by Matthew Chamberlin
I lay on the bottom of the swimming pool, listening to Jimmy dig in the yard next door. Scritch, scritch, went his shovel in the sandy soil. The empty pool all around me acted like a radar dish, collecting whispers and dreams. “Faster, faster,” I heard Jimmy thinking.
The thought of Jimmy doing anything fast was comedic, but the threat of inundation had wrought all kinds of change. Most of the neighbors had already fled. The last time I’d been out, the subdivision was looking more than a little post-apocalyptic.
When the hole was deep, he brought over a tray of artifacts. “Look at these discoveries,” he said. We sat in the shallow end and sifted through the contents.
“Amazing.” Over his shoulder I could see his wife Nicole, watching from the door. She seemed to be holding her forehead. “There’s a lot here, Jimmy,” I said. Was there, though? It was all small bits of things.
“This one’s an ancient femur.” He squinted, peering at it sideways. “Probably Paleolithic.”
It was the leg of a toy, a doll or action figure. “Call the experts,” I said. I felt dizzy. The sun had in recent days begun pulsing rhythmically, giving off potent sheets of radiation. The more of its rays I absorbed, the darker the world seemed.
“That’s exactly what I’m going to do,” he said. “Once they see what we’ve got here, they’ll never go through with it.”
Some of his thoughts I could grasp without the aid of the pool’s arcing walls. “Jimmy, the lake’s a done deal.” There was nothing like a desert to get people dreaming of lakes. An inflatable dam would go in, and commerce would percolate. Around the esplanade there’d be palm trees, orange trees, date trees. The bats would be pleased, at any rate.
Jimmy brought me the number for the museum, grinning shyly. It was a fact that he was a disaster on the phone. “What? What?” he’d yell over and over, walking in desperate circles with a hand clamped to his ear. Something about the words got twisted or lost, like when you talk into a culvert.
“Okay, Jimmy. I’ll call.”
He switched on his headlamp and jumped into the pit. Sometime later I dialed the number.
“Who’s calling, please.”
“Is this Dr. Glasnost?” I tried to summarize in a professional way.
Afterwards I napped until noon, when Jimmy came out of the hole with something tucked in his arms. He was nonplussed to hear my results. “He’s not coming?”
“It’s tricky to talk to these people,” I explained. “I’ve planted the seed.”
Jimmy nodded vaguely, then brightened, holding up his new find. “Look at this baby.” There was real pride in his voice. “It’s actually a baby.”
“So it is.” I kept my voice neutral. It occurred to me that if Jimmy went away for a time, Nicole might need taking care of.
I woke to a violent hammering. Jumping from the pool, I peeked around the side of the house and saw the Superintendent of Public Works, a big man with a belly and moustache. With him was a lawyer and Sheriff’s deputy.
“There he is,” said the lawyer.
I swiveled out of view and ran back to the pool. A minute later I heard the Superintendent at the fence, which swayed from the pressure of his leaning gut. “You can’t stay,” he shouted. “Crazy bastard,” he murmured to the men beside him.
“I heard that.” That surprised them. They didn’t know about the swimming pool’s magical properties.
“Let me speak to him,” whispered the lawyer.
“Okay, go ahead,” I called.
“How the hell does he do that,” said the deputy.
“We can set you up in a nice double-wide in Gilbert maybe,” said the lawyer. “There doesn’t need to be any more trouble.”
“Chandler, then. Tempe?”
He sighed. “We can’t get you a pool. But the trailer park has one, you could swim there.”
“In the toddler pee? I’m going to swim right here,” I said.
The lawyer grew stern. “The law says we can evict you from your house.”
“I’m not in my house.”
“Enough,” grunted the Superintendent. “What’ve you got for this, deputy. Darts? A tranquilizer gun?”
The deputy was startled. “He’s not a cougar, for chrissakes.”
“Well, what then. A taser?” I could hear the frustration building in the Superintendent’s voice.
“We’re finding artifacts here,” I hollered. “When people know, they’re gonna pull the plug on your stupid lake.”
“Never mind,” said the Superintendent thoughtfully. “Let’s bulldoze it,” he added.
“Okay,” agreed the lawyer.
“Whoa there,” said the deputy.
When they left, I saw the baby up on the diving board. Had Jimmy moved her? She looked down at me over the rest of the long afternoon, murmuring peacefully through her dark, baby blue eyes.
This time a lab assistant answered. “This is Chet. I’m afraid Dr. Glasnost is in conference.”
“Chet,” I lied. “Dr. Glasnost was coming today. But I think you might be able to help just as easily.”
“Um, okay.” Chet sounded surprised.
He arrived at Jimmy’s front door at six, a serious young man. “I left a note with Dr. Glasnost,” he assured me.
“Chet, check out these discoveries.” I brought him over. “It’s possible that we’ve got a burial ground.”
“I think I see a chicken wing,” said Chet doubtfully.
“Never mind that. Here’s the man in charge, Dr. Jimmy.” Jimmy was rising from below with another tray of wonders.
“Ask me anything,” he said.
“I’m not so sure,” said Chet.
“Just have a glance, that’s all we ask.”
The pit went down maybe five meters, but Jimmy had begun a series of radial tunnels, branching out in various directions.
“Holy snakes,” said Chet. “What kind of a dig is this, anyway?”
“The good stuff’s always deep,” said Jimmy. “The deeper, the better.”
“Right,” said Chet. He sifted uninterestedly through Jimmy’s tray, but perked up when I brought the baby over.
Later on, Nicole called to us through the window. “Someone’s at the door.”
“Uh-oh,” muttered Chet.
A white-haired man stood on the threshold, silhouetted by the setting sun. “Where’s my goddam assistant,” he said.
Chet rushed up. “Dr. Glasnost.”
The old scientist poked me in the chest. “You’re the imbecile who’s been calling.”
“It’s worth a look-see, sir,” said Chet. Jimmy patted Chet on the shoulder.
Out back, Dr. Glasnost stuck a foot on the upper rung of Jimmy’s ladder and looked around contemptuously. “This is no excavation. Where are the gridlines? Screens and trowels?”
“It’s a salvage operation,” I explained.
Glasnost was staring at Chet. “What’s in your pocket?” He crooked a finger.
Chet approached reluctantly, but the old man got him by the ear. “Unbelievable,” said Dr. Glasnost, pulling the baby out of Chet’s lab coat.
“Chet!” said Jimmy in hurt tones.
“Since you like to steal trash, open up.” Dr. Glasnost hooked a finger into Chet’s mouth and levered it open. He broke apart Jimmy’s baby and popped legs, arms, and head into Chet’s mouth, one after another. The young assistant had a tortured but pliant look.
“Chet,” said Jimmy. “Stop eating all my goddam discoveries.” Chet rolled his eyes apologetically, like a lip-hooked catfish.
Dr. Glasnost looked tired. His arms trembled, and I suspected Chet of humoring him. But his eyes sharpened with renewed ire. Shaking a finger at Jimmy, he opened his mouth to speak, then ducked as a bat flitted past his head. His foot slipped, and he vanished into the pit.
Jimmy and I stared in horror at the black mouth of the pit, while Chet slumped in Nicole’s chaise lounge–the one in which she often sunbathed. “I don’t feel good,” he said. He burped loudly, a little green around the gills.
“Are you okay, Dr. Glasnost?” I called into the darkness. Jimmy was casting about for his flashlight.
“This is astonishing,” Glasnost cried faintly. I could just make him out, scrabbling in the dirt, plucking up half-buried artifacts.
Chet made a wet sound. I glanced over to see him deposit a plastic head into his open palm. “Oh, dear,” he mumbled. He sat up and vomited onto the thin, rubbery slats of the chaise lounge. The pieces lay in a slimy pile between his legs.
Dr. Glasnost was shouting up his observations. “Thousands of them, Chet! Take down some specs.”
Chet’s head flopped, his expression tortured. “Can someone take notes,” he whispered. He looked at us. “What?”
Between Chet’s legs, the pieces he’d disgorged were moving, assembling themselves into a composite entity. Soon a small creature stood, clumsy as a newborn foal.
“Amazing,” said Chet. “Hello there!” He smiled weakly. It stumbled and clung to his leg like a baby monkey.
Dr. Glasnost, sensing that things were afoot, came storming up the ladder. His eyes grew wide at the sight of the creature. “Let’s get you to the lab,” he whispered, but Chet rose and was backing away, one palm raised to ward off the doctor.
“No,” he said. “No more tests.”
Dr. Glasnost nodded wisely, approaching Chet with conciliatory hands outspread. Abruptly he lunged and grabbed the creature, which squealed horribly.
“Hey,” said Jimmy. “Hey, now.”
Chet and Dr. Glasnost stumbled across the backyard together. They smashed through the grill and toppled over the soft dirt from Jimmy’s diggings. Chet seemed to have the upper hand, but Dr. Glasnost delivered a savage head-butt to his ribs and plucked the baby from Chet’s limp fingers.
“Hateful, horrible,” whispered Chet, gripping his abdomen.
Dr. Glasnost chuckled. “Goodbye to you all,” he cried, whirling through the gate between the yards. Moments later there was a brief cry, followed by a thud.
I froze. “The swimming pool.”
Chet lurched to his feet. “The baby.” He stumbled after the doctor.
“Watch out, Chet.” Another thump.
Jimmy and I followed. Dr. Glasnost lay at the bottom of the pool, dead or senseless. Chet’s fall however had been cushioned by his mentor.
“This is my fault,” I said to Jimmy.
He patted my shoulder, looking for a moment like he was about to speak.
Nicole came out of the house. We sat in the pool bottom. Chet cradled the limp, wispy head of Dr. Glasnost on his lap, and clutched the toy-child against his breast. He wept, but in sadness or joy, I couldn’t tell.
Jimmy and Nicole held hands and kissed when the moon came out. I sighed; Jimmy wouldn’t be going anywhere. After a while, even Dr. Glasnost had a peaceful, if faraway look in his eyes.
I lay back on the pool bottom and imagined the lake rippling overhead, evaporating in the blazing Arizona sun at a rate of 1.7 million gallons a day. I squeezed my body to jettison the poisons I’d absorbed from the sun.
Jimmy lay down beside me.
“Wow,” he said. “You can hear everything.”
Wisps of speech and thought began to accumulate in the pool. In his Phoenix mansion, the Superintendent of Public Works sang to his cats. Not far away, the lawyer and Sheriff’s deputy canoodled in a Scottsdale hotel.
“Lovers in love,” I murmured.
“How does he do that,” said the deputy, jerking out of the lawyer’s arms.
I wondered what tests Dr. Glasnost had planned.
“Nothing good,” said Nicole, reading my mind.
I closed my eyes, and waited for the bats to fly.
Matthew Chamberlin lives in Virginia, where he also writes. His stories and poems can be found in Apex, Jersey Devil Press, Gone Lawn, Strangelet, Typehouse, and other places.