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What is it about being scared of something yet being powerfully drawn to it? I don’t know why I agreed to follow those horrible sounds that day. I wish now that we had never gone down to the beach.
We had been laying on lawn chairs in the back yard of the little cottage our family kept on the coast, when Charlotte turned to me and said she could hear screaming coming from the beach. It was one of those rare afternoons when the sun came out from behind the clouds and fog.
“Of course, you hear screaming, it’s always something with you, some drama. I am sure that it is just the wind or something”, I said to her.
I put my copy of The Turn of the Screw down and tilted my head toward the water. I could hear nothing but the tide. There were low clouds coming in from the west and the wind did pick up a bit, goose bumps crawled across my legs.
She scowled at me. Charlotte hated me. She hated me since the day I was born. She told me that. She said that there was something wrong with me, that I was an evil little creature. The story in our family goes that she stopped speaking on the day that I was born. She was three and she would not speak a word for two years. When we asked her why she wouldn’t talk, she said that it was to punish our parents for having another child.
Her brown eyes narrowed when she spoke to me. “Listen. There it is again, it’s like a… a wailing”.
I hated her too. I had been trying to kill her all my life. When we were very little, I pushed her out of our neighbor Franny’s treehouse. She only broke her arm. She told our parents that I had pushed her, but I told them it was an accident. Since Franny hadn’t been looking, they gave me the benefit of the doubt. As we grew older, I mostly tried to poison her. I learned about lead poisoning in school and stabbed her with a pencil. I got in some trouble with my parents for that. I tried to be more imaginative. I put bleach in her juice for a month straight. Just a little at a time. She started to get really sick and no one could figure out why. Then I got scared of being caught, so I stopped. A year or so later, I got into poisonous plants.
Ricinus communis, Abrus precatorius, Datura strumonium, Nerium oleander, Digitalis purpurea She got sick then too. She would spend long hours in the bathroom with her nausea, then fall into her bed listless. Our parents started to worry that she had some kind of medical condition, they started taking her to see doctors and changing her diet. No one could figure out why she was always so sick. I think that she began to suspect that I had something to do with her condition and she wouldn’t let me make her cups of tea or fetch her glasses of milk.
“Come on Connie, let’s go down there and check it out,” she said jumping up from her chair and walking to the edge of the yard where the land dropped off 200 feet to the craggy shore below. I thought how easy it would be to gently push her off.
Her legs were tan in her cut off shorts and her blonde hair hung down to the middle of her back. She was fifteen and people said that she was the pretty one. I don’t know which one that made me, people never said. I was on the short side and I kept my brown hair cropped short. I preferred to stay inside and read but she was an athlete. And you could see the muscles in her legs, from all the running she had been doing for lacrosse all summer.
We had arrived late the night before. Every summer we would spend a couple of weeks at the coast. When the temperatures soared inland our parents sought a respite from the heat. It was a maddening time for me. I couldn’t stand being stuck so far away from the world with only Charlotte for company. It was a really old place that my mother had inherited from her great aunt. She liked to call it “rustic”. It was really just a step away from camping. There was no electricity, but there was a generator that my dad filled with gas that we brought in from town. And there was an outhouse surrounded by blue hollyhocks, down a trail from the cottage.
As usual, it had been cold and foggy that night when we arrived from the city. I remembered from previous years how the fog seemed to roll in at the same time every afternoon. It was like clockwork, and the night that we first arrived, the drive had taken longer than we expected because visibility was so low. The fog blanketed the dirt road in for the last few miles, so that dad had to practically crawl along.
We finally pulled up to the place and when dad turned off the car we were enveloped in darkness. We made our way into the cottage where we were overcome by the smell of rot and mildew. Even though it was July we made a fire in the old stove after my father got the generator going. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as we pulled out our sleeping bags. We all fell asleep quickly.
Every year when we returned we would have to clean the dust and mouse droppings from every surface. Some years animals broke into the cottage while it sat empty. Raccoons -sometimes even bears- looted any food supplies we tried to leave over for our next visit. The place would be a mess. Especially in the kitchen or what passed as the kitchen. It was just some bare wood shelves and grungy cabinets. We used a cooler for a fridge and a camp stove for cooking. All morning we were supposed to be cleaning while our parents went into town for supplies. I was thinking about how I had heard that consuming mouse droppings was supposed to make you really sick when the sun started to cut through the clouds. That’s when we decided to take a break and pull out the old lawn lounge chairs.
I thought about last year, about how every morning Charlotte would walk by herself. How she would pick up little bones of sea birds and fish that washed up on the craggy rocks and were strewn across what passed for our beach, little tiny spines of fish picked clean by the gulls and washed white by the salty water. Sometimes she’d run home excited by a small bird skull or little white fish vertebrae that looked like butterflies. She would bring the little butterflies and skulls up to the porch and put them on the railing. And I would knock them off into the dirt. Sometimes I would step on them and break them into tiny little pieces.
“I am not going anywhere with you,” I told her.
And then I heard it – a scream. I was sure that I heard a scream. I looked at Charlotte and she looked at me. We shared a moment and our eyes locked, for the first time, not in hatred but in fear.
“Fine, let’s go,” I said. I grabbed a hoodie and we were off down the narrow trail that led to the rocky outcropping that we called the beach. Gravel spilled down the path as my tennis shoes struggled to grip the ground. We ran along the yellow gumweed lined trail.
We rounded the corner winded and stopped dead in our tracks. There were two boys sitting on rocks by the water. They were smoking cigarettes and held bottles of beer in their hands. I remember thinking, who still smokes cigarettes? They looked like they were Charlotte’s age or maybe a little older. I thought that there was something off about them but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Maybe it was just the fact that they were there before us on our little deserted beach, maybe it was that they seemed to have just materialized in this place. They looked like many of the boys at our school. They had on white t-shirts and khaki colored pants. One was tall and had dark hair and blue eyes. The other was shorter with a lighter complexion and blonde hair that hung shaggy around his ears.
The tide was coming up and I could feel the spray on my face as the waves hit the black rocks. The wind blew and the fog rolled in and I thought that I could hear something but it no longer sounded like screams. It sounded like music playing. It sounded like a far away party with laughter and voices and music.
“What are you doing down here?” Charlotte asked them.
“Hey there- want a beer?” the blonde boy asked me, holding out a brown bottle.
“No, we don’t want any of your beer. How did you get down here?” I asked them again.
At twelve, I still wasn’t really into boys. I had few friends at school and they weren’t the type to swoon over boys like Charlotte and her friends did. I naturally distrusted these two.
“We’re ghosts. Come and sit by us,” the taller, darker of the boys said to us. His friend laughed.
“Bullshit,” I practically spat at him.
The only access to this beach was the trail that started in the backyard to our little cottage. We had been sitting in the lawn chairs for over an hour and hadn’t seen anyone pass.
And then something strange happened. Charlotte walked slowly to the boy with his hand outstretched and took the beer from him. Charlotte never drank alcohol. She abhorred alcohol and the kind of kids that partook in that sort of thing. She took the beer, which was already opened, and took a long swallow. Then she walked up real close to the boy and looked him in the eye in a way that I would have called sexy if it wasn’t Charlotte and said, “What’s your name?”
So I took a beer from the other boy. He smiled at me and something warmed inside of me. I drank the beer. Then I drank another. I wasn’t used to drinking beer. My head started to buzz in a way that wasn’t unpleasant. The whole time Charlotte sat close to the boy with the steely blue eyes and the black hair and they whispered to each other. I wondered what they could be saying to each other. It’s hard to tell how much time passed with us like that. Charlotte rapt in hushed conversation with that strange boy.
Then she got up and started towards the water.
And I watched her walk into the ocean. I was confused and I called to her. “What the hell are you doing? Are you crazy? That water is freezing.”
The world started to spin and I thought about all of the times that I wanted her dead. I thought of the times that I had tried to kill her. And I didn’t want her to go. My head was heavy from the beer, but I tried to call for her again. I felt like I was in a dream and I couldn’t scream. I don’t know if my words formed or if she couldn’t hear me. She just kept walking. It was cold out now and dark. Her legs were in the water, her shoes would be wet. Her hair hung down to the middle of her back. And now I was yelling her name, yelling for her to stop. To come back to me.
A monstrous wave crashed onto the shore and she was gone. Everyone was gone, Charlotte and the boys. It was just me sitting, alone on the beach.
I was so cold.
Written by SFPwitchywitch