Photo by resa cahya on Unsplash

A long arm of salt water smacked Carrie in the face. Spitting, blinking, and flailing more than a little bit, she was done.

“Nope nope nope!”

“Come on!” Ira called, gesturing exasperatedly. “It’s always hard to get past the breakers.”

This time, Carrie wouldn’t even look back at him. She marched, or more waddled awkwardly, in the knee-deep surf, back to the hot, sticky sand.

Ira sighed.

“Okay then!” he shouted, scarcely expecting her to hear or care. “More waves for me!”

Carrie hugged her knees, allowing the surf to lap over her toes but no more. Watching Uncle Ira paddle out beyond the breakers like they were marshmallow fluff, not the stinging, smacking wall she’d faced again and again to no avail, felt like the final nail in the coffin. She’d never be like him.

As much as that realization, or maybe acceptance, stung, it helped her feel a bit lighter too. She could truly say she tried her hardest now. She just wasn’t meant to surf. Maybe now her uncle would let her try other sports when she came with her mother to stay in his beachside cabin, instead of dragging her out into the waves every morning before breakfast.

She began to see it less as a personal failing and more as an official exemption from a cruel and unusual punishment. And she was very okay with that.

Riding this relief, she looked down at the sand around her toes and began to hunt for shark teeth. Suddenly, her mind filled with questions she’d never thought to ask about the sharp, black little treasures she’d bring back by the jar-full at the end of every summer when she and her mother returned to Chicago.

Why were sharks’ teeth black when every other animal seemed to have white teeth? Were they from the kinds of sharks whose body parts she’d seen hung as trophies in local diners, or were they from the unfathomable monstrosities you can only see in museums? Were they adult teeth, or were they like the teeth she’d lost years ago? Does the toothfairy visit sharks too?

No, that’s silly. The toothfairy can’t swim.

“Caroline!” Her mother called, her voice faint on the breeze as she approached from downwind. “Hey sweetie. How’d it go?”

It was amazing — just like a light, all of her lightness, her relief, switched off.

Instead, shame lapped up and swelled within her chest. Her mouth felt salty and dry. She shook her head and looked at her feet.

Her mother put one hand on her daughter’s shoulder and used the other to pull her chin up. The shame had swelled up and out of Carrie’s eyes. Saltwater returning to the sea.

“It’s okay. I’ll tell your uncle,” she said, smiling a little sadly. “Pancakes?”

Sniffling and wiping her eyes with the backs of her wrists, Carrie nodded vigorously.

“Thank you,” she whispered hoarsely.

“I love you,” her mother replied, enfolding her and stroking her salt-tangled hair.

That was the last day Carrie’s uncle took her out to surf before breakfast. But it wasn’t the last time Carrie surfed. Four years later, when Carrie was sixteen, she was back at the cabin, helping her mother clean out her uncle’s things.

She didn’t know why she felt compelled to grab her uncle’s board — hers was too small now — and dive into the waves well before breakfast. Maybe it was because he’d only been gone for a month, and it still wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real as long as she was there, in the house with her mom, where she could just pretend he was taking a nap, or at the store, or fishing by the pier. She couldn’t make it real, she couldn’t confront it, until she was back here in the salt water where they’d spent so many hours together, where she’d spent none on her own. Here, his absence was as palpable as the salt and seaweed.

Her uncle was dead and he was never coming back. He was wherever her father had gone so long ago. Maybe she just wanted to be somewhere she could accept that. Or maybe she felt like she owed him this, wherever he was. Maybe she felt like she owed it to herself.

In the moment, she couldn’t know why she did it. But she did it. Waves smacked and beat her face and shoulders red, but she didn’t feel a thing. She pulled and pushed and fought, unfeeling, unthinking, until all was still. She breathed deeply, and then, she started to laugh. She’d never made it this far. She didn’t know what to do next. Laughing led to crying. Crying led to another wave, inside her. She paddled back towards shore, riding a particularly large wave on her stomach until it threw her, and she had to drag herself up onto the hot, sticky sand. She didn’t have a clue what she was doing, but she’d given it her best. And she knew Uncle Ira was happy about that.

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