Monday, April 1, 2019

Water and Ink Andrew Konicki

Struggling artist Jake accompanies his unconventional roommate on a roadtrip a mysterious purpose; by Andrew Konicki.

Jacob Ryan stopped at a rest stop just a few miles shy of Plighton, Maine. It was one of those places were the idea wasn't to rest so much as it was to take a leak, buy some snacks, and re-apply deodorant while standing by your car's open trunk. It was unseasonably warm for the spring here, and Jake had been driving for several hours straight, so he found himself doing all three activities with the rest of them.

Along for the ride was his roommate and part-time art critic, Clarence, who had propped an elbow on the open window of the car and was sipping a soda. Twice Jake had caught him rubbing a hand through his short blond hair and checking himself out in the wing mirror. Jake rummaged through the trunk, which was full of art supplies and clothing roughly packed into suitcases and backpacks. He procured his own drink from the cooler hiding in the depths.

He wiped some sweat from his forehead. "I tell you, Clair, if this whole deal is as god-awful as it sounds, I'm never going to forgive you."

Clarence shrugged. "Your loss. I'm gonna tell you that Plighton is the most goddamn gorgeous place you'll ever see. Beautiful oceans. Swell people. It'll be enough to inspire your artsy brain for decades."

Swell. A pet word of Clarence's that never failed to irritate Jake with its antiquated nature.

"Well," Jake said, climbing back into the driver's seat, "it'd be swell if you're right."

Clarence got back in as the car jolted to life. "When have I ever misled you?"



The answer was a lot, but things are forgiven for the sake of the convenience found in friendship. They met as roommates freshman year of college at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Jake had found Clarence's polite manners and smart dress at odds with his tendency to get in with the wrong crowd. To get Jake in with the wrong crowd. As a student seeking a degree in art, he knew his future was bleak, and things only got worse with the alcoholism.

The morning after being dragged to a party saw Clarence's attitude shift back to the quiet and well-mannered. Jake was on his bed, reading, while Clarence was playing some dice game by himself on the floor.

"I don't think I've ever asked where you're from," Clarence said.

"Wisconsin."

He prepared himself for the inevitable response that featured the word 'cheese' but Clarence nodded knowingly and said, "Colorado." The crackling of dice followed by a splattering sound as they fell across the wood floor.

"You're from Colorado?"

"Yessir."

"You like it there?"

Clarence blanched. "No. I hated it. It's far nicer out here on the east coast. There's a... sense of..." He cut off, scrunching his face in that dopey kind of way that belied his appearance. "Oldness? Plus, I like the ocean. The Atlantic in particular."

It was Jake's turn to nod as he returned to his book. "I guess I can see where you're coming from." Another clatter of dice. A brief burst of curiosity made him look over, where three sixes gazed upward.

Clarence smiled to himself and marked some sort of tally on his sheet.



Their arrival at Plighton was marked by a simple wood sign that looked to be over a thousand years old. There appeared to once have been a population marker under the town name, but it had been scribbled over. The last recorded number looked to be about of two hundred.

"Small place," Jake said as he pulled the car up to their rental home. He had meant the town, but had been so distracted trying to maneuver through Plighton's narrow, twisty roads he had held his tongue and now he just had to let Clarence think he was unhappy with their accommodations.

It was pretty small, though. Just a squat two-story affair that was one of several spaced out along the road and half a mile from the town proper. Just a short walk from the front door was the beach and a strand of trees that could vaguely be considered a forest.

"I was expecting it to be bigger and more crowded, considering how great you claim it is here," Jake said as they unpacked.

"It's a closely guarded local secret, a hidden gem," Clarence said. He didn't have much to carry in and was holding a pair of swimming trunks. "Come on. I want to see the beach and you need to get to work."

Clarence put on his swimming trunks while Jake gathered his easel, brushes and paints.

When Clarence came out of the bathroom, Jake saw the tattoo in the center of his bare chest. It had been a while.



After spending a year rooming together, Jake had gotten used to his roommate's eccentricities. Somehow, Clarence convinced Jake to get a tattoo with him. It wasn't really something he had ever thought of getting, but in the moment it seemed cool. He considered the possibilities. What could he engrave on his skin that meant something to him? What meant anything to him? He had spent hours trying to find the perfect design, finally settling on an elaborate paintbrush making strokes of gradient-colored paint up his arm.

Clarence, on the other hand, got something that looked like waves right on the center of his chest. "It means a bit more to me, but that's the gist of it," he said. A glance over at Jake's arm. "Yours is pretty swell, too. Fits you nicely."

Later that evening Jake lazily sketched Clarence's tattoo in his notebook alongside his notes. He gazed at it for some time. Surely Clarence wouldn't just get a tattoo of the ocean because he liked the sea that much? He wondered if the design really did mean something to Clarence. Like, it meant something to his soul. Jake loved painting and art, but what if he didn't in a few years? Was art a part of his soul? It meant something now, at least, and Jake took comfort in that. He tried not to feel like he had been swept up in Clarence's burst of whimsy, and was left with a permanent reminder of it stabbed into his arm.




Jake's painting mimicked the sparkling blue of the sea and the unmoving blue of the cloudless sky. It was a good start. He had set up the easel on a grassy swathe of land that fell abruptly into the ocean about ten feet in front of him. Through a copse of tree to his left, a beach formed. If there was anyone on the beach, they couldn't be heard from here, just the rhythm of the sea, the buzzing of insects, and Clarence's snoring from where he lay on a flat rock nearby.

He dashed some reds and yellows across the green. Flowers. There weren't any, but wasn't the purpose of art to embellish life and to draw attention to things worth talking about?

"There aren't any flowers," Clarence said from behind.

"No shit."

There was a clatter of dice. Three of them, rolling across the stone that had been a bed just a moment ago. Jack couldn't see the pips, but Clarence's small nod told him he had probably rolled a fair number of sixes. He had deduced long ago that the dice were most likely loaded, and Clair just liked to feel he was winning.

Clarence scooped up the dice and began rolling them about in his hand. "What'd I say, Jake? You're bursting with creativity! You just had to leave Massachusetts, leave your dingy little dorm room. You only needed to get out and see the world to get yourself back on track."

Jake started smudging the flowers, going for a blurring effect. "I guess you're right."

"You may be your own harshest critic, but I wanna be harsher still. I believe in you, man." With that, he made off towards the beach.



At some point in their third year rooming together, Clarence took an interest in Jake's art. It was a gradual thing that Jake only noticed when Clarence gave feedback on the paintings he left sitting around the dorm. Upon thinking about it further, Clarence had been doing this in some form or another for months, leaving little sticky notes on his bedside table about his thoughts on that painting, or making remarks about those while drunk at a party.

In time, Clarence sort of became Jake's personal critic.

After all they had been through together, Jake found his friend's (at some point that had happened too) criticisms to be honest. Often painful, but sincere. His classmates couldn't often muster the courage to tell him his depiction of the science building literally looked like a pile of shit. Instead, Clarence told him as such one evening. He just walked by with his dinner - a granola bar - and spoke his mind, as freely and smoothly as water flows out of a faucet. Jake couldn't get his other friends to be so truthful. Not even his girlfriend said what he wanted to hear, and he found what he wanted - craved - was the truth.

That relationship had been short-lived.

Jake went through the typical up and downs of being an artist, and in one of his lowest downs, Clarence came to him with a proposal. That summer, just before senior year, they'd take a trip. Said he knew just the place. Just the two of them, best buds. Jake would be inspired and Clarence would get to connect to some friends he knew from the area. He was from Colorado, but evidently had connections on the opposite end of the country. Strange, but nothing out of the ordinary with Clarence.

Their destination was Plighton, Maine.



The diner Jake found while walking through Plighton's streets was muggy, stuffed with an angry silence and not much else. The fans whirling overhead brought the image of a saloon to mind, and he half expected to see a tumbleweed bouncing down the street outside. Or here it would be made of seaweed, really. Instead, he saw an abnormal amount of cars and people out and about, certainly more than he had the last few days.

He got the attention of the waitress, a woman around his age with a pinched but not unattractive face and a nametag that read LAUREN.

"Refill?" she asked.

"No, I was asking about the crowd. Why's there so many people here today?"

She glanced out the window like she hadn't noticed. "Oh. There's a group that comes around here about this time every year. They fish or something. Always have loud parties when night comes. You grow up here you get used to it."

Jake nodded, lost in thought. It seemed Clarence's claim that this place was a hidden gem wasn't quite accurate.

"You paint?" She had noticed his damn tattoo, peeking out from his shirt sleeve.

"I do. Came here with a friend because the scenery is pleasant." He prepared himself for the expected comment, some derivation of: I tried to paint once, didn't work out or I'm no good at art or the dreaded That's cool.

Instead: "I'm trying to sell some art too. When I'm not in school or," she motioned about the near-empty restaurant, "here."

Maybe this was the hidden gem Clarence mentioned.

They talked for several minutes. Upon discovered Lauren was from around here, Jake asked her if she knew a guy about his age, medium height, sandy blond hair. Name of Clarence. He showed her a picture of him on her phone.

She bit her lip as she looked at the photo. "Can't say I have." She sounded unsure, confused even, but Jake had been thinking and he knew the request was odd, so he dropped the whole thing. Around this time the old couple a few tables over started to grow impatient and Lauren was forced to get on with her job. Jake wrote his number on the receipt and headed out.

Normally he'd be elated to meet a girl like Lauren, but Jake was caught up in something. Why would a man from Colorado know people from a backwater town in Maine? What was Clarence doing, even at this moment? Was it a coincidence these people were gathering here just as a college guy with seemingly no connection dragged his friend here under the guise of seeking that friend's artistic inspiration? This was more than Clarence odd. This was bigger.

He looked at the newcomers as he walked home. They seemed ordinary people. He then chided himself for the thought. What made a person not ordinary? There were men and women of various races and backgrounds, gathered here to enjoy the activity they all shared: fishing. Surely there wasn't anything weird about that?

Yet Jake couldn't help that he was in the middle of - and he would laugh at this later in the evening due to the sheer melodrama of it - a convergence. Yup. A convergence, whatever the hell that meant, right here in Maine, home of the convergence. The thought settled in his mind like a hibernating bear.

He thought he was going mad.



Clarence rapped on the manor's front door. After gazing at his reflection in the glass for an uncomfortable amount of time a middle-aged man answered the door.

"Ah, so glad you could make it," he said, sweeping the door open. "Please, the others are downstairs."

Green walls. Wood border. A deer head mounted on the wall. Sitting in his overstuffed loveseat, Clarence observed the others sitting or lounging around him, about eight in all. They were watching him as well, but carefully, periodically, out of the side of their eyes. He was reminded of his first meeting, all those years ago. It had been much like this, and reminded him why he rarely bothered to come to them. Regardless, it was exciting, all of these out-of-towners gathered in anticipation.

When their host returned with drinks and cookies, the meeting began. They said their piece, nodded appreciatively when the host announced Clarence would be undergoing his induction that evening.

They gave him space. They gave him respect. That's all that mattered.



In the days before they left Massachusetts, Jake did some research on Plighton. Trouble was, there wasn't much information to research. Wasn't even a point on the map, just a place so insignificant it melded with the forest and the towns around it. A bit of info on a fishing site owned by fellows Sark and Laeth came up. They were patrons of hobby fishing in the area. No photos though.

Jake attributed the lack of information to the backwoods nature of the place. Nevertheless he kept his concern a secret, doing his research when Clarence was in class, or off on one of his mysterious nights out. He felt no ill will to his roommate. In fact, he was flattered someone took an interest in his art and career. Things had progressed enough, however, that Clarence's attention was bordering on the creepy.

Sometimes friends help each other out. Clarence flattered Jake. It only made sense for Jake to indulge Clarence on this trip.

But sometimes friends have to keep secrets from one another. If Clarence was hiding anything from Jake, then it was okay for Jake to hide his suspicions from Clarence.



Clarence was still out when Jake made it back to the rental home. He'd taken the car, most likely for convenience, but to Jake it seemed a sort of way to trap him here, that if he ran Clarence could always catch up. It was yet another stupid intrusive thought, but at the moment Jake didn't feel like indulging either reality or his suspicions. He just wanted to relax and paint. Clarence would show up, they'd have a chat over a few beers, everything would be okay.

Tonight it was the sea that was being brought to the canvas. It started with a light sketch that evolved beyond its grey boundaries into something different. It didn't come from memory, either recent or in the past. It contained only pieces of beaches and ocean views from years gone by, embellished with imagination and driven to life by near delirium. It took on its own form, as art often did. It was a painting of a place that did not exist. Huge windswept waves were caught in that moment before they fall. A claw of lightning reached down from black clouds. A sliver of beach off to the side, empty. In the foreground was a promontory, pointing out to the malevolent sea. A figure stood on that jetty, facing -

A noise caught Jake's attention. He had been so engrossed in his work that he noticed that it was nearly dark out. He stood in the middle of his bedroom, listening to the silence that moments later was shaken by the sound of voices: shouting, laughing, murmuring. It had been going on a while, and it seemed the whole town was out and about.

Clarence still wasn't back.

Always have loud parties when night comes.

He turned back to the canvas. His mind tingled as he tried to connect the then with the now.

Something...

In the middle of the painting, the figure was facing... something.

But what?

When have I ever misled you?



Clarence walked over the moonlight-drenched beach. Even with a jacket on it was chilly; the unseasonal temperature had dropped dramatically as the sun fell. There was only the hiss of the waves and - distantly - the unfocused, bawdy noise of a town drunk on life, alcohol, and God.

A man emerged from the shadows under the pier to greet the him, carrying a dim lantern. Clarence resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose against the man's stink. His clothes were crusted with salt and sand, and his face hadn't seen a razor it weeks, just as long as his body most likely hadn't encountered soap. "Who goes there?" the hermit called as Clarence approached.

"Brother Clarence."

The hermit squinted, lifting his lantern.

"It's been a while," Clarence said before he could be questioned further. "I've been... out of town."

"You know, I think I do remember you. My, you've changed." Clarence doubted the man remembered anything, but keep this to himself. "What brings a young man out here? You should be enjoying yourself on this auspicious night."

Clarence raised a hand. A warning, or a concession. "I will return to the debauchery shortly, but for the moment I must pay my respects to our God."

"He calls you?"

"He calls me. I am to be officially inducted."

They were silent for a time, regarding each other. Finally, Clarence made a gesture, lacing his fingers together and twisting, bringing his hands up onto his chest. A sign between brothers. A sign known only to the Children of Sarkandalaeth the Holy.

A nod. A small bow to usher him on. "May He bless you with His presence."

Clarence walked out onto the pier to meet his Lord.



Jake stared long and hard at the painting, which, for the moment, had a gaping blank hole in the middle where something was supposed to go. Every artist has a breakthrough, a work that speaks to them so greatly they know they can never top it. The shortsightedness of mankind makes them believe they can achieve no more after such an event. Jake knew this to be false, but believed anyway. This wasn't the peak moment of his twenty-two-year-old life. But in the moment, it was all that mattered. The color, the style, the connection to his soul was strong enough to convince him that this was it.

If he could just figure out what the figure in the painting was facing.

If he was honest with himself, this scared him. This inability to act was almost an attack on the art itself. It was wrong, somehow. No image his mind could produce felt right, except one, but he refused it. It was intrusive. It wasn't his.

An image not dissimilar to waves. A tattoo.

It means a bit more to me.

He needed a break. He needed to see the ocean.



The waves would consume the world one day. Everyone knew this, deep down. The Children understood this fact most of all. It was inevitable. But their God was hungry and ill-tempered. He needed sustenance. This burden lay upon Clarence. He didn't know why, only that his God had chosen him to deliver. It had been a series of events: meetings in dingy living rooms, epiphanies while on the brink of sleep, hallucinations in moments of sobriety. The ability to get the perfect dice roll without fail. It all led to this.

Standing on the pier had been the most exhilarating and terrifying thing Clarence had ever done. The waves crashed against the wood, a reminder of the power they had. They carried the odor of life and death. They left spray that made him taste salt. That was a reminder that the sea only gave when it wanted, as no thirst could be slaked by it.

The rhythm of the waves pulsed steadily in a pattern millions of years in the making, a pattern that would go unimpeded until the end of all things. Patterns could be found, read, made use of. A reserved man with no clear path in life, unsure of his art, who doubted how others would react to his words and actions. Meeting such a person seemed a happy coincidence, but, like a roll of a dice, sometimes the pips came up just the way you wanted. It was all part of the pattern. This man himself was a pattern.

After standing there for an eternity, his God spoke, not through sound, but through His vessel: Clarence. In a single moment, he understood that now was the time. On a grassy cliff, not too far off, he would find who he needed.



Jake stood where he spent his last few days painting. Getting here had been surreal, as in the distance the sounds of drunken revelry and music could be heard, but this small forested area was empty save for him.

He tried to remember all of the details of Clarence's strange tattoo. He couldn't quite get it, though.

"Swell, night, huh?" Clarence strode up onto the ridge beside Jake, bare-chested and flushed. He had obviously been involved with the festivities. Thankfully, Jake didn't need to imagine the tattoo, it was right there, and everything made a little more sense.

"Indeed," Jake replied, though his heart wasn't in it. He thought he knew Clarence, all of this time. He thought he'd finally pinned him down.

That's why he was surprised when Clarence apologized. "I'm sorry," he said, and grabbed the back of Jake's shirt and pushed him towards the cliff.

But Jake was mostly ready for this. They struggled. Jake had one of Clarence's arms, and Clarence had one of his. Clarence was stronger than he looked, and as they grunted and shifted along the edge, the tattoo was right in Jake's face. Taunting him. Leering at him. Clarence's muscles worked in the bright moonlight, making the image dance on his chest, and the motion mimicked that of the waves. It wasn't just waves, though. In the middle was a figure, like that of a person falling into the ocean.

Jake couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity. "You're weird, you know that?"

He didn't get a response, but he didn't need one. It was all written out for him. He stopped fighting, relaxed his legs, let Clarence push him off. He didn't let go, though, and brought his friend down with him. They both scrabbled and grasped at the slippery rocks those first few feet. Panic reflected in Clarence's eyes as Jake let go, and they tumbled the remaining distance into the craw of the ocean.

Jake had read somewhere before that a person could survive a fall into the water from up to ten stories. His descent into the thrashing waves was less than half that. The impact still knocked the breath out of him, and the rush of water and darkness caused Jake to lose his sense of direction. The ocean pushed him one way as he made for the surface then another. As he gasped in a breath, something grabbed onto his shirt from below. It was Clarence, whose weight and flailing limbs threatened to throw Jake back under.

Another wave crested over Clarence's shoulder, and the pair were tossed about again. Clarence lost his grip. The moonlight revealed that there was still panic in his eyes. He swung his right arm about like a pinwheel, the other stretching out towards Jake. Water consumed Jake's vision once more and threw him against the cliff face, causing his ribs to creak. He clung to the rock, scanning the waves for any signs of an arm or a face.

Where he'd expected there to be words, there had been nothing; their conflict had happened with only the sea getting a word in. No cry for help, no condemnation. Only shock and fear. Jake waited long minutes for a sign of his roommate, but nothing revealed itself to him.

Clarence harbored plenty of secrets, but there was one he had let out long ago, in one of those moments of drunkenness where one's deepest fears and regrets come leaking out.

He couldn't swim.



A massive pool at the local university. Clarence was six. His parents brought him here every Saturday for swimming lessons. They never stuck. He was always the only kid clinging to the side while the others floated around him. They dunked their heads with ease, an action that always caused Clarence to panic. There wasn't anything rational in it, but even a few moments of not being able to breathe was too much.

He hated the smell of the chlorine and the locker room and the other children. He hated the sliminess of the pool's tile and the roughness of its bottom against his feet.

At the end of every session, they would line up and jump off the diving board. Clarence always cried and refused, which would get him a scolding from his parents later as they were paying for him to learn.

One day he did do it, though, but only because he feared the spanking he would expect later. The other kids did it just fine. There were several trainers down there to catch him. He wouldn't drown. He stood on the diving board, toes curled around its slick edge. When he finally mustered the courage, he didn't jump like he was supposed to. He just... fell.

The rush of falling turned into a sharp smack as his body hit the water that was followed by terror as he tossed and turned. He couldn't tell which way was up. He couldn't breathe. Why was no one helping him?

His fear of water was born of cowardice, because only moments after getting in the water someone helped him up to the surface, and there were smiles and encouragement all around.

Seventeen years later, there was no one around to help him. There weren't any smiles, only the ever-present, all-consuming power of the god he had pledged fealty to in his cowardice. And that god was angry, pressing him together from all directions as he both sank and got pushed by the waves.



After an unholy amount of time and effort, Jake arrived at a low-lying beach wet and cold and exhausted. He tied his torn shirt around his waist as he wandered up to the parking lot that ran along this stretch of coastline. It was here he found his car - none the worse for wear - sitting among a cluster of other vehicles. A handful of men and women, strangers alike, were gathered by their own cars nearby, laughing and sipping from beer bottles procured from their trunks.

They nodded politely as Jake passed. "The seas are kind tonight, Brother," one particularly large man commented.

"T-they are," Jake said back. His stutter could have been from nerves or chill or both, but the others just chuckled and resumed their chatter as Jake fished for his spare keys. They were gone, but Clarence either trusted his fellow believers or hadn't expected a long stay because the car was unlocked, keys tucked between the front seats.

Clarence's dice were sitting on the dashboard, and in a moment of curiosity, Jake gave them a roll. The results weren't surprising.

He drove as far as he could that night. Maybe he'd return in a day or two. He toyed with the idea of contacting the police. He thought about retrieving his work or finding Lauren again. But he also thought about the painting he'd left at the rental home, with the blotch in the middle that was as empty as the place where Plighton was supposed to be on a map.

4 comments:

  1. With the foreboding built up, the ending was no surprise.

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  2. The painting idea is interesting and I like the descriptions of the sea.

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  3. Trying to be an honest critic, so many good things here. I really liked the characters and the idea but something was missing. I'm not sure what.
    Mike McC

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  4. An interesting story with many twists and turns. One can only assume Jake was in shock as he seems unaffected by the death of someone he had thought to be a friend. Good descriptive passages that added to the tension as the story developed.
    Beryl.

    ReplyDelete