“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 the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind — of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.”
-HP Lovecraft, “Dagon”
One day Boyd just didn't come home.
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. The baby was crying on the other end of the line and even though it was three in the morning Ronnie and Alan both went over to Mei and Boyd’s depressing walk-up a few blocks down. Mei spent the whole night pacing and drinking coffee and rocking little Sandra in her arms, hoping she’d quiet down. “It's 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. 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 Boyd had never seemed like he didn't care. He never seemed like he wasn't trying. 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 Alan and Ronnie chipped in on Mei’s rent every month even though they 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 outside.
Working 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. 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. She must be seeing things. For a moment she thought she’d seen something like a man in a wetsuit, but no one would be swimming in the filthy, freezing, pitch black water at this time of night. Still, the memory of the half-glimpsed figure troubled her. Rather than dwell on it, she went home.
The bus was late and Alan was already in bed when she got in. 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 this place, lucky that her parents had bought it outright and left it to her, lucky to live in a decent neighborhood close to the beach, but the truth was she didn't like being so near the ocean. As a kid she'd used to have nightmares about it. She'd always been terrified of any deep water that she couldn't see to the bottom of. It was a secret relief when she finally moved out, to a place nearer the city center where she could see neither the ocean nor the bay. But when Mom and Dad died she’d come to live here again, just eight blocks away from those dark, roiling waters that never ended.
But even so, I’m lucky, she told herself as she unlocked the front door. I'm lucky in so many ways.
Alan’s schoolwork was all over the table. Perspective class or anatomy class? She couldn’t tell. Most of the sketches were of a woman, probably a sitting model. On the last couple he'd doodled in a scaly tail instead of legs, turning her into a mermaid. It made her laugh. He was getting better every week, though she knew these summer courses were hard on him. He'd offered to drop out and take more shifts at the restaurant to help with the bills, but Ronnie had said no. He had to finish school. He owed it to himself.
Of course, she had dropped out herself last year, but that was different. She’d never really known what she wanted to do in the first place. Alan actually had a dream, and at least a little talent. She wondered, of course, how they were ever going to keep paying for the upkeep on the house and the property tax, and how they were going to pay for Mei and Sandra now too, as she knew they would. But they’d always made everything work in the past. Somehow they would again. “Somehow” was always her plan.
To her surprise, Alan was not in bed when she found him. He was standing at the window in his underwear with the blinds up, staring outside. She crept up behind him, half expecting to find him spying on some neighbor changing her clothes, but in fact all he was looking at was the ocean. The water was black, and it rolled and throbbed like a huge living thing all its own. Alan was humming under his breath, and the tune was familiar. It sounded like the same song she'd been singing at lunch, the one she knew but couldn't quite place. “What is that?” she asked, and her voice startled him out of his reverie. He broke off and turned, hugging her. “What was that song?” she asked again.
Alan scratched the back of his head. “I don't know. Some lullaby. I heard Boyd singing it to Sandra once. Why?”
“It’s familiar,” was all Ronnie could say. She closed the blinds. Alan lay down on the bed and Ronnie lay half across him. It was hot during July nights, so damn hot even with the fog, but she still stayed as close to him as possible. He petted her hair. “Do you think Mei is okay tonight?” he said.
“Sure,” said Ronnie. “I mean, as she ever is.”
“I meant to go check on her after class, but it was so late…” He trailed off. She detected the undercurrent of guilt in his voice and leaned up to kiss his cheek.
“It's sweet of you to worry about her,” she said. “But maybe time alone is what she needs. She's got to get used to taking care of herself one of these days.” Alan grunted, but she still wanted to go check on her, and that he would keep checking as long as Boyd was gone, and probably even if Boyd came back. It was Alan's nature to want to save people. For a while, she'd even wondered if he and Mei were fooling around. It would be just like Alan to try to “rescue” her from her relationship with Boyd. And Mei, well, Mei was always too needy to say no to anyone. But she'd never caught them at anything.
Ronnie sat up and swung a leg over Alan's body, straddling him. She 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 bucked on him a little, playfully. He made a noncommittal sound. “Not tonight, baby,” he said.
“Oh come on,” she said, pretending to pout.
“It's late. It was a hard day.”
“I know. That's why you need TLC.” She leaned over and kissed him, open-mouthed, her lips gliding against his. He kissed back, but only as much as he had to. She felt herself get mad for just a second but stopped it. Even this, she knew, was him trying to take care of her, trying to make sure she got real sleep for once instead of staying up half the night and spending all week in a zombie daze like she usually did. It was impossible to get mad at Alan because nothing Alan did was ever for himself, even when he was being stupid and thoughtless. So instead she just kept kissing him, and in time he kissed her back for real, though his enthusiasm was still somewhat lackluster. Finally she rolled off of him and, with a wicked grin, 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.
“I got you something,” she said.
He scratched his head.
“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.
He 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.” 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. She rubbed herself back and forth against he 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 him 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. Her clit pulsed as he filled her up. She laid 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 as he hit her cervix. 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. She 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. Eventually she snuggled up to his bare back. Though the afterglow had allowed her to forget about it for a while, the sound of the ocean just outside was back at her now, fraying her nerves. But as long as Alan was here she could ignore it, or more precisely, so long as Alan was here, it didn't matter as much.
The last second before she fell asleep she 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 that strange song, the song with no name and no words, the song that her heart knew even if it did not know where it had come from.
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 were sleepwalking and had now been 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 she actually said, “What's with all the water on the floor?” Something clicked and his eyes refocused.
“Huh. That's weird,” he said. “I don't remember doing that. Did you do that?” She shook her head. He shrugged and got down to help her clean up. She got the distinct impression that, as soon as they were done, he did not remember doing it, and she would have been more troubled except that, very soon, neither did she.
Alan's shift 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, that is, 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, but it was all they could do except babysit her all day to make sure that she didn't up and shoot 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, slumped over and beset by a series of facial tics. He didn't look like the average Muni 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 felt sorry for the driver having to stay on with him. She 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 no one's fault, 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 heart sank. Damn, she thought. But then she nodded, and reminded herself not to be ungrateful when things went her way. Well, sort of her way.
She took off her apron and excused herself, 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 a grey day and the bay looked choppy, but the crowds didn't seem to mind. Ronnie saw that there were even fewer sea lions now. Lauro was finishing his own break. “Did you hear about the sea monster?” he said with a grin. Ronnie started.
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, putting uncharacteristic furrows in her forehead. “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.
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. Just remember you're doing this for him, she thought. It would kill him if he ever found out, but even so, it's for him. She 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. Was that the same song Alan was singing last night? She asked Olivier about it and he said he couldn't remember where he'd heard it. “Must be going around,” he said. Then he unzipped his pants.
He gave her an awkward half smile and she went down to her knees on the office floor, clearing his belt out of the way 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. She 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 swollen and hard. 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. Just let him do what he wants, she told herself. Whatever gets us through this faster. So she let him slide in and out of her mouth, his cock growing wetter and wetter and dribbling across her tongue. He wasn't looking at her face, indeed, he never looked at her face, just closed his eyes the whole time and seemingly fixated on the sensation. Ronnie felt the thick intrusion move all the way as far in as it would, until her face was nestled against his pubic hair, 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. She fell down a little, and when Olivier, finally taking notice of her, tried to help pushed him back.
She looked at the floor, fixating on her breathing to avoid hyperventilating. She felt sick; the taste of him was all over her mouth and she felt like it would never come out. Okay, she thought, concentrate. You can do this. Remember, it's all for the better. It's all for Alan. Olivier's not even a bad guy; sure, he's taken advantage of you, but you let him. You asked him to. This was your plan all along. She coached herself silently, psyching herself up for the hardest part, the part that came next. Finally 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 pussy?” she said in what she hoped was a cheerful, playful tone. Olivier unzipped her shorts and pulled down her panties in one motion (he was good with his hands, she had to give him at least that much). 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. Ronnie's heart jumped in her chest. Down girl, she thought, we're almost done.
Olivier jammed his cock up inside of her, hard. She squealed, both because she knew he liked it and because it distracted her. Her round little 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 the barrier. Olivier was pounding hard against her, 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,” she said, whispering her full lips over his. “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 smoky whisper. Olivier went wild. That was one more good thing about him; he was easy to please. His 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 warm gush of him inside of her. She couldn't suppress a feeling of gratification as he came, spurting up into her over and over again until he was empty, collapsing back in his chair, panting, spent.
It felt good; she felt awful for thinking it, awful in so many ways now that she doubted there were any degrees of shame still left unexplored, but still, after all the problems with Alan, after how hard she had to work to get him turned on and keep him turned on these days, it was gratifying knowing that she could still work her old magic on a man. Even if it wasn't the man she really wanted.
Olivier looked a little sheepish. He always did when they'd finished. Wordlessly, they both cleaned up and dressed as fast as they could. Ronnie took her post back at the register and stayed late to make up for Renee, sending Alan home ahead of her. She was afraid if she’d loser her poker face. She left the back way and stood out on the railing, looking at the black water lapping the docks. The salt breeze stung.
She really was doing it all for Alan. Alan wanted to be a father more than anything in the world. Even more than he wanted to be an artist. But she was starting to think that Alan might not be able to be a father. They hadn't exactly been trying for a baby, but they hadn't been taking any precautions either. She went off the pill a year ago and so far, nothing. She knew it wasn't her because she had been pregnant once before, in high school. If there was a problem, it was probably with Alan, and she could tell it bothered him. He didn’t talk about it, but she saw his heart break a little more every time he watched Boyd with Sandra.
Sooner or later she’d lost him over it. They couldn't afford any kind of special treatments, fertility doctors, or in vitro. If they were having a baby, it had to be the old-fashioned way. So one day she started to think, maybe it didn’t matter where the baby came from just so long as there was one? Alan would never need to know. He certainly wouldn't think to ask. And if it made him happy, well, what was more important than that?
So she'd started “long lunches” and “late closes” with Olivier. She picked him mostly out of convenience. She knew he was attracted to her and that he could keep his mouth shut, and while she didn't exactly like him he didn’t make her want to throw up or anything either. And he was a white guy who looked enough like Alan that she wouldn't have to worry about how the baby would look.
It was a terrible thing she was doing, but she was sure that it was for the best. Somehow.
“Children can come from strange places.”
She murmured her agreement. Then she stood up straight, startled. She looked left and right but couldn't see who had said it. Was she hearing things?
“We're all the children of the ocean.”
This time she saw: Someone was down on the floating docks, where the sea lions usually lounge, 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 this time of night. And what the hell were they saying?
“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 they’d 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 in the dark, 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? Not only were they singing, it was that same song, the one she'd heard so many times the last few days, the one she apparently knew herself without really knowing it.
A few more minutes of listening convinced her the sound was not coming from the people, however. 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. It made her think of some great shape rising up in the water, some huge, basking thing, too big for the mind to truly conceive.
She 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 just staring into the water, as if looking for something, or waiting for something. Ronnie did not tell Alan what she saw and heard at the window that night. Partly this was because she did not know exactly what to tell him, but the other part was her profound certainty that Alan must already know about it, that everyone knew about it deep down inside, even if no one could say so. They all waited, in silence, for the tide to come in.
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. Strangely, Mei did not appear comforted by these supposed nocturnal visits. If anything, the idea of Boyd coming back seemed to scare her. But still she left the window ajar.
A series of omens began:
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, were surprised or upset. Somehow it seemed a perfectly natural thing to everybody.
On Thursday the beaches hosted an eerie spectacle: Thousands upon thousands of crabs came ashore, a ghastly, crawling mass swamping the beaches. They neither returned to the water nor spread out any further but simply stayed, languishing, 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, and Ronnie was starting to feel under the weather herself. Alan was even worse. They did not openly discuss it. Ronnie thought she saw many sick people on the streets lately, people who were 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. Worse, she thought she heard the song all the time now. It was always there, just below the surface, an undercurrent to daily life.
By Friday no one bothered to go into work at all; no one in the entire city. The song had gotten louder and now everyone could hear it. People either sat, stupefied, in their homes listening, or else they followed it out to the beach, wading halfway into the surf or even, in some cases, diving in and swimming toward the unknown source, seemingly never to return. Something was out there. Something big.
Alan and Ronnie were among those who went to the beach that day, but they did not go all the way in. They stayed on the shore, rocking back and forth to the siren song of the hidden shape far off in the water. In truth, it was if they had never woken but were simply sleepwalking through life to the tune of that wordless song. And Ronnie might have gone on sleeping in such a way forever if not for a surprise on her doorstep that shook her out of her stupor.
Boyd came back.
She was standing in the entryway doing nothing in particular after their pilgrimage to the beach when movement on the front steps caught her attention. They'd left the door open and someone was out there, peering in. She started, and then her heart jumped up when she recognized who it was, and she ran to the door (feet splashing through puddled seawater) and almost went to hug him but stopped in her tracks. He shied away, trying to cover his face, but of course, it did no good. She'd already seen him. Seen what had happened to 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, crying, telling herself that it wasn't real, hadn't been real, couldn't be real. But she knew it was.
Then, bit by bit, piece by piece, her memories surfaced. With the spell of that strange day broken she was finally consciously aware of the scene on the beach, the masses of people and the strange faces in the crowd. And the song. That awful, beautiful song. She finally thought, for the first time really thought, about the missing people, and the strange omens, and the feeling of dread she'd carried for weeks without acknowledging. She remembered the cold wind blowing off the ocean and the sinister look of the waves…
“No,” she said, out loud.
She was not sure what she was refuting. The situation, perhaps, or just life in general. Whatever it was, she would not accept it. She knew what to do: find Alan, then get Mei and Sandra, and then get away. She was not yet sure where they should go. Just away.
People were walking out of their homes and going to the beach, many leaving their doors wide open. They would not come back, she knew. She heard the shower running and ran to the bathroom, almost slipping and breaking her neck on the wet floor. The shower door was open and the nozzle poured onto Alan's back as he huddled, rocking back and forth 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 slippery and she almost dropped him twice. 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 marching toward the waves. Ronnie did her best not to look straight at anyone. She kept her head down and walked east, away from the ocean, toward 19th Avenue. She hoped she was not too late. She kept her head down; judging from the squelching noises most of the crowd made when they walked, she did not want to look too closely at anyone around her. The stink of seawater was everywhere.
Mei’s door was hung half open and the outer corridor was wet with puddled water. Ronnie ran but skidded to a halt as Boyd came out, holding little Sandra in his scaly arms. Sandra was not 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.
Now, in the open, Ronnie saw fully what she had only glimpsed back at her house, saw the unspeakable, twisted thing that Boyd had become. He retained a basic human shape, though his back was bowed and his head elongated, and his hands and feet webbed into flippers. The rest of him was difficult to describe or distinguish: not entirely like a shark, an eel, a stingray, a porpoise, or a seal, but some awful amalgamation of all. His rubbery flesh gleamed. 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 looked away with something like shame. 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. “You know me. 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. I promise.” Ronnie took another step forward. They were almost touching now. “I promise.”
Hands shaking, Boyd put Sandra in Ronnie's arms. The little girl had somehow fallen asleep. Ronnie backed away. Boyd slouched on the steps, watching her, looking at the empty place in his hands where his child had just been, and then he cried out. He darted forward, trying to grab her back. “Boyd, no!” Ronnie said, but he rushed at her, arms outstretched, and Ronnie flinched, hugging Sandra and praying she wouldn’t be hurt in the collision…
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, facedown on the ground, covered in blood. 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 okay? Are, you know, all here?”
Mei looked perfectly tranquil. “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, “Drive until you get to Nevada. 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. It had happened just now, or perhaps it had been that way all day and she had somehow not noticed it.
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? Would they have to drive all the way down the peninsula? 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.
She did not want to stay here with poor Boyd. She did not want to go to the ocean either. She supposed she should go spend what little time she had left with Alan. Ronnie hummed along with the song as she walked back. There was no reason not to, now.
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. He couldn’t hang on forever, she thought. No one could. But then she saw the shuffling wet footprints all over her floor, indicating the flat, flippered feet of a great many intruders. And she saw a handprint streaked through the muck, as if Alan had been dragged through the house, and out the door…
A floorboard creaked behind her. The stink of seawater rose up. Ronnie turned and saw three of them, crouched and waiting for her, their mouths full of pointed teeth and open in a silent whisper, ocean water still dripping from their rubbery hides. They came at her.
“No,” she said. “Please. I don't want to go.”
They didn't listen. She tried to run but they were fast, taking her by both arms and ignoring her as she tried to kick. “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 the Pacific looked like a shining golden sheet. The waves splashed her naked body with brine. Hundreds and hundreds of shells dotted the sand.
Somewhere out there, a great shape basked in the waves, singing. What was it? It was alive, but 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. Most of them were showing signs of the change. Many of them were already far along. The one next to her was almost completely finished, but somehow she still recognized him as the man from the bus last week, 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 what made them do it? 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 for a reason? 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. She knew it was true.
“The ocean is the mother to us all,” the man said. “It's been nice up here, 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. She hoped, even now, that Mei and Sandra made it. She hoped (though she suspected it was impossible) that the Sea Mother would not visit the other coastal cities around the world. 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 when I do everything will be all right. Somehow, everything will be all right. And then she swam.
Ronnie climbed up onto the part of the great Sea Mother that sat above the surface. The monster shuddered with the effort of its labored breathing. The Sea Mother had been working hard, staying close to the surface and calling out to her children for days and days. Now the last of them was here. Ronnie tried to look at what she was standing on. What was this thing? She saw something on its side that looked like a great yellow spotlight—but no, she realized, it was an eye, a huge, yellow eye, and it was looking right at her. Then the Sea Mother's limbs thrashed in the water, great, waving, graceful tentacles, the twining limbs that gave motion to the waves, and Ronnie knew what to call the beast: Kraken, the oldest of all living things, the god-monster of the seas.
It was carrying them all away. It prepared to dive, and Ronnie braced herself, waiting to submerge. They all 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? She wasn’t sure. The sun was setting. They were going. The waves opened up to accept them. Ronnie held her breath, waiting for it.
Oh my God, she realized, a sudden thought striking her unbidden: I missed my period last week. I'm pregnant!
But there was no time to think about that 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.