You’re walking along the beach and see a sparkle of light. Moving closer to investigate you notice a bottle. Inside is a weathered piece of paper with writing. In this prompt, build a story that will wow the readers.
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She was less surprised by the bottle’s contents than by the fact that she had noticed it at all. It was more the gleam that caught her attention. A painful green, stabbing suddenly from the very edge of her right eye just past the edge of her dollar store sunglasses. She flinched, whipping her gaze across the silty edge of the sound.
What was that damn thing?
It was nothing. Well, almost nothing. Just an old beer bottle. Another relic of sea-scratched glass half-buried in the Pamlico mud. But it wasn’t an empty bottle, either. It bobbed, just a little, barely floating in its own little murky pool. With each push of the waves, it glinted and winked.
Had it not been for the angle of the reflection, filling her eye with a tick-tock of slashing emerald as she gazed back out across the water, that might have been the end of it. With an irritated curiosity, she watched it roll silently with the waves. It was like a metronome, keeping time for an unheard tune. And then, just off rhythm by a fraction of a second, something inside the bottle moved.
While it took her a few moments of careful, sinking steps to confirm it, she knew instantly what it was. What else could it be? Inside the bottle was a thin cylinder of paper, tied tight around the center with a string tied in a tight bow. It had been sealed with a cork, still dark with the stain of wine at the bottom, and shoved awkwardly, but securely, into the bottle’s mouth.
A message set adrift by some lovelorn and littering romantic, surely. Or maybe it was a hand-drawn treasure map, the artifact of some adventure-hungry child upstream. If she was really lucky, she thought as she wrenched the bottle up from the muck, it’ll be some scandalous confession. The kind of thing that swirls and burns from the very center of a person, writhing to breach the surface and be spoken. An admission of guilt, love, or something in between. There it was, stuck inside this glass shell, waiting for someone to rip it free.
The bottle was newer than she expected, and still tacky to the touch where the label had been ripped away by the current. The paper, however, was not. It was newsprint, torn and ragged along one edge. And it was old.
When she returned home, she fed the dogs. They howled and pranced, as they always did after her walks. She apologized for abandoning them for the aching eternity of an hour. It was their shared daily moment of dinner theater, each playing their part in the ongoing story of personal freedom and hopeless abandonment. When she produced the bottle from her jacket pocket, they nosed it furiously, deciding quickly that it was not some strange treat.
She found the corkscrew in the junk drawer, and wasted no time. The bottle opened with a soft gasp instead of a pop, but the cork had done its job well enough. The paper inside was dry, and it felt almost brittle in her hand as she pulled the ends of the box and unwrapped the string. She unrolled, then unfolded, the yellowing paper.
It was a crossword puzzle, one of the huge ones that used to run in the Sunday editions. And it was half solved. Some clues were filled in with pencil, written lightly and barely legible from age. Others were confidently filled in with a firm, confident block script penned in heavy black ink. Quick black lines crossed through several clues, all in the “Down” section, marking them as completed.
The puzzle had been carefully torn from the page, making the date of the paper it came from a mystery. But the clues themselves were telling, filled with references to either the late 1980s or early ’90s. On the reverse page were fractions of community editorials, each referencing the importance of family and faith in the upcoming holiday season.
Why had this – what was it, 30 years old? – puzzle ended up as a message in a bottle? Where would you even get a paper like this? It was too strange to be a prank.
And then she noticed it. Many of the clues – most of them – were dead wrong. Wildly wrong, to the point of non sequitur. Not the penciled ones, just the … oh … that was something. If you just read the Down clues, it almost made a …
It had been years since she had felt her blood run cold, but she knew the feeling well.
She stared at the tattered page, just to be sure. There was no doubt about what she was looking at, and why it had been rolled up into a bottle and cast into the … surely the ocean, and then brought by the estuary tides into the sound. That made the most sense, but was too early to discount alternatives.
No time to worry about that now. A life was one the line, and who knows how long that desperate message had been floating around the sound. Weeks, certainly, but there might still be time. The only question now was who to call first.