Charlie should have turned around when Bentley started barking.
This would be her ultimate conclusion.
She should have turned around and walked away.
If the sun had risen, Charlie wasn’t able to tell. A low fog clung to her shirt as she trudged over the bridge that protected the dunes below. In the thick air, Charlie could barely see the wag of Bentley’s tail – her grandfather’s overly-needy Wire Fox Terrier. Charlie felt cold and damp in the morning air and had already gotten a piece of gravel wedged in her shoe. Her head throbbed slightly – she did not want to be awake at this hour, but a recent hip replacement left her grandfather unable to take Bentley on his regular walks.
“It will be good for you to have something to do over break,” Charlie’s mom had insisted.
Charlie personally never thought she had trouble filling her time, but her mother and her disagreed on what exact activities should fill that time. Thus, Charlie was exiled to her grandfather’s house on the coast, taking this overexcited mutt on walks at ungodly hours.
When Charlie and Bentley reached the sandy beach, Charlie stopped to remove her shoes. The sand was cold. Everything was cold. But Charlie preferred the biting chill over sandy socks. She yawned and shimmied her toes under the sand briefly. It was then that Bentley began to pull on his leash.
“No need to get antsy, there’s just as many places to pee here as there are up ahead,” Charlie quipped.
Bentley did not pay her any mind. His brown ears flicked forward; his nose wiggled upward as a breeze shifted the air. Charlie could not see the ocean through the fog, but she heard the low hum of the waves and could taste the salt on her lips. Normally, the thrum of the ocean was a soothing sound, but today everything felt a little off. Perhaps it was the slight hangover from stealing too many swigs of her grandfather’s dusty gin – or perhaps this morning was just colder than usual. Either way, Charlie felt a soft shaking in her arms and legs. A certain queasiness.
Too much gin, Charlie decided, and not enough sleep.
Bentley pulled again. With one hand on the old blue leash and another holding her shoes, Charlie sighed, plucking her feet from the sand. She padded along behind Bentley, whose pace had picked up considerably.
“Easy boy,” Charlie warned. She felt too unsteady this morning. If he tugged too hard, he could take her down. Worse yet, he could run off down the beach, and then Charlie would have to tell her grandfather she lost his prize-winning pooch because she was too hungover to hold a leash.
Bentley whimpered. He pranced in place for a moment, circled once, and then pulled on the leash again. Charlie trudged along, tilting her head at the dog’s strange behavior. He was normally an easy-going guy, or at the very least, a little too old for such antics.
Bentley stopped again to sniff the air. A low breeze lifted the damp hair off Charlie’s neck. She shivered. Then Bentley lurched forward with such force, Charlie nearly dropped her shoes. She stumbled forward, kicking sand upward. She needed to pick up her pace to keep up with Bentley, but her stomach lurched in anticipation.
“Come on, buddy. I’m not up for this right now,” Charlie moaned. Her legs felt heavier on the loose sandy beach. The low waves continued to thrum. Charlie thought she could hear something else in the distance, something a little high-pitched and garbled.
Was that what this was about? Bentley wanted to chase seagulls?
The terrier kept pulling forward fiercely, his gait pitching in the sand. Charlie heard the noise again, closer now. She could not see any birds, but then again, she could not see much of anything besides fog, sand, and driftwood.
Bentley bounded over a broken bottle and halted suddenly. His nose pointed towards the dunes, he sniffed the air and pawed at the sand below. Charlie thought she could hear the beginning of a low whimper escape from his body, then she heard the strange noise again – that warbled cry. It sounded much closer now and much less like a seagull.
“Bentley?” Charlie’s chest tightened along with her grip on the leash. Something was off. The noise, the dog’s odd behavior, the dampness of this moment. It all felt grippingly wrong.
Charlie’s head swirled slightly as her hand wavered. Bentley’s ears flexed backward, his nose pushing closer to the dunes. The fog was so thick that Charlie could not see what had captured Bentley’s attention. Only that some part of the dune seemed darker than the rest.
Bentley let out a stiff, unsteady bark. Then quickly the barking became more frantic, Bentley’s paws padding and kicking against the sand.
“Easy boy.” Charlie knelt down, trying to coax the terrier with a gentle rub. The dog flailed and barked, nearly knocking her over.
“Come on, Bentley. It’s okay. Let’s keep walking,” Charlie tried once more to soothe the dog, but Bentley barely glanced at her before pushing his nose out. He seemed to point his entire body toward the dune, toward a dark blotch in the sand. Charlie squinted.
Then she heard the noise again, quieter now, but unmistakably coming from the dark spot. It sounded like words, almost like a sentence, croaking out into the air. But whatever made the noise sounded too… wet. It didn’t seem human, and yet, Charlie felt like she was being spoken to. Called to, even.
Bentley quieted suddenly, whimpering one last time. He planted his feet into the sand, but his body shook as he hunched lower to the ground. Charlie hoisted herself to her feet using a nearby fencepost for leverage. The dunes were protected property and kept fenced off for several miles. Charlie had never bothered with the dunes before – she never had a reason to. But now, she looped Bentley’s leash around a decrepit post and ducked in between two wooden bars. She stepped cautiously forward. A bit of beach grass licking the exposed skin on her ankles.
“Hello?” Charlie asked.
The darkness on the dune began to take shape, expanding and contracting slightly. It was moving, breathing even. Charlie’s foot slipped in the sand, but she climbed closer to the figure. Perhaps, it was only an injured animal.
As Charlie moved closer, the colors of the blotchy figure became more distinguishable in the fog. A light blue, a brown, a deep red...
“Hello?” Charlie asked again.
The figure emitted a low moan. Was this a person?
“Oh, my god! Are you okay?” Charlie scrambled forward, ignoring the throbbing in her head and the twisting in her stomach. Her heartbeat quickened until she could feel it pounding in her ears. She held her breath until she reached it – the body sprawled in the sand.
What remained of a woman.
Charlie gasped, her hands shaking over the feeble form stretched out in front of her. The woman’s head angled wrongly over her shoulder. A few bloody strains of hair stuck to the corner of her mouth. She opened her mouth slightly, and the low sound pushed blood out between her lips. The thick liquid dribbled down her chin and caught on more of her hair. The woman’s eyes fluttered in Charlie's general direction, before rolling to the left, toward the sand.
Charlie reached out to check the woman’s pulse, but there was no hand left. No wrist. Only a place where an arm stopped and a dark puddle began. Charlie retched; she couldn’t see straight anymore. She could hardly think straight.
“You’ve lost a lot of blood, try to stay still.” Charlie whispered. She pulled off her jacket and hesitated. There was so much damage, she was not even sure where to begin wrapping the wounds.
She swallowed, tightly.
“I’m going to call 911, just hang in there.” Charlie reached toward her back pocket, but her phone was gone. She must’ve dropped it climbing up the dune. Charlie’s head spun, her eyes darting back and forth for the navy-colored phone lost in the sand. It couldn’t be too far away.
“Just hang in there,” Charlie whimpered. She let herself slide down the dune. Part of her foot caught on a shard of glass, but it had numbed from the cold. Charlie frantically shoved aside old beer cans and beach grass. Her nose twitched with the smell, fouled by booze and piss and blood. So much blood.
Charlie shook her head, her hand gripped into the sand until it caught under her nails. Finally, finally she caught sight of the cracked navy case of her phone. She lunged forward and pulled the phone into her chest. After a shallow exhale, Charlie scrambled back up the dune. Her hands shook so violently that it took her two tries to enter her passcode in.
Bentley began to bark again, his cries cutting through the air with urgency. Charlie looked over at the face of the woman. She was pale – and so, so still. Charlie brushed a small crab away from the woman’s ear and began to dial.
“911, what’s your emergency?” the operator answered.
“Please help me, I found a woman and she’s dying. I don’t know what-”
A pair of dark leather boots had appeared next to the woman’s body. Charlie’s eyes moved from the boots to the jeans and thick plaid shirt. There stood a man with empty eyes. He held an entrenching tool raised above his head, still dripping blood.
Charlie felt her brain stutter. Her senses reduced to only what she could hear. Bentley’s cries echoed through the mist, the operator stammered through the speaker… but the last thing Charlie could hear was the low thrum of the ocean waves in the distance.
Author’s Note: This short story is inspired by the true story of an unidentified murder victim discovered in 1974 in Provincetown, Massachusetts known as the “Lady of the Dunes.” However, all characters and events in this story are fictional.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Excellent build-up of suspense. The rhythm of your sentences worked really well! I've subscribed!