“There are one thousand eight hundred bolts total,” the old man said. “You’ll work every night until sunrise. Always go in order. Never skip a bolt.”
“Is that all?” Chaun asked.
They treaded water on the inside of the seawall, the old man twisting one of the giant bolts with sharp, seasoned movements.
“That’s enough, believe me. At first, mark where you left off for the next day, but a few times around and you’ll get to know them like your own family.”
Chaun looked at the line of cold metal bolts, doubting he could ever look on them the same way he did his young wife Lin or their baby, just born and brown as a chestnut. He had accepted this strange job to support them.
The seawall had been there for as long as Chaun or his parents or grandparents could remember. It created a u-shape around the bay, closing the city off from the ocean. Legend said that years ago the lock would open now and then to admit a ship full of ghostly white men who brought fabric and exotic meats and traded with the people of the city for rice and sweet fruits. But even the lock had been closed for a century or more.
When the sky lightened, Chaun and the old man pulled themselves onto the floating walkway that ran along the inside perimeter of the seawall. Chaun’s skin felt puckered from the water. The old man’s was wrinkled leather; a web of thick scars covered his legs.
“What will you do now?” Chaun asked.
They followed the floating walkway to a small office at the edge of the beach.
“I’m going up to the mountains,” the old man said, “to get as far away from the sea as I can.”
“Is there anything dangerous in the water?”
The old man was silent for a moment.
“Just—be cautious around bolt number 841.”
Before Chaun could ask what had made him so bitter, the old man handed him an envelope full of money. “Every morning, this will be waiting here.”
“So much, every day?”
“Every day,” the old man said. “No one knows what you do, but it’s the most important job in the city.”
The next night Chaun slid quietly out of bed, kissed Lin’s sleeping face and slipped on the wet suit he’d bought for his new job. It had cost most of his first payment, but he was young and afraid Lin would shy away from his touch if his skin became tough like the old man’s.
He started at bolt number one. It was difficult to swim with the tool, a heavy metal octagon that fitted over the bolts. A lever extended from one side and it took his full body weight to pull the lever and tighten the bolt. Each bolt was far enough apart that he had to swim several strokes between them.
By bolt twenty-nine, Chaun had developed a rhythm to his work. What began as tedium dissolved into meditation. He found peace in the repetition and the cold water that lapped around his body. When the rays of sun peeked over the top of the seawall he pulled himself back onto the walkway, marked his place on his waterproof map and went home to have breakfast with his family.
On the second night, he was jarred from his peaceful groove by a sudden boom: something crashing against the outside of the seawall. The reverberations knocked him backward. The water on his side of the seawall sloshed over the floating walkway. The boom happened once more and then stopped, and Chaun waited for the vibrations to fade away before he returned to his work.
“The ocean,” he whispered to the bolts. “The ocean waves.”
The water in the bay was always dull and steady, so he had never seen real ocean waves. He pictured the tiny waves in his child’s bathwater, imagined them magnified to a size that would require this metal seawall to protect the city.
During subsequent nights, he searched for a pattern to the crashes against the outer seawall, but found none. They came whether it was clear or raining, windy or calm. Some nights they did not come at all. The crashes bothered him less the more he heard them.
Chaun found he was getting stronger. He swam with more ease than he had since he was a child, and it took less effort to hoist the tool up to the bolts. With the money he earned, he bought a new bassinet from the mountain traders and Lin bought richer foods from the market.
One day he made it nearly to dawn in his peace. The sky was a deep purple-blue; he almost didn’t need his headlamp. He pulled the lever of his tool and was about to remove it to swim to the next one when he felt something move around his legs. He stopped and looked down. Yellow tendrils swam in the water. At first he thought it was the reflection of his headlamp, but then they solidified. Two bulbous eyes and sharp teeth appeared.
Chaun yanked the tool off the bolt and swam for the walkway. He pulled himself up, watching the water. The yellow tentacles disappeared back into the depths.
Chaun waited for the sun to brighten the sky a bit more. He checked his waterproof map. Bolt 841. He slid as slowly as he could back into the water and tightened the next several bolts.
He should have asked the old man more questions.
Lin nursed the baby in their kitchen and Chaun looked out the window. He could see the strip of calm beach with the seawall standing guard. There was nowhere in the city where one could see over top of it. Even if one climbed the mountains that bordered the other side of the city, the seawall would still dominate the horizon.
“I never noticed the seawall, really,” Chaun said, “It was always there, but I never cared.”
“Do you know what’s on the other side?” Lin asked. “Did they tell you when you were hired?”
“They told me nothing except how to tighten the bolts.”
“I think it would be exciting to go over to the other side. See the ocean, without any walls, just reaching out to infinity.” She stroked the baby’s dark hair. “I’d never go, of course, even if I had the chance. But I’m sure it would be sublime.”
Finally, Chaun reached the end of the seawall. Had he done in a few weeks what the old man had failed to do in forty years? He went to the office where he picked up his check to ask what he was supposed to do next.
“Start again at number one,” the guard said.
Chaun jumped in the water at the start of the seawall and checked the bolt. It was as loose as it had been on his first night. Looser, even. He tightened, swam, and tightened some more.
His meditation dissolved back into tedium. He slept more during the day, annoyed when the baby’s cry would wake him. His irritation grew the closer his nightly rounds brought him to bolt 841.
Nervously, he approached number 841 for the second time, pointing the beam of his headlamp into the water. No writhing, no teeth or eyes—not yet. He hefted the tool up to the bolt and began to turn.
A single spiny tentacle rose silently from the water and curled around the lever of his tool. Chaun froze. Another tentacle brushed the leg of his wet suit but he resisted the urge to kick. He waited, barely breathing, using his grip on the handle to keep his head above water. The tentacle slithered off the tool and slipped away.
Weeks later when he encountered 841, he nearly escaped with no encounter, but just as he turned the last rotation, he felt the prickly tentacles wrap around his ankle. He panicked, kicked, and swam for the walkway. He pulled his leg out of the water—and the thing with it. The yellow head dangled upside down. Its mouth stretched open to an unnatural size, showing jagged vampiric teeth. Chaun kicked again and the tentacle squeezed tighter; another snaked toward his other leg.
He hit the thing’s bulbous head with his tool, but the flesh gave and it seemed unharmed. He jerked his free leg away from the approaching tentacle and clawed at the one around his other leg. The fabric of his wet suit tore, his foot exposed. But then the thing suddenly slipped back into the water.
From then on, Chaun skipped bolt 841. With each rotation, he finished bolt 840, then swam to the walkway and walked to 842, giving the creature a wide berth.
It was after he had passed over it twice that the problems began.
Each time he restarted his cycle, the bolts were just as loose as when he’d last seen them, but this time, when he reached bolt 800, he had less to tighten. By 825, he noticed that the metal seemed strained, as if something were pushing on it from the outside. At 830, water trickled in. A tiny stream oozed from the seam in the metal, the gap not wide enough for a finger. It took him twice as long to tighten these bolts. He used all his strength to lever the tool and by the time the sun rose, he was as exhausted as he had been his first few nights.
The next evening he dreamt of water gushing through the seawall and flooding the city. He woke earlier than normal and came down to the seawall to find that his dream was not far from reality. Water dripped through the seam, and the gap around bolt 835 was almost large enough to fit his hand. He attacked the bolts with renewed vigor, determined not to let the water win. Had he really allowed in a few months what the old man had prevented for forty years?
“Never skip a bolt,” the old man had said.
It was all because of that damned octopus, Chaun thought. He remembered the scars on the old man’s legs, the shredded ankle of his own wet suit. Why should such a thing be allowed to live? Chaun reached bolt 839 that night, managing to seal the gap enough that the water barely trickled through. He would deal with the monster at 841 the next night.
Lin’s best kitchen knife was his weapon of choice. He lifted it from the drawer while Lin and the baby slept, broke the broom handle and tied the knife to the end of it. He held it above his head in the moonlight and felt a primitive power surge through his body. Chaun had never wielded a weapon before.
There were ancient pictures in the city museum of men in boats, in the time before the seawall, using weapons like this against massive sea animals. Chaun lowered his blade and began his trek to the seawall, resisting the urge to yell a primitive war cry to the sleeping city.
He went directly to bolt 841 and left his tool on the walkway. He would tighten nothing until the monster was dead. From the walkway he gazed down, his headlamp illuminating his own reflection on the surface of the calm water. How deep was the water here? At least as deep as the seawall was high, he guessed. He dipped the weapon, cutting the water with the knife. His reflection faded into ripples.
Nothing happened at first. Chaun made a few more splashes. He would jump in if he had to, but if he could summon the creature and stay on the walkway, he had the advantage.
His legs went out from under him before he realized the tentacle had snaked around his ankle. He hit the walkway with a painful thump and the weapon rolled out of his hands. Just before the tentacles pulled him into the water, he grasped the weapon and pulled it with him.
He thrashed in the water, stabbing blindly. Water poured into his nose; salt stung his eyes. The tentacle released. Chaun swam back to the walkway.
Chaun had just placed his hands to pull himself up when the tentacle resurfaced, wrapping around the handle of his homemade harpoon. He twisted the knife down on it. The dismembered tentacle flopped on the walkway like a grotesque fish and the stump slithered back into the water. He pulled himself onto the walkway and crouched there, hugging his arms around his knees, his chin on the harpoon handle. He saw the creature’s face beneath the water, the horrible human-like eyes, the menacing razor-teeth, but Chaun couldn’t move his limbs to deliver a blow. He shivered, and the creature disappeared.
He sat there until he stopped shivering. A steady waterfall poured through the gap at bolt 841. The neglected bolt stuck out nearly a foot away from the wall.
Once more, Chaun thought. He stirred the water with the tip of the knife again, watching more closely this time.
He saw the teeth first, the mouth stretched unnaturally wide. The teeth drew closer and then the mass of tentacles undulated around the face. Chaun aimed at its center and stabbed. He felt the weapon strike, and he pulled back and stabbed again. Tentacle tips rose out of the water in an obscene dance of surrender and he stabbed one more time. The water was cloudy and he could see no face or teeth. The tentacles sunk under the surface and Chaun sat back, gripping the weapon to his chest.
Then the crashes began. Just as he’d heard so many nights before, the violent crashing of a massive body against the outside of the seawall. The seawall shook and the volume of water from the gap increased. Chaun watched as the next crash jarred bolt 841 to a diagonal. It hung precariously from its last threads.
“No!” Chaun yelled.
The next crash dislodged the bolt. It splashed into the water.
He dove after the bolt, but the heavy metal sank and he couldn’t dive fast enough to save it. Another crash reverberated underwater and he felt dizzy with the shock of it.
Chaun resurfaced and swam for the walkway. He hefted the tool and frantically swam back to the nearest bolt to try to tighten it. Each new crash threatened to jar the tool out of his hands, send it to the depths like the lost bolt.
It was too much. The crashes came faster now, and stronger. The bolt he was working on slipped out, nearly knocking him on the head. Chaun swam for the walkway. There was a horrible creaking sound as the gap widened beyond repair. He looked back.
A single yellow tentacle protruded through the gap. Rough, spiny, and a hundred times bigger than the one that had wrapped around his ankle.
Chaun turned and dove off the walkway, swimming as fast as he could toward the beach.
The sky lightened with the first hint of dawn, and Chaun imagined Lin rising to the baby’s morning cries and looking out to see the city being consumed. The crashes continued and another metallic creak betrayed his failure. Maybe, Chaun thought, maybe he could get there fast enough to take Lin and the baby to the safety of the mountains.
He swam, and the seawall creaked again.
© 2013 Sarena Ulibarri.