Cassius opens the apartment door and a body slumps inside. Its head hits the wooden boards with a numbing thud. A kid in his twenties. Legs splayed out in the hallway. The rubber soles of his sneakers are still white. New. His tank top is white, too, but graffitied with the red of his own blood.
He shoves the body with his boot. The weight’s too much. The body won’t slide easily, so Cassius holds onto the doorframe and shunts it away, inch by inch, like jetsam.
Imani sees the front door closing when she pops her towelled head out of the bathroom. She watches Cassius disappear into the bedroom. A defeated expression robs the glint from his umber eyes. She follows him. He sits on the edge of their bed to remove his work boots. The leather is polished but cracked and peeling. He places them neatly by the foot of the bed.
“Cassius—” she begins, but her words drift away into the embracing current between them – this tide of love that whispers sweetly in its silences.
He leans his head against her; she offers her shoulder like a lifebuoy.
The police have been and the body’s gone. Cassius is still home, in bed. Imani gave a statement for him, while he seemed to meditate. Distant. Unresponsive.
His work boots sit in the same place, and his coveralls are now on a hanger, on the back of the bedroom door. It isn’t right. She hasn’t known him take a day off work, even when he’s sick.
And despite all that’s wrong around them, outside their home, in here everything always seemed good. But, now, Cassius lies in a dreamlike stupor. He turns over, mumbling something about a boat. Imani isn’t sure what he says, but he repeats it like a prayer.
Cassius tosses and rolls all night, twisted in the bed-sheets (like a fragile raft caught in the violence of a storm).
And the bedroom carpet, for no reason that Imani can find, is wet.
“Two wages and we only just pay rent and feed ourselves,” Imani says, her voice stretched thin between yelling and crying. “You need to get up. Go out.”
Cassius doesn’t listen. He keeps telling her they’re on a boat, heading somewhere better. He smiles inanely. His eyes are fixed on a space between the dust motes and shafts of light that glance through the blinds.
“Look,” he mutters and points. “The horizon. Look.”
Shadows tremble on the wall, and the open curtains billow—
like sails in a sea breeze.
She laughs at the thought – a short and nervous laugh. It isn’t funny. This building is an island with syringes and packets of powder to wade through instead of sand and sea. They are shipwrecked here.
They are survivors.
But Cassius is smiling again. At last, he smiles.
Water seeps from the walls now. Imani wipes them dry. She mops the carpet with reams and reams of paper towel until it’s gone and there’s not enough money to restock it.
She pulls the carpet back as far as it will go, to the corner of the bed. The floorboards are soaked. She isn’t sure if she can get down further. And if the water’s coming up through the floor, why’s it trickling down the walls? Why isn’t the ceiling wet?
Cassius sits in the middle of it, wearing boxers that she stitched round the waistline. He tilts his head upward, smiling again, like someone basking under a summer sun.
His eyes are closed.
Imani slumps against the wall by the front door. She sobs, tangling her fingers in her ungroomed hair, imagining it as a net of barbed wire. Sometimes she wants to bleed. Maybe someone will notice them then, follow the red trail to their door, where her blood will fall like pebbles on a beach forming an SOS message.
Almost a week and Cassius hasn’t eaten. His dreams are feverish.
“Wake up,” she tells him, shaking him one moment, embracing him the next. “Please. Come back to me.”
He turns over, tossing the bedclothes aside with the gybe of his arm.
Imani sniffs back tears. She smells and tastes their saltiness (like brine); and she listens to the wind whining through the open window, the traffic on the highway, and the shouts and the cries and the gunshots (the noise of an ocean troubled by a storm).
Midnight. Someone bangs on their apartment door. A groaning sound seeps through the gaps round the doorframe, discomforting and ghostly. The thuds continue. Imani, on the sofa, counts them like the deep, hollow gongs of a grandfather clock. Time counting down – to what?
The superintendent can’t find anything wrong. Not in their apartment. Not in the ones above or below.
No leaking pipes anywhere. Her boots squelch into the bedroom carpet then leave a wet trail along the wooden boards to the front door.
“Quick! Below deck!” Cassius calls out, behind them. “Storm’s picking up!”
And the super repeats that she just can’t see anything wrong.
Imani kneels before him. Her knees sink into the bed (the dangerous softness of quicksand). She hugs him, caresses him like a found treasure—
“Freedom ahead,” he says. “Look. You see?”
—but he’s still lost. He doesn’t hear her sobs. Doesn’t feel her tears cascading down the islets of his spine.
Her hand slides down his back. Her index finger sinks into a round scar (a whirlpool dragging him under). Their journey could have ended with that gunshot. They are still here, alive, but – together?
Maybe that memory rises again like a kraken from the whorl of scar tissue, trying to steal him from
Imani looks into his eyes, searches for a glint of recognition. “What about me? Can’t you see me?”
She kisses him firmly.
His eyes begin to fill.
“Forget saving money and this place, okay?” She wipes her own eyes. “Let’s go, right now. Wake up and we’ll get out of here. Go anyplace.”
She kisses him again, eyes closed. And—
the boat pitches and yaws
—she opens them. And she sees a blue ocean trembling in his eyes, washing against the earthen brown of his irises. And she feels herself sucked in, falling. She scrunches her eyes closed and—
The bed jolts, tilts, and she hears water snatching at the duvet. She grabs Cassius, tries to steady herself, but their crying rocks them—
on a restless sea
—and the walls crack and break and crumble. The ceiling falls in. A roaring wave rushes—
at the bed, toppling it, and she slips away from him and
—she cries out as something tugs her under these waves, trying to pull her down, away. She reaches up, gasps for breath; Cassius reaches down, grabs her hand, and he pulls her out of the water, onto the deck of this boat.
She grips his body. Exhausted. Trembling.
He sits firmly. Her anchor.
Imani rests her head on his shoulder.
And she looks up, and she sees a dawn-hued horizon at the end of an ocean. A current carries them toward it, dark clouds chasing. Squalls will try to break them, but she knows they will endure. Together. Focused on that vista. Drifting, but always together.
M J Francis lives in the heart of England with his fiancee and a mini lop rabbit named Starbuck. When he isn’t writing, you can find him trying to play piano and guitar, photographing wildlife (or, blurry things), and rocking in a corner as he overcomes a caffeine addiction (and even then he’s still writing, really, somewhere in the corridors of his mind).