“They say its eyelids have gone down another meter,” Abi said, her voice echoing in the stairwell. “It’s just a matter of time. Maybe in three years, it’ll finally close its eyes and stop giving us nightmares.”
“Are you looking at Bakunawatch again?” Mimi asked, the balloon squeaking in her hands. Abi raised her cell phone. The screen showed the monster’s face, eyes like a pair of bloody tumors protruding above sharp, pointed teeth the size of skyscrapers.
Paula frowned at them both. “What a stupid name,” she said. “It doesn’t even look like a sea serpent.” Scientists had likened it to the giant Grenadier fish, a deep-sea fish with large mouth and eyes, except that this one was truly gigantic, with the tip of its head resting on what used to be Alesund in Norway and its tail brushing what used to be Krasnoyarsk in Russia, a body length of more than four thousand kilometers. Some fiction writer, in an attempt to reference local mythology, called the creature “Bakunawa” on social media. Her post was shared more than eighty thousand times, and now the name still stuck, five years after the Surfacing. She also coined the term “Surfacing”, to describe the day the creature began to appear from the depths of the ocean. A girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do, Paula thought. Some turn to naming the unnamable; others join a sad, undermanned, underfunded, wish-granting nonprofit organization, pretending the world is still sane.
They were sitting on the stairs of the apartment building where the Child of the Month lived. It used to be an affluent building, but after the Surfacing it had fallen into disrepair, like most other places. The stairwell was dark, made darker by the gray clouds outside, threatening rain. The elevators and corridors smelled like dog pee, and Paula had earlier stepped on what could either be wet mud or feces.
The balloon in Mimi’s hands exploded, the sound as surprising and deafening as a blast. “Jesus!” Paula said.
“Sorry,” Mimi said, looking distraught.
“Maybe we should give up on the balloons,” Abi said. “We’re not making any headway, and we only have thirty minutes left.”
“The boy asked for balloons,” Paula said, reaching into the box next to her for the hand balloon pump. “Let’s give it fifteen more minutes.”
Abi sighed. “I’ll go fix Mimi’s eye makeup.”
They managed to make four balloons—one shaped like a poodle, one shaped like a cat, one shaped like a monkey, and one shaped like a sort-of horse with one ear and three legs. “It’s the effort that counts,” Abi said, indignant, when Paula stared at it five seconds too long.
“Not really, Abi,” Paula said. “But sure, whatever you say.”
“I play better than I make balloons.”
“And thank God for that.”
They didn’t want to smell like the elevators, so they took the stairs. The apartment was only two flights up.
“If the mother requested for media coverage,” Mimi said, “do you think HQ would have given us a PA?”
“Do you need a hand with your case?” Paula asked.
“No,” Mimi said. “Just wondering out loud if the organization still has integrity.”
The floor where the boy’s apartment unit was located looked and felt abandoned. Every door they passed was locked, with poorly spelled signs announcing that the previous residents had moved out, and to contact the building supervisor for rent inquiries or to get the forwarding details. There were boxes on the corridors filled with toys, bedsheets, clothes, books, bric-a-brac, all covered with a thick film of dust. Abi peeked into one box and found kitchen appliances: a toaster, a microwave, a blender. Mimi found a laptop under several pillows.
“Do you think this still works?” she asked.
“Don’t touch anything,” Paula said.
Abi stood next to Mimi and pinched one of the pillows with her thumb and forefinger. “This is goose down!” she exclaimed.
“What did I say about not touching anything?”
“I’m coming back for those pillows,” Abi said.
Paula knocked on the door and readied her smile. The door was answered by a woman with smeared lipstick and a large gold-orange stain on her white blouse. “Good morning,” the woman said. Paula’s smile faltered a little.
“Mrs. De Vera?”
“That’s me,” Mrs. De Vera said. “Well.” She stood in the doorway and stared at them for an awkward minute. “I didn’t expect to see a group of young ladies. I thought only old biddies volunteer for this kind of thing.”
“I’m twenty-one,” Mimi said, who was often mistaken for a high school student, making her touchy about her age.
“Good for you,” Mrs. De Vera said. She looked up at the balloon animals and Abi’s sort-of horse bobbing against each other. “How sweet. You brought balloons.”
“Andrew asked for balloons, didn’t he?” Paula said as they entered. “You know our tagline, ‘You dare to dream, we dare to make your dreams—’ ”
“Where is Andrew?” Abi asked, looking around the two-bedroom apartment. There were traces of child in the living room: rubber shoes and balled up socks, basketball jerseys, a stack of discs on top of a black game console, a child-sized violin. On their left was a curtain running the length of the room. The curtain was thin and made of cloth, making Paula think of a hospital curtain. That side of the room was dark so they couldn’t see any shadows or silhouettes, though they could hear a faint sound of blowing air.
An automatic room deodorizer and humidifier sat in the middle of the coffee table, but on top of the fragrant fumes, Paula could detect a rotten odor, the smell of decaying seafood.
“Let’s get a drink first,” Mrs. De Vera said, herding them away from the curtain. “Just us ladies.”
“Paula,” Mimi said, leaning close so Mrs. De Vera wouldn’t hear, “is it just me or does it smell like fish in this room?”
The kitchen was immaculate, a stark contrast to the large stain on Mrs. De Vera’s top. She opened one of the cupboards and took out a bottle of whiskey and three glasses. She placed these on the kitchen table and opened the refrigerator to take out a liter of soda and a half-empty ice tray.
On the table were several magazines and paperback books about deep-sea creatures. One slim volume opened to a poem:
The Sea Monster as Goddess
Blessed be The Sunken Mother, now Risen, now free.
Only in the depths can one find true Beauty
That even blind eyes can see.
The earth splits open, the ocean peels off its sun-soaked mask
And lets Queen Midnight bask in Her glory.
“Come to me,” She whispers, “come to me,
All the dying, all the drowning,
The tired, the hungry—
Come to me—
And I will swallow you whole.”
“We will just take the soda, please,” Paula said, slightly rattled, and closed the book.
“All right,” Mrs. De Vera said, handing them glasses, and mixed herself a drink that was more whiskey than soda.
“It must be hard,” Mimi said, clutching her own glass to her chest, “to take care of Andrew all on your own.”
Mrs. De Vera did not acknowledge this. Instead she said, “Where were you during the Surfacing?” but didn’t give them a chance to answer. She continued: “I was at work. There was a terrible earthquake. I thought, ‘This is it. The Big One.’ Remember when they kept talking about that? That we’re due a big earthquake and have to be prepared for the worst? Drills every quarter, but where was the metro-wide Gigantic Monster Drill when you needed it?”
She laughed weakly. She placed her elbow on the table and cupped her cheek. Her face was turning red from the alcohol. “I didn’t even know anything about the ocean. Do you know that ninety-seven percent of all habitable living space on earth is in the deep sea? And that there’s a region in the deep ocean called the Midnight Zone, where sunlight doesn’t penetrate at all? I’ve also only learned recently that there’s a thing called ‘abyssal gigantism’—ocean creatures that live in shallower waters become giants when they live in the deep. Scientists think it could be adaptation to scarce resources or ocean pressure, but they still don’t know exactly why it happens.”
Paula, Abi, and Mimi glanced at each other. None of them had the heart to tell Mrs. De Vera that yes, they knew all this, they had talked about it ad nauseam and picked apart all the existing theories on Reddit and Facebook, they had read all the Wikipedia entries. Governments rained bombs on the monster as it continued its ascent, unperturbed, cracking open Eurasia, creating tsunamis that sank islands and countries. During those early days, there were several reports of people falling ill because of the monster, especially the people still living in relative proximity to the site of the Surfacing. Lung inflammation, seizures, vomiting, internal bleeding, skin damage—all symptoms of acute radiation syndrome. But no one came forward with definitive proof.
For two years after the monster completed its ascent, it gradually opened its eyes, and now it appeared to be closing them again, a multi-year blink. That was it. That was all.
Mrs. De Vera finished her drink and led them back to the living room. Paula took out a small tripod and a video camera from her bag and began to set up, Mimi and Abi standing close and hovering over her in their nervousness. When they looked up, Mrs. De Vera was standing right in front of the lens, looking as if she were on the verge of punching their throats.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“This is for documentation, Mrs. De Vera.”
“Didn’t I say no cameras?” She went to the coffee table, picked up a plastic bin full of toys and upended it, letting the contents fall on the floor. She marched back to them with the empty container in her hands and said, “Give me your phones, all of your gadgets.”
Paula was indignant. “Mrs. De Vera!”
“You’ll get them back!” The woman was genuinely shouting now, a vein throbbing in her temple, the skin on her chest turning red. “Give me your phones now!”
Mimi turned to Paula with frightened eyes, as if to say, We are going to die here, aren’t we?
Paula, who had not moved a muscle, said, “Mrs. De Vera, you are scaring the performers.”
Mrs. De Vera stared back at her, blinked, took a deep breath. The throbbing vein disappeared, the redness on her chest drained away.
“You know what TMAO means?” Mrs. De Vera asked in a small voice.
Paula, surprised, could only say, “What?”
“Trimethylamine N-oxide,” she replied. “It’s what makes fish smell like fish.” She placed the bin on the floor. “Giant Grenadier has high concentrations of it. Makes it smelly. Makes my house smelly.”
She grabbed one end of the curtain and spoke as she pulled it aside. “I’ve always wondered what that thing is planning to do after it surfaced. It just floats there. It moves so slowly. What the hell does it event want?”
The curtain revealed a plastic tent, the kind of tent they used to isolate patients with Ebola.
“Now I think I know,” Mrs. De Vera said.
Inside the tent, they could see two pale legs wrapped around a thin, white blanket. From the chest up all they could see was black: black, shiny scales, huge black eyes, a slit of a mouth. The legs twitched every three seconds. All over the bedsheets was a large rust-colored stain. As Paula tried to make sense of the scene before her, she thought of the stain on Mrs. De Vera’s blouse, the stain she at first thought was whiskey. The legs twitched, and the stain on the bed grew wider. The stain was coming from the scales.
“It’s turning us into its likeness,” Mrs. De Vera said.
None of them screamed, although Paula could feel herself trembling.
“We were told he had cancer,” she managed to say.
“And you don’t consider this cancer?” Mrs. De Vera said, her voice rising again. “When I filled out your wish-granting form a week ago he only had scales on his chest.” A few moments later, when they failed to move, she made an impatient gesture with her hands. “Well?” she said. “What the hell are you waiting for?”
They had swallowed their screams and now the screams were propelling them, making them move like automatons. They stared at the floor, pretending the tent and the boy in the tent did not exist. Paula fixed the stands and placed the sheet music titled Passacaglia in G minor on a Theme by George Frideric Handel for violin and viola (Halvorsen, Johan). Abi and Mimi lifted their bows and began to play.
Paula didn’t know much about classical music, but she was instantly transported, away from this room, away from this planet with a monster in stasis. After the initial high, however, she began thinking that the Passacaglia sounded mournful, like a funeral dirge, and she wished they had played something else instead. Some piece not by a Norwegian composer who was not only dead but whose country was dead as well, blown to smithereens by a monster head rising from the sea.
Every now and then Paula would glance at the tent and see Andrew’s legs twitching, twitching.
Five and a half minutes into the piece, while Paula watched Abi and Mimi sway with the music and the movements, a pained scream came from inside the tent.
Andrew was attempting to stand up.
Mimi, who was playing the violin, paused for a moment. “Don’t stop playing!” Mrs. De Vera pleaded. But that slit of a mouth opening to show wound-pink flesh, that pained scream like a cross between a small child and a dog pinned by a car, was making it difficult to do anything else.
Andrew stood on unsteady feet. Now his whole body twitched, spraying rust-colored drops. Mrs. De Vera shouted her son’s name. Andrew tripped over the tangled sheets and hit the wall of the tent, bringing it down with him as he fell. Mrs. De Vera, tears streaming down her face, knelt in front of her son and placed her hands over the plastic. To Paula’s horror, she saw Mrs. De Vera tighten the plastic over Andrew’s head. The fish-head. The plastic fogging up with breath, the mouth gaping wide. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
Mimi picked up the stand and her case with surprising ease and ran out of the apartment. Paula and Abi followed close behind. One of the balloons got caught in Abi’s viola case and exploded, making Paula shriek. They could hear a steady, dull thump against plastic, a gush of viscous liquid, and Mrs. De Vera’s voice saying, “It’s okay, baby, it’s okay, it’s okay”, the sounds following them down the dark stairwell.
They burst out of the lobby doors and kept running for several blocks until Mimi yelped and sat down on the sidewalk, massaging a cramp. Now they sat next to each other on the steps of what used to be an office building, the steel handles of its glass doors wrapped with a rusted chain, threaded through with a padlock the size of a child’s face. CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE, a sign taped on the doors said. Below it, someone had written in an angry scrawl, Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you, followed by There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.
They sat for ten minutes, not saying anything, just letting the silence settle, letting their muscles rest. Finally, Abi said, “The tent came from the government, didn’t it?”
“What?” Paula said.
“It has to have come from somewhere,” Abi said. “It’s not like you can buy one of those at S&R.”
“I think you could,” Mimi said. “They sell camping tents.”
“Whatever,” Abi said. “Someone supplied that tent to her. The government knows about this.”
Paula sighed. “Save it for the Reddit thread, Abi.”
“Do you think the disease is caused by an airborne virus?” Abi said.
Paula and Mimi didn’t respond.
“The boy destroyed the tent when we were there,” Abi continued. “Mrs. De Vera had a stain on her blouse. And she shook our hands. Served us drinks.” She leaned forward. “If I end up like that—”
“Abi,” Paula said, touching her temple. “Stop. Just stop talking for a minute.”
Paula started thinking of her mother. Her mother who had four children, whose husband left her shortly before Paula’s youngest sister was born. She and her siblings had stayed with their mother after the separation, fiercely loyal, fiercely protective. How strange it must have been for her mother, to look around her house one day and realize that she had inadvertently given birth to her own allies, her own lifelong companions. The monster, the goddess. Is that what it was doing? A singular creature creating children in its likeness, creating companions to conquer the loneliness?
“Maybe it’s just time to step aside,” Mimi said.
“What do you mean?” Abi asked.
“For us,” Mimi said. “Humans. Maybe it’s time for us to step aside. Maybe our time has come. What good have we ever done for the planet anyway?”
It would be a relief for the planet, Paula thought, to have millennia of only stillness and small, quiet movements. For once.
“Well,” Abi said. “As long as we don’t suffer, I guess.”
“Do you think Andrew was suffering?” Mimi asked.
They didn’t have an answer for that.
“I will miss music,” Mimi said. “And food. And the beach. I used to really like the beach, but now I can’t even stand staring at a large body of water.”
Another quiet minute passed. Black clouds were gathering overheard. It would rain soon, and Paula didn’t have an umbrella. She had to contact HQ and request for transportation. Once they returned to their shared apartment, Abi had to do her laundry, Mimi had to clean the refrigerator. And Paula had to prepare dinner and write a full report about what happened.
Even now, even here, they had to do these things as though they were the most important things, as though they still had an infinite number of days before them.
“Abi?” Mimi said. “Can you play Stravinsky’s Elegy?”
Abi yawned and glanced at her. “Sure,” she said, breathing deeply as she stood up. “Why not.”
Abi placed her chin on her instrument. Her bow slid across the strings, making a sound like that of an animal dying, or about to awaken.