Mercer was only fifty, but they called him “Old Grand-dad,” like the whiskey, because he had made the trip to Lufford Bay every year since the others were adolescents and his weathered features and thin, sandy hair made him look wise—or more perhaps more apt, battered but unbeaten. He liked these young people; six of them this year: the sons and daughters of his companions from trips long past, when the highway between Georgetown and Charleston was little more than a rutted, two-lane passage through the pine forests, cotton fields, and marshes. The highway was bigger and better paved now, but once you left it for the narrow, sandy roads that snaked toward the bay, you went back a hundred years, or thousands, into a lonely, primeval landscape that once had been the domain only of pioneers, pirates, and the Swamp Fox.
Once each year they came, early in the autumn, while the ocean was warm even as a chill began to overtake the nights. There was too much marsh and mud here for hotels and tourists, so Lufford remained mostly unspoiled by humans. Nature, however, had smashed it time and again with wind and water, leaving behind vast networks of black, reed-ridden pools and scattered clusters of only the sturdiest oaks, their branches choked and dripping with Spanish moss, their trunks gnarled, bent, and knotted. The beach cabin looked as if the slightest breeze might topple it, yet it had withstood five decades of storms and might stand for just as many more. Its dark bulk squatted atop a balustrade of bowed stilts, its sharply angled roof crooked but sturdy, its seams still sealed against the elements. Mercer didn’t remember what color it might have been, all the paint long since stripped, the splintered wooden siding now as gray as ancient cobweb. His father had built the house to endure.
The two four-wheel drive vehicles rattled and shuddered as they pulled up next to the cabin, their bodies and tires coated with fine gray sand. Mercer drove the lead truck; he always drove. Without a word to his companions, he shoved the door open and dropped into a bed of sand that swallowed his feet to his ankles. The others disembarked slowly, sighing and groaning after the long drive from Chapel Hill. The late afternoon sun was hot, almost stifling, but within the hour, the ocean breeze would turn cool, and come nightfall, a roaring fire would feel like heaven.
“I thirst,” Ted Wakefield rumbled, stretching his arms out, Christ-like. “Rum, I think.”
Ted’s younger sister, Kelly, stood next to him, three heads shorter, slim and blond, almost mousey. Not yet thirty, but her eyes looked ancient. Methodically, they scanned the landscape. “It looks the same as before. The same deadfall. The same puddles. The same deer path.”
Mercer nodded. Their father, Rob, had been his closest friend. Apart, his children were nothing like him: Ted boisterous, energetic, sometimes crass; Kelly solemn, contemplative, even withdrawn. Together, they were their father, reborn.
There was Jack Henry—Lewis’s son—and his wife, Rachael, both from Greensboro. And Ike and Steve Badden, Terry’s two boys, three years apart, both in their thirties now, but to Mercer, as much the brash, rambunctious teenagers that he recalled from too many years past. Or they should have been; this trip, they were subdued. Last September, they had lost their younger sister, Natalie.
The young ones began to unload the vehicle while Mercer ascended the narrow, groaning stairs to the door, squeezing the key between his thumb and forefinger as if it were an amulet, averting his eyes from the long, shadowed structure that extended into the sea a few hundred feet from the cabin. The roar and hiss of the waves beckoned him to steal a glance at the pier, just as it did every year. Just as he did every year, he refused.
When the time came, he would look and see all there was to see.
He thrust the key into the lock and pushed the door open. A sweet, musty smell—ultimately pleasant—wafted out of the dim interior. The cabin still retained his father’s scent.
“Make way, Grand-dad,” Jack Henry called, clumping up the stairs, a heavy suitcase in each hand. Mercer stepped inside and then out of the way as Jack stumbled in, dropping the larger of the cases and shoving it into the nearest corner. “We come for a weekend, and she packs for a month.”
“Her mother was like that,” Mercer said absently, his eyes roving around the small living room, both comforted and revolted by its familiarity. The long couch, its upholstery stained and threadbare; the pair of spindly, 1960s-vintage lamps sprouting from dust-covered end tables; the rickety Boston rocker next to the darkened, draped window, one arm cracked and oozing hardened glue from his father’s crude repair work; the rust-toned throw rug on the scuffed hardwood floor. Everything as it had been left the previous year.
The others entered, silent and somber, gathering the memories that haunted the cabin, many of them sharp and stinging, like the sword grass that separated the dunes from the marsh. Pure stillness for a moment, and then the Badden brothers shattered the spell, breaking ranks and tromping up the stairs to claim their second-floor bedrooms. After last year, they had sworn they would never return, but even then, they— like Mercer—knew they were lying. With a heavy thud, Ted Wakefield’s suitcase fell into a corner, and he, intent on settling more pressing matters, began to set up the bar. His sister vanished in the direction of the kitchen.
“Yeah. Your rum sounds good.”
In a matter of seconds, Mercer was holding a full glass, complete with ice and his traditional wedge of lime. He tossed back half the glass and then started up the stairs. Ted called out behind him, “Want me to bring in your bag?”
The master bedroom—his room—occupied the northernmost corner of the cabin on the second floor. Its single window overlooked the beach and the pier, but a faded gold curtain closed off the view, and, until tomorrow, he preferred it that way. He gulped down the rest of his drink, opened the top drawer of the nightstand, and produced the bottle he had left there the previous year. He had just refilled his glass and was about to lift it to his lips when something bumped against the window. He paused but did not look up. Only when another soft thump came, followed by a harsh scraping sound, did he turn his eyes to the window, where they registered the distinct silhouette of a large bird behind the translucent curtain. The shape jerked back and forth a few times, its claws or beak rapping repeatedly against the glass.
A seagull. Unusual for one to come right up to the window.
“Alas, bird. Nothing for you.”
A heavier thump behind him, and Ted plodded through the door, Mercer’s suitcase in hand. “Here. I work for tips, you know.”
“I won’t pay.”
Ted glanced at the window, but the bird was gone. He gave Mercer a long, thoughtful stare before saying in a near-whisper, “I don’t know if I can do this again.”
“You’re here, aren’t you?”
Ted sighed. “Yeah. I’m here. Guess I’ll be here next year too. And the year after that. If I make it.”
“You will. We all make it this year.”
“You’ve foreseen this?” A wry half-smile.
“It has been ordained by all that’s holy.” He lifted his glass and shook it so the ice tinkled.
Ted offered a tentative smile. He knew Mercer well enough to be aware that he rarely used humor, but not well enough to recognize it when he did. “I guess I’ll unpack.”
“See you at the fire, Grand-dad.”
Golden firelight wormed its way into the crevices of the surrounding shadows as roiling flames scorched the cool evening air, the roar and crackle harmonizing with the rhythmic pounding of surf, occasionally striking a dissonant note when a log shifted or collapsed. The six young people around the bonfire appeared focused on its blazing heart, while Mercer studied them from outside the circle, seeing not their faces but their parents’, recalling too many moments such as this for any single one to become clear. He wondered what it would be like to have children. He almost certainly never would, unless Gayle’s womb should suddenly become whole again. His blood warmed at the thought of her, but this outing, this experience, was the one thing in his life he had never shared with her, knowing that approval or even understanding would elude her. Her brain was too logical, too rational. As far as she was concerned, he was on his annual fishing trip.
The firelight’s questing fingers stopped short of the pier, but amid the curling white crests of the breakers he could make out its nearest pilings and a few crooked, splintered planks. Even in the dark, the structure’s awry angles exuded a wrongness that nauseated him. Nearly a century ago, his father’s father had constructed the pier, long before the cabin even existed, but it had rarely been used for its traditional, mundane purpose. After a moment, he felt he was being watched, and, looking back to the fire, he found six pairs of eyes gazing at him expectantly, as if their owners awaited words of wisdom from their de facto leader. He was that, after all. Not forever, though, for eventually, one of the others would take the part—if this ungodly undertaking remained in the future’s cards.
Jack Henry, powerfully built but soft-spoken, his eyes bright with both apprehension and a nearly childlike excitement, took one step toward him. “In all this time, you’ve never told us where it comes from. You’ve always said ‘someday.’ Is it now?”
He shook his head. “I told you ‘someday’ because that’s when I will know. And that is not today.”
Rachael said, “You’re never going to know. I don’t think anyone can know.”
Jack looked embarrassed “Rachael—”
“No, she’s right,” Mercer said. “To get answers, you have to ask the right questions. We don’t know what those are.” He sighed. “All we can do is what we do.” He reached for the bottle of rum he had placed in a bucket of ice just outside the ring of firelight and poured a fifth glass, wondering if the alcohol’s effects would ever catch up to him. He rather wished they would.
“Your grandfather,” Jack said. “Timothy. That was his name, wasn’t it?”
“He built this. We know what it does. But not why.”
“But everyone has a reason. What was his? To kill people?”
Mercer shook his head. “I never knew my grandfather. But I knew my dad, and he took after his dad. He didn’t want to kill. I think he just wanted to know.”
“He knew too much. From all those books he had. From his travels. From sailing with Captain Marsh. Wasn’t that enough?”
“If you could make something so beyond the ordinary, would academic knowledge be enough for you?”
Kelly spoke up. “If I knew that what I made would kill — not could but would — then yes, it would be enough.”
“No. It would drive you mad.”
“We should have destroyed the pier. Someone should have. A long time ago.”
“How many times have we talked about that?” Ted asked. “That wouldn’t be enough. Not for all of us.”
“Not for me,” Jack said. “We’d never know for certain. This is the only way we’ll ever know for certain. It’s the only way to know it’s doomed to die.”
“How do we know the thing can’t just go somewhere else? Maybe this isn’t the only way.” Kelly asked.
“If it could, it would have by now,” Jack said. “Don’t you think?”
Ike Badden, the older of the brothers, glanced at his watch. He had chosen to act as overseer this year; he would not be a part of the experience, not the way the others would. Perhaps it was the memory of his late sister, who had assumed that role for several years. She had died of heart failure, a few days after they had all gone home. Perhaps he wanted to confirm—at the risk of his life—that her death had not been a part of this, that something else altogether had claimed her.
Maybe it had. Maybe it hadn’t. Other friends had died, but never after an experience as overseer.
“It’s getting on time,” Jack said.
“Yes,” Rachael whispered. “It is time.”
Ike, glancing at his brother with eyes of concern, stepped out of the circle to retrieve a long duffle bag lying at the base of a nearby cluster of sword grass. He carried the bag to the fire and withdrew from it a number of long wooden poles wrapped in polyurethane, which he removed, unleashing the distinctive scent of petroleum. The others, including Mercer, each took one of the handmade torches and lowered its oil-soaked tip into the fire, then stepped back and waited until Ike had removed several coils of thin rope and looped them over one shoulder. Then he lifted and lit a torch of his own.
Together, their fiery beacons held high and in solemn silence, they began to walk toward the pier.
With torches planted in the sand on either side of the pilings, the seven stepped beneath the shadows of the old structure, where the waves rushed noisily toward them, only to draw back as if in fear just shy of their feet. High tide was at midnight, less than an hour away, and then the water would reach waist-high. From their perspective, the pier extended like a tunnel toward the dark sea, its oddly angled crossbeams forming a twisted, web-like pattern whose center vanished into a distant black hole.
Such strange, wrong angles. Attempting to focus on them made Mercer dizzy and—if he stared too long—queasy, as if he had been spun in a giant centrifuge. A disconcerting, alien sensation, yet one to which he had become inured over the years.
“Okay, Grand-dad. You ready?”
Ike Badden’s voice at his ear. He nodded. Then he felt his arms being pulled back, around the thick post behind him, the rope encircling his wrists and going taut. His shoulders and biceps screamed at being stretched too far, but he knew that in a short time numbness would set in, and his perceptions would be diverted to other things. Ike touched his shoulder, gentle and reassuring.
“Sorry about that.”
“To be expected.”
Ike nodded and moved on, securing each of the others, in turn, to the supporting posts, the tide now creeping up to swirl teasingly around their bare feet. Once he had finished, making sure all were tied tightly but with as little discomfort as possible, he gave them all a wistful look, took his torch, and began padding back up the beach toward the cabin.
“I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“No sooner,” his brother Steve called after him. “I’ll call to you so you know the way is clear.”
“If you’re able,” Kelly said in a barely audible voice.
“One of us will.”
It wouldn’t be long now. Each wave now trespassed farther, groping for high ground, the water reaching Mercer’s shins, then his knees. Its touch was cool but not frigid, bracing enough to partially counter the vertigo that came when he gazed at those twisted angles at the distant end of the pier. He forced himself to lock his eyes on its black center, despite the discomfort, knowing it was the way to ensure that he—and his companions—were noticed on the other side.
Something seemed to be drawing the air from his lungs: a kind of powerful suction. He could tell by the chorus of sharp gasps that the others felt the same thing; it always happened this way, at the merging of disparate dimensions. His heart began to thud, harder, faster, excitement building, turning darker, more fearful. Only moments to go, he knew, for his breath was gone, his chest on the verge of collapse, muscles jellied, body heavy, supported now only by the taut, binding rope.
The lure was next on the way. Mercer anticipated it before actually becoming aware of it. A stream of sensations, in his body and in his mind; gentle, warm caresses; light fragrances of citrus and evergreen; eerie sounds, like wistful, ethereal music: a siren’s song, beckoning him to break free of his bonds, to leap into the waves and swim out to meet the darkness. All these things, designed to draw him to that other domain.
There. Something was stirring at the farthest reaches of the pier. Black emerging from black, shadow separating from shadow, it moved, crablike, out of the abyss and into their three-dimensional world, its hellish contours standing out against the swirling white foam at the base of the pylons. Yet, Mercer knew, anyone looking at the pier from a different perspective—from any view other than straight-on—would see no trace of the otherworldly intruder. Nor, by all indications, could it see them. Witnessing the juxtaposition of dimensions required the proper angle.
A long time ago, his grandfather, Timothy, had constructed the pier as a bridge, employing angles that broke through the curvature of time and space, to connect this very spot with another universe. Once each year, when the moon and the tide were right, the creature came to feed; not only on their bodies but on their spirits, or souls, or whatever resided inside them that made them who they were.
It clattered toward them but could only come so far, to a point where Mercer’s grandfather had constructed some kind of barrier. No, for the creature to feed, they had to go to it, thus the lure it sent out. But it kept creeping forward, getting bigger and blacker, until he could see several vague, greenish points of light, weaving and wavering in the flickering torchlight, staring at him, transmitting to him. His mind’s eye saw an endless gulf, filled with jewel-like stars and bright, feathery whorls of astral matter, blazing like fiery clouds some unfathomable distance away. The image wavered, as if it had been projected on a windblown sheet, became murky, and then transformed into a grassy valley, with blue, craggy mountains erupting into a cerulean sky. Someone—a woman—was walking at the edge of a nearby tree line, and soon Mercer recognized her as Sara Wakefield, Ted’s mother.
Ted’s father, Del, had been the first of their group to succumb to the creature’s lure.
Sara appeared to notice him, and her lips spread in a pleasant, welcoming smile. He knew that the creature was feeding him these scenes, these moments stolen from its victims’ memories; the image of Sara originated from Del’s consciousness, many years gone now, but somehow retained by that monstrous hulk clinging to the pier.
He knew that time passed very differently in that other dimension. They had determined this when it had killed Keida Henry, Jack’s mother, twenty-three years ago. The following year, when the thing returned, it still held in its barbed claws Keida’s severed head, scarcely any more damaged or decomposed than when it had been plucked from her body.
To it, the many decades since its first appearance must have been a span of days or weeks. But it had been long enough since the thing had fed for it to be agitated. Desperate. Perhaps even starving.
The images of the past wavered and vanished. He could now see the thing moving closer than he remembered ever seeing it. The scrabbling, clattering sounds of its claws on the wood made him feel as sick as the vertigo had. What if the barrier had somehow fallen? After so many years, might weather have caused the pier’s supports to shift, altering the angles, however subtly, enough to allow the thing passage?
But then it stopped and emitted a harsh, grating rattle, its rage palpable, its hunger so powerful Mercer could feel it in his own gut. It was starving.
Might this truly be the last time?
Barely illuminated by the torchlight, Jack and Rachael, closest to the creature, struggled furiously against their bonds—not to flee but to rush to the thing, their minds overwhelmed by a ferocious new psychic barrage. Despite so many years of steeling himself against its influence, Mercer could feel the lure in his brain—the ironic, sweet, beckoning song, like a choir of angels—and he became aware of his hands, twisting and tugging in their bonds. Ike’s knots would hold. They had to hold.
Then the impossible happened. He saw Rachael’s flailings become more animated. Her arms were moving, pulling away from her pylon, the rope getting slacker and slacker. As the knots loosened, her struggles grew fiercer, more determined, and then Jack was screaming her name, trying to break the spell. The others’ voices combined in a cacophonous refrain.
“Stop! Stop struggling!”
Mercer’s voice joined the others; a mere reflex, for he knew it could be of no use. Her wrists were almost free now, and with each violent tug, she dragged herself closer and closer to the giant silhouette waiting in the shadows and angles of the pier. He saw its fore claws spreading wide in anticipation and heard a crackling, splintering sound that must have been its voice, rising in exultation. Then the ropes fell away and Rachael was free. She started to slog through the breakers, her movements mechanical, her eyes focused on the darkness ahead, her ears deaf to their screamed entreaties. She was only a few steps from the thing, which appeared to extend itself as far as it could through the barrier, and Mercer knew it was all over for her.
Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed motion, something streaking through the darkness, and then Ike Badden materialized before him, splashing toward Rachael, shouting her name. He grabbed her by one arm, jerked her backward, and began pulling her away from the horror, back toward the shore. She fought against him, still in the monster’s thrall, but Mercer saw something in her eyes changing, becoming aware. Her face, at first as blank as stone, changed to a mélange of revulsion, dread, and relief. She tore herself from Ike’s protective embrace and staggered up the beach, away from the pier, her hands going to her ears, as if they might block the increasingly agitated song being transmitted to her brain.
Mercer felt a brief surge of hope at the reprieve, but then he realized that Ike had placed himself squarely beneath the pier, and now he was the focus of the creature’s attention. His face went as blank as Rachael’s had been, and just as she had, he turned toward the black waves and, unsteady on his feet, began to trudge through the water toward the outstretched claws.
“Ike!” His brother’s voice rose, frantic and shrill. “Stop! No! No!” Steve Badden writhed and jerked against the pylon, his bonds as unbreakable as steel cable. “Come back!”
This time, Mercer knew, there was no hope. Ike waded into water that reached his waist, then his chest, his body battered but unfaltering as he pressed on through the breaking waves. The huge, black silhouette loomed over him, and only when, with a clacking, creaking sound, the great claws came down and closed around his body did the angelic choir in their minds fall silent. Then Ike was thrashing, screaming, his brother’s voice rising along with his in a piercing harmony. The crablike shape turned and at high speed began to scrabble back toward the far spiral of blackness that opened the way to its own distant province, and within moments, Steve Badden’s screams were the only sound to rise above the pounding of the surf.
Eventually, Steve stopped screaming. Kelly whimpered a few times before lapsing into stunned silence. Ted seemed to be frozen with shock. Jack was sobbing softly—remembering his mother, Mercer thought. If he had lost Rachael tonight, that would have been the end of him.
All Mercer’s energy had fled, and his head sagged, his chin to his chest. All these years’ efforts, now undone, the thing once again nourished and renewed. Perhaps it would be better to burn the pier after all; maybe they could settle for not knowing whether the thing from beyond might survive. Certainly, now it would survive—probably longer than he would.
All words, all thought gone, they faced the now-empty blackness beyond the twisted angles of the pier. The waves roared, hissed, and sighed, breaking and curling amid the crooked pilings, the whitecaps forming leering, mocking grins in the vast expanse of night.
The water was cold now. Mercer could only hope that, at some point, Rachael would have the wits to return and cut the ropes that bound them to the pier like a few bits of drenched, half-dead bait.
He had lived through this before. Perhaps, next year, they would find it in themselves to begin again.
Stephen Mark Rainey is author of the novels BALAK, THE LEBO COVEN, DARK SHADOWS: DREAMS OF THE DARK (with Elizabeth Massie), THE NIGHTMARE FRONTIER, BLUE DEVIL ISLAND, and THE MONARCHS; over 90 published works of short fiction; five short-fiction collections; and several audio dramas for Big Finish Productions based on the DARK SHADOWS TV series, featuring several original cast members. For ten years, he edited the award-winning DEATHREALM magazine and has edited anthologies for Chaosium, Arkham House, and Delirium Books. Mark lives in Greensboro, NC. He is an avid geocacher, which oftentimes places him in some pretty scary settings. Visit his website at www.stephenmarkrainey.com .
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Story illustration by Leslie Herzfeld.