Abel leaned back in the wicker chair and sighed. The wood creaked under his shifting weight, and the sound echoed obnoxiously down the dark hall. The only light in the house came from the kitchen behind him. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling, and it flickered periodically, casting the lazy shadows of household items over the painted walls.
It was always around this time of night when Abel started to get hungry, and he cursed his own stupidity for not bringing anything more than a cup of coffee along with him tonight, which was now long gone. The house was empty for eight months out of the year, and the season for tourists had only just begun. The owners of the vacation house hadn't been by to restock the cabinets for visitors.
But Abel Kristensen was no passport-toting tourist, and he wasn't on Blackwater Island for pleasure. This furlough was purely for business.
He checked his watch. It had only been ten minutes since the last time he checked, even though it felt to him that it should have been at least thirty. Time passes strangely in the middle of the night when all the world has gone to sleep and the shadows have free reign. The middle of the night is also when the mind best plays tricks on itself, filling the night's silence with its own imaginings.
He had to move around, or he was convinced that he would go crazy. Sitting in the dark and waiting for something—anything—to happen was going to get him nowhere.
He really wanted a cigarette. He had tried to quit two years ago, but the attempt ended nearly as quickly as it had begun. And tonight his idleness was driving his nicotine cravings to the point where he simply couldn't resist, lest he lose grip of his sanity.
The wicker chair squealed as he stood to his feet and headed down the hall toward the back door. The dull thud of his shoes against the wood floor was the only sound in the house.
The back door was unlocked just like all the others had been. There was never any sign of a break-in or foul play. There were never signs of anything, really. Not in a single case. They just… ceased to exist.
Humid sea air greeted Abel as he stepped onto the back porch. He could feel the salt already sticking to his skin, and he knew that he would start sweating in a minute despite it being nearly three in the morning. But he told himself that he would be back inside soon enough, he just wanted one cigarette. Two. Two cigarettes.
The cardboard pack was slightly crushed from residing in his jacket pocket, but he didn't care. He opened it and shook out a cigarette, glowing white in the hazy moonlight. He rolled it between his fingers while he dug in his back pocket for a lighter, then leaned his elbows onto the railing of the deck as he lit it.
You smoke too much, Daddy…
I know, baby…
You promised you'd quit…
I know, baby…
Abel tapped the cigarette with his thumb and watched the ashes scatter in the breeze. None of it made sense. The tourist disappearances had been going on for years, but the police had never been able to come up with a single legitimate suspect or theory that held any water. Whoever it was that was behind this was good. They only struck during the heaviest tourism months. There was never evidence left at the scene. Never any witnesses. No bodies. Nothing for the police to go on.
Abel had taken the lead on the case over a year ago. The fact that he had nothing to show for his months of work made him want to tear his hair out. The department was desperate. He was desperate. Hence why he had packed a bag and moved into this house three days ago. It fit perfectly with the M.O. The house was isolated, doors unlocked, and was close enough to the waves that he could practically feel the ocean spray on his face.
It was a crazy idea. It probably wouldn't work. But he had to try something, and at this point, anything was better than nothing.
He ran a hand over his jaw and frowned. He really needed to shave, the dark stubble was itching him horribly, but he just couldn't quite bring himself to do it. Maybe it was the fact that he had been up for three nights in a row. But it could just as well be the fact that he didn't think he could possibly care less right now. Nothing had really mattered for a long time, nothing but trying to get something to stick to this case.
The night was so dark that Abel could barely see the line where the ocean and the sand met. He took one last drag before snuffing the spent cigarette out on the railing. He wasted no time in retrieving another one and lighting it.
Daddy but you promised…
I know I did, and I told you I would…
Abel hung his head and groaned. He slowly set the fresh cigarette down, but he didn't put it out. The end glowed faintly in the dark, and he watched it quietly.
The waves lapped against the shore. To his ears, they sounded like a dirge. How appropriate, he thought.
The breeze tossed his hair over his forehead, but some of the hair stubbornly clung to his skin. The humidity was annoying, but anything was better than sitting in a dark hallway doing nothing.
He pulled out his phone and squinted his eyes at the bright light. The glowing screen displayed the time, and Abel frowned. It should be a crime for someone to be up at this hour, he thought. Maybe I ought to arrest myself then?
He smirked at his own joke and carefully lowered himself to sit on the deck, his back resting against the wooden railing and facing the ocean. He unlocked his phone and started mindlessly scrolling through the screens of apps he never used. He had no idea why he had downloaded them in the first place. He didn't read the news, it was always the same: "The World Is On Fire And We Can Do Nothing About It," and yet he couldn't bother to delete the app. So it stayed, untouched, just like all the others.
He must have zoned out while he was scrolling, because he couldn't remember opening his voicemail, and yet it was open all the same. He had three unopened messages, but he didn't pay them any mind. Instead, he scrolled down to the bottom of the list and found himself tapping on the last message. He robotically raised the phone to his ear and listened.
The message began to play. There was a quiet rustling in the background and some nondescript mumbling, then a high-pitched laugh heralded singing.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you! Happy birthday dear Daddy, happy birthday to you!
"It's not fair that you have to work on your birthday, so Mommy said I could call you and sing for you! I really miss you! I'm going to stay up all night so I can see you when you come home, but don't tell Mommy, she won't like it. I miss you Daddy! Come home soon!
"Mommy, I can't wait to give Daddy his birthd—"
The message went silent. Abel still held his phone to his ear, unable to let himself put it down.
He didn't have to look at the screen. His thumb found the button by itself.
He heard the familiar rustling begin again, and then the mumbling. Then the laugh. In truth, he didn't need to listen to the message. He knew it by heart. It was seared into his mind in an endless loop. But he listened to it anyway.
Why did he always do this? What was it for? A penance of some sort? He didn't know, and he didn't have the heart to try and find out.
The message went silent. He played it again.
Abel jerked his head up. He blinked back at the darkness. He was stiff. And cold. He didn't remember lowering his phone and turning it off. He didn't remember setting it down on the wooden beams next to his feet. He certainly didn't remember falling asleep.
He felt like he had a wad of cotton stuffed in his mouth and his skull was pounding. He scrubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and dragged his fingers down his face, which was damp with clammy sweat. How could he have been so careless, to fall asleep while waiting for a kidnapper—and possible murderer—to show up?
He cursed and slammed the heel of his shoe against the deck with a loud crack in an explosion of frustration. This was worse than a rookie mistake, not even the newest academy graduate would have let himself go like this. What was he doing?
It was just as his ex-wife had said. He was a sorry excuse for a cop and a sorry excuse for a man. Nothing was going to change that.
Abel's shoulders slumped forward weakly. He was so pathetic.
After a few moments, his fingers slid over to his phone. He tilted it toward him, and the screen lit up. The image that was on the screen had been there for years, but it still held sway over him. The memory swept into his mind like a tsunami. He could hear the radio playing in the background, some popular number that he didn't know the name of but grasped enough of the melody to hum along. He could smell the fresh grass stains and the sunshine. He could feel her weight resting on his shoulders, her arms wrapped around his head as she held on. Her contagious laugh rang in his ears.
It was almost as if he could actually hear it…
Abel's heart skipped a beat.
He did hear it.
He shook his head violently to clear the cobwebs from his mind. Hearing things was definitely a sign that he had been awake for far too long.
But… it sounded so real…
Abel pressed his palms against his face and took a deep breath. Calm down, he said to himself, take a minute and pull yourself together.
He bit his lip and sighed. It's high time I went home. I'm wasting my time here.
Slowly Abel got to his feet, snatching his phone up from where it sat next to him. He moved to slide it into his pocket when he heard something which simultaneously made his blood run cold and his heart leap out of his chest.
His phone slipped through his fingers and clattered to the ground. He didn't hear it fall.
His lips quivered, his eyes went wide.
It truly was impossible. And yet here it was. Her voice. Just as clear and alive as it had been all those years ago.
"Daddy, I made you a birthday present! Come and see!"
Her voice was coming from behind him, laced together with the steady lapping of ocean waves on the shore.
It didn't make any sense. This couldn't be happening. She was—
An all-too-familiar melody lilted over the sand and to his ears. "Happy birthday to you…"
The words were like a punch to his gut. There was no questioning it. That was the voice of his daughter, but it was all wrong. He couldn't be hearing it. He shouldn't be hearing it. But many a night had he stayed awake alone in the dark, thinking about what he wouldn't give to hear it just one more time. And now…
"Happy birthday to you…"
He tried to think, but his brain felt as if it were wading through a vat of sludge. All he could do was let his eyes drift closed and allow tears of euphoria fall down his cheeks as he listened in rapture.
"Happy birthday dear Daddy…"
A sob caught in his throat. This was truly the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.
He felt the railing slide under his hand, the weathered surface biting into his skin, as his feet dragged over the wooden floor of the deck. His hand found the gate's latch on its own accord, and it swung open with a piercing squeal.
"Happy birthday to you!"
Laughter danced on the wind as the gusts slung stinging sand against Abel's cheek. A quiet voice in the very bowels of his mind began to stir. It was his own.
Be careful when you are on the shore at night, it said, or the sirens will sing their song and you'll be dragged down to the depths, never to be seen by mortal eyes again.
That was what he had told his daughter once before as he tucked her into bed one night. He didn't mean any of it, but perhaps he had spoken more truth in the moment than he thought he had.
A whisper of "I love you Daddy" sent the remnant of a memory to flight.
The early afternoon sun glistened on the waves, which rolled in and out incessantly. Seagulls called to each other as they drifted lazily on the breeze. A crab or two scuttled between their holes in the sand. There wasn't a soul on the beach, as the season for tourists had only scarcely begun.
The only signs of human life were two spent cigarette butts that rolled back and forth on the railing of the deck of a house, one snuffed out and the other left to burn away, forgotten.
A cracked cell phone vibrated against the wooden deck once, twice, three times, before falling silent. An alert popped onto the screen, raising the tally of unopened voicemails to sixteen. A moment later, a text message from someone named "James Luther" appeared. It read: "Kristensen, you'd better have a good reason to not be in if you don't want Captain Gardner to kill you next time he sees you." Another message followed it, saying: "Seriously, you've never missed a day, I'm getting worried." There was a short pause before a third message was received. "Where are you?"
The waves lapped gently at the shoreline. The warm sea breeze carried a breathy and haunting melody over the water and sand. There were no words in the air, but that was just as well, as there was no ear to hear that deadly song that seeped from the sea.
Two days later, the newspaper ran a story that took up much of the front page. The headline, printed in large black letters read: "Detective Missing, Connected to Wave of Unsolved Disappearances in Shoreline Communities, Police Baffled As One of Their Own Adds to Tally".