Nessa knew the moment Tisander died. Surrounded by turquoise waters, she paused midsplash, her hand resting on her rounded belly. She heard a gunshot, and then another.
Cracks of destruction vibrated the blue sky. Two more thundered, determined to split it open. Startled birds rustled and took flight from the tops of the island trees and passed over Nessa’s spot in the ocean. As their cries receded, a percussive sound, damp and potent, paved a path to her, like a stone skipping over the water’s surface, toward her, then through her and beyond.
The rain shattered the eggshell. Drops pattered on salty water and showered her as the sunlight beamed.
And a new life left her. She had believed its promise. I am for you. But she’d been mistaken. That new life pulled free on the wispy wings of gun smoke.
Nessa looked down into the water, and between the pops and wet rising craters, she witnessed the redness collecting there, spreading out with its tendrils swirling, twirling like some abstract painting, something that should have been beautiful but wasn’t. The gunshots, she swore she had heard them. Death knells like that belonged in a stripped and brittle world, far away. Realities away. Not here, in paradise.
Tisander is dead.
She had known that truth, though he would remain missing for nine more months. The tenth concluded with his body home for an island funeral.
Sometimes at night, she thought she heard gunshots again, just before sleep, when the air was still but for the faint rustle of palms and the crashing of the ocean that faded sometimes for its undeterred repetition. Nessa would search the blackness and wait for the faint truth in the sea, a unique splash that would sound against the mundane, that might whisper to her, and she would think of the time when it happened. Had he been alone? Had it been quick?
From her spot at the kitchen table, Nessa shuddered. Her eyebrows furrowed together as her thoughts turned into accusations. Why had he gone anyway? Why had he left me alone in the first place?
“You know why, Ness.” Tisander’s voice pierced the stillness. His smooth voice remained charmingly southern. Back from the dead.
Nessa gasped and lurched forward, hitting the table edge, making the wooden stool she sat upon squeak loudly. Peas newly freed from their shells slipped through her fingers and rolled across the surface to land but an inch from her mother-in-law’s small knife. Tisander’s mother gave her a sharp look behind her narrow-framed glasses, picking the peas up and placing them in the big bowl between them.
“I was wondering when you would join me.” Angie sighed out the words heavily, gloomily, as she took off her glasses. “You’ve been staring at nothing.”
Nessa’s gaze slid toward the kitchen corner where Tisander’s golf bag used to be. She observed his silhouette there instead. With suspicion, she squinted against the glow of the windows that framed him.
Fifteen months ago, he had said goodbye to her. Ten months ago, he had left the world. Two weeks since the funeral, three since Tisander’s family had arrived, and Nessa considered that she had finally gone mad from missing him. Now, she was imagining him here, ready to protect her from his siblings she didn’t know very well—who had never wished to know her, really.
So much concern suddenly, over such a frail woman, alone in such a large house, such a grand house beside the sea—a burden, really. “Don’t you think, Nessa? Too heavy a burden, this house. Isn’t it?” they pressed, eventually growing impatient. “Given your frail condition?”
But in the corner, Tisander’s shadowed form leaned against the wall, his strong hands resting on his narrow hips. Nessa’s squint further narrowed, and the bright seascape beyond the windows receded as his image emerged. His favorite island shirt was perfectly ironed and his khaki shorts, too. His hair was near blond and wind-tousled, his features sun-kissed, as if he had never left the beach.
He was looking at her, a flicker of mischief in his eyes as his lips quirked. “You know why I left. I went for my country, and I don’t regret it, well—” He snorted. “—except for losing you and this oceanside perch.”
“You haven’t lost me,” Nessa whispered, then cringed inwardly, carefully measuring her expression to curb Angie’s piercing, ever-watchful eyes.
Tisander’s mother pressed her lips into a thin line, her suppressed irritation smoothing out the grooves of her upper lip. “So you say. You have many thoughts, Nessa. You are talking to yourself again, not to me.”
Nessa gave her a half-hearted shrug and leaned over the handful of peas in front of her. It was better not to defend herself—to say anything, really. Everything had become twisted with Tisander’s death. Especially words.
Angie had changed so much, Nessa barely recognized her, barely trusted her. Five years ago, the house had been filled with people who had celebrated their wedding—his family, his friends, who accepted her as one of them. Two weeks ago, the same people had filled her home, had congregated in the living room, had huddled on the porch, whispering while she worked in the kitchen, her black dress dusted with flour. Not a one had crossed the threshold of that room to speak to her, some even choosing to reach the porch from the side door instead of from the kitchen where she cooked in aching silence.
They wrapped Angie in a cocoon of comfort.
I cannot blame them that, she chided herself. Angie was Tisander’s mother, had given him life. I can’t be so selfish. Her grief is greater.
But then she remembered bits and pieces of conversation, assurances to Angie from Tisander’s siblings. Promises. After all, Angie was not alone. She would be taken care of. Assurances transformed into loud speculations about how much a beach house might fetch on the present market.
And in the evening, after Tisander’s brother, Adam, downed his tall Long Island—one of many during that mournful day—he sniggered over how his brother hadn’t provided a will, despite all the guidance the military extended to those preparing for the worst. Must have been a reason for that, Adam wagered, waggling his eyebrows as he leaned in closer to his wife and friends. He scoffed over how the beach house may have been a wedding gift, but his mother had lived there with Tisander since his father died, and his mother had enjoyed it with their late father for many years before giving—no, not really giving—rather, lending it to Tisander.
The beach house was part of the family. It had never been hers. Ever.
His eyes had darted to where Nessa stood cleaning dishes in the kitchen. He had noted her wide eyes and her hand, frozen in midwipe, clutching a half-dried bowl. His eyes had glittered as he smirked.
And like then, Nessa felt the pit of her stomach twist. She felt utterly alone.
Tisander’s ghost whistled in amazement. “Defenseless? Well, why aren’t you defending yourself, Nessa? That jerk never liked me—for chrissake, he’s my brother. The one who used to beat me up. And my sister, she never had a care for me. Nessa, this is our stuff. Why’ve you let them do it? Why aren’t you as strong as I remember?”
Nessa looked at his image. Silently, she told him, But those things don’t matter. Not anymore. If they want it all, let it be their burden.
Tisander pushed away from the wall. “But my golf clubs? You let them take my golf clubs? You know they’re my favorites. I just bought that nine iron.”
Briefly, a memory returned to her of Tisander swinging his club, and his golf balls sailing into the sea. “Four!” he would cry, then scan the horizon with his hand pressed like a visor above his eyebrows. “Think I tagged a mermaid.”
“You better fetch those!” she had warned, laughing.
Nessa chuckled to herself, and once again the mother of her dead husband looked at her sharply.
Am I insane? Nessa thought, glancing at his ghost now, a translucent image of her love.
“Not insane,” Tisander assured her, shrugging. “Just lonely.”
“But that’s your fault,” she whispered, forgetting herself and her present company.
“What?” Angie gasped. “What d-did I do?”
No sooner had Nessa’s words left her mouth than Tisander’s image began to fade. Ignoring Angie’s distress, her own nerves crumbling to sudden panic, the thought of losing Tisander again unbearable, Nessa reached out across the table, toward the corner.
“Wait. I have to tell you about the baby…” The words fell from her lips as he disappeared.
Angie shrank away from Nessa’s outstretched palms and began to sob as she had done every day since returning to the island. Confused, Nessa bit her lip and pulled back her hands and placed them in her lap.
“I-I’m sorry, Angie,” Nessa whispered. “I was thinking out loud. I didn’t mean you—”
Angie’s cries grew louder. Her whole body trembled with grief. “How could you? How could you say such a horrid thing?”
How should I comfort Angie this time? But she was running out of time to make things right. Tisander’s brother had risen from his chair on the outside porch and was now facing the kitchen screen. Nessa bit her lip as her stomach sank to the floor.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Nessa explained, pleading. “Honestly, please. I would never—”
“My fault?” Angie howled then, and she collapsed over the table dramatically.
“No,” Nessa almost shouted. She grasped Angie’s hand. “No. I am not blaming you for anything.” Her heart raced as she searched for something to say. Telling Angie about Tisander’s ghost would only make matters worse. Nessa shook her head; her thoughts had become so confusing of late.
“I—I just wanted to—to tell you,” she blurted, “that I saw our baby.”
“Again?” Angie whispered, lifting her head from the table, her expression pinched.
“I saw Tisander’s baby splashing in the water.”
Angie snatched her hand back, her eyes widening in horror.
“What’s going on here?” Adam demanded as he swung the screen door wide open. It banged against the wall with such force, Nessa cringed.
Tall and skinny, with thin shoulders, dark hair, and a pointy chin, Adam was the opposite of Tisander. Where Tisander was laid back and mischievous, Adam was wound too tightly and always looking for a reason to be angry.
Regret changed to fear as a lump formed in her throat. “I’m sorry,” she said hoarsely. “I didn’t mean—”
His dark look silenced her. She swallowed hard. The knot in her throat tightened.
Adam strode to his mother and placed his long, thin fingers on Angie’s hunched back. His fingers looked like narrow-jointed spider legs upon Angie’s frail form as he drew her boney shoulders away from the table and returned her to the chairback once more. He leaned down, his thin lips to Angie’s ear. “What did she do now?” he asked.
From her tear-swollen face, Angie’s red-rimmed eyes rebuked her, but her mother-in-law shook her head. “Nothing. We are all… just so t-tired.”
“Maybe you should take a rest,” Adam suggested, his eyes narrowing on Nessa.
“Yes. Yes. I will,” Angie agreed. “Thank you, Adam.”
Nessa knew Adam’s words were directed toward her, basically a demand to go away. She pushed from the table and rose. She felt Adam’s eyes burning a hole into her back as she went up the steps. Safe from his stare, she sighed heavily. Regret weighed upon her shoulders, and she bowed her head. She watched her left then her right foot accomplish each step. Her regret moved away from Angie’s sobs to her husband. She hadn’t had the chance to tell him. She had seen their magical child.
At that very moment, as if her thought had awoken the lost baby, she heard a child’s wail coming from the floor above her. Nessa quickly finished the steps as adrenaline rushed over her limbs. She reached the first room—their baby’s room—and stopped at the threshold.
Tisander’s younger sister, Heather, was already there. Humming to herself, she folded baby clothes upon her well-rounded stomach and then placed them carefully into a packing box. The white crib Nessa had brought from the mainland lay disassembled upon the hardwood floor. The green rug had been rolled up and lay next to it.
Nessa felt the warmth leaving her face as her features became like stone. We don’t need such things. My baby is swaddled in seaweed. He sleeps upon opalescent seashells.
She cleared out of the room quickly, without catching Heather’s attention, and trudged down the hall toward her own bedroom. My own? For how long?
Halfway between the guest room and the guest bath, a thin rectangular paper sat expectantly in the middle of the carpet, its glossy finish blooming with brightness from the sunny window at the end of the hallway. Nessa stooped to pick it up. A brochure? She flipped it over to see the other side, and a piece of spiralbound paper slipped free. She retrieved that, too, and walked slowly to her room as she scanned the brochure.
Opening in December, Peaceful Manor was an elegant colonial with four large ivory wings encircled by rows of Ohio maples. A note was scribbled across the top, “two spots yet available,” along with a phone number.
Nessa glanced at the strip of loose paper.
“Adam, get this settled with your mother or don’t either of you bother coming home. –Dee.”
Below the note were more phone numbers, these for realtors and inspectors, and figures with dollar signs—large figures. Nessa stared at the beach house’s estimated sale value.
Nessa tossed the brochure on her nightstand and lay upon the bed, breathing away her shock for many moments. So, Adam would be using the sale of the beach house to secure a place for his mother to live, and perhaps to save his own marriage to Dee. That new bit of news almost made his nasty behavior understandable. Almost.
Nessa scoffed. She spread out her arms and legs and imagined making a snow angel over the plush quilt. It’s truly too big for me, this bed. Then she rolled over to Tisander’s side of the bed and pressed her face into his pillow. Fifteen months absence was a long time; his scent was long gone from the room.
She sat up in bed. “Tisander,” she whispered, tentatively calling for him. She looked to every corner, but he didn’t appear. Madness. She shook her head, berating herself and fearing it true, that she was mad. Just as Adam had said that day when everything fell apart—
She jumped out of bed and went to the closet. If she could smell Tisander, then maybe… Yes! His leather jacket. The leather still smelled like him. How often have I fallen asleep wrapped within it? She opened the door just as she remembered that his side of the closet was empty. Every article of clothing… gone.
“For charity,” Adam had suggested—no, demanded—as he placed the boxed belongings into his rented SUV. Adam said it was better that way—for her to move on. That skinny, mean man spoke with such authority, the resentful brother-in-law who never even bothered to know her, couldn’t even spell her name correctly on an obituary.
With a frustrated cry, Nessa pressed her fists into her eyes and swore. This will not do. Such anger would not do any good for anyone.
These things don’t matter!
But they did matter. Tisander was gone, and his things were disappearing as he was fading away. He was a ghost, and her baby— Nessa walked to the window and pulled back the drapes. She looked out toward the sea and pressed her forehead to the glass. Her baby was out there.
End of Part One
copyright 2019 A. H. De Carrasco. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Tania Cardenas, for help with content and line editing many moons ago, to Hot Tree Editing for proofing, and to my beta readers Leslie Dow and Mary Hall-Knapp for their pointers with an earlier draft back in 2011.