's 2013 Horror Write-off:

" The Storm of '98 "

Submitted by Tatzlwyrm

Gull Beach is my home. It's a small barrier island off the coast of New Jersey, about 30 miles from Atlantic City. Before the storm, the island about five miles long but only two blocks wide at its narrowest point, and it boasted a population of around 12,000 during the summer months. The island had a history as a popular vacation spot, due no doubt to its beautiful, serpentine beaches and abundance of marine life, as well as its relative proximity to other prominent travel destinations. For many people, however, Gull Beach was a world apart; over time, the island even acquired its own amusement park, a small collection of rides and attractions named Funtime Pier. In many respects, Gull Beach was a typical New Jersey barrier island, and like the other barrier islands it had seen its share of storms. The storm of ’98, however, was a different matter entirely, and I've spent the last three months compiling all the information I could about the island and the storm, trying to make sense of what I saw.

In the weeks leading up to the storm, local news networks began broadcasting severe hurricane warnings and evacuation notices to those of us on the islands. It was easy, and perhaps rational, to construe those warnings as unsubstantiated hype: “The media wants to put the scare in ya,” I remember Al the grocer saying, “It’s all a crock of shit.” We locals did what we have always done; we boarded our windows, brought in the outdoor furniture, and prepared to weather the storm. A few dedicated summer home owners made the journey down to secure their houses, making sure the pipes and glass would make it through intact. Even when the news stations started calling the storm Hurricane Rosalita, the whole procedure seemed very commonplace to the people of Gull Beach; storms happened every other year, and this one would be no different.

Accounts afterward suggest there was something unearthly about the storm itself, but considering its horrifying aftermath this can be conjectured to be the overactive imagination of a terrified populace working in retrospect. Some 552 residents reported seeing St. Elmo’s fire during the hurricane, though the phrase had been virtually unseen in the area’s lexicon since the 1800’s. Descriptions, of course, varied wildly; there were reports as disparate as ball-lightning phenomena and spacecraft piloted by extraterrestrials. The most outlandish stories were dismissed by police and local authorities, but there are people to this day who maintain that there was something unusual about the storm, some eldritch force that altered forever the sleepy seaside borough in the winter of 1998.

The power lines had been knocked out, but everyone had been expecting that. Trash and recycling bins littered the street, because enough people were stupid enough to leave them out overnight, and the stench of the rotting garbage was enough to bring gulls and even foxes out of hiding to pick over the refuse. The dunes had been almost completely eroded by the storm, leaving gaping holes that would need to be repaired before summer. The ocean had poured through those holes, and it had run down the streets like a gray, frothing river. Anything beachfront was demolished, and a lot of the little bungalows looked like they’d been hit by a missile. Even the bay side had fared poorly; the storm surge caused the water to rise drastically - up to ten feet - swamping most of the low-sitting houses and causing irreparable damage. Funtime Pier in the north sat strangely unmolested, save for some structural damage to the wooden columns that kept the boardwalk elevated above the ocean. The ones in the center seemed to have taken the most damage, causing the entire pier to sag perilously in the middle. Whatever trees or shrubs had been able to grow on the island were stripped of their leaves, and the dune grasses had gone with the dunes, leaving the entire island a sandy mess. Mosquito Island too laid bare its hideous secrets, which were eclipsed still by the horrid revelation of Gull Beach.

It was early in the morning when the screeching winds died down and the rain finally lightened. The few of us who had ridden out the storm crawled out of our homes like insects, pushing aside battered screen doors and smashed flowerpots as we emerged. There was sand in the streets, coating both the road and the sidewalk; it would have been difficult to tell that there had ever been a road at all. It wasn’t difficult to see why; up the street, I could see that the sand dunes had been completely obliterated by the waves. A nearby telephone pole was snapped in half, and it sparked and popped in the gray dawn light, throwing shadows every time a bolt appeared. The rain was very light, almost nonexistent, and it seemed to hang in the air like a fog. I stood in the street and watched my neighbors stagger into view, holding their hands to their brows and wandering uphill towards me. My home was close to the beach, but seemed to have been spared the worst of the damage; it was a squat, brick building, and it hadn’t lost so much as a coat of paint. I cast my eyes down toward the bayside, and could barely make out the twisted tangle of homes amid the shimmering water of the bay. I wandered down to Main Street, the dividing line between the ocean and bay sides. The street itself was underwater; the bay had risen that far, which was unheard of. The homes on the opposite side of the street were submerged, and some were already tilting recklessly. I could see a few people, families, heading toward us, wading through the cloudy water with whatever possessions they could lift over their heads. I wanted to help, but I stared stupidly as they carted whatever they could toward our side, the drier side.

I began to walk down Main, sloshing water up to my knees as I walked. I was walking south, where the island became thinner; the damage here was even worse. I could see pockets of mist rising from the stagnating water; between houses, in yards, even on the lawn of Town Hall. It was a sick-looking fog, blue and shiny like swamp gas; it reached into the air like fingers grasping. I passed BJ’s Beachwear, gripping the bike rack in front of the store for fear of slipping. I felt the sidewalk sink under my feet, like a tile in wet grout; it wasn’t a wholesome feeling, and I could swear that I saw that same blue mist rise in front of me. I stepped down into the street, which felt firm under my feet; though the water was a bit deeper, I much preferred it to the now-unusable sidewalk.

I looked up and saw seagulls wheeling overhead, chattering to one another and calling dibs on the pieces of trash floating by. I saw a group of them bobbing by where the Bait and Tackle shop sat, shaking their heads and plucking rancid fish out of the water. A flotilla of shitty plastic boogie boards detached from the side of the building and floated off in the opposite direction, with nobody around to care.

A house a few blocks down collapsed. I saw it buckle under its own weight and fall apart, and it sunk into the ground as if being swallowed by a sinkhole. It drew in a neighboring fence and part of the house next door, producing a disgusting sucking sound and a groan like an old ship. I heard a splash as the roof was submerged, and there surged forth a massive cloud of that blue fog, belching out of the earth in a hiss. It looked like the sewers had completely backed up with baywater, and the ground in between the tunnels and the surface had been so inundated that it simply collapsed. I believed that at the time, and even that simple, erroneous assumption caused me to falter and turn back, for fear of dropping into a sinkhole.

I took a side street up to the beach side, glad to be out of the water that seemed to grow more cloudy and fetid by the minute. I shuffled through the sandy street, and I caught a glimpse of a crowd gathered at the boardwalk at the end of the road. It was tough to see through the fog, but it looked like at least twenty people were gathered around the gazebo, which sat at a dangerous tilt on its now-exposed concrete base. The sand swirled around my feet as the wind picked up, and I pulled my coat tighter about me as I made my way toward the splintery boardwalk ramp. I never expected the sight that awaited me at the ruined gazebo atop that blasted dune.

The water must have surged through in huge channels, punching through the dunes in certain areas with much greater devastation than in others. I could see the wood and concrete underpinnings of the boardwalk blasted open not a half mile away from where I was standing. The asphalt of the street behind was broken and pushed up like a peeling scab, and between the cracks I could see more of the blue gas seeping slowly and mingling with the fog in the air. A nearby house crumbled and collapsed, creating another gaping hole that was mostly hidden from view. Farther away on the beach was another ragged wound in the sand, this one yawning wide and black like a cave entrance. In the rising sunlight there glimmered a series of long white protrusions, like curved yellow stalactites, that appeared to have been uncovered when the beach was washed away. As the shoreline snaked south before us, we could see more and more of the massive ivory projections, leering out of their holes in the ground like a dilapidated picket fence, disappearing into the mist. Each of these craters exuded the same wispy blue gas, and shorebirds swarmed around them like ants, picking and squawking over something that none of us could see. The wind shifted, and the overpowering smell of low tide assaulted our nostrils.

The sun rose higher, burning off a portion of the fog. It gleamed into the mysterious caverns, casting light into their dark recesses. It caused the fog to glimmer incandescently as it curled around the mysterious bony protrusions, one or two of which already sported a watchful gull. The rest were scrabbling over one another to pick at the edges of the ragged holes, which appeared to be lined with thin scraps of decaying flesh. Crabs scuttled out of the sun and into the darker recesses, picking over whatever the gulls couldn’t reach. I could hear the sound of the rescue chopper approaching out of the north, and as the fog to the south evaporated the noise mingled with the terrified shriek of a woman standing in front of me.

I’m sure you all know what happens next; it was all over the news. I’ve heard about a hundred different explanations for how the island had been formed, how we could have lived there for so long without noticing, but I stopped caring a long tie ago. People had lived on that island for 200 years without knowing what lay beneath their feet, and as soon as the relief workers and scientists cease picking over the corpse of the town, we’ll probably go back to living on that island. It’s been three months now, but they can’t keep us out forever. I know a lot of Bennies are gonna try to sell their houses, or what’s left of them, but they won’t be missed. The pier made it through and, if we’re lucky, it’ll be up and running as soon as the Feds leave.

But I couldn’t help but feel my stomach drop, feel a sense of primal, pants-shitting fear, when the sun and the wind parted the mist that day. It wasn’t easy to see through the wisps of fog and the piles of sand, but the shape slowly emerged, and what we saw was unmistakable. Past the winding shoreline, past the houses and the crumbling roads and the rotting geysers, at the very southern end of the island, was what remained of the cape. It stretched out into the ocean, same as always, but we could see more of those yellow-white projections rising out of the sand that remained. At the point, where the lighthouse now sat off-kilter, and with that shimmering blue mist rising from its every orifice, sat what was unmistakably a massive reptilian skull.