“It’s last call.”
“Hey, like in that poem you know? ‘Hurry up please, it’s time!’ …sorry, I’ve had a lot to drink.”
“We all have. And I, for one, don’t really feel safe going home after everything we’ve heard tonight.”
“But all those stories can’t be true. Even if you believe in that kind of thing, there can’t be one city with so many secrets.”
“Maybe it’s not the city that’s really the problem. Listen closely: What do you hear?”
“My pounding head.”
“The bartender throwing us out.”
“My boyfriend leaving impatient text messages wondering where I am.”
“Underneath all of that, I mean. Do you hear it? The ocean.”
“But that’s miles away?”
“Doesn’t matter. We’ve got the ocean on one side, the bay on the other, and the straits connecting them. We’re surrounded by the sea; you can’t get away.”
“Maybe the ocean is the reason so many strange things happen here. Maybe there’s something in the water. Here, we have a little more time before this place is really closed; let me tell you about it…”
“My mother told me he went off to become a frogman.”
The stringer stopped writing, certain that she had misheard the old woman. They sat in a small, pretty house just a few blocks from the Ruins, a house that smelled persistently of cat despite no cat being evident. The old woman (her name was Marie Wayland; she was in her sixties but looked much, much older) had a voice only slightly more pronounced than silence and the stringer could never be completely sure that what she had written down was anything close to what the old woman had actually said.
“A frogman?” the stringer asked.
“That’s what they used to call a deep-sea diver in the old days, on account of the flippers and the wetsuit. And the goggles.” She mimed goggles over her eyes. “He always said that’s what he’d wanted to be when he grew up, so when he ran off that’s what mother told me he was doing.”
The stringer nodded and continued writing, without comment. The conversation was going on forty-five minutes and the frogman thing was the most coherent comment she’d gotten so far. She checked the time and found that the light would waning outside. She would have to hurry if she wanted to shoot the Ruins today. She skipped to her last question:
“I understand that he was an artist, but no one ever exhibited his work?”
“That’s right,” Marie said. “In fact, here.” The old woman stood; she was not a little old woman, despite her tiny voice. She was tall and thick-limbed. She reminded the stringer of a huge bird, a crane or a stork. The old woman brought out a flat package a little over a foot on each side, wrapped in brown paper.
“You mentioned that on the phone and I thought your magazine might like to use this in the article. It’s a charcoal sketch he did. Go ahead and keep it, I’ve got plenty more just like it. Hundreds, maybe. Mother kept them all, after he left.”
The stringer accepted the package, feeling as if she were receiving an unwanted Christmas gift from a relative she barely knew. She left with the package under her arm and her camera around her neck, glad to be free of that clinging cat odor. Forty plus minutes of conversation had yielded less than a page of notes, but with the sun at just the right angle on the horizon it was not too late to get some good shots of the Ruins; the day needn’t be completely wasted.
The smell of the salt breeze coming from the beach stung her nostrils. The stringer had never particularly liked the ocean. She’d rather have lived anywhere but a coastal city, but the city was where the work was. She’d had a regular position as a staff photographer at a decent magazine for a while, but now she was back to being a stringer, living off of freelance work and making it by job to job. The assignment about the Ruins had been a lucky break, but breaks were fewer and further between all the time. She crested the hill and started down the hiking trail, toward her destination.
The beach that served as the fringe to the city’s westernmost side terminated on the north in a series of rocky pools particularly hazardous to anyone traversing the coast, by land or by sea. But the spectacular views of the waves crashing against the shore had always encouraged developers to build on the bluffs overlooking the area, which is why, a hundred years ago, the old mayor built his theater palace here. People in the city would come all the way out to the beach complex for circus acts and dancing shows and the indoor pool and whatever else the wizards who owned the place cooked up. They’d even had a museum of ancient Egyptian artifacts. But in the ’50s it fell on hard times and the family sold it to an outsider, George Wayland, who closed it ten years later and then skipped town. No sooner was he gone than the whole thing burnt to the ground.
Wayland himself disappeared, apparently never disembarking from the ship that carried him away from the city. He left behind a wife, a daughter (now an old woman who lived just a few blocks away in her cat-smelling ho use), and a legacy of unanswered questions. And the place where the pool and circus and the museum once was sat untouched for decades, slowly falling apart, filling in with water and silt and wild plants until it resembled an ancient ruin. And that was what people called it: the Ruins. It was never fully torn down; folks decided they liked the look of it. The crumbling stone walls and enormous, water-filled pits alongside the beach and the coastline looked more like the remains of a Roman village than anything a turn of the century showman built. The city decided they were beautiful. Although, the stringer reflected, as she set her tripod on a hill, to her the place had always looked creepy as hell. Even when she and Randy played down here as kids, she’d never liked it.
But she couldn’t afford to only take the jobs she liked. It was fifty years since the fire and since George Wayland disappeared, and his legend had only grown, so the magazine editors decided to run a big piece: “George Wayland, Man and Myth.” It didn’t matter that there was nothing new to write about it or that the stringer’s photos would be just like any others that anyone had taken in five decades; people liked the mystery, and the mystery would sell magazines, which meant the stringer could sell photos.
She spent an hour shooting. She caught the Ruins at sunset and the Ruins at twilight and even the Ruins at night, when it was really too dark to still be shooting but she kept shooting anyway. By the time she put her camera away the only light, besides the moon, came from the hotel on the cliffs to the south. It was just enough light to see Seal Rock by, although the stringer decided that at this time of night it didn’t really look like a rock at all. It looked like some giant whale just offshore was sticking its head up to get a good look at the city. A whale, or something else.
She went home. There was a note on the door; Sam had stopped by. She’d forgotten they had plans. That explained the flashing voice mail indicator on her phone as well. She ignored both, going inside and uploading the new photos. She missed the days of her old film camera; digital just wasn’t the same, but it was cheaper and faster. Another compromise she’d made with the world. She studied the twilight photos most closely, scanning every square inch of the image. Nothing unusual was there, but she kept looking anyway. After two hours, she gave up. Another wasted day. She flopped onto the couch, picking up the magazine off the table. She turned to the most well-worn page, and there was a smiling picture of George Wayland and the headline: “George Wayland, Man or Myth?”
The magazine had gone to stands two weeks ago. She’d turned in the photos for it a week before that. The money from it had already been spent. She should have been chasing other leads, should have been getting after editors for more assignments, should have been paying her bills, but instead she kept going back to the Ruins day after day, taking more worthless photos. Hitting up the old woman had been a desperation move, and she’d felt bad about lying and saying she was there on assignment (the old bat was so senile she didn’t even remember reading the finished article when it came out), but it was the only lead she’d had. Now it was a dud too. She should give up on it. But she couldn’t. There was something about the Ruins only she knew. Something she couldn’t let go of.
Thinking about the old woman reminded her of the sketch. She’d left it by the door, still wrapped in brown paper. She retrieved it. When the package was open she flinched; it was, as promised, a charcoal sketch. It depicted a mirror-flat expanse of ocean disturbed by an anomalous sea creature breaching the surface, foam spraying from its jaws and water streaming down its huge body. It was impossible to tell what the animal was actually supposed to be, but it made her think of some kind of dragon, bristling with flippers and fins. It was impossibly ugly. A few human swimmers were added for scale; they were tiny next to the monster, so small they were practically stick figures.
The stringer frowned; why the hell would Marie Wayland give her this? Then she chided herself; the old bird was nuts, what did she expect? And what had she said? That her father had done hundreds like this? She suddenly wished she’d had it before the story went to print. The editor probably would have loved it. It would have gone great with that one ‘graph toward the end, how did it go? She picked the magazine up and read:
“Urban legend persists that Wayland himself set the fire that destroyed the pool complex. Not as an insurance scam, but to destroy the evidence of the secret, ritual murders he supposedly committed there. No serious historical evidence suggests any truth to these rumors, but local kids still sneak down to the Ruins late at night in hopes of hearing the ghostly screams of those said to have died there.”
The stringer snorted. All bullshit, of course. But people in this city loved their ghost stories. Randy had, too.
She went back to the sketch. Something about it was bothering her. On a hunch, she opened the back of the frame and removed the delicate paper. In the lower right hand corner something was written. She thought at first it was Wayland’s name or initials, but now she saw it was a word she didn’t recognize. The closest she could decipher it was:
Curious, she went the computer to look it up:
“Aspidochelone is a fabled sea monster, variously described as a large whale or vast sea turtle. It was supposedly so large as to be mistaken for an island, its great shell appearing like a rocky outcropping. In some traditions, Aspidochelone is believed to be the Bible’s ‘great fish’ that swallowed the prophet Jonah. Other myth cycles persist that it was an avatar of the devil.”
The stringer frowned. She held the sketch up to one of her photos of seal rock by night: the sea monster’s humped back was in the exact shape of the stony island. Then she looked more closely at the swimming figures Wayland drew; at first she’d thought they must be fleeing the creature, but now it seemed they were actually swimming toward it. And they did not appear entirely human; they were bulky and shapeless things, though the tiny scale made it hard to determine their exact form. Even so, a little thrill went through her. She turned to the computer and clicked the file right in the middle of her desktop. A picture of the Ruins popped up; not any of the pictures she’d taken today and not any of the pictures she’d sold to the magazine. This was a picture only she had seen, a picture taken three weeks ago, just at dusk.
Everything was there as it should be: the crumbling walls, the deep pools, the shore, the surf, the rocks. Nothing seemed out of place at first glance; she’d almost missed it herself the when she’d uploaded the photos. But there, in the deepest pool right in the center of the Ruins, just beneath the surface, there was a shape. The water was dark and the light was poor, so it was hard to tell, but it looked remarkably like a person swimming to the surface. No, not a person; not quite. Just something a little like a person. Something that might live in the water and stay out of sight of normal people, until night came, when it could come to the surface without anyone seeing…
This picture was the reason she kept coming to the Ruins. This picture was the reason she’d interviewed the old woman, and the reason she kept reading and researching about George Wayland. This was the reason she hadn’t worked or seen Sam or any of her friends in weeks. This picture, and the memory of something splashing in the water behind her as she folded up her tripod and left that day, and an older memory, one of Randy, and his frightened voice in the dark.
She held the Wayland sketch next to her monitor. The shape in the photo was ill-defined, and the figures in the sketch were tiny, but they looked alike. Didn’t they? She flipped back and forth between her photos: The rock, and the back of Aspidochelone; the swimmers, and the shape in the pool. Yes, they all matched. And that meant…
What did it mean? The stringer wasn’t sure. She rubbed her forehead; it was late, and she hadn’t slept enough all week. She turned the computer off and flopped into bed, not even bothering to take off her shoes. Outside, the wind was blowing. The branches of the trees scraped her windows. Her water bill was due tomorrow. Her rent was due a week later. She didn’t know where the money would come from. She told herself she should not spend tomorrow afternoon at the Ruins again and should not spend tomorrow morning at the library or the historical society, looking for any new information about George Wayland. She should look for work instead. But she knew that she wouldn’t. She couldn’t let this thing go. She felt like she owed it to Randy. Poor Randy. After all these years…
As she slept, she thought she heard rain splashing on her window. But she couldn’t be sure.
In her dream, she was six years old again. In her dream, her older brother was waking her up in the middle of the night. In her dream, she rolled over and said, “What is it, Randy?” And her brother sounded frightened as he said:
“It’s the man. The man from the beach.”
She sat up under the covers. She could not see Randy in the dark, but she knew he was right by her bedside. “What man?”
“The one from last night, when we snuck down to the Ruins. Remember, I told you I saw him in the water?”
In her dream she was frightened, but she didn’t show it. She knew Randy was only trying to scare her. “I remember calling you a liar. You didn’t see any man in the water.”
“I did. But he wasn’t really a man; he was all scaly, like a fish, and he had a horrible face.”
“You didn’t see any man,” she said. But her voice cracked. “Go back to bed.”
Randy was quiet for a second. She said again, a little louder:
“Randy? What’s the matter?”
In the dark, Randy shivered.
“What’s the matter is…he’s outside our window…”
The stringer was screaming. No, someone else was screaming. No, that wasn’t a scream, it was…the phone?
She sat up in bed (her feet ached; really should have taken off her shoes before she fell asleep…) and groped for her cell phone on the bedside table. The tiny, shrieking ring cut off as she pushed the button. “Hello?” she said.
“He came and talked to me,” said a tiny voice on the other end.
The stringer blinked and sat up. She checked the clock: four in the morning. Then she looked at the call number: it was Marie, George Wayland’s crazy old daughter. Never should have given the old bat my phone number, the stringer thought. “Who talked to you?” she said.
The stringer jolted awake. She almost dropped the phone, but stopped herself. After swallowing the lump in her throat she said: “Your father?”
“Yes,” said Marie. Her voice was even softer than usual, but it was brimming with enthusiasm. “We had such a nice talk. And he gave me a message for you. He told me to call you right away.”
“Marie, your father would be…” She did the math. “A hundred and four years old, and missing since 1966?”
“I know. He looked really good for his age.”
The stringer laughed; she couldn’t help it. Kicking her shoes off, she rubbed her sore feet. “So what did he tell you that couldn’t wait until morning?”
“He said to tell you that the fire was the important thing.”
“What does that mean?”
Marie sounded confused. “He said you would know.”
“Not a clue.” Now that she was fully awake and the residue of her dream was fading the conversation seemed a bit more real. She wondered if Marie had been dreaming too; or maybe there wasn’t much difference between waking and dreaming once you went that nuts?
Then Marie said: “Randy was here too.”
The stringer almost dropped the phone.
“Oh, he had a message for you also,” Marie said. “He said for you to remember what he told you about Obie.”
This time the stringer did drop the phone. When she picked it up again Marie was saying goodbye. “Wait!” the stringer said, but the call ended.
She considered calling back, but instead she set the phone aside and stared at the window, stunned. “Remember what he told you about Obie?” Impossible. The old woman couldn’t possibly know about that. The stringer racked her brain trying to remember if she had ever mentioned her brother’s name during the interview. Of course, she hadn’t; why the hell would she? She wanted to call back right that second and demand an explanation. It took her a moment to realize why she wasn’t: She was afraid.
She went to her computer. The fire was the important thing, huh? She pulled up all the notes she’d gathered about the fire at the Ruins. She read it all again. She even watched the old newsreel footage of it the fire as it happened. She gathered no particular insights from it. She sat at her desk for another hour, lost in thought. When it was late enough in the morning, she picked up the phone and dialed a number she knew by heart by now. A voice on the other end said: “Western Neighborhoods Project.” She asked for the director by name. They were one of the oldest and busybodiest historical groups in the city. If they couldn’t tell her what she wanted to know, nobody could.
She was afraid she might go to voicemail, but eventually the woman she wanted answered. “Hello Dr. Olmstead,” the stringer said. “I had another research question for you.”
“About the Ruins?” Olmstead said. “I thought your magazine already ran that story?”
“They did, but I’m doing a little follow up.” She paged through her email as she talked; no paying offers, although there were plenty of blogs who wanted permission to run her photos. None were offering any money. “I was just wondering, about the fire…” She hesitated.
“Yes?” Olmstead said.
Not entirely sure why she was asking, the stringer said, “I was wondering…is there any truth to the rumors that human remains were found in the wreckage?”
“None at all,” Olmstead said. But she said it too fast. As if she’d been expecting it and had that answer prepared.
“I see,” the stringer said. “I thought that…well, it’s just, I have a lead that there was something unusual or…important about the fire itself, and I was just wondering if there was anything that wasn’t already common knowledge?”
“I don’t think so. I’m afraid I really have to go, Miss—”
“What about the name Aspidochelone, do you know anything about that?” It was a shot in the dark, but as soon as she said it the stringer knew she’d hit the mark: Olmstead gasped. She covered the phone so that the stringer wouldn’t hear, but she was too slow. The stringer’s scalp tingled with the excitement of a new lead. “Doctor?” she said. “Are you still there?”
“Yes, but I…let me call you back.” Before the stringer could say anything the line went dead. She set the phone down, deciding to give it twenty minutes before she called back. After eighteen, the phone rang.
“I’m going to give you a name and a phone number, and then that’s the last thing I want to hear about this,” Olmstead said. The stringer didn’t argue, grabbing her notepad and a pencil. “The man you want is named Allen. I’ve already spoken with him and he has time for an appointment today. He lives here in the city.” The stringer wrote down the name and the number when Olmstead gave it.
“Thank you, Dr. Olmstead,” the stringer said. “I really appreciate—” But by then Olmstead had hung up again.
The stringer stopped to lock the door on her way out. As she did, her eyes fell across something on the floor, a wet spot on the hallway carpet. She frowned; the stain hadn’t been there the night before. Whatever someone has spilled, it smelled back, gray and briny. It reminded her of the ocean. If she turned her head, it almost looked like a footprint, although not a print that would be left by any normal foot…
She hurried down to the elevator and out into the street. Her appointment was in an hour. She could just barely make it.
The door said: “Z. Allen,” nothing else. It was the kind of nameplate you usually saw on a college professor’s door, but it was fixed to the front of an ugly little house on Laguna Street. It was so out of place that it made the stringer hesitate before knocking, and before she could work her nerve up again the door opened on its own. She was greeted by a bald, pop-eyed man, probably the same age as Marie Wayland. He smiled and greeted her by name. “Dr. Olmstead said you’d be stopping by. Let’s talk in the library.”
The library turned out to be a spare bedroom converted into ad hoc office, though there were a great many shelves full of aged books. There were two pictures on the wall, one of a young woman holding a baby and one that seemed to be a much younger Z. Allen, surprisingly wearing a fireman’s uniform. The stringer sat in the spare chair, notebook at the ready, and then she realized she actually had no idea what she wanted to ask. Allen came to her rescue:
“I suppose you want to know about the Dagonites?”
“I do? I mean, yes, I do.”
“Old Olmstead sounded annoyed when she called. She hates people pestering her about the Dagon thing, but I love to talk turkey about it. Or tuna, as the case may be.” The stringer could tell she was supposed to laugh at this, so she did.
“Are you on the board of the Western Neighborhoods Project?”
“No, I’m just someone they keep on call. Amateur historian. With my own peculiar specialties. In this case, the Esoteric Order of Dagon. What do you know about it so far?”
“Um, not much.” She scribbled the words “Esoteric order dgn” on her pad, the unfamiliar “Esoteric” spelled in full so she would not mistake it later.
” I guess you’re too young to remember the Summer of Love?”
“I’m more of a winter person.”
“Yes, there’s not too many of us original flower children left. What people don’t realize is that the counterculture wasn’t just free love and walking barefoot down Haight Street. There were all sorts of…well, I hesitate to call them cults, but let’s say, new and alternate religions and belief systems that were popping up around that time. Especially here in the city. Krishnas, the People’s Temple, Scientologists, hell, even the Church of Satan.” He made a vague gesture.
“And the Order of Dagon?”
“Indeed, the Order of Dagon. Although according to them, they weren’t exactly new. They said they were thousands of years old, maybe tens of thousands. The Dagonites were something else. A special case even in a time of special cases.”
“What did they believe?”
“Hard to say. They were very secretive. And there weren’t very many of them, maybe a dozen in the city altogether. The came from back east somewhere.”
“Why’d they come here?”
“Religious pilgrimage. They said this was a sacred site. They worshiped the ocean, you see. No, not the ocean exactly; an ocean god. They called it Dagon, but sometimes other names: Cetus or Tiamat or—”
“Yes, that was one.” He looked at her strangely for a moment. “They said that it was an ancient sea creature older than the world and they took just about any myth about a sea monster to be a story about their ‘god’ by some name or another. They were all completely nuts, of course; even back then we could tell.”
The stringer pondered for a moment. “What does this have to do with the Ruins?”
“Haven’t you guessed? Before he disappeared, George Wayland was rumored to be a convert to the Esoteric Order of Dagon.”
“So the urban legends about human sacrifice…?”
“Related. The Dagonites didn’t practice human sacrifice, of course. But they did have a peculiar ritual that made people ask lots of questions after Wayland disappeared.”
The words scribbled in her notebook jumped out at the stringer: “The fire is the important thing.” She bit her lip.
“They gave burnt offerings to their god, didn’t they?”
“That they did. Sea creatures were best, but apparently anything would do: a dog, a chicken. The bigger the better, as long as it was dead already. You could burn objects, too, if they were important enough to you.”
“The bigger the better? Say, an entire building?”
“Now you’re getting it. And with Wayland believed to be associating with Dagonites, and all of them disappearing around the same time he did, and then his complex burns down…well, you can guess what people thought.”
The stringer was writing faster than she could keep up with. “And this was an important ritual for them?”
“The most important of all. A burnt offering at the right holy site was supposed to awaken Dagon, or Aspidochelone, or whatever you want to call it. And then…”
The stringer sat forward. “Then what?”
“Well, no one else ever really could figure that part out.” Allen sat sideways in his chair a bit, looking at her in his peripheral vision. “All they would ever say is that after that you became ‘One with Dagon.’ But they’d never say exactly what that meant.”
The stringer put her notes down. “And they all disappeared?”
“In 1966, virtually the same day as the fire.” Allen folded his hands and arched his eyebrows, seemingly inviting her to draw her own conclusions.
“‘One with Dagon,’” the stringer repeated. “Is there anything else?”
“Not much. Here,” He handed her a thumb drive. “I have a special file on it, for when people come asking.”
The stringer blinked. “Do people ask about this a lot?”
“Not a lot. But often enough.”
“I’ve never heard anything about it.”
“Well, they don’t usually share what they learn.”
“You’d have to ask them. Although truth be known I understand that most of them usually leave town for one reason or another. I’ve never talked to the same person twice about it, except for Dr. Olmstead.”
Now Allen’s face told her she shouldn’t ask anything else. Taking the thumb drive, she thanked him and left.
Sam had left another note on the door: “We have to talk.” The stringer ignored it. She stepped over a pile of bills overflowing the mail slot, going straight to her computer, plugging in the thumb drive and not even bothering to check her email for the job offers that wouldn’t be there. This was more important. She poured over Allen’s notes, but in truth she didn’t really need them. She’d figured it all out. They’d given her all the answers that morning: “The fire was the important thing,” and “Remember what he said about Obie.”
In her mind, the stringer was six again, and her brother was waking her up, scared, in the middle of the night, and pointing to the window. “It’s the man in the water,” he said. “He says I have to go with him.”
She looked at the window for a split second, but then looked away. Was there really something there? She didn’t want to know. Instead she hugged the covers tighter and said, “You’re fibbing. If there’s really someone there then go get Dad.”
Randy shook his head. “I can’t. I don’t’ want him to know…” His voice faltered for a second. “I did a bad thing,” he said. “I…I dug up Obie.”
“What?” she’d sat all the way up then, too angry to still be afraid.
“I’m sorry!” Randy said. She could tell he was crying.
“He was my cat, mine!”
“I know, I know! But I’d heard, I mean, they say that if you take something, you know, something dead, and you burn it at the right spot—:”
“Burn it? You mean you…?”
“I’m sorry! I just wanted to see what would happen. I wanted to have something to show you when we snuck out. And now…now he says I have to go with him.” And Randy pointed to the window again. And she had looked. And as much as she’d tried to, she never really forgot the face she saw there…
She’d run then, screaming, into Dad’s room, and he said that it was just a nightmare. But when they got back to the bedroom, Randy was gone. The window was open, and there was water on the floor. And nothing was ever the same again.
She never told anyone what Randy said about Obie. And she never told about the face at the window, though for a long time she’d only ever remembered it in dreams. The photo made her really remember again. That shape in the water, just a little too familiar, just a little too human…
Her phone beeped; she started. Hours had passed, and it was dark out now. She assumed the message was from Sam and she was about to turn the phone off, but then she saw that it was an unfamiliar number. The message said:
COME 2 MARIES. HURRY.
And beneath that:
That was all she needed. She was out the door in a flash. She barely had the presence of mind to bring her camera. She ran two red lights crossing town. What would the tickets matter? They could pile up, unopened, with the rest of the bills. She came to Marie Wayland’s house. The door was open, so she let herself in. That strange cat odor was gone. It had been replaced by something else.
She found Marie at the foot of the stairs. She must have taken a nasty fall. Or perhaps, the stringer couldn’t help but think as she observed the wet and misshapen footprints still visible on the carpet, a nasty push? It didn’t matter. The stringer wrapped the body in a blanket and then lifted the ungainly, long-limbed corpse and hauled it outside. Dear God, she thought, what if the neighbors see me? She hastened to get the body in her backseat as fast as she could. She searched the garage and came up with a gas can that had a slosh of liquid in the bottom, and she took that too. And then she was driving to the Ruins.
There were no tourists, no joggers, and no kids around this time. That was lucky. The trail leading down was steep and she had a hard time with her arms full of the old woman’s body, and dragging the gas can along too. She wondered, briefly, if she really had to go this far with it, but the text message had made it perfectly clear for her George Wayland had needed to burn this whole place down to do the trick for himself and a dozen other Dagonites. Randy had only needed a cat, but he’d been eight years old. The bigger the better, Allen had said, so the stringer wasn’t going to take any chances. She suspected you only got one shot at this.
The ocean wind was particularly cold that night. There was no moon, but she could see the great rock off the coast anyway. Was this the right spot? It had to be. Where else was there? She set the corpse down in the rolled up blanket and doused it with gas. She hoped no one from the hotel was watching. She only needed a minute without anyone interrupting to do this right. The box of matches rattled in her trembling fingers; it took four tries to get a match that stayed lit even with the wind. She held her breath, looking at the bundle on the wet sand. Was she really going through with this? But then the match dropped from her fingers and a WHUMP! of heat and black acrid smoke hit her square in the face, and the decision was out of her hands.
The fire burned out fast, but the heat was intense. Sickening fumes from the blanket’s synthetic fibers mingled with even less pleasant odors. She held her breath as long as she could, and retched when she couldn’t. Nearby, the waves crashed against the rocks over and over again. She watched as the body burnt down to bones and the bones burnt down to ashes. She expected at any moment for someone to come along, for her to see flashing lights and hear sirens, but it didn’t happen. Nothing else happened either. When the embers were out, there was just a black spot on the sand and a lingering stench. The stringer wiped at her eyes; was that it? Had she not done it right? Or was it that she’d been wrong? That there was nothing to the stories? That she was going—
Movement. Out there, somewhere? It was dark, but she could still swear that the huge rock, the small island just offshore, was moving? But that’s impossible, she told herself, the water here isn’t deep enough for anything that big. Unless most of it is buried? Buried in the ocean floor for thousands, maybe even millions of years, only stirring when someone made the offerings, when someone was ready to become One with Dagon? And that’s when she saw the lumbering shape coming toward the shore. The man in the water. And not just one. Lots of them were coming. Lots and lots, drawn by her signal fire. They paddled toward her, scaly flesh dripping with brine. She was glad it was dark; she still remembered that childhood face at the window. She did not want to see faces like that again.
But she knew that one of those faces would be the one she was looking for. And then she’d finally be able to say that she was sorry. That she missed him. That she loved him. That she’d done all this just to see him again, one last time, no matter how.
And then? The great rock (not a rock at all, of course) was still moving out in the surf. And those things coming to shore would not just leave when she wanted them to. She had made the offering; she had signaled that she was ready to become One with Dagon. She suspected that Dagon was not the type to take no for an answer.
At her feet, in the tide, something splashed and slithered and slid through the muck on its belly. She saw something like a hand reaching up for her. If not for the wind and the surf, she would hear a roaring and crashing just off shore. It was time. It was time.
“…wait a minute, where did everybody else go?”
“They left in the middle of my story. It’s just been you and me here for a while.”
“Wow, geez, the place is closed. Chairs up and everything. Weird that I didn’t even notice…”
“You were paying a lot of attention to me.”
“I guess I was. So, is it true? I mean, did you really, you know, with the old woman’s body, and everything?”
“Does that frighten you?”
“Not really. I guess it should; it’s pretty awful. But for some reason it doesn’t. So what happened then?”
“Oh, lots of things. Do you remember what I said, that some people think Aspidochelone is the fish that swallowed Jonah in the Bible? Well, everyone knows Jonah was in there for three days, but when he came out again he might not have been quite the same anymore.”
“Isn’t that the point?”
“I mean, he might have changed more than you think. That’s what happens when you become One with Dagon.”
“But you look perfectly normal?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once. My friends can tell you more about it.”
“What was that? It sounds like something splashing…”
“Those are my friends. They’re coming here now. They want to meet you.”
“But the bar is closed?”
“That doesn’t matter to people like us. Can you hear them on the stairs?”
“Are you afraid?”
“That’s good. But don’t worry; they’ll all like you. And they have lots more stories to tell. They’ve been around for a long time.”
“I guess it’ll be okay then. …it will be okay, won’t it?”
Credit To – Tam Lin