This story is by Quenby Olson and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Jesper cursed. The cold wasn’t supposed to get to him, that’s what they said. But he felt it still, in his knees, in his hands, even in the arches of his feet. Everything hurt. And as he made his way down to the shore, clinging to the slick rocks for balance, he cursed every person who had promised him there would be no more pain.
He glanced at the horizon, at the pale green glow that illuminated the distance. It would be morning soon. It was morning already, he reminded himself, whether the blink of fading stars agreed with him or not. There was an hour left, maybe. And then who knew what other vultures would come to make their claim.
He skirted the water as best he could, veering away from the waves as they crept upwards, erasing his footprints before he could take another step. The body was in the shallows, a dark blot against the pale background. It could’ve been a piece of driftwood left to bleach in the day’s sun. Jesper moved towards it, drawn by the glimmer of life, or what was left of it.
As he approached, he saw that the dying man’s face, the closed eyes, the parted lips. He was young, Jesper thought. Hardly a man. With another glance at the brightening horizon, Jesper placed his hands on his knees and settled down on the nearest rock.
It wasn’t more than a few minutes before Jesper looked up again, his gaze drawn by the quick splash-splash of feet moving along the edge of the water. He hadn’t considered the possibility that there would be more than one coming to collect. He wondered if he should stand up, greet the newcomer as an equal. But his bones wouldn’t agree to this, and so he remained seated, one hip throbbing as he shifted his weight forward.
The newcomer moved with ease, leaping over the rocks and detritus that littered the small pools. He greeted Jesper with a grin, both cheeks pushed upwards. Jesper cleared his throat.
“Hey, uh… Don’t touch that.”
The other man balanced on the edge of a flat rock, his heels resting on nothing but air. His right arm was in front of him, fingers outstretched, while his eyes took in the cliff side, the
ragged edge of soil washed away during the storm. His grin returned when his gaze made the circuit back to Jesper. “You’re Land,” he said, teeth shining like pearls in the pre-dawn light.
A grunt. That was all Jesper would give him. “The boy’s not gone yet.”
“Soon enough.” The other man bobbed on the edge of his rock, up and down, up and down, a motion that matched the lap of waves behind him.
“Do you think he’s yours, then?”
“What? This?” The other man indicated the body between them, as if only registering its presence for the first time. “Of course. I’m surprised you feel the need to ask.”
Jesper waited for more. He waited for an explanation. He waited for the other man to leave off bouncing and skip back the way he’d come. He looked down at the body half sunk in the water, the body of the boy who had yet to die.
“You’ve no claim on him,” Jesper announced.
“Really? Should we cut him open? See what’s filling his lungs?” The other man chuckled. “If he’s got a chestful of dirt, then I’ll gladly relinquish my hold on him.”
“He’s on land now,” Jesper pointed out.
“That he is,” the other man conceded.
“He’s also still living.”
Again, the grin. “I’d heard you were a stickler for details.”
Jesper nodded toward the water, illuminated by the sky above it. “There’s not much time left.”
The other man leaned over the body, eyes narrowing as he searched the neck for a pulse. “No worries,” he said. “Another minute or two and it won’t matter.” He stood up and tilted his face up toward the sky.
The other man was also young, Jesper thought. And tricky. The young ones always were.
“I’m surprised he’s stayed on this long,” the other man announced, his smile never leaving his face. “It’s always a bit of a bother when they decide to linger.”
Jesper looked down at the boy again. His face was an odd, colorless shade. The skin that stretched across his jaw seemed to be as fragile as paper, ready to tear, to disintegrate into nothing.
“You didn’t get enough with the storm? You have to take this one, as well?”
The other man stepped onto a smaller rock that dipped precariously beneath his weight. “I don’t understand why you try to be so stubborn, so solid all the time.” His grin brightened, then
faded rapidly. “You want to be immovable. You want to be a bulwark. A protection. And I… I don’t understand it.”
A minute passed. The sound of the waves was an irritant. Jesper shut his eyes and released a breath, ready to curse himself for reacting to the other man’s prodding. “What?” he asked finally.
The other man tilted his head to one side, regarding him curiously. “I’m sorry?”
“What is it? What don’t you understand?”
“Oh, that.” Another grin, this time accompanied by a brief shrug. “Just the silliness of it, your insistence on never giving in, and yet…” He moved gracefully from one stone to another, arms spread wide as he gestured towards the battered shoreline. “You’re so malleable, so easy to tear down.”
Jesper nodded. “You’re trying to distract me.”
The other man hopped onto another rock and dropped down to his haunches. “A little bit, yes. But it doesn’t seem to be working all that well.”
Jesper shook his head.
“I must admit, you’re fairly pleasant for one of your kind.”
Jesper made no indication that he would return the compliment.
The other man reached his fingers into the still pool of water that surrounded the dying boy’s legs. The surface of the water shimmered, ripples gliding outward and then swirling clockwise before they turned back again. As he removed his hand, the water calmed, the only color it reflected that of the grey sky shifting above it.
“So what are we to do with him?” the other man asked, his gaze fixed on the drops of water that clung to his fingertips.
“We will do nothing,”Jesper said, and dug his heels into the soft sand beneath his shoes. “The boy’s about to expire, and that’s a great deal of soil beneath his rear, despite how waterlogged his boots might be.”
The other man laughed. It was a bright, giddy sound that bounced off the rock wall and mingled with the breaking of the waves against the shoreline. “What? You don’t feel inclined to gamble for him? Or perhaps some wise man will rule that we should cut him in half, each of us taking our fair share.”
Jesper placed his hands on the rock. He didn’t want to stand. He was too tired, too sore to stand. But he dug his heels in deeper, until he felt the water squelch out of the sand, and even the rock beneath him seemed to sink farther into the ground. “Should this boy have drowned at home, in the tub, which one of us would be there to collect him then, hmm?”
The other man’s smile faded, and a line appeared between his eyebrows. “You’re going to make this difficult.” He sighed and stood up again to his full height. Around him, the various pools and shallows began to ripple. Behind him, the waves that crashed onto the shore reached far enough inland to swallow up a wall of debris left behind by the storm.
Jesper didn’t stir. He felt the rock beneath him, the roots of it reaching down into the earth. He rolled his shoulders forward, and the movement was echoed by a groan from the stone wall. A few pebbles broke loose and bounced down to the sand.
“You’ve no claim on him,” Jesper repeated. He didn’t raise his eyes.
The other man spread out the fingers of his left hand. The water around the boy’s figure shimmered in response. “If that’s the way you’re going to play, then—”
There was a harsh cough, and then a wet retching sound.
Jesper looked down. The boy moved. His thin chest heaved as his lungs fought for air. More coughing, and the boy managed to raise his head out of the sand, rivulets of water dribbling from the corners of his mouth.
“Oh,” the other man said, his lean figure looming over the boy. “That’s inconvenient.”
Jesper let his gaze sweep back towards the horizon. A sliver of sunlight appeared above the waves, setting their crests on fire. He smiled, then. He couldn’t help it. And when he looked back at the other man, he caught a glimpse of a grin in reply before the both of them glimmered and winked out of sight.