“Four fours,” Zoe says softly, her voice insinuating that she’s lying. This is one of the problems with playing liar’s poker with Zoe; she always sounds like she’s making things up. She even looks like an actress, leaning on her elbow in her pink gingham halter and culottes, her eyes shrouded in sunglasses although the sun is setting.
Annie sighs. It’s still hot, and the humidity is so dense that the oleanders’ leaves are beaded with moisture. Annie holds her dollar bill hard against her chest. She knows the numbers and letters on the bill without looking. Zoe could be trying to peek, even though she has her head turned casually.
“Four fours. Are you asleep?”
Annie snores in response.
“Little red pig,” Zoe says, slapping at her. Zoe is probably faking. Or maybe she has two fours and assumes Annie has two. Annie does have two fours, and Zoe could know. Even without cheating.
“Call,” says Zoe. “You have…three. Let me see.”
“No.” Annie rolls away.
“I won it. Give.”
Zoe is on Annie, wiry and stronger. She flips Annie deftly and kneels on top. Annie struggles, really struggles, bucking to heave her off, but Zoe pinions her arms, her sharp knees pushing her weight into the softness of Annie’s arms. The deck is hard. It hurts.
Now Zoe flips her face-up, and her long, coarse hair tickles Annie’s nose. Zoe’s pale freckled face blocks out the sky. Annie fights hard, bucking and trying to free her hands, but she still can’t shake her off. Zoe pushes hard, her whole weight on Annie’s chest.
“Hurts,” Annie says in surrender.
Annie goes limp, lies flat on the deck, and Zoe rolls off her. Annie flips the bill at her. It falls between them.
“I don’t want it.” Zoe kicks at the dollar with her perfect toes. “Let’s go for a walk.”
“To see what we can see.”
Annie is naked under her sweatshirt. Her chest feels funny, and she doesn’t want to go anywhere. “Breast buds,” Zoe calls them, like Annie is some kind of plant.
“But you’re grounded,” Annie reminds her.
“You’re not. You come, and I’m only half grounded.” Zoe rolls over and stretches so her belly shows white, punctuated by the O of her navel. “Brush my hair and you can take the dollar.”
Annie sighs and gets up to fetch the brush. The house is all lit up, but empty. Their parents are out visiting their uncle in San Antonio, and won’t be back until late. The girls have made their own supper already—kingfish gumbo and black bread spread thick with butter, then cleaned up so there won’t be any arguments.
Annie checks to see if somehow a Coke has miraculously appeared in the refrigerator, but nothing has changed. She sighs again, just for the effect, and lets the screen door slap shut.
Zoe is sitting up. Annie holds the brush away from Zoe’s head so it won’t pull. She works her fingers through the tangles, taking hold of a hank of hair, and carefully coaxes the brush through. When she’s done she gives extra strokes for shine. Zoe is silent, her eyes shut, and she sits very still. There’s a rhythm to it. Annie has brushed Zoe’s hair since she can remember. She’s mostly done when Zoe grabs her hand.
“Hey,” she says, as if she’s just thought of it. “Let’s go to the beach.”
She gets up fast, reaching down to pull Annie up. Annie holds on, making her really pull, and the brush clatters on the deck. Zoe does a kind of pirouette, pointing her toe. It makes Annie feel lumpy and unfinished. She follows her sister, although she doesn’t really want to go.
Barefoot, Annie picks her way carefully through the rotten figs from the big tree in back of the house. Zoe walks backwards, heel to toe. The figs squash under her feet, oozing out from the crevices between her toes.
“That’s disgusting. I thought we were going to the beach,” Annie complains.
Annie follows in silence. The streetlights splay out yellowish cat’s eyes. Although it is only ten, no one is on the street. Their feet slap the cement, still warm from the day’s scorching heat. The cool evenings are suddenly gone, and in two weeks it will be so blazing hot that even Zoe will wear a hat to school, the old beat-up straw which is so shapeless she says it doesn’t count as a hat anymore. Annie notices that they are going the wrong way. If she had to bet, she would guess they were headed toward Pete’s.
Annie hurries to keep up with her sister. They are heading along Avenue R, the houses getting smaller and shabbier, crowding up to the street with just a strip of yard. It’s the last neighborhood on the island where white people live. Beyond it, at the edge of the colored section, the streets turn to dirt and the city doesn’t pick up the garbage. Pete’s people are Polacks, a little better than the coloreds, but not much. “White trash,” her mother calls them. Annie knows they shouldn’t be here at night. “Hey,” she says, uneasily.
“You wait right here.”
Zoe slips into the darkness between the houses. Annie sees the whiteness of her heels as she disappears. There is no place to sit. Bordering the sidewalk, there is only a thin strip of choked weeds and a few bedraggled oleanders. Annie crouches on the pavement. She hears the staccato of pebbles on windowpane, and like a spirit Zoe is back. She is shining now, aglow even in the yellow light. Pete is next to her, sloe-eyed, and handsome enough to make you look twice.
“Hey,” he says to her.
Annie can’t think of anything to say.
“She’s night-shy. She can’t talk at night.” Zoe looks at Pete.
Annie follows, dragging behind.
“Hey, you,” Zoe calls back. “We’re going to the beach.”
The rocks are blue-black and jagged. In the crevices are broken razor clams dropped by the gulls. Annie follows gingerly. Pete is leading and he’s holding Zoe’s hand, not in a helping kind of way. The sand is hard-packed and dry, and the ocean is alive with phosphorescence. They all stop to stare at the electric glow.
“If we went skinny-dipping, we could see everything,” Zoe says with a smile.
Pete smiles back and tugs her hair. He runs track and has long muscles, and he almost never speaks.
“You want to do sand drawing?” Annie asks, then does a cartwheel because she knows she sounds so little-girl stupid. They both start to laugh but Annie doesn’t know if it is a nice kind of laughing. She feels foolish.
“See y’all,” she says, wandering off to look for sand dollars. She wants to fill her pockets, but with whole ones. Whole ones are hard to find. The ocean is rough out beyond the sandbar.
The beach is clean beyond the rocks, the sand hard-packed and white as bone. She walks, scuffing along and humming. The wind picks up and the sand stings her shins. She traces a trail of imperfect arcs in the sand with her toes. She looks back at the loopy trail behind her, the trail of a drunken snail. She can’t see Zoe or Pete anymore. Down by the water’s edge, the kelp is piled high, tangled with podded seaweed.
She spots a large red starfish and pokes at it cautiously with her bare toe. Pebbly and hard, it is still alive. She flips it over, then flips it back. The starfish hunches and she picks it up by its tips so it won’t sucker onto her, and tosses it back into the sea.
That is when she sees what she is looking for: three small and perfect sand dollars caught up in seaweed. They are brown still, etched with that faint, round-armed star. She puts two in one pocket. The other, she will give to Zoe. She holds that last, perfect sand dollar in her hand and heads back.
The wind is clean, and the surface of the water is glassy and inviting. The water beckons, shining silver, but it is too late to swim. It’s a school night too, and eventually their parents will come home and ground her and Zoe for life. But Annie doesn’t mind. Clouds scud by, the sleeves of her sweatshirt are wet, so she waves her arms in circles and runs down the beach.
The sand splays behind her as she races. The wind is against her and her hair plasters against her cheek. She is almost out of breath when she sees them behind a rock near the bottom of the seawall. At first she sees only their legs, tangled together. Pete is half on top of Zoe, who never lets anyone pin her. But that’s not what’s going on. They are kind of rocking together, glued together at the mouth.
“Hey,” Annie says, but they don’t seem to hear, what with the wind and the water and each other. She starts to come closer, then sees that Pete has his hand under Zoe’s T-shirt, touching her breast, and Zoe is lying back and just looking at him. Annie must have made a sound, for Zoe looks up and sees her.
Annie starts to run down the beach. Zoe calls after her: “Annie!” Annie hears, but she won’t turn. She runs as hard as she can, until all the breath goes out of her. She stops down the beach at the water’s edge.
The moon has disappeared. The sky is inky black; the water is full of stars, and smooth as glass. Annie wades in. She needs to swim out to the sandbar, to look at the ocean beyond it, to wash away the vision of her sister lying under Pete. She pulls off her sweatshirt and shorts and hurls them back to the beach. Annie wades further out and starts to swim with easy strokes. The water is cool, a shock to her skin. She and Zoe often swim naked in their special cove, but tonight she’s in the gulf. She swims harder. It’s always warmer on the sandbar, where the shallow water holds the warmth of the sun. Unexpectedly a current catches her. She is moving fast, scuttling along naked, a shell-less, finless creature. She reaches the sandbar, then crouches on top.
The kingfish stew they ate for dinner roils in her belly. Annie is shaking with chill and fury. She wants to swim to China and drink green tea and live an upside-down life and never see her sister again. She will speak Chinese, and she will never let a boy touch her that way. She covers her chest with her arms, shivering. The breeze has picked up. Annie dives back into the water, now starless and choppy, and starts to swim along the sandbar, parallel to the shore. Annie is getting a little tired and she thinks she’d better head in to the beach. She’s going to have to swim back to where she’s left her clothes, or walk down the beach butt-naked.
Then—the shock of it—the sandbar drops off an underwater cliff. It’s as if she’s reached the end of the world. Without warning, she is sucked under the dark water. Blindly she pushes back up toward the surface, pulling and kicking to get her head above the choppy waves. She gulps for air, and is whirled around as if in some violent dance. Adrenaline shoots through her, sparking a gust of energy. She has forgotten the figs and Pete and her geography test.
She needs to live.
The water swirls her. Even swimming with all her strength, she can’t move forward. Annie is sucked out through the break to the other side of the sandbar. She turns to swim back, but the waves slap her down. She tries to gauge the distance to shore, but it is hard to see. She can’t afford to waste the energy. She must stay up.
A wave smacks at her from the side. The waves are running sideways, pulling her further out. She swims with dogged determination toward the break in the sandbar. She hums to keep up her courage. Then she catches sight of the seawall so far away it terrifies her. Annie knows what has happened. She is caught in a sea puss, one of the treacherous riptides that sometimes run by the sandbar. Annie struggles not to panic. She feels a cramp clamp onto her arms, and there is nothing to do but tread water till it releases her. It is as if she’s riding a bicycle backwards.
Dread floods into her. She is going to die, naked and alone, because Zoe let Pete Casper put his hand on her breast. No one will ever kiss Annie because she will be dead. She strokes as hard as she can against the waves. For a minute, she sees a glimmer of the seawall, but the waves push her back. What a waste, all those lessons. All those Latin verbs, the endless piano lessons with Mrs. Craig and her ancient beagle that smelled like rot. Now it is Annie who will rot, unless some sea creature eats her. She tastes her own tears, warmer than the water.
“Help!” she calls. “Help!” But her voice is tiny. She is exhausted. Annie floats, praying for strength, but she is moving out faster. She remembers a song from the radio or is it a prayer? It repeats in her head like a drumbeat, slow and steady:
When we lose our way
Lead us to a place, Guide us with your grace
To a place where we’ll be safe
She lets it echo in her mind. It calms her. She becomes resigned. She is going to die. It’s pretty foolish, but then again, there are a lot of foolish things she will miss. Bile rises up in her mouth and she spits it, bitter, into the sea. She lies on her back, letting the water take her, but a wave breaks over her, and for the first time, she goes under. Her mouth must be open because the water rushes in and with it the real fear of death, the end of any knowing. She struggles to the surface.
She turns and floats like a jellyfish, only picking her head up to breathe. If this is dying, she will let it take her. Peace suffuses her as she lets go. And then, there is a voice, and it is her own, clear and reasonable. There is no going back to shore the way she came out into the water, the voice says. She must find another way.
Annie begins to swim again. She heads away from land, where the water is smooth and dark, deeper than the waves. Then, slowly, evenly, with the rhythm of her own breath, she swims parallel to the shore. The water does not resist; she moves through it. The waves are smooth and slow, and they are rolling her in toward shore. She sees the beach and starts to kick, scissoring her legs underwater. She is moving now, floating and swimming a little, and the current is moving her slowly in. She pushes against the gentling waves; singing inside. It is a hymn from school: Jerusalem. She kicks on the beat and stretches her glide; she can just make out the distant sandbar. She is so tired. She thinks about her room, the one she used to share with Zoe, with its green rug with the pink roses. She will ask Mama if she can paint the ceiling blue. She asks God to let her live.
Then Annie washes up on the sandbar, the grit of it against her skin. She is boneless and spent. She can see the shore, but she’s not ready to try that final lap to reach it. Down the beach, she sees someone running. Annie wants to wave but she is much too tired. And then she sees Zoe, splashing into the treacherous water, down the beach where she has shed her clothes, and she is afraid again. There is a taste in her mouth of vomit and death. “Don’t. Don’t!” she calls. But her voice is so weak and tiny, inaudible in this vastness of water and stars.
“Annie!” Zoe calls after her sister, who has already disappeared down the beach into the darkness, into the water. She pushes Pete off, pulling down her shirt, and is up in a single motion.
“Annie. I have to find Annie,” Zoe calls over her shoulder, and she is gone.
Zoe swam before she walked, perfectly, effortlessly, not the way she runs with her left foot turned in a little, and she’s fast. She runs down the beach, shedding her clothes behind her, jumping over the slippery seaweed and into the surf, her toes gripping the grit of shells in the shallow water. She is all motion, there is nothing else, though part of her hears Pete’s voice calling behind her, a banner of noise furled into the wind. Zoe coils and launches. Under the water the bubbles rise as she pulls herself forward, gliding smoothly through the water. She is swimming hard, moving with efficient short strokes against the chop of the waves. One hand cups, pulling toward the force moment, her other chopping into the water. She balances and glides, stretching out her stroke, riding the sides of the waves. Zoe can’t see Annie now that she’s in the water, but she can feel her out there in the darkness. She knows she can find her. Zoe looks for markers to stay on course. She spots the rock at the end of the sandbar and aims a little upstream. She’s being careful, conserving her energy. It is a strange ocean tonight, and it cools the tumult of her body with a prickling apprehension. She focuses on her breathing. She knows that she will find Annie and that it will be okay. She will hold her sister under the arms, and tow her, docile, for once, behind her; she’ll keep her buoyant through the drag of the waves. It will be okay. She is almost there. But then she feels it, a wave that has crossed the bar into the shallow side. Zoe recognizes it as it happens; it is the suction of a southern swell from an offshore storm. A rumbling noise, a liquid explosion of darkness and the wave rolls over her, sucking her under, slamming her down. She is rolling underwater; the water opaque and striated with silt. Her mind slows into the calm of emergency. She looks for light and the pattern of bubbles in the churning water—and then she knows. She pulls toward the surface, fighting the weight of the water, desperate. And then she is up. She breaks through the surface, sucking in the air. Alive, she is alive to the thunder of waves and skim of moonlight. She spits into the ocean, clearing her lungs.
But then she knows there is something else wrong; there is a metallic taste in her mouth mixed with the salt and the warmth of saliva. And now she prays for herself and for her sister, roped together in the dark. She prays that they will live. She tries to hold on but there is nothing to hold on to. She trembles, her muscles let go, and sweat pours out of her, water into water. She is emptying. Her belly, too, cramps and lets go and then it is as if she is rising out of her abdomen up through her chest into her head and out. She doesn’t hear the grunt of her own exhalation. She is suspended in space; nothing is solid. Her fingers float apart. She is breathing in water, a mermaid after all, breathing in the ocean. The water draws in through the alveoli, filling the little sacs; the heart fibrillates and stops. She floats, beginning to cool. Her blood slows and stops as the water flows into her, into her and out, as if a great creature is breathing her, as if the body that was Zoe is simply a particle in its own respiration.
Susan Eve Haar is a playwright and. writer living in New York City. Visit her online at https://www.susanevehaar.com