by Gayla Chaney


As storm clouds gather quickly over the gulf coast of southeast Texas, Barbara McPherson stares into the wide open eyes of the stranger. She has already noted the gaping mouth and still chest, the motionless tattooed arms and the bloody hole in the middle of his forehead. This body, this denim-clad object near her feet, confirms the total impotency of the dead. She shudders, not for what she has just done with the .38 Smith and Wesson that her husband Jay insisted she carry with her to the beach, but for what almost just happened to her, what most assuredly would have happened if she had dismissed Jay's concern as paranoia.


"The beach in November?" Jay had been apprehensive. "Barb, nobody else will be out there, except maybe some nut. I don't think you should go alone."

"I need the solitude, Jay. With Julie's wedding plans and Kyle away at Emory, so far from home, it makes me sad to think of it."

"What does that have to do with the beach?" Jay's tone had irritated Barbara. "Can't you be sad at home or out jogging or at the library? Julie's wedding isn't until February. We've got plenty of time to worry about that."

"We?" Barbara laughed. "Four whole months with Thanksgiving and Christmas thrown in to fill up the gaps! Oh, Jay, I wish I hadn't even mentioned it to you. I'm going, okay? I need to meditate and listen to the ocean. If you don't understand why, then just accept the fact that I do. Please."

"Take the gun," Jay pleaded. "For my peace of mind, if not for yours." Barbara had begrudgingly agreed, despite feeling it was a covert attempt to scare her away from her retreat. Honoring his request saved her from only God knows what, but it also resulted in this breathless corpse lying at her feet.

Homicide. Justifiable, surely, but homicide just the same. Barbara would tell how this man had approached her, his dark blue Ford parked sixty yards or more away. She hadn't even noticed the car when she parked her Suburban. She had no idea that she wasn't alone on the beach until she heard him coming up behind her. The gun she had reluctantly placed in the pocket of her parka, out of some kind of loyalty to Jay for his concern, was concealed from view. When she had turned to see this stranger approaching her, Barbara had not been suspicious or even alarmed, despite his unkempt appearance. After all, this was the beach in southeast Texas, close to the refineries of Port Arthur. The population in the area often resembled this rough-looking character. She had expected him to smile, say something about fishing or the gulls or some other friendly exchange before proceeding on down the beach, leaving her to her own thoughts and reasons for coming out when the water and wind were too cold for swimming, when the tide was going out and the sky was overcast.

But he did not speak. Perhaps he had thought the sand would sufficiently muffle his footsteps, assuming Barbara would not turn around until he was right on top of her, responding too late for any defense. Barbara had started to speak, but her words froze on her tongue in disbelief as the stranger lunged at her. His hands grabbed her neck, squeezing tightly as he forced her down into the sand.

She heard the gulls cry overhead and she could smell her attacker's breath as the adrenaline rushed through her body. Instinct. Survival. The roaring sound of waves drowning out the sound of a .38 going off somewhere, in the air, then again, and again, into the flesh of someone who didn't seem human at all.

Barbara thought she heard him call her bitch, but she couldn't be sure now if he had even spoken. She had pulled the hammerless .38 from her pocket and, without aiming, squeezed the trigger as she was falling, and then again as this madman came down upon her. One bullet had gone completely through his skull, exiting out the back, hitting the side mirror on her Suburban. The shattering sound had registered in her mind, but the hole in the man's forehead held her attention.

She had glanced up and down the beach for help, for a witness, for confirmation that this horrible person was really dead. Barbara feared he might suddenly jump up, like the villains in those B movies Jay often took her to, possessing the strength of madness despite the severity of their wounds, lurching toward their opponents one last time.

But he had a hole in his head, a severe wound to his brain, and Barbara marveled that she had put it there. Who was he? Had he preyed on others before her or was this his first impulsive act of violence? She stared at his face. She felt no remorse. There was nothing of the regret or disbelief or concern that she would have credited herself with if she had imagined such a scenario. Only anger. And even that was not the anger that she would have supposed.

She wasn't angry that this barbarian had forced her to kill him, which Barbara believed he had. Her anger, and this was what shocked her most about herself as she watched the blood oozing down the side of this man's nose, drifting over the cheek and into his beard, was the inconvenience of it all. She had a wedding to get ready for and the preparations that went with that. Not to mention Kyle's college expenses. This unforeseen complication could drain money earmarked for their future. It wasn't fair. Why should the McPherson family have to pay for this man's rage and lawlessness?

Barbara bit her lip, afraid she would break down and be unable to figure out what she needed to do. Determined not to become hysterical, she focused on her attacker's face, studying its contours, replacing her anxiety with contempt as the clouds darkened and the wind picked up.


Time seems to have stopped, she thinks, or has it? She has no idea how long she has been standing here, staring into a dead man's eyes. She only knows that she cannot deal with this ordeal, not now, not with so many other more important things pressing her for time. Even though this was an act of self-defense, she would still need a lawyer. If there was a trial, the humiliation for her family would be unbearable; both of her children at important times in their lives having their mother's face plastered across the front page because of this stranger. If he were just a drifter, there might not be much made of it; but if he had family in the area, if he had no prior record of violence, well, without any witnesses, she could be accused of anything, even murder.

Barbara pictures the prosecutor asking her, "You went to the beach in November? With a gun, Mrs. McPherson? You said you wanted and planned to be alone. And yet, you took a gun. You weren't planning on meeting anyone? A lover? A blackmailer?"

She thinks of Jay. Even he had thought it odd that she wanted to go to the beach. Would he believe her or would he end up questioning her story? Barbara puts the gun back in her pocket as she turns, taking inventory of the damage done to her Suburban mirror. She looks back at the face in the sand. There is an earring in his left ear and his beard is untrimmed. The tattoo on his right forearm shows a heart with "Rochelle" written in the center of it. The tattoo on his upper left arm is half concealed by the sleeve of his T-shirt, but Barbara makes out what appears to be the tail of a mermaid.

"Bastard," she mutters to the corpse. The wind blows harder and the sky looks as if any minute it might storm. The waves are rising and the tide is going out. And still, Barbara stands there mesmerized, unable to free herself from the hypnotic effect of staring down into the eyes of a dead man that she made dead.

This feels like the most life-altering moment of her life and at the same time, Barbara is aware that she doesn't feel like a different person, the kind of person who could kill another human being. She feels nothing of the regret that taking a life should surely cause. She feels no pity, no regret, no concern at all for the dead man lying on the beach. He, "It" seems more appropriate for the large, motionless lump of flesh lying inches from her feet, is a nameless, ageless, soulless mass that needs to be removed from the beach like the refuse left by inconsiderate beachgoers whose bottles and food wrappers and discarded or forgotten items litter the shoreline. "It" is an eyesore, like the other abandoned, left-behind trash, waiting to be disposed of.

Nothing about this stranger's behavior deserved to be labeled as human. He had displayed only animal-like aggression in Barbara's encounter with him. In death, he becomes a despicable reminder of all that is evil and ugly and wrong, of annoyance and inconvenience, and of wasted time, her valuable time lost and her day of retreat ruined, simply because this piece of scum decided to come to the beach and not just any beach, but her beach.

This had been Barbara's favorite spot, set back from the main gathering areas used in the summer when the beach was full. She and Jay had brought the children here when they were small. Barbara sunbathed while Jay took the kids out into the water. She would put down her towel in this very spot, away from the crowds that preferred the sandier beach with their stereos blasting and their coolers full of beer and their volleyballs, dragging the noise and activity of the city with them. This was the spot that Barbara had sat to read so many times while the sounds of the waves and her children laughing had blended together into one soothing song just for her.

Just for her. This man had been reaching just for her. She was his selected victim. Why? Because she was here on this cold, November morning, and no one else was. They were strangers to one another and yet now linked together forever in a horribly gruesome moment that might reappear like an instant replay whenever some seemingly innocent future occurrence triggered her memory.

Barbara knows she needs to start for home. It is getting late. Her attacker's car will eventually be found, but there will be no trace of her in it; nothing connecting her to him in any way. She bends over and touches his skin. It is cold enough to convince her he will not spring to life as he might in some future nightmare. Stepping back from the body, Barbara quickly removes her clothes. When she is naked and goose bumps cover her flesh, she grabs the man's right leg. Clutching his boot, she drags him over the sand into the water.

The water is freezing. She knows she can not take him out too far, but hopefully, far enough. Eventually, he will probably wash up on shore, but where and when, Barbara doesn't even want to think about. Instead, she thinks about his mother. Is she alive? Would she be shocked by the loss of her child or would his death be some sad, yet anticipated conclusion? Was he a prodigal son or is his family all like him?

When Barbara is far enough out that she can not touch the silt of the ocean floor, she pushes the corpse away from her. As she watched the body sink, she feels a heave rising from her gut, a revulsion that engulfs her. She swallows hard and begins swimming toward the shore, determined to keep down whatever is trying to escape from within her, focusing only on her Suburban, its familiarity offering solace, a sanctuary waiting on the beach.

When she reaches the sand, Barbara bends over at the waist, clasping her stomach until she subdues the retching sensation. Trembling, she grabs her clothes and dresses as it begins to drizzle. In one pocket of her parka is the Smith and Wesson; in the other is her key ring. Hastily, she unlocks the Suburban door and climbs inside, locking the door immediately before turning on the heater. She looks out at the blank face of the sea. She sees no trace of a dead man in the water. Nothing but wind and waves. No evidence of anything beyond a coming storm.

Barbara puts the Suburban in reverse and turns the vehicle away from the water, hesitating only long enough to glance one final time at the spot in the gulf where she has left the corpse. No one will ever know. She will not dwell on this; she must not. It is not something she did to him, but something he did to himself. His death is his own fault and his blood is on his own hands, except for the droplets that splattered on her parka and her jeans. She will wash them the minute she gets home. And she will take a hammer to the side mirror and bust the rest of it out, leaving it to look like a random act of vandalism.

She'll get the Suburban mirror replaced tomorrow and she will never, not ever, tell anyone, not even Jay, about what occurred. There is a wedding to plan. Kyle will be coming home for the holidays. And then, it will be Christmas.

Barbara switches on the windshield wipers and her headlights. She takes a deep breath, exhaling slowly, deliberately, to calm herself as she grips the steering wheel. She pulls the Suburban back on to the paved road. From the corner of her eye she spies a dark blue car. She panics for a moment, fearing someone might be waiting inside, but the car is empty; just an abandoned, older model Ford LTD with Texas plates. Barbara chooses not to drive over toward it, not to peer inside for some explanation or telltale clue that could offer any insight into the madman who had parked it there. She has seen all she needs to see.

Lightning flashes in the distance. She wishes the coming storm would be a big one that could sweep the Ford's owner so far out into the ocean that he might never be found. The empty car would be a mystery mentioned on the evening news at some point in the future when it was discovered and attached to a missing person's report. She hopes that will be how it transpires, and she hopes even more that it will be weeks or months from now, after her day at the beach has been forgotten by anyone who might have seen her heading in this direction.

Pressing her foot down on the accelerator, Barbara steers her Suburban away from the shoreline and the blowing sand that already is erasing her tire tracks. She stares straight ahead as the pendulum action of the windshield wipers clears the blurring effects of rain with each methodical stroke, allowing her to focus on the road in front of her and ignore the dark blue Ford parked just off the road to her right with its windows left down in the rain.


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