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The Sand Nests by Emma Sloley


In the introduction to Volume VII of The Masters Review Anthology, in which Emma Sloley’s marvelous short story “The Sand Nests” first appeared, Rebecca Makkai writes that reading the piece while selecting stories for the anthology made her “cheat and peek at the ending.” Who hasn’t been tempted in this way before? Please trust us that you can read this story without cheating—take Makkai’s word for it: “It was partly because the plot had me in such a state of panic that I needed to know how things would turn out; and partly because I loved it so much that I needed to know, right then and there, that the author had not muddled the ending. (In fact, she absolutely nailed it.)”

What does it take to stick the landing in a short story? This answer won’t be exactly the same for every story—lucky for us, or every story would be familiar—but there is often a combination of several elements working in tandem to both ground and unsettle the reader. In Sloley’s author’s note, she describes her favorite stories as those “rooted in the domestic but suffused with rising dread. The reader is never permitted to quite get comfortable.” The tension mounts toward a strong ending in “The Sand Nests” through a mix of setting—the claustrophobic closed-set of a boat; place—the unnamed coastal community that each summer pits locals against summer people; atmosphere—the uncanniness that settles over this whole piece; tense—the present tense keeps us rapt in story-time, with the action unfolding around us; and point of view.

This is perhaps the most masterful craft decision here: perspective. Sloley accomplishes an incredibly difficult narration that uses a measured omniscience to balance and transition between sections in the collective voice of the parents and in a close third-person with each of the three main characters. The opening paragraph establishes a storytelling narrative voice that clues us in to character, setting, place, point of telling, and perspective. It lays the groundwork that will allow later transitions from Caroline and Paul as a collective, to each of them individually, and to Everett when the action peaks. The first line—“Only two days have passed since they were banished to the boat but already the summer’s inevitable fractiousness has made itself apparent”—sets us in the boat, in the season, in present tense, in a recurring annual conflict (“this is their sixth year now under this arrangement”), with our family of characters. The paragraph goes on to introduce us to “The wife,” “Her husband,” and their daughter, “The only one happy.” There is no head-hopping in this terrific array of perspectives: Sloley moves between POVs through that omniscient storytelling voice and never, ever breaks the fictive dream in 6,000 words of riveting short story. Don’t peek. Reading this story from start to finish is absolutely worth it.  —CRAFT


This story was previously published in The Masters Review Anthology Volume VII


 

Only two days have passed since they were banished to the boat but already the summer’s inevitable fractiousness has made itself apparent. They know there is always this period of adjustment, this is their sixth year now under this arrangement, but it doesn’t get easier, shrinking their lives to fit the space. The wife, Caroline, especially hates the futility of spending hours hunting for some object that would have had its own, immutable place in their usual home. Her husband, Paul, curses every time he smacks his head on a low doorway, which on a boat is every doorway. The only one happy is Everett, who at nine years old still possesses the ability to be enchanted.

For her sake they also try to think of it as an adventure, but out of the child’s earshot they default to grousing about the conditions: the stifling heat; the difficulties of cooking and sleeping; the haunting reek belowdecks; the temerity of their greedy landlord, who temporarily evicts them every time high season comes around so she can rent out their cottage for a sum so enormous as to carry a whiff of the obscene. They happily pay the obscenity though, the summer people, so Paul and Caroline and Everett are required to clear out every June and decamp to this repurposed lobster boat moored in the old, unfashionable marina at the windswept northern tip of the peninsula. The other marina, the fancy one, is situated halfway up the coast, and bristles with superyachts and people who care about shoes.

Caroline drove to the fishermen’s dock earlier and bought two small perch wrapped in waxy paper. She bastes the fish in olive oil, lemon, salt, and oregano and lays them on the grill of the tiny barbecue on the aft deck. They both loathe cooking in the poky galley downstairs, so most meals are prepared, cooked, and eaten on deck, unless the weather turns bad. Which it often does in these parts, dumping summer squalls that feel specifically engineered by some cruel unseen hand to fray their relationship.

Everett sits cross-legged inside a coil of thick rope, playing a game on her ancient phone. She glances up when Caroline calls her to set the table. From this position, her mother is merely a set of legs, slender and threaded with varicose veins. Caroline feels swollen a lot these days, a bloated fish washed ashore, but to Everett the veins are beautiful, the delicate color of lavender. She has assigned this color the number fifteen, or rather it has been assigned for her, and she whispers the number now. “Fifteen.”

Paul overhears, but they are both used to the girl pronouncing numbers out of nowhere. He stands beside Caroline and prepares the salad, tossing the ingredients into a plastic bowl. They leave all their glass and ceramic possessions locked up in a special closet in the cottage over the summer, bringing with them only tin and wood and plastic and iron, the depressing unbreakables. He burns with impatience to share the thought that has been marinating all day.

“Have you noticed how everyone we know is overeducated and underemployed?”

“Hmmm?” Caroline says, although she heard him fine and is simply employing a reflexive stalling tactic. “Including us, I suppose you mean.”

“Oh sure. It’s kind of weird though, isn’t it? We used to all be so busy. Now everyone is always free for lunch, but no one can afford to go out to eat.”

She sighs, turns the fish over. There is a miniscule bolt of simple joy at seeing how beautifully the flesh has taken on the black grill marks. But why does he have to give voice to such things? The trick to tolerating lies in forgetting. If you’re always harking back to some golden age of gainful employment and ambition and easy friendships, back in the hazy years before children and the financial crisis, then how will you keep your balance in the present? Some of their old friends have drifted back to the Midwest, or the West Coast. Some have taken jobs in marketing or precarious tech-adjacent industries. Some, like the two of them, decided to slip away from big-city life altogether.

“Not like we see any of them except in the off-season, anyway,” says Caroline in her proud wounded voice, because now that he has exposed the topic, she is glad to pick away at the scab.

A lot of the friends whose lives have become impoverished take any opportunity to visit during the fall, winter, and part of the spring, when Caroline and Paul have possession of the cottage. “If only you had this place year-round!” they cry, like plaintive seagulls. The friends roll up with children and exotic cheeses and fisherman sweaters and sometimes picnic baskets in case the weather behaves. There are games and too much wine and endless woodfires, which sound so romantic unless you’re the person tasked with chopping the wood. No one comes to visit in the summer. It makes sense—where would they sleep…on the boat’s deck?—but there is still a sting in this blatant signaling of what the friends value.

“They’re like the opposite of fair-weather friends,” Paul says.

“Foul-weather friends.”

“Exactly.”

Paul covers the salad with a dish towel, then opens a bottle of sauvignon blanc and stands holding the plastic flute by the base while he surveys the bounds of their seasonal world: the scattering of embattled fishing boats and humble pleasure cruisers bobbing in the oil-slicked water, a stubby pier with a rusted fuel pump, a boarded-up tackle store and four ugly bulbous green recycling bins onshore. (Everett could have told him that this particular shade of green corresponds to the number four.)

“Why do you keep touching yourself down there?”

He is startled out of his thoughtless reverie by Caroline’s sharp voice. He turns to face her. She is holding the tongs aloft like a weapon or a trophy, cheeks flushed from the heat of the grill, her lips slightly parted and strands of dark blonde hair floating around her face. In another era he might have playfully tackled her for the tongs, tickled her, or at least smoothed the strands behind her ear, hoping it would lead to hijinks. In this era his hand still goes to his groin, but only to worry at the lump that had appeared there, when? A few weeks ago? A couple of months? He panics at how quickly he has lost track.

“I’m sure it’s nothing, Caro. But do you mind coming and feeling it?”

He stands on deck with his shorts pushed down around his hipbones, feeling vulnerable and ludicrous while she frowns and gingerly rubs her fingers over the spot. There is something proctological about it, even though it’s not that side of the body, something to do with the feeling of helpless diminishment that comes from standing in a paper gown in a doctor’s office waiting to be probed. When she raises her chin, her eyes meet his and he sees written there the fear he has been pushing down. Caroline swivels, using her back to screen their conversation in case Everett is watching, which seems unlikely, given how monumentally boring she finds their company.

“I’m going to call Dr. Kim. Make an appointment.”

He begins to demur but, after all, this is what he had wanted—for someone else to take responsibility for the situation. If she takes it in hand then everything that follows will be her responsibility too. He banishes this thought as unworthy of the decent person he still aspires to be.

Caro being Caro, she instructs Paul to continue supervising the cooking of the fish and the sliced potatoes while she makes the call right away. He doesn’t know whether he hopes for an appointment immediately or at some undesignated time far in the future. But he sees from her relieved face when she comes back from the wheelhouse—where the cell signal is strongest—that it is the former.

“He can fit us in on Thursday,” she says. “Thank god.”

“That’s good,” he says, feeling a little faint. The lump, which even this morning occupied no more than a tiny closet of his mind, has now moved in and taken over the entire space, every nook and cranny poisoned with worry.

There is no thought of taking Everett with them. She has a horror of doctors. Just imagining performing the additional emotional labor of keeping her calm is exhausting. Now that the decision has been made, a deadening feeling of inevitability overcomes them both, and they eat dinner on the deck sunk in silence. The sky shifts from yellow to purple to deep blue to black, and Everett converts each of them in her head: fifty-two, fifteen again, forty-eight, nineteen, and three. The air gets chilly out in the open once the sun has gone down. It’s too early in the season yet for the true balmy nights, but they pull blankets out of a trunk, shake them out, and wrap themselves up, three little cocooned souls adrift in exile. The muffled beat of electronic music drifts across the sand dunes from a party somewhere down the coast.


Thursday both takes forever to arrive and arrives far too quickly. Only a few days have elapsed, yet they have both become amped to the edge of hysteria by the prospect that the lump might turn out to be Something Bad. Now that it has been spoken of, it belongs in the world as much as they do. He lies awake wondering what Caro and Everett will do without him. She lies awake wondering the same thing. The unthinkable is suddenly all they can think about.

She is solicitous of him now, tiptoeing around their conversations as though his feelings are a church. This is the one silver lining, that they have rediscovered kindness in one another. They have stopped squabbling altogether. They both hug Everett for a few extra seconds every night before bed. She is an intuitive child but she seems not to notice anything amiss, and they congratulate themselves on successfully shielding her from the horror of this gnawing worry, when really they have just willfully misdiagnosed her intuition—she is uncommonly attuned to the natural world and the world of objects, but at this age other humans lie outside her realm of interests.

They both rise early and Caroline cooks scrambled eggs, willing to face even the galley to simulate an atmosphere of normality. Nothing feels normal, though. Paul knows something has changed because when he passes the kitchen, he sees that she has left the pots to soak rather than cleaning them right away. The rule is that whoever cooks also cleans up, to give the other person a whole meal off; but often when it’s her turn she claims the dishes are extra encrusted and need to soak overnight, knowing full well he can’t stand squalor and will end up doing them. This subversive laziness usually infuriates him but today the sight doesn’t register at all on the rancor scale. This, more than anything else, scares him.

By silent consensus they seem to have decided not to tell their daughter about the Something Bad. Why spoil her week, too?

“What are your plans today, Everett?” Paul asks, ruffling her cotton candy–fine hair.

“Going to look for mussels,” she answers without hesitation. Paul has shown her how to scrape them off the rocks with a sharp stone or a small knife.

“Not without Daddy though. Let’s do that later on. Maybe tomorrow.”

Everett pouts for a second, on the verge of protesting, then she seems to forget all about it in favor of running one of her rope-soled sandals around the railings as if along a monorail, her face alight with concentration.

Sometimes he envies the child her easy joy. She enters each new situation with an expectation of pleasure, and this innocent entitlement is often rewarded. He can scarcely believe how wide the gulf is between the part of his life when he knew such pleasure and the time he is currently inhabiting, one in which his most decadent habit has become crying in his used Toyota Corolla in the sparsely populated lot adjacent to the marina. He spends two days a week working as an adjunct at the third-rate liberal arts college two hours’ drive away, and those twenty hours a week are so thoroughly demoralizing that he sometimes barely makes it off campus before his throat tightens. If there is one life lesson he feels he could impart to his students, those barely adults still starry-eyed and fattened on idealism, it would be that there’s nothing noble about having money, and nothing sexy or romantic about not having money. Not that he would have listened to him at their age.

After breakfast, there are still five terrible long hours to pass until they can leave for the appointment. They let Everett loose as soon as everything is cleaned up, as is the usual routine during these warm months. She skips down the pier, waving carelessly over her shoulder in their direction, her backpack bumping against her bony legs as she runs toward the sand dunes. They’ve made sure she’s a strong swimmer, is perpetually slathered with sunscreen, and always has plenty of water and her phone charged when she leaves the house, so there’s no reason Paul should feel this unfamiliar anxiety that clutches at his chest while he watches her disappear into the shimmering landscape. Every emotion is just supercharged since they dragged the Something Bad into the light.

“Hey, Caro?”

“What?”

“Meant to tell you. You know Cal, the old dude who lives down in the fishing shack?”

He’s not sure why he calls him old, when the guy is probably only ten years older than they are. An Iraq War veteran whom some of the summer people have been trying to get evicted by claiming he lives there illegally, squatting, though no one really knows this for sure. There’s no septic and he lets his trash pile up at the back of the shack. It’s unsanitary, they say, it attracts rodents and god knows what else. Other offenses: He smokes a noxious smelling pipe and has a tendency to go on profanity-laced rants whenever strangers approach the shack.

Caroline emerges from the head, drying her hands on a towel.

“What about him?”

“Josh told me that someone saw him the other day sitting outside his place, squatting on the sand untangling a fishing net or something. Buck naked.”

They both take a moment to conjure up this unwelcome vision; the saggy tattooed flesh, a thatch of graying chest hairs, the pendulous scrotum dangling between his ankles. She realizes the story is supposed to be comical or to evoke outrage, but her first reaction is to come to Cal’s defense, although she barely knows him.

“I get that he’s kind of weird, but that doesn’t mean he deserves to get kicked out.”

“Oh, I agree, he’s harmless. Just thought it was funny, him being a nudist. He once gave Everett a little wooden box covered with shells, remember?”

“How could I forget? She covets that thing.”

Despite their shared distaste for the local torch mob’s enthusiasm to evict the poor man, they have suggested to their daughter in the past that it might be a good idea not to visit with Cal unless they accompany her. Naturally, she couldn’t just accept this edict but demanded to know why. “Just because.” As far as they know, she has obeyed.

When they’re fifteen minutes away from leaving for the appointment, Caroline phones Everett.

“Where are you, honey?”

“Visiting the sadness.”

“What?”

“I said visiting the sand nests. Where the little birds lay their eggs. Waiting to see if any hatch.”

“Oh, okay. Well, Paul and I are driving into town to see the doctor. We’ll be home in time to make dinner. Will you be alright?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t stay out too late. Go back to the boat before it gets dark.”

“Okay.”

Is it strange that the girl didn’t ask why they were going to the doctor? Is that another item to add to the worry to-do list? She can’t think about it right now. Her heart is hammering so loudly she fears he will hear it; she quickly turns up the volume on the radio with clammy fingers. Paul is looking out the window, face closed, his bottom teeth jutting out. She would have preferred to talk, to paper over the nervousness with chatter, but every conversation she attempts turns into a cul-de-sac. He just nods or gives a monosyllabic answer, and she soon gives up so they can sink into their separate miseries.


The doctor’s office is like all such places: simultaneously suffused with an end-of-the-world surreality and the all-too-real banality of sickness.

“Paul Balamo?”

Paul stands abruptly, a racehorse eager to get out of his constricting gate, but Caroline rises more awkwardly. One leg seems to have become tangled beneath her. “Sorry,” she murmurs to nobody. She squeezes his hand and they move wordlessly towards the doctor’s room. The door is ajar and they can see the doctor at his desk, sipping from a can of Diet Coke. She closes the door behind her, because whatever happens now is just between the three of them, as in some secret lovers’ pact.


They walk back out to the car without speaking. It feels to her as though they haven’t spoken for days, that this entire expedited crisis has unfolded in a crushing silence. They are within twenty feet of the car and she has the remote raised, poised to unlock, when she finally collapses into his chest. Her head is ringing as though a bell has been struck inside her ear drum.

“Thank god, thank god.”

He rubs her back and grins bashfully, like a man who has won something he didn’t expect, which she supposes is the case in a way.

“Told you it was nothing.”

She will allow this demonstration of bravado, which would normally have pricked at the always-eager-to-surface irritation. They already both feel a bit foolish about having spent the previous days worrying themselves sick, but even this feeling is a relief. They disengage from one another and she slaps his ass playfully as they perform their flanking maneuver on the car. Halfway to the vehicle, he changes his mind.

“I’ll drive.”

She shrugs and tosses him the keys and they switch sides. As they pass the first sign listing their town she says, “Hey, maybe we should celebrate with dinner at the pizza place.”

“The one Everett loves, with the crazy placemats?”

“Yeah.”

“Sure. Be good to not have to cook.”

She pulls out her phone and makes a call. “Hi, I’d like to make a reservation for three people. Around…” She glances at the illuminated time on the dashboard. “Eight?” She listens for a few seconds. “Oh? We didn’t hear. Okay, thanks for the tip. See you tonight.”

She replaces the phone in her battered handbag. “They said there’s a big thunderstorm heading our way. There’s a surge warning for the whole coast.”

He glances at her. “Should we call Ev?”

She nods and fishes the phone out again, presses the number and listens. “She’s not answering.”

“That’s weird.”

Astonishing how quickly the fear returns after being banished. The adrenaline floods back in like a king tide. Everett knows to always answer her phone. They haven’t gone another two miles when the wind picks up so suddenly and violently. The car shudders and Paul has to make a hasty adjustment to keep driving in a straight line.

“Whoa.”

On a normal day they might have already been aware of the climatic conditions. Of course, it hadn’t been a normal day but still, this seems no longer like a valid excuse for leaving their young daughter alone. Yes, she’s remarkably responsible for her age, and yes, they have vowed to be anti-helicopter parents, and yes, their experimental rejection of the all-American diet of fear has, so far, exceeded their wildest dreams in terms of having raised a well-adjusted, open-minded child whose independence is a source of much pride and friend envy. But they both privately feel they would exchange all of that for the peace of mind that has now fled, leaving behind a howling paranoia. Paul presses his foot to the accelerator, although they’re already doing the speed limit, but she doesn’t chastise him. It’s not even five o’clock but the sky is already dark as a pit.


Everett doesn’t hear about the storm coming but she feels it. After hours of roaming and beachcombing she’s a long way from the boat when the wind starts howling. She squints at the sky. The scudding clouds are a color she’s never seen before. For a moment her mind is blank, then three white numbers appear: 000. She tucks this knowledge away.

Within minutes a deluge has wiped out the world. She crouches in the scant shelter of a copse of ragged trees while she decides what to do. Soon she has it: she must try to rescue some of the eggs. She pulls her hood up, puts her head down, and runs back the way she came, toward the dunes. The sand is being lashed by the wind and rain: already the dunes have changed shape beneath the pummeling and the beach grass is pressed completely flat. She raises a hand to protect her eyes while she rummages around in the sodden sand where she remembers seeing the nests. The rain is hard as pellets on the back of her neck. She finds only two eggs, and these she places carefully in each pocket of her sweatshirt, among the balled-up tissues and scraps of paper and hair ties furred with strands of her hair. She fancies she feels the warmth of the nesting eggs radiating through the fabric. Rain comes down in sheets like in movies, and the solid state of it disorients her so that she can no longer be sure in which direction the marina lies. She isn’t frightened exactly, but when she presses her thumb to her wrist, she can feel her pulse galloping.

Pulling the hood closer around her face, she takes her phone from her back pocket and turns on the flashlight. It illuminates her hand and about three inches in front of her. She sees there are messages, probably from her parents, but that will have to wait until she’s back on the boat. The thundering of the rain on the sand and the roar of the ocean just over the dunes bends every sense into disarray.

She takes a step to her right, sensing the marina that way, but she doesn’t realize that the tiny rivulets of water where she sometimes finds tadpoles have swelled into a churning stream in the downpour, and she loses her footing and goes down without a sound, all the air sucked out of her lungs. The water isn’t deep but the current is strong and she struggles and splutters in the muddy water, trying to get a grip on the shifting banks, to lift herself up. When she finally staggers to her feet, mud sucking at her shoes, her hair all wild and sticking to her face, she realizes that she has lost the phone, ripped out of her hand when she fell, swept away towards the hungry ocean.

She waits for the jagged lighting to come. When it does, she yelps in distress at seeing she has veered far out of her way: instead of heading towards the marina she has come out on the other side of the peninsula, close to the wilder beach at which she’s forbidden to swim. There are no houses around here, yet she sees a light wavering through the rain. She perks up: it must be her parents out looking for her. But the light doesn’t move, doesn’t bob up and down like a flashlight, and as she moves closer, she sees that it is fixed, and coming from a small dwelling on the sheltered side of a long, low sand dune, half-obscured by panic grass.

As she approaches, she hears a voice calling out and she runs, slipping with every few steps. Cal stands in the open doorway of the shack, waiting. She smells the rank, animal scent of his pipe, and sees the red glow of the embers like an evil winking eye as he sucks in. She raises a hand in greeting, so happy to see another living being, and slips past the door he holds open for her.


Only after Caroline and Paul reach the boat and search its empty ringing spaces does the panic really take hold. They grab waterproof jackets and head back out into the storm, gripping each other as they run and search and call. They may as well be screaming underwater for all the sound carries. Everett isn’t in any of the usual places, the places where there might be any kind of shelter from this wild weather. They knock on the doors of the nearest houses but all three are dark and no one comes. They look in the public toilet block and the desolate bus station. They don’t look in the water, though; not yet. Please god, not yet. Wind whips at their clothes. Their shoes are soaked through. Caroline is crying openly now, her mouth hanging open like cats when they’re frightened.

“She’s probably back at the boat by now!” he yells to her, although he doesn’t believe this. “Let’s go check.”

Because he knows Caroline won’t hear over the noise, he says the incantation out loud: Let her be there, let her be there. They stumble back along the pier and leap on board, but apart from the sickening tilt of the deck beneath their feet nothing has changed, the vessel is still empty. They stand there for a moment in the downpour, unsure of what to do. It’s already impossible to imagine ever being dry or warm or not terrified again. Caroline bows her head as if gathering strength.

“We should try that shack,” she yells into his ear. “Cal’s shack.”

He nods with fevered intensity, relieved she hadn’t suggested getting the police involved or summoning a search party. That would be acknowledging that she might really be lost, or worse. They want her to be at Cal’s shack and dread it at the same time. They run all the way, splashing and cursing. Caroline goes down near the big sand dunes when her foot gets twisted in a root. One minute she’s running beside him and the next she’s sprawled face down in the sand. Events seem to occur outside of ordinary physics.

“I’m alright, I’m alright,” she pants as he pulls her up. She holds her hands in front of her like a penitent, and he sees her palms are grazed, pitted with tiny angry puncture marks. She holds onto him as they run, favoring her left leg a little, leaning into him. Finally, they see it, a wavering light through the rain.

They hammer on his door while the rain in turn hammers down on the shack’s tin roof like some unholy orchestra. We must look like sewer rats, Caroline thinks, capable even during crisis of experiencing anxiety at being unable to present their best selves. It feels like a long time before he opens the door, and she dreads what this could mean. Cal’s body takes up the entire doorway. She hasn’t ever noticed before how big he is, the muscular barrel of his chest and the angry flushed heft of his neck, where the edge of a blurry tattoo peeks coquettishly from his shirt collar. She marvels at the discrepancy between how fragilely he lives on the margins and how solidly he exists in the world. She, in contrast, feels hopelessly insubstantial, as if the molecules of herself and her husband are in danger of simply being absorbed into the storm. Cal calmly contemplates their fevered faces, then steps aside so they can see into the cabin where their daughter sits wrapped in a grubby striped blanket in front of a radiator, reading Little House on the Prairie. She looks up and waves at them.

“Well, you may as well come in and have a drink. Look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

It’s just an expression, but they both feel an immense gratitude spread through them like warmth, not just that he has their daughter but that he really sees them, sees that they have seen the ghost of some terrible future and have been spared. Holding hands, they step inside the shack. The cacophony of the storm is instantly muffled, or perhaps it’s just that the other sound makes the rain register as background. It’s like nothing she’s ever heard before, the song emitting from a pair of black beaten-up speakers. A bit like those Gregorian chants everyone was into for a while, but with something electronic and percussive behind it. Strange and haunting and beautiful in a way that makes tears prick in her eyes. They wrap themselves around their daughter, who squeals and wriggles away from their wetness, her little hands beating at their backs as she laughs. Paul laughs too, a little unhingedly. Then, in a kind of daze, they move away from her and sit down where Cal indicates—in maroon canvas folding chairs that sag like hammocks beneath them—and accept tumblers of vodka although neither of them drink spirits.

Caroline takes a sip of her drink and tries to be discreet as she looks around Cal’s home. He has divided the shack into three spaces using stretched cord and sheets of fabric. There’s a tiny camp stove, a toaster oven, and a kettle on packing crates in the kitchen; a futon-style mattress on a low wooden platform in the bedroom, with a stack of books next to it and a gooseneck lamp; and this room, with its folding chairs, card tables, and mismatched cushions. In one corner an open wooden tea crate is stacked neatly with fishing rods and nets. There are dozens of hooks on every wall, holding clothes, towels, hats, and black and white photographs of birds in rough-hewn frames. There’s something familiar and therefore comforting about the space, in its humble economy, perhaps because it reminds them both of living on a boat.

“Got you living over at the Smithside Marina, I heard?”

“Yep,” says Paul, trying to sound jaunty and unashamed, although he wonders how Cal even knows where they live. “We stay there just over the summer. Then go back to our, ah, house for the rest of the year.”

Cal laughs. “Didn’t get invited to the party, huh?”

Paul smiles as if this doesn’t sting. “Guess not.”

“She doesn’t look too seaworthy.”

“I resent that,” says Caroline, feeling lighthearted from the vodka and the heat and the nauseating relief. “I’m as seaworthy as the next woman. Oh, you mean the boat?”

The man stares at her for a long moment before a grin dawns and spreads across his face. “That’s right. That’s right. I knew you were good people.”

She actually blushes at this. It is shameful how much she longs to be a good person. Each of them casts furtive glances at Everett, who is still engrossed in her book. Could he possibly have touched her, or even said anything inappropriate? What kind of middle-aged man keeps children’s books around? The thought is like ice swallowed whole.

But Everett is happy as a clam, and they can both see there will be a minor meltdown when the time comes to leave. Sure enough, when the rain has stopped and they get up to leave, Everett juts her bottom lip out and begins whining. Caroline insists on collecting the glasses and taking them to the kitchen area. When she places them in the plastic bucket he uses as a sink, she sees on a low table a stack of ink drawings on paper. Glancing over quickly at the two men talking in the doorway, Paul reassuring Cal that the two of them will personally lobby against his eviction, she leans down to look closer: the top drawing is a sea of swirls and crosshatching, mostly abstract but for the occasional figurative form—what appears to be a tiger with horns, and a fish with a long, jagged bill. Like the music, they are beautiful and strange and a little discomfiting.

Cal’s face turns stormy when they try to thank him, as if it’s the one thing he can’t abide.

“Don’t carry on. You’re welcome any time. And this one.” He inclines his head towards Everett and she grins up at him like she would an old friend.

The entire world is dripping as they march in the sodden gloom back to the boardwalk. Everett bounces between them, each of them holding one of her hands.

“Can I visit Cal tomorrow?”

“We’ll see,” says Paul. “It was nice of him to look after you until we arrived, but we don’t like you going there on your own.”

“Why not?” A defiant quaver in the voice.

He sighs and Caroline can see he’s too tired, wrung out and hollow after all the drama, to explain.

“Well honey,” she says. “Because you know about stranger danger from school.”

“He’s not a stranger though. And he can see music.”

What can this mean? She remembers the drawings in Cal’s shack, and how their wild, slightly frightening vitality had reminded her of something. She sees now what it was: Everett’s rare and odd gift for putting numbers to colors, like she has another eye inside her with which she sees the world. Instead of the worry she probably should feel at this insight, she is overcome with a surge of hope at the poignant thought that her daughter might someday find her people. That her daughter might have a people to find.

“Well, that’s technically true. But we still have to be careful.” She hesitates for a moment, wondering how much of the lecture to deliver. Sometimes it feels like they’re just performing parenthood. “There are some men who can’t be trusted around children.”

“Because they’re pervs?”

She stifles a smile: where had the child learned that word?

“Well yes, something like that. Because they’re disturbed. They’re sick.”

She feels disloyal saying this after having spent time with Cal, who sees music and likes birds and seems to understand their daughter and her affinities on a level her parents have failed to.

“But Cal isn’t sick. He’s just sad.”

“Well, okay, that’s as may be.”

“But I want to give him this. I forgot.” And the child stops, drops their hands, and rummages in her pocket, then opens her palm to reveal in the wavering flashlight glow a single tiny bird’s egg, miraculously intact. “We talked about the sand nests and he visits them too.”

Everett is tall for her age and too big to be carried, but on an impulse her mother sweeps her up anyway, gripping her around the thighs and grunting and staggering a little under the weight. She presses her head into the girl’s damp belly and rubs her face from side to side, the wet cotton moving like a slug against her nose. Everett shrieks and squirms in her arms, and it takes a moment to understand what her loud protesting is about.

Caroline pulls her face away and looks up through the shadows at her daughter, whose right arm is thrust into the gaping sky, holding the egg far from her mother’s body so it doesn’t come to any harm.

 


EMMA SLOLEY’s work has appeared in Catapult, Literary Hub, Yemassee Journal, Joyland, The Common, Structo, and The Masters Review Anthology, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and a Bread Loaf scholar, and her debut novel, Disaster’s Children, was published by Little A books in 2019. Born in Australia, Emma now divides her time between the US and the city of Mérida, Mexico. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley and emmasloley.net.

 

Featured image by Mitchel Lensink courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

When I first started writing this story, some time in 2017, I would have been hard-pressed to explain the concepts of “voice” or “craft.” I had been writing fiction seriously for only a couple of years and was still trying to work out how to become more deliberate in my choices. The stories I loved best seemed almost magical, as if their power was innate and not a carefully constructed work their author had labored over. But something happened as my story came together: I saw that I was developing a style, leaning toward a set of interests that has haunted my fiction ever since.

On the surface, the story is about a married couple trying to make do in a comically trying situation—attempting to live on a small boat with their precocious nine-year-old daughter, whose synesthesia prompts her to assign numbers to colors—but quickly it becomes more about our very human fear of things unraveling. The idea that we can spend years carefully constructing emotional safe harbors—rituals, ways of behaving, rules we set for ourselves and the people around us that are supposed to guard against harm—only to have them swept away by forces out of our control.

I decided the best way to create this atmosphere was to initially place the perspective with the parents (natural proxies for our own adult anxieties and worries), then as the narrative approaches its climax, switch to the point of view of the little girl. This allowed me to use the naivete and innocence of the child, who doesn’t see any problem with taking shelter in a strange man’s cottage in a storm, to ratchet the tension before switching back to the POV of the increasingly hysterical parents searching for their missing child.

I’m very drawn to worlds in which characters are leading fairly mundane bourgeois lives while something not-quite-right is brewing just out of frame. On the one hand, there’s cozy domesticity with all its attendant irritations and comforts, but on the other is this unnamed ambient menace, a wild threat stalking the periphery of all that careful order. These are my absolute favorite kind of stories: ones rooted in the domestic but suffused with rising dread. The reader is never permitted to quite get comfortable. Things seem ostensibly normal, these characters seem safe enough in their lives—working their little jobs, raising their quirky children, deciding what to have for dinner—so why do I as a reader feel so uneasy, like I’m going to jump out of my skin?

In attempting to capture that very singular feeling, I turned to the master atmospherians who have cornered this kind of storytelling. I revisited Kelly Link’s acclaimed story “The Stone Animals,” which is by turns funny and creepy, Carmen Maria Machado’s beloved twisted fairytale “The Husband Stitch,” and Joyce Carol Oates’s classic shiver-fest “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” as well as Jo Ann Beard’s seminal braided essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” trying to work out how they created the narrative dark magic that propels their storytelling.

I’m not sure I will ever get close to the suspenseful mood—the can’t-get-it-out-of-your-mind stickiness—of those brilliant pieces, but the trying is exhilarating.

 


EMMA SLOLEY’s work has appeared in Catapult, Literary Hub, Yemassee Journal, Joyland, The Common, Structo, and The Masters Review Anthology, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and a Bread Loaf scholar, and her debut novel, Disaster’s Children, was published by Little A books in 2019. Born in Australia, Emma now divides her time between the US and the city of Mérida, Mexico. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley and emmasloley.net.