Chuck Wendig, owner of all things Terribly Minded and master of all he surveys, has another Flash Fiction Contest, this time about settings. I chose The Bottom Of The Ocean, and present to you "The Marianas Trench".
Even the waves sounded unsettled. The constant grumbling of water hitting the shore echoed my unsettled stomach. I was nervous. I really had no reason to be. The day had opened gray and surly, low clouds promising rain that they hadn't yet delivered. Everything was clothed in a fog so thick you could hear the ocean, but not see it. I didn't know what I expected to find here, but I was pretty sure that, whatever it was, it wouldn't live up to my expectations. Nothing ever did.
"Just walk along the path, along Ocean Boulevard, where those benches are, next to the beach, and I'll meet you. I run down that path every morning with my dog Sparky, before 7. I have no problem chatting for a bit." That was the message she had left me, next to a tiny picture of Sparky, when I saw it on my Facebook page this morning. Business had left me in her city with a morning to kill before my flight leaves.
I had found her at that 21st century watering hole, apologizing at length for the atrocious way I had treated her, 20 years and several lifetimes ago. "No worries, we were young," she said then. When I discovered I would be within a few miles of her home, I asked for the meeting, not being shocked that she didn't immediately respond. When I saw her note this morning, it jump started a frenzy of activity, packing my clothes and showering and taking a taxi to be on the path at the right time.
I saw her pop out of the murk. She had a light jacket over some sort of exercise top and tight running pants. I gawked. I couldn't help myself. She still had the firm body of a teenager. If you didn't know, she could pass for a tall undergraduate, her long hair swinging back and forth as she ran, her dog, a friendly looking beagle, happily trotting along beside. Her face was unmistakable, angular and sharp like the prow of a ship.
"Sarah?," I said when she came close enough.
"Oh! Oh!," she said softly. That was absolutely her. Her voice was almost a whisper. I knelt down to acquaint myself with her dog, resting my luggage on the ground. I let him sniff me, then scratched him behind his ears gently. "I didn't recognize you with a mustache, Jon." And with 50 more pounds, she didn't say.
"It's me," I said. I wasn't sure what else to say. My heart pounded. "Your dog is beautiful," I said. So are you, I didn't mention. Age gave her a seriousness she never had before. She didn't need me to protect her from anything now. Maybe she never did.
"You teach marine biology, huh?," I continued, grappling for a handhold on the conversation.
"Yes," she said. "We're leaving on a research trip this afternoon. Three weeks diving to the bottom of the ocean."
"Three weeks?," I said. "What happens to this guy?" Sparky looked up at me, as if he knew I meant him.
"He stays with Aunt Sherry here on land. One of my students."
"What are you studying?"
"Basically, the life forms at different levels of the sea, and how they interact." She was dancing back and forth on her toes, almost like she was a boxer. Everything she did was uncommonly graceful.
"Don't robots do that?"
"Sometimes. Other times, we go down there."
"Down to the bottom of the ocean?" I thought about all that water, tons and tons and tons of it, pressing down on a fragile little cocoon of steel. I imagined her down there, her hair pulled back into a sensible bun, like she wore when she danced, checking items off a list or urgently typing on a laptop.
"Nearly," she said. She started stretching, trying to stay loose. She bent low from the waist and I peeked at her decolletage. It looked familiar. I remembered what she looked like 20 years ago without a top on, tiny, precious, and vulnerable, bones visible through the skin. She probably looked the same now.
"That must be scary. All that pressure bearing down on you."
"Well, it's like my boss says," she said, chuckling. "If anything goes wrong, there's nothing you can do about it, so there's no sense worrying. Nobody is coming to the rescue."
I felt a spasm of worry. Don't go, I wanted to say. Stay here. Stay with me. Let's find what we had before.
"You look great," I said, looking into her kind eyes, seeing how they were starting to wrinkle at the sides.
"Thank you," she said. "I try to stay in shape."
"We were something back then, weren't we?"
"Yes, we were," she said. "It was a long time ago. We were just kids. We didn't know what love was."
We know better now, I thought. Come back East with me. Let's make it happen again.
"I'm not sure I know now," I said.
"I'm not either," she said ruefully. "But I'm getting closer."
Sparky started to strain at his leash. A seagull was walking by, heedless of the danger.
"You have to catch your plane," she said.
"You're right," I said. I thought about her, alone under all that water, intent on her work, as far away from others as you can be. What kind of person does that? Clearly not the same girl who cried while I rubbed her aching legs. She didn't need anyone. Certainly not me.
"It was nice meeting you."
I watched her walk away, then break into a run, someone I was close to, now as distant as the very bottom of the Marianas Trench.