Retreat by Susan Carpenter 1
A Novel by Susan Carpenter
In my water dreams racing waves collide at shore thrusting sand into pillars of
stone. I am always on the beach never swimming so I hear, see and smell the water, but I
don’t feel its fluid touch on my dry skin. The pull of sand from under my feet makes me
lean in anticipation as if I am a ship about to launch. But I remain beached, fenced in by
stone left by waves that retreat back to sea.
Then I awake dehydrated, reaching for a glass of water to chase the codeine
down. I have never been on a boat and I don’t know how to swim. Water dreams precede
a migraine. The air pressure changes, the tide shifts and my head fissures then cracks.
I don’t have time for physical pain. It’s my 35th birthday and Nana G (for
Gertrude) is throwing a party for me.
The laser light show starts in my left eye announcing the coming fireworks finale
in my right. Turning onto my side I curl up into a ball. Kyle stirs and rolls over. I rock
back and forth on my hip, my heartbeat pulsing in my temple. Nausea creeps up my
throat then recedes the way I imagine lava must tease the volcano before it erupts.
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A blue haze envelops me in a cloud so that I feel I’m floating on our bed. Kyle
wouldn’t buy a waterbed without telling me first, forget consultations he made decisions
fast and effectively. That’s what Dad paid him for, but a new bed I would’ve noticed.
Nana wouldn’t buy us a bed unless we married. Besides a bed was too small a gift for
Nana to give.
Along with the keys to a new Mazda RX7, Nana G gave me this advice for my
twentieth birthday: “It’s better to be a widow than a spinster”. She said this as she twisted
her diamond-encrusted gold wedding band around her knotty pine knuckle, as if she were
trying to erase the rings of time from her skin.
For the next 10 years I thought she had murdered Gramps, her assertion so
forceful. Mom assured me that Nana “may be mean, but she’s not deadly. Besides, your
grandfather died in his sleep and I doubt he was dreaming of Gertrude at the time.”
The phone rings. Kyle grunts again and nudges me. On the fourth ring he rolls
over and reaches past me. Just as he jams the receiver to his ear the ringing mercifully
“Head,” I mumble not opening an eye.
“That was probably your grandmother wondering when we plan on getting up on
this important day.” He slumps back into bed and slaps me on the rump. My head jolts
and I groan.
“You go. Bring back presents.”
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“I can’t. Your Dad has a busy day planned for me. I’ll meet you there later.” He
rolls out of bed naked to stand facing the window just as he does every morning. Good
thing there are only trees behind us.
“You need to get up and move around, you’ll feel better,” Kyle says. I wait for
the pressure of his large hands massaging my neck, but the bathroom door slams and the
fan whirs to life.
Opening one eye, I wince as the sunlight bounces off the mirror on the dresser.
The numbers on my alarm clock glow a radioactive green. At 8 a.m. I should be on my
way to work, swaying with the rest of the commuters on a train squealing towards
downtown. But, today being my birthday Dad gave me the day off. I’m sure they
wouldn’t miss me. My assistant Marcie could capably handle all ten calls for cheques or
to roll over maturing t-bills. Besides my clients were actually Dad’s smaller fish he had
farmed out to me.
Kyle leaves at 8:30 with my Mazda. She’s old and still in mint condition because
Kyle said I coddled her, but sports cars were meant to be driven. I can’t drive with a
migraine and certainly not his Hummer. That required skill just to pull the behemoth into
I lie in bed until the codeine has dulled every sensation. Then, I roll out of bed
like a log on its way to the saw mill. My numb legs slap my feet on the floor.
Pushing the palms of my hands onto the bed I hoist myself to a standing wobble. I
venture into the steamy bathroom with breath held to avoid the rush of Kyle’s cologne
that I enjoy when my sense of smell isn’t heightened by pain. The hot, pressurized water
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of the shower scours me awake, leaving just a hint of the codeine fog clinging to the
jagged cliffs of my brain.
“Damn Chinooks,” I mutter. Why can’t weather systems ease in and out of
Calgary instead of rolling out of the mountains and across the foothills to slam into one
another like balls on a pool table?
Nana thinks my headaches are psychosomatic, meaning I’m a hypochondriac.
When she’s not blaming them on me, she blames them on my mother. “If Lily hadn’t
dropped you on your head when you were a baby, you’d be fine.”
When I say I can’t swim that’s not completely accurate. Mom dropped me off a
dock as a baby. She wasn’t baptizing me, or trying to drown me, at least she doesn’t
admit to it. We were in a tiny fishing village outside of Vancouver, for Grandpa Dan’s
How I ended up in the drink is shrouded in mystery as is much of my mother’s
past. Legend has it that I plunged to the depths like a murre chasing its prey before
floating to the surface where she scooped me from the crest of a wave. She adds proudly,
“You didn’t even cry, until you noticed the crab clinging to your backside.” I assumed
from this family legend that I was named for another crustaceous creature from Mom’s
past, but it turns out Dad named me after the car I was conceived in.
Clean and dry I shimmy into my jeans and a t-shirt, dressed for fall on the bottom
and summer on the top. The end of August is unpredictable, wavering between scorching
heat and snow. Squinting, I amble to the window to look down from the 8th floor. I don’t
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venture out onto the balcony. Heights make my head pound and now that the throbbing
has subsided to a dull ache, I prefer not to antagonize.
Past the green Q-tip treetops, the bike path and tumbling decline of hill, the
reservoir stretches to Heritage Park. The historic paddle wheeler bobs at its moor against
the decaying dock. I gleaned most of my western history between Ferris wheel rides and
sausage roll, gingerbread men lunches in the Wainwright Hotel. I didn’t line up with the
other patrons for a spin around the reservoir on the paddle wheeler. It seemed unnatural
to ride a boat in Calgary, all that bobbing around on people’s drinking water. Besides,
since I didn’t know how to swim the captain wouldn’t be the only one to go down with
The buzzer at my front door announces a visitor with two sharp beeps. Ambling
as fast as anyone drugged can, I punch the intercom button.
“Delivery for Shelby Samson,” the monotone voice announces.
“I’ll be right down.” I’d let him come up, but for all I know he’s a burglar, or
worse, a candidate canvassing for the Alliance Party.
I take the elevator down to the lobby where a waterfall cascades over plaster rocks
splashing the plastic ferns. The Super has used Arm & Hammer carpet deodorizer again
leaving a spring meadow stink over the smoked glass walls. Unlocking the front door I
take the clipboard and sign SS. He hands me the garment bag and retreats through the
door I’ve let swing shut.
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The stationery is Mom’s, a powder blue envelope scented with lavender. Leaning
against the chrome banister in the back of the elevator, I slit the envelope open with my
long, unpolished nail. Her note reads:
Make a splash in something borrowed and something blue. See you tonight at the
Palliser for 7.
Love Mom xo
I’ve unzipped the garment bag to reveal royal blue silk and black lace as the doors
open on the 8th floor. Entering my condo, I toss the note to the wrought iron and glass
cocktail table and continue into our bedroom. For the fifth time this week, I ram my knee
into the curled edge of the wooden sleigh bed frame and hop around the corner to
collapse face first onto the mattress. Rolling onto my back I pull the garment bag onto my
stomach and sit up.
Undoing the zipper, I spill the contents onto the bed. The cocktail dress is v-
necked and short with blue rhinestone shoulder straps that connect to the dress in tiny
mother of pearl seashells. The straps of a blue leather purse and velvet shoe bag
intertwine around the hanger. Untangling them, I open the shoe bag to retrieve blue suede
Manolo stilettos I can’t hope to walk in. I let them slip to the floor.
Sliding off the bed, I clutch the dress to my torso. It’s the colour of deep, tropical
seawater, of Right Whales, and Elvis shoes. I’m in love with its sultry innocence, its fluid
decadence. I don’t know who Mom borrowed it from, but I’m not giving it back.
Cramming my feet into the shoes I’m suddenly Amazon-tall with a pronounced curve to
my rear end.
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Forget vertigo on the balcony, these shoes could give me a nosebleed. At five
foot five expanded to five foot nine I’m tall and elegant, at least standing still. I inch one
foot forward and drag the other to meet it. I do it again, feeling as though there is an
earthquake swinging the building around me like the pendulum in a clock.
Kyle would even come home with me in this dress rather than staying until the
last dram of Cognac had been snifted, the last cigar puffed. He might even call me “Shel,
my belle” in an unguarded moment when his sweetness out-stepped his swagger.
Nana and Mom would be as immaculately finished as figurines behind glass. As
she aged, Mom shrank. She didn’t grow shorter because her heels kept getting higher and
I feared she would soon be walking on stilts. But, her bones shrank so that she had taken
on a caged bird quality in her gilded suits and feathery hair. Her large blue eyes sunk
back into her porcelain face beneath overly plucked eyebrows that made her look startled.
Mom had adopted Nana’s regime of age denial through physical preservation.
Weekly facials, manicures and pedicures kept anything that could poke out from beneath
a hat, sleeve or sandal strap well polished. Her teeth were so white I had to squint when
A hair appointment might be a stretch on such short notice, but I had all day to
circle the salons in Mount Royal until I snared an opening. Laying the dress down on my
pillow and kicking off the shoes, I pick up the cordless phone to call for a cab. Before it
arrives, I hide the dress back in its casing, shove the shoes and purse under the bed and
hang the garment bag deep in my walk-in closet. Kyle wouldn’t see any of it until I met
him at the party. To make a splash you need the element of surprise.
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Two codeines and a Mocha Frappacino stand in for lunch while my hair is teased
into an up do to rival Calgary Stampede cotton candy (without the pink frizziness).
Yvonna offers to tint my eyelashes blue for me, but I pass and arrive back home with an
hour to dress before hopping another cab downtown.
The doorman opens my cab door and escorts me up the mountainous stairs. The
stone facade of the CP Hotel, the Palliser, harkens back to castles and kings its velvet-
uniformed doorman a sentinel to the past.
I hang onto the doorman’s arm as we glide across the thick pile, ornately
patterned rug, under the chandeliers and past a grand piano. I don’t let go until he rounds
the corner to the private room where music and conversation ooze tepid and viscous from
under the closed doors.
I stand mired in place until the door swings inwards and my father emerges with a
bottle of champagne. His receding hairline accentuates his tanned forehead creased with
worry lines over bushy beige eyebrows. In a tux he is almost handsome, a tad chubby but
Mom would say burly.
“There’s my girl.” He pulls me to his chest for a companionable thump on my
“Hi Dad. Hope I’m not late.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re the birthday girl. The party doesn’t start until you
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“I was just looking for a waiter to open this for me. We were going to toast you
when you arrived. Surprise,” he bellows hoisting the bottle above his head as if he might
“Is Kyle here yet?”
“Not yet, I left him at the office to finish up. When he does arrive he won’t be
able to leave your side. You look gorgeous.”
“Oh stop. You have to say that.”
“I’m the only one who means it.” He winks. “Go on in. Your Mom and
grandmother are at it in the corner table closest to the door. We’ll eat soon. I’ll be right
back when I can find someone who knows how to pop this thing.”
Anyone could pop a champagne cork. Dad would grab a quiet drink and a few
peanuts in the public lounge while someone tickled the ivories. He’d return in time for
dinner and after his mother and wife had exhausted every topic of argument.
“Don’t you look good enough to eat,” Mom gushes as I inch as gracefully as
possible over the threshold. Fifty people, mostly my parents’ friends and grandpa’s
business associates chatter and sip, some pause to smile my way. Larry, Dad’s branch
manager of Samson Securities, leers into my cleavage until I turn my back to face Nana
With a hand on the back of her chair for support, I lean down to kiss her
powdered cheek. “Nana, you look well.”
“You too dear. Late, but fashionably so.” She sweeps her hand across the table,
her diamond rings glinting like flashbulbs. “Why don’t you sit down? We’ll wait for Kyle
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to start dinner.” Of course we would, although if Kyle had arrived before me I had no
doubt they’d be halfway through dessert by now.
“How’s the head?” Mom asks.
“Codeine-hangover”, I respond downing a glass of water before straightening my
back to meet Nana’s gaze.
“So dear, what do you wish for on your 35th birthday?”
If only it were that simple I would wish for change – of direction, of scenery,
maybe a whole new identity. But Nana doesn’t care what I wish for. Only she has the
right answer to her yearly rhetorical question.
Sitting down I stare at Nana through the crystal glassware topped by cascades of
white linen. The plume of her napkin grows out of her left shoulder and the explosion of
red from the centerpiece of roses fans out from her right shoulder, making her look like a
Canadian-flag peacock in full strut.
Dad rejoins our table, sitting between Mom and Nana. The champagne bottle
follows on a silver tray with flutes carried by a waiter, who is by far the youngest man
I’ve seen in a tuxedo. He places the tray on our table, smiles at me and skitters off.
“Babies, that’s what I wish for and no more only children.” Nana slurps her water
as daintily as possible.
Kyle saunters into the room, lithely confident, surveying the crowd. His normally
spiked sandy hair gleams with gel, slicked into place framing his high forehead. He sees
me out of the corner of his eye, but he won’t reward me with a direct glance until he’s
finished itemizing the guest list, the outfits, who brought whom and then gets himself a
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drink. Larry’s young blonde wife in the red sequined dress tosses her hair off her bare
shoulders, as she caresses her neck with red nails. Kyle brushes past her with a hand at
her back to part the crowd. She watches him walk to the bar and lean on the counter to
order a beer. Circling her again, Kyle heads to our table.
“Mrs. Samson, Lily and Carl.” Kyle nods to the women and shakes Dad’s hand
before his eyes rest on me. He smiles. “You look sexy tonight birthday girl.”
“Thanks.” I shift in my chair, waiting for his hand at my back. He bypasses me to
sit beside Nana.
“We were just talking about kids,” Nana forges ahead batting her fake eyelashes
“Really.” He laughs, a sound that used to fill me up. He drains his beer.
“You two would make beautiful babies.”
“Kids are too expensive.” Kyle holds Nana’s gaze.
“You don’t have to worry about money in this family,” Nana assures him. I wait
for her to slip a dowry cheque to him under the table.
“Let’s make a toast to the Shelby.” Dad pours the champagne into the flutes and
hands them around the table.
Dad stands and clears his throat. “May the future bring you what you wish for.”
“And be careful what you wish for,” Mom adds.
“Wishes don’t get you anywhere. Action that’s what you need.” Nana clangs her
glass into Dad’s.
“I can give her all the action she needs,” Kyle promises. Nana smiles.
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Mom clears her throat and I shift again, the silk rustling underneath me.
“Anyway”, Dad continues, sitting down, “happy 35th.”
I smile at Dad. Kyle looks away. He has turned sideways so he can face the room
with his back to the door. He doesn’t want to miss anything.
Excusing myself to head for the washroom, I navigate the minefield of guests
Nana has invited. Pumped full of booze, the partygoers descend on the buffet table of
hors d’ouevres piled high with shrimp and caviar. A vegetarian would starve to death at
Nana’s parties, having to content themselves with nibbling the garnish.
“Sidney,” Brady Chambers, the grandson of my grandfather’s banker says as I
pass on my way to the washroom where I hope to hide out for the next three hours. Since
Nana didn’t see fit to invite many other females under the age of 50, I could be
guaranteed privacy until the wine kicked in and the overactive bladder syndrome spread
like wildfire amongst Mom and Nana’s friends.
“Hi Brandon,” I retort. I never knew if he forgot my name on purpose, but I had
been called everything from Sheila to Charlene since Nana introduced us in Junior High.
Of course that didn’t stop him from grabbing my ass every Christmas at Dad’s Samson
Securities eggnog and rum soaked sleigh ride.
Walking on carpet with the stilettos was dicey, but shuffling across tile of the
washroom proves terrifying. I edge my way into a stall, close the lid and sit down on the
toilet. In the aftermath of a cranium explosion I feel injured and weak as if my brain
hangs in tatters on the inside of my skull. Lack of food and too much caffeine leaves me
confused – jumpy and tired at the same time.
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The washroom door breathes inwards and two sets of heels click across the floor.
I pull my knees into my chest, and slide back to rest against the toilet. Beaded purses slap
the marble counter top. Clasps pop open and lipstick or powders are retrieved.
“Nice party,” the woman in the black strappy sandals comments.
“Always,” The woman wearing the red pumps purrs.
“Is Larry serious?” Water runs briefly followed by the snap of a towel.
“He heard them argue. Kyle could have Carl’s license yanked for that.”
“I thought Carl was pretty straight and narrow.”
“Kyle offered to help Carl get back on track. Kyle will marry the daughter and
keep the business in the family,” red pumps says.
“Is that what he told you?”
“We don’t talk.” Red pumps snickers.
The women breeze out the door to rejoin the party.
My back aches but I hug my knees tighter. In the dimmed light and stale air of the
stall the blue silk of the dress looks murky like stagnant pond water. I slide off the toilet
to stand. Throwing my shoulders back and holding my head high, I open the door and
address the mirror. With my auburn hair swept off my pale skin and my green eyes blank,
I look like a statue. The blue dress, bag and crippling shoes are a ridiculous mermaid
Concentrating on my shoes, I shuffle and sway back to the table. Dad rises to hold
my chair out for me to collapse into.
“Great food,” Kyle slurs between forkfuls of rare steak like Nana’s.
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“I added Shelby’s favourite salmon and candied carrots to the menu,” Nana says
not looking up from the bloody carcass on her plate.
“You ok?” Mom squeezes my limp hands that lie in my lap.
Mom says, “I know you hate salmon, I could order you a steak.”
I shake my head.
“Head still bothering you?”
“Eat something. You’re looking skinny.” Nana pauses with the fork jammed into
another chunk of steak.
“She’s got enough meat on her,” Kyle pipes up.
“Just enough,” Dad says.
Conversation washes over me as I struggle to consume a few bites of salmon that
stick to my throat. Carrots are good for eyesight so I eat all of those and wash them down
with two glasses of water.
“Aren’t you drinking?” Kyle inquires over coffee before dessert.
“You have some catching up to do,” he challenges before disappearing to the bar
for another beer.
An army of waitresses in white blouses and black skirts circulate small dishes of
lemon sorbet before the main event of the birthday cake arrives. Most eyes in the room
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watch as my piece is delivered first. Mom and Dad mercifully skip singing to me as
Nana’s preferred dessert is served.
I sit mesmerized as my Black Forest Cake bleeds ruby-ripe cherries from the
wound cut by the dying sparkler.
“Where is Kyle?” Nana asks. Dad bolts for the bar.
“We have a big surprise for you.” Nana leans forward.
“If you don’t like it you can pick out something else,” Mom adds.
“No she can’t,” Nana says.
“I meant the thing not...” Mom nods her head towards Kyle who walks beside
Dad back to the table.
Kyle’s tanned face glows pale and sweaty in the soft light of the chandeliers. His
big hand sticks halfway in his suit’s jacket pocket, a trapped dolphin dying in a net.
“No,” I whisper to Nana as he approaches.
“Pardon me?” She leans forward.
“What is it, honey?” Mom puts a hand on my shaking shoulder.
“No,” I say louder, pushing my chair back from the table.
“You haven’t even seen the ring yet. It has sapphire and diamonds. Very
expensive,” Nana shrills.
I stand. Mom grabs my hand, but I am already falling off my heels. A tray of
water glasses shatters behind me as the prepubescent waiter tosses it to the ground to
catch me. Scooping me under the arms he shores me up against the back of my chair.
“I’m sorry.” I grab my purse from the table.
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“Where are you going?” Nana stands. Dad and Kyle reach the table.
“Shelby, let me take you home. You’re not well,” Mom pleads, standing beside
I shove her hand away from my back. “No.”
“Don’t do this,” Nana orders.
Dad says nothing. He has aged instead of me on my birthday, the bags under his
eyes expanding and deepening to a full set of luggage.
“Gertrude leave her be. She’s not well.” Mom defends.
“I’m fine,” I say avoiding Kyle’s eyes to look over his right ear.
He tilts his head pondering my rare outburst. Kyle seems to see me for the first
time, as if I am a rare species of tropical fish floating belly up in his aquarium. I turn my
back on my family to head for the hallway.
“You go rest, honey. That’s ok. We can do this tomorrow.” Mom drowns out
Nana’s protest, but I can still hear her cursing as I make the hallway and breathe again.
The concierge signals the doorman to escort me out. “Do you need a cab Miss?”
His dark eyes widen with concern.
“Yes,” I say as the cool night air hits my bare shoulders. He opens the door to a
Black Top and deposits me in the back seat.
“Where you going Miss?” the driver asks without turning around.
I gulp air not answering, so he pulls out into one-way traffic heading down 9th
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“Do I turn left or right up here?” We approach 1st Street, our last exit out of
The office buildings line the street at equidistant intervals, steel trees in the neat
rows of a concrete orchard. To my right, the Calgary Tower careens towards the full moon
above. I slide across the vinyl until I sit behind the driver. The Glenbow Museum’s door
stands propped open, the light spilling into the street warm and golden. The sign on their
Rituals and Sacrifice
Special Private Night Viewing
“Let me out here,” I say.
“You’re only going a few blocks?”
“I’ll pay you.”
“Thank you.” I climb out when he comes to a standing idle at the curb. Clutching
my bag, I enter the Museum.
“We’re closing in fifteen minutes so go on in,” the woman in the box office waves
I enter the elevator hoping there are mostly dead people upstairs.
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Dad had given out comp tickets to the Bog People to his top twenty clients. Aim
Trimark Mutual Funds sponsored the western presentation of the show and we bought a
lot of their funds. He offered me some too, but Kyle had been too busy guaranteeing his
future by mortgaging mine.
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Tribal drums thrum into the darkness as I slip past the long explanations of
civilization 12,000 years ago, and a floating head of a blonde girl superimposed over her
mummified remains. Her decapitated head bobs to the side, her dead eyes following me
around the corner into The Mesolithic Period. Everything hardens here - the ceramics and
flint replacing the softer baskets and wood of the past.
The Bronze Age stops me in my tracks. Copper and tin melt together to form the
symbol of wealth. Nana would’ve loved the ornate plates and chunky bracelets. Dad’s
favourite would be the halberds - a ceremonial sword.
Laughter echoes in the dimly lit room ahead. The sound seems out of place like
mirth at a funeral. I feel strangely protective of these Bog People and their belongings.
I pause in front of the Iron Age, “a time of conflict and exchange”, which reminds
me of Samson family gatherings. Tools, animals, jewelry, weapons and people were all
offerings to the gods. The bog swallowed these gifts whole.
Scientific jargon in stark white letters on black boards explains the preservation of
these ‘gifts’ by the bog - humid and oxygen-free conditions save wood and skin alike
from disintegration. Mom and Nana should try a bog treatment.
“Red Franz” lies in a long glass casket against the far wall. Found between
Holland and Germany 2000 years ago, his was throat slashed. His epitaph is incomplete
because the researchers can’t determine if he was a warrior, a sacrifice, or just an
unfortunate victim of murder. It seems that even in death, status matters.
Hair similar to my colour pokes out from his grey forehead. The caption reads
“tannic acid in the bog water dyed the blonde hair red”.
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The lost tools, buried treasures, and dead people clamor silently behind me as I
wade toward the last exhibit.
From a distance the wood hull looks like a rock carved in the shape of a boat.
Two older couples part to let me pass. I approach the boat slowly as if my bow wave
might smash it to bits.
“Closing time folks,” a security guard announces.
The caption on the case claims it’s the world’s oldest boat.
“Interesting isn’t it?” The security guard says over my right shoulder. “Wish I
could let you stay here all night, but you look like you’re on your way to a party.”
“Where was this found?” I ask without turning around.
“Some beach in Europe. Buried beneath 10,000 years of sand.”
“Not in the water?”
“Nope. Abandoned but not shipwrecked I guess. Imagine finding that. What a
“What happened to him?” I point to a mummy inside the boat trying not to look at
the grimace on his shrunken face, the crispy skin and missing eyes of a dried and gutted
“Her. Ritual sacrifice to the gods. Some fair maiden put to a good use by her
I shiver. “Guess she should’ve used the boat to escape.”
The security guard laughs,” Guess so. I’m sorry Miss, but I’ll have to ask you to
leave. I’ve gotta shut this place down.”
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I walk back to the elevator as the lights blink off in the room behind me.
Shivering as the elevator doors open with the swish and suck of a footstep in wet sand, I
glance over my shoulder. No one there.