After the fish were gutted, the deck hosed down, and the whiskey poured, my father and his crew told me a story of a local fisherman who—after returning home from months at sea—found his wife old and withered, as if time had sped up while he was gone. I was six-years-old and curled up in my father’s lap. I learned of how a young woman who was once full of life was stripped of her beauty, her smooth skin now like sandpaper to the touch, and her emotionless eyes, black as a moonless night, stared emptily back. One by one this happened to every fisherman in town. The wives, my father said, had been replaced by demons. What was left was no longer human, and it needed to be incinerated. None of the women made a sound as their dry skin cracked and hissed in the flames.
A year later, when my mother decided to move the two of us across the country, my father said at least he’d escape the fisherman’s curse.
It’s been fourteen years since I’ve stayed here past September. But adrift with a recent liberal arts degree that equipped me for both everything and nothing, I decided to stay with my father for a while.
Keep your eyes peeled, he said as I zipped up my jacket and pulled on a grey wool hat. Always looking out to the horizon, my father. He spent the majority of his life at sea, chasing the tides and the fish within the currents. The ocean, he said, is a tricky bitch. Even after all those years, he never trusted the water. Keep your eyes peeled was his version of goodbye.
The air was soft and salty on the empty beach, and my breath swirled around me like the whitecaps on the waves. The summer season had passed, and with it, the seasonal tenants. During the summer months, families and young wealthy couples pour enough money into this coastal town to keep it running the rest of the year. They return to the city as soon as the air has a whip to it.
The sand crunched beneath me as I looked for a glint of color amongst the rocks and seaweed. As I reached down to pick up a rare royal blue piece of sea glass, I saw movement from the cliffs to the right of me.
I thought I knew everyone in this part of town, but I didn’t recognize her worn out face. She moved like she was borne by the waves and the unyielding nature of the sea. Quick and calm, each step was deliberate and powerful. Wrapped in a white linen dress with a deep-v neckline, the cloth making tracks in the sand, I thought I heard her heartbeat changing with the tide.
She didn’t speak as she stood before me, but tilted her head in a silent question. My lips parted as I inhaled, the words forming in my chest. Before I could speak, her hands were on either side of my head, pressing into my temples. My eyes burned as her fingers pushed harder and harder. Crying out, the sand absorbed the impact of my knees. I watched as her cracked lips turned crimson, the creases around her forehead smoothed over, the shadows under her hazel eyes disappeared.
I felt my pupils dilate, taking in more and more light. A slow, satisfied smile spread across her lips before the world faded into whiteness.
My father’s story was wrong. No demon has replaced me. No, that’d be too merciful. The translucent skin on my hands shows the dark veins beneath it. What was once pale is now spotted and tender to the touch. My reflection in the mirror reveals the time that was taken away from me. I look into my eyes, into the blackness peering back, and I feel nothing.
I only hear my father weeping as the match strikes.