by Bob McCrillis
I love the ocean. I love standing in the waves, feeling the push toward shore. The tickle of sand pulled from under my feet by the undertow. The roar and hiss of their comings and goings are like a heartbeat, encouraging thoughts of greater things.
“You still like to stand staring at the waves, Gramps?” Amelia, my granddaughter, asked, teasing.
“Of course,” I answered. “You didn’t think I just did it for you, did you?”
When Amelia was a little girl, she would hold my hand while I walked into the waves at Long Sands. All the other kids complained about the numbingly cold water and ran back to the beach to search for treasures. Amelia stayed with me until her lips began to turn blue and I lifted her out of the water. With her arms and legs around me and her gritty bathing suit pressed against my chest, we’d talk about our time at the beach.
“Why do you like waves so much, Gramps?”
“I don’t know, ‘Melia. Maybe because it sounds like the ocean is breathing.”
She scrunched up her face and examined me carefully to see if I was kidding her. “Aw, Gramps, the ocean can’t breathe.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yup. Can’t breathe without a nose.”
Now, as a young woman, Amelia was still the only one in the family who would brave the icy water and watch with me.
“What do you think of when you look at the waves, Gramps?”
Over the harsh cries of the gulls negotiating access to a half-full bag of potato chips, I said, "Do you know how far some of these waves might have traveled? Maybe thousands of miles. Maybe all the way from Ireland. Think about that. Going all that way…"
“And ending up on the dinky beach in Maine,” Amelia said. “Kind of a disappointing end, don’t you think?”
“Wait a minute there, College Girl. Don’t you suppose they’ve seen a few things on their trip? Perhaps have had the whole course of their life affected?”
"Gramps, they're just moving water," Amelia stated. Her face was partially covered by windblown hair and big, round sunglasses, but her voice was strengthened by certainty. "In fact, you can describe any wave mathematically. They don't experience anything.”
“Well, aren’t we the little logical positivist? Three years at Skidmore have been worth it." I grinned. "But, as you've no doubt learned, the description depends on your frame of reference. I see waves as a reassuring message."
“Message?” She struggled with errant streamers of hair.
“Sure. You say you can mathematically describe this wave coming at us?” I pointed to a good-sized roller about twenty yards away.
She glanced at the wave. “Well sure, if I had the data on wind speed, tide, depth, density, and such.”
“Would that description be identical to the one behind it?”
“No, the variables out here are constantly changing.”
“So, each wave is unique?”
I could see her brows scrunch together even through the sunglasses. “I can’t say that with certainty, but probably. So what? Lots of natural things are seemingly unique – just a reflection of the huge number of variables operating on it.”
“Seemingly? Really?” I chuckled to myself at both the sharpness and narrowness of her viewpoint. “You definitely have been steeped in academia, ’Melia,” I said intentionally using her baby name.
Now she pouted. “Yes, ‘seemingly’. People say no two snowflakes are the same but who really knows?” The undertow from a big wave upset her footing, causing her to tackle me to avoid falling. We both went under and came up laughing.
We clung to each other for both balance and warmth, while the wind chilled us even more than the frigid water. “Well, that was bracing,” I said. “So, they’re unique as far as we know?”
Amelia drew back, surprised that I would insist on continuing the conversation while goosebumps grew to the size of dinosaur eggs on our skin. “I guess.” She looked longingly at the beach.
I no longer had any feeling in my legs and the wind was picking up. “Look, let’s forget about waves and go back to the cottage and build a fire.”
Amelia was two steps ahead of me striding toward the beach.
Later, after a raucous dinner during which Jacob, Amelia’s fifteen-year-old brother, recounted, in hilarious detail, his crashing failures at chatting up girls on the beach during the day.
“That’s ’cause you’re ugly and have pimples,” Cat, Ron and Lisa’s youngest, observed. “And, I think bad breath, too.”
Jacob accurately flipped a French fry, which hit Cat between the eyes, starting a minor food fight. I exercised my old-man privileges and adjourned to the living room and my chair near the fire. It was comforting to be far enough away from the chaos of clean up to avoid any actual work, but still hear the voices of my family joking and teasing each other.
“Hey, Dad, we’re all going down to Tastee Freez for ice cream. You want to come?” Ron, yelled over the hubbub of the crew getting ready to leave.
“No thanks. I’m going to sit here and read a little,” I said.
“Enjoy your nap, Gramps,” Cat threw over her shoulder before disappearing through the door.
An impertinent comment, but probably right. In the soothing warmth and crackle of the fire, I probably would fall asleep. The driftwood we were burning added a medicinal tang to the smell of woodsmoke that brought back memories. I could see my grandfather dropping lobsters into a pot of seawater over a driftwood fire when I was seven or eight. Another time, over another fire, I got my first serious kiss.
“Gramps?” Amelia settled onto the end of the couch nearest me and folded her legs under her.
It took me a moment to return to the present. “I thought everyone had gone for ice cream?”
“No, my thighs are chubby enough already.” She looked into the fire. “What did you mean by waves being a message?” She asked, still facing the fire.
This would be a great moment to light a cigarette, if I still smoked – or, even better, to fuss with a pipe. As it was, all I could do was take a moment to come up with a way to explain how I felt without sounding like a doped-up flower child.
“I watch the waves come in, each one separate and a little different from the others until they hit the shore.”
Amelia nodded, shifting her position on the couch. “Then the water is pulled back out to sea. Waves come in, waves go out.” She was polite enough to leave off the implied “So?”.
“What happens to the water?”
Her forehead crinkled while she looked for the trick in my question. “I guess it becomes part of another wave or something.”
“So, it doesn’t decay or break down into its components, right?”
“Of course, it’s still water.” Her impatient expression and sharp hand gestures didn’t stop me from admiring her beauty in the firelight. How did little ’Melia turn into this lovely young woman?
“Oh, right. Substitute the word ‘soul’ for ‘wave’ and you might see why I stare at the waves.”
“You believe in souls, and Heaven and Hell, and all that business?” Her furrowed brow and pursed lips communicated exactly what she thought about such primitive superstitions.
“Not exactly. I think I can prove to you that nothing in the Universe is wasted. Further, I’m pretty sure you’d agree that there is something unique about human beings. The message I see in the waves is just reassurance that that uniqueness isn’t wasted. When we’ve finished our journey and wash up on the shore, we’re drawn back to the whole and may be sent on another journey.
Amelia studied me for a moment, then turned to look into the fire. “Maybe but…”
“We’re back with ice cream for all,” Ron bellowed from the doorway. My contemplative hideaway was suddenly full of jabbering family.
Amelia reached over and squeezed my arm before jumping up. “Did you get any strawberry vanilla twist?” She yelled and headed toward the kitchen.
Bio: Bob was born and brought up in coastal Maine and has never been able to get the salt water out of his veins. He has published two short story collections set in the Sixties. As F.E. Howard, he recently released a western romance set in post-Civil War Kansas. He and his wife now live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where they serve their pampers Cavelier King Charles Spaniel, Daisy.
The Family Barbecue
by Zach Murphy
Victoria is late to the family barbecue, even though it’s in her own backyard. She stares out her bedroom window, chewing her cuticles and longing for the morning, when cute rabbits sniffed through the lawn’s dewdrops. Now, the lawn is full of people that somehow share her blood.
Victoria’s year-long bout with Lyme disease is a readymade excuse to avoid mingling. Sometimes the tiniest things cause the most damage. The condition is currently in remission, but she refuses to touch grass.
Victoria’s mom calls her name. The first time around, Victoria can pretend she doesn’t hear it. That’ll buy her some time before having to make an appearance. She has approximately nine minutes before her mom calls her name again. She knows the drill. She’s seasoned at this.
She sees her cousin, Craig, strutting around with a drink in his hand. She can’t read his lips but he’s got his “bragging about being in law school” face on. If only the rest of the family knew about his DUI. Uncle Tim has a ketchup stain on his shirt that is almost as red as his politics. After being subjected to his onslaught of Facebook posts, Victoria finds it difficult to breathe the same air as him. Aunt Marie is there, too. She always judges Victoria like it’s her profession. Every time Victoria sees her, Aunt Marie’s eyes give her a body scan that could rival an MRI machine. Yes, it’s the year 2017 and tattoos exist.
Victoria’s mom calls her name again, attempting to mask her irritation, but that voice couldn’t sugarcoat a gumdrop. Victoria can probably get away with approximately five more minutes before making an appearance. She knows the drill. She’s seasoned at this.
Victoria wonders, why should she feel obligated to even show up at all? So she can greet people with mutual feelings of disdain and muster every muscle in her face in order to cook up a smile? So she can get passive-aggressively roasted for still living at home at the age of twenty-three?
Everything hurt less when Victoria’s dad was still there. When he went away, he left an emptiness in the house that only ocean caverns know, and mom’s new boyfriend from HR definitely won’t fill it. Victoria pictures her dad at the grill, sweating, wearing his cooking apron with the bear on it, pretending it’s an easy job but simultaneously worrying he’ll mess up the shish kabobs. Victoria used to get so mad when her dad would come into her room without knocking. Now she would do anything to see him walk through the door again. Sometimes she still catches a whiff of his scent - Old Spice and sadness. At least once a day, she listens to the last rambling voicemail he left her about how he was at the store buying lettuce for the rabbits in the yard.
Victoria’s mom calls her name again, even louder. But Victoria doesn’t hear it this time.
Bio: Zach Murphy is a Hawaii-born writer with a background in cinema. His stories appear in Reed Magazine, The Coachella Review, Maudlin House, Raritan, Another Chicago Magazine, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, and more. He has published the chapbooks Tiny Universes (Selcouth Station Press) and If We Keep Moving (Ghost City Press). He lives with his wonderful wife, Kelly, in St. Paul, Minnesota.