I Row

Originally published in Thuggish Itch: By the Seaside by Gypsum Sound Tales

How far must I row before I’m free from that wretched place? A hundred miles? A thousand? More?

Mother called the place Summerwind. I always found the name grimly ironic. It’s a name that implies warmth, and joy, and love. There was none of that there, not ever. It was always a colorless void, with white carpets and walls, white cabinets and doors, white sheets and towels. A place of perpetual winter, blindingly bright yet impossibly cold.

The place is as idyllic a house as one can imagine, with its gables and turrets overlooking the Cape. But the house is just a facade. Its true nature isn’t visible from the outside; it can only be glimpsed from within. It’s a place that is everywhere. A place that occupies you as much as you occupy it. A place with doors but no exits. A place you can leave but can never escape.

Today, I finally brought color to the place: a splash of fresh crimson, like pomegranate seeds in the snow. The color spurted slick and hot from Mother’s throat, pattering onto the bone-white tile as the dinner plate tumbled from her hand and shattered on the floor. Its warmth surprised me—I was sure it would be as cold as her smile, as cold as her heart. As cold as her stare when she realized what I had done.

I hadn’t planned on killing her, so I had no plan to escape. I simply fled, sprinting from the house, down the back stairs, and over the gently sloping dunes to the water. I have no idea what I did with the knife. Did I drop it? Toss it aside? I can’t recall.

At the edge of the surf, I fell to my knees and plunged my bloodstained hands into the freezing waves, scrubbing my fingers until my skin screamed. As I rubbed my hands raw, I could sense the place glowering behind me. A woman’s voice murmured on the wind. I turned, expecting to see Mother scowling out at me from the kitchen’s wide bay window, but there was nothing. The window was empty.

The voice spoke again, in a language I couldn’t understand. I realized that it wasn’t my mother’s voice—it belonged to the place itself. Its words were indecipherable, but their meaning was clear. It was calling to me, imploring me to return. It promised me peace. Happiness. Tranquility.

It was lying.

I looked down the beach—first one way, then the other—before spying a rowboat perched high on a neighboring dune, out of the reach of the tides. Its paint had long since peeled away, exposing the weatherbeaten gray wood underneath. I scrambled up the dune and pushed the vessel along the sand until gravity drew it down toward the shore. As it slid silently into the sea, I climbed aboard, faced the beach, and began to row. With my back to the water, I was unable to see where I was going or how I would get there. But I refused to avert my eyes from the place for even a second, lest it creep closer while I wasn’t looking, moving the shore and pushing back the tides, extending the beach toward me until I was rowing through sand.

At first, I thought I would be safe over the horizon, once the place was clear out of sight. But even when it was nothing more than a speck of light perched on the edge of the world, I could still feel it reaching for me, trying to draw me down into darkness like a crashing wave consumed by the tide. So I continued to row, despite bleeding fingers and blistered palms, despite sea-softened skin sloughing like wet tissue paper off my hands, despite shoulders and arms pleading for relief from the relentless pull of the oars against the waves. I rowed until the rusted rings of the oar locks began to weaken, until the wooden oars themselves splintered and cracked with the strain. I rowed into the night and through the next day, never taking my eyes from the point on the horizon where I knew the place was waiting, biding its time until my inevitable return.

I want to stop rowing, but I fear that I’ll be drawn back, not by the tides but by the place itself. Its pull defies the laws of physics, unbound by distance or time. I’ve flown overseas only to find myself walking through the front door. I’ve swallowed pills in California only to awaken back in the Cape. I’ve plunged my car off the side of the bridge only to pull back into the place’s circular driveway. Every exit is an entrance, every departure an arrival. Going away is just the beginning of an unavoidable journey back home. I can’t let that happen again.

I’m in the middle of the ocean now, with no land in sight. The boat is leaking. It wasn’t built for this kind of journey. Neither was I. I know nothing of the sea. I have no water to drink. No food to eat. No shelter from the beating sun. I doubt I will survive much longer.

Still, I am determined to escape the place. I will find its edges. I will cross its boundaries. I will move beyond its reach. I will find in a new place, a place full of color, and joy, and love.

Until then, I row.

And I row.

And I row.

Looking for more? Check out all the free stories, drabbles, and podcasts. And be sure to follow @warrenbenedetto on Twitter.

Get new stories and updates via email.