By Jenifer DeBellis
Face down near the water’s edge I watch clams wash ashore, dig back into the sand, and disappear. When one vanishes, another washes up. I wonder how many times the same clam washes back ashore, or how many make it back to the safety of the ocean floor.
We vacationed in this little town every summer before my mom bailed on us. I miss the unrushed conversations, meals that are the event, and motel rooms without clocks.
As the sun sets, I wrap my towel around my shoulders and settle onto a boulder alongside the pier. Waves beat against the seawall. Longshore currents thunder the shoreline in an explosion of angry foam that tunnels for miles. I close my eyes, tune my breathing to the water’s rhythm. Soon there is nothing but the whispering swell of distant wind and water reaching shore. Nothing more. Nothing more. I rest my head back.
This is why I came back here: to be alone with nothingness.
When I open my eyes, I notice spider webs just inches from my head. I recoil from the slinking shadows. The shadows snicker, taunting me about my fears. Everywhere I go, my fear follows. Laughter mocks me from the darkness.
My foot slips when I scramble from the rock wall. My head cracks against granite and everything falls into shadows.
It’s humid the next morning when I wake up under the pier. I brush the sand from my legs as I stand. And after a few steps, I’m running. I run toward my rental cottage, but I’m sure I’m running from something. That’s what the women in my family do: we run. Run from problems. Run from conflict. Run from tough relationships. We’re a long line of strong runners. And for the first time, I know I don’t imagine it when I hear the ocean whisper my name as I run.
Soon it’s necessary for me to take refuge from the heat beneath a lifeguard hut. Someone’s there. Once my eyes adjust, I see a silhouette behind some spider webs.
“Nasty beasts, eh?” he chuckles. “Weaving little webs to catch prey off guard.” His laughter has another dimension. “What a way to go: trapped into a slow death while those steely eyes welcome your last breath.”
I shudder and step back into the sunlight. “I think spiders were created to torment me.”
“Funny.” He steps closer. His expression turns serious. “We believe the strangest things.”
He turns, then jogs away.
I grab dinner at the local bar during happy hour and polish off a few drinks before the place begins buzzing with nightlife. The bar has new owners but nothing inside has changed. The food and service are the same: friendly and slow.
The song on the jukebox turns to “Cruel Summer” as a fry cook comes from the back—his apron still tied at the neck. I catch the name Louie just before he slips it off. He seems too young to be the same Louie. The room spins. Sweat pricks my body like ice. I flee through the back door.
I turn in the direction of the familiar voice. It belongs to the beach guy.
His chuckle cuts. “Always running.”
My sweat feels sticky. When I try to respond, words drop from my mouth in glittery confetti. The more I try speaking, the faster the streamers pour from my mouth.
He rips something up and drops it at my feet. “When did you stop believing in yourself?”
The streamers bind my ankles, then send out feelers that snatch up the scraps of paper he’s thrown down. Once the pieces stick to the strands, the threads weave up my calves.
Lack of circulation in my legs is all I remember before waking up in my room. Still covered in sticky sweat, I walk out to the beach just outside my cottage door. I sit and hug my knees till sunrise.
You can’t run forever is carved into the sand next to me. The ebbing tide erases it like it did when I was little and scribbled my secrets onto this beach, crying when they washed out to sea.
An ache grips my chest. My breath cuts off when I straighten up. Something’s caught in my throat. I roll onto my stomach. Bile streams from my mouth, delivering a partially crumpled picture. It’s a photo of Louie’s guiltless smirk, the first to help himself without my permission. I cough up other photo fragments. The boss with groping hands. The professor who swore we were only friends. My roommate and my ex, holding their new baby. The boyfriend I just left, who was ready for marriage and babies.
My memories drag me along the beach toward the pier where I first saw that guy. The glittery fibers of memories wind around me. I keep my hands free and dig my fingers into the sand to pull myself away. From the shadows, I make out a set of beady eyes watching me struggle.
I focus on the sand—dig harder. I’m elbow deep before I’m tugged deeper. In the moment I take to ponder pulling away, the earth sucks me in headfirst.
Time is everything in these depths, yet nothing at all.
I’m sure I’m on fire when I emerge in water. The twilight sky sits overhead, framed as if just beyond a windowpane. I push myself from the ocean floor and kick toward the surface.
When I reach the surface, I’m surrounded by abandoned clamshells. They cling to me as I paddle to tread water. I’m unable to locate the shoreline. The only thing visible in any direction is an endless stream of lifeless shells, bobbing in my wake.
Soon there’s no need to tread to stay afloat. I shift my focus to watching the last shreds of light slip away. While darkness envelops me, I realize I’m not alone. The shells clink together as if toasting my long awaited arrival.