Sea otters shivering, succumbing to the cold without the properties of their insulating fur, lifeless paws slipping from each other’s grasp. Dolphins scattered, bursting like smooth grey fireworks away from the foul stench that permeated the water.
by Lindz McLeod
James’ blazing blue eyes, scruffy beard, and distinct lack of any safari-murder photos had made his online profile seem quite appealing to Helena. His interests were entirely unlike her late husband’s, but on reflection she’d thought that was probably a good thing. All the books advised not to try to replace a spouse—not that Derek could ever be replaced—and surely the best way to go about it was to pick the exact opposite. Although James wasn’t quite as handsome in person as she’d expected, his gruff Scottish brogue and quick sense of humour had more than made up for it. He’d offered her cheap beer and soapy-smelling weed on their moonlit stroll and, not wanting to be considered a square at sixty, Helena had accepted with forced cheer. She’d even been thinking of suggesting that she might stay with him tonight instead of at the hotel, that perhaps their short relationship had even progressed to the sleeping together stage, right up until the point he had casually flicked the end of the joint aside onto the sand.
Fifty miles off the coast of northern Scotland, an awareness grew by degrees as the water became ever more fouled. Dim and guttering at first, like a candle newly birthed, the sentience grew stronger with each fresh current of raw sewage, punctuated by more debris. The plastic twelve-pack yoke which made up the creature’s unseeing eyes had once choked to death a ninety-year-old turtle. Browned wet wipes—coagulating in great fetid lumps the size of cars—formed the loose shape of a lumpy, serpentine body, hinged together by red and white striped straws. Bottle caps studded the thick body, shading the makeshift skin in scales of every colour from heady spruce to the rich, bloody tones of sangria. Here and there, a smooth patch of glass glinted, offering a look inside the roiling mass of garbage.
“Aren’t you going to pick that up?”
James side-eyed her, grinning. “Whit fur?”
“Well, I… Derek and I always recycled everything,” Helena protested.
His grin faded. “Did ye, aye?”
She wasn’t supposed to bring up Derek. All the books said as much. Even so, she had principles. Recycling was so easy these days, and the local councils provided all the appropriately coloured plastic bins free of charge. Brown for food waste, blue for paper, green for packaging. “It’s-it’s such a lovely beach,” she stammered. “It seems a shame to spoil it.”
The litterbug rose from the depths, moving its tail back and forth, testing the new strength. With a powerful flick, it propelled itself forward, watching as great shoals of fish rolled and drowned in human filth. Though it tried to absorb as much as it could from the water, it was too late to save the shoals. Small bodies sank like a thousand tumbling snowflakes into the murky depths below. The creature circled, enraged and impotent, sewage tumbling inside its body in a brackish swirl. Dead, dead, it mourned, before a new scent caught its attention. Filth?
James stared around, shielding his eyes like a flinty-eyed cowpoke looking for bandits. “I dinnae ken where it landed. I’ll no do it again if it bothers ye that much.”
The books did say that a partner who could compromise was worth their weight in gold. Helena beamed. Perhaps he was the one after all. Well, not the one. The Second. That had a nice ring to it; not that she intended to say it out loud. “Thank you.” She took his hand and pulled him down for a quick kiss. “I appreciate that.”
His tongue tasted frothy, his beard scratchy against her lips. Perhaps she could learn to love the feeling. Compromise, after all, was a mutual understanding.
The litterbug rose until the tip of its head surfaced above the waves. An elderly couple were embracing on the beach, a gibbous moon picking out the lines of their dark bodies in stark contrast with the pale sand. The creature inched forward, seething through the foam. The man tipped a beer can to his mouth, swallowing the last drops, then made a big show of tucking it into his pocket. As the woman smiled and turned away, bending down to pick up a shell, the man pulled the beer can out of his pocket and hurled it towards the sea. Filth?
Helena spun as a massive creature lunged forward out of the sea, hurling its body onto the shore. She screamed and backed away, while James stood frozen, staring up in horror. The creature reared to its full height, towering over him, whipping its long tail around his knees and swiping sideways. He tipped over, landing on the sand hard, rolling with the force. Helena heard something crack; James yowled and clutched at his knee, now bent at an impossible angle. The creature slithered forward, the enormous craggy mouth opened to its fullest extent. The bright moonlight picked out all the horrible details Helena wished to God she wasn’t seeing—a sodden cardboard jaw, plastered with disposable face masks and plastic surgical gloves. Where teeth should have been, the gaping maw was instead lined with swollen tampons in various shades of rusted red, embedded with razor blades. The creature’s lips looked as if they were made of the broken stems of plastic cutlery, as stained and brittle as old bone.
“What the fuck?” Helena screamed. Was she having some kind of weed-induced hallucination? “James! Run!”
In one easy gulp, the litterbug swallowed him whole. Through small transparent patches of skin, she could see James flailing inside the body, clawing desperately as muddy water filled his lungs. The stench reached her a moment later, strong enough to buckle her knees. She clapped a hand over her mouth, retching, her screams briefly abating against the overpowering stink. James’ movements became more frantic, his fingers slamming again and again on the inside of the creature’s stomach, before he eventually stilled. The body floated, obscured by the occasional plastic bag drifting by.
Snapping its tampon teeth together, the litterbug turned towards the woman, ready to strike a second time. As the sea breeze picked up, it hesitated. The man had smelled like a thousand dropped cigarette butts and shiny foil crisp wrappers. The man had been filth, yes filth, very filth. But this woman smelled of fresh leaves and potato peelings. Her hair held very little microplastic. Even her shoes were made of recycled rubber which had once been part of something hot and oily, the memories sizzling and sparking. Puzzled, the litterbug dropped back onto the sand as the woman ran screaming and stumbling up the beach. Not filth? Not filth, it decided.
The litterbug lumbered back into the sea, striking out for deeper water. The tumescent body of the man bumped against the cavern of its belly as it dove down, riding a fast current, letting the sea carry it west, west, where the biggest filths lived. Something huge, impossible to ignore, calling the litterbug. An oil spill, now close by. A tanker, half-tipped, half aflame, blazed in the middle of the sea. Panicked gulls, iridescent wings thrashing, dragged into the sea by the weight of their own feathers. Sea otters shivering, succumbing to the cold without the properties of their insulating fur, lifeless paws slipping from each other’s grasp. Dolphins scattered, bursting like smooth grey fireworks away from the foul stench that permeated the water. The oil slicked everything it touched on the surface, tainting the sea underneath as the pollutants drifted downwards. The poison landed on sponges and corals, coating them in toxic murk, withering the beautiful blooms into dull lifeless fronds. Crabs scuttled to and fro, clicking and clacking in terror, unable to work out which direction was safety. Filth. Filth. Filth.
The litterbug rose, steadying itself. Swallowing the oil in a steady, gulping motion, its huge serpentine body expanded and contract, soon growing drum-tight against the sheer volume of liquid. Still, it forced itself to continue devouring. Clean, the litterbug thought. The water purified slowly, shaded from purple to a clear, grey-green. The gulls on the surface shook their wings and took grateful flight, escaping into the overcast clouds. The humans on the still blazing tanker pointed and screamed as the litterbug grew larger and larger, shimmering with all the greasy rainbow colours of oil.
Clean. The toxic sludge sloshed against its throat, threatening to spill out again. Clean. A baby sea otter clung to its mother, who groomed it with a desperate tongue, not caring that she was killing herself in the process. Clean.
The litterbug sank down to the ocean floor, pushing its bloated body into the nearest abyss. By the time it hit the floor, displacing a cloud of silt which had not been touched in more than a century, the litterbug’s awareness had dimmed. Not filth, it thought, and flickered out.
A year later, Helena sat astride the stern of a small boat. Behind her, a broad man with a serious face, rowing steadily. In the distance, the looming shape of an oil tanker; at her feet, a plethora of sharp tools and one homemade bomb wrapped in cheery green Christmas-themed paper.
Lindz McLeod is a queer, working-class, Scottish writer and editor who dabbles in the surreal. Her prose has been published by Apex, Catapult, Pseudopod, The Razor, and many more. Her work includes the short story collection TURDUCKEN (Bear Creek Press, 2022) and her debut novel BEAST (Brigids Gate Press, 2023). She is a full member of the SFWA, a Rogue Mentor to six talented mentees, and is represented by Laura Zats at Headwater Literary Management.