From the author: Originally published in Innsmouth Tales, 2016. The germ of several longer stories, and a suitable introduction to the public side of this venue.
By Duane Pesice
I can see her sitting in her chair on the front porch, with her chin in her hand, looking out over the railing to the sea. Her eyes search the horizon ceaselessly, when they're not directed toward the heavens. I would shamble up the shore, ascend the stair, and join her there, but I dare not. How could I? What right have I to present such an abomination as I have become, foul of visage and demeanor, with blood on my hands and rot in my soul?
She remembers the boy, the boy I was, before events and time separated us. It is the grown version of the boy that she expects, a man, with a man-face, wearing man-clothes, with a man-life and a man-job and all that goes with the territory.
I remember the boy as well...
"Throw it back," he said. "It's too small to eat."
I tossed the fish gently back into the water after carefully removing the barb. "It's still alive. I was afraid that it would die."
"No," said my father. "It'll live. And it will forget the pain, but not the trauma. Fish have memories that go back about a half-hour. Not much brainpower." He tapped the side of his hat, dislodging a hand-tied fly. "Something like me," he said, bending over to pick up the lure. "But that fish will avoid shiny things in the water for quite a while, I'd guess, and not know why. It's a fish-I doubt they do much questioning of their actions. Instinct drives them."
I understood, and sort of understood the lesson I was being taught. Beyond learning how to fish, that was.
"Yes sir," he continued. "Give a man a fish, and he'll have a meal. But teach a man to fish...got one!"
He reeled the fish in, smoothly, expertly, pulled the hook with one hand, deposited the creature in the cooler with the other. "That's good for dinner," he said. "Let's go have some lunch."
I was willing.
We stood at the lunch counter at Giorgio's, waiting for a slice and a coke for each of us. Behind us in line were a group of Cub Scouts and their Den Mother. One of the kids was head and shoulders taller than the others, gangly. His wrists stuck out of his uniform, and his pant legs would allow a good-sized flood. He had big, almost bulging eyes and a general air of not-wanting-to-be-there.
"He's like a fish out of water," I whispered to my dad.
"But he’s too big to throw back," he said.
We laughed together, quietly.
That was about the time I started wanting to swim more. I mean, a LOT more. I had always liked the water, but that summer, you couldn't get me out of the pool, or better yet, the creek. My dad understood. "We better not go to the beach," he'd say. "He'd swim away and never come back."
I didn't know what he meant by that. Thought it was just an in-joke. "I would always come back," I'd say.
He'd look at me, sadly.
Dad died not too long after that, hit by the bus while trying to cross the street to his shop. The funeral was closed-coffin. His injuries must have been horrific. I didn't want to look anyway.
Mom was inconsolable. She grew more and more distant as time passed. She responded to the world as if she were underwater, moving slowly, deliberately, waxing and waning in slow regular cycles. Her depressions were hardly noticeable by the time a year had passed, there being so little difference between the ups and downs.
The crying jags stopped, at least.
She worked in Dad’s little shop, selling sausages and pickles and penny candy, until a chain store made her a very generous offer. She retired gladly to a life of watching television and drinking chamomile tea, and I pretty much grew myself up.
Just once, when I was under the weather, she made a comment. “You’re looking pretty green around the gills,” she said. “You should have a soak.”
A warm bath was her answer to almost everything. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t work most of the time. That was one of the times it worked. I was back in the creek the next day.
It was then that I noticed how long I could hold my breath. I swam all the way under the rail bridge to the edge of the Marsh compound, maybe two hundred yards. Amazed, I swam back the same way, under the water.
Didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t have many friends—kept to myself, and there was no way I was going to talk to my mother about that, or about the weird puckering in the skin on the sides of my neck. I just kept my collar up around other people, and went on with life.
The thing is, now that I reflect on all of that, I wonder if maybe she didn’t know something.
We had a giant argument later that summer-I forget what it was about. I slammed the door and went down to the creek, and swam all the way down to the Miskatonic. Didn’t even think about what I was doing, just did it.
Of course I went a little further every day after that, until the day when I got all the way down to the Bay. That was the day before school was to start. I didn’t want to go, but I wasn’t old enough yet to refuse. We had another big row, and I snuck out later that night, with a bindle wrapped all up in black plastic garbage bags, and got on the Greyhound, spending some of my savings from working in the shop on a ticket for Innsmouth, right there on the shore of the bay.
Lots of people in that town looked like me, with weird necks and bulging eyes and big flat feet, and it didn’t take long before I figured out the secret. I watched as townsfolk would leap from the pilings on either side of the marina and swim out to the reef, or what was left of the reef. I could hear them shouting to one another out there.
It wasn’t long before I followed, and, not long after that, stopped going ashore completely. There’s a whole society of people like me down there. Deepfolk, they call themselves. They have a long history. The surface people tried to kill them, a long time ago, but they survived.
As did I.
Once a week or so, I swim back upriver to see her. I keep thinking I should just get out of the water, but still, I cannot. I’m afraid the shock would kill her.
This story originally appeared in Dark Legacy.