Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Jacob Austin

Danny hadn’t visited his father in almost two years, but not by choice. He had moved several states over to take a job with a residential development company, and his busy work schedule made travel next to impossible. But at the urging of a new manager, Danny finally took a long weekend to visit the isolated, rural town where his father lived. The same town where Danny grew up, learned how to drive, had his first kiss, and forged a desire to see more of the world. To eventually live in civilization, where brand-name stores and movie theaters were closer than a 45-minute drive through woodsy, mountainous terrain to a neighboring county.

His father picked him up at the airport despite his discomfort with the place. A lifelong farmer and outdoorsman, the old man was hardly interested in such high-speed, metallic environments, and he wasted no time rushing Danny into his truck so they could leave.

“Sorry, son. Should have asked if you wanted a coffee or something first. Just, you know me. I’m no big city airport type.”

“No one truly likes being at an airport,” Danny said, careful to not sound condescending; he himself had only just flown for the first time a few years prior. “I appreciate you doing it.”

His father patted him on the shoulder. “It’s really good to see you, bud. I’m glad you’re here.” It sounded like he might say more – maybe something referencing Danny’s late mother – but he dropped it there.

He started the truck and thought out loud as he navigated the airport parking lot and relocated the highway. Once they found a long stretch of interstate, Danny’s father relaxed a bit. “So, I’ve got things set up for us to do some fishing tomorrow morning. Figured we could just hang out and catch up tonight. I was gonna cook on the grill. That sound good?”

“That sounds great,” Danny said with a smile, and he felt an old, warm excitement in his belly. He had grown to appreciate civilization, but there was a nostalgic comfort in visiting his little hometown, in partaking in its muddy, leafy, fish oily traditions.

And yet, despite those fundamental emotions, a part of him would never fully embrace backwoods living again. His brain was now conditioned to focus on the raw land, the opportunity. Deep down, he inevitably envisioned the ways he might build out the area, fill some of that space where the fields stretched for miles and the forests encircled patches of open land like miniature green oceans. Those matters were sensitive in his hometown; the locals once resisted the installation of a single traffic light, and they later fought like hell to overturn plans for a mainstream department store near the county seat. For them, it was a deep sense of violation. Something intimate being taken by force, altered and sophisticated against their will.

There was a time where he too subscribed to such passionate hostility, but now he saw it for what it was: a fear of necessary change. A failure to see nuance, to understand that it was okay to welcome in a little civilization, a little chrome and white noise. Those fields and forests were the sprawling formations of a primordial world – once appropriate for then-dominant life, but now left behind, obtrusive. Ripe for an update.

Maybe someday. For now, the stagnation was at least endearing.

Danny and his father talked for a while about work and general life, and soon the interstate gave way to dense foliage. Asphalt succumbed to fields, guardrails to hedgerows. Home was close. And Danny would have expected his father to be talking about recent happenings and all the pitiful gossip that blossomed from everyone knowing everyone. But the old man’s anxiety seemed to be returning. Danny could see it in his stern expression, in the way his eyes kept shifting back and forth. Back and forth. The way a nervous dog’s might. He had done this back at the airport, flinching at the rumble of each departing plane.

“You okay, Dad?”

No response. His father was staring at something in the middle of a field now, a spot where the ground was caved in around the jagged foundation of a demolished building. A deep trench ran from the mess and disappeared over the hill. A plumbing line or something, Danny thought. It must have been a large-scale project, a full uprooting.

Danny frowned. “Hey Dad, what is that?”

“That’s Bonnie Nick’s old shop. Nick’s-And-Nack’s. Gone now. She used to live up top.”

“Oh, that sucks. I’m not sure if I remember it.”

His father just nodded and focused back on the road. They drove a few more miles in silence before Danny said, “So, where are we fishing tomorrow? The lake? Man, I haven’t been over there in–”

“We can’t fish there anymore. The lake, it isn’t …”

Danny’s father shifted a little in his seat and cleared his throat. “Listen, things have changed a lot around here since the last time you visited. With property, I mean. With rules.”

“Rules? What do you mean?”

“It’s just a lot of stuff. Just have to be a little more … a little more careful with how we do things. But don’t worry, I’ve got a plan. We’ll be fine.”

Danny didn’t push the issue further, but he hoped that they could talk more candidly later. Something was wrong with his father today; even after Danny’s mother died, he had remained adept at being positive, affable, a dependable source of energy. Awkward silences and nervous jitters were very out of character.

He forced a new conversation about which fish were in season and what bait reigned supreme right now. This got his father to perk up for a few miles, but soon the tension was back. They sat quietly until they reached a four-way intersection, and Danny’s father gestured to a store by the road. “See that over there? That’s … what I’m talking about. That’s the new big thing around these parts. The Dollar Dinosaur.”

“The what?” Danny leaned out the window and squinted at the small orange store. There was a large sign out front that read, “Dollar Dinosaur: The Only Store Yer Gonna Need!” It featured an animated pipe-smoking triceratops mascot with a shirt that said, “Tarnation the Triceratops.”

Danny scoffed. “That’s weird.”

“Those things are everywhere now,” his father said. “We keep driving and you’ll see it. A lot of the stores from the old days, the ones you’d remember from when you were a kid, they’re Dinosaurs now. Sometimes you’ll swear you saw three in five miles. And here’s the kicker: no one even works in them. It’s a bunch of screens; that’s it.”

They drove through the intersection, and sure enough, they soon passed two more Dollar Dinosaurs. One of them had replaced an ice cream shop Danny used to frequent in high school.

After a few more miles, his father said, “The couple that owns them lives up there. Moved in a few months after you left last time. Got a lot of money … a lot of connections in the state. I guess the wife made her fortune with some big-tech-robot company. Now she does this. The husband’s just along for the ride.”

He was pointing to a three-story house on a hill, which was flanked by an office building and what appeared to be a massive barn resembling an airplane hangar. The latter looked new, the surrounding ground still marked by grassless patches. There were several trenches running from the barn’s entrance and out of sight, many of them partially re-filled.  

“Digging quite a series of pipelines up there,” Danny said. “Do they farm their own stuff? That’s a huge barn; there’s gotta be 200 cows in there.”

“They’re no farmers,” his father said. “They’re just awful.”

Danny hesitated before saying, “Well, has anyone tried, I don’t know, pushing back if they’re so–”

“No, son. No. That’s not …”

He never finished.

When they got to town, his father finally said, “Listen, I gotta make a quick stop for some groceries and fishing bait, but if you can’t tell by now, I’m not indulging the damn Dinosaur. Those places smell like hospitals inside anyway. Tine’s is coming up soon; they’re still kicking. Remember the Tines? They ask about you now and then.”

“Oh yeah,” Danny said. “They must be getting pretty old. Has their son taken over yet?”

“Nah, he just helps out on weekends – still in college. The old man and lady are still at it. You’d be hard-pressed to make those two quit.”

Five minutes later, they arrived at Tine Family Market, the 25-year-old pride and joy of mom-and-pop duo Wendy and Larry Tine. The market sold everything from hardware supplies and farm-fresh produce to various secondhand items, and it was the last shop Danny knew to still carry penny candy.

“You can come in if you want,” his father said. “Old Wendy and Larry would probably love to see you.”

“That’s okay,” Danny said. “I’ll stop in at some point before I head back. Tell them I said hi, though.”

His father disappeared inside the shop and eventually returned with several bags. He got back into the driver’s seat, then cursed and said, “Sorry – gotta go back in. Forgot to get meat for the grill.”

He ran back into the store, and Danny examined what he had purchased so far. The items included a 12-pack of some cheap pilsner, a foam container of nightcrawlers, and a small bottle of shampoo – some brand promising “extra strength dandruff control.”

Something else on the bottle caught his attention. He picked it up, brought it closer. It was a sticker, one featuring a familiar face: Tarnation the Triceratops. The character was encircled in small text that read, “This product is intended for sale only at Dollar Dinosaur. If found at other outlets, please call 888-555-0104 immediately.”

“You’re kidding me,” Danny whispered, and without thinking, he picked up his phone and dialed the number. “This has to be a joke, right?”

The line rang just once before someone picked up. “Dollar Dinosaur HQ tip line. How may I be of service?”

Danny almost laughed. It wasn’t a joke. “Hi, I … uh …”

He took a deep breath and adopted a serious tone. “I … I’m calling because I found a shampoo bottle at a store that wasn’t the, uh, Dollar Dinosaur. But it had a sticker saying it could only be sold at Dollar Dinosaur. So …”

The line was quiet for a moment. “What did you say?”

“It–it said to call the number if I found it at a store other than Dollar Dinosaur. And I–”

“What store did you find it at, sir?”

Danny didn’t respond at first. He thought about the Tines, about how their inventory wasn’t always perfect. An expired can of beans here, a defective flashlight there. They did their very best, though, and now he felt guilty for calling.

“Nevermind,” he said. “I … I got it wrong. Sorry.”

He was about to hang up when the operator said, “Sir, you should know that there are penalties for submitting false reports to this number. Are you absolutely sure?”

“Penalties?” He brought the phone back to his ear. “What are you talking about?”

“Well, it starts with fines and goes up from there, depending on the details. We work very closely with local law enforcement, and I’d hate for it to come to that, so I’ll ask one more time: are you sure?”

“But I just said I was wrong. Doesn’t that change how–”

“Sir, we aren’t in a position to rest on our laurels; we begin protocol the second one of these reports comes in, and that takes time and resources to undo. Do you understand?”

After a brief period of what sounded like typing, the operator said, “Okay, sir, I can see now that you’re located … outside Tine Family Market. Can you confirm that that’s where you found the unauthorized product?”

Danny’s heart jumped. “H-how do you know that I’m–”

“Sir, was it Tine’s – yes or no?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Sir, you are now legally obligated to confirm if you–”

“Yes, okay? Jesus. Yes.”

The guilt swelled in his stomach. “But wait, wait, what does that–”

“Damn it.” The operator let out a long sigh. “Man, that’s such a shame. I thought the Tines were smarter than that. They’ve been obeying every other part of the agreement perfectly. Damn near to a T.”

Danny frowned. “What?”

“Just a damn shame. Thank you for calling and telling the truth, sir. We’ll take care of it shortly. Have a blessed day.”

The line clicked and he was gone.

Danny pulled the phone from his ear and scowled at it. He looked over both shoulders, but what was he looking for? The cops? A process server? Representatives of some shampoo union?

His father reappeared a few minutes later. “Sorry about that. Good to go now.”

He gestured to the shop. “The Tines have always been good people. Selfless. You know they donate every month to civil rights groups? And they sponsor a family every year on Thanksgiving so they can have a meal.”

Danny kept his eyes on the shampoo bottle. “I … no. I didn’t know that.”

He looked over his shoulder again. “Dad, uh, what’s the deal with this sticker? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He handed the bottle to his father, and that was when the ground started shaking. First a light vibration, then a violent rumble.

“Dad … Dad, what’s … holy shit!”

Danny craned his neck to look at the sky, to spot the tornado or jumbo jet that was surely about to hit the ground in front of them. To give them any chance of escape.

Then he saw something on a distant hillside. Something tunneling through the earth, kicking it to the sides like a boat throwing water, leaving a wide trench in its wake. It was closing in fast, and soon Danny could see that it was led by a mass of metallic scales and points sticking out of the ground.

“Dad. Wh–what the fuck is that?”

His father squeezed his hand. “Son,” he said. “Listen, don’t move. Okay? Don’t move. I’m here, son. It’s gonna be okay.”

“What? What are you … what do you mean?”

“Son, I need you to listen to me, got it? Not a muscle, no matter what happens.”

Danny opened his mouth to say more, but stopped when his father squeezed harder. “Just do as I say, son. Please.”

The shape grew closer, closer. Then it curved and dove deeper into the earth, a colossal silver tail slithering down after it. The rumbling began to fade.

And then, like a heavy metal fake-out ending, it surged back louder than ever. Chugging and grinding now like a wayward locomotive. Pieces of the ground kicked against the truck. The trees shook as if blown by storm winds.

Danny’s father sucked in a long breath. “I’m … I’m right here, son. I’m–”

Tine Family Market suddenly shifted at its foundation, and it began to sink. The front windows shattered, the roof caved in, the signage cracked in half. Pieces of cement and drywall launched through the air like tailed fragments of a firework. The screaming was only audible for a moment before the rest of the structure collapsed.

The shape emerged from the center of the debris, revealing itself as some ceratopsian machine. A massive plated head spewing emissions. A jagged chrome frill. A trident of kayak-sized horns. Two glassy orange eyes shimmering with some mad electricity. There were letters branded into its torso: “TARNATION.” Wendy and Larry Tine were impaled on its topmost horns, and their son lay mangled in its beaked jaws.

Danny opened his mouth to scream, but he somehow caught the urge in his throat, channeled it into his rapid breath, which he was trying so hard to suppress. A black aura clutched his vision. The muscles around his heart screamed, spasmed.

The machine looked around, scrutinized the still shaking trees, briefly locked on Danny and his father frozen in the truck. It shuddered, vomited a blast of smoke, and with a roar like 10 synthetic elephants, it swung its head and launched Wendy and Larry into a nearby field. Then it spit the youngest Tine back into the debris, angled its bulldozer face downward, and tunneled back into the ground and out of earshot.

The dust settled. The tremors stopped. The blood on the pavement became visible.

Danny just stared at the wreckage, paralyzed except for his twitching arms, his erratic eyes. All he could hear now was a shrill, white ringing in his ears. Shrieking on and on and on.

His father gave his hand one more weak squeeze. Then he looked around, fought for a moment with his breath, and put the truck into drive. “Jesus Christ in heaven,” he whispered. “There goes another one.”


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