Sadie knew that most girls her age would be happy to spend an entire week at the seaside, but most girls did not have Sadie’s mother. Most girls also did not have Sadie’s mother’s boyfriend, who drove with the steering wheel in one hand and a cold beer in the other. Every few minutes, he’d place the beer between his legs, then run his free hand through his hair to rid it of the excess moisture, a gesture that Sadie found disgusting. Sadie and her mother and her mother’s boyfriend had a single-room reservation at the South Wind, a motel smack dab between a fishing pier and a military base. “It’s got a pool,” her mother crowed from the front seat. Mickey was silent until after his second beer, when he started asking Sadie about boys. “Girl like you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a boyfriend at the beach,” he said. Sadie’s mother slapped his arm playfully, as if he’d just complimented her and not Sadie. Outside, the ground grew flatter with every mile, white fields of cotton blurring past. Cassie and Rachel were leaving that very day for Racing Wind Roller Coaster Park. They would wear those shorts with the rhinestones on the back pockets. They would have no trouble finding boyfriends. Once, when the three of them had met two boys at the mall, they’d asked Sadie to wait for them in the food court. Two orders of French fries and a Haagen-Dazs later, they still hadn’t returned. Sadie had taken the bus home. Still, she wished she was going with them to Racing Wind Roller Coaster Park instead of to the beach with her mother and Mickey. Sadie laid down in the back seat and closed her eyes. The highway thrummed beneath her.
The pool, it turned out, was a rectangle of tepid water set in a square of shadeless concrete. Sadie spent most of the first three afternoons there, huddled in the shadow of a maintenance shed. As the day wore on, the shadow grew longer, allowing her to inch closer and closer to the pool’s edge. On Thursday, she had just dipped her toes into the shallow end when a station wagon arrived in the parking lot, and out clambered two overweight women and two impressively large children. From the back, the boy looked like a grown man. Later, in the pool, Sadie studied his face over the top of her book, trying to guess his age. Eleven, she thought. Maybe twelve.
The boy’s face was lobster-red. He bobbed in the pool with his t-shirt billowing up around him. He was two-hundred pounds, easy, and not even in the sixth grade yet, according to his sister who was bobbing next to him. They were two capsized blimps, orbiting around each other in the aquamarine water. “Stop it!” the girl twin was screaming, “Stop it or that’s three strikes and you’re going back to juvy!” Sadie squinted her eyes at the glare coming off the pool and tried not to stare.
“Ain’t goin’ to juvy,” the boy was grunting, his arm locked around the girl’s neck. Sadie glanced at the gray-haired woman who had been driving the station wagon, but she had opened the gate on the chain link fence surrounding the pool and was walking through the parking lot and past the dumpsters, towards the ocean, which Sadie could hear, but not see. “Are too” – the girl started to say, but the boy dragged her under the water. Sadie wondered if she should intervene, but then she noticed that the other woman, a younger, brunette version of the gray-haired one, was sitting in a crooked lawn chair in the corner of the patio, watching the twins. The woman’s left leg was splayed out at an awkward angle and her face was frozen in a palsied grimace. Her left hand shook against the chair, and Sadie got the sense that she was trying to lift her arm, as if to point. “What’re we doin’ for supper?” the boy called out once he’d let go of his sister. The woman surprised Sadie by answering in a gruff voice, without changing her expression. “Hardee’s.”
Sadie watched them climb out of the pool and pile back into the station wagon, still wet. Then she unwrapped the oversized beach towel she’d been wearing and jumped in the pool, staying under as long as she could before coming to the surface and floating on her back. She exhaled at the blue sky above her, breathing out syllables until the right name came to her. “Candy,” she breathed. “My name’s Candy.” She fluttered her eyelids, stroked her hips which at this moment felt weightless, which in her mind were narrow and taut, the flesh pulled over the bones just so. “Thank you,” she breathed out loud, an imaginary compliment from the imaginary boy who was touching her there, saying something about the color of her eyes. “Mine’s purple,” she said, when he said his favorite color was blue. Her heart fluttered in her chest and she stared down at her toes, which she had painted pink. She was about to say something else, something to flatter him, when she saw a shadow and shot up from her backfloat, her feet kicking to gain purchase on the pool floor.
The shadow belonged to the motel owner’s son, the exact kind of boy Sadie had been fabricating (she was careful never to imagine a specific boy, just a type). He was tan and looked strong, his t-shirt hanging pleasingly off of his square shoulders. He wore a ball cap over his blonde hair, which curled out around the edges. He was fiddling with a vial he’d pulled from the pool’s filter. “Should I get out?” Sadie asked. Her voice sounded nasally, waterlogged. “Nah,” he said. His voice was neutral. She could even imagine it was kind, interested. Except that when he glanced at her from underneath the brim of his hat, his eyes were mean. Sadie looked away. She waded towards the deep end and held onto the ladder, listening to him behind her, hoping he’d ask how she was or what was her name. “Can’t understand why people want to swim in a pool when they’ve got an entire ocean right there,” is what he said. Sadie’s face burned.
It was this kind of obvious thing about herself that she was always missing. Of course it was stupid to swim in a tiny motel pool when you had the entire ocean at your disposal. She wondered what else she was being dumb about as she gathered her swim towel and sun lotion and shuffled back across the parking lot in a too-small pair of flip-flops, her heels burning on the blacktop. It was probably something like this that had made Cassie stop speaking to her. Rachel had said it was because Sadie was ugly, which Sadie knew wasn’t true, because she’d won three beauty pageants by the age of six. But she was fat. Not as fat as those twins at the pool, but fat enough to never be called skinny. And Sadie knew that that was worse than being ugly.
Still, she and Cassie had been friends since elementary school and surely Cassie wouldn’t give up on her altogether just because of Rachel and a couple of boys they’d met at the mall. As she rummaged through the mini-kitchen for something to eat, Sadie reasoned that maybe she’d forgotten Cassie’s birthday. Or maybe it was that thing she’d said about Cassie’s brother turning out no so bad after all. Maybe that wasn’t something you said about a thirteen-year-old. She remembered the disgust on Rachel’s face when she’d said it, and flushed. She found a half-eaten bag of Cheetos and took it out to the balcony, where Mickey was smoking a cigarette. Above them, seagulls wheeled about in a swirl that seemed deliberate. She watched them, but could not discern a pattern. “Look,” Mickey said, pointing out towards the ocean. A pelican folded itself into an arrow and dove into the sea, emerging with a sizeable fish. “Damn,” he said. It was impressive, Sadie had to admit, that kind of focus. Tomorrow, she determined, she too would swim in the ocean. Mickey pulled a joint from his pocket and lit it, wiggling his eyebrows at her as he did. He pulled in one long drag, the end of the joint crackling red, and then held it out to her. “Toke?” he said.
Her mother, who’d been sleeping in a mound of dark covers on one of the beds, emerged from the room. “Jesus, Mickey,” she said, and took the joint from his hand. “She ain’t old enough for that shit.” Sadie’s mother took a drag and Sadie watched the way her mother’s eyes closed as she drew the smoke into her lungs. Sadie separated her hair into three wet ropes, which she began braiding down her back, squeezing the moisture from her hair as she went. As the braid got longer, her mother leaned in to help, and Sadie could feel her wheezing breath in her ear. When the braid was almost finished, they all turned at the sound of a car pulling into the parking lot. It was the station wagon, the twins in the back holding matching burgers to their faces, their eyes passing blandly over the lower-level motel rooms as the car slid past. When they climbed from the car, Sadie saw that the girl, like her brother, was badly sunburned, long threads of skin peeling away from her shoulders. “Now there’s some kids your age,” Sadie’s mother said, drying her hands off on the towel Sadie had hung over the railing.
“They’re only in the sixth grade,” Sadie said, feeling for the end of the braid, which her mother hadn’t secured with a rubber band.
Her mother shrugged. “They look nice enough to me.”
Sadie could already feel the braid unraveling at the nape of her neck.
The next afternoon, at the pool, the twins addressed Sadie. “You hear bout the shark attacks?” they wanted to know. Sadie shook her head. She hadn’t. The twins didn’t know if anyone had died. “Somebody lost a arm, though,” the boy said. “Just down the other side of the pier.” The twins were going to go out on the pier that evening, to look for the arm, floating out there in the water. It was a ridiculous proposition, but Sadie had nothing better to do. “Okay,” she said, when they asked her. “I’m room 213. Just knock when you’re on the way.”
Instead, though, Sadie was waiting on the balcony, holding a pack of cigarettes she’d stolen from Mickey’s knapsack. She saw the twins walking across the parking lot and waved when they looked up at her. She tucked the cigarettes into her bra along with a pack of matches. “The South Wind,” they read in cursive, like matches from a fancy restaurant.
The sun was setting, but the parking lot still radiated heat. The twins still wore their swimsuits, the boy with a t-shirt over his, the girl with an oversized dress that looked like it must belong to the gray-haired woman or the palsied one. She followed them through the parking lot, then through the bait shop, where silver schools of minnows swam in giant coolers, the milky water barely stirred by their graceful movement. Out on the dock, the halogen lights made the sky seem gray and far away, the stars dim, but the ocean was alive, waves layered upon waves, white foam curling at their tips. It didn’t seem so crazy now that they might see the swimmer’s arm floating out there. Sadie wouldn’t have been surprised, either, to see shark fins slice through the gray water.
Between the weathered planks of the pier, Sadie could see the ocean churning. She smoothed her hair back and thought of TJ, the blonde curls escaping from beneath his ball cap. The cigarettes tucked in her bra made her feel womanly. She pulled them out, smiling slyly at the twins. “You two ever smoke a cigarette?” she asked.
The twins looked at each other. “Yeah,” the boy said. “Lots of times.”
“Stupid,” the girl twin said. “He ain’t never smoked one. Me neither.”
“Yeah,” the boy said, changing tack. “Cigarettes are nasty.”
Sadie shrugged and smiled. “Suit yourself,” she said. She pulled one from the pack and placed it between her lips, handing the pack of matches to the boy. “You at least know how to light one?”
She curled her body over the cigarette, away from the wind, and he struck the match, cupping it expertly inside his free hand to protect the flame. “Sure I do,” he said. Sadie turned away to take her first drag, pulling the smoke into her mouth but not her lungs. She turned around to exhale, blowing the smoke towards the girl twin.
“Gimme one,” the boy said. Sadie pulled one from the pack and handed it to him.
“Juvy,” the girl twin said. “Third strike.”
They stood like that at the edge of the pier for a while, looking out at the wide ocean, the boy twin and Sadie leaning over the edge to ash their cigarettes, then throwing the still-lit butts down into the water.
“What’s the matter with your mom?” Sadie asked.
“She’s not our mom,” the girl said. “What, you mean her leg?”
“I guess,” Sadie said. “And her face, how it’s, you know.”
“She had a stroke,” the boy offered. “It’s our aunt.”
Sadie didn’t ask what had happened to their mother. In a way, she thought she already knew. She wondered if it’d been gradual, a little bit at a time, or if it’d been all at once – a car in the driveway that left one morning and never came back. Sadie didn’t know which was worse.
“Look,” the boy said, pointing. Sadie looked, expecting a shark, but saw instead hundreds of purple discs undulating in the water, a fluid constellation. “Jellyfish.”
If Sadie looked too closely at any single one, it would shift from her line of sight, slide into the valley of a wave. It was better to make her eyes soft and see them all at once, filling the water, purple blooming up everywhere she looked.
“They can’t really swim you know,” the boy said.
The girl rolled her eyes. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” she said. “They’re fish.”
“It’s true,” the boy said, strangely un-argumentative. “They can move up and down in the water, by sucking water in and then pushing it out.” He cupped his hand upside down in a bell shape, then flattened his fingers like they were spitting something out, to demonstrate. “But they can’t choose what direction they go in. They gotta go where the tide takes them. That’s how come you see them this way, in groups so close to shore.” The boy looked at her. ”Sometimes they’ll wash up, hundred at a time. Then they’ll die on the beach, all together. Stinks like hell.”
They stood like this at the edge of the pier, the boy talking on about blooms of jellyfish and the feeding habits of sharks, until the girl made a snorting sound, loud, and pointed in the opposite direction from where the boy and Sadie had been looking, towards the motel. “Beached whale!” she said. Sadie felt her heart leap a little, because suddenly something about the night seemed so magical, with the jellyfish and the cigarette smoke under the hazy lights of the pier. It was beautiful somehow without boys, without Rachel or Cassie, beautiful in a way that felt new.
But Sadie scanned the beach, and there was no whale. The girl twin’s snort made its way to laughter, and the boy was laughing too, and the beached whale, Sadie understood now, was her mother. Her mother in a too-small bathing suit, pounds of loose flesh escaping from its elastic, and behind her, standing in the surf, Mickey, his stomach like a pregnant belly, clutching a beer koozie in each hand and watching her mother roll backwards with each wave, unable to stand. He was laughing, too, Sadie saw. The twins and her mother and Mickey, all of them laughing.
Sadie kept watching for a moment along with the twins, then took the cigarettes and matches from her bra and handed them to the boy twin, who accepted them reverently.
“I forgot something back in the room,” Sadie said.
By the time Sadie had walked back down the pier, through the bait shop and parking lot, and out onto the beach, she could no longer see if the twins were still on the pier. The sun had sunk completely behind the motel roof and the water was losing its sunset tinge. As Sadie trudged through the sand, a slender woman in a bikini walked past, an infant in her arms, a man a few feet away from them snapping pictures. Further down the beach, a family gathered seashells in a bucket. Her mother’s bathing suit bottoms had nearly come off in the force of the waves, her wide, white buttocks exposed in the dying light, their surface dimpled and uneven, like raw meat. Sadie knelt behind her mother and grabbed the slick material of her bathing suit, pulling with all of her strength, until the fabric once again covered her mother’s white flesh. She felt the cool of the ocean on her sandaled feet. “Sadie!” her mother said, “you found us.” Mickey raised a koozie at Sadie and grinned. “Gimme!” Sadie’s mother shouted, laying backwards and reaching out to Mickey. He leaned over and rested one of the koozies on her mountainous belly and they both laughed at the way the beer balanced there a moment before toppling over into the surf.
Sadie walked out into the ocean a few steps, then a few steps more, leaving her mother and Mickey to the waves. There was a dip at the place where the waves crashed against the sand, and there, Sadie found herself waist deep – “shark depth,” the boy twin had told her, a merry glint in his eye. Before she went under, she looked back at her mother, who was still lying on her back in the sand, the top of her two piece swim suit pushed up her chest and exposing her gelatinous white belly. “They lose their color when they die,” the boy twin had told her. “So it’s easy to step on them by accident.”
Sadie wanted to laugh. Or maybe cry. So much of the world she had never touched, so much she didn’t know. In sixteen summers of beach trips, she’d never swum in the ocean. She had only waded, like her mother was now, like a child would, letting the waves come to her. But tonight she was going to swim, shark or no shark, jellyfish or not (“Moon jellyfish don’t sting,” the boy had said). She submerged her shoulders and then her hair, which felt cool and heavy on her shoulders. She floated on her back for a second, the moon just starting to take shape in the sky above her, then turned on to her stomach and began to pull at the water with her hands, striking out towards the horizon, every stroke of her arm pulling her closer.
It seemed like hours before she stopped swimming. And then, almost immediately, she felt afraid. Was swimming in the ocean – like, actually swimming – something that people even did? Was this something else she had missed? She had seen people with surfboards and boogie boards, she had seen people wading in the waves, riding them in from close to shore. But she had not, she realized now, seen anyone swimming the way you would in a pool, the way she had just been doing, a full out head-down freestyle. Mixed in with the knowledge that she’d gotten even this wrong was a sick sort of panic. Her heart was beating so fast she could hardly tread water. Her mother was just a hazy dot on the beach, and she couldn’t see Mickey at all. How far away she was now from everything! From the motel and the pool and her mother and Mickey, from Rachel and Cassie and rollercoasters and boys of all kinds.
Up above her, on the pier, the halogen lights were a string of moons to match the real one. She closed her eyes. “I could sink,” she thought. She opened them again. Between the halogen moons was another light, a red one, tiny, looping in tight wild circles, and then a voice. “Girl!” it was calling. “Girl, hey!”
It was the boy twin, waving a lit cigarette in the air. He was calling out to her, Sadie realized. “Float!” he was yelling to her, “Float on your back!” Beside him, the girl was following suit. “Float!” she was screaming, shrill as a seagull. “Float!” And she remembered now, something the boy had said earlier about sharks and struggling swimmers –how you should float to appear less threatening. “Keep your body parallel to the water’s surface,” he had said. It seemed an enormous effort, when she pulled her knees up to her chest, to float instead of sink, but she saw his red light waving and decided to try, just for a second. She inhaled and pushed her hips up towards the sky, her shoulders down. Her legs and arms rose up as if lifted there. She could hear nothing now but the hollow echo of the sea, a pulsing in her ears that followed her heartbeat. Her breath came easier. She looked up and there was the boy, waving his cigarette, his mouth open, calling down to her. Sadie closed her eyes and floated.
The next time she opened her eyes, she was beneath the pier, which was a dark tunnel in the newly fallen night. Sadie knew she should feel afraid. She saw the shadow of one of the pier’s pilings pass her by but did not reach out for it. She closed her eyes again.
Eventually, the swells she was riding started to curl and crash. Sadie felt her shoulder brush up against the sand, and a moment later, her feet. She didn’t understand at first that the men in the blue uniforms were there for her, with their flotation devices and their sleek white trucks with flashing lights. The men barely had to wet their trousers to retrieve her from the water, one on each side, carrying her to the waiting ambulance. Sadie had to explain, more than once, that she didn’t jump. “First I swam,” she said. “And then I floated.”
Sadie’s mother was standing with a paramedic, sobbing. Mickey stood off to the side, looking over the slope of his belly down to his bare feet. Their beers were gone, the koozies too, discarded somewhere on the beach. “My baby,” Sadie’s mother was saying. “My baby.” The paramedics helped her into the ambulance and hooked her up to an IV. “Dehydration,” they said. Sadie’s mother reached out to Sadie and wiggled her fingers, but Sadie pretended not to see. Instead, she laid very still on the gurney, listening to the men’s voices swirling around her, their fingers pressing on her sternum, her forehead. A light now, in each eye, a probing of her belly. One of them pulled the hair back from her forehead to check inside her ears. But then, no water in her lungs, no dehydration, no abrasions. Only, “You’ll need to get some rest, and some lotion for that rash on the back of your legs.”
“What rash?” Sadie asked.
“From the jellyfish,” the paramedic said.
The twins were standing a few feet away from the ambulance, just outside the circle of light cast by its open doors. It felt like a party, with the flashing lights and the sound of the waves and everyone standing on the sand like that in a circle around Sadie. Sadie felt sorry when the paramedic told the twins to go on home and then helped her mother out of the ambulance. Mickey took her mother’s arm and led her up the small flight of stairs to the parking lot, then through the parking lot and up the stairs to room 213. Sadie followed behind, her shorts and tank top crusty with sea water, her hair hanging in ropey strands. When she looked behind her before stepping into the motel room, she saw that the twins were still in the parking lot, standing side by side at the pool gate, one like the shadow of the other.
Inside, the room was ice-cold, the A/C unit in the wall turned on full-blast. A layer of cold perspiration coated the walls and the blankets were tossed in heaps on the bed. Sadie shut off the A/C and then arranged the blankets where her mother had laid down sideways on the bed, trying to cover her, folding them down just under her chin, smoothing her thin hair out on the pillow. “You’re okay,” her mother whispered, stroking Sadie’s hand, which Sadie had laid over her chest. And then again, “You’re okay.” When Mickey emerged from the bathroom, he climbed into the bed next to Sadie’s mother and was asleep within seconds, so still he could have been dead. It was easy, for just a second, to wish that he was.
Sadie pulled the comforter off of her bed and carried it out to the balcony, laying it out like a rug. Out in the pool, she could see that the twins had decided to go for a night swim – the girl twin in her bathing suit and the boy twin in his dark t-shirt, the two of them silent but for the noise they made moving through the water. Sadie watched them for a while, their fluid weightlessness, the grace of their sizable frames in the half-lit pool. They were separate from her, but the same, like two variations of the same species. She laid down on her side and watched them, the backs of her thighs and arms throbbing from the jellyfish stings. When she closed her eyes, she could see the tip of the boy twin’s cigarette looping in the darkness behind her eyelids.
“I thought you said the jellyfish don’t sting,” she said to the boy the next morning. Her mother and Mickey had packed their bags and were waiting in the car. But Sadie saw the twins in the pool and told Mickey to stop a second, she’d left something by the pool. The boy shrugged. “Maybe it’s cause there were so many,” he said. “They carried you in.”
Sadie shook her head. “No, I floated. Like you said I should.”
“Yeah,” the girl said from the shallow end. “But they were all floatin’ under you, like a big purple life raft.”
They were all quiet for a minute, conjuring the image.
“Better than getting your arm bit off,” the boy finally said.
Then, she didn’t know why, she leaned over and kissed the boy on his pudgy, sunburned cheek. The boy didn’t move a muscle, just looked at her like she’d slapped him, and then she leaned in and kissed him one more time, on the lips.
“Thank you,” the boy said.
“Oooh!” she could hear the girl twin squealing as she walked back to the car, “I’m telling!” But already the boy was back in the pool, punishing her with a splash of water to the face. Mickey put the car in drive and they pulled slowly out of the parking lot. Through the front office window, Sadie could see the motel owner’s son behind the counter, staring up at the television screen. What does he know about the ocean, Sadie asked herself. Absolutely nothing she answered. Not one goddamn thing.
Katherine Van Dis is a writer living in Durham, North Carolina with her husband and two young sons. Though Katherine has lived in Durham for fifteen years, her roots are in Michigan, where she attended the University of Michigan and received a Hopwood Award for fiction. Her work has most recently appeared in The Los Angeles Review. She is currently working on a collection of short stories called Our Lady of Sorrows.