THE UGLY FISH
Hey there. Another piece of free fiction for you all. This one from MY DROWNING CHORUS, which will likely have to be cut in the interests of space, but honestly, I can't predict anything that's going on right now.
As for the book itself, I'm on page 450 of a 400 page manuscript, you read that right. It'll be at least another 20 before I'm done. But I can't tell you anything more than that. Everything is up in the air and that includes even my humble works.
Here's your story, about a night watchman named Gonzo and the haunted, closed-down aquarium that he patrols.
Stay safe out there.
Eliano Gonzales-Lynne usually went by "Gonzo," the name having been given him when he took on three of the front four of Pacoima Polytech's football team, nearly seven hundred pounds of them versus one-fifty, soaking wet and holding two cinder blocks. It was in the parking lot of the Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake and they'd hassled him endlessly, before finally making a grab at his then girlfriend, now wife Ronnie Diaz. The biggest one had pulled her half-way through the window of his primer-gray nova and Gonzo went for it. The neon of that sky-high Bob's sign lit the scene as people made a circle around the fray, all whooping and cheering. Those assholes had it coming to them for a long, long time.
He remembered it for a moment as he leaned against the railing of the big whale tank. The new owners hadn't emptied the water yet, though the whale was off to San Diego or Miami or some other damn place. Popping a Marlboro from the pack in his uniform coat pocket, he flicked the match with a thumb and smelled the bitter hell-smell of sulfur over the faintly septic scent of the couple million gallons of salt water going rancid. No techs for maintenance now. The only crew left at Marine World was security to make sure nobody stole anything or vandalized what couldn't be unbolted and carted off. How the hell were they gonna get that big, sad orca 'cross-country, he wondered?
Stupid white bankers, all interested in counting more money and not how they were gonna move that damn whale. It didn't make sense. Marine World was on hard times, sure, everyone was. No reason to close a place with history.
He remembered taking Ronnie down here. She loved the tropical fishes like living jewels in those bright-lit tanks, so many you'd go crazy trying to count them. Gonzo didn't complain about how much it cost to come out to Palos Verdes or the traffic or paying two dollars for a beer, even a Budweiser at that. He just loved to watch her face all bathed in that light, watching her little gemstone fish. They came so often, he ended up getting a job here. Why not? It was steady.
At least until everything wasn't.
He sucked down the cigarette and figured he'd at least pretend to do his rounds. There hadn't been anything after the first week of curiosity seekers and jazzed-up kids on a dare hopping the fence. Gonzo figured there was maybe another month of this before the whole thing got condemned, or at least written-off to the point where they wouldn't want to pay his salary any longer.
His fingers rolled the butt between them and he thought about tossing it in the pool. Why not? The rising moon cast a big reflection in it, all dancing in crescent ripples brought on by the winds. At least the diablo winds were over now, so hot in November that he sweat through his undershirt just standing in the night. He thought about tossing that butt, but then he imagined the horror on Ronnie's face if she'd seen him. Trash can is right over there, just go do it.
Gonzo stubbed the butt on his boot sole. He'd stopped wearing the regulation shoes some time ago, and his boss was long gone. He ground it down good when he heard the splash.
It sounded like a Southern Pacific diesel engine had been dropped in the water, from a big height, taller even than that Bob's sign. Not even that black and white whale made a sound like that when he was side-flopping like he'd do when he got really bored or agitated. It was too big a sound.
Gonzo's hand went to his billy club and rested there, without a thought of it. The sickly salt smell got huge, splattering from the broken surface. On it, the moonlight went violent and erratic, floating around like the stars Gonzo saw when that Miles kid went dirty and rabbit-punched.
"Who's there!?" Gonzo shouted. He wasn't that skinny kid any more, so his voice had a real belt to it now.
There wasn't any reply other than the rippling water slapping up and over the splash glass. The front several rows of the seats glistened with fresh salt water, dripping wet now.
"This shit isn't funny and you're trespassing! So you better get while you can!"
No giggling, no scuffling of running feet. Just the dripping from those wet stadium chairs and the sloshing, like something big was still under the surface. Like something pushing the water, just as you might in a sink or bathtub. But it was doing it easy, like it was born to this.
The settled from wind-blown wavelets and splash scatter to something more even, lurching uneasily. In the moonlight, Gonzo couldn't see anything clearly. It was either that deep blue, so blue it was black or it was tricky and blank silver white. Maybe there was something down there. Now it all looked dark as the surface settled. It was all dark down there.
Something electric gnawed up and down Gonzo's spine. He knew the feeling but it was one he didn't spend a lot of time with. Not even when he saw red and charged those football players in the parking lot did he feel fear. That was just snap rage. This was like the feeling when the front door would ring with key-scratches at three in the morning, three because the bars let out at two and it sometimes took his father a whole hour to make it back home.
Gonzo knew who was coming through that door, but never what he'd get from him. Neither did his mother or sisters. Sometimes it was sloppy hugs and kisses on the forehead, sometimes it was unreasonable rage that always came like thunder out of a clear sky.
It was something big down there. As big as his father coming through that door frame, streetlight carving out his dark shape against that misty and awful yellow cast.
"You got a minute before I get down there!" Gonzo's voice roared, but even he knew it was hollow. "I suggest you be gone by then."
He went down the stairs one at a time, Mag-Lite throwing out an uneven pool at his feet. It flickered and went out, like it was scared too and just took off.
"¡Cabrón! Stupid damn light." Gonzo shook it violently and the light went on and off before going out a second time.
The water was quiet now, even the drips had let up. Gonzo gave up on getting the light back, holding it in one hand still. His other on the railing, instinctively as his foot hit the edge of the splashed water. Grip-tape or not, that stuff was slippery.
He stopped in front of the tank and from here, it was all lit up blue and almost neon-glowing. Particles of junk and dust stirred up and were suspended in the water, drifting and just catching the light.
Gonzo tapped the light against the railing, trying to bring it back. Even that small comfort would be better than the treacherous moonlight.
Then the debris in the water danced and flowed as if it were alive. The surface looked like a silver line joined to a black one, like a snake undulating as it stretched across the whole of the plexiglass-paneled wall. It was beautiful.
On the other side, something rose from the bottom of the tank, almost too big to see. Moonlight spilled from its back, making tiger-stripe silver shapes as the light bent in the water. And there was more texture there, like scars that never healed right. Maybe that black skin had been smooth once, but it was no longer. Gouges and bites and scrapes from a lifetime of battle, those were shown by the dancing moonlight.
The shape turned, almost too big to do so in the tank, massive muscles rippling under the skin.
Gonzo was locked in place, staring at the huge and ugly fish. He was tapping that Mag-Lite on his thigh without realizing it, at least until it flickered into life again.
Gonzo brought the ring of light, sickly and yellow as the sodium lamps on his street, up to the glass wall as the shape simply moved. Maybe it was coming, maybe it was going. It was too big to tell, just too big. He tried to calculate how big it must have been, since that old sad whale had room to jump and play in this tank. Ronnie had loved that sad whale too, just not as much as her jeweled fish.
The ring of light stopped and there was a place where the black skin ended, becoming a huge patch of gray-white. It must have been as big as a man, just that patch, just that part of the shape. There was an ugly slit in it, arrow-straight, and a swarm of pink and puckered lacerations that sometimes even crossed that slit.
Then the thing opened its jaws and its teeth were as big as hands. Gonzo screamed as he saw that yawning red chasm open up, red then black where who knows what had been eaten and digested. It looked big enough to eat dinosaurs. Gonzo screamed and the light flashed across the thing's skull. He saw the dead-white eye with a black hole drilled in it, and that eye was bigger than a car tire.
A spasm ran through the thing and it slammed against the plexiglass, towards where Gonzo was standing. It did not shatter, so much as split, as if hit with an axe, a jagged fault running from top to bottom. Just as easily as Gonzo would have swatted a fly. There was an instant of the crack being illuminated in brightest white, catching the moon just right. Then the water started pushing through.
Gonzo was up the first flight before the water hit the concrete.
His heart rattled around like a tire blown at a hundred miles an hour. The pulse ran through his veins and they felt like they were going to burst as easy as that plexi did. But he made himself turn around, just like that one day that he made himself stand up to that drunken bastard and those dumb jocks.
The thing in the tank, as big as it was, was not whole. Black clouds of liquid surged through the tank, driven by the ugly fish's mortal thrashings. Bloody water heaved over the broken plastic panels and steel frames bent like paper clips. The smell of it made Gonzo sick to his stomach, knotted and boiling. As the thing turned, it came around, showing him its wound.
It had been bitten in half, ragged wound torn through the whole of its body. Something had taken a bite and that bite had gutted the ugly fish.
Gonzo turned off the light. He'd seen enough. He could still see the darkness of the shape as it twitched and writhed, coming to the surface now like a new island in a tiny sea. The smell of blood and bowels was overwhelming, clouding everything. He puked and knew he'd never smoke Marlboros again, maybe not even cigarettes ever.
By the time he got to the service phone and figured out who even to call and got back to the tank to wait there for help, the thing was gone. Just the cloudy water left behind. Nothing sinks that fast, and he went up on even the whale performer tower to look right in, after turning on the pool lights.
There was only an oily red sea like a scab waiting to happen. It stayed like that until the weather made a freakish turn to rain, but the rain alone would never make that tank run clear again.
Gonzo quit that night and never went back.