They say you should never talk to the dead, but here on Lost Shoal Island, the Pod Cast is as integral to New Year’s Eve as champagne and midnight kisses.
My wife Marilee and I sit atop stools around our butcher block table, putting the finishing touches on our pods. She’s four months pregnant, and I’ll admit I’m a little leery of her talking with anyone from beyond; we are the twenty-year couple in love that discovered almost too late that this was what we desired most, and at our age, the risks are very high. We are both anxious more days than not, and talking to the dead is where some people can get tempted to cross that line and ask for things they shouldn’t.
Tonight, she seems anything but anxious. She hums as she whittles a rose—the carved pattern on the pod is supposed to be something that brought your loved one great pleasure in life, so that he will recognize it, and that was her late mother’s favorite flower—into the wood that’s from one of the sunken vessels at the shipwreck graveyard where the Pod Cast takes place.
Me? Not so much. My father passed away in April. This is going to be the first time I have anyone to cast for, and I certainly have a lot of questions to ask his spirit—so many that, when I made my list, it was too big to fit in the pod I’m supposed to toss on the water.
“Come on, Malcolm. You’re asking him all of that?” Marilee stops working her pod, winces as she loosens the strap on her velvet chemise. “They usually only have time to give you one or two answers.”
“I know.” I struggle to manipulate the parchment into a smaller square; she’s right, but the cancer took Dad so quickly I’d barely had time to grasp the fact that he was leaving us, let alone ask him anything. But I was very close to him. Our conversations went into the night. How am I supposed to ask just one thing? “Cut me a break. I’m a virgin.”
“Sure you are, baby.” She smiles, tight-lipped and rueful. “If you’ve got it on there you can whack ‘Am I going to be a great dad?’ off your list, because I think we both know the answer to that.”
“Speak for yourself. Dammit!” My pod won’t close no matter what I do.
“Stop. Here.” Marilee takes my list and, somehow, with her perfect fingers—not too short and thick, not too long and thin—manages to origami it so it fits in the pod. She closes the lid and buckles the leather strap. “You’re all set.” She comes around the table and hugs me from behind, presses her head against my back. “You’re just nervous.”
What I really want to say is no, I’m terrified, but instead, I say, “Guess so.”
“Don’t be.” She kisses the back of my neck. She smells like pomegranate. “The dead never tell you anything you’re not supposed to know.”
I know my father. Even when I was a kid, he trusted me with things only adults should have in their awareness. He was a pastor, a wise man, and he feared nothing, not even, as it drew closer, his own death—although it made him incredibly sad. I remember his eyes when I took him to his final doctor’s appointment. The apology in them bored right through me.
But there was nothing in the world he wouldn’t tell me if I asked.
Unlike most women, she’s felt chilled most of the time since she’s been pregnant, but she wants to take my late father’s old Mercedes convertible to the Cast—with the top down; riding in it, she says, makes her feel young and fearless. She bundles up in a few layers underneath her gray fur-lined coat and maroon wool hat, and squeals with glee despite the fact that it’s ten degrees.
We pull into the cove, alive with lights, tailgaters and a biting, damp wind dusted with snow flurries. Beyond the fluttering flames of the torches, the full moon washes the remains of twenty-nine shipwrecks, their hulls, beams, and bowsprits exposed at low tide like spikes. They’re so ancient there aren’t any masts or forepeaks left, although we know the names and sometimes grisly histories of all of them: the Hope, trashed in a hurricane; the Billiard, whose drunk captain ran it aground and then committed suicide; Comeuppance, a 19th-century paddle steamer whose pleasure stop ended when the deathtrap caught fire and over a hundred men, women, and children couldn’t get out. Bodies washed up for days.
How and why the Pod Cast—a centuries-old tradition here—came to be isn’t known. Loads of theories and legends, but no one can say for sure. When someone you love and miss so badly shows up in front of you and the ache goes away for a precious few minutes, that doesn’t seem to matter. No one pokes around too much.
The air is thick with the smell of garlic, grease, and charcoal. Our neighbor, Sam—six foot four, lumpy, and loud—brandishes an over-sized spatula while he mans three grills. “Well, if it isn’t the Lomens.”
He always looks at us like he knows what goes on in our bedroom, and he probably does, because we’re not quiet anyplace in the house we decide to do it. Fortunately, we didn’t break the dining room table leg this year like we did last—that was quite the crash, I’m sure the whole neighborhood heard that—so at least he doesn’t give us the raised eyebrow I’m prepared for.
“We keep inviting you over, but we only ever see you on New Year’s Eve when you show up at this thing.” He turns and yells over his shoulder, “Yo! The charred animals are done!”
His announcement gets barely any attention. Kids try to build a snowman with what’s left of the Christmas Eve blizzard. Puffy-coated islanders sip hot chocolate or beer from red plastic cups and huddle up on picnic blankets scattered on the lawn created for just that purpose. Collective Soul’s “December” blasts from a car stereo.
Sam grabs his tongs and lines up chorizo on a platter that features a penguin and the phrase The weather is frightful … let it snow! “I mean, it’s kind of insulting. What, I smell? You don’t like my car bombs?”
“We just like … privacy.” It’s a ridiculous answer, but the truth—that his wife, Evangeline, is unstable, “tarts herself up,” as Marilee says, and forces drunken tarot readings on her guests—would just make this ugly.
“Yeah? How much privacy you think you got when you’re out there on that damn hammock?” He belly-laughs.
Aside from the fact that the tiny strip of lawn behind his house is a weed-choked, garbage-strewn hole, we know he’s jealous. Everyone is. We’re right behind Sacred Heart Parochial, and thanks to antiquated zoning laws, we’ve got a yard big enough to support another thousand-square-foot house if we wanted to build a second. Marilee filled it with rose bushes, and I turned it into an escape with the hammock and fire pit. It’s our place to talk.
Sam flips over a couple of burgers; flames lick the drippings. “People, eat! We got fifteen minutes to launch!” He eyes my pod. “You’re sending one off this year, huh? Who died?”
A cold breeze whistles off the shoal and cuts through me.
Marilee steps forward and tucks her small, gloved hand into mine, giving Sam a fierce stare. “Seriously? I mean, has anybody ever asked you that?”
It’s an unspoken respect. No one asks. You also don’t want to look at someone else’s deceased loved one if you can help it. It’s been rumored that if you ask a bad question—one about death—they come out of the water looking diseased.
Sam seems to get the message; he takes a step back. “Well, I’m … I’m sorry.” He takes a swig of what’s probably Jägermeister from his metal thermos. “You want a burger?”
I’m too nervous to be hungry even though it smells good.
Marilee isn’t done with Sam. “Maybe if you weren’t such an ass we would come over. We’re gonna go. Thanks.” She pulls me toward the shore.
When we’re out of earshot, I say, “Thank you.”
She squeezes my hand. “Hormones.”
That’s Evangeline. She tosses her martini glass over her shoulder. It lands on the gravel that separates the sand from the tall grasses and shatters. She rushes to the water’s edge.
The music stops, the crowd’s murmurs taper off, and there is only the sound of the lapping of the waves on the shore, the breath of the wind, and the hish of puffy coats and boots in the sand as those with their pods move forward.
Marilee sets her hand on my back. “Toss your pod, baby.”
I do. She does. We step back. Two by two and four by four and six by six, others take our place.
For a while, nothing happens. The snowman the kids built leers at me.
A pale aqua glow pulses beneath the waves, and the spirits emerge—glossy and incandescent, lavender, peacock, chartreuse. They glide across the water like so many winnowing silks.
There is one spirit that catches my eye—it’s not with the others. It’s hanging back, near the wreck of the Comeuppance, and when it moves, it jerks unnaturally. I try not to look, but Evangeline runs toward it, and they meet. She falls to her knees in the freezing surf, and I see it touch her head.
She lets out the most piercing, gut-wrenching wail of sorrow I’ve ever heard.
The gliders stop halfway between the wrecks and beach, seemingly respectful of what’s happening; the puffy coats around me gasp and turn away. One mother covers a young girl’s eyes.
I instantly know Evangeline has asked something she wasn’t supposed to.
Sam bursts from nowhere, secures his arms around his wife and struggles to pluck her from the water. He drags her across the sand, even as she shrieks and kicks and screams things I can’t understand.
No one says anything, and the throng of beings moves toward us again.
My father stands before me, hardy and strong like he always was before he got sick.
I’m overwhelmed by how much I miss him. Grief, he used to tell me, is an ever-present shape-shifter. It’s never far beyond the shadows, and it appears at times you least expect it.
I can barely breathe.
I can see witnessing the incident has worn on Marilee; she’s pale, and her expression is stagnant. When we get back to the house, I ask if she wants me to help her to bed.
“I can’t yet.” She ascends the porch steps. “I have to use the bathroom. I’ll be back.”
The air feels warm compared to the damp bone-chill by the sea, and it’s now a sharp, clear night; Betelgeuse, which is one of Orion’s shoulders, seems bright red, and Alnitak, on his belt, is an almost piercing blue. Then I notice this might be because we’re not getting any light-bleed from Sacred Heart Parochial. Someone has turned out all the lights; even the window that glows red with an exit sign is pitch.
Marilee emerges with an open Dos Equis. She descends the steps and hands it to me.
“Want to hang out on the hammock and look at the stars, or are you too tired?” I set the beer down on a small table.
I see her take a deep breath. “No, that would be nice. Make a fire.”
I can sense she’s not quite right. “You okay?”
“Evangeline.” She wiggles into the hammock and hugs herself with her arms. “That wailing. It was like someone pierced her heart with a spear.”
I feel awful, but I have little sympathy. “Maybe whatever it told her did.”
“I’ll never forget that.”
I nod, pull logs from under a tarp, and stack them in the fire pit. “What do you suppose she asked?”
Marilee presses her lips together. “God knows. It’s been a long time since someone broke the rules. But I can ask Stacey down at the market. She’ll know, I’m sure. She knows everything.”
I light the fire. I cozy on the hammock next to her—we never lounge the long way, but across it, like a seat. It’s always been easier for us to hold each other.
She settles into the crook of my arm, into the place where her head just fits. “How did it go with your dad?”
I heave a deep sigh. Seeing him come up out of the water like that—strong and assured, hovering above the surface in a pale blue light—was overwhelmingly comforting, once I was over the shock of it. “It was good to see him again.”
“And how many of your questions did he answer?”
“That’s pretty great!” She giggles. “I’m impressed! Told ya they don’t have a whole lotta time.”
“Yeah, well, you know my dad. He was efficient when he talked.” I stroke her arm, and she makes a small sound. “You know, I had a moment where—where I wished he could just stay.”
“I know, baby.” She reaches up and caresses my cheek. “The hardest part is always watching them go home for another year.”
There is a loud pop from the fire. “Do you ever get used to it?”
The air is heavy for a long moment.
“How’s your mom doing?” I ask.
“She’s good.” She lifts her head off my chest and looks at me. “She told me not to be afraid. I was afraid of that for the longest time, you know.” Marilee lost her mother when she was fifteen. “It was hard enough growing up—all those little things, no one there to teach you about make-up and tampons, or tell you she’s proud of you when you succeed at something, or give you advice on boys. And that was all okay; I got through it. I was terrified of going through a pregnancy and a child without her, and I wish things were different. But she said she’d be right next to me, and she’ll see me again soon.”
“You obviously didn’t ask anything bad.”
She puts her head back down. “Why would you think I would?”
“I dunno. I understand this whole pregnancy thing is scary and intense.” Even though I don’t—I can’t, not in the way she does. Still, it’s been a ride for me, too. A few weeks ago, when she was spotting and we thought we’d lost the baby, I told her it didn’t matter, that as long as I had her, everything would be all right, and that she was enough; that she was always enough. But I don’t think she believed me, because she didn’t stop crying until the sun came up. “That you might want to know.”
“The baby is going to be fine. And I’m going to be fine.”
But if something goes wrong, there’s a possibility she won’t be fine. We knew that getting into this.
“So,” I say. “What did you ask?”
Marilee takes my hand and sets it on her abdomen, and we’re quiet for a few minutes. I swear I can feel the pulse of the baby inside her under my fingertips.
“It’s a girl,” she says.
The revelation fills me with joy and terror.
“Are you happy?” She prods me when she doesn’t get a response.
“Yes! Absolutely. Can’t wait to beat off the boys with sticks.”
“Stop!” She pokes my stomach. “We should pick a name.”
I tighten my arms around her and kiss her forehead. Beyond the fire pit, near the fence, I see the rose bushes. Marilee has winterized them. They’re little more than ragged sticks she tied together and insulated with leaves inside chicken wire. “What do you think of Rose?”
She hits me playfully on the chest. “Is that because you were just looking at the rose bushes? What if I’d filled the yard with bleeding hearts? Would you wanna call her Bloody?”
“Stop. No.” I’m actually a little hurt. “I honestly love that name.”
She sighs. “It just sounds so—staid.”
“And strong. And significant. To you, to us.”
There is silence for a few moments. She snuggles deeper into my jacket. “You’re right.”
“Of course I am.”
I look up at the school. The red light in the window has come back on, and it seems sinister.
Marilee is due at the end of June, but as the window approaches, the light in her eyes—the thing that I love most about her—begins to fade. She doesn’t feel well most of the time, and every new check-up brings waves of nausea-inducing panic. She obsesses over her countdown calendar and its X’s in red Sharpie and paces in between every one of her daily tasks until she is put on bed rest. One night I light a fire to surprise her, but instead of a momentary reprieve, she sighs and says, “There’s nothing in the stars I need to see anymore.”
The roses bloom the day she goes into labor. There is blood all over the floor. “It’s bad, Malcolm,” she gasps.
Little Rose is born dead. Marilee barely survives, and slips into a coma.
Without her, the world is wrong. A boulder weighs on my chest; glass fills my stomach. Daily activities are forgotten. Life is foreign.
The doctors can’t really seem to nail down what the problem actually is. They ask me if she has a living will, but sometimes offer me a glimmer of hope that she might come out of it. I’m desperate for an answer. It’s maddening.
I sit with Marilee every day, warming her small hand with mine. I’m sure she can’t hear me, but at first, I tell her about the books I’m trying to read, about improvements I’m considering on the house. In September, I tell her about the roses and how proud she’d be of me that they’re still alive. In October, I tell her how beautiful the leaves are and how I wish we could go apple picking again. I tell her how much I love her.
Going to work isn’t easy either. Every time I get on the ferry to the mainland and I see the island recede, I feel like I’m abandoning her. It’s hard to focus on fixing software issues, hard to have compassion for people annoyed over an inconvenience.
I split wood every afternoon, more than we’ll ever need, but channeling the pent-up anxiety and loom of the unknown into the large ax in my hand takes the pressure off. The stack I’d started by one fence is too high, so I’ve started a new one against the opposite fence, the side that abuts Sam and Evangeline’s property.
Near Thanksgiving, I do my best to winterize Marilee’s rose bushes before a snowstorm hits. I cut myself on the chicken wire. “Shit!”
“Are you okay?”
Standing on the other side of the fence is Evangeline. I haven’t seen either her or Sam since early summer, but I’ve been out of it—and obviously I’ve missed something, because I don’t recognize her. There’s no garish dress or earrings, no plastered make-up, no cigarette or martini glass. She’s natural and clad in gray sweats, and it’s then I notice that the strip of grass behind their house is clear of weeds and trash. She leans against a rake.
“How’s your wife?”
“The same. But she could still come out of it.” I don’t like to talk about it. I know people are trying to be considerate. I’m just too stressed out and exhausted to render details.
She doesn’t push; she just nods. “I’d offer to read your tarot cards, but I don’t do that anymore. I got rid of them.”
“It’s okay. I—I, uh, really wouldn’t have been interested anyway.”
“I just didn’t want you to think I’m being rude. Because, you know, I used to read cards for everybody.”
She gives me a sad smile. “This may sound silly, but, if you need a casserole or anything, I make a mean tuna.”
I’m surprised by the offer. “Thanks. I’m not eating much, though.”
“Yeah, I know.” Her expression is grave. “It’s the least I can do.”
“Vangee!” It’s Sam. “Have you seen my keys?”
“I have to go.” She starts to turn toward her house, then stops. “Listen, I really needed to know what happened to her. Where she went … after. Sometimes, it really is better to know than not. It might not be easy to hear, but you should think about it.”
I suddenly understand what she’s referring to.
There is nothing in the world my dad wouldn’t tell me if I asked.
“Vangee!” Sam yells.
“Coming!” She doesn’t even walk like Evangeline. She carries herself with confidence, and her back is ramrod straight.
Evangeline’s words plague me. When Marilee and I were trying for the baby, she’d sometimes put off the pregnancy test, even when the day it was possible to get a positive result was finally upon us. “It’s the anticipation,” she said. “It’s exciting to wonder; I want it to last just a little bit longer.”
I always told her it was just better to know as soon as possible, but she’d just wink at me.
Earlier this year, on Marilee’s birthday, we made our annual trip to the graveyard at low tide and took some wood from one of the wrecks—this time around, we’d chosen the Hope. We had already started making our pods, but Marilee had lost interest long about March.
Do I really want to know if she’s ever going to wake up? What if the answer’s no?
I remember when I asked her if you ever got used to seeing your dead loved one leave you again, and she’d said, “Not really.”
In the basement, I pull my half-crafted pod and tools from the box and bring them to the kitchen.
I don’t know if I can live without her. Well … rationally, I probably could live without her, lots of people live without their spouses, but … the truth of the matter is I just don’t want to.
I look around the house. Little has changed since that day. The calendar with her X’s is still on the wall. Stuff we bought for the baby sits, unopened, on the floor in front of the book shelf. The lovingly placed, random photos of us are coated with dust. Stacks of unopened mail are toppled on the dining room table—the broken leg of which I replaced, but never re-stained. I can almost smell her pomegranate, feel her velvet chemise.
I think of Evangeline. Loud and brash and troubled, now quiet and supportive and almost … centered.
Sometimes it really is better to know than not.
I set to work. I can’t carve as well as Marilee—her hands have an artistry in them I can’t hope to emulate. My father, though, will recognize the Mercedes symbol, and that’s what counts.
When I’m done, I put it back in the box and stare at it. I’m certain I’m not going to go there.
But there it is.
Just in case.
On New Year’s Eve I sit with Marilee, and the doctors tell me it might be time to start thinking about letting her go.
My intuition is that someday she might wake up. “You said there was still a chance.”
The doctor is young, young like I was when I met Marilee. When the world was full of possibilities, when we felt invincible. “To be honest, maybe, but—”
“And what if shutting her off is the wrong decision?”
“There’s no way to tell.”
The statement stabs me in the chest. “Then how the hell can you even suggest that?”
I can feel last New Year’s Eve. Marilee pressed against my back. The leather buckle on the pod. The biting wind off the water. The sound of the islanders’ puffy coats. Wailing Evangeline.
My father looked at me with eyes that were no longer sad that night. Even though Marilee had told me to cross it off my list, I’d asked him what it took to be a great dad. He’d set a hand on my shoulder. “You have to know what’s enough.”
There is the calendar full of X’s, the unassembled crib, the unstained blanket. Photos covered with dust, growing piles of unopened mail, endless splitting of wood. The smell of must instead of her pomegranate, moths eating her clothes in the closet.
Our haunted, empty house.
It is better to know than not.
I look at the clock. It’s just past eleven.
The doctor has been talking to me. “Mr. Lomen?”
“Uh. Yeah. Sorry.”
“I do. Give me the night to think about it.”
A heavy snow comes out of nowhere, but the Pod Cast has its usual jovial air: puffy-coated islanders, cups of booze, kids making snowmen, Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” pumping from someone’s stereo.
I do not share the anticipation.
Sam is grilling. He says it’s good to see me. “I don’t suppose you’re hungry?”
I shake my head and move to the water’s edge.
At midnight, I hurl my pod out into the bay. I wait.
The spirits rise, but unlike last year, I do not see my father among them, gliding across the water like so many bioluminescent doves. At last, I spot him, wading near the wreck of Comeuppance.
He limps from the stagnant tide; thinner, older, haggard. There is a barnacle stuck in his beard. His skin is the color of sick, and his lips are black. One of the lenses on his glasses is cracked. His eyes have no whites and are blood red, but I see that they are sad again. He sets his hand on my shoulder.
When I get home, I get Marilee’s unfinished pod.
With shaking hands, I carve a rose.
Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s fiction has appeared in The Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, Full of Crow Fiction Quarterly, Macabre Cadaver, Morpheus Tales, New Witch, The Smoking Poet, Toasted Cheese, and others, including several anthologies; her collection The Shadows Behind was published this year by Books & Boos Press. She is the recipient of three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Winter Residencies and is a co-host on the Dark Discussions horror film podcast. She lives in the Connecticut woods with her husband, Nathan, and still sleeps with the lights on.
© 2019, Kristi Petersen Schoonover