They found Daniel dead on his boat just beyond the buoy. He may have been an older man, but nothing in his medical history suggested a heart attack was coming. He ate well, walked regularly. The coroner’s report was boilerplate, frustratingly simple enough to have incited all that followed. It wouldn’t have taken much.
Esthel Way, a modest town on the coast of Maine, is known by tourists for its beach and then for what so many allege exists in the morning fog over the water, by the creek and the salt marsh, and in the woods: a creature from out of time. Firsthand accounts abounded in the 1970s, along with a since-debunked Polaroid depicting an upright reptilian humanoid. Along with samples of sparkly scales occasionally recovered in the woods — popularly owed to birds dropping fish out of the sky — the photo began the ongoing composite profile of the Esthel Creek Dweller, prehistoric legend responsible for the rash of missing pets in the 90s, the intermittent appearance of feds around town in the 2000s, and perhaps the sudden death of Daniel Diaz most recently.
The locals used to say the shore was haunted, before the tourism board stepped in with a consultant from a PR firm a town over. Imagine: monster PR. They helped ensure the Dweller remained purposely vague, perhaps to encourage a breadth of potential sightings. And Daniel had seen something in the water, something drew him out to the lake hours before dawn, and he couldn’t tell the tale. Soon, there were no non-believers in Esthel Way.
Olivia Roth sat in the darkness of her classroom long afterhours, with only the dull glow of her computer monitor keeping her awake and grading finals. It was a self-imposed exile, or punishment even, as she had to be sure Alexandra was clear of the premises. She couldn’t chance an encounter, not after the incident, and not when considering it took her this long and counting to drum up an explanation.
The incident, well, it hadn’t even directly involved Alex — Ms. O’Neill to her students — but it didn’t matter. Five years on the job, Olivia knew how word spread around the halls. This was a matter of educational philosophies, and Alex should be rightly offended. Olivia would be.
Second period, Olivia was winding up for the class’s final exam, and couldn’t help but notice the glum faces along with the usual anxious. She started in, remarking that everyone worked so hard this week preparing in class and out. Well, apparently, as Katie reported, in their prior class period, Ms. O’Neill didn’t give an English final. Instead, she had them act out scenes of a Shakespeare play. Katie played Ophelia. The class’s volume began to rise with excited chatter, and Olivia moved quickly to control it, without necessarily spoiling the mood.
“How does that story end?” she’d asked. The class fell silent.
No need to rub it in; she’d rather provide an explanation. She continued, “Ms. O’Neill is impressed by your talents and loves your enthusiasm. But we’re here to learn, not do the bidding of a failed theatre major…”
And she bit her tongue and closed her eyes, a reflex she found herself repeating throughout the day, even in exile.
With only a handful of tests left to grade, Olivia knew she’d make time. Her sister Sarah had called earlier to say she’d touched down at O’Hare, making the rare and arduous visit from her home in Esthel Way. She’d sounded worried, almost out of breath. So, really, it could be anything.
Olivia underlined the latest perfect score and in moving the test to the completed pile, uncovered Katie’s. She began marking off answers against the key.
It wasn’t ‘failed theatre major’ like ‘failure,’ because she did graduate afterall. But Alex wasn’t on Broadway, she was here. It was the truth. And this, Olivia thought, writing “100” on the top of Olivia’s test, was the job. That perhaps Alex didn’t take the responsibility as seriously as others. Sure, final exams weren’t mandated by the administration, but by a broader administration, they were. These kids would be in high school soon, and then college, where worth becomes numbers.
She moved Katie’s test to the completed pile and leaned back in her chair. At the edge of her desk sat a single framed photo, lines and features struggling against the monitor’s glow. It was Olivia and Sarah from over a decade ago; annual summer vacation at Esthel Way, their last. While they posed at the water’s edge, sunglasses up, sunscreen splotchy, Sarah would be off to Brown University in a month. Olivia was two years from graduating high school, but already feeling the heat.
“No sunscreen for that heat,” she said aloud to nobody, she hoped.
THE SCHOOL NEVER felt so remote than it was late at night at the start of summer. Olivia enjoyed the chirp of insects all around her and nowhere, sitting on a swing in the school’s playground, adjusting her eyes to the dark off the parking lot’s distant lights. And from that distance, the close of a car door, and soon, Sarah emerged. She crossed a stretch of of the grass which accented the premises, and assumed the swing next to Olivia. The cold metal structure creaked.
“This thing’s gonna collapse, isn’t it?” Sarah asked.
“Live dangerously,” Olivia replied.
Sarah grinned and leaned back. The swingset creaked with rhythm, and Olivia considered asking for an update on Mom and Dad. In recent years, Olivia relied on Sarah as a mediator.
Interesting, she reflected, how all that turned out, now with an education in evolutionary psychology. In those old times, Sarah would stamp her report card on the fridge on top of Olivia’s, or Olivia would loudly proclaim the financial upside to going state rather than private. So many traded jabs, all for the attention of two people who didn’t have enough to spare. With remarkable speed and efficiency, Olivia’s parents remarried and moved away from their suburb in Boston, leaving their college girls alone in the aftermath. And so the competition may have looked silly and useless in retrospect, but it took on a new shine after that: it was theirs. Olivia left for the Midwest upon graduation, and Sarah stayed relatively local, relocating to the Roth summertime retreat in Maine.
Suddenly, Sarah spoke up. “What would you think about maybe coming back with me? Back to Esthel Way.”
Amused, Olivia shook her head in the darkness. “What’s up?”
“Well,” Sarah said, and cleared her throat. “There was a death in town a few days ago. I don’t know if you’d recognize the name: Daniel Diaz?”
“No. But I’m sorry to hear about it.”
“Yeah,” Sarah continued. “Here’s the thing: he left behind a widow, Cristina. I attended the funeral and watched her give the eulogy, and it was weird, like, clinical. She’d condensed his life to a bulleted list. The night after, the girls and I took her out, and she was that same flatness. Couldn’t move her. And so, as we were leaving, she leans over to me, lowers her voice, and tells me she’s gonna go out and kill the Creek Dweller.”
Olivia nodded, gravely but absently. “Because it killed Daniel?”
“That’s what she believes, yes.”
“Come on,” Olivia couldn’t help but chuckle. “She said that to you?”
Sarah produced a newspaper article from her purse and handed it to Olivia. “She didn’t have to.” Olivia squinted in the bare moonlight. Front page, local paper: ‘Esthel Creek Dweller makes fatal appearance.’ She passed another one, smaller, from the Portland Press Herald: ‘Woman claims cryptid killed husband.’
“Shit,” Olivia said, taking a closer look. This Cristina was heavily quoted in both.
“It’s keeping her from properly grieving,” Sarah said. “She can’t process something that makes no earthly sense. And she knows it, too, which is why she asked for you.”
Olivia looked up from the articles. “That’s why you’re here?”
“I’m here on her behalf, yes, though while she wants you to locate the thing, I want you to do the opposite: prove it isn’t real, and bring her back to reality. That, as I learn, doesn’t come from me. She needs an expert opinion.”
“Uh-huh,” Olivia said, leaning back. “We’re at the flattery stage before I knew we were negotiating.”
“I might’ve figured you’d put up a fight.”
Olivia bared her teeth in a grin. “If you’ve already failed, you know better than I do. You told her a creature like that couldn’t exist, and she didn’t believe it. Don’t take it personally; it wasn’t a reaction to you, it was ingrained.”
“I do take it personally,” Sarah said, frowning. “But again, you seem to be the expert here.”
“Unfortunately. People like that, they wear you out. At the last parent-teacher conference, I was criticized for even mentioning evolution in class, offhand. You know what this lady told me? She began by saying ‘we’re not arguing here,’ already setting the terms, because she could undercut my argument with the phone in my pocket. See, the purchase of my phone was determined by the survival of the fittest, wasn’t it? Perhaps this principle which so dominates our minds in a capitalist consumer society has nestled beyond it, and thus we draw our revelations from patterns we ourselves created.”
Sarah nodded, eyes narrow. “What did you say?”
“Oh, I go into it, each and every time. But it’s useless, and you, missy, don’t have time for it. This is delusion so thick, so contorted and knotted, its terrible shape defies comprehension…”
“What about the daughter?”
The train of hyperbole still chugging in Olivia’s mind suddenly derailed. She hadn’t considered the daughter — Megan — and she wondered how that oversight slipped into her work, as Megan’s outlook was very much part of her work. And as she recalled, Megan’s final exam rated a 100 earlier that evening.
“I’m surprised, Olivia,” Sarah was saying. “You always won our arguments. Now you doubt your persuasive powers?”
Olivia glanced away. What kind of household was Megan returning to each afternoon? And when the dinner conversation was over, did she consider a curiosity in the natural world a betrayal to her own mother? Suddenly, a new train was arriving: the counterargument she should’ve laid, the logic she could’ve picked at. Instead, she chose the old arguments, recycling lines about the fossil record and technical specs on that ark.
“You can help her,” Sarah said, and stood.
Olivia sighed. “You came all this way; you’re either sure or desperate.”
Sarah turned to Olivia, hand outstretched. Voice low; not a whisper, but conspiratorial still, “I know my sister.”
It was more than a thousand-mile flight to Esthel Way. Olivia hadn’t visited since just after college. Crouches of memories awaited around ever corner, with every waft of salt off the water and down each street, by every paint-chipped cottage unchanged in this small pocket of history. The mowed lawns, the sizzling bacon and the morning birds. It was so sweet; the first promise ever broken before Olivia knew promises were made, this place where her illusory family came together to set impossible standards.
And yet, Sarah smiled her warm smile, as if she’d already thought through all of that years ago when she decided to move, and it all worked out. Perhaps, by her sister’s side, the two could return to the water’s edge, and be those girls again.
OLIVIA WOKE TO a flutter of her sister against the open window which filled the room with light upon crisp, white walls. Sarah was going through a dresser in a frenzy, jerking open the top drawer as it required for at least two decades. Olivia and Sarah had flown in the previous night and arrived at Sarah’s cottage, formerly their parents’ yearly rental. Upon moving to Esthel Way, she took the place off the rental market, and got herself caught up in the property business. This would lead to her post at the office on Pacific Ave at the heart of town, renting cottages to the tourists like herself in a former life.
“Morning,” Olivia said, groggy, pushing herself up against the headboard. Sarah didn’t respond, instead continuing her search. “You know, if I was gonna steal something, I’d probably wait till the end of the trip, not the very beginning.”
Sarah jerked the drawer back closed and leaned against it, chewing her bottom lip. She turned to Olivia suddenly, swift like a bird. “Have you thought of a plan?”
Olivia cleared her throat and sniffled, contemplating through the haze of morning. “Well,” she said, “I’ll want to derive a profile of the creature, probably by cross-examining eye witnesses…”
“I’ll make a list based on who’s been most open to the press.”
“It’ll likely be a contradictory composite, so we’ll defer to Cristina as the final word. Then, we check that profile against the alleged habitat, demonstrating it can’t survive on a diet of gulls and cigarette butts.”
“Okay, yes,” Sarah said, smacking a fist into her palm, “I figured you should have a notepad of some kind, you know, for…” she pantomimed a hurried scribble.
“Oh, like a private eye,” Olivia said, one eye closed. Too early to understand what she was saying.
“Thought I saw a little notebook up here,” Sarah trailed off, hands on her hips. “We’ll drop by the general store. You shower and have breakfast, and I’ll make some calls to set up interviews.” With that, she pivoted off toward the door.
Olivia set her pillow flat again and rested her head.
“Oh, hey,” Sarah said, reappearing.
“I’d never accuse you of stealing.”
Olivia opened her eyes and sat up again. The sharpening blur that was her sister betrayed yet further earnestness. “Oh,” she said. “Yeah, sure. I know that. I was just joking.”
“Okay,” Sarah said. “I got lox.” She spun out of the room.
PACIFIC AVE WAS two blocks before the public beach and squeezed between forests of residential neighborhoods, the hotspot for community activity, with Sarah’s office adjacent to the general store and the diner, themselves opposite a small park, with the rec center and the library nearby. This morning, it was congested by news vans parked along the street in the absence of a dedicated lot. Apparently, as Sarah had informed Olivia, these reporters had been staking out ever since Daniel died.
She parked behind a local news van and the two sisters disembarked. Notepad retrieval being a one-person job, Olivia couldn’t resist the old haunts.
The general store opened to a halt, its front door facing cramped end caps with shelves of tiny plastic things. To the left, the diner was accessible through a roughly door-sized threshold, which maybe was once a door long ago. Their connection brought the sizzle of the grill into the store and shoppers into the diner. Sarah made a beeline for the rack with the stationary, and Olivia decided to skulk around, enjoying the quality of the wooden creaks beneath her steps. Nothing about the place had changed, not the slapping wooden door with the hook latch, the blue interior, or the muffled sounds of dishes clinking next door. It was smaller, though, and more immediate. She felt that it was afterall a building, with its unseen framework and pipes. To so many through that door, it would be just that.
“Olivia?” came Sarah’s voice calling. “I got it.”
Sarah slid into view at checkout, a single counter with a teenage girl clerk. An older man stood ahead of her in line, digging for change in his pocket. He paused, turned to Sarah. “Olivia?” he said. “Your sister? She’s in town?”
“Yes, she is,” Sarah said, gesturing toward the approaching Olivia. “And speak of the devil.”
The man grunted an affirmation a little too loudly. “I didn’t know this was happening today.” He turned back to the coins in his palm.
Olivia scuffed at the floor to announce her proximity. “What have you heard?”
“Olivia, Mort, Mort, Olivia,” Sarah said quickly, quietly.
Mort sighed. “Danny took to the water just before dawn. I don’t know what happened, but I suspect he got lucky. Woke the thing up; it wasn’t hunting — Mrs. Diaz had a body to bury. But I’d be careful about tromping around in the woods like there’s nothing out there, getting your photos to doctor to prove a point. You might not be so lucky yourself.”
He handed some change to the clerk and pivoted off. The door clapped itself closed, leaving Olivia staring after him. She blinked. “Word really travels fast, huh? And aren’t photos usually said to be doctored when the monster’s in them?”
“I’m sorry about that, Liv,” Sarah said, moving to the counter.
The clerk raised her hand. “On the house, Ms. Roth.”
“Thanks, Sabrina,” Sarah said, and hustled Olivia out the door.
“You’re pretty popular, huh?” Olivia was saying on their way back to the car.
“Sure am,” Sarah mumbled, and handed Olivia the notepad. Picture of a horse on it. “I mean, I give all the summertime people the keys and my office is next door…”
“I know that. It makes sense.”
Olivia figured that small town popularity like Sarah’s came with responsibilities. In all her years, it was unlikely Cristina Diaz’s monster issue was the first.
The two got into the car and Sarah slid back onto open road. They followed the shoreline which allowed a view to its calm water reaching back into morning mist.
“After we get Cristina, we’ll be dropping by the Mann cottage first,” Sarah said. “You remember Carrie?”
“Don’t tell me she’s still kicking.”
“She’s been all over the media. Very excited to speak with you, too.” Sarah’s eyes were fixed on the road, hands glued at ten and two.
“Hey,” Olivia said. “How have you been… holding up?” Perhaps that was overstating it, she thought.
“Hmm? What are you talking about?”
“You just seem, I don’t know, in a whirl, is all. I hope you didn’t come to me because you’ve exhausted yourself, holding this town together.”
“No. She’ll only listen to you. Trust me.”
Olivia sat back, and quietly slipped some of Sarah’s newspaper clippings out of her purse to review. “And this Cristina,” she said. “Anything I need to know?”
“She being the bomb I have to defuse.”
“She’s fine. Just needs to talk.”
Article after article, Cristina gave the same interview. Maybe it was a press pool, like a big conference on the town hall steps. More likely, she had her story and was sticking to it.
Sarah turned onto a side street shaded by trees, and slowed the car over the pop of acorn under tire. The end of the street rounded out before a clearing, where the periphery of woods opened up to a waterview. The Diaz cabin sat humbly at the crest of an incline leading down to shore across a stretch of sand, ending in a private dock and the infamous boat.
Sarah parked and looked at her phone. “She never called me back. I’m gonna go get her.”
“Yup,” Olivia said, scanning the beach.
The driver door didn’t close. Olivia looked over to see Sarah lingering. “Hey,” she said, ducking her head into view. “If she happens to call you ‘Dr. Roth,’ just play along. I may have told her you’re a college professor.”
Olivia froze. “You did what?”
“I got to go see if she’s okay, alright?” Sarah bounced off the door.
What the hell was that supposed to mean, Olivia sounded out slowly in her mind, reaching the answer before she was finished. College was the big time. Middle school was a space for socialization and maybe some basic math. Even she felt that way during her post-grad limbo, applying to every adjunct position she could find in and around Chicago. Back then, Olivia was on a mission, one she kept close because missions were probably a silly thing to have, and have so dearly.
But as a child, she woke to a new world, one full of sights and wonders that suggested the depths yet undiscovered, the mountains and jungles and vistas to breathe in, and from the head of a lecture hall, or while trooping her students through the field, she wanted everyone to wake to it, too. A year into her work on seventh grade science, cramped in that classroom in the east wing, she was glad to have kept it all close. When the memory of her ‘mission’ floated up, she suppressed her reflex to spiral. After all, had she ever successfully connected a curious mind to its destination, to the mountains or jungles or vistas or whatever, how would a lowly middle school teacher ever find out?
Olivia shifted in her seat. The seabreeze brought feelings of teenage-era anxiety enough. She wondered if Sarah knew the effect her little remark would have. Of course she did. But she’s not that cruel. She was clever, Olivia admitted, wringing a consensus out of her ping-pong mind. Sarah was the older sibling, always a step ahead. Her true rivalry was with Mom, not at the kid’s table with ‘Liv.’ Oh, but those times Olivia was seated at that table, when the scope of the game was impossible to discern from the first move. Why produce a slight like that out of nowhere? Why misinform Cristina in the first place?
At the moment, Sarah rocked on her heels, perfectly framed by the Diaz door, which opened to a pair of arms that encircled her and pulled in. Together, the pair now rocked in place, holding this way for several silent ripples against the shore, so gentle and unassuming like this affectionate display, composed by receding, layered borders: the door, the edges of treetops overhead, the windshield.
Olivia jerked her attention back to beyond the beach. Daniel had taken the boat out off that dock at such an odd hour. Strange, but only suspicious with Cristina’s single, monosyllabic account. ‘It’s the creature,’ she so insisted, and none of the local reporters challenged that in their lengthy exchanges.
In Olivia’s periphery, the two women were still one.
She remembered the man in the general store, Mort. It didn’t register at the time as anything other than askew hostility, but felt now more familiar: learned dogmatism. That this belief in the creature was more than tourism dollars, it was solidarity with a grieving woman. To disagree was heresy.
The theatrical hug reached its end. Sarah huddled against Cristina to escort her across the sand, as if there were phantom news vans all around them. No heretic Sarah. It was only natural; the woman dispensed care generously, and with gamesmanship — anything to get ahead. It was so from the start, when the Roth sisters committed equal and opposite harm on neighborhood weirdo Lydia Graves; Olivia by teasing her, Sarah by befriending her in response. Not that Sarah wasn’t genuinely kind, but she knew how to sharpen that kindness toward Olivia’s lower back.
Cristina’s face emerged out of the distance; quietly dignified, almost regal, the wear of age accenting her face. And she wore black, which fluttered around her frame in the breeze. Olivia could practically feel the tug toward sympathy. And this, she thought, was how it began: inductance into Esthel Way. Olivia bit her lip. How short-sighted, to fall into her sister’s trap. Sarah was charged with an impossible task: forcing Cristina to face the music. She needed a sacrificial lamb, and just happened to have a sister, a pretentious college professor sister. Goddamn, she was good.
“Cristina,” Sarah was saying as the two car doors opened to the left of Olivia, “this is my sister, Dr. Olivia Roth. Olivia, this is Cristina.”
The car dipped as Cristina squeezed into the backseat, her hand suddenly drifting by Olivia’s head. She turned and — by instinct — shook hands.
“So,” Cristina said with a weathered smile, “you’re my monster hunter.”
THE MANN COTTAGE jingled with chimes from the inside out, its windows open to the saltwater breeze which lifted up and through the surrounding woods. Olivia sat on the edge of a wicker chair; Sarah held onto Cristina on the couch to her left. And before her, the glass coffee table sprawled with platters of crackers, cheese, and fruit. Carrie herself was clinking in the kitchen ahead, preparing tea.
Olivia scanned the cottage interior, its dark wood paneling offset by accents of faded white. Vintage photos hung on the wall, some black and white, most Technicolor, all glamorous snapshots of beauty contests: Carrie as a younger woman, holding flowers, posing on stage.
The counterattack was coming together. It was simple, but that wasn’t the problem. After the interviews, after the trip through the woods, Olivia would face Cristina — and Sarah, at Cristina’s side — and tell her, ‘You know what? The evidence stacks up. The Esthel Creek Dweller could definitely inhabit this environment.’ So says Professor Roth, and oh, she could see the look on Sarah’s face. That smugness, the glances of assumed conspiracy by way hostage-taking — erased in a snap moment. Olivia only had to be careful not to tip her off. Do the job, play along. She stopped herself drumming fingers against her hips when Carrie returned and set a tray of teacups on the one open space on the coffee table. “Please,” she said, gesturing, before taking the chair to Olivia’s right.
“Down to business,” Olivia said, flipping her notepad open. “Thank you for meeting with us today.”
“I’m happy to share my story.”
No doubt. “Why don’t we start with your first sighting?” Olivia said.
“Well,” Carrie was saying, taking a sip, “it was 1972. Deborah and I — that’s Hank’s sister, no longer with us as of two years ago…”
Olivia nodded along regularly, hardening her eyes with a renewed intensity at the memory of the time she blinked asleep for a second during a job interview.
“…it was upright, like nothing I’ve seen before or since, walking out of the water like a man, or something. It was haunting. Now, I couldn’t see the eyes; never turned his head, but I knew he was intelligent.”
“‘He’?” Olivia said, stopped in the middle of flipping a page.
Carrie shrugged. “The lingua franca.”
For whatever reason, Carrie imagined the creature as male. She considered its gender in the first place, among the first recalled details, which happened to coincide with the note of his intelligence. Now Olivia wondered if the thing was handsome. Either way, she gritted her teeth against what was so common, that people will spin elaborate mythologies before stepping back to get some perspective.
“Of course,” Olivia said. “And what tells you ‘he’ was intelligent?”
“The vibe, mostly.”
“I see,” Olivia said, flat. She shifted in the chair. Speaking of smug. “Certainly adds mystique.”
“Oh,” Carrie said. “I suppose so.” She clutched the teacup in two delicate hands, took a sip as if to obscure her face.
“A humanoid animal,” Sarah was saying in the periphery, “would by function demonstrate a semblance of intelligence with its stature, and its gait, right? You can’t be humanlike without the brainpower.”
“How true, sis,” Olivia said, eyes forward. “I just wonder if Mrs. Mann might feel differently were her creature in fact an idiot. Though conversely, a more primal affect could’ve drawn the same intrigue.”
Somewhere in the cottage, an analog clock ticked to itself, chunkily, through each room, against the wind and the chimes.
“I’m sorry, Olivia,” Carrie said, smiling, “I’m not sure what we’re talking about anymore.”
Sarah cut in again. “I think what she’s saying is that this new tidbit runs somewhat counter to other accounts we’ve read.”
“What I’m saying,” Olivia said with some force before catching herself, “is your description has been largely subjective, in my opinion. Forgive me if it makes me seem testy, but I’m trying to root out specifics, which will help us better in the long term.”
Sarah backed off. Carrie straightened, cleared her throat.
“1972,” Olivia said, glancing at her notes. “That was a competitive year.” She gestured at the wall of photos.
Without looking, Carrie chuckled. “Yes, those were halcyon days. Before I met Hank, actually, but it wouldn’t be too long afterward.”
“Interesting. When did you start getting into that?”
“Dressing up, waving my hand? Oh, young. Very young.”
“One might say it was almost inborn. You’re a natural.”
“One might indeed,” she said. “If this is ‘testy’ again, let’s say I’ve heard the gamut regarding my oft-called exhibitions.”
“The lingua franca.”
“Exactly,” Carrie said, smiling. “But you were suspecting me of something?”
To the left, Cristina shifted on the couch, sat up.
“Hey,” Olivia said, chuckling, “I piece things together, and happened to turn that ugly habit into a profession. You’re popular still, in the press, around town, and it’s my belief you’re every bit as aware of it as I am.” Olivia opened her hand to minutely gesture toward the platter on the table.
“What can I say? I enjoy conversation. This is becoming quite the interrogation, but I enjoy challenge, too.”
Olivia sat up and gripped an armrest to lean in. To her left, Cristina cleared her throat. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Can we get back on track here?”
“Oh, of course,” Olivia said, slumping again. “Apologies, apologies.”
“In terms of specificity,” Carrie said, “I’d say it’s about six feet tall. How’s that?”
“That is very good,” Olivia said slowly, recording the note as a cartoon cat.
“Six feet,” Cristina repeated. “That’s all?”
“To the best of my memory,” Carrie said.
“It’s just that six feet is hardly…” Cristina bit her lip, “I don’t know. Would that have shocked my Daniel to death?”
Carrie sighed. “Good cop and bad are at odds here. I’m afraid I can talk about vibe or avoid it, but not both.”
“Because it’s so easy either way,” Cristina was saying, standing up. “Please, Mrs. Mann, I need to know: could the creature you saw have killed my husband just by appearing?” Carrie fell silent, and her eyes were wide. “You have to understand, for me, this isn’t just an ‘enjoyable conversation.’ It’s not some occasion for refreshments.”
The room was still. Tick, tick. Carrie’s eyes were now closed, and she’d tipped her head down. Conjuring an answer? It didn’t matter.
“Okay,” Olivia said, also standing. “I think that’s enough.”
“What?” Cristina said.
“I have no more questions. Carrie, thank you for your time. Cristina, Sarah, let’s go.”
A peep from Carrie: “Enjoy the sun.”
OLIVIA MARCHED TOWARD the car, bracing against a now rattling wind. She listened for the gravel crunch of her two companions behind her.
“I had a question. She was about to answer,” Cristina was saying.
“She wasn’t,” Olivia said, and felt a hand on her shoulder which spun her around. She felt the cold of the car on her buttocks, and Cristina was in her face. “What?”
“Oh, don’t act like that,” Sarah said. “What were you doing in there?” She stood by Cristina’s side, took her hand, pulled it to her chest. Fucking inseparable.
Olivia scoffed, addressed Sarah. “I’ll do the job, but I draw the line when our humoring her hurts somebody else.”
“Excuse me,” Sarah said sharply. “Suddenly, you care about Carrie’s feelings, with that death glare? Were you summoning a demon?”
“She was a beauty queen.”
“My God, what’s your issue? So she doesn’t count?”
“Her account is tainted by an ulterior motive. But you wanted an answer from her anyway?” she said, turning her attention to Cristina. “She’s still in there.”
“That’s not the point,” Cristina said. “I can see it, Olivia: you’re a non-believer. So if it’s all the same, why not let Carrie off the hook, right?”
Olivia’s jaw went slack. She knew better, but it came tumbling out anyway. “That’s rich, coming from you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Olivia winced against the rise in her stomach. She tensed up, anger running through her with an obvious release she tried to refuse. She turned back to Sarah. “You want to know my issue? I don’t know what this is, but you’re enabling her out one side of your mouth, and that’s unimaginably cruel. But that’s the whole town, Cristina, it’s the same cruelty.” She paused to catch her breath. “I am sorry about Daniel, I am, but these people are not helping you by encouraging this fantasy. So right here, it’s just us, and I’m asking you to tell me, truthfully, why you believe your husband went out at three in the morning.”
Cristina straightened herself, planted her feet in the scraping gravel. “He saw something.”
“But how do you know that?”
“Because I know him.” The edges of Cristina’s eyes sparkled. “He wouldn’t have done something so stupid without a reason, goddamn it!”
“Jesus, Olivia…” Sarah was saying.
Cristina sniffled and touched Sarah’s hand, to be released. “I’m being honest. I can’t know exactly what he was doing, I can only speculate. He loved his boat, and he loved the water. I miss him so much, but in some ways, I know he wouldn’t have wanted to depart this world from anywhere else, like the ocean was his ladder to Heaven. Not a strange hour, just another opportunity to live his life.”
The breeze picked up again, tossing the curled ends of Cristina’s hair against her eyes and narrowing them to a pinpoint focus on Olivia. They held an old, old sadness, something Olivia didn’t see until this close-up. The woman comported herself with an austere confidence, and it was clear she meant every word of what she said. Maybe, Olivia thought, it would be better for Cristina to keep believing. Better for the whole town, too. She sighed. Same plan, but didn’t feel so good anymore.
Cristina pushed off and opened the passenger door next to Olivia, got in. Olivia began to circle around the front of the car, but Sarah stopped her. “You said earlier you’d defer to Cristina for confirmation. When you’re done the interview, maybe you can just look over at her for a thumbs-up. We need to be as comprehensive as possible.”
Olivia nodded blankly.
“You came close to giving me away,” Sarah said softly. “For what it’s worth, I am doing this because I care about her.”
“I have no doubt about that.”
Sarah turned away. “What I meant is, thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” Olivia said through gritted teeth.
PETER SORELLI LIVED inland, at a colorful trailer park advertised first by the main road, and second by a faded wooden sign affixed to the main office, which was apparently too valuable to repaint. Like everything in a tourist town, the park was packed tightly next to an encroaching novelty shop, which shared its sloping parking lot, itself the cap on a strip with the post office and a rental cottage. People were in and out of the doors and up and down stairs, ferrying their early summertime business in anticipation of the season. For all the crowding, beyond the park sprawled the green blue marsh that followed along the length of the town via several forms, becoming a creek and finally opening up into the ocean proper. The town did its best around its natural attractions, pressing everyone into constant contact.
Sarah pulled up to the trailer, parking next to a red jeep she suggested was unfamiliar by pushing out her lower jaw and craning her neck. They disembarked as a woman rounded Peter’s trailer, carrying a heavy-looking black case in one hand and a long shoulder-strap bag with the other.
“Jessie,” Sarah said, approaching. “I thought you were wrapping up.”
“Guess I needed something more scenic,” Jessie returned with a disarming smile. “No, I figured I’d meet up with you guys. Caught wind you brought your sister around.”
Olivia lowered her head to roll her eyes.
“Be my guest,” Sarah said, and gestured toward Olivia. “Jessie, my sister Olivia. Olivia, Jessie.”
“Pleasure,” Jessie said, extending her hand.
“Hi, it’s…” Olivia took her hand and felt a stab, retracted to discover a business card: ‘Jessie Lee, producer, Mars II Productions.’ “It’s nice to meet you, so efficiently.”
“And you already know Cristina, of course,” Sarah continued.
“How are you holding up, honey?” Jessie said, rubbing Cristina’s upper arm. Olivia kept her eyes down, pretending to reread the card.
“I’m good, thank you,” Cristina said. “Ready, in fact.”
“Great,” Jessie said, readjusting the bag on her shoulder. “I was just getting some B-roll outside, probably not gonna use it. Peter told me you were coming, so I gave him some space beforehand. But anyway, I’ll go set up in there, and let you guys ask some questions. I’ll just be a second.”
“Okay,” Sarah said, and Jessie disappeared inside the trailer. “She’s been all over town this week, putting something together for the Discovery Channel, I think.”
“A pest?” Olivia asked.
“No, she’s fine. Very respectful.”
Olivia shrugged that off. “And what about this Peter fellow?”
“He’s only been around here for a few years, and mostly keeps to himself. I think he’s a blogger?” She glanced at Cristina, who nodded. “It’s mostly what I hear around town.”
Sarah and Cristina pushed past her, up the stairs to the trailer, and the door closed behind them. Olivia smirked to no one. Seemed everyone had a reputation in Esthel Way.
FRAMED MOVIE POSTERS and greyhead figurines amassed in a clutter which cramped the trailer enough just for Peter, never mind Jessie’s designated filming zone between two cameras. On one side, Peter was arranged and directed to look natural at home, sitting at the booth table which doubled for a workspace, messy with papers scattered over multiple keyboards. Olivia sat opposite in a folding chair with Jessie crouched by her side, evidently out of frame. Sarah and Cristina were directed to stand at the front of the trailer, by the door.
Peter was still as the production commenced, but for the occasional readjustment of his glasses. He spoke hoarsely at first, and then gained a confident but still wispy tenor. “Actually, I want to thank you for the audience,” he said. “Most people in town don’t want to talk to me anymore. I think someone even called me ‘insensitive.’”
Olivia nodded. “I think the know the guy.”
“It’s just gossip.” Nervously, he eyed Cristina, and lowered his voice. “I’m not trying to make this about me, or anything. It’s just an exciting time…” he trailed off, and he gritted his teeth. “I hear it.”
“Right now, it’s just you and me, okay?” Olivia said, making a point to click her pen. “Let’s start with the basics. I want you to describe to me what you saw.”
“He’s a large one. It’s a theropod standing upright. Green skin. Streamlined, you know? Like a shark. Evolutionary perfection. Nothing superfluous, no horns or spikes or tail.”
“That’s a ‘no’ on tail. How many sightings have you had?”
“Not many. But the specimen’s elusive nature owes to its dual-environment habitat. You know, lays eggs in the water, hunts on the land. As you can imagine, there isn’t a viable ecosystem in that marsh, nothing to sustain an apex predator of its size.”
Olivia leaned back. “And why would an amphibian behave this way?”
“Oh, I didn’t say ‘amphibian.’ This is a prehistoric creature, a missing link out of the Carboniferous.”
“A ‘missing link’? Interesting choice of…”
“Excuse me,” Jessie cut in from below. “That was good, Peter. Can we take it again?”
Peter cleared his throat.
“Okay,” Jessie said, “from ‘didn’t say amphibian.’ Whenever you’re ready.”
“I didn’t say ‘amphibian,’” Peter said once more. “It’s the missing link between amphibian and reptile.” He smiled, as if he were acting in a commercial. “How was that?”
“Excellent,” Jessie said. “One more time, but eyes on Dr. Roth, and don’t forget to mention the Carboniferous.”
Olivia glanced between them, waiting for her turn to speak.
“Right, sorry,” Peter said, and straightened his back. “I didn’t say ‘amphibian.’ It’s from the Carbon… wait, no, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. One last time. You’re doing great.”
“I didn’t say ‘amphibian,’ it’s…”
“Hey, I got it,” Olivia interjected, holding up her hands, and turned to Jessie, “and I think you do, too. What I was saying,” she turned back to Peter, “is that nothing in the fossil record suggests a creature like this should exist. Carboniferous amphibians and reptiles were hardly in the ballpark of a glacier-surviving bipedal superpredator, a creature whose purported anatomy and physiology lacks consistency and logical sense to a fatal degree and succeeds only in demonstrating the legacy of Charles R. Knight in our collective imagination.”
“Yeah, but you and I both know Maine is a major blindspot in the fossil record. And I didn’t say dinosaur.”
Olivia opened her mouth to respond, but retracted to tamp down a sizzling rage.
“Hey,” came a voice from behind. This time, the interruption was Sarah’s. Olivia turned her head. “I don’t think this is a constructive approach, Olivia.”
“Well, if I may,” Peter said, “for the sake of Ms. Lee’s documentary, and for whatever it is you and Dr. Roth are doing, it’s probably important to establish credentials. We’re debating the integrity of our accounts, right?”
He locked eyes with Olivia. “What’s your specialty among sciences?”
“Biology,” Olivia murmured.
“Okay, so not paleontology.”
Olivia chuckled silently and eyed Peter’s floating bookshelf: among fantasy paperbacks stood volumes by Jack Horner and Michael Novacek, thick with yellow strips of paper along their tops. “No,” she said, “but I’ve read books. What’s your speciality?”
“As a citizen scientist, I don’t have to specialize, but I have a preference for paleontology.”
“I’m sorry,” Olivia said, now quaking, “what did you just call yourself?”
“Excuse me,” came from below.
“No,” Olivia said.
“We’re definitely getting off track here,” Sarah shouted from behind.
“Let me ask you, Peter,” Olivia said, leaning forward. “I know you don’t believe in Nessie, but how about Bigfoot?”
“Yes,” Peter said.
“Now, come on. That’s a real Air Force base, apart from the experimental craft they’ve assembled from the Roswell, New Mexico wreckage.”
“You’re trolling me to my fucking face. That’s not how it works, Peter.”
“I’m serious, Dr. Roth,” he said, softening. “There are scientists who insist aliens are out there because there are trillions of stars. And our own ocean? All its depths? I think about those people who disagree, who say we’re alone in the universe, and it’s like, how sad? These people who look at the ocean and think nothing lurks underneath that might come up to visit.”
Olivia closed her eyes. “You want it to be real.”
“So it isn’t?”
With that, Olivia stood and circled around the camera.
“Hey, hey, wait a minute,” Sarah was saying. “We agreed.”
Olivia sighed and consulted her notepad before turning back to Peter. “To summarize, you describe a green creature, consistent with the illustrations, and a theropod with an upright structure. That the long and short?”
“Yes,” Peter said. “And no tail.”
“Of course,” she muttered, turning away. “You combine amphibian with reptile, and naturally, you lose the tail.” By the door, she looked to Cristina, who shrugged. “Thank you.”
Olivia opened the door and boomed down the grated steps. She reached the car and wrenched the handle against the lock when she heard the trailer door close suddenly, with only Sarah out to speak with her. “What the hell?” she said.
“Come on, man,” Olivia started.
“How can Cristina expect a fair shake when it’s her turn? Hmm?”
Olivia chuckled. “I am giving them more credit than they’re due simply by showing up. And I am doing the job.” She rattled the pad at her. “I know it’s a Schrödinger’s monster right now, but it’ll take shape.”
“Even if you have to fudge the details because, hey, what’s the difference?”
Olivia narrowed her eyes. Her sister was reddening, an intensity which, in childhood, was early detection for tears.
“Okay, hold on. Do you actually believe this thing’s real?”
“It’s real for her, and that should be enough for you to take this seriously.”
This time, Cristina wasn’t standing by her side. It was just her, and the question: the fuck was her problem? “For Christ’s sake,” Olivia said. “Why is it so easy for you to make friends with strangers? It’s unconditional between you two, isn’t it?”
“That’s what friends do.”
Olivia moved toward her. “We’ve both been lying to her.”
Sarah withdrew. “I know,” she said quietly.
“So why did you bring me back here? What the hell are you trying to do to me?”
“To you?” Sarah shook the sadness from her eyes, and anger bubbled in its place. “I asked you for a favor. What are you talking about?”
“You didn’t think about what this might’ve meant to me? I can get a plane ticket, I can come here, and I choose not to. I came back because of you.”
Sarah shook her head again, this time slowly. “You left because of me. Didn’t you?”
“For Chicago? No, I didn’t leave because… Is that what you thought?”
“I don’t know, Olivia,” Sarah said, throwing up her hands. “I mean, you always talked about how much you hated our family, and we never got along ourselves, so you said ‘fuck ‘em,’ and you were gone.”
“As did you,” Olivia sounded out to herself. “You moved here and befriended a town.”
“I had no one else.”
“You had me.”
Even the wind slowed to a whisper.
Sarah broke the silence. “You really needed some big declaration after some big blowup to tell you I never did? It’s the same thing, even now. We see each other maybe once a year. And when we do, it’s always a thing. Just like this week: you’re questioning my motives, accusing me of things, undermining what we’re trying to do here. I mean, until you gave me the address of your workplace that night, I thought you were a college professor. That’s the other thing you used to always talk about.”
Olivia recoiled. Cars whooshed back and forth on the main road nearby. The sun was beginning to set, and Olivia saw, between the trailers, a glitter in the marsh. For the first time in a long time, she didn’t know what to say to her sister. And maybe, she thought, she never knew. Suddenly, it was apparent they weren’t playing the same game. But the hard look in Sarah’s eyes told her differently: there wasn’t a game being played at all.
“Carrie and Peter,” Sarah continued, “they don’t know how to react to you. You said Carrie’s a beauty queen. You doubt her account because she’s trying to get attention. But Carrie lives alone, and she’s done so for years now. Maybe she feels nobody would want to visit an old lady if she didn’t have a story to tell. Would we have stopped by otherwise? And Peter, he offended you, and I think he was trying to. But while he’s misguided, clearly he’s interested in science enough that maybe the tinfoil hat shit serves as a gateway, and by learning the real stuff, he’ll naturally lose the fake.”
Weakly, Olivia said, “He already thinks he’s read the books.”
“And he’s only taking from them what he wants to get.”
Those hard eyes dug deeper. What had always appeared to be a sneer now seemed more like sharpness. That perhaps Sarah had bided her time to lay this argument, and she’d known each step for years. She was clever, and Olivia had simply believed she understood that.
“Okay,” Olivia said. “I can promise to do better, but that’s what I said last time.”
“What do you suggest instead?”
Olivia exhaled. “Let’s do it together.” She extended a hand, softly smiling. Sarah stepped closer and pulled her into a hug.
THE LAST ON Sarah’s list was Kayla Baxter. She was middle-aged, with a husband and son tucked somewhere inside the cottage. Olivia sat opposite her on the wraparound porch, which opened to the chirping night air. Jessie left one camera running on Kayla, looking about done for the day as she lounged on a cushioned bench. Sarah sat next to Olivia opposite Kayla, Cristina by her side once more.
As Kayla narrated her account, Olivia couldn’t help but witness Cristina in her periphery. She was attentive, almost searching, listening closely for a keyword or a phrase that would have everything finally click together.
“It must have been over twenty feet long,” Kayla was saying. “Scared the hell out of my dad, that’s for sure. The sound he made…”
“What was it doing?” Olivia asked.
“Swimming around, mostly.”
“Didn’t come ashore?”
“No. See, I think it’s one of those gentle giants. Didn’t attack us or anything because we didn’t provoke it.” She looked wistful. “It’s unfortunate he was shy.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Not necessarily for want of a photo op, but then it wouldn’t just be you and the usual suspects at my door. There was a surge, maybe an endorphin rush, at being so close to a living fossil. In fact, it may be better the memory stands alone, with no hard proof, because it’s my own experience, and nobody else’s. Not to relish in my withholding, but I’m afraid it’s beyond me.”
Olivia and Sarah exchanged a glance, and Sarah leaned forward. “You mentioned your father,” she said. “If we spoke to him, would we get the same account?”
“You guys are really doing this.” She smiled weakly. “He passed away around that time.”
“He certainly was shocked. He was big on it, always believed it was real.”
“How about your husband and son? I notice you have one of the more iconic photos of the Dweller in the kitchen.”
“It was my son’s choice of decoration,” she said, holding up her hands in protest. “I think he’s going through a phase. He and his friends go looking for crabs down at the creek, and he wants me to come along one time to guide them to the creature.” She chuckled. “I guess that makes me a cool mom, but what kind would I be if I let my son get eaten?”
“No, it’s really cute,” Sarah said. “I suppose it’s every kid’s fascination with dinosaurs.”
Kayla darkened suddenly. “Yeah. I know it’s silly.”
“Hey,” Sarah said quickly, “if it means mother-son bonding time.”
She sighed. “To be honest, I keep putting it off. I’ve been swamped lately.”
“What do you do?” Olivia said.
“Insurance. Claims processor, it’s like data entry. I work from home, and sometimes at the library.”
“Mm. Unless it gets too cramped, when a third person walks in.”
Kayla laughed. “Beth needs the company.”
Olivia turned, expectantly, to Sarah, who made the scribble gesture and tilted her head toward Kalya, bugging her eyes out.
“Um,” Olivia said, handing the pad to Sarah, who began scrawling something out. “And your husband?”
“He works in Saco. You hear of L.R. Realty?”
“Yes,” Sarah said, not looking up. “Patty Lahan’s daughter just started there.”
“He does the payroll. So if Stef needs a little bump…” she chuckled to herself.
Olivia hesitated, and then said, “How is it here? Living at Esthel Way?” She didn’t know where that came from.
“I’ve always enjoyed it. Nice to feel part of a place, you know? I used to flip from coast to coast. Cities, you know. Now I’m here. And so is everyone else.”
“So,” Sarah said, clapping the notepad shut, “do you like your job?”
Kayla shrugged. “It pays.”
“Doesn’t give you the most time, though.”
“Certainly not. I always feel like I’m on the clock, and I never leave the office, Beth or no Beth. But it’s a job.”
“Not the only job,” Sarah said. Olivia shot her a look that went unnoticed.
“I suppose so,” Kayla said, uneasy.
“If you took your son to the creek in search of the Dweller, what do you hope he’d get out of it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Like, a souvenir?”
“Like a life lesson. Something as profound as the sighting of a mythical creature.”
Kayla narrowed her eyes and lifted her chin. “Like what?”
“Maybe that life is inherently fair. It meant a lot that the creature provided rules to follow, and you followed them. And it meant a lot to the people in your life.”
Olivia looked then to Cristina, who returned her puzzled expression.
“And maybe,” Sarah continued, “your job is a job because you don’t believe you’re worth anything more.”
“Sarah,” Olivia started.
“Oh, okay,” Kayla said. “So you’re saying, what, I should get a real job?”
“No, and I didn’t mean to insinuate that. But if we want the clearest possible picture of the creature we’re hunting, I need your description to be objective, and without meaning. Untouched by sweetened memories or nostalgia…”
Nostalgia. Olivia’s mind began sparking with the fragments of images like a light show. Initially intangible, she felt a drop in her stomach at their appearance, and tuned out her surroundings to grab hold. She witnessed a scene in the old house in Boston, understood her parents were out somewhere. And it was teenage Sarah, clapping her goddamn report card over Olivia’s on the fridge. Olivia had objected, and Sarah only turned to give her a look. But it was different this time, not smug — that she, too, was hurt.
Nausea was snaking up through Olivia’s insides, and she tried to ignore what came next. It was indeed a competition, and had been for much of their lives. Evidently, it wasn’t something Sarah was consciously participating in, or that she interpreted it differently. When Sarah befriended Lydia Graves or mediated between Mom and Dad at the dinner table, Olivia felt this same simmering petulance. For a while, it evolved as a nasty streak, with Olivia perpetrating some of the worst meltdowns and manipulations of her life as a ten-year-old. She grimaced against the memories, and hoped nobody saw her facial contortions.
And then she found science, and the world of methods and research provided Olivia a systemic, demonstrable superiority. Like the numbers in her classroom, so systematized and perfect, handed down from on high. She had hard proof in red ink that her teaching was best, because it most satisfied some invisible monster she didn’t care to recognize. She belonged to it the moment it patted her on the head and told her, ‘Good job. You are real.’ She excelled within the bounds of that box, with test prep and study materials. She never even thought to step off the line and try something new because, goddamn it, she was right. That maybe she’d never prove to be better than Sarah at simple things like kindness or family, but she could always prove her wrong. And that things were even ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’
And so, in perpetuity, Sarah necessarily challenged her, presented a false face at each encounter to defeat. And Cristina needed the creature to be real. But for what purpose? For what buried wound did it salve?
Olivia glanced at Cristina again and woke once more to the air atop the mountain, to the beautiful wilderness in her heart. She wanted to take Cristina by the hand and reach that place, spirit her into the depths of the woods and find something wonderful.
To Be Continued…