She wiggled her toes into the wet sand, delighted by the soft grit that crept between them. Heather had never seen the ocean before or even stood on a beach. One summer, her family went on a camping vacation, their first and only trip outside of the city before things got bad. She was little then, maybe six or seven years old, and they parked at a large campsite with enough amenities to trick you into thinking that you could definitely survive in the woods by yourself. But, they did have access to a large lake. Heather liked looking at the lake, but since she never learned to swim, she didn’t dare dive into its depths.
She remembered the lakeshore was rocky and burned the soles of her feet. She would run as fast as her little legs could take her to get them into the relieving waters, never letting the lake get higher than her calf. But when Heather arrived at the beach, the first thing she felt was the sand. It was just warm enough without burning her feet, and the closer she got to the water, the cooler the sand became. It was a pleasant surprise considering what brought her here in the first place.
The sky was an eerie slate grey, but she could still feel the warmth of sunlight as it reflected off her skin. Heather glanced around the beach which stretched for miles in both directions, completely empty except for the rhythmic waves slipping over the sand. She glanced over her shoulder and saw a lounge chair that had not been there before. She smiled and quickly eased herself into its woven comfort. She closed her eyes and could imagine the bright rays of sunlight warming her skin. No, more than warming. She could feel the heat that now radiated off her skin, and she let herself slowly bake under the warmth, knowing that she could never come back or lay on another beach again.
After an indeterminable amount of time, she opened her eyes and saw that she was no longer alone. Another woman stood a few feet away, her eyes locked on Heather without blinking. To Heather’s credit, she didn’t scream or jump. She had been expecting something to happen based on what she knew before she arrived.
“Welcome,” the woman said. Her airy voice might have been carried away by the sea breeze if this were any ordinary beach. But of course, it was not. The woman’s sheer cover did not ripple around her thin frame, and her long black hair hung heavily down her back and over her shoulders.
“Have you decided what you want to do?”
“I didn’t realize I had a choice,” Heather responded.
The woman’s laughter rang in loud peals, echoing up and down the coastline.
“Of course you have a choice. At least you do now. You know we didn’t always have a choice. You just had to cross.” She gestured vaguely to the dunes and trees behind Heather, which she turned around to notice. She hadn’t seen them before.
“But now,” the woman continued, “you get to choose. You can cross, or you can go back and make them pay for sending you here.” She nodded her head towards the ocean, a fresh wave bringing an inch of water around her feet.
Heather stood up from the lounge chair, her toes digging slightly into the drenched sand.
“But I can’t swim.”
“You won’t be doing any swimming, child. You just need to dive.”
Heather glanced around the beach again, the unnatural picture falling into place and recovering her memory. She looked back into the woman’s light grey eyes, slight wrinkles forming at their edges.
“Can I find the man who murdered me?”
The woman smiled at her and replied, “I highly recommend it”
She could feel her anger now pulsing in her chest. Heather nodded and began walking into the surf. When the water reached her naked calves, she hesitated, looking out into the endless horizon of ocean. She realized this is why so many people didn’t come back before. They didn’t know they could return from the other side of this ocean.
But she had seen the people come back. Everyone had. Their decaying bodies transformed into a gelatinous oil that the returned could give form and movement. Depending on how long it took for them to come back, the bodies would combust and level large towns. Heather wasn’t sure how long she had taken, and she wasn’t particularly looking forward to going back as one of the returned that frightened her so much when she was alive.
And then, she saw the man’s face. His dark, brown eyes full of fear. Curtains of brown hair falling towards her face as he leaned over her broken body. The sound of his old truck bursting through its broken front grill as he abandoned her. She had laid there for hours, unable to move her neck, only aware of the immense pain that continually racked her body up and down. Her only solace at the time was her eyes were open and she could see the stars. When her body finally gave up, the stars blinked out of existence.
She looked up at the dark featureless sky above her and decided that she needed to see those stars again, and that man didn’t deserve to see them anymore. Heather continued walking until the water reached her navel.
And then she dived in.