Science Fiction Fiction

John pulled into the empty parking lot at Press Beach, the faded beige nose of the stolen hatchback stopping inches from the rusty guard rail that separated the pavement from the various shrubs medlied along the bluff that sloped down to the sand below. He cut the ignition and cussed at the sputtering car. He looked all around, scanning the lot, its pebbled oil stains mapped sporadically on the barren grid of flaking bronze lines. 

He began shedding his clothing in haste, starting with the black hooded sweatshirt and ballcap, all the way down to the black slacks and boots he’d worn for the job. He pulled a plastic bag that held fresh clothing from the glove box, tore it open, and threw on the blue flannel shirt, then thrust his legs into a pair of faded jeans, arching his back from the seat to pull them up to his waist. 

Then out of the car barefoot, he crouched down to the drainage grate beneath the car and jammed the black clothing through one of its slots. A dull splash echoed faintly, shrinking his angst by an invisible fraction.

Lacing up his sneakers in the car, he glanced at the handgun in the glovebox and thought better of ditching it just yet. He would abandon it somewhere wet along the drive. He could picture the spartan motel room waiting for him nine hours away in Absecon. He could hear the bathwater rushing from its uncomplicated spout. Could see the mauve rainbow of the television’s glow reflecting off the white polyester pillowcases.

He sighed and lit a cigarette, his hands shaking a little less now. He rested his forehead against the steering wheel, the worn pleather barely holding it despite the sweat gathered at his brow. The cigarette hung from his lips, its amber tip twitching an inch from the horn plate. Billows of smoke eddied out around his jaw, each exhale stitching a cloudy veil. 

It was 10:32 A.M. He was half an hour early. All he had to worry about now was Roy. He’d done his part, all of it a dim memory scrawled in carbon on yellow paper. It would soon be over. He lifted his head and searched the vista of slate ocean for some fond remembrance. Anything to ease his whirring mind.

The last time that John had been in the parking lot was nearly ten years ago in the summer of 1972 when he worked for the DOT. It had taken him and the crew of five a few days to grade and pave the once-gravel lot. 

Work began each morning at six to outpace the insulting heat. Nevertheless, every stitch of cotton and denim down to their knees was soaked through by lunch, when they'd all pitch in a couple bucks for a case of beer and a bag of ice at the Mobil up the road. Thawed by the time it was brought back, the bag of ice was plopped tenderly on its base, rippling the glossy face of the cartoon penguin stamped across its poly sleeve. The loosened heap was poured into the Coleman over the cans, the mass of pellets blanketing the tins like soil over seeds. 

The plastic clattering of the treasure being deposited into the cooler was as articulate as Pavlov’s bell, resounding at once in the tenebrous nodes of the men’s brains as they finished their meat and cheese sandwiches and lit cigarettes to mollify the inescapable punishment waiting on the other side of their break.

Like the crew of a profitable expedition on the long voyage back to its sponsor, the men worked the final part of the day in tacit paranoia, implicitly aware of the Coleman’s concealed presence, their eyes occasionally darting to the truck it was stowed in. They’d all memorized the hue and wear of the tarp covering it, could map the constellations of holes dappled across its vinyl crosshatching. They could see the tinted air of the membrane beneath it and, with the foggy prong of their mind’s eye, pierce through the steel-cased lid of the cooler, their vision cross-dissolving into its dustless, tar-black interior where stubborn inertia fought against the random dissipating clicks of air pockets freed from the thinning cubes, all of it gradually settling like an Ice Age pond.

At around quarter of three, someone would signal wrap-up with an index finger spinning in the air. No harmony of speech was needed to transmit the drowsy semaphore. It you didn’t see it, you’d hear it like sped-up nightfall as the refrain of birdsong and cicada siren sorted in with the diminishing claps and clangs of metal tools and the last gasps of machinery, until three or so, when all would cease in a gentle comb of silence.

Gathered at a shaded tailgate, their sullied hands would all go reaching into the cooler to retrieve a can, the curled peel tops falling to the still-acrid asphalt like untimely walnut leaves. Not five minutes later, the men were replaced by soggy t-shirts, jeans, ballcaps, and boots, the filthy garb all piled this way and that and draped across the truck bed like remnants of a rapture.

They wobbled half-naked down the fifty-three steps to the beach clutching their beading cans and grinning like sunburnt mystics. Wading out, they thrusted their bellies against each merciful wave until they were deep enough to float on their backs and close their eyes to the monotonous blush behind their lids. Blind swigs of beer spilled into their mouths and out around their cheeks, diluting the sea.

Their buzzing delight was expressed like dinner guests: Water’s the perfect temperature, isn’t it? No better time of day for a swim. Couldn’t ask for nicer weather. Not a cloud in sight! But John knew, as they all did, that the circumstances of their swimming had nothing to do with choice or good fortune. Swimming was just another part of the job and filed away as such. And though they felt lightyears away from the countless undertakings awaiting them back on shore, eventually, these demands crackled into crystalline detail and sounded the knell for their departure up the stairs, their empty cans floating out to join the remote container ships dotting the horizon. Emitting soft groans, they climbed into their trucks to light spongy cigarettes before driving home barefoot, wet sand glazing their gas pedals.

John surfaced from the memory and sighed, confronting the long ribbon of time that had unraveled since then. He pictured the tightly-packed earth just feet below him, the infinitesimal residue of his sweat lying ten years dormant amid the splinters of quartz and trapped cicada nymphs. There was a bullet of guilt in his chest. Even if he had photographs to flip through, the men would all be unrecognizable to him. Featureless faces in a primordial landscape. He closed his eyes to summon the details of their faces, but all that came were the shattered fragments of a time-worn mosaic. Tactlessly arranging and overlapping, the imagery collected into a frantic swarm and then revised itself into the solitary likeness of some archaic, otherworldly fortress. It floated toward him on a shimmering wave. John could see the men swimming inside its walls, just beyond the grid of a massive portcullis. They were floating on their backs and drinking, occasionally voicing their quiet remarks. Water’s just perfect, isn’t it? How bout that sky? Clear as a bell. Wouldn’t mind settling down out here one day. Maybe buy a boat. Tomorrow’s another day closer. But until then, I wish we could stay here forever.

Teetering on the edge of sleep, John slumped forward until his head sounded the horn, jolting him from his daze. He cursed and gave himself a few slaps to the face. How could he be so careless as to shut his eyes for even a moment. Imagine Roy finding him there, asleep at the wheel. He lit another smoke and yawned at his wristwatch. It was ten forty now. 

Altocumulus clouds pressed low against the vast ocean, a checkerboard of blue pocketing the sky. “Nobody goes to that beach in January,” Paul had told him, “All you gotta do is get there without a tail. Roy swoops in for the pickup and you’re on your way to green pastures. You and me’ll be squared up, and you’ll have a nice pile left over for yourself.” 

He looked in the backseat at the duffle. The bank manager had emptied out the safe into it, John’s gun trained on him like a big metal finger. All of it was there. His whole life was in there. With his share he planned to open a bar. Settle down into a simple life. It was more than enough for a fresh start. He felt the urge to check on it, but there’d be plenty of time for that later. He wasn’t out of the woods just yet. He wasn’t followed. Didn’t hear any sirens when he hit the freeway. Nobody saw you. Nobody knows you’re here.

He clicked on the radio to a man reporting the markets and the segment ended with horn music. A car dealership commercial followed for a moment before the signal cut to static. John twisted the tuner for another broadcast, but the antenna proved useless out there on the fringes. FM was the same, the static louder. He shut it off and lit a fresh smoke, each draw crackling the silence. 

The water seemed strangely serene all of a sudden. The wind had its fickle tendencies along the coast this time of year, but it now seemed undetectable. It was as if the world had paused when he’d cut off the radio. Even the clouds looked uncannily fixed. 

It was then that he saw it. A small object in the clouds. Some kind of small plane or balloon. No, the solitary speck falling through the clouds was, unmistakably, a person. It was a man steadily plummeting feet-first from the sky no more than a football field away.

John’s eyes widened as he followed the man’s decent. He leaned close to the windshield to make out the man’s crazed arms and legs flailing. And just as he saw him hit the water in a little puff of white, John sprang from the car, his disbelief uttered in little guttural clicks. Instinctively, he did a 360-degree turn, his heels crunching the gravel as he searched the lot for another witness. All was still and empty. 

Seconds later, the man floated to the surface and John heard his screams at the volume of a whisper. Help. Help. Squinting, he could almost make out the features of his face, the white of his teeth and eyes as he shrieked, the black side patches of hair on his bobbing bald head. John searched the sky for any kind of craft that the man had fallen from. There was nothing. No engine noise. No wind. 

As the man’s muffled screams continued, an ornate web of instincts and considerations knotted warmly in John’s mind. He got back in the car, put the key in the ignition, but stopped short of twisting. Roy wouldn’t be there for another fifteen minutes. He might even arrive early. There was a pay phone at the Mobil up the road. To call who exactly? The plan was set in stone and any deviation now would put everything on the line.

He could hear his cries like a gull in the distance. How long could he last out there? How he gotten there, how he’d survived the fall didn’t matter. John’s focus all connected to a point like crosshairs on a stag. He couldn’t find it in himself to let the man die. 

Without a second thought about Roy or the duffle, John was back out of the car and removing his clothes. These things that had all been neatly folded in a square on the motel dresser the night before where now strewn wildly in the front bench of the vehicle. 

As if all of his life had led up to this moment, he ran in his boxers down the staircase, jumping two and three steps at a time. He careened across the sand and into the water, dove headlong through the first chest-height wave, and swam desperately in the man’s direction. 

He coerced his muscles from the paralyzing shock of the cold water with a barreling front stroke. His heart beat resentfully in his head with every reach and kick. The primal dark energy coursing through him was his only compass needle. 

When he felt halfway out, John came up gasping for air and spotted the man, his cries louder now. The once-dormant wind now thumped him with wild gusts. He continued slicing through the icy water, a sick mania churning in his limbs. This was his comeback. He could feel his mind cranking, recording every frame as if for some future deposition. The correct side of his life came exploding into shape. All of his low-life bullshit—the gambling and grifting and cheating and hypocrisy, the ceaseless envy and greed—all flaked off like snakeskin in his wake.

Feeling close, he popped up and surveyed the surface around him, his lungs aching with each gasp. He could see the man’s head not ten yards in front of him. His huge mouth open, screaming. He could almost reach out to him now. He’d have him safely back to shore soon. All of his questions answered. 

John covered the final length in seconds and came up wheezing at the spot where the man should’ve been. Where he’d just seen him moments ago. But there was nobody. Thinking he’d overshot him, he turned, sweeping the undulating expanse behind him to no avail. He dove beneath the water’s sheen and searched crazily for any sign of a sinking body. The barbed saltwater stung as he probed the depths, his eyes registering only the fathomless murk surrounding him.

He came up gulping a mix of air and seawater and yelled a fraying strand of calls. “Where are you? I’m here! Call out to me! Where are you?” The waves sloshed him up and down like a mote of driftwood. He dove back under, deeper now, and swam in circles, probing the abyss a final time before surfacing again.

The man was gone. A crippling fear swelled up in his throat and burned like cheap liquor as he looked back toward land and learned the distance he’d traveled out. The current had him in its teeth now. He swam vigorously toward the shore, his strength dwindling with each painstaking stroke until cramps began tearing through his left leg. Holding his hamstring and sinking slightly, he righted himself and coughed up bubbles in a grunt. He was nearly midway back to shore, possibly out of any riptide. 

He floated on his back to ease his aching limb, letting the cold air filter through his lungs. He squinted up at the parking lot, the waves rippling across his view of the beach. No sign of Roy yet—he was late. Any moment now he’d pull into the lot, discover the empty car, and spot him stranded out there. Even if he didn’t see him at first, he’d certainly hear his cries for help. Surely, he’d jump in to save him without a second thought. John would undoubtedly have some explaining to do, but it would all end with them yucking it up in the car. You stupid fuck, he could hear Roy saying with a riled chuckle, a playful swat to the back of John’s head as he drove. Almost got us killed. Couldn’t resist a little swim, huh? Instead of waiting til July like the rest of us. You crazy bastard. I’m looking at a lifetime of free drinks at that bar of yours once it opens. Ya hear me? A lifetime. 

Shivering uncontrollably, John continued to swim, his every ounce of strength nearly depleted. Each movement lagged from the last, the numbness creeping through him like venom. He knew he wouldn’t last much longer. And just as a syrupy panic began pouring into his gut, he spotted someone walking on the beach. It was Roy! John’s screams quaked from his pallid lips. With a surge of hope, he called out louder, waiting for Roy to respond, to turn his head and locate him. To rush toward the water just as he’d done. But he didn’t. Instead, he appeared to be walking away from the shore, towards the staircase. It was then that John recognized the bald head of the figure. It wasn’t Roy, but the same man who’d fallen from the sky. Reaching the foot of the stairs, he began peeling off his wet clothing.

"Hey! H-help! Ow-out h-h-here! Help muh-me!” John was barely treading water, his throat raw from shouting, but the man seemed oblivious to John’s pleas as he ascended the stairs. John tried to swim, but the line between his brain and limbs was chewed through. The cold was overtaking him now, his pitiful wails barely cast into language. 

The naked man was at the car, opening its driver-side door. Through stinging, bewildered eyes, he watched him retrieve John’s clothing from inside before stepping into the jeans and pulling them up to his waist with a slight hop. The man gazed out at him then, a strange little smile curling across his face as he slid his arms through the flannel, and fastened each button meticulously. 

All John could muster was a pathetic dog paddle as he thrashed and shivered and bellowed curses at the man who was now behind the wheel of his car. The slam of the door sent a trio of gulls flapping. Then the low grumble of the car’s ignition. His brow twitching, John watched as the man extended his left arm out the window and pointed an index finger toward the sky, wrapping it in a small circular motion.

June 08, 2024 03:49

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Kim Olson
16:00 Jun 13, 2024

Your descriptions were wonderful and I liked the back and forth between the past and the present. You could feel the main character's yearning and angst for a simpler time. The ending was well done, with the reader caught up in suspense, wondering what would happen next. Good job!


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Nancy Wright
00:02 Jun 12, 2024

Great story. Very compelling--I was pulled in from the start!


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