Beach Reads

by Corey Farrenkopf

Raphael leaves a tattered copy of Dracula in a nook behind the Smiths’ toilet paper rack. The week before, he left The Shining in the Hamiltons’ pool house. He placed his copy of Cthulhu tales in the top dresser drawer of Mrs. Sherman’s wardrobe, beneath lilac lingerie. Raphael cleans vacationers’ homes. Their oceanside mansions vacant most of the year. He observes their polished chrome lifestyles, their chilled martini glasses and fried littleneck clams. They converse on patios amid the sea breeze and calming lap of waves. He’s painted himself as the illiterate fool, muttering Spanish whenever his clients are within earshot. Illiterates don’t leave horror stories in obscure corners of vacation homes. Raphael could never be so keen. He listens as his employers joke about his intellect over chardonnay. Their rich voices attempt to buy off the gruesome side of life.

In some houses, the books go unnoticed. In others they wind up in the trash Raphael heaves into dumpsters, their titles and dust jackets staring out through thin plastic bags. But one morning, the Shermans’ conversation drifts from the usual golf analysis and stock market fluctuations. It’s something more familiar to Raphael’s ear.

“Doesn’t Innsmouth share a few characteristics with Chatham?” Mrs. Sherman asks.

Raphael pauses in dusting the family’s neatly arranged seashell collection, nearly dropping the feathered wand onto the brittle carapace of a dried horseshoe crab. He regains his composure, unwilling to let the act slip.

“In what sense?” Mr. Sherman asks.

“The locals. Haven’t you seen their eyes, the way their foreheads slope a little?” Mrs. Sherman replies, looking toward Raphael. Her husband’s gaze follows. Raphael pretends not to notice, eyes only flicking up for a moment, before refocusing on a spiraling conch atop their built-in bookshelf.

“Well, I guess there is some resemblance…”

“Didn’t you hear those noises last night? Coming from the beach?” Mrs. Sherman asks.

“Teenagers going for a swim. Nothing to worry about. I’ll call the police next time we hear them. The sign does say private.”

“It sounded more like…”

Mr. Sherman cuts her off. “It sounds like teenagers going for a swim. Push it from your mind.”

Mr. Sherman rises from their kitchen table and walks to the sliding glass door facing the ocean. Unlocking the latch, he steps out into the sea breeze, sweeping salt air across the room and a visible shudder across his wife’s shoulders. Raphael wants to address their insult, the implicit racism, the classism, but there are better ways to approach the subject, he decides. A story begins to blossom in his mind, mysteries and images sprouting from cerebral crevices. A darkness, a house surprisingly like the one in which he now stands, a husband and wife at odds with each other and the world presented to them. Three more toilets to scrub. Raphael prays there are no unmentionables clogging the pipes, unlike last time. He’s grown giddy at the story’s promise, a sense of hurry springing into his work.

***

Mr. Sherman is still down by the water when Raphael leaves, a thin man silhouetted against the blue rise of sea. Mrs. Sherman is seated at the kitchen table, pretending to work over a sudoku puzzle, her eyes nervously wandering to the horizon, the water, the man she sleeps next to each night. Raphael wishes her a nice day in broken English. She doesn’t reply. He closes the front door with a silent hand, balancing his bucket of cleaning supplies in the other, a sense of childish glee playing beneath the surface of his skin. He wonders how the written word could affect someone’s sense of dread, inserting a feeling of discomfort where originally there was none. This is a chance to test his hypothesis, to determine whether horror novels live up to their name. Two months of summer stretch out before him, plenty of time to conduct an experiment.

***

On Raphael’s writing desk, beneath the green light of an old accountant’s shade, sit three books. Raphael’s name adorns each spine: works of literary criticism, The History of a Haunting: A Survey of Ghost Stories from the Victorian Era; Lovecraft’s Vision: The Early Works, and Modern Horror: Dissonance and Distress across an American Landscape. During the other three seasons of the year, Raphael teaches creative writing and literature classes at Cape Cod Community College. Without tenure, he makes more money fluffing pillows and plunging toilets than he does discussing the prose of his preferred genre. Two more summers and that’s it, his wife, Ada, always reminds him, as she does tonight at the dinner table, their young son, Pace, chewing the meat off a chicken wing.

“Was it particularly bad today?” Ada asks.

“Not the worst,” Raphael replies, his voice regaining the deep tonality it’s accustomed to.

“Are they being mean?” Pace asks, pausing before reaching for a drumstick, his untrimmed bangs falling into his face.

“Yes, to put it simply. Don’t worry about it though, buddy. They’ll come around.”

“If you had been up front about this in the first place, the whole fact that you’re actually quite educated and articulate, they wouldn’t have said something like that,” Ada says.

“You’re right, but I’d be out of a job. People don’t hire professors to mop their floors.”

“You could always do something else.”

“Not for this kind of money.”

Ada sighs and spoons a few stems of broccoli onto Pace’s plate. The little boy with his black hair and pale complexion stares up at his father, a pleading look in his blue eyes. Raphael shrugs. “You’ve got to eat them,” he says, spearing a green sprig of his own, lifting it to his mouth. The boy follows suit, reluctantly, filling the dinner table silence with the sound of his chewing.

***

Once the plates are cleared away and Ada has taken Pace for a walk around the marsh trails, Raphael seats himself at his writing desk, a leather-bound notebook before him. He begins to write the opening scene of his horror novel, fleshing out the main characters, making their plight evident to the reader. The house, a three-story chimera of Victorian and Modern design with glass walls and intricately steepled roofs, has found itself in shadow. There are noises in the basement, in the attic, in closets the homeowners, Mr. and Mrs. Herman, never knew existed. Raphael places subtle hints that the noise in the attic belongs to a neglected child from a past marriage, a masterful use of the established trope, but never directly states the fact. It’s something that weighs heavily on Mrs. Herman’s mind. He leaves the married couple standing at the bottom of a drop-down staircase, electric lights shorted out, flashlights flickering in hand.

Then the front door of Raphael’s house opens and his son’s footfalls scuff down the hallway, heading for the office/library/toy room they’ve shared since his birth. It’s hard to find room in their small apartment to house his scholarly archives. The overhead light clicks on, drowning out the green haze from the desk lamp. Pace scoops a plastic knight from the floor and tumbles into a cardboard castle Raphael snipped from a TV box.

“I don’t want to be the dragon tonight,” Pace says from the floor.

“But I’m always the dragon,” Raphael says, mock sarcasm in his voice. He closes the cover of his notebook. It will take time for the story to form, for the character’s terror to sink in, but until then there are always the classics. As Raphael pulls on a dragon mask, he looks up to a stack of creased paperbacks piled atop his bookshelf. Poe. Jackson. King. He could think of several places where they could nestle, unaware, until his own story is ready. The Shermans have many maps of the bay to tuck slimmer tomes behind, three or four guest rooms with pillow cases just plump enough to conceal the thicker titles.

***

Over the next few weeks, Raphael stopped hiding horror novels in other patrons’ homes to focus on the Shermans, honing his field of study. When the stack of paperbacks dwindled, he placed scraps of paper into plastic flower arrangements, behind family photographs, peering over the tongues of running shoes. On them he jotted warnings, cryptic allusions to something in the water, to footprints on the beach leading towards the basement bulkhead. Some were written in languages unknown to man, heavy on the vowels, mixtures of consonance impossible to string together.

Dragging the vacuum cleaner through the front entranceway, he can see clear through the Shermans’ mansion to the sliding glass doors. Both of his employers are out on the beach, bent over, peering at something washed ashore. Raphael leans the vacuum handle against a leather couch and makes his way towards the husband and wife. The last message he left read: On the shore, on the shore, there the creatures dance during the night, sacrificing one of their own for their coming, their walks along the land. He left it in Mr. Sherman’s golf bag. There was a tournament at Eastward Hoe. He couldn’t miss it.

Raphael slides the door shut, loud enough to let the Shermans know he’s there, but they don’t look up. They gaze down at a fleshy mass, fingers tracing an outline, attempting to make sense of what they see. From over their shoulder, Raphael can see it is the hollowed corpse of a dogfish, a small type of shark sold in England for fish and chips or across Asia in shark fin stew. Some fishermen harvest the creatures for profit; others use them to bait lines and traps, probably like the one before them. All the meat has been stripped away from the head, leaving a narrow snout of bone, row upon row of razor-thin teeth, a spine corkscrewed into an unfathomable structure. Only a little of the rough blue skin is left at the tips of fins, hinting at the dogfish’s past life.

The couple look up for a moment, staring at Raphael.

“What is it?” Mrs. Sherman asks.

He pauses in his reply, staring down at the skeleton.

“Sourcpolos.”

“What?” Mr. Sherman asks.

“Sourcpolos,” Raphael replies, gesturing to the water, miming unfathomable shapes rising from the surface, his face contorted as if he had seen his own dead body amidst the waves. Shaking his head frantically, he backs towards the house.

“Is that bad?” Mrs. Sherman asks.

“Qué?” Raphael replies. “Mal, muy mal.” Then he disappears back into the house before he begins to laugh, forcing a ragged cough in its place. He can hear the two muttering at his back, the concerned tones of uncertainty, the question of leaving for the rest of the summer, cutting their vacation early. Mr. Sherman bends to prod at the corpse with a length of driftwood, but his wife steadies his hand, unsure of what the motion will bring about, their eyes moving back to the sea in unison.

Inside the house, Raphael begins to vacuum the third floor. He works his way down, bedroom to bedroom, beneath the pool table and around bathroom bidets. As he descends, he scans for his notes and hidden books, bumping into a table to afford a better view while keeping up appearances. He can’t find a single one of his paperbacks. Only a solo note remains undiscovered, just a scribble of unintelligible language, nothing that would push the plot any further. Raphael carries the bulging vacuum bag downstairs to toss in his van, a replacement waiting inside. The Shermans have regained their place at the kitchen table where Raphael is accustomed to seeing them in the morning. They stare at one another without speaking. The drip of water spatters the tile floor. Raphael can see both of his employers are damp to mid-thigh, fabric darkened, the cuff of khakis feeding a puddle beneath the table. It wanders in streams along grout lines in the tile.

In that moment he wonders if he is being too cruel, if he should drop his imported accent, nudge Mr. Sherman in the ribs, and ask if he thought it was funny, the irony of it all. No. Mr. Sherman would take him to court. That, coupled with his behavior a month ago: an incident where he followed Raphael and Pace, who accompanied him to work on account of a stomach bug and his mother’s inability to take him to the library with her, shadowed the pair as if the boy would steal his prized antique astrolabe from a display shelf, when in truth Pace just wanted to play Gameboy and lie on the couch, which Mr. Sherman made clear was not allowed. Unclean, Raphael distinctly heard him saying to his wife. Instead of a confession, Raphael drafts the next chapter. It would not end happily, he decided, as great literature never does.

***

It’s a challenge to make a notebook’s bindings look coughed out of the ocean without bleeding ink from page to page. Raphael had gathered clumps of seaweed from Red River Beach and left them to dry draped over an open window. Now, he stretches them over the cover, supergluing barnacles with care, dipping leather edges in fish oil to give them that low tide scent. The leather puckers. Controlled pools of salt water dry in a beam of sunlight, leaving crystallized white powder caked in place.

The last few chapters fall easily from Raphael’s pen, only briefly interrupted by an impromptu Connect Four tournament among Ada, Pace, and himself. He pens the last paragraph sitting on the couch in the living room. Pace has claimed the study as his castle territory, off limits to all those who refuse his taxes. Raphael has no pocket change.

In the scene, Mr. and Mrs. Herman stand before the gaping maw of a creature heaved from the sea. It has the characteristics of an anglerfish, dangling glowing membrane protruding from its forehead, skin covered with muck from the sea floor, rust in color, teeth reminiscent of chipped glass. Some elements of a salamander are present, smooth tiny legs protruding from the sides of its corpulent structure. They can tell the creature’s body is collapsing in on itself, bones unable to support its weight on land. It groans, coughs gouts of water at their feet. Ribs crack. Steaming blood spots the sand. Even in its pain, it drags itself up the beach, following the retreating footsteps of the married couple as they head towards their home. Earlier in the chapter, they promised to never step foot in their house again, but what choice do they have, the angler-thing won’t stop. The reason for homely avoidance: yes, the sound in the attic is a disowned child with varying physical deformities; yes, the noise in the basement is some many-headed horror from Mrs. Herman’s nightmares, each face belonging to an ex-lover. The two ghouls have made a pact. It doesn’t look good for the Hermans. That’s where Raphael leaves the couple, standing in their kitchen, awkward-angler trying to force its way through a too-small slider, the mutant child fumbling down the stairs, laughing gleefully, the ex-lover hydra taking its time through the basement, turning off lights to set the mood.

Pencil dropped. Cover closed. Raphael is done, confident with the final resolution. It takes him a moment for the images of his monstrous creations to fade from his mind’s eye, laboring back to whichever subconscious corner they crawled from. Ada hovers over his shoulder.

“No resolution?” she asks him.

“None. You leave the audience mid-scene, allowing the characters’ lives to live on beyond the page. They can imagine a gruesome death, as I assure you there would be if I were to continue, or they can see a peaceful resolution. The wife sweet-talks the ex-lovers, the son decides to play a game of chess with his father instead of tearing out his lungs, the angler waltzes back to the water’s edge before the entirety of its body collapses. All’s well that ends well,” Raphael replies.

“Part of me likes the pleasant ending. Not many horror stories do that.”

“It doesn’t sell as well and generally gets labeled as a farce or parody. That’s not what I strive for.”

“Well, remember if this book gets you fired, there’s one less house to clean. Positive. But no paycheck…negative.”

“They haven’t figured out it’s me yet. I doubt anything will change.”

“If you’re sure.”

Raphael nods, smirking. Ada shrugs, telling her husband it’s his turn to brush his teeth with Pace, always the reluctant child when it comes to dental hygiene. Raphael doesn’t argue. He never does. Carrying the completed novel under his arm, he walks to the study, forcing through Pace’s embargoes and tariffs, before scooping up the little boy, a dragon’s roar on his lips. Raaaawwwwt canal. You don’t want a root canal! And the two move off down the hall, a child slung over a shoulder, a ritual, a routine, something Raphael hopes will sink into his son’s memory as a pleasant experience, a scene for nostalgic wanderings later on in life when all the dragons have died and the castles no longer have their kings and queens, just a costly plane ride to a near-condemned bed and breakfast in Eastern Europe.

In the morning, he will hide the novel, after he photocopies every page of course; no desire to have his masterpiece lost to the trash like so many paperbacks before it.

***

They aren’t in the house when Raphael arrives. Their Audi is in the driveway, the doors are unlocked, the smell of bacon grease and fried eggs lingers in the kitchen, but no bodies people the seaside palace. Opportunity. Raphael sneaks upstairs, novel in hand, footsteps echoing over hardwood hallways. He doesn’t want it to be a challenge this time. Instead, he leaves it beneath Mr. Sherman’s shaving equipment, leaving the razor and lotion propped on top, no way to miss the missal lying beneath. He leaves the door ominously cracked behind him.

Then the cleaning routine returns, dusting, vacuuming, polishing antique seafaring equipment growing dusty on shelves. All the while the Shermans are nowhere to be seen. Three hours of toil leaves a trail of citrus-scented detergent and bleached aromas from room to room. Floors are swept, trash is heaped in the dumpster by the road. As he wanders through the empty house, Raphael periodically calls his employers’ names, not wanting to startle them if he comes around the corner unexpectedly, or if they do the same to him. No replies. He scrapes caked-on pancake batter from the stove top. Scrubs the pink ring out of the bathtub, all the while thinking about his book…and repercussions.

Before he rises from his knees by the side of the toilet in the master bathroom, he notices three drops of blood coagulating on the white tiles. He dabs them with the end of his toilet bowl brush and they turn a faint watery pink. He wipes the colored pool up with a paper towel and throws it away. He hadn’t noticed the blood before. Something in the back of his mind tells him it wasn’t there on his first trip through the bathroom. On hands and knees, he seeks other signs. By the door, there are two more drops. On the stairs, another. On the banister’s dark wood, he scrapes away a single blot with his fingernail. Through the third floor he crawls, half sleuthing, half in fear of being seen. By the window overlooking the ocean is a larger pool of blood. On the white window molding is what looks like a bloodied handprint, slightly marred through movement. Raphael studies the markings, worrying what effect his writings could have had on the current situation, before his eyes focus on something out on the water.

Two bodies float offshore, unmoving, limbs spread out around them. The water is perfectly calm. Not even Mrs. Sherman’s long hair undulates in the current. Something dark seems to be flowing from their skin—a shadow? A stream of blood? Raphael watches, heart palpitating in his chest, in his ears, tearing at the lining of his throat, waiting for them to move, to smile, to make some comment about the reapplication of sunscreen, a joke about so-and-so’s mojito recipe, anything at all. Somewhere inside, he knows they’re dead; he repeats it to himself as he sprints down the hall, feet skipping over steps, knocking into end tables, toppling their contents across the floor. Out, through the sliding doors, the summer air is warm, the air-conditioned climate trapped inside the house. He can see the white outlines afloat as he nears the water’s edge, faces like iceberg tips, barely above the surface. It’s his fault. Something snapped inside them. Homicide, double suicide. The cryptic messages and horror novels. The focus of thoughts on the unnatural, the haunting, paranoia, distrust, death. Regret.

As he splashes through the water, wading in quick, Mr. Sherman’s body jolts as if stirring from sleep, shaking off its frigid calm. For the first time, Raphael notices the bathing suits. Mr. Sherman looks at Raphael, blinking rapidly, unsure of what he sees before him, some figure drawn from a dream. His wife lets her feet drift to the bottom, standing in chest deep water, her green bikini stark against pale skin.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“I was just, I mean, I was worried you two were…” Raphael stammers, his fake accent forgotten somewhere back on shore.

“Worried of what? That we were enjoying our last week of vacation. That everything was too peaceful?”

“There’s blood on the floor, on the window…” Raphael says.

Mr. Sherman stands next to his wife, gestures to a thin red line on his cheek.

“I cut myself shaving. I went to the window, saw my wife swimming, and figured the salt water would be good for the healing process. So here I am.”

“Oh,” Raphael replies, standing dumbstruck, water up to his thighs.

“Have you finished for the day?” Mrs. Sherman asks, pointing back to the house.

“No, not quite,” Raphael mumbles back, a hint of his past accent returning.

“Then I would suggest you go finish. We’re having company at two.”

The husband and wife lie back in the water, feet rising above the surface as they float supine on their backs, faces to the cloudless sky. Raphael walks up the shore, his damp sneakers gathering sand. By the back door, he kicks off his shoes, wrings out the cuffs of his pants. He knows he’ll have to vacuum up the sediment he drags in. Passing the fireplace, he sees the charred remains of the paperbacks he left scattered, all the notes he hid on shoe racks or in flower vases blackened brittle on the wrought-iron grate. He can read his scribbled writing at the end of a burnt strip. Leaving them, he ascends the stairway, not wanting the last of his writings to end in the same sordid state.

What did he hope to achieve? he wonders as he climbs the stairs. To disrupt his employers’ sanity, to suggest the terrible deaths that only moments ago he believed had happened, arrive at work to find the house a pile of burnt cinders, the Shermans’ attempt to drive out the presence lurking in the basement, or attic, whichever narrative arc resonated most. And all because they had been insulting. Yes, they had been jerks, snobs, talking down to his son like that, but not deserving of death, not in the horrific ways his stories depicted. He had led them astray, convincing them he could barely speak English. How would they have treated him if he had been upfront: Yes, I have two doctoral degrees, my wife is a librarian, and our son reads at a fifth grade level even though he is only six. How would that have changed the outcome of everything, the course of a summer nearly at its close? He could have hidden educational texts, manifestos from social equality movements. MLK speeches instead of ghost stories.

Picking up the shaving lotion and razor, he imagines what it would have been like to write love stories instead of horror. Modeling tales after his passion for Ada, the usual tropes and frolics found in Harlequin novels he always finds in houses he cleans. Vacationers never burn those. They pile up on bookshelves and end tables, creased spines, sun-yellowed pages, waiting for a new guest to ferry them away, keeping their throbbing members and ripped bodices in circulation long after Dracula grows famished from lack of blood. No, romance is not Raphael’s thing, he holds no degree stating he is an expert, but it seems a valid alternative. If not that, a touching story about a father’s love, fairy tales intertwining, magic becoming real, if only for a moment, to cement memories of a happy childhood. And fairy tales aren’t so far off from horror at times. More familiar, comforting. Grim to say the least.

Slipping his novel into the waist of his pants, he feels the seaweed’s rough, brittle flesh against his own skin. It smells of fish, of saltwater, the pages untouched by the hands of another. The rectangular bulge against his shirt front is barely noticeable, but it doesn’t matter. He wants to leave before the Shermans get back in the house, ducking the arrival of their guests, no final farewell to close out their summer involvement.

Raphael does a cursory vacuuming, sucking up sand left behind. As he reaches the large windows overlooking the sea, he stares out, not thinking about dark shapes that may creep beneath the surface, no shark, or kraken for that matter, lurking in shadow, or some other unmentionable horror. No, he imagines two lovers floating on a calm sea, faces to the sky, oblivious to the rest of the world. With a damp rag, Raphael wipes away the bloody handprint on the molding, restoring unblemished white, erasing the last imprint of his own suspense and terror.

Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his partner, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian and landscaper. His fiction has been published in Catapult, Blue Earth Review, JMWW, Lunch Ticket, Hawaii Pacific Review, Slushpile Magazine, and elsewhere. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His non-fiction can be found in The Coil. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopfor on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com.