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.
She was a survivor by trade. She had escaped unscathed from a hurricane, a tornado, and an earthquake. She had negotiated her way out of being a hostage in a bank robbery. She had swam to land after a rogue wave capsized her yacht. She had walked away from a plane crash, and even a head-on collision with a semi truck on the interstate. That is why it was such a shock that she could not survive him.
At 7 a.m., she drank her coffee black when the barista forgot to leave room for cream. At noon, she ate her saturated salad when the waiter forgot to serve the vinaigrette on the side. At 5 p.m., she listened respectfully to her boss as he berated her for not mailing the contract though it was her coworker that had forgot to do so. She worked relentlessly to avoid conflict every day of her life, until one day when her well of patience ran dry.
He was used to losing his balance, the rush of air from each passing car nearly knocking him off his feet. The work was menial, yet his body and mind ached at the end of each day. His mind ached with worry, too. His job was dangerous, a distracted driver could easily end up with him as a hood ornament. His best friend was proof. He still felt uncomfortable speaking of him in the past tense. So much so that he stopped speaking of him altogether.
He came to a break in the road, a literal crack in the asphalt that ran from embankment to embankment and was the width of a stride and a half. He had to dismantle the cart from the back of the bike and empty it completely to get all his belongings across the divide. All but one item he tossed to the other side. Undoubtedly, throwing the bike would damage it. With the frame hanging awkwardly from his shoulder, he hoped for the best and leaped.
He knew among the missing were mothers and daughters, aunts and sisters, grandmothers and granddaughters. He was not related by blood to any of the missing, but he knew one name. It was a name he never wished to see on such a list. Because of that name, he flew across the country to join the search. For every second of the five-hour flight, he prayed it would remain an effort of rescue, not recovery.
She sat glued to her seat, her knuckles turning white as she gripped the armrests. Her heart was pounding harder than her chest could contain. It happened right in front of her. She felt as if it were a dream, she opened her mouth but no sound came out, her legs were dead weight and refused to move. She remembered her phone in her purse on the floor. She could call for help if only she could manage to retrieve it.
The girl lay on her back on the upper deck of the sailboat. Arms wrapped across her waist, she stared through her sunglasses at the passing clouds. She was alone and recently bored. She had been alone for fifteen days. One day more than years she was old, one day less than the days of experience she had sailing such a craft. She was stranded by choice, but it was a choice not her own.
He used to scour the newspapers, cutting out and saving the articles that mentioned it. He would meticulously fold each article, place it in a manila envelope, and file it by printed date in his desk drawer. He never revisited the articles he saved, though he knew every one by heart. This went on for weeks. Then suddenly, as sudden as the original event, it stopped. It was done. He was done. For good.
Behind her house was a modest backyard, complete with a swing set she had long ago outgrown. Bordering her yard was a rotten fence with a single missing slat. She would climb through this gap to reach the forest, walk through the tall pines to the riverbank, leap from stone to stone to reach the field on the other side. It was in this field, surrounded by lupine and native grasses, that she met him for the first time.
She sat in the corner booth at the far end of the diner to survey the room without conspicuously turning her head. An older gentleman had sat near the door, three newspapers laid out side by side on the table in front of him. He inspected and shook his head in disapproval at the sight of each. For the third time, the waitress stopped to refill his coffee, and for the third time, she returned to the counter without acknowledgement from him.
He lived the life of a minimalist, yet cooped up in his small one bedroom apartment, he found himself in a state of constant suffocation. He no longer felt satisfied by the thin empty walls and longed to join the squander outside his front door. He wanted to be apart of the chaos, contribute to the excess that littered the streets. His time served, his due diligence fulfilled, he forfeited his post and left behind the job for someone else.
They still laughed together as they did forty years ago as young girls. They would cover their mouths with their hands, trying to control the burst. They would lock eyes and knowingly nod in confirmation of the day's shared secret. There was one secret, however, they never dared to share. They never had to. They were both there that night. Both saw what happened. Speaking of it again was unthinkable, on this they agreed completely.
Walking down the main street left him feeling uneasy. How many eyes were on him? How many whispers were about him? He heard them all in a single roaring moment when the light turned green and he was forced to cross the street into view of the community park where the town had gathered in memoriam for their mayor. Heads turned toward him and he saw it in their eyes. They were remembering his mother and he was not welcome.
The house had lost its local prestige as it fell into disrepair. The offshore winds had weathered its memory and erased its value for most. But most was not all, and for her, its value was priceless. She was careful not to trip over the uprooted cobblestones buried under the unkempt landscape. She barely recognized the hydrangea that once lined the front porch. Pushing aside the overgrown bush, she finally spied the front door.
The woman ground the kernels on the flat stone and sprinkled the resulting flour into the bowl. Its contents thickened into a rancid brown paste, which the woman motioned for him to eat. He had dredged his soul for a miracle, and that miracle had brought him here. He had every reason to trust her. With his fingers, he shoveled the dreary slop into his mouth and swallowed. He was unconscious in less than a minute. Then the woman began.
The room smelled of disinfectant, and the man of old books and Mentholatum. Together, the mixture infused the air with an unbearable stench. But he could not escape himself, and therefore, could not escape the odor. He figured this smell was why she had stopped coming to visit, why they all had stopped coming to visit. This month would mark a full year that he had sat alone in his room without a visitor.
Leaning against the glass was a hand-painted sign as old as the building itself. The six letters on the sign had faded and begun to flake off, a condition which spoke volumes. They had driven by the building every weekday for the length of the summer, and each day, the sign had read "Closed." That is, until their last day on the island. Relieved by their air-conditioned car, a stark contrast to the hot August sun, they nearly forgot to look.
The man had been reprimanding her for the last ten minutes. She sat at her desk, twirling the cord to the headset, a complacent expression permanently affixed to her face. The man could do nothing to change the situation. It was a fact he knew well but he still chose to take his anger out on her, his lack of control seemingly increasing his rage. She had no means to change the situation either, which was a lack of authority that delighted her.
He knocked twice and then waited. His patience was wearing thin. His hand spun the door knob but the deadbolt kept him out. Only silence answered his demands to open the door. He walked around to the back of the house, peeking through the side windows on his way. The curtains had been pulled back. There was a steaming cup of something on the table beside the sofa. He found the backdoor locked as well. Only one option remained.
Adrenaline burst from every pore as the ambulance sped down the street. He silently willed an increase in speed, whether for the thrill or simply to get it all over with. The seat cushion became his anchor as his body fell victim to centrifugal force. Then the tires slowed and came to a stop with the accident in full view through the windshield. He froze, paralyzed by fear at the sight of the driver in the mangled car paralyzed by death.
For the past year, she had searched the streets in the early morning, an envelope of five dollar bills in her pocket. Today she was following a tip that a man matching her father's description had been sleeping in the brush near the overpass. She approached cautiously. The campsite was crude, a threadbare blanket spread on the dirt, a pile of clothes encrusted with dried mud shoved up against the concrete wall. Then the pile breathed.
He followed the planks as they wove through the tall grass. The edges of the boardwalk had curled with time, guiding his feet to the middle as a sagging mattress would do to one's tired body. He had walked this path frequently, always alone by choice. It startled him to see the figure waiting for him in the sand. As he drew near, the recognition hit him square in the chest, knocking the air from his lungs and the words from his tongue.
She had been entrusted with this heirloom and set out to take great care of it, but the truth remained, no amount of dusting or polishing could hide the unavoidable wounds of time. When she found it buried, her efforts felt futile. It was barely discernible amid the debris. Though with its sturdy frame surviving the day, the wounds now shone with pride. They were no longer wounds of a wasted effort, but those of life and pure love.
He had walked the beach for upwards of an hour before happening upon the small cabin, though shack was a more appropriate title. It was in a dilapidated condition with a sinking roof, a front porch detached from the foundation, and a brick chimney in pieces on the ground. But nestled up against the ragged cliff, it was the only manmade structure as far as he could see north or south along the coast, and that was the epitome of perfection.
The room was silent. Her listeners were furrowing their brows, wrinkling their noses, preparing their disparate remarks. In that silent void, she heard a small sound resonating from the far back corner. It was applause. She saw heads turn and heard curious whispers. They had all missed the man's entrance and his approving nods during the lecture, but no one missed the ovation.