By Josh Storey
My son, there are three things you must know when you go skinny dipping in the ocean after midnight. First and foremost, you must be naked. Stop snickering. It’s obvious but true. You must be naked; otherwise, you’re just swimming. Present yourself to Mother Pacific as a corpse on a slab being prepared for the final rite and she will welcome you.
Fog rolls in along the coast thick and creepy, John Carpenter-style. Taka’s beside me in his wetsuit, anxiously rocking on the balls of his feet. I promised him big game tonight.
“How will they know we’re here?” he asks.
“I left a note.” And by that, I mean I left a bloody conch shell on Uncle Ingram’s pillow.
Taka rubs his arms and watches his breath puff in the cold night air. “Do you love me, Thoth?” he asks out of nowhere.
“Hey with the who, now?”
“You say you love the ocean and I think you love your mother. I know you loved your uncle and look what you did to him.” His round face swims in a tidal pool of mist.
A hundred yards inland, three sets of headlights cut through the fog.
“Not the best time to update our relationship status,” I say, looking between the beach and the parking lot.
“I could have gone after a vampire nest in Washington State,” he says. “Or a zombie grotto in Bolivia, but I came after your family. Do you know why?”
“Opportunity?” I hazard.
Car doors open and shut. Long shadows split the lights.
“Because Lovecraft never gave humanity enough credit,” Taka says and draws his knife. “Tell me again what happens if they open the box?”
“If my father’s right, your niche industry experiences a boom.”
He nods once then fades into the shadows, slipping out through the only opening as my family make their way out of the fog.
Philip’s first, a hellhound dressed in a three-piece. Flanking him left and right: Uncle Albert and Aunt Eustace. Brother and sister. Husband and wife. Traditional family marriage. So glad I’m an only child.
Eustace works as an animal trainer at a water park. She’s been slipping demonic dolphin babies into the general population for a couple of years now. By next summer, the Sea Life Spectacular is going to have one hell of a finale. Pro tip: Avoid the splash zone.
Though, in my opinion, Albert’s worse. He’s a clown. He looks beat to hell, too. Both of his arms and his head are wrapped in bloody bandages. He drags a rusty pickaxe along with him, leaving a deep furrow in the sand.
“You have something that belongs to us,” Philip says.
This is the key to planning a successful trap: Know your enemy’s wants and weaknesses.
I step nervously in front of the steamer trunk Taka and I have unceremoniously dumped onto the beach.
“Stay back,” I say.
Philip scoffs. Eustace draws a long surgical knife. Albert hefts his pickaxe. The three fan out around me.
Father steps onto the beach. His silhouette cuts a mean slit in the darkness, like a deep gash of shadows ripped into the blue flesh of night. Rumor has it Dad wears bodies the way other men wear jackets, changing and discarding them based on the season.
He’s got someone beside him, tied up with a rope.
Shit. There goes plan A.
Four days earlier: We step off the earliest flight in the history of Oh-Gods-Can-Anyone-Actually-Be-Awake-Right-Now O’clock and into the gray haze of a San Diego morning.
We’d just settled into our new apartment (third in under a year, twelfth since the divorce) when we got the call about Ingram. One hasty airline reservation and three hurriedly packed bags later, and Mom’s mind is a techno remix of exhaustion, anxiety and doubt.
She stumbles through the hotel check-in. Can’t find her credit card in the cavernous carry-on she’s using as a purse. She keeps checking the trip itinerary, the hotel registry, her voice mail, and her makeup. Anything she can touch and hold, she checks and rechecks.
Me, I’m checking out the desk clerk. The kid is either Hawaiian or Mexican. I can’t tell the difference. Straw-dry hair and board shorts. Floral print shirt, unbuttoned most of the way down a smooth chest. He’s a surfer, no doubt. Tanned skin under the shirt, shapely pectorals and (uh-oh) a crucifix dangling between them.
Then keys, room number, Mom nodding and shoving everything back into her bag, that shiny cross glinting in the fluorescent.
Despite the midwestern perception, not everyone in California is a sodomite. Unfortunately. So, I abandon all hope and lug our bags up to our room. I’m not here to be young and horny, anyway.
Just so you don’t think I’m playing coy, I should tell you that my Uncle Ingram is dying. Prostate cancer. Metastasized. That could be a metaphor, but it’s not. The rest of the family hates Ingram, so we came here to sit with him, to make sure he’s not alone when he dies.
Uncle Ingram teaches – taught – earth science and oceanography at California College San Diego, the community college for stoner surfers too strung out for UCSD. Ingram knew, academically speaking, that he had a shit job. Especially compared to my father, the Ivy League professor. Sure, Ingram lived in a trailer, but he lived on the beach and, every night, he watched the sunset, mojito in hand, toasting a well-lived life.
Mom checks the bathroom, the smoke detector, and the wall sockets. She’s looking for pinhole cameras. She’s seen 60 Minutes. She’s seen Law & Order: SVU.
I toss the bags near the TV cabinet and head back to the rental for our steamer trunk. Like everything else in our life pre-divorce, the trunk belonged to my father’s side of the family. It’s kind of an heirloom, passed down from first son to first son. Since I’m not the breeding kind, I’ll be the last owner and, yeah, that makes me smile.
The trunk is huge and covered in hand-cured leather. The handles and corners are solid brass carved into goblin faces; the lock is as thick as a paperback book by Stephen King and just as convoluted. Every man in my family since the beginning of our line has tried to open the thing at least once. No one’s ever succeeded.
Long story less long: It’s heavy. Too heavy for me to lift – let alone carry – by myself. Luckily, Cute Desk Clerk just finished his shift.
He trots over to help.
“Heavy,” he says.
“Observant,” I say.
“Taka,” he says. “What you got in here?”
“Three hundred pounds of Columbian cocaine.”
“Most people say bodies.”
I watch his muscles work as we haul the trunk up the stairs and I imagine what he looks like in (and out of) a wetsuit. But that cross keeps swinging into view, glinting in the lights along the stairwell.
“I’m not most people,” I say.
He smiles. I smile. We smile.
Then Mom rushes over.
“There’s change on the TV,” she says and picks up the other end of the steamer trunk.
Taka shakes his head, but he takes the money and leaves.
“Check the trunk,” she says after we drop it in the closet.
After every move, the first order of business is always ensuring the trunk has not been damaged.
“How’s the room?” I run my hands along the leather, rattle the weird lock. “Angles in the right places?”
She says, “I think I gave that Mexican kid a twenty.”
Later that night, I find Taka behind the hotel restaurant, sitting in the shadows on the edge of the beach. He wears his wet suit opened to the waist and rests his back against his surfboard. He’s got a glow stick looped round his neck and he uses the light to read a little pocket-sized hardback. A prayer missal, or maybe a tiny Bible.
“Let me guess.” I sit in the sand across from him. (If I squint, I can pretend he’s more than half-naked.) “During the week, you work at the hotel and save money for school, but, Saturdays and Sundays, you play in a rockn’roll praise Jesus band.”
I’m very good at reading people.
Taka laughs. He tosses me the book: The King in Yellow. Only hardcore or highbrow horror fans read this stuff. We might have more in common than I thought.
“You never told me your name,” he says.
“Thoth,” I say, always embarrassed. “With two ‘th’s.”
“You’re an ibis bird?”
Shouldn’t be surprised he makes that connection. He reads like a nerd and talks like an academic. Which, might I add, pushes all of my buttons. But there’s no way he’s into guys. Not with that cross around his neck. I’m never wrong about these things.
I shrug. “I’ve always loved the water.” I knock his leg with my foot and play his game. “What are you, a sea otter?”
He motions me over. I slide in next to him and steal some of his warmth.
“You see that slip of silver?” he asks, pointing at the ocean. “Right before the wave breaks?”
The restaurant points spotlights at the water so guests can watch the surf roll in at night. A reflection shoots across the crests like an arrow.
“That’s me,” Taka says. “That’s what I am.”
It’s a beautiful thing to say in the dark, under the moon, close together. But –
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
Taka laughs again. I want to swallow his laughter and let it linger in my stomach.
“You wanna go for a swim?” he asks.
I’d love to, but: “What time is it?”
Taka looks at a military grade watch looped through his bag’s strap. “10:45.”
“Too early,” I say and pull him to his feet. “Show me your place.” I move to pick up his bag, but he snatches it away.
Taka leads me to a suite on the first floor of our hotel. Odd. He opens the door: crossbows, shotguns, swords, axes, Bibles, Korans, Tibetan scrolls, and treatises on ancient witchcraft and modern Wicca.
“So…,” I say, letting the “o” linger.
Either he’s kinkier than I thought, he just bought out the Buffy the Vampire Slayer estate sale, or….
“I know what you are,” he says.
“My mother’s not involved,” I say immediately. “She’s as supernatural as an eggplant.”
“I’m not after her.” Taka leans his surfboard against the wall. On the way into the bathroom, he starts stripping away the rest of his suit. He doesn’t bother to close the door and I spot a mandala tattoo along his lower back.
“Then why haven’t you – ”
“Pulled a Norman Bates?”
I start edging towards the exit.
“Maybe I like you,” he says.
His words go straight to my groin. I am an optimist, but I am not stupid. “You’re hunting my father. What makes you think I’ll betray him?”
Taka comes out of the bathroom. His wetsuit does not.
I’ve never been that fond of my father.
Step two: Bite your tongue and mix your blood with the ocean’s. Like sand and sea, water and blood twine about one another. Drink it. Taste it. Seventy percent of your body came from the sea. Take her in. Let her become you and you she.
Outside Uncle Ingram’s hospital room, three huge palms totter on the edge of a cliff. Beyond those: Mother Pacific. There is no horizon today. It has disappeared into the low-hanging clouds like a centipede scuttling under the rug. Heaven and ocean have eaten one another, Oroboros-style.
Uncle Ingram’s been eaten, too. He used to stand an imposing six-four, weighed a sturdy two-ten. Now he’s less. Diminished. Withered. This isn’t my uncle. This is a sick person. We’ve made a mistake; we’ve walked into the wrong room.
Then he flicks me off.
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu,” he says.
“Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” I say, then I rub his peach-fuzzed head. “About time you went punk, old man.”
“Don’t tease your Uncle,” Mom says.
Ingram was the father his brother could never be. When I was six, he gave me a paperback collection of Lovecraft’s short stories. He let me read about tentacled sea gods until all hours of the night. Then, the next day, he dragged me out of bed at 3:00 am and took me down to Mission Bay. He found the weirdest shit the ocean could cough up and shoved it into my sleep-deprived face.
Imagine looking a horseshoe crab in the eye when its body is bigger than your head. All those pincers and plates and tiny feelers, the dark slime oozing from every joint.
The next night, he took me out on his rocket boat, threw me into the ocean, and taught me to swim. And in the span of two days, I’d learned everything I needed to know about Mother Pacific.
“Iggy,” Mom says, and begins running the seams of his sheets through her fingers like Rosary beads.
Uncle Ingram gives me this look. We don’t need words.
“Let her go,” I tell him. “She’s had a rough couple of months.”
Ingram rolls his eyes. Look who’s talking.
“I know,” I say.
Ingram looks at me again.
“Yes,” I say. “We brought the trunk.”
Outside, a black snake slides down one of the palm trees. Its tongue flicks against the window as its body drips from the branches. I’m not saying it’s connected, but, thirty seconds later, Philip is in the doorway.
The hellhound wears the shape of a man, not a dog, but the difference is negligible. “I hope you brought your appetite, Master Thoth,” he says and slithers his way over to the bedside. “There will be another funeral soon. I daresay a bountiful one.”
“Not if we have anything to say about it.”
Philip ignores me.
“Charlotte,” he touches Mom’s shoulder. “My condolences.”
“Philip,” Mom says, patting his hand.
Mom’s not part of the cult, but she’s not stupid, either. She knows the world’s tilted 45 degrees to the left of normal, and she knows Dad and the family are big-time into the hoodoo.
Her threat is subtle and sharp: “Never touch me.”
The hound recoils. “Let’s get your mother a coffee, hmm?”
His mallet-sized hand clamps down on my neck and drags me into the hall.
Squirm. Pry. Futile. “What are you doing here?”
“I was invited.” Philip sniffs me. “New boyfriend?”
Taka and I spent last night doing things I’m not legally allowed to describe.
“Hardly.” I scoff. “No.”
“Well, I hope he proves as useful as the last one.”
I almost tear at his fucking arm with my teeth. “Never,” I say. “Never talk about Jake.” I can’t seem to muster Mom’s icy menace, but I do rip free from his grasp.
Poor, stupid, helpful Jake. I didn’t know what I was asking when I invited him to my grandmother’s funeral, but, in the end, it’s still my fault.
“You’ve had your rumspringa,” Philip says. “Your father arrives in two days.” He looks into the hospital room. “We’ll need blood for the ceremony. It can come from your new friend, or from someone closer to home.”
Inside, Mom fusses over the bed, speaking softly into Ingram’s ear, probably rambling on about mundane nonsense just to fill the silence.
“See you soon, Charlotte.” He waves from the doorway. Smiles. And walks away.
The next night. Taka’s room. Empty pizza boxes and takeout cartons lie strewn between swords and crossbows. He’s got a small stack of comic books by the bedside, a large stack of newspapers in the corner, and a map of North America on the wall. Red ink scribblings mark where he’s been and where he’s going.
“I can’t believe she called him,” I say, trying not to whine.
“Mom,” I say. “She called Philip. She invited him.”
“Why?” Taka flips through an issue of Hellboy.
“Something about an agreement. There was screaming. I stormed out.” I trace inky strings of binary code, looped double helix-style, along Taka’s inner thigh. He has tattoos in unobvious places and I learn more about him with each slow shift of his thighs. We’ve been pumping each other for information all evening. “Why do you wear that cross?”
“I grew up in a Catholic orphanage,” Taka says.
“Those still exist?”
“In Brazil, sure. The cross reminds me never to go back.” Taka tosses the comic away, rolls over, and pins me with his legs.
“I like that,” I say. “Never go back.”
Before I can think much more about the implications of my mother’s phone call – We’re not going back; we’re not going back – Taka shows me the ASCII twin to his binary tattoo.
“My father’s not an easy target,” I say. “He’s as close to an Old One as a you can get without growing tentacles.”
“Just get me close enough. You’re sure he’s going to show? If he doesn’t show, I’m settling for the smaller kill.” He squeezes me between his legs.
“Small?” I twist his pinky toe and Taka goes wee, wee, wee all the way to the edge of the mattress.
“When Ingram left the family,” I say. “He took a large chunk of ancestral knowledge with him. Intricacies of the bloodlines. Forgotten names. Pasta recipes. Father won’t let that knowledge die.”
“He expects a deathbed confession?”
“‘That is not dead which can eternal lie,'” I quote. “Cthulhu and the other Old Ones survive inside the dreams of humans as a kind of quantum knowledge. Information held in a state of perpetual potential.”
I slip off the bed and start pacing.
“My family worships that information. Hoarding it is a holy obligation. And if someone’s unwilling to pass it along….”
“What, you eat their brains?”
I stop pacing. He’s trying to be funny, but I don’t laugh.
“Then your uncle, he’s….” Taka sits up.
“No. He’s fine.” I say. “I killed him four hours ago.”
Four hours ago: When most boys turn 13, their dads teach them about condoms. Mine taught me how to devour the memories locked inside a person’s soul.
Taka had offered me a new life, free from my father and his kin. My hunter had connections. I could take Mom and run away. But Ingram knew how to open the trunk and, unless I did something to stop my father, he would crack open Ingram’s skull, scoop out the secret, and leave Ingram an empty husk.
I knew how funerals worked and I knew Ingram didn’t want to go out like that, the main course in a psychic cannibal feeding frenzy. I didn’t know if I could pluck a single memory from his brain and leave the rest of Ingram to die in dignity. But I knew I had to try.
I pushed Ingram’s bed away from the wall, unplugged his tubes, and removed his catheter. Then I used a knife to slit the pads of my fingers and dripped blood onto the floor in a circle. I can still feel the baby-soft fuzz as I rubbed my hand along the top of his shaved head.
My nails scraped across his flesh. He couldn’t talk, could barely moan, but when I slid my fingers into his skull, his scream rocketed through the hallways of the hospital.
My grandmother’s funeral took four hours and twelve practitioners. I had maybe a minute before the nurses came running.
Memories – good ones and bad – came flooding out of his head: the first time he drove a motorcycle. The reason he never married. A map in my father’s study. Memories of me at six, at twelve, sixteen, yesterday. Ingram’s mind slipped like Jell-O to the floor, where it pooled with my blood and his piss.
Suddenly, I was in a dream – Ingram’s – hovering above the ocean. The black water was all loops and curves. Waves like labyrinths. And below those, Ingram’s hospital room.
Yesterday, when Philip was threatening me in the hall. I saw Mom, fussing with Ingram’s sheets, but this time I could hear her.
“Philip will seal the contract,” she said to him. “If you tell them how to open it, they’ll leave us be. We get a normal life and your nephew will be safe.”
I swept away the vision and forced my hand all the way through Ingram’s skull. I latched onto the single memory I’d come to retrieve and yanked it free.
The memory squirmed in my hand like a tadpole. It was tiny and fragile. I slid my finger along its spine. Then I lifted the memory to my lips and swallowed.
Ingram cried out in big, dumb sobs. Three long ones and then he died.
Covered as I was in gore, I thought it best if I slipped out the window. I slithered like a snake from the branches to the parking lot below and took my leave.
My father steps out of the fog, dragging my mother along behind him. She stumbles, obviously drugged. She must have put up one hell of a fight; my eyes flick to Albert and all those bloody bandages.
Father looks at the trunk, then at me. He smiles and cuts the rope around Mom’s wrists. “No one has to die tonight.”
“You’ll forgive me if I’m a little skeptical,” I say. I do a little shuffle in front of the trunk. Albert and Eustace continue their advance, but Philip stays back a bit.
Mom teeters in a circle and I’m mentally telling her, Run, damnit! Turn around and run! She’s too close to the action. Taka doesn’t have an attack angle.
“I came here to apologize,” Father says, taking another step closer. “I’ve been absent for too much of your life. I want to make amends.”
“You just want what’s in my head.”
Father actually looks a little hurt at that. “What have we done to deserve your scorn, son?”
“Do I really need to answer that?”
“We didn’t kill that boy, Jake. We gave him to you,” Father says. “There is a gulf between mortals, an unknowable hole they fill with words. That boy loved you and you know that. What greater gift could we have given?”
And fuck him, but he’s right. Jake’s dumb teenage love has been a little warm glow in the back of my head ever since the family sacrificed him to my grandmother’s memory. Which makes my part in the whole thing a thousand times worse.
“You did something amazing today,” Father says. “I’m impressed. I’m proud.”
Does he think that matters to me? Does he think that’s why I’m hesitating?
“Amazing? I killed my uncle.”
My words cut through whatever drugs Father has pumped into Mom and she collapses onto the ground. She’d come here, hoping to cut a deal, and now that deal is dead. Likely, so are we.
This is Highway 61. I am Abraham’s son. There is no God.
Before we can banter more, Taka shoots out of the fog. His knife is a flash of light headed directly for my father’s throat.
“Don’t!” I yell, but it’s too late.
Shit, meet fan.
Finally, save no energy for the trip back home. Commit yourself to the sea. Waves may touch the land, but they stay for a moment, only. If you long to return to the shore, then you are not part of the sea, and if you are not a part of her, her children will smell your blood and they will eat you.
As Taka and my father tumble to the ground, Eustace, Albert and Philip rush me.
I’ll be honest: I’m scared. I’m on my own. And I’m surrounded.
…By the bear traps Taka and I buried in the dunes earlier this evening.
Clank, creak and snap.
Game, set and match.
Philip and Company fall to the ground, screaming and clutching their mutilated legs. Their weapons and their mission forgotten.
Taka moves to slit my father’s throat, but the old sorcerer is quick. They strike at one another. Snake and mongoose. Cloak of darkness and slip of silver.
Just when I think, yeah, maybe this will work, Father snares Taka’s knife arm and, with inhuman strength, tears it off. He tosses my hunter away like a rag doll before turning to me.
“Open it,” he says. His muscles writhe with crawling chaos.
Father’s left arm becomes a whip, a tentacle; his fingers become teeth and his palm a gaping maw. The horrible mouth-hand strikes me in the back of the head, at the point where skull meets spine. It drills.
A tongue moves into the back of my skull, tickling my scalp as it slithers into my gray matter, looking for the secret to the family trunk.
I’m kneeling in a pile of broken seashells, blood and spinal fluid leaking out in a quick trickle. Mom slumps face down into the incoming tide, too drugged to roll over and breath. Taka, meanwhile, washes up on shore, water licking at the hole in his torso where his arm should be.
It doesn’t take Father long to find the memory I stole from Ingram: Twelve years ago. Ingram is tall and strong. He’s just taught me how to swim, and I look at him and say, “I love you.” And he looks down and says the same.
That’s it. No cosmic secrets.
Furious, Father flings me aside. I slump face-first into the frothy blood-water. I’m sorry to say that continence and I had a falling out.
This next part happens quick and, truthfully, I didn’t expect it to work:
When I was in his head, Ingram showed me a map of my father’s body dumps, all the locations across the country where he kept backup copies of his consciousness. My father dies in Maine, so what? He’s got an extra life on ice in Connecticut. Both brothers knew the magics involved. Blood, water, and will, Ingram used to say. The three cornerstones of any ritual.
I have always been a willful child.
I let the water act as a reagent, carrying my blood along the sand to Mom and Taka. My mind slips like silver along the crests of the waves and the three of us mix together. Bits of me seep into my hunter and my mother. We pool our resources, so to speak. Taka’s pain wakes us up. The roofies pumping through Mom’s system keep us calm. As the ocean spreads my blood, sensitives and aesthetes across the continent tremble in disquiet dreams.
I stand on unsteady legs, a palm-sized hole in the back of my head. In hindsight, Taka and I really should have come up with a Plan B. Lacking better ideas, I improvise and grab Albert’s pickaxe.
It’s heavy and rusty and sharp, and it makes a quiet slooping sound when I use it to puncture the lid of the trunk.
I’m a little disappointed by what comes out. I was hoping for some sort of face-melting cosmic power. You know, like at the end of Raiders? Instead, a wisp of dusty knowledge puffs out. Still, Father’s mouth-hand lunges for the ancient thought before it dissipates into the fog. He stumbles into the water, ruining his expensive suit as he chases his inheritance.
For his part, Taka’s not doing too bad. He’s tied off the stump of his arm and managed to get Mom out of the water. The part of me now inside their minds acts like a psychic receiver. We know each other now. All three of us. Which, okay, yeah, is a little uncomfortable. Especially when I realize Mom will remember (in detail) what we’ve been doing in Taka’s hotel room the past couple of nights. But we’re not going to worry about that right now.
Right now, we watch as Father falls to his knees. The trunk memory has congealed into a kind of viscous tendril that loops around Father’s neck and burrows into his nostril. Whatever the thing is, it’s weak and sickly and not long for this world.
Taka and Mom reach my body. I’ve gone into shock, and maybe a coma. Most people in my situation would be dead by now, but, as we’ve already established, I am a unique individual. I feel like I could sleep forever. If it weren’t for the Thoths inside Mom and Taka, I’d be out like a light.
Taka manages to sling me over his good shoulder and Mom helps balance us both.
Father, meanwhile, splashes around like an idiot. He cries in joy and shouts prayers to his dead gods. Iä. Iä.
The three of us share a mental glance: It’s well past midnight and Father’s not following the rules.
Mom calls to him from the shore. “Roger,” she says. “You should run now.”
Further out, where the waves break, pallid, gray lumps rise from the sea. Lumps that are almost men, but not quite. Gills hang from their faces like lank hair. Their mouths are full of teeth that are as long as a man’s hand and as thin as needles. The children of the Pacific scent the interloper, and they begin to close in.
“We’ll have to take care of the body dumps,” Taka says.
“That can wait,” Mom says.
Our little trinity retreats. On the way back, I speak up from inside their heads.
“Mom,” I say. “This is Taka.”
It’s not how most people would introduce their new boyfriends to their mothers.
Bio: In his life, Josh has only ever had three career ambitions: astronaut, Superman and writer. Since he’s no good at math and (as far as his parents will admit) not from Krypton, he’s going with Option Three. He blogs (occasionally) at: http://www.phantasypunk.com.