“You want to join us?” She asks.
Before she knows me. Before she learns not to.
I shake my head. Tell her I’m happier inside with Caroline.
I say it because of the way her face grows light in response, like a firefly has landed on her chin. I say it because the truth is prickling low in my gut, a burner left to singe the dangling entrails that might force it out my throat.
If I thought she’d notice the difference, a better answer might be demanded, but the excuse washes over her like sand and I am saved by indifference. She shrugs, casts me a smile that is caught by the panes between us.
She may know me, one day. When the salt around her home stops stinging my eyes. One day.
Today, Caroline is crouched on the floor, her dress crumpled like a blizzard around her, a little halo of cotton. She clutches a crayon so paltry it begs to slip from her hand with every stroke, but she refuses, and makes every movement as precise as it would be from the hand of a practiced craftsman.
“Watcha drawing?” I tuck my knees to my chest.
Caroline doesn’t look up. “Waves,” she answers, and they are- soft, cascading, folding in on each other. One after another after another.
I tell her she has a lovely eye–– and she does. But she’s off on accuracy. Willfully so.
Caroline’s penchant for the water is not surprising, given her mother’s. Their relationship to the waves has always been one of trust, of knowing that a plunge into such peril will only last so long as to spike adrenaline. Trust in the water to carry them both back to shore, trust in the current to support Carolina’s tiny limbs should they prove too inert to defend her, trust in me to care for her when she returns home, cold and shivering with exhilaration.
Trust I do not share.
“You didn’t want to go to the beach?” I ask, the question surfacing as my mind mulls over the drawing. She shrugs.
“Didn’t want to. Too busy,” Carolina responds, using the word she always turns to when grappling with how to describe the roaring tide that is the ocean outside our window. I nod, and she adds, “Might go later.”
At night, the sea seeps into the sky like ink into cloth. Become one. Endless.
“It might be a little too dark for that, it’s already pretty late now. Almost sunset. But I’m sure she’ll take you tomorrow, if you want.”
Carolina doesn’t answer.
Her mother returns after a couple of hours, sun-browned. Her ankles are brushed with sand, as is her hair, and her feet leave behind ponds of salt water with each tread as she walks through the house.
Carolina watches her emerge from the doorway and beams, rushes into her mother’s arms. Their smiles are identical. Carolina disregards the dripping wetsuit and scrape of sand against her skin, lets it cradle her until she shrieks at the smell of salt up her nose.
While she takes a shower, I mop up the trail of water with a towel. The sun sits down to dinner with us.
The evening is brief, dimming as the sun outside burns the rippling water with golden light before plummeting beyond the horizon. Carolina is sent to bed as soon as the sky fades to a dull, deep blue, and her mother follows.
I’m too restless to sleep, so I stay in the living room––curled up on the couch, salty sea air filtering in through the open window.
It fills my lungs as if I were inhaling the water itself, for a moment. And for a moment, I don’t mind.
Outside, the moon is the eye of a great beast, holding my gaze.
It casts a silver glow over the ocean, who’s waves have subsided, though the ripples remain. Something catches my eye, so I walk to the window, peering out into the night.
The ink has spread its furls but the moon guides my eyes to the horizon. I like water. From a distance.
Like finding beauty in annihilation, in the sweet divinity of endings, and there is no thunder quite like the roar of an ocean. I watch it from the window, grateful for the glass and the summer moon residing over the coastline as if on guard.
The water bobs and sways without particular rhyme. My mind instructs every sense I’m capable of to turn away. To ignore. But the water is mesmerizing in a way that is no longer hypnotic, and I keep my gaze locked onto the waves.
Except for the splashing. Distant, unmistakable. Splashing, and music, music to the tune of shrieks from a child. A child thrashing underneath the weight of a current. A child being pulled down by the cold grip of saltwater.
A child about to die.
My heart stops.
Revives, and it’s a hammer, because there’s blood pounding in my head, stronger and more insistent than the biting roar of darkness. I reach the front door, and I can see her now, moving underneath the water. It reminds me of a snake shifting underneath sand in a desert. Tiny, and unseen.
Then I’m running, and I’m not running fast enough. I force myself to go faster. Sand coats my feet as I hit the shore.
Her screams grow in volume, and I want to respond, to tell her I’m near, but I can’t form words.
Maybe she knows.
And faster until I’m breaking the surface of clear water sliding up the shore. My toes curl around clumps of sand in the cold but I don’t stop moving.
My knees sink underwater, trembling beneath my waist, my shoulders. My ears threaten to go under, and I swallow back fear that tastes like bile.
I don’t know how to swim, but my body is stronger than hers, and I trust it to support us both as I cross the final couple of feet to reach her side. Her hands still brush the surface, though the rest of her limp body is desperate to drift off, down. To the depths of the ocean. I grab what I can reach of her arms and pull her close, forcing her head back above the water. She isn’t moving anymore, nor breathing, but her body is warm. It’s the warmth under her neck, and around her ears, that carries me back to shore, tiny frame slung over my shoulder. “I’m here,” I tell her, over and over. “I’m here. I’m here, I’m here for you.”
We are broken by the waves, tossed and turned in the tide until I’m certain the cold will taint her skin, but the mercy of shore is a salve. My feet brush a sticky layer of sand, once revolting in it’s slimy nature, now the only fracture that allows my heart freedom from an encasing of panic. My pace devolves into a stumble the moment my knees clear the surface.
Urgency, more than fear, fuels every movement. In my arms, Carolina’s trembles dull. I want to sob.
Her head touches the sand first, when I reach it, her body moments after. Ghosts have traced her lips and stained them blue, the same color as her fingertips, the color of the water that tried to claim her as its own, of the crayon, of her mother’s eyes, of her waves. The ones forged of wax and crumpled paper, gentle and precise.
It is then that I realize I have no idea how to continue, that I am clutching a creature footsteps from death in my arms, and I have somehow saved her all the way to damnation. There is no sound coming from her, no last flutter of breath awake in her lungs. She lays there on the sand, a waterlogged ragdoll left to the reality of nature. She faded faster than I could think to scream her name.
“CAROLINE-” It is not my voice that screams it, but her mother’s.
Her mother, who is there by my side in an instant, crouched in guard above the child that is her life.
Who trusted my hands to spare hers from scars and scrapes and watery graves. I, who bore such loathing for the wrong killer.