by Anthony Bell
Mom always nagged me to be careful because I ran around barefoot. The sand felt nice between my toes—but¸ I’d tell her, it wasn’t only that: shoes were hard to come by, so I was doing us a favor by being thrifty. She’d grin at me, but would get serious and say how, even with all the big dangers the end of the world brought, it’d be stupid to ignore the little things like sharp wash-up buried in the sand.
She said a small cut could be as devastating as a bomb. She said it sadly.
We took care of ourselves pretty well; a long scavenge occasionally (once, we’d lucked out on a cellar full of beer and wine, and holy cow did she squeal and jump around until she was out of breath), but mostly we stuck snug to the beach. Each morning after the sun rose I checked for wash-up along the shore. Sand stretched for miles and my toes dug into it without trying.
I got to running in the sand sometimes, watching the seabirds fly away and chasing after them, pretending I could follow along and see the world for myself. Mom said there wasn’t much worth seeing anymore. She worried about me when I got like this; said I didn’t look where I was going so much.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I watch from the porch sometimes.”
“You’re a spy,” I said.
She laughed, then shook her head thoughtful like, seeming ready to say more, but she bit her lip and looked away. “Just mind your feet, Ragney.” She hadn’t combed her hair in days so it was all frazzled, which was weird because she was always combing it. She kept mine short because she said it was practical—there weren’t any boys to try and impress, after all—but for her, she’d always had long, long hair and liked the feel of brush strokes.
So mostly I did mind my feet. I could crunch snails with them without wincing (not that I meant to on purpose, but it happened), so I thought Mom was just hovering a bit. Since I turned twelve, she’d been slightly off. Can’t explain it too well, except to say I’d caught her leaning against the corner porch pillar, watching me like I knew she always had, but she’d never let me see her before, and her hair, ignored and unruly, made her look distant. Clouds on the horizon and all that.
This morning I walked through the dry sand of the upper beach, my feet pushing into it so that it felt like I was failing to climb an invisible stairway in the sky. Little waves lapped, filling all the holes of the hard-packed sand that sea creatures slumbered in, then pulled back to expose them again.
The sun hadn’t made it over the tall grass on the small hill before the beach, but it hit the water and sheened outward. I shrugged my backpack into a more comfortable position with the one strap and reached the tide.
Something the size of a hardcover book sat ahead. I bent and flipped it over and inhaled the thick smell of kelp. Numbers and letters: just a license plate. I remember when I first brought one of these to Mom—had to have been five or six—I thought the people across the water had sent us a message. When I was a little girl, Mom sat with me on the back porch as the sun set over the water, and she’d tell me these stories about people that lived on the other side of the world. Way across the water, she’d say, fanning her arm in front of me, her hand raking across the whole sky. That day when I first found a license plate, I thought it might have been one of those people sending us a message, but she said that no, their messages would come in bottles.
I dropped the California plate and moved on as the gulls flew about, awake and hungry from the sound of them. I came to a rock, broad and short like a tire on its side. I squatted and set my palms against it, careful of the barnacles. I got it up and shoved it aside; a bowl-sized crab, now exposed, scuttled back for the rock’s underside. I plucked it with my fingers, catching a front leg when going after a rear, and tossed it in midair before it could pinch me. I dangled it by a hind leg and whistled until one of the gulls turned my way. I flung the crab.
The gulls dove for it and squawked and fidgeted in a tight circle, wings flapping. I pulled my sling-shot from my hip and loaded a bearing. A light wind whipped the frayed cuffs of my jeans, which tickled my shin, so I knelt, and the soft squishy sand sucked around me. When it settled, I closed an eye and breathed, smelling salt and feeling the moisture hit my nose. I’d missed my shot yesterday morning and had lost the bearing on top of that, so I took an extra breath before firing this one.
The bird toppled, and I smiled, my stomach groaning as I imagined eating denser food tonight. The other gulls scattered. At first I thought their buddy falling over and dying was what did it.
Then I saw her.
Maybe fifteen feet from the dead bird and crab, she stood, slim, her thin, tattered clothes flailing in the wind. Probably my age. She held a conch to her ear, leaning into it almost with her eyes closed. Dark brown hair, nearly black for being wet, lay flat against her cheeks and cupped her jaw, the ends floating above her collar bones. Wet sand stuck to her arms like constellations, the larger dark rocks standing out like brighter suns among the finer, lighter-colored sand.
Blood ran down her right calf in trickles from a cut below the cuff of her capris. I thought of road maps and veins and red lightning. When she opened her eyes, they were grey pieces of a storm cloud. She smiled at me, a smile like my mom had when she laughed, before she’d gotten serious and told me to mind my feet. This girl, her smile faded and she pursed her lips and I’d swear she felt sorry for me, like she knew some great secret that I didn’t. But I’d never seen her before that morning.
She regarded her shell and held it out to me. I took a step, not quite knowing why, understanding that I had to treat anybody—women and kids, even—I met with suspicion, and yet not caring, those eyes pulling me forward. I took that step and she vanished.
I heard Mom coming over the loose deck boards, but I acted too caught up in plucking the gull. In reality, my mind was searching through the history of books I’d read, trying to remember all I knew from them about ghosts. When Mom’s shin broke my periphery, I blocked the sun with my hand and looked up.
“That’s a big one, Ragney.” She patted my shoulder and nodded, so I smiled. “I’ll check the garden and see what we’ve got ready for veggies. Anything useful wash up?”
I shook my head, and she nodded again. Most days there wasn’t anything useful, but it’d be a shame to miss a day when something good washed up because the sea liked to change its mind and took things back in a hurry.
I listened to her go, her feet crunching the crab grass poking out through the sand and soil alongside the house. I used to dream of hearing a bunch of boots crashing over the loose deck boards, of shouts and scavengers robbing us, killing us, and taking everything. Mom says there’s little chance of that, anymore; the world’s been quiet for so long.
She watched the waves lapping the morning she’d said this, drinking a beer she’d kept in the ocean overnight, tied to a rock with rope to keep it anchored. She sipped her cold beer as the sun rose and the gulls started flying out, and she told me it’d only been the two of us for a long, long time.
When the screen door clanged shut and I only heard the waves and our six chickens in their fenced yard, I got to plucking again, my stomach grumbling the whole time for me to hurry it up. I was glad to feel something other than freaked out about seeing a dead girl. Would this mean I’d start seeing more? Was I losing it?
I zoned in this time, finished the plucking and then took the bird to the ocean to clean it. Then I grabbed a spoon and headed for the wood stove in the living room because at a minimum, we always kept coals going. I tripped over the carpet corner like I always did, and like I always did, I swore. Mom hollered for me to watch my mouth, and then I swore again, though mumbled like, for being dumb enough to do this every time. I brought the coal to the cooking pit outside and started a fire.
I watched the beach while I cooked the bird in the cast-iron skillet grandma (whom I never met) had given to Mom. This heavy thing had been around for forever in my mind. How long after the two of us died would this skillet still be around? How long had that grey-eyed girl been around?
The next morning I rowed our ten-foot aluminum boat out to drop the crab pots. I’d cut one of the gull’s thighs up from yesterday, having plucked it, but leaving the skin because Mom said crabs loved the skin, and tossed a chunk in each pot. Crabs liked chicken more, but we didn’t use the chickens unless one died because they laid eggs and all.
I dropped the last pot and peeked back toward the shore, and when I faced the boat again, the ghost girl sat on the other side, holding her shell, her face blank but friendly. We coasted because I quit rowing. I let the oars rest in their oarlocks and tried to keep still. I worried that if I moved she’d disappear like last time.
“Who are you?” I said.
Her hair was dryer this time, straight like mine, but longer and shiny like Mom’s. Her leg still bled, down over her ankle and across her foot onto the boat. I could see a yellow flower-patterned shirt—very faded, of course—beneath the ragged overshirt she wore. She tossed the shell to me and I jerked reflexively, but thankfully caught it because it turned out I could. I stared at it, surprised, each second expecting it to evaporate. But it was cold against my palms like a shell would be, and I felt little grit from it rubbing against the creases of my hands. I thought about the book ghosts I knew, how some followed rules more than others, how others did things that didn’t make sense as a whole, how whole worlds and characters could be contradictory while also correct.
I finally looked up to see her watching me. She looked at the shell, then nodded at me, so I brought it to my ear, knowing I should be worried by this ghostly stranger, but somehow I wasn’t. This was an intriguing break from the sameness of my days, despite my mom’s constant warnings.
I startled and dropped the shell. It hit my lap and I wanted to ask, what the hell?, but she’d left again. I coasted alone in the boat for a while longer, feeling smaller than usual while gently bobbing on the open water.
Her blood stayed behind, however, a small puddle that blurred and refocused the whole way back. Or maybe it was my vision blurring. I didn’t know for sure, but when I pulled the boat ashore, the blood had gone, too, leaving me with the shell.
That night I leaned against the window, rolling the conch over in my hands, studying it in the moonlight. Soft knobs gave way to smooth spots that slipped into the ridged section by the opening. I considered the shell away from my face, but then got over my nerves and set it over my ear.
My skin pulsed with goosebumps and I shivered while waiting for my name. For something. Anything . . . really. Earlier, when I’d heard my name in the boat, a soft voice had said it, and I thought again about how the girl had first looked at me like she knew me.
I waited, but nothing came, so I gave it another minute, which was too long. It felt like my room was growing or that I sat by the waves in the open air with no walls around me. I set the shell on my windowsill and hugged myself to warm up.
I stood there for how long, I don’t know. Dazed, maybe, daydreaming, but then I shook my head and I heard it when I pushed off the wall to go to bed—something from the shell, I’d swear it, but when I lifted it to my ear: only silence.
A shape moved outside on the beach, so I rubbed away the condensation on the window and saw her maybe a hundred feet down the shore, looking up into my room because we’d only barred the first-floor windows.
I crashed down the stairs and hopped over the rug in the living room, then lifted the two-by-sixes out of their slots on either side of the door frame and undid the three bolts and finally ran outside into the soft mist of night.
She waited for me, and although the wind blew and I had to push my hair out of my face, it didn’t touch her. She stood there, still and unaffected and yet her feet dug into the sand—I saw it. I didn’t know what to think.
“Who are you?” I yelled over the wind.
But before she could or would respond, I heard my mom shouting my name. I turned and saw her coming down the back porch with a wooden bat.
I looked back to the girl. “Please,” I said. “What do you want? Who are you?”
She smiled that sad smile at me again, then kissed her fingers and held them over her heart. I didn’t get it. My hair blew in my face again, and when I brushed it away, yeah, no more girl.
Mom grabbed my shoulder. “What are you doing?” Small beads of water had already gathered on her most wayward hairs.
“I saw someone.”
She went rigid and scanned the night. “Get inside,” she said, pulling me toward the house. “Now.”
“It’s not like that, Mom. I saw a girl. She was hurt.”
She didn’t say anything as she marched me in, not until she’d locked the door and looked through the gaps in the wood covering the windows.
“You said you saw a girl? Hurt?” I couldn’t see her well, just a darker body in the surrounding darkness, but I knew she faced me.
“Yeah. Maybe my age. Tall and skinny. She had a yellow, flowery shirt. I don’t know. She wasn’t bad hurt, but had a cut under her knee.”
“What did you say?” I’d never heard that tone from her and I wanted to shrink away, but a second later her voice relaxed and she sighed. “Go to bed, Ragney. I think you’re tired and seeing things.”
And with that she passed through the darkness and down the hall. I sat against the cupboards below the sink and listened to the wind whistle across the chimney top. I’m not sure how long I sat there, curled into myself, but it was long enough for me to jerk awake and realize how cold I was, so I set a round in the fireplace for the night and headed for the stairs.
Mom’s door stood open and she’d lit a candle. She sat in her chair with half her face bright, holding something small in one hand, staring at it. I walked over, slowly, scared she’d shout at me—she never had, not really, hardly even raised her voice; but like I said, she’d been off.
When I reached the doorframe and she still hadn’t said anything—hadn’t even acted like she noticed me—I walked the last five feet to her side and saw that she held a picture, something I knew about from books (the library was only a mile away, nearly untouched because apparently people don’t raid the libraries at the end of the world).
“Is that a picture, Mom?”
Softly: “Yes, honey.”
“Who is it?”
“Another time.” She set the picture face down on her desk. “It’s late. Get some sleep.”
I set the conch on my bed, next to my pillow. I lay on my side a long time and watched it. At some point, I did sleep.
I didn’t see her for a while after that. It’s like it was all a dream that for a few minutes after being awake I’d forgotten was a dream. I knew how real she was, though, whoever she was.
Mom told me to mind my feet the next morning, and the morning after that; for five days that’s about all she said. In the morning, she told me to mind my feet, and at night, she said goodnight and went to her room and shut the door. She didn’t bother to see if I went up to bed.
I might have caught her ducking behind the wall one day when I sensed something and glanced toward my window, but I can’t be sure.
I hadn’t found anything decent in the wash-up for a while now, but I can’t say that I looked too hard or cared too much. My eyes kept roaming, searching for the ghost girl, wishing for a glint of something, hoping I’d turn to catch her standing there, wanting to talk to me, finally. Some mornings I’d wander a good walk to the large pile of driftwood, taller than me a few times over, and I’d sit out of sight of our house and lean against the wood.
With the sound of waves rolling up and down the beach, I drifted. Part of me heard the occasional gull squawks and smelled the salt in the air and knew I was awake, but a heaviness settled over me and I relaxed under it.
I’m not sure how many times she said my name before my eyes fluttered and I focused. She knelt in front of me. I could have reached out and touched her face if I’d wanted.
She smiled, and this time it was all happiness. She had a big smile with a dimple on her left cheek, which made me giggle for whatever reason. Mom said I had prominent dimples and a good smile. This girl had a good smile, too.
Before I could say anything, she leaned forward and kissed my forehead. She had warm lips and a soft touch, her hand on my shoulder to steady herself. I don’t know if the gesture or the fact that I could feel her surprised me most.
She stood up and sand stuck to her knees. Her leg didn’t bleed anymore, and I wanted so badly to ask her again who she was, but I kept quiet. I watched her go, wherever she went, slowly, fading.
Mom walked through the sand toward me as I was on my way back. She stopped for whatever reason, then lifted her hand to block glare from the sun. I saw her crane her head forward like she couldn’t understand what she was seeing, then she started hollering and sprinting. She tripped, scrambled, sand flying, and I stood still, scared, unsure what to do.
“What happened? Ohmygod, Ragney! What happened?” She dropped to her knees in front of me and reached for my legs, but stopped, her hands shaking. She pulled her hands against her chest and sputtered incoherent babble.
I saw a small bead of blood on my knee. It ran lazily down my shin.
“Oh, honey. No. Oh no, Ragney, honey no, please no.”
Mom wiped away the blood, looking for a cut, and not finding one, began wiping harder, pulling at my leg to look around it because the blood had to have come from somewhere. She mewled like the dying cat we’d passed one morning heading into town for scavenge.
I hadn’t scraping my leg on a rock or anything, so nothing made sense . . . then I remembered the ghost girl’s hand on my shoulder and her lips on my forehead. I remembered how the blood from her leg was gone after she’d stood up.
“Mom.” I grabbed her shoulders, but she wasn’t listening, so I shook her and shouted, “Mom! I’m not hurt. It’s not blood.”
She shook her head like I’d told her, that I, a child, had chosen to adopt her, an adult, because I’d been bored one afternoon. “Yes it is,” she said slowly, looking at my leg again, seeing clearly that what had truly been blood a moment ago was now thick bits of mud she’d spread around. She looked up at me. I saw the confusion, the hurt, the hollowness of her eyes for a moment.
“Are you okay, Mom?” I knelt in front of her, acting like I hadn’t seen it as blood.
She hugged me, pulling me against her chest so I sat crumpled and awkward, and she laughed and laughed, louder and louder, and she kissed my hair and said she was sorry.
Soon after, I sat wrapped up with my blanket on the couch and Mom built the fire up. She moved some coals around for a while after she got a few logs burning. I think she was delaying, because she was kind of pacing too, and while she didn’t look exactly happier, she looked less worried.
She patted my shoulder and asked if I wanted something to eat. I said no and she ducked into her room and came back with the picture of the girl. She sat beside me on the couch and handed it over.
“That’s your sister. Nikki. She was thirteen and you were almost three. About two years after everything happened. She was climbing in the tide pools, looking for crabs and anything else we could find. We didn’t have the chickens yet, see, and weren’t so good at digging up clams and catching birds and fish yet, so we had to find easy food most days. She slipped and hit the rock really hard with her knee. It was a deep cut. Not too big, but big enough for stitches.”
I ran a finger over the picture and saw Mom’s silent tears, her tired eyes. I leaned my head against her shoulder.
“I cleaned it and sewed it up best that I could, but the cut got infected and everything was worse and I couldn’t save her. I got on that bicycle that’s on the side of the house, and I went for days while she watched you here. No medicine anywhere. Nothing.
“These last few days, it’s been playing over in my mind, to the point I’ve been overlooking you. I saw the mud and thought it was blood on your legs and it hit me again. My life ended in that moment as I thought: Again, it’s happening again.”
She stopped talking and I closed my eyes and held her as he shuddered, keeping it quiet. Like she’d told me, I told her it was okay. I told her I loved her. When she calmed down, I grabbed her comb and sat behind her and I combed her hair deep into the evening. Long, slow strokes. She had the most beautiful hair.
I never saw Nikki again, but months later I walked the beach for my morning scavenge and saw a bottle sticking up in the sand. I knelt and grabbed the neck of the amber bottle and pulled it up; the sand made a slurping sound as if reluctant to hand it over. Water filled the hole the bottle left.
A cork sealed it, but I could see a rolled piece of paper inside.
I showed Mom what I’d found and we sat on the porch steps. She got a corkscrew from the kitchen and after pulling out the yellow, lined paper, she handed me the bottle.
She read aloud:
I hope you are well, whoever you are. I’ve tried to write this letter a million times, but haven’t until now. I guess the time was not right.
Do you ever sit on the beach and watch the sun set over the water, and hope that there’s someone on the other side of this vastness? Looking back and wishing you well, saying “hi,” and letting you know that you’re not alone?
I love you, stranger. Stay strong, and remember you’re not alone. Watch the sun set and please, always remember you’re not alone.
Mom flipped the paper over. “No name.” She shrugged, grinning silly. “That’s amazing, Ragney. What a find.” She beamed at me and watched the ocean a minute, then snickered and gave me a hug. “What a find. I think we deserve a gourmet breakfast this morning.” She handed me the note, “Keep that safe,” and headed for the chicken coop, a bounce to her step.
I checked the paper, too, and didn’t find a name, so I stuffed it back in the bottle and set it down. Something clinked inside, so I pulled the paper back out and upended the bottle over my hand, and out fell a little conch shell.
It was all the name I needed.
Anthony Bell lives in Washington State. He is a Clarion West 2014 graduate and you can reach him at email@example.com