It was a sunny morning on Avalon Beach in California. The waves, which typically would be crashing across the shoreline, were unusually calm. Twelve-year-old Joshua Taylor stood alone on the beach building an elaborate sandcastle fifty-feet from the water’s edge. Josh had a vivid imagination and whether by pen, keyboard or through the use of beach sand as his artform, he loved creating magical worlds that never existed before.
Josh built his castle a good distance up the beach because he was terrified of the water. Six years earlier, while learning to swim, a sea creature grabbed his leg and tried to pull him under. Luckily, his father was just a few feet away and was able to secure his release.
Some say it was a sand shark and others suggested it was a giant moray eel that had slithered up the coast in search of food. Joshua’s version of the attack was a far cry from the common thought and a much less believable yarn. “It was a fish-like creature with long fangs, jagged claws and skin made of fire,” was his quote to the newspaper reporter on the scene.
Obviously, no one believed his tall tale. The burn marks on his right leg were determined to be abrasions caused when the creature’s rough skin rubbed against him. Joshua, however, believed his story to be true and though he loved to sail on the family boat and fish from the beach, he stayed clear of stepping into the water ever since.
“Joshua!” a voice yelled out.
Josh looked across the beach and noticed his father waving to him from the back porch of their beachfront house.
“Were leaving when your sister gets back from gymnastics. Put a move on it kiddo,” he shouted.
Josh, his fourteen-year-old sister Keri and mom and dad were leaving for a two-week vacation later in the morning.
“I’ll be there in a few minutes," he yelled back.
Josh picked up a twig of driftwood out of the sand to add the finishing touch to the widow’s perch located at the peek of the castle.
“From the perch the Princess’ guards can now warn the villagers of a pending attack by the winged gargoyles that live in the maze of dark caves on the out skirts of the castle,” Josh said.
He paused when he noticed something very peculiar out of the corner of his eye. A thick fog began to rise from the surface of the ocean water. So dense in fact, you would have thought the ocean was on fire. Though there was not so much as a breeze in the air the mysterious mist rolled across the calm water and began to slowly creep its way up the sand. Leading Joshua to ponder the thought, were the winged gargoyles indeed just a figment of his imagination.
Just then Ivan Skulinski, a classmate of Joshua’s at Wooster Middle School and a handful of his mischievous friends, wondered onto the beach. They walked over and started feeding the sea gulls at the edge of the shore. It, however, wasn't as innocent as it looked. They were feeding the sea gulls seltzer tablets that would fizzle in their tiny stomachs and make them quite ill.
Ivan noticed Josh in the distance and an evil grin flashed across his face. Ivan did not like Josh because he kept to himself and in his mind acted weird. Joshua was also much smaller, barely 100lbs soaking wet, and didn’t have a lot of self-confidence to stand up to Ivan and his gang of thugs and thus he made for easy prey.
“Hey, look dudes, it’s the weirdo freak!” Ivan said.
“He is probably playing imaginary pirates,” his friend Waldo replied.
“Well then, let’s sneak attack!” Ivan said as he tapped his chest twice with a closed fist. He was wearing a tank top with an imprint of a black skull and cross bones. Joshua had no idea Ivan had even walked onto the beach let alone about his lured intentions.
Rumbles of thunder began to echo in the distance. The thunder was actually a comforting sound to Josh. His ‘winged gargoyle” theory was replaced by a much more sensible explanation. He figured the fog was probably due to an approaching storm so he bent down to pick up his backpack and head home when a bright flash of white light filtered through the fog practically blinding him. Josh squinted to protect his eyes. “It must be coming from the beacon,” he thought.
The beacon light was about a mile out to sea. It was used to help guide boaters away from the shallow and rocky waters, especially during low tide. There was, however, a kink in the theory. Given the fact the fog was quite dense, and the beacon was a mile away, “How could it be so bright?” Josh said.
He lowered his head away from the light. “What in the world,” he said. The light pierced through the widow’s perch at the top of the castle and reflected off the driftwood like it was a mirror and down to the front gate where the sand glittered like broken pieces of crystal glass.
Curiously, he squatted down and scooped up a handful of the sand. The crystals filtered through his fingers leaving behind a metal object in the middle of his palm. “A key,” Josh said. This key, however, was very different from the one he used to unlock his door at home. His first thought was that it was very old. It had a dull copper finish with three distinctive square notches. “A skeleton key,” he thought.
His imagination began to soar as he thought about the possibilities. “Maybe it is a key to a lost pirate treasure just beyond the shore. Or maybe a key to a dungeon that is home to some type of prehistoric creature. He then looked out across the ocean and a much more sinister thought engulfed him as the fog continued its methodical crawl up the beach. “Maybe the same creature that attacked me years ago. Only now ten times the size.”
His train of thought was broken when he heard a faint voice whisper through his ear. He fell dead silent and scanned the beach, but there was nobody there. He turned to see if maybe it was his father’s voice, but he was busy cleaning the barbecue grille. Figuring, once again, it was just his imagination playing tricks on him he shrugged it off and drew his attention back to the skeleton key.
A moment later he heard the voice again. Only it was much clearer. "It is the key to the hidden treasure that will lead you into the darkness," the voice said in a very soft precious tone.
Josh looked towards the lifeguard stand a few feet from the edge of the shore. Rising from the fog was a shadowy figure, of what he believed to be a man, staring out across the ocean. It was kind of strange because he wasn’t there just seconds ago. “A ghost?” Josh wondered.
His thought may have been a bit out of the realm of reality but from his perspective it was quite an eerie coincidence, especially since the man’s identity was not only hidden in the blanket of fog, but also buried underneath a long, loosely fit black over coat, with a raised collar trimmed in red that resembled a cloak worn by medieval Vikings in the 15th century and more recently by Caribbean pirates in the early 1800’s. An uneasy feeling wavered through the pit of Joshua’s stomach, as an avid reader of ancient mystery and fantasy novels, he realized the garment was also fashionable attire for witches, vampires and even wizards.
“Why would anyone be wearing a cloak, especially on a warm day like this? It’s not Halloween,” Josh thought.
“Oh, this is crazy. What am I thinking? A ghost? I’m just freaking myself out. He is just a man walking on the beach. So, what if he is wearing a cloak. This is California, there are all kinds of nuts, and, besides, it couldn’t have been his voice. How could I hear him whispering from that far away?”
Still, he was not totally convinced. He opened his hand and looked at the key. “It is the key to the hidden treasure that will lead you into the darkness,” the voice repeated. He looked up quickly but the ‘ghost’ was gone. No trace, no trail. Before he had time to ponder what just happened he heard another voice. This voice, however, was far from soft and very recognizable.
"Sneak attack!" Ivan screamed from behind. He leaped over Josh and purposely kicked him in the head with his untied work boot. Josh dropped the key and grabbed the back of his head in pain. Ivan landed in the middle of his castle and showed just how crude he could be by destroying every last bit of Joshua's magical creation.
“The enemy has arrived,” Ivan shouted, “And he shall conquer the world!”
His buddies applauded his destruction and laughed at Joshua as Ivan kicked backwards and booted a load of sand into his face. He then lifted both his arms and flexed his muscles, “I’m the ruler of this beach you little twerp. If I ever see you here again I’m going to do to you what I just did to your dumb castle. Got it weirdo freak?”
Josh didn’t say a word he just sat there with his arms over his face trying to protect himself. Ivan and his gang turned and walked away laughing at Joshua’s expense.
Josh cleared the sand and tears out of his eyes and stood up. He was very angry as he stood over his castle in ruins but what could he do? The simple answer was to do what he always did when it came to Ivan, nothing, just drop his head and go home.
He picked up his backpack, "Ouch," he said stepping on something sharp. He quickly checked the sole of his foot, to his relief, there was no blood or obvious sign of a cut. He squatted down and combed his fingers through the sand to see what it was he had stepped on and once again came across the skeleton key. He turned the key over in his hand and dropped it again, or at least he thought he did for a second. Though it was no longer visible he could still feel it in his palm. He picked the key up between his fingers and turned it back over. Amazingly, it reappeared.
"Holy crap!” he said, “This is totally awesome!” It was as if the key had only one side. “Wait,” he said, “The magician.” In the springtime they had a magician visit the beach and he put on a show for the children. “It must be his key. That’s it. I’ll give it to Dad. He’ll know how to return it.” Josh placed the key gently in the small side pocket of his backpack and then flipped it over his shoulder.
He turned to head home, but he couldn’t move. Unbeknownst to Josh, the drifting fog had rolled across his feet cementing him to the sand. He squatted down and looked through the fog, “What’s happening?” he said with terror in his voice. The fog had devoured the flesh around his feet, leaving nothing but bone, and it began to slowly creep, inch by inch, up his legs. “It’s eating me alive! Make it stop!” he said with desperation.
Instinctively, he tried to sweep the fog away with his right hand. The move only exasperated the situation. The fog attached itself to his hand with the same chilling results. There was nothing but skeleton bone from his wrists down. Though there was no pain involved, it did little to calm Joshua’s nerves. “Make it stop!” he shouted again, and he tried to shake the fog away from his hand to no avail.
He turned to his house, his heart thumping with panic, “Help!” he shouted at the top of his lungs, “Dad! Help! Help!” Though his father was still out in the yard cleaning the grille, he never turned around. It was as if Josh’s desperate plea simply withered into thin air.
Another rumble of thunder followed. Josh slowly turned his head towards the shore. Out of the depths of the ocean rose a dark and menacing black cloud, encircled by an ominous red and yellow glow that resembled flowing lava. Within seconds the cloud consumed the once bright, blue sky turning the day into the dead of night and the cool air into a sweltering heat. “OMG! A cloud demon,” Josh said, as he wiped the dripping sweat from his brow with the back of his left hand. “No doubt about it. It’s official. I’m now totally freaked out!”
“Do not be frightened Joshua, for it is in you that I place my faith,” returned the soft whispering voice. Josh jerked his head back in the direction of the lifeguard stand and within a whirl of the fog re-appeared the ‘ghost’ wearing the cloak.
Though it was pitch dark all around him, the ghost’s frame was illuminated by white, fluorescent light. The ‘ghost’ slowly turned his head towards Joshua. His identity was partially hidden behind his raised collar, but Josh did notice he was an older gentleman with long white, almost slivery like beard that came to a point at the center of his chest.
“Please help me,” Josh whispered back.
The ‘ghost’ didn’t answer Joshua’s plea. Instead, he turned his attention back towards the ocean and the head of a king cobra appeared from the front of his right shoulder. The serpent slithered across the back of his neck and down his left arm. A blast of thunder ripped across the darkened sky and the snake dangled down and turned to marble in the shape of a gold handled scepter with a diamond-studded crown at its point.
“Incredible,” Josh said, momentarily, focusing his attention away from the flesh-eating fog. He quickly dug into his backpack with his left hand for his phone. “I have to get a picture of this. No one will ever believe me.” Before he could snap a photo, the screen went black. The battery, which was fully charged, not only died it physically melted like butter inside the phone and oozed out the bottom.
“Yikes!” Josh said and hastily dropped the phone into the fog. “This is…” he paused in mid thought and slowly lifted his eyes and watched in awe as the ‘ghost’ raised the scepter towards the Cloud Demon and a brilliant streak of lightening flashed from its crown. Josh lifted his left arm to shade his eyes from the bolt of lightning as it pulsated through the black cloud like beams of light in a plasma sphere. The cloud roared in a fit of anger, “Foolish child. You shall pay for your imposition. The wicked will always ravage the unwise,” it said in a deep and disturbing voice. The cloud then exploded into a spectacular array of light and a million star-like particles reigned down upon Joshua.
The cloud dissolved, leaving in its wake blue skies, cooler temperatures and a brilliant triple rainbow reaching as far as Joshua’s eyes could see.
“Do not be afraid,” the ‘ghost’ whispered once more, “It is in you I place my faith.”
“What do you mean? What does this all mean? Why is this happening?” Josh asked.
The ghost slowly turned his head once again in Joshua’s direction, only this time he lowered the collar. Because of the distance, Josh still couldn’t get a good look as to his identity, but he was right about his age, the man was quite old. “In his 70’s,” Josh figured.
“In due time my child,” the ghost replied, “The answer will be clear. You shall know the truth of the journey that awaits you.”
“Journey? You mean my vacation?” Josh asked with a look of confusion. The ghost comforted Josh with a distant smile. “In due time,” he answered once again and turned his attention back to the ocean. He dropped the crown of the scepter into the fog. “Until we meet again my child of wonder,” he said and twirled the crown through the fog.
The fog began to whirl and astonishingly molded itself into a horse-like creature that, according to the legend and folklore books Josh had read, only existed in the mythical world of the ancient Greek gods. And yet there it was as clear as day. “A unicorn,” Josh said.
The creature rose up with a flowing mane of gold and to Joshua’s surprise, wings made of fire. Leading Joshua to realized that what he was witnessing was beyond the realm of possibility. “A unicorn with wings?” Josh said. Even in the most ancient writings of mythology, at a time when the lines between reality and dream were often blurred no mention of such a creature exists. With the exception, as in modern times, in the passage of a child’s fable. Some writers called it a Pegasus, others crowned it Alicorn and even in some creative circles it was known as a Beca-corn.
Joshua watched in amazement as a stream of the fog whirled into its spiral horn and soothing music filled the air. “A message to god’s maybe?” Josh thought. The “ghost” pulled back on the reigns and the unicorn lifted off the beach. The majestic beauty sailed over the ocean water and faded into the rainbows. The fog released Joshua from its grasp and followed the unicorn back out to sea. Josh looked at his hand and then to his feet. To his great relief they had returned to normal. As did the day itself.
“Put a move on it. You have five minutes!” yelled his father.
“Okay. I’m coming,” Josh replied a bit dumbfounded. He could kind of understand his father not hearing him scream for help, old people can’t hear very well, but the cloud demon? “How could he miss that? The sky turned pitch black.” Not to mention a winged unicorn. That, you would think, Josh thought, even in a world where everything is caught on video, would be a head turner.
His father’s reaction led Josh to ponder the thought, did this really happen? The tender bruise on his head made it perfectly clear his encounter with Ivan was real, but what about the ghost, cloud demon and the unicorn?
“There is only one way to know for sure,” he said and walked over to where the “ghost” had appeared.
The beachcomber had raked the sand earlier in the morning so if the experience was genuine Josh expected to see one a set of footprints and four hoofs. To his astonishment, he did not. There was no evidence to suggest anyone or anything had been standing there.
“It was a ghost. It had to be,” Josh thought. He then quickly realized the absurdity of his observation. “Wait a minute you idiot. There are no such things as ghosts. This is crazy. It was just my imagination. Just my stupid imagination!”
His negative reaction seemed to anger the calm water. A wave crashed onto the shore and splashed over Josh’s feet. Josh was terrified. His knees wobbled like jelly and he collapsed to the sand. The wave rolled gently back out and the water calmed once again.
“I said get off my beach!” Josh glanced over his shoulder to find Ivan standing over him. Ivan stuck his boot into Joshua’s back and pushed him face first into the wet sand. “What a loser,” Ivan said. Waldo gave him a high five and Ivan and his gang of thugs stumbled away.