Third Prize

Third Prize Story Winner
2024 Short Story Competition 

By Tristan Whitfield

Blazingly hot. The fridge wails and the meat’s gone off. She’s nowhere to be found; she’s probably at the beach, somewhere in the dunes. I mop blood off the floor, just as she intended me to.

Two weeks in, all’s quiet. Then a cut on her arm from a knife she “drops”. Dettol and cotton bud and bandage and tape. Sharp inhalations and tears like she’s lost an arm. She asks me if I’ll always stay and I’m washing her blood off my hands and I mumble yes. I smell hospital floors and copper coins sequestered in fevered palms.

The cut is infected. She’s packed sand, from the place she goes that I don’t know, into it. The irritation, she claims, makes the scar pronounced, inevitable. Beauty can be found in provocation itself, love in disruption, subversion. I think it’s ugly. I pick grains out of her arm as she sleeps – the woman made of sand.

So hot, the horizon is ablaze. The tarmac melts while space-blue bleeds from black sky and I burn, there beneath the sheets, her clinging to me. I’m sick with it; she forces me to overdose. I’m sick with it! I push her away and she slides right back, a wave across the land. She’s a pusher too, of her squalid gear, her festering, rapturous, corybantic self, and I’m buying and I don’t know why.

Nine days, no contact; she refuses to see me. At the touch of her cold shoulder the evenings stretch, leaves turn and crumble, and my summer-long fever breaks. Two fingers of tequila in one shaking hand, a phone in the other, I sit in rose twilight, my eyes silver dollars beneath rising moon. It’s over, is all I message. I’m burning as autumn kisses the air.

How could I have let her go? I feel like a fool. Bar of gold across her slack face, my arm asleep under her. I tried to move it but she said she was scared when she couldn’t feel me. Saturday morning, no place to be, let my arm suffocate, just as long as she’s happy. And she is; she tells me. I tell her I’m sorry, that if she’s the sand then I’m the ocean: one is not found without the other.

Silence. I scratch at my skin as I wait for her to message me back; it’s dry; I don’t like winter. Everywhere you go there is the unwashed stink of strangers half-boiled by overzealous furnaces.

She smells so good. She’s left for the day, whispering her benediction, sleep-hushed swell breaking over shallow insentience and I roll over, face down into the spot where she’d laid. It’s like flowers pressed inside an ancient book, perfume spilt on the earthen floor of a root cellar. Exaltation in assimilation; I’m taken by the tide. Then I get home from work and I think she’s dead. The bathroom is foul with the stink of vomit; she’s lying in a greyish puddle of it. White pills, half dissolved, look like tiny islands in storm, their boundaries aggressively ripped away. My fingers in her throat, probing, penetrating, her closed-off personal warmth and then she’s in my arms expectorating bile down my back.
Flashing crimson and ice, wailing like an open fridge, the contents inside corrupted, gone bad. The paramedics won’t let me ride with her. I kill them with my thoughts. Silence. A policeman asks me questions. He asks me if I know what pills she had taken. I don’t. Tic Tacs, he says.
What flavour, I ask.
He doesn’t know.

I’m drinking and she’s calling me non-stop and I’m apoplectic. I pick up the phone, put it down again. My hand’s still shaking, my heart is lurching. I think about the vile I’d spew, the verbal getbacksies. My eyes are rolling, my face contorting. I’m caught within a dysphoric, thundering caprice. She deserves righteous abuse; she deserves forgiveness. She deserves to be forgotten, and so I listen to the tinny ringtone and weather it. Two fingers down my throat and then two more.

She’s in a cascade coloured like ballet slipper silk, her bare feet half buried in the organic blushing carpet on which she stands. Her eyes are mirrors of the sky: brightest blue, full of sun, full of life, but for only so far. You were nothing, she tells me, and I’m pulled into the void beyond those cerulean mantles, gasping for breath in that endlessness the colour of pitch, crushed by the nothingness she says she feels. I’m the fool who dies twice.

I wake to a kiss, firm and long, full of grit. The squirming warmth recedes, and my mouth fills again, this time with frigid teal, tasting of nothing and everything, mostly of ruined pasta dishes. She dips a hand into the swell, drinks, joins me in her communion. She follows that with a swig of tequila from a bottle I held in my own hand before reality blurred and bled. I’m in her place that no one knows. The retreating wave tears sand out from under her legs, from around my neck. She pats it back into place tenderly, absently. She doesn’t need to tell me she had a spare key; I don’t need to tell her I’d hoped all spring to come home and find her waiting in my bed. Another wave, my mouth sealed against it, and she lies down in the churning foam, her lips against my ear. She asks me if I remember what I told her and I say I do.

Deserted midday. The heat is suffocating. In its chilled white coffin, a bok choy wilts, a steak turns the greenish-greyish colour of algae beneath a lake. In a pile of cutlery aside an upturned drawer, a phone calls tunelessly. Elsewhere, a fishing boat pulls in its net while on the shore a young boy digs in the sand.