Fantasy Horror Mystery

Once They Were Monarchs

By James Van Pelt
Jan 25, 2019 · 4,013 words · 15 minutes

Monarch butterfly sitting on a flower

Photo by Justin DoCanto via Unsplash.

From the author: Swimming pools in the summer are about sun and water and lying on towels and watchful guards on the towers. And sometimes there's a troll. I was a lifeguard for many summers, in case you ever wonder where writers get ideas. JVP


From the guard tower, Müller watched Bates circulating among the children in the shallow end.  Bates was a fat thirteen year old whose bulging fingers turned to pale prunes after a half hour in the water, and whose rounded shoulders glowed dull red with perpetual sunburn.  He often cruised the shallows in crocodile mode, his nose barely out, his bleached blue eyes evaluating each child before moving on.

Müller scrunched his hands into fists, thinking how good it would feel to squeeze the little pervert's neck, but he also welcomed the distraction from the lonely heights of the guard's chair.  Mostly, life guarding left him too much time to contemplate isolation, his alienation from the screaming children, from the boring regularity of human rhythms.  He thought of his unique position, high above the water's surface, looking down on all he surveyed as he had in the old days from mountaintops or from the circling giddiness of summer thermals beneath his wings.  But mostly he felt the loneliness of the unending masquerade.

A handful of butterflies fluttered above the oleanders by the pump room.  Müller thought about Monarchs and Viceroys.

"Good job yesterday," said Mr. Regin as he walked by the tower.  "Quick thinking!"  The old man's sandals flapped against his feet as he headed for the exit gate.

A long-haired boy wearing cut off jeans climbed from the deep end to Müller’s left and dashed for the diving board.

“Don’t run,” growled Müller automatically, scrutinizing Bates as he drifted down to the rope that kept non-swimmers from the deeper water.  The August, Sacramento sun sank into Müller’s skin like a heavy, sweltering blanket while the light glared off waves around Bates in a million, stabbing points.  Müller  turned his hands over, releasing his fists so they took the sun in his palms.  It penetrated all the way to his bones, and he could feel his strength building, his animal inside churning for release, and still he watched Bates.

Müller had warned the pool manager the day before, after he'd pulled the Seigurd boy out of the water.  Everyone thought Seigurd was drowning, but after a few seconds, Müller realized the child was having an asthma attack.  A quick search of his towel revealed an inhaler, and twenty minutes later the kid was doing cannonballs off the high dive.  "The Bates kid is a sicko, Raquelle.  He's stalking the little girls all the time."  His gravelly voice sounded too loud to him in the manager’s office.

Raquelle hadn't looked up from the guard schedule on her desk.  "Both Ray and George want the 4th off, and Janille can't teach her Mom-Tot lessons next week.  She's taking driver's ed.  Can you cover?"

Müller thought about a double or triple shift on the 4th of July, the crowded pool, non-swimmers whom he didn't know showing up the one summer holiday; the sun, like a blow torch in the sky.  "Sure.  Now what about Bates?"

Raquelle glanced at him, zinc oxide coating her nose white.  "Has anyone complained?  Has he touched anyone?"

Müller looked around the room.  Raquelle had a shelf full of sunscreen by the sink; he smelled a fruity layer of it on her skin. Several floppy brimmed hats hung from a chair by the door along with a thin, light-colored blouse she wore to protect her arms outdoors, although she hardly ever guarded anymore. 

"I've got a feeling about him."

Raquelle shook her head.  "He seems like a good kid to me.  Probably should lay off the sweets.  Has anyone had him in a lesson or talked to his parents?  Maybe they could tell you something."

"I asked.  He’s never signed up for one, and I don't think he has parents.  He walks to the pool."

Raquelle dismissed his concern with a wave of her hand.  "You’re a good guard, Müller.  That was a nice piece of work this morning with the Seigurd boy.  I checked your records.  You've been here, what, eleven years?"

Müller nodded, sighing.  Raquelle was the fourth manager at the pool since he'd signed on.  When someone noticed his longevity, it was time to pack his bags and go to a place they didn't know him, where they'd think he was just another late twenties guy slumming as a lifeguard and swim instructor.  Maybe he'd move to San Diego and do some beach guarding. 

"Keep an eye on him if you’re worried.  And for crying out loud, put up your umbrella.  Your skin will turn to boot leather in this heat."

"I'm working on my tan," he said.

Müller squinted against the sparkle off the water.  His eyes teared a little, but he stayed focused on Bates.  Now the boy had sidled along the gutter until he was behind the Lindsey twins, a couple of blonde-headed, blue-eyed nine year olds in matching, pink bikinis who were tossing a ball back and forth between them.  They shrieked as the ball went up, jumping to catch it before it hit the waves.  Bates submerged, staring for a long minute before coming up for air.  In the glare, Müller lost him.  The surface caught the sun like an oily mirror, and Müller rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes to clear them.  For a second, as Bates surfaced, he didn’t look like a young teenager at all.  For a second, as the water tumbled off his head, and the fractured sunlight pierced Müller’s vision, the boy’s skin turned color, a streaked yellow like an old bruise, and where the flesh had been smooth before, it became lumpy as if it were covered with warts.  Not little warts, but fist-sized things on the edge of rupturing.  For a second, Bates didn’t look human.  He turned, as if sensing Müller’s attention, and the eyes behind the goggles were bulbous.  Malice filled them.

Then Müller blinked, and his pulse pounded in his throat.  He nearly roared, because now he knew what the creature was.  The flickering reflection stopped, and Bates peeked up at him dully, a fat boy on a hot day wandering in the pool.

Something tapped Müller’s foot.  Beneath her hat, Raquelle shaded her face with her hand.  "You looked pretty serious there for a second, buddy," she said.  "Something bothering you?"

Müller scanned the few bobbing heads in the water.  It was so hot that even being in the pool didn't beat the heat, and play had become listless.  The pink-bikinied girls abandoned their game of catch and floated on their backs, eyes closed, blonde hair like nimbuses around their heads, their fingers interlocked so they wouldn't lose contact with each other.  They floated in perfect X's, their feet spread, their arms splayed out.  Müller had watched them hold this pose for minutes at a time on other days.  Best little back floaters he'd ever seen.  Some kids were rolling up their towels, readying for the 1:00 break, where the pool was cleared for ten minutes.  On really hot days the least crowded time was between the 1:00 break and 5:00, when parents returning from work brought their families in.

Müller said, "Do you know about the Viceroy butterfly and the Monarch?”  He nodded toward the colorful display above the oleanders.  “Birds find the Viceroy tasty while the Monarch is bitter, so the Viceroy has adopted the Monarch's coloring.  Birds leave the Viceroy alone now."

Raquelle looked confused.  "And your point is?"

"There are all kinds of examples in nature of protective coloring and mimicry, like the walking stick or the scorpion fly.  Sometimes the illusion is to protect the individual; sometimes it's to make it easier to prey.  There's a preying mantid in Malaysia that looks like a flower.  It eats the insects that come to pollinate it.  We even have myths about imitators: the wolf  pretending to be Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother, for example."

Raquelle nodded.  "You're thinking about the Bates kid still, aren't you?"

Müller shrugged.

"You think he's a forty-year-old in a thirteen year old's body?"

"Something like that," said Müller.  "He's a troll."

Bates had slid around to where the Lindsey twins still floated.  He kept five or six feet away from them, but as the girls slowly revolved in the water, Müller could see he maneuvered himself so when he submerged he could look between one of the girl's legs.

Raquelle studied the tableau before her.  "You sure you're not imagining it?  I'd hate to confront a kid.  Parents, you know, and libel suits.  The city sent a memo on just this thing a week ago.  He's not doing anything."

Bates sank so only the top of his head was visible, like a tiny hair island in a sun-beat ocean.  He turned slowly too, but when he faced the girls, he paused slightly.  He looked longer, and a waggle of his fingers moved him slightly closer.

"We just haven't caught him yet," said Müller.  "You've got to be patient."

Raquelle clicked her fingernails against the base of the guard stand.  "Tell you what.  You take a break before you turn into beef jerky, and I'll take the last fifteen minutes.  I'd like to watch him for a while."

Müller swung easily out of the seat and dropped to the deck five feet below it.  Raquelle mounted the ladder.  "How come you know so much about bugs?  Are you a student?"

Müller grimaced.  "Sort of.  For mimicry to work, there can't be too many mimics.  The base population has to outnumber the imposter by a huge percent or the adaptation breaks down."

"I don't get you.  What does that have to do with anything?"

Müller checked the pool one more time.  It was almost empty now: Bates, the Lindsey twins, a handful of older kids in the diving well . . . that was it.  "I was just wondering how one Viceroy butterfly would find another among all those Monarchs."

Raquelle shook her head.  "You're a strange bird, Müller.  Get out of the sun for a while."

In the guard room, Müller checked the job board.  This late in June, most positions were filled, even the inner-city rec programs in L.A. weren't advertising.  He only looked at jobs south of San Francisco.  Years ago he'd been in northern Europe, and the seasons didn't bother him much.  Now that he was older, though, he sought the southern sun.  Even here, in Sacramento, the rainy winter that never dipped below freezing bothered him.  It took a couple of weeks of 90 degree weather in May for him to shake off the winter chill.

He wrote down a few phone numbers, then slouched into a vinyl-webbed deck chair.  Summer was coming on, and the heat was beginning to fill him.  By late August, it would be all consuming, and the drive to find another like him would make him restless.  He brushed a finger against his lip and smiled, thinking about how soft it was.  Even now, after hundreds and hundreds of years of hiding in a human body, he marveled at how fragile they were.  That they ever threatened him and his kind on their mountain heights amazed him.  But they did, and after a century of warfare, humanity had won.  Saint George and all the rest like him won.

Only protective coloration and mimicry saved the remaining few.  A little magic, a lot of swallowing of pride, and a desire to survive.  They spread out.  They fit in.  They lost touch with each other.  How does a Viceroy tell another of his rare kind from the overwhelming population of Monarchs indeed?  And how long would it be before a wolf in sheep's clothing would forget what it was like to be a wolf, before he might fall in love with the flock?  He wanted to fly above them again, like a tremendous hawk on the hunt, waiting to drop into a long stoop, but he didn't want them anymore; he'd been among them too long, he'd been one too long.  Now, he only wanted to soak up sun and store it, he wanted to find one of his own, and he wanted to guard them, because they were weak, because they protected their young, and because he could.  The little boy yesterday with asthma, for a second, Müller had thought he might die, and the thought scared him deeply.  It scared him more than any horse-mounted knight ever had.

He folded a towel to put behind his head and rested.  Beyond the guard’s room, the sounds of the summer pool went on: the steady hum of the pump and filters, the occasional slurp of water through the skimmers, a vibrating thrum of the diving board, followed by the two-beat splash of someone entering the water.  He smelled water steaming on the sun-washed cement, the acrid bite of chlorine, and fresh-cut richness of grass in the park around the pool.

Being a lifeguard suited him.  For hours he did nothing except store sunshine.  He could sit without moving a finger; only his eyes shifted as he scanned his area of responsibility.  And beneath him, the human stories unfolded: there, a teen couple discovered each other while dangling their feet in the water; there, a mother struggled to watch her three boys, all under eight years old, at the same time; there an elderly woman jogged in the shallow end, practicing what she’d learned in the water-aerobics class.  People were magnificent at a pool.  They were physical and playful and emotional.  And some of the time, they too lay still and let the sun fill them.

Then, every once in a while, he stirred to action.  A child slipped on the deck and needed tending.  Someone in a swim lesson got over his head and needed saving.  Boys were too boisterous or young lovers were too amorous or someone lost a parent.  And today, of course, there was a Bates, a special problem.

He drifted into a light sleep, dreaming about the undersides of clouds and a forest beneath him like a green, swaying sea.

After a while, outside, he heard crying.  He sat up and pushed the door open with his foot.  On the verge of grass by the baby pool, one of the Lindsey twins was holding the other.  “I don’t know why he would do that,” said the one between sobs.

The other said, “I don’t know either.”

Beyond them, the guard chair sat empty; Raquelle stood on the edge of the diving well, chatting with a couple of the kids in the water.  Müller wondered how long she’d been standing there.

Without thinking, Müller found himself kneeling by the girls.  "What happened?" he rumbled.  The girls stared at him, eyes red rimmed and teary.

“Nothing happened,” said the crying one.

“It was nothing,” said her sister, sobbing a little herself.

“I’m just sad.”

“She’s sad.”

One turned her head toward Bates as he climbed out of the shallow end and headed for the locker room.  She shivered a little and held her sister closer.

Müller couldn’t move.  Inside, things roiled around, raging, raging, but he had to contain them or everything would be lost, so he couldn’t move.  He knelt by the girls, not speaking for several minutes until they quit crying.  Bates had vanished into the locker room but hadn’t come out.  Raquelle called the break to clear the pool while she tested the water’s chemistry, and the handful of kids that were left headed to the concession stand at the other end, away from the locker rooms.

Finally, Müller stood.  He was very close to the edge; in all his years, he’d never been this near to letting go of the mask.  In his hands he could feel the claws wanting to come out.  In his jaws, the long suppressed teeth ached beneath his gums.  The ancient way of rending swirled about him.  He could see it, could taste it, like a warm, thick soup squeezed from animals’ heads.

The locker room door closed behind him.  Listening quietly, he heard Bates around the corner toweling off, humming something discordant in a flat key, the notes bouncing off the slick tile and cinder block.  Müller closed his eyes and sniffed the air.  Chlorine.  Hand soap.  Mildew.  Bates, the odor of sweat and bubble gum, and beneath that, something nasty: the smell of rotted mushrooms under a bridge, what they used to call blood mushrooms, deep red and damp.  It was a troll’s smell.  But nothing else.  They were alone in the locker room.  The only light came through grimy skylights that dropped foggy shafts of white into the moist air.

Müller locked the door.  The click echoed.  Bates quit humming.

"Is anyone there?" said Bates, his voice a little quivery after several long moments of silence.  A leaky shower head plinked water onto the cement.

Müller couldn't help it; a low growl bubbled out of him.  It vibrated through the room.

Bates squeaked, then edged his way along the lockers until he stood directly in a shaft of light and could see Müller standing at the door.

"What do you want?" said Bates.  He held his towel to his chest, as if it were a shield, and his goggles dangled around his thick neck.

A part of Müller wanted to say something to him.  After all, they were both long lasting remnants of a time gone past, but the fury stilled the small part of him that contained his voice.  The larger part of him moved away from the door and toward the fat boy.  Bates stepped backwards, and suddenly his eyes narrowed.

"I know you," Bates said, and his voice dropped an octave.  He stepped away again, and out of the skylight illumination.  For a second, the illusion dropped, as it had when Müller saw him in the pool, and the creature underneath showed through.  Now that Müller knew what to look for, it was easier not to be fooled.  The clammy, sunburned skin covering the troll shifted, and Müller saw the heavy arms infested with ragged hair and rock-like warts.  And the face beneath the face was filled with teeth--two short, heavy tusks dropped out of the corners of his mouth, pulling the lips apart so the cracked, uneven teeth in the middle poked in every direction and were revealed.

"Your kind are dead," said the troll.  He dropped the towel and moved behind a bench, keeping it between him and Müller who continued to advance.  "You're extinct, and there aren't many of us left either.  It must be hard on you."

He didn't sound like a young boy now.  Pretense was gone.  The voice gurgled out of  Bates' ancient throat, and his stony fingers clenched and unclenched as he kept his distance, moving toward his gym bag on the floor.

"We could share them," said Bates.  "How long has it been since you've eaten well?  Let me take one, one of those little girls for example.  There are two of them--they're the same--one won't be missed.  I'll take her to the forest and play my game, then you could have her.  We'd both be served."

Müller pushed the bench aside.  He eyed the troll's arms; they were inhumanly long and heavily muscled.  The troll had changed himself less to fit in.  The protective coloration only affected his proportions and surface appearance; he was still mostly troll with all his subterranean powers: his stone backbone and cold earth strength.  He still could be incredibly powerful.  If they grappled, Müller knew the troll would win.  Müller's wings were buried too deep; his hands had been hands for too long while the talons had wasted away.  So little was left that wasn't memories, but still, he came forward, the heat from a thousand hours of summer sun coalescing inside him.

Bates stopped at his bag, straddling it, his hands nearly brushing its handles.  "The little girls are soooo tasty," he said, and in one motion, plunged his rock hand into the bag, coming out with an obsidian knife a foot long.

"But you'll never know, lizard!" and he jumped forward.

Müller stood still, something quivering inside him, building.  His skin could barely hold it, it felt so big, begging for release.

The troll kicked aside the last bench.

The sun stored within Müller focused, became hard, ascended.

Bates raised his knife.

Shaking with the joy of it, Müller opened his mouth as if it were the old days, and unleashed the flame.  It roared and roared and roared.  And for a minute, the locker room could have just as well been a meadow in front of a castle, and the troll a lance wielding knight charging toward him.  For a moment it was like it had always been. 

And then it was done.

*                    *                    *

The sun shone like a white pupil in a blue eye and beat down.  Müller stretched on the guard chair so all of his stomach caught the light.  He rested his head back so his neck was warmed while he watched the pool.  His hands lay palms up, gathering in heat, and within him an empty pocket began to fill again slowly, not like the old days where he'd find a warm boulder on the shoulder of the great mountain to spread his wings, to collect the sun in leathery gulps.  No, he was smaller now, and these things took longer, but it still felt good.  It felt very, very good to connect this way to earth and light, to the rhythms of the old sol's might.

"The boys' locker room smells bad," said Raquelle.  Müller didn't move to look down at her, but he knew her face would be hidden under her floppy brimmed hat.  "Can you check it out on your next break?" she said.

Müller breathed deeply, filling his lungs with hot summer air.  Beyond the pool, wavy lines rose off the streets.  He could see them swaying from black, shingled roofs.  "When I'm on my break.  Yes."

"Probably a kid lit some trash.  I don't know why anyone would play with fire on a day like today.  Wouldn't surprise me a bit if it were 115 degrees.  Not even 2:00 yet.  We ought to close, it's so hot.  I'm pumping in city water now to cool the pool."

"It's a beautiful day.  Perfect time to be on the tower," he said.  In the diving well, the two swimmers who remained were splashing water on the board before they got out to do their dives.  Even from here, Müller could see the dark splotches on the cement shrinking.  A butterfly fluttered past.  It looked like a Monarch, but he couldn't tell.  It might have been a Viceroy.  He smiled.

"Jeeze, you're a strange one, Müller."  Raquelle moved herself so she stood in his shadow, the smell of sunscreen strong on her skin.  "You remind me of a woman I guarded with in San Bernardino last year.  She's worked that pool forever, they told me, and the hotter it is, the longer she stays out.  Regular sun worshiper, she is.”

Müller straightened in his seat and looked down at Raquelle intently.

She continued, “There are whole weeks of weather in San Bernardino that make today seem cool.  I couldn't stand it."

The first diver went off the board.  The second scurried out of the pool, stepping quickly to keep his feet cool as he headed for his turn.

"You've got to like the sun if you're going to guard," said Müller.  "Maybe I should look that woman up.  She sounds like a kindred spirit."

The diver bounced the end of the board twice to get extra height.  At the top of his arc, he grabbed his knees and bent his head back in a tremendous cannonball.  Water flew everywhere, and the sun turned the spray into a flash of rainbow.  For an instant, sparkle, color and the reflected diamonds of a million suns hung in the air.

"Yes," said Müller, settling back in his chair.  "I might have to go to San Bernardino."

This story originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."