The mother stands by the window, half-dressed. She stares down at the children dawdling in the gravel driveway as they prepare for their daily sojourn to the rock beach. Across the street, the bright blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea sparkle up at her. Little has changed about the tiny town since she first visited some twenty years ago, save for a new seaside restaurant or gelateria opening in the town square. Blink as you pass by and you’ll miss it entirely.
She watches her oldest drag a tattered beach chair with one hand, holding her beloved phone in the other. The daughter’s long brown hair, piled into a thick bun of sophistication, belies her eleven years. Gangly like a young giraffe, her long arms and legs blow with the wind as she pauses to adjust her swimsuit. The mother turns her attention to the boy, who quickens his pace, squawking at his sister to hurry. He walks ahead of her, his agenda as full as his arms of towels, fishing nets, and books. Moments later, he reluctantly stops to slide a foot back into a rogue flip-flop. He walks in such a way one wonders if he’s ever worn a pair in his nine years. Truthfully, only in this land of their father’s that the children have greedily adopted as their own, despite not speaking the language. Rock beaches, sea glass, granita with brioche—the emblems of this place they’ve proudly assumed.
For a moment, the children disappear behind a hedge as they near the crosswalk. A familiar tightness constricts the mother’s chest. She will stay put. She will not rush outside to escort them to their destination. These are her orders. Yet, under no obligation, her eyes search desperately to find them. When they fail to do so, the mother squeezes them shut like the child she once was. She reminds herself that at five, she was out for hours of the day—exploring, getting dirty, discovering the world all alone. By her daughter’s age, she was babysitting other people’s children—toddlers, for God’s sake! The children do not need her there at this moment. But still. Her mind is its own. She can only think of the headlines. “Negligent Mother Watches As…” No, no. She can’t go there. She can’t lose them, too.
The mother pushes out a breath. She wishes she hadn’t said they could walk alone while she dressed. They still have not reappeared. She imagines their slow drag behind the bushes to the crosswalk, maybe even stopping to argue over where it actually sits on the scarring road, faded into obscurity years ago by too many cars and relentless sun. Her morbid mind takes over, hearing the screeching sound of wheels. Wheels that have recognized too late that small bodies have interrupted the continuity of their drive to the beach, their home, or the cafe they are in too much of a hurry to reach. An unbearable pain builds in her chest and pushes itself down to the devastation of her mistake.
She shakes her head, although no one else is in the room with her. He should be here with her. She hates that she does these things. But it is for her own good. A year ago, he would have been here. Teasing her for being overbearing until he put her at ease. How she longed to live again with the arrogance of safety—still married to a husband who still loved her after twenty years, two healthy children. His heart attack her punishment.
The mother squints at the road, attempting to see what is not there. Just as she plans to run out half-naked to her children’s rescue, the mother sees two specks emerge, daring to step onto the road. Standing slightly ahead of her brother, the daughter’s arm reaches across his chest before her hand drops down to reach for his. The mother will self-soothe with this moment later that night when she covers her face to muffle her tears, wondering if she can continue, alone.
The children turn their heads left to right and right to left like a pair of kittens taunted by a string as cars zoom by. The mother silently curses the drivers. She wonders why Sicilians are suddenly in a rush when the town is closed more hours of the day than it is open. If her husband was here, he would tell her to relax. Don’t get so stressed, babe. She frowns at him. If he was here, she wouldn’t have to be in two places at once.
Finally, a ridiculous clown car, hardly appropriate for one, stops. The children move slowly at first, uncertain of the car’s true intentions, and then run as they see another approaching in the distance. They step onto the sidewalk on the other side, then turn and wave, smiling up at the window. The mother blushes at the children’s awareness of her. She raises an arm and waves back. Proudly, vigorously, as though the two have just returned to her from the journey of a lifetime. It feels that way. She shakes her head again at her needless worry. The mother promises herself it will be different next time, hears her husband’s voice telling her it will not. Shut up, she laughs. But she knows he’s right. He’s always right. Was always right.
The innocent bodies of the children disappear again as they descend the metal staircase to the beach. She knows she must dress quickly to join them before they’re tempted to enter the water without her. But first, she looks at the sea one last time. She remembers her husband’s daily swims each morning—the water so cold she rarely dared dip a toe. The sea twinkles up at her. The mother returns its wink. Today, she will swim.
Shaun Bernier is an emerging writer querying her debut novel. She is a longtime American expat living in Asia, currently living in Singapore. She is working on her second novel and short fiction. Her fiction is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine. She holds a BA in Journalism from Indiana University and an MPA from Columbia University.