The beach was littered with folding chairs, unrolled towels, plastic shovels, sun shades, careless trash, and most of all, people. Too many people with too many things, all competing for the same few acres of space. They sat hip to hip, stood shoulder to shoulder, stepped on toes, and got possessive over their temporary plots of land, though the land belonged no more to them than it did to the town itself.
He could still see them sitting in the living room, his father on the couch, clean-shaven with his coffee cup in hand and his eyes glued to the morning news; his mother wrapped in a bathrobe sitting nearby in the armchair, devouring the paper, a stack of books on the side table, eager to take the newspaper's place. He heard the reporter speak of it first, and then his father's commentary. Yet his mother sat quietly contemplating them both.
From the earth, she learned forgiveness. The fire had swept the valley, stripped it of its dressing and simultaneously erased the childhood from the child. She existed because she had watched it unfold from high on the hill. The valley existed but in bare form, primed to grow anew. It will forgive its undoing as will she. She will rise with the trees and time will cover her wounds as clovers cover those of the earth that lay before her.
His car, with its belly exposed to the moonlight, was the first to disappear, though the brief moment it floated on its roof gave him hope he could save her. Then it sank as abruptly as what caused it to surge off the cliff in the first place. His possessions littered the rocks a hundred feet below, ejected from the car during its descent. Items he once needed to survive now fought for their own lives against the pounding surf.
The road wove through a canopy of aspens and led to the front stoop of a small white cottage. It was modest in appearance but boastful in its accomplishments. The moment he opened the door, he became part of its history. He would wash in the same basin, cook in the same kitchen, sleep in the same bed, and most importantly work at the same desk. His presence under that roof for the two weeks he had reserved would eventually define his career.
She was envious. He spoke of the countries he had visited, the hidden nooks of locality, the openness of the people. She wanted that life. He possessed little, few possessions, few dollars. When he felt the need, he simply packed his bag and was on his way, eager to stumble upon the next traveler's treasure. "I'm leaving again tomorrow," he said. "You should come with me."
She captured three red-tailed hawks in a single frame. Each atop a pole, linked by the power line, facing east toward the early morning sun, wings spread to dry the evening moisture from their feathers. She had seized the shot, thankful for having her camera slung over her shoulder at the time. But it was the sign she neglected, it was a failure that would infiltrate the next few days, a failure only hindsight would explain.
Following behind in a second car, she had seen the whole thing: a blind curve stealing the lives of her mother and three siblings. Her father, having been behind the wheel and the lone survivor of the crash, struggled with the guilt and subsequently disappeared from the world. She had grown up wanting to follow in his footsteps, eventually taking over the family business. Now all she wanted was to follow him off the face of the earth.
The day he stopped speaking was the day his life changed. Looking back, whether it was the silence that altered his life or simply the decision to be silent that made the difference, he did not know. It was a tiresome chicken versus egg scenario. Regardless of the origin, the evolution of his silent life had a profound effect on him and those that remained, sometimes unwillingly, by his side.
It began with an unprecedented anxiety. Then her temper slowly began to grow. An unrestrained irritability changed her from the inside out. She lost her sense of calm and her aptitude for kindness. And then came the anger, a very profound anger. One doctor offered psychotherapy. It was "just stress." Another suggested medication. "Your prefrontal cortex is misfiring." She tried both interventions, neither worked.
The glass sugar jar sat empty on the sill, placed there by her grandmother nearly fifty years ago. Now the sill and the jar were hers, an unsophisticated inheritance she gladly accepted. The first night alone after the funeral, she stood in the doorway to the cold kitchen, her eyes locked on the jar in the window. An hour passed, perhaps two. Then she opened a cupboard, retrieved a bag of sugar, and refilled the jar.
The rain had been torrential and constant for the past three days. By the end of the first day, it had saturated the front yard. On the second day, the water rose, flooding the grounds and threatening the cottage. On the third day, it pushed past the sandbags at the front door and ravaged the first floor. The truck was useless, its engine under water with most everything else. The only way out now was by boat.
He still needed a chair. He had a mattress on the floor and a table in the corner, but he needed something to sit on. He searched the dumpster behind his building but came up empty. He moved on to the next building, and the next as well. Before he knew it, he had walked across the city. This he was used to, walking that is, and he could sleep on a bench or the step of an old tenement if needed. He had done so before and he would do so again without issue.
He sat patiently in his seat, his tires hugging the curb, his bumper kissing the next cab in line. He watched the mob shuffle toward the baggage carousels, pause to retrieve their belongings, and then emerge in a daze. His rear door swung open. A woman in a neatly-tucked blouse and pencil skirt slipped into his back seat and announced her destination. She had failed to recognize him, the first of many thankful failures for the day.
The man motioned to the clerk and then pressed his index finger to the glass. The clerk retrieved the necklace directly below the man's finger and held it up for examination. The simple chain was of great contrast to the pendant: a large roughly-cut indigo stone encased in a carved silver perimeter. No money was exchanged. The clerk willingly relinquished the necklace to the man who placed it in his pocket and happily left the store.
The closet was full of shoe boxes, each stuffed with handwritten slips of paper, sticky notes, paper napkins, and postcards. She had found these forgotten treasures in the pages of returned books before scanning them back into the library's inventory. She would trace the printed letters with her finger, and images of strangers would flood her mind. These images gave her a secret purpose by which she lived her life.
Today was her first day as a grown up. The change was abrupt and unsolicited. Yesterday, she was a child. She felt innocent and secure. She was prone to daydreams and unrealistic optimism. Today, she was responsible for everything. Doubtful and scared, her knees began to buckle, the sockets of her eyes burning with the threat of tears. At twelve years old, she was unprepared. No one her age would be prepared for this.
They had been given an address of 395, but overgrown landscapes hid the few remaining house numbers. They were told the house had old timbers against the front fence, but in this neighborhood, every house was lined with piles of recycled construction materials. No residence was discernible from another. Without a doubt, they were lost. They had been told not to get out of the car, but there was no other solution.
He kissed her on both cheeks and then climbed into the taxi. She needed him to look at her one more time, but the car pulled away, his eyes locked on the driver and the road ahead, never once shifting to glance back at her. She should have just said it, before he had closed the door, before he had kissed her, before he had invited her out that evening. She thought she would get another chance.
Her mother had tried to conceal it, turning her head away, soaking up her tears with her sleeve before they spilled down her cheeks. She stared at her mother, waiting for her to turn back around, to face her, to console her, but she never did. With her eyes on the floor, she reached out for her daughter to take her hand, and they walked together, side by side in silence, back down the hallway and out the door.
He remembered Christmas at the beginning, the waking up early, long before the sun rose, and running to the living room where the tree stood in grandeur. He would lay beneath the branches, staring up at the lights, the trimmings festive and alive. He enjoyed this private moment, before anyone else in the house awoke, it fueled him for the day. Things were different now. This Christmas, the tree was missing, as was everyone else.
She sat in the cool shade of the pier, her toes sifting through the sand. The ocean rushed toward her. It crashed against the pilings and flooded the beach. She shifted nervously as the water came closer, her hands braced against the ground, her legs ready to run. The wave stopped just short of her toes, smoothing away the footprints she had left. She had come to face her fear, to face her past, and in doing so, she faced her future.
The boy watched the town disappear before his eyes. He did not want to leave, but his father had decided otherwise. The boy sat near the back of the bus without a choice, the finality of his father's voice still ringing in his ears. He had kicked and screamed, but it was useless. He was a child, forced to oblige the whim of his parent, picked up by the armpits and sent away without even the slightest consideration.
She felt hunger in the deepest corners of her stomach. It overpowered her will and made her fixate on the need. She peeled thick splinters from the wall and cradled them between her teeth like toothpicks. When that failed, she chewed on her fingernails and gnawed at the base of her palm, not enough to break the skin, just enough to ease the craving.
The pain had returned, but he kept this fact to himself. He didn't want to cause alarm, and the presence of pain would cause a full-fledged panic. Four years ago, it would have been different. Something this life threatening could be brought to the attention of his personal physician and promptly treated. But that was no longer a possibility.
She noticed it teetering inside the truck bed as the highway curved around the hill. The tailgate was down and it was only a matter of time. She paced herself, making sure she was a safe distance behind so as not to run it over. When it toppled onto the road, it bounced twice and came to rest conveniently on the shoulder. She slowed, eyes on the truck ahead, watching for brake lights. The truck disappeared. This was good news.
He stood on stage, shaking his head at the man in a poorly chosen orange suit. Despite his skepticism, he obeyed when the man asked him to close his eyes and listen as he counted down from ten to one. He heard these numbers, nine, eight, seven, and felt himself relax. Four, three, two, one...and then nothing. He had no memory after this. Nothing until he was back in his seat, dressed in the man's orange suit.
She sat down on the bench in front of her office, nursing her coffee to avoid burning her tongue, and watched the morning rush of business suits pass by. The women in sneakers with high heels stuffed in purses. The men with briefcases and cell phones surgically affixed to their ears. They pushed and bumped into each other, rarely offering apologies, all with a destination that took precedence.
He opened the drawer and moved his fingers through the alphabetical tabs. At the back of the drawer was a red folder with a photograph paperclipped to the top right corner. The round brown eyes and high cheekbones were unmistakable. On the back of the photograph was the date that confirmed it. He slipped the photograph into his coat pocket, replaced the folder in the drawer, and snuck back out of the office.
She stared primarily at the podium, her hatred of public speaking growing by the second. The pounding in her chest had a dizzying effect, and all the layers she had worn to conceal the inevitable sweat marks were making her sweat more. She had often recounted the many reasons against this recent career change, but on that day, when she glanced up to take stock of her audience, she was grateful to be doing what she did.
She and her brother found themselves often alone. They were separated by four years of age, but never took much notice of the difference. They lived an hour from town, a trip their parents made daily and did not return from until after bedtime. And with no nearby neighbors, they were left to provide for themselves. They had six years together like this, all of which neither one would trade for a seventh.