The three story, twelve-unit luxury condominium slid into the sea on the shoulders of a moon tide, kneeling into the waves with the resonance of a ship running aground. It lay on its side, foundation sheared away, windows turned to the cloudless sky.
Glen watched its descent.
It had been his night to search the behemoth of wood and glass for squatters, to trawl the condemned units, kicking out those who lingered in the darkened rooms drinking their lives away or just trying to stay dry.
But Glen’s mind wasn’t on the bodies that may have been hidden within. He was worried about the creature that swam in the basement, its bone-knit tails and the innumerable mouths that refused to eat the food he left for it. He’d never seen it leave the space, only swimming endless laps as the building grew more and more waterlogged. He doubted it could have escaped in time.
Glen sprinted across the weedy lawn, around plantings gone to seed, and skirted the upturned edge of the building, swinging his flashlight frantically across the ruin, praying for an opening large enough to disgorge the creature he loved like a childhood goldfish, despite its unnatural anatomy, its eyeless face.
At the water’s edge, where the retaining wall and rotten decking once stood, Glen found the backdoor to unit two crushed into the sand, the boards splintered and stained crimson where the tide couldn’t reach.
“Oh, god,” Glen whispered. He knew the blood could only belong to a single source, but as he drew closer, he spotted something thrashing about through a shattered window and hope flared in his chest.
With a boot blow, the remnants of the door caved inward, and Glen crouched inside. The electricity had been cut years ago. He wasn’t afraid of sparks carrying through the water.
On the slanting floor lay a man little older than Glen, a patchy flannel jacket covering his withered frame. He’d fallen between tarnished steel appliances and decapitated chunks of marble countertop. Sheetrock sagged from the walls and flooring from above piercing the ceiling. The entire building shook with the wind.
Glen thought the man was drunk until he spotted the severed pipe protruding from his chest, pinning him to the wall. Blood was seeping between his lips as he stammered and shook, eyes wide, his arms reaching for Glen, the sound of the ocean sweeping away any sensical syllables.
Glen dialed 911 without thinking, keeping his distance. He’d read that removing an impaled object could lead to further rupture, that the debris might be holding an artery shut. His favorite childhood celebrity had died when he’d been speared through the heart by a stingray. He might have lived if he hadn’t removed the barb.
“…what’s your emergency?” the voice on the line drawled.
“I’m at three fifteen Beach Street,” Glen said, voice shaking. “The condos just fell into the ocean. The condemned ones. There’s a guy trapped around back. He’s got a pipe through his stomach. I don’t know what to do. He’s freaking out. I’m freaking—the blood’s everywhere.”
The words spilled out. Glen tried to slow his speech, to focus, to do something to help the man writhing before him. There had to be CPR techniques, some tourniquet the operator could walk him through. As he stammered into his cellphone, his eyes wouldn’t leave the crimson slick draining from the man’s chest cavity.
A sense of vertigo swept through his body, the world slipping away beneath his feet as he fell.
“What happened to the body?” a uniformed police officer asked from the end of Glen’s hospital bed. The overhead fluorescents were nauseating, the scent of chemical cleaners mixed with the saltwater smell clinging to Glen’s skin. He’d been conscious for five minutes, his girlfriend Gina beside him, holding his hand as he recalled what happened in the condos, when the detective appeared, notebook in hand. “You said there was a guy in there. With all that blood, there’s no way he just walked out on his own.”
The nurse adjusting Glen’s saline drip caught her breath, tweaked the plastic piping running down to his elbow, and ducked from the room.
“He wasn’t there when you guys found me?” Glen asked, his voice hoarse as if he’d been screaming for hours. He’d assumed the young guy was in a neighboring room, hooked up to bleating machines, artificial lungs pumping his breath.
“No. It was just you and a lot of blood. That sort of thing doesn’t look good when you examine it in a certain light,” the detective said, eyebrows climbing towards his balding scalp.
“What are you saying?” Gina asked from the side of the bed. Her dyed blonde hair was up in a haphazard bun. She hadn’t had time to change out of her pajama pants. One of Glen’s winter Carhart jackets dwarfed her short frame, making her appear more physically intimidating then she actually was.
“Just that we have a murder scene with no body and the only one present was your boyfriend here,” the detective said, patting Glen’s knee. “The blood’s all over the walls. Real unusual splatter pattern. Not consistent with a guy being impaled by a pipe. To tell you the truth, we didn’t even find the pipe.”
“It was probably the creature in the cellar,” Gina said, before Glen could put a hand on her shoulder to coax her back into silence. Images of the creature suspended in a dissection tank surfaced before him, its skin peeled back, muscle exposed on an operating table.
The detective stifled a laugh. “His boss said one of you’d bring that up. But you need proof before you start blaming sea monsters. Anything else you want to add?”
“Nothing without his lawyer present,” Gina interjected.
The detective jotted something down in his notebook, laughed, and stepped back from the hospital bed. “You think of anything, you give me a call,” he said, flicking a business card between them. It spun through the air and skidded across the linoleum when neither Gina nor Glen reached for it. Then the man was gone, the promise of future meetings hanging in the air like wisps of gun smoke after the cylinder had been emptied.
The pink slip arrived in the mail two days after Glen left the hospital. His boss hadn’t bothered to call, to offer an explanation for his expulsion. When Glen dialed the office, no one answered. They had caller ID.
He called his friend PJ instead, another laborer for SeaSide Property Management. They were close, at least as far as coworkers went.
“I heard the owner’s trying to dump this on you,” PJ said, the sound of wind and sea whistling behind him. Glen knew he was drifting through the vacation rentals in West Dennis, just off the beach.
“Dump what? There’s nothing to blame anyone for besides shoddy construction and horrendous land management,” Glen replied.
“That’s not what they’re saying around the office. If someone died in there, the higher ups aren’t going down for it, if you know what I mean.”
“I do,” Glen sighed, warm anger shifting through his stomach.
He was reclining on a thrift store sofa in the living room of their rented basement apartment, icing his head, which throbbed with the aftereffects of a concussion. Framed posters of classic paintings hung on the walls, making up for the lack of windows, and a grow lamp stood in the corner, keeping a collection of succulents and tiny cacti alive. He’d been watching a documentary on octopus, the creatures crawling in and out of tanks to snatch pray from neighboring labs. Even after one of their tentacles had been severed, it still sought food for the living body.
“I don’t know if they’re trying to get you on negligence or something, but I’d be careful. They lost a ton of money on that place. Who knows what a murder case would do.”
“They can’t call it murder when it was an accident. And they don’t have a body. How can they have a case if there’s no body?” Glen asked, imagining the thickly scaled creature latching on to the dying man’s leg, dragging him through the splintered door, its waterlogged bird songs chortling over the fresh kill. If that was the case, they’d never find the remains.
“I don’t know, buddy. It’s not like I went to law school.”
“Just let me know if you hear anything, right?”
“Yeah, no worries,” PJ replied, voice cracking through the speaker. “If you need work in the meantime, my uncle’s looking for a guy who can throw bricks for his masonry company. You know, when you’re feeling up to it.”
Gina stood by Glen’s side just shy of midnight as high tide crawled around the condo’s rotting carcass. Most of the windows had shattered in its descent, glinting shards blinking out from the sand around them. The remaining doors were flung wide, looters sorely disappointed upon realizing that the only thing left in the rooms were veins of mold and tangles of seaweed. Glen didn’t want to be there with Gina’s old DSLR camera hanging from his neck. She was the one who insisted that if they got a picture of the creature, he’d be exonerated, that the detective who’d been calling for days would disappear, fact dissecting fiction.
She’d bought a ten-thousand-lumen flashlight for the occasion, dragging the beam over the surface of the water, searching for the glint of an eyeless face, row upon row of teeth smiling up from the depths. She’d never outwardly doubted the stories Glen told her, even though the photos he’d shown were grainy at best. If he hadn’t deleted them for fear of some technology hack, he’d already be off the hook.
“What’s this thing eat?” she asked, turning to where Glen crouched near the building’s bulk.
“Besides people, apparently? No idea. It never ate what I left for it,” Glen replied. “I must have thrown an entire supermarket’s worth of food down those stairs.”
Glen tried to stick to the shadows, despite Gina’s light. He knew if the police caught him at the scene, it would be another strike against him.
“What if we built a weir out there to trap it? Get all the netting and planks and lines? That could work, right?” she asked, doing another pass with the flashlight.
“Do you know how long it takes to build a weir? Even if we could manage it, that thing is definitely smarter than the bass that get stuck in those things. There’s no way…”
“No need to bite my head off,” Gina replied, angrily pushing the hair out of her face. “If you’ve got your heart set on taking the blame for this, be my guest.”
Glen sat in a small interview room at the police station, a lawyer he couldn’t afford at his side, the blank reflection from a one-way mirror taking up the far wall. The room smelled of stale coffee, and the blue carpet had been worn thin where previous suspects scuffed their feet in nervous repetition. It was the third time Glen had been called for questioning. In each iteration, Detective Bliss, the bald officer from the hospital, made him recite exactly what he’d been doing the night of the condo’s collapse. Now describe this creature for me, he asked again and again. So, it’s like a bird, a water bird, am I getting that right. With a lot of mouths? Glen nodded. The image was basically accurate, despite his lawyer’s insistence to be vague where the creature was concerned.
“When he asks you about that thing today, just tell him the same thing as last time, alright?” she said, riffling through a yellow notepad. “If you mix things up, he’ll get on you.”
“But they can’t really charge me with anything, right? Not without the body?” The idea had snagged in Glen’s mind, that the two correlated innocence.
“They can do a lot with little evidence. It’s happened before.”
Glen’s frustrated reply was cut off by the detective’s entrance. A wide smile hung on Bliss’s face. It was unnerving.
“We’re going to be quick today,” Bliss said, sitting on the opposite side of the table. “Either you give us some proof of this sea creature in the next two week, or we’re slapping you with a murder charge. We can settle everything else in court. I want to avoid all these headaches and the paperwork just like you, but we’re not sending our guys on a wild goose chase. Overtime’s expensive.”
“You can’t—” Glen began before his lawyer pressed a palm into his chest.
“Why don’t you reign it back in, buddy,” the lawyer said. “You need more evidence to start an inquiry. You’re rushing.”
“The kid’s fingerprints are all over everything. The blood from his clothes matches the blood at the crime scene. His boss said he was doing weird things in the building before it collapsed. Something about him handling vagrants more violently than he needed to.”
Glen had only thrown one man into the street. The bearded guy had been yelling at the creature for who knew how long before Glen arrived, calling it Satan Spawn and End Bringer like one of those street corner evangelists. Glen couldn’t stand the way the man was treating it like a beast, so he was more aggressive than usual. That was the only time. He had never fired his work pistol, had never taken a swing at the addicts he scared off.
“That’s enough of a motive for some judges. Keenness for violence,” Bliss said.
“I was only trying to avoid violence,” Glen countered.
“You say what you want. Two weeks and if we don’t have some proof, we’re taking you in. Don’t skip town. We’ve got you penned as a flight risk.”
“My client won’t leave. I can assure you of that,” the lawyer said, but leaving was the only thing Glen could think about. Borrowing a friend’s boat and sailing to Canada was preferable to turning over the creature to those that might do it harm.
But who would watch over the creature if they tossed him in jail? If he wasn’t there to protect it?
The company that owned the condominiums also owned a three-hundred-unit assisted-living compound in Hyannis, a golf-side resort in Harwich, and a five-star hotel in Wellfleet. The bad press would lead to more vacancies, more canceled stays, less profits. They had enough money to keep things quiet, to keep the cops from shelling out details to the media. Glen hadn’t seen money changing hands, but he could guess what happened behind closed doors. Not a single news article ran in the local papers, no clip of the collapsed building flitted across Channel Five. Glen emailed what he thought were the local papers, only to learn a conglomerate in Florida owned them all, and that no, they didn’t care to run his op-ed about the creature. Seaside Management put up a high metal fence around the property to block it off from prying eyes, but it wasn’t difficult to sneak behind.
Gina filled the bed of Glen’s pickup truck with tuna-grade fishing tackle, a range of casting nets, bloody chum from the local butcher, and every manner of fishing equipment Glen could imagine. He’d told her he couldn’t toss a harpoon at the thing, couldn’t sling a hook through one of its many lips. He’d go to prison before harming it.
Glen spent countless nights standing at the top of the basement steps, telling the creature his fears and desires, worries he failed to articulate to Gina. There were the wasted dreams of moving away, of getting a marine biology degree to actually protect conservation lands. Water levels were rising. Algal blooms choked shellfish beds. Every year, more and more of his home eroded into the sea. There were projection maps to prove it. He always hoped the creature could help in some way, like a magical fish from myth, granting three wishes when pulled from the deep.
The wishes were slow in coming.
“Don’t be a jerk. I went through a lot of trouble to get this stuff,” Gina said as she parked the truck in a shadowed lot by the condos. Beach sand blew across their headlights.
“I know, and I appreciate it. But this was the last thing I wanted,” Glen said. They were entering week two of the two-week period. The lack of photographic evidence had prodded Gina to look for more extreme solutions.
“I don’t want to be doing this either, but you know what I want even less?”
Glen shook his head.
“You in jail. You know this will ruin my life too, right? That it’s not just you?”
She was right. They were barely scraping by with her waitress wages and the odd jobs he’d picked up in the wake of being fired. Rent on Cape Cod was outrageous for year-round residents. They’d been trying to save up for a down payment on a house for three years, but their bank accounts were just as empty as they had been at the outset.
“Let's start with the nets if you want to be gentle,” Gina said, opening the door.
With each cast, Glen and Gina dredged up bait fish and crabs, bladderwrack tangled in the weave. Glen didn’t know why Gina was so insistent they’d find the creature in the same place he’d last seen it. He thought it would have made its way to the open ocean, forsaking the shallows for the bottomless deep.
When Gina’s arms shook, she ran back to the truck for the surfcaster reels and the bucket of chum.
“I really don’t want—” Glen started.
“You don’t have much of a choice,” Gina interrupted. “We didn’t get the photos. If we don’t drag this thing in, they’re going to pin this on you.”
“But we’re wasting our time. There’s no way it’s going to go for the meat. I tried already. Ground beef. Hotdogs. Lamb. Nothing. Maybe it filter feeds?”
“With all this resistance, I’m starting to wonder if you made this shit up,” Gina said, hooking a mass of pork, blood dripping down her hand before she let fly. The pulpy lure sailed across the clouded sky before plunging into the surf.
It took Glen a second to comprehend what she meant. He’d never heard the doubt in her voice before. “Why would I lie? Yeah, it sounds ridiculous, but why would I take that road if I knew people weren’t going to believe me? You saw those pictures. There’s no denying what was in that basement.”
“They were blurry and dark. I thought I saw something down there, but who knows what we were really looking at.”
The unseen doubt returned. When he’d shown her the cell phone shots of the creature swimming between the lally columns in the basement, she’d said it was the most fantastic thing she’d ever seen, like one of those found footage horror movies, but real. She’d even given it a pet name. Burbles, for the sound Glen described to her.
“You never mentioned that before,” Glen replied.
“Well, what would you prefer me to say? Yeah, your job sucks and everything about it except this fantasy is soul crushingly awful?”
“I’m not lying. You have to believe that,” Glen said as Gina reeled in the now baitless line.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she replied, skewering another hunk of meat.
“You’re cutting it close,” Bliss said, standing over Glen in the interrogation room. “I see your lawyer friend’s called in sick today.”
“He had another client to meet with,” Glen lied, refusing to tell the detective he couldn’t afford the man’s services anymore, that he’d need to seek out a court appointed attorney if it came to that.
“Whatever you say,” Bliss said, his usual cocky smirk absent. “It’s probably better if he isn’t around. Everything’s basically up to you. I’ll be honest—those guys that own the condos, they want this wrapped up quick. We can offer you a plea deal if you tell us what happened to the body. You’ll get a shorter sentence. It’s the only option I can see working out for you.” Glen could feel the detective’s pity, suddenly sympathetic for a man he deemed delusional. Glen didn’t want the man’s kindness.
“I’ll think about it,” Glen said, standing.
“You’ve got two days. Who knows, maybe there will be some money waiting for you when you get out. Those guys can be generous.”
“Thanks for considering my best interests,” Glen said as he stepped past the detective.
Glen never wanted to see the inside of that room again. He wouldn’t let Bliss call him back for another bribe, another jab at his sanity.
When Glen got home from the station, he found the apartment in a state of chaos. Kitchen drawers had been gutted, bureaus disemboweled. His clothes were strewn about the bedroom, framed posters stripped from the walls. In all the debris, he didn’t find a single item belonging to Gina. Three of their cacti were gone. The flatscreen was missing from its wall mount. Her cosmetics had wandered from their bathroom perch. It didn’t take long to find the note stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet that once held a picture of them from senior prom. At least she decided to take it with her, Glen thought as he unfolded the paper.
It was two pages.
Gina let him know of her sympathy, but she couldn’t be sucked under with him. She’d worked too hard to see her life eroded by a lie and a ridiculous myth. She’d loved him once but didn’t know him anymore. If he had only told the truth, even if he had accidentally killed that guy in the condo, she could have forgiven him, looked passed everything. People make mistakes. She knew the kind of guys who hid in the properties Glen inspected. If things got rough, things got rough. They could have spun a self-defense plea, swore the guy carried a knife. Any story was more likely than a sea creature living in the basement.
The end of the note marked the evaporation of eight years of Glen’s life. An occasionally anxious but mostly happy time. A hollowness spread through his limbs. Gina had been his high school sweetheart. One of only three girls he’d ever slept with. They’d planned their life together, the family they hoped to start. The polaroids that Glen had gathered in his mind showing the next thirty years of their shared life burned behind his eyes, the taste of char sour on his tongue.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. It was Bliss. The hours they’d spent inside the interrogation room reciting that same hour of his life again and again was maddening. Glen couldn’t shake the thought, the claustrophobia, those words he could never say aloud.
He let the call go to voicemail.
Rocks spilled from the pockets of Glen’s work jacket, the night’s chilly air working its way beneath his skin. He’d read somewhere that a body remaining in water below fifty degrees would go hypothermic in under half an hour. Nonetheless, Glen took his first step into the surf where the condominium’s destroyed deck once stood. The building kept calling him back. When they found his body, he guessed Bliss would apply the same logic he’d considered over the last month. Killer returned to the scene of the crime. No monster, just Glen.
The condo’s walls had begun to sink in on themselves, a combination of structural failure and rot coursing through its skeleton. The facade sunk inward, windows and doors and balconies forming a cavern at the building’s heart. When Glen pictured the building’s demise, it had looked more regal, less like the pitiful lump of mold-pocked timbers behind him.
He was glad Gina wasn’t there to see his final decision. Every aspect of his life was moldering beneath his touch.
The water was frigid as it seeped into his boots, rising to his knees. The stones weight was slight, but enough to tip him off balance. They’d offset his natural buoyancy, keeping his feet welded to the ocean floor.
The scent of blood returned to his nostrils, the rivers of red flowing from the impaled man’s mouth and gut. Glen didn’t know what he could have done to save the guy, what would have alleviated his body’s weakness and betrayal, his inability to handle the stress.
It comes for all of us, the man in his memory whispered through rose-hued teeth. Had Glen missed it the first time? He couldn’t be sure. The blear of unconsciousness had wiped all sense of reality from his grasp.
Another few steps and he was up to his chest, pants and t-shirt adhering, barnacle-like, to his flesh. The weight of the wet fabric combined with the stones was stifling. Gina’s words had sewn doubt into his skin, wedged it beneath his ribs, cancerous and throbbing.
But if the creature wasn’t real, if it had all been in his mind, what had he been watching those countless hours atop the stairs? What image showed up in those grainy cellphone shots? He was unsure, but he trudged on, water licking at his earlobes, whispering his name in a voice he recognized but couldn’t place.
The chill wasn’t so bad anymore, the taste of salt inviting, doubt flourishing in his chest, blooming over and over again like the intricate petals of a dahlia.
Then coarse reptilian skin brushed against his open palm.
He yanked his hand away, startled, the sense of touch breaking his fugue, muting his uncertainty. It was too dark to see exactly what swam below, but something was treading circles around his body, appendages skirting his thighs and chest, gently prodding his skin as if greeting an old friend. The rocks in his pockets were heavy, the familiar voice no longer familiar, mocking wishes cast across a great divide.
“I knew…I knew you didn’t leave,” Glen said through trembling lips.
The creature’s eyeless head drifted to the surface, its many mouths opening and closing, tasting the air, tasting his familiarity. Then something small shifted at its side, moonlight catching on another set of fins, another set of mouths, only this time in miniature. Glen had never seen the creature’s offspring, had never understood what it had been doing in that basement all those months.
Now he knew.
Glen reached down to stroke the tiny lizard-like snout, scales rough against his fingertips, teeth nipping playfully at his flesh.
Then a boney tail was dragging itself across Glen’s back, and he stumbled, water filling his nostrils, choking him as it surged over his head. The weight was too much, the stones pulling him to his knees. The burbled song of waterlogged birds filled his ears, drowning out the crash of waves as they broke against the condo’s rotting doorstep.
Like the fallen structure, the ocean had come for Glen—as it would all things in the end.
© 2022 Corey Farrenkopf