This was originally written for Jolene Hayley’s Beware the Seas showcase last fall. I’m missing the beach in this snowy winter, though, so I’m reposting it here. I hope you enjoy!
TWs: Blood, a small wound, mass death, death of a parent
My skin tingled from the salt spray of the ocean and my hair whipped around my face as I meandered my way down the beach with Oscar at my side. His black fur stood out against the pale sand, despite the early morning gloom.
My eyes skittered over the colorful shells that spotted the sand, not yet picked over by the other beachgoers who would soon join us. I hadn’t yet found the one I would take home today, but I knew it was waiting for me somewhere along the high tide line.
The sun peaked its sleepy head over the horizon. The red and golden hues of the sky reflected off the choppy, churning waves. A storm was coming.
Not looking where I was going, I stepped on something sharp and cried out. Oscar barked in alarm, crowding around me as I sank to the ground and cradled my bloody foot. Shooing Oscar away, I inspected it but couldn’t tell how bad the cut was. Blood and sand stuck to my skin. Tears pricked at my eyes as I looked back the way we came. We were a good two miles from my car, and I had nothing to bandage the wound with.
The tail of a half-buried conch tinged red with my blood caught my eye. It stuck out from the sand, almost invisible while we were walking, but sharp enough to puncture my poor foot.
Pounding on the wet sand made me whip my head around. A man was running toward us! I waved my arm at him, and he waved back. As he got closer, Oscar barked his head off and ran in a circle, so I grabbed his collar and held on, which left me without free hands to signal that I needed the man’s help and wasn’t just being friendly. As a result, the jogger flew past us, kicking up clumps of sand in his wake.
“Hey!” I yelled at his retreating back. He ignored me, probably a result of his earbuds, and continued on his way. I choked back a sob and buried my face in Oscar’s damp fur. The two miles back to my car seemed like an insurmountable distance on an injured foot. I counted to ten and breathed in and out.
When Oscar started whining from being held in place, I let him go. He raced down to the water, and back to me, then back to the water. Normally, I’d have laughed and dug my phone out for a video. Instead, I sat in pain and dread, not wanting to start my journey home.
I glanced down at the shell again and before I knew what I was doing, I dug it out of the sand. It lay in the palm of my hand, the red splashed across it contrasting with the stark white of the shell. I didn’t know why I felt so attached to it, but I figured that if it had tasted my blood, that surely made it mine. I couldn’t let some other beachcomber claim it for themself.
I struggled to my feet, a maneuver that took longer than it should have due to a yapping dog playing around my legs. Instead of heading back the way we came, though, I hobbled down to the water’s edge. Waves lapped at the beach, not quite reaching me. Oscar stopped playing as soon as I stopped walking. He sat by my side, alert but silent.
The shell weighed heavy in my hand. With all the strength I could muster, I heaved it out into the churning water. It flew farther than I thought possible, seeming to travel hundreds of yards, before a tendril of water rose up from the top of a cresting wave to grab it.
I blinked. It must have been a trick of the light. Or an oddity of wave science. Tendrils don’t just rise up out of the water. The wave breaking must have sprayed water into the air, appearing to swallow the shell with intention.
After several more minutes, the ache in my foot grew stronger. A quick glance down showed me a puddle of red around my right heel. With a shaky breath, Oscar and I began the long hobble back to my car, leaving bloody footprints in our wake.
The storm I’d predicted early that morning raged against the walls of my house that night. Rain pelted the windows with such force I was convinced they would break. The wind howled, and I feared it would rip the roof off. The house twisted and swayed on its stilts, and I imagined them snapping, sending us tumbling into the canal.
I sat wrapped in a blanket in front of the empty fireplace. Oscar cowered against me whining softly to himself, and I absentmindedly ran one hand along his back, and my other hand along the bandages on my foot. The wound, once cleaned, showed a perfectly round puncture. It was small, but deep. I’d keep an eye on it, but I hoped it wouldn’t need a visit to the doctor.
Oscar quaked with fear, an unfortunately contagious emotion. I wanted nothing more than to light a fire, to bask in its comfort and warmth, but it was too dangerous to open the flue. So I sat in the darkened room, the soft glow of candles around us, their pale light a promise that I would see tomorrow dawn bright.
A bolt of lightning flashed, illuminating the shades pulled down over the windows. Thunder cracked, and I jumped. It sounded like the world was breaking open. My heart hammered in my chest, threatening to burst free. My hands curled around the blanket, pulling it tighter around me, and I buried my face in it.
Oscar jumped down from the couch and stood in front of me. His low growls blended in with the storm howling outside the walls, but his hackles were raised and his teeth were bared.
“What is it, buddy?” I asked. He rarely acted this way, and I didn’t dare touch him while he was like this. It didn’t matter how much I wanted to pull him into me and whisper that it would all be over soon.
Something heavy dragged across the back deck. Lightning cast a shadow across the windows, the outline of a tall, human-shaped thing. Oscar’s growling morphed into frantic barking, his front legs leaving the floor each time he barked.
Something hit the door with a loud bang. I couldn’t move, could hardly breathe. With shaking hands, I covered my mouth to hold in a scream. Another loud band, and the spell was broken. I stood up, leaving my security blanket on the couch and grabbed the closest weapon-looking thing I could find–a ceramic bowl my mother had given me for my birthday the previous year. Hefting it, I limped toward the door, but Oscar blocked my way.
“Stop it, buddy. Maybe… Maybe someone’s caught out in the storm and needs our help.” My voice cracked on the last word. I glanced at the bowl-weapon, and briefly wondered if I really believed that.
I tried moving around Oscar again anyway. Again, he blocked my path. For such a small dog, he sure was a pain sometimes.
Another bang on the door. The house rattled with the force. Another flash of lightning showed the shadow of a monster. No, I corrected myself, the shadow of a person that only looks like a monster because of this storm.
After several minutes of bargaining with Oscar, he finally stopped barking and let me by. The lightning and thunder had moved on, leaving the screaming wind and heavy rain behind. Oscar watched, silent once more, as I wrenched the back door open. All that met me was horizontal rain soaking my clothes through the torn screen door.
Looking at the sky the next morning, I’d never have known there had been a storm. The soft purples and yellows belied the mess that greeted me when Oscar and I descended the steps leading down from my front deck.
Garbage and broken branches were strewn across the yard. A tree toppled over in front of my car, missing it by mere inches. I breathed a sigh of relief that it hadn’t smashed right onto the car, and sent a silent thank you to whoever was listening that my driveway wasn’t blocked by the tree. I could back out and take care of it later.
There were more cars than usual in the beach’s parking lot when I got there. I patrolled up and down for several minutes before sliding into a spot someone had just vacated. I was slightly later getting here than most mornings, but a half hour had never made this much of a difference before.
When Oscar and I crested the dunes, following the well-worn path of thousands of feet, a crowd of people facing toward the ocean greeted us. Oscar barked, and a few heads turned our way. I smiled and waved. They blinked and looked away.
Curiosity sang through my veins despite the unnerving feeling that something was very wrong, but I tugged Oscar in the opposite direction from the crowd. He seemed eager to leave, even though it meant walking the wrong way on the beach. I was surprised at his eager acceptance of the change, but didn’t mind.
The wound on my foot throbbed with each step I took away from the crowd. Sharp pain shot up my leg, clawing its way toward my knee. Once Oscar and I were far enough from the other people, I unclipped his leash and sank to the ground. He nuzzled at my pocket where his tennis ball sat.
“Okay, buddy,” I said, and threw the ball down the beach as far as I could. As he raced away, I let out a groan and cradled my foot. The pain was more than a throb now. It was a constant, piercing pain that brought tears to my eyes.
Oscar dropped the ball in my lap. Where he’d normally look expectantly at me, he climbed into my lap and whined. I pet him with both hands, knowing that if I didn’t keep them occupied, I’d peel the bandages from my wound to check on it. I expected a gangrenous mess, but now was not the time to look.
He let me pet him, but when I grabbed the leash to reattach it, he pranced out of my reach.
“Oh, come on.” I got up, tested my weight on my bad foot, and knew I wouldn’t be able to catch him. Tears ran down my cheeks. I bent over and held out the leash.
“Please, buddy. For me?”
Oscar stared at me, his little pink tongue poking from his mouth. He ran down the beach, away from where we came.
I didn’t want to leave him, but I hoped that maybe someone in the crowd could help me. I hobbled back the way we came. With every step, the pain in my leg receded back into my foot. By the time I reached the crowd, the throbbing was almost non-existent.
“Excuse me?” I waved to get the attention of a woman standing near the back of the crowd. She turned to me, her face impassive, her eyes unblinking. “Um. I was just wondering if you might be able to help me catch my dog?”
She blinked once, finally, then looked away from me. How rude. I turned to the little boy standing next to her.
“Can you help me catch my dog?” I asked him. He hid behind his mother’s leg.
Oscar woofed softly behind me. His hackles were raised, his teeth bared, but he made no other sound. When I reached down to clip his leash on, he snapped at me and I jerked back. I stumbled into a row of people in the crowd, and we all fell into a writhing heap.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” I said. I tried to get up, but there was nowhere to put my hands to push myself up without squishing someone’s arm or leg. But no one protested or complained, or even said “screw you, lady.” They all lay there, arms flailing like when a beetle gets flipped upside down.
Somehow, I extricated myself. I crawled forward, curiosity finally getting the better of me. I needed to see what they were all staring at. Oscar woofed again, then growled. I ignored him. It was easy wending my way through the forest of legs, and I made it to the front of the group in several seconds.
I gasped. The beach had been carved away in the previous night’s storm, exposing a giant tangle of driftwood. Except the wood didn’t look ocean-worn, and it was vaguely human-shaped…
Something wet bumped the back of my arm, and I shrieked. Oscar had the good sense to look apologetic, or so I thought, but his hackles were still up. I clipped his leash on while I had the chance, and stood.
The wood in the sand hollow quivered. The crowd pressed closer, sweeping Oscar and me along with them. We now had front row seats to whatever was going on, but I wasn’t sure I wanted them. The unnatural silence was broken only by Oscar’s barking and the pounding waves.
Whatever was holding these people in a trance seemed to break when the thing moved. It rose slowly, as if awaking from a deep slumber. Someone in the crowd passed out. Two more people followed suit. Dropping Oscar’s leash, I rushed over to check on them. His barks reached a crescendo as the thing grew taller and more people fell.
I couldn’t find a pulse. I raced from person to person, checking their necks and their wrists, but they were all gone. All… dead…
The thing towered over me, pulled up to its full height. Seaweed hung in clumps from its head and limbs. Its long fingers reached out to grab me, but it drew back when a giant, black ball of fur chomped down on its leg and shook its head.
It raised its hand to strike my beloved Oscar, so I dove toward its legs and hugged my pup to my chest. The blow never came. Instead, I felt a vice-like grip squeeze my sides and the earth slipping away from me. I held onto Oscar like a lifeline.
“What do you want from me?” I screamed. It brought me level with its craggy face. I glared at what I thought was an eye.
“You gave me a gift.” Its voice emanated from everywhere and nowhere. If my hands weren’t full of squirming dog, I’d have clamped my hands over my ears to block out the horrid sound.
“I did not. Now put me down.”
It cocked its head at me, and if it had a nose, I was convinced it would be sniffing the air. It brought its other hand up and grabbed my dangling legs, flipping me upside down. I lost my grip on Oscar, and he fell to the ground. It was only a few feet, and the soft sand broke his fall, so he was up on his feet and barking as soon as he shook off being stunned.
Blood rushed to my head. The pounding and pressure made it hard to think. The creature peeled the bandage off my foot.
“You chose me,” it said.
“Put me down,” I whispered. I couldn’t manage anything louder.
Gently, the creature placed me on the sand at its feet. It knelt beside me and caressed my hair.
“My bride,” it said.
It pulled its hand back, and let it hang at its side. “You chose me.
Realization dawned. The ocean had reached a hand out of the waves yesterday.
“I stepped on a shell and it stabbed me. I gave it back to the ocean. It wasn’t for you.”
The creature sat on the sand next to me and stared out at the crashing waves. The sun had risen fully, and its reflection dappled the murky water.
“What did you do to all those people?” I asked.
“You chose me. I had to come.”
I craned my neck and looked at the pile of people behind us. So many lives lost, and for what? For this creature to have enough energy to woo me? My heart broke when I saw the little boy shaking his mom’s arm. Oscar picked his way over to the boy, and nuzzled his arm. The boy threw his arms around my dog’s neck and sobbed.
“Was it worth it?” I pointed behind us.
The creature said nothing. When I turned to demand that it answer, it stood and waded out into the water. I watched until its head disappeared beneath the waves.
My foot was bleeding again, but it wasn’t infected like I thought it would be. Still probably best to see the doctor.
I limped through the pile of bodies and scooped up Oscar’s leash and the small boy. He protested at leaving his mother, but I wanted to get him away from all that death. I didn’t know what I was going to tell the police, but I’d come up with something good.
No one would ever believe the truth.