Carey stared at me from the corner of the room, chiding me for reading (The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde, which I never finished). I ignored her while she paged through my parents’ coffee table magazines: Nantucket Yacht and an untouched Parenting. She slammed them shut, stood up and glared at me.
“What’s the point?” she sputtered, exasperated and wild-eyed, watercolor sunburn splotches down her legs from a haphazard sunscreen application the day before. I looked up from my book. In her left hand, she held a plastic beach toy: a forlorn purple profile of a fish. It was a sad, bloated shape that ballooned and bulged a misshapen tumor tail, its lips puckered in expectation like the punks at our last middle school dance. It looked frozen in shock, with a final one-eyed look of powerless recognition of fate: Caesar’s final gaze as Brutus dealt the hardest blow.
“Come on, Hen!” She shook my arm. Carey was strong: a skin-and-bone arm wrestling champion. “Hen”, short for Henry, simultaneously belittling and endearing, which she loved. She was older by a month and taller by two inches, information volunteered unprompted (“cross my heart it’s closer to two-and-a-half inches”) with enough vigor for both of us. Once, while eating our split ham and cheese on the beach, I pointed out a drip of mayonnaise on her chin. She replied that she intended it to be there and refused to wipe it off for the rest of the meal.
I smirked. “Fine.” Book closed. “What are we doing?” But we did the same thing every day. Summer vacation. Too young to do much of anything, too old to sit at home.
She clapped me over the head with the fish. “Follow me.” She spun on her bare feet and walked out with face-forward determination, knowing I’d run to catch up before she walked halfway down the street.
* * *
The beach was our kingdom. More accurately, Carey’s kingdom and she was king, not queen. With seaweed crown and driftwood staff she carried herself with an awkward, spasmodic regality, shouting orders and castigating her subjects: banishing pearl-less oysters, relegating king crab to court jester.
It was hard to distinguish most days from others. Sunshine, honeysuckle and turquoise sea glass; convincing my mother to pack lunch for two (one sandwich, a party-size bag of chips, a carton of OJ, two fun-size Twix bars), bruises that seemingly appeared from nowhere, round rocks we tried to skip but that often plopped in refusal, the smell of sunscreen and sweat.
We sat atop the steep sand throne and looked down below, across the stretch of beach and water. It was early in the season, a cool day in early June. I don’t think I would have jumped in even if my bones could stand it.
Carey paced the peak of the dune, surveying her dominion as if it were a hundred feet below. I made sad fish imprints in the sand with the toy; mute and purple with that cyclops eye wide, unable to warn you about the sea monster behind your back, impossible to change its hopeless view of things.
“Henry,” she commanded, inflection rising on the last syllable in a proper British accent. Wind swept the paint-splattered patches of seagrass along the dune. I looked up from my petrified fish platoon to see the staff lifted high above her head. I winced and held up my hand in defense. How had I offended the king today? And it was only 10am?
A moment. She rested the driftwood on the crown of my head and said, “Sir Henry, for courage so pure and deeds so bold. Knight of my Kingdom.” I smirked and grabbed the staff, throwing it aside (“Treason, Sir Henry! Treason!”) and jumped on her. She fumbled for footing, my arms wrangled around her neck and feet around her waist (“Guards!”). I seized her crown in hasty revolt and placed it askew on my head. She careened to the edge, left leg tangled up in right; we fell in slow motion (did my lips graze her cheek?) and thumped on impact, plunging down the hill.
We barrel-rolled, tangled, swirled images of sea and sand bled into one another. Blue sand, white ocean, red sky.
I landed with a muffled thud, the right side of my face glued to the beach. Lifting my head, I sputtered laughter, sand-spit spewing from my mouth. My right rib panged, and I looked down to see a viscous trickle of sand-blood flowing down my abdomen. I winced.
Carey lay limp beside me. I prodded her. “Carey.” Lifeless. I observed her. “Not funny, Carey.” I threw half-broken sea shells at her back. Nothing. Repeating, louder, “Carey.” And I wanted her name to be longer, to have a fuller sound, as though perhaps a third syllable would be the one to wake her.
The ocean continued to splash sea and salt, low waves crashing in a white noise that accentuated the silence on the beach.
I shifted to look back to the towering dune. Lifting my legs from my seated inspection, I stepped back, climbing the dune backwards to face toward Carey’s contorted form. At the top, I retrieved the plastic fish, my imprinted fortune-telling fish legion staring at me: “We tried to tell you.”
Back at the shoreline, bedsheet of white foam erasing my footsteps, I flung the fish into the water and watched the piece of floating purple plastic wash out to sea. A fish that couldn’t swim, only drift, climbing the crest of a wave in a dead man’s float.
I walked home alone. An unnaturally wide smile shined from the toddler on this month’s Parenting on the doorstep.
And then gray bedroom, blue fog sleep. Numbness: something and nothing, my entire body like a fallen-asleep foot.