Anytime She Goes Away
Randall G. Arnold
I trespass her field of vision, and frozen Time restarts.
She has no idea how long I've been lurking outside. Just that I re-enter the patio door trembling, clad only in baggy, waterlogged shorts and a pair of disintegrating beach shoes.
"Are you cold?"
I pause, and gasp out a final shiver.
"Yes. Yes, the water was a bit nippy." It isn't a falsehood. "I need to change."
The audio playlist has stopped but batteries are precious and I'm in no mood to load something else.
"I don't hear that racket anymore," she calls.
Sometimes I can weasel out of answering, knowing she'll soon wander to some new matter. Masks have grown easier to maintain. The lifeless guise of poker professionalism fits my face so snugly now.
She's clearing again, her musician's mind briefly refashioned sharp and crisp like the light September breeze, so I straighten the crooked bed mattress and return to confess the simplest thing. I know I can reuse it. I have aligned myself to her disordered sense of Time.
"It was a cigar store Indian. From one of the island shops I believe. Crashed into our old den and was head-butting the back wall."
"Silly, wooden Indians can't walk!"
I chuckle against pain and guilt. "It floated in. Water now breaches the window ledge by several inches."
"Well, you should call maintenance. That'll cause rot."
When we lugged our unspoiled possessions to this empty floor, Bonnie sailed high, and characteristically played up the positive.
"At least we should have a better view!"
I didn't have the heart to remind her that the pressing sea was what pushed us up again. That a blue, curved horizon from one streaked window looked the same from another just one storey up.
I just smiled and nodded and dragged.
With each move against gravity our list of heavy necessities dwindles. I'm increasingly attracted to paths of least resistance. But each loss of the familiar just adds to her anxiety.
Even the steady tide bears variable burdens, and with each cycle expands its vertical claim.
My guilt-fed bile rises in tandem.
Bonnie and I are not incarcerated in this isolated complex forever. At worst, we could ride the back of a red-stained mannequin to reimagined land.
Which way offers hope now? Land is the more familiar, or was. I can only imagine the madness now developing westward. Water monopolies and fiefdoms and tribal terrorism.
Humans so quickly forget our badly-bet outcomes, and greedily gamble again.
"Phillip, there was a crash below."
It's been exceptionally quiet, and I had almost drifted off in my recliner. At first I'm confused, then I remember: last week.
I have to do this again.
"Storms break glass, dear." Storms and streaking jets.
White noise envelops us, percussive orchestration of the infiltrated sea: sloshing water, fingers of wind scraped against brick contours, random blasts of gull song. From our bedroom float the strains of Bill Withers bemoaning lost sunshine.
"Now I hear drumbeats, Phillip. Outside."
I can't make any out this time. So I'm inclined to score her comment as another aspect of fantasy. Materialization of a skimmed story fragment.
Her free hand beats out relaxing rhythm on the armrest. Thump thump, thump thump. After listening a while it dawns on me that she syncs not with wafting music, but lapping waves. Finding an anchor in their steady pounding.
"Bass drum," Bonnie adds, buried memories of band direction bubbling up. She waves both hands at me now, her splayed book an awkward baton. "Boom, boom."
"I'll go out and look," I lie, hoisting my protesting body. I've gotten good at this act. Pretending today is yesterday.
Masks are uncanny things. Some we craft for ourselves, some are installed over protest by players uninvested in our future.
Still other masks, like Bonnie's, are irredeemable presents of a cruel and inexplicable Nature.
"Go. I'll be fine," she chirps, and I know she will.
I've hidden the pointed things.
My Bonnie lies over the ocean.
Her world is a swirl of sea and sand and cloudy sky. Mine is anchored by tubs and tools and things of killing steel.
With the ocean's frightening swell I lose more of her, but in her eccentric way Bonnie's right: we race against water, mildew, malnutrition. Each night I listen to and feel the big waves batter this building. Meanwhile black stains crawl the white walls. Some similar blight stole my rooftop garden.
Ship lights traverse what seems to be a distant shipping lane, but none have responded to my signal.
Robots. Automated haulers, dutifully executing their monotonous rounds even in the loss of equally programmed consumers. Do the intermodal cranes still lade? The foreign plants still produce? I wonder what China looks like now.
Or Venice. Poor Venice. Surely a fraction of its former glory, hoary underpinnings finally succumbed to the siren sea like Odysseus to Kalypso. The Mediterranean surrendering a long promised embrace.
She constantly obsessed over visiting. Let's see it before it's too late!
Bonnie of the buried treasures, steadily bricking off her world of rich fantasy, but leaving a storm door cracked to Venice.
Prior to the world ending, I utterly failed her, growing to despise her dream for its distance. Venice has always been a taunting spectacle of opulence, an unobtainable jewel. A picturesque sea-framed beauty was its flaunted vulnerability. I'm almost glad we killed it.
Anyway, this is Poseidon's correction, not another punishment from Zeus. The god of water received Bonnie’s prayers and delivered the spectacle to us, but my dear wife can't appreciate the gesture.
Various gods submit wind and wave and token gifts of debatable value.
Too late I realize that Bonnie is adjusting our bed covers. I rush into the room and my heart sinks to see that thing of cold chrome in her right hand. Her left is balled tightly around something small. She stands stiff before me, all five-foot-two of her straining to contain rage.
"Why do you have a gun, Phillip."
It isn't a question.
"I found it."
How is she this aware? Does the device of death lend strength and aim, or is it simply the event of catching me in selfish, childish evasion?
"There was a dead man flopped across that wooden Indian."
I'm not sure what she recalls, but she's sickened by my revelation. How frustrating that it takes this—THIS!—to draw her completely out again.
And I'm wrenched back in time, crabbing through stinking, waist-deep water. There's a defeated body draped across a blood-red totem. Subtle swells lift torn clothing, mockingly offering the illusion of life. I see the odd bulge in his sun-bleached cargo pants.
"He... had that revolver in his pocket. I thought..."
"You thought? Or reacted? Two bullets, Phillip!" She thrusts them out, chrome poison in her little upturned hand. She's done the math. "It only held these two bullets!"
"I... I would have only used it as a last resort."
"Kill what can't be c-cured!" she sputters, flinging the ammo at me. I flinch. "I haven't given up, Phillip! So why the hell would you?"
I don't want to answer. But it's the only ticket through this impasse.
"Because I've missed you, Bonnie..."
"I've missed me too! Do you think I've enjoyed this? Right now, right goddamn now, is the most focused I've been in months. And I'm sure I'll lose it when the anger fades! So don't try to calm me, Phillip! Just don't! Let me have this moment. God..."
She collapses to the mattress, crying, and I can only loiter like a clueless criminal.
Then she stands and hugs me. Tightly. I've become so afraid of physical contact, because for so long it's been all about violent restraint. But I hug her back. And we're both bawling.
Occasional aircraft zoom over, expatriated pilots no longer concerned with sonic booms that rattle and shatter derelict windows.
A frightened Bonnie swings between clutching her tired old mate in fear, and forcefully repelling some strange intruder.
"You're not my husband!"
But what item is askew this time? What scene did I recreate wrong?
Maybe she's right, and it's me. I'm not the same. Just a wooden, hollowed-out facsimile.
Lately her episodes bang through so frequently, violently, chaotically. I fear a looming breakdown, where cushions lashed to sharp corners won't be enough to protect either of us from frenzied energy.
Sometimes she's St. Thomas: clear, breezy, entertaining.
Too often she's Galveston: venerable, defiant, but now only partially exposed at low tide.
There was a medicine announced, before the ocean overtook us. A promising treatment. Now it taunts from time and distance and memory. Freighted to nowhere on autonomous vessels.
"The man I married would have never brought a gun into this house! He would have found a real solution!"
Bonnie shoves me away when I approach and flees to the sanctuary of our bedroom, sobbing.
She'll forget this, too, by the next full moon.
I wish I could.
Bonnie's calmly absorbed in her books again, digging into a surreal estate where I may or may not exist. I admit to more than mere twinges of jealousy at being left out. At least I have my music, and a fleeting forgiveness for multiple sins.
As she tears through another worn paperback, I fetch last night's rainwater from the balcony basin. I keep hoping that, like her, I'll forget how easily it used to stream to our waiting lips.
Water has its own memory. We may assert mastery of it for a while, and kid ourselves over our success, but water mocks our efforts.
The mighty Mississippi sloughs its banks and beds and delivers the remains to our doorstep, further darkening the already clouded Gulf. Drowned Bayport refineries paint the surface with ironic rainbows.
I just never imagined saltwater and silt could invade so far, cover so much.
Bonnie sees canals running over Bayport's water-covered streets. Skittish sunlight skipping off curling crests like kingfishers of gold.
Another page turned as I sit, another seasoning of dreams relinquished.
"Everyone else fled, Phillip," Bonnie accuses from another clear peak. "When the flooding first hit. Everyone else. Why not us?"
I'm so ashamed of my escape. "I didn't believe."
It's partly true. I was a skeptic of climate change. Of water memory and might. But it overflows dams, routes around dikes, exploits weaknesses in conduits, heedless of our beliefs.
"Huh," she scoffs. "You chose to disregard reality. At least I have an excuse. You chose."
I have no defense. She draws an eternal breath, instinctively curls into a yoga crouch, and peers up at me.
"What... what about the deceased? The gun owner?"
"I... pushed the Indian to the window and rolled him off."
She shudders and flings out her fingers.
"Jesus, Phillip. You are such an engineer!"
I don't know if I could sink any lower. She sees, and sighs.
"So many options, Phillip. We could at least have considered Seasteaders. They're out there. Somewhere. All you think about are uncaptained ships too far to reach."
So she's aware of where my head has been.
"I'm so sorry, Bonnie. I'm so, so sorry. You're right. I've been an utter idiot."
She sniffs and forces a shaky smile, tiny hands clasped.
"You just want me to stop being mad." Her face twitches and falls. "But you'll lose me again."
I kneel down and take her hands.
"Bonnie... I'm with you for better or worse. But all I've given of myself is the worst. I shoved that stupid gun under the mattress not to use, but to remind me of that! So I would do better. I will do better."
Her eyes punch through mine. Strong and direct and clear.
"Then get rid of it. That's a good start. You don't need a foil to be good, Phillip. Just be the man I married."
Whoever he is now.
But I release the dreaded instrument back to the god of water. I hope he can accept that.
After a quiet supper of expired canned goods, she comes alive again.
"Let's put on some tunes and listen from the patio! You always enjoy that."
I'm cheered to see her bounce up. I feel undeservedly forgiven for my mask collection.
After I start the player and join her, we lean against the rusting rail. She curls into me against the chill. I've missed this unguarded intimacy.
"It's been so lonely lately," she pouts. "No one vacations anymore."
I smile. Yesterday her travels were maddening. Today... not so much.
"It's the off-season."
She looks to me with transient optimism. "Do you think others will come? When the off-season is over?"
I consider the steaming robots, the mythic Seasteaders, the wary survivors surely struggling upon swamped shores.
"Someone will come," I lie, not wishing to break the spell. "They'll see our oil lamp beacon, and they'll come. We'll wake up one foggy morning to a boat horn, and hailing voices, and we'll drop our bags into welcome arms. It'll be like a sea cruise!"
"I'd hate to leave," Bonnie says, biting her quivering lip. She waves across exposed upper structures. "It's like Venice."
Ah, dependable Venice. Queen of the Adriatic. City of Masks.
A big bull shark undulates beneath us, upper fin barely breaking, making for deeper waters. I wish I were a shark. Torpedoing consistently forward out of primal need, never looking back over accumulating waste piles. Shamelessly moving, consuming, shitting all over the tempestuous past.
"Just like Venice," she softly repeats.
I smile again and clutch her even closer. Her seaward face is bright and open.
My Bonnie lies over the ocean.
Narrowing my eyes against Phaethon's scattered fire, I strain toward the spot claimed by her hand-shadowed gaze. I want inside her unsettled realm, so I stretch my imagination. Small cloud shadows are gondolier shade; wind ripples are signs of swift phantom passage. Gull cries morph into drunken laughter of passengers protected by pretty ceramic facades.
Soulful song colors the evening air. Her right hand drops and slips into its dark hypnotic rhythm. Rising. Falling. Rising again.
"Yes," I agree, gently squeezing her free hand, "it's just like Venice."
Randall is a DFW-area speculative fiction writer who got serious about the craft in 2015, earning honorable mention in the Texas Observer's fiction contest that year with "The Dolphin Riders" (included in the "Sirens" anthology from World Weaver Press). In 2016 he repeated with an honorable mention in the same contest with this story. Randall enjoys mangling genres and twisting tropes.