“Panther in the Woods,” originally published in New Letters, reprinted in The Big Ugly Review: http://www.biguglyreview.com/fight/fiction_karen_bjorneby.html
Excerpt from “Hurricane Season,” orginally published in StoryQuarterly:
My little wooden house sat between water, on ten-foot stilts. Ocean in front, narrow finger of inland waterway behind. A thousand years ago I’d had a carpenter-lover build me a dock back there. I’d bought a small aluminum fishing boat. Now at night I liked to motor out into the middle of the river and smoke Winstons, drink more gin than was good for me. I’d toss the dead cigarettes at whatever rippled beneath the black water – porpoise; manatee; sea monster. I wasn’t a metereologist, I was a painter. A painter who’d lost her eye for light. But it didn’t take much eye to know the storm rushing in from the Atlantic was going to be a big one. Evacuating was the smart thing to do. Drive seventy miles inland to Orlando with a totebag full of paperbacks and a bottle of Tanqueray, and wait. Or at least pack a sleeping bag and take my chances across the river at the shelter in the elementary school, between concrete walls.
But I stayed. Not because I wasn’t smart. Not because I wasn’t afraid. I stayed because it would be just like God to let me imagine escape and then crush me a like a snail on the highway. I stayed because I just didn’t give a damn.
I was forty years old. In the last three years I’d lost every single person I loved. My mother and father both to heart attacks, one right after the other. My eight-year old son to a shooting in a mini-mall. My husband to his grief. Or to my grief. Or to bitterness or to blame or to just plain weakness.
This is the way I figured things. Either there was no God, or there was a God and he was an evil shit, or there was a God and he was as powerless as the rest of us.
So fine then. Bring on the storm.
The last weather report I’d heard it was a hundred miles off shore. Far enough I had time yet to cross the highway and take a look. I put on a yellow slicker and boots, but I didn’t bother with a hat. I had spikey black hair not even a hurricane could ravage. But as soon as I stepped outside, the wind whipped it into black snarl. I had to shove myself across the highway. Flying sand as loud as a thousand hornets stung my cheeks, my hands, my eyes.
But the ocean was beautiful, in a terrible way. Green and purple foam swirled wildly. The sky boiled gray and yellow froth. The beach was a mess. Tangled kelp, shredded jellyfish, scraps of shipwreck scraped off the sea floor. Waves scooped up mouthfuls of earth and spewed them up the beach. I stood on top of the dunes shielding my eyes with my hands and felt the tug of riptide running beneath my feet. Each time the waves fell away that hollowed well of time and water made me want to dive in head first and let the ocean carry me where it would.
Then I saw, not a hundred feet down the beach, a scarecrow boy getting ready to do just that. And I thought, shit. Shit, shit, shit. He unbuttoned his shirt, and the wind yanked it off him. He stripped out of his jeans, and the storm shrieked away with them. He dropped his wristwatch in the sand, and the sand buried it.
Maybe he was a surfer. I tried to tell myself he was a surfer. He looked like a surfer. Longish dirty blond hair, reedy body, long long legs – two knock-kneed streaks of tan. A crazy surfer out to catch the biggest wave of his life.
Except he didn’t have a board.
I shouted to him. The wind just laughed into my face and scattered my words over the beach. He stood there at the water’s edge, his hair blowing all around his head. He didn’t bother brushing it out of his eyes. A quick darting wave rushed over his feet and he leaped back. But then he squared himself and waded in.
What to do, what to do? I plowed through the wind-scooped sand – there had to be something I could throw to him. A length of plank. A coil of rope. A ragged hunk of splintered tree, washed from God knows where, the Canary Islands or the Cape of Good Hope or the Slough of Despond.
But anything I could throw to him would only be hurled right back at me.
He’d waded in deeper. Water foamed at his knees. The ocean lunged; he faltered. It sank back; he pressed forward. One gray finger of wind cupped my ear and whispered: leave him.
But then the storm fell into a moment’s silence and the water carried real sound to me: he was crying. I could see the rattling scallops of his spine, the wracked staves of his shoulders. What the hell else could I do? I threw off my slicker, tugged off my boots and my jeans, and splashed in after him.
Cold knifed straight up my legs into my stomach. I clenched my teeth and breasted through a breaking wave. The wind shoved its fist in my mouth. I swallowed seawater. I gagged. He was out so far now all I could see of him was his head bobbing up and down on gray water. The weight of water pulled at my arms. Spray slashed my eyes. A wave crested over him and he was gone. I kicked forward, hard, fighting thick water, to that eddying spot where he’d vanished. Feeling my own self being swallowed in crashing tide: no. No. He couldn’t vanish that fast. Knowing that he could. Knowing that I could, too. We were out a long way. My thighs cramped into rock. My belly was filled with seawater. My lungs burned with salt and fire.
Then he surfaced, and the wilding ocean rolled him right to me. I grabbed on to him. His skin was slippery and cold and I wrapped my arms around his skinny writhing body and I clamped my wrists together and I held on while the ocean tried to tear us apart.
He hit me. He shook his weedy wet hair and yelled. I kicked my legs, kicked him, tried to swim us to shore. He hit me again, and then I was mad. Who the hell did he think he was? Who the hell did he think I was? He hit me one more time, and I bit his shoulder and he cried out and then quieted. Rioting wind and wave tossed us toward land. We scraped over sand and pebbles and broken glass and poisonous shards of man-o-war and tumbled up onto the beach like two dead husks.
I knelt on dry sand and vomited.
He lay limp and blue as an eel.
I crawled over to him. I pointed at the highway. I shouted into cold streaming wind: My house!
I couldn’t hear his answer, but I could read his lips: leave me alone. His hair wreathed his head in green vines. My teeth marks scarred his thin blue shoulder.
I tried again. I’m alone! I need help!
His lips said: I don’t care.
I sat back on my heels. I thought: fuck you, then. Pain thrummed in my wrists and my legs jellied as I tried to stand.
But I also thought: I can’t just leave him here. If I could do that, I didn’t need this storm. If I could do that, my decisions were already made. He was so young. Eighteen, nineteen. If I could only get him to my house. If I could give him something to eat.
I bent over him. I placed my hands on either side of his face and leaned in close as a lover. I whispered down into his eyes: Help me. Then I’ll help you. I have pills. Plenty.
He looked up at me, slow and careful. His eyes were dark tunnels of blue. I held myself perfectly still against the following wind. I let him look straight through my eyes, straight through their barren gray that never lied and seldom flinched and were as empty of light as his.
What kind? he demanded. Exactly? He demanded this like he knew what he was demanding.
I didn’t want to tell him, exactly. They were mine. They were hidden. But my throat was torn. The wind had turned white and viscous, the ocean thrashed nearer and nearer, the clouds had hardened to iron. There wasn’t much time. I put my lips to his cold ear. I tasted sand and sweat and salt. I whispered: Seconal. Percodan. Valium. Gin.
His eyes paled. His mouth moved: why?
I sat up. I shouted: I had to kill a dog!
He squinted at me: you crazy?
I nodded my head, big exaggerated nods. I ignored the burned strain in my wrists and hauled him up. Standing, he was thin and bleached and docile. The wind scooped us both across the highway.
But when he saw the choppy sloppy river and my sad sagging house in front, he stopped. He pointed at the stilts: how high?
What difference did it make now? He knew what I knew. If we were high enough we’d make it. Otherwise we’d be swamped….