Mamas chocolate Ex-Lax cake was what started it all.
She made it because of Daddy; tired of his carousin, staying
out all night drinking, and the puddles of puke on the seat of
the car that even her screams and threats couldnt make us clean
up. She bought the chocolate-flavored laxatives after taking the
bus down to the Rexall, sneaking them into the house while we
were out at friends, Tommy was at the post office, and Daddy was
out in the yard fixing Mr. Peters transmission for the umpteenth
time. By the time dinner rolled around Daddy was good and hungry,
and nothing but a meteor crashing into our house and roasting
us alive would have kept him from eating a huge slab of that tainted
We could hear his pained groans and grunts all the way from the
hallway to the kitchen, where we sat with our measly dessert of
canned peaches. I could see Momma through the open doorway to
the living room, and at first she wore a satisfied smirk. But
as the minutes ticked by and Daddys grunts became more pronounced,
sounding like a lion that couldnt get any satisfaction from his
mate, her smile began to slip. When Daddy started crying, his
sobs forlorn wheezes, Mama stood up and marched into the kitchen.
Damn man dont give me no pleasure, she muttered, passing us.
We numbered four: my ten-year-old brother Johnson; myself at sixteen;
my pregnant sister Willa and her husband Tommy. Even though he
hadnt been a member of our clan long, hed caught on quick enough
to stay out of Mama and Daddys disagreements, and he simply sat
there, lowering his gaze to the table when Mama came stomping
through the doorway.
Damn man always gits away with anythin he wants, she grumped,
taking the half-demolished cake and hefting it up to chest level.
You think hell learn a lesson from this? No sirree-bob! And
even though Mama had said the words, I could tell by the dark
sheen in her eyes that she felt bad for turning Daddys bowels
into an upside-down geyser. Still grumbling under her breath,
she went to the back door and opened it, stepping out into the
muggy night, letting out what little cool air the house had accumulated
from the rattly old air conditioner in the living room.
Our back porch overlooked the river fifty feet below. We lived
directly in its sights: if I wanted to, I could simply look over
the wide porch rail and peer down into its muddy depths. The back
of our porch was plumb with the granite cliff wall, and its location
was perfect for dumping things best left private and out of reach
of prying eyes, like Grampa Lonnies enemas, Daddys dirty magazines,
and chocolate cakes flavored with Ex-Lax. With the door open,
we heard the thump of her feet as they crossed the porch boards,
the clink of the plate as it was set on the rail, and even a little
grunt as she turned it upside down, letting the cake fall into
the water, giving whatever fish that still dared live there a
treat that would probably kill them. I imagined looking over the
rail the next morning and seeing nothing but white fish bellies.
There were a few moments of silence in which Tommy and Willa exchanged
glances with a lot of eye rolling, and then Mama screamed.
Holy shit! I heard Daddy exclaim from his temporary prison,
and then we all left the table to see what Mama was caterwauling
about. When I reached the porch, Willa was holding Mamas arms
down to her sidesshed backed away from the rail and was trying
to claw her own cheeks.
What, Mama? Willa asked. Her baby was almost due, only two weeks
away from arriving in this world. She was too skinny, her belly
like a monster pimple, and she was having trouble keeping Mama
from thrashing around.
Thingthingtheres someone down there! Mama said, her chest
heaving rapidly and dangerously.
Willa and Tommy gave each other another look. Whats this holy
hell? That Ex-Laxs gone and drove your mama nuts. Now, Mama
Wanda, there aint no one down there, Tommy said, stepping forward
and putting his arms around Mamas shoulders; maybe to comfort
her, maybe to keep her from knocking Willa down. But my brother
and I were younger, still laden with enough curiosity to kill
a whole litter of cats, and when we heard her words, we rushed
to the rail and looked down. Sure enough, we saw what Mama was
going on about.
He (It? I never figured it out but since it didnt have breasts
I called it a he) was hanging about twenty-five feet down. There
was enough light emanating from the moon that I could make out
his vague, dark form, and one hand was stuck into a crevice, allowing
him purchase. I couldnt tell if he was wearing clothes, but his
body seemed lithe, as stickish as Willas, and his eyes were wide
and protuberantnight eyes, like a rat or big lizards. He was
using his free arm to clutch the squashed cake to his chest.
Whoa, Johnson breathed, hanging so far over the rail that his
uneven hair hung straight down. I wanted to say the same, but
it seemed all my breath was gone. It hadnt disappeared out of
fear, but I couldnt rightly explain why I didnt scream like
Mama and run back into the house to cower underneath my bed. Best
I could do was that we were poor white trash, unwelcome and forgotten
by most, like everyone that lived along the river, and we were
usually not the type privy to the unusual, the regal, the grand.
The thing stuck to the cliff like a fly on a wall was not regal
or grand, but he sure was unusual. And when I saw his white, glowing
eyes, I knew he was only ours for the seeing.
Tommy was still trying to reassure Mama that her eyes had only
played a mean trick on her. As far as I knew, Daddy was still
stuck on his throne. I looked over my shoulder and said, Shes
tellin the truth. Theres a man down there.
Hes got the cake! Johnson said. My mama, sister and brother-in-law
all stilled. A hard, stiff look came over Tommys face, but I
didnt blanche. Even though Johnson and I still walloped each
other from time to time, never in my life had I had reason to
believe a grown man would hit a girl. Mama and Daddy argued, but
their heat had never gone to blows.
Dont make up stories, Terri, he said to me. Youre gonna upset
your Mama even more.
She aint lyin! Johnson said, sticking up for me for once.
He shifted forward until his feet were no longer on the porch
but horizontal to it, his hands clutching the outer edge of the
foot-wide rail. Heshey, lookit his mouth!
They joined us at the railWilla and Tommy with disbelief and
scorn twisting their mouths, Mama with leaden feet, wringing her
hands. When she took another peek over the rail, she gasped and
clapped her hands over her mouth. I didnt blame her; what was
going on below was even weirder than, well, a man hanging on a
cliff without benefit of cleats or rope.
His bulging eyes still rolled our way, his mouth and nose had
elongated until they resembled a large proboscis. Still clinging
to the crevice, his feet presumably stuck in others, he lifted
the hand holding the cake and began sucking it in through his
new mouth. It made a slurping, slithering sound, and I swallowed,
finally feeling a bit of nervousness. It was as if a snake were
up on the porch with us, inching forward for a bite of flesh.
Good Lord above, Willa breathed, her pimple belly dented into
the rails edge.
Tommy watched until nearly half the cake had disappeared down
that long beak, then stepped away from the edge, shaking his head.
Nah, I aint seein that, he muttered. There aint nothin
on Gods green Earth that looks like that
can do somethin like
Johnson, who usually worshipped the ground Tommy walked on, gave
him enough of a glance to reveal that he considered the older
boy stupid and blind. Hes doin it! Come on, Tommy, its cool!
our very own sucker man!
And so it was my younger brother, who couldnt even tie his own
shoes without sticking out his tongue and growing a crop of sweat
on his forehead, that christened the thing on the cliff wall that
hung as easily as a leaf to a tree.
Somethin like that, it aint natural, Mama whispered, as the
last of the cake disappeared down the Sucker Mans gullet. As
if to prove her point, the thing spared us one last glance before
turning tail and shimmying down the wall, his movements as easy
as a fishs through water. When he was ten feet up from the base
of the cliff, he let go and swan-dived into the water, barely
making a splash in the ripples. We waited, perhaps all with bated
breath, but he didnt resurface.
What the hells goin on? Daddy screamed. Anyone out there?
Lord, I got to tend to your daddy, Mama said, stepping away
from the rail to join Tommy. She looked at all of us, the fear
still whitening her face. What was that thing? I never
seen nothin like that round here before!
The Sucker Man! Johnson exclaimed, still hanging precariously
as only a ten-year-old can, but Mama marched over to him and yanked
him back onto the porch. He landed hard and gave her an angry
Mama he started, maybe thinking he could dissuade her even
before she started, but Mama had patented a look that would silence
even the hardest of criminals. She gave it to him then, her hand
still grasping the collar of his t-shirt.
You stay away from that rail! she yelled, and the sudden noise
made us all jump. In turn, she looked at all of us, and it was
then that I saw how truly terrified she was. It made me feel sorry
for her, and I forgave her for trying to turn Daddys bowels inside
out. You hear me?
Yes, Mama, Willa said, and nudged my back. I nodded.
Johnson wouldnt answer until Mama shook him a little. Okay,
he groused, and she let him go.
Its settled, then, she told us, and went inside, muttering,
No more Sucker Man.
We stood on the shadowy porch until we heard the splash far below.
The sound was more powerful than Mamas order, and we all rushed
the rail. But like before, the Sucker Man had disappeared, and
I imagined him deep within the brown water, floating alongside
a school of fish.
* * *
Mama discreetly asked around the neighborhood, offering slices
of her prize-winning coffee cake, but no one else had ever seen
anything strange in the river. I kept my mouth shut, as did Willa
and Tommy, but Johnson was ten and prone to loose lips. His hide
was tanned good when Mama caught him and several of his friends
after school, hanging over the rail, dropping pieces of bologna
into the water and yelling, Sucker Man! Sucker Man! Come out
and git your baloney! I saw all this through the kitchen window,
and even though I knew what he was doingoffering up our own unique
unusual to his better-off friendsI still grinned when his face
paled as Mama yanked him off the rail. Hed hidden my meager supply
of makeup and his punishment was my revenge.
Out of everyone that Mama talked to, however, Grampa was the only
one who made me suspicious. Self-sentenced to his room after Grannys
death six years before, he only emerged nowadays to the bathroom
and out for his daily constitutionals, walking from the house
hed built with his own hands all the way to the hills three miles
away. Sometimes buzzards would circle overhead in the area I knew
he stopped and rested, floating on the currents in their nonchalant,
patient way, and I would worry that hed had a heart attack and
was lying dead in the dirt road, but he always moseyed back in
time to retrieve his dinner and retire to his room, leaving the
dirty dishes on the floor outside his door for me to pick up.
Hed come into the kitchen to get his dinner when Mama asked him
if he knew of anything strange in the river.
Like what? he asked, quietly, picking up the plate Id made
for him: beanie weenies, fried potatoes, and fresh spinach from
our side garden.
somethin on the cliff that aint supposed to be there?
Mama asked, her tone just a bit too idle.
Beneath bushy white eyebrows, Grampas gaze became stony. He looked
at Mama for a long time until she turned away from the stove to
give him a questioning look.
Daddy? she asked, and he shook his head.
No, he answered, gruffly, and shuffled away, his knuckles white
and gripping the plate too tightly. The next day and for five
days after that, he left the house with a Louisville Slugger in
one gnarled hand.
Summer crested, and it was the night of the solstice when Daddy
and Mama, calling a truce, decided to go play bingo in the basement
of St. Ignatius. Johnson was spending the night with his best
friend Dayton, who was even trashier than we were considered,
but had a family that flaunted it more by displaying toilet bowls
and two junkyard dogs in their front yard. Tommy was also out
with friends, down at the Cock of the Walk. It was something he
rarely didhe was a doofus but he was good to Willa, marrying
her and taking responsibility with a girl that most men wouldve
discardedbut Mama took the opportunity to warn Willa.
Thats how your Daddy started, she hissed, yanking her purse
strap over her shoulder, wearing her best hat: a purple veiled
thing that made her look like she was going to a clowns funeral.
He went out carousin while I was pregnant with you!
But Willa wouldnt hear any of it, and turned away on the couch,
settling her gaze on the t.v. A black-and-white Archie Bunker
was calling his son-in-law Meathead, and my sisters laughter
was as canned as the studio audiences.
I decided to stay downstairs with her, tucking my feet under and
occasionally staring out the window at the dwindling daylight.
I was thinking about the Sucker Man and if hed eaten Johnsons
bologna offering when Willa gasped. I turned my head to see her
staring at her overflowing lap.
My water broke! she said, and looked at me with rounded, fearful
eyes a moment before the first contraction struck her and she
squeezed her eyes shut. Agh! she cried, bending over. I simply
sat there; sixteen years old and wholly unaware of the contraptions
of labor and delivery. When the next contraction gripped her in
its vise and held her, she gasped, Get Grampa!
I shot off the couch and ran upstairs, taking the steps two at
a time, nearly tripping over my bare feet as I hit the landing.
In my haste, I knocked over the empty glass on the floor and began
pounding on the door.
Grampa! Grampa! Willas gonna have the babywe need your help!
I yelled. Inside his room, I could hear the t.v. He was watching
All in the Family just as we were, but as I pounded and called
for him, the sound from the set cut off. And then there was only
silence. I stood for a minute more, calling out for him, but then
backed away, panting and afraid and more than a little angry.
Why wouldnt he help?
Terri! Willas voice drifted up the stairs, and it was a terrified,
anguished noise that made me forget about Grampa and hightail
it down the stairs again. When I reached the living room, Willa
had fallen to the floor, hunched over on her hands and knees.
Terri, she gasped, and looked at me through sweaty clumps of
hair. I think the babys comin now! Another contraction made
her clench her teeth together so hard they squeaked, and I cringed.
We had no phone. Tommy, Johnson, Mama and Daddy were all gone,
and Grampa was locked in his own little world. It never occurred
to either of us to have me go next door and ask a neighbor for
assistance. Willa was only two years older than me and, without
the sexual experience, just as naïve and senseless as I was. Anxiously,
I asked, You think you should be on your hands and knees like
It dont hurt as much this wayAgh! she cried again, and began
rocking, her clawed hands trying to dig through the scuffed hardwood
floor. Ohoh, Terri! Despite her earlier words, Willa collapsed
and rolled over, her knees pointed at the ceiling, her plaid dress
bunched around her waist. Her belly was bigger than before, and
looked firmer, and I half-expected to see her skin ripple as if
the baby was fighting to get out of her womb.
What do I do? I asked, helplessly.
Get my panties off, she gasped, a runner of sweat trickling
from her eye to her hairline. Then she yelled, Doc Morgan said
it wasnt supposed to happen this fast!
I pulled off her sopping panties and tossed them aside, where
they landed with a splat next to the sofa. Shuddering, I asked,
I dont know, she said. I looked around, hoping to find inspiration
in the t.v., the window, maybe the rack of record albums next
to the wall, and leaned over to shut off the television. I couldnt
concentrate with Sally Struthers whining suddenly grating on
my nerves. The room dissolved into silence save for my sisters
labored breathing and groans, but they werent loud enough to
shut out what wed missed before, and after a moment, Willa quieted,
and we both turned toward the kitchen doorway. Beyond it, we heard
the creaky turn of a knob, followed closely by a stealthy shuffling.
The slide of a snake. The slither of the Sucker Man.
Willa whispered, Oh my Lord, and I stood up so fast my knees
popped and I stumbled backward, knocking into the wall. HeItwas
crouched in the doorway, a lean thing covered with blackened,
iridescent scales that dribbled water onto the floor below. Webbing
joined his fingers and toes, but they were not merged as fins
but lengthened by claws. The better to cling to you with, I thought
in a crazy jumble as my mouth opened, trying to scream but doing
nothing but falling into a soundless gape.
His nose was squishy and flat, and the pupils of his bulging eyes,
which seemed to take up half his face, were narrowed to slits.
He was a night-dweller, a thing that worshipped darkness and scorned
daylight, but ventured into our artificial light because of Willa.
I knew that the moment he turned toward my prone sister, and the
mouth and nose began to melt, the scaled skin merging and emerging
as a long, sucking tube. Willa was the one to finally regain her
wits, and she screamed as the Sucker Mans new mouth squelched.
He sounded hungry.
Her scream set him off, as if it were a pistol shot starting a
race, and he scrambled across the floor as easily as an adept
toddler. I was the one to scream then, digging my fingernails
into my cheeks and raising welts as my poor disabled sister tried
to crabwalk away from the Sucker Man. He reached her, put his
slimy hand-claws on her knees, and shoved her legs apart, his
proboscis dipping toward the place where the baby would emerge.
Our screams were intercut by his eager sucking sounds.
He didnt see Grampa, so intent on sucking Willas baby from its
birth canal. I didnt see Grampa, racing into the living room
on his old man stalks, the Louisville Slugger hoisted high, his
eyes wild and rolling. I didnt see him until he stopped right
behind the Sucker Man and slammed the bat down on his head. The
Sucker Man may have looked half-fish, but his head was all skull,
and the crack that rang out was louder than our screams and his
sucking, and it silenced us all. The Sucker Man blinked once,
then fell over in a heap, a puddle of thick ichor pooling beneath
his shattered head.
Weeping, groaning in pain, Willa managed to drag herself a few
feet away before slapping her hands over her face and crying outright.
Grampa fell onto the couch, still clinging to the bat, his sunken
Your mama never knew she had a sister, he said, his watery gaze
on the Sucker Man. Although I was horrified by what had almost
happened and what Id witnessed, I managed to get my voice box
What? I whispered, and my grandpa finally looked at me.
That thing et it, he said, and his voice was haunted, lost.
My horror grew. All I could do was stare at Grampa, imagining
what had happened so many years before, perhaps on this very floor,
and not wanting to. But Willas hands fell to her sides and she
looked at him with red hate.
Well, why the hell didnt you tell us about it? she shrieked,
before cringing with another contraction.
Grampa blinked himself out of his reverie and asked, surprised,
It never came back til now! Again, his gaze strayed to the dead
thing on the floor. Its proboscis was wilted and withered. An
I thought our baby was enough for it, he whispered.
* * *
Grampa and I managed to drag the thing through the kitchen and
out onto the porch. We worked quickly, for nothing would stop
the baby but a cork shoved up Willas vagina, and the Sucker Man
had to be disposed of before strangers came into our house. Our
breath coming in short, fiery bursts, we hoisted him up onto the
rail and gave him a mighty shove. The splash that followed the
long drop was loud and ungraceful, nothing like the swan dive
Id witnessed after hed eaten the chocolate Ex-Lax cake. I kept
wiping my hands on my shirt, unable to get rid of the slimy, scaly
feel of the Sucker Mans strange skin. The feeling stayed with
me for many days, and sometimes followed me into sleep, where
instead of meeting the fate of a bat, Grampa never came and the
Sucker Man slurped that baby right out of the birth canal. I usually
woke up biting back a scream, my sheets a sweaty tangle around
Before we ran back inside, before Grampa went to use the neighbors
phone, he took my arm and peered closely into my face. Dont
tell no one, he said. Well put a rug over the blood in the
livin room, and you clean it up after they take Willa to the
I nodded my agreement, but on the way back to the living room,
my step faltered, and I had to cling to the refrigerator door
to keep from fainting. The thought was so awful that for a moment,
the world dissolved into watery, distant colors.
What if he aint the only one? I whispered.
No answer came to me as I peered over my shoulder into the night
that had finally come.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this story may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any informational storage or retrieval system without express written permission from the author.
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