Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 58
Stories
Oba Oyinbo
by Jonathan Edelstein
The Best of the Three
by Camila Fernandes
The Kids in Town
by David Williams
In the Woods, My Voice
by Rati Mehrotra
IGMS Audio
In the Woods, My Voice
Read by Alethea Kontis
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
The Shoulders of Giants
by Robert J. Sawyer

The Sharklings of Anchor Valley
    by Kurt Hunt

The Sharklings of Anchor Valley
Artwork by Tomislav Tikukin

It rained on Thursday and it rained on Friday and it rained on Saturday until the animals fled and the crops drowned. Josiah stood ankle-deep in mud, watching the water rise black against the bright green hills that encircled Anchor Valley.

"We're gonna need to stack 'em higher, Becca!"

Behind him, sandbags encircled the stone house built by his father's father. He'd never understood how someone could till the fields, raise a family, and build a house all at the same time. But watching Rebecca, baby in one arm, sandbag in the other, brought clarity. Brick by brick, bag by bag; what they built, we preserve.

The house they could protect, God willing. But Grandpa's soybean fields--he still thought of them that way even though the farm had been his for more than a decade--were transformed, already half-swallowed. The plants floated, listless, stiff brown leaves unraveling like rope. From the house to the roots of the hills beneath the yawning mouths of abandoned copper mines, every dip and trench reflected only flat gray--driving rain and storm clouds.

His attention snapped back to a locomotive sound--a crack and a rumbling echo.

A flicker at the horizon swelled. The hills rose up. Frothing darkness rolled toward them across the valley floor.

"Rebecca. . ."

Water like a wall, taller than the fences. Shattered tree trunk teeth gaped out of its shimmering edge.

"BECCA, GO!" Josiah turned to run but the mud sucked at him and he fell into the wreckage of the row. Against the house, a flash of yellow sundress--Rebecca made it inside. The baby, too, and the other kids, thank God, thank God--

Cold shock hit him. Knives of debris slashed and cut. Before he could scramble away it lifted him like driftwood, off the ground, out of his boots, up, up to the spear-tip of the flood. Dizzy memories of childhood--weightless in strong arms--then the half-built levee took the wave at the knees and it crested and fell.

Water had already crept underneath the back door, carrying bits of black soil from the garden. When Josiah hit it, followed by the battering ram torrent, it burst inward.

He managed to regain his feet and pull his head up for air after being swept into the living room. No sign of Rebecca or the kids. They must have made it upstairs. Maybe even grabbed some water and food so they could wait it out. A moment of relief.

But the water didn't slow.

It roared through the door, up to his waist now. He struggled toward the stairs but it was almost impossible to move. Shadows grew behind the windows and the room grew darker and darker until the shadows shook at the top of the panes and they exploded. Cabinets ripped off the wall. Chest-high, now, it rose and kept rising.

"Becca!" he screamed. "Get to the roof! Becca!"

Mud and splinter-filled water filled his mouth. Yelling, wide-eyed and frantic, he sucked it in; his lungs filled like water balloons. There: the bottom of the stairs, totally submerged. He clawed at them, retching, half-crawling, half-swimming, but the water climbed faster. He had to find them, had to help them, where were they? Trapped.

When he finally got upstairs, the house had filled. He burned for air, but it was too late. He relented and let in the flood while he searched.

Rebecca was in the bedroom, floating face-down against the rough, wide-planked ceiling, her black curls fanned out like a crown of seaweed. In her arms she held all three children and she sang to them, low and steady like the sound of breath in lungs.

Some neighbors evacuated, accompanied by the sound of jury-rigged outboard motors. Others drowned, stubborn; their swollen bodies tapped at the eaves for days before the current pulled them away.

The Smiths, however, simply stayed put.

After those first days dodging debris, after their skin grayed and their eyes blackened and their feet flattened and their teeth sharpened (though they noticed none of this), the anxiety of the flood was replaced by tranquil aftermath.

Josiah floated by the splintered remains of the back door, sixty feet below the surface, struggling to attach a net to the frame. "Go? Why?" The net slipped out of his fused fingers for the third time and slowly drifted to the floor. He cursed, unused to such clumsiness. "We're not going anywhere."

"But the baby!" said Rebecca, but the baby had the easiest time of them all, the memory of the womb so close. By Tuesday morning, when the sky had receded in black water far above the house, the baby gamboled through the flood like a seal pup, trying to keep up with her sister and brother.

"I'm the fastest thing in the world!" shouted Adelaide as she whisked through the kitchen, spinning the baby upside-down in her wake. "Can't stop me!"

Close behind, Dominick swiped in vain at her feet. "No fair, no fair, pause, you're cheating!"

They spiraled around the house and over the roof, weaving in and out of open windows and shooting out the door like a pair of corks into the murky lake that had filled Anchor Valley.

Rebecca smiled and shook her head at the dim silhouettes zig-zagging up and down the nearby hillside. Not even catastrophe could slow down a pair of ten-year-olds. She carefully spun the baby right-side-up and turned back to help Josiah with the net.

"Josiah, you know we can't stay."

What they built. . .

He caught her look and paused to hug her close. "Look. No one's coming down here to tell us to go, court order or no court order. Not even that that cold-blooded son of a bitch that passes for a sheriff."

"He's just doing his job. He's not the bank."

Striated shadows tremored like lamplight, framed by the doorway. Josiah ripped a broken hinge from the wall and tossed it aside. "Sweetheart, this is a good thing. Water's getting clearer. And look at all these fish. . . they don't even know to be scared of the nets. We'll eat like kings!"

From over the ridge, a school of largemouth bass emerged and swam over them, their bodies alternating white and silver as stray shafts of light pierced the cloud of fins and scales. With one final collective twitch, they lifted themselves over the chimney and disappeared, as easily as if they'd done it for years.

"You know," said Rebecca, "maybe they don't even realize anything's different."

Josiah struggled with the final knot until his hand-fins blotched white, then he twanged the net like a guitar string. "Yeah. Maybe."

The Smiths awoke the next morning to the roar of a boat. Not coughing and sputtering like the homebrew jobs of folks in the valley, but a crisp, clean, tiger-growl. Taxpayer-funded boat.

"Jo-a 'n bek mith!" The squawk of a bullhorn rippled down, distorted by static and the water's depth. "Ih any-nn thr?"

An emergency siren whooped once and cut off.

Josiah looked out across the remains of the fields and frowned, the refracted sunlight casting strange, shifting masks across his face.

"Just relax." Rebecca rubbed his shoulders, iron beneath the tatters of his flannel shirt. "Sheriff's probably just making sure everyone's okay."

Josiah patted her hands and shrugged out from under them.

"Josiah, please. . ."

But his mind was filled with the flood and what it had tried to take from him. The black tide; the drowning world; the screams of the kids.

He shook the images away and kicked off. Bubbles spiraled up behind him like smoke. Through the house, scoured clean by the current, past the turtle sleeping atop the refrigerator, past Adelaide, who was floating upside-down trying to make a cat's cradle out of shoelaces she no longer needed, past the drowned crops to the air and the sunlight flickering behind the straggling back edge of the stormclouds.

Shrouded in the dead branches of a treetop, he lifted his mouth out of the water. "Sheriff." His dark hair flattened into a helmet around his face.

"Huh-lo?" The sheriff was crouched on an idling police boat, squinting behind his aviator sunglasses. The smirk he had when he handed Josiah the foreclosure order was gone, replaced by a tight grimace. "Ssmn thr?"

Sheriff stood up. His shoulders slumped. His cheekbones stuck out. He looked his age.

Josiah felt new muscles flex within him and he grinned. Water leaked into the sides of his mouth and bubbled in his throat.

"Joz-a?" Sheriff kept looking around, turning in circles on the rocking boat and, once, squinting up into the skeletal treetops that poked out of the water.

Josiah's new body took over. He sped through the water, rigid and strong. Water sprayed up and behind him where his stubby dorsal fin sliced through the surface. He stretched his mouth, huge, and he saw how tiny the sheriff really was. How frail, as he fumbled for his gun.

Just one bite.

He was powerful. A force of nature, like the water around him. He moved with the moon, part of--

His attention was drawn back to his immediate surroundings, to shadows circling beneath him, and he clacked his mouth shut in frustration. The whole family had followed. They were all watching.

But Sheriff already saw him coming; he was stammering and grabbing at his gun.

Josiah flared his gills, fighting a new instinct, and cut back into the water.

"Deeper," he commanded as he passed Rebecca and the kids.

Behind them, percussive thumps shook the surface. Three thin ribbons of bubbles attempted pursuit, curved, and faded.

After days of downpour, Sheriff found the morning's calm disconcerting. He leaned against the thrumming engine, guiding the boat across placid waters as if he were going fishing on Miner's Creek.

But the creek was gone, buried under floodwater.

Sheriff shook his head clear and checked the GPS. No sense in searching the same place twice, especially when there weren't enough boats to form a proper search crew. He throttled down the engine and raised a bullhorn to his lips.

"Keiffers! Jack! Nancy!"

The siren called out, a single short chirp that echoed off the tops of drowning hills.

"This is Sheriff Woodard. If anyone can hear me, if anyone needs help, gimme a yell."

Only birds responded. Sheriff moved on, taking careful notes on the coordinates. A half mile down the lake he cut the engine again.

"Josiah and Rebecca Smith!"

The bullhorn squealed feedback. Sheriff grimaced and released the trigger. No boats, no help, not even decent equipment. What the hell did anyone expect him to accomplish out here?

He banged the siren switch up and down, scraping the side of his hand against the metal in his haste. A thin line of blood beaded up from his perforated skin. He sucked on it, letting the warm metal flavor of it linger on his tongue as he looked around.

Nothing, and more nothing. Only water and dying things.

And then a sound.

"shrf"

A voice like a kid blowing bubbles in chocolate milk through a straw.

Sheriff crouched against the side of the boat.

"Hello? Someone there?"

There was no more sound. Even the birds had stopped singing.

Sheriff stood up, hunched to keep his balance on the unsteady boat, and pivoted a slow circle. His heart raced.

"Josiah?"

Then he saw it: a shadow beneath the water, huge and sinuous, speeding toward the boat like a torpedo. Above it, a stubby fin jutted out of the water.

When he was a rookie, he'd stood beside a road block trying to catch a drunk car thief named Score Johnson. Score appeared around the switchback just as expected, leaning out the window of a stolen Camaro when he spotted the roadblock. But he didn't stop. He gunned it. Time slowed down in those headlights, enough for Sheriff to clock the car at more than 50 miles per hour before he leaped into the ditch to safety.

This thing--whatever it was--was faster.

Sheriff stared until the thing came close enough to reveal serrated teeth beneath a tangle of hair. And eyes. Those eyes.

He flipped his holster open and pulled at his gun, but the hammer caught against his shirt. As he looked down to untangle it, he felt the boat lurch. The creature was underneath him.

Leaning over the side of the boat he saw the shadow descend. He fired at it--once, twice, three times.

There was no blood.

There was no body.

"That man is out of his damn mind."

Josiah ripped into a fish. Scales and needle-bones erupted toward the wall.

Rebecca frowned and pushed the mess out the window. "You were trying to scare him."

Josiah grinned. His black eyes shined.

"Kids." Rebecca's voice was steel. "Take the baby and go play outside."

Adelaide swooped down the stairs, thrashing her emerging dorsal fin in excitement. "Hey Dominick! Race you!"

Crashing noises and excited, hushed voices reverberated through the house.

Josiah smiled for a moment, watching them race, then stopped when he saw Rebecca's look. "I know what you're going to say," he said.

"Guns, Josiah."

"Aw, it'll be fine. So the sheriff took a potshot. He missed." He waved one knife-like fin at the new world outside. "This flood's going nowhere, and neither are we."

"A potshot?" Rebecca crashed her body into him, sending him hurtling back toward the wall. "You let him shoot at our children!"

Josiah was silent then. Outside in the gloom, lost in the throes of a game, the kids screamed long and high.

"Okay," he said finally. "We'll make a plan." He pulled her close and stroked her long, smooth side.

She shivered, then snuggled closer, nibbling at his skin. "Promise?"

"Come on," he whispered. "The kids are watching the baby. Let's go for a swim."

Lean bodies intertwined into a braid, they moved outside. The kids sneaked out after.

The valley was bigger now. More peaceful. The people, the livestock, the traffic, even many of the buildings, were gone, replaced by rainbow trout and long, waving tendrils of dark green plants and the occasional shovel-faced catfish scouring the mud. Off the edges of hills where hawks once floated like kites above the valley fog, the Smiths spiraled through minnow clouds, weightless in newborn currents.

"It's kind of beautiful," said Rebecca.

Josiah spun her playfully around the trunk of a huge pine tree. It had shed its needles, skeletonized by the flood.

He pushed against her and she nuzzled closer.

Her skin was soft. Her teeth were sharp.

They rested momentarily at the roots of the trembling pine. Above them, the naked branches shifted languidly from side to side as if disconnected from one another.

"This tree used to look bigger," said Josiah. "When I was a kid, I always wanted to climb to the top."

"I remember," Rebecca whispered. She tapped Josiah with her tail and her presence pulled him back. "I also remember your dad yelling at you when you tried."

He laughed. "Grounded me for a month. I never tried again."

She pulled at him. "Well?"

Together they carved a double helix around the trunk. Despite the violence of the flood and the slow asphyxiation that followed, branches still gripped their cones with thoughts of future generations, descendant trees. Up they curved, nipping at each other when their paths intersected, finally breaking through the surface beneath an explosion of starlight. Browning needles still clung to the few feet of the tree that poked out from the water. Josiah chomped at the branches, arcing his entire body into the chill night air.

They splashed and jumped for several minutes before relaxing and floating to stare at the constellations, the only things familiar in the transformed valley.

"Things will be better, Becca," said Josiah.

She started to swim closer to him but froze, alert.

"Look," she whispered, submerging everything but her face.

Flashlights. Shapes moved at the edges of the lake. Attentive now, Josiah and Rebecca heard the hollow drumming of boats rocking against each other and the occasional rasp of a whispering voice.

"Just fishermen," said Josiah, but as the moon reflected a crescent off a binocular lens on the shore, he sank beneath the surface to join his wife.

Stupid, thought Sheriff. Shouldn't have said anything.

Within hours, the town was excited with rumor. Monster, the people said. Monster in the lake!

A group stood before him, leaning against the bar at Baron's Grille. The cramped, dark restaurant remained unflooded and consequently had become the de facto town hall, sheriff's office, meeting space, whatever else people needed. This worked well enough except that he couldn't escape, and he didn't much like performing in front of a crowd.

"Ain't no such thing as monsters," said Sheriff. He was repeating himself, to no effect. Some of those assembled rolled their eyes, others just waited for more explanation, but no one took the cue to leave him alone.

"So," said one woman slowly, "what was it?"

The crowd leaned forward.

Sheriff pinched the bridge of his nose.

What was it?

It was big. It was fast. It was. . .

"Hell," he said. "I dunno. Probably just something came with the flood. Nothing anyone needs to worry about."

But the mystery of it was too strong. It took some time and a few more rounds, but eventually men staggered out the door, phones and flashlights gripped in their hands and keys jangling at their sides like lures.

"Slow down!"

The kids circled the room in a frenzy despite Rebecca's attempts to soothe them. Ade and Dom tried to talk over each other, each growing louder and more insistent. The baby, tangled in wire mesh, just screamed. A ribbon of blood trailed from Adelaide's mouth. The smell of it crept into them and made them all mad.

"Slow down," Rebecca repeated. "Ade, tell me what happened."

Ade's voice broke out from the clamor, although she didn't stop her circuit around the room. "We went up. There were men in boats and they caught the baby in a net! They were going to take her!"

"They had guns!" interjected Dominick.

"Guns?" Rebecca's eyes went black.

Josiah floated motionless in the center of the chaos, quietly clicking his teeth together.

"They called us monsters!"

Rebecca tried to gather the kids but they swarmed away, up into the gloom of the stairway. The baby tried to follow but her limbs were trapped against her sides by the wire.

Josiah stiffened and stared at her and around the house. Marks of the family were everywhere. Lines on the wall traced the growth of three generations of kids. The pegs in the floorboards were crafted and hammered in by hand. Running along the stairs, the hand-built railing turned abruptly jagged where passing wreckage had shattered it and swept the pieces away.

Outside, the illusion of space that had followed the flood was gone. The valley's slopes loomed claustrophobic.

Then he saw the kids, hiding at the top of the stairs and cringing away from the walls. Their strong bodies hidden in shadow, their faces fearful. Wire netting still entangled the baby. This wasn't sacred ground to them. It was a prison. And he held the key.

Rebecca watched him quietly.

"You were right, Becca," he said. "We can't stay."

Everyone at Baron's clustered around Sheriff to get a good look at the screen. The video was murky and often out of focus, but the basics were clear: a group of finned, sharp-toothed creatures thrashing up from the flooded banks of Anchor Valley.

Monsters.

At first, people had just been happy for distraction in the dull cabin fever days after the evacuation. Now excitement had turned to fear, and it ran cold through the restaurant.

Sheriff watched the video again.

Men yelled unintelligible things to each other over the clatter of a boat. Spotlights swept left, then right, then froze on a small gray object bobbing at the surface a few feet away. It looked like a rock in the beams of light.

Then it moved.

Someone shouted.

The boat roared, a spectacle of light and noise, closer to the creature, and even closer.

The thing, no larger than a baby, had been calm until then, but it shrieked now, high and loud and higher and louder, louder, until Sheriff was sure it would pop. Another creature rose, larger than the first, and bashed itself against the boat.

Turmoil. Someone on the boat screamed. A third creature emerged, biting at the chicken wire the drunk men had used as a net and soon all three creatures were thrashing in concert, unmaking the net bite by bite, and the monsters vanished into the deep.

The video ended.

"Where were you when this happened?"

"Not far from the docks. Near the top of Backbone Hill."

A bit east of where he'd seen the other one, but not too far.

"Hm."

Sheriff watched the video again. Something about it nagged at him. Something about the sound. . .

"Everyone shut up," he growled.

Anything for an office again. The chatter continued, but someone handed him a pair of ear buds so he could hear more clearly.

There. Distorted by water and the rushing sound of wind on the microphone, but it was there. Right after the second creature surfaced and charged toward the boat, a voice, distorted, bubbling: "Ade! Ade!"

Sheriff jolted upright. Ade. Adelaide.

Their mouths were full of blood.

The entire family had taken turns biting and sawing and pulling at the wire, worrying a hole in it large enough for the baby to escape.

Josiah's black eyes shined. The kids chased each other, snapping their jaws.

They had just started swimming through--careful to keep their bodies clear of the jagged curls of wire--when they heard another boat approaching.

"Faster," urged Rebecca, pulling Adelaide clear.

The motor buzzed past, then returned in a slow spiral. Josiah, bringing up the rear, was squeezing through the hole when they heard the feedback and squawk of the bullhorn.

"Jzza!" The sheriff's voice, shouting in some alien tongue, reverberated through the water. "Inowayu! Umhertalp!"

Josiah went rigid at the sound. His mind was full of bullet trails and the way Dom had said "guns," his eyes wide.

Something shifted in him; something iron-cold.

Without thought, he straightened like an arrow shot toward the shadow of the boat. The whole family watched, the wounds in their gums still raw and aching.

Instinct propelled him. Thought submerged. His fins and muscles carried him up, away from the house, through the surface, and into the cold shock of air, a kinetic blur of gray skin and shimmering teeth.

Sheriff shrieked, but the noise was buried beneath the wet sound of cracking ribs as Josiah's jaws slammed shut.

Two minutes earlier, Sheriff spiraled toward the coordinates, hoping to find nothing. His back hurt. Not enough sleep.

A single orange buoy marked the location of the net. The coordinates matched his first visit. The things were here. The Smiths, he reminded himself. It had to be them. The Smiths were here.

From the docks he heard a clamor of boats--engines sputtering to life, drunk voices shouting encouragement to each other. The men were in no state to hurry. But they would come.

Once speculation started that the monsters were hiding in one of the drowned-out houses at the bottom of the valley, Baron's had practically exploded. The crowd became monster hunters, gathering guns and knives and nets like they were preparing to storm a castle. While the mob gathered and people started making drunk speeches, Sheriff had sprinted to his boat.

Cold air burned in his nostrils with each inhalation, filled with the stink of rot still belching up from the flooded remains of the valley. His eyes watered.

"Josiah!" he called through the bullhorn. "I know it's you! I'm here to help!"

Lake swells rippled moonlight. The buoy nodded in slow circles.

Sheriff glanced behind him. Lights rose and fell and grew larger as they approached.

When he turned back, the thing was already halfway out of the water. A high, thin shriek echoed off the hills, too animal for him to recognize as his own.

The creature was even bigger than he remembered. Fin-tips, no trace of hands or fingers, skimmed the water. Above them, gills clamped shut against the air. A sword-like dorsal emerged from its back, and from it a small ridge ran forward down the center of its back and up its neck. The hair was gone. Now the head was only gleaming sandpaper skin, tight with muscles. And eyes, black, silvered in the light, and a face, blank and alien, and teeth, mesmerizing.

Josiah's teeth sliced through seven layers of skin and a quilt of ropey old-man muscle. Something crunched. Jaws splintered bone. A flick of the head, and ribs sprang apart against the side of his mouth, exposing the soft gore of heart and lungs, and a jumble of arteries and veins spraying hot within him.

He submerged.

The blood in the water spoke to him now like the soil once did, like the copper once spoke to his father and his grandfather. He allowed a moment of revelry, death shuddering orgasmic in his nostrils, until the echo of engines warned of more boats approaching.

Flashlights skittered across ripples with no apparent purpose or target until they fell upon the wreckage of the sheriff floating face-down, about three feet from his idling boat. Men shouted, their voices slurred. More would come, but Josiah was not afraid.

Josiah pressed his body against Rebecca, his face obscured by blood. Rebecca corkscrewed around him. Three gleaming rows of teeth trailed behind her.

"Let's go," she said.

They were fast and strong. When the helicopters coughed, spotlights watchful as the moon, they dove deep. Eventually, the pursuers fell silent. The crested hills alongside them grew further apart.

With one final collective twitch, the Smiths lifted themselves over a ridge and out of Anchor Valley. Into the river, bullets in the current, past the rapids and past the docks and through the sandy teeth of the delta.

The ocean was deep; the ocean was wide.


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