The sand of the beach curves like a crescent moon, touching the lapping water of the lake as if both luxuriating in its caress, and carefully studying it for meaning: each lazy wave a rush of liquid braille. A galaxy of granules, yellow and white, the beach is currently bestrewn with blankets, and with bags filled with sunscreens, and with bodies.

These bodies – blends of naked, newly-reddened skin and of colorful swim shorts and bikinis – lie at dozens of angles, some supine, others prostrate, all of them crowded together as if having tumbled en masse, one barely-clad body having triggered the next, like an elaborate chain of dominoes. It is the adults who blot the beach like fungi as they smother the sand and soak the sun’s rays into skin that was pale only hours before.

My wife and I are no different: she is spread on a blanket the color of neon blood, staring up at the sky through sunglasses, observing the world made visually mute, and I recline on a beach chair with my toes shoved in the hot sand and my mind drifting gloriously, untethered from the usual moorings of work and worries.

The children present are like a different species from their parents as they flee from the stationary like it was a curse, crashing from sand to water, and back from water onto sand, over and over again, moving as children must move. They play with the same inevitability that the sun shines or that the clouds over-head glide, for such is their natural state and their biological dictate.

Our children are no different: Alice is at the playground behind the beach, on a swing, soaring forward and backward so high that her motion may be outpacing that of the world’s, launching her beyond time’s ken, perhaps keeping her a child – a mover – forever. And Charles has joined the pack of other children dashing through the shallows of the lake as one mingled mass of blurred swimsuits and splashing feet.

I smile. “We’ve been here less than a week,” I say to Sloan, “and it looks like Charles has already made so many friends that I’d have a better chance of being struck by lightning while holding a winning ‘Mega Millions’ ticket than I’ve got of learning all their names.”

Sloan makes a sound. It lacks the structure of a word, but still carries within its nebulousness a tone that conveys meaning. I frown, because here, on this beautiful day, as we relax on this perfect beach found just minutes from our new home, my wife is unhappy.

“Really?” I say in response to her grunt. “You’re going to be miserable here? Now? Look at this day, Sloan! Why are you actively working at disliking this place? Why can’t you try?”

She turns and, given the angry curl of her lips, I’m glad she has sunglasses on, so that I can’t see the ire in her eyes, too. “I am trying, James,” she says. “Each hour and every day. But, I don’t like it here. I told you that when we first saw the house, and I told you right up until we were signing the mortgage papers – this place makes me uncomfortable.”

“You didn’t like any of the houses we looked at!” I sit up straighter in my chair, my toes pulling from the sand like gophers popping from their burrows. “Not a single one! I just… I don’t understand. I’ve asked you a hundred times what you don’t like about this place, and you can never come up with even a single real complaint!”

Sloan turns away. Clouds cover the sun and she removes her sunglasses. Instead of the fury I expect to see filling her eyes, I instead see tears. “I know,” she says, choking on the words. “It’s a feeling I have. That’s all, but that’s also a lot… at least to me. I don’t feel at ease here.”

I sigh. Over the sounds of the splashing, laughing children I hear a call for ‘Daddy,’ a name that nearly half of the adults on this beach go by. But I know that this ‘Daddy’ describes only me, for I immediately recognize Alice’s voice.

I turn and see that she’s still swinging. “You alright, honey?” I call over.

“Come and push me, Daddy!” she says.

I get up and head over, my every footfall sinking into soft warmth. I’m glad to be putting some space between my wife and myself.

Alice has slowed, her little legs growing tired,  I position myself behind her and push. She laughs, and takes to the skies again. The chains on the swing squeak incessantly and they join the other happy beach noises, becoming another of summer’s instruments.

“A dinosaur!” Alice yells out, tilting her head up.

“What?” I say.

She frees one hand from the swing’s chain and points. “That cloud, Daddy! It looks just like a dinosaur!”

I gaze up. The clouds have multiplied, and thickened, and I try to guess which one my daughter has singled-out as being Jurassic. “What kind of dinosaur is it, do you think?”

Alice giggles. “A big one, Daddy!”

I smile. “Makes sense.”

I push her again and she kicks her legs out at the peak of her ascent, her bare toes wriggling against solid blue and drifting white.

“A knife!” she says on her drop back towards me.

“Huh?” I see that she’s still looking towards the heavens. “One of the clouds looks like a knife?”

“Yeah.” She jabs a finger. “That one.”

“Oh.” I squint, studying the sky once more.

“And… a body.” Her voice is softer now, and I’m not sure I’ve heard her correctly. I stop pushing and she slows. “That cloud looks like a dead body,” she continues. “An old woman, who was stabbed with the knife.”

“Alice? What are you…”

“She’s buried… in that other cloud. But… but she’s coming back out. Clawing out, through dirt and roots. Her teeth look like fangs….”

I grab Alice and stop the swing. “Alice, honey, what are you talking about?”

“All those clouds over there are… are dead people. Skulls, and bones… piles and piles of them…”

“Alice, stop…”

Her head twists to the right. She screams. “A monster! Daddy, a monster!” She flails, tumbling from the swing. The instant she thuds to the ground she is pointing up again, wailing. “There! It’s… it’s looking at us! Right at us!”

I lift her, and hold her to me. “Relax, sweetie,” I whisper. My hands are shaking; I don’t know what’s happening to my daughter. “It’s OK, it’s just your imagination.”

“No!” There are tears in her eyes. “Can’t you see them, Daddy? They’re all right there!” She buries her head in my chest. “It’s not just the one monster. There’s so, so many of them! They see us…”

I hold the back of Alice’s head, shushing her. My gaze drops from the clouds – all indistinct cumulus clumps to me – towards the water, to where a flock of ducks is touching down on the lake, near the beach. They segue smoothly from sky to water, trading blue for blue, as if it’s all one seamless substance to them. My eyes move along the shore away from the ducks, roving over playing kids and lounging parents, and then freeze: Charles is on the ground, being kicked by another, older boy.

I put Alice down, blurting out that I’ll be right back, and I run.

“Hey!” I skid to a stop between my son and the other boy, spraying sand. “What do you think you’re doing?” I yell at Charles’ attacker.

He smiles back at me, and says nothing.

“You can’t go around kicking other people! Where are your parents?”

His smile only grows. The rest of his face surrounding those lifting lips is blank, expressionless, and in his eyes hangs nothing but a glassy void. A shiver sprints up my spine. The boy’s smile expands even wider – how can his lips stretch so far? – and then he turns, and walks away.

I kneel, looking Charles over. “Are you OK? What happened?”

“I don’t know!” My son is crying. “W-we were playing, and then he just started hitting me! For no reason…”

“I’ll find his mom and dad. I’ll…”

Frenzied quacking clatters over the beach. I turn to where a group of fifteen children are chasing the newly-arrived ducks: sloshing water into the animals’ faces and screaming down at them. The ducks swim in circles, unsure of what to do. A chubby little boy spits at one. A girl starts mocking their quacks, flapping her arms like wings.

“Jesus,” I mutter. “A bunch of little hellions…”


I turn to see Alice standing there, sobbing. She looks up at me with eyes I’ve known since her first day on Earth; eyes I’ve gazed into a million times; eyes I now hardly recognize. They contain a level of fear I’ve never seen – a desperation.

Tears trickle from them. “A… a monster,” she says. “One of them came down from the clouds. One of them is here.”

More quacking fills the air, louder than ever, and it’s followed by the laughter and yelps of children. There are even more kids around the ducks, now. They continue to spatter them with water, and shriek at them. One of the boys picks up a stick, and throws it at a bird, just missing. Another boy digs a rock out of the sand, lifting it. He tosses the rock and it smacks into one of the ducks’ heads, snapping it backwards, prompting a piteous cry from the animal. Blood flows from its bright green plumage and drips into the water. Several of the other kids pick up more rocks.

“No!” I bellow. I leave Charles and Alice, and sprint to the group of kids. “What are you all doing?” I scream as the children ignore me; as they continue to stare at the ducks, their fingers twitching around the objects they’ve armed themselves with. “They haven’t done anything to you! Leave them alone!”

A girl who can’t be any older than four launches her rock and it crashes into the body of the closest duck. I grab her arm. “Where are your parents?” I look up at the beach – none of the adults are paying attention. “Hey!” I scream. “Come and get your kids! They’re hurting these ducks!”

A few of the adults’ heads turn towards me, disinterestedly. One woman peers up from her paperback book only to glance right back down, and a man lying on a beach blanket flips over so that his back faces me. More rocks are hurled into the lake, towards the ducks, and the chubby boy dives into the water, rushing at the animals. He manages to reach one before it can escape, grabbing it around its neck. He lifts it out of the water. Its body flounders and its webbed feet squirm. The boy pokes at the bird’s face with one hand while still holding it aloft with his other. He guffaws as he does this.

I lunge into the lake and clutch him, ripping his fingers open so that the duck falls back to the water.

“Let go of me!” he yells.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re going to kill that duck!”

A sharp pain bites into the back of my head, and I turn towards the beach. A group of adults now stand with the children. Most are holding rocks. A big man with a hairy chest winds his arm back and throws. The rock strikes me in the neck.

“What are you…?”

More rocks soar. Some blast through the surface of the water, and some slam into the duck, but most hit me.

“Stop!” I scream, splashing back towards the shore.

With a screeching laugh, a woman flings a sharp pebble that hits me over my eye. Warm blood streams down my skin. Issuing more quacks, all but two of the ducks take flight. Of the remaining, one flaps a wounded wing impotently, thrashing about the water, and the other is dead.

The children focus on the last living duck, throwing a new volley of stones and sticks at it. The parents focus on me. I barrel through a barrage of stinging projectiles, being struck on every part of my body, and when I arrive at the beach, a horde of people now stand, waiting, at water’s edge. Two men grab me.

“Get your hands off!” Blood drips into my right eye, obscuring my vision, as the men drag me.

One of them punches me in the gut and I fall. The sand burns my knees; the lake water licks at my feet; everything sinks into an eerie silence. I can hear nothing. And then: screams.

The mass of people before me parts, and I see her: Sloan, howling hysterically, is being dragged towards the water by two other women. They throw her at me, and I help her sit up. “W-what’s going on?” she whimpers.

I shake my head, having no answer. More cries pierce the short-lived return of the stillness, and Alice stumbles into view, shoved along by a boy. He pushes her into Sloan’s arms. Finally, Charles, with a black eye and swollen lip, is carried through the mob by a man wearing a Speedo. He holds Charles at arms-length, and tosses him towards us like he’s heaving a trash bag into the compactor at the town dump. The four of us huddle together. Everyone on the beach, children and adults alike, form a tight semicircle, trapping us on a wet slice of sand, with the lake immediately at our backs. The dead ducks – there are two of them now – float a few feet from us like bloodied buoys.

Each person in the crowd holds a rock. I step in front of my family, arms raised, and I glance at the sky. The clouds are dark now, and begin to spit rain. And, maybe it’s the blood in my eye, or maybe the rocks that struck my head did more damage than I’d realized, but when I peer up, the clouds don’t look like clouds anymore. They look like monsters.

I lower my gaze. On every face is a stretching smile like the boy who attacked Charles had worn… that same smile, and little else. Four dozen pairs of empty eyes stare at us. The monster clouds churn above. Rain pummels down.

And the rocks fly.