This story is by Nathan Stone and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The pain woke him up; the deep pain, radiating out from his bones, leaving the caves and hollows, and rocketing up to the top of his consciousness. He opened his eyes in the grey twilight between dreams and morning. The slash on his foot, where a coral razor had met the soft skin and muscle, added its music to the rest of the cacophonic symphony.
He fumbled in the mist of the hotel room for the lamp switch. He found it, turned it on and blinked, resisting the antiseptic light pouring out. He looked on the bed. Three hollows were all that were left of the night before.
He got up, the pain quickening its tempo as muscle and sinew and bone were rearranged and lurched into the bathroom. Stuck on the mirror, above the evaporating reflection, was a note in watery frills.
Went out to the beach for a morning swim. Don’t wait up for breakfast; I’ll catch something before we leave for the airport.
“All love.” He tore the note down, crumpled it in his hand, the blood rushing down to power his fingers. “Morning swim.” He threw the papered corpse through the door. Who had she seen yesterday that made her want to get out of bed at this ungodly hour? Especially after last night. He grinned, in spite of himself as the fresh memories replayed in his brain. It had been historic; for both of them. And for just one second, the pain had gone…
He stepped into the shower; water as hot as he could take. She had no right to leave him, especially after last night. They should have woken up together, compared memories, quizzed each other about what had been the best part, how many times it had happened. Their analysis should have excited her; he should have driven Calli into a frenzy and the rest of the morning could have been obliterated in the sheets. But she had gone to goggle at some meat hunk fifteen years younger than him.
Probably more than goggle.
He ramped up the heat, broiling his now pink flesh which screamed with a thousand different gaping mouths. And what had she meant about the airport? They were staying in Honolulu for another three days before flying to Sydney.
He stepped out of the shower into the jungle steam that caressed and soothed his lobstered skin. With the robe kissing him, he went to the phone that sat expectantly by the sofa.
“Room service for Allgood, Room 761.” There was a glitch of silence. “Room service? Bring a full continental breakfast with orange juice and a pot of coffee. A saucer of cream and a bowl of sugar to go with that coffee. Just for one, thanks. But…” he hesitated one second. “Also bring a wild berry smoothie. Make that a large. Can you add protein and immune booster to that? Thanks.”
He got up and went onto the balcony. The sun was clawing its way into the pale blue, escaping the black of the ocean. Below on the beach, he saw specks of red, yellow, blue and black on Athenas, Adonises, Aphrodites, and Apollos while mortals covered themselves in artificial shadows, cowering before the face of Helios. He scanned them and the beach, looking for a particular figure, a mortal now playing at being Artemis. There had been a time when she hadn’t had to pretend. But that was…
The door buzzer buzzed and his continental breakfast entered with the ceremony and opulence of a pasha. “Anything else, Mr. Allgood?” the waiter asked.
“No; thanks. Just put the smoothie in the freezer.” He tipped him and sat down, heaping eggs, ham, and toast, sprinkled with orange slices and grapes on his plate. He opened the stopwatch on his phone, set it up against the mostly empty toast rack and started it. He chewed mechanically, watching the seconds pile upon themselves into mounds of minutes.
The door opened again after thirty-four mounds had been created. Calli swanned into the room, her body rigidly stacked between the bookends of her bikini, glowing with sun and sky and water. “Morning, darling!” She swooped down, kissed him on the cheek and disappeared into the bathroom. The water began to pour again and the bikini flew out onto the floor.
He piled more food onto his plate and kept chewing, staring at everything happening on the nothing of the wall in front of him.
The water stopped. Calli flew out again, wrapped in an identical robe to his, the folds of hers trying to find something to hold onto. She sat down next to him and grabbed the last few orange slices and kiwi pieces that sat lonely on the decimated breakfast tray.
“I see that you’ve had a good morning,” she said. “With all that protein and those carbs, you don’t have any excuse to run out of energy today.”
“And neither will you,” he replied. “How many hunks were on the beach this early in the morning?”
Her laugh crystallized and shattered. “Too many to count. We’ll have to come back to Honolulu. Maybe after Shanghai.”
“I thought we agreed we were going to Cairo after Shanghai.”
“We were, but two months away from here would be too long. The climate agrees with me.”
He reached out and swooped his finger underneath her left eye, muscle memory guiding the thickening caterpillar, feeling the crevices and wrinkles invisible to the outside world. Mortals playing at gods. “Tans do hide the miles.”
Calli smiled—he felt the strings of muscle flexing and changing beneath his finger—and mummified his hand in hers. “So does eating.”
He freed his hand. “I don’t want to come back here. We’re going to Cairo after Shanghai.”
She laughed again. “No, Ty. We’re coming back.”
“Maybe we’ll just go home. It’s been how long since we were actually there—nine, fourteen months? Might be good to actually remind us of what the place looks like.”
“You can go if you want. I’ll come back here.”
“You and what money?”
She smiled. “I’ve been talking to mom. Text mostly. She’s more than willing to help me out. And besides,” she got up and walked to the inner edge of the balcony, “do you know how many men there are here who want a younger girlfriend? And how many guys who want an older woman?” She turned around to face him. “Money and men would come pouring in.”
“And how long would it last? Especially when they started learning about you; started living with you? And how long do you think your body can keep playing the goddess?”
“As long as Manuel keeps his business open. It’s the same dynamic in São Paulo like it is here. And I don’t think he’s looking to retire anytime soon. He loves his work. So many perks to it.” She moved away from the balcony. “Now come on and get dressed. We have to be at the airport by 9. You wanted to go on this aerial tour of Molokai. I think it’s a waste; you can’t do anything up in the air and all the fun is happening below you.”
“I don’t feel like going anymore.”
“You scheduled it and we’re going. Wasting money is fine but wasting money and not getting anything from the waste? Get cleaned up, Ty.” She glided into the bedroom.
He sat in the growing morning, cold panic and hot anger clashing in his head, their streams and tendrils spiraling into his limbs and organs, making them clench and gnash within his cavity.
“And we’ll have to leave earlier. A few orange slices aren’t enough for breakfast and I’m not going to starve until lunch. We’ll go to that smoothie stop on the corner that we saw yesterday. What really sounds good is…”
“…a large wild berry smoothie with protein and immune booster,” he finished for her.
Calli came out, her body now encased in the shorts and tank tops that she always wore to turn the right heads. “Did you…?”
“It’s in the freezer so it should be extra cold. Just take one of the spoons from the kitchen. No one will notice one’s missing.”
She came over, sat down on his lap, pushing the clock back seventeen years. “Thank you, babe,” she whispered and wrapped her arms around his neck.
He hugged her back, the deep pain circling and killing the anger and the panic until it was just the three of them—him, her and the pain—circling themselves on a merry-go-round that couldn’t end.