We Will Meet On That Beautiful Shore

 Well, this'll probably do it for this Halloween.   I have another story written and waiting to be revised, but I think it needs more improvements so I don't want to rush it, and, really, nobody wants to read THAT much of me in a month.  And since this one's actually partially set on Halloween, it seems more appropriate to close with it and just post the other one later on... doesn't have to be for Halloween.  I'll try to scare you any time of the year, I'm not picky.

This one's supposed to be kinda Lovecrafty ("Shadow Over Innsmouth" in particular, although it has no direct relation).  It's a little slow at first to build atmosphere, which makes it a little long, but I promise it picks up and you'll get screaming-black-nightmare payoff.   If you've read my stuff before you know when it seems like I'm being nice, I'm just trying to create an opening so I can throw a punch at you.  It's up to you to determine if I connect or not, and how hard.  But, yeah, my intentions are all bad. ;)

  The first part, with the empty town, is pretty much what I remember of a little Florida town my family and I stopped in on the way home from Disneyland when I was five.  I don't know what the name of the town was, but we walked all over it for almost an hour before we found anyone there at all.   So, if this creeps you out, be careful where you stop if you're driving through Florida, "Sickertt" is out there somewhere.

Hope you like, and, if you do, remember, we've got scads more like this.  Hit 'em up, and leave feedback, it's all I get out of this besides the exercise.

Mighty Blowhole Fiction Table of (Mal)Contents:

My stuff:
And little descriptions of actual nightmares I’ve had



                Howard Aston arrived in Sickertt to find nobody home.  The streets were empty and silent as he left his rental car and started walking, peering in shop windows and seeing mostly himself squinting back from the ones which were clean enough, and a bleared ghost in a salt grime fog from the ones which weren’t.  He checked his watch; nearly nine a.m.   This was a town of slugabeds, unless it had died and someone had just forgotten to cross it off the map.  He’d found that there were few real ghost towns in America, but plenty of starving ones.  Someone, usually eccentric, was always stubborn enough to stay around, even if they wouldn’t have much of a life there.   Sickertt wasn’t dead, according to the data he’d been given, but it appeared to be in the skeletal stage of malnutrition.
                The seagull population, though, was thriving.  They were lined up on a pier, fat and laughing like asylum inmates.  Howard wandered there and looked over the railing into greasy-looking water that smelled like laundry left wet and gone sour, moving with a slow rise-and-fall like the blanket over the chest of a coma patient.   The pilings were crusted with generations of barnacles and long strands of algae that waved underwater, the moldy hair of someone drowned.  A rotten fish bobbed against a piling, giving Howard the stare of a surprised idiot.  “How did this happen?” was probably the final thought of most things.
                He looked out over an ocean silvery like molten lead, no surf, just slow heaving with a sucking sound.  The sky was grey and cloud-heavy and the air had a chill.  A beach was no place to be in late October, as dreary now as it would be cheerful in summer.  Winter beaches looked like depression.  You’d never see them on a postcard.
                He looked back over the town, huddling in his overcoat.  Sickertt was one of Florida’s old towns and the streets were narrow, laid down back in the horse-and-buggy days when there was less traffic, and the buildings were too close together to do anything about it now.  There’d been some attempt to try to direct things by making lots of  one-way streets, but that only added to the confusion and made visitors feel like they’d stepped into a cattle chute.  Parking areas on the edge of town made it clear that walking was encouraged, and bicycle racks were evident.  The streets – other than a few which had required replacing with modern blacktop – were pinkish, cobblestone and shells, older than anyone living.  The beach in the distance was glaring old-bone white, made mostly of chalky bits of coral from a reef that had succumbed to some sort of coral-cancer and started falling apart back in the 1930s.  Unless you were a diver you’d find no trace of it now.
                A smallpox epidemic had almost killed off Sickertt in the 1890s, and declining profits in the non-industrialized fishing industry had steadily gnawed away at what was left.  The town was just one of those coastal curios now, mostly of interest to historians or tourists stubbornly looking for “atmosphere,” but the genealogy website that employed Howard had decided that there was some information in Sickertt’s library and town hall that would be valuable for filling gaps in their database, so they’d sent him down to find it and bring back copies to digitize.  Howard felt like the world’s least-important spy when he was dispatched on these missions.  Bland, James Bland, double-oh-nothin’.   Oh well, when you’d gotten a history degree and didn’t want to teach, you took what you could get.
                The ocean slurped steadily at the land behind him as he walked back into town, searching for signs of life.  A book shop had cut-outs of grinning pumpkins and black cats taped to its glass door, so someone was around to know it was Halloween, at least.  He pushed the door open and old-fashioned bells over the door jangled.  “Hello?” he called.  “Anyone here?”
                No answer.  The place was open, according to the hours posted on the door, and a coffee cup on the counter was still warm when he touched it, but no one was in the place.  It was rather dim for browsing, full of shelving of such dark wood that it sucked up all the light, but he saw a mix of a few newer books, most of them touristy things (pitifully hopeful, he considered that), and more shelves packed with ratty used paperbacks that’d likely gone through every reader in town.  Probably a fun place to browse but he didn’t feel comfortable being in here alone, so he stepped back out.
                Maybe the townspeople were all Seventh Day Adventist and spent their Saturday mornings in church, he decided.  Unlikely, but it was hard to think of any other reason that Sickertt would be so empty.
                He walked down the narrow, somewhat-crooked street, his hands jammed in the pockets of his overcoat, looking up and down, listening to a line tang-tang-tanging against the mast of a sailboat and the gulls laughing, smelling fish and salt and seaweed.  He found a hotel and stepped into the lobby.  It was old but clean and well-kept, but also on the dim side;  Howard wondered if Sickertt was getting its full wattage from the power company.  He could see a small restaurant area off the lobby, and it looked pretty nice, white tablecloths and all, but eerie in its emptiness.
                He paced the lobby a while, then stepped back out into the street and walked around, noting how many storefronts were vacant.  Sickertt was on life support if it wasn’t already dead.  He went back to the pier, so sun-faded and salt-silvered that the wood gleamed like a zipper on the ocean.  The wood creaked and clumped with his footsteps as he walked out over the water and squinted down the beach.
                There were two people coming up the sand, and some others in the distance.  Howard leaned on the railing and watched them, waiting for them to get closer.  When they did, he waved at them, and they waved back.  “Where is everybody?” he yelled.
                “Oh, they’re around,” one of them yelled back.  “Who you lookin’ for?”
                “Anybody, really,” Howard said, with a nervous laugh.  “I was trying to check into the hotel, first of all.”
                “Oh, the hotel?  Yeah, they’re back there.”  He waved back at the beach, where more people were straggling along.  “They’ll be along directly.”
                “What’s going on?” Howard asked, looking at the distant group, big enough to be possibly everyone in town.
                The talkative one, a big guy with shoulder-length blonde hair and a thick white sweater and brown pants, grinned and shrugged.  His companion, shorter, plumper, balder, and wearing glasses and a long black coat, said nothing, just glared at him, as if he were intruding on a private moment that didn’t concern him.
                Howard laughed and shrugged back, deciding to ignore the surly one.  He supposed he’d get the story at the hotel when the proprietors returned.
                He paced the street a while, noting the town hall, which was a dark hulking thing that looked old as sin.  He wondered where the library might be.  Streets stretched out around him, but it couldn’t be far; whichever way he looked he could see forests bordering the village.  It really was a small place, and at least  a third of it looked unoccupied.
                He saw a man walk into the hotel and hurried in after him.  The man – tall, thin, balding, with a heavy nose and long jaw, kind of moose-faced – was stepping behind the front desk.  “Hi!” Howard said.
                The man looked up and smiled.  A smiling moose.  “Oh, hello.  Can I help you?”
                “Yes, I’d like to check in, get a room for a couple or three days or so.”
                The moose nodded.  “Certainly, certainly!  Glad for the business.  Any preference for rooms?  You’ll have your choice.”
                “Something facing the ocean would be nice,” Howard said, pulling out his wallet.  “Say, where was everyone?  I’ve been walking all over town for half an hour or so, and couldn’t find a soul.”
                “Oh, yes, sorry.  Everyone went to the beach for a town meeting.  Nothing interesting, really.  We get few visitors so we’re a little lax about manning our posts.  Very sorry about that!  Must have been very confusing!”  A laughing moose.  A nervous one.
                “A bit.  I thought I’d wandered into a Twilight Zone episode or something.”
                “Probably the one about the man who walked into the empty town, eh?”  He laughed.  “No, I’m afraid it was nothing nearly so interesting.”  He waved it off with a large hand; Howard wondered if he might have a touch of acromegaly.  “Not much interesting in Sickertt at all, really.  Visiting a relative?”
                “No, actually I’m here to look at some papers for a genealogy website.  They noticed they were scant on information from this area of Florida and sent me to go through some papers at the town hall and library.”
                The moose nodded.  “Ought to be something, if you go back far enough.  Not much now, but a hundred years or so ago, this was quite a thriving fishing community, and made a try at being a commerce port.  Lots of bad luck, though, and we never really bounced back.  A smallpox epidemic almost wiped the place out.  Not sure there’s anything left here of the old families, but if it’s old information you’re after, I imagine they have reams of it.  Hope you aren’t allergic to dust, though, since I doubt anybody’s been interested in it for many a year.”
                “Oh, I packed a dust mask and plenty of Claritin,” Howard said, not even joking.
                “Well, then!” the moose laughed, handing him a room key.  An actual key, not a card; Howard hadn’t seen one of those in a while.  He thanked the clerk and went up the creaking stairs to his room.  The only new-ish things in it were a television and the phone.  The furniture appeared to have been bought in the 1970’s, or whenever tangerine pleather upholstery had been deemed acceptable, but it was well-cared for and probably hadn’t seen much use.  Howard set down his luggage, looked around the room a bit, then decided to head to the town hall and start work.  He was in no hurry, but it wasn’t a town that gave one much incentive to linger, either.
                He found a staff of two, accommodating and happy to find anyone actually interested in Sickertt.  There was dust indeed, and bales of records bound in twine fished out of boxes, antique papers crabbed with antique writing in rusty ink.  Quite intimidating, all of it, and Howard spent most of the day just trying to sort it into stacks to go through later, to see what would and wouldn’t be useful.  There was more, they assured him, in the back rooms.
                The day raced by and they had to nudge him out when they closed at five.  The pudgy lady who’d been so helpful all day adjusted her too-large, out-of-fashion-for-at-least-two-decades glasses and said.  “You’ll want to be back at your hotel by eight o’clock.  We have a curfew in Sickertt.”
                “A curfew?” Howard said, surprised.  “I don’t imagine there’s a whole lot of night life in a town like this, but a curfew, at eight?”
                She nodded, her eyes big and serious behind the glasses.  If the man at the hotel were a moose, Howard thought, here was an owl.  “It’s the best way to keep crime down, we decided, given the small police force we have.”
                “Welcome to Mayberry,” joked the dried-up, bent-over little old man who’d introduced himself as Bennie when he’d brought boxes for Howard.  He was bald on the top and the rest stuck out around the sides like frost deposits.  He looked like Charles Dickens’ idea of a town hall clerk.  “We have that kind of police force.  Andy and Barney, under pseudonyms.  A rowdy drunk would really give them a challenge.  And we do have some rough fishermen come in now and ag’in.  Better for everyone if the bars close down before Jay Leno comes on.”
                Jay Leno hadn’t been on for years, but Howard got the gist.  “Surely there’s not a lot of trouble in a town like this.  I mean it as a compliment, not a belittling, but Sickertt is… quaint.”
                Bennie snorted and nodded his head.  “That it is.  But you’d be surprised.  A few people quaintly got their quaint little heads quaintly kicked in before the curfew.  Best to abide by it.”
                Howard nodded.  “Fair enough.  When in Rome…”
                “The hotel can feed you, but I’d recommend the Blue Fin Inn for dinner,” said the owl, who Howard remembered was named Betty.  Bennie and Betty.  Like a vaudeville act.
                Bennie waved a finger.  “The cook there’s far too good for this town, frankly.  Take advantage of him, especially if you like seafood.  If you don’t the sucker knows how to treat a steak, too.”
                Howard nodded.  “Thank you.  I’ll head over there now.  And I’ll see you both tomorrow at eleven, right?”
                Betty nodded.  “After church.”
                Bennie snorted again.  “Make it nine if you like.  I never mind an excuse to skip church.  Not sure I believe that guff anymore, anyway.”
                “Bennie, you’re awful!” Betty said, then turned to Howard.  “Bennie’s been down on the Reverend Barlow ever since he got his picture taken with Franklin Graham.”
                “Political hypocrite, that’s what that man is,” Bennie grumbled.  “A disgrace to his daddy.  I’ve got things in my handkerchief more worthwhile than Franklin-stein Graham, and I need to launder it.”
                Howard laughed.  “Well!  In any case, I’m sure eleven will be fine.  It’ll give me an excuse to sleep late, and I have some things to work on in my laptop.  But if you want to use me as an excuse to skip church, I won’t tell on you.”
                “Yeah, but she will,” Bennie said, shrugging into his coat and shooting a finger-gun at Betty.  “Turn me in to the gestapo.”
                “I certainly will.  If anybody needs church, it’s you, you old sinner.”  They all went out and Betty locked up the front door of the town hall.  A cold, damp chill was rising in from the sea, still sullenly heaving away at the end of the street, breathing out a touch of mist that might become fog when the sun went down.  “The Blue Fin is two blocks over.  Big sign, you can’t miss it.  Not much else useful on that street, unless you’re in need of shoes.”
                “Ugly ones that don’t fit,” Bennie grumbled.
                “Thanks.  On my way!  And thank you both for your help.”
                Howard walked back to the hotel to stash his laptop in his room, then found his way to the Blue Fin.  Service was slow because they didn’t start cooking until you ordered, but he found it well worth the wait, and he decided he’d work his way through the menu during his stay.  Either the food was really good or working through lunch had given him an extra appetite.  He lingered over dessert, which, appropriate to the region, was key lime pie that the waiter had assured him was “almost mandatory.”  As he finished eating and stepped out into the street, Howard decided that, however badly its decline, Sickertt still had at least one thing going for it.
                Dusk had fallen and the narrow streets, crowded by the buildings, succumbed to night before the rest of the landscape.  The sun was bloated and bleeding all over the sky, and even though there was over an hour to go before the curfew, the town already seemed to have put itself to bed.   A window here and there was lit up or flickering chrome from a television, but most of them were dark.  Quite a few, he noticed, where shuttered.  Being a real estate agent here would be a profoundly boring and unrewarding job, like selling slow-growth annuities in a hospice.
                As he rounded the corner to go back to the hotel, a couple of children ran past him, giving him a shove, and he jumped.  One had something like a pillowcase tied over its head, with shells hanging from it on strings, and weird stains all over it – smears of berry juice, he thought, which looked like letters in some foreign writing.  The child’s ragged shirt was covered with similar symbols, all smeary.  The other child had a mask that was so covered in seaweed that Howard wondered how he could possibly see where he was going.  More seaweed was lashed to his chest, legs, and arms, enough so Howard could smell him from yards away, and he turned to shake it at Howard, making a gobbling sound that turned into a gurgling screech which shot a chill through him.  The children giggled in madness and ran toward the beach.
                Trick-or-treating, Howard thought, remembering that it was Halloween.  He didn’t know what kind of costumes those were, but he supposed in a town so undersupplied they couldn’t buy anything and had to make their own.  And maybe they didn’t even know about Batman or Darth Vader here, so swamp monsters and whatever that voodoo-looking kid had been were the best they could improvise.  At least they were original.
                Strange that they hadn’t been carrying bags for their candy.  Maybe they were pranking exclusively.  The urge to raise some hell in an uptight town with a curfew was probably irresistible, in the way that everyone resents a gated neighborhood.  Howard never drove into one without fantasies of arson.
                Disturbed by the encounter, Howard continued up the street, walking carefully as the sidewalk was crooked, buckled in places, flowing between buildings like a rollercoaster track.  Ahead, three more small shapes scrambled through the dusk, one wearing a flowing sheet which Howard supposed was a ghost costume.  One child he could barely see, but something on his-or-her costume was clattering in the dark.  In a gap between two buildings another child was crouching in the shadows, holding a burning branch; he smelled its pine scent before he saw her. It lit her face, a grinning little lunatic sporting a couple of new permanent teeth that made her look like a rodent.  Her face was painted with dots in tight clusters, and after spending much of the day poring over sheets tallying the dead from Sickertt’s smallpox, it seemed in exceptionally bad taste.  He expected the child to pounce out of the alley and yell “BOO!” but she just crouched and stared and smiled, the frozen grin of a doll.  She looked too young to be allowed fire, but Howard wasn’t comfortable talking to children and let it be, hurrying on.
                He ducked into the hotel and no one was there.  He walked around the lobby for a few minutes, peering into the dining room, saw no one.  Everything was lit, but empty.
                It doesn’t matter, he supposed. He’d paid for the room, he didn’t have to check in with anyone, so he climbed the stairs and went into his room, still feeling like some trespasser.  He turned on the television and was comforted to find the same sitcoms you’d find anywhere else.  Sickertt seemed so isolated that anything normal and familiar felt like a surprise.  He undressed, took a shower, and while he put on his pajamas he looked out the window.
                Some people were ignoring the curfew, he saw, because there were fires on the beach and more in the woods bordering the town.  He could make out little shapes crossing in front of the fires in the distance, and frowned.  Those children, maybe?  They certainly took Halloween seriously, breaking curfew to have bonfires.
                Above the sea the moon hung low, cold and full, spreading light on the water like broken glass on asphalt, barely moving, a deep-sleep respiratory suck.  He could vaguely make out its sound in the night, like a slow march through mud.  With some effort he raised the window and the air was chilled and scented with burning driftwood.  There were vague sounds of chanting in the distance, high in pitch, nothing distinct, nothing that even had the cadence of English.  He strained to hear it until the damp chill cut through his pajamas and made him lower the window again.
                What were they doing?   Were those the children out there?  Or the rest of the town?   He couldn’t see much from here, and thought about getting dressed and going out to see, but his hair was wet and there was the curfew and it really wasn’t any of his business anyway.  Sickertt was one strange town.  He’d come to investigate its past, but the present decay was more intriguing.
                Howard didn’t sleep much that night, mostly napping with the television on, watching a marathon of horror movies on Turner Classic.  When he woke up at nine and saw Jimmy Stewart in cowboy gear he knew Halloween was over.
                It was late for breakfast so he skipped it and got dressed and walked down to the beach, expecting to find the remains of big bonfires, but efforts had been made to haul the charred wood into the ocean.  Keeping the beach clean, he supposed, unless they were hiding the evidence.  He found bits of blackened bark and spots where the sand was still warm, and the scent of burning lingered. 
                He walked down the grey sand, a narrow beach, soon turning to sea oats and weeds, then to piney woodland.  He’d seen fires off in the forest, too, but didn’t think it’d be wise to wander into them looking for piles of burned wood.  Dead fish were here and there on the beach, a few just heads discarded by some fisherman.  The remains of some furry animal crawled along the water’s edge, animated by the tide, too waterlogged and gnawed by some other animal to identify.
                An old man was coming up the beach, hunting shells, maybe, or just getting a morning’s exercise.  When Howard met him, the old man glared at him with eyes like ice, startlingly blue.  “Hi, good morning,” Howard said.
                The man nodded and grunted.  His clothes were ragged and it wouldn’t surprise Howard if this was the town drunk, the way he was staring.
                “Looked like a busy night on the beach last night,” Howard said.  “I was told there was a curfew.”
                “There is, for anyone wise,” the man said.  “Best not to come out here at night.”
                “I saw some kids running around,” Howard said.  “I guess they were out for Halloween.”
                The old man coughed and it sounded bad, like a dogfight.  “Ain’t Halloween.  It’s the moon,” he said.
                “The moon?”
                The old man nodded and kept walking. “Them kids is bad, you got any sense, you stay ‘way from ‘em.”
                “Will do.  But what were they doing with the moon?”
                “Nothing good,” the old man said, trudging away from him, signaling that the conversation was done.
                “Well… thanks.  I’m Howard Ashton, by the way.”
                “Good for you,” the old man grumbled and kept walking.  It was so rude that Howard had to laugh rather than be offended.  He’d hoped he’d give his name in return so he could ask Betty and Bennie about him later, but he thought he’d be easy enough to describe, with those eyes.
                It was close to lunchtime so he decided to drop by the Blue Fin Inn before going back to the town hall.  He walked a little further down the beach, though, to give his new friend Mr. Good-For-You a chance to get away.  He didn’t want to pass him on the way back and have another awkward moment; one go-to-hell from a stranger was plenty for a morning.  He could hardly wait to hear what Bennie would have to say about his fellow curmudgeon.
                There was an unusual amount of seaweed and a carpet of green algae slime on the beach, a thick stripe of it trailing through the weeds and into the woods at one spot, and Howard crouched to dig at it with a stick of driftwood.  Barnacles and little antlers of coral were tangled up in it, and it reeked like a dirty fishtank.   The tide must have been really high last night, unusually so, because he thought regular exposure to salt water would likely kill off all those weeds.  Maybe that had something to do with the moon, since lunar cycles had effects on the tides.  Maybe the bonfires had been part of some wiccan-type celebration, or rituals to promote good fishing.  Or maybe just kids partying.  The ones he’d seen were young for that, but there were likely teens around, too, and no doubt bored out of their skulls here.  He looked for beer cans or bottles but found none.  Tidy hooligans.
                Uneasy, he headed back, led to the pier by the pulsing spang of ropes hitting metal masts, the shrieking laughs of the gulls, the breath-like wash of tide against piling.  He smelled seaweed, salt, wet sand, so rich it was almost as much taste as smell.  Colorful little clams, coquina, smaller than pistachios, bubbled the sand as he made footsteps.  When they died they left shells like butterflies.  A pretty shell is the corpse of something, the horridness rotted out, he thought, and wondered if that would seem less morbid in summertime.  Probably wouldn’t be much of a beach even then, just a strip of sand and shattered coral scarcely wide enough to keep a sand castle out of the surf.  At the rate the town was declining he wondered if anyone would be in Sickertt at all twenty years from today.  Maybe he’d come back to see.  He doubted Bennie and Betty would be alive then, so he wouldn’t have anyone to visit.
                Might as well go see them, although the rotten sleep he’d gotten left him in no mood to pore over a bunch of musty papers full of boring data.  He wasn’t sure how useful what he was finding would really be to the website, anyway, since many family lines had ended in that smallpox epidemic, but they’d requested the info and he was there to retrieve it, not judge its worth.
                He made it back to town and, after a lunch that cemented the Blue Fin’s reputation, found Bennie at work, though Betty had stepped out for lunch.  “Well, how was church?” Howard asked him.
                Bennie made a sour face and waved a hand and pressed an “okay” sign to his lips and blew a razzberry through it, and Howard laughed.  “You tell Betty I did that and I’ll call you a liar, but that’s how it was, a bunch of that!”  He shook his head.  “Reverend Barlow’d be better off delivering sermons through his bottom.  At least we’d get a laugh.”
                 Howard laughed.  “Why do you go?”
                “Don’t know.  Stubborn, stupid, and old in set in my ways is probably the truth of it.  You’d think I’d start to believe more strongly as I get closer to my time to go, but instead I think more and more that it’s a lot of malarkey to keep morons from running rampant.  The police can’t be everywhere, so, they make a big invisible cop who has an even worse jail, and hope that keeps us from killing each other.  But people, being what they are, use it as another reason to do just that.  And now it’s more politics than anything else, and politics that don’t jibe at all with the red words in the book.”  He waved a hand dismissively again.
                “I never was too devout myself,” Howard said.  “It looked like they were having a revival on the beach last night, though.  What happened to the curfew?”
                “Some don’t respect it,” Bennie said.  “What were they up to?”
                “Fires on the beach and out in the woods.  I thought it was for Halloween, but a character I met on the beach claimed it was the moon?”  Howard spread his hands and made a quizzical face.  Bennie frowned back, and Howard described his encounter with the old man.
                “Ah, that’s Phillip Jenkins.  He’s what they used to call ‘tetched,’ before they came up with the term ‘bat-shit crazy.’”   Bennie tapped his head.  “He’s tetched enough where it’s noticeable even around here in a town full of eccentrics.  Yeah, he won’t talk to you much, Phillip won’t.  Mean as a snake and a little less warm.  I wouldn’t put too much heed to what he says.”  He tapped his head again with a wink that made him look like Popeye.
                “Still, it was strange, what those kids were doing.  And there were a lot of fires, I guess I saw eight, nine.  Are there that many kids in Sickertt?”
                “A disproportionate number,” Bennie said.  “Not a lot to do in this town, so them as ain’t too old or ugly to get a chance at it tend to breed like bunnies.  Annoying, really.”
                Howard pulled papers from a box and spread them out.  “Their costumes were really strange.  Seaweed masks and stuff.  And their behavior was almost feral.”
                Bennie shook his head.  “I don’t know what they were up to.  Never meet any in my line of work.  Could be Phillip Jenkins is right; best stay away from them if they act crazy.  You can’t tell what you’re getting into with kids these days.”   Bennie shrugged and turned to go back to his desk and let Howard work, muttering, “Spoken like a true old codger, Benedict.”
                Howard laughed to himself.  He’d thought Bennie would have been a Benjamin, not a Benedict.  He wasn’t sure he’d ever met a Benedict.
                With most of the organizing accomplished the previous day, Howard got a lot of work done, discovering a lot that would be exactly what the website wanted, making plenty of photocopies.  The historian in him was interested in other parts, and alarmed at some of it; he read a report that during the smallpox epidemic there had been so many bodies piling up that, fearing contamination, some of the townspeople had loaded boats with the bodies and sunk them out in the ocean, out beyond the reef.  One guilty report even alleged that some of the infected that hadn’t died yet had been included in the boats.  They were certain to die, anyway, so the townspeople – or the lynch mob section of them, who’d overwhelmed the opposition of the rest – had claimed it wasn’t murder.  Still, Sickertt’s Baptist Church, where the lynch mobbers had originated, had later been  burnt down by an angry relative.
                Howard thought of asking Bennie if the arsonist had been one of his ancestors, but decided that could be taken as offensive.
                Tired as he was, he was making such fine progress that he managed to work until closing time.  Too weary to go to the Blue Fin, he got a sandwich in the hotel’s dining room, and it was nothing special but not bad.  Back in the room he organized his photocopies, made a few notes, and settled in to watch television.
                After nodding off over a third show, he turned it off to get some sleep, but turning out the lights alerted him to a glow from the windows.  He got up and saw that there were fires on the beach and in the woods again.  Past eleven p.m., he noted, well after curfew.  He raised the window and peered out, and heard giggling from beneath his window.  He couldn’t make out much detail in the dark, but there were three raggedy children, one holding a torch, all wearing masks.  One mask appeared to be made of driftwood, formless, not even a face.  Something metal glimmered in his hand.  The children laughed at ran into the darkness of an alley, clattering.
                It disturbed him, the weirdness of it.  Wasn’t tomorrow a school day?  Who was letting their children out to run the streets all night?  Did parents here have no control over their kids?  Why even have a curfew if the smallest children could disregard it?  More small figures ran along the piers and around the fires on the beach, waving torches.
                As curious as he was, he didn’t want to go out there.  After what Phillip Jenkins had said about the moon, the whole thing had the feel of a cult.  Even discounting that Jenkins was batshit-tetched, the costumes and fires were evidence enough of it, and Howard decided that the cult, rather than fear of drunken sailors, was the reason people locked themselves away in their houses at sundown.  Which applied that it was dangerous.
                He kept staring out into the chilly night.  Someone he couldn’t see was standing in an alley across the street, piping on some kind of flute.  It was a song only in the way a bird’s tweeting was a song, a few idiot notes, repeated maddeningly.   That anyone would want to stand out in the night doing that bothered him.  None of it was normal, none of it made sense.
                An answering call, deeper, from some horn that sounded like the lowing of a cow, sounded from off in the night.
                Then another low moan sounded further out, so deep and far and faint that Howard thought he may have only imagined it.  And surely he must have, as there was nothing that far away in that direction but the ocean.  Still, he thought he heard it again, low and somehow viscous, thick, glubbering.
                The tide, most likely.  Or an echo of something else, somewhere.  Were there whales here?
                There was crazy laughter off in the night and Howard closed the window against it, not wanting to hear more.
                He had a difficult time finding sleep, and when he did, bad things were waiting for him there.  He was wandering through tunnels with Bennie, somewhere under the town hall, in search of papers Bennie had remembered were stored in a remote sub-basement.  Howard was aware of the sounds of chanting, whistling, fluting, and horns from the land above them, and he asked Bennie about it, but Bennie was babbling incoherently, making no sense.  He led Howard through a door so rotten it crumbled when he pushed it open, into a room where papers were piled all around, stuffed in boxes, many moldy and damp.  Every paper Howard picked up was covered with scribbling, like a three-year-old’s work, and Howard turned to Bennie to ask if this was some sort of joke.  Bennie, standing with his hands spread to proudly present this treasure trove, was smiling, showing off all of his teeth, which, Howard noted, were encrusted with barnacles.  Slimy sea-water poured down his chin.  One eye turned inward and then bulged out as a small crab pushed its way out of the socket.
                He wanted to run, but Bennie grabbed his arm, and there were barnacles and algae on his fingers as well.  He thrust a paper into Howard’s hand, which he saw was a list of smallpox dead.  Bennie tapped one name with an idiotically-pleased noise, and Howard saw the name was his own.
                He tore away and ran through the tunnels, took a wrong turn, and found himself back in his hotel room, staring out the window, seized by the worst sense of dread he’d ever felt.  The sea was rippling under the moon, and figures were rising from it, leaving the sea and filling the streets.  As they passed under the window he could see them, grey, dripping, pocked, fish-nibbled, swollen and bloated, sloughing bits of themselves, eyes glowing like a sky full of cold stars, like the moonlight on the sea.   Their sound was a wet tubercular snore of lungs full of water trying to pull air instead and falling apart in the effort.
                And he heard them coming up the stairs, rubbing soft and damp as they pressed against his door.
                Howard woke up with a yelp just as the door was cracking and giving in.  He was clammy with sweat and his hands were filled with the sheets.  Sitting up, rubbing his face, he made himself settle down.  Nightmares were silly things he seldom had, and he didn’t have a lot of patience with himself when he got them.  That one was the worst since childhood.
                It was early dawn outside, a pretty pinkish sunrise showing an empty beach.  He raised the window and heard the gulls, the tide, the lines tanging against the masts as the sea rocked boats.  There was no sign of anyone, anywhere.  The air still smelled faintly of smoke, but the beach where he’d seen the bonfire was bare.
                He took a shower and shaved and got his mind off the dream by organizing his papers.  He’d try the library today and hopefully get everything he needed and maybe he could leave Sickertt tomorrow.  What had been an interesting little town was getting too weird for him.  All those nocturnal activities were probably just bored kids making their own strange fun, but it was too much for him and he dreaded passing another night in Sickertt.
                After a simple breakfast in the hotel’s dining room, he set out to the library.  It was a shabby little building, in need of some upkeep, but not as bad as the school building across the street from it.  Howard was shocked to see the school; it was abandoned, on its way to being derelict, and it looked like it had been pelted with rocks by a rioting crowd.  Today was Monday, and the building should have been full of children, but nobody had gone in there in years, from the looks of it.  He walked around the grounds, through the weeds, looking for an intact window.  It looked like someone had made a point of not leaving even one.  They’d done about as good a job on the place as they could without using fire.
                Maybe they’d built a new school elsewhere.  They must have.  He’d ask about it.
                He went into the library and found the place dusty and dim, hardly conducive to browsing.  A little old man, bent by a bad back, scurried out of an office and looked at him, alarmed.  “Yes?” he snapped.
                Howard was taken aback by this reaction, but laughed it off and introduced himself and explained what he was after.  The old man’s defensiveness thawed a bit and he took Howard to a closet that passed for the Sickertt Public Library’s special collections.  It wasn’t much and Howard thought he could probably be done here by lunch.
                “By the way,” Howard asked, “what’s the story with the school here?  It’s Monday and the place is abandoned.  Is that school closed down, or…?”
                “Don’t know anything about that,” the little man barked.  “Home-schooled around here mostly.”
                “But surely there’s a school here…” Howard started, but the man scurried back to his office.
                Howard sighed to himself and thought that maybe he’d found Phillip Jenkins’ brother.
                He sorted through the papers and found a few useful things.  The librarian acted offended at having to change a couple of dollars for dimes for the photocopier and Howard considered being nasty back to him, just for fun, but it wasn’t in his nature so he just bore the insult of being treated like a pain-in-the-ass with some amusement and got his business done.  The librarian hid in his office and peeked out at him like he considered himself a hostage who’d survive if he just waited for his captor to forget about him.
                Howard left the library and went to the Blue Fin for lunch.  He asked the waiter about the condition of the school and the waiter was friendly but obviously uncomfortable with the subject.  “I don’t know much about the school here, really.  I don’t have kids,” he laughed.  “I understand a lot of the kids here are home-schooled.”
                “They must be, because no one’s going in that building.  It looks like it’s been attacked.  Did they build another, or maybe bus them to another town?”
                The waiter shrugged.  “Sorry, I really don’t know.  It does seem strange, though.”
                Howard nodded and waited for his lunch, trying to sort the town out in his head.  Nothing made sense.  No school, despite an obviously sizeable population of children, none of whom, he realized, he’d ever seen by day.  A curfew that seemed enforced only for the people who needed it least – the adults.  The children ran around late into the night, carrying Halloween over into the next day with all their masks and weird flutes and fires on the beaches and in the woods.  Something about the moon, Phillip Jenkins had said, though others dismissed him as crazy.  And maybe he was, but… why the masks and the rest of the pagan-rites trappings?   All this bizarre stuff going on, and no one seemed to know anything, or, at least, weren’t willing to talk about it.
                Howard ate, torn between his curiosity to find out what was up with this town and an instinct to get away from it as quickly as possible.  If he rushed through the rest of the material at the town hall he might be able to leave tomorrow.
                He went back to the town hall and, after some friendly chatting with Betty and Bennie, he brought up the state of the Sickertt Public School.  “The librarian practically ran for the hills when I asked about it,” Howard said.  “He was literally hiding in his office.”
                “He’s very timid,” Betty said.  “Far more comfortable with books than people.”
                “I can understand that,” Howard said.  “I’m a bookworm and an introvert myself.  And he’s probably not confronted with many strangers here.  But the question about the school’s what set it off, I think.”
                “Well, it’s embarrassing, the state of that school,” Betty said.  “Something should really be done about it.”
                “But where do the children here learn?”
                “Oh, we have so few children here,” Betty said. “Most are homeschooled, I believe.”
                “I see a lot of children running around at night,”  Howard said, remembering that Bennie had said Sickertt’s population had a disproportionate number of kids.  “They were out on the beach again last night.  All of them are homeschooled?  There seemed to be dozens!  Might they be bussed to a school in another town or something?”
                “Yes, yes, I believe that’s the case,” Betty said.  “I believe so.”
                She looked evasive, but Howard let it go.  She was too old to have small children so she might not keep up with the issue, but if she were lying he’d have no way to prove it.   And Bennie wasn’t volunteering anything, just sitting at his desk, frowning.
                Howard went back to his work, but the questions still plagued him.   Betty frittered around awhile and then went out on some errand.  Howard waited until he caught Bennie on his way back from filing some forms to ask him, “It’s funny… if those kids are being bussed to another town, they’d have to get up really early, wouldn’t they?   But I believe they were out on the beach past midnight.”
                Bennie’s face writhed through mixed emotions like the surface of pond that’s just had a rock thrown into it.  He looked out the front door, then stepped closer to Howard and talked low.  “That bus story?  It’s bullshit.  The home-schooling is bullshit, too.  Look, I shouldn’t talk about this, it’s town business, but asking questions, you’ll get yourself in trouble.”
                “I didn’t mean to pry into anything, but… well, it all seems strange.  The school, the kids running around in masks, fires on the beach at night, chanting, the horns…”
                “It is strange.  And I can’t blame you for being curious.  But, truthfully, nobody knows what those kids are doing.  Nobody’s had any real contact with them in months.”
                Bennie nodded.  “Not even their parents know what they’re doing.  They all just left.  Live in the woods now, I guess.  The town decided, after some events, it was safest to just let it be.”  Bennie looked at the front door again, shifting nervously.
                “’Events’?  ‘Safest’?  What do you mean?  What’s going on here?”
                “Christ, I shouldn’t be talking about this at all,” Bennie said, rubbing his face.  “Town secrets and all, but I don’t want you to get into trouble, and questions make people nervous.”
                “Are they just embarrassed that their children ran away and became feral, or joined a cult, or whatever?”
                Bennie shook his head.  “No.  Well, that’s part of it, but just a small part.  Okay.”  He glared at Howard, chopping the air with his hand.  “Remember the day you came here?  How the town was empty?   Nobody around, all away up the beach?  Some lame excuse about a town meeting, wasn’t that what was told you?”
                Howard nodded.
                “Well, that was more bullshit,” Bennie whispered.  “They were disposing of a body that was found on the shore.  Or what pieces they could find, anyway.”
                “A body?” Howard asked.  “Those kids killed someone?”
                “It’s supposed,” Bennie said.  “One of the parents, who went out trying to take his kid back, even after what happened to the others who tried it.  Christ, that thing.  They did a real job on it.”  He shook his head and stared back at the door.
                “So why haven’t the police…?”
                Bennie snorted.  “They’re not going out in the night trying to bring in any of those children.  You saw that body, you wouldn’t blame them, either.  And that ain’t the only one they found, either.  I wouldn’t go digging around the dunes, I was you.”
                “Jesus, man…”
                Bennie interrupted him.  “I wouldn’t do anything, I was you, but pack up my car and drive out.  Send back the federals if you must, but, I’d leave.   Leave while there’s time.  Maybe you’ll have better luck getting out than the people who actually live here.   Some have tried, but met bad luck.  Your company knows you’re here and would come looking, so maybe you’ll do better.  Stop asking questions, pretend you don’t know anything, and they’ll probably let you through.”
                Howard frowned.  The whole thing was insane.  “Well… I only have a little more to do here, and I could leave tomorrow.”
                Bennie nodded.  “Good, that would be good.  No offense meant, you understand, I’m not trying to run you off, you seem like a nice fella, but… this town is nervous.”
                “This town is insane,” Howard said.
                Bennie nodded.  “Probably so.  But there’s not a lot we can do, given the situation.  We’re just coping.  Stick to the curfew, don’t go out at night, and everything works out.  Or it will, until they decide to break into our houses.  And I don’t see why they won’t get around to that eventually.  They already peek in the windows and giggle.  Scrape at the screen with knives.”
                “Seems that sticking to the curfew already doesn’t work, if bodies are showing up on the beach.”
                “Some are stubborn and try their luck.  But there is no luck, not in Sickertt.”  Bennie glanced at the door and hurried to his desk after giving Howard a warning look, and Betty came back in.
                Howard went back to his papers, pretending nothing had happened.  He worked mechanically, preoccupied with what Bennie had told him.  Some cult of feral children ran loose and the town just let murders happen?   It was lunacy.
                He hung around, wanting to ask Bennie more questions, but Betty was always there.  The day wore on until closing time, and then Bennie rushed off, leaving him with Betty, who saw him out and locked up.  They made polite chat but Howard sensed an anxiety in her; he had asked too many questions and she feared there might be more.
                Well, tomorrow he’d leave.  There were still a few papers to go over in the town hall but Howard decided he’d had enough to declare his job done.  If guilt got to him he’d finish up in the morning and drive out of Sickertt by noon.  Bennie, he thought, was overly nervous about his safety just for asking a few completely-reasonable questions, but this story about a body on the beach was enough to scare him.  He didn’t want to bolt after a few crazy horror stories, but a dignified retreat, that he would do.
                He went back to the Blue Fin Inn for dinner, which he was too distracted to fully enjoy, then made his way back to the hotel as dusk was settling over the town.  The sky was on fire over the ocean; November sunsets were rarely so spectacular, and he paused by the dock to look out as it threw orange light across the sluggish tide.
                Two children lurked in a nearby sailboat, peeking at him.  One’s face was smeared with dark green stripes which he thought might be smudges of algae.  The other wore some kind of carved driftwood mask that covered all of her face except a big grin, permanent and baby teeth mingled.  She was chewing on something that appeared to be seaweed.
                He hurried away and they giggled, sounding a little like the seagulls, a crazy edge in it.  As he neared the hotel, another child darted from an alley and ran towards him.  The child’s head was wrapped in dirty bandages, with fish bones sticking out here and there.  Howard stepped aside but the child brushed against him anyway and scurried away, laughing.  He felt a stinging on his hip and reached down, feeling a hole in his pants.  He could see razor-clean edges in the slash in the fabric, telling him something bad was beneath it, and already wetness trickled down his leg.  When he poked his fingers into the slit, they came out remarkably bloody.
                Now he was angry, but the child was gone.  This was too much, an eight-year-old with a razor or something?  He’d call the police, Sickertt’s permissive attitude be damned!  They were children, there was no reason to stand for this!
                He pressed his hand to the wound and limped to the hotel.
                He banged on the door.  There were lights in the window, and the moose was usually at the desk at this hour.  “Hey!” Howard yelled, pounding at the door.  Who locks the front door of a hotel?   Was it even legal, preventing him from getting to a room he’d paid for?
                No one answered his knocking.  The light in the lobby went out.
                “Goddamnit,” Howard snarled and set off back to the Blue Finn to use their phone and attend to his cut.  It was really starting to sting, and he wanted to clean it; there was no telling what that child had slashed him with.  He worried how much he was bleeding.  His pants were sticking to his leg with wetness.
                On the way he tried the door of every business he passed.  All locked.
                The Blue Fin, too, was locked, and dark, although the sign on the door indicated that these were still business hours.
                Now Howard was starting to feel real fear.  The anger at being slashed was giving way to dread of something worse coming.
                He headed back up the street and there was a child standing there, right in middle of it.  He was peering through the eyes of horse’s skull he’d strapped over his face, and from inside it came a weird fluting sound.
                There was another whistling sound in the distance, and Howard heard many feet running, one street over.
                He limped along the sidewalk, noting that he was dripping blood behind him now, not a lot, but any amount that’s enough to drip is alarming.  He tried every door he passed.  Locked, locked, locked.
                The child in the horse mask watched him, and laughed like a seagull.
                “You son of a bitch,” Howard muttered, walking toward the kid, prepared to slap the mask off him, child or not.  The kid ran into an alley, giggling.
                Scrambling sounds came from other alleys, and running on distant streets, with horns, whistles, a drum.   A glance over his shoulder showed him fires starting on the beach.  There was chanting on the wind.  His pulse quickened, made more blood flow.
                He tried more doorknobs on the opposite side of the street, but everything was closed to him.  If anyone were inside the buildings, they were hiding from what was about to happen.  He’d asked too many questions and now he was being served up.
                A child, surely no more than five or six, peeked out at him from a doorway, her face painted like a skull, seaweed and fishbones tangled in her hair.  She grinned and her eyes glittered with madness in their blacked-out sockets.  In her hands was a hacksaw.
                Howard backed away, not really feeling threatened – he could kick the snot out of her, but who wanted to have to hurt a little girl?  He heard footsteps behind him and another child – a little boy, grinning malevolently through a sagging headdress of kelp – was running at him with a rusty hatchet.  Howard yelled at him and stumbled away as the boy took a vicious swing at his leg and missed, then ran away laughing.
                Howard limped toward the pier, away from little figures congregating in the gathering dusk.  Night was falling quickly and the sun was almost down.  There were no lights in the windows; other than the fires on the beach, Sickertt looked abandoned.
                Horns sounded across the beach, answered by more in the surrounding woods, and the tide seemed to respond, washing harder against the pilings, shaking the boats so their rigging clanged against the masts.  From beneath the pier he heard chanting in some absurd babbling-idiot language, glurks and clucks and gobbles, blubbering.
                “Stop this!” he yelled, and the night laughed around him.
                And then the waves increased.  The moon was on the water now, and the surface was stirring, heaving.
                Something huge was rising from the bottom.  Howard clutched the railing and stared at the water, forgetting to breathe.
                With a tremendous sucking sound, a fetid, slimy mass emerged from the ocean, dripping clots of green-black algae like wet hair.  It groaned and slurped, gleaming snottily in the moonlight, pulling itself free from the muck of the bottom with wallowing effort until it towered between him and the moon.   Even from a distance the smell was nauseous, fish and gangrene.  With a deep moan of mindless need it approached the shore.
                Howard screamed and ran.  Children were gathering in his path and he shoved past them.  Metal and broken glass bit his hand and sliced across his side, stinging cuts. 
                “Get away from me!” he yelled.  The smell of the monstrosity heaving itself onto the street behind him clogged his throat, thick as a dirty rag.
                His car!  He had his car keys.  The car was down the street, a hundred yards or so.  He could push past the children, even kick or punch them if he had to.  Christ, he was bleeding now.
                He looked behind him and the mass was rolling up the street in a dark slimy wave, reeking of fishy rot.  The entire sea floor had risen and started to crawl, and Howard felt his mind would burst with the vileness of it.  This, the children had decided, was their god.  And the town had left him as a sacrifice.
                He ran.   The children, smiling through their masks, converged.  Silver in their hands brought the moon to Earth, glittering that knotted his guts with terror.  They were only children, but blades were blades.  They were coming for him.
                Yelling, he shoved them back.  Something bit at his hand, clutching his pinky finger.  The pain was savage and when he pulled his hand away the finger was left behind.  The child had pruning shears, he saw in a glance as he ran past.
                God.  Half his finger was gone.
                Another child rushed at him, stuck him in the leg with something, scurried away cawing with the delight of having done it.  He ran onward, ignoring it.  A child got in his way and he rammed a knee into its face.  A little girl, he realized, as she wailed.  What he’d done made him feel sick, but not as sick as losing a finger.
                Where was his car?  He forgot exactly.  He’d parked in a little circular parking lot, but that had been a foggy morning and this was deep moonlit dusk and everything was different, and his mind was overloaded by fear, unable to handle the complexities of navigating an unfamiliar town by night.
                He glanced back and made out the slimy mass oozing up the street, stinking like a drowning victim’s autopsy.  The children spread out, making room for it, wailing crazy words, approving, celebrating.
                Somehow, Howard found his car, more through happenstance than skill, but it took too long.  He unlocked it and threw himself in and locked it again, fumbling to fit the key in the ignition with a hand that no longer worked the way it used to.   The children surrounded the car, chanting, faces hidden by masks and hoods.  They raked it with blades and pounded it with hammers.  Metal shrieked on metal.  A rear window cashed in and something, sized only slightly bigger than a toddler, started squirming through the shards.  It fell into the back seat and grabbed at him, started cutting, giggling like madness.
                As he tried to fight the child off and another climbed in, slime slapped his windshield and blinded it with algae and seaweed.  The sound of slurping mixed with metal buckling as the god squeezed the car like a giant fist.  A child’s face, wound in rotting bandages, was smiling into his as a mucoid wave washed them both out of the metal that wasn’t anything like a car anymore.  He was dragged out into the night and carried away to the place on the beach where what was left of him was found in the morning.
                What the children didn’t devour can still be found, always gibbering and laughing like a seagull, in a mental hospital near Gainesville.


copyright 2017 by me

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