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Alan Edward Small
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Art by Noelle Richardson 2019


The Apathetic Tide


by Alan Edward Small


     No more sauce on those mussels, or they’ll lose their elasticity. . . .

     The words flowed through his being like grains of glass sifted through a sieve. There are words that contain innate power and flicker into life—newly born entities sent screaming down Escher-like corridors of meaning—words that awaken dark and dangerous hidden chambers of the psyche. . . 

     No more sauce on those mussels, or they’ll lose their elasticity. . . .

     No more sauce on those mussels, or they’ll lose their elasticity. . . .

     A self-satisfied smirk; a tilt of head; eyes of challenge—and words—words that were a mockery of his identity, his very understanding of self—words that had become fingers reaching into an animal place and awakening a beast that should never surface. . . .

     No more sauce on those mussels, or they’ll lose their elasticity. . . .

     The breaking of surf; the mournful cry of gulls; the lapping of water over sand; the one lone sandal carried back and forth in the tide, stuck in a sad, endless cycle of flotsam and dereliction; the fire pit burned down to embers; the ants in the cooler feasting on scraps; the blood on the beach . . . .

     He sat with his head in his hands and knew he should leave this place; but self-preservation didn't seem to be high on his list of priorities. . . .

     No more sauce on those mussels, or they’ll lose their elasticity. . . .

     The fight had been gruesome. The months leading up to it had been grueling. She had tried to reignite her flagging career by openly undermining his hard-earned reputation. She had no regard for anything that mattered. She had been wrong. Had he not spent twenty-five years breaking his back on the line? Was he not a chef of some renown? Had he not mastered the balancing act—the high art—of the well-composed plate? Did he not possess Michelin stars? Why then had he not the capacity to command her respect?

     The final straw had broken in an eruption of rage. . . .

     The ants marched, mandibles quivering as upturned antennae performed relay actions of communication. A scent had been found. Information was sent in chemical pulses quickly down the chain. Within seconds a new formation was set and the soldier ants began to march, a segmented army moving as one over leaf and stone and twig, converging toward the target with unerring precision. . . .

     The corpse shimmied and pulsed and appeared to come to life again, but it was just a trick of light against the covering of a grasping, living blanket comprised of countless predatory scavengers swarming to feed. . . .

     As he surveyed nature working feverishly to consume his impulsive act of evil, guilt built a temple within him and he was swallowed by the monstrosity of what he had done. . . .

     He plunged recklessly into the sea and was carried out with the ebbing tide. . .


Insistent tugging drew him back to consciousness. He lay with his face half covered in sand. Saltwater lapped gently over his sun-tortured bare back and his skin was being tugged on. He tried to sit but was too weak and rolled limply on his side, his strained muscles twitching like the tentacles of a freshly killed cuttlefish.

     He felt stronger after heaving the watery contents of his lungs onto the swirling sand. The tugging had continued all the while, and now he became more aware of it. It was more than tugging. The pain was immense, like being roasted with the spray from a thousand tiny flamethrowers all at once.

     He leapt up, nearly tripping over an abandoned sandal, and desperately slapped the ants from him. The tide had washed him ashore not twenty feet from his killing ground. The ants had been busy. She was not as pretty now as when he had last seen her; and that had been a grisly sight—the serrated steak knife protruding from her left eye.

     She had been a plague. They had not been lovers. They had not been friends. They had merely been competitors: owners of neighboring restaurants that had turned cutthroat in their efforts to attract an ever-shrinking pool of clientele. His need for peer recognition had led him here, standing sodden and bedraggled over her lifeless, ravaged remains.

     Her face had stiffened and her rigor-smile was as rigid as kiln-fired stoneware. A hermit crab scuttled from behind her torn right ear. In life she had reveled in slander, but he would not leave her as undignified in death. He used a tree branch to fan the remaining diehard ants from her tattered clothing and, exhausted as he was, knelt down and used an old horseshoe crab shell as a shovel to dig into the wet sand. The going was almost mechanical, his mind blank, but soon a burial pit of adequate proportion had been clawed from the gravelly shallows.

     He rolled the corpse into the roughly-hewn excavation and draped the body in handfuls of gathered seaweed, hoping the briny vegetation would provide at least a slight sensory buffer against the musky, unholy rot of organic decomposition. His muscles had become loosened from the digging and covering the grave went smoothly, as did the removal of all other vestigial evidence of his crime.

     He found a stoppered bottle of wine in the cooler and drained it in one long swallow; the warming burn feeling strange as it flowed down his raggedly dehydrated esophagus.

     The alcohol ran electric warmth through his bloodstream and he felt better, almost grateful to her for having provisioned it.

     He walked over to the car then resolutely walked away. The keys had been sacrificed in the churning pull of the sea. The main road leading inland was desolate and dark.

     He shuffled through fallen leaves. A car slowed and passed. An opossum scurried into the undergrowth and lay still. An albatross flew overhead in his imagination. The dead were buried. He would have bad dreams, but he was alive.     


     His head was hunched low over a ketchup-stained menu. The faded red leather banquette cushion in the booth he sat in was held together poorly by peeling duct tape. His eyes flipped quickly past the rather pitiable seafood selection, which was a cornucopia of freezer-to-fryer fare. The place had the turned, off-putting smell of old, smoke-fire grease and under-cleaned flattop grill.

     The waitress came over to take his order. The quiet stench of stale cigarette hung about her like working-class perfume. “You’re lucky we’re open, mister. We’re just trying to use up the contents of the walk-ins.” She leaned in closer. “The owner ordered too many perishables, otherwise we’d have closed down for the season days ago.”

     He shot a look of professional disdain, wondering what she would smell like draped in seaweed and willing her to move her nicotine-mask back to standing height. “I see. I will have coffee, just black please.”

“Okay, hon. Are you sure you don’t want some kale? We have twelve flats of it.”

     “Just the coffee.” He closed his eyes as she waddled off. It had been a lifetime since he’d last felt tranquility. His mind jumped. . . .

     A knife rose and fell, plunging deeply through muscle and tendon; a wave took him under and filled his lungs with the sea; a life was snuffed; ants swarmed; a grave was dug; the taste of wine burned deeply. . . .

     He saw her invite him to her family beach house for an Indian summer open-air cookout, as a way to make peace, saying she wanted an end of the hostilities between them. He saw himself agree to the visit, but only if they shared the cooking. He saw himself buying locally harvested mussels and being pleased with their freshness. He saw her mocking expression as he cooked them. He heard her fatal words. He saw the knife rise and fall. . . .

     Insistent tugging drew him back to consciousness.

     “Here’s your coffee, hon. I was only gone a minute. Are you okay? You were snoring roughly. It sounded bad. Are you sick?”

     The dead were buried. He knew he would have bad dreams, and had thought he could live with them, but now saw that was an impossibility. “Can you please call the sheriff? There is something I would like to get off my chest.”

     The waitress looked ill at ease as she went to make the call.

Alan Edward Small is a transplanted New Yorker living in the Pacific Northwest where he likes to look at things, find patterns, and form judgments. He has worked as a professional resume writer for the past seven years—and before that as a bookseller, tugboat deckhand, chef, and boatyard lackey. He also trained in mediation and conflict resolution at NYU and can still act like a petulant child at inopportune times. He has dedicated four decades to shaping the written word and having them bend him to their will. 

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