This story is by Steven C Cochran and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dustin stood on the rocky shore, waiting for the island to appear. The woman at the herbal medicine shop said to seek out the place where two narrow streams met and ran into the sea. The waves, turbulent and icy, made him wonder how he was going to swim there if it revealed itself.
The herbalist didn’t have anything to help him, but she told him about a small island several hours away. It helped people forget the things they didn’t want to remember. Nobody understood how it worked, but you must believe in the magic for it to appear. But, it would want something in return.
He needed to erase the sight of their only child, Sarah, dead in the bathtub, filled to the brim with crimson water. He blamed himself for what she did. Their fight about her drug use that day kept repeating in his head. He wished he could rewind and take her to rehab again.
It had been several months since he quit his IT job and the money was dwindling. Lindsay left him a year ago, wanting to move on with her life. Medication, a psychiatrist, meditation; he tried many things but nothing succeeded. The grief and anxiety crippled him. Would she take him back if he got better?
Dustin never believed in magic, but he would try anything now. He drove the long journey to the remote coast.
At the end of the second day, he found the streams and sat beside them, trying only to think about the happy times. The vision of Sarah in the tub, along with his anxiousness, always returned. Tears fell from his face into the stream, which carried them into the sea.
Spending another cold night in his car, he leaned back and stared at the waves as the moonlight danced across them. Closing his eyes, he dozed off for the first time since he arrived.
The next morning when he woke, he peered out the window. Rubbing his eyes, unsure if he was dreaming, he opened the door and raced to the shoreline. The island appeared overnight; tall, rocky, and green with a few trees. A woman with flowing blonde hair and a white dress was on the top, motioning for him to come over.
Judging its distance in the frigid sea, he didn’t think he could make it there without help. He needed something to keep him afloat.
He found an old weathered log as long as his arm and as thick as his thigh. Dragging it to the water, he took off his trousers and shoes and waded in, shivering as the icy tide enveloped him.
After a couple of minutes, he stopped paddling. Instead of heading toward the island, he was moving away from it, caught in a current. He kept swimming, but his energy drained. The log bobbed under, not strong enough to hold his weight. Realizing he couldn’t make it across, he turned and headed back to the mainland. He kicked hard to move out of the rushing water. He made his way back, exhausted. He would try again after a rest.
The woman waded into the sea, motioning for him to keep trying. She bent over with her hands on her knees. Was she crying? She returned and sat on the rocks.
Walking back to his vehicle. he put the blanket around his shoulders and slid into the passenger seat, closing the door. The morning sun warmed him as he rested.
There was no more food or water. Should he leave and come back with a boat? This might be his only chance since it might not appear again.
After he recovered, he gazed out at the turbulent waves. He spotted something furry and brown floating so he braved the cold sea again and swam to it. It was a dead seal. Grabbing its blubbery body with both of his hands, he tested its buoyancy. It would help him float better than the log did.
Swimming into the current with it, he was whisked away. He kicked with all his might, working his way through. Something brushed his legs and he panicked. With one last burst of anxious energy, Dustin escaped the current. He stopped kicking and caught his breath as he bobbed up and down on the high waves. He searched for the woman but didn’t see her.
Something grazed his leg again. His anxiety went into full throttle as he yelled and started again. The creature, twice as long as him and as fast as a torpedo, swam underneath him. It bit the seal’s carcass, narrowly missing his arm. He released it as a second seal appeared and they fought for the remains.
He saw a flash of white to his right but he focused on getting to the island. He crawled onto the narrow sandy beach. Being no expert, he thought the creatures were giant leopard seals.
“Hello,” he yelled, searching for the woman. Running to the top of the island, he spotted her scurrying up the mainland shore as the seals chased her. One of them grabbed the end of her white dress, pulling on it. She threw a rock at its head and it released her. She ran higher up and it looked like she was laughing and giving them the finger. Why didn’t she wait for him? The seals disappeared into the sea again.
He wanted to return before nightfall so what did he need to do now that he was here? Did he have to perform some sort of ritual?
Looking around, he found a small cave with a puddle of fresh water and a wooden cup beside it. Thirsty, he picked it up, dipped it in, and drank. It was cool and refreshing.
He sat down and closed his eyes, exhausted. With every breath he took, the anxiety faded away. For the first time in over a year, he felt calm and relaxed.
He opened his eyes again and saw the woman open his car door and sit in the driver’s seat. He climbed down to the shore. The brake lights came on as she slammed the door.
“Hey!” he said as he stepped into the water. Like flicking on a light switch, the anxiety raced back, along with the vision of the bathtub. He panicked and leapt back onto the island and his anxiousness vanished. Something was happening to his memory.
Starting the engine, the woman tooted the horn and drove away. That bloody bitch took his car. Hiding the keys was the last thing he thought about. Were his trousers on the beach or in the vehicle?
There was no driftwood or dead seals around. Can he make it across again without help? What if the island vanished with him on it? How long had the woman been on here?
He couldn’t stay on here forever. He waded in as the anxiety returned and began swimming. After a few seconds, he felt razor-sharp teeth dig into his left ankle as the seal thrashed it back and forth, pulling him under. Using his right heel, he gave it a kick in the head. It let go and then nipped the end of his foot, then stared at him as he rose back to the surface. The water around him turned crimson, like the vision of Sarah in his head again. The second seal appeared and they followed him as he swam back to the island.
Crawling up on the beach, he examined the damage. Thankful he still had all his toes, he ripped the bottom of his shirt and used it as a bandage. He was calm again.
Now, he was the one trapped here. The island wanted something in return, but he didn’t realise he would need to stay on it to forget. Would he have to lure another poor soul here to make his getaway? How long would it be before another person came looking for the magic? He was stuck here, wounded and trouserless.
Laying back on a rock, he closed his eyes. How was he going to escape? If he did, would Lindsay ever come back to him?
Opening his eyes again, Dustin let out an almighty yell. The mainland had vanished. The island had been transported to the middle of some unknown sea, with no land in sight. The seals were still keeping guard.