“What is it?” Charlie asked. He was ten or eleven at that point.
“Not sure,” I replied. I turned my hat forward, hoping the brim would block out some of the glare on that sunny August afternoon.
Something was floating in the water about a couple hundred feet offshore. It looked big. Long, too. I assumed it was the carcass of a whale. They’d been known to wash up every now and again.
“Maybe a whale,” I remarked.
“Yeah. You think it’s gross now, wait until it reaches land and stinks up the beach for a couple miles in every direction.”
Charlie made a face. “I kinda want to poke it,” he said. I grinned. That’s my boy.
“What are you two looking at?” Carol asked, as she approached our blanket. She had Ashley in tow. They were returning from the snack bar holding burgers and sodas for our lunch.
“Dead whale,” I announced.
“Eww!” Ashley exclaimed, studying the area where it floated. “Why are there birds flying at it?”
“So they can eat!” I told her, which produced a grimace. “They’re gonna have their lunch and we’re gonna have ours. Unless you wanna go out and join them for some slimy whale.”
Ashley turned green. Charlie laughed. Carol rolled her eyes. The trifecta of fatherhood.
We sat on the blanket and enjoyed our meal. It was exceptionally hot that day and the beach was crowded. One by one, the nearby beachgoers noticed the carcass in the water and made their own comments. The older guy next to us wouldn’t stop talking to his wife about how bad it was going to smell once the wind shifted. He seemed excited.
A couple hours passed. Charlie and Ash splashed around while Carol worked on her tan. I watched the kids to make sure they weren’t getting sucked out to sea, but most of my focus was on the dead whale. It had gotten closer to shore as the tide rolled in.
The seagulls were ignoring it. I thought that was strange; they’d been treating it like an all-you-can-eat buffet for a while, but now not a single one flew around trying to take a bite. I felt a flicker of concern.
“Hey guys,” I called out. “Come on out of the water.”
Ashley obeyed but Charlie kept doing his thing, although I could tell he had an eye on me to see if I really meant it. I shot him a death glare. He moaned dramatically and followed his sister.
“That whale’s getting closer and I don’t want you getting its blood and guts all over you,” I told them.
“Eww!” Ashley proclaimed, like I’d expected.
“Dad, the water’s fine,” Charlie complained. “Mom?”
“Listen to your father,” Carol replied automatically.
“This sucks,” Charlie whined, and plopped onto the blanket next to his sister. “Stupid dead whale.”
We read and made sandcastles and tanned for the next little while. When I glanced at my watch, I saw it was around four. The beach was still packed. Most of the beachgoers had made the choice to stop swimming, opting instead to dip their toes or remain on the sand. The whale was only fifty-or-so feet offshore.
“We should probably pack up and head on home,” I suggested. “That whale’s gonna be too close for comfort pretty soon and I promise you’ll be better off if you never have to smell it.”
“Yeah, and I need to start making dinner,” Carol sighed. “Don’t forget, your parents are coming around seven.”
I blinked. I had forgotten. “You kids excited to see grandma and grandpa?” I asked.
“Yes,” they replied in unison.
“Hey take a look at that!” called a voice at my left. It was the older guy who’d been excited about the whale’s stench. He was pointing at the water.
The four of us followed his finger. A mass of white feathers had washed ashore.
“What the heck?” Carol said. She sounded perplexed. I stood up.
A cluster of maybe forty seagulls sat in a sodden heap in the sand. They were undoubtedly dead. Everyone nearby was whispering to one another. As we watched, a single gull swooped down and started to peck at the remains of one of its cousins. The people close enough to make out the details all let out a collective shudder when the bird tore an eye out of the corpse. It swallowed the morsel, flapped its wings, and flew away.
“Well that was gross, wasn’t it kids?” I announced. They didn’t answer. They were watching the eye-eating bird. It flew in a lazy circle above the beach. It was flying as if it were drunk; flapping and swooping and trying to regain altitude. Then, without any ceremony, it fell out of the sky and landed on a drink cooler a few blankets away.
Carol grabbed the kids. “Come on,” she insisted. “You two are coming with me to take a shower. God only knows what that water had in it.”
“Go with Mom, guys,” I agreed. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Carol turned to me. “Can you carry this stuff back to the car? We’ll go after they’re cleaned off.”
I nodded. My wife and kids trudged over to the showers. I could see they were already packed. This would take a while.
I sighed and started gathering our things. Once it was all ready, I sat back down. I wasn’t going to wait in the hot car while they cleaned off.
I took a look at the pile of dead gulls. They seemed puffier than they’d been only a minute or two before. Swollen. I assumed they were rotting because it was so hot out, but the speed at which it was happening surprised me.
My focus shifted to the whale. It looked like it’d hit a shallow spot. Once the tide went out later that night, it’d be properly beached. “Poor tubby bastard,” I thought.
A soft, wet, popping sound caught my attention. It was taken by the wind and I didn’t know what had produced it. But then there was another. And another. It was coming from the dead birds. I stared at the mass of dripping feathers and dull eyes. Now the color red was bright and prominent against their white bodies.
“What the hell…” I muttered, as bird after bird popped and split in a small fountain of gore.
The crowd around me grew animated. “That shouldn’t be happening!” someone called. Another person shouted, “get away from it!”
A scream pierced through the commotion and everyone turned to see who’d produced it. A man was holding his son to his chest. The kid was coated in gore and sand. Beside them were the devastated remains of the seagull that had fallen from the sky. It looked like they’d buried it in the sand and moved a few feet away, but the kid had been near the burial spot when the bird burst.
The kid was filthy and terrified and spitting up onto the sand, but seemed no worse for wear. His mom was pouring their cooler full of ice water over him to clean the blood and feathers off. He didn’t seem to care for that sensation at all. I didn’t blame him.
The beach started to empty. In the distance, car engines roared to life. I glanced over at the showers. My family was behind another three or four families in line. Carol was yelling at Charlie about something. “Better her having to deal with him than me,” I thought.
I folded my chair and wrestled all our belongings into my grasp. Carol, Charlie, and Ashley were almost at the shower. Charlie was scowling and rubbing his cheek. Carol must’ve laid a good one on him.
Behind me, I heard a bizarre sound. It was like massive sheet of rubber being stretched. I turned and dropped what I’d been carrying.
The whale had swollen like an obscene balloon. Thick, dark fluid poured from the holes in its flesh, presumably made by the birds who’d pecked at it earlier.
“Oh Jesus fuck,” I thought. “That thing’s about to pop. I’m gonna get soaked.”
I whirled around, covered my face, and screwed my eyes shut, waiting for the inevitable shower of rotting guts and hot blood. It didn’t come. Instead, there was a different sound. Not more stretching, and definitely not a pop. It was wet and repulsive, like jelly being sucked through a straw.
Cautiously, I turned back toward the carcass. Something was squeezing through the holes. It was thick and glistening, greenish gray and streaked with ugly, purple veins. It steamed when it struck the water. A stench unlike anything I have ever experienced and beyond all possible description met my nostrils.
“Fuck absolutely every part of this,” I told myself, and hauled our stuff up and bolted for the parking lot. As I ran, I looked at my family. They were showering off. I turned and examined the whale behind me. It was sinking back into the water. Whatever had killed it had stopped emerging from the corpse. It was back in the ocean where, presumably, it had come from. I made a mental note to never set foot in the ocean again.
I piled our gear into the car and started it up. Carol and the kids arrived back a few minutes later.
“Did you see that thing?” I asked Carol, doing my best not to sound as frightened as I was. I didn’t want Charlie and Ashley’s day to be any worse.
“No,” she replied, “but we all smelled it.”
“Charlie threw up!” Ashley announced, beaming.
“No I didn’t,” he pouted.
“Okay, well let’s go home,” I said, and threw the car in reverse. We headed through the lot, toward the exit. I paused at the stop sign, ready to pull out into traffic.
In the corner of my left eye, I saw a green car parked haphazardly in the back of the lot. It looked like it had been parked in haste. There was commotion inside. I didn’t say anything to the family, but I stared through the windows as I pulled onto the main road.
It was the family of the little boy who’d been splashed by the dead seagull. The one I saw spitting into the sand afterward. He looked different. Bigger. Heavier, even. Almost as if he were swelling up.
I let out a soft gasp of realization at the same time all the windows of the green car turned bright red.
Hearing my gasp, Carol turned and asked what was wrong.
I shifted my eyes forward and kept our car moving down the road.
“Nothing,” I replied. “Nothing at all. Just a bad day.” I paused and watched in the rearview mirror as the bewildered, bloody parents leapt from their car. Their mouths were open and they were screaming and spitting onto the ground.
“A very bad day.”