“What’s that supposed to be?”
Noah Allen, sleeves rolled up to his forearms and sweat beading on his forehead, dabbed little green scales onto the shop window.
“Yeah, but what is it?”
“Mermaid maybe?” He squinted at the window in the glare of the Manuxet River. “Who knows? They just pay me to show up and paint.”
Noah did a lot of odd jobs around town: pressure washing houses, cleaning rooftop gutters, fixing boilers and plumbing. The Allens had been here as long as anyone. Came in the early 1800s and stuck around our crappy little oceanside town for whatever reason.
“Why would anyone open a Starbucks here?”
“Dunno,” Noah said, taking a rag out of his jeans pocket and scrubbing his brow. “Maybe they want to sell us coffee. What time’s the shindig start tonight?”
“Seven o’clock. You gonna be there?”
“For your mama? Wouldn’t miss it.”
I headed down Marsh Street towards the grocery store. Innsmouth had changed in the past few years. Warehouses had been renovated into studio apartments, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean; new rustic farm-to-table restaurants popped up every week with menu offerings like smashed avocado on toast. We even got an Urban Outfitters down on Water Street, but when I went inside to check out one of the T-shirts in the window, all the cashiers stared at me like I’d done something wrong. So I left without buying anything.
Stepping into Wegmans, I pulled out the grocery list my mother had prepared: plantains, chicken, flour and lemon juice for the pica pollo. And more than enough soft drinks for anyone who showed up on our doorstep. I was grabbing a six-pack of Coca Cola when I noticed him across the aisle. He was wearing a cardigan sweater with patches on the elbows, and his glasses slid down low on his nose as he examined the nutritional information on a box of ramen noodles.
He was the handsomest man I’d ever seen.
I followed him around the grocery store for a while, watching while he shuffled through coupons. When he got into the express lane, I slipped in right behind him.
“That’ll be twenty-three dollars,” the cashier said, ringing up the man’s order. He counted the change out of his pocket. And then re-counted it. And then re-counted it again.
“C’mon, man,” shouted someone from the back of the line. “We all have places to be.”
“I’m really sorry.” The man checked all his other pockets for any hidden loose change. “Um, could you take off the —“
“How much do you need?” I asked, pulling out my bus fare. I could always walk home.
He turned to look at me, and I wondered what he saw: round unblinking eyes with giant black pupils dotted right in the centers, dark skin with ashy patches of scales, the same thick lips as my mother. I expected him to ignore me, the way all the newcomers did, but instead, he grinned.
I gave him my change. His finger brushed against mine as the money passed between us. His nail was bitten down to the quick, and his cuticles were ragged; mine had tissue paper-thin webbing attaching it to its neighbor.
He handed the dollar to the cashier and packed his groceries into the bags he’d brought from home. “Do you live around here?” he asked, as the cashier scanned my items and took my EBT card.
“A few blocks away, yeah.”
“Mind if I walk you home?”
His name was Russell Olmstead. He’d dropped out of Miskatonic University when the tuition bills had gotten too steep, but he still had forty thousand dollars in student loans to pay back. He’d moved to Innsmouth because the rent was cheap, and his job allowed him to work remotely. He didn’t have two cents to rub together right now, but that’d change, he told me. He was going to become something.
I told him he’d be better off leaving Innsmouth then. Nothing ever happened in this shit-hole town.
When we reached the Eliot Street Housing Development, he scratched the back of his neck and said, “Well, I should probably be getting back —“
I blurted out the words I’d been carrying around, heavy as my grocery bags, since we left Wegmans: “My mother’s moving next week.”
“You wouldn’t know it. She’s having a going-away party if you want to come.” I lifted up a cluster of plantains and gave them a little shake. “Free food.”
Russell glanced towards the rickety wooden pier down the street from our building. The water whipped up against the stilted legs, brown and frothy like watered-down cocoa. He couldn’t have known what was underneath those waves, but maybe he suspected. Maybe he’d also dreamed of tentacles crawling up the boardwalk and ripping street-lamps out of the cement.
“Sounds great,” he finally said, stuffing his hands into his jeans pockets. “I’d love to get to know the neighborhood better.”
“We’ll show you the real Innsmouth,” I smiled. But the corners of my lips were tighter than both our bank accounts.
As he shuffled through the steel security door, I almost stopped him, even though I’d been the one to invite him inside. Leave! You’re not like us! But it was as if my breath had been caught in a riptide and pulled deep down into my throat; the words struggled to break the surface and then drowned.
My mom came out of the kitchen, wiping off webbed fingers on her apron. “And who’s this young gentleman?” she asked, jagged teeth stretching up into a smile.
I clenched my toes inside my flats. I knew we were different from the outsiders, knew they’d probably find our traditions, our appearance, our whole way of life strange. But I’d never been embarrassed of my family until that moment.
And then I felt embarrassed about being embarrassed. Because why should I be? We’d been here first after all; Innsmouth was our home. If these people decided they wanted to live here, wanted to erect their Starbucks on our street corners and post photos of our harbors on Instagram, then what should that matter? We didn’t have to change for them. If anything, they should be changing for us.
“Russell Olmstead,” he said, grasping her hand in his own.
She nudged a chair out from the table and had a seat. Her bulging amber eyes caught the light streaming in from the windows. “You new to Innsmouth?”
“Used to be a good community,” she said. “But then the government came in. Detonated explosives out in the water, arrested most of the locals. Now what do we have?” She humph’ed and looked out the window.
Russell glanced over at me with a nervous smile, not sure what to say.
“Olmstead,” she repeated and looked him up-and-down. “You have family from around here?”
“An uncle. He’s renting me his old studio for two hundred a month.”
I noticed it then. The strange roundness of Russell’s eyes. As familiar as a used pencil, chewed-up and dull, in the bottom of my backpack. Maybe he wasn’t as much of an outsider as I’d first thought.
“This neighborhood may not be perfect, but just between you and me—“ She leaned in closer to him, propping her scaled elbows up on the tabletop. “There’ll be worse places to be when times get tough than here with us in Innsmouth.”
Russell went real quiet for a while after that, staring out the window at the churning sea. And everything that might lurk beneath its sparkling waves.
V. A. Vazquez comes from New York City where she has previously worked as a theatre producer, an arts educator, and a ghostwriter for famous fashion editors (which you wouldn’t be able to tell from looking in her closet). She writes urban fantasy and specializes in stories that involve women (or men or non-binary folks) romancing monsters, preferably the slimy Lovecraftian kind. She currently lives in Scotland with her husband and their wee doggo.