Letters to Lovecraft is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and as a holiday treat to our readers we’ll be posting excerpts from each of the stories. Today we bring you “______” by Paul Tremblay, which starts out as a literal day at the beach before the arrival of an attractive and overly-familiar stranger casts a pall over the afternoon. Tremblay brilliantly conveys how sometimes the scariest thing in the world isn’t an alien horror or a bloody-handed maniac or even losing control over our own bodies, it’s how eagerly we sometimes stick our hands into a bees nest, even when we really ought to know better…
I say, “I’m going to ignore that creepy but accurate remark. And I can honestly say I do not wish to be eighteen ever again.”
“Yeah, me neither.” She steps confidently in front of my chair and sits to my right, on Michael and Olivia’s beach blanket. The blanket is pink and, when folded up, looks like a piece of sliced watermelon. It’s such a clever blanket. She looks around at all the beachgoers and says, “You really are the only guy, the only dad, on the whole beach. Lucky you. But come on, wearing those mirrored sunglasses outs you as a total perv. Or a narc.”
My face fills with blood and heat, and I sputter into what’s supposed to be self-deprecating laughter but probably sounds like emphysema. Christ, I’m melting into my chair like I’m a bowl of ice cream. I’m embarrassed not because it’s clear she knows I’ve been… shall we say… ogling the teen lifeguards and beach Moms, but because my patheticness is so predictable and obvious.
Mortally wounded, I say, “No one says narc anymore. You’re so not hip. And sunglasses are the windows to the soul.”
She reaches across my lap and tickles my knee playfully. Her hand and forearm is soft and she smells like plums, or a sweat tea, or those purple flowers that used to grow along the fence at my grandparents’ house. I don’t remember the flowers’ real name, but Grammy called them her garden mums. And I don’t know why I’m thinking about Grammy’s flowers when I should be simultaneously enraptured and terrified by the not-so-innocent touch of a strange woman.
“My hubby, the dirty old man.” She holds her hands out and nearly shouts to the rest of the beach, “Stand back, ladies! He’s all mine!” She laughs at her own joke.
The Moms sharing the beach in our vicinity: they pretend to watch their toddlers running amuck on other people’s blankets and throwing sand (that fucking kid with the sharks on his bathing suit is such a pain in the ass, I seriously considered tripping him on the sly yesterday); or they bury their faces in magazines and beat-up paperbacks they bought at the grocery store; or they look at the pond pretending to be intently watching their kids ignore and give attitude to the swimming instructor; or they blankly look up at the blue sky for the clouds that will one day approach. I’m not being paranoid (okay, I am), but they don’t look at me and certainly don’t look at the woman. I swear they’re actively avoiding looking at us. I feel them not looking at me, which of course means they are judging me, saying in their heads we don’t know you, and we may not have ever met her, but we know she’s not your wife. I know better, but, goddamn me, it’s not an entirely unpleasant feeling…
Paul Tremblay is the author of the novels The Little Sleep, No Sleep Till Wonderland, Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye, the cowritten YA novel Floating Boy and the Girl Who Couldn’t Fly (with Stephen Graham Jones) and the short story collection In the Mean Time. His essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, FiveChapters.com and Best American Fantasy 3. He is the coeditor of four anthologies, including Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters (with John Langan). Paul is the president of the board of directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards. He lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts, has a master’s degree in mathematics, has no uvula, loves his friends, and hates his many enemies.