by David L. Day
Cheryl sat alone at a table on the veranda and closed her eyes against the morning sun as it painted its way into the sky. The sea below ate away at sand and shore, biting it down grain by grain, the sharp rumbling chops of waves soothing her headache.
The other vacationers around her crowded the buffet lines, the omelet chef, and the drink stations, shuffling about like restless cattle. She opened her eyes and stared down into the blackest coffee, espresso lined at the rim by a ring of stained bubbles, until an ancient but gentle voice interrupted her trance.
“Hello, young lady. You look like you could use a friend. May I?”
A wisp of a woman stood across from her, hand at the ready to pull a chair out, little more than wrinkles and hair, her smile nearly lost in folds of skin, but beaming nonetheless.
“I’m supposed to meet my husband. I think.” Cheryl couldn’t remember how long she’d been at the resort or why she was there alone, so she quickly added a reasonable lie. “He had to catch a later flight after wrapping up some business.”
“Oh. Well, I’m sure he’ll be along in due time. Meanwhile, why don’t we get to know each other? They say people have a way of finding kindred souls in this place. I’m Kerri, by the way.”
Without waiting for a response, Kerri plopped down a plate loaded with basted eggs, seasoned red potatoes, charred and split sausage, plump bacon, and half a grapefruit, then pulled out a chair opposite Cheryl and sat. The aroma should have made Cheryl salivate, but the stains in her blood robbed her of even the simplest appetite. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt earnest hunger, and the odor only quickened the dull thumps behind her temples, sank deeper the lead weight of a sadness she couldn’t quite remember.
“Oh geez, just look at that sun coming through the clouds,” Kerri said, gazing out over the ocean. “And the water is so green. Don’t you just love it here? One of these times, I’m gonna stay, you know. No more moving on.”
Cheryl nodded slightly then sipped her espresso, welcoming its bitter warmth. Kerri set into her food, devouring it like no old woman Cheryl’d ever known.
“You know, being alone for a while isn’t such a bad thing. Helps you get to know yourself.” Kerri nibbled down a sausage link, a crude yet somehow elegant act, then blushed. “I’m sorry, I just love the food here. Can’t eat like this all the time, you know. Can I get you something?”
Cheryl donned the thin facade of a smile. “I’m fine, thank you.” The undulating sea drew her attention, its rhythm beating in time with her heart, thumping from the tip of her head, down her spine, her legs, and out the soles of her feet. The crowd around her swayed to the motion, their pulse and flow hammering against her from all sides, the dull blades of her headache sliding in and out at her temples. Someone cried in soft sobs. No, not someone, but someones. Three distinct voices, a trio of muffled cries, with dense words spoken amidst them, unhappy streams that smeared loss across her chest.
“You okay?” Kerri stood next to her gently shaking her shoulders. Her perception snapped and tunneled down to just Kerri’s weathered, wrinkled face and matronly smile. “There ya are. Lost you for a second. Can I get you a glass of water or another coffee, perhaps?”
Cheryl shook the fog from her head. “No, I’m okay. I just need to go lie down, maybe at the beach, and wait for my husband to arrive. It was very nice meeting you. I’m sorry I can’t be better company.” She rose to go then pushed the chair in.
Kerri’s smile faltered. “I don’t mean to be so intrusive, but you have this heaviness about you, as if the world were nothing but a tragedy, that reminds me so much of my granddaughter.” Her expression melted into a sad blend of nostalgia and loss. “I didn’t get to know her very well. Her mother and I fell out of sorts after alcohol took over her mother’s life. Children aren’t meant to know only sadness. I’d give anything to go back and help her know happiness as well.”
Kerri reached out but Cheryl stepped back to avoid contact. “Really, you enjoy the table, enjoy the morning. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
She turned and walked away, legs trembling slightly with each step.
In her earliest memory she was around one year old. She sat and cried on the gold-flecked, yellow linoleum of the kitchen, her diaper filthy, her mother towering over her shouting. Her mother’s words were beyond her comprehension, but were filled with unmistakable anger and frustration.
On her first day of school a boy pulled her pigtails, not quite hard enough to make her cry. He liked her, or so said her instincts, but her emotions were a distant stranger, and being unsure of herself she kissed him on the cheek.
Elementary and middle school came and went. In her junior year of high school, she attended the funeral of her best friend who died in a car accident, killed by a carload of drunk frat boys, all of whom survived.
In her second year of college, she and her boyfriend picnicked on the college green, embraced by a bright spring sun. They feasted on grapes and tuna sandwiches, and drank cheap wine from a bottle in a brown paper bag.
And then they married, lived in a small apartment in the city. The full moon peeked in through a window as they snuggled on a mattress on the floor, ate Chinese food from the box, and watched X-Files.
They moved to a ranch in the suburbs where she helped her toddler pick up toys, a second child only a few months away. There was no hint of the darkness in her blood yet.
Her children attended elementary school. She worked part-time at the library, something to fill the space and get her out of the house during empty days. She had regular treatments and the doctors were hopeful they could force the cancer into remission.
Only smoothness remained where there once was long blond hair. The wig fitted tight and scratched. Her oldest daughter–god, a teenager already–told her it wasn’t noticeable. At night, she gripped her husband in the dark and tried not to let him hear her crying.
The hospital room was a pure, hard white. Machines flickered and beeped around her, doing whatever it was they were meant to do. Her family encircled her, solemn, as she signed the DNR order.
At the end she was alone. At three in the morning the night nurse came in to check on her, but she wasn’t there. She floated above and watched as the nurse gracefully tugged the sheet over her head.
Cheryl awoke to a floating sensation then thudded to the ground where she received a mouthful of sand. A sharp pain pierced her palm as she pushed herself up and slipped back into the plastic lounger. A random shard of sea glass jutted out, glinting of angry sunlight. Drops of deep crimson welled out of the stinging wound.
Kerri sat on a lounger next to her, wide hat, dark sunglasses, and a hot pink two-piece more likely to be found in a twenty-something’s wardrobe. “Hell of a way to wake up, huh? Here you go. You’ll be okay.”
Kerri handed her a handkerchief, and Cheryl plucked the glass out, dropped it back onto the sand, then pressed the cloth to her palm to stop the flow of blood. “Guess I fell asleep out here. What time is it? Have I been here long?”
Kerri peered over the top of her sunglasses, a cryptic glance that raised red flags somewhere deep inside Cheryl, but the look lasted only the flap of a butterfly’s wings before her subdued smile returned. “No, not long. I think it’s almost lunchtime. If I recall, you didn’t eat much for breakfast. Want me to–”
“What are they doing?” Cheryl noticed two fellow vacationers climbing up the slope of a hill ending in a tall cliff next to the beach. One was a young girl in a bright red sundress, her auburn hair in a tight ponytail, the other a woman in her late twenties, tight-cropped blond hair, well-built, and dressed in army fatigues.
She turned back to Kerri, the older woman once more wearing some strange, encoded expression, one that distracted her momentarily, but the display on the hill caught her eye again and she couldn’t help but watch. The two distant travelers scaled the last of the hill quickly then stopped near the edge of the cliff, high above where ocean and earth collided.
Kerri sat up in the lounger, swung her legs over the side. “Well, just watch. I think you’ve been here long enough.”
The ocean pounded and throbbed, undercut by unnatural, soft cries. The cut in Cheryl’s palm pulsated as well. She stood up, wanting to run and scream at the two figures on the cliff, afraid for them, wanting them to stop and stay where they stood. But the ocean sapped away her strength, leaving her only able to stand and stare.
The woman and girl stood hand in hand and gazed out at the ocean. The woman bent down and kissed the girl on the cheek, whispered something, then turned and jumped as casually as if she were stepping off a bus. A moment later, the girl followed. Both bodies, separated by yards, kept their relative distance from each other as they plummeted to the water. A wave swelled, reached up to catch the woman and held its crest until the girl landed as well.
Seconds of disbelief passed, then a minute, then Cheryl could take no more.
“Are they dead? Why isn’t anyone trying to save them?” But one frantic scope of the beach answered her second question. They were alone.
“Not anymore,” Kerri whispered as she laid a hand on her shoulder.
“What happened? Why’d they jump? Who were they?” Cheryl’s words fell one atop the other, her entire body tense and rigid against some deeply buried idea.
Kerri embraced her with thin arms imbued with surprising strength and warmth. “It’s not important, sweetie. They have their story, I’m sure. This is yours. Let me get you something to eat.”
There was more.
Her mother’s battle with alcohol and the ensuing abuse endured from that woman who hated herself.
The boy she kissed, a first breach of innocence, who years later took more than she wanted to give. Took it without love; took it in anger.
Her husband’s submission to weakness, not once, but many times, as the cancer consumed her from within. He would never leave her, and though she was certain he loved her, he was no longer her lover.
And the solitude at the end. No one held her hand or told her it would be okay. No one gave comfort as she moved on to the Isle of Sheol.
Kerri sat with her on the beach in solitude, having brought two plates of cold fried chicken and kettle chips from somewhere. The old woman ate in silence as Cheryl wept, her food untouched, her hunger absent, replaced by the realization of having been on the beach a long time, engrossed in the sobs of the ocean.
Eventually, her tears subsided, and Kerri spoke in quiet comfort. “I thought you might be ready to go back and have another turn, but maybe I was wrong.”
Kerri wavered beyond the tears in Cheryl’s eyes as she wiped mucous from her nose with the back of her hand. “But it’s all so sad. Why would I want that? Why? Can’t I stay here?”
Kerri patted Cheryl’s knee. “Oh dear, it’s not only sadness, it’s everything. Can’t you hear it? The ocean sings to you.” Her eyes glazed over as she stared off into the distance. “It’s a beautiful symphony of every voice singing every note.”
“All I hear is crying. Just tears.”
“You are a young soul. You’re not listening.” Kerri put a hand on her other knee, and as she did, more sounds joined the sobs: laughter, shouting, screaming, singing, wailing, and more and more and more.
Kerri withdrew her hands and again Cheryl heard only the faint sobbing.
“Most of me wants to stay, but I’d go back for you. I’ve taken all the second chances I need, but I have at least one more in me. We’ll find each other, I’m sure of it.” For the first time since meeting, Kerri looked weary and worn, but excitement and hope cut through her tired expression as well. “The choice is yours.”
Deep inside Cheryl knew she would eventually go back and try again. She’d fought against accepting what had happened and lost. The sun would rise and fall in this beautiful place over and over, but there would be no change, nothing more than the stagnant gyre of a single day.
The path that led up the hill to the cliff beckoned her, drew her to her feet.
“Well, let’s go.” Her voice faltered on those three words, but she headed off before any mental safety catch could click to stop her short.
The pair reached the top of the cliff, swarmed by a great breeze as salt and sea spray tainted their nostrils. Kerri held her hand tightly and Cheryl felt the depth of their connection become undeniable, grandmother and granddaughter united as a singular whole greater than just two people.
Kerri jumped without warning and hung suspended in front of Cheryl briefly, giving her no time to think or falter. Kerri shouted, “Now or never,” and then fell from view.
Cheryl threw herself out into the air, the song of the ocean swelling in her ears as she soared down after the old woman, the water enveloping her as the crest of a wave embraced her in bright emerald. The water roared in Cheryl’s ears as, moments later, she pierced the surface at the same spot. Water roared, water thumped, water moaned…
Someone screamed. Cheryl screamed, her body somehow wrong, too tiny, nothing working, her eyes unable to open, underneath her a hard and biting coldness.
Quick hands dried her off and wrapped her tight, then carried her here and there before finally settling her to rest against a warm bosom.
A faint memory, a notion really, of being on vacation somewhere lingered at the back of her mind, of a nice old woman having a meal with her, but the memories peeled away like old paint, leaving only a blank slate.
Her eyelids fluttered briefly, and the face of a beautiful young woman hovered above her, eyes gray and glinting with joy.
“Hello there, my dear,” the woman whispered. “Welcome to the world. I’m so glad you made it.”
David Day believes the future is a paradox, simultaneously representing beautiful hope and terrible possibility, and that we are on an ever-constant journey to resolve that paradox into the now. David received his MA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in June 2011. He is the author of one novel, Tearstone, as well as several short stories. Find out more about him at his snazzy but woefully neglected website: http://www.davidlday.com.