Secrets | A Short Story

Satellite headlines read
Someone's secrets you've seen
Eyes and ears have been...

The violins soar over the sound of the speakers.  A guitar plucking, offset from the sound of the bow as it sweeps across the strings.  A man’s voice moves between gravel and smooth falsetto.

It is familiar, like a word on the tip of my tongue that I can’t quite grasp. Just as I can not grasp my name or who I am.

I found myself, this morning, sitting on a bench overlooking a harbor.  The boats rocked as the tide moved in.  My brown pointed shoes appeared freshly polished, my fingernails were clean.  My suit pants were tailored and fit me without a pinch about the waist. 

A business card sat in my lap; The Antiquarian, 48 Somerton St.

And so I stood from the bench, smoothing out the wrinkles of my coat.

Businesses sat along the harbor; saltwater taffy stands, fish and chips.

It was the boys who drew my attention. Boys playing soccer on a spit of sand, their feet and chests bare, their skin taking on the rosy glow of sun and heat.  

I felt about in my pockets.  No wallet.  Only a few American dollars, folded nicely and bound with a thin silver paper clip. I slipped out a single bill and waved it in the air at the boys.

One boy, small and bronze, ran over to me.

“Do you know this place?” I said, showing him the card.

“What’ll you give me?” said the boy with a grin.

I waved a dollar between us.

“What’s that?” said the boy.

“A dollar,” I said.

The boy ripped it from my hands and stared at it as if he had never seen such treasure. Turning it over, he looked up at me, his eyes glittering.

For a moment, I seemed to remember another pair of eyes glittering.  The wide grey-blue eyes of another boy, looking up at me.  The memory opened its mouth to speak.

“Where’d ja’get it?” he asked. 

I was pulled back to the boy here, the boy on the beach, the boy playing soccer.

“My pocket,” I said.

That was the truth, or as much as I knew of it.

The boy smiled and began to giggle. 

“You American?” he asked and I heard a hint of accent.

“Can you keep a secret?” I asked. 

The boy’s face became nervous and he stepped back from me.  

“I’m not supposed t’keep secrets,” he said.

“I didn’t mean… I was just going to say that I don’t actually know.”

The boy’s face was blank and worried.

“Don’t know if I’m an American, that is…”

The boy looked even more confused and he took another step back.

“Could you just tell me where to find ‘The Antiquarian’?”

The boy’s face relaxed as he looked back to the dollar.  

“Three streets up. That’s Somerton,” he said, pointing past the little shops. “But th’place you want is weird.  Crazy old lady works there.”

“How far up Somerton?” I asked him.

“You’ll know it,” he said.  “Only place with books out front.”

The boy ran back to his friends and showed them his newfound treasure.  They all gathered around him, laughing and playing, some turning to look cautiously at me. 

I walked towards Somerton, past the little harbor shops, flipping the card between my fingers. 

Those eyes.  The eyes I saw in memory.  They were large and full of tears.  Looking up at me. 

Was it fear I saw in those eyes?  Fear of me?  Fear of something I didn’t remember?

Somerton was, indeed, three streets up.  I turned onto a narrow road, lined with annuals and succulents.  Families sat on benches, licking ice cream cones.  Girls skated by in two-piece bathing suits, their long hair pulled up into ponytails which swung from the backs of their heads.

The buildings were painted in various shades of pinks and yellows and baby blues.  A shadow sat ahead, set back from the others, a darkness amongst the sunny pastels.

As it loomed darker on my right, I began to make out the shape of what appeared to be books, stacked on the ground, leaning on each other, set up as an arch over the door.  

The door was dark and heavy and to its left was what had once been a large picture window, now shadowed by walls of books lined up on the inside.  Stenciled on the window was the word, “Antiquarian”.  

I could see my reflection in the dark glass.  An older man, my hair greying at the temples, wrinkles around my eyes and mouth.  I was wearing a tie, striped in broad diagonal stripes of red, white, and blue. My eyes were a grey-blue, the eyes of the boy in my only memory.

 Hanging on the door was a little sticky note; “Open.”

I pulled on the door’s handle and, at first, it didn’t move.  Pulling again, more firmly, the door moved with a sudden jerk, coming unstuck with a loud grinding pop. I lost my balance and stumbled back but my grip on the handle kept me from falling over completely.

The room that opened in front of me was filled with golden dusty light.  Books lined the walls and the room echoed far deeper than the exterior would suggest. 

Music.  

Satellite headlines read
Someone's secrets you've seen
Eyes and ear have been...

“Do you remember when we danced to this?” came a voice. “I loved Dave Matthews, loved listening to him together.”

And for a moment, I remembered a hand in mine, warm. I remembered the light off a white counter, the smell of cedar filling my senses, the warmth, the sensation of being in love.

A woman with deep auburn hair and snowy skin stands behind a dark wood counter.  

“I see you took my invitation to stop in,” she says quietly with a tiny smile.  

I find myself unsure on whether to step through the door or to close it gently and be on my way.

“Come!” she says, and when she truly smiles at me, my heart seems to stop in my chest.  She radiates a calm confidence and I want to be in her presence.  My heart wants to love this woman.

“Do I know you?” I ask, allowing the door to swing shut behind me. 

“You don’t remember?” she asks.

“I’m sorry, I don’t.”

“It feels like only yesterday,” she says, “ but some time has passed.  Your hair wasn’t grey back then.” 

“Your card, I woke up with it in my lap.”

The woman smiles at me again and I feel myself pulling closer to her.  I take a step in.

“You wrote me a letter, a few months ago.  You really don’t remember?”

I shake my head and she laughs, this time full and sensual. She stares deeply into my eyes and I feel transfixed, paralyzed. 

“You wrote asking about a book.  A book you gave me as a gift many years ago. I sent you my card, told you to stop in if it was really that important to you.”

From behind the counter, she pulls a deep green hardcover book.  It is accented in black lines and gold leaf.  

I feel the ground move beneath me when I see that cover.  I feel dizzy, see the pages in my hands.  See it open to the poems about life and love.  See myself writing single letters on the front page. 

“The Rubaiyat,” I said.  “By Omar Khayyam.”

Houghton Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“You do remember!” she whispers conspiratorially.

I step closer to her, pulled in by the book.  Pulled in my her magic.

She holds the book out to me and I find myself at the antique counter, my fingers touching the cover.  I see myself in a time long ago, giving it back to this woman, perspectives turning.  She was younger but no more beautiful than she is now. Her hair redder, her skin smoother.  The memory of her looked back at me over the cover of the book and I was held by her eyes.  

I take the book into my hands, the weight of it heavier than I expect.  I open the cover and the smell of cinnamon wafts out, taking me back to the white kitchen and the woman.

“I made your favorite cookies,” the memory says, lifting one up to my mouth.  

I can taste the warmth of the sugar, the bitterness of the cinnamon.  

“I remember that day,” she says and my eyes open to the now.  “We loved each other once.”

She reaches out to me, her skin still supple and soft, and runs her finger along the back of my hand. The book lay open between us, the front cover open to an array of random letters scrawled across the page.

“Why don’t I remember?” I ask.

“I don’t know?” she says.

“What are these letters?”

I trace my fingers over the scratched nonsense.

“You wrote them there before you gave it to me, told me to hold onto it for you.  Someday you would come back for it.  I didn’t think it would be so many years,” she says with a sigh.

“What do I owe you?” I ask her, unsure that I have enough in the small bundle of bills. I set the book on the counter and pull the money out of my pocket, holding it out to her.

“Owe me?  You gave it to me, I’m only giving it back.” 

I continue holding the money out to her. Reluctantly she takes it, but as she does, she drops the money to the counter and grabs my hand.  It is like an electric shock, I try to pull back, but she holds me in a vice-like grip. She forces my hand open, palm up, as she begins to trace my palm with her left fingers.

A million visions of her flash in my memory; her holding my palm up as she traced the lines, the background and lighting changing, but always her. 

“Your hands have changed,” she says. “Once, you had a future.  Now you have nothing.  No future.  No past.  No fortune at all.”

She looks up, sadness in her eyes.

“What has happened to you, my love?”

As she says the words, I am again standing with her in the white kitchen; the smell of cinnamon and cedar and sugar, but something else.

Gunpowder.

Blood.

I watch the ghost of the memory as she held my left hand in her right, tracing my palm with her left pointer finger.  I watch as the ghost of my right hand raises, heavy. 

In it was a gun. 

I want to scream no, but can only watch as I am flooded with memory. The things I have forgotten. 

I raised the gun in my right hand and she was focused on the left.  

I pulled the trigger.

Cinnamon, cedar, sugar, gunpowder, blood.

I watched as her blood splattered red across the white tile, pooling beneath her. 

Looking up, I saw a boy standing in the doorway.  His eyes wide, blue-grey.  Eyes full of tears, tears at what he had just seen.  

Eyes full of fear.  Fear at what I had done.

I jerk my hand from hers.

She smiles and says, “I see you’re starting to remember.”

My heart is pounding in my chest, pulsing, an irregular pattern.  This tie is too tight.  I can’t breathe. I need to get outside, out of this place. I grab the book from the counter, jerk open the heavy wooden door. 

Again there is the grating pop as it unsticks from the jamb.  Bright yellow light blindes me as I stumble from the darkness, onto the glaring pastel streets. 

Cinnamon.  Cedar.  Sugar.  Gunpowder. Blood.

I can’t take the memories from my mind. Now that they are here, they have become a part of me.

I see her laying on the floor in front of me.

I see him laying on the floor by the door. I can no longer see his eyes.

His eyes like mine. 

Now he is surrounded in blood.

My wife.  My son.

My life. 

I stumble back towards the harbor.

Families eating ice cream.  Girls in two-piece bathing suites skating past, their hair in high ponytails. Boys playing soccer.  

I remember the book in my hands.

I make my way back to the bench where I awoke and open to the front page. 

WRGOABABD
MLIAOI
WTBIMPANETP
           x
MLIABOAIAQC
ITTMTSAMSTGAB

Was I trying to tell myself something?  What were the secrets of the letters?

I turn the pages, looking through the words of Omar  Khayyam.  I come to stanza 70, and underlined there, it reads;

 Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore—but was I sober when I swore?
And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand
My thread-bare Penitence a-pieces tore.

I turn to the final page.

The final line.

Tamám shud

“It is finished.”

Carefully I tear the tiny words from the page.  I roll the words tightly, preparing to place them in the hidden fob pocket of my pants.

There is something already hidden there.  Small, the size of a pea.  A pill.  A pill coated in rubber.

Suicide Pill/ Geni, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I remember another woman; faceless and wearing a black coat.  She stood under a street lamp.  It was dark night as I passed her, she slipped the pill into my hand and whispered, “You did what you were told to do.  Nothing more.”

“At the cost of my soul?” I asked, my eyes focused on her black heeled shoes.

“Take the pill when the time comes,” she said and walked away. 

I hold the pill up to the setting sun, and then standing, I place it in my mouth and roll the rubber coating around on my tongue. I tuck the rolled words into the pocket.

Walking down along the coast line, I spot the open window of a car.  I toss the book onto the back seat.

There are stairs ahead which go down to the sea.

The sky is darkening as I lay down next to the seawall, resting my head.  I take off my shoes and imagine the red headed woman and the blue-grey eyed boy playing in the sand.

I take a cigarette from my pack and smell the aroma of the tobacco.  I don’t need to light it.  I remember the way the smoke sits in my lungs, the way my muscles relax.  

And that is when I bite down on the bitter pill.

I close my eyes and I sleep.

Found hidden in the dead man’s trousers, torn from the last page of a rare New Zealand edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Omar Khayyám, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This Week’s Prompt

Week 22 – The main character has amnesia

Include the words: antiquarian, satellite, cinnamon, fortune, cookie, harbor, cedar, invitation, soccer, annual, speaker

Read Bridgette’s Week 22 story here

Read Reece’s version of the Week 22 prompt here

About the Real Somerton Man

In December of 1948, a man’s body was found leaning up against a sea wall, as if asleep, on Somerton Beach in South Australia. To this day, he remains unidentified.

Dressed in suit and tie, he carried no identification and all tags had been removed from his clothes. Orange thread was found stitched into a repair, thread found only in the United States. His calves were well developed, like those of a dancer, and his toes were pointed like he regularly wore tapered shoes. He carried a rail ticket, a bus ticket, Juicy Fruit gum, a comb, cigarettes, and matches. Found several months later was a slip of paper rolled up in a secret pocket. It said, “Tamam Shud” and had been torn from a rare copy of The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. Translation of these words means, “ended,” or “finished”.

The book itself was found in an unlocked car, either on the back seat or on the floor. The finder came forward once police ran a nation-wide public appeal. The identity of the man who found the book is unknown.

The book had letters, thought to be code, written in the back. The final words, “Tamam Shud” had been torn from the page. There was also a phone number which led to a woman who lived only 400 meters from where the man’s body was found. She claimed not to know him.

Many believe this man may have been a spy. While no signs were found in his autopsy of poison, no other cause of death was found either.

His body was exhumed in May of 2021, in the hopes of discovering the Somerton Man’s identity.

Personal Notes

When I began thinking about a protagonist with amnesia, the unsolved case of the Somerton Man popped into my mind, but as a reversal.

What if he didn’t know who he was either? What if he found himself in an unknown place with a single clue; the bookstore called “The Antiquarian”. What if, throughout the story, he received glimpses of the life he had forgotten? What if those memories were better off lost?

I wondered, what if this man really was a spy? What if he had to commit crimes in the name of Country that, should he remember them, he would feel his life was not worth living. If he did commit suicide, could this be why? What secrets did this man know?

Perhaps he carried a cyanide pill that spies of the time may have carried. (They were coated in rubber so that someone could swallow them and they would pass through the digestive system without causing death. You had to bite down on the poison, break its outer wall, to introduce the toxin to your system.)

This story lives outside of our current time and space. I chose a song by Dave Matthews Band because when I read the word “satellight”, the song became an ear worm. I’ve been singing it for the last 5 days. Plus, the lyrics that I added supported the idea of secrets and spies. Go listen, the link is below.

One of my favorite podcasts, Morbid, did a wonderful two episode arc on Somerton Man. Episodes 319 and 320. I can’t figure out how to share their podcast here and so will link to their Twitter and Instagram in the links below. You can listen anywhere you get your podcasts.

I hope you enjoyed this story. If you did, please pass it on to someone else who may enjoy it. I send out an email every Friday with updated stories and blog posts. You can sign up for my newsletter here. I am also in the process of building an online print store, you can find it at www.loscotoffart.com

From the Somerton Man Case. Australian police. File originally uploaded on English Wikipedia in January 11, 2009 by Bletchley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Links

Dave Matthews Band–Satellite

Somerton Man – CNN article with images

Tamam Shud Case–Wikipedia

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam–Wikipedia

Oh, Those Movie Spies and Their Cyanide Pills

Suicide Pill – Wikipedia

Morbid–A True Crime Podcast | Twitter

Morbid–A True Crime Podcast | Instagram

Burial site of the Unknown Man at the West Terrace Cemetery in Adelaide. Bletchley at en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Next Week’s Prompt

Week 23 – Adult friends on vacation in the tropics

Include: scuba diver, champagne, invasion, archway, hoard, strawberry, penguin, autumnal, cease, mist

My 52 Weeks So Far


What is the 52 Week Short Story Challenge

Week 1 – Avalon

Week 2 – The Rifle

Week 3 – The Cardboard Prince

Week 4 – Rapture in Reverse

Week 5 – Drink the Kool-Aid

Week 6 – The Hitchhiker

Week 7 – The Flame

Week 8 – The Community

Week 9 – The Cult of Cait

Week 10 – The Tango

Week 11 – The Imperfect Self

Week 12 – A Murder of Crows

Week 13 – The Cufflinks

Week 14 – Andromeda’s Lament

Week 15 – White Coats

Week 16 – My Forever Love

Week 17 – The Dilemma of Purpose

Week 18 – Honey – A Story of Love and Time

Week 19 – The Light

Week 20 – Superman

Week 21 – Hierarchy

4 Replies to “Secrets | A Short Story”

  1. You’ve written an interesting and vivid tale here and it became even more interesting when I read the notes. I’m going to have to listen to the podcasts and further delve into this story.

    I really loved how you used repetition. It created such a beautiful rhythm to the story. Your writing just keeps getting better and better.

  2. This was awesome, Anna! I love the real life connection and the way you took the vague clues left in this bizarre case to twist them into the prompt. Such a fun way to explore amnesia. Can’t wait to see what you come up with next week!

  3. This was a great story and having it based on a real event made it even more interesting. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

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