On the Surface

Evan Baughfman

 The dreary weather was supposed to be behind them, back in Seattle. But it had stubbornly clung to them all the way across the globe, like a parasite feasting on their misery.

Clouds cried over Hanoi. Charlotte cried beneath Jeff’s umbrella. 
“This is awful,” she said. “Why won’t it just stop already?”
“Don’t know, Honey.” Jeff pulled his wife closer to him, attempting to shield her from roaring sleet.

The dreary weather was supposed to be behind them, back in Seattle. But it had stubbornly clung to them all the way across the globe, like a parasite feasting on their misery. Soaking them in further sorrow.

 “Maybe we should get going again,” Jeff offered. “Which way to the market?”

“I think it’s a long walk still.”

“I’ll get us a taxi.”

“Don’t you dare step into that street!”

In the intersection before them, cars and motorbikes blatantly ignored traffic laws. Vehicles weaved whichever way was necessary, narrowly missing one another in a never-ending stream of movement. Honking horns battled for sonic supremacy against rolling thunder. Seasoned pedestrians confidently maneuvered around dauntless drivers.

Charlotte shivered. “Forget the market. I don’t want to be outside anymore. I want to be dry!”

“Another phở spot, then?”

“Hilarious.”

They had just eaten their latest meal of noodle soup, bringing their total to four bowls each over the last two days. With every slurp, the warm broth brought brief respite from the rain.

“Okay,” said Jeff. “So, back to the hotel?”

Charlotte shook her head and pointed. “Maybe we’ll find something interesting down that way.”

“I like the optimism! Let’s go.”

They walked along an uneven footpath. More than once, a car swerved toward them to avoid a collision with a cyclo. Charlotte yelped each time it happened.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I pictured sunshine and palm trees and adventure. Not this.”

She had been the one insistent on visiting Southeast Asia and “experiencing beauty in the world again”. Australian beaches had been at the top of Jeff’s list, but he easily gave in to Charlotte’s wishes. He’d do almost anything to get smiles to return to her face.

After a hard-fought clash with cancer, their five-year-old son, Spencer, had passed a few months prior. The parents had been desperate to escape Washington State’s stormy skies, as well as the silence emanating from their boy’s bedroom. They sought newer, happier memories and needed to know that the universe could offer them something more than pain and misfortune.

Jeff hugged his wife tight. “We’ve got a long trip ahead of us. No way the weather’s this shitty everywhere we go.”

On cue, the shitty weather tore the umbrella from Jeff’s hand, lifting it into the sky before discarding it in the middle of the road.

Charlotte clutched her husband’s wrist. “Leave it,” she said.

“I wasn’t going to—”

A bus crushed the umbrella underneath its tires.

“Well, at least we have a mission now,” said Jeff. “Initiating Operation Bumbershoot in 3…2…1…”

Charlotte chuckled. “Exactly the kind of excitement I was hoping for.”

Their journey continued. They struggled to secure windbreaker hoods to their skulls, and they struggled to communicate what they were looking for to various locals.

Six minutes into their objective, a man stepped from a doorway, putting out his palms to stop them. He had a long, dark beard and mustache.

“A show,” the man said. “This way, yes?”  

He gestured to the building he had just exited from, an unremarkable black box. Vietnamese words were spelled out in metallic block lettering on its face. Also featured below them was an English translation.

“‘The Little Water Puppet Theatre’?”

“Oh, they do water puppetry here!” Charlotte exclaimed. “I’ve read all about these places!”

“Yeah, I remember you mentioning something about puppets before…”

“You didn’t seem very interested, so I didn’t—”

“We’re doing it.” Jeff nodded to the man. “How much?”

“Today, free.” The man grinned. “Please, come. Please.”

“Wow.” Charlotte beamed. “Lucky us.”

“And we can ask about umbrellas after.” Jeff shook the man’s hand, noticing his long, sharp nails. “Uh…Thank you, sir. Thank you. Much appreciated.”

Jeff and Charlotte entered the theatre’s lobby, a small room with a concrete floor. Raindrops fell from the couple’s clothes, generating small puddles at their feet.

Charlotte sighed. “God, I feel better already.”

A woman in a fiery orange dress stood at another open door. “Hello,” she said with a smile. “Good afternoon.”

Charlotte smiled back. “Hi, sorry we’re all wet.”

“No problem,” said the woman. “Come, come.”

Jeff and Charlotte stepped past display cases. Behind glass, wooden fish and fox puppets stared at the tourists with painted eyes.

“Showtime soon,” said the woman in orange.

She ushered Jeff and Charlotte into the fifty-seat auditorium. A staircase descended toward an illuminated pool of water.

“Whoa,” said Jeff as they traversed the steps. “That’s the stage?”

Charlotte nodded. “The puppeteers stand in there, waist-deep, and perform.”

There were no other audience members. A third employee, a woman in a purple cloak, signaled for them to relax in the front row. Jeff and Charlotte positioned themselves in plush seats three metres from the pool’s edge.

“The splash zone,” Jeff joked.

“This is so cool.”

“It definitely has the potential to be better than a typhoon.”

On the far side of the pool was a façade designed to resemble a temple. It had red walls and a golden, sloping roof. Colourful, tasseled tapestries hung from its front.

Charlotte said, “That screen there at the bottom? Performers stand behind it so we can’t see them. They hold their puppets at the ends of these long poles, which are hidden underwater. It’ll look like the puppets are actually moving above the little waves all by themselves.”

“Nice.”

“They used to do this in rice paddies. To charm the gods. Make them happy. To ensure a healthy harvest and no overflooding.”

“Well, if it’s good enough for the gods…”

“There’s going to be live music, too. A tiny opera, basically.”

Flanking the left and right-hand sides of the pool were instruments and microphones. However, no musicians or singers stood at the ready.

Jeff said, “If you’d told me ‘opera’ from the start, I’m not sure we’d be sitting here right now.”

“Stop it. It’ll be fun. A bunch of little vignettes about local life, and some folklore. Like a magical turtle with a sword, if I remember correctly.”

“A ninja turtle?”

“Don’t be dumb.”

“That’s right. Ninjas are Japanese.”

“Spencer loved puppets,” Charlotte said. “And swimming. He would’ve thought this was awesome.”

Jeff squeezed her hand. “Yeah, and he also would’ve complained that there wasn’t any popcorn.”

Charlotte laughed. “Or M&M’s.”

The door to the lobby creaked shut.

Jeff looked around. “We’re still the only ones here.”

The auditorium dimmed while the lights above the liquid stage grew brighter. On either side of the temple, machines puffed a thick layer of mist over the water. The fog billowed, obscuring everything but the pool itself.

Drums suddenly boomed. Flutes chirped. Female voices sang.

Charlotte said, “Guess we aren’t alone, after all.”

A serpentine dragon puppet slithered out from behind the screen at the bottom of the temple. It danced on the water, gliding to and fro, turning every so often with changes in the music’s tempo.

Someone clapped from the dark staircase. It was the bearded man with the long fingernails. Beside him stood his compatriots, the women in orange and purple.

Jeff and Charlotte applauded. The dragon returned to the temple, and the melody morphed into a more playful tune.

A couple of frogs hopped into view. They appeared to skip along the surface of the pool. A pair of clumsy children chased after them, slipping and falling numerous times as the amphibians leapt just out of their reach.

Though she was teary-eyed, Charlotte giggled. “Couldn’t you just imagine Spencer tripping all over himself like that?”

Jeff choked out a simple, “Yeah.” Anything more would’ve resulted in his own tears.

Finally, the kids caught the frogs, hugging their new pets close to their chests. Charlotte cheered as the puppets re-entered the temple.

The lighting shifted into a bluish hue. The music became far more melancholy. Plucked strings began to cry.

A life-sized dinghy gently drifted toward the center of the pool. A young boy sat inside.

The previous characters had been cartoonish and obviously carved from wood. The puppet in the boat appeared to be breathing.

His face was cast in shadow. He spoke.

“Mommy?” he said in English. “Daddy, are you there?”

It definitely sounded like the voice came from the puppet and not from a singer off to the side. Jeff craned his neck, hoping to get a better look at the artistry on display. Perhaps a tiny speaker was attached to the boy or rested by his feet.

The spine of some large creature then crested above the water. Charlotte gasped as the thing submerged below the boat, bumping against it, spinning the boy in circles.

“What was that?” the boy shrieked. “Mommy! Daddy! I’m scared!”

As the dinghy spun, the puppet’s face became visible.

“Oh, my God!” shouted Charlotte.

The boy in the boat looked just like Spencer.

Bewildered, Jeff stared at the puppet, mouth agape. Charlotte stood from her seat.

The monster in the water struck the boat again, more forcefully this time. Spencer-puppet screamed for his parents as the dinghy began to rise and fall over swelling waves.

 “How?” Charlotte wondered. “How are they doing this? How’d they know what he…? How’d they get him so perfect?”

Jeff’s heart raced. The puppet was their son before disease took ahold of him, strangling the strength and vitality from his body.

Jeff got to his feet. “What is this?” he demanded. He made sure to project loud enough for every performer in the auditorium to hear. “What the hell is going on?”

No one said a word other than the boy crying out for Mommy, for Daddy. The stairs were empty. The bearded man and the women were nowhere in sight.

The lights went red. The boat looked as if it bobbed in blood.

The unseen creature attacked the boat once more, nearly toppling the puppet overboard. Water sloshed over the front of the pool, further drenching Jeff and Charlotte’s soggy shoes.

“Mommy! Daddy! Help me!”

“Stop it!” Charlotte screamed. “Please! Enough already!”

The entire room shook as the aquatic monster bellowed beneath their boy.

Charlotte stepped toward the stage. “Leave him alone! He’s just a child!”

“Stop this!” Jeff yelled at puppeteers. “Stop it right now!”

“It’s going to eat me, Mommy! Help!”

Sobbing, Charlotte declared, “I’m coming, baby! Mommy’s coming!”

Jeff grabbed onto Charlotte before she could dive into the water. “What’re you doing? Let’s get out of here!”

“He needs us! He doesn’t have a lifejacket—”

“He’s not real, honey!”

“Yes! He! Is!” Charlotte broke away from Jeff and jumped into the pool.

“Christ! Charlotte, get out—”

The monster then lifted its malformed head out of the water. Every inch of the creature’s flesh was covered in bulbous, throbbing tumors. The hairless beast resembled a massive mutant water buffalo.

Jeff was dumbfounded. Just how deep was that pool? How could a puppet possibly be so big and look so real?

Spencer-puppet looked at the creature and begged for it to go away. The thing grumbled as it studied the boy with dark eyes.

Charlotte reached the side of the boat and hoisted herself in. “Don’t worry. Mommy’s here, baby. Mommy’s here.”

The monster roared, opening its mouth to reveal fangs and a tongue that split into a trio of writhing tentacles.

Charlotte shielded her son and roared back. “Get away from him! Go!”

Jeff said, “Out of the water, Charlotte!”

But it was like she couldn’t hear him anymore. The Pinocchio impostor had her attention, as did the creature with the bulging cysts.

Jeff plunged into the pool, too…and immediately found himself transported to a vast and impossible lake. The theatre was gone. He now stood under a cloudless, crimson sky in water that came up to his thighs.

To his left, auditorium seats rested on a rocky shore. A scaly dragon lounged across the front-most row, stroking its beard with pointy claws. Behind the dragon, a flaming phoenix perched atop seats with powerful talons. A giant deer with a violet pelt watched from the back.

“What…?”

Jeff had to be hallucinating. Somebody had laced his phở with—

Screams grew from the center of the lake, where Charlotte swung an oar at the encroaching monster. Spencer cowered in fear.

Beside Jeff, a huge turtle emerged. In its beak, the animal clutched the hilt of a gleaming sword.

“Use weapon,” something suggested from the shore. “For enemy.”

Jeff took the sword from the turtle and climbed aboard the reptile’s shell. The animal carried him toward Charlotte’s battle with the enraged beast.

The monster wrapped a tonguetacle around Charlotte’s oar, ripping the object from her grasp and flinging it elsewhere with a splash. The creature’s dripping tendrils reached for Spencer.

 “No!” Charlotte cried. “Take me, instead! Not him! Take me! Please!”

“Nobody’s going anywhere!” said Jeff.

 He sprang from the turtle’s back and landed beside his wife in the boat. He stood, unsteady, between her and the monster. The thing recoiled its tongue for a moment.

The dragon clapped in the distance.

 “You’re here,” Charlotte said to Jeff, like she couldn’t believe it.

  Jeff nodded. “The magic turtle, too.”

 “Daddy,” said Spencer. “Don’t let it hurt me.”

Jeff saw no strings on his boy. Somehow, their son was there, breathing. He was alive again.

And in danger. They all were.

“Back up,” Jeff told Charlotte. The sword suddenly felt heavier in his hands. “I don’t really know what I’m doing with this thing.”

Charlotte cradled Spencer in her arms and said, “Just kill that bastard!”

The monster roared. Jeff swung his weapon downward, severing a snaking tongue segment.

The beast screeched, but its remaining tonguetacles grabbed Jeff by the waist, lifting him from the rocking dinghy, bringing him to its open jaws.

“Don’t touch us!” Jeff yelled. “Any of us!”

He stabbed at the creature’s snout, at the spherical masses under its skin. The abomination wailed, dropping Jeff back into the boat.

“I’m not letting you hurt my family! You hear me?” Jeff jabbed at the monster, but it slunk away, in pain. “If you want more, you can come and get it, you ugly piece of shit!”

The beast hesitated, contemplating its next move. Ultimately, it decided to return to the depths of the lake, leaving the inhabitants of the boat unharmed.

Spencer cheered, as did the audience watching onshore.

The giant turtle poked its head out above the water. Jeff placed the sword back into its beak.

“Thank you,” Jeff said as the animal disappeared into the lake also.

“Daddy, you’re strong!”

“Yeah? You think so, bud?” Tears traveled down Jeff’s cheeks. “Mommy’s pretty strong, too.”

Jeff knelt beside his family. Together, the parents embraced the child they never thought they’d see again.

“Hello? Excuse me? Hello!”

Jeff and Charlotte turned. They were back in the auditorium, standing in a calm pool, no longer sitting inside a tiny boat.

A young man wearing a backpack stood at the stairs. With accented English, he asked them, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” said Charlotte. “We’re fi—Oh, Jeff. Jeff, no!”

Between mother and father was their son. However, Spencer was no longer flesh and blood. Instead, the boy was a grinning puppet, carved from wood.

 Jeff stammered, “I…I…don’t…” He stumbled away, leaving the thing in Charlotte’s care. “What…What’s…?”

“This is my family’s theatre,” said the young man. “Our first show starts in two hours.”

“But we just saw a show!” said Charlotte. “Saw our…our son…” She hugged the puppet and began to cry again.

The young man nodded, solemnly. “I understand. This happens sometimes.”

“What?” Jeff demanded. “What happens sometimes?”

“Spirits…gods…They get tired of watching the same old story. So they bring in new performers like you to show them something different. Something exciting.”

“The hell?” Jeff shook his head. “It wasn’t real…A trick…” He looked to the puppet. “He was never real! Why would they do that to us? Why would they put us through that? For their own entertainment? Seriously?”

“I know it seems cruel,” said the young man.

Jeff huffed. “It is cruel, goddamn it! It is!”

“Did you see a monster of some kind?”

“Yes,” said Charlotte.

“And you overcame it? With the help of a great, big turtle?”

Both Jeff and Charlotte nodded.

“The gods wanted to see you happy. They wanted you to feel victory. To win back something you’ve lost. Did you?”

Charlotte squeezed the puppet. “Yes, we won.” She looked to Jeff. “Finally.”

Her husband said, “I guess we did.”

“I’m glad,” said the young man.

Jeff climbed out of the pool. He helped Charlotte to solid ground.

The young man asked, “Would you like tickets to our next performance?”

“No,” said Jeff. “I don’t think we do.”

Charlotte gestured to the puppet. “What do we do with…?”

“It stays here,” Jeff suggested. “Can’t be carrying that everywhere we go. A constant reminder of…of…”

The young man nodded. “My family would be happy to have him.”

Charlotte asked, “Will he become part of the show?”

“Yes,” said the young man. “We could do that, if you’d like.”

“Please.” Charlotte handed Spencer over. “Let him have fun and make some new friends?”

“No problem. He’ll enjoy himself here.”

“Thanks,” Jeff said to the young man.

Charlotte did the same. Jeff grabbed his wife’s hand, and they left the auditorium, walking through the lobby.

“Shit,” said Jeff. “I forgot to ask about an umbrella.”

“Don’t worry.” Charlotte had already pushed open the front door. “Look.”

Outside, the sun shined. A rainbow arced over the theatre.

The parents, with smiles bright, stepped into an uncertain future.

Evan Baughfman is a middle school teacher and author. Much of his writing success has been as a playwright. A number of his scripts can be found at online resources, Drama Notebook, and New Play Exchange. Evan also writes horror fiction and screenplays. More information is available at amazon.com/author/evanbaughfman