There’s nothing more awful than watching a child you love dying.
Janey tosses a handful of sand onto my bare belly. She must’ve noticed me brooding. “Auntie, don’t be glum! It’s my birthday. I’m thirteen. So be happy, or else I’ll bury you up to your neck!”
She smiles her big, toothless smile. Myra’s paid good money to have sets of dentures made for her, but Janey complains they hurt her gums. Getting her to wear them regularly is as hard as getting other teenagers to clean their rooms. Her eyes are still the same sparkling gray-blue color they were when she was born. But they’ve developed the beginnings of cataracts, and they’re surrounded by wrinkles now.
Her mother and I first began to suspect something was seriously wrong around the time Janey turned two. Her growth rate was at the very low end of the charts. And her jaw had developed an odd, elongated shape, almost horse-like.
Testing took months. The diagnosis, when it finally came, was one neither Myra or I had ever heard of, a disease so rare it was estimated to afflict only one newborn in eight million. Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome. Massively accelerated ageing. Invariably fatal, with no effective treatments known. Janey could expect to begin suffering from joint deterioration by the time she was seven, crippling osteoporosis by the age of nine. Most sufferers of the syndrome died before they reached fourteen.
I can’t think of another disease more cruel or unfair.
“Okay, Glumster! You asked for it!” Janey spills a bucketful of sand on my sweating midsection. It sticks like cement.
“Oh, Janey, dear, I wish you wouldn’t . . .”
“Janey, let Samantha alone, okay? She hasn’t been herself all morning.”
I glance over at Myra. Janey’s thirteenth birthday has hit her hard. Not that she doesn’t feel blessed that her daughter has reached this milestone; we both thank God for every additional day Janey stays with us. But for so many of the afflicted children, their thirteenth birthday is the last one they ever celebrate.
Myra has been beyond heroic. But raising a dying child has aged her, too. Just thirty-six, she seems twenty years older. I can hardly remember her being the flighty, star-struck girl I first shared an apartment with fourteen summers ago.
More and more, she’s been asking me about my experiences that summer. About the swimmers. And Mr. Grayback. I know she’s been taking mornings off from work to come here to the beach. I think she hopes she’ll see a group of elderly ladies in pink vinyl swimming caps, one, the frailest among them, wearing a set of yellow floaties. But the old people don’t live here anymore. South Beach has been conquered by the young.
Is she actually contemplating towing Janey a few hundred yards out on a little raft and letting her be swallowed up? Does she think that will be an easier, cleaner ending?
I won’t let it happen. Not to our Janey.
But I didn’t stop it from happening fourteen years ago. Not even when everything was revealed to me. And the memory of my inaction swims always just beneath the rim of my consciousness, the gravity of its impossibly huge submerged mass distending my dreams.
• • • •
I worried about them. The swimmers. The little clique of old ladies who headed out into open waters just north of South Pointe Park, near where the old fishing pier used to be. I watched their heads bobbing up and down a hundred yards off shore, and I worried about them as though each were my own grandmother.
There were five of them this morning. One went out bare-headed; the other four wore pink vinyl swimming caps, little pink specks now barely visible. No one else ever swam out as far as they did. I thought they were wonderfully brave.
I wondered if they resented us, the hundreds of college kids and European trekkers who crowded the beach nowadays, showing off our toned young bodies in thong bikinis and tiny briefs. This used to be their place, an almost deserted spit of sand next to rows of single-room-occupancy hotels, inhabited by mostly Jewish retirees from the Northeast. They’d had their kosher butcher shops and their all-night cafeterias and their Yiddish folk dancing on the beach. I remembered it all from the days when I used to visit my grandmother. But sometime in the recent past, the old fishing pier got replaced with Surfer Joe’s Volleyball and Beach Club, and the old SRO hotels near the water all got new coats of paint and new clienteles a quarter the age of their former residents. Until I’d come to stay with Myra four weeks ago, I hadn’t been here for seven years, not since my grandmother died. I walked out onto my old beach, miraculously crowded with hundreds of gorgeous young bodies, and felt like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, stepping from black-and-white into stunning Technicolor.
My cousin Myra, lying on the towel next to mine, reached over and poked my thigh. The indentation left a white blotch on my skin. “Samantha, I’m walking over to the bar,” she said. “You want a daiquiri? I’m getting one.”
Myra was the reason I’d decided to spend summer break in Miami Beach. She’d called me six weeks ago, desperate for a roommate because her boyfriend Laurent had dumped her and scampered back to France. She was renting a funky little apartment in an unrenovated neighborhood near the bay. Most of her neighbors were Cubans who’d come over as Marielito boat people. They were okay, if a little on the unfriendly side, but watching too many repeats of Miami Vice had Myra suspecting they were all involved in drug dealing, and she didn’t feel comfortable living there all by herself.
And there was another reason I’d come. Myra had a big decision to make. Laurent had left her with more than unpaid utility bills to deal with.
I was beginning to feel like a clay pot in a kiln. “Sure,” I said, “strawberry would be great. And make it a virgin daiquiri, please. For you, too, okay?” I tried to be tactful, but it wasn’t easy. I could hardly get her to say the “P” word, much less think seriously about the future. If she procrastinated long enough, the decision would get made for her. Maybe that’s what she wanted?
I peered through an oiled tangle of tanned bodies leaping for a volleyball and tried to find the heads of my swimmers poking out of the blue-green ocean. I couldn’t see them. Maybe they’d come back in already?
“Here’s your virgin daiq,” Myra said, handing me an oversized styrofoam cup. “Henry promises no ice balls this time.” The icy red liquid felt absolutely heavenly sliding down my gullet, cooling me from the inside out.
Myra handed me her own daiquiri (I didn’t ask whether it had booze in it), then plopped herself down on her towel. She grinned from ear to ear. “The word at the bar is that a movie crew is coming to town. They’re going to be shooting a detective story with Marielito drug gangsters and Eurotrash, lots of Art Deco penthouses and murders and stuff. You know who the star is? Bruce Willis.”
“That’s nice,” I said, displaying about as much enthusiasm as a beach umbrella would. It was already way too busy at the News Café, where I worked. A movie crew would only make things worse. I could only imagine how obnoxious the actors would be.
Myra grabbed my hand. “Samantha, I’m going to be an extra in that movie!”
The sun stabbed my eyes like a slasher from a teen scream flick. “You never said you wanted to be an actress before. Besides, don’t you have other things on your mind?” I shifted position, trying to get comfortable again, and I saw my ladies stepping slowly out of the surf. One, two, three, four of them.
“How can I pass up an opportunity like this? It’s not every day that a major movie production lands practically in your lap—”
“Myra, hush a second.” I pointed to where the four ladies were gathering their belongings. “When we first came out, weren’t there five old ladies swimming together?”
“You expect me to remember that? Why not ask me what I had for breakfast, like, a year ago?”
I scoured my memories of our eight o’clock arrival. “I’m serious, Myra. There were five of them. I think. Four of them were wearing bathing caps. One was bare-headed. I don’t see the bare-headed woman anymore.”
Myra watched the four women dab their loose-fleshed arms with their towels and begin their walk toward Ocean Drive. “Oh, come on. If one of them drowned or something, you think the others would just be, like, calmly toweling themselves off? They’d be screaming bloody murder. Your imagination’s working overtime, Samantha.”
Myra flipped open her Judith Krantz novel. I watched the four ladies, all dressed in skirted black swimsuits, make their slow, methodical way across the sand.
• • • •
The next time I saw one of the swimmers was at the News Café—a total surprise, like spotting an iguana at the North Pole. Movie people jammed my tables, men and women in their thirties or forties all trying to look as hip as the kids on the street. I’d just delivered an order of a dozen double lattés and iced mochas when I heard this Eastern European bubuleh voice behind me, just like my grandmother’s. “Excuse me, Miss, is it always so busy here?”
I barely had room enough between tables to turn around. “Just give me a minute, ma’am,” I said. “I’ll be right with you.”
“No hurry,” she said.
There were two of them waiting near the entrance. One was tall and willowy, but badly hunched over with osteoporosis; looking at the poor thing made me crave gallons of milk. The one who’d spoken to me was squat and broad-shouldered, like a wrinkled fireplug. I recognized her as one of the swimmers.
“I’m afraid there’s about a twenty-minute wait for a table. I can put you on my list—”
“No. Not tonight.” She stared at the crowds and slowly shook her head, as if she were having a hard time convincing herself these throngs of people were real. “We have a friend, she’s wanted to come here for a long time, to have one of your special coffee drinks and sit with all these young people. But she needs space, she uses a wheelchair. Is there any time when this café is not so crowded?”
The News was open twenty-four hours, but I doubted these ladies would want to come by at four A.M. Besides, I was anxious that they should come back during my shift. “Try us at ten-thirty at night. The dance halls open up then, and we typically empty out for an hour or so.”
“Good. It is very important to my friend that she be able to come here soon. Thank you for your time.”
The fireplug lady patiently guided her bent-over friend through the maze of chairs and tables. I watched them traverse Ocean Drive’s obstacle course of rollerbladers and rickshaw hacks, until some movie jerk near my elbow hollered Hey-can’t-we-get-some-service-around-here?
• • • •
The next few mornings I headed for the beach extra early, when the sun was a big tangerine levitating just above the ocean. I was in time to witness the swimmers peel off their sun-dresses. Watching how they helped each other, how the stronger ones guided the feeble ones beyond the surf, it seemed ridiculous for me to believe that something awful had happened and they’d covered it up.
Several of them, including the fireplug lady, were very strong swimmers. The good swimmers took turns sticking close to the feeble ones while the rest took their exercise.
I watched the swimmers four mornings in a row, carefully keeping track of how many there were. On none of these mornings did any of them swim out much farther than fifty yards. I didn’t see anything nefarious going on. Five ladies went out, five came back in. Or four out, four in. Et cetera. I told myself Myra had been right—my imagination had been working overtime.
I allowed my wilting suspicions one more morning. Sunday morning; every denizen of South Beach younger than fifty was sleeping off her Saturday night hangover, except me. The early morning was raw and ugly, the sky gray and streaked with quick-moving dark clouds. Winds gusted into minor squalls, blowing sand into my eyes. The sea was choppy and uninviting.
I was nearly ready to give up on my ladies when I saw them crossing the beach. Five of them that morning. Two of them helped a third lady, using a walker, cross the sand. Rough going for her. When they reached the edge of the dry sand, they peeled off their sun-dresses, just as they’d done every other morning, and laid them on top of an unfurled towel. They helped the walker lady remove her sundress. She surrendered to their assistance like a sleepy little girl being carried to bed by her parents.
The whole group helped her past the breakers. She rested her head and arms on a small raft, something I hadn’t seen any of the ladies use before. After a half hour, they’d gone out so far I couldn’t see them anymore. I climbed the six-foot-high wall surrounding Surfer Joe’s pool and stared out at the dark ocean. I still couldn’t see them.
Twenty minutes later, I spotted them again, the flecks of their pink bathing caps rising and falling with the waves. They were heading back in.
Four of them dragged themselves from the surf. They collected their belongings, not bothering to towel themselves dry. The fireplug lady grasped one of the handles of the walker and pulled it through the sand behind her.
It wasn’t just my imagination.
• • • •
I didn’t go to the beach for the next few days. I told Myra I needed to take a break from all the sun. My brain was a jumble. What was I supposed to do? If I went to the cops with my story and they questioned the old women, it would be my word against theirs. All they’d have to do is just deny there ever was a fifth lady. Maybe these four were the only people in town who knew she existed. Maybe nobody missed her. I hadn’t actually witnessed a murder. I’d only seen the aftermath.
It affected my work. I got my orders wrong constantly, and my tips dribbled away to zero. Myra knew something was wrong with me. She began hanging out at the News Café while I was on shift, trying to shake me out of my funk. One slow Sunday night I took a break to indulge in a little gossip about the movie people with Myra when I saw an incredulous look appear on her face.
“Oh-my-gawd,” she said. “What the hell are they doing in here?”
It was the swimmers. They had someone new with them, a shriveled woman in a wheelchair. The front of the café began filling with old lady smell, a pungent mixture of citrusy perfume and back-of-the-closet mustiness.
Myra continued openly gawking. “Don’t be rude, Myra,” I whispered, just as stunned as she was to see them, although for entirely different reasons. “They’ve got as much right to come in here as anybody. This used to be their neighborhood, before people like us moved in.”
I moved chairs out of the way so they could maneuver the wheelchair lady to a table. Her hands, resting on her lap, trembled ceaselessly, just like my grandmother’s did in her final years. Seeing this woman forced me to remember those last few, painful visits I shared with Nanna in the nursing home, that stench of formaldehyde and urine.
The other ladies sat themselves around the table. I handed them menus. They studied the lists of coffees and prices intently, as though I’d just handed them brochures for competing Medi-Gap insurance plans. The fireplug lady nudged the lady next to her. “Dora,” she said, “ask Kate what she wants.”
Dora shrugged. “She’s said she wants the best one. How am I to know which is the best one?” She glanced quickly at me. “Maybe I should ask the girl here?”
Before I could offer my suggestion, the fireplug lady waved it aside. “No. Kate gets to pick what she wants.”
Dora leaned over the edge of the wheelchair and whispered in Kate’s ear. Maybe in Yiddish; I couldn’t tell. She placed a menu on the woman’s lap, sliding it beneath her trembling hands.
Some semblance of focus returned to Kate’s milky eyes. “Oh, how wonderful to be here,” she said, staring straight at me. “Look at all these beautiful young people. Beautiful. Just like we were, for a while.”
She glanced down at the menu. Her right index finger, trembling slightly, began gliding across the laminated page. When she finally made her pick, it wasn’t a coffee at all. It was an Italian cream soda, made with seltzer, vanilla syrup, and milk, topped off with whipped cream.
“That’s what she’ll have,” the fireplug lady announced triumphantly.
“What can I get for the rest of you ladies?”
“We’ll all have coffee,” she said, answering for the whole group. “Plain, American coffee.”
Since business was so slow, I made the Italian cream soda myself, swirling the whipped cream into a perfect mound on top. I got a few mumbled thanks when I brought the order to their table. But Kate’s eyes took on a new radiance.
“How incredible,” she said, smiling with bewildered wonderment. “To think . . . we had our youth again, then lost it, but in losing it, we helped make all this possible . . . Miami Beach, just like the thirties again . . .”
Dora held a napkin beneath Kate’s glass so she wouldn’t dribble anything onto her dress, but Kate ended up with globs of whipped cream on her chin. Tiny, thin hairs poked through the cream.
My stomach cramped up.
They were going to do her.
• • • •
The next morning, I hid in the shadows at Surfer Joe’s, waiting for the women to disrobe and enter the ocean. The weather, like the last time I’d watched them, was overcast and windy. Dora and the fireplug lady and two others from last night carried Kate to the edge of the surf, having left her wheelchair near the sidewalk. She couldn’t be too heavy, maybe about seventy pounds. They slipped yellow inflatable floaties onto her arms, the kind a toddler would wear while she’s still getting over her fear of the water.
I waited until they were about a hundred yards out before making my dash for the ocean. They all faced seaward, so I figured they were unlikely to spot me. Standing in the surf, I slipped on Myra’s snorkeling gear, her fins and mask and snorkel. I also had a little disposable camera with me—one of the waterproof ones encased in clear plastic—strapped to my wrist with a thick rubber band.
The fins made me clumsy at first. Once I was past the breakers, they worked much better, propelling me through the water with gratifying speed. Breathing through the snorkel felt awkward, but I got used to it. Despite the overcast skies, the sea was warm, almost body temperature. With the mask on, I could see about eight feet underwater. A swirl of green and blue moved across my field of vision: a school of tiny fish. Mostly I kept my mask halfway above the water, so I could maintain a lookout on the ladies, about thirty yards ahead of me.
Something moving off to my right caught my eye—a cruise ship, a thousand feet long, steaming through Government Cut from the Port of Miami; maybe a half-mile away, but close enough for me to count its portholes. A queer thrill shuddered my spine as I realized I was swimming through ocean deep enough to allow that gigantic ship to pass. I could barely see five feet below the tips of my fins. How much water was there beneath me? If Kate were to drown, how far would she sink before she touched bottom? I glanced back at shore. The string of Art Deco hotels looked like a toy city planted in a sand pile.
I’d swum to about twenty yards from the ladies. They’d stopped moving away from shore. I treaded water and positioned the camera in front of my mask, my finger on the shutter release.
Then they did something which completely surprised me. The other four paddled away from Kate, leaving her to bob up and down like a bright yellow cork. They were just going to abandon her out here? That was even more cruel that what I’d envisioned. I figured they’d get it over with in a hurry, strip her floaties off and hold her under. My plan was to take a couple of really fast photos of them doing the dirty deed, then make a ruckus to break up their little murder. Then I’d swim over and rescue Kate.
I was relieved. Now all I had to do was wait for the others to go away and I could pull her in to shore. I snapped a few pictures of Kate floating all by herself, left to die of exposure or eventual drowning; I planned to hand those over to the police.
But the other four women didn’t leave. They swam about thirty feet away, then stopped to stare back at her, as if they were waiting for something to happen.
Something bumped into my legs. I nearly screamed. It was a bunch of little somethings—hundreds of fish passed beneath my fins and between my legs and all around me, all swimming frantically in the same direction. Toward Kate.
The ocean suddenly turned cold. A surge of displaced water pushed against me, lifting me part-way from the sea. Something was passing beneath me, something grayish-white and impossibly huge. Insanely, I found myself counting how many seconds it took to pass beneath my feet—one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand—as if I’d seen a lightning flash, and was counting the seconds before I heard the thunder, eight-one-thousand and it was still beneath me, and then I saw its tail and I knew it was okay to scream and I screamed but no sound came out—
Part of it broke the surface, an iceberg exploding through the dark blue skin of the water. Very close to Kate. Between Kate and me. After it dove, Kate wasn’t there anymore. Not even a yellow floatie. Nothing.
The waves bowled me over and I tumbled, going under, and the snorkel got torn from my mouth and I swallowed the ocean, but all I could think was how many old ladies does that thing have in its belly, how many? I floated to the surface and coughed out all the water, and the horrible stinging brine came up through my nose, and I wondered whether that brine was old ladies’ tears, dozens and dozens of terrified old ladies’ tears.
It felt like hours before I could make my arms and legs move again, but it was likely seconds. I knew at the base of my reptilian brain that the ocean was an immense eating machine, and I was an edible speck bobbing up and down between its lips, waiting for it to notice me.
When I could move, I swam for shore faster than I thought possible. I tried hard not to remember what I’d always heard, that flailing the water attracts hungry mouths.
I stumbled onto the beach and puked up the English muffin and orange juice I’d had for breakfast, then collapsed onto the sand. I caught sight of the remaining swimmers crossing Ocean Drive, heading toward Collins Avenue. I wasn’t going to let them get away this time. Not this time.
Collins Avenue was a ghost street lined with silent hotels half-brown and half-turquoise, caught between a decrepit past and a retro-deco future. That morning it had all the reality of a Hollywood back lot. The boundaries of the possible had been blown away.
I followed the ladies for about twelve blocks. I don’t think any of them saw me. They walked through the courtyard of a residence hotel called Haddon Hall, past a chipped plaster statue of a mermaid, and entered the lobby. I pushed open the front door. The lobby, filled with cheap, vinyl-covered furniture, was deserted. The fireplug lady turned down the hallway to the right. I followed. She unlocked a door. Apartment 1-D.
I now knew where she lived. I could give my report at the police station. Water dribbled onto my sandaled foot. I looked at my camera, still dangling from its rubber band. Seawater dripped out of its clear plastic casing. I must’ve grasped it so tightly that I’d cracked the plastic. My pictures were ruined. It would still be my word against theirs.
I couldn’t get Kate’s face out of my mind. I thought of my own grandmother, feeble and trusting and child-like in her last months. My eyes teared up, and I began trembling, shaking hard with grief and anger. I pounded the door, shouting “Murderer! Murderer!”
The door opened. “Come in, then,” the fireplug lady said. “I won’t have you waking all my neighbors with your yelling.” I stood dumbly in the doorway, and she grabbed my wrist, pulled me inside, and shut the door behind me.
The air hummed with the vibrations of a half-dozen box fans. “So, the girl from the café,” she said. “I thought it was you, out there on the ocean. I knew you would come here. I hoped I would have time to take off my wet swimsuit, at least. It is very uncomfortable. Excuse me.” She stepped into her tiny bathroom, not bothering to close the door. I watched as she peeled off her swimsuit. The well-defined muscles in her shoulders and thighs looked grotesquely out-of-place, like jet engines mounted on a crumbling old biplane.
She exited the bathroom in a faded blue sundress. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“How could you do it?” My voice was pinched and feeble, my throat still raw from seawater and vomit. “They were your friends. They were helpless and weak and they tru-trusted you. How could you murder them?”
“How?” she said, sitting on a vinyl-covered sofa. “You saw. We pull them out. We wait. It’s all over in a second. Faster than putting down an old dog.” She paused. “What happens out there . . . I like to think of it like the story of Jonah. Jonah was troubled, and the seas raged like his heart. A great fish swallowed him, then spat him out in a better place, where his soul was at peace.”
I waited for her to continue. She didn’t. “That’s not what I meant.”
She sighed with a heavy weariness. “I know it’s not what you meant. The women that we take out, it’s not done against their will. Kate wasn’t always so bad as when you saw her last night. There was a time when she used to help take others out to sea. She knew her time would come, and accepted it.”
“But why?” Even to my own ears, I sounded like a petulant little girl.
“We are a tight little club, the other ladies and I are. The nobody-to-call-us club. Either no children, or estranged children, or children who only wait for the day when we are no longer here, so they no longer have to feel guilty about not visiting. When we get too sick, there is only the home that waits. And that is death-in-life, death that is worse than death because you feel it happen to you a little bit each minute.”
Her hard stare dared me to dispute her. “Why do I tell you all this?” she asked. “Why do I talk with you at all, if I am a murderess? Because I am not a murderess. I am a helper. When first we lost one of our friends to Mr. Grayback,” she continued, “it was a horror. But Esther and Rachel—both taken by Mr. Grayback years ago, by the way—they knew the ways of such creatures, creatures which do not appear in science textbooks. They had seen dealings with wild spirits not unlike Mr. Grayback in the home of their childhoods, the forests of the Ukraine. They knew that, when dealt with in the right way, such things could be bargained with.”
“How do you bargain with—with a shark-whale?”
“Just listen. Maybe I cannot explain in a way you are willing to accept. All I can say is what I heard, what I saw. Esther and Rachel said their families had bargained with such a wild spirit for protection from the Tsar’s Cossacks. Their village alone avoided the torches, the beheadings, the rapes. But bargains can be devil’s bargains, too. Their village stood until worse horrors than even the Cossacks or the Communists came. The Germans slaughtered many Cossacks and Communists who had bedeviled the Jews. But they killed the Jews far worse.”
“What—what did you ladies bargain for here?”
“What else would old ladies want? Youth.” She smiled, faintly. “A renewal of youth’s energy and excitement, its hopes and enchantments. For a time, we received what we thought we had bargained for, bodies and minds young and strong again. But the bargain shifted in a way we had not expected. The youth newly instilled in us leaked out of us like air from a toy balloon, into the streets and sidewalks and sand dunes. Old, withered Miami Beach grew young again, returned to the way it had been when we first had enjoyed our youth. The way we remembered it, only modern. Youth was no longer within us, but all around us.”
“You really believe that? That you’re responsible for the renewal of South Beach? That—that by feeding that thing out there sick old ladies, you did some hocus-pocus that got investors to pour millions into making this place hip again?”
She shrugged. “Who is to say, really? All I know is this—this youthfulness which we have perhaps, perhaps, caused to return, we must now protect. By feeding the hunger of the big one that waits, we make sure it doesn’t eat others, people who still have many good years to live. Young people, like you and your friends.”
“But you could tell the police about it,” I said. “The Coast Guard. They could kill it.”
“Could they?” She raises an eyebrow. “Mr. Grayback is very old, much like we are. Very smart. It will die someday, all on its own. Or maybe it won’t. Maybe it is the sort of thing that can never die.” She walked to her kitchenette and began putting away dishes. “So? What will you do now?”
Much of the passion that shook me when I’d stood outside her door had drained away. But despite all she’d said, her fantastic assertions, my mind remained unchanged. “It—it’s still murder. I saw it. I can’t un-see it. I have to go to the police. I have to tell them what I know.”
“Very well,” she said. “There is no changing the minds of the young.” She paused from her chore to look at me. “I only ask that you do one thing. Wait a week before you go to the police. You owe me no favors, of course. But it is a small thing that I ask.”
I sensed something new in her voice, something final. “Why? So you can run away?”
“There is no running away for me now, not even if I wished it. I have bone cancer. My doctors tell me it is metastasizing, spreading. It will happen very fast now. A dying with much agony.” She walked to an open window, one that faced the sea. “I am the one who will be taken out next.”
• • • •
I was there in the delivery room when Myra gave birth to Janey. Those huge, gray blue eyes, that trusting, toothless mouth with its perfectly formed lips . . . Before I quite knew what was happening, I was Auntie Samantha. The only role I’ve ever played with any panache.
Part of growing up is discovering there are other lives that mean even more to you than your own. Some people never grow up that way. I can’t say I envy them. I don’t envy anyone, no matter how rich or accomplished, who’s never had a Janey in her life.
I haven’t done much to be proud of. I haven’t forged a lasting marriage, had children of my own, devoted myself to a worthy cause larger than myself. But I’ll always be proud of having been Auntie Samantha.
Myra caresses Janey’s shoulder. “Honey, can I get you anything? You thirsty? You want an ice cream?”
“Could I get a frozen Coke?”
“Sure. Whatever you want. It’s your—your birthday. How about you, Samantha? You want anything?”
I’m watching that shifting, indistinct boundary where the sea’s color changes from bright turquoise to a deeper, duller blue. Where the shelf of beach falls away and the true ocean begins. How deep does it get out there? A hundred feet? Three hundred? Deep enough to hide almost anything.
It’s not fair. It’s not fair that Janey becomes a teenager today, yet she’ll never get to learn what being a teenager means. She’ll never buy her first bra. She’ll never stay up late with her girlfriends, gossiping about boys. She’ll never have her first painfully delicious romance. Why should I have had all those things, when Janey won’t?
Then I see it. A gray swell out of sync with the surrounding waves. An island that appears and disappears almost as quickly as a lightning flash.
I pray Myra missed it. She didn’t see; she was looking at my face. “Samantha? Are you okay?”
Am I? Am I capable of being okay, knowing what Janey won’t ever have?
But maybe I can get it for her. Even if just for a little while. Isn’t that what an auntie is for, to catch dreams for her niece? Isn’t a devil’s bargain better than no bargain at all?
I feign a headache, rubbing my temples, even though my head feels marvelously clear. I need Myra off the beach for just a few minutes. “Ugh. My head’s pounding. Hey, since you’re going to get Janey a drink, would you mind making a side trip to that sundries kiosk and grabbing me a couple of packets of Extra Strength Tylenol?”
“Too much sun?”
“That’s probably it. You don’t mind?”
“Of course I don’t.”
She starts walking toward Ocean Drive. I want to run after her and hug her, thank her for sharing so much of her life with me, a sister in spirit, if not flesh. But that would give the game away.
“Auntie? You look so sad all of a sudden.”
Concerned for me, Janey pulls that unconscious stunt I’ve always marveled at, managing to appear simultaneously childlike and unbearably ancient, like a benevolent alien from a Steven Spielberg movie. “It’s just a headache, hon. I’ll feel much better soon. I’m going to take a little swim, stop baking for a few minutes. Cool water might soothe my head.”
She stares at the sea, unusually choppy for an otherwise calm day. “You want me to go with you?”
“No, honey. Wait here for your mother. You don’t want your frozen Coke to melt before you can drink it.”
She’s beautiful. A strange beauty, a three and a half foot tall gnome, but gorgeous, nonetheless. She’s one of the most popular kids in her class, always the first to volunteer to help a student who’s struggling. I love her. I’m so lucky, that I’ve had the chance to love someone like her.
“Sure, I’m sure.” I pull her into a hug so she won’t see the tears in my eyes. “Happy birthday, sweetie. I’m so, so glad I could take the day off to be with you. Tell your mom thanks for me, okay?”
“Can’t you thank her yourself after your swim?”
I squeeze her more tightly. “Sure. But you thank her for me, too, all right?”
“All right. Feel better, okay?”
Letting go of Janey feels like jumping off an aircraft, plunging into free fall. I step into the choppy surf. The water is the temperature of blood. It won’t stay that way, I know. There are no cruise ships on the horizon this time. It’s been years since I’ve dared venture more than a few yards off shore. Cresting the waves is a struggle, but the going gets easier once I hit deeper waters.
I wonder whether Janey’s concerned that I’m swimming out so far. I want so much to turn around, to see. But I don’t dare look yet.
Finally, I allow myself to pause, tread water, and glance back towards shore. Fourteen years ago, South Beach, with its humble hotels and apartment buildings, looked like a toy city planted in the sand from this far out. It doesn’t now. New spires of glass and steel dwarf the Art Deco survivors. They look close enough to touch. Janey is as tiny as a grain of sand. I reach for her and cup her in my palms, making my last wish for her.
The ocean is an immense eating machine, and I’m an edible speck bobbing up and down between its lips. Waiting for it to notice me.
Are you out here?
We need to make a deal . . .