Oh, and, seriously, anyone can comment. Even if I don't know you. I heart comments.
Fiona Alister could breathe underwater. She hadn’t always been able to. Actually, for the first fourteen years of her life, she couldn’t. Then one day late that summer, she drowned. She was swimming in the bay, like she’d done a thousand times before, and she got caught in slimy, stringy green seaweed. Fiona was hidden from view behind the big rocks at the end of the jetty, so no one saw her as she fought against the seaweed and the sudden waves that were attacking her-- as she faltered and grabbed at the jetty, the barnacles, the seaweed, and even, in one last effort, the salt water. Not that there were many people at the beach, anyway. It was a foggy, drizzly day, unusually windy, and the few people that were there were all busy with their separate children and worries.
When Fiona, after a minute or so of struggling frantically, was pulled under, she wasn’t surprised. It was as if the ocean wanted her, and even though she didn’t want to go, it wasn’t a force that she could really fight. So, it took her. She felt the cold engulf her, the frigid waves pushing her head down, and she opened her eyes. The water was that zero-visibility August water, dense with plankton and storm. Rock crabs--she wasn’t sure how she could see them, but she could--scuttled across the sandy bottom, and a striper swam past her. She remembered how, when she was all of six, she saw one leisurely swimming by not a foot away from her, thought it was a shark, and ran screaming to her parents. She remembered a lot of things, certain that she was going to die. Her lungs were getting too heavy, and she finally couldn’t help it. She gasped in the ocean, her arms reaching towards the sky and air. And then there was nothing.
When she woke up, everything was dark. She was sitting in the tall white life guard chair closest to the jetty. It was peaceful out-- a perfect clear black night, but no one else was there. She was alone. She shakily stood up. She was hungry and unsteady, but other than that, she didn’t feel like she had just drowned, or just almost drowned. Fiona wasn’t sure which one had really happened. Rationally, she knew she couldn’t have drowned. If she had drowned, she would be dead, and she was 99 percent positive that she was alive. But she couldn’t get rid of that nagging feeling that told her that it did happen, that she really did drown and really did die, if only for a few hours.
Fiona leaned against the railing on the side of the chair, the salty sand of her limbs rubbing against the wood uncomfortably. But she didn’t dare let go. If she did, she felt sure that she would fall that eight or so feet. It was odd; usually when she climbed up on to life guard chairs, she would gleefully jump off. Usually, jumping off was the point. She’d been doing that since she was tiny, the same as every other kid she knew. But this time she didn’t feel ready. When she climbed down, she did it slowly and carefully, clinging to the chipped white wood with tense knuckles.
Back on the ground, Fiona took her first step. She fell into the cold white sand before she could finish it. She scrambled up awkwardly and leaned against the chair’s ladder. She stood there, the tiny blond hairs of her arms standing up in the still air. She took a deep breath and looked over to the black water. It was calm, with only the slightest hint of surf. The seagulls were relaxed, lazing on the water that barely even moved them. It all looked so different. It looked so peaceful, like glass. Fiona shuddered. It didn’t seem right-- couldn’t be right.
The last time Fiona had gone to the beach at night, she hated it. She went with her dad, some snorkels, and an underwater flashlight. They swam near the jetty, peering into the sea, but all she saw was shadows. She kept telling herself that the shadows were just rocks, just sea weed, but the little voice inside of her kept whispering that she didn’t know that for sure. Nothing happened hat time, but Fiona never went swimming past sunset again. And now she was back at night, and this time alone.
She blinked, turned away from the water’s edge, and began heading to the boardwalk leading to the street. She went slowly, her arms reaching out in the night air for balance. Every soft footstep of sand she had to walk over was an obstacle. Every footstep was a tiny, avalanching mountain.
Her house was only five or so miles away, but it took her nearly three hours to get there. Although her energy did pick up as she walked barefoot on the pavement, she still felt weak and couldn’t move quickly enough. And so she took her time, walking past the house where one her friends lived in, past the ugly house that had taken three years for the workmen to finish, past all of six cars (the drivers of five of which were probably drunk), past three stray cats she just had to stop to pet.
And then she was home. Somehow all of the lights were off, except for the front light, but that one was always left on. Her dad was (pathetically, she always thought) paranoid of being robbed. As if they owned anything valuable. She went to the front door and twisted the knob. It was, for what was likely the first time in her life, unlocked. That was lucky-- Fiona had thought she’d have to climb in through her window or actually knock. Fiona tiptoed inside. Everyone seemed to be asleep, somehow, and she didn’t want to wake them. Careful to be quiet, she walked to the kitchen. The clock on the stove read 3:03. She went to the fridge, and snagged the last of her birthday cake. Sugar, Fiona believed, was always preferable to anything actually healthy.
Fiona devoured the cake, and then looked for more food. There was leftover pasta and garlic bread, and she ate that cold, with salad dressing on top. After that, she had to eat a box of Cheezits, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, half a brick of extra sharp cheese, and 21 Oreos in that order before she was finally satisfied. When she finished gorging herself, she, feeling kind of like a glutton, went downstairs to take a shower. They had a nicer one upstairs, but that one was right across from her parent’s bedroom, and she preferred that the spray of the shower didn’t wake them up. Her bedroom was downstairs, too, anyway.
Fiona showered, watching the sand and seaweed that had dried tangled in her hair swirl down the drain, and for the first time since she’d woken up shaken in the lifeguard chair, really thought about everything that had happened. It was so weird, so strange. Fiona was a good swimmer, and was right by the jetty, which she at least ought to have been able to cling on to. But drowning was always possible, technically. What confused Fiona more than anything else was the fact that she had woken up on the bench of a lifeguard chair. That was impossible, unless a person found her and put her there. But no one would do that and then just leave her there. No one would do that.
Fiona didn’t realize that she could breathe underwater for another year. A part of her was afraid of what might happen if she went swimming again, so she avoided going to the beach as much as she could. When her dad tried to cajole her into coming with him, she would pretend to not feel well. When her friends wanted her to go, she would come, but she’d stay out of the water, climbing on the rocks and lying on the sand instead. And then, in no time, school started up again and it was too cold to swim. But the world doesn’t stop happening because you want it to.
Nine months later, it was summer again and everyone was back at the beach. Fiona didn’t want to spend the whole summer avoiding the water. She couldn’t. So, she decided pretty early that she would go. She’d just be careful. But really, she thought, the idea that the ocean was somehow trying to get her was totally ridiculous. If anyone else had told her that the sea was trying to get them, Fiona would have laughed and secretly thought that they were crazy or lying. Maybe, she told herself, she was crazy. Maybe nothing had actually happened, and it was all in her head. And if that were true, then, after all, there could be no reason for her to keep away.
On the last day of school, she and her friends decided to go, to celebrate the start of vacation. They brought frisbees, fun noodles, inner tubes, and money to raid the ice cream truck with, if it came, and squeezed into the car, fitting eight in the five-seater. Will, her best friend Katie’s brother, was driving, being seventeen and the only one of them with a license.
“So, which beach should we do?” he asked, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.
“Coast Guard!” Sam, a fifteen year old with sandy brown hair and a love for anything witty, said.
The other Sam, a girl, shook her head and rolled her eyes. “No! That one’s way too far away, and it’s windy.” She never really liked the other Sam, possibly for ‘stealing’ her name. As she liked to point out, she was born a whole month before him. If questioned, though, she would always say that she never held grudges—she wasn’t capable of disliking anyone.
It was the boy Sam’s turn to roll his eyes. “Oh my God, like, you’re so right! After all, we can’t have your poor hair getting ruined!” He turned back to Will. “Seriously, the waves are going to be wicked over there.”
“I don’t have an Eastham beach sticker,” Will pointed out, “If we go there, we have to pay.”
Sam the girl, pointedly ignoring the other Sam, smiled. “Cold Storage, then?” she asked.
The others shrugged. Cold Storage Beach was their usual, with its long jetty and, on the other side, lengthy bit of beach that was residents only and free of all life guards. Cold Storage was also the beach where Fiona was pulled under. She said nothing.
The sand was warm. Fiona dug her toes into it, just far enough that her feet were covered in a layer of gentle, flighty heat. She shut her blue grey eyes and tilted her face to the sun. She took a deep breath. The sand was so soft, like silk running down your hand. The air cradled her. It encased her body in each small, golden breeze. It felt so safe.
“Come on, Fee. The water’s calling,” Katie joked. Katie sat next to her in her favorite royal blue bikini. It still early enough in the season for her to wear a blue bathing suit without being the favorite meal of greenheads, so she wore it at every opportunity.
Fiona made a face. “Yeah,” she said, “ in a bit.” She dug her feet further into the sand.
Her friend ginned. “Nope,” she said. “Now.”
The water was freezing. Fiona had expected that. June water always was. It was as clear as a swimming pool and even more beautiful, but at the same time, it was treacherously cold. Each step made the two girls gasp and giggle. Each step meant that their legs were submerged just that much more in biting, numbing water.
“Oh, God,” Fiona squealed, unable to keep herself from pained, silly laughter. The icy water lapped at her stomach. She stood on her tiptoes, her arms spread like folded wings. She looked over to Katie. She was doing nearly the same.
“You have to just go for it!” Katie shouted. “Just, like, go under!”
“Umm,” Katie said, her mouth quirking up. She started to go down, maybe by an inch. “Oh, fuck!” she shouted, and jumped back up. Fiona giggled.
“Maybe we should go a little further out, then,” she said.
A cloud shifted over the sun, blocking out the warming rays. It was, Fiona thought, like standing in a shadow. “Fuck,” Katie whispered. She hugged her body to herself. Fiona looked up at the sky, most of it still blue. “Go away, cloud,” she whispered, as if that would make it move any faster.
“Okay,” Katie said, rubbing at the goose bumps on her arms. “As soon as the cloud passes by, we are going to go underwater. Legit.”
The water held whispers. At first, Fiona thought they were just Katie, squealing still about the cold. But then, she noticed it; Katie was standing up again. The second she'd gotten her hair wet, she’d jumped back up. That wasn’t the only thing. Fiona was breathing, too, somehow. And the whispers were still there, too many to comprehend and half muted by the ocean’s roar. Slowly, she rose. Once her head was out of the water, the whispers stopped, as if they only existed, as if they only could exist, in the ocean. She looked at her friend, wide eyed. She barely even felt the cold anymore; her mind was too busy. She had no idea what anything meant.