My eyes open suddenly, going automatically to the clock on the bedside table. The numbers read five o'clock exactly. Why am I awake? Yesterday was Friday, and since there is no school I always sleep in on weekends. Usually I sleep until nine or even ten if there isn't something to wake me up.
And yet, I am awake.
I lie still for several long moments, not moving from my position under the covers of my narrow bed: pajama-clad legs drawn up until my knees are about a foot away from my chest, one arm holding my teddy bear under my chin so that the soft velvety material of its skin rubbed my throat, the other arm thrown wide with my wrist and hand hanging off the edge of the bed.
The house is still and silent. My parents have not roused themselves to stumble down the stairs and begin making coffee, and my sister is sound asleep in her room across the hall from mine. There is no noise that could have awakened me from my slumber.
I move my hand to push my hair away from my face and the spell of stillness is broken. Pushing the blanket and covers back, I sit up in bed, still holding my worn teddy bear in my arms. I had dreamed that I was a seagull flying above the ocean. Could dreaming have made me wake up? But no, that didn't make sense. It is only from nightmares that I will wake suddenly, usually just before I die. The seagull-dream had been pleasant, not something to wake from.
The window is located right beside my bed. I turn and look through the glass, and see nothing but greyness. A fog had come in during the night, thick and heavy. It concealed from me the narrow, winding pathway of crushed white seashells that led down the cliffs to Liar's Beach, the short green turf that covered the ground, and the edge of the cliffs that are not even fifty yards from my house.
So what if there is a fog? I study my nails, covered with patches of just-paler-than-sky-blue paint. I am rough on my hands and the paint always chips and cracks, with flakes breaking off. It has been scarcely a week since I painted my nails and already they are ruined. My mind wanders away from my fingernails. For some reason, I feel as though I am evading the true issue.
There is a restlessness in me today. Most mornings I would be content to go back to sleep and slumber for a few more hours, or else read a book quietly until my parents and sister had woken up. But now I want to move. I want to go somewhere.
I get out of bed and quietly exit my room, finding my sister's door ajar. Peeking inside, I find her asleep. My parents, who have slept with their door open since my older sister was born, are the same. Oblivious to the world. And yet… it is I who is awake and aware. None of them have been kidnapped from sleep and brought back to the waking world as I have. Why me?
I drift down the stairs and come to the kitchen. Our dog, Foxy Lady, is asleep under the table with the cat, Riddle. If no-one else, the animals should have known that someone was awake in the house. They are more alert than my parents or my sister. If I had used every bit of stealth in my possession and been completely soundless, Foxy Lady would have woken up and known I was in the room. And yet… she sleeps as though dead to the world.
I want to whisper to the hound, to rouse her, but the words catch in my throat. A stillness, a watchful silence, has settled over the house. It feels somehow… wrong… that I should wake Foxy. I am the only one meant to be awake. Why is that?
I study the two animals for a moment more, then head onwards to the living room. Someone had left the wood door open during the night, with only the screen door as a barrier. Mist rolls into the room in clouds, cold and damp. I walk through it, feeling its chill moisture caress the bare skin of my feet and ankles. My hands find the doorlatch and raise it, opening the screen door. Contrary to its usual screeching protest at this act, the door is completely and utterly silent. It swings easily and without a sound. Had my father finally gotten around to oiling the hinges after a decade of procrastination?
I step through the door and let it fall shut behind me. The sound it makes as it slaps against the doorframe is not loud, but by all rights it should have had Foxy Lady up and howling. But in the house behind me there is no sound, and the dog in the kitchen sleeps on as though she has been struck deaf.
The cement porch is cold under my bare feet. The mist is so thick that I can barely see five feet in front of my face. My sandals are waiting for me beside the door, old and worn and comfortable. How many times had I worn them as I walked the long length of Liar's Beach in the early morning, looking for shells and sea glass as the sun rose? A number behind reckoning. I slip them on, do the tarnished brass buckles up and flex my toes once, then step out onto the path of crushed white shells. The air around me is silent. The only sound I hear is that of my own breathing and the crunch of my sandals on the path. The fog is so thick that I cannot see the sky, and after about ten feet or so I cannot see the house behind me. My world has narrowed down to the twisting path of white shell shards, the green of the turf around it, and the pale grey nothingness of the mist.
I walk and walk. The world around me does not change, save that the path becomes steeper. Eventually it becomes a series of long steps, each one defined by a squared log of splintery grey-brown wood. I reach the edge of the cliffs. They are twenty feet tall, and the seashell path becomes switchback and twisting to descend them safely. There is no railing. I walk down the high and narrow white pathway, listening to the muffled roar of the sea growing stronger. No gulls cry, though they should have been awake by now. Why does everything seem to be asleep in the world save me?
My sandals touch down upon wet sand. It is high tide and the waves lap against the edge of the steep black cliffs. The sea comes against me with a rush, spilling cold water into my sandals and quickly setting about the task of numbing my feet until I cannot feel my toes. I wrap my arms around my midsection and shiver slightly.
What had drawn me to this place, and at this time? Oft I had thought of Liar's Beach as a cheerful place. Many things washed up upon the shore here and it had been my delight as a young child to discover and collect them. I had spent hours every day exploring this mile-long stretch of sand, laughing and with the wind blowing my hair about my face.
But now the Beach seems cold and cheerless. There is no wind dispelling the mist and the gulls do not cry above my head. The fog presses in close about me and the only sound is the strangely mournful, inhuman roar of the sea to my left. The sand is more grey than yellow, and there are no shells spotting its wave-smoothed surface. This is not the place that holds my memories of sea-swimming and shell-finding.
I turn to look behind me and see that the fog has thickened even more, so that the ending of the seashell path is concealed from my view, as though it had never existed. Suddenly, I know in my heart that I have come too far to have any hope of going back.
It is only now that I begin to feel afraid. What was it that had awakened me and made it so that all members of my family were asleep while I was not? What had prevented Foxy Lady from barking? What force had drawn me down the seashell path and to this strange place that I had once known as Liar's Beach? Suddenly I felt cold and alone, and pressed my back against the rough, damp black rock of the cliff face. The moisture clinging to the stone soaks through the T-shirt I had worn to bed and chills my skin. I feel afraid.
I stand there for many long moments, watching and waiting and feeling the blood rush in my ears. I could feel my heart hammering in my chest and it seemed that sinister shapes formed in the greyness of the fog, leering evilly at me and then dissolving into the nothingness that they had come from. Nothing, however, becomes solid and real. The fog does not dissipate and the only sound is the muted roar of the ocean. The waves continue lapping about my ankles and numbing my feet. Finally, however, the fear fades back to whatever dark recesses of my mind it had come from. There seems to be nothing here to harm me.
I turn and look back once more. The beginning of the seashell path that would have lead me back to my family's home is still concealed from my view, but the feeling of being cut off from them frightens me no longer. I have walked Liar's Beach many times, and I could find my way back to the safety of my bedroom if I so wished.
But that is not what I wish for. No. I have no desire to return there as of now. The call of Liar's Beach and the sea is still thrumming strong in my bones, echoing in my mind over and over, urgent and insistent. I turn and walk along the grey sand, the fog and the waves and the sand my only companions. I walk and there is a feeling of strange unease in my stomach, for the fear, once it had come, had never entirely deserted me.
Huge pieces of stone dot the beach, looming up out of the fog like the broken ends of statues, their surfaces as black as the cliffs. The wind and the waves have carved them strangely, and some of them appear to have faces if you look at them the right way. The first such stone I come to I nearly stumble into, the fog is so thick. Glancing at it I see a bearded king with a broken crown atop his head, draped with long strands of dark green seaweed. The stone king's face is solemn, and out of one of the two deep holes that I have always seen as its eyes a tiny crab crawls. It waves one of its pincers at me, and I walk on.
The waves slosh against my ankles, and eventually I take my sandals off. The sand is cold against my feet, wet and grainy and coating the pale flesh of my extremities. The waves going up and down the beach wash away each print I make in the cold wet sand, as though I had never walked Liar's Beach at all.
After what could have been a few minutes, or perhaps an eternity, I come to the second of the stone heads. This one is the hound, its muzzle pointed toward the sea, one of its stumpy black ears broken off, a deep gash on the back of its misshapen head. When I brush my hands against the stone in passing it is cold and clammy to the touch.
I move beyond it without stopping and continue on. The mist, as ever, wraps itself around me like a cold, damp blanket. The sea has numbed my feet until I can barely feel my toes. Sand crusts the wet endings of my pajama pants. Goosebumps spread across my skin, and my hair is damp. I walk on, down the length of Liar's Beach, wondering what could possibly await me on this cold and misty morning.
After what seemed an hour I come to the third and last of the stone heads, an ugly old man whose scowling face I had feared to look upon as a young child. And there was a person seated atop the old man's stone head.
Perhaps person is the wrong word. Certainly the humanoid had the same general placement of limbs and facial appearance of a human. She, for it was most definitely a she, had skin that could be likened to alabaster, and long hair that fell down past her waist that was seaweed green in color. The long green hair pooled in her lap and fell around her form like a curtain. Her eyes were a murky blue, and she had no nose. There were dark slits for nostrils in the middle of her pale face, and long rents in her neck for gills. Her toes were as long as my fingers and delicately webbed, and her own fingers were twice as long as mine and webbed as well. She was also naked, a fact that made a blush flame my cheeks in embarrassment, but she had all the sexual aspects of some storefront mannequin and it was merely my own childish views that caused the reddening of my face.
I stopped perhaps three feet away from her, for the density of the mist allowed me to stay no further away without the strange creature being lost to my sight, and looked at her. The being looked at me in return, and we did not speak for many minutes. Was I afraid? I do not think so, not then. She had no weapons that I could see, and was merely sitting silently on a rock.
Then the creature opened its mouth, and I realized that it had a long pink tongue and several rows of delicate, needle-like teeth that reminded me of a shark's, save that these were smaller. I would have taken a step back, but could not, for the idea of running away was just as terrifying as staying. A creature with webbed feet could not run very fast, but the idea of being pursued through the mist by a feminine monster with a fang-filled maw shook me to the core. So I stayed rooted to the spot, and said nothing, though I confess to a tiny croak of surprise and newborn fear escaping me. But that was the only sound I made.
The creature made noise, soft sounds that sounded almost like the sea, but far quieter. In my ears I understood them not, but they came to the forefront of my mind as English words:
You have been summoned.
I did not move, and gave no indication that I had heard or understood her, save that my eyes went wide and large as saucers as my mind understood her speech though my ears did not. She stepped away from the rock and stood, and I realized that she was nearly eight feet tall, and her long green hair fell down to her knees. She stretched out a webbed hand to me.
The Sea calls. Come.
Again, the soft ocean-noises came from her mouth in a breathy sigh, and the murky blue eyes with their slitted pupils looked down at me. She was close to me now, and she smelled like the ocean itself.
"I don't understand," I found myself whispering, for though the strange sea-creature was large it seemed benign, and a measure of trust was slowly forming. The blue eyes, strange and inhuman, filled with what could only be called pity.
Your understanding matters not. You were meant to swim below the waves, not walk upon the land. Come with me.
"But what of my parents?"
"What of my sister?"
"What of my dog?"
"My home, my friends, my teachers, my school, my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts, my cousins, my home? Do you say that I should abandon them all to swim in the sea?"
The strange sea-woman did not respond again with her single, insistent word, but instead bent and walked slowly around the base of the scowling stone head. Her webbed feet made her walking look slow and painful. It was tempting, now, to simply run back the way I had come. Watching her walk had given me some courage, for I was sure I could outdistance her easily now, and her back was turned to me.
But I did not do so, and could only watch as she slowly bent and picked things up from the sand, and reached her fingers into the deep holes that were the stone-man's eyes. She found tiny shells, and pieces of sea glass, and an old coin with a hole in it. She plucked a long green hair from her head and strung the objects onto the hair, and tied a knot in it, and carefully draped the necklace over my head so that it fell onto my shoulders. The single hair was amazingly strong and did not break.
"What is this?" I asked, touching the necklace with one hand.
She reached out her hand again, and the necklace seemed to grow warm at my throat. I reached out my own hand to her, and her hand was strong and cold and wet. She gripped my wrist and gently led me towards the sea, walking in her slow and painful way. The sea sloshed about my ankles, and then my knees, and finally it surged around my waist. The force of its mindless rush upon the shore was so strong I would have been bowled over had I stood alone, but the sea-woman merely gripped my other wrist and held me upright so that I would not fall and be swept away.
And when the cold saltwater reached my chest, the sea-woman bent and dove headlong into the waves, taking her with me.
It was during a morning with heavy fog that Raina Hobb, aged fifteen, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Several days later she was found, her body washed up on a piece of land known locally as Liar's Beach. She was wearing pajama pants, a T-shirt, and a homemade necklace with glass and shells strung on it. Police suspect suicide.