m sure. I’m the only one like me, far as anyone knows, and it gets lonely, but the Council always finds a way to use my situation to their advantage.

The rain keeps starting and stopping like an anxious lover, who doesn’t know if he should spend the night. The sky has been clouded over all day, but the true evening darkness is just beginning to settle in. I finish my coffee and walk into the sloping park that’s nestled between the Botanical Gardens and the library.

Brett Colson crouches like a scruffy gargoyle in his regular perch, on an old bench halfway up the slope. He’s talking to himself, but waves at me genially as I approach.

“Bad business with Delton,” I say.

It takes Brett some effort to pull away from whatever conversation he was busy with before I showed up. “Bad indeed,” he finally manages.

“You see him before it happened, anytime?”

“Carlos, me and Delton been running these streets together for damn near twenty years. I seen Delton every day.”

“So, what’s the deal?”

“I dunno, man.” Brett fists up his face in disgust. “D disappeared one night last week, showed up again, reeking like he was rolling around with some circus animals. Couldn’t get the smell off him.”

The smell came before he got stomped. I have some recalculating to do. “Didn’t say where he went?”

“Didn’t remember. But that’s not so odd for Delton. Thing is, though, he actually got hisself cleaned and everything at the shelter on Fulton, and still couldn’t get that prehistoric foulness of him. We woulda teased him ’bout it, but it was all kinda creepy. Now I’m glad we didn’t.”

“Damn.”

“Did you know D had a dentistry degree?”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yessir, went to school and everything. Had a wife and kids once upon a time, too. His degree’d-up ass still landed next to mine on this here park bench.”

“Look how she swings.”

Brett pours a swig of his bottle onto the grass and takes one, himself. I wonder if Delton will turn up in the afterlife, maybe even end up back here, and keep his old drinking buddy company. You never know.

***

Like drunk teenagers with too much toilet paper, cops have strewn that ridiculous yellow tape haphazardly across the upper park area. I find that if I act like a real dick and scowl a lot, I don’t even have to flash the fake FBI badge that the Council Of the Dead gave me – the street grunts just assume I’m some high-up brass they’ve never met and do whatever I tell them. But I’m not in a mood to take chances, so I exaggerate my grimace, lean hard on my wooden cane and flip out the silver shield. With a few arbitrary curses thrown in for good measure, the two uniforms guarding the crime scene fall right into line.

You can tell the new guys ’cause they have a lot to prove. It’s written all over their faces. This one’s named “O’Malley” and he’s masking how mortified he is with an exaggerated, brotherhood-of-cops chumminess.

“What’s going on, Agent?” he chuckles, like we’re old college buddies. “Didn’t know the feds wanted in on this one.”

“We don’t,” I say curtly. I don’t like forced friendliness, especially when I’m in character. “Just swinging through for a looksee. Where’s the kill spot?”

O’Malley makes an I’ll-take-him-you-stay-here sign to his partner, who just rolls his eyes. I follow the kid up a winding path into the darkening underbrush. “You shoulda seen the body, man,” he yammers. “It was like someone ironed him.” I’m too busy trying to weed out all the new-guy excitement this guy’s projecting so I can focus on the crime scene. So far, though, it’s just your basic city-park deal: the slow pulsing of plant life arching towards the sky, a flurry of insects and the scattered frenzy of a few midsized mammals scurrying for trash. Oh, yes: and the unforgettable aura of homelessness – that pungent, lived-in-clothes desolation.

“Here we go, boss.” O’Malley waves his light over a dark stain on the path. “This is where the bum got done.” I scowl at him and walk up close to where Delton’s blood is slowly absorbing into the cement. There’s not much left for me that hasn’t been swallowed up by forensics or the urban wilderness. A few candy wrappers and beer bottles are scattered around – remnants of Delton’s last supper, no doubt – and a little further away, a used condom and an old hat. None of this is particularly helpful. I take a step into the total darkness of the underbrush. It’s here I realize that there’s something else odd about the park tonight. It’d been bothering me since I stepped in, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, like a humming you don’t notice until it stops. There are no ghosts here. Usually, any city park hosts a whole cross-section of spirits. This park’s particularly alive with the dead; you can see ‘em fluttering in their strange circles, like glow bugs, any time after sunset. Well, I can, anyway. But tonight: it’s like an empty schoolhouse. A silence so deep it curls up inside my ears.

Then, all at once, I’m inundated by a rush of thick, pungent wind. The trees around me tremble and send up a mournful shushing. Back on the path, O’Malley shifts his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. The leaves convulse more frantically. I hear the snapping of branches. Something huge is moving very quickly towards us.

I smell it before I see it; that same old-feces-circus-tent stench from the body. O’Malley yells something unintelligible and I duck as three gunshots ring out behind me. There’s a flurry of motion – the huge fast thing lets out its deafening shriek and thunders even faster towards us. It’s only a fuzzy flicker – tall as a two-story building, long matted hair and all shiny-transparent like a jellyfish. It bursts out of the trees and knocks me on my ass.

For the first year after my death, I got the heebie-jeebies each time I rolled up on some runaway spook, but after a while, you get used to it, and I haven’t felt much of anything for quite a while. This situation, on the other hand, has reached some place deep inside of me and crushed all that cool-headed resolve. Find out what’s going on, the Council message had said. Okay, I found out: there’s a huge hairy freak show in the park. Done. I hear that inhuman shriek, mixed with the wet, crunching sound that’s probably the end of Officer O’Malley. I don’t look back, don’t think. I just run. I don’t stop running ’till I reach my friend Victor’s spot in Crow Hill. I ring the bell until I collapse in a heap on his doorstep and only then, do I realize I’m bleeding.

***

“Really, babe? Penicillin? You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

“You can’t crush up some aloe, love muffin, and make this all go away, okay? That gash is deep as shit.”

“Oh, is that all I do? Crush up some aloe? Victor, I swear to God, if Carlos wasn’t here bleeding all over my couch, I would stab you in the neck.”

It’s comforting, really, the gentle love-hate routine that Victor and his girl Jenny banter back and forth over me. I wake up smiling, in spite of the dull throbbing in my flank. The brand new thing called “terror” is only a faraway echo.

“He’s awake. Put the kettle on, Vic.”

“You’re the Tea Master General; you put the kettle on.”

“Victor….” There’s a serious threat in Jenny’s voice. It might be the threat of no ass for a month, but whatever it is, it works. When I open my eyes, it’s Jenny’s calm, slender face that’s looking down at me. She’s one of these new-age urban herbalist types, straight out of Minnesota or Ohio or somewhere, by way of some fancy liberal arts school. In spite of it all, she’s grown on me. Victor’s a paramedic with the FDNY. The combination makes for some fiery dinnertime showdowns about the best way to manage a broken bone, but the make-up sex is sensational, from what I can hear one room over.

“You’re gonna be all right, Carlos,” Jenny says. “I’ll keep Victor busy making tea so he can’t get to you with any of those synthetic death medications he loves to gank from the station.”

“Actually, synthetic death medication sounds like it might really hit the spot right now,” I say. When I sit up, it sends splintering pain all up and down my right side.

“Lie down,” Jenny scowls. “And shut up. I’ll let you know when dinner’s ready.”

Dinner is fake chicken, mixed with something green called “kale”, but I eat it, anyway.

“You gonna tell us what happened?” Victor asks. By the way he gets a little rounder each time I visit, I’m guessing he still sneaks in a few pork sandwiches during those long nights on the ambulance.

“Probably not,” I say.

“Really, you should go to a hospital, man. That wound is nasty.”

“You know damn well I can’t do that.” We have this argument almost every time I show up at their door with some otherwordly injury. My heart barely beats at all. My complexion is a dull, brownish-gray. Medically speaking, I’m dead – a partially resurrected, gimp-legged half-wraith. Treatment at a hospital would mean answering far more questions than I care to. Much easier to just come here, where I only say what I need to and get some form of dinner on top of it.

“What’s up with the elephants?” Jenny asks. I look at her with raised eyebrows. “Elephants. You wouldn’t shut up about them when you were writhing around on our couch.” She flails her arms in the air and affects some version of a Spanish accent. “‘Oh, the elephants! Estop the elephants! Oh!’”

“Okay,” I say. “I got it. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” But my mind is racing. Is that what I saw flashing out of the underbrush?

“That’s what did this to you?” Victor gapes. “I’ve never had an elephant injury before.”

“No,” I say. “It was…hairy.” The frenzied memories aren’t leaving me with much information to go with. “It was huge and hairy and it stank. That’s all I got.”

“The Hindus believe that elephants used to be able to fly,” Victor informs me. “Until one of them fell out of a tree onto a great meditating sage and he cursed away their wings.”

“Whoopee,” Jenny says. “I know how to google, too.”

Victor grunts.

“Elephants,” I say, retreating deeper and deeper into my mind. “Elephants.” I look up at Jenny and Victor. “Can I use your phone?”

When the regular old fully-dead Council agents want to get in touch with headquarters, they just use that special afterlife telepathy shit and it’s done. My halfnhalf ass has to use the phone. I receive all their irritating updates and directives perfectly clearly – comes through like a radio blasting inside my head, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t work the other way. They rigged up a phone line and answering machine somewhere in that vast, misty warehouse they’ve taken over in Sunset Park. I call the number, leave my message and wait for the reply to blare through my skull.

“It’s Delacruz,” I say (as if anyone else calls them on that line). “Updating on the Delton Jennings park murder. Checking on a possible link to a phantom pachyderm.” I feel stupid saying that, but it sounds better than “ghost elephant”. “Check and advise on any recent circus or zoo fires. Also: an Officer O’Malley with the NYPD was injured or killed earlier while I was at the scene. Advise on status. That’s all.” Is that all? Is it ever all? I hate updating. I hang up and sit on the bloodstained couch to wait.

The reply takes a little longer than usual. When it does come, it rustles me from a troubled nap. Council Of the Dead to Agent Delacruz. A dull ache begins to spread across my forehead. Your orders are to detain, but not destroy, the subject. Do not, under any circumstances, damage the ghost elephant. I hate my job. Capture it and bring it to headquarters. That is all.

I don’t know if I can all-the-way die or not, but I have a feeling I’m about to find out. Just the thought of going anywhere near the park sends a shudder through me.

“I’m out,” I say, poking my head into the kitchen.

“You’re not even better, yet!” Victor says.

It’s true; my flank still burns every time I move. I shrug and then scowl in pain.

“See?” Jenny says. “Just lie back down on the couch for a few hours.”

I shake my head. “Thanks for dinner.”

“You’re a pain in the ass.”

***

Whenever something sinister seems to be brewing at the Council Of the Dead, Riley is the dude I politic with. They usually partner him up with me on assignments, and he’s the closest thing to a friend I’ve got in the Underworld. Also, he has an uncanny ability to wreak havoc on authority figures and an entire network of likeminded phantoms, scattered throughout the Council, that he goes to for information.

He materializes next to me at the Burgundy Bar. The Burgundy Bar is a rundown saloon in Red Hook, owned by a one-eyed drunk named “Quiñones”. It’s mostly a bunch of dazed alcoholics in there, so no one pays much mind when I sit at the bar, carrying on a full conversation over drinks with someone that ain’t there. Long as Quiñones gets his little package of twenties at the end of each month, care of the COD, he’s perfectly happy ignoring whatever hints of supernatural activity sputter up at our after-hours spot.

“What’d you find out?” I mutter at the gently-glowing apparition beside me.

The drunks can’t see or hear Riley, and he enjoys taking full of advantage of the situation. “Found out you stepped into another dead people clusterfuck,” he says loudly. “Get me a Henney.”

I nod at Quinones. “A Hennessy for my friend.” He winks at me like I’m some happy retard and busies himself with my order.

“It wasn’t an elephant,” Riley says. He loves knowing shit I don’t.

“What the fuck was it, then?”

“I got a guy coming, Dr. Calloway. He’s gonna fill us in on some shit.”

“What’s the word on O’Malley?”

“The cop that got squashed?” Riley lets out a belly laugh.

“He got squashed squashed?” I say. “Or just kinda squashed?”

“No, he’s gonna make it,” Riley chuckles. “But the thing got his shooting arm. Looked like God took a spatula to it. Just flat and splayed out. Like Wile E. Fucking Coyote.”

“Wow.”

“They had to take it off. He’s got early retirement, line-of-duty compensation, and now your freakoid park killing is big news. Press all over it. Major Crimes Division investigating. A hot mess.”

A sparkly, bearded form fizzles into existence in the barstool next to Riley. “Carlos, meet the good Doctor Calloway.” The ghost nods at me and looks around nervously. “Doc, thanks for joining us today. You will note: no afterlifers besides us two are present and everyone else is drunk as fuck and can’t see you. You are free to speak freely.”

Calloway nods again. His fingers fiddle endlessly on the bar. “What’s the what?” I say.

“The what,” Doctor Calloway says, “is that the Council Of the Dead is engaged in the systematic categorization of all things phantom.”

“This we knew,” I say. “Get to it.”

“Which includes building a secret zoological theme park for the afterlife.”

“A ghost zoo?” I say.

“Essentially,” agrees the doctor. “For the purposes of both study and entertainment. And they are particularly interested in tracking down specimens that haven’t previously been analyzed.”

“Eh?”

“Meaning, things that were around before we had the ability or technology to really find much out.”

“Extinct shit,” Riley explains.

“It’s all very sinister, really,” Calloway says. “Like a prehistoric Noah’s ark.”

“Charming,” I say. “So, my friend in the park?”

Mammuthus primigenius,” says the doctor.

“You tangled with a wooly motherfucking mammoth,” Riley translates.

I order three shots of rum. “It seems,” the doctor continues, “that certain species continue to move in migratory cycles, even centuries after they are extinct. The COD charted a pattern of savage disasters – unexplained building collapses, mysteriously crushed vehicles.”

“Flat dudes,” Riley adds.

“All bearing that unmistakable stench so common to long-dead pachyderms, left like footprints behind the stampede. The Council calculated a few routes and determined when the herd would be passing through our fine city.”

I down all three shots in quick succession. “Go on.”

“Their team of forensic zoologists, of which I am occasionally a participant, proposed that the ancient pachyderm may share a common behavioral trait with the modern elephant: an almost-fanatically protective drive in relationship to their young.”

Riley’s looking ornery about me hogging all the shots, so I order two more and give him one. “Using a method too complicated to get into right now, they secured a sample of baby mammoth dung.”

“Then they kidnapped a vagrant that no one would miss,” I put in, “and covered him in it.”

“Precisely!” exclaims Calloway, looking a little too impressed with the whole thing for my taste. “Turns out, mammoths were very attuned to scent. They could tell what kind of mammoth it was that produced the feces, how old, whether it was an ill mammoth or healthy one, all kinds of fascinating information.”

“Fascinating,” Riley says.

“Fascinating, indeed,” the doctor nods.

“So, a ghost momma mammoth returns to the park after the herd passes through,” I say. “She’s thinking she’ll find a stray ghost baby mammoth there and take him along.”

“Instead, she finds Delton Jennings,” says Riley, “and makes a bum pancake.”

“But why’s she still there?” I ask.

“Once she was inside,” Calloway explains, “the COD put the area on a kind of spiritual lockdown. She is trapped within the boundaries of the park.”

I slam my hand on the bar, perhaps a little harder than is really necessary. “That’s why there were no ghosts in the park!” A few drunks look over at me with their shut-the-fuck-up faces and I settle down.

“Only trouble is, they had to put down such heavy barriers to hold her, now nothing dead can get in or out. It’s a no-go zone, now. If they take them down to go in, she’ll make a break for it before they can subdue her.”

“Leave it to the COD to come up with a plan so brilliant that it doesn’t work,” Riley chuckles.

“That’s where I come in,” I say. “Detain, but don’t destroy, the subject. Send the halfie in to catch the momma, cut open the damn boundary from the inside and lure her right into their little Underworld entranceway in Prospect Park. Fuckers got me doing their dirty work again.”

“That’s your job,” Riley reminds me.

I grunt moodily. “Where’s the rest of the herd?”

“Oh,” Calloway throws his translucent arms up in the air. “They’re long gone, stampeded out across the Atlantic Ocean a few days ago.”

“Great.” I finish my drink, grab my walking stick and head for the door.

“Where you off to?” Riley calls after me.

“Gotta sleep off this rum and figure out what the fuck to do.”

***

I wake up the next afternoon to the sound of Victor and Jenny’s grunting, passionate reconciliation. It’s almost as comforting as their bickering – a sweaty, breathless reminder of life amidst all this death. Outside, the sky flirts with the beginnings of night. I’m trying not to think about my date with the giant, prehistoric ghost in the park, but it’s not working. I’m not comfortable being on the same planet with that thing, not to mention subduing it. And I like even less the thought of turning it over to the probing curiosity of The Council Of the Dead. But Riley’s right: it is my job. I let myself out quietly, without disturbing the festivities and head to the Puerto Rican spot for my coffee.

The park is mostly shadows. A few sad lamps let off eerie glows; pathetic little constellations that reach out into the woods. Now that I’m expecting it, the lack of anything supernatural at all is jarring, a scream of white noise. How do you people do it? I wrap my fingers around the walking stick, which conceals my ghost-killing blade. It is my only comfort right now, and I pray with all my might that I won’t have to use it.

The police grunts are gone, but, as if to prove their utter disregard for the rest of the world, they’ve left behind a little makeshift cop memorial to O’Malley’s arm. It features a few corny snap shots of him, a candle and some empty liquor bottles. If I hadn’t promised myself that I’d walk as slowly and calmly as possible, I would scatter it into the weeds. I make each move matter; inch forward at an agonizing pace. The momma will come, but she won’t come angry. I find my spot, a few feet from Delton’s grisly stain, and wait.

I wake up from pleasant dreams of a beautiful, dark-skinned Puerto Rican woman, who only wants to stare in my eyes, but instead, I’m looking directly into a tower of ghostly fur. Momma mammoth has found me. She’s standing about five feet away, studying me. I close my eyes again, make a concentrated effort to suppress the urge to run and vomit at the same time. I breathe deeply until my heart rate returns to the melancholic six beats a minute that I’m used to. I open my eyes again and she’s still there. She raises her furry trunk towards me. I let it explore my whole body. The trunk lets out little snorts as it probes my cane, then proceeds up to my face. It’s wet and smells foul like Delton did. But I am alive. She’s not trampling me, yet. Perhaps the rage has subsided some.

Slow like honey, I raise my hand out, palm to the sky. The snout snorffles its way through my fingers and then retreats back to its owner, apparently satisfied. “I’m going to take you out of here,” I say, very slowly. “I’m going to break the barrier.” She just stares at me, her humongous body rising and falling like a furry tide. “To find your herd.” Maybe I’m imagining things, but she appears to perk up a little. Her breath quickens. Of course, she was alive millions of years before anyone thought to say “herd”, but a halfie can hope.

I take a step backwards, beckoning her with my hands. “C’mon,” I say, in the friendliest voice I can muster. “Come to the edge. I’ll take you to freedom.” It’s hard to say that word, knowing that where I really have to take her is quite the opposite of freedom, but I’m trying to push that out of my head for now. Getting all sappy doesn’t make this job any easier. “C’mon, Mama.”

I think what really gets me is her first step forward. I keep cooing, “C’mon, Mamma, come to freedom,” but by the time we’ve reached a full stride towards the edge of the park, tears are streaming down my face. I will never, in a million years, be able to explain why. We keep walking along, a strange night procession through the park: me crying and cooing, waving my hands in little circles towards myself and the ghost mammoth, lumbering along cautiously.

When we reach the stone wall around the park, I try to collect myself. I wipe my eyes with my sleeves, like some chick on a talk show, and take a few deep breaths so I can stop making those damn little hiccupy sobs. “I’m sorry,” I say to the mammoth. “It’s been a rough week.” She’s glaring furiously at the invisible force field that the COD has rudely erected around the park. Surely, she has already had more than a few unpleasant attempts to escape.

I pull my spirit-killing blade out of its walking stick sheath and the she-mammoth lets out that ear-shattering shriek and rears up above me. Her legs kick the air a few inches from my face. I take two steps back and slash behind me with the blade, trying to feel out the damn force field. I’m cutting air. She lands and I swear New York must be registering a minor earthquake. Her tusks are aimed right at me, two great translucent curved swords reaching out to run me through. She stomps forward.

I slash some more, and finally feel that satisfying pressure against the blade that means I’ve found my mark. The force field gives way, ripping open around us. The great ancient matron stops mid-charge and regards the air that was once her prison wall. A crowd of relieved phantom park critters trickles back in through the new tear. The mammoth watches them scuttle past and then she looks at me. I make a show of sheathing my blade and step over the wall, so she sees it’s alright.

“See?” I say. “It’s safe now. C’mon. Come over. You’re free. You’re going home.” Damnit – the word home chokes me up again, but I recover quickly. She’s huffing and puffing as she reaches her trunk cautiously towards the wall. When nothing happens, she takes a single step forward. Then another. “C’mon, ma, c’mon,” I say. She lumbers out of the park and then we’re standing on Eastern Parkway at four o’clock in the morning, me and my new friend, the momma mammoth.

I’m trying to figure out how we’re gonna make it to Prospect Park when I feel her warm trunk wrap tightly around my waist. Panic sweeps across me like floodwaters. I can’t breath. I can’t move. I can’t even see straight. The whole world turns upside down and then I’m deposited gently onto her mountainous back, looking down on the street. I catch my breath and right myself, reaching one leg down along either side of her body. If God, or whoever, brought me back to life just so I could live this moment, it was worth it. I take two firm fistfuls of ghostly fur and the momma mammoth jolts into a run. Without regard for which streets are populated or who might see us, she barrels headlong towards the park.

The Council Of the Dead has a very strict rule: do not involve humans. Don’t fuck with their lives, don’t appear to them if you’re a ghost, don’t let on that you can see ghosts if you’re not one. In short: leave the greatest mystery of the afterlife a damn mystery. But the Council Of the Dead also kidnapped Delton Jennings, covered him in mammoth shit and sent him off to be trampled. So, if tonight, a few nocturnal stragglers are startled to see a dapper and ecstatic gray-skinned Puerto Rican fly past with tears in his eyes, I couldn’t really give a damn.

The wind ripples fiercely around me, cleansing me of all doubt and indecision. What is left is pure exhilaration. We gallop down the Parkway, cut a left across Grand Army Plaza and burst like a furry ghost rocket into Prospect Park. There’s no more decision to make. We rush along towards the turnoff that would lead to the waiting arms of The Council and their infinite imprisonment. I could urge the mammoth to turn off. She trusts me now. Instead, I smile as we thunder past.

The Park is alive around us. The early-morning birds twitter a high-pitched symphony and the city forest ghosts erupt into a flurry of activity as we pass. We break out of the wilderness and speed down Ocean Parkway at a steady, ass-breaking canter, through Midwood, Gravesend and over the Belt Parkway. Ahead is the infinite Atlantic darkness. I take a deep breath of ocean air and laugh out loud. Some doufy early-morning joggers pass and try to ignore me, the crazy laughing man floating in the corners of their eyes.

When we hit sand, she’s walking. Her body heaves up and down beneath me. I pat her gratefully. Then I grab hold of some fur, dangle down along her wooly flank and drop onto the beach. Side by side, we stroll to the edge of the water. I imagine a whole army of ghost mammoths, thundering out across the waves somewhere, but all I see is darkness and a few stars. I don’t have to tell her to go on now; after a brief pause, momma mammoth launches herself out onto the water. I plant my ass in the sand, light a cigar and watch her flickering glow disappear into the night. There will be hell to pay in the morning – eyebrows raised, forms to fill out, suspicious interrogations. But all that is tomorrow. Tonight, for the first time since I died, I feel alive.

THE END

Bio: Daniel José Older’s spiritually-driven, urban storytelling takes root at the crossroads of myth and history. With sardonic, uplifting and often hilarious prose, Older draws from his work as an overnight 911 paramedic, a teaching artist and an antiracist/antisexist organizer to weave fast-moving, emotionally-engaging plots that speak whispers and shouts about power and privilege in modern day New York City. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, The ShadowCast Audio Anthology, The Tide Pool, and the book Sunshine/Noir (City Works Press), and is featured in Sheree Renee Thomas’ Black Pot Mojo Reading Series in New York City. When he’s not writing, teaching, or riding around in an ambulance, Daniel can be found performing with his Brooklyn-based soul quartet Ghost Star (www.ghoststar.net). Read some of his ridiculous ambulance adventures at www.raval911.blogspot.com.

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IFPFiction: Tenderfoot