Chapter no 1

North American Lake Monsters

He did not look like a man who would change her life. He was big, roped with muscles from working on offshore oil rigs, and tending to fat. His face was broad and inoffensively ugly, as though he had spent a lifetime taking blows and delivering them. He wore a brown raincoat against the light morning drizzle and against the threat of something more powerful held in abeyance. He breathed heavily, moved slowly, found a booth by the window overlooking the water, and collapsed into it. He picked up a syrup-smeared menu and studied it with his whole attention, like a student deciphering Middle English. He was like every man who ever walked into that diner. He did not look like a beginning or an end.

That day, the Gulf of Mexico and all the earth was blue and still. The little town of Port Fourchon clung like a barnacle to Louisiana’s southern coast, and behind it the water stretched into the distance for as many miles as the eye could hold. Hidden by distance were the oil rigs and the workers who supplied the town with its economy. At night she could see their lights, ringing the horizon like candles in a vestibule. Toni’s morning shift was nearing its end; the dining area was nearly empty. She liked to spend those slow hours out on the diner’s balcony, overlooking the water.

Her thoughts were troubled by the phone call she had received that morning. Gwen, her three-year-old daughter, was offering increasing resistance to the male staffers at the Daylight Daycare, resorting lately to biting them or kicking them in the ribs when they knelt to calm her. Only days before, Toni had been waylaid there by a lurking social worker who talked to her in a gentle saccharine voice, who touched her hand maddeningly and said, “No one is judging you; we just want to help.” The social worker had mentioned the word “psychologist” and asked about their home life. Toni had been embarrassed and enraged, and was only able to conclude the interview with a mumbled promise to schedule another one soon. That her daughter was already displaying such grievous signs of social ineptitude stunned Toni, left her feeling hopeless and betrayed.

It also made her think about Donny again, who had abandoned her years ago to move to New Orleans, leaving her a single mother at twentythree. She wished death on him that morning, staring over the railing at the unrelenting progression of waves. She willed it along the miles and into his heart.

“You know what you want?” she asked.

“Um . . . just coffee.” He looked at her breasts and then at her eyes.

“Cream and sugar?”

“No thanks. Just coffee.”

“Suit yourself.”

The only other customer in the diner was Crazy Claude by the door, speaking conversationally to a cooling plate of scrambled eggs and listening to his radio through his earphones. A tinny roar leaked out around his ears. Pedro, the short-order cook, lounged behind the counter, his big round body encased in layers of soiled white clothing, enthralled by a guitar magazine which he had spread out by the cash register. The kitchen slumbered behind him, exuding a thick fug of onions and burnt frying oil. It would stay mostly dormant until the middle of the week, when the shifts would change on the rigs and tides of men would ebb and flow through the small town.

So when she brought the coffee back to the man, she thought nothing of it when he asked her to join him. She fetched herself a cup of coffee as well and then sat across from him in the booth, grateful to transfer the weight from her feet.

“You ain’t got no name tag,” he said.

“Oh . . . I guess I lost it somewhere. My name’s Toni.” “That’s real pretty.”

She gave a quick derisive laugh. “The hell it is. It’s short for


He held out his hand and said, “I’m Alex.”

She took it and they shook. “You work offshore, Alex?”

“Some. I ain’t been out there for a while, though.” He smiled and gazed into the murk of his coffee. “I’ve been doing a lot of driving around.”

Toni shook loose a cigarette from her pack and lit it. She lied and said, “Sounds exciting.”

“I don’t guess it is, though. But I bet this place could be, sometimes. I bet you see all kinds of people come through here.”

“Well . . . I guess so.”

“How long you been here?”

“About three years.”

“You like it?”

She felt a flare of anger. “Yeah, Alex, I fucking love it. Who wouldn’t?”

“Oh, hey, all right.” He held up his hands. “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head, immediately ashamed. “No. I’m sorry. I just got a lot on my mind today I guess. This place is fine.”

He cocked a half smile. “So why don’t you come out with me after work? Maybe I can help distract you.” His thick hands were on the table between them. They looked like they could break rocks.

Toni smiled at him. “You known me for what. Five minutes?”

“What can I say. I’m an impulsive guy. Caution to the wind!” He drained his cup in two great swallows, as though to illustrate his recklessness.

“Well, let me go get you some more coffee, Danger Man.” She patted his hand as she rose.

It was reckless impulse that brought Donny back to her, briefly, just over a year ago. After a series of phone calls that progressed from petulant to playful to newly curious, he drove back down to Port Fourchon in his disintegrating blue Pinto one Friday afternoon to spend a weekend with them. It was nice at first, though there was no talk of what might happen after Sunday.

Gwen had just started going to daycare. Stunned by the vertiginous growth of the world, she was beset by huge emotions; varieties of rage passed through her little body like weather systems, and no amount of coddling from Toni would settle her.

Although he wouldn’t admit it, Toni knew Donny was curious about the baby, that his vanity was satisfied by the knowledge that she would grow to reflect many of his own features and behaviors.

But Gwen refused to participate in generating any kind of mystique that might keep him landed here, revealing herself instead as what Toni knew her to be: a pink, pudgy little assemblage of flesh and ferocity that giggled or raved seemingly without discrimination, that walked without grace and appeared to lack any qualities of beauty or intelligence whatsoever.

The sex with Donny was as good as it had ever been, though, and he didn’t seem to mind the baby too much. When he talked about calling in sick to work on Monday, she began to hope for something lasting.

Early Sunday afternoon, they decided to put Gwen to bed early and free up the evening for themselves. First she had to have a bath, and Donny assumed that responsibility with the air of a man handling a volatile explosive. He filled the tub with eight inches of water and plunked her in. He sat back and watched as, with furrowed brow, she went about the serious business of play: dropping the shampoo bottles into the water with her, moving them around like ships at sea. Toni sat on the toilet seat behind him, and it occurred to her that this was her family. She felt buoyant, sated.

Then Gwen rose abruptly from the water and clapped her hands joyously. “Two! Two poops! One, two!”

Aghast, Toni saw two little turds sitting on the bottom of the tub, rolling slightly in the currents generated by Gwen’s capering feet. Donny’s hand shot out and cuffed his daughter on the side of her head. She fell against the wall and bounced into the water with a terrific splash. And then she screamed. It was the most appalling sound Toni had ever heard in her life.

Toni stared at him, agape. She could not summon the will to move. The baby, sitting on her butt in the soiled water, filled the tiny bathroom with a sound like a bomb siren, and she just wanted her to shut up, shut up, just shut the fuck up.

“Shut up, goddamnit! Shut up!”

Donny looked at her, his face an unreadable mess of confused emotion; he got to his feet and pushed roughly past her. Soon she heard the sound of a door closing. His car started up, and he was gone. She stared at her stricken daughter and tried to quiet the sudden stampeding fury.

She refilled Alex’s cup and sat down with him, leaving the pot on the table. She retrieved her cigarette from the ashtray only to discover that it had expired in her absence. “Well, shit,” she said.

Alex nodded agreeably. “I’m on the run,” he said.


“It’s true. I’m on the run. I stole a car.”

Alarmed, Toni looked out the window, but the parking lot was on the other side of the diner. All she could see from here was the Gulf. “Why are you telling me this? I don’t want to know this.”

“It’s a station wagon. I can’t believe it even runs anymore. I was in Morgan City, and I had to get out fast. The car was right there. I took it.”

He had a manic look in his eye, and although he was smiling, he seemed agitated; his fingers tapped the table, the cords in his hands standing out like cables. She felt a growing disquiet coupled with a mounting excitement. He was dangerous, this man. He was a falling hammer.

“I don’t think that guy over there likes me,” he said.

“What?” She turned and saw Crazy Claude in stasis, staring at Alex. His jaw was cantilevered in mid chew. “That’s just Claude,” she said. “He’s all right.”

Alex was still smiling, but it had taken on a different character, one she couldn’t place and which set loose a strange, giddy feeling inside her. “No, I think it’s me. He keeps looking over here.”

“Really, Claude’s okay. He’s harmless as a kitten.”

“I want to show you something.” Alex reached inside his raincoat, and for a moment Toni thought he was going to pull out a gun and start shooting. She felt no inclination to move; she waited for what would come. Instead, he withdrew a crumpled Panama hat. It had been considerably crushed to fit into his pocket, and once freed it began to unfold itself, like something blooming.

She looked at it. “It’s a hat,” she said.

He stared at it like he expected it to lurch across the table with some hideous agenda. “That’s an object of terrible power,” he said.

“Alex-it’s a hat. It’s a thing you put on your head.”

“It belongs to the man I stole the car from. Here,” he said, pushing it across to her. “Put it on.”

She did. She was growing tired of the serious turn he seemed to have taken and decided to be a little playful. She turned her chin to her shoulder and pouted her lips, looking at him out of the corner of her eye, like she thought a model might.

He smiled. “Who are you?”

“I’m a supermodel.”

“What’s your name? Where are you from?”

She affected a light, breathy voice. “My name is Violet, I’m from L.A., and I’m strutting down a catwalk wearing this hat and nothing else. Everybody loves me and is taking my picture.”

She laughed self-consciously; he was leaning over the table toward her and smiling. She could see the tip of his tongue between his teeth. He just watched her for a second. “See? It’s powerful. You can be anybody.”

She gave the hat back, feeling suddenly deflated. It was as though by saying it, he’d broken the spell. “I don’t know,” she said.

“You know,” Alex said, “the guy I stole the car from was something of a thief himself, it turns out. You should see what he left in there.”

“Why don’t you show me?”

He smiled again, and glanced at the nearly empty diner. “Now?”

“No. In half an hour. When I get off work.”

“But it’s all packed up. I don’t let that stuff just fly around loose.”

“Then you can show me at my place.”

And so it was decided. She got up and went about preparing for the next shift, which consisted of restocking a few ketchup packets and starting a fresh pot of coffee. She refilled Crazy Claude’s cup and gave him another ten packets of sugar, all of which he methodically opened and dumped into his drink. When her relief arrived, Toni hung her apron by the waitress station and collected Alex on her way to the door.

“We have to stop by the daycare and pick up my kid,” she said.

If this news fazed him, he didn’t show it.

As they passed Claude’s table they heard a distant, raucous sound coming from his earphones.

Alex curled his lip. “Idiot. How does he hear himself think?”

“He doesn’t. That’s the point. He hears voices in his head. He plays the radio loud so he can drown them out.”

“You’re kidding me.”


Alex stopped and turned around, regarding the back of Claude’s head with renewed interest. “How many people does he have in there?”

“I never asked.”

“Well, holy shit.”

Outside, the sun was setting, the day beginning to cool down. The rain had stopped at some point, and the world glowed with a bright, wet sheen. They decided that he would follow her in his car. It was a rusty old battlewagon from the Seventies; several boxes were piled in the back. She paid them no attention.

She knew, when they stepped into her little apartment, that they would wind up making love, and she found herself wondering what it would be like. She watched him move, noted the graceful articulation of his body, the careful restraint he displayed in her living room, which was filled with fragile things. She saw the skin beneath his clothing, watched it stretch and move.

“Don’t worry,” she said, touching the place between his shoulder blades. “You won’t break nothing.”

About Gwen there was more doubt. Unleashed like a darting fish into the apartment, she was gone with a bright squeal, away from the strange new man around whom she had been so quiet and doleful, into the dark grottoes of her home.

“It’s real pretty,” Alex said.

“A bunch a knickknacks mostly. Nothing special.”

He shook his head like he did not believe it. Her apartment was decorated mostly with the inherited flotsam of her grandmother’s life: bland wall hangings, beaten old furniture which had hosted too many bodies spreading gracelessly into old age, and a vast and silly collection of glass figurines: leaping dolphins and sleeping dragons and such. It was all meant to be homey and reassuring, but it just reminded her of how far away she was from the life she really wanted. It seemed like a desperate construct, and she hated it very much.

For now, Alex made no mention of the objects in his car or the hat in his pocket. He appeared to be more interested in Gwen, who was peering around the corner of the living room and regarding him with a suspicious and hungry eye, who seemed to intuit that from this large alien figure on her mama’s couch would come mighty upheavals.

He was a man-that much Gwen knew immediately-and therefore a dangerous creature. He would make her mama behave unnaturally; maybe even cry. He was too big, like the giant in her storybook. She wondered if he ate children. Or mamas.

Mama was sitting next to him.

“Come here, Mama.” She slapped her thigh like Mama did when she wanted Gwen to pay attention to her. Maybe she could lure Mama away from the giant, and they could wait in the closet until he got bored and went away. “Come here, Mama, come here.”

“Go on and play now, Gwen.”

“No! Come here!”

“She don’t do too well around men,” said Mama.

“That’s okay,” said the giant. “These days I don’t either.” He patted the cushion next to him. “Come over here, baby. Let me say hi.”

Gwen, alarmed at this turn of events, retreated a step behind a corner. They were in the living room, which had her bed in it, and her toys. Behind her, Mama’s darkened room yawned like a throat. She sat between the two places, wrapped her arms around her knees, and waited.

“She’s so afraid,” Alex said after she retreated from view. “You know why?”

“Um, because you’re big and scary?”

“Because she already knows about possibilities. Long as you know there are options in life, you get scared of choosing the wrong one.”

Toni leaned away from him and gave him a mistrustful smile. “Okay, Einstein. Easy with the philosophy.”

“No, really. She’s like a thousand different people right now, all waiting to be, and every time she makes a choice, one of those people goes away forever. Until finally you run out of choices and you are whoever you are. She’s afraid of what she’ll lose by coming out to see me. Of who she’ll never get to be.”

Toni thought of her daughter and saw nothing but a series of shut doors. “Are you drunk?”

“What? You know I ain’t drunk.”

“Stop talking like you are, then. I’ve had enough of that shit to last me my whole life.”

“Jesus, I’m sorry.”

“Forget it.” Toni got up and rounded the corner to scoop up her daughter. “I got to bathe her and put her to bed. If you want to wait, it’s up to you.”

She carried Gwen into the bathroom and began the nightly ministrations. She felt Donny’s presence too strongly tonight, and Alex’s sophomoric philosophizing sounded just like him when he’d had too many beers. She found herself halfway hoping that the obligations of motherhood would bore Alex, and that he would leave. She listened for the sound of the front door.

Instead, she heard footsteps behind her and felt his heavy hand on her shoulder. It squeezed her gently, and his big body settled down beside her. He said something kind to Gwen and brushed a strand of wet hair from her eyes. Toni felt something move slowly in her chest, subtly yet with powerful effect, like Atlas rolling a shoulder.

Gwen suddenly shrieked and collapsed into the water, sending a surge of water over them both. Alex reached in to stop her from knocking her head against the porcelain and received a kick in the mouth for his troubles. Toni shouldered him aside and jerked her out of the tub. She hugged her daughter tightly to her chest and whispered motherly incantations into her ear. After a brief struggle, Gwen finally settled into her mother’s embrace and whimpered quietly, turning her whole focus onto the warm, familiar hand rubbing her back, up and down, up and down, until, finally, her energy flagged, and she drifted into a tentative sleep.

When Gwen was dressed and in her bed, Toni turned her attention to Alex. “Here, let’s clean you up.”

She steered him back into the bathroom. She opened the shower curtain and pointed to the soap and the shampoo and said, “It smells kind of flowery, but it gets the job done,” and the whole time he was looking at her, and she thought: So this is it; this is how it happens.

“Help me,” he said, lifting his arms over his head. She smiled wanly and began to undress him. She watched his body as she unwrapped it, and when he was naked she pressed herself against him and ran her fingers over his skin.

Later, when they were in bed together, she said, “I’m sorry about tonight.”

“She’s just a kid.”

“No, I mean about snapping at you. I don’t know why I did.”

“It’s okay.”

“I just don’t like to think about what could have been. There’s no point to it. Sometimes I think a person doesn’t have much to say about what happens to them anyway.”

“I really don’t know.”

She stared out the little window across from the bed and watched slate gray clouds skim across the sky. Behind them were the stars.

“Ain’t you gonna tell me why you stole a car?”

“I had to.”

“But why?”

He was silent for a little while. “It don’t matter,” he said.

“If you don’t tell me, it makes me think you mighta killed somebody.” “Maybe I did.”

She thought about that for a minute. It was too dark to see anything in the bedroom, but she scanned her eyes across it anyway, knowing the location of every piece of furniture, every worn tube of lipstick and leaning stack of lifestyle magazines. She could see through the walls and feel the sagging weight of the figurines on the shelves. She tried to envision each one in turn, as though searching for one that would act as a talisman against this subject and the weird celebration it raised in her. “Did you hate him?”

“I don’t hate anybody,” he said. “I wish I did. I wish I had it in me.”

“Come on, Alex. You’re in my house. You got to tell me something.”

After a long moment, he said, “The guy I stole the car from. I call him Mr. Gray. I never saw him, except in dreams. I don’t know anything about him, really. But I don’t think he’s human. And I know he’s after me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have to show you.” Without another word, he got to his feet and pulled on his jeans. She could sense a mounting excitement in his demeanor, and it inspired a similar feeling in herself. She followed him out of her bedroom, pulling a long T-shirt over her head as she went. Gwen slept deeply in the living room; they stepped over her mattress on the way out.

The grass was wet under their bare feet, the air heavy with the salty smell of the sea. Alex’s car was parked at the curb, hugging the ground like a great beetle. He opened the rear hatch and pulled the closest box toward them.

“Look,” he said, and opened the box.

At first, Toni could not comprehend what she was seeing. She thought it was a cat lying on a stack of tan leather jackets, but that wasn’t right, and only when Alex grabbed a handful of the cat and pulled it out did she realize that it was human hair. Alex lifted the whole object out of the box, and she found herself staring at what appeared to be the tanned and cured hide of a human being, dark empty holes in its face like some rubber Halloween mask.

“I call this one Willie, ’cause he’s so well hung,” said Alex, and offered an absurd laugh.

Toni fell back a step.

“But there’s women in here too, all kinds of people. I counted ninetysix. All carefully folded.” He offered the skin to Toni, but when she made no move to touch it he started to fold it up again. “I guess there ain’t no reason to see them all. You get the idea.”

“Alex, I want to go back inside.”

“Okay, just hang on a second.”

She waited while he closed the lid of the box and slid it back into place. With the hide tucked under one arm, he shut the hatch, locked it, and turned to face her. He was grinning, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Okeydokey,” he said, and they headed back indoors.

They returned quietly to the bedroom, stepping softly to avoid waking Gwen.

“Did you kill all those people?” Toni asked when the door was closed.

“What? Didn’t you hear me? I stole a car. That’s what was in it.”

“Mr. Gray’s car.”

“That’s right.”

“Who is he? What are they for?” she asked; but she already knew what they were for.

“They’re alternatives,” he said. “They’re so you can be somebody else.”

She thought about that. “Have you worn any of them?”

“One. I haven’t got up the balls to do it again yet.” He reached into the front pocket of his jeans and withdrew a leather sheath. From it he pulled a small, ugly little knife that looked like an eagle’s talon. “You got to take off the one you’re wearing, first. It hurts.”

Toni swallowed. The sound was thunderous in her ears. “Where’s your first skin? The one you was born with?”

Alex shrugged. “I threw that one out. I ain’t like Mr. Gray. I don’t know how to preserve them. Besides, what do I want to keep it for? I must not have liked it too much in the first place, right?”

She felt a tear accumulate in the corner of her eye and willed it not to fall. She was afraid and exhilarated. “Are you going to take mine?”

Alex looked startled, then seemed to remember he was holding the knife. He put it back in its sheath. “I told you, baby, I’m not the one who killed those people. I don’t need any more than what’s already there.” She nodded, and the tear streaked down her face. He touched it away with the back of his fingers. “Hey now,” he said.

She grabbed his hand. “Where’s mine?” She gestured at the skin folded beside him. “I want one, too. I want to come with you.”

“Oh, Jesus, no, Toni. You can’t.”

“But why not? Why can’t I go?”

“Come on now, you got a family here.”

“It’s just me and her. That ain’t no family.”

“You have a little girl, Toni. What’s wrong with you? That’s your life now.” He stepped out of his pants and, naked, pulled the knife from its sheath. “I can’t argue about this. I’m going now. I’m gonna change first, though, so you might not want to watch.” She made no move to leave. He paused, considering something. “I got to ask you something,” he said. “I been wondering about this lately. Do you think it’s possible for something beautiful to come out of an awful thing? Do you think a good life can redeem a horrible act?”

“Of course I do,” she said quickly, sensing some second chance here, if only she said the right words. “Yes.”

Alex touched the blade to his scalp just above his right ear and drew it in an arc over the crown of his head until it reached his left ear. Bright red blood crept down from his hairline in a slow tide, sending rivulets and tributaries along his jaw and his throat, hanging from his eyelashes like raindrops from flower petals. “God, I really hope so,” he said. He worked his fingers into the incision and began to tug.

Watching the skin fall away from him, she was reminded of nothing so much as a butterfly struggling into daylight.

She is driving west on I-10. The morning sun, which has just breached the horizon, flares in her rearview mirror. Port Fourchon is far behind her, and the Texas border looms. Beside her, Gwen is sitting on the floor of the passenger seat, playing with the Panama hat Alex left behind when he drove north. Toni has never seen the need for a car seat. Gwen is happier moving about on her own, and in times like this, when Toni feels a slow, crawling anger in her blood, the last thing she needs is a temper tantrum from her daughter.

After he left, she was faced with a few options. She could put on her stupid pink uniform, take Gwen to daycare, and go back to work. She could drive up to New Orleans and find Donny. Or she could say fuck it all and just get in the car and drive, aimlessly and free of expectation, which is what she is doing.

She cries for the first dozen miles or so, and it is such a luxury that she just lets it come, feeling no guilt.

Gwen, still feeling the dregs of sleep, as yet undecided whether to be cranky for being awakened early or excited by the trip, pats her on the leg.

“You okay, Mama, you okay?”

“Yes, baby. Mama’s okay.”

Toni sees the sign she has been looking for coming up on the side of the road. Rest Stop, 2 miles.

When they get there, she pulls in, coming to a stop in an empty lot. Gwen climbs up in the seat and peers out the window. She sees the warm red glow of a Coke machine and decides that she will be happy today, that waking up early means excitement and the possibility of treats.

“Have the Coke, Mama? Have it, have the Coke?”

“Okay, sweetie.”

They get out and walk up to the Coke machine. Gwen laughs happily and slaps it several times, listening to the distant dull echo inside. Toni puts in some coins and grabs the tumbling can. She cracks it open and gives it to her daughter, who takes it delightedly.


“That’s right.” Toni kneels beside her as Gwen takes several ambitious swigs. “Gwen? Honey? Mama’s got to go potty, okay? You stay right here, okay? Mama will be right back.”

Gwen lowers the can, a little overwhelmed by the cold blast of carbonation, and nods her head. “Right back!”

“That’s right, baby.”

Toni starts away. Gwen watches her mama as she heads back to the car and climbs in. She shuts the door and starts the engine. Gwen takes another drink of Coke. The car pulls away from the curb, and she feels a bright stab of fear. But Mama said she was coming right back, so she will wait right here.

Toni turns the wheel and speeds back out onto the highway. There is no traffic in sight. The sign welcoming her to Texas flashes by and is gone. She presses the accelerator. Her heart is beating.

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