/ Fiction /
The two-lane road curved up and into a pine tree forest. Country-styled houses were sprinkled along the way, each with their pitched roof, propane tank and leaning mailbox. In the near distance, some twenty-five feet below, acres of brown wetland lay at the feet of some unseen river. Tributaries coursed toward the sea. My foot hovered over the brake pedal as I steered around another bend. A deer stood motionless by a wall of blackberry bramble, and then disappeared from sight. But, the manila envelope still remained, the one that hasn’t left my truck since a stranger in Starbucks handed it to me. “You’ve been officially served,” he said and then walked away. As I repeated his words, the afternoon sun pierced through the clouds and turned one of the tributaries into a giant, chrome snake, slithering alongside, keeping me company as we headed toward the Pacific Ocean.
By the time I reached the coast, the sun had given way to the moon and gale force winds had blown sand all over the streets. Most of the house lights were out, and the streetlights were few and far between. It felt like a ghost town. The old country houses that I had left miles back were now replaced with beachfront properties— neglected, out-of-the-way houses planted in sand dunes attached to miles of moonlit shoreline. They stood side-by-side each other in simple form, the greater lot of them encased in weather-beaten wood shingles, giving the appearance of abandonment. As I searched for the address, the street seemed to go on forever, stretching into the dark. I wondered if this neighborhood, which wasn’t really a neighborhood at all, only still existed because of the fishermen who refused to move away, for not having any other place they’d like to call home.
I was told that the renovation of the house should not exceed six months. “Of course, you could live at the property during the renovation. You’d be doing us both a favor, for obvious reasons,” Tom said, then paused for a moment to clear his throat. “Look, John, I’m going to be honest. We both know where you’re at, and I’m hoping that you’ll do the right thing. Call me if you need to talk, day or night, okay?” Tom had been my A.A. sponsor for seven months and had recently purchased a beach house at a foreclosure auction. In actuality, the place was more of a run-down cottage with an add-on room than a true beach house, but it made no difference. He knew I needed the work and would jump at the chance to get back in good graces with my wife.
We’d been having ongoing marital problems for months, and it had gotten so bad we decided to separate. Of course, I offered to move out. And, why wouldn’t I? I fell off the wagon again. This time, it cost me my job and pushed Grace to the brink of divorce. I refused to believe she wanted to leave me for good. That’s why I accepted Tom’s offer without hesitation, to show Grace that I was still a good man with good intent; but in all honesty, I believed she and Tom were romantically involved, secretly, of course. I didn’t have any evidence of this assumption other than my intuition, and I was willing to overlook this plausible infidelity, partly because I believed that I had played a role in it. I would even go as far as to say I caused it. It made no difference to me if the renovation offer was a ploy to get me out of the way, so Tom could play his hand at helping Grace end our troubled marriage. Who better to share her intimate marital problems with than a clean and sober man, who also happened to be my A.A. sponsor? I knew it was the chance I had to take to save my marriage. Nobody could deny it was a risky move. But if I learned anything from being married to Grace, I knew sex didn’t equate to love, but rather to the absence of it— it was no more than a physical act to fill the void caused by emotional neglect. And realizing that I had brought Grace to that point, killed me every time the thought entered my mind. So, as Tom had his plan, I had mine.
The steps to the cottage’s front door felt weak and spongy, and the interior was nearly gutted down to the studs, a clear sign that the former contractor packed his tools and abandoned the project without concern. This often happened to renovations when the money dried up. Everybody leaves town and the property ends up at a cash-only auction. As I walked around the place, I wasn’t surprised why Tom bought it. It reaffirmed that he was the type of guy who benefited from another’s misfortune— an opportunist with a keen eye for despair. The rear door opened to a patch of overgrown grass, which funneled out to a path nearly reclaimed by the surrounding dunes. The ocean hissed and crashed and appeared whitewashed in serious moonlight with undulating shreds of silvery ribbons fading into night. There was something strange in the air that drew me towards the watery sounds, some sort of hypnotic whispering within my mind tempting me to swim toward a buoy. I removed my shoes and loosened my belt, preparing to walk into the ocean, when a dog with mottled gray and black fur appeared from a swath of nightshade and greeted me with kisses, as if we had been friends for years, then sprang onto its hind legs and pawed me.
An indistinguishable voice in the distance rose above the crashing waves and grew louder. The muddled voice belonged to a woman shouting “Hold’em, hold’em,” which at first sounded like “Hold me, hold me.” The slender silhouette of a woman with dark hair and the doppelgänger face of Courtney Cox, during her Friends era, ran up and folded over. She held her onto her knees, squatted deeper, and dangled her head between her feet as though she was preparing to vomit. The dog, panting just as hard as his owner, shook his body and sent water flying in all directions. “Are you okay,” I asked, holding the dog’s collar. The woman, still regaining her breath, raised a finger to indicate she needed more time to recover. She attached the leash to the collar. “Oh my God. I don’t know what got into him. He’s never done that before. Bad, Bruno. Bad boy.” The dog rolled onto his back and wiggled back and forth as if he had done nothing wrong. “I think he likes you, so you must be a good guy,” she said, tapping sand from her shoes.
“I’d like to think I am. At least, Bruno thinks so,” I said, stepping back into my shoes and adjusting my belt.
She turned and spotted the lights on Tom’s house along the row of houses, then played her hunch.
“Is that your place, over there,” she said, then turned her sights toward the ocean.
“I’m just renovating it. My name’s John,” I said, wondering what color her eyes were.
We spoke for a few minutes longer before she introduced herself as Evelyn. She then said goodnight and walked away with Bruno in tow. When they disappeared into the nightshade, I stared out into the shimmering waves, watching that buoy sway back and forth, as if it was beckoning me into the silvery sea; and for a moment, I believed I saw a nude woman climb out of the heavy swells and onto the buoy. When the waves crashed again, the woman was no longer there, but the whispering resumed as seafoam curled around my feet.
The following morning, some moments before dawn, I awoke gasping for air. I had surfaced from the depths of sleep into a spinning room. Within the unbalanced light, against the room’s farthest wall, a silhouette of a some inhumanly-proportioned creature stretched along the ceiling and seeped into the seam above the blinded window, as if my consciousness disturbed its presence. I noticed my wedding ring was gone, then realized it had moved to my other hand. How could that be?
My phone rang and I answered without hesitation. Grace was on the other end. She began with the usual small talk, which was now her new approach before segueing to the real reason she called. I closed my eyes and saw her in the kitchen making coffee, standing there in her red and black checkered pajamas with her hair still a mess; and for a brief moment, I was there, too. She spoke on house matters, mostly. The water heater needed replacing, the neighbors had finally finished their paving project, and if I had started the renovation on Tom’s beach house.
“It really isn’t a beach house, Grace. It’s an abandoned cottage on the beach. There’s a difference,” I said, snapping out of my little daydream and looking around the bare-boned place. She sighed and remained so quiet I heard the stirring of a spoon in her cup. “I haven’t started yet, but I only got here last night, so—”
“Look, I didn’t call to argue, John. I really didn’t, but it sounds like you have a big day ahead of you, so I’ll get to the point. I called, because I wanted to know if you signed the papers.”
The sound of a lone seagull rose above the crashing waves.
“I haven’t got around to it yet, but I’ll let you when I do,” I said, trying to find meaning in the awkward silence that hung so many miles between us. “I’m hoping that you’ll have a change of heart.”
“You’ve made promises before, John, and you never kept them. What do you expect me to do? I’m tired of the lies. Please sign the papers.”
“I love you, Grace,” I said, knowing I was beyond redemption. “I won’t have another drink again. I swear on my life this time.”
A high-pitch sound rang in my ears and subsided into a whisper that bled into deafening static. Then, nothing but absolute silence.
“Hello,” I said, checking the phone to see if Grace had abruptly ended the call.
In a distant and tinny sound, our wedding song played through the receiver with the hissing and popping of a vintage recording. “Hello,” I said, again. Another moment passed before Grace answered through the static. “Time… can’t… when… sign the—" Her voice squelched mid-sentence before the call went dead. I attempted to call her back, but the phone read “Extended Network” then “No Service.” I pressed the buttons again, but nothing moved; it was useless.
Somebody began knocking on the door in a playful rhythm. I was surprised to see Evelyn on the doorstep with a brown paper bag in hand.
“Is this a bad time,” she said, taking a step back as though not wanting to impose.
“No, no, not at all,” I said. “Please, come in. I was just—”
“Waking up,” she said, then gestured to my sleepwear, which was nothing more than a shirt and boxers. “I brought coffee. It’s the least I could do for last night.”
“Where’s your dog?”
She turned around and looked up and down the street.
“Maybe, he’s on the beach,” she said, looking over my shoulder and nodding toward the dunes.
Evelyn crossed through the house and stood by the rear door, staring out the kitchen window toward the ocean. When I had slipped into yesterday’s clothes and walked out of the bedroom, she was pressed oddly against the doorjamb in the same way ivy attaches itself to the side of a house. Her face seemed paler and more angular than some minutes ago. She peeled herself from the doorjamb and stepped closer to the window with a coy smile. Waves crashed and hissed in the distance and filled the silence between us. “Are you ready,” she said and flung open the door.
Evelyn cut across the patch of overgrown lawn, but stopped before entering the dunes. “Hurry up,” she said in a flirty tone. She closed her sea-green colored eyes, raised her chin toward the sun, and bathed in the golden light. She stood motionless, appearing lifeless in her statuesque beauty. Her dark hair whipped about in the wind and her skin glowed iridescently in the sunlight. Beyond her colorful veneer, which at a closer look, appeared to be countless superimposed layers of tiny gelatinous sequins, undulating and radiating light, there was an unquestionable inhuman quality about her. As I moved to touch her face, she opened her eyes and took my hand. Her eyes were no longer sea-green; in fact, her eyes were void of all color, yet she stared at me through a transparent second eyelid. And as I stood there suspended in time, the crashing ocean waves were overpowered by the whispering within my mind, then all the oxygen rushed from my lungs. Evelyn gripped my hand tighter and, without moving her lips, I heard her whisper “Do not be afraid.” Then, the moment was gone as though it had never happened.
We walked through the dunes and out onto the shoreline. There was no sign of Bruno. I joined Evelyn and called out for him. We scanned the wet sand for paw prints. We must have walked a mile or so before we met a kid with a white dog. He threw a piece of driftwood into the water and sent the dog after it. After Evelyn described Bruno to the kid, he pointed toward the woods. “I think he went that way, might be over there,” he said, wrestling the stick out of the dog’s mouth. “But, I’m not sure,” then threw the stick again.
We searched for Bruno for most of the morning. “He’ll come back when he gets hungry,” I said, but I knew she didn’t believe me even though she agreed. When we returned to where we first met, she removed her shoes and walked barefoot, allowing seafoam to lap over her feet. We stood there for a moment without speaking, watching waves rock that buoy about; and the longer we stood there, the more powerful the waves became. Evelyn stepped closer toward the water, so close that when waves broke, she showered in ocean spray. I couldn’t help but join her and take hold of her hand. As the spray washed over us, vertical slits surfaced on the sides of her neck, opening and closing beneath her jawline. Without notice, I released her hand, feeling the salt against my eyes, yet I saw she had, what looked like, gills pulsating some inches below her earlobes. She turned away and walked toward the opposite end of the beach, but I remained lost as the current pushed and pulled at me. I hoped for the whispering to return, but no words ever came as she disappeared into the distance.
Tom had stated that he wanted the kitchen window replaced with a picture window. “One big enough to bring the whole damn ocean into the house,” as he put it. “That’s the attraction,” he said. There was no argument to be had, so I got started right away. When I drove to the hardware store, the store clerk, who was a lanky kid with a pimply face, scoffed when I told him about the picture window. “You’re better off going with a standard replacement,” he said, pointing down the aisle. “You’ll find lumber through that door.” He then said, “A picture window is a special order, so it might be a couple days or a couple of weeks, depending on logistics. But, we’ll let you know.” Tom had a credit card on file with all the needed information. And as the kid scribbled out the receipt, I imagined Tom sitting on my side of the bed, untying his shoes in delight. The pen tore through the paper when I signed the receipt, which made the clerk smile. “It’s none of my business,” he said, “But, I just don’t understand the point of having a window that doesn’t open.”
He handed me the piece of paper, scratched his ear, and reclined against the counter.
“Some windows only provide a view. It’s as simple as that,” I said, pocketing the receipt and looking through the glass door into the parking lot. “If there’s anything to understand, it’s the reason why you’re looking.”
I spent the remainder of the day detaching kitchen cabinets, replacing the porch steps, and leveling the subfloor in the add-on room. My hand snagged a nail and ripped open in the process, resulting in a red, jagged line over the top of my hand. After I had cleaned the wound, the bathroom faucet kept dripping. There was no point in fixing the leak, so I left the cottage for a sunset on the beach.
The whereabouts of Evelyn and Bruno crossed my mind again. Maybe, Bruno had found a new home in the woods, and Evelyn, wherever she may have gone, may never return to the place where we first met. Those thoughts kept me company as I ambled through the windblown dunes. The salt air pinched my hand and lapping waves called from the shoreline. Again, the buoy swayed, rocking back and forth against darkening waves, as though tempting me once more into the deep water. And in the dying light, as the moon cast a silver sheen over the ocean, the whispering returned, guiding through the dark toward a single glowing light among the row of houses, which rested just beyond the seagrass-covered dunes.
When I returned to the cottage, Tom called to go over a few updates, which I found a bit odd. It wasn’t so much the words he used but rather his tone. Sure, Tom owned the rundown beach cottage, which he liked to call a “beach house,” which it wasn’t in the least, and that bothered me some. And as much as it killed me to hear his voice, I had no better option to salvage my marriage. I had to show Grace that I was still salvageable, even though my own certainty vacillated at times.
I remember how Tom looked at Grace the time I invited him over for dinner. He complimented her cooking, which seemed reasonable, and shared his plan to acquire a beach house for vacationing. This all occurred at my dinner table over Grace’s chicken casserole. In actuality, I brought Tom home so that he could speak highly of me in front of Grace, to reassure her that I was working through my demon, my penchant for alcohol. And that’s what Tom did, until he diverted the spotlight onto himself, letting us know, in a kind of nonchalant way, that he still suffered from his unfortunate divorce, which was, as he put it, a real heartache for a true romantic, which he considered himself to be. “It’s a blessing and a curse at times; it truly is,” he said, taking another serving of casserole. “Let me tell you, the one thing I miss most about being married, other than being in a monogamous relationship, of course, is the home cooking. Boy, how I miss those home cooked meals.” Then, he shoved a spoonful of casserole into his greedy mouth. As I look back on it now, I never saw what Tom had up his sleeve.
“So, the hardware store called this afternoon,” he said, sounding as if he stepped outdoors. “Glad you ordered the window. And by the way, I’ll be out of town for a few days, so it might be difficult to get in touch, but don’t let that stop you from doing your work. If there’s anything you need, have the guys put it on my tab.” We spoke for another minute or two before another call came through on his end. It was just as well he jumped off the phone, because I was tired of the conversation and looked forward to sleep.
Some moments later, the phone rang again. I assumed Tom had failed to mention something about the renovation and called back, but instead of hearing his voice on the other end, I heard my wife’s. She spoke a few minutes on the sudden change of weather and how the rain gutter along the rear of the house had begun to pull away from the roof, and other miscellaneous topics, such as how one of the neighbors up the street just replaced new carpet throughout their house after their cat had passed away. “Seventeen years,” she said, “Can you believe it? I knew cats had nine lives, but seventeen years? No wonder why they bought new carpet.” I tried to follow the conversation, but how interested could one be about an old carpet. She made small talk, and I responded accordingly, yet I knew she had more pertinent matters on her mind. “My sister’s in the hospital with a ruptured appendix, and I’ll be back in a couple of days,” Grace said, “I’m telling you, in case, you call and I don’t pick up, okay?”
A cold draft swept through the room and broke against my slouched body. The familiar taste of whiskey permeated my mouth. “Hello, are you still there,” she said, sounding as if she had stepped outdoors.
“I’m still here, Grace,” I said, hearing her sigh deeply.
“I hope you’re not getting any bad ideas, and— you know— that you realize what we had was…. We’re not cats, John, so please sign the papers, okay?”
The crashing waves sounded more distant than the previous night, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she and Tom were traveling somewhere together, and their phone calls, which came within minutes of each other, were an attempt to keep my imagination from embellishing the conversations. I was too far away from ever knowing the truth; and perhaps, it was for the best.
The persistent rhythm of the leaky faucet and breaking waves ushered in sleep as my marriage song played in my head. This was how it began since the night Grace and I separated: the song’s melody surfaced as my head creased the pillow, seeping into my thoughts without invitation. At first, I tried remembering the words in hope of singing myself to sleep, but no matter how hard I tried, I had no recollection of how the song began or ended. I was only left with a continuous loop of nine notes, which sounded as though it came from a warped record behind a closed, wooden door. The needle, raising and falling within the black vinyl grooves, hissed and drew a dissonant melody to an uneven tempo. This continued until the melody grew fainter and turned metallic; the nine notes no longer resembled a musical melody but rather a Morse code pattern, which repetitively played and carried me further and further away from consciousness.
Just below the ocean’s surface, beams of sunlight refracted into colder and darker waters. And still, the penetrating sound of metal against metal continued. My hands blurred in movement, growing partially shadowed within the fading light; there was no reason how I came to this point, when a bone-chilling current pulled me toward an undulating green and black kelp forest. My legs kicked away frantically. My arms grew heavier and more fatigued as I sank within an endless sheath of bubbles. Oxygen escaped from my lungs, and I watched the stream of air turn into a string of disappearing pearls. I drifted into darkness and became tangled within the long stalks of seaweed. More pearls escaped, then some more, until the final string of pearls remained. As my last breath escaped my lips, I was kissed by Evelyn.
It was some moments before dawn when I awoke on the shore the following morning. Soft waves lapped at my drenched body while sand and seafoam shifted about. A flock of seagulls flew overhead and appeared like a streak of white paint feathered onto a powder blue and cotton candy pink canvas. I was about to dismiss this moment as nothing more than a sleepwalking dream, until I noticed my wrists and ankles were bound in strands of brown seaweed.
For the remainder of the day, I worked on Tom’s vacation shack with signs of ill temperament. Everything I removed or attempted to repair seemed harder than ever before. I fought against stubborn nails and bolts and dropped my tools more times than I cared to admit. I couldn’t stop thinking of Evelyn and how I ended up on the beach hours ago. There had to be some logical explanation other than what occurred, even though I knew it was Evelyn who freed me from the kelp and brought me to shore. If it wasn’t her, then how did I survive? The truth, however hard it was to accept, affected my work.
The new kitchen cabinets hung crooked; and when I tried leveling them, I forgot to tighten the hinges, so the cabinet doors fell off and suffered noticeable scratches. I tried hiding them behind fresh paint; but the deep scratch marks stood out in the soft wood. And, it didn’t stop there. In the shower, the last contractor didn’t seal the tile grout properly. Consequently, the ceramic squares fell out like rotted teeth. It got so bad I had to nail the plastic shower curtain over the huge hole in the wall to keep the wooden beams from getting soaked; but each time I used the shower, water shot in every direction. There was so much water flying around, that the floorboards swelled up like balloons and peeled away from the walls.
One night after the hardware store clerk phoned with the delivery date of the picture window, I walked out to my truck and returned with the envelope. I read through the series of pages and took note of all the places where my signature was required. “Sign the papers, John,” my wife’s words echoed. “Please, sign the papers.” The thought of her smiling in the summer sun crossed my mind. She looked so free and happy. I wanted to grant her this, even at the expense of losing her forever. “If only we were cats, Grace. We would have another life together,” I said, searching the nightstand for a pen. “If only we were….”
“Who were you talking to,” Evelyn said, pressing her body against the doorjamb. “Didn’t you hear me knocking?”
I slipped the papers back into the envelope and said “I was thinking aloud; that’s why I didn’t hear you. Come in.”
She placed a thermos on the counter and offered homemade soup, which we poured into cups and enjoyed just beyond the dunes as the sun set in the distance. In between sips, she asked how the renovation was going and how the scratch across my hand healed so quickly. Of course, I stammered at the question, knowing it would segue to my underwater dream. And before I lied to her, she said “It wasn’t a dream. You were drowning in the kept forest, and I returned you back to life.”
“Why did you do that, Evelyn? I might have found something better than what I have here. I have nothing, not anymore, not here in this place, not like I once had.”
I watched the evermoving buoy, swaying within the calm waves.
“Could you have a life with me, other than what you have experienced as a human,” she said, turning her face toward the crashing waves again. And as burnt-orange sunlight played on her neck, the wind swept aside her hair, allowing the sight of her gills to reemerge. “You perform an act of selfishness if you wish to join me, but be absolutely certain.” Her voice grew softer and more distant as though her words no longer lingered on her lips but rather emerged from the sea. “Only in death do we know life.”
Then, she stood and, without another word, kissed me goodbye and walked off into the night. Her footprints, small and perfect, remained imprinted in the sand until a rush of twisting seafoam washed them away. Yet farther down the shoreline, Evelyn was still there, walking among the whitecapped waves. Moonlight played against her body, tracing her curves in a silvery glow, before she vanished into a swath of nightshade. I sat on the beach for another hour, replaying the moment when we first met, before the idea of returning to the cottage entered my thoughts.
As I cut though the dunes, my head grew dizzy and the heavy air clung to my dampened skin. I worried about broken shards of glass and crustacean shells protruding along the sandy path, waiting to cut deep into my soft, wet feet, if for no other reason than to remind me, that they, too, were once whole and full of life. The grave thought stayed with me until I reached the cottage.
Over the next several hours, I attempted to call Grace, only to have each call go unanswered, then remembered her sister’s unfortunate appendix situation. I imagined Grace, sitting bedside behind a gray and blue curtain, comforting her weary sister in a shared hospital room. Even if that image wasn’t true, even if Grace wasn’t with her sister, I wanted to believe she was. That was how I wanted to remember her.
I, John DiMoorisee, signed my name on each appropriate line, on each one of the papers, and then walked out of the cottage toward the seagrass-covered dunes, leaving only my footprints and clothing in my wake. As I stood there on the moonlit shoreline as naked as the day I was born, my sights were summoned to that tempting, taunting buoy. I knew what had to be done— and, I was no longer afraid.