Alexandra Packer is the winner of the Short Story category in the 2022 Hysteria Writing Competition. You can find her story, along with the other winners and finalists from each category in the Hysteria 9 anthology.
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Read by Kate Franklin during the Hysteria 9 launch party.
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In the trenches, Dmytro only ever talked about two things: water and the after.
After he would: kayak the whole length of the Bug, ride the waves in Waimea Bay, swim with the whale sharks in La Paz (which means “peace”, he’d explain) and shag at least one member of the national synchronised swimming team.
On that last point we’d laugh: “Dmytro, how are you going to catch one of those mermaids? You can’t even swim.”
Now here it is at last, the first summer of the after. Maksym and I have taken Dmytro to Arcadia Beach. Odesa is not quite La Paz, but it will have to do.
We’re here on a mission, same as everyone else. The treaties are signed, the sea mostly de-mined and the sun is a flaming yellow flower in the pure blue fields of sky, commanding the crowds below to roar from the hymn sheet of happiness. Everyone makes a racket: babies, buskers, common drunks, even mangled freaks like us. Who knew peace would be so noisy?
We find a spot among the tanning throngs, close to the gritty seam between land and sea. Now that we’re here, our courage fails us.
Maksym stares out over the water. “Don’t think I can do it.”
“Let’s just sit for a while,” I tell him.
We put down a blanket and open up a couple of beers. I shovel in watermelon. Maksym tries to charm some passing girls.
“Spare any sunscreen? Don’t want to burn my leg.” He points to his prosthetic. The girls giggle.
An older woman comes up to us, round and brown, like an old apple in a swimsuit. She has a child with her, a boy of about 10. She nudges him forward. “Excuse me, but my grandson wants to shake hands with every serviceman on the beach.” The boy’s eyes are painted buttons, big and blue like the Black Sea. He’s clutching a bright yellow backpack.
“That’s like starting a collection of the world’s ugliest Pokémon,” Maksym says. He gives his sharpest salute and puts out his good paw.
The boy doesn’t salute back. He shakes our hands solemnly, firmly, stone-faced like an adult. Something bears down on my chest when I look at him, or maybe at any kid these days. I wonder if his ears still ring from the sirens. I look around for his parents.
“How many of us have you found so far, son?” I ask.
The boy doesn’t answer. In the din of Arcadia Beach, he’s a little island of silence. The blue buttons study Maksym’s tattoos: snakes and tridents, poetry and dates.
“Fifteen already,” the grandmother fills in proudly. “Seventeen counting you boys.”
Maksym reaches into his Spar bag for life and takes out the lacquered wooden box. He sets it firmly in the sand. “Eighteen. This is Dmytro, our medic.”
It takes the woman a moment to realise. When she does, she makes a wheezing noise and a sign of the cross. “Jesus and Mary.”
The boy stares at the box. He hasn’t understood. Why would he? Not many of us around here burn what’s left behind. We prefer the cosy confines of familiar earth, warmed by the sunflowers above. But Dmytro, before he bled out, asked for the portable option.
“His poor mother,” the woman says, almost tearful. She means the cremation as much as the loss.
“Blessed be her memory,” I soothe.
“At least they are together.”
Maksym takes a swig of his beer. “Rubbish.”
“Rubbish?” The woman draws the boy back by his shoulder, away from us.
“He’s not with his mother,” Maksym says. “He’s right here, on Arcadia Beach. He was a medic, now he’s a box. He won the war and now he wants to go for a swim.” He taps the box with the foot of his prosthetic. “We’re working up to it.”
The grandmother has heard enough. “God bless you two,” she says and walks off as fast as her flip-flops will let her. The boy stares back at us as he’s led away.
“God bless us three,” Maksym calls after the woman, then swears. I say nothing. We open another beer and leave Dmytro in the sand to soak up the sun. We stare out at the sea, the quiet part beyond the bobbing spatter of bathers.
Fifteen minutes later, the boy is back. He comes at us full sprint, as if pursued. He skids to a stop with his knees in the sand, checks over his shoulder, shrugs off his backpack and starts to rummage inside.
We stare. Even Maksym doesn’t know what to say. After a moment, the treasure appears: a large ziploc bag. The boy holds it aloft like a trophy. He shakes it fiercely, dislodging breadcrumbs.
“I’m a good swimmer,” he tells us.
We know what he’s asking. We ought to say no. It’s our job to take the dead swimming. But the child’s face is unyielding, and Maksym and I are cowards.
So we huddle in a circle and go to work in silence. The boy holds the bag. Maksym slides in the box. I zip the bag closed and entrust my friend to the safety of the bright yellow backpack.
We get to our feet. The boy loads up and pulls the straps tight. He awaits our command.
“Not too long, okay?” I say. “Come back soon.”
Because Maksym and I wouldn’t. If we stepped into the water, Dmytro would say: keep swimming. Push away from the noise of these pockmarked shores, speed past the safety buoys, all the way down to the Bosphorus Strait and into the clear cobalt of the Aegean. Swim, he’d say, until you find my mermaids.
But the boy can’t hear the dead. He smiles, gives a thumbs up and makes a dash for the sea.
Alexandra Packer is a Polish writer based in Brighton, UK. Her work has been featured in National Flash Fiction Day’s FlashFlood and shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award. When not working in the tech industry, she bakes and she writes.
You can meet Alex on Twitter @alexandtheweb