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By Robert Dunbar
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2006 Robert Dunbar
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn splintered shadows beneath the pier, waves caressed the pylons, sliding between them in a plunging, receding rhythm. Wind rippled the surface, and light sank in pillared striations, while from the timbers above, susurrations resounded.
On the beach, wind grated across sparse dunes and rattled dead grasses, and a damp chill settled from a dull white sky. Gulls hung motionlessly above sand the color of wet straw.
The rusted mouth of a huge drainage pipe yawned jaggedly at the surf. A man crouched within. Winds hissed, mauling him, and he drew back, his breath clouding. Pulling off his gloves, he blew on his hands and rubbed them together, shivering. He barely had enough room to stand in the pipe, and again he leaned past the lip of the metal tunnel, letting his gaze drift to the far end of the beach: scrub pines straggled near the rocks. Perhaps a century earlier, those boulders had been plowed from the sand. Now they formed a rough wall that crashed deep into the surf. Even from here, he could see spray lash up. The gulls rose.
Still nothing. And the light almost gone. The thought of returning here at night stabbed an icy chill deep into him, and he risked another glance toward the pier. Clouded waves lapped the pilings.
As the wind died away, hedrew his head back. Tugging the gloves on, he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his bomber jacket. Straight ahead, the ocean heaved smoothly, silken weights rolling beneath the surface. Languid hills rode each other, until endless repetition, maddeningly torpid, stirred him to twitching somnolence. As the sand crunched softly, he shifted his weight, clumped gravel scratching the soles of his shoes. Soon, he thought. The one he waited for would come soon. He shuddered, his very heartbeat seeming to fuse with the pulse and rhythm of the tide. Between waves, the hush grew so quiet he imagined he could hear things moving beneath the sand, hidden things, secret things.
At the mouth of the pipe, a vein of black splayed through the wet sand. Broken boulders littered the shore, and waves gouged through crevices in granite ... like slow acid. A sound drifted across the beach-the softly grating hiss of footsteps.
The sound grew louder, and he crouched, breath stalled in his throat, fingers curling within the leather gloves. Warily, he peered through a corroded hole in the metal.
On the granulating mud beneath the pier, foam glinted in an oily sheen, sliding ever back into the water. With a backpack slung over his shoulder, a boy emerged from the dimness. He looked about fourteen. Perhaps a bit older. He wore a brimmed cap, tugged down over his ears, and his cheeks had flushed a deep pink as though wind had scoured away layers of skin. The boy took large strides. Straddling the dry rim of sand, he would pass within a few feet of the pipe.
A ripple of sensation spurted across the man's hands, a warming pain, like the twitch of a long-dead nerve. Just a little closer ...
Tongues of wind rasped along the beach, and waves curled over the rocks like talons.
The boy shielded his eyes from the blowing grit and tried to push back the pale hair that trailed from beneath his cap. Even with two sweaters under the denim jacket, he felt the cold flow right through, and his thin shoulders trembled as he shifted the backpack. Almost against his will, his gaze skimmed out over the sea. He stopped walking.
A gull shrieked.
The sun had not really come up at all today. Swells tumbled sluggishly, and shades of gray blurred together where the horizon should have been. With a jerk of his head, he forced his attention from the bleak seascape to resume his scrutiny of the beach. Beyond the sewage pipe, a boulder protruded from the sand, then another farther on and another until a rock barrier ended the gravelly strip. Either he would have to go back or cut straight across the beach, here at its widest point, a risk he hated taking.
The wind soughed, and a brutal gust scorched his face. Lowering his head, he trudged on, kicking at broken shells. Bird tracks, webbed and hooked like the spoor of tiny dinosaurs, splayed everywhere, and lumps and whorls in the damp sand seemed to mirror the choppy pattern of the surf.
The boy saw only a blur of movement from the pipe. He pivoted. Big hands grazed his back, groping for a hold. Lips pulled taut, the boy's mouth opened in a silent cry as he leapt. His sneakers slipped on white pebbles, but he kept his footing, running hard.
He raced along the edge of the water, straining for the rocks. Footsteps slapped across the mud behind him, louder than his, faster than his. Outstretched hands clutched.
He sprinted with all his strength. Ahead lay the rock wall, and already his pursuer edged to cut him off from the beach.
The boy whirled, sliding toward the water. Surprised, the man passed him, cursing, and the boy glimpsed the pale snarl of his face, the fair hair. "You!" Dread trembled in his legs as he darted back, angling across the beach. "It's you!" His speed seemed to leach away as his sneakers pounded, and sand rose at his feet in slow spurts.
On the dunes, he heard only his own panting. Splinters of icy air gouged his lungs, and he began to think he had escaped. Then he heard a snorting gasp. So close. His sneakers dug deep into the sand.
The man grunted victoriously, lunging. A gloved hand tangled in the long hair at the boy's neck. With a gasp of pain, the boy ducked under his arm. The man rammed into him, butting him backward, then caught him solidly by the shoulders.
The boy flailed, realization twisting his face. "You ain't my ...!" Strong hands closed like a trap on his neck. As they grappled, the boy's jacket and shirttails pulled up, exposing flesh whiter than the frozen beach.
Gravel shaled down the slope as the man's shoes slipped. He toppled, clutching the straps to the backpack. Snagged, the boy shrugged it off, diving for a dark spot beneath the boardwalk. The man fell with a grunt, plunged at the boy's legs. He caught a sneaker. The boy kicked, slipping under the boards.
With a coughing snarl, the man scrambled to his knees and thrust his arm deep into the opening, groping until his shoulder scraped wood. He dug frantically, enlarging the hole. Sand crept up his sleeves and burned like powdered ice. Then he threw himself on his stomach and shoved forward.
Freezing blackness closed on him. The tight cavern smelled of damp wood, and he twisted around. An ovoid of thin daylight leaked from above, and he threshed farther in, grinding his hip against the underside of the boards. He could hardly move his arms, could barely turn his head. Sand gritted between his teeth, and the boards squeezed down on him. He felt empty space with his right hand and tried to writhe forward, but softer earth sucked at him. Twisting in the other direction, he slipped into darkness.
Glowing in a fine seepage of light, a plume of sand trickled down on him.
He was alone now. He knew it. Wind moaned through the cracks, and haze brightened in his vision as he managed to get his feet beneath him in the trench. The boy was gone. Despair coursed through him.
Icy sand filled his gloves as he clambered heavily up the incline. His shoes felt weighted with lead, and at the top, he struck his head against a beam. When he squeezed toward the opening, his belt snagged on a nail, and he squirmed, one arm pinned beneath him, his legs kicking at nothing. Wedged in, he thrashed back and forth, making his way by inches, until the wind tore at his face, and he crawled out. At last, he lay on the open sand, cold grit in his mouth. So close. For several minutes, he listened to the labored pounding of his heart, to the tumbling hush of the sea. Spitting dirt, he rolled onto his back and stared at the sky.
He tugged his gloves off with his teeth, rubbed at his beard-stubbled face. So close. Finally, the breath stopped whistling in his chest, and he heaved to his feet. He reached for the boy's discarded backpack. Heavy. No tags. He unzipped it, turned it over. A rolled towel dropped out like a stone.
Red wetness sopped through the terry cloth, and he prodded the towel with his foot. Lifting it gingerly by a corner, he let the things wrapped within clatter down. Sand caked on the dampness. His eyes moved first to the chisel, then to the small saw and the clotted hammer. Two carving knives lay darkly encrusted, and the center of the towel still glistened.
Fluids hung heavy and gelid in his stomach. Gulls slid across the sky.
The wind rasped myriad sounds over the low sand hills: the distant clatter of the pines, the hushed roar of the waves. The dull whisper held hissing cries that broke, pleading in his ears. Turning away, he leaned one bare hand against the boardwalk, and the frost bled into him. He began to sob, the wind dissipating the sound until he himself could barely hear it.
A stream of sand slithered into the tunnel at his feet, and all around him loose grit wound across the beach in stray currents of air. "No!" He jerked his face up. "You don't get away from me again!" Running for the boardwalk stairs, he shouted at the sky. "I don't let you get away."
He pounded up the steps. "Do you hear me?" He sprinted across the deserted planks. "I'll find you!" Empty shops stood silent and shuttered.
On the other side, he bolted down a ramp to a ragged field. "I'll stop you!" But he moved with a jerky stiffness now, and under his tread, flat stones slid and crunched, slowing him even further. The sparse streets beyond the field looked as deserted as a moonscape.
Halfway down the first block, he halted, shoes scuffing heavily on the sidewalk. Empty dwellings have a distinctive look, like dead trees. Not one of the summery curtains twitched, and some of these cottages even had boarded windows. Leaning against a pole, he coughed and wiped at the grit that clung to his damp face. He tasted brine, felt sand between his teeth. At last, the coughing fit subsided.
The sidewalk curved back in the direction of the beach, and his footsteps scraped a hollow noise from the concrete. Dead grasses rattled at a fence where sand leaked between slats. My one chance. Dry leaves and yellowed newspapers clumped and drifted. He'll go to ground now. In a puddle by the curb, oil shimmered like a rainbow. I'll never find him. A creaking chorus filled the wind. Quaintly LETTERED ROOMS TO LET signs swayed in unison while SALE signs tilted from several of the tiny lawns. He saw only one car, an old gray Plymouth with flat tires near the end of the block. Even from here, the windshield looked opaque with grime.
Right now, he's running. Hooks of guilt dug into his flesh. And I can't stop him. He felt his feverish thoughts teem.
never stop him my fault never catch him in the open like that again so close my fault
He stumbled across the cracked ground. With a shuddering exhalation, he jogged to the end of the block. Never catch him. Around the corner, another boardwalk ramp rose. He halted, listening to the dull roar of the beach while broken sections of pavement slid underfoot, crunching.
The knives. His breath plumed. Got to go back for the knives. As though throwing off a dream, he shook his head and began to climb the ramp.
Beneath the incline, gusts moaned, and tangled in the shadows, debris shuffled rhythmically, as though stirred by the sigh of a sleeping beast.
Excerpted from The Shore by Robert Dunbar Copyright © 2006 by Robert Dunbar. Excerpted by permission.
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