Afterward, every beach is vacant. Our children still race for the sand, rip at the fluttering caution tape, ignore our frantic warnings, and we scoop them up and haul them away before they can tell what has become of the ocean.
The rest of us know better—we’ve seen the horrors up close, our parents and siblings and friends trapped and stiff, eyes frozen open, palms pressed white against the unyielding slick of surface, mirror-like. The rest of us carry weapons. The rest of us look over our shoulders, lock our doors, research ways to leave town, but it won’t matter in the end. All we can do is wait our turn. She is saving the worst of us for last.
When Dimitris tries to run, he doesn’t tell anyone. Not even Aiden. We only discover he is gone once Hali scatters bits of his unused plane ticket in each of our backyards, along with shards of empty mason jars stained red.
We don’t go to the police anymore. They laughed when we first tried to explain about Hali, that she could actually transform something so volatile and vast. Now they know—the impenetrable glass cages, the bodies on display until she lets the sea swallow them whole—but they can’t find her. She is nowhere, liquid, as though she keeps for herself the fluidity she steals from the water.
Before the sun sets, we go together, the few of us who are left. Dimitris is suspended inside the froth of a wave paused mid-curl. Rigid. It could almost be a sculpture, but this isn’t ice. There is a heat rolling off of it like rage.
“She slipped,” everybody says, but Hali doesn’t believe this. It’s as if she saw us there, walking her sister backward, backward, backward, as if she can’t even remember how to see forward anymore.
A surfer discovers Hali one Thursday morning, sodden but alive, her pockets heavy with rocks and smooth bits of glass. “I know it was supposed to be me,” Hali tells anyone who will listen. “I just wanted to join her.”
It nearly worked—she almost did. The evening news says Hali stayed under for so long, most people would have drowned. Instead, the wild sea churned her up and spit her out and taught her how to fight.
By the time we are in high school, Hali’s sister is eighteen. Finally old enough to be a legal guardian. She drops Hali off, picks her up, goes everywhere she goes, until the night we find one of them alone in Big Sur.
We’re only trying to hide from our parents with some Marlboros and a case of beer—but there are lots of us and one of her, and we just want to talk. “You’re a thief, Hali,” we say, stalking her through the darkness, pressing her heels toward the cliff. “You’re still taking things that aren’t yours. You and your weird-ass collection of polished trash. And what happened to your fear of heights?”
But it isn’t Hali. It’s her sister, we can tell as we edge closer—her sister, already crying softly long before we’d even said a word, her hair whipping at her neck in silhouette. It looks like she might jump.
A pair of hands. And then all our hands, flashing suddenly through the shadows, unclear whether it is push or pull, help or hurt, and we stay until her screams below us are gone, until all we can hear are the waves breaking.
In eighth grade, the teacher has us go around the room and share what makes us unique. Most people say things like I do ballet and I have two dogs.
Hali says: “When the air didn’t protect me, I learned my magic was somewhere else.”
“Fucking freak,” Aiden whispers, just loud enough for her to hear.
Over Spring Break, the rich families always go somewhere beautiful: Mexico, Hawaii, the Caribbean. Hali tells us she got to sail the seven seas.
Dimitris snorts. “That’s not a real thing, loser. We don’t have seven oceans.”
Her eyes shimmer, watery, and a few of us feel almost sorry for her—this confused, pathetic creature who is loved by her sister and nobody else, who can’t afford to travel beyond her own warped imagination. And then we remind ourselves: It’s not like we always make fun. We hardly notice her, mostly. She just sits alone on the bus and counts each piece of glass in those jars she carries everywhere, one by one by one by one.
Hali is a little girl who believes she is magic. She spends each recess climbing trees and insisting she can fly. When we dare her to prove it, she lands in a heap of snapped bones and scraped skin, and afterward she skips our class field trip to the Golden Gate Bridge. Hali shows us her doctor’s note, shyly: Acrophobia, it says. Debilitating fear of heights. We make scared faces and ooOooOh noises and pretend to fall through the sky.
In the summer, Hali lines up mason jars while the rest of us sell lemonade. Her stand is a simple folding table with a hand-lettered sign: SEA GLASS, 25¢ EACH.
“You want some?” Hali calls to us, waving. “They’re from broken things. Bottles and shipwrecks and stuff, you know? All the pieces tumble around in the ocean for years and years until they turn to treasure.”
One of our mothers smiles politely. “Are you sure you’re supposed to take those from the beach, honey?”
Beside her, Hali’s sister pulls her close, drops a tender kiss in her hair. Our mothers murmur words like garbage and illegal and state property, and when they aren’t looking we steal one jar each because we know it will make our parents proud. At night, we gather on the sand without Hali, laughing, virtuous, and throw it all back into the sea where it belongs.
Melissa Bowers is the winner of the 2020 Breakwater Review Fiction Prize, the 2020 F(r)iction flash fiction competition, and The Writer’s inaugural personal essay contest, and her stories are featured as prize-winners in Lunate, Barren Magazine, and Pithead Chapel. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, longlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and nominated for Best Small Fictions 2021. Melissa’s work has also appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, Atticus Review, Fractured Lit, CHEAP POP, and The Boston Globe Magazine, among others. Read more at www.melissabowers.com or on Twitter @MelissaBowers_.