by Joshua M. Reynolds
The shore was cold in the morning, and the sea was loud. The sun drizzled down through the ever-present wall of clouds that hugged the English coastline, glancing off the dark water. Just the way Otto Felton liked things for his morning jog.
He was a thick man, in waist and shoulder, though there was muscle under the fat. Balding and jowly, he ran every morning, from the edge of the Pier to the sea-wall and back. It was out of habit and pleasure more than anything else. He hadn’t felt a need to stay in shape for some years as his belly and face attested. A pint with every meal and vegetables a foreign delicacy sampled only rarely.
Simple tastes, simple pleasures. He lost himself in the feeling of the sea-air curling around him as he jogged across the beach, his feet sinking into the water smoothed rocks with every clattering, slightly off-balance step.
The ocean grumbled, pulling itself up on shore and depositing a mass of foam and weed on the shore. Felton blinked as something sparked against his eyes amidst all the bubbles and white. A flash of sun off of metal, catching the eye and fading before one could accurately process it. But it was enough to catch his attention and stop him in his tracks. He turned from his normal path, and chugged towards the glinting mote among the wet rocks.
He crouched down, heedless of the tips of the early morning waves that tugged at his running shoes or the rocks that shifted under his weight. He ran his fingers over the chunk of metal, brushing away the drying sea-weed. It wasn’t large. The size of a pound coin, a little larger. Gold, or gold-plated. He rubbed his nose with his free hand, turning the thing this way and that to catch the light.
It was pretty, in an ugly sort of way. All coiling design on a rough surface. There might have been a face buried somewhere in the faded contours, but Felton was reasonably certain it wasn’t the queen’s, if it was there at all. He rubbed his thumb across it and for a moment he thought he felt it move. He almost dropped it, but instead stood and shoved it in his pocket.
He couldn’t say why he chose to do so. It was just a bit of trash. Probably some bit or bob off a ship or fallen out of some tourist’s pocket. Just a bit of shiny nothing.
“Might make a good necklace.” he mumbled to himself, thinking of the pattern on it. Shapes like snakes or waves curling around one another. Around that tiny image in the center. Sea-spray bit his face, the salt making his lips tingle and pucker and he shook his head and started back up the beach. He needed to finish his run.
The rocks seemed especially slippery as he climbed back up towards the more level ground at the top of the beach. They turned under his feet and he nearly fell several times but that wasn’t unusual.
The beach was always slippery in the morning.
He continued on his run, feet pounding. The wind whipped up, cutting at his face and neck with invisible cat-claws. The clouds overhead were closing together, blotting out the light as it began to rain. He ran faster, determined to finish his course before the storm forced him to head home. His fingers found the metal bit-the coin?-in his pocket and he pulled it out, flipping it gingerly between his fingers as he ran. The frayed, flattened edges nipped at his fingertips.
Felton blinked sweat out of his eyes and the air seemed to waver in front of his face, sliding and twisting like the designs his fingers ran over on the coin. And it wasn’t a coin. He knew that. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he did. It was something else. A flake of something bigger.
His breath was coming in harsh gulps as he turned at the sea-wall to head back the way he had come. He started back along the pathway, moving aside for cyclists and other joggers as he ran into the ocean wind, the flake held clenched in his palm so tightly that its edges bit into his flesh.
The ground seemed to flow under his feet as he ran, the stones trembling as he moved across them. Abruptly, water caught at his feet and the shock of the cold water soaking through his shoes caused him to fall to his hands and knees, skinning his palms. The flake ground into his hand, sliding between the grooves in his palm with ease. Felton cursed and clambered to his feet, pulling the metal out of his hand with a hiss. He looked around.
Evidently he’d been so lost in thought, he’d drifted towards the ocean. He stood ankle-deep in water. A hunk of seaweed smacked lazily into his leg and he stepped back with a grunt of disgust. He held the flake up and it seemed to glint cheerily, though there was no sunlight. In fact, it had gotten very dark, very quickly.
The rain was falling harder, stinging jabs of ice that brought a chill to his skin despite his exertion. Felton looked up at the sky, then back down at the sea. His hand throbbed where the flake had cut it, almost in time to the deep thrum of the ocean’s roar. He turned away, stuffing the flake back into his pocket as he headed away from the beach.
As he climbed the stairs towards the street, he could feel a vibration through the stone and mortar. It made the metal railing beneath his hand quiver ever so slightly. He looked back towards the ocean. The horizon was as gray as slate. Usually one could see the other side of the Channel, even on cloudy days. But it was gone now, hidden behind a thick fog blowing in off the ocean. An increasingly angry ocean. Felton took his hand off the railing, watching it shake in its mooring.
Traffic. It was the traffic. He hurried up the stairs, coming up on the sidewalk that ran parallel to the shore. The street was full of cars-taxis, city service vehicles and personal vehicles all rumbling too and fro, belching oil and petrol gases into the air. It sounded just like the ocean sometimes.
Across the street, the sidewalk sloped up and Edwardian houses painted an assortment of pinks, blues and whites climbed with it, their faces scarred by salt and storm. Mildewed windows looked down on neat gardens or trash boxes on trimmed curbs. Bikes and children’s toys sat beneath a few.
The sidewalk seemed to shake beneath his feet, giving a lurch that nearly knocked him over. Alarms went off in parked cars and people nearby looked around in confusion. Somewhere a dog was howling. The ground rumbled silently and a car slid forward, smacking into the vehicle ahead of it. Felton took advantage of the light and the space provided by the accident to rush across the street, towards the opposite sidewalk.
He nearly tripped as the edge of the sidewalk split. The rumble was louder now, a noise that he felt more than heard, deep in the pit of his belly. The metal flake felt hot in his hand. Felton looked down.
How had it gotten in his hand?
He stood on the sidewalk, the rain pouring down, the ground shaking beneath his feet. Voices around him, calling back and forth. Confused people. He heard them as if through a wet shroud around his head-muted sounds that barely registered. The sidewalk cracked beneath his feet and he stepped away from the street, backing up the hill.
The crack in the pavement followed him, cutting through the paving stones. It was following him.
He laughed, high and slightly shrill. The flake flipped between his fingers, cutting them, leaving thin, seeping slices but he didn’t notice. He turned and jogged up the hill, the flats a blur of colors at the corner of his eyes. The rumble followed him, in his head now as well as his stomach. Like a voice, just at the edge of hearing. A crack like the one behind him flashed across the wall of the closest building, splitting the paint as it kept pace with him.
He could hear the ocean over the traffic, groaning and howling along with the song of the rumble. His teeth were rattling in his gums and he couldn’t keep his balance. He fell to his knees, the street grinding into his shins, lacerating them. The metal flake slipped out of his bloody fingers and bounced down the street, rolling back towards the sea. Felton scrabbled after it, crawling on his hands and knees. He lunged, a whine escaping his throat as his hand closed around it.
It snuggled into his hand, the shapes on it seeming to swirl around, swimming in the gold of its surface. They were fish…he could see that now. Piscine forms darting through forests of seaweed on the ocean’s floor. He could hear the scrape of their scales beneath the angry snarl of the ocean.
Felton stood and stumbled back the way he had come, staggering back towards the shore. Blood dripped between his clenched fingers. He wasn’t looking at it but he could still see it. It was swimming through his mind, behind his eyes. The buildings shook around him, windows shattering behind him as the cracks converged on him, rupturing the ground. But slower now, pacing him like sharks circling a wounded seal. Hunting him. Herding him.
He fumbled through traffic, cars stalled on the street, a maze of metal and glass that did nothing to hinder him. The song was pulling him on. Wind lashed at him and water coated him, making him feel twenty pounds heavier as he pulled himself down the steps, the railing slick with rain.
People were streaming past, running away from the gray ocean and the storm that was blowing in atop it.
Rocks rattled beneath him and he could feel them moving under his shoes, pushing him along. Pushing him towards the sea. Back towards where he’d found the flake of metal. It vibrated in his hand, making his whole arm ache. Rocks spit into the air and the ground beneath boiled as if some great pressure were traveling beneath it. The sea was waiting for him, the tide engulfing him as he stepped into it. It closed around him, welcoming him. Pulling him deeper into its embrace.
He felt the flake slip out of his hand, carried away from him. But he no longer cared. Water filled his lungs and his eyes locked on the sight of elegant shapes sliding towards him out of the darkness of the water’s depths, their wide mouths open in that same rumbling song. Scales that shone like gold in the sun filled his vision and the song reached a crescendo. He could hear it clearly now, strong and bright in his skull.
And then he heard nothing at all.