It's hot. The air is still and dead. A sour stink creeps up from the beach as seaweed crisps up on the stovetop sand. We sit on the porch, three of us shaded in Adirondack chairs, Stella sprawling in the sun on the steps. A pitcher of iced coffee sweats on the plant stand in the corner. Ice cubes clink and swirl in our glasses as we swig.
"Do you want sunscreen?" Addie asks Stella. "I've got some in the bathroom."
Stella shakes her head. "I'm tanning today."
"You're burning today," says Bette, critical as always. But in this case she's likely correct. The sun is a hot dime in the blue sky. All the plants are wilting under its evil eye, and Stella already looks a little pink.
I heave myself off the Adirondack chair, leaving behind beads of sweat from my thighs. "I'll help myself to some of that sunscreen. Anyone up for a swim?"
"Down to the shore, are ya ladies?" calls a neighbor. She stands on her porch, swathed in a muumuu, the sweat dripping off her jowls visible from the road. We juggle our bags and towels to wave politely back at her. "Be careful out there. Spring tide, don't ya know."
When we're out of earshot, Bette snorts. "Weirdo. Spring tide? It's August."
"No, it's a thing," says Addie with a sniff. "Something to do with the moon." I pull out my phone to try and search for the term, but there's still no service. Silly of me to keep checking. None of us have had any bars since we got here, and we haven't been able to get the wifi working at Addie's house. I guess the spring tide will remain a mystery to us.
The beach is curiously empty. Which is good because the tide is so high there's almost no beach, just a thin ribbon of sand curling along the sea's expanse. We lay our towels over the gentle slope of a dune, hoping the tide won't get much higher.
"Is there usually so little sand at high tide?" I ask Addie. She shrugs.
"It's different every year. Sometimes the shore's all rocks. Sometimes the dunes are tall, sometimes they're short. Once there was a cave over there." She nods out towards a pile of rocks jutting through a spray of waves.
"Oh cool! Did you go in?"
"Nah, Mom wouldn't let me. Dad did, though. Said it was nothing special. Stank like a fish. Must've been - oh god, fifteen years ago? Never saw it again."
"Creepy," says Stella as she shucks her shorts and top. "Last one in's a rotten egg!" The rest of us roll our eyes at one another, but each get up in our own, sun-lazy ways. But before we can get much further than undoing a belt buckle, Stella starts screaming.
Bette and I drag Stella, still shrieking, up the narrow sand path to the road. As far as we can tell, something has stung her leg: a welted, sinuous curve winds all up her calf and around her thigh.
"I'll run ahead," pants Addie, ludicrously laden down with our bags and towels. "See if I can use that tide lady's phone." But by the time we reach the neighbor's house, she's already sprinted to the next. She knocks on every door along the road, but no one answers.
"Let's just get her home," Bette calls to her. "We can call an ambulance from there."
Turns out we can't. The landline, which we've had no reason to check thus far, beeps busy and won't allow any calls. But by the time we discover this Stella seems better.
"Yikes," she exhales shakily. "That hurt a lot."
"Do we need to find a hospital?" I ask, already digging around in the kitchen for my car keys.
"No," she says, wincing as she lifts her leg and inspects the vivid red marks. "I feel it less already."
"It must have been a jellyfish," says Addie. "Sometimes we get them up here after a storm." We've been here for almost a week and there hasn't been a single drop of rain. But I don't say anything. A jellyfish makes sense. And I'm not Bette, so I don't need to contradict her.
It's our last night at the beach house. We make a big pasta dinner and set the table nicely. We open all the wine we brought with us, four bottles, and each take one.
"To ice cubes," I say, holding my bottle aloft. "Couldn't have done it without you."
"To aloe," says Stella, her skin rashy and bright.
"To sunscreen," counters Bette with an arched brow.
"To friends," finishes Addie. "Thanks again for coming out here, guys. I've been really lonely out here, all by myself."
"Yeah, where are all your neighbors?" asks Bette through a mouthful of pasta. "Other than Ms. MuuMuu, of course."
"I don't know. I don't really know them. I guess I thought these were all rentals that just... didn't get rented."
"That's weird," I say. "My parents have that house on the Cape and there's always loads of people in the Summer."
"Weird," Addie agrees. It doesn't seem to bother her.
It's starting to bother me.
Before bed, Stella whimpers in a cool tub while I brush my teeth.
"You good?" I ask, trying not to look at her through the transparent ripples of the shower door. She peeks her head out and looks chagrined.
"Guess I should have listened to Bette. My skin has never felt worse." Her burn has been getting steadily worse all evening, but I'm still shocked to see how red become.
"You'll practically glow in the dark tonight," I say. "How's the sting?"
"Y'know, it's weird," she says. "Gone. I can still kind of feel it, but I can't see it on my leg anymore." She sticks her leg out. Indeed, it's now the same cherry red as her face, no welts to speak of.
It's still there, whispers something inside me. It's all over her. She's all red now, all over. I shake the buzz out of my brain. Too much wine. "I guess that's good."
Addie is sleeping in her parents' old room. Bette is sleeping on the pull-out couch in the den. Stella and I are sharing a room with two twin beds.
"The kids' room," announced Addie cheerfully when she first set us up here. "We used to sneak out through these windows all the time." The windows in question are floor-to-ceiling and open like french doors, swinging out into the still night air. It doesn't feel like a room for children. It's austere, done up in chill neutrals with spooky silver gelatin prints of shells hung on the walls.
Stella eases herself between the sheets, hissing when her skin rubs against the cotton.
"You'll let me know if you need anything tonight, right?" I ask. She nods, then turns out her light. I hesitate before turning mine out as well.
When I next wake up, sometime in the small hours, we are not alone.
Stella stands whispering at the window. Something else stands just outside, silhouetted. I freeze in my bed and terror rips through me. I'm able to keep my eyes in slits, but my breathing quickens involuntarily. Stella looks at me quickly, then back to the thing oh god it's a thing in the window. She nods and clambers over the sill and onto the lawn, just a few inches below. She and the silhouette disappear into the darkness.
I hyperventilate. My wits are slowly returning. What was that? Its shape was barely human, malformed and twisted against the night sky. Did it take Stella, or did she chose to go with it? It almost doesn't matter. I sprint to Addie's room. Locked. I pound on the door and scream her name, but she doesn't respond.
Bette's bed. Empty. I search every room. Nothing. There's no time, something inside me insists, if you want to find them you need to be fast. I run to the kitchen and grab a knife. Then I run for the beach.
I almost skid to a stop when I reach the shore. The tide is out so far I can barely see the water. There's a rotten stench in the hot air. I can see the culprits, dead fish out on the sand. The moon is full and heavy on the horizon, red as a cherry. Red as Stella, I think. The light glints evilly on the backs of the dead fish. Footprints in the muck lead to the rocks that Addie pointed out earlier. Too many footprints. I can see a black maw at the base of the pile: the cave.
There's a figure struggling across the flat expanse of the seabed. "Bette," I whisper-scream. I run closer. "Bette!" She turns, pauses and waves me over.
"Saw some crazy parade through my window. Followed them out and saw Stella," she whispers when I reach her. She looks at my hand and sees the knife. She shakes her head. "There are too many."
"How many?" She gestures at the footprints around us. There must be at least fifty sets, all wandering to the cave. I try not to think about how many of them emerge from the distant edge of the water, as though it were just another shore.
We huddle at the edge of the cave. The moon shouldn't be bright enough to illuminate what's happening inside. I realize there's a bioluminescent glow, but it's red instead of the standard green emitted by moon jellies and fireflies. It's emanating from people (things) that ring the cave in circles, surrounding a pit in the center. They are lumpy and slimy, with glowing carapaces like crab shells crowning their backs and capping their limbs. The pit sloshes with black water.
They chant in unison. Their voices sound like rocks clicking in the tide. One of them lifts Stella, glowing brighter than anything else in the cave, to stand on a rock. Her face looks empty. No one's home, I think. The one that lifts her reminds me somehow of Addie: maybe it's the cautious step backwards, maybe the way it rolls its shoulders after.
Stella opens her mouth, suddenly looking blissful. She steps off the stone and into the pit, which froths angrily in her wake. The Addie-thing plunges in next. One by one, each of the things stands on the rock, then jumps into the pit. The water in the pit rises with each addition until, as the last creature steps up, it nearly touches our toes at the mouth of the cave.
Bette yanks at my arm. I turn to see that the tide has crept up behind us. It's almost lapping at our heels. I have a sudden, gut fear of being there when the waters touch, of being ankle deep in anything that came from that pit. As the last thing jumps into the pit, Bette and I peal across the sand in a dead run. I can't look back, but I hear waves crashing just behind us like the tide is giving chase.
Finally, we clamber up a dune and lay out, panting. An angry wave strikes the sand then recedes, leaving the tideline at a reasonable distance. The red moon is gone, in its place a tepid pre-dawn sky. Tears stream down both our faces. A cool breeze strikes me and sends goosebumps racing across my skin. Bette holds herself, shivering. The heatwave is over.
When we return to the house, we discover that our cellphones work again. The police find nothing in Addie's room but an open window. They send divers to the rocks but can't find the cave. Or Stella, for that matter. We want to stay in the house in case they come back, but they won't let us. They won't let us leave town either.
We end up staying with Ms. MuuMuu, who turns out to be named Wendy, and who I'm pretty sure wasn't involved. Bette was right, she's definitely a weirdo, but she's sweet and looks after us kindly. Her house is stuffed with with kitschy talismans and odd fairytale books. After a few too many G&Ts on our second night, we tell her what we saw and she finally explains her earlier warning to us.
"Of course, I didn't know what - what's out there. But I've been here long enough to know something's wrong when the tide gets like that. Houses get empty. Pets go missing. Footprints on the beach. That sort of thing."
"How often?" I ask. She shrugs.
"Most summers, at least once. Not for the last three or four years, though. I'd hoped it stopped." She sighs. "Wouldn't've let you go if I'd thought -"
"Wouldn't've stopped us. We thought you were crazy already." says Beth. I think it's kind of her to say, really. Wendy looks relieved, if maybe a little offended.
The next day, Bette and I agree that Addie must have been involved. We know she's been away from the beach for the last three years. This is her first time back since we graduated.
"Do you think she always planned this, all those years while she was our friend?" I ask Bette. We're sitting on the beach and staring at the rocks.
Bette thinks carefully. "Yes. But I think something went wrong. I think we were supposed to get stung, too, but Stella got hit too quickly."
"We went swimming plenty of times last week. They had the opportunity."
"Not on a spring tide," she murmurs.
We're not charged. An officer comes by to tell us we're free to leave the area. We spend another night anyways, half-hoping Addie will crawl from the surf and explain everything away. When we go back to the house to collect the rest of our things, we find childhood pictures of Addie. We quickly realize that the pictures of her as a chubby toddler look like they were taken a hundred years ago, and that she seems to have hit puberty sometime in the 70's.
Wendy holds a cord cutting ritual for us, claiming it will sever Addie's power over us. We wrap one of the pictures of Addie in seaweed, then write our names on a piece of paper and roll it up. Wendy ties both bundles with a thin red cord and sets it on fire, splitting the thread.
I breathe in the wisps of acrid smoke that remain. I feel freer until she throws what's left in her Rubbermaid trashcan; such a mundane act that I lose the frail sense of mystique she'd cast. I expect Bette to say something snarky. Instead, she surprises me by wiping tears from her eyes and declaring that now she feels ready to leave.
But the next summer, when Wendy emails us that she thinks a spring tide is coming in, we decide to join her for the week.
I'm not gonna let it happen again, writes Bette. I've been thinking a lot about Addie recently. Remember how she just dropped off the face of the earth sometimes? I think uncomfortably about the things in the cave dropping into the black water one by one, their red glow snuffed like candlelight. I don't think we were the only ones, she continues. I think they're going to try again. So I'm going back, and I hope you'll come too.
We go every year. We never see the cave again.
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Original narrative & well developed characters