by Liz Michaud
The screen door of our cabin swung shut with a shriek of rusty hinges. I flinched at the sound but kept my eyes fixed on the untouched cup of coffee across from me. Lazy tendrils of steam still wafted over the rim. There was the sound of tires crunching down the long drive, and then there was nothing left but the mug on the table, and the gulls overhead, and the steady lapping of waves along the shoreline outside.
I hated this fucking house. I didn’t want to be on this ugly rock—not like you. You had said you felt something close to magic here at Coal Beach, but there was nothing enchanting about the surly, old fishermen in this coastal ghost town.
And now I’m trapped here and you’re missing.
Dusty sunrays beamed in through the windows of your studio—so cheerful that I actually gasped and turned my back to the room. The sunset would have been stunning, but I couldn’t bring myself to look. Instead, I shuffled through the kitchen, drew a bottle from the cabinet, and slumped onto the living room couch.
Darkness was already washing over this side of the world, details surrendering to the fog of night. Whisky smoldered down my throat as night swallowed the horizon, until everything was black except a steady pulse of light from some other house, on some other peninsula jutting out into the sea.
You’d been right about one thing: the place had a hell of a view.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but I remember dreaming.
You’re there, surrounded by swirling black ink, and just your face peers out of the murk. Your mouth opens and shuts, but only wisps of smoke pour out, your milky eyes focused on something behind my head that I can’t turn to see.
I move toward you, asking, Where have you been? and your face shrinks back into shadow. Reaching in after you, I grab hold of something wet and ropey, pull hard, and fall back as long strands of black hair unspool around me, coiling around my feet and up my legs until they swarm my torso and face and crawl into my open mouth—
When I woke, I was already stumbling toward the toilet, the taste of whisky and bile at the back of my throat. I coughed into the bowl and thought I saw black tendrils of hair pooling down the drain when I flushed.
Some lingering nightmare residue. Nothing to be afraid of.
Detective Ornell found your body at dawn. Or rather, a fishing crew did. You were only ten miles away. He came by to make sure I would be okay alone here—whatever that meant—and that he had some follow-up questions for me. “She was, ehm…” He cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably. “She was naked when we found her.”
He continued, but a crackling noise building in the air all around me clouded my focus. Sort of like…static electricity with the volume turned up. Ornell didn’t seem to notice.
“Y’see,” he was saying between glances at the floor, and his lap, and my eyes, “we found her gown, robe, and slippers folded neatly by the shoreline. Phone was right there on top—we told you that this mornin’.” He glanced. I nodded. “So we can assume that she was naked before she got into the water...”
I heard myself replying through the swirling clamor in my skull, “Yes, of course” and “It’s so unlike her.”
More words. More glances. A longer pause. The whirlwind in my head roared.
“We also found signs of self-inflicted wounds.” I could barely make out the words.
“That…” I answered through the din, “that’s very unlike her.”
When we met, we were both artists. But on the shores of Coal Beach, there was only room for one. Our careful balancing game of winning bread so we could make beautiful things had tipped over when I collapsed at my show. The doctors and specialists blamed frail nerves, nothing to be afraid of, and I was encouraged to take a “medical leave of absence.” That’s how we ended up on the island, living at Coal Beach. We should’ve painted the sign to say Burnout Bungalow.
My parents have an old cabin, you insisted. It’s adorably quaint, and so serene. Besides, my current series is exploring isolation…Thanks to a decade of disturbing weather patterns, the island’s only inhabitants were there to work, or had refused to leave their ancestral land. It’s almost too perfect, you assured me. Maybe there’s room for two studios! It’ll do you good to slow down in a sleepy town.
So we did. And for the first few days, we greeted every sunrise at the East window and gave evening salutations at the West. But soon, heavy, gray clouds settled in, and we learned that regular sunshine was rare here. Whatever spell the town had cast on you seemed to have worn off, too; after the first few giddy months, you struggled more and more to paint. Your work became darker, more private. One time you caught me leafing curiously through your drying pieces—every canvas was layers and layers of black ink running and pulling down the page in bloated splotches, yonic and vulgar—but you swatted me away, shrieking.
I began to avoid your studio except to bring you tea, or food, or to ask if you were coming to bed. I’d usually find you staring out the window, doe-eyed, and murmuring under your breath.
Six months after we arrived, your naked body was pulled out of the ocean.
Maybe this was the normal toll of grief, or maybe it was my relentless hangover (or maybe it was because shadows twisted strangely in the corners of my eyes every time I shut them), but I couldn’t sleep again that night. I lay faceup in a bed that felt smaller without you. Like I could just roll to one side and slip off the edge of existence, falling into nothing forever, not even feeling wind on my face.
I must have finally drifted off as I watch the ceiling dissolve into an ashen sky. The mattress beneath me has also vanished, and I am sunk up to my chest in sticky, black mud.
There is a clattering to my left, and I can just turn my head enough to see a stone bridge leading out of the fetid swamp I’m trapped in, but I can’t make out what’s on the other side. It looks brighter over there, though, and I can smell salty sea air.
The clamoring comes again, and a figure emerges from under the bridge. It’s you—I think—but your body seems oddly out of shape. Too thin, too...nimble. You scuttle over the mud on all fours, gruesome and crablike, with a net full of rattling driftwood hoisted on your back.
You tear closer, panting and stinking of rot and mold, and I can only look on in dread. I cough and spit and wriggle as you stretch your net over me. Threads made from knotted human hair bite into my skin, and I know with a dawning horror that your flotsam trinkets aren’t driftwood at all, but worn human bones. You heave me from the sludge an inch at a time, until finally I am unearthed, and you turn—still panting hoarsely—to haul me back toward the bridge. Toward the water. Toward the light.
When I woke the next morning, I wasn’t in our bed.
I was standing in your studio, staring out the window into the morning haze. The fog would close in heavy and then stick around all day—I had seen plenty of mornings just like this.
I turned and stood facing your easel, where your last painting was still propped. I had scoured the shapes a thousand times when I thought you were just missing, hoping desperately for some kind of clue, finding only confused and abstracted pain.
Now though, as if a veil had slipped from my eyes, I could clearly see a body in the swirling shapes, struggling against darkness, peering out at freedom.
A shared nightmare.
My head snapped back to the window, where the mist hung heavy over calm waters; a smoke screen the color of a corpse and as solid as a wall. At its center was a barely perceptible sheen, the muted luster of some ancient and forgotten star. The promise of dawn.
An unknown longing burned inside me. I might never know why you had gone. But maybe I could find where.
The mossy stones outside our door were slick with dew and cold against my bare feet. I carefully picked my way down our backyard and the crooked steps that were built into the cliff face a century ago.
Above me, I heard tires crunching up the driveway and slipped down the last few steps in surprise. I landed hard but ignored the pain of sharp stones underfoot and the sound of men’s voices overhead. Car doors slammed as I unlashed the little rowboat anchored ashore and pushed it out into the water. The voices grew louder, and there was a loud rapping of fists on wood. Only a few paces in, and I was already up to my waist, my robe billowing in the water around me. I pulled myself into the bobbing vessel and looked back at Coal Beach.
Three uniformed officers stood at the cliff’s edge. The fog curling in around them lit up with alternating red and blue. One of them, Detective Ornell, was already halfway down the steps, waving his arms. Crumbling stone had given out under him, and he couldn’t get down any farther.
I took up the oars and, with one light pull, slipped backwards into the fog.
In the realm of gray and white, Ornell’s hollering is snuffed out like a muffled radio station. Three more pulls of the paddles and I can’t hear him at all. There are no rhythmic waves, no swooping gulls. Only my breath and the trickle of water rippling in my wake. My head is pounding with something like static again, and I hum to keep the panic and bile from rising in my throat.
I turn to peer behind me, into the white void, trying to make out any light, any visions. Anything.
My tuneless song wobbles over the rippling water, bouncing into the fog. The paddles rise and fall, slow and silent, like I’m pushing through a viscous fluid. There is something else out here with me. I call out, “Hello, is it you?” and try to reach out with my thoughts. Where are you?
A quiet gurgling shatters the silence. I glance down as water begins bubbling into my boat between two slats at my feet, and without thinking, I dart to stop the flow with my hand. My heart plunges when I watch the oar I let go of slip silently into the dark water. I scramble to catch it, nearly upending myself, and more water slops in.
“No, no!” I shriek, clutching my remaining paddle and clamping down on the leak with my foot. My clothes, already drenched, cling heavily and slow my movements. My head swivels, looking for something, anything, out in the fog.
Looking for you.
“Help me,” I wail. “Where are you? Why did you leave me? Why did I—Why did we come here?”
The boat fills quickly, the gurgling and bubbling overwhelming my makeshift plug. My foot slips and I fall back, smashing my head on a wooden crossbar and collapsing into my boat.
“Please...Ornell! Officers! Please, I’m out—I need help!” I beg the sky, but if the wind hears me, it doesn’t answer. Water rises up around my cheeks, and my head pounds mercilessly. The boat shudders as it descends, and the ocean roils beneath me, roused by my howls.
I sob and sink, and thoughts that did not feel like my own fill my throbbing head. They snatched back her body, they say, but now yours will be ours, and ours will be yours, and we will all be we.
I’m screaming, or only thinking, I can’t tell the difference anymore. And the voices in my head reply, There is nothing to be afraid of. There is nothing.
Finally, the little boat falls away, and for a heartbeat, I’m suspended in perfect equilibrium, until something tightens sharply around my waist and I am pulled, down, down, down, into the murky shadows.
And I become you. I am you and we are her, and them, and all of us.
And they swallow us all up.
Liz Michaud is a designer and storyteller, living and learning in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal), Canada. She is a voracious collector of hobbies, and an amateur collector of bones. You can usually find Liz at her weekly D&D sessions, watching murder documentaries, or with her nose in a book and her head in the stars. She likes a beer she can chew on, infinite cups of coffee, and every kind of potato. IG: franklizstein Website: lizmichaud.com