Summer Water Challenge Honorable Mention
The sea breathes salty as approaching waves beyond the beach murmur, like a woman whispering a warning in a voice too soft to hear. The ice cold, biting air makes my breath steam, yet the girl stands in the doorway of my house, wearing nothing but a t-shirt bought at a rock and roll concert. Its black, cotton fabric drips bitter tears upon the warped boards of my porch.
I know that logo: the band Heart, 1986 tour in Chicago at the Rosemont Horizon, which I remember seeing in person another lifetime ago. Her breath doesn’t steam at all. “Let me in.”
The girl is pale as the moon hanging over the ocean behind her, her wet hair dark as the night sky beyond the feeble porch light overhead. The t-shirt clings to her slenderness. She wears nothing underneath. “They told me you’d come. They told me if I let you enter my home, they’ll find me tomorrow, washed up dead on the sand.”
A moment of silence. “Yes, they will. Does that frighten you?”
Wine bestows its own kind of courage. “Of course not. They’re having a joke on the guy who inherited the… what did they call it? The beach house haunted by the girl who drowned herself in the sea. I’m sure they’re out there in the darkness right now, laughing at me.”
“Then you have nothing to fear. Let me in.”
My dearest Isabel once claimed that men are dogs. I stare at her chest; it doesn’t seem to move unless she draws breath to speak. “I think I’ll wait you out, instead. Let’s see how long you can endure the cold.” A gust of wind rolls over me, icy as a salt wave, and I pull the sweater close. “You’d have to be dead not to feel this.”
A moment of silence. “I am dead. Does that frighten you?”
Bravado, the last refuge of the uneasy. “Look, the joke’s over. Go back to your friends and tell them I didn’t fall for the gag. Get into some decent clothes, make a pot of coffee, and go get warm before you really do freeze to death.”
She cocks her head. “You do not remember, do you? We met in Chicago, at the concert. You bought me this shirt.”
Memories rush in like the tide as I take a closer look at her face. “Dear God, it isn’t possible, I… Emily?”
She smiles. “You do remember. Your sister lent you her van for the night, and after the concert you tried to take me down Rush street to go bar hopping. Except I told you I didn’t drink… alcohol. I made you laugh when I said the only bottle I wanted to drink from was you, except the wine inside was too raw, and needed to age.”
“I thought you needed to age. I was ready to take you home; tried to, except you refused to tell me where you lived-”
“And whispered in your ear all the things I wanted you to do to me, until the thought of them drove you mad and you found a quiet place in an alley, where you parked.”
There are some confessions even your priest should never hear. “Emily, I never meant to go as far as I did. But you kept goading me, telling me you were fine one moment, then pleading with me in your little girl’s voice the next.”
“Do you remember what you did an hour before dawn, when you were spent and I told you to drop me off near the waters of Lake Michigan? You swore me an oath to never reveal to anyone what you did to me inside that van.”
The icy air claws at my lungs as I take a deep breath. “I kept that promise. Emily-”
“Shh. I needed you to make that oath so you would be sealed to me until I felt you were ready, sealed to me until the wine within you had matured. My dear, sweet love, you made me happy that night, happier than you could ever imagine. Tonight, you will make me happy again.” A moment of silence. “Does that frighten you?”
An undertow threatens to pull me out to sea. “This is part of the joke. There’s no way you’re Emily; I mean, you look like her, and maybe this is Emily’s way of getting revenge, but…” I trail off as my words wash away as if written in sand, for deep in my heart I know the truth.
Emily’s face is the sea’s stillness without a breath of wind. “Since that night, I have watched you from beneath the water. Isabel never gave you the children you both desired; when they removed her womb, the cancer you both believed destroyed was only hiding, humming lullabies to the doctors as it built strongholds too powerful for any medicine to overcome.
“When she died, you drowned your pain in work, and for a while that was enough to keep your grief at bay. Yet time marches on, and your fellow humans keep finding ways to make each other obsolete. Wires with a plastic smile stole your profession, leaving you only the taste of bitter betrayal in your mouth.
“And even that was not enough for them. Everything you worked so hard for: your home, your possessions, your dignity, all of those were ripped away, leaving you destitute. All of your dreams, all of your hopes, all of your desires, have all washed away like sandcastles returning to the sea. Only I remain.” A moment of silence. “Does that frighten you?”
Overhead, a seabird shrieks like a damned soul. “What do you want?”
“What do you want from a bottle of Bordeaux you have been saving for a special occasion?”
“I can tell you no.”
“If that is your desire. Yet, what of tomorrow? When the midnight moon has risen again, I will ring your bell like I did tonight, and even if you ignore the sound, you will know that I am waiting. When you look out a window into the darkness, you will see me standing on the grass. If you step outside into the night, you will find me where the surf meets the sand.”
“I can tell you no tonight, and in the morning go off to some place where you’ll never find me.”
She looks at me with ancient eyes. “My dear, sweet love, where will you go? When I whispered into a man’s ear to leave you this house in his will, a man unaware he was already dead, you thought it was an answer to your prayers. I have watched you from beneath the waves and I know you have nothing left.”
I shake my head, the last feeble act of defiance. “I can resist you-”
“For how long? A hundred tomorrows? A thousand? In time, you will find me, and join me in the cold, dark sea. Yet, tonight we have the fire, and your spirit decanting into mine forever, as I have desired for so long.”
“Decanting… Emily, what are you?”
“Have you ever read the Erlangen edition of Martin Luther’s book, Works, where he writes of the Melusine?” I shake my head. “No matter; he got most of it wrong, but you will learn the truth soon enough… and then it will be too late.
“My dear, sweet love, I want you to have one last night of warmth, one last night where I grant you the illusion of kindness, one last night before your body dies, and we begin our journey into the depths of the Elder Darkness. However, the choice is yours.” A moment of silence. “Does that frighten you?”
“Yes, it does. Please…” I stop and only sigh as the undertow pulls me under the waves. “Please, come in.”
Her face is almost gentle as she steps inside.