I kept going until the water was at my waist. At this depth, the waves continued to break on me, the current wrapping itself around my thighs like a thick noose carved out of an ice block. The grey hues in the water and sky started to fizz darker and details began to blur. I felt nothing. There was a girl out there but my movements were becoming too sluggish to look for her.
I had to turn around. I had to head back, to get out of the water. But my will to return, my will to live was no stronger than the will to find the girl, who must have drowned somewhere in front of me.
I thought I heard someone call my name from far off but it was ragged and phantom–like against the roar of waves and the hiss of wind and scattered foam.
With the little strength I had, I turned and looked. Dex was running along the beach towards me. I couldn’t do anything except get jostled by the breaking waves.
He was swearing his head off, his face pale, eyes flashing. He started coming in after me, which was up to his mid thigh, and grabbed me by the arm. He pulled me roughly towards the beach. I was too numb to feel any of it. I let him take me, looking back at the water in a daze. There was something out there, right?
He dragged me over to a piece of driftwood and sat me down. He was yelling, his arms raised, gesturing. I couldn’t look at him. My eyes were locked on the waves, looking for some sign of the girl. She had been there…I know she had. Why else would I have gone in there?
I felt a sting at my right cheek. He had slapped me. I think.
I brought my eyes up to look at him. It felt like it took all the effort in the world.
“Perry. Perry Palomino. Look at me. Focus. Please.”
“What the fuck happened?” he asked, his voice high and breaking. His eyes were wild like the waves.
I felt drunk. Stupid. Unable to articulate anything.
I tried to speak but everything came out in a chatter of schizophrenic teeth and a convulsing spasms. I was in ice–cold, wet clothing from my breasts down and my body was finally kicking into survival mode.
Dex decided that slapping and yelling at me wasn’t a priority anymore. He literally picked me up in his arms. The vague recollection that this was becoming a common occurrence crossed my mind, but I put my arms around his neck and held on tightly as he took me up the beach and to the campsite.
He put me in the tent, in my sleeping bag, and then lay his sleeping bag on top. My head rolled back and I looked at the tent ceiling, which was shaking in the constant wind. I heard zippers open and clasps and a furious shuffling sound. It seemed like a pile of clothes were was being place on me. They didn’t stay on for long as my out–of–control convulsions rocked them off.
I shivered violently for awhile, feeling an unbearable pain as the cold numbness left me and the hot pricks of pins and needles came wheeling through like I was bring dragged through a swath of prickle bushes.
It seemed to go on forever. My thoughts were more or less empty but the one that stood out was the one of me wondering when this would end.
It eventually did end, though. The spasms stopped, the shivers slowed, my teeth were able to rest against each other without clicking. My breath was coming back hot, deep and normal. My heart rate felt reassuring. My brain was starting to work over what had just happened.
I turned my head to the side and saw Dex sitting in the corner of the tent, his wet legs pulled up to his chest. He was staring at me. There were so many intense looks flowing across his eyes and lips, waxing and waning with each passing second. He looked deep into my eyes, trying to get something out of me. I hoped he could. I hoped I wouldn’t have to explain it.
But I knew nothing was that easy.
He looked down at his boots that squeaked with the water that had pooled inside of them. I wasn’t sure why he wasn’t trying to warm up. His feet must have been dead inside.
“Your feet are wet,” I said thickly.
“What the fuck, Perry?” He took in a deep breath and looked up at me. “What the hell were you doing? Going for a swim?”
“There was a little girl…”
“A little girl?” he repeated, his eyes wide and disbelieving.
“I…I was in the tent. I was in here. I was reading and I heard a kid laughing.” It was taking a lot out of me. I paused and tried to regain my breath. He waited, the furrow in his forehead never leaving.
“A girl. I heard a girl laughing,” I continued. “I got up and went outside and saw a girl on the beach. She was maybe three years old? She was just wearing a long white shirt. I asked her where her parents were but there was no answer. There was something…wrong with her, or something. I don’t know but she was cold and already wet and there was no one else there. I tried to go near her, to give her my jacket and she just…she just ran off into the ocean. The waves broke…and…and I could still see her, though; I thought I could still save her. Then you came. And I couldn’t.”
Dex’s expression never changed, though I knew he was trying to comprehend my story as quickly as he could. Finally he said, “Perry. I never saw a child. I was watching you. I saw you run into the water. I was just about to put my bag down in the tent. I saw you on the beach just staring at nothing with your coat held out. And then a second later, you ran into the water. I didn’t see a little girl.”
I felt sick at what he said. I brought my hand up to my mouth. Of course there was a child.
“Maybe you couldn’t see her,” I said as another wave of cold went through me. “Maybe I was covering her from…from that angle. You don’t know. I know what I saw. I saw her well. Blue eyes. Ashy hair, messy, long, weird old shirt, like Victorian era or something. No shoes.”
“There’s no one else on the island, Perry.”
“You don’t know that. Have you looked?”
“No, but I was just at the boat. It’s still there and it’s still alone. Unless someone came by kayak, there is nowhere else to anchor your boat. If they aren’t at that beach, or at this beach, they aren’t here.”
“Maybe they came by kayak then.”
“Kiddo. Listen. Listen to yourself. There is no one here. If anyone came in this weather by kayak, they would die. You almost died out there and you were only at your waist. No one can come here in this weather. You know no one can come here in practically any weather.”
“They could have been here before, they–”
“There is no one else on this island Perry, except you and me and bunch of psycho raccoons and flash mob deer.” He said that with as much conviction and force as I had heard so far.
I thought it over. “Then what did I see? Are you calling me crazy?”
He sighed and slumped his head down, shaking it at the ground.
“What?” I asked defensively. “It’s a fair question. I say I saw someone. I know what I saw. You say it’s not possible. Then what did I see?
“I don’t know.”
“A ghost then,” I told him.
“A ghost of what?” he asked, finally looking up at me. “There were no kids on this fucking island.”
“There was a woman.”
“She died,” I said softly, almost feeling inexplicably sorry for her at that second, like I was talking about someone I knew.
“I know,” he said. “I read about it. She died of pneumonia or whatever, like less than a year after being on the island. There was no kid. There were only lepers and coffins and opium and some religious idiot who thought he could ease their suffering when all he did was add to it.”
I didn’t get far enough into the reading about the Reverend to know what Dex was talking about but I didn’t want to ask either. That wasn’t the point anyway. I know what I saw. Whether it was an actual ghost or a child, something had just drowned itself off the beach outside our tent and that realization was slowly working its way through my body. I felt the tears coming, and I was tired, sad and very confused.
Dex saw this too, because he let out a much softer sigh and moved on over to me. He put his cold hand on my forehead and held it there, his eyes looking into mine.
“Just rest for a bit. I’m going to get warm and dry. I’ll fix something to eat. Get some more coffee going. Have a bit of a nap, get warm. Then we’ll get you dry and we’ll talk about all of this. OK?”
I couldn’t bring myself to agree. He lowered his face to mine. I could see the yellow and red pin pricks of color that snaked across the brown in his eyes.
“There is no one else here. OK? If you saw anything, Perry, you saw a ghost. I know that’s still not an awesome thing but just please don’t think you saw an actual child drown out there because I know you didn’t. And I think you know it too.”
He tenderly brushed a piece of hair off of my forehead and gave me a fleeting, close–lipped smile. Then he gathered up some clothes of his, left the tent and left me alone with my thoughts, which evolved from poignant to abstract to nothing at all.
“Are you sure you don’t think I’m crazy?” I asked Dex. “Because you’re kind of looking at me like I am.”
We were at the picnic table slurping our way through Mr. Noodles and more coffee. I had slept for an hour or so. The exhaustion from my emotions and from the near hypothermia had knocked me right out. I felt better now that I was dressed in warm and dry clothes but going over the incident with Dex again wasn’t helping. There was something disbelieving in his expression, buried in deep, no matter how clearly I tried to describe what I had seen.
“As I said, I don’t think you’re crazy. I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on.”
“The books don’t say anything about there being a kid on the island, but who knows? I mean can kids get leprosy? Maybe one was banished here and they didn’t tell anyone.”
“Did the kid look Chinese?”
“No. I guess not.” She had been fair and her blue eyes were wide. Wide and fearful.
“Well,” I pondered, “what if she had died at some other time?”
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe.”
“I’ll Google it. Give me my phone.” I held my hand out for it.
A flash of fear passed over Dex. He fidgeted. “Sorry. I, uh, left it on the boat.”
“What!?” I yelled, nearly spilling the Mr. Noodles everywhere. “Why the fuck is it on the boat?!”
“Whoa, calm down.”
“Calm down?! What the hell, Dex?!”
My body felt like it was about to go all Hulk in a couple of seconds. My heart was racing and my bones were tense with anger and frustration.
“I thought it would be for the best if you–” he started. I didn’t need to let him finish.
“Fuck!” I screamed and got up, the picnic table rocking. I threw the Mr. Noodles cup against the nearest tree. It smashed into it with a wet thunk. A firework of hot broth and steaming noodles flew everywhere and landed on the bushes below.
I looked at Dex. He was sitting as still as a statue. His eyes wide, his lower lip sucked in. The fingers on his right hand were shaking slightly.