5 min read

The Salty Abyss

Sometimes I know your heart is full of little arrows.

Previously: The sisters’ next job takes them to a smoky den called Cha-Cha’s where they get some fat envelopes from a bookie. Then Mina forces Batya to go into a mysterious chamber where…well, the chapter abruptly ended there. The author needs to get his act together, you ask me.

— 23 —

Batya passes through the curtain and steps into a domed rotunda with hundreds of little nooks set into the wall. Nestled inside each one is a small, weathered object: compass, monocle, poker chip, doll head, that sort of thing. The floor is a circular pool of glassy blue water, casting ripple reflections against the dome. Next to that is a little velvet stool and table.

Bat sits and waits. She fidgets. She tries crossing her legs in a normal way and can’t. She checks her breath. Not great.

She’s picking a bit of crab from her teeth when the water starts to bubble. She quickly drops her hand and sits up straight.

A creature emerges, slowly rising from the depths. First, the head—hairless, silvery, a little reptilian—and then the arms—too long, so long they make Bat’s scalp tingle—reaching out to grip the tiled edge of the pool and heave himself up. Then there’s the chest—hello—and then the abs—very nice indeed—and then the—Bat doesn’t want to use this word but it’s what pops into her head—the schlong.

He drapes his long silver body along the far side of the pool. He wipes some water from his face with his overlong fingers and then turns his ice blue eyes to Bat. He says, “Hey, what’s up.”

“Hello.” Face hot.

“They call me Cha-Cha.”

“Batya is my, uh, moniker,” she says, suave, instantly regretting it.

“Haven’t seen you before.”

“No, I—no. I mean, I’m from around, I just never…you know, never stopped by.”

“That’s cool. So how this works is you ask me something and I answer it.”

“Got it.”

“Actually, the sea answers it. All these?” He gestures at the trinkets in the crevasses. “I found them at the bottom of the ocean, in shipwrecks, floating around wherever. And so it’s all like…I don’t want to get hippy dippy, but it’s like they’re all the language of the sea. Like each of these things is a sound, or a syllable. And the sea is connected to everything, everywhere, right? So your answer is somewhere in here, somewhere between all these drowned relics.”

“Makes sense.”

“Not really. But it works if you let it work. Your sister gets a kick out of it.”

“How…do you know who my sister is?”

Cha-Cha shrugs. “The Salty Abyss whispers its tales, what can I tell you. Anyhow, she’s a regular.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“I know. You got your question?”

“I think?”

“How much did you give Darlene out front?”

“Twenty bucks.”

“OK, you’ll get a so-so answer. Fire away.”

“What if it’s dumb as hell?”

“I’ve heard ‘em all.”

Bat looks up at the domed ceiling, tries to think of something that will surprise and impress him, but no go. So she asks the question she asked herself a year ago, that night on the streets when she was utterly alone for the first time in her life.

“What should I be when I grow up?”

Cha-Cha sits up, stares at her in a way that makes her feel very exposed and very excited. Then he closes his eyes, and she takes the opportunity to commit his bod to memory.

He takes a deep breath, possibly through little slits behind his ears. Then he reaches an endless arm out toward the wall and plucks an item from one of the nooks and gently places it on the little table. It’s a rusted metal cylinder. An old lighter, Bat realizes after a moment.

He picks up another object, then another and another and another. He sets them in a row next to the lighter: a scallop shell, a cracked teacup, a scrap of netting, a small pewter box with a hinged lid.

He opens his eyes and looks them over. “You might think I selected these at random, and you’d be right.”

“What’s that?” Bat says, pointing at the last thing.

“A snuffbox, maybe?” He opens the lid and inside is a dead seahorse. “Oh, far out.”

“Why far out?”

“It changes the outcome a bit. All right, Batya Hull, here’s your answer.”

“You know my last name now?”

Cha-Cha does a sheepish ta-da flourish, then says, “Spice the dead, sustain the living.

Bat squints, trying to simulate a thoughtful expression. “Yeah OK.”

“I know, you were looking for something more concrete but, well, you know the ocean. She is fickle, she is fluid.”

Spritz the dude and—”

Spice the dead, sustain the living. I dunno, keep it in mind when you’re going through the want ads, maybe it’ll spark something.”

Back out at the bar, Bat enjoys a brunch cocktail (a local concoction called Suddenly Stop Caring) while Mina has her turn with Cha-Cha. She struggles to banish his physique from her mind and soon gives up the struggle. She finds herself already missing him. She could see dropping by once a week, just to say hi, see what he’s up to. He seems like a chill guy to hang out with, and maybe eventually he’d—

She spots Mina stumbling through the blue curtains, tears streaming down her face. Bat leaps from her stool, alarmed.

“What happened!”

“Nothing,” Mina says with cry-voice.

“Do I need to rough up that silver bitch because I will!”

“No, no, I’m fine, I’m good. My answer was really good.”

“The hell did you ask him?”

“That’s private.”

Bat lets the adrenaline cool down, tries to remember the last time she saw her sister cry, can’t. “At least tell me the answer.”

“That’s even more private.”

Bat gives Mina a hug, not really out of tenderness but to immobilize her with an iron grip. “Tell me the answer,” she whispers, “or you shall breathe your last.”

Mina laughs. “You are such a nerd. All right, fine. It was icicle.”

Bat releases her, studies her face. “Icicle.”

“It changes everything.”

“Icicle changes everything.”

Mina nods, sniffs, rests her head on Bat’s shoulder. “You really were ready to whup him, huh? You still want to protect me.”

“Yeah well I’m all you got, stupid.”

“That’s sort of what Cha-Cha said. You have a handkerchief?”

“Have I ever had a handkerchief?” Bat says, offering her sleeve.


This has been Chapter 23 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.

Next up: My Idiot Mitts