Three days remained until the end of summer, and Robbie wanted to devote no thought to the matter. To him, the responsibilities of the fourth grade were forever away.
“Easy, Buddy,” Robbie’s dad said, gripping his shoulders too tight. Robbie stifled the pain and grinned his heavy smile. “That fence doesn’t look like it’s doing much.”
“Are there really dinosaurs in there?” Robbie asked, examining the tar pit past the rusty guardrail. He had found himself ecstatic at the prospect of visiting the many black lakes nestled in Obsidian Valley, Utah. The panhandle of Utah, as Robbie liked to refer to the strip of land in the northwestern corner of the state, although his father had been quick to correct the odd assumption of his germinating mind.
“That’s what they say,” his father replied. “Plenty of dinosaurs lived here back in the day. If they sank into the tar pit, they’ve stayed there forever. One day, you’ll go digging down there.” Robbie dreamed of becoming a paleontologist, the literal manifestation of his childhood obsession with the ancient megafauna. “Probably dinos and wooly mammoths in there.”
“I don’t see why not.”
“Ooooh, what about—”
“Where’s your mother?” His father scanned the crowd behind them under the shimmering sunlight. “Robbie boy, this ain’t good. We must’ve lost sight of us when we were taking that photo near the car.” He lowered his sunglasses and came close to Robbie’s face, a habitual jest of his that always shoved Robbie into an instant grin. “Your mother’s lost. C’mon, let’s go find the little lady.”
Robbie looked back at the growing crowd. “We’ll lose our spot if we go. Won’t she just find us?”
His father hesitated. “Fine, I’ll be right back. Do not move a muscle, mister. Got it?”
Robbie nodded. He moved the moment his dad passed through the crowd. The small guide pamphlet in his hand referred to Obsidian Valley as “Home to dozens of black pools,” but Robbie expected more. Just black pools? His daily hours of television had convinced him otherwise. Where were the dinosaurs perfectly preserved deep in the sticky waters? The kids in Rugrats had found bones during their tar pit adventure in the episode Robbie had been watching when his mother dragged him into the car back home in Modesto. Even the game he had been playing this entire road trip featured a level during which the player character leaped over tar pits and fought velociraptors. It was the only cartridge he had remembered for his Game Boy Color, and, with Robbie’s developing skills in repetitive practices, he had crushed that same level four times already.
But this tar pit didn’t fit the mold that TV and video games had formed for him. Instead, it stood as a plain black pool, no different than any putrid pond neglected for years in the woods.
He needed to get a closer look.
Robbie passed by a teenager who reminded him of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Robbie had only seen the show that one time he flipped through channels when his dad had walked over to the fridge—Buffy was sword fighting and stabbed her boyfriend. Robbie couldn’t help but stare at the girl’s denim outfit and shimmering lipstick. It interested him, but a rising feeling of angst joined the excitement. In only a few years, Robbie would be able to start dating these girls, and that all began with asking them out. The thought horrified him, but it quickly settled. High school was forever away, after all.
Robbie reached the guardrail and looked back. The crowd was mobile, snapping pictures from disposable cameras from a distance. No one seemed to draw a twinge of concern at the young boy who rapidly approached the forbidden areas of the park. Adults liked to talk a big game about their capabilities in taking care of their kids, but, as Robbie stood in their line of sight, none paid the boy’s mischief any notice.
Robbie slipped under the guardrail and approached the tar pit.
He leaned over and sighted a shadow Robbie in his reflection.
He’d wanted to be a paleontologist for years now. His parents entertained the thought, but now, with only a few days away from the fourth grade, Robbie found himself poking holes in the idea. It had all begun to unravel that past Christmas, after his uncle, a few whiskeys in, replied to the young boy’s career aspirations with, “I bet that’ll work out,” followed by ferocious laughter. Doubt felt odd in the mind of a nine-year-old. It was as if a small iceberg attained buoyancy, and he could see the damage it might cause but kept the boat steering in the same direction. It didn’t matter, really, as the iceberg was forever away, and, if he needed to steer course, he would have no problem reaching safe harbor.
Something moved under the tar.
Robbie leaned in for a closer look, troubled by the lack of viscosity of the reverberating liquid. It was just wind, he knew. Maybe he was delusional. Nothing more than a black pool, the tar pit was just a simple feature for a simple world.
More movement. An object.
Robbie leaned in further, finding his nose only a few inches from the surface of the obsidian water. Two spikes darted from the tar, widening into a claw full of talons. Robbie discerned, under still-soppy feathers, a scaly arm.
Robbie, unable to react, braced for the attack, but it never came. The claw, instead of slashing, tilted outward like an open palm, and passed Robbie’s right ear. It tightened around the back of his head, and, with a light pull, Robbie fell into the tar pit.
His eyes opened. Figures moved in the darkness.
“I thought I drowned,” Robbie said.
“Nope, still drowning,” the figure in front of him said.
Robbie rubbed his eyes to lift himself from the somnolent haze, but his vision continued to pick up nothing but shadows. Birds with tails extending into feathery spears soared in the chiaroscuro sky. In the distance, behemoths lumbered along isolated yet determined paths. And, directly in front of him, stood a velociraptor. Well, not quite. According to that documentary he had burned through so many times that his VHS cassette hardly ran anymore, raptors were the size of turkeys. The thing in front of him looked much bigger than Thanksgiving dinner. Must have been the basis for raptors in movies.
“Are you a mouse?” the creature asked. Getting a closer look, even under the veil of perpetual darkness brought on by tar, Robbie could tell that this bird-lizard was young, probably around his age, at least in dino years.
Robbie scratched his head, finding nothing but tar coating his hair and skin. “No, I’m not a mouse,” he said. In the distance, his eyes now having adjusted to the tar pit, the image of the roaming megafauna clarified. “That’s a wooly mammoth.” He scanned further. “Do you . . . do you have a t-rex here?”
“There’s a couple of rexes,” the dinosaur kid said. “I usually steer clear of them. Nothing but trouble with those who claim to be king.”
“Are there stegosauruses here?”
“Up there in the sky—are they pterodactyls?”
“Are they what?”
“You know, pterodactyls? They’re like the main bird dinosaurs.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Robbie took a closer look. The flying creatures barely resembled the winged dinosaurs he had seen in his many books. Instead, they bore numerous similarities with modern birds, with some archaic appendages and adaptations that stood out. In awe, Robbie scanned the tar world some more, noticing that fish and other aquatic creatures freely swam beside them in the open space.
“I didn’t think you were a mouse,” the dinosaur kid continued. “We’ve gotten a few of them, but, other than the hair, they don’t look much like you. What are you, exactly?”
Robbie searched his mind for the clearest answer, but an image of his father emerged. In result, feeding off the aggressive masculinity of his elder, Robbie said the only thing that popped into his mind.
“I’m a man.”
“A man? Hmm, I don’t think we’ve had any before.” Robbie ignored the dinosaur kid’s empty gaze and struggled to conceal his joy. Someday, when he was an expert in the fossil sciences and knew everything about dinosaurs, Robbie would come back to this place and study these creatures. He wouldn’t just be making inferences through the fossil record; he, like Dr. Alan Grant, actually would have the opportunity to meet them firsthand.
But first, he had to let his parents know that he was okay. “How do I get out of here?” Robbie asked.
The dinosaur kid tilted his snout at that. “How could you get out? You’re dead.”
This left Robbie stunned. He said nothing.
“We’re all dead here, man. All sucked into that pool up there. Oh, don’t look so miserable. It’s not so bad here. My whole life, I always lagged in the hunt. Barely got anything to eat. And I worried. I worried that I’d never be good enough and starve. I worried that I’d have trouble finding mates and nobody in the pack would let me fertilize their eggs. Then, one day, out on a hunt, I fell into the black pool. Now, those worries are gone. The future is nothing to me. Don’t you think you’d be a lot happier if you got to stay down here?”
Robbie scratched his head again. “Well, no,” he said. “There’s a lot that I’m nervous about, but there’s plenty that I’m excited for, too. I like playing my Game Boy and watching TV. The millennium is coming up soon. My dad has a lot to say about that, and I’m excited to see it play out.”
“Little comforts bring little comfort,” the dinosaur kid said.
“I’m sad that the summer will be over soon, but there’s still the weekends.”
“It all ends, someday. Every night, I shivered at the thought of going on a hunt, but I was able to relax enough to sleep. The hunt still came.”
“The summer isn’t over yet. I still have the rest of our trip. School starts Tuesday, but that’s forever away.”
“There is no forever up there. Only down here. I have no idea how long I’ve been in this pit, but it doesn’t matter. I am forever, we all are. You’ll be too.”
“No,” Robbie said softly.
“You don’t have a choice. None of us did. But that’s the gift. A space separate from time is a peaceful one. Let me show you around.”
Robbie prepared to scream out into the ether, but the nightmare ended.
He awoke in his mother’s arms. Tourists gathered around him as black liquid ejected from his mouth.
“Oh my god, Robbie,” his mother said. “You’re okay. It’s okay.” She gave his father a serrated stare. “Is it so hard to just watch your son?” His dad said nothing, but his mother held him, not heeding any care or attention to the tar that had slathered on her clothes.
Robbie looked over to the tar pit. No dinosaur kid, no wonder of any kind. Just a black pool, after all.
Their road trip throughout the Southwest cut short, Robbie’s mother drives the family back to Modesto that night. They arrive late. For a moment, Robbie fears that he is back in the tar pit, and the dinosaur kid will ask him to go fishing for trilobites, but he sees that the creaking door of the minivan has awakened him.
His father hoists him up and leans him against his shoulders, much like he imagines he did back on New Year’s when Robbie tried to stay up for Dick Clark’s countdown. Around the time his dad makes his way up the stairs, Robbie slips back into peaceful oblivion, barely awake when his parents give him one final bath to wash the sticky tar off his skin.
He wakes late the next morning, and few words are spoken in their household for the rest of Labor Day weekend. Robbie even eavesdrops on his parents, but they discuss nothing in his absence.
Robbie tries to go to bed early Labor Day night. He fails. The thought of waking up early, having to worry about his appearance, making friends, and reconnecting with old social foes heats his brain and forces him into insomnia. He falls asleep late, with a troubled mind and a stomachache from all the hot dogs rumbling in his belly.
Fourth grade is fine. Robbie doesn’t talk much to the other kids in his class, but he enjoys his classes. In November, he finds a bit of tar behind his ears. He rinses it off in the sink.
Another two summers pass, and Robbie begins middle school. He talks to more kids now, and, even beyond his comprehension, girls. He’s especially starting to notice them lately, although he doubts that they notice him. It’s in the eyes. He gives them hungry eyes every time he talks to them, but they seem like they’re on a diet. He shrugs it off. At least he can talk to them without losing his breath. He doesn’t feel too bad about having a lack of romantic experience. If he were a grown-up, however, he knows it would sound pathetic. But he is still a kid, and the responsibilities and regret of adulthood are forever away.
High school begins. Robbie is satisfied with his height but not his looks. He spends time every night examining himself in the mirror to make sure there’s nothing wrong with his face. He comes to no conclusion on the matter.
Robbie hasn’t spoken much lately about his obsession with dinosaurs, not even his parents. To do so would be a challenge, now that he spends most of the time with his mother and only a few days a week at his dad’s apartment. His sophomore year, he registers for an elective, “Evolution and Genetics.” He struggles to comprehend the subject matter, ending with a C-. That same semester, he aces algebra 2 and decides to load the second half of the year with statistics and an early brush at calculus. Straight A’s come his way, and his GPA gets a welcome boost. He tells his mother that he wants to focus on mathematics when he goes to college. He sees a wave of relief in her reaction, but no mention of his decision preventing him from pursuing a dream in paleontology. She has forgotten, it seems. That was forever ago, after all. Robbie does not mention his new career aspirations to his dad.
His junior year of high school, Robbie starts hanging out with some new friends who introduce him to alcohol and marijuana. The booze they mess around with is no stranger to him, as he has shared an occasional beer with his dad—although drinking enough of it to blow chunks in an old plastic trick-or-treating pumpkin is a new experience. The pot, though, is entirely new, and, after a few puffs, Robbie feels like he is in space. He feels behind his ear and finds what he knows must be tar, but it is hard to tell under the minimal lighting of his friend’s basement. Down there, he thinks he’s back in the chiaroscuro world where the dinosaur kid spends eternity. He likes it down there, and feels that joy each time he gets high, even if its effect diminishes throughout the school year.
A few months before graduation, Robbie asks a girl in his C++ class to the prom. He has helped her with homework plenty of times and feels that they have developed something more. She says no, and he stays home that night watching Jurassic Park.
That summer, Robbie meets a girl. Once Thanksgiving break comes during his freshman year of college, he has forgotten all about her.
After being rejected from Columbia, Rob settles for one of his safety schools. It’s not the best one on his list, but he figures that upstate New York has a close enough vibe to Manhattan. It doesn’t.
Rob aces all his classes in mathematics, computer science, and physics. Doesn’t even have a sophomore slump. In that second year, he takes one class outside of those needed to fulfill his majors’ requirements. It’s called “The Natural History of Primates,” and he learns that early primate ancestors lived in North America millions of years before humans existed. He is familiar with their appearance even before he sees the artist’s depiction in his textbook, for he saw the same creatures at the bottom of the tar pit in Obsidian Falls back when he was nine years old.
Rob adores that class, finding himself babbling to others about its syllabus content at parties. He bumps into a senior in his class, and they have a long, intoxicated discussion. Rob, in his stoned and drunk mind, feels a mild tremor of fear at the thought of being a senior, of the learning to end and the summers to become nothing more than workdays with a sweaty undershirt. He shrugs off the feeling and enjoys himself. College is here, and college is fun and insightful. True adulthood is forever away.
Rob graduates cum laude and gets a job testing semiconductors.
Still younger than his peers, Robert gets promoted and begins working in quality assurance. It’s not the work that once would have interested him, but the career trajectory is golden, and the money is of an equal, exalted quality.
He meets someone. They enjoy their time together and get married. They travel the country and the world together. They drive to the Grand Canyon and Robert sees a sign for Obsidian Falls. Robert is worried that his wife will notice it and encourage a detour there. But she is silent, and he drives them home.
A child arrives. Robert loves his son, shocked that his admiration for his offspring can exceed the potent passion he has for his wife. Taking care of the baby becomes a full-time job after his full-time job, which has simplified over the years. Days of work breeze by, as do the nights with his family. Robert finds some time to devote to old dreams, as well as some new ones. He catches television shows he used to love, and Robert feels a bit of that raw warmth that Robbie used to feel when watching those shows.
Days become weeks, weeks become months and then years, and all is well. Great, really. Another child is on the way, and it arrives. The kids will grow up soon, and more challenges will arise, but that is forever away.
Robert pretended to sleep until his wife slipped into her light snoring. He hated lying to his wife, but it needed to be done. He left her without a word. It was better this way.
He walked into his son’s room and gave him a kiss on the forehead. His daughter slept in her crib in the next room. She won’t miss him. She didn’t have a chance to know him.
Robert drove off, and hours passed as he kept a consistent speed of 60 miles per hour, the highway illumination melding with the darkness as his eyes adapted to the passing lights. The result was a familiar chiaroscuro setting.
Obsidian Falls was empty. Temporary barricades blocked the entrance road. Robert drove through them, feeling his sedan lurch. He didn’t stop to check the damage. He was done inhibiting himself with concern. Robert worried a lot; he could barely remember what it felt like not to have a troubled mind.
The tar pits, once blocked by a simple wooden railing, were now obstructed by gridiron fences. Robert wondered if he had been responsible for the change in infrastructure. Partially, maybe. Places like this usually needed a few tragedies to encourage change.
Things certainly had changed since the 90s. It took some time, but Robert climbed over the fence and fell to the other side.
Robert leaned over the tar pit, struggling to find anything under the surface. He reached his hand into the tar and felt, but there was nothing.
He removed his hand and hesitated. The water was still moving. A two-taloned claw emerged, and the tar that slipped from it revealed scaly skin dusted with feathers.
Robbie gripped the claw and gave in, allowing himself to be pulled forever away.
Brad Kelechava grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and studied anthropology and environmental science at New York University. His short fiction appears in Utopia Science Fiction, Sunshine Superhighway, The Night's End, and Theme of Absence, among other publications. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their cat.
My name is Evan aka Elysium. I create surrealistic-digital pieces from my phone and I love every moment of it. In my spare time, you can catch me ranting about nonsense/history/cartoons. When I'm not ranting it's writing and spending time with my pet pig named "Bacon". Not the most impressive bio, but I just want my artwork to speak for itself and not have a lot of attention on me personally. I can be found on Instagram @satyrioven