The dolphin appeared in a cloud of dust, a soft red bloom on the horizon that blossomed into a cyclone over the course of the day. Wade Walton spotted the arrival around noon from his perch at the motel’s front desk, where he briefly wondered if he might be seeing a mirage. He’d slept about three hours in as many days, and the world was doused in a sizzling, hallucinatory patina from which anything might emerge.
He passed the hours watching the glint in the distance transform into a white Cadillac, headlights emerging from the haze. By the time the car pulled into the motel’s lot, parking beside Wade’s rusted jeep under the busted sign bearing the motel’s name—Arcadia—the sun had already slunk to the earth’s edge, casting the landscape into sharp, dark fractals, more scorch than shadow.
Judging by the Cadillac’s condition—the gleaming rims hugging the tires, the creamy paint untroubled by nicks and dents—Wade expected a prospector. One of those overbearingly gregarious Texas types, who arrived every couple of months in beige suits and crocodile-skin loafers, surrounded by anxious interns stumbling beneath boxes of delicate machinery, certain they’d find untapped aquifers below the cracked and splintered bed of Eden Lake, as though a hundred men and women hadn’t paraded through the valley before them, burning their pale skin pink in search of liquid gold.
But it wasn’t a prospector who stepped out of the Cadillac. It was a dolphin. From the neck up, anyways. It was wearing pleated blue jeans, a pearl-buttoned denim shirt, and crisp brown cowboy boots, their unscuffed hides proof of recent purchase. If it weren’t for its face—the long snout curled into the rubbery suggestion of a smile; the perfectly round black eyes—and its robotic limbs, which hissed as it stepped through the door, Wade might have mistaken it for one of the tourists who’d stayed in the motel fifty years ago, another humble Ohioan lured west by the novelty of swimming in the middle of the California desert.
“Room for one,” the dolphin said, the square speaker strapped around its throat delivering the words in a soft, genderless monotone. “Two nights, please.”
“Can I get a name?”
The dolphin emitted a series of squeaks and clicks.
“How do you spell that?”
The dolphin’s face registered no offense. Wade didn’t think it could, given its rigidity. It had no eyebrows to furrow in frustration, no lips to turn down in disappointment—just a perpetual smirk that seemed to mock any attempt at translation.
“You may call me Verne.”
“Is that Mr. Verne, or?”
“Mr. Verne, yes.”
Wade asked for a credit card, and the dolphin, Verne, removed a Visa from a leather wallet. Wade marveled at the dexterity of the dolphin’s metal fingers, how easily they slipped the card free and slid it across the Formica counter. He understood, from what he’d seen on the news, that the appendages were connected, via a complicated network of sensors, to Verne’s spinal column. Under the dolphin’s clothes, Wade knew he wore a rigid harness, which held his head in a forward position and housed the delicate machinery necessary to operate his limbs.
They stood in awkward silence while Wade typed Verne’s information into the motel’s dusty desktop, which creaked in protest with each click, as though perpetually confounded by Wade’s insistence it continue to process information. Every question Wade could think of to jump-start conversation—What brings you to Eden Lake? How long have you lived on land?—seemed accusatory, so he didn’t say anything, listening instead to the computer’s complaints and the faint bubbling of the miniature tanks of liquid coolant connected to Verne’s neck.
Finally, he handed Verne the key to room ten, far enough away from the motel’s only other guest, Dr. Petra, so he’d be spared hearing her chiseling and cursing late into the night.
“Well,” Wade said, slapping his thighs. “If there’s nothing else.”
“Food?” Verne asked.
“I open the kitchen at seven.” Wade pointed to the small seating area behind the desk, where the office opened into a slightly larger space—a mildewed den with shag carpet and a small bar, the sort of place that still reeked of cigarettes despite having been smoke-free for over a decade, its walls laden with faded aerial photographs of the Eden Lake Living Community before it fell into ruin, pink stucco structures rising in a utopian grid around the lake’s aquamarine iris. The “kitchen” was really just a large freezer full of pre-made meals he microwaved in the storage closet.
“You have fish?” Verne said.
“I don’t think Eden Lake’s seen a living fish in sixty years,” Wade said, but Verne displayed no amusement at the historical anecdote. Rattlesnakes had stared at him with less intensity. “We have fish sticks,” he said. “Will that work?”
Verne nodded. “I will return here at seven.” He turned swiftly and exited the office.
Wade watched him walk to the Cadillac, where he extracted an old leather valise from the trunk and strolled across the asphalt to room ten. As he entered the room, Wade felt a jolt of guilt. It had been a month since Arcadia had seen a new customer, so he’d stopped making his cleaning rounds. He could only imagine the dolphin’s disgust at entering the dust-choked room, rank with the funk of unwashed sheets, lizards and scorpions scuttling in the bathroom’s mildewed tub. But the dolphin didn’t hesitate at the room’s door or tromp back to the desk to request a refund. He stepped through the threshold and immediately closed the blinds.
Six doors down, in the cracked window of room four, Wade glimpsed Dr. Petra retreating into the shadows. She’d observed the entire exchange, no doubt, and the front desk’s phone began to ring, the plastic seven beneath the dial glowing in dull emergency. Wade picked up the receiver and was greeted by Dr. Petra’s vaguely Scandinavian growl. “Need linens,” she said, and hung up.
Wade selected the most desiccated towel from beneath the desk, its fibers worn down to a feral mange. As he left the office the sun’s final cruel assault on the day met him with a radioactive slap. Spring in the desert was like summer elsewhere, the pale blue sky striking the earth’s anvil with a hot hammer that left Wade—who’d only lived in this climate for four years—feeling brittle and ready to break, like one of the shale cliffs surrounding Eden Lake.
When she opened the door, Dr. Petra lunged for the towel, but Wade was too quick, swinging the rag out of reach at the last second. The doctor, her hair glommed to her neck in thick wet clumps not unlike seaweed, wore a silk kimono printed with a psychedelic design of nautilus shells, their spirals winding into one another in an endless swirl. Her eyes were pickled red, her breath mulchy with the smell of the moonshine she brewed in the sink, an earthy concoction of fermented berries and mushrooms so alcoholic Wade was certain its vapors were flammable.
In the two years Dr. Petra had lived at Arcadia, Wade had never been able to guess her age. She looked to be about eighty, yet he’d watched her digging in the dirt for hours in spite of the blistering heat, stopping only to drink her hooch from a conch-shaped flask with the heedless vigor of an eighteen-year-old.
She was celebrating. A week ago, she’d unearthed some Lovecraftian horror from the lakebed during one of their expeditions. He could see it behind her on the room’s table, six feet of fossilized carapace and spindly legs attached to a single, larval maw, its ribbed body surrounded by brushes and dental picks. After she’d found it, she barely left her room, slinking to the motel bar every few nights to scarf down a Hot Pocket and a shot of orange liqueur, mumbling to herself about rock compositions and tidal drifts.
“No money, no towel,” Wade said.
“Ever the mercenary, Mr. Walton,” Dr. Petra said, tapping her chalky fingertips against her bottom lip. “A check is forthcoming, I assure you.”
“You haven’t paid me in two months.”
“I would not expect a common businessman to understand the innumerable crests and troughs endemic to scientific discovery. I ask only that you remember my steadfast patronage here at the motel, and beg a reprieve—if not for science, then for my consistency as a devoted customer.”
She had a point. Dr. Petra always got around to paying him, sometimes with fat rolls of bills that made him question her academic legitimacy. It was one of two reasons Wade hadn’t kicked her out already; the second being that Dr. Petra had access to a certain brand of sleeping pills, Mornoxomil—or Moxxies, as she called them—which had become quite essential to him in his protracted campaign against the waking world.
“Anyway,” the doctor continued, “It appears that business is picking up.”
“You mean the dolphin?”
“A shame, really. A creature caught between worlds. An innocent victim of man’s ugly anthropomorphism.”
“Don’t try to change the subject.”
“Tell me,” the doctor continued, ignoring him. “When the oceans turned rancid, did we offer the humble sea sponge sanctuary? Did we invent an exoskeleton for the humpback anglerfish, the goblin shark, the common oyster? Was the giant isopod, who can live on the ocean floor without food for years, deemed worthy enough for a neurotransmitter capable of translating its thoughts into a dozen languages? No, of course not. Only the dolphin. The sea’s slick, grinning fool. All because our children find them amusing. All because they have crept into the secret vault of our primate hearts and accessed our most essential quality: pride.”
Wade was familiar with this monologue. He’d been sitting in the motel bar last summer when Dr. Petra burst through the door, burning in drunk fury at the government’s announcement that dolphins, who were now classified internationally as non-human persons, were being offered a chance to live on land and escape the increasingly toxic oceans, where they were dying in record numbers. He’d spent the whole evening listening to the doctor rail against humanity’s small-minded stupidity, it’s sentimental disregard for vastly complex ecological systems, it’s profane commitment to only the animals it finds worthy of life.
“Didn’t dolphins used to rescue drowning sailors?” he said, dodging another attempt by Dr. Petra to snatch the towel from his hand. She snorted.
“My point exactly. The dolphin is prized only insofar as it appeals to our vanity.”
“Keep your voice down, please.”
Wade looked towards room ten, imagining Verne sitting on the bed listening to Dr. Petra opine on the irrelevancy of his species. “One new customer isn’t enough to cover you,” he said. “Maybe you have something else to offer? You received a package yesterday, did you not?”
Dr. Petra frequently received mail. Strange brown parcels wrapped in twine and stamped with what Wade thought was Cyrillic text.
The doctor squinted at him fiercely, then leaned behind the door to grab something Wade couldn’t see. Six white capsules were cupped in her hand when she returned—his beloved Moxxies. Wade tried to hide his excitement as he exchanged the towel for the drugs.
“Thanks,” he said. “Can’t remember the last time I got any shut-eye.”
“I will not be taking a meal in the dining hall tonight. Don’t wait up for me,” Dr. Petra said, wrapping the cloth expertly around her hair. “Be careful with your new guest. Dolphins are notoriously enigmatic. Their smiles hide much guile.”
Verne returned to the bar at seven. Wade tried to tidy the place up before his arrival, running a wet rag over the sticky counter, dabbing at the stains he’d left scattered around the floor on the nights he couldn’t sleep. Back before he’d started taking the Moxxies, he’d spent many evenings wandering alone among the crackled vinyl seats sipping NyQuil and sobbing at random intervals, purple fluid spilling from his mug as he stumbled.
His cleaning efforts were futile: the ceiling still hung too low and the fake wooden walls remained warped in fun-house configurations, imbuing the space with the unmistakable squalor of a wrecked galleon’s hold. Whatever light managed to penetrate the office’s smudged windows didn’t reach back far enough to offer any relief, the sun’s rays ending right where the ratty carpet began, as if frightened to enter.
Verne waltzed right in, however, not even flinching at the sad sight of his dinner: a pile of greasy fish sticks on a plastic plate, their frostbitten skins as dark and wrinkled as shrunken heads. An aroma of burnt rubber hung over them, which Wade had tried to mask with a spritz of Febreze, resulting in an eye-watering blend of tire fire and synthetic bamboo.
“I have ketchup,” he said apologetically as Verne stared down at the plate.
He’d positioned the food at the center of the counter, hoping Verne might like to explain, as he ate, why he had come to Eden Lake. But the dolphin delicately plucked the plate from the table with his titanium fingers and carried it to the other side of the room, sitting down at a crooked table with his back to Wade.
The man frowned at the dolphin, who slowly inserted the fish sticks into his beak and gingerly chewed them, flicking his chin up at the end of each bite to slip the morsel down his throat. Just above the collar of Verne’s shirt, Wade caught sight of the electrodes attached to his smooth skin. They disappeared under the fabric, where the hump of a battery pack strained against the material. Verne had to lean forward in the chair so his dorsal fin, which emerged through a slit in the shirt, didn’t get crushed against the seat.
Wade couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable it must be for the dolphin to have his body stuck at such an odd angle, his flukes squeezed into a pair of jeans. He didn’t think Verne could remove the harness at night—there’d be no way to get it back on—which meant he was always trapped in his mechanical frame. A miserable existence, Wade figured.
As if sensing his thoughts, Verne turned around. Wade could swear he saw judgment in the dolphin’s blank eyes, a rebuke against pity.
“When does the tour begin?” Verne said.
“You want to go into town?”
“The website stated there was a tour.”
Wade blinked. He hadn’t given a tour in ages. Even the prospectors, the closest thing he got to a tourist these days, already knew Eden Lake’s sad story. The only reason he drove to town, now, was to deliver Dr. Petra to her dig sites.
“We could leave in the morning. Around nine maybe, to beat the heat?”
“Perfect,” Verne said, though nothing in his voice box’s tone implied excitement.
When Wade returned home that night—he lived right next to the office, in room one—several voicemails from his father were waiting. This was an improvement: when he’d first bought Arcadia, barely an hour would go by without him receiving his parents’ “check-ins.” They were both retired, living in a dilapidated bungalow outside Key West, and aside from the hurricanes they were always in the process of preparing for or recovering from, keeping track of their thirty-year-old son’s mental health seemed their only real pastime. His father picked up after the first ring.
The conversation followed its usual course. First came the question, asked with grave import, about whether Wade was doing alright. Then, when Wade mumbled an affirmative, making some vague reference to his lack of sleep, his father inquired about the state of the business, which had never been anything but an abject failure. This led, inevitably, to the reminder that Wade always had a home in Florida.
Except Florida had never meant home to Wade. He’d grown up in Santa Cruz. His parents moved east after he and his ex-wife, Maya, got married a decade ago, as if his attainment of a spouse was the excuse they’d been waiting for to flee for more tepid waters.
“A dolphin is staying at the motel,” Wade said, hoping to circumvent any discussion of him leaving the desert. “His name is Verne.”
His father made a sympathetic noise. “Your mother and I saw one at Whole Foods the other day. It looked so sad, pushing around a cart full of mackerel.”
“He’s kind of rude, actually. Barely talks.”
“What could a creature like that have to say? It must be an incredibly lonely life. That kind of despair is unfathomable.”
Wade could fathom it, though. Despair was his motherland now, a country whose borders he’d thoroughly explored. He considered himself a model citizen of that cold and empty nation.
“Of course,” his father said quickly, his voice taking on an artificial cheeriness he’d become so adept at these last few years. “In many cultures, the dolphin is a symbol of rebirth. A sign of great changes.”
“I don’t think the symbolism works if the dolphin is walking around on two legs.”
“You never know,” his mother suddenly said, her voice muffled and distant. He was, of course, on speakerphone. “Maybe this means your life is headed in a new direction.”
There was no point in disagreeing. Wade’s parents were vintage hippies, their vocabularies saturated with words like “energy” and “vibrations,” their bungalow stuffed with intricate crystal arrays intended to equalize their auras, their walls cluttered with glass hamsas and dreamcatchers to ward off any and all negative emanations. He could see them, hunched over the phone and surrounded by their mystical defenses, two crusty crusaders in the war against bad feelings.
He knew where this was headed: soon they’d be telling him this auspicious event was proof that he should call Maya; evidence that his ex-wife’s frequencies were aimed in his direction, a psychic cry for help.
Wade had no intention of getting in touch with Maya. What was the point? They’d said everything they needed to say to one another.
He got his parents talking about their own lives instead—which new cleanses they were trying out, why they didn’t like the new instructor at their yoga studio—and ended the conversation when these topics were exhausted.
After he hung up, he placed the Moxxies Dr. Petra had given him beside the two-dozen others he’d piled on the bedside table, each one representing a sleepless night he’d suffered through. He wasn’t sure how many of the pills it would take to end his life, but he was certain he’d collected enough now.
Suicide was an old companion to Wade, one with whom he’d passed many hours in deep conversation, but only in the past year had the tentative whisper of what if transformed into a more resolute why not? He’d started collecting the pills as a sort of challenge to himself—if he could endure the restless evenings, insomnia arriving each night like a sneering imp, then maybe this was proof he was ready.
He imagined death would be like any other time he took a Moxxie. That slow blurring of the world’s finer edges followed by the abrupt, blissful descent into a nothingness so impenetrable and complete that no dreams—certainly no nightmares—could intrude. The only difference, of course, would be that he’d never have to wake up again.
He could just swallow them now, he realized. But something stopped him.
Perhaps he’d inherited more of his parents’ superstitions than he cared to admit: the dolphin’s arrival seemed too felicitous to ignore. Verne had a tragic air about him, a catastrophic aura Wade felt immediate kinship with, and it seemed ill-advised to take his life before first figuring out what brought the dolphin to Eden Lake. Once he knew, he promised himself, he could decide when to take the pills.
The next morning, Verne was waiting beside Wade’s jeep in the parking lot. Nights were rough without the Moxxies—he passed the hours staring at the ceiling fan as it spun the room’s stagnant heat in lazy whirlpools, and flipping through the television’s ten channels, a technicolor slideshow of hucksters trying to sell miracle weight-loss pills and exercise machines that resembled authoritarian torture devices—so he didn’t emerge into the day’s molten swelter until eleven, two hours after he and Verne’s agreed-upon start time.
“Sorry,” he said as he approached, rubbing his tired eyes. “Have you been waiting long?”
“Yes,” Verne said. He offered no further chastisement, though, vaulting into the jeep’s passenger seat as Wade fumbled with the ignition. He was wearing the same clothes as the day before, shirt and pants slightly wrinkled. Wade wondered if he’d slept in them. Or perhaps the dolphin hadn’t slept at all. Hadn’t he read somewhere that dolphins had to keep swimming even when they were asleep? A troubling thought came to Wade as he drove: Verne flopping back and forth on his mattress, pretending to surge through the water to trick his brain into unconsciousness. Wade could sympathize with that kind of desperation.
The drive to the Eden Lake Living Community took about half an hour. Normally, Wade made the trip with Dr. Petra, who happily passed the time educating Wade about the humbling revelations offered by considerations of geologic history—how squishy, seething life was a brief blip on the molten-scarred saga of planet Earth—which meant Wade was a bit rusty when it came to making small talk himself.
He decided to give Verne the same spiel he used to give to tourists, back when people were still interested in visiting the town’s ruins; before the spectacle of decay was made redundant by the rest of the world’s deterioration. He explained that Eden Lake itself was not, technically, a lake. Back in the fifties, a gun manufacturer by the name of Martin Grifflet, recently enriched by his company’s role helping the CIA depose several South American governments, dug a large pit in the middle of California and filled it with a significant portion of water he diverted, via a few phone calls to his friends in various branches of the state government, from the Colorado River.
Despite the protests of a number of skeptical engineers—as well as a group of downriver farmers whose barren fields had the misfortune of losing their water rights that year—Grifflet built a sprawling town around the new, crystal-blue shore, marketing the place as a “new Eden built by man’s tireless ingenuity.” For a decade, hundreds of people—mostly white, mostly wealthy—flocked to Eden Lake, where they built palatial beachside homes and lounged on their manicured lawns, happy to gorge on their own private slice of American Domestic Bliss.
Until the lake, which was not being fed by any natural spring, began to evaporate. Each year saw the shoreline steadily retreating, the remaining water becoming increasingly saline. The owners of the coastal estates were soon stranded in empty plots of dust, their children’s lungs withered from the industrial runoff that had settled at the bottom of the lake and now billowed through their windows in toxic gusts. Grifflet was dead by then, laid low by a heart attack in his yacht off the coast of Panama, and his descendants, too busy warring for what was left of his empire, recognized Eden Lake for the failed venture it was and ignored its destruction.
The families fled and the lake shrank to a puddle, leaving behind a ghost town so desolately inhospitable that even traveling bands of vagabonds who scoured the desert looking for a safe haven from civilization only ever took shelter there for a day or two, reporting that the nights were full of supernatural wailing and long-limbed shadows that loped through shattered windows of abandoned homes. Angry spirits, they claimed, sent by the furious earth to punish mankind for its hubris.
Verne listened to all of this in silence. Occasionally, he removed a wrinkled tube of some lotion from his pocket. He smeared the silvery cream on his exposed skin, presumably to keep it safe from the heat.
“This climate must be tough,” Wade said.
“I’m used to it,” Verne said. “I live in Nevada.”
“I work at a casino. I have been told I have a very good poker face.”
The joke was such a surprise that Wade nearly forgot to laugh. “But wouldn’t you rather live by the ocean?”
After a long, awkward pause, Verne said, “No. I would not like to live by the ocean.”
Wade felt himself blush. Of course Verne didn’t want to be anywhere near the ocean. It would be agony to pass his days so close to the once-temperate waters he’d been forced to leave. Wade, who’d fled to the desert to escape Maya and their house in Santa Cruz, hiding himself where even the clouds refused to visit, understood perfectly well what a special gift it was to find a place where nothing reminded you of home.
Once they’d reached the town’s outskirts, they were greeted by a discolored metal sign raised above the road in a baroque arch, its faded letters reading “Welcome to Paradise.” Most of the structures here had been businesses: collapsed grocery stores and diners, their interiors flooded with sand and sage. Whatever walls had managed to stay upright were covered with spray-painted pentagrams and violent slogans, the letters so wobbly and ill-formed that it seemed even the taggers had found their act futile. The slanted board of showtimes above the town’s movie theater contained only the word “GONE,” the black letters bleached to gray.
“Well,” Wade said, pulling the jeep into a parking lot at the base of an apartment complex whose crumbling exterior looked like a face that had been punched into scowling submission. “We’re here.”
They spent a few hours wandering around town, Wade pointing out landmarks to a reticent Verne: the clothing boutiques where someone had arranged dusty mannequins into erotic poses, twisting arms and heads into physically impossible but sexually adventurous contortions; a few playgrounds where corroded metal swings and Merry Go Rounds looked like they’d been shipped out from Pripyat; and the city bank, a towering fort of chiseled granite built to resemble the Parthenon, its roof decorated with a headless Neptune, an armless Athena, and a menagerie of fauns and cherubs, their faces painted over by drifters to resemble a marching caravan of clowns and jesters.
Since Wade knew this might be his final trip to Eden Lake—a fact which left him feeling strangely nostalgic—he allowed Verne to explore the town at his own pace, even as the heat made him feel increasingly mummified. Verne didn’t seem to be faring much better—he was remoisturizing himself every ten minutes, and Wade could hear his battery pack’s fan roaring as it tried to keep him cool—but the dolphin still lingered at the entrance of every wrecked structure, staring into their ravaged centers in what Wade assumed to be great concentration, as if some message were hidden within.
Eventually he and Verne reached the old coastline, a parched curve of ivory dirt that once marked the lake’s edge. Here, the city abruptly stopped, the sand littered with rotting docks and a few forgotten boats, looking forlorn with their rust-encrusted hulls. Off in the distance, the remains of Eden Lake, a few miles of lonely sludge saltier than the dead sea, emitted a ribbon of shimmer over the landscape, a false mirage of relief.
Wade led Verne to a beachside restaurant where a few torn parasols endured above six or seven wrought-iron tables. As they walked, he gestured toward Dr. Petra’s dig sites, dozens of perfect square holes cordoned off with rope.
A million years ago, he explained, this valley had been an ocean. The doctor had spent the last two years digging in the rough soil for petrified sea life, shouting with the same feverish glee every time she discovered another giant clam or bug-eyed primordial fish.
“It’s kind of ironic, “Wade said as they sat down at one of the tables. “Everyone showed up for a swim a thousand millennia too late.”
“Is that why people come here?” Verne asked. “Archaeology?”
“People don’t really come here anymore, actually. But when they did, it was mostly to gape at the carnage. I think it made them feel safe. They’d compare this place to wherever they were from and think: well, at least it isn’t this bad.”
“Yet you don’t have many visitors now.”
“No, I don’t. I guess Eden Lake looks too much like everywhere else these days.”
He told Verne about the prospectors—how they arrived certain that fresh water was trapped beneath the barren lakebed. Treasure hunters who believed Grifflet had chosen this location because he knew there was an aquifer hidden below. He’d simply died before he could drill down and access it. They couldn’t fathom the truth: that Grifflet was just another rich idiot who’d made a bad investment.
“Humans,” Verne said, voice box emitting a low whine—a scoff, maybe. “They can find hope in anything. So long as there’s money to be made.”
“And what brings you here?” Wade said, sensing his opening. “Scoping out a spot to open your own casino?”
“I’m uncertain about the future.”
“Aren’t we all?”
“It’s hard to explain. A personal matter.”
But Wade thought he understood. Perhaps Verne, like him, was beginning to wonder if there was any point in sticking it out on this planet. As someone who spent his days preying on the false optimism of gamblers, Verne must be well-acquainted with the importance of odds—must know the necessity of leaving the table before the game really turned against you. Maybe he had his own pile of pills waiting for him back in Nevada.
If a person was looking for proof of just how hopeless a place could become, Eden Lake was the perfect destination. Part of the reason Wade bought Arcadia in the first place was because the valley lent itself so easily to thoughts of futility. The motel was already a failed venture by the time he purchased it: the bank had practically paid him to take it off their hands. His refurbishment consisted of restocking the bar and burning the carcasses of whatever leathery creatures had crawled into the structure to die in the shade.
Not the sort of locale that offered any resistance to thoughts of ending your own life.
“My wife,” Verne said abruptly. “Is pregnant.”
“Congratulations,” Wade replied, trying to sound genuinely cheerful, even as his blood slowed in his veins.
“I’m wondering what it will be like to bring a child into this world,” Verne said.
Wade was struck, again, by the deception of Verne’s face. His smile didn’t match his words. The only hint of his distress was a heavy exhalation of air from his blowhole.
“Parenthood puts a lot of things in perspective.”
“You have children?”
Nausea flushed through Wade, an ill tide that might have made him vomit if he’d eaten anything that morning. Some combination of stifling heat and fatigue left him hollowed out and breathless, no different than one of the crushed beer cans that littered the restaurant’s floor.
“I did,” he said. “Her name was Coraline. She drowned.”
A low click escaped Verne’s mouth. He reached a mechanical hand across the table—as if he planned to place it on Wade’s shoulder—but changed his mind at the last moment, resting it in his lap instead.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That is a terrible thing.”
Wade nodded. It was terrible. Yet his own sadness felt minuscule, almost trivial, beside Verne’s. What was the loss of a child, he thought, compared to the loss of the entire ocean?
They sat for a little while longer, the only sound the billowing of Verne’s fan and the gentle sigh of his limbs as he moved to oil himself. A rare breeze sent the parasol above them fluttering, but it brought no reprieve—just a draft of hot sand that settled in Wade’s hair. When the sun sunk low enough to vaporize their meager shade, Wade told the dolphin it was time to leave.
As they drove back, darkness rushed through the valley, leaving the motel’s lights, most of which had burned out long ago, looking submerged and murky, like a torch dropped into the depths of a deep ravine. Overhead the stars arrived in raucous abundance, organizing themselves into a sparkling menagerie of constellations and galaxies that still made Wade’s chest ache despite its familiarity.
“Quite beautiful,” Verne said, head craned upwards.
“The sky is my favorite thing about living out here,” Wade said. “There’s so much more of it than anything else.”
Verne made a strange noise. A kind of soft gurgle. Wade sensed affirmation in the sound. He was glad he’d told him about Coraline—he felt the dolphin might respect him more now, in the way two soldiers of the same war might respect one another. Except, in this case, one soldier had lost much more in the conflict, which meant the other should sit and bear witness to his pain—offer up whatever paltry comfort he could from their shared reservoir of grief.
Generally, Wade worked hard not to think of Coraline. The last time he’d mentioned her was the previous fall, when he’d told Dr. Petra everything one night at the bar after Maya had called him out of the blue—they hadn’t spoken since he’d moved—to say she’d been having dreams about their daughter. She told him she kept waking up thinking Coraline was still alive, only to remember she’d been returned to a world without her.
Eventually she asked Wade, in a voice that made his eyes water, if he ever dreamed about Coraline, too. He didn’t think he should tell her the truth: how most nights, when he managed to finally fall asleep, he was greeted by Coraline’s dead body, her five-year-old corpse swollen with seawater. So he said, “No, I don’t dream about her.” Maya waited for him to say more. When he didn’t, she unleashed old accusations—that he hadn’t changed at all, that she couldn’t believe he was still like this, so thoroughly incapable of even freaking talking about it.
After she hung up, he skulked off to the bar, where Dr. Petra discovered him an hour later, passed out on the carpet, a puddle of vomit caked beside his head. She’d forced him to eat some microwaved taquitos and listened, quietly, as he explained what happened to Coraline. After he told her about the night terrors—how the NyQuil only made them more vivid—she offered him his first Moxxies, placing them in his hands with the severity of a priest delivering the body of Christ to one of his feeble congregants.
Wade pushed these thoughts from his mind as he and Verne arrived at Arcadia’s parking lot, the motel’s neon blue sign humming above them. “You must be starving,” he said. “How about some fish sticks?”
“Alright,” Verne said.
Dr. Petra was waiting for them in the restaurant, sipping moonshine at the bar next to her new fossil, which she’d laid out on the stool beside her. She’d changed into her usual outfit: tan dungarees and a collared linen shirt worn so thin it was nearly transparent along the shoulders and elbows.
“Our tragic heroes return,” she said. “Did you enjoy your trip, Dolphin?”
“His name is Verne,” Wade said. The doctor frowned at him scornfully. Her cheeks were inflamed, and the wrinkles on her face looked uncharacteristically distinct, a contoured map of flood plains and rippling currents. It was the first time she’d ever looked like an old woman to Wade.
“I’ll deal with you momentarily, Mr. Walton,” she said, wobbling on her seat as she turned to meet Verne’s gaze. “Did you rescue our dear drowning host? That is what your kind does, correct? Ingratiate yourselves to the human community in order to secure your own survival?”
“I didn’t come here to rescue anyone,” Verne said.
“That’s a shame,” Dr. Petra said. She jabbed a finger in Wade’s direction. “Because this one desperately needs a buoy.”
Her tone made Wade uncomfortable. He didn’t want her to scare off Verne now that they’d developed a rapport. “I should start dinner. Do you want anything, doctor?”
With a thud so loud Wade was surprised the bar didn’t buckle, Dr. Petra slammed her giant fossil on the counter. “What I would like is for you to consider this specimen.”
The fossil—its body flattened, like a pressed flower, on a large stone slab—resembled a giant centipede, except its sides were coarsened with odd markings. Upon closer inspection, Wade saw they were hundreds of thin tentacles. “Pretty creepy,” he said.
“Perhaps to the undiscerning eye,” Dr. Petra said, “Yet for thousands of years, Diopatra pilus was the king of this valley. Though it had no brain, no spine, it had full reign over these waters. A hungry, slithering sovereign.” The doctor snapped her fingers. “Then the climate changed. New creatures arrived—larger, more capable beasts like the Coelacanths—with which this worm could not compete. Suddenly it found itself entirely outclassed, its kingdom usurped. And how do you think it responded to this upheaval? Did it groan at the unfairness of it all? Did it squirm with indignation?”
She took a long sip from her drink, as if daring either of them to answer.
“Of course not,” she went on. “It changed—not by any conscious act of the will, but by biological necessity. These follicles on its sides here? An evolutionary adaptation which allowed it to capture microorganisms; little bits of food our worm’s new nemeses ignored in favor of fatter prey. With that simple change, it secured for itself, and its offspring, a few more thousand years of life.”
“That’s all very interesting,” Wade said, glancing at Verne with an apologetic smile.
Dr. Petra’s voice rose. “Don’t condescend to me. It’s an important reminder: nature requires very little of us. In fact, its only real demand is survival. The particulars of that survival—whether we are at the top of the food chain or mucking about in the lower depths, sucking on rocks—are irrelevant.” She jerked her head in Verne’s direction. “Did he tell you about his daughter? How he lost her to a riptide?”
“Riptide?” Verne said.
“Yes,” Dr. Petra went on. “The girl was carried to sea while her father slept on the beach. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s left him in a rather sorry state.”
The words brought a deluge of unwanted memories: those few seconds after waking up in the sand, languid and peaceful, before Wade realized he couldn’t find Coraline. The way he mumbled it’s fine again and again, the promise of the words worn down with every repetition. Maya’s face when she returned from the Snack Shack, ice cream dripping down her fingers. How she’d laughed, thinking he was kidding, thinking he had hidden her somewhere. How he wanted her to keep laughing, like they might pretend their daughter had never been anything but a private joke.
“I don’t think Verne wants to hear all this,” Wade said.
Dr. Petra brought a fist down on the table. “You have made a fool of me, Wade.” When she opened her palm, white pills spilled onto the counter. “Can you explain why I found this little stockpile in your room?”
“Why were you in my room?”
“You were late in returning. I was hungry, so I went looking for the key to the storage closet. You might consider locking your door when you’re away. I ask again: what were you planning to do with these pills?”
“You had no right to go in my—”
The doctor cut him off. “You speak of rights. Did you consider my rights when you decided to make me a murderer?” She rubbed her puffy eye with a quivering knuckle. “Perhaps you think that because I am a collector of the deceased, I find some joy in death.” She glared at Verne, who still lingered by the door. “But I believe in the natural order of things. Deciding who lives, and who dies, is arrogance of the highest degree.”
Dr. Petra crammed the pills in her pocket and stumbled off the stool. She heaved the fossil off the table and clutched it between her arms like a child holding a toy she was certain someone planned to steal from her. “You are not the only character in this story,” she said to Wade, her voice cracking on the final syllable, then shoved past Verne and out the door.
Wade wanted to be angry, but the only emotion he could muster was shame. The shame of a sail without wind, a well without water. Standing there, staring at a stray Moxxie the doctor had failed to collect, Wade’s dreams of self-destruction seemed suddenly like a juvenile tantrum. He felt as though he’d been caught masturbating.
“I think I should go,” Verne said.
“What about your fish sticks?” Wade said. But the dolphin must not have heard him, as he’d already left.
Minutes later, Wade peered through the grimy window and spotted Verne headed for his car, valise in hand. Wade jogged out to meet him beneath a lifeless palm tree, its withered trunk slouched in their direction as though it were attempting to eavesdrop.
“Wait,” he said. “I’m sorry if the doctor offended you. There’s no reason to leave.”
“The doctor didn’t offend me,” Verne said. “I’m just ready to go home. I never told my wife I was making this trip. She’s probably worried sick.”
Wade was becoming frantic. Verne’s visit couldn’t end like this. He still had no idea why he had even come to Eden Lake, no sense of what the dolphin intended to learn from his time here. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I guess so.”
“You’ve made a decision, then?”
“About whether it’s worth it? Living?”
Verne didn’t respond right away. He took a long look at Wade, his marbled eyes as inscrutable as ever. It was true: he had an excellent poker face. Wade couldn’t tell what emotion he saw there.
“That was never the question,” he said, and then, after another pause, “I’m sorry about what happened to you. And I wish you well, truly. But you and me? We’re not the same.”
“Fine. We’re not the same.” Wade was almost shouting. He wanted to shake Verne—to force his features into any other expression than that condescending smirk. “But you still have to decide, don’t you? Every day you spend on land is a choice. Is this the sort of place you’d choose to bring a child?”
“It doesn’t feel like a choice to me.”
Verne let the comment hang in the air, its only company the faint tick of a moth hurling its body, again and again, at the office’s screen door. “For what it’s worth,” he said, “I agree with the doctor. Some things we can’t run away from. I think I needed to hear that.”
Verne reached out his hand. Wade, who could think of nothing else to say, shook it. He was surprised by how warm the metal was. He’d expected it to be cold, somehow. As inert as the leg of a chair.
“Good luck to you, Wade,” Verne said. “I hope you work things out with your friend.”
He got into his Cadillac, dipping his head down low as he crawled inside so his fin didn’t hit the roof. The vehicle rumbled to life and headed for the highway.
Even then, Wade expected the car to stop; for Verne to thrust open the passenger door and offer some final bit of wisdom—to explain, in a language unsullied by terrestrial concerns, how he’d left the only world he had ever known to live in the broken one above. But the dolphin just kept driving.
Out of the corner of his eye, Wade caught a flash of movement from room four’s lit window, where he glimpsed Dr. Petra’s silhouette withdrawing behind the curtain. When he turned back toward the road, he could still feel her standing there, a dark figured encased in light, watching.