The boat rocks, almost rhythmically with the waves that lap the paint-chipped sides of her little red row boat. Ruth pulls her legs towards her chest, wrapping her arms around them. This is where she belongs, with the gentle ocean breeze and the gulls screeching above.
She can see the little ribbon of shore far off on the horizon. But she likes the distance, she likes all the blue-green water of the ocean, patterned with waves. It doesn’t scare her, it separates her. From the chaos of the real world out there. Here, out on the ocean, she can just be.
She shivers, drawing her shawl tighter around her shoulders. The breeze has picked up, tickling her nose and blowing rogue strands of hair into her face. That's when she smells it- a storm. It’s the smell of rain, mixed with a tension in the air, like electricity. She should get back, and she knows it. But the ocean calls to her, begging for her to stay. And she almost does, but the clanging of the storm bell cuts through her thoughts like a knife. She can almost picture her mother standing on the huge wrap around porch, worriedly scanning the waters. And her father. She can almost see him ringing that bell, calling her home. So she sighs, and lifts up the oars and rows.
When her boat bumps the dock her mother waves and goes back inside, the huge house swallowing her as she closes the door. By now the clouds have rolled in, making everything a misty grey. The endless woods behind her house look haunted.
“That was close, Ruth,” her father says, securing the boat to the dock, his hands moving swiftly.
Ruth shrugs. “Hasn’t even started raining yet.”
“Yes well, you know how your mother is.”
“I’m here now, aren’t I?” she says, annoyed.
Her father’s face softens. “Tell you what. One of these storms we’ll go out there, ride it out.” Her father has that look in his eye, a look he gets when he talks of his beloved ocean. Her mom used to joke that he loved the ocean more than her, Ruth sometimes wondered if that was true. “Then you’ll see what a real storm can do,” he pauses for a moment, glancing at the house. “But with a sturdier boat of course.”
She clambers out of the boat onto the dock as the first raindrop splats onto the wood, turning it a dark brown. In a matter of minutes she’s soaked through to the bone. The rain is deafening as it pounds down on the ocean, on the dock, on her head. And the wind, it makes the rain come down slanted. Next to her, her father turns toward the ocean and whoops, grinning a mile wide as he welcomes the storm. Ruth laughs and whoops too, letting her voice be torn into the wind. She smiles, looking up at her father as he stares into the ocean where he belongs.
“Come, your mother will be worrying,” he shouts, pulling her off the dock and towards the huge Victorian house, now shadowed and spooky. They run towards the house, laughing and slipping in the mud as they clamber up the hill. Her shawl is ruined, soaked through and covered in mud. Her laughter could be be heard a mile out.
Ruth slips her rain boots off, mud staining the Persian carpet. She cringes, why her mom put a persian carpet in the foyer she doesn’t know. Her dad walks in behind her, tracking muddy boot prints in too. Ruth raises her eyebrows.
“Nice knowing you Ruth, just don’t tell on your mom when she kills me over this damn rug,” he says, looking down at the mud. Ruth giggles.
Ruth slowly makes her way up the huge staircase, and down the huge hallway and into her huge room and lays down on her huge bed, not caring if she leaves mud on it. And that’s it, that’s the last thing she remembers.
When Ruth was three years old her dad picked her up one day and set her down on the dock. Her mother had followed behind, wringing her hands, worriedly going over all that could go wrong.
“Don’t forget her life vest, Robert,” she says, her voice stressed.
“I won’t, I won’t,” her father said, ruffling Ruth’s hair. Ruth had looked up at him with the greatest admiration, even then.
Ruth jumped and wriggled, excited to be going out on an adventure. Her mom placed a hat on her little head, and rubbed sunscreen onto her pale skin. “It’s cloudy, Anna,” her father has said, laughing. Her mother waved him off. And then quick, before she could run away, her father slipped a life vest on. Ruth giggled. He bent down tightening the straps, keeping her safe.
Ruth wakes up on the bottom of her little red boat. Water sloshes over the edges, reaching its icy tendrils into her bones, making her shiver. Her vision tilts. Her hands, as she holds them close to her eyes, are wrinkled and pruned and callused, like they’ve been gripping the oars tight. She lays there for a moment, trying to breathe, trying to think. Where is she? She tries to remember anything, something. But all she can remember is lying down in her bed, mud staining the covers.
What’s going on, what’s going on.
I can’t remember.
She giggles. Hysteria. That’s a symptom of panic.
Snap out of it Ruth Grace Abell.
She sits up shakily, squinting in the- what morning?- sun. She can see land in the distance. Her land. She’s seen it enough times to know what it looks like. All she has to do is row. But she feels weird, as if she shouldn’t return, as if she was running away in the first place.
Stop being silly.
Her trembling hands grip the oars and she rows. She rows as she thinks, tries to remember. Anything. A strangled sob escapes her lips in frustration, tears streaming down her face. Her sobs eventually turn to hiccups which then turn to silence, just the screech of gulls and the creak of her oars as she rows.
When she gets home she’s shaking. She ties off her boat, looking up at her huge house, wondering why her parents haven’t saved her, wondering why they haven’t wrung that bell, bringing her and her memories home. That’s when she sees the police car, parked in front of her house. Her vision tilts. She runs up the steps. Her hand pauses over the door knob. The door is slightly cracked open. Her mother never leaves it open. Everything is off, everything is sideways.
She can hear voices as she quietly walks down the hallway, towards the dining room, her wet socks leaving a trail on the rug.
“Ma’am, is Robert Abell your husband,” a gruff voice says in a hushed tone.
“Please ma’am, just answer us,” another voice says.
Now her mother’s voice floats toward her, high pitched, tight. “Why? Is he all right?”
Someone says something, too quiet for Ruth to hear. And then the screaming starts. A strangled wail. Like an animal. Her mother’s wail. Footsteps are walking towards her. She darts behind the linen closet door as a police officer walks by. His radio crackles.
“Update Daniels?” A voice says over the radio.
He clicks on the radio attached to his pocket. “Man was found dead in the shallows. Reason of death is unknown.”
Everything goes black.
Ruth dreams and dreams. She dreams of her memories, she dreams of better times.
Man was found dead in the shallows. Reason of death is unknown.
Ruth sits up and moves her sleep-tangled hair away from her face. She slowly peels back the covers, folding them neatly at the end of her bed. She smoothes the wrinkles from the folded blanket with steady hands. Everything is crisp, every line and corner in her room so in focus it almost hurts her eyes.
Ok Ruth, time to brush your teeth.
Man was found dead in the shallows.
And so she brushes her teeth, her face blank as she looks in the mirror, flat and non-emotional.
Ok Ruth, get dressed.
Reason of death is unknown.
Ruth puts on sensible overalls over a t-shirt. She rifles through her sock drawer and puts on some polka-dot ankle socks.
Ok Ruth, time to go downstairs.
Robert Abell is dead.
When someone is dead their relatives think it’s their duty to pour into their house, filling their empty souls with chatter and hushed voices. Maybe they think they can squeeze the sadness out of you with their suffocating hugs or fill you up with casserole so that you’ll have no room for any feelings.
And so they come. Ruth’s aunts and uncles and family friends. And their dogs and cats and cousins and hamsters. And Ruth’s mother swallows those sleeping pills and sleeps and sleeps.
Ruth’s friends from school even send her cards. Her Aunt Stacey hands them to her, all excited, like this would make everything better. Ruth lays them on her bed, staring at their curly letters and their colorful envelopes. She can almost smell the pity. Just before she throws them out, she peels off the stamp on the pink enveloped one and sticks it in her pocket. She thinks it has a pretty picture.
Come on Ruth, just remember.
The funeral was supposed to be on Sunday, a proper funeral day. The day was sunny and warm. Isn’t it supposed to rain on funerals? Ruth didn’t really care. Her Aunt had already laid out a black dress on her bed when she woke up. Ruth felt the fabric, it scratched her finger tips. She huffed and got up, quietly opening her bedroom door and stepping into the hallway.
She walked down the long hallway, listening to the breathing of the big house finally filled with people. How it creaked and groaned around them. A house sounds different when there’s people. It never felt right to Ruth. She always had this feeling that they were just borrowing the house for a while, that it wasn’t really theirs. Borrowed time, that’s what everyone’s on nowadays.
But she did know this house, even if she was borrowing it. She knew where to step so that the wooden planks won’t creak and the house wouldn’t give away her whereabouts. She got to her mother’s door without a sound.
Her mother’s room was dark. It’s funny how she thinks of it as her mother’s room now, not her mom and dad’s anymore. The shades were drawn. the lights out. It would be a wonder to get her mother out of bed for the funeral. Ruth tiptoes over to the bed, her mother barely detectable in the pile of bedding. She reaches out shaking her mom awake.
“Come on Mom,” Ruth says. “Get up, Dad’s funeral is today.” Ruth’s mom sits up, bleary eyed. She looks at Ruth in the darkness for a few moments. Tears splat onto the bedspread as she rolls back over.
Ruth stands there for a minute staring at her mom, words pounding in her head as she turns and walks out.
Man was found dead in the shallows, reason of death unknown. Robert Abell is dead, my father is dead, and I don’t remember.
My dress is itchy.
Ruth shifts uncomfortably, cursing the stupid dress. The funeral passes by without a moment of attention from Ruth. She sits there, face flat, emotionless. When it’s time to throw his ashes, everyone marches out onto a dock overlooking the sea. People take handfuls of Ruth’s father and throws him into the waves, where he’ll drift forever alone and scattered. When it’s Ruth’s turn she takes a handful, throwing in some for show and putting the rest in her pocket. She’ll keep some of her father close.
And then the funeral is done and everyone piles in their cars and drives home. Ruth’s mom leans on Aunt Stacey as they get into the car. Ruth looks out the window as the road passes by, feeling the weight of the ashes in her pocket.
Someone knocks on her door as Ruth’s is laying on her bed, staring up at the ceiling, something she’s been doing a lot lately. She likes the night best, it’s quiet, peaceful. Aunt Stacy’s head pokes in, smiling.
“Can I come in hun?” Ruth nods, turning back to staring at the ceiling. Aunt Stacey comes and sits on the edge of Ruth’s huge bed. “I’m worried about you, Ruth,” she says after Ruth doesn’t say anything.
Aunt Stacey takes a breath. “It’s normal to cry, you know. It’s perfectly fine.”
Ruth keep staring at the ceiling. Come on Ruth, just remember what happened.
“I haven’t seen you cry this whole time I’ve been here. Haven’t really seen much of anything from you.”
Man was found dead in the shallows. Reason of death unknown. Just remember Ruth.
“Ruth?” Aunt Stacey says, reaching towards her. Ruth sits up staring at her Aunt.
“Ok I got it, I’ll work on crying more,” Ruth says.
Aunt Stacey purses her lips and nods, hurt on her face. She closes the door quietly as she leaves.
Ruth’s relatives leave the next day, they’ve done their civil duty. As their cars leave, Ruth is left alone in that big, big house that swallows her every day.
They eventually just say he drowned. Probably stupidly went out on a boat in the night and drowned. Probably was washed up on the shore by the time the neighbors found him. Probably, probably, probably.
Ruth gets up, not caring that it’s 11:30 on a Tuesday. No one cares if she doesn’t go to school, certainly not her mother anyway. She goes down to the huge kitchen and puts bread into the toaster. She cracks the eggs, scrambles them. Makes coffee, butters the toast. Places it on a tray. The tray wobbles as she goes up the stairs. She rests the tray on her hip as she opens her mother’s door. The curtains are drawn, the room dark and stuffy.
“Breakfast,” Ruth says setting the tray down by her mother’s head. Ruth’s mom doesn’t answer. Ruth goes over to the windows, drawing back the curtains, letting sunlight fill the room, maybe it’ll chase out the darkness in her mother, maybe chase out the darkness in both of them. She opens the window, letting the cool air seep in. She grabs the radio clock next to the bed, turning it on to a station her mother used to like. She turns it on loud, hoping the disembodied voices will keep her mother company.
After breakfast Ruth walks down to the dock, sitting crisscross on the familiar wooden planks. The ocean calls to her. Calling her out onto its waters.
Ruth looks at her boat, docked next to her. She almost gathers the strength to reach out and touch it. Her hand trembles, refusing to move. Ruth balls up her hand, willing it to be still. Her breaths come out shuddery. The ocean calls to her, she aches to be out on there. She wants to be out there. But she can’t. The ocean laughs at her, the it taunts her. Ruth closes her eyes, slapping her hands over her ears.
She stumbles away, away from the ocean that took her father, that left her in the middle of nowhere, adrift and directionless.
She turns towards the woods and runs. She runs away from it all. Away from her house and her sleeping mother. Away from her ceiling-staring. Away from it all. It seems to melt away as her feet slap against the ground, the trees a blur as she goes. Her foot catches on a root, sending her rolling down a big ditch. She tumbles head over heels, branches scratching her face and hands. She lands at the bottom, moaning. She lays on her back in the carpet of leaves, staring up at the patchwork sky. Her whole body hurts, inside and out.
And then she cries. Rivers flowing out of her eyes, soaking the ground. She lays there, staring up at the blue sky and she remembers. Not everything but just a little. Enough to know that her worst fears are just her imagination. She remembers finding her father there in the shallows. She remembers her vision blurring as she stumbled away, running towards her boat and rowing and rowing and rowing. Maybe she’ll never know why she was out there in the middle of the night, never know why she found him, but that doesn’t matter. A weight seems to be lifted off her shoulders. She gets up and runs, retracing her steps towards her boat and the the beautiful ocean that her father taught her to love.