I’m on the pier with Hildy behind the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Himalaya, and all at once I get this feeling like the wind’s whipping over my grave. From the end of the pier you can see for miles, and the same few houses on each block are always lit, all day and all night long. It’s like a constellation you don’t know the name of, you just know it’s always there and it always looks the same. Only tonight it doesn’t look the same. There are dark patches where there never used to be dark patches, like burned-out stars in the sky.
“Hey,” says Hildy. “Woody, hey. Why’s your face look like that?”
“I’m just thinking,” I tell her.
“You’re sure you’re not gonna have a fit?”
“I’m thinking,” I say again. “Can’t I be thinking?”
“Just that you look grim, is all. Sometimes you make that face before.”
“I’m okay,” I say. I try to get back to my thinking, and remembering about the wind whipping over my grave.
“I just don’t think that’s like a normal face,” Hildy says.
“Hmm,” I say.
“It’s just an alarming level of grimness, is the thing.”
“God damn,” I say, and finally look over at her. “It’s okay to be grim sometimes, Hildy.”
She says that’s the truth, with this kind of world-weary sigh, then puts her sombrero back on. All day she’s been wearing that sombrero. Said she found it under the boardwalk. She also has on these gold-glittered sunglasses with a giant eyeball sticker on each lens.
A couple dogs are out prowling the beach in the dark, including the yellow lab Hildy tried to adopt back at the beginning of the summer.
She says, “Well, could be that you just got to poop.”
“I don’t have to poop,” I say. “Jesus, Hildy, it’s just grimness. Why can’t it just be plain old grimness?”
“It can be grimness,” she says. “You don’t gotta yell. I got these ears.”
The lab barely turns his head in our direction as he comes out of the shadows into the glow from the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Himalaya. Hildy takes off the sunglasses and stands up, and calls out: “Reggie, over here! We’re over here! Reggie! Reggie! Reggie! We’re over here! Reggie! We’re over here! Reggie! Hey! Reggie! Look over here! Reggie! Hey! Reggie!” The whole time she’s standing and waving her arms back and forth like a crazy person. The lab gives a weary look in our direction and then moves on down the beach.
She sits down and says, “I think maybe Reggie can’t hear too good. Like he’s got ear worms maybe. You think he’s got ear worms?”
“Hildy,” I say, “his name’s not Reggie. Just because you call him that doesn’t make it his name.”
She sits back down on the edge of the pier and puts her arms around her shoulders. “I think it’s his name,” she says under her breath. She sets the sombrero down and pushes her hair out of her face, which looks sunburned and dirty and kind of weird in the glow from the Tilt-a-Whirl. She’s got leaves in her hair, too. There aren’t any leaves at the shore anywhere I can think of.
“Where’d you get those glasses anyway,” I say. I go through the backpack again to make sure everything’s still there. Just habit. Most things we keep at the Snack Shack or the house on Poplar, but some things I like to have with us all the time. Flashlight and batteries, a couple books, emergency meds, so on. A drawing Hildy did for our mom on Mother’s Day that she wanted to keep for some reason. Some pictures of the three of us, pre-Cory.
“Pier Three,” she says. “Milk jugs. ’Member?”
“Kinda.” Thinking that we’re running low on antibiotics. And clonazepam, but I already knew that.
Hildy says, “So yeah, I went back and set ’em up and explained the rules to myself. Then I was like, ‘Alright, Hildy, now take your time and whatnot. You can do it. Just concentrate.’ And I’m like—”
“You don’t gotta tell me the whole story,” I say. A heavy godforsaken silence follows. Finally I say, “Jesus, okay, you can tell me.”
“I’m sure,” I say.
“Well, so then I was like, ‘Dang, I got it, you don’t gotta lecture me, we’re the same age, right?’ And so I went around and picked up the first ball and threw it, but I missed pretty bad. Like I don’t even know where that ball is anymore. But I said not to worry, I said, ‘You’re a natural, kid! You sure you’re only eleven? You sure you’re not a professional ballplayer?’ Friendly at first, but then kind of suspicious. I said, ‘You trying to pull a fast one on me, kid?’ And I’m like, ‘No, sir, I’m eleven.’ I said you’d vouch for me because you were there when I was born, even though you were only two and maybe didn’t remember me being born, because that’d be so weird? But then I was like, ‘Dang, I was just kidding, Hildy, I know you’re eleven. You go on.’ Which was mighty nice, so I said, ‘I appreciate that, sir.’ Being extra polite and whatnot, thinking maybe it would get me an extra ball?”
The dogs are gone now, slipped into the dark beyond the pier. When I look back to the south I can’t even tell which lights are missing anymore. I’m thinking maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe the lights aren’t going out just yet after all. Other than Pier One, which went dark right after we got here in May.
“I’m glad you finally knocked them down anyway,” I tell her. “Just stop saying whatnot.”
“Sorry, yeah. ’Cept I didn’t exactly knock them down, but the thing is that I felt bad for myself, standing there all sad and crazy-looking. And I said, I mean the other one of me said, I could maybe borrow one of the prizes? Just one of the small ones?” She turns the glasses over in her lap. “Guess I can take ’em back. You think I ought to?”
I remind her we should only take what we really need.
Hildy blinks down at the glasses. “Yeah I know,” she says. “Just seemed like I needed ’em.”
“Forget it,” I say. “Let’s go. We need to shut things down.”
“I wish we could just keep everything on all the time,” she says.
I tell her she always says that. Then I get to my feet. “Come on,” I say.
“All right. I’ve got to poop now anyways.”
As we leave I sneak a look back toward Pier One. The wind is picking up and the Ferris wheel’s moving on its own, which makes me unhappy. Makes me think of ghosts. Or like one weird ghost, maybe, who rides a broken Ferris wheel over and over and never says anything, never even looks at you. I think maybe that would be the worst kind of ghost. Just because he’d look so sad and lonely and terrifying at the same time. Also I hate Ferris wheels.
* * *
It’s hot but Hildy still wants to sleep on the roof back at Poplar. She says she feels weird sleeping inside some stranger’s house. It’s one of the only houses we found that didn’t have any dead people in it. But I know what she means.
The roof’s got a telescope. We take turns looking for people. Signs of Life, Hildy says. She always gets distracted and ends up pointing the scope at the moon, “just in case,” she says. So mostly it’s my job to look for Signs of Life. I’ve got a good system, too. It takes an hour or so to cover everything, about ten miles up and down the beach, and inland too. Hildy’s asleep most nights before I’m even halfway done. But I feel better doing it, like I’m taking care of things.
She crawls into her sleeping bag and lines her animal collection around her feet. A couple she brought from home, but most of the animals are from the boardwalk here. An owl, a teddy bear missing an eyeball, a dolphin wearing a little bowler’s hat, a sad monkey and a happy monkey, an alligator named Russ—he seemed to just have a name right from the beginning, like she recognized him from way back or something—and a half dozen lemurs with yellow eyes.
“Rose and Thorn,” she says.
I tell her I’m not in the mood, while I point the scope toward the south.
“It’s tradition,” she says. “You got to. Otherwise it’s bad luck.”
I tell her she can’t just start doing something and say it’s all of a sudden a tradition.
“That’s what a tradition is,” she says. “I’ll start. Unless you want to. I guess you could start. But you want me to start?”
“Go ahead, fine.” Keeping my eye on the hardware store a couple miles down the beach. The windows are busted and I can tell the shelves are empty, but the streetlight outside is still working, so I get a nice clear view. Somebody spray-painted something on the brick wall next to the broken windows, these big jagged letters all running together so it looks like some long crazy word that starts with an ‘O.’ But I can’t figure it out. I guess I could ride over there sometime, but I never do. Maybe I like the mystery of it.
“Thorn,” she says. “No, Rose. No! Thorn. The second hot dog I ate. The first one was pretty bad, and I was like, ‘Hildy, maybe the second one is actually pretty good. Maybe the second hot dog convinced the first hot dog to taste all weird and gray and slimy to throw you off, Hildy. And if you don’t eat it, you’ll never even know you got tricked. You’ll never know there’s this batshit hot dog conspiracy—’”
“Hildy!” I taught her that word a couple days ago. Thinking now it was a mistake.
“Sorry, so anyways I ate it. Only it wasn’t good. It wasn’t worse, but it seemed worse because I guess I raised my expectations about it? Plus I was thinking about the conspiracy and that was getting me worked up maybe.”
The streetlight across from the hardware store is moving around in the wind, throwing weird shadows over the store, making it look like someone’s moving around in there. But no one’s ever moving around. Not there, not anywhere, not ever.
“Dang,” Hildy says. “I should’ve said Reggie’s ear worms.”
“What’s your rose?” I say.
“You didn’t say your Thorn.”
I give her the eye.
“You can’t always have the same Thorn,” she says. “Although I guess it’s a pretty good Thorn, considering. So, yeah. My rose was macaroni dinner.”
“Was just plain old macaroni,” I say, rolling my eyes a little. I know she can’t see me.
She yaws. “Not so much the dinner,” she says. “Just afterward. We were sitting there at the Snack Shack and the clouds were rolling in and you said you always liked storms over the water.”
“That’s it.” She rolls over in her sleeping bag so her voice is muffled and quiet. “I just liked you saying that, Woody.”
A couple minutes later she’s asleep.
* * *
In the morning I sweep up the boardwalk a bit. There’s more sand every day, and garbage that blows in from the streets around the piers. I can’t get rid of it all but I don’t like to see it pile up.
Afterward I go down to the beach. Sometimes when it’s early and the sun’s still hanging low over the water, it’s like everything is the same as always. It’s quiet and still except for the sea wind, and it’s like this is just how the world’s supposed to be. Usually it doesn’t last long. I’ll end up seeing something, and I’ll remember that things aren’t the same as always. But not today.
Past Pier One and the Ferris wheel, I find a Coke bottle washed up on the beach. I wipe the sand and the seaweed off and pry out Hildy’s cork. With my little finger I reach inside and slip the note free.
Hi there. It’s July or August or something here. I guess by the time you get this it’ll be the future, which is so weird right? Like maybe I’m an old lady in a crazy sweater by the time you get this. Except by then I hope we already get to meet in person, due to me learning to sail like I told you. Except so far I’m still a beginner and Woody says any ship I sail would be a death-rat. I don’t know what a death-rat is. Also I don’t know why I’m wearing a crazy sweater when I’m old. I hope things are good on your island. Say hi to whatever your people’s names are and enjoy them sunsets. We had macaroni for dinner and it was delicious, and Reggie’s got ear worms. Woody hasn’t had any fits either. Bye, Hildy.
After I slide the letter back into the bottle and cork it, I walk to the edge of the water and heave it out to sea as hard as I can.
* * *
Hildy spends a couple hours collecting sea glass on the beach while the gulls scream overhead. Farther down the beach there are some vultures, too. I watch from the pier and read a book.
The wind feels good. When it comes in off the ocean you can’t smell anything else. I look back down and try to find my place on the page, but the words are all gone.
It always takes me by surprise. I don’t know why. Just a funny feeling at first, like I know what’s coming, not just the fit but all the little details that come with it. The way the wind feels on the back of my head as I start to sweat. The knotty grain of the boardwalk planks under my hands. The exact color of the sky, some deep blue that’s never been in the sky before and probably never will again. And the feeling: like the world’s not just going to end, but it’s already over. Like it was over a long time ago.
Lots of people coming toward me. Shuffling on dumb legs with blank, dead faces. They’re not coming for me. It’s not like that. They just walk right past and disappear when they reach the end of the pier, like they’re all just marching to hell or something. Or to heaven, I guess, except they don’t look like they’re on their way to heaven. Sometimes they look at me as they go past, which doesn’t make me feel too good.
I wave at my mom when I see her but she doesn’t notice. So I lie back down on the planks and look up at the sky. All that blue. And indigo, maybe. I don’t even know what indigo is, but maybe this is indigo. People rumble past like a thunderstorm on their way to the sea, or to hell, or wherever.
Some time later, Hildy leans over me and her tangled hair falls in my face.
“You doing okay now?”
“You don’t gotta yell,” I tell her. I sit up and look around. The people and the thunder are gone, but my head’s still pounding. “How was it,” I say.
Hildy says, “You were going, like,” and she lets her tongue hang out and she makes like a zombie noise and her eyes roll back in her head. “So kind of batshit, but just regular batshit I guess?”
“You’re still yelling,” I say.
“Sorry. You take your clonazepam?” She digs around in the backpack.
“Wasn’t that bad,” I say. I never told her I started rationing the pills. Not supposed to ration them, but I don’t know when we’ll find anymore. Most of the pharmacies were emptied out a long time ago. At least we can still find amoxicillin sometimes in people’s medicine cabinets.
“You see ’em this time?” she asks, and I nod.
“You see Mom?” she asks.
“I saw her.”
“What about him?”
“They’re not real, Hildy. They’re just hallucinations.”
“Yeah but did you see him?”
I shake my head.
“Good,” she says. She wraps her arms around herself and the wind blows her hair in a thousand directions. She looks just like a wild animal, I think.
After dinner I let her ride the Himalaya for an hour. The Himalaya just goes around and around forever but it whips you from side to side too, and then there’s a switch to make it run backwards. Hildy never gets tired of it, and she usually ends up so hoarse from screaming that she can barely talk the next morning.
Tonight she doesn’t scream so much. She’s coughing a little when the ride is done.
I ask her how long she’s been coughing like that.
“You know I don’t keep track of time,” she says.
I give her the old eyebrow.
“I’m fine,” she says. She asks me if I’ve still got a headache.
I shake my head. “Doing okay.”
“I’m glad,” she says.
“You want to ride again?”
“Maybe not,” she says. “I guess I’m a little tired. Maybe we can turn in a little early, Woody.”
“Okay,” I say.
* * *
Hildy stopped talking when she was nine. Nobody knew why. They took her to a psychologist and then a neurologist, too, but nobody could get her to talk or figure out what was wrong.
“At least it’s more peaceful,” is what Cory said, over dinner. That made me angry, maybe because I was thinking the same thing and I felt bad, I don’t know. Maybe because my mom didn’t say anything back to him. She should’ve said something back to him.
Eventually Hildy talked again, but she wasn’t the same. She stayed in the shadows and moved soundlessly around the house, like a ghost. Sometimes she’d sing really quietly, but it was all nonsense words. Once I caught her just standing in the backyard in the same spot for an hour. Later I asked her what she was doing out there, and she said she thought she was dead. She said she thought maybe that’s what it was like to be dead, that maybe you just watch the night fall and the leaves blow all around and the world moves on without you.
That’s around the time I started watching Cory a lot, and praying for terrible things.
I was glad when he got sick. And I wasn’t too upset when he died, even though I felt responsible. Then everybody else died, too. Even though I tried to take it back, everyone else died, too. I guess that’s what happens when you pray for something terrible like that. Now and then I think I should apologize, when I see all those ghosts shuffling past on their way out to the sea. But I never do.
I think about telling her, someday. I know I can’t. But I guess I think about it.
* * *
No moon or stars tonight. Clouds moving in, but I’m hoping the rain will hold off till the morning.
“Read that last one again,” says Hildy.
So I read it again.
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
Hildy shivers beside me. “What’s it mean,” she whispers.
“You always ask me that,” I say. “How come you like it so much?”
“I just like the words,” she says. “And that part about the yellow fog that curls around the house and falls asleep. It’s batshit weird.”
“Supposed to be a love song,” I say.
“Well it’s got them mermaids at the end,” she says.
“You want me to keep reading or you just want to talk about it forever?”
She buries her head against my shoulder and says she wants me to read.
“Hold the flashlight steady, then. And stop picking your butt.”
“Sorry,” she says.
* * *
The rains come in the morning. We spend the day at the Snack Shack, which has an overhang so we can still be outside without getting wet. Hildy reads her sailing book and writes letters to whoever she writes letters to, and asks me how to spell things.
My head’s starting to hurt. I go through the atlas trying to figure out where we’ll head once the weather gets cold. Summer’s coming to an end. I don’t even know the date anymore, and Hildy stopped keeping track months ago. But I can tell the days aren’t as long.
At one point I look up and Hildy’s at the edge of the overhang, trying to get Reggie to come inside. She’s down on her knees, coughing, half in and half out of the rain. The dog’s just standing there in the middle of the boardwalk with his tongue hanging out, soaked to the bone.
“He don’t look right,” she says.
“Doesn’t,” I say.
The Carolinas, maybe. I don’t know anything about the Carolinas. But Emerald Isle sounds nice. Sounds like a place Hildy would like, even if it doesn’t have a boardwalk. Maybe it won’t have any ghosts either. I measure it out: four hundred miles. At least a month to get there on our bikes, which means we’ve only got a couple more weeks here. Maybe not even that long. I think about Hildy’s cough. Wonder if she’ll even be able to make the trip. That makes my headache worse. I take out a sheet of paper and start writing a list of what we’ll need to pack.
Need to start eating some vegetables. I think maybe Carolina has lots of gardens and orchards, and maybe they weren’t all burned down like the ones up this way.
Basket (for apples/oranges) (from own orchard)
I rub my forehead and chew on the pen cap, thinking.
Screwdriver and hammers and assorted nails etc.
I start hunting around the Snack Shack. “Hey,” I say to Hildy. “You seen the backpack?”
She blinks at me a couple times and then her eyes grow huge. She says, “Oh, damn. Damn, Woody, I think I messed up.”
“What do you mean?”
She says she took it with her in the morning when she went exploring on her bike, so she’d have something to hold treasures. Only maybe she left it somewhere.
My head feels like it’s throbbing now, and I ask her where she went.
“Don’t get mad at me,” she says.
“Jesus, I’m not mad,” I say. “Just tell me.”
“You’re yelling though.” She sees my look and says, “Okay, so I don’t exactly remember. I was following Reggie so I wasn’t paying absolute attention, and also you know I don’t have any kind of sense of direction and whatnot. But I’m pretty sure I set it down on Fern.”
“Okay then,” I say.
“Or Orchid.” Hildy looks up at the ceiling. “Some kind of plant or flower name, I’m thinking. Is a fern a plant or a flower?”
“God damn it,” I say, “there’s like a billion streets with flower names here.”
“Well can’t we just replace everything anyways?” she asks.
That sets me off. I don’t even know why, but it does. I let her have it. I tell her it’s a big deal even if she doesn’t think it’s a big deal. I say she’s not the one who’s going to have to replace everything, and she’s not the one who has to be responsible for both of us, because she’s never responsible for anything. Not for herself, not for me, not even for Reggie because he doesn’t want to have anything to do with her. Which is a rotten thing to say. Then, getting more rotten by the second, I yell at her for spending her time writing stupid letters that nobody’s ever going to read because everybody’s dead, while I’m stuck worrying about everything and trying to figure out how we’re going to eat and how we’re going to stay alive long enough to make it through the god damn fucking fuck winter.
I don’t have any reason to leave but I feel like it deserves a dramatic exit. So I run off. Rain’s still coming down and I don’t have anywhere to go, so I just storm around like an idiot, getting soaked. I walk to the Ferris wheel even though I hate that damn thing, and I stare up at it and let the rain fall in my eyes. By then I’m not angry anymore. Just stupid and wet.
Hildy’s gone when I get back. I find her letters, the ones I yelled at her about, torn apart in the garbage. Her bike’s gone too.
For the next half hour I ride through the rain looking for her. I figure she’s gone south, toward Fern or Orchid, but I don’t know if Hildy even knows where those streets are. She could end up anywhere. I head down Atlantic Avenue, and cut over every two blocks to go up and down the side streets, before coming back to the main strip. I figure she probably crashed her bike and she’s lying in a gutter someplace. Probably with her head cracked open. Probably she’s looking up at this stupid gray sky and rain’s falling in her face while her head’s split open, and she’s cursing my name as she dies. I don’t even blame her.
Two blocks from Orchid, I find her bike propped against the wall next to the empty hardware store. She’s standing under the awning and looking in at the empty shelves.
I pull my bike up and lean it against hers. First time I’ve actually been in front of the place, even though I’ve watched it through the telescope every night.
“Why’d people just take everything,” she says.
“They could get away with it,” I tell her.
“But they just died anyway.” She turns and looks at me. “I know you’re mad because she gave you that backpack and I lost it. But you don’t gotta say those things to me.”
“I know,” I tell her. “I don’t know why I did.”
“You were just scared.” She walks down the street a little ways so she can look at the graffiti. “What’s it mean,” she says, touching the wall.
“Kids say it when they’re done playing,” I say. “To let the other kids know they can come out now. It doesn’t mean anything.”
She drops her hand, but keeps staring at the wall for a long time.
“Oh,” she says.
* * *
Hi there. I know it’s been a while but I wasn’t feeling great. It’s been raining a lot here. Reggie’s dead. I guess his name wasn’t Reggie though. He was just a dog. Me and Woody were on the beach yesterday morning and we saw the dogs all fighting over something under the boardwalk, and turns out they were fighting over Reggie. He just went in there to die. Isn’t that funny that he’d want to go hide somewhere when he died? I don’t know, maybe it’s not funny. Anyway they tore him to bits. I’m trying to think of something good to say about that.
Woody had another fit, the day after that. But he’s okay I think. He said for me to say hello.
You ever read some poem about being a pair of claws? And you’re scuttling over the floor of the silent seas? You should read that.
* * *
Something wakes me up later. Maybe it’s because the clouds have broken and the moon’s shining down, full bright. Maybe it’s something else. Beside me I hear Hildy’s breath rattling in her chest.
Standing at the edge of the roof, I look out toward the sea. And something catches the corner of my eye.
Takes me a while to get the telescope set up because I don’t want to wake Hildy by turning on the flashlight. At first I don’t even know what I’m seeing. Just a flash of reddish-orange light bobbing up and down on the shoreline.
Then I see somebody walking along the beach holding a torch.
My heart’s racing. I never thought I’d see anything else alive through that telescope. No matter what I ever said to Hildy.
Once my eyes adjust I see that he’s a kid, no older than me. He’s just dancing along the beach with this crazy torch, skipping back and forth like he’s leading a parade in the middle of the night. In the gloom behind him I can see some others, too.
“Hildy,” I call out, but she doesn’t wake up. I’m about to yell her name when my eyes adjust and I get a better look at who’s coming our way.
Two men with long beards trail right behind the boy, and then a little farther back there’s a line of women and a couple of kids, moving single file. I can’t figure out why they’re walking single file like that, and then I see the moonlight glint off the chains between their feet as they shuffle along the sand. Something small, Hildy-sized, is dragging along the sand at the very back, still chained to the others.
I watch them till they’re past.
“What is it,” says Hildy a couple minutes later, when I lay down next to her.
“Go back to sleep,” I say.
* * *
Couple mornings later, I wake up and Hildy’s gone.
I go out to the boardwalk and sweep up like always, and then I go down to the beach. I find her hunched over at the end of the pier. Next to her, the sand’s splattered with blood.
“Sorry,” she says. “Thought I’d feel better by now.”
At least I know why we’re almost out of amoxicillin. I tell Hildy to get some sleep and then I head out to look for more.
Since we’d come to the beach we always avoided the houses with the red “X” on the door. But I know where they all are. First two houses I check are locked and the windows are barred. But the back door of the third house is unlocked. Some foul smell breathes out, like I expect. I try to go through the rooms quickly, figuring that there can’t be anything too good in here. Even if the rooms are empty and I find some antibiotics, there can’t be anything good in a house with an “X” on the door.
The door to the last room on the top floor is pulled shut. For a second I think about leaving and going on to the next house, which maybe doesn’t have something awful waiting for me. Because I think that most likely there’s a clown in there. A dead clown, holding some rotting flowers or something. I don’t know why I think that.
There’s no clown, though. Just three bodies on the bed that aren’t exactly skeletons, but they don’t look like regular dead bodies either. Two little bodies and a bigger, longer body, a mom or a dad, beside them. All wrapped up together on the bed, like they died that way. Or like the two little ones were put there at the end, once it was over, and then the mom or the dad just lay down next to them to die. Which I figure is pretty horrible, but maybe there are more horrible things than to die like that, with your family next to you.
I wish I could do something for them. Somebody ought to do something for everyone when they die. But all I do is go through the medicine cabinet and steal things.
Later I wake Hildy up and hand her some pills.
“Hey,” she says. “You can eat me if you got to.”
“What the hell,” I say.
“I mean if I’m dead and you don’t have any choice. I don’t mind if you eat me. I won’t haunt you or anything, Woody.”
I hand her a cup of water. “Thanks,” I tell her.
* * *
Some days I think she’s doing better.
She doesn’t write letters anymore, or at least I don’t find bottles on the beach when I go out in the morning. I’ve taken to writing letters myself, just because I don’t want whoever it is to get worried. I don’t have a lot to say. Mostly I just say that Hildy’s feeling better and we’ll see them soon. Once I wrote about seeing that word on the wall, Ollyollyoxenfree, and what it meant. Hildy would have told them about that.
* * *
We’re out on the beach in the dark, and the ocean is restless and strange. Hildy sits next to me and puts her head on my shoulder.
“I’m glad to be here, Woody,” she says.
I tell her I’m glad, too.
“I just mean I’m glad I got to be with you.”
“You shouldn’t talk like that,” I tell her.
“I know,” she says. “But I’m glad.”
We just sit there for a while, listening to the sea. I like having her head on my shoulder, I guess.
* * *
It’s a strange thing. Usually I know when it’s coming on. But this is different. Maybe it’s a fit, or maybe it’s something else. Maybe I’m just gone, I don’t know.
I’m with Hildy on the beach. We’re pushing a sailboat into the water as the sun sets behind the mainland in the west.
Jump on, I tell her.
I’m trying, I’m trying, she says.
Like I said: It’s a strange thing. Because I can see them, Hildy and me, and I can hear them. But I’m back on the shore. I can’t say anything. I can only watch them set off, and hear them speak for a little while. Until they’ve sailed too far for me to hear them clearly. Then all I hear are a few words here and there, whatever the wind carries ashore. Eventually the words run together and I can’t make out who’s talking, or what the words even mean.
… was cold, I remember … ran off and made her so mad … said the mainsail, right there, god damn it … that dumb song but I still think about it … hard alee, now … like in a million years when it’s just fish … even read that sailing book anyway … course I remember … would hold my breath but in a good way … and pipe tobacco and something else … imagined everything, Woody … said starboard, damn … and I was glad, too, even though … I know, Hildy … like indigo and blue and something else … and the whole time we were … yes … just one more … just the beginning, pages are getting wet … I know I know … let us go, then, you and I … yes yes, Woody, yes …
And then the words are gone.
Behind me the lights are going out. I’m still here, though. Just waiting. Keeping my eye on things. Until the lights go dark and the sand settles over all of it, over every last inch. I’ll be waiting right here on the shore. Just in case they ever come back home.
Tom Howard’s fiction has recently appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Booth, Willow Springs, and Quarter After Eight. Individual stories have won the Willow Springs Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Fiction, and the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, among others. He lives in northern Virginia with his wife, Abbe, and their dog, Harper.