Wishful Thinking Literary Short Fiction By Suzanne Halmi

Wishful Thinking: Literary Short Fiction By Suzanne Halmi

Suzanne Halmi, author of “Wishful Thiking”, teaches mythology, fairy tales, and postmodern literature at Montclair State University, and writes literary and speculative fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in Subtropics, Southern Humanities Review, and The Carolina Quarterly.

*****

They were hot and tired after their long journey from Paris to Athens and then to the Cycladic island that was in the process of being renamed for some reason, and that was why Milton didn’t pay too much attention or have too much concern about the strange story the caretaker told them when they arrived. It had all the elements of Gothic horror, he thought, with a soupcon of ancient Greek myth and a little Guillermo del Toro to make it current.

The island had been, for millennia, sacred to the god, Pan. Here, his followers had gathered for huge Bacchanalias, orgies, if you will, and human sacrifices.

All well and good, so far, Milton had thought, listening, for a corporate retreat such as he was planning.

But the god was no longer in favor, people didn’t worship him as they used to, and so he hid in the caves in the rocks that looked as if they’d been heaped upon the island.

All well and good, so far, Milton had thought…

“Was Pan the god of wine?” Sheila asked, a little wide-eyed as she held her water bottle near her lower lip.

No, she was assured, that god was no god here. Pan the Mighty God, the god of chaos, reigned on…whatever this place was going to be called.

In the caves, the woman said, staring at Milton, there were piles of human skulls. The skulls of men who had not believed, and men who had believed only too well. In the end, she said, death had taken them all.

“Oh, well, death and taxes,” Milton said flippantly, and walked off a little way, pretending to see if he could get one or two more bars on his phone. But mostly Milton was thinking about killing his wife.

The woman took them to their room and left them.

Later, Sheila said, “Caretakers make me nervous.” She unzipped her case on the bed.

“You make me nervous,” he told her, coming over to pick up the case and place it on the suitcase stand.

She shook her head. “Really. Anyway, yes, because they sort of act like they own the place when they don’t. Remember that bed-and-breakfast in Michigan?”

“She really owned that place, sweetie,” he told her. He’d already unpacked and hung up all his shirts. He’d already changed into shorts and a tee and put on 100 SPF. He was sitting in a chair under the light switch by the door, waiting for her. She’d had to take a nap after the ferry which brought them from the mainland six hours after their flight arrived. He told her that he understood only to be nice to her. After all, they were here on earth to be nice to each other, weren’t they?

“Do these people own this place?” she asked, pausing in taking out her crumpled dresses and bathing suits, piling them on the bed, and then adding more wrinkled clothes to the heap.

“No,” he said, one leg crossed over the other, swinging his foot. “The family who owns this island inherited it a couple of years ago. Now, they’re looking for a way to make some money on it. They can’t get the approval to build anymore because it’s a historical site. These people are really caretakers.”

“Can we get a second room?” she asked, holding an armful of dresses and staring into the tiny closet where his clothes already took up most of the space and the hangers.

He took out three shirts and folded them carefully into a drawer, and took his seat again.

“And that creepy story! Did she really think that would make for a pleasant introduction to this place?”

Milton contemplated his wife as she turned her back on him to get more stuff out of her suitcase and made a quick face before she turned around again. He found himself doing this more and more lately. It did not speak well for their relationship, but if he asked her, she always looked blank, and said that of course she was happy. Blank and happy. He sighed. She certainly wouldn’t be happy if he filled in the blank.

“What?” she asked, pausing in trying to fit three dresses on one hanger.

“You look nice,” he said, “with that little puzzled frown on your face.”

“Gee, thanks,” she said a little tartly, but then she smiled and rolled her eyes.

He could get away with murdering her, he thought, so long as he complimented her hair while he was doing it.

He had been more amused than not by the story the old woman told them when they reached the house. The small tender from the ferry had left them at the little dock constructed many years ago in the sheltered cove where a tiny beach unfurled toward the craggy outcropping of stone that hid the wider world on both sides. Other islands of the Cyclades were visible from the island, but on the beach, at the dock, one could see nothing but island and sea. Milton was ticking this one off his list even as his wife opened her mouth to exclaim at the beauty of it. Still, Milton knew the clients, too, and knew they would not like this point of disembarkation that seemed so much like a stony fist about to crush the puny humans who dared the island’s shore.

They’d trudged up the rocky path lugging their carry-ons while the old man loaded their larger bags on a donkey and followed them. At the house, the old woman had handed them lukewarm bottles of water with a strong mineral taste, and when Sheila said, “Can you tell us a little bit about this island?” had told them the story.

Perhaps the owners thought a story about a god was a good idea, but he’d have to tell them, for marketing purposes, they should talk about the god of wine and parties although there were plenty of islands where partying was the point, and that was not why he and Sheila were here. They were making a name for themselves, for their business, as travel agents providing off-the-beaten-path places for challenging and rewarding teambuilding exercises for upper management. But everything had to fit together. You couldn’t have a rustic Greek island and mix it with something you could do in Magaluf.

Sheila had taught him this, and he’d always been a fast learner.

They descended from the room at last and emerged out into the somewhat brutal sunlight. Sheila yipped and adjusted her hat for better coverage, and walked over under the trees where a meal was laid upon an old wooden table under an umbrella that had seen better days. While slightly more Spartan than they were used to, Milton could see the allure in all of it for the retreat his company was planning. Back to basics. Could he pitch it that way and just go home already?

The wooden and clay bowls held various offerings: olives, feta cheese, mixed herbs, and grilled chunks of lamb marinated in some peppery spice, while the plates, cups, and glasses awaited their choices. As they stood, considering this meal, the old woman emerged from another door near the rear of the house carrying a carafe of wine and a dripping jug of water. She set these on the table and stepped back, staring at them as if to goad one of them into a criticism.

“Lovely,” Sheila said. “I am so hungry!” She pulled out a chair and sat down, taking the cloth napkin from her place setting and putting it carefully on her lap. “I don’t think I’ve had a healthy meal since we left home.”

It did look healthy, Milton had to admit as he took a seat at the table. Clients would love this. “Still,” he said, when the caretaker retreated into the kitchen again, “the food in Paris was great.” He had enough healthy eating at home.

But Sheila was already putting a spoonful of olives on her plate and chasing an errant roller on the tablecloth, staining it with oil. She popped it into her mouth, nodding and humming her enjoyment. She spit the pit into her hand and deposited it on her dish. Milton reached for the carafe of wine and filled their glasses to the top as she made little noises of dismay at the amount, and he disguised his grimace about her manners in a frown on concentration on not spilling the wine. “We don’t have to report in until tomorrow,” he said.

When Milton met Sheila, they were new hires at Ty Tech Inc. and their ambitions were in tune with the attraction they felt for each other. Three weeks after they met, they were in bed. Three months later, they moved in together. A year later, they eloped, doing the deed on a business trip to Vegas, writing off the whole thing. Another year, and they’d started their own business. Now, it was just one career, the team’s career, rather than Milton’s career and Sheila’s career. Milton couldn’t remember the last time he’d said “I” at work. It was always “we.” Together, they were advancing further and faster than Milton had thought possible for himself alone, and Sheila, when asked, agreed.

Milton drank some of the wine and had to admit that it was excellent. A robust red. He drank some more and refilled his glass. Once the first glass of the red was gone, the food seemed more enticing and he ate well. He became increasingly fond of the spicy chunks of lamb, and, when the bowl was empty, wished he could ask for more without Sheila’s disapproval. She managed their eating and their health. He couldn’t remember agreeing to this, but it has seemed okay for a long time. Going on four years of marriage, he was fitter and healthier than he’d been before when constantly networking at bars and restaurants.

Now…

The old man appeared to remove the bowls and dishes and his wife followed to take the tablecloth. She paused for a fraction of a second when she saw the stain from the olive, but then she removed the cloth and herself without a change in her expression or a single word. Milton, who was becoming increasingly aware of Sheila’s every mistake, every faux pas, every wrong foot, delighted silently.

They removed themselves from the table, into the sunshine, still a warm golden glow in the early evening. Milton had had three glasses of wine and he felt the urge to do something. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s explore.”

“Oh, no,” Sheila said, shaking her head. She’d only had one glass. She smoothed her dress. “God knows when I’ll be able to get this dry cleaned if I get dirty.”

She looked up at him with her head slightly tilted and the three glasses of wine told him she looked very good tonight. Her auburn hair was loosed from its usual bun, and longer than when he met her. He could see the gold flecks in her green eyes, only slightly enhanced with a little help from the tint in her contact lenses. She was slim and pretty and still his wife.

For now.

He said, “So, get a little dirty.”

He took her hand and led her out of the courtyard and along the path that split in two: one way to the beach, the other to the top of the crag nearest the house. He hesitated for a moment, considering which would be more likely to put her in the mood, but some strong desire of his own to see the island and the sea, at the moment of the setting sun, led him to take the path to the top, gently tugging her along behind him.

It was hard going and their feet slipped on the loose stones, but Milton felt determined to reach the top and get Sheila up there, too, and by the sheer force of this mountain climbing fervor (he wasn’t sure where it had come from–he hadn’t hiked anything more than a ramp in years), in twenty minutes they reached the top and stood for a moment, laughing through their panting at their success.

“I am so out of shape!” Sheila said, when she could talk, and he wished, immediately, that she would shut up. Unaware of his thoughts, she turned to look out over the sea. Far below them, for the house, too, was some distance uphill from the shore, they could see the waves rolling in toward the beach, futilely crashing against the spiky rocks that lined the outer reaches of the cove or inlet or whatever it was called.

Milton, who was far more out of shape than Sheila, regained control over his lungs and, with a smile that he hoped would win her heart, put his arm around her waist, and told her how beautiful she was.

She leaned against him, and turning her head, they kissed.

During the night, Milton awoke with a start. He had heard something… Okay, there was nothing now, but he had heard something… He lay there for some minutes, listening. Light filtered in around the curtains but he could see that it was still moonlight, and not dawn. Next to him, Sheila murmured in her sleep and he grimaced automatically, before he remembered the evening they had had. Then, feeling slightly guilty, and, with as much consideration for not waking her as possible, he slipped out of the bed to go relieve himself in the bathroom. It didn’t take too long, and he was glad to get up for a few minutes to dispel the fright he’d had, awakening like that.

The whitewashed walls of the villa shone like marble in the moonlight as he made his way back to their room. The other rooms’ doors remained open, and no one had thought to close the curtains for the night in there. After all, why would they bother? He peeked into one, and considered the empty bed. Would Sheila be upset to find him sleeping elsewhere when she got up? Um…probably. He kept going.

Their room, when he reached it, seemed darker than when he’d first awoken, but without thinking too much about it, he knew it was because the hall and other rooms were so much brighter, exposed to the moonlight. He picked up his phone from the charger and opened a downloaded issue of Fortune so that he could read in bed for a little while. Then, cautiously, he felt his side of the bed to draw back the covers. Sheila. She had moved over in his absence and was taking up the whole bed.

He sighed, and walked around to the other side of the bed, and attempted the same thing, touching the bed first, ready to climb in … she was on this side, too. The whole bed!

He went back to his side (he preferred his own side) and touched her shoulder. God, she said she was out of shape but she didn’t feel like it in the dark. She felt solid and muscular. He shook her a little, and said, “Hey, hey, Shee, move over,” and with what seemed like a slow, deliberate movement, she moved from her side onto her back. His hand now on her shoulder further away from him, he slid his hand upward, sensing rather than seeing her eyes staring up at him in the dark.

And his fingers met a bearded chin. Wiry, curly hairs depressed at his touch before he fell back with a cry, and losing his balance, landed on his back on the floor. The dark shape on the bed, the bearded shape, rose and, leaping athletically from the bed, paused to give Milton a kick in the thigh before it was gone, and Sheila turned on the light.

In the morning, Milton brooded on the episode during the night. Sheila claimed she knew nothing of what he was complaining about, that she had been asleep the whole time, and that there hadn’t been anyone else in the room with them. The bruise that was shaping up on his thigh gave the lie to her words, but she insisted, with tears in her eyes, and so he dropped the matter, lapsing into wronged silence.

The morning was to include a walk to the other side of the island and then they needed to sit down and start their report. Milton was strongly leaning toward passing on this island, but he was willing to give it one more chance to make the list so long as he never had to return. As they climbed the path pointed out to them by the silent old man, whose scraggly beard he’d contemplated sourly, he found himself rubbing his thigh more than once, and contemplating Sheila’s backside as it proceeded before him.

They walked up to the top of the island, pausing for Sheila’s interminable picture-taking and then set off down the steep winding path to the historic site whose presence killed any hopes of the owners to develop the island. When they reached the place, it stood alone on a flat piece of ground, the single column of the temple the only part of it still left upright or intact. The altar had long since fallen to pieces, and the other columns lay broken all about the perimeter. Milton, head down, was walking among the ruins when Sheila called out to him.

“Look!” she said, smiling. She pointed in the direction they’d come down the path, and he could see, under the hill, the opening of a cave. Its small mouth would hardly admit a man much larger than Milton, and seemed almost mean in its aspect as they walked over to look at it. “I think this is definitely a plus,” she said, her hands on her hips. “I wonder why they didn’t tell us to check it out?”

“Because we can’t get in and it’s boring,” he told her. “Come on, Sheila, you know this whole place is a dud. The only thing we could have teams do here is move rocks from one place to another in a pointless exercise since they’d just have to put them back. Can you see some CFO doing that for even a second?”

“I think it’s amazing,” she said, “how you get this view over the sea from here. It’s so flat, among all the rocks, with that crazy cave mouth, and everything. I love it.” She walked over to him, put her arms around his waist and leaned into him, kissing him generously and invitingly. “Last night,” she said, “when you woke me up, was amazing.”

“Amazing,” he said, and then blinked. “You mean when I fell on the floor?”

“The sex,” she said. Her eyes looked slightly unfocused, her gaze moving from his to the cave behind him. “The sex was the best.”

“The best,” he said flatly.

“Maybe the best ever.” She removed her arms from his waist and walked toward the cave. “Let’s check it out.”

“I didn’t wake you up for sex,” he said. “We–”

“Come on, Milt,” she said, pulling on his hand. She dropped it when he stayed where he was and continued toward the cave mouth. “I feel ghoulish–I want to see if those heads are there.”

“Wouldn’t be heads anymore,” he said. “Skulls.”

Suddenly, he was seized with an impulse so dark it nearly took his breath away. “Come to the edge first,” he said, smiling at her. “Let’s get a selfie with the sea behind us.”

He wasn’t sure he could do it, but the thought of it filled him with a thrumming excitement. At the edge, they’d take a picture and then… Of course, he wouldn’t do it, but… How he longed for release!

She smiled back at him, but shook her head. She pointed toward the cave. He felt his own smile curdle somewhat, but he beckoned her toward the edge. She took a step toward him, but then she stopped. Her head tilted as if she heard something. A blur developed out of the corner of his eye, as if something disturbed the air.

“No,” she said. “I really want to go into the cave.” And before he could grab her arm, his hand fell through empty air, she walked away and into the darkness.

He waited a few minutes and then found a stone to sit on. He looked around, but all he could see was what he’d already seen: sea, sky, and all the rocks. Rocks everywhere. Big rocks and little rocks. He kicked a few rocks near his feet. You’d think, after all those years, centuries, millennia, that some of the rocks would have disappeared. Or maybe it was the other way around: rocks emerged from the earth as time went on, working their way steadily through the soil. He kicked another rock and found it satisfying enough that he reached for another with the toe of his sneaker, but had to rise to move it. And another, and another. He moved around the area, kicking and shuffling, waiting for Sheila to kill her curiosity and come out the cave so he could push her off the cliff. He really, really wanted to do it this time.

When he thought about it–and he thought about it often–he always thought about that last moment, when her eyes widened, and she reached out to grab hold of something that would keep her from falling and her hands clutched at nothing but thin air–he smiled. After it was over, he could never smile at all, even when thinking about it. He would have to mourn Sheila for the rest of his life. Publically, anyway. The face of a grieving husband. He had practiced many times in the bathroom mirror. He had it down pat.

He had no one on the side to put the lie to this, either. Six months ago, he’d started to fantasize about freeing himself from what had become an all-consuming irritation of a marriage and business partnership. They could hardly continue to work together once he’d divorced her since she seemed more than content in their relationship. This bond that was like a sharp pebble in his shoe. He thought about it all the time, and had it all worked out.

No, he wouldn’t do it, but he wanted to.

He kicked at another rock and then picked one up, set it on another and thought about kicking it, but realized he could hurt his toe if he was off even a little bit in his aim.

Where the hell was Sheila? Was she in there, waiting patiently for him to follow her in? He got up and walked to the mouth of the cave, and used his phone to shine a light, but he could see nothing. “Sheila!” he called. “For God’s sake, Shee! Come out now.”

He imagined for a second that he heard something faint and far off, but he waited and realized he’d heard it only because he wanted to hear it. He called again, and shouted. Still, there was nothing from within. He walked back to where he’d been sitting, and reseated himself awkwardly, feeling now the sharp point through his khakis. He smoothed down the thighs of his pants and felt the bruise on his leg.

It must have been the old man, he thought. Climbing into bed with Sheila, having sex with her (that she had thought was so great) and then to add injury to insult, giving her cuckolded husband a kick on the way out the door. Nice. He rubbed the bruise. It was a bad one. He should report this. But how does one make such a complaint?

He was never coming back here after this trip. He would write off the whole area and concentrate on the South Pacific which was infinitely more exotic for companies based in the U.S. What with all the kid stuff about Greek mythology, it had less cache for business class than it used to. He had little to no interest in that stuff, although Sheila always said she liked it when she talked to her nieces and nephews. Still, why would he come back here? For more abuse?

Furious suddenly, he got up and ran to the cave and shouted her name into the opening. He shouted and shouted until he started to cough. He flashed his light inside and called out to her. What the hell was going on? She should just come out here and let him push her over the cliff. She didn’t have to starve, lost deep in some cave. It would be over in a minute. Painless. Probably.

He paced around the clearing for a few minutes, trying to think. If she were hurt in there…he’d get in trouble. If she were dead in there…he might get in trouble, but then again, he might not. And if she were dead in there, he wouldn’t have to push her off the cliff. It was a pleasure he’d have to forego.

Who was he kidding? It was a fantasy, nothing more. The Milton who accepted wrinkled shirts so that his wife could hang up dresses she’d brought on the trip but would never wear, that Milton would never push Sheila off a cliff. It was a dream, nothing more.

He called one last time, and then headed back down the path, slipping on tiny rocks in his haste. He burst into the courtyard, shouting for the old couple. They appeared from different directions, the old man wearing an apron covered with dried bloodstains, a cigarette dangling from his lips. His huge biceps were bared for dirty work. Lamb for dinner again, Milton thought, and then plunged into his story.

But rather than springing into action, they mutely shook their heads. “You must go in to get her,” the old woman said as the old man shrugged, turned away, and walked back to his work.

“What? What do you mean? She might be hurt. Can’t you call in some kind of rescue?”

“You are her husband, you brought her here, you must recover her.”

“This makes no sense,” Milton said somewhat wildly, pushing his hair up. “I can’t go in there. I’ll just get lost and then what? What will you do then?”

“There is nowhere to go to get lost in there,” the old woman said. “It is just a room. The rest of the cave system collapsed long ago. She is there, right inside.”

“She wouldn’t answer me,” Milton said, feeling a certain creeping unease that was worse than anything he’d felt before. It was cold, this feeling, and with it came the certainty that what the old woman said was true.

“Go in and bring her out,” the old woman said, “if you want her. Otherwise, perhaps he will keep her.”

Burning now with anger and resentment, Milton went back up the path to the clearing. Still no Sheila, of course. And all his nice plans now were ruined. Impossible to even think of shoving her off the cliff after this. Another fantasy gone. He paused, considering. Had she guessed his hidden intentions? Was that why she was hiding in the cave? There was no way he believed that wretched myth about the hairy goat god. He walked up to the opening and felt, for the first time, among all the other horrible things he was feeling, afraid.

He did not want to go in there.

If there were skulls or heads or no skulls or heads, he did not want to go in there.

He walked back to his rock.

He got back up and walked to the cave.

He walked to the cliff and looked out. Still nothing but sea and sky. It had looked, when he first saw it, like freedom to him. He imagined the launch of Sheila into the blue, the beginning of his new life without her.

He walked back to the mouth of the cave. It was so dark. But how could he explain to anyone, if anything happened to Sheila now, that he hadn’t been able to make himself go into that dark slit in the rock after his wife? He couldn’t.

He called one more time, shouting and pleading with her, but again, aside from a faint sound (so, so far off) he heard nothing. He wondered if she had found a pile of skulls. He wondered if she was listening to him cry out for her with such desperation (yes, he was desperate for her to come out now) and he wondered if she was alone.

That story… The half-man, half-goat, god and his unquenchable lust. Nonsense! No, she was alone, and maybe afraid to come out. And he was afraid to go in.

He went back to his rock.

Eventually, something was going to happen.

But it was almost certainly going to be in the dark.

*****

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