“Presto” by Steve Long

Presto by S K Long

The mist at Rialto Beach was so dense that they couldn’t see the water until it had flattened and spread across the sand. Behind the fog, waves crashed in deep bass tones, exploding into crackling froth just beyond their sight. They were among the first people to arrive that day, and they walked hand-in-hand along that foggy, primordial beach without seeing another person. It was a pleasant start to the day, and they were happy.

The little family ambled up the coastline, listening to the waves behind the sea smoke on one side and the howling birds from the moss-draped rainforest on the other. Stopping to sit on a driftwood log, George tilted his bearded, balding head and squinted one eye. Speaking through the side of his mouth, he ad-libbed a feeling, “of infinitely old, crushing forces surrounding us, everywhere. We only glimpse them with our limited senses until they are upon us. And even then, we only perceive them with our bodies while our feeble minds recoil at their ancient and terrible majesty.” He wasn’t characteristically so verbose, and his pronouncement that day surprised him in spite of his joking tone, for it precisely articulated his feelings, though he had no idea why he felt that way.

“That’s a little morbid,” Paula said. “I think it’s beautiful here. And it smells nice. Like,” she flared her nostrils and inhaled deeply, tilting her head toward the sky. Her dark blonde hair fell over the shoulder of her denim jacket. “It smells like pumpkin spice even more than seawater.” Waves rolled nearby, and the surf reached out of the fog, racing across the smooth sand and spilling over their bare feet. “It smells like pumpkin spice, but now it smells like,” she closed her eyes, “sage.”

Preston chased the wave back toward its source while George observed the sea foam that had collected in a ring around the cuffs of his blue jeans. “Not too far, Presto,” he called out, and the boy stopped and turned back toward his parents. He turned again toward the sea, and finally raced back toward them as vigorously as he’d run away.

“It does smell like that,” George agreed. “What is this muck?” He lifted the leg of his pants, exposing a bare foot covered in foam. He dragged the top of his foot across the sand to scrape it off. “It’s more like jelly. Look.”

“Yuck. It’s all over my feet too!” she said.

They stood facing one another, each turning a foot to scrape one side then the other. As the tufts of bubbles popped and collapsed, the fluff seemed to coalesce into a faintly sea-green jelly that the couple found impossible to fully scrape off.

“It’s sticky,” she said. George frowned and set to work rubbing it off with his coat sleeve. It covered the whole foot in a thin, gelatinous layer.

“It smells like pumpkin spice when you pop it,” he said. “That must be where it came from.”

“Where what came from?” She asked.

“The pumpkin smell.” His tone was aggressive, and she stopped cleaning her feet to frown at him.

“I just asked.”

“I know, I just answered.”

“I don’t know why you’re–” she stopped. Preston had wandered back toward the water, and she took notice just as another wave crashed and spilled across the sand, encircling the boy to his knees and splashing him as high as his waist. He froze with his hands at his sides and reflexively lifted his face to keep it dry. He blurted a quick, excited chirp.

“Preston!” she yelled as she ran to his side. The foam covered the surface of the water and both of their legs. She carried him back to where George stood in the dry sand nearer to the rocks.

“Did you just walk away?” she asked. “While Preston nearly drowned?”

“Drowned?” George asked. “The water splashed his feet. That’s hardly drowning.”

“Help me clean his legs at least. Jesus Christ.”

“Easy. He wasn’t in any danger. Tell me something, why would we come all the way out to this beach if we weren’t allowed to get wet?”

“I didn’t want him to get that stuff on him.”

“Well, my feet are already dry,” he said. “The shit just dries up once you pop all the suds.” He looked at his feet and said, more to himself than Paula, “it smells like sage now.” He tried to balance on one foot while he lifted the other close enough to his face to smell it. “My skin looks a little fishy, but nothing serious. I think the ocean must be rabid.”

“What are you doing?” she asked as he hopped in the sand, trying to keep his balance.

“I’m trying to smell my foot.” The absurdity of his predicament made him giggle. As laughter began to erupt, he pinched it off. Paula’s mouth hung half-opened in puzzled disgust.

“I get that we’re at the beach, but apparently you don’t care that our son was right next to the waves with that shit all over him.” She inspected his feet and hers, which were now curiously dry, and started back toward the beach entrance.

“Where are you going?” he called after her.

“I want to get a hotel room, take a shower, and clean this off of him,” she said over her shoulder.

“Oh, come on. It’s dry now!” He was playful, and he ran after them in high spirits. Paula gingerly walked along the rocks, struggling to carry Preston, while George ran in the wet sand in a curving line, following the surf as it ebbed and flowed. He began humming, then singing “dun-dun-dada-dun-dun,” and finally, keeping the beat with his footsteps, he sang, “Just call me angel, of the moorninng, angel! Just touch my cheek before you leeeave meee, bay-bee”

“Really?” Paula said, her anger was muted by exhaustion and a growing sense of resignation. “We were having a really nice day.”

But the trajectory of their day had suddenly changed. Instead of driving home after an enjoyable short vacation, they found themselves driving southward along the coastline in search of the nearest hotel. Paula was in the front seat, barely speaking, watching for clearings in the cedars to look out at the slate-colored water and the occasional sea stack. George continued crooning and humming “Angel of the Morning” the entire drive. When they stopped at a small beachside hotel, he continued singing it as he checked in.

The rain fell more heavily after they left the front office and drove around to their room. Paula jumped out first and took Preston inside to wash their feet, leaving George to bring their suitcase with him. The rooms had doors facing the parking lot in front and the ocean behind, and the building was separated from a small, sandy cliff rising over a smooth beach by a narrow strip of grass. The decor inside was cozy but dated, and was lined with spruce trim like a logger’s cabin.

“It smells pretty here, Mommy,” the boy said, taking a seat on a chair by the bed.

“That’s cedar and spruce wood, baby, just like in the rainforest.” She pulled the waist of his shirt up toward his head. “Stick ‘em up,” she said.

Preston raised his arms like a captured bandit. “Busted,” he said.

She smiled, though she was distracted, thinking of George running away from the surf to wipe his own feet clean instead of running toward Preston to keep him from getting covered in the goo. She didn’t feel well, and it pained her to focus on any one thought for too long.

“Busted,” she whispered back. “Now stand up.” The boy stood up and she removed his pants. She walked him to the bathroom and started the shower, holding her hand under the falling water as it warmed up. When she was satisfied, she set him in the water and then took her clothes off. The skin on her feet was a dark greenish color fading to a lighter tone on her thighs. Quickly unwrapping the hotel soap from the sink, she stepped into the shower and scrubbed Preston’s feet and lower legs.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?” He asked.

“Oh nothing, Presto. Mommy and Daddy sometimes don’t agree on everything and then we get impatient.” It made sense, but instinct told her otherwise.

“What’s wrong with going in the ocean?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said we can’t get wet in the ocean.”

“Mommy didn’t say that, honey. Why would you say that?”

“Daddy asked you why we couldn’t get wet, and then you got mad.”

She rinsed his feet and examined them. There seemed to be no sign of discoloration, so she started on her own, doing her best to lather the soap in the hotel’s hard water. Watching her hands as she scrubbed, she said, “I never said you couldn’t get wet. There was just some icky stuff in the water today, so I wanted to make sure you didn’t get any on you.”

“Was it pollution?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

As the water rinsed her feet and ankles, it revealed faintly darker, pickle green skin stretching above her knees. She scoured the skin again and rinsed, but the color was set. Moreover, she still faintly detected the odor of sage coming from the discolored areas. She washed again, but her skin was growing irritated, so they stepped out to dry off.

“I wasn’t mad that you got wet,” she finally said. The boy stared at her blankly. After she dried his hair, she repeated herself. “I wasn’t mad, Presto. I just didn’t want you to get something on you that might hurt you. Here, look at my feet.” She stood up. “It stained my skin. I didn’t want that to happen to you. That’s all.”

“Then why did you yell at Daddy?”

“I didn’t yell at Daddy, honey,” she said impatiently.

The suitcase wasn’t in the living room, and neither was George, so she walked to the window in her towel. The luggage sat next to the rear driver’s side door, but she couldn’t see George anywhere. Heavy rain drops exploded into tinier droplets as they hit the suitcase and car. Preston watched as she scanned the dimming, silvery lighted parking lot. She crossed the room to the sliding door and peeked from behind the curtain, concealing herself as she stood in her towel. Down on the beach, a flock of seagulls hovered over an abandoned fire pit. She scanned back across the long grass at the cliff’s edge, and at the corner of her view, where the hotel walls jutted toward an outcropping of rock, she noticed that a railing marked the steps leading down to the beach. There, staring at the ocean below, stood George.

She grabbed the door to slam it open, but a wooden stick in the frame held it closed. Her towel fell partially off, leaving her standing exposed in the doorway. She held it in front of her chest as she bent to remove the stick. The door slammed open, and Preston retreated into the bathroom while she neatly ran across the lawns between the hotel and the cliff to where George stood. As she drew nearer, she saw him bobbing his head seaward and heard him singing that song into the air. When she was close, he stopped and stared at the water, astonished.

“You couldn’t even bring the luggage inside, George?”

He continued looking at the water. “It,” he stammered. “It just sunk into the water!”

“George,” Paula said, feeling less aggrieved and suddenly aware of standing outside in nothing but a towel. “Go get the goddamned suitcase. Preston and I need to get dressed. George!”

“That sea stack just dropped into the water like part of a huge animal.” His shock was palpable, and Paula, holding the fold of her towel, stepped toward him to look in the direction he’d been facing, careful that her bare feet didn’t step down on anything sharp. She humored him for several seconds before finally saying, “I don’t see it, George. Would you please get the luggage and come inside?”

“Sure,” he said, gathering his wits and searching the roiling, white-capped waves. “Sorry, I’ll be right in.” He turned toward the parking lot as she tip-toed back across the wet grass. “Funny looking swim suit!” He shouted. She flipped him off over her shoulder and he smiled, uneasy about what he’d seen and puzzled about their arguments that day. Paula stepped through the threshold and, turning one last time seaward, looked for anything out of the ordinary. There she saw a beautiful but typical ocean scene characteristic of the Pacific Northwest—a craggy sea stack in the snarling mist rose, barnacle bound, above a rippling field of slate, gray, and blue bursting into innumerable whitecaps insisting on their shore-bound journey, unrelenting forever.

Inside, Preston waited for them to return. His face was worried and cagey, and he shivered in the doorway to the bathroom as the last of the steam gave way to the room’s chill.

“Oh, honey,” she said, “let’s get you under some blankets.” She escorted him to the couch and took a blanket from the closet. “Let’s wrap you up like a hot dog!” She enveloped his body, tucking the blanket underneath him so that his own weight held it tight.

“I want ketchup and mustard!” the boy playfully demanded. She leaned down and kissed him.

“Ketchup!” she said. Then she hugged him all the way around his body. “And mustard!” They both laughed, and she turned toward the door just as George arrived with the suitcase.

“Honey, could you get Froggie?” she asked. “I think it’s in…” He pulled the stuffed animal from his pocket.

“I wouldn’t forget Froggie!”

Preston giggled from the couch. “Froggie!” He cried. George handed it to Preston and set the suitcase on the bed.

“I’ll go get the cooler,” he said. “I’m starving. Are you hungry?”

“Famished, in fact!” Paula replied.

George left to retrieve the cooler from the car. It was dark outside, and Paula switched the lights on, casting the room in a warm, inviting glow. She unzipped the suitcase, quickly dressed, and removed Preston’s pajamas. She was unraveling the boy from his cocoon when George returned.

“Just touch my cheek before…got it!” George said on his way through the door. He walked to the table under the window facing the parking lot and set his load down, continuing to sing under his breath, “before you leave me, bay-bay.”

Paula watched him moving around the kitchen. He took off his jacket and then put it back on. He looked in the cupboards, and then seemed to forget what he was looking for, shutting them again. Finally, he walked to the back door and slid it open, all while humming the song in barely audible tones.

“What are you looking for?” she asked. He slid the door shut and walked back to the kitchen area without answering. “George,” she said, “are you going to get any food out?”

He squinted at her as though struggling to ascertain where he was at and who she was. “Oh,” he said, “Yeah, I’ll get it.” He walked to the kitchen table and opened the small cooler, still murmuring under his breath.

“Is everything all right, George?”

“Yeah,” he said immediately. “I’m fine.”

“I mean, with us. Something doesn’t feel right.” Her eyes pleaded for an open conversation, hopeful that George would reciprocate her observation. Instead, he lashed out, violently sliding the cooler across the table and sending it into the small refrigerator where the contents bounced in every direction. His movements were swift, and he stood above them both on the couch, wild-eyed and enraged.

“The only thing wrong here,” he said. His calm, steady tone added to his unusually terrifying aspect. “Is you and your goddamned worrying!” He screamed the word “worrying,” and both Paula and Preston recoiled from him into the couch. Tearfully, she watched him circle past and listened to him disappear through the sliding glass door. The keys to the car were still sitting on the table, spared from his sweeping arm. As she stood up, Preston spoke from under the blanket.

“Why did you make him so mad, Mommy?”

She stuttered and silenced herself. How had she made him so mad? The boy glared accusatorilly, as she wrapped her arms around herself and looked out the front window. Occasionally, she turned to look at the keys on the table, and then to Preston, who was whispering something she couldn’t hear to Froggie. He’d then hold the toy to his ear and nod or shake his head. He whispered, “Mommy doesn’t,” before his tones slipped below the threshold of audibility.

“What’s Froggie saying, Preston?”

The boy pulled the blanket over his mouth again. “Nothing Mommy.”

“I heard you say ‘mommy.’ Were you talking about me?”

He shook his head “No.”

She scowled for several seconds and then walked into the bathroom. She ran the sink so that when she folded one of the damp towels to scream into it, nobody would hear. The clothes were still on the floor where she’d left them, and she picked up her blue jeans, inspecting the cuffs. They were discolored, as though dipped in bleach. Her feet, which were a dark, pickle green, smelled of sage, and her veins ran in even darker jagged lines just below the surface. Dread filled her heart, and she swung the door open to find George and tell him that she now thought there was something in the seafoam acting like a poison or a neurotoxin.

In the living room, the blankets on the couch had been thrown aside, and Preston wasn’t there. She heard the crashing sea—the sliding door was cracked just enough that the boy could slip through. In bare feet, she ran out into the darkness, calling for Preston. There was nobody at the spot where she’d found George staring seaward, but she heard gulls squawking down below. Within the sound of their cries, she thought she heard Preston call her name, so she climbed down the wet, wooden stairs, unaware that she was scraping and dragging her feet on the ruddy driftwood.

“Preston!” She screamed. Her voice was immediately swallowed by the sound of the waves and the growing clamor of the gulls, which were curiously assembled and squawking in the night surf. “George!”

She breathed deep, panicked gulps of air, and as she reached the bottom of the rustic staircase, she mistook a piece of driftwood—lodged in the sand at the bottom—for another stair step. She stepped down expecting another flat landing, and her ankle twisted violently, sending her thudding to the sand. Grunting, she rose again and limped toward the sound of the gulls. Preston called out again, and now that her eyes adjusted to the waning gibbous moonlight shining through bulbous, passing storm clouds, she noticed that the gulls were frantically swarming around some object in the sand near a large driftwood tree trunk.

“Presto!” she cried.

“Mommy!” she heard. As she approached, the distinct odor of pumpkin spice wafted in from the ocean. The gulls flapped around her head, some pecking at her while others screeched their belligerent songs. She swiped at them while the odor of sage filled her nostrils with every beat of their wings. In the center of their frantic colony, a pile of bones, blood, and feebly moving feathers lay in a pile on the wet sand. She tried to catch her breath while she looked for signs of the boy. A gull pecked at the top of her scalp, knocking her forward and forcing her to step into the wet, sharp corpses. She limped forward, moving clear of the birds’ charnel aviary.

“Mommy!”

Impossible—the voice came from the water. While the gulls carried on in crazed dive-bombs and unrelenting assaults on the growing carrion pile behind her, she focused on a tall, thin sea stack just off the beach about one hundred yards away.

“Preston!” she shouted. “Where are you honey?”

“Just call me angel, of the moorning, angel!” she heard the boy singing from the structure in the sea.

She limped toward the water, her bleeding feet surrounded by gooey sea foam the odor of pumpkin spice. The substance grew thicker and deeper, and it wasn’t until she was nearly knee deep that she felt the water on her feet, under the froth. After a few steps into the water the unnatural spume reached her chest, and grew thicker and more difficult to move through.

“Mommy!” she heard again as the spicy goo encircled her neck. She was closing in on the sea stack when she realized that she was no longer moving forward under her own will. It was as though the foam, now irresistibly thick, drew her forward like a current toward the base of the craggy rock. As her speed increased, her head became the only part of her body exposed to the air, and she clearly saw the base of the sea stack drawing the foam into itself as it sunk down into the water. At the last moment, the entire face of the structure sunk below the surface until its flattened top was level with the water, drawing her in. There, she finally saw what George had only glimpsed earlier.

George sat in the car struggling to control and understand his anger, embarrassed at his violence. He’d punched the radio—something he’d never done in his life—breaking the glass on the stereo’s face and cutting his knuckles. In the rearview mirror, his face was clammy and pallid, and the skin on his feet burned and tingled. A knock on the window startled him.

“Daddy,” Preston said. “Can we go home now?” The top of his head was even with the bottom of the car’s window.

“Hi Presto.” George said, rolling down the window. “Where’s your mom?”

“She’s inside,” he said.

“What’s she doing in there?” he asked.

From behind the hotel, they heard her call out their names. “I think she’s looking for us,” George said. “Should we go find her?”

Preston nodded.

“Okay,” he said, and opened the door. The sound of the surf pounding the beach was accompanied by the raucous harping of seagulls below. Paula’s voice cried out from further away than George expected. George quickened his pace, arriving at the top of the embankment in time to see Paula limping toward the water. He called her name, and prompted by his father’s sudden urgency, Preston called out as well. But she was knee-deep in thick, white sea foam that surrounded her in the darkness like a whirling cloud, expanding at the sides and drawing her out to sea from the center. George watched as the surf seemed to drain toward the base of the narrow sea stack, and screamed in horror as the structure lost its rigidity and sunk, wormlike, to a dark circle in the center of a swirling mass of greenish white. It was the same thing he had seen earlier, now drawing his wife to its maw.

Preston watched from above as his father slid on his backside down the sandy cliff’s edge. He watched him struggle to run through the deep sand, kicking clumps behind him as he dashed toward his wife. He heard him calling for her as he hurdled over a log and barreled through the swarming, cannibalistic gulls. And as his father waded into the cloudy muck, desperately trying to swim forward in its current to catch up to his mother, Preston saw a hole open on the surface of the water in the center of that now swirling mixture, and hundreds of undulating appendages like insect legs received them both, drawing them inward until the hole, too, disappeared, leaving only remnants of the froth as it dispersed in the roiling surf.

 

 

 

 


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Steve Long has been writing since he was a teenager in a small industrial town on the Mississippi River. In his early 20s, he had dozens of jobs while trying to piece together an education. From making pizzas in a rural Iowa gas station to driving a forklift in a beer distributorship on the South Side of Chicago, he managed to write on and off through the years. Eventually, he joined an electrical apprenticeship, and used those wages to pay bills, finish college, and complete graduate school. His areas of study include fiction writing, psychology, English and literature, and electrical theory and installation. Writing, however, remains his first love and the secret motivator toward which all his other activities point.

He’s worked as an electrician all over the country, but his heart and home are with his wife (his ever-faithful first reader) and kids in the Midwest.

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7 Comments

  1. Well written. Vivid imagery and great character development. I would like to see more from this author!

  2. The strongest element here is the characters. The interactions feel right and real, if just a little bit heightened by whatever the foam is doing to the family. The ending was chilling, but a little short on insight into what the sea monster is. Also, the line “The rain fell more heavily after they left the front office and drove around to their room,” felt a bit jarring to me because I couldn’t tell when it was supposed to have started raining in the first place. All told, a solid entry, with great characters, exploring the darkness behind a “happy” family.

  3. This is just atmosphere and tension ramped up to like 9000 and then slathered with creepy.

    Which means that I really enjoyed this, if that isn’t obvious. The writing itself is just so strong and crisp. This is prose that fits very comfortably in my brain and that gave me sense of belonging in the story. Granted, that’s entirely subjective, but…well I guess all of these comments are subjective so nevermind. I loved the writing.

    And, naturally, the solid writing brought to life a great little sub-drama of an increasingly stressed out day at the beach. The family was written perfectly, every little interaction held so much weight to it and suggested so much more about the cracks that were forming.

    The monster was…I don’t know what the hell the monster was but it was huge and disgusting and used sea foam to capture things and that was awesome.

    My only real complaint is that, without a clear sample of life from this family prior to hitting the beach, I’m not sure how much of their friction was caused by the monster getting into their heads, or how much was the overall weirdness of the goop on the beach freaking them out and causing a bad day, or if this couple fights all the time and now they were just doing it with green feet.

    I like to think the slime on the beach made them start to go a little crazy, because that’s more fun in my head and makes for an even more interesting monster, but I wasn’t exactly sure.

    Fine damned story, though.

    I truly don’t know who gets my vote this week.

  4. This is what I love about the Arena: when both stories make you want to vote for them.

    I had issues with the writing style here, because sometimes the style steps right up to the line of being over-written. That line is never crossed, so what you end up reading is a story that puts me as much on edge as the family it depicts. If you did that deliberately, Steve, you’re a genius. And if you didn’t do that deliberately, let’s pretend you did it deliberately.

    The descriptions were evocative and vivid, the family were well observed and felt real. I liked the monster, and like Joseph, I want to believe that the mood-foam was part of the creature’s hunting strategy.

    Minor “I’m over-thinking this” quibbles aside, this is a strong story, told well, and told cleverly. I like it a lot.

  5. Pingback: Short story at The Writer’s Arena | The Barbarian Grammarian

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