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Fiction

“The Ship on the Horizon”

A man is in his car and halfway to work, when suddenly he slams on the brakes.

Goddammit, he says.

He forgot to get the forms from his wife to give to the insurance company.

The man makes a U-turn and quickly heads back. He parks out front and hurries up the walk.

Honey? he says, opening the door. Honey?

But no one answers back.

 

*

 

Honey? says the man, moving into the kitchen.

Honey? he calls out, in the living room.

Honey? he yells, from the bottom of the stairs.

Honey? he says, in the bedroom.

 

*

 

The man searches the whole house from bottom to top—he even checks under the guest bed—but his wife isn’t there. 

He looks out the window. 

Her car is still parked in the driveway.

Huh, says the man.

He goes into the kitchen. His wife’s purse is sitting on the counter. The man pops it open and peers inside—there’s her phone, her keys, her reading glasses.

Honey? the man says.

He’s getting a little scared. He searches the whole house again. He’s coming back down from the second floor a third time when his wife emerges from the living room.

Honey! the man says. Where have you been? 

I was just in the living room, she says.

No, you weren’t, says the man. I was just in there.

I was reading the newspaper, she says.

You were? says the man.

He looks over her shoulder. There, in the living room, he sees her chair. And on it, sure enough, he can see the newspaper.

But how did I miss you? he says.

I don’t know, says his wife. I must’ve dozed off. 

You didn’t hear me yelling? says the man. 

No, says his wife.

She looks at him strangely. 

Shouldn’t you be at work? she says.

Oh yes, says the man, who’d almost forgotten. I forgot those medical forms.

You didn’t take them? his wife says. I printed them out.

He follows her into the study.

She hands him the forms. He stares down at them. 

Okay, he says. Thanks. I’ll see you later.

What do you want to have for dinner? she says.

Oh, the man says. Whatever.

 

*

 

The man drives to work. He’s frowning intensely. How could he not have seen his wife? Just sitting right there in plain sight in her chair? And how could she not have woken up? 

When he gets to the office, he starts filling out the forms. Then, all of a sudden, he stops.

But her reading glasses? he says out loud. 

Her reading glasses had been in her purse.

She couldn’t have been reading the newspaper without them—she can’t see anything close up.

But maybe, he thinks, she just fell asleep? Maybe she dozed off as soon as he left the house? And maybe she just felt silly admitting that as soon as he’d left for work, she’d gone to sleep?

But still, the man thinks, that doesn’t explain how I could somehow have not seen her sitting there. 

And it doesn’t explain how she didn’t wake up as he ran around calling out for her.

But what’s the other explanation? the man thinks. She couldn’t have gone anywhere. The doors were all locked, and her keys were in her purse. 

Unless she’d had others made up.

But now, the man thinks, you’re just being paranoid. You just didn’t see her, is all. And she must have been sleepy—she was up late last night reading that medical journal.

Well, the man thinks. I’m sure it’s all fine. I’m sure everything is just fine.

He goes back to staring at the forms for a while.

He hopes the tests don’t find anything.

 

*

 

That night, the man and his wife are eating dinner. 

How was work today? she says.

Oh, says the man. Pretty good, pretty good.

Did you send in those forms? she says.

Forms? says the man. Oh, the forms, yes, I did. 

Will they get the results soon? she says.

I think so, the man says. Hopefully tomorrow.

And how’s everything here? he says.

Here? she says. Everything is fine. We got a Christmas card from the Scotts.

The Scotts, says the man. How are they doing?

They went on a cruise, says his wife. 

A cruise, says the man. That must be nice.

Mustn’t it, though? says his wife. Maybe we could go on a cruise too, someday.

Well, you never know, the man says.

 

*

 

When dinner is over, they watch some TV.

I think I’ll read a little, his wife says.

Okay, says the man. I’ll be up pretty soon.

She’s lying there asleep when he comes in.

For a moment, the man stands there, gazing down at her, until finally he’s sure she’s asleep. Then he turns and goes back downstairs and stands for a while in the living room.

The living room is empty—just some chairs and a couch. There’s only one way in and out. His wife couldn’t have gotten there from anywhere else.

Unless maybe, the man thinks, somehow

 

*

 

He circles the room, staring at the walls. Staring at the ceiling, the floor. And pretty soon, he sees it—there by the bookshelf, almost perfectly hidden: a secret door.

Ah, says the man.

He looks for a latch. He finds it; the door opens up.

He’s expecting a staircase leading down into the dark, but instead, what looks like sunlight comes flooding up.

What the…? says the man, shielding his eyes.

After a while, they adjust.

He walks down the stairs—they’re hewn from rough wood. When he gets to the bottom, he looks out.

 

*

 

He’s standing on a beach—a white, sandy beach. Perfect, turquoise waves are rolling in. Seagulls are crying; the smell of salt’s in the air. A great noonday sun is glaring down.

Sun? thinks the man.

He looks at his watch. It’s 11:35 at night. And he’s standing in his basement.

What is this? he says.

A couple seals are lolling by the waterline.

How is this happening? the man says aloud.

He turns and looks back up the stairs. There, at the top, he can just see his living room.

From down here, it looks a little sad.

 

*

 

He pictures himself up there, sitting on the sofa, wondering about his test results. He pictures his wife, worrying beside him.

Then he turns to the ocean and looks out. 

The ocean’s so blue. It’s incredibly blue. He can see a single ship on the horizon. The ship looks gigantic—so pristine and white. 

The man kicks his bedroom slippers off.

He pads in his bare feet down to the water. He laughs as it tickles his toes. The water’s so warm—it’s like the Caribbean.

The man smiles and slips off his robe.

He dives straight on in, underneath a wave, and comes up laughing for joy. He hasn’t felt like this in more than thirty years—since they went to Mexico on their honeymoon.

He remembers their time there, sitting on the beach, drinking margaritas in the sun. He remembers that pyramid—climbing to the top—and the day they went exploring in that cave.

But mostly he remembers swimming in that blue, blue water; how it felt then like nothing was wrong. Like all of those things he always worried about had finally vanished forever and were gone.

And the man feels that way now, floating by the shore. He cranes his head up and peers out. 

The ship in the distance has moved away now.

The man looks down at his watch.

 

*

 

Shit, he says.

The watch isn’t waterproof.

Next time, he says, I’ll have to take it off. That is, of course, if I can get it repaired.

And suddenly he thinks of his wife.

He thinks of her upstairs, lying in bed. 

I hope, he thinks, she hasn’t woken up.

I hope she’s not worried about me, he says.

So he swims to the beach and wades out.

 

*

 

He washes the sand off under the beach shower and finds a towel by the stairs. He dries himself off and puts on his robe, grabs his bedroom slippers, and heads up.

Back in the living room, he closes the door. Then he turns out the light. He walks up the stairs and climbs into bed. 

His wife rolls over and looks up.

 

*

 

Honey, she says. Is everything okay?

Oh, yes, he says. Everything’s fine.

She notices the morning light coming through the shades.

Have you been up all night? she says.

Well, says the man, looking at the clock. Yes, I guess I have.

The tests, she says. You’re worried about the tests.

Oh, he says, blinking. Well, yes. But actually that’s not why I’ve been up all night. I found some kind of beach in the basement.

Oh good, says his wife. You found it, too. I was a little worried I was crazy.

Nope, says the man. You were not crazy. Or at least, if you are, I am, too.

All right! says his wife. Just like old times.

And the two of them smile together and laugh.

 

*

 

Come on, says his wife. You should get a little sleep.

It’s true, the man says. I should.

He’s lowering his head onto the pillow, when suddenly the telephone rings.

Ugh, says the man.

The phone rings again.

You want me to answer it? says his wife.

No, says the man. I should probably do it.

He picks it up.

Hello? he says.

 

*

 

He listens a while. Then he nods his head.

Okay, thank you, he says.

He hangs up the phone. He looks at his wife.

The tests came back negative, he says.

 

*

 

Oh, says his wife.

She bursts into tears. 

Oh, I’m so happy, she says. 

Yes, says the man. I have to say I am, too.

I think we should celebrate, she says. I think we should make a pair of margaritas and go down to that beach in the basement, and have a big party and then get on that ship and sail away to the horizon!

Okay! says the man. That sounds like a plan!

So the two of them get out of bed, and they put on their robes and go down to the kitchen and start rooting around in the cabinets. 

 

*

 

Do we even have margarita mix? says the man.

What about these beers? says his wife. 

Those have been in there a long time, says the man. 

Does beer go bad? his wife says.

I don’t know, says the man. I guess we’ll find out.

I’ll get the towels, says his wife. 

They stop by the bathroom and she goes in and grabs some, then the two of them head for the living room.

 

*

 

But strangely, when they get there, the secret door won’t open.

In fact, the secret door is gone.

They hunt all around the spot where it used to be, poking and prodding at the wall.

But after a while, they finally give up.

Well, that’s a drag, the man says.

Hang on, says his wife. I’ve got an idea.

And she leads him to the front door and outside.

 

*

 

How’s about here? she turns and says to him, as they stand out on the front porch.

It’s perfect, the man says, looking around. I kinda forgot this existed.

They lean against the railing and pop their beers open.

How’s about a toast? says his wife.

Okay, says the man. To the medical profession?

What—no! says his wife. To us!

To us! says the man, and the two sip their beers.

Oh, that’s pretty good, his wife says.

It is, says the man. It’s hard to believe.

Aged to perfection, his wife says.

Hey look, says the man, pointing off into the distance. That cloud looks a little like a dragon.

A dragon? his wife says. You’re always so dramatic. More like a chihuahua, I think.

The two of them laugh and take each other’s hand. In the distance, the cloud floats slowly on. 

And the two of them stand there, gazing from the rail, while below, the wind makes waves across the lawn.

Ben Loory is the author of the collections "Tales of Falling and Flying" and "Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day," both from Penguin Books.

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