Word Count: 3791
This is a newer work in progress. Comments/criticisms/feedback appreciated!
The sun dashed against the water, sending slivers of brightness into the eyes of the man who walked his dog along the cold beach. The dog was pretty dirty, and made things worse by rolling in the sand still clinging to seaweed so soon after high tide. Liam--- that was name of the man--- slumped down on his haunches, squinting at the mutt as she ran crookedly along the crashing waves. Liam breathed in the air heavy with salt slowly and noticed a red converse sitting cheerily in the midst of the seaweed filth. His legs cracked as he stood up, but he needed to kick over that shoe sitting so tall against the slime. He glanced back up to make sure the dog hadn't drowned and then pushed over the shoe with his toe. He jumped back when he realized it wasn't empty. He poked the shoe with his own, very slowly, gently, until he worked it over so he could peer inside.
At first, he couldn't tell what was inside because of the seaweed, but he scraped off the seaweed with his toe. The sock was in there and. Liam's heart stopped. The sock, bone, flesh were mangled by seawater. Liam tried not to throw up, feeling his stomach contract and the bile rise in his throat. He stumbled away and whistled for the dog, but the bile was still caught in his throat. He coughed and took a few deep breaths of the sea air. He cleared his throat and whistled for the dog again. The mutt came loping back towards him, tongue hanging outside the left side of her mouth, but, as though she could sense the source of his dread, she zigzagged towards the shoe.
Liam threw himself between the dog and the shoe, yelling for her to stop at the top of his lungs. He wrestled the dog to the ground, and she licked his face, clueless. Breath shallow and ragged, Liam pulled the leash from his pocket and hooked it around her neck, dragging her from the beach. His hands shook, but he held the dog's leash tightly, the fabric cutting into his skin. By the time they got to his car, Liam was feeling more calm, but his hands fumbled as he stuck the key in the ignition. Sylvia had shoes like that. She used to wear them when she wore black, which was often. He leaned his head against the steering wheel, hoping the pressure pushed the memory out of his head. The dog rammed her head against his elbow, seeking attention, so he sat up, tussled the dog's long mottled hair, and moved the car into reverse.
"Nice beard you got there, Liam. The mountain man look goes well for you." Dan sat down in Liam's swivel chair as Liam walked into the office.
Liam took off his raincoat and hung it up by the door. "Sorry I'm late man. Weird morning."
Dan waved his hand and got out of the chair. "You know its no problem. Heck, I told you that you can take off whenever you need to." He opened looked down at the floor before squinting up at Liam, opening his mouth as though to say something else. He decided against it and stood up.
Liam started shuffling the papers on his desk, hoping Dan would leave already. "Yeah, well I was only late because the dog--- whatever, it isn't important. So, any tours today?"
Dan stuck his hands in his pocket. "Nah. But we've got two elementary schools tomorrow. Start preparing mentally now." He looked at Liam and clapped his hand on his shoulder. "Today I was hoping to send you out to check the trails. One of the classes wants to look for animal tracks."
Liam nodded. "Sure thing. I'll go out after lunch."
Dan nodded and started to back out. "Cool." He stood at the door for a second. "So hey, do you want to come out with me and Marie tonight? We were just gonna grab a beer or something in town and Marie mentioned that you probably didn't get out too much anymore..."
Liam shook his head. “Thanks for the invite. Think I'm just gonna hang out with the dog."
"Have you named it yet?"
Liam collapsed down at his desk and powered up the computer. He looked over at the front desk to see Dan with his feet propped up against the desk flipping through an outdoors magazine, so Liam opened the internet browser and typed in the words "shoes on Strait of Juan Fuca." The shoe stores for the tiny downtown shopping area popped up. For such a small town, they sure had a lot of shoe stores. Maybe for the tourists? He added "with feet in them." Then he clicked the news section and started opening stories.
He remembered hearing stories a few months ago, but everything was so fuzzy for him then. He hadn't watched the news since Sylvia, and none of the people he usually had contact with--- Dan and the dog--- were full of the goings on of the world. Yet the strangeness of one news story had pierced the clouds that clung to him even after Sylvia left.
In Vancouver, just across the water from him, five feet encased in athletic shoes were found stranded on the beach. A sixth was found a year later twenty miles from where he walked the dog each morning. Liam read through the stories, looking for something, an explanation of some kind. The articles ended with stay tuned--- DNA results take eight weeks. None followed.
Liam flipped to his e-mail when he heard Dan start coughing in the other room. He checked the clock. Nearly three hours had gone by. His e-mail inbox was thankfully small, but then who would e-mail him, anyway? It was mostly spam. He stood up and threw on his coat.
"See you later," he called over his shoulder to Dan.
Dan leaned back to watch him out the door. "Drink invite still open tonight!" Liam didn't respond. He got into his car and started it. A minute passed. Liam blinked and took the car out of park, slowly reversing out of the parking spot. He turned left, the right, then left instead of right. He pulled into his driveway. The dog barked.
"Do you want to go for a walk?" He asked her as he opened the door.
The beach in the afternoon had a different feel from the beach in the morning. It was brighter; the sun spread itself out over the sand instead of directing itself intently at finite points. It seemed warmed somehow, despite the winds that splashed sand into his eyes. The dog still ran crookedly to the water. The seaweed was no longer slimey, dried out and dead in the sunlight.
The shoe was still there.
Liam poked it again, this time with his finger. Some tiny crustacean scuttled out from behind the tongue of the shoe. Liam waited, looked over at the dog. He looked inside. The sock was crinkled and dirty, revealing a glimpse of the yellowed flesh beneath it. It smelled.
Liam swallowed vomit and stood up, backing away from the shoe. He whistled for the dog, needing to get out of there, needing to breathe. The salty air clogged his throat, covered his eyes. He didn't remember getting back to his car.
Some time later, Liam woke up when the dog licked his face. He checked his watch, but it had stopped again. Jeopardy was blaring from the television, so it must have been around seven. Strange, Liam never watched tv. Sylvia had loved watching trivia shows, but since she left, since she died, he didn't bother turning on the tv.
"In a story by Rudyard Kipling, this mongoose protects an English family from snakes," Alex intoned.
Liam rubbed his eyes. "Riki Tiki Tavi." He had always wanted to go to India since reading The Jungle Book as a kid. Sylvia said they could go one day. Liam fumbled for the remote and hit power. The house was dark, heavy. The dog barked. "Yeah, sorry. I'll feed you." He stood drunkenly and stumbled in the dark to the kitchen. He found the light, turned it on, rubbed his eyes again before putting food in the dog bowl and setting it on the floor.
The corner of the kitchen was stuffed with boxes packed up by Marie and some of her friends who came over after the funeral. He was supposed to take it to the thrift store in town. He hadn't. So now Sylvia's clothes lay by the backdoor in the kitchen, her t-shirts collected from aunts and uncles who had been to concerts in the 80s, Clapton and the Who, her jeans with holes from working in the animal shelter, the soccer socks she used to wear because she would get so cold and she hated getting blisters when she went ice skating. Her shoes. That was the first part he saw of her when they first met in college. Flip flops gnawed by her sister's cat, sexy pink pumps she wore around the house when she was in pajamas. Converses with holes in them. Red. It was a shrine to her, and he felt as though her smell still hung in the air, promising return. The only thing not in the pile was the note she left for him that day. She had said she loved him and it wasn't his fault. He left it on the floor when he ran out of the house to intercept her two hours too late. So the dog ate it.
He had fallen asleep at the kitchen table but woke up to let the dog out in the back yard not long after dawn. He walked through the back woods with the dog, hoping some fresh air would make him feel normal again. He didn't feel up to trekking back to the beach. The dog was not happy about that.
Liam was out of milk, so he ate his cereal plain. Sylvia said that running out of milk was an unacceptable sin. Cereal was her favorite food other than eggplant parmigiana. And peanut butter.
The house was too quiet. Liam opened the window, letting some of the outside in, trying to clear out her smell. He turned on the radio. Her favorite song. He turned off the radio and pressed his palms into his forehead. The dog scrambled out from underfoot as he whirled around and grabbed the top box to toss out the window. Corona. Must have been Marie's box.
Sylvia's dress from that time they went to her friend's wedding spilled out onto the green spring grass. Liam tossed out the next box. Shoes. Two grass-stained red converses plopped on top of the silky dress. The dog barked. Liam went outside and collected the boxes and their contents, gently folding the dress with shaky hands and putting it back in the box on top of the now jarred piles of clothes. He left the converses outside, walking around them and trying not to see them.
He sat back down at the kitchen table. At eight he lifted himself up and went out to the car. He sat down, put the key in the ignition and closed his eyes for a moment. He opened his eyes and moved to put the car in drive, but stopped himself and violently opened the door so he could fall out as quickly as possible. Because a sandy red converse sat in the passenger's seat.
Liam ran inside, slamming the door behind him. He sat on the floor, breathing deeply as the dog rushed over to lick his face in frenzied greeting before throwing herself down over his feet. When he didn't pet her, she resumed her normal daytime post at the window next to the door. Waiting, always waiting.
Liam walked over the the phone. "Don't think I'll be coming in today Dan."
"Do you want me to come over after work?" <
Liam shook his head before he realized he was on the phone. "Nah. Just going to take it easy is all."
"I---okay look Liam. I hate to be that guy, but Marie and I were talking last night and we think you need to see someone. You can't do this on your own."
Liam didn't say anything to Dan, choosing instead to yell at the dog who was barking at the car.
Dan sighed into the receiver. "It wasn't your fault. She was sick. You know her dad suffered from depression too. Genetics."
"I know, okay? That doesn't make it easier. Look, I'll be in tomorrow, okay?"
"Tomorrow is Saturday."
"Okay, bye Dan."
Liam sat in the kitchen, periodically leaving to open some windows, let the air circulate. He shut the door to the bedroom tightly, feeling much of the suffocating heaviness leaking from there, from the bed he shared with her, nursed her in. He told her stories sometimes. She loved stories. He told her this one about a girl who used to hike around the Olympic National Park, searching for buried treasure left there by pirates running from India.
"What would bring them all the way to Washington from India?"” Sylvia asks Liam, cuddling against his body under the heavy quilts his mother made. "Why would you ever want to come here when you could have spices and warmth?"
Liam thinks for a moment. "Colonization, perhaps?"<
"Perhaps. Freedom is overrated."
Liam turns over on his side. "Sylvia." He doesn't know what to say. She turns away from him, wedging her body against his but turning her eyes from his. He asks, "Do you want to hear what happens to the girl?"
She reaches for him and squeezes his hand tightly. She doesn't let go.
"One day the girl follows the pirate trail into a bear cave."
Sylvia laughs. "Bears?"
"It happened, okay?" He brushes her auburn hair away from her face. It sometimes sticks there, glued to her skin with salty tears. Sometimes she cries without noticing. "Now so the bear is asleep when she gets there. So she sits and waits for him to wake up. He's sleeping on the treasure, see."
Sylvia tries to snuggle closer to Liam but their bodies are already almost inseparable.
"So the girl waits. She isn't bored, though, because she happens to have a copy of Tolstoy in her backpack amidst the granola bars. When the bear wakes up, the first thing he sees are her shoes---"
This makes Sylvia turn around to face him. She tries to keep her dark eyes focused away from his. "This story sounds awfully familiar. Could it be you are borrowing from real life? After all, you have the hair and the snore of a bear. I knew you were writing yourself into the story all along." She rubs his face with hers, a smile spreading across her dry, cracked lips. She is beautiful.
"I love you," Liam says to her, trying to pull her closer against him, trying to draw her depression out through osmosis, through her skin, passing into his. She starts to cry again.
"I'm sorry," she says. He realized later that she meant that she was sorry for leaving. For dying.
Liam wakes up cold and alone. He wonders where the dog is. He gets up from the floor in the hallway outside the bedroom where he's been sleeping. The dog has torn up the sofa. He goes to the kitchen to put food in her bowl. Some of it spills onto the floor. He doesn't clean it up. He cracks his back and turns to the living room. In the middle of the pieces of sofa are pieces of white string and red canvas. The dog is chewing on something. The shoe.
Liam snatches it from her and sets the slightly chewed shoe on the mantle. The dog scampers to the kitchen. Air runs in from the front door and all the windows. Liam sits on the couch and watches the shoe on the mantle. These are Sylvia's favorite shoes. It's a message. She's trying to tell him to come save her.
Liam goes to work.
Dan, a blur: "You still don't look so good, Liam. Been sleeping at all?"
Liam, distant: "A bit. Naps here and there."
"Maybe you should go back home. Today's a slow day, I can handle it without you."
Liam blinks. "Do I have any more sick days to use up?"
He can't see Dan's face. Too far away. "Well, we can work that out. In fact, maybe you should go to the hospital instead of back home."
Liam sits down at the computer, pulls up Google, stops looking at Dan. "I'm fine, I'm fine."
Dans walks away, Liam thinks. Liam pulls up the news stories he looked at the last time he was here. Still no explanations. Gangs, maybe? Sylvia has some prescription drugs on her. Could she be mired in a drug crime? Political conspiracy? Sylvia is not political, not like he used to be before he met her. Would she be kidnapped because of anti-government protests he was in as a college student? Scrolling down. Natural decay? Perhaps people jumping off the--- Liam stops reading. Natural decay is not plausible. She is in the woods, in a cave reading Tolstoy somewhere, waiting for him. He will find her.
Liam is packing. The dog follows him around, thinking they will go on a walk. Liam pats her head, slow motion as though his hand is detached from his body. Floating in the water for some sand crabs to eat.
The door is open so Liam does not hear when Dan and Marie walk in. He does not hear when they shout for him, does not feel when Dan grips his arm.
"Liam, Liam," Dan is singing. "Please talk to us. Please don't do this."
Liam turns to Dan. Dan's face is wet. "Did they find her?" He asks, dropping his bag on the dog. The dog barks. "I hope she isn't upset about her foot. She is beautiful with or without feet. I will be her feet. She does not need them."
Marie is holding his other arm, "Liam, Sylvia is dead, she is not coming back. There is nothing to find."
Liam feels sorry for them. "No, no. She's alive. I know it." Their faces, too distant he thinks though they are beside him. "Look." He pulls them to the mantle, showing them his treasure. "I found her shoe. Her shoe washed up on the beach."
Marie is sobbing and Dan has moved away from them, one hand on his stomach, the other over his mouth and nose. "Oh my god," Marie might be saying. She is difficult to understand. She pries the shoe from Liam's hand and throws it.
"Why did you do that?" Liam scolds her and moves towards the shoe.
Marie slaps Liam. "Don't do this," she hisses. "Sylvia doesn't deserve this. She wanted you to be happy even though she couldn't be. Come back."
Liam blinks and backs up, shaking his head as though to clear it. "What the hell?" He mumbles. His bones feel hollow, easily snapped.
Dan's hands are warm and grip his arm gently. "Come with us."
They get in the car. Liam puts the leash on the dog. She sits in the back with him and licks his hand. Dan turns right then left and then goes straight for several miles. The dog falls asleep, too excited after being in the car for more than five minutes. They come to a bridge. Dan pulls over, looks at Marie. She opens her door and Liam's door. Liam gets out. The dog wakes up, but Marie's already shut her in the car. Liam walks to the railing and reaches out to touch it. His feet brush against the cross with the wreath attached to the bottom of the railing by the narrow sidewalk.
"Liam," Marie is saying, "Sylvia is gone. She jumped from this bridge into this water."
They hear the car door shut and Dan is standing behind them, hands in his pockets, looking at the ground. "We all miss her. We all struggle to understand it," he says. The dog barks at them and licks the window.
Their words are starting to feel far away again. The shoe nudges him. But he pushes it away. The water is dark, reflecting the dark sky. It will rain. Liam breathes in and begins to cry. "Don't leave me," he says, but she already has. <
The dog barks. As the raindrops fall, catching in his beard, he turns back to the car, feeling his bones creak. He climbs in.
The windows are closed. The couch is patched. There are no boxes in the corner of the kitchen. The bedroom door is still closed, and another bed is smushed beside the tv. There is a new quilt from his mother on the bed. The dog ate the other one. Dan and Marie leave, promise to be back for dinner. Liam puts the leash on the dog and goes out to the car. He puts the key into the ignition. The dog climbs into his lap like she used to do as a puppy with Sylvia.
"You need a name," Liam says. He thought of the places he and Sylvia would have gone together. He thought of bears and mongooses. The Jungle Book. Riki Tiki Tavi, who saved his family. The dog licks Liam's arm. "Let's go for a walk," he says.
The rain stopped.
The sun dashed against the water, sending slivers of brightness into the eyes of the man who walked his dog along the cold beach. Tavi--- that was the name of the dog--- was pretty dirty, and made things worse by rolling in the sand still clinging to seaweed so soon after high tide. Liam--- that was name of the man--- slumped down on his haunches, squinting at the mutt as she ran crookedly along the crashing waves.