June 2022 Flash Challenge, Day 3
Uncle Kenny never rises before noon on the camping trips. So far now, it’s just me, Cheryl, Adam, and dad, finishing our breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast. The cool air and the smokey smell usually make me feel giddy in the mornings. That isn’t the case this morning.
I try to recall the moment papa heard the sound and wandered off into the woods. He and his brother had been drinking their gin. Papa would act goofy when they drank the gin. He’d cross his eyes and speak with a silly lisp to make us laugh. He heard something, a crack of branch or something, and wandered away, leaving the four of us huddled around the campfire.
That was many hours ago. Papa and uncle finished their fifth last night. So why is daddy still acting the same way, goofy this morning?
During the daytime, his act seems out of place. Wrong in some way that makes me uneasy.
Cheryl hasn’t said anything to me yet, but I know she senses the difference in our father. She raised her eyebrow and looked at me with some question in her eyes at breakfast. We couldn’t very well discuss our father as though he weren’t present.
Our little brother, Adam, hasn’t noticed anything amiss. Or, if he has, he hasn’t said anything about it.
We were sitting around the campfire, a family tradition, when papa heard the sound. He went to investigate. We-my siblings and I waited a few minutes before going to our tents for the night. Uncle Kenny stayed seated in his chair next to the fire, nursing his gin and tonic, his head nodding from in time to some rhythm none of us could hear.
“You guys notice anything different about dad?” Adam says, poking his head into the cooler, looking for something to drink.
“Yeah,” Cheryl and I say.
“He never acts goofy that way during the daytime. He only acts that way during the gin and tonics,” I say.
That was true. Papa never had a hangover and only acted slightly drunk.
“And it’s only on the first night of our trips,” Cheryl says.
A branch cracks.
We flinch like we were guilty of some bad behavior.
It is Papa.
“Sssay, kidssss, do we have any more sausage left over from breakfast? We out to sssset sssome asssside for your uncle Kenny.”
Papa wanders away before any of us can point out that we’d already placed Uncle’s plate under a bit of aluminum foil and on a rock next to the breakfast fire. Something we’d done for as long as we can remember.
Cheryl’s lips start to quiver.
“Cher? What is it?” Adam says.
She doesn’t say anything, but she does begin to cry noiselessly the way she does. Her chest heaving is the only clue that she is crying.
“Yeah, sis, what’s the matter?” I say.
She takes a slow deep breath.
“I don’t think that is Papa.”
Adam and I see the truth in her words.
We finish the dishes and sneak away to the dock, where we can talk freely.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. All I’m saying is that if someone saw our papa, how he was last night and tried to imitate him, they might not understand it was the gin,” Adam says gain, losing his patience with Cheryl and me.
“So if someone, or something, copied dad last night, he, or it, would act like that?” Cheryl says.
Some ruckus along the shore causes all the ducks and other birds to lift off. We turn in time to see the Papa-thing approaching.
“What kind of nonsense talk are you kidsss up to now, I wonder,” it says.
We turn, but then it stops. The Papa thing stops and looks at each of us in turn.
Then it turns back to the camp, opens its mouth, and whines some high-pitched screech into the woods.
Three kids appear at the landing just before the tent site.
They walk single file down the hill towards us.
When they’re halfway down to the dock, we realize that they aren’t wearing clothes.
Also, none of them has a face.
They have heads, but they’re blank, unfinished, vacant.
Then Adam stands up, pointing at the figures.
But he is beyond speech at that point. He makes some arbitrary hand gesture towards the three of us, then gestures towards the three approaching figures.
Oh my god! I see it then.
The three unfinished figures are approximately the same size and build as the three of us.
“Run,” Cheryl says.
I study the faces for one beat longer. Then I see it. The unformed faces are wrinkling as if something were trying to emerge. Then a mouth forms on the shortest one, the Cheryl-one.
I run to catch up to my siblings. We head away from the campsite to the Eagle Rock loop trail.
We stop only once to catch our breath. All three of us are crying now.
When we hear them crest the ridge to a place we figured might be safe.
By then, the figures have fully developed faces. They are meant to replace us, to be new, improved models for each of us. We start to cry out of fear.
We run. Soon we are no longer interested in merely surviving. We are sad, for ourselves and our papa.
This isn’t something one can run away from.
Adam and Cheryl collapse onto the ground. I start to run but decide to double back to them.
The three vaguely defined children are exact duplicates of us. They surround us. I rejoin my siblings. I drop to my knees between my two younger siblings, taking their hands in mine, close my eyes, and pray that it won’t hurt too much.