She stood at the helm, pounded by rain, quarreling with her place on the sea. The nauseating falls from crest to trough, the loss of horizon, the boat was at the mercy of the waves and nothing else. The more she fought, the more the sea tried to expel her. Only when she embraced the storm did the calm return, the skies cleared, the horizon came into view. Only then could she settle below deck, the gentle lapping on the hull a lullaby for sleep.
For anyone watching, her sorrow was evident, arms crossed and grasping at her sides, eyes red and swollen. The room was crowded with people she had known for years, acquaintances and friends, and on that day, they should have been one in the same. Yet on that day, they might as well be strangers, all save for one. As she turned to leave, he stepped in her way. He spoke no words, but his arms, tightly wrapped around her, said everything.
He refused to stop the car. She had no choice but to open the door and jump. She felt her sweater slide through his fumbling fingers, a sensation that played out in slow motion before the impact jarred her consciousness. She tumbled across the gravel, her skin marrying with the rocks that sliced and shredded it. Then the sharp awakening of the road transformed into a profound fear as she plummeted off the side of the cliff.
He woke at 4 a.m. to begin his nineteen-hour-long ride for the day after sleeping for less than two hours. He had heard stories of other cyclists hallucinating from deprivation, but thus far, his training had spared him of such complications. But twelve hours in, the muscles in his legs began to seize. Then a truck swerved and flipped in front of him, its load exploding. His legs, no longer his own, pedaled straight for the flames.
She dug the hole and sunk a five-gallon bucket into the ground. Across the top, she lay twigs and leaves, concealing the opening. By morning, her crude trap had caught two rats. By lunchtime, she had skinned and gutted the rodents, and added them to two potatoes and a cup of acorn flour in a pot of boiling water. By dinnertime, her family had joined her around the dining table for their Thanksgiving feast.
The view hovering above the baking asphalt oscillated in the heat. Dehydrated and plagued with exhaustion, she stumbled along the road having given up running a while back. After a few misguided steps on the black tarmac, the rubber soles of her shoes had begun to melt. She took to walking on the white line that separated the lane from the shoulder, it being a few precious degrees cooler potentially saved her life.
The driver asked her a question that she did not understand. When she failed to respond, he asked it again, repeating the same foreign words, emphasizing one at a time. She pulled a business card from her bag and showed him the address scribbled on the back. He shook his head and mumbled under his breath words with a lost translation but a tone direct and universally condescending. Regardless, he put the taxi in drive and she was on her way.
With a pick axe and a shovel, she ripped out the grass from the small plot of lawn behind her house. She tilled the soil and then planted the seeds that she had acquired by way of trading her mother’s quilt and a ball of twine. In a few weeks, she would have thriving rows of wild asparagus, fireweed, and cattails, all of which were edible, all of which were essential for surviving her new way of life.
His attempts had failed to find fault in her argument. She had a stronghold on her position, a tenacious monopoly on logic and reason that he could not diffuse. Her case was impenetrable. She was impenetrable. Yet he was apparently transparent. He could feel her eyes burning marks of wrongdoing onto his bare back, she staring through the screen, child on her hip, watching him pace the yard, fuming over his newly found vulnerability.
Through native eyes, he saw what others did not. He saw beyond the hand washed cars and the manicured gardens, beyond the good day well-wishes and welcome-home kisses. Beyond the facades, he would see the truth as people approach each other on the street, paint their faces with smiles, greet each other with inquiry, and then continue on, letting their joyful expressions fall away, annulled and forgotten.
He stood at the sink, quiet and detached from the flow of relatives moving through his kitchen. They loaded their plates with hors d'oeuvres a plenty, pilfering the table before disappearing into the living room. Their voices filled the house with superficial chatter, which his own apathetic ears muffled and dismissed. Everyone was talking to someone, consulting with someone, comforting someone, but no one was comforting him.
She could picture the news crews outside the house, vans with satellite dishes on their roofs, reporters on their lawn with microphones in outstretched arms, all pointing toward him standing on the front step. Simultaneously, they would ask him to comment, ask him if he saw it coming. They would quote him saying he was devastated, that he should have done something more, but in reality and off the record, he was elated.
Her closet was full of unworn clothes, tags still attached; the cupboards with unopened packages of pasta and cans of soup; her bookcases with unwrinkled bindings of national bestsellers and trinkets from every souvenir shop she managed to walk by. Never feeling much affinity for the title of shoplifter, and certainly not for thief, she liked to call herself a borrower. She never kept what she stole, and that is the fact that matters.
She wrote weekly letters to him. The gifts of time and consideration she felt were priceless, and in those few minutes, she was completely devoted to him, undeterred and occupied with no other. She addressed them with great regard, checking accuracy and clarity twice before sliding them through the narrow slit at the post office. Then came the day when the letters returned, envelope after envelope stamped Address Unknown.
She was kneeling above the tide pool, poking a sea anemone with her finger, observing it recoil and close around an absent meal. The waves were breaking just beyond the rocks, sending the tide swirling through the channels, marooning her temporarily in a systematic pattern of flood and retreat. At the sound of her name called from the shore, she stood, and at the same instant spotted a sleeper wave coming right toward her.
He could close his eyes and images would fill the underside of his eyelids. The vividness before him drew on his other senses, recalling sounds and smells of the very moment it happened, transporting him back in time, planting his feet in the very middle. The therapist had labeled his memory eidetic and proceeded in attempts to compliment such a thing. But all he heard was another reason to support the current isolation he endured.
She was standing in front of the countless teas, trying to make a decision. He was at the opposite end of the aisle, willing himself to focus on the boxed cake mixes instead of his growing infatuation with her. While choosing a tea, she seemed to have unknowingly dropped her shopping list on the floor. Once she was out of sight, he rushed to where the small slip of paper lay. However, upon pickup, he noticed it wasn't a list at all.
She leaped from the cliff and dove to find the entrance. The opening, slightly larger than her shoulders, was nearly hidden, half guarded by a protruding boulder. She grabbed hold of the rock and pulled her body against the current into the cave, the effort depleting precious oxygen. She doubted her abilities, her choice to see this to an end. Just when she thought she should turn back, the dark water up ahead began to glow green.
He waited for her to cross the parking lot and disappear into the store before emerging from behind a nearby truck, looking over his shoulder as he walked to her car. The bag was sitting in plain view on the passenger seat. He inserted a flat piece of metal into the door and pulled up the lock in seconds. He had warned her the old car made her easy prey, but he never imagined he would be the one taking advantage of her.
She had never met the man who sat beside her on the train that morning. He was filing his ticket in his wallet when a photograph fell out and she retrieved it from beneath the seat for him. They chatted for the few additional minutes until his stop, at which point she gave him her card. That afternoon, she was expecting his voice when she picked up her office phone, instead, she heard the voice of the woman in the photograph.
He lay on his back, unable to get up. He heard the car in the driveway, the steps on the porch, and the front door close, yet he did not move. With his eyes, he tracked a single wisp of cloud hanging in the midday sky as it drifted to his zenith and crossed the sun, providing him with a brief respite of shade. He could feel his exposed skin freckling, his once pale surface now a vibrant crimson, cracking cell by cell like the mud in a dry lake.
He had been running for the last few miles, his throat thick with liquid, every breath burning his lungs. With each exhausted stride, the tread of one shoe would abrade the bare skin on the opposite ankle, scraping it raw cell by cell. He kept looking back over his shoulder, knowing they were behind him. In the darkness, he never saw the hole dug to contain him. As he fell, his head hit the far wall, knocking him unconscious.
The traffic report described every interchange as congested, which in truth meant likely impassable with any semblance of sanity. Her pessimism subsided slightly while driving on the first freeway, the line of cars heavier than normal but still traveling the speed limit. A mile before the interchange, the flow of traffic ceased, brake lights burned permanently, and then drivers in the cars ahead of her began to get out and run.
That morning, they packed the car with two coolers, a box of firewood, folding chairs, tents, sleeping bags, cooking supplies, and enough dry food to last them the weekend. They had reservations for two nights, which was far too short but better than nothing. The anticipation got them on the road before rush hour, and they checked in early with the ranger at the kiosk. That was the last time either one of them were seen.
One moment she could see the horizon, the next it had vanished behind a swirling wall of sand rushing toward her. The sky was now an extension of the desert, the wind lifting every particulate from the dunes and hurling it toward her camp. In seconds, her visibility was zero. She wrapped her scarf around her face, knelt down with her head to the ground, closed her eyes tightly, and waited.
The left side of his yard grew cherry trees, the right side apricots. Each season, he would harvest from his satiated trees, gathering the fruit in baskets destined for the roadside. Beside the baskets, he would place a money box labeled with a sign that read, "Quarter apiece if you can manage it." One afternoon, he walked out to the road to find his baskets empty and a folded piece of paper with a handwritten message stuffed in the box.
Each street led inward toward the city's origin, or outward toward the circumference. At the center lay a red brick plaza with a small plot of land, landscaped with annuals and a single cypress tree. The circle defined the rhythm of the city with its continual motion, governed direction, all beginning and ending at the same point. The superstition told of those born within the circle would always return no matter how far they strayed.
The kids had insisted on coming and she lacked the energy to argue. The decision to let them tag along meant she would not be earning a Mother of the Year award any time soon, but she could lose her job if she passed on this opportunity. Anyhow, she could set it up like an educational field trip, one completely worth missing the couple days of school, or so she convinced herself. If only it were that easy.
On a stretch of highway bordered by hayfields and rolling hills lay a box of flowers, littering the shoulder with its lid unhinged, petals and stems flung astray, now at the mercy of whirling traffic. Around the bend drove a vengeful woman behind the wheel of a florist's van. In the next town, sat another woman, hopeful and patiently waiting for a delivery that would never arrive.
He wanted to share the many intricacies and facets of his life up until the point of their meeting, but every time he went to open his mouth, he stopped short and thought better of it. That knowledge was wasted on her and he felt it would do more personal damage to share it than it would to remain reclusive. He had played the part thus far, a few more days would be simple.
Her way was not innate, it was conditioned. When the man happened upon her notebook, he realized how true this was. She had used the pages to capture moments, those of confusion and of clarity, those of creativity and intellectualism, those of joy and of sorrow. The pages told the story of her life, each day having influenced her, and each day, she would remark on this influence. He coveted this notebook, as he had done her.
He wondered what would happen if he disappeared. If he fell off the face of the Earth by the standards of others, yet still maintained the ability to observe the life he left behind, what would he see? Would those that knew him make him regret his decision to fade away and infuse in him a new found purpose, or would he realize the magnitude of his invisibility when life simply went on living without him? Nevertheless, he was about to find out.
She woke with a start, the dream too real to ignore. The image of her father in a heap on the ground too grave to erase. She could still feel the damp soil beneath his broken legs, still see the toppled ladder laying beside him. Throwing her fleece jacket over her pajamas, she rushed over to his house. Instead of knocking on the front door, she ran around back to find her father exactly as her dream predicted, unconscious but still alive.
She was pulling weeds when he appeared at her fence. His skin and clothes were dirty, but he spoke with clarity and an educated vocabulary. He asked for some water or food she could spare, or work she could offer. He asked if she might know of a safe place to sleep for the night. She denied each inquiry and asked him to leave. He stood there, hoping she would change her mind, hoping that extra moment would trigger the memory.
Despite the chill, she spent the evening hours bundled in a quilt on her fire escape. Anything was better than breathing the same air as the man inside. The terrace across the way led to a pair of open French doors, the living room unabashed, its set dressed in preparation for the dramatic production that would unfold, as it had the previous night.
They slept in shifts no longer than three hours so as not to make the same mistake twice. When the leaves rustled, she stood, her eyes darting through the darkness, searching for something but finding nothing. She sat back down beside his sleeping body. Then the twig snapped. She grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to jostle him awake. A whisper would be a wasted effort, but if she yelled, they would know.
A blank page lay on his desk, exactly where he placed it a week ago. The emptiness of the white page blinded him. Still, he could be credited with no word, and that very fact haunted him. His fingers moved above the keys, never touching a letter, taunting the air that swirled between what was and what could be. His thoughts a clamor, debating and disputing within, unable to set the straight from the chaotic.
Just when the line began to die down, more would arrive. His focus shifted from person to person, examining each from head to toe, making note of various fashion choices, mannerisms, and patience levels. The leather sofa he sat on had all but swallowed him, his laptop warm on his legs, his headphones a detachment from those that stood before him. The first request was manageable, but then the whole line turned toward him and he panicked.
The walls of his building were thin, too thin to concentrate, too thin to produce anything. He spent the hours working in his apartment wearing noise-cancelling headphones, his music drowning out most everything. The first time he heard the scream, he disregarded it as part of his playlist. The second time, he withdrew his headphones from his ears to reveal the same unremarkable yet loud apartment. Then he heard it a third time.
As the crowded room began to spill out of its doors and back onto the sidewalk, she detected every sound as if it were singular instead of one with the clamor. The call of the orders. The shifting of chair legs. The utensils on plates. The gossip between friends. The small talk of a blind date. The persistence of the lonely in need of conversation. The silence of a family who had their fill. She sat at her corner table and heard it all.
She had coveted hand painted wooden clogs from the Netherlands, a bone china tea set from the United Kingdom, and a bottle of vintage Chanel No. 5 from France. Continuing her travels across the Atlantic in South America, she acquired alpaca wool tapestries, various pieces of Incan jewelry, and a lapis lazuli moai that sat in the center of her mantle. He knew the moai was her most treasured possession, which is precisely why he stole it.
The closet contained three wire hangers hung with the dry cleaner's thick paper rolls still under the pressed trousers. Beside the pants were three English tab collared shirts and a single wool blazer with fabric that better suited a sofa than a man. A pair of cedar shoe trees sat on the carpet, no longer needing to maintain the shape of the oxfords she now held, and the only belonging she intended to retrieve.
He inserted one end of the clear tubing into the gas tank, blowing on the other end until he heard bubbles. When he sucked on the tube, yellow gasoline flowed out of the abandoned sedan. He crimped the end with his thumb, and then transferred it into the gas can, filling it completely. It would be enough to get them into town. Them staying unnoticed when they got there was a gamble.
He had taken to sitting on one side of the couch and she on the other. The impressions of their respective elbows long ago imprinted on the furniture's arms, the upholstery thinning, the foam padding disintegrating with each passing primetime evening, and both now sentimentally covered with throw pillows. But after forty years together, his side of the couch was empty, and she would never occupy her side again.
The signed Audubon illustrations held a prominent place on her living room wall. Down the hallway hung a gallery of photographs, some she had taken at the local estuary, some her husband had taken of she as the photographer capturing various birds in flight. But it was above her bedroom headboard where she kept her prized possessions: two simple wood frames, each containing a feather, each similar in color and markings.
She stood at her bathroom sink staring at her reflection in the top of the faucet. Her distorted image was how she imagined others saw her, eyes widened and distended up to her hairline, nose elongated, her nostrils disappearing into the thin fold of her chin. The conflicting and more accurate image in the mirror to the medicine cabinet did little to dissuade the self deprecation invading her mind.
She experimented with oil paints, a more substantial medium than her usual watercolors seemed appropriate for the portrait. She worked slowly, coaxing the thirty-year-old memories as a four year old seeing her mother for the last time from the far corners of her mind. In the end, she felt her mother’s features revealed themselves vividly and true to form. With hope, the portrait would help turn her lifelong dream into a reality.
The nightmare had played out behind his closed eyelids every night for the past year. His subconscious falling victim to blinding and continuous flashes of light, his outstretched arms searching, his skin burning, his scream inaudible over the ringing in his ears. He would spend the early morning hours stumbling through this helplessness, waking only when the first ray of sunlight pierced his window.
The man in the aisle seat stood and waited for her to stow her bag and slide into the middle, then proceeded to spill over the edges of his own seat. Both her armrests were occupied, her left by the man near the aisle, her right by a white knuckled woman staring out the window. She sighed at the thought of the next five hours confined between these two. She pleaded out loud that the onboard bar was fully stocked.
A physicist sat in the first row. Behind him sat a mechanic and a marketing assistant who appeared to be a couple. In the last row, the nanotechnologist, purposefully far removed, sat observing the others. The man at the podium had been speaking for an hour and was finding his offer to be a tough sell. His audience had visible regrets, outwardly questioning his every word. But all four were essential and the man aimed to convince them.
The driver seemed nice enough and her feet needed the break from the past week of walking, but she regretted it the moment she got in the car. He kept eyeing her bare legs, crossed and leaning toward the passenger door. Her stomach felt sick and she insisted he let her out. Again, she was standing alone on the road, watching the car leave her behind. Then the sky lit up. The electricity came from above, blowing the boots right off her feet.
The girl with the red ribbon in her hair skipped past his house every morning on her way to catch the school bus. He would watch from the upstairs window as she paused to admire and smile at the tulips blooming in his front yard. He would smile in return, though she would never know. His door was locked from the outside, preventing him from ever knowing what lay beyond his window and what lay beyond his window from ever knowing him.
She had spent the last hour at the edge of the bay, looking longingly at the incoming tide. She had addressed the envelope in her hand to no one in particular, a simple To Whom It May Concern scrawled across the front. The message inside was a love letter full of homeless aspirations. After trying everything else, she had decided to commit her future to fate and fate alone. She left the letter on the bench and walked home.
His fingers had grazed her hand, perhaps by accident. Nearly five years later, she could still feel the sensation of his hand connecting with hers. Her bus ride each morning was full of daydreams, the outline of his face still clear in her mind, his name still unknown. At each stop, the bus accepted more passengers than it released. And then she felt them, those same fingers from five years ago, mistakenly grazing her hand again.
She set the small dining table as she had for the past twenty years. Two place settings, separated by a vase of seasonal flowers from their front garden. He sat in his chair, she sat in hers directly across from him. They dined quietly, he savoring one flavor at a time, she combining flavors on a single forkful. When their plates were empty, he reached across the table to hold her hand, and they talked and laughed the rest of the night away.
He discovered the most in the silent moments, the pause after a declaration, the delicate inaudible reaction. He anticipated moments when expressions spoke more than words. He found more credence in these nuances than in the words. He would spend more time seeking these moments than hearing the language itself. This is how he missed them, how he missed the most important words he would ever live to hear.
The drapery panel was torn at both ends and falling off its rod. She could easily repurpose the fabric as a coat to protect against the wind. Once winter came, she would need additional layers to keep warm, but there was time for that. Perhaps she could use the stuffing from the sofa cushions as insulation. She was alone in the home, and never much cared for the green canapé by the window anyhow.
It began with a single image: a mother, head in her hands, sitting on a bench outside a grocery store, her young child sitting at her feet with one small hand resting sympathetically on the mother's shoelaces. The man, just passing by, had no idea who this woman was or what misfortune had befallen her, but the image resonated with him, and as it marinated in the corners of his mind, a story bloomed.
After purposefully capsizing the sailboat, they had paddled to shore undetected. Choosing to live life as castaways was a joint decision, yet this being their fourth attempt, they were beginning to question their ability to succeed. He enjoyed the sand and the sun and immediately got to work setting up camp on the beach. She sought shade and hiked inland, seeking more seclusion. It was at the top of the first hill that she saw them.
He was still hovering in that delicate place between life and death. His eyes shifted, his lids too heavy to open, the overwhelming incentive for either direction immobilizing the rest of his body. In life, his limbs felt like dead weight, confining him to this cavity. Death would release the burden. He wanted death. But when the opportunity arose, he expected to be pulled, not have to make the choice himself.
She took each step carefully, one hand on the railing, the other hand above her head so as not to collide with the basement's low ceiling. The bookcase had toppled, turning boxes of ornaments on their sides, scattering jagged pieces of red and green glass across the concrete foundation. Amid the holiday wreckage, decorated in tinsel and a strand of multi-colored mini lights, sat the old transistor radio. She hoped it still worked.
The unknown layout was occupying every ounce of her concentration to navigate. She despised grocery stores, often a source of anxiety and claustrophobia with those tiny crowded aisles full of hungry shoppers and unruly carts. With one more item on her list and feeling the impending panic, she turned her cart erratically around an endcap of tortillas and crashed directing into the side of his cart. He was her other source of anxiety.
Minutes earlier, he had joined a woman on the bench, both waiting for the bus to arrive. His foot tapped nervously, his fingers fidgeted, fastening and unfastening the button on his sleeve, his eyes panning the street. The woman, wary of the man's agitation, stood and walked up the block to the next stop. The man watched her for a moment and then followed suit.
He was uncomfortable in a life that was fluid and kind. If his day was proceeding peacefully, he would sabotage it, much preferring to be the cause and have control of his unfortunate circumstances than have his fate rest with someone else. It was a means of protection he learned from his father, but the denial he possessed he learned all on his own. Because of this, he was toxic and alone, and content to stay that way.
He tried to sidestep her question, asking her if her meeting at work went smoothly, if dinner with her boss was still on for the evening. She persisted, wanting to know where he had been, why his phone had been off for the last four hours. Her mind spun with outlandish scenarios, his response of a dead cell phone battery fueling her paranoia. His avoidance and condescension were eating her from the inside out.
When she regained consciousness, the radio was playing that catchy pop song, the one to which she could recite the lyrics verbatim but never remembered the artist's name. Her head pounded and the seatbelt dug deep grooves on either side of her neck. She felt the disorienting weight of her knees on the bottom of the steering wheel and her arms kept falling to her ears. Then clarity rushed in just as the water did through the floorboards.
She had directed the movie, personally overseeing every detail to ensure its quality. It was the greatest most affectionate gesture she was prepared to offer him and the fact that he had agreed to view it beside her surpassed any expectations. To her comfort, he seemed captivated by the footage. But as the credits rolled, he sat in his seat speechless, unable to look at her. Then he clenched his fists and stormed out of the room.
The impersonal one assigned to him, the cursory redhead with the ponytail, had already checked his vitals and ordered a blood draw. The rest of the nursing staff steered clear. They had more important things to do than to calm the nerves of a grown man complaining of stomach pain, which if his panels came back as the last ten had, it would turn out to be another bad case of indigestion. They were in for a surprise, that's for sure.
They came home to drawers pulled from their frames, collapsed and stacked on one another, clothes draping over the sides and in piles on the carpet. Cupboard doors open, containers of rice and pasta spilling onto the tile. Files unloaded and strewn about, the ceiling fan blowing old bills and tax documents in a whirlwind. Vases smashed, picture frames shattered, and cushions torn and expelled of their down contents.
She sat on the shore, toes dug into the sand, scarf draped over her shoulders protecting against the breeze. She looked up from her book and saw a spot of white near the horizon. At first she mistook the spot for a wave's crest churned by the wind. She read another page and looked up again to notice the spot having drawn closer. A few more pages and the spot was now an empty rowboat surfing a wave and capsizing onto the beach.
He had always been fascinated by the number seven. From the simplicity of seven days in a week and seven colors in a rainbow, to the complexity of the seven classifications of viruses and the seven-year regeneration of every cell in a human body. He was 35 years old, embarking on his sixth cycle of regeneration. His creativity should be a peak efficiency, he should be on the brink of the most significant discovery of his lifetime.
She counted the raindrops as they fell on her bare shoulders. They washed her skin clean as they did the sidewalk she rested on. When the sprinkling thickened, the drops no longer perceptible, she abandoned the notion of counting drops and focused on counting the minutes instead. She would wait for another half hour, then she would have no choice but to turn herself in.
They fought without a filter, without inhibition or concern for the other or anyone else, for that matter. When they tired of the argument, they retreated to separate rooms and remained silent for days. Their son enjoyed these periods of silence, able to rediscover peace in the void between his parents’ anger and indifference. He could come and go as he pleased, until the day he returned and found an empty and abandoned home.
He had fallen asleep before the sun went down, then awoke a few hours later to darkness and the sound of his microwave beeping a reminder of the coffee he had reheated and never retrieved. He pressed the thirty-second button to warm up the day-old caffeine and waited, staring out his kitchen window at the field. The moon was high, shining down on the tall grass, exposing an incongruous shadow moving toward him.
Hundreds of eager cars sped through the tight corridor toward the open sea. Thousands of passengers rode unaware of the careful eyes that watched over them, the invisible hands that guided and carried them safely to their destination. Deaths of disregard, distraction, and despair attributed to these guardians, and for years, the mourned collectively shouldered this duty. Until the day the weight grew far too heavy.
Alone in the examination room, she sat nervously clutching the hand-held mirror. Before her eyes, she noticed her skin tightening. Lines smoothed and blended with her freshly pink cheeks, freckles disappeared, tone darkened, even the cartilage on the prominent bridge of her nose softened. In a single minute, her once internationally recognizable face was nothing but a memory.
She opened the door to the refrigerator, her hunger creating a mirage of delicacies on the empty glass shelves. She reached for a plate of bruschetta and mozzarella cheese, her fingernails scraping the glass as the illusion dissolved before her eyes. Then a familiar calling from the restaurant two doors down wafted through her paper thin walls. The aroma was so thick, she could taste the air. This was almost enough.
She needed the pain. It awoke her dormant senses, roused something deep within her, a maelstrom of yearning and purpose. It reminded her how easily she could lose everything. She had been walking along the strand, the coastal fog infiltrating every orifice of her mind; her skin numb, the sand beneath her feet, the wind through her hair, the mist on her bare shoulders, all seen but not felt. The heartache brought it all back.
She recalled vividly the floral centerpieces and crystal chandeliers, the wait staff in their black aprons carrying trays of petite quiches and bacon-wrapped scallops; and her parents, their faces missing the lines of time, their eyes bright and hopeful for a future they would never attain. From the uncovered photographs and the stories heard throughout the years, she dreamt of these details as though they were her own memories.
She always used the word "we" when asked a question. "We really appreciate it" or "We've had a great day." No one paid it much attention, everyone accepting it as truth and not questioning the matter. And why not, she never blinked, never implied in the slightest that something was amiss. It was a fact she had created and lived by, but after years of repeating the fabrication, she had begun to believe it herself.
He used his shoulder to muscle the door open, pushing aside boxes just to cross the threshold. Every surface was covered in thick layers of dirt and rodent excrement, the air laden with more dust than oxygen. He climbed over tattered furniture and indiscernible piles of junk strewn across the living room floor to reach the rear bedroom, the one he used to occupy, the one to which he swore he would never return.
The hull of his boat dislodged shingles, submerged just below the surface, from rooftops of his old neighborhood. An era of plenty now concealed by murky waters, a life hidden but not forgotten. The river predictably jumped its banks once a year, but contrary to history, this spring's tide never receded, it remained bottomless and catastrophic. The walls of his three-bedroom colonial now a manmade reef for his soon-to-be dinner.
She attempted to draw her knees to her chest, but even the most subtle of movements made the metal creak. An ominous warning of death looming below. She had swerved to avoid the truck drifting into her lane. When she overcorrected, her car lost control, spun, bounced off the center median, and plowed partially through the concrete guardrail. The chassis now a vise grip around the edge of the bridge.
She was living her dream with the house and the car and the career. She had acquired a talent for many things: intelligent things, innovative things, practical and diplomatic things, all things that catapulted her toward success. Her clients trusted her, her colleagues envied her, doors opened for her, traffic lights turned green for her. But the day the door closed and the light turned red, she lost everything.
He stood on the ladder, brush in one hand, palette of paint in the other. His canvas was an exterior wall of a decrepit building near the center of town. He worked quickly, covering the brick in thick saturated strokes. The streetlamp on the corner illuminating the outer details, the bulk of the composition still masked by the night. If he was lucky, the piece would last the weekend. If he was lucky, she would see it and she would know.
His long sleeves cuffed to his elbows exposed handwritten notes that ran up the skin of his forearms. He scanned the room, his brown-eyed stare half concealed by the tilted brim of his hat. The tip of his pen followed the curl of his mustache as he searched his mind, trying in vain to make sense of the ramblings that had just flooded his page. He was a maker of stories, and himself a story in the making.
He had told her where to find it, second floor, left wall. In front of her hung a framed painting, one she recognized immediately. The slanted rooftops, the vibrant blooms, the manicured grounds, a young girl on the crest of the hill. It was the landscape of her youth, she was the girl. The small card beside the frame listed the artist by initials only, per her request, her mother never desired such recognition or acclaim.
She felt secure under the weight of the covers, avoiding the brisk morning air that swept through the window she forgot to close the previous evening. The alarm clock persisted. With a sigh, she reluctantly swung her legs out from beneath the sheets, and sat on the edge of the bed for a moment. Beneath her bare feet, the tile was cold and uninviting, just like the day she was about to begin.
He worked meticulously into the early hours of the morning, checking springs, replacing gears, tightening screws. The clock hanging on the wall, a duplicate of the one in pieces that lay in front of him, ticked away the precious seconds. Each tick reminded him. Each tick propelled him. Each tick a guide to the precise mechanism he sought, a means lost that only he could recover.
They had planted the tree on the day he was born. It grew as he grew, struggled as he struggled, thrived as he thrived. He learned from this tall companion, sitting in its shade, watching it wave in the wind, listening to it speak as its bark expanded and crackled in the sun. Their roots entangled, he fed off the tree as it fed off the land, and there he remained, the soil his foundation, the branches his framework, the leaves his home.
They sat listening intently to the instrumental track. The child questioned the absence of lyrics, pondering the music's purpose without words. The mother watched as slowly her child's eyes brightened, her mind transcending the melody, imagining and discerning the instruments, composing stories created by the distinct sounds of those instruments. The child, now grown, credits this moment as the beginning of everything.
She explained the episode as a result of sitting haphazardly on her bed for over an hour. Her mind overriding her body had hindered her circulation. When she stood to walk, her legs were sore but nothing out of the ordinary. As she took a few steps, her skin began to burn from the inside out. She managed to cross the room before losing sensation, her joints shut down, and all she could do was lift her hips to shuffle her feet across the floor.
He usually avoided these types of parties. He knew few of the guests, all of whom were more adept at socializing in a crowd. He was left standing alone, obscured slightly by the emerald green mask, an accessory for the theme that settled his nerves. His pale blue eyes scanned the room, looking for a gaze of familiarity. Then he saw her, behind a disguise of red velvet and feathers, walking toward him.
His backpack was heavier than he had anticipated, but the thrill of exploring by foot seemed to lighten his load. He was glad to be without the other tourist chatter that previously flanked his seat on the bus, and was looking forward to true immersion in the local culture. Never mind his inept skills for speaking the language or his failure to ask the driver exactly where he was when he left the security of the bus to venture out on his own.
When the colors started to turn, they would meet at the park bench to watch the trees shed their leaves and share details of their lives from the past year. They had met like this once a year for the past five years. It was time again. From his apartment window, he spotted the first sign of yellow in the large maple across the way. He grabbed his jacket and made his way to their bench to wait.
She sat drinking her tepid tea and watched the tourists pass by. Again, the waiter asked if she would like to order, but again, she insisted she wait. He had said noon, but as the church bells on the corner rang out once, she realized her foolishness. She debated on whether to call his cell or his office, and then decided on neither. She knew what he would say, he was running late or something came up, and she knew he would be lying.
He knew how to test the stability of a rock midstream, to leave his weight on his back foot, to gradually press it with the other, and then to give himself entirely to the stone with certainty it would aid his crossing. He never prepared for what to do when the rock gave way beneath his step, despite all his efforts to maintain his footing, despite all his efforts to stay dry and safe and on solid ground.
The water was up to her waist and rising, the origin of the current hidden by the thick debris. Her grip on the thin walking stick, its point secure in the mud with each step, was the only thing keeping her from being swept away, pulled beneath the piles, tossed, tumbled and held captive in a pocket of suction until the simple act of breathing became an inaccessible dream. She was the only one left of her group who was still living this dream.
She had misplaced the memory until the spoonful of hand-churned, creamy vanilla bean ice cream touched her tongue. All at once, the room fell away, the walls, the counter, even the teenager in the red striped apron who served her the cone. She was back in the cafe, crammed shoulder to shoulder in the red leather booth, surrounded by youth and laughter and few cares in her quiet and quaint world. Life certainly had changed.
The rank meat had turned a dull brown overnight. Although not a rare commodity in this state, he knew he had to sell it soon or not even the most starved would buy his load. He sat on the street curb beside a cooler with the lid propped open, flies buzzing the opening. When he coughed, he blamed the dust stirred by the passing taxi. When his head ached, he blamed the midday sun. He would be dead within the hour, with nothing to blame but himself.
The park had been abandoned after the storm had swept away most of the pier and left the rollercoaster half submerged in the tide. He frequented the boardwalk in the morning, weaving between the collapsed facades of carnival games and cotton candy booths. Often, he would swim out to the mass of twisted steel and bob in the swells as they rose and fell beneath the loop de loop.
The curtains to her bedroom window were glowing from the bedside lamp. She was reading, a nightly routine before falling asleep. He pictured her sitting in bed, her knitted blanket drawn up to her waist, a book resting on her lap, her mind lost in another's world. He contemplated calling first but was unsure that she would answer. Then he found the courage, walked to her front door, and knocked.
All she remembered of that morning were the sounds. The drumming of the raindrops on the steel chimney. The incessant bark of the neighbors' dog. The cry of the baby down the hall. The voice of a news anchor on the television. The whistle of the tea kettle on the stove. Now just to silence the memory of those sounds, she would boil water in that very kettle and leave it whistling until every last drop of liquid inside had evaporated.
She arrived a half hour early to her appointment. Sitting anxiously in the lobby, she thumbed through her manuscript, giving it one last review. She had spent the last year striking passages, trashing entire pages, revising and reworking nearly every word, all at the advice of her editor. Taking account of all the suggested changes, she was shocked her initial pages had enough substance to earn her the contract in the first place.
He was balancing on his board out past the break when he saw her. She was standing halfway down the stairs that led to shore. He was taken aback, stunned with indecision. Then urged by his racing heart, he yelled out to her but the wave broke over his voice and churned up his words in the whitewater. By the time he swam to shore, she was gone. He tried to convince himself she was an illusion, he tried to forget, but forgetting her was impossible.
He placed his feet one in front of the other on the narrow bridge. With each step, the planks bounced, the ropes strained. He followed the span as it wove through the treetops, hovering high over the flooded rain forest floor. He had been here once before, to this foreign land, a land he now would call home. He was returning to the woman who waited for him on the other side, the woman he would marry, the woman carrying his child.
The man that greeted her at the door gave her a genuine welcome and led her to the room at the end of the corridor, where she was to sit alone and wait. She had been in enough of these rooms to know the mirror on the far wall was a one-way window. The air conditioning clicked on, she pulled her long sleeves down over her fingers to block the chill. Then a voice from a speaker in the ceiling invited her to begin when ready.
The land had turned, the soil barren and infertile, the air parched and heavy with dust. They had built a makeshift air well to generate water from the atmosphere, but then the dew stopped forming. They stacked their belongings in the truck bed, tying down the load with lengths of frayed road. The plan was to leave in the morning and drive until they found signs of water, which from all reports might be a few days out.
The child sat beneath a plastic sheet under the assailment of raindrops. His clothes slathered in mud, his feet soaked within his shoes, his body shivering at its core. Every tire plowing down the flooded road gave him hope. He would peek out from his crude shelter, eyes squinting, searching behind the blinding headlights for a familiar face. Each vehicle came and went without a glance at the wet pile of plastic on the roadside.
The artist asked her to stare at the painting for thirty seconds. The girl's eyes bounced from left to right, from top to bottom, as if reading a page in a book. Then the artist replaced the painting with a blank canvas. She gave the girl a brush and instructed her to recreate the original scene. Her gaze danced over the white space, summoning every detail from memory. Her reproduction was accurate to the last blade of grass.
The lights had gone out, the fuel tank for the generator was bone dry. She had one Maglite, and it was essential it last the night. Much of the progress was done in the early morning blackness, she relying on her sense of touch to keep the woman as calm and focused as possible. When the time came, she cradled the flashlight between her ear and her shoulder, and guided the newborn into the glow of the LED.
The recycling bin was larger than any other receptacle in his office. The daily submissions were countless, it was difficult to keep on top of them. He would read a random few on his own, but delegated most to his assistant. He had learned to lower his standards, gave away his benefit of the doubt far too often, and in turn, was left with a lackluster client list. When the phone rang, he thought it was just another hopeless cause.
She could sense the lonely from the alone. She was drawn to them, felt a camaraderie with them. She knew they had material that she desperately needed. She would coax them out of the woodwork, and soon they would tell her tales full of triumph and regret, narrow misses and heartbreak. She could hone a primetime story out of the most mundane of circumstances. Some called it exploitation. She just considered herself good at her job.
Her mother made the rules, set the limits, told her what to do and when to do it. She had accepted this was how it was to be, for now but for good. Her mind wandered, dreamed, longed for adventure, for chance meetings of characters larger than herself. One afternoon, she found a blank journal left by her mother on her bed inscribed with words that, in that single moment, settled her wanderings and gave them a home.
She took the record to the corner music store. The space was cramped with boxes of LPs stacked waist high lining the narrow aisles. She had pulled a King Oliver album and was reading the track list when the man behind the counter asked if he could help. In seconds, he was lowering the needle onto the first groove of her record. Then, as if he had walked through the door, the store filled with the scratchy recorded voice of her grandfather.
The space was once a bustling diner. The waitress was a gum chewer and called everyone "darling." She served orders for burgers, fries, and root beer floats across the laminate counter to flirtatious patrons sitting on red leather stools, feet planted firmly on the metal footrests so as not to spin dizzily while they ate. Now the only food that crossed that counter was what that same waitress could scavenge from the dumpster outside.
All who heard the story considered him the luckiest man alive. He had come to rest upright. The snow covering his face glowed, which meant he was near the surface. And lastly, one of his hands remained free. Flake by flake, he had cleared the snow from his face, took a much needed breath, and yelled for help. It was then he realized he was the furthest thing from lucky anyone who had survived an avalanche could get.
She picked blackberries by the hat-full until her fingertips were stained purple. Back home, she offered the lot to her brother, laying curled away from her on the cot. When he ignored her, she placed four berries near his chest and sat alone at the table. She was grateful; the meal put to shame their usual salted toast and potatoes. Then she sang herself the birthday song, and devoured the fruit. For that moment, she was happy.
Her tattered stuffed bear sat on the seat beside her, but otherwise, she was alone. She had packed her suitcase in a panic, but was forced to leave it behind anyway. The bear was all she had. The train car rocked side to side as it sped down the tracks, leaving the only home she had known in her short eight years of life. The man had mentioned Kansas City. Whether this would be her new home, or just the first stop, she did not know.
She put on her jacket and strolled through her humble garden, her curls absorbing the early morning drizzle as readily as the soil beneath her feet. She lingered near her bloomless lily, speaking sweet sentiments, apologizing for the yellow leaves and the weeds crowding its growth. The days passed, the fog cleared, and the sun scorched the soil. She tended its thirst and waited. She remained patient and true, and was rewarded.
He passed storefront after storefront with windows covered in plywood. The sidewalks were empty, nothing of the bustling rush hour that would have been present a year ago. When he approached the corner, he began to hear signs of life. Voices bartering over food, carts with squeaky wheels on the uneven pavement. He was in need of a new bearing and the outdoor market was the place to find it. Now if he could just make the trade.
When she lost her smile, he turned on the Rascal Flatts tune Banjo and followed its advice. You gotta go deep...cross a few creeks. His fingers tapped the steering wheel, her foot tapped the floorboards. And you go, and you go... The lyrics were their anthem, the pluck of the strings was a melody for the truck's suspension over the unpaved road. They got lost, as the song suggested, and found her smile hiding in a little piece of heaven.
She woke up late after sleeping through her alarm, and was treated to a cold shower, the hot water heater apparently broken. She hit every red light on her way to work, then promptly spilled coffee down the front of her new dress as she got out of her car. Locking her keys inside was her undoing. He spotted her crying from across the lot. He approached and offered to help. They would never have met if her morning had gone as planned.
She was an observer, an anonymous witness. She noticed bliss and despair, pride and greed, admiration and envy. All things to which she was privy simply by keeping her eyes open. The man on his cell phone processing terminal news. The family in the park celebrating new life on the way. The woman in her car crying over the loss of love. She felt empowered by these insights, yet disabled all the same.
She was a keeper of lists. Lists for chores and grocery necessities, lists of expenditures and bills to pay, lists of errands to run in the order she would run them, and of projects with detailed steps for how to complete them. She maintained ever-evolving lists of books to read and stories to write, lists of inspirational quotes and forgotten vocabulary. These lists gave her a sense of control at a time when she was spiraling out of it.
She wanted not to be remembered for what she accomplished but for what she inspired others to accomplish. She wanted to be the catalyst, not the result. And so, she teaches. Not because she can no longer meet the demands of her field, but rather to learn, to grow, to improve upon what she knows, with hope of passing on this infectious desire. She will infect others and that will be her legacy.
She needed three things: her notebook, a pen, and a place to sit. It was the lines she observed, the bones of structures, the movement of limbs, the light and the shadows. She would sketch in the morning, preferring the city as it woke, pedestrians strolling with delightful affirmations, birds singing to the new dawn, air thick with lusciously sweet baked goods. All welcoming her, begging her to capture the impossible.
He listened, he paid attention, he caught the nuances others missed. When he focused, everything else fell away, whether his subject was willing or not, and all he saw was truth. Spoken or silent, he could differentiate intent from accident, love from lust, fear from ignorance. He had a gift. He used this gift for good, until the good was stolen from him, and he no longer saw the point.
The hole was large enough that she needed a patch. She was meticulous, taking her time, piercing the fabric with the needle, threading it securely. She held up the garment to examine her handiwork. The patch was among four she had sewn in the past week. He hadn't told her why he kept coming home in shredded clothes. She didn't expect him to confide in her, she didn't need him to. She already knew and that was enough.
The man sat on the guardrail reading a paperback. He splayed his fingers across the pages to keep them in place as the cars sped past. A couple yards away on the narrow shoulder lay his pack, stuffed to capacity, sleeping bag rolled and attached by bungee cord. For the last hour, he had sat calmly, engrossed in his novel despite the traffic on the steep grade, a mountainous view to his back. Then he stood and attempted to cross to the median.
She fought and she questioned, then desperation gave way to submission, and there was nothing left in her but anger. That was his doing. He nurtured a hatred in her that made him leaving practically her idea. It would be better for her this way. In her eyes now, he was the enemy. Maybe one day, she would forgive, With hope, she would forget. He wished he would be so lucky.
His face shaded by his poor-boy cap was caked with dirt, his fingernails blackened, his suspenders frayed, his trousers wrinkled and cuffs rolled. Aside from his sneakers, at one time an unspoiled white with fluorescent orange Nike swooshes above the laces, now with soles held on by duct tape, he was a transport. He sought this way of life, one that was fitting despite the era. He lived below radar, unkempt and free.
They passed around the can of lentil soup, rough-edged lid still attached, a single spoon shared among the group. This was the most fulfilling meal they had acquired in three days. Add four more days to that total and that's how long they had gone without proper beds to sleep on. Assimilation was the most difficult part, but most of them were still riding high on thrills alone, so steel-topped mattresses were the least of their worries.
He said it two centuries ago, yet she lived by his words now. "If you want something you've never had, you must be willing to do something you've never done." Mr. Jefferson had been speaking to her, for her, for this very moment. She grabbed her keys from the hall table and drove into the city. It was her only option, her last ditch effort, it had to work. She was one to follow the signs, and all the signs directed her here.
He was told to look behind the vines. He pulled his sleeve down around his hand to avoid the thorns. Tugging slightly, tearing a few of the plant's limbs from their grasp, he exposed it. There in the dirt lay a small rusted box no bigger than his fist. He carried it in one hand over to a ray of light that shone through the barn wall. With great anticipation, he lifted the metal latch and found what was promised.
She received her degree years after her peers. By that time, formally walking to receive her diploma seemed futile. Only at the insistence of her father did she attend the ceremony. Announcements were mailed, cap and gown were ordered. And in the early morning sun, as family filled the bleachers, she walked on stage, shook the hand of the dean, and saw her life flash before her eyes.
She passed by his booth every Saturday when the market opened. She would glance at his table, on occasion picking up a glass jar to read the label. One day, she asked if he was the artisan. Her voice hung questioningly in the air as his mind danced between syllables. A nod was all he could muster. He could see she was waiting for something more but words failed him. Words always failed him when he needed them the most. He had to find another way.
Sand with the grain, walk in the direction of the wind, swim with the current. It was supposed to be easier. She staged an epic battle with that current, struggling with every stroke. Her body colliding with boulders submerged in the rapids, her lungs filling with water, bursting from the inside out. It was supposed to be easier, swimming with and not against the current. Then she realized, she was swimming in the wrong river.
He was her first breath after too long of not breathing. Too long of not feeling. Too long of not seeing. She felt things she didn't know she could feel anymore, didn't know if she would feel again. He saved her from drowning, lifted her above the surface and kept her afloat. He saved her and all he said was hello. He was her first breath and if it weren't for him, she would not be breathing today.
She had left her campsite at first light to follow the clear and maintained trail that wove alongside the river. The waters parted the trunks of massive redwoods that donned the scars of wildfire. She had walked this trail many times, but today was different. She was looking for a marker, one that signaled her to ignore the warnings and veer off the trail. Then she saw the flattened clovers and the outcropping of boulders.
The girl grew up in a small town. Her parents raised her in a brusque manner, fearful of her weaknesses, minds set on building strength to survive the cruel world. The boy who lived across the street was her best friend. His parents were a stark contrast to her own. His life, his childhood, at the insistence of his parents was strictly sheltered. He was naive and innocent and happy, or so they thought.
The water crushed her chest. Its chill extracted every molecule of air from her lungs, her eyes widened, the colors of the surrounding chaparral grew vibrant. Despite her skills as a swimmer, she was overcome with a sense of urgency and suddenly feared the unknown bottom. She clambered up onto the dusty rock to thaw. Minutes passed, and the colors faded. Her body calmed. Then she gave him a knowing nod, and jumped in again.
She strived to write a fortune that would be saved in a wallet, displayed on a dashboard, or adhered to a scrapbook. Yet hours of perusing quotes and proverbs left her uninspired. Then on a serendipitous day, her bare foot collided with a muse. At first, she reprimanded the rock, but that course of action was useless. Only when she sat down, compressed her foot between her palms and stared at the cause of her agony, did it come to her.
They were walking the trail in the late afternoon. The wind had settled, the light had softened. The hike to the peak was a short one, although he wished it were longer. More switchbacks meant more time. He would walk for days if he could do so with her. He spent most of the trek as a follower. He could see her this way, admire her, smile at her without her knowing. When they reached the top, he knew.
The guard grabbed the man forcibly by the collar and led him outside. The boy in tears followed at their heels until he reached the porch. The house was safe, or so he had been told. With the man secure in the truck, the guard returned to drag away the boy as well. His piercing screams coerced the mother out of hiding. She pled desperately. The guard smirked, then dropped the child in the dirt in exchange for the mother.
She set her alarm an hour early each morning, purposefully to wake her in the midst of the dream. She lay there prolonging her senses within the surreal landscape, making wakeful memories that would last the day. The memories felt as real as any memory she would make by living that day. Her aptitude for living no longer lay with the waking world, but with the world she created in her dreams. The day could not follow her there.
They came to him throughout the day. They had one name to remember, most failed to do even that. He remembered everyone, every name, every order, every time they walked through the door. They were flattered and would make small talk, sometimes offering more detail of their lives outside the cafe. He listened, often asking questions. Then they would go on their way, never once returning the flattery.
When the aura developed, she closed the curtains and drew down the comforter. Once safe between the sheets, she willed her mind to another place before it was no longer her choice to make. The memory of the place flooded the pathways of her brain, sweeping the pain to the banks before it could wash her away. The pain was a spectator now, not the main attraction. It took all her energy to keep it that way.
The air was still and thick the day she decided to leave. She abandoned her home, her car, all her belongings except for the clothes on her back and the cash in her pockets. She sought an address hundreds of miles away. Whether that address was still occupied remained to be seen, but at this point, she had no choice but to go. She had to walk there and she had to go now.
He never anticipated it would alter every ounce of his life. From the sharp morning air to the feel of his sheets as he climbed into bed for the night. Everything had changed. He tried his best to shake it, ignore it, or the opposite and delve into complex analysis. Nothing seemed to work. It was still there. She was still there, haunting his every step. Her voice, whispering in his ear. Escape was not an option.
He sat quietly at his desk, an obedient employee following orders. "Keep your head down and mouth shut, but your ears open." The office was broken into high-walled cubicles with desks facing away from the building's windowed perimeter. Workers got lost in a sea of loud music streaming through their ear buds. This detachment misled many to think they could host private conversations, which were exactly what he intended to overhear.
"I know you. I don't know how or from where, but I do." She thought he was out of his mind, but if he cared, he did a precise job of hiding it. He spoke with certainty, charm, and abandon. He had mastered his art, an enviable trait that drew her to him more than anything else. In seconds, she trusted him and would do anything for him. In the end, it was her fault.
She sat on the dunes staring north at the water's edge. The coastline disappeared into a dense wall of fog that blended seamlessly with the white foam atop the waves. Within minutes, the haze released a figure, indiscriminate at first, but by the way it walked, she was certain it was him. A moment later, a crowd emerged behind him, in step with the man. He was leading them to her.
His sea-soaked clothing seemed to be carrying twice his weight in salt and sand. The extra pounds made his feet drag and his torso list slowly from side to side. It had been his first time beside the ocean. Its grandeur had rendered him speechless. Now he saw it as an ugly body of water that had taken from him an innocence he never knew he had to lose. The waves and the tide of which he had dreamed had taken everything.
She heard the car on the gravel outside. Her gloved hands froze, clinging to the soapy glass. She waited, her eyes transfixed on the stream of water from the faucet splashing onto the porcelain before vanishing down the drain. When the car door closed, her heart skipped. Then there were footsteps on the front porch and the doorbell rang. The glass slipped from her fingers and shattered in the sink.
He told them not to make a sound, not even to smile. What better way to make children smile than to tell them not to. They simply could not help it. They tried to cover their mouths with their hands but it was no use. The burst of laughter was inevitable. Their father would clear his throat in disapproval, buying a few seconds of silence. Then their faces would scrunch, air would spurt from their noses, and it would start all over again.
Thrift stores, antique stores, yard sales; he frequented them all looking for her face. The search had transformed him into a collector. Little space was left, the walls of his home were covered in frames of every size, stained in every color, some carved, some gilded, all containing portraits of people without names, all deserving a prominent place to hang, just as her portrait once did, just as it would again someday.
Living out of their car was easy at first, amusing even, like an adventure. After a year, it no longer felt so exciting. Her paycheck covered daycare for her daughter while she was at work, with just enough left over for two meals a day each, nothing more. The girl had stopped asking when they would go home, a loss of hope that broke her mother's heart. It was the knock on her window one rainy morning that changed everything.
The trees bordered the small cabin. She had retreated to the valley three years ago, the last two of which she had spent building the cabin. She had carefully chosen which trunk to fell, making sure not to disrupt the natural shade in the valley. Beside each stump, she planted a sapling. She had to maintain the thickness of the forest. It was the only way to keep their home secure.
Her business had grown immensely by word of mouth. People had less and less time to tend to such things; she, on the other hand, had all the time in the world. The words came easily. She could write them as if she were writing a greeting card, a one-size-fits-all type of operation. Of course, she would change the names and add in a few personal details for humor. All of which her customers received with the utmost gratitude.
She deeply enjoyed the thought of a new book. The cover confidently displaying the author's name and surely poignant title. The front matter with scattered acclaim from novelists and critics alike, reassuring the read would be time well spent. Slowly, she would drink from her optimistic glass. Some days the glass remained full until the very last line. Most days, it spontaneously shattered before she could turn the first page.
The headache had slowly made its presence known, occupying one synapse at a time until it was impossible to ignore. She swallowed 600 milligrams of ibuprofen with a full glass of water, and then chased it with a cup of coffee. By the afternoon, she had repeated this routine four times. When her vision blurred, she called her doctor, who requested that she come into his office. By the time she grabbed her purse to leave, she had gone blind.
She left him sleeping soundly upstairs and crept down to the kitchen. They had talked through every detail until the early morning hours. She had managed to drift off for two restless hours before her alarm rang at 6 a.m. From the sunny windowsill, the cat greeted her with a tall stretch of its back, a deep bow, and a sleepy-eyed nuzzle of her hand. It was unfathomable how they could leave, but leave it precisely what they planned to do.
Everyone wanted an explanation. Everyone wanted answers. Everyone wanted to help, and no one wanted to leave her alone. She no longer wanted to explain what happened, or why it happened, or how it happened. All she knew was that it happened and there was nothing any of them could do to change it. When she refused help, they worried. When she insisted on being alone, they worried. But when she disappeared, they called the police.
Every September, the scent wafted through the air and sent her mind tumbling back to a time that she no longer owned. To a time when she could shake out her hair from its ponytail, reach behind her back, and grab the long thick strands with her fingers. To a time when her shy demeanor made her endearing and innocent, instead of reticent and harmed. To a time when she knew nothing of the outside world, and the world knew nothing of her.
No amount of water or scrubbing could dislodge the grime from his pores, which had penetrated the fibers of his clothes and provided him insulation from the night air. For this he was thankful, despite the mildew and pungent body odor that he could no longer smell but knew was there just by the reality of his situation. He could not say as much for the threadbare blanket that he dragged along with him, but it was all he had.
She watched his face, looking for some clue that he was telling a joke, a crude and insensitive joke, but a joke all the same. He had left, and she stood in the doorway, waiting for him to reappear and shout, "Just kidding!" He never reappeared. She stared at the empty driveway, the miserable words still hanging in the air. Now it was her responsibility to tell her husband. It was this thought, not the initial news, that made her sick.
She was skimming the pages for his name, and simultaneously kicking herself for making the mistake. Paragraph after paragraph, she searched for the error. Her job on the line, his job on the line, the magazine's future in jeopardy because of one Freudian slip. Although it was another finger who keyed it, she was responsible for that finger, she had read the copy as it skidded across her desk, signing it off without a second thought.
They stood hand in hand by the newsstand, each a clear contradiction to those on the covers in front of them. They would probably never grace one of those covers. Yet there they stood, fingers interlaced, connected for life, accepted for life. She sat on the bench studying them, and becoming increasingly distraught over their presence. She was on the cover of one of those magazines, and accepted was something she had never felt.
She enjoyed it, seeing it as an opportunity to visit with old friends confined between the covers she counted. She watched the clock, patiently waiting for close. Then she locked the door behind the last customer and began. She retrieved each book from its perch and rifled through its pages, giving each air before bidding farewell. The task was always predictable. But that night, she found out how fragile the word "always" is.
She spent each day searching the crowds for his face. The patrons in line at the grocery store, the drivers filling their cars with gas at the corner station. She used to take her morning coffee to go. Now she sat quietly at the corner table, sipping the hot drink and surveying the cafe. In a town of 20,000 people, she was bound to run into him sooner or later. She wished for sooner, but she got later.
He was walking through the crowded courtyard to the main library. Although he preferred otherwise, the path took him right past the anthropology building. And again, his peripheral vision failed to warn him. He tried a last-minute swerve to avoid the distracted walker, but she crashed into him, sending papers flying from their arms and into the wind. It was the third time this week. He was beginning to think she was doing it on purpose.
It was later than normal when he shut down his computer and left the building without locking the doors. He was relieved to see his car alone in the lot. He turned the key in the ignition and listened as the car's engine rolled over with ease. He waited patiently for the clock on his dashboard to read 8 p.m. and then pulled out of his spot, making sure to avoid eye contact with the other driver pulling in as he left.
She left her apartment and walked to the bar down the street. She needed the comfort of this bar, some place quiet, some place familiar. It was still early, the evening influx of high heels and oxfords had yet to arrive. She would make sure to leave before it did. She sat on her usual stool and ordered her usual drink. The bartender delivered her glass with a lime and a napkin, and then he left her alone.
Our bellies had never felt so full during so many consecutive days. Each night, we cleaned our plates in record speed. Then our mother would retrieve another basket of rolls or bowl of vegetables from the kitchen and fill our plates again. The idea of eating another bite was unfathomable. We would refuse the extra food but my mother would insist and say, "We may never get another chance to feast like this." She was right.
He drove past abandoned rows of corn, stalks leaning in the wind, draping over the shoulder of the road. He sped by, the blur of green and gold turning the view through his side windows into abstract watercolor paintings. Then the stalks abruptly disappeared. Fields of once tilled dirt left behind for the sun to burn and the weeds to inhabit. He turned off the highway onto a dirt road lined with agricultural machinery he could not name.
She thought she could avoid the inevitable if she moved across town. But that failed, so she moved to another town, and then another after that. In the span of five years, she had moved twelve different times, lived in nine different towns, and attended eight different schools, one town being so remote that it was without a school of its own. She had learned to stop investing in people. She would offer her name if asked, but little more.
His assignment was to inspect each room. The view was always the same, rows of empty desks, each equipped with a flat computer monitor. The scene reminded him of his high school computer science class, although this certainly was not a high school. Each room was windowless and lit by a single fluorescent bulb hanging on the far wall. Below each bulb was a numbered keypad of which he had lacked clearance to use until now.
They had their pick of lettuces to bed their homegrown zucchini and tomatoes. They had tended the garden all summer and felt proud to devour their hard work. Although the carrots, which never grew, were still a sore subject. Her brother blamed it on the rabbits that lived beneath the overgrown lavender bush near the back fence. She, however, blamed it on her brother who had flooded the soil the day they had sowed the seeds.
She could see it nibbling on the cheese, testing its validity before committing to the meal. Sitting atop the rock, her feet braced against a fallen tree, she watched patiently as the fish made its final decision. At the first tug, she pulled up on the pole, the end of the line rising aggressively out of the water, the ball of cheese now in the mouth of her first catch, a beautiful and appetizing rainbow trout.
His skin was moist. His hands clutched his sides in a desperate attempt to stop his body from convulsing. His eyes darted in confusion from one person to the next, he tried to speak but his words coagulated and fell out of his mouth like rocks. Someone was yelling for help. He knew the voice, a woman's voice, but he could not remember her name. His mind was failing, his body was collapsing from the inside out, and he could do nothing to stop it.
Her mother disappeared often for work, absent for weeks at a time. She would return exhausted, her body deformed, her skin red and tough from exposure, yet she would silently slip back into her family's life as if she had never left. The girl had just turned twelve when she discovered what her mother did to earn a living. On an early spring morning, her mother roused the girl from her sleep and explained that it was time to go.
Every once in awhile, she would catch glimpses of the moon through the trees, but the canopy was so thick, she relied heavily on her flashlight to see the road. She had been walking at night to spare her body from the summer heat. It was safer that way anyhow, a fact she had to experience to believe. Her pace was quick out of necessity. By her calculations, she would reach them in three days, but it may be three days too late.
He would be gone for two months and no more, he had promised. The first couple of weeks, he emailed regularly. He would relay stories from the road, difficulties he had with the language, the constant demand depleting the supplies. Soon his email became less frequent until they stopped altogether. When the two month marked came and went without his return, she packed her bag and bought a ticket on the first flight out to find him.
She tried to use the paddle to dislodge the canoe, its bow stuck in the sludge that lined the shore. She should have pushed the boat out into the water before getting in, but the idea of wading through the dark water was simply unacceptable. The current took hold of the boat and she lost her grip on the paddle, it still stuck in the mud, sticking straight up toward the stars, a pinnacle of mockery illuminated by the moonlight.
The truck's engine was loud, the dash was covered with a layer of dirt that had been there since his father had purchased it a year ago. Together, they had walked across town to finalize the deal. The old man had been sitting on his front porch, waiting for them. His father had given the man two hundred dollars and a large sack of potatoes they had dug up that same day. The man was more excited about the potatoes than the cash.
She withdrew a notebook and pen from her red canvas tote and opened to a blank page. With nothing to write, she abandoned the book and pulled out a collection of short stories instead. The book went with her everywhere. Its pages curled with use and its binding could use a bit of reinforcement, but it still read well and that is what mattered. On most days, it gave her inspiration. Today was not most days.
He had heard the secret from a friend of a friend. How that friend had known was a secret in itself. It took a full week, seven aggravating days, to get confirmation, but when the truth that supported the gossip arrived, he was shocked by his reaction. He should have been devastated. He should have felt confused and blindsided, but in fact, all he felt was relief.