We travel back to Tandy’s Cove in a caravan of three, Cindy Q’s Miata leading, followed by the rented van, dirty white with the windows rolled up, and Beneeta G’s little blue hatchback bringing up the rear. Twelve hours on the road would be stressful in the best of times, yet in these days of turmoil there is an easy peace between us…
The Secret of Theta Pi
By Stephanie Gray
We travel back to Tandy’s Cove in a caravan of three, Cindy’s Miata leading, followed by the rented van (dirty white with the windows rolled up) and Beneeta’s little blue hatchback bringing up the rear. Twelve hours on the road would be stressful in the best of times, yet in these days of turmoil there is an easy peace between us. A few of us— Linda, who studies the languorous depths of the ocean, and Karen, who lives in libraries, cherish the silence, while others, like sporty Beneeta and Mia, begin to crave one of our petty squabbles just to break up this endless day.
Within the guarded confines of the van Linda and Carolyn watch over our cargo, while Suzy sleeps curled over the wheel well, lulled by the rhythm of the road. They lie low on the piled blankets that cover the scratchy floor, bodies parallel, hips pressed against the side of the 30 gallon Home Depot storage tub that houses our passenger, sloshing inside, wrapped in bungee cords to keep it secured over rocky roads.
We drive on, through the morning and afternoon without stopping. At four, burgers and fries at a truck stop McDonalds, stale coffee and cat-calls and taking turns in the restroom. Mia without makeup, Cindy with her phone turned off, homework backlogged; we are raw and real out here, alone with the tender truths of our sisterhood. We take turns guarding the van while we take in the oily truck stop air, bear the leers, lick the grease from french fries off our fingers and move on, as quickly as we can. Drivers are switched out, Carolyn taking control of the van so Karen can doze. We regain cell phone service about twenty miles from the ocean and text each other constantly, making-up ever changing call-signs (Duck-Face to Purple Haze, do you read me?) to lighten the mood.
Ever since spring break Lorna had been acting differently. Cindy swore it was the introspective aftermath of a spring fling, and Beneeta the nervous excitement of graduation.
“Is it her grades?” Karen asked, “She’s missed so many classes.”
“There’s more to life than grades, sweetie,” said Cindy, pursing her lips in the hallway mirror as she got ready for a date.
“Is she still with Colt?” Carolyn sked, “She never said they broke up, but I haven’t seen him around.”
No one had a clear answer, and when posed with the question herself Lorna always seemed to sidestep the topic, drift away through the mysterious seascape she’d seemed to inhabit since returning from Tandy’s Cove. She slept late, missing classes as often as she attended them. Divesting herself of her formally cluttered social calendar she retreated inward, spending days barricaded in her bedroom at the Theta Pi house, nested in blankets despite the warm weather. She would leave only to venture cautiously to the kitchen to find food, or to shower, which she did religiously, often two or three times a day.
“Drugs?’ Linda wondered cautiously, peering up from her Deep Sea Ecology notes.
“No,” said Mia, six months past her own collapse in a downtown nightclub. “She’d have told me.”
It was Carolyn who first ventured into Lorna’s bedroom, breaking through the barricades to reach the secret heart of the matter. Carolyn who’d been crippled by secrets long before any of us knew her, and to whom we were all grateful.
“It’s ok,” she told Lorna, their fingers threading together in the dark. “It doesn’t matter what it is, you can tell us. We’re all here for you. We love you.” It was the truth, despite the open secret that set Carolyn’s love apart.
But Lorna stayed silent as the tomblike depths of the ocean, and the women of Theta Pi had no choice but to make a reluctant retreat.
But the tide always turns, and by the end of March Lorna was almost back to her old self again. She returned to her classes, haggled with professors for make-up assignments, coloured in her social calendar with parties and dates.
“I told you she’d get over it,” said Cindy, “Sometimes you just need your space.”
But Carolyn still remembered the wet press of Lorna’s palm against her own, the tangy scent despite her constant showers. “Something’s still not right.”
It wasn’t until Easter weekend that we learned how true those words really were.
Suzy, the lightest sleeper, was the one who heard her crying in the laundry room. Always crowded and cluttered during the day— a canopy of hanging bras, nylons draped over open doors— the room was nearly eerie in the cavernous silence of three am. Lorna was bowed over the laundry sink, scrubbing, hands submerged in dark, soapy water.
“What are you doing in here?” Suzy asked.
“It’s fine,” Lorna said, “It’s nothing. Go back to bed”
Suzy, who’d spent more late and messy nights than she could bear to count hiding dark secrets of her own, knew the frantic, desperate energy it took to believe it was possible to scrub away the reality of a thing. Suzy did not go back to bed. Instead she walked up beside Lorna, laid a hand on her tense, clammy shoulder. Submerged in the water, Lorna’s hands had turned blotchy purple, stained and traumatized by the harsh chemicals.
Lorna’s tears felt oddly cold as they landed on Suzy’s bare shoulder.
Many cephalopods, Linda would tell us later, squirt ink when excited or afraid, to blind and confuse their enemies. However, similar to the weapons of the warm blooded, the ink is more than capable of poisoning those whom it was meant to defend.
“I could have told you that,” said Suzy.
In the evening, just outside the camp grounds, we pass a road check, and it is the most terrifying moment of our lives. Fumbling for seatbelts, a cacophony of whispers urging each other to be silent. A blanket is thrown hastily over the plastic storage bin, purses piled on top of it to obscure its presence. The sloshing coming from inside suddenly sounds like the churning of rapids. Carolyn smiles out the window at the flashlight shining into her face.
“Where are you ladies headed? Anything to drink tonight?”
She answers back in a low, steady voice, “We’re just going camping, officer.’ No, nothing to drink, officer.”
We breath a sigh of relief as the flashlight is withdrawn and we hear those precious words, like a balm to our panic, “That’s fine, ladies. Drive safe tonight.”
Thus freed, the engine churns to life and we head on towards the ocean.
Beneeta led the charge, storming down fraternity row with strength of purpose burning in her all-loving, warrior’s heart. She knocked on the door for nearly five minutes, using the toe of her hiking boot when her knuckles got sore, until finally it was opened by a bleary, hungover undergrad.
“Is Kevin here?” Beneeta asked, all toned and tattooed six feet of her, with her arms crossed and a steel-spined golf umbrella clutched in her hand.
The undergrad stepped away, pointing them up to Kevin’s room through the beery detritus of a party. Most of the Sigma Omega boys were still sleeping, if they hadn’t stumbled off to class by now.
We burst into Kevin’s room to the stench of beer and gym socks, and Kevin sitting on the bed with a bandaged hand fumbling at a beer tab.
“What the fuck are you doing here? Get the fuck out of my room.”
“What happened with Lorna?” Beneeta demanded.
“Did she send you here?” asked Kevin, “What did that bitch tell you? She’s lying.”
“It’s all fucking Colt’s fault. He’s the one who left her there. I only went after her because he said she was a fucking freak, I didn’t think he meant…” His face turned a shade of green.
“Where is Colt?” Beneeta asked, “I thought he dropped out.”
“He did.” Kevin shouted, “Thanks to her. Who wouldn’t have, after what happened in Tandy’s Cove.”
“What did happen in Tandy’s Cove?” asked Mia, glaring.
“You don’t know?” His eyes widened, a glimmer in them like genuine sympathy, then something else crushing it down.
“I only know what Colt told me, alright?”
Kevin looked down at his damaged hand. “They’d gone out skinny dipping, late at night. Colt was just fooling around, but Lorna started freaking out and running away from him. She slipped, fell into the water over where it was deep. He though she’d come up, but….he said it looked like something grabbed her, pulled her down.” He took a deep breath, staring blankly at the cracked plaster next to his bed, a roofing nail holding up a Playboy centerfold. “He swore he thought she was dead.”
“He abandoned her?” “He knew how it would have looked,” Kevin said, “The guy always gets blamed.”
Cindy rolled her eyes.
“He went back for her; as soon as he got cell service and got her messages, he went back and got her.”
“What a fucking hero,” said Mia as she and Beneeta shared an incredulous glance.
“It’s what happened on the way back that I didn’t believe,” Kevin said, seizing another beer from the mini fridge next to the bed, “I thought it must have been Lorna fucking with him, you know, for revenge or something.” He points with his bandaged finger, “Your friend is one fucked up chick, you know that?”
“What happened?” asked Beneeta.
“It was in the motel room, on the way back. Colt said she was all over him, nothing beats ‘I almost died’ sex, am I right?”
We refrain from commenting, forcing Kevin to move on.
“He was pushing her legs back, you know, and one of them went all the way back.”
“What?” said Cindy.
“Not ‘all the way back’ as in ‘I’ve been doing a lot of yoga’,” Kevin replied, “I mean as in ‘My legs have no fucking bones in them.’ He thought he’d broken her leg except…there was no snap, no resistance at all. It just flopped back like it was made of fucking rubber or something. She’s a fucking mutant, man.”
“And you believed all that?” Cindy wanted to know.
“No,” Kevin said, still not looking at any of us, “Not at first. Then last night…”
“What happened?” Beneeta asked, “What did you do?”
“You want to know what I did?” Kevin shouted,” What I fucking did?” He held up his bandaged hand, “I lost a fucking finger is what I did! Why don’t you ask Lorna?”
Back at Theta Pi house Suzy was sitting on the floor with her back pressed to the bathroom door, Lorna locked inside.
“Whatever happened,” we told her, “we’ll deal with it together.”
When the door was finally unlocked, we found Lorna sitting on the edge of the bathtub, her skin the same colour as the porcelain. Unable to help ourselves, we glanced at her bare feet on the tile floor, observing the clear and precise outline of her bones.
“I think there’s something wrong with me.”
Carolyn knelt down by the edge of the bath, placed a hand gently on Lorna’s bare knee. Her skin felt slick and rubbery, cold to the touch. Lorna, trembling, pulled the hem of her skirt up to her hips and parted her legs.
From between the wet, pink folds of flesh slowly emerged something ridged and black, hooked and sharp as a knife.
“What is it?” asked Karen, ever the scholar.
“I think it’s a beak,” said Linda.
Lorna dissolved into tears.
The changes began to come more quickly after that. Lorna craved water constantly. When the water from our taps began to make her sick, Linda B brought home a hydrometer and jugs of marine salt mix from the biology lab on campus and filled up the bathtub. At first Lorna only slept in it, but soon she couldn’t bare to leave it at all. She kept us company while we brushed our teeth, sat on the toilet, took turns washing our hair in the sink. We never minded sharing the space: we told her jokes, whispered secrets, rambled on about school or bad dates or our plans for after graduation, just as we always had. Each day, each of us would lean over the edge of the bath and let her place her hands against the skin of our arms. Gradually, her bones dissolved into the rubbery flesh of her limbs, surprising everyone how strong they were when they rose out of the water to embrace us. Tiny suckers grew on the pads of her hands that left tiny red hickies on our skin wherever she’d touched us.
Her skin became poreless and pliant, then translucent as smoked glass. That part was the hardest, because of what it allowed us to see: the distorted outline of her spine as it shrank and shortened, vertebra by vertebra, until it was gone.
She showed us pictures on her skin, galaxies of colour and patterns, red and orange sunbursts when she was happy and deep indigo when she was feeling melancholy. And when we were sad, for her or for ourselves, she would reach out of the tub and coil one of her lengthening limbs around our arms, or lay a suckered finger against our cheeks, leaving her tiny red kisses, heart-shaped, upon our skin.
What would only seem miraculous in hindsight was what small aspects of her human form remained, long after they seemed like they should have gone. Her hair, perpetually wet but which Cindy combed and braided daily, didn’t begin to fall out until after she had become almost entirely boneless. When it finally began to come out strand by strand in Cindy’s comb, we were careful not to cry in front of Lorna.
We were baffled by how this, of all things, could seem so final.
Lorna ate rarely, which Linda assured us was to be expected, and she only ate when alone. She would take the fresh crayfish Linda brought home and pass them along to her suckers, hand to hand, but she wouldn’t take them beneath the water towards her beak until we were gone. We looked to Linda for an explanation, some factoid of Pacific cephalopod behavior or something that could justify any of this.
“I think she’s embarrassed,” Linda said, and we all burned with shame.
When summer came, after much discussion and even more divining of Lorna’s new, kaleidoscope skin, we moved her from the bathtub into a forty gallon plastic trashcan full of salt water. From there, we transported her to the campus marine biology lab to which Linda, recently accepted by a summer internship program, now had 24 hour access to.
We would sit with Lorna, just watching her colours change as she drifted lazily amongst the coral and algae, and the bright, flashing silver of the fish with whom she shared her tank. Sometimes we played music for her, and she would produce patterns on her skin in rhythm to demonstrate her delight. We would open her tank often and she would emerge to embrace us, leaving her wet, slick kisses on our skin. Sometimes she splashed water at us, turning a friendly, playful orange. At other times she surfaced slowly, reluctantly; her colour a muddy green.
“What if she’s unhappy here?” Carolyn asked, on a day when Lorna’s skin was as smoky grey as the artificial rocks that lined the bottom of her tank. “The tank is so small. How long can we keep her in there?”
As the days grew longer, graduation approached, and Lorna surfaced to embrace us with ever diminishing frequency. “Her hands haven’t changed yet,” Linda observed. This was true, something we had all noticed. Her front two tentacles still forked into five at their very ends, maintaining the loose and boneless shape of human hands.
As Lorna settled into her new form, we wondered if they would always stay that way.
At midnight, we carry her to the water. We take turns hefting the heavy, sloshing container, careful with it as a newborn babe. We drag it up onto the rocks, our hiking boots unsteady on the smooth, wet ground. We all look around for the best place to stop, until finally our flashlights converge on a wide crevice between two rocks, filled in by the lapping tide. We lower Lorna’s container into the crevice, until its lip is level with the water. We unsnap the lid, and Lorna extends an exploratory tentacle, flashes a happy crimson as she tastes the sea.
One at a time we kneel down before the parcel of ocean Lorna inhabits, letting her embrace us each one final time. Her kisses upon our cheeks we will cherish forever, even as they fade.
“Lorna” Carolyn whispers, as Lorna’s suckers pop softly against her face, tasting her warm salt tears. “We’ll never forget you.”
Lorna extends her six tapered tentacles into the ocean and slowly pushes herself over the lip of the container, out into the vastness of the open sea. Her two tentacles that still fork into five fingers, unique among all the creatures of the ocean, are the last to slide over the edge of the tub with a splash. They rise up out of the water just once before she departs, giving us a final wave.
For a long time afterwards, we wait there on the rocks, staring out into the ocean. Wondering if we will ever see her again.