The fifth place winner of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair and The National's 2012 Short Story Competition.
The Others by Paul A Freeman
The footprints first appeared one winter's morning.
My daily run took me along Abu Dhabi's popular corniche. As usual, I passed 'The Others' - fellow early birds who I was on nodding terms with. They regularly strode out at the crack of dawn, just as I did, to take in the fresh sea breeze on the esplanade.
There was Polka Dot Girl, a young Western woman with blonde hair, dressed in an immodest, polka dot swimming costume. Then there was Suit Man, an elderly Indian gentleman in a crisply laundered black suit, pink shirt and red tie. Finally there was Arab Guy, a young, bizarrely barefooted Arab who always wore a long-sleeved T-shirt and shorts reaching down below his knees.
My run always ended at the same spot. Leaving the promenade, I made my way onto the beach, over the soft sand and down to the tideline. For the final hundred-metre stretch, I sprinted across the compact sand to where the gentle waves of the Arabian Gulf lapped at a wooden jetty. At this place, bending double and fighting for breath, I sucked in the cold morning air and recovered from my exertions.
"Not bad for a middle-aged bloke," I reflected, having outpaced every jogger on the seafront.
It was then that I saw the footprints, a single set, a child's by the size of them, leading down to the shore. Yet they only went in the one direction; they didn't return up the beach to where, presumably, an anxious parent was waiting.
Neither a child nor a parent was anywhere to be seen however, so I assumed no one had drowned. Perhaps, I decided, someone was playing a trick on me and had backtracked up the beach, placing their feet in their own imprints as they retraced their steps.
Uneasy though these marks in the sand made me feel, I soon managed to put them from my mind.
The next day two pairs of footprints were visible, one set seemingly the child's from the previous morning. They headed from the direction of the promenade (where 'The Others' and a handful of other early risers were taking in the ambience of a new day) and stopped just before the land met the sea.
"Strange," I decided, and racked my brains for some logical explanation.
I wondered if a large fish had been landed before dawn, or if an interesting piece of flotsam had perhaps washed ashore. Yet this couldn't explain why the footprints appeared only to come from the one direction, the corniche, yet didn't return the way they came.
I tried to dwell no more on the matter, even though my uneasiness had redoubled.
The following morning there were three pairs of footprints, and every morning thereafter another set of imprints appeared. They radiated towards that same spot by the jetty where I took a breather after my daily exertions. A strange phenomenon, but nothing sinister, I persuaded myself. I reckoned there had to be a logical explanation and even succeeded in convincing myself of this until the events of one misty morning in March.
As I approached the jetty, pondering the reason why Polka Dot Girl was wearing a bikini on such a miserable day, a group of grey human shapes loomed out of the fog, from a distance looking like shrouded monks. They appeared to be lost in conversation, discussing some object lying on the sand. As I drew nearer, the semicircle of phantoms became clearer in outline than they had been from fifty metres away. Yet their banter remained nothing more than an indistinct muttering.
Some of the figures wore swimwear, others shoes and smart strolling attire, much like Suit Man. They were dressed in a mishmash of attire, in fact. I stopped on the periphery of the ghostly assemblage and opened my mouth to enquire who they were and what exactly they were doing. But just then a gust of wind blew in from the sea, dissolving the apparitions before my eyes.
All that remained to assure me I hadn't been hallucinating were their footprints, each set making a beeline from the corniche to the jetty.
From that day onwards, thoroughly unnerved by my experience in the fog, I avoided the beach and the shoreline. Jogging along the paved promenade, I would nod and smile at 'The Others' and anyone else out and about before the lark, but always found myself glancing apprehensively towards the jetty, squinting to see if the sand was dotted with footprints.
My health suffered, too. Fear gripped my heart every time I passed by that place, and a shortness of breath pressed down on my lungs. I soldiered on though, loath to allow superstitious dread to get the better of me and put an end to my daily run.
This all changed though on Easter Bank Holiday.
That day, feeling light headed and slightly under the weather, I decided to delay my run until the afternoon. To while away the time I logged onto my computer to check the local news. The National, Abu Dhabi's English language newspaper, carried the story of a jet-skier who died in a bizarre jet-skiing accident. The photograph accompanying the article showed a young Egyptian whose face was instantly recognisable. He was Arab Guy, one of the people I habitually saw on the corniche - one of 'The Others'.
What confused me though was that the story was a follow-up article on the dangers of jet-skiing. Arab Guy had died a year ago! Yet surely I had seen him strolling on the promenade the day before.
In a puzzled panic, I searched the newspaper's archives for other untimely deaths in and around the corniche. Minutes later I located the story of an American woman who drowned whilst swimming off the beach I jogged along. The picture accompanying the article, the last photograph ever taken of her, showed a smiling blonde woman in a polka dot bikini.
Suit Man, the last of 'The Others', turned out to be an Indian pensioner who two years previously visited his daughter in Abu Dhabi to see his new born grandson. A brisk walk on the esplanade had set off a fatal cardiac arrest.
Without bothering to switch off my computer, I quickly changed into a green T-shirt and blue shorts, left my apartment and ran down to the corniche. I wove my way in and out of the holiday crowds, searching for Polka Dot Girl, Suit Man and Arab Guy. I sought them out in vain though, and puffing and panting came to a halt opposite the jetty.
Apparently something exciting was occurring by the landing stage, at the spot where I used to take a rest - at the place where that host of apparitions had appeared out of the March fog.
In spite of my reservations, drawn by my curiosity, I trudged towards the shoreline. Scores of adults and children were gathering around my old resting spot, their footfalls converging in front of the jetty. Some of the people were merely inquisitive, but others wore concerned expressions.
"Shall I call an ambulance?" one woman said, flipping open her mobile phone.
"Someone already has," her companion replied. "But it looks like it's too late. The guy's not moving."
I craned my neck, straining to glimpse the object of their verbal exchange, but the crowd was a solid, impenetrable wall. Then a prickling sensation at the back of my neck made me turn around. Behind me, up on the esplanade, Polka Dot Girl, Suit Man and Arab Guy were grouped around the railings overlooking the beach, watching me in silence and beckoning me to join them.
"No," I cried out in despair and realisation.
I turned away from 'The Others' and stood on tiptoe, frantic to get a better view of the unfortunate person who had collapsed on the beach. Yet all I could make out was the outline of a man lying face down in the sand dressed in a green T-shirt and blue shorts.
Ÿ Paul A. Freeman is the fifth runner up of the 2012 Short Story Competition organised by The National and the Abu Dhabi Book Fair