by Sherri Cook Woosley
We never go swimming alone. Water swirled around Elsa Dalhquist’s ankle and fed back into the next wavelet. It was hard to think, easier to feel. Her silken chemise nightgown fluttered against her skin; moonlit breeze brushed her shoulders. Weeks of insomnia muddied the mind. Elsa stepped forward into the surf, felt water between her thighs. A deep breath and then she dove into the ocean, the coldness surrounding her, the darkness complete.
She swam with no plan, no destination, just seeking physical exhaustion, a respite from circling thoughts. The rhythm of the waves was comforting, like being rocked by a giant hand. She went farther, her toned arms slicing through the saltwater. A feeling of alarm slowly made its way to her mind, but muffled, as if a little man was waving his cap and shouting from far away. Elsa ignored him. Perhaps drowning was not such a bad way to go. Stroke, stroke, stroke with your arms until you missed one, then two, and went down into the blackness of nothing. No more worries about her mentor’s disapproval, about the whole department snickering when they saw her, no more wondering what to do without a research grant and it was already summer.
She missed a stroke. Water smacked Elsa in the face. She gasped, choked on the saltwater, the taste of it filled her mouth. With a strong kick Elsa turned to face the shore. Silence as she looked around, really looked, and found herself alone, in the dark, so far out that the strip of restaurants and houses between the piers looked like the lights you see from an airplane. She didn’t have the strength to swim back.
Shaking as she realized exactly what she’d done, Elsa lit for shore, tried to settle into the crawl. If you die, she told herself, Dr. Buckston will think you drowned for unrequited love. Don’t let him have the satisfaction. The headlines will be stupid: Sleep-Therapist Dies After Ineffectual Struggles With Insomnia, or Recent Grad Sleep-Swims to Her Death. Part Of Her Thesis? Turn to Page 5. It became harder to stay afloat. The illusion of being rocked by a giant hand evolved into a rag-doll Elsa, jerked about by an unseen puppeteer.
Closer now, the background resolved into outlines of beach houses. The pier, commercial center of Topsail Island, North Carolina, shimmered off to the right. Elsa’s crawl had turned into a doggy-paddle. Every third wave or so washed over her and a stitch in her right side made her pant. Then her knees hit the sandbar, sand scratching flesh, and she struggled to stand up. Her sobs broke out to join tears. She didn’t know how long she’d been crying, but she grabbed her sides and cried some more until it was over. Elsa splashed to shore, using the nighttime lights of the community pool as a focal point because the current had pulled her south.
Calves pinging from trudging in the sand, she made her way toward her penthouse suite in the house she was sharing with her brother’s family. William and his wife Kelly had the master suite on the main floor. Their three children occupied the second-floor bedrooms. A house full of people, but Elsa alone in her king-sized bed. She’d fantasized about inviting Grady, Dr. Buckson. That, of course, couldn’t happen now. Not after she’d told him about her crush and he’d given a little laugh and patted her arm. Humiliating, but not as bad as losing the grant she’d been expecting to continue working in the sleep lab next year for post-doc work. Elsa shook her head. I almost drowned to get rid of these thoughts, and here they are, waiting for me on the shore.
Off to the side, thin tape fluttered in the breeze, a sign that nesting turtles needed protection. She became aware of sand shifting near her feet and looked down at several ghost crabs. Little creatures, translucent to white, barely visible in the dark. Their black eyes balanced on stalks. Elsa shivered. Little alien faces. The crabs popped out of their holes and scuttled toward the ocean. Children loved to chase them, but Elsa viewed them as albino spiders.
Distracted by the crabs, Elsa almost missed the turn-off to the beach house. She turned back to look at the ocean. She could have died. No one would have known. The transient glow of false dawn created a shadow out on the sandbar where she’d been earlier. Her eyes narrowed. A man stood there, tall, wet hair plastered back, chest bare and longboard shorts riding low on lean hips. Dark eyes over a thin mustache and a goatee shaped to form an upside down letter ‘T.’ A surfer, she thought. Despite the physical distance between them, Elsa felt an instant connection with this stranger, the only two beings conscious at this moment of pre-dawn day.
She hurried up the outside steps to her penthouse suite.
Later that morning Elsa checked her outfit in the mirror: swimsuit, beach cover-up, and sunglasses. Without benefit of the moon’s luminosity, her pale skin looked washed out. She sighed and, canvas chair in hand, went down to the beach.
Her brother William set up a cabana while his wife Kelly stood with one hand on her hip, the other shading her eyes as she kept watch over their children.
“Nice of you to join us,” William grunted from where he was burying the cabana legs. After a final pat, he stood, brushing sand off his hands. Like Elsa, William was tall and fair with understated features they’d inherited from their Swedish mother. He had an athletic build, strong hands, and a good-paying job. A Viking with a laptop.
“Sorry I missed breakfast. I slept in.”
“You look like you could use more sleep. There are circles under your eyes.”
“Being away from Baltimore should help. A couple nights of quality sleep and I’ll take on the world.” Elsa looked out at the water, anticipating uncomfortable questions about graduate school, career plans, and whether she was dating anyone.
He continued assembling the cabana. “Sleep is important,” William said. “I remember when Kelly breastfed and was up several times a night. She went crazy.”
“I heard my name. What are you talking about?”
William placed a sunburned arm around his wife. “Sleep deprivation.”
Kelly pushed Gucci sunglasses atop her highlighted hair. “You have trouble sleeping?”
“Sometimes,” Elsa said. Don’t be defensive, she told herself.
“With three kids, someone is always sick, needs consoling after a bad dream, or has to go to the bathroom,” Kelly said. “If I were single I would sleep like the dead every night.” She opened the cooler, handed William a bottled water then offered one to Elsa, who declined.
“Insomnia is hardly a choice,” Elsa said with annoyance. She wondered, not for the first time, what William saw in Kelly.
“Why don’t you do something productive with the time?” Kelly asked. Kelly dug in the cooler for a bottle of milk. “When I can’t sleep I catch up on my reading or marinate chicken breasts for dinner. Time is a gift, if you use it wisely.”
Elsa swallowed. “It’s forced overstimulation. Think A Clockwork Orange with your eyelids propped open.”
“Someone’s a little sensitive,” Kelly said.
William interrupted. “Hey, look at Dylan. He’s doing great on that boogie board.”
Kelly frowned at her husband. She diverted her attention to Abby, instead, playing with colorful plastic beach toys nearby.
Elsa felt grateful, and a little surprised, that her brother had intervened. “Where’s Caitlyn?”
“Over there.” Kelly pointed to a patch at the water’s edge. Elsa walked toward her niece.
“Auntie Elsa!” Caitlyn grinned, revealing a missing tooth. “I didn’t know if you were coming. Will you help me look for shark’s teeth?”
“I would never miss a chance to do that with you.” They wandered over the wet sand, sifting through shells and pebbles.
“I wasn’t sure. Daddy said you were on a different schedule because your job was to watch people sleep. That’s so weird.”
Elsa wrinkled her nose, tried to explain. “To help people with sleep problems, I have to know what’s going on while they are sleeping.”
Caitlyn appeared to have lost interest. “How come you went right up to your room when you got here? I wanted to see you, but Daddy said not to disturb you. Are you sick?”
“No, honey. I’m fine.” Elsa crouched near her niece and raked the sand with her fingers. “I got stuck in traffic at the drawbridge. I was very tired.”
“Mommy said you need a man.”
Elsa ignored the comment. “Look what I found.” Elsa balanced a tiny black triangle on her fingertip. “First shark tooth of the vacation.”
That night Elsa waited until the lights in the beach house went off before slipping on a two-piece. She went out the balcony door and tiptoed down the stairs, hoping to see the mystery man. They had a connection, she felt, two beings who eschewed the mundane, yearned for something more spiritual, something primal found in the water, in the transition from night to day, acting out the subconscious. Someone who understood her.
It took her a few minutes to find the lone swimmer and when she did the tips of her ears burned. Elsa took off her wrap and tied it around the leg of William’s darkened cabana so it wouldn’t blow away. While feeling a bit self-conscious in the bikini, she also hoped the man would turn around and admire her body. She imagined telling him, “This is how women from Sweden are meant to be viewed—in the moonlight. We are children of the moon and sea.”
The ocean embraced her. Elsa swam toward the man, careful to maintain some distance. She felt a thrill, wondering if he had gone swimming again to attract her attention. Perhaps he wanted to be alone with her.
You’re romanticizing again, she acknowledged.
The man was taller than her, broader. Where Dr. Buckston impersonated a lion, this man was silent, a real predator. Standing on a sandbar, she guessed, only the top half of his body visible. His eyes were dark, as if all pupil, his skin tight, almost gray in the moonlight. His chest muscular and hairless. Elsa wondered if he shaved for vanity. Above the water she saw thick forearms with articulated fingers ending in blunt fingernails. Tools, she thought. His body is designed for purpose.
Elsa relaxed into the rhythm of the dark water’s push and pull. From the corner of her eye she saw fins approaching. Fear ran from her belly to her throat. One triangle submerged, another surfaced. She couldn’t be sure whether she was seeing two or ten beasts. Elsa looked around for the man. He had vanished.
You broke the rule: you swam alone. Elsa rode to shore on the next wave and tried to remember the difference between dolphins and sharks. Don’t look over your shoulder. Forward motion to survive. Her foot scraped bottom and she scrambled out of the water. Running to William’s cabana, she collapsed, gasping, onto a chaise.
When she’d caught her breath she strained to see the fins—and the man. All were invisible. She told herself that he must have left the water before the sharks arrived. She’d have seen a frenzy if there’d been an attack. Feeling calmer, Elsa stood and gazed at the quiet water.
The next morning Elsa joined William’s family at the beach, feeling as if she were stepping into required vacation routine. Dylan and Caitlyn played Frisbee while Kelly rummaged through a beach bag and eighteen-month-old Abby sat in an inflatable pool in the shade of the cabana. William sprawled in a beach chair with his iPhone.
“Hey Elsa,” Kelly said, “Would you watch the kids while I pick up some things for Friday’s dinner?”
“Sure.” Elsa sat beside the pool and made gentle waves for the toddler with her hand. Abby cooed.
“Last night I saw fins in the water. I don’t know if they belonged to dolphins or sharks.”
William looked up. “What time? Dolphins usually swim by at dawn and dusk.”
“It was in the middle of the night. I saw them from my balcony, right in front of our house.”
“A dolphin’s dorsal fin is rounded at the top; a shark’s is straight. Sharks swim back and forth. Dolphins swim up and down.” He gestured to illustrate the difference.
He played with the iPhone again. “So which was it?”
Elsa shrugged. “Too far away to tell.” She smiled at Abby, but watched William out of the corner of her eye. “I thought there was a man out there too.”
William grinned. “Literally swimming with the sharks? I hope not.”
Elsa didn’t answer.
“Are you afraid of the water now?” he asked.
“Me? Too scared to go swimming? I’m a first-generation Swede.” She smiled back at her brother. “We grew up hearing mom’s stories about Odin and Loki. Thor wrestling sea-serpents.”
“And brave chieftains dying heroic deaths. That’s key.”
“No,” William said. “That’s how you became a demigod yourself. Or, at least, you became a totem or nature spirit.”
“That’s right.” Elsa pulled Abby out of the pool and onto her lap. “I’d forgotten that part.”
“There’s a reason for these myths. The ocean is a different world, about ninety percent of which you can’t see.” William shrugged. “Fins aside, you may want to get your swimming in now.”
“The Weather Channel says we’re in for some rough weather from the hurricane forming near Florida. It’s going to be moving up the coast later in the week. I hope we won’t have to evacuate.”
“Maybe it’ll shift course.”
He shook his head. “Unlikely.”
Throughout the rest of the day Elsa imagined that the man from the ocean was somewhere nearby. He would have to be staying around here, she reasoned, why else would he be swimming in front of our rental? He’ll swim again tonight, she hoped. She went up to her room early, longing to get through the day the way she used to try getting through the night.
That night on her balcony, it took less than a minute to pick out the man swimming past the breakers. She ran down the steps and swam to meet him, determined to find out more. Her arms cut through the water and the man turned to watch, as if waiting for her. His face was luminous and, in the sepia light from the waning moon, flawless. When she was close enough to see his eyes, black and flat, she said, “I looked for you on the beach, yesterday and today.”
He said nothing. His hand, colder than the water, reached for hers. Under the salt scent of the ocean Elsa smelled something like vinegar. Or urine. Together they rode a high wave, Elsa’s feet kicked through the water, but she couldn’t touch bottom. Her heart beat with excitement. She laughed. Together they climbed each wave, his hand still holding hers. She squeezed tightly and felt gratified when he did not pull away.
The next wave pushed Elsa under. His strong arms raised her above the breakers. Water washed over the man’s face, but he didn’t seem to mind. He lowered her against his body. Together they treaded water to stay afloat, her arms around his neck. Elsa closed her eyes when he leaned in to kiss her.
You are kissing a stranger in dangerous conditions, an inner voice warned.
The chilly water swirled around them. He held her face, his lips pressing against hers. Heat flushed her body. His hand moved to her back and Elsa felt the pressure on her bare skin. The kiss ended. She opened her eyes. In place of his obsidian eyes she gazed at eye sockets of oyster shells. Had the moonlight done magic? It appeared that his features had melted, becoming ill-defined. The spray made it difficult to see in the dying moonlight. He pulled Elsa closer, both hands on her back. Something wound itself around her legs. “Oh my God, there’s something in the water!”
Panic. Elsa kicked her feet to no avail. The man leaned in as if to kiss her again. His hand felt like sandpaper pulling her closer. Elsa pushed away, but he wouldn’t release her. “Let me go.” She wiggled in his arms, desperate, then propelled herself into the oncoming wave. Adrenaline pumping, she was no match for the force of the wall of water.
Elsa went under. Thunder filled her ears and grit scratched her flesh. When she opened her eyes, all was watery-black. Her hand touched sand. In an attempt to brace against the bottom, Elsa extended her legs, but the water swirled her around like a sock in a washing machine. Her chest ached for oxygen.
I could die and no one would know.
She felt hands on her, pulling her up and out of harm’s way. Elsa opened her eyes, gasping for breath. He looped an arm under her legs, supported her back, and carried her tight against his cold, smooth chest until they were in waist-high water where he released her. She stumbled to shore, glanced over her shoulder.
Was he trying to kill me or save me?
Fingers of wind from every direction. Elsa coughed, saltwater burning her eyes and throat. William’s storm had arrived, buffeting Topsail.
Wind buffeting the walls woke her. She was stiff from sleeping on the floor where she’d collapsed. The bedspread covered her exhausted body. The bedside clock read 7:43. Unsure if that meant 7 ‘A.M’ or ‘P.M,’ Elsa looked outside for context. The storm raged, framed in picture windows meant to showcase sunshine.
Elsa showered. The warm water washed away the sand and grit and soothed her sore muscles. Images from last night played in her mind.
She rubbed where the seaweed had tangled around her calves. No marks on her legs. She saw the man’s black eyes and then oyster shells where his eyes should have been. But that didn’t make sense. It made more sense that she’d projected her fear onto the man. I almost died and he saved me. She should be more worried about her romantic brazenness with the stranger.
Elsa toweled off and chose khaki shorts and a hoodie. She was pleased with her image in the mirror: sparkling eyes, skin lightly bronzed. Would the man recognize her in the daylight? She wondered what he was doing right now.
She left her room and was making her way down the stairs when she heard her name.
“I don’t understand why Elsa sleeps all the time.”
“Kelly, she’s depressed about something.”
“She needs some structure; to get up early in the morning and go to bed at a reasonable hour—like the rest of the world. We’re halfway through the vacation and she’s missing it.”
Elsa pictured Kelly standing there with hands on hips and a constipated expression on her face.
“Sweetie, I know you want to help. I think I’ve told you, Elsa had night terrors as a kid. Mom had them too.”
I’m not crazy, Elsa thought as she closed her eyes against a feeling of shame. I just need a small victory.
“I get it, William. Nightmares are scary. Everyone has them…”
“Night terrors are different. It’s a medical condition that can be triggered by stress, medications, being overtired. Elsa internalizes stuff and it all comes out when she’s asleep. If we pressure her, the internalized stress will develop into night terrors.”
“Fine. I just think . . .”
The stair creaked. Elsa hoped they hadn’t heard her. She continued down the stairs and rounded the corner to the kitchen into a domestic tableau where she was the only oddity. Kelly whisked eggs near the sink while at the table William hid behind his laptop. A game of Uno cards spread out before Dylan and Caitlyn, and Abby threw Cheerios from a high chair.
“Do you think the storm will end soon?” Elsa asked her brother.
He kept on working. “Afraid not. It’s just starting. We’ll have a break this afternoon and get pounded again tonight.”
“I’m making scrambled eggs. Do you want some?” Kelly asked.
“Sure,” Elsa said. Feeling antsy, she walked to the window and peered out.
“You’re pacing like a cat,” William said. He continued to peck at the keyboard.
“Am I bothering you?” Elsa asked.
“A little bit. I’m trying to concentrate, and I’m wondering what’s so fascinating out there. I see rain.”
Elsa shook her head. “There’s nothing to see.”
She stomped up the stairs to her room and sank into a wicker chair. She took out her phone, flipped it open, and shut it. While slipping the phone into her purse, she touched something that rattled. She pulled out her sleeping pills. She hadn’t needed a pill at bedtime since she’d taken up night swimming. Now she needed sleep, not thinking time. She withdrew one white capsule. Then another. She tossed them into her mouth and chased them with bottled water.
She was being watched, she could feel it. Elsa got out of bed and went to the sliding glass door. A dark shadow stood outside. She pulled back the gauzy curtain. Lightning flashed. The man stood outside, dark hair dripping over a grayish face, chest bare, his oyster eyes a macabre mask. “Let me in.” Elsa’s hand went to the lock, then hesitated.
A few minutes later, she was in bed, Grady beside her. His blond hair was rumpled. He smiled and said, “No. Never.”
Water rushed under the door, poured through the windows, and swept Grady away. He vanished, his mouth forming an ‘O’ of alarm. Elsa floated on her back in the cold water. Beneath her swam sea creatures. The man rose up from the brackish water. He walked toward Elsa with no fear. Then his arms encircled Elsa. Seaweed tangled in her hair. Fish swam by, bumping her. All the while the man held her.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Looking into her eyes, he said, “Tursas.”
“Why are you here?”
“You came to me because you wanted to die.” He smiled and his mouth split open into rows of triangular teeth.
Elsa struggled to wake up, half-conscious, as an orgasm rippled through her. Her hips rocked and she moaned through open lips. Her eyes fluttered open and she sat up, looking around the empty room. She felt disoriented, guilty. And still aroused.
Sliding back down, she listened to the rain, felt her heart slowing. We never go swimming alone.
Tursas. The name from the dream. He was a character from the stories her mother told when she and William were children. He was a boogeyman, a sea monster, revealing himself if they broke the rule.
Before dawn she returned to the first dream. Tursas stood at her door in the pouring rain, his eyes black with thick lashes, naked, his hands splayed across the glass so that the webbing between his fingers was exposed. “Live or die?” he said. “You called yourself a child of the moon and sea.” Elsa sat in her large white bed, in a room of white furniture and white walls. The man’s image grew dimmer as the sun rose behind him.
The next morning, Thursday, the lack of wind was startling after two days of the house shaking. Elsa dressed and went to the beach. A crowd had gathered near the water’s edge. Excited voices filled the air. William tried to put the cabana back together. Kelly sat nearby, holding Abby.
“What’s going on?” Elsa asked
Kelly shivered. “It’s revolting. I should call Dylan and Caitlyn away.”
Elsa watched as more people approached. Her niece and nephew had pushed through the throng.
“It’s nature,” William said. He shoved a pole into position.
“No,” said Kelly. “Watching a shark swim around the aquarium is nature. This is voyeuristic. I feel bad for the animal. He’s a spectacle.”
Elsa’s legs felt wobbly. Haltingly, she walked toward the water’s edge. She pressed forward to join her niece and nephew and looked down at a dead shark, its nose pointed straight at Elsa’s window. The water lapped at its tail. As the water came up to the shark’s underbelly and retreated, it took the creature’s intestines with it. Elsa sucked in her breath.
“Must have been hurt in that storm last night,” said a sunburned man in a pink shirt. Elsa recognized him as a neighbor.
“But why would it come onshore?” A woman asked.
The sunburned man shrugged. “Probably got turned around.”
“Do you think it was attacked? What made that hole in its side?”
“Hard to say.”
“I’m surprised other sharks didn’t have a feeding frenzy, rip him to pieces.” People knelt for pictures by the carcass. Some flexed their arms to show their biceps as if they were responsible for landing the shark.
Elsa stifled the urge to scream. She put her hands on Dylan and Caitlyn’s shoulders. “Leave him alone,” she whispered. She shepherded the children toward the shade of the cabana. The children launched a kite while William, Kelly, and Elsa watched the group surrounding the shark.
“I don’t want the children to go swimming today. Dylan will be disappointed, but I’m putting away the boogie board.” Kelly stood up and shook out her beach towel.
William tipped his head. “An anomaly from the storm. Sharks don’t come in past the breakers.”
“Still,” Kelly said. “We’ll let the ocean calm down.”
The man in the pink shirt walked to the cabana. He rested his hands on the frame and peered under the rim.
“A fellow called animal control. They aren’t concerned so we’re thinking about burying it before it starts to rot and smell up the whole beach. You guys got some shovels?”
William stared at the man and then looked away. “There’s two right there.” He gestured to the children’s sand shovels.
The man set his mouth and walked next door.
Elsa couldn’t get rid of the image of ropy intestines trailing from the carcass. Caitlyn pulled on Elsa’s arm. “Why don’t they just put him back? That’s what we do when we dig up clams.”
That shark is pointing right at my window. Like a message, but I don’t know what it means.
“I guess they got their posse together,” William commented.
Four men broke through the circle of gawkers and grabbed the shark’s fins and tail. Like pallbearers they proceeded past William’s cabana to the sand hill between the beach houses.
The men dug a shallow hole and tossed in the shark, covering it with sand.
Kelly signaled the children. “Put the kite away. I’m taking you to play miniature golf. It’s too depressing around here.”
Elsa sat on her room’s deck, hugging her knees. The moon was shrinking, waxing gibbous, she thought. William would know the proper term. She felt the restlessness of insomnia coming on – that feeling where the mind circles and can’t move forward. She’d lost track of time. Going down the outside steps, she glanced at her brother’s window. Dark. She entered the water with a shiver. Half-heartedly playing in the surf, she felt fearful, but her need to see the man, to see why she confused him with a story from her childhood, overrode her anxiety. She dipped her toes in the water, several degrees colder than she remembered. She took a few steps back and rubbed her arms while surveying the beach. A bonfire blazed in the direction of the pier. “He’s waiting for his own friends to go to bed before he can come meet me,” she whispered, but she didn’t believe it.
Elsa gazed at the mound between the beach houses and shivered. She walked to the wooden steps and sat on the bottom one. Tears of frustration flowed. She remembered the man kissing her in the water, his hand raising her up when she was drowning. What is the connection between this man and Tursas? She fell asleep leaning against a wooden railing.
She awoke with a stiff neck. The sky had turned grey and pink, a flat orange line stretched across the horizon. She looked for some sign that he’d come: a note, a footprint, maybe a blanket to cover her. You’re creating a one-sided romance, Elsa, she chided herself. Just like you did with Dr. Grady Buckston. Thrusting her chilled hands in her pockets, she stood. Her right index finger touched the black shark’s tooth she’d found with Caitlyn.
A seagull cried and pelicans flew silently overhead as she climbed the stairs to her room.
Friday dinner at the beach was traditionally a Swedish feast for the Dahlquist family before leaving the next morning. William worked in the kitchen to make Toast Skagen with shrimp and roe, beef patties with capers and pickled beets, while Kelly set out the pickled herring, lingonberry jam and blueberry soup she’d brought down. The adults finished with a shot of vodka. William went out to the deck and Elsa followed, looking over her shoulder into the house to see if Kelly was coming. Kelly stood at the counter to down a second shot before grabbing her glass of wine. “Last night of vacation.” She winked at Elsa as she walked outside. One hand reached out for support against the doorframe. Elsa looked away, uncomfortable, and adjusted her chair for a better view of the ocean.
Wind blew over the three adults creating a backsplash of noise.
“So you’ll be heading back up to Baltimore tomorrow?” William said.
Elsa didn’t want to answer, but forced herself, “Actually, I don’t think so.”
“What?” William’s expression wavered between anger and confusion. “Aren’t you still working with that sleep therapist?”
Pain and disappointment clutched Elsa’s insides. “He’s a cognitive behavioral therapist for insomnia.”
“What does that mean?” Kelly said.
William growled at her. “It means a guy who teaches you how to sleep. What happened? You were always talking about how great he was.”
Tears threatened and Elsa turned away. “My grant wasn’t renewed for next year. I thought it would be so I didn’t apply anywhere else.”
Kelly leaned over. “But you already have your degree.”
William said, “You co-authored a study with that guy! Why didn’t he make sure you got the grant?”
Elsa looked down into her folded hands. That was the question that tortured her. She’d more than respected Dr. Grady Buckston. She’d idolized him. And then, one night while they were working together in the lab she’d done the unthinkable. She’d told him in stumbling awkward words how she felt. And then her fellowship went to someone else. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
“I don’t know,” she said to William. “There are a lot of qualified people vying for research money. Guess it was someone else’s turn.”
“So what are you going to do, Elsa?” William folded his arms across his chest.
“Come on William, she’s young, she’s pretty, she’s got a degree. The world is her oyster.” Kelly threw out her arms in grand gesture. The wine glass balanced on the end of her chair fell to the deck and broke. William went inside, slamming the sliding door behind him.
Anger burned away Elsa’s self-pity. It felt good. “What’s so funny you . . . you tits-on-a-stick?”
“Sink or swim, babe.” Kelly pushed herself out of the wooden lounge chair. “Bartend, answer phones, get a pay check and a new place to live. If you’re not moving forward, you’re dying.”
Kelly shoved her face into Elsa’s and enunciated with a drunk’s over-precision, “Sink or fucking swim.” She laughed again as she went inside, leaving Elsa alone with the broken glass.
4:55 a.m. Bags packed. Staring at the ceiling, same position as the first night of this week. Images of the dead shark interspersed with circular thoughts about finding a job, not returning to Baltimore, researching other grants to study insomnia. Impatience building up, as if she should be doing something. Sink or swim. A quick tapping sound followed by raindrops spotting the window. Two steps and she was there, looking for his wet-dark head, his muscled chest, his mouth forming the words, live or die.
Compelled by the image, Elsa went down the wooden steps in the limited light of a cloud-shadowed moon. Not long till sunrise. Rain continued to fall. She grabbed her niece’s pink-handled shovel from where it leaned against the wooden step and floundered toward the burial mound. She knelt and thrust the shovel into the sand and began to dig. The shovel broke. She tossed aside the handle and, grabbing the shovel head, dug anew. Sand flew. Fear grew inside Elsa, but she had to keep going. Smell, putrid, emanated with physical force. Elsa gagged, leaning back and breathing through her mouth until the breeze dissipated the main stench.
One more thrust and she exposed the animal, laying on its side. Gray body, gills, black pupils, an apex predator. Landlocked, no way to move forward, to swim away. Like her. Suddenly a white wave rushed from the hole and scampered toward Elsa. She screamed. As the ghost crabs advanced, Elsa retreated. She tripped on the hem of her nightgown and fell backwards. Crabs spewed from the hole, paraded over the skirt of her gown.
Elsa cried out, hands batting the nightgown until the procession had passed. Shivering, she crept forward, her gown clinging to her chilled body.
“Tursas.” She reached into the hole and caressed the shark’s skin from head to tail so that it felt smooth under her fingers. “I want to live, even with failure.”
Elsa stood and heaved the heavy corpse from its shallow grave. It had taken four men to carry it before and now she was by herself. I don’t think I can do this. Dragging it by the fin toward the water, her grip loosened and the shark skin – abrasive sandpaper when rubbed backwards from tail to head — penetrated her flesh, drawing blood. Sacrifice. You called the shark-man, now you pay.
Wrapping her arms around the body, she struggled to the water, the shark stench filling her nose. Waves pulled at the body, but Elsa held on, ignoring the pain, the shrieking of her muscles until they were past the sandbar. She released the shark with a splash. The ocean surged as if wrapping watery arms around the shark. She watched the beast drift away until it blurred with the water, then rubbed her aching arms. Her toes stretched into the sand and she let her palms rest on the surface, open to a profound awareness of the ocean’s inhabitants. She knew the clams below the surface, the loggerhead turtles, the fish swimming by, and other sea creatures she could not name.
Dawn bloomed: an ethereal mix of sunlight and rain. Fishing boats spread across the horizon.
Sherri Cook Woosley has an M.A. in English centered on comparative mythology from University of Maryland. Her short fiction “Tamaki and the Fox” was a finalist in the 2013 Baltimore Science Fiction Amateur Contest. Her other stories have recently been published in Bewildering Stories, Third Wednesday, and Indies Unlimited. Her current WIP is turning “Child of the Moon and Sea” into a novel. She haphazardly blogs at tasteofsherri.wordpress.com and tweets even less frequently at @SherriWoosley