My inner thighs rub against one another, sticky with lotion and sweat. My flesh, round and creamy, pushes against my plastic chair, forcing it deeper into the sand whenever I move. My mother tells me I should get up, I should play in the water, but I can’t. If I move from my chair I’ll have to take the towel off, and then they’ll see the short black stubble that runs up my shapeless legs and pokes from underneath my too-tight suit.
Just let me stay, I beg her, let me stay in this chair, invisible and alone. Let me wait for the sun to melt my flesh to a puddle, for my skin to blister and peel. Let me come out fresh and renewed.
Let me bake in the sand.
But she pushes me, pulls me, forces me to my feet until I’m unveiled, all at once. I spread my fingers wide, struggling to hide my hips, my stomach, my legs.
Their chests heave up and down, their ribs poke through their skin as they stretch and strut, but they never stop to catch their breath. Their smiles and sun tans glow behind me, pushing me toward the water.
I slink away, the sand burning my feet as I drag them slowly, careful not to make my flesh ripple with each step. I wade out into the water, slowly at first, not wanting to draw attention. The frigid water creeps up my shins, past my thighs, until it holds me around the middle. My arms swing madly in the foaming sea, and I am forced to crash head first into the waves in order to hide the tiny peaks of pale skin that have grown up and down my arms.
I dive deep, hands stretched out in front of me, then open my eyes. They sting with salt and sand and the chemical burn of eighty-proof sunscreen, but I keep them open. The silent landscape is a blurry green and a watery blue. I can see my hands in front of me, and they look strange in this underwater world. Elongated, lovely.
I come back up for air, and I see them again. Their smiles white and huge, their legs long and lean.
I prepare to dive back down, but I feel her eyes on me. I don’t know her and she doesn’t know me, but this girl — this child — is floating three feet away from me, staring. I want to tell her to go away, to leave me alone, but her head slips below the water. I wait for her to come up, but she doesn’t move.
I count: one. . . two. . . three. . .
Her head comes up, tilted back so that she is staring into the sun. She opens her mouth like a fish, pulling in short, shallow breaths. Then she’s under again.
I can see her there, her toes pointed down toward the sand, her hair ghostly in the surf. She barely moves, suspended like a speck of sand in a wave. Tiny and light, her body moves side to side with the surf.
I take a step toward her, but I hesitate, rooted as I am to the ground. Her mother is near, I tell myself. Blonde and beautiful and thin like this child, her mother is probably near.
The tip of the girl’s nose emerges, but her open eyes stay beneath the water. I stare down into them, wondering how she can be so calm, so still, so confident. Her arms float to the surface, spread out like a cross, and for a moment they are limp on the slow slop of the waves. Then they bow ever so slightly, propelling her higher, pushing her mouth into the air. She parts her thin lips and gasps, then sinks below the surface again.
“Get out of the way!”
He is wearing red shorts and he carries a buoy. I take a step back and my foot sinks into a hole. I stumble. He dives toward me and I hold out my hands, but he swims past. He wraps his arms, brown and sinewy, around the girl and hauls her into the air. I struggle against the waves as he pulls her ashore.
By the time I crawl onto the sand, a crowd has gathered. I stand in the back, peeking through shoulders. The man in red shorts is pushing down on her thin, bony chest. Her hair is matted with sand, but her eyes are open. She looks up through the crowd, straight into the sky.
All around me, people are staring. Their eyes devour her slender shoulders, her bony cheeks. They hold their breath, grasp at each other, sigh and sob. I step forward, into the crowd, and no one notices.
No one at all.
Lauren Spieller writes young adult and adult novels, as well as short stories. Her current project, Sightless, is an urban fantasy novel for young adult readers. The book set in Los Angeles, which is the city Lauren calls home. When she’s not reading or writing, Lauren interns remotely for a literary agent in NYC. “Going Under” is Lauren’s first publication. Follow her on Twitter: @laurenspieller. Her web site is: www.laurenspieller.com.