BEWARE! DARK SEAS: SOME THINGS THE SEA SHOULD KEEP BY AMANDA CHERRY
Welcome to Beware! Dark Seas Halloween showcase, an annual author & artist showcase that features talented creators. Come back each day, the entire month of October for a scare! Prepare for dark stories, myths & legends, and creepy creations that will make the hair on the nape of your neck stand up straight. May the water have mercy on your soul.
Some Things The Sea Should Keep
BY Amanda Cherry
Storms were commonplace in Pensacola this time of year.
Elena had come twice, Dave remembered from childhood, then Juan the same year. Then there were years where the storms were so insignificant their names didn’t bear remembering—one of them might have been called Danny. And then came Erin and Opal. And more that didn’t matter.
Then came Ivan and everything went to hell.
There had been enough years since the last named storm had visited this coast, Dave was the only one left on the beach who remembered it.
This one had been called Ilse.
Ilse hadn’t been a terrible storm. A category two when she made landfall, this hurricane had been just enough to drive off the late-season tourists.
It was September already. Schools were back in session and the beach was mostly empty. The Island Authority counted on snowbirds and college kids to keep the beach hopping well into the fall. Ilse had sent all of them packing.
It was too bad, in Dave’s opinion. Too bad they’d all left town or found amusements further inland. The beach was as beautiful as ever today. Eighty-five degrees and sunny, the post-Ilse forecast was just what a beach-loving public was drawn to this late in the year. But Dave walked alone along the shore from the dunes to the Gulf as he surveyed his stretch of sand and sun.
Most beach lifeguards worked for a summer or two. Some worked their way through high school or college. But for Dave the beach was life. He’d been lifeguarding on this stretch of snow-white sand for nearly twenty years—since his own days as a wide-eyed college Freshman, enamored of the idea a man could make a living sitting on this exquisite shore.
It wasn’t a great living, but it was enough.
A bartender had told him years before, as he’d sat in the Sandshaker Lounge hoping to score a Bushwhacker with his fake ID, that Gulf water was in his blood—that there were some folks who were just meant to be on the beach.
Dave had been sure she was correct.
And this had been his stretch of coastline ever since.
He’d taken ownership of this hundred-meter section of shoreline. He kept his lifeguard stand equipped and repaired far better than those of his comrades who relied on the cash-strapped Island Authority to maintain their posts. He made friends with the locals who frequented his stretch of beach, occasionally turning a blind eye to some underage drinking (provided the coeds didn’t bring glass bottles onto the sand with them). He was far more concerned with seeing to it tourists didn’t fall victim to riptides, red flag conditions, or severe sunburn.
Dave took pride in his sector of beach. That small stretch of white sand and Emerald Coast off Ft. Pickens road was his kingdom. So when he’d turned on the radio this morning to hear the news the bridge had already opened to local traffic, he jumped into this truck and raced to check on it.
Ilse hadn’t been much of a storm, it turned out.
She’d been poised to make landfall just east of the Island but had instead taken a sharp jog westward at the last moment, sending all the serious winds to their neighbors on Perdido Key. Dave’s lifeguard stand, which he had taken great pains to close up tight before the storm, had weathered the onslaught with only the slightest chipping of paint.
Dave resolved to paint it again once the season was truly over. The weather would be cool and dry in October; he’d have an easier time getting the job done without any beachgoers sitting in judgment of his painting skills.
For now, the best he could do for his section of pearly shore was patrol it for dangerous or unsightly storm debris.
The Island wouldn’t open to tourist traffic for another day at least, and Dave wanted to be ready for anyone trying to eke out the last moments of summer weather before turning to sweaters and football until spring. He wanted his beach to be the best beach.
Storm debris was an odd thing, Dave figured as he paced the length of the soft sand back and forth over again looking for things to put into the refuse container he pulled along behind him on a skid. Ropes and rings, pieces of sails and detritus from boats besieged far to the west yesterday morning were already washing up on the shores of the Island. Ilse’s leavings also included cans and bottles and other assorted flotsam churned up off the bottom of the Gulf, from vessels sunk by long-ago storms (although he’d been assured the Oriskany, sunk nearby as an artificial reef, had been stripped of such possible hazards).
Ilse had left him little to collect.
He was nearing the water’s edge and the container he pulled was less than a quarter full. The tide was coming in, and the sun was getting low. He didn’t have much time to finish before dark. Deciding the trailer was slowing him unnecessarily, he left it behind to walk the last several lengths of beach. If the previous nine trips back and forth had been any indication, there wouldn’t be more garbage than he could carry back to it on any one trip.
He could get things done faster this way.
He had just reached the water line when he found the next piece of detritus. At first he thought it was a piece of plastic—maybe a potato chip bag, sun-bleached and sand-blasted into a crinkled ivory blob caught partly under a pile of sand.
But as he got closer, Dave could see it was a single sheet of something, a page from a map book, maybe.
Whatever it was, it didn’t belong on his beach.
He reached down to pull it out of the sand.
He saw then it was, indeed, a map. A map to treasure, he was sure. Drawn on parchment in a flourished hand with notes in a language Dave couldn’t place and yet somehow understood, the thing seemed to grab hold of him as firmly as he grabbed hold of it.
It felt in his hands like it was made of lightning and brought a taste to his mouth of blood and of rot.
A stunning cold overwhelmed him. As he gasped from the shock of it, it felt like water, not air, that came rushing into his lungs. He stumbled forward, fighting for a breath as he dropped to his knees in the hard, wet sand, the map stuck fast in his hands as though it were a part of him.
He tried to move but found himself paralyzed, hands-and-knees in the sand with the map stuck fast between his fingers. Every breath felt like drowning and yet he felt compelled to gasp for air, crying out in fear to the empty beach. He didn’t understand what was going on, but he knew this map must be the cause.
It overtook his vision then. The world was pitching and reeling. Salt spray blew into his face, buffeting him with hurricane speed, fast enough that even the tiniest droplets stung as they hit his sunburned skin. Around him suddenly was a cacophony, a tumult of bellowing cries in French and in Spanish. Swear words in Creole rang through air that stank terribly of wood oil, tar, and rotting fish.
This map was leading him someplace; far-off shores and untold riches. It was luring him downward, off his feet onto sandy beach that felt like slick wood. It had a thrall to it, and yet Dave was finding it in himself to resist.
Lightning cracked. The wind kicked up again. A howl from an animal, a prayer to some foreign god, the rumble of thunder and the slapping of canvas on timber.
Writhing and flailing, Dave struggled against the churning water. Fighting for air, fighting to let go of the map, he felt himself sinking deeper and deeper. He was pulled downward by some invisible force, sent farther beneath the waves than he guessed the shallow tidewater would allow.
His hearing was muffled, his ears filled with sea water, but echoes of terrifying sound overwhelmed him all the same. Timbers creaked and cracked as a deck he hadn’t seen came apart beneath him, dropping him into violent seas below.
“This isn’t the tide!” Dave tilted his head down to see the water had now risen halfway up his thighs. The reflection in the storm-turbid water was barely intelligible but Dave knew it wasn’t his own.
He was out of control again a moment later. Punched in the gut by some unseen force, he collapsed then, falling fully into the warm salt water. His next gasp again filled his lungs with water—and he knew somehow this water was more real than the last. The feeling of drowning was unchanged.
Violent waves, real or phantom—he couldn’t guess—lifted his body then dropped it again, crushing him against the shallow, sandy bottom.
“This is it,” Dave realized—a thought that wasn’t altogether his own, but it stood true all the same.
Yet somehow he was at peace. Gulf water was in his blood, and now his blood would return to the Gulf.
Drowning was a peaceful death, so he’d been told in lifeguard training.
A quiet death.
If a victim is screaming, they’re not drowning.
Nothing. Whatever was happening, he couldn’t make a sound. The water in his lungs was as real as the map in his hands.
Dave closed his eyes. He’d given his life to the service of the Gulf, to the safety of this beach. If his life was to be demanded in trade for all those he’d saved, it was a price he’d gladly pay. He inhaled deeply, for the first time feeling the burn of the salt water as it filled his nose and mouth.
He would let the Gulf take him. The Gulf was home. It was sacred.
And if this was his time, he welcomed it at the hands of his beach.
Welcoming the oncoming oblivion, Dave relaxed his whole body. He could feel himself leaving himself, following the map to some mystery, fathoms below.
The next violent surge of water washed the map from his hands. Dave started, even in his surrendered state, was aware the pulling and tugging had ceased. He was aware of his return to the reality of a calm Gulf, of laying on his side in half- meter -deep tidewater.
Dave scrambled to his feet, retching and coughing, heaving saltwater back into the Gulf as his lungs began to re-inflate. He stumbled backwards, out of the water and onto the soft sand beyond the reach of the breakers, trying his best to catch his breath and not to think about the last several minutes. The sea salt still stung in his nose and his eyes, his breathing was labored and uncomfortable, but he was alive.
Dave could see the map from where he stood, floating gently seaward on a current he was surprised to find present in a rising tide.
The Gulf had given him many things in his life: a calling, a career, a community. And today it had given him a second chance.
It had also given him a treasure map; a gift of knowledge stored forever in the recesses of his brain. He could find that treasure now, he was sure. But he was also sure the bounty would be as cursed as the map that had shown him the way. Dave shook his head and turned back to his refuse bin, still standing on its skid jut a few yards away.
Back to work.
He had his life and he had his beach. And that was all the treasure Dave figured he needed.
There were some things the sea should keep.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR amanda cherry
Amanda Cherry is an actor, an author, a wife, mom, and geek loving life in the Seattle suburbs. Her short fiction has appeared in Cobalt City Christmas: Christmas Harder, and multiple issues of Mad Scientist Journal Quarterly. Her debut novel, Rites & Desires was released in March 2018 by Def Con One Publishing. She was on the writing team for the Role Play Game Acute Paranoia (Mongoose Publishing, 2018) and is a staff writer for the Star Wars and geek culture site ToscheStation.net. She is an award-winning screenwriter, was a finalist in the 2018 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, and is an Associate Member of SFWA. She can be found online at www.thegingervillain.com and tweets prolifically @MandaTheGinger.