Bufo Horribilus

The young man put his rifle down on the bonnet of the land cruiser so he could shake hands.
“David, right? From Australian Bioscience?”
“That’s right, I spoke to Margot on the phone.” He eyed the weapon uncomfortably. “She asked me to come up here straight away, something about a new discovery. I thought it was all a bit odd, frankly.”
“You flew here straight from Hobart?”
“Yes, into Tennant creek,” David said. He massaged his creaking back as he watched his taxi, an old mitsubishi, disappear into the landscape.
The young man looked with disdain at David’s small bag. “Did you bring any food, survival gear? I mean, we’re a long way from Tennant creek now.”
David held up his camera and shrugged.
“Well, there’s a spare sleeping bag in the back. It belonged to Matt, he’s not with us anymore. I think he threw up in it once.”
“Great,” David said, leaving the man to his unpacking. “Thanks.”

He couldn’t imagine much animal life out here. It was all blowing red sand, knuckled boulders, and low, scrubby growth. But the slow build-up of cloud across the sky reminded him that the wet season was on its way. Even if the desert looked empty now, life was surely just around the corner.
He met up with Margot on the other side of an eroded ridge. Dressed in shorts, T-shirt and vest, she was generously tanned. David suddenly felt self-conscious of his glaring white face and arms. She didn’t stop to shake hands. “You’re the cane toad man,” she said, marching off through the scrub.
“I prefer David.”
“I mean you wrote a story on them for your magazine.”
“That’s right.”
“Do you know what we’re actually doing out here?” She called back.
“I know the background,” he said, struggling for breath as he trailed after her. “You’re researching the effects of that genetically-engineered virus the CSIRO set loose up here a decade ago, the one designed to kill cane toads.”
“Not kill,” she corrected. “It inhibits metamorphosis, stops the tadpoles from turning into sexually mature adults. So they can‘t reproduce.”
“But why the continued research? I mean it worked, didn’t it? There haven’t been any sightings in the Territory or Queensland for six years.”
“Watch your step.”
Even forewarned, he almost fell.
It was a rough hole in the rock, five metres deep, with a bell-shaped cavity at the bottom. David saw a muddy scrap of earth, and a thin stream. What looked like a ball of tangled fishing net had rolled down to the stream’s edge: within it he saw a mound of wart-ridden, rubbery flesh. It looked as though Margot had trapped hundreds of toads.
She pointed into the well, her eyes wide. “Get your camera out, David. Your magazine is going to love this.“ David looked again. What he had taken to be a cluster of toads, was actually one giant example of the animal. It looked squashed and drowned in mud, and he could only identify the animal by the hand that curled from the side of the net nearest him. “Hurry Ben!” Margot shouted in the direction of the land cruiser. She was using the striations in the rock as if they were rungs on a ladder. “I want blood work, tissue samples, everything. Ha!”
Her head swung up towards David, her expression full of glee as she climbed backwards. “They’ll have to believe us now. To think that a virus could actually change the physical…”
“Careful there. Look below…”
“Oh damn.” Her voice went funny at the same time her foot slipped. She made a wet noise as she landed on her backside next to the creek.
“You alright?” David asked sheepishly.
“Yeah. That was dense.” She continued chattering as she threw down her backpack and snapped on a pair of rubber gloves.
David gawked, oblivious to the first drops of rain smattering his face. “That can’t be a cane toad. Look at it!” It was as big as a small Japanese car.
“It’s Bufo Marinus all right,” Margot said, caressing the animal‘s snout.
“This might be a stupid question, but is it…”
“Well and truly. Look, something’s had a go at the hind leg. Whatever it was, it probably won’t be feeling very well. The poison these animals secrete has caused havoc with native predators.” She clapped her hands. “And they reckoned the picture I took at Shearer’s creek was of a dead freshie. Ha! I’d like to see them pass this one off as a crocodile.”
David was looking up at the blackening sky with a growing sense of unease.
Margot called up at him: “Is that camera just for show? Not scared of a little rain, are you? I mean, you are Tasmanian?”
With the pride of his home state on the line, David swallowed down his fear and clambered into the hole. He didn’t like the way the rock shifted between his fingers, but he reached the soft earth at the bottom without injury. The flash of his camera made the animal look pale and unreal, like an unpainted prop from a monster movie. An ominous blast of thunder reverberated through the air. He moved along the wart-studded flank of the creature, noting the chewed remnants of its rear right leg. The head made the animal look like something that had crawled straight out of prehistory, with its cratered skull, horny ridges above the eyes running down the length of the snout, and incredibly wide mouth. Although mainly pale brown, the skin had an oily purplish tint. It seemed unusual colouring for a toad. He thought about asking Margot.
“Hey Ben! Stop mucking around up there and bring the gear over! This weather’s about to turn rotten!”
David wasn’t used to northern rain. Down south, it came at you in cold, gusty ribbons. Here it was a continuous deluge, each drop carrying enough weight to hurt when it hit you. Margot scrambled about the frothing creek, throwing equipment back into her backpack. “Damn it Ben! If we lose this chance because you’re too busy pulling your-”
The rest of her sentence was buried under another thunderclap.
She threw him the backpack and started climbing, her hands and feet scrabbling for purchase on the sodden, crumbling wall.
“Maybe you should wait for Ben to bring a rope,” David suggested.
She was two metres above the ground when the whole wall slipped, the ladder rungs dissolving. She slapped into the creek amid a curtain of silt. David helped her up. The two of them scoured the cliff for another way up, but the whole surface had turned into a mud slick, a dark, impossible curve. The once placid creek churned angrily around their ankles. “I’ll kill him,” Margot said, staring up at the sky. But the fall had knocked the wind out of her, and her voice lacked its usual punch.
A very long, wet sucking noise caused David and Margot to turn and face the creek. They watched it rise on three powerful limbs, its flabby bulk shuddering. The thick glands behind its eyes puffed and swelled. It made a deep gurgle, a sound that seemed to complement the anger and power of the storm. The eyes flicked open. Apparently dry and dead a moment ago, it seemed to have been wrenched back to life by the rain.
It studied them side-on, then turned its snout to fixate on Margot. It’s stare was unmistakably predatory. It was judging depth and distance, preparing to lunge.
With a heave, it came through the mud at her, dragging its ruined limb. The tongue spilled out, snaring her around the ankle, drawing her into the mouth with a gulp. Only it couldn’t swallow her, because the thick net was still draped over its mouth, and only her boot would fit through the hole. It paused there, with its mouth wide open, Margot hanging by her boot.
Without thinking, David threw his camera. The sudden motion seemed to activate it again. It released Margot, whipped its head around, and drew the flying camera into its throat in a single motion. It quickly refocused its attention on the crawling woman in front of it. David tore open the backpack, looking for something else to throw. The first thing he saw was a bundle of red sticks. He threw one and missed wildly.
The toad stamped its paw down on the back of Margot’s knee, trapping her. It made a slurping noise.
“Light it!” Margot screamed.
David drew out another stick, and realising it was a signal flare, he tore the top violently off. Apparently that was what you were supposed to do with flares, because the well was suddenly ablaze with red light and hissing smoke. Unable to see, he threw it over-arm into the air in blind hope. He heard Margot pound her body into the wall next to him.
When he opened his eyes, he saw the toad raised up on its forelegs, studying them. Its throat bulged and compressed. The skin of its back rose into the air, and kept rising, like a massive blister. Then its sides ballooned. It was almost comical, the way the head remained its normal size, while the rest of the body blew out of proportion.
“Ah,” David said, shielding his eyes.
Thunder boomed.

Panting, drenched, covered in purplish-grey entrails, David from Tasmania hauled himself over the lip of the well. Margot was laying on her back beside a scraggly bush. David pulled her up and wiped the goop from his eyes. The rain helped, at least. They stumbled back over the ridge.
David slowed down when he saw the land cruiser. The rain had washed some of it away, but there were still dark red clumps around the wipers and hanging from the bull-bar. He immediately saw the source: Another toad, splayed out flat next to the car, with a bloody crater gouged from its back. As he got closer, David saw the ankles of jeans, and men’s boots protruding from the dead animal’s mouth. David grimaced. It looked as though Ben had fired off his rifle after being swallowed. He recognized the signs of shock come over Margot, and he hustled her into the car. He climbed into the driver’s seat, muting the sounds of the storm. “We’ll get help,” he said gently. It was all he could think to say. He made to turn the ignition, and moaned. “Margot, do you have the keys?”
She stared at him blankly. Took a moment, then shook her head.
“Who had the keys?”
Margot was a wreck, unable to comprehend.
David squinted out at the growing storm. He yanked the door handle and sighed.
“Wait here.”

Bufo Horribilus

AndrewJP

Burnie, Australia

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Artist's Description

My attempt at horror, aussie style. I’ve reworked this one a bit, and cut the length down considerably. Any suggestions or comments would be appreciated.

Artwork Comments

  • LilyMunroe
  • AndrewJP
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