Darren Williams was making his morning stroll along the base of the beach’s cliffs, his eyes searching for teeth and bones protruding from the fractured wall of rock, when he came upon the monster.
Though on leave from forays into Montana’s Badlands and Mongolia’s endless Gobi Desert, Darren was never on leave from the paleontologist’s habits. His fossil hunts along the beach were rituals of daily existence. He was reduced to brain and eyes during these patrols, always noticing changes in rock strata and bits of breakage and erosion, but never the rolling of the cold sea, the flecks of smooth glass that lay on the sand like semi-precious stones carved from bottles of Coke and beer.
Darren lauded this ability to focus as his greatest strength, though occasionally it caused hardship. He remembered days spent in a hardened alluvial flat cleaning and measuring a set of allosaurid tracks. His work was thorough and precise as far as the particular fossilized footprints were concerned. In fact, his speed calculations based on stride length were worthy of a peer-reviewed journal article. At the same time, though, he had missed the dozens of other trails entwining across the ancient riverbed, the final records from where a pack of the bipeds had ambushed a herd of elephantine sauropods.
His team found him at their last day on site. He sat at the edge of the riverbed, surrounded by hundreds of tracks he hadn’t noticed, much less documented. Darren remembered the whispered comments that broke their long spells of dumbfounded wonder. He also remembered that they left shortly after finding him, while he worked on until his flashlight dimmed. Three times he nearly rolled an ankle as he made his stumbling trek back to camp in the cold darkness.
He would have also missed the dead predator lying on the beach had he not tripped over its tail. Darren recognized the creature immediately: it was a Kronosaurus, a pliosaur that had lived in the early Cretaceous period some eighty million years earlier. Having unearthed one in Australia several years prior in a process that took weeks of chiseling, brushing, picking, and acid baths to finally free the mineralized skeleton from its sedimentary grave, he was familiar with the species. The fresh specimen that lay before him was an adult, fifty feet long, with a knife-shaped head the size of a rowboat. Altogether, it looked like a terrible hybrid of lamniform shark and crocodilian. The reptile’s milky belly was exposed to the sky as it lolled in the surf. The left pectoral fin dangled, a beckoning wave to passersby.
It had died recently, the head cleaved to the bone by quick slashes. Darren had seen the marks before on manatees scarred by boat propellers. This was an exciting discovery, an indication of the pliosaur’s hunting pattern. The reptile had attacked a large boat; if it slashed at the boat’s stern, it probably attacked the caudal fins of other marine life, the same way killer whales would cripple larger cetaceans by ripping their tails open.
Darren touched the Kronosaurus’ teeth, which thrust down from its upper jaw like fat, dirty icicles, and ran his hand along its mottled gray flank, the skin smooth beneath his palm. He found a pocketknife in his knapsack and made a slit down the reptile’s belly. The wound opened like barely-parted lips. It took dozens of passes with the blade—each cutting a tenth or so of an inch deeper into the pink flesh—before the slick balloons of knotted entrails spilled into the surf. In his unfamiliarity with the Kronosaurus’ anatomy, Darren fumbled through the messy piles for several minutes before identifying the animal’s gastro-intestinal tract. He opened the stomach and stood back to watch partially digested meals spill out: a large tuna, a chunk of what might have been whale blubber, some mackerel, and a beaked fish he didn’t recognize.
He observed and jotted notes in a legal pad he carried with the same regularity as his wallet or house keys. When the sun settled into the far hills, he made his way up the rock face towards his cottage, which sat silent and alone five hundred yards from the shore. Inside, he poured a congratulatory shot of Jameson—it wasn’t often one deduced the behavioral pattern of an extinct animal.
Or had he? If the animal had attacked the propellers directly, the slashes would have been on the inside of the mouth. This was an important realization—either the Kronosaurus hadn’t recognized the propeller’s cavitating shroud as part of the vessel proper (thus attacking the portion of the vessel immediately forward of the blades), or it had nudged the props for whatever reason, thus inflicting the wounds. Tomorrow he would better document the skull, and if possible, make a mold of its mouth. Perhaps that would beget a more complete theory.
Four decades of digs filled Darren’s home. A partial skeleton of a Deinonychus stood by the front door, the wire frame that held up the small predator’s bones twisted so that the animal looked ready to leap. Chunks of shale, each imprinted with outlines of fish, trilobites, or anemones, held down papers and capped stacks of books. Two living room walls were covered in fossilized teeth he found in the cliff, each tooth labeled and hanging neatly from a corkboard panel—rows upon rows of the teeth, every one positioned as carefully as a pinned butterfly.
When he rose from bed and shuffled into the kitchen, he didn’t at first notice how his collection had changed. He went about his morning routine as best he could; his refrigerator had vanished during the night, and his coffee-maker, while still extant, was worthless, as the electricity (much like the refrigerator) had disappeared. Without eggs to eat or coffee to drink, he grumpily gathered his coat, keys, and wallet, and set out for the nearest town.
He had nearly made it out the front door when he noticed his little Deinonychus skeleton. The bones were no longer fossilized—the mineral tint was gone, replaced by the creamy whiteness of fresh bone and faint pink smears of fascia. He touched an extended femur and smelled the raw tissue.
“Eight hours,” he said.
In the eight hours he had been asleep, the mineral particulate within the bone had re-ossified. He turned and saw that every tooth lining his walls gleamed brightly with the white of fresh tooth enamel. The shale blocks were no longer stone, but squares of firm mud topped with tiny shells and the white bones of dead fish.
He admired the fresh finds decorating his walls before he sorted through boxes of projector slides he kept stacked along the baseboards. During the search he happened upon a box from a trip to Alberta, where he found three slides made worthless because he had held his finger over the camera lens. At the skeleton, he used his pocketknife to scrape films of connective tissue onto the glass squares. All of the slides were sandwiched beneath a larger plate of glass and placed in a drink cooler with several of the newly formed mud blocks, which would keep the specimens fresh for most of a day, at least.
With that done, he gathered his materials and walked outside. The warmth of summer pulsed through his coat; yesterday’s chill of early spring seemed to be less than even a memory. The swath of dead grass that covered the cliff tops and stretched out to the hills was replaced by mud and ferns that unveiled curled tendrils of yellow spore pods. A sparrow-sized dragonfly rushed by him, its wings like long sections of stained glass. Sets of biped tracks led to his house, the small four-toed prints ringing his tiny home several times, then leaving for clumps of cycads that rose up like giant pineapples beyond the cottage’s back porch. He forgot his earlier hunger and set out to document the flora and fauna that had adopted his plot of land.
He matched the prints next to drawings in a dirt-stained field guide and decided that they were hypsilophodontids of some sort. The pack had five members, including two young ones that left prints looping in and out of the tracks of the older dinosaurs. He prepared a plaster mixture and poured it into the most defined prints of each of the five animals, and as it dried, he moved on to the new vegetation.
Paleobotany had never been of much interest to Darren, and his knowledge of the new plants that replaced the grassy flats and hills of his land suffered accordingly. Obviously, he would no longer encounter any grass, as the plant hadn’t yet evolved into being during the Mesozoic Era. He carried armfuls of books into his yard and dropped them in his wake as he walked from cycad to fern to tree, the books open and flat, snaking in a trail like white crumbs.
“Macrozamia hopei,” he addressed a tall cycad, his hand furiously sketching out its shape, the corrugated texture of its squat trunk, the feathered fringe of the drooping leaves.
· · ·
Darren quit his studies at nightfall. To celebrate another fruitful day, he took the Jameson out to the porch, where he settled into a creaking wicker rocking chair. He heard whales in the distance, their calls fading with the passing hours, replaced by the deep moans of creatures he had never heard before. Eventually, he left the comfort of his chair and the porch, and strolled across his yard to the sharp edge of the seaside cliff. He watched the ocean catch the moon in its crests. A pod of icthyosaurs swam offshore, their finned backs cutting the water, dolphin-like.
The next morning Darren awoke hungry and tired. Hungry because, in his cataloging haste, he had forgotten to find food. Tired because a Carnotaurus had spent the night circling his cottage. The big therapod had groaned and snorted while grinding its tubercled skull against the siding, the small, flared crests above its tiny eyes scraping fresh grooves across the wood. Darren had to scare the predator off by banging a lit flashlight against a frying pan. He fancied he must’ve looked insane, conducting the theatrics on his front porch while wearing just a robe. Fortunately he had no neighbors to witness the spectacle.
The Carnotaurus had been using the corners of Darren’s house to flake away tough patches of dead skin. It left behind shed scales that littered the ground in clumps. Darren collected the scales and held them on the tips of his fingers like oversized contact lenses. They felt like thick wax peelings.
More of his house had vanished during the night. Most of the furniture and cabinets were gone, as were all of the appliances. Even his bed had disappeared, seemingly sunk into the ground, as Darren didn’t remember any sort of falling sensation during his slumber. Freckles of moss dotted rotting walls, and hairs of vine crept between boards and beneath cracked windows. Most importantly, though, the food had vanished. Not a box, can, freezer bag, or jar remained. Even his bottles of whiskey were gone. All he had left were his books, clothes, notepad, and the bones and fragments that had once been fossils.
“My whiskey has been whisked away,” he said with a laugh.
His stomach gurgled, so he grabbed his keys. He hated the long drive into town, as it needlessly took him away from his work.
Fortunately, his Jeep was still extant, though not in the best of shape. The body had rusted in places, the window tint peeled, and the passenger door had been torn off during the night. Something had also urinated in the back seat, causing the interior to reek of ammonia and rotten broccoli.
Darren climbed inside gingerly. Despite his care, he sent a foot through a weak spot in the oxidized floorboard. Somehow the Jeep started, and though his progress was halting, he managed to follow the dusty track that led away from his cottage. To his surprise, the main road still existed, though its tar was cracked and broken into chunks, and in places it had devolved into puddles of black oil.
The cycads and trees cleared, revealing a wide meadow of short ferns and scrub. Flanking him on either side of the road were herds of grazing herbivores, the most notable being a cluster of sauropods on his right, probably diplodocids because of their great size and lean build. The largest were nearly a hundred feet long, with tails and necks that stretched out from hip and shoulder like spans of a suspension bridge. They were colored in almost metallic green, with the males bearing splashes of vermilion across their great backs and painted across their narrow, peg-toothed skulls in the shapes of veils and ballroom masks.
To his surprise, the herd’s males—which at first he could only deduce as males due to their brighter pigmentation and prominent facial markings—possessed red, bifurcated bladders atop their nostrils, which they inflated like balloons when approached by other males. It would have been a fascinating display for any reason, though the fact that the bladders were never evidenced in the fossil record made watching the act almost irresistible. Darren wanted to stop and observe the animals’ mingling like he never wanted to see anything in his life, though he was afraid he might not get his slowly disintegrating Jeep started again: the basic needs of survival forced him to continue driving. It hurt—physically hurt, a sucking pain in his sternum—to see the herd disappear in his rearview mirror.
· · ·
The road finally dissolved beneath him, its residue soaking into the soil. Darren followed the path it left behind until the path was gone and he had only the landmarks of hills to follow. He wondered if the geography would remain unchanged; he could imagine waking up one morning to find himself dangling from a recently formed mountain. He crested a lone, pointed hill, beyond which would be a low river plain and the small town that lay along its banks.
Of course, the town was gone.
Darren was ashamed of his ignorance as he stood atop the hill, stuck miles away from home. He should have known.
He returned to his vehicle, made most of the long drive back, was forced to walk only when the Jeep’s tires softened and bubbled as if atop burning coals, and the oil and gasoline curdled into viscous yellow and brown blobs that gummed the engine and fell in drips and chunks from holes in the fluids’ respective tanks and pipes.
He arrived at his cottage late in the afternoon, nearly overlooking it, as the vines of early morning had grown into a vetch that swallowed the structure like a mass of sculpted serpents. He pushed aside the foliage creeping around his kitchen window and looked within. The floor was gone, and the cottage itself seemed to be sinking into the dry soil, like it had been built over an invisible tar pit. A touched windowpane turned to falling sand and then nothing.
He redirected his attention to the exterior world.
Though he heard their calls reaching like whispers over the flat land, Darren saw no dinosaurs. Without motorized transportation he would have to wait for the creatures to approach him.
Dejection had almost set in when he remembered the Kronosaurus—his first discovery had only been on the beach for a few days. There might be scavengers picking at its remains, and if they were not there, their tracks might be undisturbed by the tide, and their tooth impressions left on the bones and in the remaining flesh. Perhaps he might find a pterosaur perched on the beast’s long skull, the little winged creature pulling at the salty-sweetness of a stretched eyeball.
He made his way to the cliffs. The Kronosaurus was gone, as was the beach. The water reached almost to the top of the cliffs, so high that the spray kissed his face in wet breezes. Beyond the cliffs and immediate sea was a thin line of land that stretched from one end of the horizon to the other.
The continents were coming together.
There was no evidence of tectonic plates subducting into the earth’s molten heart—no volcanoes or earthquakes, no mountains exploding from the ground like lithic springs. He could not answer how this was happening.
Why? He could answer that. The continents were sliding together because they were supposed to come together. It was the law of this new world: the returning of the past. Darren was sure a more mathematical mind could define this condition into a statement of scientific law. As no physicists were available, though, Darren decided he would need to take the task upon himself at some point. Formal background in quantum theory or not, this issue of time was too important not to explain.
Behind him, he heard a low call, like a muffled trumpet. He turned and saw a herd of hadrosaurs moving across the plain, their duck-like bills held low to the ground and swinging from side-to-side like metal detectors and the mittened hands of their forelimbs posted among ferns or drawn to their chests. Running among the giant hind legs of the adults were their offspring, tiny and brightly striped in comparison to their parents’ dull hides. Darren decided that they were Maiasaura, the “good mother lizards” John Horner had found in Montana back in ‘78. It was a colossal discovery on Horner’s part, for the dinosaurs’ bones had been mixed in with elaborate nesting grounds, providing tremendous evidence for the hadrosaurs’ parental habits. Before then, the thought of dinosaurs as nurturing parents was shunned.
Darren wished Horner were there to see his theories on parental behavior proven as the adults nudged their children along.
Was Horner even alive?
“Probably not,” Darren said to himself and to this old world turned new. Extrapolating from his current situation—first the vanished town, now the closing continents—it seemed likely that most of the human race no longer existed. More importantly, he had never seen anything to confirm that they existed in a different state, unless they had devolved so quickly as to become insects or paramecia.
He directed his gaze to the rising sea. The ice caps were melting; the Mississippi River valley, Darren’s birthplace, was probably flooded from New Orleans to Canada, the people that lived in the plains long gone, as well as any trace of their existence.
He contemplated his aloneness for the first time, and his visceral reaction to the feeling. Instinctively, he knew he was the last of his species, and likely had been for several days. He knew in his gut—if such a feeling could be called “knowing.” Perhaps it was his body reacting to the sudden absence of the modern world’s radiation, the output of billions of televisions and microwaves and radios and computers creating an electromagnetic hum made tangible in his mind as a Cerenkov glow that wrapped the earth like a luminous second atmosphere. Or perhaps this feeling was a symptom of a psychological process, something like fear or desperation. Darren didn’t know, and wouldn’t trust himself even if he did know: he was too close to the source of information (in this case, himself) to be objective and rational.
Quite suddenly, Darren realized the folly of his work in the previous days. His observations were worthless without a peer to evaluate his procedures and conclusions. He might as well have been writing notes on burning paper.
He looked down at the foam breaking against the crumbling cliff and shuffled closer to the edge, so that his toes rested on unsteady air. Gently, he sat upon the rocky lip, his feet ten feet from the water. He imagined a pliosaur leaping from the froth and dragging him down, its long body gilded orange by the setting sun.
When night-black waves crept close enough to lick his feet and legs, Darren stood and walked to his cottage, which had disappeared in his absence, leaving a frame of drooping vines. His clothes sloughed away as he walked, peeling in ragged strips that crumbled to dust motes and then atomized in the clear air. He trod to where his house had once been and stood within the vegetal cage.
With one hand he grabbed a draping mass of creepers and dangled absentmindedly. He stayed like that for some time, not recognizing his act until he looked at his arm. His long, hairy arm.
Darren dropped to the ground and touched his chest, discovered a thatch of hair that spread to his stomach, groin, and legs. His forehead was sloped, his jaw heavier. He felt tired, as if he had just run a long race, though tired in a pleasing way, like he had been first to break the finish line. He smiled and padded to a dense spot of vines, adjusting to his shortening legs as he moved.
As he curled beneath the heavy ropes of vegetation and nibbled the pithy stalks, he imagined himself in the morning. He might be an early man, a proto-hominid, even a tiny species of ape. Food would not be a problem for an instinctive hunter such as he was becoming. And what next? A fleet pre-horse? A shrew or vole scurrying along fallen trees? A lizard or amphibian crawling from a brackish Permian pond?
He thought back to the Kronosaurus. He had been wrong during his sojourn on the sinking cliff. As a scientist, he would never understand the reptile’s thoughts and motivations—he might deduce them from physical evidence, though he would never truly see another creature’s mind.
Now, he had the chance to achieve that realm of understanding. His transformation was a discovery unparalleled, not because it was happening, but because he was so intimately involved in the observation. He would know what any other man could never possibly know. He smiled and touched his face, felt the ocular bones broadening and his nostrils flaring. This moment was beyond historic—it was a lone human’s first step into a realm more mysterious than death and more fantastic than birth.
Brandon Patterson is a graduate of Hollins University MFA program in Creative Writing. His work has recently appeared in Yemassee, descant, and The Evansville Review. He is currently the Director of Resource Development for Virginia CARES, a statewide nonprofit agency dedicated to facilitating the reentry of ex-offenders into society.