The wall mounted tentacles dominated the wood panelled room. Not just with their size–which was immense, groping their way through the space above his head–but also their appearance; alien and wrong. They hung, a trophy, extending out from above the wide fireplace, it’s crackling inferno causing shadows to flicker and twitch against the ceiling. The way the shadows moved made him feel as if they were a moment away from reaching down and pulling him into the lightless realm from where the creature had been spawned.
He sat in a lush chair in the centre of the room, facing the fireplace; the perfect vantage point for viewing the horrible appendages. He’d never liked this room. Not when he’d been a child, back when the walls had been lined with antlers and rhino heads and other pieces of creatures unfortunate enough to find themselves here, and certainly not now. His grandfather knew this. No doubt the reason he’d kept Denis waiting so long.
The heavy door opened soundlessly as the old man entered. He marched, straight backed despite his age, his body upright and rigid. An unlit cigar was clamped tightly between his teeth. He’d been all but forbidden from smoking the foul smelling things after having half a lung removed a decade before, but that hadn’t stopped him from chewing on them; gnawing away at the dense logs until piece by piece he ingested them. His lips had discoloured, small lumps sprouting from them, behind them teeth as rotten as the old man’s soul.
He stopped in front of the tentacles, looked up at them. The pride that radiated from him was suffocating. He took the sodden cigar from his mouth. ‘Do you know why our family succeeds where so many others fail?’ Denis stayed silent. The old man’s ego ensured he needed no encouragement. ‘Fortitude,’ he concluded.
Denis bit back the snide remark that burned at the tip of his tongue. He’d been hearing this speech since he’d first learnt to put on pants. It had impressed him at one point, back before he saw the old man for the narcissistic monster he was. Now it was hot breath from a stale corpse.
He turned to Denis, eyes piercing eyes, a typical turn in the speech, so much so that Denis could mimic the movements and intonations himself. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes in response. It was always best to give the old man nothing, not a scrap of reaction, positive or negative; he’d find some way to use it against you.
‘Courage in pain or adversity,’ he continued, moving on to the definition portion of the speech. Denis let his vision lose focus and blur. It was as bad to stare at the old man’s mouth as it was to look upon the monstrous tentacles. Worse, even. His eyes drifted upwards, taking in the finer details of the thick cephalopod limbs, while his grandfather droned on about how he expected more from a member of his family. How disgusted he was at Denis’s own lack of fortitude.
The first time he’d heard this edition to the speech it had torn the then twelve year old Denis in half. His grandfather had been his hero then, or close enough to. His only male role model and the dominant presence in his life. When he’d said those words, that he’d lacked the all so precious fortitude, Denis had felt his gut fall away, accompanied by a presence in his chest like a vice trying it’s best to squeeze the life out of him. He’d held back the tears for as long as he could, and when they’d come his grandfather had given him that look that Denis would come to know well over the years, the one that said he’d managed to find a new bottom to the pit of disappointment his grandfather saw whenever he looked at him. The ugly sneer had rolled up the left side of the old man’s face and he’d told twelve year old Denis to stop crying or he’d give him something to cry about. He waited a second, then, when Denis’s tears didn’t immediately stop, followed through on his promise, using his gnarled knuckles to crack Denis against the side of the head.
Now the words elicited no emotion in him, or so he told himself.
He let his eyes refocus and took in the length of the longest tentacle. They were hideous, to be sure. Pocked at parts with grids of miniature craters, bubbled at others with mutant suckers of all sizes bunched up against each other, and in between ribbons of ropey twisted muscle. There was something beautiful about the things as well, however. The colours. An oily mix of a dark shimmering rainbow. Used for camouflage, he suspected, now frozen in place, a stunning kaleidoscope of colour.
He ran his eyes towards it’s tip and found it almost impossible to follow the lines of the thing. They twisted up and around on themselves, looking like an M C Escher drawing, where one edge become another, creating an infinite loop. Trying to make sense of those images could drive someone mad. He suspected the same were true of the tentacles and the creature that owned them. More than one person had lost their mind when they’d come up against the beast, either taking their own lives immediately, or doing nothing as the creature did it for them. Not his grandfather, though. Not Frances Haigh.
Denis saw something move from within one of the tentacles craters. Something small and orange.
‘Are you listening?’ the old man barked. Denis looked back to see his grandfather’s diseased mouth curl up into its trademark sneer. ‘I demand your attention, Lieutenant.’
Denis had joined the military in an attempt to gain the old man’s approval, back before he’d learned such a task was impossible. He’d fought at the ocean floor with the rest of the grunts, taking out swarths of the pale, needle toothed monsters they’d come to call Anglers, due to the resemblance of their facial features to that of the angler fish. Their bodies were humanoid, which in many ways Denis found more horrific than their faces. He hated seeing a twisted version of his own species reflected back at him, albeit a human who’d spent a lifetime in the lightless depths of an oceanic trench. While they were terrifying to look at, they were also stupid, and completely undisciplined without the command of their godhead; who’s limbs now decorated the very study he currently sat in. The work had been slaughter, plan and simple, and after four years of service and a promotion to Lieutenant, Denis had left, much to the displeasure of the army, and the disgust of his grandfather.
‘I was saying they are organising again,’ the old man said, gifting a hate filled glare to the tentacles above him.
‘Who are?’ Denis asked.
‘Who? It’s pawns. Keep up, boy.’
‘The anglers? But, how is that possible? That would mean…’ Denis followed the old man’s gaze, and saw another flash of orange.
‘Exactly. It’s still alive, somehow. Or there’s a second one. Either way it’s time for you to stop lazing about and get back to work. I’ve told your old commander to expect you tomorrow.’
Denis looked into his grandfather’s penetrating stare. ‘No.’
‘It wasn’t a question, Lieutenant.’
‘I’m not a Lieutenant.’
The old man strode forward, quick despite his age. He stopped, a step from Denis, and leaned down to glare into his eyes. ‘You have a duty, grandson. To both this family and your country. And you will fulfill it. Am I clear?’
His fetid breath assaulted Denis’s nostrils, not helped by the close up view of his diseased mouth. Denis ignored them both, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the old man’s.
‘No,’ he said again. ‘Any duty I had is gone now, whether you acknowledge it or not. You don’t care about this country, and you definitely don’t care about our family.’ Denis thought of his grandmother, dead five years passed. She had been a victim of the old man for most of her life. She’d worn a constant smile on her face, sure, but it had been strained, and belied by the torment that never quite seemed to leave her eyes. Denis was sure the strain of being the old man’s wife for so many years had lead to her early grave. His grandfather had barely seemed to acknowledge her passing. And that wasn’t even counting for Denis’s own mother, the old man’s daughter.
‘You care about yourself. You want me in this fight because it gives you more leverage to have a grandson at the front of the action. Well I’m not interested in fighting, let them have the sea for all I care, and I’m not interested in being your instrument, not anymore. The only reason I came here today was to see the look in your eye as I told you so.’ Denis permitted himself a smile then, a small quirk of his mouth. It had the desired result.
The old man’s eyes bulged with rage as angry as any sea, as both sides of his lips curled upwards, baring his rotten teeth. Denis moved to rise from the seat. ‘Sit down!’ Francis spat, literally. Denis wiped the drops of spittle from his cheek. ‘You think you can defy me? You can’t. You’ll do as I say or I’ll have your limbs hung up on my wall alongside the monsters, do I make myself clear?’
‘Fuck you,’ Denis said. It may not have been eloquent, but damn did he enjoy saying it.
The old man raised his fist to deliver his patented backhand, as a drop of orange fell from the tentacle above, landing perfectly in between his discolored lips. He flinched back, and Denis saw him swallow instinctively as he looked up at the tentacles with confusion.
A shudder rocked the old man’s body. He turned back to Denis, who, for the first time in his life, saw fear on the old man’s face. Then his pupils dilated until his eyes were almost all black, and his face went slack.
The hand that a moment ago was raised to hit Denis moved to the old man’s cheek. Yellow fingernails dug into flesh and tore a strip off. The old man looked at it curiously with his too wide eyes, then smiled as he put the flesh in his mouth.
Denis stood, kicking the chair behind him as he did so. His grandfather looked back at him. An alien sound came from his throat, a rumble, wavering and watery. Denis took two steps backs and eyed the room for an escape. The old man was between him and the door, and Denis wasn’t sure if the curtained windows even opened. The sound changed, rising and falling as his grandfather’s mouth and tongue moved, struggling to work together. It changed again, almost becoming words. ‘D…D…D…’ he mumbled.
‘Denis?’ Denis asked, thinking the old man was trying to call to him. ‘I’m here. I’m right here, grandfather.’
‘Drown,’ the old man finished in a voice not his own. ‘You shall all drown.’ He blinked wet eyes and looked around the room, examining it as if for the first time. The wide pupils turned skyward and followed the tentacles to where they were mounted above the fireplace. ‘Proud fool,’ he rumbled, a wet laugh echoing from his throat.
Denis watched as the old man looked down at his hands. ‘Expiring,’ he said, picking at the flesh on the back of his hand. He turned to look at Denis, stepped towards him, eyeing him from top to bottom. ‘A poor replacement,’ he said, regretful, ‘but it’ll do.’
Denis didn’t wait. He attacked. He swept low, seeking to knock the old man from his feet. His grandfather’s leg squished sickeningly against the kick, bending inwards as though filled with jelly instead of sinew and bone. Denis looked to his grandfather’s face, his eyes now closed, then back down where he saw a yellowish liquid leak from the spot he had struck.
Whatever had taken over his grandfather curled in on itself, pulling his neck in and shoulders forward. The old man’s face began to swell and turn yellow. It bulged outward in waves, lumps rising and falling, disfiguring him almost beyond recognition. Not just his face, Denis realised, the old man’s whole body was roiling with some horrid internal flux.
Denis scrambled backwards.
The old man’s body mushroomed and exploded, releasing a sea of small orange pods. They rained down on Denis, an unavoidable and disastrous hail that smelt of salt and meat and age.
Any that found skin first burned then melted against his flesh. Denis screamed. They were inside of him before he could even attempt to sweep them away.
What was left of his grandfather fell to the floor.
The thing that was inside Denis opened his eyes. It breathed and coughed, and lost somewhere within, Denis could feel it’s thoughts squirm around his own. The thing found the idea of breathing air repulsive. It craved a dark and never ending pressure, a world made of water. It craved destruction and worship.
Denis tried to speak, and failed. He was a whisper, lost in a cyclone. Trapped forever in the lightless realm of his own mind.
The thing now in control of Denis’s body stood, stepped through the old man’s remains and out the door.
Thanks for reading,