l. annette binder
They must have seen me as I went along the road. They knew just where to wait. Four miles in a loop past the harbor and around the point and then I’d be back in old town. Drops still fell from the biggest trees. It had rained the night before. I kicked the mounded leaves and walked right through the puddles. I was wearing new waterproof boots. None of this matters.
The sky was clear for a fall day, though you couldn’t call it warm. I was used to California weather after so many years away. My blood had gotten thin. I stopped a while to watch the gulls. The storm had churned things up, and they’d gathered by the dozens down along the rocks. I took a photo with my phone. Even on a walk beside the shore I carried it in my pocket. My husband always insisted. He scolded me when I forgot.
There were joggers behind me and ahead, and couples walking their dogs. Black standard poodles and terriers and a pair of Rhodesian ridgebacks that loped just like roaming jackals. I stopped for the poodles. I’d had one as a child, and I stroked their wooly heads. Their owner wasn’t particularly friendly. He was tall and a little stooped. He carried a travel mug and watched the breaking waves, and when I wished him a good morning he told me it was almost noon.
Past the old Presidential compound and around Arundel Point and the crowds were thinning out. The streets were quiet here. Some of the houses were already locked down for winter. I began to walk a little faster. I’d had a hearty breakfast but was already thinking about lunch. Things would be strict again when we got home. It’d be salads every day and egg whites and string cheese and no more cinnamon rolls. My husband was a stickler.
I was coming up to the old Baptist chapel when I first noticed the sedan. My husband always said I needed to pay better attention. You need zanshin, he’d tell me. Quit your day-dreaming. A car will hit you if you’re not careful. You’ll step into a hole. I suppose he was right. He knew me better than anyone. But I noticed this car and the three men inside. One was bald, and his head looked like an enormous egg. Their car idled on the shoulder, and for a moment I considered crossing to the other side of the road. Maybe this would have made a difference. It’s hard to know. But this wasn’t the city where you had to be careful. And anyway I didn’t want to offend. I didn’t want to be one of those fearful women who clutch their purses whenever a man comes close.
My mother always blessed newborn babies by kissing them on the head. May you never know the touch of unkind hands, she’d say. I don’t know where she learned this. It might have come from Romania where her grandmother had been born. Or maybe it was just my mother, who’d always been a little strange. I didn’t understand what she meant when I was a kid. I cringed and hoped nobody else could hear.
They burnt my clothes and my boots and my cell phone minus the battery. They used a barbeque pit behind a row of trailers. The bald man gave the orders. He got angry if the others were a little slow. That night we drove together, the four of us, to the dock. They had an old deck boat there. One of the back seats was cracked, and nobody had bothered to gather up the splinters. They were quiet when they started up. They spoke only in low voices. The October moon shone on the water. A night so clear you could see the wisps and trails of the galaxy and not just a few scattered stars.
The rocks grew small and went away, and the bald man steered the wheel. I’d swum these beaches when I was little. Every August we came though my parents hated the crowds. We sat under an umbrella, and my brother ran into the waves. He was a lousy swimmer even with all his lessons. Watch your sister, my father would say. That’s what you need to do. Oh, my baby brother hated that. He gouged me with his elbows and pulled at my wet braids.
The three men tossed me over. They wrapped me up in chains. One of the chains had a strange old lock. It looked like something from a pirate ship, and it clipped me on the chin. It opened me almost to the bone, but I didn’t bleed.
Things move slowly below the surface. I didn’t know this before, or if I knew it I didn’t understand. Storms pass overhead and leave no mark. Twenty or thirty feet down they’re nothing more than a gentle surge or a slowly turning eddy.
It isn’t cold where I am. There is nothing but black water. One summer I went out a little farther than I ever had before. I lingered out there and didn’t notice how the current was pulling me along. Everything was different when I came back out. The taffy stand was gone. There was no sign of my parents and my brother and our striped towel on the sand. A nice lady in a swim skirt found me. She held my hand and waited. I’d drifted half a mile around the point, and my father was breathless when he came running. I’d never seen him cry before. Even my brother was upset. He was sweet to me the whole ride back. He let me use his blanket. Bless my brother, my dead baby brother who crashed his car in college.
It is December when I begin to rise. The chains were stronger than I was. They worked their way through me, and then they fell away. Not even two miles from here the bald one is working in his garage. He’s got his bandsaw going. He looks up from the table top he’s making. He watches the empty street. Maybe he feels my coming.
There are no vendors on the beach. No music and no shouts, no girls in summer dresses. But the rocks are the same and the sorrowful cries of gulls. There’s a solitary man on the shore. He’s working his metal detector, and who knows what he’s looking for. What lost artifacts from summer, what things washed up and covered by the sand. He has on a sweatshirt and an oversized down vest. He stops when he sees the gulls that have gathered. He comes close enough to see, and then he turns and runs.
I won’t tell you what they did. It does not matter now. I rose as though cradled in somebody’s hand. I rose of my own will. Up through the water and into the pale winter light. It’s fragile as eggshells, that December sky. It’s beautiful in its way.
L. Annette Binder's fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, Bellingham Review, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Avery Anthology, The Fiddlehead, Green Mountains Review, South Dakota Review and others. She is a candidate for the MFA in fiction at the University of California, Irvine.