Let’s Go to the Ocean | A Short Story

“What you need is luck,” Gemma says.

We’re hiding out in the storage room, pretending to move things from one spot to another. Although she’s wearing the same ugly blue vest as me, it doesn’t look bad on her. She pulls up the mesh sleeve of her striped undershirt and taps a tattoo of a magic eight ball on the inside of her wrist with a pointed black fingernail. One of her silver rings clinks against the other.

A moment of silence sits between us. I’m wondering if she means I need her, but I’m terrified to think such a thing. Last night after work we hung out by her beat-up brown car. She offered me a clove cigarette from her huge black purse and we stood shoulder to shoulder smoking. She talked nonstop, hilarious shit about her roommates. I laughed like an idiot.

I grab a bag of expired bread rolls and toss them at her. She catches them and sticks her tongue out at me. Her green eyes sparkle and dance like sunlight bouncing off the river. I’m in trouble. I force a laugh and look away.

“No shit I need luck. There’s no way I’m paying my rent this month. Whatever. It’s a crappy place anyway…”

My voice trails off because it sounds like I’m asking for a place to stay and I know her two roommates are assholes. I’m fucking this up. She gives me a reassuring look and I feel unsteady. My words come out in an outtake of breath as if they’d been sitting in my mouth waiting for me to let my guard down.

“Let’s go to the ocean.”

The image of her sitting beside me in the sand at sunset makes my face burn and I turn away from her. What am I doing? I haven’t had a car in two years let alone funds for gas or food. All I do is complain to her about being poor. She’s got to think I want to use her. I’m such an idiot.

“How about dinner tonight?”

She’s beside me now holding my hand. I look at her and it’s as if kindness has taken human form—all soft edges and gentle warmth. Flecks of gold dance in the green of her eyes. I’m drowning.

“Would you go out to dinner with me tonight, Eloise? My treat. I want to show you something.”

I nod as one of the night bosses, Mr. Parker, walks in the door. His brick-red puffy face looks at us standing close together and he frowns. I catch a glimpse of a golden cross in his chest hair and I brace myself for whatever nonsense he’s about to throw our way. His voice is fast and breathy.

“Eloise, go outside and break down the boxes to be recycled. Gemma, I’m moving you to books. Let’s go girls! I don’t pay you to stand around smiling all day.”

My shift ends a half hour before Gemma’s and I spot her standing in the book section holding a dictionary in her hand as some sweaty overweight man yells at her. He’s inches from her face. I want to punch him and rescue her, but Mr. Parker’s lurking nearby. I can smell his cheap cologne. I don’t want to get her into trouble and I need my stupid job. My feet drag as I walk away.

I wash myself up in the bathroom and go outside to stand next to her car. She comes out ten minutes after her shift ends with tears in her eyes. Instinctively I hug her close and she lets me hold her while she sobs. The customers at our store can be brutal. The bosses aren’t much better. I wish I could take her away from this place.

“Some people are so mean, you know?” she says into my shoulder.

I do know. My entire life has been filled with mean people, but it won’t help her to compare pain. She hands me a clove cigarette and we smoke again, standing with our backs against the cool metal of her car. A flock of geese flies past honking loudly. The sky darkens. She flicks her cigarette on the ground and grinds it out with the toe of her black Doc Martin boot.

“Okay, let’s get away from this place.”

We drive to a Chinese restaurant called “Lucky Day” and she orders us both rice bowls with extra chicken to-go. She plays old Britney Spears music and we sing along at the top of our lungs. We watch the sunset turn the sky orange and purple.

After about 20 minutes she pulls onto a dirt road. It’s bumpy and uneven so she slows the car. We drive through tall arching trees and a narrow twisting road going up and up. I hold onto the door handle and she laughs at me. When we reach the top she turns off the car and smiles.

“Get out.”

A tiny part of me wonders if this is where I die. It’s a ridiculous thought because I’m not scared of her, but it’s the middle of nowhere and we barely know each other. She seems to sense my discomfort and laughs again.

She pulls out a flashlight, a blanket, and two black hoodies which we quickly put on. She hands me the bag of food and I follow her through a densely wooded area until we reach a pile of boulders. Without hesitation, she scrambles to the top and I follow as best I can. She drops the blanket and clicks off the flashlight.

“What do you think?”

At first, my eyes see nothing but blackness, but soon I’m able to recognize a vast field of trees and grasses spreading out below us for what looks like forever. A tiny patch of glittery water catches the pale moonlight—a river or stream. She tilts my head up and I gasp. Without any streetlights or homes, the sky above us has exploded with more stars than I’ve ever seen. It’s what poets write about and artists paint. It’s breathtaking.

“Wow.”

“Right?”

We stand for a long time saying nothing until her stomach rumbles loudly eliciting giggles from both of us. Spreading out the blanket, we eat the rice bowls in silence. I’ve never been able to recognize a meaningful moment when I’m in it, but this time I do. This isn’t any old place and she’s not any old person. It feels like fate. Like destiny. Like an origin story of happiness.

Eventually, it gets cold and we decide to walk back to the car. She blasts the heater but leaves off the lights. We sit in silence for a long time. It’s as if neither one of us wants to break the spell cast by the night sky. I finally speak and my voice sounds small.

“Thank you.”

“It’s my favorite place. I found it a few years ago when I was looking for a place to…well…I didn’t really want to live anymore. This place sort of healed me. I’m glad you liked it.”

“I loved it.”

A loud crinkling sound fills the car as she reaches into the front pocket of her hoodie and pulls out our fortune cookies. She turns on the overhead light and we both crack them open.

“The real kindness comes from within you,” she reads. “Ugh. These things are getting more and more generic. That’s not a fortune. Maybe you will have better luck. Read yours.”

“A golden egg of opportunity falls into your lap this month.”

We both burst out laughing. I know a joke is there somewhere about her on my lap, but I don’t try to get it out. Instead, I fold up the fortune and put it into my pocket. Who knows? Maybe my luck is about to change. With her, it feels like anything is possible.

“It’s 11:11.”

She’s pointing at the small clock and I nod. I can tell I’m missing something. She squeezes my hand.

“Do you know what it means?”

“You turn into a pumpkin? I wake up and it’s all a dream? Your clock is broken?”

“11 in numerology is a master number. It’s extra powerful. It takes the energy of 1 and amplifies it. To see 11:11 means you are on the right path.”

She squeezes my hand again and when our eyes lock the car tilts sideways.

***

My studio apartment has an old-fashioned landline with a chocolate brown phone attached to the kitchen wall beside an electric stove with one working burner. The back left. The dirty tan spirling cord stretches long enough to reach every room. I find myself sitting on the wobbly toilet staring at the torn flowered wallpaper with the phone still pressed to my ear.

The person on the other end of the line, Jimmy something, has hung up. Boop. Boop. Boop. It’s a faded electric sound and for a moment I think it’s someone mimicking or mocking the noise. I listen harder and realize I’m wrong. Nobody is there. I’m alone.

You’d think finding out your only relative has died would be terribly sad, but I’ve not seen my grandpa for a long time. He left me with a family for the weekend when I was five and never came back. I don’t blame him.

Holding the phone out in front of me as if the booping sound might be a countdown to an explosion, I walk through the narrow hallway to the kitchen. With a click of plastic sliding into plastic, it’s quiet again. I sit on the cold linoleum floor in my underwear and bra. Crumbs stick to the back of my thighs. All I can think about is the phone call.

I didn’t know the landline worked until it rang. A British man speaks to me in a soft tone, as if he’s speaking to a small child or a furry animal, not someone who will be 20 years old in a few weeks. I suppose it’s meant to be soothing, but it feels condescending.

“I’ve been trying to reach you for days but apparently your cell number has been disconnected. I got this number from your work. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Miss Lewis, but your grandfather has passed away. He died in a car crash on Friday night after attending a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a tragedy. He was a good man. A fine man.”

He pauses. I’m not sure why. Perhaps he’s waiting for me to cry or ask follow-up questions. I don’t do either. Eventually, he clears his throat and speaks again, this time he sounds happier. Almost gleeful.

“He left you a considerable sum of money, Miss Lewis. Property too. I’ll need you to come into my office in LA. to sign the paperwork. It’s pretty straightforward. Check your email for the details. You are about to be a very wealthy woman. Congratulations.”

Another pause. I probably mumble “okay” or “yes” but I don’t remember. His voice transforms back to soothing—the sound equivalent of backing away slowly. He knows it’s a lot for anyone to process, especially someone clearly not doing great in her life.

“Sorry for your loss, Miss Lewis. See you soon. Goodbye.”

Magic eight ball. Golden egg. 11:11. Gemma.

A dripping sound from the sink brings me back to where I am—sitting on my dirty kitchen floor shivering. The faucet’s been leaking for the past three months, but right now the sound feels like an urgent alarm. I’ve got to get moving. Things to do. I don’t know how to do any of them.

A line of ants marches across the floor toward a stray light-brown generic toasted O piece from the last of the cereal I ate dry for dinner last night. I trace the line as it marches up my scratched brown cupboards to the small curtainless kitchen window. My thoughts wander as I watch them, backward instead of forward.

Both my parents died when I was a baby in a horrific accident on the highway. They’d gone dancing at the Elk Lodge as their first outing since I was born. The headline in the newspaper read “Swing Dance Champions Killed in Two-Car Crash” with the subhead “Alcohol Involved.” I printed out a copy of the article from the library when I was a teenager and remembered the words “quick” and “instant.”

Framed in my bedroom is a photo the babysitter took before they left. We are standing in front of a glittery silver Christmas tree. Mom’s dressed in deep purple and dad in dark green. He’s got his lean arms around her tiny waist and they are both staring at me smiling. I’m wrapped in a pale pink blanket and my red hair and blue eyes are the brightest things in the photo. We look deliriously happy. I wish I could remember.

My grandpa did his best but he wasn’t cut out to care for a small child. A music producer with contracts with some of the biggest names in the business, his lifestyle wasn’t exactly family-friendly. His LA office walls were covered in shiny gold and platinum album covers. He talked fast, always clicked a pen, and smiled a lot. He chewed gum. I don’t remember if he ever hugged me.

I do remember his secretary. She wore cat-eye glasses, and bright red lipstick, and smelled of vanilla. I spent a lot of time hiding under her desk and eating chocolate. Her name was Valerie. Will she be at the funeral? She’s got to be in her 80s.

I need to make plans. Take out the garbage. Spray the ants. Get time off from work. A bus ticket. I’ll need something black to wear to the funeral. Will Gemma miss me?

“You are about to be a very wealthy woman.”

I can’t think about it too much or maybe it won’t happen. Bad things always follow when I get my hopes up. Fortune cookies are nonsense. I look at the clock and see it’s 11:11.

***

The last few weeks have been a blur of technicolor LA opulence. Jimmy, the fancy British lawyer who called me, is a pretty decent guy with his silk Italian suits, well-manicured hands, and rich warm laugh. I know he’s paid to help me, but I couldn’t survive without the services he provides—a strict and steady Hollywood regime of valium, alcohol, and expensive dresses. I’m Alice in Wonderland and it’s all curiouser and curiouser.

I stay in grandpa’s posh LA apartment, one of three properties he left me in his will. Most of the place is chrome, absurdly clean, and lacking any personal artifacts. The one exception is a photograph of me on his nightstand. I am 4 or 5, the age when he left me, laughing in candy cane pajamas. When I tilt my head in the dim light faint fingerprints appear on the silver frame. I stare at them for hours wondering why he never tried to find me.

Jimmy said grandpa paid a “nice family” to raise me in the suburbs. He thought they’d give me a better home. “Safe from the LA crazies.” He didn’t come to visit because he wanted me to have a normal life. It’s probably good he didn’t. I’m not sure what would have happened if he knew the truth about how they treated me. The abuse. I’m sure it would have broken his heart.

Grandpa’s funeral is a who’s-who of the music scene and I meet more famous people and Hollywood stars than I can name. Each one says “your grandfather was a hell of a man.” I say “thanks” as if I’d been a part of it.

Grandpa left a lot of unfinished business, personal and professional. I sit through dozens of wildly uncomfortable meetings where people glare at me and say “who is this again?” They want to be sure I know I am a nobody. Unfortunately for them, I am the nobody who gets the money they think is theirs.

Apparently, grandpa led a very active social life. I have more than one drink thrown in my face. One woman even calls me a “charlatan.” For some reason I like it. I might have it tattooed on my arm. I can afford it.

Besides the apartment in LA, I now own a penthouse in New York and a beach house along the Northern California coast. I also have a car. It’s not just any car. It’s a shiny black 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz. I polish it myself with super expensive wax. I name it Ben.

After kissing Jimmy goodbye and promising to come back soon, I kick off my shoes and drive barefooted the six hours back home. I eat sunflower seeds throwing the shells out the window while wearing a flowing white dress with tiny daisies embroidered on the sleeves. My red hair tangles in the wind and I sing at the top of my lungs to the Grateful Dead.

“Walk out any doorway. Feel your way, feel your way like the day before. Maybe you’ll find direction around some corner where it’s been waiting to meet you.”

Pulling into the parking lot of my old work, I’m thrilled to see Gemma’s old brown car parked along the side entrance. I park beside it, run my fingers through my hair, and apply pink lip gloss. It’s a little over three hours before she comes out. I’ve been dozing off and on, but at the sight of her, I’m wide awake.

She’s wearing a black hoodie and she stops beside her car, digs through her big black bag, and pulls out a clove cigarette. Her makeup has smeared and it’s clear she’s been crying. I don’t want to startle her, so I wait.

After a few minutes, her eyes find mine. Recognition takes a moment but it’s worth it. Her face transforms. Light returns to her eyes and her cheeks pinken.

“Your golden egg, huh?”

Smiling, I nod slowly and pat the leather seat beside me.

“Let’s go to the ocean.”

Author’s note: It’s the first week of NaNoWriMo and so far I’m on track! Last night I ventured across town to read my poetry in person at an amazing bookstore. I’m leaning more and more into this writing life. It’s scary and beautiful. My story this week features the character who wanted me to write her last week, Eloise Lewis. She didn’t want to meet the devil, but she did want to run away to the ocean. It felt nice to give her a happy ending. I hope you enjoyed it.


Short Story Challenge | Week 44

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where a fortune cookie comes true. We had to include the words numerology, hilarious, dictionary, recycled, brick, ocean, meaningful, garbage, star, and origin.


Write With Us

Prompt: A Strange Request at a Piano Bar

Include: carnival, apple, sprained, mask, juvenile, controversy, oxidation, twirl, awkward, sassafras


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

52 Weeks – Week 8 – Wild Animal

Prompt: A wild animal loose in the house

Include: pregnant, community, logo, statistics, democracy, honesty, criminal, ankle, orange, comment

Read Anna’s Week 8

Sunset, Sunrise

Bright orange flames lick the glass sides of the fireplace and I wonder who made the fire, him or me? I press my hot, sticky hands over my ears and rock back and forth on the dirty wooden floor.

He took me here, away from any sense of community or family or love. He wanted me for himself and then he didn’t want me anymore. Aftershocks of anger ripple through my body causing me to shiver and shake, despite dripping with sweat.

There’s a crashing sound in the next room and I roll on my side to watch the doorway. We’d left the radio on in the bedroom and I can hear the drawling sound of Dwight Yoakam through the wall.

I’m a thousand miles from nowhere

Time don’t matter to me

‘Cause I’m a thousand miles from nowhere

And there’s no place I want to be

I grab his pistol from the floor and pull myself to a sitting position, scooting until my back rests against the leather couch. I lay the cold black metal across my naked legs and wipe my hands across the wooden floor leaving long, dark smears.

The sunrise beginning outside the bay window feels remarkably tame compared to the sunset I’d photographed with my Nikon last night. I remember him coming up behind me, grabbing my hips, and forcefully pulling me into him.

“Can’t beat the view,” he’d said.

I’d wanted to argue with him, but I couldn’t while staring at the painted clouds, almost a reverse rainbow of arching light with golden tinged shades of purple and pink. It reminded me of a Monet painting I’d seen as a child with my grandfather in Paris, although I think it was called “Sunrise.” 

Sunrise, sunset.

Sunrise, sunset.

I’d snapped picture after picture until the sky turned black and the stars winked at me from a thousand points. He’d been kissing my neck and pulling my hips toward him, and I did my best to ignore the way my body reacted to his touch.

“I hate the desert,” I’d said.

He’d pressed himself harder against me and slid his hands around to grab my aching breasts and pinch my nipples. The endless sight of the rolling brown sand in all directions intensified my feeling of anxiety, of feeling abandoned and tiny. I tried to make out the reddish-brown mountains I knew were off in the distance, but the moon had disappeared and I couldn’t find them. He spun me around and kissed me hard, knocking the camera from my hands. I left it in the sand.

A plaintive high-pitch screech sounds from the bedroom, followed by another crash; my stack of books falling off the nightstand. It’s coming for me, the shadow creature, the death bringer, he’s come to drag me to the underworld. I look at the gun wearily and wonder how many bullets are left and if they’d do me any good.

I fold my arms across my naked chest and think about my first-grade classroom, the last place I remember feeling truly safe. It was a warm yellow room with tiny windows high up near the ceiling and a huge green chalkboard. Our teacher, Miss Elle, wrote in swirling cursive handwriting across the board, ”I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” It was a Dr. Seuss quote and it was supposed to encourage honesty, but I’d read it over and over and wondered what it meant to not say what you mean and not mean what you say because that’s what I knew.

It’s what he knew too.

I met him when I’d fallen off my horse riding in the fields behind our farm and broke my ankle. The horse, a young gelding I was training for a rich kid at school, ran back to the farm without me. He came from nowhere and lifted me from the mud as if I weighed no more than a feather. The fairytale knight in jeans and a cowboy hat, and me the broken damsel in muddy distress.

From the start, his words were honey, and I was a mere ant. He used them to patch the holes my parents had punched into me, making me into a patchwork girl he could love and control. Oh, how I wish I’d been a bee and could create my own honey.

“It’s the end of democracy,” he’d told me one morning at a truck stop. 

He was eating pancakes, the fork stopped in mid-air with syrup dripping down in little dark droplets. I couldn’t eat, but I sipped lukewarm black coffee and tried not to let my apathy look like disrespect or disinterest. He hates when I “space out.”

“The statistics don’t lie Jolene. It’s a matter of time before civil war breaks out and then where will you be? We gotta go. You know I’m right and I’ll protect you,” he said. “You trust me, right?”

He’d been trying these lines out on me for weeks, but it wasn’t until I thought I might be pregnant I’d started to listen. The farm had gone into foreclosure and the few friends I’d managed to hold onto had grown weary of trying to break through the walls he’d placed around me. I felt stuck; an ant trapped in the honey. I agreed to go with him.

“We aren’t running because of cowardice or because we are criminals, but rather as an act of brave defiance,” he said as we loaded his rusted red pickup truck with our few possessions and his stockpile of food, guns, and ammunition. “We refuse to be a part of it. You and I are above such things. We know the truth.”

I felt no such feelings, but I made no comment. I’d felt the words inside me shriveling more and more as we drove; as if I’d left them buried in the old rice field behind the farm. I didn’t like the change in myself, but he’d slip his hand between my legs and I’d stop caring. It didn’t matter. Nothing did.

There’s a rustling in the hallway and I grab the pistol and aim it in front of me with shaking hands. I expect to see a shadow monster slink out of the darkness toward me like liquid death, but instead, it’s an enormous bird. Bright amber eyes, a hooked beak outlined in yellow, and layers of soft, brown feathers meet my eyes as it hops into the room and screeches a short, piercing cry.

We stare at each other for a moment, its head jerking from side to side as if evaluating my threat level or sizing me up as possible prey. I lower the gun and it shakes its head and scuttles across the floor dragging something silver in its huge talons. 

It reaches the shut bay window and stares at the early morning sunrise, the golden peak of color on the horizon illuminating the jagged mountains far off in the distance. It screeches again, stretches out its wings, and spins in a circle revealing a patch of dark reddish feathers jutting out below the light brown ones.

It’s a red-tailed hawk, one of the few birds we see in the desert. He liked to tell me hawks are the warriors of truth, a sign we’d made the right decision to leave everything behind and come here. He’d point them out and expect me to share in his revelations or visions. I don’t. I see a scared and smelly old bird.

The bird screeches again, jumps into the air, and attempts to fly. Its wings are too wide for the small space and it knocks into the walls falling with a pitiful cry into a heap by the fireplace. It clicks its beak, turns its head back and forth, and stares at me. I feel sorry for it, trapped in these walls.

Grabbing the gun, I walk in tiny sideways steps toward the hallway. The hawk jumps onto the rocking chair in the corner and, when the chair moves, tumbles in a heap onto the floor. It seems unharmed, but more frantic. I rush down the hallway and into the darkness of our room.

I pull on a dirty yellow sundress and a pair of black lace underwear from the floor and try not to look at anything of his. I step on tip-toes through broken glass and splinters of wood to grab my Anne of Green Gables book. He’d tried to rip it, to hurt the one thing I’d taken from my childhood home, but I’d flung it toward the wall and out of his reach. I inspect it for damage and find the cover torn, but the pages inside are unharmed. I breathe in the musty smell of old paper and tuck it under my arm.

Slipping on my dusty brown boots, I grab his keys and walk to his ugly red truck. I stare at the logo on the side, the ridiculous painting of an eagle holding an American flag. He spent our first weeks here in white coveralls painting the hideous display of his supposed patriotism, while I scoured and scrubbed the abandoned house and tried to make it look like a home. I’d never felt safe here, despite his constant patrolling and the large green machine gun mounted in the bed of the truck.

To me, his patriotism looks a lot like cowardice and selfishness, running when things got hard instead of helping or being part of some kind of progress or change. I grab a large porous rock and scrape off the paint, scratching out his careful brushstrokes, erasing his masterpiece from the Earth. When I’m done, covered in sweat, I slip down onto the rocky driveway to catch my breath. My hands and body ache.

The hawk walks out the back door in a sort of hesitant wobble, keeping its bright eyes on me. I point at the truck.

“Looks better doesn’t it?” I say.

The hawk says nothing but takes flight circling around and around me as if inspecting the scene from all angles. I hear other hawks and it swoops toward them, toward the sun fully risen above the mountains casting its golden rays of light upon the desert and me.

There’s a glint of silver by the front door, the hawk’s treasure it dragged through the house sits stuck in the thickly woven doormat. I’m terrified to retrieve it. I imagine him standing there waiting just inside the dark doorway smoking and pacing in his black boots. I think I can hear him in the shadows, smell his sweat, but I crawl forward through the gravel anyway. Ignoring the pain of tiny pebbles piercing the flesh of my hands and knees, I keep my eyes on the ground. I refuse to look up. I refuse to look for him.

It’s his lighter, a small tarnished silver square with his initials carved into the side. It belonged to his grandfather, a man he admired for his strength and his war medals. A framed black-and-white photo of him sits on the bookshelf in the living room and I’d been struck by how much their jaws, cheekbones, and eyes were unmistakably the same. I wondered what happened to his grandmother.

I flick open the lighter and stare at the bright orange flame, so much like him. A rush of cold wind swirls sand around me stinging my skin and forcing me to close my eyes. I use the doorframe to pull myself to my feet and run toward the truck. He’s right behind me in the sand calling my name. Jolene. Jolene.

Tucking his gun between my legs, I press down the clutch and turn the key in the ignition. The old truck roars to life sputtering and thundering.

“Take me far from here,” I say, patting the dusty dashboard.

Rocks fly and hit the sides of the truck as it rumbles down the long driveway. I stop at the wooden cross marking the turn and roll down my window. I take a final glance behind me, toss the lighter into the sand and turn onto the main road.

PHOTOS/BRIDGETTE WHITE

Author’s note: I had lots of fun ideas for this week’s prompt, but with all that’s happening in the world my brain would not write playful or silly. I can’t say exactly what sparked this idea, but it may have something to do with a house we pass each day on the drive to my children’s school with a huge green piece of wood covered in strange conspiracy theory rhetoric. As it often does, the story took its own meandering path from there. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below. Thank you for reading.


Next week’s prompt: Week 9

Prompt: A midlife career change

Include: chef, upgrade, monkey, turkey, fashion, team, harden, noon, elevator, baste


My 52 Week Challenge Journey