Albert grunted as he rowed the last hundred feet towards the blank shore. It wouldn’t be blank for long. Soon it’d be teeming with more life than beads of sweat on Albert’s body. At least he was working off the cheeseburger.
The water grew shallow and the oars buried themselves in sand with each stroke. Finally—and with the crunch of sand against the bow—he arrived. Albert slung his bag across his shoulder and planted his feet on the shore. Barren island stretched out ahead.
He peeled open the bag, searching for his notebook, spiral-bound and pristine. His fingers met its spine and sharp corners instantly. Transcribed in Albert’s own neat handwriting were the Planner’s specs: Beachgrass, scattered palms, deciduous trees, small animals. NO PREDATORS. Satisfied, he hung the notebook from his belt. This would be his first gig, thanks to his fellow Placer and mentor—Howard—after another arduous training session and the customarily boozy lunch which followed.
Training with Howard was grueling. He’d ask for a kiwi and grow upset when Albert produced a kiwi, chiding him over how he wanted the one with the tiny wings, not the more edible kind.
“Hey! Would He screw this up? Why should us Placers be any different?” Howard took the kiwi from Albert and took a bite. “Sure we’re taking over for Him, a lot of stuff on His plate recently, but it doesn’t give us the right to be sloppy.”
Howard sighed. “Okay, here’s a hint: six dots.”
It took a few moments for Albert to put three and three together.
He opened the bag again and deftly found the bird pocket without ever needing to take his eyes off Howard’s leering grin. It still impressed him how each pocket expanded, how the tiny pouches inside with their studded flaps stretched well beyond the limits of each pocket that held them and the bag that held the pockets. Albert had learned not to question the why or the how of it, just accept that it was part of His design.
The studs on the flaps told him what each minuscule pouch contained, and he spent months memorizing patterns. Eventually—and through much trial and error—the dots sank in and Albert had earned his Pouch Identification Proficiency certification. He’d hung the plaque over his collection of rulers.
He produced the confused bird for Howard’s inspection. Howard nodded, complained about his feet getting tired, and suggested they go to the Eastern for lunch. Albert stooped down to let the kiwi hop off his palm. It scurried away into a patch of tall reeds.
A few wooden tables were scattered around the pub. Placers and Planners clustered in cliques. Howard changed to his off-duty attire: jeans and a graphic tee stating that IF IT AIN’T PLACED IT AIN’T LIVING.
“A little out of the way, but we need it done soon to meet deadline,” Howard told him between bites of stew. A little piece of carrot clung to his two-week beard. Albert resisted the urge to wipe it from his chin. “Otherwise it’s pretty standard fare. I’d pick it up myself if I didn’t have so much else on my…bowl!” Howard ripped into a loud guffaw and clapped Albert on the shoulder, sending his fries flying. “I wish you’d laugh, heck I’ll take a smile. Even once. All those gotchas I threw your way and not even a chuckle!”
“I’ll laugh when you say something funny,” said Albert. He took another bite of his burger. The tomato slid out and plopped onto his plate with an unappetizing splat. Why couldn’t He have made the tomato so it didn’t slide all over the place?
Howard grinned with fleshy cheeks. “That’s the Albert I know, all right.” He waved his hand and Sophie came by. Albert straightened himself out in his seat, throwing back his shoulders to make himself seem taller than he already was. He kept coming to the Eastern in the hopes that someday he would find the courage to ask Sophie out. In the process of finding that courage he became a regular.
Albert caught Howard catching the plunge of her neckline. Sophie caught Howard as well, sighing as her tunic expanded across her chest. Somewhere in the pub a groan resounded.
“Another ale, then? If He hadn’t forbid cannibalism, I’d offer you some bacon.” She rubbed the same spot of her chin where the carrot had nested itself in Howard’s beard. The morsel dislodged itself, plopping into Howard’s beer. It drowned in a ring of bubbles.
“Guess I’ll need another now, won’t I?”
“As long as He approves.” She pointed a finger out the door. Technically, she should have pointed just a little bit to the left, past the pinball table in the corner. Beyond that was His house, perched upon the first hill He had ever made as a child.
“He doesn’t need to worry,” Howard replied, “because Albert here is taking the job. His first solo one, too. I can drink ’til I puke.”
Sophie beamed at Albert. “That’s great!” She looked like she was going to hug him. Maybe after this job she would. Her smile turned flat as she turned to Howard. “Sometimes I wish you would spew. Then maybe finally He would toss you out like the bum you are.” Howard shrugged and killed his beer, swallowing the chunk of carrot whole.
It was going to be Albert’s first real job as a Placer, and he was feeling fine.
Currently, he felt a little less fine. The island held no companionship except for his notes and his thoughts. Still, it was a job to do and Albert wanted to do it well. Further up the beach the sand rose into a small dune. As good a place to start as any, he thought.
As Albert climbed the dune the squish of his water-logged socks made him wonder why he thought sneakers would be a smart choice. He made a mental note to wear sandals for his next beach job. The whole of the island stretched out in front of him, nothing but sand and rocks for now.
He was after Beachgrass: three dots—two aligned horizontally, one just below and to the right. He found it in a few seconds. After plucking just a single seed from within he smiled and felt its oblong shape between his finger and thumb. He continued to worry at the seed, feeling it multiply until they overflowed in his palm.
Albert sprinkled the wad of seeds in his hand with deliberate nonchalance across the dune. He waited. After a few short moments spurts of green emerged from the sand, pointed optimistically towards the sky. Albert nodded and continued.
He remembered his first time he had ever Placed something under supervision. Howard clucked his tongue. Though Albert had a few inches on Howard he always felt a bit shorter when Howard went on one of his rants. “You forget? You dummy. Plants can’t grow on rocks. Not this one, anyway. You know how much paperwork your mistake is gonna land me? Two forms for the Planners. Not one, two. One for why this choice was made despite common knowledge that hydrangeas don’t grow on rocks and another for why the hydrangea need unPlacing. Never mind the fact that I still have a strike from that poodle incident! He’ll send me to mandatory Hydrangea Placing Awareness now and…” Albert got the point. While he didn’t have to go to Howard’s training, simply hearing about it was enough—a forty-minute seminar by a man who chose to be balding, claiming it made him look like a thinker.
The island was one of the most remote remaining. The Planners left it until the end, citing its remoteness and sheer boringness. Even if He came down from His house on the hill for a white-glove inspection, He wouldn’t give this island more than half a glance. So, why bother?
Albert ran through his Fifty-Two Creeds. They were the reasons he needed to do the best job he could and do it as often as possible. He created the first fourteen while sitting alone in bed one quiet night, and the rest followed over time. He repeated them every morning since, whenever he was unsure of a choice which needed to be made. Should he Place a Fir or Spruce? Run through the Fifty-Two. Soup or Salad? Fifty-Two.
A good spot for a Water Oak appeared. Three dots across and one beneath. He stooped and placed the seed on a small mound of dirt. A little splotch of green emerged instantly. These Placed florae grew faster than their offspring would—another way that He made things easier on the Placers. It beat standing around for twenty years, not that Albert couldn’t do that if he wanted to.
Feeling a little daring, he groped a little further down his bag and found the animal pocket. His instructions had been very clear: NO PREDATORS. He sat on a rock, and continued walking his fingers down the flaps until he found what he was looking for.
He felt the warmth of short fur beneath his fingertips, the minute twitches of muscle. Gently hoisting it from his bag he inspected it for a few moments. The squirrel held curiously still, sniffing at his fingers. The squirrel’s coat was full, no bald patches anywhere. The last thing Albert wanted was a defective squirrel running around. He let it go.
It landed on all fours and sniffed the dirt beneath its feet. Hearing some nonexistent noise off in the distance, it bolted for the shrubbery Albert had planted. He smiled, brought out a few more squirrels, and started his first lap around the island—sprinkling squirrels as he went.
It had been a few millennia ago when He began on his first uneasy foray into creation, one which ended with a particularly troublesome species making their planet too hot of all things. Upon His return He found a hot, lonely, smelly wreck of a planet, completely devoid of life. He discontinued Placing the species responsible and sent out a memo shortly thereafter. Until further notice, bovine were to be relegated to cheeseburger-related purposes only.
Albert finished his lap around the island, sowing trees and brushes and flowers along the supple earth bordering the sand. Soon he had some shade he could rest beneath. The rest of the island couldn’t take more than a few hours to finish so he plopped himself on a rock (no hydrangeas here) near the water. He removed his shoes, luxuriating in the feel of wet sand and cool water sloshing between his toes.
He couldn’t be sure how many minutes had passed, when a voice came from behind.
“Enjoying the breeze?” Sophie stood behind him, silhouetted by the sun.
“Oh, Sophie, you…you’re down here.”
“Can I sit?” Albert said nothing and Sophie took that as a yes. She wore sandals with a pastel floral pattern on the soles. “Should’ve brought something better than those things,” she said, pointing at the sandy sneakers leaning against Albert’s rock. “You knew this was an island, right?”
“They’re better for walking around than sandals.”
“That may be, but can you really put your feet on the ground? Feel life spring between your toes and kiss your ankles? And can you do all that without getting animal crud all over your feet?”
Albert chuckled. “You might be right. What brings you down here anyway? How did you even get down here?”
“Nothing really, just wanted to see how you were getting along. Here, let me get those for you.” Sophie twisted her face a bit. Albert’s sneakers were now on his feet, letting in more water than they should. When Albert looked down he realized that they had turned into sandals. They had the same dancing flowers as Sophie’s pair.
“Isn’t that better?” Sophie asked.
“Yes, but how did you didn’t answer my seco—“
“So,” she continued, “what’s in that magic sack of yours?”
“Just the usual. Some plants and animals needing Placing. It’s pretty standard.” Albert hoped he sounded just the right amount of casual. “Got the Planner’s specs and I’m gonna get started—really started—here in a minute.”
“I’d love to see you work your magic, if you’re not shy about it.”
“There’s not much to see. You’ll get bored in a minute.”
“Not with you around.” Sophie stood, brushed the sand clinging to her pants. “Oh, you’ve got something on your shirt.”
Albert followed her finger towards the hem of his white shirt. A few dried tomato seeds clung like burs. Tomatoes strike again, he thought. Even after they were brushed away the seeds left a few reddish blots on Albert’s otherwise pristine shirt.
They talked as they made a lap around the island. Albert didn’t bother slinging the bag around his shoulder again, carrying it loosely by its strap. Worried that he was boring her, he asked how things were at the Eastern.
“Oh you know, about the same. Gets kind of boring serving you Placers all the time but it is what it is, I guess. Howard’s kind of a prick though.”
“He can be.” Albert rummaged through his bag again, found a few more seeds. He was about to Place them, but had another thought. A better idea. But was this really a smart choice? Run through the Fifty-Two. The Fifty-Two came back with a big thumbs up. No way they would fail him now.
He put the seeds in Sophie’s hand instead. “Want to do a few?”
“Only if I’m allowed. Is it okay?” Sophie tossed some around without waiting for Albert to respond. A swell of green appeared on top of a small mound of dirt. It flourished and a few yellow flowers stood bravely against the barren soil. One came dangerously close to a rock. It wasn’t a hydrangea, sure, but Albert was fairly certain that most other plants couldn’t grow on rocks. He’d have to ask Howard when he got back.
“Ohhh that was fun! I want to do some more!”
“No, I think that’s enough for right now.”
“Don’t be such a downer!” Sophie swiped at his bag. She got a hold of the strap, while Albert’s hand wrapped around the other side. The piece of leather, tested to withstand ten-thousand snags and pulls, had just encountered its ten-thousandth and first.
The strap tore and the bag went sailing.
A seed flew beneath a rock. An elm emerged from beneath, splitting the rock in two and spurting fiercely towards the sky. A sparrow shot out from the bag. It circled confusedly until it decided on a direction and darted. Just as the tree rose above Albert’s shoulders, the sparrow collided and exploded into a poof. Brown and white feathers fell gently to the ground—a stark contrast to the chaos of ferns and fish, petunias and pill bugs.
Albert grazed the flap of the bag with his fingertips, barely missing a firm grip. Something felt off—the way the canvas moved. It was too late when he noticed. It hadn’t been latched.
The bag pitched forward and yawned. As it hit the hard clay the little pouches inside began spewing their contents.
“No!” Albert shouted at the seeds and animals. Some childish part of him hoped they would heed his words, go back to their homes and stay there until plucked. Instead they scattered. A whole ecosystem in microcosm began to spring forth around them. Soon it’d be a forest contained in the space the size of Albert’s modest broom closet. Sophie shrieked as dozens of rodents scurried between her legs.
For a moment he thought of asking Sophie how her sandals were holding up now, thought better of it. The fish took priority. They were the easiest to grab hold of as they spasmed, gasping for water. They went back in easy.
“Come help me!” Albert shouted. Sophie obeyed, and together they grabbed fish by their tails and shoved them back into the bag. Albert, struggling to keep a rainbow trout from escaping his grasp, stood directly over the bag and stretched the mouth of the sack open.
A brilliantly white claw shot out. Albert yelped at the immense limb which followed, as thick as a trunk and covered in a substance he’d not seen before. The thick, viscous texture reminded him of hundreds of over-snotted handkerchiefs wrung out into a jar.
He dropped the trout in surprise. It flopped on the ground, helplessly seeking water. In one of its spasms, it brushed against the limb he could only assume was a forearm. The trout didn’t bounce away, instead clinging in place like a refrigerator magnet. In one swift motion the thing in the bag swept the fish inside. Soft smacking noises and content growls came from within, twisting Albert’s guts into a knot of terror and nausea.
The arm shot out again, feeling around for more snacks. Bits of sand stuck to its secretions. A long, pink, uncomfortably articulate tongue followed. It swept the arms and gathered up the sand. The creature Albert straddled made a discontent noise, and the maw of the bag widened.
This would be a Bad Thing. Very Bad. If the bag burst then all the plants and animals within would be scattered about the island, something the Planners would not excuse, something which would doom that project, requiring a full reset and reconsideration of the budget. These things didn’t grow on trees, after all. Even the trees had to be manufactured.
Sophie shrank into the background. Albert had to do something with this sticky, snotty beast, but what? Think, Albert, think!
He had it. “Sophie! Move my shoes like you did before! To my hands!”
“What in His name are you doing?” Sophie shouted.
“Taking him out!” Albert considered this. “Of the bag. No way to put him back in now!”
Sophie considered this request. It was like he’d asked her to put a scoop of ice cream on his steak. She shrugged, wriggled her eyebrows, and put Albert’s sneakers (now sandals) on his hands.
A circular mouth, lined with concentric, threatening teeth, emerged from the bag. Two muscular, gooey arms pulled the drawstring taut. Albert used the makeshift gloves to wrench the arms free. The rubber soles sunk in, but were not consumed. Good so far, Albert thought. He straddled the bag and pushed his welterweight strength to its limit. Soon a pair of white beady eyes followed. It was coming out.
The seams were at their limits, bulging between each stitch.
“Take it easy, don’t force it out,” Sophie said, her voice cool. “If you do it’ll just get angry.” He knew that already, remembering his training course on Removing Large Predators from Tiny Bags.
Now the chokepoint was around its neck, if such a beefy creature could even have a neck. “Come on!” Like yelling at it would help.
But, oddly, it did.
Whether through circumstance or skill or something else the beast seemed to understand. It wiggled through the opening, slowly shifting left to right. There was little he could help with. It emerged from Albert’s sack on its own.
As the greatest part of its bulk exited, it lifted Albert into the air. He grabbed whatever goopy love handles he could find. His forearms and legs stuck to the beast, but he kept his torso aloft, looking like a koala bear straddling a Eucalyptus tree. Aside from the whipping pink tongue brushing Albert’s arms, the beast plodded along as if nothing had happened. A few insects inched out, curiously, only to be snatched up and ground into a paste with startling efficiency.
Sophie sprang forward, pulling the string shut and latching the bag. Nothing more sprang out. The bag was sealed once again. Albert wanted to throw a fist towards the sky and whoop and holler until his throat grew sore. But his arms were glued, and he’d never been much for celebrating. Maybe a pint at the Eastern, but nothing more.
“Well, what do you think?” Albert asked.
Sophie cocked a grin. “You did pretty good,” she said, rubbing the side of the animal. She looked at her hand in disgust and wiped the mucus on her sleeve. The fabric of her shirt doubled in on itself.
Shouldn’t she be glued to it? Like I am right now?
“Lemme ask you something. Do you remember the specs of this island? What the Planners wanted you guys to do.”
He thought back. Assortments of deciduous trees in the center, nothing too fancy in terms of animals. NO PREDATORS. His stomach dropped. How would he explain this one? How would he explain the other predators? The huge influx of life on this tiny island? Would they buy it? Should he try to cram the creature back in the bag? He looked down at the loping figure, felt the shoulder blades move beneath his thighs. No way it would go along with that plan.
The Fifty-Two, the crux of his decision to let Sophie try this at all, had failed him. He’d have to come up with a new rule. When a woman you’re interested in asks if she can try Placing seeds, don’t let her. You might screw everything up, nearly spill millions of plants and animals on a tiny island, and wind up riding a snot monster along the beach. He turned to ask her if she wanted to hop on.
But when he looked back Sophie was gone.
Albert blinked. In her place stood Him. Him in his stereotypical chastity-white robes, flowing as gracefully as His chest-length beard. Him with His unusual gait, now floating alongside Albert, Him in all the training videos and the photoshoots, Him which never left His house, not even for a beer with the working fellas, Him alone in His high castle.
Albert’s throat went dry. He made all the rules and He held public shaming for all the Placers who had screwed up. He made them walk laps around His hill as Placers threw whatever rotten fruit they could get their hands on. Albert remembered Howard bragging about how he hit a Placer who had screwed up bad right between the eyes with an overripe borojó and how he didn’t even know what hit him.
“Don’t worry about the Grignax. I think he likes you,” He said.
Albert wasn’t worried about that. It was the impending punishment that made him sweat. Could Grignaxes (Grignaxi?) smell fear?
“So you didn’t quite follow instructions on this, did you?” He asked. Albert could do nothing but stammer. “I’m not even mad about the Grignax, more that a Placer dropped their bag like that. Isn’t that what the latch is for? And before you say anything else—yes, I do this to all the rookies so hush, please. Can’t let this get out to the other scrubs. Sorry, but you’ll have to go through some of those horrible training videos. Nearly put me to sleep watching them myself. Anyway, let’s just enjoy this walk, shall we? I don’t get out enough.”
“Wait, so I’m not getting punished?”
“Oh, you’re getting punished for this, believe you me. Probably not the walk of shame, not for a first offense, but all this needs to get cleaned up, unPlaced. Let’s just walk for a bit for now, shall we? I don’t get out much these days.”
So they walked in silence for a while, listening to the waves hit the shore and the gentle gurgles and snorts of the Grignax. Albert thought of asking Him why tomatoes were so slippery, but decided against it. The sky turned a hazy orange. As they walked past a rock, He noticed a fish flopping helplessly against its side. With a quick motion He swept up the fish and tossed it` into a mouth as wide as Albert’s arm was long. The Grignax chomped down on it graciously. Albert felt the creature’s muscles working to digest its latest treat. He’d do without dinner tonight.
“So was that also you at the Eastern, serving us drinks?” Albert asked.
“So Howard was ogling you, then.”
He sighed. “Yeah, he was. What a prick.”
They were silent for some time, instead doing laps around the beach and tossing seeds haphazardly left and right. He didn’t mind, in fact He encouraged it by flinging a few towards the center of the island. A hydrangea seed bounced against a rock and started to sprout around it.
He chuckled. “That brings me back to that stupid ‘no hydrangeas on rocks’ rule I came up with. What was I thinking with that one?” Albert still wasn’t sure why that could be. Eventually He started to complain about his feet cramping up. The sun touched the horizon.
“Well, I guess it’s time to go. I need to give my feet an ice bath after all this walking around,” He said. “I guess I’ll see you around then, Albert?”
“Uh, I’m kind of stuck to this thing, sir.”
“Oh! Sorry about that. I’m still working on him. He’s not ready for prime time yet.” He made a noise somewhere between a groan and gargle, and the Grignax’s skin turned to glass. Albert climbed off easily.
“Thanks. Guess I’ll see you around?” Albert said.
“Good, that’s the…spirit! Get it?” He ripped off into a loud guffaw, then He was gone. Albert asked the Fifty-Three one last time whether he should bring this up to anyone. The Fifty-Three remained silent, and so did he.