by Nina Mansfield
This story was originally published in MYSTERICAL-E in 2010.
The beach was so crowded it was hard for Alex to find a spot for her thighs. The debate played out in her head—sit closer to the parking lot or closer to the water. Where would the glare from her thighs be less blinding? She planted her beach chair on a patch of sand not far from her car, and regretted it later, when, after just a few minutes in the sun, she had overheated and needed to take a dip.
She had to waddle on the rocky sand past the group of men, who she couldn’t quite decide if they were straight or gay. (Low-carb beer, patterned beach umbrella…hmm…no decisive clues.) Either way, she was filled with paranoia that she’d missed a spot shaving the back of those monstrous white appendages, and decided that a do-it-yourself bikini wax may not have been the best idea. (She was always searching for new ways to stretch her teacher’s salary—some less practical than others.)
Alex wished she could be stoic, and dry, like those string bikini-ed, flat stomached, totally hairless goddesses that lay motionless cooking their already bronze bodies. Alex pulled at her swimsuit, as if she could stretch it out enough to swallow her whole and spit out a thinner, tanner, version. Her skin had not seen the sun since the previous summer, and she was indeed, as her students liked to say, so white. She’d spent much too much time this past school year indulging at bake sales and buying M&Ms sold to support sports teams—no need to count calories when it’s for a good cause. She’d tied her mousey brown hair into her standard school marm knot, and she was sorely in need of a pedicure. But hell, school was out, and she was going to enjoy the summer, gosh-darn-it! (Thighs or no thighs!)
Once in the water, she dipped beneath the waves. The water cooled her, covered her, swallowed her completely. She stared out across the Sound. She could just barely see Long Island through the haze. A seagull flew by. Some spoiled toddler started to wail somewhere on the beach. A cream colored yacht with a bold navy stripe bobbed up and down, anchored not too far from shore. Alex decided that she would certainly stay in the water forever if she could. The walk back to her chair would be so much worse—drenched, nipply, bathing suit creaking up her butt, and oh, yeah—those guys were straight. All heads turned when one of the goddesses strolled past. Over thirty, slightly balding, no wedding rings that she could see. Just her type.
Did the heads turn when she strolled past? She hoped not, as the wedgy had formed. She discretely picked it out as she toweled off. Cool now, she could sit motionless, and lose herself in a book. Alex had a rule. The first book of the summer had to be something trashy, preferably filled with sex and violence. Anne Kelsey books fit her criteria. Total fluff, which worked well, as after ten months of teaching Poe, Whitman, and Thoreau her brain turned to mush. “They’re like Dostoyevsky, without all the words,” she joked. “Crime and Punishment, without the punishment.” Alex’s second book of the summer was always something big and Russian, but no, never the first. Her current selection was appropriately mind numbing. So far a glamorous socialite had poisoned her husband and run off to Rio with an art dealer half her age. And she was only on chapter three. Who lives like this? she thought, wishing secretly she could. That was the nice thing about reading. Alex could step into anybody’s shoes.
While immersed in some fantabulous starboard side sex (on the art dealer‘s exceedingly large yacht), Alex was hit by a gust of sand and the sound of one of those cell phones that sounded way too much like an old rotary. Her little patch of sand had grown even smaller. Great, another goddess, but no…not quite. More like goddess wannabe. She must be my age, thought Alex. Personal trainer. Liposuction… Do I know her?
The woman had stretched out on her stomach on an exotic caftan that served as both wrap and beach blanket, and had propped herself up on her elbows to talk on the phone giving the low-carb beer guys a delectable cleavage shot. Alex watched them, one by one, sneak a peek. Her head was tilted in such a way that the profile of her face was visible—a straight, slim nose, high cheek bones, almost Asian eyes, pouty lips. Each individual feature was captivating, but together they looked like mismatched tableware. Alex had seen that face before. A parent of one of her students? Not likely. A former co-worker? Someone she had known in a previous life? As Alex put down her book, she found the answer staring back at her from the dust cover. Same nose, same cheekbones, same eyes and lips. Anne Kelsey at the beach. Slimmer, tanner, but possibly older than me, thought Alex. And certainly not a goddess, or even as alluring as the seductresses she wrote about. Was Anne Kelsey at the beach trolling for guys? Unlikely, thought Alex. She’d probably read Kelsey’s biography a million and one times, but glanced at it again. Author of numerous bestselling books, winner of so-and-so award, a competitive swimmer in her youth, lives in Connecticut with her husband…so, no, not trolling. Neither am I! thought Alex, glancing at the men. Well, maybe a little.
As Alex kept reading, she began to feel a bit self-conscious. The woman next to her had pictured and plotted this starboard side sex, and put it into words. It was almost like she had entered Anne Kelsey’s mind. Here she was, becoming her own socialite, screwing the art dealer in her head. Had Kelsey done the same?
It occurred briefly to Alex to ask for an autograph, but that would involve getting up out of her chair and searching for a pen in her purse. It didn’t look like Anne Kelsey had brought much of anything aside from herself and her phone, which Alex thought odd. Don’t writers always carry a notepad and pen?
Before Alex could say anything, the writer clicked off her phone with a curt, “See you soon,” tossed it onto the caftan and strutted purposefully to the water. No pulling at wedgy. No thigh hiding waddle. She wasn’t Dostoyevsky or a goddess, but Alex admired her. There’s a woman who knows what she wants. Alex was almost jealous. Her eyes followed Kelsey into the water and Alex wished she could be just a little bit more like her. Or at least a little bit more like one of her heroines.
After reading another chapter, Alex had to cool down again, from the book as much as from the sun. The Coast Guard was now in hot pursuit of the lovers, and a storm was brewing in the Atlantic, yet somehow they still found time to make passionate love. Alex adjusted her swim suit to make sure it hadn’t shifted disastrously out of place. The three amigos seemed occupied anyway, as they had moved their attention to a group of young mothers.
Once again, the water cooled and covered her. Alex swam out a little further this time, until her feet couldn’t touch bottom. The beach noise faded to a dull hum. A lifeguard whistle blew, and Alex looked up. Someone had swum out past the buoys. A steam ship floated in the distance, and the yacht seemed to be drifting further away. An airplane flew overheard, and Alex swam back to shore.
Back on land, Alex adjusted her beach chair so that she could lie on her stomach and tan her back. She thought briefly of undoing her back strap, but decided against it. She did, after all, want to read, and with the strap undone, she would not be able to prop herself up. (Well, she could, but the view would be more than just a hint of cleavage.)
She was back in the world of fine art and murder when one of the three amigos, (which one, she wasn’t sure, as they seemed interchangeable), approached Alex. It’s the cleavage. Well, why not, she thought, and turned demurely onto her side, positioning her legs in the most thigh slimming position possible, while sucking in her stomach. I still got it.
“Um, excuse me. Your friend…” the man pointed to Anne Kelsey’s caftan.
Maybe not, thought Alex, and flopped ungracefully back onto her stomach. Her attempt to look attractive had shifted her swim suit, exposing one of her butt cheeks in its entirety.
“Her cell phone’s been ringing off the hook.”
Hadn’t pegged him for a boy scout, was her first thought. She‘s not my friend was her second. He thinks she’s my friend was her third. But all Alex said was, “I’ll let her know,” and went back to reading her book, feeling foolish for even thinking that someone might actually be hitting on her.
Two lotion applications and one frozen yogurt later, Alex was ready to head home. The men and the moms had left long ago. And Anne Kelsey had not returned. Her cell phone message light blinked, but the phone had not rung again. Who had called? And where was Anne? Had she found the walk to the water traumatic as well? Had the water swallowed her whole? Or had she sensed a stalking fan sitting nearby and simply left?
In any case, it was time for Alex to go home. She packed her things—sun tan lotion, water bottle, sun glasses, book. As she struggled with her beach chair she heard a child call out somewhere, “Mommy, mommy come quick.” Even from the distance, she could see the child had found something shiny in the water—a sea shell, a ring, a piece of trash maybe. Alex slung her beach bag over her shoulder, feeling like a beast of burden. One of these days she’d learn to travel light. Like Anne Kelsey, wherever she was.
Back at home, she dumped a fist full of sand into her claw-foot tub as she peeled off her bathing suit. The top two stories of the turn-of-the-century colonial she rented were charming, but with charm came the hassle of living someplace old. The pipes gurgled and coughed when she turned on the shower, and the water pressure fizzled before the conditioner had washed out of her tangled hair.
The knots in her hair kept her occupied through dinner and the evening news. She was trying not to rip her hair completely out when a story caught her attention. “Body search… Husband found dead… Floating in the swimming pool.” A familiar face flashed on the screen, and a hotline number to call if one had any information.
The picture was of Anne Kelsey—the same one from the dust jacket. She was officially missing, last seen at the beach where her wedding band had been recovered by a child, and her cell phone found, abandoned.
Alex stared at the number and committed it to memory. Do I call? It’s not like I really know anything at all. Really… Alex tried to convince herself. But she did. She knew exactly what had happened.
Rather than make a decision, Alex picked up the book. She only had several chapters left. At this point the socialite and art dealer were posing as aunt and nephew in a Brazilian fishing town, waiting till the heat had cooled to come out of hiding. The strain of having to keep their relations somewhat chaste, at least to outside observers, was getting to them both. This stuff just doesn’t happen in real life, thought Alex. And it was then that she picked up the phone and dialed.
The next morning the doorbell rang. Half asleep, she opened the door. “You called with information?” She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, and found the three amigos, two in uniform, outside.
It hadn’t really occurred to Alex that the police would actually come to her house. She thought she could report the information anonymously, and hadn’t thought twice when she was asked for her phone number and address. The voice on the other end of the line had said, “We’ll be in touch,” but Alex had expected someone to call, not show up on her door step. She would have dressed for the occasion. Instead, she wore old boxer shorts and a t-shirt that read World’s #1 Grandpa. Her unbrushed hair poofed out, making her look just a little like a lion. “Would you like to come in? Cup of coffee? Tea?” The officers politely declined, and wore dubious smirks, as she reported her suspicions amidst the morning haze.
It rained that day. And the next. And the next. Alex could feel whatever tan she had managed to achieve fading. Sitting at home on these rainy days was dangerous. The low-fat yogurt in her freezer kept calling her name—the methadone of ice cream addicts she thought, and Law & Order episodes kept sucking her in. She’d finished reading Kelsey’s book long ago, and had started on her real summer reading, The Brothers Karamazov. She was immersed in a description of Russian-Orthodox theology when the doorbell rang. She had been expecting this, and this time was prepared.
The three amigos again.
Alex wore a cotton skirt and low-cut tank. She aimed to look like she was lounging around an Italian villa. She’d had a few days to pull the look together, and had it ready to toss on the moment it became necessary.
“Come on in. A drink?” This time, they agreed.
Sitting in her living room, Detective Kaslowski and Officers Cobb and Kane sipped iced tea out of martini glasses, and glanced around the room.
“We found Kelsey,” the detective spoke.
“I thought you might,” said Alex.
“Can we ask—how did you know?”
Did Alex really want to explain how she knew to tell the men to have the Coast Guard track down a cream colored yacht with a bold navy stripe, Rio bound. How she’d caught the tail end of Kelsey’s conversation before she had walked into the water, never to return. How no woman that Alex knew would come to the beach so empty handed. How a life guard whistle and a ring washed on shore confirmed her suspicions. (Had the ring been a red herring planted by Kelsey, or discarded in a moment of finally free passion? Alex wasn’t sure, but decided it really didn’t matter.) Sure, the husband in the book had been poisoned rather than electrocuted, but wasn’t every piece of writing a work in progress?
“Just a hunch I guess.” She smiled, and nearly spilled her iced tea taking a sip. Should she explain that Anne Kelsey had simply confused fact with fiction, had become a character from her own book? Alex decided against it. Just last week, she had been that character too.
“Just a hunch?” If Alex wasn’t mistaken, Detective Kaslowski was flirting with her.
She took her time answering. “A writer at the beach, with nothing to write, nothing to read. The teacher in me knew that something was wrong.” She had started to idly flip through the pages of The Brothers Karamazov, which she’d left conveniently on the coffee table.
“Dostoyevsky. That’s pretty heavy for summer reading.” This time it was Officer Cobb that spoke.
“You think?” Alex batted her eyes.
“I’m more of a Tolstoy man myself,” the detective said as he stood, placing his drink on the table.
“Will there be anything else officers? Detective? Another iced tea perhaps? Or something a little stronger?” What that was, Alex wasn’t quite sure. She had some skunked beer in the back of her fridge, and an ancient box of wine tucked away in the pantry. But as she suspected, they were still officially on duty.
By the weekend, the sun had come out, and Alex was back at the beach. She felt thinner. She felt tanner. She felt that reading Russian literature had helped to tone her arms. There was still, of course, the issue of her thighs, so she planted her beach chair right by the water. There were goddesses somewhere, but from where she was sitting, all she could see was water. Glancing back, she spotted the men. Off-duty police officers. How could I have missed that one?
“Guess your friend won’t be joining you today?”
Alex laughed. “No, I guess not.”
She plopped gracelessly into her chair, and before she knew it, she was transported to Czarist Russia. Love triangles, murder, deception… really, just some light summer reading. Because nothing like this would ever happen in real life.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.