A Billion Miles Away

Gary Duncan

He stands at the water’s edge and screams. “What about me!” The waves don’t listen, they just come and go, come and go, as waves do. One of these days, he knows it, they’ll speak to him. They’ll say, “What about you, what’s so special about you?” And they’ll keep coming and going, coming and going, as they do.


***


He read about this whale, way out there on the other side of the world, that sings and swims and sings and swims but no one listens. It’s a problem of frequency, of hertz. It’s a failure to communicate, to connect. The whale doesn't understand any of this of course, and wouldn’t know a hertz if it swam right into one. People say, how could it know, it’s a whale, for Christ’s sake. A big stupid fish. The whale knows enough to know it’s a mammal and not a fish. And if you ask it, it will say it sings beautifully, even if no one can hear it.


***


The man at the water’s edge leaves his socks and shoes near the dunes because he likes to feel the cold wet sand between his toes. He stands still, arms outstretched, and imagines he’s sinking deeper and deeper into the mulch, disappearing an inch at a time: toes, ankles, knees. Waist, chest, shoulders, bit by bit. But there’s nothing on him, no weight, no heft, his jacket hanging loose off his narrow shoulders, his trousers belted and braced. He bends his knees, pushes himself down, but the sand doesn’t want him. The clear water pools at his feet.


***


He assumes someone would have found his socks and shoes eventually. A dog-walker, a jogger. Maybe someone he knew. They’d say they used to see him on the beach sometimes, just standing there, no shoes, no socks. They’d say everyone knew him, but not that well because he kept himself to himself. They’d say he lived in the old fisherman’s cottage on the other side of the bay. They’d say sometimes they’d see him walking into the village to buy his provisions from the corner shop. A paper, some powdered milk, a bottle of something strong. They’d say he never said much, but always said hello. He thinks that’s what they might say about him, and he’d be happy with that.


***


He read about this robot on Mars that was sent all the way there to do whatever robots on Mars are supposed to do. Gather information, he guesses. Collect dirt, measure temperature, monitor air quality. That sort of thing. If he had to guess how far Mars is from Earth, he’d say ninety million miles. Or a billion. He’d say, I honestly don’t know, but I’ll tell you this for sure, it’s a lot. He read that the robot has been programmed to sing “happy birthday to me” on its birthday. August the fifth. He marked it in his diary, a fat cross with a stubbed pencil. He didn’t have a diary and had to buy one from the corner shop. On August the fifth, he’ll pour himself a drink and he’ll sing Happy Birthday, Curiosity, because Curiosity is what they called it.





Gary Duncan’s stories have appeared in Unbroken Journal, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, 100 Word Story, and New Flash Fiction Review, among others. His flash fiction collection, You’re Not Supposed to Cry, is available from Vagabond Voices.

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