On the Rocks: A Deadly Drinks Short
By Dorian Graves
Despite the best intentions of the ancient ghost possessing me, I’ve never been an observant person. If I was, I would’ve noticed while leaving the house that all the family photos had been turned around, and realized that I’d have way more to worry about that day than monsters.
There were monsters too, of course. Not just because I was half huldra, close enough to pass until humans found us surprisingly empty and hard-hitting, but because I’d just gotten a job as a paranormal investigator alongside my older brother. The fact that he was forced by circumstance to have me as a partner was a minor detail compared to my excitement.
“Retz, you know you don’t have to come along,” said Jarrod, my brother and partner in monster wrangling. He’d claimed that he’d been called for a sudden case, and the fact that it was suspiciously nearby when he never posted his location anywhere hadn’t pinged on my radar at all.
“Sure I do. I know where Mom hides her keys.” They clinked together in my hand as I waved them over Jarrod’s head. “What, were you planning on taking the bus to go monster punching?”
“That’s what I’ve been doing for the past few years, so yes, I was.” He paused and glanced uncomfortably at the passenger seat of Mom’s little Subaru, clean and vaguely floral scented. “Considering what happened the last time you suddenly drove away from home, are you sure you can just…borrow her car?”
“C’mon, she’s not a hardass like Dad was about cars. Besides, not like I’m going to shove a dead goat into the trunk again.” That was the fault of the ghost I’d mentioned earlier, but most people saw our actions as one and the same, and they weren’t that far off if I cared to be honest. “She’s out anyway. She won’t miss it.”
Jarrod grumbled under his breath, knowing that Mom was out because she was having “the talk” with Jarrod’s boyfriend. This meant anecdotes about what happened to those who married huldra and mistreated their kindness, which boiled down to thinly veiled threats about getting one’s ears bashed in with a huldra’s tail. No one wanted to stick around for that. Just the thought made Jarrod double-check to make sure his tail was properly hidden in his coat as he slid into the car.
We drove in silence for a little bit, other than Jarrod giving me directions. The sun was blazing hot out, so everyone in the entire state of Washington had their A/C on full blast. This meant most folks were inside and the roads were fairly clear, even in the shaded woods casting speckled shadows across the ground.
Now, most folks don’t take notice of those around them the way I do. I don’t just mean being aware of Jarrod systematically going through his too big-and-warm coat to make sure he had all his weapons and materials ready to go. Part of my supernatural upbringing left me with a sense for other’s bones—and control of them, if I put my mind to it. I felt the nicks and cracks in Jarrod’s bones from years of brawls, including our most recent scrapes that we’d barely survived. Outside the car, I felt the flapping of bird wings, small mammals curled up in the shadows to avoid the midday heat, crunched remnants of roadkill in the nearby ditches. Nothing stranger, fortunately. Supernatural beings tended to hide, either in plain sight like we did or deep in the wilds where mortals wouldn’t randomly trip over them.
I finally asked Jarrod, “So, what’re we chasing down today? Werewolves? Redcaps? Rodents of unusual size?”
“When it comes to your suggestions…rarer than romance novels would suggest, far more noticeable and bloody when they’re in the area, and afnacs range more northward than here. You’re more apt to find those shapeshifting beaver beasts in, say, Canada. Maybe Alaska.” Jarrod raised an eyebrow at me. “I’m sorry. Trying to be funny with a movie reference?”
He was right. The road was empty, so I jerked the car around a little to throw his cool act off balance. He remained unfazed. I sighed and asked, “Fine, what’re we dealing with? I’m guessing it’s something super obscure that’s not in the movies?”
“Let’s see if you can figure it out. There have been disappearances around a nearby inlet off the Columbia River. Rumors of an abandoned boat that drives itself. Dumb kids trying to find and ride said boat on a dare, because supposedly, managing to stay on the boat leads to a secret, secluded island. If a group of kids go, most of them fell off, and one or two stayed missing. None of them saw how they fell off, just that the boat ‘disappeared’ into the surf.” I was about to answer, but he raised a finger. “No asking Nalem for help.
Nalem, the ancient ghost who’d taken up residence in my skull since I was a kid, snickered in the back of my thoughts. “As if I would deign to help you? Watching you scramble for answers above your depth is far more entertaining.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, both of you.” I considered flipping on the radio to drown them both out, but then I saw a deer in the rear-view mirror and the answer hit me. “Sounds like a kelpie.”
Jarrod had the gall to look impressed. “You figured it out faster than I thought.”
“Considering all the unicorns we just fought, I was really hoping you’d say I was wrong.”
“If it helps, kelpies are far less bloodthirsty than unicorns. Also easier to kill.”
“Don’t care. Wet horse, horned horse, don’t care. I’m sick of fighting horses.”
“Might not be a fight. Today, we’re going to observe. These reports are happening too quickly, in too big a number, for it to be just kelpie; something bigger’s at play. We’re going to find out what before we move in.” He fished a notebook out of his bulky coat, and after a moment, a flask as well. “There’s a chance we aren’t even dealing with a kelpie. Enough creatures display similar habits to make assumptions life-threatening.”
“Because so many other things shapeshift into boats and drown people. You know I can just sense things once we get there and—”
I went numb as if I’d just been dunked in ice water. Know how I mentioned that Nalem’s a ghost? It’s more complex than that, but a close enough description with his habit of possessing my body. Didn’t matter that I was in the middle of driving. He flexed our fingers along the wheel and leaned back in the seat, a taunting grin spreading across my face. Jarrod was the bravest guy I knew, and he still pressed himself against the door; he’d been on the wrong end of Nalem’s powers more times than we could count.
“Don’t look so scared, little one. I’m not here to hurt you today. We’re under an…agreement, after all.” Nalem bared his teeth in his smile. “In fact, I’m here to help. Part of the appeal of your job is the mystery of it, right? We can’t have Retz giving everything away right at the start.” His tone was proud and mocking, making my own voice sound alien to my own ears. “I’ll keep my powers under lock and key until the two of you have figured out what it is you’re dealing with. Consider it a team-building exercise.”
“Does this also mean you’ll keep quiet for once?” Jarrod asked. He was trying not to show his fear, even though he kept his hand near the door handle.
“Depends on how long you two take. I would say that I do not suffer fools kindly, but then again, I’ve tolerated Retz here for this long.”
Jarrod’s gaze narrowed, but he bit back any retorts he’d had and said instead, “Fine by me. I’ve gone this long without supernatural help. I’m sure Retz could use the practice too.”
“I’m glad we’ve reached an…understanding.” Nalem steepled my fingers together, until he remembered I was driving and had to keep my hands on the wheel. “I have one final task for you.”
Jarrod turned away and started unscrewing the cap of his flask. “Not taking any requests for murdering or maiming today.”
“I demand…that you ask your mother to stop serving sauerkraut with every gods-be-damned meal.” Nalem was answered with an exasperated glare. “What? I am sick of the pickled filth, but she has long stopped listening to me. You, however…she’d do anything to make things up with the child she scared away.”
“She’s not the one who scares me.” Jarrod took a long swig from his flask. “And I happen to like sauerkraut, so you’ll just have to suffer.”
I scrambled to take back control of my body before Nalem could threaten vengeance for any other petty matters. When I did, I couldn’t shake the numbness that came from losing control of my body. I drummed my fingers against the wheel to shake the feeling off. Fiddled with the mirrors. Caught a glimpse of a dead possum on the side of the road, and that’s when I realized I hadn’t noticed it. Nalem hadn’t lied; he completely blocked me off from affecting bones. After all, they were really his powers; he just let me borrow them when it was useful. Or entertaining.
“Guess we’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way,” I muttered to Jarrod. “And what would that be, exactly?”
“To start, reconnaissance. And for that, we’ll need but one simple tool…”
* * *
I had expected Jarrod to reveal some taped-together contraption, like the scanners on all the late-night ghost hunting shows I loved to laugh at. Maybe some alchemical concoction to smear over our eyes to see things with. A pair of binoculars, at the very least.
Instead, as we stepped onto a beach more clay than sand, strewn with driftwood with a rickety canoe tied to an even dingier pier, Jarrod pulled a collapsible fishing pole out of his coat. Keep in mind that my brother was short to begin with, and his stupid leather coat reached down to his ankles and was weighed down with about five-billion pounds of supplies, including two pistols and a shotgun he’d left in the car.
“Are you hiding an entire tackle box in there too?” I asked as I eyed the canoe. It was red, relatively clean despite its surroundings, and even had two oars slotted in and ready to go. It totally had to be a kelpie in disguise. They loved disguising themselves as vehicles for people to ride.
“Don’t need one.” This time, Jarrod fished out a lure made from a wine cork and some old bottle caps. “Works great for bass.”
“We’re not here to catch bass, bro.” I side-eyed the canoe before leaning in and whispering, “…We’re not, right? Tell me this wasn’t some huge ploy to trick me into going fishing.”
“No, but the kelpie has doubtlessly noticed how inhuman our auras are at this distance—especially yours. It’s going to keep hiding unless we show we’re not a threat.” With that, Jarrod leaned away, reached into his coat a final time, and pulled out one of those stupid floppy fishing hats. He reached up and set it on my head. “Keep this on. Don’t want you getting sunburned now.”
“You could just, I dunno, hand me some actual sunscreen?”
Jarrod gave me a once-over; I had a nice button-up shirt that was dark enough to hide any blood that might end up on it, a pair of slacks, a nice pair of leather shoes that were the only pair I had with any traction on them…topped off by the stupid fishing hat. It ruined my entire attempt to look halfway nice, and he knew it.
Jarrod flashed me a thumbs-up and almost allowed himself a cheeky smirk before marching to the water’s edge. He absently grabbed a driftwood log that was twice his size and dragged it with him as if it was a kid’s wheelbarrow. He clambered on top of it, set up his lure and rod, and sure enough, sat down and cast his line.
Something funny stirred in my chest. We’d never gone fishing as kids. Dad had heard stories of Nalem creating skeletal fish monsters in one of his earlier lives, and hadn’t wanted to risk a modern retelling of the experience. And Jarrod…well, Dad hadn’t thought he’d be interested back then, considering we’d grown up thinking Jarrod was a girl until he became a teen. Both of us looked a lot like our old man, but Jarrod had taken on the same scruffy yet bookish appearance along with Dad’s old coat; the only difference from behind was the height and hulderkind cow tail swishing under the coat. Watching him at work gave me this weird nostalgia for a childhood memory that’d never happened, of what could’ve happened if either one of us had been born human.
Or maybe that nostalgia was a hint of Nalem’s memories leaking into mine; I didn’t know much, but I did know that he’d grown up on the ocean’s edge with his family. I mentally prodded him about it.
“No similarity, little one. Unlike you two, I am far too smart to repeat the follies of my forefathers.” Yet even as he said that, I caught a hazy vision of scales and waves glinting in sunlight, the half-remembered taste of meat and blood along my lips, rough hands demonstrating how to use the tools. Did they have fishing poles that long ago, or some other tool? Nalem didn’t dwell long enough for me to find out.
“At least one of us had a dad,” I thought, even though that was a lie. I’d had a dad too. Sure, he’d left home for ten years, but that had been to save me. That was still his goal…at least, I thought it was. Our last meeting had left me a little unsure on that front. But I’d never just been his kid. I was a package deal with Nalem, and he always knew it. Was I bitter about that? No. Maybe. I wasn’t sure myself.
I kicked a rock at my feet, as if that would also shake off the murky mood I’d caught from Jarrod. The totally-not-a-kelpie attached to the dock drifted further away along its rope. I wondered how cramped its bones were in that form. Had Nalem stopped being petty and given me my powers back? Of course not.
That left me with two options. Follow Nalem’s advice and try to find something useful without my powers, or learn how mankind’s most practical, boring sport worked.
I learned a lot in the ten minutes I managed to spend investigating. Like how startling birds can be when you can’t sense them coming. Or how easy it is to fall into a patch of poison oak when trying to avoid said birds. Oh, and that river water doesn’t wash off poison oak, it just scares the fish that Jarrod was supposedly about to catch. I sure didn’t see any fish, but considering that I slipped on the clay and fell into the water, kicking up clouds of sand and bubbles everywhere as I fell…maybe not the best vantage point.
Nalem laughed. Jarrod helped me up but otherwise kept me at arm’s length. The kelpie-canoe crept closer, emboldened by my rampant incompetence.
Jarrod offered me the fishing pole. “I can show you how it works. It’ll keep your hands busy so you don’t itch.”
“Hey man, I’ve lived with Nalem for almost twenty years and survived. I think my willpower’s strong enough to handle a little poison oak.” I said this while absently in the middle of scraping through my skin hard enough to almost break skin and hit bone. I was hollow inside like most other huldra, but a lack of raw flesh under my skin didn’t stop it from itching.
Jarrod, smart enough not to fall for my bluff, shoved the fishing pole into my hands.
* * *
Hours passed. I had not caught a single fish. I did snag some leaves, and at one point, Jarrod’s earlobe. Being half-huldra, the wound healed in a couple minutes, which I’m sure explains why Jarrod never bothered to get any piercings. The canoe kept drifting closer, its rope suspiciously loose on the dock.
“I’m sure Mom’s done trying to scare off your boyfriend,” I said at one point. “If you wanna’ come back and try this later.”
“Nah. It’s nice having some time away from the house.”
“You’ve been there all of four days.” When he didn’t elaborate, I decided to prod. “Do you realize how happy Mom’s been since you’ve come home?”
“Sure. Was the guest room always modeled after my old room, or did she whip that up in the couple hours before we arrived?”
I thought back to the house where we’d last all lived together. We’d left it with quite a few bones in the closet…and buried in the backyard. Entirely my fault. That was the real reason everyone left. I remembered those first few years, back before the calls stopped, when Mom had cleaned my brother’s room spic-and-span each week in case he came home. I’d try to help, then end up staring out the window at the streets, ready to sound the alarm if they finally reached the driveway again.
“We couldn’t put all of your old things in storage. Besides, those Zep posters are priceless works of art.”
Jarrod tried to shrug it off, but the movement was stiff, his supposed apathy forced. “You keep forgetting, I’m just passing through.”
“You don’t have to—”
“I made a promise the day I left,” Jarrod said. His voice rose without his consent, breaking through clenched teeth as he tried to bite it back. “I wasn’t going to come home at all until Dad and I figured out how to save you and stop Nalem. Then I lost Dad, and I’ve been trying to pick up the slack ever since. And I haven’t yet. You’re still both you and Nalem, and me, I’m someone else entirely who doesn’t belong in any of those rooms and picture frames.”
Before I could try to comfort him—and believe me, I had no idea how to even start—the nose of the canoe bumped against our log. Its rope had broken free from the dock, swishing in the water almost like a horse’s tail, and the oars rested perfectly along the water.
“Now for the fun part.” Jarrod turned to me. “Last chance to head back. I’ll catch up later. Hell, maybe I can convince the kelpie to turn into a car afterwards, if it doesn’t kill me.” He managed a half-smile to show that he was maybe sorta’ joking.
“If you think the last few days of catch-up can possibly make up for your ten-year vacation, you’re sorely mistaken.” Ready to go and determined not to let my brother slip away again, I stepped onto the kelpie canoe first.
Apparently, this was not the plan. I didn’t realize that until that little red canoe darted off across the water like a stray firework spark, and Jarrod’s shouting was lost in the surf.
My natural instinct was to scramble for my powers to grab the kelpie’s bones and bring it to a standstill. All I felt was canoe wood that seemed to splinter under my fingers into damp horsehair when I gripped it. “Nalem?A little help here?”
“Why ever would I do that? It’s not like you’re in trouble, little one.” There was a rare note of curiosity in his voice when he continued, “The kelpie hasn’t even partially returned to its true form. It’s far more intent on transporting you without raising a fuss.”
“I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume that’s weird.”
Judging by the lack of answer, Nalem was leaving me to figure that out for myself. Since the kelpie was in fact doing its best not to toss me overboard and eat me, I started scrounging around its transformed body for something useful. Life jacket? Fake. Rope? Part of its tail. Oars…wait, those were actual wood. Stolen and covered in the flat bite marks, like a horse had tried to drag it along with its teeth. Why would a kelpie not fake that part of its disguise?
“If I told you that I had an idea to slow down this kelpie and help Jarrod catch up to us, would you consider giving me my powers back?” All I had to do was tie one oar to the kelpie’s rope, and then…
“Did I not make it clear that this was supposed to be a challenge?” Nalem rifled through my thoughts, rows of metaphorical index cards he flipped through and then tossed over his shoulder. “Your plan is far too complicated anyway, and not in a theatrical way. It will be far more entertaining to watch you muddle the way mortals do.”
I kept a hand on the oar anyway, just in case he changed his mind. We’d gone far enough that I couldn’t see Jarrod or where we’d docked, but the kelpie started slowing down. It twitched, expecting something to jump out at it, as it angled itself toward a small island in the middle of the inlet. It was a round island covered in small trees, pines and firs pointed toward the sun, and swapped out beaches for rocky outcroppings that led to sudden deep drops. I wondered how many dumb kids my age had traveled out here to escape prying eyes, how many discarded cans and clothes were lost even so far away from civilization.
Answers were waiting for me around the north end of the island. Shreds of waterlogged fabric drifted by. My lack of powers didn’t stop me from smelling the stench of blood, fresh and oddly salty. The kelpie-canoe paused as I noticed the stench. A few tufts of hair, longer and thicker than a human’s, drifted past on the waves.
All sound gave way to a low, creaking groan.
The kelpie whinnied, shifting back to horse form as it bucked me and its oars away. One oar hit me on the head as I hit the water, and I had about two seconds to swear as I began to sink. Unlike most humans, I didn’t have things like muscle or fat to keep me afloat, and unlike other huldras, I had bones instead of being completely hollow past my skin. All of this was usually fine by me…but it did mean I sank faster than a rock. And under the water, I saw a giant, algae-and-blood covered beak. A beak that was opening up and preparing to swallow me whole.
Nalem sighed, and I began to rise. Our powers over bones didn’t just affect other beings, after all. “If I perished here, I would never hear the end of it. And as entertaining as it would be to tear this apart from the inside, the humans would notice if an island collapsed and began to bleed.”
“So, how are we going to stop it? I don’t think Jarrod will let this…whatever it is continue to eat people. And kelpies, apparently.”
Nalem hummed, buzzing through my brain as we broke the water’s surface. He kept my bones light, and I paddled toward the stone shore. Part of this creature’s shell or something? It had to be ancient if it had trees growing on it.
“Not so,” Nalem answered. “Note how short the foliage is. It’s impressive, true, but these trees aren’t even a century old. This being is either young, or only ended up close to shore in recent decades.”
I almost asked why a giant beast like this would be stuck here, but I could already hear Nalem’s mocking insults to my intelligence. Time to figure things out for myself—or hope that Jarrod caught up before I fell into another patch of poison oak.
* * *
Even without my powers, the forest on the island-monster’s back felt empty. Birds didn’t rest in the boughs and sing. Predators didn’t dart after prey in the underbrush. Even the mosquitoes didn’t seem to dare come near this thing. Did they sense that this creature wasn’t quite like them? Or were they scared of being snapped up like the kelpies, who darted around the island monster with all sorts of maimed offerings in an attempt to sate it?
At least the only thing I had to fear on the island itself was the plant-life. Not that it was sentient or anything; dryads and alraunes knew better than to plant themselves on the back of a beast that could knock them off if it ever bothered to wash its back. That made them a good deal smarter than me. I was busy tripping over tree roots as I tried to find where on the lake my brother had ended up.
The sun edged toward the horizon. Night was still a ways off, but back at home, I knew Mom would still worry. She’d only just gotten one son back, and now both of them had wandered off again. I felt bad enough for the impending news I’d have to give her that I was leaving with Jarrod when he was ready to hit the road. I mean, I wanted to go and see the world, and sticking with Jarrod meant I might be able to do so without Nalem causing too much trouble. But when I thought about leaving her behind…it felt like my face would collapse in on itself, right behind my eyes.
“I knew it was a bad idea to allow you to linger at home for so long,” Nalem muttered to himself. “I should not have allowed you such a weakness.”
“Come on, you already let me have ‘criminally dependent on your powers’ and ‘sinks like a sack of bricks.’ What’s one more flaw on the pile?”
“If I recall correctly, little one, I recently revoked your sassing privileges.”
Before I could ignore that with another sarcastic retort, the island shifted again. It kept doing that, the closest I’d ever gotten to an earthquake. I stumbled backwards and braced myself against a tree. In the distance, a wet snap broke the still of the riverside evening. I wondered if our monster was munching on a kelpie, or if they’d found something more satisfying to sacrifice. They whinnied and neighed as they darted away, shifting from horse form back into different kinds of boats.
“I wonder why this island doesn’t just follow them and gobble ‘em up. Maybe it’s too slow?” It had stopped moving again, and the direction I’d been heading no longer faced the sun. I still didn’t see Jarrod anywhere. “I thought he would’ve caught up by now.”
“Maybe I’m lucky, and he drowned. Or that’s what the beast was just feasting on.”
I kept my mouth shut; I knew he was trying to get a rise out of me, get me to whine and beg for my powers back so I could make sure. But I knew his bluff. He wasn’t enough of a jerk to hide my brother’s death from me if it happened. At least, I was pretty sure he wasn’t.
So I did my best to ignore him and regain my bearings. What direction had I been heading in? Vaguely toward the sun, but that was off to my left after the island shifted. At this rate, it’d circle all the way back around before…
“This thing’s only been moving in one direction.”
“I was wondering when you’d notice.” Nalem wasn’t impressed enough by simple feats of logic to feel proud, but I felt a small ping of satisfaction from me noticing before nightfall. “And why ever would such a beast spin around as aimlessly as you do?”
I shoved the insult into a corner of my mind where I could safely ignore it and tried to focus on the problem. I hadn’t gotten a good look at the creature when it almost ate me, but I didn’t notice anything injuries on its head that would affect its vision or hearing on one side. And the rest of it seemed well protected by stone and trees. The only place on it that was at all easy to climb up on was where Nalem had led me during our escape, or around one of the barbed fins I’d passed earlier—though those spikes had been formidable-looking enough that I wouldn’t dare climb up them to avoid the rocks.
It might’ve taken a minute for the wheels in my head to start turning, but they made it eventually. I ran—stumbled, if I’m being honest—back to where I’d climbed up to make sure I was correct. I hadn’t realized how far I’d wandered over the past couple hours—or how hard it was to navigate when the landscape kept moving. But I did make it, and when I looked down…
“It’s missing a fin—there should be one here, where the stone is loose. So it can move better, I guess.” I clambered down a little closer to the outcropping of stone. The skin resembled clay and mud, but there were jagged streaks of lighter colors poking through the algae coating. “It was injured awhile ago. Probably why it’s stuck here—it can’t turn around or swim forward without both of its front fins.”
That still didn’t answer my question of where Jarrod was—until I looked out toward the closest shore, and found Jarrod trying to wrestle a kelpie for control. He’d gotten some rope around it in lieu of a bridle—how much survival crap did he have in that stupid coat of his?—and was trying to ride it toward me and the island monster. Judging by how sopping wet he looked, this was not his first attempt at the kelpie rodeo today.
“Hey, Nalem. This creature…did it lose its fin around here?”
Nalem knew where my question led; this thoughts coiled around mine, parsing the unspoken ideas bubbling under the surface in preparation for either answer. “It did, little one. Though it is smaller than the creature’s other fins; it was lost while this beast was still young. That would be why it is not in the ocean with the rest of its kind.” He followed the trail of my idea and continued, “It should be able to return to its socket without the body rejecting it…if we can open the skin and muscle back up.”
“Think it has enough muscle in the joint that if we put the fin bones back in with some fake webbing between them, it could move the fin and swim again?”
To show me, Nalem eased my powers back into my senses. I first felt the fin bones caked under the mud and weeds of the river, cracked but still intact. Then the bones of the creature under me, a being so rare and ancient that Nalem didn’t even know its name, bloomed in my senses the way a firework does in the night sky. Even for a young one of its kind, its bones might as well have been weathered rocks in the river, taking the shape of a giant turtle carrying a forest across its back.
I checked the build of its fins. I checked the missing pieces. If the fin was like a hand, the remaining joints were the wrist. It might not be able to flex its fins on its own, but it’d be able to stroke them through the water…if I could fix them right. I could adjust the underdeveloped bones to match the size of the others by patching in some bones from dead wildlife around the river; there were plenty of dead fish in the sea. Er, river. Saying still stands. But the webbing…
Jarrod had finally wrestled the kelpie close enough to shout, loud enough to pull me out of my thoughts. I turned toward him as he shouted again, “Retz! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine!” I shouted back. “I figured out how to fix this thing!”
He tried to calm the thrashing kelpie under him so he could hear me. “Fix it?”
“It’s missing a fin! I can get the bones back, but I need some fake webbing. Like, a tarp or something! Do you have anything in your coat?”
Jarrod had to think a moment in order to recount all the weird supplies he carried on his person at all times. “Not yet. Give me a minute.” And with that, he began the battle to steer the kelpie back to shore, so he could acquire his webbing…somehow. I had no idea what he had planned.
But I had work to do. First, rebuild the fin bones. Second, figure out how to surgically re-attach the fin without the creature killing me.
I sat down, closed my eyes to block out the rest of the world, and got to work.
* * *
There’s an art to rebuilding bones. It’s not just a matter of mashing skeletons together using Nalem’s weird magical powers, though of course that works in a pinch. There’s precision in smoothing over the cracks, in making sure the repaired parts match the real thing—or are even better. Nature isn’t perfect, after all, but Nalem’s arrogant to think he might be.
Our powers were pretty versatile; a telepathic pull tugged the bones out of the mud, and summoned the bones of every dead fish and drowned varmint that still had a corpse on this riverside. I melded them together like metal in a forge, and I kept everything under the waves in case humans came lurking. They had a hard time remembering anything supernatural, but I didn’t want to take any chances when all my focus was on my supernatural patch job.
By the time my work was done, I found myself lying back on the grass. My clothes were still soaked, and my skin begged to be scraped off from how much it itched. But when I bothered to open my eyes, I was greeted by a starry sky and a perfect view of the Milky Way overhead, a glittering reflection of the river around me.
And then I saw darkness as a sopping wet fishing hat plopped onto my face.
“You dropped this,” Jarrod said. When I pulled the hat back off, I saw him shrugging off a large, thick tarp that he’d wrapped around his shoulders, a bulky fisherman’s cape. “Think this will be enough? Took me awhile to find, but I got as much as I could carry. Figured I could find use for any extra.” He paused to pull a can and a bagged sandwich out of his coat and added, “I also grabbed you a bite, in case you finally remembered to eat something. And I got myself a six pack.”
I took the offered sandwich. “That’s…only one beer you’ve got there.”
“Pack was disbanded. This is the only survivor.” Jarrod cracked open his drink. “Where’s your handiwork?”
“Watch.” I pointed out at a deep point in the Columbia river, a spot the kelpies were giving a wide berth. Out floated the skeletal fin, patches of mud and algae clinging to it in lieu of skin and blood. I floated it over as Nalem summoned a couple smaller bones to hook into the grommets in the tarp, so we could move it in the air. We wove the pieces together and braced them with a couple more bones in between; wouldn’t do if our handiwork broke on this creature. “Say, what’s this thing called anyway? Nalem doesn’t have a clue.”
“It’s a being with far too many names to pin one down; there’s a fine difference, little one.”
Jarrod hummed as he thought. “I’ve been calling it a Fastitocalon. Like the Tolkien poem.”
“Of course you would. Nerd.”
“Why else do you think I started listening to Zep?” He took a long drink of his beer. “I’m glad you figured out how to help this thing out. It’d be awful to be stuck in one place for so long.”
“Which is why you’re itching to go, right? Pack up and head out now that Mom’s given your guy the obligatory huldra warning?”
Jarrod sighed through his nose. “I…no, you had a point.”
I waited for him to elaborate, and when he didn’t, said “It catches everyone off guard when that happens. Even me.”
“Kill the self-deprecating humor and take a compliment for once, okay?” The can crumpled in his grasp as he tried to pull his words together. “Listen, I can’t just run away again without saying anything. It’s…like these kelpies here trying to feed the Fastitocalon; it waylays the problem in the short term, but it doesn’t solve anything.” He was so busy trying to get his thoughts out before his resolution faltered, he didn’t notice the remnants of beer spilling out of the crushed can and over his fingers. “…I think I’ll try to talk to Mom. Maybe stick around a few more days.”
What was this? Jarrod wasn’t bottling up his feelings? That was rarer than this island monster. Hell, maybe I could convince him to take a few new photos for Mom to hang up while we were at it. But not just yet. Baby steps.
“Well, I’m glad those kelpies only took a bite out of your stubbornness.”
“No, they also got my leg. See?” Jarrod pulled up a torn pant leg to show a half-healed bite mark in his calf. “But I think I’ve got them calmed down. I don’t know if they understand English, but I explained what I was doing, and it seemed to help? We might be able to ride one out.”
“Good. Because the final step is for Nalem to reattach this fin, and seeing as we don’t exactly have anesthesia for an entire island…” I absently waved an arm up at Jarrod.
He rolled his eyes before grabbing it and pulling me to my feet. “Come on then. Let’s get to shore and finish this. With any luck, we might be home before midnight.”
I didn’t think that’d make any difference—I hadn’t exactly warned Mom that we’d commandeer her car past dark—but hopefully, the sight of both of her sons coming back home safe and sound for another night would settle that problem before we had to face our next inevitable departure from home.
I took a deep breath of the night air. Jarrod was right—it wasn’t good to get stuck, and we were getting ready to travel all over, see even more weird creatures than living islands and boat-horses. It was going to be great. And maybe if we wandered enough, I’d stop tripping over myself and learn to stand on my own two feet.
“Keep telling yourself that.” Nalem cracked his knuckles, the pops echoing in my skull.
Despite the best intentions of the ghost possessing me, that’s exactly what I planned to do.