The beach was a fairly small one, and the village built around it – the village where I grew up – was not much bigger, so I suppose it was a pretty big deal when everybody woke up and found… you know, found it washed up that day. I mean, it took up most of the beach. Hardly something you could stop and sniff at for a bit before kicking it back into the surf. It stank, too. Not just the way dead things stink, either, or the way seaweed stinks when it’s high tide. This was something else; something that almost made you throw up the second it hit you. A fair few people did, actually. It was surreal. A beautiful crisp morning with a bright orange sunrise over a blue sea, like you see in all those inspirational posters – and in the middle of it all, a hulking, oily mass of rotting blubber, slowly oozing tar-black blood all over the white sand, surrounded by about twenty people, some of whom were oozing a good bit themselves.
I wasn’t though. To tell you the truth, I was kind of excited, in a sick sort of way. I was the sort of kid who hated living in such a small place. I was just about the only person under the age of twenty in that village, not counting a toddler or two, and I couldn’t wait to leave. I had everything planned out. I knew exactly how it would go. That’s what I used to tell myself.
Of course, really I didn’t have the slightest clue, and I think part of me knew that as well. So when everyone started kicking up a big fuss about this thing, naturally I wanted in on it. Honestly, I probably would have welcomed the bloody Blitz if it had meant seeing something new. There had been seals and the occasional dolphin beached here before, but never a whale. So I went around taking pictures of it from all angles like everyone else, dancing around smears of oil and chunks of blubber. I remember that very clearly – no one made any attempt to touch it. I suppose that would have been the case anyway, but even the seagulls were staying away. Have you ever seen the sort of seagulls you get on beaches like that? The minute anything dies on a beach, rest assured they’ll be the first ones lining up to pay their respects. But with this thing, they didn’t even show. No crabs, either. Not even any flies.
It was the day after it showed up that I started getting nervous. The thing was, everyone seemed to have forgotten about it. I don’t mean they just weren’t talking about it. When people walked past the beach, they didn’t even turn their heads. It was like it had morphed into a lamppost, or a boulder. Except it hadn’t. It was still there, still leaking and glistening in the cold, watery sunlight.
But it had changed. As the days went on, it changed every day. Not into a lamppost or anything, obviously. It was more like…I don’t know. The first day, it looked like it had been dashed up on the rocks somehow. There were gashes all over it, and a big hole where all its guts had spilled out and sprawled on the sand. But the next time I saw it, there weren’t as many scrapes. The hole in the side was still there, but all of the guts were gone, as if someone had come along and shoved them back in somehow. And stuff like that just kept happening. Every day I went to see it, something changed. One day it would be on its back with its fins sliced off cleanly. The next day the fins would be back on, but the eyes would be put out. It became a sort of obsession of mine. I mean, what else was there for me to do? I started getting off at an earlier stop every day coming home from school, just so I could walk to the beach and see it up close. No one ever asked me where I had been. No one posted the pictures they took on Facebook or anything either. I took tons of photographs myself. Each and every one of them, black. Like, not blank, black. I just couldn’t explain it. Sometimes the photo would take, showing the awful carcass for a minute or so before fading to black, like the ending of a really disappointing horror film. Sometimes it wouldn’t even take at all. Once or twice I ended up taking a photo of the beached thing as it had looked two days ago. And all this time, no one noticed. In that village, people usually noticed everything. Gossip was everywhere. Your business is my business, that sort of thing. But nobody ever questioned me, let alone went down to the beach themselves. Every evening I would walk the strand, the beached nightmare looming ahead of me, with not a living soul in sight. I would go home and eat dinner with that smell still in my nostrils, and my mother would ask about school and my father would hum nonsense while stirring the gravy and nobody would mention the thing on the beach. This went on for almost three weeks.
It happened on a Sunday. That’s probably why I didn’t notice all that much when I woke up to find the house empty. I had been left behind by my family before when they went to church. I remember I was making toast when I saw people making their way down to the beach, out of the corner of my eye. I had gotten into such a routine by then that I barely noticed them at first. When I did…well, I ran right down there. Still in my pyjamas, I remember that.
By the time I reached the beach, half of them were only heads in the water, and still walking. The carcass was gone. I just stood there gawping at the place where it used to lie, while everyone I knew walked into the ocean. I didn’t even try to stop them. I stood there in my pyjamas in the misty spring rain and watched. There was no trace left on the sand. No oil, no blood, not even a pattern in the sand. The breakers swept seaweed up along the shoreline and over the footsteps they left. It barely took any time at all. Like I said, it was a small village. And a smaller beach.
I lived in a ghost village for another week or so after that. What else could I do? I couldn’t drive, and the nearest town was almost a day’s walk away for a kid. I emptied the fridge and took packets of biscuits from the local newsagents and stopped sleeping. Every day I sat on the beach. I couldn’t tell you if I was waiting, or what I was waiting for. Maybe I just wanted to walk into the sea myself. I probably would have died in that village. But then they came back.
They came back just the same. Oh, but their eyes…they changed. They changed every day. Just like that thing did.
They were faster too. Thank God for hitchhiking, right?