by Eric Williams
I’d spent all my beer money, a week’s worth in one night (it had been a long day), so I figured I’d go have a smoke down by the water. A night breeze was blowing off shore, making the palmettos hiss. I stood on the docks smoking, trying to woo a fat-headed tom with a ragged ear out from under an oyster boat that had been drug up onto the planks for repairs. He stayed hunkered down there, though, unmoved and watching.
I kept away from the dock lights and in the dark I could just make out the stars. The moon’s pale thin rind wasn’t out yet, and Apalachicola doesn’t put off much light in the off-season, so I thought I might see something of the night sky. I was looking for the faint smoke of the Milky Way when I heard the creak and clatter of footsteps coming down the dock. I felt for the switchblade in my back pocket, glad it was there and glad too that I’d left my purse back at the apartment.
I lit another cigarette and turned to look at the noise. A will-o’-the-wisp bobbed back and forth above the dock, floating closer as it passed the boats. Eventually the glow, pale blue, went under a light and I saw two small figures: a kid, swinging a flashlight back a forth, holding the hand of another larger kid, this one with a cane pole slung over her shoulder. They had the unaffected walk of children on a mission. The smaller one with the flashlight even skipped a few times.
I watched them walk, saw that they must have been related. The tall girl with the cane poll had the same red hair as the little boy with the light. They got closer and I saw they had the same freckles, too. I’m not very good with kids, but I’d say the girl couldn’t have been over twelve, and the boy, small and slight in comparison to her, was younger still.
‘Doin’ some night fishing?’ I asked as they closed the distance. The boy smiled shyly and squeezed the girl’s hand. She looked me over coolly but didn’t answer. ‘What’re you using for bait?’ The little boy waved his flashlight high in the air and giggled.
‘You’re in our spot,’ said the girl. She was gangly and gap-toothed, her tone matter-of-fact. I smiled and stepped aside.
‘Be my guest.’ I moved downwind so I wouldn’t be puffing right into their faces. ‘Over here okay?’
The girl nodded but didn’t look in my direction. The little boy, excited, switched the light on and off, flashing their shadows against the pier.
‘You’ll break it,’ she said, snatching it from him. She pulled a bundle of gallon Ziploc bags from her back pocket.
‘What’re those for?’ I asked. The boy looked up and gave me a gap-toothed smile.
‘Goin’ fishin’,’ he squeaked.
The girl switched on the flashlight, stuck it in the bag, put the bag to her mouth, and inhaled deeply. The plastic shrunk around the flashlight as she sucked the air out. She sealed the first bag in a second bag and then jammed those into a third. Then she slid a pin carefully through the sealing strip of the last bag. The cane pole’s monofilament line was bare, without a hook; it waved lazily as she reached for it. She threaded the line carefully through the pinhole before tying it off with a deft knot.
The arc of the pole was heavy over the pier as she examined her work. Satisfied, she swung it out over the water and lowered the light just below the surface. The flashlight’s beam scattering through plastic and water made a hazy, lambent green glow that hung just below the waves.
The girl sat down with her legs dangling over the pier. The boy stretched out on his stomach. Both stared intently at their glowing lure. I got a little closer too, craning my neck.
‘What do you catch with that?’ I asked. The girl gave me a disapproving look.
‘You talk a lot,’ she said. The boy giggled.
Kids are assholes. I sucked on my cigarette, tasting salt through the smoke.
‘Your parents know you’re out here?’
‘Ain’t got parents,’ said the girl.
Now I was the asshole.
‘Here they come!’ whispered the boy, pointing. I guess I must have gasped because the girl shushed me again.
They were like ghosts, writhing mercury-silver bodies shot through with blue and red streaks. The first one I saw was as long as my arm, sinuous with feathery edges waving as it slid into the light. It circled the glow, delicate feelers flexing in the water. It hung there for moment before slipping back into the dark.
It was followed by a fat bell-shaped blob, its sides alive with rows of pulsing filaments. Then there were smaller darting things, worms and jellies and coils of living crystal. Scarlet shrimp hovered around the light, then flashed away as a hairy bath mat flapped into view. The mat seemed to want to engulf the light, but it scrambled aside when something huge passed by, a vast shape just outside the glow that trailed meters of pearly droplets on shimmering threads behind it.
‘What are they?’ I asked the girl.
‘Larvae,’ said the boy, carefully wrapping his mouth around the two syllables.
‘Like, fish babies?’ I asked.
‘Maybe,’ said the girl, slowly dragging the light through the water. The things swam after it, fluttering and wriggling and flapping as they followed. There was a thump behind us, and then the quiet padding of the tomcat as he crept to edge of the pier and looked down at the water.
The four of us watched the things swim round and round the light at the end of a cane pole. I checked my watch, and hoped the dawn would never come.
– Eric Williams lives in Austin, Texas, on the lithified remains of a Cretaceous seaway. He’s had his needlessly combative opinions about classic literature published by The Airship, a story published at The Squawk Back, and has a story in an upcoming issue of Wyvern Lit. Say hello to him on Twitter @Geoliminal.