Bobby tip-toed out of the motel room, the pockets of his swim trunks full of salt water taffy, fingers sticky from unwrapping Dolle's finest. The door clapped shut behind him, muffling the coin-op television, the booming laughter of evening game shows which drowned out the ocean and lulled his mother to sleep. At home Bobby would simply close his bedroom door to escape from his mother's routine, but their stay in Ocean City left him with no other option than to venture outside.
Two blocks off the boardwalk the streets formed a black mirror, vast puddles reflecting the light from distant arcades. He walked across the veined parking lot and down an alley lined with popcorn-strewn trashcans, onto the wide wooden walkway where whispers would lead him along the beach to find the odd form that lay still in the sand.
He kept to himself as he went, avoiding eye contact with adults. Though tall for a nine-year-old, Bobby knew it was late for children to be roaming the boardwalk, and the last thing he wanted was to be dragged back and left alone with his mother after she woke up from one of her drunken comas.
A sudden outburst of laughter caused Bobby to pause at the edge of the alley. He observed a trio of sailors stumble past in uniform, two shoving the third ahead after a young woman who let out a mix of scream and giggle at their pursuit. Bobby liked her golden curls, how they bounced along her slender shoulders as she ran. Her smile, the way she glanced back like she was smiling at him, for him. Maybe this was how things were before the war, before his mother was left behind longing for someone to chase her.
And so Bobby raced after them, feet thumping against the wooden planks, imagining his hero, Ranger Bill, by his side. But they were too fast, the grown men swiping her off her feet and carrying her away before Bobby could catch his breath and cry for them to wait. In the dark at the edge of the boardwalk, the nearby screech of tires made him jump.
He looked toward the ocean, listening to the crash of the waves, the whispers of the sea breeze beckoning him closer. Memories of his father flickered through his head, first in hazy black and white like those in the family album, worn with ash and cigarette burns. Birthday parties and cookouts in the backyard, the smell of charcoal and the thick hair on his father's forearms as he flipped burgers in the sweltering heat. His pack of smokes kept tight in his rolled sleeve. Then came images he couldn't recall ever seeing before. Events layered in vibrant sepia so vivid it was like he was there in the moment. Being held in the hospital for the very first time, looking up at his father, teary eyed and unshaven. Running, tumbling around the backyard of the old house, his tiny feet catching on thick tree roots. Each thought interrupted by a flash, a camera capturing the scene.
Bobby longed for the summers when his father had let him stay up late, carrying him on his shoulders through the crowds, wind ruffling his hair, the smell of caramel corn tickling his nose. Those moments were more story than memory, but he had filled in the blanks and made them real. Taken the man he knew more from photographs and given him life after the war, after he went missing in some far off land beyond the sea.
He set one foot on the beach, then the other. The sand felt cool against his sun-burnt feet. He liked the zip noise his heels made as he shuffled toward the waves and the dark horizon. The sound of the surf grew with each step. And the memorieslove, war, letters from overseas, men in uniform at his front doorcame at such a furious pace he wrapped his hands around his head and squeezed until it hurt.
At once the images vanished, driven away by a pungent smell of brine and decay, like the time he dug up sand crabs, corralling them in a bucket under the hot sun. He looked down to see the strange creature at his feet, partially obscured under the torn red and white stripes of a windblown chair. The thing was dark blue, darker still in its crevices, slimy and covered with scales and spined ridges. Despite the waves lapping near its peculiar head, it lay face-down, motionless. Bobby toed the sand, uncovering a plastic shovel. Curious, he raised it and poked at the thing. The plastic clacked against its back, hard like an insect and unresponsive to touch. But when he dragged the shovel down over its side, the tissue turned soft and the tip of the shovel slid into a tear where its stomach might reside, a deep cut that caused the creature to fidget.
Bobby's knees wobbled and he fell back on his rear, the tip of the shovel coated with a dark red stain. Warm visions returned, but of the sea and its sweet brine. The thing, grotesque now, turned its perverse head toward Bobby, chittering facial features disguised in sand. Its breath overwhelmed Bobby in a cloud of salt so thick it made him gag.
The whispers from the sea rose once more, this time in a peaceful chorus, calming Bobby's fears and giving strength to his limbs. He extended the shovel to the creature. It grabbed hold with a webbed paw, much like a toad, but with stubby digits. Bobby strained his back, pulling it with all his strength, out from under the chair toward the sea foam. It was smaller than he'd originally thought, much shorter than Bobby, but heavy, and when the creature kicked its short legs the chore became more difficult.
Finally, when Bobby was knee deep in the ocean the creature let go, engulfed in surf and rolled away with the tide, its skin blending with the brackish water.
Confused, Bobby dropped the shovel and started back for the motel. Only when he was halfway up the beach did he turn to see the glowing eyes hiding below the waves. And when the thing flipped and dove down, Bobby thought it might have waved goodbye.
What was that? Bobby shuddered. Like a spell had been broken, suddenly aware of how far out he'd ventured. The waves crashed against his backside, soaking the edge of his shirt as he waded back to shore. He could barely recall the previous moment, much less describe the creature in detail. But his chest tingled with excitement at the notion of the unknown, the sensation of an odd encounter that he'd never forget.
He picked over debris as he left, the usual clam and muscle shells dotting the shoreline. He spied an unfamiliar cone hiding amongst a bunch of yellow seaweed. Brushing the plant life aside, he dug his hands into the sand and pulled out a conch twice the size of a baseball. He held up the treasure in the soft moonlight, taking in the wonder of its blue-green ridges and natural curves like he was the luckiest boy on earth.
He floated to the motel, high on discovery, only realizing he'd reached his destination when he felt the cool metal door knob. The room appeared dark and quiet inside, the coin-op having run its course. When he opened the door to his mother's snoring, a sense of disappointment coursed through him, having to wait until the morning to share his find. He placed the treasure on the bedside table and slid under the covers. Soon his mother's snores became a heavy static, and he fell fast asleep, dreaming of a never-ending sea.
In the morning, Bobby laid in bed, slick with sweat, until sunlight pierced the shades and the heat woke his mother in a fit of coughing. He'd mulled the previous night's events for what felt like hours, unable to fully wrap his mind around them. It was too real to be a dreamdamp sand was still stuck between his toesbut he couldn't fully recall his encounter with the strange creature, only snippets, like he'd seen it blurry from afar.
And the shell! How could he forget? But when he rolled to his side to admire the conch it was gone.
And his mother was screaming.
Bobby shot up straight in bed. Across the room his mother held her foot, dancing in pain.
"What the hell is this doing here?" She bent down and retrieved the conch from beside her bed, her face crimson with rage. "Bobby, what is this?" She didn't wait for an answer.
"No!" Bobby darted out of bed as she whipped open the door and hurled the mysterious shell into the parking lot. Bobby squeezed past, shoving her out of the way. The shell flew high, hurtling toward the pavement, shattering on impact.
"No, no, no." Tears welled in Bobby's eyes. He fell to his knees, cradling the broken pieces. Something moved within the mess; a crab-like crustacean, ugly and black as the tar-lined cement beneath it, struggled to move, impaled by a shard of its own shell.
"Ugh, Bobby, get away from that thing." His mother came up behind him, snatched hold of his hands and pulled him away.
"But Mom, I found it."
"Well you should have left it alone. Come inside and clean up. We're going to the beach."
Bobby trailed behind his mother, cooler chest and beach chairs adding to his burden as he dragged his feet, sulking with his head low.
"Keep it up and we're not going to get a good spot."
"Maybe you shouldn't sleep in so late," he muttered, a little too loud.
She paused, waiting for him to catch up. "What was that?"
"That's what I thought. You watch it, young man. You're still on thin ice from this morning." His mother spun on her heels and continued toward the sea of umbrellas. Bobby always seemed to be tiptoeing on thin ice. He often wondered what it would take for him to fall through, and what would be waiting for him on the other side.
They settled on a spot close to the water, the hard packed sand still wet from the morning tide. Bobby helped spread out a towel in front of their chairs.
"Bobby, the oil." He rummaged through their bag for the baby oil. "And wipe your hands first, I don't want any sand mixed in."
Bobby disliked the greasy liquid, the way it crept under his fingernails and took forever to rub off. But he took his time rubbing it over her shoulders and back. If he missed a spot, he'd hear about it for days. After finishing with the oil he laid down on the towel, trying to relax. He hadn't slept well and a tired feeling crept into his eyes. They were always the first to feel it, and the strain from the sun didn't help.
But each time he was close to nodding off, his head began to hurt. A dull pain near the back of his skull throbbed with each wave as it crashed upon the shore, coming close to tickling his feet. Beneath the roar in his head, he heard a chittering sound like the clicking of teeth, faster and faster. And with each rush of water came painful memories of recent years spent alone with his mother. His inability to get anything right, the way she took her anger out on him when it was really meant for a co-worker or a bad date, the ash trays and empty beer cans that dotted every surface of the apartment, the thin ice. The more he concentrated on falling asleep, the more the unhappiness intensified, until he felt like his head was going to explode. He flipped over and crawled on his hands and knees into the cold surf, rubbing his palms against the sandy bottom, clawing through loose shells until his limbs were numb and lobster red. He sat there letting the waves crash against him as bodies mingled in the shallows. A woman nearby shouted, "beer, beer!" and threw sea foam into the air, over the heads of splashing children. Twins body surfed past Bobby on either side, riding a small wave until they hit the beach.
A piece of torn fabric caught his attention, red and white stripes, stained with salt. It floated near Bobby, a slight dark bulge at its center. He shuddered, reaching toward the cloth, the chittering movements of the creature coming back to him. And as he touched the fabric, something dark burst from underneath. The spray blinded Bobby and he fell backward, his scream cut off as he went under, salt water filling his mouth and stinging his eyes. A strong hand pulled him up. An older kid with shaggy black hair and a dark blue wet suit asked if he was okay. Bobby stumbled away, collapsing on his towel, now dusted with sand from passerby, listening to his body throb in tune with the fast beat of his heart.
"There you are Bobby," his mother said. "I was beginning to wonder if you'd run off. Grab me a cold one from the cooler, would you?"
Face down, he rolled his eyes and waited until she called on him again.
The frustration grew by lunch, over newspaper-covered tables strewn with trays of steamed crabs.
"Stop that, Bobby, you're makin' a mess."
Bobby bounced a wooden mallet off the crab claw, its shell too thick to penetrate.
"Clean up and get your mother another beer."
"What do you mean, 'no'?"
Bobby answered with a repeated CRACK of the mallet, bringing it down on the crab claw again and again until it splintered and shell flew in every direction. His mother grabbed his wrist. Customers watched from nearby tables, whispering and frowning at the sight of the struggle.
"Stop that this instant!"
But he kept at it, overpowering her grip, making small semi-circular dents in the table.
"That's it, we're leaving." She ripped the mallet from his hand and yanked him from his chair. They marched the three blocks to the motel without exchanging a word.
"Sit on that bed and don't move a muscle until I return, you hear me?" She stabbed a finger at his chest. "I've had enough of your acting out."
She slammed the door. Bobby heard the click of the lock and the thwack of her flip-flops as she stormed off. He flopped back on the mattress, his limbs splayed out. Exhaled a long sigh, and by the time he realized the headache was gone, he fell fast asleep.
Later, Bobby lay awake, staring up at the ceiling from under the covers when the door swung open. His mother entered the room quietly, shrouded in darkness. She flicked on the light and sat down beside Bobby on the bed. He sat up against the headboard, rubbing his eyes. His mother's face looked like it had aged five years while she was away, her eyes and nose red from tears.
"I brought us some dinner." She crinkled a paper bag in her hands. It smelled of burgers and fries.
"Shush, quiet now Bobby. I know it's been hard for us both since your father .... It's just sometimes I get so frustrated ..." She quieted for a moment, rubbing an index finger across her lips before tilting her head back with an exhale, blinking tears away.
"I'm sorry, Bobby." She unrolled the bag and placed it on Bobby's lap. "Let's eat, okay?"
Bobby's mouth watered as the scent from the open bag filled the room. His mother circled to the other side of the small bed and squeezed under the covers next to Bobby. She took a couple fries from the bag and turned on the radio, cutting through static-tinged news until she found the program she was looking for, just in time for the intro to finish: Ranger Bill. Bobby's ears perked at the sound. It was an old episode, but one that he'd never heard before.
Bill, fresh off getting his pal Frenchy a new delivery job, gave commands to his crew as they set out to sea on a fishing trip.
"Steady now, men. We're heading to deep waters and there's no telling what we'll find. But I'll grant you this, we're not coming back until we've caught us each a fish!" A shout went up from the men and they went to work, readying the boat.
Bobby smiled as he munched on a greasy burger, no cheese, only ketchup; just the way he liked them. Ranger Bill always knew what to do. His mother put an arm around him, ran fingers through his hair and gave him a kiss on the forehead.
"Love you, kiddo."
They ate in silence and listened to the radio. When Bobby finished, he pulled the covers up to his chin and snuggled closer, tucking his head under her chin, the warmth of her chest against his cheek. He lived for these moments, as uncommon as they were.
"Goodnight," he said through a yawn, his eyes already closed.
Bobby dreamed that he was far out to sea on a ship lost in a storm while in search of sunken treasure. The wind howled and the sea sprayed his face, but he stood tall because Ranger Bill was there holding his hand.
"Steady now, Bobby!" he called, and together they braced for another wave. Bobby held on as it crashed over the boat. But when the water settled and he looked around, Bill was nowhere for be found.
"Bill," he cried. Another wave curled toward the boat. Bobby shrunk down, wrapping his arms around a column. And just as the wave crashedSLAMhe shot awake.
Something was wrong.
He froze, still upright against the headboard. Darkness swallowed the motel room except for a tiny cone of light from an upended lamp in the corner. The radio buzzed with soft static. He shifted his weight, felt a damp sensation through the sheets. The bed was soaked. The smell ... the familiar pungent stink of brine from the prior night. Bobby shivered, tried rubbing warmth into his arms.
"Mama?" He swung his feet to the side of the bed, stepped down into a warm puddle. He called out again, whispering this time, tip-toeing across the sodden carpet.
He cracked open the door, greeted by a cold breeze that almost made him jump. Outside, more puddles led away from the motel in the direction of the boardwalk. The cloudless sky was pitch black except for a sliver of moon. The streets were empty of life. No aura of neon descended from the boardwalk. No music, no laughter. Just the moon and its infinite-eyed smile. A slight shadow shifted near a broken street light, ducking low and disappearing, leaving behind a distinct click-click-click in its wake. That sound.
The haunting chittering of the creature repeated again and again in the distance. Bobby sprinted toward the boardwalk, jumping over garbage cans that had been dented and knocked over, spilling their contents down the alleyway.
He saw them from the boardwalk.
Several of the strange things bobbed in the ocean, something large filled the space between them, just beneath the surface.
"Mama!" He screamed as he sprinted across the sand, alongside a shallow depression which disappeared with the high tide. The tiny heads turned back to him eyes ablaze, and melted beneath the waves.
Bobby collapsed at the edge of the tide, head wracked with mingling flashbacks of the past. He wept; howled tormented cries for the sea to spit back his mother and father and make them whole again. And in the midst of the storm of memories, he heard a voice.
Steady now, men. We're heading to deep waters and there's no telling what we'll find.
Bobby stood up tall, shaking with nervous energy, but his legs wouldn't budge. His despairing hands hung empty at his sides while the hungry waves buried his feet beneath the sand.
Copyright © 2014 Christopher Irvin.
short stories have appeared in several publications, including Thuglit, Noir Nation, and Shotgun Honey. His debut novella, FEDERALES, is due out in March 2014 from One Eye Press. He lives with his wife and son in Boston, Massachusetts. For more, visit christopherirvin.net.
Christopher Irvin has traded all hope of a good night's rest for the chance to spend his mornings writing dark and noir fiction. His