Jodi heard scratching at her bedroom window. She rubbed her eyes. The glow-in-the-dark clock said it was 12:00. She looked at her door, but it was closed. After trick-or-treating around the neighborhood, and sampling some of her haul of candy, Mommy had helped wash off her make-up while Daddy put away her goblin costume.
The scratching came again, and she sighed. Out of bed, she crept to the window and pulled back the lace-trimmed curtain.
Hideous wart-covered scaly faces peered in, sharp fangs bared with delight.
“Halloween is over now,” Jodi hissed. “You’ll have to come back next year.”
Leto saw the pearl on the beach. No shell lay nearby, no sign how it got there but the mark of high tide. He approached cautiously. Gifts from the sea could be dangerous.
He crouched close, but did not touch. The pearl was large, big as his thumb, and perfectly round. On the curved surface, he saw a blurry reflection of his own thin face.
Slowly he extended one narrow hand. Fingertips grazed the pearl, and the trap of seaweed and bone sprung up from the sand. In the shallows, hungry mermaids smiled fiercely as they hauled in their catch.
Cody was small, much smaller than his brothers. They all topped him by inches and outweighed him by pounds. His eyes were large in his narrow face, and his elbows and knees always seemed in the way. His brothers made fun of him.
“When it comes time for you to shift,” they would taunt as they pinched his thin arms or pulled his black hair, “You won’t be a crow like us. Not even a jackdaw or a rook. You’ll probably change into a cricket!” Then they would laugh raucously, sounding like crows even when they wore their human shapes.
Cody didn’t cry, and he no longer tried to fight back. They were bigger, and there were six of them, and he never won. So instead, he stole away and hid where they were too big to fit.
“I won’t be a cricket,” Cody vowed to himself fiercely. But no one could say what anyone would become on the eve of their thirteenth year, when their first change occurred. His brothers all became crows, like their father. Their mother had not been a crow, although Cody did not know what she had been. She died when he was a baby, and Father did not speak of her.
As his birthday neared, Cody avoided his brothers. “When you become a cricket, be sure to hide,” they would call to him. “Crows like to eat crickets, you know.”
Finally his birthday arrived, and the change was upon him. His brothers waited in crow-shape, to further torment the cricket they expected. Cody stretched, still thin and large-eyed, but no longer were his knees and elbows in the way. He was strong and sleek, a hungry black cat.
“I don’t mind eating crow,” he said with sharp teeth, “How about you?”
Leaves cover the ground, brightly colored and crunchy, crackling with cool fire. Jacob, dark-haired and dark-eyed, uses the wooden and plastic rake to scrape them up in piles. The air is cool, the sky painfully blue, and everything seems as crisp as a ripe apple.
Bony fingers protrude from beneath the largest pile. Jacob pauses, contemplating the pale, curled digits; they seem to be beckoning. The leaves are but a temporary blanket.
“Afternoon, Jacob,” Mr. Jenkins, the neighbor, calls from his yard. “How’s your mother?”
“Time will tell,” he replies, rearranging the leaves. “Funny how beautiful dead things can be.”
The sky is a parched, brittle dome, the sun a smear of molten light. Every footstep churns dust into the air, and each breath becomes a furnace draught. It’s late August, the hottest days of the year. Not a good time to be running, but you do what you must.
“Hurry, Chance,” Grace calls, face a flash of white amidst flyaway hair. She’s ahead of me now.
I had a dog once, named Gracie. That was before; and no one has pets now.
The belling is close. The pack has almost caught up.
L’thyros lay quietly, listening to the incoming surf. The rhythmic pounding of the waves was almost hypnotic, reminiscent of listening to his heartbeats. He had laid his great head against the sand and stones of the beach, the better to appreciate the nearby surges of water. His one great eye looked downward. He was strong and brave, ancient and learned, but the dome of the sky stretching above him was just short of infinite, and it crushed him beneath its weight.
“Oh my God! Look what the storm washed up!” came a high-pitched chirping sound. A human’s voice. L’thyros had heard them before, understood their limited infantile language, but winced minutely in discomfort. Their voices were never pleasant, but at least beneath the water they were somewhat softened.
“Holy shit, it’s huge!” another human, slightly deeper tone, but still irritating. “I didn’t know they could grow so big.”
“We should call someone!” the first human again. It spoke as though everything it said was of the utmost importance. L’thyros shuddered, and one of the humans screamed. “It’s still alive! Hurry, Larry, call the Coast Guard!”
There were soft chiming tones, then the deeper voice said, “We’re at the beach, south of the Ponsler Wayside about half a mile. There’s a – shit, what is it?”
“It’s a giant octopus!” the higher voice exclaimed.
“Yeah, it’s a squid or octopus or something. I’ve never seen one so big. It’s washed up on the beach, a good fifteen or twenty feet from the surf.”
There was another voice speaking, so tinny and far-away L’thyros couldn’t make it out in the thin medium of the atmosphere.
“Yeah I know, but it’s still alive,” the human went on, arguing. “It’s still moving. Can it be saved?”
More words into the human’s ear that L’thyros didn’t attempt to understand. He could sense more approaching, these from the south rather than the north as the first two had come.
“Okay, we’ll wait for you here.” A musical tone sounded at the end of the conversation, making L’thyros groan; it could not compare, but was vaguely reminiscent of the sounds of deep water through his mate’s gills when they swam in tandem. “The Coast Guard is sending help, someone should be here in half an hour.”
“Can it live that long outside the water?” the first human shrieked, moving closer. “Should we dump water on it, like they do with beached whales?”
“What happened?” came a new voice. This one was deeper still, barely painful at all to L’thyros. He listened to the waves, to the sound of his hearts beating. He couldn’t wait much longer.
“The storm last night!” the first one, screeching again, “It must’ve washed up and got beached in the high waves!”
“That’s something you don’t see every day,” the last one said, moving closer. “Take a good look, Danny. You’ll never see one that big at the aquarium.”
“Is it a sea-monster, Grandpa?” This voice was high-pitched as well, but young and timid. The tone was not painful, and it drew L’thyros.
“No, Danny. Just an animal. But a big one, that’s for sure.” This human was circling now, trying to get a better view of L’thyros. “It’s been a while, but I’ll bet you it’s a squid.”
“How can you tell?” the other low-toned human asked, seeming very interested in what the other human was saying.
“Octopi have eight arms. Squids have eight arms too, but they also have two extra tentacles that are used to hunt with. From what I can see, this big fella has more than eight all together.”
“How can you tell, Grandpa?” asked the young one, following the deep-voiced one closely. They had almost moved far enough for L’thyros to see them. “It’s all raggedy looking, like shredded kinda.”
“That’s just because it’s out of the water, Danny. They’re not meant to be out in the air, like we are.”
L’thyros lay perfectly still, his eye still looking down at the rocks on which he lay. But he could see them approaching. So small, with their stiff jointed limbs. They balanced seemingly without effort, swimming through the air as he might skim the ocean floor. They had strangely colored and textured skins, and fine seaweed dangled from their domed tops. But the small one, the timid one – he was exactly right.
“Is it going to die?” the small one asked, slipping his appendage free of the larger human, and moving closer. Almost close enough to touch.
When the sneaker wave hit, L’thyros was ready. The humans were not. The wave wasn’t deep, maybe two feet when it reached him, but that was deep enough. L’thyros took a deep grateful breath of saltwater, his gills gaping open in relief, his heartbeats increasing. The first two humans fell, unbalanced by the wave. The older human stumbled, reaching toward the small one. The small one, mouth gaping as though it too would gasp in a cleansing breath of the sea, fell into L’thyros.
He used his two smaller tentacles to catch the little human. As the wave slowed and began to rush back out across the beach, he pushed with all his strength, lifting his heavy head. In only three beats of his three hearts, he was out far enough to drop beneath the surface. The small human struggled weakly, but L’thyros did not let go. He had put in too much effort to lose his prize now.
His mate, N’garya would be pleased. None of her friends had ever sampled such a delicacy.