The Bog: The Finale

Start the story here:

I was blind, floating through wet, empty space. I heard muffled sounds of water splashing and something bending under a great stress. The rowboat. This was a nightmare; soon, I would shoot awake in my apartment. The sun would be shining through the windows waiting for me to greet the day.  

My lungs ached for air. Waking would have to wait. Brown flickers of sunlight pierced through the darkness. That had to be the surface. I reached up with my arms, climbing through the dark water.

Bright light assailed me as I reached the surface. The crisp sound of bending metal and snapping wood greeted my ears. I wiped my eyes while treading the deep, black water. Blurry writhing shapes gave way to wooden tentacle-like roots crushing and tossing the pieces of our mangled rowboat. Scientific equipment was lost to the dark depths.

Patrick was nowhere to be seen. Was he somewhere at the bottom of the pond? Did he escape?

Escape. Escape, then I could wake up.

Then, my eye caught a glimpse of our yellow notebook floating between me and the mad, drunken cypress tree. The only remaining account of the event drifted just out of reach.

I sighed. “Damn.”

It was the longest ten feet in my life, but I swam and grabbed the notebook. I nearly shouted in triumph.

The trunk of the cypress tree twisted as if turning to face me. Its trunk bent over the water. Branches reached for me, like gnarled, wooden hands marked with the remnants of old bird nests.

The limbs reached for my arm holding the notebook. I swam backward. The tree’s branches slithered through the water. I shouted in panic and turned to swim away.

Wooden tentacles wrapped around my ankles. I was pulled under the water. I steady stream of frightened air released from my lungs. I inhaled black water. Shapes flickered in and out of my limited, blurry sight. Froglets. One bumped into my arm and bit me. It stung like ten wasps. I exhaled my breath with a muffled scream.

Next time I do field work, I’m bringing a chain saw. What was I thinking? There was never going to be another day. A wave of calm over me. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. I felt a bite on my upper leg. In a dying rage, I reached toward the offender and ripped the froglet from my leg. I felt its dorsal spines pierce my hands. I squeezed. It let out a screech, louder than any noise they had made above water. I felt it pop in my hands like a piece of rotten fruit.

The roots thrashed me through the water. I released my victim. I saw bright light and felt the dry air. The tree lifted me and flung me through the air. Wet mud greeted my fall. I spit out water and muck, gasped for air, and writhed like a suffocating fish.

I rolled onto my chest and lifted my upper body with aching arms and sprained wrists. I collapsed again. I was out of the water, but I could still die here.

Then, I heard a roar. Not an angry frog-beast mother, this was a diesel roar. The lab truck.  


Was that Patrick screaming? Please let that be Patrick screaming.

I sat up and spotted the lab truck barreling through the bumpy terrain of ferns, mud, and fallen timber. It was an ecological disaster, but it was coming to my aid. I hopped to my feet, nearly falling backward into the water. I was a safe distance from the tree that threw me, but the landscape was filled with twisting trees. The ground heaved and roiled around them. Cypress roots rolled through the earth toward me.

I sprinted toward the truck.

My ankle was caught mid-sprint. My leg pulled out from under me, and I slammed face-first into the mud. I could feel things squirming around my cheeks. Worms maybe. The strong, wood gripped around my ankle and pulled. I imagined that in the center of this mass of trees was a maw of wooden stake-like teeth waiting to impale me.  

The truck roar passed me. I heard crumpling metal and splitting timber. The truck growled in idle.

My ankle was free.

“Theo, get your ass in the truck!” Patrick shouted.

I jumped to my feet; my ankle rebelled in pain. I fell back staring into the blue sky through the canopy of cypress trees. They swayed, but not with the breeze. They were ravenous.

Patrick’s large head eclipsed the light from the sky. I felt his hands grab mine and he pulled. I was on my feet. My ankle agonized over the slightest pressure. I hopped on one foot. Patrick flung his arm around me and guided me toward the truck.

A young cypress tree writhed in front of the truck. It was bent at the base of the trunk, pinned by the truck’s front wheels. The front of the truck was bent inward, the hood arched up.

Patrick pushed me into the passenger side of the truck and slammed the door. He ran around and hopped into the driver’s seat. He flung the truck into reverse.

“Good truck, sturdy truck,” I mumbled. Instinctively I looked for the yellow notebook. It remained bent in a death grip in my left hand.

Patrick shifted the truck in drive and spun the truck around through the dirt and mud. The truck groaned forward as Patrick turned it to the shore of large swamp near the land bridge.  The swamp frothed near us as cypress knees rose from the waters, extending into hungry, wooden tentacles.

One flung itself at the truck bed, bending the bed of the truck inward and lifting the cab a foot off the ground. Failing to get a hold, the root slide from the truck. The truck landed with a shake. It slid through the mud as Patrick took a moment to take stock of the situation.

I tapped on the window so Patrick could see other tentacles snaking toward the truck through the mud. Patrick nodded and slammed his foot to the gas. The tires flung mud everywhere, we were digging treaded ditches through the mud, but the truck push through it.

Patrick slid the truck onto the path toward the land bridge and the now-animated cypress guardians at our exit. I braced my legs against the vehicle and pushed my back into the seat. The guardians’ misshapen hand-like limbs reached for the truck.  

Patrick screamed through clenched teeth, and I closed my eyes as we charged. The truck lurched from below. I opened my eyes to see roots rising from the ground bashing the undercarriage. The truck was lifted and scooped up neatly by a webbing of wooden limbs. The jolt sprained my neck and Patrick’s head hit the steering wheel.  

All I could hear was the sound of crippling metal and the revving engine screaming like an animal trapped inside the jaws of a predator.

The roof of the cab bent inward.

I saw Patrick shaking sense back into his head. Two streams of blood rushed from his forehead down the contours of his nose. We traded wide-eyed glances, affirming that we had to get out and knowing how it would end for us.

I manually rolled down my window, pain shot from my neck down through my elbow. The tree limbs shook the truck. We bounced within the cab. The roof bent further inward. Cracks formed on the windshield.

Bracing my body with my sprained ankle, I reached through open passenger window. I pulled half of my body throughit. Below me, there was open space between the cypress branches to reach the ground. With one last breath, I slid out of the truck window and dropped.

Pain shot from my spine, my lungs desperately craved air. My head convulsed and rose sporadically, despite the pain in my neck, reaching for wisps of oxygen. Above me, the roots and branches ripped the truck bed from the cab.

Something grabbed my collar and dragged me. I heard heavy panting and wheezing behind me. I could breathe again.

I struggled to stand. My hands slipped on the crushed corpses and bones of long-decayed nutria that still littered the land bridge. I lifted my head, the trees handed pieces of the truck to the roots which pulled the vehicle and our remaining gear into the swamp. The cab released air and bubbles frothed on the surface of the swamp, then silence.

The trees ceased moving, the swamp’s violent ripples faded to stillness. The swamp was silent.

I laid there, my body aching and bleeding, surrounded by the crushed pieces of invasive rodents.  

“Hey, man,” Patrick wheezed.

I craned my head back to see Patrick behind me, sitting in the mud. Blood dripped from his nose to the ground.

“Amazing,” he panted.

“Yeah, that is exactly what I was thinking.” I stared back at the cypress trees. “I would have preferred gators.”

Patrick groaned. “Yeah.”

I snapped my fingers. “Shit! I lost the field notebook.”

Patrick grunted with a chuckle, “I don’t care.”

I lifted my body to a sitting position. I looked out over the swamp. Adrenaline rushed through my weak form. A trio of V-shaped ripples broke the surface, heading toward our former study site. Large spiny dorsal fins emerged from the water.

“Nope.” Patrick and I said.

We stood and walked away, as quickly as we could drag out wounded bodies. We didn’t slow down until we reached the ranger gate entrance.

A ranger’s SUV was waiting for us.

© 2020 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.    

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Burn It All Down

Hello Echoes,

What can I say? It has been a couple of years, hasn’t it? Since the world is painfully slow in getting better and the challenges just seem to stack up, it is time to throw caution to the wind. I’m not sure what to say other than burnout is real. It stalks you, latches on, and slowly bleeds you dry. Sometimes, it’s not even dramatic and is simply an opaque cloud of “Blah”. Then the fog becomes normal and you forget what bright sun and blue skies looked like.

However, here I am. I took a hard look last month at my blog site to make some changes. I have been trying to produce new writings so much that I forgot that my largest goal was too promote writing I was already planning. The revelation had me deleting through the blog like a wildfire. I cut out a lot of stories that I didn’t like. The serials are mostly gone as they were cumbersome.

So, in the haze of smoke and smoldering ruins, I am changing the goals of this platform. I will still be adding short stories, maybe a poem, and some photography here and there, but there will be focus on the books series I have been working on for years. I will start adding universe building aspects of the largest stories and series that will have published books. Think of this as an inside look at the creation of worlds beyond on our own.

I still plan to finish part three of The Bog as this may be part of one of my universes, and I had a lot of fun writing it anyway. I also have short story ideas I always wanted to develop. I just just want to relax on entirely new improvised stuff while my more developed work is sitting on the backburner. Putting my heart on the back burner may have been a mistake.

I hope you join me on this path. Not sure what it will look like, but it will be fun to wipe my dry, smoke-filled eyes and take a look. Who knows, maybe older, unfinished, and improvised stories might be restored in some form later.

Until the next adventure, CJ.

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The Bog: Part Two

Five ponds dotted the landscape, each boasted one bald cypress at the shore. Sinuous roots plunged into the water with several knobby knees surfacing at the pond’s edge.

I hopped out of the truck and gazed at the pond. Water trickled through small, eroded inlets toward the major body of water we had driven over.

So, the ponds are elevated? Or was there a natural levee here at some point?

I looked toward the large body of dark, stagnant swamp water behind us.

“So strange. What geological event created this place?”

Patrick peeked up from the bed of the truck. “No idea. We are not geologists. And I don’t want to collect their samples too.”

“No, we don’t.”

I grabbed the black case and my backpack from the cab. Patrick handed me our plankton and dip nets. I also balanced two trays of sample bottles between my bent arm and chest. With a snicker, he tossed the throw net over my head.

“I am not a lab sample.”

“We are but field mice in our advisor’s lab.”

Patrick stacked two coolers on the edge of the truck. He jumped from the truck and grabbed the bottom cooler by its handles. Between free fingers, he grabbed the handle of an empty bucket.

We placed our gear at the edge of the pond and returned to the truck for the rowboat. We set the rowboat near the water and stashed our equipment in its center. I sat up front and Patrick pushed the boat out and hopped in.

The environment around the pond was quiet. The water was smooth as glass and opaque like oil. Submerged vegetation reached for the sun along the edges of the pond, their stems disappearing into the oily water. Small fish and tadpoles darted through the vegetation and cypress knees. The center was a slick, black mystery.

The plan was for a simple transect from the middle of each pond to the shore, collecting samples at three points. Afterward, we would sample around the cypress trees.

Patrick grabbed the yellow logbook out of my pack. I grabbed the Secchi Disk from the bucket. It was a thin, plastic disk with four alternating white and black quadrants. It had a lead weight at the bottom and a rope attached on top. The rope had black marks at every ten centimeters to estimate depth. I lowered the disk into the pond. Within ten centimeters, the white and black patterns vanished.

“Visibility less than 10 centimeters,” I said. “No surprise there.”

Patrick scribbled into the logbook. “Well, what’s our depth?”

I lowered the Secchi Disk into the pond. The marks on the rope passed through my hands and disappeared into black water: one meter, two, three.

The rope slacked. The disk hit soft bottom before rope’s four-meter mark. I whistled.

“How is it that deep?” I asked.

Patrick shrugged.

I pulled the Secchi Disk from the water and placed it back into the bucket.

I opened the black case. Within was a handheld device with a long cable attached to an enclosed tube with a series of exposed sensors at one end: a data sonde. The sensors would detect the water temperature, conductivity, pH, and dissolved oxygen. I held the sensor in the water and fired up the handheld device with the other. I waited for numbers on the screen to stabilize.

“Who the hell dumps a pile of dead nutria deep in the forest?” Patrick mused.

“That bothers you, huh?”

“Yeah, it makes no sense. I get that they are an invasive species, rangers should remove them from the environment, even the dead ones.” Patrick laughed. “Perhaps it’s one of those creatures from the swamp you keep hearing stories about on that WHAU scary broadcast.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Hey, it’s entertaining. I’ll listen to anything that gives me a break from reading science articles for an hour, especially around midnight.”

“Can’t fault you for that.”

“Ah, the readings stabilized.” I lowered the cable into the water. “Let’s get back to work.”

I held the cable and read off the temperature, conductivity, pH, and dissolved oxygen numbers to Patrick. He recorded them in the logbook.

After scribbling down the data from the two-meter mark, Patrick broke the silence. “I just thought of something. The dead nutria. Whoever caught them and left them here to rot messed up. They could make money off those things.”

“How so?” I asked. The sonde had reached three meters. I stared at the digital readout as the numbers ticked away.  

“Well, I read in an article that nutria pelts are top quality. Could make some money off them. Maybe turn them into shoes, handbags, or something.”

“Interesting. Numbers are ready.”

“Fire away.”

I read the numbers off the meter and lowered the cable until the sensors touched bottom.

“If the whole graduate school schtick doesn’t work out for us,” Patrick said, “perhaps nutria hunting would be more lucrative.”

“It would be more lucrative, considering our current salaries,” I replied.

There was a tug on the cable.

“What the—”

“I can see it now: get your new nutria man purse by Invasive Limited.” Patrick chuckled.

A second slight tug on the cable.

“Come on, that was a good one,” Patrick said.

I looked back on the data logger in my hand. “Yeah, yeah, funny.” I managed a smile.

“No man purse for you, huh?”

“Not my style, but I wouldn’t mind making money on those fellas who want them.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“Here we go, last set of numbers. Oxygen concentrations are stable all the way down.”

“Mid spring, not warm enough to stratify the water column. Ready with the numbers.”

I read off the numbers. I curled the cable around my arm, gently lifting the sensor out of the water. “Well, let’s collect some water for the chemists.”

Patrick handed me a horizontal PVC tube. It had removable caps at the ends. An elastic band through the tube’s center connected the end caps. I opened the ends, latching the caps to a metal piece at the top of the tube. This way water could flow through the tube. I lowered the sampler in the water with an attached rope. Once the sampler was near the bottom, I sent a lead weight down the rope. There was a tug on the rope as the weight hit a button on the sampler, snapping it shut with a water sample inside. I hauled the sampler up and partitioned the water into several containers through a spigot on the cap.

Next, plankton collection.  Patrick dropped the plankton net into the water, holding it steady with a pole. I rowed the boat back to shore. The water flowed through the net, corralling the plankton into a collection bottle at the end. The plankton sample was transferred to a separate bottle to be preserved with formalin at the truck. We would repeat method at three different depths.

On the third run, I heard a splash in the water. Tiny ripples appeared around the rowboat, probably sunfish investigating the situation.

The rowboat lurched. Patrick slipped and fell flat on his back. The pole slipped from his hands and into the pond. An orange float, attached to the pole, bobbed where the pole had disappeared.

I crawled to Patrick’s side as he gasped for air.

“Breathe, buddy,” I said. “Just give your body a moment to recover. That was a nasty fall.”

It was a long minute as he gasped and fought to regain air in his lungs. He recovered and sat up. He pointed at the orange float bobbing ten feet from the boat in between a trio of cypress knees.

We paddled out to retrieve it. Patrick reached into the water and grabbed the float. He gripped his wrist around the pole and pulled. Snagged. Patrick’s hands slipped on it. Perplexed, we pulled on the net together.

It ripped free. The net was torn beyond repair, ripped down to the where specimen collection bottle would be. Luckily, we had brought the spare net.

Patrick quipped, “Something doesn’t want us to finish our work.”

I smiled and replied in an excited whisper, “Gators!”

Patrick groaned. “Idiot.”

We finished our work at the first pond with the spare plankton net and headed to the second.

The bottom of our rowboat scraped along submerged cypress knees. Together, we had to push off from the shore.

We checked the depth of the pond as before. Still deep and well-oxygenated throughout. We collected the water samples and started our plankton collection.

“Oh, shit!” Patrick exclaimed.

I craned my neck from rowing and saw Patrick struggling with the net. We had caught something large in it.

I turned to help. “All right, we caught ourselves a sunfish.”

“Not funny,” Patrick struggled to speak. “It could damage the net!”

Patrick pulled the net toward the boat. I leaned over the boat. The fine, white mesh of the net emerged out from the black water. The net bulged and lurched, some form was pushing against the sampling bottle at the end. If the sample bottle broke from the net, our spare would be ruined.  

I grabbed the dip net and blocked the open end of the plankton net. Patrick grabbed the sample end and tilted the plankton net.

With a wet thud, a froglet, the size of a human infant, fell out of the plankton net and into the dip net. It had a long tail and four nascent limbs. A bizarre, spiny dorsal fin stretched from its head, down its back, tapering at the base of the tail. Its eyes stared at us, thin, yellow irises with large pupils.

It hissed.

Patrick and I stood up. The boat rocked.

“Have you?”

Patrick only shook his head.

“We should grab it!” I exclaimed.

“We have nothing big enough to carry it safely back.”

I rushed to my pack. “Compromise, we will photograph it.” I grabbed my cell phone from the pack. “Man, the cryptid crazies will not let us live this down.”

The froglet rose on its back legs. It was clumsy and trembled under its weight. It slumped back, bracing against its tail. Trapped in the dip net, it let out a high-pitched growl, like a human infant gurgling with a mouth full of water.

Calling for help? I wondered. I rose the camera to my face. “We just need a picture, little guy, and then, you can go free.”

The rowboat rocked. The froglet bolted, dragging the dip net with it. Patrick rushed forward as I snapped the photo: a blurred shot of Patrick’s backside. The froglet bumbled and slithered across the rowboat. It was fast. I kept taking quick photos while Patrick lurched for it.

He caught it. The froglet arched its back and dorsal spines pierced Patrick’s hands. He pulled back, hands bleeding from small puncture wounds.

“Did you get it?” he shouted.

“Not sure, probably several blurry pictures.”

With a wet growl, the froglet hopped out of the boat and into the black water.

The boat struck something under the water. The stern lifted. I fell back, smashing my lower back against the boat. Patrick flailed into the pond.

Patrick! My thought screamed as my lungs gasped for air.

His hand grabbed the boat. His head appeared with a spit of water and gasp of air. “Gross.”

As my breathing returned, I chuckled. I reached for our logbook sitting on the cooler. “Well, get back in the boat. I’ll record the find.”

I sat down with the logbook and recorded the unknown froglet and our attempt to capture or take pictures of it.

Patrick did not come out of the water.

“You need help?” I asked, engrossed in recording the day’s events.


Finally, I looked up. Patrick, wide-eyed, stared behind me.

I turned and saw a bald cypress lurch forward like a drunken man coming out of a stupor. A twisting mass of roots slithered on the pond’s surface toward the rowboat.

Not possible.

I heard splashes from Patrick. He was reaching through the water as if trying to grab the distant shore as he swam.

“Patrick, you mother—”

A force collided with the rowboat, lifting it vertically out of the water. I splashed in the water, submerged in darkness.

© 2020 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.    

CJ’s Notes: This short story was inspired by a friend and colleague’s Alexandria Archives. Originally, I wanted to share this story with the podcast, but life got in the way before their podcast run ended. She let me keep the Alexandria university name and setting for the story, a North Carolina university situated near the Dismal Swamp. It’s longer than other short stories I have here, so it will be split up into three parts of the next few weeks.

Go ahead and haunt me on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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The Bog, Part One

“Well, all the sample bottles are here. Damn, there are a lot of them. I do not envy the chemistry lab.”

Patrick talked with his head hung over the sample cooler, body stretched over the truck’s side.

I was in the truck bed securing the formalin container. “Yeah, they are busy, busy grad students over there.”

“Ha! So are we!”

I secured the formalin container against the truck’s cab. Last thing we needed was to have a hazardous spill deep in the Dismal Swamp.

Patrick popped his head out of the cooler. His body slid down the side of the truck. “At the very least one of them could have come along.”

I chuckled. “Sure, they’re the lab rats; we’re the field mice. Just like my time in South Carolina.” I hopped off the truck. “No one wants to wander through the swamp, but you and me.”

Patrick grunted. “Yeah, they’ll just bitch about the mud and the bugs.” He took one long gaze over the equipment. “Still, this is a lot of shit for two people on one trip.”

I yawned. “Well, look at this way: we will have all of our samples collected and preserved with the formalin when we get back tonight. Those lab fools could filter water passed midnight.”

Patrick smiled. “True. The early bird gets to hit the bed early. Well, shall we go?”

I tapped the side of the truck. “Indeed.”

I opened the passenger side door and looked through my pack again. Our yellow, waterproof lab notebook, my lunch, and bug spray were there. I secured our electronic equipment in a plastic case near my bag. We hopped into the truck and set out with the morning sunset.

We were overworked, but still ecstatic about breaking new scientific ground in the Great Dismal Swamp. Deep in the swamp was a series of ponds cut off from the larger bogs and waterways. Dr. Ward, our advisor, formed the hypothesis that the ponds were a favorite breeding habitat for amphibians as the isolated ponds protected their offspring from aquatic predators. Dr. Ward discovered the area on a routine helicopter survey several months earlier. Our advisor negotiated with the rangers, which involved many free tickets for Alexandria University’s sports seasons, and they granted Dr. Ward permission to access the ponds. Professors from the chemistry department soon jumped on board to analyze the water properties of the ponds and how it may sustain breeding populations. So, they wrote proposals and won grants. Then, Dr. Ward sent Patrick and me deep into the swamp, emissaries for the Dismal Aquatic and Terrestrial Ecology Lab.

The workday would be long. This was a survey trip, which meant the professors burdened us with collecting tadpoles, microorganisms, real-time water data, and water samples. The labs’ future progress on this grant would depend on our work today.

Patrick stopped the truck at a closed service gate. I hopped out and pulled the gate key from my pocket. The early morning was alive with the low croaking of frogs, searching for mates.

“You better be using our ponds,” I muttered.

I unlocked the padlock and unwrapped the chain around the gates. A wave of cicada droning drowned out the squealing metal as I pushed it open. Patrick drove the truck passed.

I swung the gate closed. I wrapped the chain around the gate, secured the padlock, and headed toward the truck.

The cicada droning stopped. The entire swamp went silent. I stood dumbfounded at the sudden stillness, just the ambient sound of trees creaking in the wind.

What wind? Not a single tree moved in the nonexistent wind.

A single frog croaked from somewhere in the swamp. The droning cicadas fired up their monotone musical set.

“You getting in or are you walking?” Patrick shouted from the driver’s seat.

I shook my head clear and opened the truck door. I hopped in and buckled my seat belt.

“There is time for hiking on another day,” Patrick said, rubbing his eyes.

I smiled. “Still not a morning person, eh?”

Patrick shook his head. “Why did I agree to field work involving primary production? Sunup to sundown water sampling. Ugh.”

Patrick nudged the gas, the truck lurched down the uneven, muddy road.

This area of the swamp was densely populated with enormous cypress trees hugging the shore. Some had grown out of the swamp, creating small islands of mud and peat around their sinuous root systems. Patrick turned the truck left, turning onto a land bridge crossing a body of stagnant swamp water. Blocks of granite protected the bridge from erosion and collapse. Cypress knees protruded from the water like wooden knobs, allowing for air exchange and to help the trees from collapsing into the muddy sediment of the swamp. The number of cypress knees increased as we approached the opposite side of the land bridge.

“What the hell?” exclaimed Patrick.

He brought the truck to a halt. I braced my hand on the dashboard. My seat belt tightened around my chest.

Patrick, grumbling, hopped out of the truck and slammed his door. I fumbled with my seat belt, unbuckled it, and followed. A predatory buzz near my ear forced me to hop back in the truck and grab the bug spray from my pack.

Patrick was already ahead of me, but I did a quick spray of my clothes and arms as I headed toward him. I shouted after him, “Running out here without a good dousing is a terrible idea.”

The spray bottle fell to my feet as I saw what had gotten Patrick’s attention. He stood before a roadblock of animal corpses, maybe three feet high. The stench was overpowering, similar to finding spoiled seafood in a refrigerator. I held my nose as I walked up beside Patrick. The corpses at the bottom were skeletons, others were half-consumed by decay and a host of bugs. The more recent corpses looked similar to beavers, except their large front teeth pointed inward. Their tails were rat-like.

I turned my nose up in disgust. “Nutria. Worthless, invasive vermin.”

“I agree,” Patrick said with a nod. “But there must be hundreds of them. Who would come down here and just leave them on the trail? Who had the time? Only the rangers would be down here.”

I shrugged. “Rookies? Lazy rookies?”

Patrick leaned toward the pile of dead rodents. “I guess.”

“Maybe some enterprising rangers thought to let nature take its course, rather than taking the time to dispose of the bodies themselves. The bastards are invasive, so I don’t care. How is the smell not bothering you?”

Patrick shook his head. “Yeah, but now I get to drive right over them, dumping their carcasses back into the swamp.”

“Ha!” I exclaimed. “Sustenance for the detritivores. A fitting end for the cypress-munching bastards.” I slapped Patrick on his shoulder. “Just hit the gas and roll right over them, like fleshy bowling pins.”

Patrick shrugged. “I guess. This is just highly irregular.”

“It is. However, daylight is wasting.”

I headed back to the truck when I caught the site of something slithering into the swamp in my periphery. I peeked over in time to see a knob of rough skin disappear into the black water.

“Hey, Patrick, gators haven’t migrated to the swamp, correct?”

“Doubtful. Why do you ask?”

I turned from the water. “Just curious. I thought I saw something.”

“Still paranoid of your undergraduate work in South Carolina?”

I laughed as I reached the truck door. “Don’t get me started, man. You spend your field days sampling in waters home to alligators, just to spot one as it submerges—”

“and then you are counting the seconds until it could swim to your boat,” Patrick laughed. “I’ve heard your stories before.”

I hopped into the seat and closed the truck door. “It changes your entire perspective.”

Patrick turned on the ignition and put the truck into drive. “I can only imagine. That’s too far south for me to do freshwater wetland work.”

I fastened my seatbelt and looked at the pile of nutria ahead of us. “Run them over with extreme prejudice.”

Patrick smiled. He might enjoy it. It’s not every day that an environmental scientist gets to not care about a pile of dead animals.

Patrick hit the gas and drove through the corpses. A wave of dead nutrias rolled into the water.

I tapped the dashboard of the truck with approval. “Take that, you bastards.”

“Yeah, take that.” Patrick’s fervor was half-hearted.

Two massive cypress trees stood like guardians on the opposite end of the land bridge. Small creeks dripped water from nearby ponds: our study site.

© 2020 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

CJ’s Notes: This short story was inspired by a friend and colleague’s Alexandria Archives. Originally, I wanted to share this story with the podcast, but life got in the way before their podcast run ended. She let me keep the Alexandria university name and setting for the story, a North Carolina university situated near the Dismal Swamp. It’s longer than other short stories I have here, so it will be split up into three parts of the next few weeks.

Go ahead and haunt me on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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A Foggy Morning

Hey Echoes,

Just a picture today. It’s hard to keep track of the days during stay/work at home. I do get out as I have a hiking trail near my abode. Someday, I hope to get back on the road, taking some pictures of parks and natural wonders I have yet to see (or don’t remember seeing). Before I reunite with the open road, I will post some pictures to remind us all what the outdoors looks like. DSCN2049


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Flint flipped through the monitors’ outside views of the station and the gas giant they orbited. Turbulent cloud bands and a wide, vertical icy ring were the only sights. He once imagined the galaxy’s stars full of civilizations waiting for discovery, but most were empty and others were tombs.

Muted laughter drew Flint to the third monitor. A party played on that screen. Ten years ago. A woman with deep blue eyes smiled into the camera. Her shoulders draped with her long, brown curls framing her olive skin. She lifted her hands, revealing a brownie with a single lit candle. She mouthed “happy birthday” and laughed.


“We still felt alone out here then, but we were happier,” Flint muttered.

He caught a familiar scent: strawberry and cucumber, the aroma of the shampoo Sarah used. Flint swiveled in his chair and stared down a simulacrum of a short man with wide-rimmed glasses approaching.

“You’re trying to help again, Prometheus,” Flint said, fighting tears in his eyes. “It’s not working.”

The aroma vanished, replaced with the cold smell of dust and metal.

“I apologize. The captain assumed it would be a good idea. She is worried about you since it is the tenth anniversary of—”

The anger welled up inside him, but Prometheus was just following orders. He was a relic found adrift; an artificial, alien intelligence trapped in a probe; his creators extinct. There was no reason to be mad at him. “The captain wants me to be obedient, not comforted. Don’t worry, I’m not a danger to you.”

He turned back to his console so that Prometheus wouldn’t see the tears.

A blue light flashed.

Shit, it was the big blue light!

After decades of eavesdropping on alien signals, someone was sending them a message!

Prometheus gripped Flint’s shoulder, then turned shouted into the PA. “All officers report to the command center. We have a Code Blue.”

The monitor flashed with data and figures.

Don’t stop. Please, don’t stop. Flint thought. Let us find you.

The screen shimmered and flickered. The map turned red.

Flint whistled. “The source is outside of our galaxy. How is that possible?”

“Running diagnostics,” Prometheus droned.

“Flint, touch nothing!” Dr. Erin Fletcher’s voice boomed from behind him. The captain had arrived.

He raised his hands and stepped back from the consoles. “I didn’t do shit this time. I’m annoyed that you still don’t trust me. That was years ago.”

Erin walked passed Flint. “I don’t forgive easily. What did you do

“Nothing. This looks like the real thing. A message.”

“It has to be a fast radio burst, a natural occurrence. Powerful enough to trick our instruments into assuming it was directed at us.”

Prometheus shook his head. “Diagnostics cleared. This is an authentic signal. It’s on the narrow bandwidth we would suspect: the hydrogen line.” He pushed his glasses up his nose.

Erin raised an eyebrow. “Impossible. Who could see us from outside the galaxy? No species has spotted us within our own.”

The two other officers, Charles and Cheryl, rushed through the door. Prometheus continued, “Regardless, Captain, the signal’s source is even farther out that I originally concluded. The amount of power to project a signal this far is astounding.”

The signal was real, beyond the galaxy, and directed at them. Erin just refused to see it.

A single deep ping echoed over the PA system, followed by two high-pitched pings. Silence. Three pings followed. More silence. Four pings. They held their breath, waiting.   Five pings. Silence.

“Four seconds between each series of pings,” Flint said.

“This is a programmed message.” Charles said, out of breath.

“It’s the real thing!” Cheryl exclaimed.

Six pings. Silence.

Erin shook her head. “Prometheus, did you get a source yet?”

Prometheus nodded. “You won’t like it.”

Seven pings. Silence.

“Out with it.” Erin folded her arms across her chest, narrowing her eyes at the AI.

“46.6 billion light years.”

Eights Pings. Silence.

Erin raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“Running the calculation again, but those are my results,” Prometheus said, his voice seeming to tremble.

Nine Pings. Silence.

Flint counted the seconds on his fingers, he counted to ten without another signal. There was only static. After a minute, a single ping shattered the silence.

Flint counted. In four seconds, two pings came over the PA system.

Prometheus raised an eyebrow to Erin. “And it repeats. This is not a natural phenomenon.”

“And its origin?” Erin replied.

Prometheus sighed, turning back to the screens. “Impossible, but correct. The signal is from the birth of the universe—plus or minus 100 million light years.

Cheryl glared. “Someone sent a signal from the birth of the universe to this location, knowing we would receive it now?”

“Could be from a part of the universe we cannot observe,” Charles said.

Erin gazed over the calculations and the intergalactic map. “Or a message from entities in a parallel universe.”

“Or a god. Or God,” Cheryl said.

Everyone turned to her.

“Well,” she said, “anything that can do this has a technological level way above our own. Hell, it is way above anything Kardashev dreamed up. Close enough to God for me.”

“There isn’t any protocol for this,” said Erin.

“We respond,” Flint said. “Isn’t that what we are doing here? We get a signal; we send a signal back.”

Erin growled. “That’s seems to be your go-to plan.”

Flint rolled his eyes. “It was a mistake, Erin. Sarah had passed away. We sat right here, you and I, watching the civilization crumble on AZR-310 from a thousand light years away.”

Erin’s narrowed. “Yes, I remember, everyone does. I leave for coffee, return, and find you sending useless we-heard-you messages.”

Flint’s chest heaved, his eyes watered. “A world was dying, screaming into the cosmos to anyone who would listen, and Erin, the fearless leader, went for coffee.”

“We have protocols for a reason! Do you remember how many important systems collapsed because of the power you rerouted to send the signal?”

“I get it! I was in pain. Turns out the universe is pain!”

“You could have permanently damaged this station! To respond to a message 1000 thousand light years away! It was useless!”

Cheryl stepped in between Flint and Erin. “Revisiting this old feud doesn’t get us closer to an answer. And how do we even respond to this? What do we say to God?”

“The number 10,” Charles said. “The message is simple, and only requires ten pings in response.”

“But we don’t know what sent the message,” Erin said. “Does the messenger operate outside of the bounds of space-time? Do you want to respond to that? It waves, we wave back. Then, it appears and knocks on the door!”

“Wouldn’t that be something?” Flint mused aloud.

“No, it wouldn’t, Flint!” Erin said. “I prefer the way things are, eavesdropping on past civilizations.”

“By your logic,” Prometheus said, “if an entity not bound by space-time sent this message, it may knock on the door regardless, knowing we would be here.”

“This is our greatest breakthrough: communication from an alien civilization!” Charles said, fixing his sliding glasses. “This could prove parallel universes exist or it may prove that the expanse of our universe is greater than light can show us! There is so much we can’t fathom, we can’t just ignore it!”

“Slow down, Charles,” Cheryl said. “If we send a message, then it is for whoever comes after us to discover them. We are chained to light’s limitations and that signal is a Big Bang away. This station won’t be here by then, nothing that once said ‘Humans Were Here’ will exist. It sounds like a lost cause.”

“Charles is right,” Flint said. “We must let another civilization know we heard them. That for a moment we didn’t feel so alone out here. We’ve eavesdropped and categorized several failed civilizations, most failing to reach their moon. Space is a cruel filter. This is our chance. We can send a message to another civilization that has survived. Maybe they will never receive it. We will likely never get a response. However, we can still make this count. Maybe through the billions of years, another lonely listening post could intercept our message. They could learn about us.”

“Rousing,” Cheryl said.

Flint locked eyes with her. “This is everything we’ve worked for. We don’t do this for us, but for any life out there, charting the uncaring void.”

“By sending the number 10?” Erin asked.

“If that is all we want to do,” Flint said, “but I have another idea: we send them a video. A day in our life. We recorded and stored generations of videos. One small archeological piece of universal history.”

“What do you propose?”

Flint opened a second file window on the monitor. A video played in the window: Sarah’s face filled the monitor, smiling over a lit candle on a cupcake.

“Sarah,” Erin breathed.

The video panned out to see the command staff celebrating, joking, and laughing, except Flint who had been holding the recorder.

Flint craned his neck toward her. “Better times.”

“It’s a noble sentiment, Flint.” Erin placed a hand on his shoulder. “Prometheus, how much energy would it take to send a signal back to its source?”

“Taking advantage of a few celestial objects that could be used to ease energy requirements, it would be impossible to sustain the station and beam a coherent signal that distance.” Prometheus’ toneless voice was a gunshot to Flint’s ears.

Erin nodded. “A total collapse of life-support, Flint. Everyone on this station would die.”

Panic gripped Flint. Erin was blocking him, again. “Are we going to let this moment pass? We discovered we are not alone, and you won’t let us tell our story?”

“No.” Erin said.

“So, we pretend that this astounding event never happened?”

“No, Flint, we record it. We study it, we learn all we can about it. But we don’t kill every person on this ship! This is the greatest discovery of our lives! This is why we are here! But not as a sacrifice!”

“We are finished as a species! This station is all that is left of us! We are staring into the black abyss with no hope of coming back! Someone should know we existed!”

Tears fell from Flint’s eyes. His argument was ludicrous, but he wanted to beat Erin.

Erin exhaled; her forehead straightened. “One hundred people have a right to live, to the bitter end. I will not deny them that. Why would you? What would Sarah say about your proposal?”

“You cold-hearted bitch! If that oxygen tank had not exploded during a routine check, she would be right here cheering me on against you. Don’t you dare spoil her memory for your cause. She believed in this.”

“She wouldn’t want people to die for it, Flint! Not a single one of us. Is this really about her or your grief?”

Flint shook his hand at Erin. His entire arm was shaking. Why was she always so damn right? From a glance he saw a slack-jawed Charles and teary-eyed Cheryl. Flint had gone too far. He collapsed in his chair and lowered his head in his hands.

“I’m sorry.” Flint’s muffled voice sounded cracked, tortured. “I, I love you guys. Everything is too much.” He sought refuge in Sarah’s smiling image on the monitor. He breathed, his body shook. “Maybe I should be transferred to hydroponics.”

“Never, Flint,” Erin said. “Prometheus, is there a way?”

“There are no current solutions, only hypotheses,” Prometheus responded.

“We are a station of geniuses,” Erin said. “Looks like we have work to do.”

“You ask the impossible,” Cheryl said.

“Yes,” Erin said. “The impossible got us here. The evidence suggests where this message originated from and that it was sent to us. Let’s keep looking at the data on this extraordinary situation, while we look to solutions for responding. There is much work to do, so let’s not waste time.”

“And if we fail?”

“Then we use your plan. When the lights here go out, we send our message.”

Flint nodded.

“Very well.” Erin clapped her hands together. “Let’s go to the command mess hall and talk about solutions—while we also celebrate this occasion. We’ll pass the information to the crew tomorrow.”

“My shift isn’t over,” Flint said, standing.

“Take time off,” Erin said. “That is an order. Prometheus can keep a watch on things.”

Prometheus nodded.

Flint tried to smile. He never meant to suggest a sacrifice of the station.  It was a mistake born from desperation of seeing a dream born and still be impossible to reach. An event Sarah would have loved to see. There was a messenger out in the void, searching for them. Flint hoped, one day the station would answer the message, even if he never lived to see it.

© 2019 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

CJ’s Notes: This short story was featured in an anthology featuring writers from Corpus Christi, Texas, last year. I reprinted for your enjoyment here for 2020. Just maybe, through all of the deep shadows, there is still a reason for hope. Enjoy.

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Calling Out Into the World

Hey Echoes,

I hope everyone is safe and healthy in the mess that 2020 has become. It’s amazing how a stay-at-home order feels like the perfect time to write, but turns out more demoralizing (although quite necessary). I would prefer free time that didn’t have me constantly thinking of overburdened medical workers and the mounting death toll. Many lives snuffed out before it was time. I have no idea what to bring here to combat that.

I guess the only thing I can do is to continue writing. Perhaps something here will continue to entertain, distract, or inspire. It might help my sanity as well. I have a short story that is nearly ready for editing. Another short I have been editing for far too long. There is a third science fiction story that was published last year in an anthology that I will share in a couple weeks.

Also, a friend recommended some quicker turn around in my three serial stories. An obvious oversight on my part, but I decided to focus on one serial through to completion and repeat. The current focus will be It Came From the Wizard’s Cellar. For the next several weeks, I will start highlighting the earlier chapters while I work on new ones.

But today I wanted to highlight an older story. This is a story that any new followers may have not looked at. It’s my first short story, when I was experimenting with my writing style. So here is a link to Runner.

Please, enjoy! More is to follow

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The Secret of Pelicans


So, what is with this grainy, blurry photo, you ask? Well one, I was on a boat and it was windy. But, like every “good” paranormal video or photo, it has to be blurry or poor quality to lend credence to how it wouldn’t be faked. Looked at these pelicans, it appears that they are involved in some eldritch ritual as the sun is coming up. Are they making the sun rise? Are they flexing and stretching their muscles for a day of hunting and scooping unsuspecting fish? Are they ringing in the day with some ritual to keep deep Cthulhu at bay? We may never know.

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Echoes in an Anthology

Hello Echoes,

So, I came out of my lair again to push the Corpus Christi 2019 writers anthology again. This time I got pictures for proof that I am in it. Check it on Amazon, there is a kindle and hard copy version of it. My favorite contribution in the anthology so far is Joel Ortiz’s The Chupacabra of San Diego, Texas. It is a great, fun poem that should become a common campfire tale. Just check it out.

Also, I have a new Chapter for It Came from the Wizard’s Cellar coming soon.



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Just a Creek

Hey Echoes,

During the winter, I head back home to see the family. I also visit the place that would always give me a sense of calm from the outside world and the theater of lunatics in my head. It is a county park wrapped around the local reservoir. It’s modest, but it’s my spot. I thought I would share a couple of those pictures. Also, south Texas is getting humid and warming up, so here is something to remind me of cooler temperatures. I was also playing with different shots of the same stream. It’s always something about bodies of water that gets me. A small stream to the wide ocean, it does not matter.


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