“Grandma?” Jason asks, unable to decipher Sean’s accent.
“Grindyma,” Sean corrects him.
“What the hell is a grindyma?”
“Don’t listen to him, Jason,” says Tim, the smallest member of the group. His Clark Kent glasses glint in the moonlight as he pushes them up for the hundredth time. “It’s just a stupid monster story.”
Jason reminds himself that if a skinny little glasses-wearing kid like Tim can win Sean and Richie’s respect, he can too. And he strongly suspects that this is the scene where the local kids try to scare the new kid in town. He’s been waiting for this challenge. If he proves himself tonight, he’ll be one of them.
“Nobody knows what she is,” says Sean. “But she’s real. I heard this guy found her a couple of years ago, when he was out catching horseshoe crabs all by himself, and she scared him so bad he lost his mind.”
“She’s like a giant lobster or something,” says Richie helpfully.
“She’s not a lobster, dipshit.” Sean throws these words around like punctuation marks, and the other boys flinch every time. Even Richie, who could probably flatten Sean’s face with a single punch, takes it without protesting.
Nonetheless, he insists, “my dad said she was sort of a dinosaur lobster. You know, some kind of missing link.” Richie, Jason realises, is not quite the troglodyte he appears to be. If he didn’t think he needed Sean’s permission for everything, he might be a halfway normal kid.
“Well, your dad oughta know about missing links, Richie. But I heard the guys talking about her one night, and nobody said anything about a lobster. They said she had fins. And eyes, great big ones like a fish.”
Jason almost bursts out laughing. A fishing and lobstering town has a fish-lobster monster, of course. Could these kids be any more predictable? If this is what they think will scare him, this is going to be a piece of cake. He’ll be part of the gang in no time. Then he can start thinking about other things, like taking Sean’s place as the leader of the group. It shouldn’t be too hard. All Sean has going for him, as far as Jason can see, is his father’s prestige.
Sean looks at Jason’s feet and sneers. “Jesus, kid. Don’t you have any boots?”
Jason looks at the two bigger boys. They are wearing knee-high rubber boots, the same kind their fathers wear on the boats. Of course he doesn’t have any fishing boots. What kind of kid has fishing boots? Lobstermen’s kids, of course. Tim has them, too.
“I’ll be all right.” He can stand getting wet. All he has to do is keep cool.
Sean shrugs as if he could hardly care less, and asks, “you tell anybody where you were going?”
“Of course not. You think my dad would let me come out here in the middle of the night?”
“Okay. Let’s go.” Sean and Richie walk onto the mud.
“You’re gonna get all wet,” Tim warns him.
He’s right. The mud is softer than Jason thought. After four steps, his feet are sinking straight into the black muck, past the tops of his hiking boots. Pulling his feet out is an ordeal.
“I’ll be all right.” He has to be.
They stop occasionally for him to catch up. He’s panting, and his jeans are covered in mud. They walk on, navigating between the clumps of reeds, the ground even squishier now. Jason is the only one who doesn’t know what this means.
After what seems like an hour but is probably only a few minutes, he sinks into the mud almost to his waist. “He - hold up!” he calls out, trying to make it sound casual. I’m not asking for help, he reminds himself. Lobstermen’s kids don’t ask each other for help.
Sean and Richie, leading the little group, look back and laugh.
“Look at him!”
Tim gives Sean a look of disgust. “Don’t be an asshole, Sean.” He comes back and holds out a hand to Jason. “Come on, kid. You gotta watch for those sinkholes.”
“What are they?” Jason pants when he is free.
“I dunno, just soft spots I guess. Come on, they’re almost there already.”
“Thanks, Tim. Tell me, is Sean always such a dick?” Jason knows that Tim, the other new kid - his family has only lived in Edgewater for a year - is the best person to start making allies with.
Tim nods, looking at the moon distractedly. “Yeah, kind of, but he’s all right if you know how to get him to leave you alone.”
This is a good sign, Jason thinks. He wonders how Tim did it.
Before the slow-moving water enters the sea, there is a brief muddy plain bounded by a rock wall about ten feet high. The mud here is even softer than before, but after a minute they make it to the rocks. Jason climbs up, almost collapsing as soon as he is out of that sticky, grasping mud. The rocks are covered with sharp-pointed little snails and what seem to be barnacles, but he pretends he is comfortable.
The waves pound against the other side of the rocks, spraying them occasionally.
The moon is starting to climb into the sky.
Sean, looking entirely at home perched on the rocks, asks Tim if he brought any smokes. Tim fishes in his pockets and brings out a crumpled pack of Newports stolen from some kitchen counter.
With a worried look, he says, “the moon’s coming up, Sean. Shouldn’t we start looking for the hole?”
“We’ve got plenty of time. Scared?”
“What, from your ghost stories about Grindyma? No. But Jason doesn’t have any boots.”
“Hey, I’m not the one who invited him out here. You shoulda told him to wear some boots. Want a smoke?” he magnanimously offers, but Tim and Jason both refuse. Richie takes one, although he doesn’t look like he really wants it.
“What happens when the moon rises?” Jason can’t help asking.
“Tide comes in. Don’t you know anything?” Sean sneers, lighting up a cigarette.
“The mud gets softer,” Tim explains. They sit there, smoking, while the moon climbs. Jason thinks the mud looks wetter than it was. At least it isn’t so dark anymore. He looks back over the marsh, which looks like a labyrinth of reeds. Sean is right, Tim could have given him some warning. He hadn’t expected to be trekking through knee-deep mud, and now it looks like he will be walking back through salt water just as deep.
After Sean finishes his cigarette, they start to look for Grindyma’s hole. Jason follows hesitantly, a trifle unnerved by the dark gaps between the rocks. He knows there aren’t any dinosaur lobsters in the gaps, but it’s still creepy. There might be rats, or crabs.
The other boys, more used to the terrain, are already far ahead of him. A minute later, they stop and look down at something in the rocks. Jason follows them as quickly as he can. He can hear their faint voices arguing when he gets closer.
“You’re full of it. There’s nothing down there.” Tim’s voice.
“Wanna climb down and see?” Sean, taunting.
“Yeah, climb down. You’ll see.” Richie echoes.
“Is that it?” asks Jason, finally catching up. They were gathered around a jagged hole in the rocks, a gap just big enough for a kid to climb through. He looks at it, but sees nothing unusual about the hole.
“Yeah,” says Sean quietly. “That’s where she lives.”
Tim spits nervously, “bullshit. Don’t listen to them, Jason. She’s not real.”
“She’s real,” Sean insists.
“Yeah, right. Did you ever see her?”
“No, but my dad did. He said she was six or seven feet long.”
It certainly sounds like bullshit to Jason, but he already knows not to accuse Sean’s dad of making things up. Nobody ever says anything bad about Sean’s dad. This is how Sean handles every serious challenge to his authority. The merest mention of his father, the king of the local lobstermen, shuts everyone else up. Jason isn’t going to break that rule.
Instead, he finds himself boldly repeating the suggestion that they explore the hole to find out.
Tim looks at him in surprise, but Sean and Richie are smiling. “Sure, kid. You gonna go first?” Sean asks.
“Yeah, why not? You’re coming too, right? Unless you’re scared to.”
“Fuck you. I’ve already been down there once.”
“Did anybody see you do it?”
“My cousin Allie.” He is so lying. Allie probably lives three towns away, if he’s even a real person.
“So nobody who lives around here can verify that you went down there?”
Sean blusters, “I don’t have to prove anything, kid. You’re the one that said he was gonna go down. Go ahead and do it, or shut up about it.”
“I got a flashlight, if you want it,” Tim offers. Jason notices that he isn’t offering to come with him, or back him up in any other way. This is strictly between him and Sean. All right, then.
“Okay. Give me the flashlight.”
“You’re gonna do it?” Tim can’t believe it. Richie and Sean are both smiling broadly. Something is up, Jason knows, but he can’t figure what. Obviously there isn’t any monster in the hole, so what are they up to?
He shines the light down into the hole, angling it this way and that, but can’t see anything but the angled faces of the rocks. Finding one that looks flat enough to support his feet, he lowers himself into the gap while the others watch him.
The gap isn’t very big, and he has to squirm around to keep going. But it does keep going. He had hoped it would end in a tiny crack three feet down, but no such luck. Pushing hard with feet and hands to keep from slipping, he shines the light around his feet and keeps going down. At least the hole doesn’t go straight down, but the angle is steep enough to make it treacherous.
It’s going to be hard to get back up these slippery surfaces. But he’s pretty sure he can do it.
Why is his heart pounding so hard?
After a few more feet the passage twists so he can’t see their faces above him anymore. And the hole keeps going.
Then he finds a place where his feet can’t find a rock to stand on. Empty air there, and blackness. Gripping the rocks with fingers almost numb from the effort, he kicks around and lets his body down another few inches. And touches mud.
Will it hold him? He can’t lower himself much further without losing his grip. Holding his breath, he lets his weight settle on his lowered foot. He sinks a few inches into the mud before it starts to support him.
He lifts his other foot from its hold in the crevice, and suddenly he slips. The flashlight skitters away from his fingers and falls to the muddy floor next to his foot. He falls on his ass and slides down the rock.
A short cry escapes from his mouth, ending in a whumph of surprise as he lands in the mud. It’s firm. His hands touch rocks under a few inches of mud. He snatches at the flashlight, looking around him wildly.
It’s a cave. A little cave under the rocks.
What was that?
Nothing. Of course. The cave is only about ten feet around, really nothing but a crude arch, its bottom filled with mud. The hole he’s just slipped out of is a gap in the wall a couple of feet above the mud floor on one end of the arch. Even the feeble beam from Tim’s flashlight shows clearly that there is nothing of interest in this little hole. No monsters, nothing to be afraid of.
He must be right about at the water level here, he thinks.
“I found a cave!” he shouts to the others.
He takes a couple of steps toward the far wall, feeling the mud getting deeper and wetter. By the center of the hole, the mud is a liquid medium with no rocks underneath that he can feel.
Suddenly he realises that nobody answered his call.
“There’s a little cave down here!” he repeats. “It’s not much of a cave, though. Just a little hole.” Silence.
“I don’t see any monster lobsters yet....” he jokes feebly.
Knowing that he is doing exactly what they want him to do, he calls out again. “Okay, guys, I get it. Ha ha. Seriously, come on down and see this.”
Still no response. He shines the light around the hole again. This time he notices that there is one place where the light doesn’t reach, a spot where the rocks angle away from the cave. A little passage, only about a foot above the surface of the mud.
He says nervously, “there’s another hole leading away from this one. Might be a tunnel or something. Guys?”
He can hear his heartbeat louder than the pounding of the surf outside the rock wall.
“All, right,” he shouts. “I did it. I’m coming back up now. Unless one of you chickenshits wants to come down here with me....”
No. Well, then. He turns around and steps back to the hole he came in through. Steadying himself with both hands, he puts one foot up on the slick rock surface, sliding a little before he finds purchase and lifts his other foot.
He slips. His knee hits the wet rock with a starburst of pain, and he staggers in the treacherous mud.
Damnit. Try again. Gripping the flashlight between his teeth commando-style, he carefully seeks out better finger grips, and steps up again. This time he does better, and manages two careful steps up before his feet fly out from under him. He slithers down to the mud floor, knocking his head on the edge of the rocks as he falls. The flashlight flies through the air, its beam extinguished in the mud near the far wall.
Near the other hole.
The mud feels wetter now, softer. He thinks he can feel the pounding of the surf in the mud underneath him. Is the tide rising already?
“Guys! I can’t get out! And I lost the damn flashlight!” he yells. They win. He’s scared, and he doesn’t care if they know it. He just wants to get out of this hole.
No answer. Only the squelching of the mud holding its ominous conversation with the tide.
Forget the flashlight. He scrambles at the rock face again, planting fingers in crevices with the strength of desperation, pushing hard against the surfaces with hands and feet, wedging himself upwards. He slips again and again, but catches himself before the slips turn disastrous. The twisting passage gives him a dozen or so nasty knocks on the head and shoulders. He pants and gasps and pushes, biting his lip, clawing up to the surface, away from the squelching mud, toward safety and friends. Even a little snot like Sean.
Suddenly his fingers can’t find any more rock. He plants them firmly on the last rock lip they touched, levers himself upward, tumbles onto a flat rock. Only when he wipes the sweat and mud from his eyes and sees the moon does he realise that he’s out of the hole. With a shudder of relief, he looks around for the other kids, ready to call them every dirty name he’s ever heard.
There’s nobody there.
Where did they go? Back, of course. The bastards. So this was what they were up to. Leave him out here on the rocks, let him find his way back through the marsh. He should have realised. The looks on Sean and Richie’s faces should have told him. How stupid could he be? He had known from the beginning that this whole trip was some kind of setup.
But at least he’s out of the hole now. And he can see. Getting through the marsh should be easy after that. He walks over the rocks to the muddy plain, trying to remember exactly which way they came.
“Should we go get him?” Richie asks.
Sean takes a drag from his cigarette, his smirk looking that much more evil in the red glow. He shakes his head.
“Let him wait for a while. I wanna see if he tries to get back through the mud. Betcha he’s too scared.”
“I bet he isn’t,” Tim says. “He’s not such a chicken.”
“You like him, don’t you, Foureyes?” Sean observes. “Is he your special friend?”
“Hey! You promised you’d stop calling me that if I got him to come out tonight. You promised.”
“Okay, okay. Just a joke. What’s the matter with you? Can’t you take a joke?”
“Don’t talk about my glasses,” Tim insists.
“Okay. Can I talk about your special friend instead?”
“I’m gonna go get him,” Richie interrupts.
“Why don’t you wait a while? Man, you guys are no fun at all.” But Richie, who can be absolutely unstoppable once he gets an idea in his head, is already splashing away.
“Goddamn bunch of mamas’ boys,” Sean complains.
They sit there waiting for Richie to lead Jason back.
The mud is much, much softer now, and the pools of water that were blooming between the reed stands have become canals swelling with the tide. He follows a watery trail to the northwest, hoping it is the way the lobster kids went. Every step sinks deeper into the mud. He thinks he can feel the water rising as he takes a few more steps. He knows this is impossible, but can’t help the feeling.
The water is getting deeper, the mud soggier, sucking insistently at his boots. Another step, and he’s sinking up to his knees. He wonders what will happen if he can’t pull his leg out. Or if he finds another sinkhole. How high does the tide go?
Water is skirling over the mud, spraying his dirty pants legs. As he reaches the first reeds, he looks back, and sees the waves pouring over the lowest point in the broken seawall. The sea is reaching out for him. The tide can’t come in so quickly, he thinks. Can it?
Where are they? Did they go home already, or are they hiding on the shore, laughing at him?
Finally, it happens. His foot won’t come out of the mud. He’s tired now, and his pants are heavy with mud, and he’s stuck. The surf is high enough to wet his shirt. Panic gives him another burst of strength, and he wrenches his leg out of the mud, falling forward. His arms plunge into the dark water, and he scrambles to get his face out of it. Salt water pours down his throat. He splutters and awkwardly rights himself, taking another step.
Into a sinkhole. Up to his chest.
The water is pulling him back and forth with every wave. The mud is too soft to stand on and too thick to swim in. He can hardly see from the salt in his eyes. He can’t tell which way the shore is. He hears a splashing, sees something coming towards him through the reeds. Something huge, hulking over him - reaching for him -
It’s Richie the troglodyte. Grabbing his arm and tugging hard enough to wrench him from the mud’s grip. “Come on, kid.”
He swallows the salt water in his mouth and splutters his thanks. Now that Richie is holding him, he can just about stand straight, even with the water pulling him in every direction at once.
“I can’t believe you came back,” he gasps.
“What did you think, we were going to kill you? Don’t be stupid. We’re just having a little fun.” Suddenly Richie stops. “Ah, shit.”
“What? What happened?” He doesn’t like the tone of that last expletive, not at all. The water is still rising. Every wave is a little higher than the one before, and it’s harder and harder to stay in place.
“Lost my boot,” Richie says. He looks around, bends over and tries to find the missing boot.
“Hold on a minute. Don’t go nowhere.” He lets go of Jason and casts about in the muddy water. Immediately Jason feels himself sinking. He flails about, trying to support himself on the reeds or find a better footing.
“Are you crazy? Leave the stupid boot. Let’s get out of here!”
“Sean’s dad gave me these boots,” Richie rumbles. “I ain’t leaving it here. Quit crying. It’s just a little water.”
It’s not just a little water, Jason thinks, looking around in a wild panic. It’s a damn marsh filling up with a tide coming in so quickly you can’t run away from it. And waves that nearly knock you over. And...
Something coming with the tide.
With the waves splashing everywhere, and only a tiny slice of a moon, it’s hard to see anything. But that dark shape there, that’s Richie for sure, face down in the water reaching for his boot - and what’s that other shape?
Beyond Richie, coming up fast. Vague enough to be almost a wave or a bunch of reeds, but darker, more solid. Something two or three times as big as Richie.
Jason remembers the hole in the cave.
Antennae whip out of the water, casting an arc of white water towards the lobsterman’s boy, but Richie doesn’t notice.
“Richie!” he screams. “Come on, Richie....”
Richie looks at him for a second, not hearing the terror or thinking it the normal fear of a landlubber trapped in rough water. “Hang on a second, I think I felt it there.” And he ducks under the water again.
It’s closer now. He can see a long spiky fin on the thing’s rounded back. Occasionally he sees an insectile knee or a fin like a bat’s wing swirling through the water. The antennae curl and waver, four of them. It’s ten feet away from Richie. It has claws, but Sean was right. It isn’t a lobster. It isn’t a fish, either.
(“Nobody knows what she is...”)
It has teeth.
The claws that reach out of the spray are enormous, crooked, spike-edged things like mediaeval weaponry. They snap at the air, sending drops of water flying every which way. Then they fall beneath the water, a little closer. The antennae lash wildly overhead.
“I got it!” Richie surfaces, holding his boot over his head. “Come on, ki-“ and the iiiii goes on and on, his voice becoming a scream, the squealing of an animal in unthinkable agony. He topples back into the water, mercifully cutting that horrid scream short, and Jason sees claws snapping, slicing at the rag-doll shape in the water. The thing rises up, rearing out of the water, orange goggle eyes glowing like lamps in the spray, antennae and fins flattened over its back like porcupine quills. It sinks back into the water with a splash that blinds them both, and Richie gurgles and flails at the water a couple of times before he is suddenly snatched under. This time he stays under.
Something bobs on the waves, touches Jason’s awkwardly paddling hands. He feels heavy cloth over something like a soggy log. He gags as he finds toes at the object’s tip and realises that it is Richie’s leg. The bootless one.
The water swirls so fiercely that it shakes Jason out of the mud’s grip. Suddenly he can move again. The thing rises, a mountain of chitin and scales, barbels and fear. Its mouth gapes with teeth as long as Jason’s hands. It looms over him, cold orange lamps staring at him without a hint of mercy. It seems to grow with his fear, to swell up with hunger at the scent of it.
This never came from that cave. This horrible thing, this river-titan could hardly fit one of its claws into that tiny hole. Its fins flick like tenebrous wings, brushing him with a cold, wet embrace. Veils of silver slide over its cold eyes, and Jason sees –
(“Scared him so bad he lost his mind...”)
Out of the blue he’s remembering his old room, back in New York. He’s sitting at his desk, doing homework, and downstairs he can hear voices getting louder and louder. His mom and dad are fighting again, like they do that every night, almost, but this time it’s worse than ever. They’re shouting, they’re calling each other names, hurling terrible accusations at each other, and he realises that this is not just a fight, it’s THE fight, and she’s going to leave them for good like she always said she would....
He whimpers. The thing touches him again, and Jason remembers his first day in town, his dad dropping him off at the school where everyone talks differently from him, no one is like him and nobody likes him. He tries time after time to get them to like him, to get someone to show some faint sign of interest in the things he knows, in him. But they’re laughing at him, and suddenly their eyes all flicker, silver veils sliding down from under the eyelids, and they’ve all got eyes like cold orange lamps.
The creature shivers ravenously, and he’s back in the cave, trying to climb out, but the rocks are too slick and he can’t get a hold, and the mud is getting softer and the water is rising and he’s sinking. He screams, and cold water pours down his throat.
It’s night in the new house, and he can’t sleep. He lies in bed, waiting for his father to come home, and he hears a creaking on the stairs moving slowly, wetly up towards him. Slithering down the hall. A sound, faint as a whisper of moonlight, like a wet fin sliding over the wallpaper, and the almost inaudible clicking of claws. Stopping outside his door.
He screams and flails helplessly in the surf as his memories and fears are are ripped from his head and given form, while the thing blinks and shivers in a terrible ecstasy. And he’s screaming louder and louder, mindless desperation getting worse by the minute, the images in his head growing darker, becoming inchoate, no shapes left in his head at all except for the image of Grindyma towering over him. Finally the demon slips back into the water, fading into the shadows, riding the moonlight back to its lair to wait for another victim.
The lobstermen’s boys come splashing through the muddy water, navigating by the screams until they find Jason standing, flailing at the water around him. He won’t stop screaming, even when they call his name, even when they slap him.
“Shut up, goddamnit! Where the hell is Richie?” Sean yells.
“What happened? Jason, tell me what happened!” Tim insists.
But he won’t shut up, and there’s no sign of Richie. So they hold him up, and they take him to the shore and lay him down on the grass where he curls into a ball, coughing up salt water, somebody’s blood running out of his clothes, eyes screwed tightly shut, screaming at something that only he and the moon can see. And he screams and screams and screams, only calming down a little bit when the tide goes out again.
He never goes near the water again, never speaks another word, and new stories about the thing that lives on fear begin to travel on whispers. Nobody who lives on solid ground quite believes the whispers, but there are just enough doubts for the belief to survive in the people whose days and hearts are directed by the tides. And Grindyma waits with the terrible patience of things that are only just real enough to hurt you.
(Originally published in Insidious Reflections, Jan. 2005)