Your first thought when you find yourself standing here on the edge of the coast, staring out across the sea, is always this: everything is red in this world.
It’s not quite true. After all, the sand beneath your feet is off-white, and the wooden jetty that stretches out before you is the lifeless grey of old ash. But the whole scene is drenched in crimson: the grass that tufts the shore where you stand, the sky that looms over you in perpetual near-dusk, the vast stretch of open water that lies beneath it like a long, unbroken mirror. The perfect circle of an angry red sun looms large, balanced on the thin cut of the horizon, and perhaps that is why it is always hot here. The constant simmering heat keeps your skin prickling with the promise of sweat. The air sticks to your skin and refuses to allow it breath, clinging like a needy lover who cannot see that their affection is suffocation.
You turn and look behind you. No path leads back across the vast plain of red dust that stretches without cease into the shimmering distance, where giant crimson peaks thrust from a hazy horizon. If anything lies beyond them, you do not remember it or never knew.
Now you stride across the soft earth to where the jut of the jetty begins. The wooden structure walks on stilts out into the red sea for perhaps twenty metres and doglegs to the right for another five as if losing its courage and trying to turn back. On this dead end sits a small shack, its walls and flat roof the same ash-grey as the jetty, a weathered wart on the tip of a wooden finger. The shack is yours. It’s the only home you know.
The old and scabrous wooden planks of the pier are rough but comforting beneath your bare feet. Three metres below, red ripples break into pink foam as they gently slap against the soft white face of the coast. The water is lazy as if dreaming, and the incarnadine expanse stretching out toward the horizon lies still as a painting. One could believe that such a sea held nothing, was as lifeless as a bowl of soup.
But one would be wrong.
You reach the elbow of the jetty and lean on the rust-rashed railing. The flat plain of the sea could well be old blood, empty of life—but you know you are not alone.
You have spotted what roams out there, caught brief glimpses of what moves restlessly through those cherry waves. Like few things in this world, it is not red but black as deep as a hole cut from the fabric of space. It never comes too close, but the deep pang of dismay at the thought that it might is one of the few things that pierces through the malaise of this endless summer.
It is big enough to tear through these old wooden pylons like matchsticks.
Its jaws could crush the shack with a single bite.
And it is aware of you.
Sometimes, you linger before this eternal near-dusk as the deathless sun’s blood runs without end into the gutter of the horizon, and you glimpse a black shadow standing out there on the crimson plain of the water, rendered almost invisible by distance and yet somehow so like your own. Perhaps something keeps watch on the land, on you, just as you keep watch over the ocean and its black inhabitant.
You tell yourself that the idea is ridiculous.
You almost believe it.
Turning now, you walk to the front door of your shack and push it open. You have no need for a lock out here—why, when there is only you, you and that thing out in the crimson deep that no lock could stall or withstand? Only one other person has been here, and they are welcome. They said that the lock is you.
The décor of your single-room shack is spartan, functional: an iron-framed bed in one corner, given its head by two plain pillows, its thin mattress covered only by a plain white sheet; a slim-legged wooden table with two matching chairs, its surface bare but for a glass ashtray, a packet of nameless cigarettes with some equally anonymous matches, and a nondescript magazine you have never read. The chipped white paint on the walls peels away in curlicue scabs, unadorned by any decoration, and from the centre of the ceiling hangs a single bulb, although the perpetual angry light streaming through the windows renders it obsolete. Those windows are curiously clean, attended by vermilion curtains that are always pulled back to let that light in.
You live here alone. Only one other person has been here, and they are welcome. They said that the lock is you. They said—
“Fancy meeting you here.”
You turn, and she leans against the door frame with a six-pack dangling from one hand. She smiles, brushing her tangle of short dark hair back with her free hand and holding the pose like a model. As ever, she wears a white singlet and denim cut-off shorts. You are always naked, but this does not seem to bother either of you.
“Endless summer—what a nightmare. Lucky it’s you here and not me. I’ve always been a winter rose.”
She pads barefoot into the shack and passes you a beer. The glass is a welcome kiss of cool on your skin, its contents a heady taste of heaven. She rolls another chilled bottle across her face, down her arms, and some sympathetic resonance of temperature causes her nipples to push against the thin singlet like eager bullets. You watch, fascinated, as she wrenches the cap off and chases a swig with a sigh of satisfaction.
“You know, for a no-name, made-up beer, this stuff is really good,” she says. “It’s like the archetype of beers. The Platonic ideal. Wish I could take some with me.”
Her words, as always, leave you none the wiser as to their meaning. She doesn’t seem to mind your perpetual ignorance. As always, the two of you sit at the table, smoking anonymous cigarettes and sipping blank-label beers.
“How’ve you been?” she asks, a formality, and rolls her eyes at her own question when you can only shrug in reply. “Yeah, I guess I should stop asking that. Same shit, same day, right?”
She makes small talk about a number of nothings, and you shrug and nod where it seems necessary. You don’t understand much of what she says, but you know you are supposed to, or that you once did. It’s all just foreplay, anyway. Once the beers are drained, the cigarettes burned out, she takes you by the hand and leads you to the bed.
This part of her visit is clearly supposed to mean something to both of you, and you wish you knew what. Nevertheless, the base mechanics of the process are a wondrous relief from monotony. She squirms out of her clothes, and though you are sure you’ve seen more attractive women—somehow, in some other when—she is the only one you care to know. She’s rich with a middle-aged vitality, her heavy breasts on a slow downward trajectory, tiny wrinkles beginning to show around the edges of her eyes and mouth, and she’s beautiful. She’s life, and what you do here in your red world is somehow all for her. This is how it always is, and so ever it shall be.
But this time, something different happens.
Your lover lies back as you manoeuvre into position atop her, her mouth falling open to admit a long, soft sigh…and as you push your heat into hers, she speaks.
This is new.
You have a name.
Your name is Keene.
Matthew R. Davis is an author and musician based in Adelaide, South Australia, with around forty dark fiction stories and poems published thus far. Twice shortlisted for the Paul Haines Long Fiction Award (Australian Shadows Awards, 2016 and 2017), he’s judged for the Aurealis Awards two years running and occasionally performs spoken word shows with street poets Paroxysm Press. He plays bass and sings in alternative rock/metal bands Blood Red Renaissance (on hiatus) and icecocoon, whose latest album How Long is Forever…? was released in 2018 along with a video for first track “The Great Aerial Ocean” that he edited.