Dana’s bed was empty.
At first, Anna Barrington thought her son was in the bathroom. When she went up to knock on the bathroom door, though, the bulky, flop-haired thirteen year-old wasn’t there. Maybe he’s in the living room, Anna thought, turning on her heels to march back downstairs. She could already see her son sitting at the family computer in her mind’s eye, ready to fire off a dozen excuses about how he didn’t feel good enough for school.
He’d been spending so much time on that damned thing lately, on those idiotic gaming forums of his. It was all he and Katie ever talked about. It had reached the point where Anna was strongly considering uninstalling Dana’s Steam account, so he’d at least try to finish his homework, or start it. She’d already uninstalled that Tor browser thing four separate times, and grounded him permanently from using the…
What was it called? The thing from the news, where all the really sick Internet weirdos hung out. The dark web? No.
A modern problem if there ever was one. Even our machines produce garbage.
Anna noticed the trash was full on her way to check the living room, battled briefly with herself whether or not to take it out. It smelled bad enough she decided she had to, taking care not to spill the overflowing bins where their compost, cardboard, paper refuse, and yes, Goddess forbid, even their plastics lived outside the garage.
But when Anna went back inside, D wasn’t in the the living room, either. The computer nook was a hollow of golden light falling through the slatted blinds onto the black glass rectangle of the family’s sparkling new iMac.
Where the hell is he? Anna thought. He must be next door. It is too goddamned early for this crap.
A hint of dread bloomed in Anna as she stepped outside and saw the neighbors, Tom and Jan Schmidt, standing in their driveway. Anna knew immediately from the dumb way Jan glared at her that Dana and Katie weren’t next door, either.
Maybe they went somewhere together. Why is this happening? No. Try not to worry. D is smart. He’s not going to go drown himself in the Santa Cruz harbor just because the Schmidts’ purple-haired daughter tells him to.
A parent’s worst fear is losing a child; that any number of otherwise harmless factors could combine in the wrong way at the wrong time, creating a swell that steals the fragile life of the one they’ve brought into this world. It had certainly always been Anna’s biggest fear. Dana wasn’t a kid who often gave her cause to worry. His idea of fun was hanging out indoors, playing games on the computer. But that slow, gnawing dread overtook her as the Schmidts marched across their perfectly-manicured front lawn and said, “They’re not with you?”
It was all that any of them needed to say. A minute later saw all three of the distraught parents running up and down their little cul-de-sac, shouting and shivering in the cold ocean breeze:
“Come on out, guys, time for school!”
“If your ass isn’t in the Subaru in one minute, I’m going to unplug the router for a month!”
Her thoughts turned into staccato bullets. My baby boy can’t be gone. He’s thirteen years old. Where the hell could they have gone?
“You guys get in the car. I’m going to check the house again,” Tom said. Anna and Jan climbed into the Schmidts’ Subaru while Tom ran inside. Anna took shotgun. She had to navigate a sea of empty Starbucks to-go cups and greasy fast food bags just to reach her seatbelt.
Disgusting. How can anyone create so much garbage? I guess we’re not any better. Our trash is overflowing, too. It just happens to be Odwalla bar wrappers instead of McDonald’s.
Tom appeared a minute later looking pale as a fog bank.
“Oh my god. Oh my god,” Jan muttered from the back seat.
“You know how they are” Anna said, trying to put on her best soothing voice. “Remember when they ran away last time?We found them playing Mario Kart at the Boardwalk Arcade.”
“This is your child’s fault!” Jan said, not bothering to buckle her seat belt as Tom got in the car and fired the engine.
“She left her phone,” Tom said. “There’s a text message.”
Anna leaned over to see. Tom clutched the phone greedily. “Who’s it from?” Anna said.
“I don’t know. It’s green.”
“What does that mean?” Anna said.
“It means it’s not an iMessage,” Jan said.
Tom held the phone up close to his face, squinting. “It’s a group text. None of the numbers are saved in her phone as contacts. There’s a lot of messages in this thread.”
“Yeah, but what does it say?” Anna said.
“Hold on.” Tom read the messages to himself first, then aloud. “Katie said, Just talked to Mother. We’re on our way. She couldn’t have been talking about you,” Tom said to Jan.
“No, I would agree, I don’t think so,” Jan said.
Oh, get on with it, Anna thought. She grabbed the phone out of Tom’s hand, read, “Someone said: Don’t worry. It will be okay. Katie replied, I’m scared.”
Jan whimpered. “Oh, God.”
Tom switched into reverse and rocketed down the driveway, reaching back to pat his wife’s knee as soon as they were clear. “Honey, let’s not jump to conclusions. They’re probably just trying to score some weed.”
“They’re in seventh grade!”
“What was the last message?” Tom said to Anna. “That wasn’t the most recent one. I scrolled up a bit before I started reading.”
Anna’s stomach clenched as she read to the bottom of the thread. “We’re at the pier.”
“Got it. Heading to the pier,” Tom said.
“Wait, there’s more. Don’t forget to ditch your phones before we jump.”
“Ah, shit,” Tom said.
Jan started crying.
It was school rush hour, and West Cliff Drive was already packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic, SUVs and minivans swarming the little two-lane road like schools of black-scaled ocean fish.
“You know, Katie wouldn’t get into any of this crap if your kid didn’t put her up to it,” Jan said.
“Oh, go fuck yourself,” Anna said under her breath.
Tom blared his horn at the driver in front of them, rolled down his window and yelled, “Move, asshole! My daughter is missing!”
The woman driving the Honda Pilot in front of them got out of her car, the strangest confused look seizing her features.“Wait, you too? My little girl ran away from home this morning,” the pant-suited woman said.
Her next sentence was cut off by the man in the lifted truck behind them. “Hey! Did you just say your kid’s missing?”
Tom and the pant-suited woman both turned around and nodded blankly.
“Haven’t seen my boy since last night,” the man in the ten-gallon hat said. “Fourteen. Skinny. About five-foot-five. Loves video games. You seen him?”
Another driver, farther back in the line of traffic, sat on their horn.
Anna smacked Tom on the shoulder. “Go around. There’s no one coming.”
Tom hit the gas and swerved into the empty left lane, a tsunami of belligerent horns sounding off as a few other cars moved to follow him.
By the time they got to the Beach Boardwalk, the line of cars behind them was so long Anna couldn’t see the end. Her nauseous premonition that they weren’t the only parents in town whose children had gone missing was confirmed when she saw that the Boardwalk parking lot was packed full. It was usually empty at this hour, even of tourists.
“There’s nowhere to park,” Tom said, navigating the teeming mass of crying soccer moms and terrified fathers. Anna leapt out of the car. Jan followed. The two women sprinted to join the crowd quickly amassing at the end of the pier.
Anna moaned when she saw it.
A pile of cell phones lay stacked neatly beneath the warning sign reading: Danger! No Jumping. Serious injury or death may occur.
Don’t forget to ditch your phones before we jump.
Jan bawled and buried her face in Anna’s shoulder. They clung together until Tom joined them. Anna didn’t process whatever trite, hopeful platitudes or expressions of worry came next. All she could think about were those three, awful words, burned into her mind like the most toxic of waste products: before we jump.
The memorial was held three days later at dusk. One hundred and fifteen candles were arranged in a huge heart at the end of the Santa Cruz Municipal Pier, one for each of the missing kids. The bodies were never found. The official statement given at the police press conference, then published in the Pacific Times the following morning, was that the children had belonged to some kind of Internet suicide ring run through the Deep Web that had told them to drown themselves. Other, similar cases had been surfacing all up and down the California Coast, some up in Oregon, too, as recently as one week earlier.
But Anna didn’t believe a word of it, not at first. She had known most of those teenagers. Had known Katie and her son. They were good kids.
She held onto that hope that she would see her son again, that it was all just a big practical joke, even after the other parents had left the memorial to go back to their cars and the golden nimbus of the candles dimmed, even as she stood staring at the white caps over the end of the pier and began to strip off her clothes.
Don’t forget to ditch your phone before you jump.
Anna set her phone down on the gap-toothed wooden planks and mounted the white, gull poop-splattered handrail. She let her feet dangle over that black abyss for a moment before jumping off.. The dark, glassy waves gently lapping the tar-slathered pylons below hid things more terrible than she, or any human being could ever imagine, but Anna wasn’t scared of dying anymore. How could she be, when she had lost a child?
Slowly, Anna slid her butt over the rough wood and threw herself into the sea.
Cold, briny water enveloped her, a world of darkness absolute. She resurfaced, drew a deep breath, and began to swim. The waves were slow and small, but she still struggled not to let them push her back to shore, kicking and paddling at full speed until the lights of the Boardwalk were distant stars behind her and only the rolling, panoramic shadow of the Pacific Ocean lay ahead.
A single thought haunted Anna as she swam. I should’ve been a better mother. It was losing Dana’s father, wasn’t it?
No, it was this toxic, modern culture. It was…
When she could swim no further, Anna stopped and treaded water. Her muscles ached with exhaustion. She slowly became aware of all the infinite fathoms beneath her, and though she wasn’t rationally afraid of dying, it filled her with the deep, primal fear every human being feels when they swim in the ocean out of sight of land, tiny, naked, and alone.
Except Anna wasn’t alone.
There was something else with her.
It was too dark to see anything but the outline of the slow, crumbling waves, but Anna could feel it rising, displacing hundreds of millions of gallons of water underneath her, an incomprehensible mass of Lovecraftian proportions. Warm jets pummeled her legs. A raging froth began to dance upon the surface of the water.
Anna tried to swim away, but it knew she was there. Anna couldn’t escape. It was directly below her now, suddenly surfacing all around.
A hundred and fifteen heads broke the surface, becoming a hundred and fifteen pairs of wet, unblinking eyes, a hundred and fifteen pruny teenage bodies, a hundred and fifteen pairs of pale feet dripping where they floated above the black, swirling brine.
The dead children were draped in thick seaweed that dangled between them in crisscrossing vines, a giant web anchored somewhere beneath the waves. It smelled like rot and sickness and death, a nauseating, inorganic odor that reminded Anna of going to the landfill.
Not seaweed, she realized, looking closer at the vines. It’s trash. Thousands of tons of trash: plastic, electronics, everything else we throw away, all melted and growing and fused together.
A fucking trash monster stole my child.
“D-Dana?” Anna called.
The trash-thing shifted, and a boy that had her son’s face, his hair and eyes, but did not speak with her son’s voice, moved to the forefront of the levitating crowd.
“Anna,” the thing wearing her son’s face said.
“M-mama’s h-here, b-baby. W-we’re going h-home,” Anna said.
“There is no home. Only Mother,” the thing with her son’s face said.
The drowned children chanted in unison a grim chorus that echoed across the water: “Mother is justice. Mother is love.”
Anna yelped, swallowing a mouthful of sea water. “C-come on, b-baby. W-we n-need to leave.”
“He belongs to the future.” The one with her son’s face did not emote. When he spoke, dark water dribbled from his stiff, bloated lips.
The children reprised: “Mother carries us on the swell.”
Anna felt her strength fleeing. She gasped and kicked hard to keep her mouth above the salty, bitter drink. “Where’s-s my s-son?” she demanded.
“New life blooms in the gyre of the old. Your offspring will be taken, your cities washed away like sand in the tide. This is merely a courtesy. Know this, and rejoice,” the thing with her son’s face said.
“The swell carries us to a glorious future,” the dead children sang.
“Give me… back… my son,” Anna said.
“Mother brings peace. She will heal the world you have poisoned. Peace blooms inside the gyre. Know this, and rejoice.”
“We are going to a better world,” the dead children said, their drowned voices joyful as they sank back beneath the black mirror of the waves.
“W-wait!” Anna screamed. “Dana! G-give… him… back… P-please…”
But the sea was empty. The swell had passed, leaving Anna to cry in the darkness alone. She treaded water for as long as she could.
Adam Vine’s previous Trigger Warning story “The Offering” can be accessed on our site. He recently made a pro short fiction sale to Abyss & Apex Magazine and his 2016 debut novel Lurk is available on Audible.