My story "The Empaths" in Tuck Magazine, out now.
4:20 AM - 22 Jan 2018
The Empaths by Steve Carr
Standing at the railing of the veranda, Amanda watched the turbulent ocean waves roll over the gray sand. She pulled her knitted shawl tight around her shoulders and held her head high, letting the saltwater spray wash her face. As wind whipped her long gray hair against her cheeks she turned her head and looked down the long stretch of isolated beach. In the distance gulls were making a meal of a seal carcass. She turned and slid open the glass door and stepped into the warmth of her kitchen just as the kettle on the stove began to whistle.
“Is that you, Mom?” Danielle called out from her bedroom.
Amanda lifted the kettle from the burner and poured steaming water into a cup with a tea bag. “Yes, I just stepped outside for a minute.” She turned off the stove then carried the cup of tea into her daughter’s bedroom. “It’s chilly and windy outside,” she said as she placed the cup of tea on the stand by her daughter’s bed. “I thought you might be awake. I’ve made you a cup of tea.”
Danielle stretched, extending her long thin arms toward the ceiling and wiggled her fingers and yawned. “You take such good care of me. I’m sorry to be such a bother.”
Amanda smoothed back Danielle’s bangs and ran her fingertips down her daughter’s perfectly smooth cheek. “You’re no bother. Do you need some help sitting up?”
Danielle raised her upper body up a little then collapsed back onto the pillow. “I guess I do.”
Sliding her arm under her daughter’s back, Amanda lifted her into a sitting position then slid two pillows behind her. “How’s that?”
“That’s good,” Danielle said.
“You’re getting weaker,” Amanda said.
“My strength comes and goes.”
Amanda handed her the cup of tea. “Do you want the television on?”
Danielle took a sip of tea. “No thanks. I’d like to just listen to the surf while I’m having my tea.”
Amanda looked at the large plate glass window. It sounded as if the waves would come crashing through at any moment. “I’ll bring you some breakfast in a few minutes.”
She left the room and went back into the kitchen and sat at the table and put her head down on her folded arms. She felt tired, so very tired.
On the boardwalk, Amanda purposely shuffled her feet through the thin layer of shifting sand that covered the boards. The trail she had left behind wasn’t unlike that of the streaks left behind by a large snail. It not being the tourist season there were few people out, and those that were, kept their heads down to avoid having their faces scraped by blowing sand. At the end of the boardwalk and around the side of the last building, Amanda knocked on the door beside the sign nailed on a piece of plywood that read: “Madam Ruby. Have Your Future Told.” Beneath the lettering was a graphic in red of a woman’s head. She was wearing a scarf around the top of her head and large hoop ear rings.
A small bell above the door tinkled as Amanda opened it. Assailed by the thick scents of cinnamon and sage incense, she put her finger to her nostrils, then sat in a leather chair in a very small waiting room. Tacked on the wall across from where she sat was a poster of the Eiffel Tower with the words “I love Paris” printed in large black letters.
When the only other door opened Amanda stood up.
Dressed in a lime green pants suit, Ruby stepped into the door frame. “Come in,” she said motioning with her index finger. “I’m glad you called and made an appointment.”
“I would have come sooner but I’ve been taking care of my daughter,” Amanda said. She sat at the small round table covered with a bright blue linen cloth and took two twenty dollar bills out of the pocket of her jacket and laid them on the table.
Ruby sat across from Amanda and put her hand over the money and slowly pulled it to her. She closed her eyes. The thick, black, clumped mascara on her upper eyelashes formed a seal with her lower heavily lined eyelashes. She shook her curly black hair then suddenly opened her eyes. “You haven’t been well,” she said in a matter-of-fact manner.
“No I haven’t,” Amanda said. “I’ve been afraid to see a doctor.”
Ruby looped her index finger through a gold chain with a crucifix that hung around her neck and gently tugged at it. “You have been keeping it to yourself?”
“Yes,” Amanda said. “I can’t tell Danielle. She’ll think my taking care of her is what is making me sick.”
Ruby closed her eyes again and with them shut, said, “Your bond with your daughter is incredibly strong, stronger than most mothers and daughters.” She opened her eyes and stared into Amanda’s. “You must get some distance.”
“Distance?” Amanda said. “There is nowhere for me to go even if I wanted to.”
Ruby put the money in a pocket over her breast and stood up. “What your daughter feels, you feel. Those feelings can be very decieving.”
Stepping into the coffee shop, Amanda inhaled the aroma of several different coffees, closing her eyes momentarily and enjoying the heady mix of brews. The shop was practically empty of other customers. She found a seat at a table by the window and removed her jacket and leaned back in the chair and watched an eddy of sand blowing up the middle of the street. Across the street Ben Jenkins was sweeping the sand from the boardwalk in front of his grocery store; a fool’s errand, Amanda thought.
Kelly Muir, the eldest daughter of the coffee shop owner, came to the table carrying a menu printed on a single sheet of parchment. She handed the menu to Amanda. “How are you today, Mrs. Stone?”
“I’m doing fine, Kelly. Thanks for asking. How are you?” Amanda rubbed the parchment between her fingertips, enjoying the texture.
“I’ve been having some dental problems so my teeth ache all the time.” She put her hand on her cheek. “I can’t wait to finally have the baby,” Kelly said, patting her swollen belly. “It should be any time now, thank God. How’s Danielle?”
“Still on bed rest. She can’t seem to shake whatever it is she has.”
“I’ve been meaning to stop by and see her,” Kelly said, “I haven’t seen her since I told her I was pregnant. I don’t get out much.” After a moment she said, “Do you know what kind of coffee you’d like?”
Amanda handed the menu back to Kelly without reading it. “Just a good old fashioned cup of black coffee. Nothing fancy.”
“That’s easy. I’ll be right back.”
As Kelly walked away Amanda took one of the small plastic coffee stirrers from the porcelain cup in the middle of the table and slid it between her lips. As the end of it touched her incisors she winced.
Amanda stood on top of a sand dune and listened to her husband calling out to her from the depths beneath the churning surface of the ocean. Buffeted by the wind, she leaned forward into it, her head pointed the direction where his small fishing boat was believed to have gone down. Cupping her hands around her mouth she called out his name, Matthew, but got no response, as always. Clasping the open neckline of her jacket, she tilted back on her heels and sighed a sigh that reverberated through her entire body. Turning from the ocean she went around to the front of her house and went in.
The late afternoon light coming in through the many windows was dull and hazy. It lay on the objects and furniture in the living room like a pale shadow. Going into the hallway, she stopped and listened for sounds from Danielle’s bedroom.
“I’m awake,” Danielle said.
As she unbuttoned her jacket, Amanda went into her daughter’s bedroom.
“You’re all wet,” Danielle said.
“I am?” Amanda said, suddenly aware that her hair, jacket and slacks were dripping. “That’s what I get for being on the beach in such weather.”
“Dad’s not coming home again, Mom,” Danielle said.
Amanda took off her jacket. “I know. But it’s nice to imagine he will. It was a day just like this one,” she began and then her voice trailed off into momentary silence. “I saw Kelly Muir at the coffee shop.”
“How is she?” Danielle asked, shifting on the pillows behind her back.
“Very pregnant,” Amanda said. “She said she was meaning to come visit you.”
“I’d like that,” Danielle said. “We get so few visitors.”
“I’ve never been one for having people drop in,” Amanda said. “I better dry my hair and put on a dry pair of slacks before I catch my death of cold.”
“Good idea,” Danielle said, then sneezed.
Danielle sat in her wheelchair in front of the roaring fireplace allowing the flames to warm her face. Pillows were behind her back and tucked in under her arms on both sides. Her ankle length pink terry cloth bathrobe covered the tops of her old blue slippers. On the stand by her side steam from hot tea spiraled upward and quickly dissipated.
Amanda was stretched out on the sofa and reading a magazine. She looked over the top of the pages at Danielle. “You can’t be out of bed for very long.”
“I know,” Danielle said. “For a little while longer will be okay.”
“I’ve always liked this house best this time of the evening,” Amanda said glancing at the darkness outside the windows. “It’s like being in a safe cocoon.”
Danielle lifted the cup of tea to her lips, and blew across the surface of the liquid, then took a quick sip. “I wish the doctors knew what was wrong with me,” she said.
Amanda placed the magazine in her lap and stared appraisingly at her daughter. “They’ll get it figured out. Rest is what you need now. It will allow your body to gather strength.”
“Strength for what?”
“Whatever comes next,” Amanda said. She sat up on the edge of the sofa and placed the magazine on the coffee table. “I’ll be back in a minute.” She went into the bathroom and quietly opened the medicine cabinet and unscrewed the cap on the bottle of Ibuprofen and shook out five tablets in the palm of her hand. She filled a plastic glass with water and downed the pills with small sips of water while looking at her bloodshot eyes in the mirror.
Pastel blue light shone through Amanda’s bedroom window as she opened her eyes. A seagull with a sand crab in its mouth was perched on the railing of the porch on the veranda. Amanda got out of bed and tapped on the window and watched as the gull spread its wings and gracefully lifted into the air and flew toward the ocean. She put on her sea green bathrobe and went out into the hallway, and hearing nothing from Danielle’s bedroom, went into the kitchen and put water in the kettle and sat it on a burner then turned on the flame. Looking out the window above the sink she watched the gentle ebb and flow of the tides along the beach. Suddenly feeling weak she quickly sat down at the table and watched the flames lick the bottom of the tea kettle until it began to whistle.
“Are you sure you’re feeling up to a visit from Kelly?” Amanda asked as she plumped up the pillows behind Danielle’s back.
“I’m just feeling a little weak,” Danielle said. “I feel better than you look.”
Amanda smoothed her hair back from her face and pinched her cheeks. “There, is that better?”
“Only slightly,” Danielle said.
A moment later the doorbell rang and Amanda left and returned a few minutes later with Kelly.
“You don’t look sick at all,” Kelly said, leaning down and kissing Danielle on the cheek.
“You on the other hand look very pregnant,” Danielle said. As Kelly stepped back from the bed, Danielle asked, “When is the baby due?”
“Any time now,” Kelly said. “I could go into labor right here in your bedroom.”
“That would be something,” Danielle said with a laugh.
“I’ll go put some tea on and let you two catch up,” Amanda said. Leaving the bedroom she stopped in the hallway and smiled as she heard the two young women chatting in rapid-fire fashion. At the stove she put the kettle on the flame and then went to the window. Out on the ocean a small boat sailed on the silky smooth surface. Amanda sat down at the table and rubbed her temples with the tips of her fingers. It helped, but her head was pounding.
“Mom!” It was Danielle screaming.
Amanda ran down the hallway and into Danielle’s bedroom. Kelly was standing with her legs spread over a puddle.
“My water just broke,” Kelly said, “but something is wrong with Danielle.”
On the bed Danielle had pulled her legs up and had them spread. She had her arms back and was gripping the brass bars of her headboard. Her face was contorted into a mask of pain.
“It’s coming,” Danielle screamed.
Amanda grabbed Kelly’s arm and pulled her out of the bedroom. In the living room she picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1. She handed the phone to Kelly. “Tell them where you are.”
“What about Danielle?” Kelly asked as she took the phone.
“She’ll be alright.”
Amanda rushed down the hallway and into Danielle’s bedroom and closed the door.
Moonlight lit the waves. Amanda stood on the veranda humming a sea shanty as she cradled the small bundle in her arms, gently rocking it back and forth. She pulled back the cloth at the head of the bundle and whispered to the empty cloth, “Your grandfather lies at the bottom of the ocean.”