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[Fiction] Jellyfish Summer

by Veronica Good


You open the first day of summer like a book. The first contact with the crashing waves outside your beach house makes your fingers tingle like a spine cracking. You don’t even put your clothes in the drawers or put away the groceries you bring with you. Your suitcase is tipped over in the hallway.


You imagined yourself here. The waves are your only companions for the next three months. You can feel yourself succumbing to the idea of being a well-off beach hermit. You smile, imagining your hair slick like seaweed hanging over your shoulders—you will spend too much time in the ocean for it to ever really dry—imagining your fingers and toes will be wrinkled and tough like barnacles clinging to a stalwart pier.


“This will be the summer,” you told them when you left.


This will be the period of your life you look back on and see only as flecks of sunshine glinting off the sea. You look at the sun in the ripples of the waves until you see multicolored shadows wriggling in your vision like plankton. The beach is quiet, populated only by you, the seagulls, and a feral cat you see lurking in the dunes.


***


You left so much behind for this slice of the East Coast. Back home, there is an office. There is a chair and a desk and a thousand Post-it notes with affirmations and long-past meeting times. But you don’t want to think about the meetings or the affirmations. You only think of tomorrow because the sun is beginning to set as you stand there on the beach.


You think of what the sun will look like rising over the waves, of what coffee will taste like when you drink it on a dewy beach, of what it will feel like to belong only to yourself for the summer. You are almost hoping for a sunburn, something to ground you, to chip at the ecstasy you are experiencing for a moment. That pain would make this freedom real, not just another picture, a note with exclamation points on your vision board.


You dig your toes into the sand and turn off your cell phone.


“Call the landline if there’s an emergency,” you said before you left. You know, like your-sister-winning-the-lottery or your-mom-finally-finding-the-courage-to-adopt-a-dog emergencies.


***


The page turns, and this is before you realize that the world, the world you separated from, didn’t stop because you took off in your Jeep with a suitcase and a load of groceries. This is before you woke up in a beach house under a pure-blue sky that reflects the sea. Before you woke up to the phone ringing at five o’clock this morning, announcing the voice telling you your mother is dead.


When you put the receiver down, you look out onto the sea and the sky, and you can still hear the phone ringing. The weight of the receiver lingers on your palm like a burn. The gulls call out to you from the beach, their voices slipping in through the windows you left open to the let in the ocean air—because all you wanted was to spend time with the sea.


You go to the kitchen to pull together the coffee you imagined. It tastes like an alarm clock going off, and when you go to the fridge to get some milk to soften the sound of it on your tongue, you find that you left the milk warming on the counter all night, crying beads of condensation that run down its sides to form a pool around it.


The coffee gets left behind when you finally decide to answer the gulls’ calls. The sun is already up over the water, burning like a fierce, red eye. You can feel an infant sunburn prickling your cheeks. The sound of the gulls rings in your ears like the telephone, and the waves crash over the beds of broken seashells. You hear the hiss of the withdrawing water, the slap of the weight of waves dropping on the shore. It syncs up with the phrase circling your mind like a curious shark. She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead.


You sit just beyond the dunes, where the water can’t reach you. You listen to the hiss and slap of your mother’s death and the gulls’ calls. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. They cry down at you from the sky with their condolences.


It is clear, not a single puff of cloud obscures your view of the never-ending expanse. It rained when your father died. You ignore the forecast you gushed about on your last day of work and wonder if it will rain now, too. You wonder if you will have freckles at the funeral, if sitting here now is enough for the scattering of stick-and-poke constellations on your face to develop into something darker.


The voice on the phone, your sister’s voice, is probably calling the others: your brother, your aunt, the cousins, your mother’s book club. You wonder if your sister will take on the responsibility of the eulogy. You have never planned a funeral, but you remember the eulogy your mother gave when your father died, how she cried, and the whole room cried with her. You don’t want to cry with your sister. You don’t want to leave the beach. It is the last place you were when your mother was alive.

***


When you get up to leave the beach, you realize the sun has moved across the sky, and the seagulls have been joined by a family. Two toddlers splash in the waves with their parents, outlined by sunlight. As you watch, the waves pick up, knock the little girl down onto the sand. When she stands back up, she is screaming, “Mommy! Mommy!”


The seagulls half trot, half glide down the beach, calling, Sorry. Sorry, over their shoulders.


You move with them, parting ways at a gap between the dunes so you can slip back to your would-have-been hideaway. You go inside. Pour the spoiled milk down the kitchen sink. Run the water to drown out the little girl as much as to wash away the sour smell.


You walk to the hallway and stop in front of the mirror. Your cheeks are a little burned.


“You’re looking a little rosy,” your mother would have said.


You can hear her say it as you look at yourself, the echoes of childhood beach trips rising like the tide within you. You cry there with yourself in the mirror. Your tears slide down your face, burning salty trails along your tender skin.


This is all I could have hoped for, you say to yourself. This is all the pain in the world.


There won’t be freckles. Your face will peel. You imagine white flecks of skin drifting down off your face as you look into your mother’s casket. You think about the makeup they will put on her, if they will make her look like that picture from Thanksgiving when she had her hair curled and red, her eyes shining like two small suns warming you all. Her eyes will be glued shut. She won’t see your sunburn, won’t flinch when the piece of skin lands on her shoulder.


You look in the mirror, see the ways your crying has blended your sunburn into the rest of your red face. While you stood there crying, the sun traveled high over the house. The brightness of it makes the beach look much more severe. The sand reflects the light back up, and you know the heat of it on the soles of your feet will burn if you stride across it to the waves. On another day, you would have skipped across the hot expanse until you reached the cooler, damper sand, laughing at your own short-lived pain and misery.


Instead, you walk back out of the house that yesterday was so open, with an ocean breeze flowing in one window and out the next, a pocket of freedom now closing in on you.


“It will just be me and the sea,” you bragged when you left.


“It’s just me and the sea,” you say to yourself now.


You take on the serious, even-footed approach of a coal walker when you reach the sand. One small scalding step at a time, careful not to dig your heals into the hotter sand beneath, you remind yourself that you just have to keep moving. When your steps finally sink into the clumpy, wet sand where the waves scuttle onto the shore, you see that the family left while you were crying. The seagulls are V-shaped specks spiraling high above you, their voices silenced by the waves and the sea breeze that is picking up.


You don’t stop walking. You step into the waves so the water covers your feet. Then your ankles. Your shins. Your knees. When the water rises to your hips and all you can smell is salt, you let yourself fall back. There is a small splash when your back hits the water. A drop of water from the impact makes its way into your eye. You feel it stinging as you sink down into the sea.


The waves cover you for a moment, pulling you down as they sink into your clothes. The rolling sound of the sea sounds like white noise, sounds like voices under the water. Maybe your mother’s voice or her laugh. The current undulates beneath and above and around you, pushing you back up to the surface, where you float on your back with your eyes shut. The sun is hot on your face, and you feel your sunburn prickling again.


You let yourself imagine that hours pass while you are floating, but you know that time can only slow down around death. You don’t bother to open your eyes or raise an arm to wipe the salt water off your face, even though you know it will make your sunburn worse. You don’t check to see how far the current has carried you down the beach, away from the house, or wonder if the phone might ring again, even though your sister said she’d call back with funeral plans.


For now, you are nothing. You are sea-foam. You are a jellyfish. A plankton. A speck.


You try not to think, but with your eyes shut and your body rolling along with the waves, you can only think. You think about funeral food and the things people will say to you when you and your sister and your brother and your aunt and maybe even the cousins line up when everyone leaves to shake hands. You think about trying not to cry when they say they’re sorry over and over again, one halfhearted handshake after the next. “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.” Like a flock of seagulls leaving you with their condolences when they move on to another patch of beach.


Your mother would tell you not to think about darkness. “Think about the sunshine,” she said when your father died.


When your father died, your mother pulled the corners of her lips into a melancholy smile and spent hours telling all the stories that were recorded on tapes in the garage, stories of first bicycle rides and Christmas dinners and softball games and camping trips. She didn’t cry until the eulogy.


You pull your lips up into a twisted smile as you float there on your back. You add your voice to the sound of the waves and tell stories. You tell the sun about the first time you got into a car crash and how your mother laughed and told you your car sucked anyway as a way of cheering you up, even though she knew you loved that car and you had now broken your arm in that car. She would laugh while you cried to make you cry less. When your arm took twelve weeks to heal, she would tell people who asked about the wreck, “You should see the other guy.” She’d look at you, knowing the other guy was that long-since-totaled car.


The seagulls drift down closer to you, and some land in the water, floating alongside you. They occasionally let out a quiet syllable or two. Sorry. They bob along with you and the current. Sorry. You tell the seagulls about your mother’s first cell phone and how she made a point of texting you every day in full sentences that turned into full paragraphs. The texts read like diary entries or letters. They were so long, you had to scroll to read them. She would even sign them, Love, Mom.


“Texts are supposed to be short,” you told her then.


“I can’t catch you up on an entire day with just one sentence,” she would say every time you brought it up. “I’ve got a lot going on.”


She would laugh and laugh.


When you tell the seagulls about her laugh, they laugh, too. They giggle and say sorry and giggle some more, cackling alongside you until you open your eyes to look at them, and they all fly away.


You turn your head and see the house down the beach. It is small enough at this distance to be the Barbie Dreamhouse your mother built you on your tenth birthday.


“I’ll do it,” she had told your father. “It needs to be decorated, not just put together.”


The sun is falling behind the beach house, and you wonder for a moment if maybe you did spend hours with the waves, or maybe only one. You let yourself drift closer to the waves so you can stand and find yourself floating along with a jellyfish. The sun glints off it, bobbing just beneath the surface of the water. It is pink, and you wonder if it would be worth it to touch it, to give yourself the jellyfish sting and the sunburn to hold onto at the funeral. Instead, you stand, looking at the jellyfish as it bobs away, unaware of you and your almost connection.


The beach house is cool when you return. The phone message light blinks, and you press play, then lie in a puddle on the tile floor in the kitchen while the voice that belongs to your sister tells you about the funeral plans and the guest list, who she had to argue with about last-minute flights to see your mother looking like Thanksgiving with her eyes glued shut.


The phone beeps, asks you if you want to replay, delete, or call back.


You peel yourself off the tile floor, wondering if you will ever be able to feel anything but extreme temperatures again after this. You grab the edge of the empty trash can and drag it across the room to the fridge. You pile the bread and lettuce and oranges and all the other things you brought to sustain yourself into the bin. When you pull out the eggs, you think about cracking them one by one. You think about throwing them into the ocean. You think about smashing them there in the kitchen, slicing your fingers on the broken shells. You place them gently into the bin.


The phone beeps, asks you if you want to replay, delete, or call back.


You walk into the bedroom and stuff the few things you’ve unpacked back into your suitcase. You pull your suitcase into the bathroom, swipe your arm along the bathroom counter, and let all of your toiletries fall in. You don’t care if you get toothpaste on your new bathing suit. You don’t care if your lotion explodes when you sit on the suitcase to zip it shut. You almost hope it does.


You sit in the dark in the bathroom on top of your suitcase. You think about the stories you told the sun and the seagulls and cry.


***


The next morning, you heave your suitcase into your Jeep. You turn your cell phone on and toss it into the passenger’s seat. The sun is coming up over the water, and you already have three missed calls from your sister. There are text messages pinging in like seagulls populating a beach. You know what they will say.


You don’t have to pick up your phone to remember your mom’s last text message to you. Another entry in her T9-typed catalog of updates and well wishes.


She signs off: Have fun at the beach. I’ll try not to call your landline (too much!)…Love, Mom.


You make one last trip to the beach before you leave. The sand is cool and dewy like you imagined it might be this early in the morning. The wind picks up your hair and carries it around you, trapping it in your mouth, your eyes. You pull your shoes off so you can let the waves touch your toes, and spot a small lump on the beach.


When you walk over to the lump, you find that it’s a jellyfish. It is pink and round. Its short limbs splayed out beneath it. When the waves roll in, they push the jellyfish forward a bit before tugging it back toward the sea. You stand there hunched over this jellyfish, the wind whipping your hair around your face, watching it get rejected and accepted over and over again.


The waves recede again, and you reach down and pick up the jellyfish by its squishy little dome. The tentacles hang limp beneath it, but you hope you can put it back into the water and make this right somehow. You wade in up to your knees, the water soaking your pants, and you release the jellyfish into the waves. It rolls over, flipping upside down so its insides are exposed. You put your hand in the water underneath it, flip it back over. A tentacle grazes your wrist as it turns in the water, and you yank your hand back from the pain.


You hold your wounded wrist to your chest, watching the deflated jellyfish roll through the water, and you think of your mother in her coffin. The empty husk of her painted and presentable in a world she no longer belongs to. You haven’t seen the hollowed-out version of her you imagine, but you know the sight of her will cause you pain.


You think it is probably impossible this is the same jellyfish from yesterday.


The waves push the jellyfish back toward the shore. It gets knocked into your knees. You take a step back, but it clings to your pants. You wonder if dead jellyfish can sting through fabric. You walk backwards out of the sea. The jellyfish drops from your leg onto the sand. The water rushes over it and away. Over it and away.


“Sorry. Sorry. Sorry,” you say. You turn and walk back to the beach house, back to your car.


You get in the car. The AC kicks on, and you shiver from the cold air and the evaporating seawater. As you drive you away, you think about the jellyfish. You think about the voice that belongs to your sister. You cry. You apologize to your dashboard for not being there. You ask streetlights for answers.


You tell yourself it is impossible that the woman you are driving to see is your mother.



Veronica Good is a poet and fiction writer from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She is managing editor of Showstopper Magazine Online and a contributor and editor for its print sister, Showstopper Magazine. Her work has appeared in Archarios Literary Art Magazine, Tempo Magazine, and Scapegoat Review. When she isn’t writing, she is taking care of her plants and her Burmese python, Fitz.

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