WHATEVER HAPPENED TO JEREMY MANKIN? by DAVID SAFFORD
Everyone in Whispering Harbor knew that Jeremy Mankin wasn’t fishing with the sharpest hook.
“I heard him mumbling the strangest things,” Judith Matchbox said after finding Jeremy in her vegetable patch. “When I caught him, he was covered in dirt and going on about some damned magical creature. That boy better replace my carrots.”
“He chases things that don’t exist,” the girls in his classes would gossip. “Nobody likes him.” Their words reached the ladies at the salons where it was discussed alongside the latest news.
But it was Frank Toastmaster’s account that the town considered gospel. “Don’t blame the boy,” he once whispered at a Rotary meeting. “Blame the mother.”
Mrs. Mankin wasn’t one for enduring insults. She got Jeremy a job packing groceries at the local market, and then ran over Frank Toastmaster’s mailbox with her car.
“Go,” she said to Jeremy. “Don’t you embarrass me.” And she sent him out the door with a green apron around his waist.
The brown leaves of autumn crunched under his feet as he strolled toward the market. His path weaved and his eyes explored the trees, peering into every bough and squinting at the graying bark of every trunk. He tripped over a lunging block of sidewalk then looked down, following the lightning-shaped breaks in the concrete.
And then he saw it.
It squatted low, reptilian, its scaled purple flesh bright against the dying grass. Jeremy tried to silence his steps.
This was his chance.
The creature snapped its head and four gaping eyes spotted him.
“Stop!” Jeremy yelled, chasing after.
It was the size of a puppy and ran like a lizard. It turned to the nearest tree and scuttled up the trunk.
“Come back!” Jeremy shouted.
Neighborly heads began to appear at windows. “That boy,” retired Sergeant Hammerstroke grumbled before returning to his recorded game shows.
Jeremy slammed into the tree and groped at the rusty canopy of leaves. The dreggle was up there somewhere.
He closed his eyes, thinking with all his might.
Then he remembered!
Without a look this way or that, Jeremy dropped his jeans and yanked his underwear from around his ankles.
“Merciful Lord!” cried Marybelle Merriweather from the shade of her porch.
Jeremy wadded his underwear in a fist and shook it at the tree. “Here, boy!” he called.
The dreggle skittered about in the branches above him. “Here!” Jeremy shouted again.
The little beak of a face appeared, four moony eyes framed in dark purple. It cocked its head and croaked, a tiny wisp of flame bursting from its mouth.
Jeremy dangled the white britches from his fingers and gave them a wiggle.
Barking another fiery croak, the dreggle scampered down, its mouth gaping at the morsel of underwear. And as the dreggle bit into the goods, Jeremy snatched it in his arms and stuffed it in his apron.
He turned from the tree. The wind whistled from the northwest, and he felt the breeze.
“Oh!” he yelped. And as Jeremy grabbed his pants and restored his decency, Officer Everett Neer rolled to a stop, lights glaring, and stood with crossed arms.
“What’re you up to, Jeremy?” he said with a spit.
“Just goin’ to work, sir,” Jeremy murmured. He hunched over, hoping his belly would hide the dreggle’s purple tail that was drooping out of the apron pocket.
“Listen, son,” Neer said, “the folks of this town don’t like indecent exposure.”
“Yes, sir,” he said.
“Why’d you drop your trousers?”
Jeremy felt the creature wiggling in the apron. He looked up at the officer.
“I had to catch a dreggle.”
Neer’s eyebrow twitched. “A what?”
“A dreggle. They’re four-eyed, ground-dwelling, herbivorous creatures that need additional sustenance to survive in sunlight, so they’ll eat anything, especially precious objects that no one likes to give up, such as underpants.” He took a deep breath and added, “Sir.”
Jeremy figured the matter was settled. Besides, the dreggle was squirming something furious.
“Let’s go for a ride, son,” Neer said.
“I have to get to work, sir.”
“Right this way,” Neer said, reaching for Jeremy’s arm.
And the dreggle leapt. It flew out of the apron, landed on the sidewalk, and darted for the wooded lot across the street.
“No!” Jeremy howled, lurching away.
Neer shouted, “Stop!” and Jeremy skidded to a halt, staring into the dense bushes where the creature was about to vanish.
“Don’t you see it?” he cried, pointing. “Don’t you?”
“Stay right there, young man,” Neer ordered. “Don’t move.”
“Don’t you see the dreggle?” Jeremy pleaded.
The officer was reaching for the cuffs.
“Please!” the boy begged. “I have to catch him or else he’ll tunnel underground again and won’t reappear until my next birthday, because that’s when they come out!”
Neer stopped, weighing Jeremy’s words, but his contemplation was short lived. He reached for the boy’s arms.
Jeremy turned back to the wooded lot as Neer’s fingers found his wrists. The lot sat between two fading lawns that spread like dresses about their crisply painted houses. It was small, but there were plenty of places the dreggle could hide, and plenty of tasty tree roots to feast on.
Jeremy furrowed his brow. His dreggle was about to disappear, and dreggles only appeared on his birthday. That he knew for a fact.
So he ran.
“Jeremy, no!” Officer Neer yelled, clutching after him, but the boy was already gone. Jeremy leapt into the bushes with a cry, and disappeared.
Neer sighed, leaned into his radio, and made the call.
And so it was that everyone in Whispering Harbor confirmed that Jeremy Mankin wasn’t worshiping with a full hymnal.
“I remember the day he stripped down naked in broad daylight,” Doris Bleachwhite said to the thrill of her fellow bingo players at the VFW. “Buck naked, ashamed before God. And no one knows why. Whatever happened to him, anyway?”
But no one knew, and the topic promptly shifted to someone else.