Authors: Dennis Etchison
Except that it was brighter at the center, burning from within, as if the sea were smoldering. It seemed to be pulsating, she thought, actually growing brighter as she watched. She must be getting tired. She rubbed her eyes.
“If you’ll let me take you to dinner tonight,” Dan was droning, “I’ll prove it to you.”
“Why ruin it? My idea of perfection is a voice on the phone. Pure, unadulterated sound.”
“Okay, mystery lady. I guess you win for now. Only—”
For a long moment she stood there, staring out into the darkness, hoping to get a clearer look. She scanned the horizon from north to south, but it was like the first feeble star of evening: if you tried to look straight at it, it disappeared. And then you could never find it again.
The record had run out. She forced herself away from the window.
“Damn it,” she said. God knows how long it’s been like that. She shot a glance at the wall clock. I promised them four in a row, and four it is. While she was slapping the next platter into place, she keyed herself back on the air.
“Take care out there,
she said, forgetting her old voice for a beat. “Antonio Bay will be looking for you, safe and sane, at the big celebration tomorrow night . . .”
“. . . And if for some reason you can’t make it . . . if you’ve got to recharge your batteries, and you know what I mean . . . then be sure to join me, ’cause I’ll be here, as always . . .”
“Man,” said Williams, captain of the
killing his Bud and lining it up alongside the other empties. “I sure would like to jump
“I saw her once at the 7-11 store,” said Baxter.
He patted the bunk. “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed.”
Wallace got up and gravitated, bleary-eyed, to the port window. “She’s crazy,” he said matter-of-factly. “There’s no frigging fog bank out there.”
Williams ignored him and focused more or less on Baxter. “What do you know about her?”
“She owns the lighthouse.”
“Tell me something I don’t know, fishhead.”
“Her son plays Little League with my son,” offered Baxter.
“She’s a mother?”
“You bet. Anyway what makes you think she likes to fool around with married men? Besides, I thought you and Kathy were the Couple of the Year.”
“Not this year.”
“There is no fog bank out there,” Wallace repeated. “No way.”
Outside the port window, riding high, a moon straight out of a nursery rhyme rocked lazily over the peaceful currents. There was not a whitecap in sight. Or was that one whitecap, a low one, a half-mile out?
“Hey,” said Wallace. “Guess what, guys? There is a fog bank out there.”
Williams and Baxter turned their thick necks, scowled at him, and shrugged. “Crazy alky,” said Baxter. But he got up to look.
“Well, I’m drunk enough,” said Williams. “Let’s go back.”
Baxter pulled himself out of the cabin and up onto the deck.
“Give him a hand, why don’t you?” Williams told Wallace. “Do something for a change except burp and snore.”
“Al,” said Wallace, “come here.” There was a different, more serious tone in his voice.
“Just give him a hand and cut the—”
“You better come here.”
Outside, a white ball was rolling across the water, closing fast. As it rolled it spread out, covering the surface like a billowing sail.
“You see that?” said Wallace.
“What about it?”
“It’s glowing,” said Wallace.
“St. Elmo’s fire.”
What the hell you been drinkin’, Captain?”
The cloud began to throb.
They heard the boat creak as it yawed, and then Baxter’s hoarse voice from the steering house.
They met each other’s eyes. The window was coated with a pearly, opaque luminescence.
They swung themselves up out of the cabin.
And into the fog.
In the steering house, Baxter pounded the controls in front of him. The fog was inside now, condensing on the glass covers, the dials barely visible. The needles were spinning.
The door blew open, and another enormous pillow of white fog entered. Baxter could no longer see the dials or his hands. He lifted his hands from the wheel and brought them close to his face. Through the puffs of sparkling, congealing fog, his fingers were glowing.
A white rushing sound filled his ears. A figure appeared in the flapping doorway, tentacles of fog curving around its legs.
Then another figure appeared behind it, and Williams and Wallace sprang inside and kicked the door shut. Williams bounded over to the wheel, to the quivering dials and jerking controls.
The compass needle whirled like a pinwheel.
Williams shoved Baxter aside and pounced on the radar screen. The lights began to blink and falter. He swept the dial of the ship-to-shore, but only a high-pitched squealing came through the speaker at every frequency. The squeal became loud, louder as the white sound cranked up around them. Williams hunkered intently over the scope. There was a
as the circle swept around, and a huge dot appeared in ghostly outline at the center.
“Christ!” roared Williams. “There’s something right in front of us!”
He fought the wheel as the boat pitched. The lights went off, and then a familiar pulsing cut out beneath their boots.
“The engine!” said Wallace, and hauled himself on deck.
Williams abandoned the controls and followed him.
“Here,” yelled Wallace, handing Williams a flashlight.
“It’s like the inside of a hurricane.” Williams swung the beam aft. It was weak and yellow and most of the light reflected back at them, but it was enough to catch a black tail undulating out of the hold.
“Look at that smoke! Jesus, Joseph, and Mary!”
They threw open the hold and the plume of black smoke became a gust of soot in their faces. The generator was still crackling, sweating under a covering of fog that had seeped through the boards and curled around it like icy fingers.
Williams yanked the flashlight beam up and off the deck. It poked dimly at the almost solid fogbank as another shuddering creak sounded, this time right on top of them.
The beam penetrated only a few feet, but that was enough to catch the tall, wet outline of—
“See if you can get her going,” said Williams.
“Did you see that?”
“I don’t know what I saw. Get on it, man! I’m going to try the auxiliary radio.”
Williams let himself back into the steering house, trying not to look at the fog and the way it had solidified in the impossibly rushing wind, stained and shredded at the edges, flapping like deranged gulls against the side of the trawler, catching, grappling closer—
As he entered the empty room, the fog slithered around his ankles and across the floor, pooling at the base of the wheel.
He dragged his feet through the chilling wet and tried the controls once more. Frozen up. He punched the radio and scanned the band.
He heard footsteps on deck, the sound of the door being flung open behind him.
“There you are. Give me a hand, Baxter. Tommy’s aft, trying to fire ’er up.”
He remained bent over the panel, wearing out his thumb on the starter button. Nothing happened. “Did you see that out there?” he said. “It’s big, buddy. Big, I tell you. What the hell do you make of—?”
Where there had been dead silence behind his back, he now heard the sound of water dripping on the planks.
He heard and could almost feel a long sliding. Over his shoulder, something long and cold and sliding.
“Baxter! If you’re not going to help, get out there and see what Wallace is—Baxter? Is that you?”
A shadow fell over him.
He started to turn, but it was already too late to move. He took one look up into the shadow, opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came out. It was upon him.
“It’s almost one o’clock, lover, here at KAB, and I’m all done in. But how about one more quick one before we call it a night . . . ?”
Nick reached with his good hand and snagged a cigarette from his shirt pocket. He lit it and dragged deeply, holding it in so long that hardly any smoke finally came out of his mouth, only the faintest blue cloud against the lapping firelight. He looked back to his lap.
“Not bad,” he said noncommittally.
“I started this series a week ago, in San Diego,” said Elizabeth. “Right up the coast, five drawings a day. I figure a month to get to Vancouver, and if I can sell ’em for five dollars each when I get there, I’ll be rich.”
Nick turned the pages of her sketchbook. “What’s this one?”
“That’s Morro Rock,” she said quickly. “In Morro Bay. See the way it looks like a face? Like a movie I saw on TV once when I was a little girl,
I think it was called. The monster was invisible, until they did something to the atmosphere, and then you could just see the outline of it, sort of in the mist-like. There’s always this mist or steam hanging around that place, so you can never see it perfectly clearly. But I waited, and at sunup, well, there it was. Like a skull rising out of the water. Isn’t it neat? Watch your hand.”
“You watch it.”
“No, seriously. The way you’re leaning. You’re going to open that cut again.”
“ ‘Elizabeth Solley,’ ” he read. “Is that really your name?”
“Sure it is. But don’t—”
“Elizabeth, can I ask you something?”
“Why are you mothering me?”
She reddened. “Oh, I suppose you could have picked the glass out with one hand. You’d rather I—”
“I wouldn’t ‘rather’ anything. I’ve been alone a long time. I can take care of myself. I must have been cut a hundred times out there, on lines, gaffs, fishhooks—you know what I did? Splashed a little salt water on it to kill the germs. And that’s all. I can take care of myself, Elizabeth Solley.”
Instantly he regretted it, for she snatched the sketchpad out of his hands and started clearing the cotton and bandages from the table. She’s nice, he thought. She didn’t deserve that. What the hell am I so defensive about?
“I can do that later,” he said.
She stopped, regarded him as coolly as a sphinx, and reached for her jacket.
“Look. I guess I’m a little rattled after what happened tonight. Plus I had to make a run down the coast to replace some gear for tomorrow. Didn’t get much sleep last night.” She could understand that, couldn’t she? “Is that where you come from, San Diego?”
She folded her jacket on her knees and sat by the fire, sizing him up. “That’s not fair.”
“You said, ‘Can I ask you something?’ Something means one thing. That makes two.”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry.”
“Oh, don’t be. I hate men who go around apologizing all the time. Pasadena. Money, my dear. Money to do anything, except the things I wanted to do. And that’s the last one you’re getting free.”
He blew out a long cone of smoke and smiled. She was so proud. What does that remind you of, Nick, old boy? Money, huh? Poor thing. The smoke hung in the air between them in blue-gray bands, then wafted upward on the convection currents from the fireplace. Through it her face was open and vulnerable, much more so, probably, than she knew, and actually rather pretty, he thought now, in a straight-ahead, no-nonsense way. His laugh turned into a cough. He pitched the cigarette onto the logs.
“I do have one more question,” he said.
“It’ll cost you.”
He leaned over and picked up the sketchpad from her side. He felt the cut popping open like a small, lacerated mouth under the Telfa pad; she was right. He opened the book. “Can I buy this one?”
She took the pad back. She tore out the page and sailed it toward him. “The drawing is free. Five dollars for asking the question.”
He reached for his wallet.
He stood and bowed forward, legs bent, and started to reach into his back pocket again. And then, quite amazingly, he thought later, he was kissing her.
He opened his eyes. He couldn’t believe he was doing this. She didn’t resist. Neither did she exactly fall into his arms. Her eyes were open, too. She—
Someone was knocking on the door.
“Well?” she said.
“Aren’t you going to answer it?”
“Al?” he called. “It’s Al,” he said.
“Oh,” she said. “Al.”
The knocking continued. Slow and rhythmic. As they stood there listening it became a pounding, but slow, steady, relentless, like the time the State cops came busting in at dawn on that Coast Guard complaint. That sound always made him tense up, made him a little bit afraid, too, dammit, at the same time, and mad at himself for being afraid. What kind of goons get their kicks rousting people in the middle of the night?
He started for the door.
“Wait,” she said. “Nick, don’t. I don’t want you to.”
“What are you talking about? He only wants to see if I got in on schedule. He won’t stay. Been on the
all day. He’s probably tanked-up.”
“Nick, will you look?”
There was a light outside, shining through the crack under the door. Not exactly a light, he thought. More like the shine you see when a school of phosphorescent plankton swims by the hull.
The pounding continued, slow and steady.
She touched him.
He put a finger to his lips. “He thinks it’s a joke,” he whispered to her, “the son of a bitch. Don’t you make a sound. I’m going to nail him.”
He sneaked to the door on the balls of his feet. The glow under the edge intensified. Flashlight, he thought. Hell of a flashlight. He stealthily took hold of the doorknob.
Abruptly the pounding stopped.
One, two, three. Here goes, you old
The porch was empty. He took a step outside.
The dark ocean was a hundred feet from his doorstep, the waves churning under the moonlight, the sand packed tight and slick. There were the lights of the other beachfront houses to the north and south. There was—
Something touched his shoulder.
It was Elizabeth, clutching her jacket in front of her.