by Christian McKay
Everything stopped when the dolphins came. Volleyballs plopped, boogie boards flipped, and sand castles were left half-built as we ran to the surf to watch the silver flashes across the waves. We paddled out where they chuckled, sprayed us with their blowhole steam, and we brushed our fingers on their pearly gray skin.
There were other creatures, of course: crust-seeking seagulls, skittering crabs, the occasional, unfortunate lizard tossed by small, sandy fingers. But nothing compared to dolphin excitement. They came and graced us with their smiles and then vanished into the ocean’s shadows, their silvery breath bursting at the surface. After they left, the other counselors and I would trawl the Palisades campers inland to the cabanas.
Earlier that summer, the news had reported strange growths at the bottom of the sea. Algae uneaten by overfished fish had flourished, mutating into organisms unseen since the cretaceous. Some weeks earlier, a fisherman had snagged something tentacled on his line and was blinded by its milky spurt.
By July, several counselors had quit, complaining of weeping sores and blurred vision. Whenever I got out of the water, my skin itched and my eyes burned. But quitting wasn’t an option, what with a tanking economy and not much experience under my belt apart from being a busboy. Besides, dolphins and girls in bikinis don’t visit restaurants.
My job was to sit in a cabana and tell stories to the fragile campers who flinched at every crashing wave and falling volleyball. I figured with no exercise, something needed to get the blood pumping through their veins, so I made it my personal goal to scare the everloving hell out of them. Or at least make them wet their swimsuits.
One scorcher of a day, I told a story about a defunct faction of Santa’s elves who, instead of eating the cookies left by the fireplace every Christmas Eve, devoured the household’s puppies and kittens. If only Russell Hamby hadn’t raised his hand.
“Elves would never do that.”
I know I’m not supposed to say this as a counselor, but Russ really did look like a fish: coral-pale skin, big blubbering lips, eyes bubbling out through his glasses. He came with a long list of health warnings; his mom had told us he was born fourteen weeks prematurely. Poor kid had too many nicknames to count and didn’t make many friends that summer.
“Well...” I said, trying to think of why certain elves might eat a kitten.
Before I could come up with a viable response, Kip piped in. “No duh, Fish Face. Elves aren’t real.”
Nothing could have been more damning than Russ’s silence.
“Oh my God,” Kip said. “Do you still believe in Santa Claus?” He broke into the kind of laugh that could crunch a bird’s sternum.
Kipling Teagarden. Camp bully. The counselors secretly called him The Penguin because while he was a strong swimmer, he waddled on land. Kip was also kind of a dick.
All the kids in the cabana started to laugh. Russ sucked in his lips. His eyes started to glisten. I watched as his fragile little ornament of belief started to splinter.
“I believe in Santa Claus,” I said.
The kids’ laughter turned to titters. Kip looked disarmed.
“In fact,” I continued, “I feel bad for anyone who doesn’t want to believe in a man who squishes his fat down their chimney just to give them presents.”
Everyone giggled, even the Jewish kids. The sound caught the attention of Clara, the camp’s dance instructor. She walked to the cabana’s entrance, twirling her purple and green hair extensions, and crinkled her nose at me. Sometimes she would do this thing where she bent over to pick something up, folding at the hip and never the knee. I can tell you that display wasn’t for the 5- to 12-year olds.
“Personally,” I said, a bit louder so Clara could hear. “I think life would suck if there were no more myst—”
TWEEEEEEE! I was about to launch into a truly wonderful life-altering speech when the lifeguard’s whistle blared.
“Dolphins?” Margaret asked, whipping us with sand as she sprang up.
My cabana kids and I followed to the edge of the water where our feet sank in the soft sand and the tide licked our ankles. Three lifeguards were already paddling out toward two shapes in the water, about fifty yards out. Whatever they were, they weren’t dolphins. At first, I thought they might be sun-bleached, partially deflated beach balls. But they didn’t rise and fall with the waves.
Binoculars passed from counselor to counselor, above the kids’ reaching fingers. When they got to me, the horizon came into circular focus. The objects looked like heads. Heads with no faces. But that didn’t stop my distinct feeling that they were watching the camp. Their skin, if it was skin, was the leached white of canned tuna. I thought of the prehistoric plants blossoming in the deep, and a cold rose in me.
Keeping my eyes fixed on the orbs, I passed the binoculars.
“No fair!” Kip yelled. “Why does he get to look?”
I looked down and found Russ staring through the binoculars and then quickly snatched them away.
It was too late. His big lips hung slack. His fish eyes blinked. He’d lost some color.
“What was it, Russ?” Kip asked.
Russ didn’t respond.
Kip shoved him. “Answer me, retard.”
“Enough, Kip,” I said. “Waddle on back to the cabanas.”
He looked like I’d just slapped him.
“Now,” I said.
Kip stomped off. I looked back to sea in time to see the shapes vanish in two quick splooshes just before the lifeguards reached them.
“Come on, Russ. Let’s go play UNO or something.”
His eyes lay heavy on the horizon. “But what were those things?”
If the sight had disturbed me that much, I couldn’t imagine what it had done to him. In less than five minutes, candy-cane elves with curly-toed shoes had been replaced with faceless things from the deep.
I wasn’t the camp’s storyteller for nothing. “They must have heard us talking about them.”
“Who do you think?”
“Elves?’ Russ tried to glue the ornament back together. “But...”
“There are different species of elf,” I said. “There have to be. People are naughty everywhere. You’ve got your Blubber Elf in Antarctica, your Leaf-eared Elf in the jungle, Igneous Elf in Hawaii...” I pointed to the water. “Saltwater Elves keep an eye on the beach to make sure everyone drinks plenty of water, wears a rash guard, and puts on sun block three times a day.”
Russ looked over his shoulder. “And make sure no kids make fun of other kids?”
I glanced behind us and saw Kip hidden behind the drying towels, listening.
Russ scratched behind his hearing aids. “Sometimes he drags his finger across his throat like this when he’s looking at me.”
“Alright, well you’ve just got to ignore that sh... that crap.” I said this next part loud enough for my voice to carry past the towels. “Besides, Kip had better watch himself or they might come after him. Sea elves aren’t all curly shoes and candy canes like your traditional elf.”
“What will they do?” Russ asked, glancing toward the towels.
“Where do I start?” I said, brushing sand from my hands. “They’ll probably make Kip wear a seaweed dress. Then they’ll make crabs pinch his cankles. And if he’s really bad, they’ll run him through a washing machine a couple of times.”
Russ bit his lip and watched the surf. “Do we have any cookies and milk?”
“Saltwater Elves don’t like traditional elf-fare.” I thought of what we had stored in our big blue coolers. “They prefer Go-Gurt.”
Russ’s teeth had rarely seen the sun that summer, but that got a smile.
I tousled Russ’s hair. “Go lotion up, bud.”
I looked to the towels, but the Penguin had vanished. I looked back to the sea. The memory of that eyeless stare ran a chill through me.
A hand as soft as sunshine lay on my shoulder. “What were those things?”
I stood, and damn if I couldn’t help tracing all the way up to Clara’s eyes.
“Cadaver heads,” I said. “Probably a serial killer scuba diver trying to lure people into his lair.”
“Shut up,” she said, slapping my sunburnt shoulder. “They gave me goose bumps. Feel.”
She held out her arm. The iceberg in my chest began to melt as I touched her skin.
I didn’t realize I’d just seen Russ for the last time.
* * *
“You guys seen Kip?”
My hand leapt back to my chest as the camp director muscled up. Clara and I were lying out on a towel for our lunch break. I had been exploring the skin under the spaghetti strap that connected the back of her swimsuit to the front.
“Nope,” I said.
“He’s missing,” the camp director said and then gave us the look that told us it was our problem.
Clara and I joined The Penguin search party already in progress. My boss sent counselors past the camp’s cones to comb the beach in both directions. He did not send anyone into the water. Not yet. We’d been searching for over half an hour when the whistle screamed. We all ran and saw that a boogie board had washed ashore along with a swarm of long, brightly colored packets. Waves hushed the seagulls. The wind swallowed the kids’ laughter. I recognized the packets: Go-Gurts.
I sprinted into the waves, dove into the cold, and swam toward the spot where we’d seen the heads. I had no clue what had happened, but I knew my words had done it. Fifty yards out, I treaded water and stared into the green malachite of the deep. Three silver bubbles, like wobbly ornaments, rose and shattered at the surface.
When I returned to shore, the camp director held out one of the yogurt packets, flopping in his fingers like a dead fish. “What was Kip doing with these?”
He’d heard. From behind the towels, Kip had heard what I told Russ.
I shrugged. “No clue.”
The camp director stared at me. He had seen how I sprinted into the surf.
“Where’s Russ?” I asked.
“Y’know, um... the kid that looks like a fish.”
The camp director gave me a look but instantly knew who I was talking about. “Russell Hamby? Said he didn’t feel well. Signed him out to his mom an hour ago. Why?”
“Why wasn’t he feeling well?” I asked.
“That kid never feels well. Why?”
I looked toward the Pacific Coast Highway. “Just ‘cause I saw him take those Go-Gurts.”
They didn’t call me the best storyteller for nothing.
* * *
The parents and nannies came in their Porsches and Mercedes to pick up their kids. Mrs. Teagarden, Kip’s mom, came in a Hummer. The collagen in her lips had taken her past human and into Nala from The Lion King territory. The camp director explained that her son was missing. Not one mascara tear trailed from her D&G sunglasses.
“Kip’s always been a little...” she didn’t finish the thought. “He’s adopted, you know.”
This is what the bully Kip returns home to every day, I thought. This is what he’s raised by. I told Kip to waddle away. I remember ruffling Russ’s hair. Kip had been watching then. And I’d said the elves might come after him. Maybe he just wanted to make it up to us. To them.
“He probably just wandered down the beach,” the camp director said to Mrs. Teagarden. He was desperately trying to keep any drowning or abduction rumors from flying to other parents’ ears.
“Kip hates exercise,” Mrs. Teagarden sighed. “Didn’t get it from me.”
Nobody said it — it was awful enough to think about — but eventually a boy’s body, any body, would bloat with gases, and the waves would wash it ashore. Was Russ caught on something? Had something pulled him underneath? Had that something held him there? All the counselors had seen the heads without faces. No one mentioned them.
The beachcombers returned two hours later without so much as a rash guard. Jon the surf instructor fluttered his lips and said, “Guess this means we’re cancelling Taco Tuesday.”
I laughed with the rest of the counselors. I laughed because they didn’t know. Didn’t know that as much as he sucked, as much as he bullied other kids, I might have sent the Penguin, Kip, to his death. I definitely didn’t want Clara to know. If Kip did come waddling back from down the beach, there was still the untying of her spaghetti string to consider.
After the parents left, the camp director didn’t ask us to stay, but we did anyway. Jon had a flask. We drank until our blood ran tequila. The sky bruised yellow as we searched and waited and our eyes grew heavy.
* * *
Someone can tell you something and your brain will do acrobatics with it. Like Russ, turning elves into saviors. Like the news, turning child-size bites in calves into a leopard shark. Like me, turning the description of Kip caught in the fishing net into... One can fathom many things about the fathoms deep.
Jon was there when they found him. He told me things. “Dude... dude.”
The lampposts on the highway lit half of Kip’s body a cold white; a breath of honey from the horizon lit his other half. His skin was pale as coral. It was covered in a thick mucus but wasn’t puckered like a raisin as any kid’s would be after half an hour in a bathtub. His eyelids gasped as if thirsty for the moonlight.
I saw a creature that was not Kip. Its eyes were like pearls: pupil and iris washed away in the depths but with a rainbow sheen like the inside of an oyster. Tattoos tangled across its skin like black seaweed. Instead of swelling polyps, they blossomed into symbols in the shapes of fish but looked ancient, like cave paintings. The thing’s purple lips peeled back around needle-sharp teeth. And then there were three slashes on either side of its throat, as perfect as a surgeon’s knife.
Jon removed the bandage from his arm and showed me the slices where Kip’s long and sinewy fingers had opened him like razor wire. “Like a friggin’ man o’ war, man.”
Those polyps were already growing from the cuts. And I had thought Jon had just gotten new tattoo sleeves.
When Clara heard that Kip had been found, that he’d drowned, she showed up at my door in need of comfort. I didn’t tell her that according to Jon, the thing that wasn’t Kip had drowned in the air, not the water.
I got what I’d been waiting for all summer. Clara in my arms. Clara in my bed. I saw beneath her swimsuit, her pale white skin. What had Kip seen beneath the waves?
We kissed and touched. What had Kip felt on the sea floor? And then, when Clara moved my hand to a place, wet and soft... Crrick — my ornament cracked. I threw her off me and jumped into my car.
Fifteen minutes later, I was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway. I could hear Mrs. Teagarden pounding on the trunk — thoom thoom thoom — , trying to get out. Must be painful with her wrists duct-taped like that. I had a boogie board back there. I’d even picked up a case of Go-Gurts, because I’ve started to believe my own stupid story.
When we got out into the waves, when we saw those floating heads, I told them they’d gotten the wrong bully. And before I tossed Kip’s mom into the waves, I made sure she knew. I even made her say it: It wasn’t his fault.
Copyright © 2013 by Christian McKay