Time and Tide Waits (from Elements of Horror Book Four: Water)
It was now or never, he thought, wiping his forehead with his sleeve, feeling the cold sweat trickle down his back.
They sat upon the dune, a late summer sun struggling to break through the low, gun metal grey clouds that dragged themselves across the north-east coast of England to the ancient shore of Seaton Carew. The sound of coin-operated gambling machines and the scent of beef burgers and fried onions rode the stiffening breeze that had increased over the past hour. All they needed now was the delicate ripple of children’s laughter and John and Emma could quite possibly be enjoying an evening, the likes of which they had grown accustomed to over the past ten summers together. John grinned from ear to ear and gave her the wink of an eye.
“Here?” said Emma, the look of shock in her face, the sudden paleness of her usually rosy cheeks. “Now?” By the time she had uttered her second word, John had graduated from gut-stiffening nervousness to eagerness. To get the deed done and over with, to shut her the hell up so he could move on with his life.
“Well,” John replied, shaking his head, “why in the hell not? Remember when we used to do crazy stuff like this?”
“Only if you think it’s safe…” Emma began, but it was all the affirmation he needed. Her blouse was already being unbuttoned by the time she took another bite of her corned beef and onion sandwich. “I’m not finished.”
It had been easy. His stomach churned and he wanted to regurgitate his half of the bloody picnic, beer sloshing around in his gut as he turned his hulking figure of a wife over. He knew that now he didn’t have to make eye contact with her the evening would run a lot smoother. That was indeed the plan.
“Jonathan, you’re hurting me,” Emma said, trying to turn her head, but her long blonde hair was a tangle of sand and silver, wrapped about her husband’s fist. “Stop it, it’s not fun anymore… Jonathan, STOP IT!”
John froze, his heartbeat hammering against his ribs now as Emma fell limp in the sand.
“Honey?” he whispered, gently slapping her large, bare hips. She didn’t move or say a word.
He rolled off the body and sat in the sand, still half naked. A seagull wheeled in the heavens, gliding around and around. He shook violently, trying to throw up, but it wouldn’t happen. He was in total control; the master of this moment and it was down to him to finish what he had started.
“I can do this,” he said with conviction in his voice. “I can do this. It’s what you wanted.” He stared down at Emma’s head, how she faced away from him in the sand, neck broken and already turning a faint black. “Come on, Jonathan, move your arse.”
Tears poured from his eyes, but he failed to distinguish those from panic, grief and loss, from freedom, accomplishment and joy, as he looked down at the large patch of sand where he had made love to his wife not minutes earlier. Now there was nothing but dark, disturbed sand.
“About as dark and disturbed as you,” he whispered, quickly surveying the rest of the beach. But despite the blood pounding in his ears and the rumbling in his stomach, only the sound of coins rattling in collection trays in the penny arcade nearby, and the gentle hiss of the sea as it made its way up the beach, converged upon him.
That’s when he noticed the tall figure standing knee deep in the silver sea, staring right at him. He looked about, just in case he was seeing things, but unlike in the movies, the figure was still there; staring, pulling at its wide brimmed hat as if in salute. The long, pale yellow raincoat looked almost held together by mould as the figure slowly turned his back on the beach.
John wanted to run down to the shore, grab whoever the bastard thought he was – spying on him like that! But that was pretty much the extent of his thoughts. For the ocean had slowly washed over the stranger, head, shoulders, and all.
He couldn’t sleep. It was unseasonably warm, not for the August weather, but for this part of England! The solstice had passed and now the dark nights were quickly drawing in. Yet the heat moved about the house like a trapped bird.
“Screw this,” he mumbled. He left the bedroom, unable to look at Emma’s side of the bed, and made his way down the stairs to the kitchen. The linoleum felt icy beneath his bare feet, an equally cool breeze enveloped his clammy body as he crossed to the… that’s when he noticed the back door was ajar, swinging slowly on its hinges. He reached the keys from the hook near the sink and slammed the door shut, jammed the lock fast and drew the deadbolts.
John wanted to laugh, shook his head, and raked his hands through his thinning hair. He squeezed his eyes closed, watching the stars dance there for a moment, the keys jangling softly from the lock the only sound; except for the hammering of his heart.
“Sleep…get some sleep.” He’d figure everything out when the sun came up, he decided. He’d killed his wife and now nothing was behaving the way it should, especially his nerves. He nodded and let out a deep breath.
It wasn’t until he reached the foot of the staircase that he noticed the small pools of water, leading from the kitchen, along the pine-floored hallway, to the living room. In the darkness his pulse kicked a bass drum, he could barely see the light switch on the wall opposite, could hardly reach it. His stomach turned, assaulted by the sudden reek.
He flicked the switch.
Emma was in the living room, sitting in her favourite chair, the one closest to the television set. Her pale face was encrusted with dark spots, grains of sand that reached across the deep purple bruise on her throat and along her mouth, spilled over her double chin like vomit. Her clothing was soaked through, her blouse open, revealing her lifeless body, which now seemed the most revolting thing John had ever seen.
Then he saw the look in her eyes.
They were black with the hint of a cataract in her right eye. But they were staring at him. Something was moving on her lips…
“Fuck!” John hollered as the small crab crawled from Emma’s swollen lips, seeming to fix him with its cold, unforgiving eyes, before disappearing between the folds of its host’s dead skin.
“She can’t hear you.”
John almost lost his balance as he swung round to meet the figure sitting in the chair at the far side of the room.
The leather squealed beneath its weight as it reached a bony hand up to the wide brimmed hat, which balanced precariously on its scrawny head. The worn and fleshless skull twisted slowly to the right, filling the silence with a sickening crackle and popping sound.
“That feels better,” the figure mumbled, placing the hat back on its head.
John managed to catch a glimpse of the deep crevice that separated the left temple from its jaw; a shiver running down his spine.
“What are you doing in my house?” said the skull. “Isn’t that what you were going to say?”
“That…that was you,” stammered John. “That was you in the water.”
Whatever it was slowly nodded. Water, or some other fluid, poured from its broken skull like thick black tar.
“Bob Carpenter,” it said.
“And that’s supposed to mean…something to me?” John stammered.
“She was pretty tough to dig up…I like your style. Good and deep. Just like your last goodbye, eh?” Bob chuckled. The sound of his laughter was like fingers raking through gravel.
“What have you done?” John’s voice was little more than a whisper.
“Me?” Bob placed a hand on his chest. “What have I done?”
“Look…I had to do what I did,” replied John, unable to take his eyes off his wife’s rotten, sunken face. “Just…just take her back…Go back, whatever you want …I can’t help you.”
Bob shook his head. “I can’t do that, erm, mister… Jonathan Stainsby,” he said, looking at a credit card he’d taken from a wallet from the coffee table by his knees. He flung it across the room. “Not the greatest of names, but I guess it would have to do.”
“This is insane!”
“I can help you,” said Bob steadily, clearing what throat he still possessed. “I can ensure nobody knows about your dearly beloved over there. The police would never know…and she’d never be found…”
“But I had her covered. Nobody would’ve found her anyway.”
“Well, I can’t let that happen.”
“What the fuck do you want?”
Silence hung in the air for a moment except for the all too familiar tap tap tap of water that fell from Bob’s elbow. It collected by his feet.
“Swim with me.”
“What?” John laughed. “Swim with you? Why the hell for? Get out of my house! This isn’t happening. I’m going back to bed.”
“As you wish,” replied Bob, slowly getting up out of the chair.
“And…you can take that…thing with you,” said John, pointing in Emma’s direction, unable to look upon the abominable husk that now sat in its favourite chair.
“Come on, sugar,” said Bob, picking Emma up into a fireman’s lift, groaning under the weight. “We’ve outstayed our welcome.”
John watched him walk through the kitchen, accidentally hitting Emma’s head on the door frame in the process. This was real, thought John, his gorge rising. This was really happening.
“See you later,” said Bob, kicking the back gate. The latch slammed loudly in the oppressive silence as he left the yard.
John woke up, screaming. The bed was a crumpled mess of damp sheets and pillows, and his shorts and tee shirt were soaked through with perspiration.
“You’re losing it, John-boy,” he said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He looked over at the bedside clock and gave a sigh. It was almost two in the afternoon.
He heard a grumbling noise, which resembled a hungry stomach. But there was nothing in the room – then he heard it again. John jumped out of bed and crossed to the window. He gave a chuckle as he saw the weekly yard bin collection truck reverse slowly along the back alley.
“I couldn’t give a shit this week, fellas,” he chuckled.
He was about to turn away from the window when his skin sunk like melted wax on his muscles. In the yard below, where he kept the bins, something familiar was hanging over the edge of the one closest to the gate.
It was a human arm.
And the rubbish collectors were climbing out of their truck and making their rounds!
He almost lost his balance descending the stairs, jumping from the last few, hitting the floor with a heavy, loud thud. Pain lanced through his bare feet, but he ignored it in his haste to reach the yard before the collectors could.
“It’s okay, lads,” he said, steadily pulling the bins closer to the house. The ground was wet from the previous evening’s rainfall, but he knew he could survive a pair of soggy feet. “They’re bloody empty anyway.”
The two council workers gave a shrug before moving on to the next yard.
The grin upon his face was starting to hurt. But when he was confident that nobody could see, John pulled the bin inside the kitchen, despite the stench arising from it.
The arm dangled lifelessly from the bin; thin blue veins criss-crossed the pallid flesh like creeping ivy. He wanted to throw up, but there was no time.
He knew he had broken the speed limit, but that didn’t matter. If he had been caught by camera then so be it, he thought, shrugging his boots from his feet, ignoring the thick, wet clods of earth he had trailed through the hallway. He needed sleep. The sun was setting, and the birds sang softly in the tree outside. But he just craved his bed.
The body was now buried in a shallow grave over fifty miles away.
The next morning, as he lifted his head from the pillow, Emma was there beside him, just like the devoted wife she had been in life.
Her flesh was almost a green hue, mottled and loose. Her eyes had vanished, leaving two black and fathomless orbits. But they looked upon him as though the darkness was pure hatred. She was covered in the earth that he had buried her in the previous evening, and now John wanted to claw at her ghastly face, tear her fucking head clean from her shoulders!
That’s when he heard the strained sound of laughter. He surveyed the room, but it was coming from without. John closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, knowing what was coming next.
He gave Emma a wide berth as he made his way to the window and looked down. Bob Carpenter was looking up at him, a hand at his wide brimmed hat in salutation. He could do nothing but watch the figure walk away, disappearing behind a bush.
“This is what you wanted!” John called out, feeling the rough hands of the evening breeze pull at his hair. The arcades of Seaton Carew were closed for the day, yet he could still detect a hint of toffee apple and hotdog floating on the breeze. “Come on then, Mr. Carpenter. I’m waiting!”
“I knew you’d see sense,” a voice replied. It was from afar, but it could easily have been an echo from inside his own head, it was so clear and crisp. “Get it? Sea sense?”
“I get your joke…What do you want?”
“Let’s go for a walk, shall we?”
John hesitated a moment, peering over his shoulder at the car parked further up the beach.
“She’ll be fine,” said Bob, shaking his head. “You worry too much.”
He had left small, deep delves in the wet sand; they dotted the beach from the frothy shoreline up to where the dunes began.
“Where everything began?”
“What did you say?”
“Isn’t that what you were thinking?” replied Bob. “Don’t you regret the whole mess?”
“No, I don’t. It was meant to be. It had to be done.”
Bob reached out a skeletal arm around the other man’s shoulder, nodding slowly, turning him to face the gun metal grey shore as it crept further up the beach. “I like your style, sunshine,” he said, turning him to face the ocean.
They made it to the shore, and John turned towards Bob.
“Who are you?”
“You don’t recognise me?” replied Bob, shaking his head. “Of course, you wouldn’t recognise me.”
“Hold on a minute,” said John, squinting his eyes in the gloom. “I don’t recognise you, but I remember the story now,” he said. “You were all over the Hartlepool Post a few years ago. Fell off the pier and smashed your skull against the rocks…deserved it if you ask me. The police hunted you down after weeks of you being on the run.”
“Well how do you think I got this little love bite? And it was more than a “few” years as you so eloquently put it,” Bob replied heavily as though he was becoming increasingly impatient by the second. He removed his hat and pointed a bony finger at the crack in his head. In the setting sunlight the mould, which spilled over the jagged crevice, appeared almost luminescent. And for the first time, John had the misfortune of seeing the monster’s face in all its hellish glory. The tide and its myriad creatures had taken the lions’ share of his meat, leaving the scraps to time. And now, as leathery flesh which appeared as dry as parchment hung from his face, it did resemble a human being. Through the narrow crack in his skull, fading sunlight shimmered like quicksilver. He turned to face John, but the other man quickly averted the cold empty eye sockets as if staring might awaken a plague of locusts from the living corpse’s rancid soul. “It must have been…” said Bob, letting the icy water rush over his black, tattered trouser legs. “Let me see now… ah, yes, almost thirty years ago now.”
“That was before I was born,” said John, as though that little pearl of information was of any consequence whatsoever. “But it had been in the news, I remember seeing it in some old newspaper cut-outs mum and dad used to keep in an old china teacup. Come to think of it now, my friend’s mum had the same cut-out. Everybody knew about it…You murdered your wife…”
The ocean crept further up their legs as they walked along the shore. There was a lull in the air as though the world and everything in it had suddenly taken a deep breath, as if in anticipation.
“Don’t even think it.”
“Don’t you be getting all righteous on me,” said Bob, staring out into the thin, amber line on the horizon. “You and I were cut from the same cloth.”
“You killed your wife…”
“Correction!” snapped Bob, holding a finger in the air. He stood still now, looking squarely at John, a living scarecrow of a figure, the brim of his dirty hat bending slightly to the marshalling breeze. “The bitch was my brother’s wife. And who are you? Or should I say, what are you?”
The other man nodded slowly, looking down at the water as it swirled about his thighs.
“We had an affair,” Bob continued, shrugging his almost non-existent shoulders. “But what had started out as a bit of slap and tickle in the afternoon soon turned into something a lot more serious. Dumb blonde wanted to come clean, but I loved my kid brother. I couldn’t let that happen…so she had to go. Besides, the conniving little slut was going to rat on me anyway. I liked sex…what can I say? I didn’t belong to her.”
“What does all this have to do with you? That’s what you were thinking, right? See, I know you…I know about everyone in this fucking God forsaken town!” The anger arose from deep within the labyrinth of rot and putrescence. The water seemed to respond to his frustration and darkening mood, slapping against their bodies, splashing against their legs; the tide holding them firmly in place as though they were trying to wade through setting cement. “I used to work on the docks just half a mile behind us. There were some adventures going on there, believe me. I didn’t just operate cranes, my friend. Fishermen would pull in and off load their catch of the day, but also smuggle in a couple of tarts now and again. You know how it is; a young lad with money in his pocket and pussy on his mind, gets down and dirty after work. So…Lizzie, that was the hole I was filling behind my kid’s back, decided to come meet me after the whistle blew. It was ten o’clock and I was already well-oiled by the time Lizzie found me, head down between another girl’s legs…”
“So, you got rid of her?”
“The girl was called Sharyn,” Bob ruminated, ignoring John’s words as if he shared the water with no other soul. “She had the sexiest, darkest, brown eyes I had ever seen. What she knew about sex made me look like a clumsy schoolboy pushing to cop a feel of tit on a first date! Her skin was as smooth as marble, and her hair was as black as jet. I can’t remember ever running my hands through something which felt like freshly spun silk before…”
“She sounds amazing,” replied John, even though he knew his remark would fall on deaf ears, or rather, non- existent ears. “Where is she now?”
Bob nodded inland, towards the dunes.
“But…I can’t see her,” said John, shading his eyes from the darkening horizon. “There’s nobody up there.”
Bob chuckled, shaking his head. It was a harsh, hollow sound, a rumble not of his body but from Hell itself.
“You hit the nail on the head, my friend.”
“Oh, there’s a body up there, all right,” Bob replied, sighing. “It’s under the dunes.”
John froze, silence taking him by the throat, its grip tightening.
“I’m surprised you didn’t find her when you were poking around with your wife’s corpse.”
“I want this to end…please, tell me what to do,” John said, his voice crackling, throat as dry as sandpaper. “You won’t let me be until this is fucking over, will you?”
Bob slowly shook his head; his permanent skull smiles gleaming in the dusky sunlight.
“Sharyn told me about the wonders of the deep,” said Bob, sitting on the dune whilst watching John, cold and shaking, rake at the sand with his bare hands. “Yes, she knew a thing or two…she believed in the afterlife too. You see, we kept on seeing each other, even after I dumped Lizzie. I can’t remember ever having such a great and meaningful time with another person before. Love? I don’t know about that. Fascination is probably a little closer to the truth, I suppose.”
“Please don’t make me do this. I’m begging you,” said Jonathan, almost waist deep in the sand.
“But you’re almost there, my friend,” Bob replied, shaking his head. “I had to bury her good and deep, you know? I’m not as strong as I used to be. When she came here to kill herself, I didn’t like it. I mean, who would want to witness the one you love… But when I had the strength I crawled from the sea, took her lifeless body, dug the grave and…well, there you have it.”
“Sacrifice? Is that what…”
“When my body got washed out to sea, she knew I was never coming back. Even when she knew I had killed Lizzie, she harboured me for a short while, kept the police away when the heat got unbearable.
“At night, we’d make love…and she was an animal. Everything about her was magical. I was a dullard at school; never stuck in. I was just one of the lad’s eager to kick a football around. So, one night she showed me her collection of books. I joked around for a time but then started to take an interest in the thick, leather bound tomes that took pride of place on the shelf in her grubby little bedsit. They looked as though they had survived a few wars. One of them was covered in what I later found out was human fat. Not candle wax, but actual human fat. It contained passages that she insisted had been written by mermaids…I know, I know, I thought it was a load of crap too, my friend.”
John felt the first needles of ice-cold rain prick his cheek. The rumble of thunder came up from behind him like a prankster, but he was grateful for its icy breeze. His fingers were numbing from pulling at the sand, the fear of stroking the rotten flesh of Bob’s dearly beloved made his blood run cold.
“So…what did this book tell you?”
“It was more of a guidebook than anything else,” replied Bob, turning to face the sea, the red line was visible through the crack in his skull. “When the coppers finally caught up with me, I wasn’t afraid anymore. I knew that nothing and nobody could touch me. That’s what the book taught me. For the first time in my whole life…I was awaking. Sharyn took her pills and fell asleep. I’d laid her to rest, but it wasn’t over by a long chalk.”
“Why me?” John cried, wanting to fall back in the dune and sleep, in the hope this nightmare would end.
“You’re a murderer,” said Bob. “Oh, don’t look at me in that tone of voice, my friend. We are one and the same. Waiting thirty years for someone like you to come along had taken its toll. In fact, I was thinking you’d never arrive.”
That’s when John screamed.
He quickly climbed out of the hole as though a bucket of scorpions had been poured in there with him. Backing away from his find now, both hands covering his mouth, he looked over at the skeletal abomination standing over the grave.
“Good lad,” it said, nodding slowly. “You found her.”
He couldn’t stop the tears from falling as he carried the corpse to the sea.
“I…I can’t do this…I can’t…”
“But you’re doing so well,” said Bob, walking alongside him, barely leaving an imprint in the softening sand. “I’m…weak. Getting weaker by the minute it seems. Even in death nothing lives forever…That was clever, wasn’t it? Your wife will never come back…if…you do this. I mean…you wouldn’t want her turning up at the most awkward of…times…carrying your ex has…taken the…best of me.”
Bob was indeed getting weaker, thought John as they stepped into the water.
Then something happened.
He felt movement in his arms, a stirring, as though…
“It’s working! Ha! It’s bloody working!” Bob’s laughter was like a skewer through the other man’s ear. “It’s really working!”
The stench of her remains was turning John’s stomach, but it was the sudden jolt of movement in her that threatened to push him over the edge. The sea was almost touching the rancid bones and clothing.
“There she is,” Bob laughed. “Wakey, wakey, my darling.”
John wanted to scream as Sharyn turned her head and looked up into his eyes. One of her eye sockets was compacted with sand. What had once been a luscious mane of hair now spread across her gleaming face like seaweed. And as her mouth, an array of rotten, decaying teeth, opened on its hinge, she / it spoke.
“B…s’at …s’at you?”
“See…see, it’s working, my love!” Bob clapped his bony hands together. “You were right.”
“What…what’s happening to me?” said John, looking over at the creature now jumping for joy beside him. He could see the life shining in his eyes.
Bob, well, he wasn’t the same at all. Flesh had covered his once rotten skull, a mop of dark hair was swept back from his face, slightly grey at the temples. He had eyes that were more like beacons of glee. And his voice seemed somewhat familiar.
John felt his clothing sag on his frame as though they were many sizes too big. That’s when he saw the clump of grey hair fall on Sharyn’s chest. He was ageing!
“What’s…” But his’ words caught in his throat like a chicken bone as he looked into the eye of the creature beside him.
“I told you we were one and the same,” said Bob, or rather, a mirror image of John himself.
“You can put me down now, darling,” said the beautiful girl in his arms, her full lips drawn back into an award-winning smile. She winked and blew a kiss.
John let go of her, a hand accidentally brushing against her breast.
In abject terror, John looked at his hands. They were crumbling into dust. Flesh, muscle, bone – it was all falling away. He heard tiny patters of something falling into the water… His teeth!
Sharyn jumped into Bob’s embrace, forgetting the walking dead that had carried her thus far. Their mouths touched for the first time in thirty years, and they were hungry for each other. “I told you we would be together again someday.”
“Yes, you did, sweetie,” said Bob, smiling from ear to ear.
They gave John a cursory glance before heading back to shore.
“Been nice knowing you,” Bob hollered over his shoulder.
John didn’t hear the words; his body had broken in two…then three. And before the lovers reached dry land, he was no more.
“Will you marry me?”
Bob laughed, shaking his head.
“Hey, I’m trying to be romantic here, young man,” Sharyn giggled, playfully delivering a punch to Bob’s stomach as they approached the car. Darts of rain flew through the blinding glare of the arc sodium lights high up in the blackened sky.
“Mrs. Jonathan Stainsby?” replied Bob, turning the words over in his mouth like fine wine. “Think you could get used to that?”
Sharyn screwed up the perfect little nose that God had blessed her with. “Nah, the name’s got to go.”
Bob ran his hands along the boot of the car, drumming his fingers on the cold metal. Sharyn stood close beside him now, feeling the coldness of the night for the first time in what seemed like forever.
“What do we do with her?”
Bob turned to her and grinned.
“Oh, no!” she backed away, laughing loudly. “You can do that yourself. I’ll wait in the car.” Before Bob could protest, Sharyn had grabbed the keys from his sodden pockets, his wallet, or rather, Jonathan’s wallet fell onto the tarmac. She picked it up and then got into the car.
“Unbelievable,” said Bob, watching his love turn on the radio.
“And be quick about it,” Sharyn shouted through the glass. She was holding up a credit card. “I’m fucking starving!”
Bob carried Emma over to the sand dune and dropped her in the ground. As he pushed the sand over her, he could hear the beat of dance music ride the shoulders of the strengthening wind.
“Great…Now I have to learn how to dance,” he sighed.
Elements of Horror Book Four: Water is now available for Kindle, in paperback, and on Audible here.