The only participant from my Writing Prompt on triumph was a short story called “Beachwalk”. I’d like to thank Fran Johns at https://franjohns.net/ for writing this work for the prompt and I invite the rest of you to let me know what you think of Fran’s work in a comment below. And if you would like to participate in future prompts, check out Writings By Ender every Monday morning.
Silence hung damp and heavy, like the fog she could see enveloping the nearby Florida pinewoods, poised to wrap itself onto each still, jagged treetop. Walking alone toward the unrelenting darkness, she felt the silence in her bones, seeping into the marrow of her soul.
Joan had pulled the door shut behind her, slamming it against the brightly lit room and the noise of the garage, against the pulse of the house, the drone of the radio in the corner and his accusing voice:
“You’ll be back,” he said. “Do as you like. You’ll be back.”
He had said it before of course, in the steady, nonchalant manner that he wore like an armor against any threat to his close-wrapped world. Joan had fallen for that armor, with its assurance of security and calm, its promise of a hiding place.
Now, though, she walked in solitude, unhidden, exposed.
For most of her 42 years, Joan had sought a hiding place. A dozen of those years had spun out in a Depression-years marriage that resembled a dual-filament light bulb, electrical currents flying wildly inside the glass, Joan trying to stay upright while someone else controlled the switch. Then there were the six long, frightening years of widowhood, struggling to deal with the mounting bills and slowly mending bones which were all she had left after her husband, numbed with booze, tried to beat the 8:53 freight train to the crossing. She had lived, he had not. Sometimes afterward she thought he might have been the lucky one, because try as she might to find joy, it was repeatedly thwarted by hardship.
A minor hardship – the breakdown of her aging car – had introduced her to Emory. He was slim, taut, prematurely gray and enough older that Joan had no memory of ever having seen him around town.
Emory had come home to Marshallville midway through the war, minus one eye and numb from what that eye had seen. He moved back into the small house where he had lived alone since both parents died, and back into his steady job at Murray & Sons Mechanics. He was there one morning when Joan drove a coughing, sputtering 1936 Ford coupe into the shop.
“What do you think?” she said. “Can you nurse this jalopy along for maybe another few months?”
Emory looked from the car to the bluejeans-clad young woman. He had not quite adjusted to seeing women in bluejeans. Joan’s blond hair was pulled back with a folded bandana, her blue eyes smiling at him above a freckled nose. Emory thought she might have been made out of sunshine.
“I can flat bring it back to life, ma’am,” he said. “I can bring anything automotive back to life. You want to leave it here until tomorrow afternoon?”
“Everybody says I can trust you,” she said, still smiling. “I’ll see you about 4.”
By the time she walked back in, Emory had figured out how to ask her to dinner and pretty much decided he would marry her.
To Emory, Joan spelled comfort and liveliness, someone who would breathe fresh air back into his darkened world. And in him, Joan saw safety. They married at the county courthouse and she moved into the little clapboard home not far from the shop. Neither would have said it was a love match, but in the beginning each found a deep satisfaction that filled the space where passion might otherwise have grown.
Joan planted a flower garden in front of the little house, tried to cook the meals Emory liked, visited with old friends in the languishing afternoons. Emory worked long hours at the shop. When he got home he would shower and change into his pajamas; they would have intermittent dinnertime conversations, listen to music on the radio, go to bed early. Joan had relaxed into the comfort, but felt with it a nagging sense of loss, a weary yearning. Within the first year she had left him briefly, stayed with an old friend just long enough to gather up strength for another try.
When an old Army buddy offered Emory part ownership in a North Florida bait and tackle shop, he and Joan grasped at the offer as if it were a life ring tossed into a dark sea. The little house in Marshallville was traded for a little house near the Inland Waterway. Emory worked at the fishing store with slightly less enthusiasm than he’d had at the auto shop, but there were sandy beaches and sunshine days, moss-hung trees and soft ocean breezes. Joan bought sketchbooks and drawing pencils, returning with a surprising zeal to the art she had loved as a young girl. And for a few months, their little house nestled into its squat palmettos seemed to offer the possibility of new life. By the second year in Florida, though, the old darkness of ennui had enveloped Emory, and Joan began again to struggle against suffocation. Twice she had left, briefly seeking refuge in a nearby motel while trying to work out a way to survive on her own. This time she had slammed the door, propelled by a different kind of strength. It was from some new, calm assurance that had grown triumphant in bits and pieces inside her.
She walked the sandy roadway that led from behind their clump of low, brick-and-masonry houses, toward the river and the beach beyond. It was an old and seldom-used road, overgrown and largely ignored since the new blacktop connecting the development to the town had been completed. Dense scrub and tough palmettos crowded its edges and stretched on either side into the pine forests, making a green-brown tangle that reached horizontally about hip-high until the yellow pines soared suddenly upward, blocking from sight everything but the ribbon of sand below and matching ribbon of gray sky above.
Sand fleas buzzed her bare ankles and the occasional rustle of snakes and marsh creatures in the palmettos broke the stillness.
“You’ll be back,” he had said, because she had always come back. She would grow afraid of the dark, empty roads and the murky river, afraid of the ocean’s roar and the vast unknown—and she would go back. He would simply look up and nod, and they would take up where they left off. Not this time, she swore to the ocean breeze. She saw in her mind’s eye, thousands of miles to the north, the green Virginia hills.
An hour or so after slamming the door she was still walking slowly, deliberately along the river road. The cool, steamy fog that rises mysteriously from the late-afternoon ground had settled along the scrub, the gathering darkness wrapping delicately around her body as she made her way. Twice the darkness had been sliced by headlights of an approaching car, twice she had slipped quickly into the dense growth, snagging her jeans and cutting her hands on the sharp prongs of palmetto leaves but keeping herself hidden from anyone passing. This was a journey she would make by herself, alone in the salty darkness.
A slender new moon began to spin an eerie, gauzy light through the fog, and except for the occasional interruptions of headlights her eyes became accustomed to this slight illumination of her pathway. Another half-hour and she would reach the bridge; across the bridge and a sandspit was the ocean, and she could walk the beaches all the way to St. Augustine if she chose. Maybe she would go to her friend’s house there. Maybe she would get to the highway at daybreak, start hitchhiking north. There were a few dollars in her bank account, if her worldly goods were few. She would not go back.
She walked with her eyes down, focusing on the sandy roadway as it unrolled beneath her scuffed white tennis shoes. The fog was hugging the ground now, the moon shining behind a haze of clouds above, the chill October night threatening rain. She had never gotten used to the lightning-fast changes of north Florida weather, blazing sunshine that would disappear into thunderclouds in an instant, cold rain slanting sideways in gusty sheets off the ocean without warning.
Lost in tumbled thoughts and the dark silence she did not see the armadillo until it appeared in front of her out of nowhere, a scant three or four yards ahead. It was slowly making its way across the sand, toward the shelter of a burrow perhaps, or on a nocturnal search for grass and insects. Joan stood rooted in mid-step, the toe of her left shoe bent slightly into the damp ground, mesmerized by the first creature to intrude into her wanderings that night.
He was about a foot and a half long, bands of scaly armature running horizontally around the plump circle of his body. He made her think of ancient knights readying for battle. His nose kept close to the sand, as if charting a sure course, moving deliberately from side to side but just enough to watch his forward movement. Joan had never seen an armadillo so close. She knew they could move quickly when frightened, or sometimes roll into a ball to protect themselves – she wondered briefly if this were the kind that could do that. She tried not to make a sound.
As the armadillo inched his way across the road Joan heard a faraway piping, the call of an owl from some high perch in the pines, mournful, but somehow reassuring. To-ooh-wooo, it called, peopling the darkness. The armadillo slid into the roadside grass and disappeared under the palmettos.
In another thirty minutes Joan reached the old bridge, with its rickety pedestrian footpath running beside the roadway. The scudding clouds were fast-moving now, creating a strange, silent-movie effect with the moonlight on the black river below. She walked carefully, hugging her windbreaker close against her shoulders.
“You do what you have to do . . .” This time, she had done that. She had gathered up an extra T-shirt or two, a few bars of white chocolate, her sketch pad and some other niceties, her wallet and the extra cash she kept in the kitchen jar. She had stuffed the lot of it into the fishnet carryall now slung loosely over her shoulder. She could smell the ocean now, hear the soft rush of the tides. The breakers danced their eternal dance just ahead of her, washing over the residue of millions of eaten-out shells, erasing the footsteps of the day, smoothing out a pristine pathway. Over a stretch of sawgrass, across a shifting dune she reached the beach and turned north.
Joan walked swiftly along the white sand beach, her stride lengthening, her shoulders erect against the breeze. It blew soft and warm, then sharply cold as the moon darted in and out of the clouds. Her canvas shoes were soaked but she hardly felt the dampness; there was only the firm sand beneath her, moving her along with a comforting, familiar-kitchen sound. She took out one of the chocolate bars and ate it slowly, letting the white richness melt on her tongue and flow through her body.
It was nearly midnight. She reached a place where the beach disappeared into a slight curve bordered by soft, flat rock that separated the ocean from a wide marshland. Keeping close to the water’s edge she rounded the cove, to find herself back on unbroken beach facing an astonishing spectacle of light. As the waves broke gently onto the sand, millions of tiny lights were flashing through the foam, a miracle of phosphorescence churned up by the water. Joan felt it peculiarly for herself alone, a celebration. It sang of the days of her childhood, playing giddily at dusk in the same ocean miles and miles north. She danced into the water, splashing fountains of Christmas tree light around her ankles, feeling like a small child overflowing with delight. Bending straight-legged from the waist, she reached her hands into the cool water, sending it into cascades of more tiny lights with the movement of her fingers. Then she straightened and stood still. On the horizon, when the moon peeped from behind the clouds, she could see the dim shape of a cargo ship, its lights blinking as if beckoning her to a faraway world.
For the first time she became aware of the lights of civilization far ahead and inland. She knew she had passed other inland buildings, and occasional beach walkers; she simply had not been in their world that night. That night it was her world.
She walked a little farther until she came upon the pilings of an old, landlocked pier years abandoned, the poles and boards fallen loosely against the dunes, smelling of salt and long-washed tar. Joan had hardly stopped for more than a moment since she closed the door of an old life behind her, a life more dead than truly alive, a life of rolling into a ball or digging into the sand. Now she dropped gratefully onto the boards, sheltered from the ocean breeze by the sand dunes that had blown around them. She stretched her legs toward the ocean and slept, wakened later by the scrambling sandcrabs, the call of shorebirds coming for their breakfast and the hot, brilliant sun on her face.
No, she said to the sunrise, I will not be back.