Red Tide

This piece was awarded the Anne Flexner Award for Fiction in 2021.

The pit bull sniffed at the eyeless fish with a professional disinterest. The first fish had provoked great intrigue and investigation, and the second somewhat less so, but by the third, the whole scene had become routine. The fourth was granted only a perfunctory brush of snout to scale before the dog moved along to the next item of interest, a green coconut bobbing menacingly in the shallows. The divorcée who trailed the dog at a respectable distance, clutching an unclipped leash and a spool of forest green poop bags, chuckled a little to herself before glancing rapidly around and going silent. Hardly anyone was around to hear her, and she felt a bit silly laughing without an audience.

It was just past dawn, the murky edge of morning where the sun hadn’t quite made up its mind about whether or not to shine, and the tide was going out, slowly revealing sandbars in middle distance where seagulls and tourists would later stake competing claims. A few joggers had run past her as she’d knelt to unleash the dog, and they’d passed one enterprising family who had arrived early to stake out a good blanket space before the Saturday rush. There would be more, later, a flood of nameless strangers sharing the same air and urinating in the same sea. Red tide didn’t scare off the day trippers like it used to.

The two children had been very interested in the dog. The dog, in his usual manner, had not been very interested in the children but had instead endured their affection stoically, his head inclined to watch the waves lap at the coast. The divorcée half-heartedly apologized for his aloofness and the children half-heartedly accepted, but the parents had looked at her as though she had personally ruined their beach day with her standoffish dog. In truth she wasn’t sure she had needed to apologize. The dog hadn’t asked the children to come up and pet him, but he also hadn’t bitten them. As far as she was concerned, that was an achievement. But it was easier to concede to courtesy and then move along. She didn’t want any trouble.

The divorcée put plenty of distance between herself and the family, and the dog was, of course, unfazed. Remarkable creature, really, with no interest in children or even other dogs. She’d gotten him fresh after the divorce. She’d never lived alone, going straight from her parents’ house to Stephen’s, and at least with a dog she figured she’d have something to do. Taking him out for walks got her out of the house, kept her moving, but at home he was remarkably sedentary. He would curl up on the couch and he wouldn’t move, no matter how much she tried to play with him. She’d taken him to the vet a few times to make sure he wasn’t sick, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with him. He was just more interested in whatever was going on inside his head than outside of it. He made a decent roommate, though, and once she’d gotten used to his unnerving sense of ennui she started to take comfort in it.

Even now she marveled at his utter disinterest in the aquatic decay all around them. The fish carcasses were spread out at an eerily consistent distance along the wrack line, about ten feet apart, like they’d been placed there on purpose for some ritual, or a trap. They were small, silver things—mullets and little snooks—and the vultures and the pelicans had gotten to them sometime earlier by the looks of it. The algae had killed them, but the birds had taken their eyes. The divorcée got nervous just looking at them, like they were looking back. She didn’t like how they all seemed just the same—faceless, soulless, blank. Meat and scale and stench.

She’d always loved the water but hated the wildlife. Even aquariums gave her chills. She could still remember a class trip, some decades back, when she had seen a moray eel devour a crab. It kept opening and closing its mouth afterwards and looking right at her with its hollow eyes, extending its jaw as if in invitation.

The sky above the beach was just beginning to blue. She’d never been much of an early riser, but since she’d gotten the dog she’d made a habit of walking on this beach at this time every day she could manage it. She liked watching the color come back to the world. They had gotten some twenty fish past the family, far enough that they were nearly invisible, when the divorcée bent down to shake the sand out of her shoes, and as she rose again the dog began to bark. He was normally almost monastic in his muteness, rarely even growling at squirrels or grunting at the mailman. The last time she’d heard him truly and properly bark, the two of them had witnessed an armadillo struck by a careless passing semi. The animal had been flattened, slowly dying on the road, and the pit bull had stiffened, following the truck with his head and barking indignantly at the driver as though to say look at this, come back here and look at what you’ve done. The truck kept going, and once it was out of sight the dog had gone back to a sort of gentle keening before she had managed to tug him along. They didn’t walk past traffic anymore.

Startling at the sound, the divorcée jerked her head up to see what had riled the dog up so much. “Blue! Cut that out!”

At the sound of his name the dog fell silent, but he did not move from his post. He was some fifty feet up, standing over some early sunbather. From this distance she couldn’t see if the person was a man or a woman, not without her good glasses, and it didn’t much matter. They were bothering Blue, or Blue was bothering them, and one way or another she had to fix it or who knew what might happen. As the divorcée approached, Blue prostrated himself and began to whimper. After a few quick steps and some labored breathing, she finally understood why.

The sunbather was not a person at all but a corpse, bloated as the fish on the shore. She was still too far away to tell anything much about the body or its clothes, and she had no intention of getting any closer. She called out to Blue again, quieter this time but with more conviction. She looked around, trying to gauge if anyone else had seen, but it appeared they were alone—the dog, the fish, the corpse, the divorcée. Her eyes kept circling back to the corpse, though she moved no nearer.

Blue had come up to her in the meantime and nestled his face into her calf, just behind her knee. The shelter, when she had gone to sign the adoption papers, had referred to him as “unflappable,” but in this moment he seemed distinctly flapped. It occurred to her that she, too, might be a little flapped, and so she took a moment to back away and take a few calming breaths before clipping Blue to his leash and turning back the way she had come, tugging him along when he tried to linger.

Both dog and divorcée had made it back into their condo by the time the police sirens sounded. Blue didn’t look at her once on the walk back home, didn’t stray from the straightest path back to the condo, about half a mile up the beach then over a little wooden bridge then through the complex parking lot, sniffing impatiently as the divorcée fumbled in her pockets for her key card to enter into the complex. He’d been just as quiet as usual but he was carrying himself with a strict sort of posture, like he was waiting for something bad to happen. It was a stance she recognized well from her own body, the stiffness of spine, the wideness of eyes. She’d spent years on high alert.

He only relented inside the house when she offered him a spoonful of peanut butter, and even then he sniffed at it for a solid minute before taking his first tentative lick. Now he was starting to relax some, chomping on the spoon and relishing in the clattering noise it made against his teeth. Simple things seemed to please him sometimes, and she wondered if perhaps she could learn to be more like him. Disinterested mostly, but generally content.

Instead she went upstairs, slid on her good glasses, and peered out from between the blinds in her bedroom window as the police arrived, muscling through the midmorning rush of sunburned and soon-to-be-sunburned tourists and forming a barricade around the body with wooden stakes and yellow tape. It struck her as funny that they cordoned off the dead in the same way they would mark off a sea turtle nest, and she wasn’t sure if that reflected ill on the way that society treated the dead or the hatchling reptiles.

She’d bought the condo largely for this window. Since the building was on the only hill on this side of the island, she could see for miles in either direction, all sea and sand and possibility. Her marriage had left her claustrophobic and her divorce even more so, and she liked the way the sea and sky seemed to blur together at night, an endless and churning expanse of couldbemightbemaybes. Anything could happen at night, when the sun wasn’t watching and neither, it seemed, was anyone else. Unencumbered by the weight of daylight, she could imagine herself going out into the water and walking upon it, or venturing down deep below, or climbing up among the stars.

For now, though, it was a way to stay transfixed upon the scene below without having to endure the endless questioning of police or the growing swelter of the sea air. She wasn’t particularly fond of law enforcement for a number of reasons more complicated than she knew how to put into words, so she usually just said they were useless if anyone asked. It was close enough to the truth that she could say it with conviction, but far enough off that she never quite made herself completely understood.

Predictably, it only took a few minutes longer for the novelty of the scene to wear off for the majority of the beachgoers, and the water began to fill with boardshorts and bikinis. She could almost smell the coconut tanning lotion from here, covering the stink of rotting fish with a sickly, saccharine perfume. There was something about it all that simultaneously charmed and disgusted her, depending on whether she chose to see the swimmers as resilient or apathetic, whether they were swimming despite the corpse or indifferent to it as Blue was to the fish.

When she saw the local news team moving in with boom mics and cameras, the divorcée finally pulled herself away from her window and down the stairs, back to the main room where Blue was snoring lightly on the couch. She would have a better view from the television.

These days her key source of weekend entertainment was watching the local news on mute and making up stories about the newscasters. She’d only gotten basic cable at the condo so there really weren’t many options, and she liked to watch the anchors move. There was a sort of truth to their actions that their words could never quite meet. She’d never trusted people with even voices or anyone who wore a blazer, and she hadn’t yet met anyone who proved her wrong. People were always lying with their words, lying to friends, family, coworkers, even themselves. Their bodies always betrayed them.

A gesture here or there might tell her that Hector “Hurricane” Daniels, the weatherman with the Tom Selleck mustache, was pining after the lead anchor Jessica Maywood, and her eyes, the way she moved her arms in front of herself, might show she knew his feelings and did not reciprocate them. All the while, with the volume on, they’d be doing that classic awkward banter that hovered somewhere short of the minimum requirements for humor.

She’d been good at reading people like that her whole life, tuning out the noise and seeing the truth in their movements. The one time she’d gone against her instincts, she’d wound up married to Stephen, and if anything that made her a better study of character from afar. She’d learned to recognize his moods, the subtleties in his face and posture and hands that helped her predict the best course of action before it was too late, and once she’d learned them she started seeing them everywhere. The bagger at the grocery store, the mailman, the guy in accounting with the patchy mustache, they all were carrying that same sort of rage inside them, and she wondered how they didn’t all just burst. Or, rather, she wondered how they contained themselves until they got home. There was always a bursting, just not always one you could see.

Onscreen now, a paper towel commercial (absorbs twice as much as the leading brand!) wound down and the bright flash of the breaking news intro flooded the screen red. The divorcée turned on the volume in time to see live footage of the beach, the dead fish little more than specks in the distance. The phone was focused on a commotion, navy-polyester-uniformed officers pushing back boardshorted beachgoers to establish a perimeter. And then the operator manning the camera jolted forward, turned its gaze to the body. Only an outstretched arm was visible before the police pressed in, the report switched camera inputs, and Jessica Maywood began speaking in her clear professional voice about a local drowning still under investigation. The breeze was now strong enough to blow her hair back behind her in a wide ripple. She looked like she was underwater.

The divorcée gleaned little from the report at first—unidentified body, discovered that morning on the beach, police were still investigating—but soon enough the coroner’s truck had pulled up and men in green uniforms began loading the body onto a stretcher. The cameraman nearest the body had managed to evade the police for now and got a clear shot of the body’s face just before they zipped a black bag around it. Jessica Maywood said, too late, that this footage might be disturbing to some viewers, but the divorcée had already seen what she couldn’t earlier, or perhaps simply hadn’t wanted to. The face was greenish, bloated, missing a chunk of the nose, but she had no doubt that it belonged to her ex-husband Stephen.

She shut off the television a moment too late. Blue had already seen it and begun to whimper. He’d never met Stephen—not the living version, anyway—but he must have recognized the face from the beach. Even after the screen went dark Blue continued to whine, and after a moment he got himself up and trotted over to the nearest window, then set himself back down and resumed his banshee wail. The divorcée sighed and went to the kitchen for more peanut butter. If she couldn’t get Blue to calm himself soon the neighbors would come knocking, and undue attention was the last thing she needed today.

There had been a time, just after the divorce, when any attention, due or otherwise, would have lifted her spirits. It had taken her forever to build up the nerve to leave him and when she had it had gone quickly. He didn’t put up much fight—rare for him, and sort of frightening. She’d heard the stories about women who were shot months after leaving, women who were stalked and harassed for years, and it was so unlike him to just let go of her, but nothing had happened. It had been a year now, nearly to the day, and she hadn’t heard a word from him since that final day in court. See how you manage without me, he’d said, and she’d tried hard not to laugh at the time. He’d stopped scaring her, she thought, and instead just seemed like a petulant child tantruming when he didn’t get his way.

He had been right, though. Everyone she’d used to know had changed after the divorce, or maybe she had. Either way, she no longer fit in the spaces she used to. Even the cop who had finally helped her get out had stopped coming by to visit, and she couldn’t help but take it personally. People would look at her, sometimes whisper, and she knew they all blamed her for causing a scene. Around here, marriage was for life and wives were for husbands and pain was for behind closed doors. She no longer believed any of that, and they no longer believed her, and she had stopped wasting her effort trying to win the approval of people who would rather she had died than blabbed.

She had never lived alone, so she’d gotten Blue. She kept the job, left the house, moved into the condo, fought off the boredom as best as she could for a while. She’d tried, God knew she’d tried. She’d taken up painting, and knitting, and sympathetic magic, and amateur carpentry. She’d joined a book group, but all the men in the romance novels they’d read reminded her of Stephen and the other women didn’t understand why she’d keep having to leave the room to stave off tears in the bathroom. They thought she missed him, and in a way it was almost true. It wasn’t about him, not really, but about all the lives she could have lived if he hadn’t shown up in the first place. When she had told the group that she wouldn’t be returning anymore, their only response was to complain that it was supposed to be her turn to bring donuts next week and now Marie Michelle would have to sub in a week early on top of being snack mom for her sons’ soccer team. The divorcée had simply walked out while the others continued their negotiations. She was sure they didn’t notice her go.

Blue eventually quieted a little, but he still seemed out of sorts. The divorcée resolved that another walk past some less-disturbing scenery might lift his spirits—or at least level them out to his typical disinterest. There was a park not too far off, just a couple blocks away, with sea grape hedges blocking out the beach. It was a small island and she was certain that news of the corpse would permeate it just as thoroughly as the stench of rotten fish, but she ought to have time to walk Blue a bit before anyone ambushed her with nosy questions.

She wasn’t sure what she’d say if they did. She could lie, she supposed, and pretend that she was sad that he had died. But she’d never been much of an actress and if she was telling the truth she still found herself bleeding in the shower sometimes from scrubbing her skin raw, as though if she could get rid of any skin that had ever touched Stephen, she might get him out of her head. But that wasn’t the sort of thing you could say to an acquaintance. It wasn’t the sort of thing she’d even admit to her therapist, a lonely older man named Dr. Nakamura who clearly wanted the divorcée to get better. He reminded her of her grandfather in some way she couldn’t quite name and she couldn’t bear to disappoint him.

Blue didn’t resist her as she clipped the leash to his collar, and followed her out the door. Once outside, though, he began tugging her in the opposite direction of where she intended to go. He was pulling her back towards the beach, towards the divot in the sand where Stephen’s body washed up. She couldn’t understand why the dog was so insistent.

When neither of them would compromise, she ended up pulling Blue back into the house after he’d grudgingly peed on the grass. He didn’t make any noise in the house, but she could tell he was upset with her. She left him brooding on the couch and went back to her bedroom to think things through.

She wrapped herself up in her comforter and finally allowed herself to engage with the events of the day. Stephen was dead, drowned, almost unrecognizably decayed. She laughed a wild sort of laugh, shrill in a way she did not know she could be. It started somewhere in her belly and shook her chest and by the time it brushed past her lips she was already gasping for breath. She couldn’t tell if she was wheezing or seizing or just finally letting go of all the tension he’d ratcheted up inside her for years.

Stephen, dead. Stephen, who had married her at just eighteen and made her feel special while he kept her under his thumb, kept her from going to college, from seeing the world, from doing something different with herself. And he charmed everyone around her, made them think she was lucky to have wound up with a nice boy like him, and made it so that they looked right past the bruises on her ribs, her thighs, the cuts and burns and scrapes. He hadn’t just made the wounds invisible—he’d made her invisible. He’d stolen her name, her youth, her potential, had chewed it up and spit it out and then hadn’t even fought for her when it was all over, and just like that he still had her life clenched in his fist, controlling her even when he was gone.

And now she’d won. She’d pulled one over on him. He was dead and she was alive and she could finally, finally breathe. She could laugh. She could cackle.

She hadn’t thought it would work, not really. It had seemed too much like hackneyed voodoo at the time, like something out of an eighties horror movie that she would’ve hated when she was young but Stephen would’ve dragged her out to see anyway. But it didn’t cost her anything, except the price of the snapper, but the seafood guy at the grocery had given her a good deal since she bought it the day before a new shipment was supposed to come in.

But there, in the bathtub of the en-suite, was the only proof she needed. It also probably wouldn’t look so good for anyone to see it. Even if sympathetic magic wasn’t admissible in a court of law, it would likely cause some suspicion. She should probably handle that.

She rose from the bed and entered the en-suite only to find Blue waiting inside for her. It was strange. She hadn’t heard him come upstairs and enter. She wasn’t so good about closing doors these days now that she didn’t share a house with Stephen.

She flicked on the lights and then realized her mistake as the dog took in the scene. Blue didn’t bother whining this time. He barked again, the same bark he had saved for the flattened armadillo. Look at this, he barked, come here and look at what you’ve done.

The divorcée stared down at the fish in the tub, at the lock of Stephen’s hair pinned to its side, at his name carved out in jagged letters in its scales. She looked back at Blue, who was perched on the lid of the toilet. She still wasn’t sure how he’d gotten himself there, but as he met her gaze she understood something. He wasn’t bored. He had never been bored. He was impartial. He observed, gathering facts and arranging them, passing judgment only when he must. Right now, he had caught her red-handed and held her fate in his slender paws. Judge, jury, and executioner.

“You weren’t there,” the divorcée begged. “You didn’t see what he did to me. You don’t know who he was.”

The dog stared, unimpressed.

The divorcée looked down at the tub again and thought back to the eyeless fish that morning in the sand, the hint of crimson at their gills. The dog had been unmoved. He needed evidence, hard facts.

She took off her shirt. There, below her bra and above the waist of her jeans, the scars still showed.

“From the night he tried to kill me. The last time.”

The dog seemed to raise an eyebrow. She hadn’t realized that dogs had eyebrows. It might’ve been a muscle of some form. She wished he could talk, could tell her something, could even just shut her up.

“Blue, you know me. Haven’t I always been good to you? Don’t I give you the peanut butter jar when it’s empty so you can lick it, even though I hate the way it sounds?”

She wasn’t sure why she was pleading. She wasn’t sure what the dog could do to her if he deemed her guilty. She didn’t want to find out.

“I just had to make it right, Blue, you get that, don’t you?” She faltered. Her eyes drifted back to the fish. “Just had to make it even. A life for a life.”

The dog barked once more. Then, leaping off the toilet, he walked out the door.

The divorcée sank to her knees. Her face was slick with tears. The room smelled like day-old fish, and the dog was silent, waiting for her outside the door. She took the knife she’d used to carve the fish earlier and ran it through the scales, ripping the slippery creature into bits. It was easier than she’d expected to tear it into manageable chunks and flush it down the drain. When she was done she held out her hands to Blue, who licked them clean. Still half-dressed, she followed the dog out of the room in a haze and sat with him by the window, watching the tide roll in.





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