Fiction Friday – “Private Beach” by Stacey Longo

Stacey Longo writes horror fiction of a particularly diabolical nature. Her themes prey upon the most primal of fears and her craft is clean and precise, stark, sharp edged terror. She grew up on a dairy farm in Glastonbury, CT  and lived on Block Island, RI for ten years, which is where she began her writing career as a humor columnist for the Block Island Times from 2000 – 2006. Upon returning to Connecticut, she turned her pen to horror writing. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and Shroud magazine. This is a short story Stacy contributed to Epitaphs: The Journal of the New England Horror Writers.

Submitted for your approval, in its entirety, the customary tale of a young couple who hop the fence to spend the sunset in terror on a “Private Beach”:

Tom and Shanna walked right past the NO TRESPASSING sign. She was carrying the blanket; he had a bag of fried chicken from a fast food joint and a bottle of champagne. It was a solemn night for Tom; he was going to tell Shanna how he felt, that while he wasn’t ready to marry her yet, he certainly felt that he would marry her someday, and he had a tiny diamond ring with sapphire chips in the band to prove the seriousness of his intent. He was the one that suggested an evening picnic on the beach.

Tom and Shanna had been a couple since his senior year of college, when they’d met in biology class and found themselves lab partners. He was struggling to pass the course. Shanna, two years younger, excelled in science, and had tutored him through the class. They’d been partners ever since, and over the past two years, he’d only cheated on her once; something she’d never found out and he’d never shared, but he was proud of himself just the same. Only cheating on a girl once was a personal best for him, and was all the proof he needed that Shanna was the girl he was meant to marry. Someday.

They had about 45 minutes of daylight before the sun set over the water, and he intended to make the most of the romantic setting. They trudged over the dune, passing the sparse tufts of razor-like grass, agreeing without speaking to head toward a flattened semicircle of sand next to a large, blackened log of driftwood. The wind tugged at the blanket as Shanna tried to smooth it down; she found a rock and a plank of wood, left over from a bonfire, to secure the corners.

“Take a walk?” she asked, smiling at Tom with her emerald green eyes, and he felt his jeans tug uncomfortably for a moment. He nodded, and they latched hands, strolling down the beach.

It was low tide; there was a line of seaweed and debris that the ocean had rejected tracing a path down the sand. The wind was warm, but agitated—Tom had to blink repeatedly to keep grains of sand out of his eyes. “Watch your step!” Shanna yelped, sidestepping an opaque glob with tendrils. “Here’s another one!” she squealed, moving in closer to Tom, as if she needed him to protect her from the dead jellyfish. They meandered on, walking closely, Shanna occasionally stopping to examine a shell or pretty stone. “What’s with all the dead jellyfish?” Tom complained, stepping squarely on a gelatinous mass. He was grateful to be wearing his sneakers. He was pretty sure that jellyfish could still sting, even when dead, and he didn’t want to experience that ever again. He’d been stung by a jellyfish when he was 14, vacationing in Pensacola with his folks, and the pain he’d felt then, ten years ago, was still easy for him to recall to this very day. He’d wound up in the hospital, feverish and unable to breathe, and although the doctors had told him there was a chance he’d grow out of his allergy to sea jelly venom, he’d never tested that theory. His chest tightened at the sight of the lifeless orbs that littered the beach like raindrops. “Maybe we should head back to the blanket,” he said with a nervous laugh.

Shanna bobbed her blonde head in agreement, and they turned around. “Maybe it’s mating season or something,” Tom commented, and Shanna shrugged. “Could be. Or it’s a lemming-like mass jelly suicide?,” she offered, weaving her way around the jellyfish bodies. “Although it doesn’t seem as bad back this way.”

This was true. Tom noticed there were fewer bodies back toward the section of beach where they’d tacked down their blanket. Had it been this way when they’d started their walk? Tom wasn’t sure, but he was glad. The jellyfish bodies were starting to make him lose his appetite, and he didn’t want an air of squeamishness to affect the heartfelt vow of affection he had planned for later on.

Tom and Shanna made it back to their picnic spot quickly. Their dinner and champagne were still sitting on the blue-checkered cotton blanket, waiting for their return. “Look at the sand! It looks like a Zen garden,” Shanna said softly. The sand was rippled like circles on a pond; Tom hadn’t noticed when they’d first spread out the blanket, but admittedly, he’d been admiring the way Shanna’s black jeans hugged her backside.

“Yeah, neat,” Tom grunted, sitting down and opening up the bag of chicken. “Let’s eat—I’m starving!”

Shanna swatted at his arm, but settled in next to him on the blanket.They ate quietly, hungrily; Tom occasionally paused to offer a smile at his girl. She was beautiful, even when confronted with the messy task of eating chicken on the beach; she dabbed at her mouth delicately with a napkin between bites, which made Tom’s heart skip a beat. If it weren’t for his college loans, and his new job, and the upcoming real estate license exam that he had to study for, he’d marry her right now. But Shanna still had a semester left of college, and had no idea what she wanted to do for a career; best to wait until they were both more settled and secure. Shanna stopped for a moment, looking at him curiously.

“You sure are deep in thought. What’s on your mind?” Tom winked at her, wiping his hands on his jeans. Now was as good a time as any to bring out the ring and make his promise to her.

“Shanna, I …” he stumbled over the words. Breathing deeply, he tried again. “I wanted to talk to you tonight. I was hoping—hoping—listen, maybe you should ditch the chicken bones.” Shanna had the bones from her dinner carefully cradled in a napkin in her hands.

“What should I do with them? I don’t want to litter,” she grinned, and blushed slightly.

“Toss them over the dune like I did,” he frowned, but she shook her head.

“I can’t throw that far, you know that. I’ll just bury them in the sand, I guess.” Shanna shifted over to the side of the blanket and started digging. When she had a hole big enough and deep enough to dispose of her bones,

she slid her hand in with the chicken remains. “Oh!” she gasped, and tried to pull back. Her hand remained in the sand. “Tom, help! I can’t get my hand out! Something’s got me!”

Tom leaned forward. Dusk was starting to fall, but he could see that her left arm was buried in the beach up to her elbow. “Are you trying to be cute or something?” He snickered nervously, unsure of what kind of game she was playing. Was she making fun of him?

“Tom!” Shanna screamed, and her whole body seemed to lurch forward into the sand. He scrambled to get up and help her, but it was too late: he watched, horrified, as her head, then her torso, and lastly her legs disappeared in one fell swoop into the beach. The sand shifted, resettling; the meditative ripples reappeared on the surface.

“What the hell was that? Shanna?” Tom’s mind was racing over what he’d just seen. His girlfriend had just nosedived under the sand, and not so much as a handprint remained. Quicksand? He’d never heard of quicksand yanking someone in and smoothing itself out like he’d just witnessed this sand do.

There had to be something under the beach, he decided. Some sort of —worm, or giant vole—had just sucked his girlfriend down into its lair.

Tom laughed; it was a high-pitched, manic screech that did not sound like him at all. He kneeled down next to the spot where Shanna had disap- peared and started scooping, looking for any sign of her—her shoe, her leg, some sort of proof that she’d really just been there. He pawed at the sand frantically, and then he felt it.

A tug. And it wasn’t from a giant worm or sand-tunneling vole. It was the sand itself, sliding around his wrist, pulling gently at first, then more firmly, furiously; Tom ripped his hand away quickly, and not without a little force. The surface of the beach leveled out, settling back in to rippled circles.

Tom looked around frantically. The whole beach, he had to consider, could be like this. The path through the dunes back to the car was about a yard away. His heart sank as he realized that the parking lot where his Jeep now sat was nothing more than packed sand; he wouldn’t be any safer in his SUV than he was on this thin blanket. He looked down the beach. In the fading sunlight, he looked for the jellyfish carcasses that had mottled their path when he and Shanna had strolled down the shore earlier. He couldn’t see any now. He assumed that the beach had swallowed them up as well.

Tom felt a hot tear escape from the corner of his eye; he was going to die here, suffocated by the sand, he was sure of it. If he even made it to the car without being pulled in to the beach, he would have to act pretty quickly to drive the Jeep out of the lot before the whole vehicle was gulped down into the earth. His car was known to be temperamental on the best of days; one false start and he and the car would be history. He stared at the waves that mocked him from the ocean, lapping at the shore. His romantic night was history. He should have proposed, he thought, chastising himself. Why was he thinking they should wait? Life was short. He should have grabbed on to the chance to marry Shanna while he could, instead of his convoluted plan to “promise” her to marry her “someday”—it sounded lame even to him now, he realized, scowling. He watched the seaweed floating on the waves, winking in and out of sight, mocking him. He was an idiot. And now Shanna was gone, before he could even tell her how stupid he was, how much he loved her …

There was something about the seaweed that distracted Tom from his self-flagellation. It floated in toward him, and then pulled away with the tide again. It floated. Just like Tom would, if he could make it to the sea. He could make a dive for the ocean, and pull his feet up off of the sand, and float to freedom. He’d seen breakwater rocks a little way down, and even now, lights were shining in the seaside mansions that abutted the beach. If he could make it to the water, and swim to the rocks, he could walk his way to safety without stepping once on the dunes that waited to consume him.

Tom breathed deeply, trying to steady his nerves. It was just a short sprint to the ocean. He thought he could make it. Had to believe there was a chance. He pulled off his sneakers and tossed them off the blanket. He counted one, two, three—his sneakers were sucked down with a quick‘bloop!” into the sand. Three full seconds. Tom was pretty sure he could make it to the sea in three seconds. Maybe four.

He couldn’t stay on the blanket for one more moment, he realized in terror. There was nothing to stop the beach from pulling him down where he stood; as if in response to his train of thought, he felt the ground shift beneath him. Here goes nothing, he gulped, and tore away from the blanket toward the darkening ocean. He felt the sand tug at his feet as he ran, lungs burning. His steps became more difficult as he got closer; the sand was pulling hard now, making it seem like Tom was running through mud; he yanked his feet free, diving into the waves headfirst. The water was cool, but not unpleasant; his body warmed up quickly as he swam out further, trying to increase the depth between himself and the seabed below. He started to cry in earnest now, in relief; he had beaten the beach, the crazy, carnivorous stretch of sand that even now he thought he could hear roaring in frustration over his escape.

He looked around while treading water, and spotted the black silhouette of the breakwater rocks to his right. The moon shone brightly now, picking up the phosphorescence on the waves. Tom blinked. The phosphorescence was below the surface, as well, lighting up orb upon orb of drifting jellyfish, lazily swimming through the undertow. He realized his arms were ablaze, and wondered how many tentacles he’d brushed in his frenzied swim to escape the sand; even now, he felt the sting of jellyfish tendrils on his calves as his legs flailed below the surface. He couldn’t stay here among this school of jellies. He kicked out toward the rocks in a frenzied crawl stroke, even as his chest started to seize.

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