The whale that washed up on shore had letters carved into its belly.
Melinda stroked the indentations, lingered over the bloodless “O” at the end. Hello, it read, a greeting rendered in scar tissue.
It had been a day and a half since the crash. Her Cessna hung from the trees like a charred tropical bird. Pieces of it were scattered over an area nearly half the size of the island; she had walked until her legs ached yesterday scouting them out. Nothing salvageable, nothing so easy as that. She herself had made it out with only a headache, something so ridiculous that it might have been laughable if her situation was not so dire. She had been on a simple two-hour flight with no supplies. Atticus was the only person who knew she’d gone out, and the idea that he wouldn’t realize she wasn’t home by now was worse than being stranded. There were fruit trees, but they wouldn’t sustain her. The falls on the other side of the island would give her water, but she had no way to collect it, which meant an hour’s trek there and back when she was thirsty.
She fingered the lighter in her pocket and set to work sharpening a stick to use as a knife. She’d already gathered wood to build a fire. In an hour’s time, she had cut enough meat to last her several days; she would pack it in banana leaves and hide it under the falls, where the temperature remained cooler than on the rest of the island.
She was careful to cut around the word Hello, threw the skin back into the ocean. Best not to think about where it had come from.
Night-swimming was once a pleasure, something she and Atticus had done on their honeymoon. Here it was too risky. Once upon a time she had walked a high wire over town, her calf muscles screaming as she found new ways to use them, ass clenched like a fist. Her head was as clear as it had ever been, like it was made of glass. The stunt had gotten her national attention, but it wasn’t praise she was looking for. She wanted the wind.
Getting her pilot’s license had been a natural progression, the next best thing to having wings. She had tried to explain it to Atticus, her need for movement and space, but he was planted in San Diego with his head far away from the clouds. He had loved her fearlessness in the beginning and in the middle. The end was something they couldn’t see yet.
Mel, he’d said, I can’t keep up with you anymore.
Melinda sat on the darkened beach and listened to the waves roar their discontent, aware that sleep would not be coming while the sun was on the other side of the Earth. There was a full moon sitting patiently in the sky, watching over everything: the tide as it slowly reclaimed the whale carcass, the tiny ghost crabs leaving their burrows, the night-wind in the trees. She could hear the wreckage creaking as it shifted in the breeze, a high keening sound that reminded her of a mother mourning her child.
The hours passed.
Despite her resolve to stay awake in the dark, Melinda woke at nine-thirty the next morning, fully sprawled in the cold sand. She sat up slowly, feeling nearly hungover from lack of adequate sleep, and shook particles from her hair.
Down the beach, a whale lay prone in the sun, still sparkling with moisture.
Melinda stood on legs that felt like driftwood and moved toward it cautiously. Maybe it was the same whale; maybe the tide had thrown it back to her.
It was not the same whale. It was smaller and intact, baring none of the crude cuts from her wooden knife. On its side, the word Mel shone wetly, white threads on grey skin.
“Hello, Mel,” she whispered, and barked laughter that sounded like crying.
She dreamed of smoke signals, great puffy rings that dissolved into clouds in a pale blue sky. She had learned to create an S.O.S.; she was going to be rescued. Atticus was waiting for her.
She jerked awake; her sleeping brain knew it was a lie even before she did. Sitting up proved to be a chore; she’d been unconscious for over ten hours according to her watch, safe from the elements and creatures beneath the fronds of a tree. The day was overcast but hot, the fire burned to embers. The dream had given her an idea; probably one that would amount to nothing, but it was a shot. She had been in a daze since the crash, unable to truly think clearly, otherwise she might have thought of it sooner.
First, she had to eat; she was ravenous despite the growing stench of the whale down the beach; the tide hadn’t recovered this one and the heat was beginning to take a toll. Still, the meat she’d procured from the first one had kept her nicely fed. She had written off the messages as stress-induced hallucinations. Simple as that.
“Melinda,” a voice said. It was gravel and smoke, a booming bass that shook the trees around her.
“You’re not real,” she whispered to the wind.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” the voice warbled. “Did you get my gifts?”
She looked down the beach, to where the whale had been. Now there was a great, black nothing. It hovered over the sand, a shifting void darker than anything she’d ever seen, an oily, cagey thing with a voice. Her stomach felt greasy, unstable; that first whale, she knew, had been part of this nothing. She had eaten of it and taken it into her. A communion for the damned.
“I want to go home,” she said. To herself, she sounded very tired.
“You are home,” It said.
– Amanda Crum
Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work can be found in publications such as SQ Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, and Blue Moon Literary & Art Review, as well as several anthologies. Her first chapbook of horror poetry, The Madness In Our Marrow, made the shortlist for a Bram Stoker Award nomination in 2015. She currently lives in Kentucky with her husband, two children, and a healthy horror obsession.