A Lovecraftian tale about a chance encounter on a beach in Maine.
“There’s the old woman the hot dog vendor was telling me about,” Luke Dorsey said to his girlfriend, raising a well-tanned arm to point down the beach.
“She looks like a nut,” Linna said, in a disinterested fashion, gazing at the woman over the top of her sunglasses. Then she turned away, lying back down on her beach towel, and closed her eyes.
Luke followed the old woman with his eyes as she pushed her cart through the sand, approaching them. She was small, heavyset, with a hunched posture that made her look like a wizened old turtle. Despite the heat, she was wearing several layers, including a bright red plaid flannel shirt, a checkered head-scarf, knee socks, and a linen dress that was currently gray but had probably started out white. She wore thick glasses, and as she got closer, Luke saw that her mouth was hanging open a little, revealing crooked, yellowed teeth. The creaking of the cart wheels mingled with wheezing breaths and occasional grunts of exertion as the cart stuck in the loose sand.
Luke got up, stretched lazily, and walked toward her.
“Hey,” he said, as he got close enough to peer into her cart. It was filled with seashells.
She gazed at him, the magnification of her spectacles giving her a goggle-eyed look. “Yeah?” she said, in a voice thick with suspicion.
“I was told you sell shells to collectors.”
Okay, it was almost a cliché that the people in Maine don’t tend to like tourists, but it was hard to believe this attitude sold souvenirs. Even so, he smiled, and said, “I’m a collector.”
She looked him up and down. “You don’t look like one.”
“What does a collector look like?”
She didn’t answer for a moment, then looked out at the waves curling into the shore, battering themselves into foamy fragments, then receding back out into the bottle-green ocean. Gulls keened and kited in the salt-smelling air.
Was she just going to ignore him until he went away?
Was she just going to ignore him until he went away?
But she turned back, slowly, and said, “Whatever they look like, ain’t like you.”
“Well, I am one,” Luke said, feeling needled by her scorn. He reached into her cart, and picked up a long, tapered shell with a rosy orange interior and a coronet of points on one end. “Busycon carica,” he said.
“Put that down,” she snarled at him.
“Whoa,” he said, setting the shell back into the cart. “Cool your jets. I was just trying to prove to you that I know what I’m talking about.”
“Heh,” she spat out. “Just ‘cause you know some fancy-pants names. You stand there in your swim trunks with your bleached-blond hair and that tattoo on your shoulder and you think you can impress me.”
“I’m not trying to impress you. I want to see what you have for sale. I don’t give a shit if I impress you or not.”
“No? Well, if you don’t impress me,” the old woman said, “I don’t sell you nothin’.”
“Seems like it’d be hard to make a living, if that’s your attitude,” Luke said, raising a wry eyebrow.
“Don’t need to worry about that,” she said. “The lord will provide.”
“Yeah,” Luke said, and thought of various other snide comments he could add, but decided that if he wanted any chance at all of purchasing some of her shells, he’d be better off refraining from any of them. “So, suppose I do want to buy some of your shells. What do I need to do to impress you?”
“Start out by not pretending you know a damn thing.”
“How do you know what I know?” he said, feeling needled again. When he’d seen her approaching, he had immediately put her into categories: Poor. Uneducated. Gullible. Easily manipulated. But now, he was unaccountably on the defensive, and it looked like the last assessment, at least, might have to be revised.
“I could tell the minute you walked up. You figure since you have lots of book-learnin’ about the names of things, that tells you what they are. That means you know them. People like you don’t ever get inside of things. They don’t bother, so they go through their whole lives, with their bits o’ knowledge, and die never knowing how much more there is.”
“Can you tell me more, then?” Luke said, and was immediately surprised at himself for asking the question.
She gave him another up-and-down look, and said, her voice dropping to a whisper, “Oh, yeah. I could tell you more. A lot more. More’n you want to know, I’d wager.”
“Okay,” Luke said, trying not to smile, “go for it. Tell me something I don’t already know.”
She grinned. It wasn’t a nice grin, and not just because of the condition of her teeth. Luke recoiled a little. Despite the heat, a ripple of chill passed across his skin, and he felt goosebumps stand out on the backs of his arms.
“Scoff all you like,” she said. “You’ll see. You’ll find out sooner or later, whether I tell you or not.”
“No, really,” he said. “I’m listening. What do you know that’s so special?”
She looked at him again, for a long time, as if she were evaluating him, then back out to sea, as if she were looking for something. After a moment, she gestured at him with one wrinkled hand, and leaned toward him. “World’s gonna end soon,” she said, in a conspiratorial whisper.
“Like Judgment Day?” he said, frowning, and stifling a laugh at the last minute.
“You could call it that,” she said. “But them religious types, they’re gonna be as surprised as the rest of ‘em when it happens. It’s gonna come from where they don’t expect it. Not from the sky, but from the sea.”
“What’s going to come?”
“The Deep Ones. They been bidin’ their time. But time’s about up.”
“The Deep Ones? You mean… like in H. P. Lovecraft?”
Her eyebrows drew together. “You know Lovecraft?”
“Of course I know Lovecraft. I’m from Providence. I read everything he wrote, back when I was in high school. Trippy stuff.”
She scowled at him. “That’s about what I’d’a guessed somebody like you would think.”
“You think different, then?”
“You’ll think different, too, soon.” She looked up at him with a defiant glare.
“Because of the Deep Ones.”
She stared at him for a moment, her lips tight shut, and then she seemed to come to a decision. “Lovecraft knew a little,” she said. “More’n most, I’ll grant him that. He knew enough to sell it as fiction, disguise it as fancy stories, but not enough to keep his goddamn mouth shut. He’d’a been better off if he had.” She gave him a knowing look. “Lovecraft died a young man, you know.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Only 46. That’s young. That’s extremely young,” she said. “They said as it was cancer. Wasn’t no cancer. It was on account of the fact that too many people was figurin’ it out, because o’ what he wrote. He was gettin’ too close to the truth, gettin’ too close to revealing things he shouldn’t reveal.”
“So they killed him.”
“Not the Deep Ones, young man,” she said. “They has minions among us. Spies. Not all of ‘em is human. So the Deep Ones don’t need to come up on land to do little things like takin’ care o’ someone as is causing trouble. They got minions as’ll do it for ‘em.”
“Are you one of the minions?”
Her scowl changed to a canny look. “Mayhap I am,” she said. “And mayhap I ain’t. Either way, you’d be well-off to get away from the sea soon. Far away.”
“I don’t know how I’d convince my girlfriend,” Luke said. “She likes living near the ocean.”
“You’ll be thinkin’ of something other than your girlfriend, when they come for you,” she said. “Old Obed Marsh knew. You read your Lovecraft, you probably know that name.”
“He was the old ship’s captain, in The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
“That’s right. Old Obed, he wasn’t one of ‘em, but he knew. He left behind human women, took one o’ them to his bed instead. So the bloodline runs down his progeny, to this very day.”
“And you’re saying that’s not fiction.”
She snorted. “You’d be better off if it was, young man.”
Luke stared at her. She stared back. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?” he said, his voice quiet. “A descendant of Obed Marsh?”
“Mayhap I am,” she said again. “And mayhap I ain’t.”
They stood there, silent, for several minutes. The tide had come in some since he’d walked up to her, and the cold, foaming water curled around Luke’s bare feet, like searching fingers tugging at him. He shivered a little.
“If you’re one of them, why are you making a living selling shells?”
“They provide for my needs,” she said, and Luke had the curious feeling that they didn’t refer to the seashells.
“Yes, they do. Enough for me to get by on, till times change. And they persist. This time of tribulation will end soon enough. I can abide as long as they need me to.”
“And as for the rest of us?” Luke asked.
“It’ll be serve or die. Best make your choice now.” She reached out and patted his shoulder. Her hand was ice cold, despite the heat and how much clothing she was wearing. “Good thing you run into me, and asked the right questions. Might have a fighting chance.” She reached into her cart, and fished around for a moment, and then picked up something and pressed it into his hand. “Here,” she said. “Take this. May come in handy. Show it to them as is comin’. Might buy you some favor.”
He looked down into his hand. He was expecting to see a shell, but it was a small, flat greenish stone, marbled and flecked with what looked like gold.
“Thanks,” he said, a little dubiously.
“Don’t tell ‘em you got it from me. And best you buy a shell or two, in case we’re bein’ watched. You never know.”
Luke reached into the pocket of his swim trunks, and pulled out a small zippered pouch, from which he extracted two rumpled dollar bills, and handed them to the old woman.
“Pick yourself out a couple you like.” She looked out to sea again, and far out, leaping in the surf, were several dolphins. She nudged Luke’s arm, and then gestured out toward them with her chin. “See,” she said. “Told ya.”
“Those are dolphins,” Luke said, smiling, and picking up a cowrie and a whelk shell from the cart.
“Names again,” she said. “That’s what you call ‘em. Not what they call themselves.” She picked up the handle of the cart, and pushed it, creaking, down the beach. “Don’t lose what I gave ya,” she said, as she trudged away, without turning around. “Unless you plan on movin’ to Iowa. But remember, even there, they got rivers and lakes. All water connects.”
Luke looked down at the stone, still in his palm, and then out toward the ocean. A single dolphin had come up into the shallows, perhaps only twenty feet from where Luke was standing, now ankle-deep in seawater. The dolphin was treading water, its body moving with a fluttery, sinuous grace, holding its silvery bullet-shaped head above the waves, the dark glossy eyes looking right into Luke’s. Luke stared at it for a moment. Then, with a quick volley of clicks and whistles, it dropped beneath the water, and was gone.