Fiction

After the Storm

The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I was hundreds of yards down the beach when I noticed the sign, a sun face painted on an upright concrete slab. Even from a distance, I felt there was something odd about it, although I couldn’t have said what.

As I got closer I realized the painting was more than a sign; it was a boundary marker.

Just beyond it sat the ruins of a restaurant. I knew if I went further, got closer to the abandoned building, things would change, although I had no idea what that meant.

A storm had smashed into the coast overnight. Gales tossed salty foam onto boat decks, bruised tender flowers, rattled the tree tops and disturbed sleeping birds. But it had moved on.

The turquoise and sapphire sea sparkled in the morning sunlight, calm and flat all the way to the horizon.

I glanced back in the direction from which I had come. In the distance people were splashing in the water. They seemed unaware that I even existed. A sandpiper scampered down the beach as I walked up to what had been the restaurant’s main entrance.

As soon as I crossed the threshold I heard echoes. Soft at first. Distant, yet distinct. People talking. Glasses and silverware clinking. Sudden laughter. A pan clattering to the floor. I felt dizzy, disoriented.  As I tried to steady myself, the echoes faded and died. I could hear the ocean again.

That’s when it happened. A swish. Footsteps skittering behind my back.  I whirled around just as a small two-legged creature jumped through a broken window and burrowed into the underbrush becoming little more than a pale green shadow before vanishing completely.

I stumbled out of the restaurant and ran down the beach. I didn’t stop until I was on the other side of the sun face sign. Only then did I look back at the abandoned building and the tangle of vegetation surrounding it. 

All was quiet and I was alone, except for a fat iguana sunbathing on a rock and a glistening emerald dragonfly hovering beside the painted sun face.

The Headache

Virginia glanced at her alarm clock as she fumbled for the phone. 2:55 AM. "Virginia! What took you so damn long? You let the phone ring six times!"

Mother always knew how many times the phone rang. She knew how many steps it was from the table to the stove, how many seconds it took for the TV to warm up, and how many cracks there were in the sidewalk between her house and the bus stop.

"Virginia! Are you listening to me?"

"Yes, Mother. I'm sorry. I was asleep."

Mother didn't need much sleep. She claimed insomnia ran in the family. Grandma Lou had done most of her sleeping in the late afternoon and Uncle Frank swore three hours a night was more than enough for him. Daddy had complained about the hours Mother kept for as long as Virginia could remember, but this was the first time she had called in the middle of the night.

"Virginia, you have to come over."

"Now?"

"Yes now! My head is throbbing. You've got to bring me some aspirin."

"Where's Daddy?"

Dial tone.

Virginia rushed to the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. Aspirin. I know I've got aspirin. She caught a glimpse of her reflection as she slammed the cabinet door. My hair's a mess. I should comb it. Brush my teeth. No. There's no time. Mother needs me.

She stuffed the aspirin bottle in her purse, threw her raincoat over her pajamas and ran barefoot down the driveway. Ten, fifteen minutes max. There won't be any traffic. I'll run the red lights.

As she turned onto Main Street, an ambulance whined in the distance. It got louder. Closer. My God, they're going to Mother's. The siren faded as she turned onto Elm. Someone else's mother. Not mine. Not this time.

She ran her tire over the curb as she pulled up to Mother's house. Leave it where it is. No time to back up. It's all right. No one will notice. The front door's locked. Go around back. Hurry. She's waiting. Virginia checked her watch. Only eight minutes. Mother likes to time things. She'll see how fast I got here. Mother will know.

She jerked the storm door open and dashed into the dark family room. "Mother, where are you?"

Silence.

She looked in the kitchen. The faucet was dripping. Her parents had discussed the faucet many times over the years. Mother said she could hear the dripping no matter where she was in the house. Daddy repaired the faucet when Virginia was in the fifth grade. Mother said he made it worse.

"Daddy?"

Virginia's feet didn't make a sound as she crossed the cold linoleum floor. Mother's sewing room. The living room. The den.

Empty.

The dining room. Mother and Daddy glared at each other from opposite ends of the long mahogany table, a full bottle of aspirin like a tiny nuclear warhead exactly half-way between them.

 

 

 

 

Overlooked

Luxor, Egypt, 1896. An English woman walks slowly along the outer wall of the temple. The hem of her dress is torn. Coarse, black threads drag behind her leaving serpentine trails in the dust. Oblivious, she shields her eyes from the sun and continues searching the hard-packed ground for treasure.

She has no interest in contributing to an academic journal or expanding the body of knowledge. She has wasted too much time politely knocking on closed doors and attending scholarly meetings where she is not allowed to speak. A member of the weaker sex blending into the background like a shadow. But she knows what the others do not. She knows where to look.

A crew of local workers digs inside the temple. Ropes. Pulleys. A growing pile of rocks. Theban consonants as rigid as hieroglyphs echo in the afternoon heat. Screeching wheelbarrows. French overseers cooing like river birds.

She presses her hands on the enclosure wall, absorbs its heat and listens for something else. Something quieter. An ancient secret whispered in the accents of an undeciphered language. The voice the others cannot hear.

When she finds the treasure, she will protect it. She will not let it sit inside a glass case in a dusty display. Or even worse, in a drawer in a dark basement. She closes her eyes and imagines the catacombs beneath the British Museum. White-gloved hands. Her treasure is tagged, labeled and placed on a tray. The drawer slides shut. Hidden from sight. Permanently abandoned. Buried deeper than it is now as it waits patiently in the earth. As it waits for her alone.

Not a broken bit of pottery. Not bright flakes of paint. Not a brittle yellow tooth or a desiccated foot. Something older. A fragment of myth. A scrap of religion. A feather from a gryphon's wing.

She senses its closeness and looks down. A golden speck glitters at the toe of her boot. She stoops, digs carefully, kneels and brushes the dirt away with her fingertips. A delicate earring. Pale, shimmering blue beads. The color of her eyes. She cradles it in her hand. It warms from the heat of her body. Warm for the first time in three thousand years.

The Voice of the Sea

When he cried in the car, Mommy promised the two weeks would fly by. She told him he would love the seashore. She said he'd have so much fun at Grammy's, he probably wouldn't even want to come home. He stood at the edge of the ocean and let the warm water rush around his ankles and wash the sand out from under his feet. He thought he saw a giant spider, but Grammy said it was just a crab. She told him there were thousands of them on the beach. Then she walked away, sat down on her towel and began digging in the sand with a long stick. He wasn't sure what to do, so he stayed right where he was and watched the waves. He was glad when Grammy called him.

"Come here, honey. Look what I found."

He scampered across the hot sand and squatted beside her.

"Oh my," she said. "Look at the size of this seashell. Isn't it beautiful? Pick it up, dear. Go ahead. Now hold it to you ear and listen. I think you'll be surprised."

At first he didn't hear anything. Then the seashell spoke.

"Put me down at once," it said. "I do not wish to be disturbed. You'll be sorry if you don't do as you're told."

He let the shell slip from his fingers and drop softly onto the sand.

Grammy laughed and picked it up. "You heard it, didn't you? That was the voice of the sea." She grabbed his wrist, pulled him closer and pressed the shell to his ear. "Listen again."

"I'm going to teach you a lesson," the shell gurgled. "I haven't decided exactly how or when I'll do it. But rest assured, it will be soon and it will be very unpleasant."

He took the shell from Grammy and carefully placed it at the water's edge.

"That's a good idea, sweetheart. Let the surf rinse it off for a minute. There. It's clean enough. Put it in your sand bucket." Grammy smiled. "Go ahead, honey. Put the seashell in your bucket. We'll let it dry on the balcony this afternoon, then we'll sit it next to your bed. If you miss your Mommy and Daddy again tonight, the voice of the sea will help you fall asleep."

The Letters

The letters were two weeks late. No one could understand why. They were sure the letters would arrive any minute. But another week passed and the letters didn't come. Everyone stopped going to work. They stayed home and watched for the mailman. So many people were waiting for letters that most of the stores and businesses closed. Everyone understood why. It was unreasonable to expect people to shop or to concentrate on their jobs. The letters hadn't arrived. No one could think of anything else.

At noon each day the neighborhood became silent. No cars passed. No one walked dogs. The children were brought inside and made to stand quietly with their arms at their sides. The adults stood at the windows. They hid behind their curtains and spied on the mailman. He drove down the street at the same time everyday. He parked in the same place and walked up to each door at the very same time as the day before. Never early. Never late. But no one was ever ready. They tried to be prepared, but they never were.

Today when the mailman came, he brought bills, catalogues and discount coupons for the car wash. No one had expected that. They weren't sure what to do. So they thanked him and carried the mail to their dining room tables, shaking it and turning the pages of the catalogues to make sure the letters weren't stuck inside.

The Lake

The lake didn't look right when I got up. It was green. The sky was green too. A sailboat was out on the water. It was small and wooden, red and blue. It looked like an old-fashioned toy boat. But it wasn't. It was real. I'm not sure how I knew that. But I did. The wind whistled around the tree trunks and shook pine needles into my hair. The boat bobbed and turned and almost tipped over. It bounced back up and headed toward the shore. Toward me.

The hull scraped and screeched over the rocky beach as the boat slid out of the water on its own. I walked toward it. But just a little way. It didn't look right. It looked like a French painting. A man climbed out. He was my father and he was dead.

Omen

Three crows glide over the telephone lines and land in the tree next to the garage. They peck each other, beating their wings and squawking until black feathers shower onto the roof. I hear my mother's truck coming down the road. I don't look. I don't need to. I know the sound of that truck's engine better than I know my own name. As she pulls into the driveway, the crows screech and scatter. I stand staring at my feet. The truck door slams. I listen to her tiptoe across the crunchy brown grass. She taps me on the shoulder and tugs my hair. I ignore her and begin gathering the newspapers that have blown all over the yard. I try to read the headlines on a yellowed scrap, but the letters won't form words.

She's right behind me. I can smell her lipstick and feel her cool breath on the back of my neck. Maybe I can trick her. Catch her off-guard. If I'm lucky, I'll be in the house with the deadbolt locked before she even gets to the porch steps.

I whirl around and heave the newspapers at her. The pages flutter momentarily in the dying breeze, then vanish. I look at the empty driveway and wonder if it's all a dream until I notice my fingers, black from the newsprint and the crows' feathers on the roof of the garage.