Note: The following piece was written as part of "The White Van" flash fiction challenge hosted by Patti Abbott. Patti has published numerous short stories in various literary journals and crime zines and recently released Home Invasion, a novel composed of linked short stories. She blogs about writing, books, movies, politics, life and music at pattinase. Additionally, old-school horror aficionados may note a certain similarity between this piece and Ramsey Campbell's "Cold Print." That similarity is, I assure you, entirely intentional.
Wallace lived in a white van he parked under a bridge down by the river. He knew it'd become a punch line after that fat comedian paired it with rolling doobies and eating government cheese. But the fat comedian had died choking on his own vomit, and Wallace was still by the river.
Wallace generally liked the river. When the sun smote it on cloudless days, its surface writhed with brilliance. When clouds rolled in, it became a tossing sheet of green impenetrable to the naked eye. Very pretty. But some nights he'd lie awake, imagining what unknown things swam beneath that watery firmament and shuddering. Still, the river held certain practical considerations for him.
He liked his van, too. A Dodge conversion van, it looked common enough from the outside. Inside, Wallace had fitted a seamless slice marine-grade plywood between the cab and bay and interposed another in the rear, walling off a cargo area. He'd stripped out the passenger benches and installed an expanse of SoftSpring Summer Sand plush carpet, a chemical toilet, and a child's bed, upon which a plush SpongeBob SquarePants now lay. Everything was painted Benjamin Moore Clearest Ocean Blue, including the porthole-like windows. He liked to think it was a comfortable space.
He took a Stimudent from the pack in his pocket and probed between incisors, wondering if the boy appreciated the effort. It was probably time to check.
The rear latch opened with a snap. Loud, but the boy didn't whirl around. Didn't ask for his mother. Did none of the things Wallace had become accustomed to over the years. That intrigued him.
"Hello," Wallace said.
The boy didn't answer. He stared at SpongeBob with naked confusion.
"You like him?" Wallace asked.
It seemed to take a long time for the words to reach the boy. His head slowly swiveled toward Wallace. "What is it?"
"Don't you recognize SpongeBob? I painted all this to look like Bikini Bottom. It's at the bottom of the ocean. He lives there." Wallace had quickly learned that the cartoon character was a sort of Rosetta Stone for children, translating their inscrutable emotions in to something he could share. At least for a while.
"No, he doesn't."
"Sure he does. It's at the start of every show." Wallace had watched clips on a public terminal at the library. Best to do original research.
The confusion hardened into obstinacy. "No, he doesn't."
"Well," Wallace said.
He excavated with the Stimudent while regarding the boy. There was something odd about him. Doe-eyed with irises the shade of sea foam. Sandy, tousled hair. Skin pale as ivory. A good-looking kid. What's more, Wallace had discovered him walking along the paved strip lining this length of the river, whistling the same three rising notes over and over. His Velcro sneakers had been sopping wet, yet he refused to remove them. Finally, it took effort to get children into the van. He'd lure outliers, those lacking looks that made perfect strangers smile, the ones least likely to be missed. But this kid who belonged on a magazine cover had stepped right in.
"What lives there if not SpongeBob?" Wallace asked.
The kid poked the neon-yellow doll. "Bigger things. Not so bright. Except for the anglerfish. They're shiny."
Cold shivered down Wallace's spine. He mumbled something about needing to step out and made sure to lock the door from the outside.
The day was swelling to the height of its heat. Wallace lit a Marlboro as a thirty-foot sailboat glided past. The river wasn't really a river, he knew that. It was a brackish waterway threading between barrier islands and the mainland with an outlet here or there opening to the ocean. The ocean whose depths hid gelatinous octopi with their sharp, snapping beaks and anglerfish with glowing whip lures and needle-filled mouths ready to snap at the least weakness.
Wallace shivered, finished his cigarette, dug out a Stimudent. Tobacco, toothpicks, and a boy in his bed. All of father's vices. He felt a familiar stirring and worked the Stimudent fiercely. It always came to this, and why fight it? The river would carry the aftermath away. All the necessary tools were in the van -- a sack, rope, a cinderblock, an X-acto knife. And it hardly hurt. He always made sure of that.
He got the X-acto before going back in. Just in case.
"Take off your shoes," he told the boy. He'd take his time with this part, at least.
The boy touched an index finger to his upper lip, inexplicable hunger in his sea-foam eyes. "You're bleeding."
Wallace spat out the Stimudent and tasted salt on his tongue. He cursed, bent, began tugging at the sneaker. It didn't come off.
"I'll promise you something," the boy said.
Wallace slashed one sneaker's strap with the X-acto and tugged. It didn't come off. But a blue, viscous liquid leaked from the strap, a strap that somehow melded seamlessly into the boy's foot and showed not Velcro but the puckered whiteness of a sort of flesh he'd never before beheld. The van filled with the stink of copper.
"I promise," the boy said, "that it'll hardly hurt."
Several things happened then, only a few of which Wallace remained conscious for. He felt the van lift and plunge, saw SpongeBob whirl to the ceiling as gravity reoriented itself, felt a liquid rush as windows burst, water flooding the interior. He didn't perceive the glutinous, suckered limbs that dragged the van into the ocean and down, down, down. He didn't notice light fading from blue to black or nameless abominations that glided through a dark lit only by the bioluminescent pulse of something angling for its next meal. He didn't feel the van shudder as tentacles prised it apart to reach the soft treat within.
Nor did he notice a small boy no older than four or five climb dripping up the seawall by his bridge and begin strolling along the river, whistling three ascending notes.