Avery peers at the frothy mess below, crashing water like white noise between radio stations. She leans against a rock and desires a drink. She remembers that sip of her Aunt Maddie’s coffee she spat across the fridge because she tasted the cognac her aunt added each morning. When Maddie walked in and saw such an abstract impression dripping down to the floor, she told Avery to watch out because the world was full of poison.
Climbing down to a flattened ledge that is barely big enough for her body, Avery slices a finger on a barnacle. When the hurt arrives, the poetry in pain makes her think of the unread books curling in on themselves on the coffee table at her aunt’s house. Sticky with blood, she puts her finger in her mouth and wonders why so much of the world is always beyond right now.
As the bleeding slows, she marvels at her body’s ability to save itself despite how much she’s always trying to destroy it. Once, she stayed up for three nights in a row to see how long it would take her body to shut itself down. To stay awake, she crunched Adderall and listened to AM radio with the volume all the way up while chatting to strangers online and playing Angry Birds. But on a run to Arby’s, she woke up halfway through a heath as smoke plumed from the engine of her grandfather’s Taurus. The smell of milkweed bit her ankles as she trekked back to the dirt road to find help. The tow truck driver, a guy from a party who had impressed her by shucking an oyster without a knife, told her that she was lucky to be alive. She responded by jerking him off as he drove without his lights flashing and told him that there was no such thing as luck since we are all just molecules responding to other molecules chained by the illusion of choice, which made his dick go limp, which she felt badly—but not that badly—about later.
Thick fog envelops the coast, but in front of her a tendril of light pours down towards the water.
She didn’t come to jump. She didn’t come not to.
She wishes she had a camera to capture the contrast before it disappeared. Her aunt gave her a photo album each year for her birthday. The photographs were shot with a cartographer’s eye, the landscape of a person’s face coming into focus in mountains and ridges and hills and valleys. The photos were always of strangers: a young girl tying a shoelace with chocolate streaked across one cheek, a businessman staring into space while strumming a briefcase on a train, an elderly woman feeling for a cantaloupe but unable to pick it up. Avery considered how her aunt would shoot this moment, if she would see the crevices and cracks from what felt like eons of existing.
She leans back against the crag and notices for the first time the seabirds diving down into a smattering of mackerel. She watches them carry away squirming fish between their beaks. Her aunt once said that seabirds worked out sophisticated patterns of attack, working together to force the school closer to shore where the water was shallower so the birds could dive again and again. She wondered what it took to talk without talking.
Avery had spent part of almost every summer with Maddie, her father’s sister. Her aunt spent her winters escaping south to take freelance gigs shooting anything from shy toucans to rich white ladies bathing in borrowed time. She would return to the coast for the summer to overcharge tourists for family photo sessions and sell exorbitant shots of sunsets and sailboats. But for the past year, her aunt hadn’t gone anywhere since Avery’s grandfather had a stroke and lay upstairs in partial paralysis. She told Avery not to go up there. It was the first place Avery went since she no longer cared about the walls that rules created.
Her grandfather didn’t move when she entered the room. Rail-thin fingers dangled from the side of the bed, his form barely a form under the blankets. Her nostrils filtered fetid air that smelled like a hamster’s cage. She listened for what felt like hours until she finally heard him moan as if to remind her that you could be here and gone and the same time.
The chatter builds from below.
The flap of fins. Shallow water. A sluicing attack. Avery wonders if the fish feel relief when it is over or if they are too dumb to even recognize what is happening in the first place.
The weeks with her aunt had always felt limitless. The kiss of salted air on her body after an outdoor shower, quahogs and little necks dug from the sea and tossed with fresh pasta and parsley, her aunt’s liquor cabinet where everything tasted like licorice. She loved that the little Rhode Island town was so different than the hills of upstate New York. Avery had nothing but time to chase the wrong type of girls and right type of boys until she got bored and switched it around. But that was before the future arrived.
She would say it out loud. Liminal. Repeating it again and again until it faded away into the nothingness of noise. Others had colleges and universities and paid internships and the military and service trips to the Azores and all she wanted to do was to live by the ocean and learn to take photographs like her aunt. She didn’t know what this said about her.
She wasn’t going to be one of those kids her whole life, her parents said. When she told this to Maddie, her aunt said she could always just stay here if she really wanted to; it was her life. She didn’t know what this said about her aunt, either.
For a glittering moment, the sun comes out from behind the fog. The coruscation of scales in the water blinds the birds, who shriek and squawk as if being shot, their diving paused.
Fuck them, she thinks.
Living life in negative sequence made her feel like she was ending rather than beginning. After graduation, she came to her aunt’s but the landscape had shifted. Neither a tourist nor a local, she would draw and smoke cloves and feel the permanence of youth slide away from her. One morning, she found one of her aunt’s old cameras in her nightstand when she was sleuthing for prescription bottles. Avery developed the film without telling Maddie. Her aunt had taught her how to develop film herself. Avery enjoyed the chemistry of creation. Her aunt only had the kind of solutions for the photos to process in black in white. She snuck to the dark room to watch invisible magic transform nothingness into naked photographs of her aunt’s fiancé, Meredith, who had died in a boating accident before they had set a wedding date. Meredith was laughing in most them, but Avery thought that under it, there was a look like she knew she was going to be gone.
Avery was young when the two of them were together, and she only remembered that Meredith always smelled like sandalwood and made Avery laugh more than anyone else ever could. When her parents learned of her aunt’s engagement, Avery’s mother told her that it wasn’t a real engagement because they couldn’t really get married. Her father didn’t say anything at all. Avery didn’t come the summer that her Meredith died. She would write her aunt letters telling her how sorry she was but never could bring herself to send them. When she arrived the following summer, her aunt had quit her job teaching at the high school and started shooting photography full time. She looked the same except for the dark circles that clung to her eyes and her hair never smelled the way it used to.
In the tiny pocket of her lavender pullover, Avery pulls out what’s left of the joint she had smoked with the skinny boy who always flirted with her at the clam shack next to the marina. She brings the joint to her lips and watches another bird fly away with a fish and ponders what it feels like to be able to feed while flying. She pulls out the lighter that’s tucked into the top of her black one-piece bathing suit and lights the joint before standing up straight. Arms akimbo, she closes her eyes and inhales.
“At least cash the joint before you jump.”
The voice is familiar but she can’t place it. She exhales without taking the joint from her mouth. The smoke stings her eyes as she opens them.
The tow truck driver is standing above her. She can barely make out the intermittent flashes from his truck on the road above and beyond her. His hair is longer than she remembers, golden curls that almost touch his shoulders.
“What are you doing here?” she asks.
“Dude’s alternator’s shot.”
“Did they find the gunman?”
He looked at her, his brow furrowed.
“He didn’t have a gun.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Did you get stuck again?” he asks. “Or am I just that lucky to bump into you.”
She can’t tell if he remembers what she had said to him before. He shuffles to the edge of the cliff and peers down as if afraid.
“I walked here this time,” she answers.
They watch the birds continue to plunge.
She hits the joint again as he slides down and sits on a rock just above her. She offers what’s left of it, which he silently accepts. He coughs, hard, when he inhales.
“My father started drug testing me,” he says. “It’s been a while.”
“Why’d he start doing that? Aren’t you like 25?”
He shrugs his shoulders and inhales again. “Probably because the only thing he trusts in the world is for people to let him down.” Smoke escapes from his nostrils. “I’m only twenty,” he says, clearing out his lungs.
“The only thing my father trusts is me,” she says. “He was the one who said that I should start coming here as a kid. Would be good for me, and my aunt.”
Avery takes the joint back from him and breathes it in one final time. She flicks the roach, and they watch it flitter in the breeze until it is lost in the water.
“You aren’t really going to jump, are you?”
“What if I was?”
He contemplates this, pulling at his faded hat.
“Probably means that I’d watch you drown.”
“Wouldn’t save me?”
“Not this time.”
She looks at him, and he smiles.
“My aunt wouldn’t be happy about that. If she knew you saw me and did nothing. She’d probably kill you.”
The danger of the word makes his eyes jump.
“That doesn’t seem like something your aunt would do. Again.”
She stands up straighter. It feels like the whole cliff is off-kilter.
“She’s that photographer that killed that lady that time, isn’t she? My father told me about it.”
Avery can feel a rage rise inside her.
“What are you talking about?”
“Your aunt. She was shit-faced when she hit those rocks and sent that woman flying from the boat. My father towed their car back from the marina. He said your aunt was a wreck. Wouldn’t let go of the body.”
When he looks at her, she can tell that he realizes that she hadn’t heard any of this before.
“Shit. I’m sorry. I thought you knew.”
Avery swallows down the lump in her throat. Visions appear of Meredith’s freckled face, her dimpled cheeks, her slender body with milk-white skin made lighter by her dark tuft of pubic hair. In the last photo she developed, her aunt’s head rested on Meredith’s shoulder, their eyes closed. A selfie before there was a name for it. The younger version of her aunt looked like she could be Avery’s sister. It was the most beautiful image Avery had ever seen her aunt shoot.
“Do you ever wonder about the molecules? The ones I told you about?”
He scratches at his chin. “What molecules?”
“The ones that used to hold us together.”
She meets his hazel eyes, wide with surprise.
She never told her aunt about the time her grandfather opened his eye, murky with green and flecks of gold. In it she saw everything she wasn’t supposed to see, those haggard thoughts you don’t say out loud. She held her hand to her mouth so she didn’t scream and stared back until he started animalistically moaning her name, and she ran out of the room, and hadn’t gone back since. Instead, she crept into bed with her aunt, comforted by her heavy breathing, even though the sun had been shining for hours.
“I sometimes wonder if they’d ever let us rearrange them.”
He doesn’t say anything, so she breathes deeply. Then leaps.
As she falls, she feels them unfurl from within, scaled wings that allow her to both swim and fly, a connection of currents, forceful, turbulent. The water is warmer than she thinks it should be. She feels the pull of surf, her skin elastic, shedding itself from its form. She feels the water rush through her, her body hers without owning it, billowed by the tide, flying in the float.
Darkened hair clings to her face as she walks out of the water. She smells like oil and salt. Her chest heaves, and she sees him standing there, high above her, at a height that seems inconceivable. He looks down in disbelief. She waves up to him, pulls off her dress, and leaves it in the water. She watches it float, until it is lost in the crash of a wave, before turning, ready for home.
Brian McVety lives in Longmeadow, MA with his wife and three daughters. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Reckon Review, Arcturus, Porcupine Literary, Flash Fiction Magazine, Tiny Molecues, and elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter@bmcvety.
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