This story is by Sarah Chen and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Another day in Clearwater
“You again,” said the man behind the bar, wiping glass after glass with the white-washed towel tucked into his apron, “you shouldn’t be here.” He’s been saying more or less the same thing every day for as long as memory serves. It doesn’t help. She knew, but she couldn’t help herself.
Elanore felt most at home in this half-sunken bar. Five steps led down to a room big enough to hold four booths and two tables. The bar took over the far corner lined by a few high stools uncomfortable enough to keep any sane person from lingering for more than a couple beers. At ground level, three frosted windows in need of a washing stretched across the west side of the room. They allowed the light and heat of the afternoon to stream in just at the time of day when weary eyes like to settle down to dream. It was a miracle the place stayed open. Mostly, it was only Elanore who idled here through the waking hours when most people preferred the company of work or others to pass the day away.
Black and white photos lined the walls, spaced sporadically, moments frozen in time, framed testimonies speaking to days long gone. Looking again at the images and the faces immortalized behind the photographer’s lense inspired a rose-kissed color to tint her otherwise pale cheeks.
Elanore liked to hide out in this room where the humidity of the marshy Florida swamps couldn’t touch her aching bones. Here no voices dared to pull her out of the revelry of the days she used to spend with her daughter before the cancer ate away at her insides. No one should have to bury a child, she murmured to herself time and again. Elanore never got along well on the outside since those days. She liked this place just fine. Comfortable in its Hopperesque familiarity.
The short incessant snapping of the pendulum clock came in and out of the forefront of her thoughts, bringing things into order for a minute. Time is a faithful but unforgiving partner. Like a droning metronome that cannot be stopped, it seems to echo in the chambers of distant regions of the mind as the music goes on. The conscience forgets about it until the final stanza, and then, the end seems to come all too soon.
A retro 1960s burnt orange lamp shade hanged down over her usual table from a paint chipped, yellowed ceiling. She thought it might look good cleaned up and put in a Scandinavian cleaned-lined living room; her thoughts were always wandering. Out of place thoughts were her speciality. At least that’s the way others seemed to look at her – like she said the wrong thing at the wrong time, or occasionally the right thing at the wrong time or vice versa. That’s the kind of thinking that got her into this rut in the first place. Stuck. Yet, today was to be different.
If she had known what was coming maybe she would have slept longer. Or she could have pretended to sleep, her eyes closed tight and hands desperately pulling the covers over her ears to block out any intrusions. But she didn’t know. That’s the problem with intrusions. They don’t announce themselves. They just show up. No invitation in hand, it’s hard to stop something like that, something that has no regards for propriety. Of course, it’s expected that life brings some of these creatures into everyday mundanities, but still she never anticipated this. This is the story of what almost killed her. You might find it hard to believe, although, I guarantee its veracity.
The door of that small one-room bar only opened towards the outside. That’s one of the reasons Elanore felt so stuck there. She couldn’t bring herself to push open the door herself. It’s hard to describe, but pushing that door open to the outside, seemed too violent an act to perpetrate. She always waited until someone opened the door long enough for her to sneak out. So it was almost like she never had to leave, that place was always a part of her, and she lived inside that room even while she was walking around outside on the thin, gravel-lined sidewalks of Jasper Street.
Because that door only swung out, the creature had to find another way into the room. Creatures are oftentimes pushers and not pullers. This one in particular was a thing of aggression rather than persuasion. Its blurred shadow hovered behind the window, the greyness of it shuddering for a few tell-tale instants. The shadows could have easily been mistaken for the wind blowing the leaves on the hedges, blocking out the sun for a few seconds.
The shadowy beast paced back and forth a few times outside. Then, in one decisive movement, he crashed through the single-pane window, creating an explosion of glass with tiny pieces hovering around the animal and then scattering across the tiled floor. It took a moment for Elanore to realize what had happened, what exactly slid into her colorless world. But then her eyes locked with one of the slivery golden eyes as its outer eye lid closed and opened one time and then a second, dazed, taking in its surroundings. Its great tail hit the floor and waved from left to right, knocking a chair over as if it was made of matchsticks. Its considerable chunky claws raised with effort one at a time and landed with a thud. She had no doubt that those oddly webbed feet could carry the bloated, oversized body across the room within seconds.
The alligator had a prehistoric look to it, and in the span of two breaths, Elanore was caught up in the awesome beauty of the thing before fear coursed through her body from head to toe. A cry was born and then stagnated within her throat. Her lips parted, willing the sound to come out. The sound of her own voice would have been some sort of small comfort as she glimpsed in her periphery the movement of the man from behind the bar dashing through the exit. She was left alone with it, and somehow silence seemed the only appropriate response.
Although some might say she spent recent years in survival mode, at this moment, the instinct for survival proved dull and slow.
“Did she have a choice?”, she wondered. Outrunning the thing was far from a certainty. Even if she could lift one of the chairs over her head, could she bring it down to strike that horrific, elongated mouth with any impact? “Why not just let him enjoy her, take advantage of her plump flesh, squeezing out her life between those poignant, erratically placed teeth?” It was an ending far more romantic than she had ever imagined – better than rotting away within these four walls. She took a step towards the creature.
His mouth opened slowly, horribly. Pasty pink coloured tissue lined the expanse of his jaws. He jerked forward. Elanore stumbled back; in her mind she was trying desperately to master her destiny. Perhaps the easiest way forward was through the innards of this beast, give in to the inevitable.
The savage, snaky eyes stared into her soul. Calling, beckoning, taunting her. Mesmerised, she thought about her daughter and the emptiness of the days since. A strange, foreign sensation took over her – tears filling her eyes. They tumbled out silently. It was almost as if the thing was consoling her, telling her everything was going to be ok. Did this creature understand her sorrow? Or was he just luring her in? In the face of death, she realised everything she had missed. She could let go of her hurt now. She was exposed. With each tear, bitterness evaporated from her body. She felt a lightness where she didn’t even know heaviness had made its home.
The clock advanced five beats, and by the sixth, everything within her rebelled. She would not lay down still within these walls, walls that have bound her day after day. Breath, life, the air outside called to her, drawing her. The bony scutes lining the creature’s back appeared presently to her as stepping stones. The dreadful, snarled U-shaped jaw opened wider for a terrifying instant and snapped shut acknowledging the one now holding captive her own thoughts.
The creature now was the one that cowered as Elanore rose up, at least a head taller than before. As she looked around the room, the bar with its sparkling glasses, time stopped. She finally let out the great cry that had been stored up inside, streaming out like grains tumbling out of an enormous silo in its season. The cry was wild, raw, unthoughtful. It just was. The creature turned away, his great head turned downward.
Elanore strode across the room; her hand did not tremble as she pushed that door open into the sun-blazoned afternoon.