Jubilee (Continued)

by Tim Pratt

Jubilees only happened once or twice a summer, if that, and some years they didn’t happen at all. For as long as anyone could remember, there were mass fish–suicides on the shores of Mobile Bay. Sometimes they stretched for a mile or more, but this one was smaller, only a few hundred yards of fish–littered beach, and even so,there was enough for anyone who cared to come. Most of these people would skip work tomorrow and spend all day cleaning fish. For the poor folk around here, a jubilee was a genuine mana–from–heaven miracle, and though everyone would be sick of fish pretty soon, boredom was heaps better than hunger. I’d spent plenty of summer nights as a kid laying out on piers with a sleeping bagit was too hot to need, watching the water and the late–night flounder giggers, hoping to see the ripples in the water and the onrushing silvery flow that heralded a jubilee. Jubilees were wonderful things, almost as exciting as that one winter it snowed, and for the same reason — a glorious, chaotic upset of natural order, being out in the middle of the night instead of sleeping, seeing the barbers and fry cooksand schoolteachers and town councilmen all together, laughing, reaping the bay’s bounty. It was paradise for a kid.

Why had I never stopped to think what it must be like for the fish?

It wasn’t like the fish decided to give themselves up for the good of the humans on the shore. Something drove them out of the bay. I thought unavoidably of the panic in the train station, the man with a gun on the platform — not even a terrorist, just a man who decided to kill as many people as he could — and the people surging out in all directions, heedless, rushing for safety anyplace it might be found.

I slapped at a mosquito on my neck and walked down the beach. I had no interest in getting my feet wet or feeling fish in my hands, or wriggling on the end of a spear, and the sight of those fish flopping madly in their hundreds made me dizzy. Nor did I want to talk to old acquaintances, and anyway, their sympathy would take a backseat to the fish. Shortly after dawn, probably, this cornucopia would dry up, and any surviving fish would swim back to the depths of the bay.These people had to gig while the gigging was good.

When I was a kid, I hadn’t thought much about why the fish and shrimp and crabs fled the bay for the shore. And while I hadn’t exactly followed the science with a close eye, I gathered that the current theory involved decaying algae on the bay floor, somehow robbing a localized area of oxygen and creating a floating dead–zone, a bubble of killing water that moved, driving the denizens of the bay before it — at least, until they hit the shore.

I tried to visualize such a thing, a space of pure negation, a submerged, invisible bubble of suffocation moving beneath the waves. It seemed improbable, too complicated, like there must be a more straightforward reason for the fish to flee, something even worse than flopping in the shallows, waiting to be speared.

I kept walking down the beach, sand crunching under my shoes, the voices behind me fading into distance, the boiling water calming down as I passed the edges of the jubilee. I stood and looked at the moonlight on the water, wondering if I’d made the right choice. Sara and I had long ago bought tickets to fly back here, and when the morning came I just . . . took the flight. I’d done the funeral.Work understood — we were between deadlines — and the vacation was already booked. I’d needed to go somewhere. I’d already bought a handgun. I knew when Barrett Wayne Johnston was being arraigned. I’d started thinking about ways to smuggle the pistol through courthouse security. Planning the murder of Sara’s killer had, strangely, helped keep me sane, giving me a purpose and a problem to work out. But instead of following through, I’d left my gun in our too–empty apartment and flown home.

I’d run home to mama, and I would miss my chance to put a bullet in Barrett Wayne Johnston, one bullet to make up for all the ones he’d fired into that crowd. I knew coming home was prudence, the smart thing, not throwing my life away, but it felt like cowardice, and anyway, it was hard not to believe my life had ended when Sara’s did.

I heard a strange sound, just loud enough to jostle me out of my thoughts. A mewl, sort of, an animal kind of whine. I cocked my head, listening for it, but heard nothing.

"Hey, Andy," Bill said, startling me. I didn’t like him coming upon me unawares. He’d done it when we were in junior high, just before knocking me down, or trying to shove my head in the toilet, or wrenching my arms behind me and kicking me repeatedly in the ass. It had been nothing personal — I was a victim, he was a predator. Surely that had changed? Mom liked Bill — he’d given her a deal on a car from his lot, and helped her carry her groceries in sometimes.But it was hard to look at him without seeing the grinning bastard who’d held my face in the dirt. He held the gig casually, across his shoulder. "You all right? Don’t want any fish?"

I just shook my head. "No, I appreciate you bringing me out here, but I just want to be alone."

Bill remained oblivious to simple social cues. "Pretty broken up about your girl, I expect. Your mama showed me pictures, she was real pretty."

I nodded. She had been.

"That Johnston fella even made the news down here," Bill said. "Shot all them people, just bad luck your girl was there."

"Sara wasn’t shot," I said, digging my heel in the sand. "Johnston isn’t even being charged with her murder. The crowd killed her."

"How’s that?"

I didn’t want to say it, but Bill had to hear it, apparently — had to have it spelled out. "She got trampled, Bill. When Johnston started shooting, everybody started running, and she got pulled away from me by the crowd. She tripped, or someone pushed her, who knows, and then they . . . stepped on her. A lot of people. Someone broke her neck. They called it an accident." She’d been so bloody,so bruised when I went to identify her . . . I couldn’t stand to think about that, to remember it.

"Accident? Fuck that," Bill said. "It’s that Johnston’s fault, he started the panic. I’d’ve killed that fucker."

I could only shrug.

I heard that mewl again, louder, this time. A sound like a cat, maybe, but wetter. "Did you hear that?"

"I didn’t hear shit," Bill said, too loudly. "Except for my neighbors whoopin’ and hollerin’ and getting all the biggest flounder. Let’s get back."

I ignored him and went down the beach, toward the water, and the sound. Something glowed in the sand, a faint green shimmer, not like a reflection — more like something with its own inherent light. "What the hell," I murmured, wishing Sara were here. She’d been in grad school, studying marine biology, so she might have known — but she wasn’t here.Instead of meeting my relatives and announcing our engagement, she was just ashes scattered in the Pacific, leaving me without so much as a grave to visit.

I knelt, and there was a creature partially covered by sand, unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was as big as a two–year–old kid, smooth–skinned, with long froglike legs, a lumpily oblong body, and big black eyes. Lacy fins hung limp from its legs and sides, and glowing green algae covered its body in spiraling, swooping patterns that seemed almost artistic.I was astonished. "Bill, have you ever seen anything like this?"

Bill looked down, grunted noncommittally, said "Sometimes we get weird shit washed up here. Probably some frog that got toxic waste on it or something. It’s no good to eat, I’ll tell you that, and you probably oughtta get away from it before you get radiation or something."

I frowned. That kind of mutation happened in comic books, not real life, though I wasn’t surprised that Bill didn’t understand the distinction. I reached down and brushed sand away from the thing, trying to get a better look at it.

The thing blinked, or at least moved clear membranes across its eyes, and I jumped back, startled to discover it was alive. It moved, two forelimbs appearing from underneath it, dragging itself out of the sand that half–buried it, toward the bay.

"Just leave it," Bill said, "there’s flounder going to waste, and blue crabs, your mama said you love blue crab —"

The creature had little hands, and a great ragged gash in its side.

And there beside it, sticking out of the sand, was a tiny spear made of wood, with a bit of jaggedly broken driftglass for a point. The spear was over a foot long, decorated with phosphorescent algae. Black blood covered its tip.

"What the hell —" I began, and then Bill slammed his gig down, right through the crawling thing’s back, and flung it far out into the bay in one smooth motion. I reached for the little spear, and Bill kicked my hand aside, making me gasp, then snatched up the spear and hurled it into the bay, too. He knelt, took a handful of sand, and started scouring the hand that had touched the spear."You don’t need to mess with shit like this, Andy. Your mama asked me to give you some attention, bring you to the jubilee and try to cheer you up, but you had to go wandering off. Now just . . . forget about that ugly fish you found. You left home, went out to California, and this ain’t no business of yours anymore."

My hand stung where he’d kicked it, and I stood up, wishing I was a few inches taller, a lot more muscular. Wishing I had my never–fired gun. "What was that thing, Bill?"

"Somethin’ nasty. We see ’em, every few years, and we don’t touch ’em with our bare hands. We just kill them and fling them back into the bay. They don’t make good eatin’ — I heard eatin’ them makes you go crazy, that’s what some of the old folks say — and they’ve got that mold all over them. You’d know all this, if your daddy had lived, or if you’d stayed around long enough for somebody else here to treat you like a man."He shook his head. "We get the jubilees. Best not to think about why. What does it matter? They’re just fish. Come on back, now, and I’ll take you home after a while."

I stepped away from him. "I’ll make my own way home."

Bill spat. "Hell with you, then. You ain’t changed a bit." He walked off, spear over his shoulder, still rubbing his sand–scrubbed hand against his pant leg.

I looked down at my own hand, where I’d touched the little spear–bearer. Glowing green algae nestled in the palm of my hand.