by Destiny Rinder
“The Houses on the Sea” placed third in Southern New Hampshire University’s 2019 Fall Fiction Contest.
“Where’s your mother, Mia?”
“She went to the houses on the sea.”
* * *
Greyson Beach hasn’t changed much over the last ten years. Fiery red crabs still scurry across the large, jagged stones that line the shore, and seagulls can still be heard crying in the distance. I can still hear my mom’s voice in my head like a recording on an old cassette tape.
“Come on, Mia!”
I haven’t seen my mom since I was six years old, and most of the memories I have of her are broken. I remember pieces of her, such as her broad smile and ash-brown hair. The memory of the day she left has also been eroded by time, reduced to fleeting moments like clips and still frames of a film.
The salty air makes me nauseous, and I keep my gaze fixed on the horizon as I walk parallel to the sea. Clouds blanket the sky, subduing the colors of the surrounding landscape. That’s probably why I came here today – cloudy days remind me of her. It was a cloudy, November evening when my mom had taken me to this desolate beach to see the tide pools. I remember feeling the icy wind on my face as we strolled down the rocky shoreline hand in hand. Glimpses of her colorful, oversized windbreaker flash across my mind.
The tide is low, and I venture out to the shallow pools and spy a plump, purple starfish clinging to a submerged rock among the snails and anemone. It is at least ten inches across – the biggest I have ever seen. I squat down for a closer look, and another piece of a memory surfaces from the depths of my mind.
I remember leaning over a tide pool next to my mom. We had found a starfish back then, too, only it was much smaller. My mom grinned at me, her green eyes young and wild, and I vaguely recall her trying to persuade me to touch the little starfish. I squeamishly shook my head, but she playfully grabbed my hand and pushed it in the frigid water. The sensation is preserved in my memory, and I shiver. I stare down at the massive starfish. Hesitantly, but also compelled, I dip my hand in the shallow water to touch it. It feels tough and prickly, just like the starfish had felt back then. I stand up and wipe my hand on my jeans.
Authorities and psychiatrists tried to convince me that my mom had somehow gotten caught in a riptide and drowned that day. They say the current pulled her body out to sea where it would likely never be recovered…but that’s not what I remember.
I stare out at the water and let the end of the memory play.
My mom laughed lightheartedly as I squealed and yanked my hand out of the water. Still, I couldn’t help smiling. I loved my mom’s antics and the way she snorted when she laughed. I mimicked the sound, and she flicked water at me in retaliation. I jumped up, giggling and running past her down the beach.
That’s when they appeared – the houses on the sea.
One minute there was nothing but open water, and the next there was an entire community of little, stilt houses made from driftwood and a path leading to the shore. I’ve been told that the occurrence is impossible, but that word isn’t quite right. No. Unnatural is more accurate. I came to an abrupt stop, the smile slipping from my face. Behind me, I heard my mom gasp in awe.
“Where did those come from?” she murmured.
The community was quiet – not a soul in sight. My mom stood up, approaching the houses as though she was beckoned. The pier had no rails and stretched roughly thirty meters, its warped planks sloppily arranged. She slowly stepped onto the path, unsure if it could support her weight. It creaked but seemed stable enough, and she signaled for me to join her. Reluctantly, I did, clutching her windbreaker in my tiny hand and hiding behind her as we walked. My mom was too mesmerized to share my apprehension. Then again, she was never the type of person to shy away from an adventure.
I wish I had been brave like her.
When we were about halfway across the pier, we discovered that the community wasn’t deserted after all. We could see people peering at us through windows. They didn’t strike me as malicious, but rather curious. It was a quiet excitement, and their eyes were full of secrets. They were from all walks of life, their attire stemming from different cultures around the world.
We had walked a few steps farther when I realized that the wind had stopped. Looking down, I noticed that the sea around the houses was still – perfectly still. The waves wouldn’t go near them. It was as if the world had rejected them. I got an uneasy feeling in my stomach, and my legs went numb with fear. I froze, pulling back on my mom’s windbreaker. She turned around and smiled encouragingly.
“Come on, Mia!”
I shook my head adamantly, letting go of her windbreaker and retreating a step toward the shore. She looked at me with soft, loving eyes – the type of comforting gaze only a mother can have.
“Alright. You can wait here,” she said, her gaze shifting back to the houses.
“Don’t go!” I begged.
“I’m just going to take a quick look. I’ll be right back,” she promised.
I watched anxiously as she went ahead to the houses. When she reached them, the residents stepped out to greet her. They seemed friendly, and part of me considered going to meet them. My mom glanced over her shoulder at me with an inviting expression. I took a step forward, but it was too late. As suddenly as they appeared, the houses vanished. There was no puff of smoke or flash of light – they were just… gone. The pier disappeared from under my feet, dropping me into the freezing sea. I let out a partial scream before plunging into the dark water. I swam frantically to the surface, gasping for air. No longer sedated by the unnatural aura of the houses, the sea woke up and its waves pushed me back to the shore. The violent, sharp wind also returned, hitting my face until I could no longer feel my cheeks.
By the time I reached the rocks, I was exhausted and coughing up water. My eyes darted back to the endless sea, which carried on as though the event had never happened. I cried out for my mom, my voice hoarse and panicked, but there was no reply. The houses had taken her away from me. I waited on the beach for hours – six years old, soaking wet, and alone. Even the little starfish was eventually swept away by high tide. Only the crabs remained, watching me from the rocks with their black, emotionless eyes. It wasn’t until after dusk that a neighbor found me. She asked where my mom was, and I told her. I’ll never forget the look on her face. It was somewhere between concern and confusion, like I was something broken that she didn’t know how to fix.
It seems like everyone looks at me that way now…
The memory ends, and tears roll down my cheeks. Despair threatens to overwhelm me, but the feeling is quickly chased away by rage. Who exactly was I angry with – the houses? My mom? Myself?
“Give her back!” I scream, picking up one of the smaller rocks and chucking it into the water.
I keep screaming, snatching up rocks and hurling them into the vast sea. Just as I am about to throw my eighth or ninth rock, I see movement out of the corner of my eye. It’s the crabs, once again silently watching me from their hiding places among the rocks. I suddenly feel embarrassed for throwing such a tantrum. I stop and wipe the tears from my cheeks. My energy is completely drained, and I take a moment to catch my breath. Meanwhile, the crabs keep watching me with their unsettling eyes.
“What are you looking at? Shoo! Shoo!”
I charge toward the crabs, but they don’t run. They just keep watching me. I stop, realizing they see me as nothing more than the scared, little girl I was all those years ago. I stumble backwards, turning away from their prying eyes and falling onto the ground.
They say that my young mind created “the houses on the sea” to cope with the trauma of losing my mom. I’ll never accept that. The houses on the sea are out there somewhere, and so is she. I just need another chance – one more chance – to be brave like her.
Category: Competition, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student