It was after 7pm and I was in the middle of work when I remembered the birthday cake for Miles. This was exactly the kind of stuff Nicola had complained about; me not being there to help when she was working full time and taking care of Miles. I’d told her that wasn’t true and she’d said fine, you organize the birthday party and she’d walked out of the room with her hands held high. Later, I told her to stop being so dramatic and she’d told me to stop being so absent. If it wasn’t for the argument I probably would have waited until the morning but I couldn’t have given her another reason to complain. I had to drag myself away from the half-finished sentence glaring at me from the computer screen.
Shop-n-Stop was a fifteen minute walk. Nicola had taken the car to work. I’d sold mine when I started my PhD. I’d argued that it should have been the mini to go. The Honda was better if we needed to go any distance. Nicola said no way. She said she loved her mini and she couldn’t get rid of it because it was a gift from her dying father.
“Your father is very much alive,” I said.
She said, “So I can only keep it if he dies.”
I’ve never won an argument with Nicola.
Miles was focused on his video games. I could shout fire and he wouldn’t move, which was another bone of contention with Nicola. She insisted any child would play games all day and it was our job not to let it happen. I told Miles I had to run out to the store and I’d be back in twenty minutes. He nodded without taking his eyes off the screen. I had to stand in front of him and ask if he heard what I said. He brought his head to the side trying to see the screen and said, “Yeah Dad, you’re going to the store.”
He was turning ten and it was only in the last few weeks that I felt able to leave him to run an errand, but I’d never left him this late. I remembered to tell him not to answer the door if anyone knocked. He said he knew that.
Outside, I smelled the sea and wished I brought my gloves by the time I locked the door. Over a foot of snow lay on the ground and the tree in our back yard was missing branches. It was a skinny tree, too thin for Miles to ever climb, but he used to love trying to reach the branches that were now broken and buried in the snow.
At least the weather made his party easier to organize. Usually we had a barbecue in the back with his friends and the parents we liked. The previous year we had a magician, but now the garden was off-limits, so Miles and I decided he’d have some friends around and play video games and have pizza.
“That’s it,” Nicola said when I told her.
I said, “That’s what he wants.”
We were about to have dinner. Nicola was bringing the bowl of pasta to the table, and she paused to look at me. I was grating the cheese and I thought here we go, but she just shrugged and went to the table and sat down and didn’t say anything.
I wondered if she’d noticed there was no cake. She was on the evening shift and she’d been quiet all day. At one stage I’d gone into the bedroom to find her curled on the bed and I said her name and she didn’t answer and I could have sworn she was awake.
Turning the corner, I saw the abandoned beach. The surface of the water was lit from city lights that spread from across the bay. A silver tint played on ripples. Street lights didn’t reach as far as the tide but it was enough for me to notice that there was a dark mass on the sand. The unease made me think of Miles in the house alone. There was an urge to run back to him, and yet I found myself standing rigid waiting for the car to pass before crossing the street. The murmur of the sea filled my ears. Behind me another car went by and the headlights swept over the wet sand. Whatever was lying there had not moved.
A plane flew overhead, but I didn’t look up from the biggest starfish I’d ever seen. I wondered when it had appeared and how a starfish of that size could go unnoticed. I thought of phoning Nicola and saying you’ll never guess what I’m looking at and then I realized she’d ask about Miles. Without him I don’t know how long I would have stood staring at the starfish.
In the store, I bought an ice-cream cake and candles. I was debating taking Miles out of the house when I got back. For once, I’d tell him to come for a walk with his Dad. The starfish deserved at least two people to look at it, and I thought that once Miles was beside me, I’d be able to phone Nicola. I’d be able to say, “Guess what I’m looking at.”
I was going slower on the way back. There were no small ice-cream cakes and it was an awkward thing to carry. The street was quiet with lights behind blinds and a stillness that made me more aware of the cold. Towards the end of the street, there was a house with a side-driveway and parked behind a pick-up truck was a mini.
I knew it was Nicola’s before I saw the tiny shoe hanging from the rear-view mirror. It was the first shoe Miles had worn. I was hardly aware of the ice-cream cake I had in my hands and that I’d activated a motion light. When I realized I felt exposed and ridiculous. There was a noise from the house and I jumped with the thought of Nicola appearing behind me.
Back on the street I saw the house was number 15 and it was a split level.
“I’ll be home late,” she’d said when she was leaving, “Don’t wait up.”
I didn’t think of the dead starfish when I went by the beach the second time. I got into the house and put the ice-cream cake in the freezer and was afraid that I might get sick. I drank some water and felt the pain in my chest. Eventually Miles came to me saying he was hungry. He looked sad or maybe that was my impression. He has Nicola’s eyes. He asked if I was alright when he was eating his cereal. I still had my jacket on and he reminded me that boots were not allowed in the house. He didn’t say that I had been staring at him, though I had been.
Miles went to bed and for once I didn’t say, “Don’t tell Mom how late you were up.”
I wanted to lie on the bed beside him, but his bed was a single so there was no room and besides I’d never done that and I could imagine his discomfort. Still I took my time leaving and he said, “Dad, are you okay?”
I sat at the kitchen table and opened a beer and then I opened another one. After the third, I thought about walking back to that house and knocking on the door. My head was a mess thinking of Nicola with someone else, but I couldn’t leave Miles. He was a light sleeper and it would frighten him to wake to an empty house. And the truth was I was afraid Nicola would answer the door to that house, or worse, appear behind the man who answered the door, and she’d show no shock or surprise. She’d just look at me like she did when I told her the plans for Mile’s birthday party.
I was in bed when she came in. I felt her at the door of the bedroom. Miles still liked the hall light on and Nicola did too, but she’d throw something at me if I said she was afraid of the dark. She stood there for a long time. The light would have reached me on the bed. I wondered what would she have been looking at, my stiffness, or my hair sticking out from the covers, maybe she knew I was awake and then I thought she must have smelled the beer. I never drank with only Miles in the house and I thought she might have been irritated, and I didn’t know how to feel, though I knew I couldn’t face her or hear what she had to say. Eventually she came into the room. I felt her weight on the bed and heard her undress and then she slid in beside me. After a few minutes, I heard her crying and still I couldn’t move.
The birthday party went without incident. The cold ushered into the house when the boys arrived. Outside was a crystal blue day. Every now and again, there would be a slight tremor from a plane flying overhead on its way to or from the city. The boys played video games and ate pizza and whined about the girl’s cake and then played more video games. Nicola livened up whenever some of the mothers came to collect their sons and she chatted in the kitchen. Otherwise she was quiet and I would have thought she was observing how I was doing, if she didn’t appear so distant. I couldn’t tell her about seeing her car or about the starfish, though once the boys were gone, I suggested that the three of us should go for a walk.
“A walk? What’s gotten into you?” Nicola said, but not in a joking manner, more dismayed and sad. “I thought it might be nice,” I said.
She said she was too tired. I asked if work was busy. She looked at me in a way that made me want to hide, before she said. “You and Miles should go for a walk.”
A few clouds floated in the darkening sky and it was cold enough to see the fog of our breath. There was a small crowd on the beach and when we joined them, we saw the starfish wasn’t alone. There were starfish and urchins and crabs of all sizes but it was the huge starfish I kept staring at. In the evening light it was a shocking sight. I was ashamed to think how excited I’d been to see it the previous night.
“They’re all dead,” the man beside us said.
Miles asked what happened to them. No-one answered. He grasped my hand. A woman arrived with her little girl and the little girl started to cry. The woman hushed her and brought her away and everyone started to disperse then, as if all that time they’d been waiting for a signal to go. Miles and I didn’t continue on our walk. The dead creatures had made us silent and morose. Miles asked again what was going on and I hated that I couldn’t tell him.
The sea-creatures were on the news. Our beach was not the only one to have them washed up. They were victims of a cold spell. A three degree drop in sea temperature made them vulnerable to rough seas. They became dislodged by large waves and washed ashore all along the coast.
Nicola didn’t want to walk down to the beach with me when I told her.
“It’s too sad,” she said.
I couldn’t concentrate when she was gone to work. Miles was tired and he started to watch a movie. He asked if I wanted to watch it with him but it was impossible to sit still. I had to go back to number 15. I told Miles I wanted to check on the beach and he made a face like, why would you do that?
The city lights shone on people who were walking slowly around the beach, hunched up and ghost-like, and the grey forms that lay lifeless by their feet. Someone down there was singing a lamenting chant and her voice caught on the sea breeze.
The pick-up was in the same spot as the night before. I walked by the house and by the next two before turning around. I would have loved to sit on the pavement and wait until day break because I didn’t want to look at that driveway again; to see her car two days in a row would have been too much, but her car wasn’t parked beside the pick-up. The relief made my legs weak. For a few minutes I couldn’t move. I thought I saw a shadow by a window and I waited to see his face. It would have been easier to confront him than Nicola, but he didn’t come out and I had to go home. There were still people on the beach and more than one voice rising upward.
That night, I was drifting to sleep when Nicola came home. Again she slid into bed, but she didn’t cry and I was aware of every one of her breaths. In the morning I let her rest and I walked Miles to school. She was still in bed when I came back. When she finally rose she said it had been weird at work. Some of the residents had heard about the sea creatures washed ashore and were upset. Nicola’s favorite resident an old lady called Kate wondered why people weren’t doing anything to help them. Nicola was leaning against the counter with her coffee and still in her robe and she watched me until I said, “I don’t think there’s much to do for them.”
I didn’t want to tell her about the people singing. The sound had been too sorrowful.
The creatures kept coming onto the shore. Some beaches were blocked off to the public and children were having nightmares about giant starfish, crabs, and sea-urchins. In some cases, there were seabirds in the mix and I wondered what had happened to them. Had they swooped down to be caught with the masses, like being trampled in a crowd?
Nicola phoned on her way to work. She said there was a guy on the beach shouting that it was the end of the world. I heard a thunderous voice behind hers and a blast of horns. She said traffic had stopped to listen to him and she was going to be late for work. “Don’t bring Miles down okay.”
I said I was sure that man wouldn’t be allowed stay there. He’d be arrested for disorderly conduct.
She said, “Please, don’t go there.”
At midnight when Miles was asleep, I walked out of the house. I could make out the sound of the sea, but there were no shouts. The town was eerily quiet and I didn’t want to go back inside. I would have loved to walk until I was too tired to stand, but I couldn’t so I just stayed outside until my hands grew numb.
Nicola slept late again and I dropped Miles to school and walked back by the house. I listened inside and heard nothing, before closing the door and walking to the beach. There were a couple of vans on the beach. It was starting to rain and there were a few people huddled up watching men in overalls. They were picking up the dead sea-creatures and bringing them to the vans and dumping them inside. The idea of a clean-up was alarming because that meant every day we were seeing new sea-creatures being washed up. The sea suddenly had a dull life less energy. A man was standing beside me. He was balding and red-faced and he wore a jacket. Underneath I saw he had a white apron. There was a bakery up the road and a barber shop. I couldn’t remember which one he was.
“You ever wonder what happens to roadkill,” he said.
He looked at me and then gestured to a small man in overalls.
“Well now you know.” I was sure he was the baker. “They’re the same guys who clean the roads, what a job.”
The smell hit me then, or rather it had been seeping into me for the last few seconds and now I was full of the salty decay. It hung on me so I had to take a second shower.
Nicola was quiet throughout the day and I got the impression she was avoiding me. Any time I went into the room she was in, she left. I spent hours staring at the computer screen trying to figure out what to say to her.
Miles didn’t seem to notice anything amiss with us. During dinner, he talked about the strangest creatures that had washed up, one supposedly was a thirteen feet long squid, and another creature looked like a starfish with bones. Nicola thought the boney starfish was ridiculous. Miles said we didn’t know what was out there. He wanted to go to beach after dinner to check the creatures out.
Nicola said, “This isn’t some game, those things are dying.”
She apologized when Miles got upset and I told her it was scary enough for him as it was. I’d told no-one about the vans and the removal, though I couldn’t stop wondering where those creatures were being brought to. In four days, I hadn’t managed to finish that one sentence.
Miles was quiet when I took him to the beach. It was cold, but the day had brightened and the bluer sky made the grey forms on the beach more pitiful. A group of teenagers, one girl and two boys, were prodding a starfish with a stick. It was small and the color had not yet fully faded. The kids were curious, not cruel, yet every time the flesh of the starfish was touched by the stick I flinched. Finally the girl said they should stop and she looked around and I saw her disappointment and wondered what they’d been looking for with their sticks.
Nicola was curled up in bed when we got back. She was crying again and I sat on the bed beside her.
“Do you ever get lonely?” she said. “I do, I get lonely.”
“I know,” I said. She looked at me with her red –rimmed eyes and I wanted to know what was going on in her head, but I couldn’t ask. When I held her hand she didn’t pull away, but she didn’t hold me either. Eventually she drifted to sleep.
She was gone to work early the next morning. I’d wanted to get up with her and make coffee and be with her without talking about my thesis, or the patients that drove her mad. I’d wanted to sit and be quiet like the night before, but I slept through her alarm. She never made much noise. She’d grab her things and get dressed in the bathroom and slip out, so I woke to her absence.
I walked Miles to school and I tried to work, but I kept thinking of Nicola on the bed and me sitting beside her. I kept thinking I should have said something to her. I had no idea what it was, but I started to worry that the comfort I got from that time together was completely one-sided. It was impossible to concentrate. The apartment felt too small and without Nicola I was aware of every sound. I had never noticed before how the heat ticked in the walls or the whirring noise of the light, or the slight buzzing from the computer and now it grated my senses and all I wanted was for her to come home.
I had to walk but I didn’t go near the beach. I went towards Miles school and took turns that would keep me away from the sea creatures in case I might hear some sound, a low dying moan maybe, or the scuttle of their bodies on the sand.
It was Friday, I hadn’t realized the day, which wasn’t unusual. Miles frowned when he saw me waiting at the school. Apparently he had a sleep-over planned. This wouldn’t have annoyed me before, but now I asked why no-one told me. Miles shrugged and said he didn’t think he had to.
He said, “Dad, I have to go.”
Back at the house, I put on the radio and put the volume on high. The DJ’s voices irritated me but I didn’t think of putting on other music. I had two beers by the time Nicola came home and I’d called the local restaurant to make a reservation. She stalled inside the door. Nicola is a sturdy woman with a pretty face and serious probing eyes, and she was regarding me with some surprise, but there was an element of impatience when I told her I’d booked a table.
“We haven’t been out in ages,” I said.
A plane flew overhead sending tremors to the house and adding the sensation of distance between us. I expected her to argue, but she nodded and said okay.
It was quicker to get to the restaurant by turning left from the house and walking by the beach, but I didn’t want to go that way. I thought I heard chanting come from there, though Nicola said she didn’t hear anything. She didn’t complain when I said we should walk the long way around. I wondered if she’d seen the creatures on her way to and from work, if they’d had the same effect on her as they did me, but I didn’t want to ask about them. Instead I asked how her day was.
She said. “Is that what you want to ask? How my day was?”
Clouds hung low in the sky. There was a flashing light moving towards the city and I said yes without looking at her.
“My day was fine,” she said.
The restaurant was Italian, and had white table clothes, dim lights and a sea view that we declined. Across the road there was no beach, the waves came as far as rocks and spilled over them. Any creatures would have been bashed against them. The thought made me want to leave and I might have if Nicola wasn’t already following the waiter to the back of the restaurant and a table for two. The place was empty bar us. “It’s quiet,” I said to the waiter and he nodded and told us that business was down because of what was happening on the beach. People didn’t want to go out while that was going on and it wasn’t only the creatures but the people they attracted. His face scrunched up when he said this. Nicola agreed with him and said she’d heard the screams of Armageddon. I thought of the kids I’d seen poking at the creatures and the hope on their faces. I said, “It’s sad.”
The waiter shrugged. He said. “There’s no seafood.”
Nicola laughed. He said. “Seriously, there were a lot of angry people asking how we could serve seafood when they were dying on the beach.”
Nicola glanced at me and I wanted to react, to laugh or say how ridiculous it was but a part of me agreed.
We ordered a bottle of wine. I heard the mumble of the waiter, and then his steps on the floor coming back to us, and the pop of the wine, and had no idea how to fill the spaces in between. None of the dishes looked appealing to me.
Nicola was looking at the menu when she said, “I saw you outside the house.”
My heart stopped and I stared at the top of Nicola’s head waiting for her to look at me but she kept studying her menu. Finally she put it beside her and entwined her fingers in a way I’d often seen her Gran doing, only with Nicola, there had always been a shy seductiveness with the gesture when she’d place her chin on those hands and gaze over at me. Now, with her elbows on the table and her arms tripods, she put her cheek on her hands and looked towards the window and the sea.
I asked, “Who is he?”
I thought she might say that I didn’t need to know. But she said a name. She said, “You don’t know him.”
“How do you know him?”
“Is that important?”
My glass of wine was gone and my head was spinning. The waiter came and she told him her order and I thought if I reached out I wouldn’t be able to touch her. She was so far away. I ordered meatballs; because it was the only dish I could think of.
With the waiter gone, she sat back loose in her chair now; all these poses I knew from our years together, though I couldn’t read them now. Her face was softer than it had been and I didn’t like that it might have been because she’d spoken his name and maybe he was the reason for her sitting in that coy way of hers. I noticed her finger-nails were painted a light pink when she reached for her wine. I said I was sorry, and she paused and looked at me. Some of her tenderness had faded.
She didn’t ask what I was sorry for. I couldn’t tell her it was because I hadn’t noticed her nails before or how tired she looked.
She said, “After I saw you, I didn’t know if I should go home, but I couldn’t stay away. I expected you to be waiting for me. I thought you’d be angry and demand answers, that you’d do something.”
I told her I was afraid to say anything and give her an opening to leave, and it sounded stupid to think she needed an opening from me.
I said, “I didn’t know what to say to you.”
“No, you never do,” she said.
The waiter was coming with our food and I had to look away from Nicola, I poured wine and once the waiter was gone I said she wasn’t the best at fucking talking either, she could have come to me if she was lonely. She could have told me before falling into bed with the first guy that came along.
She was staring at me, and I fell back in the chair. I realized what she was going to say seconds before she said it.
At home, she threw her coat over the couch and went straight for the bathroom. I heard the bath water run and knew she’d be in there for an hour at least. I hadn’t eaten much, and the glasses of wine made me feel light-headed. I wished I hadn’t had them and the beers earlier so I’d had a clearer head when my wife said, “I did try to tell you.”
We’d walked home in silence. I’d felt tongue-tied and awkward, I had no idea what to say, I’m sorry hadn’t been enough the first or second time. Across the table from me, she’d nodded and said, “So, am I.”
The water stopped running. The house ticked with life and I leaned against the doorway and asked, “Do you love him?”
She didn’t answer. I imagined her lying in the bath, her body submerged in water, and her eyes closed and I sat on the ground and started talking. I told her about wanting to go back to his house to get her, and being afraid that she would refuse to come, and about my urge to lie with Miles and my regret that I couldn’t because I’d never done it before. I told her that now I spent time with him. I told her about being awake and hearing her cry, about my visits to the house to see if she was there and how hard it was anytime she left. I told her that I missed her and I don’t know what else I said. I just kept talking until she opened the door with her face red from the steam and then I watched her walk to the bedroom and waited until I knew she was lying down before following her.
The next morning, I heard Nicola get up and get ready and I waited to see if she might come in and say goodbye but she didn’t. She never said if she loved him either. The night before, the two of us had lain stiff on the bed for a long time before finally falling asleep. She might have been waiting for me to ask that question again, but once was enough.
Nicola worked every second Saturday and it was a short shift until 2pm. Miles wasn’t coming home until the evening, but it was impossible to get work done. Eventually, I couldn’t stand being away from her a moment longer.
While I waited for the bus that would bring me close to the nursing home where she worked, I saw what looked like a sea urchin being dragged by the waves onto the sand. When the bus came, I nearly didn’t get on. I nearly ran down to the beach to join the other people wandering around. The crowd was walking slowly, as if they were being pulled down by the great weight being washed in.
The bus ride wasn’t long. During the summer months, Nicola could cycle to the home and I could have the car to take Miles where ever he had to do. The home was a large two story building with a small garden in front and a driveway at the side with a car park for the employees. I saw them the moment I turned towards the driveway. She had her back to me and was shaking her head. Her hand was by her face and he went to touch her arm and she pulled away and then she was looking at me. He must have seen me first and then he would have stopped talking and stared at where I stood, but I hadn’t been watching him. I’d been watching my wife who turned towards me and whose eyes widened. Her mouth fell opened. And for the first time since seeing her car outside his house I wanted to cry.
The man said something and she shook her head again. She didn’t look at him and I imagined them staring out at me while I stood by her car that first night. Nicola started to fumble for her car keys and she said something to the man and glanced at me before walking to the car. I followed her and the silence of the place wore on me. At the car, I asked if I should drive and I refused to look at where he’d been standing. She didn’t look at me when she nodded and handed me the keys. In the car, she folded down in the seat and looked as if she wanted to disappear. Once on the street, I put on the radio to ease the quiet and she turned it off.
I felt her gaze on my face, but she turned away when I looked at her. ‘I said, “So that’s how you know him.”
I didn’t expect an answer but she mumbled yes.
When we were near the beach, she sat straighter and wiped her eyes. The kids I’d seen that night with Miles were there. I saw the girl running toward the sea with what looked like a sea urchin. There were others with them and everyone was running fast.
“What are you doing?” Nicola said when I stopped the car.
“I don’t fucking know,” I said. “We should do something though.”
I think she smiled then. At least that’s how I remember it.
“Come on,” I said.
For a moment I was afraid that she’d say no, she wasn’t going, but then there was a nod, and the two of us were out of the car and running towards the beach.
One of the boys saw us coming and he said, “Some of them are alive.”
“This one,” an older woman shouted, and we ran to help her carry the starfish out to sea.
L.M. Brown has written a novel called Debris, released in April, and a short story collection called Treading the Uneven Road, forthcoming with Fomite Press. Her stories have appeared in numerous magazines such as Eclectica, Eunoia Review, Litro and Fiction Southeast. One was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Emerson College.