The ever-present Arctic wind bearing down on your crumbling, medieval town drives people mad. Your hair, once gently tousled, turns whip-like, dangerous, once the gale from the North Sea hits the St. Andrews cliffs, traveling upward, wrapping itself around buildings, pursuing you. No coat can thwart the wind’s efforts to flush out your warmth. Its familiar white noise ranges from a whisper outside a windowpane to a bloodcurdling shriek, closing in from all sides. When people fall from the cliffs, it’s always the wind’s fault. The wind urges you to get too close — to peer down at the receding tide. It either pushes you or taunts you until you find yourself on the rocks below.
You hope that isn’t what happened to Fraser, but it’s too soon to know. Police haven’t found him yet. You’re still cooped up in your dormitory, St. Salvatore’s, in the main dining hall, awaiting news. Refreshing your group chat every five seconds to make sure you don’t miss the announcement. You curl over on the creaking oak bench as if you’re praying to the screen.
At the end of your bench, a couple of girls are murmuring, holding fast to steaming mugs of tea. You try not to listen to the girls. Their theories are too grotesque for so early in a missing person’s case. Instead, you turn your attention to the window next to you — an imitation stained-glass portrait of some saint or other, painted hundreds of years ago, stolen from an older cathedral and added unceremoniously to a glorified cafeteria. The paint mostly looks like murky browns — dried blood — instead of the full spectrum of color it probably originally had. You suppress the urge to scrape it off with your short, wide fingernails.
The information you’ve been given so far is sparse: Fraser went out last night to the only nightclub in town. The surveillance system spotted him walking towards the Old Course at 11:30 p.m., his phone pressed to his ear. He didn’t return to his residence hall last night. The university pronounced Fraser missing this morning.
It’s just local police who’re crawling through the town, the marshes, the beaches. All morning you’d been dialing Fraser’s number to no avail, gnawing on your torn cuticles with every unanswered ring. It’s nearly evening now, and you’ve stopped calling.
Your residence hall’s Facebook page is promoting a community-based search in collaboration with the local police in their chartreuse vests. One hundred other St. Andrews’s residents have indicated they’re joining. The cell phone looks accusingly at you, in bed, scrolling through social media. Callum’s and Euan’s names pop up first on the list of searchers. Seeing the faint outlines of your face reflected in the blue light of the screen and feeling like a fraud, you click the “Going” button at the top of the page. Your stomach turns, and your mind calculates the space between you and the nearest toilet, though you haven’t eaten all morning.
You twist your body underneath your two goose down comforters. The wind passes right through St. Salvatore’s, which was built in the 1930s, but shows no indication of repair work or renovations in the eight decades since. The window panes at the head of your and your roommate’s twin beds rattle with the Arctic gales, a sound you still haven’t grown accustomed to. When it wakes you up at night, your first thoughts, drunk with sleep, are that masked robbers are banging on the glass, trying to break into the room.
Your prick of a roommate isn’t here, though. Euan, the first-year star of the University’s rugby team, rarely is. The students, both boys and girls, but mostly the American girls, oddly enough, can’t get enough of Euan. You routinely dismiss his inexplicably tanned, broad-shouldered confidence as a kind of dickishness, but somewhere you know he isn’t that awful. He’s just smug about getting girls. Unfortunately, and rather comically, you have the opposite luck. The only time a girl appears interested in you is when you mention Euan is your roommate. More often than not, you get addressed by strangers around campus as Jamie, Euan’s roommate. Your claim to fame.
The search party’s scheduled to meet at noon outside the nightclub/coffee house/student organization facilities that compose the St. Andrews Union. You shift to look at the school-issued clock on your bedside table. It’s 11:00 a.m.
Callum is already out by the Union when you arrive, clutching a large black coffee and shivering. He reminds you of a willow — sinewy, tall, and in constant motion. His eyes dart from person to person in the crowd, no doubt feeling anxious at the thought of being unsociable. You decide not to startle him this time.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Jamie. I thought you weren’t coming,” Callum says when he catches sight of you, his black hair and dark eyes severe against the pallor of his skin.
“Right, well, this is important,” you reply, eyes downturned and voice low.
“Are you hungover, mate?” Callum asks you, a smile tugging at his lips.
“Not even close, you wank stain.”
You try to stand a little straighter, unfurrowing your brow, worried that you look disheveled in your Barbour jacket and sweatpants. Callum’s height and angular limbs only magnify your slight baby fat, how you’re only taller than the short girls in your classes.
You hear Euan’s booming voice somewhere to your left, comforting one of the pretty field hockey girls who’s crying softly. Despite the tears, she still looks beautiful with her long blonde hair and full lips. His arm around her, Euan’s pulled her close, as if he’s protecting her. Several other girls in the crowd eye her greedily.
“Isn’t that Anna?” Callum asks, gesturing towards Euan and the girl.
“What?” you pretend to just now see her. “Oh, yeah. It is.”
Callum raises his eyebrows at you, but you look away, trying to appear unbothered.
“This isn’t about Anna.”
The search party ended with mud and sand and salt from the North Sea caked all over everybody’s shoes. Your favorite green wellies kept getting lodged in the marshy wasteland. After falling twice, you’ve still got a yellowed bruise over your ribcage.
Night descended quickly, it being mid-March. Dusk was gathering its fragments of light long before dinnertime, and the search party was forced to retreat into the dark wooden sanctuaries of pubs. Not even the moon brought any relief from the impenetrable dark. You’re so far up the coast it’s possible for the Northern Lights to touch your ruined citadel of a town, briefly, before disappearing behind the heavy clouds of Scotland for months. You’ve never seen them, but you know some nights they’re up there, dancing above the claustrophobic sky.
Scotland Yard quickly stepped in and took over the investigation after the unsuccessful search. The citizens of St. Andrews apparently hindering the efforts of the professionals, they were asked to stop organizing. The day after Fraser’s disappearance, construction crews initiated their scheduled excavation of the centuries-old leaky storm drains. Today Scotland Yard’s ordering the crews to dig up the old drains, freshly-filled with concrete, on the possibility that Fraser might have drunkenly fallen into one of them. You know if that’s true, he would’ve been buried alive. You try not to think about that.
You’ve plunked yourself down in the alleged site of Will and Kate’s first date, a coffee shop-turned-reliquary dedicated to the budding romance of the two royals. A sun-bleached poster in the window boasts their smiling faces, a cartoonish red heart drawn between them. It’s now become a sort of campy pilgrimage site for obnoxious royal superfans, but the tea’s still cheap and decent, so you haven’t written the place off entirely. Mindlessly, you scroll through Fraser’s old Instagram posts and neglect your too-hot black tea. “Miss u,” “hope you’re safe,” and “come home” litter the comment sections below each picture.
You pause at the picture from the St. Andrews Charity Fashion Show show last month. Fraser and Euan, along with a host of other good-looking students, served as models for the annual event. Both Callum and you bought the overpriced tickets to ogle at and mock the display of extravagance: the designer gowns, the expensive champagne, the exclusive seats by the runway selling for upwards of 300 quid. In reality, though, you suspect you just wanted to see Fraser up close. It didn’t hurt that he was shirtless for the majority of the evening.
Before that night, you’d never considered yourself anything other than straight. Sure, you could recognize when other guys were objectively attractive, but your main preoccupation was girls. Specifically, you dwelled on your inability to hook up with them, but the focus was girls, nonetheless. As you got drunk that night on cheap Scotch from a flask tucked into your tuxedo, your eyes sought Fraser more frequently than any other model in the show. His gaze caught yours once while he was doing the final walk with the entire brigade of designers, models and event coordinators. His dark red hair and blue eyes were both dangerous and inviting, a dare you weren’t sure you could follow through on.
That night was the first and last time you kissed him. It was half a joke, and half serious, as his girlfriend Anna was egging him on to lean in and do it after another round of tequila shots at the Union bar’s after-party. You’d managed to strike up an alcohol-fueled conversation with him after Callum decided he’d had enough of the “posh bastards” and headed back to his dorm.
Fraser, his eyes half-closed, and his shirt half-unbuttoned and inexplicably damp, slung his arm around you and declared you his new best friend. He grabbed your phone and put his number in it.
The first time you called that number was the day of his disappearance.
It’s five in the morning, and you’ve woken up with a racing heart and a cold sweat, concentrated around your knees and torso. Euan’s hulking silhouette shifts in the bed across from yours, his breath even and mind apparently blissfully unconscious. Your sweat clinging to your skin in small beads, you sit up, wiping the moisture from your body with a dry section of your sheets.
You dreamed Fraser was back, only you were the only one to know he’d returned. He led you to the pier by the crumbling cathedral and kissed you again, this time slowly, not at all joking or making a show of it. The reflection of the Northern Lights played on the surface of the ocean, calmer than you’d ever seen it before. Only, when you drew back to look at Fraser, he’d vanished, and you were alone again in the dark.
Fighting the raging wind, you leave the walled enclosure of St. Salvatore’s and walk down The Scores, the narrow lane separating the town’s cliffs from the shores of the North Sea. The water’s so icy there’s no classic ocean breeze, no salty brine, only the scent of that damned wind, roaring down on the exposed, chapped skin of your face.
The sun won’t come up for another couple hours, but the sky is clear, a half-moon shedding light on the earth, turning everything a barely-visible midnight blue. You take the road as far as it will go, ending at the Old Course on the outskirts of town.
You hoist your legs over the thick metal fence that encloses the world’s first golf course. Spongy and soft, the grass is shorn down to millimeters here. Undulating mounds and dips in the earth make you believe, briefly, that you’re on the surface of another planet. The wind picks up here, uninterrupted by cliffs or by old stone buildings.
When you reach West Sands, you gag on the air. It smells like brackish water and death. The beach stretches out for hundreds of meters — your shoes scarcely make an imprint in the flat, kelp-ridden, dense sand. It still feels unearthly here, and you begin to think this is what the surface of the moon must be like.
The tide’s out, and, close to the retreating waves you spot a black, boundless mound, backlit by the moonlight. You run to it.
“Fraser!” you scream. “Fraser, is that you?”
The closer you get, the larger the mound looms. You stop short of the figure before you, still and silent on the sand. Hands trembling, you pull out your phone, switching on the flashlight. You point it at the mystery heap. Your brain doesn’t register what you’re seeing for several seconds.
Horizontal whitish ridges elongate the creature. You’re looking at a belly, bloated and half your height. The skin turns dark grey when you move the light up, scanning the outline of whatever this is. When you find the mouth, massive bristles line the top jaw.
It’s a dead minke whale, and, from the smell of it, it isn’t a fresh one. A tongue, massive and pink, lies on the sand falling from the whale’s gaping mouth. The tongue’s as large as your leg.
Horror floods your throat, and you retch on the beach, steps from the corpse.
A local found Fraser this morning. Parallel to the pier, the tide of East Sands washed up his remains on the jagged rocks, where they were sniffed out by a curious dog. Preliminary reports are saying it was an accidental drowning, ruling out foul play and suicide.
You head to the pier, that formidable jutting structure, stretching its arms to greet the water, a sheer drop down to slick rocks and hidden currents if the gusts hurl you over. No one else is out here, cautious against a festering spring storm and discouraged by the police who’d already transported the body elsewhere. At the end of the pier, sky and sea merge into one long grey haze, and each bellows out its protests, beating its own chest.
You collapse at the pier’s edge, your mind returning to your dream, when Fraser held your face and kissed you in this very location. You knew you’d loved him then, and the loss claws at your chest. A white wave, brimming with greyish-brown foam, kisses your fingertips, still clamped to the slick slabs of stone.
You look to the West Sands, the sprawling expanse of cold beach. You recall the whale that washed up there, some weeks ago, bloated and slick with decomposition. Students were warned not to go close to the corpse; it was going to explode. Its eyes had been pecked out by the gulls. Hours ago, it was Fraser who was discovered, pale and swollen, on the rocks. You wonder whether his eyes were gone too.