Out With the Tide
by David Calbert
Beginning a new life by the ocean to escape from his debauched LA existence, Bartholomew finds something even more nightmarish brought in by the tide...
As Bartholomew padded down the winter-crusted beach, sand crunching like glass beneath his feet, he realized he was going to kill himself. The idea had been forming inside him, tumor-like, pushing against all his other thoughts until he could think of nothing else but the crushing embrace of black water and, if he was lucky, the sharp teeth of something merciful.
He paused just beyond the reach of the tide and slipped his hands into his pockets. The tongue he pulled out was the color of undercooked sirloin and obscenely heavy, like an overstuffed leather wallet. Laying flat against Bart’s palm, it seemed to lap at the salty air.
Bart considered the tongue for a while, the sibilant wind tousling his curly hair. It was the one part of him that seemed to get healthier with age – a lustrous crest of feathers on an otherwise plucked chicken.
The wind whispered, and Bart gazed at the disembodied tongue until it seemed that it was whispering, too.
Cocking his arm back, the muscles of his back bunching, Bart hurled the tongue into the next oncoming wave. He half expected it to skip like a stone over the water. Instead it punched a hole in the froth and foam and was gone.
‘Take it back,’ he whispered.
Silence reigned. The ocean beat its head against the shore in mind-numbing repetition. Bart felt a sense of calm he hadn’t expected. It settled over him like the warmth brought on by hypothermia.
There was a violent surge of water, and something was hurled from the waves. It landed a few feet from where Bart stood.
He wondered if the tongue would start to sing, then. Or perhaps it would simply laugh, slapping the sand like a fish gasping its last breath.
Bart blinked. Nudged the tongue with his bare toes. Then he strode headlong into the surf.
‘It’s easy to lose yourself,’ the old man said as he gazed at the frosted glass surface of the Pacific.
‘I’ve been trying to lose myself for years,’ Bart replied, pitching his cigarette and stamping it underfoot. ‘But I just keep flaring up like a bad case of crabs.’
The old man, who’d introduced himself as Shay – or maybe Shane, Bart hadn’t been paying attention – pulled his cool blue eyes away from the ocean. He didn’t laugh at the off-color joke.
Shay or Shane lived in bungalow number 1029, next to the one Bart had just moved into. He appeared to be a healthy sixty-five with a lean body that looked like it had spent countless summers rubbing wax along the bottom of a surfboard. With his stony gaze and high, sand-blown cheeks, Bart thought he looked like one of those wooden Indians they used to have outside small-town trading posts. The association reminded Bart of a coke dealer he’d known in Pasadena who’d roll up to parties in a souped-up Mustang and slither out, eyes the same flat blue.
With the dealer, Bart had known it was the expression of someone truly and righteously high. Bart didn’t know much, but he knew when someone was sober, and Shay (or Shane) was as dry as they came. The broad shine in this man’s eyes seemed to stretch inward as long as the beach down the hill. It filled Bart with a formless nervousness.
‘Well,’ Bart said, clearing his throat, ‘I’m gonna head inside. Gotta unpack. Nice meeting you, neighbor.’
To Bart’s surprise, Shay or Shane stuck his hand out. Bart gave his own and felt it gripped so tight, he found himself standing up a little straighter.
‘Don’t leave anything you’re not willing to lose on the beach tonight,’ he told Bart. ‘The king tide’s coming in.’
‘Will do,’ Bart said, not knowing what the hell a king tide was, but not wanting to prolong the awkward encounter by asking.
‘Welcome to the neighborhood,’ Shay or Shane said. He dropped Bart’s hand and walked back inside. It was only then that Bart saw that the man wasn’t wearing any shoes. The bottoms of his feet were black as tar and looked like they could tread over a mile of thumbtacks without slowing him down.
Bart turned to his own house and paused to look out at the beach, just a stone’s throw from his new home. Mid-December, it didn’t exactly live up to his realtor’s claim that life at 1013 Shoreline would be like living in a Beach Boys’ song. But there was an allure to the dream-like fog that rose off the horizon like steam from the lip of an enormous cup.
It’s easy to lose yourself. In something as big as that, Bart considered, you could lose more than yourself.
You could lose everything.
That night, Bart had the dream again. In it, he was being ridden by the heavyset whore he’d known in LA, Abigail the Abundant, a creature of fleshy delight so bare and wanton it made a cynical man blush. Her want was a livewire. Her pussy was like CPR for the nerve endings. It seemed she had been made to fuck, and that was exactly what she was doing to Bart. Their coupling was so wet that the rhythm of their movement sloshed.
Drown in me, she cried as her vast body swallowed him. Drown in me.
When Bart awoke, he lifted the sheets, hoping to see himself engorged. His cock lay shriveled against his thigh, a dried prune. Just as he’d known it would be. He slapped it into semi-tumescence anyway and stroked himself to a sweaty, unsatisfying release.
He slipped out of bed to go to the bathroom, and the floor splashed under his feet. Turning on the light, Bart saw that the ocean had invaded his new home.
Bart had to look up ‘king tide’ on his phone because his desktop was still in one of the boxes waiting to be unpacked. There weren’t as many boxes as one might expect; Bart never took much with him. He shed houses like a hermit crab sheds its shell, taking only its naked body with it. He shed people in much the same way.
An especially high tide, the internet divulged, brought about by a perigean orbit, when the moon gravitates close to earth, drawing foul temper from the sea.
When Bart read ‘foul temper,’ he scoffed aloud. Foul temper indeed. Waves had crawled up the slope of sand, seeped through degraded weather stripping on the sliding glass door, and turned his bedroom floor into a tide pool.
A contractor came by around three in the afternoon. After thoroughly inspecting the water damage, he quoted Bart an amount that made his testicles shrivel. Once he’d seen the contractor out, Bart pulled up his bank statement, added what the contractor had quoted him to the initial cost of the house and the cost of the renovations he’d already paid deposits for, and then subtracted the lump sum from his balance.
Bart slumped back in his chair. He was going to be broke by the end of the month.
Among the few odds and ends he had managed to unpack – a small desk, TV, and a stack of paperbacks – was a bottle of Blue Label scotch. He poured himself a drink in a coffee cup that still had a black ring of grounds at the bottom and knocked it back in one swig. The house felt suddenly empty. The grey bamboo floors and milk-white stucco walls were worse than barren to Bart – they were desolate.
He went out on the back porch and lit a cigarette, watching the sun slowly douse itself in the ocean. Bart had come from money, but instead of taking up with the family business, he’d taken his inheritance, left his home in Los Angeles, and gone north to seek his pleasure.
And find his pleasure he had.
He’d house-flipped his way in a rambling path along California’s spine, like a tick wandering across the skin of a great mammal, searching for places to attach and draw blood. From fly-by-night modernist houses that looked like something Picasso might’ve shat out in his cubist phase, to crumbling stucco haciendas, and once, a grounded houseboat on the outskirts of the Salton Sea, Bart bought and sold his life away. Each one a small galaxy over which Bart ruled as a drunken god. Fairweather friends and even fairer women had helped Bart wheedle away his fortune and his years.
Tapping ash, Bart looked down the length of the beach. To compensate for the previous night’s incursion, the tide had pulled way back, riding up the shore like a dark blue skirt on a pale brown stretch of thigh. The last of the year’s strawberries rode the breeze up from Watsonville, wafting their sweet, almost rotten perfume under Bart’s nose. He thought of Abigail again, and of other joys money had brought him, all the pretty, illusory things that seemed to make life light and grand and eternal. All gone now.
Bart was alright with it, he supposed – it wasn’t as if he hadn’t expected to end up broke and alone. But the one thing he had assumed would stick around in his life of pleasure was pleasure. Even that windy ghost had departed a long time ago.
The sun was almost gone. Pitching his cigarette, Bart decided to go for a walk on the unusually wide sand bar. He considered going back inside for his phone or a flashlight, but the idea of reckoning with his small island of boxes was too much, so he decided to go without.
At first, Bart thought the dark, hulking shape was a beached sea lion come ashore to die. The long, wrinkled shadow thrashed in the shallow surf, sending up splatters of sand and foam.
As Bart jogged closer, the shadow bifurcated into two distinct shapes. A hunched-over man wrestling with…something.
‘Hey!’ Bart shouted over the thunder of the waves. ‘What’s going on?’
A hard, wooden face turned to him, blue eyes shining in the low light of the evening. He was stripped to the waist, dragging what looked like a large black quilt into the ocean. What sounded like a pack of feral cats yowled and yipped behind the damp cloth, which pulsed and trembled crazily.
Dropping his conveyance, Shay or Shane turned to Bart and stared at him through the gloom. In his shock, Bart could only stare back. Inside the blanket, the screeches coalesced into a single delicate voice, ringing out like tinkling glass.
It was crying.
There was no sound when the old man launched himself at Bart, only the gut-punched rush of air as their bodies collided and fell to the sand.
‘I’ve got to give it back!’ he shouted down at Bart, his hands driving nails into any soft space they could find. Those shiny blue eyes seemed filled with white fire, and Bart knew he was going to die. The surf seemed to swallow Bart’s cries for help. Only when Bart’s own hands curled into fists and mashed lips against teeth did his screams rise above the ocean’s din. They rolled further down the beach. Cold water stopped Bart’s ears, washing out all sound but for the thundering of his own blood.
Rolling again, they separated and came together, only this time Bart was on top. He pounded on a face that no longer seemed wooden, but malleable. And wet. He pushed the chin to the side until both nose and mouth were underwater. Shay or Shane’s last bubbling breaths were taken out to sea.
Breathing hard, Bart got to his feet. The night seemed to have been infused with a strange bioluminescence only he could see. He remembered the blanket and went to it.
It lay where Shay or Shane had dropped it, the tide gently lapping at its furthest edge. No movement, and the crying had fallen silent. But Bart could still see the rise and fall of a shape beneath.
He bent and pulled the blanket away.
Bart turned the knob until the steam poured out of the shower. When he opened the shower door for her, she wouldn’t move. She stood, dripping onto the already wet bedroom floor, hair hanging in dark tendrils. He had to take her by the hand, which felt like a ball of ice pressed against his palm, and lead her under the hot water. Sand and muck ran off her pale skin and circled the drain. A thick sheet of seaweed fell from her hair, causing a clog. Bart reached in and pulled it free.
Afraid she might collapse and hurt herself, Bart sat on the toilet and watched as the shower nozzle washed away the grime of the evening. He couldn’t help but watch her through the steamed-up glass door.
She was small, no more than four and a half feet. Her pale skin was almost translucent – Bart thought he could see the tendons and muscles moving behind it like shadows behind a cotton sheet. Except for her legs, which were sheathed in thick, fleshy plates like the scales on the back of a crocodile. All six of her webbed toes, three per foot, ended in stubby claws that clicked against the shower’s porcelain floor.
It was her eyes that held Bart’s attention. They were black, the total and consuming shade of undiscovered fathoms. She never blinked, even as water trickled over her eyes, like marbles left out in the rain. She didn’t look anything like the drawings Bart had seen in comic books, or like the cartoon with the singing red crab. But he knew well enough what she was.
‘You’re a mermaid,’ Bart said dully, ‘aren’t you?’
If she heard him, she gave no sign. Bart reached in to twist the shower knob, realized his hand was shaking, and remembered the body he’d left at the ocean’s edge.
Halfway down the beach, he heard a sound. She was standing at the open sliding glass door, watching him, the yellow light of the house glittering along her skin. Her mouth hung open, as if she were trying to call to him. Her teeth were rows of broken sea shells. Behind them danced a dark red nub of flesh where a tongue should be.
The beach was deserted. No sign of a body. The disturbed sand where they had fought was washed clean, like a dry erase board. The remains could have been washed out to sea, but even Bart knew the possibility was flimsy. He considered calling the police in case the man was alive, but it felt too much like inviting criminal charges. He wanted them there even less if the man was truly dead.
As he headed back to his house he paused, eyes shifting one bungalow over. Number 1029. The lights were on.
A nameplate above the mailslot on the front door told Bart that his neighbor had actually been named Shaden Moore. The door was unlocked. When Bart opened it, a cascade of sand slid over the tops of his shoes.
He stepped through the door and into a wild jungle. Thin veins of cream-colored plaster were all that was visible of the original walls beneath the new papering of moss and dark, sludgy slime. Barnacles studded the ceiling like closed eyes.
Bart tried to find a light switch; the wall felt like a living thing beneath his fingers, wet and strangely warm. The light that filled the house when he found the switch was green. Looking up, he saw the bare light bulbs were cocooned in casts of kelp and seaweed. It made Bart think of the algae bulbs you’d sometimes find along the beach, the ones that you could burst between your fingers to release the milky fluid inside.
The sunken living room was a dune. Driftwood – stacked, leaned, balanced – rose out of it like alien furniture. The shadows it cast along the wall looked like the tortured letters of a language no man had ever seen before. Piles of rocks and sticks lay half buried in the sand beneath the wooden structures.
A low moan echoed out from the adjoining bedroom. Bart crunched his way towards it, sand fleas leaping up and nipping at his ankles as he went. The bedroom was less shipwrecked. The bed had been stripped, and a large pool of blood stained the center of the mattress, catching the light from the hall and shining like an oil slick. Something round and wet sat in the center of the mattress, swimming in the blood. When Bart saw what it was, his stomach turned over.
‘I tried to give it back,’ a hoarse voice said from the floor beside the bed.
‘She took everything from me,’ Shaden said from where he lay in the corner. He was holding in his intestines, which were squirming their way out of four flesh-rending slashes across his belly.
Cautiously, Bart went over to Shaden and kneeled down. Bart didn’t think he was in any shape to fight, but you never really knew with crazy people. Shaden looked up at Bart plaintively, his wooden face cracked with emotion. A picture frame lay by his side, the glass covering shattered and streaked in bloody fingerprints. A bloody shard lay by the foot of the bed in a pool of congealed blood.
Bart picked it up and saw a picture of Shaden. In the photo, Shaden’s face lacked that vacant quality, and his blue eyes were bright with good humor. He had an arm around the shoulders of a gray-haired woman – his wife or girlfriend, Bart guessed.
‘I thought if I took away her voice,’ Shaden said, his throat a bubbling cauldron of blood, ‘I thought I could get her out of my head.’
‘Where is she?’ Bart asked, pointing to the woman in the picture.
‘It felt so good. At first.’ Shaden drew in a wheezing breath and his blue eyes glazed over. Taking one gore-streaked hand off his unfurling guts, he pointed to the bathroom behind Bart.
‘OxyContin,’ he said, ‘in the medicine cabinet. Please.’
Bart found the pills among a small army of other orange prescription bottles. He dumped two little white soldiers into his palm and went back into the bedroom. Shaden’s head lolled back, blood running down the corners of his mouth, red and purple insides finally let free and cooling in a pile on his lap.
Bart took the pills himself. He considered the thing floating in the pool of blood. It had stopped wriggling. On his way out, he stopped and examined the wooden structures in the living room. He confirmed his suspicions about the piles nestled underneath them.
They were bones.
The femur was heavy in his hands as he made his way back home, the sharp edge held up like a hatchet. Bart half expected her to be gone, vanished like some surreal dream, but he found her sitting in the middle of his bed, scaly legs criss-crossed beneath her slight frame.
Bart stood in the doorway and held up the femur. She gazed at him with those blacker-than-black eyes.
She took everything from me. But Bart had nothing. He remembered his mother, glinting like a Christmas tree with all her jeweled bracelets, earrings, and gems, telling him that if he carried on the path he’d chosen, he’d end up alone.
Lowering his bludgeon, Bart stood to the side and gestured toward the watery expanse behind him that, in the dead of night, was the same shade as her eyes, save for the rippling threads of silver moonlight.
‘You’re free now,’ he said, but his words rang false. Bart had seen what had become of Shaden’s home. She had not been the prisoner there, he had. And when Shaden had tried to send her back, something had torn him apart.
It felt so good. At first.
The remote understanding that he was in danger hovered above him, but years of living dangerously had inured him to the feeling. Instead of fear, a tingling excitement danced along the edges of his mind.
His mother had been wrong; he was no longer alone. He was in the company of something so darkly miraculous that it seemed to cast a shadow into his past, paving over all his wasted moments and leading directly to the present. Something seemed to crackle in the air like static electricity, standing his hair on end.
Suddenly the OxyContin turned his blood into lead, and he had to lay down. Dropping the femur, he crossed the room and collapsed on top of the bed, his eyes rolling up in their sockets. The last thing he was aware of before dropping off to sleep was her presence, a cold weight on the sheets that seemed to lap at his body heat.
He was having the dream again. Abigail was riding him like her life depended on it, her body swallowing him again and again. His cock swelled inside of her like an algae bulb, aching to explode. Her breath was a ragged, dog-like panting. Bart reached up and felt her hips as they bucked and ground into him violently. Her skin was cold and pebbled, like a cobblestone street in winter.
Looking into her face, he saw black eyes looking down at him and knew he wasn’t dreaming. He glanced over the small hill of his belly and saw his member slipping in and out of a small pink slit that had opened up between the scaly thighs. The flesh inside was feathery and made Bart think of fish gills.
The mermaid stared down at him, its face an emotionless marble bust. The sharp ends of her toes sliced open the mattress on either side of him. Something inside her, an unseen organ or appendage, stung Bart like a wasp’s barb and shot fire into his belly. Pressure built inside his groin until it spilled over into agony. He was crying beneath her relentless interrogation.
He felt himself crest. His body convulsed, but instead of pleasure and relief, a shattering pain forked through his body. It felt like the time his appendix had almost burst when he was a kid, filling him with an acid that threatened to eat away his guts. Above him the mermaid unhinged her jaw, flashing her barracuda teeth and emitting a hoarse, discordant shriek. The useless nub of tongue flesh bobbed in the back of her throat like fishing tackle.
She slid off of him, and he was in too much pain to beg her to come back and finish the job. Bart leapt off the bed and ran to the bathroom, his cock a priapistic lightning rod of pain. He knelt over the toilet like a man about to be violently ill and jerked himself, trying to release the river of magma that churned inside of him. When the skin peeled away and blood began to well, Bart surrendered. He lay upon the tiled floor of his bathroom and, for the second time that night, felt that he would surely die.
But as the sun slowly rose, his agony abated. After a while, Bart was able to uncoil from his fetal position and stumble into the bedroom.
The mermaid was curled in the far corner, careful to keep its vulnerable skin out of the shafts of sunlight pouring through the glass door.
‘What have you done to me?’ Bart whispered. Though some of the pain had abated, his member still throbbed with unresolved fury. It waxed and waned like an infernal heartbeat in his midsection. Her black eyes offered no answers.
Bart had the femur in his hand and was halfway across the room to her before he realized what he was doing. The bone cleaved the air above the mermaid’s head. At the last moment, as if she were trying to shade her head from the sun rather than a deadly weapon, she raised up her hand. It fell to the floor, separated from the forearm in one clean slice.
Dark ichor seeped out of the exposed meat, which seemed to crawl and twitch. The mermaid showed no pain, just looked up at Bart with those empty eyes. It was only when he raised the femur again that he saw something flicker behind them, silver motes of light igniting into white fire.
The bone clattered to the floor as Bart fell to his knees. Pain, beyond anything he could have imagined, radiated out from his groin. Images of red-hot needles being threaded through his veins flashed in his mind. This time, the pain didn’t go away, only grew worse. And as it grew, so did his understanding of how to stop it. A phrase played between images of hot needles, like subtitle cards in silent movies.
Something stolen must be given back. Something stolen must be given back.
Jack-knifing across the floor, body coated in sweat, Bart managed to reach the butchered arm and thrust it toward the mermaid. She pressed her bloody stump to it and the flesh fused, like hot wax melting together. When Bart let go, the arm was whole again and the pain was gone.
But the phrase kept playing in his head.
Something stolen must be given back.
The sun beat down on Bart’s throbbing head as he made his way back to number 1029, making it hard for him to remember the stories he’d heard about mermaids. As he pushed open the front door, he recalled a snatch of fairytale about a mermaid who was granted legs, but walking on her new feet felt like stepping on a thousand knives. And something at the end about how when she returned to the ocean, her body dissolved into sea foam. Bart wondered if that was what Shaden had been trying to do last night. Dissolve his captor.
Shaden’s body was where Bart had left it in the bedroom. A cloud of flies buzzed above his exposed guts, lighting on them and taking off again. The sweet smell of decay filled the room. Bart’s gorge threatened to rise, and he kept it down with an effort.
Something that looked like blood-streaked cauliflower bulged out of a fist-sized ball of meat that Bart supposed was the man’s bladder. Likely cancerous – Bart hoped this information might ease his guilt about his neighbor’s death. At the moment, he could only focus on not vomiting.
The picture of Shaden and his woman still lay by his side. Bart picked it up, and his fingers felt an odd groove on the back of the frame. Turing it over he found a single word. It looked like it had been scratched into the felt with a fingernail.
Bart dropped the picture and regarded the thing lying on the bloody mattress. Another echo of story came to him – one of sailors binding themselves to the masts of their ships. Stopping their ears with wax. Of the strange women who sang from the rocks and lured men to their deaths.
He touched the tongue lying on the mattress, as if feeling for a pulse. It was cool to the touch, yet it squirmed weakly beneath his fingertips like a slug. It turned and pressed its tip to Bart’s finger, almost nuzzling him. Bart felt something like a small static shock and a sudden stab of pain wracked his midsection. For a split second, before he pulled his hand away, music filled his ears.
So this was what Shaden had done. He’d taken the shard of glass, scalpel-like, and tried to remove the creature’s power. But it hadn’t worked, so he’d tried to drag her back where she came from.
Bart stroked the object atop the altar. Maybe Shaden had taken the wrong part of her to the sea. Bart took it, slid it into his pocket, and went down to the beach.
The ocean spat Bart back up. He landed hard next to the tongue, sputtering sea water and gasping for air. His chest burned, and his ears and nostrils churned with stinging salt. But all other sensation paled compared to the agony in his loins and the desolation in his heart.
There had been so many of them waiting beneath the surface, moving like shadows, too fast to see. Perhaps it was the king’s tide that brought them in. Bart considered whether if he simply waited, the tide would force them back. But the searing pain in his groin told him that, even if that were true, it was too late for him.
She was waiting on the edge of the bed when he stumbled in, dripping ocean and shuddering with more than cold. He held out the tongue to her. She didn’t reach for it. She opened her mouth wide, the skin of her cheeks stretching so thin, he could see the sharp outline of her teeth through them. The mermaid wouldn’t take her stolen tongue. It had to be given back.
Numbly, Bart slipped his fingers past her teeth and felt for the nub in the back of her throat. The cold flesh in his hand wriggled like a worm, and he felt it latch and become one. He flopped onto the bed next to her, not caring that his clothes soaked through to the mattress.
‘Please,’ was all he could say. And she was on him, crouched over, lips peeled back. Her nails shredding his clothes. His cock, which had never quite gone back down, pulsed like a severed artery. Her embrace was savage. His ascent, not toward climax but toward cataclysm, was almost immediate. As he cried out, the mermaid’s reclaimed tongue slithered out. It opened up like a flower bulb and released something gelatinous that felt like tapioca as it ran down Bart’s throat.
He slept. And when he awoke, he saw the mermaid licking long pieces of kelp and sticking them to the walls like fly paper. The pain in his groin was gone, replaced by a gnawing pressure in his bladder. He ran to the bathroom. Pulling up his shirt, he saw his abdomen had swelled to the size of a balloon. Bart remembered the tumors he’d seen in Shaden’s exposed innards, and a terrible understanding washed over him. He put a hand over the growth and waited. Presently, he felt the squirm of gestating life inside him.
Bart stumbled down the beach, dragging driftwood behind him. He’d gotten all the driftwood from Shaden’s house over to his and had managed to contribute twelve more pieces himself. He didn’t know when the nest would be done, but she would tell him. Now that she had her voice back.
His abdomen rumbled something awful. He let go of the driftwood and pulled up his shirt. Thin spots had begun to form all along his belly. Little windows of skin behind which he could see them wriggling: all his little children, waiting to be born. They would probably tear him to pieces when they came, but Bart didn’t care. His grin as he marched back to number 1031 was as big as a crescent moon.
Her song, the same one that had kept him awake the past three days, ran like a carousel in his mind. Singing in a language he didn’t understand, yet still knew, about how much he was needed. She sang about the love that was his, and his alone, and how it was so great that it would devour him, bones and all. And when that love had taken him in its teeth, it would carry him out with the tide and lay him to rest at the bottom of the sea.