David J. Coppola studied mass communications and journalism at New Jersey’s William Paterson University. Currently he continues to reside in the Garden State with his wife, in the wonderful town of Summit. Professionally he works as a video editor in television production, as he has done so for over a decade. With a penchant for visual storytelling he has always held a strong passion for writing. “The Missing Girl and The Moonfish” marks his second publication in Scarlet Leaf Review. As an avid boater and angler, David is always inspired by the mystery of what lies beneath our waters.
THE MISSING GIRL AND THE MOONFISH
Sophie Stoyle sure was an exceptional exception of a child—ten thousand miles beyond her time. At the young age of eleven, Sophie already stood at the top of her eleventh grade class. She also was blessed with an athletic gift that transcended the levels of a normal child. And that’s just for starters. Everyone who knew her agreed that she was the embodiment of strength, courage, ingenuity, and wit—equipped with the ability to decipher an ally from an outsider. Her gap-toothed smile and bright rosy freckles would light up the entire town of Evernsville in a second, even on the dreariest of days. The girl had a big mind and carried it with style and grace. Unquestionably Sophie Stoyle owned her childhood…but Sophie Stoyle had been missing for months.
“I can’t fathom it…not our Sophie…not one bit,” a search volunteer mumbled, lifting up the lower limb of an evergreen tree. “Ouch! Damn that stings,” he yelped when one of its protruding twig needles pricked the side of his hand. “I’ll never get used to it…Sophie…gone… vanished.”
There were many things about this situation the townspeople of Evernsville would never get used to—the prospect of never again being embraced by Sophie’s warmth registered high on the list. Search volunteers had lined up by the thousands when Sophie first was reported missing, putting aside their lives for the life of the community’s most beloved child—everyone’s best friend. Even state and federal law enforcement began searching for sweet Sophie. Every square inch of the town was scoured. No stone was left unturned. Bloodhounds had sniffed their snouts raw and worn out their puffy paws scratching through miles of earth. Helicopters with infrared technology had probed every mile of the surrounding evergreen forest to no avail.
The forest was magnificently vast—endless to the eye. Legend had it the earliest inhabitants coined the name Evernsville due to its infinite number of evergreen trees. On blustery days, the evergreens would meander their way through the forest in harmony, gently swaying back and forth with the changing winds—acting as the silent, inanimate guardians of the town; guardians who had lost a cherished child under their watch.
Thick red ribbons marked with Sophie’s initials were tightly wrapped to the base of many of the guardian trees. Above the ribbons were nailed pictures of Sophie with the plea: HAVE YOU SEEN ME? “SOPHIE”— PLEASE CALL 9-1-1.
Yet another illustration of the love the community had for the girl. Ribbons and signs flooded the forest. Sophie was everywhere, but after fifty-three days, was still nowhere to be found.
The only trace of the girl was a stunning gem-stoned bracelet, a gift from her mother Gwen, for her eleventh birthday. On the backside, an inscription read: You will always be my baby—with forever love, Mom.
Gwen, a single-mother, was so overcome by the agonizing stress of the situation, she lost her focus and footing during a search effort and cracked her head on the base of a tree. Lakeview Memorial Hospital was now her current dwelling, with an undetermined prognosis. Some say it was not the blow to the head that did her in, but rather a shattered heart. The nurses at the hospital consistently marveled at Gwen’s beauty. Her stunning waist length platinum blonde locks stood in stark contrast to the white-walled room. “She looks like a queen at rest—so beautiful,” they always commented.
Sophie’s bracelet was recovered on the outskirts of Lake Green, and it matched the DNA cross-referenced by forensics gathered from the Stoyle home. The only eyewitness account of what possibly occurred, was as follows:
“An ancient Japanese Shogun warrior hurdled up out of the depths of the lake, snatched the golden-haired girl with her beaming blue eyes, and dove head-first back into water. The lake then swallowed them both whole. I saw it clear as day.”
Well, as clear as a ninety-five year old in the early onset of late stage dementia could see. The only account given came from dear old Peggy Babbiyard. Peg, as everyone liked to call her, had a lakefront residence adjacent to the Stoyles. She had lived in her modest dwelling on Lake Green for over sixty years. It was there she had raised her two children. Unfortunately they had long since moved away—as had her ever-depleting mind. “I’m a grieving widow,” she would often murmur, although it had been over fifty years since her husband had passed.
Peg took her medications regularly, but they were becoming ineffective. Hallucinations and extreme confusion abounded, and there were large and frequent gaps in her memory. Sometimes she could not recall her address, but as is the case with this debilitating disease, there were times when she was quite lucid. In short stints, she could hold a conversation, as well as discuss current events. On most occasions, however, she seemed completely lost, her gaze focused on the television screen. Yet, once in a while what she watched was not lost on her. It depended on the day and the hour.
For her age, she was still very beautiful. Her hair was a soft, silvery, lush white, and her eyes were a shimmery green. Beneath the wrinkles and patchiness of her skin, and below her furrowed brow was a hint of a woman who many decades ago turned many a head. Most days, she donned a grin that said more than she could now verbalize: I’ve lived a damn good life and I’m very proud of it.
For the better part of her days, Peg sat in a fuzzy retro reclining chair, her cane at her side, enjoying the impressive view of Lake Green; a view she adored, even if her own mind could no longer process it. As for her inquisitors…regardless of how hard they pressed, she stuck with her unfathomable story of abduction, even if her account of events held no water with anyone.
Spring had brought with it stunning foliage, a welcoming end to the lifeless days of winter. Lake Green was especially gorgeous that morning, reflecting the glorious evergreens that quietly surrounded it. A soft breeze rippled the water, prompting the subtlest of sounds. The clouds above crouched so low to the trees they seemingly touched them.
Contrary to the serene scene was the loud noise of flapping wings. A flock of Ospreys, Blue Herons, and Ring-billed Gulls had just returned from their southern respite. The skim ice of the lake had finally melted, and the race was on for a meal as the small baitfish migrated to the tops of the water. The soaring herds flew with an acrobatic precision, patrolling the waters with fearless grace, attempting to alleviate the day’s hunger. The fascination of late, however, was not in their dauntless and defying flight patterns, but rather in the change of their vocalization. Their once magnificent call had morphed into a dismal and dreary song. Perhaps the realization that Sophie was no longer present had crossed beyond the human condition. This came as a shock to the horde of captains whose boats now drifted around the lake, but it shouldn’t have, for this change in melody was part and parcel to the times—the now all too familiar knowledge that a sweet little girl was lost. Sophie’s disappearance overshadowed something truly incredible occurring in the heart of Lake Green; a tight-lipped lore told strictly amongst the fisherman.
The water temperature had been relatively low, as had the amount of recorded catch. It was something unrecorded, however, that held the conversation amongst the anglers—the miraculous sighting of a Moonfish, also known as an Opah. Apparently she was navigating her way around the lake, and had supposedly broken off countless lines, snapping even the strongest of rods. Many fishermen claimed to have seen her surface. Calls to the Marine Biological Association fell on deaf ears. The standard reply was that such a happening was a “biological impossibility,” as it is impossible for such a fish to reside in this type of aquatic environment.
Moonfish were the first warm-bloodied species of fish known to man. Their body temperature is higher than their surrounding water, thus they are normally found diving through the wild depths of the cold open ocean, not in the tranquil waters of lakes. Lake Green, being a runoff of the Lynx River, was somewhat brackish, but far too modest was its salt content, and its depths much too meager to harbor such an extraordinary species.
A Moonfish in itself was an anomaly, for it flaps its pectoral fins to maneuver unlike most fish that undulate their bodies. Further, the Moonfish’s capacity to increase its temperature allowed for keen visual resolution and neural conduction. If this rare breed had made the journey from the deep ocean to a lake—which could not possibly harbor it—not only would it be considered an anomaly, it would be history’s most marvelous maritime feat.
The Moonfish phenomenon had escalated as of late. She toyed with her counterparts, but none had captured her, alas her existence remained questionable. Lou Nickerson, the captain of The Agelong Angler, was the first to report the Moonfish. Weeks ago, he asserted that he saw her surfacing. He was familiar with the species from running tuna trollers in the Pacific as a younger man; claiming the fish was female based on the shape of its fins. Retired and nearing seventy years of age, Lou’s days of trolling the Pacific were as far behind him as the distance this fish would have miraculously traveled. Though moving on in years, Lou’s hands were still strong and his fingers were nice and wide from decades of angling.
“Moonfish!!” Screamed scores of captains from numerous boats scattered around the lake. “Moonfish!!”
Lou’s steady thick hands now trembled, and his rod was bent so awkwardly it was on the verge of splitting in two. He was finally getting the chance to substantiate his claims by landing the so-called big fish. Lou deftly angled the bent rod toward his right shoulder in an attempt to gain leverage, as the fleet of captains looked on with awe. Lou was the most skilled fisherman in Evernsville. If anyone could land this fish, it was good old Lou.
The tip of his rod began to dance. The elusive Moonfish was making her move. Lou attempted to tighten his pull on his ever-bending rod, but the spool of his reel began dumping line ten feet by the second.
“Moonfish!!!” Boomed the surrounding captains. “Moonfish!!!”
Lou opened the bail of the reel to let her run, and within a few seconds the line fell slack, giving Lou his chance at capture. He flipped his bail shut and let the tip of his rod down toward the water. Ever so slowly he reeled, waiting for tension, one slow turn after another. Lou was marked with patience—patience learned through experience.
“You got her Lou!” Shouted a nearby captain.
He methodically raised his rod up as the tip bent forward under the stress of her brute force. He felt his shoulders buckling and his hands shaking from the steady resistance of the monster fish, so he reeled as swiftly as could be. A flock of birds dove sharply over his head, calling out wildly and ominously, adding to the dramatics of the moment.
After a handful of revolutions, the clockwise motion of Lou’s reel slowly ceased. His mighty hands were no match for the powerful Moonfish. As the rod tip dipped further down, they quivered under the stress. He could no longer turn the reel. Silence enveloped the lake. The breeze, too, had died off, as if wanting to center its attention on what was about to happen.
His rod shattered in two, the upper portion launching off the side of his stern and into Lake Green. A befuddled Lou Nickerson stood with half a rod in his hand, attempting to process the mesmerizing event. Just like that, the fish was gone.
Ryan Easley, the middle-aged captain of The Wise Man, had the best seat in the house. His boat had been closest to the awe-inspiring event. Ryan hadn’t nearly the years of angling under his belt as Lou, but he had enough time behind the helm of his own fishing boat to appreciate the gravity of the situation. He shrugged his shoulders in Lou’s direction, dropped his boat into to gear, and slowly retreated.
“Can’t win ‘em all Lou!” Ryan called.
“You sure the hell can’t,” Lou woefully replied. “But that’s some fish down there…wherever she is.”
Ryan shot Lou a respectful nod, then slowly turned starboard away from the small flotilla. When he created a safe enough distance apart from the other boats, he geared up his throttle and steadied out, his wavy, thick brown hair softly blowing in the wind. With his bow now on plane, he cruised The Wise Man along the shoreline, admiring the breathtaking view as he made his way around Ava Island.
The houses on Ava Island were beautifully poised along a hilltop, every house an original. The trees that grew there were even more impressive. Ryan had never seen such artistic looking oak trees. The branches were so long reaching that they connected with those of neighboring trees, thus creating a ceiling for the surrounding homes. The vista from his helm and the dusting of fog made for an enchanting scene.
The hum of the boat’s engine lulled him into a trancelike state, and his mind drifted to thoughts of his time on Lake Green. It hadn’t even been two years since the horrific commuter train crash that had taken both his wife and daughter; a tragedy of epic proportions that forced him into early retirement, and a subsequent relocation from the city. The move had helped some, but morose thoughts plagued Ryan’s waking and sleeping hours. Memories of his beautiful wife and daughter ate at the very core of his soul. Time had not yet healed his wounds. He was deeply saddened when Sophie vanished. Her disappearance was a constant reminder of the loss of his daughter, Hope, and how his perfect life had been torn from him without warning. He was lost without his family, and when he had found out Gwen was a single mother, he did his best to help with Sophie. The house he purchased was wedged between the Stoyle residence and the home of Peg Babbiyard, and he and Gwen had formed a nice bond of friendship.
Upon approaching a fillet station, Ryan slowed his course. He moored The Wise Man, cleaned some striped bass he had caught that day, and cooked up a meal on the public grill. Then, as a good neighbor would, he headed back down the north shoreline toward the Babbiyard residence to give a good old lady a good old meal.
Ryan entered through the kitchen door. Checkerboard linoleum tile creaked beneath his feet, and ancient dim fluorescent tube lighting flickered above his head. Peg’s home was very well kept, but there were partitions of it that were purposely not updated to reflect a vintage feel. “It’s like walking through a museum,” visitors would often affectionately remark. There was nothing affectionate, however, about the waft of urine emanating from the living room. Peg must have had an accident.
“Brought you some dinner,” Ryan said as he walked in, ignoring the odor. “In the mood for the catch of the day? I’ll warm it for you, if you’d like.”
“Ehh! Ehh!” She grunted, unresponsive to his question.
A faint bit of fluorescent light cast from the kitchen only partially illuminated the area around her, so Ryan ventured into the living room with caution, hoping he was not walking into a problematic scene. His fears were allayed when he made out her figure sitting comfortably in her favorite chair.
“Want me to turn on some more light for you?” he asked loudly. He had made the assumption a long time ago she was hard of hearing. “I can barely see you, Peg!”
“Ehhhh,” she moaned.
He was getting the feeling the dementia had gotten the better of her today.
“I’ll just leave the fish in the fridge. I noticed on my way in, Meals On Wheels left a nice turkey dinner with fresh veggies. You can sub out the turkey for fish and use the poultry for a nice sandwich tomorrow.”
The sound of rain began to gently patter against the window followed by a roar of boats, but neither the sounds, nor Ryan’s delicious meal suggestions seemed to be lifting Peg out of her comatose state, so he decided it was time to leave. He glanced at her one last time, but her eyes were glazed. As he turned to go, Peg grabbed his arm and pulled him back around.
“Oh my God! Are you okay?” Yelled a startled Ryan.
It took her a moment, but she finally responded in a gruff voice, “I’m fine Ryan. Set the fish down on the kitchen table. I’ll take you up on that offer…ehh, can’t pass up the catch of the day, now can I?”
Ryan was stunned. Never had he seen Peg drift in and out this rapidly. While he was tending to the fish, Peg called out from the living room.
“When you’re done in there, come back in and have a seat.”
Filled with curiosity, Ryan made his way back into the dimly lit room, and took a seat on the sofa. The patter of rain suddenly turned into a loud downpour that violently banged on the gutters. The scene was set, and Peg propped herself up on the arms of the chair, motioning for Ryan to move in closer.
“That day, Ryan…that day the girl went missing…I…I…saw the whole thing happen with my very own eyes.”
“I know Peg, you already told the police the whole story.”
“I’m gonna tell it again, this time to you,” asserted Peg. “And you’re going to listen and listen good.”
Ryan was both intrigued and taken aback by the old woman’s demeanor.
“The ancient Japanese Shogun rose up from the lake, powering high through the air. He appeared suspended there. His steel sword was draped over his arm. It was ensconced in a metallic sheath. It was rainy out that day. Water drained off his black Kimono robe, and his eyes glowed like two silver coins in the mist. He glanced toward me with a narcotizing gaze before silently landing by the water’s edge. He took the inquisitive girl by surprise, but did so in a way that would not harm a hair on her head. Then, just like that,” she said, snapping her finger, “he launched himself back up into the air with the girl in hand, and plummeted down into the depths of the lake without creating a ripple. It was a silent abduction and escape…one she never saw coming.”
After hearing the account first hand, Ryan felt it even more preposterous than the trickled down version told around town.
“That’s quite the narrative, Peg,” Ryan said, patting her gently on the leg. “Why don’t we call it quits for today. I’ll stop by tomorrow to see how you’re doing.”
She remained as still as a statue, unresponsive to Ryan’s comments. Her eyes once again signifying her mind was now distant. Ryan made his way toward the kitchen exit. As he reached for the door handle, Peg’s voice called out.
“You need to catch the Moonfish, Ryan,” she uttered eerily from her chair.
How could she know about the Moonfish? He silently questioned, his heart nervously palpitating. That was a lore told in a very tight circle. Peg hasn’t left this house in months, and her mind is not with her most days. It isn’t feasible for her to have stumbled upon this information!
He hurried back to confront her, but Peg spoke first.
“I know much of the Moonfish, Ryan. Slippery son of a gun, isn’t she?”
Ryan’s eyes widened and Peg let out a laugh.
“But…” he tried to respond, but now he could only manage a grunt.
“Hush now,” she placed a finger softly over her lips. “She has come a long, long way, Ryan. Do not let her journey be for not. She is here to help.”
“Help? Help with what?” Frantically inquired Ryan.
He couldn’t believe he was having this conversation. It felt surreal.
“Not with what Ryan, with whom. She is here to help you find the girl. Catch the fish, and you will find Sophie.” Peg aligned her hand with the window, and dramatically traced a large circle in the air. “Catch…the Moonfish.”
Ryan couldn’t sleep a wink that night. He tossed and turned, desperately attempting to alleviate the sensation of his pulse pounding against his pillow. How could this be? He kept wondering. There is no way she could have known about the Moonfish. Peg Babbiyard hasn’t known much of anything since the dementia took control of her life, so there is no way she could know about a hushed lore...or could she?
Ryan started to question the seemingly unfathomable: Had Peg taken control of his mind? Was dear ole’ Peg somehow supernaturally speaking the truth? Her words combed through his head: “Catch…the Moonfish.”
As if possessed, Ryan headed out to his dock and started up his boat, surmising he must crazy. Next thing you know, I’ll be having a run in with a Japanese Shogun. The sky cleared and the rain had washed off. The full moon was both magnificent and massive that evening—close enough to touch. It illuminated the water so brightly that it was difficult to discern if nightfall was actually upon him. The stars radiantly sparkled in a then cloudless sky, making the scene all the more alluring.
He could feel the strength offered by the pull of the moon’s gravity. What an excellent night to mix it up with a Moonfish, he thought with a lack of sanity. Within moments of starting the outboard motor, Ryan was under the Montrose Bridge, and fast approaching the deeper reaches of the lake. The depth was about sixty feet when he turned off the engine and set adrift.
Just me, the moon, and an old lady’s tale, thought a pensive Ryan. Really, what was the harm in catering to her story? Since the loss of his family, he hadn’t had the drive to chase much of anything. Who cares if it was a wild fable? No harm, no foul. But…what if it was the unalloyed truth?
He grabbed a fishing rod, hooked on a herring for bait, and cast out into the open water. Upon settling the rod down into its holder, he took a seat at the stern, keeping a close eye on the sonar, which was registering minimal movement. To his surprise, a flock of Ospreys appeared. It was strange to see birds out at this time of night. Even stranger, they were singing that eerie melody.
His lack of sleep was beginning to take its toll, so he decided a nap was in order. His eyes were at half-mast when he heard a splash in the water. He checked the line again, but it had not changed position. Another splash, louder this time, came from the same direction. Ryan swiftly pulled himself up from his seat and gazed outward. In the near distance, he saw something stirring atop the water. The breeze was advancing his boat closer to the disturbance, and he craned out his neck to get a better look. His heart almost stopped when he realized the object was Sophie.
Ryan managed to catch both his breath and body before tumbling overboard. He hovered near the boat’s edge. It was indeed, Sophie, but just a semblance of her, an outline. Only her face was silhouetted in the moonlight. She was smiling, her freckles gleaming and churning about her bright visage. She was also talking, but without a voice. Naturally his first inclination was to save her, so he reached out his hand, but the alarm on the sonar blared, forcing his attention elsewhere. When he turned back toward the water, there was nothing but a fleeting memory of Sophie. Was it just a dream? Wondered a still sleepy Ryan.
The alarm continued to blast, fully awakening him. Tonight would be dreamless.
He swiftly disengaged the device, and scrupulously studied the sonar. It indicated there was a very large image fifteen feet under the boat. The illustration on the screen substantially increased in size as the object came closer to the surface.
“Probably just a school of bait…unity is strength,” Ryan said aloud, attempting to convince himself of this truth.
Simultaneously the image on the sonar vanished, and the one rod he had out doubled over, its reel screaming as yards of line spooled off of it at the pace of light. Ryan needed no more convincing.
“Time to scuffle with a Moonfish!” Exclaimed Ryan.
It felt like the weight of the world was tugging at his line. He glanced over both shoulders to see if any night fisherman were on the lake that would corroborate these fantastical accounts, but he was alone—just a man…and perhaps a wayward Moonfish, under a starlit sky. The tip of Ryan’s rod was bent awkwardly down toward the water, and he fought to keep the rest of the pole as tight and straight as physically possible.
The screech of the reel suddenly ceased, with plenty of line remaining on the spool. Simultaneously two thoughts formed in Ryan’s mind: Has she given up? Maybe this wasn’t a Moonfish. Whatever was on the end of Ryan’s line had not given up, but rather was swimming toward the boat! He reeled up slowly as the enigmatic entity on the other end cooperated, and with each gradual turn, he felt it getting closer. He heard a loud splash and something immense began to emerge. It was closer than he thought, for a mist was spraying against his face.
Just as suddenly as the thrashing had started, it stopped, and all went silent for a moment. Then the entity began to swim lackadaisically toward Ryan, who reeled in what was left of the line. The moon’s light revealed a massive image. This was truly an event of monumental proportions. Treading water right in front of him, on one side of her scales, was the magnificent Moonfish!
Ryan could not believe what he was witnessing. He struggled with the reality of the situation, but the truth was the Moonfish, in all her glory and beauty, was gracing him with her presence. She was shaped like the moon itself, and seemed almost as grand. Her huge black eyes shown brightly, and her immense circular body was a bright radiant orange dappled with large sparkling white opaque spots. Her fins were shaded a much darker orange, one of which was still flapping, stabilizing her position. It was almost as if she was waving at him.
“Oh my God,” Ryan gasped. “Look at that eye!”
It was with her large eye that the Moonfish saw something from her waterside vista…an opportunity. With the hook still protruding through her mouth, she did what a Moonfish had the uncanny ability to do—she dove. Flapping her fins deftly, she plummeted straight down with a laser focus, and disappeared into the deep. This was a problem for Ryan, as he was still grasping the rod. Something had to give, and sure enough it did.
Ryan was no match for the Moonfish. His line tightened, and he unwillingly followed her headfirst into the water. The lake temperature was so frigid that Ryan’s body immediately numbed. His initial reaction was to release the rod from his hand, but there was something forcing him to grasp it—something unnatural. As his body descended deeper, he could see the Moonfish swimming ahead, her mouth still hooked on the end of the line, thus forcing the two of them further down into the depths that Lake Green had to offer.
They whizzed through a startled school of striped bass. The spooked school frantically scattered in every direction, unnerving an already rattled Ryan. The Moonfish was brimming with steam and vigor, and her giant heart rapidly pumped energy throughout her streamlined body. Man and fish were in an out of control tailspin, and as they neared the lake’s bottom, the last vestige of luminescence dissipated. Everything was black as pitch.
Ryan could still feel himself being pulled lower, but could no longer see. Panicking he released the remaining oxygen from his burning lungs. A sense of lightheadedness prevailed as the last remnant of air bubbled out from his nose. Will I suffocate, or be killed by the impact? Ryan pondered. He was about to lose consciousness when he glimpsed a bright light.
Ryan couldn’t gauge how much time had passed. There was no way for him to discern minutes from hours. His eyes were closed, but a flickering of light bedazzled his eyelids, and he wearily opened them. The bright light morphed into a kaleidoscope of flashing colors—blue, green, and purple hues pulsated inside a conical shape. He was being ripped through a vortex of sorts, and dizziness overtook him. The odd thing was that he could once again breathe, and gratefully took in a gasp of air to replenish his starved lungs. While scanning the area, Ryan noticed that he could see space and stars. He was baffled by this bizarre spectrum, and soon realized they were no longer in the water.
I’m in some kind of a wormhole…in…in space. I’m in space! Marveled Ryan. He hadn’t been speaking aloud, but his thoughts had somehow echoed throughout the tunnel, resounding loud enough for the Moonfish to sense it. She turned back and glimpsed Ryan, a rod still fused to his hand. The Moonfish negotiated the light-filled vortex like she had been traveling in it her whole life, serving as the lodestar of this boundless passageway through untold dimensions.
In the far distance, Ryan caught sight of a woman sitting on the edge of the vortex. From his vantage point, she appeared miniature. She must be light years away, thought Ryan. Although silent, his thoughts once again echoed around the tunnel. Mere moments later, much to the astonishment of Ryan, as he was certain a world separated them, the big fish approached the solitary figure. She was dressed in a red dinner gown embroidered with a floral design, and had infinite reams of the most breathtaking flowing platinum blonde hair…but she had no face. Tears streamed down where a face would have been, secreting in a continuous loop. The woman inquisitively turned her head toward her new visitors. They had sparked her curiosity.
“Where am I? Ryan, is that you? Did you find Sophie?” Inquired the woman.
The faceless woman’s tears increased, symbolizing a visceral emotion. A single droplet somehow freed itself, and now hovered laggardly into space. Ryan was transfixed. It seemed inconceivable, but he recognized her.
“Gwen! Gwen Stoyle?”
The woman reached out her arms toward him, her tears frenzying into the unknown. Unfortunately the Moonfish pulled Ryan away before she could reach him.
A frantic Gwen pleaded, “Rescue Sophie! Please, I beg of you! I will find my way back…that is a promise!”
The Moonfish blasted through the vortex at an even faster clip than the previous excursion. She was working her fins like a thoroughbred thundering down the stretch. A loud sound like the roar of jet engines on a tarmac suddenly filled the space, the high throttled sound increasing until it was unbearable, forcing Ryan to release the rod from his hand. When the connection was severed, the Moonfish disappeared into a white light.
The sound was torturing Ryan’s ears, and he covered them in an attempt to assuage the pain. Without the Moonfish steading a course, Ryan aimlessly drifted off like a rogue meteor. Both the pressure of sound and his velocity surged, propelling his knees into his chest. When the vortex destabilized, Ryan closed his eyes and crouched into a ball of nerves.
A disoriented Ryan forced open his pale blue eyes, and took in the large room in which he had landed. With its endless rows of inclined seating, it looked like a massive theater, except it lacked the token screen and walls. He gathered he was still in space, for the stars served as the ceiling. Upon closer inspection of the room, Ryan observed an inordinate amount of humans—some strapped to the chairs, with tiny metal electrodes attached to their heads, and others lethargically milling about the ground level of the room speaking in low tones.
“Where in the hell am I?” Questioned Ryan.
A voice interrupted him, “Shhh…keep it down.”
Ryan couldn’t believe who was standing beside him wearing a most serious expression—an ancient Japanese Shogun! He should have trusted in the fact that Peg Babbiyard would never tell a lie. Just as she had claimed, the Shogun was attired in a black Kimono robe, a steel sword encased in a metal sheath at his side. Ryan also noticed his long black hair was tied at the nape of his neck, and his face was narrow, centered with a sharply angled nose. After the events of the evening, nothing surprised Ryan anymore, but if Peg’s story were true, this Shogun had kidnapped Sophie. Ryan quickly scanned the room, but she was nowhere in sight.
The Shogun spoke with a heavy accent. “To answer your question sir, you are in The Web, in a dimension known as Cartha—a place hidden amongst the galaxies.”
That explains the wormhole, Ryan thought, relieved that his thinking was no longer met with an echo.
“But why am I here?” Inquired a weary Ryan.
“That I do not know, but I do know this is called The Web because it feels…it senses. But it is not a dwelling commanded by an arachnid, but rather by that,” exclaimed the Shogun as he whipped his arm out and pointed toward the higher level of seats.
Floating in the distance was something disturbingly unhuman; a ghastly apparition with no legs or arms, and crooked yellow-lit eyes that were disproportionate to his colossal shape. The grey-hued phantom hovered over a bound victim, his devilish eyes fixed in a narcotizing gaze, forcing the restrained target into a hypnotic state.
“He is called The Shadow Gray,” explained the Shogun. “He summons people from all walks of life…people with strong minds. Upon capture, a “session” ensues during which he attaches metal discs to the head of the abductee and siphons valuable mental energy. This occurs in a looped rotation amongst us all. It is with that energy that he sustains The Web, a place for him in which to exist. People have tried to fight against The Shadow Gray, but he consistently terminates those who oppose him, by destroying their psyche. There are examples of his victories strewn about The Web, serving as reminders that he cannot be crossed. Once you are trapped here space slows your aging process and you serve as a prisoner of mental energy. I have been trapped here for eons with my daughter Vanna.”
“How do you know this to be true?” Queried Ryan.
“The Shadow Gray reiterates the story to us in the midst of our daily “sessions” utilizing his mind-bending subconscious power, all the while drawing from our mental vigor. Actually it’s more brainwashing than truth, but still as potent,” confided the Shogun. “Oh, there is one other thing.”
“For God’s sake, what?” Demanded Ryan, desperate for more answers.
“The Shadow Gray did not always command The Web. Many millennia ago, other rulers presided that used its mystical powers for good. Unfortunately those leaders have since past, thus allowing The Shadow Gray to hold nefarious occupancy. However, The Web has a mind of its own, and despises its new commander. Every now and again, it summons someone to spite The Shadow Gray. Maybe that is where you come in...um, I never did get your name.”
“Ryan…my name is Ryan.”
“Ryan?” The Shogun scratched his head in thought. “Ah yes, it all makes sense. The Web must have summoned you for Sophie.”
“Of course,” the Shogun confirmed, pointing her out in the distance. “Brought her here myself. She’s the brightest mind of the bunch. Her mental strength is beyond compare. The Shadow Gray could not summon her by his own means, so he forced my hand, threatening to kill my daughter, if I didn’t help. The Shadow Gray is a venomous creature, Ryan. Please understand that I had no other choice.”
Ryan wasn’t sure what or whom to understand anymore. The Shogun once again pointed out Sophie. She was seated amongst the vast crowd of prisoners. Her eyes were glazed, and she looked tired and worn, but it was Sophie.
“Oh my God, Sophie!” Cried Ryan.
“Silence...you’re drawing too much attention,” commanded the Shogun, raising a hand, and moving closer to Ryan so his speech would remain undetected. “Listen carefully, we haven’t much time. The Shadow Gray is almost done with his session. Sophie thinks you are a kind man. She has told me all about you; how you helped her mother care for her. She is bright enough to know how difficult it is for a single parent. Sophie also told me of your tragedy—the sudden loss of your wife and daughter. She must have heard Gwen talking about it. This type of unspeakable hardship that you endured can open the door between the life you are in and life in other forms, perhaps not wide enough to pass through, but wide enough to make you more sensitive to matters of the supernatural. You were an easy mark for The Web. Those who are close to death are also more susceptible to the unexplained, hence, the reason Peg was able to witness the abduction. Please believe me, it was not your run of the mill abduction—quite the opposite. Nevertheless she must have told one hell of a story down there.”
“She certainly did,” Ryan corroborated.
The Shogun pointed up to the remarkable celestial ceiling where the stars churned. “Sometimes up here, things have a funny way of interconnecting. Up here, tomorrow is today, and so the message is clear: In this very moment, Sophie is in need of a parent, and you are in need of parenting.”
The Shogun’s narrative was persuasive, but many questions were still unanswered for Ryan. “If I am here for Sophie, what good is it if we are trapped together in a hell above Earth?”
The Shogun then realized the alignment of stars had signaled a new purpose for him as well. “I am offering you a trade, Ryan.”
“A trade?” Asked a perplexed Ryan.
“I will trade my life for the life of my daughter,” offered the solemn Shogun. “Take Vanna back to Earth, and I will fend off The Shadow Gray long enough for the three of you to safely return.”
“But…I don’t know how to get back, Shogun,” panicked Ryan.
“Well, how did you arrive?”
“I…I…arrived…well…I arrived by fish,” managed Ryan.
The Shogun placed his hand over Ryan’s shoulder. “You mean that fish?”
Ryan turned and saw the Moonfish. She was hurling herself through space toward them, her fins at full flap, a needlepoint hook still lodged in her mouth, and Ryan’s rod in tow.
“Take the girls and go…follow the fish…NOW!” Demanded the Shogun.
Ryan peered anxiously toward the seats, but failed to see Sophie. The Shadow Gray, however, had seen everything, and was coming toward them. Ryan froze as he felt a tug on his arm.
“I’m right here, silly. Can we please go home now?”
“Sophie!” Ryan gasped. Up close, she looked like her usual vibrant self.
The Shogun quickly shuffled his shy daughter, Vanna, who did not want to part with her father, to Ryan’s side.
“The time is now!” The Shogun implored. “GO!”
The Shadow Gray neared, ablaze with fury. His wrath of energy was palpable, and it agitated The Web.
“He will destroy you, Shogun!” Ryan yelled. “He’ll rip your mind apart!”
“During my time as a Shogun, I have witnessed eternity’s greatest and gravest battles, and this I know to be true: A warrior is at his strongest when he is nearest his demise. His final breath is the deepest of his life. I am now ready to take my final breath.”
The Shadow Gray was upon the four of them, encompassing them like a dreadful fog. As his elongated body overcame them, an abysmal sound arose, quickly increasing to an unfathomable level. The Shogun released his sword, for in this realm, it held no primacy. He looked directly into the eyes of The Shadow Gray, and steadied himself for battle. A mental war of attrition ensued, a ray of gleaming neon light connecting their eyes.
“Our ride is here!” Sophie announced, grabbing Ryan’s arms. The Shogun’s act of bravery had released them from The Shadow Gray’s stronghold.
Before Ryan could make sense of what was happening, the Moonfish rushed in—the fantastic fish’s hefty heart had once again outraced time in a timeless dimension. She swung around her aquatically gifted body and whipped the fishing rod straight at Ryan for him to grasp. The powerful Moonfish then lifted the linked trio off the ground, Sophie’s freakish strength became the hitch that held them all together. As they zoomed toward a bright circular glow in the far-reaching edge of the vortex, the pressure from the surrounding sound was becoming unreasonable, and what appeared to be greenish flakes fell softly from the ceiling.
“It’s diffused energy,” Sophie warned. “The Web is failing!”
The Moonfish persisted on toward the light, but her vigor and speed were waning, and the light seemed to be closing. The green flakes were transforming into a blizzard of violent energy, and The Web began to crumble all around them. The Moonfish pumped all she had left out of her exhausted heart, appealing to it for one final burst of power. While the extraordinary fish attempted the impossible, Ryan turned and glimpsed the Shogun off in the distance. The mighty warrior was dropped to one knee. Suddenly a barrage of forces caused Sophie to lose her grip on Vanna. The two girls frenziedly reached for one another as the vortex began to close…forever.
A flock of birds flew gracefully overhead, their pleasant melody ringing out under the clouds. Ryan awoke to find himself back on Lake Green, perched on the bow of his boat. It was daybreak, and the sunrise was utterly enchanting. It couldn’t have been a dream, ruminated Ryan. It was too real, too complex. He walked around the deck of the boat in search for the girls, but he was alone. He proceeded to survey the water.
“No!” he screamed, his echo emanating throughout the sleepy waterside town.
He had failed. He had failed everyone. The two girls remained in the interstellar abyss. Alas, the terrible misfortunes of his life persisted.
Ryan’s pity party was interrupted by a loud bang inside the locked storage compartment behind the seat of the front console. It escalated in intensity with each passing second. He was both frightened and reluctant to open the compartment. What the hell came back with me? His thoughts ran wild, for it had been proven that everything had the capability of existing up there.
Whatever was inside was about to come out. The impact of the blows had damaged the lock, and the door slowly opened, paralyzing Ryan with terror.
“Jeez, Ryan…what were you waiting for—another lap around space? Stuffy as heck in that lock box.”
“Sophie!” Ryan yelled with relief.
“Somewhere over the rainbow ain’t got nothing on us,” declared the witty girl.
She crawled out of the cramped storage compartment with Vanna in hand. Sophie’s ultra tight grip, once regained, had secured the younger girl’s passage through the vortex.
“Everyone always said… I’m stronger than I look,” informed Sophie.
Ryan laughed, and the newly aligned family shared a hug.
Out of the corner of her eye, Sophie noticed something breaking the top of the water on their starboard side, “Look, Ryan!”
As he turned, he was relieved to see it was the Moonfish. She smacked her tail fin in pride, splashing her onlookers. This morning marked the end of her magical journey through the sea and stars. She gave the trio one last glance with her big eye before swimming off toward the east shore.
“Where do you think she’s going?” Sophie asked.
“Home, Sophie…she’s going home. It could very well be that you haven’t been the only one missing.”
Jeffrey Webb is a teacher and writer from Charleston, West Virginia. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College. His stories and poems have appeared in such publications as The Pikeville Review, Red Mud Review, and The Charleston Anvil. He has also contributed to the blog at Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.