You're watching the wooden tiers in the old jetty spotting up from the vegetal tide in horizontal rows of worn stumps. The hallucinations have subsided, they've sedated themselves for a time, but you can't remember how much vodka is left back in the freezer and this makes a grabbing red light pulse in your ribs. You think this is pretty real, where you are right now, but don't remember getting here in the strong noon sunlight, on this scalding rock, the bay beyond where seaweed like hair clings to the tiers, washing into the water, the wood eaten by the salt and murk.
But you know where you are, you know where the beach house is, and then thinking about the beach house you see the hole in the wall and you clench up. Beside you a plastic bag filled with water flits with a small yolk-like red-orange quoi. And you recall buying the fish. Classic hair metal plays between bursts of static from the PA in the tower over on the beach. Night Ranger's Sister Christian joints the wind washing over the cove. You're murmuring aloud before you actually hear it—something like a prayer in your throat. It's the earlier bad incantation, the hole suddenly opening up in the wall back at the summer house—you're remembering this now, the flakes of fine demons in the opening. You're recalling it on this rock where the gulls bend the blue sky above as sun stitches slivers into the bag with the red-orange fish in the clear plastic bladder on the rock. Down the ledge of the cove, a distance opening out to your right, surfers fleck in the water; You're motorin' trickles as if from in the lathering posts, the lowering tiers. Floaters from the sun trace blue inside your closed eyes. You take the bag and climb down from the rock. And now you see red-platinum lights flitting farther off, over there where pavement sand take delicate imprints of bird feet and birdlime and paper wrappers as your mind steps over them. You climb over boulders toward dunes where, sharp, tiny shells groan under your bare feet. You can make out a medic smoking a cigarette outside the EMT van. A stretcher, empty. A surfer, maybe, hurt. You're walking with the plastic bag full of water and the quoi pumping inside. At least you didn't forget it there on the rock. The wound on your hand in the web of your thumb winks. How did you get this cut in your hand?
You walk until you reach the summer house, approach the door beside the one long living room-length window that overlooks the beach. Each time you return you hope the hole in the living room wall isn't there, that it never was there. But no, it's as there as you are here. You set the bag on the table beside the aquarium. Inside the plastic bag, loose translucent orange flecks of skin float in exotic ashes, discharge from the single fish’s gill and fins and scales; the fish's bulb eyes glaze out from the golden red body, a body like a flux, like a piece of water. The fish begins thrusting against the inside membrane of the plastic. Thrusting, you think, toward the hole across the room. The fish bag begins to roll forward on the table. You lift it and set it on the coffee table and now the fish calms as if forgetting the hole it was drawn to and begins mouthing and nipping at the loose flakes swarming like a Christmas globe.
The colder tank water swallows your fingers and the bag. The wall clock says 12:30 roughly. The tank takes fifteen minutes for the fish to acclimate and so there's time. Now the hole in the wall, the white flakes of noise, the occasional glaring eye, the demons a set of pulsing shadows.
What happened was you thought you’d used the right words in the incantation, but you hadn’t, had you: sitting Baddha Konasana on the floor of this beach house. You got the mantra wrong and the living room wall opened the hole up, and now it won't close. No matter what you say: this wide opening swarming with demons and calm, vital eyes. The bodies circulating, flecks of ash floating blown around as if by some higher intelligence—this round-screen like a televised flux, a circuitry of faces and voices flickering. How to close it. You can’t recover the right words.
The Cossack's in the freezer. A new grapefruit juice concentrate thawed below in the refrigerator. You feel time facture in your cold throat, then make another drink. You return to the living room, with a new glassful, switch on the fish tank light and the deep-sea diver glows numinous over pebbles. The fish bag floats in the bag in the tank water and light like a single-celled organism; you draw the bag up and pick apart the wet knot. Somehow the clock on the wall suggests a half hour has passed. You release the fish into the tank. The fish breathes in motes of water flakes that worry around the current. There is the issue of the wall, now, the wall the fish seems to be imitating, as if appeasing. The wall across the living room staring back at you.
Why did you think the fish would help? You can't remember. You only vaguely remember all the pet store's bright florescent light, how it seemed to shimmer nervously over you and the damp smell of cedar shavings and the other small trapped mammals.
You finish the glass still cold in your hands, too cold to drink without the blast of pain between your eyes but you drink it down anyway—
—And the bulging eyes and some erasure of time and space sets you suddenly skirting the deeper sands of the dunes. Townies on surfboards flicker and hiss from the water. You're holding the frozen bottle in your hand. Your feet seem to be making stamping sounds in your breathing as you move onto the harder sidewalk of the boardwalk.
And then a fracturing comes again. You're standing on this viaduct a quarter-mile from the water, witnessing everything that just happened that did not. You're not by the bay, you're not in the summer house. You're standing at this overpass, over the roaring trucks and cars. There's a man and a little girl here—she's what maybe thirteen, something like that, the man could be her dad but he isn't. They're smoking cigarettes. The man holds a broken mirror. Hey friend, watch this, he says. There's a big truck coming toward the overpass. There's ash in the sky. The ash descends and flaps its wings and a red-black bird drops and then the red-black bird wing splits from it and rejoins the blue sky. The red-black bird is gone; truck is braying now at the underpass approaching, and the red-black bird is gone. This man here with the girl, he holds the mirror up and the sky turns into your face. The truck passes under you and the bridge trembles and moans.
You've lost the bottle now and the street is giving off dusk; the t-shirt shops and surf shops and clam shacks are closed: the opening you left in the wall of the summer house keeps rising up in your recall, and you're practicing some words again, a new incantation, a right incantation, but the words are sparking off some substrate, volatile and reducible. There are these pathetic caged, decorative trees on the strip. The street grown long and branching. Your hand is swelling and it hurts. The package store will be open until ten and you know where it is and this appears to have been where you are walking. The florescent light of the package store fuses with the florescent light of the small animal store in your memory and they become one, in this living dream you seem unable now—since the mistaken incantation, while you sat Baddha Konasana—to separate. You're standing in front of a window of mannequins in some state of transition, their nude limbs pivot in impossible ways. They look discarded here but maybe it's intentional.
There's a guy coming up on the path and you glance over. He's already looking at you like you are bad news. So it's true, you think, the space between your body and this approaching guy closing up; your hand is sore; a truck screeches in the sky and the bluster of another engine groans far away—that viaduct, you know where it is, it's now a half-mile away, you open your red hand. You walk one window down but the nude mannequins in impossible fashionable broken positions are here, too.
The man passes. He's you, isn't he? you think: me. You pass yourself in the glass reflection. The idea of going back to the summer house.
The red hand glaring up. You remember the quoi now. You panic, you left the quoi somewhere. You remember a burning rock by the piers. But then you remember unknotting the plastic bag, releasing the fish into the water and a relief passes into you like water. The window here, facing you, the glass separating you from the mannequins.
And you step through the glass and join them, here in this beach town, now, the off season and feel this swell of relief that the fish is okay.
A winner of the 2022 and 2023 O. Henry Prize For Short Fiction, David Ryan‘s recent and forthcoming work also appears in Chicago Quarterly, The Hopkins Review, Meetinghouse, The Georgia Review, The Florida Review, Eleven Stories: The Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize 2023, Short Story Advent Calendar: 2023 (Hingston & Olsen), Harvard Review, Fence, New England Review, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the story collection Animals in Motion: Stories (Roundabout Press) and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano: Bookmarked, by David Ryan (Ig). A recent Artistic Excellence Fellow with the Connecticut Office of the Arts, he teaches in the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and in New England College’s Low-Residency MFA.