“A swashing bassinet ye’re” the booming voice welcomes me. He’s cackling behind the bar. “Join them then. Yous’ll wither up nice.” With a wild gesture, he nods me towards a radiator in the corner. I’d already halfway sputtered a ‘what?’ before I could reel in my tongue. But if he heard me, he ignored it. Good.
I peel my sopping jacket from my shoulders, slapping it once.
“Oy, this ain’t no fish barrel,” he snaps at me, towel in hand. “You’d’ve better luck flopping on yer mam’s chopping board. She’ll endya in’ne go. I’ll endya slow.” Despite not understanding him, one good whip in my direction is enough to threaten me stiff. This is my first time in Apareene since I was a boy. Smallest town on the Southern border, most peculiar people. Even so, I’m never looking to rile the locals.
I squeeze through the tightly clumped stools, sloshing bodies heaving me from one to the other. It’s as clamorous in here as it is outside. Bodies, bloated as these, have been spooking locals all up the coast. That’s why I’ve been called in. Detective ‘fish barrel’ on duty, bloat whisperer extraordinaire.
“Cradled to her bosom, were ya?” The barkeep beats me to the radiator. He’s clutching a stein close to his own bosom, heart deep in a fantasy that’s plastered a toothless grin to his rosy cheeks. It’s hard to know if he was really even speaking to me.
“Thank you,” I nod, ready to take the stein from his grasp. That’s when his eyes roll to mine, swallowing up reality with a couple meaty blinks. He jerks the stein out of my reach, hobbling back a few steps. Is the barkeep drunk?
“The fish don’t lie,” he informs me, using the stein to point at me, “them bloats been dead centuries. Any o’my men donet it. They ain’t stupid. Bloats come back. Rots never do.” I lift an innocent palm, tapping it to his shoulder. The only rot here is the barkeep’s breath. Ah, and his infinite lack of knowledge.
“I got it,” I nod. He’s telling me not to question any of his patrons. That just stews suspicion in me. I may not have been down to the bloats yet, but death has always been my mistress. Bloats aren’t aged. Bones, certainly. Not bloats. Marine life is unforgiving. It mines bone for every scrap of flesh, until it’s bare.
“Don’t wring that,” the barkeep bellows. He jabs an inflated finger deep into the soft bit of my shoulder, before using it to draw a wide circle in front of my jacket. I knew what he meant. He didn’t need to bruise the point into me. But he’s drunk, he doesn’t have an ounce of his wherewithal.
“Wasn’t planning to,” I toss it on an empty stool.
“Out when mother wipes’er eyes,” he orders me, slamming the stein down on top of my jacket. Oh nice. Thank you for that.
She’s been crying for weeks, that’s how the bloats surfaced to begin with. It’s all the more suspicious really. That is, him being so blatantly unwelcoming.
Lifting the stein in two fingers, I hazard a whiff. Ugh. That’s just awful. Lucky I’m not here for the victuals. Just here for the meet, marshal, detective, and coroner. …walk into a pub. Don’t laugh at your own joke. Detective F. Barrel reporting, sir, says the first, marshal Ewe A. Bloat, the second, coroner Ben Rotting, answers the third. Don’t laugh.
“Detective.” F. Barrel. Stifle it, for pity’s sake detective. The marshal wades through, a skeletal hand waving me down. He’s about as passed through as our bloats’ll be. I step to meet him, slapping my wet palm to his. “Mother be bleeding dry. ‘Pologize for’er dramatic showing.”
“Please,” I shake my head. “I haven’t been down here since I was a lad. But I remember her tantrums well.”
“I’ll drink to that,” he chortles. Please do. I pass my given stein to him, and watch him gorge. He doesn’t just drink the piss, but laps the stein clean. It takes everything in me not to retch. “Coroner’s on his way, he says. Grim little thing delights in mother’s temper.”
“Right,” I give a slow nod, offering my stool to him. “Only one left.” Flopping my drowned jacket over my shoulder, I give one more nod to the seat.
“Nah,” he directs us towards the door, “once he’s’ere, hoping the bloats’ll be an easy inspection. Day’s been damn long.” I can’t say I blame him. Something about bloats in the glow of lanterns with the bone-chilling sobs of mother pounding down your back would cause any man a sleepless night.
He’s shoving his way to the door before I even muster an answer. Friendly as he seems, it’s not many layers deep.
Barkeep be cursed, I’m wringing out this jacket. I hide myself behind two barrels, because even as they jostle, their massive bodies cover me.
The water bursts from deep within the folds. If I could be any more soaked, this would have done it. Now to escape. I casually force the jacket back over my clinging sleeves, joining the marshal by the door. He’s peering through the door, out onto the street.
Mother only seems more agitated, her tears overwhelming the ground and her intoxicating perfume blinding for miles. At this rate, we’ll barely even be able to see the forsaken bloats.
“There he is,” the marshal announces, swinging an arm for the coroner. “Here then!” He beckons for him to cross towards us, but he needn’t. The coroner is already sprinting. His pallid skin is ghostly. The blood is draining to his chest, where his fingers, more relatable to claws, are clutched over his heart. He’s gasping.
“The bloats-” he exclaims over mother’s roar. “The bloats they-”
“What man?” The marshal is quick to catch the coroner’s wrists, steadying his frantic form. Time slows as we wait.
The bloats, man. The bloats. Spit it out. I’m half-tempted to take the coroner by his lapel, when his trembling lips part. A wheeze escapes his throat and then he screams.
“The bloats be alive!”
“Right then, what say you we get a move on?” I slick a clammy hand through my hair, then cover it with the jacket’s attached hood. The other two turn to me, almost stunned. “What happened to getting home, marshal?”
“R-right,” he glances at the coroner, “alive, you say?” Every halfwit believes the bloats are alive when they first see them. They inflate about the size of the barkeep inside, before bursting, a gaseous pustule.
“It’s hand raised’n-” the coroner begins, demonstrating on the marshal. Mother’s insulted by the performance. Her irritation shows in the scream she unleashes through us. It sinks into my hood, almost ripping it back down to my shoulders, but I resist her. The father of Isshamen harbors a comparable fury.
“-Just lead the way,” I interrupt the display, leaning to one hip. Her perfume is clinging to the air now, congregating in masses. The longer we wait, the more likely the bloats will blend with the crowd.
“Sir,” the marshal finally drags the coroner back along the path he came on. “If the bloats’re really alive, sir. I’m be tailin’t’ome.” Coward. I’m the only one here who’s actually seen a bloat rise–a rot, too. Pulled my gun faster than I care to remember, but the thing was already considering my ankle. Shot it dead with two bullets. It still squirmed after the third.
“You still’ere detective?” The marshal calls out to me. His voice wafts in the perfume, drawn towards the siren, but hindered by her multidirectional song. And her endless sobbing. Even so, I can still see the reflection of the pistol strapped to his belt. I jog to keep up.
“‘Bout to hit sand, sir,” the coroner explains, resting his claw to my stomach. The people here have grown more handsy. Or I’ve finally aged enough to notice it. When he lowers himself down, he releases me, only to hold that claw out for me to take. What am I, a maiden? I hop down beside him, sharing one passing glare.
“I’d consider a coverin’,” the marshal suggests, already tightening a cloth over his nose.
“For the smell, I know,” I reply. The problem, compiling up with the many I have right now, is mother has damn near drowned me. And with me, my every possession. Even the cloth from my inside pocket is inundated. Coupling the smell of the bloats and the smell of mother’s tears, the cloth barely offers haven. Back in the breast pocket it goes.
I trudge through the sand, squinting. And then I see them. As described, a menagerie of bloats lay face down along the shore. They’d be peaceful, if their stench wasn’t attracting ravenous crustaceans.
“Out with you!” The marshal unclips his pistol, wielding it in a wild arc. Man’ll shoot the lot of us with reckless abandon like that.
“Hey,” I snap, gesturing for him to lower it. “They’ll clear the moment we approach them. Always do.”
“He’s scared o’them sea maggots,” the marshal states, holstering his gun. Of course he is. The coroner enjoys long walks under mother’s wrath, but fears every being within a foot radius of him. As the marshal said: grim little thing.
Ignoring them, I march past. As suspected, the bloat’s movement is involuntary. Its decomposition had been slowed by the water. But with the sudden exposure to air, and water simultaneously, it’s now rapidly proceeding through the stages. The bloat is, in fact, bloating. And because it’s facedown in the sand, that’s causing motions the grim little thing could assume were intentional.
“It’s dead,” I announce, squatting down beside it. As I reach for the gloves in my other pocket, mother drives me to the ground. All three of us, actually. Her roars are building on the water, sending word to her daughter below. Is she protesting my investigation? If so, why’d she un-sea the bloats in the first place? “I’m trying to help you!” I snarl.
She calms. But I know it’s only a brief reprieve, a warning of what’s to come.
“Anything detective?” The marshal teeters towards me, his legs wobbling. The two with me barely pass for humans anymore than the bloats do. Even the partial smile on his face seems only a slit for escaping maggots. It may be a strange moment for a sudden realization, but he’s creepy.
“He’s been stabbed,” I reply, finally retrieving my gloves. I heave the bloat onto his back, pressing a delicate finger through his dangling jaws. “Jaw was broken.”
“And him?” The marshal gestures towards another bloat not a foot away. I stretch my way to him, using one hand to steady myself and the other to riffle through his clothing.
“Stabbed,” I reply. “Straight through the sternum, same as our first.”
“Terrible,” the marshal sighs, suddenly shaking the water from his hat. It squelches in his hands, barely holding form anymore. It’s an oddly casual reaction. My eyes trace from his hat, down to his belt. Sure, he has a pistol on one hip, but what of the other?
“Detective,” his stern tone forces my gaze back to his. “Not flirtin’n the job now, are ya?” Ewe A. Bloat. My joke was fitting all along, I just didn’t know it’d be pronounced, ‘you.’But I’m not a willing victim. Now’s the time to laugh at your own joke. I struggle to curl my chilled lips. I know the shiver rolling through me isn’t just the cold.
“Bit of an inappropriate question, marshal,” I quip, gagging a laugh through my tightening wind pipes. One emaciated hand twitches, lingering over his pistol. He hesitates, gauging my reaction.
“Bit of an inappropriate look, detective,” he finally bants back, drawing that hand to his waist. The grim little thing peeks around him, meeting my probably petrified stare. He points at the first bloat, a fish gasping for its first words. That distracts the marshal, and I immediately draw a small handgun from my boot.
As I whip to aim, a sudden scream startles us all.
Before I can react, mother and daughter meet. As their fingers intertwine, I flatten myself to the sand, lifting my finger from the trigger. Before I can clench my fist around the butt, she rips it from my grasp.
I’ve done similar battle with father. They think they’re protecting me. But I’ve seen the utter devastation a simple joining of hands can bring. They may keep me from taking one life, but in doing so, they take many.
The women inhale, ripping the jacket clean from my back. I didn’t need it. It was a handle they could grip to control me, now I’m slippery. Crawling my way up the shore, I sink my fingertips deep. Sand or not, it’s the only grip I have.
A harrowing howl rampages its way down the shore. I watch in horror as it ravages the landscape. Her perfume dissipates with one directing cry. And then the sand rises in ethereal hands. For one hopeful moment, I consider she’s changed her mind. But the mother’s not leading this charge. Her daughter is out for blood. Her hands hurl the sand forward, consuming the town.
It has incredible recoil, blinding me. While I struggle to blink the searing sand free from my lashes, I lose grip on my surroundings. Well, all but their shrieks.
The bloats are always a message. As are the rot. It’s clear now what it was this time.
I grow so accustomed to the screams, I almost falter when they die. The silence is overwhelming. It takes time to recover. My limbs quiver, resisting my commands.
But once I have control, I rise to my knees. There’s nothing left but wet sand. Its dull color is bleak against mother’s grey dress.
No town. No marshal. No little grim thing. And no bloats.
I’m alone. Again.