Missing Link | Jennifer Barton
No one in town had ever seen the kind of creature Charlie dumped on the beach from his net one evening, glassy-eye dead but alive with mystery. It was long—about five feet—but thicker than an eel and on both its sides were a row of individual knobs instead of fins.
“Looks like fingers,” a little boy said, his blue-handled sand bucket half-full of seashells.
“Fingers?” laughed Charlie. He’d fished the Carolina waters longer than most of these tourists had been alive, and although he had never seen this particular creature, he had certainly seen some strange things. The ocean aglow with pinpricks of blue light, for instance.
“And those holes on the side of its face look kind of like ears,” a woman in a barely-there black bikini said. Charlie laughed again.
“You people’ve been spending too much time at the Ripley’s,” he said. “Did you fall for that dried-up Fiji mermaid, too?”
But just as a few people tittered at the bikini lady crossing her arms and taking a step back from the front of the crowd, a wet, gurgling cough silenced everyone. Sand pitched onto Charlie’s shoes as feet tripped backward upon other feet. He became the center of a widening circle, but he was not alone in this center. The thing at his feet coughed again and then gasped a breath of air. It wasn’t dead at all, or even dying. It was trying to stand.
“MISSING LINK FOUND!” The Sun News screamed the next morning.
“Ah, bullshit,” Charlie said. He exhumed a gob of phlegm from his rattling lungs and lobbed it out the window of his houseboat, almost hitting a double sun-decked yacht. For the last week that slip had been empty, abandoned by the last wooden houseboat in Worrell’s Marina except for Charlie’s own. By now, Fred’s old boat had probably been turned into hundreds of picture frames lining the walls of hotels and gift shops up and down the coast, and old Fred himself was probably lining the wall of the “active living facility” his son had enrolled him in. “Huh,” Charlie said. “Active living.” At least he had no son or daughter to force him to live actively. He spat again and this time hit his new fiberglass neighbor. When the glob slid into the water, Charlie returned to his paper.
The picture beneath the newspaper headline was of his own sun-leathered face squinting into the eyes of the thing from the ocean, and the thing from the ocean squinting back into his. Sunny down at the bar would have a field day with this—“finally made the papers and you didn’t even have to die, huh old man?” he’d say. “Fishing ain’t so good these days, so you’re going into the freak business?”
Charlie balled up the paper and threw it out the window. It bobbed for a few moments before taking on too much water and sinking just next to the leaky rowboat he’d turned into a makeshift creature pen. The rowboat was covered with a net and lashed to the side of Charlie’s houseboat. The head of the thing from the ocean bobbed above the water in the rowboat, clearly preferring to breathe air rather than saltwater. Is it the only one of its kind, Charlie wondered, or can it send signals to others? Is it smart enough to be mad? It squinted into his eyes, just as it had on the beach yesterday, and its thick-lipped frowning fish mouth flapped open and closed.
“If you’re half human, then why don’t you say something?” Charlie asked. It flapped its mouth again. Its face was mostly fish, but the people on the beach yesterday had been right. There was something human about the way its cheeks curved down from its mouth and nose holes and up toward the skin folds around its ears. Its expression was pure dumb animal, though.
There was no room between the bottom of the rowboat and the net for the thing to stand, so it lay in a curve against the plank that served as the boat’s seat. Lounging, like any Sunday fisherman would do. The part of its skin that was beneath the water turned sunlight into flashes of rainbows, but the part above the water had turned dull brown and slimy. Hideous, Charlie thought.
He pulled his head back in the houseboat. It was only an hour or so past dawn, but soon people would be at his door again, wanting to see the thing. Somebody from a university had been called, the newspaper man said yesterday. They’d want to do some studies. They’ll be wanting to pay me, then, Charlie had told him. I fished it, so it’s mine. You’ll have to take that up with them, the newspaper man said.
Charlie used a knobby, calloused forefinger to shoehorn his smooth feet into his dock shoes. Lately when he was fishing, he often wished he could use his like-new feet to cast out line and haul in rope instead of using his worn-out hands. But at least his feet were still getting him around. Fred’s weren’t, and look where they got him—good ol’ active living. Charlie grabbed his cigarettes and took his white town shirt from the doorknob on his way out, buttoning it up as he went.
The main drag already smelled like pizza and French fries, and the tourist shops had hoisted their t-shirts to the wind and threaded their inflatable dinosaurs, dolphins, and turtles with ropes that could keep elephants in place. A few early risers, mostly old folks, were headed from their hotels to the beach. The hotels down this way were only a few stories high and looked like they needed a good wash. Charlie liked them more than the ones further down that looked like cities made of colored sugar. Each one had not just one pool, but a whole series of pools. Some of the pools had slides and fountains for kids, some had bars, and some were connected to each other by a series of shallow rivers. Why go to the beach if you’re just going to stay at the hotel and swim in the pool? Charlie thought. You could stay at your own house and swim at the Y.
“Gracing us with your presence, are you?” Sunny said when Charlie walked in the bar. “Thought a famous man like you would’ve moved to Beverly Hills by now.”
“Aw, shut it.” Charlie stubbed his cigarette in an empty ashtray. “Came down to buy some bait. Gotta see what that thing I found will eat. Thought I’d get my breakfast first.”
Sunny pulled a beer and put it in front of Charlie. The windows along the side of the room were open to the brightening morning, but their light was swallowed by the dark corners of the bar. Sunny’s had been here even longer than Charlie had been fishing, and whenever Charlie took his seat on the stool by the beer taps, he felt like he’d stepped out of a fake world and into the real one. The bar’s deep red leather booths and dark brown tables stood in a firing line against everything pink and green and blue that had been built around the place. Once in a while, a tourist would wander in Sunny’s, thinking it was one of those throwback places with carefully collected fishing tools hanging in the exact same way they would in every Sunny’s in every beach town up and down the east coast. After their eyes adjusted to the dark, though, and they could see the lack of décor on the walls, the ancient white-ponytailed man behind the bar, and the genuine drunks on the stools, they’d turn and walk right back out.
“What’re you gonna do with that thing, Charlie?” Sunny asked. He poured himself half a pint and took a sip. He never really drank anymore, but he wasn’t one to let a man drink alone, even in the morning.
“Hell if I know. Retire on it, I hope. Pull anchor and get the hell out of here before they pave over me.” Charlie opened his throat and let a good half of his own pint slide down in one gulp. It cleared the fuzz from his brain and stilled the shakiness in his hands.
“Get out? Where would you go?”
Charlie shrugged. “Somewhere quiet. Maybe find myself a deserted island somewhere.”
Sunny laughed and sipped his beer. “Good luck. Somebody owns everything these days. Ain’t nothing deserted anymore unless it ain’t fit to live on to start with. You might get one of them radioactive islands pretty cheap.”
Charlie downed the rest of his beer. “Well, anyway. Some bigwigs are coming to look at it today. Reckon they’ll tell me what I’ve got.”
“Careful, or they’ll try to take it with them. Tell you it’s your duty for science, or some such crap.”
“If the price is right, they can take it wherever they want.”
Sunny shrugged. “Don’t get fooled by big talk, that’s all I’m saying.”
Charlie slid his empty glass across the bar and got up. “I ain’t no fool, Sunny, no matter what I might look like. Don’t you worry about me.”
“Don’t worry,” Sunny said to Charlie’s back. “I won’t.”
On the way home, Charlie stopped at the bait shop and bought live sardines and squid, and at the corner grocery, he bought a pack of hamburger meat. If the thing was half human, it might take to the taste of hamburger. Charlie had planned to fry a couple eggs for himself, too, but when he got in sight of his houseboat, he could see a crowd was already forming. People were peering in his windows and a kid was hanging on the railing of his deck.
“Hey!” he yelled. “Get away from there!” He started to run, but the loose heels of his dock shoes slowed him to a quick scoot.
“It’s here, right?” a lady in a wide sunhat yelled back. “Is it staying inside with you?”
“It ain’t nowhere near here,” Charlie said. “Now you people move along. I’ll put a sign out when I’m ready to show it.” No one had made the kid get off his railing, so he shooed the boy himself. “I have to secure it proper so no one gets hurt.”
“So it’s dangerous?” said a man whose belly overhung his flowered swimming trunks.
“I didn’t say it was dangerous,” said Charlie. “Didn’t say it wasn’t, either. As of now, it’s an unknown species, and I ain’t taking any chances on a lawsuit.”
A murmur rippled through the crowd. People repeated “unknown” and “dangerous” in a way that would make old man Ripley himself jealous.
“Now everybody move along and don’t make me get the deputy down here to tell you you have to go,” Charlie said.
The group slowly broke off into twos and threes, some ambling toward the beach and others to the hotels. Charlie stayed put until the last pair had made their last backward glance and disappeared.
“Hey you,” he said inside the houseboat. “Hungry?” He poked his head out the window that overlooked the rowboat. It was lashed to the end furthest from the dock, so even though some of the crowd had probably seen the ends of the boat, they couldn’t have seen the creature inside. The thing raised its head and gave him that squint again. It looked hot and tired, but Charlie didn’t want to risk moving it before the university man came. What if it got away and then no evidence of it remained? It’d just be me, a couple dozen tourists, and a grainy newspaper photo against the doubt of the whole world. I’d become one of those old men who spends the rest of his days swearing he saw Big Foot or Nessie to anyone who’d listen.
Charlie took the sardines from the bag and leaned out the window to slip the foam cup beneath the net. The thing’s fingers, or whatever they were, weren’t long enough to grab it, but Charlie dropped it on the plank near its mouth. The thing’s nostrils quivered and it turned its head toward the cup. It raised itself a little and peered inside, but didn’t try to eat. Charlie lowered the squid next and the thing gave the same reaction. Next he pinched off a ball of hamburger, but before he could even place it on the plank, the thing moved as far as it could get to the other side of the boat.
“It’s what I buy for myself,” Charlie said. The thing’s fingers curled and straightened. It turned its head toward the water. Charlie stretched the plastic wrap over the rest of the hamburger and put it in his cooler. “No fish, no meat,” he said to himself. Maybe the thing was sick, or starving itself to keep from living in captivity. He’d heard of zoo animals doing that. And people, too, for that matter. He wiped his hands on a paper towel and heard a faint voice outside. “Damn tourists,” he said loud enough for anyone on the dock to hear. “Don’t know when to take no for an answer.”
Charlie opened his door, but there was no one on the dock. He leaned out and looked both ways down the walkway. No one. Back inside, though, he heard it again. He hung his head out the window over the rowboat. The thing was still shrinking as far as it could get from the food Charlie had offered, but it was squinting up at him again.
“If somebody’s out here,” Charlie said, “I want you to know I’ve got a gun.” That was a lie, but he did have a knife, and he leaned back inside to take it from under his cot.
“Plants,” the voice said. It was deep and raspy, like a cartoon frog.
“Huh?” Charlie looked down at the thing. Its fish mouth was flapping like a puppet’s.
“I eat plants.”
“I’m part human, aren’t I? Just like you said.”
Charlie’s hands started shaking again. He looked around again to see if someone could be playing a trick, maybe throwing their voice. No one was there. He wished he was back at Sunny’s having a second beer. “I don’t know what you are.”
“Bring seaweed. It’ll do for now.”
“Seaweed,” Charlie said. He didn’t know if he should believe what he was hearing and seeing, but said okay anyway. He kicked off his dock shoes and ran down to the beach. The beach cleaner had already come through, so there wasn’t much seaweed left. Just a clump here and there. He grabbed handfuls and made a tight ball of it. It talks, he thought the whole time he was collecting. That thing talks. This is the greatest find of the century, maybe in the whole history of the human race. I’m going to be in history books.
Back at the boat, the thing was still squeezing itself into the farthest edge of its confinement. Its brown skin had taken on a gray quality and its mouth opened and closed a little as it breathed. If it hadn’t been sick to start with, Charlie worried that it was now.
“Here,” Charlie panted. He held the ball of seaweed through the window. “I brought as much as I could.”
The thing glanced up. “That’ll be enough. But take the fish and meat away. The smell makes me sick.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Charlie looked down at the two cups of fish and ball of meat on the rowboat’s seat. It had been easy to lean out and drop them a little way through the net’s holes, but it was too far for him to pick them up again without falling.
“I won’t bite,” the thing croaked. “I can barely move. Swim out to take these things and leave the seaweed. I’ll stay right here.”
Charlie thought about this. The thing didn’t look like it could do much more than breathe right now, let alone attack him. It had to be angry about being trapped, though, even if it was too tired to show it. Once Charlie got in the water, maybe the thing would find some strength after all.
“Just a minute,” Charlie said. Away from the window, he took off his shirt and slipped the knife under his shorts band. Its handle snugged into the crevice of his spine. In the water, he hugged the ball of seaweed with one hand and swam with the other. When he reached the rowboat, he grabbed its side and peered in. The thing was staying put, just as it said it would. It watched him take the hamburger and cups of fish and fling them far out into the water. To place the seaweed, though, he needed to lift the net.
“I’m going to untie this a little,” Charlie said. “But if anything unexpected happens, I’m gonna use this knife I brought with me.” He reached around and brought the knife above his head.
“There’ll be no need,” the thing said. “I won’t move.”
Charlie loosened a couple of the knots he’d made yesterday and squeezed the seaweed under the net. It missed the plank and plopped into the sloshy water at the bottom of the boat.
“Dammit,” he said.
“Leave it. It’s fine.”
Charlie retied his knots and swam back to the dock. From his window, he watched the thing eat. The knobs on its sides weren’t long enough to reach its mouth, so it lay near the food and coaxed the seaweed into its mouth with its lips and tongue. Underwater, this would probably be a simple task, but in the rowboat, it looked messy and unnatural.
“Thank you.” Its chewing was a sucking smack. “I feel better already.”
“Least I could…” Charlie stopped himself. What am I saying to this thing? Talking to it like it’s a new neighbor. The thing stopped chewing and squinted up at him. Charlie pulled his head in and fumbled for a cigarette from the pack on the table. “Where you from, anyway?” He struck a match. “How’d you get here?”
“I got caught in your net.” The thing smacked the seaweed in its mouth. “You put me here.”
“Well yeah, but…”
“We’re not as different as you think, Charlie. I know we dislike some of the same things.” The creature’s fish eyes flicked over to the neighbor’s fiberglass yacht. Charlie looked at it too, and blew smoke out the window. Surely the thing had seen him spit on the new arrival earlier that morning. That didn’t mean it knew more than what anyone on the dock might guess just by looking at this one last bare wood houseboat, though. Next to the yachts, it was too rundown to even be quaint.
“Truth is, I’ve been watching you. Watching for a while. I wanted us to talk, but not like this.” It flicked its eyes back to meet Charlie’s. “I come from an island. No humans live there now, but they used to. My kind was different then. We’ve progressed rapidly.”
Charlie took a drag off his cigarette and leaned his elbows on the windowsill. Why would anyone—or any thing—want to watch him?
“The people left some books and old radios that have helped us learn,” the thing continued. “But there’s only so much we can get from those.”
“So you’re on some kind of mission,” Charlie said. “What for?”
The thing took a last bite of seaweed and curved itself back against the far wall of the rowboat. Color seemed to come back into its skin even as Charlie looked at it. “I’ll tell you if you if you let me go. I came to talk to you, Charlie, to work out a deal. I’m not going to leave.”
Charlie ashed his cigarette into the water. Letting it go might mean letting go all chance of making any money off this thing, but now that it was talking, he didn’t feel right about keeping it in the rowboat. Then again, having it here might get the new neighbors good and pissed off. Plus, the university man was coming and this thing needed to be documented and studied and named. Charles Russell’s Aquatic Erectus. That had a nice sound. He could picture those words in grade school textbooks with a picture of himself and the thing right below them.
But it needed him for some reason. It had chosen him. Maybe it could see how he was different from the tourists and rich jerks who clotted up every sidewalk, street, and waterway.
“So?” the thing said.
“You won’t leave?”
“Leaving is not in my interest.”
Charlie left the window and lowered himself back into the water. He felt for the knife in the back of his shorts before he let go of the dock. It was still there. At the rowboat, he loosened his knots again, but before he got his hands on the last one, there was a big splash followed by a circular ripple about ten feet in diameter. The thing was in the water and swimming very, very fast. Its head popped out of the center of the circle and the ripple faded away.
“That’s better,” it said. “I’m feeling much stronger now.” The thing’s brown fishy head stayed perfectly still above the surface of the water, like it was standing on solid ground. It was a better swimmer than any fish or person Charlie had ever seen. Charlie kept his knife in one hand and held the side of the rowboat with the other. The thing was staying close, as it said it would, but well out of Charlie’s reach.
“So you’re free now,” he said. “Start talking.”
“We’ve seen what happens when humans leave a place untouched for a long period of time. And we’ve seen the opposite.” The thing’s eyes flicked upwards, toward the hotels. “If things keep going as they are, food will begin running out. For us and for you, too.”
“For me?” Charlie laughed. “If you’re talking about global warming and all that crap, I’m not gonna live long enough to see it. And I don’t give a rat’s ass what happens when I’m gone.
The thing’s eyes flicked back to Charlie’s, but its head remained motionless. The treading of its tail barely made a ripple in the water around its body. “But you care something about what happens while you’re still here, don’t you? From what I’ve seen, you’d like to get away from here, to go somewhere secluded and untouched. Isn’t that right?”
Charlie stopped smiling. He felt like a secret had been found out, even though everything this creature had observed about him would be common knowledge to anyone who paid attention. But that was just it—no one did pay attention, except Sunny. Even so, Charlie couldn’t think of one good reason why this thing would care about what he wanted or didn’t want.
“We’re ready to make ourselves known to the world, Charlie, but we need someone to help people get used to us. I need you to go back home with me to see us for yourself, to learn how we live. Think of it—you could be an ambassador for all of humanity.”
Charlie did think of it. If he said no, all was lost. He’d just have his houseboat and his fishing and a story no one would believe. But if he said yes, he’d get his name in history books and be remembered for building a bridge between this thing and the rest of the world. That was the kind of choice that wasn’t really a choice.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ll go.”
“Just like that? No one you need to say goodbye to?”
Charlie thought about Sunny. He should say goodbye to him, but once Charlie got back and broke the news about these creatures, Sunny would understand why he skipped town so fast. Besides, knowing there was just this one person who might miss him made him even more sure he needed to leave. Soon he’d have a multitude on his side, even if they were a different species.
“No,” he said. “I’m ready now.”
“Then grab hold when you feel me under you.”
Charlie tucked his knife in the back of his shorts and looked to his houseboat. It was unlocked, but there was nothing in there worth stealing. Charlie let go of the rowboat and before his head went under, the thing was beneath him. He bear hugged its muscle of a body and held his head high above the spray of parting waters. The fish swam faster than most boats could go and soon Charlie’s houseboat was just a speck, and the shore a thin, distant line. Charlie’s hands shook against the thing’s slippery skin. Everything had happened so fast, he hadn’t thought about what it would feel like to be so exposed this far out in the ocean. He didn’t know how far they were going, or how long it would take to get there. If they came upon sharks, would this thing be able to fight them off?
The thing slowed just as the last glimpse of shore fell behind the ocean’s expanse. All that was visible now of the town were the very top floors of the tallest colored sugar hotels. The thing stopped and slid out of Charlie’s grip. Charlie kicked and flailed against the shock of suddenly having to keep himself afloat.
“Sorry, Charlie,” the thing said. Its head had popped out of the water a few feet away. “I’m afraid I was a bit untruthful. This is as far as you go with me.”
“What?” Charlie flailed hard with his left arm and reached around with his right for his knife. He thrust it above the water in a stabbing position. The thing laughed a croaking gurgle and swam further away.
“I’m not going to attack you, so take that scared animal look off your face. You’re a strong swimmer, though, aren’t you? You might eventually make it back to shore.”
“Swim? What are you talking about?” Charlie lowered his arm, but kept hold of the knife. It cut fading slices through the water with each tread. “You need me—you said it yourself. An ambassador for all of humanity.”
“No, Charlie. What would my species have to gain by building bridges with one that’s killing itself off? And you’re certainly not rare or special, so we couldn’t sell you to the highest bidder, or stick you in a zoo or museum, as you would like to have done with me. Your only use to us is by being gone.”
The thing’s head slid back into the water and a ripple followed its swimming for a while until it dove too deep to disturb the ocean’s surface. Charlie slowed his kicking and flailing to a slow tread. He knew of no fishermen who came out this far, and there were no planes or helicopters overhead. No one would be missing him for hours, either, if at all. If he didn’t show up at the bar this evening, Sunny would probably just assume he’d gotten his own bottle and went solo at home. Charlie looked in the direction the thing had gone, but there was nothing but water there, either. Not even a seagull around, and no sound but the lapping of water against himself. The only things that weren’t ocean were the top floors of the hotels. He trained his eyes on them and put his knife back into his shorts. Leaning into the water, he turned his tread into a slow swim.
Hours later, Charlie looked out at the ocean through the windows of Sunny’s bar. His hair was still wet from his swim, and his hands too limp to raise the beer Sunny had placed before him. The sun was sinking somewhere behind the bar and its rays skimmed across the water to where the blue-black water met the blue-black sky. Not long ago, he’d just been a speck out there, praying for a boat to come by, for his arms to hold out, for one more night on this stool in this bar. And now here he was, once again alone on his stool, his prayers answered like he’d been a praying man all his life.
Jennifer Barton’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, such as Printer’s Devil Review, Appalachian Heritage, Hawk and Handsaw, New Southerner, and Work. One of her short stories is currently being considered for a Pushcart Prize, and one of her essays was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize. Recently her two novels were finalists for the Tennessee Mountain Writers Excalibur Award and the Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize. She completed her MFA at the New School in 2007 and lives in New York City.