Note: Hello! This short story is a work-in-progress. In light of a previous blog post I made, “Never Perfect”, I wanted to share this with you. In the future, I will share a future draft of this story, where characters, events, and dialogue will have changed. Maybe for better, maybe for worse. But, I wanted to do this to promote sharing our first drafts. As writers, we become hyper-critical of our work and don’t want to share it until it’s as good as it can be, but I think there is a lot that can be learned from sharing an unfinished product, so I hope you will enjoy going on this journey with me. Enjoy the piece!
Crystal blue eyes, like the seashells scattered along the beach. A crooked nose, tattered and busted as the pier. Short, stubbly hair that glows gold, just as the sand does under the setting sun. The description of the wicked man clawed at the recesses of Mark’s mind. His fingers dug into the leather steering wheel while he grappled onto the fleeting memory of that face.
Crystal blue eyes, a crooked nose, and short, stubbly hair.
Mark released his grip on the wheel and eyed his reflection in the rearview mirror. Dark, sagging folds of skin hung above his cheeks. He had hardly slept in days; each night welcomed the haunting thought of death that toyed with his consciousness. Just before exhaustion could consume him, Mark would vault upright in bed with sweat streaming down his bulbous face. There were no screams nor cries for help. It was the silence of it all that kept him awake.
A mass of people gathered under a gargantuan banner that read, The 37th Annual Willowbrook Pier Paper Boat Race. One by one, their attention turned to Mark’s rusted minivan as it creaked into a nearby parking space. A woman pointed in his direction and whispered into the ear of her husband. The husband nodded, took hold of the woman’s wrist, and led her away.
Mark jostled the key out from the ignition and shoved it into his pocket. He craned his neck to study the backseat. Empty. A modest fruit basket was the only company he had on the hour-long drive to the sea. The bananas were beginning to brown, and the skin of the apples was shriveling. The basket was old and tired; it was begging to be thrown away.
With a graceless hand, Mark snatched the basket and stepped out onto the pavement. Invisible grains of sand littered the ground and burrowed themselves into the soles of his bare feet. Mark offered a silent prayer of appreciation to the overcast of clouds that drowned the sun. A faint wisp of air accompanied the lack of light and sent a shiver down his back. It’s always for the best when there’s a scanty breeze on the day of the paper boat race.
The low rumble of the whispering crowd steadily grew more audible as he approached. The mumbles and murmurs faded away, though, before Mark could make out a single word. But even as the voices fled with the wind, their eyes never left him. A trickle of sweat cascaded down his back and seeped into the fabric of his dilapidated cargo shorts. He wished that they’d all go away.
The sandy pavement broke way into a splintering, wooden pier being swarmed by people dressed in swimsuits, floral shirts, straw hats, and fanny packs. Mark took a single step into the crowd and severed it down the middle. Everyone took several steps back as he walked through, keeping his focus on the fruit. Just behind the crowd, a series of folding tables were assembled in a line. Presented upon them was a grand display of cold cuts, crackers, cheeses, and baskets of fruit that looked far fresher than his. Mark, unabashedly, set his basket in front of the rest.
He could still feel the eyes carving into his flesh. They were studying the contraction of his muscles, the lopsidedness of his gait, the way he paid them no attention. Those damn eyes. Mark took in a breath of the salty air and swiveled around to curse at the crowd, but they had turned away. Their focus shifted to a rotund man clearing his throat in a microphone.
“What a beautiful day for a paper boat race, am I right?” The master of ceremonies hollered, his voice echoing throughout the pier. Exceptionally excited children squealed as their parents let out a mixture of exhausted and empty enthusiasm. When the whooping finally died down, the man continued with his welcoming pleasantries.
Mark paid him no attention. He returned to the display of fruit, took a fresh apple, and sunk his teeth into it. A river of juice moistened his tongue and rolled down the back of his throat. He took another bite, then another, allowing every crunch to suffocate the sound of the exceptionally round man bellowing into a microphone.
It was the same every year. The master of ceremonies crams his body into a sailor’s uniform that is just slightly too small, entrances the children in the marvel of paper boats, and tips his hat to the parents for all of their help, for, without them, none of this would be possible. Then, he announces the fundraising goal and directs families to the booth in the back to make a donation to the charity-of-the-year. Mark watched as the master of ceremonies directed the audience to the fundraising booth, but he refused to acknowledge it.
He was there for the formality. He promised to show up, make a boat, and smile at a handful of strangers. Nothing more, nothing less.
The master of ceremonies tipped his hat and plunged into the bustling crowd. Just beyond the chaos, a small boy wandered down the pier alone. His arms were slim and frail, his hands small and powerless. Mark’s stomach tied itself in a knot. He lurched forward to get a better look, but the boy disappeared around the corner.
Crystal blue eyes, a crooked nose, and short, stubbly hair.
The apple fell from Mark’s hand and plummeted to the wooden pier at his feet. It hit with a thud and attracted the gaze of concerned parents who began to point at him. The whispers returned, and the wind brought them to his ears.
“I would never—”
Mark’s feet carried him away from the voices. He rounded the corner to follow the boy but was met with a riptide of wandering bodies moving about the pier. Mark craned his neck to find the lonely child, but he was gone.
Without a second thought, Mark sliced through the people as they gasped and swore at him. The world was microscopic in that moment. The air became thin and dry, and the sounds of disgruntled people were deafening in his ears. Mark saw and heard everything around him. Everything but the boy.
Then, a gentle tug on Mark’s shorts halted his panic. He remembered that tug. It was soft and shy, but it was driven by some need. An immediate need. A need that required contact. For a moment, Mark convinced himself that it was the same tug he had felt for years before it was washed away.
“You dropped this,” a child’s voice said from behind him.
Mark glanced down and was met by a young girl holding a bottle of liquid wax. His hands fumbled in his pockets and confirmed that he had indeed dropped the bottle in the mayhem. The girl planted it in his hands and trotted away. Alone. How could these parents be so woefully ignorant? To allow a child to wander on the pier alone is to allow their child to be swept away.
Sweat perspired upon the palm of his hand and moistened the bottle of wax. He couldn’t look away from it. He thought it funny that such a small, trivial object could keep a paper boat afloat. Mark removed the lid from the bottle and fished out the brush hiding within it. He submerged the brush into the liquid wax and lathered a thin coat over the back of his left hand. He wondered how much wax it would take to prevent a human body from sinking.
Mark laughed at himself for the ridiculous thought, dropped the brush into the bottle, and shut the lid. He surveyed the pier one last time in search of the boy, but after finally conceding his well-intentioned hunt, he followed a current of eager vacationers back to the site of the annual paper boat race. When he rounded the corner, Mark noticed hordes of families dressed in matching, oversized white t-shirts with stenciled black writing that read, Boating for Benjamin. Under the words was a small paper boat resting atop a pool of water.
“I thought that was you,” a burly, baritone voice cut through the mindless chatter of the crowd. The master of ceremonies barged through a family as they attempted to take a photo and bounded toward Mark.
“I’m hard to mistake here,” Mark deadpanned and surveyed his surroundings to formulate an exit strategy.
“I’d say that’s a good thing,” the man offered his hand to Mark. “You know, in all my years of hosting this event, I can’t say that we’ve been acquainted. The name’s Jed.”
“Well, Mark, I’m glad you could make it. I hope that you find the event respectable,” Jed continued to drone on as Mark’s eyes darted around. For an instant, they landed on Jed’s face and froze there, fixated on his nose.
Crooked. Tattered and busted as the pier. It mirrored the sketch that Mark had kept in every office of his brain.
This didn’t make any sense. That nose belonged to someone else. Someone with crystal blue eyes and short, stubbly hair. Marked blinked twice, as if to will it away, but nothing happened. Jed’s nose was jagged just along the bridge like it had been jostled out of place one too many times.
“Mark, are you all right? You’ve got this funny look about you,” a flood of concerns spilled from Jed’s mouth, but Mark paid him no attention. The color of his face flushed into a pasty white, and he was sure that he would vomit all over Jed’s pristine uniform.
“I’m fine. It’s hot today, isn’t it? I’ll go get some water.” Mark tore his eyes away from Jed’s nose and turned to the paper boat crafting station.
Children and parents alike swarmed the table stocked full of paper, stencils, stickers, and wax. After thirty-seven years, someone could have developed a better organization for this process. Nothing changes unless it needs to.
As Mark waited for the overflow of people to disperse from the crafting station, he wandered over to the edge of the pier that overlooked the sea. He propped his shoulders upon a fence and hung his head over the edge. He swept his fingers through his black, stringy hair and gazed at the wood of the fence. It wasn’t aged and graying like the base of the pier. It was vibrant and bursting with life. Of course, they installed a fence.
Mark made his way back to the crafting station when the cluster of paper boat racers thinned. A woman behind the table offered him a bright smile, which he half-heartedly returned. He fanned through a stack of multi-colored sheets of paper until he landed on a plain, white one. The woman offered him a set of stencils and stickers, but he waved his hand to dismiss her offer.
The immaculate sheet of paper gleaned under the gray light of day. It was without folds or tears or blemishes. It was just as it needed to be.
Mark stepped away from the station and stood alone. In three swift strokes, he halved the paper, bent the corners in, and folded along the bottom. It had been years since he last constructed a paper boat, but his hands acted on their own accord. It took no thought.
A small smile crept across his face as he pinched and lifted the center point, then pulled the sides apart to mold the shape of the vessel. Mark’s teeth broke through his sealed lips at the sight of the finished product. He rummaged through his pocket for the bottle of wax and gently painted a light glaze over the base of the boat.
His strokes were elegant and precise, an echo of a trained artist. However, he was merely mimicking another’s style, and part of him felt like a fraud. Once the final layer of wax was applied, one could never be too cautious, Mark blew a light, steady stream of air over it. His breath was cool to the touch as it breezed past his fingers.
For a final flair, Mark took a pen from his back pocket and scrawled “S.S. Benji” on the side. There was a pale sparkle, glinting within the black ink. Mark shut his eyes to deflect the thought of his son making the very same boat for years. Then, that face penetrated his thoughts again.
Crystal blue eyes, a crooked nose, and short, stubbly hair.
He could feel the presence taunting him. The devilish man that robbed Mark of his only child, the only shred of a family that he had left. He could be anywhere now. He could be right there. He could be watching from beneath the floorboards of the pier, from deep within the crowd of boat racers, from just over Mark’s shoulder.
A light gust of wind tickled the back of Mark’s neck and launched him forward. He swiveled around and brandished the pen in his hand, knowing well enough that it was not mightier than a sword. Nothing was behind him. He let out a sigh and studied the undulating flow of people. The man would be here.
“Ahoy, sailors,” Jed bellowed into his microphone, derailing Mark’s focus. “It seems everyone has finished crafting their boats, so you will now be divided into separate heats. The winners of each heat will then participate in a championship race and will don the captain’s hat.”
Mark trailed to the end of the line of racers, dissecting each face as they passed. Nothing, yet. Before he could take a spot in line, Jed called his name.
“Come on up, Mark,” the pear-bodied master of ceremonies insisted. “We would like to honor the loss of your son with an exhibition race where only your boat, his boat, will sail to the finish line.”
All eyes turned to him. His stomach churned at the excess of attention. Mark started to shake his head, but the thought of his son stopped him. Benjamin would win one race.
Mark turned away from the prying eyes, knowing that one pair would be crystal blue, like the seashells scattered along the beach, analyzing his every move. He bounded toward the racecourse, similarly unchanged over the years, and held the S.S. Benji slightly above the subtle rapids.
It was a grandiose course, constructed out of redwood and filled with murky water. The starting line was roughly four feet from the ground, followed by a gradual slope with twists and turns toward the finish line. A brilliant blue banner decorated the end of the course; the winner would take it home at the end of the race. Benjamin dreamed of displaying the prize just above his bed for years.
With a gentle hand, Mark eased the S.S. Benji into the water and awaited the starting signal. Jed lifted a horn into the air and yelled, “Ready, Set, Sail,” then let a wailing siren explode from the horn. Mark closed his eyes and released his grip on the small, paper ship.
The S.S. Benji sliced through the empty rapids as if a motor were propelling it ever forward. Mark’s eyes gradually squinted back open and fixated on the graceful vessel. Something was driving that paper boat, and he knew that it was his son.
A swift breeze swept from behind the course and accelerated the boat’s trajectory. The crowd watched in silent awe as the S.S. Benji glided around the bends in the course without toppling over, as many often do. There must’ve been someone at the wheel of that paper boat.
Mark wondered how something so fragile could make contact with such a destructive element as water and still remain buoyant. He wanted to float alongside it.
The paper boat drifted quietly across the finish line and steadied itself in the center of the course’s victory basin. For a moment, no one said a word, and for the first time, Mark could hear through the silence. He could hear the light bubbling of the water, the waves of the ocean crashing in the distance, and the subdued breathing of the racers behind him. The breaths that fed into the wind. Mark wondered if his breaths would ever reach his son.
Thunderous applause erupted from the crowd. Mark smiled sheepishly and walked to the end of the course to retrieve the boat. Before he could pick it up, Jed said, “Do you mind leaving it there as a reminder?”
Mark nodded, stole another glance at Jed’s nose, then joined the spectators at the side of the course. A new heat of racers, consisting of both children and adults, lined up at the starting line. The horn let out another excruciating shriek, and the boats dipped into the water. Mark gaped at an ornate paper boat that overtook the others with ease. A small boy was cheering it on from the starting line, no bigger than Mark’s son had been.
“Do you ever hate yourself?”
Mark turned to a woman gawking at him. The same woman who had first pointed at him upon his arrival before being whisked away. She had crystal blue eyes that mirrored the seashells along the beach. “What?”
“I couldn’t live with myself if I had let my child out of my sight, and they had been taken from me.” Her eyes pierced like frozen daggers. “How do you do it?”
“Do I know you?” Mark asked, unable to shake the gaze of those wretched eyes.
“Sorry, no, but you’re all anyone can talk about. I mean, how did you get the courage to even come back to this place? I wish that I could have the wherewithal to—”
“Listen, lady,” Mark interjected, “I don’t know what your aim is, but you aren’t my therapist.”
A sliver of a smile broke across her face, “You’re deflecting.” Her eyes rolled back into her head, and she nodded to herself. “There isn’t an ounce of courage in you, is there? You don’t even acknowledge it.”
“I’m not having this conversation with a woman I’ve never met before. I’m just here in respect to my son, and I shouldn’t have to tolerate your self-fulfilling spirit quest.” Mark turned back to the boat race to find the young boy proudly dancing about with the ornate paper boat in his hands. He had won. Mark allowed himself to smile, just as the woman tapped him on the shoulder.
“It’s Mark, isn’t—”
“Lady, go bother your husband.”
“Oh, I’m not married. That must’ve been my brother.”
Mark stopped for a moment and faced her again. “Brother?”
“Yes, I’m here with him and his kid. I’m the fun aunt.”
“You two look alike?”
“We get that a lot, yes, but I always say that I don’t really—”
Mark pried his focus from her eyes. The crystal blue eyes. Her brother would have them, too. He was here, the man that took his son. Mark was sure of it now. “Where is he?”
The woman twirled her bleached hair between her fingers. “Probably still in the bathroom. Why? Do you have a thing for men that look like me?”
A wave of dread crashed over Mark’s body. Something needed to be done. That man was a menace. He was bold to come back. Mark knew that he could very well do the same thing to another unassuming father.
Without another moment of hesitation, Mark shoved the woman aside and jostled through the crowd of racers. Various yelps and curses were flung at him, but he didn’t stop. He could feel the contempt in the eyes of those who watched him, but he paid them no attention. They were not the eyes he sought. Mark knew that he could put an end to this onslaught of torture. The unbearable weight of silence that awaited him at every turn. He could end it all.
Mark serpentined toward the bathroom, avoiding the random passersby. As the public restroom came into focus, he heightened his pace and lunged toward the door. He threw his arms forward and rammed the door nearly off its hinges. Only three men populated the room apart from Mark. One was seated on a toilet behind a closed stall door, another was washing his hands, and a third, with short, stubbly hair, advanced toward a urinal. It must glow old in the light, just as the sand does under the setting sun.
It was him.
The musty stench of the dim bathroom penetrated Mark’s nose, and he scrunched his face. A single bead of sweat took shape above his eyebrow. He clenched his fists and marched toward the man. His foot slapped against a shallow puddle, but Mark paid it no attention. He no longer controlled his movements.
Mark took both hands and reached for the stubbly-haired man. His fingers latched onto the backside of the man’s collar and coiled around it. The man shouted, but Mark could no longer hear him. He shoved the man against the wall of urinals and held him there.
The man craned his neck to the side to get a glimpse of Mark. His eyes appeared blue, even in the dreary bathroom. His gaze still severed through the darkness and carved a gaping hole into Mark’s chest. A voice cried for help from behind, but Mark continued to force the man against the wall.
He raised his right arm behind his head, held it there for a moment, allowing the man to comprehend what was about to happen, then Mark thrust his fist forward and impacted it against the man’s face. He felt the man’s nose buckle and fold under his fist like a limp sheet of paper. Then, Mark dropped the man to the floor and instantly became hyper-aware of his surroundings. He felt the droplets of water, dripping from a leaky tap, crash against the drain and reverberate in his ears. In the corner of the room, a spider meticulously erected an intricate home that sparkled a little in the light. His heartbeat slowed, and the tension expelled from every pore of his flesh.
“What is wrong with you?” The man cried out as blood spilled from his nose and pooled on the ground like crimson rain.
“Look at me.”
The man shuffled on the ground and faced Mark. His hand was cupped beneath his nose in an attempt to spare the already-soiled floor. Short, stubbly hair, crystal blue eyes, and a now-crooked nose. Everything matched.
But it wasn’t him.
Several men barged into the room and rushed toward the scene. Mark felt his every limb slacken as someone latched their arms around him and dragged his body out of the room. A crowd had gathered just outside the bathroom door, with many holding up their cameras to capture the moment. Just before the door shut, Mark heard the bleeding man let out an inhuman cry.
Mark was hurled onto a bench just outside the bathroom. People continued to glower at him, but he no longer cared. He lifted his hand up to his face and studied the condition of his knuckles. They pulsated with minute pain. He looked to the people still staring at him, but all motivation to find that man fled from his mind.
He got to his feet, and the crowd took a collective step back. Then, he walked slowly away. Someone yelled that the police were coming, but he only shrugged and continued walking. His mind drifted to other places.
Why did he blame that man for what happened to his son?
Mark continued to walk to the edge of the pier, then down the steps that led to the beach. The callused skin on the bottom of his feet felt only the heat of the sand when they made contact. It was comforting. The sun had revealed itself from behind the clouds and wrapped itself around Mark’s chilled body. He gave himself another moment to smile as he neared the water.
With the busted pier behind him, Mark took in the golden sand and blue seashells that lay just before the open water. He dipped a toe into the frigid sea, then another, before submerging his entire foot. Then, he stood there, gazing out at the expanse of the water, knowing that its depth increases faster than one would expect.
Mark wondered if the S.S. Benji from five years ago still sailed out in the sea.
He thought about his son, jumping off the pier when no one was looking, hoping to ride the waves with his small, paper boat, wanting to float alongside it. He thought about his son flailing for a moment at the water’s surface, for he was not covered in wax. He thought about his son sinking silently into the water, and all the while, Mark made meaningless conversation with a man who had crystal blue eyes, a crooked nose, and short, stubbly hair.
Mark heard the sounds of footsteps rushing toward him, but he didn’t turn around. Instead, he took another step forward. Then, another. Appreciating the chilled water as it lapped around his body.
Oh, My Word! Jacob shared this story with the intent of allowing all of the piece’s imperfections shine in the vast void of the internet. Knowing that this piece is only a first draft, he would be happy to hear your critiques of the text and what you hope will be better in the to-be-posted second draft! Leave a comment below with your thoughts!
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