by C. Coleman
I liked to think weather forecasts didn’t apply to me, but there I was snorting out the smell that forms when fresh rain hits fifty years of dilapidation. I glared down the row of boarded up windows, looking for an overhang to get my camera out of the dripping sludge. Nothing. I chewed my lip for a moment, blood killing the elasticity of my strawberry gum. The rain got harder and I shoved my camera up my sweatshirt and started pulling on doors.
A gunshot and several heated threats blasted out from around the corner. I plunged deeper into the abandoned neighborhood, now with bigger things to worry about than one of my five cameras getting wet. Bystander’s bodies getting turned into bloody mesh from gang activity made the news less and less, but that was just because of how common it was getting.
The first door I could force open creaked off its hinges and crashed loudly into the ashen puddle beside it. Spooked, I dashed inside, dodging several aggressive leaks in the ceiling. The shouting was returned by an angrier party and I felt bright neon as I remembered I couldn’t exactly shut the door behind me. I pulled my camera out gingerly, like maybe it would morph into Kevlar, and jogged through a plywood door. It was dark behind the door and I lost my footing as the floor gave way to a steep staircase.
A concrete edge slammed between my front teeth and pain spiraled. I held my camera wildly upward as I slid, skin peeling like wax off a cheese sample, down the darkened steps.
My camera skittered out of my hand on the short landing as I plunged, blind, into an abyss of lukewarm water. I gasped reflexively, sputtering out the taste of bloated dissection frogs as I found the surface again. I cast my arms around blindly, scraping them on a cement wall as I searched for the drop off. My fumbling hands found the short landing and I wrapped one hand around my fallen camera, switching the flash on and clinging to the drop off with the other hand. I aimed my camera at my black surroundings, treading water desperately. The flash went off with a blaze and electric click, illuminating several pale faces floating horizontally near the flickering white of my flailing sneakers.
The flash shut off, snapping me back into a darkness that was no longer empty. My fingers struggled back to the button. My lungs were too tight to buoy me and I felt myself sink down an inch. I screeched as the flash went off again. Blank eyes the color of molding milk bobbed several inches away, connected to a thin white body that pulsated as it floated closer. The flash blazed out. I screamed again, louder, as what felt like a giant peeled egg bumped lazily against my thigh.
At my third scream a dim blue light fizzled on overhead, melting the creature deeper into the water and introducing at least twenty more. I sputtered and lunged at the drop off, but the edge was covered in slippery brine and my hands were covered in clumsy panic. The submerged corpse-like things were blinking at me, turning their waterlogged heads with a muted curiosity towards this quick, frightened animal. The blue light hummed as it brightened and I tossed my head around, sinking deeper into the creatures, looking for the source of the light.
My eyes tore across several long blue bulbs lining the ceiling as a pair of warm hands fitted themselves beneath my armpits, hoisting me onto a platform beside the water that I hadn’t noticed in the dark. I shrank from my savior with a wet gasp.
“Sorry,” he murmured, his voice humid. “I can’t make it any brighter; it burns their skin.”
I set my camera on the floor with trembling hands. I’d taken some bizarre pictures in my life, not to mention whatever horrors I had just committed to my SD card in my desperation for light, but a portrait of what stood before me would’ve been in bad taste. Steam rolled across his large eyes, pale in their thick eyelids. He was looking at me like he couldn’t decide if he should ask who I was. I didn’t want to ask him either. I didn’t want to be carrying that kind of information around.
“Are you hurt?” He asked, changing the subject we’d avoided.
“No, I’m fine,” I whispered, ignoring several gurgling bruises. He’d already saved me once, but I didn’t trust him not to throw me back in to feed his monsters if he figured I was already injured. I don’t know what kind of morality basement-dwelling collectors of human sturgeon operate under.
It seemed like I should’ve been shivering but the place felt like a Florida swamp. Breathing in the air was like breathing in a sponge cake. My panting took up less of my worry as I saw one of the more translucent creature’s head bob harmlessly against the cement. It looked like a glass Fiji mermaid.
“Do you get a lot of visitors to your aquarium?”
His lips twitched down. “No.”
I should’ve asked him if he got any, and if they ever left again.
As my eyes adjusted I realized the pool was about half the size of a standard indoor hotel pool, and it had zones. A litter of toddler shaped bodies, clear as soap stained crystal, twirled around the mossy bottom of the pool. Several had brains growing outside their soft skulls; at least three of them were fused together. Larger ones floated near the top, their eyes just as empty, their trajectory even less pre-meditated. Looking at them gave me a hollow feeling, like there was a lump of molding yogurt in my mouth that I was supposed to swallow whole. I cleared my throat and turned from them.
The man who pulled me out looked electric in the hazy light, like he would crackle if he were splashed. His lips were soft as they curled into the smile of someone who had almost forgotten about them. I edged away from his patient eyes and he politely allowed me my space.
“You are wondering what they are?”
I hadn’t really moved past fear and into curiosity, but yeah, basically. I nodded slowly, my eyes drifting across his glowing white face. His calm was draped over a worse emotion, as was mine, I’m sure.
“I wouldn’t know.”
My saliva soured as the scent of vinegar intensified around us. A somber howl broke through the water’s surface and he stiffened, his eyes swiveling towards the noise as the first sprig of contrast raked across his pale face. He set his teeth and turned his back to the shrieking, but I couldn’t break away from it.
A large-the largest-creature was thrashing above the water’s tension line, screaming as if it suddenly knew what it was. It convulsed, flopping against the hard edge of the pool with stiffened useless limbs, slicing yellow blood out in tiny slants. It left its body tattered, bleeding coagulated rivulets down into the ones below it. They buoyed up with round teeth protruding as they slowly absorbed the fizzling screams, flesh casing and all. It was not a quick process. They pulled flesh from the warped bones like comatose manatees. I stuttered soundlessly, tongue caught on violent empty gags as the ripples in the pool slowly faded.
“That’s more of what I was expecting,” he murmured, shrugging a shoulder towards the pool.
“What?” I stammered, eyes locked on a wrinkled fetus gumming at the last spears of sinking yellowed flesh. The skeleton had turned to a milky powder and immediately dissolved.
“When I heard you splashing.”
I winced, abhorred to be connected to what had just happened even for an imagined instant.
“I thought one had finally made it,” he continued, his voice heavy.
I looked at him closer. He may have seemed wholesome if it wasn’t for the pervasive sweat and overlarge yellow eyes. His black pullover, ridiculous in the heat, was not designed for someone as slim as he was. His grey jogging pants were tied tightly, but still slipping down. They were not his clothes. I took a step back. They were not his clothes. He cocked his head at me but did not close the distance. Finally shivering, I turned back towards the pool.
There was an undissolved skeleton in the corner of the pool, the size and shape of a standard man; solid and heavy.
“I don’t know what his name was, though I heard your kind has them,” he whispered, as he joined me in watching the skeleton. “Most of my memories of him… are from through the water.”
“Through the water?”
“Yes, looking up.”
It was a little late to surprise me.
“So when you heard me splashing… you were waiting for a second one to make it out.”
He held my gaze unflinchingly. There was no challenge in it, just a level of self acceptance I’ve been striving for my whole life. The only hint of nerves was his heavy pulse, pounding next to the healed scar of his useless gill. I took another step back, dangerously close to the pool’s edge, but I was no longer afraid of the inert creatures. This time he followed me.
“You think I killed him?”
I swallowed forcefully, wondering if he would jump in after me if I tried to swim back to the stairs. His harpoon-like body belonged in the water; making a swim for it would get me out of here the same way snapping my own neck would.
“Well, I think he’s a skeleton at the bottom of a flooded basement.”
His eyes clouded. “He was very old. And he flooded it himself. I didn’t know where else to put him.”
“He took care of us long before I did. He would have wanted to stay close to the ones still trying to get out,” he insisted.
So I was just talking to someone’s out of control sea monkey. Wonderful. I glanced back at the slumped bones, trying to fight the vertigo as I looked straight down the pool’s edge. “He flooded it himself?”
“Who do you think taught me to speak?”
My heart pounded as the weight of the water swished the skeleton’s arm bones around. None of the bones were broken, though I supposed he could have strangled the guy. Or stabbed. Or drowned him obviously, but I could feel the heaviness in his voice as he spoke about him. I decided to take the risk and step back from the pool. I don’t know where he would’ve gotten a conscience in that tank of formaldehyde and blank eyes, but he’d proven to have a brain, and that was just as hard to believe.
“Why do you stay?” It was somehow what confused me the most.
He looked straight up and sighed. “Out there, I’m the only one.”
“You’ll always be the only one,” I muttered before I could stop myself, failing to repress the failed ascension turned cannibal feast.
He exhaled with a dreamy half smile, like he appreciated the truth but would have also accepted the lie. “One may follow me, one day.”
I returned his smile hollowly, though part of me was glad someone in this world had a purpose.
He straightened and pointed a long finger towards the far end of the platform.
“It occurs to me that you don’t realize that there is another door,” he said, and a familiar wave of embarrassment washed over me. I could have left at any time. I swallowed, nodding as I stepped past him, unmarred.
“It was pleasant meeting you…”
“Derek,” I said as I yanked the heavy door open.
“Derek,” he repeated, several sharp teeth glinting in his smile.
“Yeah, see you around, strange Adam,” I said. On an impulse I threw up my camera and snapped a portrait before he could turn away, his giant eyes squinting frantically against my highest flash setting. He looked more than ready for me to leave as I waved my final goodbye, shutting the door in his face. I hopped up another steep staircase, holding my camera tightly.