He turned, spine creaking, skin burning. A woman he didn’t recognise stood over him, dressed in yellow and framed in dying summer sun.
“You can’t stay here forever.”
Jacob looked back towards the sea, rubbing his eyelids with sandy fingers.
He could stay. He had to.
The woman didn’t go away like he’d hoped she would. Instead, she sat down next to him, pushing her bare feet into the sand and resting her arms on her knees. Big blue-green bruises patchworked across her ankles and calves, shimmering like fish scales in the light.
“You look tired.” she said.
Jacob closed his eyes. He was tired. His whole body hurt with it, and it hurt with sand and salt and sun. But it was so much nicer than the other hurt, the one that scrabbled at his belly, heart, and brain. That was the hurt he was afraid of.
“I can’t sleep.” he said.
“Not out here.”
“I can’t go home.”
The woman leaned a little towards him. “Not yet. Soon though.”
He shook his head. “Not without my sister.”
“No, I suppose not.”
The woman grinned and he stared at her strange face for a long while. Maybe he did know her? She wasn’t as old as he first thought – only just grown out of being a girl.
She sighed a long sigh and stood, holding out a hand for him. “I think we should go for a walk. It’s good to walk.”
He took the hand she offered – didn’t think it was odd, didn’t care if it was – and wrapped his fingers round her palm, gripping as tight as he could. His skin crackled as she hauled him to his feet and his muscles burned right through to his bones. She dusted off his shoulders, sprinkling sand and salt across his feet.
“We don’t need to go far.”
They walked hand in hand at first, but Jacob quickly slowed. The woman let his hand slip through hers, dawdling ahead. He stared down at the sand as he walked, trying to understand what was wrong with the footprints she left behind. But his eyes hurt and his head hurt and he couldn’t understand what was wrong.
Every now and then, the woman looked over her shoulder to ask how he was.
Every time, she looked like she didn’t believe him. Every time, she carried on all the same.
The beat of the waves against the sand made Jacob feel better as he walked, and he smiled as he remembered how, just a few days ago, he had thought he’d never like the sound. At first – after his father had dragged him here, after he’d been kicked across the sand, dumped by the surf, pinned down and told not to return home without Lora – he had hated it. It had made him want to rip out his ears.
But now the sound wrapped round him like a blanket, cosy and snug, and he didn’t ever want to be without it.
The woman came to a stop by Cryer’s Cave, gazing up at the gaping scar of hollowed out rock.
“This is my favourite place.” she said.
Jacob hung back from the entrance, scrunching up his face.
“Are you scared?” She crossed her arms and leant against the rock. “I didn’t ever think I’d see the day.”
He frowned. What days had she seen him before?
“I’m not scared.” he lied and started forwards, his heart blundering at a strange rhythm – too hard, too quick. He hoped she couldn’t feel it too, though he was sure it was making the air shake. He tried to focus on each painful step and ignore the woman as she watched him, but he looked up as he passed her, almost stopping when he did.
Her hair was wet.
How had that happened?
She didn’t seem to notice the way her hair stuck to her neck or the way water bloomed across the top of her dress. Instead, she smirked a little smirk and followed him inside.
The cave was like a church, walls of rock towering up and up, echoes crawling off every surface, their breaths bellowing.
“Hello?” the woman called, grinning as hundreds of hellos rattled back. “Is anybody there?”
The air lulled back to quiet. “Your turn.” she whispered.
Jacob shook his head.
“Go on.” she teased. “Yell from right in here.” She pushed her fingers against her chest. “Take all the air you’ve got and scream.”
He shook his head again.
“Oh go on, Jacob.”
“No!” he yelled, and a rush of pain scrambled up his throat. He doubled over, coughing until his lungs felt bruised and he spat phlegmy blood onto the sand.
The woman pushed dripping hair back from her face. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”
Jacob closed his eyes and waited until he was sure he wouldn’t cry, gulping blood back down his throat.
“I just want Lora.” he said.
“I know.” said the woman, ruining the echo of Lora’s name. “I just want to help.”
When Jacob opened his eyes again, he froze. He blinked, then blinked again, sure his eyes were wrong. But what he saw didn’t change.
The woman’s face was bleeding.
A huge gash had torn across her cheek and blood poured from it, spilling down her jaw and neck. The taste of his own blood made him grimace as he looked at it.
“Is something wrong?”
“Your face. You’ve cut your face.”
“Oh.” She ran her fingers along the gash, frowning.
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
“No, not really. Not anymore.” She wiped the fingers across her dress and turned, scaling a crop of rocks and picking her way across them. “There’s something I need to show you. It’s here somewhere, I just…” She stopped and faced him. “You have to promise you won’t run away.”
He would have laughed if his lungs hadn’t hurt so much. Hadn’t she seen he could barely walk?
She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “You’ll want to, but you can’t”
“I won’t go anywhere.”
“Good.” She smiled, satisfied. “I won’t be long.”
She turned and clambered down the other side of the boulders, disappearing.
The sea and Jacob’s heart thudded in sync as he waited, and a horrible ache built under his skull.
I won’t be long.
The words went round and round, and made him want to scream. They were the worst words he’d ever heard and the worst words he’d ever said.
He tried to reach back four days and pull them out of the air, tried to erase them from his mouth and from Lora’s ears. He dug his toes into the sand and tried to go back, tried not to walk away, tried not to leave her playing all alone.
I won’t be long.
The sound of shuffling footsteps dragged him out of his looping nightmare. The woman reappeared at the top of the boulders, carrying something. Something with dangly legs and a floppy head. Something covered in shimmering bruises. Something wearing a yellow dress.
Jacob edged back as she descended the rocks towards him, the hurt he was afraid of rearing in his chest.
“Don’t run.” she pleaded. “You promised.”
The dangly legged, floppy headed something swayed at every limping step the woman took, its hair dripping and dress dribbling and face painted with purple-brown blood.
Water bubbled from each corner of the woman’s mouth as she handed the little body out to him.
He took the body in his arms and tried not think about how it was heavier than he remembered.
“I’m sorry.” he said, and the woman smiled.
“Take me home.”
>>> No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite get this story right – but I’m releasing it into the wild anyway, because it needs to be free of my head and my laptop before it drives me mad with all the potential edits that can be made to it. The main idea for it comes from how people experience the unexpected death of a loved one. I was reading old accounts from families who lost relatives in World War I, and most of them wrote about seeing/hearing their loved one at the time they died – walking through the garden gate when they should have been (were) in France, appearing in a dream, etc. – and it kind of twistedly got me thinking about how there are no accounts where people see the death itself. It’s always very ethereal and rose-tinted, rather than visceral and horrible to watch. Here, the death has already happened and Jacob is witnessing the drowning retrospectively (and obviously a bit abstractly), to the woman Lora would have been. <<<