Hatch watched the lone fly coming straight for him. It stopped its diving assault just short of the tip of his fishing pole and hovered watchfully.
“I will skewer you. I will cut you to ribbons you fool. I will make you dance for your dinner. Plead for your life. Beg for mercy. But there will be none. Not today. Not ever,” he said in his best mocking French accent as he brandished the flimsy bamboo pole like a dueling foil at the fly. The fly withdrew to a safer distance as the pole and the fishing line flailed about. Donald Hatch did not speak a word of French but felt impersonating the language lent authenticity to his display of contempt.
The pole nearly slipped out of Hatch’s left hand as he repeated his threat and began to laugh. But he managed to wrap his fingers back around the narrow cork grip without losing the bottle of beer in his right hand.
“There,” he said proudly as the fly approached the tip of the steadying pole. “You taunt me. Challenge me. Ridicule me,” he said, slurring the derisive word until it bore no resemblance to the tone of its original construct. “Just keep away from me.”
As the pole steadied, the fly began a slow, purposeful decent along the shaft down from the tip. Wafting left and right, over and under the pole, as though still unsure of its safety, until it finally alighted on the chrome fishing-reel. “Smartass little shit,” he said flicking it away with his index finger. But the fly anticipated his inept counterattack, feigned right and looped back on the reel like a seasoned prizefighter dodging a badly telegraphed blow.
Hatch shot out his hand and grabbed for the fly but it simply darted higher, out of reach. He leaned forward and it dropped off to his left. He went to snatch it out of the air and each time it evaded his tired grasp. He was surprised at his adversary’s dexterity. Another fly passed close to his head but flew back out to the center of the lake that swarmed with them at this time of the morning. This one was more obvious about its intentions.
It was early, possibly not more than seven-thirty, and already the August day was warm and thick with moisture. By noon, it would be impossible to breathe. By then he would be at work teaching ungrateful, pimply morons to spell and identify verbs from adjectives. Maybe, if he could get himself off the dock without falling into the lake, find the keys to his truck, and drive the eight miles to Larrimore Junior High School without speeding by the security gate. And, if he could park his truck without sideswiping another.
He lifted his second beer to his lips and took the balance of the bottle in a long series of sweet gulps. He could hear it drop down his gullet. Feel it fire his gut.
“Either you had one, or you were a pansy,” Jennings, his old drinking buddy from Altoona, Pennsylvania, bragged. “A gut says you are not afraid to step up and take a gulp from the juices of life.”
Hatch didn’t have a gut. His metabolism kept him rail thin even at thirty-eight, no matter what he ate or how much he drank. But there were other ways he could prove himself a man. He pulled the neck of the third bottle across a wood plank underfoot until it caught the edge, hooking on the bottle cap and ripping it from the top of the bottle. He finished off the third bottle without taking his eye off the fly that continued to dance brazenly around the reel.
“You got a gut, asshole, or are you one of them candy-assed pansy flies?” he asked, ending the question in booming laughter.
Hatch thought the fly pulled back as his laugh gradually increased in volume. He tried laughing again, falsely this time, to see if it had the same effect, but he must have been wrong. It was the beer. If he drank too early in the morning, which he often did of late, then the effect was more profound. His body parts began to function on their own, with an alarming, uncontrollable independence.
The fly buzzed around his right hand then, quite unexpectedly, as if it had designed its day with this one foolish stunt in mind, shot at Hatch’s chest, and slipped between the buttons in the crack in his shirt. Hatch dropped the pole and frantically reached in and searched with his hand until most of the buttons were torn from his shirt. He jumped around on the dock as if he’d been attacked by a swarm of killer bees, then pulled his shirt from his pants and ripped off his t-shirt.
“Come on. Come on,” he repeated as if he couldn’t say it fast enough. In his haste, he had kicked the two bottles of his six-pack into the lake, which only reddened his frustration. He caught one in his hand before it rolled into the water and propped it up next to one of the vertical posts supporting the pier. He was sweating. Out of breath. He couldn’t remember what he was doing before he kicked the beer overboard.
This wasn’t like the incident last year with the ants over in Bridgeham High School. That was, as Doc Winters put it, a result of too many drinks over too many years. But Hatch was never positive that he wasn’t really attacked by the fire ants. He scratched and scratched for days. Broke into waves of cold sweat and uncontrollable shaking. Every inch of his body was covered in ulcerating welts as he fought them off. In exhaustion, he relented and accepted his temporary madness for what it was. Questionable.
But this was different. Yet there was no fly. Maybe it was caught in his crumpled shirt. Or maybe it got away when he was searching for it.
And then he noticed a sinister speck sticking to the skin about eight inches to the right of his navel. One moment it was there, the next it was gone. It had burrowed into his flesh. He watched, fascinated and confused. But he wasn’t hysterically frantic anymore. A drop of blood slipped from the wound but there was no discomfort. Then the fly was gone. Disappeared. Hatch looked around but he was alone, half-naked, with a tiny red hole in his right side. His shirt and t-shirt coiled around his feet. He became nauseous and fell dizzy to the dock, making sure not to lose the last bottle of beer.
He picked it up, yanked back the cap and took a deep, reassuring gulp. He was never going to make class by nine o’clock. He was going to be fired. It was the third time this month he wasn’t there to substitute for absent summer school teachers. He would have to move again. Falsify documents and his teaching credentials. No one ever checked them anyway. All they wanted was a body to serve their needs. Just like the fly.
He touched the wound. Another drop of blood dripped. He picked at it. Then he pushed his index finger into the wound and it sunk into his side. He was startled. Dumbstruck with surprise. He pulled out his finger. It was slicked red. He wiggled his finger as if he had discovered a remarkable, new instrument. He plunged it into the hole and pulled it out. He repeated the process several times until he was certain of himself. The hole in his side had stretched to the width of his index finger.
Fortunately, depending on your point of view, Hatch’s fingers were quite thick. His wrists were thick as were his hands. Whenever anybody commented on his fingers or wrists and a woman was about, he would say, “That’s not all about me that’s thick.” Only his thumb was heavier. As thick as the handle of a hammer, his first wife said once. He thought it was a reason for pride. Later he found out that she only spoke about her husband to others in one tone. Derisively.
He looked around again. As if some of his friends were lurking in the bushes prepared to proclaim him the butt of a practical joke. But he was alone. He pressed his fingers around the rib cage on his right side. It didn’t hurt. He inserted his index finger up to the base knuckle and probed about. He could fee his ribcage, one rib, then another. He hooked his finger and thought he could make out the wall of his stomach. He was fascinated by what he was doing, then remembered what had turned him to such grotesque behavior. The fly was in there. Inside his body.
He had gone through the eleventh grade and passed a general studies course in biology. He didn’t care for insects, but wasn’t ignorant of their behavior. He knew that all they did was breed and what they used as the source of their sustenance. He knew what was going on inside in body. His skin crawled with the certainty that he was being taken over. Used, as a host, to an eventual infestation.
Hatch started to turn. He would race back to his car and go into town and get Doc Winters to examine him. Then what? What if Winters, who was too old to practice five years ago, couldn’t find anything? Or what if he simply didn’t believe him? He had also been to Winters three years ago spouting stories about having seen UFO’s on Carter’s Ridge. But that was because he was already crazy drunk. That was different.
He held onto the vertical support, dipped his hand into the lake, and washed the smeared blood from his side. He felt better when the wound was cleaned. When he realized he had a bottle of beer left, he fell to his knees and finished it off. He jammed his finger into the mouth of the bottle and flipped it up into the air. Before it splashed into the lake, he pushed his finger into his side as deep as it would go.
But there was no fly. No small, unwanted object curled up in a recessed corner of his innards. There was nothing except his frustration and the beat of his heart. His finger was poised at the top of his stomach. He thought he could feel something tear between the lungs and stomach but, since he felt no pain, he couldn’t be positive he’d injured himself. He wanted to avoid that if possible.
That’s what was so unusual about all this. Hatch felt nothing. Not the gash in his side, not his poking about, not pushing in on his internal organs, though he wasn’t quite certain which gooey gelatinous mass was which. He pushed harder, trying to get better access when the gash in his right side split open. He quickly pulled out his finger. His entire hand, not simply the index finger and his knuckles, were reddened. The wound was now big enough to accommodate two or three fingers. His entire fist if he was so inclined.
He looked about again. No beer left. He was on his own. No job to return to. No life worth mentioning. This had to be a dream. A nightmare. But it wasn’t. Bubbles on the surface of the pond where fish were coming up for air, the raven’s crying out in the thicket to his right, the swarm of flies hovering in the center of the pond. He knew about the swarms of midge flies that billowed up with each full moon on Lake Victoria in Africa. He knew how their brown mass consumed miles of sky and dominated life for hundreds of miles in every direction. He knew how they terrorized all who stood in their path.
What if they attacked? No time for that now, only the urgency at hand. He leaned to his right so his head dropped as close to his ribcage as possible and pulled back a flap of skin. Instead of stretching, it came away, opening up a large hole, as if he had pulled back a sheet of wallpaper. Instead of plasterboard, there were ribs and muscle and fiber. And movement. Like he had peeked into the Big Tent of the world’s most unusual circus. He pulled a little more and the flap widened, revealing the pulsating base of his heart. He was staring at his essence. He was watching his heart pump him alive. Hatch was watching his own goddamn heart.
“This is amazing. Fucking, unbelievable amazing,” he said.
The right side of his body from hip to shoes was covered in small red droplets, but neither the loss of blood nor the gaping wound through which he could easily pass a softball, had any effect on his stability or coherence.
“I gotta show this shit to somebody,” he said spinning around, as if an audience was waiting for his presentation. “No, not yet,” he said catching himself.
There was the problem of the missing fly, which by now had staked out a piece of Hatch’s viscera for himself. Who was at this moment multiplying, duplicating, furthering its species at the expense of Donald Hatch, substitute teacher to the masses. What he had to do could only be completed in private, and never recounted to anybody lest he be called a madman. “Madman,” he murmured quietly.
Doc Winters would throw him out of his office if he came by with this tale. He’d take one look at the gaping wound, stitch him up entombing the fly, and have him committed for observation.
Hatch needed a drink. Badly. Quickly. No store was going to sell him a six-pack at this hour, and certainly not with this minor problem. He had to get the fly, get covered up, and get a drink. Quickly.
Hatch jammed his hand into his guts and probed around with a renewed sense of urgency. He ran his fingers along his small intestines then the large intestines. He was amused and amazed at how clearly and simply the excavation went. No pain or spasms of apprehension, or gush of blood. He was focused, taken with a sense of absolute clarity. His mission was too important to be diverted by faint a heart, even if he could actually see it.
The more Hatch probed, the faster his heart pumped. The faster it pumped the more captivated he became with its throbbing pulse and the more it reacted to the visual input of its own existence. Hatch knew no man had ever experienced what he was witnessing. No doctor had ever had a live cadaver on which to experiment, to test and prod and manipulate. He sat on the top of one of the vertical piles supporting the pier glaring into the heart of Hatch’s heart.
“No man has come before me and none shall come after,” he said trying to recall the biblical reference, than he realized he had heard it in a soap opera. He laughed. His insides jiggled. He laughed again. His insides convulsed. He flicked his rib. One, then another, like he was playing a xylophone. He took a deep breath and his lungs expanded. He exhaled and the gleaming gray balloons contracted.
But there was no fly. He continued to poke about but couldn’t find the fly. Finally, he realized that he would have to go deeper. If he was to rid himself of this pestilential threat than he would have to make a greater commitment. There was no point in looking around for help. He was alone except for the ravens, fish and pocket of flies that hovered over the space where he had first cast his line. Where he thought the fly that had gotten into his body had come from. They were watching him. Hatch could tell. They were watching and calculating and laughing at him. They were making odds and taking bets that he wouldn’t find their brother and laughing at him. He could hear the swarm laughing. It gave him reason to pause.
Hatch watched them hover right over that spot on the lake. He’d been coming down here since he was a kid. Always, the same spot and always the same success. He knew every cove and contour of this lake. It had been good to him and for its generosity, he had kept it a secret. From friends in school to friends who stayed with him through two wives, too many jobs to mention, six months in jail for assault, and a stay in the county hospital after he rammed his motorcycle into a brick wall after a night of drinking.
Hatch sensed this was a defining moment in his life. He’d had several already and knew they demanded complete attention and resolve. There was the time he found out his second wife was cheating on him. The time he found out his parents never loved each other. The time he knew he didn’t have the intellectual capacity or curiosity to become the architect he had wanted to be from childhood. And soon after that, the times he realized he didn’t care if he got fired, or about the value of what others thought of him.
This was such a moment. This was a clever, insidious adversary who had sacrificed itself and was prepared to take Hatch with him. Hatch examined his wound. It was no longer a point of curiosity or amazement. It was Hatch. Or part of the man that he never thought he would be privy to. There was no one to help him through this but himself.
There was a rumble in his center, coming from his stomach. He stopped moving so he could listen. It was churning up from his stomach. A loud belch rumbled up from his belly until it came out in one sickening cacophony that brought a grimace of relief to his face.
“Sounds good to me,” he said, first noticing the swarm of flies had drifted from their spot in the center of the lake. The faint gray cloud was now smaller, darker, more concentrated. They had tightened their formation.
Hatch wanted a drink. He needed one badly. Now. Not in a while, or later, or at some distant date he might never reach. Those fire ants were real. Doc Winters was an incompetent fool. He should never have trusted him. The two blue UFO’s and the smaller red one were real too. These were defining moments no one believed in. No one understood. Hatch’s lips smacked together. He recognized the habit. Right before he began to shake, he began to get a tightening feeling around his lips. On a woman it might be described as a pucker. On this man it was a warning.
At first he thought the formation was becoming still denser. Then Hatch realized it was moving in his direction. It was getting smaller, more focused. Closer. He moved back a few steps almost stumbling over his fishing pole, the lightning rod for his current predicament. He imagined flies converging from every part of the lake into this cloud that grew still darker and larger all at once.
“What do you want?” he yelled out. The index finger on his left hand, dripping red, pointing accusingly in their direction.
He pulled up his pants that had drooped so low they were making it impossible for him to move about. He was halfway back towards shore. He could run for cover, but only his car assured him of complete safety. That was up on the crest of the hill overlooking the lake. If he was going to make a run for it, he had better do it now.
Then he realized what was happening. It was a diversion. How clever. How diabolically cunning they were. There was a plan here. They were distracted him so that he could not attend to what was eating away at his insides.
“Not this time, you bastards,” Hatch said spinning around and running back up the pier.
He could see his car. Maybe thirty yards, but it was all uphill. He glanced over his shoulder. He had to get enough momentum while he was on the flat pier to carry him up the hill. So much to think about, to devise, and follow through without a drink. Without a drink, even the slightest nuance of life was a giant hill he had to climb with no legs, he’d once told a counselor. The social worker nodded unsympathetically and gave him another appointment for the following week. Hatch tore up the slip of paper and never returned to the state clinic.
He was running. Hard. He didn’t want to look down to see what was happening to his insides. He imagined that if he ran too long they would spill out of the opening. He was almost to the shoreline at the end of the pier. He would get to his car and drive to town and find a beer and pour it right into the wound and drown the fly. How ingenious, he thought just before he slammed into one of the support poles. He staggered back clutching his side. He began to cough uncontrollably. His chest exploded in racking, convulsive pain. He noticed a group of women walking along the shoreline but they were so far away he couldn’t be certain if he knew any of them.
In trying to regain his balance, he tripped over his own feet and fell from the pier into the water. He gulped in water. He could feel the cold flood his insides. Filling him up. His body quickly sank to the bottom.
It was drowning the fly. That was something he had never thought of doing. He reached down and grabbed onto a rock until he was secure. Until he was certain the fly would drown if only he could hold on.
Donald Hatch, of 21 Suffern Street, was pulled from the bottom of the lake not ten minutes after the three women notified the police. But it was too late. There was nothing unusual about the drowning or the physical condition of the victim. The fact that he was so intoxicated would have explained why he drowned in only five feet of water, but not why the paramedics had to pry one of his hands lose from a rock, and a fly out of the other.
BIO: Arthur Davis is a management consultant and has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business and interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1. He has taught at the New School University, lectures on leadership skills for CEO’s and has given testimony as an expert on best practices before United States Senator John McCain’s investigating committee on boxing reform and appeared as an expert witness on best practices before The New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing.
He has written 11 novels and over 130 short stories. Over 50 stories have been published in 35 magazines online and in print. The Amsterdam Quarterly (the Netherlands) hosted their 2014 Yearbook East Coast launch party on January 17th 2015 at the Anne Frank Center in NYC. He was one of the guest authors and read from Roy’s Desert Motel, which they published in September 2014.
“Conversation In Black,” was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize by Calliope, the official publication of the Writers’ Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd.