The world was flat, or so it looked from the boat where he stood, resting from the labor of drawing in the nets. He did not need much rest because the nets had only been half full, the pattern of several weeks now. But all fishermen know that half full nets weigh much more than the sum of their contents; they also bear the emotional heft of the incomplete, the left undone, the missing.
His coat was a deep blue, and it smelled of salt and blood, was spattered with these as well. But it warmed him, and he relied on it to hold him together because his skin could not. The flesh binding him these days was loose around his bones, and he sometimes had dreams that it had slipped right off and would be piled by the side of the bed when he woke.
For several nights, eating dinner had been a chore. There was appetite, but not for food and certainly not for the company of the others, though he knew they were good enough men. Tonight’s descent into the small quarters held nothing but a vague dread for him, but he made his way down.
Sam could hear Morgan’s voice when he reached the bottom of the stairs. “Have I cooked up something good tonight! Come, let’s eat.”
The other men were already at the table, most with elbows perched beside their bowls, and the gruff smell of their bodies intertwined with the stew that Morgan was slopping out in front of them, making Sam wish he was back on the deck. But he took a place and moved his spoon inside the bowl in front of him. He ate enough to avoid question and then sat quiet as the others told stories and drank beer. He only turned his eyes toward them when they began to talk about docking earlier than planned.
“If it continues this way, we are doing more harm than good staying until the end. Costing them more.” Morgan’s voice carried down the table.
The men grunted acquiescence. They would not earn as much as promised anyway, so they might as well return to their families.
“We will give it two more days. If there isn’t a shift, we’ll head home. I’ve radioed Jacobs. It’s what he wants why not try here.” Morgan sighed, “So, if you aren’t ready for home, find some fish.”
Ready for home. The phrase wavered in Sam’s mind, tipping the edge of a memory that he could never quite grasp. He made his way to his bunk, but only sat for a few minutes before going back above deck to watch the night settle like ash on the boat, blurring the lines of everything until the horizon was the only vision he could be sure of. When even that had been shrouded he made his way to bed.
The next few days passed. The nets stayed light. He was glad to see the harbor, the dock, though he did not remember seeing them before. He took a bus further into Washington, a city called Ellensburg. He spent money on maps in a small bookstore and then spent nights searching them.
He began to travel east, through Oregon, Idaho, and Utah. He got off the bus in Wyoming, but knew after an hour that he had not gotten far enough, and boarded again, making his way through Nebraska and down close to Kansas City. In Valley Falls, Kansas, he got a hotel room and slept soundly for an entire night and most of the next day.
He was rested but still couldn’t find a foothold. The ground felt like waves, always unsteady under him. He ate nothing, couldn’t understand why others seemed to eat so much. He watched them through restaurant windows. He was shifting, translucent.
On his third day in Valley Falls, he saw her. She was screaming in a stroller, a woman bent over her, trying to calm her as they waited in line to buy fruit at an outdoor stand.
“Cassie, Cassie.” The woman jostled the stroller, back and forth. Cassie’s chubby knees bent and then she pushed her little legs out in front of her letting out a fresh howl. Sam could see the woman was about to give up and put down her basket, so he stepped into the little girl’s line of sight, bending to tap her foot. Instantly, she fell silent and turned her large blue eyes to him. She smiled. He smiled. She hid her eyes. He hid his own. She laughed. He chuckled. The woman cooed “Good girl” and paid for the fruit.
Sam followed them. If he got too far behind, Cassie began to cry, so he stayed close enough for her to see him, and he let her hold his index finger standing in line at the bank. He sat beside her in the backseat on the way home and then waited with her on the floor of the living room, while the woman, “Mama” put away the fruit and moved about the house.
When Mama returned to the living room she scooped Cassie into her arms and took her deeper into the house. Sam touched the walls on either side of the hallway as he walked. They had no give, though his hands felt light.
He settled himself on the floor beside the dresser, warm in a spot of light falling in from the window. Cassie smiled at him and pointed with a laugh over her mother’s shoulder. Mama turned to look. “What is it? What is it that is making you laugh? Huh?” Her eyes glanced over the room and then she said, “Let’s settle down. It’s nap time.” Her body swayed, and soon Sam’s eyes, like Cassie’s, were almost closed. Mama placed Cassie in her bed and after checking the monitor, pulled the door closed. Sam curled his body into the heat of the sunny carpet and rested his head on folded arms.Christie Wilson lives with her husband and daughter in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in apt and Referential Magazine. The above story is an excerpt from her novel Be That Brave.