Story by H.G.C. Allard
Illustration by Lee Dawn
Alex hooked his stick under the dead thing’s rubbery upper lip and pulled it back, revealing an intact set of yellow teeth.
“Stop it! It’s disgusting,” Tommy protested weakly. He leaned in for a closer look.
“What is it?” Alex said, prodding the teeth. The stick clicked against enamel.
“I don’t know, a mermaid?” Tommy offered.
“Mermaids aren’t real, stupid,” Alex said.
The two boys stood just beyond the wrack line: a band of blackened kelp that ran the length of the beach, dotted with bonelike projections of driftwood. The creature at their feet wasn’t the first dead thing to be dumped by the tides–the dark, ragged carcasses of cormorants and petrels were common finds after stormy nights–but it was the strangest offering they had seen.
In part, it appeared to be the body of a young girl, roughly their own age: ten years old. She lay on her front, one arm twisted beneath her, the other cast out to one side. Greyish green skin, milky white eyes, a tangle of knotted black hair beaded with bladderwrack and dead leaves. Her head was turned partially to one side, her mouth was filled with sand. From the chest down, the girl’s body fell apart, and the skin collapsed into a mass of tangled kelp. These greasy fronds grew from the body and formed a trailing gown that lay spread out behind her, like the tentacles of a jellyfish.
Alex probed the kelp. He lifted a long frond with the stick, handling it like a snake, then let it fall with a wet slap.
“We should tell a grownup,” Tommy ventured. Alex fixed him with a withering glare.
“You’re such a baby.”
Tommy ignored him. “What do you think it is?”
“I guess it’s a dead girl.”
“You know it isn’t. No one looks like that.” He pointed at the fleshy fronds.
Alex was quiet for a second. He squatted down near the head and eased the end of his stick under the dead thing’s jaw. With this lever, he turned more of the slack face towards him until it lay on its side, resting on one cheek. Alex stared into the pale eyes.
“It looks like Abigail,” He whispered.
“It looks like Abigail. Abigail Baker.”
Tommy squatted beside Alex and studied the face. “It does,” He said a moment later. “What does that mean?”
“It means Abigail is dead. She must’ve fallen in the sea,” Alex stated matter-of-factly.
“She isn’t dead. I saw her this morning.”
Alex looked at his friend. “You must’ve seen somebody else.”
“No! She lives down the road, I see her every day. I know it was her. I could go and get her now.”
“Do it, let’s see what she thinks.”
Tommy took off at a run, across the grey sand, and into the mist, leaving Alex alone.
They were half a mile from the village, on the beach where they had whiled away most of the school holidays. It wasn’t a postcard setting; just a thin stretch of sand shaped like a fingernail clipping, in a bay walled by high, black cliffs. The waters were treacherous, threaded with riptides, baring jagged lengths of the rocky reef like fangs when the tide receded. If the peninsula wasn’t blanketed by a thick mist, it was awash with relentless drizzle, and year-round the sun was a distant, weak flame behind a grey sky.
Still, the children liked the beach. It was a grand stage for their games, a blank canvas for their imaginations to paint upon. The grownups never bothered them here; the collapse of the village’s small crab fishing operation had turned the sea into an unwanted neighbor, an ugly reminder of failure that the broken men regarded through bloodshot eyes. Alex didn’t see his dad much anymore, and that was fine by him. Out here, he was boss.
He poked the dead thing’s cheek again. He imagined poking the stick into its wide-open eye, popping it like a blister, and immediately felt sick. He put the stick down and just contemplated the thing before him, eyeing the kelp fronds again. They were perhaps twice the length of the torso, tapering from a thick mass to a few longer strands that trailed back towards the outer reaches of the wrack line.
Alex didn’t really think this was a dead girl. He was always eager to impress Tommy–a more popular, sociable boy–and his certitude in identifying the carcass was part of an act. Tommy took the time to play along with Alex, he was ever patient with Alex’s dark moods, and Alex knew he couldn’t afford to lose that friendship. He had to be tough, unwavering–never letting his weakness show. No one wanted to be friends with a wimp.
The dead thing at his feet certainly looked like Abigail.
One of the kelp fronds twitched. He watched it for a moment, and it twitched once more. Alex stood up, and, after a moment’s hesitation, circled around to get a closer look. The frond continued twitching, more regularly now, as if it was trying to rise. Alex carefully moved it aside with his stick, expecting to find a crab scavenging beneath, but there was nothing.
The frond hung limply across his stick. He carefully carried it out to the side, away from the others, and let it drop to the sand, as he had done earlier. This time, once it hit the ground, it began to move weakly from side to side, in a woozy paddling motion. He watched, disgusted, as it traced out a smear in the sand, like a child making a snow angel. The feeling of revulsion was overpowering, but he couldn’t look away. Instead, he struck the kelp strand with one hard smack. It stopped moving.
He brandished the stick like a sword, waiting for the tentacle to wriggle again. His eyes darted about, looking for another moving frond within the tangle. All was still.
Alex breathed. He calmed down. Dead things could move like that sometimes, he knew. Whatever this thing was, there would be a boring explanation soon enough. Maybe Abigail would know; she was clever. Maybe they could drag an adult down here to explain it away–Tommy’s dad, or their teacher, Mister O’Brien.
The voice interrupted Alex’s thoughts. It came from behind him, where the head lay, a voice like cold seawater trickling into his ear. “Revoked,” It said, barely louder than a whisper. “Reclaiming.”
Alex wheezed–it felt like he had been winded. Unable to turn and face the dead thing, he staggered away. When he felt he had put enough space between himself and the source of that voice, he spun around like a gunslinger in a duel.
The thing lay in the same position, unmoving.
“Hello?” He said shakily. Nothing. “Are you alive?”
Silence. The black tangle of hair and detritus moved with the breeze. A single leaf detached itself and drifted away.
“Alex!” A voice called. Alex let out a squeal of fright and spun around again. It was only Tommy. He must’ve imagined the other voice; the strange carcass must’ve disturbed him more than he’d thought. Tommy approached with Abigail at his side. Abigail’s dark hair was up in twin pigtails, tied with red bows. She had come straight from church; her red leather shoes gleamed.
As the pair got closer, Abigail slowed, lagging behind Tommy. She made a loud retching noise, then approached with her cardigan’s sleeve covering her mouth and nose.
The smell. Alex had tuned it out, but now it returned to him. It smelled like burning sugar and rotten crab meat, a heavy stench that hung thick as the fog. Strangely enough, there were no flies yet.
The three children stood together, looking down at the body. The rising wind had blown hair over the face, mercifully covering it.
“What is it?” Abigail asked, little more than a whisper.
“We don’t know,” Tommy said. He took Alex’s stick. “But look at this.” He began to move the hair away from its face.
“Wait!” Alex shrieked.
Tommy jumped like he had been electrocuted, dropping the stick. He laughed nervously.
“Why not?” He said. “This was your idea.”
“I don’t think this is right,” Alex said.
Tommy picked up the stick again and turned to Abigail, who had walked over to look at the point where the girl’s torso ended and the long, kelp strips began. She stood a few paces back from the dead thing, arms crossed, shaking her head.
“We think it looks like you,” Tommy said. Abigail stopped shaking her head and stared at him.
“What are you talking about?” She said.
“Obviously not all that stuff,” Tommy said, waving his stick at the fronds. “But the face, its face looks like your face.”
“Don’t, Tommy. We should go back,” Alex said.
“I thought I was the baby?” Tommy shot back. Alex flushed, despite the growing dread he felt.
Tommy turned away from him and twisted the stick into the matted hair, lifting it up and away from the face. Abigail made a small choking sound.
“See?” Tommy said. Abigail stumbled backward; her eyes locked on the dead face.
“Why does it look like that?” She murmured. “It looks just like me.”
She looked to Alex and Tommy in turn, her eyes wide as saucers and her face pale as milk. “What is this? What does it mean?”
The fear was contagious, and it seemed to have finally infected Tommy. He looked at the dead thing, then Abigail. He stared at it again. “We should put it back in the sea,” He said finally.
“No,” Alex said.
“Well, why not? You’re right–this isn’t normal,” He said.
“We should just leave. Right now,” Alex said. “I heard it speak earlier.”
Tommy barked a single, ugly syllable of laughter. It was a little too loud. “No, you didn’t,” he said. “It’s dead. Whatever it is, it’s dead, and we should get rid of it.”
“All right, what did it say then?”
“I don’t know, I couldn’t really tell. I think one of the words was reclaiming.” Alex said. They were quiet. The only sound was the distant crash of hidden waves.
“I’m putting this thing back in the sea,” Tommy said. He smiled at Abigail, a joyless little smile, and walked over to the end of the longest frond. Dark, dry seaweed crunched beneath his feet. He reached out to grab the frond but hesitated. He looked up at the others for support–both were silent.
He grabbed the kelp. It felt exceedingly oily in his hand, but otherwise, it was no different from any other blade of kelp. He gripped it with both hands then and tugged, pulling the torso. He turned, hoisting the longest strand up over his shoulder, and marched towards the sound of the sea, hauling the body along as he went. Its head rolled facedown and dragged in the sand.
When he passed Abigail, he froze. The kelp wrapped around his hands had tightened. He stopped moving, but the kelp continued to wind around his hands, constricting them like a python. He screamed like he had never screamed before and wrenched his hands free so violently that he fell to the floor, where he kicked and shuffled away from the body. The body lay unmoving, face buried in the sand.
“It moved!” Tommy cried. “I felt it move in my hand!” He looked over to where Alex was standing, away from the scene, and Alex nodded grimly.
“I told you,” He said.
Abigail gasped, and they both jumped.
“It’s looking at me!” She wailed. “It’s looking at me!”
The boys looked and, sure enough, the dead thing’s head was turned on one side again, and its pupil-less eyes seemed to stare in Abigail’s direction. As she edged away from it, towards Alex and Tommy, were those eyes tracking her? Without pupils or irises, it was difficult to tell, but Alex thought they were rolling in their sockets, following.
Suddenly, its jaws snapped shut. All three children screamed. The face now wore a horrid grimace, its lips peeled away from its mouthful of yellow teeth. It lay like that for a moment, unmoving, then the jaw relaxed and hung slack once again.
Alex looked at Tommy, his eyes were wild with terror. “Kill it,” He hissed.
“What?! You kill it!”
The jaws clacked again. Alex yelped. They watched as the dead thing’s jaws opened and closed, opened and closed, slowly at first but gaining speed. Tommy began to cry. Soon, the green-skinned girl was gnashing her teeth violently. She lay still, where she had been dropped, but the staccato rhythm of the clashing teeth rang out on the empty beach like machine gunfire.
Before the boys could do anything, Abigail grabbed the stick and marched towards the creature with her spear in hand. When she was just a few feet away, the head swiveled loosely on its neck and swung around to face Abigail, its chin propped up on the sand. It grinned.
Abigail made a noise somewhere between a retch and a sob. She fell backward, and, as she fell, the dead thing hoisted itself up and scrambled forwards on its hands.
The children shrieked and tried to flee. The dead thing closed the distance in a second and wrapped one slippery hand around Abigail’s ankle. She writhed and kicked at its face, but it held fast.
Alex retrieved the dropped stick and began beating the creature’s torso. It paid him no mind: the mass of trailing kelp swung to and fro across the sand, side to side, like a dog’s wagging tail.
“Revoked. Revoked. Revoked. Reclaiming,” It hissed.
Abigail droved her heel into her ghoulish doppelganger’s mouth and succeeded in breaking a front tooth. The tooth dangled in its grey gums, but it continued to speak.
“Abigail Baker,” That awful voice gargled, drawing out the vowels. “Abigail. Baker. Abigail Baker.”
“Get off me!” Abigail cried. She continued kicking, but it grabbed her other ankle with its free hand.
“Get off me!” It echoed back at her.
Alex gave up on flogging the creature and ran around to drag it by the longest kelp blade again. Once he was within grasping distance, the single blade reared up to head height and with a thunderous whip crack, it lashed out at him, splitting his cheek neatly. He fell to the ground and quickly stanched the bleeding with a shirt sleeve.
“Tommy!” Alex shouted. Tommy was on all fours, trying to pry the creature’s hands loose. “Go back, Tommy! Go and get Mister O’Brien!”
“What about you?” He said.
“I’ll kill it!”
Tommy nodded. He got to his feet, and for the second time that morning, ran off towards the town.
Abigail was hyperventilating. The creature lay there, calmly watching her, holding both of her ankles tight as she writhed and bucked.
“Kill it, Alex! I can’t move!” She pleaded.
“Kill it, Alex!” The creature parroted. “Alex,” It repeated, gurgling the vowels at the back of its throat.
Alex thrust at the dead thing’s eye but missed, snapping his stick on the creature’s brow. It turned to face him and clacked its teeth, finally dislodging that broken front tooth. He struck again and drove the remaining short skewer forth with all his strength. It slipped into the eyeball like a hot knife through butter. Thick ooze, like tar, bubbled in the ruined socket. A black cascade of the ooze ran down its cheek. It snapped its broken teeth at him.
Over Abigail’s sobs, Alex’s panting, and the clatter of teeth, a single cry rang out. It was Tommy’s scream–it sounded like he was nearby.
“Tommy!” Alex called. “Are you okay?” There was no response.
Abigail looked up at Alex through her tears, pleading. The creature stared at its captive quarry with one fathomless eye. Alex scanned the mists for Tommy.
“I’m sorry, I need to see if he’s okay. I’ll be right back.” His voice cracked a little.
“Don’t leave me!” Abigail screamed. “Don’t leave me with this thing!”
The creature echoed some of her words, trying them on for size.
“I’m sorry,” Alex said feebly. He turned and ran.
He hadn’t made it far when Tommy’s form began to swim up through the great white nothingness, like a developing photograph. Alex flew across the sand. He had almost reached Tommy when he heard Abigail’s screams erupt into a single, bloodcurdling howl. He skidded to a halt and looked back.
The dead thing’s lower half had flowered into a thrashing bouquet of serpentine tentacles. They flicked in every direction, darting out to taste the air, the sand, then retreating into the mass. With a fresh surge of horror, Alex realized that the creature was on the move. Among the frenzy, appendages like spiders’ legs scuttled, dragging the creature’s torso and its captive prey towards the sea. They disappeared into the grey.
Abigail’s piercing cries mingled with the creature’s–both screaming his name. A moment later, both voices cut out abruptly. Alex found himself free of the mist and he splashed forth in the swash, towards the crashing waves. He could see nothing but the boiling sea, a shifting tapestry of whitecaps laid out to the horizon.
“Abigail!” He yelled into the expanse. A single gull caterwauled overhead.
— ♦♦♦ —
Alex fumbled through the fog, crying to himself.
He eventually found Tommy curled up on the sand. They sat together for a moment before Alex spoke.
“We need to go, Tommy. It took Abigail. We need to tell someone.”
Tommy’s face was puffy with tears. “There’s another one,” He choked. “I don’t think it knows I’m here. Not yet.”
Tommy pointed, and Alex followed the line of his trembling finger.
This one was more convincing than the other. Its skin was more grey than green, and the body was almost intact. It could’ve been a freshly drowned boy, but for the bundle of long, kelp-like strands where his left leg should’ve been. This creature’s unresponsive, open eyes had pupils, but no irises. Otherwise, the face was a perfect replica of Tommy’s own.
“What does it mean?” Tommy said.
— ♦♦♦ —
Prodigal Daughter By Joseph Cusumano, Art by L.A Spooner
The agency for which David worked regarded the extraction of an individual from a group as the most challenging of all the requests that came their way, especially if the captive had no desire to leave. But David received the approval of his supervisor, and shortly afterward he and Adams set out together in Adams’ 1938 Ford coupe so that he could retreive Adam’s prodigal daughter.