Last Light

by Chad Schuster

Having decided to ignore the Pterodactyl, I put the shell to my ear and promised my daughter I could hear the ocean. This was basically true—I could hear the ocean. Or, more precisely, I could not hear the ocean, but I could hear a rushing sound within the shell that resembles the ocean, and anyway she is only five and does not know that Puget Sound is not an ocean, and, more to the point, to see her blond hair blowing in the wind that way, to see her standing there smiling, holding a white shell, with sand and seaweed stuck to her rubber boots, which are pink, her favorite color, induced the kind of feeling that is vast and overpowering, even terrifying in the way it pulls you down and holds you under, and maybe it spits you back out or maybe it doesn't but either way you know unequivocally who's boss. Which is, as Sophie said in the first place, very much like the ocean. So, yes, I said again, this time with more conviction: I totally hear it, sweetheart.

* * *

I first noticed the Pterodactyl standing on a half-submerged piling, just before Sophie handed me the shell. It was performing Pterodactyl calisthenics, its wings extending and retracting, not for flight, I assumed, but for practice. Now here we were, four blocks east of where we'd first met, me holding a gas pump, him perched atop the trash can near the windshield-washing station, gnawing at the innards of an abandoned sandwich.

"Hello," I said, not knowing why I chose to speak. He looked up for a moment and extended his wings, which were almost transparent, backlit by the sun. He didn't make eye contact before his beak resumed ripping apart the sandwich. The woman pumping gas one stall over looked at me nervously. I smiled politely, then realized that she likely thought I was crazy. She was likely right. She did not see the Pterodactyl.

I got in the car and shut the door. I looked in the mirror and saw Sophie seated behind me in her booster. The bottom half of her face wasn't visible, I could just see her blue eyes, although just is an inadequate word because through them I could tell she was smiling, I didn't need to see her mouth. Through the windshield, beyond the gas station sign and the power lines and a ragged edge of trees, seven miles above me, a bank of amorphous clouds traveled the atmosphere.

My window was half open. I felt the guiding breeze come through and rustle the empty bag of pretzels Sophie and I had just shared. The bag lifted up slightly in the console and tumbled to the floor, came to rest near an ice scraper, a brown banana peel. The smell of gasoline, too, seeped into the car's interior, trailed by the sound of a train whistle. I understood that the big iron thing, with its vast machinery, was back down by the beach, following a track, its very existence governed by forward movement. It was unquestionably going somewhere.

"What kind of bird were you talking to," Sophie said. I looked at her in the mirror and felt the pretzels deconstructing in my guts.

"It was not a Pterodactyl," I said, and I imagined in that moment that this was not just a Saturday visit, that her mother hadn't left me for someone more dependable, less prone to Pterodactyl sightings. I raised a bottle of water to my mouth and swallowed a pill that was supposed to help with this sort of thing. "This is nonsense," I whispered to myself, hoping Sophie hadn't heard me.

I looked at the dashboard clock, which was broken. I would reset it and then go wherever I was going and when I got back in the car it still said the same thing. Or maybe it wasn't broken, maybe I just lost track of time sometimes. It was probably just me.

"Why was the bird eating the sandwich?" Sophie asked.

I was thankful I didn't have to think about my answer. "Because he was hungry," I said, and I started the engine and drove away, hoping the Pterodactyl wouldn't follow but suspecting he would.

* * *

We rolled north down Sunset, past joggers and bicyclists and old houses that were in various stages of being torn down and turned into new houses. I parked and we sat there in the car, looking out at the the grey-blue water, the green ferry churning in the distance. The sun was setting, the sky turning Sophie's favorite shade of pink. I turned on the radio and offered her another bag of pretzels. She shook her head no. "Not hungry," she said.

The song on the radio was in the second chorus when the Pterodactyl finally made his move. He swooped in from nowhere, straight across the hood, his passage so close that I was sure he would come crashing through the windshield. Sophie screamed, stiffened in her seat.

"It's okay, sweetheart," I said, although I did not know this to be true, I could not verify her safety, our safety. No one could. I grabbed her little hand.

"It's okay," I said again, squeezing, and this time I was right because the Pterodactyl disappeared below the bluff and the song on the radio reached its crescendo, there was a rush of jangly guitars and cymbals were struck unabashedly and the sun burned out behind the Olympics and when the Pterodactyl returned from the depths of the prehistoric sunset he was not a Pterodactyl but a common crow, black as soot, the snake in his mouth defeated. The fellow must not have had his fill back there at the gas station but now he'd gone and done something about it, he'd remedied the situation, and as he soared over the roof of the car and landed on the bones of some new construction back there behind us to have his dinner I started the engine and eased us back into traffic and drove Sophie to her mother's house, the whole time holding her hand, telling her I loved her, dreaming up ways to one day, God willing, be there to kiss this girl, my world, goodnight.

BIO: Chad Schuster's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Hobart, Literary Orphans, Jersey Devil Press, Per Contra and elsewhere. He lives near Seattle with his wife and two children. Find him at www.chadschuster.com or on Twitter @Chad_Schuster.