Tar Pit Terror
Los Angeles, California
Liam drew in a deep breath through his nose, held it, and then exhaled slowly. “Do you smell that?” he asked his friend Charlotte. “That’s the stink of forty thousand years.”
“Is that how long it’s been since your last shower?” Charlotte teased him.
“Very funny,” he said. “I meant the tar pits. They’re about forty thousand years old.”
“Just like that dirt stain on your elbow,” Charlotte said with a straight face.
“Forget it,” Liam huffed.
Charlotte laughed and gave him a shove.
The two friends were leaning against the fence that surrounded Lake Pit. That was the biggest tar pit in Hancock Park, home of the famous La Brea Tar Pits. The tar bubbled lazily as methane gas escaped its oily depths.
“It actually smells like your dad’s auto shop,” Charlotte observed.
“Want to go for a swim?” Liam asked, grinning.
“Only if we want to end up like her,” Charlotte replied, nodding at a sculpture that stood partially submerged in Lake Pit.
The fiberglass statue was of a female mammoth. She was depicted trapped in the tar. On the shoreline, two other mammoth sculptures, one an adult male and one a child, trumpeted in silent despair. It was a sad but accurate scene. Many prehistoric animals—mammoths, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats included—had wandered into the tar pits and become trapped.
“Too bad this fence wasn’t around to keep the animals out,” Liam suggested. “That would have saved a lot of lives.”
“I don’t think a fence would have helped,” Charlotte said. “Just look at those tusks. They could tear through this fence like tinfoil.”
“I wish I could see that,” Liam said.
“Me too,” Charlotte agreed. “Prehistoric animals are awesome!”
“Especially dinosaurs,” Liam said. “Do you think there are any dinosaur fossils in the tar?”
The question irritated Charlotte immediately. She and Liam had had the same conversation almost every time they visited the park. He could be so dense!
“No, for about the millionth time,” she huffed. “The tar pits weren’t around when the dinosaurs were alive. You know that.”
A slow smile spread across Liam’s face. “Gotcha,” he said.
Charlotte caught her breath and then shoved him again. He was teasing her!
“You’re impossible!” she exclaimed.
A third person was striding toward the fence. He wore khaki pants and a polo shirt with a Hancock Park logo on the left breast. He was Mr. Cruz, a park security guard. Liam and Charlotte knew him well.
“Are you two keeping out of trouble?” he asked cheerfully.
“Hi, Mr. Cruz,” Charlotte greeted him. “Liam was just about to need your help.”
“What happened this time?” Mr. Cruz replied.
“Nothing yet,” Charlotte said. “But I sense a knuckle sandwich in his future.”
Mr. Cruz laughed. “Liam, were you bugging poor Charlotte about the name of the park again?”
“Not this time,” Liam protested. “But now that you mention it, why do we call them the La Brea Tar Pits?”
Neither Charlotte nor Mr. Cruz responded.
“Because la brea means ‘tar’ in Spanish, right?” Liam continued.
Still silence from his friends.
“So that means the La Brea Tar Pits are really the Tar-Tar Pits.”
“Is that like Dum Dums?” Charlotte said.
“Those are candy,” Liam retorted.
“Not always,” Charlotte smirked.
“Okay, kids, that’s enough,” Mr. Cruz cut in. “I have something neat to show you.”
“What is it?” Liam and Charlotte asked together.
“Walk with me,” Mr. Cruz said. “You have to see it for yourselves. It’s across the park. You won’t believe it!”
“Lead the way!” Liam exclaimed.
He and Charlotte followed Mr. Cruz across the grass and onto the sidewalk. Dusk was settling in and the shadows grew long as they crossed the quiet park. Few people remained. It was almost closing time.
“I was making my evening rounds,” Mr. Cruz explained as they walked. “You know, letting everyone know the park was closing. That’s when I found this.”
He stopped at a spot in the tall grass, somewhat off the sidewalk, and pointed at the ground. A pool of tar as wide as a hot tub bubbled in front of his feet. There was no fence around the pool and no mammoth sculptures were nearby. It looked completely natural and untouched by humans.
“Wow!” Charlotte gasped. “Where did this come from?”
Liam pinched his nose. “It smells worse than Lake Pit,” he said.
“I think it just bubbled up today,” Mr. Cruz shrugged. “I didn’t think that was possible, but I’ve never seen this here before. So what do you think?”
“It’s awesome!” Charlotte smiled.
“Do you think there’s anything in it?” Liam wondered. “Like maybe—”
“Don’t say dinosaur bones,” Charlotte warned, one finger raised.
“—more fossils,” Liam finished.
“There could be all sorts of interesting specimens—mammals, plants, insects,” Mr. Cruz said. “I can’t wait to find out.”
“Neither can we,” Charlotte assured him.
“Right now, though, I’ve got to report this,” he said, glancing at his watch. “I was on my way to do that when I spotted you. And you kids need to go home. The park closed ten minutes ago.”
Liam saluted. “Thanks for showing us first.”
“We won’t tell anyone,” Charlotte swore.
Mr. Cruz nodded at them. “Thanks, kids. You know the way out. I’ll see you soon.” He turned and marched quickly toward the Page Museum.
Charlotte and Liam remained. The new tar pit fascinated them. What a discovery! Even though they hadn’t found it themselves, they were some of the first people to ever see the tar pit. They felt like explorers.
Clutching a stick he found in the grass, Liam squatted in front of the tar pit. He carefully probed its bubbling surface with the tip of the stick. Nothing happened.
“What are you doing?” Charlotte demanded. She squatted next to him and peered into the gurgling tar.
“What’s it look like I’m doing?” he grinned at her. “I’m fishing for fossils.”
“I hope you fish up a brain,” Charlotte teased. “But you’d better hurry. It’s getting late.”
The evening sky was darkening rapidly. The park’s lamps had come on and a chill had crept into the air. Charlotte shivered, suddenly uneasy.
“Hurry,” she repeated.
If Liam was listening, he gave no sign. He continued to poke and prod the tar pit with his stick, shoving it deeper into the depths. He wasn’t fishing so much as stirring the tar like a thick pot of boiling stew.Suddenly he froze.
“I think I got something,” he hissed.
“Seriously?” Charlotte asked. How could he catch something just by poking a stick in the tar?
He strained, trying to pull the stick free. “Help me,” he requested.
“What do you think it is?”
“Probably a dinosaur,” he smirked.
“I’m sorry I asked,” Charlotte muttered.
Despite her feelings about the dinosaur conversation, she scooted closer to her friend. She knelt down, leaned forward, and grasped the stick in both hands behind his.
“On three,” she said. “One … two … three!”
They pulled like contestants in a game of tug-o-war. They grunted and groaned. They bore down into the dirt. Whatever was in the tar didn’t want to come out.
Or it didn’t want to let go.
Then, with a crack, the stick broke loose. The sudden lack of resistance threw Liam and Charlotte backward. They landed heavily, panting loudly.
“Check it out!” Liam exclaimed.
Lying on his back, he held the stick above his chest. Droplets of tar dripped down from it and from something lodged on its tip.
“Is that a … a fossil?” Charlotte whispered.
The object stuck to the tip of Liam’s stick looked like rock and was about as wide as a pancake. As the kids stared at it, one additional fact became clear.
The object had fingers.
“Awesome!” Liam exclaimed. He wrenched the object off the stick, wiped it in the grass, and cradled it in both hands. Even covered in tar, the skeletal object was unmistakable. It was an animal’s fossilized paw. And not just any animal—a big one.
“I think it’s from a dire wolf!” he said in astonishment. “Or maybe a saber-toothed tiger.”
“Cat,” Charlotte corrected. The term saber-toothed tiger was scientifically inaccurate.
“Cat, tiger—whatever,” Liam countered. “The paw is huge.”
Charlotte nodded, her thoughts racing. She hadn’t expected Liam to find anything in the tar, especially not something so amazing. And so frightening. The fossilized paw was completely intact. It was equipped with four long toes and one smaller toe along the side. Based on its size, Charlotte imagined the rest of the animal had been very large.
“What are we going to do with it?” she asked.
Before Liam could respond, voices drifted to them from across the park. The glow from a flashlight cut a yellow swath in the fading light. Mr. Cruz was coming back!
“Let’s get out of here!” Liam whispered.
Charlotte didn’t argue. She didn’t know what they should do with the fossil, but she didn’t want to get caught with it either.
They ran. The parking lot was just ahead. Streetlights cast pools of pale light on the asphalt, dimly illuminating the few cars that remained in the lot. There were no other people in sight. Liam and Charlotte were alone.
Breathing hard, Liam slowed on the far side of the lot. He shot a glance over his shoulder but kept walking.
“I think we’re safe,” he said.
“So now what?” Charlotte pressed. “You’re going to get into trouble just for having tar on your shirt.”
“Who cares about that?” he said dismissively. “Just look at this thing!” He waved the tar-covered fossil in front of Charlotte’s eyes.
“It’s definitely from a saber-toothed cat,” she said. “It looks just like the ones in the Page Museum.”
“I know, right?” Liam smiled.
Charlotte shook her head. Thinking about the museum made her feel guilty. “Maybe we should give it back,” she suggested softly.
“Give it back?” Liam repeated in disbelief. He clutched the paw protectively to his chest. “I found it and it’s mine. I’m going to put it on my—”
Suddenly a loud roar erupted behind them. It sounded like an angry grizzly bear or lion, or possibly something worse. The panicked shouts and screams of people rang out after it.
The kids ducked behind a minivan and flopped onto the ground on their rear ends. They sat with their backs against the cool metal of the vehicle’s sliding door.
“What was that?!” Liam gasped, still cradling the fossil against his chest.
“I think it was Mr. Cruz,” Charlotte worried.
“Not the screams,” Liam said. “The roar. The monster roar!”
“Maybe Mr. Cruz is playing a joke on us,” she hoped. “Maybe he knows you stole that fossil.”
“I didn’t steal anything,” Liam retorted. “I found it. Just like an archaeologist.”
Charlotte barked a laugh. “You’re not an archaeologist!”
“I’m not a thief either!”
A second roar cut through the night. It sounded angrier and closer than before.
“I think something disagrees with you,” Charlotte muttered.
A dark shape streaked across the parking lot toward them. It ran very fast on four legs, but with a limp. It was taller than a German shepherd and had foot-long fangs jutting down from its upper jaw.
“Is that…?” Liam couldn’t finish. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“Yes!” Charlotte said, almost a shriek. “It’s the rest of the saber-tooth! Look at what you’ve done!”
“It’s a skeleton!” Liam yelled. “That’s impossible! Run!”
They sprang to their feet, terrified and screaming. This couldn’t be happening. The fossilized remains of a saber-toothed cat were chasing them through Los Angeles.
Leading the way, Charlotte charged down the sidewalk that led to the main road. Liam raced on her heels. Both of them shouted and waved their arms crazily over their heads.
“Help, help!” Charlotte cried.
“Something’s after us!” Liam howled.
The saber-tooth caught them easily.
Snarling savagely, the boney cat leaped onto Liam’s back. Its back legs were longer than its front and designed for jumping. The impact knocked Liam to the ground. He and the cat tumbled into the grass.
“Liam!” Charlotte shrieked.
The saber-tooth scrambled to its feet. Still snarling, it swatted Liam with one big paw and pinned him to the ground. Its other front paw was—
Charlotte gasped. “The fossil!” she shouted. “Give it back its paw!”
“I can’t!” Liam sobbed, trapped beneath the undead monstrosity. “I threw it when we started running!”
“Then what does it want?!”
Charlotte didn’t understand, but Liam did. He knew. He saw it in the monster’s empty, tar-stained eye sockets. The saber-tooth wanted revenge. It wanted his hand, a paw for a paw.
As Liam screamed, the big cat opened its mouth for the final bite.
Thanks for reading!
Copyright © 2014 Sigil Publishing, Inc.
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