Belle dug her fingers into the sand and cupped out a sugar white handful and lifted it to eye level. Tiny avalanches slid down the sides of her mini-mountain. Fine trickles through the cracks between her fingers. She cupped her hand tighter, felt the particles compact, rub past one another, grit together and apart again. The more she gripped, the more she lost until at last there was nothing but a single layer of glistening grains clinging to the spaces between the creases of her palm. Then she drew her hand across the thigh of her shorts and there was nothing at all.
The knife had been a wedding gift. A set of knives actually. Plastic, cheap little things. A rooster in relief on the white handle. A rooster of all things. They had come from someone on Phil's side, of course, and Belle's first thought after opening them up and putting on a smile was that they would never no-not-ever go anywhere near her kitchen. She was marrying Phil Carroll, the self-made insurance juggernaut of the Mid-South, for goodness sakes and one of his hick relatives thought she would use a set of rooster knives from Po-dunk Dry Goods and General Store?
But she had. They both had. And who could blame them? The blades were sharp, as sharp as the two-hundred dollar set of Schlitzers she had bought at Duphrane's, and a million times handier. They didn't require sharpening or hand-washing or storage in a foam-lined cedar box. They were there and they could handle the job and so they used them. The rooster knives, like so many other bits of hum-drum, had slivered their way into the routine of her life.
But all that would be over soon.
The Sun kissed the water somewhere beyond the horizon and lit a trail of red that terminated in the froth churned up by the crashing waves directly in front of her. The waves themselves lapped up and were swept back, lapped up and swept back, each one leapfrogging the one before as the tide pulled the ocean closer and closer to where her toes had unconsciously dug themselves into the cool Emerald Coast sand.
Soon. At Sunset. A matter of mere minutes.
The wedding had been beautiful, of course. Belle had seen to that herself. A six o'clock wedding with lit candles and roses of the deepest red. All the while she had made momentary comparisons to the wedding in her mind, the one she had visualized as far back as she could remember, and at every juncture, she had made a mental check mark. The roses and the candles were a must and the first two checks. The bridesmaids' dresses - check. The Ave Maria. The vows. The veil. The kiss. And at the reception, the lily white chair covers tied on with silk ribbons and set off with a single lone rose at the back. Check, check, and check.
Nothing, even in the slightest of degrees, went wrong. It was as if the wedding in her mind had been played out before her like a well blocked play. That night, after Phil had rolled over to his side of the bed and tucked his arm under his pillow the way that even then she had known would become his nightly staple, she had felt emptied out. Her fantasy, jettisoned into the void of reality. And in the hollow place it had occupied, a collection of check marks, as worthless as a sack of gravel. She hadn't dreamed that night and she had awoken to the fear that her days of dreaming were coming to an end.
The Sun, she watched as it dipped further into the ocean, half in and half out. Its skirts spread at the bottom into a shimmery gathering of pink and purple lace. The air was warm, but the source of the heat reached out to her sideways, across the buffering of the water and the waves and the sand. Belle drank in the air as the Sun drank in the ocean. Sinking, ever sinking, speeding away to the other side of the world.
Phil's business was already well established when Belle tethered herself to his hitch, but it was nothing compared to the kingdom it had become in these last few years. He had been popular growing up; quarterback and place-kicker on the high school football team and who could ever forget that one-hit shutout he pitched in the state championship series? So, as a young unmarried, selling life insurance policies and forbearances among his friends' parents and, in some rare occasions, grandparents had been enough for him to strike out on his own but not enough for much more. That changed, however, as he aged. Insurance, he would say, comes better from someone with a little gray in his hair. And he was right; his clientship increased with each candle added to his cake.
Then came Belle and the wedding plucked directly from her imagination like a petal from a rose. Word spread that Phil, yes Phil Carroll the Insurance Man down in Littleton, was married, that he understood the complexities of ensuring a spouse's well-being after the other is gone. And of course there was the billboard, the one with his smiling mug on one side, ten feet tall, slightly receding hairline and hint of white sweeping in at the temples, parentheses framing his grin. Phil Carroll Cares it said in gold-hued block letters next to the picture. It had been his snake on a staff, that billboard. And they had flocked to him like some sort of messiah, the kind that promised not life, but a check for your surviving beneficiaries if your death occurs in the proper manner and within the proper timeframe.
Business boomed when he put up that billboard. That had been shortly after their fourth anniversary. Then came the twins and it absolutely exploded.
The water had reached her feet, pooling in the little trenches made by the soft curve of her heels, swirling in minuscule eddies each time a wave came and went. The dying light of the day painted the water a red that once again reminded Belle of her wedding ceremony, the roses and the candlelight. She picked up the rooster knife and noted that the blade, sharper than any in the high-dollar set she had bought at Duphrane's, threw back the same red light. A big wave crested and crashed and drowned her feet up to her ankles. The Sun was but an orange peel peeking over the tabletop of the sea.
Belle had gotten pregnant right on schedule. Five years into the marriage, to the week, and she experienced a sudden and unquestionable aversion to her morning grapefruit half. One morning it was fine as ever - she had split a fresh one, place one half in a bowl, sprinkled on her no-calorie sweetener and dug in, the other she wrapped in aluminum and placed in the fridge - and the next, the mere thought of her spoon stabbing into the pulpy fruit made her tongue swell with pre-vomit hypersalivation. She had slammed the refrigerator door with the aluminum-covered semi-sphere still inside and kissed Phil on the cheek and shooed him off to the office and waited ten minutes. Ten anxiety-ridden minutes. She had forced herself to sit and placed her right hand over her pitter-pattering heart as if she were pledging allegiance. Then she had found her biggest pair of sunglasses and pulled her ponytail through the back of one of Phil's caps and scampered into her Viper and drove to the pharmacy all the way down in Martin.
Although there was no denying the double pink lines that appeared on the dipstick in the restroom of the drug store, she took the test again as soon as she got home and then one final time the following morning while Phil was on the treadmill. When the results were the same, she made another mental check mark and, despite the babies growing in her belly, felt even more empty inside. Like she had lost another chunk of that precious secret life she had nurtured since she was a tiny girl.
The boys had just turned one when she found the website. Tips for the Successful Suicidist, it had been called. Its existence confirmed, at least to Belle, that you could find anything on the internet. The site was small, only one page, but she waited until Phil was at work and the boys were down for their mid-morning nap before she revisited it on their MacBook and read it fully.
Step 1: Make a plan.
Step 2: Stick to your plan.
Step 3: Do not write a note. If you feel compelled to write a note, you do not really want to do this.
Step 4: Do not say goodbye. It will only change your mind. --- See Step 2.
Step 5: Do not use a firearm. Too many things beyond your control could potentially go wrong. You will just have to trust us on this one.
Step 6: Do not drink. Intoxication increases the likelihood of a botch. In addition, if you feel compelled to drink, you do not really want to do this.
Step 7: Take your time. Think about it. Once you decide, however you decide, commit yourself totally.
That had been six months ago. In the meantime, Phil had gotten balder, richer, and more ingratiated in the boys' eyes. They were becoming Carrolls, both of them, right before her eyes. Phil was teaching them to throw, showing them how to cock their arms behind their heads and Let-Her-Rip-Just-Like-The-Old-Man. It would only be a matter of sixteen or so years before they had the family crest, which was simply the word Carroll in gothic lettering, tattooed across their shoulders, too.
A matter of time.
Time. And that's all.
And then that chunk of her little life would be lost with the rest of it. Into the Black Land of the Check Marks. Gone forever, no matter how hard she gripped.
So she had packed the rooster knife in the zipper pouch of her bathroom bag. For extra measure, she had wrapped it in a silk shoulder wrap she hadn't worn since she was pregnant. She had unzipped the pouch and peered inside at least twenty times throughout her packing process to ensure that all that could be seen were the soft folds of sunflower-print fabric. No blade, no rooster. If someone dug their hand down inside that pouch to feel around, she would have some rather uncomfortable questions to answer but Belle was confident that wouldn't happen. She was a meticulous packer and if Phil ever needed something, say a new spool of dental floss or say the brown belt that he only wore on the rare occasions he allowed himself to wear jeans, something that he didn't already know the location of, he would typically ask her to point it out straightaway before rummaging around.
It had been in the back of her mind the entire drive down, that rooster knife. She had spun to check on the boys in the second seat of the Suburban more than the usual amount and each time, her eyes flicked to the rear-most compartment of the vehicle, the compartment that held their luggage and the wedding gift about which only she had known. It had ridden down to Florida with them the way a dirty country bumpkin, bare-chested and black-teethed, might ride stowaway-style between the cars of a fancy passenger train.
They had arrived at the condo at half past nine and she had put the twins straight to bed as Phil unloaded the luggage. Jonathan rubbed his night-night blankey across his cheek and fell straight to sleep just as if they were at home but Joel was fidgety and she was forced to soothe away his nervous energy by lightly scratching his back and singing that song about Aunt Nancy and her ill-fated gray goose until at last he slumped bonelessly in her arms. All the while, she had half-expected Phil to enter the boys' temporary bedroom holding the little rooster knife with her shoulder wrap draped down from it like the peel from a banana and ask her what the devil was this doing in the pouch she usually kept her tampons in.
But of course, that didn't happen. She'd tucked Joel in and set a light-lipped kiss on Jonathan's eyebrow and backed slowly out of the room humming ever softer verses of that odd and tragic lullaby. As she crossed over the threshold, the tune receded totally, leaving a silence in her throat that felt final and irretrievable, as if some great and wonderful thing had just slipped from her fingers and fallen down a well. She turned then and stood in the doorway of their own bedroom, Phil propped up on a pillow-laden headboard and the covers on her side dog-eared. The latest issue of her favorite gossip magazine was laid by on the nightstand with her readers on top, its half-moon lenses holding lamplight like two tiny beacons. And in her mind, a check mark, so thick and bold it eclipsed all doubt.
The next day, she awoke before Phil and the boys as per usual. She poured her coffee and slipped out onto the patio and listened to the distant waves as the Sun crept purposefully up over the condo-tops. She decided there, with her mug perched just below her lower lip, her breath cooling its dark surface, that her original plan was as sound as it was simple.
Phil wasn't a drunkard, but he did possess a certain enjoyment for drinking beer on the beach. At times during previous trips to the coast, he would drink can after can until Belle made a subtle suggestion he stop. Today, she would make no such suggestion.
You work hard all year, she would say.
This is your vacation, she would say.
You do as you please, she would say.
And then she would dip into the cooler and fetch him another.
The twins would be even easier. She would skimp on their midmorning and afternoon naps and that, in combination with the draining potential of the Sun and vigorous bouts of playtime either on the beach itself or at the condo's kiddie pool, should set them up for a nice long evening nap.
And while they slept, Phil with a bellyful of imported beer and the boys with headfuls of whatever little boys dream about when they are happy and carefree and exhausted, she would slip back out to the beach with her handy little knife and watch as the Sun went down.
The plan, of course, went off without a hitch. Check, check, check, just as everything always had in her little life. Check, check, check. A perfect sort of misery of which she could never tell anyone without seeming anything other than spoiled rotten. Not her friends in the auxiliary, not her doctor, and chief of all, not Phil Carroll, a man built to view life and death with statistician eyes.
Palaces can be prisons, and princesses may never complain.
She hadn't said goodbye. She hadn't left a note. She hadn't drank a drop.
As the Sun threw its final spears of red light across the water, she lay back. Her dark hair haloed around her head. The sand, a bed. The waves, a lullaby.
She closed her eyes and thought of roses.
BIO: Kevin Winter lives and writes in Northern Mississippi. His stories may be found littered across the web in various and sundry places of at least questionable repute including Bartleby Snopes, The Battered Suitcase, The Medulla Review, Full of Crow, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Currently, he is completing work on his website, to be located at kevinwinterwrites.com and compiling a book of short stories to be titled A Place We All Know.