I am super excited to have my short story “The Unexpected Friend” published by Terror House Magazine. Thank you, Editor-in-Chief Matt Forney.
The Unexpected Friend
The sky was streaked with vibrant oranges and navy blue as the sun set over Pamlico Sound. Jennifer just finished settling into the rented beach cottage. It was the first time she had come back to the Outer Banks since her husband Ted had died two years ago. Ted was killed in a freak boating accident while fishing off the coast of Ocracoke Island in North Carolina.
Jennifer looked around at all the familiar spaces and furnishings. The cottage felt so big and empty this time. The quirky décor always delighted her and Ted. Antique kayaks hung upside down from the rafters, and nautical equipment in every nook and cranny. It was unique, and suited them to a tee. Jen and Ted always loved coming in late October, when it was off season, and there were less tourists. It was quiet in the small village that time of the year. They had been coming down for well over twenty years now, and knew many of the local villagers. In fact, since they had been coming so regularly, the locals told her that they no longer considered Ted and her dingbatters: [A “dingbatter” is an island term for someone who’s “not from around here”]. Most islanders now recognized them immediately. Jennifer was hesitant to come alone, but needed the solace and comfort of her special island.
Night began to fall and Jennifer was all done unpacking and arranging things. She was exhausted from the long drive, and tried to go to sleep, but lying in that empty bed alone was unnerving. She tossed and turned for over an hour, but sleep would not come. She decided that she would go out to the beach and say hello to the ocean. She threw on some shorts and a tee shirt, and hopped into her car to drive to the nearest beach parking lot, that was about two miles from the edge of the village. There were no other cars in the lot when she got there, which was unusual. There always seemed to be a few people wandering the beach at night in past years.
She walked over the dunes and towards the sound of the ocean. The rhythmic song of waves breaking on shore seemed to be calling to her. The beach was wide there and she walked cautiously over the uneven sand in the dark, being extra careful not to step on broken sea shells or other debris. Jennifer’s heart raced as she neared the water’s edge. She had never been out there alone at night. She noticed a strange phenomenon that she had never witnessed before. The surface of the water glowed with a ribbon of undulating brilliant blue lights along the edge of the shore. She had heard that bioluminescence did occur along the Outer Banks, but not very often. It was so beautiful and mesmerizing. She felt as if it was an omen just for her.
Just then the wind started to pick up. The Outer Banks was famous for its strong and constant breezes, but this was an unusually chilling wind. Shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself trying to keep warm. Now she wished she had grabbed her sweatshirt before driving here. All of a sudden, she had a strange feeling. She turned around to see a man standing right behind her. It startled her at first because he had a scruffy black mustache and long hair, just like Ted used to have. She knew she should be cautious and concerned, but for some reason she felt very calm and comfortable. He said “Hello, I saw you standing here alone and was just wondering if everything was okay, you look cold. I have a beach fire right over there where I am night surf fishing. Would you like to come over and warm up for a few minutes?” She looked past him to where she could see a fire burning a short way down the beach. It looked warm and inviting. Jennifer did not say a word, but slowly nodded yes. They both walked in silence over to the fire. When they arrived, he said “Isn’t the luminescence magical? I have only seen it here one time before many, many years ago.” Jennifer smiled and turned to look back at the beautiful pale blue lights sparkling just under the surface of the waves.
The man pulled out a second beach chair and offered it to Jennifer. She sat down close to the ground near the fire to warm herself. He pulled out a thermos of hot coffee and offered her a cup, but she shook her head no. They sat for a short while looking up at the brilliant night sky. The Milky Way was visible in all its glory. Suddenly, a shooting star flew across the heavens. The man turned to Jennifer and said, “Make a wish.” A single tear rolled down her cheek. She tried to hold back from crying. Then realizing that she was on a dark beach with a stranger, she stood up and thanked him for his kind gesture, then apologized and started walking back towards the parking lot, not looking back even once. Jennifer broke into a run as the tears came in full force.
The entire time she was driving back to the cottage, she had an odd feeling. There was something unreal about the man. He was not seem to be frightening or dangerous, but she could not pinpoint what it was she was feeling.
The next morning Jennifer got up and got ready for the day. It was a glorious sunny day with shore birds circling overhead and the smell of salt in the air. She went outside and hopped on her bike to ride to the local coffee shop. It was her and Ted’s favorite place to have breakfast when they would come down. As she rode to the small shop that was about one mile from the cottage, she thought back to the night before. Had it really happened, or was it a dream. She got off her bike and placed it in the bike rack. All the shops and restaurants on the island provided multiple bike racks since it was the favored mode of transportation of both the islanders and the visitors.
Jennifer walked into the shop saying “hi” to everybody, calling them by name. She talked for a while with several of the locals, then got in line for her coffee and bagel. The aroma of the fresh brewed coffee and pastries filled the little shop. She took her goodies out to the front porch where her and Ted always used to eat. The front yard of the shop was filled with picnic tables and Adirondack chairs where customers sat enjoying each other’s company while they ate. As she sat down at one of the small tables that was empty, she noticed the man at the table next to her. It was him, the man from last night. It was not a dream. He politely said “Good morning,” and smiled at her. “Do you recognize me? I hope that I did not upset you last night. I did not mean to intrude on your privacy. You just looked so cold standing there.” Jennifer said “Good morning” back. “Well, you do have a voice,” he said with a chuckle, “and a lovely one at that. I am sorry that I did not introduce myself last night, but I did not want to seem too familiar too fast. My name is William, but everyone calls me Will.” Jennifer smiled and said “My name is Jennifer,” as she reached over to shake his hand. They chatted for a short while. Jennifer finished her breakfast and said a polite, “have a lovely day. It is supposed to be sunny and calmer today, although still on the chilly side.” Then she stood up, brushing the bagel crumbs off from her shorts.
She took her bike from the rack and proceeded to go check out the village, since it was her first full day on the island in two years. She was already familiar with most everything, but there were always one or two changes, a new shop, or a new restaurant, that would pop up each year. And she loved rummaging through the craft shops, with their delightful local offerings.
Jennifer went back to the cottage to change for a long bike ride up highway 12 to the Pony Pasture. Then she would go out to lunch, and finally a late afternoon on the beach to enjoy playing in the surf, if it wasn’t too rough, and walking in the sand. She planned her day the same as she and Ted used to do together. She hoped that she would not run into that man again. After all, she was not interested in a summer vacation romance. She still missed Ted. The tears came again.
The week was fun, and continued to be uneventful, as far as seeing her new unexpected friend. It was time to pack up and start the journey home. Jennifer stopped by the small local market to pick up a few things before leaving. She always grabbed some souvenirs, and the local paper that came out every weekend. She sat in the car perusing the paper before leaving. Then she noticed the headlines, “Ocracoke celebrates the 300th year of their Pirate History. Among the famous pirates that used the island as their stronghold was William Howard, Blackbeard’s quartermaster. It was believed that Will Howard is the ancestor of most Ocracoke natives. The name Howard is very prevalent among the original Ocracoke residents. Right there in front of her eyes was a black and white illustration of William Howard. There was also an article right under that about recent ghostly campfire sightings on the beach at night. When investigated in the morning, there were no signs of a fire from the night before. A shiver ran down her spine as she sat there stunned. Her new friend who came to comfort her that night when she was alone and cold, was a pirate ghost.
Jennifer wondered if Will would visit her again next year on the beach when she returned to Ocracoke Island. She smiled and started humming an old pirate sea shanty, ‘Goodbye Fare You Well,’ as she drove north.
We’re home’ard bound across the blue sea,
Good-bye fare-you-well, we wish you well,
We’re home’ard bound to the old counterie,
Good-bye fare-you-well, we’re home’ard bound!
“Until next year, me hearty,” she shouted out the window as she boarded the ferry across to Hatteras and homeward.