Inland
An Excerpt From
Inland
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Kat Rosenfield


CHAPTER 1
15 YEARS AGO

 

IT IS NOT YET SUNSET when the tall young woman who lives on the cliffside makes her way down to the beach. Sure-footed on the wooden steps, worn smooth by sand and weather. She treads lightly, her feet naked and white against the earth, leaving only the barest impressions as she steps over the driftwood remains of a tree and around the jagged cluster of rocks, where the small, pale body of a crab floats idly in a tide pool and its brothers sidestep hastily out of the way.

The beach is empty in all directions, the only sign of life a trio of seagulls wheeling high arcs overhead. Other days, summer days, there are people here. Children playing in the shallows; a young man and his dog sprinting through the surf; the elderly couple who lives down the beach, wearing matching Windbreakers, strolling hand in hand. Their names are Peter and Polly, but she doesn’t know this, nor do they know her name. Theirs is a passing acquaintance. They only smile and wave, nodding their white-topped heads in polite recognition at the woman with broad shoulders and striking blue eyes and waist-length tumble of hair, so wind-blown and wild that only its own weight can keep it under control. Some days they see her on the beach, on her way to or from the water, and pause to say hello; others, she is in, swimming, when they pass by. On those days, they’ve learned not to bother with greetings. She never looks back at the beach, never seems to notice them, not even if they stand at the water’s edge and call out across the waves. Peter, who used to work as an electrician and still prides himself on figuring things out, tells his wife that he thinks the young woman must wear plugs to protect her eardrums, that she probably has tubes in her ears.

“I’m sure you’re right, dear,” Polly says, and they walk on down the beach. But later, when she’s alone, Polly will think to herself that she’s not so sure, not at all. She has seen the young woman’s face peering out from the water, as still and blank in the sunlight as a silver coin. Even from twenty yards away, there is something unsettling in the way she gazes back—as though from across a great distance, and without seeing anything at all.

There are days, too, when she doesn’t appear, and the couple wonder out loud to each other where she is, if she might be ill. It never occurs to them that she’s not like them. Like most creatures of the earth, Peter and Polly keep time by the sun, enjoying the way its last rays warm their backs as they make their way back down the beach. They like to watch comfortably from their porch, a bottle of wine between them, as it sinks below the horizon in a blaze of pink and crimson.

The woman, though, keeps time by the moon, and the way it holds the oceans in its inescapable thrall, bringing them up to cover the coast and then rolling them away, back and back, to expose the briny mudflats, the gleaming beds of deep blue mussels, the slick and slippery rocks crusted over with barnacles like small, brittle teeth. She comes when the tide is highest.

 

Today, the beach is empty. Peter and Polly have long since passed by, and no children play in the surf. Autumn has cooled the water, chilled the evenings, driven away all but the most intrepid swimmers. But she has never minded icy water. When she peels off her dress and steps into the waves, it is like cool silk brushing her skin. She places her palms on the surface, and breathes deeply of the sea.

“I’m here,” she says softly. “I’m yours. Yours as I have always been, as I always will be.”

The answering voice seems to come from everywhere, rising up from the depths of the water, ringing out from inside her own head. She doesn’t look around, not anymore; after so many trips to the water’s edge, she knows that no one can hear it but her.

You are mine.

“Yes,” she says gently, lovingly. Her fingers stroke the undulating surface, leaving tiny furrows in their wake that vanish as fast as they appear. Her voice is a purr. “Yes.”

The child is mine.

“Yes. She will love you as I love you, always.”

The man is nothing.

“Nothing,” she breathes, and the word sends a chill through her heart. She steels herself, and says it louder. “Nothing. He is only a man. A means to an end. He gave me the child, but I have given him nothing, and nothing is what he is.”

It isn’t the first time she’s said these words. She has been saying them for years, offered them up willingly every day, ever since that first moment when she stepped into the waves with the sun glinting like fire off her wedding band. She speaks them like vows, from the depths of her heart, a promise she has always intended to keep.

She can still remember when she meant it. When she believed every word that crossed her lips, because she believed so deeply in herself, in her own brilliance, in the solution that seemed foolproof and sure. She had done her research. She had taken her time. She knew the rules, and so she had carefully picked a man with whom she could follow them—a man she was sure she could never love. She had selected him, and then seduced him, all with a surgeon’s skill and clinical detachment. This passionless bore of a professor, all hard facts and cool logic. He was the kind of man with whom it was impossible that she’d fall in love. In fact, she’d strongly suspected him incapable of the emotion himself. Of deep feeling of any kind, for that matter. He was too cold, too staid, too set in his ways to let another person into his stony heart. He was buried in his books, his rocks, his papers.

Entirely safe, just as she’d planned. Just as she knew he would be.

She’d also believed, truly, that she was as perfect for him as he was for her. It had always been her intention to find a man who would be to her just what she needed, no more, but it had been her good luck to find one for whom she was sure that she would be the same. She could tell just by looking at him that this man, long past the age at which most men married, had no true need of a wife, no deep yearning for a woman to share his life. You could see that in the way he lived, alone, no family or friends close by, his few social connections merely professional. There was no loneliness in him; he did not ache to love, or be loved. It wasn’t in his nature. But he would appreciate what she had to offer: a well-kept home to come back to at night, a companion when he was lonely. A nubile, young body to warm his bed. And in return, he would give her the things she desired: a ring, a home, and—most importantly—a baby. Her daughter, her baby girl. The marriage, the man, were merely vessels for the child she’d always longed for.

Her husband could have her body, but not her heart. Never her heart. That was how it would happen, because that was what she’d planned. Because her heart had been claimed by another. It always had been, and would be forever. It was as she had promised, that first night on the shore, still in her bone-white wedding gown.

I’m here. I’m yours. Yours as I have always been, as I always will be. I will never leave you, and when the time comes, I’ll come willingly.

A gust of wind lifts her hair from her shoulders, sending a shudder down the length of her spine.

The rising tide rolls in, as it did on the first day and each day since, churning in lace-froth eddies around her ankles. The sand drags away beneath her feet, as it always has.

She makes her way into the water, as she always does.

And she thinks, as she has so often lately, that she wishes she could go back five years, to the day she first approached him with a smile on her lips and her hair tumbling free and wild over her shoulders, and slap herself hard across the face. She wonders, bitterly and not for the first time, how she could have been so stupid, so reckless, so shortsighted and full of hubris.

And she prays, desperately and not for the first time, that she still has some secrets left. That the way she feels for her husband, the way she’d been so damned sure she’d never feel, is hidden somewhere watertight and out of reach. That she is as good a liar as she always believed herself to be, now that it matters more than ever.

She has so much more to lose.

 

There are shadows in the water. She reaches for them as they reach for her, walking out against the rising tide. Her eyes close as the waves break against her hips, as she breathes in deeply, as she bends her knees and sinks down deeper, as she feels the lick of water beneath her chin. She swims, as the sun makes its last golden gasp across the sky.

Only the vanishing light tells her how much time has passed, as she turns back toward the shore. The sea crashes and seethes, rushing past her to kiss the shoreline, hissing through the narrows between the hulking rocks. The waves call her name as they strike the beach, with all the urgent passion of a lover’s breathless whisper. It is always this way, when it’s time to leave. It is always this way, when the one who loves you is powerful, and jealous, and loathe to let you go.

“When the time comes, I’ll come willingly,” she whispers again. “And so will she.”

But it isn’t time, not yet. It will be years—her body beginning to show its age, her daughter nearly a woman—before she trades in this little life for the endless one that comes after.

 

The wind dies away, leaving the chill of early evening to shudder across her skin. She turns and swims for shore, stroking gracefully through water that grows calm as she glides over the surface. Her pale legs trail behind her, long and strong, until her fingers brush the rough bottom and her feet settle again on the soft, gritty sand.

Overhead, a gull screams in triumph as it lets loose a tightly closed shell to shatter, glittering, against the rocks. It swoops down in the last, fleeing light of the day to pluck its dinner from among the shards. The sky above is ablaze in red; when she steps dripping from the water and looks out to the horizon, it is across an ocean the color of lava, gone glassy and still, the gentle swells rolling in lazy rhythm.

From a place far off, above the beach, comes the creak and slam of a thin screen door. A porch light is flicked on; a man, tall and slim and standing in inky silhouette on the porch of a weathered house, calls her name.

“I know who I am,” she whispers. “He is nothing to me.”

But the words hold no comfort, and no truth.

From the shadowed house above the beach, she can hear her daughter crying.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

NINE YEARS AGO

 

THERE IS SOMETHING IN THE WATER. A shadow, something dark and long and strong and sinuous. It slides beneath the shimmering waves, and I turn to watch as it comes closer, moving fast, an opaque patch that surges silently forward and slips under the keel of the boat on one side.

I see it first. I see it, and I look away.

 

She is in the water, too; she is always in the water. Treading lightly, feet pedaling and pushing against the endless azure nothing below. She has been telling me, like she always does, that it’s so lovely. So light. That I can’t imagine how wonderful it feels. That the sea is like a cushion, a bed made out of sun glimmer and spray. She is beckoning, coaxing me to leave the little daysailer and come swim beside her. She tells me we’ll float there together, two tiny dots of life on the rippling surface, with light glinting off our slick-shiny hair and our feet fluttering like pale wings in the blue.

I am only half listening. The shadow has disappeared beneath the boat.

There’s nothing else. No splash. No sign. No portent cloud come to cover the sun. There is only the shadow in the water, and there is no time left.

When she sees it, she says only two words.

The first is “Wait.”

The second, full of panic and water and the sudden, swelling noise of the sea, is my name.

The shadow has disappeared.

When I turn back, I am watching my mother drown.

 

In the movies, drowning is the most undignified of deaths. People scream, and flail, and thrash around. They make waves, clawing at the liquid surface and finding no purchase, until their waving arms lose strength and their mouths fill at the corners and they sink, feetfirst and fingertips last, beneath the rippling water.

That’s not how it happens at all.

Back on land, there were questions. Why were we so far from shore? Why would my mother, surrounded on all sides by endless, directionless water, strip the sails and leave the safety of the boat? Why hadn’t I thrown out a life jacket or a rope when I saw her struggling, or held out one of the long, light oars that were still suspended, untouched, in their space beneath the gunwhale?

My father, his mouth screwed tight with grief and anger and incomprehension, cast a shadow over my hospital bed. He stood next to the slim, silver IV stand, just as ramrod straight and rigid. Just as cold. He kept the shades drawn, keeping the world out and the fluorescent lights on, until I lost track of how many days I’d been there. No sun to mark the time, only the doctors and nurses and question-askers who came and went in a parade of quiet sameness. Everyone who entered my room was the same shade of blue-white pale, lit in the same sharp relief, the same hollow shadows carving their brows and jaws.

“You’re not making sense, Callie,” my father said, after the last one had left.

“There must be something you’re not remembering,” he said.

“Tell me the truth. Tell me.”

My favorite doctor, the one with crispy, salt-streaked hair and the scent of coconut oil on his clean, dark hands, would usher him out of the room when I started to cry. In the hallway, he would lay his palm on my father’s shoulder—a bronze beacon of warmth in that white, cold world—and bend in close with whispered advice.

“I know it’s hard,” I heard him say as the door swung slowly closed. The words slipped through the shrinking gap, settling in the room, sinking into the chair where people would sit with their pressed lips and endless questions.

“I know it’s hard,” he said. “But a trauma like this, at this age . . . it may be better, for her and for you, if she doesn’t remember.”

My sun-kissed doctor believed that my memory was incomplete on purpose; that my mind was healing itself with a story that made no sense, washing itself white, blotting out what I’d seen and burying it in a place where it couldn’t harm me.

I was glad when the questions stopped.

 

It was easy, pretending to forget. Faking it a little more each day, and more still, until even my father believed that the truth about what happened that day was lost forever. Buried in my unplumbable mind. As hopelessly irretrievable as my mother’s body, undiscovered and slowly unmaking itself somewhere in the depths of the Pacific.

 

It was easy—easier than trying to explain, through my cracked and sun-blistered lips, how this wasn’t the first time that Mama had slipped out of the boat when the wind went down. How she could stay there, forever weightless in the water, no matter which way the current was moving us. That everything they’d ever believed about drowning was wrong.

Because there were no waving hands, no screams. She was simply there, and then not there. She disappeared beneath the surface without a splash or shout, and not so much as a bubble marked the spot, and the water where she’d been was as smooth and unbroken as dappled glass.

“You’re not making sense, Callie,” my father had said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

What I didn’t say was: Yes, I am. I am making sense. I am making sense, if you just believe that this is how it happened.

 

The wind disappeared.

There was a shadow in the water.

And when it moved beneath our boat, the sea opened its yawning blue mouth and swallowed my mother whole.

 

Inland

Inland