The Coast: A Short Story

December 12, 2020   •   By Colin Winnette

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¤

MIHAU AND LEE drove to the coast several months after it was too cold to go in the water. They did not own a house and they were not renters. They argued over which turns to take.

“To the left there’s an opening in the trees.”

“To the right the sun’s setting.”

For heat, Lee sat on her hands. Mihau drove with his left hand, blowing hot air into his right fist.

“The road’s less narrow to the left,” said Lee.

“The beach is to the right,” said Mihau. “The beach is where the houses will be.”

Mihau turned right, and the road narrowed. Banks rose up on either side. Roots dangled. Rocks punctuated the earth like broken teeth. It was getting dark.

After 40 minutes or so the narrow road emptied onto a sandy path. At the end of the path was a tall, white beach house. There was nowhere to hide the car, so they pulled it into the carport. Mihau walked back to the road and confirmed the car was not visible.

“If someone pulls into the driveway,” said Lee, “we’ll be trapped.”

“These are vacation homes,” said Mihau. “People don’t come here this time of year.”

“We’re here,” said Lee.

“I wouldn’t mind meeting more of us,” said Mihau.

The door under the carport was locked, so they circled the house. The front door was locked; same with the door by the spigot on the house’s left side. They climbed the stairs to the deck where there was a sliding glass door. Little bars slid into raised notches at the top and bottom. Each was threaded with a padlock. The key to the padlocks was under the doormat.

Inside, the house was clean and orderly. Mihau flipped the light switch, but nothing came on.

“Power’s off,” he said.

There was an hour or so of light left, so they spread out to explore the house. Mihau’s phone had died in the car. The battery on Lee’s was running low. She turned it off in case there was an emergency.

Lee examined the only family photo in the house, on a table in the front hall. To her, they did not look like a real family. They all smiled the same way. She found Mihau and attached herself to him. She loved him, and felt what they had was something no one else in the entire world had ever experienced in exactly the same way.

There was nothing in the fridge or the cabinets, but they had groceries and some beer in the car. There were three bedrooms in the house: two upstairs and a guestroom on the ground floor. Mihau and Lee took the largest one.

When the sun was down, they unpacked in the light of the carport and brought everything in through the door, which they had unlocked from the inside. Lee was shivering, so Mihau built a fire in the fireplace. The house was quiet except for the sound of the ocean.

“I’m going to build a bigger fire tomorrow,” said Mihau, “on the beach.”

After the heat from the fire filled the house, they lay together upstairs, listening to the ocean. They fell asleep on top of the sheets.

There was a knock in the middle of the night and Lee woke in a state of alarm. She listened for a second knock but there was nothing. She watched Mihau’s sleeping face, and that calmed her a little. Lee considered Mihau’s position: supine, arms crossed at his waist. It was possible he’d shifted, and in doing so had knocked the headboard. Lee settled back into the bed. The comforter was natural down, but she couldn’t feel the needle of its feathers poking through. It was a nice house.

Lee couldn’t sleep, so she lay awake listening to the ocean, which was constant but uneven. There was another knock. It was over so quickly, she thought she might have dreamed it. She could have fallen asleep without noticing. Or it was possible she hadn’t heard it at all, but only imagined it. Lee felt her heart pumping blood into the far reaches of her body. She tried to hold her hand still, but it trembled with each pump.

Lee knew the knock was real. She knew it wasn’t a dream, but that didn’t mean she knew what it was. She made a list in her head of the things it might have been:

– A knotted rope blown in the wind
– A flag they hadn’t noticed, batting against the sliding glass door
– The heat from the fire swelling the wood of the house
– A man or a woman in a mask
– A nut falling onto the roof of the house
– A neighbor who’d seen the headlights
– A drifter looking for a fire
– The police
– The living dead
– Hail

Mihau’s sleeping face no longer comforted Lee. She slipped out from under the covers and moved across the room. The house did not creak or groan beneath her socks. She put an ear to the door and listened. She heard nothing. She cracked the door and found the hallway dark. There was light from the stars coming through the open blinds above the bed, but it didn’t reach the hallway. The hallway was a dark void. An open mouth. She stepped into it.

Lee knew the stairs were only a few feet from the bedroom. She inched her feet in that direction, trying to anticipate where the carpet bent to cover the edge of the first stair. This generated heat at the tips of her toes, on the balls of her feet. She built static electricity, pushing each foot slowly forward. The moment her mind wandered from the stair, she felt her toe slip its edge. Her eyes were beginning to adjust, and she could make out the plain white paint of the banister, the soft glow of the carpet beneath her.

Mihau would say it does no good to wonder. Mihau would say why didn’t you wake me? Lee didn’t know why she hadn’t. She didn’t want to need to wake him. She didn’t want there to be any reason for him to be awake. She listened and moved and heard nothing but her own breath, which was as loud as the bellow of an approaching train. She could not keep quiet.

She moved slowly down the stairs, careful not to touch the banister or the wall, fearing the sounds the wood would make. Soon, she was on the ground floor again, only a few feet from the front door. There was no peephole, but narrow windows ran the height of the door on either side. Thick white curtains blocked the view. She slid her hand around a curtain’s edge and held her face to the trim. Slowly, she lifted the curtain, centimeter by centimeter.

It was lighter outside, but not by much. Snow was falling, which they had not expected. There was a knock then, but not from outside. She turned to meet the sound and saw nothing. Her eyes were no longer adjusted to the dark. She could have been inches from a man or a woman in a mask, and she wouldn’t have known
it.

She made another list:

– Something that would hurt her
– Something she could get away from
– Something she would need to get away from

She bolted through the darkness, toward and past the sound then upstairs to Mihau, who was still sleeping peacefully. She shook him awake, and he startled upright, out of sleep.

“What? What’s happened?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Are you hurt?” he said.

“No,” she said. “I heard a noise.”

He lifted himself out of bed and pulled his jeans from the floor. He went downstairs without minding his volume. He went to the door, turned the knob, and pulled.

The wood groaned faintly but it did not move. He rattled the door in its frame. He twisted the lock on the knob from horizontal to vertical and tried again. After that, he twisted the lock on the knob from vertical to horizontal and gave it another pull.

“It wasn’t from there,” said Lee.

She stood on the stairs, and started to feel embarrassed.

“Where then?” he said.

“I did hear something,” she said.

“I don’t doubt it,” he said. “I’ll check out back.”

She followed him to the back of the house, where the sliding door opened onto the deck. He pulled at that. It didn’t budge.

“Did you fuck with these?” he said.

She shook her head.

He left the sliding door and passed through the living room and back into the hall. He tried the door that led to the carport.

“None of the doors work,” he said.

“They worked before,” she said. “They all worked.”

“Before what?” he said.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“What did you hear?”

“A knock.”

“Like a knock on the door?”

“I think so.”

“Which door?”

“I don’t know,” said Lee. “I tried the front and there was no one there.”

“And?”

“And I heard it again.”

“At the front door?”

“No.”

“At the back?”

“No.”

“Here?” he said, giving the door that led down to the carport another tug.

“No,” she said. “From somewhere else.”

They went to the kitchen. The sun would be up in an hour or so. The ocean was still churning.

“What was the knock like? Like a bump? Something falling?” he asked.        

“Like a knuckle against wood. Like a knock,” she said.

“It’s possible the front door has a security lock on it. And that the locks on the sliding door slipped into place after we shut it.”

“It’s possible,” she said.

“I want to ask you something,” he said, “without freaking you out.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Do you think someone locked us in?”

“I don’t know,” she said, freaking out.

“Because it doesn’t make sense, does it?”

“No,” she said.

“Because why would someone do that, right?”

She nodded.

“So, we’re just having a problem with the doors,” he said. “That’s all it is.”

Again, she nodded.

“And that seems like a normal enough thing and nothing to be afraid of,” he said.

“It’s a problem with the doors,” she said.

¤

They walked into the living room and Mihau stirred the coals, reigniting the fire. Lee was nervous it would attract attention, but she was cold and the house was too dark. Mihau added a fresh log and flames snapped around it.

For a while, there were no sounds but the ocean and the fire. Then the sun came up, and Mihau went looking for a fuse box. He found one in a cabinet in the kitchen. He flipped the breakers, and nothing happened.

“We’re having a problem with the doors,” he said, “and we’re having a problem with the fuse box.”

They had oranges and apples in the grocery bag, so Lee peeled and sliced them up. They ate from flowery plates she found in the dishwasher.

“This is the way life goes,” said Mihau. “It’s not always easy.”

They found cards in a kitchen drawer, soft and blue with use. They sat in heavy metal chairs and played a card game at the kitchen table.

 

When they were done, Mihau searched the house. Lee followed closely as he moved from door to door. Outside, grains of sand shifted in the wind. Lee looked through the windows in each room. Brown birds with thin legs darted along the edge of the surf. They plunged their long beaks into the sand where the water retreated.

By noon the following day, Lee and Mihau had still accomplished very little. From what he could tell, they were alone. The house was empty. They were as they had been. Mihau tried the doors again, then gave up and ran a bath.

“It’ll be cold,” she said.

“I just want to relax,” he said.

Lee was uneasy, but she was happy Mihau felt comfortable enough to take a bath. It was calming to think of each strange occurrence as a problem they could solve together. She imagined them finding a brass key on top of a door frame, then using the key to open all the doors in the house. She imagined the two of them digging a hammer into the crack between the door and its frame and prying apart the wood. She imagined the breeze moving through the house like a net. She imagined that same hammer shattering the glass of the back door, and she imagined herself nursing a wound on Mihau’s hand. He’d once cut his palm on a broken light bulb, pushing down the trash in the bathroom. Within a few weeks there was nothing to show for it other than a thin pink line, like he’d drawn it on with a crayon. Lee was surprised to feel let down by how insignificant the wound was, when there’d been so much blood.

Lee sat in the kitchen listening to the dead thumps of Mihau’s body shifting in the tub. She went to the bottom of the stairs and set her knuckle against the wall. She knocked. It was nothing like the knock she’d heard the night before. Or it was a little like the knock she’d heard the night before. She listened and heard nothing more than the ocean and Mihau shifting.

 

They spent hours trying to come up with distractions. They kept a small fire going. They ate a good deal of the food they’d brought with them. If these were problems they could solve, if there was nothing to worry about, there was no reason to ration food.

They decided to go to sleep shortly after sunset, having no idea what time it was. There were two battery-operated clocks in the house, and they were out of sync. Lee felt disoriented, but Mihau explained that clocks in vacation homes are rarely synched.

“We’re having a problem with batteries,” said Mihau.

“We’re having a problem with time,” said Lee.

They were on the floor in the living room, where they could hear the ocean and the fire.

“This is new,” said Mihau. “We are explorers, pressing into unfamiliar territory.”

“Don’t let me sleep,” said Lee, and the next moment, she was dreaming.

In her dream, Lee was seated in a chair in a stranger’s room. She was propped against the wall, petting a small animal just out of view. Occasionally, the animal licked her hand. Her nose was bleeding, and she used her free hand to wipe away the blood when the tickle of it was too much. She woke to the sound of glass shattering and realized she was alone on the floor. Mihau was not beside her. Mihau was not in the living room.

She listened and held her breath until she could not hold it any longer. She let it slowly out, opening her mouth so the air could escape directly from the back of her throat. She waited but heard nothing more. Lee was having a fear problem.

She counted down from 10, then rose and faced the room. It was empty in the firelight. There was no light from outside, and the glass of the sliding doors acted as a mirror, reflecting Lee back into the room. She couldn’t bear to see it, how vulnerable and alone she looked.

The house creaked with her as she moved through it. She heard someone whispering, or the wind outside lifting the beach grass. She listened. The sound rose and fell. It rose and fell like the wind. As she moved, her eyes adjusted. She moved slowly, afraid of bumping a low table or a lamp she’d forgotten. She did not know this house. It was not theirs. They should not have come.

“Mihau,” she whispered. “Where are you?”

She headed for the kitchen, and the heavy metal chairs.

“Mihau,” she said, “if you are okay, please tell me you’re okay.”

She heard the whispering again, closer this time. Or the wind. She pictured the beach grass tilting. It was quiet as quickly as there’d been a sound. She examined the darkness for shapes and saw none. She moved her hands in small circles until she reached one of the metal chairs. With both hands, she lifted it. She carried it to her reflection in the sliding glass.

Before she hurled the chair, Lee heard a knock from somewhere in the house. She felt encouraged by it. She felt inspired to act. She was doing the right thing.

Lee swung the chair into the glass and cracked it, a jagged white line shot from her shoulder to the deck. Her reflection was shocked and exhilarated. She situated the chair and brought it over her shoulder again, hitting roughly the same spot in the glass. This time, the glass shattered. The house filled with a shrieking squeal, and Mihau called to her from somewhere in the dark.

“I’m going!” she yelled.

Lee used her elbow to push what was left of the glass from its frame, and a moment later, she was outside. She was free. The ocean was there, and the beach grass tilted and bounced. She ran down the deck stairs, around the side of the house. She slipped on a sandy slope and screamed several times as she righted herself. Nothing came and no one responded. She ran to the front door, and it opened without trouble.

“Mihau,” she said. “Mihau, let’s go!”

He appeared from behind the stairs, leaning against the wall.

“The door,” he said.

“Hurry,” she said.

“I can’t,” he said.

“What happened?” she said.

“I’m sick,” he said. “I’ve been throwing up.”

The house was full of sharp noise. Shaking, Lee hurried to Mihau and took on his weight. She led him out the front door and down the few steps there. They circled to the carport.

Lee reached for her phone, but she hadn’t brought it with her. She’d left it somewhere inside to be discovered. She worked in the dark, getting Mihau into the car before climbing into the driver’s seat.

“Mihau,” she said. “The keys. Please.”

“Yes.” He reached into his pockets one by one until he found them.

The car started without a problem, and Lee dipped the back tires into the sand, turning the vehicle around.

“Is that snow?” said Mihau, pointing out.

Lee said nothing. She drove unsafely for an hour, taking corners too quickly and going as fast as she possibly could without crashing. Although they did come close. She drove and drove, slowing but never slowly. Mihau did not speak. She blindly navigated the back roads until they finally spilled onto a paved one, which they were able to follow to a highway.

Eventually, the sun came up. Mihau was already scratching.

“What are you doing?” said Lee.

There were red bumps rising on his arms and legs like earthen huts.

“Something on the comforter,” he said. “Or in the sand. I was throwing up.”

“You said that,” said Lee.

They drove for hours and did not stop until they needed gas. Lee pumped while Mihau writhed in the passenger’s seat, scratching. His energy had not returned. They drove until nightfall, and Lee lazily tilted the wheel, rolling the tires over the rivets in the shoulder, rattling Mihau awake.

“Pull over,” he said.

“I’m not sleeping in the car,” she said.

“A motel,” he said. “You need to sleep.”

“I don’t want to sleep,” she said. She pulled at the short hairs on her forearm. She pinched her earlobe as hard as she could.

“You still need to,” he said.

The second time she fell asleep at the wheel, she agreed to a Motel 6 a few yards from the access road. She requested a room with a view of the highway and a door onto the parking lot. The room hummed with the activity of a thousand strangers. Lee sat by the window, trying to make everything quiet. Mihau was in bed, scratching his arms and legs.

“Stop it,” she said. “You’re going to break the skin.”

He crossed his arms, squirming.

“Use the ice,” she said.

He leaned to the floor and drew a cube from the ice bucket she’d left there. He ran it along his arms and legs.

“It’s not better,” he said.

“It’ll keep your hands busy,” she said.

 

She didn’t sleep. Mihau might have, but he scratched through the night, and in the morning, he was bleeding.

“You ruined the sheets,” she said.

“It’s a Motel 6 on the access road,” he said. “They’re used to it.”

Lee drove them farther and farther from the coast, while Mihau dug into his limbs. He turned the huts to canoes, to trenches, then to wounds. When they were nearly out of money, they slept in the car in the parking lot of roadside motels. Mihau talked about finding work.

“Like what?” Lee asked.

“I can do things,” he said.

He wrapped his wounds in old T-shirts, and sat on his hands when he could.

 

They lived out of their car for weeks, and Mihau mingled with day laborers, when he could find them. He got picked up a few more times than Lee would have expected. He was young and people liked him. He spoke a little Spanish too, which Lee had never known.

Recently they’d been circling a town outside of Oklahoma City where Mihau was having more luck than usual. They were stretching their legs alongside a defunct stretch of train track when he told her about a joke of his that had made a man named Eddie laugh. Lee had never thought of Mihau as funny.

“Who’s Eddie?” Lee said.

“He’s Eddie,” said Mihau.  

 

Eddie hired Mihau to help install the stones in a stone facade Eddie and his wife were building around the front of their home. Eddie only needed one man, and it was a week’s worth of work. Over the course of that week, Eddie and Mihau formed a friendship. Mihau listened to Eddie’s stories about his childhood and recounted them to Lee in the car each night; how Eddie had built a house with his father the year after his mother died.

“They lost it,” Mihau told her. “Couldn’t keep up with other debts. So Eddie learned to pay for things with cash. A temporary solution’s only that. Temporary.”

“Nice for Eddie,” said Lee, who was starting to wonder where all this was headed.

 

Something had changed between Mihau and Lee, and it made her feel like she was not remembering her life correctly. She remembered feeling carefree, but not what that had felt like, which made her wonder if she had ever actually known it, or if she was just remembering feeling close the wrong way. Lately, she could only recall worries she’d had in the past, and that she had not considered herself a worried person.

She spent most days smoking and eating Takis, uncertain if they were leaving or staying another night. She took walks back and forth through the heart of town just to be near people, though she did not like talking to them. That made it hard for her to find work. People thought she was odd. Most of the time she spent conversations watching the other person’s face, repeating back whatever it was they’d said to her.

 

Within a year, Eddie bought a company that transported custom-made furniture.

“We don’t make the furniture,” Eddie explained to Mihau, who later told Lee, “that’s a Chinese company the next state over. We move it when it’s purchased and ready.”

Eddie offered Mihau work in a distribution center. It came with a salary and potential benefits. It was a good job for Mihau, and he would be able to afford a small apartment, if he wanted to stay in town and keep at it.

 

Mihau and Lee moved into an apartment on the edge of town, and Eddie gave them a couch as a housewarming gift. It was used, but not worn. A floor model. When Lee looked at it, she remembered a house she had not thought about in years. It had the same quality, the same air. A vacant space soiled with absence.           

 

“You don’t want a child?” said Mihau, as if they’d been talking about it.

“No,” said Lee.

“Eddie has a son,” he said, picking brown hair from the couch cushion. “If we’re going to live here,” he said, “we could start a family.”

Lee wanted desperately to use the internet.

 

When Lee was seven months pregnant, she started having severe abdominal pains. She sat on the couch to weather them, and her water broke.

The child survived, but he was very small. Nurses put him in a device that baked Lee’s blood from his veins. They explained it all to Lee, but the moment they stopped talking most of the information left her. Mihau sat in traffic throughout the short delivery, and when he arrived, a machine was breathing for his son. The doctors were optimistic, and eight weeks later, Mihau and Lee brought Milo home.

 

When he was seven, Milo fell out of a treehouse Mihau was building in the backyard. He was making more money now, managing truck routes for Eddie’s company, and he’d been able to afford a down payment on Eddie’s house, once Eddie decided to move into a new one.

It was a nine-foot fall from the treehouse, and when Milo rose from it without a broken bone, he became convinced of his own invincibility. So much so that he went straight into the kitchen and brought one of the butcher knives down on his index finger. When Mihau was driving his son home from the emergency room, Milo explained what had happened.

“It’s not all of me,” he said. “It’s just the bones.”

 

Lee had a friend in her son. He could be demanding, but he had a way of asking for things that left her feeling charmed and eager to please. She worried she was too indulgent, and sometimes she said no just to prove to herself she still could.

Mihau started dressing up for work, though he didn’t need to. He liked to stand out, and when he felt someone wasn’t keeping up their end, it made him angry.

 

“Are you and Dad getting a divorce?”

Since starting middle school, Milo had become obsessed with divorce.

“No,” said Lee. She was sitting in a rocking chair, a few feet from the television. Behind her, Max, the golden retriever, chewed on a couch cushion.

“Your father and I love each other very much,” said Lee.

 

When Milo left for school, Lee drew herself a bath. She wept while the water was running and when the tub filled up, she pulled the plug on the drain so she could keep it going until she was done.

Milo was driving himself to school now, taking the old Subaru, which everyone was surprised was still running. They’d changed the tires a dozen times since their trip to the ocean, but almost every part of the car was still the same. Milo would never know how many nights they’d spent in it, or that whenever Lee saw it, she was overwhelmed with a feeling of grief for a life she wasn’t even sure she’d ever had.

Lee watched the window over the toilet fog up, then the mirror over the sink. She rose from the tub and set her hand against the glass. When she withdrew it, there was a handprint. The water in the tub was still running, but it was running cold by now. She watched the handprint fade.

 

When Lee’s shoulder went, they had it replaced. Same with her knees.

“After this, you’ll be nearly half plastic,” said Mihau.

Insurance helped with the first two surgeries, but they had to pay for most of the third with a credit card. They would be in debt for the rest of their lives as a result. Mihau didn’t mention it to Eddie.

The doctors had Lee count backward from 1,000, and she was out before 997.

 

Milo was always on his way somewhere when he called; walking to the store, headed to a dinner. Never a date, but always eating, eating with friends. She liked hearing from him, even in snatches. Milo’s wife was still sick. His son wasn’t speaking to him.

“He hates it in Tucson,” said Milo of his son. “He spends all his time online.”

“Can you blame him?” said Lee. “So far from his grandmother, it’s a wonder you can keep him in the state.”

“You said that,” said Milo. “I know.”

Lee was losing her thoughts. She forgot new information the moment she learned it, and older memories were starting to slip as well. There were gaps she recognized, which made her wonder how much she’d already forgotten, what she couldn’t remember forgetting.

She sat up some nights, writing things down, itemizing what was left of the day, hoping the repetition would bring her a little further along into the next. But it was getting harder and harder to trust herself, which made her irritable. Mihau was patient, but she could tell it was a chore listening to her cycle through something they’d already settled, or forgetting for a moment who he was, what it was they were doing. The only place she ever wanted to be anymore was a house with all the doors locked. Nothing out and nothing in. It was the safest place she could imagine, and she pictured it whenever a door closed. Whenever someone knocked.

 

A man approached her in an airport terminal, a stranger. He tried to touch her, so she punched him in the chest.

 

Mihau leaned on the wheelchair to balance himself, pushing Lee up the ramp and onto the airplane. All that surgery, and she was still in a wheelchair most of the time. She couldn’t remember Milo’s voice, but she could remember counting backward from 1,000 and the doctor leaning over her, his shadow being swallowed by the light, instead of the other way around. They were taking a trip. Mihau buckled her in, and Milo was on the television. There was an article about him in the in-flight magazine, and she showed it to Mihau until he took away the magazine and read it to her as the plane took off.

 

Beneath them, the ocean was churning. Lee could hear the whispering voices of everyone else on the airplane, though not what they were saying.

Mihau flipped the pages of the in-flight magazine.

“They could have chosen a better picture,” she said, pushing the magazine down into his lap.

Mihau set a hand over hers and settled them.

“Don’t let me sleep,” she said. “I’d like to go back to California.”

“We’re going to California,” he said. “We’re going to the beach.”

She could picture the window shattering. The whole plane getting swallowed by flame. She picked at the little balls of fabric on her skirt, twisting them between her fingers until they snapped off. She stared through her knees, dropping the pills into the darkness of the floor. It was a shadow; it wasn’t infinite. She stamped her feet, confirming it was solid ground.

“That’s right,” said Lee. “I see you.”

¤

Colin Winnette is a screenwriter and the author of several books, including The Job of The Wasp (Soft Skull Press), Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio), and Coyote (Les Figues). He’s online at colinwinnette.net.