Authors: Kathryn Davis
As usual the girls were dressed in identical black bathing suits with skirts and identical white rubber bathing caps that strapped under the chin. They looked like old ladies. They didn’t enter the water like old ladies, though, splashing water up over the tender parts of themselves to lessen the shock. The girls plunged right in and kept on going. They ignored the jellyfish and the seaweed. They didn’t look back. At their leader’s command they dove under the first big breaker that came their way and rose up on the other side at the exact same time as meanwhile the whole idea of what a wave is fell apart behind them. For a moment they paused so everyone except the girl who was so nearsighted she couldn’t see anything without her glasses had a chance to make eye contact with one another. Then they kept on swimming.
The girls had been preparing for this for a long time. At the shore they practiced in the ocean; at home they practiced in the bathtub. At first they just held their breath, but after a while they got so they could breathe underwater. The girls didn’t really need the hoses anymore; they just brought them along for backup. People were eighty percent water, they figured. What made everyone think the moment our ancestors came out of the water and started to breathe air represented a step up the evolutionary ladder? Why did people always think things got better by moving forward? Why did people think that way? It was so limited! As if the surface was somehow better than everything else. As if
The girls rose on the next wave and felt themselves flung forward as the wave broke behind them. The farther they got from shore the bigger the waves were becoming, rocking under them with more and more energy. It was like they were being pushed on a swing, higher and higher, getting swept up the side of a hill to stay for a split second at the top before being swept down into the valley below and then up again, the top even higher this time, the slope even steeper and the valley lower, until they found themselves at the top of a mountain of water the size of an alp. The moon was right there above them, drawing the ocean up to it. The girls practically banged their heads against its surface. Because of the moonlight everything looked like it was coated in silver, but you could see how dark the water was underneath the coating, so dark green it was almost black, and the moon itself was whiter than anything, whiter and smoother than an egg.
I’ve had that dream, someone said. I dream about those kinds of waves a lot.
It’s an ancestral memory, Janice explained primly, as if she was mentioning something better left unsaid.
The girls didn’t realize until they’d arrived at the top of that final wave that one of their group was missing. You’d probably guess it was the girl with the bad eyesight, but you’d be wrong. The girl with the bad eyesight was right there treading water with the rest of them, waiting for the signal from the leader to dive under. No, it was another girl, one of the best swimmers. Unfortunately for her, or maybe fortunately—who can say?—she didn’t always concentrate on what she was doing. She was careless, and when people are careless things go wrong.
Somewhere along the line, Janice said, the careless girl let herself get caught in a breaker that carried her back to the beach. The breaker curved over her head and thumped her from behind—that’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re thinking about something else, like for instance a boy. Then it churned her around and around before leaving her on her stomach in the sand together with a lot of broken clamshells and those little crabs the size of your thumbnail. Even though nobody was there to see her, the girl stopped to make sure her bathing suit was still in place before getting to her feet. Normally she didn’t care about the way she looked, but this was different. The world was about to end and her friends had left her behind. They were going to survive and she was doomed. Plus she had to go home to her parents.
Except it didn’t end, someone said. How can we be here if the world already ended?
I’m getting hot, said someone else. When do we get to go to the beach?
A lot of people died, Janice said. You’ve studied it in school. The world didn’t actually come to an end, but it might as well have. It was like scientists predicted. Whole countries weren’t there anymore. You’ve all seen the globe. It looked completely different.
Suddenly she yawned and stretched and stood up. Well, come on, she said. What are you waiting for?
The beach was just a block and a half away but it always took longer to get there than it should. The little girls had to be herded along and there were lots of things to carry. Things got dropped and someone had to go back to pick them up. By the time they arrived at their usual spot—a good spot just to the left of the lifeguard stand with no one between them and the water—the sun was directly overhead. Janice screwed the umbrella into the sand while the older girls spread their towels as far from the umbrella and as close to the lifeguard as they could get. The beach was crowded. Everyone was talking at the top of their lungs about private matters like heartbreak and terminal illness. It was the only way to be heard over the sound of everyone else, not to mention the surf.
Hurry up! Hurry up! cried the little girls.
It’s not like the ocean is
anywhere, Janice pointed out.
A seaplane flew past very low over the water, trailing a banner that said “Take a Moonlight Cruise on the Evening Star.”
Come Friday, Janice said, that’s going to be me and my honey on that boat. She set up her beach chair in the pool of shade made by the umbrella and sank into it, letting out a sigh.
It was a very young coast. The little girls went off to play with their buckets and shovels in the shallows while the older girls began working on their tans. One minute there was no wind at all, the next minute it came gusting off the bay. Some sheets of newspaper drifted past, followed by a baby wearing nothing. The lifeguards whistled in a swimmer who’d ventured too far out.
People are such idiots, Janice said. She reached into her beach bag and withdrew her cigarettes and her sunglasses. You know they’re still down there, she said, lowering her voice. The Aquanauts are still down there. They live in the deepest part of the ocean where it’s so dark you can’t see what they look like. They don’t look the way they did before the Descent. They used to care how they looked. They used to shave their legs, for instance, things like that.
The curly-haired girl knew Janice was talking about her. She thought it was probably a good idea to like being looked at if you were a girl—it was probably key to survival. If you were a gorilla it was the other way around. Somewhere the girl had read that if you looked a gorilla in the eye it would strangle you.
Whatever we can’t see has power over us, Janice said. Plus, as much as people seem to think so, the ocean isn’t infinite.
When that immense wave broke it went everywhere. Almost everywhere, Janice corrected herself—emphasizing
—but not quite. You can’t even begin to imagine what it looked like. Luckily it was nighttime. If it had happened during the day it would have been even more terrifying. The whole sky was blocked out. Some people ran, some people got in their cars. They ran the way people do in horror movies, looking back over their shoulder while continuing to run forward, without any sense of direction or purpose. Of course it did no good. The only things with a chance of making it were the things living in the water. Even then, a lot of them didn’t do so well.
But the Aquanauts were OK, right? someone said.
Look! said someone else, laughing. The tide was coming in and just as Janice was talking about the immense wave breaking, a small wave had broken and sent parts of itself up over the sand and onto the bottom edge of someone’s beach towel. As the water crept up the beach it turned the white sand dark, pocking it with tiny holes where the sand crabs lived. Then it went back where it had come from. The air smelled like hot tar. The bucket-shaped things the little girls had been building got washed away along with other things like sheets of newspaper and flip-flops and cigarette butts.
Where do you think
going? Janice asked the curly-haired girl.
The girl was heading out into the water with her raft under her arm.
Didn’t you hear what I was just saying? Janice asked. About the Aquanauts?
So? said the girl. Vacation was a nightmare when you were a teenage girl forced to live in a rented duplex so small and with such thin walls that the sounds and smells of your whole family not to mention the people downstairs like Janice and her husband were always
The curly-haired girl knew Janice and her husband could hear her feet walking across their ceiling. While they were having sexual intercourse they could hear her feet. Janice could hear her feet while Henry’s penis went in and out of her.
Maybe you don’t get it, Janice said. This is no joke. Because I’ve watched you—you’re always one of the ones they have to whistle in.
At first the girls just spent their time playing, she explained. They couldn’t believe how lucky they were. They were alive and they could go anywhere they wanted. They could explore the parts of the ocean where human beings had never been before, and they could swim through the top floors of skyscrapers and into places like maximum security prisons and movie stars’ mansions and the lion cage at the zoo, places that had always been off-limits to ordinary people. It seemed like nothing could hurt them, either. Not even sharks or giant squids, and they didn’t get sick with things like gill rot or white fin the way regular fish did.
But after a while it was like, what’s the point? A lot of time went by. The water receded. The descendants of the people who hadn’t died began reproducing. First they did it as a necessity. It was only later they started enjoying it. Soon things were back to the way they’d been before the wave. Houses got built, streets like this one with rows of duplexes. Someone put up a boardwalk. There was a penny arcade with a fortune-teller in a glass case. This was possible because it turned out the future still existed. It’s the one we have now, in case you wondered.
A whole lot of time had gone by but the girls hadn’t gotten any older. They were still girls. Even after everything that had happened to them, that part never changed. Eventually they found themselves back at their old beach. They recognized it from the shadow of the Ferris wheel down by the water.
Janice pointed and the little girls gasped.
beach? someone asked.
What did you expect? said someone else. That’s how history works, or else Janice wouldn’t know it.
The girls couldn’t get out of the water to lie on the sand and work on their tans. If they got out of the water they couldn’t breathe, and they missed the way the lifeguards used to look at them. They didn’t want to stay girls forever. That’s the main thing about girls, am I right? Janice held out her left arm and studied it critically, admiring her tan and the way her ring sparkled in the sun. Girls are always in a big hurry to take the next step, she said, the one about men and romance and marriage and babies. The girls drifted as close to shore as they could without being seen. They could hear the sound of baseball games on people’s radios. The lifeguards were looking out to sea but the girls knew they weren’t looking for
Each girl was crying but the other girls couldn’t tell because her face was already wet.
It’s their own fault, someone said. They were the ones who decided to live undersea. No one made them do it.
If they hadn’t they probably would have died, said someone else.
They’d be dead now anyway, said the curly-haired girl. She turned her back on the group and began walking toward the water.
After Janice finished moving the umbrella and all the beach things from the path of the incoming tide, she spread herself out on her towel, flat and wide and brown like a ginger bread man. Except they aren’t, Janice said. The girls aren’t dead and they aren’t ever going to die. You’d think that was a good thing, wouldn’t you? But what if you wanted to take the next step only you were doomed to be a teenage girl forever? It would make you angry, wouldn’t it? It would make you more than angry. It would fill you with murderous rage.
The girls got to be immortal and it made them deadly.
At first there didn’t seem to be anything to worry about. Sometimes people said they felt something swim by them in the ocean but that was all. Sometimes the girls would bump against someone but just barely—the girls called that “kissing.” Of course they no longer wore their black bathing suits and their white rubber bathing caps—when a girl bumped into someone the person could feel how seamless the girl’s skin was. Their skin felt smooth and slippery like sausage casings. It wasn’t really skin, though. It was more like a pod.
After a while the girls began to shoot right past us, not quite seeing us and just barely feeling the bump of us against their skin. It was like all we were to them was something that got in their way. It was like they hated us.
I’ve felt that, someone said. I thought there was a fish swimming by me.
My mom said it was nothing to worry about, said someone else. It’s only the current.
By now the curly-haired girl had gotten past the breakers and was lying on her stomach on her raft, paddling away from shore. She could see the moon up ahead, preparing to shine once the sun got out of its way. Every night there were more planets; planets were being born somewhere in space, calving off larger, older planets. This was the way of the universe, the old making way for the new. When she looked back the lifeguard stand was like a dollhouse toy, Janice like a dollhouse doll. Over the boardwalk the sky had turned the color of beets, but right above her head it was still blue and getting darker, the weird blue of a newborn baby’s eyes.
It was then that the girl sensed it—a disturbance in the water next to the raft, a feeling of a presence getting ready to move past her and then pausing, sensing her there as well. She could see a glimmer of skin just below the surface, a shudder in the current as the head came up beside her. Whatever it was smelled like fish but also like it had been buried in dirt and was starting to decompose.