“I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed. I dream of a day when they may rise to drag down mankind—when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor ascend amidst universal pandemonium.”
-HP Lovecraft, “Dagon”
One day Boyd just didn't come home, and that was how the end started.
Ronnie woke to Mei crying on the phone, saying Boyd wasn't there and hadn't shown up to work and hadn't answered any of her calls for two days.
Ronnie heard the baby crying on the other end of the line, and even though it was three in the morning Ronnie and Alan both woke up and went over to Mei and Boyd’s apartment a few blocks down to check on things.
Mei spent the whole night pacing and drinking coffee and rocking little Sandra in her arms. “She’s crying because she knows,” Mei said. “She knows her daddy is gone.”
Ronnie took the baby and bounced her, trying to make her laugh. “She's just being fussy,” Ronnie said. “I'm sure Boyd is fine. He's probably just, you know...out.”
That was the word they used when Boyd went on a bender. Mei shook her head and bit nails. “Not this time,” she said.
“He wouldn't leave Sandra,” said Alan. He was standing in the kitchen door, hair still mussed from sleep. Ronnie agreed, and Mei kept fretting. And Sandra, well, Sandra just cried.
The truth was, Ronnie thought Boyd really might have gone and done something crazy. He’d been worse than usual lately. The drugs and the drinking were always bad, but even at his worst Boyd had never seemed like he didn't care.
He always wanted to do right by Mei and Sandra, even if he was too much of a fuck-up to actually do it. That was why they all stuck by him even though he was never going to get it together, and why Ronnie chipped in on Mei’s rent every month, even though she could barely afford it.
Now things had changed. Sandra used to be all Boyd would talk about, but now he scarcely mentioned the baby at all. He’d gotten pale and thin, and some bizarre rash appeared from time to time on his face.
Last week Ronnie broke down and begged him to go to the hospital. He just stared at her like he didn't know who she was, eyes bulging from the fluid building up under his skin. He seemed dazed all the time, zombie-like.
And now he'd disappeared. Ronnie didn't say so, but she was as sure as Mei that whatever happened this time wasn't his normal drug binge. Sandra squirmed in her arms and Ronnie's heart broke a little bit.
Where are you Boyd, she thought? We all need you here. Even I need you. But there was no answer except the sound of the ocean surf a couple blocks away.
When Ronnie went into work at the Fish House the next day, Boyd was all she could think about. The shift was a person short without him, and Ronnie was back and forth between the kitchen and the front, filling in between hostess duties with dishwashing.
The traffic was the same as usual: tourists, tourists, and tourists. She tried to keep busy, and sang under her breath to pass the time. She realized she couldn't quite place the tune she was singing, but for some reason it made her think of Boyd more.
On her break she sat outside and watched the milling masses going up one end of Fisherman's Wharf and down the other, in and out of the souvenir shops and the restaurants or down to the docks to watch the boats coming in or the sea lions playing.
The wharf was a two-story boardwalk of stores and restaurants on the waterfront. Tourists came to see Alcatraz and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the big ships coming in and out, and the locals sold t-shirts and seafood and a show and anything else.
It was all the same as it had ever been. One man disappeared from everyone's lives, but the world kept turning.
Lauro, the busboy, took his break with her. He seemed interested in something on the floating docks below. “You ever wonder about the sea lions?” he said.
Ronnie blinked. “What about them?”
“Where'd they all go?”
Ronnie shrugged. As far as she could tell they were still there, a few dozen of the big, smelly beasts lying around, occasionally swimming or fighting or diving for food but mostly just sunning themselves and barking while the tourists took pictures. There used to be hundreds of them, but in the past few years most had left. She'd only worked here after the great migration and never thought much of it.
“Sometimes I think they all ran away,” Lauro said.
“That's what I keep wondering.”
Ronnie was puzzled. Later that night, when the kitchen was closed and the chairs put up and the last tour boat had come and gone, she lingered over the sea lions again, watching two pups wrestle, thinking about what running away meant.
The wind changed direction and blew straight in her face. She always hated that fishy salt smell of everything in and around the ocean, but there was no getting away from it here. Down below, one of the pups got the upper hand and pushed the other into the water with yelp and a splash. Ronnie giggled.
She waited for the pup to come back to the surface, but it didn't. She counted to herself. After a thirty-count the animal still hadn't reappeared. The one still on the dock started to bark.
Then Ronnie saw something moving in the water. It wasn't shaped like a sea lion, or a dolphin, or anything else that usually swam to the surface here. It was big and ungainly. It almost looked like…
When she blinked and it was gone. I must be seeing things, she thought. For a moment she thought she’d seen something like a man in a wetsuit, but no one would be swimming in the freezing, pitch black water at this time of night.
Still, the memory of the half-glimpsed figure troubled her all the way home.
The bus was late, which meant she was late getting home. She’d had plans with Alan to meet at her place but she expected he’d already given up and gone home. To her surprise, she caught him asleep on the couch, where he must have dozed off waiting for her.
She’d given him the extra key a week ago, with a warning not to interpret this as any sign that they were getting more serious. He’d still looked secretly pleased with himself on accept it, though.
It looked like he’d fallen asleep in the middle of working on something from one of his art classes. She leafed through pages on the table: mostly anatomy drawings of a sitting model. On the last one he’d doodled a scaly tail instead of legs, making her a mermaid. It was cute.
Outside, the fog was coming in off the beach and smothering the street. The sound of the waves followed her home. She knew she was lucky to have a place of her own, and close to the beach, lucky that her parents had bought it outright and left it to her.
But the truth was she didn't like being so near the ocean. As a kid she'd used to have nightmares about the ocean. She'd always been terrified of any deep water that she couldn't see to the bottom of…
She kicked the couch and Alan woke up, confused and with his hair mussed. Ronnie burst out laughing. He sat up, looking sheepish and apologizing for falling asleep on her.
“Don’t sweat it,” she said. “I had a long, hard day, and I can think of a better way for you to apologize to me.”
Back in the bedroom she pushed him down onto the mattress and swung a leg over Alan's body, straddling him. She stripped his shirt off and smiled in the dark and ran her hands down his naked chest; even with so little light she could see the contrast between them, her dark hand looking like a silhouette or a shadow against his pale Irish skin.
She leaned over and kissed him, open-mouthed, her lips gliding against his. Then she whispered, teasing: “I got you something.”
She went to her where her purse hung on the back of a chair. Alan sat up a little to watch her. “What are you doing?” he said. She grinned some more.
“Something special, to help you, ah, relieve stress.”
She fished around in her purse and then turned back to the bed. There was a hard clink of metal as she dangled them in front of his face: handcuffs.
Alan bit his lip.
Ronnie straddled him again, teasing him with the cuffs. “Look what I've got,” she said, jingling them some more. He tried to reach for them but she snatched them away each time. She wagged a finger at him. “Ah, ah,” she said. “Bad boy.”
She leaned in and purred next to his ear. “Hands against the posts, lover boy.” She bit him. “Now.”
Feigning reluctance, Alan put his wrists to the headboard, letting Ronnie snap the restraints in place. She clicked them until he grunted. “Too tight?” she said. He shook his head. “Good.”
She purred in his hear again, flicking the lobe with the tip of her tongue, the way she knew he liked. He moaned a little. She did it more. He writhed underneath her. She enjoyed the feeling of his movements, forceful but restrained. The chain of the cuffs rattled against the bed frame. When he pushed up and then down against her, it felt like the movement of the ocean…
The thought startled her and for a second she lost her focus. But when she met his eyes it reassured her, and her anxiety vanished. She kissed his jaw and the side of his neck, and then his shoulders and naked chest, again admiring the impressionistic contrast of her dark skin against his pale figure.
His chest and stomach was a smooth, muscled plane all the way down, a swimmer's body. She teased his navel with her tongue, which she knew tickled and caused him to thrash in genuine discomfort.
She only did it the once, just so she could hear him instinctively pull against his restraints. It wasn't any fun if he didn't at least try to get out, once. She laughed and winked at him, and he chuckled back. Ronnie rubbed herself back and forth against the hardening bulge of his cock, visible now through his underwear.
“What have you got for me?” she said, pushing on it, rubbing her palm up and down. “What have you got, hmm?”
He grunted and tried to answer but it seemed he could think of nothing clever, so he opted for sheepish, blushing silence. She was delighted. She kissed the bulge and then sat up on him again.
“I've got something for you,” she said, pulling her shirt off and discarding her bra. The cold air of the bedroom tingled against her naked breasts. She saw Alan bite his lip again, and again his hands tried to go forward to touch her and feel her body only to be stopped short by the metal clatter of the cuffs; those things really were a good investment. She was glad she'd thought to buy them.
She squeezed her breasts underneath, fondling them a little, teasing him. Alan had always been a breast guy. She jiggled them, then leaned over so that they were just out of reach of his upraised head. He even stuck his tongue all the way out trying to lick one, and she pushed him back down with the palm of her hand, laughing.
He grumbled, so she finally took pity and leaned over some more, letting him kiss and then suck one breast. “Mmmm,” she said as his lips caressed the sensitive flesh. He needed a shave and the sharp ends of his stubble rubbed against her so that she winced, savoring the sharp, satisfying pain.
She rubbed her nipple back and forth across his open mouth before pulling away again, then teasing him some more, back and forth, up and down, always just out of reach. All the while she was rubbing back and forth against his hard cock, sliding up and down the length of his shaft as it strained through the fabric, fit to burst.
“What have you got for me?” she said again. “You see what I've got for you, but what have you got for me?”
She reached between her own legs to squeeze him some more. He was in quite a state. She stripped her panties off, throwing them away, setting her naked, wet cunt against the bulge now, grinding him; delightful vibrations went up through her sex and traveled the length of her spine.
She pushed herself down on him harder and harder, making the lips of her cunt squeeze tight around themselves and sending a jolt jumping up into her abdomen. “Ohhh, fuck!” she said, rolling her eyes. She licked a finger and began rubbing herself around and around while she moved. She felt hot and dirty all over.
Alan was so beside himself now she thought he might rip the headboard off. She pushed him back down and he moaned with frustration. Finally she pulled his underwear off, his erection springing free. She rubbed it back and forth across her palm before easing herself back into it, feeling it penetrate her wet lips and slide in. She watched Alan throw his head back and indulge in a long, satisfied groan as the muscles of her cunt slid around him, taking him in, squeezing him.
Ronnie’s clit pulsed as he filled her up. She lay out across his naked body, her arms twined round his neck, lips pressed to his as she rocked back and forth on his cock, sliding herself along the length of him.
She tried to increase her control by pushing him down with her knees but it was no use; even without his hands he was bucking and pushing up against her with his hips. They seemed to fight for control for a few moments before Ronnie relented and finally, with a bit of difficulty because he would not stop thrashing, took the cuffs off.
He sat up straight and grabbed her in both arms with so much force that the breath left her body. Without waiting for her to recover he pushed her down on him while at the same time he pushed up, so hard and so far that she yelped. She hung onto him for support; he was shaking all over, trembling with the energy of all the enthusiasm she'd forced him to suppress.
Now that he was out, he was taking it all out on her. Ronnie hung on for dear life, letting her neck crane back and crying out as she thrust up into her again and again, pulling her up and down on him, forcing her on and off. Her pussy throbbed and the feeling went all the way through her. Alan was out of control. She enjoyed the ride.
This went on and on until she felt it finally crest and swell up inside of her, hitting her hard and then washing away, leaving her stunned for a moment. She flopped down on the mattress, barely able to sit up, but Alan still wouldn't leave it be, climbing on top of her and going all the way back in.
Ronnie didn't have time to catch her breath, so she made little hiccupping noises as he went and went and went. When he came inside her it felt like a burst and she gushed wet on him all over again.
He lay over her then, spent and panting, his entire body damp with sweat. She ran her fingers through his hair and it came out drenched. He kissed her so hard it hurt. She let out an “Mmph” of satisfaction.
After they'd cuddled and talked a bit he drifted off to sleep. She stayed up a little longer, playing with the cuffs and watching him. He was cute when he was all tuckered out.
They’d only been going out for a month or two. Really, “going out” wasn’t quite the right word. Alan had made it clear he wanted to be more than just friends with benefits, but for reasons she didn’t quite understand herself, Ronnie held off.
The last second before she fell asleep, Ronnie thought she saw someone else at the window, a strange gray figure looking in.
It was gone so fast she assumed it must not have been a real, a last-second hallucination brought on by the passage into sleep. There had been something unidentifiably awful about the shape of it, something that made her think of those fish with the giant teeth that swam through trenches on the bottom of the ocean…
But it was gone now. Maybe it had never been there at all. Finally, eventually, the roaring ocean let her sleep, though her dreams were haunted by strange music, and thoughts of the ocean that she couldn’t quite recall when she woke, except that they made her feel anxious and strange.
Water was all over the floor.
Seawater, judging from the color and the smell, tracked all over the entryway. Ronnie was down on her hands and knees, mopping it up with paper towels.
But the thing that really startled her was not the mess itself, but the sudden realization that she was cleaning it in an automatic fashion without thinking about it or really acknowledging that it was there.
It was almost as if she’d been sleepwalking, and now was jolted into wakefulness. She blinked at brackish water gurgling and her salt-stained fingers. What the hell, she thought? A distinct feeling of deja vu came over her.
“Alan?” she called.
“Huh?” he stuck his head out of the kitchen. She gestured to the tracked-in water. He didn't seem to see it. She pointed again, with a broader gesture, but his face remained blank. Finally, he actually saw it.
“Huh. That's weird,” he said. “I don't remember doing that. Did you do that?”
Ronnie shook her head. She didn’t even remember waking up. Alan shrugged and got down to help her clean up. She got the distinct impression that, as soon as they were done, he didn’t remember doing it. And she would have been more troubled except that, very soon, neither did she…
Alan's shift at work didn't start until two hours after hers, but they rode in on the same bus. They made themselves a little late by stopping at Mei's to check on her. She seemed a bit less agitated today, until she started talking about how she'd found Boyd's gun and was sleeping with it under her pillow.
It took Alan half an hour to talk her into at least giving him the bullets out of it. There were probably more in the apartment, but it was all they could do except babysit her all day to make sure that she didn't up and shooting herself—or worse.
There was only one seat left on the bus, so Alan stood and let Ronnie sit. Across from them was a man frantically and fervently talking to himself. He didn't look like the average homeless ranter though: He was well-dressed and he looked clean. He was even shaved. But he raved and slurred his words and injected short laughs into sentences:
“We all come up from the ocean, everything, lizards, pigs, birds, even people. If you go back far enough, it's all about those first slimy things that crawled onto the beaches.
“You ever wonder about that, what made them do it? Here you are, you're a fish, and you're swimming around, and you've got the whole world of oceans to swim in, so why go up on the land? Why do that?
“Maybe it's because you're running away. Maybe it's because you know all about that other stuff down there in the ocean and you want to come up where it can't get at you.
“What do you think is out there so bad that it scared them clear up onto the land? That’s what it's all about, whatever it is. That’s the real ocean.”
He was still talking when they got off. Ronnie kissed Alan and went into work. Renee and Carlton both hadn't shown up that day, so they were even more shorthanded than usual.
A new kid was replacing Boyd, but he didn't seem altogether there. He was moody and quiet, and he kept dropping things. When he shook hands with Ronnie his palm felt strangely smooth and slick. In fact, everything about him had an oddly polished look, and his eyes were very wide, and he didn't blink very much.
Ronnie kept telling herself that he didn't really look that much like Boyd the last time she'd seen him, but the thought kept nagging her.
The lunch shift went by in a stream of plastic baskets, folded napkins, washcloths streaking dirtied tables, and the mildly befuddled but generally genial faces of tourists who looked at you as if you were some queer species of local animal that they wanted to observe in its native environment.
Some of them were rude, but Ronnie didn't get mad. It's not their fault, she told herself. It's just the way things are. You can't expect every person to do things exactly right all the time. You have to cut them some slack. You have to—
The voice was soft but it was right by her ear, so she jumped. Of course, it was just Olivier. He smiled by way of apology.
“You okay?” he said. “You look a little under the weather.”
“I'm fine,” she said.
“Hmm,” said Olivier. “We've had a lot of call-offs. Must be something going around.”
“Must be,” she said, turning back to her work. Olivier paused for a moment before going back to his office, but then he said, “Take a long lunch?”
Ronnie's debated the invitation. She wasn’t really in the mood…but it would get her mind off whatever was bothering her.
Alan was in the kitchen by now, and she gave him a little wave and blew him a kiss on the way in, then made sure he didn't see her going back toward the office.
Not that she necessarily had to. She’d warned him there were other guys, and he’d sworn he was okay with it. Still, probably better he not know that boss was one of them. Might be bad for his ego.
Ronnie knocked once and Olivier told her to come in. Then he told her to lock the door behind her.
Olivier was humming a song under his breath. Ronnie blinked. She’d heard that song before. In fact, she’d been singing it herself just yesterday, but couldn’t remember where she heard it first.
She asked Olivier about it and he said he couldn't remember where he'd heard it. “Must be going around,” he said.
She went down to her knees on the office floor, clearing his belt out of the way, unzipping his pants, and opening the flap on his underwear, taking his cock out and trying not to give it an appraising glare before she started to lick the tip.
She kept her eye on the clock as she started; they had at most ten minutes before someone came looking for one or the both of them. It would be enough.
Ronnie swirled her tongue around Olivier's prick a few times before gulping him in, running down the length of him and getting him wet with spit before popping back out and licking up and down the underside of him again. He was at half-mast when she started, but soon enough his cock was full and raring to go.
She was about to break off, as she'd only wanted to get him going, but he grabbed the back of her head and pushed it down again. Almost involuntarily she opened her mouth and swallowed again, and as he held her in place she began to really suck, pursuing her lips around his invading shaft and slurping.
He moaned with satisfaction and leaned further back in his chair so that he could get more leverage as he started fucking her mouth. Ronnie gagged but didn't lose it, instead relaxing her throat muscles, indeed, trying to relax her entire body. She let him slide in and out of her mouth, his cock growing wetter and wetter and dribbling across her tongue.
Ronnie felt the thick intrusion move all the way as far in as it would, and then with a rumbling “Ah!” he pulled all the way out at once. Ronnie coughed and sucked in air. Her face was red and tears squeezed out the corners of her eyes from the exertion.
One she caught her breath she stood up, smiled at Olivier, then turned and put her hands on the wall, pushing her ass out and wiggling it a little. “Want some?”
Olivier unzipped her shorts and pulled down her panties in one motion (he was good with his hands). She felt his cock slide between her ass cheeks as it crept lower, exploring. The office was cramped and it took a little jostling for position before he was able to slide in and still have enough room to maneuver.
Olivier jammed his cock up inside of her, hard. She squealed and her ass bounced with the motion of what he was doing as she thrust up, and up, and up into her again and again. She was pushed up against the wall hard, the cheap drywall rubbing against her face as her tits compressed against it.
He was pounding her hard, and out the corner of her eye she saw his face redden and his hair mat with sweat. The small office filled with the smell of sweat and sex. Ronnie gave him one of the throaty moans she'd been practicing. “Ohhh, yeah, give it to me boss!”
Olivier grabbed the back of her head and pulled her hair, although not very hard. “Who's the boss?” he said.
“Oh, fuck baby, you're the boss!” He started to fuck harder. “You're the boss, you're the boss, you're the boss, ohhhhh, fuck yeah baby, you're the boss!”
She kept her voice as low as possible, since the walls in this place were paper-thin, so everything came out as a whisper. Olivier’s cock expanded to stretch out her lips a bit and she knew that he was dribbling away inside of her.
She pushed on the wall as hard as she could, pushing back against him, inciting him to push forward, the weight of his body compressing her ass, making her labia ache with the force of what he was doing, and then she felt the gratifying gush of him inside of her.
Olivier looked a little sheepish. He always did when they'd finished. Wordlessly, they both cleaned up and dressed as fast as they could. She kissed him as quick as she could on the lips, and then Ronnie took her post back at the register with nobody the wiser. Hopefully.
As soon as she was able, she took off her apron and excused herself for a break, ducking outside for a few minutes to get some fresh air. You couldn’t ever really escape that fishy smell, but it wasn't as bad outside.
It was dark out already. Ronnie saw that there were even fewer sea lions around now than the day before. Lauro was finishing his own break. “Did you hear about the sea monster?” he said with a grin.
Ronnie started. “The what?”
He laughed. “That's what they're calling it. One of the ferries hit something on the way over. Tore up the bottom pretty good. No one knows what it was, so they're calling it the sea monster.”
Ronnie frowned. “But what was it really?”
He shrugged as he headed inside. “Something in the water,” was all he said.
Ronnie eavesdropped on a crowd below; they were all pretty upset. Apparently not only had the “sea monster” damaged the boat, but one woman was missing. No one had seen or heard her fall in, and indeed, her husband had somehow missed her absence until after they got to shore. She was just gone.
She thought about Olivier. They’d been taking “lunch” for about eight months now. It was a convenient thing, mostly: They were both attracted to each other but totally uninterested in anything like a relationship.
After all, he was the boss. That made it all easy. He was the opposite of Alan that way: If she gave Alan a fraction of a chance he’d probably propose just to keep her around.
Even though she’d warned him, she still felt a little guilty for not telling him who the other guy in her life was. It wasn’t technically his business, unless she wanted to…but, looking at the anxious passengers from the ill-fated ferry, she couldn’t shake the feeling that there were already too many secrets being kept around here lately.
“Children can come from strange places,” a voice said.
Ronnie murmured her agreement. Then she stood up straight, startled. Who said that? She looked around, thinking it might be Lauro, but no one was there.
“We're all the children of the ocean,” the voice said again.
This time she saw: Someone was down on the floating docks, where the sea lions usually lounged, three black shapes. Their outlines were strangely stooped and round-headed, with stiff arms straight at their sides.
How had they even gotten out there? They had to have swum, but the water was freezing. And what the hell were they saying? Nobody else seemed to realize they were there.
“It all started with the sea,” said the voice again. “Everything on the land came up out of the sea first. The ocean is the mother that we ran away from.”
The crazy guy from the bus? It couldn’t be. I'm dreaming, she thought. Or I'm seeing things.
When she looked again, sure enough, the figures were gone, though the water was disturbed and the dock was rocking back and forth, as if perhaps something had just jumped in. I imagined it, she told herself as she started the walk to the bus stop. I must have imagined it.
She was still telling herself that as she lay awake that night next to Alan and tried not think about what the voice had said. Once, she got up to look out the window for some unknowable reason and was surprised to find the street full of people, though it was long after midnight.
Her neighbors were leaving their homes and, as one it seemed, walking toward the beach. And what was that noise? She listened more closely. Were they singing?
It was that same song she'd heard so many times the last few days. A few more minutes of listening convinced her that the sound was not coming from the people, thought. It seemed to be coming from the beach, and it must be incredibly loud for her to be able to hear it so clearly.
It was like the song of a whale but with a real, recognizable tune. Ronnie shut the window. She locked it. The song got in through the walls anyway. It lulled her to sleep.
Three days passed. More people stopped showing up for work. They were down to a skeleton staff.
Ronnie and Alan both gave up their days off because otherwise the restaurant wouldn't have had enough workers to stay open. Even Olivier disappeared. Ronnie heard that SFPD was swamped with missing person's reports, more in a week than they usually received all year. They were having trouble keeping up because many of their own staff were missing too.
Business was down at the restaurant, but the wharf itself still drew big crowds. The people were not interested in eating or shopping, but rather watching the water, as if looking for something, or waiting for something.
Mei got worse. She insisted that Boyd visited her at nights, but only when she pretended to be asleep. She left her window open, claiming that he came in to visit her before departing in the mornings. It made no sense to Ronnie or Alan.
On Tuesday, one of the ferries went out and didn't come back. Somewhere on the return trip it simply vanished, and not a person on shore could say what happened to it.
On Wednesday, the son of a tourist couple jumped the railing on the docks. He never resurfaced, but no one, not even his parents, seemed surprised. They treated it like the most natural and expected thing.
On Thursday the beaches hosted an eerie spectacle: Thousands upon thousands of crabs came ashore, a ghastly, crawling mass swamping the beaches, so that no person dared come close. Even the predatory seagulls kept their distance.
Those few people who still showed up for work increasingly looked sick, pale and glassy-eyed, people whose skin looked like polished wax, people whose faces were distorted by fluid buildup, their eyes bulging like giant fish. Sometimes they almost looked like monsters.
And Ronnie was starting to feel under the weather herself.
By Friday no one bothered to go into work at all; no one in the entire city. The singing was now happening not just at night but all day too, and everyone could hear it. People either sat, stupefied, in their homes listening, or else they followed it out to the beach, more and more of them never returning.
Ronnie might have even have become one of them, if not for a surprise that night that shook her out of her stupor.
Boyd came back.
She was standing in the living room doing nothing in particular when movement on the front steps caught her attention. They'd left the door open and someone was out there, peering in.
Ronnie started, and then her heart jumped up when she recognized who it was, and she ran to the door (feet splashing through puddled seawater all over the floor…) and almost went to hug him, but stopped in her tracks when he shied away, trying to cover his face.
Of course, it did no good. She'd already seen him.
Her scream paralyzed her throat, and all that came out was a sob.
Boyd turned and ran, hopping the side fence and vanishing. Ronnie sank to her knees. Then, she emerged from the dreamlike state she’d been in for the past few days, fully realizing for the first time the strange things she’d seen and heard.
Cold horror built its nest inside of her. I have to get out of the city, she realized. Whatever was happening, it was affecting everyone here. She had to find Alan, get Mei and Sandra, and then get away.
She wasn’t sure where they should go. Just away.
She heard the shower running and ran to the bathroom, almost breaking her neck on the wet floor. The shower door was open and the nozzle poured onto Alan's back as he huddled, under it. Ronnie drenched herself picking him, then cried out when she turned him over.
He still looked human, but the signs were unmistakable: His skin had taken on a smooth, rubbery texture, and his face was oddly long, with wide black eyes. His hands, she saw, were becoming webbed, and it was difficult for him to stand because his feet had changed shape, becoming wider at the ends, like flippers.
He was not yet in the same state as Boyd, but he was well on the way. Is it too late, she wondered? How long has this been happening to him? The last few days were a blur in her mind. She couldn't place when the process started or how fast it was taking effect. She just knew that the song had done this to him.
She tried to pick him up but his rubbery flesh was slipper. Finally she gave up and just took his face in both hands, turning it to hers. “Baby,” she said, “I need you to listen.”
He seemed dazed but he at least looked at her. “You have to stay right here, okay? I'm going to bring help. Whatever you do, don't leave the house.”
There was no way of knowing if he understood, but he seemed to nod. It would have to do.
She didn't bother locking the door as she left. The streets were full of people, but they paid her no mind, glassy-eyed zombies looking toward the beach. Ronnie kept her head down and walked east, away from the ocean, toward 19th Avenue.
She hoped she wasn’t too late. Mei’s door was hung half open when Ronnie got there, and the outer corridor was wet with puddled water. Ronnie ran but skidded to a halt as Boyd came out, already holding little Sandra in his scaly arms.
Sandra wasn’t crying but instead looked passively up at her father, who himself seemed on the verge of tears, though there was little recognizable human expression left in his face.
Out in the open now, Ronnie saw fully what she had only glimpsed back at her house, but it was difficult to describe what Boyd really looked like: not entirely like a shark, an eel, a stingray, a porpoise, or a seal, but some awful amalgamation of all.
And yet, somehow, he still looked like the man she knew. All the others this far along must have taken to the water already, but she knew why Boyd hadn’t.
Even now, he couldn't forget his little girl.
Ronnie was between Boyd and his escape. He seemed unsure what to do. He tried to talk but it all came out a garbled mess. His mouth was no longer the proper shape for speech.
Ronnie took a step forward and held up a hand. “It's okay,” she said. Boyd looked ready to run—either away from her or at her. Ronnie advanced one slow step at a time.
“Everything's going to be all right,” she said. “Let me help.”
Boyd made a wailing sound.
“I know,” Ronnie said. “What happened isn't your fault. But you don't want to bring Sandra into this. You don't want to hurt Mei.” Where was Mei? Ronnie pushed the thought aside. There was no time.
“Look at your girl, Boyd,” she said. The baby giggled and squirmed happily in Boyd’s arms. “You don't want her in this, do you?” Ronnie held her arms out, “I'll keep her safe.”
“I'll take her and Mei and we'll go far away from all this.” Ronnie took another step forward. They were almost touching now. “I promise.”
Hands shaking, Boyd put the baby in Ronnie's arms. The little girl had somehow managed to fall asleep. Ronnie backed away. Boyd slouched on the steps, looking at the empty place in his hands where his child had just been…
And then he cried out. He darted forward, making a grab for the baby again. “Boyd, no!” Ronnie said, but he rushed at her, arms outstretched, and Ronnie flinched, hugging Sandra and praying she wouldn’t be hurt…
A sound like a firecracker right next to her ear stunned Ronnie. Then there was another, and another, and another. Sandra woke with a shriek and Ronnie dropped to her knees, huddling over the baby.
When the noise finally stopped she looked up and saw Boyd, face down on the ground. Blood was everywhere. Behind him, still half-concealed by the open door, was Mei. Boyd's gun smoked in her hand.
Mei was placid as she stepped over Boyd's body and took Sandra from Ronnie. She shushed the baby and rocked her back and forth until the crying stopped. Ronnie stared at Boyd's corpse, paralyzed.
Boyd was dead. Boyd was dead. Boyd—
As the ringing in her ears dimmed Ronnie heard the siren song again and reminded herself that there wasn't any time to waste. Trying not to really think about what had just happened she stood up and took Mei by the shoulders. “Mei, can you hear me? Are, you know, all here?”
Mei looked utterly calm. “Yes,” she said. “I'm fine.”
“Do you have the car? Is there gas?”
“Yes,” Mei said again, now looking at Sandra and cooing to her. “We can leave right away.”
“Good,” said Ronnie. “We have to get Alan. We have to get Alan and—”
And then she stopped. She looked at her hand on Mei's shoulder. She went cold. She felt herself screaming inside but pushed it down. No time. No time.
“Forget that,” she said, “Just get in the car and go. Drive until…” She paused, “Just get as far inland as you can. And don't stop for anything.”
“Aren't you coming?” said Mei.
“It's too late,” Ronnie said, and held up her hand so that Mei could see the webbed fingers.
Mei gave her a look of pity, but nodded. She buckled Sandra into her car seat, packed all the food in the house that wouldn't spoil into the trunk and, without sparing a glance behind, she drove off.
Ronnie watched her go. The streets to the west were jammed with empty cars, but to the east the whole city looked empty.
Ronnie wondered if they would make it. Was it safe to cross any of the bridges? And had they, like her, already begun to change without realizing it? Ronnie shuddered. It was no use worrying now. It was out of her hands.
When she finally got back she already knew just by looking at the house that Alan was gone. Her heart sank, but she knew he must have held out as long as he could, she told herself.
Or did he? She thought about how long Boyd had stayed behind for Sandra. Would Alan have wanted to stay like that for her? She guessed she’d never know now.
She sat in the living room, humming along with the ocean song. No reason not to listen to it now. She didn’t want to go the beach, but she had no plan beyond just staying here for as long as she could resist it.
Then she heard a floorboard creak. The stink of seawater rose up. Ronnie turned and saw three of them, crouched in her open doorway and looking at her, their mouths full of pointed teeth and open in a silent whisper, ocean water still dripping from their rubbery hides. All at once they advanced on her.
“No,” she said. “Please. I don't want to go.”
They didn't listen. She tried to run but they were faster, taking her by both arms and ignoring her struggles.
“I don't want to go, I don't want to go!” she said. “Just let me stay here, please. It doesn't matter now. It doesn't—”
One clubbed her across the jaw. Her vision went blurry, and then she sank into unconsciousness.
The sound of waves woke her up. Ronnie was standing in the tide, her bare feet covered by wet sand. The sun was going down, and hundreds and hundreds of shells dotted the sand.
Somewhere out there in the water, a great shape basked in the waves, singing. She was finally close enough to see it, but, what was it? It seemed too big to be alive, like a living island, or a reef that had swum to the surface.
A dozen people stood with Ronnie, all in thrall to the song. The one next to her was almost completely finished changing, but somehow she still recognized him as the man from the bus, even if his voice was barely intelligible because his mouth was longer the proper shape.
“We all came from the ocean,” he said again. “Everyone, everything, all descended from those first slimy things that crawled up out of the waves.
“Do you wonder why they left? I used to think they were running away from something, but now I think maybe they were sent. What if some great creature of the sea, some god or monster, sent them onto the land to do a job?
“And what if, now that job is over, and she's calling us home? What if one day your DNA just wakes up and says, oh, right, it's time to go. And we all just go.”
He smiled, or approximated one. Ronnie said nothing, but his words struck a chord.
“It's been nice up here,” the man said. “But I guess we couldn't stay away from home forever.”
And with that he leapt into the water. Ronnie saw his legs and feet fuse into a tail, and then he was gone. He swam toward the living island and, one by one, so did all the others. Ronnie was the only one left.
She sighed, but even as she did she waded out into the water, fighting the waves. For a moment they felt cold against her rubbery flesh. Alan was out there somewhere. I'm going to find Alan, she told herself. I'm going home to find him, and this time I won’t let him go. Somehow, everything will be all right.
Ronnie swam out to the part of the great Sea Mother that sat above the surface. The gigantic beast had been working hard, swimming close to the surface and calling out to her children for days and days.
Ronnie climbed up onto the side of the thing, still trying to get a look at it. What was it? She saw one of its huge yellow eyes looking at her, and then the Sea Mother's limbs thrashed in the water, great, waving, graceful tentacles, the twining limbs that gave motion to the waves.
She knew what to call the beast: Kraken, the oldest of all living things, the god-monster of the seas.
It prepared to dive, and Ronnie braced, waiting to submerge. Everyone clung to the monster’s back. In her mind she saw images of a great sunken city, where they all would soon live. Was it some ancient Cyclopean ruin beneath the waves, or was she seeing the future of this city, which they would reclaim when the sea rose up to take it?
There was no time to wonder now. With a roaring of waves the Sea Mother dived. For a moment the surface of the ocean churned and roiled, as if it itself were some great, angry beast whose eons-long rest had been disturbed.