Pal’s Diner on East St. I figured I had gotten the right place since it was the only business with its lights still on at 7:15 in the evening in this small town. A tiny bell rang above me as I opened the door to be told to take a seat anywhere in the red and white-clad establishment. The only two people visible in the entire place were the old, worn-down waitress behind the counter brewing a pot of coffee while puffing a menthol and Jimmy. Jimmy was sitting on the frayed couch of a booth in the far left corner over a pot of coffee looking distressed.
I had met him briefly twice. Once when he came to visit my friend, Tommy Bellacci, in middle school for a week during summer break and again two months ago at Tommy’s funeral. Jimmy Tarinno was Tommy’s cousin on his mother’s side. Tommy would bring him up occasionally but never seemed to be entirely close with that side of the family. Jimmy was three years younger than Tommy, but one would not have guessed that by looking that the two.
Whereas Tommy was always lanky and athletic, Jimmy was a ruddy man of squat stature with sunken eyes and a nose that drooped to his lower lip. He was of squat stature and always had a slight arch in his back as if he had never sat upright in his life. Every time I had seen him, he would always wear oversized clothes that he probably thought would hide his weight but ended up having the opposite effect. It was like an oversized baby wearing his father’s clothes. The poor guy even showed signs of early baldness at only twenty-six with his corkscrew hair receding further and further back on his scalp. Though a little strange, Jimmy was still a good enough guy.
I stalked down the row of empty seats with a brief nod and smile toward the waitress, whose only reply was a long exhale of gray-blue smoke from her night crawler-shaped lips as warm hot coffee streamed into the clear pot with wisps of steam rising off it.
“Hey, Edgar. Thanks for meeting me here tonight,” Jimmy greeted me with an outstretched hand that felt like sandpaper when I shook it. No one called me by my full name except Jimmy and my grandmother.
“You can just call me Eddie, what’d you-“ I was cut off.
“Hey, Suzan, let’s get another coffee here,” Jimmy snapped his fingers twice and called to the waitress before I could finish. The old woman approached us on spidery legs and dropped the mug in front of my face without a word. I was grateful for the coffee to mask the smell of cheap tobacco, body odor, and another almost medicinal scent hanging around Jimmy like an unseen cloud. “Let’s get two apple pies and a- Edgar, you want anything else? It’s on me,” Jimmy added this last fact with a look of pride so wide, I had a brief moment of fear that he would overstretch his lips by smiling so wide.
“Uhh,” I started and took a quick glance at the tiny menu sitting in front of the window at the head of the table, “Just an order of fries please,” I told the waitress who wrote the order down then glared at Jimmy.
“I’ll do the chicken and dumplings with a side of cornbread and a small stack of pancakes,” he paused, “Actually, make that the tall stack.” Our waitress scoffed and retreated back behind the counter to drop the order ticket at the kitchen and light another smoke. “Don’t mind her, she’s had a stick up her ass since ’73.
Anyway, thanks for meeting me here. I got your number from Aunt Cara because I thought you needed to know this as fast as possible.”
“Jimmy, what are you talking about?” I asked, it had been a three-hour drive to get out to this town after a two-hour flight to the city that my hometown sat outside of, and I was more than a little ready to get to bed.
“it’s about how Thomas died,” Jimmy said hollowly as he reached into the breast pocket of his faded jacket to produce a pack of cheap cigarettes that I had never even seen before. He lit the end and exhaled the smoke directly into my face, causing me to gag slightly at the smoke and the horrible stench of Jimmy’s breath. “I’ll explain more when my sister gets here. She knows too.”
We ate and engaged in small conversation, where I learned that Jimmy was a cashier at a gas station, over our meal of soggy fries and Jimmy’s plethora of food (a great deal of which ended up being spit out onto the table as Jimmy talked) and apple pie that tasted like it had been sitting in the display for at least a week.
“I like your books. I don’t read much, but yours are good,” Jimmy told me after lighting his fifth cigarette since I’d arrived twenty minutes ago. “The one about the vampire- Nocturnal Blood- is my favorite, though you have a tendency to get monsters and lore about them wrong pretty often. It takes away from the stories.”
“Thanks,” I told him, almost correcting Jimmy that the title was Nocturnal Rites, but not wanting to be rude.
“How do you write so fast? I mean, you’re only thirty, but you have three novels and a short story collection out? Where do you get your ideas from?” I was here to talk about Tommy, not be interviewed about my works. Thankfully, Jimmy’s sister, Marlene arrived just then.
Marlene was undoubtedly Jimmy’s sister with her wild black hair, attempted to be controlled by a pungent hair spray, and hooked nose that pointed toward her all but nonexistent lips. She had a missing tooth in the front of her mouth where her cigarette hung and wore a thing purple blouse over her stocky torso.
“Eddie, it’s nice to see you again,” Marlene spoke with a smile that showed off stained teeth before turning to her brother and sternly saying, “Move your fat ass over, Jim.”
“You’re one to talk, calling my ass fat,” Jimmy grumbled as he scooted over an inch. The pair looked comical sitting side-by-side on the bench.
When the waitress came over for Marlene’s order she said, “No food for me, I’m back on my diet. Just a coffee.” When the coffee, with refills for Jimmy and me, arrived, Marlene poured out the first inch from the mug to make room for the four cremes and six sugars she unloaded into the drink.
“Alright, now that everyone’s here, Edgar, Thomas didn’t die from a car crash like everyone says,” Jimmy began.
“You made him come all the way back here for this, Jim?” Marlene intervened with a loud voice. “You told me you had some of Tommy’s old things that you wanted Eddie to have!”
“Shut up and let me talk to the man!” Jimmy shouted back at his sister, who punched him in the arm. I still had that long drive back to the hotel I was staying at. I was hoping to get some more work done on the book I was writing, but that was becoming a hopeless dream for tonight.
“Now, Edgar, you and Tommy spent your whole lives chasing cryptids and monsters, right? He would always go on and on about those journeys and how it was your lives” Jimmy asked with utmost sincerity.
“I mean, when we were kids, yeah, but not since the age of twelve or so,” I replied. Tommy had been my best friend growing up. It was true we did go ‘monster hunting’ as kids, but that ended long ago. As we grew up, Tommy and I drifted apart. Him joining the Army and me going to college after high school. Then I moved away to begin a career as a writer while Tommy moved back to our hometown to work as a car mechanic at his dad’s shop after his enlistment. I hadn’t even spoken to the guy for maybe a year and a half before he died. Those childhood adventures were the inspirations for many of my writings, but it was all just childhood imagination.
“Well, Jimmy continued to do so after he got back from the Army,” Jimmy said matter-o-factly. He had become obsessed with finding that one you guys used to talk about a lot- the Swamp Lizard. He used almost all his time off to stalk the marshes between our towns trying to hunt it down.”
The mention of Swam Lizard brought back a rush of memories with the ferocity of a freight train blind-siding me. The supposed monster was only really discussed by adolescent boys and old folks who claimed to have caught glimpses of the beast while out in the woods as kids. Parents always called it a hokey story to frighten us out of the woods, and I knew that it was true as I aged. It did provide the basis for my first bestseller, though.
“That’s what killed Thomas, The Swamp Lizard, not just some car crash,” Jimmy said.
“Dammit, Jim! Will you get off that stupid tale!” Marlene howled over her second sugary coffee and her fourth cigarette.”
“It’s real! I am telling you that beast got him!” Jimmy fired back, causing him to spill coffee onto his already dingy clothes.
“Whoa,” I said calmly, “Hold on. Jimmy, I saw the pictures of the accident.” The photos were taken by police who arrived on the scene the next morning. An empty six-pack was found in the cabin of Tommy’s small pickup along with alcohol in his system. They ruled he must have been going at least sixty miles per hour on those back swamp roads where the speed limit is only twenty-five. “As much as I hate to admit it. Jimmy was driving drunk through the swamps and he must have lost control or passed out at the wheel when he wrapped his truck around that tree.”
“He was trying to escape from the Swamp Lizard, Edgar,” Jimmy persuaded, “He had seen it and the thing was chasing after him. It got in his way, causing him to veer off the road and into the tree line.”
“Jim, you weren’t even with him that night,” Marlene spoke. Her voice had taken on a more caring tone now, seeing the panic in her brother’s eyes. “How are you so sure about this?”
Jimmy reached for something at his feet under the table, he emerged red-faced and out of breath with a shoebox in his hands that he dropped onto the table and skid over to me.
“He was recording himself when it happened. The tape is on top with his images and writings about the monster. You and you’re book, The Marsh Man of Boggy Forest, are mentioned many times throughout his research.”
I opened the lid of the box and examined the contents. Three journals, dating from 1983-1987 were completely filled out in Tommy’s hasty handwriting, as well as old newspaper articles from before we were even born about a half-reptile, half-man that was supposedly seen in the old swamps, and scratchy blurred images of shadows in the woods occupied the interior of the case with a few old cassette tapes.
“See? Believe me now?” Jimmy asked as if the box held the convincing evidence I needed to accept his story, “He’s even photographed the Swamp Lizard- look!”
“Jimmy,” I began, flicking through the black and whites- the only thing for sure was that they were taken in the swamps, all of them had some sort of blurry shadow in the other corners, “these could be anything. Deer or owls, or bears. The pictures mean nothing.”
“Look,” the man began as Marlene stood up to go to the restroom on the far end of the diner, “I know it sounds far fetched, but you were with him years ago hunting this thing too,” The closest thing we had ever gotten to finding the Swamp Lizard was seeing salamanders and newts climbing on rocks in the water. “Did you know that green liquid was found on the hood of Tommy’s truck when they found him? Or that he had a rip in his neck from the Swamp Lizard’s claws? It wasn’t a drunken accident.”
“He had that gash in his neck from the branch that flew through the windshield when he hit the tree, the Swamp Monster is just an old folk legend told to scare kids and keep them from going out too far into the woods, nothing more!” I realized that my voice was raising as I spoke, matching Jimmy’s energy. I took a sip of coffee to calm myself down as Marlene returned to her seat next to Jimmy.
My watch indicated that it was almost ten. I needed to go, it was already going to be well after one a.m. when I got to bed and I had an early flight home the next morning. My book about a haunted manor was going to have to wait until later.
“Jimmy, look, thanks for the dinner, but I really have to go. Marlene, you take care,” I started to get up from the bench when Jimmy spoke one last time.
‘Look, Edgar, just please try to believe me. Listen to those tapes when you have a chance, the box is yours. Tommy wanted you to have it,” Though this was only my third time meeting Jimmy, I had never heard the man call my old friend ‘Tommy’ before. It sounded foreign and like a desperate plea for me to comply.
I grabbed the shoe box and stuffed it under my arm. I hugged Marlene and held my breath from her horrible perfume and shook Jimmy’s crusty hand one last time before climbing into the front seat of my rental car and heading home on the deserted highway.
Childhood nostalgia led me to insert the tape into the caseate player in the dash of the rental, “Please, God, let someone find this,” Tommy’s voice spoke in fear. My eyes welled up momentarily hearing his voice again, “August fourth, nineteen eighty-seven. My name is Tommy Ballacci and the Swamp Lizard is real! I repeat- Swamp Lizard is real!” in the background, I could hear the engine of his pickup roaring down the one-laned roads where he crashed, “He is chasing after me right now! He’s in front of me!” those were the last words before a screech and a crash were heard from the truck losing control and the pickup slamming into the old tree. Thirty seconds, maybe of drunken, panicked dialogue. That was what Jimmy was so adamant I listen to. I re-winded the tape and listened again. Though I couldn’t be sure, I thought I could hear loud screaming in the background- probably just the truck I figured. I was just passing the exit to my small town when a greenish glow from the trees caught my attention.
Slamming my breaks, I skid to a halt in the middle of the highway. An ear-splitting scream caused my heart to stop as I viewed what appeared to be a man covered in green-brown scales with an elongated head wearing shredded overalls tearing toward my vehicle. His eyes were glowing brightly under the moon, looking like florescent green lights to illuminate his path.
Without thinking, I stomped the gas pedal and tore down the road light a bat out of hell when blue and red lights lit up the sky behind me. I pulled over as a massive tower of a man lumbered toward my window and asked for my license and registration.
“Hey, you’re that writer that grew up around here right?” What were you speeding for?
I was just about to answer with what I had seen before I noticed that the Swamp Lizard- or rather, my overactive imagination manifesting the cryptid- had disappeared, “I- I was visiting with the cousin of a recently deceased friend and was just trying to make it back to the city to get some sleep before my early flight in the morning. My voice was shaking from the adrenaline still pulsing through my veins.
“Who? The Bellacci kid? Well, slow down, we don’t need another repeat of that incident here. Look, I caught you doing twenty over, but if you sign an autograph for my wife, I’ll let you go. Just promise to keep at the speed limit.” I signed a page of his notepad and left off to a sleepless night of pouring over Tommy’s notes and attempting to explain that I didn’t see or hear anything last night. The sight matched Tommy’s noted and that scream matched the ones I heard in the recording though.