This is a beach? It’s not even sunny. People in chairs are wearing sweatshirts and jackets. And it’s July. She lets the tiniest edge of a wave lick her toes, and then backs away. Her cousin laughs, used to this Oregon coast. Grabbing hands, the cousins leap forward into a calf-high wave. Goosebumps jump out on her legs and arms. The sand sucks around her foot as the little wave runs back out.
“Come on,” her cousin says, and the girls plow into the water, shrieking as waves splash hips, stomachs, chests. Looking back, they see moms in chairs, waving casually, but really watching the younger kids. Mother hens, keeping the smallest chicks close, within arms’ reach.
It’s strange how quickly she warms to the water. Her legs no longer feel cold, and she keeps her arms above her head. The girls splash and laugh, occasionally glancing back to stay connected in that stretched, tenuous teenage way. Not too close to Mom, but not too far away, either.
Did the moms move their chairs? The girls are looking sideways now to see them, not straight behind. Oh, well, the ocean’s funny that way.
More giggles and cousin talk, and then she jumps to dodge a wave and her feet are swept out from under her. Waves roar in her ears as she struggles to find footing. Her hair, covering her face, blinds her. She can’t find shore. She can’t touch bottom. Another wave smashes her face. Choking, gasping for air, she searches for anything familiar. No shore. No bottom. No cousin.
“Help! Help me!” she screams, coughing scorching salt water from her throat as her legs dangle above the ocean floor.
At the crest of a wave, she’s spun around, facing shore. The chairs are far, far to the side, and that looks like Dad, running along the beach. She tries to wave to him, but as soon as she raises her arm, the sea sucks her down again.
“Daddy! Daddy!” She can barely hear her own voice over the slamming of the waves and her pounding heart. She looks for him again, and he is gone. But there’s her aunt, running toward her, waving arms, mouth open in a scream she can’t hear. Tiny-skinny-sweet-petite aunt, running into the water, but far away. Too far to reach. Too far to help.
She wants to think, but the ocean, bellowing and pushing, hurls rational thoughts from her mind. She hears only the crash and pull of the waves, sees the gray foam rushing to her face again and again.
She is so tired. She wants to rest, to sleep.
She pulls her knees up to her chest, and the ocean knocks her onto her back. With her ears in the water and her face to the sky, she hears only gentle water sounds, womb sounds. I will die now, she thinks. This is the end. She pictures her friends. Will they miss me? Will he miss me? Will he even notice I’m gone? Oh, my family. I’m glad they know I love them. Nothing to regret. But they will be so sad, so sad.
Her thoughts fade and she hears nothing, but seems to feel strong hands, tender hands lifting, guiding, holding her. She raises her head and looks around. She is alone. Another wave slaps against her head as she feels for the bottom that remains far below her feet. Resigned, she slides again to her back to rest. To sleep.
The hands, the gentle hands, rock her body. She breathes slow, deep, final breaths.
Try again. The words enter her mind through a cloud of calm. She declines. Rest is better. Sleep is better. Try again. Once.
Once, maybe. She pulls her feet beneath her, pushes them through the water. Sand. She feels sand beneath her feet. She stands as a ray of light breaks through the clouds, and finds herself only knee-deep in the water. She looks down at her legs, her strong, functional legs, working with the forces of ocean and gravity to hold her here, mostly out of the water.
Turning, she sees her cousin, standing almost near enough to touch, petrified, waist deep. “Swim to me,” she tells her.
Her cousin shakes her head, eyes streaming ocean water and tears. “I can’t.”
“You can. We can.” She takes a step on shaking legs, holding out her hand. “You can. Try again.”
Her cousin stretches, lunges, clasps her fingers, and they lurch from the water.