"Fair Warning" By V. A. Vaquez: Monthly themed Winner



Fair Warning

V.A. Vazquez Aisling sat in the lobby of Cawdrey’s Manhattan, her little patent-leather shoes scuffing against the chair as she swung her legs back and forth. Her mother had been employed at the auction house since before Aisling had been born, as a specialist in their books and manuscripts division, and had volunteered to take her daughter to work for the eponymous day. She’d pulled Aisling’s copper-red hair up in a gigantic bow, tucked a coloring book and a pack of Crayola crayons into her handbag, and the two of them had headed down to Fifth Avenue. Unfortunately, her mother had been called into a client meeting soon after their arrival. Stay here, she’d told her daughter, unloading all the coloring supplies along with a juice box and a plastic container of Dunkaroos. I don’t want you getting lost while I’m gone.


But Mom . . .


No “buts”, Aisling. Stay here.


And with that her mother had walked into the administrative offices, leaving Aisling to color under the not-so-watchful eye of the receptionist. For a few minutes her world shrunk down to twenty-four crayons. Her mother had bought her a coloring book called Magnificent Ocean, but the lines were too narrow for her uncoordinated fingers. She frequently strayed outside them, but she didn’t let that dissuade her. She picked up her broken blue-violet crayon and got to work on an octopus with a bulbous head. It was like an egg poking out of its cardboard carton.


“You must be Aisling.”


She looked up to see a woman click the door of a glass display case closed. Inside was a gavel, the same type used by auctioneers. The woman was dark-skinned, with her hair pulled up into pin-curls; she was wearing a tweed pencil skirt and matching jacket.


Aisling nodded.


“Ah. Your mother’s with a client?”


Aisling nodded again.


“Has she shown you around?”


Aisling shook her head.


The woman glanced at the receptionist, who was on the phone and not paying any attention.


“Would you like to see a few artifacts? I’m sure your mother wouldn’t mind.”


Stay here, her mother had said. But this woman worked here; how else could she open and close the display cases on the lobby floor? How could she get lost if she was with someone who worked at the auction house? Aisling nodded eagerly, leaving her coloring book and crayons on the chair next to her and jumping down. Her shoes click-clacked against the floor as the woman led her through the lobby doors and into the office proper. “Have you ever been to an auction house before, Aisling?”


“No, Ms. . . .”


“Prentiss.” They approached a brass telescope perched on its tripod, like one a harbormaster might use. Prentiss unscrewed the cap that had been affixed to its lens. “Now this —” She peered through the eyepiece, turning the focusing knob a few clicks to the left. “This we found in Massachusetts, in a small oceanside town. It belonged to a family who’d lived there for generations, who stuck around even when everyone else had moved to bigger cities. They’d fallen on hard times and were willing to part with it for the right price.”


“Oh.”


Aisling didn’t know what else she was supposed to say. While her mother was obsessed with antiquities, she was more interested in running through the aisles at Toys “R” Us, tossing as many arts and crafts kits into the cart as possible.


“Why don’t you give it a try?”


Aisling didn’t know much about telescopes, but she knew they were meant to look out at the sea or up at the sky, not down a hallway in an auction house. Still, she didn’t want to disappoint the woman . . . She stepped forward and pressed her socket against the eyepiece. It took her a few seconds to adjust the lens, but soon the image resolved itself into the shape of her mother. She was standing at the end of the hallway, eyes watery underneath the fluorescent lights, pointing to an oil-painting on the wall and shouting at Ms. Prentiss.

Ms. Prentiss, who Aisling could have sworn had been standing behind her just a second ago.

She stepped away from the telescope, ready to sprint down the hallway towards her mother, but no one was there. Not her mother, not Ms. Prentiss. There was just empty space in front of the oil-painting.


“What do you think?”


Aisling’s heart sputtered like a snare drum against her ribcage: ba dum tss. She turned around to see the punchline: Ms. Prentiss standing behind her, as calm and composed as she’d ever been. There were no signs that she’d jogged down the hallway and back again. No hairs out-of-place, no sweat on her pressed-powder brow. If the adults were pulling a prank on her, they were doing an awfully good job.


“Um . . .”


But Ms. Prentiss didn’t wait for her reply. Instead, she walked down the hallway to a telephone standing on a spindly wooden table. It was one of those old telephones you see in the movies, the ones that look like black metal candlesticks with chess pawns wired to the sides. “We found this down in Louisiana in a plantation house. Let me tell you a secret.” She beckoned Aisling closer. Ms. Prentiss had a peculiar warmth about her, like a distant aunt who only visited once a year but always brought the best birthday presents. “We didn’t even pay for this telephone. The family threw it into the garbage. I went right up to the curb and snatched it out of their bin. Frightened a raccoon in the process.”


Aisling giggled at the thought of this woman, with her freshly-manicured hands, plucking a telephone out of someone’s week-old leftovers. At the raccoon popping its head up as if to say: Hey! Who do you think you are?


At that moment, the telephone rang: a high-pitched brrrring that echoed down the hallway.

“Well, would you look at that?”


The telephone rang a second time.


“It must be for you,” Ms. Prentiss said, motioning for her to answer the phone. Aisling grabbed the chess piece-like receiver and pressed it to her ear. “Hello?” she said and waited for someone to answer.


The woman on the other end of the line sounded out-of-breath, panting heavily against the microphone. Aisling thought she could hear — What was that? Chanting? And then the woman said a single word into the phone: “Shit!” And the line went dead.

Aisling turned towards Ms. Prentiss. “I think it was for you, actually.”


Prentiss took the receiver from Aisling, but she just clicked it back into its holder.

“Let me show you the books and manuscripts library where your mother works —”

But Aisling hesitated as they passed the oil-painting on the wall. Her mother had been pointing at this artifact in the telescope — or at least, that’s what she thought she’d seen. “Excuse me,” she said, stopping in front of the frame. “Ms. Prentiss, what’s this painting?”


“Ah.” The oil-painting was one of those landscapes that people like to hang in their staircases: View from Mount Boring, Dullsville, Connecticut, After a Thunderstorm (1884). Except this landscape appeared to be in the middle of the ocean, off the coast of a small rocky island. Some seagulls, little white flecks of paint, skimmed across the sky, while the waves crested in dabs of light blue.


“That’s where we keep the goldfish.”


“Ms. Prentiss.” A young man poked his head out of one of the offices. He was in his late teens, with a wide gap between his two front teeth that should’ve been fixed by an orthodontist. “Could I have a second, please?”


“Of course, O’Brien. Would you excuse me?”


And with that Ms. Prentiss walked into the office, and the door clicked shut behind her. Aisling was left alone with the artifacts. She had no idea how long Ms. Prentiss would be gone for, and wished, for a moment, that she had let the women lead her to the library. At least then she’d have something to read while she waited. She stared at the oil-painting on the wall, memorizing each individual brushstroke made on the canvas: the cream-colored splotch of the moon, the brown swirls trapped in the current, the hazy blur of the cliffs in the distance. And, in the foreground, a little orange smudge she hadn’t noticed before . . .

A little orange smudge that appeared to be moving.


She wouldn’t have noticed, not if she’d just been passing by, but with nothing else to do but stare at the painting . . . she could tell that, yes, the smudge was moving across the canvas. It was as if the paint was pulling itself fibre-by-fibre through the brushstroke sea. She moved even closer to the painting. Was that a . . .


Goldfish?


And not just one. No, she could see now there was a little cluster of them making their way through the waves; their little tails flicked to-and-fro as they swam. Aisling took half-a-step forward until the tip of her nose was almost pressed against the priceless artifact, and then . . .


It felt an awful lot like falling down the staircase at school. One moment she had her foot firmly planted on the step, and the next her stomach jolted upwards and she was tumbling tumbling tumbling . . . But when she reached the bottom, she plunged into water. It shot up her nose with the force of a pressure-hose, and she desperately tried to work out which way was up. She windmilled her arms and kicked her legs; years of swimming lessons at the JCC hadn’t prepared her for what to do when you couldn’t find the surface. Just float, she thought to herself, even as her breath was cut short. Calm down, and you’ll just float to the surface. She forced herself to still, and sure enough, she floated upwards.


Saltwater sputtered out of her mouth as she looked around her. A rocky island stood off in the distance, its cliffs ominously dark even against the night sky. There was no way a little five-year-old girl would be able to reach its shores before her limbs gave out, but Aisling hadn’t yet developed an accurate internal gauge of the distance between things. To her the rocky island looked awfully close, and she thought she’d be able to swim to its shores without any trouble.


Hundreds of goldfish swam around her, not put off in the slightest by her presence. They were all traveling towards the shoreline, so she scooped her hands through the water and started doggy-paddling alongside them. She hadn’t been swimming long before she felt something bat against her ankle, soft as the pads on a little dog’s feet. She looked down to see an eel slithering through the water beneath her. She’d seen them at the aquarium; they were nothing to be frightened of, but as she pulled herself through the water, cupping her hands against the current, she felt the eel knock against her a second time. It was still traveling underneath her, and now that Aisling looked more carefully, she realized the eel was very long . . .


So long she couldn’t tell where it ended.


Its head floated in the water below her, but its tail went back so far that it disappeared into the silty mist. She’d never seen an eel that long before. It tied a knot down in her stomach, and as she tried to swim faster, to keep pace with the goldfish, it pulled the strings tighter and tighter. Three years of swim classes at the JCC weren’t enough. The eel wrapped around her ankle, all fibrous muscle underneath its soft sheath, and tugged her backwards.


Aisling’s head bobbed under the waterline. As she resurfaced saltwater came dribbling out of her mouth, and she gasped for breath. She pulled as hard as she could, but she couldn’t get loose of the eel coiled around her ankle. It pulled her back back back, away from the shoreline and towards the deepest parts of the ocean. It wasn’t long before she felt something wrapping around her other ankle — a second eel? — and she was pulled under the surface.


She looked up at the moon, so full and bright, wavering through the ripples of the water. It kept getting smaller and smaller the further she was pulled. She could see that there were many more eels twisting in the water alongside her, all the same blue-violet color as her broken Crayola crayon. But they weren’t really eels, were they? As they tugged her through the dust-like sediment she began to see more clearly what they were pulling her towards.

An octopus.


But not like the one in her coloring book. No, this one was much larger; its head alone was the same size as her mother, and one of its tentacles had twisted its way around her ankle. She opened her mouth to scream, but most of the sound was absorbed into the water, so her little lungs couldn’t make their terror known. Her chest muscles spasmed; all out of oxygen, her lungs started drawing in the ocean around her. And throughout everything the octopus kept pulling her forward, closer and closer to its distended head. To whatever lurked underneath those rippling tentacles.


The edges of her vision were going fuzzy. She wasn’t struggling anymore; she wasn’t trying to get away or reach the surface. The saltwater wrapped around her like the comforter on her bed, pulling her deeper into sleep even though she wanted to go back downstairs and watch TV with her mother. She could feel another tentacle wrap itself around her chest as the octopus’ marble eyes stared into her own. Her hair ribbon came loose; its fabric fluttering away on the current was the last thing she saw before she slid into unconsciousness.

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.

www.vavazquez.com

facebook.com/vavazquezauthor

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