io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “The Horror of Party Beach” by Dale Bailey. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
The Horror of Party Beach
Times have changed here. We’re not a bunch of kids anymore. —Hank Green
All this happened a long time ago, in the summer when Blackboard Jungle ruled the screen, “Rock Around the Clock” shot up the charts, and Hal March asked the first $64,000 Question. That was the year our friend the atom lit up the streetlights of Arco, Idaho, the world’s first atomic city. Reddy Kilowatt had slain Bert the Turtle, who’d been telling us to duck and cover for years, and for a moment we let ourselves forget that Uncle Sam had spent the better part of the last decade irradiating the Nevada desert. What did we care about the contradictions of America’s Atomic Age? We were seventeen, and we’d thrown off the shackles of the classroom for another year. We slept late, and breakfasted on ice cream sodas at the New Graham Pharmacy. We played lazy games of pick-up baseball on the grass-worn municipal fields off Shippan Street. Most days, we went down to Party Beach.
That wasn’t its real name, of course. Maps had it down as Dane’s Cove, after the ill-fated captain of a nineteenth-century clipper that had gone down in the waters churning just off shore, and our parents, when they called it anything at all, mostly called it the sand beach, for it was the only stretch of anything remotely beach-like in a fifteen- or twenty-mile expanse of steep, rocky shoreline that left Maricove unspoiled long after the neighboring towns of Battleboro and Nash had bloomed into gaudy summer destinations. Even this unimaginative descriptor was not entirely accurate. The sand beach was really too small and rocky—not nearly sandy enough—to appeal to acolytes of surf and sun, and the currents there were too dangerous for swimming. But it was the perfect spot if you wanted to put “Maybelline” on the radio and dance beneath the stars; so in the summer before my senior year, the summer when rock ‘n’ roll was born and for one golden moment everything was possible, it came to be called Party Beach. And though the name would fall out of use after the horror that unfolded there, it has always remained Party Beach to me.
I’m an old man now, and most of my memories have faded like old photographs left too long in the sun, but my recollections of that summer—my recollections of Party Beach—stand apart. They are crisp and well-preserved, and if they are not wholly free from nostalgia, that nostalgia is tempered with the hard lessons that came at the end. That was the first summer that I had a car—a battered ’49 Mercury that I’d purchased with a loan against my earnings from bagging groceries down at the A&P. That was the summer I lost my virginity. That was the summer of Elaine Gavin.
I don’t want you to misunderstand me. Elaine wasn’t fast. There was nothing lurid or cheap, nothing shameful, about the moments we shared in the backseat of that old Merc, however fumbling and inexpert our amours might have been. Sometimes when I close my eyes, I can still smell the faint lavender scent of Elaine’s shampoo, and I can feel, for a fleeting heartbeat, the warmth of her embrace. But then the final horror sweeps over me once again, and I shudder and I jerk myself awake to stare out into the darkness, and listen. And though my house is almost a mile away from the sea, on those nights I can still hear the surf pounding upon the rocky shingle we called Party Beach.
We met in Mr. Taylor’s chemistry class in the spring semester of our junior year, Elaine and I—really met, I mean. We’d known each other for years in the casual way you know kids that move in other circles—the ones you nod at as you pass in the hall, but never really pause to exchange a word with. And why would we talk? She was a loner, aloof and isolated—stuck up and wicked smart. Me? I was quiet, but well-liked. I knew the most popular kids, and even if I wasn’t quite one of them, I was always welcome in their company.
Not that it mattered to Elaine.
“I’ll take care of the thinking,” she told me when Mr. Taylor paired us up in lab. “You follow orders.”
It turned out to be a good arrangement. When it came to chemistry, I was fumbling and dim at best. Elaine, on the other hand, was brilliant. She regarded Mr. Taylor’s labs as dumbed-down lessons for kids with the intellects of capuchin monkeys.
She had, in short, inherited her father’s aptitude for science. Dr. Gavin—the Mad Scientist of Maricove—was widely regarded as a savant of the first order. A widower, he’d fled to Maricove from some southern university, for ill-defined but possibly scandalous reasons. He’d gone through two teaching jobs since then—first at Maricove College, then at the high school downtown—each departure attended by a fresh round of whispers: midnight power surges in the physics building, clandestine experiments in the chemistry lab. By the time Elaine matriculated as a Maricove Red Raider, he’d become a recluse in the sprawling Victorian house they shared out on Fingel’s Point. He hadn’t been seen in town for years, though passersby on Route 13 occasionally observed odd blue light flickering around the edges of his heavily curtained windows, and his mailman complained of the place’s persistent fishy miasma.
But there was no fishy stench to Elaine. She smelled—indefinably—wonderful, and she looked wonderful, too. She was lean and dark-eyed and quick to smile, with a pixie haircut that flattered her at least as much as Audrey Hepburn’s had flattered her in Roman Holiday, and maybe more. I soon came to look forward to our twice-weekly labs more than anything else in school, or out of it. I was halfway in love with her by mid-February, and more than halfway by the beginning of April. She said things like “Don’t drop that beaker, Mike” (I was always dropping beakers) and “Be careful with the Bunsen burner” (this, after an unfortunate accident involving a lab report and the sleeve of my second-best shirt). I was always saying things like—
Well, I was rarely saying things at all—and certainly not the things I wanted to say—though I didn’t do a very good job of hiding them, I guess, since I was always getting harassed about them in the locker room before gym. “When you gonna ask Brainiac from Planet X out, Mikey?” Scott Becker would ask, and John Moore would say, “Maybe she’s as mad as her mad scientist daddy,” and Floyd McKay would snap me with a towel and raise his eyebrows like Groucho Marx and add, “Mad in the sack, maybe,” and it would go on like that until finally Brad Clarke, quarterback of the Red Raiders, Big Man On Campus, and stand-up guy, would weigh in and put a stop to it, saying, “Lay off, fellas. Mikey here can ask out whoever he wants to.” But Mikey did nothing of the sort until one day—it was late in May, by then—Brad pulled me aside before English and batted me lightly on the back of the head. “You should go for it, Mike,” he said. “Can’t you see she’s wild about you?” In fact, I couldn’t see it, but I trusted Brad’s instincts. Wasn’t he dating Tina Laurel, the head cheerleader, homecoming queen, and all-around prettiest and most popular girl in school?
Which is how I wound up in chem lab the next day, stuttering, “Hey, Elaine, you think we should go see a movie this weekend or something?” And then, when she didn’t answer right away, “We don’t have to. It was just an—”
“Shut up, Mike,” she said. “I think that would be grand.”
She touched my hand, and I dropped my beaker in surprise. I stepped back and caught my sleeve on fire. “Gosh,” I said, as she shoved my arm under the spigot, twisted the handle, and doused the flames.
She laughed and gave me a quick peck on the cheek.
I felt like I’d caught fire all over again.
I didn’t know anyone who’d ever been to Elaine’s house—had never heard of anyone even getting near the place aside from the aforementioned mailman. So it was with some apprehension that I turned my rusty beater of a Merc down Route 13 toward Fingel’s Point, and with greater apprehension still that I climbed the steps of the old house itself. The porch sagged, the wooden cladding had long since weathered gray, and if I detected a faint piscine tang in the air—nothing like the stench the mailman had described—I attributed it to the salty wind whipping up over the point.
I had just lifted my hand to knock—tentatively—when the door swung open before me.
Elaine stood on the other side, looking glamorous in a skirt and cardigan. She gave me another chaste peck on the cheek—more flames—and pulled me inside. “You have to meet Daddy,” she said, leading me through the dim foyer and into the room beyond, which swam with a strange, blue undersea light—a light reflected and refracted through dozens of huge aquariums, each schooling with fish. Some of them were the exotic beauties you saw in every hobbyist’s saltwater tank—clownfish and angelfish, dartfish and dottybacks. But some of them were exotic in other ways, in their sheer ugliness and unfamiliarity. I saw fish that seemed to be little more than mouths and curving, razor-edged teeth, bioluminescent fish and bewhiskered fish and heavy-lidded, drowsy-looking fish the size of my forearm. And in the largest tank a bizarre-looking fish that must have been four feet long.
“What is that thing?” I asked Elaine.
“That thing,” said a disembodied voice, “is a living fossil, young man.” And then the mysterious Dr. Gavin himself materialized out of the shadows, a tall man, well over six feet and gaunt to the point of emaciation, with a shock of dark hair that made him seem two or three inches taller still. His lab coat was filthy and he smelled of cigarette smoke and algae—though maybe that was only the odor of the room, which had through his long occupancy permeated his clothes and skin. Elaine would later tell me that he often fell asleep at his work. “He’s very devoted to his research,” she would say, though his devotion sounded more like obsession to me, a point that I remained silent on, as I would remain silent on other points as the summer went by. When I reached out to shake his hand, he didn’t seem to notice. He had the distracted air of a man who lived deep in his own thoughts. He had eyes only for the hideous fish.
“That thing,” he said, gesturing, “is a coelacanth, thought extinct for sixty-six million years until some lucky fisherman pulled one out of the waters off South Africa not two decades ago. His kind—the fish, not the fisherman—swam the ocean waters in the last days of the dinosaurs, young man. Impressive, isn’t it?”
“I . . . guess so.”
He nodded. “It’s a handsome creature,” he said. “Do you know the Cretaceous, then?”
“My peers,” he went on, “such as they are, contend that climate change caused the demise of the dinosaurs. They are wrong. I believe that the impact of an enormous meteor wiped them out in the blink of an eye.” He drew his gaze back from the deeps of time and focused his considerable powers of concentration upon me. “Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”
“Um, I—a meteor? Sir?”
He clapped me on the back. “Good. Elaine has told me of your aptitude for chemistry.”
“My aptitude for—”
“Ah. Well. You kids have fun tonight.”
With that, he turned away. I knew a dismissal when I heard one.
Outside, as we pulled out onto Route 13, I glanced at Elaine. “You told him I had an aptitude—”
She leaned over to kiss me on the cheek once again. When I felt her hand fall upon my thigh, I thought I might spontaneously combust.
“Didn’t you say something about a movie?” she asked.
Which is how we wound up seeing Revenge of the Creature at the Granada Theater downtown. We shared popcorn and a Coke, we ate a box of Junior Mints—and just as the Gill-man made his escape from captivity, I yawned and stretched, draping my arm as if by chance across the back of Elaine’s seat. She leaned into me, resting her head against my shoulder. We watched the rest of the film that way. When the credits rolled and the lights came up—altogether too soon—she reached for my hand and we strolled out together into the night.
In the car, she said, “Do you know a place where we can talk awhile?”
“Won’t your dad be worried?”
She laughed quietly. Maybe there was a tinge of sorrow in the laugh. I couldn’t say for sure. “My dad doesn’t worry about things like that,” she said.
So we went to Party Beach.
It didn’t occur to me to ask what kinds of things her dad did worry about—not then, anyway. And by the time the question did come to mind, it was too late: Events had ground to their inexorable conclusion.
But that night I could not imagine the horror yet to come. That night, the unpaved turnout overlooking Party Beach was empty. We had only a glittering multitude of stars for company. “Earth Angel” played softly on the radio as we gazed out across the black water. I wanted desperately to kiss Elaine, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I launched into some tedious observations about the movie instead.
Elaine pressed a finger to my lips. “Hush, Mike,” she said, and I hushed—enthusiastically, if it’s possible to hush enthusiastically. I was certainly enthusiastic about what followed. Elaine’s next kiss was neither shy nor chaste. We must have made out for an hour or more, as only seventeen-year-old virgins can make out. We made out until our lips were bruised, we made out until I could barely breathe. And by the time Elaine put an end to the proceedings—just as my hand was about to close over her breast—I was, literally, aching with desire.
“We’ll have another chance, Mike,” she said, and it was on that promise that I left her at her door.
Elaine was true to her word. There were other chances—plenty of them, though never quite enough. Neither of us ever formalized the matter, but after that first session at Party Beach, we didn’t really need to: We both understood that we were going steady, in the parlance of the day, which translated to spending virtually every waking moment together—or every waking moment that I didn’t spend bagging groceries at the A&P, anyway. We shared chocolate shakes at Frankie’s Diner and movies at the Granada. We went parking out at Party Beach. My grades, never very good to start with, plunged. I might have failed my junior year altogether if I hadn’t managed to run out the clock on the semester.
But summer came, and I escaped unscathed. On my days off, Elaine and I went down to Party Beach with Brad and Tina Laurel and the rest of the gang—with Scott and his girlfriend Annette, with Floyd McKay and Susan Carver, with John Moore and half a dozen others. The radio was always on. The beat of the music—“Ain’t That a Shame” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Skinny Jim”—was like the beat of our hearts and we danced to that beat like no one had ever danced before. When we couldn’t dance anymore, we cooled our feet in the surf or sunned ourselves like cats and talked of dreams and love and rock ‘n’ roll. At night, when the breeze off the water turned cool, we built a fire and sat in a circle around it and talked some more, until we finally ran out of things to say and drifted away in pairs, up to the turnout where we’d parked our cars or off into the deeper shadows of the rocks, where we would spread a blanket and make out until our lips were sore and chafed.
And Elaine would swim. Nobody else ever went more than knee deep into the water off Party Beach. No one else wanted to chance the vicious riptide. But Elaine was fearless. She would swim at any time of day or night. “I think I’ll take a quick dip,” she’d announce, and the next minute she’d be gone. It scared the hell out of me every time she did it.
I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a bad idea.
I remember the first time we joined the gang down at Party Beach, two or three days after school got out. Everyone made Elaine feel welcome that day, even though she’d never moved in my circle and had always been held in disdain by those who did—mostly, I think, because she was the only kid at Maricove High who didn’t care about their opinion. With her dark good looks, her Audrey Hepburn hair, and her father’s brains, Elaine was above all that. She was a nation of one, and when that nation wanted to go swimming, it went swimming.
And on that first day, when the strains of “Baby, Let’s Play House” died in the afternoon air and we all collapsed in exhaustion, Elaine, flushed and beautiful from dancing, announced that she thought she’d take a swim.
“Maybe that’s not such a good idea,” Brad said.
“Why not?” she wanted to know, and as Brad answered, I saw a change come across Tina Laurel’s face. Sometimes I tell myself that everything that happened afterwards hinged upon that moment. But who can say? Maybe it was all foredoomed, from the minute I worked up the courage to ask Elaine Gavin out in the first place. Sometimes, I think it was. Sometimes—when I let myself—I know it.
But all I knew at the time was that Brad was being his usual fundamentally decent self.
Why not swim? Elaine wanted to know. “The rip is really dangerous here,” he said.
“The rip doesn’t scare me,” Elaine said.
And when Brad started to speak again, Tina interrupted him. “Let her swim if she wants to, Brad.”
“What’s it to you?” Tina said. “Mikey’s the one that brought her here, isn’t he? Let him worry about it.”
And the thing is, I did worry about it. Worried as I turned to register my own anxieties on the point (too late, Elaine was already waist-deep in the cold Atlantic) and worried as I watched her dive into an incoming wave and worried most of all when she didn’t surface on the other side.
Silence, then. The sigh of the ocean, the cry of a gull.
“Now she’s stepped in it,” Floyd said.
And John Moore, “Where’d she go?”
I glanced down at the second hand of my watch. A full minute slipped by, and then another one. By then I was really worried.
I started toward the water. I don’t know what I was planning, exactly. I guess I was going in after her—there didn’t seem to be any other choice—though I was a lousy swimmer even in calm water. Heck, I was a lousy swimmer in the shallow end of a bathtub. The riptide at Party Beach would have chewed me up and spat me out to sea in no time. I could already feel the relentless pull of the current when Brad dropped a hand on my shoulder. “Hang on, Mikey, I’m coming, too.”
“No, Brad, stop,” Tina harangued him from behind. “Come back here! I said come back here!”
But Brad ignored her. He followed me into the water not because he wanted to show me up or claim Elaine’s affections for himself. No, Brad did it, as he did most things, out of a kind of selfless good will. He was everything any of us wanted to be. A natural on the gridiron and in the classroom, he had the handsome, blond charisma and self-deprecating wit of an A-list movie star. We should have hated him, but we could not. He was too open-hearted for that. He could no more have left Elaine at the mercy of the rip than he could have passed an accident on the highway without stopping to make sure everyone was okay. But we were both saved from heroics that day. We were still thigh-deep in the water when Elaine surfaced maybe fifty yards out.
“Come in!” I called.
And Brad: “It’s dangerous out there, Elaine!”
Her voice boomed across the water. “I’m fine!” she shouted. “I’ll be in soon!”
She was as good as her word. Five minutes later, ten at the most, she came wading out of the surf like a Nereid. Tina was waiting behind us, and as the three of us turned back to the beach, I saw in her cold, adamantine glare that she now hated Elaine, and thus we all came to ruin.
By the middle of June, Elaine was eating dinner with my family two or three times a week. My mother smiled and said that she had beautiful eyes. My father clapped me on the back and said that I was playing out of my league. My little sister asked if she could get a pixie haircut, too. In short, my family adored her.
I was less sure that Dr. Gavin approved of me.
I had not seen him since that first night. I had not even been admitted into the house again. When I picked her up, Elaine was always waiting outside for me. When I dropped her off, she left me with a kiss at the bottom of the stairs.
The first time I asked her if her father minded us spending so much time together, she told me not to worry about it. The second time I asked, she said that he was very busy with his research. The third time I asked, she invited me to dinner.
“Dinner?” I said.
“Dinner,” she said.
“At your house?”
“But who’s going to cook?”
Elaine rolled her eyes. “Who do you think cooks, Mike?”
She cooked—and she did a darn fine job of it, too. She served a far more exotic meal than my mother’s customary fare of roast beef or fried chicken: firm white swordfish steaks (I had to ask what kind of fish it was), potatoes au gratin, and pan-roasted asparagus and mushrooms. We ate in a room off the lab. Fresh flowers and a white linen tablecloth, candles and wine. Nothing like I’d ever seen before.
Dr. Gavin sat at the head of the table, picking at his food. Elaine and I sat to either side.
There was little conversation until I asked Dr. Gavin what he was working on. He dropped his napkin beside his plate. “Evolution,” he said.
“Evolution.” He finished his wine and sat back in his chair, steepling his long fingers before him. “At some point in the Devonian, a primitive fish crawled out of the sea and took its first breath of air. Four hundred million years later, here we are. Surely, you’ve wondered how that happened.”
I hadn’t. My curiosity at that time pretty much came to an end with my own evolutionary urges—most of which I hoped to someday visit upon this man’s daughter—but now that I’d gotten him talking—
“Sure,” I said. “But I thought we had fossils—“
“The fossil record is laughably incomplete,” he said, waving a hand dismissively. He leaned toward me. “And I’m not interested in old bones. I want to see how it happened. I want to see it for myself.”
“But that’s impossible.”
“A generation ago perhaps, but now, well—what’s the secret of evolution, young man?”
I had no idea—did anyone?—but I cast around for some phrase or other to toss into the conversational mix. I came up with “survival of the fittest.”
Dr. Gavin looked pained. “It’s a poor synonym for natural selection. How does one become more fit than one’s fellows?”
“I— I don’t know.”
“Mutation,” Elaine said.
I looked at her. “What?”
“Mutation, Mike,” she said, speaking as you might speak to an especially dense child. “Some kind of random error in the organism’s DNA.”
“Exactly,” Dr. Gavin said. “Nine times out of ten, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s not particularly useful—you have blue eyes and I have brown, but we both see just fine. But sometimes, over thousands of generations, a gill becomes a lung, a fish comes crawling up the beach to colonize a new environmental niche, and from that—“
“Everything,” Elaine said, “elephants to insects,” and the way she said it, it sounded like she was repeating something she’d heard a thousand times over.
Dr. Gavin patted his daughter’s arm. “Elephants to insects—well, not insects, exactly, but it’s a handy mnemonic isn’t it, dear?”
Elaine smiled, and I saw in the radiance of that smile how devoted she was to her father and her father’s work. “But you just said mutation takes thousands of generations. How—”
“Ah. Good question, young man. Come with me.”
He stood, and led us into the lab. It was like being in a bathysphere made of glass, with oceanic blue light all around us. I stared at the fish in their abundance, the enormous coelacanth among them. The thing hung motionless at the bottom of its cramped tank, large-eyed and armored, with fins that looked almost like—
“Legs,” I said.
“And a vestigial lung in its abdomen,” Dr. Gavin said. “Fascinating creature. A window upon the past. Evolution in action.”
He gazed at it fondly.
Elaine said, “Fish reproduce in far greater numbers than we do—“
“They spawn,” Dr. Gavin said. “Fish spawn,” and out of the entire conversation it is that phrase that most haunts me—that and what he said next. “The common carp can spawn multiple times in a single season, producing as many as 300,000 eggs each time. The odds of mutation expand exponentially with each clutch of eggs, young man. And if you goose the process along . . .”
“How would you do that?” I asked.
“Radiation,” Elaine said. “How else?”
Mushroom clouds bloomed in my mind on the drive home. I could almost see them in the windshield before me, hanging over the atom-blasted cinders of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’d spent my youth playing in backyard bomb shelters and hiding under my desk when the air-raid sirens went off. From the time I was a kid, bizarre rumors had abounded: giant ants in the sewers of L.A., monsters in the Sea of Japan.
Talk of the atom was always in the air.
The atom was going to destroy us. The atom was going to set us free.
One way or the other, the atom was going to remake our world.
I hadn’t expected it to remake my world, though—not so soon, anyway.
Yet the minute Elaine had said the word—
—I felt the geography of our relationship shift. I saw her for the first time not as a mere observer to her father’s experiments but as an active collaborator. Elephants and insects, that radiant and adoring smile.
I imagined a leaking metal barrel overturned in a patch of dead weeds out on the windswept precipice of Fingel’s Point. Dr. Gavin hunched over it, drawing up into a syringe a glowing green fluid that he would soon inject into the waters of an experimental aquarium. Fish spawn, he said, and 300,000 irradiated eggs drifted to the mossy bottom to rest.
What if the mad scientist of Maricove really was mad?
What if his daughter was as mad as he was?
I managed to shunt these questions aside until a Saturday night toward the middle of July. I still remember the sky blue pedal pushers and black ballet flats she wore that night. I had planned to take her out for a burger at Frankie’s, followed by the creepshow down at the Granada. But we wound up in a booth near the door of the diner, shooting the breeze with Floyd and Susan instead. Scott and Annette joined us after a while, and then Brad and Tina stopped by, and before you knew it we’d missed the start of the movie.
Outside, rain lashed the windows.
Somebody suggested we stop down at Tom’s Billiards Parlor to shoot a couple games of pool. “Sounds good to me,” Brad said, tossing a handful of silver on the table. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.” But as we stood to go, Elaine said, “I think I’m going to have to pass tonight.”
“What’s wrong?” Brad said, and Tina shot him a murderous glare.
“I’m feeling a little queasy.”
“Maybe something disagreed with you,” Tina said.
Elaine ignored her. “Do you mind driving me home, Mike?”
I tried to hide my disappointment. “Sure,” I said.
But five minutes later, as I pulled out of Frankie’s lot and spun the wheel toward Fingel’s Point, my windshield wipers slapping the rain away, Elaine said, “Let’s go out to Party Beach instead.”
“I thought you were sick.”
“I’m feeling better now,” she said.
But if she was, it was hard to tell. She spent most of the drive in a brown study, gazing out at the rain. When “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” came on the radio, I turned it up loud. I always did go for the fast ones. Elaine didn’t say a word. She just reached out and dialed it back to a whisper. Without the backbeat to pound out the rhythm of my heart, I felt more lonesome than I’d ever felt before—and this though she was right there on the bench beside me, everything I’d ever dreamed of and then some.
I wheeled the Merc into the turnout and killed the engine, nose out to the ocean. Rain hammered the roof. On the radio, just barely audible, the Platters swung into “Only You.” Inspired by the sentiment, I slid my arm around Elaine and leaned in to kiss her. She pressed her palm against my chest. I turned away and looked out into the night. I took the steering wheel in both hands. Outside the rain came down and down. A sense of foreboding possessed me.
“Did you bring me here to break up with me, Elaine?”
She didn’t answer for a long time. Then, quietly: “No, though maybe I should.”
A tide shifted within me, dark water drawing back to reveal the jagged stones beneath. “Elaine—“
“I’m afraid, Mike.”
“I’ve never felt anything like this. It scares me. It’s like a current way out in the deep water, pulling at me. Pulling and pulling. And I’m afraid I’ll drown.” She hesitated. “Do you ever think about our first date?”
And what came back to me was the way she had pillowed her head against my shoulder as the movie flickered on the screen before us. That, and the way her hand had slipped so naturally into mine as we exited the theater. She’d brought me out to Party Beach that night, as well. I remembered the taste of her lips against my own. Did I think about our first date? “All the time,” I said, turning to look at her.
“Me, too.” She laughed. “Sometimes I think about that silly movie. How sad it made me.”
“Well, the creature was lonely, wasn’t it? It wanted to be loved. And who doesn’t want that?”
“Do you love me, Mike?”
Something quickened inside me.
“Yes,” I said. “I love you, Elaine.”
Elaine didn’t say anything, but she came into my arms and this time when my hand crept up to her breast, she leaned into me and kissed me hard and I took that as answer enough. Her pedal pushers ended up on the floor that night, her blouse beside them. As she rose up over me, headlights illuminated the interior of the car. In a panic, I pulled her down out of the line of sight, but it was too late. I’d seen her frozen above me. Whoever was in the other car must have seen her, too. And then the lights swept past. The other car accelerated back onto the highway, engine roaring.
“Shit,” I said. “They must have—”
“It’s okay. They’re gone now,” she said, and she began to rock against me once again, and then there was only the heat of her body in the car, and outside the rain and the dark ocean muscling up the beach.
The Moonglows lit up the radio dial, crooning “I’ll do anything for you.”
“Promise me you’ll forgive me, Mike,” she whispered at my ear. “Whatever happens, promise me you’ll forgive me.”
Outwardly, things were better than ever after that. Elaine and I scarfed down burgers at Frankie’s. We took in the latest creature-features at the Granada. And we made love with increasing frequency, parking out at Party Beach when no was around, and scouting out other locations—an abandoned quarry, a forsaken mill—when someone was.
In many ways, it was the happiest time of my life.
But disquieting questions—questions I could not bring myself to ask—shadowed my thoughts. When we saw Creature with the Atom Brain (radioactive zombies) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (radioactive octopus), I couldn’t help recalling her father’s unorthodox obsessions. And sometimes, as I drifted off to sleep, I heard her urgent plea for forgiveness and I wondered what it was she had to fear.
There were portents of the horror to come, as well, though I did not recognize them at the time. When we’d started dating, Elaine had barely picked at her food. Now she routinely put away her burger—she liked them rare—and a double order of fries. She drank chocolate shakes like water. When my mother served apple pie for dessert, she always took the largest slice. And she spent more time than ever in the treacherous waters off Party Beach, often disappearing for an hour or more.
“Maybe she’s a mermaid,” John Moore remarked one night as we sat talking around the fire.
“Maybe she has a boyfriend with a boat,” Tina said.
“Tina!” Brad said.
But Tina shrugged and flipped her hair. “I’m just looking out for Mikey.”
“Mike can look out for himself.”
“I’m not so sure of that,” Tina said, and the truth was I wasn’t so sure of it myself.
I tried not to listen to Tina, but I had my own worries about Elaine.
After the party broke up, we lingered on the beach alone, watching the fire burn down. “Tina says you have a boyfriend with a boat,” I told her.
“And what do you say, Mike?”
“Well, I don’t think you have another boyfriend,” I said, “but I do worry about you out there. Every time you disappear like that, I wonder if you’re going to wash up down shore somewhere.”
“Well, you needn’t worry about that.”
“But what if you get a cramp or something?”
“I don’t get cramps.”
“Hush, Mike,” she said, pulling me down to the sand beside her, and when I protested again, she put her lips to mine and one thing led to another and we ended up making love right there on the beach, with the surf crashing at our feet and a million stars looking down. It wasn’t everything it’s cracked up to be—sand gets in the damnedest places—but it was pretty fine, and by the time we finished, my questions were—for the moment, anyway—forgotten.
But “Hush, Mike” could only work for so long, even when paired with her considerable physical charms. The bathysphere glow of her father’s lab irradiated my dreams, and as the summer crested and began its long decline toward my senior year at Maricove High, strange fish schooled in my thoughts. Where did Elaine go during her long sojourns at sea? What promise had she exacted from me?
I got my answers—and terrible answers they were—one night toward the end of August, with school looming just over the horizon. The whole thing began down at Frankie’s.
We’d just finished eating—Elaine had put away two burgers, to my amazement—and she had excused herself to the restroom to powder her face. She’d taken her compact and a lipstick, leaving her purse open on the table, another chance decision that changed everything—for the ladies room door had no sooner swung closed behind her than Jeff Callahan and Chris Smith walked by. It was innocent horseplay, nothing more, but Jeff happened to give Chris a playful body check as they passed. Chris staggered against our booth—
“Watch out!” I said.
—nearly upsetting the table.
A half-empty milkshake went over, spilling cold, soupy chocolate into my lap.
Cursing, I yanked a handful of napkins from the table-top dispenser in a futile effort to contain the damage. Chris and Jeff just stood there, mouths agape.
“Wow,” Chris said, “that doesn’t look good.”
“Why don’t you watch what you’re doing?”
“Hey,” Chris said. He held up his hands, palms out, an innocent man. “Blame Jeff, he’s the one that pushed me.”
“Here,” Jeff said, reaching for a napkin, “let me help you.”
“It’s all over my pants. What do you think you’re gonna do? Just get out of here!”
“Fine,” Jeff said, and as they beat feet out of the place, he gave Chris another playful shove. “He didn’t have to get bent about it,” he said, pushing out into the night.
I reached for another wad of napkins, did a little more damage control, and tossed the whole soggy mess onto the table. That’s when I saw that my pants weren’t the only casualty of the impact. Elaine’s purse had gone overboard, spraying half its contents across the bench opposite. The other half—and the purse itself—had wound up under the table.
Cursing again, I leaned down to retrieve it, shoving the debris piece by piece back inside its gaping mouth—a rubber change purse that you squeezed open to get at the silver inside, a wallet, a little box of Kleenex, a—
“What happened?” Elaine said.
I straightened up, startled, clutching her purse in one hand and some random bit of flotsam in the other one. I caught my head on the lip of the table. Another milkshake—this one empty—came crashing down beside me. I sighed.
“Here,” Elaine said, reaching out to haul me up. “Watch your head!”
I watched my head.
Back on the daylit side of the table, I handed her the purse.
“What happ—” she started to ask again—and broke off, abruptly silent. She swallowed.
“What?” I said, and then I realized that she was staring at my hand.
I looked down—and that’s when I saw what I had plucked up from the shadows: the narrow glass barrel of a syringe. When I held it out toward her, a little ripple ran through the glowing green fluid inside.
“What is this, Elaine?”
“Come on, Mike,” she said. “Let’s go for a drive.”
Neither one of us said anything for the longest time. I drove without destination, I drove by reflex, I drove to Party Beach, and at last, as the night rushed past the windows, Elaine said, “I never told you about my mother.”
“You did. You told me she died from complications when you were born.”
“I never told you the truth.”
I said, “Is that all you’ve lied to me about?”
Her silence was all the answer I needed. I felt that tide receding, the jagged rocks beneath.
“I’m not sure this is going to work out, Elaine.”
“You promised me, Mike. You promised me that you’d forgive me. No matter what happened, you said that you’d forgive me.”
“So tell me what happened to your mother.”
“I was just a kid.”
“What happened to her, Elaine?”
“They blamed my father, but it was the cancer that got her. It was in her bones. The last time I saw her, she looked like a skeleton, she’d lost so much weight. I could see the skull inside her face. It was so painful at the end. I can still hear her screaming.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “Just drive.”
“Why’d they blame your dad?” I asked.
“He was so close to saving her, Mike. If she’d lasted another six months . . .”
I looked over at her. In the backwash from the dash lights, I could see tears on her face. “But why would you lie?” I asked.
“I was afraid.”
I turned on my signal. We pulled into the turnout by Party Beach. I inventoried the cars. The whole gang was there. Floyd and Susan were there. Scott and Annette. And Brad and Tina, of course. I sometimes tell myself that things might have turned out differently if they’d chosen to see a movie that night instead.
I parked the car and killed the engine. We sat there and listened to it tick. Outside the sea heaved, gnawing down the edge of the continent. A fire burned on the beach. Figures stood in silhouette against the flames.
“I didn’t want you to leave me, Mike.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense. Why would I leave you over that?”
“Not that,” she said.
“What if my mother’s disease was inherited?”
“What are you talking about? Are you sick?”
She sighed. “My father made the diagnosis at Christmas.”
“He thought he’d perfected the treatment. We thought I’d be okay.”
“Are you going to—”
I couldn’t bring myself to say the word.
“No. But—” She took a long breath. “I’m changing, Mike. I can’t control it anymore.”
I thought of the syringe—I thought of that glowing green fluid—and those bizarre rumors came back to me: giant ants in the sewers of Los Angeles, monsters in the Sea of Japan.
“What’s in the syringe, Elaine?”
“Radiation to kill the cancer cells,” she said. “And—”
She broke off. She turned away.
She hesitated. “Blood. Blood to bolster my immune system.”
“What are you talking about? What blood?”
“The blood of the coelacanth,” she said.
Much of what she said afterward is a blur—unexpected side effects, rapid cellular mutation, re-emergent DNA. None of it meant anything to me, and I couldn’t focus, anyway. I kept seeing that massive armored fish floating serenely at the bottom of its aquarium: evolution’s abortion, a Darwinian dead end that had never quite managed to crawl out of the sea. The thought of that monster’s irradiated blood flowing in Elaine’s veins nauseated me. Recoiling in horror, I clawed at the door and flung it open. I stumbled outside, into the cool air sweeping in off the ocean, and collapsed against Scott’s car, too dizzy to stand on my own. When the vertigo passed, I stood unsteady on my feet, and surveyed the night. A full moon hung overhead and a breeze swept in off the ocean. A fire burned down by the water. Brad’s voice came to me—
“Hey, Mike, why don’t you guys get yourselves down here!”
—and I lurched off toward the beach. I didn’t feel any better by the time I got there, but I must have looked okay. No one seemed to notice anything other than the lingering stain of the milkshake, anyway—and even that elicited only a few jokey asides (“You might want to see a doctor about that,” John Moore said) before the gang lost interest and Brad asked me what I’d done with Elaine.
“She’ll . . . be down in a few minutes,” I said.
But she was already there, coming along behind me. I hadn’t heard her, she moved so lightly on her feet, and when she said, “I’m here,” it startled me.
I turned, but she lingered in the shadows.
“Well, aren’t you going to join us?” Scott asked.
“I think I’ll take a swim first,” she said, moving on down toward the water.
“Weirdo,” Tina said and Brad sighed and said, “Why can’t you be nice to her?”
“Maybe because you’re too nice,” Tina retorted, and after a brief, awkward silence, talk turned to the upcoming school year. I think we all felt it slipping away, that one golden summer, and there was a funereal solemnity to the conversation. In nine months we’d graduate to adult life: jobs, college, marriage: everything we’d longed for and dreaded for so long. But for one shining moment, we were still teenagers.
Or they were.
I felt like I’d already slipped across the line, into the fuzzy gray territory beyond. Promises you couldn’t keep, losses you had not anticipated—such was the price of love. I’d been a fool to think that I could bear it.
I didn’t want to grow up. In some sense I already had.
So I sat on a rock at the periphery of the circle and gazed into the fire and when Brad hunkered down beside me and asked me if I was okay, I didn’t know how to answer. I wasn’t, of course. I didn’t know if I’d ever be okay again.
“You and Elaine have a fight?”
“No, we’re fine.”
“Are you? Because you don’t seem fine.”
“I’ll be okay.”
“If you need to talk—”
“Okay, then.” He clapped me on the shoulder and moved back toward the fire.
“What’s wrong with him?” I heard Susan ask. Brad said something I couldn’t make out and the conversation resumed, leaving me to my funk.
I was still sitting there when Elaine came back and everything went to hell.
There was something wrong with her gait. There was something wrong with her face.
These were subtle changes, invisible, in that light, to anyone who didn’t know her as intimately as I had come to know her in the last few months. No one else seemed to notice, anyway. But they did notice the sallow cast to her face.
“Hey, Elaine. Are you okay?” Brad said. “You look a little green.”
I stood. “Elaine?” I said.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” she said.
“You know what causes that, don’t you?” Tina said.
Elaine turned to look at her—we all turned to look at her. Tina raised her eyebrows. “Maybe you’ve been spending too much time in the back seat of Mikey’s car.”
“Tina!” Brad said sharply.
But it did no good. Now that she had the stage, Tina was determined to give us a show. “We saw you that night in the rain, Brad and I,” she said. “I hope it was good for you. When’s little Mikey due?”
Elaine was too sick to answer.
She clutched at her midsection and retched and retched again, spewing the contents of her stomach into Tina’s face. Tina reeled away, shrieking and swiping at her eyes. The stench was atrocious—a noxious piscine reek—and as I stood by, stunned, I saw, in the stew of fish guts steaming in the sand at Tina’s feet, a single severed tentacle, still twitching.
Elaine cried in horror, lifting her hands to her face.
Only they weren’t hands—not human hands, anyway. They were the hands of some monstrous thalassic super-predator: enormous hands with long webbed fingers and hooked, black talons. When she saw them, Elaine moaned. She met my gaze across the fire. I felt some obscure communication—sorrow or regret—pass between us. And then she melted back into the gloom.
“Elaine!” Brad shouted. “Come back!”
He looked at me. I was still standing there stupefied, wondering—I am ashamed to say—how many times Elaine had returned from such a filthy repast to press her lips to mine. Brad must have seen the shock in my eyes. “I’ll get her,” he said. “You take care of Tina.” Before I could speak, he was gone, sprinting off into the shadows. I stood there, staring after him, listening to Tina rant. “Look what that bitch did to me,” she screamed. “Look at me!”
So I looked at her—she was a mess, all right—and then, when she called Elaine a bitch for the second time, I did the only thing I could think to do. I slapped her across the face. Her head snapped back, and she stared at me with the huge, bewildered eyes of a spoiled child who has run hard up against reality for the first time in her life. She reached up to touch the corner of her mouth, where a thread of blood had started down her chin, and I felt an influx of shame stronger than any shame I’d ever felt before.
“You hit me,” she said.
I said nothing in reply. What was there to say?
I turned away instead.
They were all standing there, dumbfounded, mouths agape. Annette was sobbing quietly. Floyd was the only one who tried to stop me.
“Wait, Mike,” he said as I pushed past him. “I don’t think I would go out there if I were you. There was something wrong with her hands. Did you see that, guys? There was something wrong with Elaine’s hands.” He reached for me. “Mike, buddy, please—”
“Get off me, Floyd.”
He fell back at the edge of the light. After a minute, the surf drowned out his voice.
I kept walking, following Brad’s footprints out across the damp rocky sand.
I needed to find Elaine. I had a promise to keep.
Floyd was right about one thing: Brad should never have followed Elaine out into the darkness. If he hadn’t, I think she might have retreated to the sea. As it was—well, her appetite had been increasing for weeks. I’d seen that for myself. She must have been burning all kinds of energy managing the transformations, with her long swims alone providing some relief. When she finally lost control, the thing she’d become had glutted itself, choking down a surfeit that she couldn’t stomach when she regained her human form. So now the atavism that lurked within her was ravenous.
Brad was dead, of course.
She’d taken him down in a maze of rocks, where the fingernail paring of beach gave way to the great seaside cliffs that ran all the way north to Battleboro. The crash of the incoming tide was so loud down there that if he had cried out I wouldn’t have heard him. But it must have been quick. His head was rolling around at the edge of the surf when I found them, and Elaine—the thing that had been Elaine—had already begun to feed. She’d torn his guts open with those hooked talons, and she was scraping out the cavity within. When I said her name, she looked up, loops of viscera dangling from her teeth.
Those teeth. My God, the thing was all teeth. They must have been three or four inches long: curving, razor-edged needles, blood slick and dripping with the tissue of Brad’s intestines. Its yellow eyes were set far back beneath a bony shelf, its face framed in folds of tissue that must have been gills—all of it, everything, swept back, streamlined as a bullet, perfectly evolved for hunting the warm Devonian seas.
When it saw me, the thing sprang over Brad’s body on legs sheathed in muscle. Its momentum carried me backward to the beach. For a moment, supine upon the rocky sand, I struggled to free myself, clawing in vain at its slick, armored carapace. And then I was still. The monster hissed, its jaws unhinging not two inches from my face. Its gullet stank of blood and shit and rotting fish.
I said, “Elaine—”
And the creature paused.
“I forgive you,” I said.
In the end, the story we settled on was that Brad and Elaine had decided—against our advice—to go for a swim. We told the police that they’d never returned. The vicious riptide must have dragged them out to sea. An early-morning search of the beach turned up Brad’s remains. In the end, the investigation concluded—officially, anyway—that he’d been attacked by a shark out there in the midnight waters. Even the most cursory examination of his body would surely have shown otherwise. No shark would have inflicted that type of damage. But if the authorities had some other theory, they weren’t talking.
As for Elaine? Presumed drowned.
I knew better, of course—I’d watched her disappear into the dark water—but I wasn’t talking. And that might have been the end of it. But I kept thinking about that night I’d eaten dinner with Elaine and her father. Elephants and insects, Dr. Gavin had said. I want to see evolution in action. It was those words more than anything else that led me to turn my old Merc out toward Fingel’s Point a month or two later.
The whole world had changed by then. School had started back, but it seemed like a formality. Those of us who’d been on Party Beach that night had already graduated into adulthood, with its attendant griefs and ambiguities. We didn’t spend much time together after that—I think the truth was too unbearable—and none of the other kids wanted much to do with us either. Without Brad, we each of us drifted into our solitary orbits. Floyd and Susan broke up almost immediately. Scott and Annette hung on a little longer, but by Homecoming they too had gone their separate ways.
The house on Fingel’s Point, however, remained unchanged. Its porch still sagged. Its cladding was still gray. Stepping out of my car was like stepping into the past. When I rang the bell, I half expected Elaine to open the door, gorgeous in her skirt and cardigan. Dr. Gavin opened it instead. His shock of hair stood up uncombed. His lab coat was filthy.
“I suppose you want to come in,” he said.
“No, I just came to ask you a question.”
“Hurry up, then. I have things to do.”
I took a deep breath. “Elaine was never sick, was she? Or her mother either?”
Dr. Gavin stared at me for a long time. He laughed. “You’re brighter than I thought you were,” he said, and then he shut the door in my face. I heard the deadbolt turn, and I turned away and drove back to Maricove, where seven months later I graduated high school at last and became a manager down at the A&P and went on to lead a long and ordinary life. I’m an old man now and that really is the end of it.
Except I happened to turn on the TV the other morning to learn that the savaged bodies of swimmers have started showing up on beaches all up and down the coast. Twenty-four of them so far, and it’s not yet June. Shark Summer they’re calling it, the deadliest year on record. The best guess is that fished-out hunting grounds and polluted ocean waters are altering predation patterns. But the marine biologist on TV had his doubts. The force quotient of the bite is all wrong, he said, the wound structure atypical.
“But what could it be then?” the anchor wanted to know.
“You tell me,” he said.
You tell me. I wondered if he really wanted to know.
When’s little Mikey due? Tina Laurel asked inside my head, and what I thought of was Dr. Gavin schooling me on the mating habits of the common carp. Fish spawn, he’d said, and as I sat there in front of the TV, I imagined 300,000 eggs drifting to the ocean floor, and I thought about those polluted ocean waters and those fished-out hunting grounds, driving my children into the shallows to feed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dale Bailey is the critically-acclaimed author of several books, including The End of the End of Everything and The Subterranean Season. His story “Death and Suffrage” was adapted for Showtime’s Masters of Horror television series. His short fiction has won the Shirley Jackson Award and the International Horror Guild Award, has been nominated for the Nebula and Bram Stoker awards, and has been frequently reprinted in best-of-the-year anthologies, including Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. His latest novel, In the Night Wood, is out this month and available from John Joseph Adams Books. He lives in North Carolina with his family.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the October 2018 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Molly Tanzer, Jack Skillingstead, Alex Irvine, Walter Jon Williams, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.