The Seas by Samantha Hunt
The Map: A Prologue
The highway only goes south from here. That's how far north we live. There aren't many roads out of town, which explains why so few people ever leave. Things that are unfamiliar are a long way off and there is no direct route to these things. Rather it's a street to a street to a road across a causeway to a road across a bridge to road to another road before you reach the highway.
If you were to try to leave, people who have known you since the day you were born would recognize your car and see you leaving. They would wonder where you were going and they would wave with two fingers off the steering wheel, a wave that might seem like a stop sign or a warning to someone trying to forget this very small town. It would be much easier to stay.
The town is built on a steep and rocky coast so that the weathered houses are stacked like shingles, or like the rows of razor wire in a prison, one on top of the other up the hill. Small paths and narrow roads wind their ways between the houses so that there's no privacy in this town. If you were to stumble home drunk one night, by morning, the entire town would know. Not that they would care. People here are accustomed to drunks. We have the highest rate of alcoholism in the country and this fact is repeated so often I thought we should put it on the Chamber of Commerce sign at the town line that welcomes tourists. More alcoholics per captita! Enjoy your visit!
Most of the waterfront is cluttered with moorings, piers that smell of motor oil, and outbuildings for the fishermen though there is a short stretch of sandy beach and a boardwalk where every summer a few, fool tourists fail to enjoy themselves and spend their vacations wondering why anyone would live here. If they asked me I'd tell them, "We live here because we hate the rest of you." Though that isn't always true it is sometimes. Then there is the ocean, mean and beautiful.
"We're getting out of here," I say. "Let's go." I find Jude's keys on his kitchen table. He is still in the living room just lying there. Underneath the keys on the table there is a pen and a letter written from Jude to me. His handwriting is like his hair, long and dark tangles. The letter is tucked into an envelope where Jude has written on the outside:
THE REST OF THE STORY
I stuff the envelope into my jacket pocket being careful not to fold or crush it. "I'll drive," I say leaving the door open for Jude. I pull myself up into the driver's seat and rasp the bench forward. "Jude," I call. I start the truck. It will be hundreds of miles before I have to decide where we are actually going. For now we are just going south.
I can't see anything besides rain. The back window is blurred by droplets and fogging up with our breath. "Would you turn on the defrost?" I ask him but he doesn't move. He just stares out the window. I do it myself and a blast of cool air from outside floods the truck. The air smells like a terrific storm that came all the way from secret strata high up in the atmosphere, a place so far away that it smells unlike the tarred scent of sea decay we have here.
I feel buoyant. I feel light and ready. I feel like we are getting out of here and mostly I feel Jude inside me and it feels like love.
Jude is being very quiet but that is not unusual. Jude has been quiet over the past year and a half, ever since he returned home from the war. He is closing his eyes so as not to see the land we know disappearing. From here, if there were no rain, we would see how our poor town sits in a pit of sadness like a black hole or a wallowing cavity or an old woman. We would see how the town stares out at the ocean that it loves never considering its other options. The town must be drunk to love the ocean because the ocean thinks the town is small and weak. The ocean always beats the town throughout the hardest winter months, pulling down houses and ripping up boats.
In the rearview there's just rain and so we can't see anything. I feel free. I give the truck a little gas, trying to increase the distance between us and back there. "Jude," I say, "we're getting out of here."
I look again in the rearview mirror and quite suddenly there is a beautiful blue as though the storm finally broke. It is truly a gorgeous color. This blue is chaotic and changing. I recognize it immediately. "Jude," I say. "Look," and I point into the rearview mirror. "It's the ocean coming up behind us," I say. I watch as the blue rises up like a tidal wave so quickly that I am certain it will catch up with us soon. "It doesn't want us to leave," I say and check the mirror. "I don't think we can outrun the ocean but I'll try for your sake," I tell him and accelerate. I look again in the rearview. The color blue fills the entire mirror and watching it I think that is how a small northern town in America works. It enlists one beautiful thing like the ocean or the mountains or the snow to keep people stuck and stagnant and staring out to sea forever. I watch the blue in the mirror. It is so beautiful that it is hard to look away. "Jude," I say, "all right. Fuck the dry land. I am a mermaid." I turn to look at him, to see what he will think of that but Jude is not sitting beside me. "Jude?" I ask and stare at the empty vinyl seat where he should be. He is not there. He is gone. I reach my hand over to touch the empty seat and even glance down underneath the seat looking for him. I look away from the road for too long. He is gone and the water rushes up behind me like a couple of police officers with their blue lights flashing, with their steel blue guns drawn.