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Halls of Silt and Seawater

“That’s exactly what I imagined. Isn’t it great?” Ben and his friends looked down the dunes, over the beach and the rolling waves, crashing against the shore with the inbound tide. The ruins of a bunker rose half-buried from the sand, a breakwater stretched out into the sea, and some fishing boats floated far away to the left, white specks on the horizon.

“Oh yes. Look at the waves!” Nick led their descent on the path from the dunes, the wind tearing at their clothes with fury, blowing sand between them. “Anyone up for a swim? To try out the waves?”

“Sure thing.” Ben and Jonas put down their things and nodded to Nick’s suggestion.

“You go, we’ll stay here.” The girls started to spread their beach towels and open their bags, settling in a wind-protected spot at the bottom of the dunes. “We’ll go later, maybe.”

They laughed while Ben, Nick, and Jonas stripped down to their swimming trunks and ran across the beach, cursing and jumping when their bare feet hit stones or sank into the silt. The water was cold, and it took them some time to gather the courage to jump in: but finally, Nick did it, and Ben and Jonas followed suit.

It was glorious, pushing through the green twilight of the ocean, doing a few strokes, coming up again and spitting salt water while the others did the same around them. Ben had only been to the sea a few times, and he had almost forgotten how much fun it was to paddle through the water and feel nothing below.

The waves carried his body up and down, breaking around him in spraying foam. He turned on his back, made a kick, floating parallel to the beach. The concrete of the bunker ruins had shifted to the right, and he made a few swimming strokes to correct his position again.

#

“I’m swimming back now, I think.” Nick dove headfirst through a wave and snorted.

“Yes, me too.” Ben felt the coldness creep into his bones, not unpleasant, but permeating his skin, deeper and deeper. “Better to be careful. I don’t want to catch a cold.”

He shivered and began to swim after Nick, who steered landward. They swam, but the waves pulled them sideways and the current out to sea, and Ben realized that the beach was farther away than he thought, the bunker tiny in the distance, the girls barely visible.

“Wait.” Jonas’ voice was behind them, sounding distressed. “Wait for me, please. I’m not such a strong swimmer, not like you.”

Ben felt exhaustion in his own arms, his left foot suddenly hurting, muscles cramping in the cold water. Could he even make it to shore? He looked left and right, but there was no one else in the water except for them, no boat, no possible help.

“Nick! Ben! Come back, please. I can’t swim that far.”

Jonas sounded weaker, but Ben couldn’t turn back, not without risking his own life. He wasn’t sure of himself anymore, his strength had left him, there was nothing he could do for Jonas. Drowning people could panic, he knew that, and in the worst case, Jonas would drag them both down into the deep.

“I don’t want to die!”

“Just swim like you would swim in a pool.” Ben couldn’t look back, too occupied with his own struggle. The beach seemed more distant with every stroke, the waves higher and crueler, Nick seemingly lost between them. “Just swim.”

He followed his own advice, telling himself that it had to be possible to get back to the beach, that there would be lifeguards otherwise, or buoys, or patrolling ships. Surely he couldn’t die like this, on a harmless afternoon out on the beach? What would his friends at home say? How would they react if he never came back?

“Help!”

Ben looked back and saw Jonas’ head vanishing under a wave, not coming up again, his voice falling silent.

“I can almost stand! Just a little farther! We’ve reached the shallow part, come on!” Nick shouted at him, and Ben forced himself to do another stroke, then one more, one more, one more. He dipped down and felt land, maybe a few inches below his feet.

“I’m standing on solid ground!” Nick waved, and Ben closed up to him. “Wow. That was more dangerous than I thought… are you alright?”

Ben found purchase with his feet in the sand below, breathing freely for the first time. “What about Jonas?”

“I’m here!”

“Everything’s all right, no worries. Come, come!” Nick plunged back in and swam toward Jonas, who was a good deal behind them. Ben waited, breathing heavily. He had seen Jonas vanish, hadn’t he?

“There, I have you, come on. Ben, help me pull him. Yes, that’s it. Everything is all right, everyone is safe. What an adventure, eh?”

#

This night, Ben dreamt of the waves pushing him up, making him feel weightless for a moment and crashing down again, a feeling of movement that enveloped him in his sleep.

When he swallowed, he tasted salt, even though he had eaten and brushed his teeth. When he tried to move his hands, there was resistance as if the air around him had become viscous.

He dreamt that they were all swimming again, Jonas’ voice behind them, calling for help, pleading, then only an inhuman gurgle. The sound of water rushing down a windpipe and into lungs, of human struggle giving way to the fathomless pull of the ocean.

“Ben. Ben.” His name rose up from beneath the water, following him on the foam crests of the breaking waves.

“Ben!” He snapped his eyes open, unable to orient himself, the sea gone, his blanket wrapped around him so he could barely move. Nick and Jonas were standing in his room, staring at him from the bright circle of his night lamp.

“Are you awake now? Be quiet.”

Ben freed himself from the blanket. “What’s happening? What time is it?”

Nick and Jonas exchanged looks, and Jonas spoke softly: “I want to go back to the beach, to the sea. I want you to come with me.”

“Right now? Can’t we go in the morning?”

“Please. I need to see it again, tonight.” His face was earnest, as was Nick’s, and Ben slowly rose up and began to dress.

“Then let’s go.”

#

The sand scrunched in the darkness, occasional flat rocks shimmering like beached jellyfish, the transition between land and sea indiscernible. The moon hung above them as a sharp sickle, its shine barely sufficient to highlight the placidly rolling waves.

“What now? We are here, the same place we were in the afternoon. There is that bunker… and I think out there is the farthest point we swam to.” Ben pointed at the ocean, but Jonas didn’t even look at him, just walked across the beach.

He seemed entranced, almost somnambulant, his eyes open and unblinking, staring forward at the heaving darkness. Something glowed far out under the sea, like spotlights slowly sinking toward the bottom, discolored by the waves’ murky green.

“What is that?” Nick raised his smartphone, and for a heartbeat, a bright flash illuminated the scenery.

“I have no idea…”

“We can take a look.”

“I’m not swimming out there again, especially not at night. Are you crazy?”

“There is another way.” Jonas wandered over the sand toward the half-buried bunker, defending against an invasion that had never taken place. From the rectangular loopholes, the same soft luminescence was sloshing out onto the beach, almost as pale as moonlight, but less steady, flowing, ebbing and swelling.

“How… what…” Ben eyed his friends in the ghostly light, Jonas’ face strangely determined, Nick’s bloodless, trembling, his skin covered in goosebumps. Ben had never seen him this way, never seen such weakness in him. Nick was always their leader, the strong one, the one who never knew fear.

“Come with me. I want to show you something.” Jonas vanished into the dilapidated structure while Ben and Nick still stood on the night-dark sand, the wind tugging at their shirts.

“Come on, please.” Jonas’ voice from inside sounded distorted, hollow, as if it were coming from the bottom of a deep well.

“All right.” Nick clenched his teeth, raised his chin and followed Jonas.

Ben looked at the entrance, then at the path through the dunes back to their holiday home, where the girls were sleeping soundly.

“Ben! Come on!”

#

The interior of the bunker was gloomy, light washing over concrete in a shimmer of algae-green tongues, not illuminating the floor or the boys’ faces. There was a tunnel leading down in the direction of the sea, and it was covered ankle-deep in mud and murky water.

“This way, please. There is something I want to show you both.” Jonas waded into the tunnel without hesitation, and the other two had no choice but to follow. It was surreal, but they had already gone so far, out here in the middle of the night.

Ben saw Jonas’ head vanishing between the waves again, heard his cries for help, felt his own arms carrying him away through the roiling ocean.

“Where are we going? How do you know this place? I thought this was your first trip to the North Sea?”

“It is.” Their splashing steps echoed along the hallway, and Ben noticed slight structural changes: the concrete gave way to wet earth and clumpy sand, the water on the floor covered itself in foam and seaweed, the air smelled of salt and fish, of mold and putrefaction.

“Where the hell are we going? We must be well under the ocean by now. I’m turning back.” Ben stopped, and the others turned back to him, little more than silhouettes against the brightness flooding the tunnel from ahead.

“Come with us, Ben. I want to show you where I was today, and I want you to stay there with me.”

Ben could intuit a vast room at the end of the tunnel, its walls more natural and flowing than the sharp edges of the bunker, its air heavy with a fog-like humidity. He glimpsed moving figures, their outlines not human, glistening scales highlighted by the aquatic light, fins protruding in sharp ridges.

“This is madness!” Ben almost screamed, his heartbeat pulsating through his body, his fingers throbbing with blood, his eyes wide open. “Where are we going? What is this? What are you talking about? Nick, say something!”

“I… I don’t know… maybe we should follow him, Ben. Maybe we should see what he wants to show us. Don’t you remember this afternoon? What happened in the water?”

“Nothing happened! We all made it out, you know that.”

Jonas shook his head, sadly. “That’s not true. I drowned, Ben, in the waves of the sea above us.” He lost all color as if it had been drained in an instant, and he seemed bloated, horribly bloated, water gurgling out of his mouth as he spoke. “I drowned, and you abandoned me, you didn’t come back for me.”

His eyes turned blue and misty, his skin peeled off his fingers as he reached for Ben. His touch was freezing cold, wet, and spongy, and Ben couldn’t stand it. He broke away, glanced one more time at the hall behind Nick and Jonas, then turned and ran, as fast as his feet would carry him.

#

Ben snapped his eyes open, unable to orient himself. The undersea halls were gone, his blanket wrapped around him so tight that he could barely move.

“Jonas?” He stumbled through the door into Jonas’ room, still not fully awake. “Jonas!”

Jonas’ bed was made and empty, as if no one had slept there at all, as if he had never returned from their swimming trip. Ben looked through the room and stormed out, down the stairs and into their shared living room.

“Jonas! Oh, thank god!”

Jonas sat at the breakfast table with the girls, smiling at Ben and making himself a sandwich. “Morning, Ben. Everything all right?”

“I had a dream, and in this dream, you told me that you had drowned, and you turned into some kind of creature, and I ran away.” Ben laughed, nervously at first, then full of relief. “What a nightmare! Nick awake yet?”

“Sounds like a strange dream. I haven’t seen Nick, must be still asleep. Maybe go and wake him? The sun’s already up, we want to drive to the city today.”

“Sure.” Ben felt his pulse slowing down, and he allowed a smile to enter his face. “I’ll get him.”

He climbed back up the stairs and knocked on Nick’s door, once, twice, three times. “Wakey wakey!” He pushed the door open and saw Nick’s feet poking out from under the blanket, his head buried under the pillow. “Come on, it’s morning already. No time like the present!”

Ben walked around the bed, pulled away the pillow—and felt his heart stop. Nick was laying there, but he was not asleep: his face was bloated and white, the eyes faded blue orbs, a trickle of saltwater running from the corner of his mouth to the mattress beneath him, which was drenched to the core.

END

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Coming of Age, Contemporary Fiction, Fantasy, Horror

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