Clay brushed a lock of hair away from his sweaty forehead and sucked in a lungful of air. The salty ocean breeze felt like a gift he’d long been hoping for. Annie joined him at his side, stretching her arms above her head and silently joined him in his bliss. Vacation started now.
Clay turned around and examined the mountain of bags, coolers, and beach equipment that occupied the trunk of their old Subaru. He didn’t want to wait another minute to get in the ocean, but it was still early and only getting hotter. There was no way he was going to want to drag all of this up to the room later.
“Come on, Bub, let’s get this out of the way,” Annie interrupted his thoughts, slinging their duffel bag over her shoulder and making her way towards the familiar cabin they rented every summer. “Besides, we’ve got a joint to smoke before we hit the water,” she called over her shoulder.
He took a moment to appreciate her as she walked up the uneven steps to Cabin #10. She looked so happy and free today, she was nearly glowing. She wore her hair in a messy bun on top of her head and sported a simple white tank top and black shorts. He couldn’t take his eyes away from her. Clay had always admired her ability to make any outfit look fantastic. He grinned as he piled as much as he could carry into his arms and trudged up to the cabin.
Annie had already poured them some iced tea and started up their favorite playlist. She didn’t waste a second when it came to their vacation time. It was this trip that got them away from the chaos of their everyday lives. Nothing else seemed to take them away from the stress of their jobs, but the Lazy Palm Beach Resort was like their sanctuary; as soon as they arrived, all of their problems seemed to melt away as they surrendered themselves to the calm of the ocean. As Clay dropped the last of the bags he joined Annie on the couch and clinked his glass with hers. Annie passed him the joint and leaned her head on Clay’s shoulder, exhaling deeply.
“I’m happy,” She whispered.
Clay smiled and closed his eyes. “Me too.”
Just one hour later, the two were running towards the ocean like a few teenagers, laughing and splashing away. Annie wiped away a few tears from laughter as she caught her breath, uncontrollable giggles wracking her here and there. Clay splashed her again before swimming over to her.
“Tommy and Jessica here yet?” He asked.
“Yeah, I think they got in this morning. We’re meeting them for dinner at The Deck tonight, just waiting to hear back from Jess.”
“Perfect.” He noticed the goosebumps on Annie’s arms. “You want to get out and walk on the beach for a bit?”
“Mm, as long as we get ice cream first.” She lit up at the thought. Clay splashed her again.
“That’s my girl.”
They got soft serve cones at a stand just at the edge of the boardwalk and then made their way back down to the shore. As Annie was packing her wallet away Clay noticed a glimmer just at the edge of the water. As the waves broke and receded, the colorful shine lined the edge of the shore where sand meets water. He squinted to get a better look, but the sun was too bright.
“Annie, do you see that?” He tapped her on the shoulder.
She stood up, cupping her hand over her eyes and followed Clay’s gaze toward the shore. “Oh, the shells! I know, they’re crazy this year! So pretty.” She bent down and continued packing things away.
“Those are shells? Wow. I’ve never seen anything like that.” He couldn’t take his eyes away from them.
“Yeah, I’m surprised you didn’t notice them before.” She stood, now adorned in a black sun hat, dark sunglasses, and a sheer black dress. “Shall we?”
“Let’s do it, Gaga.”
As they walked, carefully avoiding the masses of sea shells, Clay couldn’t believe what he was seeing. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them of all shapes, sizes, and colors. They glimmered in the sun and sparkled with the sea. Beachgoers all around them were collecting as many as they could in their bags, in buckets, in whatever they could fit them in. Annie picked one up that was the size of Clay’s hand and she couldn’t seem to put it down. It was a lavender purple with soft brown and pink spots. It was simple and yet it was entrancing. All of the shells were. They lined the entire beach. Clay and Annie walked about two miles in each direction and the sea shells were endless. Everywhere they turned, thousands of shells glittered the sand.
Annie chuckled. “This is kind of crazy, right? It’s like an episode of the Twilight Zone or something.”
“Yeah, if the shells turn on us and kill us.” Clay laughed. “It is weird, though. Let’s go get cleaned up for tonight.”
The Deck was a particularly special restaurant to them because it was where Clay proposed to Annie last summer. It had also been where they met, spent their first few dates, and celebrated many milestones. It was their place. The design or decor wasn’t anything to scream about, but they had the best seafood around. Annie hated lobster, but she lived for the lobster rolls she got each year at The Deck. Clay was munching happily on a mouthful of fried calamari when he felt a pair of strong hands land on his shoulders.
“How’d I know I’d find you here?” Tommy, Clay’s long time best friend gave him another rough slap on the back before taking Annie’s hand and planting a delicate kiss on it. “Annie, beautiful as always.”
“Tommy!” Clay got up and embraced his friend, still chewing his appetizer.
“Where’s Jess?” Annie asked, getting up to hug Tommy.
“Bathroom, we did a little pre-gaming.” Tommy winked at Annie and took his seat across from Clay. His face suddenly lit up in regret. “Oh, shit, guys I’m sorry. I completely forgot. I didn’t mean to shove that in your face. We don’t have to drink around you-”
Clay put his hands up, “Hey, it’s no worries at all. You do you, I get all the fun I need.” He pinched his fingers and put them to his lips, imitating smoking a joint..
“Alright, brother. Well I’m proud of you both. That’s a big deal quitting drinking.”
“Okay, Tommy, I’m sure that’s not what they’re on vacation to talk about.” Jessica approached the table, arms already wide open and ready for hugs. Annie jumped up first, but they soon found themselves in a group hug with Tommy wrapping his long arms around them. They took their seats and quickly became immersed in conversation about their plans over the next couple of days; where to shop, where to eat, and all things beach and bliss.
Clay noticed a particularly vibrant shell poking out of Jessica’s clutch and laughed, pointing at the shell. “Oh no, you too?”
Jessica’s face lit up as she brought it out to show the group. “I mean, look at this thing!” It was beautiful. It was a large, conch-looking shell painted in a soft green and freckled in blues and yellows. It almost didn’t look real.
“Haven’t seen this one yet,” Tommy reached over and grabbed the shell from her, examining it while he shook his head in disbelief. “How many of these do you have now? Twenty?”
Jessica blushed. “I can’t help myself! They’re beautiful.” Their meals were suddenly placed in front of them, steaming hot and smelling delicious. Quickly forgetting about the shell, the four of them dug in.
“Christ, this is salty.” Clay mentioned. He reached for his glass of water and took three massive gulps.
“Mine is alright.” Tommy said through a mouthful of fried haddock. Jessica nodded her agreement.
“Mine is super salty, too.” Annie said. Tommy and Jessica suddenly stopped eating and looked at her. Their expression startled her as they seemed almost offended by her comment. It was as if they had cooked the food themselves.
“The food is fine. Just eat it.” Tommy growled, his knuckles growing white around his fork.
Clay put his hands up, “Hey, it’s all good, the food’s great. Just a little salty, no big deal.”
Jessica narrowed her eyes and slammed her hand on the table. “No, it’s not!” She snarled. Her face suddenly twisted up as if she’d just eaten a lime and she tensed her whole body uncomfortably “And… Sshhhh… don’t let shells… don’tssshhh” She stammered. Her jaw was clenched shut and she couldn’t seem to pull her teeth apart as she hissed through them. She screwed her eyes shut, looked up at Clay with a hauntingly blank stare, and then began blinking her eyes so rapidly it was unnatural. Clay was frozen in his seat, unable to react or move. As suddenly as she had started, she stopped. Her body relaxed and her face went back to normal. She blinked a few more times until her eyes focused and she returned to her meal as if nothing had happened. Annie chanced a horrified glance at Clay, who’s mouth hung open in utter shock.
“Jessica? Are you alright?” Annie asked, cautiously reaching across the table for her friend.
Jessica looked up, confused. “What? Yeah, why?” Her voice was clear and sounded normal, void of any trace of the gravel that had been in her voice moments ago. Tommy stopped eating and looked at Jessica, and then Annie, with concern.
“What’s wrong?” He asked.
“I… just thought you… didn’t you…?” Annie looked desperately at Clay for help but he had nothing. “Never mind.” She turned back to her meal but her appetite was long gone. Whatever had just happened with Jessica had really unsettled her. Clay kicked her from under the table and gave her a look of absolute confusion.
“What the fuck?” He hissed. Annie didn’t know. Whatever that was, it wasn’t normal. She decided she’d talk to Jessica about it in the morning. They moved food around their plate’s in awkward silence, patiently waiting for the check to come so they could excuse themselves for the night.
“You guys want to walk the beach after this?” Tommy said, letting his fork fall and clang against his empty plate.
“Oh, yes! I love the beach at night.” Jessica chirped, sloshing her drink over the side as she danced at the mention of it.
“I think we’re gonna pass. It’s been a long travel day and I want to turn in early.” Annie placed her hand over Clay’s as she spoke, begging him not to argue. She loved her friends but was disturbed by their behavior.
“No! Come walk with us, the ocean is so beautiful at night.” Jessica pushed, but Clay was already on his feet and throwing money down on the table.
“Breakfast in the morning?” Clay asked.
“Yeah, have a good night guys.” Tommy said.
They traded their good-nights and parted ways, Tommy and Jessica heading down to the beach and Annie and Clay heading to their cabin, exhausted.
The next morning they found Tommy and Jessica on the pier, seemingly having already started drinking for the day. Annie rolled her eyes at this. She was still feeling unsettled by the previous night’s events but Clay had shrugged it off as too much booze and too much sun. Annie went off to get some coffees while Clay greeted them, all smiles and jokes.
“Hey, sorry about last night. Too much sun, you know?” Tommy leaned in close to Clay, sincerity on his face.
“Yeah man, that’s what I figured. All good.” He punched Tommy’s shoulder.
“Glad to see everyone is feeling good this morning.” Annie flashed everyone a smile and handed Clay his coffee. “Jet skis?”
A resounding ‘yes’ emanated through the group with whoops and hollers and they made their way over to the rental station. They spent the next few hours cruising around on the waves, the girls falling off the jet skis as the boy’s whipped around. Jessica spent more time swimming around than she did on the actual jet ski, which she seemed fine with, but was losing energy a lot quicker than her desire to leave the water. More than once Clay found himself plucking her out of the water and letting her catch her breath while Tommy zipped around, unaware of his girlfriend’s struggles. Just as soon as Jessica could catch her breath, she was diving back in, giggling and splashing.
“Do they seem a little off to you?” Clay asked Annie, keeping his eye on Tommy’s careless driving.
“I mean last night was really messed up but I think they’re just excited, maybe overdoing it a bit much.” She paused, looking out into the water. “And hey, we only see them once a year and this is the first one that we haven’t been drunk.” She rested her forehead on his back.
“Fair point.” Clay let them bob with the waves for a few minutes as he enjoyed the moment. The sun was high over their heads, meaning they’d been out there all morning, possibly past lunch time. His stomach grumbled, validating his thoughts. He reached back and patted Annie’s knee. “How about some lunch?”
“Mm, yes, please?”
“Sounds good.” Clay started up the jet ski and drove over to where Tommy and Jessica were splashing around. “Hey, we’re going to grab a bite, you coming?”
Tommy and Jessica exchanged a quick glance before Jessica shrugged. “We’re good, you guys enjoy. We’ll see you for dinner!”
“Alright now, you don’t go turning into a fish out here, Jess!” Clay called as they turned and headed back to shore.
After returning their jetski they decided on a pizza shop that had a neat little dining area and a fun selection of pizza. Annie chose a cozy booth in the back and ordered them some milkshakes while Clay had stopped to crack jokes with some of the locals. Annie watched out the window where a few families were eating lunch outside. A young couple with two toddlers seemed to be deep in conversation when Annie noticed the woman licking the salt around the rim of her margarita. Annie almost gagged at the thought of it but she was never big on salt anyway. She looked at the woman again and couldn’t help but choke. She was now holding the salt shaker, bottom up, and pouring into her drink. She couldn’t look away as the woman put down the salt and wrapped her fingers around the glass. No… She brought the glass to her lips and it was everything Annie could do to not shout at her to stop. But she drank deeply from the glass, downing it in three big gulps, salt and all.
“What’s got you?” Clay tapped her shoulder, breaking her gaze, as he sat down.
“That woman just… drank salt.” Annie managed.
“I saw her, she put a bunch of it in her drink, like a lot of salt, and then drank the whole glass.”
Clay laughed and shook his head. “Well they kind of go together, don’t they? Salt and tequila…” In that moment the man at the next table casually dumped about a half a cup of salt in his beer and chugged it down. Clay slowly turned back to Annie, eyes bugged out of his head, and gave her a cautious nod. “Okay…” The two looked around and saw almost everyone adding salt to their beverages, their food, everything.
“Maybe it’s not salt?”
“Oh, it’s salt,” They jumped at the sudden presence of their waiter, who was now standing at their table, an uncomfortable grin over his tanned face. He looked about twenty years old, wearing a bandana over his dreadlocked hair. The name tag on his work uniform read ‘Derek’. He placed a menu in front of each of them and continued on. “I don’t know what’s going on today, but I’ve already had to call an ambulance twice for people passing out dehydrated.” He spoke in a low, slightly irritated tone, softening a bit to take their drink orders and list off the specials.
“Jesus…” Clay muttered. “Drugs maybe?”
“I don’t know, man.” The waiter, Derek, shifted, spinning a pen in his hand. He seemed uninterested, if not indifferent. Clay gave him their drink orders and ordered a plate of nachos.
Annie laughed nervously as Derek sauntered away to retrieve their drinks. “It must be drugs, right? I mean people have done much crazier things…” She trailed off, unconvinced by her own reasoning.
“Probably,” Clay gave a reassuring smile, “Don’t worry about it. Let’s focus on ourselves and let them drink all the salt water they want.” He chuckled and Annie softened, allowing a smile to crack through.
Their nachos and drinks came and they quickly forgot about the strange happenings around them. They crushed through the nachos, and then a pizza, laughing and planning out their week on the beach. A few miles down the road they had installed a new zip line attraction that Annie had her eyes on since she’d learned about it. They decided they would check that out later in the week, dedicating the rest of the day to shopping on the boardwalk.
As Annie spoke excitedly about all the things she wanted to get done before they head back to reality, Clay found himself struggling to listen to her as he looked around the restaurant.
He’d known something seemed different when they walked in but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Almost everyone in the restaurant, and most of the staff, looked downright gaunt. They all sported tans, but their skin sagged and dark circles shadowed their eyes. He watched a woman reach for a pitcher of beer and struggle to pour it as he exhausted arms shook. She looked waterlogged. Everyone did, and it was no surprise if they were all drinking salt water. He found himself watching a group of college-aged men. They laughed and told stories around their beers and food. Clay watched as they ate their food ravenously and drank with glutton. He noticed the one with long hair salt his food three times before taking a bite. He noticed the quiet one trying to be discreet as he ordered his fourth beer and added a pinch of salt. The man in the Hawaiian shirt, the loudest one, suddenly stopped mid-sentence and froze. Clay’s stomach dropped. This felt like deja vu. The man tensed his body as if he were having a seizure. He clenched his jaw so tight Clay thought he could hear it pop from where he stood. His eyes spasmed the same way Jessica’s did the previous night. Through his grinding teeth he made a soft “sshh” until he seemed to snap out of it and dive right back into his food.
“Clay?” Annie reached across the table to touch his hand, breaking his trance.
“What?” He snapped, a bit more callously than he meant. Annie jumped, shock and hurt flashing over her face for a brief moment. He looked up to see the waiter standing over the table with their check. “Oh, sorry.” He mumbled, stealing a glance at the man, who was still back to normal, and fished a few twenties out of his wallet and handed them over. “All yours, bud.”
“Thanks, guys,” Derek said, sliding the money into his apron, “Hope to see you here again so-”
He was cut off by a sudden crash followed by a deafening shriek. A small boy began crying hysterically for his father, who was quickly turning purple and folded over in his chair, clawing at his throat.
“Oh shit, he’s choking!” Annie yelled, quickly fumbling with her phone to call 911. Clay and Derek rushed over to the man and began attempting the Heimlich maneuver. As Annie panicked through telling the dispatch operator their location and the situation, the man looked at her with desperate, bulging eyes. Tears spilled over her cheeks as she watched his blood vessels pop and paint his eyes red. Dark veins bulged and threatened to rupture as he grunted and gagged, his lungs begging for air. Trickles of spit coated with bits of food dripped out of his mouth and down to the floor.
Clay had his arms around the man’s chest, trying his hardest to dislodge whatever was stuck but the man was jerking and spasming so much that Clay couldn’t get a firm grasp around the man’s great chest. Derek was frozen and terrified, standing by with his hands in his hair and a look of horror on his face. The child let out another agonizing shriek as his father slumped under Clay’s hold. His face was nearly eggplant, now, his lungs at their limit and desperately holding on for life.
“DADDY!” The boy cried, his face now red and tear streaked. A wet gurgle escaped the mans lips, a long with a spray of spittle and thick stream of blood dripped down his chin. His head slumped over, the weight of his body too much for Clay to hold him any longer, and he tumbled to the floor. Clay dropped to his knees and pried open the man’s jaw. He almost vomited when a slew of shattered teeth and blood leaked out and stained the man’s shirt. Without thinking, he dug two of his fingers into the man’s mouth and began shoveling out a colorful mess of sea shells. In shock, he kept going. He was determined to save this man’s life.
As he kept digging and digging, Clay realized that mixed among the bits of shell and blood were broken teeth. His mouth was completely gored; torn and cracked from chewing on and swallowing sea shells. At that moment, the paramedics rushed in and began trying to revive him. Clay stumbled over to Annie in a haze and put his arms around her. He had already dislodged the blockage in the man’s throat, laying on the floor next to him in a bloodied heap of shells, broken teeth, and mucus. A sickening showcase of the man’s undoing. He was dead. After some time, the three medic’s sat up from their work, looking at each other with dumbfounded expressions.
All the color had drained from Annie’s face and she was rooted in place. Clay was pulling desperately on her arm, trying to get them out of there, but she was shocked still.
“Annie, let’s go!” He hissed, jerking her arm and leading her away from the quickly growing crowd. The child’s hysterics were reaching their crescendo and the heartbreak was too much for Clay to bear. He needed out. He felt like he was dragging dead weight as he maneuvered through the restaurant patrons and scattered chairs but he didn’t care, he didn’t want to look back until they were outside and away from that scene. He could feel bile rising in the back of his throat and he was getting dizzy. He reached the door and all but yanked Annie through before it shut behind her.
“What the FUCK!” Clay howled, crouching down and cradling his head in his hands. He rocked back and forth and hummed as he willed himself not to lose his lunch all over the sidewalk. This seemed to snap Annie out of it as she came to his side and began rubbing his back. She had no words for him, though. She didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t even sure of what she’d just seen. A man had died in front of them. Clay stood, suddenly, throwing her soothing touch off of him. “Seriously, Annie, what the fuck?”
She stood to meet him, confused. “Clay?”
“You just stand there watching while he’s dying in my arms? And then you stick around to watch after?” He voice was rising and he had venom in his words.
“I was calling 911, Clay, why are you yelling at me?” Tears began falling down her cheeks and she backed away from her fiancé, who seemed like a stranger to her at this very moment. “I was scared.”
“And so was I! And where were you? Just standing there.” A police officer taping off the entrance gave him a nasty look and told them to move along, but Clay was lost in his anger. “Do you ever think about anyone but yourself? Are you even aware of others?”
Annie was openly sobbing, now, still backing away from the man she’d always trusted to protect her. “Clay, stop! This isn’t you.”
“No, it’s not” He snapped, softening at his own words. He looked at her for the first time since the incident, her eyes were filled with betrayal and hurt. “This isn’t me. Shit, Annie, I’m sorry.”
“I’m going for a walk.” She sniffled through tears before turning away from him. She went down towards the water, leaving him on the boardwalk and among the chaos. He let her go. He knew that no good would come of going after her, and so he gave her the space she needed. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and turned away, walking away from Annie and away from the pizza shop. He messed up. He let his anxiety over the situation get the better of him and he attacked the one person who was always there.
He wandered about a block before stopping in front of a beach side grill and found his eyes drifting to the bar. A group of friends were cackling over a round of shots, two women gossiped hungrily over margaritas, and a few blue collar types were hunched over their beers along the bar. Clay’s mouth watered at the sight of it all. He wanted, no, he needed a drink. Especially now! He never wanted to get clean; he never really felt like an alcoholic. He did it for Annie. What would a drink matter right now? It wouldn’t do any harm. He shifted awkwardly, eyes darting resentfully toward Annie, who he could now hardly see through the crowd, and then back to the bar. He sucked in a lungful of air and stepped inside. He wanted a fucking drink.
Clay felt right back where he belonged, with a wobbly bar stool underneath him and an ice cold beer in his hand. It was never the beer that was his problem. It was whiskey; that stuff could put him on his ass like nothing else. He chuckled to himself, refusing to feel guilt over this. Not yet. Not until I’ve enjoyed this. He knew this would crush Annie, but he couldn’t think about that. Not when he couldn’t get the images of that man’s bloodied mouth out of his head, or the sounds of his final gasps as he died in front of his son and scores of strangers. Clay felt him die. He felt his body exhale life and grow cold and stiff. He would never get those images out of his mind. He didn’t know if he’d ever get over this. He took a long swig of his beer and held it in his mouth for a moment before swallowing. Being in this moment meant that he didn’t have to relive the last hour of his life. Just this moment.
He decided to order another drink just as Eddie Money’s Take Me Home Tonight started up on the jukebox. A spark of excitement and adrenaline shot through his body as he surrendered himself to the night.
“Here ya go, buddy.” The bartender, a rough, older man who had hardly said two words to Clay was suddenly standing before him at the bar. He had a hole punch in his hand and was snipping away at a small black and red card. “Get a few more and have a drink on us.” He slid the card over and walked away. It was a loyalty card; buy five drinks and get your sixth for free. Clay grinned, fumbling the card in one hand, his drink in the other. Screw it. He thought; he was already in this. And hell, after what he’d been through today no one could blame him for having a couple beers. He wasn’t falling off the wagon. What did Annie’s therapist call it? A slip up? Yeah. This was just a slip up and he’d be fine in the morning. He took a deep pull from his drink and relaxed realizing he’d been clenching his fist. He let the loyalty card fall out of his hand, now wrinkled and bent. He kept drinking, letting his fears and anger fall into the bottle with each pull. The music picked up and he found himself swaying with the lyrics of the song. He felt a warm haze wash over him as he finished his bottle and watched the bartender punch his card for another. He knocked back another big gulp and belted out the lyrics as the chorus ramped up. He sang with all of his heart, not caring about anything else in that moment. He wanted to forget it all, just like his yoga instructor always told him: “Just let it all go.”
He took a deep breath and looked around, now feeling a little silly about his impromptu karaoke session. A few patrons were eyeing him but for the most part no one seemed to care. He turned back to his drink and hunched over it as if he were protecting it. He ran a hand through his hair and suddenly felt incredibly alone. Like a lost child at grocery store, he didn’t know where to go or what to do. He wanted Annie, but he’d just fucked up royally and didn’t even know where she was. He was afraid and he dumped it all over Annie’s shoulders for her to fix while he sat here and drank. He suddenly became disgusted with himself, but he couldn’t put the beer down. Not until he was done.
“Fuck!” He hissed and then downed the beer. He went to slam it down on the bar top but when he let go, the bottle didn’t hit the bar. Or the floor. It splashed into the ocean water that he now found himself standing waist deep in. He screamed, whipping his head in either direction, anxiously looking for the shore. It was pitch black outside and the inky waves seemed to be pulling him in like velvet clothed fingers. In his panic, he fell over submerging his body completely in the water. His arms flailed as he desperately tried to get to his feet. Something was weighing him down, but he didn’t care to find out what it was until he was out of the water. How long had he been out here? It was light out when he’d entered the bar. He slothed his way out of the water, tripping over seaweed and panicking over everything that brushed against his legs. Finally, he made it to the shore and stumbled face first into the sea shell littered sand.
Gasping and wheezing and clutching fistfuls of shells and sand, Clay screamed. The last he knew he was finishing his beer at the bar and suddenly he’s in the ocean in the middle of the night!? He had no recollection of getting himself out here, let alone how long he’d been standing in the water like this. He looked around, horrified, but only saw empty darkness. And shells. Those god damned shells… He became enraged, suddenly, throwing fistfuls of sea shells into the ocean. He kicked at them and screamed and cried. What is happening to me? Falling to his knees, he sobbed. He needed Annie.
Somewhere in the darkness a blood curdling scream broke the silence. Clay could hardly bring himself to lift his head from the sand until a second shriek broke his trance. It was Annie. He pushed himself off the ground, stumbling and weak, and called out to her in a broken rasp. Clearing his throat and realizing for the first time how thirsty he was, he screamed.
“ANNIE!” He started running. He wasn’t sure if he was going in the right direction, but he had to do something. He had to go get his girl. He heard a soft whimper in the distance and then what sounded like someone drowning. No. “Annie! I’m coming!” His calves were burning and his feet were bloodied from running across shattered sea shells.
“Clay!” Annie’s voice broke the darkness but he couldn’t see her anywhere on the beach. “Clay, over here!”
She sounded exhausted and like she’d been screaming for hours. Clay felt a spray of water on his face and looked to the ocean finding Annie, among at least twenty others, standing in the water.
“ANNIE GET OUT OF THE WATER!” Clay howled, suddenly feeling completely alone, the weight of his terror sinking in. The very real possibility of losing the only thing he ever loved in that moment became all that he could see as he dove into the water for her, giving into his blind fear and not paying attention to the barnacle coated boulder that just peaked out of the water. In two steps he pushed off the sand and dove in, shattering his teeth and nose as he collided with the weathered stone.
When he was finally able to crack his eyelids open, Clay found himself staring at the sickening white tiled ceiling of a hospital room. He couldn’t move his neck and his jaw seemed to be wired shut. The blinding agony was difficult to ignore but his panic rose when he realized that Annie wasn’t here with him. He’d expected her to be sitting there next time, holding his hand. She wasn’t there. No one was. Clay shook, his eyes bulging desperately to get a look at his surroundings, to call for help. The monitors next to him began beeping more frantically as he struggled. He groaned through his shattered mouth and felt a trickle of blood leak down his cheek. Tears began falling at that moment as he feared the worst. He thought about their last conversation and how terrible he’d been to her. How weak and stupid he was for going to have a drink instead of chasing her and begging her to forgive him.
“Look who’s awake.” A young nurse suddenly leaned over him, her face was soft and filled with concern. Clay’s eyes watered as he tried to mumble Annie’s name to her as she cleaned him up. The nurse put a hand on his chest. “Just try to relax, honey, moving that jaw around won’t help the pain.” She handed him a small white board and marker. Quickly, and barely legibly, he scribbled down Annie’s name.
“Oh, she’s been here every day with you. I expect she’ll be back this evening. Now, for your damage…” She swallowed before looking down at her clipboard.
Clay found out that when he hit the rock he shattered his nose and top row of teeth. His cheek bone was fractured. His collar bone was broken in two places and he had a sprained wrist. He’d been in a somewhat medically induced coma for a week and a half, and wasn’t expected to wake up just yet. She let him process his injuries and made her way to the door.
“You’ve got some recovery time, dear, try to rest.” With that, the door shut behind her and she was off. Clay exhaled painfully. Once again, he was alone with his thoughts. His head swam and he struggled to keep his eyes open. Annie was safe. He felt himself drifting away into the medically induced blackness.
A few hours later Clay woke to something soft touching his arms. It felt warm and comforting; familiar.
“Clay?” Annie’s voice came in like a whisper. “Can you hear me?” He blinked his eyes open, seeing Annie’s soft brown eyes looking into him. Concern and exhaustion was weighed heavily on her face. Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy and her lips were cracked. Despite all of that she was beautiful. He wanted to reach up and hug her, never letting her go. He wanted to kiss her lips and stroke her hair. Give her everything she wanted and needed. He couldn’t move, though, so a pathetic wheeze escaped his lips. His fingers stretched out towards the white board and Annie knew immediately what he needed. She always knew. Immediately, he snatched the marker and scribbled something down.
Annie smiled sadly. A tear rolled down her cheek and she took his hand. “I know, sweetie.” She swallowed hard. “Clay, I have to tell you… Jessica is dead.”
Bound by his own injuries, Clay couldn’t move or even react to the news. Tears poured from his eyes as Annie told him what happened after their argument. Annie had taken a long walk down the beach after Clay yelled at her. She had tried calling Tommy and Jessica several times and ended up hearing Jessica’s phone on the beach. Their stuff was in the same spot as it had been this morning. Annie began to worry and tried Tommy again, also finding his phone among their belongings. She got the beach patrol involved, fearing that her friends were hurt or had drowned, who found out that Tommy had never returned the jet skies that they rented that morning. The police searched the boardwalk while Annie kept walking the beach. After some time she found them in the water, sitting down so they were about shoulder deep. She ran to the edge of the water and called out to them, which they answered happily, but had absolutely no interest in getting out of the water. From her spot on the beach, Annie could tell that the hours of salt water was taking a toll on their bodies. Their skin was pruned all over and almost seem to sag off of their bodies. They had dark circles around their eyes and they were an unnatural pale. They looked sick.
Beach patrol was able to get them out of the ocean and had a medic look them over and treat them for the severe dehydration they were clearly suffering. They seemed to be in a daze, however, and were completely unfazed by their situation. They smiled and cooperated with the police. Annie insisted she take them back to their cabin for the night but as soon as the first responders packed up and left they brushed her off and made their way to the bar. She decided not to join them and went back to the beach, where she ended up falling asleep on Jessica’s beach blanket.
Annie woke up some time later to find herself no longer alone. Tommy and Jessica were now walking back into the water. She stood to go after them and found the water filled with people, wading in various degrees of depth. Tommy and Jessica were still only knee deep, but Annie had her eye on a woman who was far out, the water lapping at her chin and waves washing over her face. She wasn’t stopping. Annie screamed but only Jessica and Tommy heard her and even they didn’t care. Annie waded in deeper but felt an absolute dread being near the water. The woman disappeared under the murky waves, never resurfacing. Annie screamed again as a man did the same thing; sacrificing himself straight into the ocean. At this point the beach patrol was long gone and Annie was terrified to turn her back on her friends again.
“GET OUT OF THE WATER!” She howled, sobbing as more people waded deeper, some stopping at a certain point and others moving forward until they were no more. Annie was able to reach Jessica, but her rage had returned at the mention of getting out and she pushed Annie backwards and into the water. Annie tried again but when Tommy nearly hit her in the face she felt helpless to change their mind. It was then that they made their way deeper into the water, leaving Annie. As it turned out, Derek, their waiter from earlier, heard her screams and called the police. They were still nearby and happened to arrive at the same time as Clay. He saw Annie, but somehow not the police. The officer who helped Annie earlier saw what Clay was doing and made a run for it to save him. He missed him by only a moment.
Seven people died that night, Jessica included, fourteen people in total that day. Tommy was in the ICU at the moment recovering from severe dehydration and lacerations all over his body. No one had any explanations. Half of the tourists at the resort had succumbed to this inexplicable madness, just as these shells arrived to line the shore. The police, the medics, even the hospital staff were just as stunned as everyone. No one could explain what drove these people to dehydrate themselves or to drown themselves.
“It was like they wanted to become the sea.” Annie’s voice wavered as she finished, tears falling freely. Clay thought back to his own moment in the ocean. Annie still didn’t know. He’d been one of them. When he pulled himself back onto the shore, he found his pockets and clothing completely stuffed with shells and seaweed. He’d felt that pull to be with the sea; to be in it and to be a real part of it. He couldn’t tell her. Not with his jaw wired shut. Not with his face smashed in the way it was. He was lucky to even be alive. Tears fell from his own eyes but he had no way to communicate anything to Annie. He couldn’t even touch her. The door opened, suddenly, and the nurse from earlier marched in to administer more pain meds.
“I’m sorry, Annie, time to let him rest. Wrap it up, dear.” She began fiddling with Tommy’s IV bag as Annie leaned down to give him a gentle kiss on the hand. She stifled back more tears as she left the room, knowing she’d be back again.
ONE YEAR LATER
Clay was home. It was a long recovery and he’d faced many surgeries, but today he’d come home from his final doctor’s appointment. Annie was making him his favorite dinner to celebrate and they planned to watch a movie later. A quiet night.
It wasn’t until recently that things started to feel normal again. Aside from the physical injuries, both of them were greatly traumatized by the whole ordeal. Annie struggled with the guilt of watching her friend’s death. She had nightmares almost every night, as did Clay. Tommy was over often, also traumatized and grief stricken. To this day they still couldn’t understand what happened at the beach. Clay never told them that he had drank that day. He couldn’t speak for nearly a month and by that point his desire to ever touch alcohol again was dead and gone. He didn’t see the harm in letting that little slip up be a secret he kept. Annie had been through more than enough; she didn’t need that stress added on top. Especially if it wasn’t a problem.
Annie gave him a light squeeze as she walked by and slipped out the front door before he could ask where she was going. He was settled into the couch and flipping through his phone mindlessly. He switched apps and the very first thing he saw made his stomach turn: ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF LAZY PALM FATALITIES APPROACHING. He scrolled past quickly, deciding he could do without whatever bullshit that reporter had to say. He set his phone down just as Annie stepped through the door, a handful of junk mail and bills in one hand a small package in the other.
“Clay, check this out.” She tossed the junk on the side table and sat next to him, plopping the package down on his lap. It was addressed only to Clay. “Look at the return address.” Lazy Palm Beach Resort. Clay’s mouth went dry.
“We should just throw this away.” He managed, feeling his palms sweating.
“I mean, probably, but we’ll never know. That would drive me insane.” She stared at him, slowly taking the box back from him. She had a point. He gave her a nod and she tore at the tape binding the box shut.
There were two things in that box. The first was a small shot glass tastefully filled with seashells and sand. On the glass in a curly pink font read “Lazy Palms Beach Resort”. Underneath the glass was a crumpled up loyalty card in black red. It had five punches taken out of it.
Have a drink on us…
Sea you soon…