by Devin Miller
The fears of childhood have a way of following us into adulthood. Literally.
As a kid, there was always something about the swamp over the fence. How many baseballs had I lost in that muddy water, every time vaulting over the centerfield fence, telling myself there was nothing to be worried about, it’s just a swamp, no big deal. You hit it, you get it. But my friends agreed—the swamp gave us all icy feelings in our guts that we couldn’t shake. It was like there was something in there, something hungry, watching, drooling.
Even all these years later, coming here with my eleven-year-old son, I’m surprised at how the sight of the unnaturally dark and ominous swamp makes my bowels clench into a tight fist. Everything’s the same: the smell of cut grass hovering over the park; the distant clink of batters on neighboring fields; the sun cutting into the pitcher’s eyes in the evening, but somehow not making it to the swamp.
I used to come here on Saturdays with my dad—he could lay a fat one down the middle like no coach I ever had. He taught me about pulling the trigger on an inside pitch and landing it in the left-center gap, and about waiting on an outside pitch and smacking it over the second baseman. But mostly, he taught me how to use my hips and drive it over the centerfield fence.
One particular day I’ll never forget, with a 5-gallon bucket of balls beside him, we set to work. In a round of twenty pitches, I’d hit three over. Each time, I did my special dance in the batter’s box that had my dad rolling his eyes and telling me to get over the fence and get the balls—they were expensive, after all.
What was I going to say? “No, Dad! There’s a monster in the swamp!” He’d have laughed and said what ten-year-old home run hitter is afraid of swamp monsters?
It was as if the dense vegetation and thick air dampened all sound. As soon as I scaled the fence, I felt eerily alone and watched by something out there in the dimness. Only a few islands of squelchy ground were navigable, separated by a sea of ankle-deep stinking mud. Some days, like this particular hot July day, steam rose from the mud in strange patterns that resembled shapes.
One ball perched on an island a few feet away; I grabbed it and tossed it back into left field, where Dad walked around with the bucket and loaded up the balls again. The next one was farther away, but still visible, red curving seams just breaking the muddy surface like someone’s nose surfacing for air.
My cleats made sucking noises as I walked, but another sound made me stop dead in my tracks, an inexplicable chill having come over me despite the heat. It was a growling sound—a gravelly grumble—a happy snarl that could only be made by something big and hungry. I looked around frantically, wondering why, why in the world hadn’t I brought my bat with me?
But I couldn’t see anything in the swamp ahead. Tall trees grew from the soupy ground about twenty yards away, and masked everything beneath them in a blanket of shade. I watched the mud for ripples that meant a beast’s movement, but it just sort of oozed, like the surface of a slowly boiling witch’s cauldron.
I reached the second ball and tossed it over. Only one more to go, but I couldn’t spot it anywhere. It had gone out a bit closer to the foul pole, so I started trudging that way, but after ten steps and hopping two islands, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was walking the wrong way. I knew the ball was over here, but some childish instinct was screaming at me to turn tail and run.
A moment later I found out why. That bestial snarl came again, rolling across the mud like a rockslide, hitting me with that kind of force. It was much closer, and my head snapped up from the search and locked onto the source.
Right at the edge of the trees it crouched, half-concealed behind a fern, stuck somewhere between visibility and descent into shadow, staring at me with green eyes, pointing at me with a long snout. My breathing and heart stopped when my gaze fell on yellow teeth, jagged, jutting up from either side of its mouth. I took in a row of spines running down its back and a clawed arm supporting itself on the closest tree before my eyesight began to dim.
The horror of what happened next saved me. The creature moved, just the slightest bit—it leaned toward me and opened its mouth, and despite the gloom I could see something stuck in its back teeth, something pearly white attached to something stringy, falling down its chin.
The realization that that had once been bone and a strand of flesh slapped me back to myself. I turned and ran, fast as I could, through the mud and mush, and leapt onto the fence and swung myself over. I fell on my butt, all the air knocked out of me, on the verge of tears but too scared to actually leak any.
“Hey, you okay?” Dad called from right field. He had the bucket in one hand.
I stood, my ankles less sturdy than the mud behind me. I looked, but the creature had ducked back into the murkiness. Still, I sensed it was there, watching, wondering if I would wander back.
“I couldn’t find that last one,” I said. “Sorry! It might have been buried in the mud out there.”
“Well, you really got all of it. Guess that’s the price we pay for knowing how to hit, eh?”
I faked a laugh and agreed. But the rest of the day, I didn’t have the strength to hit another one out. You hit it, you get it. That was the rule. And there was no way I was getting it.
I’ve thought about that day a lot over the years, the countless times I’ve been back here, trying to figure out what that thing could have been. My best guess was an alligator that, for some reason, had wanted to climb up that tree at just the moment it saw me. But deep down, I knew it wasn’t a gator. It was too big, for one, and its arms were too long, and gators didn’t have spines protruding down their backs.
Starting to lob some pitches to my son, I wondered again about it, coming up with crazy scenarios—a rogue pharmaceutical company disposed of radioactive waste back there, and some lizard grew to enormous, man-eating size. Too many movies on ScyFy.
The force of my thoughts must have been powerful, because two pitches later my son hit one high and arching over the left field fence. I tried to see where it landed, keeping my eyes on it while my son danced in the batter’s box.
“Want me to get it?” he asked.
But I knew what could be out there. “No, it’s okay, you gather up these others.” I walked through the grass and climbed over the fence—much more difficult than it used to be, but I managed not to fall on the wet ground.
My eyes fixed on the ball, about midway between the fence and that intimidating line of wood and darkness. I started toward it. Slowly, at first, glancing around furtively, unsure why my mature, adult heart was pounding, why my breath came in shallow little gulps, why my skin felt cold and covered in gooseflesh. I picked up the speed until I was almost running the last few feet.
“Ha!” I said when I picked it up, holding it at eye level like some precious gem.
Then, very distinctly, came the sound I hadn’t heard in decades but that resurrected memories at once. A low, throaty, carnal growl. Fear washed over me like someone had dumped a bucket of icy water over my head. I didn’t bother searching for the creature. I put my back to the trees and sprinted for the field, not stopping until I was back in left field.
I did stop though, and I peered through the fence, but the only living things I saw were two birds chasing each other through the top branches, and a frog hopping into the mud.
“You find it?” my son asked.
“Sure did,” I called. “Hell of a hit. But you know what I think we should do? Work on hitting one out over right field. Where there’s no swamp.”
“Over the Fence” © 2012 Devin Miller
Original fiction debuting at Fear and Trembling Magazine.
(Image Credit: Schyler at en.wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons)