Where the Strawfish Play

 
Water. It always starts with water.
Just before midnight, Tori and Jared walked out of the Hyatt Gulfside Resort, in Clearwater Beach. As soon as they were through the door, they let go of their wheeled travel bags and hugged. Jared kissed the top of Tori’s head.
“Victoria? Our presentation absolutely killed! There is an entire ballroom in there filled with drunk psychiatrists who can’t wait to prescribe Seretine for their patients on Monday.”
Tori smiled. They had killed.
Jared looked out from under the Hyatt’s covered walkway. “Ye gods, it’s humid as hell out here, and twice as windy.”
“This is a tropical storm, doofus. It’s going to be a little windy. And humid. You know, ‘tropical’? And `storm’?”
To their right, Gulfstream Avenue was quiet, the light rain blowing in curtains. On their left, the Gulf of Mexico churned violently, huge wave after huge wave pounding the beach. The air had a salty tang.
Jared considered the weather, then smiled at Tori. “Whaddaya think? Do you want to celebrate our triumph further?”
“Why Jared. Whatever did you have in mind?” Tori’s smile was coy.
“Oh, something like this.” He kissed her firmly on her lips. She kissed him back.
They were both a little buzzed from the psychiatrist convention’s open bar. Tori smiled up at Jared. It wouldn’t be the first time they “celebrated” following an awesome presentation. Or an average presentation, for that matter. Or just an occasional  routine Friday night.
Jared looked toward the Gulf. “Wanna go skinny-dipping, young lady?”
“Hell, no. With the storm? There are crazy rip currents out there. We’d drown like rats.”
Like me.
“How about someplace a little more sheltered, like our home-away-from-home this week, the Tampa Airport Marriott? My Jacuzzi tub is big enough to go skinny dipping, and there are these awesome cotton robes. You know. For after.” Jared winked.
Tori smiled, and lit a Marlboro Light.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
“Only when I drink.”
“Me too. Can I bum one?”
Tori handed Jared the one she’d just lit, and sparked one of her own.
“Ohh, yeah. Much better.”
“Yep.”
“Okay, Tori, seriously. You were hitting it pretty hard in there. Are you sure you’re not too wasted to drive in this vile excuse for weather?”
Tori stood on her tiptoes and kissed Jared.
“Look, boss. My rental has a GPS, plus I know we just turn left out of here, turn right on State Road 60, and follow that to the airport.” She took a drag off her cigarette, exhaling into the whipping wind. “I don’t care how craptastic the weather is, it’s kind of hard to miss the airport, and our hotel is right square on top of the damn terminal. No problem.”
She flicked her cigarette butt toward the parking lot, and watched the wind carry it away.
“Plus, God knows nobody will be on the roads tonight.” She kissed him again. “And a little water never hurt anyone.”
Except me. It hurt me.
“Okay, then.” Jared flicked his cigarette toward the parking lot, and watched the wind blow it toward Gulfstream Ave. He shook his head. “Jesus.  It’s steamy. Like `Apocalypse Now’ steamy. Halloween night, and it’s a sauna here. We’ve already had snow back in Denver, for God’s sake.”
He looked down at Tori, short and pretty, feisty and whipsmart, and he couldn’t help but smile.  “Shall we?”
He grabbed the handle of his travel case, and Tori grabbed hers. They set out into the storm. They came to Tori’s car first. She beeped the trunk open, and lifted her bag inside. She slammed the lid. Jared raised her chin and kissed her, his hands wandering down Tori’s back. She didn’t press away—
You let him touch your bottom. I’m telling!
–then pulled back. She smiled awkwardly.
“You’d better get to your car before you drown,” she said. “What room are you in?”
“Seven-fourteen.”
“Babe Ruth.”
“What the—“
“My stepdad Ron was a huge Babe Ruth fan. Before my sister Noëlle was born—back when Ron actually talked to me—he used to tell me about The Sultan of Swat. The Babe hit 714 homeruns.”
I was daddy’s Princess. I still am.
“Why did your stepfather stop talking to you?”
“Noëlle was the most precious thing in his world. Once mom had her, I was suddenly like the freakin’ hired help. Then when Noëlle died… Ron. I don’t know. It’s like he imploded? Completely withdrew into himself?”
I didn’t just die, though, did I?
Tori wiped a drenched lock of curly auburn hair back from her forehead. “It was like he couldn’t look at me anymore. Or mom. He died while I was a junior at Choate. Mom told me not to bother coming home for the funeral.”
She smiled ruefully. “Hell, I don’t know. Maybe he just thought I was a Red Sox fan.”
You know why, Toria.
Jared laughed. “You are an odd one, dear Victoria. I’ll see you in the Babe Ruth room soon.”
Tori climbed into her rented Mercedes—nothing was too extravagant for Greer Pharmaceuticals. She sat with her hands on the wheel, watching as Jared swaggered to his car, started it up, and headed for the hotel, for his room with the giant Jacuzzi and plush bathrobes.
Her nerves were screaming for another cigarette. She noticed the “NO SMOKING” plaque in the middle of the dashboard. She bowed her head, debating whether to defy the sign. The tri-point Mercedes-Benz star insignia dominated the steering wheel
Kinda like a strawfish, right?
Tori shushed the voice, that incessant voice that floated in sometimes—like a mosquito you think you’ve finally shooed out of your bedroom—always unexpectedly, always on a tide of water. Since freshman year at Dartmouth, when she felt the sharp, familiar pinch of a little hand as she walked across the rainy quad. A shower after a long night with John, her college boyfriend–
I’m telling!! You let him touch you down there!
She’d covered her ears in the scalding spray—
And you touched HIM. You are bad, Toria. You’re bad, and I’m telling.
Tori’s mind wandered. There was nobody to tell, really. Noëlle had been Ron’s pride and joy—the Gift. He died two years after Noëlle, then mom efficiently traveled and drank away the small fortune Ron left her, before checking-out in a stylish alcoholic death. There was always enough for Tori to get a top-shelf education—Choate, Dartmouth, MBA from Brown, all far from their Lake Forest home with no encouragement to visit on holidays—but no bequest to Tori. Tori inherited only blame. And this nagging voice.
“And it’s STARFISH, not `strawfish,’” she yelled.
The sharp sound drowned out the howling wind…
I just wanted to see the strawfish dance. You said we could.
Resting in that garish, huge suite—nothing was too extravagant for Ron—and Noëlle wanted to go swimming, no insisted on going swimming. Wouldn’t shut up about going swimming.
“Victoria, just take your sister swimming, already.” Oh God, mom. Why me? That brat, that shrieking little brat—and she’s only my HALF-sister. “And make sure she wears her water wings! And stay in the pool. I don’t want her in the Gulf without me watching her.”
Yeah. Watching, protecting The Gift, The Precious Gift. Me, a scullery maid that can’t be trusted. I hate the pool, the smell of chlorine and old people’s umbrella-crowned  cocktails. I want the beach. The warm sand beneath my toes, the rhythm of the waves, the tanned boys throwing a football back and forth.
Mommy said the pool. You have to take me to the pool. Not the water with the waves and fishes.
I’m sure you’re right. Little babies like you belong in the pool. Only big girls can go in the Gulf. Too bad. The waves are fun.
Mommy said the pool! If you don’t take me to the pool, I’m gonna tell.
Good Lord. Always telling, even though I’m 14 and she’s five. I miss curfew—I came in at 1115 instead of 11pm. Mom and Ron had gone to bed, and this little brat tells on me the next morning. I was grounded for a week. Her word over mine, automatic.
You’re right, Princess Noëlle. You’re a baby, so you should stay in the pool. Too bad. The Gulf is where the starfish play.
The strawfish? They play?
Oh, yeah. All kinds of games. They get up on two legs and dance around.
Nuh-uh.
Yuh-huh. I saw them yesterday when I went skin diving, but that was in the Gulf, not the little kiddie pool.
In the elevator, Noëlle furrowed her brow, as if trying to solve String Theory or map the human genome in her head. She was a sight: little Miss Perfect, with her golden curls, aquamarine swimsuit, and fluorescent orange water wings. She made up her mind.
I just wanted to see the strawfish play, Toria.
Tori started up her rented Benz, rolled the window down, and lit a cigarette. “Screw ‘em,” she said. Greer Pharmaceuticals would pay the “smoking fine,” or whatever the posh rental place called it.
You made me take off my floaties.
I know, Noëlle. I know I did. The starfish live on the bottom, and you could never get down to see them with your floaties.
I’m gonna tell. You’re smoking. Smoking’s bad and gross, and you’re gonna get in trouble.
Oh, who are you going to tell, anyway?
Daddy. And mommy, and gramma and grampa. You’ll be in big trouble.
With shaking hands, Tori lit a new cigarette and tossed away her old one, soggy from the rain
I just wanted to see the strawfish, Toria. You promised. And they weren’t there.
No, honey. They weren’t there.
And the water was scary. It was bumpy and it kept getting in my eyes. It burned, Toria.
I know it did. I know it did, honey. It burned my eyes, too.
I wish I had my floaties. Then I could float and not go under that gross water all the time.
I know. I wish I hadn’t made you take them off. I was just trying to scare you a little.
Well, I was scared.
Me, too. I held on to you. I swear to God I did!
You let go!
No, honey. I didn’t. I swear I didn’t. I would never have let go of you.
Tori took a long drag on her cigarette–yet another one  doused by the rain. She put a fresh one in her mouth, hands trembling so much it took her five tries to spark the lighter. (One for each of Noëlle’s birthdays)
It’s just, we got into that rip current, and—
And you let go of me!
No, honey. The current yanked you out of my hands! You were kicking and squirming, and all slippery. I tried to get to you, but you…you kept going under, and I couldn’t see you. I tried. I swear, honey, I tried to find you. I kept diving down, looking for you, feeling around for you. I was so exhausted, I almost drowned.
I dint get a “almost” Toria.
Tears ran down Tori’s face.
I know, sweety. And I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
Tori shook her head quickly, as if to clear away the remains of a surreal dream.
She flicked her cigarette butt into a puddle, and tried to think about Jared in suite 714, maybe 12 miles away; about a hot soak, a few cold cocktails, and who knows what could happen once they got into those plush robes—about Babe Ruth and 714 homeruns, about Ron and his lectures about The Babe, Gehrig, Mantle, and “that mincing prima donna, DiMaggio.”
About playing strawfish.
Honey, starfish don’t play. They just kind of…sit around, really.
Nuh-uh, Toria. You were right. The strawfishes play. They dance on two legs and play tag and hide and go seek. They play all day and all night.
Sorry, Noëlle, but they really don’t.
I’ve seen them! They’re playing right now! Come and see.
No, honey. I have to go back to the hotel.
You’re going to do bad things with that man.
That’s none—I mean, I don’t…I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I have to go back to Tampa, to the hotel.
After you see the strawfish play. They want you to watch them do tricks.
Sorry.
Tori dropped her hand to the leather wrapped gear-selector handle. In the humid night, it felt soft and damp
(Like a hand)
and slick. The wind gusted, and Tori’s door flew open. She took her hand from the gearshift, and still felt the dampness
(that familiar little hand)
She took a deep breath and let it out. Okay, honey. Show me. Show me the strawfish.
That little hand fit so perfectly into Tori’s hand; that little hand guided her across the foam-flecked sand. Tori kicked off her shoes, and shed her clothes as she walked. That tiny hand—sticky with salt–led her into the churning water, up to her knees, her waist, her neck, and then down, down where the strawfish play.
(At work, we had a “spooky story” writing contest. This was my submission. Happy Halloween. Boo!)
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7 Responses to “Where the Strawfish Play”

  1. Nice. I love a spooky story on Halloween. I should have saved this one for tonight, but last year our doorbell was ringing every five minutes until 9 p.m., and that was only because I shut off the lights and brought in the jack o’lanterns. It , and your story, do remind me that Halloween is also about children….creepy little ghost ones. 😉

    • There’s nothing like a kid who can still be a brat from The Other Side.

      Fiction isn’t really my strong suit, but I figured I had to write something. The first line came to me, then I kept it in the back of my mind for a couple weeks, then typed it out on a slow night at work. There were two things I wish I could’ve changed in the submitted version (I’ve fixed them here). I HATE that feeling.

      I’m just glad I could write anything. I’m also glad your daughter survived Sandy in good shape. She bitch-slapped some parts of NYC hard. (note: Sandy did, not your daughter) I read some pundit or blogger comparing this to 9/11. The analogy doesn’t really stick: Sandy didn’t kill many people, but 9/11 didn’t leave 2 million people with no power. Both of these things sucked, but in different ways.

  2. “I just wanted to see the strawfish dance. You said we could.”

    oooooo. Very good. Very.

  3. BOO!

    Just kiddin’…

    (or maybe not?) 😉

  4. FANTASTIC!

    Nicely rolled out, too.

    • Thank you, sir.

      I didn’t win the contest, by the way. One of my coworkers wrote this long, Edgar Allan Poe-like thing, complete with illustrations. He must have put days of effort into the thing, so no points off.

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