Welcome to Paradise

[Originally Published in Ghostlight Magazine (Summer 2010)]

The story of the creature had been passed around like cookies at snack time ever since Sharon was a little girl in preschool, the tale itself as shifty as a four year old’s attention span. Once she’d been told the creature stood on its hind legs at about six feet tall and ate rotten apples by the tons. Another person claimed it had cat eyes and could run faster than a gazelle. Sharon grew weary when Kate, her best friend since fifth grade, told her she’d seen the creature once; that it had bat wings and hovered over the wheat fields on the outskirts of Tulsa, Texas, their tiny hometown, swooping down in the middle of the night to capture rabbits and frogs and all other sorts of dispensable animals roaming the territory. The only consensus Sharon was ever able to gather was that the creature was usually spotted around Wildturn Creek, a mile or so from Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse.

The night Sharon saw it though, a few weeks after her nineteenth birthday, the creature was much closer to Mr. Johnson’s farm. It could have migrated, which would have given Maple County residents more credibility, but the more likely reason was that only one person had ever seen the creature before, everybody else latching on to a story that was too good not to be fabricated. In which case Sharon was the first to actually see the creature since the tale’s inception.

Whatever the case, up until Sharon’s encounter, the creature’s story had gone through the usual stages of children folklore, the proportional relationship between growth and belief: each year that Sharon gained in age was another level of believability the tale lost. By time she was twelve, it went the same route of Santa Claus and the boogeyman.

The myth ceased to have any impact on her around the time Mr. Johnson’s farm became a local hangout. Mr. Johnson himself was a friendly, young corn farmer who had inherited the land from his father (Mr. Johnson Sr.) when he was almost thirty and just returned from his Marine tour of duty during Desert Storm in the nineties. Sharon heard that the junior Mr. Johnson lived and worked alone because times were rough, and he couldn’t afford any help. This was part of the reasoning made by parents around town for why Mr. Johnson allowed nobody to go too far onto his property. Years ago, cotton and wheat had taken over as Texas’ main agricultural income, with corn falling by the wayside. Mr. Johnson still brought in enough money to support himself, buy a couple of pounds of meat over at The Locker and some toiletries at Allsup’s, but he otherwise seemed to live a pretty simple, secluded life. On the few occasions when Sharon and her friends witnessed Mr. Johnson’s excursions into town, they would smile and wave, giggling when he waved back.

A few of the other kid’s parents had known Mr. Johnson before he was old enough to deserve the title of “Mr.” When asked about the man by their children, most of these parents just shrugged and said things like “he’s a private man,” and “he’s all alone up there, but it seems to suit him.” Whatever the case, Mr. Johnson didn’t seem to care about the local kids playing football and riding their bikes in his outer fields and, later on, drinking and smoking cigarettes in their cars parked on the dirt path that led to his house. They took advantage of this freedom, at first only in the few hours after school before they had to be home. Later though, as they grew older, Sharon and the rest of the town’s young folks would sit near the entrance of Mr. Johnson’s farm well into the late hours of the night, many times up to no good. Tulsa was one of those towns that seemed to promote the “up-to-no-good” mentality. Ever since Sharon was old enough to realize the few children that lived in her town had all grown up alongside her, there had been a sort of burst of energy within her that screamed boredom as if it were a type of cancer.

Mr. Johnson paid no mind throughout the aging process of Tulsa’s children, just smiling his smile whenever he was noticed, giving his little wave and rolling on into the cornfields behind his house. His only rule was that nobody come closer to his house—and the farmland behind it—than the peach tree that sat about a hundred feet inside the gated entrance to his property, not a foot past or no more fun. The rule itself became so enigmatic to the children that all sorts of consequences entered their minds, most terribly bloody and gruesome, and they therefore followed the law to the letter. An invisible line that Tulsa’s children could see as clearly as if it were spray painted on the grass stretched across the field, bisecting the peach tree and touching the gates on either side of Mr. Johnson’s land. This, however, still gave Sharon and the rest of Tulsa’s youth a 100 foot by half a mile square of land to do whatever they wanted on. So they happily stuck fast to Mr. Johnson’s rule, their hangout secured.

Sharon spent countless hours out there throughout high school with Kate and her other friends; night and day, especially during the balmy summer hours, they sat and gossiped with each other and flirted with the boys that ran around the field cackling, ducking and diving with a football floating in the air wherever they roamed, like a kite. Many of those times, especially around harvest, Mr. Johnson would come home from a day at the market to find teenagers sitting on the hoods of various cars, or leaning against the side of his peach tree, beers in one hand, Pall Mall’s in the other. Mr. Johnson would always wave to the girls, nod at the boys, tell the girls to be careful, honk their horns if there was any trouble. But they’d be able to handle themselves with all these strapping young men around, Mr. Johnson would add, flashing a clever grin. Just remember to stay on this side of the peach tree.

Over the years, the inevitable happened to Mr. Johnson’s image. With such a generous mind and big, white grin that he had no problem flaunting, there was bound to come a day when Sharon and her girlfriends would develop minor crushes on Mr. Johnson. As they grew even older and reached ages of considerable impression, most of them quickly noticed Mr. Johnson’s perpetual solitude and grew more vocal about their fantasies. One day during her junior year in high school, Sharon lay back on the hood of her car, a dusty ’98 Ford Escort. Next to her lay Kate and standing beside them was a mutual friend, Ashley. By this time, the young women of Tulsa had fractioned themselves into small groups. Everybody knew everybody in Tulsa (it was hard not to in a town where the population was just under a thousand and fifty percent of that thousand were old people who figured they’d lived their whole lives in Tulsa and might as well die there), but Sharon had figured out long before then that knowing everybody did not equal liking them. She’d gone through different sets of friends throughout the years, but Kate had always stayed her home base. The duo usually had a third around at any given moment (their third at this moment being the mutual friend, Ashley, who was a grade under them and looked up to them like they were movie stars), but it always ended up being more of a hassle than anything to keep up appearances and Kate and Sharon would usually end up dropping the third wheel.

The three girls stared longingly at Mr. Johnson’s house, the lights in the windows flickering steadily. He liked candles, they knew. They knew a lot about him by then. Like how it was lights out at eleven every night, without fail, awake at 6 am (they’d discovered this last part after a night of drunken giggling kept them out until sunrise, at which point Mr. Johnson had walked out of his home, smiled and waved at them. Heads had rolled in Sharon’s home that night, her parents strict Baptists who believed a lady’s place at 6 am was not out in public). They knew that Mr. Johnson harvested his corn every three months, and on those days when he came down the gravel driveway leading from his house with the cabin of his pickup filled to the brim, he’d always throw them a few ears (his corn was, by far, the best sweet corn in all of Texas. When the girls were able to keep his attention for more than a second and ask him how he did it, he’d chuckle and say he had his secrets, and that he was glad they enjoyed it). The list of facts the girls knew about Mr. Johnson was endless and made him all the more endearing to them: how he wore red more than any other color; how he cut his hair once every two weeks (apparently doing it himself); how the smell of fertilizer didn’t stick to him the way it did to other people’s dads who worked out on the corporate cotton farms over in Littlefield. Maybe because he didn’t use any, the girls pondered. Or maybe because he was perfect, another one would add. They would all nod at that explanation and giggle some more. They sat back and watched the house until the flickering candlelight went out, and in the darkness that followed, they let their imaginations roam until it was time to go home.

Youthful minds are fleeting though, and as her junior year went forward and ended, Sharon and Kate fell into a rhythm with the boys around town: the boys, taking lessons from Mr. Johnson, tried the smiling and waving number on the girls and the girls, skeptical at first, eventually began to fall for the boys who took their minds off of Mr. Johnson and his farm. By time Sharon graduated from high school, all the years she’d spent out by Wildturn Creek seemed distant memories. She thought back on that time not too long past while she sat at her graduation ceremony, and the memories made her feel childish. She and her friends out there crushing on a grown man who probably saw them as nothing more than little girls. Children. Which they had been. Which they were. It was quite disgusting, now that she thought about it.

Nevertheless, the day before she left for college, Sharon and the rest of Tulsa’s youth made a pilgrimage to Wildturn Creek for one last big hurrah outside Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse. It was a graduation party first and foremost for everybody who’d graduated (which was nowhere near 100% of the people who had grown up hanging out at Mr. Johnson’s farm), and incidentally a celebration for Sharon herself, who’d managed to be the only person in her graduating class to be leaving for college, and to none other than Stanford University. As her high school’s valedictorian, she’d pushed for the opportunity.  Sitting there that night in Mr. Johnson’s field she thanked the various familiar faces that came up to her from all directions, clapping her on the back and congratulating her. Sharon took it all in stride, soaking in the very limited amount of time she would be seen as something special, a little higher than the cookie-cut individuals that she’d grown up with, all scattered around her, consuming various grades of alcohol and marijuana smuggled into town by the Brady brothers, who lay on the grass a few feet from her blitzed out of their minds. Sharon partook in none of it, choosing instead to keep most of her attention on Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse, on the candlelight flickering in the windows, feeling a bit pensive and simultaneously curious, a feeling she knew well and could never shake whenever she was out at the farm. It lingered in her like a dream, creating this fog that made everything sort of hazy in her mind whenever she was out there. At the end of the night people lay passed out in the field but Sharon stayed awake, watching the darkness of Mr. Johnson’s home and glad to be finally getting out of the small town. She hoped Stanford was a place where sitting outside of an old farmhouse owned by a lonely man would not be anybody’s idea of fun. Sharon vowed then to experience things she never could experience in Tulsa, vowed to make a point of it. The next day her parents made the long drive to Lubbock and saw her off at the airport. Sharon took one look back at them before getting on the plane. Her heart surged as the plane took off, and she smiled as Texas faded beneath her feet.

Sharon’s first semester in college flew by in a buzz of midterms and finals, parties and all night study sessions, alcohol and pot after pot of coffee. By time she got back to Tulsa for winter break, her home town seemed a myth to her. After a few hours in her old house though, she quickly realized not much had changed and, more importantly, she realized that nothing much would probably ever change. Small towns were stagnant like that sometimes, prone to repetition and tradition, neither of which was necessarily exclusive of the other. Kate called her on her first night back and Sharon knew what she was going to ask before she even said anything.

“You want to come over to Johnson’s with me?” She clucked her tongue the way she always did when she was about to say something she saw as tantalizing. “Rob’s meeting me after he gets out of work, and he’s bringing one of the O’Toole brothers, Ronnie, I think you remember him. He was a year or two ahead of us. He just got back from Iraq.” She paused, then added “He’s filled out nicely.”

Sharon sighed and agreed to go, only because she had to spend the next two weeks at home and Kate was still her best friend, though Sharon didn’t know how long that would last. It was obvious to her they were headed in different directions. Kate had barely graduated, and during the semester that Sharon had been away, Kate had managed to both move in with her boyfriend Rob and, subsequently, get herself knocked up. She told Sharon this in a matter-of-fact tone and made her promise not to tell Rob. When Sharon pointed out that Rob would eventually find out anyways, Kate chuckled.

“Gonna be one hell of a surprise, ain’t it?”

That night at Mr. Johnson’s farm began as many other nights had throughout Sharon’s time there. There was an odd feeling beneath it all though, with her and Kate lying on the hood of Kate’s rusty pickup truck, parked next to Sharon’s parents’ station wagon. Kate lit up a joint, inhaled a ghastly amount of smoke, and passed it to Sharon. For just a moment, Sharon felt herself slipping back into a groove and then realized that, where happiness had once been, there was now a deep pit of sadness. What surprised her even more was that this depression she had did not pertain to herself but to her best friend, her best friend’s boyfriend who was on his way to meet them, and to this whole town. And, she thought as she looked over at the farmhouse, there was an extra amount of sadness reserved for Mr. Johnson, a man she now realized must be the loneliest person in Tulsa, the loneliest town in Texas. For years he’d had to sit and watch the children on his field grow from kids to teenagers to, now, that edge of adulthood where decisions can affect everything for the rest of their lives. Sharon felt a pang of pity and, surprisingly, guilt. She suddenly wanted nothing more than to show the people of this town how much different she was than them. No sooner had she thought that then Kate handed the joint back to her again. She took a small puff, not too much (she’d lost her taste for marijuana, would’ve much rathered some tequila or a couple of whiskey sours). Right then, Rob pulled up, sitting in his car solo. He stepped out and looked at the girl’s sheepishly.

“Ronnie couldn’t make it,” he said, glancing at Sharon. “Sends his apologies.”

Kate scoffed, on the verge of a hissy fit until Sharon shrugged.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “Wasn’t really relying on that to have a good night. Just happy to see you guys.” Rob smiled at her nervously and she watched him as Kate curled a finger around the waist of his jeans and pulled him towards her, planting her lips on his. The two of them looked like a painted portrait, almost model like. Sharon had known Rob most of her life (just as she’d known most everybody in Tulsa for most of her life) and yet was still surprised at how much he’d grown up. Kate too. The two had both started out with the same base body type back in junior high: lanky, malnourished-looking flesh draped over skinny bones. She remembered being outside in the fields behind their school back in eighth grade, when Rob had been just a boy to Kate and Sharon, watching him and the other boys play football. Rob’s chest had been bird-like then, his ribs making his skin ripple around his nipples. Now his chest was expansive, full, his waist small. Kate had almost the same bird chest back then too, wearing a padded training bra just to make it seem like she’d grown something. Her thighs and butt had left so much slack in her jeans that she took to wearing sweat pants to school most of the time, until around tenth grade when she’d suddenly sprouted a figure. Rob’s face had darkened a little around the same time, gotten a little more serious, and the transformation of his body had coincided with Kate’s so perfectly that he and Kate had locked eyes and panted their way into each other’s bedrooms by spring of that school year. They’d been an item ever since and Sharon had gotten used to their public displays of affection. It was like background music, Kate and Rob lying back on the hood of Kate’s truck and devouring each other. Sharon used to think it was gross. Now it was just inevitable, especially if one was away from the other for more than, say, an hour. Like mud after rain.

When they took a break from making out, Rob made light conversation with Sharon, asked her about Stanford, how it felt to be rid of her hometown. The way he described it made it sound like Tulsa was a coat that could be shrugged off. Sharon liked the description. It fit. Every few seconds she glanced at Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse, the flickering candle light in the windows. When the tension rose to a certain level in her throat, Sharon let it out.

“Has anybody heard anything about him lately?” Sharon said, nodding towards the house.

Rob and Kate looked in the direction and Kate shrugged.

“Same ol’,” she said. “It’s Johnson. He’s not going anywhere.” Kate chuckled. “When we all have kids, they’ll come out here and play and grow up doing the same damn things our parents yelled at us for.” She glanced at Rob to see the expression on his face at the mention of kids. It was blank and Kate looked slightly pleased, which just made Sharon raise an eyebrow.

“You think he’ll live long all alone like that?” Sharon said.

“What do you mean?” Rob said, looking genuinely confused. Now that Sharon thought about it, Rob looked confused most of the time. Kate very well could hide the pregnancy from him, right up until the baby popped out, and Sharon could bet that Rob wouldn’t be the wiser.

“I mean,” Sharon said, looking back at the candlelit windows. “Being alone like that, for all those years. That can’t be healthy.”

Kate made a pshhh sound and waved her hand.

“He’ll be fine,” she said. “It’s Mr. Johnson. If he didn’t want to be alone, I know twenty women within a mile who’d have his baby tonight.” She chuckled, then suddenly looked sad. “He chose to be like this.”

Sharon stared into the distance.

“I don’t know,” she said. “All these years we spent hanging out here, nobody ever so much as asked him if he wanted to join us for a beer, or just talk or something.”

“Why would he want to talk to a bunch of kids?” Rob said.

“Company’s company,” Sharon mumbled. “We should invite him one of these days.”

“You know his rule, Shar,” Kate said. “Peach tree’s still standing right there and I ain’t walking a step past it. We got a good set up here. I bet kid’s in other towns got to hang out in libraries or some other nonsense.” She motioned around with her arms in the air. “We got all this, with permission. Leave the man alone.”

“I’m just saying,” Sharon said quietly, then dropped the subject.

Conversation continued for another ten minutes, at which point Rob went back to his truck (a vehicle equally as beat up as Kate’s, as if they bought them at the same time on a two-for-one deal) and produced two six packs of Natural Light. He smiled at Sharon when he returned with the beer and told her they were in honor of her first completed semester. He’d heard that Natural Light was the chosen beer of most college parties both for its cheap price and ability to get a person trashed fairly quickly. Sharon laughed at that and told them she drank heavier than that when she partied up at Stanford: lime and tequila shots were her choice. She told them stories of the parties, of studying until sunrise, of the beautiful campus and her plans to study abroad in England over the summer. Sharon reveled in their amazement and obvious jealousy, feeling a bit like a one-woman show, at least for a little while. When the beers were gone and everybody was swaying a little, using the hood less as a home base and more as support to keep from slipping to the ground, Kate and Rob decided they were going to head out.

“It’s good to see you, Shar,” Kate said, then smiled mischievously. “And if you really want to sleep with Mr. Johnson, you should just ask him.”

Sharon scoffed, slapping Kate lightly on the shoulder.

“I do not want to sleep with Mr. Johnson,” she said, her declaration a little too bright with alcohol behind it. She cleared her throat. “I’m nineteen. He’s, like, forty. That’s gross.”

Kate glanced at Rob who was standing near his truck, staring aimlessly at the sky. Kate came close to Sharon and whispered.

“He’s still hot,” she said, then looked down at Sharon’s body. “And, in case you haven’t looked in the mirror lately, so are you.”

She winked at Sharon then hugged her and walked over to Rob. Sharon chuckled and waved to them as they got in their separate trucks and followed each other down the dark street leading back to town, both of them swerving slightly the whole way out.

Sharon walked over to her car and paused to look again at Mr. Johnson’s farm house. What Kate had said—the idea of what Kate had said—was absurd, sure. Mr. Johnson wanted nothing to do with a freshman college student, no matter how “hot” Kate thought she was.

“But,” Sharon said, trying to stop her words from slurring and failing. “But—I could still say hello. Nothing wrong with a little hello.”

Sharon didn’t realize until then how starved for attention she was. Stanford had turned out to be a haven of academic integrity and advancement. But what she hadn’t wanted to admit to Kate and Rob was that, aside from the occasional raucous party, things had turned out to be just as boring up there as they were in Tulsa. The only difference was she didn’t know anybody up there, which made the boredom even more oppressive. She had been showing off in front of Kate and Rob; the reality of it was that she missed the town she had been so quick to disown. She missed the people she could rely on to be so predictably obtuse, the guys who would whistle no matter how many times she walked by the pub on Baker’s street, even if it was five times within the hour. She’d gotten annoyed with it while she was here, but the complete lack of boisterousness at Stanford had given her a different perspective. The guys up there were educated, reserved, husband material. But every once in a while, Sharon just wanted to be hollered at.

She doubted saying hi to Mr. Johnson would fix that need. He definitely was not the hollering type. But, she thought, maybe it could open her back up to the town she’d so easily shut out of her mind. She was going to be home for two weeks; she might as well make the most of it. And Mr. Johnson had always had a bit of a glint in his eyes when he smiled and waved at the girls on his way past the peach tree. At least, she thought that’s what she saw.

Sharon stared at the peach tree that she wasn’t supposed to pass and walked over to it, rubbing the rough bark, stray pieces floating to the grass. The dirt trail leading up to the farmhouse twisted and winded down a slight gradient, stopping at the bottom where a stone path pointed towards Mr. Johnson’s front porch. Standing at a higher point of the hill, Sharon could see over the house, the rows and rows of corn growing in the large field out back. She swayed a little, using the tree for support, then took a tentative step past the forbidden peach tree. She was surprised when nothing happened, then felt stupid for the surprise. What exactly did she think would happen? She had half expected a jolt of electricity, as if she were wearing one of those electric dog collars.

Sharon pushed away from the peach tree and walked down the dirt path to Mr. Johnson’s house, looking up at the windows the whole time. Candlelight still flickered in what she believed was his bedroom (that bit of knowledge due to the many nights she and her friends had laid out in the field and speculated until one day they’d seen Mr. Johnson’s shadow in this particular  window, which had subsequently thrown her and her friends into a fit of high pitched giggles). Behind Sharon, the night seemed to follow her, swallowing the path behind her along with the field and her car, shooting back a melody of crickets and a few errant birds in the distance. She reached the front porch and was about to walk up it and knock on the door when she paused, realizing she had no idea what she planned to say to Mr. Johnson when she knocked on the door. Assuming he even answered. For all she knew, he was sleeping and had just forgotten to blow out the candle. And even if he wasn’t sleeping, he would probably be pretty miffed about Sharon breaking his only rule. What if, by passing the peach tree, she had just ruined things for the other kids? The ones younger than her? What if, because of her, future generations of Tulsa residents would be robbed of the same experiences she had out here on Mr. Johnson’s farm? She didn’t want to be responsible for that.

The thought was sobering enough to give her a start, and she looked down at her feet with disgust, as if they’d betrayed her by bringing her past the threshold. Her head was clearing a little from the alcohol induced state it had been in, and her mouth tasted like old beer which she knew from experience only got worse and more nausea-inducing the longer she stayed awake. She turned and was about to trudge up the path back to her car when a noise caught her attention. She turned and cocked her head to the side a little, listening. There was nothing for a while and she was beginning to think it was her imagination when the sound came again, more distinct. She looked in the direction, at the side of the house, and tried to rewind and play the sound again in her head. It sounded like someone speaking, a little kid actually, saying something in what sounded like Spanish:

Sígame al paraíso.

She couldn’t be sure. She didn’t know Spanish except for what she’d learned in high school, which wasn’t much more than hola and por favor. But the words had the feeling of the language. They’d been uttered, almost whispered, in the strangest pre-pubescent voice, an asexual sound, almost alien. It was then that the long forgotten childhood stories of the creatures that lived out by Mr. Johnson’s farm returned to Sharon. She chuckled in spite of the fear that suddenly sprang up in her chest. In fact, she chuckled because of it, the fear gripping her for all of a second before giving way to embarrassment. She looked at the shadows protruding from the side of the house and shook her head. The stories of the creatures had been absurd to begin with, but in her self-induced moment of fear, she had laughably added to the story in a way that kept her from taking anything in her mind seriously for even a moment.

There were no creatures at Mr. Johnson’s farm. And even if there were, they most certainly were not Spanish.

She chuckled again, a little louder, almost drowning out the sound of the voice again. Almost, but not quite.

Sígame al paraíso.

This time, it had a beckoning quality to it and Sharon found herself walking towards the shadows beside the house, captivated by the melodic quality of the voice. It reminded her of when she was about eight and her grandmother had come to stay with her while her parents had been away for their tenth anniversary. Her grandmother, a staunch, God-fearing Catholic (who spoke of her parents Baptist affiliation as if it were a cancerous tumor they should look into) had taken Sharon to a church in the next town over since the two churches in Tulsa were both Baptist. At that Catholic church had been a choir consisting of boys Sharon’s age, young and pure. They had sung hymn after hymn that day, and though the actual sermon hadn’t interested Sharon whatsoever, the singing had. The boys voices then reminded her of this voice coming from the side of Mr. Johnson’s house now: sweet, captivating, innocent. She smiled a little, dazed, and made her way around the corner of the house.

In the darkness she could see nothing but the swaying tops of the corn stalks and the low-lying moon, big and yellow and half-hidden by the crops. It shined off the tops of the corn stalks and threw around the shadows that Sharon walked in, surveying the ground for the source of the voice. When it came again, she snapped her head up towards the corn stalks. The voice sounded like it had come from directly in front of her, and the fear tapped at her heart for a second again, then went away. She stared at the corn stalks and stepped towards them, passing the side of the house and walking across the couple of feet of grass that separated the house from the crops. She looked up once to see the back window of Mr. Johnson’s (proposed) bedroom, the candlelight still flickering. A shadow passed across the window and she paused, staring up, wondering if Mr. Johnson would choose right now to take a look outside, catching her in the act before she could find the source of the beautiful voice.

No sooner had the thought occurred, Sharon looked down and saw the creature. She knew right away that it was the creature, not just because it looked like a creature but because it was a compilation of the different beings people had described to her over the years. Or, rather, it was any one of those creatures at any given moment. As Sharon stood there staring at it, the thing changed shapes, grew taller and shorter, grew appendages then absorbed them only to have another one pop out somewhere else. When she first turned around, the thing was shorter than her, about half her height, standing on two clawed feet. It had wings like a bat that twitched behind it, as if it wanted to fly away but couldn’t. Then she watched as it grew, the wings disappearing into it scaly skin. Her eyes followed its ascent until it seemed to max out around seven feet and then fell to the ground on all fours. It looked up at her and its eyes twinkled, even though there was no light in the vicinity that could possibly be reflecting in them. It’s spine was ribbed all the way down to a short nub of a tail, like a Doberman, if a Doberman and an alligator could mate.

Staring at the creature, the creature staring back up at her, Sharon felt one thought permeate her mind and tried to think of something else, anything else, but couldn’t. Three words ran like a marquee in her head, over and over:

So it’s true.

It had all been true. They had all been right, all the people who’d claimed and claimed and who’d she’d discounted over the years. It made her wonder a lot of things in a short period of time; about the existence of other such myths she’d been so quick to dismiss: Santa, the Easter bunny, God. What if it was all true? What exactly did that mean?

The thoughts stayed with her even as the creature bared its jagged, crooked teeth, a drop of saliva forming in the corner of its mouth and dribbling down. It moved quickly, too quickly, one of its clawed feet seeming only to shudder slightly in Sharon’s eyes, and then there was a searing pain in her stomach. She looked down and saw the steaming pile of intestines lying on the floor and, even then, could still only think of the possibilities. The difference in her future. Should she scan the skies on Christmas Eve? Should she start to pray again?

Sharon looked up at that, and then slowly fell to the grass. She rolled over as she did, facing Mr. Johnson’s bedroom and noticing the candle was out. Then her face was washed in light and she strained to look over at the oncoming headlights of Mr. Johnson’s pickup truck, catching a glimpse of Mr. Johnson behind the wheel with a solemn look on his face shaking his head.

Then it was all blocked out by the creature’s face hovering over hers, its cat eyes winking with light as it whispered in the choir boy voice:

Bienvenido a paraíso.