That summer we were nine and ten, our birthdays rolling over one another as if playing leapfrog—first hers, then mine, five days apart. I was envious of my cousin’s double digits in the same way she coveted my silver-wrapped presents, the balloons and white-frosted sheet cake, the way my parents shouted, “Happy birthday!” Except next year I would be ten, and Tweet’s parents would still be locked up, serving life sentences for holding up the pawnshop and killing a man, something like Bonnie and Clyde, but no one made a movie. She lived with our grandmother, who didn’t believe in birthdays, and so hers passed quietly, leaving only the gift of age.
It was a typical Floridian summer, both sweltering and sweet. Stretching out before us like a wide-open hand. I was giddy at the prospect of long, uninterrupted days where my cousin and I could be together. My mother never understood it, why I would want to spend all my time at my grandmother’s small, slant-slatted house on the bad side of town—no cable, no PlayStation, no fresh air. What was there for two little girls to do?
I used to hear her on the phone with her friends—Saturday mornings, decked out in sweats and an old boyfriend’s T-shirt she only wore to clean in—talking about how she couldn’t wait to leave Grandma’s when she was a teen.
“Woman sees devils in everything,” she said once, the jewels on her acrylic nails flashing as she dusted the tops of the cabinets. “Except when they’re right in front of her face.”
“What devils?” I asked, and she startled. She would often forget I was there, quiet, listening.
“Go play,” she said, instead of answering. “Grown folks are talking.” I went back to my room thinking of devils you could see—red skin, horns, and black beards. Plucked out of the pages of my grandmother’s books, sitting across from you eating bologna sandwiches thick with mayonnaise. Chugging sweet tea. What did my mother think my grandmother couldn’t see?
Whatever she felt about her mother, that summer she took me whenever I wanted to go. Tweet and I didn’t need to leave the yard; our possibilities were endless in that small house. We spoke a secret language, and we always understood each other.
Before bed one weekend, our grandmother ran us a bath, the strawberry scent of Mr. Bubble rising with the steam. She bent over the tub, large behind bouncing, filling up our view with faded blue denim.
“Full moon,” Tweet said, and we giggled over it, sticking out our own skinny rumps in poor imitation. Tweet grabbed a Magic Marker lying out of place on the sink and marked the back of Grandma’s dress.
“Tweet colored on you!” I tattled, the words leaping from my mouth quick and slick before I could think about them.
“No I didn’t!” She whipped the marker out of sight. Our grandmother looked between us and then said, “Maybe the mark was already there,” though I’d seen Tweet do it with my own eyes. After she left, Tweet pinched me in the tub, and I bore the hurt in silence as penance for my transgression. Without apology, she made me a beard of bubbles and told me I was Old Man River from the songs we learned at school.
“What am I doing?”
“Searching for your daughter,” she said, then held her breath and slipped under the foamy water. And I looked and I looked, but couldn’t find her because she’d turned into a fine mist floating over the sea.
In the top bunk that night, after our grandmother prayed for Jehovah to watch over us in our sleep, we stayed awake, kicking the covers off, knobby knees bumping like small rocks, our cotton underwear luminescent in the filtered moonlight sliding through the blinds. We wondered why we weren’t born as tigers roaming the green hills of India—carrying our young in our mouths, sandpaper tongues lapping blood at the kill.
“Or eagles?” My hands jumped up over my head, as if with feathers and the possibility of flight.
“Or mice,” Tweet answered. I could hear her teeth chattering, and I pictured her eating cheese in tiny, hurried bites, whiskers prickling, sensing danger always. We wondered why we weren’t born silver-scaled fish, instead of brown girls with brown eyes and stick insect legs.
“Go to sleep in there,” our grandmother called, and at the sound of her heavy footsteps in the hall we skittered back underneath the covers, holding in giggles, that soft, intimate scraping at the back of our throats. We lay together—long, thin feet next to heads of billowy braids and ponytails, her dark brown arm pressed against my light one. She grasped my hand in the dark, as if to check that I was still there, her nails sinking softly into my palm. “I love you, Shayla,” she said.
The next day, our grandmother pulled us from our play for Bible study. We groaned and dragged our feet, made our bodies dense, hoping to be immovable, but our grandmother was a capable shepherd. She ushered us into the living room, big hands fanning us forward, creating wind at our backs.
“Why was Jonah punished?”
“He disobeyed God,” we answered in the drawling unison of students at school. God sent a storm and the sailors tossed him off their ship to calm the sea and save themselves.
“Jehovah knows your heart,” she said, giving us the eye. I thought of Jonah in the belly of the whale, his hands pressed to his lips in prayer, and what he might have said to make God spit him back up. I wouldn’t let them throw me overboard, I thought, and my heart pitter-pattered a defiant beat against my birdcage chest. I had never seen a god, or smelt one. Never tasted its sunshine flesh.
“Maybe there is no God,” I told Tweet later in the backyard. The grass had shriveled and died, an expanse of thirsty brown tongues across the lawn. I threw pebbles at a wasp’s nest that hung from the limb of an old oak. They missed and bounced off the tree, making new gouges in the bark next to scratches where the cats climbed up.
“What if He’s just some big joke? To make us behave?”
I chucked another pebble, and Tweet put her hand flat on my back. “Don’t,” she said.
I didn’t know if she meant the wasps or God. I looked into her face, her large black eyes, searching for some answer the grown-ups wouldn’t give. I wanted to ask if—when she pressed her palms together before bed—she prayed for her parents’ salvation or the man they killed. And to what did she pray? Did her God have two faces that looked like hers, and a gun hidden in the waistband of Its jeans? Was hers a God of pawnshop gold and two-dollar scratchers, promising We’ll be back soon, but never coming home? Even then, I wanted to let her speak the answers into my ear like a psalm. But the subject was “grown folk talk,” forbidden even between us, and so I said nothing. I threw another pebble and missed.
Tweet wound back her arm and let her own pebble fly; it found the nest with a soft thwap and knocked it loose. The nest hit the ground and we ran for cover as the wasps flew out—their violent droning—licking through the air and searching for somewhere to place the blame. They disappeared into the unmoving sky, leaving silence in their wake.
“God’s real,” Tweet said, and headed for the house. She left me standing in the yard alone.
Thinking of sin made my skin itch, made my mind arc back to another conversation I wasn’t meant to hear. My mom’s friend Shawnie had come to our house, and she and my mother ate crab legs in the living room, watching Sex and the City and trading gossip while it was off to bed for me. I was supposed to call Shawnie Auntie, and her own little girl my cousin, though I didn’t enjoy Yana’s company as much as Tweet’s. Yana’s feet smelled like toe jam and she wiggled too much in her sleep. While she snored, I listened to my mother and Shawnie talking through the door.
“How’s your momma and them?” Shawnie asked, and I heard the sharp crack of a crab leg being broken between teeth.
“Girl,” my mother said, like that one word told you everything you needed to know. “Too old to be raising kids again. And look how Mike turned out.” Mike was Tweet’s father, my mother’s older brother.
“I see that same darkness in Tweet,” my mother continued. “She’s going the way of her parents. Bet on that.”
“I don’t know,” Shawnie said. “I see a darkness in Shayla, too.”
At the sound of my name, a deep pang quivered through my stomach, something that felt like recognition and shame. Heat licked across my face. I did a mental check of myself, my fingers and toes, my twiggy arms, the slick surface of my teeth. I tried to decide if my body felt evil. How could the grown-ups quantify this darkness—could Shawnie see it in my face the way some people picked out a nose like my father’s or my mother’s lips? I felt for horns in my hair and, finding none, put my pillow over my head. I didn’t want to know what else Shawnie saw, or if my mother thought she was right. I tried to sleep, keeping my legs stiff so they wouldn’t touch Yana’s. Just in case what I had was catching.
I’d been at my grandmother’s almost a week when my father came by. My mother was always talking about how cool she was even though they weren’t together and he was married now. She let him see me whenever he wanted and they always did holidays together. “I don’t want that boy,” she’d say.
It was the hottest day of that summer and the sun hung in the air—a wax lemon, melting and oozing light. “Hey, little girl,” my father said, patting my head. I squinched my eyes tight and batted at his hand. His attention both embarrassed and thrilled me. I was aware, then, of my fortune, of my father there, standing next to me. I shot away from him and hid my face in my grandmother’s side so I wouldn’t have to look at my cousin.
“We’re going to the beach,” my father said. “Chris and Tati, too.” They were in the car outside, waiting with my stepmother.
My grandfather had been what my mother called “busy,” which was supposed to explain why my father had siblings who were one year older and one year younger than me. They were bright as medallions and had soft hair like my grandmother’s fake mink. Tati was the youngest and called me cousin because aunt made her feel too old, but Chris would lord his title over me if he wanted to ride shotgun or have a longer turn on the boogie boards at the beach. The previous summer I had kissed him at my dad’s apartment pool—in the deep end, angling our bodies down—six feet of chlorinated blue shimmering above our heads. When we broke apart and surfaced, Tati had cut her eyes at us. “You didn’t see nothing,” Chris said.
Whereas my mother kept a close eye on me, didn’t want me to leave the front step, my father believed in cultivating my independence. When I was with him he’d let me ride my bike to McDonald’s fifteen minutes away through a busy intersection, or drop me off at the Wet ’n Wild waterpark by myself when we went to Orlando with cousins who were too young for the big slides. That summer, I hadn’t seen him too much. I suspected this had something to do with my stepmother being pregnant. She’d pat her big belly and make comments like how nice it would be to finally be a family, like she couldn’t be a family with me. She was having a boy, and sometimes I found myself wishing all that stomach was filled with air, that when it came time to push, nothing but wind would come out.
My dad handed me my two-piece, the green and black stripes, my sometimes-swimsuit that lived at his house folded up in a drawer, waiting for summer. Tweet’s head drooped on her thin neck.
“Can Tweet come?” I gave him and my grandmother my most winsome smile, the one that showed nearly all of my deciduous teeth, their wavy edges and baby sheen.
My dad packed us into the old station wagon, Chris and Tati scooching close to make room, and we all giggled in the backseat—like hyenas, like loons. Like children ages eight, nine, and ten. The house disappeared behind us, the cracked sidewalks and the shaggy dogs that roamed the streets in droves. We put the windows down and let the air whip in, sticking our hands out to fly on the breeze, eagles after all.
When we arrived at Jax Beach, my dad pulled a cooler and our inflatable raft from the beat-up back of the wagon and we kids piled out gracelessly, squabbling among ourselves about who could hold their breath the longest and what flavor ice cream was best. We wanted the adults to hear, to get the hint and take us to the stand-alone ice cream shop shaped like pink soft serve in a cone with sprinkles two streets over; they pretended like they didn’t. We hopped from foot to foot to keep our bare soles from scorching on the blacktop of the parking lot. We complained about how hot it was: the car, the air, the ground.
Tweet said nothing, only stood squinting into the blind sky as if divining meaning from the blue, her ratty bath towel slung around her small shoulders. I had made her leave her water wings at home, not wanting the others to poke fun.
“Come on,” I told her, grabbing her hand, and the four of us ran ahead down the sandy paths, sunlight sliding from our shoulders, long legs carrying us carefree toward the water. We cut through the grassy pavilion where free concerts were sometimes played and zigzagged past pitched bundles of cloth and plastic tarp, the homeless living beneath these heaps, hiding from the heat. Their craggy faces—eyes peering out from folds of sun-battered skin, their parched and toothless grins. They scared Tweet, the way their hands fluttered near us when they asked for our spare change, frantic moths around light. I skipped past them, unconcerned. They couldn’t touch me; I was wildfire. I trailed my laughter like a flag.
We trekked across the pavement-hot sand, breathed deep the warm aroma of summer—of salt and shells and seagull shit. I picked up a spent cigarette, just long enough to hold between my fingers. The pink stain on the end glistened, and I pretended to smoke it, feeling glamorous like Cruella de Vil in her two-toned fur coat.
“I’ve come for the puppies,” I cackled, and the others shook with hyperbolic laughter—bending double, slapping their knees. We all took a turn with the stub while we waited for the adults to catch up. How slow they were, like bulbous manatees bumping along the riverbed. We were speedboats zipping overhead, leaving the water disturbed, our turbulence highlighting the surface in gashes of lighter blue.
Finally, my father brought the raft and we clamored in, fitting snugly, our knees drawn up to our chins. He pulled us out to deeper water and left us there, let the big waves push us screaming back to shore. We called to him, “Again, again!” We must have done it ten times, twenty—the white noise of roaring water in our ears—but we didn’t grow tired. We laughed and laughed. A fish splashed out of the water, and far away the thumbtack moon manipulated the swells from outer space. I saw my stepmother glaring from the beach blanket on land. My father saw too. He pulled us out one last time and told us we were on our own for a while, leaving to lay his head in what little lap my stepmother had left. I turned my face away from him, pretending I didn’t care.
There was no big wave. The water became a vast expanse of pocked, green-tinted mirror, our plastic raft anchored on its surface. We dangled our fingers over the side, imagining they were shark bait. Our hands were blades slicing apart the water and the sky; they were telescopes spying treasures ashore that were ripe for the plucking—a shovel and pail, a Barbie beach blanket. The waves we craved frolicked ahead, forgetting us.
Chris picked his boogers and Tweet had to pee.
“Let’s jump out,” I said. We could walk back to shore.
There was no debate. We all jumped overboard, and then we were plunging down into the ocean. I imagined us cutting a bubbly swath between seaweed and minnows, past microscopic ecosystems and seashells and stars. We never touched the bottom. Down there the water wasn’t clear or brown or green. It was so dark we couldn’t see the sun.
We broke the surface, kicking, thrashing, grasping at nothing.
While we had played pirates and chopped the horizon apart, the ocean’s silent fingers had tugged us into deeper water. It was an illusion, that stillness. Nothing ever stayed in one place. I ducked my head under the water, my eyes open and stinging, and watched three sets of small feet churning the water to boiling. Chris and I propelled our bodies down, summoning the whole of coiled energy living in our bellies, and still, we never felt the sandy floor, though we sensed it, just out of reach. This was no apartment pool, no tame six feet. The deep here was wild, and though we could swim, there was nothing to push off from, nothing solid to direct our bodies. Tati gasped, and as if on cue, fear seized us; we became too heavy with panic to relax and float until someone noticed we were gone.
We called to the shore, to the sky, a lost plea only the gulls heard. The red raft rocked gently away, indifferent to our screaming and the salt in our mouths, the urgent pulling of currents at our toes. Up ahead, the shore gleamed bright, a tantalizing yellow ribbon.
No one came for us.
A wave rolled over our heads, and I tumbled beneath it, dizzy, opening my mouth and swallowing the sea. Bright spots of light exploded beneath my eyelids, purple and blue. I was not separate from this width of water. It shook inside of me and beat with my heart. I imagined Jehovah peering down beneath the waves, examining my heart with one eye closed and prying it open with His dense fingers. He could see inside that pulsing red morsel, the fear congealed in black rivulets, spilling out. I bit my tongue and the blood bloomed before me, a small red tide in the waves. It came to me, with that bite, that I was nine and beautiful and mortal. I saw us all clearly, like He would, sinking down until we were just four child-shaped stones at the bottom of the sea.
I came up, the air burning a warning in my lungs. Tati was moving toward the raft, her head disappearing beneath the water and bobbing up in jerky starts. I wanted to follow, but my arms were aching and the raft seemed as far as the moon. Instead, I turned to Chris and scrambled up his back, pulling myself partway out of the waves—that momentary bliss my upper half felt, unfettered by the clutching depths, that dark, mysterious beckoning. I held on to him as if playing a game of chicken, with a terrifying fierceness of never letting go. He threw me off, yelling, and I went back a second time, and a third, swimming toward him relentlessly, my mind bent on the word salvation. He flipped me from his back one last time and reeled away, swimming a ragged path behind his sister.
I had only one remaining hope—Tweet paddling next to me, her head tilted back, chin pointing shoreward like a compass, mouth sucking at the sky, too tired to scream. I clambered onto her, my nails biting into her shoulders, just hoping to float for a few moments. She wasn’t strong enough to throw me off. I clenched my eyes shut tight against her cries and tried to hold onto the world above the water.
“Get off!” she gasped, but I couldn’t let go, couldn’t let myself be dragged down into all the darkness and wet. I thought of Jonah sinking into the rush and how eagerly the bubbles must have broken away to surface.
I don’t know how long we stayed that way—her drowning, my arms around her neck. Time became nothing more than the sweet, slick slipping of her fingers on my arm, the momentary solidity of my head above the waves. I prayed to God for someone to find us, for Him to send a whale to swallow us up. I prayed for it to be over.
I return to that moment often, Tweet and me in the ocean. We never talked about it, never told anyone what I’d done. While my grandmother raises her third generation of children—a little boy and girl with Tweet’s familiar features—I wonder if things could have been different for my cousin if I’d come clean about my own darkness. What if I had spilled it onto the kitchen table where the light could reach it, let my cousin sift through the mess and compare it to her own? What if I’d confessed; what if my mother had stopped looking for her brother’s sins in my cousin’s face? Could Tweet have made peace with her loss instead of passing it along to her children, that unwanted gift. I think, too, about the day we threw stones at wasps, when she told me God was real. I’m still shaken by her certainty. I believe that He was real for her because she’d seen His demons, and recognized them. That she knew that light could not exist without darkness; no good without evil. I wonder if we had told her you could be both things and still be loved, if we could have saved her. All the time, I wonder where she is. What Tweet believes in now.
We were saved that day. Chris and Tati steered the raft beside us and hauled us in. We collapsed on top of them, a pile of exhausted kids, and Tweet’s shivering shook the rest of us. Her panic, still electric, jerked through my body, singeing guilt into my heart. Maybe Chris and Tati felt it too, but nobody said a word. I lay crumpled on the plastic bottom, brine pooling around my cheek, trying to pretend I was the other girl, who had not yet tasted Him. He was the burn of salt in my nose, the blue-blackness of the underside of waves.
On shore, Tweet knelt on hands and knees as if praying to our grandmother’s Jehovah, gulping air and choking on it. I sat beside her, silent, drawing circles in the sand. I didn’t know how to explain myself—how I had become full of terror and light, or that I had been both the drowning and the wave. How suddenly I knew that all things must die.
I didn’t know how to apologize for wanting to save my own life. I wrapped my arms around her, like a mother might, pressed my lips into her neck. Her body relaxed into mine and the shivering stalled. I heard her sigh.
“I love you,” I said, and I willed the words to vibrate at a higher frequency, to jounce through her solid-seeming skin and settle in her bloodstream, as with the voice of God.
Dantiel Moniz is a homegrown Floridian whose work has appeared in Ploughshares, Pleiades, and Joyland, among others. She’s working on her first novel and collection of stories.