by Sean Padraic McCarthy
The tide rushed in through the channel, flooding over the sea bed of small jagged rocks and pebbles. Jack had taken off his flip flops and he tried to step carefully. Ahead of him he could hear voices—teens a little further down the beach—and the shouts of children, his twin daughters, ten, just across the channel. Looking up he could see their shadows, silhouetted against the reds of the setting sun, running about atop the enormous jagged boulder projecting out of the sea. The boulder had been there since the glaciers retreated, and stood prominent, recognizable in photos taken of the beach going back to the mid nineteenth century. In those photos, and in sketches drawn in books even long before that. One he had seen going back more than two hundred years, The King’s Illustrated History of the Harbor at Boston.
Jack was already up past his ankles in the tide, and he knew that unless they wanted to swim back, they would have to make their time out on the rock short. Behind and if front of him, fireworks exploded in the air, up and down the beach. The fireworks were everywhere, and out on the harbor people were lighting them off their boats. One of the twins, Sally, waved her hand over her head, trying to get his attention; she shouted for him to hurry. Sally looked like their mother; all his girls looked like their mother, all blonde, blue eyed and petite and beautiful, but Sally did the most. Jack’s wife, Clarissa, didn’t have many photos of herself from when she was small, most of them had burned in a fire in her mother’s house the year Jack had met her, but he had seen one once, and the resemblance to Sally was beyond striking.
The water was cold and still clear where it ran over the small rocks, and Jack crouched down at the far side of the channel, away from the cliffs, away from the shore, to look and see if he could see any fish. Back on the beach he could still see the silhouettes of the teenagers, posing for pictures, leaning over, bending over, all provocative. But he couldn’t see their faces. Just the flash from the camera. And he was sure as soon as the pictures were taken they would be sent out via Instagram or Facebook. For countless friends to see. The wonders of technology.
Technology. He wondered how many lives, families, had been ruined by rush of technology. Clarissa and Jack had been married eighteen years. He had proposed to her down here, upon the ramparts of a nineteenth century bastion built upon a hill in the distance overlooking this beach.
There were a lot of memories on this beach, from childhood—when his grandparents owned a cottage down here—on. And so many with Clarissa. She and Jack would take the twins and their older sisters, now twelve and fourteen, down here each year a day in late April when they all were small, before the warmth and before the crowds, and let them run about the beach at low tide, squealing and laughing, in the cold sand and receding tide, and then take them for a lunch of chicken tenders and fried clams and scallops, and then every summer following they would be back and forth from here to home. Clarissa was type A and high strung and always a visionary, organized and top of everything, and now she slept in the back bedroom downstairs where she lay in the dark and texted and face timed her boyfriend. Her hair pulled up in a palm tree ponytail, and the blue light of the television flickering in the space between the door and the floor. Prior to this she had little to no time for Facebook, but now she was on it non-stop, messaging. She kept the man’s high school hockey puck beneath her pillow—as if she had slipped back into high school herself–and beside it a print out of local available apartments.
Now Sally called out again, and Jack stood back up, and reached for a ledge projecting out of the rock to pull himself up. A spray of light broke open the sky far above his head, and a wave lapped the side of the big rock, salt water splashing up and wetting his face.
Jack slipped back on his flip flops and continued to climb. Seaweed clung to the peaks of the rock, and he knew if the light were better he would see it streaming inside the pools and gullies in the low areas of the boulders. Along with barnacles, snails, and purple shelled mussels. The sky was even more magnificent as he reached the top of the precipice. Layered. Streaks of red and orange topped by the grays of the descending dusk, and then the awakening star lit blues of the heavens above them. Everything soon to fade to black.
The girls had their own phones own phones out, and were taking their own pictures with the sea, the waves rising and breaking, the fireworks, and sunset in the background. They ran about the rock, jumping point to point, ledge to ledge. A few years earlier, watching them, he may have had a heart attack, fearing they would fall, but now they were agile and nimble, and if anyone were going to fall, he imagined it would be him; his head was still foggy from the night before. Two whiskey sours and a six pack of beer.
The twins wore red, white and blue bandanas tied about their legs, Sally with a red sweatshirt and Nina with a blue, and Sally’s had bedecked herself with red, white and blue strands of beads, courtesy of Jack’s mother; they had stopped to see the old woman on the way here to the beach. His mother had given them bags of homemade cookies and muffins and cans of seltzer to bring to the beach, whispered in Jack’s ear at the door, saying she was worried about him, and it just wasn’t right. And he had to think of himself, she said, and the girls. Most importantly, he had to think of the girls. Jack watched his father fade into the shadows, as she whispered, away from the kitchen, pacing about the house as usual, slow and unsteady, locked within the halls of Alzheimer’s and trying to find a way out.
And of course, like with so many things, there was only one way out.
He wondered if Clarissa were home from work yet—she worked seven a.m. to seven p.m. today–and if so, what she was doing. Rushing out, making the most of her few free hours. She had never been much of a dog walker, but these days, she walked the dog nightly, gone for an hour or more with her phone open as she headed down the road. Feeling invisible, he imagined. As if no could see, or guess, what she was doing. And then she would disappear to the supermarket, gone for two to three hours and returning with a small bag of groceries. Prior to the texting, the calls, a full grocery shopping for the whole family never took her more than an hour.
But the boyfriend wasn’t new. At least not in a sense. He actually went back twenty-five years. They had dated when she was in high school, 17, and he was already four years out, and then according to Clarissa, or at least what she had told Jack over the years, she had ended it with him as he was jobless, video gaming pothead, going nowhere and was too irresponsible. But now, since she had started up with him on Facebook, that story had changed. Now, she said, it was all her mother’s fault. Her mother, she said, had made her drive him away, telling her lies about him. She had never known this, she said. Had been in the dark all these years. And now, after he had gotten in touch with her, and confided in her, she had been suddenly awash with feelings she said. Unresolved feelings. Questioning the life that could have been. Might’ve been.
Jack stood atop the rock. He could see beacon on the Boston Light spinning in the far distance, and further still, the Boston skyline. When he was small there had been an amusement park down here across the boulevard from the beach, and the greatest of his memories were when they would stay at his grandparent’s cottage and visit the park at night. The echoing voices of the barkers, the haunted laughter from the Kooky Kastle ride, and the rising and falling of the roller coaster, the crashing. The park had stood for eighty years before they tore it down ,and at the time it was impossible to imagine the town, the beach, without the park. But nothing was permanent.
Sally looked up at him. “Who has the best ideas?” she asked.
“The best?” he asked.
“It was my idea to come here,” she said.
“You do, of course,” Jack said. “You always do.”
And he wasn’t lying. She did. A little girl always thinking.
Just on the drive down to the beach she had confided in him as to why, she believed, the year so far had been strange, people not acting like themselves. They were driving through Hingham, the bright grass of the salt marsh on either side dimming in the dusk, and the blue of the Weir River winding through like a sneak.
She was quiet, a moment. “Like everyone. All over the country.”
“And why do you think it is?” Jack asked.
“Because of the multi-universe.”
“The multi-universe?” Jack asked, playing along.
“Yah,” she said, “There are millions of universes, with people being different, acting just a little different in each one.”
“And?” Jack said.
“And,” said Sally, looking out the window, out over the marsh. “The universes are colliding.”
Sally and Nina had been conceived sub-ground in the Boston Common Parking Garage following a five hundred and sixty dollar dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel, and Jack still almost laughed when he thought about it now. Mid-October, Indian Summer. Clarissa had made a video at work with a surgeon she scrubbed for—a famous surgeon whom had once operated on the Pope—and the surgeon had given her the gift certificate to the Four Seasons as a thank you. Five hundred dollars. Neither Jack nor Clarissa had ever spent even half that on dinner, never in their lives, and the wine alone had run three hundred bucks. Small portions, transcendental lighting, and a spacious room with a waiter tending to you every three seconds, almost making conversation impossible. It seemed like someone was always there, always listening. Not that Jack believed the wait staff actually cared enough to eavesdrop, but still it felt that way. And he and Clarissa were talking about having another baby. One more, and that would be it. They already had two.
They had held hands in the dark on their way across the Public Gardens. A martini and the bottle of wine, and both half drunk. Autumn already settled, the flowers all gone. Clarissa had pulled him close and kissed him just inside the gates of the Common, in the shadows of the old burial ground, and Jack couldn’t remember whose idea it had been to climb into the back of the mini-van once in the garage, and not wait until home, but they had. First just with Clarissa’s skirt hiked up around her hips, but then within minutes, the windows completely steamed, she had everything off, riding frantically atop of him, crying out and biting her lower lip. Then, after she came, still coming, collapsed exhausted and trembling, she rolled over, and pulled him down on top of her.
The pregnancy test showed positive, and then soon after it had become a roller coaster nightmare pregnancy. She had phoned him at work, asked him if he were sitting down. And then she had told him that the one more they had planned had become three, and then after brief near heart attacks and coming to terms with the reality of triplets, they had gone for one of their routine ultrasounds only to be told by affectless technician that they had lost the third. Jack had felt himself collapse inside, and Clarissa still on the table, with the with the ultrasound fluid still all over her already large, exposed belly, had started to sob. Then they had met with the doctor, and he had started to cry, too. A sensitive obstetrician. Worse news was coming, he said, he was ninety-nine percent sure they were going to lose the second baby, the triplet’s identical, the girl who would be Nina, too.
After the man composed himself, he offered to terminate Nina, too, to do a selective reduction, to save them worry, stress. To beat the inevitable to the finish line.
Clarissa had stopped crying then. Stoic, and cold. Jack could almost swear he could see the tears dry instantaneously on her cheeks. “So you’re telling me I should kill my baby?” she said.
The man took a deep breath. “Not kill. Selective reduction. To prevent the inevitable.”
“Well, how are we going to prevent it if we’re making it happen anyway?” she asked.
“I’m thinking of you,” the man said. “Both of you. You don’t need the stress. It might be best to focus on one healthy baby, you’re going to have one healthy baby.”
“And you think I’m going to have less stress if I kill the other?” Clarissa said, and with that she had belted her coat and stood and left the office, Jack following behind.
After that, the doctor had told them for weeks, each week following that, that they would return to find they just had one baby. Inevitable, he kept saying. When one identical dies, the other always follows, the studies show it over and over. If there is something wrong with one, the same thing is almost always wrong with the other. You’ll come in for the ultrasound next week, he said again, and there will only be one.
But it never happened. There never was just one.
And then months later after a last minute decision for an emergency C-section– baby two was heading bum first into the birth canal, was going to end up stuck, and she would die, and Clarissa might bleed out—it was baby one, Sally, that ended up stuck, wedged beneath Clarissa’s rib cage.
Jack had watched the doctor look at the nurse, silently shake his head, and then saw the nurse’s eyes shoot to the clock. It may have just been a matter of minutes, but it seemed like an eternity, and by the time they got Sally out, she was gray and limp and dangling. Clarissa couldn’t see, and Jack didn’t speak, but he gripped her hand and waited as he watched them massage the baby’s heart on the metal table across the room. And then he saw a twitch, and then he heard a cry.
Clarissa, still sedated, and still looking as if she had been cut in two, asked the doctor if he could bring them to her, she wanted to hold them.
That was the Clarissa Jack knew.
That was the Clarissa he married.
Now on the far side of the rocks, the tide still swelling, there were shadows in the water. First just shadows beneath the rolling gray surface, still reflecting the sun, and then tails, then whiskers, then snouts. The twins began to shout. Three seals, doing acrobatics in rising swells. When Jack was growing up, the sighting of a seal would’ve made front pages news. Now like the deer on land, they were everywhere.
Just a few years earlier, they had stayed in a house down here every weekend in the summer—a different house from his grandparent’s cottage—right on the beach, and at night he would walk down to the surf and watch the seals in the moonlight. The house had been his brother’s for the summer, and his sister had rented it for him, Memorial Day through Labor Day, because his brother was dying and he wanted to die by the water, he wanted to die on the beach. But then by the Fourth of July, he was already gone. Jack’s sister had paid for the house up front, and she lived down in Florida, and so she had encouraged Jack and his siblings to use it anyway, not to let it sit there and go to waste. And Jack and Clarissa, the twins and their sisters, did not. Sometimes the girls would come down at night to the water with him, playing in the waves while Jack sat on the beach, drank a beer, smoked a cigar, and sometimes it would be Clarissa, huddled beside him, and once even straddled atop of him, the girls in the house and all long asleep, moving up and down as the tide moved in and out beneath him. The rhythm of the water. She had still been in love with him then.
Now, the heads were poking out of the dark water, looking at them, and Sally and Nina were crouched down on the edge of the rocks, laughing, reaching out, but much too far to touch.
Jack crouched down beside them. The fireworks were now louder now, dozens breaking into the sky at once.
“Watch and see if they shed their skins,” he said to the girls.
“How they gonna do that Dad?” Nina asked. “They can’t do that.”
“They can if they are selkies,” Jack said.
Sally looked at him quizzically. “What’s a Selkie?”
The seals disappeared beneath the surface again. Nothing but shadows.
“A selkie is a seal, that when she sheds her skin, there is a person beneath. Usually a beautiful maiden. And they usually shed their skin when they want to come lie on the rocks, or lie on the beach. They are all over the sea around Ireland, so I bet a few swim over this way, too.”
Nina laughed, but Sally still looked skeptical. “You’re making that up.”
“I’m not. Look it up on line when you get home. There are a lot of legends about them. Sometimes, a man will meet a beautiful woman on the beach, and immediately fall in love, but then before he knows it, he turns his head, and she is gone. Out into the waves, out into the darkness. And there’s only one way to get them to stay.”
“What’s that?” Sally asked.
“You have to steal their skin, keep it wet every day, and hide it. Because if they find it, they will climb right back inside, and then they’ll be gone.”
“Do they ever come back?” Sally asked.
The shadows moved beneath the surface again, lower, and barely visible in the darkness. “Sometimes,” he said. “And sometimes you’ll hear them sing.”
He remembered their wedding. Early June, and an early heat wave; despite it being June, the church was like an oven, and the old priest was refusing to marry them. Sitting back in the sacristy, with Jack’s brothers, and Clarissa’s brothers trying to reason with him; the marriage license existed, Father Tom, at the rehearsal the night before, had just seen it.
“But I need to see it,” the old man had said. His hair was bright white, and combed neatly over his pate. Blue Lithuanian eyes, and thick peasant skin. “I didn’t see it.”
The license had been left at Clarissa’s mother’s house, and now it was missing. Everyone had looked, no one could find it. When the old man wouldn’t budge, Clarissa had jumped back in the limo, flowers in hand, and ordered the driver to take her to her mother’s, she would look for it herself.
And she found it. Her sister had turned it over to scribble a phone number and message on it, left it on their mother’s bureau. And no one could find it. No one except Clarissa.
That was Clarissa.
Her face was still slightly perspiring as her father walked her down the aisle—the mass set back an hour—and she still looked beautiful, and he had loved her. The blonde hair—she still had bangs back then—and the tan skin against the white of her dress. The slightly hooded blue gray eyes. She kept whispering to him as the knelt before the altar, the priest reciting the liturgy, excited and nervous and sure of everything to come. And he had loved her.
Now just a little over a month earlier, he had been with her, as had the girls, in their SUV, on their way to her mother’s for her mother’s birthday, the girls all in back, headphones on, individual music, only Sally singing in key, when it all really began to unravel. Clarissa was driving, and the sun was bright, so Jack had opened the glove compartment, rummaging about for an old pair of sunglasses.
Clarissa had looked at him sideways. “Whatcha looking for?”
“Sunglasses,” he said, and as he did, he pulled up the condoms. Three packs of two. For a split second he wasn’t sure what they were. A brand he had never heard of before, never had used. He just stared at them a moment, everything stiffening, freezing up inside him, and then before he even could turn to her, she was screaming. He had put them there, she said, he had planted them. He had framed her. Her tirade kept going, alerting the girls, but her words were lost in the rush of blood moving through his head, emptying his heart. He felt completely empty inside, and there were plenty of sounds, but very little sense. And then by the time she stopped, he knew there was nothing he could say, not now, any more words would just set her off again. Upset the children. But she knew, he knew. And he wondered how things could ever be the same.
When she finally composed herself over her mothers, she was still denying they were hers. But she was no longer accusing him. Someone had put them there, she said, and she wouldn’t rest until she found out who. She would find them. And even now, Jack wondered, if the investigation had gone beyond that declaration, that moment. He didn’t think it had.
Any time he brought it up in the weeks following, he had been snapped at. “If you can’t let this go, Jack, our marriage is not going to work. It is going to be over. I’m not going to live like that, under a microscope, for the rest of my life. I did nothing wrong, and I’m not going to be accused.”
He had a shed in the back yard, a shed large enough to fit a car. It was quiet and dark and dusty and dry in the shed, dried crumbled leaves from the autumn before, in the corners, and in between the two by fours, lining the walls. He kept his fishing gear and his machinery inside—snow blower, and rider mower, and rototiller—he kept a vegetable garden in the summer, high fence to keep out the deer, but this summer it had already fallen to neglect, Jack had little interest in the garden, and little interest in the yard. Little interest in fishing, little interest in anything.
But sometimes at night now though, after the girls were asleep, he would sit inside the shed, smoke a cigar, and watch Clarissa’s shadow moving across the yellow light of the window of her room. She would usually be texting, but sometimes speaking on the phone, or holding it before her, speaking at it. Face timing again. Once he had watched as she looked slowly, cautiously, about the room, right and then left, and then pressed the image of whomever she was face timing up to her face and kissed it. He had never felt anything like he felt at that moment, and hoped he never would again. His heart had seized up inside him, everything had seized up inside him. It was worse than finding the condoms, because even with the condoms, there was a chance. A chance for another explanation. A chance she was telling the truth. Now there was none.
He had confronted her, of course. She had just gone for a run, her legs so slim in her shorts once so tight; never big to begin with, she had lost so much weight. Thirty pounds, forty. He had no idea, but she was disappearing right before his eyes. She had her hair pulled up in a palm tree ponytail, aging suddenly but still looking like a girl. A beautiful girl. She would always be beautiful.
She lifted her water bottle, Smart Water, up to her lips, took a slow sip, her eyes cautious. Then: “What? What’s up?”
“You tell me,” he had said. He had his hands in his pockets. His hands were shaking, and he didn’t want her to see his hands shaking.
“Tell you what?”
“Tell me what’s going on with Mark.”
“Nothing’s going on with him.”
“You mean, you’re not seeing him?”
“I text him once in a while. That’s it.”
“Once in a while?”
“Yeah.” She finished the water, went to fill the empty bottle Brita purifier in the refrigerator. “I have to shower, then I have to run an errand.”
“You text him more than once in a while, Clarrisa.”
She turned then, something rising in her eyes, the indifference being saturated with rage. “What are you snooping on my phone? You have no fucking business looking at my phone.”
“His wife called me,” Jack said. “She was crying. It’s more than just texts.”
“Who? Lisa?” Clarissa said, the woman’s name uttered in a sarcastic taunt. Adolescent.
“She was upset, Clarissa, and she had every right to be.”
“She lies Jack! She’s a fucking liar. And I’m not going to stand here and be accused of something I didn’t do!”
“So you’re really telling me you’re not seeing him?”
“Sure. I’m seeing him. Big deal. He’s my friend. He listens to me. And he understands me.”
“Where do you go?”
“We sit in the car and talk.”
“And that’s it?”
“Yes, Jack. That’s it! And it’s none of your fucking business what we do!”
“It is if you’re seeing him.”
“I’m not seeing him.”
Jack’s head was spinning. “You just said you were.”
“You’re standing in front of me. I’m seeing you. Maybe that’s how I’m seeing him. Maybe I saw him across the parking lot.”
“You just said—“
“This conversation is over!” she said, “I’m not talking to you.” She had stormed from the room then, and Jack stood paralyzed in the kitchen. Listen to the shower turn on in the bathroom, her radio begin to blare. Their entire lives drowned out with music.
“Are there boy selkies?” Nina asked now.
Of course there are Nina,” said Sally. “There has to be boys, and there has to be girls, or no more selkies.”
“The black Irish,” said Jack, “Dark hair and dark eyes. Both boys and girls. Singing. They say on Midsummer’s night, the Summer Solstice, their songs come the most clear. they bob their heads in the waves, and try to lure you into the water so they can drown you. And have you forever.”
“I don’t want to see one then,” said Nina.
“Some are probably nice,” said Sally.
“That’s right,” said Jack. “Some probably are.”
“But not all of them,” said Nina.
“No,” Jack said, “not all of them.”
With the sky like this, the next day would be nice. Red skies at night. He wondered if he should take the day off. Bring the twins back down here, bring the canoe, and take it out on the bay. They wouldn’t last long out here, not on the sea, but the bay would be nice. The bay would be calm. When he was small, his grandfather used to sometimes take him out in his old row boat on the bay. Two oars, the boat splintered and badly in need of a coat of paint, barely sea worthy. And his grandfather, a shock of white hair, mesmerizing blue eyes, and just a few teeth. Face always red from wine and the sun. Jack could still picture him, sitting backwards in the bow. Looking over his shoulder, rowing. Always careful of what was to come.
The water was dark now. Nothing but the lights on the boats so far out, and the lights on shore. A firework broke into the sky every minute or two, but the finale was over. Jack looked towards the beach, dwindling quickly; the tide came in so fast, that the beach could disappear in the blink of an eye. Jack listened for the voices of the teenagers, but they were gone, too. Probably back up to the boardwalk and into the town. Shadows.
“We should get going,” he said to the girls.
“I want to see if they light more,” Sally said.
“Do you want to have to swim?” Jack asked.
Sally smiled a little. “Well, nooo… Not in my clothes.”
Jack took the girls hands, careful as they descended the face of the rock. He handed Sally his cell phone, and stepped into the water. The water was moving swiftly, flowing like a river, and was already up to his waist. He figured they maybe had another five minutes, and it would be over his head. Jack steadied his feet on the sea bed of pebbles beneath him. He balanced Sally on his shoulders, and lifted Nina in his arms, and then he stepped cautiously, watching the shadows on the shore, and started back into the channel.
About the Author:
I have new stories either recently published in The Hopkins Review, Glimmer Train, Water~Stone Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, South Dakota Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review among others. My story “Better Man”–originally published in December magazine–was cited in The Best American Short Stories 2015, and I am a 2016 recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Artist Fellowship in Fiction Award.