Writers of the Future Contest 2nd Quarter 2020 Honorable Mention
He knew this was the right place to bring her when the last car turned left, and their battered minivan was the only car on the bridge to the island. His wife’s cold hand rested on his baked forearm, as chill as if she was one of the creatures native to this wind-worn ecology, where she did not have to cling to his hot-blood every frosty morning but could walk before him in swimsuits and sundresses and speak to him all day with no one around to distract her sparkling eyes from his; here where time stood still, where sea turtles still buried their eggs as if dinosaurs were still out sniffing for them, and rarely a human foot had stepped past the beachfront onto the three humble miles of Duneland.
It looks just the way it did when I was a child,” she said, taking her hand off him, “time stands still here.”
He nodded, driving over the roads, where white sand drifted like lost silk handkerchiefs, and beyond that, the sea roared distantly.
“Do you know that even before they declared this place a National park, the early settlers used to stay off the Dunes here. Some superstition about the natives and witchcraft. But I like to think they could sense even then that this beauty was something they couldn’t own. Is this like any place you’ve been?”
“The boy scouts always left civilization behind us.”
“You never camped with access to showers.” She squeezed his arm, letting him know her self-deprecation didn’t bite either of them.
“No, but it’s perfect for a honeymoon.”
“You never camped by yourself, did you?”
“They say it’s dangerous to do that.”
“Oh, of course, you’ve never liked being alone,” she said, looking outside the window where the dunes rose and fell, and a swell of grass rose to hide the camp, then revealed it again.
The statement bothered him for some reason. They were married now. What reason would they have for being alone when all they needed was each other?
Luckily the camp was empty, save for one tent, bleached ombre green, and he made sure to pick a lot far from even that. A crop of twisted live oaks and stout fronds shielded their campsite from the sun and wind, but the sea lay only a ten-minute walk down a sandy footpath. A few small mounds ringed the camp border.
“Fire-ants,” he said, pointing, “We’ll have to make sure the tent is set far away from them.” She nodded, pulling the heavy coolers from the trunk, coolers filled with staples like bread, meat, cheese, and water but also avocados, oranges, bacon, marshmallows, and chocolate bars. She’d talked him out of taking some of the dehydrated foods from his boy scout days.
“I’m going to go collect some firewood,” she said, and he looked up in alarm.
“But, we already have coals.”
She laughed, “It’s not a beach night unless you see the colors that driftwood fire makes. I’ll only be gone a moment,” and turning she raised a hand in farewell, as though it were so easily done.
Swallowing hard, he looked back at the half-pitched tent. Still, his hands shook as he tried to nail the pegs into the ground. It cost him more than a few smarting fingers before it was up, and still, his wife wasn’t back. He looked around the empty campground and found now he wished that he’d parked closer to the single other tent pitched way at the other end. At home, it wasn’t so bad. He could turn on the TV there or sit on his front stoop and watch the neighborhood kids engage in a game of tag so severe it might’ve been WWIII. But here there was no one.
His heart was starting to race, his palms to sweat. The empty sky seemed ready to rush into him, searching out all those untouched places in his soul until he couldn’t ignore them any further.
He dropped what he was carrying and, without realizing he’d decided to, ran down the trail to the beach. And there she was– standing with delicate feet in the surf, a hefty pile of driftwood in hand. Heat rose within him. How long had his wife been standing there?
He called to her, and she turned.
“Where have you been?” he asked, unable to keep the anger from his voice. Blushing, she looked away.
“I’m sorry. I was doing it again, wasn’t I? I know I’ve been distracted at home lately, too,” she said. “I know you’ve been lonely. You’ve always been lonely. Even as a kid. You’d think that a better wife…” She trailed off her gaze caught by the pattern of the dune grass and the wind.
He took her hand but didn’t say anything. A small part of him—a mean slice of him—wanted her to feel some guilt. He let the silence stretch out until it pulled away with the surf, and they both forgot it had ever been there.
When the camp was set, they were hungry, and he fed her cold yogurt, flirting, and teasing all the while like they were young again. She didn’t get distracted once, and his heart sang within him, glad their phones were forgotten in the car.
In the afternoon, they rode the surf, bobbing like corks in a tub, toes skimming sand so smooth it felt like paper until his head spun and his thighs felt weak. And then, sometimes, but as often as he could manage it, the surf pushed them into one another in an explosion of salt and sun and skin.
It was only briefly that she got distracted, and that while they were resting on the hot sand.
“What?” she said, her eyes looking out into the dunes. She shook her head.
“What were you saying, dear?”
“It—it doesn’t matter,” he said, his confidence momentarily faltering.
“I am sorry we haven’t had more time like this together,” she said. “I don’t know why I am pulled to wander. It’s almost as if there is another life in me.”
“You’re my life, so why am I not yours?” he wanted to say, but he bit his tongue. He didn’t want her to feel guilty anymore. He just wanted her to be present.
But by evening, the doubt was gone again, as they roasted fajitas on the grill, laughing whenever tongues of wind put out the flame, and even though they were both full, found room for a few marshmallows roasted into bubbling golden sweetness over the coals. They talked or stayed silent as the wind allowed, and her eyes did not leave his again.
And in the night, he held her against the evening chill.
Sometime after that, the wind kicked up. When it slapped the sides of the tent together, he jerked into the state of half-stupor that was just enough to be awake and annoyed and to wonder what time it was and why he didn’t tie the sides down tighter. Even in the deep woods, his troop never forgot to tie the tarp down. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? Someone in his group had tied the tent down. He’d always been on water duty or some such other thing and always surrounded. Rolling over on his side, he wondered whatever made his stomach strain with loneliness, he who had been surrounded, by friends, by brothers and cousins and coworkers, all his life. Even the men’s bathroom always had someone in it. So why had he forever been lonely? And why didn’t she want him the way he wanted her?
He didn’t realize he’d fallen asleep again until the sea wind’s howling brought him into a half-awake stupor. The gust was so strong he wondered if the tent would blowdown, but sleep lay so heavily on him that he doubted he could move even if it did. Why hadn’t he noticed how the ground slanted below them ever so slightly, leaving his head lower than his feet?
Rolling over, her arm brushed his nose in the darkness. Perhaps he truly was waking up because he could see the profile of her cheek against the moonlight side of the tent. She was propped, half up on one elbow, ears tilted toward the song. Of course, he might very well still be dreaming based on the heaviness that weighed him down; too much time spent fighting the surf.
But what was that glint in her eye? Or, in the logic of the dream world, had they always looked as if taken in an old photograph? He strained against sleep to listen and caught the last notes of a long keening before oblivion retook him. When he woke, he did not know if he had really heard it or only dreamed it.
In the morning, she was quieter than she had been the day before. Granted, they both moved a little slower. He hadn’t realized how out of shape he’d gotten, but it was hard to find time to exercise when the office kept him over so late all the time. After breakfast, he suggested they explore the boardwalk, saying he needed to stretch his legs before doing anything more strenuous.
It was a two-mile path of recycled plastic planks set up over the dunes, held up by posts so that humans could walk the width of the island without ever setting foot upon it. As they passed through the “hills,” he realized they were only fragile mounds of sand with grass holding their shape together. It made him feel like a Spanish crusader whose very foot print would taint the ground with ecological destruction and plague. Why did anyone want to come here? It wasn’t all that interesting of plant life either, just small and hardy with odd-shaped leaves. He’d hoped to at least spy a kangaroo mouse, but the skittered animal tracks they did see might just as well have been made by a wind-tumbled leaf.
“I’m sorry it’s not more beautiful.”
“Not more beautiful?” she repeated, rapture evident. Kneeling at the edge of the walk, she tickled a patch of red and gold flowers. “Indian Blankets,” she said, introducing him. “I always loved seeing them whenever I’d visit here as a child.” Her smile dipped a little and she said, in a softer voice, “I wish I could remember why we stopped coming here.”
They had a name, these small flowers. He hadn’t known that. In fact, in this landscape, he felt he didn’t know much of anything. Posted signs along the way repeated again and again how fragile the ecosystem was. After the dozenth one, they seemed more like the neurotic nagging of a worried parent than real warnings. He traced the buried and uncovered trail of a long vine in the sand. At first glance, it looked small, but now that he paid attention, he saw it was at least forty feet long, rising and dipping below the white dunes like a drowning man’s arms. A human footprint might crush the plant life, but the sand would bury that foot, and the would ocean dissolve it into salt-foam. At the edges of his brain, he could almost feel it happening. Clearly, he hadn’t gotten enough sleep.
His wife sat with her feet in that effacing sand. With that far-off look in her eye, he sensed that at any moment she would step off and be lost in the random waves of dune. As she talked, those senseless shapes became intricate mandalas pointing to a cycle of lifeforms he hadn’t even considered. The hills, once fragile mounds, now seemed massive waves, ready to topple and crush them both at any moment. Some part of him sensed that they were ever eternally about to be subsumed by coastland, swallowed by seafoam or burnt away by the hot sun until it revealed scales or fur. If she stood up and actually walked across the landscape, would she forget him; forget the world and slink away to brush noses with raccoon and possum and steal sips of fresh water when the alligator wasn’t looking? The idea of it—of her leaving him made his head swim and his heartbeat race.
He knew he was panicking, but surely, this was no mere botanical knowledge, the way she pointed and smiled at the smallest things like they were a language, each word a creature caught unforgiving pull of water against jagged rocks.
Something white skipped across her path, and the shrill squeal made him shudder. When he turned back, his wife held something squirming in her hands.
“Look,” she said. “You wanted to see one.”
Something furred poked out of her hand, and he saw it was one of those hopping mice that looked so cute in the island’s nature documentaries. Its head was flopped over to one side, mouth hanging open. Had her long nails been painted red before?
“Can we turn around now?” he asked.
“Oh dear, are you getting sunstroke?”
He didn’t think so, but he let her lead him back to the beach and tried to ignore the wistful looks she cast over their shoulder at the lonely landscape as if memories of their home were far from her. He could see it, that strange inner life glinting in her eyes, and it chilled him.
Water, shade, and the sight of other people, even far off, made things a little better. She suggested they play in the surf again, but his legs were still too sore. He tried looking up tourist attractions, but they were all well over an hour down the road. Why had they come so far from civilization again? “To escape,” he’d told her, but he didn’t know if he had really understood those words.
It was a relief when lunchtime came. The process of prepping and seasoning and grilling, a chore back at home, became the height of entertainment. When she smiled at him over her plate, it nearly made everything feel perfect once again.
After that, he convinced her to stretch out next to him and read, but was it his imagination, or did she spend more time staring out into the open sea? The island was indeed beautiful, but the terrible slowness of life here was beginning to pull at him the way the tide pulled on his shirt.
Perhaps he could convince her to return home early? They could arrive back in time to catch a movie or some live music. Anything to drive the silence away. Or was it only that at last, they were reaching those years in their marriage where there was nothing more to say? But it wasn’t like that with her. He couldn’t imagine a time when those far-off eyes wouldn’t draw him. What about her, though? He had no illusions that he was the more interesting of two of them. She needed no entertaining, no diversion, not with her mind, not with that presence behind her eyes. At yet, even a glimpse of it made his heart scream inwardly. Why should she have that when he felt so alone—all the time? At the office, at school, amidst the rowdy crowd of his boy scout troop, he always sensed it. Wasn’t that supposed to go away after they married? Wasn’t that the point of it all?
“You’re panicking again,” he told himself. “Calm down, you’re over-reacting, and you know it.” Besides, she probably only needed these moments alone to recollect herself; to run through whatever conversation happened in her head, and then she would find him refreshing again. He shouldn’t be so needy and respect her space. Was it possible he could find a similar presence inside himself, an inner life that kept him company even when solitude? It seemed impossible.
“Can I show you something?”
Her voice, so long unheard, seemed to make even the waves pause.
“What is it?”
“Just down the beach, near the dunes.”
“We aren’t supposed to walk on the dunes.”
“I said near them, didn’t I? Not on them.”
“You really want to spend the whole day walking, don’t you?”
For a few long minutes, she didn’t respond. Was she angry or merely tired? Just as he was beginning to think she’d fallen asleep, she asked, “Did you hear anything last night?”
“The wind,” he huffed, disliking the wistfulness in her voice.
“Anything in that?”
“Not usually,” he lied. “Why? What did you hear?”
“I– I don’t know how to describe it. I remember hearing it as a child, though. It’s been bothering me ever since.”
“I woke up last night too. I didn’t hear anything but the wind. Likely you only dreamed it.”
She stood up and shook the sand from her long legs.
“I’m going to go walking, are you coming?”
He put down his book. He hadn’t been reading it anyway.
“Are you going far?”
“Are you going for long?”
“Well, all right then. You enjoy your walk. I’ll be here when you get back, he said, burying his nose in his book, telling himself not to stifle her. Not to push. She’d leave and come back and feel guilty, and he would forgive her again. After all, what other purpose could there be for marriage than to drive away loneliness? The white sands were so soft he might only have imagined her footsteps as she disappeared around a high dune.
After a while, his neck began to sting. He tried to ignore it. She would be back any minute anyway. But then the pain started to drive long needles into his neck until he could ignore it no further. He could go back to camp. Besides, he told himself, she knew the way there. Five rummaged bins later, he found extra sunscreen but no hat. Had he not packed one? That wasn’t like him, but then all the places he’d ever camped before had been cold and mountainous. He settled for her sunbonnet. It was too small for him, but at least it covered his neck.
There was no more point in pretending he was interested in his book, and sitting out on the beach would just invite more sunburn. The wind was getting a little chilly. He could start the fire. Then it would be ready when she got back. She should be back soon, after all.
Five matches and two lighters later, he was swearing at the wind, a hand clamped tightly over the bonnet to keep it from flying off. How would they cook dinner in this gale? Sitting on the grass, he wiped his forehead and sighed. Down the road, another campfire flickered. His wife would be back anytime now, and he wanted to have the fire ready for her when she did. But he was out of lighter fluid. Picking himself up, he walked toward the fire. When he got there, he found an old woman absentmindedly burning a long dune reed in the flame.
He cleared his throat.
“Sorry to bother you, Ma’am, but you wouldn’t happen to have some spare lighter fluid, would you?”
She twirled the reed. The dimming light made the shadows around her mouth darker, so he couldn’t tell if he’d angered her.
“Ma’am?” he asked again. Her wedding band glimmered in the firelight. He looked around but spied only one pillow peeking out through the open flap of the tent.
“He’s not here.” Her voice was worn but not sad.
He turned back.
“You came camping on your own? Isn’t that dangerous?”
She huffed, or maybe, it was a chuckle. “It’s more dangerous to camp with two.”
And then, before he could stop himself, he asked, “Where is your husband, Ma’am?”
She gestured with her chin.
Though something screamed in him not to, he turned and looked. The rolling dunes spread out before him, their crevices dark in the fast setting sun.
“A part of us never comes back, you know,” she said. “It’s better that way. It’s like the island. You have to leave some parts untouched else the boundaries weaken, and it disappears under the water.”
But he didn’t want to hear it. He strained his eyes, taking in the landscape. So many valleys, so many small hovels, and bushes the size of hills so you could never know what was hollow and what was solid. She was out there. It had been hours now.
He looked at the old woman, wanting her to laugh at him, to tell him she was joking, but she only looked at him. And it occurred to him then that her face was tanned far darker and wrinkled far more profoundly than the visage of someone who lived in a town. He had a sudden vision of his own face, darkened and similarly wrinkled, ever waiting for her return.
He dropped the bonnet and found himself running. The old woman shouted something after him, but he could not hear it. The winds roared, the sea growled, and the sands hissed under his feet, drowning every thought.