by Libby Belle
She walked barefoot along the boardwalk, as she had done many times as a child, and now an adult, she saw things much clearer. The roughness of the planks beneath her feet had become that way naturally from the sun’s constant heat but remained dry and brittle from neglect. The ugly debris huddling around the base of the pier knocking against the battered and beaten wood made her feel sad. No longer white, the sand was stained from the spills of alcohol and other man-made products that carelessly loosened from the fingers of those disregarding the future and the others who would inherit the aftermath of their thoughtlessness.
Although Maggie was disenchanted returning to her childhood neighborhood in such a state of disrepair, the incredible body of water that lay before her was still as mesmerizing as ever. Seven years away may have taken her heart and mind captive, as places like Paris and Ireland will do, but her soul remained with the Texas Gulf Coast and its endless shoreline. Traveling as a professional cello player brought many new friends and lovers her way and in the most beautiful European settings. Yet, in all its magnificence, she missed the simpler life – a fishing pole in one hand, a book in the other – an unpretentious life with a family that she adored. I’m home.
As the night approached, the water began to lap more aggressively against the pier. A sense of wildness filled the air and creatures that hid while it was light slowly moved closer into shore. Maggie slipped on her shoes and watched the sun worshipers drag their burnt and sweat-soaked bodies back to where they came from; leaving the beach to the thinkers, the poets, the philosophers – those who wanted to visit with the ocean and all its inhabitants. Maggie was one of them; knowing that if she remained after dark, she would hear mysterious and private conversations echoing off the waves, many from her own past. When she was younger, the voices followed her to bed. They were familiar, but rarely understood. They brought a sense of hope or despair, depending on her mood, and always there was the final voice, the voice of reason that guided her to sleep. It’ll be nice sleeping with the window open tonight.
She inhaled the last draw from a cigarette, a habit she had picked up in Amsterdam, and as she carefully extinguished it in the water, her thoughts turned to Monte. Ah, Monte, steadfast Monte. The man she might have married if she hadn’t been lured overseas. Unlike her, he had no desire for adventure and remained loyal to the Coast, still teaching Creative Writing in the same khaki pants, same plaid vest and sneakers, wide-eyed students under his spell. He was the perfect mixture of old-world charm and an overload of cuteness. Yet, she never regretted leaving him, until now. But soon it would get too dark to see, and since the bulb in the overhead lamp appeared to be broken, she thought better of staying much longer. There would be plenty of time to think about the aftermath of earlier choices and Monte. I wonder if he’ll want to see me again.
Maggie’s family had gathered in the house only a few blocks away, cooking up something marvelous for their family reunion. Aunt Chelsea came early to prepare some of the fancy dishes she had learned to cook after the many culinary classes she had taken at Le Cordon Bleu. Maggie’s mother loved surrendering the kitchen to the capable hands of her sister and humbly offered to serve as the dish washer.
The twin cousins along with their wives had arrived that morning, while everyone waited as usual for her brother Ryan’s “fashionably late” debut. His divorce had been finalized and according to the family, he was seen often with a new girl in tow. Maggie hoped that he’d come alone.
Then there was Emily, the baby sister; the ‘uh-oh’ they called it, when a couple goes through their mid-life crisis and thinking they can turn back the hands of time, accidentally conceive in a wild night of passion. As it often happens, the parents, growing older and less motivated, were more lenient with the headstrong daughter, and when Maggie and Ryan gradually moved out, the unruly teen spent her adolescence without the wisdom of the older siblings. Shortly after barely graduating from high school, Emily ran off with a band called Louie’s Lump, later changed to Scum of the Earth, and finally settling on the name, Toasted. Since that abrupt career move, she had hardly spoken to the family, but before the night was through the impetuous twenty-two-year-old would soon be landing at their door, full of bizarre stories that would age her parents instantly. Brace yourself family, a storm is on the horizon!
Back at the house, Maggie stood at the gate before entering and listened to the hustle and bustle within the walls of her childhood home. Someone, most likely her brother, had put on a Van Morrison album, and she could hear her aunt barking orders from the kitchen. It sounded like the cousins were attempting to keep up with Van on the piano, and she pictured her brother sitting near the speakers with his hand over one ear, trying to drown them out. She heard her father yell, “Where is Maggie? It’s getting dark. One of you boys go out and find her!”
Maggie stalled before entering – waiting for him to say that famous line he used to yell when they were kids. Go ahead, dad, say it. “She’ll get taken by the Beasley brothers’ whale if she doesn’t get back soon!”
Laughter filled the living room as everyone recalled the story of the two old fishermen, Horace and Harold Beasley who for many years had spread a whopper of a tale about nearly being eaten alive by a whale that popped up near the pier where they were fishing one early morning before sunrise. They claimed that on the back of the whale was a man with a trident, like Neptune, the Greek god of the sea. He spared their lives, making them promise to never spit or pee in the ocean or pollute it in any way, to never kill a fish bigger than they were, and to spread the word to the residents to do the same. To remind them, the ocean god gave both brothers a whale’s tooth and a scar on the back of their legs from his trident, which they proudly showed to everyone, including the vacationers and anyone who would listen thereafter. I wonder if they’re still alive, or did they become Moby Dick’s last meal? It was a fond memory and she enjoyed listening to her family talking over each other and adding more lively descriptions to the story to make it even more exciting.
She decided it was probably time to make her entrance before her dad really started believing the Beasley brother’s tale and called the Coast Guard to search for the remains of his oldest child.
“Maggie, my dear,” her father bellowed across the room, followed by cheers from the rest of the family who were watching her timely entry through the front door. She surveyed the room, like one would study a Norman Rockwell painting, acknowledging each character before she responded to the headmaster, himself. “Dad, I told you I’d be back before dark,” and anticipating his next question, she said, “and no, I did not see a whale or Neptune!”
Upon hearing the commotion, her mother came rushing in, drying her hands on her apron with the most wonderful fresh-baked smile on her face. “Oh dear, I thought you were Emily. Well, I’m glad you’re back. I need you in the kitchen,” she said, taking Maggie by the arm and leading her past the rest of the family. Leaning in, she whispered, “It’s your turn with Aunt Chelsea. I’m exhausted. You’d think we were cooking for the whole island!”
The kitchen looked like one in a movie restaurant scene. Her mother had taken out every piece of cooking and baking kitchenware that she owned. Aunt Chelsea was busily using all of them. “Kiss your favorite aunt and then throw those rolls in the oven,” she ordered, while feverishly stirring the sauce that she had just painstakingly concocted.
Maggie did the perfunctory kiss thing on her aunt’s glistening forehead and at the same time swiped a sample of the sauce with her finger. As usual, it tasted divine. So divine, she gave Aunt Chelsea another kiss, this time on the cheek and without being told to. The kitchen smelled heavenly, and any feelings of dread that she had felt earlier were put in the oven, along with the rolls. She caught her mother smiling at her, her hands coated in soap suds. She knew her mother sensed her delight. Oh, mom, it’s so good to be home!
Savoring every bite, the dinner was a huge success, and while the men had seconds, the ladies retired to the living room with tall glasses of Long Island Tea. Just when they all sat down, the front door flew open and Emily boldly entered. The room was silent for the first time that evening.
“Well, I’m here! Is everybody glad to see me?” Emily dropped her duffle bag onto the floor and stood stiffly, her tattooed arms held tightly to her sides.
“Oh, my baby girl!” her mother cried, rushing toward her prodigal child with arms opened wide. The cousin’s wives shrank deeper into the sofa. Aunt Chelsea hid behind her glass of tea, while Maggie stood waiting to greet her sister. What the hell has she done with her hair?
Avoiding everyone else in the room, Emily expressed her dire need for food and barged into the kitchen, brushing past her father and the others that had filed into the living room. A few eyes rolled, and an official deep sigh was heard from someone anticipating what was coming next.
“I’ll help her, mom,” Maggie said, patting her mother’s back. “Sit down and enjoy yourself.” Relieved, she nodded meekly and did as she was told.
When Maggie entered the kitchen, Emily was digging into the refrigerator, pushing items to the side and grumbling to herself. She looked over her shoulder and asked, “Don’t you have any beer in this stale, old house?”
“Hi little sister,” Maggie said sweetly. “It’s been awhile. How about a hug?”
Emily turned and leaned against the refrigerator door. “I didn’t recognize you without your dummy by your side. Is he here?”
“You know darn well Monte and I broke up years ago.”
“Oh, I guess I forgot that. What happened? Couldn’t compete with that big-ass cello of yours?”
“That’s enough of that nonsense. Now, get over here and hug your sister,” she urged, motioning with her hands, worried that Emily would reject her, as she did the rest of the family. “I haven’t seen you in so long.”
For a second, Emily’s cold eyes softened. She took one step forward and stopped in her tracks, lifting both arms robotically. “Hurry up, I have a low threshold for mushiness these days, and hugging has been off my list for a long time.”
“Oh stop, you goof!” Maggie pushed forward and wrapped her arms tightly around the annoyed sibling. “It’s so good to see you, kiddo.” She felt Emily go limp; her cheek pressing against her neck.
“Yeah, you, too,” she muttered, quickly pulling away and turning back to the refrigerator.
“Now where’s the beer in this house?”
Maggie sighed. Well, that’s a start. “Don’t think dad has any left. But there’s plenty of food.
Let me fix you a plate.”
“Crap! What else is there to drink?”
“Here, drink my Long Island. I’ll make another one later.”
Emily stared at her sister’s hand reaching out to offer her the glass. “Man, you’re getting old, Mags. I can see the veins through your skin. What are you, about fifty now?”
“Not quite,” Maggie groaned, thrusting the glass toward her. Although, sometimes I feel like it. “And honey, if you insist on being rude, please just practice on me. The others don’t deserve it, especially mom and dad. OK?”
“OK,” Emily relented, “I’ll try. Now, aren’t you going to fix me a plate?”
The sisters sat mostly in silence. Emily ate fiercely, as if she had just finished a three-day fast. Maggie studied her face – the black lipstick matching her black-chipped fingernail polish, the tiny rhinestone pierced in her small upturned nose, and the gorgeous long eyelashes coated in thick mascara. The hair, well, it could be salvaged, she told herself. She allowed her eyes to only glance at the tattoos. Thank God they’re simple music notes and not skulls or snakes. She thought if only she could cradle Emily in her arms, the innocent smile she knew so well would return. Now was not the time, and any questions would be saved for later after the family had gone to sleep.
The conversation in the living room came to a hush when the sisters entered. It seemed as though everyone was afraid to engage the tyrannical offspring, except Ryan. His role as the peace-loving brother who loved listening to music more than people helped him avoid the family exchanges. It was amazing how a pair of ear buds could keep him out of unnecessary arguments. He pulled one out and said, “Hey, sis. How’s that’s singing career going?”
Emily drained the glass of tea before answering and reported in rapid succession, “Let’s see…I got kicked out of the band, I wrecked my car, I’m without a job, I’m out of hair dye, I’m broke, I’ve got cancer…and, I have a P.I.”
Everyone sat frozen, as if they were holding their breath, including Maggie. Emily’s father looked up from the magazine he was scanning and pulled his readers down to the tip of his nose, “What did you say?”
“Yes, what did you say?” her mother repeated, her eyes opened so wide you could see the whites all the way around.
Ryan followed up with, “What’s a PI?”
“Oh my God! You’re all a bunch of imbeciles!” Emily threw the empty glass into the fireplace and fled the scene.
Emily’s mother pleaded through the wide-open front door, “Please honey, don’t go. We’re here for you. Talk to your family!”
Maggie gently moved her mother to the side, “Let me handle it, mom.” And to her father who was perched on the edge of his chair, she ordered, “Dad, stay here. I’ll bring her back.” Avoiding the rest of the family’s faces and her brother who was questioning a cousin about the meaning of PI, she turned quickly to chase her sister down. Oh, good Lord, is this why I came back?
Scanning the yard, adjusting her eyes to the dark, Maggie instinctively headed for the pier. Like her, Emily had spent hours fishing in that area when she was a child. Maggie could hear the restless waves beating down hard on the shore. Above, the clouds gathered and darkened, along with gusts of wind that weren’t there earlier. Wrapping the sweater tightly around her, she reached the foot of the pier and looked for signs of life.
Only one lamp was left to light the entire area, and she couldn’t see more than ten feet ahead. Walking to the end of the pier at night had been forbidden when she was a child. The stories of lives swept away came back to her, and there was her father’s voice again, ‘The sea creatures lie patiently waiting for their next victim.’
Inching ahead Maggie hesitated with each step. Between the billowing clouds the moon was waxing nearly full, sporadically lighting the way just long enough for her to see a small figure huddling a few feet from the end of the pier, unidentified until she heard a familiar burst of wailing. Emily had learned on a camping retreat the art of chanting and whenever she felt overwhelmed, she’d sit cross-legged, close her eyes and repeat loudly, “Eeeooowah, eeeooowah, eeeooowah.”
Maggie slowly approached her and stood quietly behind, listening to the sacred song being lifted into the thickening moist air. An overwhelming urge to join in coaxed her to sit down beside Emily. Without acknowledging each other they lifted their faces toward the moon, and what had started out with chanting turned into a familiar tune about the old man and the sea. When the singing stopped, Maggie put her arm round her sister and pulled her close.
Emily dropped her head onto Maggie’s shoulder and cried. She cried hard and long, not moving her head once to either wipe her eyes or say something derogatory. Finally, with a frail whisper, she said, “I’m done.”
“Em, it’s getting pretty rough out here. The waves will be over the pier soon. We must go back to shore. Let’s talk about it at home.”
“I don’t want to go back. I want the ocean to take me.” Emily sat up abruptly, facing the water. “This cancer thing, well, they’re not sure it’s curable. They told me I may not have long.”
Uncertain how to respond to the disturbing news, and assuaging Emily’s fears would only aggravate her even more, Maggie chose a more direct and honest approach.
“OK, so you’re going to die. Well, I understand that. But don’t you think it would be great to spend the rest of your life happy? I mean, happy with us, your family who loves you?” “And make everyone miserable like I have the past few years? I doubt they want that.” “Of course, they don’t want the angry you, but I know they want the Emily they raised, the lovely girl who came at the most unexpected time and brought such joy to our lives. It was boring before you came. Can you imagine growing up with just Ryan?”
Emily managed a chuckle, giving Maggie a sense of hope. “Look, I know we’re year’s apart, little sister, but the time I had with you was wonderful. And when I started traveling and being away for so long, I missed you terribly.”
A long silence hovered over them before Maggie continued, “Listen, I won’t go back to Europe. Truth is, I need to be home for a while, too. And besides, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.” I can’t believe I’m about to say this. “We can both move in with mom and dad. It’ll be fun.”
The bold words surfed across the waves and back into Maggie’s ears. She could only guess what Emily was thinking and thought better of saying more.
“I’ll tell you what,” Emily said shakily, “while we’re sitting here, if that whale the Beasley boys bragged about shows up, I promise I’ll stay with you.” “And, if not?”
“Just leave me here and let me be. It’s my life, not yours.”
As the waves lapped harder against the creaky old pier, Maggie held her sister tighter and prayed fervently for the Beasley brother’s whale to be real.
About the Author:
Libby Belle: I came from a one-bathroom family, and there were seven of us! Take that and raising six children of my own, and it’s not hard to understand my quirky imagination. You won’t find words like vicissitude, legume or oeuvre in my stories (oh wait, I did get a kick out of using the word logorrhea). But you will find charming, captivating and entertaining tales of human interaction with lovable, incorrigible, complex characters that exist in all of us. I have published works in Woman’s Weekly UK, Beyond Art and More TX, and Adelaide NY. Four books of Libby Belle’s shorts are on the horizon.
I have the fortune of living in Austin, Texas, a city that thrives on weirdness – a perfect place to nurture my writing and my big Texas family. Visit me at LibbyBelle.com