Reynaldo exited the murky water with a few pieces of sea grass stuck to his shoulders, neck, torso, and tail as he did every morning—he didn’t like this look and never did, it didn’t suit him well and, in fact, nothing quite did. He lived here in the swamp his whole life. The stench of methane and stagnant water greeted him with every sunrise, stuck to him like a wet rag, and nothing he could do would ever erase the . . . smell. Not that it mattered much, Reynaldo wasn’t the type of creature for social interaction. To begin, he is a swamp thing. That is to say, an unidentified thing that lived within the misty depths of the most remote swamplands, not man per se, but rather an amalgamation of creatures to make what we see standing before us. He had the head of an alligator, the body of a well-developed man, the skin of an anole, the tail of a monitor lizard, eyes like fire, the breath of a rotting animal, large hands and feet with webbing in between each finger and toe, large arms bursting with muscle, and the personality of a dazed circus performer. Outwardly, he appeared timid and distant, but on the inside, he was watchful, alive, and awake, bursting with emotion, longing for someone to . . . never mind.
He had other issues with socialization besides his physical traits, however. He was the last of his kind, or at least the only one of himself that he knew of. All that he remembers of his childhood was the breaking of an egg and a small, whimpering cry for his mother. Or father. Anyone, really. It’s been a tough existence to be sure, but it hardened him into the effective killer he had to be to survive out here in the swampy wastes—for all it’s worth, it was necessary. Ah, but it’s the necessary things that cut the deepest, isn’t it? Oh, Reynaldo knew this well. So many long, aching nights, drifting in and out of sleep, floating gently in the dirty, brown water. Which, of course, is when those miserable thoughts of loneliness crept in. He fought against them for years now, even going so far as to make friends and give names to all the creatures that roamed these wetlands with him. Marcus the Unfriendly Heron would stop by to visit every once in a while, and so too would Gabby the Resilient Yellow-Belly Slider Turtle. Both creatures he would count to this day as being true friends, but deep within him he knew that it was artificial and one-sided. What he needed was a real, legitimate friend. Someone who could relate to those issues that plagued the last swamp thing.
Ha! What a notion, he thought. There’s no one out there who could ever know me, the true me. I’m a freak, a real monster. I have scales and teeth and claws and a tail, for Christ’s sake. I’ve been doomed to rot here in this swamp—this hellhole on earth. He looked over at a new creature, a large speckled trout staring blankly at him. Here I am among animals, all alone. Marcus isn’t coming back and neither is Gabby. False hopes, the lot of them.
He placed himself under an old mangrove and sulked. Night came and went, the sunrise and the dank smell of the swamp greeted him as he woke up. It lay in front of him, serene to a fault, just as it was every morning, afternoon, and evening. It was routine, tired, tried out. Everything Reynaldo had grown to hate. The afternoon arrived and brought with it nothing. Suddenly, a loud and rambunctious cheer immediately caught his attention—even the marsh made a small ripple in response to the unexpected noise. Reynaldo, intrigued for the first time, pushed himself off the ground and scanned the scenery for any signs of what happened. Once more, without warning, bizarre sounds came from the same direction . . . music. Reynaldo, possessed by curiosity, made his way through the swamp to the source of the commotion. He was never used to this sort of thing and didn’t think of what he’d do once he got to the bottom of it. It didn’t matter. Excitement and the sheer thrill of something new had given him something he didn’t know he wanted: escape from the norm. He was running now, pushing aside leaves, branches, weeds, muck, and knee-high water—the time to escape was neigh and by God was he going to grasp it. His legs, given purpose, propelled him forward at breakneck speed, easily dwarfing any human competition in the same conditions; trees blurred past as he tracked the sound, his fins quivering and twitching in anticipation.
Finally, after some time, he pushed away the last few bushes that blinded him and he arrived at the scene of a . . . building. A restaurant, to be more specific. A place named The Starlight, to be exact. He paused for a moment to watch what was happening—a crowd of people in striking sports jackets and fitting cocktail dresses were crowded around the entrance, all yearning with arching necks to look inside. A series of handsome valet drivers in velvet vests came and took the rumbling cars that were pulling up in droves. Waitresses and hostesses wearing silky black dresses and attractive nail polish guided the young and beautiful to glossy marble tables, handing their guests leather-bound menus and sparkling crystal glasses. Towards the rear sat an ice sculpture and a glowing pianist riffing keys on a glossy black piano, belting magic from it. Warm orange lights flooded the sky above the restaurant itself, giving the place the look of a castle. By now, the moon had come all the way out and nested above a series of puffy purple clouds; you could see a few stars making their rise in the distance. The scene objectively looked remarkable and Reynaldo had scarcely ever seen a sight like it before. No swamp, marsh, wetland, or drainage ditch could match it.
He sat there for a long time just to watch the movement of the guests and staff. The bustle of it, a carnival in and of itself, amazed him; there was precision in every motion: each footstep of every waitress and every guest seemed planned. There was an order to it, Reynaldo thought, and he felt as though he was witnessing the performance of a lifetime.
Something twitched in the back of his mind. He turned and looked behind him to see the dreary, drab swamp loom ominously in the background. There was nothing to miss and, to be honest, when his eyes were busy watching the pirouette of the masses crowded in front of
The Starlight, the swamp never came into mind. This is a sign, he realized. Decades of his life were spent in the swamp for what? To lie there at night, to feel your heart ache for something more, something fresh? There is more to life than that and this was a gift that he could not refuse.
Reynaldo pushed aside the foliage and stood upright, taking his first ever step from mud and onto manicured grass. He exited the darkness, his whole body screaming at him to stop and reconsider, but his mind was made up. Reynaldo forced the pain, worry, anxiety, and fear from his mind, focusing only on his resurging emotions of curiosity. He made his way towards the bright glow of the restaurant, eventually getting absorbed by the crowd of fine dining socialites. The thought of rejection flashed into his mind. He wasn’t one of them; his scaly skin, claws, fangs, fins, and large snout differentiated him from the group of well-dressed guests, but, to his surprise, no one in the crowd seemed to even notice his presence. The very discernable odor of dead fish and methane emanated off of him and mixed with the ocean of perfume and cologne in a grizzly way. His wet body glistened in the bask of intricate lighting. It didn’t matter. Neither guests nor staff seemed to notice the presence of the swamp thing mingling in the mass of bustling activity. He was found to be an equal and as such, was greeted by a beautiful red-haired waitress who smiled genuinely and motioned towards the door, enticing him to follow her inside. He stood there for a second, confuzzled—he didn’t actually think that he’d get this far. Regardless, he decided that he left all of his fear and self-doubt at the foot of the marsh.
He followed the waitress inside and was promptly seated at a very, very long table among a set of young couples. “My apologies, sir, but it’s a busy night and we’ve been seating people together to save on space, I hope you find yourself comfortable. Now, to begin, my name is Marcelle and I will be your server for tonight.” The young waitress handed him a menu nested in a leather-bound cover. “Here’s tonight’s menu, inside you’ll find our exclusive appetizers, entrees, disserts, and drink selection. Do you need a moment?”
Reynaldo, never having stepped foot in any restaurant before, obviously was encountering some difficulty in figuring out exactly what was happening. He sat there for a moment, unmoving. The lovely waitress, being the lovely waitress that she was, waited for a moment and then proceeded to let Reynaldo know that she would return in a few moments to take whatever order he was willing to give her, then vanished back into the sea of movement. The other guests seated at the table turned their attention to him. One man complemented Reynaldo’s shoes, even though he wore none. Another pointed out Reynaldo’s exquisite taste in watches even though, again, he was not wearing one. A woman smiled at him and tapped his big, swampy foot with her own and asked him if he’s ever been here before. Now, it is important to note that Reynaldo is a hulking, seven-foot tall reptilian swamp creature with the face of an alligator, so the answer to almost all attentive people would be, undoubtedly, a very definite no. However, seeing as though the woman was young, wildly beautiful, and above all else, actually interested in conversation, Reynaldo thought he might as well try his chances at engaging in a sincere human interaction.
“Oh, well . . .” Reynaldo began. “To be perfectly honest with you—not that I had any intention of lying at all—this is my first time being here.” He offered her a novice smile.
“Oh my, neither have I! It’s the opening night, after all. They cut the ribbon and like that,” the woman snapped her fingers abruptly, “whole waves of people have been showing up, eager to see what the hubbub is about. The Starlight is supposed to be the next Massato. How amazing, don’t you think? Why, this’ll be the talk of the town!”
Reynaldo didn’t have the slightest clue or inference as to why that—of all things—would make the town talk, but he thought he was doing good thus far, so he might as well keep it up.
“W-where might you be from? This . . . town you mentioned? A faraway place?”
The woman gave out a nasally laugh and gripped a hold of the marble tabletop, “This, this right here will be the talk of the town! I assure you, everyone around town will hear about this!” She lightly slapped her lap as she giggled away.
Again, Reynaldo was left dumbfounded at what it was that was so fantastic about all of this. He began to inquire further, but noticed the woman had swiveled to talk to a different gentleman. He began to drift away from the emerging, overlapping conversations and look into the menu Marcelle, the lovely waitress, had left for him. He glanced across dishes of glazed beef, marinated chicken, alfredo-infused grouper, sophisticated pasta dishes topped with a selection of exotic grated cheese and herbs, soups presented inside of bowls made of fresh bread. Too many to choose from, all looked just as good, if not better than the last; certainly better than the sickly fish left bobbing at the surface of the swamp. Reynaldo decided that, even though his interactions with his tablemates have been odd and unsettling, it was worth it to venture outside of the marsh and that he would make the most of the night. Maybe, behind the veil of the socialite world, things were better than they appeared to be.
Marcelle, assuredly having seen Reynaldo perusing the menu, descended upon him like an osprey, writing pad in one hand and black pen in the other. “Have you seen anything you liked? Any questions I can help you with?”
Reynaldo shook his head, “No, no, I don’t think so. I was interested
“Great selection! I’ll have that out for you as soon as it’s ready. But, as we all know, perfection can’t be rushed, am I right?” Marcelle paused for a second to smile. “Of course, if you have any questions or concerns at all, please, feel free to flag me down.” With that, she vanished once more into the tidal wave of waitresses.
The experience of being at The Starlight was novel and exciting as much as it was taxing and Reynaldo decided that he might do well to catch a breather in the guest restroom. He excused himself, to which no one seated next to him noticed, and made his way past the vast expanse of marble tabletops, seated guests with silky napkins resting on their laps, hurried waitresses, and resounding laughter. He arrived at the restroom, entered, and planted himself firmly in front of the mirror. What on earth was he doing here? This place and all its activity . . . it wasn’t for him. Maybe this was a mistake of some kind; an err on his part. Even though he stood out like a sore thumb, no one seemed to call him out on it. It was perhaps out of kindness, perhaps out of sympathy, perhaps out of ignorance, or perhaps out of sheer mental gymnastics of the guest patrons, too eager to try out the hottest new restaurant; whatever it was, Reynaldo felt as though he was inadvertently becoming an awkward burden on the social scene. Obviously, no one wanted to interact on more than a shallow level of conversation with him—he could take the hint.
As Reynaldo pondered on this thought for a moment, a well-dressed restroom attendant quietly entered in through the door, his hands full of cloth towelettes. The attendant eagerly tapped an unsuspecting Reynaldo on the shoulder, causing the swamp thing to reflexively swing his tail from side to side, knocking the attendant off his feet and subsequently slamming his skull on the granite countertop. Reynaldo immediately gasped and knelt down to help the poor man up, but found that he was unresponsive—no breathing or heartbeat to speak of whatsoever. Deep red blood was flowing vigorously from a crack in the attendant’s skull, painting a good portion of the restroom countertop and spilling further onto the tile floor. Reynaldo, sickened by his accidental murder, left the restroom in a hurry to seek help out in the main dining room. He hastily made his way out and ran into a waitress carrying a platter of shrimp cocktails, knocking one of them over in the process. “My God!” he exclaimed. “There’s been an accident—”
“Oh, please, it’s fine!” the waitress responded, cutting him off. “Don’t worry about it, this was bound to happen sooner or later.” The waitress motioned towards the spilled marinara sauce and shrimp with her index finger.
“No, no! You see, I’ve . . . a man, the restroom attendant, had a massive accident in there,” he said, pointing to the restroom, “you need to call someone! Get help!”
“Help? Ha! Very funny, but I can assure you, the spilled shrimp cocktail is a minor inconvenience at most. Why don’t you find your way back to your seat? I’ll have Marcelle bring your order out.”
“Wait, no, ma’am, you don’t understand!” but it was too late, the waitress had vanished before him; her black dress and pale skin blending into the background commotion and moving people. Reynaldo, delirious, poked his head back into the restroom to see if the man was still there lying on the floor in a puddle of . . . yes, he still was. Unsure of what to do at this point, and too unfamiliar with the civilized world to seek out a pay phone, Reynaldo made his way hesitantly back to his table. It was only once he sat down did he notice that his hands and torso were covered in an obvious layer of blood. Not that anyone at the table mentioned this fact, or took note that Reynaldo had even left and came back. He sat there, shaking, and feeling downright awful—nothing like this had ever happened before, he’d certainly never killed anything larger than a wild boar and that was in self-defense—but a human being? Christ, he thought. He believed that he should be feeling even worse than he was, but seeing how his human companions seemed to not even register that he was sitting there next to them or that he was essentially a giant lizard man, he felt a certain weight off his scaly shoulders. If no one else cared, should he?
At this point, Marcelle returned with a steaming plate of chicken parmesan and a bowl of Caesar salad. She set them down in front of him with a wink and filled his crystal glass full of ice water. “Is there anything else I can do for you?” she asked.
Reynaldo had several things come to mind, but above all else, he wanted an explanation as to what was going on here and considering the fact that someone had accidentally died tonight, he felt that he was entitled to one. “I just wanted to let you know,” started Reynaldo, “that I accidentally killed a restroom attendant.”
The waitress, either undisturbed or untouched by this news, nodded eagerly and scuttled off; clearly, this sort of thing just wasn’t an issue for The Starlight, decided Reynaldo. He then picked up the chicken parmesan and ungraciously shoved it in his mouth, swallowing it whole. In the swamp, there wasn’t anyone there to judge and likewise, no one seemed to mind here. Reynaldo, emboldened by his freedom here, reached over to the man across from him and grabbed his plate of scallops, sliding them off the dish and into his mouth. The man smiled and nodded at him, returning to talk with another guest as though nothing had happened. Suddenly, the thrill of something new had begun to slip; it was bizarre in a way that seemed familiar. The Starlight had become tired, not from lack of class, but from lack of . . . consequence. Reynaldo silently realized that he had entered into another swamp. Everything so hyper-normalized that even he, a seven-foot tall, reptilian swamp creature seemed only ordinary to the crowd of sensitivity-depraved restaurant goers. A rather blunt observation, to be sure, one that plagued him like a splinter.
Upset by this, Reynaldo got up from his seat and made his way towards the restroom, pushing aside waitresses and socialites. He opened the door to find the restroom attendant was still in the same position he had left him: sprawled out on the floor, head cracked open like a ravine. Standing next to him was a new, clean-shaven restroom attendant with his arms full of cloth towelettes.
“Ah, sir, how are you today?” politely asked the new attendant.
“When did you get here?” Reynaldo asked.
“Hmm,” muttered the attendant, “maybe fifteen or so minutes ago. What a pleasant first night for The Starlight, huh? Such excitement in the air! My, my. I can hardly believe they got this place up and running as quickly as they did . . . and . . . I must say . . . I like it here . . .”
Reynaldo began to tune out the attendant and started to drag the original, dead one off the floor of the restroom and out through the door to the dining room. He hauled the corpse down the center of the restaurant and headed towards the pianist, wanting to show everyone what had happened—at the very least, he wanted a response.
A few patrons glanced his way as he dragged the dead man, but none of them seemed as though they grasped exactly what was going on—the fact that Reynaldo, covered in blood, was heaving a corpse was completely lost upon them. He reached the small platform where the pianist, whom was still playing glossy keys, sat. Reynaldo climbed on top of the piano, holding the dead body in one hand, displaying it in such a way that everyone in the restaurant could see. “Yes, uh, hello,” he began, “if I could please get everyone’s attention, I have a brief announcement to make.”
The crowd before him quickly hushed to silence and the pianist ceased his playing, all turning their attention towards the swamp thing. A few were smiling, but most wore serious expressions on their faces; Reynaldo couldn’t tell whether any of them genuinely understood reality.
Ignoring this, he continued, “I really only have one thing to say: this man you see before you,” he shook the restroom attendant a little, “is dead. I killed him on accident.”
To this, the entire restaurant cheered; patrons and waitresses held up their drinks, clinking them together in celebration. A few people stood up and clapped, nodding their heads; a man got down on one knee and proposed to a woman sitting at his table. Everyone except Reynaldo let out a warm gasp of admiration as she nodded her head “yes”. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what the hell was going on. He glanced around for a brief moment: a third of the guests were turned towards the proposal, another third went back to chatting amongst themselves, and the last third continued to stare at him, maybe expecting something more out of the exasperated swamp thing; the waitresses and restaurant staff resumed their duties of bringing out food and drinks for their patrons. The pianist below him nodded for a reason Reynaldo could not discern and returned to playing soft melodies. This world, this representation of things, most definitely had to be an illusion, or at the very least, a misguided and wandering dream. Surely, he would wake up, his unconscious mind having taught him a lesson of some kind—but if he was being honest with himself, he had already felt a growing pain in the back of his mind—he wanted out.
Neither here nor the marsh were fitting for the swamp thing; one was brimming with boredom and static similarity and the other consumed by . . . social cohesion? Unwavering indifference? Wholesome ignorance? Regardless, the primary reason for escape from either was loneliness, the difference was in form. At home in the swamp, Reynaldo was truly alone, with only the imaginary personas of resident creatures to keep him company—an existence dependent on his ability to keep himself entertained. Here in The Starlight, the opposite was true; there were others to be sure, but each of them more closely resembled a cardboard cutout of a human than a real one. There were smiles and laughs and drinking, but it was all manicured in a typical, archetypal, fake way. Reynaldo had encountered the human world in such a way as to not shatter his innocence, but replace it with a thing truly separate of any expectation. The culture of The Starlight had rejected him not through any voiced opinion, but by an obvious disconnect in communication. Patrons seemed lost in their own, isolated world—so far gone as to not notice a hideous creature in plain sight. Whereas the swamp gave Reynaldo loneliness in the form of physical estrangement, the restaurant gave him the loneliness via social isolation. His thoughts didn’t fit into the clique; the message, to him, was one of a confusing rejection. In his mind, the socialites that occupied The Starlight were just as mindless as the animals that wandered aimlessly through the marsh.
Having his mind made up on this issue, Reynaldo decided to walk out of the restaurant and return to the murky wetlands. Sure, it wasn’t much better, but the fact of the matter was that Reynaldo felt at home there. He had a place, a niche that truly belonged to him and one that he had learned to value. He made his way past the cars, the valets, the patrons loitering around outside, the paved parking lot, and finally onto the cool grass. He pushed aside the looming bushes and, after a little time, found his way back to the place he knew all along to be his. Reynaldo felt the water and the algae and the mist and the . . . swamp wash up to his knees and only then did he truly feel better about himself. He gently fell into the mud, letting its cool touch soothe him in the way he always felt excluded from.
The next morning, he opened his eyes to find a fat man in an orange vest standing over him, pointing the end of a gun right between his eyes. Reynaldo blinked, heard a sound, and—