Old Debts

by David Bowlin

I remember when the first body washed up on the beach. How could I forget? I almost stepped on the bloated little thing before I realized what it was. The foggy darkness combined with my alcohol-induced daze had put a veil deep enough over my eyes to hide a passing elephant herd.

This night had started like any other of a thousand nights, with me sitting in my car after a long, futile day at work, wondering where I could go besides home. As usual, I ended up at Larry's, an ill-lighted little pub about two miles from work and - more importantly - in exactly the opposite direction of my house. I had an enormous round of drinks with my best friend of the past four years, Mr. Jack Daniels. Straight, with a slice of lemon, another for a chaser. My usual. Larry, the owner, began pouring them as soon as I walked in, and didn't stop until I had 16 of them down my throat. He always knows how many I'll have, which is always 16. No special reason for this, it's just enough to make things simple for me and Larry, and equally enough to make sure that I will sleep through the night without the dreams.

Well, usually.

On this night particular night, I had left Larry's in the usual way, which is pretty drunk and out the front door. This time, however, my car wasn't there waiting for me. Hmmm, should've paid the collection of parking tickets I had managed to collect over the past few years. I thought about calling my wife. She'd give me a ride home. She had done it more than once, but she really didn't deserve this again. I thought about waiting for a cab, figured I would just get sick in the back seat, and end up paying for a good cleaning along with the inflated cab fee, and so decided that the night air and a long walk was probably what I really needed after all.

I stumbled behind Larry's shack and into the foggy gloom beyond. The tide was higher than usual tonight, a testament of the recent storms that we'd had. Almost immediately slimy seaweed coated my shoes, soaked into my feet. Larry's Pub wasn't the classiest place in town, but you sure couldn't get any closer to the water without getting wet. The moon was surrounded by a cushy halo of fog and clouds, and it gave an eerie glow to the waves crashing violently against the beach. With each thunderous crash of the waves, the ocean greedily sucked the water and sand back into its thirsty, greedy self. Crash, slam, crash suuuuck, Crash, slam, crash suuuuck, Crash, slam... You'd think I would get used to that sound after living here all my life, but I swear I never will. The ocean is alive, a living, breathing demon that is forever trying to pull us into its gaping maw, eating away at our safety zone, our dry land, inch by inch. You can almost feel the hatred and hunger it gives off. If you don't believe me, go for a walk along the water's edge at night, alone. You'll hear what I mean, and you'll agree with me. No, not in the open, but in your soul you'll agree. The ocean is forever hungry, and after it eats its prey, sometimes it throws the leftovers back up, just to make sure we get the picture.

Like it did this time.

Like I said, I almost stepped on the body before I saw it. My mind was about sixteen thousand miles away, somewhere in the mountains of Fiji, in a dark, dry cave with a small fire and a cooler full of any type of eighty-proof alcoholic beverage and a good book. It would be raining there outside my humble cave, thunder smashing the clouds into the ground, the lightning tormenting the sky with its electric fingers. My escape, my fantasy. Huh, maybe I'd even write a book myself.

I stumbled over a piece of driftwood that was half in, half out of the water, managed to get my balance, and looked down just in time to sidestep away from what I thought was another piece of the storm's fury making its way back to the dry land. I cursed, started to kick the rotted old thing out of my way, and saw two wide white eyes staring at me.

God, nothing will sober a drunken man faster than a ghost from the past come to collect old debts. I knew the face that was staring up at me, knew it better than I knew my own. Daniel Stevens. Little nine-year-old Daniel Stevens. His dark hair was matted to his round, brown face, his mouth open and full of water. His almost-naked body had chunks of flesh missing from it in some places, bloated in others, but his face was perfectly intact. Not a hair was missing, I'd swear to it. One arm was gone from the elbow down, the other stripped of all flesh down to the bone, his stomach ripped to shreds, but his face, my god, his face was perfect, angelic, sickly beautiful.

I don't know how long I stood there with my leg cocked back, ready to kick what at I first thought was driftwood, but when I was able to breathe again, I turned, took three steps back toward Larry's, and passed out, landing face first in my own vomit. I came to seconds later, weakly looked back over my shoulder to make sure I hadn't dreamed or imagined little Danny Stevens, and as quickly as I could I crawled up the beach to Larry's Pub, praying to God and cursing Him at the same time.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that the patrons of Larry's have seen me on all fours more than once in the past few years, but as I stumbled through the door on hands and knees this time every head turned, every chair emptied, and twenty pairs of legs ran straight toward me. I guess I must have looked worse than I felt, if that was possible. Either way, a few strong men carried me the rest of the way inside, and managed to lay me across the bar, wiping the tears, vomit and sweat from my face with their own shirtsleeves.

"Brian, dear God, what happened?" The voice of Pete Tomble, seeming to come from somewhere around Oz, hey how's the wizard doin', seen Toto lately?

"That ain't no reg'lar drunk sickness, y'all", whined Bret Cravens, looking anxiously around the room, then back at me "Git a doctor in here, Larry. Man's bad, he's bad sick, Maybe he gonna die, you think?"

The room was suddenly too crowded, too hot. I tried to rip my shirt open, to kick off my waterlogged shoes, and the faithful patrons of Larry's Pub mistook all this for a convulsion. Pete grabbed my head, shoved his face against mine, and blew stinking onion-and-ham infested breath into my mouth, making me immediately cough and gag. I stopped trying to get my shoes off, and had the sudden urge to just leave my shirt the way it was. "Beach," I wheezed, coughing and gagging on the last of Pete's roadkill breath. "Beach, oh god." I doubled over, remembering the way those perfect little eyes stared up at me, accusingly, knowingly. The tears were streaming down my face again, but this time I wasn't sure if it was from fear and shock, or the horrid taste of partially digested onions and ham still burning in my lungs.

Larry shoved his way through the crowd of quiet onlookers, using his massively powerful arms to effectively displace anyone who was foolish enough not to move fast enough. "What about the beach, Brian? You get hurt on the beach? Someone smash yer face out back?" Immediately the rumors started to fly through the room "Brian got mugged on the beach! Hey didja hear that, someone robbed Brian out back, just took his money and beat his face in!"

With a roar that sounded like Gabriel's trumpet on the Last Day, Larry returned the bar to the silence of a crypt, with "Shut up, you fools!" He leaned over me once again, and, incredibly, whispered, "Brian, what happened? Tell me what happened, You need a doctor?"

"Oh god, Larry, oh god." I hung my head over the bar and emptied the last of the liquor and lemons on Larry's spotless hardwood floor, I began shaking involuntarily, and felt Larry's massive arms fold around me. After a minute or more, I was able to talk again without my teeth chattering. "The b-beach, oh God, he's there on the beach. Down by the t-t-track. Dead, God, oh god he's dead, he's dead."

With these words, the bar emptied out, everyone heading down to the little spot of pavement close to the beach that we locals call the track, but which the maps say is the beginning of Route 9. I was left alone, a grown man lying on a mahogany bar, crying, bleeding and shaking, soiled underwear and all.

Later that night the coroner positively, albeit hesitantly, identified the bloated, half-rotted corpse that had washed up on the beach to be that of nine-year-old Daniel Wayne Stevens. Daniel's parents were horrified, the full weight of their loss instantly returning, the pain an avalanche, devastating the thin masquerade of normal life that they had tried so hard to create since the death and disappearance of their only son four years ago. In the twenty minutes that Mrs. Stevens stared and screamed into her dead son's face she aged at least ten years.

No one in the coroner's office looked me in the eyes, and not a soul spoke of how ironic it was that it was I, the person who had caused the death of this child and 15 others, should be the one to find the body four years later. No one had to; I could read it on all their faces. The sheriff took my official statement, patted me on the shoulder, and quietly led Mr. and Mrs. Stevens out, not allowing them to look back at the stinking, sea stained remains of their only child.

I rode home with my wife, her driving and me leaning against the Buick's big door, the glass blessedly cool to my face, neither of us speaking the whole way. After all, what was there to say?

The news of death spreads quick in a small town, and the only thing that spreads faster than the news of death is the news of a four-year-missing corpse turning up on the beach.

The day after little Daniel Stevens body unexpectedly made its sudden, sodden appearance the beach was crowded with tourists and townspeople alike, waiting to see if another dead child would float up and ask for directions to the nearest Dairy Treat.

With all the alcohol purged from my system the night before, I didn't sleep at all. Joanne called the office for me to let them know I wouldn't be in for a few days, but they had already heard the news, and were not expecting me. Jo went on to work, opening her little antique shop on Fifth Street right on schedule at nine. A quick kiss on the cheek, and she was out the door. She didn't speak, didn't say I love you, nothing at all. Of course, I hadn't heard those words in four years, not since the day of the worst tragedy in our town's history, the last day that I was truly alive.

Sixteen kids had died, and though everyone says differently, it was my fault. It was my fault, and I have to live with it every day, knowing that some day, some day I'll have to pay for their blood, the innocent blood of children. No matter what the cost, I just wish it was over, God, how I wish I could just sleep one night without depending on alcohol to suppress the tormenting, nightmarish screams of drowning children, children being eaten alive by the ocean.

At eleven o'clock Joanne called to check on me, and even asked if I wanted to have lunch with her down at Al's Deli. She sounded worried about me, genuinely worried, which surprised me. I politely refused, hung up the phone, and stretched out on the sofa once more, not daring to close my eyes for fear of seeing little Danny staring up at me from his waterlogged head.

No sooner had I unexpectedly faded off to sleep than the phone rang again. My heart pumping at least four hundred beats per minute, I jumped up and grabbed it, breathing so hard that I couldn't even say hello.

"Brian? Brian, its Sheriff Dawson."

"Oh... hi, Sheriff, What can I d-do for you?"

The sheriff coughed into the phone, clearing his throat and buying some time. "Well, we got another one, Brian, Another body on the beach, about 300 yards from the track where you found the Stevens kid. Uh, Brian, umm, this one is Betty Taylor's girl. You know, the little redheaded kid used to call you her sweetheart all the time?"

Oh god. Oh sweet God, no. The phone hit the carpet, and so did my knees. Dear God, please no, please please please no, I can't take it, I can't. Not her. God, if you're there, please please not her.

From the phone: "Brian? You there, Brian? Hey, Brian, you alright? Tom, get to Brian's house, he's a-passed out or something! Hurry!"

The line went dead, and in the sudden silence the buzzing of the open phone line filled my world, taking on meaning and understanding. This was what being dead was, yeah, I was in Hell, somehow I had died, and this was Hell. Ha! And they said it would be hot in Hell! I'd never felt so cold in my life.

Of course, the body that was discovered on the beach did turn out to be Annie Taylor, the prettiest little redhead in the world, and I turned out not to be in Hell after all. Not yet, anyway. Though her hair was no longer red, there was no mistaking that the thing with the torn flesh and seaweed-tangled body was Annie. Her face was as unmarked and clear as Daniel Stevens had been.

Dear God, its like the ocean allowed all the creatures of the sea to feast and explore each part of the small delicacies it had captured except for the face. "Take whatever you want," the ocean must have said, "but don't touch the faces, Brian needs to see the faces of the kids he murdered."

Did it hurt to look at little Annie lying there in the coroner's office? Honestly, I'm not sure. I think I was in too much shock to feel pain. What I do remember feeling, however, was a deep, deep loss. Not exactly like losing a loved one or a friend to death, but like losing your soul. As Annie stared up at me with those dead-yet-alive eyes, eyes so green they were almost emerald, I knew my soul was damned, forever lost.

The body was wrapped in a small bag, zipped up, and placed in a sliding drawer in the wall, waiting on a full autopsy. Betty, Annie's mom, didn't make it to the coroner's office; she had collapsed outside the door of her home when the sheriff and her minister had told her that her long lost daughter had been found, dead of course, mutilated and molested by the sea.

Therefore, it was my duty, my solemn duty as Annie's godfather to positively identify her. If there is a God above that I shall someday meet, I will only have one question to ask: How dare You?

Jo and I attended the formal funeral ceremonies of Daniel and Annie, and eight other kids who washed up, mangled and shredded, on the beach out by the track over the next five days. I went to every funeral, but not one tear fell from my eyes. I wish I could explain why, but I can't; all I can say is that when you lose your soul, I guess you also lose your tears.

It hurt, oh god it hurt to see those ruined little bodies lying in those white, blue, pink, and golden little caskets, hurt worse than ever I thought it could, but somehow I survived. Somehow, I didn't lose my mind. Or at least I don't think I did. It's hard to tell these days.

I watched as each of those ten kids was placed, belatedly, into the ground, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. With each beautiful, innocent child that was given to Mother Earth at last a part of me went with them, down into the utter blackness of death and the grave. There isn't much left; mostly just a walking corpse, a damned soul searching for the perfect dark blackness of oblivion, the grave.

When news came around that yet another body washed up on the beach, with another right behind it, I knew then what I would have to do. I knew how I would have to pay for the death of these kids. The ocean was hungry, but it needed bigger prey. It hungered for the blood of the damned.

It has been nine days since the last of the kids washed up on the beach, three at once on that last day, washed up right in the middle of the day and all but leaped onto the dry shore. I heard the screams from the beachgoers all the way here at my house, locked in my small, until now unused study. I didn't have to go out to see which kids had washed up. There is only one that hasn't, and she never will.

She wanted a boat party, just a simple boat ride for her and all her friends for her birthday, and of course I had said yes. My little angel loved the water, and even at eight she was by far a better swimmer than either me or her mother. She spent all her time in the water, and had always dreamed of winning a gold medal in the Olympics.

"Gonna give it to you, Dad, gonna win a gold medal for you, cause you're my best friend! "

God, the times I have heard her say that! Each time I would hug her oh so tight, kiss the top of her head until we both toppled over and laughed and fought and wrestled until we were both worn out. God. Never in all my life have I missed my little Samantha like I do now.

Its almost time, I can feel it. Its almost time.

On her eighth birthday all her friends had come over, 15 kids that she had known from school and church all her life, 15 kids who lived close to us, most of them on the same street, kids that I had watched grow up, even coaching pee-wee league baseball for most of them that whole summer.

I took them out on the boat, the parents all gathered around the grill and picnic tables with Jo on the beach. Sixteen kids and me headed out to sea, cruising slowly, being careful not to run against the waves. Soon enough the kids started yelling for me to "Go faster, Uncle Brian, go faster! Jump the waves!" And, after a few unhearty attempts at "no" we did. The kids were delighted, ecstatic even, when the waves would crash over the front of the boat, drenching all of us to the bone. Round and round we went, causing the waves to get higher and higher, splashing, laughing and holding on, having a great time, my little Samantha standing right beside me, helping me steer the boat. "Again, Daddy, faster!"

I smashed the accelerator all the way forward, and the waves were really pouring into the boat this time, causing the kids to laugh harder, cheer louder than ever. Just as I was about to bring the accelerator back down and head for the shore, the boat came down from an extremely high wave, seemingly straight down. I saw the log in the water half a second before we hit, didn't even have time to yell at the kids to hold on. The bow of the boat struck the half-submerged log head on, and the boat flipped straight over, end over end, and came crashing down on top of us all. We were all trapped under the upside down boat, kids popping up all around me for seconds at a time, but the waves, the waves were just too much, The boat banged against us, flipped back over, and started to float away, going with the current, out to sea.

Kids were screaming, and at first I thought that it was just the fright from the crash. God knew it scared me bad enough to scream. Then I saw: the life jackets were keeping the kids afloat, but the undercurrent combined with the waves was taking them out to sea, and faster than should have been possible.

Screams. God, the screams of those kids! I didn't have a life vest on, and I tried, God believe me, I tried to swim to them, but I couldn't seem to get any speed, It felt as if something had hold of both my legs, pulling me back, dragging me back away from the kids. God, I kicked harder and harder, but the more I struggled to get to the screaming, panic-stricken kids, the further away they seemed to get.

My feet got tangled around something slimy, and I knew at once I was in serious trouble. Seaweed, I was tangled up in patch of seaweed, and the more I pulled, the tighter it got. I dove under the surface to try and get myself untangled, and for just a second I saw Samantha's face, her shocked, breathless face under the water, saw her silently scream for me, and then there was nothing but blackness.

I'm not sure what happened immediately after this, but the people on the beach saw the accident, and wasted no time in getting into boats and some just flat-out running into the water, trying desperately to get to the kids. Each of them later swore, swore to the God they serve and worship each Sunday morning that the kids just went under the surface, went under all at once. Of course people dove in to look for them, but not a trace was ever found. No clothing, no shoes, no bodies, not even a life vest.

Nothing, that is, until two weeks ago when little Daniel Stephens drifted ashore to accuse me of killing him. Of the 16 kids that died that day, all but one has now reappeared, bright, shining eyes, mangled bodies with perfect, unhurt little angel faces and all. All but one.

Samantha is waiting for me down there, just under the surface of the water, about a hundred yards north of the track, right behind our house. She's there, waiting for her daddy, for her best friend to come and join her, because sooner or later we have to pay our old debts, and sometimes we have to pay with our souls.

I'm going out the back door soon, just as soon as I finish writing this confession, this testament, call it what you will. Out the back door, my bare feet sliding silkily through the sand, into the waiting, thirsty mouth of the ocean.

I know Samantha is there waiting on me, that she will be with me as the ocean starts tearing the flesh from my body, devouring every part of me, even my face. She will hold my hand, and kiss my cheek as I feel the first deathly claw of the sea stab into my flesh, trying to reach my soul. And for this I am thankful. My little angel, my Samantha waited for me out there, she waited for me. She sent the others to let me know that it's time, and that it has to be this way, but she waited for me.

Daddy's girl.

x x x

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