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Saltwater Lullabies
by Kaitlin McCoy

Runestone, volume 2


Twisting the silver band around my finger once, twice, a third time, I knew stalling would not save me in the end. With a quick tug, I pulled the ring from my finger, or tried. It stuck at the knuckle, and I choked back the ridiculous hysteria that swelled in my throat.

It fit going onto my finger. I could get it off. But the skin bunched around the bony knob once more.

I couldn’t breathe. Matthew would never let me go. I needed to get it off. If my own finger wouldn’t give up his ring, maybe I was meant to keep it. No, no. It had to come off. I couldn’t breathe. I could no longer smell the salty air that swept in with the ocean tide. The only scent in my nose was the other girl’s bitter floral perfume that had mixed sickeningly with Matthew’s sweat when he’d leaned in to kiss me, pinning me to the wall. I couldn’t breathe.

I dropped into a crouch and shoved my hand into the water. Claustrophobic. This was silly. It was just a ring. Just a finger. But if it didn’t come off, I would cut it off. Waves lapped at my bare toes. Twisting it back and forth, I grimaced as bits of sand ground into my skin under the ring. It slipped off so suddenly I dropped it, but I scooped it up before the water could take Matthew away from me. Settling back on my haunches, I stared at the strip of metal in my palm, its small diamond glinting with the last light of the sun, which was about to dip behind the dark waves.

The water soaked the seat of my jean shorts, and I jolted upright. I glanced behind me to see if anyone had noticed, but almost everyone had left. Now only a family of four, a couple, and a solitary man occupied the once crowded beach. The family was busy gathering up their beach toys as they packed up to leave, and the couple was too self-absorbed to notice anyone else. The man had his back to me, facing the sunset with a hand up to shade his eyes. I wished he was looking so we could make meaningful eye contact over the coarse sand, and he’d tell me how beautiful I was. We could be like one of the romance novels I’d shoved in my trunk, the last things I grabbed when I took my things from Matthew’s place and headed to the farthest coast where there would be nothing to remind me of him. Matthew always said the books were cheesy and that those things didn’t happen in real life. And he was right—as he’d always insisted he was. There was no passionate connection with this stranger across the sand. There couldn’t be. He didn’t even see me.

I couldn’t make out much of him in the twilight, but as I watched him bring a cigarette casually up to his lips, a flash of disgust blazed through me. My cheeks heated with embarrassment. Who was I to judge? I didn’t know him. He could smoke if he wanted. It wasn’t my life he was ruining.

I angled my body away from him, shielding my cupped fingers from view, even though I knew no one cared enough to even glance in my direction. Fist clenched tight, I let the ring bite into my flesh the same way the chilled breeze stung my cheeks. I wandered farther down the beach, pretending to escape the gaze of eager eyes. Finally far enough to sustain my fantasy, I came to a halt. Hefting the ring on my palm, I marveled at its weightlessness. It was nothing. Inconsequential.

I threw it out into the waves as hard as I could.

Matthew would have laughed. He always said my throwing form was terrible, but adorable. He used to think it was endearing. I used to think his random late night errands were as well.

I stopped staring at the waves. The ring had long since dropped below the surface, though it was too windy to see where it landed in the white-capped swells. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that it was gone.

By the time I got back to my shoes, the family had left and the couple had draped a blanket over themselves, which did little to conceal their movements. The man still stared in the same direction, though the sun had dropped away, leaving only a sudden chill in its wake.

I grabbed my shoes from their heap on the ground with my socks and wandered in the direction of the man. Well, really it was the direction of my car. He just happened to be in the same area.

I toyed with the laces on one shoe, turning the shoe over and over again in my hand pretending to read the quotes I’d written in black Sharpie. At first I had the urge to run to my car. In a strange city, on a nearly deserted beach, with a stranger over a head taller than me, the smart thing to do would be to play it safe. But that was what Matthew would expect me to do. He’d always thought I was childish, despite me being twenty-five to his twenty-four. He would expect me to run like a frightened little girl. I would not be the girl he thought I was. Besides, I couldn’t go back to that silent motel room. I would suffocate there.

“Um, excuse me,” I croaked, sounding as though I smoked like him.

He turned. Tattooed arms bulged under the sleeves of his white t-shirt.

I only realized how close I’d gotten when I tasted his stale cigarette breath on my lips. “I – uh – Is there a gas station nearby?” A gas station? Really?

But he didn’t scoff at my question, just slid his hands into the pockets of his ripped jeans. “There’s one a couple blocks away,” he replied, voice coming out low and soothing from somewhere deep in his chest.

“Great,” I rocked back on my heels but couldn’t get myself to leave.

“You new to the area?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Ever been to Maine before?”

“No.”

He chuckled. “I figured as much. Shorts and a tank top are for beaches in Cali and Florida, not here. Especially this late in the year.” He nodded to my goose bumped arms.

“Noted,” I mumbled, feeling ridiculous.

“Sooo… What’s a girl like you doing here? Visiting family? Traveling…? With a boyfriend? Fian—”

“No!” I interrupted. “I mean, no, not currently. It’s just me.”

“Cool, cool…” He rubbed a hand over the back of his head. His short, dark hair fell back into place almost as soon as the hand passed over it.

“So where are you—”

“What are you doing tonight—” We said at the same time, though he broke off before I did, and the end of my question remained suspended in the air between us.

“Are you saying—”

“Sorry, I meant—”

I clamped my mouth shut and bit my lips to keep them from saying anything else I’d regret.

After a few moments of silence, the crash of waves counting out every beat, he spoke again. “You a reader?”

“No.” Yes. The question caught me off guard and I lied.

“You look like one.”

I drew my shoes behind my back as if to hide the evidence of my obsession with words.

“Too bad…” he continued with a shrug that was too forced to be casual. “I was going to offer to show you my collection. I’ve got a whole bunch of books back at my place.” He cocked a brow in a challenge, though the cheeky grin on his lips softened the look.

I didn’t respond right away. I couldn’t stop staring at his five o’clock shadow that curved along his jawline. Matthew never had facial hair. He hated the way the stubble caught on his sweaters when he pulled them over his head, so he shaved meticulously every morning. This man hadn’t shaved for a few days, and for some reason I couldn’t pull my eyes away.

“I – uh – I might be interested in… seeing your books,” I choked out around the lump in my throat.

“So you’ll come home with me?” He extended his hand as if offering me a gift.

I hesitated again at the sight of his tattooed forearm. Was this the kind of guy I let take me back to his place? Did I even let guys take me back to their place? I shifted, digging my toes in the sand. I didn’t see any skulls or guns or naked women covering his arms, just patterns of tribal ink. Regular ink on a regular person.

“What makes you think I’m that kind of girl?” I asked, still stalling as I crossed my arms. I quickly dropped them again when his gaze followed the movement.

“Nothing. If I thought you were that kind of girl I wouldn’t have asked. I don’t want that kind of girl. I want you. You seem… Nice.”

Not beautiful. Not breathtaking. Nice.

I raked my hand through my hair, but it got caught in one of the mats where the wind had tangled my stringy blonde curls into a knot.

“And you’re kind of cute when you blush,” he added. An afterthought.

“I’m not blushing, it’s wind burn.”

“Come home with me?”

“How far?” I lifted my chin and squared my shoulders as if I knew what the hell I was doing.

His lips pulled back at the corner as he fought a smile. “Follow me, it’s not too far.” He extended his hand once more for me to take.

I ignored it, hugged my shoes to my chest, and started walking. He swung around and trotted a few steps until he could fall in step beside me. Neither of us said a word. I did my best to ignore his presence as he led me out of the parking lot and down the street, but it proved difficult with his warm, tattooed arm brushing against my own cool, pale skin with every few steps.

* * *

His apartment was remarkably clean. I marveled at the neatly organized shelves and modern furniture while he shut the door and lined our shoes up on the shoe rack.

“Well, this is it,” he said with a shrug, scooting around me in the narrow entryway.

“It’s nice,” I replied, not wanting to say anything else. It would be insulting to tell him that his place was much more appealing than I had assumed it would be.

He led me into the living area and headed straight to a tall bookcase, which was stuffed with new and worn copies of books ranging from marine biology to romance novels. Apparently he was determined to maintain the charade he’d begun at the beach when he promised to show me his book collection. He made a sweeping gesture with his arm toward the books and opened his mouth to direct the conversation into safe waters, but I stepped forward, anxious to cut him off.

My hand jerked upward to grab the collar of his shirt and drag him down into a kiss. Misjudging the distance, I accidentally scraped my ragged, bitten fingernail along the underside of his jaw. He let out a grunt and pulled back a bit, whether out of pain or surprise I would never know because I finally caught hold of his shirt and tugged his mouth down to meet mine. My kiss was overeager. Embarrassment swelled in my chest and burned my cheeks. To prevent him from commenting on my less than graceful move, I threw myself into the kiss. Too much. My teeth clacked against his, and I drew back quickly, pulling out of the kiss I’d intended to be passionate and settling for three quick, final pecks. My heels thumped on the floor as I lowered myself from my tiptoes.

My ears buzzed in the silence that followed. I felt his gaze on the crown of my head but refused to look up, afraid of the expression I’d find there. Mocking. Pity. Disgust.

“Maybe we should move this to the bedroom.”

My head snapped up. Our eyes locked momentarily. I nodded.

He guided me through the apartment, hand at the base of my back. He pushed open the bedroom door, reaching around me to flick on the lights. It was small and slightly more cluttered than the rest of the apartment, but I didn’t waste time taking in the surroundings.

I flipped the light off again, using the golden streetlight that filtered through thin curtains to find my way around the unfamiliar space. I shimmied out of my shorts, tossed my shirt somewhere into the dark, and crawled onto his bed.

He turned the light back on. I pretended not to mind. Removing his own shirt revealed more tattoos on his torso and chest.

He followed me to bed.

* * *

I couldn’t sleep.

It was impossible to know what kept me awake, perhaps the foreign sound of his snoring. Or possibly the crash of the waves, which seeped in through the window he’d cracked to air out the cloying smell of sex lingering in the room.

His head had thudded against his pillow over an hour ago. The muscles in my neck refused to relax and allow my head to sink fully into the pillow on my side of the bed. A faint hint of lavender clung to the threads of the pillowcase and made my stomach nauseous. Did the last girl he’d taken to his bed leave the scent behind? How many girls like me had he brought back to his apartment? Was that why he was at the beach, looking to collect another partner for his bed? Had the last girl smelled like lavender, or was it just her hair? Had he noticed mine, seen how tangled and stringy it was? What would the next girl smell from me? Salt? Sex?

I rolled over, turning my back to his so the salty, fresh air from the window could wash over my face. The streetlight had flickered out again, the third time in an hour. I squinted at the thin white curtain, pretending I could see every delicate thread that wove through the fabric and held it all together.

I was unraveling.

No, I would be fine. I just needed some sleep, and I would make a fresh start in the morning. Alone. No. Independent. If I could travel all the way from Idaho to Maine by myself, then I could do anything—go anywhere. I could leave this place tomorrow and go wherever I wanted. But first I needed to rest. As soon as the streetlight came back on, I would go to sleep. That would be my signal.

It could happen any minute…

* * *

I opened my eyes to the white morning light, not realizing I’d fallen asleep. The man beside me continued to snore. The man? Did I even know his name?

Sometime during the night he’d flung his arm across me, and it rested heavily on my waist. Moving slowly, I shifted toward the edge of the bed and set his arm down on a mound of blankets. If he woke up before I left, I would say I had a great night and I had somewhere I needed to be. Short, sweet, simple. That was what people who did this kind of thing said, right? Was I one of those people now?

I needed my clothes.

I crept over to my shorts and tugged them on, trying to ignore the stiffness where the seawater had dried into the fabric. My shirt wasn’t in plain view, and I remembered tossing it somewhere last night. Staying as silent as I could manage, I tiptoed around the room, ducking down every so often to check under the dresser and around stacks of books.

Feeling ridiculous, I dropped to my knees and crawled closer to the loveseat so I could peek under it. Hopefully I hadn’t thrown it in the gap between the back of the chair and the corner of the wall. A lumpy form to the right caught my eye, and I snatched it up. Drawing back onto my heels, I shook the tank top out.

I froze.

It was a blouse. Not my blouse. I didn’t even own a pink blouse.

I checked over my shoulder to be sure he was still sleeping before examining the shirt more closely. It was ordinary. Pink, soft. Just a normal blouse. I brought it to my nose without consciously telling my hand to do so.

I recoiled from the lavender scent.

Eyes wide, I looked around the room again. Masculine. Weathered wood for the bedframe and dresser, dark gray sheets tangled around his sleeping form, distressed leather chair beside me, a stack of CDs and a box of condoms on the small table beside the bed. Definitely a man’s room. Well, it was at least gender-neutral. Nothing to suggest a girlfriend. A fiancé. Dear God, please not a wife.

I was desperate to snoop, but I stayed on my knees. It wasn’t right to go through his things. What if he woke up and caught me? What if I was wrong? What if it was just left by some one-night stand like me?

I stood slowly, my knees cracking. My eyes darted to the bed. His breathing remained steady, his eyes closed. I walked to the dresser. I could just pull out one of the drawers, and if it revealed a pile of bras I’d know my answer, but that would mean actively going through his things. I would just start with anything in plain sight. Not snooping, just curious. Interested. Nothing wrong with that.

A pile of men’s socks sat on top of the dresser, but I left them. They told me nothing. The small wooden box on the other hand…

I’d dismissed it at first. Just a plain, chestnut colored box, undecorated. But it could be a jewelry box if he did live with a woman. I could find a pile of necklaces and earrings, and then I would know. I could be certain.

Glancing back at him one more time, I made sure he was still asleep before I reached for the lid. I’d only lifted it far enough to glimpse a pile of small papers when it began to play a tune like a music box. I snapped it closed and whirled around, keeping the blouse hidden in my fist behind my back.

He grunted and rolled to his other side but otherwise showed no signs of waking. After waiting an eternity, I turned back to glare at the box that had almost exposed me.

The corner of one of the papers stuck out from under the lip of the lid. I slid it out.

Don’t miss me, love. I’ll miss you enough for the both of us. Breakfast is on the counter and I’ll see you when I get back. Counting the minutes even though I haven’t even left yet.
~  J.

J. Jill? Julie? Jenna?

I slipped the note back and made sure the corner made it all the way back inside the box.

I was her. I was the woman. The one I caught in Matthew’s bed.

My lungs collapsed in my chest, and I gasped as my stomach twisted violently.

But it passed. As quickly as it had come, it was gone.

It wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t known.

Had Matthew’s redhead known about me that day I found her straddling him in our bed? Did it matter?

I choked on a hysteric giggle, clamping my lips tightly before it could escape. What had I done? What was I supposed to do now? Was it better for her to catch us and know, or was ignorance as blissful as everyone promised?

I pulled my shorts off again. I threw them in about the same place I’d found them and crept back to the bed. I eased his arm up and slid under it, letting it rest over the dip of my waist once more. I waited a moment or two before snuggling into his warmth, jostling him just enough to wake him up.

He groaned and stretched, tattoos rippling along his body. “G’morning.”

“Mmmm, morning,” I replied, wiping at my eyes and blinking as if just waking up.

“Sooo… last night was…nice.” He propped himself up on one arm.

“Yeah, yeah it was nice, I guess… Look, I’m sorry to run out like this. I don’t know how these things normally work, but I’ve gotta go.”

“Okay, okay. Cool, yeah nice meeting you…?”

“Jessica,” I lied.

His face paled, but he controlled his expression quickly. I’d been close, but not correct.

“Uh, yeah, Jessica. Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” I replied absentmindedly. I got up from the bed and went to put on my shorts. He watched me as I pulled them up, buttoned and zipped them, but didn’t say a word. I pretended to search for my shirt before snagging the blouse. When I stood up with it, I could almost hear his muscles tense as the quality of the air in the room changed.

“Bye.” I waved over my shoulder as I walked out the door, buttoning the blouse up as I went.

The sun was blindingly bright when I stepped outside the building, and it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust. As I crossed the parking lot, a dark-haired woman a few years older than me walked by me to the apartment complex I’d just exited from. I almost leaned in to see if she smelled like lavender. I wanted to ask for her name. But I didn’t. I kept walking because it didn’t matter whether that woman was his J or not, whether she was tall or pretty or smart or funny. Sooner or later she’d end up just like me, and then it wouldn’t matter what kind of a woman she was.

Everything was the same, yet also completely different. This time it wasn’t Matthew, and this time it wouldn’t be me with the broken heart. Someone else. Not me.

The shirt hung a little too long in the arms. I rolled the sleeves as I walked toward the beach to get my car so I could head back to my motel. I wouldn’t miss the tank top, hadn’t really liked it much in the first place. I hoped she would find it before he did, whenever she got back from wherever she was, missing him more than he was missing her. I hoped she’d be the one to glimpse the crumpled pile of another woman’s clothes.

Who would she blame? Me? Him? Herself?

It didn’t matter.

This time it wasn’t me.


KAITLIN McCOY

Winona State University

As a current junior at Winona State University, Kaitlin McCoy spends much of her time reading, writing, or creating artwork that expresses and explores her interest in different viewpoints and perspectives that influence how we all see the world and how we interact with those around us.

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