Liza and the Ocean
Liza sat on the wooden porch as she kicked her feet at the ocean water beneath her, watching the cars moving past on the highway. Like dozens of tiny, colorful bugs, they crept along, their reflections shimmering underneath. Back and forth, red and green and yellow and blue, they were moving fast and then disappearing along the horizon, off to some faraway place. The lights from their headlights shone across the water, dancing against the waves. Her favorite hobby was holding up her thumb and forefinger and pretending to squish them.
It was high tide, and the water had submerged the road leading to her home, leaving it sitting alone, an island amid a sea reflecting starlight. The water rippled faintly, and at times the light looked solid, like a bridge leading off to who knows where.
There was a voice from inside, and a figure stepped out into the night air behind her. Liza didn’t pay much attention, too focused on the little bugs on the horizon. Must be nice to go so far. She wondered where they went.
“Aren’t you cold?” Her mother asked, drawing Liza from her thoughts, wrapping her own arms around her midsection as the wind stirred her hair. She looked tired, as she usually did. Working the diner took most of her time.
Liza frowned, and the wind blew about her. Her worn overalls did little to shield her from the ocean breeze. In all honesty, she was a little bit cold. But she certainly didn’t want to leave her spot on the porch, having just gotten comfortable. Besides, what if something happened and she missed it? She’d been waiting for something to happen for eight years, she didn’t want to miss it now.
So she said, “No.”
Her mother didn’t believe her, as usual. “You should go inside,” she said. “Put some real clothes on. Come on, get up.”
Liza sighed and drew her feet out of the water, standing up. But before she could turn toward the house, she caught sight of something that took all of her attention. “Oh, look!”
One of the bugs had pulled off the road, and was barreling toward them, headlights glinting. The road was half-submerged, and the car was splitting the water apart. It looked like the car had wings.
“Now what in the hell is going on here?” Liza’s mother asked, lowering her hands to watch as the car pulled into the parking lot, and the water settled into ripples around the tires. “And here I thought we could close up for the night.”
The car door opened, and a man stepped into the water with a small splash. He had dark skin, small gray eyes, and was wearing a dark suit and hat that sat crooked atop his head. He looked important, Liza thought.
“Evening, stranger,” Liza’s mother called. “Isn’t it a little late to be stopping here?”
“Is this the famous Ocean Diner everyone’s been telling me about?” the man asked, walking toward them. “The one that survived the Flood?” The man had a gravelly voice, and his eyes looked a bit like Liza’s grandfather’s. He made his way toward the door, his pants skimming the edge of the water. Often, men would roll up their pant legs, grimacing as they soaked up the water. This man didn’t seem to mind at all.
Liza decided she liked this man.
“Well, that’s one way to put it,” said Liza’s mother. “But we are the best burgers for miles.”
“Only burgers for miles!” Liza chimed. And it was true of course, but Liza’s mother still lightly swatted at her head.
“Hush,” she said. “That doesn’t make them any less good, now does it?”
The man laughed. “This sounds like the place,” he said. “I hope you have some food left over, because I’ll admit I’m quite hungry.”
Liza’s mother bundled up her apron. “Well now, you see, we were already closing for the day,” she admitted.
“Ah.” The man gave a knowing glance around the empty lot. “I was wondering why it was so empty.”
During the day, the cars came in droves, like ants to a piece of dropped fruit. They were the most popular place for miles around in every direction, which wasn’t exactly difficult, since there was nowhere else to go. But Liza’s mother worked hard to make it as welcoming as possible. After all, it got lonely on the road. And she loved talking to the strangers who drove so long to reach their little island.
The man sighed, looking around. “I suppose then I should be on my way,” he said, turning and starting back to his car. Liza’s mother bit her lip, staring down at the ripples in the man’s wake.
Eventually, she said, “Wait. I’m sure we can whip you up something.” And she turned on her heels and walked into the building. Liza’s mother was never able to turn down a customer, even if it was late at night.
The diner was a rather small building, with white painted walls and a crooked brown roof, a single sign hanging above the red doors. It had once been a Shotgun style house, but Liza’s great-grandfather had converted it into a restaurant back before the roads started to flood. It was two stories high now, with a small apartment on the second floor where Liza and her mother spent their nights. The first floor was mostly dining room, with a kitchen on one side.
The back end of the outside wall was half-submerged in water, even at low tide. It didn’t used to be, if Liza recalled, but then again maybe she hadn’t been paying attention. Besides, she liked the water. At night, it sounded to Liza like she was sailing on Noah’s ark.
Liza strode into the diner behind her mother and managed to keep the heavy door open for their guest. “My name is Liza,” she told him as he walked by.
“That is a very nice name,” he said, smiling at her.
Liza let the door slam shut. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“That’s a weird name.”
Liza jumped and ran over to her mother, who shook her head. “I need to help Jason in the kitchen. Don’t bother the guest. Go upstairs and go to bed.”
“Okay, Mom.” Liza watched her slip into the kitchen to inform the staff that there was one more customer to serve. She waited until her mother was out of sight, and then walked back over to the customer. “Where’re you from?” she asked.
He had been glancing over the menu, but looked up. “Well, I suppose once I was from around here.”
“No one’s from around here,” she said with a laugh. “Did you live in the ocean?”
That made him pause for a moment. “Well, it wasn’t always ocean,” he told her, glancing out the window. Liza frowned and turned to see what he was looking at. Outside, the moon was a thin white line, and the water stretched on in every direction as far as Liza could see. “Once this was a desert.”
“Oh,” Liza said.
“And once before that, it was an ocean. Strange how the world changes,” he said. There was something about his eyes. He looked tired. But not a sleepy-tired, like the truck drivers who drove all night. More like her mother’s tired.
“I guess the ocean likes it here,” Liza said with a shrug. “That’s okay, though. I like the ocean.”
“There was a town here once, too,” he said, continuing to stare out the window. Liza was starting to wonder if he was even really paying attention to her. “It wasn’t exactly a nice town, but a town nonetheless. Nicer than the towns they make nowadays. This diner just happened to be the highest thing for miles. Built on a hill.” Another couple of cars drove past on the road. “They had to rebuild the streets.”
“Oh, okay,” Liza said, looking to where he was looking. If she were honest with herself, she would prefer the diner underwater. Imagine the kinds of people who would stop to eat at an underwater diner.
“The world is an interesting place, isn’t it?”
Liza frowned at the man. “I dunno.”
“You don’t know?” That made him turn. “Well, haven’t you ever seen it?”
“Seen what?” she asked, starting to get confused as she glanced out the window again.
He gave her a knowing smile. “The world.”
That made her pause, but before she could say anything, her mother was back. “Liza, I thought I told you to head to your room. It’s bedtime.”
Liza groaned and started off toward the stairs. “It’s not bedtime,” she muttered.
The man laughed behind her. “Good night, young lady,” he called after her as she slipped through the door.
Liza made her way up the stairs, with the sounds of the kitchen echoing under her feet and those words echoing in her head. Haven’t you ever seen it?
“No,” she retorted, even though no one was there. “I haven’t seen it.”
Well, why not?
“Because I’m a kid,” she said, reaching the hallway and slipping into her room, kicking the door shut behind her. “Kids don’t go see the world.”
She stopped for a moment. Why didn’t kids go and see the world?
Because their mothers told them not to, she supposed. Or the world was too far away. It would be an awful lot of walking.
The water sloshed below her window. She’d left it open again, she noticed. She was supposed to keep it closed mostly, but she liked it a lot better when she could hear the cars and the water.
She walked over, grabbing the window to close it, but stopped. She could see the highway off a ways, and the cars still driving back and forth and disappearing. Farther away, the stars were glowing in the water like thousands of tiny glass beads. She wondered where they all led, those stars. How long until they touched the ground?
She stared out the window at the stars for a long time. She felt the stars stare back.
After a second, she grabbed a scarf off of her bedframe and wrapped it once around herself. She took a leather hat off the closet door and popped it onto her head. Finally, she pulled on a pair of her most waterproof shoes.
And then she was out the window and onto the roof. And then from the sagging roof to the wooden porch, landing as lightly as she could.
Inside, she could hear the man’s voice carrying out, even to where Liza crouched just outside the window. She poked her head up, just enough to peer through the glass at them all.
The man seemed to have gathered the entire staff. Her mother included, which was quite a feat indeed. They all stood around him, listening as he spoke. Liza wasn’t sure about what, but she could imagine the kind of story he would tell, just by the way they all looked at him. Something about the great wide world.
He must’ve been really old to be older than the ocean. Liza knew for sure that the ocean was older than her mother and her mother had lived here forever. Sometimes Liza wondered if her mother had ever wanted to know where the cars went.
Liza watched them talk for a bit, but when she decided she couldn’t piece together the story, she walked away as quietly as she could, hearing her footfalls stirring up the water. It had gotten darker since she went inside, and the only thing visible was the few headlights on the road.
And so she walked.
The moon hung in the air, surrounded on all sides by a sky littered with stars. Each of them shown down on the water, and on the little girl walking down the edge of the highway. She had lost sight of her home. It had been a few hours, and now there were no more cars, save for a lone truck every so often. They didn’t notice her.
She was soaking wet. The first of the passing cars was to thank for that. It had sped by, much too close for Liza’s liking, and kicked up the water into her face. Now she walked a little farther from the middle of the road. Her hair, hat, scarf, and overalls clung to her with each step.
She decided now was probably a good time to admit she was cold.
She could barely see through the layer of water covering the concrete road. A few times she had actually missed the road entirely, ending up underwater and having to drag herself back out again.
They’d had to rebuild the roads for a third time when Liza was very young, or so her mother had told her. It had taken three tries, because the water kept rising enough to cover the road before they could finish. Now there were three roads, all stacked up on top of each other, and the water was still spilling up over the edge again. They were probably going to build the road over a fourth time.
The water was getting closer to their diner, too, but her mother didn’t like talking about that much. Liza brought it up once, excited over her discovery, but her mother had yelled at her, and sent her to her room. She heard her mother crying to one of the kitchen staff, Jason, hours later. “What’ll we do when it reaches the front door?” she’d asked. “Where will we go then?”
There were plenty of things her mother didn’t like to talk about with Liza. And that was fine with Liza, she supposed.
Liza heard a familiar rumbling of a truck, and quickly scrambled to the side of the road, as close to the edge as she could get without losing her balance. There were a few concrete cylinders marking where the road ended, so she grabbed that. She could see a few small fish swimming around off the road. Just past them was a crumpled aluminum can pretending to be a fish.
In the back of her mind, she wondered if her mother had noticed that she had left. She might not have. Sometimes Liza would go unnoticed for hours, as long as she stayed out of trouble. Her mother was so tired, she might go to bed as soon as the man, Russel, left, not even realizing Liza was gone until the next morning.
The truck finally roared past, scattering the fish and pelting her with water, knocking her hat clear off her head.
“Hey!” she said. The water continued to churn around her, and her hat drifted off. “Come back here!” She jumped into the water and swam after her hat, snatching it back before it could get too far. Grinning, she plopped it back onto her head and turned back to the road.
Something stopped her. She wasn’t sure what, just some strange little feeling she couldn’t quite place. Something was missing. She felt her hat as she looked around, before she finally realized:
The moon was gone.
She turned and looked up, and realized she had swum right up to a house. It was old and wooden, mostly underwater. It wasn’t very wide, but it must’ve been a tall house to reach the top of the water. She could almost reach the roof from where she floated. She hadn’t seen it in the dark.
How curious. She swam a bit closer, and grabbed the windowsill, pulling herself up. The windowsill had no glass, just sat open like a gaping mouth, drinking up the water. The inside was empty, cleared out by whomever.
I bet this is where that Russel man came from, she thought to herself, looking around in wonder. She could picture the house full of furniture and books, photos of places he’d been to and almanacs of the places he hadn’t. She could picture beds and clothes. If she stared long enough, she could see her own room in this empty building, her own home swallowing water. But then she felt sad. She turned away and reached toward the roof, and clambered up.
When she turned, the sky seemed to stretch on without end. The white stars filled up every space she could see, every point in the blackness. On every side of her, the sky reflected solidly in the water. On top of this old, abandoned house, she was suspended in the unending night sky, alone completely.
Liza pulled her knees up to her chest as she sat down on the rooftop, staring around at the emptiness. It seemed impossible for it to exist. Everything seemed so huge, and here she was sitting by herself, like an ant in the very center. Or maybe there was no center.
This was it. This was the whole world. Suspended in the unending sky.
“Are you all right there, young lady?”
She jumped, blinking her eyes open quickly. She hadn’t realized she’d shut them. The moon had returned, and the road behind her was empty, save for the single car parked on the side, lights blinking.
Russel was crouched on the roof. His clothes were wet, and his hat was gone, revealing short gray hair. He had an amused look on his face as she blinked up at him.
“Huh?” she managed to say after a few seconds.
“Your mother noticed you’d left a little while ago,” he said. “She was worried something happened to you. I offered to help her look, since I had a car and she did not.”
“Oh,” Liza managed to say, still groggy from falling asleep. Had her mother actually noticed? She rubbed her eyes. “Was this your house?”
He looked surprised, then glanced down. “No. My house is a few miles from here.”
“Oh…right.” Liza turned, looking out over the water.
“Come on, I think your mother is probably waiting for you.”
“It’s kind of sad,” she said, pulling her knees to her chest. “Isn’t it?”
Russel looked at her for a moment. Then he gave her a sad smile. “I guess it is,” he said, turning back toward the water.
They were silent for a moment. Then he said, “But…it’s beautiful too, in a way. Don’t you think?”
She thought about it for a moment, as the water lapped against the side of the house. The sound reminded her of home. She let herself smile. “Yeah,” she said. “It is.”