by Dotty Weaver
“The Dunes of Dawn” placed fifth in Southern New Hampshire University’s 2019 Fall Fiction Contest.
Following the sun’s daily retreat to low western skies, the beach becomes a dark and ominous place. Purple shadows, then silky black curtains drift across the sand from the horizon, shrouding the day and silencing the echoes of laughter, music, and splashing. When there is no moon, the darkness of night is palpable. The tide soars high, the nighttime ocean unapologetic in what she claims and resentful of what she deposits on the shore in her retreat. Forgotten beach chairs are swallowed whole while the remains of dead sea animals, shipwrecks, and garbage are abandoned on the wet, hard sand. When the curtain lifts at dawn, the wreckage of the night is strewn about.
It was a moonless night when Katie Wilson disappeared on the beach. She stepped off the weathered wooden planks that traversed the overgrown dunes and instantly vanished in the engulfing cover of obscurity.
Several hours later, at the first blush of daybreak, an early morning dog walker would find the shells of two horseshoe crabs, a wind-bent beach umbrella, and the remains of an eighteen pack of Bud Light cans before he would notice a sparkling purse in the dune grass. Dennis Poole tied his brown dog, Snickers, to the dune fence and gingerly climbed over the loose barrier as his curiosity gave way to concern.
Dennis walked Snickers every morning at dawn on the beach, and they avoided the costly “no dogs” summons by walking in the low light of the early sunrise. As a morning pioneer, Dennis often found odd things forgotten in the sand, but when the first rays of light had struck the cheaply affixed rhinestones on the knockoff purse, Dennis knew something was very wrong.
Dennis could recognize the smell of death. His years spent on Asian battlefields tattooed the scent in his nostrils. He could smell it this morning, sickly sweet and copper wafting in the cold morning breeze. Working on instinct alone, he slunk deeper through the dune grass his less than sharp eyes straining for the source. Four steps into the waist-high reeds, Dennis’s stomach seized. Tangled in the think grass and thorn bushes were what seemed to be clothing with feminine print. His insides remained paralyzed as he jerked his head around and searched for signs of the missing owner. There was no body, but a scarlet stain splattered the light blue fabric that might have been a dress.
Dennis slowly extended a hand for the bag, fingers outstretched, praying for an ID inside. Let it simply be a lost bag, let the scarlet stain be nothing but an unsteady hand gripping Cabernet Sauvignon, let the dress have been lost in the bargain of a midnight skinny dip. His rational mind won the battle over wishful thinking, and he found his hand slowly recoiling. Evidence, he remembered and stepped away from what he knew was actually a crime scene. Dennis patted his pockets, aimlessly feeling for his phone. Snickers barked.
“Quiet,” Dennis said. His right pocket held nothing but Anne’s Grain-Free premium treats and one crinkled poo bag.
Snickers continued to bark, louder now. Aggressive growls, now supplemented with a whine typically reserved for dinner scraps.
“Quiet, Snickers!” Dennis snapped, his fingers finally folding around the metallic square of the iPhone. But he had only just dialed “9” when something hard slammed into the back of his head, sending him tumbling forward into the grass.
Dennis’ eyes stung, and the ringing in his ears stifled the sound of Snickers’ howling. As darkness crept into his eye line, he saw a thick piece of driftwood drop to the sand next to a pair of dirty sneakers.
When Dennis came too, he was alone in the dunes, save a whimpering Snickers who had pulled the leash as far in Dennis’ direction as he could, destabilizing a small portion of the fence. Dennis smiled at the concerned mutt, relieved.
“Did you catch his license plate buddy?” he joked as he surveyed the scene. The purse, the clothes, and the attacker were all gone. His Korean War watch and cell phone were also missing. Dennis was in good shape for a grandfather, so he knew the aches he felt getting to his feet were a result of his fall and not his age. It has been a while, but he has encountered hits harder than that.
He reached for his pounding head. He kept his silver hair cut short, and this had exposed his head wound to the sand, resulting in a hardening paste of gritty dried blood. He stumbled over a knotty piece of thick driftwood, which dripped streaks of blood the consistency of drying sanguine paint. He carried it back to and over the fence, and a relieved Snickers cocked his head in concerned interest and tried to sniff the bloodied end.
“We need to get this home,” Dennis said. “And, I need a phone.”
Dennis had left the TV on while he and Snickers had gone for their walk. According to the on-screen clock on the news channel, they had been on the beach for two hours. It still wasn’t even eight a.m. As Dennis searched for the house phone to report his attack, the screen switched over to a live local news story. Susie Montgomery, first runner up to the Miss Starfish pageant two decades ago and now the town’s investigative journalist, was interviewing the police chief. They were surrounded by first responders and onlookers on the shoreline, about a half-mile past where Dennis was attacked. Someone had found something in the water. It was the body of a twenty-year-old girl named Katie Wilson. It was reported that her blue sundress had come loose and was swirling in the break as if in the spin cycle. Her purse was found just beyond the waterline and provided the identification needed.
The police chief reported a witness’s statement that Katie had entered the water overnight after an evening of drinking at the popular local bar down the street. She never returned to her friends after visiting the crowded ladies’ room around midnight. Her friends reported her missing at last call and believed she wandered to the beach. It was presumed that she entered the water for a swim and left her clothes and purse close by ashore. Head trauma indicated that she was pushed into the jetties by the riptide, cracked her head on the rocks, and died. A terrible accident, no sign of foul play. Dennis and Snickers shared a doubtful look.
Dennis watched the report, rapt. In the background of the scene, the rhinestone purse and the blue dress were placed into plastic evidence bags by gloved policemen or coroners, Dennis didn’t know. As Susie prattled on about the correlation between rising youth partying and crime rates, Dennis continued to scan the screen and saw a solitary young man speaking to the police A key witness, Dennis presumed.
He looked wiry and strong, but also bedraggled. It was clear he had a rough night. Struggling in his conversation, the man stiffly lifted his arm and gestured to the ocean. Dennis slammed on the pause button on the remote and approached the television, bending stiffly to retrieve his reading glasses from atop his copy of Gathering Prey. Now bespectacled and leaning in close to the TV, Dennis focused in on the man’s wristwatch. Dennis’s watch, the standard-issue military watch he received while serving in the Korean war. Dennis gaped at the television screen and turned to lift the house phone. He dialed his own cell number, and the deck of cards shaped bump in the man’s left breast pocket lit up. Through the thin white fabric, a faint outline of Snickers posing at his last birthday party was barely visible. The man scowled, ignored the call, and continued to talk to the officer.
Dennis smiled —got ya! — and straightened with a purpose he had not felt in years. He and Snickers returned the beach, the intrepid purveyors of truth. He carried the driftwood in a drawn garbage bag and chuckled out loud uncharacteristically as he imagined how this might appear to onlookers.
Dennis retraced the steps of his earlier walk and aimed for the flashing emergency vehicles and news trucks. His pace hastened as he navigated the growing crowds of out of town visitors who were already unloading coolers from their double-parked cars. They were oblivious to the tragedy that had occurred, ignorant of the violence that had stained the sand where they spread their blankets and muddied the water where they swim. By now, the garbage trucks and cleaners had made their rounds for another day at the beach, and the sun illuminated every footprint in the sand, the only remaining evidence of human presence.
Category: Competition, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student