Go to the beach, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.
I’ve never liked the beach, but I’m just the husband and father in this family. And what does the husband and father do when his wife and two daughters have their hearts set on spending a week at the beach?
That’s right. He rents a beach house.
Molly and Amy were all kinds of happy, the blond mother and daughter looking forward to a week of sun and sand. Maggie seemed happy too, but it was so hard to tell what she was feeling by then. What do they call it? Emo? Goth? Whatever— she was all black hair, black clothes, Slipknot t-shirts and boxy cargo pants, always talking about song lyrics.
And Lovecraft. She was always a huge Lovecraft fan. Personally, I don’t get his stuff. I’m more of a Poe person, but, hey, I was just happy I didn’t have one of those fifteen-year-olds with no interest in reading at all, you know?
Anyway, Maggie seemed almost excited about the location of the house. Molly and I had discussed it, and it was a little more money, but I’d managed to snag a place right on Plum Island, next to Newburyport. According to Molly the place had some sort of significance for Lovecraft, and I guess he mentions it in a few of his stories.
Whatever, I thought. As long as it makes her happy.
It seemed to work, too. When we told her where we were going for the week, Maggie smiled. I mean, she actually smiled, one of those happy things she did when she was younger but hadn’t really done in, oh, more than a year. It wasn’t sarcastic, or bitter, or superior, or long-suffering, or any of the other ways we’d been describing it when she bared her teeth at us since sometime in her thirteenth year. It was a real, honest-to-goodness smile.
My heart leapt.
This was going to be a great vacation.
The week started out just fine. Molly and Amy spent a bunch of time out on the sand, worshiping the sun; I got caught up on my reading — a Dan Wells novel, not Poe — sometimes relaxing in the house, but occasionally joining them on the beach; and then there was Maggie.
Maggie didn’t mope. Not exactly. But she did go off on her own every chance she got. She was reading too, but it was nothing new, or, to my mind, relaxing: it was Lovecraft.
Herbert Phillip Lovecraft, to be precise.
You see, Maggie wasn’t just a fan of Lovecraft. She was a fan of Lovecraft. A Lovecraftologist, or something. She believed in him, and the things he wrote about. She studied him. She studied—
While the other two were enjoying the beach and sun (and, to tell the truth, so was I), Maggie went to the library in Newburyport. I wanted to tell her to come join the family, to have some fun with us. But Molly told me Lovecraft mentions that library specifically in his work, especially in his Shadow over Innsmouth, or whatever it’s called. That they have a special Lovecraft section there, so Maggie was probably in hog heaven.
I didn’t think she’d steal a book.
I didn’t even know there were rare books connected with Lovecraft. I know now. I didn’t know anything until the phone call.
I’d taken the bus to the market in town. It was late — almost sundown in the summer, so it was near nine o’clock — because we’d all had a long day at the beach. All except Maggie, who’d spent the whole day at the library, from opening to closing. I didn’t even know she was home until she called my cell.
“Dad,” she said. “Amy’s got my book and she won’t give it back — and she’s reading from it! Out loud!”
“Well,” I said, “tell your mother. She’ll make it stop.”
I was busy trying to jockey a shopping cart along while holding the phone with my shoulder, but those damn cell phones are so small! In the background, though, I could hear Amy’s voice, running along in a sing-song. I couldn’t make out the words, but from what I could hear it was gibberish. She was making fun.
“I did tell Mom, but she thinks it’s funny. Please, Dad, she’s chanting! Here!”
I fumbled the phone for the umpteenth time in this short conversation, and I have to admit I was sharp with her.
“Look, Maggie, you’ll have to sort it out with them, okay? I’m not there— ”
That was as far as I got before Maggie shrieked “No, not that one!” and the call disconnected.
I finished my shopping and caught the last bus back to Plum Island, a grocery bag in each hand. I took my time: Amy and Mags loved each other, I had no doubt, but sometimes their arguments could go on for hours, and the more I could miss of that particular show, the better.
So it was about forty-five minutes between the phone call and when I found the jellyfish.
I had stepped onto the sand, trying to take a straight line to the house, when I saw first one jellyfish, and then another, and then more and more of the disgusting creatures covered the beach, bulbous bodies flattened without their usual buoyant medium. So alien are they that I couldn’t even tell if they still lived — they have no eyes to roll, no mouths to gasp, no muscles to twitch and spasm— and I have no idea whether they can survive for long out of the water.
So numerous were they, so tightly packed were those amorphous little maybe-corpses, that I couldn’t step between them. Shuddering at the thought of crushing the creatures beneath my feet, I tried to detour around them, circling across the sand, looking for a way to get to the house. I wondered at the sheer number of the things, thinking it could possibly be one of those strange, group-suicide events some sea creatures perform, like when a whole pod of dolphins or school of fish determinedly beaches itself until the entire extended group expires.
Then I saw the dolphins.
Maybe porpoises. I don’t know the difference, really. But there were three: two larger, one smaller, so I think it was a family. They still lived, flapping their tails and flexing their bodies, obviously exhausted but still thrusting themselves inch-by-inch over the sand — propelling themselves away from the water. I was about to turn and go for help, maybe find some of the locals to help me push them back into the surf, but I noticed the fish.
Hundreds of fish. Maybe thousands, all up on dry land. Some still flopping about, some just still. I don’t know fish, I’m not a fisherman, but I recognized flounder, herring and one huge striped bass. There were others, many other species, whole schools of them, all flopping and flouncing their way higher up on shore.
Away from the water.
All of these sea creatures, all struggling in the same direction, it suddenly reminded me of a scene from a movie: woodland creatures of all kinds, predator, prey and in-between, all running in the same direction — away from a forest fire.
Was there something in the water, I wondered? A tsunami? Underwater earthquake? I looked around the beach, covered in corpses and those soon-to-be, and wondered what could have gotten all of these creatures into such a state of panic that they swam blindly to death trying to escape.
That’s when I noticed the house.
It was dark, but there were no lights on in the house. None at all.
A strange dread seized me, a panic not unlike that which had driven countless sea creatures up onto the sand, but this feeling drove me instead toward the house. I staggered across that field of the dead, stumbling, tripping, falling over fish and getting up again, covered in sand and the slime every ocean-dweller seems covered in, but I could not watch my feet, nor choose my path more carefully; I had eyes only for the darkened dwelling ahead.
I arrived to find the back door, the door facing the beach, open wide and hanging from twisted hinges. The frame was torn, the latch-plate missing, as if the door itself had been struck by a police battering ram. The smell of the bodies outside seemed to follow me through the door, making it hard to breathe, and my heart beat so rapidly I was dizzy as I flipped on the light switch and saw the sand. We had been careful not to track sand into the house all week, but now it filled this room, strewn across the floor and up the stairs. There were marks in the sand, strange marks that tried to demand my attention but I had no time. No time to look at prints in the sand — I had to find them.
“Girls?” I called. “Molly?” Only the sound of the surf answered my cries, rolling rhythmically in through the broken door.
I started up the stairs toward the house proper, but my hand, coated with the excretions of the sea creatures I’d struggled through, slipped on the handrail and I fell to one knee. From that new angle I could see the light shining off the rail as if it were wet, and even in my panic I paused to run a hand along the rail, and the wall behind it.
All was covered with a thick coating of the same fishy slime, the true source of the powerful, sour odor, so thick I could taste it on my tongue.
“Molly!” I yelled, pounding up the stairs. “Maggie! Amy!”
I heard only the breaking waves.
The house I found in disarray. The kitchen table was pushed aside, chairs knocked askew, silverware scattered, plates and glasses shattered. The couch lacked its cushions: I found them on the floor, two of them rent and torn, stuffing oozing like pus from an infected wound. An end table was tipped on its side, reading lamp broken, lampshade crushed.
And everywhere, everywhere, sand and slime and that terrible fishy smell.
Then I found the book.
Closed, lying in the corner, the book appeared to be the only thing in the house not covered in that vile stuff. The cover was a blank, leather-bound shell, but the page-ends had been printed with the words Property of Newburyport Library. The only damage, as I picked it up, appeared to be a single page, half-torn out but trapped in place; a cockeyed bookmark.
I opened the book at the torn page.
Most of the page was covered with a strange gobbledygook that made no sense to me, all baby-talk interspersed with occasional strange symbols, though the header showed the title of the book quite clearly: The Rites of Dagon.
Dagon. I knew that name — had heard Maggie talking about Lovecraft enough to recognize it. Some sort of fish-demon… or God…
Something drew me to the windows. Maybe it was something about that name, ‘Dagon’, or maybe I caught a hint of motion out there somehow.
...or maybe it was the impression on the half-torn page. It was a mark, wet on the paper, the only bit of that foul-smelling scum to have touched the book. Smeared slightly, as if it had struck the book, perhaps knocking it from a frightened girl’s hands to land in a forgotten corner of the room.
It was the imprint of a hand. But it was not a hand, couldn’t be a hand — the fingers were too thin, and far too long, at least half-again as long as fingers ought to be. And between them — I was later told it was just the mark of a splash across the page, but it was far too uniform for that — between those elongated digits, the middle one showing, I think, an extra knuckle, stretched the shadow of a membrane of tissue, like you’d see on a duck’s foot, or maybe a frog.
I gazed, heartsick and horror-stricken, out the windows overlooking the sea. The moon had turned the water into a flat gray plain, smoked glass stretching to the horizon, and from my new vantage point, high above the beach, I could see them, far from shore, nearly at the limit of my vision.
Heads. Dozens of them. Shoulders. Arms rhythmically rising and falling in a motion I knew all too well. Swimmers in the night, all stroking steadily away from the land, and though it was too far for me to see, I didn’t have to see to know.
Those dozens of hands slipping so swiftly through the water, were webbed.
With this realization the world started spinning about me. The stench permeating the house filled my nose and mouth, gagging me. I felt my stomach lurch as I staggered, but before I could vomit the world slipped away and went black.
The police have seen the mark in the book, and they saw the house — smelled the house— and they have to know. Have to. Someone came and took my family. Something answered the call from that book, the chant Amy and Molly were laughing about even as Maggie begged them to stop, and I have to go find it. They might still be alive, merely taken, and I can try to take them back.
But not from in here.
Can’t you out that in your report, Doctor? That the police know? Wouldn’t that help me get out of here so I could look for them? That the police have evidence?
Will you write that down, Doctor?
Where are you going? Wait, please, won’t you help me? I don’t belong in here! I’m not like the others in the ward! Help me get out so I can look for them, Doctor!