By Faye Brinsmead
Most days, whatever the weather, we crossed the highway with Dad and ran down to the beach. Lined up like seagulls, we pointed out past the gray waves and shouted to the wind that our real home was over there, in Australia. Not here, in Boston.
We found sticks longer than us and drew houses on the sand. Tall houses, like the white three-story one we were living in while Dad trained to become a pastor. It had belonged to a lady who lived to 100 and never married, Mom said in that tone. When she said she’s not with us anymore or God took her, it was the same tone.
A few of the ladies in the nursing home we visited had never married. They all had white perms and mauve cardigans and a faint urine tang. Maybe the never-married ones had some kind of special marking. As we stood in the recreation room in front of the switched-off TV, singing Abide with Me and Rock of Ages in high, seabird voices, I tried to work out what it was.
My sand houses were always four rectangles stacked on top of each other. I filled the bottom one with cobweb circles. We weren’t allowed to go down to the cellar. Maybe the man who should have married the lady was trapped in there, wallowing in old, soft dust.
In the next rectangle, a stick-figure family was sitting around a stick-legged table. The stick-figure father was saying grace. For what we are about to receive … Dad’s voice, when he talked to God, was low and gentle. He didn’t talk to us that way.
I always drew a sliced-off sun in one corner of the third rectangle. It was waking up stick-figure me in my stick-legged bed. There wasn’t enough space to include the Paul Revere plaque on the headboard. When I couldn’t sleep, which was often, I’d kneel up and trace the horse and rider, the deep groove of the road they were galloping down. The British are coming! I wanted the words to spurl out of his tiny wooden mouth in a carved balloon.
A huge box filled the fourth rectangle. I made it as elaborate as I could, with flowers and stars. Her hope chest, Mom said, when I asked what was behind the nailed-up door of the attic. The agent told us.
What’s a hope chest? I started to ask. Wha-. But the baby’s wailing drowned me out. Mom kissed me quickly, say your prayers, and went off to shush him. I got out of bed, even though that was a sin and deserved a smack, climbed the narrow white stairs to the attic and ran my fingers over the nail heads, wondering.
At the beach, when Dad frowned up at the sky, uncrossed his arms and said time to go, we dropped our sticks and hurried after him.
Once, I turned back and saw an old man staring at my sand house. He wasn’t like the men in the nursing home. Although they had the same urine whiff as the old ladies, they were clean and pink, as if they’d just been pulled out of the tumble dryer. This old man was skinny and brown, like the stick I’d tossed on the sand. His hair was crazy fuzz and his eyes were like curdled milk.
He hunched over, studied the drawing carefully, nodded. Yes, this is how a house is. He picked up the stick and drew something. Tilted his head, smiled.
Every time I looked back he was still standing there, his back to the ocean, his hair blowing in all directions.
It rained hard that night. The next day, our sand houses had been washed away.
Faye Brinsmead’s flash fiction appears or is forthcoming in MoonPark Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, New Flash Fiction Review, Spelk, Reflex Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, and other places. Among my molecules, her poetry e-chapbook, is published by proletaria. She lives in Australia and tweets @ContesdeFaye.