Vestibule

Amanda’s serpentine blond hair splays across my chest like a crime scene, like a bludgeoning victim. She’s twisting her fingers in slow circles on my shoulder. She’s murmuring, her breath slowing now, her voice crackling in the throes of desperation and pleasure. Her bare back is lit by the evening sun filtering through the shades, the russet daylight punctuated by cold black bars of darkness.

But what is she saying?

And how am I supposed to respond?

The house is darkening, the commonplace sounds (the belching furnace, the stuttering ceiling fan) are strangely muted. As if the sinking sun is acting as a volume knob for all other sense and clarity. As if the entire world is slowing, stopping in ceremony to mark the sober denouement of the day. Is this how evening has always functioned?

A man is walking on the beach. The wind is blowing, hard enough to whip up sand and pummel it against his legs, the grains clinging to the hairs there and giving them a bloated appearance. The beach is empty, just the man, who looks to his right, off over the sea, at the turgid angry clouds. Something is on its way. Something mean. Dangerous. His glance is furtive, brief, painful, and he turns around to brush the sand out of his eyebrows and wipe the sudden tears off of his cheek. He clenches his eyelids. Some grains made their way in. To lacerate and irritate the soft vulnerable membranes there. To sting and punish. He bows his head, continues rubbing, continues walking.

Amanda is rising now, making her way to the bathroom. Her footsteps on the carpet are graceful, delicate. The curving diminuendo of her calves and heels and the balls of her feet punch silent craters into the beige fibers, the fibers cradling, the skin gliding. The moment is pregnant, with a quiet reverence.

That’s out of place, that reverence. This is a moment, like every moment. Like any moment. Just a necessary human act after an unnecessary one. But beautiful.

She closes the door behind her. It’s been painted green, but years ago, and the paint bows out in slender sheets to reveal past decades of colors, a kaleidoscope of history and questionable decorating choice. The weather out here has battered the door, and no one has taken the time to care for it. It’s daytime, but under the trees it feels timeless.

This door—and the house it plays gatekeeper to—is exciting. Exhilarating. It’s a secret, long forgotten, only now found and documented. The trees here aren’t mere oaks or beeches or pines. They’re jungle trees, exotic, spindly, grand. Vines and snakes wave merrily in a slow dance to the time of the gentle hum of chittering animal call and sharp staccato birdsong.

Mark is there, staring rapt up at the structure, overborn with the mystery and potency of it. Mark, in fading cargo shorts and loud sneakers and greasy black hair. Face splatted with red and swollen acne. His entire left side is smeared with mud, after that tumble he took down the creek bed. His mom isn’t going to be happy about it.

He glances at me, eyes sharp and mischievous. The corner of his mouth pulls up in a grin. He bounds up the stoop to the door—stops, catches his balance as the rotting wood moans—and reaches for the doorknob. It once was shiny, brassy. Now it is dull and rusted. Mark turns it. It catches. It’s locked.

That’s wrong.

Mark begins jammering the knob, slamming it back and forth. He kicks the door. He pounds on it. The door replies in dusty, coughing hollow sounds. It holds strong to Mark’s assault.

This isn’t what happens.

Why do I know that?

He continues to pound on the door. The sound ragged and angry. As it pelts out from the wood, it evens out, becomes regular. Rhythmic. Oomph, oomph, oomph. It’s a bass drum, a backbeat, a metronome. The wild-haired, grandiose conductor to the soundtrack of the world around me. Wild hair… or are they ears? Long, gray floppy ears?

The sound grows louder. Louder. Drowns out all other sound and thought and motion. It pounds in my head, squeezes my head, throttles my head. It bounces and echoes across my ears and thrums, vibrates, sloshes against the bones of my skull.

Sloshes. The sound begins to abate. Slowly color and sight return to me (where had they gone?) and the sound is the carefree, tinkling hum of a toilet flushing. I hear the water spiral happily down the pipe, and then gurgle, in satisfaction, in satiation. Then the hiss of the faucet, the thump of the soap, the rattle of towel on bar.

The door swings open again. Amanda locks eyes with me, her face bright, her temporary vulnerability (what was that?) gone. She smiles. Pulls up the cover. Climbs into bed.

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Oceanspray

The waves roar their disapproval.

I glance at them from the corner of my eye. What I am about is my business.

Well, mine and Sarah’s.

The shore here is rough and jagged. My mother always took me to soft beaches. Sandy beaches. Where children dig and run and where women lay out and sunbathe. Here, there are rocks. And not the kinds of rocks that come from the ocean, so that they are round and delicate and fit in your palm. These rocks are sharp and brutal. Obsidian, I think. You have to watch yourself.

And so I teeter and hop my way across them, occasionally thrusting my arms out sideways like some hillbilly kid crossing a log over a stream.  It’s low tide, so the higher ones aren’t as slippery. Got a long scar on the left calf as a keepsake from that lesson learned.

The waves snicker.

I have to be careful, because of the package on my back. I step wrong, I crush it. And then Sarah’s pissed and for no reason.

It’s midday, and the sun is scouring down on me. It sweeps the water off of the ocean and shoves it in my face, as if it’s smothering me, as if it wants to finally end this. It creeps into my nostrils and crawls into my lungs and sits and drains and eats away at my energies. Everything is dry and sweaty and rough.

It is good that the heat is tempered by the pine and rhododendron and undergrowth on the other side. But the foliage has grown arrogant. It has thickened into a pubic mat of unkempt wildness. It reaches and tickles the rocks, attempting to spread its dominion and claim the hellish beach for itself. Who would bother?

Tempting to think of it as a war, as a battle for dominance of the shore. Mighty Poseidon on one side, Gaia on the other. They haven’t clashed, not yet, and they probably won’t. And besides, why does everything have to be so confrontational?

The waves grumble in suspicion.

I am almost to the spot. A veritable Switzerland of unclaimed shore, bowing out into the ocean in a wide, flat splotch. It’s actually sandier here, and whiter. When we first arrived we would come here and lay out and talk for hours. We’d light fires too. Big enough to see by, small enough to put out if we needed to.

I step over the old firepit, sit down on my old rock. How long had it been since I had perched here with her, watching the fire fling crazy shadow puppets onto her face? Talking over our plans and strategies and contingencies? How long had it been since we last spoke to each other like we used to, anywhere on this place, about anything except hunting or planting or rationing?

I dump the sack, root through it, pull out the cargo. We’d talked about that, too. Right over the fire.

“We’ll save it,” she’d said, “for a rescue plane. Once things settle down.”

But none came. Only the bloated warplanes, following routine flightpaths. Too far away for us to make out a flag or figure out where they were coming from. And too far away for them to care about our tiny island.

“We don’t know for sure,” I’d said.

“Not worth the risk,” she’d said.

I don’t bother with silent ruminations or apologies or assurances when I see the plane approaching over the swift curve of the horizon. Just pull the trigger.

A red angel (of salvation? of death?) bursts from the barrel, exhaling as it speeds towards the heavens. It spirals, ever so slightly, like a badly thrown football. Not as visible here in the daytime, but it will have to do.

The plane turns.

The waves are silent. They hold their breath.

Sleepless

Raindrops on a face.

Eyes closed, laid back.

They roll ponderously down the gentle slopes. Their route is torturous, meandering. At times they pause, as if in thought, at the crook of the nostril or the corner of the eye. Hang there, gaining heft and body. Then drop.

They leave a tickling in their wake.

And registration?

She wears a smile. She’s been told not to, but finds a way to push it through. The corners of her lips slide up, as if they are held by fingers.

She dressed up for this. Or she came from work. A light, frilly-necked blouse. Hair down and neatly dropped along the sides of her face.

Her name is MARSHALL, JENNIFER P. She was born in March. 28 years old. She requires corrective lenses.

The light slides along her face in an oblong glare, obscuring her features. What did she have for breakfast that morning? What was she doing before she came? Did she wait long?

Why did I find her, tucked under a leaf on the sidewalk, dirty and bent? Isn’t she needed somewhere?

I tuck her into my breast pocket. She’ll keep me company. I won’t need to look at her often – I’ve already memorized her features. Hair color: grey. Eye color: grey. Skin color: grey.

I smile, indulgent. And walk on.