This story was recently featured on Marvelous Miscellany, a short story podcast by myself, Kevin Victor Rae. Check it out here.
The waves thundered in Gloria’s ears as she stood in the surf. The vastness of the ocean alternatively filled her with dread and with a strange sense of hope. Anything could be down there in the swirling dark waters, monsters as easily as gold.
She pulled the shawl tighter and shivered as the cold water of the Pacific surged around her legs. She had been standing there so long her feet were buried in the sand. The sun had just begun to touch the edge of the horizon, throwing the small spit of beach she stood on into a din of purples and oranges.
When she first moved to the Oregon coast she thought she would get sick of the ocean. She had been raised on a fishing boat back east in Maine, and had quite enough of that life. Instead, she found herself drawn to this small beach tucked between two massive cliffs, accessed by a thin path cut into the rock by the passage of countless generations.
The cave was what drew her here in the first place. She spotted it from the trail on the bluff, a wound of black in the red stone of the cliffs.
She turned and looked at the cave as the sun faded. She pulled her feet from the sand and walked toward the cave. Despite her fascination with it, she had never gotten this close. Curiosity always pulled her, but each time she had something else she was meant to do, somewhere else she was meant to be. She would spot the cliff as she passed on the road above and her stomach would flip and she could think of nothing else for the whole night. Come the morning, and the cave had faded away, almost absent from her mind.
The sand turned to rocks and she gently picked her way over them, wincing with every step. A chill wind blew off the sea, but she ignored it. The cave beckoned.
Gloria stood at its entrance and placed her hand on the red sedimentary stone of the cliff. It crumbled a bit, creating tiny cataracts of sand down its face. She watched as the last rays of the sun reached into the cave. Orange light slowly stripped away the darkness. A carpet of muscles and barnacles, slick and shimmering with water, pools of sea water, piles of seaweed, a broken can, a shattered piece of drift wood — a hand, pale and white.
Gloria froze, staring at the hand. It was gripping a slime covered rock, the arm extending into the darkness. Her eyes followed to where the wrist vanished into darkness. A pair of eyes glinted in the dying light of the sun.
She turned and ran, leaping over the rocks. Her heart pounded in her ears. She registered the shocks of her numb feet slamming down onto a rock, or scraping up against another. She ignored the pain until she reached her car. Her hand shook as she unlocked it and pulled herself inside, like a hermit crab retreating into its shell.
She shivered as she looked down at the cave, terrified that she would see something move in the purple light of dusk.
Saturday was the Annual Regatta Club’s Summer Fundraiser. Gloria was in charge of canapés. She stood in her kitchen, playing with the cheese spread, staring out of the window toward the coast and the cave.
She hadn’t been back there in months. She still thought of it, the hand. She turning the memory over and over in her mind, until it was worn smooth like a bit of sea glass. She had come up with and discarded at least ten theories to explain it. A skeleton of a stranded sailor, an albino seal, a rubber glove or even a very hand-looking piece of driftwood.
She had nothing to explain the eyes she saw. They were like cats eyes in that they had reflected the sunlight. Are seal’s eyes like that? She had never really bothered to notice. She didn’t think she had seen a seal up close, let alone its eyes.
Suzette stood in the hall, looking into the kitchen. She wore a blue dress that hugged her figure. Her hair was up in a ridiculous beehive. It was a 60’s themed party after all.
Gloria took in a deep breath as she tried to pull herself away from the cave in her memory.
“You look beautiful,” she said.
“Thank you. Are you almost done? The party starts in an hour.”
“Um…” Gloria looked down at the tray of crackers she had half heartedly arranged around a dish of cheese spread. It looked horrible.
“What have you been doing in here?”
“Not about that cave again.” Suzette pursed her lips and tilted her head to the side. She still looked beautiful.
“I think it was a seal. An albino. After all, that would explain the eyes. Do you know if they’re like cats?”
“Their eyes. Do they, you know, shine like cats?”
“Gloria,” Suzette walked over to her, a gentle, patronizing smile on her lips. She took Gloria’s hand and stroked it. “I think you should try to forget about it. It’s been months. If there was an albino seal somebody would have seen it.”
“But I saw something!”
“So what? I see freaky shit all the time and you don’t see me babbling about it for months —”
Suzette stopped and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“I’m sorry. Can we just go to this stupid party?”
Gloria sighed and pulled Suzette closer to her.
Gloria watched as the tide slowly rolled out. The moon hung overhead. It seemed more massive than usual. It lit up the whole beach, glittering off the wet stones and pebbles. The cliffs looked like white marble walls of some ancient temple.
The cave beckoned her.
She turned toward it and felt fear flutter in her belly. It was tempered by her growing curiosity that gnawed at her like a hunger. She had to see it again. Whatever it was. She had to know.
She brought a flashlight and a flare from the trunk. She couldn’t bring more without Suzette suspecting something.
She walked across the beach, her footsteps muffled by the sound of the surf. Its murmur soothed her somehow, and as she approached the cave she found she was no longer afraid. She took one last look at the moon, flicked on the flashlight and stepped inside.
It was strangely warm inside. Water dripped from the ceiling, sometimes splashing on her face. Piles of rotting seaweed reeked and she covered her nose. Muscles covered the walls, glistening black. Clusters of barnacles looked like eyes to Gloria.
Maybe that is what she saw?
The cave went on for sometime, before narrowing to a point where the sand met the rock. She picked her way around the seaweed, and felt something squish beneath her feet. She looked down and saw it was a fish head, the body torn away. She dry heaved and turned away.
There was a wet slap, and a splash, like a footfall in the surf.
She lifted the flashlight and turned toward the entrance.
The creature was bone white. It moved — no, flowed out of the ocean. Like a slug with too many legs. Its eyes, swiveled to meet hers and it shrieked as the light hit them. Its body squished and folded in on itself, as if to flee the light. It contorted, its great mass shrinking until it looked like — like a woman.
The woman-shaped thing stared at her. Its hair pale and wet, its eyes pits of black that glinted in the light of the flashlight. It opened its mouth to reveal a pit of needle like fangs. It wheezed a high sigh and Gloria trembled.
She took a step forward, toward the entrance, and the creature stepped back, allowing her to pass. She edged forward, the flashlight extended like a weapon. The creature reached out to her, stooping low.
It opened its hand to reveal a beautiful pearl that glittered in the light. Gloria gasped. The creature held it out to her. When she didn’t move, the creature set the pearl down on a stone and retreated into the cave.
Gloria stooped and picked up the pearl, pocketing it. She waved the flashlight around, searching for where the creature went, but she couldn’t find her. She turned and ran across the beach, up the cliff path and to her car.
Gloria lay in bed that night, staring up at the ceiling. Suzette lay beside her, breathing softly. Gray fingers of a misty dawn poked in through the window. She had lain awake all night.
The creature, the woman — whatever it was — was all she could think about. She did not feel any disgust. She felt drawn to it. Its eyes, two pools of black shimmering as it reflected the light of the flashlight. They had looked at her almost lovingly, she thought.
She rolled over onto her side and opened the end table drawer, careful to not make a sound. She reached in and felt around for the pearl.
It was perfectly smooth and cool to the touch. It felt like a distilled droplet of ocean made solid. It glowed in the soft light, pale like the moon. She felt a sudden urge to put it to her mouth, to taste it.
The urge was so powerful she only realized what she was doing when it was already in her mouth. It tasted sweet and salty. It was more delicious than the exotic chocolates Suzette had given her for her birthday. The flavor of the pearl danced across her tongue, caressing it . The pearl rolled around her mouth, shrinking until it dissolved into nothing.
She sat up. One had gripped the sheet and the other ran across her face. Heat flashed through her body and she broke out in a sweat. What was happening to her?
Somebody called her name. Low and soft.
Gloria’s head jerked up and she stared at the shade-covered window, half expecting to see the silhouette of the creature standing there. She took the glass of water that sat beside her bed and drank from it. The water was cool. She felt her body relax as it flowed down her throat.
Suzette stirred beside her.
“Glory?” she muttered, still half asleep. “Gloria, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just was thirsty.”
“I’m fine, Sue. Just got a little hot.”
Suzette stared at Gloria’s back. She thought she looked different somehow. Had she lost weight? The morning light played across her skin making it look gray and mottled. There was a distant boom of thunder.
Suzette reached out to stroke Gloria’s arm, but she recoiled. Gloria pushed herself off the bed and took off her slip.
“I’m going to shower,” she said.
Gloria leaned against the shower wall, letting the water splash on her head and run down her back. The knob was turned all the way to cold, but it was still not enough. She felt so hot, like her insides were burning her. She itched everywhere, and when she would scratch, dry flakes of skin came away with her nails.
Suzette knocked at the door.
“Babe, you locked it. Is everything okay?”
“Yes!” Gloria’s voice felt stiff in her throat.
“There’s supposed to be a storm today. A big one. I thought maybe we could have a cozy day in together.”
Gloria did not respond. She closed her eyes and let the water run down her back.
“You were in there a long time,” said Suzette. She sat at the dining room table, book in hand, a pot of coffee beside her.
Gloria nodded, but didn’t really hear her. She grabbed a piece of toast, took a bite and spat it out. It tasted rotten to her.
“I have to go,” she said.
“Go? I can make something else for breakfast if you want.”
“There’s something I have to do, I —”
“Gloria, you’re not thinking of going out there during this storm, are you? You’re not even dressed!”
Gloria didn’t say anything. She scratched at her arms. She was dressed in an old pair of sweatpants and a hoodie with sandals on her feet.
“I have to go.”
Gloria turned and hurried to the front door.
Gloria could hear Suzette’s footsteps rush toward her. Fear spiked up her spine, pinching at her neck. She grabbed the keys and threw open the door.
Rain pelted her as she dashed to the car, threw it into gear and gunned it down the street.
The storm poured it wrath on the coast. The rain fell so thick and fast, the wipers were near useless.
Gloria stood at the top of the cliff path. The car door was still open and the engine was still running. Rain soaked her clothes, pooled around her feet.
The ocean swirled and raged. Thick white waves crashed against the cliffs. The beach had been swallowed by the ocean. The cave would appear in between waves, a little gash in the omnipresent gray.
She still felt hot despite the chill wind that howled across the ocean. She scratched at her arms and looked down to see that the skin had almost been worn away revealing hard white scales beneath them.
She stared at them as the storm raged around her.
She did not feel fear, like she had expected. She pulled the sleeve up on her other arm and saw scales there. She felt her face, and could feel the smooth scales poking up from beneath her skin.
A car swerved off the road and parked next to hers. Suzette leaped out, crying “Gloria!”
Gloria turned to look at her.
“I have to do this, Sue.”
“Do what? Come back home — please!”
“I don’t belong there.”
“What do you mean? I don’t understand, Glory.”
Suzette reached out for her, but stopped and gasped when she saw the scales.
“Gloria! What’s happened to you?”
“I need to go back, Sue. This is why I am here. I was supposed to come here. ”
“You’re not making any sense, Gloria. Let’s go back to the house.”
“This is my home. I belong here.” Gloria turned and walked down the cliff path. She smiled as the wind howled in her ears. It carried with it a song. She looked into the water and in the white foam she could see her people leaping and dancing in the waves. They were singing to her, calling her home.
She peeled off her sweatshirt and threw it to the side. Very distantly, she could hear Suzette call her name. She almost didn’t recognize it. She now knew her true name.
She stopped where the path disappeared into the raging waters and pulled off the sweatpants. She slipped into the cool waters and vanished.