He never takes his shoes off to walk along the beach, says he hates the way sand invades every crease without his permission.
‘When’s dinner?’ he asks.
Sophia washes the ocean from her fingers. ‘Not long.’
He walks to the window where she keeps driftwood and fragments of sea-polished glass. On a sunny day they scatter rainbows on the white-washed walls. He picks up a clam shell she was so careful to keep intact and drops it down on the sill. It cracks and separates.
‘You should see someone about this.’ His hand sweeps over her collection. ‘It’s pathological.’
She traps the small white pill he gives her, under her tongue as she swallows, aware of his scrutiny, only spitting it out into her palm when, she hears his heavy footsteps above. The chalk leaves a bitter taste in her mouth as she washes it down the sink. Only then does she take out the object she plucked from the shoreline that afternoon, hidden deep in the pocket of her tunic. It’s a shell, but shaped as a comb, its teeth cracked with time. Its spine is lined with limpets.
Polishing the object with a soft cloth, she feels a sudden urge to push it through her hair. He likes it short, but it makes her feel exposed. Her scalp tingles as the comb nestles, snug behind her ear, the only place the hair is long enough. She has a sudden image of herself with a tail, so vivid that she looks down to check she still has feet.
She wonders what it would be like, not to have to jump to attention.
Later, when she slips between satin sheets, she dreams about the undulating sea; the waves a watery lullaby. She doesn’t hear him come to bed, or feel his irritation when, for once, she rolls away from him.
She sings as she makes breakfast the next morning. The words come to her one by one, like stepping-stones. She thinks she must have heard the song when she was a child and then abandoned it to the depths of her memory, in the same place her mother waits. He interrupts her melody, pressing against her from behind, caressing her neck with his stale breath. She stiffens and waits.
‘Done something to your hair?’
She tries to relax, clear her mind of his expectations as she reaches over to fill the kettle. Drops splash onto the melamine counter.
They both glance at the clock on the kitchen wall. It ticks each second of his tardiness.
He’s late for work.
She waits for him to reach boiling point but, instead of steam, there are only calm waters. Hands shaking, she fills the kettle. His reflection in the polished steel, shows a shadow creeping silently over his lungs; a darkness, which digs its fingers deep into his shoulder. Sophia blinks. When she opens her eyes, the image is gone.
It happens again later when she stops at her neighbour’s iron gate, as she always does.
Mrs. Davis is weeding her borders and a pile of seagrass lays discarded on the gravel, next to a kneeling pad.
She supports her lower back with her hand as she rises.
Sophia picks up the metal watering can and moves to help. In the aluminium surface she sees a hard lump pressing on Mrs Davis’ pancreas, in the area she clutches so rigidly. It clings onto fleshy tissue; a death-barnacle.
‘You look well, dear,’ Mrs Davis says.
Sophia’s breath scrapes her throat. She cannot bring herself to repeat the sentiment. It is not a good afternoon, but an ugly one.
‘Bit of bad news today,’ Mrs Davis says, pulling a hospital letter from her fleece-lined pocket. ‘Still, it’s about time I saw my Cyril again. Life’s too short to be wasted on the wrong person.’
She looks pointedly at Sophia.
Back home, Sophia fills the bath and summons the courage to look at herself in the mirror over the sink. She does not appear sick but blooming: her heart is flush with blood and her lungs covered with tiny hairs that look like seaweed swaying in the ocean. There are no fractures, lumps or shadows reflected back. Even the white strand in her hair that appeared overnight when her mother died, has turned a deep brown.
So absorbed in her image, she doesn’t hear the key in the front door or the cough that rattles down the hall with his footsteps.
‘It’s your fault I’m sick.’
In the mirror his skin is green, and the shadow on his lung is darker than this morning; dense, plastic and unyielding. The cough is no longer muted but rattles and wheezes.
She senses what to do, a whisper of watery instruction in her ear.
‘A bath will help your chest,’ she says, adding salts and a sprig of weed to the water.
Banging open the back door, tears cascade down her face as she runs toward the ocean, barely glancing at the treasures, collected so carefully over the past year. She does not want to witness his final moments as the weed stretches, thickens and wraps around him in bandages, until his last breath is squeezed out.
The ocean is beautiful, sparkling like glitter tipped on paper and there is comfort in the wash of surf as it swirls around her bare feet. Her legs tingle with possibility.
She wades deeper, until water circles her neck.
The sea welcomes her, and she dives down deep into its soul.
There is no going back.
Sue Dawes lives in Essex with her family and is in her second year of Creative Writing PhD at Essex University, specialising in Speculative Fiction. Sue has over 35 writing credits to her name: short stories, flash fiction, and poetry, which have appeared in magazines, anthologies and on-line publications, including Mslexia, Potato Soup Journal, and Writer’s forum. Sue is an associate editor for Short Fiction Journal, helps run a community writing group: Colchester WriteNight, and works part-time as a manuscript assessor for The Writers’ Company. Sue is grateful to Janus Literary for giving her strange little story a home.