Red Flags

by Whitney Collins
Featured Art: The Kiss by Max Ernst

The first thing Ilona saw when she got to the beach was the man, bleeding from his leg with a crowd of people around him. She was far up and away in Bill’s condominium, looking down at him from the master bedroom window with her two suitcases in her hands. The man held out his bleeding leg for everyone to admire. Half of the crowd looked down at the leg, half looked out at the ocean. After a minute, the man spread his arms out wide as if to show everyone how much he loved them. Thissssss much.

“It faces the beach, see? Just like I promised.” Bill came up behind Ilona and palmed her breasts. “What a view, huh?” But Bill wasn’t looking at the view. He had his short face in Ilona’s long neck and was missing out on the man and the leg and the crowd, which was just fine by Ilona. When Bill went out into the condominium’s kitchen, to show her sons some sort of fishing contraption, Ilona went right up to the window, still holding her luggage, and kissed the glass. She had been darkly depressed about herself and her life the whole trip down, and then the man with the bleeding leg appeared and something lightened in her. There was still some good in the world.

*

The first night, Ilona pretended to sleep in the guest room, to set a good example, but when she could hear her sons breathing deeply from the adjacent room and knew they were asleep, she went into the master bedroom and got into bed with Bill. She had accepted Bill’s proposal mostly—no, entirely—because she was penniless. Her husband had drunk himself to death because of the debt, and all she was was a speech therapist. How was she to pay for her youngest’s lung medication, much less electricity and soup? It only made sense to sleep with someone like Bill, even if the new ring lay on her finger like a lead bullet.

Ilona got under the cold sheets and let Bill root around on her while she squeezed her eyes together and thought about the man with the bleeding leg. This time, Ilona was down at the beach and the man was right in front of her, lifting his leg up just for her to see. The blood ran from his knee to his ankle, and Ilona bent over and licked the man from ankle to knee. Then she straddled his leg and pushed against him, riding up the length of his leg until she was at his waist and he was inside of her. Ilona heard herself gasp, then scream, then the man put his hand over her mouth and dragged her into the ocean. He kept Ilona underwater until she could be quiet for good.

*

When Ilona woke up, it was three in the morning. She got up from Bill’s bed and went back to the guest room where she could not sleep. She lay awake until dawn, thinking of all the terrible mistakes she had ever made. Once, after her youngest had been in the hospital for a week on a ventilator, she had come home to shower and had gotten angry, very angry, at her oldest. It had been about shoes or laundry or money, and she’d slapped him across the chin so hard she could hear his teeth clap together like two plates. Ilona could still see the look on his face. It was as if she’d told him she wished she’d never had him. Had she said that? Maybe she had. What difference did it make? The damage was the same. Ilona rolled over, overcome with love for her sons and hatred for herself, and cried face down in a pillow that Bill’s first wife had likely bought. Ilona wept off and on until she heard Bill up making coffee, then she willed herself to rise lest Bill take the boys fishing in some boat without her and her sons were drowned and she was never able to touch them again.

*

Later that afternoon, Ilona and her sons followed Bill down to the beach, where, with some difficulty, he put up a sun tent and unfolded four chairs. Ilona noticed he was quiet for a time after these efforts, to the extent that she wondered if he might have a secret violent streak. She began to imagine what her future held once the formalities wore off. They didn’t know each all that well. They’d been set up by bored mutual friends desperate for excitement. On the first date, both Bill and Ilona drank heavily. At one point, late in the night, they’d grown teary over their pasts, their presents, their futures. There had been sex on Bill’s couch, then embarrassment. The second date had been more proper. The third, dull. Now, in two days, they were going to be married in a courthouse surrounded by palm trees. Bill had brought a yellow suit and Ilona a navy dress. The boys had matching neckties and white suede shoes. Ilona had decided to carry a single rose, probably pink. Afterward, they would have brunch in a hotel lobby where Ilona would be the only one to order champagne. While everyone ate in silence, Ilona would think about the hotel’s beds, the mattresses, the people on them, not sleeping. At that thought, Ilona heard shouting, some sort of commotion further down the beach. 

“Someone’s bleeding,” her oldest said.

“Where?” her youngest asked. “Where, where?”

The victim this time was a woman. And she, too, stood in a crowd of people and lifted up her leg for all to see. The damage appeared to be minor and coming from her heel, but an ambulance was called regardless, and the workers came and bandaged her up, right there on the sand. Then the ambulance drove away empty. Ilona watched the lifeguards put up two red flags, indicating the beach was closed. Ilona’s sons went down to the crowd, to meet the lady and ask her questions.

“The sharks are always here,” Bill said, his face florid, his thick white hair upright in the breeze. “It’s the ocean, you know. It’s where they live.” Ilona squinted out at the horizon, then worked her eyes back toward the shore, looking for a sign—a triangle, a mad tail. Bill went on. “Only fools go swimming past their waist this time of year. Idiots and fools.” 

Ilona could sense he was still mad about the tent and the chairs, which meant he wasn’t mad about the tent and chairs at all. She suspected it was her sons. What use did he have for them? She knew the truth. All he wanted was sex without the children, and all she wanted was money without the sex. It was an age-old transaction, biblical really, but it never sat well. Sooner or later, it led to bad things. Without love, it was hard to keep opening one’s wallet or one’s legs. Something usually gave. At best, depression and pills took over. At worst? A woman got beaten, a man got poisoned, the law intervened. But what choice did they have? Bill didn’t want to die alone, and Ilona didn’t want her youngest to die at all.

Down the beach, the crowd scattered. Ilona thought of the man with the bleeding leg and the woman with the bleeding foot. She imagined them interviewed together on the local news. She thought of what they had in common, of how they could make a brave life together. Then she saw her sons running back toward her, smiling, and she thought she might burst from sorrow. If she died, it would be Bill, with his short face and expensive fishing rod, who was left to care for them. It was a thought that made the least sense of any thought Ilona had ever had.

“It was a spinner shark,” the oldest said. He was tall and healthy and tan. His name was Leo—a lion, a hero. He would move far away from all of this and have a happy life. “They’re mating and angry right now.”

“Yes . . . ” her youngest gasped for air. “No one . . . should . . . swim.”

Ilona scrambled through her beach bag for the inhaler and reached out for her youngest. He came and curled in her lap and she curled around him. Unlike his brother, he was small and ill and fair. His name was Lester, but everyone called him Les. Ilona felt she had marked him with his name. Still, she feared that he, too, would go far away and have a happy life, except it would be by going to heaven. Ilona hunched over him, humming a tuneless tune with her eyes closed, until he could breathe and she hardly could.

*

That night, Ilona waited for the boys to fall asleep again, then she went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of warm vodka. She stood in the kitchen facing the refrigerator while she drank. Under a magnet, was a recipe for crab cakes written in a woman’s cursive. 2 LG eggs, Ilona read. 3tbs mayo—DUKE’S BRAND ONLY!!! Bill’s first wife looked something like Carly Simon. Ilona had seen a picture or two. She had a big mouth full of big teeth. She looked full of confidence and opinions. “She was always happy,” Bill explained. “Just not with me.” 

Ilona finished the vodka and went into the master bedroom. Like the rest of condominium, it was air-conditioned and sterile—all chrome and Lucite. Bill was propped up in bed reading a magazine with a sailfish on the front. He had on little reading glasses and no shirt. Ilona looked at his drooping chest and the white hairs around his nipples. Her mood lifted when she let herself realize he had less life left in him every day.

 “Is the beach everything you thought it would be?” Bill asked.

Ilona went and turned off one lamp and then the other. She was not there for conversation. She was there to put him to sleep. “Yes,” she said, kneeling at the edge of the bed. She did not want him inside her tonight. “It is.”

Ilona did her thing and Bill did his, and when he was breathing low and steady, Ilona went out to the kitchen and poured herself another glass of vodka, which she used to rinse her mouth. In the boys’ room, she lay slender and motionless, first next to her oldest, then next to her youngest. Once again, she could not sleep, but instead of thinking of things she’d done wrong, she thought of the sharks, mating and angry, still out there in the black night and the black sea, flashing back and forth, silver against silver, a world of knife fights. She thought of money, too, of how much it took to stay alive, and how those who had it used it to catch those who didn’t. She saw Bill and his fishing rod, money on the end of the hook, the hook in her hand. She rolled over and spooned her youngest and placed her palm slowly on his chest. His lungs were working hard to keep him alive. If he died, Ilona would, too, and in that sense, his two weak lungs were responsible for keeping two people on the earth. “Thank you,” Ilona whispered. “Thank you thank you thank you.”

*

At some point, Ilona fell asleep. At some point, she jerked awake. In between, she had a dream—a thin one she could not recall. It went through her brain like a band of smoke, and then it was gone. For a moment, Ilona knew what the beach had once been like, before the people had come with their chrome and Lucite. She saw tangles of green vines, snakes and panthers, the skulls of doomed humans crushed by the smiles of armored alligators. People used to have less hope, less luck. Dying had not been so unreasonable. Ilona sat up quietly then went to the window. Between the black sky and black water, there was a growing orange, like a giant eye opening up. Ilona stood there while the morning took over the night. Eventually, in the great pink light, she was able to see something—someone—walking across the dunes and toward the ocean. The silhouette was slow-moving in the soft sand, but once it reached the wide expanse of hard shore, it picked up speed and ran—straight into the surf. Ilona leaned forward until her lips almost touched the glass. She squeezed her eyes together and saw: it was Bill—ankle-deep, knee-deep, waist-deep, shoulders. He went out into the ocean until he was just a head, bobbing. And then he went under and came back up, and then under again. Ilona watched, breathless. While she waited, her heart leapt and quickened in a way she had not expected.


Whitney Collins is a 2020 Pushcart Prize recipient and a semifinalist for American Short Fiction‘s 2019 Short(er) Fiction Prize. Her flash horror is upcoming in Catapult‘s Tiny Nightmares anthology, and her debut story collection, Big Bad, received the 2019 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and will be published by Sarabande Books in 2021. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth LetterThe Southeast Review, Grist, The Pinch, The Chattahoochee Review, Lumina, Quarter After Eight, The Laurel Review, Raleigh Review, and Moon City Review, among others. 

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