The July Chosen Writer is Kevin Crisp
Please feel free to email Kevin at: firstname.lastname@example.org
THE SUNKEN ONES
When I was thirteen, the school closed for a time in late October. The streets—adorned with cheap Halloween decorations—were oddly quiet that fall, owing to the tragedy that had shut the school down.
Mother was drinking again so I climbed and played on the rocky ocean shores and wandered the streets with two older boys who weren’t closely supervised either.
The sun was setting over Aster, and there were heavy, gray autumn clouds over the ocean. We were headed generally toward The Point, a rocky, sea-pounded pier that jutted out into misty Neeskant Bay off the coast of Maine.
Upon it stood a weather-beaten, gray lighthouse from which the beacon glow hailed ships into the narrow boat channel to the harbor and its quiet, isolated town of Aster. The man who lived in the old brick house at the base of the lighthouse was a widow and a recluse.
His daughter Helen, who was our age, had drowned the week before, leaving him alone.
“I feel like we should pay our respects,” Matt said. “You know, say goodbye to her.”
“That’s what the stupid memorial service was for,” Nick said.
“Let’s do it,” I said, vying for acceptance from the group.
“I second that,” Matt said.
We crossed the road and cut through the town, passing cluttered shops whose windows were plastered with signs offering cheap international telephone cards and money-sending services in diverse languages. Leaning telephone poles held sagging black lines above the street. Their trunks were papered with tattered, faded public notices offering translation services, odd job solicitations and missing person alerts, which far outnumbered the rest.
The living quarters of the lighthouse were especially run-down, perched on the hill overlooking the sea. The cliffs beneath it were oddly angled, as though the whole point were part of some giant wall built long ago. Cardboard covered the broken portion of the front window. The lamp by the driveway was battered, and its top sagged like it was in mourning. Around the side, there was a brick stairwell that went down to the basement, filled with recently fallen leaves that crunched under our feet. We couldn’t be seen from the street down there, so we tried that door first.
I jiggled the doorknob of the living quarters. “Locked.”
“I’ll check under my namesake for a key,” Matt said. “Get it? I’ll check under the mat.”
“You’ll be seen,” Nick said. “There’re kids Trick-or-treating all over. Besides, this door’s half rotted.”
Matt shrugged. There was no key under the mat. Then, he shouldered the door and the frame gave and splintered right by the latch.
“Shit,” I said, figuring that word would impress the older boys.
“He’ll never know who did it,” Matt said. “Probably won’t even notice.”
The door opened into the basement. I found that an odd layout. The basement was dark, damp and musty. Nick found the light switch.
“Nick, what the hell!” I snapped. “Turn it off.”
“Relax, man,” Nick said.
The basement was littered with dust-covered cardboard boxes. I opened one up. It was full of baby dolls and toy pots and pans, obviously Helen’s.
I picked up one of the dolls and looked at it. It had blond hair and its eyes had been colored brown with permanent marker to match Helen’s. I dropped it back in the box.
“This place is a dump,” Nick said. “We shouldn’t be here.”
“Hey, look at this,” Matt said, ignoring Nick as usual. He held up a faded, curled photograph.
“Is that her mother?” I asked.
“Must be,” Matt said.
“When did she…you know…disappear?” I asked.
“Two, three years ago maybe,” Matt said. “I’m going upstairs. Can’t toast a dead girl without something to drink.”
“You got booze?” I asked. I felt uneasy at that, but I couldn’t let it show.
“Of course,” Matt said with a smirk. I knew he was silently daring me. He flashed the top of a pint in his jacket pocket.
“Cool!” I almost shouted, trying to sound enthusiastic.
The stairs were narrow, carpeted and well-worn. They creaked loudly in the empty house. Upstairs, we came out in the kitchen. Matt went to the table and pulled out some chairs.
He passed the bottle to me. It was Tequila.
“Don’t drink it yet,” Matt said. “We’ll make it a toast.”
“What, here in the kitchen?” Nick said. He looked around. “There’s nothing in here that reminds me of Helen. There must be a picture or something in the parlor.”
Matt rolled his eyes. He grabbed a flashlight off the top of the fridge and walked into the next room.
Right then, we heard a girl’s giggle, and we all jumped, even Matt. We held our breaths and listened. There were footsteps, and then the doorbell rang.
“Trick-or-treaters,” Nick whispered, and I hushed him with a finger to my lips.
“Turn off the flashlight, Matt,” I whispered.
“Oh, right,” he said, and we were blanketed in blackness.
“Anybody home?” a girl’s voice called from outside.
“There was a light on a minute ago,” another girl said. “I definitely saw one.”
There was a pounding on the door that echoed through the house, followed by footsteps receding down the walk. One of the girls called, “Assholes!”
“Dudes, can’t we just get this over with and get out of here?” Nick whined.
“When did you become such a sissy? Even little Jordan here is braver than you,” Matt said, referring to me. I almost burst with pride. He turned the flashlight back on. “Her bedroom must be upstairs. Let’s go up there.”
He pocketed the Tequila and we followed his lead. The stairway went up a few steps, turned sharply and went up some more. At the top was a short hallway. There was a small table with a dusty pot of fake flowers. It smelled of mildew and incense and Mary Jane.
We opened the door and stepped in. Nick shown the light around the room. There was a desk and a dresser and a bed. Her clothes were strewn about, panties and all. On the floor in the corner was a record player.
“OK, do your toast, Matt,” Nick said.
“All right.” He took a moment to collect himself, cleared his throat dramatically and began. “Helen,” he said.
There was an awkward moment of silence in the room. Everything seemed unnaturally still and quiet. The only sound was the breeze outside, gently bending creaking limbs and rustling falling leaves.
“Helen,” he continued, “we came here to say goodbye. We don’t know why you died, and we would have liked to get to know you better—”
We stood around the dead girl’s bed and passed the Tequila around and drank to her memory. “Okay, Helen,” Matt said, “now where’s your stash?” He started going through the drawers of her dresser.
“Shit, Matt,” Nick said. “Don’t steal from her.”
“Well, she don’t need it no more,” he said. “It’s just gonna go stale anyway.”
“Hey, what the hell’s this?” Matt asked, pulling something out of the very back of a drawer. He shined the flashlight on it. It was a very dusty, leather-bound volume with black-edged pages. The embossed title read Submersionem Damnati.
He flipped through the brittle, yellowed pages. He stopped arbitrarily somewhere in the middle. There was a picture of an ancient city battered with giant tidal waves. He read the caption out loud: “Llys Helig Swallowed by the Sea.”
He handed the book to me. There were many drawings, mostly of cities with exotic, forgotten names, half submerged as though under tidal waves. The captions were all as cryptic as the first. Then a note fell out from between the pages. It read:
Where ends the shallows and begins the deep,
“Can’t be true,” Nick said. “It’s just a damned folk story. Like Paul Bunyan or John Henry. Now, can we finally get out of here? We did what we wanted, toasted the dead girl.”
I tucked the book in my jacket pocket, and we left the room, careful to close the door behind us. We retraced our steps to the basement door, turned out the light, and jammed the busted door shut as best we could.
It was dim outside, but the light of passing cars upon the thin shore mist that plays gave the evening a weird, unearthly feel. We walked back along the cliffs, crunching along the browning grass and leaves. There was a nip in the air, promising of flurries in the next few days. The thick clouds were rolling upon us now, partially blotting out the harvest moon.
Matt stopped. “Hear that?”
“What?” I asked.
“It’s too quiet,” he said. “No waves.” He was right. It was very, very silent. The constant wash of seawater along the sands and rocks that had been the background music of my childhood was utterly silent.
“It’s low tide,” Nick said.
“Must be really fucking low,” I said.
We climbed down the rocks to the sand. It was damp, but the water was out far. “I don’t even see it,” Nick said.
“Weird,” Matt said. He turned on the flashlight.
“You stole their flashlight?” Nick said.
“Forgot to put it back,” Matt said with a wink.
We walked past the black lines in the sand that mark the usual tide levels and kept going. The sand was uneven, and cluttered with large clumps of seaweed, rocks and shells. Tiny crabs and creeping things scattered where we stepped. There were little puddles of seawater that collected in the prints our shoes left. Occasional gusts of wind sent crisp maple leaves skittering across the sand. We passed the dingy with the rusted sign that read “No swimming past this point.” Gull shit ran down from the top of the mast. The heavy chain that tethered it to the bottom lay crumpled along the sand like the shed skin of a giant snake.
That’s when I saw it.
Partially emerging from beneath the sand there was something solid. It was scaly with black-shelled sea-mussels, but the shape of it was clear. It was part of some structure obscured beneath the sand.
“What the hell’s that?” I asked, getting comfortable with cursing. “Look, sticking out of the sand, there.” I snatched the flashlight from Matt’s hands. “And further out. It stretches, shit…it stretches all the way out to the water. Maybe further. You can just make out the edges along there.”
It was the outline of a vast edifice, stretching beneath the sands. I thought of those ancient cities in the east that archeologists had dug out of the desert. But the immensity was horrifying. The longer I stared, the more I could make out. Vast and block-shaped, whatever it was left an impression beneath the sand that was as regular as a city block. It stretched on until it was completely veiled in the darkness in one direction, and directly back toward the lighthouse in the other. About half way between where I stood and the lighthouse, it dipped beneath the sandy floor of the cove. But from where I stood, I could see that it was aligned perfectly with the block-like cliffs on which the lighthouse stood, as though it had all once been a huge wall, most of which had fallen into the sea.
“Guys, look,” Matt said. I turned, and he was facing the shore, pointing. The lighthouse keeper must have come home. He had his beam pointed directly at us. The beacon was signaling, in repetitive and urgent flashes. “I think we oughta get out of here.”
“Okay,” I said, “but dudes, look! There’s something out there, under the sands. Do you see it?”
“Tides coming back in,” Nick said. “It’s coming in fast. Run!”
I noticed my feet were cold, wet.
“Look! Quick, before the water covers it!” I was yelling. “The sunken ones, from Helen’s note, it’s all there! That’s where—“
But Matt and Nick had already started heading back.
I caught up to them in a few long strides. “Nick, turn around and look, quick!” I yelled. I grabbed his jacket and tried to turn him around.
He shoved me down in the wet sand. “Get your damned hands off me!” he said. I heard fear— desperate, raw, naked panic—in his voice. He broke into a sand-slowed, stumbling run for the shore.
A finger-deep tongue of foamy water washed over me. “Matt, look! Before it goes under again!”
He helped me to my feet. “Can’t see anything,” he said.
“Where’s the flashlight?” I asked.
“Nick has it,” he said. “Hurry, it’s surging back in fast!” He dragged me by the arm, and together we ran toward the pulsing light and the safety of the rocks.
We climbed up the rocks and threw ourselves on the gravel beyond, panting in the darkness. Matt was silent for a minute, and then asked, “What exactly did you see out there?”
“Something under the sand. Big, square structure, like a huge wall buried in the sand. And giant stone blocks behind it, like a big ruin, under the sea. You saw it, tell me you saw it!” I panted.
Matt sat up and looked out at the sea. “Hell of a lot of sand, that’s all. It’s just a legend, you know. Whatever you saw out there, it’s gone now, under the sea. Hey, where’s Nick?”
We didn’t find Nick. A few days later his body washed up on the shore. The police said the probable cause of death was drowning, but his body was so mangled by the sharp rocks that no one could tell for sure. It was the same way as when Helen died, the week before.
His funeral was in the late afternoon early the next week. I followed along to the burial under dark October clouds. In the cemetery, dwarf oaks with arthritic limbs prostrated themselves before the sea, clinging stubbornly to their tough, leathery brown leaves like bag ladies, suspicious and mad, clutching their worthless treasures for fear of thieves.
I headed for the road along the shore, bordering the cemetery. There was a mist hanging low. The lighthouse keeper’s beat-up old Dodge Dart was parked and idling by the entrance to the cemetery. He rolled down his window and waved me over.
“You were one of them kids, weren’t you?” he asked. “You were one of them playing out on the sands when the tide was out, the night that boy yonder got himself killed. Weren't you?”
“You never should have gone out there, boy. What the sea hides, it's best to forget.”
“So you know? You know there’s a huge walled city under the water out there, beneath the bay?”
“Like I said, it's best to forget.” He cranked up his window and drove off.
I walked over to the cliffs while cars drove slowly away behind me. The sea was only visible for a few yards out into the mist. The waves churned against the jagged rocks beneath me, spraying up white angry water.
And someone was clinging to one of them.
“Hang on!” I yelled. I turned around and hollered for help, but the cemetery behind me was empty. I had never felt so alone.
I climbed carefully down the mist-dampened rocks toward the clinging person. I slipped a few times, kicking frantically to catch my footing. I fell the last few feet, landing just above where they clung.
“Here, give me your hand,” I said.
When she looked up, and my skin went cold. “Helen?”
Her eyes were rolled back so that only the whites showed. Her mouth gaped open, as if frozen in a desperate gasp for breath. The white flesh of her arms showed through the tattered remains of her jacket.
She grabbed my wrist, ignoring my screams. Her skin was ice cold, but her grip was like iron. She held my wrists for a moment, and then she yanked hard, and pulled.
Kevin Crisp is an anatomy instructor from Minnesota who writes horror and western fiction. His short stories have been published in The Lovecraft eZine, Frontier Tales eZine, and a few anthologies. His novels Guns of the Prairie and Trouble at Timber Ridge were published by Western Trail Blazer.