I wasn’t there, but I know you were bored.
“I’m bored,” you told me over the phone. You didn’t have one of your own, neither of us did, so you had to borrow your mom’s. “I want to go out and play on the beach, but mom won’t let me. She keeps saying it’s too windy to go walking, and that we’ll get sand in our eyes, but I don’t get why we’re at this stupid place if we can’t go out at all.”
Indignation simmered in my chest. I tried to be helpful. “Can’t you see the beach from your patio?”
You sighed, labored. I could imagine the flip of your long dark hair. The roll of your brilliant black eyes. “Yeah, but it’s not the same as being there and feeling it, you know?”
I did. “I guess so, yeah.”
“I mean, what’s the point of having a vacation if we’re not, like, vacationing? I get we’re staying in this fancy hotel and everything, but where’s the action? The drama? The—" you paused for effect, “romance?!”
I frowned. “You’re pretty lucky, though. Lots of people would love to stay by the ocean.”
“And so would I,” you said, “if it were fun. But it’s not. None of it is. It’s a good thing you couldn’t come, because this sucks. You would have hated it.”
Your words echoed in my ears. “You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do. I know everything.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Geez, bookworm! I’m just joking around, relax.”
My anger reached a boiling point.
“You know what?” I said, gripping the phone so hard its exterior creaked. “I’ll relax as soon as you grow up!”
The line went silent.
It took me two minutes to realize you’d hung up on me.
Without saying much to your mom, you went outside and sat on the little patio in the provided white plastic chair. Then you scooched it to the edge of the cement, kicked off your flip-flops, and stuck your toes in the healthy grass you found there.
For a moment, you sat and felt at ease. I’m not sure what you did. Maybe you looked up to the sky and watched as clouds the texture of mashed potatoes traveled from one end of the horizon to the other. Maybe you looked down to the cement and tried to catalogue every bump and crack in its grainy surface. Maybe, most likely, you looked out past the grass to a paradise of unceasing sand, stamped with the ridges and furrows of wind and ocean fingerprints.
Whatever it was, you grew tired of it. Your fingers stretched and drummed against the hard, cool arm of the chair. You shifted once, twice, sank as low as you could without falling, then straightened up and peaked over your shoulder through the sliding glass door. Your mom was busy with something in the kitchenette, just distracted enough to give you a window of opportunity. You saw your chance, hopped out of your seat, and made a run for the beach behind the Hi-Tide Ocean Beach Resort.
You were in such a hurry you forgot your flip-flops by the chair.
I imagine as soon as your feet sank into the soft, warm sand you couldn’t stop talking about, you felt something close to peaceful. Maybe even joyful. The salty air wafting off the waves threw tiny particles all around you, just as your mom had warned, but I don’t think you minded. You weren’t the type to mind those kinds of things.
You must have been laughing and thinking about how beautiful life is to the youthful when you saw the Oceanids approaching.
I’m sure they were so breathtaking to look at as they danced their way up the shore, hair whipping in the wind, brown mussel silk robes rustling with their movements. I can’t blame you for wanting a closer look. I can’t blame you when I’m sure their singing, their primordial rumbling, rivaled that of angels.
You approached cautiously because while you were bored and reckless, you were not stupid. They caught sight of you and beckoned, and when you came closer, they beckoned still. So friendly, those nymphs were. They smiled at you, revealing rows of perfectly pearlescent teeth, and asked for the tiniest favor. As Oceanids, they couldn’t stray far from the ocean, but they wanted to know how their cousins, the Naiads of the Moclips River, were doing. They asked if you wouldn’t mind going to find them. You wanted to accept. After being cooped up all afternoon, you were hungry for adventure. But you were skeptical. You asked if the journey was long, and they said no. You asked if it was perilous, and they said no. You asked why you should trust them, and when they didn’t answer, you tried to walk away.
Your mistake was turning your back on them.
You can never turn your back on the ocean.
As soon as you did, the nymphs took their chance and swarmed. They took hold of your limbs and, the wind screaming in your ears, they made haste down the beach. Clenched between their cold bodies, you realized too late what you had done wrong. The Oceanids never paused or deviated from their course. You yelled. I know you must have yelled. You hollered and yanked at fistfuls of slippery silk, swallowed mouthfuls of flowing hair, kicked and struggled with everything you had, but it was useless.
The last thing you could to do was reach toward the Hi-Tide Ocean Beach Resort. Your mom was inside. She didn’t know you were gone, not yet, so she didn’t think to look for your hand and pull you into the safety of her arms. Surrounded in the fantasy of her warmth, her voice, her scent, you closed your eyes and sank into the grasp of the Oceanids, pulling you down, down, down....
I wasn’t there, but I know that’s how it happened. It just took me a minute to figure it out.
Two hours after you were kidnapped, I walked into the kitchen to find my mom crying over the sink. I’d never seen her cry before. She clasped her hands tightly over her mouth, as if she was struggling to contain the sound of her weeping.
I took a tentative step forward. “Mom…?”
Her eyes snapped open. I guess she hadn’t heard me coming. She turned to me, and her face melted like warm whipped cream. A sob shook her shoulders. “Oh, honey…”
Then she was on the floor, wrapping me up in the tightest hug she’d ever given me. Even tighter than the one when I was five and inconsolable because I’d lost my favorite stuffed animal on vacation. I slowly hugged her back.
“Mom…?” I asked again.
She was quiet for a minute. Deathly quiet. Then, with a shuddering breath, she told me what happened. She could barely get through it before she was crying out again, clinging to me, squeezing the air out of me until I wheezed. My eyes were dry. So was my mouth. So was my heart. It was so dry, I swear I could feel as it cracked inside my chest and shattered into dust.
Two days after you were kidnapped, I sat in my room, on my bed, in the dark. Mom and dad left me alone, for the most part. They said I was processing, grieving, but they were wrong. I was confused. None of it made sense. I knew you so well. There was no way something like that could have happened. You were too smart for that. Too young. So, I sat in my room, on my bed, in the dark, and I thought very hard about the situation. I wasn’t getting anywhere on my own.
The light of a passing car shone through my window, briefly illuminating everything around me, and that’s when I saw it on my desk: the book you’d gotten me for my birthday last year, an assortment of Greek myths. I had a feeling, some sort of inkling, so I grabbed it, turned on my lamp, and opened the front cover. Glittery pink gel pen popped against the cobalt end paper. You’d written an inscription because you thought it was a mature thing to do. I stared at the curves and angles of your handwriting before reading it:
Happy 10th birthday!! Welcome to the Double Digits Club. (Finally)
I remembered you talking about that book series you read where the kids were demigods or something, so when I saw this at the bookstore, I knew you had to have it!
I hope you like it, and I hope you think of me when you read it.
All my love,
Then you signed your name in big cursive letters. My fingers ghosted over them, not daring to smudge the ink. You were so proud of how it turned out, I couldn’t bear to ruin it.
I leafed through the pages. I’d already read the important parts. The only thing left was the glossary, which I never felt inclined to read because I didn’t think it would teach me anything new.
For argument’s sake, I decided to scan over it. I was most of the way through when my eyes caught on something. My mouth went dry again. My chest ached. The letters flashed in my mind, bright as neon.
Oceanid, the book said. Sea nymphs.
That’s when it all started to click.
I scrambled out of bed and dug through my desk drawers for sticky notes. My thoughts were moving faster than I could get them down on paper, but I did my best, and soon an entire wall was dedicated to my speculations. Each note held a piece of the puzzle. I arranged and rearranged them until it finally made sense. Sighing, I looked over it all. Then I took what felt like my first breath in two days.
I ran out of my room and called for my parents. They were sitting in the living room, staring at the television.
“Mom! Dad! I finally figured it out!” I said. “She was kidnapped! The Oceanids, they came out of the water, and they grabbed her, and they dragged her down to the sea floor to live with them! Sea nymphs love children, and they want to protect them, and—why are you looking at me like that?”
Mom looked devastated. Even Dad was on the verge of tears.
“Honey…” they both said.
I hated the way they said that. I hated the way they looked at me like I was just a stupid kid. Anger welled up inside of me, and I screamed, “Don’t just sit there! We know where she is, so we can send a rescue team, or something! She’s probably so scared and confused and lonely right now—"
My face was hot and wet. Mom started to reach for me. I recoiled from her touch and ran back into my room, slamming the door shut.
Two weeks after you were kidnapped, I went back to school. I told everyone I could about what really happened, about the kidnapping, about the Oceanids. A few people believed me. Most didn’t. The school gave my parents a referral to a grief counselor.
Two months after you were kidnapped, I overheard mom asking my therapist why I wouldn’t let go of the sea nymph story. He said something about trauma and coping mechanisms, but I left before I could hear the rest.
Two years after you were kidnapped, I stopped talking about the Oceanids. My parents didn’t believe me. My friends didn’t believe me. It just made everyone upset, so I stopped.
Two decades after you were kidnapped, I still avoid the ocean. I’m not really a kid anymore, but I’m afraid of what I might find there, wary of the secrets hidden right beneath the surface of the water. Even though I’ve grown out of a lot of things, I have enough sense to hold onto what’s true.
Sometimes, I sit in my room, on my bed, in the dark, and I look at pictures of us together. I wonder if you like it down there with the Oceanids. I wonder if you’ve grown up the same way I have.
I wasn’t there, but honestly? I wish I had been.
I wish we could have grown up together.