People wash up on shore all the time. They’re usually dead, though, so when the body at Moxy’s feet suddenly coughed up a bunch of water and rolled over Moxy screamed and screamed and kicked him.
We don’t know where the bodies come from. All you can see from the beach is endless ocean. Every direction, and all the directions in between, nothing but waves of blue and green eventually hitting the line of sky. Sometimes the waves are big and sometimes they are small and sometimes something comes over the waters and the surface is as still as glass, reflecting back the clouds or the stars or whatever is in the sky. But it’s always water. Everything that’s not the island is water and sky so we really don’t understand where these bodies are coming from.
They’re annoying, I can tell you that. Because we’re the ones who have to get rid of them. Can’t let ‘em rot. Every few years someone suggest we start eating them but that always gets shot down and then whoever suggested it gets avoided for a while. People can forget you momentarily thought it was a good idea to find a way to cook and eat waterlogged and half-decomposed bodies. They can’t forget that once upon a time, I think maybe our great- or great-great-grandparents, actually tried.
It did not go well.
They must come from far away. The bodies. Not too far, because they’re still identifiable as human. But far enough for them to be green and bloated and nibbled on. We collect them, check them for anything worth keeping, then say a prayer and burn them. The island is small, and we don’t have the space to be burying dozens of bodies every year.
That’s what we were on the beach for. It was a Tuesday, and Tuesdays were the days Moxy and I were assigned to the beach. The bodies come from all directions, or at least they wash up everywhere, so we spend the day walking the ten miles around the island. They’re not hard to spot, not once you know what you’re looking for. We saw this one at the end of the Flat Beach on the north side of the island. Saw it a quarter mile away. Moxy was carrying the flags, ten foot flexible poles with little red cuts of fabric on top, and she went ahead of me to plant the flag in the beach, next to the body.
“This one looks weird,” she called back to me. “It’s not so green.”
And then the body started coughing up seawater and Moxy started screaming and she kicked the guy and I was so stunned it took me a few seconds to get my legs working.
He didn’t really look weird. He just didn’t look dead. Not so different from us, actually. Paler skin. Darker hair. Made the same crooked faces we do when we’re sick as he coughed and hacked and purged the ocean from his lungs and stomach. It went on forever. The sun was hot and the ocean kept rolling in softly – the big waves are on the south side of the island – and he jerked and coughed and crawled and spit in the sand. Finally, everything inside was outside and he rolled over and fell on his back. Panting.
It took him a while to notice me and Moxy. We were standing a few feet away, clutching each other, the flags still balanced on Moxy’s shoulder. We watched the emotions play out on his face. A dream at first, he must have decided. Then confusion clouded his eyes as much as the sand did. Not a dream, of course we weren’t a dream. He was staring at real people. Then he was looking all over. At the ocean. The beach. The trees. The sounds coming from beyond, his eyes grew wide as full moons when he realized he could hear the sounds of town. Then he was looking at us.
Trying to speak made him cough again, violently. Painfully, from the look and sound. When it washed over him he looked afraid to speak again, but he tried anyway.
“I made it?” he said.
“Made it?” Moxy whispered to me. “What the hell does that mean?”
The watery man made a watery smile. “You speak our language?”
“I speak our language, mister.”
“‘Our,’” he repeated. He tried to sit up but only managed to get up on elbows. “There are others here, aren’t there? I can hear them. A whole civilization. We knew it. We were…we’ve been trying to reach you. Trying to bring you to us. We can’t…there’s something in the ocean.”
“Duh,” I said. There was something about this man I was starting to dislike. He was talking to us that way you talk to children. You know, where you keep your voice soft and gentle and talk about the known universe like it’s a miracle or something. “We know there’s something out there. That’s why we stay here. It’s you people who can’t seem to understand that.”
The man frowned, and then he was sitting up, frantic. Patting at himself, all over, looking in his clothes. He unzipped the jacket he was wearing and must have found what he was looking for, because blissful relief fell over his face and his movements became less like a terrified animal.
We knew what it was the second he pulled it out. All of the bodies we had found had one.
While he fiddled with the knob on the top, checking it for water damage, Moxy and I looked at each other. This was not a light decision. Luckily, it was one that had already been made for us.
The bottom of the flags were spiked. Very sharp. Not that they needed to be for the sands of the beach. Only for their secondary purpose. We would be the very first among us to use it.
He didn’t live long once the flag was planted through him into the beach. I’m glad Moxy did it, because she had always been better at finding the heart. If I had done it I probably would have only speared a lung and we would have had to watch him choke to death. This was better.
“…tive…zero two ni…we are pick…your signal. I repeat, we are picking up your signal. Are you there? Do you read? Have you-”
At least I could break a radio properly. That I had done plenty of.
People wash up on shore all the time. They’re trying to reach us. Thing is, we don’t want to be reached.