The house was exactly as she had described it to him. Standing in the entry, he controlled himself, his nervousness, his racing heart, his moist, shaking hands. Turning from hanging his coat, she smiled, hands demurely folded before her, hair just so, and completely at odds with her excitement as well. Only an imperceptible throb of a vein in her neck outwardly spoke of her tension. They had waited so very long.
“I like your place,” he said, his voice skipping.
“Oh, that is kind of you to say,” she replied, eyes lowering, lips curling so slightly at the corners.
They hugged awkwardly, an entirely shoulders and arms test of the waters. A brief silence turned awkward, and then stretched on some more. Brown eyes glanced up from under conservative eyeshadow. She watched him, clearly at odds with himself. His mind racing, all it seemed he could think of was how huge and how ungraceful his feet felt.
“I hope you like pork roast,” she said, taking the initiative, “I know we said dinner at the Terrace, but this felt a lot better when I had the idea.”
“I… well, uhm… but,” he stammered, now in mental ruin, all well-planned events for naught, yet somehow recovered, “Well, ok, and pork roast is one of my favorites.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize you had put so much effort into this. I feel bad, but you know,” she paused, making an equivocating hand movement, “The situation.”
The months of careful exchanges over their shared social network site buttressed her caution to him. The shy caution she showed initially blossoming into more exciting, revealing exchanges. Then came the whispered phone conversations from basements, the tearful ones detailing the deceptions, the disappointments, the betrayals. There was implied violence thinly veiled in conversations of another related in explanations. Then, finally, a business trip, a plan, and a hope.
“Yes! Right,” he breathed, “You should have – I mean, I should have thought of that. Really.”
“Relax, it’s okay,” she soothed, and he actually did.
She pointed in a reserved way at a large bag near his feet on the floor. It was the folded, flat-bottomed kind, with two semicircular paper-covered wire handles for carrying.
“Did you bring it?” She asked.
“Oh! Yes I did,” he said, and laughed, now completely relieved.
Picking up the bag, he held each handle in one hand, an offering. With an enigmatic cat’s smile, she glanced at him and reached into the bag. She took the contents in hand and maneuvered it out, flipping it around to finally view it.
Another awkward silence stretched into infinity. For him, he waited in tortured hope for an expression. For her, she racked her brain to comprehend this work. It was the work of months, arduous and perfectionist brushstrokes based on nervously-sent photos. It was her without question, rendered with the talent of a real artist, surrounded by death, glorious in her victory.
“No,” she gasped as tears erupted down her cheeks and she shoved the painting barely-caught into his hands. She vanished into the kitchen, her muffled sobs following her. His world spun, nearly tipping off the edge. He felt actual dizziness, and fought it, somehow willing his feet forward to shuffle uneasily after her.
She stood at the counter, shoulders racking in silent tears. She stirred a crock pot with a wooden spoon. He paused, just beyond arms’ reach of her. Something metal clinked. She froze when he spoke.
“I am so sorry. I… I thought after all we talked about, your amazing strength through this… this… shit,” he managed to choke out of a tight throat. Oddly, he fixed on a coppery and fleeting smell, possibly the roast. Only a few seconds passed this time, and she slammed the lid on the pot nearly hard enough to shatter it. The potholder clung tenaciously to the handle. She spun, bracing against the counter, her fist perched on her cocked hip. From under heavy brows, her eyes now shone with a different intensity through the remnants of the tears.
“No,” she said forcefully, “I meant that you’re not going to disappoint me, and I’m so very excited by that.”
“But, you just… so,” he struggled, somewhat dizzy again yet hopeful, “So you like it?”
“I think it captures the fire I feel inside me right now,” she answered, stalking toward him.
Laughter rushed from his lips as he coughed out, “Oh wow,” and caught her feminine form. This embrace, unlike the first, was heated, close, and natural. Hands wandered, and the only sound for some moments was the nasal exhalations over a deep kiss. Fingernails dug almost painfully into his chest.
“Oh yes,” she breathed, “This will be so liberating. Love me.”
“God, yes,” he replied, “Are you sure –“
“Yes, dammit, he’s gone I swear it,” she said more loudly, “Now, love me!”
He did, and with all his energy and longing. In his arms, she smiled a wicked and pleased smile. Behind them, the potholder slid silently off of the lid, while inside the wedding band fell from the boiling flesh, making a gentle clinking noise.
The Boy and the Shark – A Not Quite Fairy Tale
by Sherbert Bomb
Once upon a time a boy struggled in vain to save his father’s life. The water they had been surfing in together had been a cool blue but now it was frothing and crimson with blood. The boy paddled towards his father, screaming in rage, tears blurring the horrific scene before him. He reached out and grabbed his dad’s arm. He kind of knew he was too late but it had all happened so fast and he didn’t have time to process it. He only knew he had to get his dad back to the beach. All he kept thinking was, “This can’t be happening, there weren’t any shark warnings.” There was a shark though, and it was still around. The boy didn’t think about that. He kept swimming, towing his dad back and pulling him out of the water onto the sand.
The boy was becoming a man. He felt he was almost there, but like something was holding him back. He shaved every other day, he was hairy like his dad had been. He was starting to look a lot like him in fact. He avoided looking at himself in mirrors for too long, which had the effect of making him look even more like his dad, who’d never seemed to have time for much grooming between surfing with him, work and taking his mum out on dates. So when the boy did catch sight of himself in the mirror he saw his dad’s salty brown dreadlocks and blue-black midnight eyes, and what his mum had called ‘desert face, all sandy tan and spiky cactus stubble.’ If he looked for too long he noticed his dad’s eyes looked flat in a way they had never done when he was alive, then the boy would remember he was looking at his own desert face.
An autumn, a winter and a spring had all passed since the boy had been in the ocean that last time. He’d been to the beach every day though. He was on the lookout for sharks. He didn’t know what he’d do if he saw one. He just knew he hated them. He hated them because he and his dad used to defend them, telling people about how shark deaths at the hands of humans far outnumbered human deaths at the jaws of sharks. He felt like a dickhead now. So the boy hated sharks and remembered his dad every day. He replayed memories in his head like a TV series. He’d be out with his mates at the shops and remember one of the pranks his dad used to pull, like when they’d go to the shops and walk around looking puzzled at the ceiling and see how many other people would look up. And he’d remember how when he was a kid his mum and dad took him and three of his mates to the beach and his dad told them all to line up behind him at the bin right next to the Mr Whippy van. They were pretty tame pranks compared to the ones the boy knew his mum and dad used to pull when they were kids, but they all still pissed themselves laughing when people started joining their line without really looking and the line for the bin got longer than the line for ice-creams.
Too often these memories would keep him awake at night, hot with grief and hate. It was such a night when the boy saw his dad’s face again. Not in a memory this time, or in the mirror. He was standing by the window. The boy had just punched a hole in his door and was tensed up in anger, sitting on the end of the bed, his head bent between his fists. “Get our boards kiddo, we’re going to the beach.” ‘Not another beach memory Dad, can’t you just let me sleep?’ the boy thought. He looked up and saw that face, his own but with laughter lines, crow’s feet and a few grey hairs streaking his dreads. The boy was so tired, he thought he might have dropped off and slipped into a dream. It felt pretty real when his dad put his hand on his shoulder though. He heard his dad’s sandpaper lullaby voice again, “Come on, sun will be up soon.” The boy thought about surfing with his dad. He gave in to temptation and let himself believe for a moment that his dad had never died, after all he was right here in the room with him like he had been every morning.
On the way to the beach they joked around like no time had passed, “Remember when you used to live in my balls?” “Remember when you used to be handsome and witty?” And after a while the boy’s dad got as serious as he’d ever seen him. “You know what happened to me mate, there is more chance of being struck by lightning. Or being killed by a coconut falling on your head,” he said. “Or of winning Lotto,” the boy remembered. His dad continued, “Exactly, you know them all too. You used to say them all, to anyone who would listen. What changed buddy?” The boy replied with a suddenly husky voice, “I lost you. However small the odds were, you were my dad and that shark took you from me.” The man and his son walked on in silence for a while. When they could see the shadow of the dunes and the waves beyond, the man spoke again, slower and more deliberately, “I know how much it sucks, but you have to remember we were in their territory mate, and in our wetsuits we looked just like their dinner. It was a freak accident. They’re not hungry for surfers, they thought we were seals. Anyway, think about it, they’ve been here for 400 million years, before dinosaurs even, people have been here for like 200 thousand. It’s their planet man, it’s their ocean, we just surf here.” The boy walked the rest of the way in silence, trying to process all the thoughts and feelings bubbling away inside him. He missed his dad for all the things he’d been when he was alive; father, teacher, best friend, brother, and all the things he’d never be; father of the groom, best man, grandfather. He missed surfing, he missed riding the crest of a wave, salty cool flight. He felt the anger that his dad had been taken too early receding a bit, which made him feel guilty. He still craved the invincibility that guys his age all seemed to have, but he knew it was just an illusion. He wanted to laugh. He really wanted to be happy every day, but there was that guilt again. He knew his dad was right about the sharks too, but he wanted to hate them, even felt like he needed to.
The boy and his dad crossed the sand and stood with the cool water rushing in over their feet. The boy felt the salty sting of half-hearted slaps against his calves. He looked at his dad who grinned back. “Careful mate, you might smile,” he cracked as he ran into the ocean. The boy felt his face relax into a smile and he felt warm and happy, with no trace of guilt. He followed his dad into the waves and the two surfed together for the first time in almost a year. It was the best ride of the boy’s life. He felt like his heart had been dried up and shriveled and now it was soaking up the ocean water and filling his chest. He heard his dad’s voice in his head, telling him the hatred he was still holding onto was like a disease that would destroy his happiness. His dad was telling his son to let go of the hate, try to understand that it wasn’t an attack but an accident, that sharks were not the enemy but powerful creatures to be respected and admired. The boy looked over at his dad who, lying flat on his board, lifted an arm back and bent it strangely out of shape, his hand pointing up out of the middle of his back, his elbow sticking out to the side. One foot pointed down like any normal foot but the other rotated backwards. His legs were fusing together and getting longer, it kind of looked like an extendible lens on a camera. Micro second by micro second the boy watched as his father’s body parts clicked into odd positions, morphing and darkening until he was face to face with a small shark.
The boy looked into the keen blue-black midnight eyes and felt a lightness in his heart that he hadn’t even known he’d been missing, though it was so obvious now. Hate was a cage, and he’d just been given the key to freedom. He said goodbye and watched his dad swim away, feeling salty tears on his cheeks and not caring if they were his or the ocean’s. The sun had been up for a long time but suddenly everything was bathed in light, and the boy knew that the next time he looked in the mirror he’d see a man with light in his eyes.