's 2016 Horror Write-off:

What the Sea Leaves

Submitted by rahkshasarani

I was vacationing in this little town on the coast of South Korea, picturesque little place. I travel alone to encourage myself to meet as many new people as I can. I already had one steadfast companion, a guy named Isaac I met while held up at the hotel coffee machine. We bonded over complaining about the quality of service in the hotel, the general noise of the beach(which was crowded despite the town's small size) and just kvetching in general. 

This was a few years before the big boxing-day wave that hit Thailand, so the beach was a common destination in this little town that held little other promise. Isaac (Zac, he told me to call him) wanted to hit this certain part of the coast. Unattractive as a boil, but it held much more interesting sights than the tourist-crowded beach. We met up with cameras in tow, ready for any kind of weather. The sky was almost disappointingly sunny, dispelled the whole air of mystery as we waded through the tidal pools at the beach. We weren't alone, even in that rocky little place. A mix of tourists, mostly European, speckled the shore, taking pictures with the little critters that scuttled through the pools. I was just waiting for someone to pick up a cone snail and the inevitable fallout that would follow. Zac was taking pictures of the horizon, that's why he was the first to notice.

"The water. Look, it's draining away."

I looked out to the greater bay. Yes, the tide was withdrawing from the shore, past the low-tide mark and going farther by the second. Gradually the other tourists noticed and pointed, speaking in hushed voices.

"I think I remember reading something about this," Zac muttered. 

An old Italian man was the first to start out, skipping like a little boy. Others followed. After some discussion, Zac and I went out too.

We walked past banks of mussels and stranded starfish, descending with every step. The water retreated, as if courteously deciding to let us pass.

We were enchanted and disgusted. Kelp beds and stranded fish really look cool, but smell like hell. We all plugged our noses, laughing as we walked out onto the empty sea-bed.

We must have been sixty yards out when I first turned back. The beach already looked so small. It almost made me turn around, but Zac tugged my shoulder.


I looked.

The fish were getting weird. The black-purple specimen in front of me had no visible eyes, but was studded in big, gelatinous pustules that I could almost see through. I poked it with my foot and the blobs retreated into its body. I laughed.

Someone found an octopus that shone a bright, toxic orange in the open air. The tentacles ended in calcified tips like claws. When disturbed, it drew up into itself and pointed the claws up so that it looked like a crown. 

There were so many of them. Endless, strange varieties of fish. There was the long, flat eel that had eyes that reflected blue-silver in the daylight. There was the stubby little frog-faced fish that tried to propel itself into a remaining pool of water with spiny legs coming from its gills. The little school of magenta fish that looked to be floating in mid-air until someone poked it and discovered they were suspended in a clear jelly. 

I used up a lot of film on those fish. Zac with his digital camera laughed at me, but good-naturedly agreed to share photos with me once I ran out.

The sea kept retreating. And we followed it.

Now, along with the fish, we started seeing strange-shaped rocks. I kicked one with my foot and it broke. On examining it, I realized that it was a ceramic jar studded with barnacles. They weren't rocks at all. We found farm tools, pottery, and eventually even furniture being overtaken by the sea.

Zac and I looked at one another. This wasn't so enchanting anymore. If not for the other tourists, I think we would have started back. But, whooping and cheering, they pressed on. And so did we.

The disquiet in my chest increased when the first building emerged from the water. It was primitive, built of stones stacked roughly together with no mortar. The thatch roof was still intact.

Zac and I exchanged another look. We knew how wrong this was. Organic material is only preserved in water under very specific conditions. And never something as delicate as this. 

Our fellow tourists shared none of our reservations. They were gasping in awe at the little village. At its people.

The first man I saw wore crude clothes that looked to be made of hide. He was on his back, fresh as the day he died, terrified look on his face. Zac was brave enough to graze the side of his arm with fingertips, said it felt like granite.

The village had all sorts of people strewn around like chopped straw. Woman, children. An old man who cowered with arms thrown over his head. All dead and petrified like Pompeians.

Zac moved like a forensic tech, snapping photos with stern accuracy. I looked around the huts. It really looked like they had been caught while right in the middle of living their lives. Spoons sat in bowls. A man squatted over a pit. A baby stretched out on a mat, eyelids translucent like marble. 

All the people I could see were splayed out as if fallen in the act of running, most pointing to some long-gone menace.

"I don't feel good about this," I said to Zac when we drew together again. 

Zac nodded. "It's worse than you think. I remembered what I read about water draining from a bay. It's what signals the beginning of a tsunami."

I shot a look out to sea. The tide was still pulling back, revealing more village. 

"But we've been out here—" I checked my watch, "—almost a half hour. How long is it supposed to take?"

Zac shook his head. "I don't know. But we shouldn't be out here."

A woman screamed. We looked over to find one of the Italian tourists backing away from a fallen-in hut, retching. The old man, who earlier had been giddy and energetic, now bent forward with his hands on his knees. Sweat stood on his brow.

The tide kept retreating. I watched slick black stones rise from the water, cursing that I had used the last of my film on the octopus. When I looked them up later, the closest thing I could find were the tidal stones in Japan, warning to never build below that point. I can guess they may once have served a similar purpose.

Zac was busy with one of the bodies, probing the cavities with a pencil.

"I've never heard of this," he said, "were these people petrified before the water came? How?"

"Maybe it was the water that did it?"

"How?" Zac frowned. "Does the sea here have special properties? If so—"

We all heard it. The hissing hum of the water drawing back, suddenly stopped.

I looked back to the shore. It looked farther than the ocean's horizon at this point.

Zac yelled the one phrase everyone understood: "run!"

My camera bruised my ribs as I ran. I took it off and wound the strap around my wrist. Of course, we lost people right away. The old man was decades away from running. An Indian woman doubled back to grab his hand and they hobbled along. Too slow. I didn't look, but I heard the tide overtake them. 

The guy in front of us fell, screaming in Spanish. I dodged around him. Zac tried to help him up without losing momentum. Mistake. Zac face-planted in the sand.

I turned back.

"Don't!" Zac made a throwing motion with his hand. "Keep going!"

Zac got back up. The guy stayed down, crab-crawling on his elbows. He had made the mistake of looking back at the wall of water. A woman beside me did the same and slowed, eyes going big.

I felt a hand push my back and knew Zac had gotten back up to speed.

The shore seemed so far. My side was cramping and the wet sand wasn't packed enough to give a good running surface. A knot of people tried to go through a little dip and found there was just enough water to liquefy the sand, trapping them. Only Zac's hand kept me from turning back to them.

The water made a sound as it ate up the sand, a gluttonous roar that I will hear in my sleep til the day I die. I don't know when Zac fell, I just know that when my camera finally fell off my wrist I looked back to find a wall of hungry white foam and nothing else. 

I sprinted the last few yards to the beach. I wasn't alone. A few people ahead of me staggered up the rocks, clinging to sea squirts and kelp anchors.

The tide hit me in the back and lifted me off my feet. It was so cold my body quit working. I couldn't make my limbs move the way I wanted. A few people were flooded off the rocks and pulled screaming into the sea.

The water pushed me up to the beach, where a few survivors already gathered. I was too exhausted to fight anymore. When I felt myself being pulled back by the tide again, they grabbed my wrists and pulled me onto shore.

I felt like I weighed a ton. I had to thaw in the weak sunlight for so long before I could even move. 

Some enterprising soul had fetched the coastal authorities. Of course we weren't believed. The water had rolled up like a rug, fallen back like a whisper. There was no tsunami on the tourist beach that day, and my proof had been eaten with the rest of them.

I never learned Zac's last name, what hotel he was staying at, who his family was so I could leave condolences. It's a shame, because the part of him I became acquainted with in that short time was a good person.

I live in a landlocked state now, far from any body of water. My fear is no longer what the tide has eaten, but what it will eat. And as greenhouse gasses chip away at the last wall of ice holding the ocean at bay, I wonder what the sea will leave.