Feb 17th 2023
Alex inches the dusty curtains aside to peer out at the shore. “She’s down there again,” he says.
“Who?” I ask.
“Ms. Jenkins.” He cracks open his can of Sprite and slurps the overflow from the top rim. He squints and moves closer to the window to get a better look at her. “What is she doing?”
I drape the curtain behind my shoulder. We have a perfect view of the beach from here. Sometimes I feel like we’re in that Hitchcock movie where those people spy on their neighbours with binoculars. We’re like that, except without the binoculars.
Clouds gather above the ocean. It’s not much past noon, but the sky is heavy and grey.
Ms. Jenkins, as usual, wears a flounced dress printed with tiny clusters of flowers, like the hall wallpaper. Her feet and calves are lost in oversized black rubber boots, and she is stretched over forward like she dropped a ring or her contact lenses in the surf.
“Maybe she’s collecting beach glass,” I suggest. “Or rocks.”
“No,” he says. “No, she’s been putting things in her mouth.”
“Fresh seaweed salad?”
He gives me one of those you’re kidding, right? looks of his. A droll look, that’s what you’d call it.
Alex returns his attention to the scene on the beach. My eyes trace the funny bends of his nose in profile. He takes a sip of his Sprite and almost chokes on it as he shouts in triumph, “See! There! She’s doing it again!” He taps a bony index finger against the glass to get me to look.
Ms. Jenkins squats amidst the ragged trail of seaweed and foam and fishing line that has washed in from the ocean. She’s holding something to her face.
“It’s a fish,” I say. “She’s eating a fish.”
“Igh,” says Alex. “Just what I had in mind for supper.”
Abruptly, Ms. Jenkins straightens and spins to look in our direction, like she can tell we’re talking about her. I shriek. Alex and I pull each other back from the window. The curtains sway shut.
“She knows,” Alex whispers, his arm tight around my shoulders. We tumble to the floor and giggle ourselves silly, wondering if she saw us.
The storm starts in the evening. When the rains come, you can expect to be stuck inside for days. If you went outside in this weather, you’d need to hold a sheet of metal over your head to protect yourself from hailstones. It’s best not to go out.
Alex and I stay awake long into the night, waltzing around the room to Tom Waits and saying stupid things to each other like “Forever. Forever. Forever.”
The cat sits in the kitchen doorway, watching us in a bored way, but she’s only showing such forbearance because we’ve already fed her.
The next day, we eat canned beets and salted cod. The rain keeps falling. When I look out the window, I can hardly see as far as the beach. The whole town is lost in fog.
I read aloud from a book of poems by Keats. Alex plays the fiddle, scratchy and off-key. The cat rolls around on the floor with a cloth mouse filled with catnip. Hail and rain clatter against the roof.
On the third morning, I open the curtains to check the weather. It’s less foggy, but the rain persists. I can just make out a dark figure moving along the beach.
“Somebody’s down there,” I say.
“In this storm? Is it Ms. Jenkins again?”
“No,” I say. “It’s somebody else. Looks like Mr. Rutherford from the hardware store.”
“What’s he doing?” Alex bumps my arm as he comes to spy with me. He laces his fingers between mine so our palms press together. We watch through the window, but it’s impossible to tell what, exactly, Mr. Rutherford is doing down there.
The storm has spent itself by the afternoon of the fourth day. The clouds break apart. Canary-yellow sun slants onto waves of churned-up slate and teal.
We pull on our boots and raincoats and hazard to step outside. The air is cool and damp. It smells of salt and dead fish.
Several other people have the same idea as us. They mill around on the beach, hunting for treasures washed ashore by the storm. There’s Natasha and her little girl; there’s Grandma Tess; there’s Carl in his patched overcoat, with a newspaper sticking out of his pocket.
We want to be by ourselves, so we head along the shoreline to the pier. Tangled in with the rocks and driftwood and seaweed by the water’s edge are mussel shells lined with blue, and parts of pink spiny crabs, jellyfish that look like cows’ eyes, silvery herrings, a skinny Atlantic saury, waterlogged birds with their necks twisted wrong, and several beer bottles.
We sit at the end of the pier, dangling our legs over the edge, until the sky darkens and the stars come out.
“The cat’ll be expecting us,” Alex says, stretching his arms above his head and pulling himself to his feet.
I find the flashlight from my pocket and shine it ahead so we won’t trip on our way back up the pier. The weathered planks sound hollow under our boots.
On the beach, all of them are gathered around something, Natasha and her daughter and Carl and Grandma Tess and a few others. The beam of my flashlight moves around the circle and down to the thing in their midst. It’s a big, ugly codfish that I would have a hard time lifting by myself. The fish’s side has been ripped open, and they’re all eating pieces of it. Spittle trails between their lips as they mash the white, wormy flesh, and their eyes gleam, reflective and cold, like the eyes of night creatures.
I drop the flashlight and blindly grasp Alex’s hand. We clomp across the sand and up the steps to the porch. Breathless, we fall inside and slam the door behind us. I click the lock and he jams the chain into place.
When we’re sure the curtains are drawn tight, we turn on a dim lamp near the couch.
Two round eyes glow from the kitchen. I shout and Alex swears, but it’s only the cat sitting on the counter. She leaps down and mare mare mares around our legs. We have to feed her to make her leave us alone.
Alex and I clutch each other in the darkness.
“Forever,” we say. “Forever, forever.”
In the morning, the other half of the bed is empty.
I drag myself across the floorboards to the window, and I peek out between the curtains.
Alex is walking back and forth on the beach, looking down like he has lost something. Maybe he’s searching for the flashlight I dropped last night.
I wonder if I ought to go help him.
: Erin McQuaig grew up in small-town Ontario, Canada, and has worked at a library and a historical village museum. During her formative years, she had three snowy TV channels, so she spent a lot of time reading and playing make-believe. At this moment, if she’s not writing or drawing, she’s likely researching her current obsession or feeding her cat too many treats.
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