Facing the Tide

By Kevin Coons

oe awoke before the sun came up. His sleeping routine was just one of many things he was still trying to get back. He started a pot of coffee and walked down the hall to his son’s bedroom, or rather what used to be his son’s room. His wife Penny was still there sleeping. She looked like a rag doll propped up against the side of his crib with her head hung down and last night’s eye shadow making black lines on her face. The window was slightly cracked open and a breeze was slowly spinning the mobile above the crib. Joe watched it go around a few times; the octopus, the seahorse, the starfish, and the dolphin, all smiling widely.

It had been a month. A month since they lost their only child suddenly, and without explanation. He was three weeks old. He cried his entire life.

 

Normally he wouldn’t wake her, but there was something that troubled him about finding her sleeping in an unusual place and in such an uncomfortable-looking position. He reached his hand out to her shoulder and gently pushed until her eyes budged open.

 

She seemed startled for a second over her surroundings, but soon she realized just where she was and who she still was.

 

“Hey there, sweetie.” Joe whispered.

 

“Joe,” she took a breath and repeated her self.

 

“Joe, sorry…I was dreaming.”

 

“It’s okay,” he said, “What were you dreaming about?”

 

“Oh, nothing really. It was one of those dreams where is everything is kind of blurry, but you don’t ever stop to think about why. I was a little girl though, and I was at my dad’s house and I was sitting on the swing in the backyard. I was waiting for something, or someone, maybe, but I’m not really sure what.”

 

“Oh, I see.” Joe replied. “Well, I stayed up waiting for you to come to bed last night.”

 

“I’m sorry, I guess just passed out here.” This had become frequent for her. “Did you finish the rest of the wine?” Penny asked

 

“Yeah, I did. It’s gone.” Joe continued, “Listen, we need to eventually figure out what do with this crib, and we need to sort through the rest of his toys and clothes and stuff. And I want to paint over these clouds here.”

 

 

“We’ll talk about later. I just woke up for Christ’s sake. At least give me a minute to wake up.”

“I’m sorry sweetie,” Joe quickly replied. “I didn’t mean to get mad. I mean I’m not mad. It just popped into my head. You want to get some coffee and go for a walk before I go to work?” he offered. “Let’s go to the beach.”

 

 

There was a secluded and beautiful, beach just a few blocks from their home. It was one of the things there most excited about when they purchased their home, but they both had been prone to ignore it, to forget about it for long stretches of time.

 

“Okay, okay. That might be nice.” Penny said, “I didn’t mean to get mad either.”

 

They had been talking to each other the way the talked when they were first dating; they were generally careful of their subject matter in conversation, and both were quick to apologize. Their house was often filled with silence.

 

Joe took the corner of his shirt and wiped the smeared eye shadow of her face before kissing her on the forehead. He helped her up on to her feet carefully, without looking directly into her eyes.

 

Fog had crept up and was hugging the houses. Joe lit a cigarette as they walked down the road, a good two feet between them. He had quit smoking before at Penny’s insistence but picked up the habit again recently, without protest.

 

On the way there, they didn’t talk much, just a brief comment or two about the neighbors’ landscaping and what the weather was looking like for the weekend. Joe thought about the crib again, but didn’t mention it out loud. He wondered if he could disassemble it and get a refund, but something about that idea troubled him.

 

“Joe, remember our old apartment in North Park? Before we moved here?” Penny asked.

“Yeah, I remember. I liked that place.”

 

“Me too. Remember when we came home that one time from the movies and there was a bird flying around in the apartment.”

 

“I remember chasing it around with a broom, but that little fucker didn’t want to leave.”

 

Penny would normally have chuckled at that image, but instead said, “I still wonder sometimes how he got in. All the doors and windows were closed.”

 

“Who knows. It’s just one of those things…” Joe trailed off a bit.  “I miss that apartment.”

 

“So do I. So do I.”

 

There was a narrow walkway, nestled between two houses at the end of street that led to a wooden stairway down to the beach. From the top of the stairs, there was usually quite a view, but this morning, there was just haze.

 

As their shoes first hit the sand Joe noticed there was something strange out near the water, maybe a couple of hundred feet away. The thick fog was heavily weakening his sight but he knew, almost instinctually, that something was wrong. At first all he could make it out was that it was big and dark. His first thought was this it was a misplaced rock, or perhaps, a boat. “What is that thing?” he asked Penny.

 

“What thing?” she replied.

 

“Out there” he pointed but realized it had already caught her attention, too.

 

They approached it in silence. It soon became apparent that it wasn’t a rock nor was it a boat. Before their visual was yet clear, they smelled it. Its odor had saturated the fog all around it and while it was a fishy scent, not a wholly unfamiliar scent to Joe, but it’s magnitude and power was unlike anything he had experienced before. They got closer, though the fog and its outline seemed to be slowly and rhythmically rising, then falling. This thing was breathing. “Oh my God…” Penny uttered. Joe and Penny both shuddered together when they realized what it was. He instinctively put his arm around her, and she sunk her face into his chest.

 

They had discovered a beached whale, a mysterious stranger on their familiar shoreline. It was more giant and grotesque than Joe could have imagined. The tide was low and unsympathetic. It was nowhere close to reaching even the tail of the beast that had become, itself, an island in the sand. It was a dark, rain-cloud, gray and was covered in long, white scars. There was seaweed under its belly and wrapped around its tail. Penny kept her distance but Joe got up close enough to touch its smooth skin and he could hear it breathing, low and mournful.

 

In its attempt to comprehend this strange being, Joe’s had not initially registered it as an animal but instead something more paramount. A volcano’s presence was his closet reference point. It was much taller than Joe and stretched out for maybe 60, 70 feet in length. Joe was drawn to its eye like it was a single streetlight in the middle of a dark and dangerous street. The eye was beautiful and calm, but the rest of the thing seemed unnatural and repulsive in this state. How could something so beautiful become so ugly, just by it changing contexts?

 

 

Joe and Penny had seen whales before; they spent a day of their honeymoon in Maui whale-watching and were lucky enough to encounter a pod of humpbacks. Joe could still picture Penny leaning over the side of the boat, hair blowing in the wind, smiling wide as they watched the whales swim and play with each other. “They are so beautiful.” She said. “Just so beautiful.” Penny often repeated herself for emphasis. It was of her many small quirks that Joe used to adore. Like how she quietly hummed lullabies to herself when she was trying to fall asleep. She teased Joe because he took so many pictures of her and almost none of the whales. That was a lifetime ago. They were so young then and could have never envisioned what was in store for their lives together.

 

“It’s still alive, we have to save it!” Penny said, bringing Joe back to the reality of the situation.

 

“Should we call animal control? 9-1-1? It’s so big.” She said. Her heart was pounding and she was almost in tears.

 

“Do you have your phone?” Joe responded with an outwardly calm attitude.

 

“It’s back at the house.”

 

“Mine too. Go back, call someone. I’ll see if there’s anything I can do here.”

 

“Okay” she said and soon was gone. Joe watched her jog away, up the stairs and out of sight.

He started to pick off the seaweed and tried to untangle the mess of it around its tail. He wondered that if he and Penny could go back: just rewind their lives to that day in Maui or even to their old apartment, if he would want to do it. He wondered what his life would be like if he had never met Penny and immediately felt a pang of guilt for even thinking it. He missed his boy so much that it physically hurt at times, but he also missed his wife.

 

“Where are all the surfers? The morning joggers? Why am I here all alone?” Joe asked himself out loud. The whale moaned again, as if it was responding to him. Joe started pacing. “Why? Why? Why? Why?” He rhythmically spoke, getting louder and more frantic with each reiteration.

 

It moaned another time, a guttural, tortured rumble.

 

“Shut the fuck up! I’m trying to help you.” Joe said and gave one hard kick into the sand. He sat down in the sand and turned his gaze towards ocean. It went on and on, gray and endless.

 

He tried to slow his breathing down. He tried to match his heartbeat to the ocean’s. He thought about praying, but decided there was no point.

 

A few minutes passed, and finally Penny emerged from the fog like a shining beacon, wearing a bright red windbreaker and running towards him.

 

“What did they say?” Joe called out to her.

 

“They’re coming with help.” She replied.

 

“Who’s coming?”

 

“Everyone. Firemen, animal control, the news probably.”

 

“They did they say anything we should do until help comes?”

 

“They said we could try pushing it.”

 

“Pushing it?!” Joe’s voice started quivering “Look how big the fucking thing is!”

 

Penny took a deep breath and burst like a balloon into a heap of tears. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.” She said as her chin fell to her chest. “I’m just telling you what they said.

Joe sat down to next to her. “I’m sorry.” He said. She leaned her head on his shoulder with most of her weight. This Joe made feel strong and he wrapped his arm around her. The whale let out yet another moan, this time spurting mist out of its blowhole.

 

“We should have let that bird stay in for awhile. You didn’t have to scare it away like that.” Penny said. “It just wanted to be inside where it was warm.”

 

Joe replied, “Yeah, but it got to go up into the sky, where it belonged. It got to soar over all of this. It couldn’t do that inside our apartment.”

 

“That’s true.” Penny said, still crying.

 

They watched a couple of waves break and then Joe stood up with an outward confidence and walked up the nose of the whale. Then, he started pushing it, with all the strength he could muster. Maybe it was his feet slipping backwards in the sand, but for whatever reason, he thought he felt it moving, if only a little bit. He felt like he was making some sort of progress, somehow. The thought invigorated him. Penny got up and walked up next to him. She placed her left hand over his right hand, both atop the whale, facing the tide.

 

“Keep pushing.” She said.

 

“Just keep pushing.

 

 

——————–

Kevin Coons is a writer and musician who lives in San Luis Obispo, CA with his wife and two cats. He can be found online at kevincoons.tumblr.com.


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