It’s a hot day. The heat fires down and sweats the sunblock right out. Tourists fight for seats in the cabin, but politely, so they can claim they’re not fighting. I’m stuck on deck in a polo and a prison-logo cap.
Last summer, my ex-wife visited one weekend. A conference, she said. I invited her to ride the ferry, but Julie stayed on shore. When we shared a coffee at the docks, she looked at my uniform like it was part of a custodial sentence she’d just finished. As she left, she checked the high sun and said, “Drink plenty of water,” even though she never did. If people could be weather, Julie would be drought.
Back on deck, motors churn and the sea boils. I take a pull of warm water from the plastic bottle. The city shrinks and the island emerges from the water. Nobody can escape Alcatraz. Even my condo in San Jose has bars on the windows. “It wasn’t that bad,” I say to an imaginary Julie.
The cabin door opens behind me. Imaginary Julie pokes her head out, wearing the same polkadot dress she wore last summer. Her skin glows. “You hate the sun,” she says. “Can’t you come inside?” Hot air rushes into the cabin causing passengers to stir. She peers over my shoulder at the horizon haze, her hand gripping the metal rail I thought too hot to touch.
When I look up, the island seems distant. It’s at least another mile, and with each few seconds, it retreats. The boat’s motor rumbles on but we slip further from our destination. My brain scrambles for some kind of explanation, but it’s overheating. Up in the skipper’s cabin, Captain Max wears a vague smile and stares straight ahead. The passengers are not fazed either. Some of them seem younger, their clothes from a different trend. The prison polo now feels looser. My gut’s lost an inch and my back straightens.
Last summer, Julie told me about all the San Diego properties her new partner owned. “His company sells high-tech model airplanes.”
I tried to sound enthusiastic but I just imagined him down by the river, drinking cans and racing them against his buddies.
“Your nose is burning,” she said.
The ferry plows on, and the island shrinks to a distant dot. The motors cut and we drift back through the summer of ‘19, then ‘18, then further. Soon, some of the kids inside are gone and the ferry passengers wear corded headphones and study paper guides. The heat cranks a notch.
Julie’s in her short hair phase — softer skin and kinder features. It’s sweltering but she remains unfazed by the humidity. I can barely breathe.
The glow of the late afternoon sky reddens. A massive sun dips to the horizon and pulls the ferry straight towards it.
Passengers mill around inside, waiting to disembark.
Julie grips the bow rail and looks dead ahead, waiting for that summer when the temperature was just right.
The red sun comes alongside. Its writhing flames lick the waters.
I pull my cap down and hoist the gangplank. “This is it,” I say. “Time to get off.” All I want is for every single one of these passengers to depart, to walk into the sun with a bounce in their step and tear up their return tickets, then it will be me and her, back at the start.
Julie turns — sorority eyes and brilliant teeth. Then she looks directly into the sun and says, “What’s after that thing?”
Each word brands into my skin. What. Is. After. That. Thing? My nose detects the singe of the hair I once had.
Julie waits for my answer, hoping for one more stop, but the boat’s still now.
Sweat runs down my nose. My cheeks burn hot. Still, I stand there, looking into the fire in her eyes for every last second I can bear.
When she’s gone, I’ll dive into the ocean and see if I can make it the one and a quarter miles back to the harbor. There, the water will be cool.
Philip Charter is a writing coach from the UK who teaches non-native English speakers. He is the author of two collections of short fiction and Fifteen Brief Moments in Time, a novella-in-flash. In 2021, his story The Fisherwoman won the Loft Books Short Story Competition and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Website: philipcharter.com