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.