She watched as the boat took her further and further away from the shore, finalizing her departure once and for all. She had a nice vacation in Nassau, but now, it was time to get to work.
At least as close to work as this new job could possibly get. It still felt like a paid vacation. Bre had landed the dream job: Caretaker of a vacation house on a private island in the Bahamas. Every now and then, her employers—a wealthy family with a lot of pharmaceutical money—would visit the island and invite guests they meant to schmooze, but for the most part, the house was hers. Sure, she had to make sure it was stocked, and it’s not like she had free-reign on decorating, but … c’mon. Private house. Private island. Bahamas. Could you ask for more as a post-grad student?
Best of all, the job got her far away from Caleb.
A few months earlier …
“I’ll never learn to love again,” Bre said through another spoonful of ice cream. Cliché or not, ice cream comes in handy when you’re exhausted from crying over a bad breakup.
“Bre, come ON. It’s not your fault. None of us saw the warning signs,” her best friend and roommate (For life? Bre wondered), Taylor, responded. Taylor didn’t let her perfectly-maintained figure meant for cocktail parties and charming donors get in the way of her friend’s breakup ice cream party; she was right there with her roommate in a sweatshirt and gym shorts pigging out on ice cream with her newly-single soul sister.
“Caleb is obviously a psychopath if he thinks he can date all those women at the same time and not once think about their feelings if they found out.”
“No. Not just dating. He was engaged to three. In—cluding—” those ugly tears started to swell up again. Bre choked it down with another scoop. “Who DOES that? Why the hell would you pay for three fucking engagement rings?”
“Total power move,” Taylor slurred through some green mint chip. “Some guys pick up girls just to tell the other beasts, ‘See, me find this one. Me superior.’ Caleb obviously has an inferiority complex.”
“But that just makes me even dumber. How could I—” her voice was wavering again. She dug around for more of that icy, creamy salve, but it was down to the melty dregs. “I was in—” she threw the bucket at the opposite wall in disgust. The spoon clattered to the ground, almost accusingly facing her and saying, “Hey, don’t make me a victim of your fuck-ups.”
“I put off my masters for that asshole. We were going to get married, and he wanted to make sure we could afford it. I even sent out invitations. I’ll never get any of that back.”
“I know, Bre, I know,” was all Taylor could manage. Her friend was becoming a bigger mess than the ice cream bucket on the floor; best to offer nothing but comforting words at this point.
“I can’t! The money, the time … EVERYTHING. He took every—” Bre was sobbing now. So much wasted opportunity, all for a thing she thought was love. Turned out it was nothing but a lie. How could she be so dumb?
“I—I could take him back. He even tried—he said I meant the most…”
“No, don’t you even fucking DARE listen to that prick,” time for the firm Taylor again. “His wounded pride is speaking, not some deep, longing desire for you.” Mayday, mayday…
Bre turned into a blubbering mess. Taylor realized she had just told her friend that she was worthless to the man she had given her heart to. Not that it wasn’t true, but not the best time to let a friend know her perceived value to her true love. Ex-true love.
The crying lasted for several minutes before Bre struggled to maintain composure. She tried to say something, but all she could manage were sniffles.
“Hey, at least Miami wanted you. It took some balls to turn them down,” Taylor tried to offer hope. And a shot at redemption for making her friend feel worthless. “How many marine biology students turn down one of the top master’s programs in the country and have the school essentially begging for her to come back?”
Bre knew Taylor meant well, so she allowed her friend’s words and arm around her shoulders to invade her ball of misery. “It’s not often you get a call from the program director like that …” Bre said through a wad of snot.
“Damn right it’s not,” Taylor gave her an embrace an extra squeeze of encouragement.
“But … how am I gonna pay for it? And what if I run into him? It’s not like Fort Lauderdale is far.”
“If you see him, make HIM regret it,” Taylor said. “But as far as money, I might have an idea,” Taylor tried to make it sound like this was her ace-in-the-hole, when really, some sort of divine providence struck the idea into her mind. “Remember my family’s Bahama house we had our spring break at?”
“Uh … yeah,” Bre instantly perked up. “But it’s not like I can get paid for being the 2015 Flip Cup champion of the world.”
“I mean, that IS something to add to the resume at least, but that’s not where I was going,” Taylor chuckled. “The housekeeper just submitted her resignation. She said she wants to be closer to her son and her grandkids now. It would be a great way to get money and still be around doing what you love—hanging out and studying the ocean.”
“Okay but, like, what about school?”
“I’ll bet you anything my dad would be happy to have you part-time during breaks and find another part-time housekeeper. He knows how brilliant you are and how much this would mean to you. And I could tell him you need some away time—”
“DON’T do that,” Bre pleaded.
“Ok, ok. I’ll just tell him you need some time to really focus on your career. Either way, I don’t think it’ll take a lot of convincing. What do you say? You can even hang around when I come to visit.”
“Yes? I mean, I don’t want to make a decision when my emotions are so out of whack but … yes?” Bre was already feeling worlds better. Her friend dropped the opportunity of a lifetime in her lap. How could she say no? To hell with all that fake politeness that makes you turn down something you really want; she was way past the point of appearing polite right now.
“I’ll call my dad right now.”
Taylor was right. It didn’t take a lot of convincing.
Needless to say, it was a busy summer.
On top of enrolling at the University of Miami in the Master’s of Marine Biology and Ecology and the ensuing orientation, she also had to go through training for the new housekeeper job (travel was covered by Taylor’s amazingly generous family). It wasn’t the worst training, though, seeing as how she got to go to the house again with her best friend and her family, whom she loved dearly. For a bunch of rich, white folks, they were incredibly nice and down-to-earth. There must be something in the water in Texas, she thought.
Of course, since this was a part-time thing, she also trained with one of Taylor’s cousins, Alex, who would take up the other half of the year. The way Alex stared at her ass, Bre got the impression he wouldn’t mind if their shifts overlapped at all. Too soon, buddy, too soon.
“So, Bre, I really appreciate your willingness to do this with all of your schoolin’ and everything,” Taylor’s dad, Ed, told her the last day of training, “but I was just wonderin’ … did you plan on being here for Christmas? I know you’ll wanna be with family and such, but …”
“Oh, no, I’ve already thought that through. I would love to be here for Christmas,” Bre was not lying. Her family loved Caleb, and she knew, somehow, they would find a way to make it her fault. She was making him a better man. Why not take him back? Or maybe, why be so stupid in the first place? No thank you, Christmas cheer.
“Great, that’s real great,” Ed said with his Texas gentleman’s draw. “In that case, I’ve got one more thing to ask,” Ed looked like his always-poised self, but Bre had been around that family enough to know he was slightly uncomfortable. “You, uh … you see that stone fireplace up near that hill?” Ed pointed a finger toward a slight bump in the landscape covered by palm trees.
Bre knew enough about that place to know where Ed was pointing. She had a very hot-and-heavy encounter there during one of the spring break trips. She acted like it took a second to see. “Oh, yeah, I do.”
“Yeah, well …” Ed looked a little more uncomfortable, “y’see … this island goes back in the family a few generations and, well, we sorta have a tradition for Christmas. Just like any other ol’ Christmas tradition, really.” He paused for a few seconds. Bre wasn’t sure if she was supposed to ask or let him keep talking. “There’s an old ruined house up there—hell of a sight—and for a good long time now, we’ve always had someone leave a glass of milk and cookies there at the fireplace on Christmas Eve.”
Bre sat there for a few ticks before realizing there was nothing else coming. “So … milk and cookies? That’s it?”
Ed chuckled, embarrassed by the whole situation. “Yeah, yeah. I don’t know, it’s just … we’ve had a whole lotta luck and good fortune in this family and, well, some of them that came before me say we can attribute it to the tradition. My granddaddy remembers his granddaddy doing it all the way back to the days when England ruled this neck of the woods.” He chuckled again. “Strangest idea, no doubt about it, but we still keep that tradition up. Don’t hurt nothin’, do it?”
“No, I suppose it doesn’t,” Bre said, still not sure what to think of the whole situation. “So, it doesn’t matter who does it? It doesn’t have to be a family member?”
“No, no … ol’ Shelby—the housekeeper ‘fore you—she used to keep that milk-and-cookie machine churnin’. Went above and beyond for it some years.”
“Well, I know I’m no Shelby, but I will do everything I can to make sure … uh … Caribbean Santa gets his due.”
Ed had another laugh at that. “Great, love to hear it. And thank you so, so much for being willin’ to do this.”
“No, really, thank YOU for this opportunity. I can’t wait to get started.”
Bre departed the island-hopper, jumped into the golf cart, and headed for her new home for Christmas break. This was her first time here by herself, but she was well equipped.
Once she plopped her bags in her new room, she made sure the house was running as it should, the pantry was well-stocked, and then she got to work putting together her makeshift lab. She hoped to use her Christmas break as a way to study the migratory habits of sea life in the Caribbean during winter. Would they be on their way to Pennsylvania for some home-made pumpkin pie? Not exactly, but there was still a lot to discover.
Whatever she lacked, Taylor’s family filled in the gaps. They had a custom-made wetsuit and diving gear delivered to the house (“Merry Christmas to all!” Taylor wrote in the note attached to the gift), and Bre made sure she put their generosity to good use.
There was something about the water that calmed Bre. When you’re in diving gear, all you can really hear are your breath and your heartbeat. Your body is essentially weightless, and it takes minimal effort to listlessly float and observe the area teaming with life around you.
And that area had life. Even the coral reefs (thankfully) blossomed in lush beauty. Schools of fish were all around her. She saw the biggest lobster she had ever seen deep, deep down in a coral reef. In the shallower regions, she was able to swim up to and pet a nurse shark.
As peaceful as the ocean is, it is still just as savage as anywhere you leave nature to sort itself out. Eels would spring their trap from reefs and take their unsuspecting prey in the clutches of their merciless jaws. She knew not to get anywhere close to those jellyfish bullies whose tentacles seemed to go on forever. The ocean doesn’t care who you are, as evidenced by the ancient shipwreck just a few miles off the shore. And as if to pay back the ocean for its troubles, Bre even came across a sea turtle that had suffered a horrible injury at the hands of a boat. She was, unfortunately, not equipped to do something about it.
When she wasn’t in the ocean, she was as close to it as possible. She loved soaking in the sun at the beach, and with not one soul around, she took full advantage of not having a dress code. Another one of her favorite locations was a section of the island that acted as a narrow bridge between the main house and the old stone fireplace. Most if it was formed out of a dead coral reef that stood as a harsh cliff to hold back the waves that battered its right side, while the path to the fireplace was on the left. It was a great place for her to hold her daily yoga practice—opposing forces and all that.
The ocean was her home, and this amazing section was hers to explore and observe.
She woke up that morning, just like every other morning, and got ready for another session of exploring the ocean. The weather had been averaging high 70s, and it was amazing. This morning, however, it was exceptionally chilly—the outdoor thermostat currently had it at 58. Nothing a wetsuit couldn’t handle, but Bre had never seen it this cold before.
Halfway down the beach, she realized: Today is Christmas Eve. I guess even the Bahamas knows how to get in the spirit? she thought.
The wetsuit certainly helped, but dammit, the water was cold today. Borderline freezing. Bre didn’t know if she’d be able to stay out as long as she normally did—spending too much time in cold water tends to make breathing feel more like hyperventilating. But it could be that this drastic change in water temperature could bring her more research opportunities, so she soldiered on.
20 minutes into her swim, and she knew the ocean had sensed the change. The coral reefs didn’t seem as active and fish school must have been out on account of cold weather today. Even the shipwreck was relatively inactive. It was some comfort to her to see an eel reach out and grab a fish swimming by the rotting wood. At least, she thought it was an eel; she had never seen an eel bend that harshly before. It was a little less serpentine and little more like the bend of an arm. But it was definitely an eel.
There was one thing she was sure about, though: She was right about this being a shorter trip today. Her left leg started to cramp and her breathing was getting difficult, so she decided to head back to shore and maybe brew a nice cup of tea.
As she turned around, she noticed a sea turtle swimming at her in an erratic pattern. It was a lot different than the steady pace she was used to seeing from turtles. Maybe the cold water was creating an urgency that required a little more hare and less tortoise? She decided to swim as close as the turtle would allow.
Apparently, the turtle seemed to have the same idea as her. It was not as shy as turtles she had known; it seemed to see her and pick up its pace toward her. The closer she got, the more she knew something was way off.
The turtle had a brutal motorboat injury. A good chunk was missing under the shell as evidenced by the guts hanging out. It was missing a fin. The face was horribly disfigured. But, as dead as the turtle should be, none of that seemed to be slowing it down.
Little buddy, what is going on with you?
The turtle swam right into her at a force she had not expected, sending her into an uncontrolled spiral before water resistance slowed her down. She regained her composure just as the turtle charged at her again. She made a hard swim for the surface to gain whatever advantage she could, and the turtle was right there with her. What the fuck, dude? The turtle kept coming. She could see its angry, beaked face snapping at her. There’s a surprise—a saltwater snapping turtle.
She braced herself for the next charge from the turtle. She kicked out her legs just as the turtle was about the hit her, and the turtle bit off a chunk of one of her flippers. Better that than my foot, but damn. The turtle came back at lightning speed; Bre was just fast enough to punch out her hands and hold it back with her hands on the shell. Bre was caught in a chaos of floundering at the surf and a decrepit turtle’s face inches away from hers snapping as fast as its little jaws would allow. She was running out of energy fast, and as badly as she tried to hold it back in favor of a humane solution, her survival instinct started to kick in.
She pushed off with one of her hands and took a desperate swing at the turtle’s head. She half expected to have her hand completely severed off her body, but it connected. In fact, she felt her hand sink into it like she was punching an egg. The body suddenly went limp, and she watched as the turtle sunk deep into the ocean. She didn’t want to stick around and see what might show up on the newly-delivered feast; she wanted to get out.
It was still so shocking out cold it was outside the water. She shivered her way back up to the house and immediately got the hottest shower she could get running. She noticed on the way in that the temperature had gone down—the thermostat now said 45 degrees. How does it get COLDER in the day here?
After she had washed off the cold, the saltwater, and that horrifying experience with the turtle, she got into her Miami U sweatshirt and curled up on the couch with a cup of tea. The sweatshirt was one of those “just-in-case” items she packed, and she was glad she did.
With the extra time she had to herself now (thanks to the cold), she decided to Facetime a few of her family members back home, seeing as how it was Christmas Eve and all. When she had exhausted family members, she figured she owed it to Taylor for a Facetime too, since she hooked her up with the gig.
“That is SO weird,” Taylor, ever eloquent, reacted to the turtle story. “What do you think it was?”
“Honestly? I can’t say. Maybe it was bacteria or brain damage, but I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this. It’s not like it was fight-or-flight; that little bitch came right at me.”
“So maybe you should stay out of the water now?”
“Hell no! I might have some never-before-seen phenomenon in my hands! Although I might not be spending as much time in the water as I want to. Did I mention how friggin’ COLD it is here?”
“Yeah! It was, like, 50-something earlier, and then it got colder. Has it ever done that before when you guys were here?”
“No way, it doesn’t get that cold there. There must be some really weird weather pattern happening.”
“Right? But at least it’s giving me a chance to see what goes on around here. I mean, as long as not all the turtles are crazy.”
“Yeah,” Taylor paused for a few seconds. “Hey, did you ever happen to do that milk and cookies thing?”
“Oh, man, I totally forgot about that!” Bre hadn’t exactly forgotten about it.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s totally stupid, but I guess a lot of traditions are?”
“I mean, I guess, but I feel like that’s part of the reason for traditions. An excuse to do stupid shit and call it ‘tradition.’” Bre joked.
“Well,” Taylor said, not laughing, “I know it would mean a lot to my dad. I think he sent some in the last food batch.”
“Yeah, he did,” Bre didn’t mention that the surprisingly delicious sugar cookies were long gone at this point.
“Yeah, ok, well … just remember to do that. Sooner rather than later; it gets a little hard to see on that island during the dark. I remember Dad usually did it in the morning.”
“Ok, maybe I should get to that now, then.” Bre had no idea what she could use for cookies.
Bre looked through the expansive pantry before she decided to make the ultimate sacrifice: Her precious Fig Newtons. Those are cookies enough, right? A few of her Newts was an acceptable debt for the sugar cookies that went down way too easily.
Fortunately, there was enough milk left to fill up a small cup. She started off on her journey, but something on the beach caught her eye. She set the milk and cookies down on the patio table and went down to take a look.
If the turtle was in a bad state, the sea life that washed up on the beach was way worse. She saw a beached whale with bite marks and hooks all over its rotting skin. A number of skeletal sea lions looked like they were in that early stage of death where their bodies kept twitching. There was even a hammerhead that was missing the bottom half of its body. How this all got washed up in the few hours she had been talking to family, she had no idea.
She went back up to the house to grab some gloves and spent some time studying the bodies, her curiosity getting the best of her. She took a few samples to run in her lab later to find any answers she could, but everything she could see with the naked eye told her nothing.
She went back up to the house and began the microscopic exams. Being locked in the zone looking for any signs through her microscope made the loud THUMP against her window that much more terrifying. She shrieked and jumped back. Another thump. Was that … a seagull? She went over to the window, and there were two seagulls lying on the ground, necks broken. What is going ON??
Then the all-out assault on the house began.
Seagulls. Everywhere. Necks broken, and some of them didn’t die right away. The ones that weren’t killed by the impact angrily squawked outside, looking for her to provide some recompense. All she could do was stand inside in horror. She heard a crash in the master bedroom. Oh no. She opened the door … and closed it as fast as she could. The room was full of seagulls, and they all seemed hellbent on getting a piece of her. She heard their bodies collide against the door as she quickly slammed it … not before completely decapitating one of them.
She felt sick.
She ran to her phone to call Taylor, but somehow, the internet was down. Oh shit, she thought, I bet one of the seagulls knocked down the satellite. She was suddenly more isolated than she had ever been.
The seagulls had stopped their suicide bombings on the house and began making their way into the master bedroom. At least, that’s what Bre assumed by the multiple crashes and general chaos she heard coming from the room. It sounded less like a flock of gulls and more like souls trapped in hell.
The sound was starting to drive her crazy, but she had to keep them in that room. She pushed a table up against the door, braced it with her body, and tried to cry as little as possible as she heard the gulls hurling themselves against the door. It might have been an hour … it might have been five minutes, but slowly, the noises died down until she was sure she heard the last thump against the door.
She was afraid to open the door, but she had to know the damage.
She slowly opened the door, and a pile of seagull bodies surged out and spilled onto the floor. She dry-heaved a few times, plugged her nose, and opened the door wider. It was an absolute disaster. Anything that could be broken was broken—the lamps, the TV, the chandelier—and the bed was torn to shreds. Not to mention the sliding glass doors that didn’t exist anymore. It was a nightmare, and Bre felt it was on her to clean the best she could before she was able to make contact with the mainland again.
The sun was setting by the time she had thrown the last seagull body over the coral cliff, and Bre could see her breath. She had gone back into the house at one point to get the sinks dripping; the last thing she needed was to have the pipes freezing on her.
She checked around the house, and sure enough, the satellite that provided internet was hanging off the roof with its wires acting as the final support line to keep the dish from ending it all. In the morning, she might try to bolt down the dish and see if she could still get a signal. Some way to spend Christmas morning.
She didn’t feel much like eating, so she forced down a light snack. Handling all those dead, rotting (how do they rot that fast) seagull bodies doesn’t exactly work up an appetite.
As she sat there wondering what to do next, the icy wind suddenly gusted, the lights flicked, and then the power gave up. She was left alone in the cold dark … in the middle of the Bahamas.
She used the flashlight on her phone to search the utility closet and found the million candle-power flashlight she sometimes used for night walks around the island. The island. With the old abandoned house on it. That needed milk and cookies. Dammit! She clicked on the flashlight and went to where she had left the milk and cookies on the patio.
The milk was toast … probably decimated by the seagull swarm. Fortunately, the “cookies” were still intact, albeit blown all over the ground by the wind. She bent down to pick up the cookies when she heard a low groan coming from the path toward the beach. She stood up, shined the flashlight all around, but didn’t see anything. She gathered up the Newtons and went to get a new plate, when she heard the noise again.
She stuffed the Newtons into the middle pocket of her sweater (Who cares? It’s just stupid cookies that will probably get eaten by birds) and went down to look a little more at what the noise was. She could see the dark outline of the creatures that washed up onto the beach earlier, but that was about it. That’s definitely where the noise was coming from. Did something else wash up? Something alive?
She sneaked down to the beach, pointing her flashlight low at the ground, feeling paranoid about spooking whatever was down there. The groans—multiple—got louder, and there was a disgusting gurgling noise. Curiosity got the best of her, and she pointed the light toward the beach.
The human-like corpses surrounding the beached whale looked right at her, and she screamed in horror. OH SHIT. There were water-logged zombies all over the beach eating the rotting flesh, and suddenly, she made herself Target #1. The zombies immediately started to amble toward her, and she turned around and fled to the house.
She got to the patio and realized too late that it was covered in ice. She slipped, legs flying up from under her, and she reached her left arm back to break her fall while her right hand held for dear life onto the flashlight. Big mistake. She felt a sharp pain as her arm crumpled underneath her. She growled out a mix of profanity and intense pain. And she knew the creatures behind her had no problem with this. She flipped herself over and slide-crawled her way back to the house, trying to get any advantage she could over the brain-eaters crushing through the brush behind her.
She got into the house and frantically looked for anything she could use as a weapon. No fire pokers. No bats. No golf clubs. Then she finally remembered the harpoons in the utility closet. Just in time, too, as the zombies reached the house. Their leathery skin was basically melting off their bones after being in the water so long. Their bodies pressed against the glass doors of the house. It would not be long until there was no escape.
Bre needed some way to get relief from her broken arm, so she used her right arm and tucked it into the middle pocket of her sweatshirt. Where the Fig Newtons were. These FUCKING cookies. And then the thought hit her. But no, there was no way. She could hold back the seagulls; surely there weren’t that many dead bodies in the ocean headed toward her? It didn’t take her long to think of just how many tragedies at sea there have been in human history.
She had to do something. Desperation mode kicked in. Time to deliver these fucking cookies.
She threw open the fridge door, searching for anything, and her eyes fell on the carton of her coconut milk. Fig Newtons and coconut milk. The perfect island milk and cookies. She grabbed the carton and stuffed it under her armpit. She tucked the flashlight between her ear and left shoulder, grimacing past the pain, steadied her harpoon hand, and went for the door.
She cracked it open, and the swarm of undead bodies herded toward her. She jabbed the harpoon at the zombies right at the door and cleared the best path she could out the door. She slowly scuffled through the patio and then broke out in a hard run toward the abandoned house, stabbing skulls when she had to.
She reached the section of the island that narrowed with the coral cliff on the side of the walking path. Only the walking path was covered with more undead … because of course. She ran closer and got ready for the fight of her life, but quickly realized there was no way she could make it through. Walking through the coral was her only option.
Fortunately for her, she had one advantage the zombies didn’t have: Shoes. She slowly started to pick her path through the skeletal remains of the coral reef. The zombies slowly made their way toward her, and their soggy feet were instantly shredded. The undead pressed on, hungering for her brains, while she steadily made her way toward the other end of the island. They were getting closer, but she thought she could make it to solid ground before they got to her.
She got too confident and paid the price. Her right ankle twisted, and she briefly lost her balance, just enough for the flashlight to dislodge, bounce a couple of times, and go careening over the side of the cliff. She had to keep going.
She finally made it past the coral cliff, guided by what little light the moon was providing, and ran for the abandoned house. She ignored the pain all around her body—left arm and right ankle included.
She made it to the house, and the howling wind started to blow with hurricane force—and snow. It was an all-out blizzard by the time she slammed the coconut milk carton on the stone fireplace mantle. She had to drop the harpoon—despite the zombies crashing through the overgrowth behind her—and grabbed a handful of Fig Newtons from the pocket, putting them right by the coconut milk.
“IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT YOU FUCKING MOTHERFUCKERS?? MERRY FUCKING CHRISTMAS!”
The wind and snow swirled around her, and suddenly, she was overwhelmed by the humid night. There was no sign of winter. No sign of zombies. No sign of milk and cookies. She dropped to her knees and screamed out a sob.