The acrid tang of seawater and kelp clung to my skin and pierced my sinuses. The coast had been like this for days. A thick marine layer trapped the heat around my legs and bit my face with cold, wet fog.
I was glad I had worn shorts even as I raised the hood of my sweatshirt. The only way I could deal with the dichotomy.
Hot and cold. Heaven and Earth. Alive and dead.
My husband would have been surprised by these gloomy thoughts. He used to tell me I was the one person in the world who could wipe out a month full of bitchy complaints and office disasters, simply by entering the room.
I doubt he’d recognize me now.
I sucked in air, welcomed the heavy dampness into my lungs, then exhaled in one forceful burst like the caw of the ravens flying overhead. I often saw them roost in the treetops or spar with angry sparrows; but I didn’t often see a breeding pair fly together with such singular purpose, wings streamlined, racing the mist. Within seconds they had passed through the band of clear air above me and shot into the dense fog, trapped by the hills.
Good thing I was on foot. If the marine layer continued to collect in this way, trapped between the hills and the sea, I would have had a difficult time driving a car. But on foot? I knew this road so well I could walk it with closed eyes.
The ravens shrieked one last time before the cloud suffocated the sound, leaving me in blessed silence. No birds, no traffic, not even the sound of the waves—just sadness. Some might find that torturous. I found it a comfort.
I headed down to the highway that separated my isolated neighborhood from the beach. The boonies of Malibu—where the mountains kissed the ocean with just enough space for the tongue of Pacific Coast Highway to slip between.
But where were the cars?
Had the fog scared them away or swallowed them whole? I didn’t know. And I didn’t care. Waves of curling mist crashed into me with memory after memory…
Jacob and I waited in line for Pink’s chili cheese hotdogs while debating which Chinatown dive served the best dim sum.
Jacob and I danced the twist at our wedding, tried and failed to look as cool as Travolta and Uma.
Jacob and I bought a home, built a life, and planned for babies we would never hold.
Had I made the most of these moments? Or had I squandered them?
I unzipped my hoody and hung it on a driftwood sculpture then did the same with my shorts and shoes. I’d be back long before the high tide claimed my clothes. Until then I’d swim.
Like a barracuda on the hunt, I propelled through the ocean. But my prey eluded me. No matter how hard I kicked or dug my hands into the water, I couldn’t catch peace.
I floundered, arms and legs out of sync, breathing ragged, lungs strained. I pushed back and sucked in cold dense air as my legs pedaled beneath me. My eyes stung from the salt. My heart pounded with the effort. I had to get the panic under control before it shut down logic and took over my body. As a junior lifeguard, I had seen it happen.
Wherever I was, I couldn’t be far from shore. I peered through the fog and searched for a direction to swim. Slimy fingers grabbed my ankles. I shrieked then coughed.
Kelp. That’s all it was. Kelp and ocean. I could handle both if I just calmed down. Breathe. Tread. Ignore the tangling kelp. It almost worked. If only I hadn’t taken that moment to search again for the missing shore. Round and round I spun, but all I saw was fog. Nothing but fog.
My heart raced as my churning legs wound the kelp higher and tighter around my body. I clawed at the floating branches. They sank beneath my weight. I kicked my bound legs. The ropes held fast. All I could do was inhale one last breath and sink.
I opened my eyes to a forest of kelp, stinging salt, and bubbles of precious escaping air.
I clamped down on whatever muscles closed my nasal cavities and tore at the thick rubbery tubes. The compulsion to exhale was fierce, but I wouldn’t give in, not when I could see light above me just a few powerful strokes away.
So what if the pain ripped through my chest? I had hope.
Ten feet? I could do it.
I had a chance.
As long as I could see the surface, I could get there.
I cupped the water above my head and pulled. With all my might, I pulled. But even as I fought, I knew it was hopeless: kelp beds were anchored to the ocean floor. My body was now as securely tethered as my mind had been since Jacob’s death.
The water above me exploded in light.
I couldn’t move.
My eyes wouldn’t blink. My legs wouldn’t kick. My arms wouldn’t pull. I couldn’t even brush the kelp from my face or lower my gaze.
Had lightning traveled through the ocean and shocked me into paralysis?
If so, perhaps death was not ready for me.
I couldn’t move or feel or hear. I could only see. Even the primal urge to breathe had vanished. Maybe I wasn’t alive, at all. The only part of me that felt animated was my mind.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to fight. But I did neither. I couldn’t even float. Floating implied action, and I had lost the ability to act.
Around me fish and seals swam. Occasionally a shark passed by or a pod of lazy dolphins loped along the surface. I wanted to reach them, but my arms wouldn’t move.
Time passed. How much, I couldn’t tell, entwined in the kelp and locked in my inverted aquarium. Sometimes, the sunlight penetrated, teasing me with slender rays of imagined warmth. Other times, the water grew dark and murky. But whether I could see or not, my conditions remained the same—separate, desolate, alone.
My parents had named me Marina for their love of water. Now I was trapped in the sea. I wouldn’t have minded if I had been magically bestowed with gills or a mermaid’s tail. But in this pointless suspension, my life had less meaning than the sea anemones I used to touch with my toes. How small their world had seemed to me, fastened to the rocks. And yet, those spongy creatures weathered a constant cycle of battering surf, baking sun, and uneventful stillness. They endured the hardship and simplicity of their lives.
How could I do less?
Instead of bemoaning my existence, I paid attention. I stopped torturing myself with memories of Jacob lying in a hospital bed, sustained by tubes and machines as he slipped away, and focused on the life that still surrounded me.
Fish, seals, dolphins, even sharks roamed through my cone of vision, and my heart thrilled to see each one. But there were subtler beauties as well. The graceful movement of the kelp. Particles floating in streams of light. Plankton. With no sensation of salt to sting my eyes or distractions to cloud my mind, I saw with preternatural clarity. What once felt empty became overwhelmingly full. I forgot my sorrow and loss. My perception changed, and my existence evolved into something alien and beautiful.
That’s when the surfer appeared.
He skimmed the surface like a cruising shark. And as he did, I tasted the resistance of the water against hands and basked in the sensual glide of fiberglass until the last hint of orange vanished from sight. I sighed with satisfaction. It wasn’t a physical experience, with muscles flexing and releasing, but a profound appreciation, the memory of which would linger like the tone of a struck bell or the hint of jasmine on a night breeze.
Then he returned, riding on the face of a wave, orange board cutting through the distortion where water met air. Again, I thrilled at the sight. But my elation ended when his board wobbled and its tip dug into the water like a brake.
A body broke through the surface in a storm of bubbles and agitated limbs. The surfer rolled, end over end, in a ball of sleek black skin and swirling blond hair until the wave crashed and broke the orange board against his skull.
I watched in horror as the ropes and leaves of the kelp tangled around his limbs, encircled his neck, and bound the surfer in a feathery cocoon. As he sank, his eyelids fluttered. But he didn’t struggle. He hadn’t yet fathomed his jeopardy.
I wanted to shout, warn him of the danger, tell him to fight while he still had the chance. I wanted to reach out and touch his face, tear the kelp from his neck, and shove him to the surface. But all I could do was watch him sink until his face settled inches from mine, lips parted, eyes closed, as if preparing for a kiss.
The surfboard shot into the air, yanked him by the ankle where his rip cord was secured, and tightened the kelp around his throat. His blue eyes widen in shock. His mouth opened in a scream. He shook his head to free himself from the noose, and his blond hair writhed like Medusa’s. His body stretched, from neck to foot, like an anchor line to a ship.
Then the ocean exploded in light, his eyes widened, and fear paused for surprise as he locked onto my eyes. And for the first time since I had sunk into the kelp, I was seen.
He begged for my help. And while I wanted to save him as much as I had ever wanted to save Jacob, I couldn’t. Mere feet separated his face from mine. All I had to do was kick and reach.
And so I did.
My limbs broke free. My eyes stung. My chest burned with the need to expel what little air was still trapped in my lungs so I could breathe in more. I was alive and dying.
I looked up at the surface. I’d never get there in time. I grabbed his face, pressed my mouth to his, and gave him the last bit of life I had.
Frigid water, slimy kelp, the tug of the tide: These sensations and a thousand others assaulted my newly-awakened nerves. It was almost too much to bear. My stomach clenched as I fought the urge to suck back what I had given. The pain was exquisite. I wanted to go on feeling; but even more, I wanted the surfer to live.
With the last of my strength, I tore the kelp from his throat. He grabbed my face and exhaled his breath into me. It was a beautiful and hopeless gesture: The surfer’s breath did not satisfy my lungs the way mine had satisfied his.
I cradled his face and bestowed one final kiss, and in that moment, knew rapture.
Hank peered through the fog, first one way and then the other, nearly capsizing his kayak.
His voice, usually deep and resonant, cracked like a pubescent teen. He cleared his throat and tried again.
“Is anyone out there? Hello?”
This was stupid, and he knew it. He had been alone on the water before the fog, and he was alone on the water now. The only other person he had seen all morning was a lone surfer paddling through a flat sea, probably hoping for a fluke set. Hank wondered if the guy had hung around long enough to enjoy it. Probably not. No one else could possibly be as stupid as Hank felt today. The surfer would be out of the water by now, realizing both the futility and the danger, probably smoking a joint in the back of his hatchback, confident the cops wouldn’t catch him in the fog.
And then he heard a voice. “Hey, man. Are you still there?”
Hank snapped up like a dog, ears perked, eyes wide. “Hello?”
“Yeah, man. Hello to you, too. Can you help me? I can’t see a thing.”
“And you think I can?”
“No, man. I just need help. Please?”
Hank sighed. He didn’t know what the guy thought he could do, but he supposed he ought to try. “Okay. Keep talking. I’ll find you.”
“Uh… yeah. Like, I don’t know what to say, so I’ll just say whatever. Okay? You know, so you can find me. That’s what you said, right? I think I can hear your oars. Are you in a kayak?”
When the man stopped talking, Hank stopped paddling. “Look, if you want me to find you, you have to keep babbling.
“Okay. I’ll keep talking. It’s just weird, you know? This whole freakin’ day has been nothing but weird. I just wanted to catch a few waves with the ocean all to myself. Or at least try, you know? It’s not like there was much out there. Nothing, really. But when the water is glassy like this and a wave does come up. Well, there’s nothing like it. Pristine. That’s what it is. That’s what I was hoping to catch—one small, pristine wave—and then I’d go home. Filled up. Ready for the week. One good wave makes all the crap worth taking, makes life worth living. You know what I mean? Hey, man—you still out there?”
“I’m right here.”
The surfer had been so lost in his own ramblings he hadn’t even heard Hank come up beside him. Now they were side by side on the edge of the kelp in fog so thick Hank could barely see the damaged board the surfer was straddling.
“What happened to your board?”
The surfer flinched then laughed. Hank understood. Who wouldn’t be nervous trapped in the fog? Hank shook his head. If any of his guys on the construction team had seen him ducking for cover from that roll of thunder, he’d be hearing about it for the next ten years.
“So what about that board?”
The surfer ran his hand over the jagged edge as he might caress the injured head of a child.
“Remember that pristine wave? Well, it came out of nowhere. But I caught it. I hopped on that sucker and rode it good. It was awesome. Clean. Smooth. And then, I don’t know. I must have pearled. The nose dug in and over I went. Guess the board hit my head because I can’t remember much. But it must have. Right? ‘Cause look at my board. Cracked it right in half.”
“The fluke set,” Hank said.
“Right? That’s what I’m talking about. Out of nowhere. And the wave wasn’t even that big. Shit. And this was my favorite. My baby.”
If Hank hadn’t seen the board he wouldn’t have believed it. But with today’s eerie weather, he’d believe just about anything. “You’re lucky you found a piece of it before the fog socked us in.”
The surfer seemed puzzled. He ran his hands along his head and pushed his long blond hair off his face. Between the good looks and V-line body, the kid was everything Hank was not. Normally, he might enjoy hating him for it, but today, trapped in the fog? For all he knew the kid could be the last person on Earth. The thought unnerved him.
“That’s the thing,” the kid said, “I thought I had drowned.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said. The wave hit. My board broke. And I went under. Couldn’t breathe. All I remember is tumbling in deep water and getting tangled in kelp.”
Hank wanted to call him a liar: Surfers didn’t get caught in the kelp. They surfed the breakers at the point, a hundred yards away. But something in the guy’s face changed Hank’s mind.
“And then what?” he asked.
The surfer shrugged his broad shoulders and shook his head, as if he didn’t believe what he was about to say. “A woman in the kelp. She gave me her breath.”
They stopped talking after that and just sat in the cold silent fog, waiting for it to clear. When it did, Hank saw the shore, exactly where it should be. “Well, kid, I guess we survived another day.”
“I’m not a kid.”
“Well, everything’s relative.”
“My name’s Nick.”
Hank chuckled. “Nick? Sounds like a kid’s name to me. You sure you’re twenty-seven?”
“I’m not sure about anything.”
That was a little too much truth for Hank.
“How about I give you a tow to shore.”
Without waiting for an answer, Hank dipped his oar and started turning the bow of the kayak.
The movement had disturbed the kelp, exposing a woman’s body.
Her long brown hair floated near the surface and blended in with the greenish-brown of the algae leaves, but her body remained submerged. Pale shoulders and the black ties of a bikini top showed clearly through the top inches of water, but the rest of her became harder to see the deeper her body went. Instead of floating with her limbs extended—the way Hank imagined dead people would float—the woman was entwined around the kelp in a lover’s embrace.
“Holy shit,” Hank repeated, this time to himself, and waited for Nick to work his way up beside him.
“Turn her over, man. With your oar.”
“Well I’m not going to reach down and grab her with my hand, am I? Jesus H. Christ.”
Hank slipped his oar under the water and turned the woman’s face. Dead brown eyes stared up at him. The surfer gasped. Hank wanted to look at him—share the craziness of the moment—but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the woman. The expression on her face made him feel like the worst kind of voyeur. But even so, he couldn’t look away.
“That’s her, man. The woman in the kelp. The one who saved my life. Pull her up. We can’t leave her there.”
Nick grabbed Hank’s oar, clunking it against the woman’s head by mistake, and shook her loose from the kelp’s embrace. Auburn hair remained on the surface of the water like tendrils of the finest seaweed as her body disintegrated into particles so fine they could have been salt.
Hank grabbed a handful of the hair and pulled.
But all he raised was kelp—and the whisper of a name that may or may not have been Jacob.
Thanks for reading “Life After Breath” by Tori Eldridge
Listed on the Preliminary Ballot for the 2018 Bram Stoker Awards®