The grains of sand cradle your feet, filling the spaces between your toes and hugging the backs of your heels. The brininess, the certain density that the salt gives to the wet air soothes your uneasy head. It’s playing tricks with you again.
The beach is her favorite place. You know that because she told you when you started walking along the shoreline. She loves how the ocean breeze waltzes with her long hair. She loves the asymmetry of opalescent seashells, the ruffled feathers of the gulls, and the crystalline waves. You watch her pick up a vine of kelp and squeeze the bulbs between her fingers, delighting with every pop.
You can’t remember the last time you’d eaten. You pat your stomach, feeling the sweater and the waistband of your jeans—those you remember putting on, what? Yesterday? Two days ago?
The late afternoon sun casts an ethereal glow around her while the wind paints strokes of deep pink on her cheeks and blows strands of her free-flowing hair across her face. As you watch the reflection of crashing waves through her eyes, you notice that each blink, each flutter of her eyelashes initiates a new sparkling rush of the water. You surrender to the refuge.
The coast stretches for miles; you’ll turn back soon. To your right, the uninterrupted Pacific. To your left, a tall sand dune speckled with ice plants and zips of digger bees. You can’t see over the edge.
“Isn’t it nice here?” She collects your attention from the dune’s peak. You smile, nodding.
You come to an area where the sand is more hard-packed than usual. You can barely see your own footprints, and hers aren’t visible at all. You watch sand crab holes bubble with each ebbing tide while the languid ocean hums and rolls.
The sky looks like an oil spill. Not dark and leaky; the pretty part where green and magenta swirl around each other.
Maybe an oil spill isn’t the right thing to call it.
“Like the outside of a bubble,” she says. Once again, you nod in agreement.
She walks ahead of you. An overwhelming urge to embrace her lurches your arm forward. You reach for her hand, but your efforts are as successful as trying to grasp a ray of light. She is too enthralled with the blanched skeleton of a sand dollar to notice. A breeze whips your hair into your eyes, over your cheekbones, and across the nape of your neck.
You frown, running your fingers through chin-length hair. You haven’t worn it that long in years. You examine your hands, hovering with a noticeable shake. The cuticle edge of your chipped pink nail polish sits nearly halfway up your nailbed. The tips of her toes and the hem of her billowing dress enter your vision.
“How long have I been here?” you ask.
Her smiling face, held uncomfortably close to yours, dulls. You’ve seen this look before in your dreams when you ask someone for the date or the time.
“How long have I been here?” you repeat yourself. Her eyes are wincing with confusion, maybe even betrayal.
“Ha ve yo u?”
“How long have I—”
“b e en ?”
“h e r e? ”
Your body tenses at her malfunction.
“It sh o uld
ha v e b ee n
You watch as her face begins to collapse into itself the way wet sand crumbles under its own weight, the way two conflicting swells make a cross sea. Her nose folds into the right corner of her mouth, and you can see what deciduous teeth she has left fanning and unfurling across her cheek, pushed out by their permanent replacements. Her eyes go wide at first—so wide that you can see the full, dark circles of her irises as the color spills out of them, fading away like ink left in the sun. She squeezes them shut, eyelids buckling under the weight of her furrowed brow.
“H ow lon g? ”
Chills scrape up your spine and over your shoulders while each of her lashes crosses into its opposing lid and digs itself under her tender skin, stitching and pulling them shut.
“How l ong ha ve I be en her e ?”
Her broken voice shatters your fragile sanctuary and suspends your heart above a depth destined for implosion. Your stomach churns, face burning with a roaring sadness. Your throat cracks from the screams she should be hearing, but the wind carries the sound away before it can reach her.
Together, you throw your heads back to the sky, sending silent wails from heaving chests. A thud of her knees at your feet, arms wrapped tight around your waist, blurring face pushing into your stomach—you can’t look down at her, even when she gnaws and chews at your flesh. You cradle her head in one hand, the other pushes at her shoulder.
Your burning eyes catch a glimpse of the sky, now blue.
You can see the blotchiness of the white clouds and where the cerulean paint didn’t quite settle into the commercial ceiling tile. The fluorescent lights on either side of the painted panel hummed in an otherwise quiet and colorless room.
How long have you been here?
You sit up and a cacophony of sound breaks the stillness as your hospital gown moves against the crinkled table paper beneath you. Your sweater and jeans wait folded on the chair beside you.