If No One's Around to Hear it is the second place winner in the Summer 2023 Quarterly Short Story Competition.
She wakes to a gushing that tells her the tide is high today. She knows this already but still, after all this time, the affirmation calms her. It tells her that she has not totally dissolved into her surroundings, that she still needs outside reminders of the ocean’s rhythm. That she is her and not the sea.
“You hear that, bubs?” The orange tabby curls further into himself, bracing one paw against her face. “Wooooshhhh,” she mimics the blue noise. She allows herself one more moment of holding him impossibly close, not quite falling back asleep but jolting up as if she had, buzzed to start another day.
She does not brush her teeth; she does not eat breakfast; she does not change out of her nightgown. She walks barefoot onto her concrete patio – the slab already warm from the too-close sun – and wraps around the house to the stairs on the other side. There are only six steps visible today, two less than the recent high tides. Two entire steps.
She freezes there on that sixth one, not regretting her choice to stay, but instead thankful that the Atlantic seems to have slowed down just for her. There shouldn’t be any steps visible at all, if she was being totally honest. When the tsunami came twenty years ago, she had left and come back to a town destroyed. People rebuilt their houses on the ground, but she had spent months wooing the local inspector into looking the other way when she had rebuilt a concrete house on two-story concrete stilts.
There had been disaster in the time since, but as part-time residents fled to the mountains, she was the one that remained – the final matriarch of this beach. She had seen this same migratory montage in birds. She watched the restaurants grow less crowded, the sky less polluted with lights. She knew every star in the sky now but pretended not to, a reference book on her coffee table.
When the tsunami came three years ago, she tried to convince her family that her concrete castle was the safest place to be.
“You’ll be swept away out there!” And surely they were, as the radio reported no survivors in the town that grew too close to the ocean. The radio reported “no survivors” everyday until the radio quit surviving, too.
A kayak bobs on the olive green waves lapping onto her sixth step. It hardly registers her entrance, the kayak shifting no more or less under her weight. She unties the boat from the steel railing, slides out the oars from the lattice above her legs, and rows out into her backyard, the ever-high Atlantic Ocean.
There are treetops and rooftops jutting out five, six, ten feet above the rocking waters. It reminds her of a fifth grade diorama project: an ocean where there should be grass, where there should be streets, the trees too short and the buildings too stout, bungalows instead of two-story houses. It is a cake poorly iced, plastic figurines littering the top.
When the tide was low, the ocean still covered most of a doorframe. The only way in was a descent from above, roof access made possible twice a month by the new and full moons. She kayaks past the pharmacy with an exaggerated barn door façade. She already cleared them of everything they had two years ago. The cluster of bare trees to her left was the old dog park. That’s where she knew she’d find the inspector. She borrowed her son’s dog – “what’s so strange about me wanting some quality time with my grandson?” – and made a day of it.
She passes the high school, the fire department, the statue of a horse, the stretch of open water that marks the baseball field beneath. She passes the painted steel bridge where a child jumped after the first tsunami had taken his family. He lived, which might have been sadder than death. There were three out of eight church steeples still standing, their bells still tolling on windy nights. This, too, felt sadder than death – a song without an audience.
She approaches one church, shorter than the rest, that allows her to kayak straight into the bell tower. It echoes in here, absorbing the blue noise into its white noise, that full silence taking her under and above water all at once.
She brings the oars to the top of the kayak, stilling for one, two, three moments. Enough to let the ocean catch and release her. Enough to remind her that her body belongs to her, not to the waves desperately laying claim.
She leaves the chamber and paddles a bit further to her destination, the grocery store. She ties her boat to the red neon “G” and hoists herself on top of it. She fears that one day it will unhinge beneath her, but this full moon, she is allowed to eat.
Her town had roof access added to all the public buildings that got reconstructed two decades ago, a choice so smart it didn’t register until she needed to use them. It took her a little while longer to piece together that the intended user was someone from a helicopter and not a lone survivor.
“Survive is a funny word,” she tries how it feels in her mouth. She does that sometimes, for fear that if she doesn’t speak it, she would soon forget it. She reads the dictionary page by page and recites the names of every person she has ever known. From atop the “G” she hoists herself once more above the shingles and falls weakly onto the flat rooftop.
She descends into the attic on a fixed ladder and again into the grocery store on a rope ladder. The green ocean presses against the double-paned doors and windows, a thin layer of sunshine undulating at its surface. The store is cast in a jade light, encasing her like a beetle in amber. She is spotlit by the small sun coming in through the attic. She leaves centerstage for the checkout aisles and grabs two of those oversized lined bags meant for insulation.
All that’s left is canned and boxed food, and even that is somehow starting to go bad. The moisture, she remembers. She doesn’t notice it much anymore, but everything is pruned and aged with moisture.
Canned peas, canned corn, the last few bags of rice, the last bag of cat food though he mostly eats fish, anyway. The last bags of candy – the only thing that tastes the same as three years ago. She leaves the last bag of coffee, a delicacy for another time. She doesn’t usually go for the cream of mushroom but the time for choosiness has long left her. Ten boxes of stuffing and a box of salt. Four bottles of dish soap and seven boxes of matches.
She carries one bag up two ladders and then the other. She secures one to the front of the kayak and one to the rear, a roping technique she spent six hours mastering one day. She can hardly feel her cat’s fur in her hands anymore with how rough they’ve gotten against the rope and the salt. She rows back home, blinded by the afternoon sun’s reflection on the water but knowing her path just the same. She even closes her eyes for one, two, three moments, the sun now an emblazoned orange obstructing her entire periphery. When she opens her eyes, there are spots in her vision that she pretends are pieces of land.
By the time she gets home the water is down to the seventh step – an improvement, but still worry colors her under the gratitude that it isn’t worse. She docks to the railing, brings in one bag and then the next.
“Yip yip yip!” the tabby greets her. He knows her arrival is no guarantee.
She unpacks the groceries. “What’s for dinner?”
He licks her in response. “I know you’ll enjoy me for dinner one night, bubs, but that night is not tonight!”
She finds a can of tuna for the cat and grabs a can of corn for herself. She takes her phone from the small solar panel it’s been charging on all day and plays a 2000s hip-hop playlist from her downloaded archives. She had her music and her photos on there, gluing her to a phone without service. She chops some chives that have been propagating in a mason jar for four years, stirs them directly into the can, and enjoys dinner with a smile on her face and a cat at her feet. She finishes the night with a book from her home library, the edges spotted with mold, the pages silent as they turn without a crisp.
When she jolts awake the next morning, it is still dark out. It is not morning at all but the middle of the night, and there is glass shattering in the kitchen. She feels the floor tilting beneath her, her body still out on the water. She is drunk on too-close sun and not enough sleep.
“What are you getting into, bubs?” She bumps her way to the kitchen, bruising herself on every corner. The pain heightens all of her other senses, challenging her to paint a picture. The ocean is loud – it sounds white and rushing – but the bells that should be ringing with white water are silent. She looks out the window and there are no church towers or stripped willow canopies where they should be. She sees only the ocean, violet under the oppressive moon. She starts towards the front of the house, hoping she’s still mixed up somehow, but there is the ocean where she knew it would be. On all sides is the Atlantic Ocean, raging in the pre-dawn night.
The tide is only high, she thinks, it happens all the time. But she sees it before she hears it, another glass sliding off her counter and crashing onto the floor, no cat at the scene of the crime. Panic stains her cheeks auburn but she’s still sober in her refusal to admit what is happening.
She tumbles over to the patio door and tugs it open, bracing herself into the doorframe. She doesn’t need to walk along the side of the house to know that the stairs are no longer there, and even if they are, they would lead to the bottom of the ocean. Without four walls and the illusion of intoxication, she sees clearly: the ocean is moving one way and her house is moving the other, bobbing on its surface like her kayak was this morning.
She slams the door shut and falls to the ground against it. There is no wrapping her head around this; she chooses a fantasy instead. She shuts her eyes and imagines the bell tower surrounding her, white noise absorbing blue noise. Her cat skids across the floor into her lap, digging his claws into her thighs as he sticks the landing. She holds onto him, and they fall gently back to sleep against the doorframe, in prayer that they’ll wake up grounded, bells ringing.