When the bell rang, the ledger was long closed. Fiona didn’t hear Gabor rise from the sunken couch in the TV lounge. The beds creaked in some of the lower rooms, where surfers let out low moans. Gulls arched their backs to shout from the steeples in town. She hauled herself from her thin mattress and shifted her nightie into place as she walked to the front door, which she opened just a crack. The night air from the sea burst through.
“What is it?” Fiona said.
“Is this the hostel?” the American said. Fiona opened the door wider. He must have come in on the last bus of the night. His hair shot out wild, like her son’s had when he woke sweet from sleep. Her son now lived in Newquay with his father and stepmother who knew how he liked the crusts cut off his sandwiches. The grown boy before her had a mangled piece of paper in his hands, and a pack on that smelled like car exhaust and dirt and clothing that had dried on itself, sweat tucked into the folds, because he didn’t know enough to let things dry in the air. They all looked like Peter Pan, these boys.
“It is. Are you Jonathan?” Fiona said. She stepped back and he came in. “We had you down for coming earlier in the day. We’d given up on you.”
“I took the wrong bus at Plymouth,” he said. “I had to backtrack. Is a bed still available?” He was breathing in with his nose, sucking the air down, and looking around like a hungry dog.
“This way,” Fiona said. She took him down the corridor. “Do you surf?” She could make out the ropes of muscle beneath his shirt, but perhaps they weren’t that kind. Perhaps they were the thoughtless muscles that sprouted on a young man if he only thought about exercising, unlike the flaps of skin that swung like bells from her arms no matter how much sweeping or scrubbing she did. The first time she had noticed her skin drifting downward she had been brushing her hair.
“I’ve never surfed,” Jonathan said. “I saw Jaws when I was too young. What’s your name?”
“Fiona,” she said. “Do you do art?” But he didn’t seem to be that type, either.
“No, why?” he said.
“You’ll be staying in the Basil Henry room,” she said. “Here’s the key and a blanket. I hope you have a towel.” She could only imagine how it smelled.
“Who’s Basil Henry?” Jonathan said.
“A sculptor. Never mind, he’s local.” Fiona said. “The rate is 15 a night.” He pulled crumpled bills and coins from his pocket and paid her.
Gabor grunted as they walked through the lounge to the room at the end of the hall.
“It’s your night on,” she said. “I won’t get up again.”
“Fuck off,” he said.
In the morning Fiona mopped while the tiles were still slicked by the breath of sea from the night. The surfers from Leeds were down for their roaring weeks of fun and she had woken from their commotion. It was the same group this time of year, summer after summer. They were probably something quite boring in their normal lives, accountants, or salesmen. Some of them wore wedding rings, and some of them didn’t, but that didn’t seem to determine at what rate they tried to sneak a girl into an unoccupied single room. Gabor went surfing too, and Fiona didn’t understand how he had ever learned in Budapest, but here he was, slacking away the days like he had grown up in the Cornish sea. Only the little children here could bear the water. Fiona used to be one of those children. Her son, Evan, used to be one of those children, until his father made certain he would care more for computer games and comic books than he would shells and barnacles on dark rocks.
“This is a nice place,” Jonathan said, leaning into the kitchen. His hair was wilder than it had been, even, the night before. Fiona had not noticed his footsteps. He had learned somewhere to walk like a cat. “Is it yours?”
“No, I only keep it for the owner,” Fiona said. Marjorie came once every other week in her white linen suits and fedora to take the money out of the till to deposit in the bank. She never paid attention to Fiona’s requests for new curtains or mattresses, and criticized her taste in cleaning supplies.
“I’d like to put my apples away,” Jonathan said. “Is that alright?” He probably had stayed in hostels for weeks now, and had never washed a dish in one of them. Still, polite boy, for asking.
“I’ve just finished mopping but go ahead,” Fiona said.
“Can I put them anywhere?” he said.
“I’m not your mother,” she said. “There’s the marker. Put your name on your bag and find a spot.” He did so and wedged the apples just where she would have told him not to. He plugged in the kettle. Fiona turned on the radio and began to work on the mystery crusting the counter. She played the local radio station that covered the drownings and the car wrecks, and the fights about the uses of public spaces, but she only listened to make sure she never heard Evan’s name mentioned in connection to anything terrible. It had been weeks since she’d heard his voice. It still carried a lilt, but it was growing fainter each time, as he listened more and more to his stepmother from Hampstead.
“I could fix that for you,” Jonathan said. He pointed to the broken shelf in the corner. “Where do you keep your tools.”
“They’re under the desk at reception,” she said. “But we don’t barter around here.” Fiona used her thumbnail on the remnants of the crap stuck to the counter. Her knuckles were white like she remembered her mother’s were, and her grandmother’s. She thought Ben’s wife’s hands probably never turned white with strain, showing cartilage.
“I wouldn’t expect that,” Jonathan said. His voice was quiet but steady, not bruised. He unplugged the kettle and poured the hot water into a dirty thermos.
“Thanks,” she said. “If you can fix them that would really be lovely.” Jonathan smiled, and his hair hung over his face. Fiona felt the sort of flip between her ribs that she had not felt for some time, a tilt that carried down her legs. He was a good boy, after all, like the boy she had thought Ben was when they met.
A sound like noisy gulls came up the street and rang in the courtyard, a slapping and calling, hooting and shoving.
“Here they come,” Fiona said. She put aside her mop and wiped her hands. She moved a yellow slippery-when-wet sign into place in front of the kitchen door.
A burst of sticky water slid off the first surfboard on to the clean stones in the courtyard. The surfers peeled off their dripping wetsuit tops, black from the sea. They peeled off their bottoms and sea algae and more water and sand dripped on to the courtyard. Fiona stood with the mop staved off whatever was flowing towards the kitchen.
“Morning, mate,” Gabor said to Jonathan. “Been to the beach yet?”
“No,” Jonathan said. “I just got up.”
“Stay here with us,” a voice called from an upper window. It would be Leah. Fiona looked and saw Leah hadn’t dressed. She was wearing nothing and leaning as far out the window as she could, her ropes of red hair and her breasts dangling down. None of the artists got up until after the surfers had gone back to sleep again. They all lived in shifts, like two entirely different collections of people. They might as well have rented the same berths out twice. The surfers looked up at Leah and let out a collective howl. Leah tossed them aside with a frown.
“Morning, Fiona,” Leah said. She blew a kiss. “Make him stay.” Jonathan’s head was bent so far back Fiona was certain the creases in his neck would be permanent. He looked over at Fiona. He didn’t say anything to her, and she could see he was still stunned.
“Close your mouth,” Fiona said. “You’ll go over better with her.” The surfers went to the taps, where they washed the sand from their boards. One of the surfers poured the mop bucket over another one in the shower before Fiona could stop him.
“You asshole,” Fiona said. “That had bleach in it.” A raucous sound rose from these men, the kind of laughter that burst from their bellies.
“He hasn’t answered yet,” Fiona said. “Don’t open your eyes, Thomas.”
“I’m alright,” Thomas said. “It mostly hit my legs.” Fiona turned to Gabor and watched the line of his dark hair that he pulled back into a band. She pressed her lips together.
“I’ve got it,” Gabor said. “You take care of your charges, and I’ll take care of mine.” He pointed to the upper rooms, where Leah had leaned her pale breasts out the window, and the roof, from where the poet had leapt one evening in April when the clouds had sagged into the harbor for too many days.
The surfers trooped from the showers, flicking their towels at one another. They were getting a bit stout now, and their footprints were thick on the courtyard. Fiona waited for their steps to recede into their rooms, where they’d sleep through to the afternoon.
“It’s safe to come down now,” Fiona sang up in the courtyard. She heard the shuffle of slippers and the swaying of bunk beds, and the shutting of doors. For the first time since dawn, Fiona sat down.
“Good morning, my darling,” Phillip said. He used to drive a bus, but gave it up for watercolors. He kissed Fiona’s hand and Dennys kissed the other, for he was never far behind Phillip. They set up their chess board. A few other artists wandered in, robes tight against the morning air. Someone brought Fiona a cup of instant coffee and filled the kettle again. Someone took out a guitar and began to strum in the corner, where the acoustics were the best.
“Are you the new Basil?” Phillip said to Jonathan.
“Yes,” Jonathan said. “Who is he?” His eyes were on Leah’s window.
“He was a sculptor who lost his right arm in the war. He discovered perhaps he should have been left-handed all along,” Phillip said. “After the war, his sculptures were better.”
“Why?” Jonathan said.
“He followed the grain of the wood,” Phillip said. “It was a better guide than his eyes had been.” Dennys brought out slices of toast with jam and a teapot with small cups. The courtyard air grew white with mist that moved in from the water. It would pass. Fiona heard more footsteps on the curved stairs.
“Don’t bore him, yet,” Leah said. She stepped out in a long shirt that she may have been pretending was a dress. Fiona narrowed her eyes and pointed at Leah’s hem, which was at her upper thighs.
“Fiona, what would you do without us?” Leah said. She reached her arms out wide. Fiona batted her away, but then relented, and clutched Leah and kissed her head. Leah moved towards the kitchen, towards the kettle, and she still smelled of seawater from what was probably an evening with the sodden beach on her ankles. Leah liked to stand at the edge of the land and peer out until she shivered, or until someone found her there. It was where they had found her, Dennys and Phillip, walking one evening. She had been thrown out of boarding school and then her father’s good graces. She’d been looking at the lighthouse like that was her final destination.
“Are you an artist too?” Jonathan asked Fiona.
“None of that for me. Not anymore,” Fiona said. “Now I take care of this lot.” She finished her toast and got up and pulled a towel straight on the clothesline. Jonathan sat and watched Leah as she came back with a mug of coffee and a dish of yogurt and a can of paint. She was finishing a long green stripe along the wall of the courtyard—it had been painted many times, by many artists, and now it was Leah’s month to do with as she liked.
“Have you been here long?” Jonathan asked Dennys.
“We’ve been here forever,” Dennys said. “We’re Fiona’s wards.” He turned to his chess game, putting a towel down on the damp cement, and curling into a position that Fiona had only seen Dennys and cats do.
“Marjorie works out a deal for us long-termers,” Phillip said. “She thinks we’re like a tourist attraction, the local color.”
“And you,” Jonathan said, stepping into the courtyard, into the path of the green stripe, tilting his head, reaching for Leah’s name.
“Leah,” Leah said. “And me, what?”
“Have you been here long?”
“I transformed from a mermaid,” she said. She put down her brush and dipped her whole hand in the paint can and then pressed it against the wall. She took a sip of tea with the other hand. Fiona saw from the look on Jonathan’s face that he half believed her. Fiona knew that it would be sand from both of their bodies that rattled to the floor when she changed the sheets.
“Jonathan, have you come on holiday?” Fiona said. He was likely drifting, and just now caught in a welcome web. Their main business was the surfers and the artists, but every once in a while a traveler came through.
“Yeah. I was in London for a few days, and somebody suggested I come out here,” Jonathan said. “It’s too hot at home in summer. I lost my job, and then I finished some work for my father. So I bought a ticket.” He gestured out around him, to say, why not, which was what you could do if you weren’t tied to the land by your crops, your soul, or your children.
“You should walk the coastal path,” Phillip said. He turned, and Dennys took his rook with a pawn. “I saw that.” Dennys leaned back on his haunches and seemed to smell the sun. Some other doors from upstairs began opening, the older women who were here for an oil painting class run out of a local gallery. Or Hilda, who had taken a vow of silence this week, but came out occasionally for tea. Gabor would be behind reception by now. The bell would begin to ring.
“Ladies’ shower is there,” Fiona called to a blinking girl with a bandana on her head, shuffling in the wrong door. Fiona pointed past the kitchen.
“Sorry,” the girl said. “I lost my contacts at the beach yesterday.”
“I’m going out for a bit, folks,” Fiona said. “Don’t burn the place down.”
Fiona saw them later, from where she rested on a rock wall near Porthgwidden beach. Fiona felt her eyes move to Leah, as Jonathan’s did, because her hair lifted on the wind and became copper like fresh pennies. She was wearing a short blue dress, and when the sun burst through there was nothing underneath at all. She went into the water, and when it reached the level of the dress, it turned dark, water spreading through the fabric and clinging to her thighs. Jonathan followed, but only to his ankles, where he staggered, as they all did, from the way the ice washed up into your veins. Leah reached an arm for him and he moved forward, dragging his legs through the froth. Children on the beach yelped. A red boat bobbed. Fiona wondered if Evan now thought of being alive as being here, the way she did, or if he thought of it at all.
She looked back at Leah and Jonathan. They lowered themselves into a swell. They came up kissing with their full mouths. Her hair snaked around his shoulders, which stood out gleaming in the sun. Fiona could barely take her eyes off their beauty but she knew it wouldn’t do to stare, so she began to walk along the stone pathway, only allowing herself to glance back. When they raced out of the water the mothers moved their babies down the beach from the way the two of them burrowed together like basking seals. They lay in the hard sand for some time, because every time Fiona looked back on her walk around the harbor, she could see the dark spot of their bodies on the beach.
Later, Leah and Jonathan came through the office door and down the corridor, leaving pale footprints and sand in the carpet. They crossed in front of Fiona and Gabor without speaking. They carried glasses of water, apples, bread, and cheese. They went upstairs to Leah’s bedroom, and Fiona pulled out the powerful vacuum that Marjorie had delivered the last time she came to collect earnings. The hostel had run through so many vacuums Fiona thought it would be better to give up on the carpeting altogether and strip the floors down to the rough wood and stones underneath.
“Watching him, are you?” Gabor said. He reached into the ice chest to get a fizzy drink.
“Watching out for him,” Fiona said. She unwound the cord and plugged it into the wall.
“Don’t get too attached,” Gabor said. Fiona shook her head a little. Gabor went through the ledger, making circles with a red pen.
“When do I ever?” she said.
“Never,” Gabor said. “You never do.” He pushed his hair behind his ears and twisted the cap off the bottle. His hands were so dark from where his wetsuit didn’t reach, it looked like he wore gloves. The air stayed cool here, and it was easy to forget how the sun would burn. He’s coming back burnt, Ben had said of Evan. You don’t watch him properly. This was before he stopped bringing Evan entirely. This was before she stopped drinking. She could see the tips of his sunburned ears, so red that she knew they’d peel. She’d made him wear a hat, and then it had blown off when they went to the dock to watch the boats, and what was she supposed to do about it, Ben? She knew he’d come back burnt again. Then there was the day she had stopped by the pub while Evan played with other children in the sand. Fiona sat with one leg off her stool, watching him, and had loved the feeling of cool vodka running down her tongue. She had looked away and looked away again, and there he was, Evan, with blood on his shirt coming from the shoulder, where he had gotten wedged between the rocks looking for crabs. She left the bar so fast her chair tipped and she could hear wood splintering on the tile. She reached Evan. He seemed smaller, somehow, pressed against her. He folded his head into her neck. She tried to mop up the blood.
She drank more that night, in her guilt, and the next morning she went out to the street to vomit into a drainage hole. She didn’t want to wake Evan with her coarse hacking. That was where Ben found her, resting against a fence pole. Evan’s new stitches pulled at his skin and the iodine that had dripped down his arm looked like the faded tattoo of a lounge singer. She imagined the gulls would eat the refuse from her vomit straight from where it had marinated in the vodka and bile, and fly, drunken, into windows and windshields. She imagined she wouldn’t get to see Evan again for a good long time, and she was right. No matter how many bottles she didn’t touch anymore.
Leah and Jonathan did not emerge from Leah’s room until the following afternoon. Leah’s hair was wet from the shower, dripping. Jonathan’s eyes looked deepened. Fiona was checking in two bicyclists from France who were carrying more gear than looked possible to bring across a country on one’s back.
“Can we have the key for the roof,” Leah said. They had kept the roof locked since the sad poet had jumped. Gabor had been sweeping out front. He said he had thought at first it was a long black bird.
“Just mind the edges,” Fiona said. They disappeared, melting together into the shadows of the afternoon.
From the roof one could see the lighthouse and the sea, and out towards Newquay and Evan, and Fiona went up there sometimes when she needed to be nearer to him than circumstances would allow. She remembered the cowlick that he had grown and they had not ever found the way to tamp down. His soft charity shop shirts, folded so small. She barely remembered the way Ben looked when he adored her, but she remembered the way he looked when he adored Evan, and that was how she could stand it.
“It’s Fiona,” Thomas said, his surfboard wavering in the corridor.
“Who else?” Fiona said. She spun. He let the board weave.
“Worried about my eyes, were you?” he said. “The bleach?” He clutched at his heart, beneath his shirt, to mime how touched he was.
“Worried about being sacked, more like,” she said. He laughed, and turned, and she saw the fleet of them, up from their mid-day sleep, off to the beach again. This time they would drift more than catch the waves. This was the pattern of their days. Fiona couldn’t remember the last time she’d let go of anything for long enough to float.
She finished cleaning and locked away the supplies. The phone rang, and Gabor was nowhere to be seen, as usual.
“Where’s Leah? She was due in to work,” Jim said. He was the bartender down the street.
“I’ll fetch her,” Fiona said. “But it’s not my job to keep after her. If she doesn’t show again this month, dock her pay.”
“You always say that,” Jim said.
They were locked together so it wasn’t clear who was holding whom. Their eyes were on the same fixed point on the horizon, perhaps waiting for the earth to tilt for them.
“Leah,” Fiona said. “You’re late to work.”
“Yes,” Leah said. “Coming.” She didn’t turn around. Fiona stopped and rested against the wall. She looked out over the red roofs of the town, and pushed a twig over the edge. When it went down, it did not plunge, but swirled. Leah and Jonathan finally turned, and they held the key to the roof door between them in their joined hands.
Fiona was preparing steamed vegetables with rice when Jonathan came back in. He pulled up a chair and tucked his head against his arm, like a bird in the rain. He probably didn’t want to wake up from the dream of Leah.
“Thought you were down at the pub,” Fiona said.
“It got too busy in there,” he said. So he didn’t like to share her. Fiona took her vegetables from the steamer and pushed at them with her fork. Jonathan pushed his hair back with his thin hands. Fiona felt an old urge to tousle his hair and move the heat of it from his brow. Then she would press the back of her hand against his neck. She wondered what it would feel like to do that again, even to another woman’s son. They sat together quietly, against the sound of the ticking faucet. Then Jonathan got up and came back a minute later with the tool box.
He began to pull out the broken slabs of shelving.
“What’s it like to be here all the time?” he said.
“It’s strange at first, with people coming in and out. And then it becomes normal.”
“I never stay anywhere for long,” Jonathan said.
“Where did you say home was?”
“My dad’s place.” Jonathan had put a pencil behind his ear and he was squinting at the wall. “New York. That’s home now.”
“You get on with your dad then?” Fiona said. He nodded, and he looked at the grain of the wood.
“And your mother?” Fiona said. She felt tired, like her eyes were full of dust.
“A little more complicated,” he said. “She lives in Florida.” He smiled with closed lips, and sanded the edge of a board.
“Isn’t it always,” Fiona said. But she didn’t think it was always. She thought it was something that other people said. Perhaps those people missed their boys too. She wondered if missing them was different when it wasn’t with the memory of the way his blood looked drying in the sand, the terrible gulls coming closer to it. It was another child who came over and said, You’re his mum? You have to take him to get stitched. Because she had been sitting there staunching the blood, mopping him up, hoping that would work so there would be no thread to leave a scar like an angry signature across his shoulder. She watched Jonathan with the ruler and the hammer and the saw and sandpaper. She put up the tea kettle and Phillip and Dennys came down to make a supper.
“Is that a storm I feel?” Dennys said. He pointed at his knee, which ached with the rain.
“Nothing like it,” Fiona said. “It’s absolutely clear.”
“Your body betrays you,” Phillip said.
“Not mine,” said Dennys. He stretched his hand to Phillip in a way that made Fiona’s heart ache of loneliness. She looked down. The Formica table between them had spots of spilled tea on it, from the morning. Why did no one ever take a sponge to the table?
“You’re getting to be old and withered, Dennys. Not like me. I’m fit,” Fiona said. She made a muscle with her arm, and below the loose skin and freckles and spots and marks of time, she did see her muscle. A bulge of fierceness that was hidden beneath it all.
“Like a tomato?” Dennys said to Jonathan. Jonathan reached for the slice. He turned back to measuring the shelves. Two surfers jostled in with four pints of beer between them. Hilda came in, silent still, but foraging through the refrigerator to see what last week’s tourists left. The evening drifted on, and for once, Fiona stayed in the kitchen with her charges and with Jonathan.
“Does she generally stay at work this late?” Jonathan said. He was jingling change in his pockets, looking at how one shelf fit on the lip of wood he’d put up for it to rest on. He cut a groove with the handsaw.
“Yes,” Fiona said. “This is when they need her. When people are out and about.”
“You do fine work,” Phillip said. “Are you a craftsman?”
“Only when I’ve got a client who pays me more than minimum wage,” Jonathan said. He pushed the last shelf into its slat, and pushed down on it. “You can take them out and arrange them at whatever height you want.”
“Well done,” Hilda said. Silent no more. “That’s lovely.”
“Thanks,” Jonathan said.
“Thank you for your services,” Fiona said. “I’ll put in a good word with Marjorie and see what she can do to reimburse you for the work.”
“You don’t have to,” Jonathan said. He brushed the dust off his arms.
“I want to,” Fiona said.
“Will you walk the coastal path tomorrow?” Dennys said.
“Maybe,” Jonathan said. He gathered the tools, never letting his eyes or ears stray far from the doorway. He was vibrating, almost with longing for her. Thomas came into the kitchen then still in his wetsuit with a mound of fish and chips that wafted through the smells of the vegetables.
“Evening, all,” he said. “Evening, lovely Fiona.”
“Watch the grease doesn’t drip,” Fiona said, pointing to the side of the Styrofoam container.
“I think she loves me,” he said. “Waves were brilliant today.” Jonathan brushed past Thomas with the tools, and Fiona caught his arm.
“Would you like to go down to the pub?” she said. “I owe you a pint at least, for the shelves.” Her tongue thickened in her throat at he thought of the taste of it.
The sounds of the pub rang in Fiona’s ears after the quiet of the night and the sea washing over the cliff walk. They had been silent together. Jonathan held the door open for her, and she walked through. Just inside she felt a hand on her arm. It was an old aunt of Ben’s, taking her nightly half-pint of dark beer.
“Haven’t seen you in ages, Fiona,” the woman said. Fiona could not remember her name.
“You’re looking well,” Fiona said. She could see the pity in the woman’s voice, the half cock of the head, as she glanced back at her friend.
“What’s kept you away?” the aunt said. Fiona smiled and squeezed her hand, and walked to the bar. Jonathan pressed behind her. The aunt knew what had kept her away. Everyone did, and she felt their eyes on her as she pressed through the bodies and the pints and the swinging lights in the breeze from the water through the rafters. The pub was small and oval and the lights from candles made the shadows of arms loom large. Someone was singing on a small platform, microphone in hand.
“Where’s Leah?” Jonathan said. “Do you think she left?” He pressed up behind her.
“She’s here,” Fiona said. “Don’t you worry.” They reached the bar. Fiona raised her hand to the bartender, and Jim looked at her with the eyes she knew, slate like a winter morning sea. She pointed to a tap.
“It’s for my young friend here,” she said. He nodded.
“And for you?” Jim said.
“Tonic,” Fiona said. She had to yell it across to him, with the noise. Perhaps she didn’t have to, but she did. Her palm pressed into the dark wood.
“I like how old ladies go out here,” Jonathan said. He drank too quickly.
“Yes, it’s nice until you have to carry one home,” Fiona said. She could feel Jonathan’s agitation as his eyes moved across the women at the tables and the fishermen standing by the end of the bar, the younger people taking turns at pinball.
“The whole world is here,” Jonathan said. He drank to the bottom of his glass, and Fiona tried not to take in the bitter scent of it on his lips or chin or the sleeve he wiped it with. It was not quite bitter, but something like the bark of a tall tree, when you peeled it off, after rain.
“You don’t drink,” Jonathan said. It was a statement, not a question, and she was surprised he’d even noticed.
“I have a son,” she said. It encompassed everything. But she could see he didn’t understand. “I drank too much around him,” she said. It sounded like the outside of something true. Something that would convey the days she let him watch too much TV while she sat behind the house with a bottle. It would not quite convey the blood on the sand with the greedy gulls ready to eat from her own son’s arteries. It would not convey how she missed him with every beat of her heart.
“I’m sure you didn’t mean to,” Jonathan said. He held her eyes for so long, she realized that he had a mother who drank too. She saw it all in front of them. She saw it from the way he had held the door open for her at the pub. She felt his mother’s own sorrow pulsing through him. The lights in the bar swung in the wind, and Fiona let her hand down to rest on Jonathan’s shoulder, they were standing so close.
Leah came out from the kitchen then, and she was not alone. A girl who wafted the smells of cloves and incense came out too. She had tied a scarf around her head, and she had a lopsided smile. Leah waved to Jonathan and Fiona.
“Is there room for one more at the inn?” she said. “Ellie needs a room for the night. She was here with the band.” Both girls were swaying a little, side to side, like they were listening to their own song.
“Have you finished up here?” Fiona said. Leah looked back at Jim, and he nodded.
“It’s the regular rate,” Fiona said to Ellie. “Go see Gabor. He’ll be up front.” Leah nodded, and Fiona realized she had not once, just then, looked especially at Jonathan.
“You’ll like it,” Leah said to Ellie. “Unless you like surfers. You won’t after a day. They stink like mildew.”
Jonathan’s pint glass slipped from his fingers. He caught it, then let it slide to the floor, where it rolled but did not break. He picked it up and put in on the bar. Through that, he did not stop looking at Leah.
“What are you doing tonight?” Leah said to him. Just like that. Like they had not been bound together for the last day. Like nothing had happened at all. Fiona closed her eyes, feeling the rock of laughter from the men sitting at the other end of the bar.
“Don’t know,” Jonathan said. It barely came past his lips.
“It gets better here on the weekend,” Leah said. “It’s a bit boring during the week.”
“My band’s playing again tomorrow night,” Ellie said. “You’d like us.” Fiona thought how a long time ago she’d been quite like these girls, always ready to chase the next storm.
“What kind of music do you play?” Jonathan said. He would roll with the hurt then, instead of fighting it. Perhaps her son would do that too, someday, because of her. Fiona put her glass on the bar.
She walked by the water for a long time, taking full strides down the beach, and stepping past the messes of algae and churning water. Its stored energy was relentless. Fiona began to feel overly dramatic, and with the moon fully showing the surface of the hard-packed sand, she took a piece of driftwood and wrote Evan’s name, large, for the sea to take back. She pressed the back of her hand against her mouth. She didn’t write her own name in the sand. She knew that when she opened the door to the Basil Henry room—if not tonight then tomorrow, if not tomorrow, then the day after—that Jonathan would be gone. Also, she knew that he would sweep the sand from his room into a neat pile in the corner.
Emily Taylor’s short fiction has appeared in such venues as Ecotone, Green Mountains Review, and The Baltimore Review. She holds an MFA from The New School, and lives in Columbus, Ohio.