Gods of Time
Don't go on the footpath on a foggy night.
Author's Note: The cover photo and the (somewhat silly) video at the end are all me, bad singing included. Sorry about that, I suppose I got very invested in this story. It was intentionally written with the gender of the second person protagonist left ambiguous so you can put yourself in their shoes regardless of your gender. However, if you can figure out what classic work of literature this is very vaguely inspired by you might guess what I had in mind while I wrote it. I will let you know the answer at the end.
You’re not sure what wakes you up. The bedroom is nearly pitch-black, just a sliver of light under the door. Your phone tells you that it is just shy of 3 a.m. The space next to you on the bed is empty. It shouldn’t be empty, should it?
Ben, your mind supplies. Ben, your… Can you call him your boyfriend yet?
He is supposed to be sleeping over. Except he’s not there. You strain your ears and hear what sounds like retching, probably coming from the bathroom.
You roll out of bed and follow the sound.
You find him leaning over the bathroom sink, deathly pale and shaking. As you reach out to touch his bare shoulder, he doubles over and vomits into the white porcelain. You expect to see the half-digested remains of the pasta you two ate for dinner. Instead, what comes out resembles murky water. The smell of salt and seaweed hits your nose.
This makes no sense.
“Darling, you okay?” You lay a palm on his trembling back.
Ben’s head turns stiffly towards you. His pupils are so dilated that the brown of his eyes has been reduced to two thin rings around circles of bottomless black.
Is he high?
It can’t be that. It’s hard to imagine Ben misusing drugs. He is normally so clean-cut and sensible. Тhen again, he’s been having a tough time since Doreen’s disappearance. She hasn’t been seen since that night when the two of you left her on the footpath to Chronos Island.
Suddenly, his hand grips your upper arm - painfully, his fingers digging in. You yelp.
“Ow! What? What is it?” You sit him down on the edge of the bathtub. “You’re okay, you’re fine. Just breathe.”
He lets go of your arm but now his hands start roaming uncoordinatedly over his own body. They touch his wrists, his throat, his shoulders - as if he’s checking if all of him is still there. You catch them in yours. They are ice-cold.
“Ben. You’re freaking me out here. Say something.”
“S-sorry…” he rasps finally. “I don’t know what… I don’t remember getting out of bed. I think I had a really fucked-up dream.”
His voice is hoarse and weak but at least he is talking and he seems more lucid now.
“You scared the shit out of me. What dream? Were you sleepwalking? All the way to the sea?”
He shakes his head, frowning. “I don’t know. M-maybe it’s some stomach bug? Maybe I had a fever? It’s a bit better now.”
You look him over. Some of his colour has returned. “Not nauseous anymore?”
You touch his face. No fever as far as you can tell. In fact, his skin is cold to the touch.
“You’re freezing. Let’s get you back to bed for now. But if you start feeling worse I’m calling an ambulance.”
He curls up obediently next to you and closes his eyes. His forehead presses against your shoulder. You would smile if you weren’t so worried. He wants you near. Perhaps one of these days he’ll start wanting you more than he wanted her.
Doreen was stunning. An ethereal dark-haired beauty the likes of which were a rare thing even in the modelling industry. Her skin was flawless. Her eyes were a deep brown, almost black. Her hair cascaded down her back in thick, silky waves. From the moment Ben met her, he hardly ever wanted to photograph anything else. The only problem was, you were pretty sure he cared for her a lot more than she cared for him. You were jealous but you kept your mouth shut - you and Ben were only friends back then.
To his credit, even with Doreen seemingly occupying all of his time, he found ways to see you. Maybe that was why he decided to have that photoshoot on Chronos Island - because it was so close to where you lived.
The three of you arrived there at low tide, while the footpath to the island was dry. It was going to be submerged once the tide rose but that was a few hours away. You crossed easily, planning to camp on the island after the shoot.
For most of the afternoon you watched as Ben snapped shot after shot of his muse in her white lace dress. Doreen on the rocks, Doreen by some old ruins, Doreen in the water...
They paused for a break as the sun sank lower and lower and the water rose higher.
“Why did you pick this place?” Doreen asked.
Ben shrugged. “There’s just something about it. It’s beautiful and it has a certain mystique. Like you.” He winked. “There are a lot of stories about it - or so I’ve heard.”
“What stories?” There was a strange note in her voice, as if she didn’t really want to know the answer.
“All kinds of stories…” Ben looked at you. “You tell her, you’re the one who lives here.”
“Well,” you said, “people used to believe that if you crossed the footpath on a foggy night you might travel through time and emerge in a different era. Hence the name Chronos Island - after the god of time. Another local legend claims there are monsters living in the water who have a taste for human flesh and devour anyone who falls off the path.”
“Do you believe that?” Doreen asked.
You shrugged. “I believe that it’s a stupid idea to be on a footpath in the middle of the sea when there’s fog and a rising tide. And I know that people really have disappeared here. I’d guess they drowned because they were being foolish. Although…” The memory of a news article floated to the surface of your mind. “There was that one time some years ago when they found a foot. Just a solitary severed foot. They never figured out whose it was.”
“Okay, okay, enough.” Ben pushed himself up off the sand. “This is not the vibe I was going for. I’m trying to capture magic here, can you not make my model think of severed feet?”
“Sorry,” you muttered. “I just wanted to make sure you wouldn’t decide to come here on a foggy night to try and get some mystical, magical shot.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t quite risk my life for a picture of fog.”
“Would you risk it for a picture of me?” Doreen asked, a smirk on her lips.
He chuckled. “Most likely. Come on, let’s get back to work.”
The photos came out perfect, Ben said. Doreen posed better than ever. But you weren’t looking at her. You were looking at him - crouching in the shallows to get the right angle, his face bathed in the light of what photographers call ‘golden hour’, his dark curls falling over his forehead. Despite your desire to be sensible, you knew you were in love with him.
You camped on the beach and looked at the stars that night. All seemed normal. But something happened between them in the following days. Things abruptly ended, and not on a good note. Soon after, out of the blue, Ben announced he was going on a trip around Europe and he didn’t know when he was coming back.
You are having a strange dream now, too. At first it’s more like a memory. The day he’s meant to leave for Europe you suddenly realise you have to stop him. He’s due to leave on the overnight train. You try calling him several times. When he finally picks up, he tells you he’s with Doreen. They are heading towards Chronos Island. She’s told him some sentimental nonsense about the symbolism of the place, how they’d rewind time and start over. Bullshit, you think. You run down there. The water is rising and there’s mist over the footpath. You hesitate…
That’s when the dream isn’t a memory anymore because, in the dream, you leave. You decide they can’t have been stupid enough to go on the path. Ben is probably not answering your calls because they are busy ‘making up’ somewhere else. You turn around and go home.
And then… then he goes missing. No calls, no messages, no updates on his social media. His phone is disconnected.
The news comes that he hasn’t crossed the border.
The search continues on and on, fruitless.
You wake up. To your relief, Ben is there, asleep next to you.
You didn’t really leave. You went onto the path.
You don’t know how far into the sea you were when you finally paused. You couldn’t see either shore. You stood, it seemed, in nothingness, in a place outside of time and space. You could only hear the waves gently lapping around you, creeping up. You called Ben’s name. The sound rang, lost and eerie. But you kept calling until finally there was a response and he came out of the mist. Doreen had gone in the other direction, towards the island. You offered him a hand. He hesitated, glancing back, but he took it.
The two of you made it to the mainland, barely outrunning the tide.
Doreen was never seen again.
There’s something else you remember, too. Voices in the mist, whispering.
Meat, meat, meat!
It happens again next night. The shaking, the vomiting, the gasping for air. This time you take Ben to the ER but they can’t find a single thing wrong. They suggest it was a panic attack. But a panic attack doesn’t explain why he seems to be throwing up seawater when he’s been nowhere near the sea recently.
On the third night you wake up and there’s blood on the sheets next to you. You rush to the bathroom where you can hear the water running. The smell of seaweed is overpowering. Ben is sitting on the floor, covered in blood. You see a gash across his throat and two where his arms join his shoulders... Like someone has started hacking his head and limbs off but hasn’t gotten very far. You’re numb with horror. You should call an ambulance. You should call the police. You should scream for the neighbours, even. You should check if there is an axe murderer behind you. But you can’t.
You jump when he looks up at you.
“Doreen,” he rasps.
Good God, he’s alive...
His hand rises to his throat and smears the blood there, leaving a cleaner streak of skin... You stare. There’s no gash. There is a now-smudged bloody line where a cut would have been but the skin underneath is unbroken.
You finally break out of your stupor. You close the bathroom door and lock it. You don’t know if someone is in the house, you don’t know if someone did this. You’re searching for a rational explanation.
You clean him up carefully only to find that there is not a scratch on him. Maybe he threw the blood up? Internal bleeding? You take him to the ER for the second time. Nothing. Nobody can find anything physically wrong with him.
Whose blood is it, then?
Ben gradually comes to his senses on the way home but he still can’t explain what happened beyond having had a strange dream that he no longer remembers. He’s lucid again but confused and scared.
“I think I did something terrible…” he whispers. “What if… Doreen. I can’t remember that night clearly. Can you?”
Not quite. But you don’t tell him that. You tell him everything would be okay.
He forbids you to wash the bloody towel and the next morning uses some of the blood to privately order DNA tests.
The results come back a few days later. The blood is all his.
There was more to that night. There were things you blocked from your memory which are slowly coming back.
There, on the footpath, before you called him you heard something. The sound of water being disturbed. Something emerging from the depths. Your blood ran cold. It was hard not to believe in monsters on a foggy night standing in the middle of the sea. The sound repeated again, then again… Through the milky-white filter you saw shapes in the mist, rising one by one. Then voices.
Meat, meat, meat!
You nearly ran. Instead, you called out Ben’s name.
You stop sleeping during the night. You watch Ben sleep instead and on the seventh day it happens right before your eyes. His breathing quickens, as if he is having a nightmare. Before you can wake him, he gives a choked gasp. Blood gushes from newly-formed cuts on his throat, arms, legs…
His eyes blink wide open and he gurgles something out. Blood runs down his chin, then seawater. You’re caught between reaching for him and scrambling backwards…
The next moment the cuts are gone again. Only the blood is left. He’s still trying to speak.
“What is it? What did you see?”
He takes a few gasping breaths before managing to form the words.
“Meat… They want meat.”
Voices in the mist. Chronos Island.
Suddenly, you are filled with urgency. You put both of your coats and shoes on, then grab his hand and head outside.
The night is chilly and the walk to the beach where the footpath starts seems to take forever but Chronos Island is your last hope to find answers.
Ben’s hand is trembling in yours. Halfway there he speaks.
“She killed me.”
“What?” You stare at his profile in the moonlight as you hurry along the promenade.
“She killed me,” he repeats, nearly choking on the words. “Doreen. I thought I’d done something. I thought this was some sort of punishment but it was her. She stabbed me, then hacked me to pieces and threw me in the water for them to eat. I remember watching her as I sank into the water. But…” He looks up. “I also remember walking away with you. How can I remember both?”
People crossing the bridge and emerging into a different time…
Or two different timelines. And now one is trying to consume the other.
What if you end up in a world where Ben’s body is lying in pieces at the bottom of the sea or in the bellies of monsters?
The fog is crawling teasingly around the footpath when you arrive there. It hasn’t engulfed it yet but it will.
“You wait here,” you tell him.
He doesn’t want to let you go but you need to talk to them, ask them what it will take to leave him alone.
Fog. Sea. Your own steps along the path. Finally, you pause when you see something sauntering towards you.
It’s not them. It’s Doreen… Or at least something you believe was once Doreen. Half of her face is still beautiful but the rest is covered in deep black cracks, spreading like tentacles. She is holding a knife in one hand and dragging an axe along the stones with the other. For hacking bodies to pieces, you realise.
“You shouldn’t have interfered,” she says. “He’s mine. He chose to be. He said he’d risk his life for a picture of me. Well, a life is exactly what it takes to have me. A sacrifice to the gods of time.” She gestures towards the water. That’s when you realise the creatures have come. Their silhouettes are swaying gently in the mist, like snakes to the sound of the charmer’s flute. Watching you, waiting. Waiting to be fed.
“Gods of time? Is that what they are?”
She shrugs. “No idea. But the local legends are true - time is strange here. They make it so. It can skip forward and back, it can split… it can even freeze inside you. If you keep them happy and fed - well, they sort of grant you a wish. They’ve been keeping time’s grubby fingers off of me.”
“You have been feeding people to these monsters in exchange for staying pretty?”
“Until you interrupted me. And look what that did to me! They haven’t had their sacrifice, not fully. And they are punishing me for that. They have to have him.”
“Through my dead body,” you say.
“Very well.” She drops the axe and lunges forward with the knife.
You barely avoid it. You stumble into a puddle. The water is rising. You turn around just in time to see Doreen raising the knife again.
There’s no time to react.
She’s got you.
And then she will kill Ben, too.
There is a sound - like a swish, followed by a wet crunch.
Doreen freezes. Her eyes go wide. Her mouth opens and closes but there is no sound. She pivots and you see the axe protruding from her back. And then you see Ben standing there, pale and shaking. He backs away, terrified when she takes a step towards him, knife raised once again. You scramble to your feet and push her as hard as you can - off the footpath, into the water, amidst the waiting figures.
They swarm slowly. You grab Ben’s hand and you run through the mist again, your feet splashing in the rising water and your lungs burning.
When you make it to shore, you collapse on the sand, clinging to each other.
Doreen’s body is never found.
At first you can’t believe it’s over but days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months. The nightmares, the blood and the smell of seawater never return. The gods of time have found Doreen an acceptable sacrifice in exchange for Ben. Perhaps it was her they’d wanted all along. After all, gods rarely look kindly on vanity.
Author's Note: The inspiration was "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde. I have always been very partial to Basil, he deserved better. That's why I gave his counterpart (Ben) a more worthy love interest. Since Basil is as gay as they come I personally had a man in mind while writing but, as previously stated, the intention is that the 'you' can be any gender so I hope you could relate. Now have fun with the creepy/silly video below.