Trenches and Toxins: An Original Short Story

This is a short story I wrote in a fiction writing class this winter after receiving a prompt to create a futuristic/dystopian tale. The professor took us to Sylvan Island in Moline, Illinois with the promise that it would provide us inspiration for this type of story. And he was right. I hiked Sylvan Island's trails, observing large black squirrels, partially tumbled over stone walls, an abandoned factory, concrete steps descending into the river until they disappeared into its murkiness, and even saw some interesting graffiti—including a sprayed on raunchy comment about BTS' Jungkook. Here is what came of my trip to Sylvan Island...Enjoy!


The large black squirrel stared into the window of the stone storage shed with the most sentient look Julia had ever seen a squirrel wear. Its cotton ball tail appeared to twitch in time with the screams, as if it could hear them through the thick window panes from its perch in the scraggly oak tree.

“No. I’m fine. Don’t come any closer.”

“You don’t look fine. You look like you want to tear yourself out of your body.”

Cal did want to do exactly that. He could feel the toxin sprinting through his body, overtaking every inch of his blood and muscle and mind. He didn’t want his sisters to see the agony he was feeling, but it was impossible to conceal.

Nina reached for his shoulder, trying to be the soothing, motherly presence she always was. He could barely hear her words though, as if his clenched jaw was a wall, blocking out all sensory information.

Julia observed from the windowsill, equally helpless. She saw her older sister’s composure and sanity quickly disintegrating, much like the rapidly breaking down banks of the Trench River. “Should I go see if Miss Camara can help?”

“No,” Nina said. “She can’t help Cal.” Just like she couldn’t help Mom, Nina thought, but dared not say aloud to her little sister. No medicine in the world can undo the damage Finch let loose on us. She grabbed Cal’s hand. “Damn you, Cal. Why’d you drink the water? I told you not drink the fucking water.”

I didn’t mean to! Cal wanted to scream, but the lemon squeeze in his brain kept his lips latched. Of course he hadn’t ingested the toxic water on purpose. Nina had to know that. It was the factory’s fault he was dying—President Finch’s fault for not taking better care of his people, or worse….

He pictured inky matter spilling from pipes, seeping into the ground and swirling in clear waters around the island. It was impossible to know what water on the island was safe to drink, how far the tendrils of murk had drifted along the miles long bank, or how quickly it continued to spread its fingers. It had only been a matter of time before it found its way down Cal’s throat. He thought he would have had more time though. More than two weeks. Soon it would claim his sisters too. Soon it would claim everyone on the island.

Was he dying? There were rumors of what happened to a person after they were poisoned by the toxins. Would the same happen to him? Cal thought he would rather die.

He groaned as his muscle and bone cramped and splintered. “You two, leave. Let whatever will happen to me happen.” He tried to keep his voice down, to speak only to Nina, so he wouldn’t scare Julia, but it was nearly impossible. “If I die, get someone to take me away so you don’t have to. If I don’t die….” he stared into her eyes.

Nina leaned forward, speaking softly. “Do you feel like you’re....changing?” She whispered into his ear.

He gasped in a breath. “I think so.” He started to shiver.

“Actually, Julia,” Nina announced suddenly, standing up. “Let’s go see if we can find anyone who knows how to help Cal.”

Julia took her sister’s hand and Nina pulled her out through the shed’s solid wooden door. “Come on.” The door slammed shut and Cal heard the latch close so that the autumn wind wouldn’t blow it open again.

Body convulsing one final time, it happened, exactly the way the rumors said it would. One second, Cal was himself—albeit a very feeble, fearful, ill version of himself—and the next, he was a tiny creature, blanketed in felty feathers and balancing on twiggy legs. This transformation into a bird was unexpected. The islanders had spent the past two weeks hypothesizing that the toxins always turned the infected into a squirrel.

Always a squirrel, and nothing else.

Cal, who, to his great relief, seemed to remain in his mind, at least for now, fluttered to the window instinctively. He had much difficulty tamping down his animal urge to escape the shed. His beak tapped the window and his dusty feathers ruffled in agitation.

He stared at the creature outside.

The large black squirrel continued to peer intently through the window, like an announcer mediating a sporting event. Its cotton ball tail stopped its manic twitching as the two imprisoned creatures made eye contact and began to wait out the night.