By Allison Schultz
Early that morning, when the sky was still smothered in darkness, Beth drove as far east as she could with nothing but a backpack’s worth of belongings. She ended up somewhere on the North Atlantic coast and was generously rented a bedroom in the upstairs of the only bar within a fifty-mile radius. It was no downtown loft with wall-to-ceiling windows framing a landscape filled with skyscrapers, but it was a welcome change of scenery.
That evening, Beth stood on the beach as the sun stretched lazily across the sky, captive to her own thoughts. She stared at the horizon, eyes glazed, ankles sunk deep into the sand. The screeching of a nearby gull pulled her from her trance. Her focus returned, and she realized she was staring at a figure standing out on the sea. It was a pinprick of a shape, sitting on the water she didn’t know how many miles out.
Beth hesitated, then waved at the dot. It remained still. When Beth blinked, it had vanished entirely.
The next morning, Beth’s scars on her arm started to itch something fierce, like tiny bugs were burrowing under her skin. She wanted to peel away the edges, scratch until nails scraped bone. At first, she assumed the culprit was bed bugs. The bed in her rented room was as old as the bar it resided in, but upon further inspection, she concluded its only fault was the lingering smell of mothballs and aged ale.
More oddities occurred as the day progressed. Old bruises reappeared on her body in tender places that brought up memories more painful than the wounds themselves. One on her upper arm where he grabbed her too hard. Another on her cheekbone like a purple blush. Her least favorite painted her ribcage a deep blue. They throbbed like the blows just landed. She wracked her mind, thinking of what might have caused these injuries to resurface, but a logical explanation evaded her.
Beth dragged her eyes away from the reflection of her mottled body and quickly dressed. Familiar panic overtook her and the moisture-heavy air made it difficult for her to breathe. She flung open her patio door and took the stairs leading down to the parking lot two at a time. Only when she was on the beach was she able to breathe deeply.
The weather shifted dramatically, turning the sky into charcoal and smoke. The wind shoved against her like it was trying to keep her away from the water’s edge. The violent churning of the waves made her throat constrict and her heart hammer in her chest—though she couldn’t be sure if it was her heart or the thunder echoing behind the clouds.
And somehow, miraculously, impossibly, the figure stood on top of the sea, unperturbed by the ferocity of the ocean.
The specter stood so close now that Beth was able to tell that it was a woman. Sun-bleached hair hung from her head, falling in patches down the front of her frock. Deep holes punctured her macerated flesh. Pearly eyes peered at Beth.
Despite the mid-summer heat, a chill ran down Beth’s spine. She froze, eyes glued to the phantom. It wasn’t until the specter took a step toward her—an odd, jerky motion—that the roots holding Beth in place retracted. Beth didn’t stop running until she was back in her room, hiding beneath her bedsheets like a child trying to escape the boogeyman. She squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that her mind was playing tricks on her. Finally, sleep found her.
Beth assumed her dreams would offer a sanctuary from the figure that loomed outside, but she followed her into unconsciousness, no longer confined by the lapping waves and mirthless depth of the ocean. At first, the specter’s appearance remained the same. Gruesome and haunting. Then her face changed into a man’s, still rotten with mottled skin pulled tight over sharp bones. Even in death, she recognized the face of the man she’d hoped to escape forever. Some nightmares couldn’t be outrun.
A knock on the door startled Beth awake. She expected to see the haunted face of the sea witch, but it was the barkeep who peeked inside, his round face hinting of concern. He urged Beth downstairs for dinner, fish caught fresh from the pier. The thought of eating anything from the water that harbored the phantom curdled her stomach, but she followed anyway.
The wooden stairs creaked beneath their weight, making the ramshackle bar groan. Dated nautical-themed decorations lined the walls haphazardly, ultimately leading to a large portrait at the bottom of the stairs. Beth stumbled the remaining steps when she saw the painting.
The barkeep followed her gaze, and a knowing smile spread across his thin lips. He twitched his head towards the portrait. “So you’ve caught sight of our fair lady, have you?”
Beth faintly remembered nodding. The picture on the wall was hardly anything like the creature who walked the waves. She was beautiful once, but death made her monstrous.
“It’s said she reveals herself to those who’ve been harmed at the hands of others.”
The walls shook, causing dust to vibrate to the ground. The barkeep seemed unfazed.
“It’s also said she haunts those who’ve caused great harm, as she experienced great harm herself.” The barkeep turned to Beth. “So, which one are you?”
Beth trailed her fingers down her scarred arm until they skimmed scabbed knuckles cracked with dry blood. Her husband’s pulverized face flashed into her thoughts and just as quickly disappeared.
“Maybe I’m both.”
Beth stayed for dinner and actually enjoyed the meal. Afterwards, she climbed the steps leading up to her room, packed her meager belongings, and left the bar, the town, the specter. One ghost already haunted her, and that was more than enough.