Matthew drove his family to the beach despite all the obvious reasons that doing so was no longer a smart or even particularly sane decision. Their station wagon cruised with rotting tires on a road that cut through miles and miles of scrubland. They rolled along beneath another purple sky, the sun a blazing orb, and the few cars they passed all seemed driven by men with frantic, reddish faces.
Matthew’s wife, Sarah, had turned, arms hanging over the seat, to stare at their two children. The boy and girl, in turn, looked out disinterestedly through their respective windows. Behind the children, in the cargo area, the family’s lunch, heavily laced as it was with the suspect mayonnaise, smelled vaguely sour.
“Oh!” Matthew exclaimed as he spied a large dog lying on the shoulder of the road. As he slowed the vehicle, a vulture pulled its head from the dog’s body cavity and took flight with considerable effort. It held a bloody sac in its beak, apparently enjoying something too tasty to leave behind.
Matthew had once heard that, after gorging, vultures would vomit the contents of their bellies to fly away from danger. “It didn’t vomit!” he enthused to Sarah, but she only looked at him sadly and did not otherwise respond.
Matthew slowed to a stop on the shoulder, just close enough that they could still see the dog but not so close that it had disappeared from view under the hood. The kids had always wanted a puppy. Of course, this dog was no pup, a fully grown shepherd by the looks of it, but still, it was a fine-looking animal.
Matthew slapped the steering wheel and turned to the kids with a big, hopeful smile. “What do you think? Should we check him out? It sure doesn’t look like he’s got a home.”
Matthew waited for their jumpy, barely-restrained-by-seatbelts enthusiasm, but he only saw them sit taller in their seats, looking past him with dazed expressions at the dog steaming on the hot asphalt.
“Matt!” Sarah scolded. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Matthew’s head snapped forward, her reprimand tamping his enthusiasm, making the old resentment bubble up. He spoke with a carefully measured tone, as though she were one of the children. “The kids have been pestering me for a dog for a long, long time. You know that. I thought this might be the perfect opportunity.”
Her expression was the one that always seemed to precede her asking what was wrong with him. He hated the question and didn’t understand why there had to be anything wrong with him at all. She motioned helplessly toward the dog. “Are you . . .”
Matthew focused on the dog as he gripped the wheel. It must be lonely out there all alone, and his family could certainly give it a good home—if they wanted.
Flies buzzed about the dog’s open mouth, making Matthew want to bolt from the car and swat them away. Its belly had split open, letting innards spill onto the pavement.
“It needs us, honey,” Matthew said, glancing at the rear-view mirror and pleading with the kids for support. He thought too that the exposed insides, the blood-soupy organs, looked somehow tempting. His mouth watered as he wondered at the taste.
“No, Matt. God, just drive. Please.”
“All right, then,” he said quickly, aggressively, slamming the car into gear and jerking it back onto the road. “I suppose I shouldn’t even bother.”
Matthew and his wife spread out their towels, having had no trouble finding a spot on the nearly deserted stretch of sand. The few bloated bodies that lounged about looked as though they were asleep or otherwise inanimate. Neither Matthew nor his wife would brave the water, but they didn’t stop the kids, either, as the children had their hearts set on swimming.
The family had eaten its lunch at the picnic area, too warm tuna-fish sandwiches and warmer soda making Matthew sure all their bellies must ache as much as his. They had stepped onto the beach immediately afterward, perhaps glad to let the burning sand scald away the memory of suffering through the unpleasantness of eating.
The water remained as still as a sheet of glass (the tides having long since ceased). Black shadows passed beneath the water’s green surface but did not cause so much as a ripple. Matthew worried in a small way about the children as they waded with too-white, mostly naked flesh into the sea, but they giggled and splashed, and he knew children were remarkably resilient.
The kids frolicked and pushed each other under the water as Matthew watched. He had had to abandon the application of suntan lotion to his wife’s back when the slightest pressure from his fingers had left five charred prints that looked, if he were being honest, like she’d been touched by an alien.
His boy rose out of the sea with red-tinged water spraying from mouth and nose. The sound of the children splashing nearly eased his thoughts, but his wife’s increasingly persistent moaning as she held at her belly bothered him greatly. It began as a slight annoyance he could stand, seeing the extent to which her stomach had swelled over her bikini bottom, but as her groans grew louder and her eyes retired inside her skull he knew something had to be done—for all their sakes.
“Please, honey,” he begged, wishing her to go still. They had both begun to blister, the sun especially cruel, and he didn’t need any more grief.
Her wailing (and it had certainly become just that) only increased in volume, however, despite his protests. Or perhaps even because of his protests. At any rate, seeing her fingers digging into the skin around her stomach, Matthew decided to act.
Finally tiring, the children limped out of the water. The boy had been bitten, a hunk of flesh taken from his calf, and by the way she was limping the girl looked to have stepped on something, perhaps a spiny sea creature of some sort. The poison creeping up her leg was visible through her skin as she agonized her way toward him.
Matthew smiled at them, trying to reassure. “Let’s get home. I think we’ve had enough for one day.”
The children looked quizzically at their mother and at the red gash across her belly. Blood leaked into her bikini bottom, staining too the towel beneath her. A gas bubbled from the wound, releasing a foul odor. A pocket knife, its blade stained brown, had been discarded a short distance away.
“If you’re ready, we’ll leave,” Matthew spoke, “but I think your mother’s going to stay. She hasn’t had quite enough sun yet.”
Sarah offered not a single word of protest.
As Matthew and his children walked off the beach and headed toward the family station wagon, Matthew said in a hopeful, cheering manner, “What say we pick up that dog on the way back? I think that’s just what this family needs.”
James Gallagher is a copy editor for a leading audiobook company. James has been published in Liquid Imagination Online (forthcoming), The GW Review, Horror Garage, Horrorfind.com, and Cabal Asylum. James is also the recipient of the Vivian Nellis Award for Creative Writing.
Image by M Pincus