December 22, 2021 by The Citron Review
by Hanne Larsson
I splutter, gasp awake. Saltwater stinging my throat. Lungs burning. My nostrils itch and scratch as I thump out of bed, same way I lurched out of that groping, clutching surf seven years ago. Bundling my running gear together I rush downstairs, hissing Walkies! at Stanley, my wracking cough disrupting Mel’s dozing.
An inky wave looms all along the patio doors – suspended, rolling – casting the kitchen ominously blue. Dawn’s grey light won’t penetrate. Silver fish flounder in its maw; it’s real and damp against my outstretched hand. No, please, not yet.
I reach for Stanley’s ears, trying to find warmth.
He growls, hackles raised. But where the wave touched me, my skin has started toward translucent blue, clammy like dried sea spray.
When I’m gone, Stanley will wait by the front door, head on crossed paws. Mel has sent me enough pining pictures over the years for this to be truth. But he’ll be here.
Between porridge and sips of tea, I glimpse the oily waves crashing – growing, frothing – next to the garden shed. Three miles inland and I’m drowning in each breath. Again.
Forest. Run. Away. How do I explain this to her?
We return home soaked: Stanley’s excuse is ducks and mine because I stuck my head in the pond, trying to forget the sea-demons’ cackling song, praying the pond to be enough. I sold the boat soon after, bought running shoes, tried to chase the squeezing pressure, the constant hacking and choking away from my lungs with hills and forests. I am permanently thirsty.
Instead, I find the first one sitting next to the coffee machine, licking his lips in Mel’s direction.
‘Awaybegoneaway!’ I wheeze, saltwater catching.
The incantation isn’t right. He smirks at my attempt, leers at Mel then vanishes with a sucking squelch. The noise always at my audible edge.
‘Coffee?’ she asks, eyebrow raised in concern.
The scalding water rushes down me until I’ve drained the tank but I’m still shivering. The second sea-demon from that night surfaces from my memory: her red eyes penetrating through the pitching sea, snaring me, calculating what price I’d settle for. She now ogles me from the top of the shower curtain. I hiss something stronger. She laughs and laughs until I squirt shower gel in her eyes.
Two down, one to go.
‘Rachel’s coming – what’s wrong?’ Mel hands me scalding coffee and a croissant. I know I can’t sit through an entire lunch and for her not to know the tidal wave about to crash through our life.
I take her hands in mine, pull her over to the kitchen table, needing her body warmth. My questions rush out of me, same as how the sea spat me out once the deal was sealed.
‘You know that night I went out on the boat, when that storm turned up? The one no forecast spotted?’
She slowly nods, her hands solid, warm and tightening mine in turn.
‘I came back: soaked, shaking, almost purple. And you wrapped fleece on fleece around me, fed me soup, dressed me in pyjamas and tucked me into bed. And how I got so ill, afters?’
She nods again, and outside, next to the shed, the waves by the shed now threaten our bedroom. Our kitchen is almost in total darkness, only lit by the wave’s white froth. I’m fumbling my words.
‘The truth is…’ This is the right thing to do, but I feel the piercing frost of that night all over again and no blankets will ever dent the chill groping my heart. The first demon is back, long fingers beckoning me. Time ticks, waves swallow. I blink away the tears, soon enough I’ll be entombed by salty damp.
‘Danny, just spit it out.’ Mel’s hands are too warm. I don’t want to ever let go.
‘I made a pact that night. Seven more years on land, with you, of life, but when the three of them came, I would return to the water. And I wanted to say something but couldn’t bear for that to be the one remaining thing you thought of me. Then, I thought I’d dreamt it all…until this morning.’
Mel’s face is as white as the milk she poured in her coffee and my heart twists. She lets go of my hands. My tremble returns.
‘How many?’ Her voice is a whisper – dry and papery – and I hold onto that as she drapes a blanket over me. She comes from old sea-faring stock; she knows the stories better than I do.
‘One so far.’ I look into her green eyes, see tears shimmer before she busies herself with kitchen tasks. I’m lying. She knows.
‘So with the next tide…’
‘I don’t want you to worry – everything’s in order. They’ve promised me a body to find – it’ll make things…’
She shushes me with a look, and I know that look. It’ll haunt me even in my blue-black grave. She gave me that same look on our wedding day, when we promised each other forever. The waves in the fridge’s reflection have suddenly become mirror-calm, our kitchen returned to its light.
‘I regret that night, but I don’t regret the extra time I got with you. I’ll be ok.’
She just smiles, before her voice quietly cracks. ‘But what about me?’
Hanne Larsson is a Swedish-British national who longs for the 95% humidity and hawker centre food of her childhood. Her stories are fed by environmental science topics, moss-covered rocks masquerading as trolls and what-if scenarios. Her words can be found in several nooks and crannies on the web. She is a member of Dahlia Books’ ‘A Brief Pause’ and lurks on Twitter: @hannelarsson