“Started this piece a couple years ago: what happens when a seduction goes surrealist.”
By Tala Fehsel
“Well, aren’t we all dressed up and fancy!” the muffled voice came from behind the door as the woman on the other side unlatched the deadbolt.
Russ quickly pulled his hand back from where he’d lifted it to knock, uncomfortably aware of his employer’s scrutiny through the peephole. “Well, yes,” he admitted, smoothing down his slacks and tightening his grip self-consciously on the bottle of cheap white wine he’d picked up at the gas station before driving over. “I didn’t have time to change after work.” He shifted uncomfortably. There was sand in his shoes just from the walk from the parking lot—here by the ocean, it was to be expected.
When his boss had approached him earlier in the day she’d insisted he come in the afternoon—he’d had to clock out early to make it here in time at all. She supposedly had a conference in Minneapolis she had to prepare for. “Can’t afford to be playing around so close to the deadline,” she’d told him over the phone, lowering her voice. He’d practically been able to see the furtive dart of her eyes and the wry curve of her lips as Monica toyed with the phone cord. “What’re you doing this afternoon, Connors? I got an opening if you want to…mm. Get together. Just for a bit.”
Russ hooked a finger into his damp collar and loosened it, swallowing. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when she’d given him her address. She was an executive, after all—he should have known he wouldn’t be following his GPS to an inner-city suburb. Still, he’d felt his heart start to sink the moment he’d caught that first glimpse of the coastline from between towering condominiums. Why here? The cool, salt-tinged breeze that greeted him when he stepped out of the car was a stinging slap to the face. Nothing could have stripped him of his confidence and anticipation for the evening so effectively.
Distantly, the voices of wheeling seagulls echoed like crying children.
“Aw, I’m just playing with you, Connors. Come on in! Glad you found the place.” Monica’s unfiltered voice finally emerged, along with a sun-bleached slice of her face, as the door swung open. She left it open, dark hair swinging behind her. “Well, what do you think? Some location, mm?” No formalities—the wealthy woman didn’t waste much time bandying words.
Yvette wouldn’t have liked her, Russ thought as he followed obediently after the black-haired woman. He closed the door behind her, trying to force his ex-wife out of his mind. He couldn’t help it—since the divorce, Monica was the first woman who’d shown any interest in him. How he—of all people!—had managed to catch her attention he wasn’t sure. He’d been grateful at the time. Now, with her standing before him throwing the curtains open to show off her million-dollar view of the turquoise bay, he felt weak at the knees for a different reason.
Monica turned, raising a brow and surprising him. “Cat got your tongue, Connors?” He tried to find his voice to answer, but she grinned suddenly instead, misunderstanding his silence. “I know. Breathtaking. I always wanted a room with a view when I was growing up.” As she talked, she moved in closer to him, snaking out with a slender hand to caress his chest. “Always loved the ocean.”
It was what Russ had been expecting, but for some reason his eyes were fixed on the open window, on the ocean, on the ripening orange sky as the sun wound closer to the horizon. The light turned her into a shadow, a featureless silhouette against the portrait of seeming tranquility behind her.
Come on, Russ urged himself suddenly, Snap out of it.
“Yeah. Great,” he managed to force out and she drew away. He caught a glimpse of her face and the moment of uncertainty that passed across it before it was replaced by amusement.
“There’s better views, though,” she said, arching a brow as she turned away from him. She shut the window, flipping the latch to lock it. The faintly audible chatter of the beachgoers and barking of dogs in the surf vanished with it, leaving them standing in uneasy silence. She dusted off her hands and crossed the room, towards the kitchen, plucking the bottle of wine out of his hands. “C’mon, I’ll pour you a drink. You all right, hon’? You’ve barely said two words since you got here.”
“No, no, I’m fine,” Russ said quickly, suddenly anxious to reassure her. His fists tightened in anger at himself and he rubbed them on his slacks, taking a deep breath. Calm down. Don’t mess this up. “Just—I used to love the sea too. It… surprised me.”
Monica returned from the kitchen, holding two glasses of white wine and a second bottle. “Surprised you?” She passed him one and beckoned him towards the living room. He trailed after her helplessly. She too was wearing the same outfit she’d been wearing at work that day, albeit barefoot and minus the blazer. He could see where she’d kicked off and left her heels after getting home—they lay discarded beside her desk, which was drowning in a jumbled nest of paperwork.
Apart from the desk, the apartment was surprisingly clean; all dark wood and attractive houseplants and flickering holographic flames in the fireplace. There was an enormous fifty-gallon aquarium in the next room along the far wall. He glanced into it as he passed, but apart from the vibrant corals and anemones within, it seemed to be empty.
“It’s just plants.” Monica’s voice surprised him and he turned to see her seat herself with a flourish in a leather armchair. He sat down uneasily as well, across from her and the tank. “Used to have fish too, but they can’t handle the water around here. I pump it in straight from the ocean to keep the pH balance right.” She swirled her glass and sipped from it, blue eyes never leaving his.
“Really? That seems a little ironic,” Russ said, glad that there were no windows visible from his seat. He was happy to have something else to look at. Here, in this room, he thought he could get himself together again. He could pretend that they were in the office, in a hotel, anywhere but looking over the place where he’d once run and laughed and built sand castles on the shore with his little girl.
Monica shrugged. “Hell if I know why. Nothing lives here.” She swirled her glass again, lips pursed as she stared into it.
“Oh, really? Isn’t that dangerous?” Russ struggled to keep focused on her. It was alarmingly difficult even as she stood up and seated herself again next to him.
He could smell the wine on her breath as she leaned in, brushing a dark strand of hair away from her eyes. “Danger doesn’t stop them. Doesn’t stop anybody from living here, even with the drownings like they are.” He could feel her body heat through his slacks. He turned wordlessly to face her. “What can I say? I live on the edge.” It was like they were having two different conversations.
Come on, move! Russ was frozen—his boss’s words, not her presence, had paralyzed him. She leaned close to him to brush a brown curl out of his face and the fragrance of her perfume washed over him, but somehow all he could smell was salt on the ocean breeze.
What’s wrong with me? He’d been so lonely since Yvette left, since he lost his family, since the accident. Monica’s fingers slipped down past his ear, cupping his chin for a moment.
A pang constricted his heart for a moment. An image of a little pink plastic bucket, brimming with seashells, made him close his eyes.
When they opened again, Monica was watching him. She set down her glass and stood up. “Connors—Russ. Look, you all right? We don’t have to do this, you don’t seem like yourself.”
His throat was dry. He swallowed. “I’m just tired,” he finally said, voice a little raspy. “It’s been a long day. I’m not feeling too great. I… maybe I should go.” God, you idiot! Was he really giving up something he’d dreamed about for months because of something that had happened years ago? I have to move on! Yvette had moved away and built herself a new life. She wasn’t about to forgive him.
“Maybe you should,” his employer agreed reluctantly, pulling away. “Monday blues? Hope it wasn’t something I said. Hell, I was just—”
He’d stopped listening. Something far more compelling in the room had caught his attention. Something was moving in the tank. It was barely visible, but his eyes were drawn to it. “What’s that?” he asked, interrupting her completely so that she fell into a startled silence. He pointed.
Monica leaned in, squinting. Her dark hair tickled his ear, but Russ ignored it. “Where?” she asked doubtfully. Russ jabbed a finger at the aquarium. It was becoming clearer as the gold-tinted light from the sunset passed through the glass—“There’s a fish,” he said, suddenly sure of what he was seeing. Monica shook her head. “I don’t see anything. Connors, maybe you should get some rest—”
“I can’t believe it,” he interrupted her again, leaning forward in fascination. Another one caught his eye—there was more than one inside. The water and glass were both so clear that it seemed almost like its occupants were swimming in the air instead. “They’re transparent,” he murmured, leaning closer. “I can see their bones—why do they glow like that? Are they like moon jellies?”
“What the hell are you talking about, Connors? You got—oh goddammit.” The high-pitched electronic trill from a nearby phone receiver suddenly startled them both. Russ jumped, elbow bumping the tank. The sting of a mild electrical pulse tingled through him and he jerked back, clutching it and breathing hard. The phone rang again. Monica stood up, placing an uncertain hand on his shoulder. “It’s probably about the conference. I gotta take this call, you gonna be okay here for a sec?”
“Yeah,” Russ said. She seemed unconvinced and he tore his eyes away from the tank. “I’ll be fine. Go take the call.” She hitched her mouth to the side, unwilling, but her hand slipped away from him after a moment and she reached for the handset on the side table.
She answered while walking briskly away towards the kitchen. “Monica here. Hm? Aw jeez, Schmidt, you’re kidding. Didn’t you get my memo? I told the registry to finish it up last night. Son of a bitch—” her voice faded out, leaving Russ alone with the tank of fish-shaped specters.
The tinted orange light from the window cast glimmering highlights across the now-visible school of ghostly fish, lending faint white outlines to shapes that suggested what they might once have been. There were more than he’d thought: a koi, wraithlike whiskers trailing—a lionfish with tattered, gauzy fins a halo of spines—a remora lost without its predatory companion.
“No eyes? How do they see?” he wondered out loud to himself. The blank sockets were strangely sobering. If they had any organs at all, in fact, he could see none—only the stark shapes of their ribs like picket fences with faint, gossamer skin bundled about them. They must be almost invisible without the right lighting. Amazing! His eyes wandered to the shape of one small angelfish, whose gossamer fins peaked above and below her bony body like sails on a ship. Monica must have had them all this time without knowing. They must have come in with the water from the bay.
“No wonder you’re all skin and bones if she never feeds you anything,” he muttered to himself, trying to shift his eyes away from their troubled ones and feeling in his pockets for crumbs. His thumb and forefinger closed around one and he rolled it between them meaningfully. “I wonder…” Russ glanced guiltily over his shoulder. Monica was still arguing with her client in the kitchen.
I don’t think she’ll mind. What other reason would they be so interested in him all of a sudden? He reached out a hand to lift the cover. As he’d suspected, several of the ghostly fish rose with the movement of his hand and circled, restless and shark-like, at the surface. “Here you go, little guy,” he whispered. His hand lowered itself a little further. A slender creature with a razorback tail gaped hungrily just below where he’d pinched the morsel, and he brushed his fingers together a little to release it.
As he did, his fingers skimmed the water.
“Ach, ye’ no-good scunners, catch her bearings!” bellowed a white grizzly of a man where he stood, granite and unmoving, at the freighter’s prow. “Get the cargo amidships ‘afore we break aground, and put some damn muscle into it!”
Water splashed, dousing the hatch below deck with salty brine. The shine of the ocean all around them was indistinguishable from the gleaming reflection of rainwater coursing across the deck. Dark, scattered figures of men scrambled to and fro like ants.
Russ planted his feet and heaved at a crate, one of his fellows seizing the other end so that he stumbled. His boots could find no purchase on the slick floorboards. “C’mon!” shouted the other man, face hidden as the ominous creak from the vessel’s prow grew louder. “Don’t mess around! Skip says he’ll have all our hides if we don’t—”
He was cut off as, with a reverberating crash, the freighter lurched. They braced themselves, sailors toppling left and right as seawater gushed across the splintered hull, but as Russ stumbled back he felt the backs of his knees strike the handrail. Another seizure shuddered through the deck. For a moment, as he felt his feet float free of solid ground, everything was strangely calm.
“We’re breached!” the bearded captain was roaring, voice somehow finding its way to his ears even as he fell, “Save what you can! Into the dinghies—”
Russ struck the water like a slab of cement and arched his back with a cry of pain lost in bubbles. Ice-cold waves closed in over his head with a triumphant clap. Cold and darkness seared his flesh, tossed his ragged form, and yet—even after his lungs had long since crumpled—there was no breath. No relief—no escape. Something was weighing him down. Strange, how the panic only set in after he’d watched his own body sink into the depths.
Russ’s hand smacked against the cover as he wrenched it back, breaths shaky. It hurt, but the sting was nothing compared to the vivid slice of memory he’d just experienced. His blood pressure was a mindless roar in his ears like that of the raging storm he’d just lived through. Except he hadn’t lived. He’d… well, he’d died. Himself, or someone else?
“Connors? All right in there?” Monica called, receiver pinned between ear and shoulder. She directed her voice back to the phone “Sorry Schmidt, my houseguest is making a racket. Yeah, just had him over to—hey, don’t waste that!”
Russ’s fingers had curled around the neck of the second wine bottle she’d left on the side table. The ghostly fish continued to watch him, immobile, suspended in the water. Fish. Fish didn’t live through what they’d showed him—there was something else in there. Something that had been trapped for a long time beneath the waves. He had a feeling he knew what they wanted him to do—a feeling he knew what he had to do. Sweat broke out across his brow as his grip tightened. What am I doing?
There was a crash. Monica stuck her head out from behind the counter just in time to see the cheap bottle of wine break harmlessly against the glass, showering the hardwood floors with glittering shards. The ghost fish did not scatter, as one might have expected. Mute, fins fanning, they watched.
“What’re you—aw, Christ, Schmidt, I’ll have to call you back.” Monica dropped the phone and rounded the counter with a curse. She slipped in the puddle of spilled wine, wind-milling her arms to keep her balance before righting herself. “Are you all the way out of your damn mind, Connors?”
Russ dropped the jagged neck of the bottle with a clatter, a kind of hysteria setting in. He looked around wildly and seized a footstool, staggering with it. “There’s people in there! Spirits or something!” he managed to get out, swinging the stool. It rebounded off the reinforced glass harmlessly. Spirits of the drowned, he thought, and his stomach lurched and knotted as if it was full of iron.
“They’re what? Stop, stop! What the hell’s gotten into you?” Furious, she grabbed his arm and tried to pull him back—he fought her, struggling towards where the squadron of blank-eyed skeletons mutely observed their struggle. She dug in her heels and hauled uselessly on him but he waded on until he was back at the aquarium.
“Stop it!” Monica yelled, “Stop! Are you out of your damn mind?” The light over the tank toppled into the water and sparks sizzled around it, but the ghost fish only glowed brighter.
He slapped his hand against the glass and felt the shock of electricity cut through it, shifting in waves beneath his skin. Russ gritted his teeth and pushed harder. Through eyes watering from the fumes of the alcohol, he saw the place where his splayed fingers touched the glass. The ghostly fish had clustered around it. The charge intensified. He heard Monica’s breath hiss out behind him and realized that even she could see them now, but stubbornly enough, neither of them let go. He closed his eyes.
A single gauzy spirit slithered through the glass between his fingers.
It rested for a moment, fragile as a butterfly newly emerged from the cocoon, on the back of his hand. It fanned its misty fins slightly as if to test the air before takeoff. Russ recognized it as the one he’d been feeding before. The ghost fish felt like a trickle of water itself, cool against his skin. He stared at it. Monica’s fingers were wrapped tighter around his bicep than a blood pressure cuff, but he could hardly feel it. Come on! All his concentration was focused on the tank.
Spirits abruptly gushed from the place his hand met the glass, swirled in chains of silver up his forearm. They passed, phantoms, through the skin and tendon of his hand and splintered off his shoulders, clinging tight to their savior as if he were their only coral reef in the world.
He distantly heard, not felt, Monica let go as she shouted something about water. He was already beyond the physical touch of reality. He found himself transported once more—
“Cut it out, you guys!” Russ heard himself give a nervous laugh, swatting away someone’s hand. He was a teenager, bare feet stinging on the steel-ribbed dock. The girl crossed her arms, tossing her blonde head haughtily, and Russ found himself doing the same. The atmosphere was light, sun searing the beach golden. Other teens lounged in the shade of striped umbrellas along the shorefront.
“Aw, Chels! Why’d you wear a bathing suit if you weren’t gonna jump in with us?” one of the boys asked, dark brows knitting together. He combed his fingers through his wet, dark hair ruefully. “You’re such a buzzkill sometimes, you know that?”
“I’m not a buzzkill!” Russ—or was he Chelsea?—protested hotly. “I just don’t want to! It’s not hot enough yet to jump in.”
It was a lie. Russ could feel the sunburn on her shoulders, the heat radiating from the surface of the dock, her dry lips. There was a cold sweat on the back of her neck.
“Oh, come on!” a taller youth said with a chuckle, grabbing her around the waist from behind. Russ felt his arms pinned to his sides and struggled, surprisingly ineffective. “Anyone believe that story? I think little miss Chelsea needs a little motivation!”
“Put me down, Tam!” The demand was ignored. “Put me down right now! Jory, do something!” Her voice rose, shrill, as Russ felt them stagger forward in the tall boy’s arms.
The dark-haired teen from before made a little sound of protest and stepped forwards, looking uneasy. “Dude, maybe we shouldn’t—” he started.
“On three!” Russ’s captor was already sing-songing, hoisting the struggling girl up in his arms as if he was about to carry his new bride across the mantle of their new home. The other stragglers clustered around, chanting. “One—”
Jory pushed one of them aside, angrily. “Two—“ Still shouting and struggling, the girl reached a desperate hand out to him. “NO! I CAN’T, I CAN’T SW—”
“Three! In we go—!”
And again Russ hit the water. It was shock this time, more than cold or actual impact, which paralyzed him. She kicked her legs desperately and clawed at the liquid, fingernails catching in mottled seaweed. Her head breached the surface, gagging and sputtering, before gravity dragged it below a second time. He was blind—Chelsea’s eyes were squeezed shut, blocking out all light, all vision. There was a disturbance in the water, a cold current that swept past her skin even as she flailed, sunk, and her lungs screamed for air. Her eyes flew open in surprise as someone grabbed her hand—even in the murkiness, Jory’s face was easily recognizable. He kicked his legs strongly, pulling her back towards where the midday sun still touched.
Something hauled her back and jerked hard on his arm like a rubber band. Russ felt a pain at his ankle and they looked down—a thickly-braided strand of seaweed had wrapped itself around her foot. Jory tugged uselessly on her hand as she lashed out with her leg, desperate to free herself. The knot only pulled itself tighter. Russ’s chest was burning. They couldn’t keep this up—her limbs were sagging—the seawater fire in her lungs—a stream of bubbles escaping Jory’s mouth as his lips shaped ‘No!’ and her weakening fingers slipped away from his—
“You idiot, what the hell did you do?” Monica was screaming. Water was gushing across the floor of the apartment, pooling from around the soles of Russ’s feet. It welled up from the woodwork, from the walls—it filled the empty vases, slopping clear as crystal against table legs. He glanced at it, but the tank was still fully intact. This was coming from somewhere else. Memory? It poured in, a monsoon that lapped at the man’s knees, rising with the intensity of a flash flood.
“What the hell?! There can’t be this much water in that tank!” His employer was swishing her way backwards across her flooded living room, putting as much distance between herself and the orbiting system of ghost fish around the brown-haired man as possible. “Are you happy now?!”
He’d fallen to his knees, water creeping to his shoulders, racked by the imprints of death after death, drowning after drowning, a hundred times trapped beneath the surface of that which had consumed his life. There was no escape, no escape, no escape—
His surfboard buckled under him and his knees soon followed. The two of them were tossed into the air as he slipped, the board tossed high by the crest of the wave. The man himself fell in a tumble of seafoam and tangled limbs. Nothing out of the ordinary. This must have happened numerous times before, but this time as he pitched back, his dazed eyes focused on the board being pushed down at him from above. It struck him in the gut along the long edge, the ocean’s force behind it. He felt something break in his chest and collar. The pressure in his head exploded as the surf surged over him and drove his head into the bottom like a hammer drove a nail—
He’d been borne up by the swelling water, now lapping hungrily at portraits on the walls. Russ couldn’t hear Monica anymore—whether that meant the waves had pushed her to a different room or whether she’d met a fate not unlike those of the ghost fish, he couldn’t know. What have I done? He wondered. There was only a few feet left of air between the top of his head and Monica’s ceiling—
Panic set in as the water suddenly seemed to be pulling at the snorkeler’s legs. It dragged her backwards, sucked her greedily into its undertow. It was as if the sea had spotted her, an unwanted speck, and simply meant to vacuum her away. The water drained from the shorebreak, which had seemed so close only moments before. Terrified, she fought to swim back towards it, but the riptide was too powerful. It was not so much deeper than her head, out here—just deep enough.
Russ’s body came back to life and he struck out instinctively with both arms, sending clinging spirits reluctantly scattering. The motion was slowed within the denser liquid as if time itself was winding down. His heartbeat throbbed, a scratchy motor in his ears driven by fear. He hadn’t expected this.
Well, what were you expecting, Russ? he wondered, kicking out with his legs. The man rose clumsily to the surface, kicking off his shoes as he did. He tread water, wavelets lapping at his chin as he gulped in the air he knew from the memories he’d experienced to be all-too-precious. A sick guilt had descended on him. Don’t panic. He couldn’t panic, or he’d sink. He seized a cast-iron light fixture in both hands, holding himself barely above the apartment’s rising tide.
Russ cast his eyes about for his employer, blood pumping from adrenaline. “Monica!” he shouted, tilting his head back as the water crept up his collar another half-inch. “Monica, where are you?”
A faint cough, a sputter, and then—“I’m here!”
His fingers slipped and his head plunged under. For a moment, he lost her. Then his gaze finally touched the corner of the dining room where the woman’s silhouette was illuminated against the window where she clung against the torrent, fingertips anchored in the curtain rack. It was an eerie parallel to when she’d stood before it not ten minutes ago. Cool, collected, latching it shut against the evening breeze. That image had since been submerged entirely. Inky hair fanned out around her shoulders in a halo, a cloud of night. The lacy curtains wafted gently around her like fairy wings.
The window. The wings. He could see the ghost fish beginning to track him like bullets through the deluge, swirls and eddies bright as stardust. If he did not first drown in the literal sea gushing in from a place far between, he would soon drown in the agony of their shared experience. He’d been left weak and reeling only from what he’d lived through so far. Perhaps a death like Monica’s was more merciful. After all it was, at the very worst, only once…
No. He kicked his feet and burst back to the surface for the third time. He drew in breath, steeling himself for the plunge. He’d failed, out on the beachfront three years ago when his little girl had fallen into the water and never came back up. He’d failed when he’d run for help instead of for his daughter. He’d failed his company, failed his wife, failed his family—she wasn’t going to die too. Neither of them were—not at the hands of the ocean, anyway.
I know what I have to do…
With a deep breath in the last inch of oxygen the room could lend him, Russ dove. He stroked, cupping water between his palms and pulling himself through its depths with eyes fixed on Monica’s form. The water distorted the light from the window, bathing her in wavering orange. I’m coming…
Something cold seared at his shoulder. Russ didn’t have to turn his head to know it was one of the ghost fish, their ranks reassembling. There was that sickening rush of projected thought—The ice underneath his boots cracked ominously. His eyes widened as with a snap like breaking bones, the jagged fracture drew itself across the frozen canvas. Sheets of ice toppled in on themselves as he fell into the frigid waters below and beat desperately at the shelf that closed in above his head, the alarmed shouts of his friends a faint echo in the back of his mind—
Russ shook it off with a great shudder, forcing his arms and legs to keep stroking, to keep fighting towards Monica. He could see her fingers slacken and her arms release. The water must have reached the ceiling by now. Slowly, like a drifting feather, she began to fall.
He threw himself forward, feeling his knees skim the top of the submerged leather sofa and using it to push off from. More and more fish had clustered around him, skeletal and haunting. As their stories clamored for attention he fought them off like dreams, like nightmares, focusing on that single point of light. Waves crashed along the rocky shoreline, seabirds circling high overhead with cries of anguish, the scent of brine and seaweed a heavy musk in the air—
Russ forced it away. Bubbles were escaping Monica’s mouth, eyelids fluttering closed. “I’m coming!” he wanted to cry out to her, but could not. He reached out for the woman with a final kick, fingers almost brushing her slowly sinking body. There were plenty of lifejackets on board that day, but when Garrett’s father offered one to him he laughed and waved him off, beer in one hand. It was a sunny morning when he stepped onto that—
He tore through the vision again and grasped belatedly for her wrist, seizing it. He braced his feet against the windowsill itself and pulled her up, head locked underneath his elbow with his other laced around her ribs. “Don’t you die, dammit!” Russ wanted to curse, wanted to cry even as he struggled to bear both of their weights. Monica was immobile and floppy in his arms and his lungs had begun to burn from the exertion and strain, a feeling somehow a thousand times more real in his own body than when he’d felt the telltale signs through the others. Not ten minutes ago she’d been seated beside him, warm and lithe, white wine sweet on her breath—
Another remembrance surged as the herringbone patterns of the ghost fish streaked across his vision, settled like flies across his body. The labored breathing of scuba equipment filled his ears, along with a slow beeping, growing louder and louder. Hadn’t their guide said something about a reserve tank?– No! The brown-haired man fought against it, struggling to hoist Monica back towards the enormous window that looked out over the bay. It was their only chance. His head throbbed from the pressure, lungs stretched tight and aching like skin across a drum. If he could just get it open again…
Russ’s fingers stretched out, bumbling and clumsy, for the latch—
Everything was big through the eyes of a child. Adults towered, skyscrapers in a city of sunscreen and swimsuits as the toddler obediently tagged along in the shadow of who one could only assume was her father. Russ had a plastic purple sand pail clutched in one chubby hand, which he was swinging with great pomp. There were seashells scattered at the bottom of the bucket like an assortment of candies.
“Daddy?” she piped, running to keep up with the man. Her bucket of seashells jangled merrily at her side. Her little voice was questioning. “Daddy, if I spend a sand dollar, will the mermaids come?”
It was as if someone had stabbed him in the stomach. His fingers strained desperately, fumbling the metal clasp. Monica was slipping beneath his other arm and he tightened his grip. Was it already too late for her? For them both?
Something had caught her eye a little way into the shallows. It looked like another seashell—but this one was different, bigger than the others. She slowed to a trot, curly brown head turning. She was mesmerized—especially by the color. It was a pale pink, just like her swimsuit. “Keep up, Katie!” her dad reminded her without looking back, but the name—the voice—sent chills of horror down Russ’s spine.
The world was beginning to darken around the edges, the glimmering shapes of the ghostly school fading out to little more than pinpricks of light around this last sight, this last hope. The latch. If he could just get it open—if he’d just run a little faster that day at the beach—
There was water rippling around her ankles where she stood, feet bare against the slimy rock underfoot. The algae felt funny between her toes. She tugged hopefully at the shell, which was half buried in a pocket of sediment. It was even better than a sand dollar—it was like a whole crown, all for herself! She squatted down to pry further, the tide lapping across her knees as she yanked at it.
“Katie! Come back from there! There’s a drop-off, it’s dangerous!”
She looked up, startled and frightened at her father’s shout. She hesitated for a moment. What if he was mad at her? Was she going to get in trouble? She pouted, stubborn, and wrenched again at the shell. She would be like Ariel in the Little Mermaid with her very own seashell crown atop her head. Why was it stuck so fast?
Seawater trickled down Russ’s cheeks. Or were those tears?
Her pail splashed to the side with a clatter, dumping its load as a wave rocked against her knees. She slipped on the algae-slathered rock, pitching backwards with a little cry of shock. She could barely open her mouth to scream before salt water rushed in to fill it, filling her ears, her eyes, her nostrils. There was no rock beneath her feet. Panic rose, screaming within her. She could not hear the shouts that Russ remembered, she could not see Russ himself as he dropped his bag and ran for the water.
The last thing the little girl saw as she sunk were her seashells, tumbling like a rain of flower petals from the upturned purple pail.
The window burst open.
Russ braced himself against the windowsill as the ocean roared out from behind him. How it didn’t carry the two of them with it as it surged, erupted from the eighth-story window in a tidal wave of sheer power, he couldn’t know. All he knew was holding on for dear life, crushing Monica’s waist with his left arm and the window ledge with his right. Thousands of misty droplets coursed from the opening as the geyser emptied itself into the sunset, shattering like stained glass.
It left behind two very wet, bedraggled human beings, water still spilling in a waterfall from the window ledge around their bodies.
She gagged and he quickly released her—the woman hauled herself up on hands and knees and vomited, bedraggled black locks a greasy curtain in front of her face. “You’re dead, Connors,” she rasped, hacking. Shuddering racked her form as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, limbs trembling where she knelt. “The hell.. just happened. My house. You’re so. Dead. Ugh.”
Somehow, Russ knew she was wrong. Blessed oxygen flowed into the man’s cramped lungs as he breathed in, reveling in all the scents, all the sounds. The dogs barking along the surf, the people on the street. The marvel of that breath was something he would never forget: the promise of life.
He looked up—now that the water had stopped, the ghost fish were back, streaming past the two of them in currents and eddies of swimming, silver-boned bodies. The last dying rays of the sun struck them in full for the first time as they flitted through the air like hummingbirds, cloaking each skeletal form in light. A koi—a lionfish—a remora. They streamed from Monica’s open window like butterflies, soaring their way into the peach-brushed clouds. His heart lifted a little—they, too, had been saved. There was hope out there for them. For him.
As Russ Connors settled back on the windowsill to sit and watch the glimmering display, something brushed against his face. He lifted his chin in surprise as the little angelfish flitted once, twice about his head. Astonished, he cupped his hands and the creature settled in them, gossamer fins gently fanning. She brought with her no dizzying rush of memory. Only a quiet sadness. Forgiveness.
For a moment, they both were still.
“Go,” he whispered, and felt her brush, feather-light, against his lips before she too fluttered from his fingertips and was gone—streaking her way not down, but up.