It had been seven long years since Fintan had been seen on the shores of the small sea-side town. There had been stories and rumors of him in his youth. About how he had come from the sea itself and had to return to it for seven year periods. But the man always arrived on a ship with a whole crew. The crew and the ship varied from time to time, but after a while, the villagers became used to Fintan and the trade business he brought with him every few years.
Even the younger ones were not surprised to see him step off of a new vessel that afternoon. The fishermen who worked the docks knew that soon the rumors would be flying through town again. They always seemed unnaturally interested in the man. Even as a child when he would show up with his father every so often to play with the children or tell stories of the creatures that lived in the sea, they had all taken an interest in him. He had grown strong and handsome, and there wasn’t a woman within a league who did not notice him. Those of them who had husbands and families talked and told stories, and those of whom were unwed did all they could to catch his gaze.
No one knew much about the man. He came very few years and worked trades with his vessels or wasted his nights in local bars. There were rumors that he had a wife and a family on some faraway island, but he never spoke of it. Though some girls claimed to have seen him purchasing jewelry once in a local shop, and one of them claimed she had gotten close enough to see a silky token he carried in his back pocket. It must have been from a lover, if not from a wife, and rumors spread about all the women he must have had waiting along the coast. Yet he had never taken an interest in one of their own.
The man only seemed to have one thing in his mind, though, when he stepped off the docks into the cold winter sun. He immediately asked what happened to his friend John Duncanson. The two had been close as children, and whenever Fintan arrived with his father, John would be right there to greet him. The two of them would be stuck together like glue until Fintan inevitably left again. John was the only person Fintan ever spent much time with. But John never shared whatever secrets about the man he must have known. The rumors began to buzz again when the Fintan caught the next train out of the town and into the country the moment he heard that John had moved away.
Imogen had felt the shift early in the afternoon, though she didn’t understand what had caused it. She had woken with her usual morning routine. She got up to make breakfast for her husband and get her son ready for the day and his lessons, and then she had stepped outside into the sea of grass to hang the laundry out to dry while they still had sunlight.
John had left just after breakfast and little Benjamin sat outside on the back porch playing with his wooden toys. The air felt different outside. She never went outside with shoes on. It was something that John had always scolded her for. But she never liked the feeling of them constricting her feet. She wanted to feel the earth beneath her toes, even if it was cold and frozen, and she only wore shoes when she had to go to town.
The air was still and cold. There were no breezes to make the grass look like a golden sea, and the air felt stagnant but charged. Like the calm before a storm on the sea. When the air would go still but electric. Imogen couldn’t remember why she knew that. She couldn’t recall a single storm over the sea. Only that she knew it in her heart and that nearly seven years had passed since she’d left the sea behind, but she still felt it calling to her.
Ben was playing with the wooden train his father had brought back from the village for his birthday. He made “choo choo” noises as he dragged the train around the porch. She hung up a soft floral sheet and peeked out from behind it to watch him. He usually didn’t play with the train. He and his father had never really got along and Ben hardly ever touched the toys he brought home. John hated that Ben was so quiet. He liked to be alone. He wanted to read. He wanted his mother’s company more than his father’s. Imogen had tried to explain that Ben had just taken after her instead of him. They were kindred souls, she knew. She hadn’t quite wanted him at first, but once she came to the realization that John was not Ben’s father, she’d grown to love him for it. Ben was hers. And even though he carried John’s name, John would never take him from her.
“Benjamin?” she called to the porch. The little boy looked up with eyes as solid and dark as hers. Black like a stormy sea. Not light and blue like John’s. His hair was the same solid dark color, but his curls were always wild and messy. She could never tame them, and John would complain about the wild look of the boy, but nothing they did ever made a difference. After a while, they had given up. As long as they could cut his hair before their visits to town, no one would ever see him.
“Yes, mama?” he replied.
“Will you read me one of your stories? I like to hear your voice when I work.” He smiled brightly and abandoned the train.
“Okay, mama,” he said as he jumped up.
“Make sure you put your train away before your father gets home. You know how he hates it when you leave your things on the porch.”
“Okay, mama.” The little boy came back for the train and carried it into the house. He was so quiet that as soon as the screen door shut behind him, it was almost like he wasn’t there anymore. As if he had slipped away into another world and she was all alone with nothing but the still cold air.
He reappeared a few moments later, carrying the book she knew he’d bring. It was a dark green colored book and John always thought it was far too advanced for his age. But he loved it. He loved tails of the sea, just like his mother. And she found a relaxed comfort in the sound of his voice as he told her the story of white whales and madness, even though he frequently stumbled on words and she had to sound them out for him.
She liked to hear his voice. It brought her the same kind of comfort as the wind out there on the grass. Even though the air was cold, his voice seemed to warm her. She could feel it sinking down to her toes, and she smiled as she hung up the laundry. But then Ben paused. He sometimes did while he read but usually started right back up again. This time, he didn’t. The warmth vanished, and the absence of his voice made her feel so alone again. Like he wasn’t even there.
She peeked passed the pillowcases, but Ben was right where she thought he’d be. Sitting on the edges of the porch, with his feet bare and pink in the cold. He was holding the book in his lap and gazing off beyond the grass.
“Someone’s coming, mama,” he said. And she turned to look. A car was coming down the drive. It was still far off and left a trail of dirt in the air as he came down the road. It was clearly the rusty old thing that John drove to town every day, though, and she wasn’t quite sure why Ben had said it like that. Like he didn’t recognize his father’s car.
“It’s just daddy,” Imogen told him as she finished up her work. “Best get back in the house before he sees you out here without any shoes on.” She lifted the basket as Ben stretched his skinny legs and wiggled his little toes.
“He’s early,” he said, refusing to call his father “daddy” or even “Papa.” He called him these things in John’s presence, but only because the lack of the word seemed to bother John. But whenever the two of them were alone, which was more often than not, he never called him that. She always wondered if some part of Ben knew the truth, even though it was impossible for him to know. She was never even certain of it herself since she had no proof and no memory of the night that Ben must have been conceived.
“He comes home early sometimes,” she reminded him as she hopped up the steps on her own cold-pinked feet. The little boy stood as she reached out her hand. He slid his into hers and kept his eyes behind them as he watched the car approach.
“He brought someone with him,” he told her as she led him into the house. He turned to look away from the door and went to go replace his book in the case in the sitting room. Imogen watched him as he skipped on his skinny legs. His wild black curls bounced with every jump.
“Who’d he bring?” she asked. He reached up on his tippy toes to slide the book back into place. John had set it on a higher shelf so that Ben would be less inclined to reach for it when it was time for reading before bed, but Ben always found a way. And once the book was back in its designated slot, no one ever would have guessed that it hadn’t been there all day.
“The man from the train,” Ben told her. She only nodded.
“Best get washed up then. He’ll want you to look nice for guests.”
“Yes, mama.” Ben hopped up the stairs, bouncing on his feet.
Sorry for the lack of updates. I missed the deadline for the contest but I was so caught up in other things that I put this aside. I also scheduled myself to work on this and have it updated every Sunday, but I didn't do it this week. So here it is today. I'll try to get the next one up on Sunday.