She’d always been the small one, the distressed one, the one hailed in minor chords. Who could blame her when she became the one who fidgeted, the one who cried, the one who stood oblivious in the mirror after bedtime, tickling her toothbrush to her lips?
They surfaced in rotten flotillas, stinking orgies: puffy, white-bellied, gasping their last in slime of brown algae. Boats puttered in, belching oil fumes. Volunteers in surgical masks and rubber gloves came to bag the corpses.
On her dock, nights, she spent pebbles in the river, made emeraldine fireworks of the phytoplankton. Studied the slither of glowworms in the musk.
Her thoughts had always been second thoughts. She kept them in seclusion, took to storing them in spiral notebooks. From atop her potty seat, shorts bunched at the ankles. Like a curator of rare coins.
When the winter winds cleared the water column, the dolphins returned home to nurse their calves. She stood in wet socks in the backyard, hyper-attuned to their puffs and whistles.
She watched the trees in the rain and the way the mullet stirred the surface of the river, and she began to understand that death might not be an event, but a series of pulses, or surges. Like a tide overtaking the dunes.
Twenty years later, standing in the wings as a blond man twisted a gold band over her sister’s knuckle, she self-described as follows: sway-necked as the calla lilies, a side show, this faux bride of the carnival mirror. She wrote these words down on a cocktail napkin at the reception dinner, then struck them out one by one until only a haiku remained. Then she burned the napkin in the hotel parking lot with the cherry of her cigarette.
Manatees—bloated, wracked with pink lesions—bumped and rolled against the windward shoals of mangrove islands. She rode coffee-brown currents on research vessels, tallied carcasses, became an expert on nutrient loading, sirenia, fish kills, algal blooms. She penned a series of columns in the local newspaper where she catechized on estuarine hydrodynamics and environmental politics.
Always the tense one, the skittish one, the one who gnawed the pink meat off the sides of her thumbs.
When the journalism took on a pall, an impotency, like trying to peer through turbid water, she took to writing night fictions, fabulist stories about dancing bears, vampires, fire-breathing princesses. She lay these down wet and quick, and learned to spread her legs on the page, to turn sex and death into hard, condensed treats, like sucking candies.
The doctor pressed his palms into her abdomen, explained how he could scrape her ectopic endometrial tissue. Carve out nodules which had migrated afoul. The wax paper crinkled beneath her.
Always the freckled one, the hairy one, the pale one. Never the first to part the mother’s womb, nor shine at the hospital window. What had made her insides blister? Neurotoxins from the river? She wanted to probe the question, but the doctor’s face had lignified to smooth-grained oak, an effigy of a doctor’s face.
The river of her childhood suffocated, eutrophicated. Turtle grass thinned and withered like winter rye. Sea cows wheezed toward extinction. Plagues of algae cast the dolphins into a mournful exodus.
She moved into a salt-fogged apartment on the less contaminated side of the barrier island. Shaved the sides of her head. Took night walks on the beach. Conducted thought experiments: Greenland is bleeding out. The foundations of the old world ablating. The Seine swells—mildew spawns in the basement of the Louvre.
She wanted to put it more simply, this idea about the tide coming in. She studied patterns in the sand, toted her notebook everywhere.
When the ocean slipped away from the shore, she walked for some minutes \without noticing the vastness of the sea floor, white and marbled in the four o’clock sun, the pompano flapping in the exposed shallows, the low cloud-line cresting in the east.
Always the misplaced one, the vulnerable one, the sacrificial one.
When the first wave thundered onto the outer sandbar, she was already sprinting over the dunes. But the sea caught her up and lifted her over the wooden crossover, thrashing, rag-dolling the length of the parking lot. She smashed into the trunk of a coconut palm, and though her left arm was dangling like clay at her side, she grabbed hold of the tree and summoned the strength to climb up out of the whitewater and lodge herself in its crown.
But a second wave came pouring overtop the first, tilting cars from their wheels, uprooting rafts of sea grapes, shredding metal porches from their foundations. As she watched, coughing, moaning, she saw it on the eastern horizon—the big one, the final one, come to breach the island. To wash the houses and streets away. To flood the estuary with saltwater.
Who could blame her, as the sky became a wall of white, if she felt pangs of both remorse and ecstasy?
Dan Reiter lives on a dissolving barrier island in Florida. His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Kenyon Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. He is working on his first novel. “Tide Push” appeared in Issue 70, Summer 2022