Lisa didn’t feel as safe as she did when the sun was rising orange and pink, and the water sparkled cobalt blue. Today, the fog had turned sand, sky, and water each into their own variation of gray. The sky felt heavy, and as she walked toward the water line, the fog began drifting lower, covering the shore with mist. Houses lined the beach, but all the shades were drawn and no light was behind them, like blank stares, watching her run, but not truly seeing.
Because of the fog, the beach was deserted. She liked being alone, no human being anywhere in her range of sight. It made the early morning more peaceful — no forced greetings, no tinny music escaping from ear buds. She heard nothing but gulls and crashing water. Her running shoes made craters as she ran in the damp sand. She wove higher on the beach when a large wave crashed, and veered back closer to the water when it receded, followed by a series of gentler waves.
Far ahead was a log about twelve feet long that someone had embedded in the sand, pointing at the sky. The fact that it appeared to have been there overnight was a testament to the depth with which it had been driven into the damp sand. In front of it were six smaller logs, all standing upright, some with the stubs of branches. A seventh log was balanced horizontally across the top of the six, held in place by the stubs.
She slowed. It was impressive. She liked the free-form artistic image, and wondered how many days before the sea threw up rougher surf that would drag all the wood back off the shore, sending it to another beach.
She was closer now. A man she hadn’t seen earlier was seated on the other side of the structure, just behind a rise in the sand. He wore sunglasses, completely unnecessary in the dense fog.
She increased her speed slightly. He stared at the water. Had he noticed her? He turned his head toward the wood structure, or toward her. Maybe he was the artist. Any moment he’d pull out his cell phone and snap a picture of his creation. But he’d didn’t, he kept his head steady, although it was impossible to tell what his eyes were doing behind those glasses.
Her foot landed in soft wet sand and her ankle turned slightly, but not enough to hurt. She put her attention on the sand stretched in front of her, watching her feet. As she drew close to the wood structure, she saw a small piece of driftwood on the wet sand. It was pointed at one end and oily with something dark. Her stomach tightened. She wasn’t sure why her first thought was of blood. It couldn’t possibly be blood, but how would she know? The fog leeched the color out of everything.
“Good morning!” the man said. He smiled, too hard. His voice was also too hard.
“Hi.” She kept running. She passed him, wondering whether he’d turned his head to follow her progress. She was being ridiculous about the stained fragment of wood.
There was something off about the man. His tone of voice, the piece of wood. The structure that had looked beautiful earlier, now seemed pretentious. She was not going to cut short her run. The beach was perfectly safe, fog or not. She would not allow him to make her feel like a weak, worried female, not permitted to run on a public beach — the best spot for running in all the world. She glanced again at the houses with shades like eyes closed. They seemed to anticipate intense midday sun, or something more terrible.
A quarter of a mile ahead was the point where she usually turned and retraced her steps. She’d run faster than usual and was breathing hard. She’d turn back now. It wasn’t because of him, she needed to conserve her endurance for the twisting staircase, one hundred and fifty steps, that took her back to the top of the cliff and the street leading home.
This time, she ran much faster as she approached the wood structure and the man, still wearing the glasses. She’d never run so fast, her heart thudded and she felt equally terrified and foolish.
He said nothing. The piece of stained wood was gone.
She turned and ran across dry sand and up the concrete steps to the road. She crossed the street without looking, there were never cars this early. She began her climb up the stairs, breathing hard.
After the first section, despite her labored breathing, she took the stairs two at a time. When she reached the top, she pressed her hands on thighs, leaning forward. She gulped in damp, wet air.
She crossed the wood platform at the top of the stairs and sat on one of the built-in benches. She looked down. There was a large drop of blood near her left foot. There was no mistaking it on the sun-bleached wood.