“Have you tried the jellyfish?” Murray looked up at me between mouthfuls. “And the crab. The crab’s out of this world, Shirl. Here! Don’t take my word for it.”
Murray pushed his plate towards me. I nodded, and took another forkful of calamari. I tried to ignore the little eyes staring at me mournfully through the tanks, and the silver-green flicker in the corner of my eye.
I hadn’t been sure about meeting Murray. His profile picture didn’t exactly send my heart aflutter. Slicked back hair. Two rows of sharp little teeth that don’t quite seem to fit his mouth. Something about the eyes too, though if you’d asked me I couldn’t put my finger on what. Placid, grey, sort of empty? But then you didn’t ask me, did you? So I didn’t really give the matter of Murray’s eyes the attention it probably, with hindsight, deserved.
The thing is, it’s hard to get a date in this town with a nice, normal kind of guy. My last couple were disasters. Nightmares. Sheree was a nightmare, anyway. I found out she worked the midnight shift, for a debt collector, sitting on people’s chests while they slept, wailing at them to pay their dues. And then there was Earl. Seemed nice enough, very quiet and clean. All fun and games until we got to full moon. It’s probably unfair of me, but all that business with the hair, not to mention the poor creatures he’d drag in with him? Too much. And of course Marv. I don’t like to talk about Marv. Let’s just say I don’t want to try astral projection ever again.
After all that, I was willing to give Murray a shot, though I was keeping an eye out for anything fishy.
The Bear Creek Aquarium and Seafood Emporium wasn’t the worst place I’d been for a first date, that’s for sure. There was that one woman who thought the Wet Deli was a good idea. Not that I minded donning a full wetsuit and flippers, kinda added a frisson to the experience. But I was not a fan of the Soggy Monday, I can tell you that for free. There’s only so much damp bread and waterlogged pastrami a girl can stomach.
Worse still was The Joint: Bear Creek’s celebrated carvery / medical research centre. I get that med school is expensive. Employing medical students to carve the meat makes sense. And I suppose attaching the mortuary makes a sort of economic sense too: the overworked dears don’t have to worry about travel time at least. But the sound of bone drills and moans next door doesn’t exactly make for a romantic atmosphere, know what I mean?
Compared to these, you can see how the Bear Creek Aquarium and Seafood Emporium seemed positively civilised. The schtick is quite simple. You take a tour of the aquarium, find out some fun facts about angelfish and rays and grindilows and the like, then you get to choose your dinner.
The whole aquarium is up for grabs, with a couple of exceptions. One exception is the mermaid. Apparently, they tried to serve her to the Mayor once. Only the tail end – he’s not a monster you know. Her screams were so loud they shattered half the tanks, and killed the man on the spot. Again.
The other exception of course is Sid the Fortune telling Squid, whose tank takes pride of place in the Psychic Sealife Section. A visit to Sid is enough of an attraction in itself to keep him safe from the griddle. They save him for after dinner entertainment.
When I arrived, Murray was already there, in his long leather coat and sunglasses, leaning against the aquarium’s famous plastic lobster. If you’ve never seen it, you should, you know. Six foot high and holding a large EAT ME sign, it’s quite the sight. Its beady plastic eyes only look a little worried on their stalks.
I’ll admit, my first impression of Murray in the flesh wasn’t bad. Tall, muscular. You could tell he worked out. There was – what else can I call it but a definite ripple under his shirt when he moved.
“Shirl! You made it! You look great.” He straightened his hat – one of those wide brimmed stetsons. I could almost swear he licked his lips.
The first part of the tour passed smoothly enough. Our guide was the notorious Jimmy Splash himself, proprietor and renowned gourmand. Dressed in his trademark sealife waistcoat, what he doesn’t know about things finned, scaled and tentacled isn’t worth knowing. He took us slowly through the brightly lit tanks, pausing to give us notes on each inmate.
“And here we have the Devil’s Hole Pupfish, ladies and gentlemen” he told the gathered crowd, “all the way from sunny Nevada. These fellas are quite the rarity, folks. Only 180 left in the wild. I really love this little guy look at his teeth! And he’s just perfect with and sauteed new potatoes and sea cucumber, and paired with a crisp Pinot Grigio.” This prompted oohs and aahs from the would be diners. You could almost hear them sharpening their knives and forks.
It was above the turtle tank that I first noticed it. The silver-green shimmer hanging faintly in the air. The rest of our small gaggle of would be diners clustered around the tank didn’t seem to notice. Some nodded as Jimmy Splash waxed lyrical on the quality of the turtle soup. Some pressed their faces up against the glass, salivating. Not Murray though. Murray looked uneasy. I asked him what was up but he just shrugged.
“It’s ok, Shirl. Old Jimmy getting on my nerves is all.” I wasn’t convinced.
The feeling didn’t shift as we moved on to dinner. Murray picked a whole platter full of creatures for us to share, watching with eager eyes as the waiters plucked them from the tank. He was good company: he listened, asked questions and had a dry wit lurking under his slightly unsettling smile. But I was convinced now that there was definitely something not quite right about him. When his leg brushed against mine under the table, I swear I felt something wriggle.
I tried to shake the feeling off and concentrate on what was meant to be the highlight of the night: Sid the Fortune Telling Squid. The deal was that you were meant to come to Sid with a question in your mind, and look for the answer in the wiggle of his tentacles. I knew what I wanted to ask. Were Murray and I meant to be? Sure, he was a bit strange, but he’d been fun over dinner and maybe I deserved to catch a break for once.
As Sid moved in ever more complicated patterns, and visions began to descend on the eager crowd, the room in front of me began to swim. I thought it might be the heat getting to me, but before I could ask Murray to fetch me some iced water, I saw the shimmer again. Except this time I could see it was more than a trick of the light.
First it was the tip of a flipper, then a beaky head. Then the whole shell followed. Huge and almost transparent, the creature seemed to glide through the walls, the tables and the crowds of diners as if none of them were there. A monarch of an ancient sea that would outlast us all. The great head turned, and I felt those great eyes on me, slow and serious. They blinked three times. He looked so sad.
As he blinked, I felt a tremor. Faint at first, but before long the vibrations in the floor had begun to rattle the crockery on the tables. The turtle opened his mouth and let out a great moan. As if it had been choreographed, the glass of the tanks shattered as one. In that instant, the floor became a wet mass of writhing, gasping sea creatures. Among them I saw the mermaid. She was pulling herself towards Jimmy Splash, a large shard of glass between her teeth.
Murray stared at the scene, motionless. There was something very wrong. The ripple I’d seen under his shirt intensified, and tuned into something else. I could make out long muscular shapes writhing under his skin. And then they broke through. Eels. Dozens of them. They erupted from the skin suit I’d known only a few minutes ago as Murray and fell upon the wriggling mass of piscine chaos. Their needle teeth snapped hungrily. That was the point I blacked out. You can hardly blame me, can you?
I woke some time later on a bench on Main Street, with Murray standing over me. He looked like a person again.
“You’re ok, Shirl? Boy, am I glad.”
I sat up and stared at him for a moment. “What was…” I struggled to find quite the right words to describe what had just happened “…THAT all about? One minute we’re getting along, next you’re doing the anguilliforme fandango down there? Were you even going to TELL me?”
“I was Shirl, I was. It’s hard, y’know. We’ve been waiting so long now.”
“Waiting for what?” I asked.
Murray looked bashful. “You know how eels have their own breeding grounds? That they’ll get back to no matter what? The closest thing we have to home? Well, ours is just out from Bear Creek beach. And that hasn’t manifested for years, now. We weren’t sure how long we could keep waiting. So…we thought we’d give this a shot. Get some company. Show a little love. Maybe even settle down properly. And it was working, wasn’t it? We were getting along?”
Murray’s flat little eyes shone. I think he was about to cry.
“Thank you Murray. I’m glad you can talk to me. This has all just come as a… suprise. That’s all.”
Murray took my hand. His skin was warm.
“I know we haven’t had the best start, Shirl. I’m still learning how to make this thing..” he lifted an arm “work. It’s totally up to you, babe. I understand if you don’t want any more to do with me. But I’m willing to try and make something good out of this, you know? And I think we did have a spark.”
He had a point. This is Bear Creek after all. He might be a parcel of eels in a skin suit, but he seemed a lot more decent than a lot of the humans I’ve met around here. And there was definitely a crackle of energy about him I liked, that wasn’t just down to the residual electric charge. Can’t say fairer than that.
Murray cleared his throat and looked down at his shiny black leather boots. “If you wanted to try again?”
I smiled, and carefully took Murray’s arm.
“Alright then. You and me. Tomorrow. 8 o clock. Over a chocolate malt at the Bear Creek Chainsaw Warehouse and Shake Shack. You’ve got a date”.