She stood at its entrance, noticing how the trees filtered out the bright sun. She felt its pull, its beckoning. She wondered if he felt the same pull. Wondered if he stood there just as she was, trying to make sense of the need to enter the woods. The breeze rustled through the leaves, swaying the branches. It swirled across the ground and spiraled the debris toward her. A welcoming gift. And in the end, she crossed its border, feeling the woods swallow her up.
“Everything goes quiet,” she thought with a smile, “in Night Ocean.”
About a year – maybe two – ago, I had a dream of a small oceanside town. The sort of town that stood out of time (think Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or It Follows). Sea salt worn wooden homes built on stills and brick buildings perpetually covered in algae.
Record players played in hotel lobbies as gentlemen dressed in their business attire sat cross-legged smoking cigars and laughing at the trivialities of their day, while older men scanned the late edition of the town’s newspaper, rubbing their fingers over their whiskered chins. Women were mostly seen and not heard in this town without a name.
“This might be the wine speaking,” she whispered. And the oblivion wraps its arms arms around me in a welcoming embrace, an old friend falling back in step with me.
Alarm clock blared. Six-in-the-morning head fog, dehydrated mouth, and bad breath. Empty wrappers and containers of food litter the floor beneath my feet. My “home office” desk cluttered with empty bottles and various cups with sticky substances lining the bottom. It’s another day. Another time. At the floor is a beaten up copy of a poetry publication. Pages ripped out in a frenzy I know longer remember. Highlighted stanzas and circled first letters of every title.
Morning coffee rinses my mouth of the mint provided by my toothpaste. Strewn across my kitchen table are more ripped pages from back issues of the publication. The patterns I ignored until her message read loud and clear.
“My heart is a complication/rendered too small at birth//It is why I give myself unto you/quickly/drunkenly,//this may just be the wine speaking.”
My cell phone buzzes to life. Work. Another day, another dollar.
“Hiya, Matty. What’s the news?”
It’s amazing how a person’s career history can fit in a single copy paper shipment box. Framed photographs. Pen holder and paper weight. Work journals and day planners. That easy-to-care-for potted plant Irene in HR gave you one year at a holiday party when she drew your name in a Secret Santa bullshit ritual.
“What do you know about toxic relationships, Alan?”
“I know to never get into one.”
Night: Chinese food, a movie playing on Netflix that I couldn’t care less about, and this month’s issue of the poetry publication. Every page, a painting. Not a single verse.
3 am phone call. “Help me. Help me. Help me.”
“Hey Shelby, do you know why this month’s issue is just paintings?”
“Yeah. Just paintings. Every page. No text.”
“Marrow, last issue was a double month. There isn’t a new issue this month. Not until the 23rd anyway.”
“My mistake. Must’ve picked up another publication.”
At home, I study the issue. The paintings. Every fine and careless brush stroke. On one page, a glass of wine, a heart-shaped vibration.
“This might be the wine talking…but come find me, Marrow. It’s beautiful here.”
It was 3 am when the phone call came in that night. The phone call that stole my family away from me. And Amber’s broken voice on the receiver, “I don’t know know what happened. I don’t know where I am. Come find me, Marrow. They’re all gone.”
No one knows where she came from. Just that she appeared in Night Ocean one day. Hollow stare scratched upon vacant eyes – black holes into unnameable galaxies. You can find her lingering. Often in the corners of rooms just within your peripheral.
Wisps of golden sand hair, tangled with seaweed. Cracked skin. Coral for fingernails. Her mouth a void. Chest concave, hollowed out. Whispers in the allies like urban lore spread through the town. A witch cast out. A bloodline dating back to Salem.
Record scratch breaths. Gasping voice. When she chooses you, you’ll know.
It's beautiful here, Marrow
Come find me
Everything goes quiet in Night Ocean
They started some time ago. Too long for me to pinpoint an actual date. Maybe two, maybe three years ago. Possibly more. Just one night, I started having them. Dreams. But not quite. The sort of dreams that feel more like memories. The kind that after waking up the next morning, you’re tearing through the house looking for that thing you lost because you suddenly remembered where you last left it. And when you inevitably don’t find it, you furrow your brow and just question the reality of it all.
They were of that variety of dream. The ones that stuck around. And as soon as you began to let them fade beyond the realms of memory, they came back to you at night.
That is until they became more recurring. From every so often to every two weeks to every week to just about every time you close your eyes. And they left me waking up in the middle of the night, getting on my phone or tablet or laptop and just searching for answers. Every search left me without nothing. Not an inch closer to an answer.
It affected my work. I could see it in the eyes of my coworkers. The way my superiors spoke to me. Saw in the disappointed looks of my family. And how my friends would text me at random. Some even calling, their voices heavy with concern.
I shrugged it off, of course. Told everyone it was nothing. That I was just preoccupied.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” the question repeated with each phone call conversation or text message.
By the end of it, the dreams became more vivid. And the warning repeated itself: Stay away from Night Ocean.
A searching online for it led me to a short story by R. H. Barlow and H. P. Lovecraft. It led me to a novel by Paul La Farge. It led me to countless articles and essays about the two works of fiction, but nothing concrete. And having never read either, it made no sense to me why the warning would echo in my ear.
I thought it was crazy. Or maybe I had been going a bit mad. These dreams were eating away from my sleep schedule. Perhaps I heard the title of the story in passing. Or maybe I misunderstood the warning in my dream. And I shouldn’t dwell on it. After all, they were just dreams. And dreams are nothing more than the subconscious speaking to us.
A lot had changed in my corner of the world. It’s not too far fetched that I would have some unaccounted stress lying below my facade. Later that morning, I phoned a friend whose profession was to assist trouble minds like mine. He, of course, wouldn’t take me in as a patient and I hadn’t expected him to. My reasoning was merely to ask for a suggested therapist. Someone as good as he if not better.
He chuckled at my slight stab to his ego, “Glad to have you back, Marrow.”
“Glad to be back,” I replied.
After making an appointment with one Doctor Angelina Cortez, I readied myself for work. The day, uneventful as it were, went by in a blur. People smiled at me. Most were happy not to see me sulking around. And my supervisor called me into her office and told me, “Whatever it is you’re doing, keep it up. I’m glad to have the old you back.”
On the way home, I stopped at the book shop I frequented often. Black Spire books stood hidden on a block of coffee shops and delis. I’m told it started off as a mom-&-pop store. It stayed within the family through the generations. And due to our small town nature, it thrived. The current owner, the great-granddaughter of the original owners, greeted me as I entered the building.
“Marrow,” she said, “long time no see, man.”
“Sorry about that Shelbs,” I said, “I’ve been preoccupied a lot with work.”
“Nah I get it, man,” she said. And her smile faltered, “Listen, I know we don’t really like talk outside of this place or whatever, but if you ever need to talk about it, we can.”
“Really, Shelby, it’s fine,” I managed before changing the subject. “Got the latest issue?”
“Are you kidding me? You haven’t been here for months, I saved you the back issues too.”
From behind her counter, Shelby pulled out a small stack of publications, issues of a poetry magazine that I’d taken a liking to.
I thumbed through one issue as Shelby asked, “You ever gonna publish anything in that magazine? Your stuff is good, Marrow. Like really good. The people at the poet’s corner really love it.”
“Maybe,” I replied,
And then I saw it. Inside the April issue: “Night Ocean” by Amber K. Gonzalez.
“Hey Shelbs, I gotta go,” I muttered. “How much do I owe you for this?”
I paid and got back into the car, dropping all but the April issue – just last month – onto the passenger seat. I flipped to the page and read the three-line poem, the only one published by Amber. Amber, who I hadn’t heard from in all this time. Amber, who blamed herself for the misfortunes of my life. Amber.
Arriving home, I found the mail scattered on the floor. The seasick green envelope standing out among the others. Her name written on the corner in her perfect script: Amber K. Gonzalez 42 East Gilman Avenue, Night Ocean.
No state. No zip code. Not even a fucking stamp.
I rip the fucking thing open and out slipped note. Small. Handwritten. Smelling of her perfume and the sea.
“It’s beautiful here, Marrow. “Come find me. “Everything goes quiet in Night Ocean.”
The same three lines as her poem. The poem I can no longer find within the pages of the April issue.
It takes me longer to notice the blood stained fingerprints left at the corners of the page.