Eyes half closed, not really paying attention to where I was going, I suddenly stubbed my toe on something half-buried in the sand. Muttering a quiet profanity, I knelt down and saw an old glass bottle. It had been stopped up with a tough old piece of cork, and dried salt and sand encrusted its side. The glass was a cloudy dark green, almost opaque – from age or by design, I had no way of knowing. It was absurdly heavy for its size.
Curious as to what might be inside, I tugged the cork out. It took a lot of work – I didn't resort to pulling it with my teeth, but I did have to wrap the hem of my shirt around the cork for some extra friction. The cork came out with a loud poonk, and I tucked it into my shorts pocket.
A low whistle escaped my lips. The bottle was completely dry inside – no ancient pirate rum, a fancy that had run across my thoughts in a moment of irrational imagination. Not that I was on the right ocean for that kind of thing. This was almost as strange, though: a small strip of paper, rolled up tight so it could fit through the neck of the bottle and tied with a string. I thought that kind of thing only happened in old stories and cheesy movies.
The string didn't want to untie, but it was easy to just slip it off the paper. I dropped it back in the bottle, set the bottle down in the sand, and unrolled the paper. The paper crackled with age, stiff and yellowed but not yet so old as to fall apart. I had to fumble a few times before it unrolled fully.
In a soft, delicate hand that had swept the letters out in broad loops, some faded reddish-brown ink made a single word, written in English.
I think I didn't breathe for a full minute after that. Certainly, I was light-headed when I looked up, blinked repeatedly for a few seconds as if something was in my eyes. I stared off at the dimming, cloudy sky and pondered what I held.
A prank? Maybe. What little payoff, though. They'd never see who had been gotten. And in English, for something found on the coast of Japan?
If it was a prank, it was a flat-out weird one.