Written for NYC Midnight’s flash fiction challenge 2017.
My brief was as follows:
- Genre: Horror
- Location: A Sandbar
- Object: A Balloon
- Time limit: 48 hour
- Word Count: 1,000 word
Title: A Child of Woe.
Synopsis: Frank takes his wife back to where he proposed, to pull her out of her postnatal slump. But they are both beyond repair now.
It’s possible to drown in as little as two inches of water. That’s not the type of thing that I tell Harriet anymore. Not because she will call me Captain Sensible, but because I am worried about what she might do with the information.
The wind blows her hair into her face again. “Pointless washing my hair today, wasn’t it?” she says to nobody. Today is one of those days she’s speaking at me and not to me.
We’re walking over the foreshore so the sand is wet and hard. She lets go of the pram to tie her hair back. The pram starts to roll. I move to grab the handle but Harriet swears and grabs it herself with one hand, taming her hair with the other. A balloon which is tied to the pram bounces in her face. She hits at it angrily, almost in tears already. I brought her back to North Berwick beach to cheer her up. It’s not working.
“Harriet….” I move to hug her but she shivers and pushes the pram forward, stopping on a dry patch of sand.
We came to this beach in the heat of summer, two years before our daughter, Ruth was born. We found a spot on a sandbar while the tide was out. Laid out a blanket, drank cheap Brut from plastic cups and waited for the sea to creep in around us. I proposed to her on the sandbar.
“I’m only saying yes because I’m trapped,” she joked. Now she wears the ring on a necklace around her neck.
Harriet lifts the cover of the pram. She ties a little sack of sand to the balloon and puts it in Ruth’s lap. I hold the pram as if to stop it rolling. Really I just want to see my wife being a mother. But Harriet’s not looking at her face. She’s just going through the motions. There are tears welling up in her eyes. I tell myself they’re from the wind. It’s not the first lie I’ve told myself today.
“You look just like Frank,” she says, and turns away to look at the sea. The tide is only a few metres away now. She wipes away her tears on the pink scarf I bought her in Edinburgh.
“She looks like you as well, Harriet,” I lie.
Harriet is crying without pretension now. Her shoulders spasm in sharp jolts. It feels like we’re going back to the bad times again. To another conversation about her treatment.
Incongruously, Ruth is laughing. The balloon is darting around as if it were possessed. A gust of wind pulls it out of her lap and blows it inland. Ruth squeals.
“I’ll get it,” I say.
“Well you’ve lost another balloon now haven’t you?” Harriet says in the cheeriest voice she can muster, still avoiding Ruth’s eyes, “What would your dad say?”
“I said, I’ll get it,” I shout over my shoulder as I start jogging inland. The balloon is moving fast, dragging its ballast across the beach. It stops its journey when it hits the seawall. North Berwick beach is long when the tide is out, it takes me five minutes to cross it. An old lady walking her dog looks at the balloon. Her dog starts barking at me, pulling at the lead.
“The things we do for our kids, eh?” I say. She blanks me. She probably can’t hear me because of the wind, but it’s adding to the feeling that everyone is ignoring me today.
I grab the balloon and walk back to my family. The tide is coming in fast and there is only a small pathway of sand between the emerging sandbar and the rest of the beach. I start jogging.
I can see Harriet has lifted Ruth out of her pram and is bouncing her gently in her arms. I can feel the stinging pressure of tears behind my eyes. For a fleeting moment I let myself forget about the hell we’ve been through after Ruth’s birth. Harriet’s erratic behaviour. The tests for postpartum psychosis. The refusal to go for treatment. I can let this moment lie to me.
“Harriet, the tide!” I shout into the wind. As I get closer I can see Harriet is not bouncing Ruth, she is gripping her hard and shuddering with tears. The tide is joining itself around the sandbar. Harriet lays Ruth facedown in the water.
“Harriet!” I start sprinting hard. I can’t believe it. She wouldn’t do it. She’s stronger than this. “Harriet. No!”
I run through the water and crouch next to Ruth. She looks lifeless but still warm. I lift her out of the water to lay her on the sand… but I can’t.
My hands won’t lift her. I can’t touch anything. I notice I’m not wet or cold. I look inland. The red balloon is still flapping against the seawall.
Harriet is sitting down beyond the pram. She is drinking Brut from a plastic glass, crying into a letter she’s reading. There’s another plastic glass next to her. It’s there for me.
“Harriet, help her, please,” I know she can’t hear me. I know the letter is in my handwriting. I want to take it back. Please God let me take it back. “Harriet, I’m sorry. Please.” It’s a suicide note. Dated Ruth’s birthday. “Harriet, pick her up!” I scream into nothing.
The words are smudged with tears, but she and I know the letter by-heart, “It’s possible to drown yourself in as little as two inches of water,” the first line reads.
“I was sick, Harriet. I’ll do the treatment. You’re stronger than me. Be stronger than me.”
Now I hear Ruth crying. Finally, I can pick her up and hold her. She’s warm and made of light. “Shh, Daddy’s here.” It’s too late now. She’s in my world forever.