Fiction by BettyJoyce Nash
The bike chain slips. Vee dismounts and inspects the rusted metal, noticing her lumpy leg veins. Poor circulation, big deal. Her blood’s run around her body long enough.
“Lemme have a look.” Finn, from Island Mowing, leaves his machine and ambles over in his ridiculous Hawaiian shorts, jumping with birds of paradise and blue-headed parrots.
This irks Vee, though when John wore loud shorts in ’75, pedaling this same Peugeot, she’d been charmed. “I’ve got this. John’s baby is persnickety.” She waves Finn away.
But he muscles in between Vee and the bike. “These old Peugeots are legends.” He leans over, glancing up, grinning while his grungy fingers—too sturdy, overly agile—work the chain back into its cogs. “How’ve you been?”
She turns away, suppressing an urge to slap the grin off his face.
“I miss him, too,” Finn says.
She ignores his stab at sympathy. She grinds her molars so she won’t kick his teeth out of his mouth.
He rotates the crank and runs his fingers over the tires. “These babies are sli-ick.” He stands and lifts the bike to his shoulder, presses the shifter, and spins both wheels. “Could use a new crankset and derailleur lines—but this’ll get you going—off to Assateague? To see the wild ponies?” His grin and that singsong voice jangle her nerves.
“Need more whelks. For the cairns.” She’s desperate to complete the two, three-foot cairns she and John started. Memorials. To the dying planet. She gives Finn a tight smile instead of the finger and remounts. This young John and his wild shorts—too full of himself. Too alive.
The gear teeth click as she bumps along, testing Finn’s handiwork. She doubles back, stifling obscenities she’s dying to yell. “If you dare mow within a gnat’s ass of those cairns—”
“You’re welcome!” He returns to the mower, his face brightening, but, no, that’s the sun, blazing for the first time all week. In every yard, tough grass waves proudly after summer storms had beaten them to the ground. Finn could make real hay today if he tried, but she knows his ilk by his slouchy walk, nothing like John’s spirited strides.
Vee speeds along streets without sidewalks, swerving around potholes. The morning glare gilds the island—a drop of sand so small it’s unfindable on GPS—turning its bean-and-tomato plots surreal. Boxy fishermen’s shacks like theirs, three rooms down and two up, sit on fields big enough to accommodate trailers for ex-spouses, pregnant teenagers, mentally-compromised relatives, or backyard shops like Kut and Kurl, where Vee has her hair chopped.
A plumber’s daughter, Vee is short for Victoria, her courtroom name. She’d told Pop at graduation, “Plumbing, lawyering? Same job except the Latin.” She’d quit her public defender post in D.C. to tend John. He died six months ago.
She pedals across the estuary to the barrier island, heat waves pulsing ahead, feeding her fantasy of cycling into an alternate universe. Inside the park, she chooses the route to her secret shelling beach. Edging the marsh, buzzing with bugs, she passes under beetle-bored, dead loblolly pines, cinders crunching under treadless tires until she plows through sand, dismounts, and guides the bike into the empty rack. Atop the dune, she considers the vast, restless Atlantic, navy blue and inviting.
Kneeling in the lather of breaking waves, she spots the pointy end of a knobbed whelk, ripped from summer depths by the fury of yesterday’s storm. She’d defied the orange danger flags and swum during the record high tide, marching straight into a massive tube of water. Each time her head found air, another round of heavy rollers beat her down. Finally, one wave rejected her and hurled her to shore. Belly down and breathless, scraped raw, Vee lay in the sand, waiting for the killer breaker that would sweep her out for good. One never came. Saved by the ocean. How many people could say that?
Vee digs, then frees, rinses, and polishes the jewel on her shirt, admiring its pearled cavity. She runs a finger along the spiraled crown. How did this whelk die? Vee and John collected whelks for twenty years. Their two cairns mark their spot on earth the same way humans throughout history have marked trails across ice, deserts, or fog-prone mountaintops and sacred sites.
They’d named their shrine “The Forever Project,” their testimonial: Hic Sumus. We were here. Shells serve as proof; they take eons to erode. Shells’ calcium keeps soil Ph perfect for preservation. Scientists, she’d read, drill shells and date the dust to reveal their age. Whelks have existed for thirty million years.
She hikes all morning, stopping for whelks and stuffing them in her backpack. The sun climbs the sky. Soon it’s noon-high, frying her hair and skin. She hoists her load, finds her socks and shoes, and trudges over and down the dune, where the breeze dies and mosquitoes attack her bare flesh. She mounts the bike and the tires wobble through sand. Vee keeps going but the pack’s weight throws her off balance, and the Peugeot’s bald tires fishtail. John’s bike pitches Vee sideways. Her head grazes the metal bike rack.
Whelks poke and jab her spine. She shifts onto her side. Sharp streaks fire her leg, electrocuting her hip and shoulder. Spokes trap both feet. Possibilities cross her mind: timber rattlers? She’d seen two on the trail yesterday. No, they’ll stay shaded. Mosquitoes—West Nile? Soon even they desert her flesh. Starvation? Exposure?
She yells Dammit until at least her voice dies. Her bones and muscles argue inside her skin. Rest, she tells herself, counting sand grains, this won’t take long; her lids soon drop and drag her into oblivion.
Whinnies. Snorts. Smells of manure. Sunspots gyrate inside her eyelids. She cracks them open to a warped world, bathed in grainy red light: Ponies toss tangled manes, swish luminous tails, and graze on seagrass. A fat brown stallion taps noses with one of his mares. A family. A foal.
“Ponies —.” The mare poops a steaming pile. So they’re real—smells don’t figure in hallucinations. Vee tries lifting her head—all two tons—and raises up on an elbow, but falls back, inhaling pony stink.
The ponies tower over her like super-horses, inspiring her to try disentangling a foot, a leg. She yelps. The stallion stares, with his one blue eye and one brown. Sweet boy. Her lips crack. She runs her tongue over them and tastes blood. Her bent leg prickles; her shoulders are knobs of hurt.
Where is John?
Sweet Boy watches her clutch rusty steel spokes and maneuver to a knee. Calves and thighs throbbing, she levers herself upright on feet of lead. She slogs through deep, still-hot sand, sliding her good foot forward, dragging her bad leg, using the bike to roll-drag-limp the endless yards to that black crunchy stuff. She turns stiffly back toward the ponies, nipping each other’s backsides.
Vee plants her feet, head swimming. Cinders. Right—those things underfoot. She shuffles under pine shadows to the wider road. Eventually, a truck slows and stops.
“Miss Vee?” A ponytailed girl, a high, breathy voice. “It’s me, Jaysie, from the Chesapeake Cleanup Club? Miss Vee, get in this truck.” She jumps out and loads Vee’s pack and bike in the truckbed, filled with bags of trash. “You need an EMT.”
Vee tries but fails to nod.
Jaysie runs around, hands Vee up to the seat, and fastens the seatbelt, then slides under the wheel. The truck creeps along the blacktop. “Lucky you didn’t pass out. We haven’t seen you or Mr. John all summer. Where’s he?”
“He’s a medic, right?”
Vee freezes inside her pain.
“That backpack messed with your balance. You hit your head?”
“Uh oh, concussion. A header once laid me up for a week after a soccer game. What’s your address?”
“Ma—.” Vee wedges her head between the window and door, hoping the head won’t fall off, her brain too foggy for talk.
Vee stares out. The earth tilts, or maybe that’s Vee tilting. Jaysie, the poor baby, can’t drive, instead Jaysie floats the vehicle over the estuary’s swaying grasses—the sun’s setting them on fire—somebody should call the VFD.
Vee realizes she’s made it: the alt-universe, aglow.
Fitful flashes slide by in a neon collage. Pony Pasture Motel, Misty’s Soft Serve. John loves soft serve, with sprinkles. Vee opens her mouth but nothing comes out. The signs vanish.
Jaysie drives and drives. “We’re on Machapreague. What’s your street name?”
Vee doesn’t answer. Jaysie cruises the few connecting tracks branching from the main road, rutted dirt lanes snaking among houses. Vee grabs her head, to stop the pain.
“Shell Circle? Heron Lane? Driftwood Drive?” Jaysie calls.
Vee lifts her hand. Driftwood’s empty, except for someone steering a machine under a carport. She touches Jaysie’s arm and points.
“Wow.” Jaysie kills the engine. “Who built those cairns? Did you and Mr. John build these?” She unloads the bike and sets the kickstand. Opening Vee’s door, she offers both hands. Vee steps out.
“Got a ways to go.” Sticky heat presses Vee’s skin. Lifeless air absorbs her words. She grips a handlebar, staring into spiraled shells, wreathed in heat-haze, forming the larger spirals she and John always secure so carefully.
Jaysie hauls the pack to Vee’s stoop, still eyeing the pearly peaks. She knocks. “No one’s answering.” Jaysie returns to Vee’s side. Together they shuffle-step to the stoop. “Where’s your key?” Jaysie bangs the door one last time.
The noise barges around inside Vee’s head. “Probably in the bathroom.” Vee squints at the cairns, wondering how many whelks they lack.
“You sure Mr. John’s home?”
Vee’s legs feel like pipes a plumber forgot to weld to her hips. She smiles through split lips, conjuring not only John but Pop.
This batch may finish the job.
A flash of electric blue passes between cairns. Birds of paradise blooming in a cerulean sky. John. “Where’ve you been?” Vee tries inching forward, but there’s no need: The rainforest jogs right over.
“I knew it—you and that bike, both done-for.”
Vee sees only shorts. That parrot. Good God. She shifts; one leg is numb; her hip and wrist are aflame. “John.”
Reaching into dead air, she nearly topples. On their way down, her fingers brush his arm.
“Ponies. At the dunes. A family. We always wonder why they’re never at the beach.”
“Vee, it’s me, Finn. The mower.”
She can’t hear.
“Where’d you find those goofy shorts?” John looks silly; she wants to laugh. That scraggly hair, his sweaty smell. “You need a shower.”
Jaysie pounds the door again. “He’s not home.”
Vee flinches, setting off fresh waves of pain. The heavy air traps Vee. She can’t budge.
“Vee, remember? You sold the D.C. house. You’re down here for good.” Finn moves between Vee and Jaysie. “John’s dead.”
But John loves the plain hardwood floors, the sleeping porch. Bike rides to the beach, striped whelks, lightning whelks, and the hermit crabs, scurrying from the whelks’ empty shells.
He can’t just die. The project isn’t finished. Sic humus. She isn’t ready. She hadn’t loved him well enough, long enough.
And here’s Finn, not John, saying, “You need a doctor.”
Vee tries to laugh but her voice fractures. “Why? Because I thought you were John? He’s been dead and I’m glad he made it. You and those shorts—.” Vee chokes.
Finn looks away. “John gave me these last fall, he was about to trash them. I’m sorry. Maybe it’s my fault you wrecked. I should’ve replaced the chain.”
Vee consults the cairns—the sun’s turned them into eternal flames—and raises her eyes to the sky.
“Miss Vee, you need medical attention, let’s go,” Jaysie says. “I’ll drive you.”
“Mind if I tag along?” Finn glances at Vee, then Jaysie. “John would want me to make sure she gets properly treated.”
“You?” Vee says.
Jaysie settles Vee in the cab. Finn climbs in the truck bed with the bagged beach trash and raps the back window. At the edge of her vision, she sees his thumb’s up.
On the way to the clinic, Vee’s heart madly pumps blood, desperate to replenish her cells with life and heal her wrecked body. Vee will never die. And her mind’s mostly back. Too bad.
“What’s it like, Miss Vee?” In the truck’s dim interior, Jaysie’s voice sounds small and scared. Or maybe Vee’s the one who’s small and scared. “Loving somebody a long time. Losing them.”
Vee licks her lips. Blood. “Wish we could meet someplace. Outside time.” For a moment, John had returned, reincarnated. Now he’s dead again.
At the flashing caution light, Jaysie says, “Wow. Like, light years away Mr. John is alive? Like, say, he’s working on a Forever Project?”
Yellow flashes illuminate the truck’s dim interior. Vee shifts in her seat, silently cursing her neck and hip, listening to Jaysie explore the unknown out loud. John had refused painkillers even as Vee begged, “Take the edge off.” He’d only said, “Turns my mind mushy. I’d rather feel the pain.”
“How would that work, you think, Jaysie, that other world?” Vee waits, ready for more words from Jaysie’s young voice and hopeful heart.