Updated: Dec 16, 2021
The Drowned Fish bar and microbrewery was a staple in Grove Harbor. Bob Dawson owned the place and wasn’t a man to mince words or lie to anyone. It made him the perfect bartender. He would tell it to you straight as it was. So when Bob boarded up the doors and windows to prepare for a storm, you knew it was gonna be a big one.
The Drowned Fish was opposite a small cracked parking lot butted up against a tall chain-link fence marking the edge of the Grove Harbor port. That meant that if the waves came in too hard, he closed up the shop to encourage the townspeople to stay home. It didn’t work, of course.
Dovetail Ales was the Drowned Fish’s seedier cousin positioned two blocks farther inland, and when the Fish did indeed drown, Dovetail Ales business boomed. People crowded onto Dovetail’s floor and crammed the tables and the long oak bar to near bursting. Standing room was at an all-time premium when the wind swirled and the winter cyclones came early.
Every local knew the winter brought nasty and dangerous killing weather, but when the storms showed up early in the year, it was the worst. No one was ready for this storm, and everyone stared at the small television screens hanging in the corners of the bar.
“More rain than usual… which is rather hard,” said a man in a half-soaked plaid shirt. He raised his long neck to his lips and took a swig of the beer.
“There’s always rain. This is Washington,” his friend across the table countered.
A woman twisted her hair in her hands like wringing out a rag, and rainwater dripped onto the table. “You two are too young to remember, but the way it looks out there, it’s as if Aipaloovik himself decided to tear the sea apart.”
“Oh, get outta here with that fairy tale crap,” the first man said.
Someone from across the room whistled, and everyone in the bar turned to face a young woman standing on a barstool. “Would you people shut it for five minutes? I’ve got the TV turned all the way up and can’t hear crap.”
Everyone laughed and slapped their beers on the tabletops, making the small room echo with hollow, half-drunk thuds. The laughter continued for a long moment until, one by one, the people saw what was on the television.
The conversations faded at an exponential rate until the only sound left was a reporter calling in an update from just off the coast. “We’re here along with the United States Coast Guard trying now to close the distance with the Saltsprite, which took heavy rudder damage early this evening.” The man was practically yelling into the microphone over the sounds of the wind. The camera shook and you could just make out the shadow of helicopter rotor blades against the bright spotlight shining down at the churning water below.
“The fishing vessel called in for help just over an hour ago with claims the sea rose up and smashed against their ship, disabling it. The Saltsprite has drifted into the center of one of the cyclones, and we can’t get any closer.” Lightning flashed and illuminated far more than the small searchlight. Everyone in the bar gasped, and the old woman cried.
The lighting only lasted a heartbeat, but it was enough to see the deck of the ship covered in bodies, sliding around on the waterlogged teak boards. A few survivors scrambled across the deck to the bulkhead facing the Coast Guard rescue team while the clouds and rain behind the ship seemed to coalesce into a primal force of watery scales, claws of hail, and teeth of sharp flaying winds.
The lightning flashed again, and the wind shifted. It sent the reporter’s helicopter careening away from the damaged boat, but the camera continued rolling. The patrons of Dovetail Ales saw the form that would haunt their dreams for years. The dark of the rain shaded against and almost absorbed the flash of the electric cackling of the lightning. Dark pits of nothingness framed by a gigantic face rose out of the roiling waves, opened its maw, and in one bite snapped the boat in half.
Every time the creaking door opened, more flurries of snow piled themselves in the corners of the Drowned Fish Bar. The heaters worked wonderfully, turning the frosty mass into slick puddles in only a matter of seconds, but by then the next inhabitant of Grove Harbor would trudge on in through the front door. Jack didn’t mind the icy wind bursting in whenever the door swung, it was the sound of it. The howling and whistling and baying of a thousand frozen hounds turned his veins to ice, and he gripped his drink tighter.
It had only been a month since the Saltsprite went under, and Jack, being the only survivor, hadn’t had the stomach to go near the sea’s edge yet. He had seen things in that storm, things he couldn’t start to explain. When Jack had seen the news anchor forecast another storm tonight, he knew he wouldn’t be able to handle it sober.
The wind whipped in through the door again, temporarily drowning out the other people crowding into the bar. Jack didn’t know what he disliked more, the howling gale outside or the people whispering behind his back, trying their best to hide their words under the general din of the room.
He could guess what they said. It was always the same things. The storm had killed his friends and crewmates, an ancient terror had ripped his ship apart, and a shadow in the churning sea had cursed him. Jack twisted on the wooden barstool and flipped his empty bottle over into the trash can. He waved once at Mr. Dawson at the other end of the room. Bob grunted back in reply. “One for the road,” Jack said to himself, snagging a second bottle from the small mini fridge next to the trash can on the opposite side of the bar-top. He might not stop the voices murmuring behind his back, but he could certainly get himself so drunk he couldn’t hear them.
The Aipaloovik had marked him. Jack knew it. He knew the stories and had seen the others through the years. It was time, and somehow he had escaped. The blasted monster only reared its head when something had really pissed it off. Jack had, inadvertently, stuck his finger in a very powerful being’s proverbial eye. This was the first storm since the Saltsprite went down, and if Jack knew one thing about the stories of the Aipaloovik, it was there was no surviving a second encounter. Jack threw a twenty-dollar bill down on the bar, cracked the beer open with the opener at the door, and stomped out into the whipping winds.
“You go out for drinks on a night like this? With no friends?” The voice scratched and grated off the wind from just over Jack’s shoulder. He spun, only to see whirling flakes of snow and an empty parking lot. The gale whistled and made the chain-link fence clang against its metal rods sunk into the concrete.
“You really shouldn’t have left alone.” This time the voice came from the alleyway on his left. The shadows were deep and pitch dark, contrasting a stark line so harsh it could have been solid at the edge of the brick.
“Who is that?” Jack called, a tremor in his voice. He would have said it was the cold, but he would have been lying.
“Do you not appreciate my teasing?” the stranger called. Jack grimaced, torn between thinking it was someone playing a sick joke and hoping that was the case.
“I’m not playing along,” he said. Jack’s heavy winter boots ground hard on the gravel parking lot as he turned and left and, although he would never admit it, turning his back on that voice chilled his spine more than the blizzard ever could. The streetlights cast yellow halos in the swirling mass of driving fury. He had parked his car a few blocks away. Pulling his collar up, Jack’s determined grimace was the only thing visible under his hat. He just needed to make it back to his car and then he’d be safe. He could ride out the storm and sober up, all without whispering patrons or disembodied voices.
“Where are you going, Jack?” the voice called from up ahead. A form appeared in the darkened space between beams of streetlight.
“Who are you? How do you know my name?”
“I am the abyss to which you surrender. I am the price you pay for eternity.” The voice dropped to a whisper and even though Jack could barely hear the words, they resonated in his chest. He didn’t so much hear the voice as to know what it said as truth and dread and hopelessness.
“Aipaloovik,” Jack said, his voice catching in his chest, stolen by the cold and the fear.
“Yessssss,” the voice said in deep, swirling, deadly ecstasy.
“What do you want?” Jack said.
“You will run, you will die,” Aipaloovik replied, and between one blink and the next, the shadowy form disappeared.
“Run?” Jack thought. “Run where? Where on earth would be safe?” There was nowhere for him to go, and there was no one to stand in between him and an Innuit god. “I already told you once. I’m not playing your games.” Jack called into the snow and ice.
“You will play,” the voice answered immediately behind Jack. He jumped and spun around. A shadow stood before him. It wasn’t the absence of light, it was as though the sheer will of the being in front of him denied light the right shine on its ancient, primal, and malevolent form. He could smell its breath this time. It smelled like rotten wood and frozen bones. Watching it was challenging a hurricane. In the pits of its darkness a shriek howled like the wind of a thousand dying breaths given to a cruel ocean, and Jack ran.
His pupils dilated, his heartbeat thudded into constant static in his chest. Deep-rooted terror drove his churning legs further and faster than Jack had ever run. Fatal fear followed him in a swooping cloak of dark swirling danger, flinging daggers of ice at his heels and always tormenting him with manic laughter. The Aipaloovik was vindicated. It was making the score even, and Jack was the casino chip in the eternal gamble. Whoever the good guys were up above, they lost this hand, and now he had only one move left.
Jack made it to his car just an instant ahead of the creeping death, and it howled in rage, and a hunting cry of challenged exultation. He spun the key in the ignition, ignoring the alcohol he had drunk, the adrenaline completely taking over his motions. There was no one parked in front of his car, and the snowdrifts hadn’t pinned him in yet. The dark shadow banged on the doors and shook him left and right. Cackling laughter bubbled up from the middle of the shade as Jack threw the transmission into drive. He pushed the pedal to the floor, praying the small car could carry him to safety, but something held him pinned where he was. The car’s wheels spun, and the engine roared in complaint.
After a miniscule eternity, the pressure disappeared and Jack’s car took off down the icy street. He was moving twice the speed limit almost immediately and barely kept control of the vehicle. The monster kept pace with the car, howling gleefully in concert with the engine.
Grove Harbor’s city limits were just around the bend. “He’s a sea monster. I can survive if I can just get far enough inland to clear the storm,” Jack told himself. It wouldn’t be far. There were hills nearby to disperse the raging cyclone. He could make it. Safety was right there. Even in the dark, the lightning illuminated just enough to make out the outline of the forested hills ahead. “I’m not dying today,” Jack said, hope tinging his voice for the first time in a month. “It’s right th-”
He didn’t see the dark patch of road. Pure darkness shrouded the ice, and the car spun round and round itself. It caught a rock and flipped up onto its front fender. Flipping end-over-end and spinning like the very cyclone Jack had fled, the car carried its occupant through the air until a telephone pole finally stopped it. The man inside was shaken, concussed, and bleeding. He unhooked his seatbelt and fell onto the car’s interior roof. The world spun and colors swam through his vision as blood from his cut scalp ran into his eyes.
Jack pushed open the door and fell sideways into the snow. Rolling onto his back, he saw the form of the Aipaloovik standing over him, menacing eyes piercing his soul. “Now, I take my payment for your eternity in my realm,” it said. The monster reached down and snuffed the life from Jack’s body.
Grove Harbor police found Jack’s body an hour later. They towed his car and took his body to the morgue. Everyone in Grove Harbor shook their heads at the sad tale of a man who was too torn up and felt too guilty to go on. They all told each other that it just took one more night of too much to drink and he was bound to wind up gone at dawn. What they never knew was that when the medical examiner conducted Jack’s autopsy, he listed the official cause of death as drowning. His lungs were full of briny saltwater.
And thus the tale is ended, the tale told, the chapter closed.
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