“Kishar is coming.”
As a production assistant, it was Olivia’s job to prescreen show applications. The principle of the show was simple: People who have never met their Internet sweetheart get to meet in person. Some had good stories but travel expenses made uniting them cost prohibitive. Some couples were obviously faking their story trying to score a free vacation. Some weren’t interested in being found, while others were boring to watch. Sometimes the people were who they said they were. Usually they weren’t.
Most were what they called “catfish,” after an old fisherman’s trick of putting catfish in among cod to keep them active. While some on the Internet thought they were talking to their fellow cod, they were actually being put through their paces by these fake accounts. No matter what, during each episode the audience got the drama they wanted. It was Olivia’s job to unearth the chaos of human contact so it could be filmed and sent via satellite to the world.
Olivia had been following her boss, Jonathan, around the office as he scurried from one person to another, first discussing lighting arrangements for the next episode, then moving on to the hosts to check on a wardrobe issue, then circling back around to production for another cup of coffee. She was finally able to catch his attention to tell him that Kishar was coming to Atlanta.
Jonathan had a million things on his to-do list and needed his information to the point. “Who is this again?”
“Keihana and Kishar.” Olivia refreshed his memory on the file. “Keihana, age 18, Iranian-American away at college in New Orleans and rebelling against strict, overprotective parents who restricted her access to computers, media, and dating. Kishar, her online boyfriend, is allegedly 19 and a part-time swimsuit model, part-time rapper. Insert dramatic cough here.”
“Is there anyone on the Internet who isn’t a rapper-slash-model at this point?”
“I think it’s mandatory now. It’s the new Captcha test. Instead of ‘Are you a robot?’ you can’t login unless you check the box saying you have a mixtape and a modeling portfolio.”
“Of course. Did they exchange pics?”
“Yes, but no video. His pics traced back to a legitimate account in Europe.”
“So we know he’s definitely not who he says he is.”
“Right.” Olivia struggled to keep instep with her boss, who was now weaving in and out of the desks in the open floorplan office. “The odds of Kishar turning out to be a distraught, manipulative woman from Nebraska struggling with weight issues and emotional problems are pretty good.”
“Is she camera-ready?”
Olivia recognized the euphemism. “She’s cute. Has a significant Instagram following despite not having access to social media until recently. Her fish-out-of-water story will play well with audiences, the whole Middle Eastern upbringing in a Western world thing. With a little coaching she should be appealing enough. They also met on Fornax, a platform we haven’t featured yet.”
“Yeah, I’d never heard of it before I vetted their application.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be keeping up with this stuff? This is why I hire you kids.”
At 24, Olivia was hardly a kid, and at 32, Jonathan was hardly the old man he claimed to be. Still, his point was taken. “It’s not that popular. Most of our demo is still using Snapchat, with some of the younger kids migrating to TikTok. Facebook was only used for verification of a formal identity, as most kids only used it to give their parents something to look at.
“I’m trying. I have an account now. It doesn’t seem very popular. It could be a geographic thing. From what we can tell Kishar alleges he’s Pacific Islander.”
“Oh, right. The kid from Papua New Guinea, right?”
“Right. That was why the file wound up in the ‘No’ pile. Except, according to Keihana, Kishar is moving to Atlanta soon to be with his mother, which makes it much more affordable from a travel budget perspective. Keihana reached out again because she’s nervous to meet his mom.”
“What was the deal with his mother?”
“Child of divorce I guess. Kishar never mentions his father, says his mother split up when he was young. I assume English is his second language because those were his exact words, his mother split up.”
“Could just signify he’s a mama’s boy.”
“Maybe, but apparently he doesn’t know his mother very well either. He says they moved around a lot. He said his mother used to live in the Persian Gulf, somewhere called Eridu? Keihana didn’t know it. Then they moved to the Pacific somewhere.”
“Right, Papua New Guinea or something?”
“So we think.” His profile said he was born June 1997 in R’lyeh, but that wasn’t a real place. In his first message to her, he told Keihana he felt drawn to her because she was Iranian and he was “Irianian.” Olivia had to look this up: Early colonial name for the island of New Guinea, meaning “to rise.” Indonesia or Papua New Guinea seemed plausible. He was definitely in a different time zone, and Oceania. It also seemed to be the closest place to what he described on his account, but who could tell. He could be from Guam for all she knew. There was a picture of Wake Island on his page, a strange U.S. territory she’d never heard of that was really a ring around a lagoon made by three islets and controlled by the military. Maybe he was an Air Force brat?
As much as they joked about Kishar being in some midwestern state, she was fairly certain he was in the southern hemisphere. One night he’d chatted with Keihana for hours about astrology and their destiny together, and Olivia hadn’t recognized any of the constellations. Kishar said it was important that Keihana was an Aquarius, the water-bearer. Kishar also said that when she was born Mars was in Felis and Venus was in Gallus, so that made her stubborn and strong-willed, and her moon was in Eridanus, he said, which was compatible with his mother, who was a Cetus. He said they were destined to be together forever, that he knew she would open up new possibilities for him, that he couldn’t wait for all of them to be together. Typical game. It was easy for these guys to be grandiose in their plans when their one true love was hundreds or thousands of miles away.
He frequently used odd words or place names, and Papua New Guinea had a significant number of indigenous languages. Olivia was a bit of a language nerd and enjoyed the detective aspects of her job. The preliminary investigation was always the fun part for her. The hosts would repeat some of the steps she took on camera, but she was the one who formed the initial theories and decided whether the application was worth forwarding to management.
She’d never had one make it to air before. She was hopeful this would be her chance.
There were significant cultural differences in his conversations that suggested he was from a very different world than Keihana or Olivia. Perhaps this mystery and difference were what drew Keihana to him. Olivia had strict, religious parents herself, but they were Catholic. She couldn’t imagine how hard growing up must have been for Keihana, particularly in the small, New England town where her Iranian parents still lived. Having someone to talk to must have meant everything to her. She had defied her parents and used social media while allegedly using the computer to apply for colleges. Kishar was probably the only close relationship she had ever had, and was definitely the closest Keihana had had for the last year.
Olivia pictured how heartbroken Keihana would be when she found out Kishar wasn’t who he said he was. She could see Keihana’s lovely doe eyes tearing up as she realized she’d been lied to. Olivia wondered if she’d cry openly, or try to wear a brave face and stoically listen to Kishar’s confession about why he’d (or she’d, or they’d) done it. Would they become friends? Would they be able to film a reunion between Kishar and his mother? Would Kishar’s mother turn out to be overbearing and awful? At some point Keihana might have to video conference in her conservative parents, mediated by the hosts, of course, and tell them of her secret life. She could see the promo for the episode, HER episode, playing out step by step. It would make for great TV, no matter what happened.
If only she could convince Jonathan.
“It’ll play well,” she said with a confidence she didn’t really feel. “If he’s really got mommy issues, his reuniting with her will provide drama. If he’s someone totally different, we’ve still got Keihana against the backdrop of New Orleans. It’s perfect for television no matter what happens.”
Jonathan stopped his roving and looked at her. He took a deep breath as he read her expression, which she hoped was as determined and tough as she was trying to project. Please, let this be her time, please.
“OK, you got it. Run the background info and we’ll put it on the schedule.”
“Are we sure Kishar is coming?” Jonathan glared at Olivia, mentally calculating the time and money wasted so far. The Episode, her big break, was NOT going well.
Although her initial legwork revealed that, if nothing else, Kishar was definitely lying about where he lived, the show had failed to contact Kishar’s friends, or even identify his real name, which made the first part of the show run thin. Secondly, Keihana was starting to lose hope, which was not as compelling as Olivia had thought it would be. Thirdly, the hosts were losing their charm, which meant lots of editing when the team returned to the production offices.
Their schedule was screwed.
Day one: Hosts meet the “hopeful” (a.k.a. the sucker getting duped.) They “research” the Catfish (usually repeating the predetermined searches Olivia did during the prescreening process), and show the hopeful what they’ve found. Usually this means proving that the “catfish” has a “mask”, i.e., someone whose pictures and information they’ve been stealing. Because Kishar seemed to be from another planet, they were struggling to have enough content to fill the normal twenty minutes.
They were also having trouble getting in touch with Kishar, despite Olivia’s prior contact with him. He’d promised by Fornax message in pre-production that if the team brought Keihana to the correct location, he and his mother would both show up, but so far they had yet to materialize. He also hadn’t returned the release forms. The day of the big meeting came but only the crew and the hopeful showed up at the park by the lake Kishar had selected. Kishar was no where to be seen. The hosts messaged him via the app. He kept giving them directions to locations in the park, but when they got there, no one was there. They were now at their fourth stop.
Olivia was sitting in one of the cars the production team had caravaned to the shoot, double-checking her phone when Jonathan asked about Kishar from the other side of the window. She opened the door as he repeated his question. “Are we absolutely sure Kishar is coming?”
Olivia wasn’t but she lied. “Absolutely. He may just be lost. Let’s just give him a little longer.”
Jonathan remained unconvinced and looked pissed. He slammed the car door shut again as he walked back to the hosts. No one was filming and everyone was cranky.
Even though the car she was in was off, the car stereo lights began to flicker and static started to play. There were strange noises, bubbling and wooshing, and something she didn’t even have the words to describe. Suddenly she heard a voice over the speakers. “We’re coming,” he said. “Wait for us. We’re coming.” The static, and the other noise started to grow louder, and louder, and the unnatural crescendo terrified her.
In a split second it was over, the car dark, and she wondered if she’d hallucinated it. The production crew had been drinking a little later than they should have last night. She celebrated her first episode a little hard, and the effects of the alcohol still had a hold on her brain.
After another twenty minutes Jonathan called it a day.
Back at the motel, Olivia couldn’t shake her nerves. She’d picked up a cheap bottle of red wine at the liquor store on the corner, figuring that the only cure for her failure was the hair of the dog that bit her the night before. She was combing through the file to find some clue that could turn things around. She had to find Kishar, whoever was running the account, and convince them to meet.
She poured her third glass of wine and reviewed different words she’d scribbled in the marginalia of her notes, things that seemed meaningless at the time but could perhaps be helpful now. She searched for Kishar’s name and found a reference to an ancient text, the Enuma Elish. Kishar was a female character’s name. Could that mean that Kishar wasn’t the boyfriend he claimed to be?
She began with his location of origin, R’lyeh. A quick search revealed this place wasn’t real. Originally an island in an H. P. Lovecraft story, it was where Cthulu the sea monster lived. Sea monsters seemed to be a recurring theme for Kishar. She searched using his header image and found a page on Makara, a sea-creature of the Hindu gods. Makara were the vehicles of river and sea gods, and served as gatekeepers of thresholds. In Hindu astrology, the sign was equal to Capricorn.
Astrology. She looked up the constellations he’d mentioned and discovered that some of the names weren’t even used anymore. Some were made up in the 19th century, while others existed but weren’t zodiac signs. In fact, to find some of the “signs” Kishar had mentioned she had to look at the opposite side of the chart, not just upside down, but backwards, to find them. Even accounting for Kishar being from the southern hemisphere didn’t explain it. Was he just confused? Dyslexic?
Cetus, for instance was a real constellation, but where Pisces was supposed to be. Was it a joke? Cetus the Whale of a Tale? As she looked into it further she found that Cetus wasn’t always called the Whale. Originally, it was envisioned as an enormous creature with flipper-front paws, a mermaid tail at the rear, and tentacles running all along the body in between. She looked at Eridanus, the River where Cetus was supposed to swim. She thought it was strange that the creature was supposed to be in fresh water when it was supposed to be a sea monster.
The mingling of fresh and salt water, or the wine bottle she’d finished, stirred a memory from her Myths of the World class. Something about the Enuma Elish… She looked up the story of Tiamat once more.
In the beginning, according to the Babylonians, there was the abyss, an endless world of turbulent, dark waters and chaos. Tiamet, the saltwater goddess, and Apsu the fresh water god mated and had their children, the gatekeepers at their temple of Eridu. (Eridu? Why did that sound familiar? She made a note to look it up.) Their grandchildren were Earth’s End and Heaven’s End, who themselves gave birth to land and sky at the horizon line. Kishar meant Earth’s End.
Olivia entered Keihana’s name in the search bar: Cosmos, universe.
It was getting late, but she couldn’t stop looking for a clue. Was Kishar a mythology student? A marine biologist? Was Kishar a woman? If so, was she a lesbian or just looking for a friend? How would Keihana handle that? How would Keihana’s PARENTS handle that?
Olivia reread the messages Keihana had sent the show and began to get uncomfortable. She had initially read as Kishar’s lack of familiarity with English and the exaggerated intensity of teen love but now began to seem danger in them. Frequently the romantic overtones were melodramatic. They were destined to be together forever, only Keihana could make everything right again.
Olivia began to worry that maybe Kishar was a threat. Kishar seemed obsessed. Were they (Olivia was no longer comfortable assuming Kishar was the “he” being presented) a stalker? Suicidal? Homicidal? It was somehow connected to Kishar’s reunion with his/her/their mother. Many messages emphasized how important Keihana was in making the reunion happen.
Kishar was also determined to meet in New Orleans. Every message mentioned meeting at Lakeview park near Lake Pontchartrain. It seemed strange that someone who had never been to the United States before would be so concerned with the geography. Kishar also mentioned the significance of New Orleans as the “gateway between many waters.” Was this more evidence of a field of interest? Messages made references to rivers and lakes, gulfs and oceans, salt water and fresh water.
Feeling even more tangled up in the mystery, Olivia decided the surest way to unravel it would be to stumble back to the liquor store for another bottle of wine. As she walked down the driveway of the “reasonably priced accommodations” the show reserved for the production team, she heard someone call out to her.
“Can’t sleep?” Olivia could barely make out the man in the shadow of the lodge’s street sign, but thought the voice was Jamie’s, one of the sound guys on the show.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed yourself? Early call tomorrow, right?” The sound department had to get the microphones setup early, rechecking the audio in the vehicles, the booms for location shooting, and the individual mics for each host.
“Thought I’d go out for supplies.”
They walked to the liquor store together and bitched about the long day they’d had. Olivia knew her career was hanging on this shoot working out, and told Jamie about her research. Jamie had been doing some late night Wikipedia-crawling himself.
“You ever heard of Bloop?” he asked. “I spent all night trying to identify a sound we picked up on the mics today. Finally found it.”
“So what caused it?”
“Dunno. I found it on a list of unexplained sounds. But it was definitely a Bloop.”
“OK,” Olivia said, “I’ll bite. What’s a Bloop?”
“It’s exactly what it sounds like. In 1997 microphones put underwater by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration picked up an unexplained sound. That sound was a Bloop.”
Jamie loaded up a recording of it on his phone and it sounded exactly like what it was: a bloop.
“And they never figured out what it was?”
“They theorized that it was an icequake, like a glacial earthquake. It sort of sounds like a whale sound, or a giant bubble surfacing, except it was louder than the largest whale. That year there were a lot of mysterious and unexplained sounds in the ocean…”
Olivia began to tune out Jamie’s long-winded explanations of the history of the NOAA hydrophone arrays, and of assorted other mysterious ocean sounds with not-so-mysterious names like Slowdown, Train, and Julia. They arrived at the store, made their purchases, and left together.
“Wait, why were you looking into those things again?” Olivia asked.
“You know, the bleep. And Julia.”
“Bloop. There was a sound like that on the mics today. All of them. If it had just been a couple, I would have assumed it was something nearby, or a single brand I’d think there was a defect or frequency problem, but it was all of them, all of them at the same time. Bloop, then back to normal, shortly before we left for the day.”
“So what caused it?”
“No idea,” Jamie laughed. “Luckily, that’s Chris’s problem. We’ll see if it happens again.”
Olivia thought of the weird sound problems in the car. “Did anything else weird happen? Like… in the car?”
“Oh, you mean your call with Kishar? Seriously, your phone’s speakers are terrible. Stop using speaker phone.”
“But it wasn’t…” Olivia stopped herself before she sounded insane. Yup, just a plain old speaker phone call on the car stereo with a person they couldn’t find whose number they didn’t have.
“Don’t argue, they’re terrible. People who play audio on their phone speakers should be punished by law.” Jamie launched into an extensive rant on the quality of low cost Bluetooth speakers until Olivia was saved by the door to her room.
She woke up the next morning hunched over the cheap desk in the motel room, smudges of ink from her notes on her face and a red glass rung from her glass on the paper. She was no closer to finding a way to hunt down Kishar. Her notes looked like gibberish.
Kishar. Tiamat. Mom is a Cetus. R’lyeh —> Cthulu. Irianian. Rising.
Eridanus, rivers of the world. Tiamat cut in half to make rivers. New Orleans: Mississippi River.
Aquifer. Boundaries between salt and fresh waters.
She had added “Bloop: 1997” and circled it a few times. She drew an arrow between this and Kishar’s alleged birth year of 1997, as though it were somehow all connected. For good measure she’d written “Catfish” and “Sea Monster” next to some poorly drawn doodles of fish and squid. She’d underlined “Earth’s End” about 10 times. All she needed now was to tack her notes to a wall with yarn randomly connecting the pages and she could be a real conspiracy theorist.
She checked the clock on her phone and realized she’d missed AM call. There were a dozen or so angry texts from Jonathan, and a friendly one from Jamie. She was screwed.
She rushed to brush the stains out of her mouth and called an Uber.
Traffic was thick on the way to the park. The Uber driver told her that something had happened to the Lake Pontchartrain causeway. It had been shutdown so engineers could check it, and traffic was backed up in all directions. There were no alternate routes that weren’t clogged. She would just have to be patient and hope the crew was also caught in the snarl of cars.
She texted Jamie who responded that the crew was on-site, Kishar had responded to the hosts and was expected any moment. She was going to miss the whole thing!
She tapped her foot impatiently, knowing she was trapped, knowing it was too late. The morning traffic report was back on the radio, this time from the station chopper with news on the causeway backup. Apparently engineers had seen bubbles forming around the bridges at the center of the lake and were worried the causeway might be collapsing, or that the ground underneath may have become unstable.
Her phone dinged again, presumably from Jamie since Jonathan wasn’t answering her.
“Don’t come,” it read. Jonathan must have told Jamie she wasn’t welcome.
“Run. Get out of here,” the next text read.
“I get it,” she composed. “I’m fired.”
“No,” the reply came, quickly. “It was a trap. She has risen. Run.”
Olivia typed a response into her phone. “She who? Keihana? Is Kishar a woman? What trap?”
“No. Not a woman,” Jamie’s text read. “A gateway. Kishar’s mom. Run.”
“What?” Olivia texted. She started at her screen awaiting a response until her attention snapped back to the radio. The traffic reporter’s voice had stopped droning on and began to sound frantic as the helicopter lowered to see the damage to the causeway.
“Oh dear God. Oh God.” The reporter’s voice became more and more panicked. “The causeway, it’s gone. The whole center is gone. There are bubbles, giant bubbles all over the surface of the lake. Are boats sinking? Is that what…? The bubbles are huge, oil tanker huge. What…” the reporter stopped short as he realized he was still on the air. “Ladies and gentleman, we have emerging news here, the causeway appears to be collapsing. I’m not certain what I’m seeing here, but if you are headed toward Lake Pontchartrain, you should definitely make other plans.”
The Uber driver looked back at her, his raised eyebrows visible in the rear view mirror. “You still want to go the park?”
Olivia glanced at her phone, seeing if Jamie would reply, when she heard a familiar noise on the radio, impossibly loud over the helicopter blades. “A Bloop!” she responded to the Uber driver.
The traffic reporter began to babble about tentacles.
“A what?” the driver asked.
Her answer was drowned out by the traffic reporter’s screams.