2:9: “Melancholy Shore”, by Tim Pratt

2:9: “Melancholy Shore”, by Tim Pratt

Cory found a note on his refrigerator, written in a dead woman’s hand.

The refrigerator was stainless steel, restaurant-grade, as was the stove, and all the kitchen fixtures. He’d redone the whole kitchen when he took up permanent residence in the beach house, and he spent more time here than in any other room in the house. It was his haven, his artist’s workshop, his favorite space. Now he stood, looking at his blurred and ghostly reflection in the polished refrigerator door, staring at the note.

It was written in dark green ink on an irregular scrap of pink-purple handmade paper with pressed flowers embedded. A seagull-shaped magnet held the note to the door. Cory had never seen the magnet before; he didn’t have any magnets or menus or phone numbers attached to the door, preferring his kitchen to be clean and uncluttered.

He touched the paper, read the words. They were lines from the William Carlos Williams poem about plums in the icebox, so sweet, so cold; what Cory’s wife Linda had called the coolest, cruelest poem ever written.

Cory opened the refrigerator, thinking that he had no plums for anyone to eat.

The refrigerator was totally bare, metal shelves gleaming. The six-packs of imported beer he’d bought yesterday, the two bottles of white wine put in to chill, the cheese and olives, the fish and meat, all gone, stolen. All the ingredients for the love-feast he’d planned for Sara, the woman he’d met on the beach last week. Cory had been out walking, picking up seashells and tossing them into the sea, and Sarah had been walking her huge black dog, and they’d started talking. Cory didn’t like the dog, but oh, he liked Sarah.

Cory took the seagull magnet and flung it into the trash. He crumpled the scrap of paper into his fist.

His wife’s handwriting. On hand-made paper, which his wife had loved.

His dead wife. His dead, jealous wife.

Somebody was fucking with him. But who? Two years ago Cory had left everything behind, his whole life in Seattle, and moved to the coast of North Carolina. Now he lived in Kitty Hawk, near the graveyard of the Atlantic, where ships had smashed themselves to splinters for centuries against the outer banks. Cory had left friends, family, and job behind, come to start a new life of peace in early retirement. So who knew him, knew Linda, could fake her handwriting?

The answer was: no one. Which left him with few alternative explanations.

Cory locked his doors and windows, then took the car into town to get more food and wine.

———•———

Cory carried bags of groceries in from the dusk, heaping his purchases on the counter. Sara wouldn’t arrive until 8, so he still had plenty of time to prepare a good meal, a seductive meal.

He opened the refrigerator to put his groceries away.

A single pomegranate rested on the top shelf, split open, juice dribbling. The seeds had been scooped out, leaving only a reddish, messy pulp, like the inside of a wound.

“Fuck,” Cory said, and slammed the refrigerator door closed. He shivered, thinking of moss growing on a white icebox; of his wife Linda eating pomegranate seeds on a picnic in Big Sur; of openings to the land of the dead, and how you shouldn’t eat what they fed you there.

“Linda?” he said aloud, feeling like a madman, but compelled to speak. “Are you here?”

No one answered. Outside, a gull cried. Cory took a breath, opened the fridge, and picked up the pomegranate. He went outside onto the beach, the fruit dripping in his hand, and hurled the pomegranate into the sea.

Back inside, Cory began preparing food, slowly and methodically, concentrating on the task at hand. He chopped a lobster for bisque, and began marinating steaks; they wouldn’t be as good, with only two hours to soak, but he’d lost the steaks he’d left marinating in the fridge last night. The rhythms of cooking soothed him. Cooking had been his hobby for a long time, even during his marriage, though that had been rough going; his wife had been allergic to almost everything: shellfish, butter, mushrooms, eggs. She was lactose intolerant, too, and even mild spices gave her stomach trouble. She’d subsisted almost entirely on salads and fresh fruit. She couldn’t even share in Cory’s favorite pastime, so was it any wonder he’d seen other women, sometimes? Like he told her the first time she confronted him: he’d cheated for the meals as much as the sex. But Linda was delicately beautiful, and she’d stayed with him through the hard times when he was in law school, so he’d remained with her despite his growing lack of interest, despite the aloofness and superiority she wore like armor.

He’d stayed with her until she died. Gone missing, officially. But she’d died.

———•———

Sara came, and she brought her dog, to Cory’s irritation. The dog padded around his living room, a monstrous black mongrel unleashed, and began to sniff at his furniture as if looking for a place to piss. The room instantly took on the faint odor of briny-wet dog.

“Sara,” Cory said, and kissed her cheek; she smelled of lemons and chill ocean air.

“Thanks for inviting me,” she said, her voice like sea-smoothed stones clicking together. She wore a loose yellow sundress, and Cory thought she looked like a piece of dawn made human. “It’s always nice to meet another year-round resident. The tourists around here are worse than the hurricanes.”

Cory laughed. “Have a seat. I’ll get you a glass of wine.” He went through the swinging door into the kitchen.

There was a note on the refrigerator door, on pale ivory paper, coarse and heavy. Cory leaned forward to read the note, gritting his teeth.

“Along the melancholy shore of Acheron,” it said, in brown ink. That line was from Dante, he thought. Linda had loved Dante. She’d studied literature, the classics, and history, for no reason; just to feed her mind. She’d always enjoyed making Cory feel inadequate, uneducated. Sure, he was a lawyer, but he had no finer sensibilities; or so she always said. His love for gourmet cooking didn’t count, though she’d assured him he’d end up suffering in Dante’s third circle of Hell, the one reserved for gluttons. Cory had spent his days defending bad men in good suits, while she read, studied, refined herself. In their arguments, she would quote philosophers he’d never heard of…God, he got pissed just thinking about it.

He crumpled the note and threw it away, along with magnet that held it to the door, a lump of rough onyx backed by lodestone. This nonsense was meant to rattle him, and he wouldn’t let it. Whether someone was fucking with him, or if this was…something else (his mind skittered away from that prospect), he could deal with it. He’d get a security system installed next week.

He filled two wine glasses, checked the steaks, and went back into the dining room.

Sara was sitting at the table…and so was her dog. It sat in Cory’s chair, in his preferred place at the table, and stared at him with empty, obsidian eyes.

“We’re just making ourselves cozy,” Sara said. She patted the chair next to hers, across from the dog. “I hope you don’t mind Barry.” She nodded toward the dog. “He gets jealous when he can’t sit at the table.”

“Sure, it’s fine,” Cory said, laughing, unconvincingly even to his own ears. “Should I get him some wine, too?”

“He’d like that,” Sara said seriously.

Cory hesitated a moment, until he saw she wasn’t kidding. He put the glasses down and retreated back into the kitchen. He glanced worriedly at the fridge, but there was no note.

“That bitch loves her dog,” he muttered, then laughed. Bitch. Dog. Funny. Or he was shaken enough to think it was funny.

He opened a cabinet to get a bowl for the dog’s wine. His hand dropped from the cabinet door, and he took a step back. His heavy stoneware dishes were gone, replaced by sea-foam-green plates and bowls.

The dishes from the house by the lake, in Washington state, his and Linda’s house. But he’d sold those dishes, just as he’d sold the house and everything in it, after Linda died.

He closed the cabinet and opened another, taking down a cheap plastic bowl. He took that into the dining room, set it before Barry, and half-filled it with the cheaper of the two white wines. “Does monsieur approve?” he asked, in a snooty French accent. Sara didn’t laugh. Barry put his snout into the dish and lapped at the wine.

“Sit down, Cory,” Sara said, patting her chair.

He sat, smiling at her. She really was lovely. Maybe…maybe these were just hallucinations, brought on by repression, guilt; certainly he wasn’t happy about the way things had happened with Linda. And now, pursuing a woman for the first time after Linda’s death, all that nastiness was bubbling up. That had to be it. He could deal with it; get over it; move on.

“Tell me about your wife,” Sara said, leaning toward him.

Cory blinked, his brief sense of peace undone. “Ah. I’m not married.”

“I assumed you weren’t, anymore. But the other day you made a comment, on the beach — your wife didn’t like to swim, you said? She’d sit on the beach, but never go into the water?”

Cory didn’t remember saying that, but he must have; it was true, and how else would Sara have known? “Yes, I was married, for nearly ten years. Her name was Linda. She…disappeared, two summers ago. We were at our house on the lake in Washington state. She went out hiking one day….” He shrugged. “She never came back, and she was never found.”

Sara touched his hand. “Oh, Cory, that’s terrible.”

The dog lapped noisily at the wine.

“Well. I try to cope. I should get the bisque.”

In the kitchen, there was another note;,on red paper, in silver ink. “A strange, vicious beast, with three throats barking, doglike”. That was Dante, too, about Cerberus, the three-headed dog, tormenting the gluttonous in Hell with the ceaseless sound of his howling. The magnet was dog-shaped, a jaunty black Jack Russell terrier.

“Fuck this,” he said. “This is bullshit. I am so over this.” He filled two bowls — sea-foam-green, from the lake house, fuck it, so what? — with lobster bisque, and went into the dining room again. “My specialty,” he said, and set a bowl before Sara.

She pushed the bowl toward the dog. “I’m allergic to lobster. Didn’t I mention? I’ll wait for the main course.” The dog dipped its snout into the bisque. Cory stared at the animal as it fed, filled with a cold sort of horror. The dog lifted its head and stared at him, reddish bisque dripping from its chops.

Cory sat down heavily. “My wife was allergic to lobster, too.”

“Oh? It could kill me,” Sara said, brightly. “Though it might take a while for me to die.”

Cory nodded, hardly listening. Two years before he’d chopped up some lobster meat, very fine, and put it into a tomato sauce he was making. He’d seasoned the sauce with basil, oregano, and garlic, until he could barely taste the lobster…and Linda had a cold at the time. She didn’t taste the lobster at all, and she ate a whole plate of pasta and red sauce, one of the few non-salad meals she could stomach.

After she’d cleaned her plate, the allergic reaction had started, her throat swelling closed, and she’d suffocated there on the dining room floor. Cory hadn’t meant to kill her, only to make her sick, get back at her for some cruel thing she’d said, punish her with a night of puking. He had no idea her allergy was so severe; how could he have known?

But she’d died, while he watched. It took almost ten minutes for her to stop choking and clawing at her throat. They were in the middle of nowhere; he couldn’t have gotten her to a hospital in time anyway, not that he’d tried. And after, not willing to deal with the questions, the hassle, the accusations, he cleaned out their old white refrigerator and put Linda’s body into it, and wrapped the fridge tightly with chains. Then he wrestled the refrigerator out to the little pier on a hand-truck, the one he used to haul firewood. He shoved the fridge into the murky lake, into the green-black depths where he’d gone swimming a thousand times without ever managing to touch the bottom. He watched the water until the ripples disappeared

The next day he called in the missing persons report, invented the story about Linda going hiking alone. He went with the search parties, and talked to the police, and no one thought it strange that he had only a few coolers and a mini-fridge at the house. It was a vacation house, after all; why would he need a full-sized, coffin-sized fridge?

“I’d like more wine, Cory,” Sara said, and the dog growled, as if in agreement.

Cory nodded and stumbled into the kitchen..

His stainless-steel refrigerator was gone. A white fridge stood in its place; at least, it had been white, once upon a time. Now it was mud-streaked, moss-covered, and the chains wound around it were flecked with rust. Dirty water oozed from the bottom of the door, and it stank of rotting meat and lake-bottom. Cory gagged.

This time there was no paper, no magnet; the words were spray-painted, black, on the refrigerator door: “Through me find entrance into the city of suffering”.

Dante again. From the inscription above the gates of Hell.

Written right above “All hope abandon, you who enter here”.

The kitchen door creaked open behind him, and Cory turned. Sara stood there, Barry at her right hand, growling. And on Sara’s left, another woman stood, her hair moss, her face river-mud, her dress a sodden tatter. All three gazed at him.

The three began to howl, and it was not doglike at all, really; but that was the closest comparison Cory could think of, too, so perhaps Dante was not so far wrong. He covered his ears and whimpered.

Then the howling stopped.

“Open the door,” one of them said. Was it Sara, or the other one, the drowned woman?

“Open the door and enter,” one of them said, and the chains fell away from the refrigerator, startling Cory. He lowered his hands and looked back at the refrigerator door. Now the inscriptions read “Through me the way that winds among the lost.”

The three began howling again, as one. And because he could not go back, Cory reached for the refrigerator door and pulled it open, even knowing as he did what must lay beyond.



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