Watching the Tide
by William Michaelian

The first drops of rain were a foot or more apart. When they struck the ground, their impact sent miniature eruptions of dust skyward, scenting the air. Then the rain increased and the drops fell closer and closer together.

Hallie didn’t mind. She’d been out in the rain before. The truth was, she preferred rain to sun. She loved to see a dark, troubled sky, and to be out under it. A blue sky was an empty sky, a sky that made her feel lonely. Clouds were like friends. They hung low, at times low enough to kiss the earth. Their abundant moisture revived her skin. It awakened her spirit and left her in the mood to dream.

Hallie had spent part of the afternoon at a friend’s house in town and was on her way home. She rented a house on a farm. Her car, which seldom went a month without repairs, had stalled at the last stop sign before the creek. Instead of waiting for help, she had pushed it to the side of the road and started walking. Later, after she got home, she planned to call Mike’s Towing, which was also Mike’s Auto Repair, and tell Mike where she’d left the car this time. At least it would give him something to laugh about.

Today’s rain was a genuine, cool rain, the kind that helped banish summer and pave the way for fall. The weary countryside yielded. The uneven fields of stubble became a soft blur, then seemed to melt altogether as they sloped downward to the trees and wild blackberry bushes that grew along the creek.

By the time she had reached the bridge, her hair was dripping and her blouse was stuck to her skin. There had been no cars, but that wasn’t a surprise. Until five or a little later, traffic in that area was the exception, not the rule. Hallie stopped and looked over the wood railing. The creekbed was dry. Since the creek ran in the general direction of where she lived, she decided to follow it until it crossed Avenue 114 rather than walk along the road. From Avenue 114, it was only a short distance to Fancher Road, and to the graveled driveway leading to her house.

She crossed the bridge and followed a narrow path down to the creekbed. Under the framework, there was an assortment of boards, tires, and other debris that had collected after the spring runoff. Finding nothing of real interest, she trudged out into the sand, which was softer and looser than it had looked from the road. After a few minutes, the sand had worked its way into her shoes. Finally, to keep from being miserable, she pulled off the shoes and tried to dump out the sand. When she saw how much of it was stuck inside, she peeled off her socks, stuffed them into the toes, and continued in her bare feet.

When the creek made a turn, she could no longer see the road. But she still caught glimpses of the darkening fields through gaps in the greenery along the bank. It didn’t take long to realize how wild the creek really was. The further she was from the road, the more birds and squirrels there were. She even startled a deer, which crashed off and hid itself in the foliage.

It was also obvious she should have stayed by the road. In addition to being scenic, her new route was frequently interrupted by thorny growth that almost completely blocked her way. In self-defense, she used part of a dead tree branch to create bigger openings. It wasn’t enough, though, and she ended up with scratches on her arms and feet. What started out as a fun idea turned into a painful lesson — a lesson she was determined to finish and tell no one about.

The rain settled in. The sky gradually lost its texture and became a uniform gray. Hallie pressed on, with no choice but to follow every twist and turn. Twice, she tried climbing what looked like paths, thinking she’d walk the rest of the way through an adjacent field. Both times, she slipped and fell. As she slowly worked her way toward Avenue 114, there were places where the distance from the creekbed to the top of the bank was almost twenty feet. When she finally dragged herself onto the road, she felt like a complete fool.

The first thing she did when she got home was take off her clothes and put them in the washing machine. After arranging for Mike to take care of her car, she ran water for a bath. Using plenty of soap, she washed away the sand and blood, and with it some of her embarrassment.

She still hadn’t dressed when Mike called almost an hour later from his cell phone to say he couldn’t find her car. At the moment, she was nibbling at some cheese and crackers and enjoying a glass of wine. After what she’d been through, the news wasn’t really a surprise. Obviously, someone with more mechanical knowledge than she had had come along and stolen the thing without knowing he was doing her a favor. She even laughed. When Mike asked her what she wanted to do, she said, “I don’t know. Count my blessings, I guess.”

After laughing at her joke, he asked her if she wasn’t going to call the sheriff.

“Do you think I should?” Hallie said. “Is it worth it?”

“Oh, probably not,” Mike said. “But it’s something you’d better do. What happens if the car is stolen, or if it’s in an accident?”

She thought about this. The afternoon had been long enough, and she was tired and relaxed enough, that she found the idea of being responsible somewhat less than appealing. She took a sip of wine. “Are you sure you’re not making this up?” she said.

Mike said he was sure, and that he had even seen tracks where the car had been. Then he asked her if she needed a ride anywhere.

“That’s nice of you,” she said. “No, I’m fine. And you’re right. I’ll call the sheriff.”

After agreeing to tell the other if one of them heard anything, they said good-bye.

Hallie had looked up the sheriff’s number and was about to dial when she decided to have another glass of wine before she called. She was in the middle of yet another glass when the phone rang. It was Mike again, saying her car had been totaled at the intersection of Highway 19 and Mercer Springs Road near the hills on the other side of town. He knew, because the sheriff’s office had called him to haul away what was left of her car. Then, after a noticeably long silence, he told her that the woman driving the car had died.

“Oh, my God,” Hallie said. “That’s terrible. Do you know who it was?”

Before Mike could answer, the phone went dead.

For the next ten minutes, she couldn’t get a dial tone. Finally, she gave up. There was nothing left to do but get dressed and walk to the nearest neighbors’ and ask to use their phone.

She set out in a light rain. This time, though, she was better prepared. She had on a jacket, hat, and sturdy, high-topped shoes. After crunching her way down the long driveway, she headed east on Fancher Road. Her nearest neighbors were the Everetts, a big family whose oldest children were in high school, and whose youngest daughter attended the elementary school on Avenue 114. Much to her surprise, when she reached the house, she found everything quiet and dim. She thought of her phone. Assuming their power had gone out, she knocked on the Everetts’ front door. No one answered.

She waited a minute or two, then went back out to the road. The next house was roughly half a mile away, and not too far from the creek. She didn’t know the older couple who lived there, but she’d seen them many times and they had exchanged waves. The woman seemed especially friendly, and had the happy, worn-out look of a mother whose children were married and doing well. At least that’s what she liked to think. Her husband walked as if he had a bad back, but if he did, it hardly slowed him down. He was always busy doing something, either driving his tractor or working in the yard.

With help from the storm, daylight was rapidly fading. Relieved to find a light on, Hallie knocked on their door. When no one answered, she knocked a second time, then rang the bell. Then she walked across the porch and peeked in through what turned out to be the couple’s living room window. From there she could see into the kitchen. Both members of the household were sitting at the table, eating. She rang the bell again, then went back to look through the window. The bell seemed loud enough to hear from the road, leave alone the kitchen. Still, no one budged.

At a complete loss, Hallie wandered out to the road. She had a choice. Either she could keep trying until she found a neighbor who was home, or she could go home herself. For the time being, the rain had stopped. Unable to decide, she walked the short remaining distance to the creek. She knew it was foolish, but she felt returning to the scene of an earlier disaster might somehow help her understand the latter.

Hallie was looking over the railing when Mike came along in his tow truck. “This is the damndest thing,” he said, after pulling to the side of the road and turning off the engine.

“What is?” Hallie said.

“Finding you here.”

“Oh. Yeah. Well, my phone went out.”

“I know. I was on the other end, remember?”

Hallie smiled and said she remembered. But in the oddest way, she felt as if she couldn’t care less.

“Hallie,” Mike said. “Hallie.”

She didn’t answer. For a fleeting moment, her lack of manners made her feel terrible. Mike was a nice, helpful man. A good man. A man she could have married, if he hadn’t been married already, and if her life had been a little different. Yet what could she do? Not a thing. Not one single thing. Finally, she decided it didn’t matter.

Hallie looked down at the creekbed. Pools of water had already formed in the low spots. Soon, if the rain started in again, the creek would begin to run.

Fascinated by the prospect, she almost didn’t hear Mike tell her good-bye, or notice when his voice melted into soft, sweet silence.

The rain began again. The beautiful rain.

Mike waited a long time. Then he left the hospital, crying.

William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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