Author’s Note: Undertow takes place concurrently with some of the events of Fallow (Whyborne & Griffin 8)
Something had left a dead squid on my windowsill.
I discovered the creature when I pulled back the curtains and found the squid staring at me with glassy eyes. An involuntary cry of surprise escaped my throat before I could think to suppress it.
The squid glistened wetly in the early October sun, its tentacles drooping sadly over the edge of the sill. How on earth had it gotten there?
I gingerly opened the window and was immediately assaulted by its smell. Waving my hand in front of my face, I leaned out, but found no ledges that might have allowed a cat to drag it up there. Perhaps an osprey had dropped it—or had they migrated south by now? An eagle, then? Did eagles even eat squid?
At any rate, the awful thing was here now, and it would only smell worse the longer I left it there. I retrieved a handkerchief and gingerly lifted it by one limp tentacle. It was unexpectedly heavy, and I nearly dropped it.
I could dispose of it in the household waste bin, but then Mrs. Yagoda would see and want to know where it came from. My landlady required her boarders to be quiet, modest, and above all not to bring the hint of anything unsettling into the house. The fact that it was hardly my fault the thing had showed up outside my room would hold little water with her. I’d have to try to get it out of the house without her noticing. To that end, I wrapped it in a bit of old newspaper and stuffed it into my pocketbook. The thing was so large, it barely fit.
As I stepped into the hall, I nearly collided with Irene Vale, who rented the room across from me. “Good morning, Maggie,” she said, her voice trailing off as she noticed me holding my pocketbook at arm’s length. Her dark brows drew together. “It something wrong?”
“It’s nothing,” I said quickly, feeling my face heat with embarrassment. I put the pocketbook on my arm and tried to ignore the smell that had already started to leak out.
“If you say so.” Irene didn’t press, thank heavens. “I was just coming to see if you were up. There’s a man waiting for you in the parlor.”
“A man?” I asked blankly.
“Yes.” She folded her arms and gave me a curious look. “I thought you said that Dr. Whyborne of yours was out of town.”
Now my face felt hot enough to boil tea. “It isn’t like that!” I exclaimed, although in truth I’d spent years hoping it would be exactly like that. I’d waited so long for him to act: confess his love, throw me over his desk, and have his way with me.
But then I’d met his sister, and now I didn’t even know what I felt anymore. Or rather, I did. I just didn’t know what to do about it.
Irene shrugged. “Whoever he is, you’d better speak to him quick, or else there won’t be any breakfast left.”
Puzzled as to who could possibly have come to see me, I hurried down the stairs to the parlor. The other women of the boarding house were already gathered in the dining room, and the smell of bacon and pancakes set my stomach to growling. I hoped there would be something left by the time I finished with my visitor.
I stepped into the parlor. A man close to my own age stood near the piano, running his fingers over the keys. His dark hair was neatly trimmed, and he wore a small mustache that made him seem older. He looked up at my entrance, and a smile spread over his boyish face. “Maggie Parkhurst. Don’t you look a sight?”
I pressed my hand to my chest in surprise. Unfortunately, it was the hand holding the pocketbook with the stinking squid. I hastily dropped it again. “Oliver?”
“In the flesh.” He laughed. “Sorry I didn’t let you know I was coming. I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“It is.” I embraced him, careful to hold the pocketbook at arm’s length. “It’s been so long!”
He grinned. “I’ve written you faithfully.”
“I know, but it isn’t the same.” Oliver and I had been inseparable as children. We’d grown up together; his father had been first mate on my father’s ship. The hours of our youth had been spent playing in each other’s households, while our mothers commiserated over their absent husbands.
That had all ended when the Bedlam sank in the icy waters of the Bering Sea. Our lives had changed overnight: our house lost, my brothers and myself forced to seek whatever employment we could find. Oliver had left New Bedford to make his fortune elsewhere. Our correspondence had grown sporadic, his missives postmarked from all across the country as he tried his hand at various positions.
None of the past’s hardship marked his easy smile now. “I stopped in New Bedford before coming here. Your mother sends her greetings.”
Warmth collected in my cheeks. Mother’s recent letters had been rather sharp, reminding me I was twenty-six years old and practically an old maid. Had she sent Oliver here as some sort of last resort, in the hopes childhood affection might turn to something more?
“Thank you,” I said. Then, to change the subject: “What brings you to Widdershins? Are you still selling billiard tables?”
“My sample case is by the door,” he replied. “It’s not the most exciting profession, but there are worse ways to earn a living.”
Irene appeared in the doorway. “Forgive me for interrupting, but breakfast is almost over, Maggie.”
“I’m so sorry—I’ve kept you from your meal,” Oliver said, taking a step toward the door.
“It’s no trouble,” I said. “Miss Irene Vale, may I present to you Mr. Oliver Young? We were childhood friends in New Bedford. Our fathers served together aboard the Bedlam.”
Irene offered him a smile. “A pleasure, Mr. Young. Have you come to visit Maggie?”
“I’m here on business,” he replied. “Though seeing Miss Parkhurst again has been a delight.”
I cursed my fair skin and tendency to blush. “Th-that’s kind of you, Oliver.”
“I shall take my leave for now.” He stepped toward the door, then stopped, as if an idea had just struck him. “Do you still enjoy the theater, Maggie?”
“Yes,” I said. When I could afford it, at least.
“I had no idea!” Irene exclaimed. “We’ll have to go see some vaudeville soon. Or, no—remember the new theater opening this week?”
“The Undertow.” The newspapers had been filled with excited speculation since the announcement was made. “Tomorrow night is their first performance.”
“Then we shall go,” Oliver said, beaming at us. “Miss Vale, would you care to join us?”
“I’d love to.”
“Then I take my farewell of you both, until tomorrow night,” he said with a small bow.
I saw him to the door. As I shut it behind him, Irene said, “He seems a pleasant fellow.”
“He is. Perfectly pleasant.” And just the sort of fellow my mother would be thrilled to see me marry.
Irene looked as though she might say something else…then frowned. “I say, Maggie,” she said, pointing to the tentacle now dangling limply from my pocketbook, “what on earth is that?”
~ * ~
That night, I woke to the sound of something at my window.
I sat up and squinted groggily. Was that a shape moving on the other side of the curtains? I’d assumed the squid I’d found that morning had been dropped by an eagle, but what if there was something unnatural prowling around instead?
The dead squid had embarrassed me in front of Irene and ruined my favorite pocketbook. If some creature had dropped it while skulking about, I’d make it regret coming to my window. Ever since the rat thing had attacked me in the middle of the night last summer, I’d taken to sleeping with a knife under my pillow. I pulled it out and slid from beneath the covers. Gripping the hilt tightly, I walked to the window and threw back the curtain.
And barely bit back a shriek at the pale face staring in at me.
The night candle on the bedside table burst into spontaneous flame. The golden glow revealed a creature whose pale white skin was marked with dark blue swirls, like some barbarian war paint. Fins jutted from her arms and legs, and the claws tipping fingers and toes clung to the house’s wood siding. A host of slender tendrils squirmed around her face in place of hair, and her grin revealed row after row of shark’s teeth.
Oh, thank heavens. Nothing to be afraid of after all.
“Persephone?” I put down the knife and hastened to open the window. “You scared me half to death.”
She clambered in and straightened to her full height. I couldn’t help but drink in the sight of her. She was taller than me, her body all lean muscle—which I could see quite clearly, as she wore a sort of knotted skirt of gold mesh, golden armbands, a necklace bedecked with pearls and coral, earrings, and absolutely nothing else. Her curves weren’t terribly feminine, her breasts only slightly more pronounced than a boy’s, her hips narrow. Her feet were more like a frog’s than anything human, the toes long and webbed, making her gait on land an awkward one.
She was so beautiful. Like some fae creature out of a story, risen from the depths of the sea. Powerful and strong and impossibly strange.
In one hand, she clutched a sort of bag made from woven strands of kelp. “I’m sorry, Maggie. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“It’s quite all right.” I glanced at the window. “Something dropped or left a squid outside my window last night, and for a minute I was afraid it had come back.”
“Oh?” she asked. Her fingers tightened around the bag she held. “How was the squid?”
I shuddered. “Dreadful. I had to conceal it in my pocketbook, and a tentacle fell out in front of one of my friends, and then it oozed all over my things. It was horrid.”
Persephone’s eyes widened. “Yes. Horrid.” She flung the kelp bag out the open window. There came a faint crash from the garden below.
Mystified, I looked from the window to her and back. “What…what was in the bag?”
“Nothing.” Her hair lashed around her shoulders. “Nothing at all.”
“Um, all right,” I said.
“Did you see me light the candle?” she added hurriedly. “I don’t have the chance to practice with fire often.”
“Oh! Right. Because you live in the ocean.” Oh heavens, I sounded like an idiot. “Would you, um, like to sit down? I’m not really supposed to have visitors in my room, but so long as we’re quiet, my landlady won’t know.”
The rule was meant to apply to men, of course, but I didn’t think Mrs. Yagoda would view a shark woman as respectable company. Even if Persephone was some sort of chieftess among her people.
I’d been a bit intimidated by her, when we’d first met. But we’d spent time together, arranging the decorations for Dr. Putnam-Barnett’s wedding. Affixing the flowers I’d selected to the pearls and shells Persephone brought. We’d joked together as we worked, and she sang in the language of her people to help pass the time. Sings Above the Waves was their name for her, and we’d taught each other little ditties and made each other laugh.
I missed that. I missed her.
I perched on the edge of my bed, feeling even more awkward than usual. Rather than taking the chair as I expected, Persephone sat beside me, her hair slowly twining about her shoulders. I remembered what it had felt like, when I touched it once. The questing tendrils had wrapped around my wrist and fingers, oddly firm against my bare skin.
My throat tightened, and a familiar warmth collected between my thighs. I’d spent nights lying awake, wondering if there was something wrong with me, to want her so. She was a woman, but more than that, she wasn’t even human. Or not fully, at least. And yet she stirred my passions in a way no one else ever had. I couldn’t stop myself from imagining…
I hastily directed my gaze to the candle and tried to think of something, anything, else. “So, what brings you here?”
“I was nearby,” she said, with a wave of her hand, as if she frequently wandered the streets at night. Perhaps she did. “I thought I’d make certain my brother gave you the summoning stone.”
“H-he did. Yes.” Heat burned my cheeks. I hadn’t been sure what to think, when Dr. Whyborne handed it to me. Had Persephone given it to me because we were friends? Or…?
I was far too aware of her nearness. Her thighs looked so strong; how would they feel beneath my hands? My nipples tightened, and I desperately wished I’d put on a robe over my Mother Hubbard nightgown.
“You remind me of a cuttlefish.”
Well, that certainly killed any ardor. “Oh,” I said. “That’s…something.”
She grinned and leaned closer. One tentacle caught a lock of my hair and tugged on it playfully. “They turn different colors. And sometimes, when I talk to you, you turn pink.”
I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me. “Yes,” Persephone said brightly. “Just like that!”
“A friend of mine is visiting Widdershins,” I blurted, desperate to distract her before she started asking me why I had so much trouble controlling my blushes in front of her. “We grew up together, but we drifted apart somewhat after our fathers died.”
“Your father is dead? I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” She shifted closer to me, her shoulder resting against mine. “What happened?”
“His ship was lost at sea.”
She nodded gravely. “Do you miss him?”
The question caught me off guard. “I…yes.” I swallowed. “It’s odd, the things I remember about him. How he used to sing sea ballads in the evening, while smoking his pipe.”
Persephone made a noncommittal sound. Then a sly smile curled up the corner of her mouth. “Did he sing well?”
“Yes,” I replied cautiously.
“Better than you, then? Because you can’t—how do you say it? Carry a tune in a bucket?”
“You wretch!” I snatched up the pillow and smacked her with it. “Take that back at once!”
Persephone laughed and made her own grab for the pillow. We wrestled for it a moment, but she was much stronger than I. Within seconds, she had me pinned beneath her on the bed.
“Surrender?” she asked.
My heart began to race at the feel of her weight on me. Her scent, of the clean ocean wind, saturated my senses. The skin of my wrists burned where she held me down, and it was all I could do not to writhe against her for the sheer, wanton pleasure of it. Mad thoughts chased one another through my head, clamoring louder and louder.
She went still. The brown of her irises shrank to a thin ring. Her lips parted, and for a moment she seemed uncertain.
“Maggie,” she began.
The stairs at the end of the hall creaked.
We both fell silent. The stairs creaked again, and I heard a heavy tread making its way up.
“My landlady,” I gasped. “Quick—back out the window.”
Persephone scrambled off of me and to the window, even as the sound of steps reached the landing. Once there, she paused. Her fingers tightened on the wood, leaving score marks on the sill. “Use the stone if you wish to speak with me. Whenever you like. I’ll come.”
Then she was gone.
I shut the window, blew out the night candle, and flung myself into bed. Barely a moment later, I heard Mrs. Yagoda stop in the hall outside. I knew she listened for the sound of voices.
Had she overheard us? Or stepped out into the garden to investigate the crash, and seen the candlelight in my room? That seemed more likely, as I couldn’t imagine our voices had carried two floors down and yet miraculously awakened no one else.
After several minutes, the shuffling footsteps started back up, retreating down the hall and thence down the stairs. I let out a sigh of relief.
Curse Mrs. Yagoda for interrupting.
Years ago, back in New Bedford, I’d told my best friend Dottie I had to leave town, to find work. She’d begged me to stay…and then kissed me.
I’d sat frozen in shock, unable to return the gesture. She’d fled, weeping, and had never answered any of the letters I sent once I settled in Widdershins.
If Persephone kissed me, I rather thought I’d kiss her back.