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The Sea Girl’s Survival
by Valerie Brook
Young Abigail Oats has never been popular at school, and to make matters worse, she keeps hearing a freaky watery shhh sound behind her when nobody is around, just like the lapping sounds of real, wet, ocean waves. It’s, you know—disconcerting.
Especially when you live in the dry desert.
And it seems like two realities are happening at once.
Wasn’t it enough her whole life has been upturned in a recent tragedy?
When Abigail “follows” the watery shhh sound and wakes up floating on a ragged orange life raft in a drowning blue sea, it will take the determination of a strong soul to make the right choices to survive.
Copyright © 2018 by Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.
First Published in Pulphouse Fiction Magazine: Issue 1 © 2018
Published by Kickit Press/kickitpress.com
Cover and Layout Copyright © 2018 by Kickit Press
Cover Art Copyright: S. Bachstroem/Shutterstock.com
This is a work of fiction. Name, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, in whole or in part in any form.
THE FIRST TIME THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD Abigale Oats heard the phantom whisper, the strange sloshing, wave-lapping shhh sound—she was biting her lip and trying not to cry at noon recess at Walter Luther Middle School.
Under the heat of New Mexico’s desert-orange basketball sun, not a drop of liquid water anywhere for a mile except for the dirty, snake-winding Rio Grande; that shhh sound forced Abby to glance left and right.
Maybe the other kids had snuck up behind her again.
Like they had in the bathroom.
But only a sea of crispy brown grass surrounded Abby, and the lonely pockmarked baseball field like a crater on a desolate moon, and an Earless lizard that did pushups in the powdery dirt whenever Abby looked at it.
You, too, can exercise.
Walter Luther didn’t even have a stupid baseball team.
Only the beheaded, skeletal tumbleweeds ran the diamond, with their berserkers gait and regardless of rules at all.
The air smelled of the yellow chamiso field beyond the broken chain-link fence; the wild bush that locals said was stinky as feet and caused seasonal allergies, and the tourists thought was the epitome of an exotic desert fragrance.
The air right now was definitely nasty like a bloated fish rotting in an athlete’s shoe. Abby might be brand new to the Southwest, but she had a local person’s nose.
The dead fingers of the breathless September breeze, which was too hot and tired to push anything of substance, brushed only the finest hairs on Abby’s neck under her short, curly mop of sweaty hair.
If hair can sweat.
The other seventh-graders played on the concrete schoolyard—where the basketball hoops stood tall, just like rust-colored dinosaur bones with netted, slack-hung jaws—the kids all laughing and shouting, their voices pushing the distance toward Abby through a shimmery sky curtain of heat waves.
But no one looked at her on the forbidden metallic bleachers. No one waved. No one said: Hey friend, what are you doing sitting out there all alone; are you okay?
Abby hunched on the fry-pan hot aluminum—which hadn’t seemed too hot until she plunked down on the metal, and then after the burn of surprise, the pain felt alright.
As if her physical pain and emotional pain were natural born enemies, and would have a boxing fistfight inside her body, and the physical pain would win in a knockout.
Be the champion of her torment.
And then her stupid emotional tears would suck back in defeat, and she’d have on her normal face again; the one that could talk and smile without her big lip quivering.
Mr. Rodrigues in fifth-period math always called on her; because the Hispanics chewed gum, and the Indians passed paper notes. And that one Asian boy stuttered.
But Abby just learned math.
The bottom side of her fleshy thighs were probably getting a horizontal bacon imprint, or turning into pinched-up skin corduroy, because she’d been stupid enough to wear shorts. Not that shorts were stupid, but it was because she’d forgotten to shave her legs.
Looking ever so hairy and unpopular; and like an Anglo person from Alaska, too.
Because Anglo was unpopular. (And Alaska was total outer space.)
Actually, she basically had two skin colors: College-paper white or boiled-lobster red. Plus freckles and shocked out ginger hair. Which she could have done well, if she’d been reinvented as a fat clown, and liked spoiled children. And was a creepy man.
Abby pinched her eyes closed.
There was no way the shhh sound could be real. No cell phone speakers to trick her. Nobody whispering behind her.
And it wasn’t her own heartbeat. Couldn’t be. It just didn’t have the rhythm of a heart.
It sounded like a real, wet, blue sea.
* * *
The second time Abby heard the watery shhh sound, it was dark in the guest bedroom where she was wrapped up deep in itchy wool blankets on the rickety metal bed.
So dark black, that the darkness became a moody creature that exhaled its smoky pinon breath over her face when the red glow flickered out down the hall in the kiva fireplace—where step-grandfather Mesta cooked posole and beans—and then she couldn’t tell if her eyes were really open or closed tight.
She might be swallowed by dark, be inside the digestive stomach juices of dark.
Churning around and around.
But when her eyes got dry; that’s when she knew they were open to the air.
And staring at nothing but blackened memory; the squat room that had only an empty wooden dresser, the mug of Bic pens, the beeswax candle, and her messy traveler’s suitcase stuffed inside the small, barren closet which was filled with everything she could carry.
The class-action lawyers and the social workers had the rest of her family’s stuff in storage somewhere back in Alaska. Because the case had gone bigwig; had gone hush-tones and important.
And Mesta kept the legal correspondences hidden, maybe in a clever, manila folder. Slid in a furniture crevasse somewhere. Abby had tried to look around his house—but just with her eyes, not with her fingers.
She was a teleported stranger here.
At the dinner table awkward Mesta always mumbled, let’s not talk of it now.
If not now, then when?
Mesta’s adobe stank of cinnamon mouthwash. The smell had built up in Abby’s nose—and even when she closed the bathroom door across from her bedroom, the mouthwash still ghosted through the air to haunt her.
Mesta had a gingivitis bone infection thing.
He was like super old. And when he spit in the sink, it wasn’t always the sink.
A kindly man for sure, his eyes were soft and brown, especially when he said he didn’t know where Abby’s grandmother had gone, except she’d gone tropical when he stayed desert.
Left him on an adventure a year ago, but they didn’t divorce, because they loved each other and she still sent him monthly checks.
So those lawyers were on it, making business-suit lawyerly calls. Until they located biological Grandma, Abby was stuck with non-biological Mesta—which got really confusing overall because he didn’t even—because all the rest of Abby’s biological family was—
Because of stupid deluxe new minivans that can seat the whole family except her, because she had the flu, for the hockey game; and mountain cliffs, and faulty class-action brakes.
And four funerals.
Practically overnight, Abby was put on a crowded commercial flight, stuffed into a seat like a cow, and sent to temporarily stay here in the stupid cinnamon-mouthwash barn where Mesta booted her out in the morning to graze, and the school booted her home in the afternoon back to her stall.
Where she stared at the plastered walls in her room. And followed the cracks with her eyes.
And Mesta hardly spoke much English though he spoke it just fine.
She couldn’t even have a TV out here. No cell phone. And she hated to read.
And the blue watery shhh sound came back in the pitch dark.
Whispered up through the lumpy chicken feather pillow, through the cotton mattress, the mud brick floor. Up through the solid dark earth a thousand miles beneath her, until all that hard earth sloshed into real salty water.
Rocked her gently in her bed, and she opened her eyes, and the sun flared in a coppery-white flash. Her lips tasted of brine.
And on her cheeks, she felt a sticky, sea-salt hairspray.
The dream was of a turquoise ocean, and a big orange floating raft. And how Abby lay there on the boat bottom, her legs rolling back and forth, in and out of consciousness; her face slowly turning lobster red.
* * *
Why go to school.
Why not wander away from the 7:15 am bus stop, where Abby stood alone at the crossroads between this dirt road and that other dirt road, with a heavy backpack of school books, most of which she had only opened accidentally.
She crunched on the side of the road for twenty minutes in her brown leather piano loafers, which were too small and her feet bulged out, and cars passed now and then and made her cough in dust.
She rolled her ankle once and had to sit down and rub it.
The dust stuck to her shaved and moisturized legs.
Irritated red bumps flushed her calves.
All around New Mexico it was brown. And flat, or hilly and shrubby, and rocky where poisonous rattlesnakes could lay.
And there weren’t even any famous green cactus she could see.
It was like God had made every other world ecosystem with care, and then it was the end of the sixth day and he was running late, so he just threw the creation leftovers out here like recycling.
The blue-sky forehead of the morning frowned with concern and watched Abby through its cyclopean sun eye, as if it might call in some mythic herding dogs to nip her ankles, to get her back into the bus line.
But a line of one unpopular person is not much of a line.
The river Rio Grande: It was sandy ground, woody debris, muddy olive water that flowed soft like someone had left on their backyard hose and then magnified the effect into a whole long river that cut the Southwest in half.
A canopy of Cottonwood trees, thick brown trunks and orange fiery leaves cast a bedazzled shade; and Abby plunked down on the embankment to listen to the wide water gurgle and flow.
She unzipped her backpack, and the zipper bit her thumb.
Pulled out a purple cube of sugary gum to smack. Oh, but first a mint chocolate square. The mint made her ears tingle, and a languid breeze fingered her hair.
She dropped her school books into the water, let them float away. One by one, they were like a row of ducklings without a mother.
Even the math book swept away. Bye-bye math.
When Abby crunched back along the dirt road to Mesta’s adobe, her backpack was light as air. Her shoulders were boingy springs.
“How was school,” Mesta mumbled at the bean and posole dinner.
* * *
That night in the bed, in the dark, was the third time Abby heard the watery shhh sound, and it came on so loud, and so fast—it sucked her all the way out of New Mexico in a flash.
She opened her eyes to the coppery flare of sunlight blinding her eyes.
Her vision streaked into a whiteout: But she remembered the slippery bottom of the orange boat, and her legs rocking back and forth, and how the salty sea spray itched inside her nose.
Riding the bed of an endless ocean.
“Shhh,” a French woman spoke into Abby’s ear. “It’s okay, honey. It’s okay.”
“What’s okay?” Abby asked.
The cyclopean sun’s eye had her transfixed in a blinding ray. And a sweet metal tinge of blood coated her lips. “Why do you keep saying that?”
“Jamais deux, sans trois. Never twice, without thrice. It’s okay, we will prepare.” The small, minty hands of the unseen woman massaged Abby’s burned face with paste, and fresh water slid down her throat. And when she woke up, Abby was back in bed in New Mexico in the early dawn.
With dried blood from where she had chewed her lip.
She didn’t go to school.
Big puffy clouds roamed the wide desert sky as Abby cut through the pinon trees and trudged in her piano loafers to the bank of the Rio Grande.
For a second she swore she saw a rattlesnake, but it was just a stick. Her heart pounded. She had to find a grassy place to sit down all alone.
And that’s when the emotional boxer stood up in the boxing ring like the Comeback King; and waves of grief pummeled Abby in the gut and she sobbed and sobbed, snot hanging out her nose in two thin ropes.
“Mom, I can’t do it alone,” she cried. Over and over, until she curled up on her side. Sand stuck to the snot on her cheek, and she thought: It’s not sandpaper, it’s skinpaper. And it was gross.
When she sat up again, Abby was lighter. Her chest felt like it did when she got off the Ferris wheel at the fair.
That was a good memory. The Alaska State fair every year. Wow, the deep-fried meat coma, the classic aging rockers on stage, the lumberjack show and the Peninsula Racing Pigs. Even the RV and boat storage display. Ha-ha, and the twins won the cabbage weigh-off.
Abby nudged off her loafers and dipped her toes into the Rio Grande. It was lukewarm, like a forgotten bath.
It was nice and refreshing, though. She waded into a soft and shallow bottom, and the mud swirled up and buried her feet. She sat down. And the river saturated her shorts and her underwear and she felt so daring, like a rule breaker.
The mud swallowed her legs.
When she walked home, her piano loafers squeaking, her pants rolled up to the knees; the social worker, the one with a mustache, sat with a clipboard on the dash of his forest green Subaru, with a cell phone pushed against his ear, and his eyes not quite the color of Alaskan ice.
* * *
In school again; at noon recess, on the same hot bleachers.
When the shhh came, Abby squinted up at the cyclopean eye in the sky and said, “Just take me.”
“God won’t take us, honey,” the woman on the raft said.
The big orange boat bobbed up and down and the endless turquoise ocean had turned choppy gray. Clouds swirled overhead like a giant might slowly be wielding a metal whisk, preparing to pour in more sky ingredients, maybe some thunder to rumble.
Abby managed to pull herself up on her elbows, the firm raft’s edge supporting her neck. The air smelled like electricity.
The French woman in a bedraggled business suit sat beside Abby, arms and legs loose like a ragdoll, one sleeve torn off like a punk-rocker, and a white bra strap overstretched and sagging on her shoulder. Her wet, flat hair looked ironed to her face. One eye was swollen shut like a dark walnut.
“Jamais deux, sans trois.” The French woman studied the angering sky, a warm wind fingering her battered clothing, fluttering the edges of the fabric. “You are my good luck charm, Abigale Oats.”
Abby felt bothered.
Something familiar was missing. She was wrapped in plastic, and couldn’t feel. That’s it—numb and thick as rubber. Abby’s body all over was numb.
“Why am I dreaming of dying on a raft?”
“You’re not dreaming, honey.” The French woman’s voice floated away.
“Then how come I don’t stay here?”
The French woman pulled her face away from the sky, as if she had been magnetically transfixed. The gathering storm reflected and swirled in her wild eyes. “No one stays here.” And she reached out with her little hands, and grabbed Abby’s hand, and it felt like she would never let go.
The fabric above her sleeveless arm went pat-a-pat-a-pat.
* * *
Abby yanked the covers off her bed. The creature that was the darkness shrank back as Abby struck a match and lit the beeswax candle on the dresser. The flame danced in shadows on the wall.
“Where is the real world?” she whispered to the dark. “You? Are you real?”
The candle flared, and the darkness turned and ran with its tail between its legs. Abby’s bare toes gripped the smooth brick tiles of the floor. Mesta’s old man snore carried down the hall. She yanked a wool blanket off the bed and wrapped it around her shoulders Indian style.
Carried the candle in its ceramic holder in one hand, squeezed the blanket closed in the other hand, and shuffled quietly to the front door; then out onto the still sun-warm flagstone porch, the blue-black night with the stars sneezed out overhead, and glistening with fuzzy, twinkling light.
The air smelled of creosote and sage.
Abby set the candle down on the sundial planter box.
Was she dead, too? Just like Mom. Just like her whole family. This could be, like—the process of the afterworld where you work things through?
And the thought of the hidden manila envelope with the lawyers’ correspondence came to mind, and that it was time to use her fingers to find it. So she slunk around the adobe house with her candle, trying not to light herself on fire, or wake up the sleeping snorer. And nowhere was the manila that she could find.
It was only an afterthought: The mailbox.
So back out into the blue-black, star-sneezed night, in her piano loafers and crunching over the gravel driveway to the rusty metal mailbox propped up on a stick.
It squeaked open.
There lay a crisp white letter.
Ten minutes later, cross-legged on her bed with the candle flickering on the dresser: Abby knew her grandmother had been found by the high-tech lawyers. And she held the one-way ticket to Honolulu in her shaking hands. Business first class.
Her flight left in one day.
Abby’s heart pounded in her ears.
Jamais deux, sans trois. So the plane would crash over the water. Impossible! The second tragedy in her life, and bad things came in threes. But not if she could warn them—warn everyone.
When dawn broke the night, and the snoring stopped and the toilet flushed, and Mesta had his steaming cuppa joe at the kitchen table—Abby slunk out of the guest room and pulled out a wooden chair to sit across from him.
The chair’s legs were uneven. It tilted back and forth with a soft clonk on the tiles until she sat rigidly upright.
Sausage sizzled crazily in a pan.
“I’m suposta go to Hawaii tomorrow but we have to reschedule it.” Abby pushed the letter across the table, but she kept the ticket inside the envelope, clasp in her hand.
Mesta took a century to read the letter with his reading glasses perched low on his nose. He got up and flipped the pigs in the pan, then shuffled to Abby and handed her the letter back personally, then sat down in his spot.
“Why don’t you have a phone,” she said.
He took a long coffee sip, and looked at Abby with kindly brown eyes. “I’m peculiar.” That was his explanation.
Abby leaned forward and the broken chair gave a loud clonk. She put her hand over her mouth so she wouldn’t shout, because she suddenly felt like shouting.
“They want you in the school,” he said. “But why listen to them? Your last day in the desierto, and a fine one it should be.”
Abby thought that maybe a hundred random people were going to die tomorrow. Crashed at sea. And a fine day this last one would not be.
She rushed to school.
She asked to see the principal, but he was out today. She found Mr. Rodriguez in the hallway, and showed him the letter, and tried to say that the plane might crash, but Mr. Rodriquez just said, I will miss you in class, you bright young lady.
She talked the front desk secretary into handing her the push button phone. But when the airplane operator came on, and said how may I help you—Abby hung up instead.
At recess she sat on the hot aluminum bleachers only long enough to scan the playground, to make sure no one was looking, and then she escaped through the broken chain-link fence into the yellow chamiso field.
She didn’t even think of the stinky feet smell. She just clutched the envelope to her chest.
The bushes tickled her sensitive legs.
The front seam on her left piano loafer broke open, and her toe squeezed out and pinched on a rock.
“Maybe it’s not a second chance,” she whispered. She looked up into the cyclopean portal in the sky; into the whiteout, into the doorway in her mind.
* * *
Rain howled and roared in a slate gray tempest, ocean spray kicked Abby’s face with needles. The French woman got dunked, her wet hair became an iron helmet over her face; in the metallic flash of lightening, a medieval knight-in-armor.
Screaming inside a faceless shell.
Up and down the raft bucked.
Abby’s legs swishing far left, then far right.
And she couldn’t hold onto the life rope.
* * *
Abby lay down in the chamiso field, on her back, under a canopy of thirsty flowers. The hard dirt. The feeling of being invisible, and not having to do anything.
If I die there, will I vanish here?
But she thought long and hard about it again—about being in two real places, and the doorway opening and closing. And she decided that one place had to be unreal.
Had to be a sideways place. Another land. A mental landscape.
But which one, the future or the past?
Oh Jesus, but what if a rattlesnake comes by. Abby rolled up on her elbows and then rolled over to her knees and then stood up all covered with dust.
Suddenly, the field was creepy, with too many rocky places for poisonous things to hide. She didn’t want to be in the creepy field.
She didn’t want to be in New Mexico, even.
She wanted to be in Alaska, before the—
Before everything went to shit.
And it seemed suddenly that Abby had never directly asked for what she needed. Had never thought she could. Had never dared dream it possible. But now she dared.
Because it was almost too late.
She was letting go of the rope in the real world.
“Mommy, help me,” she cried. “Come back and help me. I need you. I can’t live without you.”
A figure materialized, standing in the golden field, the sun a perfect halo around her familiar round shape, the golden light pouring out from behind her.
And Abby ran to her mother’s flabby outstretched arms, arms which held the most magnificent safety and comfort Abby had ever known in life, and she cried until the sorrow turned to wonderment, and then to joy—and then into the wisdom of knowing—the kind of deep knowing that only those souls who have passed-on, or are near death, can know.
The sky rotated to night, because they needed to journey among the mysteries of the stars: Because the stars hold the secrets of all things.
And all souls can journey outside of time.
Your life awaits you back on Earth sweet child, and though I can not be with you physically in this lifetime anymore, my love will always be with you.
There are souls there who await your return. There are promises you made before birth, destinies you must intersect, people only you can help.
Will you abandon them now? The choice is yours. For as you choose it; it will be.
And what you can not remember of these truths will never be lost; find a new confidence growing inside you, golden and true.
Out of grief and hardship come the brightest of lights.
* * *
The tempest sea had turned into a lonely, calm, blue bath.
The life raft had mostly deflated.
One compartment of air inside the orange rubber still gallantly buoyed. Abby and the French woman clung to it, the white safety rope. Had their hands and arms wrapped around it.
And all together they were a giant’s wrung-out bath toy—abandoned, left to sink down into an oceanic drain.
“I’m a curse,” Abby said.
“No, no—not that way,” the French woman laughed. “You survived three times. You survived.”
And the positive side of the meaning sank in, and Abby laughed, because she felt like a wine cork, bobbing up and down as they drifted. “You’re my new lawyer from across the isle on the plane going to Hawaii. And you apologized about the firm, and me being sent to Mesta. And you were explaining my case.”
“Hi, I’m Claudine.”
And they both laughed so much with the wild absurdity that they almost drown all over again, but they held each other up above the bath of warm, turquoise water; and laughed more and more.
After awhile they were quiet again.
Claudine glanced at her watch, which had stopped telling time. “We missed the big meeting at Santon and Fischer.”
“That line out there, see the shimmer rising up. See the brown?” Abby asked.
“I think that’s the big island we’re floating to. We were not that far out when the plane crashed into the sea.”
Wow, it was a dry island sanctuary in the middle of all the blue drowning nothingness. And Abby felt like she needed to remember something important, but floating with her chin barely above the sea, nothing came to mind except the airplane crash.
And a new sense of peace. A sense that everything was okay now.
Then they both heard Coast Guard rescue helicopter blades chopping the sky.
Copyright © 2018 by Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.