Castle in the Sand
Based on a prompt (was it Dia's?)
Write a steamy story without using any inappropriate words.
Something like that.
Castle deserved – no, needed - a break. He'd done two book signings that day, and had a talk/panel/drinks thing at 8pm with the West Coast Writers' Guild. On the way from the bookstore to the conference center, he spoke to the limo driver. "I feel like a detour. Venice Beach."
"It ain't exactly Hawaii, dude."
"I know. Just go for it." (He thought, but did not add, "Dude.") "It's close."
They arrived about fifteen minutes later at the roundabout. "I'll walk from here."
The driver smirked derisively at their somewhat gritty surroundings. Local color: kids on skateboards, souvenir shops, street vendors, coffee houses, fast food, graffiti both sanctioned and illicit. "You're sure about this? Santa Monica's nicer."
He nodded. "I lived around the block for a few months when I was fifteen." That had been when his mom took a small part in a long-forgotten sitcom, cancelled after a season. He'd surfed a little, learned to ride a unicycle, suffered his share of sunburns, discovered Raymond Chandler, dated a few girls, then they'd moved on.
Glancing around, it seemed to him that Venice was a good deal less grimy than he had remembered. The gum-encrusted sidewalks of Manhattan made this place look as clean as Disneyland. He gave the driver an extra $20 and said, "Meet me here in forty minutes. Maybe grab an ice cream."
The driver cocked an eyebrow. "It's all on the clock."
Castle shrugged and shook his head in the yes-no of resignation. "Money well spent."
Castle walked down Windward to the beach. When he passed the graffiti wall, he kicked off his shoes and socks, rolled up the hems of his khaki linen trousers, and took a seat in the cream-colored but dirty sand. He pulled out his phone and auto-dialed one of his main reasons for being.
"Hey." Kate's voice on the phone was surprisingly soft. Tired.
"I'm so sorry. You should be asleep. You're four hours ahead of me." He hadn't really forgotten that, but he would have settled for hearing her voice mail.
"At least I made it into bed. But my brain's going a mile a minute." He wondered if he'd mistaken her tone: Not sleepiness. Sadness.
"Good, otherwise I'd have to fly home and tuck you in."
"In your dreams. I am not the tucking kind."
"Well, maybe you just haven't been tucked properly of late."
He barely heard her say it, or sigh it, or maybe she just thought it loudly. "I miss you."
A lump grew in his throat: She missed him? After all the time wasted pushing him away. She missed him. He kept his voice low. "Had a couple of drinks tonight, have we?"
"Oh, just a glass of wine. Long day." She'd probably had two glasses of wine; he'd never heard her this... blurry before. He'd never seen her drunk. Or maybe she was just tired.
"Man's inhumanity to man. The usual." Definitely sad, then. Not just tired, but weary.
"Yeah." He struggled to keep it light. "So, I've been gone three weeks. Does absence make the heart grow fonder?"
"Yes. You should stay away more often if you're going to descend into cliché territory."
He retreated into sarcasm. "The wounding sharpness of your tongue makes Joan of Arc look like a fluffy baby bunny." But he didn't want to nurse that touch of anger. It wasn't what she needed, wasn't what he wanted. He switched to a gentler tone. "I miss you, too."
She actually sounded surprised. How could she question that? He wanted to shout at her. Every goddamn waking moment of every goddamn day. "A little. Thiiiis much." He let his voice squeak slightly, and used the phone like a microphone, moving it from close-in to arm's length and back. It sounded, he hoped, like quite a span.
"Oh. That explains everything." Her voice sounded marginally perkier.
Just enough. Ok. Keep her smiling. "So, just because it's my sworn duty as a salacious cad to ask, what are you wearing?"
"My earpiece. I'm hands-free."
He sat straight up. One hand cupped phone to ear. The other palm braced on the sand, grounding him. His voice pitched up a little, teasing. "Nothing else?"
She chuckled. "It's muggy tonight, but the air conditioner smells like feet. So I have a window open. Just a sheet on the bed." There was a short pause. "Is it warm there, too?" Did she sound... wistful?
"Sun's still up. Just about to go down. Seventy six degrees, light wind from southwest, 100 percent chance of dark."
She scoffed. "Some weather man you are."
"I left my barometer back in New York." And my compass.
She chuckled, then paused a long moment. "Tell me a story?" There was something of a ragged orphan in her voice.
"Dunno if that's a good idea. I'm in a public place right now."
"Venice Beach. A wretched hive of scum and villainy. But also very pretty in a rundown and funky way."
Her voice was sharp, teasing, awake. "Just like you."
"Yes. Just like me." He unconsciously ran a hand through his hair, betraying the insecurity that he hid under a pretense of vanity. "What kind of ending are you up for? Ambiguous? Tragic? Comic? Cliffhanger?"
"I want a happy ending," she said.
"You truly are the Queen of Subtext, you know that?"
She giggled. "Who, Us?"
"Yes, Your Majesty, You." He tucked his left leg under him, half-lotus, his right knee up, supporting his phone arm. "Are you ready for your story?" His left index drew spirals in the ivory sand next to him, moving out from tiny loops to sweeping curves then back again. Circles, ovals. Innocent doodling. Nothing to see here. Move along.
He heard her rustling around amongst the bedclothes. "Yes. All ready."
"What a lovely thought," he murmured.
"Tell me more."
He was ready, too, letting his mind drift. "The sun is about to set over the Pacific. It looks as big as my hand."
"That's pretty big."
He examined his hand: Somehow more artisan than artist, thick fingers, big enough to span a waist or a dinner plate. "So it is. The sky's pale with haze. Almost creamy. But right over the water it turns a deep, lush pink. The sun hovers over, just skimming the horizon." He swept a wavy line along the sand beside his hip. Forward, a slow loop, back again.
"Like it might change its mind and go back up?"
"Yes. Teasing the surface. But the forces of nature always win."
"Mmm, they do?"
"Believe it. You're a force of nature unto yourself."
She huffed. "Unfortunately right now I'm stuck on gravity."
"That's what holds the universe together. Where was I?"
"Yes. The sun teases the water. Then it seems to bow down lower. Kisses it. Takes a sip."
"How does it like the water?"
"Oh, they were made for each other. Just have to be careful."
"Not to burn out?"
"Just... not to rush. To make it last."
"For always." His eyes teared a little, and he swallowed past the loneliness. Make her smile. "It sinks into the ocean, very slowly."
"Slow motion, achingly slow, but perceptible. So bright. You can't look at it too long. Your eyes have to drift closed. Even closed you can feel it, from 93,000,000 miles away."
"93,000,000 miles? Are you sure?"
"That's the average. Our orbit's an ellipse."
"Very far away," she said wistfully.
"But we can still feel it." He closed his eyes, knowing she would, too. He made it up from there. The smog-edged sky, cigarette butts and floating water bottles were gone. "The beach is endless, pure and clean, bracketed with dark-green palms."
"Is it still hot?"
"So hot that when its rays skim across the wave-tops, they glisten and steam."
"Ooh," she said. "Hey, um, how big are the waves?"
"They vary. This one, it's long, and slow, building up, and bigger than you'd think." His hand slid over a hummock of sand, making waves. Long, and slow.
"Incoming," she murmured.
"Yes. It sinks into the sand with a sigh."
"It pulls out."
"Then a series of shallow waves come in."
He counted slowly. "One comes in. One goes out. Twoooo. Threeee. In and out. In... out." His fingers made a lazy figure-eight.
"Oh," she whispered.
"Four's small and fast." He flicked his fingers through the sand, as if playing a mandolin.
"Fast," she breathed.
"It's light. Glinting. Staccato. It slithers right up onto the dunes."
"They're pale-golden. Small, round, perfect. It swirls over them." He sculpted a little hummock of sand, cupped his palm over it gently, spiraled a finger back down.
"Yes. It clings to them at their peaks, seems to linger a moment, leaves them glowing, then comes back down. Oh, look. Backsplash. Back up again. Clever little wave."
"Brilliant." She might have been holding her breath.
"Fi-no, wait a moment." He paused, listening. He heard seagulls, the whoosh-crack of skateboarders, a distant car alarm. And something else, through the phone. A little sound in the back of her throat that, in his mind, separated her from every other human being on the planet. Except him. He pictured her lying on the sand beside him, no, pictured himself on the bed, dreaming all over her, bathing her ocean in light and life, like the sun.
"Is there a... five?" She sounded quite excited at the concept of five.
"Five. Yes. Five. It's really moving, coming in slow. And hard." He dragged five stiff fingers in the sand, straight, strong, crisp lines, plowing deep.
"The fifth wave. So heavy, so much motion. Just massive. A lot of energy in this one. Might just crash right over."
"It just... hovers there, almost like it's waiting. And then it collapses, rolls in on itself, going back out to greet the next one." He pushed his straight fingers through the lines, deepening the furrows he'd plowed.
"The next. Six, is that?"
"Ssssixxxx." His warm baritone voice purred in her ear; no innocent squeaking here, completely in control of the story. He drew the numeral in the sand; a perfect plump oval, a curving tail. Then another one the opposite way. Six and nine. Poked a hole in each. Yin and yang.
"Tell me more about six."
"Six is high, light and dancing. The wind blows softly along the top of the dunes, and little ripples form. The sun's sinking further. The dunes blush deeply as warm light travels across their curves."
"Isn't it nearly down?"
"The sun, is it going down?"
"Mm. It is, it's going down. It's half-hidden now, yet it seems to swell bigger and bigger."
He chuckled. "Or maybe tumescent. That's the word. You can look at it straight on as it plunges into the water. Breaks the..." he paused a moment, and purred, "Surface tension..."
"Cuts a path right through me, all the way to you. A path of rosy light." His eyes were still closed, but he could see her as clear as day.
"Mm-hm. Rosy like rosebuds. Little pink rosebuds."
"Gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may..."
"I'll give you rosebuds. Soon?"
"Soon. But not soon enough..." Her breath caught.
He stopped doodling in the sand, burying his thick fingers down deep, feeling it resist and yield. But dry, dry and lifeless. Not like her, not like he knew she would be if only they could...
His voice was rougher now, almost thick. "Time speeds up and slows down again... This sunset could go on forever."
"Seven," She was a little breathless. "Tell me about the seventh wave..."
Half-singing, he whispered, "I say love is the seventh wave..."
"Just like in the song." She sing-songed back to him. "Every ripple on the ocean..."
"Every leaf on every tree," he countered, and then went back to speaking, hoping she could hear the smile in his voice. "All the love songs make sense. Are you ready for the seventh wave?"
"Almost," she murmured.
His voice was husky, cracked a little. "Are you sure?" He dug his bare toes into the still-warm sand.
"Oh," she whispered. "It's so close. Tell me."
"Good." He paused for a long moment, listening to her breathe.
She said it again, a little tension in her voice, building up: "Please. Tell me."
"Breathe." He took a deep breath himself, of the salt air, faint pot-smoke, the sound of boom-boxes and seagulls and distant drummers. He thought about how the sunset light would glint red-and-gold off her dark hair, were she only with him, were she only here. His free hand cupped his knee, knuckles nearly white. "The seventh wave is coming, rising up, hurling everything before it. It sweeps from one side of the continent to the other, washing right over me, roaring like a comet hitting atmo. It flings itself over the Sierras and the Rockies and the plains. The Appalachian Plateau just speeds it up, energy for thousands of miles, nothing to stop it, nothing can even slow it down." He paused, feeling the air cooling as the last rays of sunlight caressing his face. He opened his eyes again, meeting the sky, blue for blue. He saw the bright sliver submerge. He'd never seen the fabled green flash, but he could hear something like it, elusive and precious, building in her breath, in the soft sound she made just then. "It spills over. It fills..."
"Fills. Fills what?"
His voice growled, low. "Fills up everything." He abruptly scooped up a handful of sand and let it flow slowly out from between his fingers, wishing that the falling grains could somehow make time go faster, faster so he could be with her again. "The momentum floods everything. Every river and lake and pond and bay, everywhere, overflowing, swirling around, salt water mingled with fresh. The seventh wave climbs the walls, crashes through the windows, throws down the door, rushes in to meet you."
"I can almost feel it."
He might have heard a little bump. He grinned. "Is the bed shaking yet?" Oops. Too far. She really was trying to be quiet, he shouldn't have called her bluff.
"Don't– " her words ran together, he could tell she was gritting her teeth: "Be-silly!"
"The seventh wave is still coming, lifting the bed off the floor, it's white water, whirling you around."
"I can just– just– picture that." She muttered something under her breath, then gasped. He just listened. While he couldn't understand exactly what she was saying, he knew exactly what she meant.
She went quiet a moment. Then let out a little sigh, followed by what could have been interpreted as a giggle. "Whew. Good story."
"I hope the ending wasn't anticlimactic."
"No! Exactly the opposite, in fact."
The last glow faded, replaced by pearl-blue twilight.
"Good." He paused a moment, blinked back tears. "Sun's down now. The water slips away with the tide. No evidence but little puddles."
She sounded truly sleepy this time. "Thanks for the weather report."
"That was more of an... interpretation."
"Mmm. Artistic." She was probably stretching. Definitely yawning. Perhaps her arms were stretched up over her head, her chest bare to the summer night air. Perhaps she'd thrown the sheet off altogether.
"So, coffee tomorrow?" She didn't reply. He smiled into the phone and spoke very softly, not even a whisper. "You still with me?"
She murmured, "Always." He let that sink in, wondering if that meant what he hoped. She mumbled, "Keep your phone on your pillow. Maybe I'll call you at sunrise."
"I'll look forward to that."
Her sleepy words ran together again. "Don'waitup. 'Bye."
He shut his phone off and took a few moments to gaze over the cool water and deeping gloom, thinking calming thoughts, letting the tide roll out. When he'd composed himself, he stood and walked back toward the bustle of Ocean Front Walk. Where beach met sidewalk, he put his shoes back on, going sock-less, brushing the sand off his loose trousers. He decided to leave a little sand in the cuffs then shake it out on stage at the writers' panel, just for effect. He would give the moderator a wry smile, shrug, and make fun of his own bad-boy image: "Took in some local color..."
Stagehands hate that kind of thing, but audiences love it. And stagehands become very forgiving when a hot pizza is delivered just as their shift finishes up.
The limo was waiting at the roundabout, engine running. When he got in, he found a bottle of water in the cup-holder. He addressed the driver. "Wake me up when we get there," and closed the privacy screen.
He held the bottle up toward the east in a silent toast, then drank it down, slowly, alone. Storytelling is thirsty work. It can give you hope. It can drain you dry. Sometimes it does both.