This story is by Sef Churchill and won the Grand Prize in our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Sef is a lifelong writer from the UK. She won a national writing award at age sixteen, and promptly did nothing about it. Nowadays, she writes fantasy and reimaginings of classic tales, and is active in the Write Practice community. On her website she offers wry creative guidance. She is currently working on her first book, a humorous fantasy.
The fatbelly glass of the porthole was a lot more interesting than worm pills for his fiancee’s dog. It drew Tom across the street to the junk store, his hands already out of his pockets.
It was the bulbous glass that did it. Tom, who usually shied away from new ideas, felt the spark of possibility in the porthole’s clouded bulge. The forty dollars in his jeans back pocket—dog-pill-dollars—throbbed like an incipient zit on his butt.
“You get the dog pills,” Keisha had said that morning. “I don’t get paid til Saturday.”
“It’s not my dog.”
“He’s our dog. Everything’s ours, now?” She flashed the ring. As always, he could not think how to answer that.
“How much?” he asked the junk store guy, now, and the dog dollars were gone. He paid for the pills with a check.
It took a long time to mount the porthole on the blank wall above his desk. He needed a large chunk of wood to hold the brass bolts, and then a wrench big enough to turn them. He sweated. The dog flopped on the carpet beside him. At last, he stepped back and admired his work.
He’d put it in a dumb place, he realized. Once cleaned, the porthole would give him a perfect view of a magnolia wall. He was even more stupid than the dog. “No imagination,” Keisha always said. She was right.
The dog groaned and gnawed at the dry skin on its back.
Tom sighed and looked at the porthole and saw his other mistake. He’d mounted it the wrong way round.
If he was on the ship—going on a fantastic journey, far from his crappy life—the glass would curve outwards, away from him. But it curved inwards, as if he was on the outside of the boat, trying to see in.
He took the dog pills out of his jeans pocket. “OK,” he said to the dog, holding out two pills in his palm. “Eat them.”
Of course the dog wouldn’t touch the pills. Tom sighed and closed his eyes. “Fine. Fine! I’ll grind them up.” He grabbed an abandoned cereal bowl, tipped the pills into it and smashed them up and put the bowl on the floor in front of the dog and said “Eat.” The dog looked mournfully at him. “Oh, I give up.”
He got a rag and began polishing the curved glass, smoothing away the cloud to make it clear, even if the view was only of the wall.
The view was not of the wall. It was of the sea.
He polished the glass a little more.
It was the sea, not the sea as viewed from inside a ship—a plateau of blue, a distant horizon, gulls following the wake—but the sea, underwater. This was the view from a submarine, dim, uncertain.
Tom frowned. Tapped the glass. It was cold. He touched his desk. It was warm under his fingertip—crazy hot summer—but the porthole glass was cool.
Then a fish with a dead-clown face swam up to the glass, and Tom yelled and stumbled back and kicked the cereal bowl and tripped over the dog. “Jesus—”
The dog didn’t even yelp.
Tom picked himself up and saw the empty cereal bowl and the dog, inert on the carpet. White froth lined the dog’s jaw. Its eyes were closed. That was a relief, the closed eyes, because the dog was dead.
The creatures in the porthole swam like fishes, but looked like heads with fins where the ears would be. The things were head-sized, and had dents for mouth and nose, and pale blue eyes veined with pink. Their skin was white and thick, and made Tom think of mushrooms. They kept swimming up to the other side of the porthole, and bobbing about in the circle, looking with interest at Tom.
He had nowhere to put the dog. He’d ground up the whole pack of pills, and the stupid dog had eaten them, not knowing any different. And now the dog was dead and he had nowhere to put it. He threw the bowl out of the window, but that still left the dog.
The porthole glinted in the sun from the window opposite. Tom hesitated.
There were those weird things in there. There was the sea in there. But still … He would say the dog ran away after he tried to make it take the pills. Keisha would blame him, for the running away, but that was a lot better than being blamed for—dog murder.
He unwound the handles on the porthole. Behind it, the head-mushroom creatures flapped excitedly.
He wondered if water would pour into the room—if the creatures would—but he gripped the handles. The porthole swung open.
The ocean stayed put, striated like jello cut with a spoon, wavering a little.
Tom drew a big breath, like a man going to court, and lifted the dog. Its legs flopped awkwardly, but he had started now. The creatures bobbed in the ocean like olives in aspic. Tom took the dog and shoved it into the porthole. He had to bend the tail over to stuff that in. The water-jello closed over the dog with a plop.
Tom slammed shut the porthole and wound up the handles.
The dog was squashed against the glass, very obviously right there, very obviously dead. He hadn’t thought of that. He’d thought it might—drift away. He cursed, in the heat.
But then—the dog opened its eyes. It gave a silent bark at Tom—a walk, at last!—and paddled away from the glass and back, its jaws open.
Tom backed away from the dog’s joy. Was he supposed to be horrified, or relieved, or what?
“Did you get the pills? Tom, where are you? What are you doing?”
Oh god. Keisha.
What if he unscrewed the porthole altogether and took it—
“Wait—” he called, and was still quivering in front of the porthole, and the dog, when Keisha walked in.
She saw the dog right away, of course, and it saw her. And she flipped.
He’d never heard such screaming. You’d think he’d cut her dog into little pieces. “Calm down,” he said. “The dog is OK, look. It’s swimming.”
Her mouth stayed open and screams kept coming out.
“Come away,” he said, “don’t look at it. I’m going to get rid of it—Have a drink, you need to calm down—”
She wouldn’t move. He tried to manhandle her down the office stairs but she went all stiff like the wretched dog going to the animal hospital and so he grabbed her and swung her bodily towards the door and she hit her head on the jamb and stopped being stiff and slumped in his arms like a burst boil.
From that moment on, he did everything wrong. Keisha was bleeding, and unconscious, so he moved her, realized that he ought to stop the bleeding, moved her again, remembered that you are not supposed to move an injured person, began to put her down but then thought, what is that recovery position?
His brain wouldn’t work and the dog kept silently barking at him, through the glass.
In the end he dropped Keisha and went downstairs to get ice, or his cellphone, or something. He threw open the back door and got a beer from the fridge. He stood a long time, much longer than you should stand if you have an injured girlfriend lying on your office floor with blood coming from her ear.
At last, after a Bud or two, he went up.
In the porthole, the dog had gone and the head-creatures were back. “Go away,” he said.
Keisha was dead. A little like the dog, in that it was obvious and horrible, and nothing like the dog, because she was a person. She was—had been—a person with parents who came round on Sundays and gave Tom a hard time about his business and a date for the wedding. And of course, there were his own parents, who would find out about Keisha, that he had met her, got engaged and now accidentally killed her, probably all in one phone call from a police cell.
He covered his face with his hands.
When he looked up again, there was the porthole.
Head first, that was the charm. In a perfect world she would have gone stiff, like she did before he—
He clenched his jaw. Keisha slid into the jello and Tom closed the porthole and thought, done.
The house seemed very quiet.
He knew, he hoped, that Keisha would be fine again soon, like the dog. What would happen if he let her back out? Would she be OK? Alive?
He thought about the head creatures.
He found the wrench and applied it to the porthole bolts. Maybe the junk store would still be open. His brain was beginning to work, now. But the bolts were stuck.
He would have to play dumb, probably for a while. Missing person report, all that. But then he’d allow himself to get over it, and life would go back to normal. As nightmarish as the porthole was, in a way it had solved all his problems.
—There was blood on the office carpet. He’d have to clear that up before the police came round. Blood, they’d be all over that. It was on the door jamb too.
He cursed and applied more pressure to the bolts. Nothing. Had they expanded in the heat?
A thunk on the glass made him jump. The damn dog again. Its limbs seemed to have shrunk. Now it looked like a dachshund, little stubby legs protruding from its body.
He jerked his gaze aside and kept on heaving at the bolts.
The doorbell rang. He ignored it. Here was the dog again. Now its legs protruded from its neck. Tom closed his eyes.
“Police!” came a man’s voice. “Hello, a neighbor reported a disturbance—” Then followed the kind of knocks made by someone with a right to come in.
Why wouldn’t the bolts undo?
“Around the back,” he heard.
The back door was wide open. Tom froze. What could he do, what could he say?
The ocean bulged, blue-green, in the porthole.
No. That was madness. Better to be in jail than—
Who was he kidding? A wife killer was one thing. A dog killer? They’d rip him to shreds.
“Smashed crockery,” said another cop, urgency in his voice.
Footsteps hastened towards the stairs.
Tom threw down the wrench. His fingers slipped and slid on the brass handles. Unwind, unwind. The door popped open, the thick glossy water bulged. Tom touched it with his finger. It was slick and cold, but not too bad. He had no other ideas.
He pinched his nose, took a breath, and went in—head first.