“Taxidermy Beach” Fiction by Douglas Ford

Lost Beach Road begins on the edge of Vissaria County, and it leads to a destination that even the locals treat as forgotten.  An aura of bad luck hangs over the area, presaged by the line of shipwrecks forming a barrier between the wider Gulf of Mexico and a small inlet. 

            The beach does serve as a useful landmark for drivers, for rising over the tree-line appears the base of an old lighthouse, its top sheared off during a rough storm that came ashore decades back.  Took much of the surrounding community with it, and the road that leads there likely derives its name from that chapter in history.  The remaining locals look sickly and unusually white for a part of the world so renowned for sunshine.  Doesn’t matter what sort of lives they lead—butcher, mapmaker, even landscaper—pale and beleaguered, all of them, as if wakened from their respective graves.  Someone passing through might not pick up on what makes them look so peculiar at first.  Sometimes they attribute it to a thin gene pool, but genetics don’t explain everything.  They just avoid the sun.

            Not like other parts of Florida, the quiet beauty of Fort Walton Beach, nor south of here, the sandy paradise of Siesta Key Beach, nor east of here, the wild festivity of Daytona Beach.

            The air over Taxidermy Beach hangs quiet.

            A truck driver remembers seeing the remains of the lighthouse sticking up like a smokestack during one of the back-road journeys he took to avoid weigh stations.  He describes it to a grieving couple, telling them they ought to search out that area.  If he could recall its name—Taxidermy Beach, the local if not the official appellation—he’d never suggest it.  Yet this couple knows so little about the state they’ve driven into, and they thought they could just go right up to the shoreline of any beach they came to and let the ashes of their son scatter into the wind.

            But you could get arrested.  Those are human remains, you’re talking about.  Arch, the truck driver hates how these words sound coming out of his mouth.  He wishes he didn’t say “human remains.”  The urn that the woman clings to contains their son, a little boy who died of blunt force trauma, a head injury resulting from jumping head-first into a shallow swimming pool.  Arch has met this boy’s parents at a rest stop off of the highway after offering to help them make sense of a map.  Not long later, he finds himself sitting at a picnic bench with them, having accepted their offer of a peanut butter sandwich.  The urn sits on the table, the fourth member of their party, the one he just called “human remains.”

            The dead boy’s father, Derek, says that his wife keeps the urn with her at all times.  They’ve driven all the way down here because their son loved the water and would have wanted his ashes scattered into the wind on one of those beautiful, sunny beaches he never lived long enough to visit in person. 

            Their story touches Arch, the kind truck driver.  He doesn’t like picturing the two of them humiliating themselves by strolling past tourists and drunk college students to do something so noble, so sacred.  He walks them over to the giant Florida map nestled between the two bathrooms of the rest stop and points to where he remembers seeing the small sliver of road.  Derek follows the line of his fingers with eyes gazing through thick glasses.  He nods, but then asks Arch to point again, nods just like the first time, so the truck driver has doubts that he’ll retain those instructions.  Already feeling guilty about the prospect of sending this bereaved couple on a trip that will leave them lost and confused (he imagines the wife, Claire, holding the urn in her lap while Derek struggles to remain awake on unfamiliar, rain-swept roads), he follows them back to their car, a hatchback so green-faded that it looks like it has molded. 

            There, Derek stops and turns to the driver, shakes his hand firmly while Claire waits so she can put her arm around his neck and press her cheek against his grizzled beard.  Between their two bodies he feels the press of the urn, and when she breaks the contact, he finds himself avoiding her eyes, startled by something electric that passed through him.  She cradles the urn next to two of the fullest breasts Arch has ever seen.  The top of the urn pulls down her v-cut shirt, and he can see the white curvature of the one on the left, along with a thin strip of bra.  He almost apologizes for what he fears looks like a blatant display of lust, but she speaks first. 

            Jared thanks you, she says, he’s here with us now.  Can’t you feel him, his presence?

            She embraces him again, and even though he tries to turn to the side, he fears she must notice the erection he has sprung.  Evidently not, because she presses him even harder, as the urn contains a spark of spirit that might pass into his body.

            Not that the driver believes in such things as spirit, but he can’t help but feel affected as he watches the two of them drive away, thinking how he needs to cut down on the driving and spend more time with his own kid—not that his shrew of an ex would allow that.  She enjoys getting those monthly checks, he reckons.  He tries to imagine the ex holding an urn in the same manner he just witnessed.  He can’t imagine as tight a grip as what Claire showed. 

            As he starts up his rig, Arch thinks fondly of the couple, even at the risk of their contagious sadness.  Their son died, and his marriage died.  Would he trade places with them?  No way in hell.  Would they trade places with him?  Maybe.  Placed in their position, he just might, too.  He knows they’d trade places with Jared, the dead boy.  Anyone would do that.

#

            Deliveries made, he decides, days later, to skip the weigh station again and take the route that crosses Old Beach Road.  The couple never left his thoughts, especially as his journey takes him past an inordinate number of memento mori—those roadside markers commemorating lost lives.  Elaborate floral arrangements, some shaped in a cross and accompanied by stuffed animals, others cruder, looking like nothing more than scrap wood.  As he nears Lost Beach Road, the designs become more curious, and now he recalls the name he’d heard spoken at one of his stops:  Taxidermy Beach.  This recollection occurs when he passes what looks like an iron wire bent into a sideways cross—the shape of an X—with what resembles a small fox fastened to it. 

The purpose of such a thing eludes Arch, though he knows the native artists have peculiar talents.  It looks surprisingly sacrilegious for a region re-known for its conservative nature.  Perhaps he simply misperceived a ragged toy of some kind, a likely possibility considering his going 65 miles per hour.  But a mile or so further, he sees another one, and then another.  This time he slows to get a better look, and yes, he can identify it now—not a fox as he first thought, but a coyote, mangy besides dead, and wired crudely to a sideways cross.

            Seeing this makes him think of the woman with the urn.  Claire.  It unsettles him to imagine what she must have thought, seeing such a grotesque thing on the side of the road, such an obscene reminder of death.  He pictures her hands tightening around the urn, a gesture of intensified clinging.  She needed something that would encourage her to let go.  Even someone as bumbling as him, someone who doesn’t have sense enough to not stare at a pair of tits, knows that.  A gesture of release.

            Now he can’t stop thinking of her.  Not just her mourning, but the sexual thing, too.  Surely, she felt his erection.  She tightened her embrace because she felt it.  He thinks of the white curve of her bosom, the glimpse of her bra.

            Gravel crumbles as he pulls off the road.    The car behind him honks, but he pays it no attention as he unbuckles his jeans and lowers his jeans and underwear.  Remaining behind the wheel, he jerks off, thinking of Claire and the bra barely concealing that white flesh.  It takes him only seconds to finish, and when he does, he wipes the mess off on his jeans and the seat, wishing he said something sanitary to wipe with.  He feels disgusted with himself.  Through his open window, the breeze rises, as if ceremonially acknowledging his completion.

            Ahead he can see the lighthouse remains, maybe half a mile away. 

            He needs a walk.  Some water to cleanse himself, water to clean off the shame of his ejaculation.  His legs feel shaky as he leaves the rig parked there, and once he eyes a path in the brush, he sets off in the direction of the water where he knows that little boy’s ashes may have settled not so long ago.  He can make amends that way, a lie that reassures him somewhat.

            Before long, he finds himself at the water’s edge.  What would it feel like to just scatter parts of himself across its surface, never to be reconstituted, the currents drifting the ashes further and further away?

            A growl diverts his attention.

            Looking over his shoulder, he sees it.

            A coyote.

            Its eyes appear white as the seed he just spilled, its emaciated body showing ribs.  He wonders if the thing is blind, that maybe it can’t see him through a fog of cataracts.  Pity for the thing surges through him—for just a moment though, because the thing growls again.  Then, as if summoned, two more just like it appear from the tree-line and add their own growls to what has become an unnerving chorus.

            The trucker knows he should run, but the coyotes block the path back to the rig.

            He must run in another direction.  He chooses the way toward the remains of the lighthouse, hoping that it will offer a harbor of safety.

            As he runs, he ponders the absurdity of his situation.  These creatures, he knows, should exhibit a shy deference to people.  They don’t even belong in this fucking state, but natural migration, climate change, he sure as fuck doesn’t know, has resulted in a growing population in recent years.  He assumed they scavenged for food and certainly did not hunt human beings.  And they shouldn’t look like this, he realizes with quick glances over his shoulder, hobbling on bony legs, perhaps the reason he has managed to stay ahead of them.  On one, he swears, he can see the white suggestion of exposed bone. 

            Whether he can make it to the lighthouse without them overtaking him, he can’t say.  Already a sluggish runner, he feels himself tiring, weighted down by the bulge of flab he has neglected for years.  The protrusion of light house gets closer, so he clings to what little hope remains.  As he nears, he passes over something strange, a soot-colored circle of sand, the remains of a bonfire perhaps.  Blackened bark and what looks like drift-wood sticks up out of the sand.  One bears a disconcerting nob on one end.  It looks like a human femur.  His breath catches.  The likelihood of a heart attack looms.

            Despite the hindrance of his flab, the animals gain little ground on him.  It becomes tempting to think that they never intended to catch him at all, but rather that they simply wanted to protect their territory.  As he nears the lighthouse, he feels ashamed of himself for being frightened so easily.  Still, as much as he gasps and wheezes, he can’t bring his legs to a full-stop, not until he gets inside—the entrance, thank god, just a yawning aperture with no sign of ever having contained a door of any kind. 

            Before him, an iron stairway spirals to an open sky.  Doubled over, his hands on his knees, he gazes up to the broken, hollow tip.  Grasping the railing, he begins the climb, knowing that only up top can he find true safety.

            He would never make it to the top of an undamaged lighthouse.  As he climbs, he passes crude graffiti, much of it consisting of crudely drawn figures engaged in obscene acts, some even involving bestiality.  But these don’t disturb them as much as the series of X’s that appear with every few steps, crude chalked figures attached to the inscriptions, like the coyotes nailed to the crosses.  They make him think of the memento mori he passed earlier, and his uneasiness grows.  Whatever the case, he senses a forbidden meaning, one suggesting a resurrection of some sort.  Not that he could claim to be a religious man, he doesn’t know what sort of religion they could possibly represent.

            He reaches the highest point, the remaining lip of the lighthouse just high enough for him to peer over and see the ground below.  There, the coyotes amble around, sniffing, his perspective rendering them into broken ants.  They circle the burned circle he ran through moments ago, but they do not enter it, nor do they come close to the lighthouse.

            He waits, watching the sun fall further in the sky, until the Gulf begins to swallow it, squeezing from it colors of orange and streaking purple.  Eventually, the coyotes limp back into the trees, and only then does he descend the stairs.

#

            Instead of going back to his rig, the trucker, in his weariness, walks up Lost Beach Road, thinking he might get lucky and find the Trading Post he’s observed on past trips.    If that luck holds out, he’ll find a cold root beer waiting for him along with someone who might offer him a ride back to his truck.

            Headlights coming from the opposite direction brighten his hopes.  He waves and thanks the lord when the car slows down and finally stops in front of him.

            As he walks closer, he can see that the car looks familiar while the driver does not.

            The driver looks like a lot of people in this strange area—hollowed out eyes and gray, almost white skin.  When he offers him the passenger seat, Arch hesitates.  The car strongly resembles the one he saw the bereaved couple driving days ago.  He has enough experience on the road to recognize the hatchback’s make as commonplace, and he knows that more than one car on the road has that sun-beaten moss color.  Still, the coincidence unsettles him, and he has to think about it before he accepts the driver’s offer and heads around to the passenger side to let himself in.

            Not a problem at all, the driver answers his mumbled thanks.

            The driver continues in the direction away from the Trading Post, back to the place from which Arch started his walk.

            I hate to complain about the kindness of a stranger, Arch says, explaining his dilemma.

            The driver assures him that it won’t be anything but a short errand, then he’ll turn around and go in the other direction.

            See the moon? says the driver.

             Just above the horizon it has risen, full and bursting with light.

            The driver says, It’s a blood moon.  In profile, the man’s cheek looks sunken, the bones of his face resembling a hawk in flight.

            Arch asks about the errand.

            Without looking, the car’s driver gestures with his head toward the back seat.

            Arch looks and freezes.

            He sees the urn.

            The same urn held by Claire.

            The driver says, I’m sure that it’ll strike you as a little morbid, but I need to scatter some ashes.

            Arch cannot remove his eyes from the urn.  The name comes out of his mouth before he can stop himself.

            Jared.

            Hearing the name spoken, the driver looks at him curiously.  Maybe a bit suspiciously, too.

            He says, That’s my name.  Don’t recall mentioning it.

            They look at each other.  Long Beach Road rolls on beneath the tires.  The car, during this moment, seems almost driverless. 

            Arch wants this moment to end quickly.  He asks, Whose ashes are those?

            Jared answers quietly, almost a whisper.

            My parents. 

            Arch looks again at the urn in the backseat.  He notices two X’s scratched near the bottom.  It seems like he should know what these mean.  But he doesn’t.

            Jared says, Tonight’s the night they to be scattered.  Up here’s a good beach to do it.  Nobody comes here, but you probably already know that.

            I do.

            It’s lucky I came across you.  Coyotes are bad here.

            I know that.

            I suspect you do.

            They park near a gap in the trees and a sparse patch of sea oats.  Jared gets out, opens the back door, picks up the urn carefully.  More slowly, Arch gets out too and stays on his side of the car.  The moon sheds light down on the turret of the broken lighthouse.

            This way, Jared says, and he starts over the sane, not looking behind him to see if the truck driver follows.  But he does follow.  He does so in spite of his fear, because he needs to see what will happen now.  He maintains distance as Jared walks into the wet sand near the breaking waves.  Jared looks back at him over his shoulder.

            I wouldn’t walk over there.  Jared indicates the burned circle.  Lots of glass and shit from the locals.  They’re not a careful bunch.  All that debris will cut through your shoes.  Don’t even go near it.

            Arch obeys and stays outside of the circle, which seems to glow with moonlight as Jared opens the urn.  He reaches inside and takes a heap of ash in his hand.  Then he extends his arm and lets the breeze take it.  That breeze grows into a steady wind as he takes another handful and does it again.  Some of the ashes go in the water.  Some of them ride the wind all the way back to where Arch stands.  He feels particles of ash strike his face and arms.  By the third and fourth handfuls of ash, the wind blows in gusts strong enough that even more ash strikes his body.  He feels them coating his body.  These people I met just a few days ago, thinks Arch, are sticking to my face, my skin, my clothes. It doesn’t seem to matter to Jared whether or not they go in the water.  He doesn’t seem to care where they go.  He just needs to empty the urn, thinks Arch.

            You see any coyotes? Jared asks the question without turning around.       

            Arch checks the line of trees hiding the road.  He looks for white eyes.  Something gleams there, he doesn’t know what.  Maybe those are eyes.

            I don’t see anything.  I don’t think.

            When he turns back around, he sees that Jared has finished scattering ashes.  Without no visible sign of movement, Jared has managed to move closer and now faces him.  They regard each other for a few ticks before Jared speaks.

            My parents would be honored to know you shared this moment with them.

            Arch nods, but his voice still cracks.  I’m happy to do whatever I can for them.

            In the moonlight, Jared steps closer.  His eyes appear whitish and a badly healed scar mars his forehead, the sign of some long ago blunt force trauma.  Jared says, I didn’t get a good look at you before.  You a colored man?

            Arch starts to say something.  Instead, he licks his lips and shakes his head.  He tastes the ashes of Jared’s parents.

            No matter.  I’ll still give you a ride.  

Speaking these words, Jared begins the walk toward the waiting vehicle.  Arch follows.

#

We’ve met before, haven’t we?

The drive back to his rig seems to take an eternity, and when he hears this question, Arch shifts in his seat and looks out the passenger window.

I know it’s down here, Arch says.  We couldn’t have passed it, not going this slow.

Jared nods.  It’s down here.  Just a little further.

Arch has his doubts.  In the moonlight he sees one of the iron sideways crosses pass them by.  It stands bare now, just an X.  No dead coyote.  Maybe this one is a different one, Arch thinks.  Maybe someone took it the animal.  Maybe buzzards ate it.

I’m sure we’ve met before, says Jared.  We have an undeniable bond, you and me.  And I owe you a lot, doing what you did.  You know, standing out there while I let those human remains go flying off into the wind.  And hey, you still got some on you.

His left hand still on the wheel, Jared reaches out with his right and presses his index finger into Arch’s cheek.  He holds it there, pushing it hard, as if intending to break through the skin and come out the other side, inside Arch’s mouth.  But finally, he releases the pressure and removes his finger.  He holds it out to show Arch the ash-black tip, and then it puts it in his mouth.  Arch watches as Jared licks the finger clean.

Nothing’s ever truly gone.  See?  Here’s your rig.

Yes, finally, Arch can see it in the headlights.

           Nothing’s ever truly gone, he says again, pulling off the side the road.  You know, you should’ve gotten into the water when we were down there by the beach.  Clean off all that ash.  Of course, you could just rub it just like I did with that spot on your cheek, but if you do, you’ll look like a colored man.  You’ll get lots of funny looks around here if you go and do that.  Fact is, someone might shoot you.  If you walked into Trading Post up ahead like that, that’s just what they’d do, shoot you dead, because you’d give them such a fright. Then they’ll cut off your head and mount it on the wall, such a marvel you’d be to them.  Lots of fellows practice taxidermy around here in their free time.  Most of them love it so much they do it for free, won’t even take as much a nickel in exchange.  Good work, they do, too.  You been up in that lighthouse? 

            Arch lies and says he has not.  To admit he has would mean inviting knowledge he would rather avoid.  And even though he has answered in the negative, the boy goes on as if he has said the opposite.

            Then you saw the X’s on the walls.  All those marks where mounted heads once were.  They went all the way up to the very top, just winding their way along the walls, going up and up til they reached the very top.  The day that storm came and blew half it down, it left behind a flood, and everywhere you looked heads were floating.  No small job collecting all of them—the ones that didn’t wash out into the gulf, that is.

            Arch recalls seeing X marks on the urn.  He wants to turn his head and look on the backseat, where the empty urn now rests.  If he looks, he may or may not see them.  He can’t say for sure which possibility he dreads most.  To look in the direction of the backseat would mean looking away from the boy’s steady gaze, and he will not risk that.  He also does not want to risk seeing something else in the backseat.  Two heads, for instance.

            You go ahead and get on out now, says the boy.  I think you ought not stop here in the future.  Not without checking the lighthouse first.  If you keep driving past here and you look up one time and see a light coming from the top of that, shining out over the water, you’ll know that I did what I always wanted to—restore that big boy to its old glory and let its light shine out on the water and on everything that surrounds us.  When you see that light, you pull over right here where you are now, get out, and come meet me again.  That light’s supposed to bring people coming.  Right out of the Gulf if need be.  What else would it be for?

            Arch says he’ll keep watch for it, even though he knows he will never drive near Lost Beach Road again.  He gets out of the car, about to close the door behind him when the boy reaches over the seat and blocks him.  His unblinking white eyes look serious.  He says, The coyotes ought to be long gone by then.  You won’t see them anymore.

            Arch nods and tries to close the door, not caring about Jared’s arm in the way.  But that arm remains rigid because Jared has one more thing to say.

            Or maybe you will.  Because like I said before, nothing’s ever truly gone.            

Then he removes his arm, and the door closes.


Douglas Ford’s fiction has appeared in Dark Moon DigestDiabolical PlotsTales to Terrify, along with several other small press publications. Recent work has appeared in The Best Hardcore Horror, Volumes Three and Four, and a novella, The Reattachment, appeared in 2019 courtesy of Madness Heart Press.  Other recent publications include a collection of short fiction from Madness Heart Press and a novel set to appear from D&T Publishing.


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