You walk alone on a crowded beach, guided by nothing but painful memories. Foamy waves lap the shore, coolly rushing over your bare feet, their crashes like phantom whispers in the salty sea breeze. Daylight wanes. The shimmering sea is in the midst of swallowing the sun.
Around you, families lazily pack their belongings, tuckered out from another day spent beneath the sun’s beating rays. Some fold beach chairs and shake sand from towels; others dump ice water from coolers then reload leftover sodas and beers. Unthinking acts.
As you pass, a handful of adults pause to stare. They lean close and whisper to one another, watching you—that frazzled woman—with concerned, furrowed eyebrows. You’re a familiar sight in the small community, your face plastered on the front page of the local weekly. But none of them reach out to you. Instead, they hasten their pace, as if you’re a stigma, as if your presence is toxic.
Though you want to grab them by the shoulders and scream in their gawking faces, you don’t confront them. You simply watch the advancement and withdrawal of murky water, following your one-track mind around stalagmite sand castles and eroding beach pail forts.
Unmistakably metropolitan, you’re dressed in a black dress skirt and matching button-up blouse. Somewhere far behind, you shed your stilettos and hosiery, watching them disappear into the surf.
The sea claims many things; you intimately know this truth.
One foot in front of the other, you think, mimicking the tired advice of your grief counselor. Just one foot in front of the other.
Eyes closed, you relish the wind’s tickle against your cheeks, like invisible cherub fingers. And that’s when you feel it.
At first the gentle tug barely registers in your mind. Then it comes again, more insistent, and the world snaps into focus.
Turning, you see a familiar boy, just six-years-old, standing by your side. He holds the tails of your blouse in a tiny, pruned fist. His wet black hair glitters in the peach sunset. Sludge leaks from his cauliflower ears, which frame a pallid, bloated face. His skin is dappled with pulsating purple sores, and his eyes are cloudy, as if cataracts have seeped beyond the lenses and enveloped the irises. Busted veins paint the sclerae red.
You don’t feel revulsion at the sight of your dead son, only longing.
Brayden reaches into his tattered, floral board shorts and grabs something. Fist held out to you, he nods a single time as his fingers unfurl.
You scoop the sand dollar from your son’s clammy palm. He always loved scouring the beach for them. But this one’s edges are sharpened. The central flower-like figure is flushed black against an otherwise ivory body. You trace the figure with a finger. Its consistency is pulpy like wet papier-mâché. The sand dollar reeks of rancid flesh and sulfur.
Nausea slaps your brain, skewering your equilibrium. Your throat constricts as bile sears your esophagus. You swallow the urge to gag.
Reaching out to steady yourself on your son’s shoulder, you catch only air.
The boy is gone. Again immaterial.
Beyond the sand dunes, in the parking lot, car doors slam and engines sputter to life.
The sulfur scent wafts from upwind.
About fifty yards away, Brayden has reappeared. He slinks into the gloaming on gummy legs, his body wavering as if he’s static in the transmission of existence.
You clutch the sand dollar to your breast and follow your son.
You dream about their disappearance every night. The single scene plays on repeat.
An empty dinghy lolls on gray waves, knocking against shark-tooth rocks near a cliff face. The occupants are nowhere in sight. Near the dinghy, a shredded, child-sized life preserver sways atop the froth.
In the dream, you’re swimming, desperate to reach the dinghy. Whitecaps pummel you like a rag doll. They ensnare your body, pulling you down into the darkness. Water floods into your lungs. The wet suffocation burns, and when it reaches an unbearable peak, you wake, choking on spit and doused in sweat.
Nestled amidst the shrubbery of a secluded sea point, the quaint cottage is tainted. You sense it before you see its shingle roof peeking through the yellowed dune grass. Its corrupted aura permeates the atmosphere.
Of course, he brought me here, you think. Where I lost them.
Thickets scratch your shins as you approach the cottage’s back deck. Downed caution tape runs along the property’s perimeter. The cottage is wind-worn, its olive paint chipped and peeling. Windows are boarded up or covered with trash bags. Burn marks mar the sills. The deck, where you started the blaze, is charred. You can still feel the match’s heat in your palm. The scent of gasoline lingers in your psyche. You shouldn’t be here.
The cottage groans in the wind.
Edging closer, you feel something smooth and slimy wiggle over your foot. Not one small thing, but many things acting as one. You recoil, but then bend down, an attempt to discern what the scuttling mass is in the darkness.
Droves of mildew-colored sand dollars crawl across the ground, like pucks on a shuffle board. Originating from the cottage’s interior, they topple down the deck’s decrepit stairs and inch towards the dock abutting the property.
A dinghy covered in seaweed floats nearby. You follow the undulating trail to it. Sitting in the from seat is Brayden. He pivots, facing you to deliver a wide, orange slice smile. His mouth opens, but instead of a tongue, an isopod writhes inside. Its legs flitter—click-clack, click-clack—and its unblinking eyes stare at you.
You can’t recall boarding the dinghy. Suddenly, you’re seated behind your son, the weathered oars in your grasp. As you row, you notice that a sand dollar is embedded in the base of your son’s neck. It throbs, a slow heartbeat. With each row, the heartbeat quickens.
Eventually the sea stops feeling like the sea. The waters quell, becoming as still as a pond and as silent as the dead. There’s only the heartbeat, rabbiting and unyielding.
Your shoulders sear from exertion, each paddle stroke kindling to the fire in your muscles. You cease rowing.
The sand dollar on Brayden’s back inflates and deflates in a steady rhythm. Though uncertain, you believe it’s feeding on your son’s body, harnessing him in some symbiotic relationship. You lean forward to pry it from his flesh.
The guttural command isn’t vocalized, rather its transmitted into your mind. Brayden casts his red-rimmed, milky gaze over his shoulder.
Father is here.
The sea bubbles, heralding the rise of something from the abyss. One by one, black sand dollars plop to the surface.
Something rams the dinghy from the stern, throwing it askew. Two hands burst from the sea, grip the boat’s bow, and tug it down. As the stern rises, you cling to the bench to keep from tumbling forward.
Brayden slumps forward, his head swiveling on his dainty neck. The sand dollar no longer pulsates. It’s shriveled, resembling a mummified hand.
You reach for your son, grasping ahold of his board shorts. The tug from his weight is like a bag of sand. Grunting against the weight, you feel as if your arm might rip from its socket.
The boat jerks backwards. The stern crashes to the sea, sending sand dollars into the night air. You’re thrown backwards to the floor, your son’s body pinning you down.
Those deep-sea hands give way to hooked arms, the purple-veined skin a flappy, jaundiced cover lain over bone. Nail-less fingers wedge into the baseboard’s crevices. A hunched figure pulls itself from the sea and somersaults into the dinghy, alighting on the edge.
Completely nude, the gaunt figure shuffles forward.
You recognize the ropey arms and the bald, bulb-like head.
Looming above you, your husband lifts your son from your body. He cradles the lifeless boy in his arms then tosses him overboard.
You lunge forward, almost toppling over the dinghy’s edge, but clammy arms wrap around your waist and reel you in.
Your head rests against your husband’s chest, which is spotted with flourishing coral and prickly, oily urchins. He strokes your head. The breath rustling through your hair is hot and reeks of rotten fish.
Tilting your gaze upwards, you see his marble eyes. Needle teeth protrude from his blackened gums. Desire is in the expression, carnal and immediate. And that covetous gaze inspires your own desire. You want to melt into his flesh. You want to swim as one.
His white tongue slithers over his cracked lips, sparkling like a lure. You allow it to enter your mouth, tasting brine on your tongue.
The ecstasy is interrupted by a stabbing sensation followed by a hot, copper-tasting liquid.
Your husband squelches and slurps.
You pull back, trying to tear your chewed tongue from your husband’s jaws. As the dinghy sways beneath your feet, the man pushes you forward, over the dinghy’s edge and into the sea.
There’s no crash from water breaking, just suckering warmth that busses your entire body. You thrash about in the congealing medium, ripping your mouth from your husband’s lamprey grasp. You release a gurgling scream as you feel the current’s grip. The whorl drags you deeper. Your lungs cry for air, just like in the dream.
But your mind, apart from the body, realizes this is what you wanted. When you followed you son to the beach today from the memorial, you didn’t intend to return.
You stop fighting and allow the current to carry you into the black. As your consciousness sputters, you’re delivered to the well of memory, more deep and primordial than the sea.
You join your family in oblivion.
A writer from northwest New Jersey, G.D. Watry spent the last year getting his masters degree in science writing at Columbia University. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Pantheon Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, Shotgun Honey, The Blue Route, and Shot Glass Journal, among other publications. His journalism has been honored by the New Jersey Press Association. His Twitter can be found here: https://twitter.com/GDWatry