It was the first anniversary of Cassandra’s death when I bought that shack on the beach. As it was with everything, I had promised to devote it to my only surviving spouse, my work. Cassie fantasized for so long about retiring on the coast, her hair grey yet swept by the sea breeze. I couldn’t dream of it. When the doctors found the tumor, she did everything she could to maintain her composure, but I could see the light seep out of her once vibrant eyes. So it had been another year before I’d gotten the spine to pack my laptop into my old Bentley and head down from our now terribly empty house in Oregon. If it were to be the last thing I would ever do, I was determined to spread my wife’s ashes so that they might mingle with the wayward sands.
I made a quick stop at some hole-in-the-wall tavern just before the beach. It had a kitschy name like The Seahorse or some such. Though it was only noon, I ordered a shot of whiskey and sipped at it tentatively for half an hour. I was nodding off on the stool when an older man set himself next to me. He had a bald head and hazel eyes, and he wore the characteristic overalls and vest of a longshoreman. “I’ve yet to see you around, friend,” he prodded in a mellow tone, “What brings you here?” Out of some vague desperation that afflicted me in that moment, I decided to tell him the truth. “That’s a heavy load, friend,” he whispered, sinking into his drink. It was ten odd minutes of silence before he was willing to speak again. “I lost my Jodie almost ten years now,” he muttered, “she drowned.” He turned, and through his blushing cheeks he stared into me. “If you need any help, friend, just ask. My name is Arty Greer and this place is my home, ‘least I can be is hospitable.” I gave him thanks for the company, but assured him that I could handle myself.
Night had snuck up on me by the time I got to the beach, though that was my preference anyhow. I can’t imagine dumping an urn before a gaggle of blissful vacationers. With the sea free to us for whatever time we had left, I sat for a while cradling Cassie in my arms. The waves lapped at my feet while I shivered in the cool, summer air. A few tears slipped from their ducts and ran hot down my chin. I realized that this would be the last time I would ever hold her again. I clenched her tighter to my chest while I focused on a vague shape drifting on the water, desperate to avoid a total breakdown. Finally, I stood up and removed the cap, catching a glimpse at the grey mass that was once perhaps my wife. I upended the urn and poured it across the sands. Once it was empty I dropped to my knees.
I’m not sure exactly how long I kneeled there, staring down at the sand bed. When I did look up, the refuse that had been skimming the horizon was now only a few yards away. In the faint light of the moon, I could make out a man of dark complexion draped over a panel of driftwood. His lower half was obscured by the water, while his face was hidden behind long, tangled lochs of black hair. In that moment, I was sure that he had perished one way or another. I was terrified of being confronted with his rotting, bloated corpse. At the same time, however, he might’ve had a wife who had too adored him. She deserved the privilege that I had of honoring the body of her beloved. With shaking legs I rose to my feet and ran into the ocean.
I waded through the water, propelling myself forward against the damp sand and seaweed that swept across my feet. Wading gave way to paddling, and with time I had reached the raft. I made sure not to lay a finger on the man, instead clutching the wood and towing it behind my back. I did note that he possessed significant muscle definition along his arms, which by my momentary autopsy seemed yet to atrophy. In my imagination, I pictured him as a sailor knocked from his boat by the wild winds of a violent storm. This aimless postulation served to distract me as I inched ever closer to the shore. Surprised by how light he was once out of the water, I easily hefted him off of the board and onto the beach. I was under the impression that the corpse of an adult man would have been harder to lift.
It was here that I had a much better vantage point from which to examine him. His hair no longer covered his face, and now I could see a head with prominent cheekbones and a distinguished brow. There were also a smattering of freckles and a pair of full lips that had seen many good-hearted smiles. His build may have been athletic, but his muscles were more likely from labor than weightlifting, and he for sure had a respectable mass on his frame. He did not display the telltale bloat of the drowned, nor could I discern any notable scent emanating from him besides that of salt water. Realizing my modesty, I blushed with embarrassment at seeing this man naked as an infant, so I excused myself to check his vitals. Despite all odds, and without breath, he still had a heartbeat.
It struck me that, in an instant, I had become responsible for this man’s life. Such events were likely not the intention of CPR training, though I wouldn’t know, for I have none. What I could remember, from scraps of television and nameless films, came flooding back into me in that moment. I counted one-two-three and pressed hard on the place where I had approximated his lungs to be. I did this more than half a dozen times, sure that I had broken a rib, until he coughed up a tablespoon worth of salt water. Desperate to restore air circulation, I leaned in and pushed my lips up against his. They tasted of caramel.
Shallow at first, his body began to ungulate as his lungs filled and released themselves of air over and over. That most apparent issue was now resolved, but in so much time rose another. I could not leave this man, whom had all but suffocated, alone, naked, and unconscious on the beach. I did not think to call an ambulance, perhaps from exhaustion, perhaps from the general unreality of the situation. I only meant to keep him safe. Pulling his arms around my shoulders, I once again noted how light he was. It was only a passing concern at the time, yet thinking back now, it should have been impossible for me to lift a man of his stature in the way I had. Perhaps it was that same strength that mothers discovered lifting cars off of their imprisoned children.
I laid him down in the backseat of my car, then I climbed into the driver’s seat myself. We both drenched the upholstery, but at that moment this was the least of my worries. The beach was caked in darkness then, but my shack was luckily only ten minutes away. Backing up, I felt the car jitter and heard the hard crutch of wood; I sped up the road before I could see exactly what I had hit. I imagined some fence I had missed on the way here. In the back of my mind I made a note to assess the damage sometime the next day. By the time I had thought all of this out, we were already back to the house.
It was the sort of beach house a widowing writer might afford with the whole of his life savings. A single-story, wood building with a thatched roof and a raised foundation, the latter meant to accommodate the tide. It had one bedroom, one bathroom, a fridgeless kitchen, and a modest parlor. There was some banal mold adjoining the porcelain bath, and the toilet had something of a weak stomach. There wasn’t any WiFi or phone reception, but this was my preference, I wanted nothing to distract me from my writing. Overall, it was what those in the real-estate industry might politely call a 'fixer-upper'. I didn’t care, for I knew Cassie would have adored it.
I carried the stranger as if he were my bride, escorting him over the stairs and through the screen door. Placing him down on my bed I took the opportunity to check his vitals once more. To my relief, he was breathing regularly. I left him there for the night and took my own swaying form to camp out on the futon. I should’ve been worried, I should’ve feared what this man would do once he awoke in my house. I didn’t. Already I was trusting him unconditionally. I would have realized just how tired I was in that moment if I hadn’t immediately fallen asleep upon hitting the couch.
I was back in the water, wafting just at the surface. My feet could no longer touch the bed of sand, and in all directions water stretched on towards the horizon. I doubt that I could have swam that far out even at full strength, but then, how did I get here? Did I just drop out of the sky? It was then that I understood how complete the sea was in its total stillness. Not only were there no signs of life, no seagulls above or fish below, there weren’t even waves. The sky was that of the night, perhaps the same as when I found my man. Except there was no moon. There were no stars. Heaven was more bare here than over the shining New York city. I floated here at the intersection of two endless oceans, both as black and reflexive as an obsidian mirror. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to see into either, to truly peer into their depths. Did I even know that my lower half was still mine? I was numb, and without any light source except that which seemed to emanate from my now bioluminescent flesh, I would have to dunk my head down to make sure. I couldn’t dare do that. If the whole world had changed so drastically, then why would I remain constant?
Like an idol rising from the sands, I slowly emerged from the dream, wondering if that had been all of the previous night. I felt a bit hungover, so perhaps it had been the simple confusion of the inebriated mind. Such thoughts were dashed when I saw that my wife’s urn was no longer where I had kept it. It must’ve still been there on the beach, if the sea had not already claimed it along with her ashes. I pondered this only briefly before I heard a solid thud come from the bedroom. I pulled my robe up and around my body, hoping to god that the man hadn’t hurt himself under my roof. Upon opening the door I saw that he was up and awake, still nude, and the had come from him knocking over my alarm clock.
“Hello,” I uttered with great caution. He noticed me then, and his eyes exploded with quiet bewilderment. “How do you feel?” I inquired. His mouth gaped open one or twice before he spoke, “w-why are you in my house?”
His voice was deep and soft, he could have easily been a singer. He had a slight accent, but not one that I could place, and I could tell that English was clearly his native tongue. Now that they were wide open, I saw that his eyes were olive and of a curious nature. “This is my house,” I said, “I found you drifting in the ocean brought you up here.” For a second those eyes revealed a hint of recognition, enough to alleviate his immediate confusion.
“My name is Calvin,” he spoke with an even tone, “thank you for helping me.” I asked him how he ended up barely alive on a piece of driftwood, but he told me that he hadn’t a clue. “The last thing I remember is taking a sailboat out on the water, I wanted my wife Teresa to go with me, but she was feeling sick.” With a solemn expression he looked down at his hands. “Now I’m glad she wasn’t with me, whatever happened on that boat. She must be worried out of her mind.” At that, he requested my phone so that he could call his wife while I headed out of the room.
I began brewing a pot of coffee for us to share and considered all this new information that had just come to light. I was almost disappointed to learn he was married, but more surprised that I entertained the thought at all. I had never been interested in men, nor really anyone, before I met Cassie. Perhaps an unknown side of myself was arising from my grief, yet it made little sense. Why would I suddenly be so infatuated with this man that I had never met? Instead of answering myself, I tried to keep my focus on just making breakfast. It came out as simple toast and jam, a bit of oatmeal, and an orange. I placed mine on the kitchen table, then carried the second order out on a plastic board I sometimes used for balancing my laptop.
Cal refused the coffee with a gracious smile, instead requesting a glass of water. He did not lay a finger on his food. I was heartbroken to see him reject my offerings; moreover, I couldn’t understand how a man who had been unconscious for at least ten hours wouldn’t be positively voracious. I asked him directly as to why he wouldn’t eat, but he seemed too uncomfortable with the question to answer. “My wife is with her parents right now,” he told me, “she wants me to just stay with you until I recover my strength.” I failed to question the logic of this statement, I was simply glad that I would have more time alone with him. With some time I would wonder how she could leave him with someone who was just as much a stranger to her as he was to me. He handed my phone back and I told him that I would be back in an hour.
The drive back to the beach provided some clarity of mind, and I began to remember my original purpose for being here at all. I was here to write and say goodbye to my wife, yet this unknown fish had come into my life and distracted me from both. Perhaps this was the universe’s way of transitioning me back to friendship and away from my lonesome hole of grief. Even so, I know what I needed, and that was to focus on my work. I had been commissioned for a collection of poetry, and I only had two weeks to complete and revise my contribution. Maybe this Poseidon was here as my muse.
I could see the shore from where I parked my car, and it was clear that my wife had been swept away overnight. It was also clear that this was no longer the same beach that I had visited the evening before. The sand was strewn with great nets of seaweed and wooden ribs that prodded out towards the sky. A quiet storm must have invaded in the wee hours of the morning, for I could not conceive of any other reason why such debris would accumulate.
I marched over to see what I had ran into the past night, and it was easy to spot. A wooden sign lay in pieces in front of a torn section of caution tape. I levered what remained of the sign face against my knee to spy what it read: Beach closed due to storm damage. What? Was this not the right beach? Had I trespassed here unknowingly? Neither of these options seemed to align with my memories of the night before. I began to consider the inconsistencies until the wood shifted against my weight and a loose nail dug into my thigh.
When I awoke I felt quite faint, sure that I must have lost at least a pint of blood. Somehow, though without any rational manner, I had made it back to my homestead, for I found myself staring up at the cracked plaster ceiling. That leg, which I had caught on the nail, felt utterly numb, and I panicked at the prospect of losing it. I shifted my weight on the couch to see if my limb was still there. It was. Attached to it was my guest, sucking at it like a lamprey.
I should’ve been disturbed, screaming and thrashing out, but I wasn’t. He should’ve been disturbed, frightened and disgusted at himself, but he wasn’t. A mutual understanding passed between out eyes, both acknowledging the bizarre nature of this situation. I wondered how long he’d been at this, in this trance that I now felt myself sink into. I leaned forward, not to push him away, but to pull him closer to the slowing flow of the grizzly wound. With gentle hands I gripped his scalp and fell into an awkward embrace. No matter how macabre it was in context, only one word comes to mind thinking of it now: intimate.
After a minute or so we both ceased the performance, not entirely free from our duel hypnosis. I sat patiently as he moved over to a first-aid kit that I hadn’t noticed up to that point. He applied the rubbing alcohol, which did not sting, it just simulated a dull, wet chill. He then wrapped the gauze around my thigh, methodically, like an expert nurse. We did not exchange a word throughout these proceedings, nor did I make a sound as he returned to my room. Perhaps the greatest surprise of all was that I could still move my leg. In fact, it was easier than ever, light and agile, as if its uninjured partner was the one really afflicted. Had the blood I lost from it been nothing more than ballice? I thought about this as I exited the shack and drove off towards town.
Driving for ten minutes or so I finally felt completely lucid. Being conscious of everything only made the previous events more surreal in my mind. How much of it was simply that, a dream? I seem so certain now as to the timeline of it all, when it started, what did and did not happen, but I cannot be sure. Perhaps my nightmare from the previous night, which seemed so far away by then, was the truth of it all. Was I still bobbing there in perpetual terror, projecting this reality as a defense mechanism against complete madness? Had I made the trip to the beach that morning, or was I lulled into a hallucination as my house guest bit a chunk out of my leg? Am I still under his spell now?
These thoughts cycled over and over in my head until I finally found the bar from the previous afternoon. With an uneven gate I headed straight into the establishment. Sure enough, Arty was there, this time sidled into a booth and thumbing through a shabby paperback. He seemed smaller than I could recall. In as casual a tone as I could muster, I asked, “mind if I sit with you Arty?” He peered up at me, cheeks flushed with his own rough blend of wisdom and kindness. “Don’t mind at all, friend,” he perked up, “just catching up on my Hemingway, one of the few writers I can stomach, no offense.” We both smiled at this mild jeer, the sort of greeting any third party might expect from old friends. I sipped at a rum n’ coke until he finished his chapter. Once he had, he stuck the book into his coat pocket without my prompting.
His eyes combed me over a few times, reminding me of how disheveled I must’ve looked, before at last he spoke. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,” he winced, realizing what he’d just said, “you… uh… how did the business with your wife go?” It still stung, to be reminded, but I had foreseen this and told him that it had gone fine. Then, with one fell swoop of a white lie, I told him I was having a local friend stay over and asked if he was familiar with him. “Calvin?” he muttered, “can’t say I’ve ever met anyone around here having that name.”
I told him that was fine, next giving him a detailed description of the stranger’s person. Of course, I left out such things as the candied taste of his lips, his eyes the color of a windswept meadow, and his suave voice. Despite my omissions, signs of recognition sprung from Arty’s face, while the color seemed to drain out. “I better visit you tomorrow,” he said, “leave your door unlocked tonight.”
It seemed I had wandered back to the beach, back to the same portion where I had left Cassie. Now, in the dead of night, I could see all the debris that I had spotted under the sun, along with a single addition. There was now a whale, beached and dehydrated, just a few yards before me. In spite of common sense, I walked up to the poor creature and laid my palm against its taut skin. I was not repulsed, for it possessed neither odor not sound, simply suffering in silence beneath the moonlit sky. It still felt damp, but it was clear that I was powerless to assist it in any way. For some time I stared at its eye, clamped tight, yet still larger than my head. A small clot of self-loathing began to expand in my mind. How could I be so impotent that I had no way to help this innocent being? Was I so pathetic that I lacked even the ability to free it from this torturous mortal coil? In that moment, I was willing to trade all memories of my wife, all of my life’s work, my entire identity, just to give some respite to this dying animal. Without thought my eyes shut. First swaying, I leaned up to the hide of the whale. I started sucking on it, like an infant at their parent’s breast, until I found a proper perch for my maw. A series of razor-sharp fangs bit through the tough flesh. A torrent of blood shot into my mouth, across my torso and matted hair. The blood was foul, liquid copper, but I felt no need to eject it; in fact, it filled my belly as nothing I had ever known. I continued on instinct, boring a hole into the still silent beast. Gore and viscera flowed throughout the whole of my being.
For the third time I awoke on the couch, and once again my journey back was absent from my memory. I shifted my weight and solidified that, this time, no one was feasting on me. It did seem that someone had changed my bandages sometime during the night. What struck me next was just how quiet the house was, how hollow it had become. I was not sure of what I had agreed to that last evening, and I feared what I may have invited upon my unsuspecting guest. I then heard a metallic clang ring out from the bathroom. With nothing by my boxers to protect me, I ran through my bedroom and busted open the door.
What a scene I saw there made fear and rage rise in my throat like bile. Cal lied bleeding, helpless and terrified in the bathtub. He had two nasty gashes around his hip and shoulder, the fallen curtain now a shroud over his feet. Arty stood over him, huffing like an ancient silverback gorilla overloading with malice, clutching a bloodied bowie knife in his right hand. No strategy in mind, I used the dual advantages of surprise and youth to pull Arty from the bathroom and into the bedroom. In the confusion, Arty dropped his knife and fell sprawling to the floor. I grabbed the weapon and stood before the door, calculating my next move. Arty turned around and glared at me with homicidal intent until he realized who I was.
“Give me back the knife!” he barked, “you don’t know what that thing is!” This man had aged a thousand years since I had seen him the night before, his eyes wild and devoid of compassion. He was using the last of all his energy in this struggle. In a low growl I assured him that he would not touch another hair on Cal’s head. “You’re under her spell” he screamed, “just like my Jodie was!” I demanded to know who he was talking about. “CALYPSO!” he wailed, grief and agony wafting off him in a miasma. “She’s tricking you! Seducing you with unholy words! She is the siren, here to claim your mind and drag your body below the sea to where no light may be seen!” Before I could respond to this, the old man was back on his feet and came lunging at me.
He wrapped his arms around my waist and tried to tackle me with a force he may have had back in his days as a young sailor. Now, though, I was sure of my superiority, and I remained steadfast against his weight. In a flash of white-hot rage I brought the sullied knife down into the small of his back. His eyes rolled up towards me, and it seem both sorrow and shock wrestled across his contorting face as he fell to the ground. Perhaps in those few moments he saw something in me that he had failed to imagine and refused to understand. I was not finished. I kneeled down and stabbed him over and over, at first with random strikes that became more precise as I kept on.
A soft creak announced my entrance into the bathroom, and I was relieved to see that, despite his injuries, Cal was still conscious and had steadied his breathing. In my left hand I held a dripping parcel that I had wrapped in a stained scrap of cloth. I sat down on the floor next to the bath and inquired as to whether he was still in pain. “No… I-I think I’m okay… I,” he stammered in his anxious, yet melodic, voice, “is he gone?” I promised him that he would never bother us again. “Here,” I presented the morsel in my left hand, “you need to eat this in order to heal.” He stared at the object in my hand, now understanding what it was, with mouth-watering fear. “A-are your sure?” he pleaded. “Yes,” I reassured, unwrapping the angry red flesh, “you helped nurse me, the least I can do is return the favor.”
Cal had calmed down upon finishing his meal, but he was still quite uneasy. A crimson foam, smelling of the sea, was bubbling from his wounds. “What does this mean? Where is Teresa? Who are-” I cut him off with a kiss. His lips still tasted of caramel, though now tinged with something sharp: the flavor of an old fool. He had been wrong, Cal had not tricked me, it just took his misguided outburst to prove to me that I loved Cal more than anything. Even from the day he had found me, Arthur knew that he could only be a cheap placeholder for my true love. Whatever that horrific barrier is, Cal is the only one who can keep me afloat. As I retreated, Cal looked into my eyes, mesmerized. “I love you Joe,” he whispered. “I love you too,” I cooed as I stood up, prepared to return our home to its former glory.