TW: Death, grief
* * *
The sunlight was fading, the roar of the waves droning into a gentle murmur, but he couldn’t scatter her ashes just yet. It was what she wanted, Jason knew, but for the time being, Cora was here with him.
She wasn’t digging for seashells or lying on her towel under an umbrella. She wasn’t walking along the shore with her sundress blowing in the wind or chasing down the kids when they refused to put on sunscreen. But still, she was here, under the lid of the urn he clung to.
This was supposed to be their time together, just like when they were newlyweds. Just the two of them at their Florida beach house. Instead, Jason had spent the week with their children, who weren’t children anymore, planning the funeral with them at his side. They would have come to Florida with him, but Shawn had his job to return to, and Jenny had finals. They had kept half her ashes. The rest was his to scatter into the North Atlantic.
He hugged the urn to his chest as he stood with his flip-flops on the sand. A wave crashed against a rock, erupting in a burst of white spray. As he watched the sunset, the red tint of the sky conjured a memory a spinning red light. Gritting his teeth, Jason closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He tried to listen to the waves, but a sudden caw from a flock of seagulls reminded him of the sound of a siren’s wail.
Whenever the siren surfaced in his mind, triggered either by color or sound, he had to take a moment to clear his head. It happened at home whenever the teakettle started whistling; when he lit up the fireplace and saw the flash of red flames; when he glanced out his window and saw a white van drive by that made him think of an ambulance. And now this red sky and those damned seagulls. This tropical setting should have been a welcome relief from the Midwest snowscape that was currently his home state. But there was always a trigger somewhere.
* * *
From his spot on the couch, Jason craned his neck to see into the kitchen. Cora had set the teakettle aside and opened the window blinds, likely to check if it was still snowing.
“Stop worrying,” Jason called. “It’ll clear up by tomorrow. We’ll make the trip.”
“I hope so,” she replied.
“If we have to, we’ll take a dog sled to Florida.”
Cora laughed. “Where would we get dogs?”
“I know a guy. Really, don’t worry about it. We’ve got our kit in the trunk. We’ll be fine.”
Every year he put together a winter survival kit: the duffel bag that sat in the trunk of their car, filled with a windshield scraper and brush, blankets, extra socks and gloves, extra phone chargers, and a flashlight with extra batteries. And of course, beside the duffel bag was their jumper cables and their best snow shovel. He’d been a Midwesterner long enough to know how to stay safe, especially for long-distance drives.
Tea mugs clattered in the kitchen. “Always prepared, aren’t you?” Cora said.
“You know me.”
“Then why can’t you ever remember to pack sunscreen?”
“I leave that to you. It’s tradition.”
There was a pause as Cora poured the tea. “When’s the last time we went there without the kids?” she asked.
“No. It can’t be that long, can it?”
“Remember we couldn’t afford it until you got that promotion. That happened after Shawn was born.”
“Oh. That’s right.” He could hear a smile in her voice now. “It’ll be like we’re newlyweds again.”
Jason chuckled. “Yeah, we’ll see about that. I can’t wear a Speedo like I used to.”
“When did you ever wear a Speedo?”
“Never, but I could have pulled it off back then.”
And Cora could still pull off a bikini, but Jason could never persuade her to wear one these days. True, her figure was plumper now than in her youth, her auburn hair shorter, and she’d taken to wearing her reading glasses all the time. But she was no less beautiful to him.
Jason turned his attention back to the TV. The theme for Wheel of Fortune blared as he heard the rustle of the binds closing, followed by the rattle of the tea tray.
“You want to keep watching this?” he asked, eyes on the TV.
He didn’t hear a reply, so he turned to look at her. Cora was standing in the doorway, one hand holding the tea tray while the other held her chest. She was gasping for air. In a flash Jason was on his feet, dropping the remote, just in time to catch her before she collapsed. The tray clattered to the carpet, spilling steaming-hot tea everywhere.
By the time the ambulance arrived, he was doing CPR with his phone held between his ear and shoulder, yelling at the 911 operator, his shirt drenched and skin burning from the spilt tea. He heard the siren and saw the red light from the window. When he opened the door to let the paramedics in, the winter air from the outside soothed his scalded chest.
Sometimes all he remembered was the siren, the sounds Cora made, and the wet, burning pain. Sometimes just the siren.
* * *
It was a coronary, the paramedics said, caused by atherosclerosis, caused by Type 1 diabetes. She’d gotten the diagnosis eight years ago. She had done all the right things, taken good care of her health, but still, the plaque had built up in her arteries.
“You couldn’t save her,” Jenny had said, wrapping her father in a tight hug. “No one could. It’s not your fault.”
He knew that, on a rational level. But he thought of the winter survival kit, how prepared he’d been for weather-related disaster. Why hadn’t he prepared for this?
Sighing, Jason headed to the beach house. He entered the living room and placed the urn on the coffee table that sat before the couch.
As he stared at his reflection in the urn, he thought it might have been easier to stay home. If he was there now, he’d be shoveling his driveway or salting the sidewalks. Manual labor could have provided the distraction he needed. Here there was nothing to clean or defrost. He was alone with the sea and the sand.
Jason went back out, leaving the urn behind. He paused near the surf and took off his flip-flops. He held them in one hand as he walked out to the sandbar to let the tide drown his feet.
Closing his eyes, he imagined Cora standing beside him, feeling the waves rush in and the salty sea air in her face. She would be wearing her favorite sundress, the yellow floral one he’d given her for their twentieth anniversary.
Jason remembered the first time he lifted her up and threw her into the water. She had retaliated by submerging herself and pulling his swim trunks off. She ran out to shore, waving his trunks like a flag, and he chased her down buck-naked to get them back.
The first time they’d brought Shawn to this place, he was three years old, and more interested in destroying the sandcastles his mother created than helping her build them. Once Jenny was old enough, she quickly took to the water. They had to keep an eye on her to make sure she didn’t tear off her floaties.
“I’m a mermaid,” she’d argued. “Mermaids don’t need them.”
There was a time he’d gotten sunburned when Shawn and Jenny buried him neck-deep in the sand, then went swimming and forgot about him. Cora had come out of the house, discovered his sore red head, and freed him. He’d spent the rest of that trip lying in bed with his face coated in aloe vera.
A seagull’s caw broke Jason’s reverie. Once again, the siren wailed as it spun its flashing red bulb in his mind’s eye. Sighing, he opened his eyes and walked out of the surf. He looked back at the house, at its porch with the round table and four chairs, trying to refill his mind with the countless summers he’d wrapped his dripping-wet children in towels before they took their seats. He remembered drying Jenny’s hair while she munched away at a slice of watermelon.
The sky was darkening. It was time to go inside for good. Jason swept his eyes over the beach one last time, and something caught his attention. He squinted. There was a shape lying on the shore where the tide came in; something the ocean had swept out. He dropped his flip-flops and took off running when he realized it was a human being.
Jason fell to his knees before the naked body that lay in the wet sand. Turning it over, he saw it was a woman. Her eyes were closed and her head lolled to one side. She didn’t seem to be breathing. Jason put two fingers to her neck. Finding no pulse, he tilted her head to clear her airway, then pinched her nose shut and clamped his mouth over hers. He gave her two full breaths, then placed his hands together between her breasts, keeping his elbows straight. He’d barely made it to twenty chest compressions before water spurted from her mouth in a cough.
Relieved, Jason lifted the woman and carried her to the house. Water soaked through his shirt and dripped onto the porch, through the front door, and into the living room, where he set her down on the couch. From the bathroom he retrieved two large towels. He wrapped her body with one towel and her long auburn hair with the other. The woman stirred but didn’t open her eyes.
Jason wiped his hands on the couch cushions and went to retrieve his phone from the kitchen counter. Phone in hand, he returned to the living room and froze in his tracks.
The woman, unconscious seconds before, was standing. And holding the urn. Cora’s urn.
Jason stared. He blinked several times. He wasn’t seeing things. This towel-wrapped woman was conscious, standing up, and hugging the urn to her chest. She gazed at him with an unblinking set of brown eyes, lips curled in a mischievous smile.
The phone slipped from Jason’s numb fingers and hit the floor. He extended his arms for the urn without thinking. Still smiling, the woman shook her head. She stepped backward toward the door, as though to go outside, taking Cora with her.
“N-No,” Jason choked out, and lunged for her. He grabbed the urn and tried to pull it out of her grasp, but she held on, her expression unchanged.
“You give me—”
She cut him off with a laugh, parting her lips to show her pearl-white teeth.
“Let go!” Jason demanded. With a smirk, the woman did let go, and Jason stumbled backward as the urn fell between them. It shattered, spilling Cora all over the hardwood floor.
Before Jason could process this, the woman began humming. He was hardly aware of what was happening, could only hear her humming a hypnotic tune that drew him closer, as she swayed back and forth in a slow dance. She wrapped his arms around his neck, he placed his hands on her towel-clad waist, and they moved together, dancing barefoot on the ashes. In his trancelike state, Jason’s brain was slow to register that she was humming “In My Life” by The Beatles.
* * *
The DJ announced it was time for the bride and groom’s first dance. Jason was sitting next to his best man while Cora was at the punch bowl, chatting with one of her bridesmaids. Their eyes met across the ballroom as they walked to the dance floor. They met under the spinning disco ball, which threw tiny squares of multicolored lights across Cora’s face and glinted off the pearl earrings her mother had given her.
The song started up: “In My Life,” the song they’d finally agreed to after hours of pouring through old records. Jason clumsily followed Cora’s lead, trying to remember the dance steps they’d rehearsed. Why did wedding gowns have to be so long? What if he stepped on it?
Cora hissed, “Don’t look down.”
“I need to watch my feet,” Jason whispered back.
“Relax. Look at me.”
“Look at me.”
Jason focused on the way the lights shone on her white teeth and reflected in her brown eyes. He mirrored Cora’s movements, and by the time the song ended, the tension had left his body completely.
* * *
Jason woke up next to his wife in the beach home. The sheet wrapped around his body was sticky with sweat. Pulling it off, he sat up to pull the curtains back. He opened the window and breathed in the salty air as he took in the glittering expanse of the sun’s reflection on the sea.
“Are you trying to wake me up?” Cora murmured.
“No, it’s just hot.” Jason drew the curtains so no one would see them, then laid back down and wrapped his arms around her. The curtains lifted slightly with the morning breeze.
“It’s still breakfast time over at the café,” he said.
Cora opened her eyes and hooked her leg around him. “I didn’t get married to get up early.”
“I didn’t go on my honeymoon to cook breakfast either,” Jason replied. “Come on, it’s not far. They have that fresh Florida orange juice you like so much.”
“Do we have sunscreen?”
“Oh, no. I was going to pack some, but I forgot.”
Yawning, Cora closed her eyes again and snuggled against his neck. “We’ll have to buy some, then.”
Jason tangled his fingers in her hair. “We can just stay out of the sun.”
“No way. I’m getting a tan while I’m here.”
“You want to have breakfast first?”
Cora kissed his neck. “Just give me a minute.”
“Is a minute like an hour?”
As she trailed kisses down his chest, she started to hum. Jason took a moment to recognize the tune. The humming stopped as her kisses went lower, but their wedding song replayed in his mind the whole time.
* * *
Jason stirred on the couch in a daze, woken by the sunlight streaming through the windows. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. The urn sat on the table before him, perfectly intact.
It was as though he’d entered a time warp. One moment he was a young newlywed in bed with his wife, the next an old widow spending time alone at the beach house.
His clothes from yesterday were still on, and perfectly dry. Though he felt foolish for doing so, he searched the house, checking in every room, every closet, even under the beds. No sign of the woman. He checked the hardwood floor for the wetness she trailed in. Everything was dry.
The sea air rushed up to meet him when he opened the front door. He ran out and scanned the seashore. His flip-flops were there, right where he’d dropped them. But not a trace of her.
Jason ran a hand through his hair and, for some reason, thought back to Jenny, that stubborn little girl insisting she didn’t need her floaties. Mermaids don’t need them.
The sky was as clear and blue as it was the day of his honeymoon. Even the seagulls were quiet this morning. He closed his eyes and felt the sun on his face. He must have dreamed or hallucinated the bizarre experience of the night before. But whatever had happened, somehow, he felt like a weight had lifted.
Jason picked up his flip-flops and went inside, then came back out with the urn. With his feet submerged in the tide, he took off the lid and gave Cora to the sea.