My longtime readers should know by now that I love the mini-fiction events; a glimpse into the world, a story by a beloved side character, or an introduction to never before seen action – I love it all and can never get enough.
I’m hosting the first Rust City Book Convention here in the Metro Detroit area, and to help spotlight the authors attending, I’ve come up with a fabulous new feature series – Hidden Treasures. I’ve asked the #RustCity16 authors to write a story, featuring any or all of their characters as they discover a new bit of treasure – i.e. at a flea market, up in the attic, tomb-raiding, etc.
Sea Glass: A Deadtown Story
And the overexcited teenage zombie, her arms flung out, twirling like a little kid practicing for ballet recital. Tina, my demonslaying apprentice, fell on her butt in the sand, threw her head back, and laughed.
“Remember, I said fifteen minutes.” Somehow I’d let Tina convince me to stop at Revere Beach on our way home from a job in Saugus. She used to come here with her family before she got caught in the plague and zombified. And then her family didn’t want to know her. So what could it hurt to let the kid spend a few minutes reliving happier memories on the beach?
“This is not a scheduled stop on your permit,” I reminded her. “You know what that means, right?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Tina stood, brushing sand from her hot pink shorts. “I could get in trouble if a cop comes along.”
More than just trouble. All zombies need a permit to leave the Deadtown section of Boston, and the permit has to list where they’re going and approximately how long they’ll be there. If there’s a problem with a zombie’s permit—missing, expired, wrong information—cops can call in the Removal Squad. And zombies that get removed don’t come back.
Tina gestured along the empty beach. “Look at this place. It’s deserted. We’ll be fine.”
“Fifteen minutes, no more. And we stay together.”
Tina nodded. She returned to my Jag and opened the passenger door. She sat sideways in the seat, legs outside the car, and leaned over to take off her sandals.
A horrifying thought crossed my mind. “No skinny-dipping!”
“Please.” She twisted her head around to give me the full effect of her eye roll. “Um, no offense, Vicky, but why would I want to go skinny-dipping with you? It’s no fun without boys.” She got out of the car and dropped her sandals on the seat. “I just want to feel the sand under my toes.”
Actually, sand under the toes sounded like a good idea. I took off my shoes and left them in the car. I put the bag holding the tools of my trade—the weapons I use against demons—into the trunk and locked it. I left on my ankle sheath with its knife. By the time I got the damn thing unbuckled, our fifteen minutes would be half gone.
Tina stood on the beach, looking out at the water. I stood beside her. “Wow, it is so amazing to be back.” She grinned. “My family used to come here like every weekend when I was a kid. Of course, then it was during the daytime. And crowded. Oh my God, it was so crowded. If we didn’t get here early it was hard to find a spot for everybody to lay out their towels.” She looked up and down the long beach. “Weird to see it empty.”
We walked to the water’s edge, the sand changing from warm and soft to cool and firm. A small wavelet came in, rushing over my feet and sending spikes of cold up my legs. Tina chased the water as it receded, splashing in to knee-depth. Zombies don’t feel temperature extremes, so the cold water didn’t bother her. After a few more waves, it didn’t feel so cold to me, either.
Tina came back and walked beside me at the water’s edge. She was quiet, even pensive. Moonlight washed the beach, touching everything with silver. It softened the gray-green tint of Tina’s skin, so that she looked like almost a normal girl taking a nighttime stroll along the beach.
Up on the boulevard, a car slowed. My breath caught in my throat. Police. The car crawled along for a minute, then it returned to normal speed and continued down the street.
Who was I kidding? Tina would never be a normal girl. Normal meant you could stop at the beach without worrying about cops “removing” you.
“We’d better start back,” I said.
“Hey, did you see that?” Tina ran ahead a few steps to where something lay in the sand. She picked it up and came back to me, holding out her open hand. An object like a flat stone, round and slightly bigger than a quarter, lay on her palm.
“It’s sea glass,” she said. “I could’ve sworn it just, like, flew out of the water and landed on the beach.”
I picked it up. The glass was smooth and frosted, its edges round. Moonlight tinged its deep cobalt blue with a silvery light that almost seemed to emanate from within.
“Me and my little sister used to collect this stuff,” Tina said, as I returned it to her. “We’d build sandcastles and use it decorate them. I remember the first piece I ever found—it was red. I was really little then, like maybe four. I ran to my mom and said, ‘Look, Mommy, a ruby!’ But she explained it was trash. Probably a piece of an empty bottle some rich guy threw overboard from his fancy yacht.”
She clutched the glass and looked out to sea. “I didn’t care. That made it even more special. It was like . . .” She frowned, trying to find the right words. “Okay, so it was trash. But the sea washed it and tumbled it and polished it—made it beautiful. And then offered it up as treasure.”
She held the glass between two fingers. It really did seem to glow.
“Pretty,” I said. “Collecting it must have been fun.”
She nodded. “I had a treasure chest. Just a cheap plastic miniature pirate’s chest, like maybe this big.” She shaped a small rectangle with her fingers. “I filled it with shells and sea glass. I had so many colors, like pieces of a rainbow. I kept the chest under my bed, and sometimes I’d take it out and pour all my sea glass onto the rug. I pretended I was a mermaid princess deciding which jewels to wear.”
Tina looked at the glass again. She scowled and closed her fist. “Stupid, huh? I bet my mom threw out that old chest ages ago.” She turned toward the ocean and drew back her arm.
Before Tina could hurl the glass into the sea, a tentacle shot from the water. Thick as a fire hose and covered with green scales, it coiled itself around her waist and hoisted her into the air.
As her feet left the ground, something thwacked into the sand where she’d been standing.
Tina screamed again as the tentacle hauled her over the water. A splash cut off the sound.
“Tina!” I scanned the waves. No sign of her.
Beside me, a trident stood upright in the sand, still quivering from the force of its landing. Tridents are the favorite weapon of merfolk. As far as I knew, merfolk had abandoned the New England coast decades ago. But judging by the evil-looking weapon impaling the beach, they were back.
The trident jerked upward, then landed flat on the sand. It slid toward the ocean. A cord looped through its handle drew it toward the water.
Merfolk don’t have tentacles, so something else had grabbed Tina. But the trident showed that the merfolk were after her, too. Like it or not, they’d help me find her. The trident bumped over the sand, picking up speed. I threw myself on top of it, avoiding the barbed tines. Holding tight, I rode it into the sea.
The shock of cold water stole my breath. Salt stung my eyes. I held my head up and gulped in as much air as I could—half of it water—before I was completely submerged.
Underwater, the trident moved faster. I squinted, trying to see through the murk, and pulled my knife from its ankle sheath. Whatever was hauling in this trident, it would not be happy to see me.
It wasn’t. The mermaid opened her mouth, revealing long, needle-sharp teeth, and roared. She grabbed the trident’s shaft and yanked, swiping at me with her claws. I kicked away. She missed me, but I managed to slash her webbed hand with my knife. Inky blood billowed from the cut.
She roared again, kelp-like hair floating around her scaly face. Real mermaids look more like the Creature from the Black Lagoon than the Disney version, and this one was especially nasty-looking. She opened her mouth wide, unhinging her jaw, and charged me. At the last moment, I dived and rolled, stabbing up at her with my knife, but she was too fast. I missed. Water was her element, but it made me clumsy and slow.
And I needed air. Now.
In the dark, it was impossible to know which way was up. I thrashed around, my lungs feeling like they’d burst. Harsh mermaid laughter gurgled. No need for her to fight me. Another minute or two and I’d drown. My fingers brushed sand and rock—the sea bottom. Now I knew where up was, and air. I planted my feet and pushed.
A hand closed around my ankle, tugging me back. I kicked. The mermaid wouldn’t let go. My knife slashed at her hand, but she grabbed my other leg. My body screamed for oxygen. Shift, it urged. A fish. Gills. Energy built, and my legs began to fuse into a tail.
No! I halted the shift, forcing my body to keep its human form. I couldn’t change now, not this close to a full moon. If I did, the animal brain would take over. I’d forget about Tina. I’d swim out to sea. And when I shifted back, miles from shore, I’d drown—if I escaped being speared by this mermaid’s trident.
Moonlight danced on the surface above me. My lungs burned. I was so close.
A noise boomed through the water—a single note from some kind of horn. The mermaid released my ankle and sped off in the direction of the sound. I kicked toward the moonlight. Emerging into the warm night, I gasped. Again and again, I drew in deep lungfuls of air. My oxygen-depleted cells buzzed with gratitude.
That call had summoned the mermaid. But where had she gone? And where was Tina?
I wasn’t worried that Tina would drown. Zombies no longer breathe the way they did when they were human, so she’d last better underwater than I could. But I would not abandon her to the ocean.
A path of bubbles marked the mermaid’s trail. Swimming, I followed them. Ahead, with a splash, Tina shot from the water. The tentacle still gripped her. She shook her head to clear the water from her face.
She turned in the direction of my voice. “Vicky?” The tentacle yanked her downward and she disappeared again.
I took a deep breath and dived. Ahead was a voice, low and rumbling.
“Land creature,” it said, “the tide jewel is mine.”
Tide jewel—Tina’s sea glass was a tide jewel? I’d read old stories about how sea dragons used such jewels to control the tides, but those were myths. We know better now. The Earth’s rotation, the gravitational pull of the moon—that’s what makes the tides rise and fall. Everyone knows that.
Everyone except for the sea dragon clutching Tina.
The dragon resembled a giant seahorse, shining with brilliant shades of red and blue and green. Its eyes glowed yellow. Tentacles streamed from its sides.
The dragon wasn’t hurting Tina; it was talking to her. As I swam closer, I saw they were surrounded by merfolk—dozens of them, all heavily armed. Every fishy eye watched Tina.
The sea dragon continued. “These merfolk tried to steal the jewel. They want to flood your city and claim it as their own. I threw the jewel from the sea to prevent them. No one steals from my hoard and lives.” The dragon’s fury shook the ocean floor. “The jewel was on land when you found it. You are not a thief; I will not harm you. Instead, land creature, I ask that you return my jewel of your own free will.”
A merman swam forward. Barnacles clung to his beard. “Give me the jewel,” he said, “and I’ll allow you to live. Otherwise my people will tear you to pieces.”
Some choice: Destroy the city or end up as fish food. Zombies are tough, but I doubted Tina could withstand an assault from an entire merfolk army.
Tina looked from the dragon to the merman and back again. I needed more air. As quickly as I could, I shot to the surface and filled my lungs.
In the five seconds I was gone, the merfolk attacked. The sea dragon tried to raise Tina above the water, but dozens of tridents sank into his tentacle. The merfolk dragged Tina down, then moved in like a swarm of underwater bees.
Blood washed toward me through the water. I looked at the puny knife in my hand. There was only one thing I could do. I focused on the blood. On tearing into soft, sweet merflesh. On moving through the water like a silent, deadly shadow.
Energy blasted out. Water frothed around me, and all I knew was hunger.
* * *
When I came back to myself, I lay on my side on the beach. I spat out sand and sat up.
“Hey,” said a voice, “I thought you said no skinny-dipping.”
A bundle of clothes appeared in front of my face. Still buzzing with energy from the shift, I took them. Tina stood in front of me, pointedly looking the other way.
“Thanks,” I rasped, spitting out more sand.
“So now I know why you always keep a change of clothes in your car.”
“Yup.” I pulled on the sweatpants and t-shirt. When I was decent, Tina turned around.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She nodded, staring at me as if I’d grown a second head. I was used to that. It was the typical reaction when a non-shapeshifter witnessed a shift. Even zombies weren’t immune to the shock.
But Tina wasn’t shocked. “You were awesome!” she said. “You turned into this Great White Shark, like, even bigger than the one from Jaws. You tore into those merpeople, and they swam away so fast I bet they’re halfway to Florida by now. That sea dragon put me back on the beach, but then he must have followed you. ’Cause later he lifted this giant shark out of the water and set it right here. Then there was, like, an explosion.”
“Whatever. And the shark turned into you.”
Better than waking up drowning. I looked over the water; the sky was starting to lighten in the east. I stood slowly, letting my body get used to the idea that it had legs now, not fins. “We’d better get you home.”
Tina nodded, and we made our way up the beach.
“So you gave the dragon the tide jewel?” I asked.
She shrugged. “It was his. I bet he’s got a real treasure chest, not like that stupid toy one I had.” She reached into her pocket. “I don’t know what he expects me to do with this.”
Tina handed me an object. It was a pearl—the biggest one I’d ever seen. Perfectly round, it shimmered with iridescence.
“The sea dragon gave you that?”
She snorted. “Like I’d try stealing from that dude.”
I held out her pearl. As Tina took it, I thought about her description of sea glass. The sea swallows things and roughs them up. But sometimes it yields treasure.
We got into the car. “So what are you going to do with your pearl?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you what I won’t do. I’m done playing mermaid.” The zombie wrinkled her nose. “Those things are butt ugly.”
I laughed and pulled away from the curb. The first rays of a new morning glimmered on the water as we headed back to Boston.
Meet Nancy Holzner!
Nancy Holzner grew up in western Massachusetts with her nose stuck in a book. This meant that she tended to walk into things, wore glasses before she was out of elementary school, and forced her parents to institute a “no reading at the dinner table” rule. It was probably inevitable that she majored in English in college and then, because there were still a lot of books she wanted to read, continued her studies long enough to earn a masters degree and a PhD.
She began her career as a medievalist, then jumped off the tenure track to try some other things. Besides teaching English and philosophy, she’s worked as a technical writer, freelance editor and instructional designer, college admissions counselor, and corporate trainer. Most of her nonfiction books are published under the name Nancy Conner.
Nancy lives in central New York, where she enjoys visiting local wineries and listening obsessively to opera. There are still a lot of books she wants to read.
Want to purchase Nancy’s novels?
Peace, Love, and Murder (Bo Forrester #1)
Don’t miss your chance to meet some amazing authors at Rust City Book Con next August! Come join us in our celebration of all things genre fiction in the Motor City! Registration is now open for #RustCity16!