It was an unassuming thing. I had actually stepped on it, and my sneaker tread left a grimy print upon envelope. That's how easy it was to miss. Just this small thing on my mat, something I'd not even seen the first time I passed it.
I wished it stayed that way. Or somehow found its way down the hall.
But as I was leaving my apartment the next morning, I noticed it, at last. A plain white envelope, my shoe print one one side. I turned it over, towards the sealed part, I saw five words. They were in cursive, in a flowing, billowing script:
To Whom It May Concern,
An odd thing, that phrase. But not so odd when I was the "eccentric" guy in my apartment complex. My neighbors and I never spoke, and the few times we met, we exchanged nods. I worked a third, 12-hour shift and slept during the day. They were day walkers. That's all it was.
But it wasn't uncommon for them to reach out. Every fall, I received countless invitations to thanksgiving dinner and christmas parties. All of which found their way from my doorstep to the waste basket. Last year, Mrs. Applegate passed away. I got an invite to her funeral, which I didn't attend, either.
Not going to the parties didn't help my reputation. But when you're in the company of strangers, what hold does reputation really have? Especially if you're ignorant to it?
I had a few moments before I had to be on my way. So I opened the door to my apartment, set my bag on the counter, and opened the letter.
It's been over a year since I read it, but I remember it plain as day. I always will. Even now, I can recall the hand writing, big and loopy, far too beautiful for it's horrid subject matter. The contrast between those elements bothered me at first, and terrify me as memories drift into my sleep, making my rest one big nightmare.
The letter, more or less, went like this:
To Whom It May Concern,
My name is Ebdias Craddock. I'm an old man now, by my own standards and the worlds. Being so, I've grown bent and crooked, and weak. My vision grows dark, and my hands shake, but my mind is still clear. I only wish my conscience was as well.
I'm dying, I think. Not of an disease or malady. I've checked. But because of age, and a toll on my heart and head. It's a yoke I've drawn for fifty years, head cowed and low. But before I pass, It's time to let it all go.
I killed Bob Harlow, my best friend, in 1959 with my bare hands. He was three and thirty, with myself seven years his senior. The police didn't find Bob's body, because there weren't no body to find. If there's anything left, it's along the coast.
Bob liked the coast. Joked all the time it'd be the death of him. That was probably the only honest thing Bob Harlow said.
Even with all the lies, even with all the muddled stories and half-truths, I still loved Bob Harlow. The man he was, that man was my brother, as close and as dear as any blood relation.
But as I found out, Bob wasn't that man. Not all the time, at least.
Rather, I found out was Bob was over time. It bubbled to the surface, black and crude, peeling away the man I once knew. Bob Harlow, as it turns out, had rotted away inside. I don't know how long it was before I met him. But the Bob I met, he was just a thin veneer, a sloppy coat to hide the shambles beneath.
I didn't know that when we met at that beer festival in 1953. Back then, Bob's surface was all I saw. It was all anyone saw, and was all we cared to see. For he was a broad shouldered, smiling man, with a pot belly full or roaring laughter. Bob was the kind of guy who always had a dirty joke you'd enjoy. He always had cigars, liqueur, and steaks.
But no women. Oh, he had callers. But as far as me and anyone else knew, no steady dates. No rolls in the hay, like some men are prone to. That was the first strange thing I found out about Bob. A few rumors started flying around about Bob being a queer, but Bob just laughed when he heard them. Said he was "married to the sea", and all that.
That was the other strange thing about him, something no one really thought about. Bob took trips to the coast every weekend, without fail, regardless of what was going on. He said he liked the salt air, the ocean, and the fish. But I never saw him pack a pole. I asked him once why he didn't just move there, but he just smiled and laughed.
Bob was strange, real strange. But plenty of people are strange, ain't they? That's what I told myself. It's what I kept telling myself, over and over, right up until Bob invited me to go fishing with him in the summer of 1959.
Bout that time I'd known Bob a few years. We played poker together once a week, and he came over for beer just as much. I'd never been to Bob's house, and he'd never offered. I guess the routine just worked, and we were both fine with it. I wondered afterwards if I'd not have noticed something, had I gone over there. The police certainly did.
All the same, I felt comfortable with Bob, so I took him up on the offer. With a packed cooler in the back of his pick up truck, we took off for a sleepy town called Oak Island in the Carolinas.
It lacked the gaudy glamor of other beach towns. All the buildings were small and stone, with shutters on every window. It made the whole town seem dour, but Bob kept on smiling, talking and laughing the whole way there. He'd rented a hotel for a few dollars, and we'd arrived so late in the evening we spent our first day bunking and going to sleep.
Bob woke me the next morning, shaking my shoulders until I cursed and sputtered. The sun wasn't up, and not a single bird sang. But Bob was wide awake, dressed, and had a paper bag in his hands. He told me over sausage biscuits that we were going to his favorite fishing spot.
We drove for almost an hour, headlights cutting into the early day. It was still dark when we stopped. I thought we'd see a pier or wharf, but Bob had parked the car near a shore front. I told Bob I didn't have any galoshes, but he just smiled and said I'd not need them.
It was about that time those rumors about Bob being queer started flickering in my head. But I pushed them to the side, and walked down to the shore, my hand gripping a flashlight as I followed Bob. He'd gone on ahead, and was squating behind some rocks. When I came up behind him with the flashlight, he scowled real big and jerked it from my hands, shutting it off.
"You'll scare 'em, you fucking idiot!"
It was the first time Bob had ever used that language with me. I said, "Now look here, Bob," but he hissed at me, motioning for me to squat beside him.
I wished I'd just gone back to the truck, and drank beer.
My knees popped as I got beside him. I looked over the rocks, towards the horizon, the shore and waves. The sun was just starting to come up, making the sky pink and purple.
That's when I first heard it. A voice, soft as lace, rising. Rising past the rocks, past the shore, on the back of the waves.
I've thought about what I saw that day, many times since. I've thought and thought, wondering if it was all real. I'd convinced myself it wasn't a time or two. Figured it was all some feverish dream. But then I'd see a picture of Bob, and it'd all come back. I don't know what I'd call what it was, because all the common names are too preposterous.
But it was a strange, beautiful thing. Alabaster white skin, speckled and pearled. A lady, or so it seemed, with long, untamed hair. As she approached the shore, I saw the fins. Jutting from her shoulders, ending in a massive green-grey tail.I didn't know what she was, and I don't care to name it. At times, I think the fins were a trick of the pale morning. But that tail, massive and writhing like a snake. I can't forget it.
I was too shocked to move, squating and slack jawed as I gazed on. The thing turned it's back from the shore, towards the sun. She began to sing.
I'd heard tale of sirens before, of Oddysseus and his men falling prey to them. But the haunting wail the thing gave wasn't no beautiful tune, not like the one a'fore it. In my dreams I hear that dirge, still. Followed soon by the sound of a throat gurgling, a voice dying against the crash of waves.
I'd not noticed Bob creeping forward. He was less than a yard from the thing before I noticed his shape. As his hands wrapped around it's mouth, it's song dying, I finally came to my senses.
Bob was atop the creature, hands wrapped over its throat as it writhed beneath him, gripping his wrists and flailing. Bob's face was twisted into a snarl, veins popping along his neck as he tried to snuff out a life. I'd risen from behind the rocks to get a better view, stomach churning as I watched.
I was beside him before I knew I was. And as I stood there, watching the thing fight for it's life, Bob Harlow's knuckles turning white, I noticed Bob Smiling.
He kept on smiling, right until I socked him in the face as hard as I could. He fell to his side, and the creature was upon him in an instant, coiling its tail around him as its mouth descended upon his throat. There was a squealch and a growl. Then, blood. So much blood.
I ran to the shore, towards the truck. Bob had left the keys in the ignition, and I prayed it would crank. When it did, I slammed it in reverse and drove as far as I could from the shore. From that place, Bob's "fishing hole", and from that town.
I went home, leaving Bob's truck at his house. I went home and stayed there for several days.
Eventually, the police came knocking, asking about Bob. I told them Bob had gone off to the shore, stinking drunk and howling. I'd drove his car home after alerting the cops in Oak Island. They thanked me for my time, and went on.
Word got around that Bob Harlow had gone missing. But there was another story that traveled, too. A tale so tall most just assumed it was bullshit. It was all about how the cops went to Bob's, and found bodies of ladies attached to great fish tales in the basement. They were stored in great big barrels, pickled. Some where cut open, like he was studying them.
Word never got around to saying if those tails were natural, though.
That's the whole story, or what I care to share of my stake. There's probably a few details missing. I didn't hear about what happened to Bob's basement, or what was found there. The house burnt down about a month after my return. According to the neighbors, it stunk to high heaven.
Like dead fish. Like an old wharf that'd been there for years.
I don't know what Bob Harlow was studying in that house. But it made every fishing trip he'd gone on suspect. That went back for years. But of all the things I question-my sanity chief among them-I question why Bob chose to tell me.
I guess I'll ask god, when I see him. Or maybe Bob. Whichever it ends up being.
I was too stunned at first. I put the letter down on the table, slumping back on my couch. It was a hoax. It had to be. But it was one I didn't have time for at the moment. I was already late for work.
Over the next few weeks, I kept my eye open. I watched my door mat for hours at a time. And when I wasn't gazing out the peephole, I was researching missing person reports, fishermen stories, and folk tales from Oak Island. There were numerous reports of beautiful music pouring in from the rocks at odd hours. Specifically, late at night, or early morning.
Coincidentally, the best times to fish. A time many boats were just leaving port. Also times when several of them crashed for no discernable reason.
Ebdias Craddock and Bob Harlow were real people. I'd found Craddock's funeral announcement weeks later, after it happened. After I was sorting through my mail, after I'd calmed down and begun to think the whole thing a dream, just like Craddock.
He lived a single floor down from me.