The Charred Tree

Somewhere Out There

Cheryl Watson sipped from a corrugated paper cup. It wasn’t that good—just what the hotel provided with the coffee maker—but it was hot and it woke her up. She stood on the room’s balcony overlooking the pounding surf. The windows provided a great view of the beach but the torrents of rain beating against them through the night had made sleep impossible.

The storm moved inland before dawn but left the sky in a gray shroud the same color as the waves. Drops of water that were either fitful remnants of the gale or blown from puddles on the upper balconies pelted across her shoulders and into her chestnut hair. She squinted her eyes against more raindrops and looked up across the ranks of concrete ledges for the source of the shower.

So much for the sun-baked beaches of the Outer Banks, she thought. It was Wednesday morning of their vacation and a tropical storm had kept the beaches closed since their arrival two days before. Cheryl’s aggravation at their ruined plans was only eclipsed by her husband’s teasing her about Tropical Storm Cheryl. She swirled the dregs and drank them down with a grimace. She leaned over the rail and tried to look down the street. Maybe there was a Starbucks nearby.

“Rhoda’s up and getting dressed.” Neal leaned against the rail, his own steaming cup nestled between his hands, and looked out at the waves. “Glad you moved your tempest out of here.”

Cheryl sighed. “Yeah. It was all me. Had to do something about it if I was going to have a chance to work on my tan before we have to go home.”

“Hey, babe, I’m kidding. You know that.”

He moved to put an arm around her but Cheryl shrugged away. “It quit being funny after the first time. Not a big fan of constant kidding.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll stop.”

“Not the first time you’ve said that, either. Don’t tell me you’re going to stop—just do it.” She pushed away from the rail and toward the room. “I’m getting dressed and take Rhoda for a walk on the beach before breakfast. Come if you want.” Cheryl closed the door behind her.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Look, Mom! The seagulls are eating something!” Rhoda pointed and ran. The gulls rose on the wind squawking their displeasure as the little girl approached. Whatever they had been eating was tangled in seaweed well up on the beach.

Neal called over the sound of the booming water. “Don’t touch it, sweetheart. Stay back until we get there.”

“OK!” was the cheery reply. Rhoda picked up a long piece of driftwood and began poking it into the mess.

The couple joined their daughter at the stinking pile of flotsam. A half-eaten horseshoe crab was wrapped in the vegetation. It’s shell was broken and spread wide. The gulls had pulled its stringy innards across the sand. The sour smell of decay mixed with the salt air coming off the ocean.

“Ew! That stinks.” Cheryl waved her hand in front of her nose. “Don’t do anything else to it, Rhoda.” She reached for the girl’s hand.

“It looks like a big spider. See? It has eight legs.”

Neal answered, “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? A really big spider. Almost looks like an alien from one of those scary movies.”

“Which movies, Daddy?” Dark curls blew in the breeze and brown eyes.

“Movies you aren’t big enough to watch yet, Punkin.” He tousled her hair and she giggled.

“That’s right. Those are big people movies.” Before the familiar argument could start Cheryl added, “I think I see some big seashells up ahead. Why don’t you go see what they are?” Rhoda ran to the shells and started gathering the largest ones. By the time the adults walked across the damp sand, there were almost a dozen assorted nautilus, whelk, scallop, and clam shells piled together.

Cheryl knelt and began looking at the variety and colors on the shells as the girl darted off to collect more. “Wow, Rhoda. These will look great on your dresser.” She looked up at Neal. “Maybe the weather wasn’t such a bad thing after all. I doubt she would have found such good shells for her collection without the storm. She’s having a good time today.”

“Maybe. But I should have listened to you and changed our plans. Today doesn’t make up for being cooped up in the rented room for two days.” He turned over a broken sand dollar and shook out the sand.

“Well, we still have half the week and it’s supposed to be sunny and warm after this morning. We can catch a nap out in the sun; maybe make up for the sleep we missed last night.” She smiled at him and reached for his hand. A high pitched squeal cut through the air and they turned toward it; toward their daughter.

Rhoda stood on the bare sand with her hand to her ear. The tiny scream faded as her breath gave out but was renewed after she filled her lungs. They raced to the screaming child. Neal reached her first and slid to a stop in front of her. Cheryl pulled her daughter close.

“Rhoda! What’s wrong?” “Oh, God! What happened?” they yelled over one another. As the second scream began to fade, Neal moved her hand to see what it hid. There was a shining shell in her hand. It fell to the sand.

“Hold on, Baby. Hold on. Let me see what’s wrong. Can you tell us what happened?” Neal tried to calm her while inspecting her neck and ear and finding nothing except a tiny drop of blood on the collar of her pink shirt.

“Shhh. Shhh. It’s OK, Honey. We’re here. Tell us what happened.” Cheryl rocked to quiet her.

“There was a voice in the shell. It said things through the ocean sound.” Rhoda’s eyes began to droop.

“A voice? What? Who talked to you?” Cheryl looked around but the beach was empty.

Rhoda’s eyes closed and her voice began to slurred. “Tha voice…shell…in th’ocean…bahd thin’s…fightin’….” She went limp in her mother’s arms.

“Oh God! My baby!” Cheryl screamed. “What’s happened to her?”

Neal felt at Rhoda’s neck and found a fast pulse. “I don’t know but we need to get her to a hospital and fast. Give her to me and I’ll take her!” He took his daughter from his wife and ran for their car. Cheryl kept up as best she could.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Camry beeped to announce that it was unlocked. Neal yanked the rear door open and laid his daughter in the back seat as Cheryl reached the end of the boardwalk over the dunes. He looked around the parking lot and saw a man in a teal Ease Suites polo shirt.

“Hey! Buddy! Where’s the hospital?” he yelled.

“Straight out the parking lot to the light on Highway 12. Take a left and it’s a mile and a bit on the right.” The man noticed the girl’s feet through the open door. “Let me call an ambulance.” He turned to the entrance.

“No. I’ll be at the emergency room before they could get here. Thanks!” Neal made sure his daughter’s feet were clear and closed the door. Cheryl climbed into the back seat on the passenger side. He started the car and pebbles flew as the Camry left sped off.

They were speeding through traffic a half mile from the hospital when Rhoda’s eyes flew open and she sat up. Cheryl shrieked in surprise and Neal almost sideswiped a Wrangler. The owner of the Jeep blared the horn and fingered the international sign of contempt through the window. Neal waved his apology and pulled onto the shoulder.

“Oh, my baby!” Cheryl cried and hugged Rhoda to her chest.

Neal turned in the seat. “You OK, baby girl?”

Rhoda pushed her mother away and sat upright. She stared first at Cheryl and then at Neal through emotionless eyes, her face blank.

“Rhoda?” Cheryl sounded small and scared.

“Are you this one’s…parents?” The voice was their daughter’s but the dull eyes and blank face were not.

They looked at one another; she frightened, he confused. Cheryl said, “Of course we’re your parents.”

Rhoda closed her eyes. Several seconds later they opened. “Where is our…pi’icith’ryatl…” her brow furrowed in concentration. “…our ship?”

“Honey, what are you talking about?” Cheryl’s voice cracked. Neal felt sweat break on his forehead.

Rhoda’s face turned to him. “This one’s body is under our control. Do as we instruct and she will not be harmed. We do not wish to harm this one. You must take us to a place we will show you. Do you understand?”

“Oh, no, no, no….” Cheryl cried and broke into sobs.

Neal nodded. “Yes. Please don’t hurt my daughter.” His voice rasped. He swallowed. “Where do you come from?”

The eyes closed for a few seconds and then stared straight into Neal’s. “Not here. Somewhere…else. Somewhere…out there. Now drive. South.”

;

Author’s Note: This vignette was written in response to an Inspiration Monday prompt.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

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7 thoughts on “Somewhere Out There

  1. An excellently intense piece – the arguing couple helps keep the heat up nicely.

    • Thanks! This was the one where I spent 45 minutes looking for an ancient Egyptian word…and ended up making something up that (hopefully) sounds a bit Aztec/Mayan. 😉

  2. Wooooah. Tense. Gripping! Creepy! I’m loving it.

  3. Thanks, Steph! Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Inspiration Monday: things you can’t hide « BeKindRewrite

  5. Great story! Now I need to find out what happens next!

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