Originally posted to Reddit
Spooktober Prompt # 3 – Shallow Seas
“Wishes Don’t Belong in a Bottle”
When I dropped the first letter into the sea, I didn’t expect a reply.
I don’t even remember what it said, because it didn’t matter. I figured the bottle would break before anyone would find it; that I’d find myself picking up bits of broken glass when the tide came in. Imagine my surprise when the bottle came back.
The next day I found it, unbroken and bobbing in the shallows. Empty, but perfectly intact; the lid was still screwed on tight, but my letter was gone. Of course, I could rationalize it at first. It could have been a different bottle. It was unlikely, but still more likely than the idea that someone found my letter and brought the bottle back.
Anywhere else, an empty bottle on the beach wouldn’t prove anything. However, this bottle was the exact same kind my dad used for his bootlegging business. I found it hard to believe anyone (except me) would waste or lose one of Dad’s empties because my dad charged $10 per beer, and charged even more if he had to give you a new bottle. His customers would bring back the empties so he could refill them.
That’s why I could believe it was the same bottle I’d dropped into the water, even when I knew it was impossible. I’d stolen the first bottle for my letter, both on a whim and as an act of rebellion. My dad spent his days making beer or drinking it, scraping together a living that way. The ferry would bring everything he needed; the import and sale of alcohol wasn’t allowed, but that didn’t stop him from ordering the ingredients. It was an open secret. Our village safety officer was probably his best customer.
Most of the villagers would change jobs from boats, fisheries, and canneries as the seasons demanded– except for my dad. He was afraid of the water. Only sparingly would he take his old boat out to neighboring villages across the bay, but he’d never take me. He was afraid of losing me like he lost mom, but I guess he wasn’t scared of losing himself.
Our relationship was rocky. I felt depressed, angry and trapped. I was tired of washing out the empties only so he could fill them again and again. I felt so alone. There was no one my age around and the only time I could try to make real friends was when I took the ferry to Kodiak without permission. My dad wouldn’t let me go, and everyone knew better than to let me on by then.
I couldn’t explain why the bottle came back when the letter didn’t, so I tried again. I wrote a little note that said ‘Do you want to be friends?’ and tossed it underhand into the water. The first time might have been a fluke, or maybe someone else really did leave a bottle by accident. I wanted to see if it would happen a second time.
Dad noticed the second time. Not that I’d thrown a bottle into the sea, but that it was missing.
“Alex, one of my bottles is gone.” he said when I got home. “Do you know what happened to it?” he wasn’t angry, only annoyed. Getting anything imported took time and money so he hated having to buy new bottles.
“I dropped it.” I said, which wasn’t a lie. I just didn’t tell him I dropped it into the sea. “Sorry dad. I can take the ferry and–”
“No.” he cut me off immediately. “I’ll just order a couple cases with my next shipment. You don’t need to go anywhere. I could use more anyway.”
A fight broke out after that, though it was nothing new. Dad never let me leave, and it wasn’t because I was some irresponsible kid. I was more responsible than he was! He knew it, too. Never denied it. Even so, he would still tell me no.
After our screaming match, I went back out onto the rocky beach to cool off. I lay down and let the jagged stones bite into my back, staring at the stars and listening to the sea. Mom loved the ocean too. She was still out there, somewhere in the water. I liked to imagine she was still alive, enjoying her freedom. I knew it wasn’t true.
Sometimes I’d lay there and fantasize about going out with the tide so I could join her. I never did, though it seemed like a good idea on my darkest days. I was young though; I knew this wasn’t going to be my life forever. One day I’d get on the ferry and I’d never come back. Dad had to know that, he could only stop me for so long.
When it got too cold, I sat back up so I could head back to the house. That’s when I saw the bottle again, the wet glass reflected moonlight. I walked over, half expecting to find my letter still folded up inside… but once again, it was empty. The glass, by some miracle, didn’t have as much as a crack. The cap was still in place.
I pulled out my notebook, tearing out another square. Someone was getting my letters! They were sending the bottles back without replying, but they were definitely getting them. I wasn’t sure how it was possible, but I was excited!
I wrote out a little note:
‘Who are you? Won’t you reply? My name is Alex.’
I neatly folded it, sliding my message into the bottle with care. Of course, the possibility that it was all a coincidence remained–but I didn’t want that to be true. I wanted to feel less alone. Even though it was cold, I sat down on my favorite rock and watched my glass messenger float away. I sat there for a long time, as if the great mystery of it might be solved… if I only waited patiently enough.
I was surprised when Dad came to get me. He was stubborn, like I was; he never admitted when he worried, though I knew he did. His rustbucket red truck creaked and groaned so loud that I knew he was coming before I even heard his voice.
“Alex!” he called out to me. He wouldn’t get too close to the water, though I wasn’t sure if he was conscious of that. He stood out by his truck, hands cupped around his mouth like a makeshift megaphone. “Come on back!”
I took one last look at the bay. I didn’t see the bottle anymore, though it’s easy to lose sight of something so small in a vast ocean.
“Only if you let me drive!” I called back. My dad handled his alcohol well enough, but I don’t think he was ever sober enough to drive. As I walked up to greet him, he pressed the keys into my hand and climbed into the passenger’s seat. He never argued over the keys, he knew better.
“I talked to your aunt,” he said, once the truck was moving again. “She’s coming for a visit. Quincy and Shasta are coming too.”
“That’s nice.” I answered, but I knew this was just a distraction. He must have called her and asked her to come. He knew if I had visitors, I might stop thinking about leaving for awhile. Still, I’d take what company I could get. Auntie was Mom’s sister, she lived in Kodiak with most of my extended family. I’d be happy to see them.
We got along well, even though I was never allowed to visit. I was closest to Auntie; she’d send me gifts on the ferry with Dad’s shipments; like notebooks, pens and colored pencils. Auntie knew I liked to write and draw, and that I didn’t have access to art supplies on my own. Dad couldn’t afford to get them for me because his margins were razor thin. I’d be more understanding if it wasn’t because he drank what he didn’t sell.
“Tomorrow you should go out and pick some berries.” he continued. He hated silences, he was always trying to fill them. “We can make something nice to eat for her visit. I bet everyone would like that.”
“Sure.” I answered. He didn’t want me anywhere near the ocean, but that’d be quite a feat to manage when we were living in a coastal village. He couldn’t keep me away from the beach, though I knew he’d like to.
When we got back to the house, he gave me a one-armed hug and held me to him for a second. I pulled away quickly, looking up at him to see what had him so sentimental. Dad wasn’t usually a hugger.
“You’re just like your mother,” he said. He was smiling, but his eyes were looking a little red. “It scares me sometimes.” he must have been drunker than I’d thought, since he wasn’t usually so forthright with how he was feeling.
“Mom was a good person, I’m glad to be like her.”
“I know. I love you both so much.” he refused to use past tense when he talked about her. I did. Not because I didn’t miss her too, but because I had long accepted she was gone.
“… So, when’s Auntie coming?”
“The three o’clock ferry. You’re going to have to share your room with your cousins.” it would be a tight fit, but we’d make it work. “I’ll take the couch, so your aunt can use my room.” he said, as if he ever made it off the couch. He always passed out there! Instead of saying so, I nodded. I didn’t feel like starting another fight that night.
“Sounds good. I’m going to bed, then.” I said instead. “Goodnight.”
I went to bed, but he didn’t. I listened to him drink; the soft clink of glass bottles with the occasional slurp-and-sigh. Sometimes he’d talk like mom was in the room with him, but of course she wasn’t. That night was no different. I listened for a little while, it was amusing to hear him talk about me. As if I couldn’t hear, but mom could.
“I’m worried about Alex.”
But I was more worried about Dad. He didn’t need to worry about me, but I knew he did. I knew because he said so, just not to my face. I fell asleep wondering what he was so worried about. What reason did I ever give him?
Bright and early the next morning, I cleaned up the fresh empties arranged by the kitchen sink. I let them dry in the dish rack, listening to my dad snore on the couch. He’d probably wake up around noon.
I decided to go to the beach. I’d be back before he even noticed. When I reached the shoreline, I found what I was looking for. There was the bottle again; this time it was caught on a cluster of rocks rather than in the water. I walked over, picking it up and examining it closely. It was empty, and the glass didn’t have so much as a crack.
I pulled out my notebook, this time choosing one of my favorite poems. With care, I folded it into a little boat and carefully managed to feed it through the opening of the bottle. Sure, it bent a little…, but you could still tell what it was supposed to be. A ship in a bottle.
I waded out into the cold water as far as I could safely go, getting soaked to the bone. I didn’t care. I let go of the bottle, watching it move at the whim of the waves as I slowly backed up towards the shore. I didn’t take my eyes off of it, but nothing unusual happened. I guess this was a “watched pot doesn’t boil” situation.
Once I was back on the beach, I started to wring the water out of my clothes and shiver. This was Alaska, the ocean was always cold. Dad would probably be pissed if he saw me wet, so I didn’t linger too long. I knew I wouldn’t see anything even if I did. Apparently this message in a bottle was a secret of the sea.
Part of me hoped that my mother was the one getting the messages, though I knew that was impossible. But was it really any more impossible than what was happening? Someone was reading my messages. Someone was sending the bottle back. Why couldn’t it be her?
I walked back home. As expected, Dad was still snoring on the couch; he hadn’t missed me at all. I showered and changed into dry clothes, then got ready to go pick wild blueberries. I was looking forward to Auntie and my cousins visiting. To be a good host, I’d make blueberry pancakes for breakfast the next day!
By the time noon rolled around, I had a bucket full. Dad was awake, and smiled with approval when he saw me with my haul and purple fingers. The ferry would arrive soon, and I’d go pick everyone up. I cleaned up what I could, though the house still smelled like a brewery.
When the time came, Dad and I headed to the dock. I drove us of course, but Dad wanted to come help load up any luggage or shipments that might have come in. Auntie and Dad had a strained relationship these days, but he was always polite to her even when she wasn’t polite to him. She didn’t approve of his drinking. I didn’t either, so I didn’t really fault her when she criticized him for it.
“Alex!” I saw her immediately, her salt-and-pepper braid was wind-tousled and frizzy from the trip across the water. It was a windy day. My cousins Shasta and Quincy were there too, looking a little chapped from the wind.
“Hey guys!” I ran over to hug them. Dad was already grabbing everything he could carry and loading up the back of the truck. The cab only fit two people, so I’d walk back with Shasta and Quincy. Auntie could ride back with dad, so long as Auntie did the driving.
Shasta was younger than me, and Quincy was a little older– but they were energetic boys. The ‘walk’ home turned into a race that Quincy won. He was in better shape than he had been the last time I saw him.
“Mom let me start working at the lumber mill.” he told me when I asked. “She’s still too scared to let anyone on a fishing boat, but at least she lets us on the ferry.” he shot me a sympathetic look. He knew about my dad’s fear of the sea.
“I don’t know why you want to work.” Shasta laughed, “I’m glad I don’t have to.”
“You’ll want to. Especially when you see women all over me and not you!” Quincy laughed right back, giving his brother a good-natured jab. “Do you have a job, Alex?”
I shook my head. “No, I just help dad with his business. He doesn’t want me to have a job until I graduate. Even over the summer and spring break, he said I should enjoy the breaks while I still get them.”
“Makes sense.” Quincy answered, nodding.
“Does your dad’s 3-Wheeler still work?” Shasta interrupted, pointing at the old thing. It was covered by a tarp that used to be blue.
“Yeah, but the gas is expensive. It’s easier just to walk.” I replied, somewhat dismissive. Shasta looked excited though.
“Do you think he’ll let us use it?”
“You can ask?” I wasn’t sure. Dad wasn’t really opposed to using ATVs, just things that cost money or went on the ocean. Having guests over was rare though, so he might say yes. He’d always taught me the importance of being a good host. I watched Shasta run inside, yelling his question. A minute later, he was back with a huge grin.
“Come on! I’m driving it!”
I pulled off the tarp and made sure it still had gas in it. It wasn’t really big enough for the three of us, but we’d make it work.
“…Ok. So… the beach?” I asked. The boys agreed, and we set out. Once we got there, they took turns driving up and down the strip. I left them to it, glad they were having fun but definitely distracted.
It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for.
This time the bottle was sitting on top of a rock like someone had set it there. It was empty. I picked it up, rolling the cold glass between my hands in amazement. I unscrewed the cap, grabbed the neck of the bottle and then held it to my eye. Nope, nothing. Not even a grain of sand or a drop of water was inside.
“Whoa! Your dad letting you drink now?” Shasta came running over when he saw me, recognizing one of dad’s beer bottles.
“No, of course not.” when it came to me, Dad was very responsible. Too responsible. Smothering.
“What’s with the bottle then?” Quincy hopped off the 3-wheeler and walked over. He was in a lot less of a rush than his younger brother. I debated telling them, but ran the risk of getting made fun of if I did. I was quiet, putting the lid back on and holding the glass carefully in front of me with both hands. Taking a deep breath, I decided… why not?
“You might not believe this, but…I keep putting letters in this bottle. Then I drop them in the water, and the letters disappear… but the bottle comes back. I mean, it’s happened three times already.”
“That’s creepy!” I blinked at Shasta’s reaction. I’d expected them not to believe me, or to think it was cool. Creepy? I didn’t feel like it was creepy at all. I felt heard.
“You sure someone isn’t messing with you?” Quincy’s reaction was more in line with what I expected, but it was still hard not to be defensive.
“It’d be an expensive way to mess with me, right? Dad charges $3 just for the bottle so that people won’t lose or break them.”
“I guess.” Quincy said, squinting at the bottle. “Why, though?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. I had a suspicion. I thought maybe it was Mom, but… that much I wasn’t willing to admit.
“If it’s some kind of magic shit going on, you should try making a wish.” Shasta chimed in. “I mean, what’s the harm?”
“It’s not magic.” Quincy interjected logically. “It’s a prank, or a coincidence, or someone dropped a whole crate of bottles in the water by accident and you keep finding them.”
“I guess I’m making a wish then.” I laughed, trying to play it off and act cool. I took out my notebook again, scribbling down something that I really hoped might come true.
‘Hi, this is Alex again.
My cousin said I should make a wish, so… here goes: I wish my dad would stop drinking, or at least let me on the ferry. Either would make me happy. I don’t know if you can grant my wish. I don’t think anyone can, but… thank you for hearing me out.’
I folded it up carefully. Shasta wanted to read it, but I didn’t let him. Again, I set the bottle adrift on the water. I watched my wish, wondering if I was asking too much. Even if I believed that my one sided pen-pal could grant wishes, it didn’t seem possible that my dad could change.
Regret hit me like a wave; like a physical blow, I actually staggered back. It wasn’t because I didn’t want my wish come true, it because I didn’t want Mom to see it. Mom would be sad if I told her what was going on with Dad. I had no proof she was even the one getting these messages, but my stomach still knotted up at the thought.
Before I could pluck it out of the water, I heard my dad’s truck coming up the beach. Auntie had come over to get us.
“I said an hour!” she called, but she wasn’t really mad. She wagged her finger at us, but we all grinned sheepishly.
I hadn’t realized so much time had passed already. It felt like it had only been five minutes, but sure enough… it had been an hour and a half.
“Alex!” Auntie called. “Come ride with me!”
“Sure!” I started jogging over, trusting my cousins to get the 3-wheeler back safely. I got into the passenger’s seat. Auntie watched me buckle in before starting the truck back up, but she didn’t start driving right away. Instead, she left the gear in park and looked at me with her familiar warm smile. Mom had the same smile.
“I’ve really missed you, Alex. I’m sorry we don’t visit more.”
“That’s OK.” I looked at my feet.
“Well, I want to see you more. So… I’ve been talking to your dad and we decided…” she started tapping on the steering wheel, averting her gaze. I knew that when she said ‘talking’ she really meant ‘fighting’.
“Well. I decided.” she corrected herself, straightening up in her seat. “I decided that next summer, you’re coming to Kodiak and staying with us. Just for the summer.” she added that last part quickly. “I’m not taking no for an answer. I’ll buy your ticket, and I’ll come get you if I have to.”
“Really? Dad agreed to that?” the long silence answered the question before she did.
“… No. But he will. If you act like it’s a sure thing, I’m sure he’ll cave by then. He loves you, he wants to protect you– but he knows he’s going to have to loosen the reigns a bit, especially if he wants to have a relationship with you when you grow up.”
“I’m already grown up.”
She laughed when I said that, and I pretended to be offended. Crossing my arms, I tried not to grin. A summer in Kodiak sounded great to me! It couldn’t come soon enough!
The rest of the ride back was a blur, but I remember that the house smelled like pineapple and honey rather than beer when I walked through the door. Auntie had me sit down, and prepared a big slice of pineapple upside down cake for me. We had cake for dinner, celebrating a birthday she’d missed. She’d brought presents, new art supplies to refresh my collection. Everything was wrapped up with pretty paper and ribbons, too. It was surprising that she’d planned all of this so last minute!
Unless… dad hadn’t been letting her come, and she’d had all of these things already. He didn’t say a word through dinner, I could tell he was angry even if he wasn’t saying so. At least, he didn’t say anything at first.
“You excited about next summer?” Shasta asked. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what he said. His mouth was still full of cake.
“Yeah!” I answered with enthusiasm. That’s when Dad’s fist hit the table.
“Paul–” Auntie immediately touched his arm, surprised by his sudden outburst. Dad knocked her hand away.
“I said no! It’s not happening! Alex, I’m sorry, but don’t get your hopes up. You’re not going.”
“Maybe we should go have this conversation somewhere else.” Auntie said in as level a voice she could manage, but I could tell she was angry too.
“Maybe you should leave.” Dad answered, “Get out. Get out NOW. Don’t you dare come over here and make decisions. You know what happened! Yet here you are, trying to be the parent. I’m the parent, not you.”
I was stunned. The sweet taste in my mouth went sour. I became so angry I was shaking. Standing up from the table, I started walking out.
“… Figure this out. I’ll come back… when I cool down.” I didn’t want to say anything I’d regret. I was already in tears.
“Alex…” Auntie tried to stop me. She touched my shoulder, but I pulled away.
“I’ll be back, just leave me alone for awhile.” I didn’t want to hear them fight. I didn’t want them to fight because of me… but most of all, I wanted my dad to see reason. Couldn’t he see how out of control his fear was getting?
Predictably, I went back to the beach. This time, I didn’t find the bottle. I didn’t find anything but a chilly wind and a black sea. I searched for an hour before coming back. Dad wasn’t at the house, but I saw the truck was already loaded up with luggage. They’d take the ferry back in the morning.
“Sorry.” Shasta mouthed when he saw me, but I shook my head. It wasn’t his fault. The only person I really blamed here was my dad. He didn’t come back. In the morning, I dropped everyone off at the dock. I asked if they were really going, but unfortunately they were.
“We’ll see you next summer.” Quincy told me, “Just work on wearing your old man down. Worst case scenario, we can come here. Don’t worry too much, OK?”
“Yeah.” but I was going to worry about it. I saw them off and went home. Dad still wasn’t back. It wasn’t like him to storm off and disappear, but that fight had been a doozy. I’d never seen him so angry before. I didn’t look for him at first, figuring he must have really needed to cool off just like I had.
I went to the beach again. Clearly, my wish hadn’t been granted. For a second in the truck with Auntie, I thought it had been. At least partially. But of course, it’s never that simple.
I found the bottle, it was in the same place as last time– set on top of the rock I liked to sit on, like someone had put it there. It was empty.
This time, I took the bottle home without sending a letter. I continued to wait for my dad to come back, but he didn’t. I knew he hadn’t been on the ferry, but he also wasn’t around town. No one had seen him.
It took me longer than it should have to check his boat. It wasn’t in the shed where it should have been. He must have taken it out on the water, though I had no idea why he would. He had no reason to take it out to town in the dead of night, especially without telling me where he was going.
I called Auntie, but I did my best not to scare her. Instead of asking if she’d seen Dad, I asked if she’d talked to him.
That’s when I finally reported him missing. The longer he was gone, the more I worried. I wanted him home. At this point, I didn’t even care about the fight– no matter how ridiculous it was, or how much I hated being stuck in the village… I loved my dad.
I took the bottle out to the beach again, in a last-ditch effort… I decided to try making a wish again. I didn’t think it would work, but it felt better to do something. I couldn’t wait at home doing nothing.
‘Hi, this is Alex.
I’m worried about my dad. We had a big fight, and I haven’t seen him. I wish he was home. Thank you for hearing me out. Sorry I stopped writing, it just felt weird while he was gone.’
I didn’t watch my message float away. I knew I wouldn’t see where it went, or who took it. I went home and tried to sleep, but all I could think about was my dad lost at sea. When I closed my eyes, I saw his little white boat being tossed about dark waves. I saw him, terrified, as he was swallowed up by the sea.
After the nightmare, I knew I couldn’t wait. I took Dad’s truck, foot heavy on the gas the whole way there. I jumped out, leaving the headlights on so they could illuminate my view in the dark.
Right as I reached the beach, a wave came out of nowhere…I was knocked over and thrown onto my back as the dark water hit me like a punch. As I blindly tried to push myself back up, my hands came into contact with something smooth and icy cold.
Blinking the saltwater out of my eyes, I knew before I could even see that I’d found the bottle. It was heavy in my hands; I hugged it to my chest so I wouldn’t drop it and scrambled over to my sitting rock.
Eagerly, I looked down at the bottle. It seemed to have some rocks or something in it? No, that wasn’t right. They didn’t rattle around the glass like rocks would. Weird. I uncapped the bottle with numb fingers, tilting the bottle so I could pour the contents in my hands.
Whatever it was, it got stuck. The neck of the bottle wasn’t wide enough. I brought it to my eye, looking inside. The glass shattered before I even registered dropping it. Fingers and toes rolled across the rocky beach. Severed and blue, but… unmistakable. I could see nails, and even little sprouts of dark hair. The cuts weren’t clean, they were jagged with loose bits of skin flapping at the ends.
It looked like they hadn’t been cut off, but… torn. Chewed up, and spit back into this bottle. No. I was still back at home, having a nightmare.
I had to be.
Backing away from the grisly discovery, I noticed that more than just a bottle had washed up on the shore. I saw an elbow, an ear, and even a foot without it’s toes. I screamed until my throat was raw. I ran. I slipped and fell repeatedly on the wet rocks. I tripped on my father’s head, mouth agape and filled with water and foam.
I found my way to town, still screaming and sobbing. I had his head in my hands; it felt like cold clay. Clammy. His eyes were gone, the sockets empty… like they’d been scooped out. I don’t remember what happened after that, I only know that I wouldn’t let go of his head. I wouldn’t stop screaming.
State Troopers came to town the next day, combing the beach to find everything as it washed up. By then, I was numb. They took his body away in a dozen trash bags. I answered their questions, but I don’t remember what they asked or what I said.
My aunt came to stay with me while the investigation went on. No one suspected foul play. It was ruled an accident; they said he must have fallen out of his boat. That he might have been run over by another boat. That the sea-life and rough water tore him up.
I didn’t tell anyone about the bottle. I couldn’t.
But on my last day in town, before I went to live with Auntie in Kodiak… I brought another bottle to the beach. There was one last message I needed to send. One last question I had to ask:
‘Mom? Is that you?
Please answer me if it is.’
That bottle never came back.