Sandra walked along the edge between the ocean and the sand, where it was hard like wet cement. Far enough from where the waves crash against the shore that the water only washed over the tops of her feet. It was early morning and she hadn’t seen the ocean in such a long time it was like seeing a childhood friend. Picking up where they last left off. But things were different, as if someone was tracing her spine with a ballpoint pen on her skin.
The high tide hadn’t washed anything up onto the sand. There were no sand dollars, no sea shells, no dead jelly fish, not even saturated strands of sea weed. It was as if someone had vacuumed the beach clean, and she lifted her eyes to scan the shoreline. There was a strange, artificial smell like when her father’s tool shed had burned down. Where were the early morning joggers, dog walkers, treasure hunters?
The shoreline reached out to the horizon in an angled curve and she continued on to see what was around the bend. It was warm; she was sweating already so she walked into the water, ankle-deep. She had a momentary prickling sensation but figured it was the temperature change. The viscous water resisted her, so she kicked up her feet as she walked, droplets blowing back against her shins and dampening her hemline. She felt like a young girl again trudging through mud. She wanted to see what was ahead, what always kept her going.
At the farthest point where the shore jutted out into the sea, she stopped and looked at the horizon. The colors of sky and ocean a murky gunmetal gray, the delineation between the two nonexistent. Same as the place where her mind went when the depression hit. She turned from it, not interested in the dark on this day. This day she had decided to re-emerge into the world after six months of seclusion.
And when she turned to see what lay on the other side of the point, she was surprised into stillness. A long row of abandoned, unfinished condominium buildings sat on the coast. The black plastic Tyvek torn and flapping in the breeze. Mountains of neglected construction materials. Broken windows on lower floors. No windows on upper floors, as if construction had suddenly halted. She’d been so lost in the strange sensations of the water that she’d not paid attention as she walked. She turned toward the way she’d come and realized that the beach houses were also vacant, abandoned, neglected, in disrepair. A ghost town. Had there been a hurricane?
As she scanned the coast from the water’s view point, an eerie feeling descended. She hurried to her car, her calf muscles tightening so that she had to stop, bend over, and rub them to continue on. She stayed along the wet sand (easier to walk) until she had to cross the beach and struggle in the loose white dry sand. The soles of her feet burned and her finger tips prickled as if a thousand microscopic needles were being pushed in. She felt spooked like she did as a girl going down into the basement when no one was there.
She ran along the wooden boardwalk and now saw only ruin. She sat in her car and brushed the sand off her feet. Underneath the stuck-on sand, her skin was enflamed, painfully itchy, but she wanted to get out of there. She slipped her sandals on, granules still stuck to her damp skin. She started her car and as she drove away, her feet and ankles began to swell like hot air balloons.
Sandra didn’t have a cell phone, part of her six-month seclusion. A respite from 21st century demands—demands that were difficult to live with, let alone juggle when depressed. She’d rented a cabin in the mountains and cut herself off from the world, communicating only through occasional postcards to her mother. Still alive! she’d write without telling where she was holed up. She wanted to handle the breakdown differently this time, sans medication and talk therapy and so the cabin had been devoid of any and all harmful substances. She’d hiked the ten miles in, so she couldn’t drive her car into an embankment or off a cliff as she sometimes thought of doing. She’d been surprised at how resourceful she became without sharp knives, scissors, razor blades, fishing hooks.
She flipped on the radio and headed back toward her hotel, toward the town center. Pushing the pedals increased her pain and she thought she would pass out. She rolled down her window and stuck her face into the salty air. There had to be a hospital nearby. She drove around haphazardly, sticking to the main roads until spotting a hospital roadside sign then she followed the signs.
She parked right in front of the emergency doors, stumbled out of her car and hobbled inside. She vocalized her pain, despite her high pain tolerance. The emergency room was crowded. She approached the front desk but no one was there. She didn’t know how much longer she’d be able to walk. She sat down on a waiting chair next to a large older woman with a sick miserable child. When the pressure was off her feet, she gently wept.
“You went in the water,” the woman said and pointed at Sandra’s feet.
Sandra nodded. “How did you know?”
The woman brought her left leg across her right and rolled up her jeans. The skin of her legs was deeply scarred—pink ridges ran helter skelter as if molten lava had erupted from within her and then eventually cooled, her skin glossy like volcanic rock. “I did the same thing after. No one told me not to. Pretty bad, huh?”
“You went in the ocean?”
She nodded. “All the way up to my hip bones. I’m just now walking the way I used to.”
Sandra’s ankles screeched now, as if fire ants were biting. She cried out without meaning to and scratched at her skin.
“Oh, honey, you better go get some help,” the woman said. “Don’t scratch or you’ll scar bad. How come you went in the water?”
“What’s wrong with the water?”
“A big ole’ toxic spill. A tanker went down, full of chemicals.”
“Chemicals? You mean an oil spill?”
“No, I mean like what the farmers have to spray to get the genetically modified seeds to grow. Square-Up, I think they call it. They’re making it down in Guatemala and shipping it up here. Another big corporation taking advantage of the disadvantaged. Everybody knows about that now. You been hiding or what?”
Sandra nodded, but she couldn’t talk. She couldn’t take it anymore. She struggled onto her feet and hobbled along, heading down the busy, crowded hospital hallway. Where were all the hospital attendants? Didn’t anyone work here?
She heard a baby crying and a woman shushing it through a partially opened door. The baby’s cries tore at Sandra, made her pain seem distant as if happening to someone else. She needed to see what was the matter and entered the room. A nurse was bathing a baby in a baby bathtub set inside a deep stainless steel sink. The nurse’s movements were harsh and hurried and Sandra approached them. The nurse’s dirty blonde hair was pulled back in a long braid and her shoulders were hunched in a tired way; she’d given up long ago.
The nurse was splashing the water in the little brown baby’s face. The baby had big black eyes and thick black eyelashes and chubby cheeks. Sandra wanted to pick up the baby and hold her tenderly, soothe her. And then the baby slipped beneath the water. The nurse turned toward Sandra, “What do you want?”
Sandra watched the baby struggle against the water, flailing her soft arms. The nurse turned back and yanked upwards on the baby until her face was just above the water. The baby let out a deep wail. “Hush now,” the nurse hissed.
“This is not a room you should be in,” the nurse said to Sandra and because the baby was working her feelings out through her body, she slipped back beneath the water. But the nurse didn’t turn to the baby; she yelled at Sandra to get out. Go back to where she belonged. Stay out of other people’s business. What the hell was wrong with people these days!
The baby swung her head back and forth, her cheeks blown large with held air. She kicked her legs. She whacked her arms back against the bathtub over and over. Her eyes opened wide then closed then she opened her mouth, drawing in water. She shut her mouth tight and scrunched her face closed.
The window in the room was open and a burst of fresh air cooled Sandra’s cheek. A metallic blue butterfly rode the current, landing on the cold hard window sill, its wings slowly opening and closing, as if pondering where to go and how to be and why this all was. Sandra knew it was only a matter of seconds before the butterfly rose to disappear into the washed blue sky. She shoved the nurse aside, swooped down and whisked the slippery soft baby out of the water. “We must never forget to be human,” she said to the nurse. Then she wrapped the wailing baby in a towel.
About the author:
Jennifer Porter lives in metropolitan-Detroit. Her fiction has appeared in journals such as Ray’s Road Review,The Dos Passos Review, Jet Fuel Review, Sling Magazine and Apeiron Review. A memoir essay recently appeared in Revolution John. She earned her MFA at the Bennington Writing Seminars. She is the Fiction Editor at The Tishman Review.