Who’s your favorite writer. Mine – hands down, no questions asked, no options needed – is Ray Bradbury.
Why, you ask?
Have you read him? I respond.
The man wrote with love. It infused every poetic word, every lyrical sentence. His prose didn’t speak. It sang. The man had a vision, and he was damned-well shared it with style. If you haven’t read him, I’d direct you to his collections; “The October Country”, “R is for Rocket”, and “Dandelion Wine”.
What? “No Fahrenheit 451”?
Oh, by all means, that too. But he was primarily a short story writer. “A sprinter”.
If I were to pick out a favorite story (and mind you, there are hundreds, thank God) it would be “The Scythe”. At once terrifying and introspective. Powerfully subtle. Just a beautiful tale I read every few months when I need reminding of what this form can be.
I don’t know how else to put this, but this story felt Ray-like as I wrote it. I don’t kid myself that it’s anywhere near what he’d deliver if he were to tackle it, and I didn’t consciously try to copy him. It’s just that, as I wrote it, it seemed that maybe, if he’d had the chance to read it, he’d have enjoyed it. At least, I like thinking he would.
I hope you do.
“Hurry!” The boy yelled. His tiny lungs, mighty for their size, carried his voice well behind him as he zigged and zagged through the dusty parking lot. A quick glance behind, and his feet tangled – one with the other. He vanished down, in-between the cars.
His parents, burdened with blankets and folding chairs and overstuffed beach bags, rushed to help him, but he popped up just as suddenly as he’d gone down, then off he went again, scrambling among sedans and subcompacts and SUVs.
“I’m okay.” He called back.
They both shook their heads and hurried as best they could, trying to keep his little blonde head in sight.
“Max.” His mother called out. “Max, don’t get too far ahead.”
The roar of the ocean waves pouring over the small rise just beyond the parking lot called out to the boy. His heart quickened in the warm breeze that carried the effervescent smell of salt to his nostrils along with another odor lurking below the brine.
Max, his senses filled with excitement and seemingly deaf to anything else, sped on, his fleeting steps firing off little explosions of dust behind him.
“Max!” His father yelled, adding authority by deepening his voice.
The boy, well-acquainted with this tone, knew the consequences of disobeying. He paused his sprint and waited impatiently for his parents as they struggled to catch up.
He took the time to examine his skinned elbow and brushed the loose dirt and pebbles from the shallow wound, exposing tender, pink flesh to the hot sun.
His mom looked over his shoulder and drew in a breath between clenched teeth.
“It’s okay. It doesn’t even hurt.” He said, a little too casually.
“He’s fine,” His dad said as he divided his load and handed down a beach bag and folding chair to the boy. “Maybe this will slow you down little,” he said, smiling, then relieved his wife of one of her overstuffed bags.
Dad surveyed the parking lot, packed with a line of cars spreading off up the road, waiting to claim a space. A few other families, weighed down with their own beach gear, shuffled by, their sandals flapped against the soles of their feet.
“Lucky we found a space,” said Mom.
“Especially after the way they covered it on the news,” replied Dad.
Max danced in place, almost like he had to relieve himself. “C’ mon!” He urged.
“Alright, Little Man, lead the way.”
Sharing a parental sigh, the adults followed their son toward the place where the asphalt gave way to sand, then up to the top of the small hill. There he paused on his own, just for a moment, to get his bearings.
“Ugh, the stench,” Mother exclaimed. “It smells like a million rotting fish.”
The air felt heavy, as if their nostrils had to work harder to draw the foul air into their lungs. Both the adults recoiled. Mom buried her nose in the crook of her sleeve. Dad simply frowned.
Max didn’t seem to notice, lost in the wonder of the scene below. “There it is,” he shouted, pointing down toward the water’s edge.
A crowd had formed a half circle around the thing.
“Oh my god!” Mom exclaimed. “Can it be real?” She asked.
The beast lay on its stomach, its massive body, the color of fresh-poured asphalt, was taller than two school buses stacked one on top of the other. It lay, half-stranded on the beach. The other half appeared to breathe with the rhythm of the surf. The tail snaked behind it, a broken rudder sunken just beneath the waves, even as its neck roped out onto the sand and then curved back upon itself.
Both Max and his father grinned.
“A real dinosaur,” Dad absorbed the miracle below with eyes wide like his son’s, wiped clean of marketing reports and tax forms and the stresses of adulthood.
“C’ mon,” Max yelled as he bounded down the sandy decline toward the spectacle below, his burdens bouncing against the back of his legs.
“Coming,” Dad cheered, as he shot down the hill after. With each sliding step, his shoes sunk past the ankles until sand packed his shoes tight.
Mom stood forgotten, still hiding her nose. “We can see fine from…,”
Her words fell short of her boys, as they sped down the hill.
“Plesiosaurus?” Dad called as he descended.
“Nope,” replied Max, as if the matter was decided. “It’s too big. Mauisaurus.”
Dad paused a moment and reconsidered. They’d come about halfway down the hill. From here, he could see how it dwarfed the crowd, then he began to run again. “Wait up!”
There was no slowing the boy down, so Dad sped up his pace, his legs wagon-wheeling around, lobbing sand everywhere as he went. Accustomed to being locked beneath a desk for eight hours a day, he exulted in the effort, even as it challenged his breath.
Eyes bright, mouth sucking the fetid air, each step carried him back to his youth until he came to a jarring halt. His leg sank down into a pool of loose sand, past his knee. It took hold of his foot and wouldn’t let go.
His wife had warned him about wearing the shoes. Penny loafers, made of soft calfskin – a reward for countless hours spent bent over his desk beneath harsh lights, his feet cramped into unyielding patent leather. “The sand will ruin them,” she’d warned.
Laughing at his predicament, he tugged at the leg, trying to step out of the hold. It wasn’t coming. With a laugh, he surrendered the shoe. Left it deep in the soft, hot sand. Just a shoe, after all. Once he was free, he kicked the other one high up into the air to land somewhere behind him.
He was a boy again, just eight years old, sharing an adventure with his best friend. Together, they scrambled down the hill toward the denizen of a prehistoric Age.
“How cool would it be if he was still alive,” Max said breathlessly as they reached the beach together, his eyes bright and unblinking. They looked at each other, grinned, dropped their burdens, and began to run.
As they ran, the beast swam through the waters of their imagination, its snaked head and body exploding out of the waves, and then diving down below to hunt coelacanth and giant squid.
They arrived at the crowd together. But now, so close, they could see only the dark grey hunch of its back, listing with the tide over the heads of the people ahead of them.
Max pushed through, his small frame found its way between grownups and teenagers, making a way where none existed.
Dad tried to keep up, but for him, the crowd was a murmuring wall keeping him from the spectacle at the water’s edge.
“Max,” He called out as the boy slipped through the crowd like an eel through waving sea grass. The throng closed up again after the boy passed.
“Excuse me,” He said, his hand on the shoulder of a teenage boy. The youth never turned around. He and those around him stood enraptured, holding their hands over their heads, viewing vast the spectacle through the lens of their phones.
Max disappeared, putting several rows between them.
“Excuse me,” Dad repeated. His urgent voice rediscovered the authority of his years.
Reluctantly, the crowd parted, but admitted him, but only so far. He repeated the phrase several times. “Please,” he said. “Let me through.” It started as a request, then became a statement, and finally a demand.
He thrust his arm ahead of him, followed by this shoulder, and then forced his way through.
The deeper he worked his way into the horde, the tighter it seemed to press against him. The moist heat of crowded bodies combined with the smell of sunscreen and fresh decay smothered the joy he felt just a moment ago.
“Max,” He called out again. “Wait.” He squeezed himself through another row, and as he inched forward, the sun vanished, as if hidden by a cloud. Suddenly cooler, he looked up and saw that it was the colossal body blocking the sun’s light.
The size of the thing struck him all over again, and he imagined that if a wave struck the beast just right, it could roll over onto the beach, crushing his son, unable to escape as the crowd caged him in.
A father’s fear spurred him deeper into the crush. No longer concerned with being polite, he pushed and elbowed his way forward. His legs drove him, even as they slipped in the sand. Deafened to the protests, he swam forward as his arms pushed forward and then parted and pulled in an agonizingly slow breaststroke.
Decay, suntan lotion, sweating bodies pressed against him threatened to overwhelm his senses. He was walled in on all sides. The undulating mass above him blocked out the sky, as the indifferent mass around him impeded his progress forward.
“Stop it!” his son’s high pitched voice cried out.
Dad clenched his teeth and shoved whoever stood between him and his son. “Move!” he commanded. His vision narrowed, and all he could see was the way blocked before him. Mad with claustrophobic desperation, he pushed through the final row and, surprised that he’d broken through, found relative freedom and he spilled over onto his knees. His hand shot out to stop his fall and slapped the tough, cool, rubbery hide of an immense primeval flipper.
He recoiled at the touch. The thing was dead, after all.
He shot a look to his right, and then to the left where he spied a familiar blonde-headed form sprawled on the wet sand. Two teenagers stood above him. One held a blade, dripping red.
Growling, he jumped to his feet and lunged at the one with the knife, sending him flying. The weapon dropped tip first into the sand.
He spun around and saw his son struggle to his feet.
He hugged the boy to his chest, stifling a sob, then he loosened his hold. “You’re okay?”
Max nodded and wiped a tear from his own eye. “I tried to get them to stop.”
Max pointed toward the body.
Carved into the thick hide, jagged and dripping was an uneven circle above a hasty X.
He hugged his son to him again.
“Hey, Asshole.” The teenager had picked himself up from the ground.
Dad let go of his son, then plucked the knife from the sand. His lips tight, he folded the blade closed and dropped it into his own pocket, daring the youth to press his claim. “Get!” He said.
The second teenager tugged at his friend’s arm. “It’s not worth it, man,” he said as he dragged his friend, protesting, back into the crowd.
“You’re sure you’re alright?” Dad placed his hands on his son’s shoulders, then cupped his face, staring into his eyes, no longer wide with wonder, but wet with anger and disillusion.
They hugged again, and then turned and beheld the beast in front of them.
The boy walked over and squatted down in front of the head.
Dad knelt down next to the boy as he caressed the beast’s nose reverently with tentative fingers.
How far had it traveled? How many thousands of miles? His gaze crawled up the hide, past countless crisscrossing scars that told an epic tale of battles won and lost. How many years had it remained hidden? A hundred? A thousand? More?
Dad reached out his hand and touched the head as his son had done. As he stroked the skin, he realized that he touched history. No, prehistory. He looked down at his son who contemplated the animal with grave solemnity.
“What does it mean?” Max asked.
Dad cocked his head. “What?”
“Skull and crossbones, I think.” He got back onto his feet, brushed his hands off on his shorts.
“It’s a shame.” the boy said quietly.
It had hunted its prey in the cold deep waters of legend – a true sea monster if ever there was one, and now, here it lay. The final insult to its long and intrepid life was to be gawked at by tiny mammals — the new kids on the block. Mice.
Dad looked down at the head, hardly bigger than his own. The head that had driven the huge body for millennia, witnessed countless sunrises, and now lay lifeless in the sand.
Max looked up. His eyes shining with tears. “It was so big. How could it be dead?”
Seeing his boy’s reaction to the dead beast made Dad aware of a lesson he’d learned long ago. The callouses of years faded away, and the learning was fresh again, giving rise to a lump in his throat. “Everything dies,” he said.
The boy regarded him thoughtfully as if that truth hadn’t really hit him before. If something so colossal and powerful could die, what about his friends? What about his parents? What about him? He nodded slowly as if his father had just passed on some hidden piece of wisdom.
They stood up. The crowd parted and allowed them to pass.
They had just past through the throng and out of the beast’s shadow when Max took his father’s hand and gently tugged.
The man paused and looked down.
“Why?” the boy squinted as he looked up.
He thought for a moment, “I like to think it’s to make room for something better.”
“Better?” The boy couldn’t imagine anything better than a dinosaur. “Like what?”
The man looked over at the gigantic corpse baking in the sun, then knelt down in the sand and straightened his son’s shirt. “Like you.” He ruffled the boy’s hair and then stood up again. “Let’s go find your Mom.”
“Do you think she’s going to be mad at us for dumping our stuff?”
“Nah. We’ll pick it up on the way back.”
They walked a few more paces, the sand warm and soothing as it covered their feet. The boy paused and looked back a final time.
Dad’s breath caught in his throat as he regarded his son, who was maybe not so much a boy as he’d been when they’d arrived.
Max cast his eyes down, noticed his father’s bare feet then looked up at his mother, waving at them from the top of the hill.
Without shifting his gaze from her, he smiled and said with a grin: “You lost your shoes? Mom’s gonna kill you.”
DL Strand lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
He’s a Husband, Dad, Writer, Filmmaker, Entrepreneur & Hoodlum.
-You can find more of his work at dlstrand.com