The strangest part was watching my landlady clean. She stood in the highest window up the hill, masked and gloved, pale spider arms streaking iridescence over the glass. She scrubbed for so long I started to wonder if she was aware what she was doing. It was like she wanted to wipe the glass out of existence. Soon she removed the panes entirely and bent over them, the nubs of her spine pulsing through her shirt as she scoured. She replaced the glass, and a man I didn’t recognize appeared and wiped it down even more. Altogether they cleaned this singular window for over four hours.
The next day a boy moved in. I could see him clearly now that the window was so clean. He had buzzed black hair and a tan and the first thing he carried into his room was a black electric keyboard. He assembled a desk under the window. On it he placed a single tiny succulent (maybe he’d read some tweets about male living spaces and wanted to be ahead of the curve). I tried to focus on my work but my eyes darted up whenever he crossed the window, like he gave off some electric current I sensed without meaning to.
I worked through dinner, my productivity woefully slowed by the comings and goings in my new neighbor’s apartment. When the sky fell to black over the ramparts of the townhouse, my new neighbor appeared in the window, took off his shirt, and paced out of sight. When he returned he was grinning and holding a large fish.
I might have actually rubbed my eyes, it was so strange. His fish was an elegant thing, with a white stomach and a slender tail bringing its length to at least four feet. A shark. I’ve learned plenty about sharks over the years. Even at a distance I could figure the species to be a Pacific spiny dogfish, or possibly a young salmon shark. It was clearly alive, tail wriggling in the boy’s hand, mouth pulsing at the air it couldn’t breathe. A shark’s jaws are disconnected from its skull, allowing them to shoot forward quickly to catch prey.
With head facing monitor and eyes turned upward I watched him lower the flopping animal below the sill. I assumed he was moving it from an old tank to one he’d set up in his new bedroom. He looked so happy to have that shark, his smile so wide the top half of his head might have slid off. I tried to remember the last time I’d been that excited about something. He switched off his bedroom light and I returned to my code.
The next day he drew his blinds, those awful vertical white danglers that came with every rental in LA. I worked for a bit at my desk before rising, stretching, and reequipping myself with an old laptop. I found if I sat on my staircase and squinted through the clerestory the angle let me glimpse through the cracks in his blinds. He rose, did a couple dozen jumping jacks, fussed with something below the window, then left his room.
I worked all day on the stairs. I didn’t eat breakfast. I thought about the elasmobranch anatomy class I’d taken in undergrad before giving up on marine biology. Sharks possess a fleshy spiral in their intestines that rotates their food in a corkscrew, maximizing the time and surface area available for digestion. They only have to eat once or twice a week.
My new neighbor returned to his room at sundown, the vantage glitched by his blinds but plenty visible from where I sat. There were two others with him: a tall androgynous person with bleached blonde hair, and a shorter girl with a head of blue spikes. The three of them together carried something that sagged out of view and appeared very heavy. For the briefest fleeting moment, I thought a big gray dorsal fin poked into the windowpane, gone as soon as it came. I chalked this up to sleep deprivation, an artifact of sifting through haphazard web code for twenty hours a day. I closed my work project for the first time all week. Focused on the window.
They set down whatever it was they were actually holding and then the three of them all began taking off their clothes. My neighbor stuck his head out between the blinds. I shot my gaze downward. I told myself it wasn’t spying unless they caught me. I think I believed it.
When I looked up he’d sealed the blinds more thoroughly and I couldn’t see a thing.
Just a shuttered window in a townhouse in the sky.
I hung out on the street over the next couple days. I’d pace up and down the hill like I’d forgotten something, glancing now and again at that newly occupied peak of our complex. I ignored multiple calls from my web design client. Blonde and Blue appeared no less than eight times over two days, going from a big white truck to the hilltop unit and back, hauling boxes and furnishings and miscellany that looked miserable to haul in the summer heat. They were usually smiling, but I never caught a word of their conversations. On one of their errands they carried a big wooden crate. Wet on the bottom, like it’d been sitting in rain.
Or like it was leaking water.
I hungered for knowledge. I regressed into some new iteration of my former self, of that bright-eyed kid arriving at college to learn how to save the planet. I felt the way I looked in certain pictures from field schools and lab days, from before I’d thrown in the STEM towel to survive on a job I excelled at and hated. Now I was learning again. I spent days observing the perimeter of our townhomes and nights reading everything I could about the Endangered Species Act and regulations on the transit of protected fish. This led me to a database of restricted Fish & Wildlife Service enforcement records whose source code I was able to exploit for access easily. I immersed myself in case reports involving the trafficking of exotic animals into boutique black markets in Southern California. Before long I got a pretty solid idea of what was happening in that newly occupied unit up the hill. Something very particular and very wrong. Something I, specifically, had to do something about.
Unfortunately my neighbor never reopened his blinds. The window, my portal to a dark and crucial world I’d only begun to understand, was hopelessly fortified with those white panels. Meanwhile the boxes kept coming, the smiles kept flashing. I couldn’t wait any longer. I bought a mini Bluetooth security camera and tested it at home. I watched the street for three days for a moment when I was certain that Buzz, Blue, and Blonde were all gone from the unit. I dressed in mask and hoodie and thought about how closely shark scales resemble human teeth under a microscope.
I found the maintenance guy drinking Modelos on the back staircase. Hey man, I was moving stuff and I locked my keys in my apartment, can you help me out? He let me into the high unit without question. It was a good thing I’d never bothered to introduce myself around the complex or he might have recognized me.
The smell was absolutely staggering. The apartment reeked of brine, sweat, and urine, like the head on a decades-old fishing boat. Downstairs looked exactly the same as my own apartment, with less in it. For all the moving they’d done, there was a lot of nothing here. They hadn’t even set the oven clock.
I bundled my sleeves over my face and made my way up the stairs, heart pounding, stench rising. My feet squelched on the carpet. The door to his room was unlocked and inside it was piled to the ceiling with unopened boxes and crates of all sizes. I didn’t see the shark from the first night anywhere, but the smell was unmistakable. This room was full of fish. Live or dead or both. The carpet was spattered with blood, probably from whatever he was feeding his captive specimens. I glanced out his window, past the succulent and into my own apartment. It felt strange seeing my desk from up here, like I’d astral projected and was looking down at myself.
I hid the camera in a far corner of the room, tested the video feed on my phone, and left.
I could have sworn he shut his blinds even tighter that night. My guts roiled with anticipation. I was doing the right thing, wasn’t I? Collecting evidence of a horrible crime, a crime against nature. I’d stockpile enough pictures and video that there could be no plausible deniability whatsoever and lay it all out before the National Marine Fisheries Service. In college I’d told myself I would save the ocean, which of course turned out to be far beyond my academic and moral capacity. But I could do something here. I could make a difference for the endangered marine life in my own community! I sat staring at my desktop monitor, bouncing my leg and thinking about how some mother sharks grow and hatch their eggs entirely inside their own bodies before giving birth, yolks and all.
The door to Buzz’s bedroom was just out of view of my camera, so it surprised me when he walked into view. Blonde and Blue followed soon after and set an especially large cardboard box in the middle of the room, blocking the view of the camera. My heart sank and I thought it had all been for nothing. Then they cut open the box.
The creature in my monitor was a thresher shark. It sat in murky water, gazing at nothing or everything with big black eyes, its long tail folded cruelly in its undersized tank. One of the fastest and most tenacious predators in the world, packed into submission like some toothless sardine. My cheeks went hot wondering how many poor lonely animals were being trafficked by these people, stuffed into a townhome far above sea level, probably waiting to be auctioned to some billionaire sicko out in Bel-Air. I made sure the feed was recording.
Sometimes I wonder if everyone reaches a point in their life where they realize they had only been experiencing a subset of the world as it truly is. For some it could be a near death experience, a fleeting installment of psychosis, a moment of religious ecstasy after years of doubt. Maybe it’s having your first child, or being abducted by aliens, or recognizing through intensive therapy that the time you thought you were abducted by aliens was actually an instance of unspeakable child abuse your brain had paved over with a less traumatic narrative. A moment of incontrovertible clarity, like switching on a seventh sense you never knew you had.
For me, it was the next five minutes of video from my neighbor’s bedroom.
A pair of hands—Blue’s I think—unlatched the tank and dragged the shark up out of the water. It didn’t struggle or thrash, seeming almost sedated. Someone scooted the tank out of the way, clearing the center of the room. The shark’s tail unfurled almost as tall as Blue from where it lay on the floor. I always loved sharks. So powerful and so misunderstood. It made me sick seeing such a beautiful creature this way, so out of its element, so utterly unaware of what was happening to it or why.
I don’t know what I expected to happen next. Maybe for them to repackage the shark in a bigger tank, or for someone to come take it away. By the time I realized what was really happening in that room up the hill I was all out of theories. All I could do was watch.
There was a carousel of legs. Boxes and the bed were shoved aside, the overhead lights were supplanted by a ring of candles on the floor. Blonde slung their legs over the poor shark’s back, prying open its mouth, examining its teeth with fantastic interest. A fourth person entered the room. I recognized her skinny haunches when she bent to light candles.
It was my landlady.
All of them took off their clothes.
I almost cut the feed, given I was suddenly filming four people naked without their consent. But it wasn’t like I could bring myself to look away. Someone threw the pile of clothes in the same corner as the camera and my heart skipped a beat, but it didn’t cover the lens, just knocked the camera on its side. I still saw, only more vertically now. The candles flicked orange over the shark’s coarse skin, casting a dither of dorsal shadows up the walls.
Buzz, ruler of this demented bedroom, knelt before the shark with one hand on its nose. The others began circling in big lurching motions, the way someone overacting a play might walk. Their movements grew continually stranger and more erratic, each of them improvising bends and gyrations that somehow disturbed me worse than the boy kneeling naked in front of a ten-foot fish, running his fingers into its gills, caressing its nose with his cheek.
He rolled the shark onto its back. I didn’t see where the knife came from. He sliced it open mouth to tail. He removed its big, pink stomach and intestines with his bare hands and draped them over his head. Next he removed its skeleton, one spiked unit of cartilage at a time, and passed each piece to the three circlers, who cradled them and displayed them to one another with performative ecstasy. He lifted the hollowed carcass. It twitched, dripping blood down his arms, not quite accepting its own death.
My stomach lurched into my mouth. Buzz slung the shark over his head and wore it like a cloak, his face mad in the candlelight.
The others gathered around him, ran their hands over his body, smearing the shark’s blood, painting symbols with it. They bowed down with playacted pained expressions, begging him to bless them or fuck them. He grinned, ready to do both. Everything froze.
So did he.
He was looking at me.
The grin melted from his face and he sloughed the dripping skin off his back. He said something I couldn’t lipread and then all their eyes were saucers staring direct out of my monitor. I expected him to go for the camera but instead he moved to the side. Confused, I kept watching the feed. Something slithered the corner of my vision and I glanced up.
Buzz, my neighbor, staring at me from the window.
An instinct to play it casual rose and died instantly. I bolted upright, closed the video monitoring software, and hurled my own blinds shut. I sunk into my chair, all sweat and palpitations. They knew that I knew. They had seen me.
I sat there all night expecting to hear a knock at my door, a crash through my window, a violent splash in the distance, the gnashing of teeth. I’m not sure what I expected, but I knew it was coming.
I waited as long as I could stand before checking the feed.
It was black. Abyssal. They’d either switched off the camera, covered it, or destroyed it. The evidence I’d gathered thus far would be all the evidence there was. I evaluated several alibis for how I’d come across such evidence and started making plans for which authorities to contact and when. It was my landlady, of course, who’d carelessly left a security camera in my new neighbor’s bedroom, and I in the throes of web design work happened to stumble across the feed on our complex’s guest Wi-Fi. Purely by accident. Just an innocent bystander. Brace yourself, officer, this is seriously disturbing material—and I’m sure you’ll find the acts depicted within can’t go unpunished.
I opened the folder labeled Recordings and my heart sank.
Empty. Blank. There was nothing. Whatever I’d been recording hadn’t saved. Or it’d been erased somehow. I checked the trash folder, backup files, web caches, everything on my computer. It was gone.
The only one who would know was me. And they knew I’d been watching.
I watched the dull glow flicker behind their window until I couldn’t take it anymore. I crawled into bed and lay still, body coursing with sick. I’d tried to do the right thing. I’d really tried. I didn’t sleep until the sun was high, slicing through the blinds like gill slits.
My boyfriend had been out on a writing retreat in the mountains. I always imagined him in a sort of creative fervor I could only dream of, mining his passions for gems of prosaic beauty while I rigged up e-commerce for assholes. We hadn’t been talking. He went on those trips for space and the least I could do was give him that. In truth I’d forgotten to expect him. When he knocked I didn’t answer the door. He had to let himself in.
“Oh thank god it’s you.”
“Who else would it be?”
He smelled like cigarettes and breakfast. It was such a relief. I thought I’d have the smell of dead ocean in the back of my nostrils forever. I threw my arms around him and choked down everything I wanted to say.
He kissed my forehead. “You look tired. Has that client been working you too hard?”
“Yeah, yeah, been working a lot.”
My eyes drifted behind him, to a cardboard box just outside the corner. “Shit,” I said vaguely. “I must have forgotten to check the mail.”
I picked up the box. It was damp on the bottom. I retched at the smell, that same rotted brine I’ll never forget.
My boyfriend raised an eyebrow. He said he didn’t smell anything.
I waited until he was in the shower to open it. My hands trembled so bad it was hard to drag the box cutter along the seam. The smell made me want to curl into a ball and cry. I unwrapped the parchment inside. A pair of thresher shark jaws greeted me. Rows of jagged teeth still wet with flesh.
I glanced over townhome roofs to the window. There was my neighbor, replacing his white blinds with thick black sheets. I couldn’t take sight of it. Couldn’t take the smell. Fighting back vomit I staggered outside. There was my landlady, pacing up the inclined sidewalk, keys in one hand, cleaning supplies in the other. She waved at me. I stood there. She smiled and trudged on up the hill.
— Karter Mycroft is a writer, musician, game developer, and ocean scientist who lives in Los Angeles. You can find them on Twitter @kartermycroft or at kartermycroft.com.