Distress Signals

Jake walked back and forth along the the line of stones on the beachfront, listening to the sounds that filtered through his half closed ears. Front, back. Back front. Something, the metronomic swish of his shoes, lulled him, like a shoreline rushing back and forth to reclaim the tide. He forgot that he had his music on and ventured deeper into the water, so that he could hear it better. Before long, Jake was surrounded by water, as if someone had filled the tub but forgotten to pull it after they were done. The water might have been warm, too, but Jake did not feel it. He didn’t feel anything. He only paused when his lower body was completely submerged because going forward did not produce the intended heartbeat of the ocean. He slowly began to drift back. Before long, he was back on the shore, a piece of driftwood thrifted onto the shore by the ocean and once more, Jake was folded into the coldness of the night.

He had begun these nightly excursions in the hope of finding his dog. Now that his dog was truly and remarkably missing, he felt the same ocean draw him in. He moved heavily, fitfully in the same way he had the first few days after he was declared missing. He imagined him with a seaweed choker decorated his thin neck and the sand holding the indentations of his spine. We found the dog. Jake had begun to stop thinking of his name and only think of him as the dog. When salience wasn’t useful, Jake’s mind had tossed it into the surf like the water tossed sand.The dog had fallen astray, alright. Jake found himself nodding, or he was shivering, or he was…No, he felt nothing. He heard the footfalls of his unstockinged feet knead the sand but felt nothing. The conglomerate beneath him felt solid but what did he know; with more limited senses, it may well have been fluid; this is what the dog had probably thought. Jake didn’t know. It did not make sense that a dog would stray into the water. Perhaps he had sniffed a treasure chest full of his favourite bites under the sea. Around and around his thoughts chased its tail. If he wanted them that badly, did he not know that he could get them from me?

When he arrived home, he felt the same sense of disappointment that he always felt. There was his father, his face shaded by the poor lit corner, hiding behind the fortress of his paper. The black tide of shadow refused to reveal his face.

“Hi Dad.” The couch coughed, refusing to silently take his weight. It made him feel tired. A throbbing in his head told him that if he did not sleep soon it would start to hurt.

“You’re all wet.”

“It rained.”

“Rain…? In June…?” His father’s shaded eyes jumped briefly out of the shadow. “You smell bad. Help yourself to a towel…” his brow furrowed. “Have you done the laundry yet? Or was it my turn?”

“That’s alright.” Jake stood up and walked towards the washroom. He was right. His towel was soaked yellow with beer. He fished around the laundry basket for his dad’s. It was the same. He settled on a T shirt from the back of the closet instead. When he walked back out, his father was fully focussed on his paper once again. International something or the other. He slipped silently back to his room and stared at the wall until he was called. His father made no remark that he had taken his mother’s shirt.

Dinner was a turkey. The warm light of their old light bulbs cast an appreciable glaze over the stringy meat. Jake tucked it in silently. Their whole meal was silence. If they were feasting on the silence, it was with small nibbles, meant to make it last.

“Did you like the dinner?”
“It’s alright.”

“Great, great.” His father turned back to his paper. Jake let the broccoli from his fork drop. He could hear the clock tick, a thick, slogging lope. It was yellow. yellow like the light, piss poor and completely worn.

He was surprised when his father punctuated the silence again. “By the way, I’m proud of you son. For that finals presentation you got tacked on the hallway wall.”

“That wasn’t mine.”

“I’m quite sure it was.”

Jake stared into his plate. “It was a while ago. Maybe.”

A few minutes later, the sound of their chewing was patterned over by the soothing rhythm of the radio. “Welcome this afternoon, listeners…A cold day…Cold days forecasted for all this week…The survivors of the freak storm have yet to be found…”

Jake felt his spine stiffen into armour. “Turn off the radio.”

His father shut it off immediately.The apology was on the tip of his tongue.

“Don’t apologize. It’s so…”

His father cleared his throat. “Actually…”

“Don’t say it. You never have anything good to say.” he pushed back his plate. “I’m full.”

“Listen, Jake, please. I have something to say…”
“What?” He let irritation spike his voice.
“With all the recent bad weather…” For once his father’s eyes searched for his.

The seediness of his sleep deprived eyes. The questioning parting of his lips. He had had enough.

He put his hands over his ears. He wished he could box his father’s voice into orbit. “We. Are. Not. Selling. This. Cabin!”

“I will not have you naively slamming me for the things that we have to do!”

His father had been ignited. He took a breath, with Jake flinching. “Do you know how much it costs to keep this rundown shack? To upkeep it?” He had slammed his utensils down on their porcelain plates, punctuating each question with a ringing eerily like that of miniature alarm bells. He knew that from his eyes the unbridled energy that threatened to uncage itself was barely gripped in his fists. “Next year we won’t even have vacation! Do you think it was easy to have enough to buy this turkey?”

“I don’t want your stupid turkey!”

“The two of us alone cannot upkeep this. We haven’t even got ahold of the laundry!”

“It’s your fault you bought turkey! The money could have been spent on repairs!”

“The turkey is to celebrate our last days here! A damn turkey won’t save us!”
“I hate you! Look at how you failed Ma! You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“We’ve all made sacrifices!”

“And Sparky?”

“Some local will find him.”

At that moment, there was a knock on the door. His father trudged slowly, as if afraid to indent or mark the floorboards, any sign of life, of wear and tear for prospective homebuyers.

“Hello? How may I help you?”

Jake heard a flutter. “Was this you that put it up?” Paper. The dog’s poster.

“So?” His father sounded deflated. Jake checked himself-he was sliding out of his chair while craning his neck. “Did you find him?” he yelled out.

The boy at their doorstep caught the line his voice threw out. “I saw something…”

“Spot on his haunch, three legs?”

“Yeah. Beach. In the trees across the water, he must have walked across the way at low tide.” He stopped. “Anyways, I gotta go, Ma’s going to be mad I missed dinner. Sorry I can’t help you no more.”

His father closed the door. To Jake it sounded like a slam. Jake yelled.

“Shh!” His father was pale. “He’s come by before. It’s that cat. He doesn’t know his dogs from cats.”
“But-Dad! They think they found the dog!”
“It wasn’t a dog-”
“Sparky!”

“Calm your-”

“You’re always such a know it all!”

Jake had pushed past his father, he had ran out of the house. In his haste he had forgotten his shoes, once again. But the pavement was cool, pebbled surface locking with the grooves of his feet. he travelled at a tilt in sync with the road, skimming, positively flying, calling Sparky’s name. So when his feet hit the sand he was caught unawares; as he hit the first spray of water the solid became fluid. He felt his ankle twist and the bottom of his stomach gave away.

When he had re-gathered his wits he was stomach down on the slick sand, sobbing into the rough granules. A fire that overshadowed the one in his heart burned up and down his ankle. He grabbed, crablike, towards the water, responding to the cool reprieve of the spray that maddeningly only partially relieved the fire. Once he was in, there was no going out. His entire body was numb from the cold, iced from the outside in. No time had passed from when he had walked stolidly in that evening and now. Salt stung his eyes and rushed into his ears; the water was trying to make a human sandcastle out of him, or else he was the crab, water round him building him a sand mansion.

Still, deeper, deeper, the urge within him pulsed. Blind, it turned his panic into a throttle which it refused to release. The song of the ocean was in his head again. This time it really threatened to reel him in. It knew that he was defenceless, that nothing anchored him to a shore. The blue and black tides whirled around him like gauze, like the cape of wizard about to do a magic trick on him.

So when he felt something tug on his chest, he allowed it. Confusion kept him from understanding what had happened, other than that he had snagged. Onto  a current, seaweed, onto a rock. Onto Sparky’s leash. He’d had a leash. The leash could have snagged anywhere, and then he could have drowned.

“Jake! Get back here!” THe sound of his father’s voice roared. His hearing had returned! He felt the surface of the water break and color return to the world as he resurfaced.

“Dad!” He wrapped his arms around the thick trunk he thought was his father’s neck. The sobs that wracked his body made him feel as if his body were trying to give back to the ocean. “The ocean was trying to get me! It wanted to kill me! Kill me like it killed Sparky!” The fear that coiled in his chest roared to be let out. Slave to the pain. Secondary to the pain in his heart.
“Get out! Get out!” his father was roaring indiscriminating into the waves. It took Jake a while to understand that he was not telling Jake to go, but the waves to let go of him. With that, Jake felt his arms begin to paddle, and propelled his feet. Now numb he kicked them with all the force that he had. “You must calm down! I’ll carry you!” He felt himself being tightly gripped; all he heard was the echo: “Down, down,” Did he tell Sparky to sit down too much? Would he not have run away?

Crying. He was no longer in the water. The water that threatened to drown him came from within. He sobbed unabashed because he had lost conscious control over the pins and needles that sparred his body from every angle, and there was nothing for his closed eyes to see. He was gradually aware that someone was mumbling at a frantic pace, and that maybe it was his father, a man desperate for confession. He could only catch strains of it-if he grappled too hard it would break, the gossamer threads trailing from his consciousness blown by an unanticipated wind.

“…stop the search…Look how you’ve endangered yourself…He’s gone, I saw him with my own eyes…swept away by the tide…didn’t want you to see…we’re moving away…please.”

Slowly, his sobs subsided. His brittle emotions clung too scantily to his body, sparse as skeleton leaves. If someone had knocked him, there would be an echoing hollow. But no one knocked him; his father seemed to sense that he was fragile and put him to his feet and braced him but did not overexert him. The first thing that he saw was the beacons of light blinking dimly across the water. They were the search ships, out to save those who gave the distress call. They were the ones who made the ocean a safe place to be. Timidly, he found his feet and walked away from the waters. He hopped along with his arm braced onto his father, his gaze hanging down so that he was dimly aware of their irregular footfalls create a pattern in the sand; everybody about him felt tender and new.

The coast guard never found Sparky’s body.

Jake never lost his fascination with the seas.

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