Saturday, May 25, 2024

TALES OF LOST GODS AND FRAGILE TRANSFORMATIONS: Down By The Water

 

By
Al Bruno III
 
And now the storm has left the beach deserted, and the ocean crashes and roars against the surf. I am alone and covered with blood. Standing on the slowly retreating waterline, I watch for the first signs of sunrise. I'm waiting. I've been waiting so long.

But Ophelia said she'd be here.

She promised.

*

It had taken four hours of driving to reach Cape Cod. It was me, my mother and father, and my brother Leon, who was a year and a half older than me, the darling daughter. Ordinarily, my father celebrated his son's victories with men-only trips to New York City or Lake George. But since his beloved all-star was heading off to college in the fall, he decided it would be a family affair.

No matter how much I'd tried to weasel out of it, father still made me go. It wasn't because they were worried about me getting into some kind of trouble; it was simply an unspoken rule in the Sweet family that I never got what I wanted.

An hour into the trip, Leon started ragging on me, making snide remarks about my grades, my waistline, and my therapist, then waving his scholarship under my nose. I ignored it for as long as I could, but my Walkman's batteries died as we passed through Sturbridge, Massachusetts, so I decided that would be the perfect time to bring up his DUI. All Hell broke loose in the car; it got so bad that we had to pull over so my father could tell me in no uncertain terms that I was seventeen and I needed to grow up and get my head on straight.

As always, mother tried to be the peacemaker and failed miserably.

The rest of the car ride was icily quiet, except for the music on the radio, but father started to perk up as he got closer to the cabin. He was so proud of the deal he'd gotten.

We turned left on a street called Patti Page Way onto a long dirt driveway. Once we reached the cabin, we understood it hadn't been a deal at all; it had been a robbery. The outside of the cabin was a wreck, with peeling paint, a sagging porch, and a crooked hanging bench. Tiles were missing from the red roof, and the windows were cracked and covered in grime.

It looked like it should have been condemned, not rented out. My mother and I said we should double back and find a hotel, but my father, of course, would have none of it. "It's already paid for! Non-refundable! You're not even giving it a chance. Let's look inside."

The inside of the cabin wasn't nearly as bad, but it was obvious it hadn't been cleaned in a while. There was a layer of dust on the worn-out furniture, and cobwebs adorned the corners of the room. My mother went to the bedrooms to check for bedbugs or worse and returned with a nod of reluctant approval.

"See?" my father said, "It's not so bad, and besides, after you girls clean it up a little..."

"Us girls?" I dropped my bags on the floor. "I thought this was a family vacation."

Leon rolled his eyes, and my father looked ready to turn purple. mother tried to get in the middle, "What she meant was that we didn't come all this way just-"

"Oh, I know what she meant all right." My father looked right over mother and glared at me. I could feel the 'I work all day speech' coming.

He said, ”I work all day so you and your Goddamn mother can have nice things, and all you give me is grief."

"It's not fair," I said.

"Honey, maybe if we worked together..." mother began, but she stopped talking when my father's glare turned her way.

With that, Leon and my father announced they were going to the store to get pizza and beer. But of course, my father couldn't leave without one last barb at me, "Besides, a little work might help you slim down a little."

Leon laughed. ”You hear that Chubbs?”

Face contorted with rage, I stormed out of that rat-hole cabin, shouting, "That's not my name!" If anyone called out after me, I didn't hear. I ran to the beach, determined not to let them see me cry.

I'd never seen the ocean, except for movies and TV.  It was huge, stretching across the horizon. Looking at it made me feel small, but I didn't mind. My science teacher had told me that the oceans were the first things the Earth created. They would probably be the last things to go.There were big ugly seagulls everywhere and tiny, nervous-looking birds that divided most of their time between sifting in the mud and running in terror at the slightest motion. Small shells cracked under my feet. Slipping off my shoes, I waded into the surf, feeling the waves brushing against and around my legs.

As I waded through the water, I saw my reflection. For as long as I can remember, I've despised what I saw staring back at me. My weight, the constant burden I carried, distorted my image, making me appear older than my years. I had battled with it for as long as I could remember, dieting on and off since I was eight years old, yet nothing seemed to make a difference. Two years ago, someone mistook me for Leon's mother, and that was the moment I mostly gave up trying to change. Still, despite my aversion, I could not look away as I watched how the ripples in the water pulled me apart and pieced me back together again.

It was like I was hypnotized. I walked along the water's edge, not glancing up until distant voices startled me. That's when I realized it was twilight, and the ocean had turned a bruised purple color.

When I got back to the cabin, I found my mother nearly in tears, "Where were you? We were worried sick! We almost called the police."

"I'm sorry," I said.

Leon and my father were sitting at the rickety table, a plate of chicken bones in front of each of them. My father stood up and approached me. His breath was sour, and there were shreds of chicken in his teeth. "Are you trying to ruin this vacation?"

"Look, I just-"

"You're miserable and ungrateful, and I won't stand for it," He poked me in the chest, just hard enough to hurt but not hard enough to leave a mark, "You are gonna shape up and fly right? Do you hear me?"

Leon rolled his eyes, "Oh, like she'll ever get in shape."

mother hushed him but let my father continue his performance. He said, "I didn't bring you up here so you could screw around and do whatever you want to do! We are here to vacation as a family!"

"I'm..." the words stung my mouth, "I'm sorry."

He smiled with satisfaction and gestured to the table, "I didn't like the looks of the pizza place, so we got some Kentucky Fried Chicken. I got you a large meal."

He turned to go outside and have a smoke, Leon tagged along after him. mother busied herself cleaning up while I ate all the food my father had brought, hating myself with every bite.

*

The next day, we went to an amusement park as a family. Of course, I was too big to fit on many of the rides, so I spent most of the time being miserable on the sidelines. I looked at them and thought about what a perfect little family they made or would make if I wasn't around. At least they let me buy some new batteries for my Walkman at the gift shop.

When we returned to the cabin, it was already late afternoon. Leon asked if he could have the car to go and meet some kids he had befriended at the amusement park. My father casually tossed him the keys without a second thought.

I wanted to say something about Leon's suspended license, but I didn't bother. It wasn't worth getting another face full of my father's enraged spittle.

My mother and father had brought a pair of beach chairs, but instead of taking them to the seashore, they set them up on the cabin's ragged porch and began passing a bottle of their favorite scotch between them. I asked for permission to go to the boardwalk.

My father made me sweat it out for a few minutes, but inevitably, he said I could go. Of course, unlike Leon, I had to be back by sundown. My mother slipped me ten bucks in case I wanted some ice cream.

A twenty-minute stroll led me to the bustling boardwalk, alive with carnival lights, blaring music, and the delicious scents of saltwater taffy and fried dough. Lined with multicolored buildings and signs, the worn wooden planks beneath my feet bore the marks of years of foot traffic and ocean air. Groups of people, families, and friends strolled by in shorts and sunhats while others rode past on bikes. It seemed like I was the only person making their way alone.

I found my way to a small, dimly lit arcade between a bar and a shop specializing in old-fashioned photo shoots. It was called Wimpy and Gagglemax's Gaming Center and only had a few other customers.

The place had a little bit of everything; a pool table, some skee ball lanes, a claw game, a few pinball machines, and, of course, video games. But their selection was lame; 'Jungle Patrol,' 'Crazy Climber,' and some weird plant-themed thing called 'Come o Sé Comido,' but they did have 'Dig Dug,' and that was MY game. I had the top three high scores at the Aladdin's Castle arcade back home. There was another game I was even better at, but I had gotten tired of the jokes about the fat girl who had mastered 'Burger Time.'

The change machine didn't want to take my money, so I approached the two guys lounging at the skee ball prize counter and asked them to break my ten. One was bald, and the other had curly hair; they had to be the owners. I wondered which one was Wimpy and which one was Gagglemax. They had to be at least forty, and the way they ran their eyes over me made me feel dirty. The bald one handed me five silngle dollar bills and the rest in quarters. He let his fingers run along my palm when he did so. I retreated, cringing to the Dig Dug machine.

Time slowed down while I played the game. I burrowed tunnels that twisted and turned in all the right ways. The Pookas and Fygars didn't stand a chance, at least until I got to level twenty. I couldn’t get past level twenty back home, and I couldn’t that day either. But I stubbornly kept trying until I had spent my way through twenty quarters.

I decided to keep the five singles in case there was something else I wanted. The arcade had all kinds of off-brand candy and postcards. There were Cape Cod themed t-shirts and little dried starfish.

And there were posters, all kinds of posters. I had time, so I started to flip through the racks. The selection began with blacklight posters. Even in the dimly lit world of Wimpy and Gagglemax's Gaming Center, they were almost hypnotic. I wondered to myself if this was what being on drugs felt like. After that were the glossy reproductions of classic rock band album covers and dynamic shots of their frontmen and women. That led to ones of modern-day musicians like Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, and Olivia Newton-John. Then, there were a few classic actors like the Marx Brothers, Marilyn Monroe, and John Wayne.

Then came the sexy girls, half of whom I recognized from Leon's room, like Christie Brinkley, Bo Derek, and Adrienne Barbeau. From there were lurid shots of anonymous women in swimwear and underwear. One flip later and I was staring at a woman in a pool wearing a man's t-shirt. The water had rendered the fabric nearly transparent. I could see every curve and contour, her belly button and her nipples, so much darker than the rest of her skin. Something about it made me blush.

After that were the pictures of heartthrobs and teen idols like Ralph Macchio and Rob Lowe, and movie stars like Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise. Following that was a selection of musclebound men in shorts and jeans; none wore a shirt, and most had their chests shaved. I stared at them for a while. Did girls really put posters like this up in their rooms?

Maybe they did, but I wouldn’t know; I hadn’t been to a friend’s house for a visit or a sleepover since fifth grade. The one thing I did know is that it wasn’t my thing. As my eyes lingered on the last athletic model on the poster rack, I couldn’t help but wonder why I wasn’t feeling anything. Was there something wrong with me, or was it the result of all those years of my father telling me I was too heavy to ever find a man out of one side of his mouth and warning me not to be a slut out of the other?

“Hey!" One of the owners—the bald one—grabbed me by the upper arm. Are you gonna drool over the posters all day, or are you gonna buy something?"

My heart jumped, and I yanked my arm free of his grip, "What's the big idea?" I could feel my cheeks burning with embarrassment as I pulled away from him.

He said, "You spend five measly bucks, and you think you can loiter here all day?"

"I wasn't loitering!" I exclaimed, my voice filled with indignation. "I was just looking around. I didn't realize there was a time limit to browsing in this dump!"

That did it. I watched the bald man's pasty face redden to match my own, "Get out!"

Angry and afraid, I dashed out of Wimpy and Gagglemax's Gaming Center; the other owner, the one with the curly hair, watched me pass with a smirking expression. He said something, but I couldn't hear it. Whatever it was, I was sure it hadn't been very nice. My eyes were so used to the arcade that the late afternoon light was dazzling. I blinked and steadied myself on the boardwalk railing.

*

Despite being warned we were going on a deep-sea fishing trip, no one was ready for my father shouting and bullying us all awake more than an hour before sunrise. My mother was barely awake, but he was already ordering her and me to make breakfast. I didn't mind helping, but I did mind that Leon didn't have to lift a finger.

One sloppily made breakfast later, we were in the car making our way to the marina. Leon was in the front seat listening to my father's stories about the deep sea fishing expeditions he had gone on as a single man in the Navy. My mother’s gaze shifted down to her lap when he said those had been the best days of his life.

Leon asked about the ship, and my father began to explain the difference between a regular yacht and a sport fishing yacht but suddenly I realized something.

"Dad, we have to go back," I said, "I forgot my jacket."

"So?" He said.

"You said it would be freezing."

"And I said not to forget anything." he shrugged. He actually picked up speed as he maneuvered the car onto the interstate. Ten years ago, he'd told me I was his princess and he would do anything for me.

My mother piped up, "It's not such a bother, is it? We don't want her to catch cold."

"No."

"That's all right," she patted my arm, "We'll just buy you a jacket when we get to the marina. They must have a gift shop around there."

"We are not buying her a goddamn thing," my father said.

"Good thing she's got all that blubber to protect her," Leon said in a stage whisper.

"Ginny, Let me handle this," my father said. "Maybe she wouldn't be such a brat if she had to deal with some consequences once in a while."

"Oh," I said, "like your son had to deal with his consequences? How much did you spend to keep him out of jail?"

The answer was a lot. My father had moved Heaven and Earth to protect Leon and his 'promising future.' It had hurt our family financially and socially, and he had forbidden any of us to talk about it. But at moments like this, I was glad to bring it up; it felt good to remind them that the Boy Wonder had feet of clay.

"God damn it!" He pounded his fist on the steering wheel, "Can you not be a bitch for five minutes?"

"I don't know," My reply was lightning fast, so fast that I didn't realize the words had come from my mouth, "Can you not be a bastard?"

The brakes squealed as my father swerved us onto the shoulder. My mother gasped, and my brother snickered; a line had been crossed, but so many lines had been crossed over the last few years. I barely cared anymore. All I could think to myself was how we used to be a family. What happened to us?

He unbuckled himself and turned around in his seat, "You think you can talk to me like that? All this over a damn coat."

"Yes." I said, "Over a coat!"

"That's it." He said, and I flinched instinctively, "You're grounded."

"Grounded?"

We sped back to the cabin, and with every twist and turn of the wheel, my mother and brother grew more and more worried that my father was going to send us plowing into a tree or a ditch.

Finally, we arrived back at the cabin, and my father slammed on the brakes, bringing the car to a screeching halt. Without a word, he shifted into park and turned off the engine. We all sat there in silence, waiting for his next move.

My father turned to face me, "Get out.” He pointed towards the cabin's front door. "Go to your room and stay there until we get back."

I started to speak, but my mother shushed me, "Just do what he says. Please don't make any more trouble."

"We're gonna be late," Leon said.

I sighed and stepped out of the car onto the dusty gravel driveway. My family drove away. They left me behind. The sound of their departure echoed in my ears. I trudged up to the front door, wondering if any of them had spared me a backward glance.

When I was alone in the cabin, I did not go straight to my room; I plopped down on the couch. I had been looking forward to today; I had been so excited at the thought of being out on the ocean so far out on the ocean, that the shore would be just a memory. I had been so excited that I had forgotten my jacket. Now I could see it across the room, slung over the arm of the recliner. The sight of it made me bury my face in my hands. I stayed that way for a long time. Then I went to my temporary bedroom like a good girl and hated myself for it.

With nothing else to do, I napped and listened to my Walkman going through every one of the Police's albums, from Outlandos d'Amour to Synchronicity.

It was just a little while after lunch when the calls began. I answered immediately, thinking it was my parents checking up on me somehow. "Hello?"

I heard a man’s voice ask, "Is she there?” He was weeping.

"Who is this?" I asked.

"Who is this?"

"I think you have the wrong number," I said.

“Ophelia is it you?"

I hung up the phone with a grimace, imagining some idiot with a fake number from a bimbo who'd flashed them a polite smile at first or some fake affection at best. Better them than me. I started to go back to my room when the phone rang again. I waited for whoever was on the other line to give up. Ten rings later, I answered. "Hello?"

"Ophelia?" They blubbered.

"That's not my name," I said, "Please stop calling."

"You sound like her."

“I’m not her. I’m nobody.”

The voice became even more desperate and pleading, "I've waited for so long."

I put the receiver back down again.

They called back almost instantly; this time I let the phone ring, put on my Walkman, and cranked the volume all the way up. I tried to let the music transport me to a place far away from the cabin, from that phone call, from my family. ‘Message In A Bottle’ filled my ears and I imagined myself somewhere far far away.

But the ringing persisted. I heard it going on and on in the silence between one song and another. It made me feel uneasy with questions. Finally, inevitably, I ripped off the earphones and picked up the phone again. "Look, I told you already, you have the wrong number," I said.

“I did everything you asked.” The voice on the other end of the line trembled, “I’ve been waiting for so long."

"Please." I pleaded, “stop bothering me."

"I need to see you." He said, "I'm coming to see you now."

"You don't even know-"

"328 Patti Page Way." The stranger started weeping again, "Don't you remember? We walked from the cabin to the beach and held hands at the promontory."

My stomach dropped. I quickly ended the call and retreated back to my room. After a few panicked moments, I put the chair in front of the door. How did they know where I was? I envisioned a local Romeo bewitched by a visiting Juliet. Now Juliet was long gone and Romeo was heartbroken. And where did that leave me?

Alone and defenseless with my family miles away. I hated myself for arguing over a stupid jacket. Was it really worth it? Arguing with people who would never let me win? Why couldn't I just grin and bear it?

The hours dragged on, each minute feeling like an eternity. I was terrified and bored; I didn't dare put my headphones back on, so I listened. Every creak and groan of the cabin seemed to taunt me. My nerves were shot as I waited for something, anything, to happen. Was the caller all talk and no action, or would some maniac break down the front door in search of his lost Ophelia?

A dozen forevers later, I heard the family car pulling up outside. Relief made me feel weak, but I still managed to un-baracade myself from my room and meet them at the door. My family looked sunburnt and exhausted; when I hugged my father, he reeked of salt and sweat, but I didn't care one damn bit. "Looks like someone learned their lesson."

There was a long pause before he reluctantly hugged me back. My mother entered the cabin holding up the bag of fast food she had gotten for me. When my brother passed my field of vision, he gave me a smirk
.
I didn’t care. I didn't argue; I just didn't want to be alone and afraid anymore.

*

That night, as I scarfed down my burger, I told them about the creep on the phone. My mother was horrified and said I should have called the police; my brother rolled his eyes and said I should have just left the phone off the receiver, and my father told me next time, I should grab a steak knife before I went into hiding. That night, I couldn't sleep well. The sound of the ocean was louder than usual, making me feel restless.

The next morning my mother said she wanted us all to go to the beach as a family. My father agreed with a grunt. Leon asked if he could call his friends from a few days ago and have them meet us there. My parents were fine with that.As soon as my brother was off the phone, we grabbed our cooler, beach chairs, and towels. We walked the short distance to the shore.
The ocean was just as beautiful before. Sunlight danced upon the waves, creating a breathtaking display of shimmering light. I wanted to stare but instead helped my family find a spot and set up our little beach camp. My brother Leon, ignoring our mother's protests that we had just arrived, went off in search of his friends. I told my parents I wanted to go for a swim, and my father told me to be careful. My mother looked me over and asked why I wasn't wearing the nice new bathing suit she had gotten for me. I didn't really want to go into the water in shorts and a T-shirt, did I?

I explained that I was wearing the pale pink one-piece bathing suit she had bought me- under my t-shirt and shorts. That led to an argument that was as gentle as it was relentless; my mother won out, and I stripped out of my shorts and t-shirt. My father scowled at me and looked away. The salty breeze whipped at my hair, and as I waded into the cold water. Slowly, I let myself sink into the sea, allowing my body to float on its surface. The vastness of the ocean made my insecurity and anger seem insignificatant.

Looking back to the beach, I saw Leon returning with a small group of new friends: two girls and two guys. They introduced themselves to my parents. Then they stripped out of their street clothes, revealing bathing suits beneath. One of the girls wore a swimsuit exactly like the one from the Christie Brinkley poster. My father did not look away from her. An incoming wave lifted me up and dropped me back down again. When I looked back, they were running into the surf, laughing and splashing each other."

There was no way I wanted to share my part of the ocean with them. So I picked a direction and started to swim, my limbs moving with practiced ease. I had always been a good swimmer, but everything changed when I turned twelve and started to gain weight. Despite being an athletic kid, I began overeating in seventh grade. Our house had always been full of snacks, but suddenly, I couldn’t keep my hands off them. I don’t know what changed, but everyone else seemed to have an opinion about it and each one was worse than the last.


Mindful of the riptides, I kept the beach to my left as I swam. I saw volleyball players, solitary people reading, women sunbathing, children playing, strangers all of them but I knew if they saw me they would snicker and make snide remarks.

After a while, longer than I expected, my muscles began to ache, and fatigue set in. It was time to return to land and rest. Maybe I would walk back or maybe just sit on the sand for a while. In the distance, I  noticed a formation of rocks jutting out from the water's surface. It was wide enough for three people to walk along and stretched all the way back to the beach. As I swam closer, I saw it rose about five feet above the waves. The closer I got, the rougher the ocean became, pushing me towards the rocks. I struggled to maintain control, but the relentless waves made keeping my head above water difficult. Salt water filled my mouth, and I collided with the ugly crag with bruising force.

I floated there for a few minutes, clinging to the rock formation. Finding a sturdy handhold, I began to climb, my tired muscles groaning with effort. Finally, I pushed myself up and lay flat on my back, staring at the sky and the gulls. I concentrated on nothing more than catching my breath.

What would have happened if I had drowned? If the angry tide had smashed me against the rocks with fatal force? Would my family even care? Or would they be relieved? Would they make jokes as they searched for a  Plus-Size coffin?

I shut my eyes tightly and kept them closed until I heard a splashing noise nearby. Then, I sat upright and let my feet dangle over the edge of the rocky outcrop. The water was further below now, and I couldn't help but wonder how much time had passed while I lay there, blind to the world.

There was another splashing sound, and then her body broke the surface of the water below me; I hadn't seen anyone swimming there. Her hair was dark, and her face belonged on the cover of a beauty magazine. She was wearing nothing but a white blouse that was two sizes too large for her. The wet fabric revealed a body like something out of Leon's wet dreams. I wanted to grab one of the loose rocks nearby and drop it on her.

She scaled the jagged rocks with the fluid grace of a seal emerging from the water. Our eyes met, and she flashed a smile. "I didn't see you up there.” Dark hair clung to her skin, droplets of water trailing down her face. “I hope I'm not bothering you.”

I shrugged. "It's a free country." Then, with a hint of sarcasm, I added, "Couldn't afford a swimsuit?”

Her smile turned playful. "I have everything I need."

"I bet you do." The bitterness in my voice surprised me, and a twinge of guilt followed. What had she ever done to deserve that? Attempting to recover, I asked, "Uhm, do you like the beach?”

"I love the ocean," she fiddled with the wet fabric covering her torso, pulling it away from her skin only to have it settle back into place just as translucent as before. I got a strange feeling she was doing it for my benefit. "Unknowable, Uncontrollable. And deeper than any of us could imagine."

"That's pretty poetic."

"You have such serious eyes," She said. "Tell me your name."

I did. Then she moved closer, her face even with mine. Her smile became strange. She leaned in close, I thought she was going to say something, perhaps share a secret, but instead, she kissed me. Electric shocks ran through me. I felt numb. I felt sick. I felt warm all over.

The kiss broke. "Who are you?" I breathed.

Before she dove off the rock pier, she uttered just one word: "Ophelia." The name caught me off guard. I was still in shock from our kiss and didn't even hear the splash when she hit the water.

Scrambling drunkenly to my feet I raced back to my parents, the hot sand of the beach burning my feet, the taste of seawater heavy in my mouth, the cool breeze wafting off the ocean making me shiver. Or maybe it was something else making me shiver. I found my family packing up; my mother asked where I had been, and my father demanded to know what I had been up to. I made an excuse about riptides and losing track of where I was, and they believed it. All the while, Leon and his friends watched me and shared conspiratorial grins. On the walk back to the cabin, the girl in the Christie Brinkley swimsuit said, "Your brother told us all about you."

I was about to say something sarcastic when one of the guys said, “Why are you wearing lipstick?"

That stopped me dead in my tracks. I realized the taste in my mouth that I had taken to be seawater was something else. When I touched my lips with my fingers they came back stained red. When had I bitten my lip?

*


A noise outside the cabin startled me awake. I went to my cracked bedroom window and peered out into the darkness. I didn’t know how late at night it was but sunrise must have been hours away. The noise was like whispering; it wasn’t just one voice but several. Yet, even as that thought occurred, uncertainty crept in—were they really voices? Somehow, I just wasn’t sure. What I was sure of was that, somehow, the sounds were familiar to me, like something out of a dream.


I needed to know what it was. So I quickly threw on the clothes I had worn the day before and quietly made my way to the front door, careful not to wake anyone else in the cabin. There were no stars or moon, just the shadowy outline of low-hanging clouds. As I stepped onto the porch I nearly stumbled over the empty cooler that had been left behind by my parents. There was a sickening moment when I thought I was going to fall flat on my face, but I caught myself on the railing.

The air was warm and thick. Without thinking, I stepped off the porch and began to follow the sound of the whispers that were not whispers. My steps were cautious and shuffling as I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Gradually, I  realized I was making my way along the familiar path to the beach.

The ocean was a mirror of the starless sky; I knew it was there only by the salty breeze and the rumbling crash of the waves. The sound of waves was so loud that it drowned out the whispers, but they were still there. I closed my eyes, trading one darkness for another, and tried to orient myself to the sound. I was sure it was somewhere to the east, but before I could follow it, I heard a familiar voice. It was the stranger from the phone, "Ophelia!"

My heart began to pound in my chest; sick with fear, I spun in place, looking for him, but I might as well have had my eyes closed.

"Ophelia!"

A figure emerged from the blackness, the outline of a man shuffling along the shore. His shoulders were hunched. I could imagine the tears running down his face, the gaunt face looking far older than the body that carried it. “You said you’d be here,” he said, his voice fading into the sound of the ocean, “You promised.”

Certain he believed he was alone, I began to back away slowly. I didn't dare run. With every step, I feared he would notice me and, despite my very different shape, mistake me for Ophelia. What was it I'd heard my father say to Leon? Something about every woman being the same in the dark.

The not-quite whispers were closer now. I followed the sound until I found myself where the rocky outcropping that had nearly killed me met the beach.

Fear and curiosity drove me to make my way along the ugly crag; water lapped at my feet, numbing them almost immediately. More, by instinct than anything else, I stopped at the edge of the outcrop. The waves were knee-level now, splashing against me relentlessly, trying to push me back. There was inky blackness all around me.

The whispering chorus stopped just as suddenly as it had begun. Impossibily the sound of the waves also vanished and I stood there unmoving, unseeing and unhearing. It made me remember that when I was a little girl, this is what I had imagined being dead felt like.

"I found you!" The sound of the stranger's voice jolted me. He was close behind me, a fast-approaching shadow. Panicked, I ran blindly and blundered over the side of the rock formation into the dark water.

Cold oblivion consumed me.

*

I regained consciousness in a cave lit by unseen candles. Strange symbols adorned the walls, and the air was heavy with the scent of saltwater and decay. As my vision adjusted, I saw slender, ethereal shapes moving in the shadows, tending to something—an ugly silhouette that thrashed and gurgled.

A familiar figure loomed over me. Wet, dark hair and sea-blue eyes filled my vision. Her hand stroked my face, gentle yet firm.
"Ophelia," I said.

"You've been asleep for so long." She propped my head up, bringing a clamshell to my lips. The water was salty and stung, but before I could protest, I realized I was naked. My clothes lay spread across the rock floor, slowly drying.

Humiliated, I curled into a ball, trying to cover myself. "Don't look at me!" I whispered.

Ophelia grabbed my wrists and pulled me into a sitting position. "You have nothing to be ashamed of." She was naked, too, her skin gleaming as though she had just left the water. "None of us do."

My heart raced, on the verge of tears. "Where am I?"

"Among friends." She drew me close.

I glanced at the feminine shapes lingering in the shadows; they had drawn closer to the figure at their feet. A sound reminiscent of a fish being scaled echoed in the cave, followed by a familiar sob. It was the man from the phone.

"Who are they?" my voice was barely above a whisper.

"Ophelia"

"I thought you were-” I began.

"We are all Ophelias," she said, her expression darkening, "Born to be martyrs in men's eyes."

I said, "I don't understand."

Ophelia’s mouth became an angry frown, ”We can be daughters, lovers, even angels, but we can never be free from that hateful thing they pretend is love.”

I asked, “Why did you bring me here?”

“Why don’t you stay?”

"You don't even know my name." I breathed, “You don’t know who I am?”

"Do you?" She said with a kiss. She pushed me down onto my back. As her lips moved across my skin, each kiss felt like a cold drop of winter rain. Dizziness washed over me. It was like I was on an elevator that wouldn't stop going up. “Who do you want to be? Are you who others say you are?"

Ophelia started running her nails hard across my chest and belly. I wanted to escape. I never wanted to leave. It was like she was taking me, making me hers. Blood welled up from the cuts and scrapes. She kissed the wounds she had made, one by one, her lips smearing red. The cave was filled with whispered songs that had no words. Her murmuring joined them.

When it was over she held me close.

“I love you,” the voice of the man from the phone said. He sounded like he was drowning, “Isn’t that enough?” He coughed twice and then fell silent.

The candles began to go out one by one, and shadows began to swallow her, trying to snatch her away from me. I kissed her hard on the mouth, losing myself in her. In a matter of seconds, I was lost in darkness.

*

It was late in the morning when I awoke. I was lying flat on my back on the crag. The clouds above were a stormy purple, and the rain was coming down hard. I was soaking wet, and my clothes were plastered to my skin. I heard a familiar voice calling my name, but it wasn't one I wanted to hear. I moaned, half with exhaustion, half with anguish. My skin still ached and tingled in the places Ophelia had clawed at me.

With trembling hands, I crawled to the ledge and looked down. The tide had gone out. Fifteen feet below me, Leon was trudging along the surf, wet and miserable, and shouting my name.

"Leon?" I called out. For a hilarious moment, he was utterly bewildered, his square head swiveling back and forth. I called again, "Up here!”

When he finally saw me, he started screaming, "You are in big trouble! Dad is seriously pissed!”

"I just went for a walk.”

"A walk? You've been gone for over a day!" Leon blundered closer until he was directly below me. I could have spit on him if I wanted to.

I scowled down at him, remembering all the times he had disappeared for an entire weekend without a single phone call, only to return to a gentle reprimand from our father instead of a harsh scolding and a slap to the back of the head. I used one of his excuses, "I was with friends."

The expression on his face twisted as if he were looking at something disgusting. "Delores told me she saw you here last night!"

Bile rose up in my throat. "So what?”

"She saw what you were doing! Are you crazy? Why can't you just be normal? What is wrong with—"

A stone the size of a bowling ball crashed down on Leon, crushing his skull. He collapsed face down into the surf, blood clouding the seawater.

I scrambled to my feet to find Ophelia standing near me. "You killed him," I said.

The waves greedily pulled at Leon's body, twisting and bending it like a rag doll only to push it back up the sand again.

I know I should have felt something, but I didn’t. “What am I going to do?’"I whispered, my voice barely audible over the pounding of the rain and the racing of my own thoughts.

“What do you want to do?”

"I want to be with you." The rain pelted us. It was getting cold and dark, but it didn't matter. I felt safe in her arms., "I want to be with you forever."

"Then be with us," she said.

"What about Leon?"

Ophelia chuckled coldly. ”What about him?"

"But the police will find out," I said.

She released me and stepped to the edge of the crag, "In the deep dark," She said, "We are free from judgment."

The downpour had become torrential. Ophelia's words caused me to gaze longingly at the ocean. Each wave crashed against the shore with a powerful roar, sending spray and mist into the air.

She kissed my forehead.

There were no second thoughts, no worries. I turned and started walking back to the cabin. After a few minutes, I turned back to look for Ophelia. Through the storm, I saw four hazy but unmistakably masculine figures standing by Leon's body. Moving clumsily, they lifted his limp form and carried it into the sea.

*

From the moment I stepped into the cabin my father started screaming at me, my mother was silent and glared reporachfully. The stinging sensation of my scratches was intensifying to the point of almost being pleasurable.

Turning away from them, I walked calmly to the kitchenette. Their voices seemed distant as if echoing from the base of a rocky cliff during low tide. Steady-handed, I reached into the kitchen drawer and retrieved a steak knife. My father's insult rang out. "Oh, Jesus Christ! She's going to make a sandwich!"

Ignoring him was easy. Everything he said was familiar. I waited until his temper broke, and he all but ran at me. He violently grabbed my shoulder, yanking me around to face him.

The knife was dull, but my strength proved more than sufficient to slice open his throat. Blood splattered across both our faces. His scream was gurgling and wet, his mouth gaping like a fish. He stumbled backward, clutching at his neck, tripped over his own feet, and collapsed. I stood there, watching as my father spent the final moments of his life weeping.

When it was over, I looked to my mother. She had been standing by watching, just like always. "Angela, please," she cowered at my approach.

I raised the bloody knife above my head, "That's not my name."

*

There was enough kerosene left in the cabin's rusty heater, to start a good fire. I watched the structure burn for a little while. I felt nothing; I hadn't felt anything at all since I left Ophelia's arms. When I was finished I headed for the shore.

And now the storm has left the beach deserted, and the ocean crashes and roars against the surf. I am alone and covered with blood. Standing on the slowly retreating waterline, I watch for the first signs of sunrise. I'm waiting. I've been waiting so long.

But Ophelia said she'd be here.

She promised.

The tingling under my skin was painful. I ripped at my clothes and tore madly at the scabs. They broke open easily. The flesh beneath them was unblemished and gleaming.

I waded out into the cold, crashing water, leaving my shirt, shorts, and long red strips of my flesh behind. In the unknowable depths, I would never be a daughter, a punchline, or a scapegoat. I would be free.

With each footstep, the roar of the waves changed, becoming softer and prayer-like. It sounded like a chorus of voices calling out the name "Ophelia."

Voices so very much like mine.


Thursday, May 16, 2024

THIS IS THE CHANNEL AB3 PODCAST

 



EPISODE ONE



EPISODE TWO


EPISODE THREE


EPISODE FOUR


EPISODE FIVE


EPISODE SIX


EPISODE SEVEN

 

EPISODE EIGHT


 

EPISODE NINE

 

EPISODE TEN

 

EPISODE ELEVEN

EPISODE TWELVE

EPISODE THIRTEEN


EPISODE  FOURTEEN


 


 



Wednesday, May 15, 2024

This is Channel Ab3 Episode Fourteen: How I Wonder What You Are


A man trapped in the star-cursed town of Jebsen must find a way to escape.

How I Wonder What You Are was written by Al Bruno III

 It was produced and read by Daniel C Johnson

Our unpaid scientific advisor is Adam J Thaxton

The Channel Ab3 theme was written and performed by Rachel F Williams

Channel Ab3 logo was designed by Antonio G 

Are you enjoying the show?

Become a recurring subscriber.

Or make a one-time donation!

Are you in the market to sell your home, find a new home, or just explore real estate investment opportunities? Don't hesitate to get in touch with me!

This is Channel Ab3 is distributed and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Sharealike 4.0 International License


Check out this episode!

FRESH OFF THE BUS FROM CREEPYTOWN: How I Wonder What You Are

 


By
Al Bruno III


I’ll know the time is right when the howling begins. It will be after sundown of course, the Mothers and Fathers of Jebsen only scream after sundown, and only on the clearest of nights.

There is no town of Jebsen listed on any map, even in its heyday of the 1940’s it was too small to be worthy of notice. It’s nothing more than a collection of buildings at the end of a dead end road. On one side it is bordered by long untended corn fields, on the other the swampy remains of Lake Campbell. The most noticeable of the town’s buildings is a red brick edifice with a wide domed roof of fractured glass. The rest is just barns and single story homes. Along the border of the swamp is row after row of barbed wire and bear traps.

I’ll let them scream for an hour or so, let them become tired. Even now it amazes me how I had learned to pick out the individual voices in the cacophony. The Widow Toth tires easily but the Garrets will be at it until dawn.

And what will I be doing while every able-bodied adult is on the rooftops? I’ll be slipping these pages into this mason jar and sealing it lid in place with the wax from a melted crayon. The Children of Jebsen won’t miss just one, especially not purple.

Twenty-five years ago a calamity befell the town of Jebsen. The authorities blamed it all on the after effects of an experimental insecticide but the Old Book the town elders read from every Sunday said otherwise. It told the citizens of Jebsen that a curse was carried by those twinkling dots in the sky. A malevolence traveling at 186,000 miles per second that would twist their Children into nightmares should a glint of it ever touch their skin.

That is why they scream at the starlight; hating it, cursing it, raging at it.

You can’t see what their Children have become and not feel the same way. The changes are heartbreaking and horrifying all at once but after you spend time with them you feel differently. There is mockery in the mis-set eyes that peer from those mollified skulls.

They know secrets. On quiet, cloudy nights I would put my ear to one families’ basement door or another and hear them murmuring and giggling as they writhe in their basement styes.

I think of their weeping mouths and soft teeth and remember that day half a decade ago the ill-advised shortcut and along the neglected county route 99. I remember approaching the train bridge and seriously considering turning around, it looked decades out of repair and I half suspected it would collapse as I passed under it.

But I didn’t turn back, my ego wouldn’t let me. I was right and the road was wrong so I drove under the train bridge, momentarily marveling at the strange and elaborate graffiti that covered it.

I was just past the structure when a small, bent figure ran out from the long grass.

The sounds are what I really remember; the squeal of the brakes, the thud of the body on the hood of my car, the thick crack of laminated glass.

I would later learn the name of the child I had hit was Julius McCarty but all I knew then was that there was an emaciated, bloodied shape lying halfway through my windshield.

Human instinct made me reach out, to see if the little boy was alive. When my fingers brushed his skin he twisted around to face me. His mouth lashed out proboscis-like and nuzzled into the flesh of my arm.

Pain bristled out from where the boy had latched on to me. I screamed, thrashed. I shoved the car door open and tumbled out onto the asphalt. The boy coughed once and died.

At first the wound held all my attention. How could it not? I had expected to see torn flesh and blood but instead the boy’s distended mouth had left behind a cluster of thick, festering ulcerations.

But then I became aware of the men making their way out of the tall grass. These were the Fathers of Jebsen understood immediately what had happened.

They had brought everything they might need to bring one of their Children back home to its basement; rope, bandages and cudgels. It was also everything they needed to make a captive of me.

They, dragged me away from the accident site, through the tall grass and over the collapsed remains of a chain link fence to leave me in the care of the Mothers of Jebsen. Those gaunt women had cudgels of their own and I was a mass of bruises and welts by the time the hole in the Earth had been made to their standards.

The menfolk returned carrying the child wrapped in a linen shroud. They dropped it roughly into the ground. There were no ceremonies, tears or headstone. It was well after dark by the time I had filled the grave back in.

Now here it is years later and I’ve had to dig a dozen more graves, one by one the Mothers and Fathers are dying out, it’s always a surprise when it happens. Every mother and father of Jensen is withered and white haired but every year a few more die in their sleep, or at work in the fields or at prayer in their red brick observatory.

The Children are dying too, not a one has ever lived past seventeen. One by one they waste away, except of course for the occasional accident like the one that trapped me here.

Despite these curse that has befallen them the people of Jebsen continue to reproduce, each mother convinced that this time she will give birth to the Great Redeemer as was foretold in the Old Book. Each time they fail and each time the result is locked away in it’s family’s basement.

You can’t imagine those basements, the smell of rotten meat, the ankle deep fecal matter and the perfectly clean toys. They draw equations on the walls, gold and silver crayons are their preferred color. Every Tuesday I have to visit each of those cellars and scrub the theorems and postulations away.

The youngest of the Children is a newborn, still angry from the womb, the oldest is seventeen and nearly rotted away. No matter the age they all taunt me as I work, sometimes with bites, sometimes with maledictions. Both have left unimaginable scars.

So many scars now, I’m marked, I could never walk among the people I’d known before. They’d refuse to recognize me and insist I was a stranger

The Widow Thoth says this is my penance for the death of Julius McCarty, she even went so far as to cite chapter and verse on the subject from Old Book itself. The Mothers and Fathers of Jebsen, base every aspect of their lives on that thick volume of prophecies and homilies.

I wonder if anyone will notice me as  leaving. I doubt it, even when they’re not screaming their heads off a long dead suns they barely notice my comings and goings.

As I said before, the Mothers and Father’s of Jebsen have become so sure of me. Some families think I’ve become a true believer, the rest think the cinder block chained to my ankle is enough to keep me in my place.

I don’t know who you are or when you’ll find this message. My only hope is that you will believe me. If you do, please bring this document to the proper authorities. Don’t let my death be for nothing.

I go to the bottom of the swamp with two regrets. One is that I won’t be there when the town of Jebsen is discovered and burned to the ground.

The other is that six months ago I accepted Father Garett’s invitation to join in their celebrations. I went willingly with them to the old brick observatory. I prayed with them. I danced with them. I partook in all of their debasements.

And for a little while, perhaps an hour, I was happy.

They even asked me to give reading from the Old Book. I eagerly stopped up to the podium and began flipping through the thick volume.

Everyone waited for me to choose a passage and speak but all I did was shake and weep at what I beheld. My knees buckled. My mind shut down. I had to be carried out and put to bed.

You see, the Old Book was blank from cover to cover. You’re even holding some of those pages in your hands now.

I used them to write my story.

 

 
 

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

This is Channel Ab3 Episode Thirteen: The Striding Place (A story I didn't write)


When his close friend mysteriously disappears, Weigall encounters the disturbing reality of the soul's destiny.

And was originally published in 1896

It was read and produced by Aiko van Wingerden

Music was from the Flashscape Ambient Soundscape Collecton

Our unpaid scientific advisor is Adam J Thaxton

The Channel Ab3 theme was written and performed by Rachel F Williams

Channel Ab3 logo was designed by Antonio G 

Are you enjoying the show?

Become a recurring subscriber.

Or make a one-time donation!

Are you in the market to sell your home, find a new home, or just explore real estate investment opportunities? Don't hesitate to get in touch with me!

This is Channel Ab3 is distributed and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International License

 

 


Check out this episode!

Monday, April 15, 2024

STORIES IN THE KEY OF LOVECRAFT



THE OCEAN DOESN'T WANT ME

A singles cruise turns into a nightmare when a man wakes up alone and in pain, only to discover a terrifying truth lurking beneath the ocean's surface.

 

A corporate executive ventures into the woods alongside an elderly man, intent on negotiating a land deal, only to uncover its hidden, forbidden secrets.

 

Lost in the woods, a mysterious house reveals terrifying secrets and a sinister force that stalks its victims in the night.

 

A scam artist's get rich scheme goes awry when he purchases a mysterious creature from the internet.

 

It was the final late-night rush of customers that the closing crew at Burger Clown would ever have to face.

 

FOREVER TILL THE END OF TIME

A divorced man's ex-wife reveals a terrifying discovery that could grant them eternal life at a terrible cost.
 

WHAT ROUGH BEAST

A young primatology professor forms a bond with an experiment gone wrong and faces the consequences of her actions.


MARCIE DID YOU KNOW 

 Marcie's obsession with the unknown leads to her facing the consequences of what she always wanted.

 

 

This is Channel Ab3 Episode Twelve: Trochildae


A corporate executive ventures into the woods alongside an elderly man, intent on negotiating a land deal, only to uncover its hidden, forbidden secrets.

Troclidae was written by Al Bruno III

It was produced and read by Daniel C Johnson

Music was The Visitor by Shane Ivers

Our unpaid scientific advisor is Adam J Thaxton

The Channel Ab3 theme was written and performed by Rachel F Williams

Channel Ab3 logo was designed by Antonio G 

Are you enjoying the show?

Become a recurring subscriber.

Or make a one-time donation!

Are you in the market to sell your home, find a new home, or just explore real estate investment opportunities? Don't hesitate to get in touch with me!

This is Channel Ab3 is distributed and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Sharealike 4.0 International License

 


Check out this episode!