Flash Fiction: After the Tide Went Out (999 words)

It was a beautiful gift, all smooth corners of blue paper that gleamed like moonrise on the water, and leaping white ribbon. It felt nice in Chaela’s hands as she picked it up off the table, the paper more cousin to cloth than tree. She would have been content to leave it just as it was for a long while if Leonathan hadn’t been standing in the doorway, quietly watching and waiting. She turned it around in her hands once, letting the white light of the lamps catch and dance one more time across the top of the box. She could hear something shift inside, something muffled and nestled, and perfectly content to be held inside.

Chaela wobbled on her new heels as she turned back toward the door, the shoes still stiff around her feet. She let herself slide into it, let her feet slide out and stood on the carpet in her bare toes. Her wide skirt hid the shoes still, but she sank back to her usual height. Looking up at Leonathan – back to the way she was accustomed to looking up at him – she smiled, more to herself than to him. She felt silly for kicking out of her shoes. And she felt better. They only met each other’s eye for a moment while she smiled. He smiled back, but she could feel the weight in it. She looked back to the gift in her hands quickly, and pulled in a breath, pull the next moment along more quickly as well.

Gently, she slid the ribbons out of their knots. Chaela let them fall around her fingers. The seams of the paper were laid in carefully, but with the ties gone, it was easy to slip her fingers between the layers. She peeled the paper back too, careful not to turn the thin-walled wooden box inside upside down. The lid sighed as she lifted it.

Inside, there was a layer of silk, crushed and folded artfully to look something like scattered flower petals. She looked down at it, and wasn’t even sure how she could say that, unable to find a single definitive petal in the fabric, but at glance, that’s what it was. It smelled sweet like flowers too, like something that belonged deep in summer, in warmth and woods. She tucked the silk into the cover of the box, and found a pendant seated in another layer of silk.

It was a thick disc, a little wider than her thumb, made of polished white stone. Black and gray spidered through the body of it, each thin line limned in a blue fade. Smoke off a fire too hot to remember exactly where its flame stopped and its final vapors began. Or the water clinging to the sand in its tangled lines after the tide went out. The outer edge was caged in twisting silver knots, the metal old enough to have gone dark at the bottom of the grooves, but still lovely. Chaela held it up by its narrow, turning chain and it caught the light confidently, spun lazily, like a girl flickering her hair over her shoulder in the sun.

“It’s beautiful,” Chaela murmured.

She saw Leonathan nod out of the corner of her eye.

“It should have been yours before we were married,” he told her, quiet. He paused, hesitated maybe. “It’s an engagement necklace. Women here wear them on the same chain with their wedding pendants. I don’t know why I didn’t bring it with me on that last trip to the mainland. I knew I would see you, and I think I… I think I knew how quickly things would happen.”

Chaela tried not to catch on the should as it came out of his mouth, then tried harder to let the rest of his murmurings slide over it and hide it in her own thoughts. It would have been easier if he still wore any of his smile.

She’d already spent too much time in the last few months thinking of what should and should not have been done. It used to be so hard for her to find something to regret. She used to be able to wear them with no greater trouble than a over-large coat, and shrug it off at the end of the day the same way. Now, her shoulds and shouldn’ts were stacked all the way up her spine, leaning her forward. She should have had this necklace before. She should have been here sooner. They shouldn’t have been the only two standing here in his home.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured. She barely the noticed the words before they were in her mouth, and almost choked on them all the same. She’d said it so many times. It was getting hard to find a time when she wasn’t thinking it, harder still to keep it from slipping out in the silences he left for her side of their conversations.

Patiently, Leonathan forgot she had ever said it before. “It’s all right,” he murmured. He had said it so many times, she had memorized the tone of it, and it never varied. It was always replete with sincerity, and she always swallowed it down as a lie.

Pushing off the door frame, he crossed the room to her shoulder and wrapped his hand around hers to slid the chain out of her grasp. The pendant was cold on her skin when he first set it around her neck, but it was warm before he’d latched the chain. He wrapped his arms around her next, and she turned into his chest, head cradled against his neck.

“I’m sorry,” she said, blinking against tears that only paused and slid down her cheeks anyway. She wrapped her fist around his collar, as if the tight grip might calm her chest as she tried to take the same steady breaths that she’d carried a moment ago.

“It’s all right,” he said. And he held her as tightly as she held him.

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