Copeland had spent the last hour curling deeper into his sleeping bag. The embers of his fire were all finally dead, and he knew he was never going to be as warm as he’d once been, no matter how he crossed his legs or tucked his knees into his chest. He’d denied the inevitable for as long as possible, and it was finally time to get up.
Lying on the cold sand, he wished he hadn’t been so lazy an hour ago. If he’d gotten up and grabbed any one of the fifty logs scattered around him, he’d probably still be sleeping. Every piece of his once monstrous blaze had fallen in on itself and had smoldered into practical nothingness. Now it was just a large greyish circle, filled with crunchy black things that used to be driftwood. With a core that hot, there would have been no further effort required of him; he could have just dumped the wood on and crawled back to his pillow.
Regrettably, that was no longer the case.
And yet, there was nothing quite like being woken by the cold. He felt calm, unfettered, and alert. He was very clearly shivering. But invigorated by it. The world around him was alive and interesting. An improvement to be sure over his natural waking state.
Sitting up, he could see that the cold shadow, the darkness below the cliff, stretched only to the water. The ocean itself, and whatever was in it, glistened in the full light of the morning sun.
He held his hand above his eyes and squinted.
It really was ideal, this morning. Bright blue sky. A few fluffy white clouds. And the sea. It was like waking up inside one of those shitty paintings they sold in town. Every shop seemed to have at least a few of them, hanging on a wall by the window. Local artists, attempting to sell ten dollars’ worth of paint, crudely manipulated on a five dollar canvas, all seemed to have the same notion of what the perfect ocean-scape looked like. And that each one of their efforts was worth a hundred and fifty dollars.
Copeland believed, if you lined all those paintings up, side-by-side, you might find the entire Oregon coast captured on the most unbelievably flawless, and mind-numbingly monotonous, day of all time. A day that, in the history of everything, never actually existed. But, he also knew, stormy and provocative realism wasn’t usually worth a one-thousand percent markup. Not in a tourist town hell bent on relaxation.
There was something unusual out there, though. He saw it only for a second, being completely thrashed by the break.
The head high surf that rolled into the steepest sand, built-up by the highest tides, regularly brought the sea’s flotsam ashore. But, whatever was coming in now, he’d never seen anything like. An enormous ball of sun-bleached kelp? Cope couldn’t say for sure. He’d only caught a glimpse of it before it went under, and his eyes hadn’t completely adjusted to the brightness of day yet.
He’d, of course, never heard of such a thing. Kelp pretty reliably came in only a standard set of colors; varying shades of shit green. But that’s all his eyes knew to see. So that’s what they saw.
Honestly, oddities were continually being tossed ashore. The likes of which were commonplace on any beach, in the early morning; shells and sea glass, trinkets and lost things, all washed onto land from the depths. Further south, in town, if you got out early enough on the larger public beaches, you could even find the rare fruit bowl or picture frame; artifacts just now surfacing from the homes that fell in decades ago.
Copeland’s beach was guarded on every side by fifty foot cliffs, and there was absolutely no need to rush out and gather anything like that. His tiny refuge, a crescent of sand that was maybe two hundred yards long, was the only beach in Bayocean that no tourist could get to. Only the ocean that deposited its treasures there in the first place dared to take them back.
Even so, Copeland refrained from partaking in the pastime. He viewed beach combing as a sport reserved for vacationers, fishermen, and the elderly. People with a predisposed fondness for souvenirs and bric-a-brac. It was just so pointless. If they found that exact same crap in a store, there’s no way they’d pick it up and take it home. It was useless junk. Pure sentimentality, romanticized by how and where they’d found it, and where they’d found it was Copeland’s backyard.
On the other hand, women sometimes made it more interesting.
On a motivational level.
He’d overheard enough to know that, apparently, if a wife was clever, and woke before her family, and got far enough away from her hotel room before victoriously calling her own mother to brag, she could be searching for sand dollars, coffee in hand, when the routine requests for breakfast, cartoons, and clean diapers began. Those ladies, even if they were sacrificing their bewildered and unprepared husbands to do so, Copeland respected. Seizing their freedom like that. Shenanigans or not. Those bitches deserved it.
The ocean splashed and curled white in front of him, thick and heavy waves, rolling over and over, crashing and rushing up the sand, pushing foam and rocks further along as it went, sucking back out only to rush in again. It was music. As pure as it ever was. Always playing. Every day. His entire life.
He’d been born not far from here; just above and about five hundred yards to the south, in the apartment he still lived in. As a young child, Copeland had lived there with his mother, the Inn’s property manager, and picked up garbage for Gabby in the parking lot whenever she asked him to. Now he was in charge of all maintenance at the Channel Inn.
He was only eighteen, but was as sharp as anyone when it came to comprehending the physical plane. It felt like mere common sense to him. He just liked to fix things and know how they worked. Not just that they did work. If he’d been as brilliant in every area, he may very well have grown up to rule the world. But, as it was, or so he believed, with his superior spatial reasoning being much more of a blue collar sort of genius, the apartment and his meager paycheck were all he ever hoped for.
Copeland’s mother, Kathy, had lived with him, in his tiny apartment, only until he hit puberty. After that, Gabby quickly decided, having heard one too many stories about how much time Copeland had begun spending in the bathroom, that everyone could probably use a few more walls between them. She gave Kathy the slightly larger, and nicer, apartment next door, and they lived like that for years.
Forever, as far as Cope was concerned. But he’d never gotten tired of that sound. Of the waves crashing into the sand.
Not for one second.
And he swore he never would.
Although, just right now, the perfection of it all was a bit less enjoyable than it might have been otherwise. He wasn’t even 24 hours into what he’d recently decided was the most traumatic period of his life, smelled so badly of smoke that breathing had gotten annoying, and had just rubbed sand into his left eye.
And the kelp was really beginning to bother him.
He’d caught sight of it again, just for a moment before accidentally pressing the sharp grain deeper into his cornea. It was just that he’d never seen white kelp before, or anything that resembled it. And, even though it was kind of cool, sparkling in the sun, unusual and interesting, it wasn’t normal. And he wondered where it came from.
It was the wondering that did him in.
Wondering was just one step shy of worrying, and he didn’t need one more thing to worry about. Before he knew what was happening, or had time to stop it, his eyes were flooding with tears and a knot began forming in his throat. The fact that the tears were washing the sand away was inconsequential under the weight of the world crumbling down on top of him. His legs began to shake and his knees knocked in his sleeping bag. He wrapped his arms around them, but he couldn’t hold them still. Pressure began packing so tightly behind the knot that he thought he might explode.
Then Copeland suddenly wanted to run.
To run away forever. Escape from trouble forever.
No one would catch him.
No one would ever find him.
Or maybe he could just hide somewhere.
A deep hole sounded nice.
If he’d had a shovel, he would have started digging. He would have dug down with his bare hands, but he’d resigned such unnecessarily intimate contact with the beach. “Having your own apartment,” his mother had told him, “means doing your own laundry.”
Sand, rocks, and the odd sea creature had a funny way of coming home with him in his sleeves. Subsequently, those things made their way into his washing machine, and, after finding a half cup of wet sand and one highly polished hermit crab rattling around in the bottom of his inaugural load, spun and rinsed, he announced that he’d built his last sandcastle. Cleaning was an unpleasant enough chore without the guilt of inadvertent vagabond crustacean death.
Copeland sniffed and closed his eyes, then wished desperately for his future self to send their time machine back to this exact moment on the beach. When he opened his eyes again, to check for sudden appearances, or miracles of any kind, the only thing that had changed was the ball of white kelp. It had been rolled up and out of the surf and was lying in a much less impressive pile on the wet sand.
All Copeland wanted to do was grab himself by the shoulders, that guy he’d been a few weeks ago, and shake vigorously. Self-loathing like that is impossible to ignore, despite the impracticality of time travel having been so clearly laid out for him in the Back to the Future movies. Mostly because, if that dummy would listen to him, and see how scared he was right now, and what misery looked like, on his own face, none of this would be happening right now.
He sniffed and absentmindedly rubbed sand into his nose. It stuck there, and onto his snot covered upper lip. He just wanted to undo everything. Then Jules would still like him. He’d never actually been mad at her. He was just terrified she was going to leave him. About all of this, he realized, that was what he feared the most. When she’d just ridden away from him last night, without a word, what else could she have been thinking? That’s what she was going to do. He knew it.
He also knew he was going to piss himself if he didn’t go soon.
Standing up, Cope pushed his sleeping bag to the ground, and stepped out onto the beach with his bare feet. The small sticks and bits of debris in the sand poked through his toes as he walked. When he reached the looming wall of sandstone, he pushed the waistband of his sweats down, and pulled himself out over a dying Salal bush. He spread his feet as wide as they would go, so as to stand outside of any run off, and whizzed with tears still falling off his cheeks.
He shook, and was very nearly about to put himself away, when he was struck so squarely on the top of his head that he nearly blacked out.
The blow sent him reeling backward, falling away, holding his skull with both hands.
Without thinking, or even really knowing what had happened, he doubled over and spun around, running away through the center of the fire pit, racing toward the sound of the ocean.
The sensation was so overwhelming that it could barely be categorized as pain. Not yet. Just a fire that encased his head and throbbed with a heaviness that crushed him to the ground.
He was on his knees, crawling, when the pain finally came. Trying to get someplace safe. Somewhere to recover. Or maybe just to curl up and die. It was hard to be bothered with endgame planning just right then. It was sudden and very recognizable, roaring from above, knocking him flat on his stomach.
Then there was freezing water rushing all around him. He rolled to his side, and into a ball, trying to get out of the water, but he was so disoriented and it was everywhere.
Wet sand covered him, packed into his ears and hair, caked his clothes, and salty ice water splashed into his eyes and mouth. He blinked and coughed, trying to, at the very least, keep from drowning.
He saw the bunched mass of white kelp, also caught in the sudden tidal surge, being lifted and moved toward him. His endorphins were kicking in, and the pain was dulling in such a way that he dared not move, lest it come back, but he knew he had to.
As the kelp washed closer to him, he couldn’t help but notice it had fingers.
The largest wave so far rolled ashore and flipped the mass one last time and Copeland sat up. He was soaked, frozen, covered in sand, very likely concussed, and as miserable as he could imagine ever being, but, even so, he stood and wiped his eyes.
And stepped closer.
It didn’t help.
No matter what he did or how he looked at it, the kelp most certainly had a face.
And chest hair.
And then it wasn’t kelp at all.
Just a very pale, very naked, very dead man.