They were strangers, drawn together on the shore by a force they didn’t understand.
Although it was midday, the horizon had taken on the hues of sunset. They could smell the heavy scent of smoke in the air.
Further up the beach, close to the docks, many of the boats had been capsized or sunk. The ferry, which made daily runs between here and the scattering of islands offshore, lay on its side in the water.
“It’ll go down,” an old man remarked to no one in particular. “Just hasn’t taken on enough water to send it down yet.”
No one answered.
A couple of empty boats bobbed on the surface.
Karen stood knee-deep in the water, staring across the reach toward the nearest island–not that she could see it through all the residual smoke. She just couldn’t bear to look at the docks any longer. “God is punishing us,” she whispered.
“For what?” This came from an elderly woman who was also standing in the water.
Karly, Karen’s sister, gave her a nudge. “Don’t be a Karen, Karen,” she whispered urgently. “This is bad enough.”
“T’ain’t God,” the old woman said. “People did this.”
“What people?” Karen asked.
“Is it a war?” The little boy who asked this was standing apart from a young woman who may or may not have been his mother. She was beckoning him to come to her, but he ignored that. “Do the so-jers come now?”
“Benny,” the young woman hissed, barely above a whisper. “Come here!”
“It’s a war, Billie,” he replied. “I think so-jers are coming.”
The young woman–Billie–shook her head. “Soldiers aren’t coming, Benny.”
The old woman spoke up again: “Someone is bound to come.”
“Who?” Karen asked.
The old man kept his eyes on the ferry. As it settled deeper in the water, a platoon of hissing bubbles arose around it, gurgling and sputtering. “We need to get out of the water, folks,” he announced, his voice oddly calm in the face of upcoming calamity.
“”Why?” Benny demanded.
“There’ll be suction when she goes down.” The old man turned and looked the boy in the eye. “It’ll knock us on our asses, maybe drag us in.”
“How do you–?”
“And then there will be a back-surge.”
“It’s not even deep–” Benny began, and then Billie had him by the arm. “Hey!”
Billie said, “For once, just do as you’re told!” She started dragging him to shore.
Karen and her sister didn’t hesitate. Karly took her hand and they pulled each other back up to the beach.
The old man waded to the elderly woman and offered his arm. She let him lead her out of the water.
The ferry started to groan in protest as water sucked it down.
Benny, finally realizing it wasn’t unlikely to send water rushing up the shoreline, started pulling Billie away from the shoreline, and the others followed.
“Who did this?” Karly asked.
No one answered.
Well away from the water, they stood together and watched to boat go under. It was surprisingly noisy, the sinking process. Groaning timbers, squealing steel, the slurp, slurp of suctioning waters and the roar of bursting bubbles were a cacophenous symphony, with background singers made up of screeching seagulls.
It went down with a mighty splash, and then the seas rose in an impressive succession of waves that battered the beach and soaked the onlookers in spite of the distance they’d backed up.
“Jesus Christ!” Benny cried.
“Who did this?” Karly repeated.
Karen screamed when the first body was slapped up out of the water and onto the beach. She and Karly turned and ran.
Benny yelled, “Jesus Christ!”
Billie slapped the back of his head. “Stop saying that!” she shouted.
“You bitch, Billie,” Benny growled, vigorously rubbing his injury.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God!”
“Never you mind, Ellen.” The old man patted his elderly companion’s hand.
“How many people were on that ferry?”
“Never mind, never mind.” He turned her away when the next body slammed into the sand. “We have to get back and check on the others.”
“Oh, Marty!” Ellen began to sob. “Everything’s burning!” Even so, when he began to walk, she went along with him.
“Come on, Benny,” Billie said. “We have to see if Mom’s okay.”
Benny stood staring, horrified fascination on his face. Suddenly, he thrust his face toward the sea. “Look, Billie!”
“It’s a skiff! I think someone is coming!”
Billie grabbed his arm and started pulling. “Let’s get out of here!”
Benny used both hands to shade his eyes. “I think it’s someone from the island,” he argued.
“I don’t care! Let’s go!”
Reluctantly, Benny let himself be led off the sand and up to the parking area.
Karen and Karly were there. Marty and Ellen stood, arms wrapped around each other. Billie stared. Benny cried for the third time, “Jesus Christ!”
The cars in the lot were smashed flat and smoking.
Karen turned to the group and asked, “Are we alive?”
No one answered.