Missed last week’s update? Find chapter 2 here. Find chapter 1 and an explanation about what all this is about under the BOOK tab in the main menu.
At the seaside, the sands were cold and hard. They made a frigid sheaf over ankles and the tops of feet. As for your toes, they would feel cold too, and so very, very clean. Even if they were atop gray sand dirty with shells and ocean-muck.
The water came merging with the sand, the lightest sea-glass-blue turquoise, into flat foam. You could look out farther away, darker the longer it got, under a gray-blue sky. It was not warm, it was not balmy. But it was not unpleasant. Strange, but it could be cold and you still have no inclination to leave. There was a breeze, and it blew past you unassumingly as if you might have not existed—but it stroked your bare shoulders just the same. It passed like velvet over your skin and your body, it made you squint your eyes as it picked up your hair, gentle but moving and unchanged, all the same.
A low, long, navy-blue car trundled unsurely over the rocky and strange curves of the road. The asphalt had no lane lines or helpful paint of any kind, and made the highest point in the vicinity. Vague clumps of wind-trampled ocean-grass dotted the sparse edges in remote collections. Anne, eyes and face as unchanged as if she’d been sitting still, was being jostled along with the car as Elliot went searchingly over another inexplicable bump that rose up only on one side of the thin road.
The classical music station was playing so quietly as to become unnoticeable in the background; Anne’s firmly-built, old-fashioned suitcase slid slowly with the tilting of the vehicle against her leg, then back again. Elliot was curled up tall over the steering wheel, mouth open as his eyes as he scanned the horizon, the car going slowly along.
Anne turned her gaze back to the scene before them. There was apparently something more to be seen over the edge, but the elevation of the plain, sandy, sea-grassed place the road wound along obscured it. She followed the tilting picture with her eyes, if not her mind. The silent passenger in the backseat behind Elliot was making her anxious. She stole another look at Renata, hoping the girl wouldn’t notice. Whether her daughter did or not, blank brown eyes listlessly gazing, her mother couldn’t tell. This distressed Anne further.
The young violist had questioned her skills as a parent before this. She had doubted them from the moment she knew she was going to take on the role. But there had been bigger things to worry over, something else to think about—this particular strain of anxiety had never encompassed her entirely, had never been unshakable as this before.
Besides, Renata had always been fine. Anne would come out of the music room into the den to find Emil and the little girl tussling on the ground, laughing. They would pretend to be animals, but the game would mostly be in the noises they’d make, that they’d conjure up through their lips. Anne could remember it, how she would smile begrudgingly, shake her head in fond disapproval.
She would never have done the things Emil did.
She would never have laid on her stomach with the child beside her, folding origami. It made her love him. It made her love him so much, so much she couldn’t even say it and hardly understand it. She’d just have to smile and turn away.
She turned her head away from Elliot, as if she were looking out the window. She felt her lids burning, her throat withering tightly in sudden pain—she pressed her cheek and the bone against the window, hard. She wasn’t going to cry. She pressed her cheekbone harder into the beige plastic. I don’t know anything, I don’t know how to do what he did, I don’t know anything. They would have come out anguished and wet, nearly a wail.
Anne never voiced such things. Never.
But that couldn’t help her feeling them.
The car trundled on down the asphalt of survival.
She was so very good at some things; and they hadn’t come easily, either. She wasn’t some sort of prodigy. She was just a hard worker. And now she was good.
But there was the girl in the back seat; Anne checked the mirror, feverishly, to see if she was still there. She was. Contrasted with the skill of years and hours and forevers, there unbreakably beyond the practice and the rehearsals and muscles sore from too many hours and plane flights and English and playing outside and sweating but playing it out was the girl in the back seat. Anne did not even know how to get her daughter to speak and it made her sick, it made her panic. It made something in her insides spin out of control. How many silent car-rides had it been, since the last one with Emil in the passenger seat?
Of course Anne wouldn’t ask her. She wouldn’t say, Renata, say something. That would be admitting, acknowledging to the air and to the world.
Even if it didn’t change reality, it was always better to keep it in. There was something very intrinsic in Anne that knew that saying it out loud would make it unbearable. When it was inside, only you had to bear it, and you had to bear only yourself. She thought of the man sitting next to her, behind her averted face, and she wanted so very much to be alone.
“Yes! There it is—I told you we weren’t lost, Anne. I know this road by heart, just like I said. See?” Elliot turned to her proudly, and Anne turned her head back towards him with a jerk the moment she realized his words were for her. He pointed a finger—pale, losing the redness rapidly as he ungrasped the steering wheel. The road was going down now, slowly, and she could glimpse a house over the edge of the barren scene.
It was more of a cottage, Anne thought, as she scanned the place with a gaze practiced in holding firm; it looked old but not dilapidated, old enough to be as much a part of the sea-swept landscape it occupied as the ocean-grass or sand.
Everything but the house was bare. Large bricks painted white, a red door she could see even from here. Her face didn’t change. She didn’t yet trust it, her skin, her muscles.
“I didn’t say I didn’t trust your directions,” she remarked, cold, gazing stoically ahead at the place.
“Alrighty then,” Elliot replied obligingly—like he was humoring her, she thought—with a sort of dubious friendliness. He seemed to be in a very good mood, one that had been steadily improving since she had agreed to his odd scheme. “Hullo back there, missy, wake up!” He called, adjusting his mirror to get a view of the silent Renata, who looked up at him from her blank reverie in surprise. “We’re here,”
Her daughter turned her wide gaze, now sparked with a little excitement (although still without a smile; she did not smile idly), to the window. She leaned upon the glass, peering out to get a view of the house as the road curved.
“Now, you and Renata can get out here if you like and walk on the beach, and I can get all our stuff in.” Elliot offered charitably, and Anne cast him a look of surprise. He was in a very good mood. This sort of attitude was certainly not unheard of from Elliot, but it always took Anne, who associated him most with his airs of snappishness or drama, slightly off guard.
“No thanks,” she said quickly, turning her gaze from him and back onto the lonely landscape before them, “I don’t mind doing it myself.”
“Alright,” Elliot shrugged, quirking his lips conciliatory as he parked the car. “this is Rosemary House. Lovely name, don’t you think? I always liked it.” He seemed very perky, as he sometimes inexplicably was (Anne had decided long ago that she disapproved of Elliot’s mood-swings), springing out of the car with his long legs like a happy spider.
He was opening the trunk with a thoughtful brevity behind her as she opened her door with a click, sliding out of it awkwardly. Anne had never been able to find away to dismount a car with dignity. Her legs were always too short, or the car too low. She straightened up and the air that flew up her nose, that hit her lips, was immediately different from the stifle of the car. It was indescribably fresh, pure, as if it were filled with water droplets, or air as some sort of celestial fabric. Her nostrils drunk it in, surprised.
Their clothes blew with their hair in that sparse, sandy place; they narrowed their eyes. Anne lifted her trunk out handily, holding its awkward shape by both arms. Moving now instead of sitting and with her senses engaged, it wasn’t hard to forget about the thoughts that’d chased her doggedly for the car ride. It happened without her thinking about it.
But she wasn’t really enjoying herself. She didn’t smile. You could drink in beautiful air and be in a sandy place, and still not be happy. Your brain can register things, you skin and your nose and your lips, you eyes, your ears. They can all be working fine, and that does not mean your heart has to leap in joy after it. Undoubtably Elliot’s was. Anne gazed over at him through eyes thinned nearly closed by the wind; he appeared very busy looking for a key to the place. Her heart sank dully, as far as it could, which was not much. Here they were, stranded, and he wouldn’t be able to find a key. She couldn’t believe she’d agreed to this.
“Renata, don’t forget your bag, please. Come on,” she addressed her daughter curtly but not unkindly, for Anne was not unkind; she felt too tired somewhere on the inside to say anything to Elliot, although she could feel the beginnings of many appropriate remonstrances for coming without a key making their attempts. They died half-heartedly within her.
Renata stretched back into the car obediently, folding herself over the seat noodle-like, to emerge with her little backpack. It was unmistakable in its glossy pink plastics, a princess stamped ecstatically on the front. Anne didn’t know how her daughter could like such a thing; she had begun to voice her distaste on the couch, lounging back in between an Emil and Renata sandwich, cozily-socked feet crossed where they were propped up on the coffee-table. Emil had had the computer on his lap, a picture of the bag pulled up on the screen; he had stopped the grumble in her throat with something benign and fatherly, something kind and sympathetic to humoring Renata’s feelings. Emil did not get riled up about things.
Ordinarily, Anne thought dully, as the car doors were closed, as she and Renata straggled up behind Elliot to the front of the cottage, she would never have been prevailed upon. She could see it easily in her mind; herself, unswayable by Elliot’s ludicrous suggestions. The scenario had happened many times before.
It is strange how you can envision something, and yet it can be so inexplicably out of reach, Anne reflected. The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed sparkles apparent in Elliot’s manner and being seemed utterly foreign and incomprehensible to her, observe and understand them she could.
In Anne’s mind beaches were bright; sunny. Sand as light as Elliot’s skin.
Nothing she had ever glimpsed or imagined had been anything like this sort of beach. The sand was more of a gray-white, and she could tell by her eyes alone that it was coarse and wet, sharp and cold. The day was not awful but the sky was laid over calmly by light-gray clouds in thick stripes, thinly over a dormant sun. The water was empty and without many bright reflections; there was a breeze, as she had felt earlier, and it was not warm. It was cool and silky. The sea-grass lay itself against the ground, tangled and voluptuous, before it.
Anne, a virgin before the seaside, did not think this could be called a beach at all. It was something altogether different.
There were other houses, too, besides the cottage. Spaced haphazardly but respectfully, the nearest was a one-story of pastel-yellow wood. There was a little boy, freckly and pale, red hair cut short and sharp. In long, baggy shorts he had been mucking about, dipping; now he was watching them curiously from the sandy pools by his quiet yellow den.
“Aha! Aha! I knew it was here; it’s always here—“ Elliot exclaimed suddenly, breaking the breeze-swept, gray-swept quiet—he laughed gladly, reassured. The edges of Anne’s lips tilted up regimentally, mirthlessly, and momentarily into a farce of a smile.
“Now, do you have all your things?” He asked, turning a little tarnished key in the lock, tenderly pushing open the red door. Anne nodded. Elliot seemed to smile in spite of himself, and it was not really for them. The edges of his mouth curled up nearly like a cat in that convulsive gesture, they made his eyes flash excitedly.
Anne followed him in. She held the clunky, old-fashioned suitcase awkwardly by both hands; he seemed to have forgotten his bags, she noticed. She stepped onto something surprisingly soft and altogether different from the sand, from the stoop. She looked down in muffled surprise at the lavender bathmat masquerading, apparently, as a thing suitable for a front door. The sole of her sturdy high-heeled shoe had met the soft, flattened thing, unsteadying her. She looked up, rather discombobulated, at Elliot’s voice.
“Well,” he breathed, clasping his hands loosely in a brisk movement. He looked around the tiny hallway pleasurably, “welcome to Rosemary House.”
To the left of them was a staircase up to the second level; straight ahead the rooms of the lower one. Anne’s eyes moved about her numbly, as if her gaze might float away. Elliot had turned to a sizable, open book on an old, antique-looking little bureau of dark wood and curvaceous edges.
“Let’s see—oh, too bad, not too many people here—“ he bent over the large, lined pages, taking up a pen.
“It is the off-season.” The words came out coldly the moment they’d fallen into her head. Anne looked away from what Elliot was doing, taking a step into the main rooms, peering about her. It made her feel uncomfortable that there were other people in this apparently quiet house, the locations and activities of which were currently a mystery.
“Nope,” Elliot’s apparent disappointment could not be too dampened by his overall excitement—but the disinterested Anne could hear it in his tone. “nobody I know. Hmm.” He seemed to be writing his name down on the log, before straightening up after a moment of pause, regaining himself in a breath. “Alrighty! Come on, I’d better show you your room.”
Anne withdrew from the opening to the other rooms, following Elliot up the stairs slowly, step by step. Back straight, hips aligned, arm hanging long, taut from the suitcase suspended, appearing weightless at her side.
“The Animal Room, the Seaman’s Room, and the Lemon Lodge, which is code for the Honeymoon Suite,” at this he laughed appreciatively and for no one in particular, “are all downstairs, but the Lemon Lodge is down as occupied in the log, and there aren’t any other rooms down there with more than one bed.” Elliot had reached the top of the stairs in his side-walking, tour-guide fashion, and was gazing at whatever the second story held. Anne set down the suitcase atop the texture-less carpet, oatmeal-colored. They were in a set of hallways that seemed spacious and light but really had no room for much but walking, as the sides quickly slanted down with the caprices of the roof. Elliot led her past the first door, left half-open, to the second.
“That’s the Blue Room,” he indicated, jerking his head back towards it in explanation. “It has two beds, but it’s reserved. Some family’s coming at the end of the week, I guess. They got the West room too. But this,” he added in a delicious, anticipatory tone that did not get the excited smile in response he seemed to have wanted. Elliot manfully continued. “is The Queen’s room.” Anne really did find the generosity in Elliot’s present attitude strange, at first. She followed him silently with her eyes, considering—but no, she’d seen in before. He had these moments, inexplicably. Yes. Perhaps he was a madman.
The Queen’s room was small, cubic, and cozy—there was a window to the outside, and a yellow flower print with a white background on the curtains and linens. The walls were white; there was a small, old-fashioned sink in the corner with a mirror, and a large, boxy white dresser. There was a simple wooden chair painted in light green, and the flower print of Italian-stationary yellows and golds had apparently been found on wall-paper as well, for specific flower designs had been cut out proudly and pasted to the walls in places above the bed, and on the white-painted knobby tops of the headboard. All in all the little place, cozy and perfectly sparse, was taken up mostly by the blossom-speckled bed in the center, unassuming and soft.
It was nice, Anne thought—Elliot certainly seemed to think so—yes, it was—but she did not feel terribly charmed. It was hard to feel charmed by anything. She felt, nearly uncaringly, like the greatest anticlimax in the world as she laid down the heavy suitcase beside the bed, wordlessly. She detested Elliot for his demand of an audience, for reaction. But only mildly. That was all she could muster on those wet shores.
“Hullo in there—are you two the keepers of this little sand-creature?” The soft, mirthful voice at the door pulled both their gazes—in the doorway was a man in a casual buttoned-up shirt, sleeves rolled up from his arms browned and with scraggly, thin hair; he’d left the top buttons left undone, revealing an equally bronzed chest. The tanned wrinkles of his smiling face were bristly with hairs of light-colored gray; his eyes sparkled with the calm, amused surety Anne thought rather odd for a man coming upon strangers in his house. It was then that she noticed Renata, brown eyes wide beside him. Her brows moved compulsively.
“That is my daughter, thank you.” She spoke quickly and stiffly, veins pulsing to reach out and snatch the girl. She thought afterwards it might have been too harsh; the man raised his eyebrows in mild surprise, barely distracted from the old friend he immediately turned back to with a sure grin.
“Good to see you back, Elliot.” He clapped the smiling violinist on the back in a sort of welcoming hug, and he returned the greeting. “And…” he turned from Elliot, a hand still on his boney shoulder, to Anne, who lacked the smile of the conversation. “…new family?” He put a hand on her shoulder in the beginnings of his welcoming embrace—sparkling, inquisitive eyes still on Elliot.
“Uh, yes,” the blond replied, collecting himself quickly by shoving his hands into his pockets. Even when surprised, Elliot had a way of making it theatrical, just in the stalling words—they were louder and more drawn out, as if to make sure you heard him. It is funny how that is just some people’s nature. Anne could have never affected such ways. “wife, actually.” She could tell, even in all his stage-presence, the surprising feeling of the word in his mouth. His friend raised his brows.
“My my! Why was I not invited to the wedding? Welcome, you’ve married into a lovely little secret society, my dear.” He exclaimed good-naturedly, giving Anne a paternal kiss on the cheek that seemed as much a part of his stock greeting as the clap on the shoulder. He drew back, looking between the two of them. “And you’ve inherited a child too, my boy, a marvelous little creature it seems, an apparent sea-lover—well, I don’t want to interrupt, but it is nice to meet you, uh—“
“Anne,” she offered in a voice less cold than what she’d used for Elliot; a little dressed up for a stranger, but still entirely lackluster. She couldn’t muster anything more. She had stopped trying, and stopped caring—it had gotten her through the calls and the visitation and the funeral and the visit back home and the airports in between. He smiled, gave Elliot an extra clap on the shoulder, telling them to enjoy themselves heartily; Renata got a sort of uncle-like tap as he left them with the soft steps that had surprised them before.
The room was silent; a room that small can be silent in an instant, it is its custom—but only an instant. Elliot jumped to fill it.
“That’s Greg, he’s the caretaker.” Anne received his words without a nod. Her eyes on him should be enough. Elliot, after an unsure pause at her non-responsiveness, went on. “He’s a great chap; it must get rather lonely out here, although I don’t think I would mind, it’s too lovely.”
Anne could feel Renata’s body behind hers, hiding. She was beginning to harbor the thought—or perhaps it was a realization, a truth—that life was happening to her and yet at once passing her by. As if she were seeing but not feeling. Something inside her tried to be anxious at the inner perception, but she was too tired and dull, it failed.
“Well, uh,” Elliot hurriedly filled the pause again. His slick blue eyes, light as glass and oddly round in a face neither full nor angular, hopped restlessly about the room. “make yourself at home.” He walked out busily. Anne’s gaze followed the man, at once unconcerned and yet pinning him. She knew why they were here, she knew and understand clearly and without any considering, that this was another weak move at avoidance. It wouldn’t help anything. She was sure Elliot knew that—how could he not?
Anne stood for a moment in the soft silence of the room, before turning at the rustling behind her. Renata was picking at the edges of the near-perfectly cut flowers of wallpaper, ends up from their glue on the bedstead. She made sound come out of her lips with enormous effort.
“Did you have fun in the sand outside, Renata?” She asked lowly, it was her at-home tone. The same alto range, the same Hungarian accent, but without any of the tenseness or sharpness. Still without light in it, but that was how her voice was, it was not on purpose. Renata swiveled her head quickly toward her mother, smooth light-brown skin, the tousled, sleek hair. She whipped it swiftly and like an animal, Anne thought. She herself would have turned slowly and calmly, a human. Renata nodded her response. She went back to the wallpaper.
The downstairs was not carpeted; rather, it was of light-colored floorboards, smooth. Anne gazed at it slowly. Her mind was still half in the bed, in the soft bed, in the bed of white and flowers of the sun. She hadn’t been under the covers, she hadn’t been cozy. Her mind was still half on the mattress, lying on her side, awake, completely awake. She had only been able to get up when she couldn’t bear it anymore, when she’d begun to feel something restless and vaguely carsick within her, only then had she been able to yank herself free from its tentacles.
Her eyes skirted the living room slowly. It was cozy but did not seem cramped, and populated by large leather chairs. It struck Anne of something of a gentleman’s club—and all the gentlemen were there, quiet and old and dignified and intimate, some were light brown and others dark, some had wide curves, others were less alarming. Some had tarnished metal studs running along their edges, some had backs that went over them like alcoves, a few’s patch-less leather was crumbling.
They were crowded heavily and solidly around a low rectangle fireplace, empty and dark. Along the edges of the room was a ring of low brick, running from the edges of the fireplace along the wall. A limber, orange cat glanced up at the woman’s dark eyes in guarded surprise from his investigative, thoughtful pose now-frozen on the row of brick. Anne was drawn away by the voices hovering at the edge of her vision; she realized fuzzily that they had been there the whole time, and as it dawned upon her slowly she turned, taking hurried steps towards the kitchen. Saved.
The smooth floorboards ran into and met white tile, the bottom of Anne’s shoes balanced sturdily on the wooden seam, slightly raised, in the doorway to that room. She stood still, poised, for a moment, taking the scene disinterestedly in, before it noticed her. She had glanced over the cabinetry painted white; she had taken in the large frigidaire (it was of a different generation and could only be called that), the stove and the counters, she had gazed over the man at the telephone, cradling it anxiously, and the people with their wet shoes from their fingers at the loose screen-door.
Elliot, bent restlessly over the counter with the faded green phone in one hand and its box in the other, corkscrew cords all about him, looked up at her sideways and hunched as he was, eyes wide as if he were suddenly thinking about multiple things at once. The people by the door noticed her silent presence at the same moment.
“Oh, hi honey! You must be Anne!” Anne pulled her eyes away from Elliot, whose transformation to a loose linen button-up and swim trunks she’d been scanning in confusion, turning to the large voice booming suddenly at her side.
Her eyes were met by a pair of people; they looked like a couple, tanned together beneath the same sun. It was the woman who was talking in a voice bombastically and maternally Scotch, her thin, brittle-looking hair, light-colored but not bright, looked odd beside her sun-bronzed skin. Her squarish face was carved and shaped aggressively by smile-lines that seemed to be everywhere around brown eyes a-sparkle, squinted. Her long, sagging arms bare from a revealing coverup were around Anne in an instant, surprisingly. The one small woman en-clenched by the other felt little droplets pressed into her clothes and onto her skin, the salt-licks and kisses thrown by sea-air. The man, face of a proud boy over a huge frame, tanned, hairless only upon his head, came merrily behind her.
“We’re honeymooning—“ the woman explained voluptuously, teeth large in her eye-thinning expressions. “not the first time, though, of course.” At this she laughed somewhat raucously but in the height of friendship, “Thought we’d pop by in the off-season, y’know, a little privacy—more romantic that way.” Anne nodded in something of a daze, staring at this pair of loudness and noise suddenly descended upon the seemingly deserted place.
“We met up with your hubby on our walk—he is a find—“ the woman continued on, unending, her breath came rattlingly as she gulped it between ideas and Anne thought she smoked or was ill; yet her energetic air suggested not a year of age or infirmity at all.
“It’s a shame you couldn’t find someone to watch your kid—she could sleep in our room if you two wanted a little privacy,” the man broke in with a surprising Southern drawl, throwing the woman in his wife’s grasp into further discombobulation. He was not quite so loud and exaggerated, a sort of quieter breed of his companion’s attitudes, but he still struck Anne as being of the same uninhibited nature. She was being rocked from one surprising sentence to another, enough that she didn’t even have the moment or the bandwidth to feel shocked or offended by these two personas. All she could feel, in a gasping second, was the certain unbelief at the idea of handing her daughter over to this pair—
“Hey, um—“ Elliot called hurriedly from his place on the counter, adding quieter into the phone “—one minute, Dr. Fishback—“, laying it down beside him. “Anne,” he breathed as he said it long, large eyes wandering quickly over the scene before him, trying to catch on something to collect his preoccupied voice, “this is Kimberly and Fred, they’re the ones in the Lemon Lodge, they were on a walk when we came.”
“I’m an old Bambridge knight,” Kimberly broke in proudly, putting a hand on Fred. “he was just lucky enough to be my catch.”
“Lucky? Oh I’d say.” Fred supplied lustily, putting an arm around her short, thick waist.
Anne couldn’t help looking at Elliot; hedrew his eyes away from the scene to meet hers. Blue, light like the sky; dark. There were no words hidden between their gaze, nothing meaningful or communicating or remembered—it was, rather, a glance of confused camaraderie. She almost felt comforted. She almost felt good to know him, to be able to have the solace, for a moment, of someone who, for a moment, felt exactly the same.
Then Elliot smiled, quirking his lips and cocking his head apologetically. Amused. Anne did not. That was in the next moment. It seemed to her, in that new expression, so quickly alchemized and obtained, that he was rather fond of the couple—strange—or at least didn’t mind them. She blinked quickly and hard and when her eyes opened, in the next moment, she was glancing distractedly at something else.
Anne did escape. It was under the auspices of her daughter, under the auguries of telling the little crowd that the girl didn’t know how to swim and thus she must find her. And she did. Renata was a perfect protection, glancing up unsuspectingly from a puddle floating a clump of seaweed. She looked a little speck of color with her small, pink shorts, upon the grays and beneath the grays and between them too.
It was evident that the Bambridge knight and catch terrified the little girl, who had, since she had come upon the old couple in their walk, been careful to keep out of sight. It was a struggle, it was a wrestle for Anne to keep her daughter between her legs, she could be slippery and tricky as a weasel—out of sight without a word, without a challenge. Anne opened the frigidaire; it was full of lemonade and iced tea, iced coffee. Pitchers and jars and canteens, floating calmly upon the shelves. Plain and reachable her hands hit round, warm-colored glass bottles of amber bourbon. What kind of a place is this—but no, below two shelves of distracting liquids bobbing cold, there were plates of chilled sandwiches with salads in pasta and olives and cheese and potatoes. She shifted them aside to find a covered platter full of the kinds of pinwheels you make from tortillas and ham and cheese.
The house was quiet and empty, mother and daughter sitting silent and alone at the round kitchen table, eating swirls of hard breaking tortilla with fillings too cold for that weather. Then it would be raucously loud with laughter in the overwhelmed gentleman’s club, the knight and the catch and the caretaker and Elliot and them all. They did not open the windows, as it occurred to Anne they might have. Instead the cottage was like the inside of an underwater cave, the kind where it comes up and is dry and quiet and oxygen, but all around outside is the ocean, biding its time. Or like the inside of a shell, when it cups your ear completely.
Somewhere in all that Anne was struck quietly by the feeling, quietly by the wondering, if she would ever be happy again. It was simple and more of a statement, it was more something calm, but perhaps that was because she couldn’t plummet much further. She was not in the depths of despair. She had found a plateau, upon which she could stand, upon which she could walk forward but still upon flat.
Sitting on one of the chairs with the little girl missing, the cat curled in her lap. The fire crackling its own songs, could they be songs of love? Or was it a threat?
Elliot slept somewhere downstairs and that night the second story was her own ghost town, it was her own phantom highway. Renata asleep in the soft little Yellow Room that was once a closet, the mother walked by silently. It can be better to move than to lie still if you cannot sleep. It would be quiet on the inside (only the inside) and then she could hear the sounds down below, in a house that should be sleeping.
Elliot took walks with the old man, the caretaker. As for Anne, she lived another day. She thought vaguely that she should be feeling something alive and happy, she, at the beach; that that was what people felt on the sands. Something. But the knight’s toothy grins were to her something utterly foreign, and when she was walking, aimless, at night, she did cry. The tears broke out silent and like cannonball knives, and she did cry. Soundless.
The water cupped his chafed ankles softly, it allowed him to stay. It would allow him to stay forever, he thought, and that was the disarming thing about the sea, he thought. But he didn’t try to get up, or to leave. He didn’t make the slightest attempt.
It rolled beneath him. Slowly and softly. Completely fully and real, and yet he could have fallen in and been enveloped, he knew; this flotation was a farce, he knew.
His head hung back from a long neck off the edge, the faded pink seam of the plastic, unsoft, bit into his skin. He squinted his left eye beneath the glare of a golden sun, a golden sun white-hot and streaming, not like rain but streaming, over the waters.
He could hear the subtle sounds, playing, playing through his mind, he could feel them, chimerical, he could feel the slithering, trickling, never-stopping waterfall of a violin. He could hear the seaweed and the sands and the deeps beneath, he could hear them in all their C-stringed glory. It was overwhelming, chilling and beautiful, in its near-sinister quality.
He hummed his own part, listlessly and with dreamy unskill, over the rest. His voice broke at parts with his head tilted back, it was not objectively beautiful. There they all swooped in a tidal wave, the man prone upon the air-filled plastic bed felt himself rocked up and then down by the gentle current. He thought he might fall off, and he didn’t much care. He waved his hand as a conductor, lazily, but it fell back into the water.
He began to be overcome with the fancy of a shark, as he thought about the music behind his brain. It was positively sinister, that music, that second violin slithering. His part—he had never thought of this before—he was the unsuspecting swimmer, or floater. Dax was the shark. Anne and Hop the watching sea that held the two of them up. Elliot sat up hastily, jerkily. He was overcome with a sudden feeling of dizziness, he grabbed clumsily at the edges of the floaty.
He gazed around him, eyes large, and the horizons came in their wideness out from the blur. He felt—he felt—much better. Nearly euphoric. Like that moment, after the concert when you catch your breath, and you all hug and laugh. He had forgotten entirely about the shark.
He beamed. He was, he understood, a wonderful musician. It was true. He was—nobody on earth could be a better violinist—he loved his violin, he adored it—his music, it was perfect—and not only that, he had definitely been wrong before. About not being a hero.
Sitting up heavily had made the floaty sink in the middle, his hands and wrists and waist were submerged, he gazed happily around him. At the sparkling waters, at the open sky, the clouds. At the green sea-cliffs, at the house, barely visible. His earlier feelings seemed so odd to him, so far away. The despair, the sinking. What had he been thinking? He didn’t need his entire Bambridge class here and a bonfire to feel great. He already did feel great! And Anne? Who cared about Anne! He loved Anne! And Renata too—everything was perfect—Elliot reached for the bottle, the supple, round glass—he glanced down in surprise. He had touched the jagged edge of the floaty with a clumsily thrown hand. This was strange. He looked around him, then turned in surprised irritation to scan the waters. Nothing.
Elliot Roberts wondered, brows creased sharply in confusion, where it had gone off to. His previous exploits flashed through his mind, strange and convoluted. He had to crease his brows farther to catch at them—yes, like Beowulf he had entered the waters. Yes, that had been grand. He had gotten here—he hadn’t lost it then—this was all too confusing, and besides, it was beginning to sap his feelings of glory flashing just moments before. This sad loss. But not too sad. He wouldn’t let it ruin things for him. Besides, he was starting to forget what it was.
Elliot Roberts lowered himself back down. The floaty jerked inconveniently, he was sloshed with water, it got in his mouth and mingled with the hot, dry tastes coating it of caramel and gasoline. The glory was subsiding fast, he was beginning to feel more tired, tired and content, and, as he lay still and stared at the sunny sky, entirely happy.
His mouth felt dry now from the salt, although still powerfully consumed by that odd and perfect aftertaste; he half disliked it and yet never wanted it to leave.
He thought of food. He thought of the cold sandwiches in the frigidaire, he thought of white bread without crusts and light as clouds, of cool creamy pieces of provolone, of rosemary sourdough, he thought of pasta salad with olives and feta.
The sun continued on, the water washed over his bottom half, the upper was washed by the sun. Too tired to move, his limbs felt so heavy. The thought idly occurred to him that he could never get up again and be alright.
“Elliot Frey!” An almost shrill voice, harsh in its accent, broke unexpectedly into his reverie. One of Dracula’s women? She did sound utterly Transylvanian. Elliot cracked open his eyes with untold effort, lifting his head up just the slightest by a strained neck. He beheld, over his body flat before him, foggily a woman, standing in the water. He beheld dark eyes, he beheld dark brown brows, perfectly shaped in their thickness and hardened upon him.
All around her face there was hair, in curls. Brown, almost cinnamon brown, he thought. Curls and curls, tight curls, thick and frizzy around the edges and the sea-wind had made it messy, crowning her. She was wearing a black one-piece, pleated or something—was it ruched? Elliot didn’t know—it clung to her curves of motherhood. Her thighs were beautifully colored, he thought, the black fabric turning to soft, olive brown skin at the widest point of her waist, where her legs went down from the swimsuit. Her glare could be so gorgeous, he thought. He thought of her viola, her sexy dark brown viola. The finish on it was matte and thick.
His previous thoughts of unimpress at her figure had vanished.
This all flashed fuzzily before him in a second, as Anne seemed to be taking the situation in, brusque, black eyes unamused.
“Elliot Frey, what do you think you’re doing?” She exclaimed, one her arms was pulled behind her, he noticed, and Elliot could see, if he craned his head up even more (which still wasn’t much), Renata’s large animals eyes watching the scene in interest.
Elliot smiled largely at them. This was even better than enjoying such a wonderful day alone.
“I love you, Anne,” he sighed, smiling, “isn’t it such a beautiful day? Everything’s just so—so beautiful—“ he frowned. His words were coming out strangely. “Does my voice sound—“ he began, but he could never get farther, for Anne’s face had been betraying the rapid movement of her thoughts this while, and she bore down upon him, brisk, grumpy, accusing. In a moment she had taken him up a few centimeters with her painful grip on his loose linen shirt. He was acted upon, confused, and it was only after she drew away, face dark from the results of the sniff-test, and uttered the words, “You’re drunk,” that he realized what it had all been about.
“Anne—“ he started slowly, and his speech did sound strange, it was thick—she cut him off by her rough pinching hands on him, clenching his shirt but getting some skin too, and Elliot was lifted up, roughly and clumsily, head spinning.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe you—“ her words sounded so hard, so completely foreign to him. “are you trying to drown? Oh my God, I can’t believe this—“
Elliot spat in surprise as he was splashed by water, harsh and salty and eye-burning, their legs sloshed in the sea. He practically fell upon it as she heaved him off the edge of the floaty, his arms hit the water but it did not catch him.
Elliot, spluttering, tried to stand, thinking in irritation of Anne’s hands, how they unbalanced him— He was shook and shunted and jerked through the tide back to land, as it gave way to bare sand, wet and hard. It hit the bottoms of his feet in surprise, but she did not stop to let him catch his balance. His clothes felt at once heavy on him, but they were wet enough to cling like skin. He could hardly believe every step—he felt so tired, this was all happening too fast—he caught a glimpse of Anne’s face, it was pinched so angry, too angry for words. Well, there were some words. Mostly “Oh my God, I can’t believe you!”
Elliot was not unaccustomed to feeling as if he would faint. He was also not unaccustomed to feeling as if he would hurl. It suddenly dawned upon him, the sole coherent thought in the dizzy drag across clumps of sand that tripped him up, that he was very likely to promptly do both, perhaps at the same time.
It was something of a miracle that Anne got Elliot through the backdoor, that she got him through the kitchen. He did manage to get in the second of the two expected results, outside. The ceiling painted gray above him spun oddly for the moment his eyes were open when he hit the bed.
He woke up sick. He woke up so sick. He woke up with a head that weighed 200 pounds and that was in serious danger of falling off if the necessary precautions weren’t taken. He woke up and it could have been a minute later, or a year. He woke up in the midst of the realization that the bottle of bourbon must have sunk, not disappeared. He woke up and groaned when he thought of Anne. He couldn’t do much more than that.
Standing thin in the doorway, behind it. The woman in a knit dress—knee-length, of course—with flowers on it sitting on the couch. Face hard and unreadable, lips pursed.
Where has your hubby gotten off to, my dear? He is good company, when you can snag ‘im.
Elliot is ill. She said it so coldly, he watched from behind the edge of the entry. He thought vaguely that he was ill, he thought vaguely that he was doomed.
At the age of seven Elliot Roberts was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It was a strange name, he’d always thought, not because it wasn’t accurate, but because it was a long-winded medical term that a layperson such as himself could actually understand.
It was so much a part of his person and his life, and had been for as long as he could remember, that he had never thought to spend any time feeling sorry for himself.
Besides, it had gotten him exactly what he wanted.
On March the 5th, 2012, Elliot Roberts had removed a bottle of bourbon from the frigidaire and had a glass. It did not occur to him that bourbon was for social drinking and for food. It touched his lips and brought to him memories from the King’s College dormitory, Kerri’s where the walls were draped in blankets and throws and towels. He could remember the plaid fleece throw, large stripes of red and black. He could remember that wall-drape particularly as the smell assaulted his nose of liquor, as he took a cautious sip.
It also brought to mind, nearly simultaneously, the hours in bed afterward, and with the toilet. Those were more blurry but poignant. Dimitri’s conjured pitcher of beer, a pitcher like iced-tea, had taught him to stay well away from drink.
It was a lucky thing for him. He would have made a first-rate social drinker, he would have performed perhaps too well. He did make a first-rate social drinker.
He could remember, vividly, being set off kilter for weeks afterward by Alessandra’s stolen scotch, the one that appeared when she was really happy. He’d only found out afterwards about all the dramas in her nearby home, what all the phone-calls with her sisters, with her widowed mother, were about. He had not quite known how to take this, this farce. Although he acknowledged himself as the master, it still struck him as odd to find others.
His life was full of people like that, people who he knew and remembered, many names and faces and smiles and laughter, yes, his life was a string of such hordes that he had not seen for years and the number of whose telephones he did not now know, where they lived or with whom.
He could remember his delicate food balance entirely shattered, shifting in his seat in class, hurrying away to the toilets his first opportunity, and sometimes before.
Elliot Roberts had remembered all these things. He had remembered them dully. Sitting, alone, at the kitchen table, a leg propped up long on another chair. Leaning back in his own. He had remembered these things in color and noise and emotion, coming to him in an empty room, a silent room, a calm-colored room. He had been alone and looked around him, and he had not much cared.
He had drank a glass and felt irresistibly warm. He had started by thinking of all the failed heroes. He had never considered them before, never considered the throngs of fallen angels, the pools of nearlys and almosts, the ones who had not been buried overlooking the sea; he imagined all the princes lost in the thorns around the castle and all the young men who’d thought themselves something lying in their own blood, unsung beside the dragon.
He thought of these things calmly in his aspect, and yet incredibly heavy, heavily pulled beneath the warmth.
He had dreamed of the glory of the military, but today was the first that he had considered, somberly, the always greater majority in history dead from illness and not wounds. Or those killed in accidents. They were real. They had numbers attached to them. Why should Elliot be immune? Why should Elliot be some sort of immune protagonist of glory, while it was unimportant others who were the nearlys? Why shouldn’t it be him?
He wished it, he wished for that immunity of destiny, but who was he kidding? Who gave him any sort of power, of willing things into being?
It hadn’t taken too long before he’d felt Beowulf in the flesh, before he’d needed to find a cold Scandinavian lake to dive deep within.
“You’re so pasty, I will not let you drive Renata and I home.” Anne decided, glaring at Elliot’s offensive cheeks before turning in frustration. “Ah! Where did she get off to now—Renata—“
Elliot had been watching tiredly from the door to the Seaman’s Room, his. The room of the circular window, like a boat. It was his secret favorite (it was a nice fantasy, too—boats made him sick), which of course when anyone was at the cottage he could never get.
By now it had left him disappointed and empty, despite his earlier zeal at seizing the unusual opportunity.
Her remark blew up a quick flame within him, and his near-invisible brows hardened sharply. He had intended to angrily protest her insult to his coloring, but the loss of Renata suddenly provided him with even better material. It flashed before him at once and irresistibly, as his head pounded, egging him on. He understood somewhere inside that he couldn’t hold himself back, he could feel the currents rushing hot upon the dam, he rode them strongly.
“What, lost her again, have you?” He chirped irascibly, and at this Anne turned around, eyes dangerous. Elliot did not back down. He felt something fluttering marvelously and excitedly, and his brows moved rather cruelly up, ears flushed red. “You’re all over me like you know everything, but here’s your kid completely out of control—“ Anne’s face worked at this, lips and brows, she was trying to look fierce but he could tell the words were striking home. Elliot cocked his head like a fighting bird. This was all making him feel rather fine. “—she’s like a wild animal! That’s an issue you should be flipping out about—“ he continued snappily, but Elliot’s snaps were always filled with more power than he knew, they were cathartic, they were unfettered, and combined with the showiness of his person they could come out lethal.
“Don’t you dare” Anne cut him off, voice at once heavy and shrill, coming out in forced spurts of rage. Elliot closed his lips to narrow his eyes, staring back at her appraisingly, challengingly. “tell me how to parent my kid.” She caught her breath, she swallowed. She seemed to be collecting herself, and when she opened her lips against a moment later, breaking the noise of two sets of eyes locked impenetrably in combat, it was lower and quieter, hoarse, solid and very dangerous. “Don’t pretend you know anything about her, or about me.”
Elliot watched her turn with that narrowed-eyes, challenging gaze he could conjure up, it felt the least vulnerable way to receive something, to receive the hurled words of a combatant. He watched her go out. The adrenaline, the emotional jump was quickly leaving him. It made him remember his weighty head.
“Hey, Elliot,” he turned to see Greg, the caretaker, standing with a large plastic bucket suspended heavily from his tanned, taut forearms, sleeves rolled up. His eyes were squinted in the curved grasp of overabundant crows’ feet. Elliot could tell that he had seen, that he had heard, but the young man turned with polite and innocent apprehension, facing up his head and raising his eyebrows. Greg glanced unhurriedly at the door, then back at the man before him. “it, uh, it was nice seeing you. Haven’t had a good conversation for ages out here.” He shrugged somewhat apologetically, putting a hand behind his head to scratch the back of his neck. His light-colored hair was turned up in the beginnings of curls around his face, wild from the outside.
“It was nice for me too, Greg.” Elliot replied sunnily, with a smile to match, taking the caretaker friendlily by the elbow. It was one of those theatrical grins, the overdone friendliness, it was the kind of air that left shy people, or pessimistic people, at a loss. They’d be sure they had him figured out as a faker, before he did it enough to convince them otherwise. The older man clapped a stout hand on Elliot’s upper arm in response.
“Keep up the music, and bring your violin next time so I can hear you, alright?”
“Yes,” Elliot sighed, remembering. “I will. Anne plays too, you know? And Dax—have you heard him?”
Greg’s face changed somewhat—it approached a frown before hurrying back up to his grin. It was a neutral grin. “That kid moved on from the fireworks?” He asked, quieter, in an effort still of friendliness. Slight confidentiality.
Elliot was surprised—at first—but his mind went quickly back, it scooped up earlier feelings and memories of the large man, the second-violinist. Recalling beyond the today. They were mostly second-hand, side-thoughts of curiosity, unsureness, of steering clear without hardly thinking of it. He thought of the large teenager, sports-shorts, tee-shirt. It made him think of kissing Roxanne—what a kiss!—his hands in her silky brown hair, how she’d gasped look, they’d turned away from the shadows they were standing in beside the backend of the shed, they’d looked at the bangs over the water, at the reds and brilliant blues and greens, at the shimmers in the low pattern of the waves. Elliot nodded.
“He always seemed a little, well, you know—I mean, like, what kid just sets off fireworks like that—” Greg spoke timidly, Elliot thought, almost as if he were embarrassed to talk ill of someone behind their back. “a little off to me, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.” Elliot agreed, thinking half of Dax, Dax alone with his headphones on all the time and half of the glorious surprise of the first kiss, the first kiss he’d pretended was just another of many. Half on the betrayal, half fixated on the unforgettable moment, the unforgettable feeling when afterward he found out it hadn’t been for him at all. Yes. It was a secret shame that Elliot Roberts’s first and, until he was twenty years old, only kiss was given on a dare and a bargain between three giggling sixteen-year-old girls who’d been thinking more of purple-beaded anklets than a fragile heart. It had confirmed all his long-nursed suspicions.
Greg sighed long, taking another glance at the front entrance. They could hear the car doors shutting loudly outside. Elliot knew exactly what he was thinking about.
“Well, safe drive back.” The caretaker offered, and Elliot nodded. Neither one, of course, said the true words in the air, as the engine outside rumbled into life.
Greg clasped his hand, drawing him tight to give him a clap on the shoulder.
“Sorry nobody else was here.”
“It’s fine. It’s the off-season.”
“Nice to catch up.”
Elliot left. Greg was left; to be a caretaker in that house meant to shake the sand out of sheets when you remembered; he carted them in the large Bambridge van once every couple months to a laundromat. It meant taking long walks on the sand, making friends with all the neighbors, being lonely—but at that age, Elliot thought, a person probably didn’t mind so much. It meant overseeing the repairmen when the heater broke, and when the plumbing went. It meant cleaning up fireworks. And bonfires.
Soles meeting the sand, Elliot left. Even in the car and on the road their things were full, all, with moisture. Salty. The whole thing smelled of petrichor and Elliot opened a window.
NOTE The Snottor’s Press is very disappointed in its current patronee. She had loads of excuses that The Snottor was loathe to hear, about schoolwork and insomnia and doctor’s appointments (never fear, The Snottor adds, the author is alright) to account for the shocking lateness of this update. The Snottor casts doubt and suspicion over all the unfortunate author’s excuses, and wants the reader to know that he will not allow such wayward behavior in the future.