PELICAN BAY by Jesse Giles Christiansen
After Ethan Hodges discovers an undersea cemetery just off the beach of Pelican Bay, South Carolina, he seeks answers from a grandfatherly fisherman named Captain Shelby.
The captain wants the past to remain buried, and he warns Ethan to stay away. But Ethan doesn’t listen.
Ethan’s best friend and secret love interest, Morgan Olinsworth, joins in the investigation, unearthing intriguing secrets about the mysterious fisherman.
When Captain Shelby is suspected of murder and disappears, a manhunt ensues, revealing a truth that unnerves everyone in Pelican Bay.
BUY THE BOOK *** BUY THE eBOOK *** READ THE EXCERPT *** WATCH THE VIDEO
Aspen Langsley fell prey to a dare, for he was small and awkward for his age and always eager to be anything but that way.
The year was 1931, and the gaunt arms of the Great Depression reached even the forgottenness of Pelican Bay, South Carolina. Were it not for the fish that still happily fed near their shores, or the big bags of flour that stout elders had put away for meager times such as those, they might have emaciated themselves right into the great sea.
Aspen awoke from a terrible nightmare that he had had ever since he was four years old. The haunting dreams started after picnicking with his parents on Pelican Beach where he first saw the old fisherman standing, like a petrified pirate, atop a nearby dune. And when he had them, they were always about the old man. That growling, chuckling barnacle—the crusty ambassador of Pelican Bay. His nightmare always had the same awesome echo of slimy figures swathed in the clothes of Vikings, their winged head gear the iron ghosts of prehistoric gulls, and their rotting, creased faces like pages of little oval history books written in indecipherable font. And always in front, leading them more by his oceanic presence than by anything else—without exception—the old man.
They were coming to punish the townspeople for thinking too much about things that were better left alone.
Aspen did not understand how he could succumb to such a dare, how he had to confront his worst nightmare like a tiny son of Superman facing a truckload of kryptonite. But his father, a great fisherman in his own right, Captain John Langsley Sr., always told him that wars were mainly fought by very young men who were hungry for honor. And facing the scary old fisherman in his dreams always felt like a dark war, the battlegrounds the ornery sea and the misty mire of his psyche.
They started stripping Aspen of his honor early on, right from the first grade.
Though Aspen was undersized from the beginning—for a while the Langsleys feared they might have birthed a little person—he was too many inches behind his peers. He also held too much weight for his age. By seven years old, he had boy breasts and was ridiculed for it as relentlessly as the beach was by the vicious Pelican Bay tides. His mom would try to make up for it when she often said, "Don't worry Aspen. Your body's going to catch up one day and that fat will turn into big muscles. You'll see."
But Aspen would never see—never see beyond the sleepy blackness of that dare on an unexpectedly chilly June night.
Freckly Chucky Olinsworth was the worst by far. "You have bigger breasts than my sister," he would say. But who was Chucky to say anything? Unlike Aspen, he was the same size as the other kids, but was covered in noisy red freckles from head to toe. He looked like a walking Alabama night sky seen through a red-lensed telescope, and besides, he spoke with the voice of a mosquito giving its existential view through a megaphone.
Then there was Bert—short for Berton—Hodges. He was tall for his age, but ridiculously gangly and so pale that in the summer, when Pelican Bay's skies were not usually bruised, you could see blue veins swimming underneath his skin like a school of baby bluefish. Bert's hair was as black as a starless night or Pelican Bay's absence on any map—so black against his sickly skin as to make him look like a male Goth. "Can I have a feel?" he would always say. Then he would cop one immediately in spite of Aspen's answer. Chucky would join in until Aspen lay on the ground squirming and screaming under the twirling sting of descending twin-titty-twisters.
The dare was born of ghost stories on an early summer eve, a windy dusk blanketing the dunes in view of the old fisherman's just-lit lantern, flickering like a lost soul. His boat was moored to the slippery docks in the near distance, creaking like it always did—a wooden brontosaurus with arthritis.
"You know who's a ghost for real?" Bert said, his dark hair a dune-tip shadow waving in the breeze, a dancing black flame, his eyes darting off to the captain's bobbing boat.
"Shut up," Chucky said.
"I want to know," Aspen said.
"Of course you do, dip shit," Chucky rifled, the stiffening wind now carrying his voice away.
"Have you ever seen him up close?" Bert went on.
"You're an idiot," Chucky said.
"I saw him once," Aspen said, "when I was four. His face is the oldest face I've ever seen."
Chucky laughed. A bullish laugh. Aspen felt a punch coming. Crossed his arms. Cowered for it but it did not come.
"A few years ago I was fishing with my dad and saw him bathing in the ocean near the shore by the old docks. His face looked to be in its twenties," Bert said.
"This is complete bullshit," Chucky said.
"Well, maybe so. You can sit here jerking off and telling stupid stories all night. But if you want to see a real ghost," Bert concluded, "then you need to go out and talk to that old man."
"Ha, ha. What a bunch of morons," Chucky said.
"I believe it. He gives me the willies," Aspen said in a loud whisper. His gentle blue eyes, now almost lost to the engulfing blackness of Pelican Bay, looked near raving.
And the punch finally came.
It seemed to Aspen that they always came without warning. They were like the ominous Atlantic storms that seemed to enjoy bullying Pelican Bay. A jinxed boy, a jinxed town. But Aspen preferred a bad storm over the punches or the insults. He preferred the honor of dying in a storm.
"I've got better things to do," Chucky said, starting up.
"Yeah? Better than watching Aspen go out there and say hi to the old man?"
Chucky sat back down again on the cheek of the dune, his eyes flaring, an evil smile burgeoning.
"You can forget it," Aspen said, rising, his voice trembling a little, betraying the fear underneath its counterfeit bravado.
Another punch. This time from Bert.
"Chicken. Bock, bock, bock," Chucky said, marching around the dune, flapping his arms in grotesque mockery.
The old man's lantern suddenly went out for a moment and goose-bumps ripped at the boys flesh.
Suddenly the lantern was lit again. They all looked at each other, wide-eyed.
"You want to be a real man?" Bert asked. "You want to be treated like one of us?"
"Yeah. You want to stop being a pussy your whole life?" Chucky added, laughing obnoxiously.
Now Aspen looked at them, then out toward the docks, then back at each of them. "I don't have to prove anything."
Chucky grabbed him and he struggled. Bert came up in front of him and said, "We haven't twisted those titties in a while."
"Don't! I don't have titties!"
"Prove it," Bert said.
"Yeah, show us you're not a girl with titties."
Bert reached for Aspen's nipples while Chucky held him.
"Ok! Stop! I'll do it."
"You will?" Bert said.
"He's lying," Chucky said.
"Give me that lantern," Aspen said. "I'll go out there and say hi to that old ghost—and you'll see that I'm not a pussy—that I'm just as tough as you guys."
"Yeah right. You're full of shit," Chucky said.
"No. I think I believe the chicken shit. Give him the lantern," Bert said.
The onyx cloak of a Pelican Bay night was almost upon them. Aspen looked back toward the dunes and his friends had been swallowed by the dark. As he took his first step onto the docks, he looked ahead at the old man's boat, a buoying shadow of archaic oak, a symphony of moaning ropes and petulant planks, a sputtering lantern which was perhaps a disembodied pirate debating between this world and the next.
He stopped just near the boat, struggling to maintain his footing on the slimy dock boards.
"Hello. My name's Aspen. I've come to talk to you."
"I mean you no harm." Aspen's voice was soft and gentle, even when blasted and pitched. He was to be a little orphan Oliver replaying his debut dramatic role for all eternity.
And then suddenly the darkness grunted. So near him. So near. And there was a sea stench that the young boy could have never known existed until that night. His every youthful sense was insulted, his every thought was of dark, oaky places, his every feeling that of waking in an ancient tomb under the sea.
As his virginal feet began to turn they slipped into the air and the back of his head hit the dock. The next thing that he knew he was immersed in a drastic, salty wetness and sucked under the docks by a wicked current. He was dizzy in the cool, black sea. His head hurt immensely.
Suddenly an arm reached down into the water and groped around. It was as thick as a fallen oak log, the arm of a sea god, but as hairy as a fishing grizzly.
Aspen clung to the dock beam under the water, eyes open, a child apparition under the sea, his hands shredded by the toothed barnacles that munched upon his fleshy palms, his lungs already aching, his darkening mind wanting to surrender, his frail body, always too small, always too weak, wanting to quit.
Many seconds passed. Seconds of absolute fear.
Aspen finally found in himself the courage for one reach. But when he stretched for the great arm, it suddenly abandoned its search.
No more insults.
No more fretful, desperate young life.
Just peaceful sleep. Dreaming with the sea, of the honor of all those who have warred with it and lost.
But better than no honor at all.
I must have been dreaming, or at least it felt that way, when I first saw the peculiar rocks darkly festooning the ocean floor just beyond the shoreline. They started to appear after the recent storms that had rocked Pelican Bay, South Carolina, black freckles left by Mother Nature to remind Morgan Olinsworth and me, Ethan Hodges, of how small we were in the grand scheme of things.
"Look, off to the right, you can see them under the water. They're so strange. Why are they suddenly showing up? Have you tried to dive down and see them?"
"No," Morgan said, "but if you look a little further out, they're in front of you, too."
I looked carefully in front of me and I could see bulky shadows lurking below the surf, their stony heads protruding from the ocean floor.
It was becoming dark now, nearly too dark to see. Morgan's pale face was almost an early moon—one of those early moons that seems too close to believe. I wanted to kiss her. I had this feeling all the time, but we had been just friends for as long as I could remember.
No one was too friendly in Pelican Bay, and there were so few of us to go around. Morgan headed up the tiny library. She tended to it so carefully, the way that I wish she would me, but she was painfully shy and never really took to people that much. She was the silently proclaimed mayor of our town. Pelican Bay was anything but amiable—and it had no mayor or elected officials—not even a sheriff.
Pelican Bay was beautiful to look at, though, especially on early mornings. When you thought that all hope was lost, the sun would poke its head right out of the sea, glowing just over the horizon, a giant, orange-haired mermaid waking to face the day.
"Let's get our masks and snorkels and dive off the shore tomorrow morning. I really want to see what's down there."
"I don't know," Morgan said.
"Ah, come on—it'll be Sunday. The library will be closed, anyway."
"Maybe. We'll see."
Now it was almost fully dark, and Morgan's face was getting lost—that same moon becoming conscious of itself, experiencing painful shyness and retreating far, far away. Sadness caressed my heart like a rogue winter breeze, and I could hear its breath, hazy strands of pink at the edge of the sea.
"We should head back," I said.
We said nothing on the way back to town on the foot-worn path through the wild grass and sporadic beach roses, now just dull shapes in the night. I imagined that we were now under the sea visiting those same strange stones. There was a symphony underwriting our silence, and I always felt that we communicated better when nothing was said. But then we would have these conversations that dove deeper than the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean—deeper than the Puerto Rico Trench.
The little lights from the windows of Pelican Bay's cottages reminded me of ghostly lanterns of old frigates languishing upon a black sea. In that moment, I felt so thankful for those little windows. We gazed at the few stars, now materializing magically above, jealous stars, like those little windows in Van Gogh's famous painting.
"Will you at least think about tomorrow? I'm really curious, aren't you?"
"Let me see how my dad's doing, ok?" Morgan said, her voice the night whispering to me. "He's been a little down lately."
"Why don't you bring him along? The ocean might do him some real good."
That was the best that you could ever get out of Morgan. In fact, if she ever made any abrupt decisions, there are none of them etched upon my memory. To be with Morgan, you had to be in the moment. She was a spirit that never accepted that she had to live in the real world—always fighting earthly existence, fearing that having to make decisions might somehow surrender the possibility of heaven.
"Good night, Morgan."
I glanced off to my left and I could see a few lights from boats lingering in their usual places in the little harbor hosted by Pelican Bay.
There was an old man, Captain Shelby, who lived on his boat year round, even in the coldest winters when the waves, so cold that it seemed that they might be frozen were it not for their ceaseless motion, would beat against his floating house, knocking to be let in to dream ancient dreams with him.
Captain Shelby was like the pelicans of Pelican Bay—he had been there as long as anything else that our town could remember. And when you peered into his face, if you had such nerve, there was a steadiness indescribable, as if the calm of the sea held its story there, whispering its words through eyes a shade of blue just lighter than the ocean about him. His wrinkles seemed set eons ago, pages written in the history before history. They called him Captain Shelby because he had commanded a fleet of commercial fishing boats in his heyday.
I looked to him for answers about Pelican Bay. I had a lot of questions now, questions that had gone unanswered for too long, questions that could no longer be submerged.
Captain Shelby knew a lot, sometimes everything, it seemed. He helped me back when I had questions about my mother and father, why they had gone missing from Pelican Bay, declared lost at sea, leaving me with my paternal grandmother, Sidney Hodges, to raise me. He said that the great sea would swell up and claim a lot of people. And sometimes the sea would just become vengeful on its own and take people, even when there was no special storm battering our shores and petite bay. As the old man used to say, "It's the still and silent sea that drowns a man."
In Pelican Bay, the sea was the Hand of God.
Seeing that one of the wavering, almost floating boat lights was Captain Shelby's, I headed his way. I had to pass near the docks to get to my grandmother's cottage, anyway. I had another question for the old man—one that even he might not be able to answer this time.
He met me on the dock, as if he already knew that I was coming.
"A bit dark to be out, isn't it, me Son?"
"Yeah—it just got dark so fast today. Is winter coming already?"
"Maybe she's been called early by the sea," he said in his gravelly voice. "So what's on yer mind, me Son? Better tell me quick, or it'll be too late to go to town and I'll have to stow ye out on the deck with some of me old blankets. You'll have to sleep with the pelicans tonight."
I barely stifled a chuckle. His eyes widened and seemed to pick up flecks of unseen light still hanging on from somewhere.
"Morgan and I were out walking on the beach and we saw those old stones. They're so creepy."
"What are ye at now? Better stay clear of them stones. They're dangerous. That's all there's to it. You'll break a leg or bust yer head and the sea'll claim ye."
"Some things are better left alone. I'll put to the sword those that disagree. I don't know how those dark bjargs got there. They don't seem to go there. Maybe the Great Hurricane brought 'em in—from God knows where, and only God Himself should ask why. Maybe the last few storms finally exposed 'em. Like me said, some things are better left alone."
"But they're just so—weird."
"What ye should be worryin' about is why that pretty librarian won't marry ye. The summer moments always pass quickly."
Silence followed, perhaps summoned by my discomfort over his statement. Captain Shelby knew it and, when he lit his pipe, he smoked our salty silence in it.
"I don't think she loves me."
"Well, ye sure spend enough time together. There's mingling in friendship when a young man can share his whole mind with another. Might as well be married, I say."
"We're just friends."
The old fisherman let himself chuckle out loud. It could have been the sound of approaching thunder.
"I did ask her to dive down and check out the stones with me tomorrow morning. She said she might."
"Bad enough ye can't leave them bjargs alone. No place for such a dainty lady, I say." Captain Shelby was looking across the sea. He had an obvious annoyed expression, his eyes focusing on something far off now. "Ye shouldn't be askin' for trouble. Lost yer parents to the sea, isn't that enough? Anyway, ye best be gettin' on home now. 'Tis dark as molasses out here. Take this flashlight. Ye can bring it back to me tomorrow."
I took the flashlight and turned back toward town. I had not gone but ten paces when he spoke again.
"You'll stay away from them stones, if ye know what's best!"
LIKED THE EXCERPT?? CLICK HERE TO BUY THE BOOK