"What?" whispered Helen. Everything in the room suddenly came into insistent focus.
"She's dead?" whimpered Megan.
Donna nodded. "I'm so sorry. I hate that you had to hear this from me."
"Oh God." Helen's confused hand scrambled and felt the arm of a nearby chair; she lowered herself into it. "Oh God." Across the room, she could hear Megan start to cry.
"We don't know why she did it." Donna sounded apologetic. "Like I said, it wasn't like something she would do."
Helen closed her eyes tightly.
"Can I get you anything?" asked Donna anxiously. "A glass of water? A Kleenex?"
Helen shook her head.
Donna searched the office for some hint of what she should do next. Her eyes fell upon her message pad. "Here," she said, suddenly determined, striding over to her desk. She flipped through the old message pages until she found Tuesday's records. "This is the number for the sheriff's office. You should give them a call." As she spoke, she copied the number to a slip of paper. Then she glanced up at Helen. "Where are y'all staying tonight?"
Donna flipped open her reservation calendar and scanned it with her lavender index nail. "I have a unit open for the next couple of days. Y'all are welcome to use it if you'd like."
Helen looked up at her.
"Free of charge," added Donna.
Helen smiled weakly at her. "Thank you," she said quietly. "That's very kind of you."
"It's the least we can do." Donna went into her back room again, emerging this time with a key. "Number 224." She handed the key, along with the phone number, to Helen.
"Thank you." Helen set the key and paper aside and rubbed her eyes. I'm too late, she thought.
"Really, it's nothing." Donna sat down heavily at her desk, shaking her head. "I can't believe they didn't contact you."
"I'm not sure they would have known to," admitted Helen. Then she glanced around, suddenly realizing that she and Donna were alone. She sat up sharply. "Megan?"
Donna looked up, startled. "Your daughter?" She looked around. "Where did she go?"
Helen was up and out of her chair, searching frantically. "Megan?" She pushed open the office door and stepped back out into the hot afternoon, her eyes scanning the parking lot. Megan was nowhere to be seen.
"Where did she go?" fretted Donna.
Helen heard the gentle roar of the nearby surf in the air and immediately figured out where Megan had gone. "Oh God," she cried. "How do you get to the beach from here?"
Donna pointed towards a small wooden walkway. "That's the access ramp."
Helen took off across the lot, Donna jogging behind her, and flew onto the ramp. Her feet pounded on the bleached boards as she ran up and over the sea wall and down towards the sand. When she saw Megan on the beach, standing stock-still and facing towards the ocean, she slowed.
"There she is," Helen called, relieved. She turned back to Donna, who was huffing slightly as she still hurried up the ramp. "I see her. She's on the beach."
Donna stopped and grabbed the hand rail, breathing heavily.
"Are you okay?" called Helen, suddenly concerned, but Donna held up a hand.
"I'm fine, honey," Donna gasped. "Go check on your little girl."
Helen walked down the ramp and out onto the beach. Megan stood several yards away, on the part of the beach washed by only every seventh or eighth wave, where the sand glowed, soft as velvet. Quietly Helen made her way to her daughter's side. She glanced down and saw that Megan's feet were black.
"You okay?" asked Helen softly.
Megan shook her head and blurted out, "I don't want to go."
"What are you talking about?" asked Helen, studying her child's face; Megan's eyes, full of fear, remained fixed on the horizon.
"I don't want to go," Megan repeated.
Helen turned to look out to the surf. "Then don't," she said simply.
"What if I don't have a choice?"
"Why do you think you don't have a choice?"
"Ali didn't have a choice."
"Perhaps not," said Helen. "But you're not Ali."
"But what if I am? What if he was like me, once?" Megan wrapped her arms around herself. "What if he was once a kid on the land? What if he had to finally leave it behind?"
Helen felt a pang. "I don't know, sweetheart."
"I don't want to go," Megan said again. She looked at her mother, panicked. "I don't want to leave you."
"I don't want you to leave me, either." Helen smiled sadly at Megan.
"So what do I do?"
"What do you need to do?"
Megan looked back out at the surf, and suddenly Helen perceived how hungry the girl's eyes were. "I don't want to go, but I need to go."
Helen put her face in her hands for a long time.
This is where my father washed ashore, she thought, where my mother drowned, and where my daughter will swim away from me.
Then, resolved, she looked up.
"Here's what I'm going to do," she said evenly. "I'm going to go up and get some towels. And maybe a deck chair. And perhaps, even, a good book."
"And what am I going to do?" pleaded Megan.
"You're going to do what you need to do," answered Helen. "Go."
"Really?" Megan was taken aback. "But-- but what are you going to do then?"
Helen grasped her daughter's shoulders and peered intently into her eyes. "I'm going to wait for you."
Megan looked bewildered. "But it-- it might be a while."
"Hence the chair and the book."
"But--" Megan floundered. "But what if I can't come back?"
"I'll help you. I'll get every towel I can find. We'll do what we did last time."
"But--" Megan looked on the verge of tears again. "But what if I-- don't come back?"
"Then I will call your father," said Helen, "and tell him to sell the house and buy a boat, one that can go out to the open ocean, and we will learn how to pilot it, and we will come find you, and we will live on it, anchored wherever you are, as long as you want us to."
"You would?" asked Megan.
"Of course I would. I'll learn how to scuba dive if I have to. Nothing is impossible here." Helen pulled the hair gently back from Megan's face. "Do you remember that book I used to read you? The Runaway Bunny?"
Megan nodded, tears leaving blackened track marks on her cheeks.
"Remember what the mother said, when the little bunny wanted to run away, and when he threatened to turn into a trout and swim away?"
Megan smiled. " 'I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.' "
"Exactly," nodded Helen, pulling the girl into a tender embrace. " 'I will be a tree that you come home to.' " She pulled back and smiled at her. "Or a deck chair."
"Or a boat." Megan grinned.
Megan hesitated. "So-- should I go? Now?"
"If you're ready."
Suddenly Megan looked crestfallen. "I can't," she blurted out.
"I can't swim," she groaned. "I never had a reason to learn."
Helen laughed. "All you do," she explained, demonstrating, "is paddle your arms like this, and kick your feet."
"That's it?" said Megan dubiously.
"That's it," affirmed Helen. "The hard part is the breathing." She smiled. "You don't have to worry about that."
Megan looked around anxiously. "I'm going to have to change over. I don't want anybody to see."
"There's nobody around here," Helen reassured her, scanning the beach. "Do you want me to help you?"
Megan flashed a surprised smile. "Would you?"
"Of course." Helen put her arms around her child. "Are you ready?"
After a moment's hesitation, Megan finally nodded. Helen could feel the girl's limbs trembling and held her closer to reassure her.
Mother and daughter walked cautiously forward, the waves breaking against their shins, then their knees. When the water lapped around their waists, Megan suddenly began to twitch and take sharp breaths. Here it comes, thought Helen, the change.
"Put your face in, Megan," Helen commanded her.
Megan leaned over and submerged her body in the water. There were a few more spasms, but soon all was calm, and Helen loosened her grip as the girl adjusted to her new form.
"Paddle," urged Helen. "Kick. That's right."
She walked Megan in a few more feet, then realized that before long, she would not be able to stand. The waves were rising gently around her chest, occasionally washing over her face.
"I'm going to let go now," she called.
Megan reached a scaly hand out of the water and waved.
Helen let go. The girl pulled away, a dark shadow under the greenish water, and soon disappeared into the depths, paddling and kicking as she had just been taught.
Helen backed slowly towards the shore, a mix of grief and triumph churning inside her. Eventually she emerged, dripping, from the shallows, and stood contemplatively on the beach for a moment.
Then she wrung out her hair, wiped the water from her face, then went to ask Donna about towels and a beach chair.
Megan swam. Once she was past the gentle rise and fall of the shore tides, the water grew deeper and colder, but nothing she couldn't tolerate. Before long she was joined by schools of small gray fish, the occasional bobbing jellyfish, and below, on the sea floor, little crabs scuttered sideways.
She soon came upon a trio of bull sharks, and at first she faltered, but the instant they detected her presence, they flicked away back into the shadows. It suddenly occurred to her that they were frightened of her, and she was awed.
Her mother was right; swimming was pretty easy, and she delighted in the newfound strength her limbs displayed, pulling her confidently through the water. She caught a glimpse of her forearm, caught in the faint rays of light from the faraway sun that danced beneath the sea.
In the ocean water, in the faint light, her skin had iridescent flecks of purple and pink and blue.
She swam for a while more, confidently testing out a few somersaults, marveling at the reefs of branching and tubular corals that sprang up beneath her-- I thought those were in the Caribbean, not here!-- and exploring the wreck of a small sailboat, now nearly encased in barnacles and soft, waving algae.
She wondered if there were any others like her out wandering the reef. She wasn't sure she wanted to find out. Certainly, there would be more time to explore these waters, but right now, she was growing tired, and it was getting late. She turned and headed back to shore, eager to report what she had just seen and done.
My mother is waiting for me.