Updated: Mar 26
Winner of the Ellie Alexander Writer's Showcase in the Mystery Category - 2022
Ellie wrote the start, and the contestants' finished the story. It was exciting and fun and I was over the moon excited to be chosen as the winner in the mystery category! Below, you'll find my winning story with Ellie's start italicized.
Bear tagged at my heels. “You wanna go for a walk, Bear?” He did a little dance in a circle and pawed at me.
“Okay, okay. You can come.” I held the door open for him and he raced outside.
A thick fog blanketed the hillside. It felt like it was going to rain. I cinched my hoodie tighter and stepped carefully toward the stairs. It was hard to see through the dense cloud cover. Bear raced down the stairs. I hollered for him to wait for me, as I inched down each step. The sound of the waves crashing onto the sand below helped guide me.
When I made it down, Bear was waiting patiently for me. “Good boy.” I reached down and ruffled his head. “Okay, you can run.”
He ran straight for the surf. The tide had rolled in, washing away yesterday’s sandcastles. I drank in the cool morning air. The mist seemed to hang on each wave, riding in with them as they hit the shore. Bear raced between them. I shivered at the thought of being in the icy water. The ocean waters on the Oregon Coast are cold even on a hot summer’s day. I walked close to the water’s edge away from town in a quiet morning meditation. No wonder treasure
hunters combed the beach every morning. It was like I was the only person on the planet. I could get used to this. Off in the distance I noticed something washed on the shore. It was big, like a piece of driftwood. I decided to check it out.
“Come on, Bear,” I called and hit my hand on my hip.
He bounded out of the water, raced over to me, and shook his entire body. Water sprayed everywhere, hitting me like icy darts. “Bear, stop.” I commanded, brushing water from my sweatshirt.
Suddenly Bear’s ears turned up, and his tail stiffed. He was on high alert. I felt my body tense with his. “What’s wrong, buddy?” I glanced behind me. Fog and mist stretched as far as I could see.
Bear bolted forward. I ran to keep up. Maybe a solo beach walk wasn’t such a good idea.
He came to a sudden stop near the driftwood and let out a low growl. I slowed my pace. I had a sinking feeling that something was wrong. As I stepped closer to Bear, my fear was confirmed.
It wasn’t driftwood that hadn’t washed ashore. It was a body. A man’s body. (end of Ellie's story start)
Yanking his leash out of my pocket, I snapped the lead to my Newfoundland pup’s collar and pulled him close to my side before stepping closer to the body. A gentleman, grizzled features framed by a snowy white beard, lay in the cold wet sand. He was dressed in a dark-blue jacket with two rows of shiny gold buttons marching down the front. A white, collared shirt encircled by a dark tie rose above the buttoned jacket. A matching captain’s hat sat perfectly straight on his head like it dared not move. Incoming waves danced around the man’s feet, tugging at the bottom of his trousers. I barely had time to register the oddness of his old-fashioned attire before my mind grasped onto the fact the man was dead. If it wasn’t for the waxen skin and complete lack of movement, I’d have thought he was sleeping. I studied his face. The man looked so familiar. Where had I seen him before? Was he a local? His wardrobe made me think he might be the captain of a fancy cruise ship. But did they even dress like that anymore?
I racked my brain to remember if any recent sinkings along the coast had been on the news, but came up blank. Maybe a boat sunk overnight, and I simply hadn’t heard about it yet. Could a shipwreck have happened so recently it hadn’t even been reported yet? I searched the sky for any sign of a Coast Guard helicopter out on a rescue mission, but the low ceiling created by the fog made it impossible to see, and the pounding surf crashed against the beach so I couldn’t determine if I heard a chopper, or just the roar of the ocean. I took a giant step back from the body and dialed 911.
Bear whined by my side and pulled at the leash. I signaled for him to sit. The dog plopped onto my foot and continued to whine.
While we waited for emergency personnel to arrive, I studied my surroundings. Windswept and sparse, this stretch of beach felt as familiar to me as the back of my hand. Each blade of dune grass and every seagull’s call felt like an old friend most days. Today, with the sky and sea the same leaden gray, it made it next to impossible to tell where one left off and the other began. A faint whiff of smoke swirled in the icy wind and blew straight through my forest-green hoodie, making my bones rattle as the first raindrops slid down my face. The shaking I felt all the way to my core could have a lot to do with the dead man lying at my feet, but the cold wasn’t helping, either.
Normally, Bear and I’s morning routine consisted of a walk down the beach from the cedar-sided cottage we called home until the old Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, or Terrible Tilly as the locals called her because of the light’s bleak history, came into view. Once I saluted Tilly, I’d whistle for Bear, then we’d turn and head back in the opposite direction. By the time we ended up back on the porch, my Fitbit would ding with a notification that I’d gotten in half of my daily steps. If I did nothing else but stare at the wall for the rest of the day, I was still only half as likely to turn into a potato. But as a kindergarten teacher, it was highly unlikely I’d ever be staring at a wall all day. Wrangling a herd of rowdy five-year-olds used up a surprising number of steps and energy.
The rain beat down harder and the wind picked up until it felt like a sandblaster was pointed straight at me. I raised a hand to shield my face, squinting to catch a glimpse of the lighthouse. Tilly’s light no longer warned seafarers of danger. She’d been decommissioned over sixty years ago, but still stood tall and proud over a mile out to sea as a lonely reminder of a different time. Today, the weather kept Tilly hidden from view.
A flashing red light at the top of the dunes cut through the thick fog. Help had arrived. Bear and I trotted to meet them.
“Sue Breckenridge?” A police officer addressed me as I approached.
I nodded in acknowledgement, then answered all the questions I could while the professionals studied the scene. As soon as the officer released me to my day, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and made a quick call to my favorite substitute teacher. Going about my normal day after the events of this morning wasn’t something I could fathom doing. The sub readily agreed to takeover my classroom for the day. I thanked her profusely, grateful for the reprieve.
Back at my cottage, I took a hot shower to wash away the chill penetrating my bones. Something about the dead man’s features kept niggling at my mind. None of the emergency personnel on the beach seemed to have recognized him, but I knew I’d seen the man around somewhere. Since I rarely left town, it must’ve been locally, though I couldn’t remember where. I sighed and rinsed the shampoo out of my hair.
After a bowl of maple and brown sugar oatmeal and a cup of steaming black coffee, I told Bear to be a good boy while I was gone, then grabbed my stack of library books and headed to the local community library. I looked forward to a leisurely perusal of the shelves, though the fact I had extra time today because a man was dead wasn’t lost on me. Once I found out his identity, I’d be sure to pay my respects to his family.
The library, housed in a three-story Victorian, had once been the majestic home of a seafaring captain who built the home for his wife and daughters to live in comfort while he was away at sea. A great-grandson of the captain donated it to be used as the community library in honor of his mother’s love of books. The library board, more than grateful for the family’s generosity, decorated the library with photographs and memorabilia from the nautical history of the area. The beautiful library worked overtime as a nautical history museum.
“Hello, Sue. You’re not working today?” The librarian greeted me as I dumped my books into the return slot.
Having promised the police to keep the death on the beach quiet for now, I shrugged noncommittally. “I needed a mental health day.”
“Don’t we all,” she laughed. “Well, good to see you, anyway.”
I grinned and headed upstairs to the nonfiction section. A friend had recommended a book about a woman’s adventure in the artic I hoped to find. Halfway up the stairs, I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of an old picture on the wall and stopped with a jolt. Turning to face the photograph, I gasped. The dead man from the beach stared back at me. The caption read, “Charles Johansen, Lighthouse Keeper—Tillamook Rock—Lost at Sea, 1887.”
Stunned, I grabbed the sturdy wooden railing behind me and sank to the steps, one hand pressed to my racing heart as the sounds of the library muted around me. No. Charles Johansen couldn’t possibly be the dead man from the beach this morning. But he was the spitting image. A great-great-grandson? Wearing the exact same clothes as his ancestor? Right down to the shiny gold buttons? What are the odds?
With my phone, I snapped a picture of the portrait and hurried upstairs, making a beeline for the local history section. Quickly scanning the shelves, I pulled out three books about Terrible Tilly, then situated myself at a round table with my selections and a notebook and pen to begin my search. Weather conditions at Terrible Tilly were well documented, with heavy storms regularly pummeling the small lighthouse with gale force winds and terrifying waves surging up and over the rock where the lighthouse sat. More than one life was lost during a raging storm over the years, so when Charles Johansen disappeared from duty, they assumed he’d been lost to the greedy sea. Friends had expected him in town that evening, but neither Charles nor his wooden dory made it. They never found his body. I shivered. Charles disappeared on October twelfth, 1887—exactly one hundred and thirty-five years ago today.
I pushed the first book aside and slid the next one forward, scouring the pages to find any other tidbits about Charles. Buried in the second book, I found another mention of his disappearance. The article indicated the man never been married and had no children. I sat back against the chair with a thump and drummed my pen on the table. How could that be? The new information blew holes in my theory about the dead man on the beach being a grandson of the missing lighthouse keeper.
When I’d exhausted all the mentions of Charles Johansen I could find, I absently flipped through the books one more time while my mind raced. How could a man wash onto the shore over a hundred years after he fell into the sea and look like he’d been gone no more than a handful of hours? Obviously, it was completely impossible, and I’d lost my mind for even contemplating such a ridiculous scenario. As I randomly flipped pages in a book made from old local newspaper clippings, a headline drew my attention. Local Woman Missing—Feared Swept Out to Sea. The article was dated October 12, 1902. I gasped and scanned the article. The woman disappeared from the same stretch of beach where Charles, or whomever the man was, washed up this morning.
Slowing down, I turned the pages, searching for more disappearances. A second person went missing from the same stretch of sand in 1917, then another in 1932, both on October twelfth. It took me a minute to see the pattern but once I did, I couldn’t unsee it. Every fifteen years, a person went missing. I flipped through the pages faster. 1947, 1962, and on and on. Like clockwork, one at a time, nine people disappeared from the same place on the same date, each fifteen years apart, starting, as far as I could tell, with Charles Johansen.
My mind raced. It couldn’t be a serial killer. He’d have to be a hundred and fifty years old. What could be happening on that stretch of beach to swallow someone up every fifteen years? And then to spit one of them out looking none the worse for wear? Well, if you didn’t count being dead as worse for wear, that is.
“Today marks fifteen years since the last disappearance,” I glanced at the clock on the wall. “Still time to find out what’s causing people to vanish.”
Without gathering solid evidence, nobody would believe something unexplainable was happening right under our noses. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I believed it myself. Leaving the books where they lay, I grabbed my purse and headed out at a run.
“What in the world?” I heard the librarian mutter as I thundered by.
I jumped in my Jeep and headed for the beach access, windshield wipers slapping against the icy rain. As I slammed the car door and headed down the beach, a shimmering wall of silver twinkled from the sand near where the old man had washed up. I squinted. What is that?
I pulled out my phone and opened the camera function to snap a few pictures. As I jogged closer, the glittering wall raced to meet me. Before I could react, a swirling mass of iridescent sparkles engulfed me in a strong vacuum. It felt like I was racing through a galaxy of stars.
The next morning, the local headlines read, Local Woman Missing—Feared Swept Out to Sea.